CUTTING DEEP by T.A. Anderson Synopsis, Review and Excerpt

cutting deep

Cutting Deep

T.A. Anderson

 

Setting off on her dream of culinary school, Ande finds herself knocked senseless by her incredibly sexy Chef Instructor, Daniel, who also happens to have the brains and heart to match.With her plan to keep herself from repeating history, she attempts to deny what could possibly break her. Ande finds out she is not the only one with a torrid past when a bright light is shed on Daniel’s former years.

When ghosts from her past find her in the middle of her trek through culinary school and an impending relationship with Daniel, her life takes a disastrous turn. She must find the strength to push through school alongside a man that drives her wild with lust, all while trying to figure out her relationship with a stranger from years before.With help from her friends, and a tad bit of alcohol, Ande navigates her way through the pitfalls of falling in love, being broken hearted and making lasting friendships.

An amusing love story filled with steamy sex, heartache, and surprises at every turn.

MY REVIEW (Neelam)

4 STARS

Oh the angst! This book’s main character, Ande, has so many problems with her life and such trouble with her relationships. If I were her I would curl up into a little ball and cry!

Ande decides to move on with her life (after divorcing her cheating husband) by attending a prestigious cooking school. There she meets a yummy chef, Chef Daniel, who pursues her but is harboring many secrets and can’t fully commit. Along with Chef Daniel is a woman who does not like his attention on Ande and therefore makes Ande’s life hell while attending the school. Ande has many mixed emotions especially when her ex enters the picture and he is a changed man. Ande has to decide which man she wants in her life.

Although Ande struggles, she still seems to take all her problems in stride. Reading this book felt like an emotional roller coaster. I was so anxiety ridden for much of it, but that did not stop me from continuing. I was obsessed with seeing how she would handle the next bad situation. I ended up reading this book in one day!

With the books MANY ups and downs, there were some comical moments. Ande is not a damsel in distress; she takes on life and everyone around her. She is funny, sarcastic and a survivor. I have to warn you, the ending is a frustrating “cliffhanger” but I look forward to reading the continuing story in book two, The Deepest Cut. In my opinion, the second book cannot come out fast enough.

EXCERPT

Daniel was alluring in the kitchen. Moving so effortlessly, chopping ingredients and tossing hot food in a pan. I didn’t think he could get any sexier then he already was, but his abilities in the kitchen proved me wrong. I hoped one day I could look as good as him in the kitchen.

“To forgetting about the outside world.” He handed me a glass of wine and we clinked them together. I took a very unattractive gulp and continued watching him work.

 “Daniel, you’re incredible. I mean the way you move in the kitchen, you make it look so easy.” He smiled as he took a sip of his wine.

“Thank you, Ande. It wasn’t easy getting to this point, but I love what I do, so it was worth it.”

I found a spot to sit on the vast counter space, far enough away so I wouldn’t get burned by the hot pans. Daniel pulled a few large platters from the cupboards and set them down next to me. His hand brushed my bare leg as he pulled away to grab the pan brimming with food, making the ache in my stomach come back full force.

He placed the hot food on the furthest platter away from me, I’m sure not wanting to burn me. He grabbed the bowl of salad and slowly transferred it to the other platter, making sure to place all of the fresh sliced strawberries on top. He pulled the salad tongs from the platter, stopping abruptly when a strawberry fell from the back of the utensil, landing on my thigh. I reached for the strawberry as he grabbed my hand.

 “No, it was my fault. I’ll clean it up,” his voice took on a seductive edge as he caressed my knuckles with his thumb.

He moved closer to me, releasing my hand. He stood against the counter, pressed between my dangling legs. He grabbed my chin and brought my face close enough to his, so our noses were touching.

“Ande, I know we have a lot to talk about, but right now all I can think about is eating every morsel of this food, and I’m not planning on eating it off a plate.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

ta

I reside in Sunny Southern California. I recently self published my first novel, Cutting Deep. I wrote this during a quarter life crisis, and never dreamed it would ever be finished or actually published.  I would say I have the worst sense of humor out of anyone I know, except my friends. I find things funny that others may find not so funny, but I cant help myself. I try to find the humor in everything in life.  I’m addicted to tattoo’s and I’m not sure I know one person in my massive family that does not have a tattoo. Crazy Right?

I will leave you with this quote “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing” -Ben Franklin.

I truly believe that every person is capable of doing great things. If you told me a year ago I would be self publishing my first novel I would have slapped you and called you crazy. But that is the point. We never think we are capable until we do the unthinkable.

http://www.t-a-anderson.com
twitter username: TAAnderson_

Wide Open Spaces by Aurora Rose Chapter Reveal!!! @auroraroseR @RSofRomance

WIDE OPEN SPACES EXCERPT

Excerpt

Chapter 1

Shelby

Shutting off my car, I stare at the two-story house I used to call home. It looks the same as it did when I left. The deep blue is still vibrant, even more so now against the backdrop of the gray sky behind it. The white porch is still welcoming, with flowers hanging from the banister.

My grandmother and I would spend hours planting flowers in those boxes during the summer. When she passed away during my sophomore year of high school, I made sure to keep up the tradition in her memory. It looks like, in my absence over these last fifteen years, someone else had taken over the job.

Looking at the bright blooms growing wild, hanging over the sides of the boxes, I wonder if Granddad hired someone to plant them for him when he left to live in Florida. He never mentioned that he cared about the flowers we planted. Honesty, I don’t remember him mentioning them. Growing up, I didn’t even think he noticed, but now, looking at the blooming buds that are artfully arranged, I know they meant something to him after all.

“Mom?” Turning my head, I look at my son Hunter and force a smile as aching pain and regret slice through my chest.

“Sorry, honey. I spaced out. Do you want to unpack tonight, or do you want to wait until tomorrow, kiddo?”

Looking over his shoulder, he eyes the boxes and suitcases piled in the back then looks at me. I hate the sadness I see in his eyes. I hate I’m the cause of his pain. I know he misses his father already, and I know that at ten years old, he doesn’t understand why we’re no longer together even if it’s been over two years since we separated and divorced.

“Tomorrow,” he grumbles, and I feel that ache in my chest expand. He hates me for moving him across the country. Away from his friends, away from everything he knew. And I hate myself a little bit, too, for failing miserably at keeping my family together. I just hope this move will be a new start for us.

“Tomorrow,” I agree softly, unhooking my belt and opening the door.

Rounding the hood of the van, Hunter has already made it to the porch and is waiting at the top of the stairs, with his eyes pointed over my shoulder. Stopping, I look behind me as rain soaks through my clothes. I can’t believe how much the town has changed and grown. When I’d left home, you could see the sound from the front porch of my grandparents’ home. Now, the view is blocked by houses that have been built up side-by-side across the road. The street looks more like a New York City block, rather than a street in small-town Alaska.

“Is it always raining?” Hunter’s voice breaks into my thoughts, and I turn back toward him and take the steps slowly, noticing they are rotting out in a few spots. Something I will have to fix soon.

“Not always, but this is a rainforest, so I guess the answer in some ways is yes,” I tell him, when I make it up to the covered porch.

His brows draw together over his blue eyes, making him look like his father, as he asks, “This is a rainforest?”

“It is.” I want so badly to reach out and run my finger down his cheek, but I keep my hand locked at my side. I don’t know exactly when it happened, but some time ago, he stopped wanting my affection. Stopped being my little boy.

“Really?” he asks curiously, with wide eyes. “It doesn’t look like a rainforest,” he states, and he’s right; it doesn’t look like what you might imagine a rainforest would look like.

“It doesn’t look like one, but it is all the same.” I smile, and his eyes move over my face then to the view, and his face loses the curiosity it held a moment ago.

He turns, muttering, “Whatever.”

Biting my lip, I take the key the lawyer mailed me out of the front pocket of my jeans, put it in the lock, and turn. The door opens with a loud creak and dust rises up from the floors. A loud alarm sounds, making us both jump. Running into the house, I look frantically for some kind of alarm system, finally finding the small white box off the door in the kitchen. Flipping the panel open, I stare at the numbers.

“What’s the code?” Hunter yells over the siren, covering his ears.

“I don’t know,” I yell back, pressing in every single number combination I can think of, but none of them work.

“Is it in the papers in the car?”

“Maybe,” I yell, then run for the door and down the stairs to the van. Swinging open the back door, I shove three boxes out of the way before finding the one I’m looking for. Ripping off the tape, I shuffle through the contents and scan the papers the lawyer sent, searching for the code, but stop and look over the hood of the van when the alarm goes quiet. “What was the code?” I ask Hunter, when he steps out onto the porch.

“I don’t know.” He shrugs, looking over his shoulder into the house, like he’s waiting for someone to come out, which makes me frown.

“Did it just stop?” I question, slamming the van door. His eyes come back to me and he shakes his head then starts to open his mouth to say something else, but is cut off by a deep voice.

“I turned it off.”

It takes one breath to realize who just stepped out of my grandparents’ house. One breath for every moment I spent with the man standing before me to flash through my head. Two seconds for me to feel my world come to a stop.

The boy I once knew is gone. There’s nothing boyish about Zach Watters anymore. His jaw is now sharp, the stubble on it giving him a rugged look while accentuating his full lips. His dark hair has silvered around the edges, drawing attention to his expressive hazel eyes that look like they hold a thousand stories. His red and black plaid shirt is stretched tight across broad shoulders, giving a glimpse of the muscles it’s covering. He’s still every bit as beautiful as he once was, only more so now that time has aged him, taking him from a handsome boy to a gorgeous man.

Swallowing, I look at my son then back again. “Thanks,” I whisper, and Zach’s eyebrows pull together as he sweeps his gaze over me. I have no doubt that I too have changed, but unlike him, time hasn’t been good to me. I’ve gained a few too many pound from eating my feelings over the last year. My skin has lost its youthful glow, and my hair has grown out at the roots without my bi-monthly maintenance appointments.

“Shelby?” he asks, but all I can do is confirm with a nod, since my mouth has dried up and I can’t find my voice. “Jesus.” His eyes widen as he looks down at Hunter then back toward me. “What are you doing here?”

“My… my son Hunter and I are moving in,” I stutter, caught off guard by his presence. I wasn’t stupid enough to believe I wouldn’t see him when I moved home, but I had convinced myself that seeing him would be on my terms, or sporadic at best.

“What?” he whispers, leaning back on his boots, crossing his arms over his chest.

Ignoring his question, I start to move back toward the stairs, asking, “Do you mind giving me the code for the alarm? I’m sure it’s somewhere in the papers the lawyer sent, but…” I stop and look to the left when Zach’s name is called. Standing on the porch of the house next door is a woman I know he got with a few months after I left. A woman he married soon after she gave birth to their twins. A woman I used to call my friend.

A woman I now hate.

I absently hear him say something to her, but the nausea turning my stomach and the sadness prickling my skin have me moving quickly up the steps, focusing on not falling over as I move past him. “Never mind about the code. I’m sure I’ll find it. Thanks for shutting off the alarm,” I mumble, as I walk through the door.  

“Mom.”

“Come on, honey. Let’s have a look around, and then we need to get to the store.”

“Mom,” Hunter repeats, sounding confused. I plaster a fake smile on my face.

“The pizza place we drove past has the best pizza I’ve ever tasted. We could do that for dinner.”

“Mom.”

“Right here, honey.” I laugh, even though that laugh feels like glass edging down my windpipe.

Studying me for a long moment, he finally mutters, “Pizza sounds good. I’m gonna call Dad before we go, and tell him we’re here.”

“Sure,” I agree, watching him pull out his cell phone and walk toward the kitchen. I didn’t agree that he needed a cell phone at his age, but like all things with his dad, there was never any kind of conversation. He didn’t ask what I thought about it; he just did what he wanted to do.

I hear a familiar throat clear. “You’re back?” Zach asks from behind me, making my shoulders slump forward and my eyes slide closed briefly.

“Yeah.” I turn to face him and wrap my arms around my waist, feeling my stomach twist into knots. When I left town, we didn’t fight, didn’t yell at each other, didn’t say things we would end up regretting one day. I just knew there was too much pain between us to make what we had left work, and Zach, knowing the same, didn’t put up a fight when I told him my plans.

“You’re staying here?” he asks, and I nod. Running a hand over his head as his eyes move to the right, where Tina had been moments ago, before bringing his gaze back to mine. “The code for the alarm is one, two, three, four. I told Pat to change it, but you know Pat,” he mutters, and I nod, knowing exactly how stubborn Gramps was. Shoving his hands into the front pocket of his jeans, his voice drops. “I’m really sorry about Pat.”

“Thanks.” I hold myself a little tighter. His eyes drop to my arms around my waist and soften before moving up to meet mine once more.

“If you need anything, I’m next door.” He lifts his chin in that direction, and my world stops again.

“Pardon?” I breathe.

“I live next door.”

Okay, maybe I should have guessed that, since Tina was over there, but I didn’t, and this is not good… as in really not good. There is not one damn thing I can do about it, though, unless I want to load Hunter back into the van and live out of it for the next year or so, which I don’t think will win me any brownie points with my son.

“Cool,” I whisper pathetically, with nothing else to say. Something familiar-looking and soft slides through his features, making my stomachache twist again, but this time in a way I haven’t felt in a long time.

“Well…” I pause, needing this encounter to be over. “Thanks again for turning off the alarm. I wish we had time to catch up,” I lie. “But I need to get to the store before it closes, and then I need to get Hunter some food. Growing boys don’t do well without food,” I ramble, as I put my hand to the door, wanting so badly to shove it closed.

“Sure.” He nods then looks over my shoulder, into the house. “Nice meeting you, Hunter.”

“You too—” Hunter looks between Zach and me.

“Mr. Watters, honey,” I mutter, answering his unspoken question, as he comes to stand at my side with his cell phone in his hand.

“You too, Mr. Watters.”

Zach’s eyes come to me and his face softens once more. “See you around, Shelby.”

“Yeah, see you around,” I lie again, since I plan to pretend he doesn’t exist from this moment forward. I wait, even though I don’t want to, until he is walking away to close the door then stand there for a moment, trying to process what just happened.

“How do you know him, Mom?” Hunter asks.

“When I was younger,” I say, turning to face him, “we were friends.” I shrug, looking toward the stairs. “My room used to be in the attic—it’s the best room in the house—and if you make it there before me, I’ll let you have it.” I raise my brows before taking off in a sprint up the stairs, listening to my son, who I haven’t heard laugh in weeks, giggle as he runs up the stairs behind me.

“Wow, this is awesome.”

Looking over my shoulder at Hunter I smile as he walks into the room with wide eyes. “I told you it’s the coolest room in the house.” I used to love hanging out up here when I was a teenager. The vastness of the space, with its angled ceilings and four large skylights, was a cool place to spend time. Looking at my son now, I can see the excitement in his eyes as he wanders around the room.

“Do you think I could get a telescope?” he asks, looking up at the cloud-covered sky through one of the skylights.

“Definitely.” I bump my shoulder with his as I walk past him toward the couch in the corner that’s covered with a sheet and pull it off. “We may also want to find a cover for this thing while we’re at it,” I say, looking from the floral-covered couch to his scrunched up face.

“Yeah.” He nods, moving to the bed, where he rips off the sheet that is covering the mattress. “I can’t wait to tell Dad about this. He’s going to think it’s so cool,” he mutters, and I bite my tongue to keep from saying, No, your dad will definitely not think it’s cool.

Max, Hunter’s father, grew up wealthy. He never owned anything that had been used. Even when we got married, he insisted I sell the Victorian house I bought when I graduated college, wanting instead for us to buy a newly built house in a cliché subdivision, where all of his friends lived. Shortly thereafter, he insisted I sell all of my old furniture, things I had bought secondhand and refurbished over the years. At the time, I was blinded by hope and love, so I didn’t think anything about it. But over time, I slowly realized I was no longer the person I used to be. I had turned into a trophy wife who lived in a show home and neither of us had any real character.

“Mom,” Hunter calls, bringing me out of my thoughts, and I turn to look at him and notice he has a stack of photos in his hand. “Who’s this?”

“That’s my mom,” I say softly, while walking over to where he’s sitting on the bed, holding out a picture of my mom and me. In the photo, we’re sitting outside on the porch, with our arms wrapped around each other, smiling at the camera.

“You look like her,” he says thoughtfully. “You have her eyes and hair.”

“You think so?” I ask, looking at my mom, who had to have been about my age when the photo was taken. She was beautiful, with long dark blonde hair, big blue eyes, and a smile that lit up the world.

“Yeah.” He nods then looks at me, and asks quietly, “Do you miss her?”

“Every day.” I nod, taking the photo from his hands. “She gave the best hugs,” I say, fighting back the tears I feel creeping up my throat. My mom and dad both died in a plane crash when I was fifteen. My father was the owner and pilot of a local adventure company, and he had taken my mom with him to drop off supplies to some men who were bear hunting out at one of the islands. On their way back into town, the weather shifted, and their plane went down on one of the mountains. Neither of them survived. That’s when I moved to Cordova to live with my dad’s parents.

“Do you have any pictures of your dad?”

I pause, trying to recall if I’ve ever really spoken to Hunter about my parents, if Max ever asked about them, but I can’t think of a single time. “There are a few downstairs on the wall. I’ll point them out to you.” I lean into him a little then stop when his arm wraps around my shoulders, surprising me. “I love you, kid,” I whisper, not surprised when he doesn’t say it back, but happy that his arm tightens ever so slightly.

“I’m starving.” He chuckles releasing me when his stomach growls loudly, breaking the moment.

“We can’t have that.” I laugh, standing from the bed. “Let’s go to Joe’s. Hopefully, the pizza is still awesome. If not, you’re gonna have to suffer and eat it anyway, ‘cause the store is probably closed by now.

“Is there such a thing as bad pizza?”

“I guess we’ll find out,” I murmur, and then head out of the room and down the stairs, grabbing my purse as we leave.

When we make it to Joe’s, I find nothing has changed in the years I’ve been gone. The owner Joe, an older Korean gentleman, is still in the back making the pizzas, and his wife Kim is still working the counter, gossiping about everything and everyone. While we wait for our pizza, Kim talks my ear off, telling me about the people in town, including Zach, who she informs me is not only a cop, but also the sheriff. She also tells me that Zach is single. He and Tina supposedly got divorced nine years ago, and Zach has had full custody of both his kids since then. I tell myself I don’t care that Zach is no longer with Tina, but I still feel some relief knowing I won’t have to witness seeing them together.

“Can I sleep in my room tonight?” Hunter asks, as I finish off my third slice of pizza and wipe my mouth with a paper towel.

“I don’t mind, but everything in the house needs to be washed. So if you want to sleep up there, we have to get your stuff from the van.”

“I’ll get it, and then we can bring in everything else too.”

“You want to clean out the van?” I ask, not at all excited about lugging stuff up three flights of stairs.

“Yeah.” He nods again, taking his half of the pizza box lid that he used as a plate to the trash bin.

“If that’s what you want,” I agree, regretting those words an hour later as I head out for the last box. My arms and legs are tired from carting everything inside and up the stairs. I haven’t worked out in the last year, and I can feel it now as every muscle in my body protest.

Stopping when I hear a door close, I hold the box in my hands closer to my chest and look toward the house next door. I spot a handsome blond boy, who looks a lot like Zach, hopping down the steps, with Tina following close behind. Ducking down, I hide and watch them as they get into an old pickup truck, only coming out of hiding when they drive off.

Having over fifteen years to deal with the adoption of Samuel should make it easier to see Zach’s other children, but it doesn’t. I still feel bitter about the situation. I know it’s the fact that Zach’s children were born a little over a year after Samuel, meaning Tina got pregnant not long after I left town. So not only did Zach have a relationship with Tina, but he built a family with her and kept the kids they had together.

Heading back into the house with the final box, I wonder how I’m going to do what I’ve been doing for the last fifteen years. It was easy to block out thoughts of Zach when I was gone, but now that I’m back and living next door to him, I wonder if it will be as easy to ignore the feeling in my chest that coincides with thoughts of him.

~*~*~

Grabbing my quilt from the end the my bed, I carefully balance my Kindle and glass of wine in one hand as I open the sliding glass door in my room and step out onto the balcony. Tonight is one of the first nights it hasn’t rained since we moved in, and I have been looking forward to sitting outside under the stars with a good book all day long. Grabbing my glass, I take a sip then look to the left when the sound of rock music starts up and light flutters across the back deck next door, making me wonder if Zach’s room is off the balcony like mine.

Pushing that thought away, I turn on my Kindle then proceed to get lost in someone else’s happily ever after.

“Shelby.” Jumping, some of the contents from the glass in my hand sloshes out over the side and runs down my fingers as I swing my head to the left, where Zach is leaning on the banister, his eyes on me. A short glass full of dark liquid is in his hands, and the light casts a glow behind him.

“You scared the crap out of me,” I gripe, holding my free hand over my rapidly beating heart.

“I’ve been standing here awhile,” he mutters, then takes a swig of his drink. “I thought you would have noticed.” He rolls the glass between his hands while looking at me intently, making me fight the urge to squirm in my chair.

“When I’m lost in a good book, the world could crash down around me and I wouldn’t notice.” I shrug, taking a sip of wine, using the moment of reprieve as an excuse to look away from him, but realizing for the first time that I don’t know the man standing across from me. Yes, he looks a little like the guy I dated years ago, but he also seems more intense, like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders. He’s definitely not the easygoing kid I dated in high school.

“How are you guys settling in?”

Pulling my legs out from under me, I rest my Kindle on the edge of my lap and turn to face him fully while adjusting the blanket.

“It’s going to take a little bit to get everything cleaned up. I didn’t know Gramps was such a hoarder until now. I think I’ve thrown out about ten thousand issues of National Geographic, along with a hundred empty boxes and every single item you can possibly buy from an infomercial,” I reply, then smile when he laughs a deep rumbling laugh and leans a little farther over the railing between us, causing another plaid shirt—this one blues and yellows—to tighten across his wide chest.

“You didn’t keep them? You never know when you might need an automatic potato peeler.”

“I thought about it, but if I did, I wouldn’t have anywhere to put my shoes, since all of it was stacked up on the floor in his closet, everything unopened.” I smile, watching him grin for a moment before the smile slides away and his eyes move beyond me to the forest that sits behind the house.

“I’m gonna miss him. I know he’s been gone from town for years, but I’ll miss our talks,” he mutters, then looks up at the sky for a moment before meeting my gaze once more. “Why’d you come back? Last time I talked to Pat, he told me you were planning on following him down to Florida.”

His words catch me off guard, since Gramps never told me he kept in contact with Zach. But then again, I never asked. I shouldn’t be surprised they kept in touch, since they we’re close when I was home, and were obviously neighbors before Gramps moved to Florida. Plus, Zach is the sheriff in town. Yet, it still feels strange that he knows about me, while I know nothing about him.

“I was.” I let out a breath, adjusting the blanket around my shoulders. “But I had to wait until…” I trail off, not wanting to talk about my divorce to anyone, especially not him. “Then when Gramps passed away, there was nothing for me in Florida, so I decided to come back here instead.”

“You didn’t want to stay in Seattle?”

“No, I needed something different, so when I found out Gramps left me his house, I just knew I needed to come back here,” I whisper the truth. Ever since I read the will and found out this house was mine to do with as I please, I had a feeling in my gut that I couldn’t get rid of. Something telling me that I needed to come back here.

“This is a good town,” he murmurs, but the look in his eyes is saying something I can’t quite figure out.

“This is the last place I remember being really happy. I hope that I can make it that way for Hunter,” I say quietly, and his face softens.

“He looks like you.” His words and tone catch me by surprise and I sit up a little taller. Never in a million years would I have thought I’d be sitting on my granddad’s deck in the middle of the night talking to Zach about anything. Definitely not about my son.

“You wouldn’t say that if you saw his dad,” I return honestly. “When he was a baby, he looked like me, but not any more.”

“He has your eyes and your smile.” He pauses, taking a drink from his glass. “He seems like a good kid.”

“He’s the best kid.” I take a sip of wine, trying to keep whatever it is I’m feeling right now in check.

“I… I think I saw your son. Um, the other day. He looks like you,” I tell him, wanting to take the words back after I say them, because I don’t want him to think I was spying on him.

“He looks like his mom, but has my personality, which I can’t decide if it’s a good thing or not. My daughter, Aubrey, on the other hand, looks like me, but is sweet down to her core. Where she gets that sweetness, I have no fucking clue.”

“Oh.” I bite my lip, trying to figure out what to say to that. The Zach I knew was a good guy, sweet even. Tina, however, was mostly bitch, and I honestly don’t even know why we were friends. Then again, growing up here, there weren’t a hundred girls to choose from. My graduating class had five girls in it, and none of them liked Tina, which meant none of them really liked me either.

“I better go in,” he says abruptly, cutting into my thoughts, standing to his full height. “I need to be to the station early tomorrow.”

“Sure… uh… have a good night.” The urge to say something that will make him stay hits me hard, and it takes everything I have in me to keep my mouth shut.

“You too, Shelby. And be careful when you’re out here reading. Louie’s out and about around this time of night, searching for food.”

“Louie?” I question, scrunching up my nose. Cordova never had homeless people before, and I can’t imagine it would now.

“Louie’s a black bear. Normally, he sticks to the woods, but he’s been known to nap on the decks now and then.

“Oh, man.” I jump up, looking around for any sign of Louie, not sure how I could forget there are bears out here, since we are in Alaska. “What’s funny?” I frown, turning to face him when I hear his deep laughter.

“You’re in Alaska, babe. You lived here for years. You know there are bears out in those woods.” He nods to the trees.

Babe. Why, oh, why did that word make butterflies erupt in my stomach?

“I know that, but I forgot.” I shake my head and watch his face soften once again.

“Still sweet as pie,” I think I hear him say, but can’t be sure, because his voice dropped to a low rumble that I felt skid across my skin.

“Well, I’m gonna go in too,” I blurt, picking up my Kindle and wine glass. “Have a good night.” And with that, I duck my head and go back into my room. Closing the door I lock it behind me then hurry and get into bed where I try to forget once more about Zach Watters.  

~~**~~

“Hello?” I answer the phone, still half asleep, then look at the clock and notice that even though it’s light out, it’s barely 6:00 a.m.

“Shelby, I’ve called three times,” Max, my ex-husband, says into my ear, and I pull my pillow over my head with thoughts of suffocating myself with it.

“It’s only six, Max. I haven’t gotten out of bed,” I grumble, tossing the covers back and sitting up. “What’s going on?”

“I want to fly out there this weekend,” he states, and I fight the urge to toss my phone across the room or scream at the top of my lungs.

“This weekend?” I verify, rubbing my face. “We haven’t even been here a week.”

“I have a few days off and would like to see Hunter.”  

I sigh, considering him and his request. “Our stuff is going to be delivered in two days. Then I start my new job next week, and Hunter has swi—”

“You’re not keeping my boy from me,” he cuts me off, and I can tell by his tone that he’s mad and likely pulling at his ever-present tie in annoyance. Something I make him do often.

“I’m not saying you can’t see him, Max,” I clarify, wishing I had at least one cup of coffee before this conversation. “I’m just explaining to you that we’re trying to get settled in here. Can you wait a few weeks before you come out?”

“Such fucking bullshit. I can’t believe you moved to Alaska, of all goddamn places. A boy should have his dad in his life.” My heart stutters and I feel my pulse skyrocket. We didn’t have a custody battle, but I wouldn’t put it past Max to take me to court to gain custody of Hunter if I step out of line in his eyes.

“Max,” I soften my voice as I walk to the kitchen, “you know we talked about this. You can come see him anytime, and in a couple years, he can fly out to see you whenever he has a break,” I say, then drop my voice even lower. “We agreed on him living with me at least until he’s sixteen. After that, he can choose who he wants to live with.”

“I miss you both.” He sighs, making me roll my eyes. I know he doesn’t miss me. I know this, because he’s been dating woman after woman since I asked for a separation. For all I know, he was dating before that. Hell, the last year I spent under the same roof as him, he hardly spared me a glance. Hunter later suffered from his lack of attention, when we lived in the same town after our separation. With Max, it’s always about him getting his way.  

“Max, please just wait a few more weeks, and then you can come and stay as long as you like,” I offer, the words leaving a horrid taste in my mouth. I will do whatever I have to in order to keep my son, though, including putting up with his dad in my childhood home for more than a few days.

“Fine, when?”

Closing my eyes, I whisper, “Next month. Whenever you like. Just let me know, so I can make sure I don’t make plans for Hunter. I know there are a few camps here he’s interested in.”

“Fine. Where is he now? I called his cell phone, but he didn’t pick up.”

“Sleeping. Like I said, it’s only six here, and he was up late talking to his friends back in Seattle on Skype.”

“You really shouldn’t let him stay up so late, Shelby,” he scolds, sounding disapproving, and again, that’s not a surprise.

“It’s summer, Max, and his ‘late’ is ten, not three in the morning,” I mutter, wondering how the hell I put up with him for so many years. “I’ll have him call you when he gets up.”

“Don’t tell him I’m coming out. I want to tell him that myself.”

“Will do,” I grumble, looking at the coffee pot and begging it to hurry up.

“Talk to you later.”

“Talk to you later,” I agree, setting the phone down on the counter. I make myself a cup of coffee and take it out to the back deck, drinking it while the morning sun beats down on me.

WIDE OPEN SPACES COMING SOON

 

New from Aurora Rose Reynolds!

Wide Open Spaces releases August 2016!

Add to your TBR at: http://bit.ly/1PDVZsf

wide open spaces cover (1)

Blurb

That moment your life changes.

That moment that changes your life.

That moment you love someone more than you love yourself.

That was the moment we gave our son up for adoption and the moment I was left bare. A wide-open space that would forever be empty.

There are moments that define you as a person, moments that prove just how strong you are, moments you push yourself to keep going forward when all you really want to do is give up. It was in one of those moments when I reached out and found him waiting for me.

When Shelby Calder left home fifteen years ago, she never planned on returning to the Alaskan town she left behind. But after the death of her grandfather and a bitter divorce, she hopes going home will be a fresh start for her and her ten-year-old son.

Zach Watters has made a lot of mistakes in his life. But when he sees Shelby Calder, looking more beautiful than ever, standing outside her childhood home, he promises himself that letting her go won’t be a mistake he ever makes again.

Some things never change and love is one of them.

About the Author:

aurora rose reynolds (1)

Aurora Rose Reynolds is a navy brat who’s husband served in the United States Navy. She has lived all over the country but now resides in New York City with her Husband and pet fish. She’s married to an alpha male that loves her as much as the men in her books love their women. He gives her over the top inspiration everyday. In her free time she reads, writes and enjoys going to the movies with her husband and cookie. She also enjoys taking mini weekend vacations to nowhere, or spends time at home with friends and family. Last but not least she appreciates everyday and admires it’s beauty.

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DISTRACTION by Aurora Rose Reynolds Blog Tour Stop! @auroraroseR @RSofRomance

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Fall in love with Maggie & Sven in Distraction by

Aurora Rose Reynolds

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Blurb

Distraction: The great intensity, novelty, or attractiveness of something other than the object of attention.

Sven is a man who takes pride in his ability to separate himself from his emotions. He’s a man who knows who he is and where he’s going in life, a man who needs no one, because needing someone, anyone, is a weakness.

His past taught him love isn’t enough.  

Maggie wants the happily ever after, but has never picked the right men, or stuck around long enough, to build a forever. It’s always been easier to get out early, before emotions make things messy.

 

When Maggie wakes up naked in Sven’s bed, with no memory of the night before, these two must be honest about their feelings and face their fears, so they can build a future together.

Will love be enough for them to get their happy ending together, or will a threat from outside strike them down before they ever have a chance?

distraction teaser 3

EXCERPT

“Fuck no,” I snap, loosening my tie. The last assistant I had ended up being a clusterfuck. The woman was pissed that I wouldn’t fuck her. I finally had to fire her ass when she brought another woman up to my office and proceeded to try and get me to join them on my couch when I walked in on them half naked. Work is work. Yes, I might invite women up to fuck, but never anyone I work with.

“It’s not like she’s your type,” he says, and I feel my jaw tick. “Besides, if she’s up here with you, she’ll stop harassing the women down there.” He nods toward where she’s sitting and my eyes follow the movement, seeing her talking to a girl who looks a little startled by whatever it is Maggie is telling her.

“It’s not happening. You guys need to keep her out of the club,” I tell him, turning away from the window.

“Just saying it would be a good way to keep an eye on her,” he gripes, patting my shoulder before leaving my office and closing the door behind him.

Letting out a frustrated breath, I turn away from the window and try to focus on all the shit I need to get done.

“Yeah,” I pick up my desk phone when it beeps and looking at the clock, seeing that an hour has passed since Teo left.

“Look out your window,” Zack says, and I spin my chair around and scan the floor, wondering what he wants me to see. Then I spot Maggie with a man’s head tucked under her arm as she leads him toward the front of the club, with Lane and Zack following closely behind them.

“What the fuck is going on?”

“That guy tried to put something in some chick’s drink, and Maggie saw him and went postal on his ass,” he explains almost proudly.

“Jesus Christ, what the fuck do I pay you for?” I gripe.

“I saw the whole thing. I was getting ready to step in when she stood up on her barstool, jumped on the guy’s back, and then did some fucking ninja shit, wrapping her arm around the guy’s head and forcing him to his knees. She won’t let him go. She said she wants to ask him some questions.”

“I’m on my way down,” I say, slamming down the phone and jerking open the door to my office, taking the stairs two at a time. Reaching the front of the club, I see Zack holding the guy and Lane’s arms wrapped around Maggie’s waist, trying to drag her away. What the fuck is going on?” I roar, and all eyes come to me except Maggie’s, who takes the opportunity to grab the man’s ear and twist, making him drop hard to the ground on his knees.

“You think it’s funny to drug innocent women, you flaming turd bucket?” she yells, hitting the top of the guy’s bald head, and Zack chuckles along with Lane, but I don’t see one damn thing that’s funny about this shit.

“Maggie, let him go and come here,” I growl, and she raises her eyes to meet mine, looking startled.

“He—”

“I said get your ass over here now!” I yell, cutting her off and feeling the vein in my neck bulge as I point to the ground at my feet.

“Fine.” She pouts, letting the guy go, walking sullenly toward me as Zack pulls the man to his feet, taking him with him around the corner, with Lane following behind them with his phone to his ear. I’m sure they are going to have a talk and wait for the cops.

“Let’s go,” I say, wrapping my hand around the back of her neck, leading her through the club and up the stairs to my office. Sitting her in the chair in front of my desk, I walk over to the cabinets where I keep my personal bottle of scotch and pull out the cap. I then lift the bottle to my lips, taking a swig while trying to calm down.

“Alcohol isn’t good for you,” she informs me as I take a seat behind my desk.

“Do I look like I give a fuck about that?” I ask her, taking another swig.

“You might not care about what it can do to your body right now, but you may want to know that it lowers sperm count and stamina in the long run.”

“Jesus.” I shake my head and rub my eyes in aggravation.  

“Just saying it’s not good for you,” she mutters, dropping her eyes to her lap.

“What happened downstairs isn’t okay, Mags.”

“Maggie,” she corrects, still not looking at me.

“Whatever,” I drone, taking another swig. “You could have gotten hurt.”

“I have a black belt—”

“Look at me,” I demand, cutting her off and slamming the bottle down on the top of the desk, waiting for her eyes to meet mine. “You could have gotten hurt or worse. Do you understand that? He could have had a weapon on him.”

“You don’t understand,” she whispers as tears fill her eyes, but I harden myself against them, needing her to understand this isn’t a fucking movie. This is real life, and there are bad—really fucking bad—people in this world.

“You’re not allowed on the club floor anymore,” I state firmly.

“I’m going to find the guys who hurt my sister,” she states, and I see the determination in her eyes that make me proud and pissed at the same time.

“If you come, you come to my office, and if something happens down there”—I point to the club floor over my shoulder—“you’ll be the first to know.”

“Why would I come to your office? I need to be at the bar where I can see what’s going on.”

“You just got the job as my new assistant,” I tell her, watching her frown while wondering what the fuck I’m doing. This chick is a distraction I do not need right now, or ever for that matter.

“I already have a job,” she says as her frown grows deeper.

“Well, quit. You’re here every night, Mags, and you don’t leave ‘til the club closes at one. I can tell by the bags under your eyes that you’re exhausted.”

“Why would you want me to work here?” Now, isn’t that the million dollar question?

“Either take me up on my offer, or I’m going to have a restraining order placed against you and you won’t be allowed within a few hundred feet of the club.”  I shrug like it’s all the same to me.

“You know this is malarkey, right?” she stands and I take her in fully for the first time tonight. Her loose, sheer, black dress is cinched with a thin belt emphasizing the dip in her waist between her full hips and breasts. Her hair is down in a mass of messy waves, and her makeup is subtle but still draws attention to her eyes, which look even more golden now that she’s standing in front of me looking pissed off.

“I’m not messing around with you anymore either. You take me up on my deal, or I’ll call the police and have them escort you off the premises,” I tell her, ignoring the fact I’m getting hard just looking at her.

“This is total crap,” she mumbles, looking around before meeting my eyes again.

“Take it or leave it.”

“Jeez, can I have a second to think?” she cries, and I feel my lips twitch, so I rub my hand down over my mouth to hide it.

“Ten,” I state, watching her eyes narrow. “Nine…eight…seven…” I continue counting, watching as she looks at me like she’s ready to kill me. “Six,” I raise a brow. “Five…”

“Fine!” she yells when I open my mouth to finish my countdown.

“Thought so,” I say triumphantly.

“You’re such a…you’re such a bigasterd,” she growls.

“A what?” I ask, and I can’t help it, I laugh at that one.

“When do I start?” she asks, ignoring my question while red spreads across her cheeks and down her neck.

“Tomorrow. Be here at five, and I’ll show you around the club and tell you your responsibilities.”

distraction teaser 1

Additional Books in the Underground Kings Series

Assumption (Book 1)

Amazon: http://amzn.to/1onxQI0

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Obligation (Book 2)

Amazon US: http://amzn.to/1EWf7QW

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iBooks: http://bit.ly/1DVAfDi

Kobo: http://bit.ly/1NnURKm

About the Author:

aurora rose reynolds

Aurora Rose Reynolds is a navy brat who’s husband served in the United States Navy. She has lived all over the country but now resides in New York City with her Husband and pet fish. She’s married to an alpha male that loves her as much as the men in her books love their women. He gives her over the top inspiration everyday. In her free time she reads, writes and enjoys going to the movies with her husband and cookie. She also enjoys taking mini weekend vacations to nowhere, or spends time at home with friends and family. Last but not least she appreciates everyday and admires it’s beauty.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Pinterest

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HE WILL BE MY RUIN by K.A. Tucker Release Blitz with Excerpt!!! @InkSlingerPR @KathleenATucker

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We are so excited to bring you the Release Week Blitz for K.A. Tucker’s HE WILL BE MY RUIN! HE WILL BE MY RUIN is a Suspense novel, published by Atria books, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, being released on February 2, 2016! Grab your copy of this suspenseful read today and see what everyone is talking about!

 

 

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About HE WILL BE MY RUIN:

The USA TODAY bestselling author of the Ten Tiny Breaths and Burying Water series makes her suspense debut with this sexy, heartpounding story of a young woman determined to find justice after her best friend’s death, a story pulsing with the “intense, hot, emotional” (Colleen Hoover) writing that exhilarates her legions of fans.

A woman who almost had it all . . .

On the surface, Celine Gonzalez had everything a twenty-eight-year-old woman could want: a one-bedroom apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a job that (mostly) paid the bills, and an acceptance letter to the prestigious Hollingsworth Institute of Art, where she would finally live out her dream of becoming an antiques appraiser for a major auction house. All she had worked so hard to achieve was finally within her reach. So why would she kill herself?

A man who was supposed to be her salvation . . .

Maggie Sparkes arrives in New York City to pack up what’s left of her best friend’s belongings after a suicide that has left everyone stunned. The police have deemed the evidence conclusive: Celine got into bed, downed a lethal cocktail of pills and vodka, and never woke up. But when Maggie discovers a scandalous photograph in a lock box hidden in Celine’s apartment, she begins asking questions. Questions about the man Celine fell in love with. The man she never told anyone about, not even Maggie. The man Celine believed would change her life.

Until he became her ruin.

On the hunt for evidence that will force the police to reopen the case, Maggie uncovers more than she bargained for about Celine’s private life—and inadvertently puts herself on the radar of a killer. A killer who will stop at nothing to keep his crimes undiscovered.

 

 

 

He Will Be My Ruin - RWB teaser 2

EXCERPT

Maggie

December 23, 2015

My wrists burn.

Hours of trying to break free of the rope that binds my hands behind my back have left them raw, the rough cord scrubbing away my skin and cutting into my flesh. I’m sure I’ll have unsightly scars.

Not that it will matter when I’m dead.

I resigned myself to that reality around the time that I finally let go of my bladder. Now I simply lie here, in a pool of urine and vomit, my teeth numb from knocking with each bump in the road, my body frozen by the cold.

Trying to ignore the darkness as I fight against the panic that consumes me. I could suffocate from the anxiety alone.

He knows that.

Now he’s exploiting it. That must be what he does—he uncovers your secrets, your fears, your flaws—and he uses them against you. He did it to Celine.

And now he’s doing it to me.

That’s why I’m in a cramped trunk, my lungs working overtime against a limited supply of oxygen while my imagination runs wild with what may be waiting for me at the end of this ride.

My racing heart ready to explode.

The car hits an especially deep pothole, rattling my bones. I’ve been trapped in here for so long. Hours. Days. I have no idea. Long enough to run through every mistake that I made.

How I trusted him, how I fell for his charm, how I believed his lies. How I made it so easy for him to do this to me.

How Celine made it so easy for him, by letting him get close.

Before he killed her.

Just like he’s going to kill me.

 

Author pic - KA TuckerAbout K.A. Tucker:

Born in small-town Ontario, K.A. Tucker published her first book at the age of six with the help of her elementary school librarian and a box of crayons. She currently resides in a quaint town outside of Toronto with her husband, two beautiful girls, and an exhausting brood of four-legged creatures.

 

 

 

 

 

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RUIN AND RULE by Pepper Winters Blog Tour Stop with Review!!! @PepperWinters @RSofRomance

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Meet Killian in Pepper Winter’s new MC Romance!

NOW AVAILABLE

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ruin & rule

Blurb

“We met in a nightmare. The in-between world where time had no power over reason. We fell in love. We fell hard. But then we woke up. And it was over . . .”

RUIN & RULE

She is a woman divided. Her past, present, and future are as twisted as the lies she’s lived for the past eight years. Desperate to get the truth, she must turn to the one man who may also be her greatest enemy . . .

He is the president of Pure Corruption MC. A heartless biker and retribution-deliverer. He accepts no rules, obeys no one, and lives only to reap revenge on those who wronged him. And now he has stolen her, body and soul.

Can a woman plagued by mystery fall in love with the man who refuses to face the truth? And can a man drenched in darkness forgo his quest for vengeance-and finally find redemption?

“Ruin & Rule is a full-length book at 436 pages and ends on a cliffhanger. Cleo and Kill’s story continues in SIN & SUFFER.”

ruin & rule bt teaser

Prologue

We met in a nightmare.

The in-between world where time had no power over rhyme, reason, or connection. We met. We stared. We knew.

There was no distortion from the outside world. No right or wrong. No confusion or battles from hearts and minds.

Just us. In our silent dreamworld.

That nightmare became our home. Planting ghosts, raising fantasies. Entwined together in our happily skewed reality.

We fell in love. We fell hard.

In those fleeting seconds of our nightmare, we lived an eternity.

But then we woke up.

And it was over.

Chapter One

I always believed life would grant rewards to those most worthy. I was fucking naïve. Life doesn’t reward—it ruins. It ruins those most deserving and takes everything. It takes everything all while watching any remaining goodness rot to hate.

—Kill

Darkness.

That was my world now. Literally and physically.

The back of my skull hurt from being knocked unconscious. My wrists and shoulders ached from lying on my back with my hands tied behind me.

Nothing was broken—at least it didn’t feel that way—but everything was bruised. The fuzziness receded wisp by wisp, parting the clouds of sleep, trying to shed light on what’d happened. But there was no light. My eyes blinked at the endless darkness from the mask tied around my head. Anxiety twisted my stomach at having such a fundamental gift taken away.

I didn’t move, but mentally catalogued my body from the tips of my toes to the last strand of hair on my head. My jaw and tongue ached from the foul rag stuffed in my mouth and my nose permitted a shallow stream of oxygen to enter—just enough to keep me alive.

Fear tried to claw its way through my mind, but I shoved it away. I deliberately suppressed panic in order to assess my predicament rather than lose myself to terror.

Fear never helps, only hinders.

My senses came back, creeping tentatively, as if afraid whoever had stolen me would notice their return.

Sound: the squeak of brakes, the creak of a vehicle settling from motion to stopping.

Touch: the skin on my right forearm stung, throbbing with a mixture of soreness and sharpness. A burn perhaps?

Smell: dank rotting vegetables and the astringent, pungent scent of fear—but it wasn’t mine. It was theirs.

It wasn’t just me being kidnapped.

My heart flurried, drinking in their terror. It made my breath quicken and legs itch to run. Forcing myself to ignore the outside world, I focused inward. Clutching my inner strength where calmness was a need rather than a luxury.

I refused to lose myself in a fog of tears. Desperation was a curse and I wouldn’t succumb, because I had every intention of being prepared for what might happen next.

I hated the sniffles and stifled sobs of others around me. Their bleak sadness tugged at my heartstrings, making me fight with my own preservation, replacing it with concern for theirs.

Get through this, then worry about them.

I didn’t think this was a simple opportunistic snatch. Whoever had stolen me planned it. The hunch grew stronger as I searched inside for any liquor remnants or the smell of cigarettes.

Had I been at a party? Nightclub?

Nothing.

I hadn’t been stupid or reckless. I think…

No hint or clue as to where I’d been or what I’d been doing when they’d come for me.

I wriggled, trying to move away from the stench. My bound wrists protested, stinging as the rope around them gnawed into my flesh like twine-beasts. My ribs bellowed, along with my head. There was no give in my restraints. I stopped trying to move, preserving my energy.

I tried to swallow.

No saliva.

I tried to speak.

No voice.

I tried to remember what happened.

I tried to remember…

Panic.

Nothing.

I can’t remember.

“Get up, bitch,” a man said. Something jabbed me in the ribs. “Won’t tell you again. Get.”

I froze as my mind hurtled me from present to past.

I’ll miss you so much,” she wailed, hugging me tighter.

“I’m not dying, you know.” I tried to untangle myself, looking over my shoulder at the final call flashing for my flight. I hated being late for anything. Let alone my one chance at escaping and finding out the truth once and for all.

“Call me the moment you get there.”

“Promise.” I drew a cross over my heart—

The memory shattered as my horizontal body suddenly went vertical in one swoop.

Who was that girl? Why did I have no memory of it ever happening?

“I said get up, bitch.” The man breathed hard in my ear, sending a waft of reeking breath over me. The blindfold stole my sight, but it left my nose woefully unprotected.

Unfortunately.

My captor shoved me forward. The ground was steady beneath my feet. The sickness plaiting with my confusion faded, leaving me cold.

My legs stumbled in the direction he wanted me to go. I hated shuffling in the darkness, not knowing where I came from or where I was being herded. There were no sounds of comfort or smothered snickers. This wasn’t a masquerade.

This was real.

This is real.

My heart thudded harder, fear slipping through my defenses. But full-blown terror remained elusive. Slippery like a silver fish, darting on the outskirts of my mind. It was there but fleeting, keeping me clear-headed and strong.

I was grateful for that. Grateful that I maintained what dignity I had left—remaining strong even in the face of the unknown terrors lurking on the other side of my blindfold.

Moans and whimpers of other women grew in decibels as men ordered them to follow the same path I walked. Either death row or salvation, I had no choice but to inch my way forward, leaving my forgotten past behind.

I willed snippets to come back. I begged the puzzlement of my past to slot into place, so I could make sense of this horrible world I’d awoken in.

But my mind was locked to me. A fortress withholding everything I wished to know.

The pushing stopped. So did I.

Big mistake.

“Move.” A cuff to the back of my head sent me wheeling forward. I didn’t stop again. My bare feet traversed…wood?

Bare feet?

Where are my shoes?

The missing knowledge twisted my stomach.

Where did I come from?

How did I end up here?

What’s my name?

It wasn’t the terror of the unknown future that stole my false calmness. It was the fear of losing my very self. They’d stolen everything. My triumphs, my trespasses, my accomplishments and failures.

How could I deal with this new world if I didn’t know what skills I had to stay alive? How could I hope to defeat my enemy when my mind revolted and locked me out?

Who am I?

To have who I was deleted…It was unthinkable.

“Faster, bitch.” Something cold wedged against my spine, pushing me onward. With my hands behind my back, I shuffled faster, negotiating the ground as best I could for dips or trips.

“Step down.” The man grabbed my bound wrists, giving me something to lean against as my toes navigated the small steps before me.

“Again.”

I obeyed.

“Last one.”

I managed the small staircase without falling flat on my face.

My face.

What do I look like?

A loud scraping noise sounded before me. I shied back, bumping against a feminine form. The woman behind me cried out—the first verbal sound of another.

“Move.” The pressure on my lower back came again, and I obeyed. Inching forward until the stuffy air of old vegetables and must was replaced by…copper and metallic…blood?

Why…why is that so familiar?

I gasped as my mind free-fell into another memory.

“I don’t think I can do this.” I darted away, throwing up in the rubbish bin in the classroom. The unique stench of blood curdled my stomach.

“Don’t overthink it. It’s not what you’re doing to the animal to make it bleed. It’s what you’re doing to make it live.” My professor shook his head, waiting for me to swill out my mouth and return white-faced and queasy to the operation in progress.

My heart splintered like a broken piece of glass, reflecting the compassion and responsibility I felt for such an innocent creature. This little puppy that’d been dumped in a plastic bag to die after being shot with BB gun pellets. He’d survive only if I mastered the skills to stem his internal bleeding and embrace the vocation I was called to do.

Inhaling the scent of blood, I let it invade my nostrils, scald my throat, and impregnate my soul. I drank its coppery essence. I drenched myself in the smell of the creature’s life force until it no longer affected me.

Picking up a scalpel, I said, “I’m ready—”

“Holy fuck!” The man guiding me forward suddenly whacked the base of my spine. The hard pain shoved me forward and I tripped.

“Wire—get me fucking reinforcements. He’s started a motherfucking war!”

Wind and body motion swarmed me as men charged from behind. The darkness I lived in suddenly came alive with sound.

Bullets flew, impaling themselves into the metal sides of the vehicle I’d just stepped from. Pings and ricochets echoed in my ear. Curses bellowed; moans of pain threaded like a breeze.

Someone grabbed my arm, swinging me to the side. “Get down!” The inertia of his throw knocked me off balance. With my wrists bound together, I had nothing to grab with, no way to protect myself from falling.

I fell.

My stomach swooped as tumbled off a small platform and smashed against the ground.

Dirt, damp grass, and moldy leaves replaced the stench of blood, cutting through the cloying sharpness of spilled metallic. My mouth opened, gasping in pain. Blades of grass tickled my lips as my cheek stuck to wet mud.

My shoulder screamed with agony, but I ignored the new injury. My mind clung to the unlocked memory. The fleeting recollection of my profession.

I’m a vet.

The sense of homecoming and security that one little snippet brought was priceless. My soul snarled for more, suddenly ravenous for missing information.

I skipped straight from fumbling uncertainty into starvation for more.

Tell me! Show me. Who am I?

I searched inside for more clues. But it was like trying to grab on to an elusive dream, fading faster and faster the harder I chased.

I couldn’t remember anything about medicine or how to heal. All I knew was I’d been trained to embrace the scent of blood. I wasn’t afraid of it. I didn’t faint or suffer sickness at the sight of it pouring from an open wound.

That tiniest knowledge was enough to settle my prickling nerves and focus on the outside world again.

Battle cries. Men screaming. Men growling. The dense thuds of fists on flesh and the horrible deflection of gunshots.

I couldn’t understand. Had I fallen through time and entered an alternate dimension?

Another body landed on top of mine.

I cried out, winded from a sharp poke of an elbow to my ribs.

The figure rolled away, crying softly. Feminine.

Why aren’t I crying?

I once again searched for fear. It wasn’t natural not to be afraid. I’d woken up alone, stolen, and thrown into the middle of a war, yet I wasn’t hyperventilating or panicked.

My calmness was like a drug, oozing over me, muting the sharp starkness of my situation. It was bearable if I embraced courage and the knowledge that I was strong.

My hands balled, grateful for the thought. I didn’t know who I was, but it didn’t matter, because the person who I was in this moment mattered the most.

I had to remain segmented, so I could get through whatever was about to happen. All I had was gut instinct, quiet strength, and rationality. Everything else had been taken.

“Stop fighting, you fucking idiots!”

The loud growl rumbled like an earthquake, hushing the battle in one fell swoop. Whoever had spoken had power.

Immense power. Colossal power.

A shiver darted over my skin.

“What the fuck happened? Have you lost your goddamn lovin’ mind?” a man yelled.

A sound of a short scuffle, then the fresh whiff of tilled dirt graced my nose.

“It’s done. Throw down your weapons and bend a fucking knee.” The same earthquake rumbled. The weight of his command pushed me harder against the damp ground.

“I’m not bending nothing, you asshole. You aren’t my Prez!”

“I am. Have been for the past four years.”

“You’re not. You’re his bitch. Don’t think his power is yours.”

Another fight—muffled fists and kicks. It ended swiftly with a painful groan.

The earthquake voice came again. “Open your eyes and follow the red fucking river. Your chosen—the one you hand-picked to slaughter me and take over the Club—he’s dead. Did you ever stop to think Wallstreet made me Prez for a fucking reason?”

Another moan.

“I’m the chosen one. I’m the one who knows the family secrets, absorbed the legacy, and earned his way into power. You don’t know shit. Nobody does. So bend a fucking knee and respect.”

Another tremor ran down my back.

Silence for a time, apart from the squelch of boots and heavy breathing. Then a barely muttered curse. “You’ll die. One way or another, we won’t put up with a Dagger as a Prez. We’re the Corrupts, goddammit. Having a traitor rule us is a fucking joke.”

“I’m the traitor? The man who obeys your leader? Who guides in his stead? I’m the traitor when you try and rally my brothers in a war?” A heavy thud of a fist connected with flesh. “No…I’m not. You are.”

My mind raced, sucking up noises and forming wild conclusions of what happened before me. Was this World War Three? Was this the apocalypse of the life I couldn’t remember? No matter how I pieced it together, I couldn’t make sense of anything.

The air was thick with anticipation. I didn’t know how many men stood before me. I didn’t know how many corpses littered the ground, or how such violence could be permitted in the world I used to know. But I did know the cease-fire was fragile and any moment it would explode.

A single threat slithered through the grass like a snake. “I’ll kill you, motherfucker. Mark my words. The true Corrupts are just waiting to take you out.”

The gentle foot-thuds of someone large vibrated through the ground. “The Corrupts haven’t existed for four fucking years. The moment I took the seat, it’s been Pure Corruption all the way. And you’re not fucking pure enough for this Club. You’re done.”

I flinched as the sulfuric boom of a gun ripped through the stagnant air.

A crash as a body fell lifeless to the grass. A soft puff of a soul escaping.

Murder.

Murder was committed right before me.

The inherent need to nurture and heal—the part of me that was as steadfast as the beat of my heart—wept with regret.

Death was something I’d fought against on a daily basis, but now I was weaponless.

I hated that a life had been stolen right before me. That I hadn’t been able to stop it.

I’m a witness.

And yet, I’d witnessed nothing.

I’d been privy to a battle but seen nothing. Knew no one. I would never be able to tell who shot whom, or who was right and who was wrong.

My hands shook, even though I managed to stay eerily calm. Am I in shock? And if I was, how did I cure myself?

The woman beside me curled into a ball, her knees digging into my side. My first reaction was to repel away from the touch. I didn’t know who was friend or foe. But a second reaction came quickly; the urge to share my calmness—to let her know that no matter what happened, she wasn’t alone. We faced the same future—no matter how grim.

Voices cascaded over us, whispers mainly, quickly spoken orders. Every sound was heightened. Being robbed of sight made my body seek other ways in which to find clues.

“Get rid of the bodies before daybreak.”

“We’ll go back and make sure we’re still covered.”

“Send out the word. It’s over. The Prez won—no anarchy today.”

Each voice was distinct but my ears twitched only for one: the earthquake rumble that set my skin quivering like quicksand.

He hadn’t spoken since he’d condemned someone to death and pulled the trigger. Every second of not hearing him made my heart trip faster. I wasn’t afraid. I should be. I should be immobile with fear. But he invoked something in me—something primal. Just like I knew I was female and a vet, I knew his voice meant something. Every inch of me tensed, waiting for him to speak. It was wrong to crave the voice of a killer, but it was the only thing I wanted.

Needed.

I need to know who he is.

Wet mud sucked loudly against boots as they came closer.

The woman whimpered, but I angled my chin toward the sound, wishing my eyes were uncovered.

I wanted to see. I wanted to witness the carnage before me. Because it was carnage. The stench of death confirmed it. It was morbid to want to see such destruction, but without my sight all of this seemed like a terrible nightmare. Nothing was grounded—completely nonsensical and far too strange.

I needed proof that this was real.

I needed concrete evidence that I wasn’t mad. That my body was intact, even if my mind was not.

I sucked in a breath as warm fingers touched my cheek, angling my face upward and out of the mud. Strong hands caressed the back of my skull, fumbling with my blindfold.

The anticipation of finally getting my wish to see made me stay still and cooperative in his hold.

I didn’t say a word or move. I just waited. And breathed. And listened.

The man’s breath was heavy and low, interspersed with a quick catch of pain. His fingers were swift and sure, but unable to hide the small fumble of agony.

He’s hurt.

The pressure of the blindfold suddenly released, trading opaque darkness for a new kind of gloom.

Night sky. Moonshine. Stars above.

Anchors of a world I knew, but no recognition of the dark-shrouded industrial estate where blood gleamed silver-black and corpses dotted the field.

I’m alive.

I can see.

The joy at having my eyes freed came and went as blazing as a comet.

Then my life ended as our gazes connected.

Green to green.

I have green eyes.

Down and down I spiraled, deeper and deeper into his clutches.

My life—past, present, and future—lost all purpose the second I stared into his soul.

The fear I’d been missing slammed into my heart.

I quivered. I quaked.

Something howled deep inside with age-old knowledge.

Every part of me arched toward him, then shied away in terror.

Him.

A nightmare come to life.

A nightmare I wanted to live.

If life was a tapestry, already threaded and steadfast, then he was the scissors that cut me free. He tore me out, stole me away, changed the whole prophecy of who I was meant to be.

Jaw-length dark hair, tangled and sweaty, framed a square jaw, straight nose, and full lips. His five-o’clock stubble held remnants of war, streaked with dirt and blood. But it was his eyes that shot a quivering arrow into my heart, spreading his emerald anger.

He froze, his body curving toward mine. Blistering hope flickered across his features. His mouth fell open and love so achingly deep glowed in his gaze. “What—” A leg gave out, making him kneel beside me. His hands shook as he cupped my face, his fingers digging painfully into my cheekbones. “It’s not—”

My heart raced. Yes.

“You know me,” I breathed.

The moment my voice webbed around us, storm clouds rolled over the sunshine in his face, blackening the hope and replacing it with pure hatred.

He changed from watching me like I was his angel to glowering as if I were a despicable devil.

I shivered at the change—at the iciness and hardness. He breathed hard, his chest rising and falling. His lips parted, a rumbling command falling from his mouth to my ears. “Stand up. You’re mine now.”

When I didn’t move, his hand landed on my side. His touch was blocked by clothing but I felt it everywhere. He stroked my soul, tickled my heart, and caressed every cell with fingers that despised me.

I couldn’t suck in a proper breath.

With a vicious push, he rolled me over, and with a sharp blade sliced my bindings. With effortless power, so thrilling and terrifying, he hauled me to my feet.

I didn’t sway. I didn’t cry. Only pulled the disgusting gag from my mouth and stared in silence.

I stared up, up, up into his bright green eyes, understanding something I shouldn’t understand.

This was him.

My nightmare.

ruin & rule bt teaser 2

♥MY REVIEW♥ by Colleen

4.5 STARS

        Ruin and Rule rocked my world. As a self-professed MC book wh*re, I certainly expected a rough and raw storyline, but what I got was so much more. What made the book so spectacular to me was the mystery element. I devoured the book easily in one sitting because I NEEDED to know what in the world was going on. Pepper Winters has taken a tale of a kidnapping and made it into a mysterious love story. I had no idea that was possible.

         Cleo and Kill’s story is one of lust, betrayal, secrets, and sins. These two set fire to the pages in a dangerous dance together, resulting in undeniable passion. Unfortunately, it also causes additional agony for them both. Pepper Winters writing is stronger then ever making these characters some of her best. The story is concise, on point and never veers away from main plot. Most definitely a stellar read.

        If you are faint of heart, I would suffice it to say that Ruin and Rule is not the book for you. It is raw with a storyline that may make some readers uncomfortable. There are adult themes throughout making this an 18+ read. That being said, Ruin and Rule is honestly one of the best MC books I have read this year. I am waiting impatiently for Sin and Suffer and the next chapter in Cleo and Kill’s story!

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About the Author:

pepper winters banner

Pepper Winters wears many roles. Some of them include writer, reader, sometimes wife. She loves dark, taboo stories that twist with your head. The more tortured the hero, the better, and she constantly thinks up ways to break and fix her characters. Oh, and sex… her books have sex.

She loves to travel and has an amazing, fabulous hubby who puts up with her love affair with her book boyfriends.

Her Dark Erotica books include:

Tears of Tess (Monsters in the Dark #1)

Quintessentially Q (Monsters in the Dark #2)

Her Grey Romance books include:

Destroyed

STALK Pepper: Website | Pinterest | Facebook | Twitter | Blog | Goodreads

SILVER BASTARD by Joanna Wylde Excerpt Reveal!!!

silver bastard excerpt reveal

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Blurb

First in the new Silver Valley series from the New York Times bestselling author of the Reapers Motorcycle Club Novels.

Fourteen months. For fourteen months, Puck Redhouse sat in a cell and kept his mouth shut, protecting the Silver Bastards MC from their enemies. Then he was free and it was time for his reward–full membership in the club, along with a party to celebrate. That’s when he saw Becca Jones for the first time and set everything in motion. Before the night ended he’d violated his parole and stolen her away from everything she knew.

Five years. It was five years ago that Puck destroyed Becca and saved her all in one night. She’s been terrified of him ever since, but she’s even more terrified of the monsters he still protects her from… But Becca refuses to let fear control her. She’s living her life and moving forward, until she gets a phone call from the past she can’t ignore. She has to go back, and there’s only one man she can trust to go with her–the ex-con biker who rescued her once before.

Puck will help her again, but this time it’ll be on his terms. No more lies, no more tears, and no more holding back what he really wants…

silver bastard excerpt reveal use

Excerpt from Silver Bastard

By Joanna Wylde

http://www.joannawylde.com

Prologue

California

Five years ago

Puck

Motherfucker that burned.

The shot was a double, and the fact that it’d come cradled between two beautiful, giant tits attached to a stripper with endless legs and a tight ass didn’t hurt one goddamned bit. Tequila hit my stomach, the alcohol shocking my system, and shit finally got real.

Freedom.

Fourteen months since the last time I’d had a decent drink—all but forgotten what it felt like, too. That sweet, harsh pain that comes from losing the surface layer of skin all the way down your throat? Gorgeous. Never felt better in my life, and that’s a fact. Helped that the queen of body shots had sucked me off right after we’d pulled up to the party.

Spent the last year trying to decide what I’d do first when I finally got out. Kept going back and forth between getting laid and getting drunk, but God apparently has a soft spot for assholes because we’d found one hell of a good compromise.

I’d been free nearly four hours now. Still felt like a dream. The California Department of Corrections took its own sweet time with everything, up to and including processing a man out. I’d spent half the wait wondering if the cockwads would change their minds or if the club lawyer had forgotten something. Figured they’d find some way to fuck with my head.

FBI, state cops, even Homeland Security—they all wanted a piece of my club, the Silver Bastards MC, and not a week went by inside that they didn’t try to cut it out of my hide. Guess they figured a prospect made an easy target.

Not fucking likely.

My old man died for the Bastards. If I turned, he’d haunt my ass the rest of my life because that shit does not stand in my family. I’d been born to wear a Bastard cut. And tonight? For the first time I finally had the right to show those colors off.

A hand slapped my shoulder, then a burly man caught me up in a hug so tight it hurt. My fucking ribs creaked.

“That patch feel right on your back, brother?” asked Boonie. He was the president of the Silver Bastards in Callup, Idaho, and I’d heard him call me a hell of a lot of things—but never brother. Felt good. Damned good. Until an hour ago, I’d been a prospect and I’d never gotten any special treatment because of my old man.

That’s how I wanted it.

“Best night of my life,” I admitted. He pulled back, and his face grew serious.

“Proud of you,” he said. “You did what you had to. Protected the club, took care of business. Painter told us how things were inside, how you took his back. You earned this, earned it with your life and your blood. I know you won’t shame this patch, Puck.”

“I won’t,” I replied, his words almost too much. Boonie grinned suddenly, then grabbed my arm and turned me toward the bar again.

“Drink up,” he told me. “Then find yourself some pretty little thing to play with, because tomorrow we’re ridin’ home. Your bike’s in good shape—took care of it for you.”

“Thanks.”

“Another shot, baby?” the stripper asked. She rolled onto her side, reaching out to catch my neck with her hand, pulling me in for a kiss. That brought me a little too close to her face. She was sweaty, and her mascara had started running. Didn’t smell that great, either.

“More shots,” I said, pulling away. I’d appreciated the blow job, no question. But she wasn’t exactly the fantasy I’d been jacking off to the last year and I’d promised myself I wouldn’t settle once I got out. I wanted someone fresh—someone clean and soft and sweet enough to eat. I’d play with her for a while before letting myself go, punching through all that softness until she screamed and begged for mercy.

Mouth, cunt, ass.

That’d been what got me through those long nights wondering why the fuck I’d let myself get caught.

Ignoring the bitch on the bar, I reached across and grabbed the bottle of tequila, chugging nearly a third of it down. Christ, there went the rest of my throat. Then I turned to look out across room. Four of my new Silver Bastard brothers had come down from Callup—Boonie, Miner, Deep, and Demon. Joining them were four Reapers and two Reaper prospects. They were here to welcome Painter, who’d gone down with me on a weapons charge. This sucked, but such is life. We’d been fighting for our clubs, so no regrets there. Through a combination of luck and well-placed payoffs, we’d managed to stick together for the duration of our time served. The clubs provided the funds and the attorneys—to protect them, we matched that investment with our silence.

Painter caught my eye from across the room, grinning. After so much time together I could almost read his thoughts. I gave him a nod, one of those chin jerks that speaks volumes.

Congrats to you, too, asshole.

“You havin’ fun?” a man asked. I looked down to find a painfully skinny, greasy little man missing half his teeth standing next to me. Tweaker called Teeny. His face was just a little too eager, his eyes a little too bright. Unfortunately, Teeny was our host for the night so I had to be nice to him. We were out in the middle of nowhere, tucked back in a canyon where this douche had somehow acquired a house. The Longnecks MC—one of our “allies,” although their loyalty was questionable—had a warehouse set up in a shop right next to this guy’s house.

This Teeny asshole wasn’t even part of the club . . . Apparently his brother Bax was patched in, though, so they used him as a pit stop. Something didn’t quite add up about the situation, but fuck if I cared. In the morning I’d be riding for home. With luck my future association with the state of California in general and Teeny in particular would be extremely limited.

“See anything you like?” he asked. “That’s my old lady, there. “You want her? She’s real good, welcome you home right.”

I shrugged, glancing over toward his woman. She was probably in her midthirties, I decided. Pretty enough, but she had a hard, tired look around her eyes that didn’t appeal. Not only that, she was wiry and skinny as fuck. Probably smoking meth to block out the fact that she had to live with this dickwad.

“No, she’s great but not my type,” I said, casually taking another drink of tequila. Wasn’t burning so much now, which in retrospect should’ve been a sign to slow down. Maybe things would’ve turned out different.

Shitty thing about time—only runs the one direction.

“What’s your type?” he asked. I shrugged. The day I needed some tweaker to find me pussy, I’d cut off my own cock and get it over with. Swallowing another drink, I glanced across the room, pointedly ignoring him.

That’s when I saw her.

Now, I fuckin’ hate clichés, and shit like this only happens in movies . . . but I swear to fuck, I think I fell for her in that instant. She was small, with long brown hair in one of those knot things on top of her head. Not dressed to show off her figure, either. I could still see she had a tiny waist, though, along with generous tits and the kind of round, healthy curves you just know will cradle your hips perfectly when you’re pounding her.

I had to have her.

Like, needed her. Now.

“Good call,” Teeny said. I ignored him, focusing on the angel I had every intention of owning just as soon as I talked her out of her pants. God, she was pretty. Kind of out of place, too. Not flirting with anyone, and not a ton of makeup. Just wandering around, picking up empties, and avoiding conversation. Fascinating.

“I’ll introduce you.”

Teeny walked across the room toward my Dream Fuck. I started after him, because I didn’t want the asshole speaking on my behalf. Then Boonie caught my arm.

“Heads‑up,” he said, his voice pitched low, difficult to hear through the noise of the party. “We think somethin’s going on with that guy. Don’t be afraid to talk him up, okay? Can always use good information.”

I nodded, wondering why the fuck Teeny had to pick me to buddy up with. Tonight was for relaxing, enjoying myself. Just looking at him made me feel dirty, and considering some of the shit I’ve pulled in my life, that’s an accomplishment. Another hand slapped my back, then Painter caught me by the neck, squeezing me as he laughed.

“Never ends,” he said. “Boonie cock-blocking you?”

I punched him in the gut—not hard. Just enough to make him back off.

“No, right now you have that honor,” I muttered, glaring at him. “Christ, we just spent a year together in a fuckin’ cell. Think we’ve covered everything, so let me get laid? Please?”

He answered by punching me back, and I reeled . . . damn, hadn’t realized how drunk I’d gotten. Still, I wasn’t about to go down easy. I swayed, watching him as our brothers started crowding around us. The wild gleam in his eyes—a mixture of almost manic happiness and pent‑up energy—matched my own.

“Take it outside,” Boonie said. “I got fifty on Puck.”

“Hundred on Painter,” Picnic Hayes, the Reapers’ president, answered and then we were bundled outside for the fight.

I couldn’t wait.

We’d sparred before, of course. Nothing but time to kill in the pen, so I knew Painter’s moves like they were my own— and he knew mine, too. We were a good match, could go either way. Neither of us had much in the way of formal training but we’d both picked up a fair amount along the way. Hell, I’d gotten caught in my first bar fight when I was fourteen years old, seeing as my pop wasn’t exactly Father of the Year material. Still loved the old bastard, though.

The sun was fading as we stepped outside, painting the sky in pinks and oranges shot through with smudged clouds. I paused a moment, struck by the incredible beauty all around me, and smiled, breathing deep. So fucking good to be outside again. Nobody knows what it’s like, trapped in a cell like an animal. Nobody but the guys who’ve heard the sound of those gates closing behind them.

Fortunately for me, I wasn’t exactly the first Silver Bastard to do time for the club, which meant my brothers got me. They knew what this was like.

“Okay, we got a circle here,” Pic was saying. I blinked, starting to process the fact that maybe boxing with Painter while I was drunk might not be such a hot idea. Of course, he was drunk, too, and the booze would numb the pain . . . “Fight goes until one of you is down or taps out. Time to make your bets, brothers.”

Boonie caught my arm, pulling me to the side and looking into my face.

“You ready?” he asked. I nodded sharply, because drunk or not, I wasn’t going to pussy out in front of my president on the same day I got my colors. I glanced across the dusty circle to see Painter, who gave me a friendly sneer. Laughing, I flipped him off, then shook my arms out, loosening up.

That’s when I saw her again. Off to the side, standing next to Teeny, who was talking rapidly and pointing to me. I frowned, because I really didn’t need or want that asshole on my side. Knowing my luck, the fucker would send her running. I nudged my brother, Deep, who was standing next to me.

“See that girl?” I asked, jerking my chin toward her. “Make sure Teeny doesn’t scare her off, okay?”

“Sure,” he said. “I’ll keep an eye out.”

“Thanks.”

Painter and I stepped into the circle together, and I felt the thrill of adrenaline cut through the haze of alcohol. My blood started pumping, pounding through me until I could all but taste it. Christ, but I loved to fight. Always seemed to clear my head, and I’d gotten good enough over the years that I won more than I lost. Inside, those skills had saved our asses, and I’d picked up my fair share of pointers from the very man I found myself facing.

Painter moved first, coming in with an experimental jab toward my stomach. This wasn’t a real attack, just him testing my limits. I’d had a lot to drink, which would slow my reflexes. So had he. That changed the baseline, something we both needed to feel out.

“Can’t believe they gave you a top rocker,” he said, taunting me.

I grinned.

“Try harder, old man. I know you too well.”

Painter laughed, then came at me again, suddenly. He punched me square in the stomach and I doubled over. Shit. I fell back and almost stumbled out of the ring, catching myself at the last minute. I heard the shouts of my brothers urging me on.

Oh, hell no.

No fucking way I’d lose a fight tonight. Painter could fuck right off, because he’d had his colors for years. This was my night. I owned this bitch and he’d just have to suck it up and deal.

Still staggering, I lurched forward toward him like I was out of control. Then I attacked, and this time I caught him. One hit, two. Three. Right in the gut. Painter gasped and I moved in for the kill.

Somehow he pulled himself together, catching me across the chin. My entire head rattled as I staggered to the side. I felt blood in my mouth, then found a loose tooth with my tongue.

Asshole.

I thought of the pretty girl I’d just seen, which pissed me off. The anger was good. Cleared my head. Didn’t matter if I won or not, she wouldn’t want to suck face with someone bleeding like a stuck pig. This wasn’t a fight—it was a cock-block.

Time to end it.

Painter waited for me, swaying. I’d gotten him pretty good.

He was definitely favoring his left hand, which was great news because he was left-handed. Lucky me. I was ambidextrous.

I launched myself at him, turning that to my advantage.

He tried to block me but his arm was weak. I landed a blow to his gut followed by one that caught the side of his cheek. Pain seared through my hand, parting the fog of alcohol.

“Dick,” he managed to gasp as I danced back, flexing my fingers. That last one had been bad—if I’d been any more off-center, I’d have a fist full of broken bones.

“You got him,” Boonie shouted. I stretched my hand again. Did I want to risk another head blow? I hadn’t even wrapped my knuckles. . .

Fuck it.

I caught his chin again and Painter went down, falling hard. Blood dribbled from his nose and for long seconds I wondered if I’d actually hurt him for real.

Then he managed to roll onto his stomach, tapping out and flipping me off, all in one gesture.

“Congrats on getting your colors, Puck,” he groaned. “I’ll give you this one. Enjoy it while you can because next time I’m killing you.”

I staggered back, grinning and raising my hands once I realized he wasn’t seriously hurt. It’d been a lucky shot and we both knew it—we were well matched, could’ve gone either way. As I heard my brothers shouting in victory I didn’t care. This was my night. I had my freedom and my patch.

Still needed that girl, though.

I looked around and spotted her standing next to Deep. Teeny stood on the other side of him, looking all sorry for himself. She was hugging herself with both arms, obviously nervous, and I felt my smile fade. Shit. I hadn’t wanted her scared. I shook my head, wishing things weren’t moving so fast. Waving off the men crowding around me, I headed toward her, half expecting her to run off.

She didn’t, though.

As I came to a stop in front of her, she gave me a wavering smile, then spoke. “Can I help you find another drink?”

“Fuck yeah.”

I took her arm and pulled her into my side, exchanging a satisfied look with Deep.

“Let me know if you need anything!” Teeny yelled after us, and

I felt the girl shudder.

“Christ, but he’s a nasty little shit, isn’t he?” I asked her conversationally, and she gave a startled snort of laughter. I liked the sound. Sweet and sort of innocent. Made my dick happy, that was for sure. Still, I didn’t want to fuck things up and push her too hard, because the skittish vibes were intense.

“Yeah, he is,” she agreed quietly, and I leaned down to kiss the top of her head. She smelled good—fresh and clean, just like I’d been fantasizing all those months inside. Fresh and clean and perfect.

I wondered what she’d taste like.

“They’re lighting a fire out back,” she told me, her voice soft. “By the kegs. Maybe we should go over there?”

Hmmm . . . I could work with that.

“Okay.”

She tried to pull away from me then, but I caught her hand playfully, tugging her back toward me.

“I can’t get you a beer if you don’t let me go,” she pointed out.

Fuck. She was right. Still, I wasn’t about to let her get away that easy—knowing my luck, Painter’d swoop in and take her, just to fuck with my head. If anyone could pull it off, he could. Fucker was pretty in his own weird way—even I could see it. I couldn’t compete, not with the nasty scar on my face.

I’d just have to keep a close eye on her, I decided. Protect what was mine.

* * *

An hour later I found myself leaning back against the wall of the house, wondering how I’d gotten so lucky. My girl’s name was Becca, and she was rapidly turning into my all-time favorite female. Not that we’d talked much—she was pretty quiet. But she was soft and warm, and now I had her tucked between my legs, leaning back against me.

“Skittish” hadn’t been the right word for her, either. She’d been nervous as hell, so nervous I’d been afraid at first she’d pull a runner on me. Beer helped with that, and now she was relaxed into me, eyes closed, head turned toward my chest so that my chin brushed her forehead. I’d have said she was asleep if it wasn’t for the little noises she made every time my fingers circled her nipples under her shirt, or slid down her stomach.

We’d pushed up the bra about ten minutes ago, and I’d explored down below just enough to know she wasn’t sopping wet for me yet . . . but she was getting there. This was a good thing, because my dick was harder than a rock and ready for more. I shifted my hips, sliding my erection against her back, and groaned.

Feeling her up in the firelight was great, but time to move things along.

I pulled out one hand, catching her chin and tilting it up for a kiss. God, she was sweet. She tasted like sunshine and beer, with a hint of tequila mixed in for good measure. I could tell she didn’t have a ton of experience, because when I slid my tongue into her mouth she wasn’t quite sure what to do with her own.

Turned me on in a big way, gotta admit.

“Becca, you should take him on upstairs, don’t you think?”

Teeny’s voice cut through the kiss, and Becca stiffened. She pulled away from me, shutting down so hard I could practically feel the arctic chill. Fuck. For an instant I gave serious consideration to killing Teeny. It’d taken me nearly an hour to get her to this point, and he was not going to fuck it up for me.

I stared him down, eyes narrow.

“Is there a reason you’re talking to her?”

He smirked.

“Just making sure it’s all good here.”

“Go away.”

“Take him upstairs, Becca.” If anything, she got more tense, and I groaned. Sure, I could just go find someone else. But I didn’t want anyone else, and this asshole was ruining things for me. I wrapped my arms around her and pulled her into me, tight, making it clear that she didn’t need to worry about Teeny.

“Now would be a real good time to disappear,” I told him, my voice full of a quiet menace designed to convey one message—fear. Becca shivered, which pissed me off. Been hard enough to get through to her, and now she had to see this. “Otherwise I’ll make it happen. Got me?”

Boonie came to stand next to us.

“We got a problem here?” he asked.

“No,” Teeny said, glaring at me and Becca. Then he turned and scuttled off like the fucking roach he was. She shivered, and I rubbed my hands up and down her arms.

“Don’t worry, babe,” I told her absently. “Thanks, Boonie.”

“No prob,” he muttered looking after Teeny. “Glad we’re leaving in the morning. There’s something wrong here—been a very educational trip.”

I nodded, although I didn’t have the full story. They’d fill me in later, so until then I’d just follow Boonie’s lead.

“Let’s go inside,” Becca said. “Find some privacy.”

She pulled free and stood up. This startled me, but I wasn’t exactly unhappy about the development. I lurched off-balance as I rose, and things were a little hazy around the edges. Wasn’t messing with my dick, though, so all good where it counted. She led me into the house and up the stairs to a small room in the back. It had a twin-size bed that was rumpled and stained. There was a puddle of beer spilled on the floor next to a turned-over bottle. More cups and bottles littered the area, and an ashtray was half full on the bedside table.

“Guess we aren’t the first ones looking for some privacy,” I commented, but I didn’t really care. Nope. I just shut the door and locked it. When I turned back, she’d already stripped down to her bra, and was busy unzipping her jeans.

Holy shit.

Becca was gorgeous.

I mean, I’d seen how pretty she was outside, but those sweet little boobs I’d been groping the last hour were even more perfect than I’d imagined. Somehow the fact that a plain cotton bra cradled them just enhanced the experience. Then she slid her pants off and I nearly died because I’d never seen anything sexier. I wanted to tie her down and take possession of every hole in her body. Twice.

Becca saw it all written in my face—clearly it scared her. She took a step back, and held up a hand. A deeply disturbing question flickered through my foggy brain.

“Are you a virgin?” I asked, the words tasting strange in my mouth. She gave a harsh laugh, then shook her head.

“No, I’m not a virgin.”

She reached behind to unhook her bra and I saw her nipples for the first time. Pink and pointy and gorgeous, exactly the right size for my mouth . . . I stepped toward her and she surprised me, dropping to her knees and reaching for my fly.

“How long has it been?” she asked, her voice almost businesslike. I groaned as she pushed down my jeans and briefs, cock springing free. I’d never been harder—wasn’t entirely sure I’d survive the next ten minutes. Fuck, would I even last ten minutes? Then her hand wrapped around me and I closed my eyes, reaching out to lean against the wall because otherwise I would’ve fallen flat on my ass.

She started out slow and steady, wrapping her fingers around me and rubbing up and down. After a minute she paused. I opened my eyes to see her peeking up at me as she licked her palm, looking older and more seductive than I’d pegged her before. Fuck. Fuck. Then her other hand reached down to cup my balls as she started working me again with all ten fingers.

I gasped, falling into the sensation again. Definitely wouldn’t be lasting that long, I realized. No way. But that was just fine, because tonight I had a lot more than one load saved up and ready to go.

“Use your mouth.”

She obeyed, opening up and taking me in, her tongue flicking at me expertly. Almost too expertly . . . weird, and a little surprising, given how she kissed. Then she sucked me deeper and I stopped thinking at all. Everything was warm and wet and fucking perfect.

Thirty seconds later I blew up in her mouth without warning. Hell, it caught me off guard, it happened so fast, and I cringed. Reaching down, I caught her hair in my hand, pulling out the rubber band holding it so the long, brown strands fell around her face. She stood, wiping her face with the back of her hand, soft brown eyes meeting mine.

She looked like an innocent little angel again.

“Becca, that was . . .” I didn’t have the words. God, I’d missed sex. Real sex, not just jacking off in my hand. Nothing in the world quite as sweet as the feel of hot wet woman wrapped around my dick.

She turned away, reaching down to grab a half-empty fifth of rotgut vodka off the bedside table, taking a big drink, and swishing it around her mouth. Then she spat it out on the floor so it mingled with the pooled beer before taking another swig.

Okay, not a total angel.

I reached out, and Becca handed the bottle to me wordlessly. Then she slid off her plain cotton panties and laid back on the bed.

“You ready?” she asked. I drank deep, my head spinning because I’d never been more ready for anything in my life. She didn’t look ready, though. Her eyes were distant, and when I kicked off my pants and stepped between her legs, I could see her body wasn’t with me, either.

Fortunately I knew how to fix that.

Pulling off my cut, I looked for somewhere safe to put it. The only available flat surface was the little table, but in the back corner was one of those hanging racks with some clothes on it. I walked over and grabbed a hanger, hung up the leather vest, and turned back to Becca.

She’d closed her eyes, and I’d have thought she was asleep if I didn’t know better. Fuck, maybe she’d passed out.

“You awake?”

She nodded her head.

“Yeah, just sort of drunk,” she muttered. “Don’t worry about it.”

Shrugging, I pulled off my shirt, then knelt down beside the bed and caught her legs up and over my shoulders. She squawked as I spread her pussy lips, giving her a long lick straight up to her clit.

“What are you doing?” she demanded, suddenly awake and alert. I licked her again, and Becca squirmed and gasped as her little nub started to harden for me. Nice. “Oh my God! I can’t believe how good that feels . . .”

She fell back on the bed as I got going. I love pussy. Of course, most men do, but not all of them love going down on a nice, juicy cunt as much as me. I licked and tickled, every once in a while giving a little nip as Becca came to life under me. I think she was trying to keep still at first, but no way was I having any of that shit. Nope. I wanted her soaking wet and screaming, because I planned to ride her hard the rest of the night.

Then I slid two fingers deep inside, searching for just the right spot as I sucked on her clit like candy. Found it on the first try, and she blew up around me, crying out and sobbing. I pulled away, grabbing a chunk of loose sheet to wipe off my mouth, and she moaned, little shivers running through her body.

I’d been hard for her before—almost constantly, even right after I’d come in her mouth—but that was nothing compared to my cock now. Fluid seeped from the tip, and I reached across the floor for my pants, pulling out a condom. Along the way the vodka caught my eye and I took another drink, following her lead as I swished out my mouth and spat on the floor.

The place was truly disgusting, but I’d spent fourteen months in prison so a little filth was the least of my concerns. Tilting back my head, I sucked down the rest of the booze, swaying as I stood. I caught her under the arms and scooted her up the bed before I slipped on the condom. Seconds later I pushed deep into her. Fuck, this had been the right call tonight, because—I shit you not—never felt anything that good before in my life.

She moaned and I caught her mouth with mine, kissing her hard and claiming her. This time I didn’t hold back. Nope. I just took as much as I could, savoring her sweet taste and wondering if she wanted to see Idaho . . . We’d be leaving in the morning, and the thought of throwing her on the back of my bike and taking her along worked for me in a big way.

Then she squeezed down on me hard and I stopped thinking altogether.

* * *

We slept for a while. Maybe we passed out. Dunno. Same difference. When I woke up, Becca was tucked into my side, one leg thrown over mine. Her hair trailed across my chest and her breath tickled my skin.

That’s all it took.

I rolled her over onto her stomach, sliding a pillow under her hips and spreading her legs before grabbing a condom. She murmured, not really talking, but the sounds coming out of her mouth weren’t unhappy when I found her clit again. Seconds later I pushed into her. I’m sure some man—somewhere in history—had enjoyed the feel of a woman’s cunt more than I did in that moment. Hard to imagine how, though.

I’d taken off the edge earlier and now that I had her nice and warmed up, I was ready to do this thing for real. Grabbing her hips, I pulled back and slammed deep. Becca screamed and stiffened, now well and truly awake. Fuck, so hot and slick . . . I started pumping in and out of her hard, loving how she convulsed around me. Her arms reached out, clawing the sheets, and I lowered myself across her back, using my knees to spread her legs out even wider. Then I caught her hands in mine, nipping at the back of her neck before groaning into her ear.

“Reach down below and finger your clit.”

“I can’t,” she gasped. I paused, catching her hand and shoving it down beneath her stomach as I lifted my weight. We found her clit together, then I shoved back into her roughly.

“Oh my God . . .” she moaned. “That’s incredible.”

Damn straight.

“Now keep it there,” I ordered. “You’re going to come for me at least twice, got it?”

She nodded into the sheets and I pulled my hand free, bracing myself as I started moving again. It wasn’t gentle, but that was okay because I felt how wet and slick she was around me. Tight, too. Even better than I’d imagined back in my cell, and I have a hell of a good imagination. I leaned up on my elbows, catching her hair and jerking it back because I get off on that shit. Each twist of my hips took me closer, and when she started convulsing around me and crying, I nearly lost it. Not quite, though. I wasn’t finished.

Mouth. Cunt. Ass.

I’d planned it all out in my head, dreamed about it for months . . . Now I finally had the staying power to finish it. As she shuddered and trembled, I pulled free and sat back on my heels. Becca’s ass spread wide in front of me, and I smiled because it was fucking gorgeous. Heart shaped, pretty. Not too big, but not fucking skinny and nasty like a half-starved donkey, either.

Christ, I wanted to fuck her there.

My cock was still wrapped tight and dripping with her juices, but I spat into my hand a couple times for good measure, slathering it on for a little extra lube. Then caught her hips and pulled her up and onto her knees.

“Brace yourself.”

She nodded, stretching out her arms in front of her like a cat, which was cute but totally inadequate under the circumstances. I caught her hair again, yanking her head to the side. Becca gasped.

“I said brace yourself,” I repeated. “Gonna fuck your ass now.”

She squawked, and her entire body stiffened.

“That a problem?” I asked. She shook her head quickly.

“No, do it.”

Shit, could she sound less enthusiastic? I stilled, realizing my prison dream girl might not be up for the full porno fantasy in living color. Fuck.

“It’s okay,” I said, pulling back. I closed my eyes, running a hand through my hair and shuddering. I’d just fuck her cunt some more. I could do that. Then she shocked the hell out of me by reaching around behind to grab my cock. She pushed back with her hips, awkwardly trying to guide me to her asshole, which was funny and pathetic at the same time.

Because I’m a shitty human being, I went for it. Not a complete dick, though. I could see the tension radiating off her.

“You never done this before?” I asked her. She shook her head violently, not looking at me.

“Okay, we’ll go slow.”

She nodded this time, but she still didn’t give me her eyes. It bothered me for some reason, although why, I had no fucking idea. I dug my fingers deep into her hair, twisting her head around enough to kiss her. Hard. My tongue dug deep, forcing her to kiss me back and, I shit you not, I felt like fireworks were going off in my head. Clichéd as all fuck, but there you have it. After long seconds we came up for air, and I stared into her eyes, seeing how her pupils grew wide.

Slowly, steadily I found her opening with my cockhead, pushing in as she gasped.

“You okay?”

“I’m fine,” she said, eyes wide, her lips trembling. I held her there, my heart beating so hard I thought it might come right out of my chest as I pushed down deep. She was tight—really tight. Sure as hell hadn’t been lying when she’d said she’d never done this before. I sank into her for what felt like forever before I hit bottom, balls resting against her pussy. Her heartbeat pulsed around my cock and I realized that I would be happy to die in that moment. That’s how good it was.

Becca closed her eyes and turned her face into the covers, spasming around me. I didn’t like the position—I wanted to watch her face— but she seemed to need some privacy. I got it. I’ve never been a nice, vanilla kind of guy, but this was a different kind of intensity than even I was used to. No screaming, no scratching, no fighting with each other until we both lost our minds . . . No, this was powerful on a whole new level, and looking into her eyes the whole time was probably too much for me, too.

I pulled back out, then slid in again. She gasped.

“Play with your clit some more.”

She nodded without speaking, burrowing her hand back down until she found her target. I started moving, going slowly and carefully at first. But it felt really good, and I’ve never been one to take things slow and careful.

Looking back, I can’t decide if that’s when things really fell to shit, or if they’d been falling to shit all along and I was just too stupid to see it. Never have figured that one out, but what happened next was not my finest hour. I started moving faster. It felt fucking amazing. She felt fucking amazing. Then I was pounding her and she was shuddering and I thought she was coming and it was perfect.

Becca sobbed suddenly. Loud. Not a pretty crying kind of noise, and not one of those moans bitches give when they’re getting off so hard they can’t quite control themselves.

No.

This was the kind of noise a puppy makes when you kick it, and I felt it all the way down to my gut like a knife ripping me open.

Big. Fucking. Mistake.

I pulled out and caught her up and into my arms. She flinched and I hated myself, because even like that she was soft and pretty and I just wanted to keep nailing her ass. Becca knew it, too, because she tried to pull away from the press of my cock against her back. More sobs escaped and tears rolled down her face and I knew for a fact that I’d burn in hell for this.

Rubbing her head, I tried to think of soothing noises. Instead I was full of questions. Why had she let me do it?

‘Cause you’re a pushy, scary bastard.

Fuck.

“I’m sorry,” I told her, my head starting to spin. Shouldn’t have drunk so much. I had no idea what time it was, no idea how long we’d been up here . . . I heard noises outside, the sounds of music and the party still going, but that didn’t mean much. A good party could last all night and into the next morning.

“It’s okay,” she finally managed to whisper, and I bit back a harsh laugh because that was a huge fucking lie and we both knew it. Then she did something that blew me away. Becca turned in my arms and pushed me down onto my back. Seconds later she had the condom off and was sucking me deep again, which made no fucking sense at all.

Unfortunately my dick wasn’t the sensitive, caring type because it really didn’t care that she was clearly so scared and drunk off her ass she’d lost touch with reality.

I could’ve stopped her.

I should’ve stopped her.

Instead I sank my fingers into her hair and blew up into her mouth and it was even better than the first time. The room was seriously spinning all around me as she tucked into my arm and stroked my chest.

“Tell him I did good, okay?” she whispered. “Just tell him I did good. Please?”

I passed out, wondering what the fuck she was talking about.

* * *

My bladder was about to explode.

Needed to pee. Maybe rinse out my mouth, too, because it tasted like something died in there and that was not an exaggeration. Shifting, I realized that Becca was still tucked into me, sleeping heavily. I managed to crack my eyes open, blinking. Faint light was creeping in through the window, although even now I could still hear music down below.

Great. Gonna be a long ride home with no sleep. Sliding carefully out from under Becca, I stood and pulled on my pants. My shirt had fallen into the sticky puddle of beer and vodka, so I stumbled out of the room half naked. The door across the hall was locked, although from the smell it had to be the bathroom—either that or people had started pissing and vomiting in the bedrooms, which I supposed wasn’t entirely impossible. Felt great to be back with my brothers, but our hosts kind of sucked ass. Bunch of assholes and meth heads, so far as I could tell. No wonder Boonie didn’t trust them.

I walked down the stairs into the living room, where despite the fact that music still blared, people were passed out all over the place. My brother Deep leaned back against the bar separating the living room from the kitchen area, arms crossed, a look of faint disgust on his face.

“Hey,” I said, keeping my voice low.

“You look like death. Have fun up there?”

I shrugged, feeling like an asshole.

“She’s perfect,” I said. “But I think I hurt her.”

His eyes narrowed.

“We got a situation? Should I go get Boonie?”

Shit.

“No, not like that,” I said quickly. “I mean, I think I pushed her too far. Tried to fuck her ass, and it didn’t go over so well. She’s okay, but I still feel like a douche.”

“We got a girl who’s gonna cry rape?” he asked quickly, and I snorted.

“Probably should,” I replied. “She told me to do it, though. Afterward she sucked me off. Feels wrong, somehow.”

“You want another drink?” I turned to see Teeny standing there, his beady eyes bright and full of something I couldn’t quite follow. God, I hated him—he was like a cockroach that wasn’t smart enough to stay out of the light.

Anger replaced my disgust. He needed to leave me the fuck alone.

“Are you serious?” I asked him, turning and cracking my knuckles. The fight with Painter had taken off my edge, but it’d come back again as I told Deep about Becca. Hitting someone— anyone—would feel good, but hitting this guy? That’d be a flat-out pleasure. “God, don’t you ever go away? Fucking piece of shit!”

I started toward him, but Deep caught my arm, pulling me back.

“Careful, bro,” he said quietly. “This isn’t about him. You’re pissed about the girl. Pick your battles, because there’s a lot more Longnecks than Reapers and Bastards combined. All he did was offer you a drink.”

Fuck. I breathed deep, looking at the scared little shit and wishing desperately he’d do something—anything—to give me an excuse to take him down. My brothers would back me no matter what, but I wasn’t stupid enough to think there wouldn’t be a price for my actions.

“I’m going back to bed,” I said after a tense minute or so, pulling free. “Talk to you later, brother.”

Deep nodded, watching Teeny as I turned and stalked back up the stairs. This time the bathroom door was open. Sure enough, someone had missed the toilet, and I felt my own stomach heave sympathetically. For a sec there I thought I might lose it. Then I pulled it together enough to piss without barfing. Afterward, I turned to look at myself in the mirror. As always, the face looking back at me was ugly as fuck. Dark, ragged hair. Scar cutting across my face. Nose that’d been broken at least four times now . . .

Shit, no wonder Becca had been scared of me—I looked like a fuckin’ serial killer. I wanted to punch the mirror and break it into a thousand pieces, which would accomplish even less than beating the shit out of Teeny.

Instead I went back into the room and found her still sound asleep on the bed. Her skin was pale and fragile, dark shadows ringing her eyes. Still gorgeous, but younger and more frail-looking now. Christ. What had I done? I crawled back into bed with her, sure I’d never get to sleep. I’d underestimated how much booze was still floating around in my system, because everything went dark again.

* * *

This time the sun was bright and harsh. I blinked, trying to remember where I was . . . Then it all came back and I looked around, wondering where my girl went.

Shit. Becca was gone.

What the hell really happened last night? I sat up, spotting my colors hanging from a rack next to . . . school uniforms? Fuck, some kid must live in this room, I realized. That’d suck, coming home to a mess like this. I turned and lowered my feet on the far side of the bed, figuring I’d open the window to air things out, check the lay of the land in the process. I stepped on a pile of books, which fell over. I reached down to pick one up.

Textbook.

I picked up another. Shit, it was another textbook, and under that was a notebook. That’s when I started to get a very bad feeling in the pit of my stomach—something I wouldn’t have pegged as possible, given how shitty I already felt about how the night had played out.

The notebook opened in my hands, and I saw the name Becca Jones written on the top of the front page, along with English: First Period and the date.

Below were notes.

Maybe she was in college, I thought desperately. Please, fuck . . . let her be in college. A piece of colored paper fell to the ground, and I dropped the notebook to pick it up.

What I saw nearly made me throw up.

It was a flyer for a dance—a high school dance.

Becca was still in school. Jailbait. The fuck? It didn’t add up . . . Then her last words to me sank in, and it all added up far too well.

“Tell him I did good, okay? Just tell him I did good. Please?”

* * *

I flew down the stairs half dressed, my boots thudding loudly. My shirt was filthy from her floor, but my cut was still fine—safe and sound after a night spent hanging next to Becca’s little school dresses. Fucking piece of shit pimp Teeny.

Had to be him.

This was his house. Who the hell was she? His kid? What the fuck kind of asshole pimped out his own daughter? But shit, I guess it happened all the time, all over the world. About halfway down I heard her scream, which should’ve woken up everyone all over the goddamned house. Most of them were still passed out drunk, though. I heard more shouts outside and knew my brothers were probably coming.

That turned out to be a good thing, because I came damned close to ending a man’s life that day—fucking craptastic way to start parole . . .

Teeny stood in the center of the kitchen, Becca huddled at his feet as he kicked her. Then he whacked her across the head with a fucking soup pot, of all things, and I lost my shit.

“You cocksucking asshole!” I shouted, launching myself at him.

“Fucking twat! I’ll kill you!”

My fists destroyed his face with a crunch. It felt good— cathartic.

He fell like a bag of concrete and some part of my brain noted vaguely that Becca was scrabbling away from us, chunks of her long hair torn loose and left on the floor. Blood, too. Another woman shouted and tugged at her, but I didn’t turn to look.

Nope. I had work to do.

Specifically, I needed to kill Teeny with my bare hands. Then I’d tear him apart and eat his heart. Raw. He screamed like a bitch the whole time, and I heard Boonie yelling in the background. Then they hauled me off his ass, kicking and fighting because I’d well and truly lost my shit.

“What the fuck is happening here?” Picnic Hayes demanded. Beside him stood one of the Longnecks, a guy who looked a fuckuva lot like Teeny and I realized this must be the brother who was part of the club. Bax.

Bax wasn’t a happy camper. Fair enough. I was pretty fucking unhappy myself.

Teeny moaned on the floor, rolling onto his back, and I spat at him. Then I heard a sobbing noise—one that’d already been burned into my brain. Becca was crying, and I looked over to find her huddled up against Teeny’s old lady.

Shit. I hadn’t seen it before because the woman was so nasty and used up, but under that scrawny, tweaker body was an older copy of Becca. Had to be her mother . . . Even with the meth eating her, though, she seemed too young. If that was the mother, she must’ve had Becca really fucking early.

“She his daughter?” I asked her, my voice like a knife. The woman shook her head quickly, lips quivering. “You let him pimp her out?”

She looked away.

“Damn,” Picnic said. “This is a hell of a clusterfuck.”

“I’m not leaving her here. He’ll kill her.”

Pic shook his head slowly, thoughtfully, but I could see it in his face—he knew I was right.

“Yeah, she can come with us,” he said. “You up for that, Boon?”

My president nodded, eyes never leaving the huddled mass of blood and human filth crying on the floor.

“We’ll head out in twenty minutes,” Boonie said decisively. “Anyone got a problem with that?”

He looked around the room in challenge, and several of the Longnecks glanced away—apparently they weren’t going to stand up for Teeny. Said a hell of a lot about them in general and Teeny in particular. I mean, I was glad that we weren’t fighting our way out, but that’s just pathetic. They were happy to party with him. When it came time to take his back, they were out.

“C’mon, let’s go upstairs and grab some of your shit,” I said to Becca, reaching toward her. She gave a little scream and pushed back with her feet, sliding across the floor to get away from me. Fuck.

“I’ll get her ready,” her mother said suddenly. Her voice quavered, but her eyes were resolute as they met mine. “She’ll go with you—just get her away from here. He’ll hurt her bad for this. Real bad.”

I nodded, watching as she drew her daughter to her feet, then pushed her toward the stairwell.

“Jesus, you can sure pick ’em,” Boonie said. “How old you think she is?”

“She’s still in high school,” I said, my voice grim. “Fairly certain I’m up for statutory if this goes down wrong.”

“Damn,” Painter said, coming up behind me. “That’s fast work—usually takes a little longer to violate parole, bro.”

I met his gaze, and for once his face didn’t hold even a hint of mockery. Fuck. This was really bad.

“Outside,” Picnic said sharply. “Horse, Ruger—you stay here. Make sure the girl gets out safe, okay?”

He caught my arm and pulled me toward the door. Boonie flanked us, and I sensed real danger beneath their calm expressions. We walked over to the bikes as the others scrambled to grab their shit and pack up.

“I won’t leave her,” I told them again. “I know she’s scared of me, but I don’t give a fuck. That girl’ll die if she stays here.”

“Not gonna leave her,” Pic said. “But we do need to get out fast, before they have time to figure out what happened and get pissed off. They decide to fight for her, things’ll get ugly. Not sure we can take ’em.”

“Thanks for standing with me.”

Boonie snorted.

“You’re our brother, Puck,” he said, his voice casual. “This is what we do. You went down for us, you think we aren’t prepared to do the same for you? Now pull your shit together. We can put the girl in the truck with the prospects, or you can take her on your bike. No time to fuck around.”

* * *

Fifteen minutes later, I watched as Horse, Becca, and her mom walked out of the house. At least thirty members of the Longnecks MC stood watching, talking quietly among themselves. I kept waiting for one of them to reach for a gun or challenge us, but they didn’t.

No sign of Teeny.

Becca had stopped crying, but her face was still covered in tear-smeared blood, and nasty bruises were popping up all over. Her breath sounded wheezy, too, and I hoped to hell she didn’t have broken ribs.

“I don’t want to go,” she whispered, catching at her mom’s arm. “I want to stay with you.”

“You’re getting out,” the woman replied, her eyes hard and calculating. “Let him cool off, then we’ll talk. Figure something out.”

Becca shook her head, but when I caught her arm gently she let me pull her away.

“You want to ride in the truck or on my bike?”

Becca glanced at the truck, eyes widening at the sight of two Reaper prospects. “I’ll stay with you.”

I nodded and climbed on my bike, eyes alert as I monitored our audience. She climbed up behind me, and then her mother gave a satisfied nod. Becca wrapped her arms around me and I felt her tits press tight against my back. My cock stirred to life. What the fucking hell was wrong with me?

“How old are you?” I asked, my voice low.

“Sixteen.”

Shit.

“Like, you’re almost seventeen?”

“No, I turned sixteen last week.”

Double shit.

Boonie kicked his bike to life, and we followed his lead, pulling away from the house in formation.

So that’s the story of how I committed statutory rape less than twenty-four hours out of prison—on my birthday, no less. In retrospect, I probably should’ve stayed inside, served out my full five-year term. Would’ve been less work for everyone

 

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joanna wylde

Joanna Wylde is a New York Times bestselling author and creator of the Reapers Motorcycle Club series. She currently lives in Idaho.

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NOT LOOKING FOR LOVE Episode 1 by Lena Bourne Promo!

not looking

Not Looking for Love Episode 1 by Lena Bourne

 

SYNOPSIS

 

Sometimes, what you want is not really what you need.

 

Gail is only twenty-two years old and her mom is dying. Not just dying, she will be dead in a few days, if the doctors are to be trusted, and Gail is certain she herself won’t survive that. After a run in with Scott, the hot gardener from next door,

Gail begins to see him as the perfect distraction from her unbearable life. It’s not love Gail wants. She just wants to feel good with someone who makes her forget, if only for a little while, and Scott fits that description perfectly.

 

Scott just got back into town and he’s still trying to get his life back together. He already has more problems and regrets than he can ever hope to live with, and the last thing he needs is to get tangled up with a rich girl who is clearly a little unsettled, if not downright insane. But the fact that Gail is very attractive and keeps throwing herself at him makes it impossible to keep sending her away. Which he should, for Gail’s sake more than his own.

 

Warning: This book is intended for people 18 years and older, since it contains hot, explicit sex between consenting adults, and all the bad words associated with it.

 

***This is the first episode of an edgy and steamy New Adult romance serial, Not Looking For Love***

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

Mom’s coughs, raspy and urgent, wake me. Her room is at the far end of the hall, five doors down, yet the sound rips through my chest like she’s lying right next to me. Leaving me, saying goodbye. The too many cocktails I drank at Kate’s party no longer make my thoughts fuzzy, instead they buzz around in my stomach, churning, making me sick. The coughing doesn’t stop, changes pitch until it sounds like she’s screaming. I bolt out of bed and run to the door, the sudden movement making the room spin around me. Dad’s footsteps pound down the hallway as he rushes to my mom’s room, so I sit on the chair by my makeup desk and turn on the sidelights, willing the room to stop spinning.

I’d only be in the way now, if I go to my mom. Then my dad will think he has to take care of us both: comfort my mom and keep me safe. Only he can’t, because my mom is dying, and there is no one who can change that. Twenty-two years old is too young to lose a mom. Cancer. Such a whimsical word for such a terrible disease. My birth sign. Bile rises in my throat as I struggle to chase the thought away, thinking of anything but that. That my birth sign is killing my mom, that I’m killing my mom. It’s childish, and it’s stupid to think it, but the idea still feels like I’ve swallowed broken glass.

I grab my wrist, hoping to clutch the charm bracelet she gave me on my 21st birthday just over a year ago. She gave me all of her jewelry for my birthday this year. Tiny charms dangle from the bracelet: a little princess, a colorful egg, and a golden coin. But all I feel is my racing pulse, a tiny ball bouncing in my vein that might break free at any moment, making me bleed out. The bracelet is gone.

I had worn it to Kate’s party, since I never take it off. I’d only gone to the party for a little distraction, and because Kate’s house is just next door, I could be back with my mom in a few minutes if she needed me. It was a total disaster. Brandon wouldn’t stop pestering me, and he ended up throwing me in the pool for a laugh. After that, I ran home, very nearly crying.

Digging through my makeup table, I send creams and blushes, hairpins and lipsticks toppling to the ground, searching frantically for the bracelet, even though I don’t remember taking it off. I run back to the bed, throwing the sheets, the pillows on the ground, checking the nightstand. The bracelet isn’t anywhere.

I’m outside on the patio before I can think.

Mornings are chilly this late in August, and dawn has hardly broken. All I’m wearing is a white tank top and the silk boxers I sleep in. I run across the lawn barefoot, not thinking of what I may be stepping on. I have to find the bracelet; I have no time to put on shoes.

I crawl through the hole in the fence that separates my garden from Kate’s. It’s a tight fit, now that I’m no longer five years old. Chairs and towels, empty glasses and discarded clothes are still strewn across the lawn, but, thankfully, no one is around. Likely, the cold dawn chased the last of the party away. I glance up at the house to make sure no one is watching. All the windows are dark. A light reflects in the first floor windows, and I drop into a crouch reflexively, but it’s just a passing car.

I find my dress near the pool where I took it off to take a dip. Right before Brandon tossed me in. I just left it lying there when I ran home. Everyone must think I’m completely mental now. I hope Brandon does too. Why won’t he just take a hint? Brandon is Kate’s brother, and since she’s like a sister to me, he’s like a brother to me. I can’t be dating my brother. Besides he’s the love ’em and leave ’em type, and all he can give me is a broken heart. Like he did with his last five girlfriends. As if my heart could take any more breaking.

I look around, tossing things aside, not caring where they land, hoping to find the bracelet. It’s not anywhere. The sun’s not up yet, but birds are chirping something awful all around me, and the sky is more white than grey now. Dawn is my favorite time of day. I love watching the colors of the sky change from inky black to grey to lilac blue and finally yellow, the new day being born, bringing new hope. Today, I just wish the sun would come up.

If the bracelet is not in the grass, it might be in the pool. The thought of going back in the water makes me shiver, but my desperation to get the bracelet back right away is stronger.

I ease myself off the side of the pool in roughly the spot where I went in before, feet first, trying not to make any sound that could wake Kate’s family. It’s like slow torture to do it that way, and my whole body cramps up, but the last thing I need is to cause a panic. I could just go back home and come back once the sun is up, but I can’t. I need that bracelet, or else I won’t sleep.

The cold water grips my body like a vice and I take shallow breaths until the worst of the pain passes. The lights in the pool are off already, they’re connected to the porch lights, and someone thoughtfully turned them all off after the party ended. Too thoughtfully. I could really use those lights right now.

After a final deep breath, I submerge my head, fighting the overwhelming urge to gasp as the cold water goes straight to my brain, which is what it feels like. I can almost see the steam coming off, but at least my heart is no longer pounding. I let myself float on the surface, scanning the floor of the pool. Lucky really, that Kate’s pool is saltwater. I can float, eliminating the need to tread water to keep myself on the surface.

Shadows play upon the mosaic floor of the pool, all blues, whites, yellows, and pinks. I turn slightly to adjust my angle of view. No silver gleams against the tiles anywhere. I only come up for air once my lungs start burning and dip my face back in immediately. Grey is giving way to white in the sky now, so the visibility should soon improve. I’m enjoying the silence, the serenity of floating in the water, with my long hair plastered down my ears, blocking out the chirping birds.

The eerie silence is almost like diving, only without the crushing weight of the water pressing against me. But I can’t see my bracelet anywhere, and no doubt the servants will be out cleaning up soon. I adjust my angle again and am just about to come up for more air when something grabs my waist and flips me over in the water.

I scream and flail, gulp water instead of air, with visions of a shark attacking vivid in my mind. Beating and kicking, I paddle hard to get out of the water, my hair obscuring my vision.

Whatever grabbed me is no longer touching me, but I kick back to the side of the pool frantically anyway, still coughing, still seeing nothing. My knuckles collide with the wall of the pool, but I ignore the pain, scraping my knees as I struggle out of the water. My arms are shaking so badly I can’t lift myself up to get out of the pool

“Calm the fuck down!” a man yells behind me. “You’ll hurt yourself. It’s alright.”

He places his hands on my hips and lifts me from the water.

I’m panting now, but at least I’m not swallowing water anymore. I brush my hair from my eyes and stand up, though my legs are shaking so hard I’ll probably just topple back down even if I succeed.

The guy is still in the water, eyeing me like I’m insane. “Are you alright?”

I nod as I finally manage to stand.

He hoists himself from the water in one fluid motion. His white t-shirt is plastered against his chest, and his grey pants hug his legs tightly. He’s all muscle, from his biceps, to his shoulders, chest, and stomach that ripples in a neat six-pack. And not those chiseled for-show muscles that otherwise thin guys have. He’s bulky, twice as wide as any guy I know. Even his legs. No wonder he had no problem tossing me out of the pool.

“Are you alright?” he asks again, standing right in front of me now.

I quickly look up into his face, hoping he didn’t notice me checking him out before. He can’t be much older than me, I see now. His short blond hair looks black near his scalp, but stands up in light colored spikes all over his head. His eyes are either blue or grey—the kind of eyes that change color according to the light. And deep. I could stare at his eyes all day long just to see what I could see.

“Are you high?” he asks. I shake my head a little too sharply and feel my boobs bounce around under my tank. My wet white tank, which isn’t covering me up at all right now if the state of his shirt is anything to go by. A thought to cover myself up flitters through my mind, but it’s distant and sounds ridiculous.

His eyes leave my face and travel down, taking me in. He likes what he sees, and I can feel it. It’s like his gaze is fire, and whatever he’s thinking is bringing my blood to a boil, warming me.

His eyes return to my face, my parted lips. His are slightly parted too, like he’s breathing hard, but I don’t hear it.

“What were you doing in the pool? You scared me to death,” he says, his eyes soft now, and his lips curl into a sheepish grin. “I thought you were dead.”

I shake my head again, this time catching my boobs under my arm. “I thought I lost something in the pool. My bracelet… but I can’t find it.”

He turns back to the pool. The ripples from my flight have still not died down completely, and the surface is an opaque white now, reflecting the sky.

“I doubt you’ll find it in there, not now at least. Wait ’til the sun comes up, maybe,” he says and shrugs like he doesn’t think I’ll ever find it.

“I have to find the bracelet,” I say too loudly, too shrilly.

He holds his hands up like he’s wading me off. “Alright, alright, I’m just saying, wait ’til the sun comes up.”

I look up at the sky, checking to see if the sun is anywhere near up. “Everyone will be up by then.”

He smiles at me again. “I can help you look, I guess.”

I let my arms fall to my sides and turn to the pool. My boobs bounce and that hungry look is back in his eyes. They look brown now, almost black. It’s like he’s touching me with his look, and my nipples, erect and clearly visible through my tank prickle like he’d just run his fingers over them. A ball of heat erupts between my legs, heavy and urgent. Somehow, all I can think of are his arms around my hips, and his cock, so plainly outlined by his wet pants, pressing into me. I really want to go for another dip in the pool with him. I can’t remember any other guy ever turning me on so fast, so hard.

“Gail!” Brandon’s whiny voice rips through my fantasy of me and this pool boy entwined in the water. “What’s happening? Is he harassing you?”

Brandon’s footsteps thump through the grass toward us, and the pool boy takes a step away from me, crossing his arms over his chest. I mimic his motion, and face away from Brandon. Likely, his yells have awoken the whole house. A dark shadow passes over the pool boy’s eyes, and he’s staring at Brandon, but he stays quiet.

“I’m fine,” I say and turn to Brandon. He picks up a towel and wraps it around my shoulders, keeping his arm there too like he owns me.

“Your girlfriend lost something,” the pool boy says. “You should keep a better eye on her.”

I shake off Brandon’s arm. “I’m not his girlfriend.”

Somehow, it’s very important that the pool boy knows this. Softness flashes across his eyes but is gone again in an instant.

He turns and walks toward the gardening tools he tossed on the ground by the pool when he thought he had to save me.

I take a step after him, my arm stretched out like I want to pull him back. I have no idea what I’m doing, but I was warm before, when he was looking at me, and now I’m cold.

I cover the gesture by wrapping the towel tighter around myself. “Do you need some dry clothes? I can bring you something.”

He bends over and picks up a hoe off the ground. “Don’t worry about me. I have a change of clothes in my truck.”

Brandon’s next to me, trying to place his arm around me again. I step to the side, and his arm flails through the air. I could swear pool boy chuckles a little seeing it, but I’m not sure. Maybe it’s just what I want to see. I want him to want me.

The sun finally peeks over the fence, and something glimmers a few steps away from me in the grass.

I lunge for it, making both Brandon and the pool boy start.

“My bracelet!” I ‘m clutching it so tightly the charms dig painfully into my palm. I know my face is a mask of deranged glee, but I can’t help it.

The pool boy picks up the rest of his tools and shakes his head, muttering something that could be ‘crazy rich chick,’ but I may be wrong.

“Do you want to go inside? Get warmed up?” Brandon asks. He’s hovering next to me again, standing between the pool boy and me. Going in with him is the last thing I want to do. Pool boy is already at the far side of the garden.

I shake my head and run toward the hole in the fence, wishing Brandon never showed up and I was dipping in the pool with, well, pool boy. I need to find out his name. Pool boy is a dumb nickname. Especially since he’s obviously the gardener.

Dad is standing on the patio and sipping his coffee, his eyes glazed. I’m not even sure he sees me approach.

“How’s Mom?” I ask, forestalling any questions from him and making sure he knows I’m sober and ready for bed.

“She’s asleep now. Try not to wake her.”

I slip past him, not wanting to share his grief. It multiplies when we’re together, breeds, grows, and expands until it’s all there is, and I can’t breathe. A week or so is all Mommy has left. All the doctors agree. I hope they’re wrong. Every second of every minute, I hope they’re wrong. And right now, I’d rather loose myself in the fantasy of pool boy and me in the pool than hope for anything at all.

 

I fell asleep before I could get any kind of fantasy going, and by the time I wake up it’s almost one in the afternoon. Since, I ended up sleeping in my sweats, I just pull my damp hair into a messy bun and go in search of some coffee.

I stop by my mom’s room, cracking the door open just a little bit to see if she’s awake. All I hear is her raspy, shallow breathing. One of her hands is hanging off the side of the bed, and her cover and sheets are all crumbled up like she just woke from a nightmare. Only she’s still sleeping, each breath like stone grating against sandpaper.

I slip into the room and tiptoe to her bed. My heart is in my throat, beating against the hot, jagged ball of burning tears that’s always there when I see her. I can’t let her see me cry because I’m not a little girl anymore, even though that’s exactly how I feel most of the time now. Like I’m ten and my mommy is dying. She can’t know any of that; it would just make it all harder on her. But she’s asleep now, and a hot tear trickles down my cheek. Only I don’t whimper, don’t let any sound escape my clenched throat. She might wake up. I take her hand, tears rushing from my eyes now, and place it on the bed next to her. She doesn’t stir. The nurse is giving her the maximum amount of morphine she can now. It’s not always enough to dull the pain. And she’s sleeping now. I mustn’t wake her. Yet all I want to do is climb in bed with her. Like I did when I was little. Wake her, talk to her. Laugh. Instead, I’m crying, inching back out of the room silently because I can’t wake her.

I wipe my tears away as I walk down to the kitchen, concentrating hard on the cup of coffee I’m about to have, until it’s all I know and all I think about. I lean against the counter, waiting for the coffee to brew. The window has a partial view of Kate’s service driveway and the red pick-up parked there. A magnolia tree by the fence near it is shaking like someone’s cutting it. Pool boy or gardener. The memory of him, in his wet clothes this morning sends, tingles through my stomach. He’d be a better distraction than a cup of coffee and much better than one of Kate’s wild parties.

I run back up the stairs, untangling my hair as I go. I slip on a sundress with a deep v-cut that I’d normally only wear if it was really hot out. Back in the kitchen, I pour two cups of coffee and walk across the lawn to the fence, hoping pool boy is indeed trimming the magnolia tree.

I climb through the hole in the fence, sloshing hot coffee over my bare leg, but at least I don’t spill it all over my dress. Kate’s high-pitched laugh echoes from the pool, but the hedge from here to the magnolia tree is so thick she shouldn’t be able to see me.

The shrubbery hides me from the pool boy too. He’s wearing a pair of faded jeans now and no shirt. The sunlight makes his skin glisten, and all I really want to do is run my hand down his back, feeling those hard muscles. That desire surprises me. I’m not usually very forward with guys and definitely prefer them to take the lead. He’s got one of those electric cutters going, so he doesn’t hear me approach.

I clear my throat once I reach him. “Excuse me.”

The saw sputters, and the noise dies out. He turns toward me, surprise evident in the way his face hovers between a smile and a frown. I wouldn’t mind touching his lips either.

“I thought you might like some coffee,” I say, holding one of the cups toward him, sloshing more of it across my arm in the process.

He just stares at me like he can’t figure out what I’m doing there.

“Thank you for saving me,” I explain, belatedly adding, “or, you know, trying to.”

He puts the saw down, wipes sweat off his face with the back of his hand, and finally takes the coffee.

“I put milk and sugar in. I don’t know how you like it,” I say rather stupidly.

His eyes, the color of a cloudless blue sky now with just a hint of sunlight dip down to the v of my dress. With the push-up I’m wearing, the dress reveals more than it hides.

“Thanks. I like milk and sugar just fine.”

His gaze warms me again, heat shooting through my stomach. Somehow, I don’t think he’s really talking about the milk and sugar.

What I’m feeling must be showing on my face because he chuckles a little and gulps down the coffee.

“Thank you, Miss…?” he says, holding the empty cup toward me.

“Gail,” I manage.

“Miss Gail,” he says and chuckles again.

“No, just Gail,” I explain too seriously. His eyes are still taking me in, sizing me up, and sending tingles across all the places I wish he’d touch. “And what’s your name?”

“Scott,” he says and shakes the empty cup at me. “And you’re welcome. Anytime. I’m just glad you’re not dead.”

Dead, I hate that word. That word used to be scary, now it’s terrifying. Dead is what my mom will be. Her two-month sentence will be done in one week. An image of her laughing face flashes through my mind, as she bought me the bracelet in Rome, and as she listened to me telling her of that boy I was so helplessly in love with back in sixth grade. She doesn’t laugh like that anymore. Soon she never will. Because she will be dead.

Scott’s eyes narrow and pull together. He bends down and places the cup on the ground. “I should get back to work. Thanks for the coffee. Have a nice day.”

“I’d like to thank you properly,” I hear myself saying, with no idea where the words are coming from or where they’re going. “Do you have time for a proper drink later, after work?”

I’ve never asked a guy out so pointedly before. Never had the nerve. Not in sixth grade, not at any time since. So, I don’t know why I’m doing it now. I must be crazy.

He lifts his eyes up to mine again, stopping just a little too long at my boobs.

My mouth is hanging open, and my eyes must be too wide. I know all this, but can’t stop it. I wish I had Kate’s easygoing manner with guys, but I don’t. And now he’ll say no, thinking I’m just a crazy rich chick, and this is the second time I’m making a total fool of myself in front of him.

He gives me a lopsided grin, and locks his eyes on mine. “I’d love to; I really would, but…”

I hate that ‘but’. At least he’s being nice about it.

I want to wipe the expectant look off my face, but it’s stuck there.

“… that guy, Brandon… he likes you. He’s my boss, sort of, and I need this job, kind of, but I’d love to.”

I know I’m wearing a confused, unattractive grimace on my face right now.

“So is it a yes or a no?” I ask.

A cloud of annoyance covers his eyes, and I look away, down to his chest at his dark red nipples. I wonder what they’d feel like between my teeth. Oh my God, I’ve never ever wanted to suck a guy’s nipples before. What’s wrong with me?

“It’s a no,” he says. It feels more like a slap.

I’m going insane; it’s the only explanation. I’m asking a gardener out on a date. And he said no.

“Fine, fine, whatever,” I mutter, pick up his empty cup, and twirl around, sloshing my own, untouched coffee all over my dress this time.

It’s too much. My mom is dying, I’ve barely slept, I’m not acting like myself at all, and now this guy is rejecting me. Tears blind me.

“I’m sorry.” I think I hear him yell after me, but I’m already climbing back through the fence, sloshing more coffee all over myself. What was I thinking? I’m a mess. I should be with my mom, not chasing guys and wondering what their nipples taste like. Not asking gardeners out on dates.

 

 

BUY LINKS

AMAZON US http://amzn.to/17H7oIB

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

lena

Lena Bourne is a young writer, but she has seen her fair share of the world, of love and loss, and all that happens in between. Now she’s here telling the stories you might otherwise have missed, which are made up, of course, but could very well be real and true. Not Looking For Love is a five part steamy New Adult romance serial and it is now complete and available for purchase.

 

 AUTHOR LINKS

 

Website:  http://www.lenabourne.com/

 

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Lena_Bourne

FB: https://www.facebook.com/lenabourneauthor

 

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/9789810.Lena_Bourne

Amazon: http://amazon.com/author/lenabourne

Email: bourne.lena@gmail.com

 

 

 

DIRTY DEEDS by Karina Halle Release Day!!!!

 

“He’s fearless and ruthless. Soulless.”
As a flight attendant, Alana Bernal has had her share of suitors. She’s also had more than
her fair share of tragedy within her messed-up family. But what she hasn’t had
is love. Real, rip-your-heart-out, tear-your-clothes-off, all-consuming love.
At least that was the case until she met an American tourist, Derek Conway, a ripped
ex-soldier with steely eyes and a commanding presence.
What started as a chance encounter between the two in Puerto Vallarta, a weekend full of hot
sex and mindless passion, has led to something more.
Something deadly.
Because Derek isn’t the type of man to fall in love. He’s not a man who sticks around.
And he’s definitely not in Mexico on vacation.
Derek is a mercenary, a killer-for-hire, a man who does the ugly jobs for the highest
bidder.
Unfortunately for Alana and Derek, the highest bidder has the power to destroy whatever
worlds they have created for themselves.
The highest bidder can destroy everything.
This is a romantic suspense book, #2 in the Dirty Angels trilogy but can be read as a
standalone novel*
EXCERPT
Once we were in the back of the cab, she was sitting with her thigh flush against mine. I was somewhat dressed up – dark jeans, white and blue pinstriped dress shirt – and yet I could feel her heat through my clothing. That and her smell and the way her hair fell across her face, highlighting the coy glimpses of her eyes and smile, was driving me borderline insane. Though we made small chat throughout the ride, my mind was elsewhere, concentrating on keeping that well-earned control I had. I had to focus on the task at hand, which of course was her. But not in that way. I needed in deep, for her own safety and my own sanity.
It took a long time to finally get to the restaurant, located in the old town of Puerto Vallarta, despite the driver cutting everyone off along the way. You either drove aggressively around here or you didn’t drive at all.
“Thank you,” she said to me as I took her arm and helped her out of the cab. When she straightened up she looked at the place and made an impressed face. “Wow. You know, I’ve never been here before and I’ve lived in PV for a long time.”
“First time for everything then.”
I picked the place because it looked a bit different from the tourist traps in the downtown area. There wasn’t much to the outside except for a tall stone fence topped with strangling vines and flowers that bloomed like white and magenta cotton balls. But on the other side of the cast-iron gate was a different story.
I helped her over there, even though she was walking so much better now on her cast, and a waiter opened it up, giving us a hearty welcome to Coconut Joes. I gave him the reservation name and he led us through tables with ivory-lace tablecloths, past a clear blue pool with koi fish and a waterfall, under dramatic palm fronds, and all the way to a table in the back corner with a lit candle on it. The place wasn’t anything too outrageous or stuffy but it was just classy enough.
“Again, wow,” Alana said as I helped her into seat. I was starting to like being her nurse. She looked around, her cheeks glowing beautifully in the candlelight. “This is something.”
“Something good?” I asked as the server poured us bottled water.
“More than good,” she said. “The guys I dated never brought me places like this.”
Something pinched in my chest. “Oh? They take you to McDonalds?”
She gave me a look. “Most of the men I dated were pilots. They would take me somewhere really snobby and expensive to try and seem better than they were.” She took a polite sip of her water and straightened her napkin on her lap. Every day, her pain seemed to be easing, her movements becoming more fluid. “Then the next night they would take some other stupid flight attendant to the same place.”
As much as I felt an unjustified hit of jealousy, she was giving me some information, something I could work with.
“So I guess there’s a lot of drama in the workplace, huh?” I said casually, eying the waiter who was approaching us with menus in hand. In the background “Morena de Mi Corazon” started to play from the speakers. “Spurned lovers and revenge in the air,” I added.
She laughed. “No, not really. It was my fault. Rookie mistake to date a pilot…even though I did more than a few times.” She looked away, embarrassed. “Most guys I date are a mistake but no one seems to get hurt.”
So that probably ruled out the whole spurned lover angle. Not that I thought an ex-lover could or would attempt to have her taken out and for that amount of money. Love made people do crazy fucking things but that would have been a first in my books. Besides, if she did have an obsessed ex-boyfriend then I was sure I’d find out about him sooner or later.
The waiter came by and told us the specials. I ordered for the both of us – seared Ahi – because I’d never done that before, not even with Carmen, and made sure he kept the bottles of wine coming.
She was about three glasses of wine in, giggly and eating her fish with gusto when I started pressing her.
“So do you have any siblings?”
The smile seemed to vanish right off her face. There. I had something there. No matter what her answer was, I hit a nail.
“I have a twin sister and a brother,” she answered simply.
“Oh? And where do they live? What do they do?”
She relaxed her jaw a bit and took a bite of her rice. “My sister, Marguerite, she lives in New York. Goes to film school.”
Hmmm. That placed her out of range and a student at that.
“And your brother?”
“He lives around here.”
“In Puerto Vallarta?”
She shot me a wary look. “Around here. But he’s an asshole and I’d rather not talk about him.”
I raised my brow. “An asshole? What makes you say that?”
“I just do,” she said stubbornly. Then she sighed. “He just is. Every family has a…what do you say, black sheep. Right? Well, that’s him.”
“What’s his name?”
She bit her lip and said, “Juan.”
I didn’t know her well enough to tell if she was lying or not. I’m not sure why she would lie about her own brother.
I pressed it further. “What does he do?”
“He’s in importing and exporting. Trade with America. That sort of thing.”
Well, we all knew what that meant down here. Running drugs, like everyone else. Still, that gave me something to go on. Of course the name Juan didn’t help me much.
“What’s his last name, his surnames?” I asked, knowing that sometimes the men in Mexico took on their mother’s maiden names as well as their father’s.
“Bardem,” she said without hesitation. “Why all the questions?”
I shrugged and leaned back in my seat. “Just want to know more about you.”
Her brows knitted together as she eyed me suspiciously. “Maybe so, but you’re asking with this look on your face, like you’re all David Caruso.”
“David Caruso?”
“CSI Miami. It’s still my favorite, I don’t care for the other ones.”
“Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you but I don’t have the hair to be David Caruso, nor do I have the sunglasses and quippy one-liners.”
She took a sip of her wine but couldn’t hide her smile. Good, she was back to trusting me again. I wanted to ask her about her parents but I thought that would be pushing my luck. Whoever they were to her though, they were either dead or out of the picture. They had never come to see her in the hospital and the truth about her brother and sister explained why they hadn’t either.
What the hell have you done, Alana? I asked in my head as I stared at her across the table, the light illuminating her in an angelic way. Why would anyone pay me two hundred thousand dollars to have you killed?
And how the hell would I ever know the answers to those questions without incriminating myself?
From the USA Today Bestselling author of Love, in English
and The Artists Trilogy, comes a dark romance about a good girl and a very,
very bad man. It’s a deliciously twisted take on forbidden love, set among the
drug cartels of hot, steamy Mexico and is not for the faint of heart. It
contains explicit sex, violence, abuse, drug use, bad language and sexy
Mexicans. You have been warned…
For Luisa Chavez, a twenty-three year old former beauty
queen, a better life has always been just out of her reach. Sure, she’s had men
at her feet since she was a young teenager but she’s never had the one thing
she’s craved – security. Having grown up in near poverty, her waitressing job
in Cabo San Lucas can barely let her take care of herself, let alone her ailing
parents. Every day is another unwanted advance, every day is a struggle to
survive.
When Salvador Reyes, the depraved leader of a major Mexican
cartel, takes an interest in her, Luisa is presented with an opportunity she
can’t afford to pass up. She’ll become Salvador’s wife and exchange her freedom
and body for a life of riches – riches she can bestow upon her deserving
parents. But Luisa quickly finds out that even the finest wines and jewels
can’t undo the ugliness in her marriage, nor the never-ending violence that
threatens her every move.
Soon, Luisa is looking for an escape, a way out of the
carefully controlled life she’s leading. She finally gets her wish in the worst
way possible.
As it is, being the wife of Salvador makes her an ideal
target for rival cartels and there’s one particular man who needs Luisa as part
of his cartel’s expansion. One particular man whose quest for power has
destroyed lives, slit throats and gotten him out of an American prison. One
particular man who will stop at nothing until he gets what he wants.
That man is Javier Bernal. And he wants Luisa. He wants to
take her, keep her, ruin her.
Unless she ruins him first.
Some men were born to create empires, some women were meant
to be queen.
**Dirty Angels is the first standalone novel in the Dirty
Angels Trilogy, in which all books feature or involve different characters. The
character of Javier Bernal is from The Artists Trilogy, and while reading TAT
is recommended if you want additional insight into this twisted character, it
is not required.**

 

Halle Headshot
With her USA Today Bestselling The Artists Trilogy published by Grand Central Publishing, numerous foreign publication deals, and self-publishing success with her Experiment in Terror series, Vancouver-born Karina Halle is a true example of the term “Hybrid Author.” Though her books showcase her love of all things dark, sexy and edgy, she’s a closet romantic at heart and strives to give her characters a HEA…whenever possible.Karina holds a screenwriting degree from Vancouver Film School and a Bachelor of Journalism from TRU. Her travel writing, music reviews/interviews and photography have appeared in publications such as Consequence of Sound, Mxdwn and GoNomad Travel Guides. She currently lives on an island on the coast of British Columbia where she’s preparing for the zombie apocalypse with her fiancé and rescue pup.

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CELEBRATE SLACK FRIDAY from POCKET STAR eBOOKS!!!!

SLACK FRIDAY: NOVEMBER 28, 2014

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Avoid crazed shopping crowds!

Keep calm and carry on at home with these great

Merr-E Holiday Treats from Pocket Star eBooks!

Tim

TIM CRATCHIT’S CHRISTMAS CAROL:

THE SEQUEL TO THE CELEBRATED DICKENS CLASSIC

Jim Piecuch

November 17, 2014

$1.99

 

SUMMARY:

In A Christmas Carol, evil Scrooge was shown the error of his ways by three helpful ghosts and vowed to become a better person. Bob Cratchit and his family benefited most from Scrooge’s change of tune—but what happened after the goose was given, and Scrooge resolved to turn over a new leaf? Tim Cratchit’s Christmas Carol shows us Tiny Tim as an adult. Having recovered from his childhood ailment, he began his career helping the poor but has since taken up practice as a doctor to London’s wealthy elite. Though Tim leads a very successful life, he comes home at night to an empty house. But this holiday season, he’s determined to fill his house with holiday cheer—and maybe even a wife. When a single, determined young mother lands on Tim’s doorstep with her ailing son, Tim is faced with a choice: stay ensconced in his comfortable life and secure doctor’s practice, or take a leap of faith and reignite the fire lit under him by his mentor, Scrooge, that fateful Christmas so many years ago.

 

EXCERPT:

Dr. Timothy Cratchit emerged from his Harley Street office shortly after six-thirty in the evening. He was surprised to find that the yellow-gray fog that had blanketed London for the past week had disappeared, swept away by a biting north wind. He paused for a moment to gaze up at the stars, a rare sight in the

usually haze-choked city. Then, pulling his scarf tightly around his neck, he walked quickly down the steps and along the path to the curb, where his brougham waited. The horses, a chestnut gelding and another of dappled gray, stomped their hooves on the cobblestone pavement. They made an odd pair, but Tim had chosen them for their gentle nature rather than their appearance. As the doctor approached, his coachman smiled and swung open the side door. The coach’s front and rear lamps

barely pierced December’s early darkness.

 

“Good evening, Doctor,” the coachman said as Tim approached.

 

“Good evening, Henry,” the doctor replied. “How are you tonight?”

 

The coachman, who was tall and lean, wore a knee-length black wool coat and a black top hat, his ears covered by an incongruous-looking strip of wool cloth below the brim.

 

“Cold, sir,” Henry replied. Tim grasped the vertical rail alongside the carriage door and was about to hoist himself inside when he heard a shout. Stepping back from the carriage, he turned to his left, toward the direction where the sound had come from.

 

The gas lamps along the street penetrated just enough of the gloom to allow Tim to distinguish a figure hurrying toward him. As the person drew nearer, Tim could see that it was a woman, clutching a dirty bundle to her chest. Thousands of poor women in London made a meager living sifting through the city’s dustbins for usable items and selling them for whatever pittance they could fetch. The bundle this woman cradled so carefully probably contained an assortment of odd candlesticks, worn shoes, frayed shirts, and the like. Still, this was not someone who would normally frequent Harley Street.

 

“Wait a moment, please,” Tim told the coachman, resignation in his voice. He was eager to get home, and too tired to wait while the woman unwrapped the bundle. He reached into his trousers pocket, found a half crown and two shillings to give her so that she would continue on her way.

 

When the woman came to a stop in front of him, Tim noticed with surprise that she was young, perhaps twenty years old. She was small, not much over five feet tall, clad in a tattered dress covered by a dirty, threadbare gray blanket that she had fashioned into a hooded cloak. Her dark brown hair was matted

in greasy clumps, and a smudge of dirt smeared her right cheek. Her face, though it was beginning to show the premature wear of a hard life, was still quite pretty. She stood with her brown eyes downcast, silently waiting for Tim to acknowledge her.

 

“Can I help you, miss?”

 

“Thank you for waiting, sir,” the woman said, still struggling to catch her breath. “I was hoping that you could take a look at my son. He’s very sick.” She tugged back a corner of what appeared to be a piece of the same blanket that constituted her cloak to reveal the face of an infant.

 

Tim suppressed a groan. It had been a long day—all his days seemed long now—and he was eager to get home. “Come inside, please,” he instructed the woman. To Henry he said, “This shouldn’t take too long.”

 

Unlocking the office door, Tim went inside, lit a lamp, and then held the door for the woman and baby to enter. Inside, the woman gazed at him with an earnestness that aroused his sympathy.

 

“I’m very sorry to bother you like this, Doctor. I didn’t mean to come so late, but I had to walk all the way from the East End, and it took longer than I thought,” she explained. “I never would have found your office yet, except that a kind old gentleman asked if I was lost and then pointed me to your door. A

friend of yours, he said.”

 

“Well,” Tim replied in a reassuring tone, “you’re fortunate that I had to work late; I usually close the office at six.”

 

The woman shuffled her feet uneasily. “If it’s too late, sir, we can come back tomorrow.”

 

“No, no, that’s all right. Now tell me, what is the matter?”

 

“It’s my Jonathan, sir. He’s been sickly since birth, and now he’s getting worse,” she said. Tim noticed that her eyes were moist.

 

“Let’s take him into the examination room.” Tim led them in, lit the lamps. The woman laid the child on the table and pulled back the blanket and other wrappings. Tim was shocked to see that the boy was not an infant—his facial features were too developed—but he was clearly undersized, and Tim did not

dare hazard a guess as to his age.

 

“How old is the little fellow?”

 

“Three last summer, sir.”

 

Tim studied the boy. His eyes were open, brown like his mother’s, and though they gazed intently at Tim, the little body was limp. No mental defect, but something physical, and severe. Tim placed a thumb in each of the tiny hands.

 

“Can you squeeze my thumbs, Jonathan?” he asked. The boy did so, feebly.

 

“Very good!” Tim said. Jonathan smiled.

 

“I didn’t know who else to go to, sir,” the woman explained as Tim flexed the boy’s arms and legs. “There’s no doctors who want to see the likes of us, but then I remembered you, sir. You took care of me many years back, when I had a fever. You came by the East End every week then, sir, and took care of the poor folk.”

 

“I’m sorry, but I treated so many patients that I can’t recall you, Miss, ah, Mrs.—”

 

“It’s Miss, Doctor. Jonathan’s father was a sailor. We were supposed to marry, but I never seen him since before Jonathan was born. My name’s Ginny Whitson.”

 

It was already clear to Tim that the child, like his thin, almost gaunt mother, was badly malnourished. That accounted in part for his small size. Tim also noticed that the boy’s leg muscles were extremely weak. Jonathan remained quiet, looking at the strange man with a mixture of curiosity and fear.

 

“Does Jonathan walk much?” Tim asked.

 

“No, sir, never a step. He could stand a bit until a few weeks ago, but now he can’t even do that. I think it’s the lump on his back, Doctor.”

 

Tim carefully turned the boy over to find a plum-sized swelling along the left edge of his spine at waist level. He touched it lightly, and Jonathan whimpered. “How long has he had this?” Tim asked.

 

“I didn’t notice it till a year ago, sir. It was tiny then, but it’s grown since. In the last month or so it’s gone from about the size of a grape to this big.”

 

Tim hesitated. He needed to do some research and then give Jonathan a more thorough examination before he could accurately diagnose and treat the boy’s condition. He did have several possibilities in mind, none of them good, but there was no sense alarming Ginny prematurely. After she had swathed her child in the bundle of cloth, Tim ushered them back into the waiting room, where he studied his appointment book.

 

“Can you come back at noon on Saturday? I’m sorry to make you wait that long, but I have some things to check, and it will take time.” Ginny nodded. “I’ll see then what I can do,” Tim said.

 

“Oh, Doctor, thank you so much,” Ginny blurted, grateful for any help regardless of when it might come. She shifted Jonathan to her left arm, and thrust her right hand into the pocket of her frayed and patched black dress. Removing a small felt sack, she emptied a pile of copper coins onto the clerk’s desk. Most were farthings and halfpennies, with an occasional large penny interspersed among them.

 

“I know this isn’t enough even for today, sir,” she apologized. “But I’ll get more, I promise. I’m working hard, you see, sir. Every day I go door-to-door and get work cleaning house and doing laundry, and save all I can.”

 

With his right hand, Tim swept the coins across the desktop into his cupped left palm and returned them to Ginny. He was touched by her attempt to pay him, knowing that she must have gone without food many times to accumulate this small amount of money. Her devotion to her son and effort to demonstrate her independence impressed him.

 

“There isn’t any fee, Miss Whitson. I’ll be happy to do whatever I can for Jonathan at no charge.”

 

“But I can’t accept charity, Doctor,” the surprised woman answered. “It wouldn’t be right, taking your time away from your paying patients.”

 

“We all need charity in one form or another at some time in our lives,” Tim said. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for a great act of charity long ago, and as for taking time away from my paying patients, that may be more of a benefit than a problem. Come along, now, and I’ll give you and Jonathan a ride home.”

 

Tim locked the office door and escorted Ginny and Jonathan to his coach as tears trickled down her face, picking up dirt from the smudge on her cheek and tracking it down to her chin. Jonathan began to cry soon after the coach got under way, and Ginny comforted him with a lullaby, one that Tim remembered his own mother singing to him. When the child finally fell asleep, both remained silent, afraid to wake him. Once they reached the narrow streets packed with sailors, beggars, drunks, and an assortment of London’s other poor wretches, Ginny asked to be let out. Tim knocked twice on the roof, and Henry reined in the horses.

 

As she was about to step out of the carriage, something she had said earlier occurred to Tim. “One moment, Miss Whitson. You mentioned that someone directed you to my office. Do you know who he was?”

 

“No, Doctor,” she replied, “and he didn’t say. He was an old gentleman, thin, with a long nose and white hair. Neatly dressed, but his clothes weren’t fancy, if you know what I mean, sir.”

 

Tim bade her good night and watched as she walked down the sidewalk, past gin mills and dilapidated rooming houses. She soon turned into the recessed doorway of a darkened pawnshop and settled herself on the stone pavement. Tim briefly thought of going back to find out if she even had a home, or if she was going to spend the night in the doorway. Fatigue slowed his thoughts, however, and by the time the idea took root, the carriage was a block away and gathering speed.

 

Tim lay back against the soft, leather-covered seat cushions, pondering which of his Harley Street neighbors had directed her to his office. Most of them would have ignored such a woman, or ordered her back to the slums. Her description, though, didn’t fit any of them. He shook his head, trying to remove the cobwebs from his tired mind. It must have been someone else, someone he just couldn’t recall in his fuddled state. No sense wrestling with the question, he concluded.

 

During the long drive across town to his home in the western outskirts of London, Tim tried to relax. It had been another in a seemingly endless string of days filled with consultations and surgeries. Tim had arrived at his office at five-thirty that morning, half an hour earlier than usual, to prepare for a seven

o’clock operation on the Duchess of Wilbersham. She had been complaining for weeks about pain in her left shoulder, which she attributed to a strain that refused to heal. Since she never lifted anything heavier than a deck of cards at her daily whist game, Tim doubted the explanation, and several examinations showed no sign of any real injury. The duchess had a reputation as a hypochondriac who sought treatment for her phantom ailments from the best doctors in London, then bragged about

how she managed to maintain her health by not stinting on the cost of good medical care. To placate the pompous woman, Tim had finally caved in to her demand that he operate to repair the tendons and ligaments she insisted had been damaged. Because the surgery was minor and the duchess, with good reason, abhorred hospitals, Tim performed the operation in his office, which was equipped for such tasks. A small incision and internal examination verified his suspicion that the duchess’s shoulder was perfectly sound. When she awoke, with more pain from the surgery than she had ever experienced from her imaginary injury, along with sutures and an application of carbolic acid to prevent infection, she swore that the shoulder had not felt so well in ten years. Tim wondered if she would be so pleased when the effects of the morphine wore off.

 

“Just give the doctor that bag of coins I asked you to bring,” the duchess had ordered her maidservant. “I won’t insult you, Dr. Cratchit, by asking your fee, but I’m sure there’s more than enough here to cover it, and worth every farthing, too.”

 

When Tim’s clerk opened the leather pouch, he found it contained one hundred gold guineas. Tim could not help contrasting the way his wealthy patients tossed gold coins about with Ginny Whitson’s offer of her pathetic little hoard of coppers. The thought stirred memories of his own childhood, when pennies were so scarce that he and his brothers and sisters sometimes had to roam through frigid alleys to scavenge wood scraps to keep a fire burning on winter nights. It was on one such night when he lay awake, shivering on his thin straw mattress, that he overheard the conversation that changed his life.

 

“I’m to get a raise in salary,” his father murmured excitedly, trying not to wake the children.

 

“I don’t believe it,” Mrs. Cratchit declared. “That old miser would die before he parted with an extra farthing.”

 

“It’s true, dear,” Bob Cratchit insisted. “I’ve never seen Mr. Scrooge like that. We sat for an hour this afternoon, talking. He asked a lot of questions about our family, Tim in particular.”

 

“I’m surprised that he even knew you had a family, Bob.”

 

“I was, too, dear, but he seemed to know a good bit about us. Why, from a few things he said about hoping we had a good Christmas dinner, I think he’s the one who sent the turkey yesterday. Who else could have done it?”

 

“Well, I hope you’re right, Bob. I’ll not believe any of it until I see the proof.”

 

Tim smiled at the recollection of his mother’s skepticism. She had always been the realist in the family, Bob the optimist. Tim had shared his mother’s doubts. She and the children had despised Ebenezer Scrooge, blaming his greed for the family’s struggles. But with his stomach filled to bursting with turkey

left over from Christmas dinner, Tim dared to hope that his father was right, and that old Scrooge might truly have undergone a change of heart. After all, it was Christmas, a time when good things were supposed to happen.

 

The sudden stop as the carriage arrived at his front door shook Tim from his reverie. He was out the door before Henry could dismount from the driver’s seat and open it for him, a habit that Tim had observed left his coachman more amused than chagrined.

 

“That’s all right, Henry,” he said, waving toward the carriage house. “You and the horses get inside and warm up.”

 

Entering the large, well-lit foyer, Tim was greeted by his maid. Bridget Riordan was a pretty Irish girl, with long, flaming red hair pinned up under her white cap, numberless freckles on her cheeks and small nose, and green eyes that always seemed to sparkle with happiness. She took Tim’s top hat, coat, and

scarf. “Dinner will be ready in a half hour, Doctor,” she announced, “so you can rest a bit if you’d like.”

 

“Thank you, Bridget,” Tim replied, watching her walk gracefully toward the kitchen. He loosened his cravat as he climbed the stairs, thought briefly of skipping the meal and going directly to bed, and decided that he could not afford the luxury since he had a long evening of work ahead of him.

 

As usual, Tim dined alone. At the time he had purchased the large house, Tim had expected that he would one day need the space for the family he hoped to have. However, the demands of his practice and the memory of his one previous and unsuccessful attempt at courtship kept him from actively pursuing any romantic interests. Now he sometimes wondered whether he would spend the rest of his life a bachelor, without the happiness he had enjoyed as a child in the crowded and bustling Cratchit home.

 

Solitary meals in the cavernous dining room always seemed to dim Tim’s pleasure despite the hot, tasty food that Bridget prepared. When he had hired them after buying the house, he had often insisted that she, Henry, and William, the gardener, join him in the dining room. But the trio had been servants

since their childhood, and their previous masters, who had not shared Tim’s lack of concern with class distinctions, had impressed upon them the idea that it was improper for servants to associate with their master outside the scope of their duties. The dinner conversations had been stilted, with Tim trying to

make conversation and Bridget, Henry, and William replying in monosyllables punctuated by “sir.” Tim had quickly given up the experiment, yet he still could not help feeling a pang of sadness, mixed with a bit of jealousy, every time the sound of their friendly conversation and laughter in the serving room rose

high enough for him to hear. Still, he admitted that all three servants had warmed to him over the past two years, and had grown more willing to engage him in informal conversation. Perhaps one day they could dine together without the awkwardness of his previous attempts, he thought.

 

Shortly after nine o’clock, Tim retired to his upstairs study. There each night he reviewed the next day’s cases, looked up information in his medical books that he might need, and, if time permitted, read the most recent scientific journals to keep up to date on the latest advances in medicine and surgery. At

one time he had contributed his share of new knowledge to the medical profession, but for the last several years he just could not find the time to do so. He really didn’t have the opportunity, anyway. How could he devise innovative treatments, he asked himself, when most of the patients he saw, like the duchess, had nothing seriously wrong with them to begin with?

 

Having finished his preparation for the next day’s work, Tim drew out his pocket watch. Not quite half past ten. He reached across the wide mahogany desk for the latest issue of the Lancet, which had lain unread for more than a week. Tim pushed it aside. It would have to wait until he had researched Jonathan’s condition. Tim walked over to the bookcase, scanned several volumes, removed a reference book, and returned to his chair. The coal fire that Bridget had stoked was still burning strongly; he would see if he could find confirmation of his suspicions regarding the boy’s problem, or alternative, less dire diagnoses, before retiring. Balancing his chair upon its two rear legs, he put his feet on the desk and opened the volume.

 

Tim did not know how long he had been reading. It seemed he had gone over the same paragraph a dozen times without registering the information in his mind when he felt how cold the study had become. He glanced toward the fireplace, where a single small log emitted a parsimonious warmth. The room seemed dark—looking over his shoulder at the gas lamp, he was surprised to see only a candle in a tin wall sconce, flickering in a chill breeze that came through a cracked windowpane. Strange, Tim thought, he was certain Bridget had closed the curtains. And when had the window broken?

 

His eyes better adjusted to the gloom, Tim turned back toward the fireplace. His surprise turned to shock when he looked down at his legs and saw that the new black trousers he had been wearing were now coarse brown cloth through which he could see the outline of his legs, withered and weak. The

elegant marble of the fireplace had been replaced by cracked, ancient bricks. Leaning against them was a crutch. His childhood crutch.

 

Tim stared at the hearth, baffled, for how long he did not know. Then he started to get up, reaching for the crutch, only to find that his legs were so weak he could not stand. He gazed at his extended right hand. It was that of a child. He leaned back in his chair, rubbed his eyes, and when he looked around again, he was back in his own comfortable study. The gas lamp burned brightly, the fire still blazed in its marble enclave. There was no crutch to be seen. He flexed his legs. They were strong. He shuddered, perplexed at what had occurred. Although he was quite sure that he had not fallen asleep, he reassured himself that it must have been a dream. Not surprising, considering his thoughts about Jonathan, and the unavoidable realization that the boy’s plight reminded him so much of his own childhood illness. Tim stood, uneasy, and dropped the reference book on the desk before heading to bed.

 

Standing over the washbasin, he poured water from a pitcher into the ceramic bowl. He wet a washcloth and rubbed his face. Even in the light of the single gas lamp, he could see the creases beginning to form on his forehead, the dark circles under his blue eyes. A few strands of gray were sprinkled through his blond hair. He thought he looked at least a decade older than his thirty-two years. Combined with his short stature and thinness, Tim reflected that in a few years he would look like a wizened old man.

 

Too much work, that was the cause, he thought. Unpleasant work. And now he also had to do something about Jonathan Whitson, who had what was likely a malignant tumor. A boy not yet four, probably sentenced to death by nature before his life had a chance to begin. Five years ago, Dr. Timothy Cratchit would have tackled the child’s case enthusiastically and with optimism. Now he was reduced to performing fake surgeries to placate hypochondriacs.

 

Ginny Whitson had met him years earlier, and believed in his abilities. He only wished that he shared her confidence.

 

AUTHOR:

Jim Piecuch is an associate professor of history, and has published several works of nonfiction. Tim Cratchit’s Christmas Carol is his first novel.

 

Perfect

THE PERFECT GIFT

Dani-Lyn Alexander

November 17, 2014

$.99

 

SUMMARY:

’Tis the night before Christmas…and businessman and single father Jason is scrambling to find the dollhouse of the season for his seven-year-old daughter Emily. But when he finally strikes gold at an obscure toy store, he’s met with resistance—literally, as a beautiful woman named Leah is grabbing onto the dollhouse box from the other side of the aisle, determined to get the same Christmas present for her own daughter. Desperate not to let the other win, Jason and Leah forge a pact: stay together until they find the same dollhouse at a different toy store. It sounds simple, but ten stores and many hours later, they still come up empty. They might not be finding another dollhouse, but they sure are finding a lot to talk about and, as their mutual attraction grows, the unlikely pair finds the greatest holiday gift of all—love.

 

EXCERPT:

Ten minutes. Jason had ten minutes to make the twenty-minute trip across town. He’d never be on time for his meeting. He stared at his watch as if it would tell him something different this time. Acid rolled in his stomach. Well, they’d just have to wait. Christmas Eve was tomorrow and he had to take care of getting Emily’s present. Truthfully, he should have gotten it already, but between working, looking after the house, and taking care of Emily, he had little time left over for anything else.

 

The only thing Emily had asked for this year was the Little Family Dollhouse. She’d get other gifts, too, of course, but he had to be sure to have that one. A coworker he’d spoken to before he left the office had told him how popular the house was with girls Emily’s age. Every little girl she knew either had one or had put it at the top of her list for Santa. Apparently now it was almost impossible to find. She’d suggested this small, out-of-the-way toy store that specialized in hard-to-find items. So here he was, sitting in a traffic jam, hoping it wasn’t too late to get what he needed. Impatience threatened to

strangle him. He glanced again at the clock on the dashboard.

 

Emily was mature for seven, so he knew she’d accept that he couldn’t find the dollhouse. Still, he didn’t want her to be disappointed. Since Karen’s death, he’d raised her on his own, and so far it had proved to be the most challenging, most rewarding thing he’d ever done, and he desperately wanted to do it right.

 

The traffic light turned red, and Jason ground his back molars. Not one car had moved while the light was green. Not. One. Car. City traffic was the last thing he needed right now. He clutched the steering wheel tightly and dropped his head onto his clenched fists. This was ridiculous. Who would schedule a lunchtime meeting all the way across town on the day before Christmas Eve? His boss, that’s who. How could he possibly get all of this done? He rubbed his temples with the heels of his hands. Didn’t these people need to be at work or something? The motorist behind him hit the horn—again—and Jason couldn’t help but wonder what the man was beeping at. There was nowhere to go. No doubt he was just voicing his frustration. While Jason could certainly feel his pain, the constant honking was grating on his nerves.

 

Spotting a gap in the traffic, he darted to the right as soon as the light changed. He whipped around the next corner and slipped into a parking spot only two blocks from the toy store. Figuring he was lucky to get this close, he locked the car and jogged the two blocks. The freezing-cold drizzle not only soaked him but also coated the sidewalk with a thin sheet of ice. Since he was dressed for work in his suit and hard-soled dress shoes, the going wasn’t easy. Slipping when he turned to enter the store, he went down hard. His feet slid out from under him and he hit the wet sidewalk, scraping his chin on the step, tearing a hole in the knee of his pants, and soaking himself in the process.

 

Could this day get any worse? Even as the thought crossed his mind, things indeed got worse. As he pushed himself up, he caught a glimpse through the front door of the toy store. Although a few customers still browsed inside, the clerk was already putting the key into the lock. Oh, no! She can’t. Clutching the handrail tightly, he hurried up the two front steps to the door, grabbing hold of it before she could turn the key.

 

“I’m sorry, sir. We’re closing early today. I’m flying down to Florida to visit family for the holidays.”

 

Soaking wet, shivering in the cold, he could certainly appreciate her hurry to head south, but he had to get into that store. “Please. I just need one thing. It’s really important. I promise I’ll only be a minute.”

 

Apparently, the woman could tell he was having a rough day, because she gave him a sympathetic look as she held the door open and gestured for him to enter.

 

“Thank you so much.”

 

He looked around, quickly locating the girls’ section and headed straight for the aisle that held the dollhouses. The store was small but crowded with merchandise, and it took him several trips up and

down the aisle to realize the dollhouse he needed wasn’t there. Great. Now what would he do? He hated disappointing Emily. Shoving his fingers through his hair in frustration, he turned to leave.

 

Unbelievable. He took a deep breath to ease the disappointment pressing like a weight against his chest. Just when he thought this day couldn’t get any worse, he spotted it. The Little Family Dollhouse. It sat on the end of the aisle, pushed against the back of the shelf, and there was only one left. Wary of his slippery shoes on the wet floor, he moved cautiously but quickly toward the shelf. Breathing a sigh of

relief, he grabbed the box, turned to head for the register, and…met with resistance. Snapping back around, he pulled again. Once more the box was yanked away from him. He held tight to the dollhouse

as he peered around the corner of the aisle at the other set of fingers holding onto his prize. A small, delicate hand had managed an incredibly tight grip on the box. His gaze slid up the arm and into

the biggest, bluest, most beautiful eyes he’d ever seen. The breath caught in his throat.

 

LEAH GRIPPED THE dollhouse as tightly as she could and stared into eyes that had to be made from melted chocolate. She’d never seen such amazing eyes, and her gaze held his.

 

“I’m sorry. I need to get this dollhouse.” He still hadn’t taken his eyes from hers.

 

She smiled her best smile. “I’m sorry, too, but I had it first.”

 

“Look,” he started, smiling back at her, the expression filling his eyes with even more warmth, and Leah’s heart melted a little bit. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I really need to have this dollhouse.”

 

His eyes might have melted her heart, but there was no way she was letting go of this box. Motherhood prevailed. She’d called all over the city looking for this dollhouse, and now that she’d found it, nothing could make her part with it, not even a pair of eyes she could easily lose herself in.

 

“This is the only thing my daughter asked for this year. I must have it.” Her grin faltered for just a second before she plastered it firmly back in place. Then she pulled her gaze away from his eyes, effectively removing any temptation she might have felt to release her hold on the box.

 

Having been so enthralled by his eyes, she’d somehow missed taking in the rest of him, and the sight that greeted her now left her momentarily speechless. He was a mess. His gray pin-striped business suit was soaking wet, dirty, and torn. Wet hair stuck up in thick, dark clumps along one side of his head. A large scrape marred his very sexy chin.

 

All right, don’t go there. Wow, he really was having a bad day.

 

He exhaled one of those annoyed male sighs she knew so well. “Look, let’s be reasonable here. I already had the box in my hand when you grabbed hold of it.”

 

“Actually, I had my hand on it first, and then you grabbed it.” Her smile wavered as she started to realize he might not release his hold.

 

“Okay, I’ll pay you the cost of the dollhouse if you’ll let me have this one.”

 

The dollhouse cost over a hundred dollars, and she had to admit the money would come in handy. Her job as a receptionist didn’t pay much. The only reason she hadn’t looked for the gift sooner was that

she’d had to wait for her final paycheck before Christmas. Although she was tempted to accept his offer, she still held tight.

 

Allison hadn’t asked for anything else for Christmas. Leah had to have the dollhouse for her.

 

“I’m sorry. Even though your offer is very generous”—you jerk—“I’m afraid I can’t accept. My daughter is only seven, and this is the only thing she asked for this year. I have to have it for her. I’ve already been all over the city looking for it. I’m sure you can understand.”

 

She mentally kicked herself even as the words left her mouth. Maybe he hadn’t realized how impossible these things were to find. If Mr. Chocolate Eyes thought he’d be able to find another one, she might have a better chance of getting him to release his hold on the box. He forked his free hand through his hair. Good grief. No wonder it was so messy.

 

“Okay, let’s be reasonable.” He took another long breath, his wet clothes clinging to broad shoulders. “Only one of us can have the dollhouse. I understand your position. I have a seven-year-old as well. This dollhouse is the only thing she put on her list for Santa this year. She’d be so disappointed if it wasn’t under the tree. Please, is there any way I can talk you into letting me have it?”

 

“We’re obviously both in the same position. As adults, surely we can resolve this somehow.” She couldn’t help but wonder what he’d do if she just yanked the box out of his hand and ran. The only

problem being she’d have to stop and pay for it. She couldn’t just run out of the store. Or could she? She glanced toward the front door and chewed on her bottom lip. She could always come back in later,

after he’d gone, and pay for it. Of course, if the owner called the police and they caught her before she could come back, she’d spend Christmas in jail.

 

Definitely not an option. Allison didn’t have anyone but her mother and had never known her father. He’d taken off the day he found out Leah was pregnant. Right now Allison was with Leah’s parents in Ohio. She’d be home tomorrow, though, and Leah had to be at the airport to pick her up, not sitting in a jail cell for petty theft. No, she couldn’t run.

 

He was still staring at her, apparently thinking her silence meant she was contemplating his offer. “All right, maybe we could—”

 

“Excuse me.” The sales clerk didn’t appear to be the least bit amused. She stood with her arms folded across her chest, her foot tapping and a scowl on her face. “Sir, I let you in because you told me you just needed one thing. You said you’d only be a minute. I have to lock up now or I’m going to miss my flight.”

 

“We seem to have a misunderstanding here.”

 

At least he had the good grace to blush when he explained the situation.

 

“I don’t really care who gets the dollhouse. In one minute I’m locking that door and I won’t sell it to wither of you.” She turned her back on them and walked away, effectively ending any argument either of them could come up with.

 

When the Christmas music stopped and the lights flipped off a minute later, Leah panicked. “Come on. I really need to have this. Neither of us is going to get it if you don’t let go. Now.” Desperation nearly choked her. “Maybe we can find another one somewhere else, but we’re definitely not going to find rwo. Let me have this one and I’ll help you find another one.”

 

He appeared to be as surprised as she was by the offer, but he still didn’t let go.

 

“I’m leaving.” The clerk’s voice rang out, sounding completely annoyed.

 

“No,” they cried in unison.

 

“I’ll tell you what.” The man quickly glanced at the clerk and then back at her. “We’ll split the cost of this one and go together to look for another one. Then we’ll split the cost of that one, and we’ll each end up with a dollhouse.”

 

The rattle of keys made Leah’s decision. “Fine. You’re on.”

 

AUTHOR:

Dani-Lyn Alexander is a native New Yorker. She was born in Rome, New York, then moved to Rosedale, and finally to Long Island. She still lives on eastern Long Island with her husband and three children. Please visit http://www.danilynalexander.com/.

 

Christmas

THE CHRISTMAS TRAIN

Rexanne Becnel

November 17, 2014

$1.99

 

SUMMARY:

Anna Spano is on the train to meet her father while she befriends Eva Stephens, an older woman who occasionally thinks she’s traveling to her home village in pre–World War II for the holidays. Recognizing Miss Eva’s disorientation as the same dementia her late grandmother experienced, Anna isn’t sure who is actually taking care of whom on the journey. At the far end of the journey, Tom Thurston is anxious about what to expect when his daughter arrives. So he’s doubly shocked when a teary old woman embraces him, convinced that he is her long-lost brother. At Anna’s insistence, he reluctantly agrees to bring the woman home with them and try to locate her family. And as Anna clings loyally to her new friend, and Tom struggles to be who Miss Eva needs him to be, both father and daughter begin to understand one another. And through Miss Eva, they learn the true meaning of family, and of love.

 

EXCERPT:

Tom Thurston stared at his phone in shock, then dropped it on the kitchen counter as if it had burned his hand. Like a ghost from the past, Carrie calls him and tells him she’s sending Anna to live with him? She’d said, “I’ve raised her for the first ten years. It’s your turn now.” Into his stunned silence she’d added, “I’ll let you know when she’s arriving.” He sank onto a bar stool and stared blankly. What

was he supposed to do with a ten-year-old girl? Groaning, he raked a hand through his hair. He

should have known this day would come—that his one big mistake would eventually come back to haunt him. He’d met Carrie Spano in his senior year at the University of Texas. A freshman, she’d been a beauty. Faced with her dark, flashing eyes, her killer body, and her devil-may-care approach to life, it had been easy to overlook her youth. By November they’d been an item. But by April, with graduation and a new job on his horizon, she’d started pushing for them to get married. Married? At twenty-two?

 

Then she’d dropped the bomb: she was pregnant.

 

It was painful to remember his panic and her stunned response. Backed against a wall, he’d blurted out that he was too young to get married; they both were. But if she wanted, he would help her get an abortion.

 

Carrie, always fun-loving but often intense, had gone ballistic, screaming and ranting that he was a son of a bitch and every other foul name she could think of. And she’d been right. He knew that now, but at the time he’d thanked his lucky stars to be rid of her. In a fit of rage she’d vowed to keep the baby and make him sorry that he’d ever messed with her.

 

That was the last time he’d seen her. But as he’d started his professional life as an engineer here in Iowa, the shadow of Carrie had hung over him. Carrie and her baby. His baby. He’d expected to hear from her once the baby was born, but when there was no word he got anxious. Did she have the baby or not? Did she keep it or put it up for adoption?

 

He’s finally researched the births in Carrie’s hometown and discovered that Caroline Spano—no

father listed—had given birth to Anna Rose Spano on October 2, 1991.

 

He had a daughter.

 

And now that daughter was ten years old, and coming here to live with him.

 

“Damn it!” How was he supposed to fit her into his life? But even more difficult would be explaining her to his parents and sister. What would they think of him, their golden boy, who, as far as they knew, had never screwed up. Even worse, how could he justify keeping such a huge secret from them?

 

He braced his elbows on the counter. He supposed they would forgive him eventually. And they would

accept Anna, he knew that. His mother was eager for a grandchild and made no bones about it, especially to his recently married sister.

 

But what about Joelle? Would she be able to forgive him? Or would she dump him and his surprise daughter like a load of bricks?

 

Muffling a curse, he dropped his head into his hands. This could not be happening. Not this fast, with no

warning whatsoever. Surely he and Carrie could come to some sort of compromise. What if he offered her money to keep the child? After all, she’d cashed the check he’d sent her right after he found out the baby was born. Although she hadn’t acknowledged them, she’d cashed all the checks he’d sent that first year.

 

Then one of the envelopes came back marked unable to deliver. He’d done a cursory search for her with no success, and decided that if she’d moved and couldn’t be bothered to contact him, then so be it. And if he’d ever felt guilty on October 2 every year, he’d told himself that he’d done all he could do.

 

Now, though, he was in a quandary. He could no longer ignore the situation.

 

He stared at his phone. Taking a deep breath, he reached for it and pressed *69. “Pick up, Carrie. Pick up

the damn phone,” he muttered as it rang and rang. He wasn’t ready to be a father. A kid would ruin everything. He would not let Carrie wreck his life without even giving him a chance to make some counteroffer. But when he finally hung up after twenty rings, he knew he was wrong. Carrie could wreck his life. She already had.

 

Anna rolled up her favorite nightgown, three pairs of socks and underpants, and three changes of

clothes—her favorites, just in case her mother didn’t get around to sending the rest of her clothes and other things she’d packed into two big cardboard boxes. Even with the boxes full, there were so many things she loved that she had to leave behind. Her teddy-bear collection. Her shelf of Goosebumps books. Her school papers, and the art projects that Nana Rose had posted on the refrigerator. And then there was her bike, and all her Barbie stuff.

 

Her mother said it cost too much to send so much junk all the way to Iowa. If her father wanted to drive

back and get it, fine with her.

 

Anna swallowed hard and began to shove the nightgown into her backpack. If her father did want her

and all her stuff, he would’ve said so a long time ago. All the things her grandmother had scrimped and saved to buy her were as good as gone.

 

Except for the Christmas present.

 

Wiping away her tears, Anna knelt down and pulled the box out from under her bed. She’d found it in Nana Rose’s closet when her mother told her to pick out a dress for Nana Rose to be buried in. Even though it had only been October, the box had been wrapped in pretty Christmas paper with a wide red ribbon and a gift tag with Anna written on it in Nana Rose’s neat, familiar handwriting.

 

Setting the gift on her bed, she studied it and the rest of the clothes that had to fit in her backpack.

 

When she first found it, she’d wanted so bad to open it. Even now, just looking at it, knowing Nana Rose had wrapped it up so nice for her, made her want to open it. But she had to wait. This was going to be the worst Christmas of her life, but at least she had this present. When she opened it on Christmas morning, it would be almost like Nana Rose was there with her. Almost. Frowning, she emptied her backpack, wedged the box safely on the bottom, then repacked her clothes on top of it.

 

She wasn’t sure where she would be on Christmas Day, but at least she could look forward to opening this one last gift from Nana Rose.

 

The train depot was festooned for Christmas.

 

Garlands looped above the ticket counter. A huge wreath hung over the wide arched entrance to the

station’s platforms, and a pair of lighted trees, flocked white and laden with shiny red ornaments, flanked the information and security booth.

 

Eva Stephens clutched the handle of her bag. It held no presents, but she hoped her surprising visit after so long an absence would prove present enough for her family. Her heart fluttered in her chest, an unwelcome symptom according to her doctor. But she preferred to think of it as butterfly wings beating eagerly for release. She was going home! After more years than she could remember, she was going home for Christmas.

 

She coughed three times, like the nurse had taught her, and felt the flutter subside. Then shifting her

carpetbag from her right hand to her left, she set out for the ticket counter. How long since she’d been on a train? She couldn’t recall. But some things never changed: the busy excitement of so many people rushing everywhere; the low rumble of the massive engines that permeated even inside the station building. And through the glass doors, the view of people queuing up to board.

 

Unfortunately people didn’t seem to dress as nicely as they used to. She tried not to stare at a man in worn tennis shoes and a stained sweatshirt. And behind her in line a woman dressed in painted-on jeans, knee-high stiletto boots, and a sweater meant to emphasize her generous breasts held the hand of a little girl, all the while reeking of cigarette smoke.

 

Eva wrinkled her nose. I hope they still have separate smoking cars.

 

The child at least was properly dressed in corduroy slacks, some sort of puffy blue jacket, and a matching

blue and white muffler and stocking cap. She was a pretty little thing with straight blond bangs hanging over striking blue eyes. She didn’t look very happy, though.

 

“Where to? Ma’am? Where to?”

 

“Oh.” Eva looked up with a start. “Am I next?”

 

“Yes, ma’am.” The ticket seller raised his brows, then returned his attention to his computer screen. “Where to?”

 

“Let’s see.” She pulled out the slip of paper with the town’s name on it. Not that she needed it to remember the name of her own hometown. Still, every now and again she got these annoying little lapses of memory. Better to be safe than sorry.

 

“Ma’am?”

 

“Yes, yes. I want a ticket to Ennis. If you please.”

 

“Ennis.” He stared at his screen, a faint frown on his face. Then he smiled. “Here it is. Ennis, Iowa. Right?”

 

Eva faltered. Ennis was in Germany, not Iowa. She looked around her, at a loss suddenly for where she was.

 

“Ennis,” she repeated, tightening her grip on the handle of her carpetbag. “I want to go to Ennis.”

 

“Okay, okay,” the man said. “Ennis it is. “Will that be a round trip?”

 

“No.” Eva smiled at him, restored by overwhelming joy at the thought of her hometown. “No,” she repeated, beaming pure happiness at the ticket seller. “I only need a one-way ticket.”

 

“One way it is.” He glanced up at her. “Looks like you’re pretty happy to be going.”

 

Ach, so I am.”

 

“That’ll be one hundred forty-eight dollars. Cash or credit?”

 

Eva lifted her chin. “I deal only in the cash, young man. Buying on credit gets a person into trouble.”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” he agreed, taking the eight twentydollar bills she slid into the tray beneath the glass

partition. “But, ma’am,” he added, leaning nearer and lowering his voice. “Don’t say too much about carrying only cash, okay? There’s people who’d love to fleece a nice lady like you. You know what I mean?”

 

Eva nodded, taking the change he slid back to her and folding it into her purse. “I will be very careful.”

She patted her purse and as added precaution hooked the long strap over her head and shoulder. “But I thank you for your concern.”

 

“You’re boarding at three fifteen on platform seven. Merry Christmas and have a good trip.”

 

“Thank you, and a Merry Christmas to you, too.”

 

As Eva turned away she nearly collided with the cigarette-scented woman in the revealing sweater. “Oh,

my. Excuse me.”

 

“No problem,” the woman muttered, giving her a hard stare.

 

Eva nodded and headed toward the gates to the loading platform. It was too cold to wait outside, so she

found a seat near the arched doors. Not long now. In less than an hour she would be on her way home at last. Smiling, she settled her purse and her carpetbag on her lap and folded her hands over them. This would be the happiest Christmas ever.

 

AUTHOR:

Rexanne Becnel is the USA TODAY bestselling author of more than twenty books, including Thief of My Heart, A Dove at Midnight, and Dangerous to Love. She lives in New Orleans.

 

Rocky

ROCKY MOUNTAIN MIRACLE

Christine Feehan

November 17, 2014

$3.99

 

SUMMARY:

When Cole Steele, a womanizer rumored to have killed his father, meets Maia Armstrong, a veterinarian rumored to practice magic, the sizzling romance could melt all the snow on his Wyoming ranch. And when an injured horse brings them together, Cole can’t help but believe that Maia casts spells on animals—and men. What else could explain the burning passion he feels for her and the thawing of his heart just in time for Christmas?

 

EXCERPT:

Cole Steele could hear the screams coming from the room down the hall. He knew those nightmares intimately, because the demons also visited him every time he closed his own eyes. He was a grown man, hard and disciplined and well able to drink his way through the night if necessary, but Jase was just a young teenager. Guilt edged his anger as he made his way through the dark to the boy’s room. He should have done something, to spare his half brother the horrendous legacy of his own past.

 

In truth, he hadn’t been in touch with his father for years. It hadn’t occurred to him that his father would remarry a much younger woman and produce another child, but he should have considered the possibility, not just dropped off the face of the earth. Cole shoved open the bedroom door. Jase was already fully awake, his eyes wide with the terror of his memories. Something twisted hard and painfully in Cole’s chest.

 

“I’m here, Jase,” he announced unnecessarily.He wasn’t good at soothing the boy. He had been born and bred in roughness and still had a difficult time being gentle. Worse, Jase barely knew him. He was asking the teenager to trust him in spite of his reputation and the rumors of attempted murder flying freely through the town. It was no wonder the boy regarded him with some suspicion. “I hate Christmas. Can’t we just make it go away?” Jase asked. He threw back the covers and paced across the room, the same edgy tension in his teenage body that Cole had in abundance as a grown man. Jase was tall and gangly, like a young colt, all arms and legs, looking a bit like a scarecrow in flannel pajamas.He had Cole’s dark hair, but his eyes must have been his mother’s, as they were a deep, rich brown. Right now, his eyes were wide with terror, and he turned away to hide his trembling.

 

Cole felt as if he were looking at himself as a youngster, only Jase had poured himself into books and Cole had become a hellion. Cole knew what it was like to hide the bruises and the terror from the rest of the world. He had grown up living in isolation and hiding, and he still lived that way, but he would be damned if this boy would endure the same.

 

“Did he shoot your dog for Christmas?” Cole asked bluntly. “That’s what he did for me the last time I wanted to celebrate the holiday like my friends. I haven’t ever wanted a Christmas since.He also beat the holy hell out of me, but that was insignificant next to the dog.”

 

Jase faced him slowly. The horror was still all too stark in his eyes. “I had a cat.”

 

“I’ll bet he said you weren’t tough enough and that only sissies needed pets and Christmas. He wanted you to toughen up and be a man. Not get attached to anything.”

 

Jase nodded, swallowing an obvious lump in his throat.

 

“He did a lot of things.”

 

“You have burn marks? Scars from cuts? He liked to whip me with a coat hanger. And when I didn’t cry, he took to using other things.”

 

“I cried,” Jase admitted.

 

“I did too, at first. He was a mean son of bitch, Jase. I’m glad he’s dead. He can’t touch you anymore. I’m not going to lie to you and tell you the nightmares go away because I still have them. We both lived in hell and he had too much money for anyone to want to believe us.” Cole rubbed his hands through his thick black hair.

 

“He was sick, Jase. I got out, changed my name thinking he’d never find me, and stayed as far from him as I could possibly get. That’s no excuse. I should have kept tabs on him. Maybe I could have gotten you away from him.”

 

Jase shook his head. “He never would have let me go.”

 

“You know what they’re all saying, don’t you? They think I had something to do with his death.”

 

Jase nodded, his eyes suddenly wary. “I’ve heard. Why did you come back?”

 

“I was named your guardian in his will. It was the first I’d heard of you. I didn’t know you existed until five months ago. I knew he must have done the same thing to you and your mother that he did to me and mine. I thought I could protect you, at least until you’re old enough to live on your own. I figured I would be a better guardian than anyone else the court might appoint or that our father had named if I didn’t accept.”

 

Dawn was creeping in through the huge plate-glass window. Cole watched the sun come up. It was cold, and the ground outside was covered with several feet of snow, turning the hills into a carpet of sparkling crystals. “You hungry?”

 

“Are you cooking?”

 

Cole managed a lazy shrug even though he really wanted to smash something. It was always there, that volcano inside him, waiting to erupt. The thought of his father, the time of year, it wasn’t all that difficult to bring rage to the surface. “I thought we’d go into town and give them all something more to gossip about.”

 

Jase met Cole’s eyes squarely. “They say you killed the old man and that you’re planning to kill me next. Sixtyfour million dollars is a lot of money, twice as much as thirty-two.”

 

“They do say that, don’t they?” Cole said. “And don’t forget the ranch. It’s worth twice that easily, maybe more with the oil and gas deposits. I haven’t actually checked into how much yet.”His eyes had gone ice-cold, a piercing blue stare that impaled the boy. “What do you say, Jase? Because in the end, you’re the only one that counts as far as I’m concerned.”

 

Jase was silent a long time. “I say I’m glad you came back. But I don’t understand why he left us the money and the ranch when he hated us both so much. It doesn’t make any sense.” He looked around the enormous room, frowning.

 

“I keep expecting him to show up in the middle of the night. I’m afraid to open my eyes because I know he’s standing over the bed, just waiting.”

 

“With that smile.”Cole’s voice was grim.

 

Jase nodded, a small shudder betraying the fact that he wasn’t as calm as he tried to seem. “With that smile.” He looked at Cole. “What do you do when the nightmares come?” He punched his fist into his pillow. Once. Twice. “I hate this time of year.”

 

Cole felt a sharp pain in his chest and the familiar churning in his gut. His own hand balled into a fist, but he tamped down the smoldering anger and hung on to control for the boy’s sake. “I drink. I’m your guardian, so I have to say that’s not allowed for you. At least not until you’re a hell of a lot older.”

 

“Does it work?”

 

“No,” Cole said grimly. Honestly. “But it gets me through the night. Sometimes I go to the workout room

or the barn. I hung a heavy bag in both places, and I beat on them until my hands hurt. Other times I take the wildest horse we have and go out into the mountains. I run the hills, using the deer trails, anything to make me so tired I can’t think anymore.”

 

“None of that works either, does it?” Jase had tried physical activity as well, but he was finding that talking quietly with his half brother was helpful. More helpful than anything else he’d tried. At least one person believed him. And one person had gone through the same torment. It created a bond in spite of the ugly rumors that surrounded his tough, harder-than-nails half brother.

 

Cole shook his head. “No, none of it works, but it gets you through the night. One night at a time. He’s dead, Jase, and that’s all that matters.”

 

Jase took a deep breath. “Did you kill him?”

 

“No, but I wish I had. I used to lie awake at night and plan how I’d do it. That was before Mom died. Then I just wanted to get out.” Cole studied the boy’s face. “Did you kill him?” He concentrated his gaze on the boy. Every nuance. Every expression, the way he breathed. The flick of his eyes. The trembling of his hands.

 

Jase shook his head. “I was too afraid of him.”

 

Cole let his breath out slowly. He had stayed alive using his ability to read others, and he was fairly certain that Jase was telling the truth. Jase had been in the house when someone had shot Brett Steele right there in his own office. He wanted to believe that the boy wasn’t involved in Brett Steele’s death. Cole wasn’t certain how he would have handled it if Jase had admitted he’d done it, and for a man in Cole’s profession, that wasn’t a good thing.

 

“Cole, did he kill your mother?” For the first time, Jase sounded like a child rather than a fourteen-year-old trying to be a man. He sank down onto the bed, his thin shoulders shaking. “I think he killed my mother. They said she was drinking and drove off the bridge, but she never drank. Never. She was afraid to drink. She wanted to know what was happening all the time. You know what he was like, he’d be nice one minute and come after you the next.”

 

Brett Steele had been a sadistic man. It was Cole’s belief that he had killed for the sheer rush of having the power of life and death over anything, human or animal. He’d enjoyed inflicting pain, and he had tortured his wives and children and every one of his employees. The ranch was huge, a long way from help, and once he had control over those living on his lands, he never relinquished it. Cole knew he’d been lucky to escape.

 

“It’s possible. I think the old man was capable of paying everyone off from coroners to police officers. He had too much money and power for anyone to cross him. It would be easy enough for a medical examiner to look the other way if there was enough money in bribes. And if that didn’t work, there were always threats. We both know the old man didn’t make idle threats; he’d carry them out.”

 

Jase met his brother’s stare directly. “He killed your mother, didn’t he?”

 

“Maybe. Probably.” Cole needed a drink. “Let’s go into town and get breakfast.”

 

“Okay.” Jase pulled a pair of jeans from the closet. They were neatly hung and immaculately clean, just like everything else in the room.“Who do you think killed him? If it wasn’t either of us, someone else had to have done it.”

 

“He made a lot of enemies. He destroyed businesses and seduced as many of his friends’wives as possible. And if he killed anyone else, as I suspect he must have, someone could have known and retaliated. He liked to hurt people, Jase. It was inevitable that he would die a violent death.”

 

“Were you surprised he left you the money and guardianship over me?”

 

“Yes, at first. But later I thought maybe it made sense. He wanted us to be like him. He had me investigated and found I spent time in jail. I think he believed I was exactly like him. And the only other choice of a guardian he had was your uncle, and you know how much they despised one another.”

 

Jase sighed.“Uncle Mike is just as crazy as Dad was. All he talks about is sin and redemption. He thinks I need to be exorcised.”

 

Cole swore, a long string of curses. “That’s a load of crap, Jase. There’s nothing wrong with you.” He needed to move, to ride something hard, it didn’t matter what it was. A horse, a motorcycle, a woman, anything at all to take away the knots gathering in his stomach. “Let’s get out of here.”

 

He turned away from the boy, a cold anger lodged in his gut. He detested Christmas, detested everything about it. No matter how much he didn’t want the season to start, it always came. He woke up drenched in sweat, vicious laughter ringing in his ears. He could fight the demons most of the year, but not when Christmas songs played on the radio and in every store he entered. Not when every

building and street displayed decorations and people continually wished each other “Merry Christmas.” He didn’t want that for Jase. He had to find a way to give the boy back his life.

 

Counseling hadn’t helped either of them. When no one believed a word you said, or worse, was bought off, you learned to stop trusting people. If Cole never did another thing right in his life, he was going to be the one person Jase would know he could always trust. And he was going to make certain the boy didn’t turn out the way he had. Or the way their father had.

 

The brothers walked through the sprawling ranch house. The floors were all gleaming wood, the ceilings

open-beamed and high. Brett Steele had demanded the best of everything, and he got it. Cole couldn’t fault him on his taste.

 

“Cole,” Jase asked, “why were you in jail?”

 

Cole didn’t break stride as he hurried through the spacious house. At times he wanted to burn the thing down. There was no warmth in it, and as hard as he’d tried to turn the showpiece into a home for Jase, it remained cold and barren.

 

Outdoors it was biting cold. The frost turned the hills and meadows into a world of sparkling crystal, dazzling the eyes, but Cole simply ignored it, shoving his sunglasses onto his face. He went past the huge garage that housed dozens of cars—all toys Brett Steele had owned and rarely ever used—to go to his own pickup.

 

“I shouldn’t have asked you,” Jase muttered, slamming the door with unnecessary force. “I hate questions.”

 

Cole paused, the key in the ignition. He glanced at the boy’s flushed face. “It isn’t that, Jase. I don’t mind you asking me anything. I made up my mind I’d never lie to you about anything, and I’m not quite certain how to explain the jail time. Give me a minute.”

 

Jase nodded. “I don’t mind that you’ve been in jail, but it worries me because Uncle Mike says he’s going to take you to court and get custody of me. If I lived with him, I’d spend all my life on my knees, praying for my soul. I’d rather run away.”

 

“He can’t get you away from me,” Cole promised, his voice grim. There was a hard edge to the set of his mouth. He turned his piercing blue gaze directly on his young half brother. “The one thing I can promise is I’ll fight for you until they kill me, Jase.” He was implacable, the deadly ruthless stamp of determination clear on his face.“No one is going to take you away from me. You got that?”

 

Jase visibly relaxed. He nodded, a short jerky gesture as he tried to keep his emotions under control. Cole wasn’t certain if that was good or bad. Maybe the boy needed to cry his eyes out. Cole never had. He would never give his father the satisfaction, even when the bastard had nearly killed him.

 

It was a long way to the nearest town. There had been numerous guards at the ranch when his father was alive, supposedly for security, but Cole knew better. Brett had needed his own private world, a realm he could rule with an iron fist. The first thing Cole had done was to fire all of the ranch hands, the security force, and the housekeeper. If he could have had them prosecuted for their participation in Brett’s sadistic depravities, he would have. Jase needed to feel safe. And Cole needed to feel as if he could provide the right atmosphere for the boy. They had interviewed the new ranch hands together, and they were still looking for a housekeeper.

 

“You, know, Jase, you never picked out one of the horses to use,” Cole said.

 

Jase leaned forward to fiddle with the radio. The cab was flooded with a country Christmas tune. Jase hastily went through the stations, but all he could find was Christmas music and he finally gave up in exasperation. “I don’t care which one I ride,” Jase said, and turned his head to stare out the window at the passing scenery. His voice was deliberately careless.

 

“You must have a preference,” Cole persisted. “I’ve seen you bring the big bay, Celtic High, a carrot every now and then.” The boy had spent a little time each day, brushing the horse and whispering to it, but he never rode the bay. Jase’s expression closed down instantly, his eyes wary. “I don’t care about any of them,” he repeated.

 

Cole frowned as he slipped a CD into the player. “You know what the old man was all about, don’t you, Jase? He didn’t want his sons to feel affection or loyalty to anything or anyone. Not our mothers, not friends, and not animals. He killed the animals in front of us to teach us a lesson. He destroyed our friendships to accomplish the same thing. He got rid of our mothers to isolate us, to make us wholly

dependent on him. He didn’t want you ever to feel emotion, especially affection or love for anything or anyone else. If he succeeded in doing that to you, he won. You can’t let him win. Choose a horse and let yourself care for it. We’ll get a dog if you want a dog, or another cat. Any kind of pet you want, but let yourself feel something, and when our father visits you in your nightmares, tell him to go to hell.”

 

“You didn’t do that,” Jase pointed out. “You don’t have a dog. You haven’t had a dog in all the years you’ve been away. And you never got married. I’ll bet you never lived with a woman. You have one-night stands and that’s about it because you won’t let anyone into your life.” It was a shrewd guess.

 

Cole counted silently to ten. He was psychoanalyzing Jase, but he damned well didn’t want the boy to turn the spotlight back on him. “It’s a hell of a way to live, Jase. You don’t want to use me as a role model. I know all the things you shouldn’t do and not many you should. But cutting yourself off from every living thing takes its toll. Don’t let him do that to you. Start small if you want. Just choose

one of the horses, and we’ll go riding together in the mornings.”

 

Jase was silent, his face averted, but Cole knew he was weighing the matter carefully. It meant trusting Cole further than perhaps Jase was willing to go. Cole was a big question mark to everyone, Jase especially. Cole couldn’t blame the boy. He knew what he was like. Tough and ruthless with no backup in him. His reputation was that of a vicious, merciless fighter, a man born and bred in violence. It wasn’t like he knew how to make all the soft, kind gestures that the kid needed, but he could protect Jase.

“Just think about it,” he said to close the subject. Time was on his side. If he could give Jase back his life, he would forgive himself for not bringing the old man down as he should have done years ago. Jase had had his mother, a woman with love and laughter in her heart. More than likely Brett had killed her because he couldn’t turn Jase away from her. Jase’s mother must have left some legacy of love behind.

 

Cole had no one. His mother had been just the opposite of Jase’s. His mother had had a child because Brett demanded she have one, but she went back to her modelthin figure and cocaine as soon as possible, leaving her son in the hands of her brutal husband. In the end, she’d died of an overdose. Cole had always suspected his father had had something to do with her death. It was interesting that Jase suspected the same thing of his own mother’s death.

 

A few snowflakes drifted down from the sky, adding to the atmosphere of the season they both were trying so hard to avoid. Jase kicked at the floorboard of the truck, a small sign of aggression, then glanced apologetically at Cole.

 

“Maybe we should have opted for a workout instead,” Cole said.

 

“I’m always hungry,” Jase admitted. “We can work out after we eat. Who came up with the idea of Christmas anyway? It’s a dumb idea, giving presents out when it isn’t your birthday.And it can’t be good for the environment to cut down all the trees.”

 

Cole stayed silent, letting the boy talk, grateful Jase was finally comfortable enough to talk to him at all.

“Mom loved Christmas. She used to sneak me little gifts. She’d hide them in my room. He always had spies, though, and they’d tell him. He always punished her, but she’d do it anyway. I knew she’d be punished, and she knew it too, but she’d still sneak me presents.” Jase rolled down the window, letting the crisp, cold air into the truck. “She sang me Christmas songs. And once, when he was away on a trip, we baked cookies together. She loved it. We both knew the housekeeper would tell him, but at the

time, we didn’t care.”

 

Cole cleared his throat. The idea of trying to celebrate Christmas made him ill, but the kid wanted it. Maybe even needed it, but had no clue that was what his nervous chatter was all about. Cole hoped he could pull it off. There were no happy memories from his childhood to offset the things his father had done.

 

“We tried to get away from him, but he always found us,” Jase continued.

 

“He’s dead, Jase,” Cole repeated. He took a deep breath and took the plunge, feeling as if he was leaping off a steep cliff. “If we want to bring a giant tree into his home and decorate it, we can. There’s not a damn thing he can do about it.”

 

“He might have let her go if she hadn’t wanted to take me with her.”

 

Cole heard the tears in the boy’s voice, but the kid didn’t shed them. Silently he cursed, wishing for inspiration, for all the right things to say. “Your mother was an extraordinary woman, Jase, and there aren’t that many in the world. She cared about you, not the money or the prestige of being Mrs. Brett Steele. She fought for you, and she tried to give you a life in spite of the old man. I wish I’d had the chance to meet her.”

 

Jase didn’t reply, but closed his eyes, resting his head back against the seat. He could still remember the sound of his mother’s voice. The way she smelled. Her smile. He rubbed his head. Mostly he remembered the sound of her screams when his father punished her.

 

“I’ll think about the Christmas thing, Cole. I kind of like the idea of decorating the house when he always forbade it.”

 

Cole didn’t reply. It had been a very long few weeks, but the Christmas season was almost over. A couple more weeks, and he would have made it through another December. If doing the Christmas thing could give the kid back his life, Cole would find a way to get through it. The town was fairly big and offered a variety of latenight and early-morning dining. Cole chose a diner he was familiar with and parked the truck in the parking lot. To his dismay, it was already filled with cars. Unfolding his

large frame, he slid from the truck, waiting for Jase to get out.

 

“You forgot your jacket,” he said.

 

“No, I didn’t. I hate the thing,” Jase said.

 

Cole didn’t bother to ask him why.He already knew the answer and vowed to buy the kid a whole new wardrobe immediately. He pushed open the door to the diner, stepping back to allow Jase to enter first. Jase took two steps into the entryway and stopped abruptly behind the high wall of fake ivy. “They’re talking about you, Cole,” he whispered. “Let’s get out of here.”

 

The voices were loud enough to carry across the small restaurant. Cole stood still, his hand on the boy’s shoulder to steady him. Jase would have to learn to live with gossip, just as he’d learned to survive the nightmare he’d been born into.

 

“You’re wrong, Randy. Cole Steele murdered his father, and he’s going to murder that boy. He wants the money. He never came around here to see that boy until his daddy died.”

 

“He was in jail, Jim, he couldn’t very well go visiting his relatives,” a second male voice pointed out with a laugh. Cole recognized Randy Smythe from the local agriculture store. Before he could decide whether to get Jase out of there or show the boy just how hypocritical the local storeowners could be, a third voice chimed in.

 

“You are so full of it, Jim Begley,” a female voice interrupted the argument between the two men. “You come in here every morning grousing about Cole Steele. He was cleared as a suspect a long time ago and given guardianship of his half brother, as he should have been. You’re angry because your bar buddies lost their cushy jobs, so you’re helping to spread the malicious gossip they started. The entire lot of you sound like a bunch of sour old biddies.” The woman never raised her voice. In fact, it was soft and low and harmonious. Cole felt the tone strumming inside of him, vibrating and spreading heat. There was

something magical in the voice, more magical than the fact that she was sticking up for him.His fingers tightened involuntarily on Jase’s shoulder. It was the first time he could ever remember anyone sticking up for him. “He was in jail, Maia,” Jim Begley reiterated, his voice almost placating.

 

“So were a lot of people who didn’t belong there, Jim. And a lot people who should have been in jail never were. That doesn’t mean anything. You’re jealous of the man’s money and the fact that he has the reputation of being able to get just about any woman he wants, and you can’t.” A roar of laughter went up. Cole expected Begley to get angry with the woman, but surprisingly, he didn’t. “Aw, Maia, don’t go getting all mad at me. You aren’t going to do anything, are you? You wouldn’t put a hex on my…on

me, would you?”

 

The laughter rose and this time the woman joined in. The sound of her voice was like music. Cole had never had such a reaction to any woman, and he hadn’t even seen her.

 

“You just never know about me, now do you, Jim?” She teased, obviously not angry with the man. “It’s Christmas, the best time of the year. Do you think you could stop spreading rumors and just wait for the facts? Give the man a chance. You all want his money. You all agree the town needs him, yet you’re so quick to condemn him. Isn’t that the littlest bit hypocritical?”

 

Cole was shocked that the woman could wield so much power, driving her point home without ever raising her voice. And strangely, they were all listening to her. Who was she, and why were these usually rough men hanging on her every word, trying to please her? He found himself very curious about a total stranger—a woman at that. “Okay, okay,” Jim said. “I surrender, Maia. I’ll never mention Cole Steele again if that will make you happy. Just don’t get mad at me.”

 

Maia laughed again. The carefree sound teased all of Cole’s senses, made him very aware of his body and its needs. “I’ll see you all later. I have work to do.”

 

Cole felt his body tense. She was coming around the ivy to the entrance. Cole’s breath caught in his throat. She was on the shorter side, but curvy, filling out her jeans nicely. A sweater molded her breasts into a tempting invitation. She had a wealth of dark, very straight hair, as shiny as a raven’s wing, pulled into a careless ponytail. Her face was exotic, the bone structure delicate, reminding him of a pixie.

 

She swung her head back, her wide smile fading as she saw them standing there. She stopped short, raising her eyes to Cole’s. He actually hunched a little, feeling the impact in his belly. Little hammers began to trip in his head, and his body reacted with an urgent and very elemental demand. A man could drown in her eyes, get lost, or just plain lose every demon he had. Her eyes were large, heavily lashed, and some color other than blue, turquoise maybe, a mixture of blue and green that was vivid and

alive and so darned beautiful he ached inside just looking at her.

 

Jase nudged him in the ribs.

 

Cole reacted immediately. “Sorry, ma’am.” But he didn’t move. “I’m Cole Steele. This is my brother, Jase.” Jase jerked under his hand, reacting to being acknowledged as a brother.

 

The woman nodded at Cole and flashed a smile at Jase as she stepped around them to push open the door.

 

“Holy cow,” Jase murmured. “Did you see that smile?” He glanced up at Cole. “Yeah, you saw it all right.”

 

“Was I staring?” Cole asked.

 

“You looked like you might have her for breakfast,” Jase answered. “You can look really intimidating, Cole. Scary.” Cole almost followed the woman, but at the boy’s comment he turned back. “Am I scary to you, Jase?”

 

The boy shrugged. “Sometimes. I’m getting used to you. I’ve never seen you smile. Ever.”

 

Cole raised his eyebrow. “I can’t remember actually smiling. Maybe I’ll have to practice. You can work with me.”

 

“Don’t you smile at women?”

 

“I don’t have to.”

 

AUTHOR:

Christine Feehan is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of thirty novels, including the Carpathians, the Ghostwalkers, the Leopard People, and the Drake Sisters series. Her books have been published in multiple languages and in many formats including palm pilot, audiobook, and ebook. She has been featured in Time magazine and Newsweek, and lives in Cobb, California. Please visit http://www.christinefeehan.com/.

 

Branded

BRANDED

Colette Auclair

December 15, 2014

$5.99

 

SUMMARY:

The third lighthearted romance in Colette Auclair’s award-winning Aspen Valley series, Branded will take readers on a wild and dreamy ride through the beautiful valleys and mountains of Colorado. Professional, polite, and pearl-wearing, dressage rider and resort consultant Cordy Sims is the last person anyone would expect to initiate a weekend of debauchery. And yet, that’s exactly what she does after meeting a handsome stranger at an Aspen resort. Agreeing that they’ll leave personal details at the door, they indulge in a memorable weekend of carnal recreation. On Sunday night, Cordy doesn’t want to leave this charming, seductive man, but she must play by her own rules. On Monday, Cordy sits in a meeting at the ad agency that’s hired her as a freelancer, and her professional and personal worlds collide. Turns out agency owner Jack Cormier looks just as good in the boardroom as he did in the bedroom. Forced to work together, Cordy and Jack can’t ignore the chemistry that crackles between them, or the deeper feelings that have developed. But secrets and scars from their pasts may prove too formidable, even for a love that’s as powerful as it is unexpected.

 

EXCERPT:

Sometimes things aren’t what they seem, but it seemed to Cordy that indeed, there was a man in a

tuxedo riding down the chairlift in Aspen. And he was probably drunk, which meant she wanted nothing to do with him.

 

It was exactly six-thirty-two a.m. on May 16, four hours before the lifts opened. She stood there, panting

and staring. He was floating toward her, one arm slung along the back of the chair and a foot, also in

formal wear, perched on the seat. The bands of his unfurled bow tie fluttered in the breeze.

 

My first morning in Aspen and already there’s a guy in a tuxedo. Talk about a town living up to the hype. The app on her phone beeped, telling her she’d logged five miles and could begin her cool-down. After this run, she would officially begin her part-work, part-leisure long weekend. She shook her head and started across the black-diamond run, which without snow was steep but hardly treacherous. As usual, she imagined how Marcas, her horse, would handle it—her dressage horse wasn’t the world’s best trail horse, but she still wished he were here with her. It would be fun to explore the mountains from his back. Maybe she’d have him shipped to Colorado, if she ended up staying longer than a few weeks.

 

“Damn!” the man said, bringing Cordy back to the present. What, you just realized you were riding a ski lift the wrong way? Cordy thought as she kept walking. She looked up the hill in time to see a silver cylinder hit the grass. It bounced and tumbled down the ski slope, winking in the sun. Remarkably, it stopped short, wedging itself between two small nearby boulders with a muffled metallic clink.

 

“Excuse me, darlin’,” yelled the man.

 

Darlin’? Cordy looked up. She was not this man’s darlin’, but she was the only one around.

 

“It seems my shaker and I have parted company. Could I trouble you to fetch it for me?”

 

He had a Southern accent. “Why do you have a martini shaker?”

 

“I was making martinis.”

 

Silly me. “On a ski lift?” He was passing overhead so she had to crane her neck to see him.

 

“Last evening. If you could just recover it, I’d be eternally grateful.” He half-turned to face her as he

glided by.

 

“Where were you making martinis?”

 

“Top of the mountain.”

 

“For mountain goats?”

 

She thought he grinned. “Will you please get it for me? It has great sentimental value.”

 

She had to yell pretty loud now. “Then why’d you drop it?”

 

“Could you bring it to the hotel bar?”

 

“When?”

 

He shouted something, but she couldn’t make it out. What an idiot, to drop a martini shaker. What

an idiot to have a martini shaker on a chair lift. Still, it was an interesting turn of events, and a good omen for this new chapter in her life. Quirky. Not exciting, but unusual. She made her way down the slope and plucked the shaker from the boulders. It was dimpled from its fl ight, but she could make out the engraved initials JCL.

 

Who are you, JCL? “Guess I’ll fi nd out later today,” she muttered. “If he isn’t too drunk to remember.”

 

She looked down the mountain and saw that the man had neglected to jump off the lift and was headed back up.

 

  1. He’s super drunk. She didn’t particularly want to have another shouted conversation, so she jogged into the trees, out of earshot. Still, she heard his voice.

 

“Take care of that shaker, darlin’!”

 

Cordy couldn’t remember if she’d ever been to a restaurant bar as it opened. It made her feel so…pathetic. Occasionally she’d lingered over a late brunch and been around when the dinner service began. But this? Nah.

 

It wasn’t every day you had to return a martini shaker to a man who shouted to you from a ski lift.

A handsome man. Scratch that—a handsome drunk. He might not even make it here. She’d have a cocktail and if he didn’t show by the time she’d finished, she’d head back to her room, because she had better things to do—those notes on the Pinnacle Resort weren’t going to write themselves.

 

Setting the shaker on the bar, she picked up the cocktail menu. The thirtysomething bartender materialized before her, a dime-sized portion of a darkgreen tattoo peeking above his starched white collar. His light-brown hair kept to itself, a disciplined wavy mass Cordy found appealing. He angled his head and indicated the shaker.

 

“We’re a full-service resort. We have our own shakers, but if you insist . . .”

 

What? She followed his gaze. “Oh! I’m returning that.”

 

“So you’re the one.” He raised his chin.

 

“I didn’t steal it!” The bartender laughed and after a beat, Cordy felt her cheeks relax. “Oh. You’re kidding.” Lighten up, Cordy! “What I mean is, the owner is coming to get it.”

 

“Looks like a nice one. Would you like me to wipe it off for you?”

 

“No,” Cordy said quickly and too primly. She didn’t want to do that clumsy drunk guy any favors

because she felt put-upon as it was. It was her own fault—no one forced her to retrieve the shaker—but

she resented him all the same. “It’s fine as is.” She was waiting for a stranger for whom she’d done a favor. She should feel good; instead, she felt . . . owed. May as well enjoy myself while I wait. And act like a “real” guest. With that in mind, she went for decadent and ordered a champagne cocktail. To counter her immediate guilt, she followed with a respectable and nutritious Cobb salad. She gazed at the entrance to the bar one more time, noting the dark-wood backdrop and the paintings and fabrics in the oranges, reds, and purples of a mountain sunset. Then she pulled out her leather notebook and Cross pen and began to write her initial impressions of the Pinnacle Resort at Aspen.

 

Thirty minutes later, as her cocktail neared its logical conclusion (she was an admittedly slow drinker) and her salad was gone, Cordy had mellowed. A smattering of other customers had come in, which Cordy calculated was average for fi ve o’clock on a Friday in the off-season.

 

The off-season. Her favorite phrase because it had given her a dream career that allowed her to make a

good living, own and show a horse, and travel around the world. She had become a go-to professional for how to make more money in the off-season. She could look at a resort, no matter where it was, and come up with ways to make hay when the sun didn’t shine, as it were. For Cordy, it was akin to taking a meh horse and making it a wow horse. She used to think anyone could see the off-season potential in a resort, but she accepted that she had a knack, though she was still reluctant to believe the hype heaped on her by happy clients. After working for a company that ran several resorts around the world, she went out on her own. Pinnacle was her first project as an independent contractor, but the winter resort wasn’t her client. A small Aspen ad agency that was trying to impress Pinnacle had hired her to overdeliver and wow them. She was a surprise bonus, and her recommendation could be the tipping point.

 

Or that’s what the agency was banking on. She thought they were overly optimistic, but they were paying her well, so she’d give them their money’s worth.

 

She had already completed a page of bullet points after being at Pinnacle for less than twenty-four

hours. Not bad.

 

Was someone playing a piano? As Cordy looked around, a lock of shiny wheat-colored hair fell in front

of her face. As she shoved it behind her ear, she saw a fresh champagne cocktail in front of her. “Excuse me,” she called to the bartender, who rushed over. “I didn’t order this.”

 

“It’s on the house, madam.” Did management know why she was here and was trying to impress her? As

though she were a secret shopper or something? “Really? Why?”

 

“A gentleman came by and bought you a drink.”

 

“That’s impossible. I don’t know anyone here.”

 

“Begging your pardon, but that’s what happened.”

 

“Who was it?”

 

“He didn’t say,” the bartender replied as he wiped the bar.

 

“Where is he? I ought to thank him.”

 

“He left.”

 

“What did he look like?”

 

The bartender filled his cheeks with air and puffed it out. “Dark hair. A little taller than me.” He

shrugged in defeat.

 

That didn’t help. If it was the martini guy, surely he would have taken the shaker.

 

The bartender spoke. “I’d say you have a secret admirer.”

 

“Right.” She said this merely to confirm she’d heard him because her attention was back on the

  1. What is that song? I know that song. And where is the piano?

 

Oh no. No. No no no no no.

 

“Excuse me, again,” Cordy said. “But where’s the piano?” She struggled to sound polite and not distressed.

 

“Just behind that tree,” he said, nodding toward an impressively leafy plant in the middle of the room that stretched to the ceiling. Cordy threw back a mouthful of her complimentary drink, dabbed her lips with her napkin, and took a breath before striding to the hidden instrument.

 

The man’s hands were sure and efficient as they transformed the keys into a gorgeous melody. Playing

was muscle memory for him; that much was obvious. He rocked gently to the rhythm as though in a trance, oblivious to her or even that he was in the middle of a restaurant. If she weren’t in such a strange mood, she would have appreciated his talent and artistry. But the only thing she wanted to do was stop him.

 

“Excuse me,” she said.

 

No response.

 

She stared for a moment, willing him to look at her. The mental energy she expended could have bent

several spoons, possibly a spatula. Or a shovel. He kept going, damn him. “Excuse me!” she said, louder

this time.

 

He looked at her. Mildly. And literally didn’t miss a beat.

 

She was pretty sure it was the martini shaker guy. Of course. Because this was inconvenient, too. Maybe he didn’t recognize her. After all, he’d been flying overhead and three sheets to the wind when they’d met more than ten hours earlier. She sighed, flicked her hands at him, and said, “Could you maybe skip over this song and play something else?”

 

He shook his head and a few strands of pin-straight brown hair flopped into his eyes. “I’m sorry; I can’t

hear you. I’m playing the piano.”

 

  1. She spoke louder. “Yes, I know. I was wondering if you could play a different song?” He continued

playing all those damned notes she hated, while conversing—of course he was—he was a professional,

what did she expect? It wasn’t even multitasking for him, it was his job to chat up diners while playing.

“This is a great song. Cole Porter. What do you have against Cole Porter?”

 

“Nothing, but—”

 

“This is part of my warm-up. I always play ‘So In Love.’ ”

 

It seemed he was embellishing the tune just to annoy her. The golden buzz from her vintage cocktail

had turned on her and was making her grumpy. He continued, “Have you ever heard the words?

They’re beautiful.” Then, to add musical insult to emotional injury, he started over and sang softly, so

only she could hear. Her own private concert from hell.

 

His voice was as smooth as a premium liqueur and his accent—Southern and lyrical—disappeared. Still,

hearing a declaration of a searing love come out of this man’s mouth only made her feel terrible. What

did Cole Porter know? This kind of love doesn’t exist except in songs. I should know. Her throat ached, her cheeks heated and, lo and behold, she was about to cry. This wasn’t going to happen. She clamped down on her unacceptable emotional response, leaned toward him, and said, “Please.” “I’ll finish—”

 

She blurted, “I’ll give you a hundred dollars to stop.”

 

He kept playing. “You abhor it that much?”

 

She rolled her eyes. “A hundred bucks to do less. Come on.”

 

“Deal.” He finished with a flourish, held out his hand with its long, strong fingers, and raised his eyebrows at her.

 

“I don’t have that much cash on me.” She folded her arms under her breasts.

 

“You should have thought of that before you bribed me to stop.”

 

“I’ll leave it with the bartender.”

 

“George? He’s a confirmed kleptomaniac. I’ll never see a red cent.”

 

“I’ll leave you a check, then.”

 

“I’m sorry, darlin’, but traditionally speaking, bribes are cash only.” He whispered, “You don’t want

it to be traced.”

 

“It’s not a bribe. I made it worth your while to stop playing. Think of it as a tip.”

 

“Pourboires are usually given as an expression of appreciation.”

 

“Pourboires?”

 

“Tips. Why did you want me to stop? That was a whole lot of hatred aimed at poor Mr. Porter’s classic.”

 

Cordy sniffed and looked at the far wall over Martini Boy’s head. “I’d rather not say.”

 

“All that hostility can’t be good for you. Why don’t we discuss it over a . . . champagne cocktail?”

 

She knew her face betrayed her—her eyes widened, her eyebrows shot up, and her mouth opened a little more than usual. There was a reason she wasn’t a professional poker player or counterintelligence operative.

 

“No. Thank you. I should go.”

 

He tsked and shook his head. “I would’ve never taken you for a welsher.”

 

“I’m not—Don’t worry, you’ll get your money.”

 

His full lips kicked up at the corners, making him more appealing than she cared to admit. It was the

kind of appealing that made her want to stick around.

 

“As I see it, you owe me a hundred dollars and my martini shaker. Which I thank you for returning, by

the way. It’s another reason I need to buy you a drink. In fact, I hardly think a drink’s enough—after all, that shaker is very important to me. I believe I owe you at least a dinner. Would you do me the honor of having dinner with me this evening, Miss . . . ? It is Miss, correct?” He didn’t need to know her name or her marital status. Not with that appealing smile chipping away at her defenses. “That’s very generous of you, but I don’t know you and you don’t know me. We don’t have to be friends. I’m sure you have plenty of friends. I’ll give you your hundred dollars, you can take your shaker—it’s right there on the bar, safe and sound—and we’ll go our separate ways. It’s not necessary to have dinner. It’s not necessary to have drinks or coffee or . . . anything. We had an encounter, then a business transaction, and that’s all. Besides, you can’t leave your shift—as you pointed out, you only just started playing, and the cocktail crowd is going to want their Gershwin as a backdrop for their scintillating conversations.”

 

She looked at the top of the upright. “Hey, where’s your brandy snifter? You’re good. A guy like

you could make a lot of . . . pourboires.” She gazed at his face just in time to see it brighten. He didn’t smile, but his lips twitched and his eyes lighted. She was on a roll and it felt good. “After you’re done with your Harry Connick, Jr. stint, surely you have a few martinis to make, don’t you? Or do you only bartend on top of the mountain with your friends the goats?”

 

He swiveled on the piano bench to face her.

 

“Honey, your drink’s getting warm, and that’s a tragedy.” He stood. He was taller than she’d predicted.

He had six inches on her, easy. She didn’t like that she had to look up to him now, after getting to look down at him this hole time. “Let’s go rescue that drink,” he said, and turned her with a finger on her shoulder. That finger then breezed the small of her back, propelling her toward the bar. “And careful about speaking ill of mountain goats,” he said as they walked. “They’re integral to the ecosystem here, they please the tourists, and they’re remarkably rugged, graceful, nimble creatures.” He pulled out her barstool for her. Cordy thought about dismissing his gesture, but decided to finish her cocktail. He amused her, and that was worth a few more minutes of her time. “I didn’t say anything bad about goats. I called them your friends. What does that say about you?” Plus he was easy on her eyes. He had great hair—the dark brown of a horse’s deep bay coat, and glossy—with regular features, a nose straight and assertive as a dressage whip, wide, dark eyes, full lips…A woman could do worse. He was elegant, yes, but oh-so-unavoidably masculine. A dangerous combination, but perfect for temporary scenery at a bar in a ski resort in Aspen.

 

She sat. He stood. He sipped her drink. “Hey!” she said.

 

“Just as I feared. Too warm.” He beckoned the bartender.

 

“George, the lady is in dire need of another champagne cocktail, if you will. This one is tepid. And

I’ll have one as well.”

 

“It was fine,” Cordy said.

 

“No, it wasn’t. There’s nothing worse than warm champagne.”

 

“I can think of something worse.”

 

He sat, then looked at her, and his gaze was so focused, she felt there must be a red laser dot on her

nose. Her pulse actually kicked up a notch. “And, pray tell, what would that be?” This had to be what an impala felt like when it knew it couldn’t outrun the lion.

 

“Impertinent pianists.”

 

“Come now, was I really that bad?”

 

“You weren’t exactly cooperative. You could’ve stopped when I asked the first time.”

 

“I assure you, under the right circumstances, with the right woman, I can be the very picture of cooperation.”

 

Cordy shifted on her barstool. Where was George with her cocktail? And why was Martini Boy with her

and not at the piano? Normally she wouldn’t have asked, but her experience with him had been anything but normal. “Don’t you need to get back to the piano? People are starting to fidget.”

 

“They’ll manage,” he said, looking around the room. “Would you be so kind as to hand me my

shaker? I’d like to inspect it for damage.”

 

Cordy handed it to him and noted his clean, flat, broad nails rounding out his capable hands. She also

felt their fingers touch for a fraction of a second.

 

“Yeah, so, about that. What was up with that?”

 

“What was up with what?”

 

“You dropping it. If it means so much to you, shouldn’t you have been more careful?”

 

“People drop things all the time,” he said, turning the shaker as he examined it. “It’s an international

habit.”

 

“Clumsy people drop things. You play the piano like a dream, so I’m guessing you’re not usually

clumsy. All that hand-eye coordination and everything.”

 

“You give me an immense amount of credit. I hear Van Cliburn had an embarrassing and expensive habit

of dropping crystal.”

 

Who was this guy who talked like he’d just stepped out of 1920? Cordy was slightly surprised he was in

color and not black-and-white like an old movie. Nobody really talked like this. He was putting on an act.

He had to be. Well, two could play at this game. She was going to say something out of character. Their drinks arrived and Cordy took a good long sip. She furloughed her internal editor, the one who kept her scrupulously polite, then looked at him.

 

“Why were you in a tux riding the ski lift the wrong way and carrying a martini shaker at six thirty in the

morning?”

 

He grinned and took a few swallows of the water George had given them with the drinks, making her

wait. He set the glass down and licked his lips. “Earlier in the evening, I attended a party that demanded

formal wear.”

 

“What kind of party?”

 

“A formal one.”

 

She beetled her brows at him. “It went on until sunrise? At your age? Were the cops involved? You

can tell me. After all, it’s not like we’ll see each other again.”

 

“Now that would be a tragedy of epic proportions.”

 

“Trust me, it’ll be fine.”

 

“Doubtful.”

 

“Was it a wedding? Which would be unusual on a Thursday, but not unheard of.”

 

“No.”

 

“Graduation? Bar mitzvah? Barn raising?”

 

“You’re not going to guess the occasion. Have you considered the possibility that I might just enjoy

dressing up?”

 

“Oh!” Was this code? Was he telling her he was gay? Which would be great, because they could pal

around and she wouldn’t have to worry about getting involved. She would never have guessed, but these days, with straight metrosexuals around every corner, her gaydar was unreliable.

 

“Oh?” he asked.

 

She shrugged. “Oh.”

 

“What does ‘oh’ mean?”

 

“ ‘Oh’ means ‘oh.’ ” She couldn’t tell him what she was thinking. Even her absent editor returned to keep her silent.

 

“ ‘Oh’ means ‘oh,’ huh? All right, then. Since you were so kind as to return my shaker, I’m not going to

press you for an answer.”

 

“Now we’re even,” Cordy said, feeling positively cocky. “You didn’t answer my question and I didn’t answer yours. Let’s just enjoy our drinks, okay?”

 

“Absolutely. Whatever you prefer.” He tipped his flute to clink with hers, sipped, then paused. “Hmm.”

 

“What?” she asked.

 

“Nothing. Just hmm.”

 

“What?”

 

“You won’t tell me what ‘oh’ means, but you expect me to tell you what ‘hmm’ means?”

 

Cordy went for the chink in his armor. “It would be the gentlemanly thing to do.”

 

“If that’s what you think. I was thinking how it’s curious that a woman such as yourself is here alone.”

 

“What makes you think I’m alone?”

 

“That would be because you are.”

 

“Why?”

 

“You’re in a resort town, at a resort. Most guests come with at least one other person. In your case, I

would expect you to be here with a man. A significant other of some sort. Spouse, boyfriend, fiancé—”

 

“Don’t say that word.”

 

“Fiancé?”

 

“Yes. Just . . . don’t. Or I’ll take that shaker and throw it off a cliff.” Cordy smoothed her hair behind

her ear and stared at the bubbles zipping to the surface of her drink. Why did he have to say that?

 

“I promise not to say ‘fiancé’ anymore. If you tell me why I can’t.”

 

She felt like Martini Boy was squeezing her windpipe.

 

“I can’t. Okay? It’s a . . . thing.” The words choked out. He must’ve noticed because he nodded and didn’t argue. She wished she was one of those people who could laugh and make light of it, but in this case, she couldn’t. “Excuse me for a moment. I’ll be right back.” She reached under the bar to snag her purse from the hook. Purse hooks under bars were a godsend. More points for Pinnacle. Martini Boy

stood. More points for Martini Boy.

 

“Will you be back?” he asked, and sounded concerned.

 

She slid off the stool. “Yes. I need to use the restroom.”

 

By “use” she meant “regain my composure, then figure out what I want to do next and if it involves

you.”

 

AUTHOR:

Colette Auclair has been a copywriter for more than twenty years. She’s ridden and shown horses since she was ten and owns a lovely twenty-year-old Thoroughbred mare. A 2012 Golden Heart finalist in the contemporary romance category, Thrown was her first novel and Jumped was her second. Please visit http://www.coletteauclair.com/.

 

Blond

BLOND CARGO

John Lansing

October 20, 2014

$5.99

The second Jack Bertolino thriller by John Lansing

 

“An unyielding pace, vigorous characters and explosive ending.”

—Kirkus Reviews

 

“A fantastic read…This extremely fast and well-thought-out thriller will remind some of James Patterson’s early works.”

Suspense Magazine

 

“Blond Cargo an extraordinary, must-read detective thriller. Can’t wait for the next installment! Look out Patterson, someone’s gaining on you!”

Amazon Reviewer

 

SUMMARY:

Blond Cargo is the highly anticipated second Jack Bertolino installment from New York native and now Los Angeles author John Lansing. This gripping eBook from the former writer/producer of Walker, Texas Ranger and Co-Executive producer of the ABC series Scoundrels continues the story that began in The Devil’s Necktie.

 

Jack Bertolino is back…in the sequel to John Lansing’s bestseller The Devil’s Necktie!

 

Jack’s son, Chris, was the victim of a brutal murder attempt and Vincent Cardona, a mafia boss, provided information that helped Jack take down the perpetrator of the crime. Jack accepted the favor knowing there’d be blowback. In Blond Cargo, the mobster’s daughter has gone missing and Cardona turned in his chit. Jack discovers that the young, blond mafia princess has been kidnapped and imprisoned while rich, politically connected men negotiate her value as a sex slave.

 

John Lansing taps into the real life world of cops, crime, drugs and murder in Blond Cargo to deliver another sizzling whodunit.

 

EXCERPT:

Jack Bertolino moved briskly down the polished terrazzo floor of the American Airlines terminal at San Francisco International Airport. He walked past travelers who were deplaning, waiting to board, eating, drinking, and queuing up at ticket counters. Through the windows on either side of the crowded terminal he could see a line of Boeing MD-80s and 737s.

 

Jack had his game face on. One thought only: take down the manager at NCI Corp who was dirty.

 

Todd Dearling had been hired as one of five project managers, developing a new generation of semiconductors meant to challenge Intel’s control of the market. Yet the new engineer was plotting to steal the proprietary architecture for the company’s most advanced technology and sell it to an Argentinean competitor.

 

Jack had done a thorough background check on Dearling and found no skeletons in the man’s closet, no gambling issues, no drugs, no priors; it was greed, pure and simple. Cruz Feinberg, Jack’s new associate, had arrived in Silicon Valley two days prior and wirelessly inserted a program onto Dearling’s iPad while the stressed-out manager was sucking down his daily chai latte at the local Starbucks. Any text or e-mail sent to or from Dearling was cloned and sent to Cruz’s laptop. A piece of cake to pull off for the young tech whiz. Jack was being well paid to catch the thief in the act—let the money and the technology change hands, and then drop the hammer.

 

Todd Dearling had made reservations at the Four Seasons Hotel in East Palo Alto. A car would be waiting at SFO to ferry his Argentinean counterpart to the suite where the exchange was scheduled to take place.

 

Jack had booked Cruz into that same suite two nights earlier, where he had set up wireless microcameras and wired the room for sound, to be routed to the suite next door, where Jack’s team would document the crime.

 

Jack lived for these moments. Outsmarting intelligent men who thought they were above the law. Badge or no badge, Jack loved to take scumbags down.

 

Ten minutes ago, Flight 378 from Buenos Aires had flashed from black to green on the overhead arrivals screen. Dressed in a gray pinstripe business suit and wheeling a carry-on suitcase, Jack walked toward a limo driver stationed near the exit door of the international terminal. The man held a sign chest-high that read emilio bragga.

 

Jack reached out a hand toward the driver, who was forced to lower his placard, shake Jack’s hand, and make quick work of grabbing up Jack’s bag. Jack headed quickly toward the exit, explaining to the driver that he was traveling light and had no checked luggage.

 

As soon as the two men exited the building, Jack’s second employee, Mateo Vasquez, dressed in a black suit, moved into the same spot, carrying a sign that read Emilio bragga.

 

Jack and Mateo had once been on opposite sides of the thin blue line, Jack as an NYPD narcotics detective, Mateo as an operative for a Colombian drug cartel. When Jack busted the cartel, he made Mateo an offer—spend thirty years in the big house, or come to work for the NYPD as a confidential

informant. Mateo had made the right choice and Jack had earned himself a loyal operative when he became a private investigator.

 

Thirty seconds later, the real Emilio Bragga walked up to Mateo, stifled a yawn, and handed off his carry-on. He was short and stocky with a rubbery face.

 

Buenos días, Señor Bragga. I hope your flight was acceptable?” Mateo asked deferentially.

 

“Barely. First class isn’t what it used to be.” Bragga’s accented English was spoken in clipped tones. “Take me to the First National Bank. I have business to attend to.”

 

Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars’ worth of business, Mateo might have added, but refrained.

 

Jack arrived at the Four Seasons, generously tipped the limo driver, and hurried up the elevator to the suite where Cruz was waiting. Once Jack stripped off his suit jacket, he joined the young genius by his array of monitors.

 

“They should make these baby ketchup bottles illegal,” Cruz said as he tried to pound the condiment out of the room service minibottle of Heinz. Growing frustrated, Cruz shoved a knife deep into the viscous ketchup and poured a heaping red mound onto his fries. Happy with the results, he chowed down on three drenched fries before wiping his hands on his jeans and returning his gaze to the computer.

 

“It looks like he’s getting ready for a date,” Jack said as he took a seat. Cruz kept his eyes trained on the four screens corresponding to the four different camera angles of the room they were covering.

 

“Guy’s squirrelly,” Cruz said, biting into his cheeseburger.

 

They watched as Todd Dearling twirled a bottle of champagne in the ice that had just been delivered from room service, along with a tray of finger sandwiches and crudités. He was a slight, pale, middle-aged man with thinning hair that he kept nervously brushing back off his forehead. He shrugged out of his tweed sports jacket, but when he saw the sweat stains in the armpits of his blue dress shirt, he slid it

back on. He hurried over to the thermostat near the door, appearing on a new screen, and turned up the air.

 

Jack checked his watch and then his phone to make sure he was receiving enough bars to communicate with Mateo. “I’m getting a little nervous. You?” Cruz asked before sucking down the last of his Coke. He crumpled the aluminum can with one hand and executed an overhand dunk into the bamboo trash bin.

 

Cruz’s mother was Guatemalan, his father a Brooklyn Jew who founded Bundy Lock and Key. That’s where Jack first met him. Cruz, who took after his mother’s side of the family, looked taller than his five-foot-nine frame. Darkskinned, intelligent brown eyes, a youthful angular face, and at twenty-three, he could still pull off the spiky short black hair.

 

“I’ve got some energy going,” Jack said, “but it’s all good. You’d have to worry if you didn’t feel pumped.”

 

Just then Jack’s phone vibrated and the number 999 appeared on his text screen, code for It’s a go. Mateo and Emilio Bragga had just pulled up to the front entrance of the Four Seasons Hotel.

 

“We’re on,” Jack said with a tight grin.

 

In another minute, a loud rap on a door made Cruz jump. “Is that here?” he asked, and glanced over at the door to their suite.

 

“No, it’s next door. Great sound, Cruz,” Jack said, trying to keep his newest charge calm.

 

Jack and Cruz watched as Dearling’s image moved from one screen to the next, went over to the door, unlocked it, and ushered in Emilio Bragga. The man of the hour wheeled his carry-on across the white marble floor, pushed the retractable handle down into the bag, and gave Dearling an unexpected bear hug, lifting the thin man off his feet. Once the blush faded and he had regained his composure, Dearling

was all smiles. He could smell his fortune being made. “First, tell me you have them,” Bragga said brusquely, his smile tightening.

 

“I have them and more, Emilio. There are even some preliminary renderings for the next series of chips. Consider it goodwill,” Dearling said.

 

He lifted the champagne bottle out of the melting ice with a flourish, dripping water onto his dress shirt.

“A celebratory drink and then business.”

 

“No, business first,” Jack said.

 

“No. Show them to me. Now,” Bragga ordered, his voice unyielding.

 

“Now we’re talking,” Cruz said to Jack, barely able to control his excitement.

 

The next knock was more subdued than the first, just a quick double knock.

 

“That’s here,” Jack said as he slid out of his chair and opened the door. Mateo was thirty-nine years old, tall, handsome, with striking gray eyes, long brown hair, and a thousand-dollar suit. He beamed at his old friend as he walked in, bumped fists, and moved into position behind Cruz, eyes trained on the computer screen.

 

Emilio Bragga placed his carry-on luggage on the couch as Dearling pulled a slim buffed metal briefcase from behind the table and snapped it open on the tabletop. Inside was a series of blue, red, silver, and gold flash drives, seated in foam cutouts next to three bound technical binders.

 

Bragga leafed quickly through one of the binders, visibly relaxed, and placed it back inside the case. He looked at Todd Dearling and nodded his head. Then he smiled.

 

“This is the money shot,” Jack said. “Make it the money shot.”

 

Emilio Bragga walked over to the couch, ceremoniously produced a key, and opened the lock. The sound of the zipper ratcheting around the circumference of the bag got everyone’s full attention. And then Bragga flipped open the canvas top.

 

Two hundred and fifty thousand, in crisp, banded hundred-dollar bills. Jack’s team could almost hear Dearling’s breath catch in his throat.

 

“You see those appetizers?” Bragga said, gesturing to the tray of crudités. “That is what this is.” He turned his gaze to the thick stacks of money like it was nothing. “Antipasto…before the meal.”

 

The two men shook hands. The deal was consummated. It was all gravy now, Jack thought. He would contact Lawrence Weller, CEO of NCI, who would have Bragga quietly arrested at the airport and Dearling picked up outside his condominium, thereby avoiding any negative publicity regarding the security breach that could affect the value of NCI’s stock.

 

“Start taking sick days as we get closer to the rollout date,” Bragga advised. “Then you’ll take a forced medical leave. I’ll set you up with a doctor in San Francisco who’s a friend. He’ll recommend you spend a month at a local clinic to recuperate while we launch and beat NCI to market. Six months later and with two million in your account, you’ll give notice and head up my division. Did I ever tell you how beautiful the women in Mendoza are?”

 

Bragga’s speech was interrupted by another knock on the door.

 

“Room service,” a muted voice said.

 

“We’re good,” Dearling shouted as he moved toward the door while Bragga instinctively closed the lid of his bag, covering the money.

 

Jack gave his team a What the hell? look. “Who are these jokers?”

 

“Complimentary champagne from the management of the Four Seasons,” intoned the muffled voice.

 

“Don’t open the door,” Bragga hissed.

 

“Don’t open the door,” Jack said at the same time. But Dearling had already turned the handle.

 

Three men dressed in navy blue blazers with gold epaulettes pushed a service cart draped with a white cloth into the room with a bottle of champagne in a silver ice bucket and a huge bouquet of flowers in a crystal vase. “Three men on one bottle,” Jack said as he pulled his Glock nine-millimeter out of his shoulder rig and headed for the door.

 

“We weren’t the only ones who hacked his computer,” Cruz intuited.

 

“Don’t leave the room,” Jack told him over his shoulder. He quickly exited the suite, followed by Mateo. Cruz nodded, but his wide eyes never left the computer screen.

 

The lead man pushed the cart toward Dearling, but instead of slowing down, he muscled the cart up against the timid man’s waist, picked up speed, and forced him to backpedal across the room. Dearling’s eyes bugged, his face a mask of terror. The flowers and champagne tumbled off the cart, and the crystal vase shattered on impact. The champagne bottle exploded. Flowers and glass and water and bubbly

flooded the slick stone floor. Dearling’s body slammed into the television set on the far wall; his head whipped back and splintered the flat screen. Glass rained down on the Judas as he slid to the floor behind the cart.

 

Bragga placed himself in front of his bag of cash and took a gun barrel to the side of his head. The gash spurted blood, drenched his shirt, turned his legs to rubber, and took him down onto one knee. The gunman made a fast reach past him for the bag, but Bragga grabbed the thug around one thigh and tried to bulldog him to the ground.

 

“I’m gonna shoot you, you dumb prick,” the gunman grunted, rapidly losing control of the situation.

 

“So much for keeping it on the QT,” Jack said to Mateo as he kicked the door open and followed his gun into the room.

 

The third uniformed man spun as the door smashed against the jamb and Jack’s fist exploded into his face. The man’s head snapped back, and blood streamed out of his broken nose. His arms flailed, and his gun was suspended in midair for a split second before the man and the gun hit the floor.

 

The man who’d pushed the cart turned his weapon on Jack, who fired first, blasting the man in the shoulder. The force of Jack’s bullet propelled the gunman’s body backward onto the cart before he flopped to the stone floor, landed on his shoulder in the broken glass, and cried out in pain. The gun discharging in the close confines of the hotel suite stopped the action. The room smelled of cordite,

the only sounds heavy breathing and Todd Dearling’s whimpering. Mateo picked up the third man’s pistol and covered Jack’s back.

 

Jack turned his Glock on the second man. “Give me your gun or your friend’s going to bleed out,” he stated with extreme calm.

 

Before Jack could take control of the weapon, Bragga stripped it from the gunman’s hand and smashed him in the temple with surprising violence. Then he swung the confiscated Colt back and forth between Jack and Mateo, stopping them in their tracks.

 

“Nobody move and nobody follow,” Bragga said as he half-zippered the suitcase with one hand and picked up the carry-on bag.

 

“Drop your weapons,” he ordered Jack and Mateo through clenched teeth as blood continued to drip down the side of his face. They complied, knowing he wouldn’t make it as far as the lobby. Bragga walked around the couch on unsteady legs, muscling the heavy bag. His eyes bored into Mateo, the “driver” who had betrayed him, and ordered him to clear the doorway with a sharp wave of his gun barrel. Mateo took a half step to the side, gave the short man just enough room to pass, and pistoned with his full two hundred pounds of muscle, leading with his elbow and hitting Bragga in the back of the head, just above the neck. The Argentinean went down hard.

 

The overstuffed bag bounced on the floor, the luggage’s zipper split open, and a green wave of banded hundreds cascaded out onto the polished white Carrara marble. “That was a cluster fuck,” Jack said with disgust as he picked up his Glock and surveyed the carnage in the suite. Mateo collected the fallen weapons, grabbed a towel off the wet bar, and used it as a compress to stanch the first gunman’s bleeding wound. He was all business. “Call 911 and have them send an ambulance,” Jack said to Cruz, who he knew could hear him over one of the multiple microphones.

 

“That was insane.”

 

Jack turned around and found Cruz standing, wild eyed, in the hall directly behind him.

 

“Call 911 and lock the door. Did we get it all?”

 

“I copied Lawrence Weller and you on your cell, iPad, and laptop.”

 

“Good man,” Jack said.

 

“No, really, you, Mateo . . . man.” Cruz shuddered as he pulled out his cell and dialed the emergency phone line. Jack was not one normally given to second-guessing, but at the moment he found himself seriously questioning his new career choice as a private investigator.

 

Muttering a curse, Jack holstered his nine-millimeter, crossed the room, and proceeded to snap plastic flex-cuffs on the broken assembly of thieves.

 

AUTHOR:

John Lansing spent five years writing for TV hit Walker, Texas Ranger, and another three years studying the life of an NYPD Inspector. What emerged from his combined writing about a cop and time spent with an actual cop was Jack Bertolino—a fictional character with very real-life stories. Lansing was also a Co-Executive Producer for ABC’s Scoundrels. John’s first book was Good Cop, Bad Money, a true crime tome with former NYPD Inspector Glen Morisano. The Devil’s Necktie was his first novel. A native of Long Island, John now resides in Los Angeles. Please visit http://www.johnlansing.net/.

 

LastGoodbye

A LAST GOODBYE

J.A. Jance

November 24, 2014

.99

An Ali Reynolds e-novella

 

SUMMARY:

Find out where fan favorite Ali Reynolds’ new adventure takes her in A Last Goodbye as New York Times bestselling author J.A. Jance brings her trademark breakneck pace to this fun and exciting e-novella, in which Ali Reynolds takes on double responsibilities as both sleuth and bride.

 

Ali Reynolds is finally getting married to her longtime love B. Simpson. They wanted a simple Christmas Eve wedding, but nothing is ever simple with Ali. Even as a motley crew of her friends—Leland Brooks, Sister Anselm, and others—descend on Vegas, the bride-to-be finds herself juggling last-minute wedding plans and a mystery in the form of a stray miniature dachshund. Ali’s grandson rescues the little dog, but Ali’s not in the market for a new pet right before her honeymoon, and leaves no stone unturned in hunting for the dog’s owner. But what she finds is more than just a shaggy dog story…Bella’s elderly owner has vanished, and her son seems to be behind it. So it’s Ali and B. to the rescue—and still making it to the church on time!

 

EXCERPT:

Ali Reynolds leaned her head back against the pillow in the soaking tub and closed her eyes. With

the help of the pummeling water jets, she let the rush of the past few days recede into the background.

She and B. had made it. They were finally in Las Vegas. The rest of the wedding party was there, too.

Back in November, when she and B. Simpson had first settled on a Christmas Eve wedding at the Four

Seasons, it seemed entirely doable—a piece of cake. After all, how hard could it be?

 

Because Ali and B. had chosen to be married in a hotel, much of the planning was done by simply

cruising through the wedding planning pages on the Four Seasons website. Arranging the time, date, flowers, type of ceremony—including their preferred verbiage in the vows—was just a matter of making a few mouse clicks on her computer. Ditto for the menus. One was for what they were calling the rehearsal dinner despite the fact that there would be no rehearsal until the morning of the wedding. She also used the website to choose separate menus for both the reception and the post-ceremony supper. Ali stepped away from her computer, thinking that she had most everything handled. Unfortunately, she had failed to take her mother’s reaction into consideration.

 

Preparations for Ali’s previous weddings had been well beyond Edie Larson’s geographic reach—Chicago

for the first ceremony and Los Angeles for the second. Caught up in running the family business,

the Sugarloaf Café in Sedona, Arizona, 363 days a year, all Ali’s parents had been able to do on the two

previous occasions was arrive in time for the rehearsal dinners and depart immediately after the nuptials.

 

This time around, Ali wasn’t so lucky. Her parents, Bob and Edie Larson, were both retired now,

having sold the restaurant. Bob had found plenty to do in retirement, but Edie, left with too much time

on her hands, had hit the wedding planner ground at a dead run, a reaction for which Ali herself had

been totally unprepared.

 

In the past, Ali had found the term “bridezilla” mildly amusing, but when it came to dealing with an

Edie who had suddenly morphed into what could only be called the bride’s “momzilla”? That wasn’t amusing in the least. To Ali’s surprise, Edie had whipped out her long-unused Singer sewing machine and set about stitching up a storm. In keeping with the season, Edie’s mother-of-the-bride dress was a deep-green velvet and probably the most sophisticated attire Ali had ever seen in her mother’s wardrobe.

 

With her own dress safely in hand, Edie had gone on to tackle outfits for the twins, Ali’s grandchildren,

Colleen and Colin, who would serve as flower girl and ring bearer respectively. Colleen’s dress was a ruby-red taffeta, and Colin’s tux, also homemade, came complete with a matching rubyred taffeta cummerbund. Once that was finished, Edie took it upon herself to sew identical cummerbunds for all the men in the wedding party.

 

Ali’s father, Bob, was not an official member because Ali’s son, Chris, would do the honor of walking her down the aisle. Even so, Edie had gone so far as to bully her husband into actually buying a tux as opposed to renting one so Bob would have one to wear to formal dinner nights on their next cruise. Edie had been in despair about Ali’s ever finding a suitable wedding dress, and her sense of dread deepened when her daughter abruptly removed herself from the wedding planning equation. For the better part of two weeks in early December, Ali avoided all the frenetic pre-wedding activity by, as Edie put it, “larking off” to England.

 

That’s what Ali and B. had both expected her trip to Bournemouth would be—a lark. She went along for the ride when her longtime majordomo, Leland Brooks, returned home to the British Isles after living in self-imposed exile in the U.S. for the better part of sixty years. The trip was actually a thank-you from B. and Ali for Leland’s years of loyal service, including his having saved Ali’s life a month earlier in a nighttime desert confrontation with a kidnapper.

 

Ali had expected that her responsibilities would entail providing backup in case any of Leland’s long-lost relatives decided to go off the rails. She was also there as the designated driver, since most

car rental agencies didn’t allow octogenarians to rent vehicles.

 

In a role-reversal variation on Driving Miss Daisy, Ali had taken the wheel of their “hired” Range Rover and driven Leland through the snowy English countryside from London to Bournemouth, Leland’s hometown, on the south coast of England. Together they even took a sentimental side trip to one of Leland’s favorite childhood haunts: Stonehenge.

 

In a small fashion boutique in Bournemouth, Leland had helped Ali find the perfect dress for her third and, as she put it, hopefully last wedding. Even now, her lovely lace-adorned ivory silk knee-length

sheath was hanging in its original clear plastic wrap in the closet here at the Four Seasons. Needless to

say, Edie was greatly relieved to know that the wedding dress issue had at last been handled even if she

hadn’t been allowed to make it or choose it.

 

AUTHOR:

J.A. Jance is the New York Times bestselling author of the Ali Reynolds series, the J.P. Beaumont series, the Joanna Brady series, as well as four interrelated Southwestern thrillers featuring the Walker family. Born in South Dakota and brought up in Brisbee, Arizona, Jance and her husband live in Seattle, Washington, and Tucson, Arizona. Please visit http://www.jajance.com/.

SLACK FRIDAY from POCKET STAR eBOOKS!!!!

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Tim

TIM CRATCHIT’S CHRISTMAS CAROL:

THE SEQUEL TO THE CELEBRATED DICKENS CLASSIC

Jim Piecuch

November 17, 2014

$1.99

 

SUMMARY:

In A Christmas Carol, evil Scrooge was shown the error of his ways by three helpful ghosts and vowed to become a better person. Bob Cratchit and his family benefited most from Scrooge’s change of tune—but what happened after the goose was given, and Scrooge resolved to turn over a new leaf? Tim Cratchit’s Christmas Carol shows us Tiny Tim as an adult. Having recovered from his childhood ailment, he began his career helping the poor but has since taken up practice as a doctor to London’s wealthy elite. Though Tim leads a very successful life, he comes home at night to an empty house. But this holiday season, he’s determined to fill his house with holiday cheer—and maybe even a wife. When a single, determined young mother lands on Tim’s doorstep with her ailing son, Tim is faced with a choice: stay ensconced in his comfortable life and secure doctor’s practice, or take a leap of faith and reignite the fire lit under him by his mentor, Scrooge, that fateful Christmas so many years ago.

 

EXCERPT:

Dr. Timothy Cratchit emerged from his Harley Street office shortly after six-thirty in the evening. He was surprised to find that the yellow-gray fog that had blanketed London for the past week had disappeared, swept away by a biting north wind. He paused for a moment to gaze up at the stars, a rare sight in the

usually haze-choked city. Then, pulling his scarf tightly around his neck, he walked quickly down the steps and along the path to the curb, where his brougham waited. The horses, a chestnut gelding and another of dappled gray, stomped their hooves on the cobblestone pavement. They made an odd pair, but Tim had chosen them for their gentle nature rather than their appearance. As the doctor approached, his coachman smiled and swung open the side door. The coach’s front and rear lamps

barely pierced December’s early darkness.

 

“Good evening, Doctor,” the coachman said as Tim approached.

 

“Good evening, Henry,” the doctor replied. “How are you tonight?”

 

The coachman, who was tall and lean, wore a knee-length black wool coat and a black top hat, his ears covered by an incongruous-looking strip of wool cloth below the brim.

 

“Cold, sir,” Henry replied. Tim grasped the vertical rail alongside the carriage door and was about to hoist himself inside when he heard a shout. Stepping back from the carriage, he turned to his left, toward the direction where the sound had come from.

 

The gas lamps along the street penetrated just enough of the gloom to allow Tim to distinguish a figure hurrying toward him. As the person drew nearer, Tim could see that it was a woman, clutching a dirty bundle to her chest. Thousands of poor women in London made a meager living sifting through the city’s dustbins for usable items and selling them for whatever pittance they could fetch. The bundle this woman cradled so carefully probably contained an assortment of odd candlesticks, worn shoes, frayed shirts, and the like. Still, this was not someone who would normally frequent Harley Street.

 

“Wait a moment, please,” Tim told the coachman, resignation in his voice. He was eager to get home, and too tired to wait while the woman unwrapped the bundle. He reached into his trousers pocket, found a half crown and two shillings to give her so that she would continue on her way.

 

When the woman came to a stop in front of him, Tim noticed with surprise that she was young, perhaps twenty years old. She was small, not much over five feet tall, clad in a tattered dress covered by a dirty, threadbare gray blanket that she had fashioned into a hooded cloak. Her dark brown hair was matted

in greasy clumps, and a smudge of dirt smeared her right cheek. Her face, though it was beginning to show the premature wear of a hard life, was still quite pretty. She stood with her brown eyes downcast, silently waiting for Tim to acknowledge her.

 

“Can I help you, miss?”

 

“Thank you for waiting, sir,” the woman said, still struggling to catch her breath. “I was hoping that you could take a look at my son. He’s very sick.” She tugged back a corner of what appeared to be a piece of the same blanket that constituted her cloak to reveal the face of an infant.

 

Tim suppressed a groan. It had been a long day—all his days seemed long now—and he was eager to get home. “Come inside, please,” he instructed the woman. To Henry he said, “This shouldn’t take too long.”

 

Unlocking the office door, Tim went inside, lit a lamp, and then held the door for the woman and baby to enter. Inside, the woman gazed at him with an earnestness that aroused his sympathy.

 

“I’m very sorry to bother you like this, Doctor. I didn’t mean to come so late, but I had to walk all the way from the East End, and it took longer than I thought,” she explained. “I never would have found your office yet, except that a kind old gentleman asked if I was lost and then pointed me to your door. A

friend of yours, he said.”

 

“Well,” Tim replied in a reassuring tone, “you’re fortunate that I had to work late; I usually close the office at six.”

 

The woman shuffled her feet uneasily. “If it’s too late, sir, we can come back tomorrow.”

 

“No, no, that’s all right. Now tell me, what is the matter?”

 

“It’s my Jonathan, sir. He’s been sickly since birth, and now he’s getting worse,” she said. Tim noticed that her eyes were moist.

 

“Let’s take him into the examination room.” Tim led them in, lit the lamps. The woman laid the child on the table and pulled back the blanket and other wrappings. Tim was shocked to see that the boy was not an infant—his facial features were too developed—but he was clearly undersized, and Tim did not

dare hazard a guess as to his age.

 

“How old is the little fellow?”

 

“Three last summer, sir.”

 

Tim studied the boy. His eyes were open, brown like his mother’s, and though they gazed intently at Tim, the little body was limp. No mental defect, but something physical, and severe. Tim placed a thumb in each of the tiny hands.

 

“Can you squeeze my thumbs, Jonathan?” he asked. The boy did so, feebly.

 

“Very good!” Tim said. Jonathan smiled.

 

“I didn’t know who else to go to, sir,” the woman explained as Tim flexed the boy’s arms and legs. “There’s no doctors who want to see the likes of us, but then I remembered you, sir. You took care of me many years back, when I had a fever. You came by the East End every week then, sir, and took care of the poor folk.”

 

“I’m sorry, but I treated so many patients that I can’t recall you, Miss, ah, Mrs.—”

 

“It’s Miss, Doctor. Jonathan’s father was a sailor. We were supposed to marry, but I never seen him since before Jonathan was born. My name’s Ginny Whitson.”

 

It was already clear to Tim that the child, like his thin, almost gaunt mother, was badly malnourished. That accounted in part for his small size. Tim also noticed that the boy’s leg muscles were extremely weak. Jonathan remained quiet, looking at the strange man with a mixture of curiosity and fear.

 

“Does Jonathan walk much?” Tim asked.

 

“No, sir, never a step. He could stand a bit until a few weeks ago, but now he can’t even do that. I think it’s the lump on his back, Doctor.”

 

Tim carefully turned the boy over to find a plum-sized swelling along the left edge of his spine at waist level. He touched it lightly, and Jonathan whimpered. “How long has he had this?” Tim asked.

 

“I didn’t notice it till a year ago, sir. It was tiny then, but it’s grown since. In the last month or so it’s gone from about the size of a grape to this big.”

 

Tim hesitated. He needed to do some research and then give Jonathan a more thorough examination before he could accurately diagnose and treat the boy’s condition. He did have several possibilities in mind, none of them good, but there was no sense alarming Ginny prematurely. After she had swathed her child in the bundle of cloth, Tim ushered them back into the waiting room, where he studied his appointment book.

 

“Can you come back at noon on Saturday? I’m sorry to make you wait that long, but I have some things to check, and it will take time.” Ginny nodded. “I’ll see then what I can do,” Tim said.

 

“Oh, Doctor, thank you so much,” Ginny blurted, grateful for any help regardless of when it might come. She shifted Jonathan to her left arm, and thrust her right hand into the pocket of her frayed and patched black dress. Removing a small felt sack, she emptied a pile of copper coins onto the clerk’s desk. Most were farthings and halfpennies, with an occasional large penny interspersed among them.

 

“I know this isn’t enough even for today, sir,” she apologized. “But I’ll get more, I promise. I’m working hard, you see, sir. Every day I go door-to-door and get work cleaning house and doing laundry, and save all I can.”

 

With his right hand, Tim swept the coins across the desktop into his cupped left palm and returned them to Ginny. He was touched by her attempt to pay him, knowing that she must have gone without food many times to accumulate this small amount of money. Her devotion to her son and effort to demonstrate her independence impressed him.

 

“There isn’t any fee, Miss Whitson. I’ll be happy to do whatever I can for Jonathan at no charge.”

 

“But I can’t accept charity, Doctor,” the surprised woman answered. “It wouldn’t be right, taking your time away from your paying patients.”

 

“We all need charity in one form or another at some time in our lives,” Tim said. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for a great act of charity long ago, and as for taking time away from my paying patients, that may be more of a benefit than a problem. Come along, now, and I’ll give you and Jonathan a ride home.”

 

Tim locked the office door and escorted Ginny and Jonathan to his coach as tears trickled down her face, picking up dirt from the smudge on her cheek and tracking it down to her chin. Jonathan began to cry soon after the coach got under way, and Ginny comforted him with a lullaby, one that Tim remembered his own mother singing to him. When the child finally fell asleep, both remained silent, afraid to wake him. Once they reached the narrow streets packed with sailors, beggars, drunks, and an assortment of London’s other poor wretches, Ginny asked to be let out. Tim knocked twice on the roof, and Henry reined in the horses.

 

As she was about to step out of the carriage, something she had said earlier occurred to Tim. “One moment, Miss Whitson. You mentioned that someone directed you to my office. Do you know who he was?”

 

“No, Doctor,” she replied, “and he didn’t say. He was an old gentleman, thin, with a long nose and white hair. Neatly dressed, but his clothes weren’t fancy, if you know what I mean, sir.”

 

Tim bade her good night and watched as she walked down the sidewalk, past gin mills and dilapidated rooming houses. She soon turned into the recessed doorway of a darkened pawnshop and settled herself on the stone pavement. Tim briefly thought of going back to find out if she even had a home, or if she was going to spend the night in the doorway. Fatigue slowed his thoughts, however, and by the time the idea took root, the carriage was a block away and gathering speed.

 

Tim lay back against the soft, leather-covered seat cushions, pondering which of his Harley Street neighbors had directed her to his office. Most of them would have ignored such a woman, or ordered her back to the slums. Her description, though, didn’t fit any of them. He shook his head, trying to remove the cobwebs from his tired mind. It must have been someone else, someone he just couldn’t recall in his fuddled state. No sense wrestling with the question, he concluded.

 

During the long drive across town to his home in the western outskirts of London, Tim tried to relax. It had been another in a seemingly endless string of days filled with consultations and surgeries. Tim had arrived at his office at five-thirty that morning, half an hour earlier than usual, to prepare for a seven

o’clock operation on the Duchess of Wilbersham. She had been complaining for weeks about pain in her left shoulder, which she attributed to a strain that refused to heal. Since she never lifted anything heavier than a deck of cards at her daily whist game, Tim doubted the explanation, and several examinations showed no sign of any real injury. The duchess had a reputation as a hypochondriac who sought treatment for her phantom ailments from the best doctors in London, then bragged about

how she managed to maintain her health by not stinting on the cost of good medical care. To placate the pompous woman, Tim had finally caved in to her demand that he operate to repair the tendons and ligaments she insisted had been damaged. Because the surgery was minor and the duchess, with good reason, abhorred hospitals, Tim performed the operation in his office, which was equipped for such tasks. A small incision and internal examination verified his suspicion that the duchess’s shoulder was perfectly sound. When she awoke, with more pain from the surgery than she had ever experienced from her imaginary injury, along with sutures and an application of carbolic acid to prevent infection, she swore that the shoulder had not felt so well in ten years. Tim wondered if she would be so pleased when the effects of the morphine wore off.

 

“Just give the doctor that bag of coins I asked you to bring,” the duchess had ordered her maidservant. “I won’t insult you, Dr. Cratchit, by asking your fee, but I’m sure there’s more than enough here to cover it, and worth every farthing, too.”

 

When Tim’s clerk opened the leather pouch, he found it contained one hundred gold guineas. Tim could not help contrasting the way his wealthy patients tossed gold coins about with Ginny Whitson’s offer of her pathetic little hoard of coppers. The thought stirred memories of his own childhood, when pennies were so scarce that he and his brothers and sisters sometimes had to roam through frigid alleys to scavenge wood scraps to keep a fire burning on winter nights. It was on one such night when he lay awake, shivering on his thin straw mattress, that he overheard the conversation that changed his life.

 

“I’m to get a raise in salary,” his father murmured excitedly, trying not to wake the children.

 

“I don’t believe it,” Mrs. Cratchit declared. “That old miser would die before he parted with an extra farthing.”

 

“It’s true, dear,” Bob Cratchit insisted. “I’ve never seen Mr. Scrooge like that. We sat for an hour this afternoon, talking. He asked a lot of questions about our family, Tim in particular.”

 

“I’m surprised that he even knew you had a family, Bob.”

 

“I was, too, dear, but he seemed to know a good bit about us. Why, from a few things he said about hoping we had a good Christmas dinner, I think he’s the one who sent the turkey yesterday. Who else could have done it?”

 

“Well, I hope you’re right, Bob. I’ll not believe any of it until I see the proof.”

 

Tim smiled at the recollection of his mother’s skepticism. She had always been the realist in the family, Bob the optimist. Tim had shared his mother’s doubts. She and the children had despised Ebenezer Scrooge, blaming his greed for the family’s struggles. But with his stomach filled to bursting with turkey

left over from Christmas dinner, Tim dared to hope that his father was right, and that old Scrooge might truly have undergone a change of heart. After all, it was Christmas, a time when good things were supposed to happen.

 

The sudden stop as the carriage arrived at his front door shook Tim from his reverie. He was out the door before Henry could dismount from the driver’s seat and open it for him, a habit that Tim had observed left his coachman more amused than chagrined.

 

“That’s all right, Henry,” he said, waving toward the carriage house. “You and the horses get inside and warm up.”

 

Entering the large, well-lit foyer, Tim was greeted by his maid. Bridget Riordan was a pretty Irish girl, with long, flaming red hair pinned up under her white cap, numberless freckles on her cheeks and small nose, and green eyes that always seemed to sparkle with happiness. She took Tim’s top hat, coat, and

scarf. “Dinner will be ready in a half hour, Doctor,” she announced, “so you can rest a bit if you’d like.”

 

“Thank you, Bridget,” Tim replied, watching her walk gracefully toward the kitchen. He loosened his cravat as he climbed the stairs, thought briefly of skipping the meal and going directly to bed, and decided that he could not afford the luxury since he had a long evening of work ahead of him.

 

As usual, Tim dined alone. At the time he had purchased the large house, Tim had expected that he would one day need the space for the family he hoped to have. However, the demands of his practice and the memory of his one previous and unsuccessful attempt at courtship kept him from actively pursuing any romantic interests. Now he sometimes wondered whether he would spend the rest of his life a bachelor, without the happiness he had enjoyed as a child in the crowded and bustling Cratchit home.

 

Solitary meals in the cavernous dining room always seemed to dim Tim’s pleasure despite the hot, tasty food that Bridget prepared. When he had hired them after buying the house, he had often insisted that she, Henry, and William, the gardener, join him in the dining room. But the trio had been servants

since their childhood, and their previous masters, who had not shared Tim’s lack of concern with class distinctions, had impressed upon them the idea that it was improper for servants to associate with their master outside the scope of their duties. The dinner conversations had been stilted, with Tim trying to

make conversation and Bridget, Henry, and William replying in monosyllables punctuated by “sir.” Tim had quickly given up the experiment, yet he still could not help feeling a pang of sadness, mixed with a bit of jealousy, every time the sound of their friendly conversation and laughter in the serving room rose

high enough for him to hear. Still, he admitted that all three servants had warmed to him over the past two years, and had grown more willing to engage him in informal conversation. Perhaps one day they could dine together without the awkwardness of his previous attempts, he thought.

 

Shortly after nine o’clock, Tim retired to his upstairs study. There each night he reviewed the next day’s cases, looked up information in his medical books that he might need, and, if time permitted, read the most recent scientific journals to keep up to date on the latest advances in medicine and surgery. At

one time he had contributed his share of new knowledge to the medical profession, but for the last several years he just could not find the time to do so. He really didn’t have the opportunity, anyway. How could he devise innovative treatments, he asked himself, when most of the patients he saw, like the duchess, had nothing seriously wrong with them to begin with?

 

Having finished his preparation for the next day’s work, Tim drew out his pocket watch. Not quite half past ten. He reached across the wide mahogany desk for the latest issue of the Lancet, which had lain unread for more than a week. Tim pushed it aside. It would have to wait until he had researched Jonathan’s condition. Tim walked over to the bookcase, scanned several volumes, removed a reference book, and returned to his chair. The coal fire that Bridget had stoked was still burning strongly; he would see if he could find confirmation of his suspicions regarding the boy’s problem, or alternative, less dire diagnoses, before retiring. Balancing his chair upon its two rear legs, he put his feet on the desk and opened the volume.

 

Tim did not know how long he had been reading. It seemed he had gone over the same paragraph a dozen times without registering the information in his mind when he felt how cold the study had become. He glanced toward the fireplace, where a single small log emitted a parsimonious warmth. The room seemed dark—looking over his shoulder at the gas lamp, he was surprised to see only a candle in a tin wall sconce, flickering in a chill breeze that came through a cracked windowpane. Strange, Tim thought, he was certain Bridget had closed the curtains. And when had the window broken?

 

His eyes better adjusted to the gloom, Tim turned back toward the fireplace. His surprise turned to shock when he looked down at his legs and saw that the new black trousers he had been wearing were now coarse brown cloth through which he could see the outline of his legs, withered and weak. The

elegant marble of the fireplace had been replaced by cracked, ancient bricks. Leaning against them was a crutch. His childhood crutch.

 

Tim stared at the hearth, baffled, for how long he did not know. Then he started to get up, reaching for the crutch, only to find that his legs were so weak he could not stand. He gazed at his extended right hand. It was that of a child. He leaned back in his chair, rubbed his eyes, and when he looked around again, he was back in his own comfortable study. The gas lamp burned brightly, the fire still blazed in its marble enclave. There was no crutch to be seen. He flexed his legs. They were strong. He shuddered, perplexed at what had occurred. Although he was quite sure that he had not fallen asleep, he reassured himself that it must have been a dream. Not surprising, considering his thoughts about Jonathan, and the unavoidable realization that the boy’s plight reminded him so much of his own childhood illness. Tim stood, uneasy, and dropped the reference book on the desk before heading to bed.

 

Standing over the washbasin, he poured water from a pitcher into the ceramic bowl. He wet a washcloth and rubbed his face. Even in the light of the single gas lamp, he could see the creases beginning to form on his forehead, the dark circles under his blue eyes. A few strands of gray were sprinkled through his blond hair. He thought he looked at least a decade older than his thirty-two years. Combined with his short stature and thinness, Tim reflected that in a few years he would look like a wizened old man.

 

Too much work, that was the cause, he thought. Unpleasant work. And now he also had to do something about Jonathan Whitson, who had what was likely a malignant tumor. A boy not yet four, probably sentenced to death by nature before his life had a chance to begin. Five years ago, Dr. Timothy Cratchit would have tackled the child’s case enthusiastically and with optimism. Now he was reduced to performing fake surgeries to placate hypochondriacs.

 

Ginny Whitson had met him years earlier, and believed in his abilities. He only wished that he shared her confidence.

 

AUTHOR:

Jim Piecuch is an associate professor of history, and has published several works of nonfiction. Tim Cratchit’s Christmas Carol is his first novel.

 

Perfect

THE PERFECT GIFT

Dani-Lyn Alexander

November 17, 2014

$.99

 

SUMMARY:

’Tis the night before Christmas…and businessman and single father Jason is scrambling to find the dollhouse of the season for his seven-year-old daughter Emily. But when he finally strikes gold at an obscure toy store, he’s met with resistance—literally, as a beautiful woman named Leah is grabbing onto the dollhouse box from the other side of the aisle, determined to get the same Christmas present for her own daughter. Desperate not to let the other win, Jason and Leah forge a pact: stay together until they find the same dollhouse at a different toy store. It sounds simple, but ten stores and many hours later, they still come up empty. They might not be finding another dollhouse, but they sure are finding a lot to talk about and, as their mutual attraction grows, the unlikely pair finds the greatest holiday gift of all—love.

 

EXCERPT:

Ten minutes. Jason had ten minutes to make the twenty-minute trip across town. He’d never be on time for his meeting. He stared at his watch as if it would tell him something different this time. Acid rolled in his stomach. Well, they’d just have to wait. Christmas Eve was tomorrow and he had to take care of getting Emily’s present. Truthfully, he should have gotten it already, but between working, looking after the house, and taking care of Emily, he had little time left over for anything else.

 

The only thing Emily had asked for this year was the Little Family Dollhouse. She’d get other gifts, too, of course, but he had to be sure to have that one. A coworker he’d spoken to before he left the office had told him how popular the house was with girls Emily’s age. Every little girl she knew either had one or had put it at the top of her list for Santa. Apparently now it was almost impossible to find. She’d suggested this small, out-of-the-way toy store that specialized in hard-to-find items. So here he was, sitting in a traffic jam, hoping it wasn’t too late to get what he needed. Impatience threatened to

strangle him. He glanced again at the clock on the dashboard.

 

Emily was mature for seven, so he knew she’d accept that he couldn’t find the dollhouse. Still, he didn’t want her to be disappointed. Since Karen’s death, he’d raised her on his own, and so far it had proved to be the most challenging, most rewarding thing he’d ever done, and he desperately wanted to do it right.

 

The traffic light turned red, and Jason ground his back molars. Not one car had moved while the light was green. Not. One. Car. City traffic was the last thing he needed right now. He clutched the steering wheel tightly and dropped his head onto his clenched fists. This was ridiculous. Who would schedule a lunchtime meeting all the way across town on the day before Christmas Eve? His boss, that’s who. How could he possibly get all of this done? He rubbed his temples with the heels of his hands. Didn’t these people need to be at work or something? The motorist behind him hit the horn—again—and Jason couldn’t help but wonder what the man was beeping at. There was nowhere to go. No doubt he was just voicing his frustration. While Jason could certainly feel his pain, the constant honking was grating on his nerves.

 

Spotting a gap in the traffic, he darted to the right as soon as the light changed. He whipped around the next corner and slipped into a parking spot only two blocks from the toy store. Figuring he was lucky to get this close, he locked the car and jogged the two blocks. The freezing-cold drizzle not only soaked him but also coated the sidewalk with a thin sheet of ice. Since he was dressed for work in his suit and hard-soled dress shoes, the going wasn’t easy. Slipping when he turned to enter the store, he went down hard. His feet slid out from under him and he hit the wet sidewalk, scraping his chin on the step, tearing a hole in the knee of his pants, and soaking himself in the process.

 

Could this day get any worse? Even as the thought crossed his mind, things indeed got worse. As he pushed himself up, he caught a glimpse through the front door of the toy store. Although a few customers still browsed inside, the clerk was already putting the key into the lock. Oh, no! She can’t. Clutching the handrail tightly, he hurried up the two front steps to the door, grabbing hold of it before she could turn the key.

 

“I’m sorry, sir. We’re closing early today. I’m flying down to Florida to visit family for the holidays.”

 

Soaking wet, shivering in the cold, he could certainly appreciate her hurry to head south, but he had to get into that store. “Please. I just need one thing. It’s really important. I promise I’ll only be a minute.”

 

Apparently, the woman could tell he was having a rough day, because she gave him a sympathetic look as she held the door open and gestured for him to enter.

 

“Thank you so much.”

 

He looked around, quickly locating the girls’ section and headed straight for the aisle that held the dollhouses. The store was small but crowded with merchandise, and it took him several trips up and

down the aisle to realize the dollhouse he needed wasn’t there. Great. Now what would he do? He hated disappointing Emily. Shoving his fingers through his hair in frustration, he turned to leave.

 

Unbelievable. He took a deep breath to ease the disappointment pressing like a weight against his chest. Just when he thought this day couldn’t get any worse, he spotted it. The Little Family Dollhouse. It sat on the end of the aisle, pushed against the back of the shelf, and there was only one left. Wary of his slippery shoes on the wet floor, he moved cautiously but quickly toward the shelf. Breathing a sigh of

relief, he grabbed the box, turned to head for the register, and…met with resistance. Snapping back around, he pulled again. Once more the box was yanked away from him. He held tight to the dollhouse

as he peered around the corner of the aisle at the other set of fingers holding onto his prize. A small, delicate hand had managed an incredibly tight grip on the box. His gaze slid up the arm and into

the biggest, bluest, most beautiful eyes he’d ever seen. The breath caught in his throat.

 

LEAH GRIPPED THE dollhouse as tightly as she could and stared into eyes that had to be made from melted chocolate. She’d never seen such amazing eyes, and her gaze held his.

 

“I’m sorry. I need to get this dollhouse.” He still hadn’t taken his eyes from hers.

 

She smiled her best smile. “I’m sorry, too, but I had it first.”

 

“Look,” he started, smiling back at her, the expression filling his eyes with even more warmth, and Leah’s heart melted a little bit. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I really need to have this dollhouse.”

 

His eyes might have melted her heart, but there was no way she was letting go of this box. Motherhood prevailed. She’d called all over the city looking for this dollhouse, and now that she’d found it, nothing could make her part with it, not even a pair of eyes she could easily lose herself in.

 

“This is the only thing my daughter asked for this year. I must have it.” Her grin faltered for just a second before she plastered it firmly back in place. Then she pulled her gaze away from his eyes, effectively removing any temptation she might have felt to release her hold on the box.

 

Having been so enthralled by his eyes, she’d somehow missed taking in the rest of him, and the sight that greeted her now left her momentarily speechless. He was a mess. His gray pin-striped business suit was soaking wet, dirty, and torn. Wet hair stuck up in thick, dark clumps along one side of his head. A large scrape marred his very sexy chin.

 

All right, don’t go there. Wow, he really was having a bad day.

 

He exhaled one of those annoyed male sighs she knew so well. “Look, let’s be reasonable here. I already had the box in my hand when you grabbed hold of it.”

 

“Actually, I had my hand on it first, and then you grabbed it.” Her smile wavered as she started to realize he might not release his hold.

 

“Okay, I’ll pay you the cost of the dollhouse if you’ll let me have this one.”

 

The dollhouse cost over a hundred dollars, and she had to admit the money would come in handy. Her job as a receptionist didn’t pay much. The only reason she hadn’t looked for the gift sooner was that

she’d had to wait for her final paycheck before Christmas. Although she was tempted to accept his offer, she still held tight.

 

Allison hadn’t asked for anything else for Christmas. Leah had to have the dollhouse for her.

 

“I’m sorry. Even though your offer is very generous”—you jerk—“I’m afraid I can’t accept. My daughter is only seven, and this is the only thing she asked for this year. I have to have it for her. I’ve already been all over the city looking for it. I’m sure you can understand.”

 

She mentally kicked herself even as the words left her mouth. Maybe he hadn’t realized how impossible these things were to find. If Mr. Chocolate Eyes thought he’d be able to find another one, she might have a better chance of getting him to release his hold on the box. He forked his free hand through his hair. Good grief. No wonder it was so messy.

 

“Okay, let’s be reasonable.” He took another long breath, his wet clothes clinging to broad shoulders. “Only one of us can have the dollhouse. I understand your position. I have a seven-year-old as well. This dollhouse is the only thing she put on her list for Santa this year. She’d be so disappointed if it wasn’t under the tree. Please, is there any way I can talk you into letting me have it?”

 

“We’re obviously both in the same position. As adults, surely we can resolve this somehow.” She couldn’t help but wonder what he’d do if she just yanked the box out of his hand and ran. The only

problem being she’d have to stop and pay for it. She couldn’t just run out of the store. Or could she? She glanced toward the front door and chewed on her bottom lip. She could always come back in later,

after he’d gone, and pay for it. Of course, if the owner called the police and they caught her before she could come back, she’d spend Christmas in jail.

 

Definitely not an option. Allison didn’t have anyone but her mother and had never known her father. He’d taken off the day he found out Leah was pregnant. Right now Allison was with Leah’s parents in Ohio. She’d be home tomorrow, though, and Leah had to be at the airport to pick her up, not sitting in a jail cell for petty theft. No, she couldn’t run.

 

He was still staring at her, apparently thinking her silence meant she was contemplating his offer. “All right, maybe we could—”

 

“Excuse me.” The sales clerk didn’t appear to be the least bit amused. She stood with her arms folded across her chest, her foot tapping and a scowl on her face. “Sir, I let you in because you told me you just needed one thing. You said you’d only be a minute. I have to lock up now or I’m going to miss my flight.”

 

“We seem to have a misunderstanding here.”

 

At least he had the good grace to blush when he explained the situation.

 

“I don’t really care who gets the dollhouse. In one minute I’m locking that door and I won’t sell it to wither of you.” She turned her back on them and walked away, effectively ending any argument either of them could come up with.

 

When the Christmas music stopped and the lights flipped off a minute later, Leah panicked. “Come on. I really need to have this. Neither of us is going to get it if you don’t let go. Now.” Desperation nearly choked her. “Maybe we can find another one somewhere else, but we’re definitely not going to find rwo. Let me have this one and I’ll help you find another one.”

 

He appeared to be as surprised as she was by the offer, but he still didn’t let go.

 

“I’m leaving.” The clerk’s voice rang out, sounding completely annoyed.

 

“No,” they cried in unison.

 

“I’ll tell you what.” The man quickly glanced at the clerk and then back at her. “We’ll split the cost of this one and go together to look for another one. Then we’ll split the cost of that one, and we’ll each end up with a dollhouse.”

 

The rattle of keys made Leah’s decision. “Fine. You’re on.”

 

AUTHOR:

Dani-Lyn Alexander is a native New Yorker. She was born in Rome, New York, then moved to Rosedale, and finally to Long Island. She still lives on eastern Long Island with her husband and three children. Please visit http://www.danilynalexander.com/.

 

Christmas

THE CHRISTMAS TRAIN

Rexanne Becnel

November 17, 2014

$1.99

 

SUMMARY:

Anna Spano is on the train to meet her father while she befriends Eva Stephens, an older woman who occasionally thinks she’s traveling to her home village in pre–World War II for the holidays. Recognizing Miss Eva’s disorientation as the same dementia her late grandmother experienced, Anna isn’t sure who is actually taking care of whom on the journey. At the far end of the journey, Tom Thurston is anxious about what to expect when his daughter arrives. So he’s doubly shocked when a teary old woman embraces him, convinced that he is her long-lost brother. At Anna’s insistence, he reluctantly agrees to bring the woman home with them and try to locate her family. And as Anna clings loyally to her new friend, and Tom struggles to be who Miss Eva needs him to be, both father and daughter begin to understand one another. And through Miss Eva, they learn the true meaning of family, and of love.

 

EXCERPT:

Tom Thurston stared at his phone in shock, then dropped it on the kitchen counter as if it had burned his hand. Like a ghost from the past, Carrie calls him and tells him she’s sending Anna to live with him? She’d said, “I’ve raised her for the first ten years. It’s your turn now.” Into his stunned silence she’d added, “I’ll let you know when she’s arriving.” He sank onto a bar stool and stared blankly. What

was he supposed to do with a ten-year-old girl? Groaning, he raked a hand through his hair. He

should have known this day would come—that his one big mistake would eventually come back to haunt him. He’d met Carrie Spano in his senior year at the University of Texas. A freshman, she’d been a beauty. Faced with her dark, flashing eyes, her killer body, and her devil-may-care approach to life, it had been easy to overlook her youth. By November they’d been an item. But by April, with graduation and a new job on his horizon, she’d started pushing for them to get married. Married? At twenty-two?

 

Then she’d dropped the bomb: she was pregnant.

 

It was painful to remember his panic and her stunned response. Backed against a wall, he’d blurted out that he was too young to get married; they both were. But if she wanted, he would help her get an abortion.

 

Carrie, always fun-loving but often intense, had gone ballistic, screaming and ranting that he was a son of a bitch and every other foul name she could think of. And she’d been right. He knew that now, but at the time he’d thanked his lucky stars to be rid of her. In a fit of rage she’d vowed to keep the baby and make him sorry that he’d ever messed with her.

 

That was the last time he’d seen her. But as he’d started his professional life as an engineer here in Iowa, the shadow of Carrie had hung over him. Carrie and her baby. His baby. He’d expected to hear from her once the baby was born, but when there was no word he got anxious. Did she have the baby or not? Did she keep it or put it up for adoption?

 

He’s finally researched the births in Carrie’s hometown and discovered that Caroline Spano—no

father listed—had given birth to Anna Rose Spano on October 2, 1991.

 

He had a daughter.

 

And now that daughter was ten years old, and coming here to live with him.

 

“Damn it!” How was he supposed to fit her into his life? But even more difficult would be explaining her to his parents and sister. What would they think of him, their golden boy, who, as far as they knew, had never screwed up. Even worse, how could he justify keeping such a huge secret from them?

 

He braced his elbows on the counter. He supposed they would forgive him eventually. And they would

accept Anna, he knew that. His mother was eager for a grandchild and made no bones about it, especially to his recently married sister.

 

But what about Joelle? Would she be able to forgive him? Or would she dump him and his surprise daughter like a load of bricks?

 

Muffling a curse, he dropped his head into his hands. This could not be happening. Not this fast, with no

warning whatsoever. Surely he and Carrie could come to some sort of compromise. What if he offered her money to keep the child? After all, she’d cashed the check he’d sent her right after he found out the baby was born. Although she hadn’t acknowledged them, she’d cashed all the checks he’d sent that first year.

 

Then one of the envelopes came back marked unable to deliver. He’d done a cursory search for her with no success, and decided that if she’d moved and couldn’t be bothered to contact him, then so be it. And if he’d ever felt guilty on October 2 every year, he’d told himself that he’d done all he could do.

 

Now, though, he was in a quandary. He could no longer ignore the situation.

 

He stared at his phone. Taking a deep breath, he reached for it and pressed *69. “Pick up, Carrie. Pick up

the damn phone,” he muttered as it rang and rang. He wasn’t ready to be a father. A kid would ruin everything. He would not let Carrie wreck his life without even giving him a chance to make some counteroffer. But when he finally hung up after twenty rings, he knew he was wrong. Carrie could wreck his life. She already had.

 

Anna rolled up her favorite nightgown, three pairs of socks and underpants, and three changes of

clothes—her favorites, just in case her mother didn’t get around to sending the rest of her clothes and other things she’d packed into two big cardboard boxes. Even with the boxes full, there were so many things she loved that she had to leave behind. Her teddy-bear collection. Her shelf of Goosebumps books. Her school papers, and the art projects that Nana Rose had posted on the refrigerator. And then there was her bike, and all her Barbie stuff.

 

Her mother said it cost too much to send so much junk all the way to Iowa. If her father wanted to drive

back and get it, fine with her.

 

Anna swallowed hard and began to shove the nightgown into her backpack. If her father did want her

and all her stuff, he would’ve said so a long time ago. All the things her grandmother had scrimped and saved to buy her were as good as gone.

 

Except for the Christmas present.

 

Wiping away her tears, Anna knelt down and pulled the box out from under her bed. She’d found it in Nana Rose’s closet when her mother told her to pick out a dress for Nana Rose to be buried in. Even though it had only been October, the box had been wrapped in pretty Christmas paper with a wide red ribbon and a gift tag with Anna written on it in Nana Rose’s neat, familiar handwriting.

 

Setting the gift on her bed, she studied it and the rest of the clothes that had to fit in her backpack.

 

When she first found it, she’d wanted so bad to open it. Even now, just looking at it, knowing Nana Rose had wrapped it up so nice for her, made her want to open it. But she had to wait. This was going to be the worst Christmas of her life, but at least she had this present. When she opened it on Christmas morning, it would be almost like Nana Rose was there with her. Almost. Frowning, she emptied her backpack, wedged the box safely on the bottom, then repacked her clothes on top of it.

 

She wasn’t sure where she would be on Christmas Day, but at least she could look forward to opening this one last gift from Nana Rose.

 

The train depot was festooned for Christmas.

 

Garlands looped above the ticket counter. A huge wreath hung over the wide arched entrance to the

station’s platforms, and a pair of lighted trees, flocked white and laden with shiny red ornaments, flanked the information and security booth.

 

Eva Stephens clutched the handle of her bag. It held no presents, but she hoped her surprising visit after so long an absence would prove present enough for her family. Her heart fluttered in her chest, an unwelcome symptom according to her doctor. But she preferred to think of it as butterfly wings beating eagerly for release. She was going home! After more years than she could remember, she was going home for Christmas.

 

She coughed three times, like the nurse had taught her, and felt the flutter subside. Then shifting her

carpetbag from her right hand to her left, she set out for the ticket counter. How long since she’d been on a train? She couldn’t recall. But some things never changed: the busy excitement of so many people rushing everywhere; the low rumble of the massive engines that permeated even inside the station building. And through the glass doors, the view of people queuing up to board.

 

Unfortunately people didn’t seem to dress as nicely as they used to. She tried not to stare at a man in worn tennis shoes and a stained sweatshirt. And behind her in line a woman dressed in painted-on jeans, knee-high stiletto boots, and a sweater meant to emphasize her generous breasts held the hand of a little girl, all the while reeking of cigarette smoke.

 

Eva wrinkled her nose. I hope they still have separate smoking cars.

 

The child at least was properly dressed in corduroy slacks, some sort of puffy blue jacket, and a matching

blue and white muffler and stocking cap. She was a pretty little thing with straight blond bangs hanging over striking blue eyes. She didn’t look very happy, though.

 

“Where to? Ma’am? Where to?”

 

“Oh.” Eva looked up with a start. “Am I next?”

 

“Yes, ma’am.” The ticket seller raised his brows, then returned his attention to his computer screen. “Where to?”

 

“Let’s see.” She pulled out the slip of paper with the town’s name on it. Not that she needed it to remember the name of her own hometown. Still, every now and again she got these annoying little lapses of memory. Better to be safe than sorry.

 

“Ma’am?”

 

“Yes, yes. I want a ticket to Ennis. If you please.”

 

“Ennis.” He stared at his screen, a faint frown on his face. Then he smiled. “Here it is. Ennis, Iowa. Right?”

 

Eva faltered. Ennis was in Germany, not Iowa. She looked around her, at a loss suddenly for where she was.

 

“Ennis,” she repeated, tightening her grip on the handle of her carpetbag. “I want to go to Ennis.”

 

“Okay, okay,” the man said. “Ennis it is. “Will that be a round trip?”

 

“No.” Eva smiled at him, restored by overwhelming joy at the thought of her hometown. “No,” she repeated, beaming pure happiness at the ticket seller. “I only need a one-way ticket.”

 

“One way it is.” He glanced up at her. “Looks like you’re pretty happy to be going.”

 

Ach, so I am.”

 

“That’ll be one hundred forty-eight dollars. Cash or credit?”

 

Eva lifted her chin. “I deal only in the cash, young man. Buying on credit gets a person into trouble.”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” he agreed, taking the eight twentydollar bills she slid into the tray beneath the glass

partition. “But, ma’am,” he added, leaning nearer and lowering his voice. “Don’t say too much about carrying only cash, okay? There’s people who’d love to fleece a nice lady like you. You know what I mean?”

 

Eva nodded, taking the change he slid back to her and folding it into her purse. “I will be very careful.”

She patted her purse and as added precaution hooked the long strap over her head and shoulder. “But I thank you for your concern.”

 

“You’re boarding at three fifteen on platform seven. Merry Christmas and have a good trip.”

 

“Thank you, and a Merry Christmas to you, too.”

 

As Eva turned away she nearly collided with the cigarette-scented woman in the revealing sweater. “Oh,

my. Excuse me.”

 

“No problem,” the woman muttered, giving her a hard stare.

 

Eva nodded and headed toward the gates to the loading platform. It was too cold to wait outside, so she

found a seat near the arched doors. Not long now. In less than an hour she would be on her way home at last. Smiling, she settled her purse and her carpetbag on her lap and folded her hands over them. This would be the happiest Christmas ever.

 

AUTHOR:

Rexanne Becnel is the USA TODAY bestselling author of more than twenty books, including Thief of My Heart, A Dove at Midnight, and Dangerous to Love. She lives in New Orleans.

 

Rocky

ROCKY MOUNTAIN MIRACLE

Christine Feehan

November 17, 2014

$3.99

 

SUMMARY:

When Cole Steele, a womanizer rumored to have killed his father, meets Maia Armstrong, a veterinarian rumored to practice magic, the sizzling romance could melt all the snow on his Wyoming ranch.   And when an injured horse brings them together, Cole can’t help but believe that Maia casts spells on animals—and men. What else could explain the burning passion he feels for her and the thawing of his heart just in time for Christmas?

 

EXCERPT:

Cole Steele could hear the screams coming from the room down the hall. He knew those nightmares intimately, because the demons also visited him every time he closed his own eyes. He was a grown man, hard and disciplined and well able to drink his way through the night if necessary, but Jase was just a young teenager. Guilt edged his anger as he made his way through the dark to the boy’s room. He should have done something, to spare his half brother the horrendous legacy of his own past.

 

In truth, he hadn’t been in touch with his father for years. It hadn’t occurred to him that his father would remarry a much younger woman and produce another child, but he should have considered the possibility, not just dropped off the face of the earth. Cole shoved open the bedroom door. Jase was already fully awake, his eyes wide with the terror of his memories. Something twisted hard and painfully in Cole’s chest.

 

“I’m here, Jase,” he announced unnecessarily.He wasn’t good at soothing the boy. He had been born and bred in roughness and still had a difficult time being gentle. Worse, Jase barely knew him. He was asking the teenager to trust him in spite of his reputation and the rumors of attempted murder flying freely through the town. It was no wonder the boy regarded him with some suspicion. “I hate Christmas. Can’t we just make it go away?” Jase asked. He threw back the covers and paced across the room, the same edgy tension in his teenage body that Cole had in abundance as a grown man. Jase was tall and gangly, like a young colt, all arms and legs, looking a bit like a scarecrow in flannel pajamas.He had Cole’s dark hair, but his eyes must have been his mother’s, as they were a deep, rich brown. Right now, his eyes were wide with terror, and he turned away to hide his trembling.

 

Cole felt as if he were looking at himself as a youngster, only Jase had poured himself into books and Cole had become a hellion. Cole knew what it was like to hide the bruises and the terror from the rest of the world. He had grown up living in isolation and hiding, and he still lived that way, but he would be damned if this boy would endure the same.

 

“Did he shoot your dog for Christmas?” Cole asked bluntly. “That’s what he did for me the last time I wanted to celebrate the holiday like my friends. I haven’t ever wanted a Christmas since.He also beat the holy hell out of me, but that was insignificant next to the dog.”

 

Jase faced him slowly. The horror was still all too stark in his eyes. “I had a cat.”

 

“I’ll bet he said you weren’t tough enough and that only sissies needed pets and Christmas. He wanted you to toughen up and be a man. Not get attached to anything.”

 

Jase nodded, swallowing an obvious lump in his throat.

 

“He did a lot of things.”

 

“You have burn marks? Scars from cuts? He liked to whip me with a coat hanger. And when I didn’t cry, he took to using other things.”

 

“I cried,” Jase admitted.

 

“I did too, at first. He was a mean son of bitch, Jase. I’m glad he’s dead. He can’t touch you anymore. I’m not going to lie to you and tell you the nightmares go away because I still have them. We both lived in hell and he had too much money for anyone to want to believe us.” Cole rubbed his hands through his thick black hair.

 

“He was sick, Jase. I got out, changed my name thinking he’d never find me, and stayed as far from him as I could possibly get. That’s no excuse. I should have kept tabs on him. Maybe I could have gotten you away from him.”

 

Jase shook his head. “He never would have let me go.”

 

“You know what they’re all saying, don’t you? They think I had something to do with his death.”

 

Jase nodded, his eyes suddenly wary. “I’ve heard. Why did you come back?”

 

“I was named your guardian in his will. It was the first I’d heard of you. I didn’t know you existed until five months ago. I knew he must have done the same thing to you and your mother that he did to me and mine. I thought I could protect you, at least until you’re old enough to live on your own. I figured I would be a better guardian than anyone else the court might appoint or that our father had named if I didn’t accept.”

 

Dawn was creeping in through the huge plate-glass window. Cole watched the sun come up. It was cold, and the ground outside was covered with several feet of snow, turning the hills into a carpet of sparkling crystals. “You hungry?”

 

“Are you cooking?”

 

Cole managed a lazy shrug even though he really wanted to smash something. It was always there, that volcano inside him, waiting to erupt. The thought of his father, the time of year, it wasn’t all that difficult to bring rage to the surface. “I thought we’d go into town and give them all something more to gossip about.”

 

Jase met Cole’s eyes squarely. “They say you killed the old man and that you’re planning to kill me next. Sixtyfour million dollars is a lot of money, twice as much as thirty-two.”

 

“They do say that, don’t they?” Cole said. “And don’t forget the ranch. It’s worth twice that easily, maybe more with the oil and gas deposits. I haven’t actually checked into how much yet.”His eyes had gone ice-cold, a piercing blue stare that impaled the boy. “What do you say, Jase? Because in the end, you’re the only one that counts as far as I’m concerned.”

 

Jase was silent a long time. “I say I’m glad you came back. But I don’t understand why he left us the money and the ranch when he hated us both so much. It doesn’t make any sense.” He looked around the enormous room, frowning.

 

“I keep expecting him to show up in the middle of the night. I’m afraid to open my eyes because I know he’s standing over the bed, just waiting.”

 

“With that smile.”Cole’s voice was grim.

 

Jase nodded, a small shudder betraying the fact that he wasn’t as calm as he tried to seem. “With that smile.” He looked at Cole. “What do you do when the nightmares come?” He punched his fist into his pillow. Once. Twice. “I hate this time of year.”

 

Cole felt a sharp pain in his chest and the familiar churning in his gut. His own hand balled into a fist, but he tamped down the smoldering anger and hung on to control for the boy’s sake. “I drink. I’m your guardian, so I have to say that’s not allowed for you. At least not until you’re a hell of a lot older.”

 

“Does it work?”

 

“No,” Cole said grimly. Honestly. “But it gets me through the night. Sometimes I go to the workout room

or the barn. I hung a heavy bag in both places, and I beat on them until my hands hurt. Other times I take the wildest horse we have and go out into the mountains. I run the hills, using the deer trails, anything to make me so tired I can’t think anymore.”

 

“None of that works either, does it?” Jase had tried physical activity as well, but he was finding that talking quietly with his half brother was helpful. More helpful than anything else he’d tried. At least one person believed him. And one person had gone through the same torment. It created a bond in spite of the ugly rumors that surrounded his tough, harder-than-nails half brother.

 

Cole shook his head. “No, none of it works, but it gets you through the night. One night at a time. He’s dead, Jase, and that’s all that matters.”

 

Jase took a deep breath. “Did you kill him?”

 

“No, but I wish I had. I used to lie awake at night and plan how I’d do it. That was before Mom died. Then I just wanted to get out.” Cole studied the boy’s face. “Did you kill him?” He concentrated his gaze on the boy. Every nuance. Every expression, the way he breathed. The flick of his eyes. The trembling of his hands.

 

Jase shook his head. “I was too afraid of him.”

 

Cole let his breath out slowly. He had stayed alive using his ability to read others, and he was fairly certain that Jase was telling the truth. Jase had been in the house when someone had shot Brett Steele right there in his own office. He wanted to believe that the boy wasn’t involved in Brett Steele’s death. Cole wasn’t certain how he would have handled it if Jase had admitted he’d done it, and for a man in Cole’s profession, that wasn’t a good thing.

 

“Cole, did he kill your mother?” For the first time, Jase sounded like a child rather than a fourteen-year-old trying to be a man. He sank down onto the bed, his thin shoulders shaking. “I think he killed my mother. They said she was drinking and drove off the bridge, but she never drank. Never. She was afraid to drink. She wanted to know what was happening all the time. You know what he was like, he’d be nice one minute and come after you the next.”

 

Brett Steele had been a sadistic man. It was Cole’s belief that he had killed for the sheer rush of having the power of life and death over anything, human or animal. He’d enjoyed inflicting pain, and he had tortured his wives and children and every one of his employees. The ranch was huge, a long way from help, and once he had control over those living on his lands, he never relinquished it. Cole knew he’d been lucky to escape.

 

“It’s possible. I think the old man was capable of paying everyone off from coroners to police officers. He had too much money and power for anyone to cross him. It would be easy enough for a medical examiner to look the other way if there was enough money in bribes. And if that didn’t work, there were always threats. We both know the old man didn’t make idle threats; he’d carry them out.”

 

Jase met his brother’s stare directly. “He killed your mother, didn’t he?”

 

“Maybe. Probably.” Cole needed a drink. “Let’s go into town and get breakfast.”

 

“Okay.” Jase pulled a pair of jeans from the closet. They were neatly hung and immaculately clean, just like everything else in the room.“Who do you think killed him? If it wasn’t either of us, someone else had to have done it.”

 

“He made a lot of enemies. He destroyed businesses and seduced as many of his friends’wives as possible. And if he killed anyone else, as I suspect he must have, someone could have known and retaliated. He liked to hurt people, Jase. It was inevitable that he would die a violent death.”

 

“Were you surprised he left you the money and guardianship over me?”

 

“Yes, at first. But later I thought maybe it made sense. He wanted us to be like him. He had me investigated and found I spent time in jail. I think he believed I was exactly like him. And the only other choice of a guardian he had was your uncle, and you know how much they despised one another.”

 

Jase sighed.“Uncle Mike is just as crazy as Dad was. All he talks about is sin and redemption. He thinks I need to be exorcised.”

 

Cole swore, a long string of curses. “That’s a load of crap, Jase. There’s nothing wrong with you.” He needed to move, to ride something hard, it didn’t matter what it was. A horse, a motorcycle, a woman, anything at all to take away the knots gathering in his stomach. “Let’s get out of here.”

 

He turned away from the boy, a cold anger lodged in his gut. He detested Christmas, detested everything about it. No matter how much he didn’t want the season to start, it always came. He woke up drenched in sweat, vicious laughter ringing in his ears. He could fight the demons most of the year, but not when Christmas songs played on the radio and in every store he entered. Not when every

building and street displayed decorations and people continually wished each other “Merry Christmas.” He didn’t want that for Jase. He had to find a way to give the boy back his life.

 

Counseling hadn’t helped either of them. When no one believed a word you said, or worse, was bought off, you learned to stop trusting people. If Cole never did another thing right in his life, he was going to be the one person Jase would know he could always trust. And he was going to make certain the boy didn’t turn out the way he had. Or the way their father had.

 

The brothers walked through the sprawling ranch house. The floors were all gleaming wood, the ceilings

open-beamed and high. Brett Steele had demanded the best of everything, and he got it. Cole couldn’t fault him on his taste.

 

“Cole,” Jase asked, “why were you in jail?”

 

Cole didn’t break stride as he hurried through the spacious house. At times he wanted to burn the thing down. There was no warmth in it, and as hard as he’d tried to turn the showpiece into a home for Jase, it remained cold and barren.

 

Outdoors it was biting cold. The frost turned the hills and meadows into a world of sparkling crystal, dazzling the eyes, but Cole simply ignored it, shoving his sunglasses onto his face. He went past the huge garage that housed dozens of cars—all toys Brett Steele had owned and rarely ever used—to go to his own pickup.

 

“I shouldn’t have asked you,” Jase muttered, slamming the door with unnecessary force. “I hate questions.”

 

Cole paused, the key in the ignition. He glanced at the boy’s flushed face. “It isn’t that, Jase. I don’t mind you asking me anything. I made up my mind I’d never lie to you about anything, and I’m not quite certain how to explain the jail time. Give me a minute.”

 

Jase nodded. “I don’t mind that you’ve been in jail, but it worries me because Uncle Mike says he’s going to take you to court and get custody of me. If I lived with him, I’d spend all my life on my knees, praying for my soul. I’d rather run away.”

 

“He can’t get you away from me,” Cole promised, his voice grim. There was a hard edge to the set of his mouth. He turned his piercing blue gaze directly on his young half brother. “The one thing I can promise is I’ll fight for you until they kill me, Jase.” He was implacable, the deadly ruthless stamp of determination clear on his face.“No one is going to take you away from me. You got that?”

 

Jase visibly relaxed. He nodded, a short jerky gesture as he tried to keep his emotions under control. Cole wasn’t certain if that was good or bad. Maybe the boy needed to cry his eyes out. Cole never had. He would never give his father the satisfaction, even when the bastard had nearly killed him.

 

It was a long way to the nearest town. There had been numerous guards at the ranch when his father was alive, supposedly for security, but Cole knew better. Brett had needed his own private world, a realm he could rule with an iron fist. The first thing Cole had done was to fire all of the ranch hands, the security force, and the housekeeper. If he could have had them prosecuted for their participation in Brett’s sadistic depravities, he would have. Jase needed to feel safe. And Cole needed to feel as if he could provide the right atmosphere for the boy. They had interviewed the new ranch hands together, and they were still looking for a housekeeper.

 

“You, know, Jase, you never picked out one of the horses to use,” Cole said.

 

Jase leaned forward to fiddle with the radio. The cab was flooded with a country Christmas tune. Jase hastily went through the stations, but all he could find was Christmas music and he finally gave up in exasperation. “I don’t care which one I ride,” Jase said, and turned his head to stare out the window at the passing scenery. His voice was deliberately careless.

 

“You must have a preference,” Cole persisted. “I’ve seen you bring the big bay, Celtic High, a carrot every now and then.” The boy had spent a little time each day, brushing the horse and whispering to it, but he never rode the bay. Jase’s expression closed down instantly, his eyes wary. “I don’t care about any of them,” he repeated.

 

Cole frowned as he slipped a CD into the player. “You know what the old man was all about, don’t you, Jase? He didn’t want his sons to feel affection or loyalty to anything or anyone. Not our mothers, not friends, and not animals. He killed the animals in front of us to teach us a lesson. He destroyed our friendships to accomplish the same thing. He got rid of our mothers to isolate us, to make us wholly

dependent on him. He didn’t want you ever to feel emotion, especially affection or love for anything or anyone else. If he succeeded in doing that to you, he won. You can’t let him win. Choose a horse and let yourself care for it. We’ll get a dog if you want a dog, or another cat. Any kind of pet you want, but let yourself feel something, and when our father visits you in your nightmares, tell him to go to hell.”

 

“You didn’t do that,” Jase pointed out. “You don’t have a dog. You haven’t had a dog in all the years you’ve been away. And you never got married. I’ll bet you never lived with a woman. You have one-night stands and that’s about it because you won’t let anyone into your life.” It was a shrewd guess.

 

Cole counted silently to ten. He was psychoanalyzing Jase, but he damned well didn’t want the boy to turn the spotlight back on him. “It’s a hell of a way to live, Jase. You don’t want to use me as a role model. I know all the things you shouldn’t do and not many you should. But cutting yourself off from every living thing takes its toll. Don’t let him do that to you. Start small if you want. Just choose

one of the horses, and we’ll go riding together in the mornings.”

 

Jase was silent, his face averted, but Cole knew he was weighing the matter carefully. It meant trusting Cole further than perhaps Jase was willing to go. Cole was a big question mark to everyone, Jase especially. Cole couldn’t blame the boy. He knew what he was like. Tough and ruthless with no backup in him. His reputation was that of a vicious, merciless fighter, a man born and bred in violence. It wasn’t like he knew how to make all the soft, kind gestures that the kid needed, but he could protect Jase.

“Just think about it,” he said to close the subject. Time was on his side. If he could give Jase back his life, he would forgive himself for not bringing the old man down as he should have done years ago. Jase had had his mother, a woman with love and laughter in her heart. More than likely Brett had killed her because he couldn’t turn Jase away from her. Jase’s mother must have left some legacy of love behind.

 

Cole had no one. His mother had been just the opposite of Jase’s. His mother had had a child because Brett demanded she have one, but she went back to her modelthin figure and cocaine as soon as possible, leaving her son in the hands of her brutal husband. In the end, she’d died of an overdose. Cole had always suspected his father had had something to do with her death. It was interesting that Jase suspected the same thing of his own mother’s death.

 

A few snowflakes drifted down from the sky, adding to the atmosphere of the season they both were trying so hard to avoid. Jase kicked at the floorboard of the truck, a small sign of aggression, then glanced apologetically at Cole.

 

“Maybe we should have opted for a workout instead,” Cole said.

 

“I’m always hungry,” Jase admitted. “We can work out after we eat. Who came up with the idea of Christmas anyway? It’s a dumb idea, giving presents out when it isn’t your birthday.And it can’t be good for the environment to cut down all the trees.”

 

Cole stayed silent, letting the boy talk, grateful Jase was finally comfortable enough to talk to him at all.

“Mom loved Christmas. She used to sneak me little gifts. She’d hide them in my room. He always had spies, though, and they’d tell him. He always punished her, but she’d do it anyway. I knew she’d be punished, and she knew it too, but she’d still sneak me presents.” Jase rolled down the window, letting the crisp, cold air into the truck. “She sang me Christmas songs. And once, when he was away on a trip, we baked cookies together. She loved it. We both knew the housekeeper would tell him, but at the

time, we didn’t care.”

 

Cole cleared his throat. The idea of trying to celebrate Christmas made him ill, but the kid wanted it. Maybe even needed it, but had no clue that was what his nervous chatter was all about. Cole hoped he could pull it off. There were no happy memories from his childhood to offset the things his father had done.

 

“We tried to get away from him, but he always found us,” Jase continued.

 

“He’s dead, Jase,” Cole repeated. He took a deep breath and took the plunge, feeling as if he was leaping off a steep cliff. “If we want to bring a giant tree into his home and decorate it, we can. There’s not a damn thing he can do about it.”

 

“He might have let her go if she hadn’t wanted to take me with her.”

 

Cole heard the tears in the boy’s voice, but the kid didn’t shed them. Silently he cursed, wishing for inspiration, for all the right things to say. “Your mother was an extraordinary woman, Jase, and there aren’t that many in the world. She cared about you, not the money or the prestige of being Mrs. Brett Steele. She fought for you, and she tried to give you a life in spite of the old man. I wish I’d had the chance to meet her.”

 

Jase didn’t reply, but closed his eyes, resting his head back against the seat. He could still remember the sound of his mother’s voice. The way she smelled. Her smile. He rubbed his head. Mostly he remembered the sound of her screams when his father punished her.

 

“I’ll think about the Christmas thing, Cole. I kind of like the idea of decorating the house when he always forbade it.”

 

Cole didn’t reply. It had been a very long few weeks, but the Christmas season was almost over. A couple more weeks, and he would have made it through another December. If doing the Christmas thing could give the kid back his life, Cole would find a way to get through it. The town was fairly big and offered a variety of latenight and early-morning dining. Cole chose a diner he was familiar with and parked the truck in the parking lot. To his dismay, it was already filled with cars. Unfolding his

large frame, he slid from the truck, waiting for Jase to get out.

 

“You forgot your jacket,” he said.

 

“No, I didn’t. I hate the thing,” Jase said.

 

Cole didn’t bother to ask him why.He already knew the answer and vowed to buy the kid a whole new wardrobe immediately. He pushed open the door to the diner, stepping back to allow Jase to enter first. Jase took two steps into the entryway and stopped abruptly behind the high wall of fake ivy. “They’re talking about you, Cole,” he whispered. “Let’s get out of here.”

 

The voices were loud enough to carry across the small restaurant. Cole stood still, his hand on the boy’s shoulder to steady him. Jase would have to learn to live with gossip, just as he’d learned to survive the nightmare he’d been born into.

 

“You’re wrong, Randy. Cole Steele murdered his father, and he’s going to murder that boy. He wants the money. He never came around here to see that boy until his daddy died.”

 

“He was in jail, Jim, he couldn’t very well go visiting his relatives,” a second male voice pointed out with a laugh. Cole recognized Randy Smythe from the local agriculture store. Before he could decide whether to get Jase out of there or show the boy just how hypocritical the local storeowners could be, a third voice chimed in.

 

“You are so full of it, Jim Begley,” a female voice interrupted the argument between the two men. “You come in here every morning grousing about Cole Steele. He was cleared as a suspect a long time ago and given guardianship of his half brother, as he should have been. You’re angry because your bar buddies lost their cushy jobs, so you’re helping to spread the malicious gossip they started. The entire lot of you sound like a bunch of sour old biddies.” The woman never raised her voice. In fact, it was soft and low and harmonious. Cole felt the tone strumming inside of him, vibrating and spreading heat. There was

something magical in the voice, more magical than the fact that she was sticking up for him.His fingers tightened involuntarily on Jase’s shoulder. It was the first time he could ever remember anyone sticking up for him. “He was in jail, Maia,” Jim Begley reiterated, his voice almost placating.

 

“So were a lot of people who didn’t belong there, Jim. And a lot people who should have been in jail never were. That doesn’t mean anything. You’re jealous of the man’s money and the fact that he has the reputation of being able to get just about any woman he wants, and you can’t.” A roar of laughter went up. Cole expected Begley to get angry with the woman, but surprisingly, he didn’t. “Aw, Maia, don’t go getting all mad at me. You aren’t going to do anything, are you? You wouldn’t put a hex on my…on

me, would you?”

 

The laughter rose and this time the woman joined in. The sound of her voice was like music. Cole had never had such a reaction to any woman, and he hadn’t even seen her.

 

“You just never know about me, now do you, Jim?” She teased, obviously not angry with the man. “It’s Christmas, the best time of the year. Do you think you could stop spreading rumors and just wait for the facts? Give the man a chance. You all want his money. You all agree the town needs him, yet you’re so quick to condemn him. Isn’t that the littlest bit hypocritical?”

 

Cole was shocked that the woman could wield so much power, driving her point home without ever raising her voice. And strangely, they were all listening to her. Who was she, and why were these usually rough men hanging on her every word, trying to please her? He found himself very curious about a total stranger—a woman at that. “Okay, okay,” Jim said. “I surrender, Maia. I’ll never mention Cole Steele again if that will make you happy. Just don’t get mad at me.”

 

Maia laughed again. The carefree sound teased all of Cole’s senses, made him very aware of his body and its needs. “I’ll see you all later. I have work to do.”

 

Cole felt his body tense. She was coming around the ivy to the entrance. Cole’s breath caught in his throat. She was on the shorter side, but curvy, filling out her jeans nicely. A sweater molded her breasts into a tempting invitation. She had a wealth of dark, very straight hair, as shiny as a raven’s wing, pulled into a careless ponytail. Her face was exotic, the bone structure delicate, reminding him of a pixie.

 

She swung her head back, her wide smile fading as she saw them standing there. She stopped short, raising her eyes to Cole’s. He actually hunched a little, feeling the impact in his belly. Little hammers began to trip in his head, and his body reacted with an urgent and very elemental demand. A man could drown in her eyes, get lost, or just plain lose every demon he had. Her eyes were large, heavily lashed, and some color other than blue, turquoise maybe, a mixture of blue and green that was vivid and

alive and so darned beautiful he ached inside just looking at her.

 

Jase nudged him in the ribs.

 

Cole reacted immediately. “Sorry, ma’am.” But he didn’t move. “I’m Cole Steele. This is my brother, Jase.” Jase jerked under his hand, reacting to being acknowledged as a brother.

 

The woman nodded at Cole and flashed a smile at Jase as she stepped around them to push open the door.

 

“Holy cow,” Jase murmured. “Did you see that smile?” He glanced up at Cole. “Yeah, you saw it all right.”

 

“Was I staring?” Cole asked.

 

“You looked like you might have her for breakfast,” Jase answered. “You can look really intimidating, Cole. Scary.” Cole almost followed the woman, but at the boy’s comment he turned back. “Am I scary to you, Jase?”

 

The boy shrugged. “Sometimes. I’m getting used to you. I’ve never seen you smile. Ever.”

 

Cole raised his eyebrow. “I can’t remember actually smiling. Maybe I’ll have to practice. You can work with me.”

 

“Don’t you smile at women?”

 

“I don’t have to.”

 

AUTHOR:

Christine Feehan is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of thirty novels, including the Carpathians, the Ghostwalkers, the Leopard People, and the Drake Sisters series. Her books have been published in multiple languages and in many formats including palm pilot, audiobook, and ebook. She has been featured in Time magazine and Newsweek, and lives in Cobb, California. Please visit http://www.christinefeehan.com/.

 

Branded

BRANDED

Colette Auclair

December 15, 2014

$5.99

 

SUMMARY:

The third lighthearted romance in Colette Auclair’s award-winning Aspen Valley series, Branded will take readers on a wild and dreamy ride through the beautiful valleys and mountains of Colorado. Professional, polite, and pearl-wearing, dressage rider and resort consultant Cordy Sims is the last person anyone would expect to initiate a weekend of debauchery. And yet, that’s exactly what she does after meeting a handsome stranger at an Aspen resort. Agreeing that they’ll leave personal details at the door, they indulge in a memorable weekend of carnal recreation. On Sunday night, Cordy doesn’t want to leave this charming, seductive man, but she must play by her own rules. On Monday, Cordy sits in a meeting at the ad agency that’s hired her as a freelancer, and her professional and personal worlds collide. Turns out agency owner Jack Cormier looks just as good in the boardroom as he did in the bedroom. Forced to work together, Cordy and Jack can’t ignore the chemistry that crackles between them, or the deeper feelings that have developed. But secrets and scars from their pasts may prove too formidable, even for a love that’s as powerful as it is unexpected.

 

EXCERPT:

Sometimes things aren’t what they seem, but it seemed to Cordy that indeed, there was a man in a

tuxedo riding down the chairlift in Aspen. And he was probably drunk, which meant she wanted nothing to do with him.

 

It was exactly six-thirty-two a.m. on May 16, four hours before the lifts opened. She stood there, panting

and staring. He was floating toward her, one arm slung along the back of the chair and a foot, also in

formal wear, perched on the seat. The bands of his unfurled bow tie fluttered in the breeze.

 

My first morning in Aspen and already there’s a guy in a tuxedo. Talk about a town living up to the hype. The app on her phone beeped, telling her she’d logged five miles and could begin her cool-down. After this run, she would officially begin her part-work, part-leisure long weekend. She shook her head and started across the black-diamond run, which without snow was steep but hardly treacherous. As usual, she imagined how Marcas, her horse, would handle it—her dressage horse wasn’t the world’s best trail horse, but she still wished he were here with her. It would be fun to explore the mountains from his back. Maybe she’d have him shipped to Colorado, if she ended up staying longer than a few weeks.

 

“Damn!” the man said, bringing Cordy back to the present. What, you just realized you were riding a ski lift the wrong way? Cordy thought as she kept walking. She looked up the hill in time to see a silver cylinder hit the grass. It bounced and tumbled down the ski slope, winking in the sun. Remarkably, it stopped short, wedging itself between two small nearby boulders with a muffled metallic clink.

 

“Excuse me, darlin’,” yelled the man.

 

Darlin’? Cordy looked up. She was not this man’s darlin’, but she was the only one around.

 

“It seems my shaker and I have parted company. Could I trouble you to fetch it for me?”

 

He had a Southern accent. “Why do you have a martini shaker?”

 

“I was making martinis.”

 

Silly me. “On a ski lift?” He was passing overhead so she had to crane her neck to see him.

 

“Last evening. If you could just recover it, I’d be eternally grateful.” He half-turned to face her as he

glided by.

 

“Where were you making martinis?”

 

“Top of the mountain.”

 

“For mountain goats?”

 

She thought he grinned. “Will you please get it for me? It has great sentimental value.”

 

She had to yell pretty loud now. “Then why’d you drop it?”

 

“Could you bring it to the hotel bar?”

 

“When?”

 

He shouted something, but she couldn’t make it out. What an idiot, to drop a martini shaker. What

an idiot to have a martini shaker on a chair lift. Still, it was an interesting turn of events, and a good omen for this new chapter in her life. Quirky. Not exciting, but unusual. She made her way down the slope and plucked the shaker from the boulders. It was dimpled from its fl ight, but she could make out the engraved initials JCL.

 

Who are you, JCL? “Guess I’ll fi nd out later today,” she muttered. “If he isn’t too drunk to remember.”

 

She looked down the mountain and saw that the man had neglected to jump off the lift and was headed back up.

 

  1. He’s super drunk. She didn’t particularly want to have another shouted conversation, so she jogged into the trees, out of earshot. Still, she heard his voice.

 

“Take care of that shaker, darlin’!”

 

Cordy couldn’t remember if she’d ever been to a restaurant bar as it opened. It made her feel so…pathetic. Occasionally she’d lingered over a late brunch and been around when the dinner service began. But this? Nah.

 

It wasn’t every day you had to return a martini shaker to a man who shouted to you from a ski lift.

A handsome man. Scratch that—a handsome drunk. He might not even make it here. She’d have a cocktail and if he didn’t show by the time she’d finished, she’d head back to her room, because she had better things to do—those notes on the Pinnacle Resort weren’t going to write themselves.

 

Setting the shaker on the bar, she picked up the cocktail menu. The thirtysomething bartender materialized before her, a dime-sized portion of a darkgreen tattoo peeking above his starched white collar. His light-brown hair kept to itself, a disciplined wavy mass Cordy found appealing. He angled his head and indicated the shaker.

 

“We’re a full-service resort. We have our own shakers, but if you insist . . .”

 

What? She followed his gaze. “Oh! I’m returning that.”

 

“So you’re the one.” He raised his chin.

 

“I didn’t steal it!” The bartender laughed and after a beat, Cordy felt her cheeks relax. “Oh. You’re kidding.” Lighten up, Cordy! “What I mean is, the owner is coming to get it.”

 

“Looks like a nice one. Would you like me to wipe it off for you?”

 

“No,” Cordy said quickly and too primly. She didn’t want to do that clumsy drunk guy any favors

because she felt put-upon as it was. It was her own fault—no one forced her to retrieve the shaker—but

she resented him all the same. “It’s fine as is.” She was waiting for a stranger for whom she’d done a favor. She should feel good; instead, she felt . . . owed. May as well enjoy myself while I wait. And act like a “real” guest. With that in mind, she went for decadent and ordered a champagne cocktail. To counter her immediate guilt, she followed with a respectable and nutritious Cobb salad. She gazed at the entrance to the bar one more time, noting the dark-wood backdrop and the paintings and fabrics in the oranges, reds, and purples of a mountain sunset. Then she pulled out her leather notebook and Cross pen and began to write her initial impressions of the Pinnacle Resort at Aspen.

 

Thirty minutes later, as her cocktail neared its logical conclusion (she was an admittedly slow drinker) and her salad was gone, Cordy had mellowed. A smattering of other customers had come in, which Cordy calculated was average for fi ve o’clock on a Friday in the off-season.

 

The off-season. Her favorite phrase because it had given her a dream career that allowed her to make a

good living, own and show a horse, and travel around the world. She had become a go-to professional for how to make more money in the off-season. She could look at a resort, no matter where it was, and come up with ways to make hay when the sun didn’t shine, as it were. For Cordy, it was akin to taking a meh horse and making it a wow horse. She used to think anyone could see the off-season potential in a resort, but she accepted that she had a knack, though she was still reluctant to believe the hype heaped on her by happy clients. After working for a company that ran several resorts around the world, she went out on her own. Pinnacle was her first project as an independent contractor, but the winter resort wasn’t her client. A small Aspen ad agency that was trying to impress Pinnacle had hired her to overdeliver and wow them. She was a surprise bonus, and her recommendation could be the tipping point.

 

Or that’s what the agency was banking on. She thought they were overly optimistic, but they were paying her well, so she’d give them their money’s worth.

 

She had already completed a page of bullet points after being at Pinnacle for less than twenty-four

hours. Not bad.

 

Was someone playing a piano? As Cordy looked around, a lock of shiny wheat-colored hair fell in front

of her face. As she shoved it behind her ear, she saw a fresh champagne cocktail in front of her. “Excuse me,” she called to the bartender, who rushed over. “I didn’t order this.”

 

“It’s on the house, madam.” Did management know why she was here and was trying to impress her? As

though she were a secret shopper or something? “Really? Why?”

 

“A gentleman came by and bought you a drink.”

 

“That’s impossible. I don’t know anyone here.”

 

“Begging your pardon, but that’s what happened.”

 

“Who was it?”

 

“He didn’t say,” the bartender replied as he wiped the bar.

 

“Where is he? I ought to thank him.”

 

“He left.”

 

“What did he look like?”

 

The bartender filled his cheeks with air and puffed it out. “Dark hair. A little taller than me.” He

shrugged in defeat.

 

That didn’t help. If it was the martini guy, surely he would have taken the shaker.

 

The bartender spoke. “I’d say you have a secret admirer.”

 

“Right.” She said this merely to confirm she’d heard him because her attention was back on the

  1. What is that song? I know that song. And where is the piano?

 

Oh no. No. No no no no no.

 

“Excuse me, again,” Cordy said. “But where’s the piano?” She struggled to sound polite and not distressed.

 

“Just behind that tree,” he said, nodding toward an impressively leafy plant in the middle of the room that stretched to the ceiling. Cordy threw back a mouthful of her complimentary drink, dabbed her lips with her napkin, and took a breath before striding to the hidden instrument.

 

The man’s hands were sure and efficient as they transformed the keys into a gorgeous melody. Playing

was muscle memory for him; that much was obvious. He rocked gently to the rhythm as though in a trance, oblivious to her or even that he was in the middle of a restaurant. If she weren’t in such a strange mood, she would have appreciated his talent and artistry. But the only thing she wanted to do was stop him.

 

“Excuse me,” she said.

 

No response.

 

She stared for a moment, willing him to look at her. The mental energy she expended could have bent

several spoons, possibly a spatula. Or a shovel. He kept going, damn him. “Excuse me!” she said, louder

this time.

 

He looked at her. Mildly. And literally didn’t miss a beat.

 

She was pretty sure it was the martini shaker guy. Of course. Because this was inconvenient, too. Maybe he didn’t recognize her. After all, he’d been flying overhead and three sheets to the wind when they’d met more than ten hours earlier. She sighed, flicked her hands at him, and said, “Could you maybe skip over this song and play something else?”

 

He shook his head and a few strands of pin-straight brown hair flopped into his eyes. “I’m sorry; I can’t

hear you. I’m playing the piano.”

 

  1. She spoke louder. “Yes, I know. I was wondering if you could play a different song?” He continued

playing all those damned notes she hated, while conversing—of course he was—he was a professional,

what did she expect? It wasn’t even multitasking for him, it was his job to chat up diners while playing.

“This is a great song. Cole Porter. What do you have against Cole Porter?”

 

“Nothing, but—”

 

“This is part of my warm-up. I always play ‘So In Love.’ ”

 

It seemed he was embellishing the tune just to annoy her. The golden buzz from her vintage cocktail

had turned on her and was making her grumpy. He continued, “Have you ever heard the words?

They’re beautiful.” Then, to add musical insult to emotional injury, he started over and sang softly, so

only she could hear. Her own private concert from hell.

 

His voice was as smooth as a premium liqueur and his accent—Southern and lyrical—disappeared. Still,

hearing a declaration of a searing love come out of this man’s mouth only made her feel terrible. What

did Cole Porter know? This kind of love doesn’t exist except in songs. I should know. Her throat ached, her cheeks heated and, lo and behold, she was about to cry. This wasn’t going to happen. She clamped down on her unacceptable emotional response, leaned toward him, and said, “Please.” “I’ll finish—”

 

She blurted, “I’ll give you a hundred dollars to stop.”

 

He kept playing. “You abhor it that much?”

 

She rolled her eyes. “A hundred bucks to do less. Come on.”

 

“Deal.” He finished with a flourish, held out his hand with its long, strong fingers, and raised his eyebrows at her.

 

“I don’t have that much cash on me.” She folded her arms under her breasts.

 

“You should have thought of that before you bribed me to stop.”

 

“I’ll leave it with the bartender.”

 

“George? He’s a confirmed kleptomaniac. I’ll never see a red cent.”

 

“I’ll leave you a check, then.”

 

“I’m sorry, darlin’, but traditionally speaking, bribes are cash only.” He whispered, “You don’t want

it to be traced.”

 

“It’s not a bribe. I made it worth your while to stop playing. Think of it as a tip.”

 

“Pourboires are usually given as an expression of appreciation.”

 

“Pourboires?”

 

“Tips. Why did you want me to stop? That was a whole lot of hatred aimed at poor Mr. Porter’s classic.”

 

Cordy sniffed and looked at the far wall over Martini Boy’s head. “I’d rather not say.”

 

“All that hostility can’t be good for you. Why don’t we discuss it over a . . . champagne cocktail?”

 

She knew her face betrayed her—her eyes widened, her eyebrows shot up, and her mouth opened a little more than usual. There was a reason she wasn’t a professional poker player or counterintelligence operative.

 

“No. Thank you. I should go.”

 

He tsked and shook his head. “I would’ve never taken you for a welsher.”

 

“I’m not—Don’t worry, you’ll get your money.”

 

His full lips kicked up at the corners, making him more appealing than she cared to admit. It was the

kind of appealing that made her want to stick around.

 

“As I see it, you owe me a hundred dollars and my martini shaker. Which I thank you for returning, by

the way. It’s another reason I need to buy you a drink. In fact, I hardly think a drink’s enough—after all, that shaker is very important to me. I believe I owe you at least a dinner. Would you do me the honor of having dinner with me this evening, Miss . . . ? It is Miss, correct?” He didn’t need to know her name or her marital status. Not with that appealing smile chipping away at her defenses. “That’s very generous of you, but I don’t know you and you don’t know me. We don’t have to be friends. I’m sure you have plenty of friends. I’ll give you your hundred dollars, you can take your shaker—it’s right there on the bar, safe and sound—and we’ll go our separate ways. It’s not necessary to have dinner. It’s not necessary to have drinks or coffee or . . . anything. We had an encounter, then a business transaction, and that’s all. Besides, you can’t leave your shift—as you pointed out, you only just started playing, and the cocktail crowd is going to want their Gershwin as a backdrop for their scintillating conversations.”

 

She looked at the top of the upright. “Hey, where’s your brandy snifter? You’re good. A guy like

you could make a lot of . . . pourboires.” She gazed at his face just in time to see it brighten. He didn’t smile, but his lips twitched and his eyes lighted. She was on a roll and it felt good. “After you’re done with your Harry Connick, Jr. stint, surely you have a few martinis to make, don’t you? Or do you only bartend on top of the mountain with your friends the goats?”

 

He swiveled on the piano bench to face her.

 

“Honey, your drink’s getting warm, and that’s a tragedy.” He stood. He was taller than she’d predicted.

He had six inches on her, easy. She didn’t like that she had to look up to him now, after getting to look down at him this hole time. “Let’s go rescue that drink,” he said, and turned her with a finger on her shoulder. That finger then breezed the small of her back, propelling her toward the bar. “And careful about speaking ill of mountain goats,” he said as they walked. “They’re integral to the ecosystem here, they please the tourists, and they’re remarkably rugged, graceful, nimble creatures.” He pulled out her barstool for her. Cordy thought about dismissing his gesture, but decided to finish her cocktail. He amused her, and that was worth a few more minutes of her time. “I didn’t say anything bad about goats. I called them your friends. What does that say about you?” Plus he was easy on her eyes. He had great hair—the dark brown of a horse’s deep bay coat, and glossy—with regular features, a nose straight and assertive as a dressage whip, wide, dark eyes, full lips…A woman could do worse. He was elegant, yes, but oh-so-unavoidably masculine. A dangerous combination, but perfect for temporary scenery at a bar in a ski resort in Aspen.

 

She sat. He stood. He sipped her drink. “Hey!” she said.

 

“Just as I feared. Too warm.” He beckoned the bartender.

 

“George, the lady is in dire need of another champagne cocktail, if you will. This one is tepid. And

I’ll have one as well.”

 

“It was fine,” Cordy said.

 

“No, it wasn’t. There’s nothing worse than warm champagne.”

 

“I can think of something worse.”

 

He sat, then looked at her, and his gaze was so focused, she felt there must be a red laser dot on her

nose. Her pulse actually kicked up a notch. “And, pray tell, what would that be?” This had to be what an impala felt like when it knew it couldn’t outrun the lion.

 

“Impertinent pianists.”

 

“Come now, was I really that bad?”

 

“You weren’t exactly cooperative. You could’ve stopped when I asked the first time.”

 

“I assure you, under the right circumstances, with the right woman, I can be the very picture of cooperation.”

 

Cordy shifted on her barstool. Where was George with her cocktail? And why was Martini Boy with her

and not at the piano? Normally she wouldn’t have asked, but her experience with him had been anything but normal. “Don’t you need to get back to the piano? People are starting to fidget.”

 

“They’ll manage,” he said, looking around the room. “Would you be so kind as to hand me my

shaker? I’d like to inspect it for damage.”

 

Cordy handed it to him and noted his clean, flat, broad nails rounding out his capable hands. She also

felt their fingers touch for a fraction of a second.

 

“Yeah, so, about that. What was up with that?”

 

“What was up with what?”

 

“You dropping it. If it means so much to you, shouldn’t you have been more careful?”

 

“People drop things all the time,” he said, turning the shaker as he examined it. “It’s an international

habit.”

 

“Clumsy people drop things. You play the piano like a dream, so I’m guessing you’re not usually

clumsy. All that hand-eye coordination and everything.”

 

“You give me an immense amount of credit. I hear Van Cliburn had an embarrassing and expensive habit

of dropping crystal.”

 

Who was this guy who talked like he’d just stepped out of 1920? Cordy was slightly surprised he was in

color and not black-and-white like an old movie. Nobody really talked like this. He was putting on an act.

He had to be. Well, two could play at this game. She was going to say something out of character. Their drinks arrived and Cordy took a good long sip. She furloughed her internal editor, the one who kept her scrupulously polite, then looked at him.

 

“Why were you in a tux riding the ski lift the wrong way and carrying a martini shaker at six thirty in the

morning?”

 

He grinned and took a few swallows of the water George had given them with the drinks, making her

wait. He set the glass down and licked his lips. “Earlier in the evening, I attended a party that demanded

formal wear.”

 

“What kind of party?”

 

“A formal one.”

 

She beetled her brows at him. “It went on until sunrise? At your age? Were the cops involved? You

can tell me. After all, it’s not like we’ll see each other again.”

 

“Now that would be a tragedy of epic proportions.”

 

“Trust me, it’ll be fine.”

 

“Doubtful.”

 

“Was it a wedding? Which would be unusual on a Thursday, but not unheard of.”

 

“No.”

 

“Graduation? Bar mitzvah? Barn raising?”

 

“You’re not going to guess the occasion. Have you considered the possibility that I might just enjoy

dressing up?”

 

“Oh!” Was this code? Was he telling her he was gay? Which would be great, because they could pal

around and she wouldn’t have to worry about getting involved. She would never have guessed, but these days, with straight metrosexuals around every corner, her gaydar was unreliable.

 

“Oh?” he asked.

 

She shrugged. “Oh.”

 

“What does ‘oh’ mean?”

 

“ ‘Oh’ means ‘oh.’ ” She couldn’t tell him what she was thinking. Even her absent editor returned to keep her silent.

 

“ ‘Oh’ means ‘oh,’ huh? All right, then. Since you were so kind as to return my shaker, I’m not going to

press you for an answer.”

 

“Now we’re even,” Cordy said, feeling positively cocky. “You didn’t answer my question and I didn’t answer yours. Let’s just enjoy our drinks, okay?”

 

“Absolutely. Whatever you prefer.” He tipped his flute to clink with hers, sipped, then paused. “Hmm.”

 

“What?” she asked.

 

“Nothing. Just hmm.”

 

“What?”

 

“You won’t tell me what ‘oh’ means, but you expect me to tell you what ‘hmm’ means?”

 

Cordy went for the chink in his armor. “It would be the gentlemanly thing to do.”

 

“If that’s what you think. I was thinking how it’s curious that a woman such as yourself is here alone.”

 

“What makes you think I’m alone?”

 

“That would be because you are.”

 

“Why?”

 

“You’re in a resort town, at a resort. Most guests come with at least one other person. In your case, I

would expect you to be here with a man. A significant other of some sort. Spouse, boyfriend, fiancé—”

 

“Don’t say that word.”

 

“Fiancé?”

 

“Yes. Just . . . don’t. Or I’ll take that shaker and throw it off a cliff.” Cordy smoothed her hair behind

her ear and stared at the bubbles zipping to the surface of her drink. Why did he have to say that?

 

“I promise not to say ‘fiancé’ anymore. If you tell me why I can’t.”

 

She felt like Martini Boy was squeezing her windpipe.

 

“I can’t. Okay? It’s a . . . thing.” The words choked out. He must’ve noticed because he nodded and didn’t argue. She wished she was one of those people who could laugh and make light of it, but in this case, she couldn’t. “Excuse me for a moment. I’ll be right back.” She reached under the bar to snag her purse from the hook. Purse hooks under bars were a godsend. More points for Pinnacle. Martini Boy

stood. More points for Martini Boy.

 

“Will you be back?” he asked, and sounded concerned.

 

She slid off the stool. “Yes. I need to use the restroom.”

 

By “use” she meant “regain my composure, then figure out what I want to do next and if it involves

you.”

 

AUTHOR:

Colette Auclair has been a copywriter for more than twenty years. She’s ridden and shown horses since she was ten and owns a lovely twenty-year-old Thoroughbred mare. A 2012 Golden Heart finalist in the contemporary romance category, Thrown was her first novel and Jumped was her second. Please visit http://www.coletteauclair.com/.

 

Blond

BLOND CARGO

John Lansing

October 20, 2014

$5.99

The second Jack Bertolino thriller by John Lansing

 

“An unyielding pace, vigorous characters and explosive ending.”

—Kirkus Reviews

 

“A fantastic read…This extremely fast and well-thought-out thriller will remind some of James Patterson’s early works.”

Suspense Magazine

 

“Blond Cargo an extraordinary, must-read detective thriller. Can’t wait for the next installment! Look out Patterson, someone’s gaining on you!”

Amazon Reviewer

 

SUMMARY:

Blond Cargo is the highly anticipated second Jack Bertolino installment from New York native and now Los Angeles author John Lansing. This gripping eBook from the former writer/producer of Walker, Texas Ranger and Co-Executive producer of the ABC series Scoundrels continues the story that began in The Devil’s Necktie.

 

Jack Bertolino is back…in the sequel to John Lansing’s bestseller The Devil’s Necktie!

 

Jack’s son, Chris, was the victim of a brutal murder attempt and Vincent Cardona, a mafia boss, provided information that helped Jack take down the perpetrator of the crime. Jack accepted the favor knowing there’d be blowback. In Blond Cargo, the mobster’s daughter has gone missing and Cardona turned in his chit. Jack discovers that the young, blond mafia princess has been kidnapped and imprisoned while rich, politically connected men negotiate her value as a sex slave.

 

John Lansing taps into the real life world of cops, crime, drugs and murder in Blond Cargo to deliver another sizzling whodunit.

 

EXCERPT:

Jack Bertolino moved briskly down the polished terrazzo floor of the American Airlines terminal at San Francisco International Airport. He walked past travelers who were deplaning, waiting to board, eating, drinking, and queuing up at ticket counters. Through the windows on either side of the crowded terminal he could see a line of Boeing MD-80s and 737s.

 

Jack had his game face on. One thought only: take down the manager at NCI Corp who was dirty.

 

Todd Dearling had been hired as one of five project managers, developing a new generation of semiconductors meant to challenge Intel’s control of the market. Yet the new engineer was plotting to steal the proprietary architecture for the company’s most advanced technology and sell it to an Argentinean competitor.

 

Jack had done a thorough background check on Dearling and found no skeletons in the man’s closet, no gambling issues, no drugs, no priors; it was greed, pure and simple. Cruz Feinberg, Jack’s new associate, had arrived in Silicon Valley two days prior and wirelessly inserted a program onto Dearling’s iPad while the stressed-out manager was sucking down his daily chai latte at the local Starbucks. Any text or e-mail sent to or from Dearling was cloned and sent to Cruz’s laptop. A piece of cake to pull off for the young tech whiz. Jack was being well paid to catch the thief in the act—let the money and the technology change hands, and then drop the hammer.

 

Todd Dearling had made reservations at the Four Seasons Hotel in East Palo Alto. A car would be waiting at SFO to ferry his Argentinean counterpart to the suite where the exchange was scheduled to take place.

 

Jack had booked Cruz into that same suite two nights earlier, where he had set up wireless microcameras and wired the room for sound, to be routed to the suite next door, where Jack’s team would document the crime.

 

Jack lived for these moments. Outsmarting intelligent men who thought they were above the law. Badge or no badge, Jack loved to take scumbags down.

 

Ten minutes ago, Flight 378 from Buenos Aires had flashed from black to green on the overhead arrivals screen. Dressed in a gray pinstripe business suit and wheeling a carry-on suitcase, Jack walked toward a limo driver stationed near the exit door of the international terminal. The man held a sign chest-high that read emilio bragga.

 

Jack reached out a hand toward the driver, who was forced to lower his placard, shake Jack’s hand, and make quick work of grabbing up Jack’s bag. Jack headed quickly toward the exit, explaining to the driver that he was traveling light and had no checked luggage.

 

As soon as the two men exited the building, Jack’s second employee, Mateo Vasquez, dressed in a black suit, moved into the same spot, carrying a sign that read Emilio bragga.

 

Jack and Mateo had once been on opposite sides of the thin blue line, Jack as an NYPD narcotics detective, Mateo as an operative for a Colombian drug cartel. When Jack busted the cartel, he made Mateo an offer—spend thirty years in the big house, or come to work for the NYPD as a confidential

informant. Mateo had made the right choice and Jack had earned himself a loyal operative when he became a private investigator.

 

Thirty seconds later, the real Emilio Bragga walked up to Mateo, stifled a yawn, and handed off his carry-on. He was short and stocky with a rubbery face.

 

Buenos días, Señor Bragga. I hope your flight was acceptable?” Mateo asked deferentially.

 

“Barely. First class isn’t what it used to be.” Bragga’s accented English was spoken in clipped tones. “Take me to the First National Bank. I have business to attend to.”

 

Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars’ worth of business, Mateo might have added, but refrained.

 

Jack arrived at the Four Seasons, generously tipped the limo driver, and hurried up the elevator to the suite where Cruz was waiting. Once Jack stripped off his suit jacket, he joined the young genius by his array of monitors.

 

“They should make these baby ketchup bottles illegal,” Cruz said as he tried to pound the condiment out of the room service minibottle of Heinz. Growing frustrated, Cruz shoved a knife deep into the viscous ketchup and poured a heaping red mound onto his fries. Happy with the results, he chowed down on three drenched fries before wiping his hands on his jeans and returning his gaze to the computer.

 

“It looks like he’s getting ready for a date,” Jack said as he took a seat. Cruz kept his eyes trained on the four screens corresponding to the four different camera angles of the room they were covering.

 

“Guy’s squirrelly,” Cruz said, biting into his cheeseburger.

 

They watched as Todd Dearling twirled a bottle of champagne in the ice that had just been delivered from room service, along with a tray of finger sandwiches and crudités. He was a slight, pale, middle-aged man with thinning hair that he kept nervously brushing back off his forehead. He shrugged out of his tweed sports jacket, but when he saw the sweat stains in the armpits of his blue dress shirt, he slid it

back on. He hurried over to the thermostat near the door, appearing on a new screen, and turned up the air.

 

Jack checked his watch and then his phone to make sure he was receiving enough bars to communicate with Mateo. “I’m getting a little nervous. You?” Cruz asked before sucking down the last of his Coke. He crumpled the aluminum can with one hand and executed an overhand dunk into the bamboo trash bin.

 

Cruz’s mother was Guatemalan, his father a Brooklyn Jew who founded Bundy Lock and Key. That’s where Jack first met him. Cruz, who took after his mother’s side of the family, looked taller than his five-foot-nine frame. Darkskinned, intelligent brown eyes, a youthful angular face, and at twenty-three, he could still pull off the spiky short black hair.

 

“I’ve got some energy going,” Jack said, “but it’s all good. You’d have to worry if you didn’t feel pumped.”

 

Just then Jack’s phone vibrated and the number 999 appeared on his text screen, code for It’s a go. Mateo and Emilio Bragga had just pulled up to the front entrance of the Four Seasons Hotel.

 

“We’re on,” Jack said with a tight grin.

 

In another minute, a loud rap on a door made Cruz jump. “Is that here?” he asked, and glanced over at the door to their suite.

 

“No, it’s next door. Great sound, Cruz,” Jack said, trying to keep his newest charge calm.

 

Jack and Cruz watched as Dearling’s image moved from one screen to the next, went over to the door, unlocked it, and ushered in Emilio Bragga. The man of the hour wheeled his carry-on across the white marble floor, pushed the retractable handle down into the bag, and gave Dearling an unexpected bear hug, lifting the thin man off his feet. Once the blush faded and he had regained his composure, Dearling

was all smiles. He could smell his fortune being made. “First, tell me you have them,” Bragga said brusquely, his smile tightening.

 

“I have them and more, Emilio. There are even some preliminary renderings for the next series of chips. Consider it goodwill,” Dearling said.

 

He lifted the champagne bottle out of the melting ice with a flourish, dripping water onto his dress shirt.

“A celebratory drink and then business.”

 

“No, business first,” Jack said.

 

“No. Show them to me. Now,” Bragga ordered, his voice unyielding.

 

“Now we’re talking,” Cruz said to Jack, barely able to control his excitement.

 

The next knock was more subdued than the first, just a quick double knock.

 

“That’s here,” Jack said as he slid out of his chair and opened the door. Mateo was thirty-nine years old, tall, handsome, with striking gray eyes, long brown hair, and a thousand-dollar suit. He beamed at his old friend as he walked in, bumped fists, and moved into position behind Cruz, eyes trained on the computer screen.

 

Emilio Bragga placed his carry-on luggage on the couch as Dearling pulled a slim buffed metal briefcase from behind the table and snapped it open on the tabletop. Inside was a series of blue, red, silver, and gold flash drives, seated in foam cutouts next to three bound technical binders.

 

Bragga leafed quickly through one of the binders, visibly relaxed, and placed it back inside the case. He looked at Todd Dearling and nodded his head. Then he smiled.

 

“This is the money shot,” Jack said. “Make it the money shot.”

 

Emilio Bragga walked over to the couch, ceremoniously produced a key, and opened the lock. The sound of the zipper ratcheting around the circumference of the bag got everyone’s full attention. And then Bragga flipped open the canvas top.

 

Two hundred and fifty thousand, in crisp, banded hundred-dollar bills. Jack’s team could almost hear Dearling’s breath catch in his throat.

 

“You see those appetizers?” Bragga said, gesturing to the tray of crudités. “That is what this is.” He turned his gaze to the thick stacks of money like it was nothing. “Antipasto…before the meal.”

 

The two men shook hands. The deal was consummated. It was all gravy now, Jack thought. He would contact Lawrence Weller, CEO of NCI, who would have Bragga quietly arrested at the airport and Dearling picked up outside his condominium, thereby avoiding any negative publicity regarding the security breach that could affect the value of NCI’s stock.

 

“Start taking sick days as we get closer to the rollout date,” Bragga advised. “Then you’ll take a forced medical leave. I’ll set you up with a doctor in San Francisco who’s a friend. He’ll recommend you spend a month at a local clinic to recuperate while we launch and beat NCI to market. Six months later and with two million in your account, you’ll give notice and head up my division. Did I ever tell you how beautiful the women in Mendoza are?”

 

Bragga’s speech was interrupted by another knock on the door.

 

“Room service,” a muted voice said.

 

“We’re good,” Dearling shouted as he moved toward the door while Bragga instinctively closed the lid of his bag, covering the money.

 

Jack gave his team a What the hell? look. “Who are these jokers?”

 

“Complimentary champagne from the management of the Four Seasons,” intoned the muffled voice.

 

“Don’t open the door,” Bragga hissed.

 

“Don’t open the door,” Jack said at the same time. But Dearling had already turned the handle.

 

Three men dressed in navy blue blazers with gold epaulettes pushed a service cart draped with a white cloth into the room with a bottle of champagne in a silver ice bucket and a huge bouquet of flowers in a crystal vase. “Three men on one bottle,” Jack said as he pulled his Glock nine-millimeter out of his shoulder rig and headed for the door.

 

“We weren’t the only ones who hacked his computer,” Cruz intuited.

 

“Don’t leave the room,” Jack told him over his shoulder. He quickly exited the suite, followed by Mateo. Cruz nodded, but his wide eyes never left the computer screen.

 

The lead man pushed the cart toward Dearling, but instead of slowing down, he muscled the cart up against the timid man’s waist, picked up speed, and forced him to backpedal across the room. Dearling’s eyes bugged, his face a mask of terror. The flowers and champagne tumbled off the cart, and the crystal vase shattered on impact. The champagne bottle exploded. Flowers and glass and water and bubbly

flooded the slick stone floor. Dearling’s body slammed into the television set on the far wall; his head whipped back and splintered the flat screen. Glass rained down on the Judas as he slid to the floor behind the cart.

 

Bragga placed himself in front of his bag of cash and took a gun barrel to the side of his head. The gash spurted blood, drenched his shirt, turned his legs to rubber, and took him down onto one knee. The gunman made a fast reach past him for the bag, but Bragga grabbed the thug around one thigh and tried to bulldog him to the ground.

 

“I’m gonna shoot you, you dumb prick,” the gunman grunted, rapidly losing control of the situation.

 

“So much for keeping it on the QT,” Jack said to Mateo as he kicked the door open and followed his gun into the room.

 

The third uniformed man spun as the door smashed against the jamb and Jack’s fist exploded into his face. The man’s head snapped back, and blood streamed out of his broken nose. His arms flailed, and his gun was suspended in midair for a split second before the man and the gun hit the floor.

 

The man who’d pushed the cart turned his weapon on Jack, who fired first, blasting the man in the shoulder. The force of Jack’s bullet propelled the gunman’s body backward onto the cart before he flopped to the stone floor, landed on his shoulder in the broken glass, and cried out in pain. The gun discharging in the close confines of the hotel suite stopped the action. The room smelled of cordite,

the only sounds heavy breathing and Todd Dearling’s whimpering. Mateo picked up the third man’s pistol and covered Jack’s back.

 

Jack turned his Glock on the second man. “Give me your gun or your friend’s going to bleed out,” he stated with extreme calm.

 

Before Jack could take control of the weapon, Bragga stripped it from the gunman’s hand and smashed him in the temple with surprising violence. Then he swung the confiscated Colt back and forth between Jack and Mateo, stopping them in their tracks.

 

“Nobody move and nobody follow,” Bragga said as he half-zippered the suitcase with one hand and picked up the carry-on bag.

 

“Drop your weapons,” he ordered Jack and Mateo through clenched teeth as blood continued to drip down the side of his face. They complied, knowing he wouldn’t make it as far as the lobby. Bragga walked around the couch on unsteady legs, muscling the heavy bag. His eyes bored into Mateo, the “driver” who had betrayed him, and ordered him to clear the doorway with a sharp wave of his gun barrel. Mateo took a half step to the side, gave the short man just enough room to pass, and pistoned with his full two hundred pounds of muscle, leading with his elbow and hitting Bragga in the back of the head, just above the neck. The Argentinean went down hard.

 

The overstuffed bag bounced on the floor, the luggage’s zipper split open, and a green wave of banded hundreds cascaded out onto the polished white Carrara marble. “That was a cluster fuck,” Jack said with disgust as he picked up his Glock and surveyed the carnage in the suite. Mateo collected the fallen weapons, grabbed a towel off the wet bar, and used it as a compress to stanch the first gunman’s bleeding wound. He was all business. “Call 911 and have them send an ambulance,” Jack said to Cruz, who he knew could hear him over one of the multiple microphones.

 

“That was insane.”

 

Jack turned around and found Cruz standing, wild eyed, in the hall directly behind him.

 

“Call 911 and lock the door. Did we get it all?”

 

“I copied Lawrence Weller and you on your cell, iPad, and laptop.”

 

“Good man,” Jack said.

 

“No, really, you, Mateo . . . man.” Cruz shuddered as he pulled out his cell and dialed the emergency phone line. Jack was not one normally given to second-guessing, but at the moment he found himself seriously questioning his new career choice as a private investigator.

 

Muttering a curse, Jack holstered his nine-millimeter, crossed the room, and proceeded to snap plastic flex-cuffs on the broken assembly of thieves.

 

AUTHOR:

John Lansing spent five years writing for TV hit Walker, Texas Ranger, and another three years studying the life of an NYPD Inspector. What emerged from his combined writing about a cop and time spent with an actual cop was Jack Bertolino—a fictional character with very real-life stories. Lansing was also a Co-Executive Producer for ABC’s Scoundrels. John’s first book was Good Cop, Bad Money, a true crime tome with former NYPD Inspector Glen Morisano. The Devil’s Necktie was his first novel. A native of Long Island, John now resides in Los Angeles. Please visit http://www.johnlansing.net/.

 

LastGoodbye

A LAST GOODBYE

J.A. Jance

November 24, 2014

.99

An Ali Reynolds e-novella

 

SUMMARY:

Find out where fan favorite Ali Reynolds’ new adventure takes her in A Last Goodbye as New York Times bestselling author J.A. Jance brings her trademark breakneck pace to this fun and exciting e-novella, in which Ali Reynolds takes on double responsibilities as both sleuth and bride.

 

Ali Reynolds is finally getting married to her longtime love B. Simpson. They wanted a simple Christmas Eve wedding, but nothing is ever simple with Ali. Even as a motley crew of her friends—Leland Brooks, Sister Anselm, and others—descend on Vegas, the bride-to-be finds herself juggling last-minute wedding plans and a mystery in the form of a stray miniature dachshund. Ali’s grandson rescues the little dog, but Ali’s not in the market for a new pet right before her honeymoon, and leaves no stone unturned in hunting for the dog’s owner. But what she finds is more than just a shaggy dog story…Bella’s elderly owner has vanished, and her son seems to be behind it. So it’s Ali and B. to the rescue—and still making it to the church on time!

 

EXCERPT:

Ali Reynolds leaned her head back against the pillow in the soaking tub and closed her eyes. With

the help of the pummeling water jets, she let the rush of the past few days recede into the background.

She and B. had made it. They were finally in Las Vegas. The rest of the wedding party was there, too.

Back in November, when she and B. Simpson had first settled on a Christmas Eve wedding at the Four

Seasons, it seemed entirely doable—a piece of cake. After all, how hard could it be?

 

Because Ali and B. had chosen to be married in a hotel, much of the planning was done by simply

cruising through the wedding planning pages on the Four Seasons website. Arranging the time, date, flowers, type of ceremony—including their preferred verbiage in the vows—was just a matter of making a few mouse clicks on her computer. Ditto for the menus. One was for what they were calling the rehearsal dinner despite the fact that there would be no rehearsal until the morning of the wedding. She also used the website to choose separate menus for both the reception and the post-ceremony supper. Ali stepped away from her computer, thinking that she had most everything handled. Unfortunately, she had failed to take her mother’s reaction into consideration.

 

Preparations for Ali’s previous weddings had been well beyond Edie Larson’s geographic reach—Chicago

for the first ceremony and Los Angeles for the second. Caught up in running the family business,

the Sugarloaf Café in Sedona, Arizona, 363 days a year, all Ali’s parents had been able to do on the two

previous occasions was arrive in time for the rehearsal dinners and depart immediately after the nuptials.

 

This time around, Ali wasn’t so lucky. Her parents, Bob and Edie Larson, were both retired now,

having sold the restaurant. Bob had found plenty to do in retirement, but Edie, left with too much time

on her hands, had hit the wedding planner ground at a dead run, a reaction for which Ali herself had

been totally unprepared.

 

In the past, Ali had found the term “bridezilla” mildly amusing, but when it came to dealing with an

Edie who had suddenly morphed into what could only be called the bride’s “momzilla”? That wasn’t amusing in the least. To Ali’s surprise, Edie had whipped out her long-unused Singer sewing machine and set about stitching up a storm. In keeping with the season, Edie’s mother-of-the-bride dress was a deep-green velvet and probably the most sophisticated attire Ali had ever seen in her mother’s wardrobe.

 

With her own dress safely in hand, Edie had gone on to tackle outfits for the twins, Ali’s grandchildren,

Colleen and Colin, who would serve as flower girl and ring bearer respectively. Colleen’s dress was a ruby-red taffeta, and Colin’s tux, also homemade, came complete with a matching rubyred taffeta cummerbund. Once that was finished, Edie took it upon herself to sew identical cummerbunds for all the men in the wedding party.

 

Ali’s father, Bob, was not an official member because Ali’s son, Chris, would do the honor of walking her down the aisle. Even so, Edie had gone so far as to bully her husband into actually buying a tux as opposed to renting one so Bob would have one to wear to formal dinner nights on their next cruise. Edie had been in despair about Ali’s ever finding a suitable wedding dress, and her sense of dread deepened when her daughter abruptly removed herself from the wedding planning equation. For the better part of two weeks in early December, Ali avoided all the frenetic pre-wedding activity by, as Edie put it, “larking off” to England.

 

That’s what Ali and B. had both expected her trip to Bournemouth would be—a lark. She went along for the ride when her longtime majordomo, Leland Brooks, returned home to the British Isles after living in self-imposed exile in the U.S. for the better part of sixty years. The trip was actually a thank-you from B. and Ali for Leland’s years of loyal service, including his having saved Ali’s life a month earlier in a nighttime desert confrontation with a kidnapper.

 

Ali had expected that her responsibilities would entail providing backup in case any of Leland’s long-lost relatives decided to go off the rails. She was also there as the designated driver, since most

car rental agencies didn’t allow octogenarians to rent vehicles.

 

In a role-reversal variation on Driving Miss Daisy, Ali had taken the wheel of their “hired” Range Rover and driven Leland through the snowy English countryside from London to Bournemouth, Leland’s hometown, on the south coast of England. Together they even took a sentimental side trip to one of Leland’s favorite childhood haunts: Stonehenge.

 

In a small fashion boutique in Bournemouth, Leland had helped Ali find the perfect dress for her third and, as she put it, hopefully last wedding. Even now, her lovely lace-adorned ivory silk knee-length

sheath was hanging in its original clear plastic wrap in the closet here at the Four Seasons. Needless to

say, Edie was greatly relieved to know that the wedding dress issue had at last been handled even if she

hadn’t been allowed to make it or choose it.

 

AUTHOR:

J.A. Jance is the New York Times bestselling author of the Ali Reynolds series, the J.P. Beaumont series, the Joanna Brady series, as well as four interrelated Southwestern thrillers featuring the Walker family. Born in South Dakota and brought up in Brisbee, Arizona, Jance and her husband live in Seattle, Washington, and Tucson, Arizona. Please visit http://www.jajance.com/.