Title: From Salt to Skye
A Legends and Lovers Series Standalone
Author: Adriane Leigh
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Cover Design: Maria Kusel, Steamy Reads
Release Date: January 25, 2022
From USA Today bestselling author Adriane Leigh comes a novel woven with madness, revenge, tragedy, and the everlasting spirit of love.
Fable Prescott believes two lies. The first, that she was chosen at random for the summer study abroad program at her university, and the second, that she came to the wind-whipped Isle of Skye to research her family’s mysterious Scottish ancestry. She never expected to find herself embroiled in a cold case that has kept a tiny seaside village on edge for years.
When another woman vanishes into thin air, Fable begins to wonder if there is more to the dark legends that cling to the island like a cold ocean mist. And if her brooding, devastatingly handsome new neighbor, Alder, is the only one that holds the key to her family’s tragic past.
LEGENDS AND LOVERS is a collection of dark legends and star-crossed love stories from twenty bestselling authors. Woven with mystery and magic, love and lore, romance and suspense, this multi-author collaboration promises to make your heart pound and keep you reading late into the night. Discover all the books in the series at legendsandlovers.com.
Her skin sparkles under the rare Scottish sunshine. Goose bumps pebble her otherwise unmarred creamy flesh as her chest rises and sinks in shallow breaths.
“I’ve got you,” I hum as I run my thumb along her wrist again to reassure myself that she is real—her pulsing energy vibrating loud and clear.
I wipe the chilly waters of Dunvegan off her forehead and then push my heavy woolen shirt over my shoulders and tuck it around her form. She breathes steadily, eyelids fluttering as she seems to dream feverishly.
Maybe she’s in shock. Maybe I should run up to Leith Hall and tell Keats to call the first responders.
I frown when I realize her left palm, the one nearest to me, is clutching something tightly. I try to ease her fingers off the object, but doing so must be just enough stimulus to jolt her out of her unresponsive state.
“Get away!” She holds the clenched fist with the object at her chest, eyes wild as she takes me in for the first time.
I probably look crazy to her, bent over like I’m ready to feast on her.
“Does that mean thanks for saving my life in America?”
Her eyes widen as I offer her a hand up. “I’m Alder Maclean. I live on the south shore of Dunvegan.”
Her warm golden eyes graze my two-day stubbled jaw, down the wide expanse of my shoulders, and out to my callused palm. She shakes her head once and then brushes her free hand on her wet thigh and pushes herself up from the damp shore.
“It’s just me and Keats on this end of the loch.”
“And me—at least for the summer anyway.”
“’S that so?” The way her front teeth indent her full bottom lip when she speaks causes heat to rise inside me. I blink away the vision of her; even wet and cold, she’s breathtaking. Can she tell the effect she has on me? Or does she think I’m just her creepy neighbor down the shore who was in the right place at the right time to save her?
More like she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Again.
“It’s been raining for days, and the shore is always slick this time of year. What brought you down t’tha loch this time of the day?”
“I didn’t sleep well last night. And I thought I saw something.”
“’S that so?”
She keeps pace with me as I stalk back down the shore path. “Fear and adrenaline can do crazy things to your body and mind,” I say, wanting to steer us back to solid ground.
The one I just ran up to save her life. We pass a stray sheep, and it doesn’t even raise its head to look as we go by. “My family is from Kylemore. That’s why I’m staying at Leith Hall for the summer.”
“Bearin’ any relation ta the folks up at Leith Hall isn’t somethin’ that’s widely esteemed ’round here. Best keep those details to yourself.” I pause where the path turns rocky and forked. “An’ haven’t ya heard ’bout the woods of Kylemore? Dangers lurk in the dark all ’round this loch. All of Skye, actually.”
“Dangers like what?”
I cast a glance over my shoulder to catch her eye. “Dangers of the usual sort.”
She cuts her gaze away from mine. “Oh, is that all?”
“No, it’s not. But it’s a start. Wouldn’t want ta scare ye off Skye so soon. No buses up ta Kylemore on weekends anyway.”
“Not a one.”
The chalk-white stones of my cottage come into view then. Moss climbs along every available space on the black thatched roof. My little corner of the loch rarely sees sunlight and everything is in need of a new coat of paint, but I like it here as much as anywhere else I’ve lived.
“Everything looks so much…brighter from up at Leith.”
“Usually does.” I think of Keats rambling around with those two old dogs and wonder if his surly presence put her off when she arrived. He puts me off constantly. I can hardly spend time with him, so much empty space that needs filling between us. His words have been sparse for as long as I’ve known him, and that invariably leaves me filling in all the dead silence left in the conversation.
“What’s that way?”
I stop at the threshold of my cottage and turn to look at her. She points past the stand of junipers to a path in the grass that meanders away from the loch and along the tree line.
“Fairies, pixies, fae, kelpie, forest children. Pick your legend.”
She rolls her eyes, folding her arms and then walking the final few steps to me. “Very funny. Everyone fancies themselves a Rabbie Burns around here, aye?”
A crooked grin that I can’t control splits my lips. “Aye, lass. Now you’re learnin’ somethin’.”
Her eyes narrow, but the twitch of a grin yanks at the corner of her lips.
“Are ya one of those Americans who spits out Scottish tea—” my grin deepens “—or do ye swallow?”
She tips her chin in the air, the double meaning in my words not lost on her. My grin finally cracks wide when she purses her lips once and flutters her pinkie finger in the air like she’s well acquainted with drinking tea with the Queen of England herself. “Bottoms up, darling.”
“Well then, hardly fit for the Duchess of Cambridge, but it’s good to see Keats hasn’t rubbed off on you yet. A Scot who doesn’t drink tea is nary a Scot.” I wave her into my cottage, and she follows.
I duck under the low doorway and beeline for the old cooktop, gesturing for her to have a seat at the tiny two-top table with mismatched wooden chairs. My place is small by my standards, but even she looks out of place with her knees pressed up under the seam of the old dining table.
“Lived here long?” she asks.
“Too long,” I reply, catching the teapot right before it whistles and pouring two teacups full. “But not as long as Keats. He’s been up at Leith for as far back as I can remember. Old before his time, that one. He’s the younger of the two of us, but you wouldn’t know it by the sight of him.”
“So, you’re from Kylemore, then? Both of you were raised on Skye?”
“Hebrides is in my blood,” I confirm. “Keats’s too.”
“What’s it like growing up on a small island?”
“Mostly?” she presses boldly.
I arch an eyebrow. “Until now.”
I nod, already sick of this line of questioning. “I’ve seen a lot of tragedies come to pass up at Leith and along the shores of Dunvegan. Mostly tourists trying to get the perfect photo, sometimes lonely souls with nowhere else to turn.”
“You mean…” Dark swirls in her warm irises. “The ones who fall?” I nod. “How did you know I wasn’t sinking under the water…intentionally, then?”
“The whirlpools kick up quickly at this end of the loch.” I lean closer to her, examining her eyes. “And you don’t know loneliness like the others. I can tell.”
“The…others? This place must be packed with paranormal activity.” Her eyes search the corners of my cottage, as if she might spy a ghost around any turn.
“Skye is soaked in the supernatural.”
“And just soaked,” she comments, eyes lingering on the fat raindrops now starting to land on the double-paned windows. “That person I saw… It seemed less like a person and more—” she works her lips back and forth as she thinks “—a shadow or a mist with hard edges.”
“Legend goes, the plague doctor haunts the cemetery up at your hall. The local kids like to do séances up in the graveyard come Halloween—”
“Did you just say a plague doctor haunts the graveyard at Leith?”
“Story says he wears the whole medieval getup, cloak and mask that looks like a big bird beak just for dramatic effect. I think it’s Keats messin’ with the high schoolers, myself.”
She watches me carefully before she speaks her next words. “Maybe he’s looking for more patients to help. Trauma leaves an impact that can be felt across time. Energy doesn’t just cease to exist, it’s transferred—a matter of physics.” She stops herself then. “Sorry, I shouldn’t bore you with that stuff. I dated a quantum physics major last year, and the conversations were interesting, to say the least.”
I bring the tea to my lips, my gaze never leaving hers before I finally swallow. “All of Scotland, and Skye especially, is active with the blood of our forefathers.”
She considers my words for a moment. “Do you mind if I quote you on that? I’m taking tons of notes this summer for my thesis on evolutionary biology within a historical context. I have to show proof of my research if this study abroad semester is going to count for my degree. I also have to meet with the town historian, but I can’t seem to get ahold of anyone—”
“The town historian?” I scoff. “Well, you’ve already found him.”
“You?” she asks.
“Hardly. Keats is the man you’re looking for. Old as dirt and never spent more than a few days away from this town in all the miserable years of his life.”
“Keats?” She scrunches her nose with surprise. “How do you know so much about him if you can’t stand him anyway?”
I kick back in my chair as I bring my teacup to my lips. “I should know a thing or two. He is my brother after all.”
Adriane Leigh is an Amazon Top 25 and USA Today bestselling author of contemporary and erotic romance. Raised in a snowbank in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, she was born with a book in her hand and won her first Young Authors award before the age of ten. She finished her first romance novel at 14, and hasn’t stopped playing with words since. She earned a literature degree, co-founded and organized international book conventions with RARE: Romance Author & Reader Events, and has written more than 45 independent titles under various pen names.
Married to her own Prince Charming, she now lives among the sand dunes of Lake Michigan, and plays mama to two sweet baby girls. She’s a romantic rebel and word junkie that believes wanderlust is life, is part of the #goodvibetribe, and wishes she had more time to read and knit scarves to keep her cozy during the arctic Michigan winters. Yoga pants, puppies, and mac and cheese also help. Never miss a release! Get an alert at: http://www.adrianeleigh.com
Praise for Adriane’s work
“Sizzling chemistry, a glamorous world, plot twists…a perfect combination held together with Adriane Leigh’s addictive writing. I dove into this world, and didn’t want to come up for air. I can’t wait for more!” – Alessandra Torre, Hollywood Dirt
“Adriane Leigh never disappoints with equal amounts of heat and heart with all the sex, suspense and scandal…Leigh’s newest mysterious hero will have you anxiously flipping pages well into the night trying to uncover his secrets.” – Jay Crownover, Marked Men
Series: Dark Vows Duet #1
Authors: Isabella Starling & Kendall Hawkins
Genre: Dark Romance
Release Date: September 15, 2021
They call him The Wife Breaker, and I’m his next victim.
He’s the man the rich, corrupted members of the cartel send their wives to.
Using cruel, twisted methods to make women obey, the man is as monstrous as the cartel kingpin I was forced to marry.
He’s the mysterious man who breaks and molds women into the perfect meek companions for their husbands.
But I’m not going down without a fight.
It took my husband eight years to realize he couldn’t break me.
There’s no way some stranger who knows nothing about me can get inside my head and twist me into something I’m not.
I’ll never pledge my submission to anyone, let alone a man who prides himself on cruelly breaking others.
The Wife Breaker will never make me obey.
I’d rather die than kneel for him.
The Wife Breaker is the first book of the Dark Vows duet. It is not a standalone book.
I never meant to kill her. All I wanted was to see her broken to pieces.
The threads that pull us together and push us apart cannot be tampered with. Every person out there has a story of hardships that broke them, and only some, a story of how they put themselves back together again.
Every person, except her. Because I took that choice away from her. Because I tampered with her strings long enough to change the course of her life. I’m the puppet master. I’m the man that dictates which path she’s going to go on with every step she takes.
Our lives have been intertwined in the darkest ways since we were both children. Promised to one another in blood, our bond was unbreakable from the moment she was born. She was meant to be mine. Not just my wife, not just my partner. She was meant to be a prized possession, property. Something to show off, something to treasure.
But then all of that was ripped away from me. From us.
I stare at the thick, dark stain spreading underneath me. My back is soaked in my own crimson blood, my once crisp white shirt dripping with the evidence of what’s just happened.
He took her away from me.
He ripped her out of my arms and left me for dead just like he did before.
Except this time, I don’t know whether I have it in me to fight the light that’s calling me upwards. To a safe space. A space where my parents have been waiting for years. A world with no pain and no heartbreak.
I’m tempted to let it all go. To say fuck it and leave this world broken by the way my strings were set up.
There’s someone below, a voice calling out, demanding I stay with them. But it’s not her voice, not her hands that are desperately clasped over the gaping wound in my chest, eager to stop the blood from escaping my body in thick, scarlet rivulets.
I try to breathe but blood bubbles on my lips, threatening to choke me with its inky darkness. No oxygen enters my lungs, only more mouthfuls of the red blood that only signifies one thing – the end of my life.
“Fight for her,” the voice tells me. “Fight for your woman, don’t let this happen, don’t leave her, she’s doomed without you.”
And I think of everything that’s led up to this very moment when I’m bleeding out on the tiled floor. All the things I did to keep her tethered to me, to keep her as my toy, my possession, my trophy. Was it all worth it?
Or was it all in vain? My efforts to keep her away from the monster that tore us apart seem to have failed.
The darkness turns into light and my parents call on me to join them, their ethereal hands reaching out for me, long, inviting fingers motioning for me to leave my body here and join them in the spiritual world.
But I can’t leave this world behind just yet.
I cling on to the memory of her. My Goldilocks.
Long, flowing golden hair. Eyes as blue as cornflowers. Pale skin peppered with freckles. She is so beautiful. And no longer mine.
I think of the man who took her then. The man who’s ruined my life too many times to count. He stole from me, took what was rightfully mine. I swore I’d have my revenge but now it seems like he took that opportunity from me, letting me bleed out like a slaughtered pig while he took the only thing that matters to me anymore.
I want to call out for her but my lips are dry and my throat is raspy as fuck. Not a single word tears itself from my cracked, parched lips as I await the help I desperately need. Shapes and colors blend into one blurry image through which I can only discern her – my beautiful captive, my prisoner, the reason I live and breathe, now ripped away from me and leaving me bare and bleeding.
It feels as if my life essence is being drained from my body. Consciousness comes and goes as my eyes fly open then close with the heaviness of my limbs. I’m tired of this world that’s been so fucking evil to me, taking everything I ever had and more.
Maybe it’s all a dream.
Maybe my body isn’t lying on the ground, battered and broken, bleeding out.
Perhaps I’ll wake up in the warm, comfortable bed with silk sheets I paid for in blood. Perhaps I’ll be myself once again.
The tall, cruel, dominant man who in no way resembles the boy I used to be.
My childhood was knocked out of me and I was forced into adulthood. Everything was taken away from me, and now here comes my ultimate test. Can I survive against the odds in a world seeped through with dark blood?
Reality fades into the background and I’m caught in a vast inky dark void where every step feels like an effort, as if I’m trying to pull my leg free from the hold of quicksand around my ankles.
I can’t swim through it. I can’t fight through it. I can merely watch it take me, swallowing, eating me alive until only a gasping mouth remains on the surface, desperately drawing in breath after dying breath.
But I cannot die. Cannot leave this world without her by my side. Cannot let myself breathe my last breath knowing she’s back with him, the man I hate most in the world, the man whose blood I’ve sworn to spill.
I’ll kill him one day, but not today. He won the battle today, and the bullet lodged inside me speaks of it just like the dozen of lifeless bodies littering the tiled floor.
I need to hang on to the last threads of vitality that bind me to this world.
Desperately, I cling to the shreds of life left in my body even as my subconscious tries to force me to go under.
I have to live through this.
I have to get through this darkness, this void filled with everything and nothing at the same time. I cannot allow myself to be swallowed up by his black hole. He took everything from me again. I’ll force myself to live through this just so I can have my revenge.
Because I’ll never let him be the one to kill her.
That is my privilege.
A FREE prequel!
Releasing September 30
USA Today bestselling author Isabella Starling describes her books with three words: dark, dirty and forbidden.
Kendall Hawkins is an emerging author of heart-twisting romance.
Embracing her dark side brought Kendall to write dark romance that leaves you breathless. Since she was a little girl, Kendall has cheered for the villain to get the girl, loved the dark side and adored shocking plot twists. Now, her love of enticing stories fills her days with villainous heroes and the passionate women they love.
Kendall spends her time writing, sculpting and creating in any way she can. Addicted to art, Kendall continues to pour her talents out on any medium available – be it a blank page, a canvas or modelling clay.
(Get a bonus duet epilogue when you subscribe to the newsletter)
There’s a spy in my Clan…
She’s threatening to put my entire family in danger.
When I find the lass, I will break her.
Make her rue the day she endangered the Cowen Clan.
But when one lie unearths another,
And our enemies are at our heels…
Our spy may be our only chance of survival.
I walk along the icy dirt road, my hands shoved in my pockets. I don’t bloody know where I’m going or why, but sometimes when I need to clear my head, nothing works better than a good, brisk walk where the clouds meet the sky, and the mountain air makes everything seem clearer.
Leith wants me to prioritize a job I never expected him to assign me. He wants me to find the writer of the Clan Chronicles, and he wants me to find her now. His words from an earlier conversation still play in a continual loop.
“No doubt she’s a woman, Tate, and she thinks we can be fucking toyed with. But she’s a spy, and a dangerous one at that. Find her.”
Bailey, our resident dog, trots dutifully beside me. He’s my sister-in-law Cairstina’s, but he likes to hang around with the rest of us, and as soon as he sees me putting on my boots, his ears perk up and he gives me puppy dog eyes. I’m grateful for the company just now.
I like that he keeps up with my brisk strides and isn’t deterred when the icy wind picks up. He faces it bravely, and when snow begins to fall, he gives me a friendly look and laps at the falling flakes. Makes me smile, before I sigh and continue my walk.
I’ve got other things on my mind, too.
Today’s the anniversary of when we found our eldest brother, Tavish Cowen, was gone. I don’t like to remember the details, but none of us can forget Mum’s cry, or the way she collapsed against Dad when she heard the news. It’s the worst memory I have, one I wish I could eviscerate forever.
I don’t allow myself to forget it, though. I force myself to dwell on the memory sometimes, when I need to remember who I am and what my purpose is.
I’m second-in-command of the most powerful mob in Scotland. The name Cowen inspires both fear and respect to anyone who hears it. I can’t afford to go soft. I can’t fucking afford it.
Mum gets a bit melancholy around now, but it helps having little ones about. Cairstina and Leith’s wee bairn’s started toddling around, and Mac’s wife Bryn’s expecting their first in a few months.
Mum loves having bairns in her lap, and it seems half the time I find her in the library reading a book, it’s a dog-eared board book and she’s got the wee one nestled in her lap.
She’s preoccupied, though. I know she is. And today I need to find out why. I’d like to give her some space to grieve, for a little while.
I loop around the cave that flanks the side of the mountain, the furthest spot away from the rest of the homes that surround our main lodge. Deep in the Scottish Highlands, we’re hidden from the view of most people, the large lodge the epicenter of our entire Clan, surrounded by our wee, privately owned chalets that encircle it. The inner members of our Clan live nearby, dozens nearly within arm’s reach. Hidden, though. Even from where I’m standing, the only telltale sign of civilization is the chimney smoke rising high in the air.
The moon’s beginning to rise, the sky around us a bluish hue as the sun settles below the mountain peaks. Suddenly, without warning, a woman’s high-pitched scream pierces the night air.
I’m instantly alert. Bailey freezes and meets my eyes, his body tense, nose pointed in the air. Adrenaline surges through me.
“Where the bloody hell is that coming from?” I mutter, whipping my head to the left, then right. Between the mountains and the wind, it’s impossible to tell the location of the scream, when a second scream follows the first.
“Find her, Bailey,” I tell him. “Go, boy.” Fully trained, he’s off at a run before I’ve finished my sentence, heading toward a barren, desolate spot on the side of the mountain.
I watch my footing, as the terrain’s rocky and icy, but Bailey doesn’t wait. He races ahead, intent on finding whoever’s in distress, so I focus on following him.
Who is it? It’s hard to tell from a woman’s scream who she is, but it could be anyone. My two sisters, my brothers’ wives, my mother, and grandmother all live here. Not to mention the occasional visitor from the McCarthy Clan in Ireland.
Bailey takes a sharp turn, and I keep up with difficulty. Suddenly, the trees give way to a clearing, and I can see everything. I freeze, heaving from the effort of sprinting in the frigid air at Bailey’s pace, and it takes me a minute to process the scene before me.
Looks like every damn one of the girls is bundled in fluffy coats, with hats, gloves, scarves and boots, taking turns sledding down the mountainside into a valley below. I can’t even identify them all from here, but I can make out my sister-in-law Cairstina, and my sisters Islan and Paisley. Two more girls are apart from the rest, at the top of the hill, preparing to go sledding down.
The three girls standing at the top of the hill quickly turn to look our way.
“Jaysus,” I mutter as I approach, trying to quelch my rising anger. Did they even bother to think about the impact a scream might have on one of us? I try to keep my voice light but fail. “You shouldn’t scream like that.”
Paisley’s eyes glance up at me, and her mittened hand comes to cover her mouth, her blue eyes a bit worried. The youngest of the lot, she’s a bit timid but quick to smile.
“Sorry, Tate,” she says apologetically. She doesn’t like upsetting any of us and looks genuinely repentant. “We didn’t think anyone else was out here.”
Islan grins. “Fancy a jaunt yourself?”
I grunt in reply, and the lass standing next to her—my brother Leith’s wife, Cairstina—giggles with the lot of them. “You look” —she giggles— “like you’ve just come running to save someone.”
“Ha. Ha.” I shove my hands back in my pockets and roll my eyes. “Just out for a stroll.”
“Oh, Tate,” Paisley says, as it suddenly dawns on her. “You heard us screaming and thought someone was hurt, didn’t you?”
“I bloody well thought—”
The sled with the other two takes off, and the girl in the front shrieks, as Bailey throws his head back and howls. The sled takes flight and careens down the hill with building momentum.
We watch, and it becomes evident within seconds they’ve gone off course. A patch of ice derailed them, and they’re no longer heading down the trail that leads to a large, open path below, but toward a thick swath of snow-covered pines. Their screams get louder, and everything seems as if it plays out in slow-motion. I take off at a run, prepared for the worst, but I won’t get there in time to help them. The girls scream behind me as the sled collides with a massive, unyielding pine. The screams from the sled come to an instant, eerie stop.
I’m the first one there. It’s a fucking bloody mess of snow and ice and scarves and hats, as I fall to my knees beside the girls. One I recognize immediately as Mac’s wife Bryn. She looks stricken but otherwise unharmed.
“Fran, Tate. She’s hurt, oh God—”
Anyone but fucking Fran.
I reach for her. She’s covered in snow and clearly passed out, blood below her hat trickling down her face into her eyes.
“We lost control,” Bryn sobs, scrambling through the snow toward Fran. “Oh, God.”
Paisley and Islan arrive at the same time, breathless and panting. They fall into the snow beside Fran. Paisley’s crying along with Bryn now, but Islan glares, as if her anger could prevent injury. “Bloody hell. Bloody fucking hell,” she mutters.
“Is she alright?” Paisley sobs.
I don’t answer. I’m lifting Fran gently out of the sled, brushing piles of snow off of her.
A chill goes through me at the stark sight of crimson blood against the whiteness of the snow. I kneel, laying her across my lap so I can inspect her.
“She’s out cold,” I mutter, inspecting her carefully. If she injured her neck, I can’t move her too quickly.
The lodge is yards away from us. I can’t risk putting her back in the sled to take her back, not if anything’s broken, or worse.
“She’s hurt her head,” I tell them. At the very fucking least. I jerk my head at Islan. “Call the doctor, have them prepare. I’ll carry her back. It’s the safest way to keep her still.”
In recent years, with Dad’s declining health, we’ve boarded a Clan doctor. It comes in handy in times of emergency. Like now.
It’s a somber affair, all of us walking back to the house. Islan manages to get a signal on her mobile and runs ahead of us. She’s trained hard in the workout room in the main house, running and weightlifting, and she’s got a good lead on the rest of us.
I focus on my job, moving as quickly as I possibly can without jostling or hurting Fran, but when I nearly trip, she comes to with a cry.
“Where am I? Oh, God, what happened?” She hisses in a breath, and I’m sure it’s from pain, poor lass.
“You’ll be alright,” I mutter. “Be still and quiet now, we’re taking you to see a doctor. You’ve injured yourself and can’t risk a sudden movement.”
She doesn’t listen, though, of bloody course, but begins to panic.
“My arm hurts. Is it broken?”
“We’ll find out soon. Stay still, Fran. You don’t want to risk further injury.”
I’m only paces away from the main house when someone flicks a light on, and Fran blinks her eyes from the brightness. She whimpers, then quickly stifles it.
“You’ll be alright,” I tell her, but my tone is gruff. It angers me they were out doing something so fucking dangerous. If she wasn’t fucking injured, I’d shake her. “Shouldn’t have fuckin’ been out there at twilight with the ice over the snow like that, dammit. Do you have a death wish?”
“Save the bloody lecture.” She winces. “Looks like Mother Nature already chastised me.”
I close my mouth but still glare.
“Am I too heavy?” she asks softly.
Until then, I’d made myself focus on my mission, on keeping her still and moving swiftly. I didn’t think about who I held. I didn’t think about how she affects me. I have one job to do: bring her to safety. But at her question, I look down at her in surprise. I don’t answer right away.
Tears and snowflakes dot her thick black lashes like gleaming diamonds. Even injured and bloodied, the woman’s gorgeous. Her deep brown eyes, like crushed velvet, look up at me, and for one startling moment, I’m afraid I might kiss her.
Until recently, Fran was married. Off limits. But now…
Jesus, I’m carrying the woman to the doctor and have to get my damn act together.
“Too heavy? You girls are out of your bloody minds. Always worrying about being too heavy, like I can’t bloody carry you.” I roll my eyes. “Didn’t even get winded.”
She opens her mouth to protest, then winces.
“Lie still and stop troubling your damn head,” I mutter. Concern’s made me irritable as fuck.
I try to think of this as a job, like Fran is one of my sisters I’ve been bound in duty to protect.
She isn’t my bloody sister, though, dammit.
We dated once—so briefly it hardly even counts, but I’ve had my eye on her ever since.
She married last year, and I fucking hated that she did something so stupid. Met her ex-husband online, married him a week after they met in person, and caught him cheating on their wedding night.
You’d think it bloody ended there, but it fucking didn’t.
I shove the memory away and keep going. It only makes me angrier.
Islan’s ahead of us, and she opens the door.
“As luck would have it, the doctor’s nearby,” she says. “He said to bring her into the study, since the light’s good in there and you can lay her on the chaise.”
I walk in through the kitchen, the entire staff watching us as I traipse through. A fire burns in the hearth, and someone stirs food at the stove, but I walk past and go straight to the study.
Leith’s waiting for me when I arrive, watching me somberly.
“What happened?” he asks Islan, who quickly tells him. I’m assuming his wife Cairstina filled him in before we got here.
“Jesus,” he mutters. “Knew we should’ve cut that damn tree down when they started sledding down that bloody hill.”
Islan snorts. “Leave it to you to level a damn tree like we’re children that need protecting.”
Fran opens her mouth as if to say something, then winces, closes her eyes, and doesn’t say a word. I imagine the pain’s intense.
Bright lights shine, as the Clan doctor waits.
“Rest her here, Tate,” he says. I put her down with reluctance, as gently as I can.
I liked holding her. When I held her, I knew that she was safe, almost like I could control this. Control… something.
“Ooh, got a right good gash on your head, there, lass.”
“Ah, is that what the throbbing is? Thought I hit the Jameson a bit too hard last night.” Fran smiles wanly, and even injured and in pain, she’s bloody beautiful.
She looks up quickly at me and winces from the sudden movement. “No need to growl, Tate, you did enough of that on the way back.”
I didn’t even know I was bloody growling. Did I?
I grunt in reply, as the doctor examines her. A moment later, he sits back and shakes his head. “You’re awfully lucky it wasn’t worse, lass,” he says gently. “An inch or so to the left and you’d have injured an eye, likely beyond repair.”
Her jaw drops, and she looks down at her hand. “And my arm?”
“Doesn’t look broken, but it would be best if we had an x-ray. I don’t have the proper equipment here. I’ll put a brace on to keep it steady, but you’ll need that seen with a specialist first thing tomorrow and time off, days or even weeks.”
She winces. “I have to work tomorrow,” she says with a sigh. “I have no vacation time left. If I don’t get to work…” Her voice trails off. She works at the little bookstore in town, in Inverness Centre.
“Sorry, lassie,” he says, shaking his head. “You have to. You could risk something so much worse if this isn’t properly treated.”
He hands her a few white pills. “Here, take these. It’ll help with the pain.”
Fran sighs, pops the pills, then drinks down a glass of water. He continues inspecting her with a frown, meticulous and thorough. We hired him because he’s the best there is.
“Why so long for a head injury?” Fran asks.
“Head injuries are bloody dangerous,” I tell her. “Don’t you know what could’ve happened? You could’ve gotten fuckin’ brain damage, or worse.”
Islan rolls her eyes but Fran just blinks at me in surprise. The doctor continues his examination when a knock sounds at the door.
“Come in,” I say. Mum comes in carrying a plate, laden with soup, bread, and a steaming pot of tea. It’s well past dinner time, but it’s in her nature to feed people when they’re injured. Says it helps with recovery and all that.
“How are you doing, lass?”
“Oh, I’ll be better soon,” Fran says with a self-deprecating laugh. “How’s Bryn?”
“Bryn walked away without a scratch.”
“Thank God for that,” I mutter, and Fran gives me a curious look.
“Just that Mac would lose his bloody mind.”
“Aye, he would,” Islan says. “It’s the way you all are, isn’t it?”
I don’t reply. It is how we all are, but I can’t quite place the look on Fran’s face.
The doctor takes his leave, with strict orders she rest and allow people to help her, followed by Leith and Mum. The other girls have gone off to take care of the children and Bryn, perhaps sensing that Fran doesn’t want a lot of visitors right now. She’s in so much pain, even the bright lights seem to hurt her eyes.
It’s just me, Islan, and Fran now.
I should go. I have work to do. Her best friends are right here, in this very house. Surely they can make sure she’s alright. I’ve got a pressing job Leith wants me to tend to, but I can’t seem to make myself do it.
“We’ll get you situated here for the night,” Islan says. “Not the best accommodations, but I do think it’ll be best for you, give you a little privacy. There’s a toilet nearby the kitchen, and you won’t have to walk upstairs.”
“And it’ll be easy enough to get you to the car to go to get your x-ray in the morning,” I say.
She frowns. “Might be a little hard to drive like this—”
“Of course you bloody well can’t drive,” I snap.
She blinks, then her cheeks flush a little pink. “Excuse me?”
“Now, Fran,” Islan begins, her hands outstretched as if to placate her. “No need to get you riled up.”
“Riled up?” I ask, astounded that that’s even a question. “Of course she bloody well won’t. She’ll lie right there and obey the doctor’s orders.”
Fran pushes herself up to sitting higher on the chaise, as if the adjustment in height gives her an advantage, which it definitely doesn’t, especially because she winces again in pain.
“And… somewhere between me cracking my skull on the side of your tree, and you playing the hero carrying me back up to the house like some sort of… Tarzan or something,” she spits out the word as if it’s distasteful, “you got the idea you have some say in this?”
“I do,” I tell her. “I’ve got an errand in town tomorrow and will take you.” I want her to feel obliged to me, though I wouldn’t admit that out loud.
I can’t keep the irritation out of my voice.
“Oh, I’ll be fine,” she says, fuming. “No need to trouble yourself, clearly.” She rolls her eyes. “Honest to God, I’m no concern of yours.”
Is that what she thinks?
Islan rolls her eyes. “You’ve nearly grown up here, Fran, you know how they all are.”
She purses her lips and narrows her eyes, and I half expect her to wise off with her smart mouth again, when her head suddenly lolls to the side a little like she’s tipsy. She blinks, then blinks again. What the fuck?
“Y’alright?” Islan asks.
“Just feel a bit… a bit…” Fran giggles. “Can you hear those words, or is it in my head?”
Islan turns to me. “Oh, dear.”
Is she… high?
I look at Fran in puzzlement. She shakes her head as if to clear her thoughts. “Was just saying, I can’t bloody well skip work tomorrow. No way.”
“They’ll be fine,” Islan says with conviction. “Or I could cover for you. Your boss is so bloody distracted, she wouldn’t even notice the difference.”
I look from Fran to Islan, then back again. Islan’s tall and willowy and blonde, and Fran’s all lush brown hair and buxom curves.
“Are you fuckin’ legally blind?”
Fran gives me a reproachful look, then begins to giggle. It’s… adorable.
Islan rolls her eyes. “Oh, whatever,” she says. “I just mean I could go in and be a sort of temp for the day or something.” Leith’s said for a while the girls have been spoiled and honest to God, I didn’t see it until now. I always kind of took the girls’ side when it came to his overbearing tendencies.
I shake my head. “Leith would say no, and I’d agree with him. For Christ’s sake, you’re making one stupid decision after another.” Islan’s brows snap together, but I’m not finished. “First, you decide sledding down that hill is something fun to do, even though you could’ve killed yourself. Second, now you want to go take a job in the city centre, knowing full well who you are and how that puts you in danger? Are you out of your bloody mind?”
“I see what you mean,” Fran mutters, giving Islan a sympathetic look.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I ask.
“Oh, nothing,” she says airily, and I swear her eyes look a bit unfocused. The doctor’s given her some heavy pain relievers, and it looks as if they’ve kicked in. “Only your sisters may have mentioned once or twenty times that you boys are all a bit overprotective, and I think she has a point.” For some reason, she finds this outrageously funny, and the next thing I know, her head falls back and she snorts with laughter. Literally snorts, so loudly Islan jumps. She looks at me in alarm.
“What’d he bloody give her?”
I shrug. “Dinnae. Reckon it was something strong?”
Fran’s giggling so hard she’s tipped over to the side, tears streaming down her face. What’s so funny? I don’t bloody well know what to do with her.
“Oh, no,” Islan whispers to me. “Tate, I think she’s high off her nut with the meds the doc gave her, isn’t she?”
I look back at her, and she’s giggling something fierce.
“I think you’re right,” I mutter. “Jesus.”
“The look on your face!” Fran says, as she erupts into peals of laughter again.
“Mine?” I ask.
“Och, aye,” she mutters, deepening her voice and wagging a wobbly finger at the two of us. Her accent’s thick, like a Scottish caricature, as she mocks me. “Are you out of yer bloody moind?”
“What’s she doing?” Islan whispers.
“Doing a right good job of pissin’ me off,” I whisper back.
“Oi’m the head of the fuckin’ mafia!” she howls, wagging her finger in the air. She reminds me of a man I once saw in a pub in the city centre, drunk, running his mouth so loudly in the pub he got a personal escort out. “Or one ‘a the heads of the fuckin’ mafia, whatever and all! And I swear to fuckin’ God, if ye don’t know what’s right for thee, you’d do what yer bloody told or I’ll send you swimmin’ with the bloody fishes!”
Islan snorts and covers her mouth to hide her laughter even as her eyes swing back with concern to me.
“Ought to fuckin’ gag ‘er,” I mutter. “She’s fuckin’ stoned.”
“And oye don’t make mistakes, so don’t even question me! There are two infallible people in the world and one sits in Vatican City, the other right ‘ere in Scotland.”
“Fran!” Islan hisses, doubling over with laughter. “Oh my God, stop!”
“Need to speak with…” But her voice is muffled and I can’t make out what she says. Someone’s name, though?
Islan looks at me in an absolute panic, no more laughing. Her eyes are wide and she’s totally sober.
“Did you hear that?” she asks.
“Hear fuckin what?” I shake my head. “All I hear is her going on and on about bloody nothing.”
“Oh,” Islan says with a laugh. “It’s nothing, nothing at all. She just mentioned… Paisley. Sounded like Paisley?”
What the fuck is she hiding?
I look sharply back to Fran, but she’s passed out. Her hand falls to the side, and she’s softly snoring.
“I’ll stay with her,” Islan says. “Poor thing. She might wake up in pain.” She’s adjusting the blankets and pillows around Fran, tucking them all around her to make her comfortable. “We didn’t even get a chance to help her change out of her clothes.”
I look around the room. There’s no comfortable place for her to stay.
“Islan, you can’t stay here, lass. There’s nowhere for you to sleep, and you’ve got school to go to tomorrow.” I frown at her. “Yet another reason why you can’t go to the bloody bookstore.”
She rolls her eyes. “Oh, Tate, I wasn’t really going to. Her boss will understand, of course. I was just trying to get her to relax.”
“Alright, then, fine. But you can’t stay down here. You won’t get a wink of sleep, and you’ve got to be prepared for your classes.”
She sighs. “Aye, that’s true, isn’t it?” She worries her lip. “She can’t be alone, though.”
I grunt. “I’ll sleep on the couch.”
She looks at me sharply. “Don’t even think of any funny stuff with my mate.”
“Funny stuff? Are you out of your fuckin’ mind? You think I’ve got a bloody somno kink?”
She makes a disgusted face. “Oh, ew ew ew, what does that even mean. Do I want to Google?”
“What do you think it means?”
I can’t help but crack a smile at her look of utter disgust. She actually wipes her hands on her clothes as if to physically rid herself of the memory of what I said.
“I’m literally going to go shower now, thanks to you.”
“Good. Stay the bloody hell away and get some sleep already.”
“Aww, love you, too,” she quips, rolling her eyes again. Jesus, that girl better hook up with a man that can handle the likes of her. The door shuts with a bang, and Fran jumps up, startled, and blinks at me.
“Go to sleep.”
She rolls over and snores loud enough to rouse a deaf man, probably the first bloody time she’s ever done what she’s told without backtalk. Not that she really meant to even this time.
I sigh and try to get comfortable on the tiny excuse for a sofa across from where she lies. It’ll be a long bloody night.
USA Today bestselling author Jane Henry pens stern but loving alpha heroes, feisty heroines, and emotion-driven happily-ever-afters. She writes what she loves to read: kink with a tender touch. Jane is a hopeless romantic who lives on the East Coast with a houseful of children and her very own Prince Charming.
Connect with Jane at http://janehenryromance.com
Title: A Moment Too Late Author: Rachel Brownell
Falling in love can happen in the blink of an eye.Falling in love can happen in the blink of an eye. I fell for Jay the moment I laid eyes on him. Was drawn to him in a way I’d never been drawn to a man before. He was everything I wanted. The man I dreamed about at night and looked for everywhere I turned just for a glimpse of his perfection. But I couldn’t have him. It was against the rules. Forbidden. He was my best friend’s boyfriend. I would never do that to her. Then she died. Looking at him became painful, bringing back memories of the reason we couldn’t be together. The reason I never pursued him. I had to move on and vowed never to look back in an attempt to escape him and the devastation in my heart. Yet here I stand, five years later, staring into the eyes of the man I still want. In the place I swore I’d never return to. With memories assaulting me from every angle. He’s still the picture of perfection in my eyes, making our attraction even more dangerous than it once was. The only difference… No one is standing in our way this time.
pre-order now for the special release price of $2.99 available June 11. read for FREE with KindleUnlimitedMy phone has vibrated in the pocket of my dress no less than ten times since class started thirty minutes ago. If I were in a lecture hall with five hundred other people, I’d risk checking to see who was calling at this early hour, but this professor is an asshole. The sight of my phone will set him off. On the first day of class, he made his stance on phones perfectly clear. If he sees one, we all suffer. In our second class, we found out exactly what suffering meant when someone walked in texting. The class hadn’t even started. We weren’t on his time yet. Still, he issued a ten-page paper and only gave us three days to do it. Not a single person has been seen on their phone since. Message received. Loud and clear. My phone starts up again, and instantly the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, a chill running down my spine. Whoever keeps calling, it must be important which worries me. All my friends know all about this professor. I’ve complained about him on more than one occasion, so they know never to call during class. Not to mention they’re probably sound asleep. I’m the only idiot who signed up for classes that start before noon in my final semester of college. I didn’t have much of a choice. This class is required to graduate, and this was the only time it was offered. Sighing, I brush off my concerns and attempt to concentrate on the lecture my professor is droning on about. I’m barely able to keep my eyes open as I listen to his monotone voice go on and on about our final project, due in less than four weeks. I didn’t get back in town until after ten last night, then I overslept, having to forgo stopping for coffee on the way to class so I wasn’t late. Another one of the professor’s pet peeves. Graduation is just around the corner, though. No more early classes. No more asshole professors. Four years of hard work and dedication all come down to the next few weeks. This semester has been mentally challenging. Both on a personal and professional level if you count being a college student by day and waitress by night a profession. My days are long, the nights even longer. The much-needed rest and relaxation I was hoping for while vacationing last week never happened. Sleep eluded me most of spring break. I should have been sunbathing and sipping fruity drinks with little umbrellas in them. I was in paradise with no responsibilities. My days were my own, but they were lonely. That’s not a new concept it seems. I could be in a room surrounded by all my favorite people and I’d still feel lonely these days. I spent the first day crying my eyes out behind large, black sunglasses while my parents went on a day excursion. It was beautiful outside, the water was clear, the light breeze keeping me from overheating. The view was breathtaking. I should have been enjoying it with a smile on my face. Or at the very least, taking a nap and working on my tan. What did I do instead? Once I knew my parents were gone, I went back to my room and curled up under the covers. My eyes were puffy and red. It hurt to keep them open. I was exhausted from my early flight, but aside from being physically tired, I was emotionally drained. My heart was splintering in my chest. Every time I thought about that night, I felt a new fault line appear. It wouldn’t be long before it shattered and there would be nothing left. Because I gave him my heart two years ago. Willingly. Without asking for anything in return. I expected him to treat it with care. To guard it. To keep it safe. What did he do with it? Nothing. That was only my first mistake, though. My second? I didn’t ask if he wanted it. Nope. I ripped it from my chest, shoved it in his hands, and smiled. It happened so fast I didn’t give it a second thought. There was no time to overthink what I was doing because it was over before I knew it even happened. Why was I so reckless? Because there was something there. The moment I saw him I felt it, the connection. It was magnetic, the pull I felt toward him. The way he held me in his arms was heavenly, as if I was meant to be held by him and only him. Love at first sight. I was crazy, right? That never happens in real life. Sure, you read about it in romance novels, but I’ve never heard about it happening to anyone I know. Hell, my mother said it took her two years to get my dad to open his eyes. He says he was just waiting to see if she was worth the effort. Great role models, right? But after twenty-five years of marriage, two petitions for divorce that were eventually withdrawn, and one affair on my father’s part, they seem to be doing okay. That’s a lie. My parents tolerate each other at best. Neither of them are getting any younger, and I think they’re afraid of dying alone. My father turns sixty-one this year, and my mother will be sixty. At that age, who wants to start over? I’d be scared, too. Hell, I’m scared right now. Of the way I feel for him. Of the power he has over me. The power to destroy my heart. Power I gave him without a second though. You’re an idiot, Andrea. Yup. Even my subconscious knows what a big mistake I made. Four more weeks. Then I can leave here and start over. I’ll take what’s left of my heart and pray there’s someone out there who can mend the broken pieces. Someone who’s meant just for me. Shaking away the thoughts, I turn my attention back to my professor. He’s walking my way, his eyes locked on mine. Either I’ve been busted for zoning out or he’s just having a bad day. The scowl on his face gives nothing away. It’s the same expression he’s worn since day one. “You have ten minutes to decide your topic. Please turn them in to Ms. Morris.” He motions to me, and I wave enthusiastically. It’s more for show than anything. Maybe if I smile and pretend to be excited he’ll think I was paying attention after all. “She’ll bring them to my office after class.” Or not. He’s definitely aware I zoned out. This is my punishment. I get to run across campus to drop off topics to him and sprint back in less than fifteen minutes for my next class. It won’t be easy, especially considering I chose to wear a dress and heeled sandals today, but I’ll make it work. At least my next professor isn’t a dick. He probably won’t even notice if I slip in late. Taking the large, manila envelope he’s extended in my direction, I nod in understanding and avert my eyes quickly. I still have to come up with my own topic, and I’ve spent the last forty minutes mentally beating myself up. Didn’t I just do that for the last seven days? Sure did, and it ruined what should have been a perfect vacation in paradise. It’s about time I stop. That’s the thing about guilt. It refuses to let go of the grip it has on your soul. It wraps itself around you and holds on for the ride, laughing the entire time. Look at the wrong person, guilt smacks you across the face. Think about them, guilt’s there to remind you why you shouldn’t. Get close enough to smell their woodsy scent? Throat punch. Guilt is a bitch. The only way to get rid of it is to clear your conscience. Like you have the balls to do that. She’s right. I don’t. Because telling my truth would destroy more lives than my own. And if I’m going to hell, I don’t find it necessary to bring company. Four more weeks. I can survive that long. I’ll just lock myself in my apartment. I’ve been doing it all semester, what’s a few more weeks? Everything is going to be fine. I’ll suffer so she doesn’t have to. I’ll pretend I’m not miserable, that my heart’s not broken, the way I have been the last two years. My heart for hers. By keeping what happened a secret, I’m saving her from the heartbreak. That’s what friends do. They jump in front of a moving car to push you out of the way. They sacrifice themselves, their own happiness, so you can find yours. As soon as the professor is out the door, students crowd my desk, thrusting papers in my face. I slide them all in the envelope one by one and stare down at my blank form. I’m the last one left. Alone. Again. You would think I’d be used to the silence by now. I live alone. Spend my nights locked in my apartment. I’ve pushed my friends away and barely answer my phone. I’m the reason I’m isolated. I’m the one responsible for feeling lonely. I’ve done this to myself and I have no one else to blame. Well, I could start pointing fingers, but at this point, why bother? It won’t change what happened two years ago or three months ago. No one can erase the past. We either learn from it, try to be better, overcome the obstacles, and grow as a person. Or we wallow, allowing ourselves to suffer in silence. It feels like I’m constantly teetering somewhere in the middle. I’d love to say I’ve learned my lesson, but I find myself wallowing more often than not. Attempting to focus, I’m feverishly scribbling when another chill washes over me, this one more pronounced than the last. Goosebumps pebble my exposed legs, a shiver making it’s way up my spine. I’m rubbing them with my free hand when I hear the soft click of the door, followed by the vibration of my phone again. Finally removing it from the confines of my pocket, I find Summer’s face smiling at me. My second mom. The one who adopted me into her family the first day I met her. Who’s shown me more love in the two years I’ve known her than my parents have in my twenty-two years of life. Sliding my finger across the screen to answer, I greet her warmly, a huge smile on my face. I missed seeing her this morning at the Java Bean. Not only did I need the caffeine, but her hugs make everything better. Not feeling well? Get a hug from Summer. Fail an exam? Summer’s hug will make you forget about it. There is no limit to the power of her hugs. Summer’s heart is so big you can feel her love when she hugs you. The way she says my name has alarm bells sounding in my head. I can almost hear the tears streaming down her cheeks, her big, beautiful heart breaking in her chest. And when she finally tells me why she’s calling, I feel the remnants of my already fragile heart shatter. Her words bring tears to my eyes, clouding my vision, my smile fading as the phone falls from my hands. The screen cracks as it hits the floor, but I barely register the sound. Suddenly I’m being pulled out of my chair, my legs wobbling slightly, and into his warm embrace. He’s fresh from a shower, the woodsy scent enveloping me, causing my heart to studder. Home. That’s what it feels like to be wrapped in his arms. But right now, not even he can calm the frantic beat of my heart as it pounds against my rib cage. The thump, thump, thump rattling in my ears is the only indication I’m not dreaming. This can’t be happening. “I’ve got you,” he whispers as his hand runs up and down my back. My fists are tightly gripping the front of his soft T-shirt. I can feel the rapid beating of his heart beneath my hands, whereas mine suddenly feels like it’s come to a complete stop. When my legs give out, he scoops me up and sits with me in his lap. I can’t even bring myself to fight him. Tension and guilt are swirling around me, taunting me, but it’s no match for the devastation that’s pressing on my chest. “Breathe, Drea,” I hear him say as he tucks a piece of stray hair behind my ear. “Just breathe.” In. Out. In. Out. Easy, right? Yet I can’t seem to catch my breath. I’ve never been able to with him this close. “I have to go,” I say, scrambling off his lap, gathering all my things and shoving them in my messenger bag. I’m out the door, his protests cut off when it closes behind me. Four weeks. I can survive four more weeks. Then I’m gone. I’ll leave this place behind me and never look back. There’s nothing left here for me now anyway.
Rachael Brownell is an award-winning author of contemporary, New Adult, and YA romance. Rachael lives in Michigan with her husband, son, cuddly dog, and hateful cat. She published her first book in 2013 and has since released more than 30 additional titles. Her books have been known to take you on a rollercoaster ride – from sweet to dark and everything in between.
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Title: Fighter’s Best Friend
Series: Crown MMA Romance #2
Author: A. Rivers
Genre: Sports Romance
Release Date: March 18, 2021
He’s my best friend. Emotionally unavailable. Falling in love with him is the worst idea ever but try telling that to my heart.
As a doctor who aced her way through medical school, I should be too smart to fall for Gabe Mendoza, a man who’s married to his MMA career.
For years, I’ve patched his wounds and cheered him on, but I’m tired of hoping he’ll wake up and see what’s right in front of him. I’m ready to find someone who will put me first.
The last thing I expect is for Gabe to scare off my dates and tell me all the dirty things he wants to do to me. He asks for a chance, but with the fight of his life on the horizon, his attention is divided, and I’m scared that when push comes to shove, I’ll be left alone and heartbroken.
Can I trust Gabe enough to fight for our happily ever after? Or was our end written before it even began?
He’s not coming.
I’m starving, and exhausted from a twelve-hour shift at the hospital. The mouthwatering aroma of Italian cuisine surrounds me, but I’ve held off for fifty-eight minutes, waiting for Gabe to show up. At this point, I’m pretty sure he won’t. It’s not the first time he’s become caught up in training and forgotten about me. Probably won’t be the last, either. But I’ll give him two more minutes. Maybe he’ll text or call to say he can’t make it. That’s not too much to ask, surely?
My phone pings. Heart in my throat, I glance down, but it’s Lena. My stomach plummets. I like Lena perfectly fine. In fact, she’s one of my closest friends these days, but she isn’t Gabe. Moreover, she has a man who’s crazy about her, which only serves to remind me that I’m being stood up by the only man in my life. Again. And yeah, technically Gabe is my best friend and not my boyfriend, but we’ve known each other for most of our lives and have always been closer than many people are comfortable with. Deep down, I’m a little bit in love with him. Not that I’ll ever admit as much.
Gabe trains out of the same MMA gym as Lena’s boyfriend, Jase, and they’re both professional fighters. But while Lena is apparently—according to her message—eating Mexican takeout and about to have mind-blowing sex, I’m sitting alone in a booth like a pathetic loser, hung up on a guy who barely manages to return my calls anymore. Is it too much to ask for a bit of respect? Or at least to be treated like my time matters? Like I matter?
My glumness grows and becomes hotter. More angry. I’m sick of this. Sick of being alone at a restaurant after spending a day in the ER, waiting for someone who might never show. I don’t want to be achingly lonely. I dedicate far too much emotional energy to Gabe, and just-a-friend or not, I deserve more than that. There was a time when he’d do anything for me. Hell, the first time we met, he saved me from a bully who was pulling on my braids. But our relationship doesn’t go two ways anymore. It’s always me giving and him taking. How much longer until I have nothing left to give?
I summon the waiter, Marcel, who gives me a sympathetic look. “Can I get the pumpkin ravioli to go, please?”
“No problem, Syd.” He makes a note, then asks, “I take it Gabe is a no-show?”
“Seems that way.”
He pats my shoulder. “Sorry, sweetheart.”
This isn’t the first time Marcel and I have had this talk. It’s not even the first time this month. Moretti’s is a favorite place for Gabe and me to eat, but lately I’ve been studying the checkered wallpaper and chatting with the staff more than eating.
Scrubbing a hand over my carefully restrained hair, I close my eyes and picture the future stretching out before me, a series of evenings spent by myself, slowly becoming more bitter and disappointed by life. God, I don’t want that. I’m only twenty-six, I should be out partying and kissing dozens of frogs before I find my Mr. Right.
I can’t let things carry on this way, but if I don’t get over my fixation with Gabe, nothing will ever change. I need to let him go and go after what I want: a person who will always be there for me. Always put me first. Never leave me waiting and wondering.
Checking my phone, I see he’s an hour and five minutes late. As soon as my food comes, I’m out of here. I’m not even going to text to remind him he missed out. I’m tired of his stumbling apologies and complete lack of awareness of my feelings. I love him, but enough is enough.
The restaurant door opens, and a cold breeze blows through. I glance up. There he is. All six feet three inches and 200 pounds of Gabriel Mendoza. He’s not smiling—he rarely does—but his eyes crinkle at the corners when they land on me. I don’t smile back, even though he steals my breath. It’s unfair how hot he is, with thick, dark hair, melting brown eyes and golden skin, courtesy of his Argentinian parents. Some would call his face brutal, with sharp cheekbones and a nose that’s been broken more than once, but to me, it’s fascinating.
“Sorry I’m late,” he says, sliding into the seat opposite me. “You ready to order?”
He’s over an hour late, and all I get is one half-ass “sorry”?
No, I don’t think so. I deserve better than his casual thoughtlessness.
“I’ve already ordered,” I tell him. “For myself. Takeout.” In case he’s unclear about how pissed I am, I add, “You’re an hour late.”
He winces. “Yeah, sorry about that. The Ruby Knuckles fight is coming up in a few weeks and I needed to get in some extra rounds on the pads.”
The Ruby Knuckles event is a big deal for Gabe. He’ll face off against Leo “The Lion” Delaney, another scion of boxing royalty. But the opponent isn’t what makes it so important. The Ruby Knuckles is an elite mixed martial arts elimination tournament, and it famously marked the end of Gabe’s dad’s career when he was knocked out in the last round of the finals. Gabe is determined to win where his dad—now manager—failed. He’s defeated five other fighters to get to the finals, and now he’s really feeling the pressure. I get that. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s no excuse not to take twenty seconds to send me a message.
I cock my head. “So Seth asked you to stay later?”
Seth Isles is his coach, and the owner of Crown MMA Gym, where he trains. It’s one of the best martial arts gyms in Las Vegas, if not the best.
“Uh, no. He didn’t.” He scratches the back of his neck. “Dad did.”
He holds up a hand. “I know, I know. Seth is in charge of training. Dad is supposed to butt out and manage the other stuff, but you know how he is. I couldn’t say no. I’m here now though, and I’m hungry as fuck.”
A sharp pain pricks my heart. I understand how hard it is to let a parent down—I feel like my life is one great big let-down to my mom—but does he actually think so little of me that it didn’t cross his mind to, say, get his dad to text me while he was busy training? And does he not see how unacceptable that is? If he respected my time and feelings at all, I’d be at home in bed. My stomach growls, cuing my anger higher.
Oblivious to my hurt, he continues, “Give me a minute to order and we can take it back to your place.”
I stand. “You know what? Don’t bother. I had a busy shift, I’m tired, and I just want to go home.”
He stands, too. “We could watch a movie and blob out on the couch.”
I shake my head. He isn’t getting it. “Gabe,” I say, heart heavy, “I just want to be alone.”
* * *
Dread creeps up my spine. Sydney never wants to be alone. She lives for contact with people—both physical and emotional. It’s what makes her such a great doctor—well, that and her brilliant mind. Something is seriously wrong. Perhaps something happened at work today. She’s in an emergency room rotation, and it can’t be easy seeing some of the things she does.
“Bad day at work?” I ask.
“You’re an hour late,” she repeats through clenched teeth.
Uh-oh. This isn’t good. Her attitude is directed straight at me, but I’m not sure exactly why she’s reacting this way. I mean, yeah I’m late, but I’ve been late before. I have the fight of my life coming up, and time gets away from me. Usually, if I tell her I’m sorry and offer food or to spend time with her, she doesn’t make a big deal of it. But I can tell from the stubborn set of her mouth that she’s willing to make a fuss this time.
“You’re angry.” I state the obvious.
“No shit, Sherlock.” She sighs and runs a hand over her tightly-bound black curls. “I just can’t do this tonight. I need some time alone.”
“You want to be alone,” I repeat dumbly. Something feels different about this. Different and wrong. Like if I don’t say what she wants to hear, I could be in trouble. I don’t know how to handle her when she’s like this. She’s typically so easygoing and eager to hang out that I’m confused and wary of what to do or say next. Should I try to sweet talk her so she comes around? I’m not really a sweet guy, but I can give it a try.
“What about if I buy us dessert on the way to your place?” I suggest. “That brownie you love from the cafe near your apartment?”
She just looks at me, her dark features solemn. “They’ll be closed. So no, thank you. I’m not in the mood, anyway.”
I wince. From Sydney, this is practically a slap in the face. She doesn’t know how to be mean, but she’s being distant and snarky, and that’s almost worse. She’s supposed to be my best friend. The person I get to see once or twice a week, and who always, always makes me feel better and brings a smile to my face. She’s the person I most look forward to seeing. Now I deflate, beginning to realize I’m not going to get my dose of Sydney today.
Marcel arrives, and hands her a package that smells amazing. He sends me a look, and it’s not friendly. “That all, sweetheart?”
“Yes, thanks, Marcel.” Without a word to me, she pays him and heads to the exit. I follow, both because I’m not willing to let her leave without talking this through, and because the neighborhood around her apartment isn’t the best and I need to make sure she gets home safely.
Outside, she whirls to face me. “What are you doing?”
Shrugging, I shove my hands in my hoodie pocket. “Walking you home.”
“No, you’re not.” She clutches her takeout to her middle like it’s a guard between us. Man, I hate that. Since when has she needed protection from me? “I already told you—”
“I’m just keeping you safe, Syd.”
To my astonishment, she rolls her eyes. Usually a statement like that would have earned a soft smile.
“I don’t need a guard.”
She continues walking, and I fall into step beside her. She speeds up, but despite her sensible work shoes, her legs are significantly shorter than mine and there’s no way she can out-pace me. She’s determined though, so I drop back and slink along behind her like a fucking stalker because she clearly doesn’t want me next to her.
My gaze falls onto her lush, rounded ass. Bad mistake. There isn’t much I wouldn’t do to grab fistfuls of that butt. Except hurt her. And therein lies the reason I haven’t made a move on her in many wonderfully torturous years of being friends—I would hurt her. It would just be a matter of when.
My dick stirs in my pants. It likes Sydney’s curves a little too much. I’ve fantasized about running one hand over her lush hips while gripping her ebony hair in my other hand and kissing a path down the column of her throat. Tearing my attention from her ass, I toss a nasty scowl at a guy in a stylish jacket who looks at her for too damn long. He glances away rapidly. Wimp.
I dog her footsteps all the way to her apartment building, giving myself permission to be fascinated by the tendril of hair that caresses the bronze skin of her shoulder.
When we arrive, she gives me the first hint she knows or cares I’m there, calling over her shoulder, “I’m safe, you can go now.”
Isn’t she going to invite me in? I’d been sure she’d cool off and change her mind on the way over. Sydney doesn’t have a temper, which means I was right: something is seriously wrong. I’m beginning to think I’ve screwed up. I should have tried harder not to be late. Even if I couldn’t take a break because Dad was spurring me on from the sidelines, I should have got Jase or Devon—my training buddies and the closest thing I have to brothers—to send her a text. But surely she isn’t like this just because I was running behind for dinner?
“Syd…” I trail off when she doesn’t look around. “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah? Well, so am I.” With that, she enters the building and shuts the door behind her. The click of the lock is soft but it echoes like a gunshot in the night. Like a fucking moron, I stare at the door for a good long moment before processing what it means. She’s angry at me, and I won’t be seeing any more of her tonight. Brooding over what to do next, not accustomed to being cut off like this, I backtrack to the diner and approach Marcel.
“Gabe,” he mutters when he sees me.
“Did something bad happen to Syd?” I demand, desperate to understand what’s going on, and furious at the thought of anything upsetting her. “Was someone rude or unpleasant to her?”
Marcel rests his forearms on the counter and looks me in the eye. He’s one of the few people who’s not afraid to do that, because he’s known me since I was a kid. “Nothing happened,” he says. “Except that she sat there for an hour looking miserable and lonely.” He shakes his head. “You’re a good guy, but I’m sick of seeing her wait on you. A girl like that should be cherished.”
Cherished? Yeah, she fucking should be. But not by me.
“We’re not a couple.”
Marcel raises a brow. “If you want it to stay that way, you’re going about things right.”
Releasing June 24
Title: The Mountain Man’s Runaway Bride
Series: Matrimony Alaska #2
Author: L. Nicole
Genre: Contemporary New Adult Romance
Release Date: December 30, 2020
Running away from her wedding seemed like the perfect option, until the best man decides to chase her.
When Ash Grayson agreed to stand in as best man at his friend’s wedding, he was only doing it to get a glimpse at the single women in the crowd.
He never thought that the one catching his eye would be the bride to be.
Dixie Sutton was beautiful—long flowing black hair, huge doe eyes, with curves a man could drive for miles.
And those are just a few of the things that Ash likes.
Ash’s friend might be mad as hell when Dixie stops the wedding, but Ash?
He’s determined to chase down the runaway bride and make sure she stays in Alaska with a ring on her finger.
Welcome back to the town of Matrimony, Alaska. A town full of Mountain Men looking for the women of their dreams. I’m bringing you back in town just in time for the New Year. Ash has plans to ring out 2020 happily ever after style.
Please note this book is a standalone, safe, drama free, and tied up in a pretty bow.
99c for a limited time!
I stroll along the street, grimacing a bit at all the twinkling lights. Matrimony has definitely over-delivered on Christmas. It never fails to happen, every year, as soon as we finish eating turkey, they get busy. Maybe I’m a grinch, but I don’t find anything about it that amazing. If anything, it reminds me of how solitary my life is. If it wasn’t for Birk, his family, and Rowan, I wouldn’t have much human interaction at all.
Which means the last thing I want is to be surrounded by Christmas. The only consolation I have right now is that I’m not going to be in town for long. I just came into town to grab up supplies at the hardware store to fix a burst pipe.
I’m not a plumber, but I can get the job done. Here in Alaska, you have to be self-sufficient. The weather is as harsh as you see on the television. There can be months during the winter where you can’t even leave the house due to the weather. I’m usually stocked, but I had to go fix Mrs. Crabtree’s water line a few times this past week. I used what I had stocked up as a result, and I don’t want to find myself completely out in case of an emergency.
A friend of mine, Fred, is the local plumber. He is usually around to help Mrs. Crabtree and others, but he took his wife on a vacation to Hawaii for their anniversary and aren’t expected back until after the holiday, so I’ve tried to help some of the older residents where I can during my time off. It’s not like I have a family to go home to after working all day in the lumber yard.
After I stock up on the plumbing supplies, I want to do some errands. I’m determined to pick up a generator for the Crabtrees. Theirs is toast, and I know they live on a tight fixed income. Mr. Crabtree’s medicine probably takes half of what they draw. They don’t realize I pay attention, but I do.
I’m so caught up in making a mental checklist, that I don’t notice the petite woman coming toward me, until I barrel into her. As soon as I reach out to keep her from falling on her backside, my world changes. It feels like I touch a live electrical wire. Sparks fly and my heart flips in my chest, making all my senses go on high alert.
Her perfume wraps around me first. It’s a sweet mix of oranges and some type of flower. Immediately I want to breathe more of it in. It’s a reminder of spring, which happens to be my favorite season. I’m overly aware of our proximity, my bigger frame towering over her, the soft curviness of her body, the way she feels when I touch her….
I clear my throat as she sputters an apology. If I had trimmed my beard this morning, she would have seen my smirk. But when her eyes meet mine, I know I’m in trouble. Something deep in my gut tells me she is mine.
It’s an unusual feeling for me. I’d like to say it’s because I’m desperate to find a woman to live my life with, because I do want that. Living in Matrimony means there are definitely more men than women. But it’s not purely that, because even the women in Matrimony that are single hold little appeal for me. Truthfully, I just never knew what I was looking for until just now. Apparently, it was a soft, petite, curvy woman with chestnut hair and beautiful brown eyes. I stand looking at her, completely shell shocked. She brushes her hair back from her face, giving me a view of her soft features. My eyes dart down to her full lips, which are lush, glossy perfection, before traveling back to the beautiful, brown, doe eyes that captured my attention first.
“Are you alright?” I ask, seeing a slight red mark on her face where she took most of the hit. I have the strongest urge to reach out and touch the spot, and even ache to kiss it. The need is almost so powerful that I do it, but I control myself, barely. I don’t make a habit of scaring tourists, and don’t want to start now.
“I’m fine, are you okay?” she asks, her voice reminding me of the warmth of the sun, it’s that potent. Then, she smiles. I suck air into my lungs at the hunger that hits me. I never thought an attraction could be this powerful and happen this quickly. My friend Birk said that’s how he felt about his Aggie, but I just laughed, thinking he was over embellishing.
Clearly I was wrong.
“Yeah,” I respond with a grin of my own. “Of course, I would be better if you let me take you to dinner. I mean, it’s the least I can do for almost running you over.” I’ve never been accused of being a Casanova, but I’m hoping she says yes. Surely she feels this attraction between us. I can’t be the only one experiencing it… Can I?
I reach out and touch her again, unable to stop myself. I find myself gently moving her towards the building beside of us, and out of the way of another passerby. There’s this strong urge to protect her and shield her. I can’t explain it, but it feels right. The way she looks up at me as I touch her makes me wonder what she’s thinking. Is she struggling as much as I am? How would she react if she knew I was wondering what she looked like underneath the bulky winter clothes she was wearing? She’s gorgeous, all curves with her soft, wavy hair that was brown, but also looked as if it had been kissed by the sun. Her creamy golden skin beautiful and soft…
I shove my hands into the pockets of my coat to stop myself from touching her yet again.
“I’d like that—” she says, and I feel joy push through me so quickly that it steals my breath. Then, a fallen expression comes over her face and she shakes her head no. “Wait, I don’t know what I was thinking just now. I can’t…” The regret that flashes on her pretty face gives me pause. I immediately want to put the smile back on her beautiful lips.
“Why not?” I ask. A no wasn’t the answer I’d hoped for, and clearly she was going to say yes. She just looks at me, sad, but as if she’s searching for the right words. Just then someone slaps me on the back, making me jump. I was lost to anything and everything around me but this woman. I turn to see Kerry, owner of the bar and restaurant in town. We’re friends. I’m not as close with him as I am Birk and Rowan, but he’s a good guy. I worry about him being around the girl I’m talking to, because he’s been on the hunt for a woman for a while now. He even put the moves on Birk’s Aggie once.
Kerry’s last woman did him really dirty, but he says he’s not cut out for the single life. Still, I can’t exactly demand he leave me and the girl alone. Plus, he should be safe. He’s getting married next week to some woman he met on the internet. I think he’s even convinced Rowan to try that route. I couldn’t do it. I want sparks to fly between me and the woman I’m going to claim. Sparks like the ones I’m sharing with the girl beside me…
“I see you had the luck of meeting her first,” Kerry says, smiling at me.
“Huh?” I ask, confused and feeling like I’m missing something. I turn to look at the girl beside me. I could introduce her to Kerry, mostly so I can finally get her name. She might have changed her mind about dinner, but I’m not giving up. There’s an attraction between us, and I’m positive she feels it too.
When I turn, she’s dropped her head down, staring at her boots. Her hair has fallen from her hood, and it fans out over her face, sheltering her. My heart hurts when I look at her. God, she’s everything I’ve ever dreamed of in a woman. I feel like the Man upstairs might have been watching me and sent a miracle my way. When she looks back up her gaze goes from Kerry to me. I don’t think it’s my imagination now that the regret is thick on her face, it’s almost as thick as the color on her cheeks as she blushes as if she’s embarrassed.
“Ash, this is Dixie. Dixie, this is Ash,” Kerry says. I feel my brow crinkle, and I swim in the confusion of Kerry introducing me to the girl of my dreams and then, a second later reality slams into me with the weight of a ton of bricks.
Kerry’s mail-order-bride was named Dixie… It’s all anyone has been talking about in the bar for the last month. I heard about it whenever me and guys from the lumberyard dropped by for a beer in the evenings.
“You’re Dixie?” I asked, my throat feeling raw.
“That’s her,” Kerry responds. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there to meet you, Dixie. I was held up at the bar. Let’s bring this over to the Heifer for a warm drink and some food.”
I’m not sure why I felt compelled to follow Kerry and Dixie. Maybe I was legitimately suffering from shock. Maybe, I’m just a damn fool.
Kerry and I each pick up one of Dixie’s bags as she trails wordlessly behind Kerry, looking anywhere but back at me. I watch her though. She needs two steps to Kerry’s one. I slow down, taking her elbow in hand, just in case she slips on the ice. Even the most weathered residents could take a tumble if they weren’t paying attention. I do that because I am an idiot, and I can’t resist. Dixie looks up at me in panic. The confusion on her face is painful to look at. She should be mine. I feel that in my bones.
But she belongs to Kerry.
Free in Kindle Unlimited
L. Nicole likes to write quick romance stories that are safe, hot, and easy reads to take you away from reality.
Title: Fighter’s Heart
Series: Crowne MMA Romance #1
Author: A. Rivers
Genre: Sports Romance
Release Date: December 7, 2020
I never meant to become the go-to P.R. girl for the biggest jerks in professional sports.
Unfortunately, I built a reputation for turning douchebags into superstars, and now I’m stuck.
When I’m assigned to work with a guy accused of hitting his girlfriend, enough is enough.
I know all about men like Jase ‘The Wrangler’ Rawlins, and I have the emotional scars to prove it.
Mouthy, conceited, and hot as f*ck, he’s used to getting his way.
I want nothing to do with him, but my boss makes an offer I can’t refuse.
My dreams are finally within reach, and the more I get to know Jase, the more I wonder if I’ve gotten him completely wrong.
He may be bossy and infuriating, but he’s hiding a heart as massive as his ego.
Can I let go of the past and trust the feelings growing between us when my career is on the line?
Trouble is nothing new for an MMA bad boy like me, but this time I’m in too deep and can’t get out.
At least, not without help.
That’s where Lena LaFontaine comes in.
All buttoned-up blouses and ass-hugging skirts, she’s a distraction I don’t need, but she’s also the only one who can make my problems go away.
She wants to hate me. I’m not going to let that happen.
I never expect the way I ache to taste her pouty lips and claim her for my own.
My life is on the verge of imploding, and when it does, I’m not sure if I’ll emerge as a champion or be imprisoned for a crime I didn’t commit.
I won’t drag her down with me, but when push comes to shove, I don’t know if I can give her up, either.
Fighter’s Heart is a standalone MMA romance with a cocky alpha hero and a sassy heroine who knows how to keep him in check. It has a HEA, no cheating, and no cliffhanger.
99c for a limited time!
Eight words. That’s all it takes to ruin my day.
“LaFontaine, I have a special assignment for you.”
I recognize the voice without looking up from my desk. It’s my prick of a boss, Adrian, and anything he’s terming a “special assignment” will inevitably be a nightmare. That’s all I get these days. The unfixable cases. The spoiled, self-entitled sports stars who screw up so badly, no one else wants them.
God, one massive win and I become the go-to public relations girl for the biggest jerks-with-abs in Vegas. Why can’t I, just once, get a client who’s a marginalized feminist with a cause? Sighing, I raise my head and meet Adrian’s beady little eyes. This douchebag has my career in his hands, and he knows it.
“What’s the case?”
His thin lips curl in a self-satisfied smile. It doesn’t escape my notice that he’s yet to close the door, which makes me wonder if he’s keeping it open as an escape route.
Oh. Hell. No.
“Nuh-uh,” I say. “No freaking way.”
Jase “The Wrangler” Rawlins is one of the bad boys of MMA. I don’t even have to ask why he needs our services. Anyone who pays attention to the sports industry knows his ex-girlfriend has come forward with allegations of domestic abuse. I’ve seen photos of her bruised cheek and read the story in popular magazines. The guy is violent. But I suppose I shouldn’t expect any different from a cage fighter.
I know the type. I’ve dated the type.
“There’s no way I’m working with that asshole. Absolutely not. Find someone else. I’m not aiding and abetting a jackass who thinks he can get away with hitting women.”
The door opens wider, and Jase Rawlins himself steps into my small, airy office, his gaze immediately drawn to the view out the window, which looks over the business district. I know him on sight, and I’m not even sorry he overheard my comment. He deserves all the condemnation he gets, and more. Fuck him.
Adrian’s brows draw together, as if he didn’t expect me to argue. “Everything is organized, Lena. The papers are signed. It’s a done deal.”
My teeth scrape together loud enough I’m surprised no one else hears them. I meet Jase’s eyes, and a jolt runs through me. They’re a strange color. Dark gray, or maybe green, it’s hard to tell, and fringed with the thickest lashes I’ve ever seen. Pretty eyes. Out of place on a man known for choking his opponents into submission. He has high, arrogant cheekbones and plush lips, although the upper one is marred by a thin scar.
This is a face a woman could study forever—if she wasn’t too caught up in his body. Because holy shit, he has a body. Broad shoulders, tapered hips, and strong legs with muscled calves showing beneath his shorts. Unfortunately, however panty-meltingly hot he is, he’s also a brute, and I’m done with men like him. If I have anything to say about it, I’m not touching another MMA superstar—not with a ten-foot pole.
Time to shut this shit down.
“I’m not working with you,” I tell him, and watch for a change in his expression, but his only reaction is a quick flick of his eyes to the right, where a man in an expensive suit has followed him into my office. “This is not a happening thing.” I aim this comment at the suit, and he glowers. I don’t care. There are some jobs even I won’t take, and Adrian wants me to cross a moral line I’m not prepared to.
“Lena,” Adrian says in a cautioning tone. “Hold on a moment.”
Crossing my arms over my chest, I stare at him, wondering how far he’s prepared to push. Considering Jase Rawlins is worth seven or eight figures, I’d hazard a guess that dollar signs are flashing in Adrian’s eyes. Too bad. I don’t operate that way. Money isn’t my driver, and he knows it. So what approach will he take?
* * *
Sometimes, I wish it was legal to put someone in a chokehold outside of the cage. Like this uppity image specialist, for instance. Yeah, she may look like a schoolboy’s wet dream in an ass-hugging pencil skirt and V-necked blouse, but it’s obvious from the second she opens her mouth that she’s already judged me and found me wanting. Nothing I’m not used to, but it still stings.
Maybe it’s the fact my dick has some really great ideas about what he’d like to do with those gorgeous red lips, which are currently set in a sulky pout, or maybe it’s her instant dismissal, but I want to rile her. To ruffle up her silky feathers and find out just how mouthy she can get.
I step forward before her boss can intervene, and raise a hand. As expected, everyone falls silent, which only seems to piss the redhead off more. Fuck, we haven’t even gotten as far as exchanging names before she’s mentally convicted me. That’s the shitty part of being in the public spotlight. Everyone thinks they know me. They believe every stupid lie anyone tells.
Well, guess what? This girl doesn’t know a goddamn thing.
“Calm down, cutie pie.” I love it when her eyes chill to an icy blue, silently threatening to cut my balls off. Yeah, I knew she’d hate the pet name. Considering what she thinks of me, I don’t give a crap. “Turns out, I don’t want to work with you either.” I raise a brow at Nick, my manager, and ask, “Is this really the best you could do?”
The redhead gasps, and I want to check whether she’s crossed her arms tighter over her chest, plumping her little tits up, but I resist the urge to look.
“We can go somewhere else,” Nick says. “I was told these guys are the best for miracles, but I’m sure we can find someone else just as good.”
“Now, wait a minute,” the stuffed shirt interjects. I wasn’t listening when he introduced himself so I didn’t catch his name. “Lena is the best there is. You won’t find anyone else.”
Finally, I succumb to the desire to glance at her and see how she’s taking this. I catch the tail end of an eye-roll, and it makes me soften toward her a little. She’s not drinking up the flattery the way some might.
Lena. I try her name out. It suits her. Pretty, bordering on pretentious but not overstepping the mark.
“Whatever puppy dog stunts Lena”—I emphasize her name now that I know it—“wants to pull, they aren’t going to do jack.” I address Nick. “I still don’t get why we’re here. Give it a couple of days; Erin will decide she doesn’t want to act on her threats, and the hubbub will die down.”
Lena’s face twists into a sneer. “Die down?” she demands. “The only way this shit-nado is dying down is if someone gets proactive about putting out your fires, and fast. Also, have a little respect for your girlfriend.”
“Whatever.” She says it like the “ex” part doesn’t matter. As if Erin and I didn’t break up more than two months ago now. “She’s not some problem that will disappear if you ignore her. Domestic violence is a serious crime, and you can’t just hand-wave it away.” Her nose crinkles like she smells something bad. “It disgusts me that you’re callous enough to think otherwise.”
I count to five in my head and remind myself she doesn’t know me. Her perception of me is based on what she’s seen in the news, and I have to admit, it’s damning. It also isn’t true, but I don’t bother saying that because this woman isn’t going to believe me. Stuffing my hands in my pockets, I decide the best way to deal with her is to call her bluff.
“Okay, so you say the problem isn’t going away on its own. What did you have in mind to fix it?”
“I… I…” She flounders, and I can’t stop the smile that tugs at my lips. She’s all bluster and no bite.
“That’s what I thought.” I turn to leave, but her smarmy boss lays a hand on my arm. When I stare at it, he snaps it back like he’s been stung, his cheeks going pale. This guy is even worse than Lena. At least she has the balls to say what she thinks to my face. He’s the type who’ll pretend to be on my side, but all the while he’s secretly fucking terrified of me.
“Wait, wait, wait,” he says. “Give me two minutes to speak to Lena in private and talk her around. I promise you won’t regret it.”
Lena looks like she wants to bash him over the head with a paperweight, and I don’t blame her. He’s a condescending little shit. “Adrian—” she says.
“My office.” He snaps his fingers, like he’s ordering a dog to heel. “Now.”
They leave, her trailing behind, practically dragging her feet, and Nick gives a low laugh. “Good old Jase. Always charming the ladies.”
I jerk a thumb at the door. “Can we go? I’ve had enough of this.”
He sighs, his expression regretful. “I wish we could, but what she said is true. Whether you want to believe it or not, this situation has the potential to derail your career.”
“How can it, when I have the championship bout so soon? I’ll blow Karson out of the water, and everything will be fine.”
Nick ums and ahs. “That’s if you don’t get arrested before the fight.”
“Pfft.” I shake my head. “Not gonna happen. Erin is full of hot air.”
“She also has a taste for the spotlight, and she’ll keep spouting this bullshit as long as the cameras are rolling.” Damn, he’s right, and he must sense he has the winning hand because he powers on. “Not to mention, you promised Seth you’d take this seriously and do whatever you could not to tarnish the reputation of Crown MMA gym.”
Ouch. Low blow. Nick knows I’d go to war for Seth if he asked. My trainer gave me everything. He had faith in me, took a chance on me, and he had no way of knowing I’d pan out to be a good investment. I was just a kid from a poor neighborhood with a mother of a chip on my shoulder and a willingness to shed blood to escape.
“Fine,” I concede, not surprising either of us. “I’ll hear them out.”
But I have a bad feeling about this, and my gut doesn’t often lie to me.
Releasing March 18
Author: Isabella Starling
Genre: Dark Romance Standalone
Release Date: September 1, 2020
A brand new, standalone dark romance with a Daddy theme from USA Today bestselling author Isabella Starling is finally here!
I’m your new Daddy, little doll.
And it’s a doll’s purpose to give Daddy what he wants.
What I want is to own you.
I’ll put you in chains and I’ll never take them off.
I’ll make you kneel for me.
I’ll make you beg for more.
And I’ll never, ever let you leave me.
You’re property now.
You don’t have a choice.
Contains dark scenes throughout. This is a STANDALONE, full-length novel.
USA Today bestselling author Isabella Starling describes her books with three words: dark, dirty and forbidden. If you pick up a Starling book, you can count on a bad-mouthed, bossy man who will dominate his woman with a rough hand. Add just a sprinkle of taboo, a touch of BDSM and a pinch of suspense, and you’re all set for a story you won’t forget.
Title: Black Skies Riviera
Author: Catherine Wiltcher
Genre: Mafia Romance
Release Date: July 28, 2020
They call this place the Billionaires’ Playground.
I, Aiden Knight, staked my claim the minute I arrived.
I crossed every line.
I painted their Rococo ceilings with blood.
Now my casino is the hottest church in town,
And vice is the only confession required.
Until the past comes calling with an offer I can’t refuse:
One week to seduce and break her.
All this for the name of the man who killed my father.
Issa Dubov is the queen of cloudy diamonds:
She’s a hard truth concealed beneath a pall of lies.
I’m an Armani black suit of spades:
Determined to bury both her and my demons.
I never asked to see the shape of her heart.
I never asked for her to fill the blank spaces of mine.
But the mafia wants her secrets.
I wasn’t the first she betrayed.
And Issa? Sweet, not-so-innocent Issa?
She’s gone and left me with a debt no sinner can pay.
Have you ever noticed how the mesh bits in lace look like the intersecting bars of a prison cell?
I did. Five minutes ago. As I was sat on the edge of a strange bed in a strange room, in a strange wedding dress, with a strange perfume smothering my senses like a designer rag.
My fingers won’t stop playing with the delicate trim on the bodice. It’s as if I’m trying to find a weakness in the yarn so I can plan my escape.
It’s a Dorian Gray mirror gone askew. The material is stupidly fussy and over-detailed, and it makes me look about twenty years older than I am. Still, at least it covers the bruises…
“Come, Ielena. The car is waiting for you.”
Marie enters the room clapping briskly, as if the force and sound will unchain my heavy heart from the bed and propel me to my feet. Her face is a painted mask of encouragement, but it reminds me of a colombina I bought in Venice once. The initial dazzle concealed the flaws. The cracks in the porcelain grew wider and more obvious as the truth clawed its way to the surface.
That was the day I learned that nothing is what it seems.
Marie’s claps grow louder in my ears. “Up! Up, lazy girl! What are you waiting for?”
A knight on a white horse?
Reluctantly, I stand for her inspection. I’m not sure when or how Marie first entered my father’s life, but her presence is more front-and-center than my mother’s these days.
I loathe her.
She’s brittle and calculating, and our relationship is a Ping-Pong match of mutual hostility. Unfortunately, since Karina disappeared, Marie’s winning most of the shots. She’s subtle about it, though. Her words are well-fed piranhas. They’ll take tiny bites here and there, leaving me stung and permanently unsettled.
She stops in front of me, a smoky swirl of coral-pink chiffon, and I brace myself for more teeth.
“Oh dear.” She casts a critical eye over my wedding dress. “Oh dear, oh dear… Still, it’s the best I could do at such short notice. You have no idea the strings I had to pull to get you something suitable in time.”
If she expects me to thank her for it, I’d rather choke on the lace.
Her assessment moves up to my face and she tuts out even more disapproval. “Good grief. Your make-up is abysmal. Antoinette!” Her maid appears in the doorway like a dutiful pet. “She needs less rouge on her cheeks. And that red lipstick is wrong. She looks like a whore, not a virgin bride.”
There goes my one shot at individuality.
Is this really happening? Has it really only been twenty-four hours since Papa announced I was to marry a man I’d never even met? A one-minute, formally worded deposition slotted in between his business meetings. He takes longer to peruse menus in restaurants.
Come to think of it, it’s the longest conversation we’ve ever had.
“Dressing table,” barks Marie, giving me a not so gentle shove in that direction.
Gritting my teeth, I allow myself to be ‘de-whored,’ by Antoinette. On the plus side, marriage means leaving Marie behind. Even she wouldn’t dare disrespect the wife of Luca Zaccaria…
I should have known she wouldn’t go out without a fanfare, though.
“I don’t see why we’re bothering with this charade,” she mutters, driving an extra pin into the base of my chignon and scraping my scalp on purpose.
“What do you mean?” I catch her eye in the mirror, instantly wary of the cruel green glint that I find there. “This is what my father expects of me.”
I’m rewarded with a cold smile for my curiosity. “I mean why go to so much trouble to look the part when the ceremony room will be empty.”
“But Signor Zaccaria’s family will be in attendance.”
I’ve read all about mafia families and the eight billion aunts, uncles and associated offspring who get wheeled out for occasions such as these. Kind of like a Bratva wedding when a sibling’s disgrace hasn’t double-booked the venue.
Her eyes widen for a beat, and then the chill in her smile drops a couple of hundred degrees. “What makes you think you’re marrying into La Famiglia, child? What makes you think you’re good enough for one of Zaccaria’s precious sons? Your sister has polluted you, like she’s polluted your father’s reputation, and today you will pay the price for her disgrace and his resurrection.”
My stomach lurches. She’s right. My father never actually confirmed who my groom was.
I just assumed.
“Who am I supposed to be marrying?” I whisper.
She shrugs, as if the detail is insignificant. “You’ll find out soon enough.”
“I don’t believe you! He wouldn’t do this! Where’s Papa?” I rise to my feet, but her bony fingers clamp around my upper arm to stop me.
“Sit down, stupid girl.” I wince as her grip tightens; her coral pink nails digging crescents into my skin. “Your father has no desire to see you. He left for Paris an hour ago.”
My mouth snaps shut when I realize I’m gaping at her. “But he’s walking me down the aisle! I’m playing the role of the good Bratva daughter for him… The least he can do is guide me through the scene.”
“Be quiet!” Her mask cracks, just like my colombina did, but this time spite comes pouring out. “The only things accompanying you to that altar, child, are shame and solitude. You are all alone in this world now, Ielena. Your sister has deserted you, and your stupid mother is soaking your memory in gin.”
I have Maxim.
Please tell me I still have Maxim.
“Let go of me, Marie!”
“All alone,” she mouths back.
Shrugging her off, I sit back down at the dressing table. My hands are shaking as Antoinette pats away the last of the red Chanel before smoothing on a dash of Vaseline, and then painting my lips a pale mauve.
Even that seems wrong. I need a shot of color confidence to bring my fair skin and frozen expression back from the brink, not something that’ll fade me out even more.
I’m only a half-measure, remember?
An image from yesterday slams into my mind, one with raging battlements of contempt in his eyes.
The man I couldn’t stop thinking about all of last night. The beautiful cruel memory who tempted my fingers between my thighs at the break of dawn.
What was it he said about me again?
“Stupid rich, bored, empty, unemployable, unsalvageable…”
I am not my mother.
I am not my mother.
Karina’s voice is in my head suddenly, telling me to hold on to my rainbow, no matter what. We made promises to each other the night she left. The kind you cross your hearts with, schoolgirl style, and keep until you die die die.
“Are you finished?” I catch Marie’s eye in the mirror and hold it. Screw her. Screw my father. They could marry me off to a beggar on the street and I’d still find a way to paint us gold.
She scoffs and nods.
“Good,” I say, firing back a Ping-Pong shot of my own.
I was right to feel that sense of satisfaction earlier. I’m not some little girl she can push around anymore. My new groom may not be Luca Zaccaria, but my father’s choice for me would have been tactical. He’ll be a man of standing in the criminal world.
“Good?” she mocks. “You won’t be saying that in an hour’s time.”
“Aren’t you going to wish me luck?”
Without waiting for an answer, I rise to my feet and sashay from the room as elegantly as my badly fitted shoes—thanks again, Marie—will allow.
Heart pounding, I make my way down the elegant marble staircase, feeling like Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind, but with the whole world, not Rhett Butler, declaring that they don’t give a damn about me anymore.
I reach the lobby to find the tall, stoic figure of my father’s Brigadier waiting for me. There’s another man standing there, too. He has his back turned, his black-suited shoulders blocking out most of the light from a nearby window. I’m so relieved to see Maxim I barely glance at him.
“You’re here!” I take the last couple of steps too fast and nearly lose my footing.
I knew he wouldn’t abandon me as well.
He turns at my voice—eyes hooded, expression bleak. “Issa.” He catches me as I stumble into his arms. “Careful, zvezda moya.” He sets me right before sweeping his gaze downward. “Why, you look beautiful.”
“You’re the sweetest liar.” I step back to break his embrace, embarrassed by my lack of poise. What’s worse, there’s a masculine scent in the air that’s aiding and abetting that emotion, whipping up memories I’d rather forget. “Marie chose the dress so you can draw your own conclusions from that.”
“Tsch, Issa,” he chides. “She chose well.”
“Liar, twice over,” I say with a shy smile.
“She’s right, it’s hideous,” drawls a deep voice in perfect Russian. “But it’s nothing a bottle of Saint-Émilion couldn’t fix.”
All the damn colors.
The same man from the bar and my late night fantasies is smirking down at me, his cerulean-blue oceans churning with the same derision. My lungs stutter and lose function as I finally place the scent in the air.
“You,” I gasp out.
“Me,” he says flatly.
“W-what are you doing here?”
“My presence was requested so it’s a good job I had another suit to wear.”
I can’t seem to process his words. It’s not just the size of him that’s throwing me off kilter. Those oceans are shark-infested, and I’m the bloody bait.
My head swings to Maxim for answers, but the scars on his face offer me nothing so I find it swinging back to him. It’s magnetic. I couldn’t stop it if I tried.
“Monsieur Knight,” I say, pulling myself together. “How lovely it is to see you again.”
He barks out a rough laugh. “You could strip paint with the acid in your voice, princess. Your insincerity is corrosive.”
“Who knew a gentleman could be so vulgar,” I counter quietly.
“Who knew you had the brains to come to that conclusion all by yourself.”
“Have you two met before?” Maxim looks confused, trapped here in our blazing crossfire.
Aiden Knight cocks his handsome head and grins at me, but his eyes are like chips of ice. “Let’s just say we had a difference of opinion over some home truths and a bottle of red yesterday.”
Instantly, my heart is a drum and bass beat inside my chest. I hate how British men have the whole archetypal bastard thing down to a fine art. His accent is a poisoned arrow with a fin-shaped fletching of contempt. He’s dressed in black Armani again today, though he’s swapped the black dress shirt for white.
Colors. Colors. He wears them like a warning.
His necktie is a brilliant crimson, the same red as the lipstick I chose for myself until Marie instructed Antoinette to scrub it off. He’s stolen it. How dare he! I find myself hating him more for that than I do for his insults.
“Is it true Papa left for Paris an hour ago?”
I mean to direct it at Maxim, but I can’t seem to tear my gaze away from my nemesis. He’s coolness personified, with the kind of hard arrogance that hazardous men exude. I don’t like the way he’s looking at me either, as if I’m a cornered fox and he’s the Master of the Hunt.
“Why? Are you worried he took his credit card with him?”
“That’s enough, Knight!” growls Maxim.
I blush right to my roots as my father’s confidante proceeds to curse in both French and Russian at my English invasion. It’s a bi-language of reproach, but Knight just shrugs it off. Clearly, his ninety-nine problems don’t include Bratva Brigadiers who’d be more than happy to use his head as target practice.
Is this man completely impenetrable or just plain indifferent?
“Jesus, you talk a lot of shit, Maxim,” he says in a bored voice, cutting him off mid-flow. “If you’re quite finished, her chariot awaits.”
I watch him stalk through the open front door, down the stone steps and into one of the waiting Escalades without so much as a backward glance at me.
Who is this vile, rude, arrogant man?
I meet Maxim’s heavy stare with unspoken questions in my eyes. “Marie told me I’m not betrothed to Luca Zaccaria anymore.”
“No, zvezda moya.”
“Please, Maxim,” I beg. “If our friendship means anything, I need you to be straight with me. Who the hell am I marrying today?”
My only ally in this world curses and swipes a hand across his jaw. It’s as if he’s disinfecting his next words for an unclean revelation. I then watch in mounting, escalating, soul-crushing horror as his gaze shifts to the vehicles outside. Or rather, to one in particular…
© Catherine Wiltcher 2020
Catherine Wiltcher is a bestselling author of ten dark romance novels, a former TV producer, and a self-confessed alpha addict. Her writing is best described as sinfully sexy, and her characters always fall hard and deep for one another.
She lives in the UK with her husband and two young daughters. If she ever found herself stranded on a desert island, she’d like a large pink gin to keep her company. Cillian Murphy wouldn’t be a bad shout either…
For book and blog updates, please visit www.catherinewiltcher.com
She lives in the UK with her husband and two young daughters. If she ever found herself stranded on a desert island, she’d like a large pink gin to keep her company. Cillian Murphy wouldn’t be a bad shout either…
For book and blog updates, please visit www.catherinewiltcher.com