Ryker

 

 

 

 

Also available via Kindle Unlimited

 

 

 

 

Ride. Protect. Defend.
Anna Kloss grew up as a smart girl in the Sinister Knights Motorcycle Club, an above-the-law group of misfits that fights to safeguard the women of their town. Straddling both worlds, she’s lived the last few years in a college dorm, losing herself in the promise of her future and trying to forget the lost love of her past.

As Vice President of the Sinister Knights, Ryker Beckett has proven his dedication and loyalty by sitting in a county jail cell for three years for saving one woman from a nightmarish assault. The woman. The only one who matters. Prez’s young, innocent, and untouched daughter, Anna.

But now, Ryker is back, his sights set on reconnecting with the woman who occupied every minute of his thoughts while he was away. Anna’s all grown up, but she’s still the only one he can’t have, the only one he craves… Is she ready for this giant, rough-around-the-edges biker to protect and defend her forever?

Warning: Ryker is hard in all the right places—a tall, tattooed drink of water sitting on a powerful engine. He’s got his mind on one woman only, and when he sees her again, he’s determined to get her bred and on his bike for their sexy ride into the sunset.

 

 

One

Anna
“So when do you think that sexy hunk of man meat will be here?” My best friend, Piper, threw herself onto my violet duvet.
“He’s not sexy.” I turned away from her, heart falling in my chest at just the thought of him.
“Bullshit.” Piper snapped her gum. “You’ve been pining over him since he went away.”
“I haven’t,” I protested.
“Again, I’m gonna have to call bullshit. So when’s he coming back?”
“I don’t know. I heard Dad say the party starts tonight, so I’m thinking sometime between now and then.” Dad would have killed me if he’d known I was eavesdropping outside of his office while he was on my phone, but the old man had refused to give me any information relating to Ryker, and I’d grown desperate for anything.
“Between now and then, huh?” Piper eyed me curiously. “So what are you gonna say to the asshole?”
“He’s not an asshole, Piper.”
“Well, he hasn’t written in the three years he’s been gone.”
“Maybe he couldn’t,” I defended weakly.
“But he could keep in touch with your dad?”
“Dad went to visit him every week, kept him in the loop, but I wasn’t allowed to go.”
Piper frowned. “You should call him on that bullshit. This is your life, you’ve got to get your man.”
“He’s not my man.” But he used to be.
“He was when he went up to County. I’m bettin’ he still sees you that way now.”
“Thirty-six months is a long time to be…” I struggled to find the word. The club didn’t say things like prison, jail, incarcerated. They said, “going away.” It was safer that way.
“He owes you an explanation,” Piper said finally.
“He doesn’t owe me anything. I think he’s given me enough already.” I felt the bundle of tears clogging my throat.
“That’s not your fault, Anna. You’re not the reason he’s up there.”
I paused, holding the gaze of the girl I’d been friends with since I was three. “Feels like it.”
Her eyes searched my face before she collapsed with uncharacteristic emotion and pulled me into her embrace. “I know it does, Anna, but it’s not. I promise you it’s not.”
I wiped at the itchy tears running down my face. Every day without Ryker in my life felt like a bullet fracturing my soul.
Would he even want me anymore? Was I the same girl he left?
I wasn’t sure I was, and somewhere down deep, I felt guilt for changing on him too.
In the weeks following Ryker’s arrest and sentencing, Dad had sent me away to an early entrance college program that could fast-track me to a degree in sociology.
I’d only half wanted to go before the event that changed all of our lives. So when I’d told Dad I planned to stay right here at Falcon’s Nest and wait for Ryker to get home, he’d pulled me off my ass and thrown me out the door faster than I could blink.
All for the best, he’d said.
It’d taken me a long couple years to see the wisdom in that statement.
Now I was only six months away from earning my degree and back home for the summer. Back where it all began.
“So what time does that party start? I don’t want to be late.” Piper twittered behind me.
“We’re not going.”
“Why the hell not? It’s Ryker’s welcome home party, right? We’d like to welcome him.”
“You might like to welcome him. I’d rather sit here and sulk away the pain.”
“I’d really like to check out that bod. I bet he got big in the joint.” Piper’s eyes lit up.
I shook my head. “I don’t care.”
“Ha! He was a big motherfucker before, just imagine him now, Anna. Bulging biceps, washboard abs… Remember when we used to watch him do pull-ups in the garage?” Her eyes glassed over with the pleasurable memory.
“I remember you dragging me down into the ditch and getting covered in thistle weeds when he caught us.”
“He didn’t catch us,” Piper retorted.
“He did.” I laughed. “He told me he did.”
“Shit.”
“Not as stealthy as you thought, sister.”
She stuck out her tongue at me. “What are you gonna wear to the party? Something short, show off those legs. You’ve lost at least ten pounds since he last saw you.”
“Twelve.” I groaned, “And I’m not going. I’m staying right here, and if I run into him, I run into him—”
“This one will make your tits look great.” She ignored everything I’d just said and pushed a clingy purple dress over my head.
“Piper!” I spat as I shoved my arms through the holes. “My dad will fucking kill us if we show up. It’s a members-only kind of thing.”
“We’re members.” She adjusted the dress around my boobs, pulling the neckline down a little farther. “Well, you are. And I sorta am…by proxy or something.”
I arched an eyebrow when she spun me in the mirror. I frowned, taking in my curvy form.
“You look fucking hot.”
My frown deepened.
“He’s going to want to bone you the second he sees you.”
“Piper!”
“It’s a good dress. And, you’re kind of fucking gorgeous, Anna. I know no one tells you that. I don’t know why they don’t tell you that… It’s that whole, I’m too smart for you unapproachable vibe you’ve got going on, but it’s true. You’re fucking gorgeous, and I bet Ryker beat off to you every night he was in that place, just waiting to see you again.”
A blush burned up my cheeks. “What if I don’t know him anymore, Piper?”
“Well, then it’s time to get reacquainted tonight.” She winked at my reflection in the mirror.
“I’m not going to that party.”
“Over my dead body, sister. Now let’s get into your makeup. It just so happens I brought my falsies with me.” She yanked a pair of false eyelashes out of her huge purse. “You’re gonna look like a Kardashian tonight.”
“Ugh or a hooker. Kill me now.”
“Not until your face is done. After that, I don’t care what you do.” Piper pushed me into my bathroom, flicking on the light and plopping me ass-first onto the bench. “Time for him to see what he’s been missing.”

 

 

 

Aria Cole is a thirty-something housewife who once felt bad for reading dirty books late at night, until she decided to write her own. Possessive alpha men and the sassy heroines who love them are common, along with a healthy dose of irresistible insta-love and happily ever afters so sweet your teeth may ache.

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Carnival

 

AP new - synopsis.jpg
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Empty inside, cold in his heart, Zef turned to whisky and drugs to fill the void.

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

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

Live fast, live hard, keep moving.

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

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

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

Heredity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did she tell Aimee who the father is?”

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

Figured.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone crowded around offering congratulations.

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

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

“Our kid can be whatever he wants.”

“So, it’s a boy?”

“Maybe. We don’t know yet.”

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

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

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

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

Kes read the doubt on my face and laughed.

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

I grinned at him.

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

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

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

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

I rubbed my hand across of my face.

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

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

“Thanks, Zef.”

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

“Are you scared … about being a father?

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

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

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

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

Kes, a father!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t turn around as Ollo spoke.

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

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

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

“Great, thanks for that. Very educational.”

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

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

Ollo laughed again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I’m happy for them.”

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

“She wasn’t right for you, Zef.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Feel free to sugarcoat it!”

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

I shook my head.

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

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

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

His voice was quiet and it sounded like a confession.

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

“Sounds … nice?”

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

“But she changed her mind?”

Ollo shook his head.

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

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

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

“Jesus, Ollo!”

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

“You never saw her again?”

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

His voice disappeared, lost in memories.

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

“What was her name?”

“Jeanie. Jeanie with the light brown hair.”

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

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

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

Ollo coughed out a laugh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

AP  new -about the author.jpg

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

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

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

Author Links

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Chapter Reveal – 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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Chapter Reveal – A Fighting Chance – Annie 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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Chapter Reveal – Twenty-Two (Assassins #11.5) 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

 

Trigger by JL Drake

Title: Trigger
Series: Devil’s Reach Book 1
Author: JL Drake
Genre: MC Romance
Release Date: May 16, 2017
Publisher: Limitless Publishing
Cover Designer: Deranged Doctor Designed


I was raised by the Devil himself.

Formed into a man that was unreachable.

I went from the boy with bruises to the man with a trigger.

Killing is the only thing the calms the itch.

The demons inside were a constant battle.

…until she changed everything.

When you spend most of your time

in the dark, is it smart to step into the light?

Trigger
Devil’s Reach, Book 1
J. L. Drake


Prologue


I used to watch them play in the streets, kick the ball between the cones, and toss their hands in the air. They’d high five, laugh, and stop for ice cream when the truck came around the corner at the same time every Saturday. 

They’d sit in the shade, pick at the grass, and tell made-up stories. Sometimes on summer break they’d stay out after dark and play ghost in the graveyard, head for the hills. That was, until they spotted me. 

Then they’d scatter. Head for their bikes. Disappear. 

Why? 

Because I was weird…and weird was scary. 





Chapter One


Trigger


Click! Click! Click! 


Shit!” I turned back around, barely missing the bumper of a semi-truck. His horn blew as we drew up along both sides. Two more bullets skimmed by my head and took out the mirror above me. The trucker screamed at us as he tried to keep his vehicle straight. 

Jamming my empty clip into my boot, I reached to grab my spare as another truck flashed his lights and hit the horn to alert us we were in his lane. The cliffs were too close to the edge of the road to spare us any room, and the others were gaining on us. 

I pointed my empty gun at the trucker to my left. “Slow down!” When he didn’t react right away, I moved the gun to his tire. His hand went up and he nodded repeatedly. 

He eased off the gas and allowed Cooper and me to slip in front. Cooper’s wheel bumped off mine, and I reached out and used my momentum to grab his shoulder to stabilize him. The roar of our bikes ripped through the mountains, alerting my men we were coming. 

“Brick!” I held up my hand, and he tossed me a clip. I quickly clicked it in place with my thigh. 

The minute I saw them appear in my mirror, I signaled for my men to get ready. With one quick movement, our black van skidded to the shoulder of the road in front of us. The back doors swung open, and the four of us spread apart as my two prospects popped out with their semi- automatics. It was a beautiful sight. Orange lit the dawn sky while bullets flew into their chests, blood shot across the pavement, and three more Stripe Backs lay mangled for their crew to clean up. They had taken our bait, and our plan worked perfectly. Though we wouldn’t go down for the kill, we still made our point. Don’t fuck with my club. 

I smirked at Brick as we each tossed our Cabo Wabo Anejo tequila bottles off to the side. 

We picked up speed and made good time well before any cops would be called.

Once we hit the city limits, my phone buzzed. The phone’s screen attached to my handlebars popped into view.

Cray: Ready in the morning. 


Good. Better to let the fear of what’s to come marinate. Then to end it quickly. 


I signaled to the men it was time. I decided to take the side streets so we’d be more visible and, as hard as it was, I slowed our speed to show we were in no rush.  

It worked. A few local shop owners gave us a wave before they pulled their steel doors down for the night. Mud, the local surf shop owner, was out for his nightly ride and gave us a nod. 

Rail and Cooper split off, while Brick and I rounded the back of our clubhouse and got to work.

***

“Ahhhh.” Spit jumped from his lips, but most of it pooled in the corners of his mouth. He looked like a wild dog. His pupils dilated when they focused on the tiny eyedropper that hovered above. “Please, no! I’ll do anything!” 

Brick glanced at me and shook his head. I agreed; it was tiring. As much as I’d have liked to slap that comment right out of his head, I couldn’t fault human reactions. It was in their DNA to beg for their lives. I always promised myself that when my day came, I would take it like a man. Silently. 

The heat from the hanging lamps plastered my hair to my neck like a second layer of skin. We really needed to turn on the AC. 

The slaughter room, as I named it, had tiled walls up to the ceiling, easy for cleaning, and a huge industrial drain in the middle for the larger pieces we needed to wash away in a hurry. No windows, no cameras, just lots of equipment to work with. 

Brick brushed the hair out of the bastard’s sweaty face so he could see me better. I licked my lips as I lowered myself to his level, and my men stiffened at this action. I never lowered myself to anyone’s level unless I was about to make a point. His eyes met mine, searching for some trace of a soul. Unfortunately, I was not born with one. 

I leaned down so he could see for himself the emptiness that lived inside me. Once he focused in and got a glimpse behind the curtain and I saw this realization, I spoke quietly. “Everyone dies sometime. We all have choices, and you made yours.” I motioned for Brick to move into position and spread his eyelid open. The bright pink flesh fought to go back in its place, but it was no match for Brick’s fingers. The man shook and kicked, but my expression told him to remain quiet. 

Holding the dropper above his eye, I squeezed the rubber and let the tiny drop of bleach fall and coat the pupil. His screams deafened me momentarily, but I welcomed the sound. That was fate’s way of thanking me for doing the devil’s work. 

He kicked and bucked as the minute drop burned its way through his cornea, blinding and eating as it traveled into his brain. His chest heaved and sweat pooled along his collarbone as his neck strained against the pain. 

The high I got off his terror made me hard, and my heartbeat raced. I swallowed hard in an attempt to lubricate my parched throat as I continued to blind his left eye. This was what I was made for. It was what separated me from other motorcycle gangs around me. I showed no mercy and punished those who needed it through their greatest fears. I knew it was only when you had nothing that you couldn’t be touched.

“Brick.” I held out my hand, and he passed me a hunting knife. Walking around the steel table, I took a deep breath. 

“You saw too much,” I whispered as he fought to see where I was with his clouded eyes. “You heard too much.” I grabbed his right ear, pulled it out, and sliced the outer part off. His face twitched, his mouth opened, and his wound quickly drained of blood, but he still stayed mute. “You stole from me.” Holding his hand down, I sliced his finger off at the second knuckle. Tossing it out of the way, I pressed on his open palm and stopped the flow of blood, just to fuck with his body. 

He jerked to the side and vomited in a silent cry. His mind must be spinning. Too much pain coming from too many directions could throw you off. 

“You were part of this family and chose to defy me. Never again will you disobey me.” I raised the blade above my head and drove it straight into his shoulder, hoping this would be the last tip to his sanity. “Just in case you think revenge is the answer…” Brick tossed me a switchblade, while Rail grabbed his head and yanked out his tongue. The blade drove through the center. 

Silence. Nothing but the hum of the lights. 

“See you below.” 

The voice in my head returned, so I waved at Brick, grabbed my shit, and left.

I waved at Morgan, who was on the phone on a smoke break, then fastened my helmet and wiped my hands clean. Revving the engine, I turned into the sun and drove out onto the smoldering road. The guys could handle the rest.

The engine was hot, and without realizing, I let my mind go there…

The burning poker skimmed my calf, and I jolted back with a scream. Tears streamed down my dirty cheeks as I hugged my knees to my chest. The heat burned the surface then traveled down to the muscle where it spread in a blanket of pure pain. 
“Stop!” I cried out, desperate for him to get bored and move on to something else. I was four years old, and this was the fifth time he had done this. 
“Come here, boy!” His huge hand swiped at me, but I pressed my back flat to the wall under the table, becoming as small I could. 
His brown eyes squinted as he drew back the poker. Dropping it on the floor, he cursed, grabbed a fresh beer from the fridge, banged it loudly on the table, and left. 
My heart pounded until it hurt my chest. 
If he had wanted to, he could easily have climbed under there. Allen was a fit man, muscles that attracted all the wrong kinds of women, a strong jaw, and defined, broad shoulders with a lean waist.  
I tucked the fear away and turned into the cool wall with my cheek pressed to it, seeking some relief from the terrible heat in my leg. Closing my eyes, I stayed under the table until morning, where I knew it could all begin again. 


Blinking to clear my head, I pulled off onto a dusty path and headed up into the hills. 

The yellow trailer sat on cement bricks; the wheels had been removed years ago. The slider-style windows were open, and broken blinds bounced around in the breeze. The place was a dump, and I wasn’t sure why he insisted on keeping it, but that was his decision. He had earned that right many years ago.

Backing under a shady tree, I turned the engine off and unclipped my helmet, hanging it off the handle of my matte black Kawasaki Vulcan 900.

I turned and found a beer can flying in my direction. I caught it and opened it slowly so as not to get sprayed. 

“Day?” his raspy voice croaked. 

I settled into an old folding chair that dug into my legs. “Three Stripe Backs down, and one of my prospects gone.” 

“Anyone hurt?” 

“Nope.” 

“Prospect stole? Or leaked?” 

“Stole.” 

“What you remove?” 

“Fingers. Eyes. Shoulder. Ear. A little tongue.” I shifted so the bar didn’t cut into my hip. “This shit is old, Gus.” 

“I’m old.” He passed off my comment, like always. “How much?”

Removing my hat, I swiped my long hair out of my face. 

“A little over forty thousand.” 

Gus shook his head and rubbed his knee. Three stab wounds to the same spot would screw anyone up. “Reason?” 

“Does it matter?” I tossed my empty can in the trash before I reached for another. My dusty boots landed heavily on his wooden table.

“Where is he?” 

“Thought the guys could have some fun.” 

He nodded. 

We sat in silence. I might not talk much, but I hated the quiet. My knee started to thump, and Gus took the cue. He leaned over and tapped his phone, and a moment later the band Disturbed filled the silence, and I let out a long breath as the guitar hit my ears and calmed me.

“Hungry?” he asked awkwardly as he got out of his chair. His battered body tilted to one side as he stood straighter. His head always hung to the right because of a bullet wound to the spine. Gus was sixty, but his soul was thirty. 

“No.” I downed my beer and rose. “I should get back.” 

He followed me to my bike. “Meeting tomorrow?”

“Yeah, eleven.” I buckled my helmet.

“New shipment?” 

“Yeah.” 

“Tomorrow,” he repeated with a small nod. 

Raising two fingers, I waved a goodbye and kicked the engine over. 

I weaved in between traffic. The bike was a part of me, and I’d been riding for as long as I could remember. Gus always joked that I drove before I learned how to walk. It was the closest thing I ever felt to freedom. 

Two headlights flashed in my mirrors, a signal for me to pull over. I waited until I was sure who it was, but he always flashed lights to me the same way. One short, one long. Easing over to the other lane, I exited at the gas station and parked on the shoulder. 

The Mustang came to a stop behind me, and Officer Doyle hauled himself out of the car. I chuckled as I sat on my bike and watched him take his sweet-ass time to get to me. 

“Trigger, I thought that was you.” His voice was raised to give a show to the people watching. Everyone knew my bike, and everyone loved to see me lose my shit on punk cops like Doyle.  

“You found me,” I said, playing along. “Now that you have, what can I do for you?”

Doyle kept his back to the spectators as he removed his sunglasses and cleaned them with the side of his oversized shirt. “I heard your boys got into a little trouble last night.” 

“Not sure what you’re talking about.” I shrugged. “What happened?”

“Eli’s boys got hit.”

Huh. “Alive?” 


“Two dead, one hanging on.” 

“Wasn’t mine.” 

He smirked and leaned closer. He smelled like cherry chew. “And if it was?”

I laughed at his act. I’d bet Doyle had never fired his gun other than training. “You got something to say, Doyle?” 

He bent my mirror to straighten his tie, and my fingers twitched to break his. “Known you a long time, Trigger. I also know when you’re lying.” 

Looking into the crowd who had nothing better to do than watch, I spoke very carefully, because I knew my switch was about to flick. “You have no idea who I really am. If you have a problem with my guys, you come to me with proof.” 

“Your boys better have some strong alibis.”

“Do me a favor, Doyle. Give your sister a kiss for me.” Just as he went to flip me off, I skidded my bike, kicking up a dust storm before I raced down the ramp and onto the freeway. 

Letting the engine sooth my nerves as I wove through the cars, it wasn’t long until I was back in my own territory and making my way down the street and into the abandoned movie theater I owned where I parked my bike. I took the elevator up to my place. 

I needed some time to think. 

“We are all moving forward, and my past’s catching up. Time’s a-running out, and my days are numbered. Too strong to run, too proud to hide, for this I’ll pay, for this I’ll die,” I sang, watching the lights flicker below me. I leaned my weight into the hot stone wall that overlooked Santa Monica, my guitar propped on my thigh, and plucked the strings to one of my own songs.

I could see for miles. This was my town, and this was my spot. Everyone knew when I was here to leave me the fuck alone. I stroked flint against metal and held the flickering flame to the end of the joint. With a deep drag, the smooth smoke traveled to the bottom of my lungs. I could feel it dancing around inside me. I squinted, tipped my head back, and made an O with my lips, letting a trail of white float up toward the stars.

The joint slipped further between my fingers, and I brushed the strings, sending blues rock into the warmth of the night. 

My mind raced back to this morning when everything had changed. The possibility that the club may have more rats was making my neck tick. I would need to flush them out with whatever means possible. Then I’d deal with them personally. 

I put my guitar down and ran my hands through my hair, letting it drop back down over my shoulders. I needed an outlet, so I stripped off my vest and hung it over an old chair so the devil could stare at me. Pulling my phone free, I swiped to hear The White Buffalo, turning the volume up and letting it cut through the silence. I hated silence; it brought too many memories. Of him.

I removed my t-shirt, flexing my neck back and forth, then pulled my arms over my head and leaned back. My fingers cracked as I laced them together and gave a good tug. I stared at the punching bag for a second then let loose. 

My lips curled from the impact that pounded my muscles like a hammer. Pain was good. Pain was easy to control. Every other emotion was just a waste of time. 

Twisting my torso, I did a roundhouse and kicked the black bag high in the air. 

Punch, punch, punch, punch. I couldn’t get enough until my arms locked and my throat begged for water. I wiped my face clean and brushed my hair out of my face, holding it in place with my ball hat. Kicking open the cooler, I popped open a cold beer and leaned against the rail. 

Finally, the voice was muted, but I knew it wouldn’t last long. 

My phone vibrated next to me. 

Brick: Prospect has been dropped off.


***



Tess


I poured myself another glass of wine from the bottle that sat on my night stand. With the lights down low, I looked around my room and was thankful I was alone tonight.
Picking up the heavy book, I settled back and pulled the duvet up to my chin. My eyes scanned for the place where I left off a moment ago. 

“Please stay and let me protect you.” His face is inches from hers. He gently lifts the sheet and dries the corners of her eyes. “You have to trust me.”  

I let the book fall forward onto my lap, my eyes closed. Damn, I had to keep reading. Where was I? Oh, right. “Did you spend the whole night with me?”

I let the book fall again. I’d never get this book read if I kept allowing myself to become her, but should I? I reached for my bag and dumped it out in front of me and grinned at the purple lipstick that just so happened to have a fresh new battery inside. Why the hell not? 

Later, before turning out the light and settling in for the night, I got out from under the sheets and looked out the window. I loved the night sky; something about it was peaceful. A flash of movement caught my attention, and I turned the lamp off so I could see better. Oh, my. “Hello, Remington Tate.” I opened my window. I was totally creepin’, but come on…

It was about ninety degrees in Santa Monica, yet this guy was wearing a hoodie. He moved about like a dancer, his fists hitting the bag. I heard the bang, bang, bang as his fists made contact with it. It was fascinating to watch. The rooftop he was on was only slightly higher than my window and gave me a good view of him, backlit by the moon. It was quite a beautiful sight. 

I grew tired in spite of myself and knew tomorrow would be a busy day, including more unpacking stuff that wasn’t even mine. I dragged my gaze away from the rooftop boxer and glanced around the room. It was much better than my old place. Well, anything was better than my old place. Closing my eyes to the memory, I tried to push his scent out of my mind, although I still felt the deep ache. Tears prickled my eyes, but I kept them away. I channeled the hurt into anger—something I was a pro at. Sadness never healed anyone. 

I was to start a new job tomorrow at Helmond’s Bar. It might be only temporary until I found something else. I didn’t want to be serving drinks forever, but damn, it was money, and I needed that right now.

My phone lit up, and I smiled at the text. 

Matt: T-minus eight hours. 

Tess: You better be there when I arrive. 
Matt: Have I ever let you down? 

My heart warmed a little. 

Tess: Never.


Holding up my beloved camera, I snapped a picture of my rooftop boxer, hoping I had captured the light just right. I knew it would be an image I would wouldn’t easily forget.

“Night,” I whispered before I crawled into bed and slipped the book under my pillow. I hoped it would bring me good dreams. 

***

Nearly falling into one of the boxes, I dug for the black leather skirt and red tank that Matt told me to wear. Once dressed, I wiggled into my high heeled boots and glanced at myself in the mirror propped up against the wall. I leaned upside down and ran my fingers through my long blonde hair to give it a little more volume. Five bike chains wrapped my left wrist halfway up to my elbow, and my silver hoop earrings swung as I moved, giving me an extra pop of color. 

I was never a girl who could wear cute sundresses and carry Prada bags. There was too much shit going on inside to ever wear something so cheerful. 

Grabbing my bag, I downed a glass of OJ I’d bought from the gas station across the road, and then locked the door and ran downstairs and out to the sidewalk. I wasn’t far from the address of my new job, but Matt had made some comment about how I should be careful which streets I used. Trouble was, he never said which ones. He told me to use a cab, but that was ridiculous. I’d Googled the location and saw it was only a fifteen-minute walk. Sorry, Matt, but I will not call a cab for that. Money was not something I had a lot of at the moment.

Holding the scrap of paper, I headed east and let the warm morning air wake me. That was, until I felt my bag vibrate. Not recognizing the number, I answered it, tucking the Post-it in my boot. 

“Hello.” 

“You want to tell me where you are this time?” 

My blood pressure dropped. 

“What do you want?” I held up my hand to a car to let him know I was about to jaywalk. The driver whistled, and I flipped him the bird. 

“Just want to know where you are. I have that right, Tessa.”

“No, you don’t.” 

There was such a long pause I looked down at the phone to see if it was still connected. After a moment, the screen indicated the call had ended. So much drama was laced up with that woman. I hurried as fast as I could. I really should have done a practice run, but moving your life from one state to another was exhausting. A few more blocks and two turns, and I shielded my eyes to read the number on the wall. 

Wait. I must have taken a wrong turn. Dammit.

Turning back around and getting completely confused, I saw a few guys staring me down. I felt a bit uncomfortable but tried to act normal. With my head up, attempting to show confidence, I hurried but tripped in my stupid boots and tumbled to my knees. My phone went flying, leaving me to wince as pain shot through my legs.

“Yeah, right where she should be,” one guy called out, making me blush from head to toe.

I scrambled to stand, when one of them reached for my arm and hauled me up like a child.

“As much as you looked good on your knees, that fall looked like it hurt. You okay?” My eyes met an elderly man, maybe in his sixties, a scary-ass lookin’ dude. A deep scar ran from his right eye down to the corner of his mouth. He reeked of beer, which literally took my breath away.

“I’m fine.” I pulled my arm out of his grip and somehow plastered on a smile to be nice. I caught sight of his biker vest. In fact, they all were wearing them. A skull with a devil and a snake coming out of its eye was patched on the back of them. Satan’s Serpents. 

I should have been terrified, but all that ran through my head was I was going to be late on my first day. I can’t let my best friend down.

One of the guys handed me my phone, but when I reached for it, he pulled it away. He clicked on the screen and grinned at the picture of me and my friend Mags. 

“Pretty dress.” He winked and handed it back to me. “Wear it on our date next week.” My face dropped further…if that was even possible. I’d lived with men like this, and it was tiring behavior.

He started to say something else, but a loud rumble from a pack of motorcycles deafened me as they drove by a cross street. A stillness spread through all the men. 

Four guys on choppers slowed as they caught sight of us. Traffic didn’t seem to mind. Sunglasses covered their eyes, but I knew they saw us. I was frozen, waiting for something bad to happen. The tension was so thick it made it hard to breathe. 

A few pulled their guns, but the old man with the scar shook his head, and they stood down.

Seriously, where the hell am I?


Again, the devil made its way into my vison, only their jackets had a skull resting in the Grim Reaper’s outstretched hand. Devil’s Reach was patched across their shoulders. I noticed both jackets had Santa Monica on them. 

Sensing the men were preoccupied, I took advantage of the moment and darted down the street.

I fished around in my boot for the stupid Post-it that I had written Matt’s address on. 

Fifteen minutes later, and I was finally there—5627 Dustin Street. 

I stared up at the rundown building with painted black windows. It was huge and wide, but the few buildings around it were abandoned and had some broken windows. I really hoped I had the address wrong. I tugged on the handle, and to my disappointment, it opened, letting out a cloud of smoke. I coughed to catch my breath, and when my eyes stopped stinging, I took in my surroundings. 

Holy fuck…

“You want somethin’?” a husky voice barked at me from behind the bar. I blinked to clear the haze and observed a tall man with a long beard that stopped at his belt. Tattoos ran around his shaved head like the rings on Saturn. 

I shook my head and realized it might be wise to leave. “I think I might be in the wrong place.”

He poured a shot and slid it my way, nodding for me to take it. I stepped up to the bar and thought why the hell not? At that point, I was sure I’d lost the job anyway. I tossed it back while he watched. “Where are you supposed to be?”  

I waited for the burn of the whiskey to leave before I answered. “I’m looking for my friend Matt Montgomery. I think I wrote the address down wrong.” 

He studied me a moment then his eyebrow ring twitched as his eyes narrowed in on me. 

“Brick! Company!” he shouted over my head.

Seriously? 


“No, I’m looking for a Matt.” 

“Not anymore.” 

Huh? 


A moment later, a door flew open and out came my best friend, who I hadn’t seen in six years, wearing a Devil’s Reach vest. 

Okay…


He flew toward me, scooped me up, and greeted me with a big bear hug. 

Hold up!


“Tess!” He smiled down at me through a mass of long brown hair that touched the bottom of his ears. “You look amazing!” 

“You expected less?” I joked to give me an extra moment to process the situation. “Um, not sure where to start here, so…what’s with the name Brick?” 

His eyes flickered with something before he spoke. “Nickname.” 
“Okay.” I noticed the words Vice President patched above his new name. What had I missed?
As bizarre as the situation was, I couldn’t deny how good it was to see him. It was like hugging your blanket when you were a child. Instant comfort.
I hugged him even tighter. “You look completely different.” I tugged on his long hair. “I love it!” 
He rested me back on the ground, and I swatted his arm, nodding at the fucking motorcycle bar. “Thanks for the warning.” 
A guilty grin spread across his face. “I didn’t want to run the risk of you not coming.” 
“How well do you know me?” I shook my head, feeling better already. “Anything is better than the house.” 
He reached for my hand and slid my bracelets up to check my wrists. His lips pressed together as his finger ran over the vertical scar on my left wrist.
“I know you better than anyone.”
I pulled my hand free and pushed the bracelets back in place. 
“How are you?” Before I could answer, he gave me his look. “Without the bullshit, Tess.” 
Stepping back, I noticed the bartender was listening to us with no shame. 
“Fine. Like I said, happy to be away. You going to show me around?”
His shoulders sagged, but he didn’t push it. Instead, he looked over my shoulder at something.
“Yeah, I can do that.” He waved around the bar. “Helmond’s Bar. Which is the club’s bar.” 
“Okay.” I saw their cut picture was painted onto the wall in black and gray, and there were three women who were high on something. Two of them were draped over a chair and a bench, and the other was butt naked, spread-eagle on the pool table. 
“Nothing you haven’t seen before.” Brick shrugged. 
A little boy, maybe six years old, came running out from behind the bar with what I hoped was a water gun and started to shoot the woman on the chair in the face. She squinted at him before she snatched it away and tossed it across the room. 
“Go get ready for school.” 
I shook my head before I saw Brick point. “That’s Gus’s old lady, and his son. You’ll meet him later.” I nodded, and he went on. “Through those double doors,” he pointed to the wall underneath the Devil’s Reach logo, “is the president’s office and the meeting room. Most of the time, the doors are open, but when there’s a meeting, they stay closed and the bar shuts down.” He beckoned for me to follow him past the bar and out through another set of huge, heavy doors. My guess was they would be bulletproof. 
We headed to our left first. The hallways were wide and the floors were tile. The walls were painted a dark beige, and to my surprise, it didn’t look too rundown, not like the front of the building. After a few quick glances out the windows, I saw the building was formed into a horseshoe with a party place in the middle. 
“These are the bedrooms for us main guys. Pres, Vice Pres, Sergeant-at-Arms, Treasurer, and so on. This is mine.” He pointed quickly before he turned me around and started back up the hallway again. Once we passed the huge doors, he opened another and let me step inside. Two women who looked to be my mother’s age, and one guy who was about the size of a house, glared at me. 
“Kitchen. No need to tell you their names. They have zero personality, and even if they did, they never leave this room, so it’s pointless.” 
“Hi.” I waved, and the guy snickered something in Spanish, so I shrugged. “Never knew an MC could live so well.” 
“We are not like most MCs.” Brick laughed as he opened the door for me to leave the kitchen. “Down there are more bedrooms.”
“What about that door at the end?” I noticed the same type of doors we went through to get into the living corridors were also at the end of the hallway.  
“Ah, that’s to go outdoors. They’re normally locked, so just use this one.” He tapped the door in front of me. “Okay, so, for the rules.” He led me outside, maybe away from ears. I didn’t know. 
The courtyard was mostly concrete, with a lot of trees that shaded the actual building. There was a huge rectangular pool with a little changing house next to it that matched the look of the stone barbecue. Tables and lounge chairs were scattered around, and an old pickup truck was off to the side, hidden between some trees against the stone wall that ran along the perimeter. The place did give you the sense of safety, that was for sure.
“I get it, it’s a lot to take in.” Brick looked up at me with one eye closed. I sat so he didn’t have to squint. 
“Not that bad.” 
“When you’re not working, you can be out here. We normally are. The guys will have their families over for Friday night dinners. You’ll be working with Morgan. He’s good, doesn’t talk much, but he’ll teach you lots. You got a problem, talk to him.” 
“Morgan have a family?” 
“Nope. You saw Gus’s old lady on the chair. Her name is Vib. She’s a junkie, but she shouldn’t be too much of a problem. They have two kids, Den and Fin. They are little dicks, but they’re family, so we love them.”
Awesome. I wasn’t a huge kid person. 
“Rail and Cooper are two more main guys who live here. Rail only thinks with his dick, so stay away. Cooper is…well, you can be friends with him. I’ll allow that.” 
I smacked his arm. 
“Don’t touch the drugs. There’s a lot kickin’ around. Us higher-up guys don’t touch it. Trigger, the president, wants us to stay clean. You can do pot, but not coke, okay?”
“Have you ever known me to stick a tube up my nose?” 
“Been six years, Tess. A lot has changed.”
“Like your name.” 
He laughed darkly. “Yeah, a few of us adopted a nickname after our first kill.” 
“Thanks for that image.”
“Think about Rail’s.” He laughed then stood and offered me a hand. “Come on.” He held my hand tightly as we walked back inside. “You have any problems, you come to me. Promise?” 
“I will.” I waited for him to close the door behind me, and I noticed the bar had gotten a lot busier. At least the naked chick on the pool table had closed her legs. “So, where am I working, exactly?” 
He tipped his head toward the bar. “Morgan,” he called out to the bartender as we joined him. “This is Tess. She’s the new bartender.” Morgan didn’t blink an eye at me as he opened the wooden latch to let me in behind the bar top. “Hey.” Matt tugged me closer. “It’s Brick now, okay?”
“Yeah, that’s been burned into my head nicely.” 
“We only deal in cash.” Morgan started right in. “The guys with the skull patches on their collars drink for free. No one else, no exceptions.” I failed to mention that he just gave me a free drink. “We only serve beer and hard liquor.” He pointed to the bottles. “You clean?” 
I glanced up at him, puzzled. 
When I didn’t respond, he flipped my arms over and checked my skin for tracks. “Take off your shoes.” 
“Pardon?” 
“She’s clean,” Brick barked out as a warning. Morgan nodded once then went back to explaining things like he didn’t just ask if I shot heroin. 
“You can drink, but don’t get drunk,” he mumbled and stroked his thin beard and twisted it around his finger as he thought. “Don’t call him Matt. His name is Brick. It’s disrespectful to the club. He earned that name.” 

So I’ve heard, although Brick never used the word earned.
“Don’t ask questions you don’t want to know the answer to,” Morgan muttered, and Brick seemed to agree. 

Shouting from a room off to the side drew my attention, followed by a loud crash. I looked at Brick, who just shook his head as if to ignore it. 
Morgan handed me another shot. “Have you ever bartended before?” 
“I have.”  
“All you need to know is how to read the labels, pour a shot, and count.” He tapped his glass to mine and tossed the shot back, and I followed suit.  
“Any tips you make are yours. As long as the till is even, you’re good. Make sure you wear something hot, give the guys a little somethin’ to look at.”
“Seems easy enough.”
Morgan glanced at Brick with a bored expression then back to me. “I give her to the end of the shift before she fucking quits.”  
“Thanks.” I glanced over at Brick, who gave me a playful wink. 
A door burst open and out tumbled a man with a face full of blood. He stumbled to the bar with one eye open and the other swollen shut. I noticed Morgan stood back to see how I’d handle the situation. It didn’t rattle me; not much did anymore. Brick’s comfort with the situation made it obvious the guy was on their shit list. I slammed a shot glass down, poured some whiskey, and when he reached for it, I slid it aside.
“Seven fifty.” 
His watery, bloodshot eye stared at me. It took a second, but he realized I wasn’t screwing around, and his face scrunched up. 
“Bitch, give me the drink.”
“Seven fifty.” My hip cocked out as I raised my chin to hold my own. 
He reached for it again, but I moved it further away. He didn’t have the skull patch Morgan mentioned, and I wasn’t going to give it to him for free. The guy leaned forward, grabbed my arm hard, and pulled me close to his face. I had to choke back the smell of blood and sweat. 
“Listen, you little cuntface. You want to know what it feels like to get a fist to the —” One moment he was threating, and the next his head was slammed onto the bar top by a very battered hand.

I jumped back to see a massive man with his nose just inches from the asshole’s face. His eyes were murderous as “Get the fuck out,” hissed from his lips. He then picked him up and dropped him to the floor like he hardly weighed anything. Moments later, the asshole was gone, and I was left staring at the big, lean man with one hell of a set of deep green eyes. I forgot how to breathe when they locked onto mine. His white shirt was stained with blood, his knuckles were raw, and his bottom lip was cracked. His dark hair curled slightly under around his collarbone.

I rubbed my arm, the pain slowly easing.  

“He’s out,” the man grunted to Brick. Even though he continued to stare at me. “Take care of it.” 

“Will do,” Brick answered from somewhere close. His fingers brushed over my shoulder. “You all right, Tess?” 

“Yeah.” 

“Trigger, this is Tessa.” Brick cleared his throat. “She’s the one I was tellin’ you about.”

Trigger? Oh, yes, the pres. 


“Tess,” I corrected him. 

Trigger didn’t say a word but held my gaze then looked down my front and back up again. His tattooed hand tugged on the bottom of his short beard. My skin heated, my chest burned, and my throat went dry. Mother of hell, his was gaze was intense. Though I knew men like this, and they were all the same. 

Trigger leaned forward to reach behind the bar, his eyes still locked with mine. He removed the whiskey bottle and tossed the cap next to me. He downed about a quarter of it then finally broke his hold to focus on Brick.

“They’re gonna eat her alive.” His voice had a little rasp to it, but my annoyance got the better of me. 

“Gotta love the encouragement here, boys.” I snickered and ignored his expression. Brick sucked in a sharp breath, and I guessed people didn’t talk to him like I just did, but I really didn’t care. 

I worked a long shift and met everyone as they trickled in and out of the bar. I turned a deaf ear to all conversation that didn’t include me. I felt like everyone was testing me to try to trip me up. So I kept my mouth shut and did my job to make sure everyone paid. Brick stayed true to his word to hang around and make sure I was okay.  

Morgan helped me a few times, but for the most part, I got it. At the end of my shift, I took a seat in a booth with Brick, and he ordered us a late dinner. 

The place was busy, the smoke got thicker, and the music pounded. 

“When did you join?” I asked right before I bit into my burger. 

I was surprised it was good. Most bar food sucked. I wasn’t picky. I even ate from a stranger’s plate once, but I did know good food, and this was pretty damn good. 

“Six years ago.” I looked up at him. “Right after you went back. I followed a lead that my father was part of the Devil’s Reach. He’s dead now, but I got accepted in and quickly climbed the ladder in the family.” 

I examined his vest and saw the skull on the front and VP patch. 

“Trigger is the president, I’m vice, and Rail, who I advise you stay away from, is below me. You’ll meet him tomorrow.” 

I rolled my eyes. “Do you like this life?” 

He stuffed in a handful of fries and chased it with his beer. “Yup, best life so far.” He eyed me as he thought. “Did they let you leave easily?” 

“What’s the bloody guy’s story from this morning?” 

Brick tapped his ring against his bottle. I could tell he was getting annoyed with me dodging his questions. “Stole from the club. Does your mom know you’re here?” I was about to change the subject again, but he gave me a warning by crossing his arms.  

“She knows I’m not in Vegas.” I shook my head, remembering that morning. “I need to change my number.”

“I’ll get you a new one,” he added quickly. “Are you all right in that apartment? Sorry it’s not closer, but I’m working on that now.” 

“No, don’t. It’s perfect. Thank you. As soon as I get some cash coming in, I’ll pay—” 

“No, you won’t.” He cut me off and glanced across the bar at someone. “Just don’t leave this time. If you need anything, you come to me, and I’ll help you.” He looked back at me then down to my stomach. “When did you get the tat?” 

I closed my eyes briefly and hated that he went there. Inching down my shirt, I shifted.

“Tess.”

“Two months…after you left.”

“How was the funeral?” 

I huffed loudly and pressed the pain down. “No money, no funeral.” 

His jaw locked in place before he spoke. “They never helped out?” 

“You’re forgetting she broke a house rule, Brick,” I muttered darkly. 

“Where is she?” 

“With a friend.” 

“She okay?” 

I finally looked at him full in the eyes. “Would you be?” 

I saw his chest rise and fall while he thought about it. “No. I wish you didn’t leave me when you did.”  

“You know why I did. No sense looking back. It doesn’t—”

“Brick!” a larger man with thin gold glasses and a kind smile shouted in our direction.

“Shit, I gotta go.” He moved out from behind the table. “That’s Big Joe, Trigger’s muscle. If he calls on you, go. His bark isn’t nearly as big as his bite.” He winked as my stomach turned. “Stay. If you want my room, it’s the second door on the right. Take the bed. I have a sofa. If you’re going to leave, Morgan will walk you home.” He leaned over and gave me a quick kiss on the cheek and left. 

After I polished off my burger and stole the rest of Brick’s fries, I grabbed my bag and headed out into the quiet street. I would rather get comfortable walking home than spend any more time within those walls. 

I needed fresh air.  

About a dozen bikes were parked out front, and I wondered which one was Brick’s. One was blacked out completely and looked like it cost more than a house. It was interesting, with thin gold lines that raced along the edges of the bike. If you looked closely, you could see faint drawings that faded as you walked by it. It was a bad-ass bike, for sure. 

My heels pounded the pavement, and I enjoyed the cool breeze on my hot, sticky skin. I couldn’t wait for a shower. 

Three blocks, then a right, six more blocks, then a…hmm…
I heard laughing up ahead and saw the guy from earlier who had my cell phone. Damn! I really needed to use my phone so I wouldn’t get lost anymore. 

I slipped into an alley and hurried around the buildings. It was dark, but it was better than having to deal with those guys. I wished I knew where the border for the club’s territory was. I wasn’t stupid and knew borders meant everything when it came to motorcycle clubs.  

A strong smell hit my nose, and Marilyn Manson’s Beautiful People caught my attention. Sweat, booze, and desperation swarmed in my head and brought some old comfort seeping to the surface. No windows, no sign, just the beat to the song. Pushing the heavy door open, I stepped inside. Neon purple tube lighting swirled down the hallway, escorting me deep into the Dirty Demons strip club. 

The bouncer who stepped in front of me was about twice my width. He flicked his head at me to pass. No need for an ID, no weapons check, and no need for male company. 

Interesting. 


Three platforms had naked women in cages dancing to the beat. The main stage had two women spinning on poles, and another slid across the stage thrusting her hips in a man’s face. The customer tucked a twenty into her g-string before she winked and moved on. 

It is a good living. 


Slipping into a booth in the corner, I rested my tired feet and ordered a rum and Coke. 

I let the music wash over me, and the hairs on my arms stood at attention as the goosebumps pushed them upward. I let my mind wander back to the good old days when things were so much easier.

Mags grabbed my arm as she stepped off the platform. “You’re not really going up there? She’ll kill you if she finds out.”
I tossed my top hat in the air and caught it on my head. “What else can she possibly take from me that she hasn’t already?” 
“You’re asking for trouble.” 
“Aren’t I always?” I winked and saw her devilish smile widen as she motioned for me to go on. 
“There’s a military party in the front. They’re tippin’ hot tonight.” 
“What about—?”
“He’s at the bar.” 
I gave her a quick kiss on the cheek before I took a deep a breath and felt the rush as I stepped out and locked eyes with him. 

“You here for amateur night?” The waitress pulled me from my memory and set my drink down on a black napkin. 

I handed her a ten and shook my head when she reached out to make change. 

“When is it?” 

“Every Tuesday, at midnight.” I nodded, but she stared at me. “You wax?”

I nodded again. 

“Real?” She pointed to my boobs. 

“Yeah.” 

“Impressive.” She looked over her shoulder at her boss, who was watching us carefully. “Well, I’d be happy to see you up there.” 

“Thanks,” I muttered into my rum and Coke, avoiding her boss’s nasty stare.  

Settling in, I watched the girls and how they moved. Some were better than others. A few of them asked me for a lap dance, but I wasn’t in the mood. Besides, it would only make the addiction stronger. 

My hips shook as I dropped to the ground in a split. I swiveled to my stomach and ever so slowly pulled myself back into a sitting position. Rolling backward, I did a somersault and hooked my leg around the pole. Using my stomach muscles, I grabbed the pole with my hand and twisted into a spin. That was, until I saw her wrap her arm around his neck and look in my direction. Her look of hate ripped right through me. 
As soon as the song ended, I rushed off the stage and burst through the doors and out into the stuffy night air. I rubbed my fingers over my wrist, over the spot that nearly took me away from this hell. I needed to get away from here. 


I nursed my drink until I grew tired. Waving at the waitress, I found my way back outside. I stayed in the cover of darkness until I was at the back of my building then hurried to the front and let myself in. 

Pressing eight on the elevator, I sank into the corner and waited for the floor to arrive. My pillow never felt so good.
Bestselling author J. L. Drake was born and raised in Nova Scotia, Canada, later moving to Southern California where she lives with her husband and two children. 

When she’s not writing, she loves to spend time with her family, travelling or just enjoying a night at home. One thing you might notice in her books is her love for the four seasons. Growing up on the east coast of Canada the change in the seasons is in her blood and is often mentioned in her writing. 
An avid reader of James Patterson, J.L. Drake has often found herself inspired by his many stories of mystery and intrigue. 

She hopes you will enjoy her stories as much as she has enjoyed writing them.
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Damnable Grace – (Hades Hangmen #5) by Tillie Cole


Coming April 18th

EVEN THE BROKEN, THROUGH LOVE, CAN FIND GRACE…

Secrets never stay hidden.

The burden of guilt never lifts from the heart.

Born and raised in The Order of David, Sister Phebe knows nothing but cult life. Head of the Sacred Sisters of New Zion, Phebe was groomed from childhood for one purpose: to seduce. Prized as a harlot, as a New Zion whore, Phebe is taken from the doomed cult by Meister, the notorious leader of the Aryan Brotherhood. Taken as his possession. Taken to be the woman who will obey his every sexual demand. Under his heavy hand, Phebe finds herself in a place much worse than she could ever have imagined… with absolutely no one to help. And no glimpse of hope.

Xavier ‘AK’ Deyes is content with his life as Sergeant-At-Arms of the Hades Hangmen. Leader of the infamous ‘Psycho Trio’ and ex-special ops sniper, AK knows how to fight. Experienced in warfare and schooled in military operations, AK is vital to the Hangmen. When his Vice President needs help retrieving his missing sister-in-law, Phebe, from a Klan-funded trafficking ring, AK volunteers to go in. AK remembers the redhead from New Zion. Remembers everything about her from the single time they met—her red hair, blue eyes and freckled face. But when he finds her, heavily drugged and under Meister’s control, her sorry condition causes him to remember more than the beautiful woman he once tied to a tree. Saving Phebe forces hidden demons from his past to return. A past he can never move on from, no matter how hard he tries.

As AK fights to help Phebe, and in turn she strives to help him, they realize their secret sins will never leave them alone. Kindred broken souls, they realize the only way they can be rid of their ghosts is to face them together and try to find peace.

Despair soon turns to hope, and damaged hearts soon start to heal. But when their deep, painful scars resurface, becoming too much to bear, the time comes when they must make a heavy choice: stay forever damned; or together, find grace.

Dark Contemporary Romance. Contains explicit sexual situations, violence, disturbingly sensitive and taboo subjects, offensive language and very mature topics. Recommended for age 18 and over.


“Well?” Ky asked.
Tanner ran his hand over his head. The brother hadn’t attended one of our cookouts or slutfests in weeks. Not that he ever entertained himself with sluts—still too hard for his piece of pussy down in Mexico. He’d been busy trying to track down Meister. Unlike most of the white-power shit Tanner and Tank grew up with, this Meister was untraceable and off the grid. As much of a computer whizz kid as Tanner was, Meister was proving to be one slippery fucking snake to pin down.
“Gotta be honest, I didn’t think I was anywhere close to finding anything on this prick.” Tanner nodded toward Tank. “We knew of him, of course. I knew he had dealings with my father and uncle, just never met him myself. He’s Aryan Brotherhood, but works closely with the Klan. And there’s nothing on him. No email traces, no invoices, no texts. Nothing.”
I gritted my teeth and glanced at Styx, who was listening closely. Ky wasn’t originally gonna tell the prez about the plan to get Phebe, because of his fucking wedding, but that didn’t last long. Styx knew something was up with his VP. He read him like I read Flame and Vike. So Ky fessed up, and Styx was all for the plan. He’d had to push his wedding back by a month anyhow to get the pastor Mae wanted to conduct the ceremony, so he had time to kill.
“But you found something?” Ky translated as Styx signed.
Tanner sighed, the black circles around his eyes showing how hard the brother had been working. “I got something.” He shook his head, and my blood ran cold. I knew whatever he had found wasn’t good.
Tanner opened the file in front of him and threw a photograph toward the prez. Styx looked at it, then gave it to Ky. “Some middle-of-nowhere ghost town?”
Ky passed the picture around. Vike handed it to me, and I studied it. It was an aerial shot, and the picture was grainy, but from what I could make out, it was just a huge piece of land scattered with decrepit old buildings.
I passed the picture along. “Fucker owns this?”
Tanner faced me. “Yeah, or at least his father did. He’s dead now, but the deeds are still in his father’s name. Been in the family for decades. Took me a while to trace it.” He shook his head. “Meister is notorious among the Klan. Right, Tank?”
“Yeah,” Tank agreed. “Never met him either, but we’d all heard of him. Prick has been mobilizing for years for the race war they think is coming. Real serious, Oklahoma-City-bomb shit. From what we’ve heard, the guy has a one-track mind when it comes to advancing the white race. You think Hitler was fucked up? Well, imagine if he had a kid who was one built motherfucker, with a fucking carbon copy of his psycho mind; and you’ve got Meister. Fucker ain’t even German. Just wishes he was, spouting German phrases around like he’s born and bred Berlin. Delusional asshole.”
“This ain’t gonna be easy,” Tanner finished, looking at me, Vike, Flame, Hush and Cowboy. It was the five of us who had agreed to go looking for Phebe. Hush and Cowboy nodded at me to let me know they were still in.
“So he’s in this ghost town?” Ky asked, translating Styx’s sign language again. “If so, we’ll all just go in and get him, make the fucker talk and tell us where he’s got Phebe.”
Tanner sat forward. “He ain’t just living in the ghost town or hiding out. That’s where he has his enterprise.”
“Enterprise?” Ky echoed. It was his own question this time.
Tanner nodded. “From what I can tell, it’s a fucking brothel. Members of the Aryan Brotherhood, Klan, or Klan sympathizers, can go there for a night or a few days at a time.” Tank shifted uncomfortably next to him. “Ain’t sure, but I’m thinking it ain’t just getting your dick sucked and fucked. It’ll be real fucked-up shit. If Meister’s reputation is anything to go by, we would be walking into an organized, armed hellhole.” Tanner’s eyes darkened. “I get the Klan has a reputation for being full of backward rednecks. I ain’t gonna lie—growing up, most of my father’s cronies were that way. Thick as fuck and couldn’t do shit without screwing it up. Skinheads, lower-ranked soldiers, you know?”
“But there were some members that weren’t,” Tank continued. He cast an embarrassed glance at Tanner. “We weren’t, for starters.”
Tanner nodded. “It’s not the norm, but some of us were good. Smart, strong fighters, or just outright fucking psychos. The skinheads and rednecks are the foot soldiers. The likes of us, the likes of Meister, are the fucking SS. The planners, leaders, the generals—the ones who believe in the cause so much that they’re fucking lethal with what they’ll do, what they’re capable of. Meister is true Aryan Brotherhood; he’s preparing for war. He’s the real fucking deal.”
“And now he’s in our neck of the woods to stir up shit?” I asked.
Tanner nodded. “Comes from northern Texas. Never moved our way before. But the Klan are building day by day, joining forces with other white supremacist gangs—like the Brotherhood—and with the shit that’s on the news twenty-four-seven, blacks and whites at each others throats, he’s moved to the headquarters.” The brother’s jaw clenched. “To my father and uncle, who’ll be protecting him from being found out by the feds.” He sighed and ran his hand down his face. “From what I can figure out, this ghost-town brothel of his has only existed in the last year or so. He’s looking to fund something.”
“They ain’t dealing guns?” Cowboy drawled. “I thought that’s what Rider said the contract with the cult was for?”
“Rider was sure it was guns. At least it was when he was dealing with the Klan—it was all about arms. The Klan was selling them on and taking a cut.”
“His fucking twin,” Hush spat. “He changed the arrangement, didn’t he? When Rider was locked up in cult prison?”
“Think so,” Tanner said after a few seconds of silence.
“Then what the fuck are they dealing? What was Judah giving them if not Israeli guns?”
“Women.”
Tillie Cole hails from a small town in the North-East of England. She grew up on a farm with her English mother, Scottish father and older sister and a multitude of rescue animals. As soon as she could, Tillie left her rural roots for the bright lights of the big city.

After graduating from Newcastle University with a BA Hons in Religious Studies, Tillie followed her Professional Rugby player husband around the world for a decade, becoming a teacher in between and thoroughly enjoyed teaching High School students Social Studies before putting pen to paper, and finishing her first novel.

Tillie has now settled in Austin, Texas, where she is finally able to sit down and write, throwing herself into fantasy worlds and the fabulous minds of her characters.

Tillie is both an independent and traditionally published author, and writes many genres including: Contemporary Romance, Dark Romance, Young Adult and New Adult novels.

When she is not writing, Tillie enjoys nothing more than curling up on her couch watching movies, drinking far too much coffee, while convincing herself that she really doesn’t need that extra square of chocolate.
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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.”

AP  new -about the author.jpg

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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The Perfect Illusion by Winter Renshaw

Coming April 27th

It’s only pretend…

And it’s only three months.

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

Hudson Rutherford needs a fiancée.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mari

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

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

Hudson,

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

With zero fondness and absolutely no gratitude,
Mari

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

Hudson,

I QUIT!

Mari

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

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

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