KNAVE (Masters of Manhattan Book 1) by Jane Henry


 

 

 

 

 

Sabrina: Good guys save the day and criminals go to jail. It’s not rocket science, people.

But then my father’s killed, I’m rescued by a thief, and my worldview is shattered. He takes me to his penthouse. His bed. I don’t have to like it but I can’t help it. His touch is everything a good girl like me shouldn’t want.

Anson: Good and bad mean nothing to a master thief. I take what I want, and what I want is vengeance. No more, no less.

Maybe the girl can help, so I’ll hide her. Protect her. And if I have to manhandle her to keep her quiet, she’ll deal. Hell, she might even like it. But she’ll learn fast that I make the rules.

 

 

Manhattan
“3, 2, 1… And, security systems are down,” Walker said, his voice with its lilting accent magnified over the tiny communication device in my ear, so that it sounded like he was sitting right next to me. “Daly, you’re up.”
No shit. I rolled my eyes as I employed the tiny laser cutting tool to make a hole in the glass window just large enough for me to slip through. Dangling from a cable four stories above the ground in the middle of a bright, moonlit night was not the best time to start contemplating your life choices, but it seemed to happen every time I worked with these guys; which was to say, twenty-four-seven for the past six months.
“I’m in,” I whispered, pushing the suction holder I’d clamped to the freshly-cut glass disk and reaching my arm into the cooler, drier air of the office. With practiced ease, I levered myself headfirst through the hole, twisting to land lightly on my feet. I set the now useless glass gently on the floor, removed the rappelling cable that tethered me to the roof, and stood silently in the empty office, taking a second to get my bearings, to let my eyes adjust to the relative darkness, and to let my body, sweating from the humid night outside, cool for a second.
“Daly, report.” As always, Xavier’s cool, imperious voice drove me bonkers.
“Report,” I muttered. “Because I’m your freakin’ minion, X.” The comm device, created by Walker to detect the slightest sound, obviously caught my words, but other than Caelan’s reproachful sigh, nobody replied.
Six months, the five of us had been living and working together, and I couldn’t say it had made much difference in my attitude. I still preferred to work alone, and it still bugged the crap out of me that I had four other voices in my head while I was on a job, but I had no one to blame for the situation but myself. I’d answered the invitation that January night, after all, and I’d agreed to stay even after Eugenia Carmichael’s videotaped last will and testament had thrown my life into a tailspin.
“Office is empty,” I said, after a beat or two of silence where I glanced around the empty surfaces of the desk and bookcase behind me. “Doesn’t look like anyone’s been working here. I was able to cut the window in a low visibility location. No direct views from inside or outside, thanks to the Rosenberg building next door being under renovation. Ethan’s intel was good.”
This would buy us crucial time before the office staff of Stuart Fowler Real Estate, LLC, caught on to the fact that they’d been the victims of a break-in.
“Of course it’s good,” Ethan huffed. “I didn’t spend two whole days in that place as the world’s most overqualified temp just to provide you bad information.”
I had to smirk at his little snit, mostly because nobody could see me. Ethan was every bit as good at his job—a cross between reconnaissance and high-key scamming—as I was at mine, but where my role in our little gang involved dressing in black gear and a full-coverage face mask like the one I wore tonight, Ethan’s usually involved wearing an expensive suit and an overly-friendly smile.
“Still wish it didn’t have to happen when the moon was this high,” I grumbled to no one in particular, repeating an argument I’d already made earlier in the week. “Moonlit night in July makes people want to take a walk and look around.”
“And like I told you, the phases of the moon refuse to change no matter how much I try to persuade them to,” Ethan said with an affected sigh. “But if we don’t get the information from the safe tonight, it’s gonna be too late. Now that Fowler’s dead, his attorney’s going to be cleaning out his office and opening the safe to disburse his assets, likely as soon as tomorrow.”
I knew Ethan was right, but I’d be damned before I’d admit it.
“I’m heading to the outer office,” I said instead, moving toward the door. “We’re sure internal door alarms are off?” I was already betting my life on Walker knowing his shit, a pretty safe bet considering he was probably the best hacker on the planet, but old habits died hard, and I really didn’t like relying on anyone but myself.
“I already told you I own the system. You doubting my prowess with the keyboard?” Walker grumbled, his accent thickening when he was put out. “It hurts, man. Just for that, I’m disabling the WiFi in your room and cutting your free premium cable channels.”
“Jesus,” I muttered, placing my hand on the door handle and turning it. Like I gave the first shit about getting free premium cable and WiFi. Thanks to Eugenia Carmichael and her billions, all five of us were now the joint owners of Manhattan’s swankiest penthouse and financially set for life… just as long as we managed to complete the task she’d left us. A task which seemed more and more like the labors of Hercules as the months passed.
I silently eased the door open a crack and stood still again, taking the measure of the room. I didn’t just listen for sounds or heavy breathing, despite the wisecracks Ethan and Walker liked to make, but tried to sense disturbances, picking up on the vibrations that people (and even unforeseen security measures) sometimes gave off. It was a crucial task for any thief who planned to spend his golden years anywhere but a six-by-eight cell.
The room smelled like strawberry candies, and cheap cologne so strong I almost sneezed.
“Daly, you’re on a clock here,” Xavier reminded me needlessly, and my nostrils instinctively flared as I fought the urge to tell him exactly where he could shove his clock. Walker’s jokes were annoying, Ethan’s overly-perceptive friendliness grated, and Caelan’s silent watchfulness made me uncomfortable, but all of them had earned my loyalty over the past six months. The only person in our quintet that I hadn’t warmed to even a fraction was Xavier Malone, heir apparent of the Madison Avenue Malones and douchebag extraordinaire. Walker, Ethan, and Caelan—a former MMA fighter and personal security guard—had all proved their usefulness to our team, as had I, but somehow Xavier’s useless ass had appointed himself our leader.
I wasn’t sure why nobody else minded this as much as I did.
“Shut the fuck up and let me do my job, X,” I retorted.
“X-av-ier. Three syllables, Daly,” he corrected in the fake-bored voice he used when he was all pissed off, and I smiled in satisfaction before I stopped myself.
Legit, was this my life, where calling a high-profile venture capitalist by a hated nickname was how I got my kicks in the middle of a job that could land me in prison?
Jesus.
But even so, I couldn’t resist adding in a whisper, “Did I hurt your feels, honey?”
“I’m gonna hurt both of you if you don’t shut the fuck up and get this done,” Caelan interjected, silencing both of us immediately. Caelan, despite all his bulk and some formidable fighting skills I’d seen in action, had the longest fuse of anyone I’d ever met. When he was finally pushed to the breaking point, it was as effective as an ice bath.
“Reception area is clear,” I said, stepping forward. “I’m going down the hall to Fowler’s office.”
“Remember, code for the office door is 0-0-7-0-1. The safe is on the wall behind the God-awful nude,” Ethan said. “You’re gonna have to use the digital code device…”
“Walker prepped me on the device,” I interrupted, my voice a bare breath of sound as I tread noiselessly down the hall. And I hadn’t needed much of a tutorial to begin with. My memory was nearly photographic, and I’d used similar devices a number of times in the past, for God’s –
Thunk.
“What’s that?” I asked, though I wasn’t sure the sound was audible to anyone else. For a split second, my pulse pounded, and I froze in place, worried there was someone moving in Fowler’s office at the end of the corridor, but then the HVAC system hummed to life, blanketing the room with recycled air. I took a deep breath.
“Daly, report,” Xavier demanded, and for once I wasn’t pissed off about it.
“False alarm, just the A/C kicking in,” I whispered, pressing a hand to my chest.
“Caelan, you’ve got the van in place?” Xavier asked. His voice sounded strained, and for just one second, I let myself wonder what it must be like to feel like you were in charge of a job and know that there was almost nothing you could do to control the outcome, once the game was in play. Huh. For a control freak like Xavier, that had to be a bitch.
“Yep. Got the van parked in the loading zone with a cold lemonade once Daly’s got the documents,” Caelan replied. “Gotta get this beast in for service,” he said fondly, and I could almost hear him petting the steering wheel as he spoke.
The surveillance van was Caelan’s baby, one of the first things he’d purchased on behalf of Masters’ Security Systems, Inc., the security company Xavier had ‘founded’ as a handy cover for our after-hours jobs, and he refused to let any of us even sit behind the wheel.
In some ways, that van and the company it represented were like the sixth member of our band—the one that gave us the respectable façade necessary to hack systems, break and enter locked buildings, and indulge in a little espionage. People actually paid us to test their security systems—both physical and technological—for weaknesses. We were officially known as white-hat thieves and hackers, and our company had quickly earned a reputation for providing the best personal and corporate security money could buy.
No one seemed to suspect that we spent our free time in similar, unsanctioned pursuits.
I crept down the hallway, listening outside each office as I passed, but all was silent. I took a second to curse the air conditioner, which blew strong enough to rustle papers on desks, and was totally throwing me off my game.
Not that any of this was a game—not since Eugenia Carmichael, widow of Federal Judge Trevor Carmichael, stared down at us from that television screen and calmly discussed her own impending murder.
“I’m about to die, and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it, gentlemen. The people who’ll kill me don’t care that I’m old or rich. They don’t care that I haven’t long to live in any case, or that the only reason I’ve hung on this long is to get justice for my sweet husband. They’ll make my death seem like the simplest accident or the most natural death imaginable, just like they did for my Trevor. Just like they did for your mother, Anson Daly. Your brother, Ethan Warner. Your fiancée, Caelan Jamison. Your best friend, Walker Smith. And your sister, Xavier Malone.
“They’re soulless bastards, and their greedy tentacles reach into every branch of law enforcement, every institution meant to protect the population from evil men. But when the good folks can’t be trusted, what’s a woman like me to do? I’ll tell you, gents. You gather together a team of criminals. A cat burglar, a computer expert, a bodyguard who’s not afraid to fight, a con-artist… and the greatest criminal of all, a Wall Street investor to lead them.”
I shook my head as I checked the last office on the right and wished I could have known Eugenia Carmichael. Rich as fuck, batty as hell, and the kind of person I’d have liked to have on my team.
“All the other offices are empty,” I whispered. “Entering Fowler’s office.”
I stared down at the keypad and blinked. “Uh, Ethan, what’s it mean if the door is open?” I demanded.
“Impossible. Security system won’t set unless his door is closed,” Ethan said confidently. “Had to stick my tongue down Becca the receptionist’s throat and practically propose marriage to learn that little tidbit, but you know me. Anything for the Masters.”
“Didn’t ask if it was possible,” I retorted, backing away from the door. “Asked what it meant if the impossible was already happening.”
“What? No,” Ethan said, sounding truly concerned. “I don’t know how… Walker, the systems were booted before you shut them down?”
“Definitely,” Walker said. I could hear keys clacking frantically in the background as he no doubt pored over information on the many screens he had set up all over the office we’d created on the second floor of what used to be the Carmichaels’ penthouse. “External system was shut down by me, and the internal system was… Oh.”
“Oh?” I demanded. “What, oh?”
“Well, Jesus, it looks like the internal security wasn’t reset the last time the external security was engaged.”
“In English, geek. My ass is in the wind here!” I fumed, pressing my back into an alcove in the hall.
“Means that someone shut off the security after the building manager closed up. Probably somebody forgot something and had to come back. When they left, they only set the external security, none of the motion sensors inside.”
His voice was apologetic, and honestly, it was something even I wouldn’t have thought to check for, but it was still my ass on the line. “Probably? What’s probably mean, Walker? Like I’ll probably get twenty to life?”
“I’m pulling up the camera feeds now,” he said, the clicking of his fingers on the keyboard sounding like buzzing wasps in my ear.
“Daly, it’s your call,” X said. “If you haven’t seen anyone, Walker’s probably right. System confirms that the external security was restarted an hour ago and wasn’t shut down again until Walker shut it down. Either someone’s been sitting there silently for an hour, or the person who reset the system did a shit job. You know we need those papers, you know the stakes, but it’s your call,” he repeated.
Shit shit shit. I smoothed my hand down the mask that covered my face. My call, but not really.
Last week, the program Walker had set up to cross reference the names of our dead loved ones against the parties involved in cases Eugenia’s dead husband, Judge Trevor Carmichael, had presided over had finally found a match. A year or so ago, Judge Carmichael had ruled on a racketeering case against mid-level real estate owner Stuart Fowler. It just so happened that Stuart Fowler handled the business dealings for Silver, a seedy bar in Vinegar Hill, and the last place my mom had worked before the overdose that killed her. We needed to find out more about who Fowler was working with, who he was working for, and who was behind the dummy corporation Fowler had set up as the owner of Silver, if we wanted to figure out how and why my mother had died.
But clearly we weren’t the only ones who’d cottoned on to this idea, since Fowler, who’d been offered a plea deal in exchange for a reduced sentence, had been killed in prison before he could decide to start naming names.
Chalk another body up to the bad guys.
“Fine. I’m going in,” I told Xavier, pushing the door open with my heart in my throat.
The scent of cologne I’d smelled in the reception area was even more powerful here, and I froze again, listening for any sound, but the room seemed to be holding its breath.
I threw the door wide, making sure no one was hiding behind it, before cautiously creeping forward. Nothing seemed out of place, and the humming of the HVAC was the only sound.
“Clear,” I breathed, stepping forward to finish my mission.
Any thief who claimed he wasn’t superstitious was a liar. Every thief had a tell—a lucky pair of socks, a nervous tic—and I was no different. I cracked the knuckles of my right hand, and then my left, clenching and unclenching my hands exactly twelve times as I walked over to the desk, my eyes fixed on the ugliest nude I’d ever seen. Jesus, her breasts looked like purple apples. I shook my head in disgust as I opened the painting, handily attached to the wall by a hinge, and put my hand in my pocket to extract the digital code device.
“Christ on a cracker,” I breathed, letting the device fall back into my pocket. I wouldn’t need it now. “Someone got here before us. Safe is empty.”
A chorus of curses echoed through my ear.
“What do we do now?” I demanded, taking a step back and pulling the mask up off my face. “This shit show can’t get much worse.”
My heel hit something on the floor with a dull thud, something I couldn’t see from the thin shafts of moonlight coming through the tinted windows. I crouched down to examine it more closely.
“Oh, my God,” I breathed. “I lied. It’s worse. Dead body. Mother fucker, there’s a dead body in here.” I stood up abruptly.
“Who is it?” Xavier demanded, ever practical.
“He’s not exactly introducing himself, X!” I said. I could hear the panic in my own voice, but dead bodies and I did not get along. “I’m outta here.”
“Check his wallet,” Caelan argued.
“No way! You come do it!”
“You said yourself, it can’t get worse. Just keep your head and check the wallet. We need to know who we’re dealing with here!” Caelan soothed.
And that’s how I found myself, against my better judgment, touching the corpse on the floor of Stuart Fowler’s office, and rolling him over to pick his pocket. Yes, this was really my life.
“Got the wallet,” I said, pocketing the thing and letting the body fall back down.
“You sure he’s dead?” Ethan wanted to know.
“Oh, for God’s sake.” Before Caelan could get all reasonable or X could get all imperious, I held my breath, stripped my glove, and put my fingers to the guy’s throat. He was still warm, but there was no pulse. I leaned closer in case I could hear a breath.
“Achoo!”
I jumped three feet. My instincts had saved my life more times than I could count, and for just one second, I swear I thought the man on the floor, the body on the floor, had sneezed, but then I realized where the sound had come from.
“What the hell is that?” Xavier demanded.
“A sneeze,” I said, standing up and getting my wits about me once more. I crept along the floor towards a small coat closet next to the office door, and threw the door open wide.
“Guys?” I said, as I looked down at the small, wide-eyed redhead huddled there. “Things got worse again.”

 

 

 

Jane Henry

 

Jane has been writing since her early teens, dabbling in short stories and poetry. When she married and began having children, her pen was laid to rest for several years, until the National Novel Writing Challenge (NaNoWriMo) in 2010 awakened in her the desire to write again. That year, she wrote her first novel, and has been writing ever since. With a houseful of children, she finds time to write in the early hours of the morning, squirreled away with a laptop, blanket, and cup of hot coffee. Years ago, she heard the wise advice, “Write the book you want to read,” and has taken it to heart. She sincerely hopes you also enjoy the books she likes to read.

 

Maisy Archer

 

 

Maisy is an unabashed book nerd who has been in love with romance since reading her first Julie Garwood novel at the tender age of 12. After a decade as a technical writer, she finally made the leap into writing fiction several years ago and has never looked back. Like her other great loves – coffee, caramel, beach vacations, yoga pants, and her amazing family – her love of words has only continued to grow… in a manner inversely proportional to her love of exercise, house cleaning, and large social gatherings. She loves to hear from fellow romance lovers, and is always on the hunt for her next great read.

 

 

 

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His To Claim by Shelly Bell


 

 

 

 

 

“I had to constantly remind myself to breathe. Shelly Bell packs a powerful punch with her flawless writing and suspenseful, passionate love story.” — #1 New York Times bestselling author Jodi Ellen Malpas on At His Mercy



 

 

Fate brought them together. Family could tear them apart.

Ryder McKay may be a playboy, but he’s never been a fool. Not until he met the woman he simply knew as Jane. For one night, he dropped his guard, but in the morning she disappeared—along with a copy of his top secret technology.

When it ends up in the hands of his biggest enemy—his father—Ryder knows without a doubt he’s been betrayed. And when he finds Jane again, a year later, he can’t decide what’s worse—that her mother is marrying his brother, or that he still finds Jane irresistible, despite the fact that she’s a liar, a thief, and his father’s latest protégé.

Jane Cooper does have a secret, but it’s not the one Ryder thinks. As their rekindled passion changes into something deeper, they’ll have to work together to untangle a web of lies and corruption that will shatter everything they thought they knew about their pasts. Because Jane’s not the only one with a secret—and this secret is getting people killed.

 

 

Ryder McKay knocked back a shot of Jameson, slammed the glass down on the bar, and grabbed the next one, relishing the smooth burn sliding down his throat. It wasn’t every day your brother was about to marry the daughter of the country’s most powerful man.
The press was calling the union a “marriage made in heaven.”
More like a deal with the devil.
Only in this case, it had been a deal between two devils. Two criminals posing as legitimate business men who were likely using their offspring to solidify some kind of pact between the two families. If Keane McKay and Ian Sinclair joined forces instead of working against each other, they’d have the potential to be largest crime syndicate in North America.
It had been years since Ryder had turned his back on Keane and that life. After he’d graduated high school, he’d made good on his lifelong promise to himself. He’d moved out and never returned.
Any conversation with Keane over the past decade had been limited to Ryder’s insistence that his father not contact him again. It had taken several years, but he had eventually gotten the hint and stopped calling.
To maintain his distance from Keane, Ryder hadn’t planned on attending his brother Finn’s wedding.
Then last week, he’d come across a photograph that had changed his mind.
A photo of Jane.
Recalling the vixen he’d spent one wild night with almost a year ago, he licked remnants of the whiskey from his lips and swirled his finger along the rim of the glass. Before falling asleep that night, he’d realized one time inside of Jane hadn’t been enough for him.
He’d wanted more.
Not just sex, but the chance to get to know her.
Crazy thoughts for a man who’d spent his adult life never having sex with the same woman twice.
But she’d pulled a Cinderella on him, fleeing his hotel room in the middle of the night. Other than her first name, he’d known nothing about her.
Obsessed with finding the woman he couldn’t forget, he’d wasted months searching for her. He’d checked with the organization that had sponsored the conference where they’d met. Called other attendees. Combed through photos of the conference. Hell, at one point, he’d been so desperate, he’d hired a private detective.
And what had he found?
Nothing.
It was as if she’d never existed.
His fingers tightened around his glass.
He’d been a fool.
Because now he knew the truth.
Shortly after their night together, he’d realized someone had copied design and software files from his computer. He hadn’t wanted to believe that Jane had been the one to do it—the time stamp didn’t match—but last week, Ryder stumbled upon a recent article online about his father’s foray into the automated commercial kitchen business, the same business as Ryder’s company Novateur.
Then the photo accompanying the article caught his attention.
It was a photo of the company’s vice -president of innovation standing beside Keane.
Jane.
A muscle popped in his jaw as he acknowledged once again what an idiot he’d been that night.
He’d played right into her hands, lowering his guard when he brought her to his hotel room, not suspecting she would stab him in the back while he slept.
Novateur was one of the first in the world to bring “smart kitchen” technology to restaurants and bakeries. Already in business together providing productivity consultations to restaurants, Ryder and his best friend Tristan had formed the company shortly after their discussion that automation was an effective way to cut costs and increase efficiency in restaurant kitchens. Voice-activated appliances, robotic arms, and conveyor belts for restaurants and bakeries—even the smaller, family-owned ones—were now an affordable reality.
Novateur was the only restaurant automation company to custom design and install the technology per the customer’s specific needs—until McKay Industries.
The evidence was indisputable. Jane had been the one to steal the designs for his father.
Had she thought Ryder wouldn’t find out? Or had she thought that changing the time stamp would save her?
In the end, the joke was on her. Because anything she copied was worthless without key pieces of code. That alone should have given him the satisfaction to move on.
And yet he couldn’t. Something about her didn’t add up. He couldn’t equate the woman he’d met that night with the woman he now knew her to be. She’d acted so innocent in his bed, her eyes widening in something that looked like awe as he’d removed his clothes and given her the first glimpse of his cock.
Not that it wasn’t awe worthy. He didn’t bother with false modesty.
But Jane’s response had seemed…honest. She’d actually flinched when he’d first entered her. Even now, he could hear her husky voice in his head and the way she whispered his name as he brought her to climax. He remembered the sensation of her silky thighs against his cheeks and how tight her pussy had clamped around him when she came.
He rubbed the stubble on his chin with his knuckles.
Since that night, every time it came down to sealing the deal with a woman, thoughts of Jane popped into his head.
And while he could admit he was bit of an asshole when it came to the opposite sex, he wouldn’t fuck one woman while thinking of another.
She hadn’t only stolen his technology.
She’d stolen his fucking mojo.
He should hate her, and yet there were nights he’d roll over in bed and reach for her, only to find the sheets cold.
According to Finn, all of McKay’s essential employees had been invited to the wedding.
Which was why Ryder was here.
Tonight, he was on a mission.
Find Jane.
Confront her.
And get her out of his system, once and for all.
Whatever it took.
Even if whatever it took meant him having to dress in a monkey suit, smile at people he detested, and kiss up to his father. If he’d shown up at McKay Industries, no doubt Keane would have had security toss Ryder out of the building.
But he couldn’t keep Ryder from the wedding.
And Jane wouldn’t be expecting him.
Ryder gulped down his next shot, not even bothering to enjoy it, and returned it bottom side up to the white-satin-covered bar top. Thank fuck his brother and his fiancée had chosen to get married in the city’s only five-star hotel instead of having the traditional church wedding. He’d never make it through the next couple of hours if he had to do it sober.
“Make the next one a double and keep ’em coming,” he told the bartender.
A hard slap on his tuxedoed-clad back had his teeth rattling. He didn’t need to turn around to know who had smacked the shit out of him. Finn may be ten years older but he’d never gone easy on him.
“Save some of the good shit for the other guests,” his brother said.
Ryder turned around, relieved that Finn was alone. He definitely needed more whiskey before dealing with the rest of the family. “Thought you’d be getting ready with Keane and all the other groomsmen.”
Although they shared a father, they looked nothing alike. The only thing they had in common were their gray eyes, a trait shared by all the McKay men. Otherwise, Ryder took after his Mexican mother with his dark brown hair and tanned skin while Finn was a younger version of their Irish father with reddish-blond hair. Not to mention, Ryder towered over Finn by a good five inches, something he never let his older brother forget.
Smooth shaven and with his hair cut short, Ryder barely recognized his brother. Where was the beard? His trademark long hair? This guy was a carbon copy of their father. Of course, it had been a couple years since Ryder had last seen Finn. It had killed Ryder to do it, but once his brother had chosen to take a position at McKay Industries, Ryder had been forced to put some space between them.
Finn gave him a wink. “Wanted to make sure my best man hadn’t taken off with some random chick to get his pre-wedding ceremony blow job.”
More like Finn was worried Ryder had again changed his mind about attending the wedding and wouldn’t show. Understandable, since Ryder had questioned his brother more than once as to why Finn was marrying Ciara.
Bad enough Finn had left the attorney general’s office to work at McKay Industries, but to marry into a family possibly even more corrupt than theirs? Finn must have lost his damned mind.
Ryder scratched his head. He had to try one last time to convince Finn he was making the wrong decision. “Listen, I’m sure you don’t want to hear this, but—”
“I’m marrying Ciara.” Finn held up his hand, effectively stopping Ryder from continuing. “I appreciate that you’re concerned for me, but I assure you, I know what I’m doing.”
Folding his arms across his chest, Ryder snorted and leaned his back against the bar. “Yeah, because after all, your first marriage went so well.”
His brother shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Marriage is complicated.”
Complicated was something Ryder didn’t need in his life. That’s why he was never getting married. “Especially when your wife tries to kill you.”
“She wasn’t trying to kill me,” Finn mumbled, rubbing the back of his neck. “Greta was an expert marksman. Got me exactly where she wanted to.”
Ryder would never forget the night he’d gotten the phone call that his brother had been shot. Nearly ran off the road trying to get to the hospital, only to arrive and find his brother resting comfortably on his stomach as he watched the Tigers’ game on his iPhone.
Asshole.
“What does your new woman think of the scar on your ass?” Ryder asked Finn.
Finn grinned. “She thinks it’s sexy.”
“Only the daughter of a criminal would find a bullet to the ass sexy.”
His brother shushed him and stepped closer, looking around the empty room in a move that hinted at paranoia. “Keep your voice down, would you?”
Ryder tamped down his urge to chuckle. Fucking with his brother rated high on his list of favorite things to do. “What are you worried about? Someone finding out that your future father-in-law is a criminal or that your ex shot you in the ass when you asked for a divorce?” he asked loud enough for anyone close by to overhear, including the bartender, who stopped his cleaning at Ryder’s words and let out a snort.
Finn only shook his head. “You’re an asshole. Do you know that?” He clamped a hand on Ryder’s shoulder and squeezed. Hard. “But you’re also the best brother any guy could ask for. I’m thankful every day that Dad boinked the maid and fathered you. Which is why I’m going to tell you that when it comes to Ciara and her family, I know what I’m getting into.”
“I thought we agreed we were both getting out of the family business. Me with Novateur and you by becoming some hotshot lawyer. We don’t need Dad’s money and we certainly don’t need his connections.”
His brother clenched his jaw and looked away, almost guiltily. “As long as Dad is still in charge of McKay Industries, we’ll never be free of him. Don’t you get it by now?”
“So you just gave up and figured you’d make him even more powerful by marrying a rival’s daughter?”
Pinching the bridge of his nose, Finn sighed. “I told you. I love—”
“You love Ciara.” He rolled his eyes. Childish, but appropriate. “I heard you the first twenty times. But I still don’t believe you.”
Ryder wasn’t completely dead inside. He had the ability to love. He loved his brother, Tristan, and an ice-cold beer at a ball game, but as for the so-called everlasting romantic kind of love?
Not in his genetic makeup.
His father was on marriage number four—no, five—and his brother’s first marriage had ended in gun play.
The odds were definitely not in Ryder’s favor…or his brother’s.
Long ago, Ryder had made the decision never to get married or have children. Both a wife and a kid would be a vulnerability he couldn’t afford. Look at what Keane had done by stealing Ryder’s designs and competing against him. No, Ryder could never give Keane that kind of power over him.
Finn shot him a look of disappointment. “I know you don’t, but I wish you had at least a little faith that I know what I’m doing.” He puffed out his chest and straightened his bow tie, cutting the awkward tension with his smirk. “After all, I’m the big brother. You’re supposed to look up to me.”
“And I would if you weren’t such a midget,” Ryder deadpanned.
His brother grabbed his crotch. “Yeah, well, unlike you, I’m large where it counts.”
Ryder was about to challenge that comment when his brother’s smirk slid off his face and all the joy was sucked out of the room. He didn’t have to turn around to know the source of the sucking.
“Pop,” Ryder said in greeting.
A firm hand clasped his shoulder and a raspy voice, created by a two-pack- a- day cigarette habit, came from behind him. “Ryder. Good to see you, son.”
Too bad he couldn’t say the same.
He waited for the scent of cigarettes to assault his nose and was surprised when it didn’t happen. Had the old man finally quit?
His father moved to his side, giving Ryder a glimpse of the man he hadn’t seen in years.
Always robust and thick around the waist, his father had shrunk to half his old size. Still not skinny, but to Ryder, the difference was jarring. His white hair had thinned on top, showing off the reddened scalp underneath it, and his wrinkled skin seemed especially pronounced because of his weight loss.
He looked…tired. Old. Too old for seventy-one.
For a moment, Ryder experienced a rush of compassion for his father, until he remembered that his father had never once had any compassion for anyone else.
He expected a lecture. A snide remark. Something.
But his father simply gave him a nod of regard and focused his attention on Finn. “There’s been a slight delay with the wedding ceremony. Apparently, Jane has had an incident with her bridesmaid dress and had to run to the bridal shop to have it repaired. She’s on her way now.”
Ryder froze mid-breath. Although he tried to keep his voice disinterested, he was anything but. “Jane?”
His father’s eyes twinkled with something resembling pride. “My step-granddaughter. Or soon-to-be step-granddaughter.”
No.
It had to be a different Jane.
“Ciara has a child?” he asked his brother, surprised that fact hadn’t come up before.
“Jane’s an adult now. Ciara had her at fifteen,” Finn said quietly. “Jane was raised by Ciara’s aunt and uncle down in Florida. Even now, not a lot of people in our circle know Ciara has a daughter, so I’d appreciate it if you kept the information to yourself.”
Whoever this Jane was, anger flared hot in his gut on her behalf.
They wanted to keep the girl a secret as if she had a reason to be ashamed. Why even bother inviting her to the wedding?
Mumbled curses and frantic footsteps echoed from down the hall, growing louder as someone approached.
Ryder’s mouth went dry.
Even mumbled, he’d recognize that silken voice anywhere.
Like a tornado, she whirled into the room, every part of her in disarray, from her long dark brown curls to the thick black-framed glasses tilted on her nose.
She was as beautiful as he’d remembered.
It made it difficult to remember she was the enemy.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, gripping the sides of her dress in her hands to keep it off the floor and looking down at her feet as if worried she’d trip. “As I was leaving my apartment, the hem of my dress got caught in the…”—she looked up and her eyes widened as she caught sight of Ryder—“…door.”
This wasn’t the plan. He’d wanted to surprise her.
But he hadn’t expected to be just as shocked.
If Ciara was Jane’s mother, that made Jane his…
He couldn’t even finish the thought.
Finn kissed her warmly on the cheek. “Jane. This is my brother, Ryder. Ryder, this is—”
“Jane,” she said, smiling tightly while her swan-like throat worked over a swallow. “Your soon-to-be step-niece.”

 

 

Shelly Bell is the author of the popular Benediction and Forbidden Lovers series. Her book, Blue Blooded, received a Top Pick from Romantic Times Book Reviews and was nominated for an RT Award. At His Mercy, the first in her Forbidden Lovers series, has been nominated for an RT Award in Erotic Romance and received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly.

When she’s not working her day job, taking care of her family, or writing, you’ll find her reading the latest romance or thriller. Shelly is a member of Romance Writers of America and International Thriller Writers.

 

 

 

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Outcasts

 

Title: Outcasts
Series: Badlands #3
Author: Natalie Bennett
Genre: Dark Erotic Thriller
Release Date: May 12, 2018

 

*Grimm*

Pariah.
Dark Messiah.
Harbinger of death.
My reputation has always preceded me.
I’m a brother to the queen of the Badlands.
I’m one of the few confidants to her fiancé–the devil himself.
And those whispered rumors that I’m a silent killer, a true harvester of souls? 
They’re true.
People never see me coming. I don’t discriminate, I show no mercy, and I feel no remorse. 
My only loyalty is to my family and when someone important to them goes missing, I vow to do whatever is necessary to track her down and bring her back.
But the person I find is not the same woman who was stolen away.
Something’s different about her.
Something I find myself drawn to as we fight our way back to hell.


*Arlen*

Stubborn.
Reckless.
Original family disappointment.
My reputation has never preceded me.
I’m supposed to be this spoiled, rich b*tch who does everything her daddy tells her.
I was forbidden to even think about the Badlands.
But money means nothin to me and my paradise was a pretty cage I refused to be trapped in.
I fought my way out, I found a new family, and even though sh*t got tough sometimes it all worked out in the end.
And then I got kidnapped.
I thought it was over for me. 
I almost broke. 
I should have known he would never let that happen.
And I should have realized something inside me had shifted.
Maybe then I’d have seen the signs that I was falling for an irredeemable man.
A man who taught me that there was power in taking away a life. 
A man who showed me just how beautiful hell truly was.
It’s only fair I warn you that this is not a story about a rescued damsel in distress.
This is a story about what happens when a man who collects souls finally meets his match.

*Outcasts is the 3rd book in the Badlands series. This book can be read as a standalone but I recommend starting Savages & Deviants first.*

Natalie Bennett is the creator of erotic stories that always come with a warning label. She writes about depraved alpha a**holes and women that love to hate them. Her books don’t follow any specific tropes, have no set word counts, and tend to deviate from traditional HEA’s.

When she isn’t in front of her computer she’s spending time with her husband and their three little boys.

Natalie is an avid fan of caramel frappes, horror movies, Shameless, and of course, reading.

You can find Natalie on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
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THE GLASSHOUSE

CHAPTER REVEAL

A Lavender Shores Novel
Publication Day April 1st 2018
Cover Artist: AngstyG


Adrian Rivera lives as he damn well pleases, defying his Lavender Shores family to spend his days farming the beautiful Northern California land. Not one to daydream of true love and romance, Adrian’s social life has always been filled with sex and plenty of good times. 

Harrison Getty went from NFL star quarterback to America’s gay heartthrob, to reality TV star—with his wedding day broadcast live on national television. But Harrison feels trapped in a Hollywood life dictated by others. To breathe again, he runs from it all… 

Adrian’s attraction to Harrison has been building for months—even as Harrison prepared to marry another man. Lightning strikes between them, stirring emotions and passions as Adrian finds “the one,” a love that’s meant to be. But can Harrison stop running long enough to know his own heart? 

Amid scandals and betrayals, Adrian and Harrison struggle to grow their new love even as life’s storms threaten to shatter it all…




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Rosalind Abel grew up tending chickens along side her sweet and faithful Chow, Lord Elgin. While her fantasy of writing novels was born during her teen years, she never would have dreamed she’d one day publish steamy romances about gorgeous men. However, sometimes life turns out better than planned.
In between crafting scorching sex scenes and helping her men find their soul mate, Rosalind enjoys cooking, collecting toys, and making the best damn scrapbooks in the world (this claim hasn’t been proven, but she’s willing to put good money on it).
She adores MM Romance and the power it has to sweep the reader away into worlds filled with passion, steam, and love. Rosalind also enjoys her collection of plot bunnies, and welcomes new fuzzy ones in her home all the time, so feel free to send any adorable ones her way.


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Ryker

 

 

 

 

Also available via Kindle Unlimited

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

One

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

 

 

 

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

For a safe, off-the-charts HOT, and always HEA story that doesn’t take a lifetime to read, get lost in an Aria Cole book!
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Carnival

 

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

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

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

Live fast, live hard, keep moving.

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

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

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

Heredity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did she tell Aimee who the father is?”

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

Figured.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone crowded around offering congratulations.

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

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

“Our kid can be whatever he wants.”

“So, it’s a boy?”

“Maybe. We don’t know yet.”

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

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

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

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

Kes read the doubt on my face and laughed.

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

I grinned at him.

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

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

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

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

I rubbed my hand across of my face.

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

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

“Thanks, Zef.”

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

“Are you scared … about being a father?

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

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

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

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

Kes, a father!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t turn around as Ollo spoke.

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

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

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

“Great, thanks for that. Very educational.”

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

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

Ollo laughed again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I’m happy for them.”

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

“She wasn’t right for you, Zef.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Feel free to sugarcoat it!”

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

I shook my head.

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

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

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

His voice was quiet and it sounded like a confession.

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

“Sounds … nice?”

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

“But she changed her mind?”

Ollo shook his head.

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

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

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

“Jesus, Ollo!”

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

“You never saw her again?”

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

His voice disappeared, lost in memories.

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

“What was her name?”

“Jeanie. Jeanie with the light brown hair.”

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

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

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

Ollo coughed out a laugh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter Reveal – An Unlikely Bride by Nadia Lee

Coming June 13th
AVA

The meek shall inherit the earth, they say.

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

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

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

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

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

LUCAS

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

My ass.

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

Instead she shattered my soul.

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

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

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

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

Stay in touch with her via her website, http://www.nadialee.net, or her blog www.nadialee.net/blog/
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Chapter Reveal – A Fighting Chance – Annie Stone

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love, Annie
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Chapter Reveal – Twenty-Two (Assassins #11.5) by Toni Aleo

 

 

 

Pre-order exclusively via
iBooks HERE

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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