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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/.

SUMMER READS BY THE INKHEART AUTHORS!!!!

summertopten

If you love a steamy new adult novel, then check out this list,
curated by InkHeart Authors…
Betcha can’t buy just one!

linebreak

ABrideForABillionaire_draft

For fans of Cruel Intentions and Dangerous Liaisons…

Matteo Benenati has spent his life wrapped in wealth and privilege. He is shallow, selfish, jaded—and he likes it that way.

When bold American art student Riley Tremaine crashes into his life, her light forces him to examine the dark places inside of his soul, the ones he thought he’d buried with his father. He knows he should let her go… but he’s never claimed to be a good man.

When Matteo is pitted against his unscrupulous stepsister Emilia Guerra in a bid for his late father’s empire, he must decide between honor and vice. In need of a wife—and desperate to possess her—Matteo makes Riley an offer she can’t refuse. She will be his bride—in every meaning of the word—so that he can protect his legacy.

But Matteo soon learns that Emilia’s soul is darker even than his own. And by marrying Riley, he has made her a pawn in a power struggle that could shatter their world.

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Escaping Reality by Lisa Renee JonesInfinite Possibilities by Lisa Renee Jones

Infinite possibilities….

Infinite passion…..

Infinite danger….

His touch spirals through me, warm and sweet, wicked and hot. I shouldn’t trust him. I shouldn’t tell him my secrets. But how do I not when he is the reason I breathe? He is what I need.

At the young age of eighteen, tragedy and a dark secret force Lara to flee all she has known and loved to start a new life. Now years later, with a new identity as Amy, she’s finally dared to believe she is forgotten–even if she cannot forget. But just when she lets down her guard down, the ghosts of her past are quick to punish her, forcing her back on the run.

On a plane, struggling to face the devastation of losing everything again and starting over, Amy meets Liam Stone, a darkly entrancing recluse billionaire, who is also a brilliant, and famous, prodigy architect. A man who knows what he wants and goes after it. And what he wants is Amy. Refusing to take “no” as an answer, he sweeps her into a passionate affair, pushing her to her erotic limits. He wants to possess her. He makes her want to be possessed. Liam demands everything from her, accepting nothing less. But what if she is too devastated by tragedy to know when he wants more than she should give? And what if there is more to Liam than meets the eyes?

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Infinite Possibilities Book 2

Secrets and lies. They are everywhere: haunting her, tormenting her. In the midst of it all, he’d been her escape, her passion. The only person she’d trusted in six years. And then he’d made her doubt that trust, cutting her deeply. But as she’d once told him, she was damaged, not broken. She is ready to fight and not just for survival. She is fighting for the truth and she won’t stop until she has it, not even for…him.

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entice

Chase Winter let the love of his life slip through his fingers and into the hands of his best friend and mafia boss of the Abandonato family. Now that he’s been given a second chance to right a wrong, he refuses to let his own selfishness stand in the way. The only problem? He’s not fully in possession of his heart, so when Mil De Lange — the girl who’s innocence he stole and heir to the worst of the worst mafia families in the US — asks him for a favor… he says yes, not realizing that one yes has the power to destroy them all.

Mil’s been in love with Chase Winter as long as she can remember, but as the years went by, love turned into hate, and now that he’s agreed to help her, she’s wondering if she made a fatal error. Because Chase isn’t a teenager anymore. He’s a hot-blooded male, bent on owning every part of her, body and soul, and he’s willing to kill anyone in his path who dares stand in the way.
Secrets will finally be revealed… but make no mistake, it’s going to take a lot of bloodshed for those truths to be discovered.

You’ve never read a New Adult Mafia story like this before. Loyalties will be tested, lovers reunited, and friendships obliterated.

Welcome to the Family. Blood in — No out.

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breathe into me

How did my life get so broken? It’s a question Lacey St. James asks herself every day. Stuck raising her little brother in a trailer park while she works a dead end job at a grocery store, she has a stalker ex-boyfriend, a bad reputation, and no way out.

And then she meets Everett, whose presence changes her entire existence.

Everett is an outsider to her small community, in town for the summer housesitting one of the grand mansions off the Mississippi coast. When he saves her in a bar one night, she’s grateful but wary of his intentions. Lacey doesn’t trust most men in her life, but for reasons Lacey can’t understand, Everett is completely captivated by her. He’s determined to show her that life can offer more than she’d ever hoped for, if only she believes in herself. As she works with him to free herself, Lacey desperately yearns to trust him, to move on and perhaps start fresh.

But what happens when she finds out that everything he’s told her about himself was a lie?

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hollow

Girl, Interrupted meets Beautiful Disaster in this thrilling and sexy debut novel, in which a college student learns her perfect life is a lie and finds new love where she least expects it—a mental institution.

Freaks, misfits, and psychopaths. Those are the kinds of people found at Newton Heights Psychiatric Hospital, and high-society girl Lucy White’s new home.

Freaks, misfits, and Jayden McCray. Jayden has his own set of rules for life at Newton Heights, and in this enigma, Lucy finds a way to live with the events that left her cheating boyfriend and best friend dead—and Lucy in the middle of the investigation into their demise.

The problem? Jayden makes her want things she’s not supposed to have, blurring the lines between fantasy and reality and making Lucy feel more at home in Newton Heights than she ever did at home. But this isn’t how her life is supposed to be…

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stupid girl

 

Only fools fall in love…

After her senior year of high school leaves behind nothing but heartache, Olivia Beaumont is sure of this: She’s no stupid girl. She sets out for Winston College, promising herself that she will remain focused on her first and only love – astronomy. But all it takes is cocky sophomore Brax Jenkins and an accidental collision with a football, to throw her entire year off course.

A quick-tempered Southie who escaped the inner city streets of Boston to pitch for Winston, Brax is known to play way more fields than just the baseball diamond. So, when his name is drawn to take part in his fraternity’s hazing dare, Brax eagerly accepts the mission to take Olivia’s virginity. But he doesn’t plan on falling hard for the sweet and sassy Texas girl who sees right through his bad-boy persona.

As Olivia and Brax battle their feelings for each other, echoes of the past year begin to surface. A boy who once turned Olivia’s whole world upside down reappears, and “harmless” pranks wreak havoc. Pretty soon the aspiring astronomer is on the verge of revealing her most difficult, heartbreaking secret. All the while, Brax must wrestle with the irrevocable dare, and Olivia struggles against all logic as she does the one thing only a stupid girl would do: fall in love.

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hands on

When Alexis Cassidy, an overweight, self conscious college sophomore, takes an au pair job in Greece, sitting for the daughter of Nikko Georgiou, a gorgeous, billionaire CEO, she knows he’s just the guy to give her the sexual experiences she’s looking for. Too bad he’s her boss, which means he’s hands off. But when she glimpses his hot neighbor through her bedroom window, she can’t help but wonder if he’d be interested in teaching a full figured girl a thing or two between the sheets, at the night club…in the hot tub.

Nikko catches the way his new au pair looks at Dimitri, his business partner/neighbor, and instantly knows what she wants. Since he and Dimitri share everything, professionally and personally, they put together a seductive plan…give Alexis the authentic Greek experience she’s after, all the while showing her that four hands are better than two.

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fast and mine

Geeky college student Claire Thomas suffers a humiliating rejection from the man of her dreams, and vows to learn the tricks of seduction. Her friends have the perfect tutor—Yardley College’s gorgeous king of one-night-stands, Sawyer Tremaine. Claire makes a wild proposal to Sawyer: she’ll tutor him in exchange for lessons in pleasuring a man. But she doesn’t know he’s more interested in giving her the hottest sensual pleasure imaginable than in teaching her skills.

Sawyer is the hottest and fastest rider on the East Coast illegal street bike racing circuit, but he’s fighting to escape the dangerous world and its high-stakes gambling. His psychotic ‘sponsor’ will go to any lengths to force him to ride. Can Sawyer break free and protect Claire—or will he lose her once she learns the dark secrets of his past?

Book 1, Yardley College Bikers. For readers 18 +. Previously published in the New York Times bestselling Riding Desire Box Set.

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thethrill

**The first book in the USA Today Bestselling No Regrets series**

A new adult story of Love. Sex. Addiction. Blackmail. And Power…
Some say love can be an addiction. Others say it’s the thing that makes life worth living. Let me tell you everything I know about love… Love isn’t patient, love isn’t kind. Love is a game, a chase. A thrill. Love is wild and war-like, and every man and woman must fight for themselves. At least that’s how it was for me. A high-priced virgin call girl by the time I started college, I was addicted to love and to sex. Even though I’ve never had either. I controlled love, played it, and held the world in the palm of my hands. Then I fell down from those highs, and I’m being blackmailed for all my mistakes, forced to keep secrets from everyone, except the only guy I don’t regret.
Trey.
**** With all the other women, I knew what they were. They were temporary. They were pills, they were bottles, they took away all the pain, and numbed the awful memories that wore away at my ragged, wasted heart. Until I met Harley. She’s the only girl I ever missed when she walked away. But now she’s back in my life, every day, and there are no guarantees for us, especially since I don’t know how to tell her my secrets. What happened to my family. All I know is she’s the closest I’ve ever come to something real, and I want to feel every second of it.
How can you love with no regrets when regret is all you know?

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RandomActsOfFantasy_1600x2400

You ever really think that you’ll win the lottery? Meet Mr. Right? How about two Mr. Rights?

Somehow the universe is handing me everything I want (except for that lottery part…), and I don’t like it. Not one little bit. Because just when you get all your dreams handed to you on a silver platter, that’s when an airplane dumps its sewage on your house. Or your mama’s diabetes takes a bad turn. Or your mobile phone gets stuck in your hoohaw.

(What? It happens…)

Boring old average me got everything I wanted already, moving from small-town Ohio to big-city Boston to follow my heart. So when the fancy invitation offering me a pile of money to come with the band, Random Acts of Crazy, to perform on an island resort and be their manager arrived, I thought it was a cosmic joke. Enough money to help my mama get what she needed, five days in sunny paradise, and a shot at greatness for the band? Unreal. One big shoe was waiting to drop. On my head.

Just like no one really ever finds a naked man wearing only a guitar standing by the side of the road hitchhiking and ends up falling in love with him and his friend and moving halfway across the country for true love, no one gets an invitation to come to what turns out to be a resort where people make what me and Joe and Trevor do together look like a chaste peck on the cheek. But…

Well.

I guess these things do happen.

To me.

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GIVEAWAY

a Rafflecopter giveaway

MENDED by Kim Karr Blog Tour Stop!!!!

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Mended

MUSIC HAS THE POWER TO HEAL ALL…BUT NOT ALL BROKEN HEARTS CAN BE MENDED.

Always in control, Xander Wilde considered life on the road to be a perfect fit for him. But when disaster strikes on the Wilde Ones’ latest tour, fate intervenes…and a newly single Ivy Taylor, the only girl he has ever loved, steps back into his life.

After moving past her painful breakup with Xander years ago, Ivy was poised to become the next big name in pop music…when suddenly she withdrew from the limelight—the same day she announced her engagement to her controlling agent, Damon Wolf.

Xander knows he should keep his distance. But once they’re on the road, he can’t resist pursuing her for a second chance. Yet a jealous Damon can’t let her go—and he’s keeping dangerous secrets that could destroy them all.

When the three of them come together, everything falls apart. But if Xander and Ivy can hold tight to the bond that connects them, they just might have a chance at reclaiming the powerful love they thought they had lost forever….

BUY LINKS

AMAZON – http://amzn.to/1ap7Jwn
iTUNES – http://bit.ly/1i9fQkM
B&N – http://bit.ly/1iaTkYS
Paperback – http://amzn.to/1dtnJgJ

MY REVIEW (Colleen)

4 STARS

        I love Xander. He is perfectly imperfect and at times I felt that he was too good for Ivy. Strong and sexy, sweet and irresistible, Xander is everything that I love in a man. Kim Karr knows how to write the perfect leading man to fulfil all your fantasies.

         I really wanted to like and feel sorry for Ivy but I spent most of the book wishing I could reach through my ereader and slap some sense into her. Woman, just love and be with the man you love already….geez!!!! Luckily, the last quarter of the book I found my groove with her and began to appreciate everything that she had been through in her life and the road that led her back to Xander.

        I have never gone wrong reading Kim’s books. I always get lost in the story and never come up for air until I am finished. She is one of those authors that comes out with quality work again and again. I find myself impatiently waiting for her next release.

        Mended can be read as a stand alone but there is crossovers from other characters in earlier books in the series. There is no cliffhanger. Do yourself a favor and read the Connections Series!

m excerpt

EXCERPT

Xander Wilde

The magic of rock and roll—it casts a spell on you. I’m no exception. I’m a band manager and I’m living the dream, touring with The Wilde Ones, helping them secure their well-deserved place in the music industry. I love being a part of it all, especially watching the band perform live—the crowds, the cheers, the music. It’s a high and a low all at once and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Every step of the way with this band has been fun, exciting, stressful—every possible emotion. Obviously we’ve had some breaks but mostly we all put in a lot of hard work—myself, Garrett Flynn, Phoenix Harper, River Wilde, and now Zane Perry.

“Can you hear me now?” he bellows.

I nod my head as my heart pounds in my chest. My hands feel cold and clammy and a nervousness that makes me weak and shaky takes over. Doubts race through my head and I’m questioning if he’s going to make it through this. A vague awareness that something bad could happen kicks around in my mind and I can’t shake it. The Wilde Ones are doing a sound check on stage and Zane’s not on his game.

It’s July and the weather has been brutally hot. But today it seems cooler. Maybe it’s the California weather maybe it’s the excitement of being home. The Beautiful Lies Tour bus finally rolled back into our home state of California after six months away. When we pulled into the amphitheater, we could see tanned kids in board shorts and bikini tops already lined up at the will call window. Security guards in polo shirts directed us to the artist parking lot, and we were officially home. Tonight we’ll be headlining our biggest show to date. We’re on tour without my brother, River, and still more than half of the shows are sold out, including tonight’s. River quit the band—touring just wasn’t for him but even so the album is on its way up the charts. Who knows it may even hit gold status. The songs on the album were written and sung by River but are performed in concert by Zane. Having him as my brother’s replacement has been the key to our successful transition in a world where replacing leads is normally unsuccessful—simply put, we’re lucky as hell to have him. River promised to make a surprise appearance at our next stop. It’s going to be epic.

But tonight is all about the arena—Mountain View and the Shoreline. “That’s enough,” I yell to the band and call rehearsal. This place is the biggest outdoor venue we’ve played and I couldn’t be more stoked—or more nervous. A sold out show and a rocking opening band—what a combination. But a lead singer with another cold and a weakened voice that can’t be heard throughout an amphitheater scares the shit out of me.

I head straight for the bus and spend the next few hours hashing out a song with Nix that he calls a jumbled mess of muscular sense and big-riff sunshine—whatever the hell that means. All I know is that it needs help and that’s why he’s turning to me. I hadn’t played guitar since I was eighteen but for some reason over the course of this tour I’ve picked it back up. At first I used whatever was lying around but last month I had my mother mail my old one to me and it feels like home. It’s a light blue and brown Gibson and I had to have it because it was the guitar that Slash played on. Playing again seems to help pass the time and brings a calm over me that I haven’t felt in awhile.

Hours pass and before I know it, it’s almost show time. We make our way over to the Amphitheater, do the typical festival schmooze fest, and then settle back to wait. Waiting for them to take the stage is always the most nerve-racking time. I’m sitting in the practically vacant makeshift meet and greet area back stage and sipping a beer in a worthless effort to calm my nerves when a voice travels through the sound system. It’s a powerful and emotive mezzo-soprano range that is nothing short of explosive. She sounds unlike any singer I’ve ever heard before—with only one exception, Ivy Taylor. I push back the memory of her name and the emotions it evokes—the memories are just too painful. I can’t see her on stage but I know that the voice belongs to Jane Mommsen. Her band Breathless is playing right before The Wilde Ones.

A hand on my shoulder startles me. I twist and glance up as Amy sits down beside me, crossing her legs. “Hi, Xander. I thought I saw you earlier at the hotel.”

She’s a beautiful woman—long, wavy dark hair, petite figure, very natural looking. She’s wearing jeans, a blue shirt with some kind of foil design, and silver sandals. Grinning at her I say, “Finally we catch up. Can I get you a drink?”

“I’d love that. How’s life on the road been?”

“You know, it has its ups and downs but actually not bad. You?”

“Jane’s been going full-force for a while now. But the tour ends with the summer. I’ll be glad to be back in LA.”

Standing up, I laugh. “I know the feeling. I’ll be right back, let me grab us that drink.” Tossing my empty bottle, I make my way to the coolers lined up under the tent and grab two beers. I know she’d rather have a glass of Chardonnay but beer it is. Amy is Jane’s assistant and I’ve taken her out more than a few times. We went to high school together and Amy and I know most of the same people so whenever I need a date, I ask her. Last time I saw her was almost nine months ago when I took her to River and Dahlia’s wedding.

Heading back to the table I hear Jane yell out to the crowd, “Are you ready for three of the hottest guys in music?” The audience starts screaming and the stage lights dim cuing the guys that it’s the fifteen-minute countdown until they take the stage. The band huddles together in their typical pre-performance stance. I’ll have a quick drink with Amy and then join them. As I hand her the bottle my fingers touch hers and we both grin, knowing that we will end up alone by the end of the night.

“You sticking around for the whole show?”

“I think I might,” she smiles.

“How about we ride back to the hotel together and grab a real drink at the bar?”

“Sounds like a plan.”

“Great. Time for me to get back to work.”

She rises from the table, I do the same. She stands up on her toes and kisses me quickly on the lips. “See you tonight,” she smiles.

“Catch you later,” I say and then cross the room to join the band.

“You’re late,” Nix snickers. “What’s with you two anyway?” he asks.

I shrug my shoulders. “Nothing. We casually see each other once in a while.”

Garrett raises an eyebrow. “Chicks are never cool with casual.”

Shaking my head at him, I don’t bother to disagree. Amy and I have been doing this for years. It works for her and for me. We like each other’s company but only see each other sporadically. I’ll call her once in a while and we’ll go out but we are in no way exclusive. I don’t ask her about other men and she doesn’t ask me about other women. I grab the bottle and pour the amber liquid into the shot glasses stacked on the cap. It’s our pre-show routine. A shot and a prayer, so to say. It’s Garrett’s turn tonight to ‘pray’ so this should be good.

He raises his glass. “Here’s to hoping Xander gets laid so he’ll get off our backs.”

Tipping my glass back, I quickly down the amber liquid. It burns as it makes its way down my throat. Once we’ve all drank our two shot maximum before a show Garrett follows his toast up with, “Seriously man, you need to get laid.”

The guys laugh and I actually join in. Jerking off in the small bathroom on the bus is definitely one of the downsides of touring. I’ve slept with a few girls at some of our stops but screwing groupies isn’t really my thing. I’m not one to have time for a girlfriend but I’m also not about to pull my dick out backstage, so it’s been a long six months.

Zane coughs after he slings back the shot and I look at him with concern. “You’re going to a doctor tomorrow.”

He shakes his head. “Yes, Mom, if you say so.”

“I’m not kidding. Your voice sounds like shit.”

“It’s a fucking cold. I took some medicine. I’ll be fine.”

“Doctor. Tomorrow. I mean it. I’ll have Ena set it up.”

“I can always sing,” Garrett chimes in and I smack the back of his head.

“Hey. I can.”

The lights start to flicker and I look at Zane with that feeling of uneasiness again. Second time this tour he’s coughing and hacking. We’re screwed if he really gets sick. He nods at me as I pat him on the back. Slinging his guitar over his shoulder, he heads out first raising his arm in the air. The crowd goes crazy. The six foot guy is a chick magnet and no one misses my brother tonight. Garrett heads out next yelling, “Great to be here Mountain View!” and Nix follows with his trademark nod. Zane skips his normal charming banter and I know he must be saving his voice. Again, I think about how we’re fucked if he gets sick.

I stand at the edge of the stage all night until they finally come to their last song. “It Wasn’t Days Ago,” is a simple but crowd affecting ballad and Zane belts it out. Shouts from nearly thirty thousand fans call for an encore. Turning away from the microphone Zane coughs again. Biting his thumbnail he looks over at me and I slice my finger across my neck.

“One more song for tonight,” he tells the screaming fans and my blood pressure rises. “This one is a cover, an ‘ode to’ I’ll call it. It’s for Xander Wilde, the band’s manager and it’s his favorite song. Everyone ready?” As he starts to sing Linkin Park’s “Iridescent,” I close my eyes and listen. When he hits the chorus his voice gets so low my eyes snap open. Zane turns to grab a bottle of water while the guys continue to play but I can tell something isn’t right.

 

***

 

Last night definitely didn’t go as planned—a visit to the ER, then sleeping in a chair next to Zane all night on the bus because the steroids he was given freaked him out. It’s noon and Amy and I are just arriving at the Pelican Hill Resort. Breathless was leaving right after the show last night so Amy had already planned to ride with us and meet up with them in Irvine. She invited me to some party being thrown by her band’s label that I would have rather not gone to but Ellie, the tour manager, insisted we all go for the good PR.

I’m exhausted and really need some sleep before dealing with the press and tomorrow night’s show. The paparazzi have been everywhere—by the bus as we exited to the waiting car in LA, outside the doctor’s office, at the gates of Zane’s father’s house, and now they’re here in Irvine at the hotel.

To avoid the chaos awaiting us in the lobby, I call Ellie, who is already here, and ask her to check me in and meet me at the pool bar with the key. Draping my arm around Amy, we head that way. I’ve been here a few times so I know my way around. Cutting through the grotto and over to the pool and cabanas, I steer Amy to the right and stop in my tracks as all the air rushes from my lungs.

My body floods with adrenaline and my gut twists. I don’t even have to do a double take because I’d know her anywhere. There’s no mistaking her. She’s just so beautiful—the elegant planes of her face, those high cheekbones, red lipstick, her platinum blonde hair shorter than it used to be tucked behind her ear, that face of an angel. She looks the same. No, she looks better. Her skin glistens in the sun and my gaze automatically follows the shape of her long legs. They look smooth and tan against her white bathing suit. An ache forms in my chest as I think about running my fingers up them. She’s still that eighteen-year-old girl I once knew but now she has the body of a woman—lean and toned and full of curves. When she moves it’s so familiar it doesn’t seem like a day has passed—and everything I ever felt for her, it’s all still inside me.

My pulse races at the mere sight of her. She’s lounging in the cushioned chair reading a magazine just outside a cabana. My heart slams harder in my chest when she sticks her earphones in her ears like she always used to do and it transports me back to the last time I saw her do the very same thing. We’d skipped school and were at my grandparents’ house—their pool. She was lying on the lounge chair listening to music and singing along—her voice so full of soul. I’d moved to sit with her under the guise of putting lotion of her back. She sat up and smiled that shy smile she didn’t need to have when she was with me. I squeezed the tube into my hand and after rubbing them together I slowly applied it to her back kneading my way up and down, touching every inch of her that I could.

It brings me back to the here and now when she suddenly sits up and looks over at me. Her eyes pin me in place. She looks at me as if she remembers me for who I was, what we were, not what I did to her. With my chest pounding, memories of us keep flashing through my mind. Fighting a smile, I wonder if she’s thinking the same thing—remembering what we were, what we shared, how we loved.

She quickly breaks our connection when she averts her eyes over to the man handing her a drink. I suck in a deep breath trying not to feel sick at the sight. He’s nearing fifty, wearing a terrycloth robe. He’s about my height, dark brown hair, meticulously groomed facial hair, and not exactly ripped but fit. He’s Damon Wolf, a man I’ve never actually met but hate all the same. I’ve seen their picture on TV and in magazines. He’s her agent, her fiancé, and I’m sure he’s the reason she’s not singing anymore.

She looks up at him with that same forced smile she used to give people she just wanted to appease and mouths “thank you.” I have a sudden urge to go over and deck him when her gaze shifts back to mine and he pulls her chin back to look at him. I can sense a discomfort between them. We could sense each other’s feelings even when we weren’t near each other.

Amy’s hand slides down my face and I have to blink a few times before I can hear what she’s saying. Glancing one last time at Ivy I see that she’s staring at me again. Then suddenly her mouth forms a scowl and she flicks her attention toward him. Hooking her arm around his neck, she pulls him down for a kiss and I think I might throw up.

“Are you okay?”

I nod. Not able to say a word.

“Isn’t that Ivy Taylor over there? The girl you used to date in high school?” Amy asks. There’s an irritated tone to her voice I’m not used to hearing and it makes me agitated.

“Yeah, it is,” is all I say. She’s not just a girl I used to date…she’s the only girl I ever really loved. She’s also the girl whose heart I broke. Seeing her now brings back all those feelings I blocked, ignored, tucked aside. So many times over the years I wanted to go after her and tell her the truth—but I never did. Why I don’t know. Then one day it was too late—she had gotten engaged.

Amy chatters on. “I think that’s Damon Wolf with her. We should go say hi.”

My body goes cold and my face blank at the thought. I straighten and just as I’m about to say, “No fucking way,” my phone vibrates in my pocket. Squinting at the screen, I see that it’s my brother. I look over to Amy and motion toward the bar. “Hey, this is River. I need to take it. I’ll meet you over there in a minute.”

“That’s fine. We can catch up with them later. I’ll go order us a drink.” She smiles and starts toward the bar.

Turning around to avoid staring at Ivy, I answer the phone. “It took you long enough to call me back.”

“I was in a meeting and stepped out as soon as I could, so don’t start. What did the doctor say about Zane?”

“He’s out for the rest of the tour and we’re fucked.”

“You sure? You’re back in LA for almost two weeks after tomorrow night right? Isn’t that enough time for him to heal?”

“Technically yes. But his old man wants him out. The doctor said that he couldn’t be sure how long the blood that accumulated under his vocal cords had been there but obviously last night, the amount of ruptured vessels was enough to cause his voice to change. He advised at least two weeks of rest before another evaluation to see if surgery is necessary. Zeak wants his son to take a longer period of time off. He’s just afraid that if Zane keeps singing and it keeps happening, scar tissue will build up and cause his voice to change forever.”

“Do you blame him?”

“No I don’t,” I tell River and I feel like shit that I have to put him in a position to do what he didn’t want to do in the first place. But I also know that if I don’t, the band won’t survive. If I have to cancel this tour—the Wilde Ones are done. So I ask, “Did you talk to Dahlia?”

He sighs. “Yeah, I did. She’s cool with it, Xander. I’m just trying to figure it all out.”

“You know I’ll do whatever you need me to do, right?”

“Shit why can’t you just be an ass and make it easy for me to say no?”

“Because you have no idea what this means to me.”

“Actually I do, and that’s why I’m going to make it happen. But Xander, remember I can’t play a twelve string.”

Laughter and relief take hold of me. I feel a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. “Right now I wouldn’t care if you only played the violin,” I joke.

He laughs and I add, “You’ll be here tonight?”

Now he sounds slightly annoyed. “I said I would. We might be a little late so don’t get your panties in a wad.”

“That’s cool. Thanks for everything. Hey, one more thing.’

“What?”

“Ivy Taylor’s here.”

“No way. Have you talked to her?”

“Fuck no. You know she won’t talk to me. And besides she’s with that asshole.”

“You should talk to her. Tell her the truth.”

“What’s that going to do now? She’ll just think I’m lying.”

“You want me to talk to her? I can explain everything.”

“No. I don’t need my little brother to fight my battles. I’ll talk to her if I feel the time is right. Do you hear me?”

“Whatever you say. Look, I have to run but I want to discuss this later. And Xander…you don’t know he’s an asshole. Just because Dad said his name once doesn’t mean shit.”

“Right. Okay, see you tonight,” I say and end the call. My head is spinning knowing that after all these years I’m actually in the same place she is. I want to talk to her, tell her everything but what would it matter now anyway. Glancing behind me, I catch another glimpse of her with him that turns my stomach. He’s such a slime ball. Since his father was hospitalized and he took over the business, he’s been scooping up labels, tearing them apart, and rebuilding them with bands he thinks are better fits. My guess is he picked up Jane’s label—that’s why he’s here. I heard they were having some financial difficulty and he’s just the kind of bottom feeder that would want to capitalize on not only being her agent but now also her producer. The sight of him touching Ivy makes my skin crawl.

Damon Wolf—two of the last words my father ever spoke to me before killing himself, and I never knew why. Of all the guys in the world Ivy had to end up with him—why him? I look up and they’re gone. But I’m anything but relieved. Rubbing my chin, I’m antsy, agitated, pissed as hell, but feel more alive than I have in years.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Kim Karr

Kim Karr is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of romance, including her sexy New Adult romance series, Connections.  She describes herself as wearing a lot of hats–writer, book-lover, wife, soccer-mom, taxi driver, and the all-around go-to person of the family.  However, she always finds the time to read.  She believes in soul mates, kindred spirits, true friends and Happily-Ever-Afters, and loves to drink champagne, listen to music, and hopes to always stay young at heart.  Kim lives in Florida with her husband and four kids.

Also here are links to Kim’s other books in Connections series…
AMAZON LINKS:
Connected – http://amzn.to/1fDaywN
Torn – http://amzn.to/18r6puZ
Dazed – http://amzn.to/1hwLS9g
Mended – http://amzn.to/1ap7Jwn
Blurred – http://amzn.to/1mCHwQ1
Frayed – http://amzn.to/1cnBwof

BEFORE YOU by Amber Hart Cover Reveal!!!

Before You revised

Synopsis:

 

Some say love is deadly. Some say love is beautiful. I say it is both. Faith Watters spent her junior year traveling the world, studying in exquisite places, before returning to Oviedo High School. From the outside her life is picture-perfect. Captain of the dance team. Popular. Happy. Too bad it’s all a lie.
It will haunt me. It will claim me. It will shatter me. And I don’t care.
Eighteen-year-old Diego Alvarez hates his new life in the States, but staying in Cuba is not an option. Covered in tattoos and scars, Diego doesn’t stand a chance of fitting in. Nor does he want to. His only concern is staying hidden from his past—a past, which if it were to surface, would cost him everything. Including his life.
At Oviedo High School, it seems that Faith Watters and Diego Alvarez do not belong together. But fate is as tricky as it is lovely. Freedom with no restraint is what they long for. What they get is something different entirely.
Love—it will ruin you and save you, both.    

 

What other authors had to say:

 

“Beautiful and evocative!” ~New York Times Bestselling author Sophie Jordan

“Fresh and unique…will hook and hold you.” ~Bestselling author K.A. Tucker

 

EXCERPT

1

Faith

My closet is a place of secrets.

This is where I change into Her, the girl everybody knows as me. Searching through hanger after hanger of neatly pressed clothes, I find the outfit I’m looking for. A black knee-length pleated skirt, a loose-fitting white top, and two-inch wedge shoes. Looking good at school is a must. Not that I do it for me. It’s more for my dad’s reputation. I have to play the part.

I am stuffed into a borrowed frame. One that fits too tightly. One that couldn’t possibly capture the real me.

“Faith,” my stepmom calls. “Are you joining us for breakfast?”

There is no time. “No,” I reply, my voice carrying downstairs.

I quickly dress for school, catching my reflection in the closet door mirror. Waking sun shines off my hair, highlighting a few strands brighter than the rest. Everybody has a favorite body part. Mine is my hair, which is the fiery-brown of autumn leaves. My best friend, Melissa, swears my eyes are my best asset.  Ivy-green, deep-set, haunting. Like they go on forever.

Speaking of Melissa, her horn blares outside. Beep, beep, pause, beep. That’s our code. I race downstairs, passing my dad, stepmom, and little sister on the way out.

“Wait,” Dad says.

I sigh. “Yes, Dad?”

He glances at my outfit, pausing at my shoes. If it were up to Dad, I would wear turtleneck shirts and dress pants with lace-up boots forever. The perfect ensemble, it seems. As it is, I dress conservatively to protect his image. I’m eighteen. You’d think he’d stop cringing every time he saw me in anything that showed the least bit of skin.

“Hug,” he says, waving me over.

I hug him. Place a kiss on my five-year-old sister’s jelly-covered cheek. Then, grab a napkin to wipe the sticky jelly from my lips.

“Bye, Gracie,” I say to her. “See you after school.”

She waves a small hand at me and smiles.

“Take this.” Susan, my stepmom, hands me a bagel even though I already declined breakfast. It’s poppy seed. I’m allergic to poppy seed.

As usual, I don’t put up a fight. My frame feels especially uncomfortable at the moment. It’s always the same thing. I learned early on that it’s easier to go with the flow than to be different. Different is bad. Standing out attracts attention, something I try to avoid at all costs. Unfortunately, being the dance captain makes that more difficult.

“Have to go,” I say, shoving the bagel in my bag.

The screen door swings shut behind me.

Melissa waits in my driveway. We live in a modest, yellow-paneled house in Oviedo, Florida. The majority of the people here are middle class. We fit in well.

“What’s up?” Melissa smiles. “Took you long enough.”

“Yeah, well, you try waking up late and still looking as good as I do,” I joke.

Melissa whips her blond hair into a ponytail and puts her red Camaro in reverse, careful not to hit my Jeep on the way out. I have my own car, but since Melissa lives three doors down, we have a deal where we alternate driving to school. She takes the first month; I take the second, and so on. Saves gas.

“You look smokin’,” Melissa says, lighting a cigarette.

I roll my eyes.

“Liar.”

She’s always hated the way I dress.

Melissa laughs. “Okay, true, the clothes need to go. But your hair and makeup are flawless. And no matter what you wear, you still look beautiful.”

“Thanks, you too,” I say, eyeing her tight jeans and sequined top. Melissa is effortlessly beautiful with her sun-freckled face and athletic build.

“Prediction,” Melissa begins. This is something we have done since ninth grade: predict three things that will happen during the year. “Tracy Ram will try to overthrow you as dance captain, once again, but you’ll keep your spot, of course, ’cause you rock. You’ll quit dressing like an eighty-year-old and finally wear what you want to wear instead of what society dictates is appropriate for a pastor’s daughter. And you’ll come to your senses and dump Jason Magg for a hot new boy.”

Melissa always predicts that I’ll dump Jason, has done since Jason and I began dating freshman year. It’s not that she doesn’t like him. It’s just that she thinks my life is too bland, like the taste of celery. What’s the point, she figures.

“First of all, I do not dress like the elderly,” I say. “And second, I don’t know what you have against Jason. He treats me nicely. It’s not like he’s a jerk.”

“It’s not like he’s exciting, either,” Melissa says.

She’s right. What I have with Jason is comfortable, nice even, but excitement left a long time ago.

“Prediction,” I say, turning to Melissa. “You will not be able to quit bugging me about dumping Jason, even though last year you swore you would. Despite your doubts, you will pass senior calculus. And you’re going to win homecoming.”

Melissa shakes her head. “No way. Homecoming is all you, girl.”

I groan. “But I don’t want to win.”

Melissa laughs. “Tracy Ram would have a heart attack if she ever heard you say that.”

“Great,” I say. “Let her win homecoming.”

We grin. Melissa and I have been friends since kindergarten. Memories come to me suddenly. I’m in elementary school, and it’s sleepover night at Melissa’s. In my overnight bag, I carry a small stuffed bunny, my steadfast companion since forever. People would laugh if they knew, me carrying around a stuffed baby toy, but Melissa never tells. Fast forward to middle school. The braces on Melissa’s teeth are still so new that the silver catches the light from the fluorescent fixtures when she smiles. The headgear is huge, cumbersome, and no one lets her forget it. But I relentlessly defend my friend. She’s so beautiful, can’t they see? Sometimes I leave flowers stolen from a neighbor’s rose bush at her locker when no one is looking. That way people will know that she is loved. High school. Melissa and me, same as always.

“What do you want to bet?” Melissa asks.

Whoever gets the most predictions right wins.

“Hmm,” I say. “If I win, you have to quit smoking.”

Melissa almost chokes. “Pulling out the big guns, are we? Okay, then. If I win, you have to break up with Jason.”

“Deal,” I say, knowing that she won’t win. She never does.

Melissa purses her lips and gives me the stink eye. She knows I have a better chance.

“Faith, I will find a way to break you out of your mold,” she says.

I laugh, partially because of the determination in my friend’s eyes, but mostly because of the absurdity of her statement. Everybody knows that girls like me never break free.

2

Diego

 

 

“Diego, vamonos.”

I can’t help the frustrated sigh that escapes my lips, hurled at mi padre, my dad, like a gust of wind that threatens to flatten our house of cards. It’s my fault. I should have built something stronger with the cards I was dealt. But I didn’t. I didn’t know how.

“Go away,” I say. “Vete.”

I’m not planning to attend school today.

In fact, I didn’t plan to be in the States at all.

Vamonos. Let’s go,” mi padre repeats in his heavily accented voice, yanking me off of the couch. “You will not miss senior year.”

He has this new thing where we have to speak English as much as possible now that we live in the States. I almost wish I weren’t fluent. Several trips to Florida, and I am.

With a grimace, I pass him, reluctantly moving toward my room. It feels like my feet are sinking, like I’m walking over sticky sand instead of thick, dirty carpet.

How did I get stuck in this place?

I open my dresser drawer and pull out faded jeans, a white T-shirt, and my Smith & Wesson.

“No,” mi padre says, grabbing the gun.

I take a step toward him, challenging. He does not back down.

“This is why we left,” he says.

Hypocrite. Under his bed is a similar gun, waiting. Just in case. But he’s also the one who taught me how to fight. I’m bigger than he is, but he has more experience. And the scars to prove it.

Not that I haven’t been in countless fights myself.

“Fine,” I say through clenched teeth, and turn toward the bathroom.

The hot water heater goes out after five minutes. The tiny two-bedroom apartment—this hole we now call home—is the only thing mi padre could afford. It’s not much, but it’s inexpensive. That’s all that matters. The plain white walls remind me of an asylum. Feels like I’m going crazy already.

Our jobs keep us afloat. They’re our life vests, our only chance of survival in a sea of ravenous sharks. Mi padre found a job with a lawn crew a couple weeks ago. Not many people would hire him with his scarred face and tattooed body. A restaurant offered me work part-time. Two shifts as a cook, one as a busboy. They promised a free meal every night that I worked. Couldn’t pass that up.

“Don’t be late for school or work,” mi padre says as I step out of the house.

School’s only ten minutes away. I walk, staring at the graffiti-covered sidewalk that stretches in front of me like a ribbed canvas. Latinos roam the block. It didn’t take moving to the States for me to know that’s how it is. The gringos, white people, live in nice houses and drive cars to school while the rest of the world waits for a piece of their leftovers. I’m trying not to think about how screwed up it all is when a Latina walks up to me.

Hola,” she says. “¿Hablas inglés?

“Yeah, I speak English,” I answer, though I’m not sure why she asks since both of us speak Spanish.

“I’m Lola.” She smiles, sexy brown eyes big and wide. She reminds me of a girl I knew back home. Just the thought, the image of home, makes my guts clench.

“What’s your name?” she purrs.

“Lola,” a Latino calls from across the street. She ignores him. He calls again. When she doesn’t come, he approaches us.

One look tells me he’s angry. He has a cocky stance and a shaved head.

“Am I interrupting something?” he snaps.

What’s this guy’s problem?

“Yep,” Lola says, turning her back on him. “My ex,” she explains, brushing a strand of curly hair out of her face.

Perfecto. Just what I need. I didn’t even do anything. Not that I’m going to explain.

“She’s mine,” the guy says, staring me down. “¿Entiendes, amigo?”

“I’m not your friend,” I say, gritting my teeth. “And you do not want to mess with me.”

Lola is smiling. I wonder if she enjoys the attention. Probably. I’ve met too many girls like her. She fits the type.

“You don’t know who you’re messing with,” he says, stepping closer.

A few guys come out of nowhere, closing in on me. Blue and white bandanas hang from their pockets like a bad-luck charm. I know what the colors signify. Mara Salvatrucha 13 Gang, or MS-13.

I turn to Lola. Watch her smile.

This is all part of the game. What I can’t figure out is if the guy really is her ex and she doesn’t care that she could be getting me killed, or if he sent her to see how tough I am, to help decide whether he wants to recruit me.

I turn to walk away, but someone blocks my path.

“Going somewhere?” another gang-banger asks.

This whole time I’ve wondered if I’d end up fighting at school. I hadn’t thought about the fact that I may never make it in the first place. I silently curse mi padre for hiding my gun. He wouldn’t get rid of it completely, though.

“What do you want?” I ask.

The original guy laughs, looks me up and down. The number 67 is tattooed behind his right ear in bold black numbers. It only takes me a second to figure out the meaning. Six plus seven equals thirteen.

“What are those markings?” he asks, eyeing my tattoos.

“Nothing,” I lie.

If they wanted to fight me, they would’ve done it already. This is a recruit.

“Where you from?” he asks.

I don’t answer. Members of MS-13 stretch around the globe like fingers. They can easily check my past. I’m not gonna give them a head start.

“Swallow your tongue?” one of the guys asks.

I’m trying to figure out if I can win a fight against the five guys who surround me. I look for weak spots, scars, old injuries. I look for bulges that might be weapons. I’m a good fighter. I think I can take them. But at the same time, fighting will guarantee me a follow-up visit from MS-13.

Just then, someone speaks behind us. “Is there a problem?” a police officer asks from the safety of his car.

Everyone backs away from me.

“Nope,” one of the gangbangers answers. “We were just leaving.”

“See you around,” 67 says, throwing an arm around Lola.

I turn my back and walk the last block to school. The police officer trails slowly behind, like a hungry dog sniffing for scraps. He leaves as I enter the double doors.

I think about what my dad said. Moving here will give you a brighter future.

His words sit heavily on my mind, like humidity on every pore of my skin. His intentions are good, but he’s wrong. So far, moving here has done nothing but remind me of my past.

3

Faith

“Hi, I’m Faith Watters.”

Those are the first words I speak to the new Cuban guy in the front office. He grimaces. He’ll be a tough one. I can handle it, though. He’s not the first.

I can’t help but notice that he looks a lot like a model from the neck up—eyes the color of oak, strong bone structure. Everywhere else, he looks a lot like a criminal. Chiseled, scarred body … I wonder for a second about the meaning behind the tattoos scratched into his arms.

One thing’s clear. He’s dangerous.

And he’s beautiful.

“I’ll show you to your classes,” I announce.

I’m one of the peer helpers at our school. It’s not my favorite thing to do, but it counts as a class. Basically I spend the first two days with new students, introducing them around and answering their questions. Some parents with kids new to the school voluntarily sign their students up, but it’s only mandatory for the international students, of which we have a lot. Mostly Latinos.

This Cuban guy towers over me. I’m five six. Not tall. Not short. Just average. Average is good.

This guy’s not average. Not even a little bit. He must be over six feet.

I glance up at him, kind of like I do when I’m searching for the moon in a sea of darkness.

“Looks like you have math first. I’ll walk you there,” I offer.

“No thanks, chica. I can handle it.”

“It’s no problem,” I say, leading the way.

He tries to snatch his schedule from my hands, but I move too fast.

“Why don’t we start with your name?” I suggest.

I already know his name. Plus some. Diego Alvarez. Eighteen years old. Moved from Cuba two weeks ago. Only child. No previous school records. I read it in his bio. I want to hear him say it.

“You got some kinda control issues or somethin’?” he asks harshly, voice slightly accented.

“You got some kind of social issues or somethin’?” I fire back, holding my stance. I won’t let him intimidate me, though I’ll admit, he’s hot. Too bad he has a nasty attitude.

The side of his lip twitches. “No. I just don’t mix with your type,” he answers.

“My type?”

“That’s what I said.”

“You don’t even know my type.” No one does. Well, except Melissa.

He chuckles humorlessly. “Sure I do. Head cheerleader? Date the football player? Daddy’s little girl who gets everything she wants?” He leans closer to whisper. “Probably a virgin.”

My cheeks burn hot. “I’m not a cheerleader,” I say through clamped teeth.

“Whatever,” he says. “Are you gonna give me my schedule or not?”

“Not,” I answer. “But you can feel free to follow me to your first class.”

He steps in front of me, intimately close. “Listen, chica, nobody tells me what to do.”

I shrug. “Fine, suit yourself. It’s your life. But if you want to attend this school, it’s mandatory for me to show you to your classes for two days.”

His eyes narrow. “Who says I want to attend this school?”

I take the last step toward him, closing the gap between us. When we were little, Melissa and I used to collect glass bottles. Whenever we accumulated twenty, we’d break them on the concrete. When the glass shattered, the slivered pieces made a breathtaking prism of light.

I cut myself on the glass by accident once. It was painful, but worth it. The beauty was worth it. It’s funny how the bottle was never as beautiful as when it was broken.

You will not shatter me, I silently tell Diego. Somebody already did.

“If you don’t want to be here, then don’t come back,” I say.

A taunting smile spreads across his face. My first thought is that he has nice teeth, but then I scold myself for thinking about him like that.

“My name is Diego,” he says, like he’s letting me in on some kind of secret.

“Well, Diego,” I say, “better hurry. Class starts in two minutes.” I step around him to lead the way.

While we walk to math, I feel Diego’s eyes on me. I don’t know what it is about him. All the other confident students had nothing on me, and I swear I’ve heard it all, but he seems different. He shines. In a dark way. When he looks at me, I get a tingly sensation, like I’m being zapped by electricity.

It doesn’t matter. He’s rude. And besides, I have a wonderful boyfriend. Jason. Think about Jason.

“Quit staring at me,” I say, glancing at him.

He laughs, and strands of black hair fall into his eyes. I imagine it’s a little like looking at the world through charred silk.

“Why? Does it make you uncomfortable?”

He’s messing with me to get under my skin, like a pesky little splinter.

It’s working.

“Yes,” I answer.

In his white shirt, Diego’s skin is dark. Perpetually tanned by heritage.

I keep Diego’s schedule out of his reach. He inches closer, no doubt to grab it and run. I try to concentrate on the newly painted beige walls and tiled floors. Every few feet hangs a plaque about achievement or school clubs or tutoring programs.

When we come to the door, Diego rests an arm on the wall and leans toward me.

“I have a proposition for you,” he says in a sultry voice.

It’s hard to seem unaffected.

“I don’t do propositions,” I say dismissively.

He grins, his mouth arching up like the curl of a wave.

“But you haven’t even heard me out,” he says.

“Don’t need to.”

He ignores my comment. “What do you say we forget about this thing where I follow you around like a little dog? And when the guidance counselor asks, I will say you were superlative.”

“Big word,” I mumble. This guy did not do well on his entry exams, but he says things like superlative? What’s with that?

He glares at me; I sigh.

“You know, it wouldn’t kill you to drop the tough-guy act for two days. You’ll be rid of me soon.”

I turn to leave but Diego grabs my arm gently. My breath catches.

“It’s not an act,” he says, jaw hard.

I wave him away nonchalantly, like his touch didn’t just do all kinds of crazy things to my body—things that make me want to forget about the warning blaring in my mind.

I need to stay away from him.

I need to forget him.

Will you touch me again please?

I walk away. He watches me go.

“By the way,” I say as I flick a look over my shoulder at his hardened face, “I see right through you.”

4

Diego

She sees right through me? What does that mean? I wonder for the twentieth time as I enter the cafeteria. I managed to avoid my peer helper after my first few classes, rushing out before she could meet me. Did she really think I couldn’t get another class schedule? Maybe next time she won’t underestimate me.

A sweet smell hits my nostrils as I pass the fruit section. It smells like my peer helper, and I’m reminded of my disgust for her. She thinks she knows me, but she knows nothing. She’s a snob, trying to prove something. They’re all the same.

Girls like her don’t know what it’s like to struggle, really struggle.

She’s probably never gone so hungry her stomach knots. Never roamed the streets wondering if she’ll have a safe place to sleep. With a face and body like hers, she’s probably never had to work for anything in her life. The people she represents, the life she lives, it’s all fake.

Javier, my cousin, warned me about her. She’s one of the Big Five, the ones who think they rule this school. Even with her perfect boyfriend and flawless life, she isn’t fooling me.

I hear Javier before I see him. “Diego, aquí.”

Through the crowd, I spot my cousin sitting with a group of Latinos. With his six-foot, two-hundred-pound frame, he’s hard to miss. I approach him. One of his friends mumbles something in Spanish about how tall I am.

“Hey, what can I say? They make ’em big in mi familia,” Javier says, laughing.

Truth backhands me. I realize now that I never actually thought I would see Javier again. After … after … no. I shove the thoughts away. Not here.

Not here.

“What’s up, ’cuz?” Javier says.

Nada.” I force a smile, though my relief is real. It’s good to see family.

¡Siéntate!” Javier says.

I sit. Sitting is usually an indulgence for those who can afford to relax. I pretend for a moment that I’m one of them. My cousin takes a minute to introduce his friends.

“Diego, this is Ramon, Esteban, Juan, Rodolfo, and Luis.”

Ramon and Esteban, with their slight overbites and similar features, must be brothers. Juan has a large head for his small frame; he’s covered in tattoos. Rodolfo has a smile full of white teeth and a dimple on the left side of his cheek. What happened to the other dimple? It’s as though God had an asymmetrical look in mind when He created him. Next to my cousin, Luis is the biggest. He has lots of freckles, splattered on his face like paint, seeping into his skin.

“Welcome to los Estados Unidos,” Juan says, biting into his burger.

“Gracias,” I reply.

My stomach growls, an animal hungry to live. Javier notices.

“Come with me.” He motions for me to follow him through the crowd.

As we walk to the lunch line, I spot my peer helper at a table, surrounded by her friends. There’s one of her kind at every school. The girl everyone hates to love and loves to hate. She’s probably been stabbed in the back countless times. Not that she would know, since everyone acts fake to her face. Her friends remind me of worker bees, buzzing for the queen’s attention. I wonder if she knows that the workers eventually kill the queen.

“When you get to the front, show them your student ID,” Javier says.

The guidance counselor already explained that I get one free lunch a day because of our low income. As we pass the food selections, I cannot believe the prices.

“Are they for real?” I ask. “Six dollars for chicken and fries?”

I have an image of Faith Watters taking out her designer wallet and easily paying for one of the pretentious lunches.

“Yep. Gringos,” Javier says, eyes hardening. He remembers what it was like in Cuba, the struggle.

Just by looking at the lunchroom crowd, it’s clear who the haves and have-nots are. Surprisingly, though, there are more Latinos than I expected.

I grab a burger and make my way to the register. As I pull out my ID, football players in letterman jackets glance my way. Part of me wishes I had it easy like them: popular, at ease, able to pay for things.

I shouldn’t want to be like them.

I don’t want to be like them.

Yes, I do.

Some days.

The bigger part of me knows that a life like that will never happen for someone like me. It’s just the way things are.

I grab a water bottle and head back to the table with Javier. Do people here know that most of the world doesn’t get water from a bottle, but from a stream or river or muddy ground?

“So, you fittin’ in well?” Javier asks.

“Yep.” For the most part. No one has singled me out for being new.

“Latinos blend around here. One of the good things about Florida,” he says.

We pass a beautiful girl on the way back to our seat. I take a moment to look. She smiles.

“That’s Isabella,” Javier explains. “Sexy, but taken.”

“Too bad,” I say.

I’m not looking for a girlfriend, but it would be nice to have a little fun. I’m almost at the table when someone steps in front of me.

“What’s your problem?” my peer helper asks, one of her friends in tow.

Momentarily shocked by her boldness, I quickly regain my hard stance. Just like earlier, she doesn’t seem fazed by me. She’s either tougher than I thought, or she puts on a great front.

“I don’t know what you mean,” I reply. I try to feign confusion, but a smile creeps through.

“Oh, you think this is funny?” she asks, hands on her hips. For a second, she looks kind of beautiful, eyes hard and old. Wisps of hair fall out of her ponytail and around her face like angel feathers.

“A little.” I grin.

She huffs. “You weren’t there to meet me after your classes this morning. If I report you, you could lose your chance to attend this school.”

Is she threatening me? “Like I said, I already have a mamá. I don’t answer to you.”

I hand my tray to Javier. He sets it on the table so I can deal with her.

“You’re being difficult,” she says.

“So are you.”

What is your weakness? is what I want to ask.

She doesn’t back down. “I’ll be there before the end of your next class. Don’t even think about ditching me again.”

I have to, don’t you see?

“I’m serious,” she says.

This girl is asking for it. I glance at her blond friend, who’s eyeing Javier, not paying us any attention. I wish my peer helper was as easily distracted.

Being tough does not scare Faith Watters. Time to change tactics. I relax and flash a grin.

Mami, why don’t I help you loosen up a little?”

She blinks, but doesn’t show any outward evidence that my words have affected her. I move close, very close. When I look down at her, she doesn’t look away.

Her eyes remind me of stained glass, bright and cutting.

“We could have a good time, you and me,” I say, mischief punctuating my voice.

“I don’t think so,” she says coldly.

I will not let her upstage me. I give her a long, slow onceover. She dresses older than she is, like she doesn’t belong in high school. I wonder what makes her so uptight.

What are you hiding, chica?

I usually don’t have to try with girls. It’s one of the very few advantages life has thrown my way.

“Oh, come on. You might like Latino if you tried it,” I say, voice low. The guys behind me laugh, egging me on.

“When you’re done with him, I’m available, mamacita,” Juan says. “I don’t mind leftovers.”

She sneers. Good. That’s progress.

“Let me take you out,” I say.

I’m not really going to take her anywhere. I just want to make a crack in her icy shield.

Why do you have a shield, anyway?

“Why?” she asks suspiciously.

Because I know it annoys you when someone else has control. “Because it would be fun,” I say, bending close to her face. “And I can promise you one thing.”

She looks cautious.

It’s a look I know well.

“What?” she asks.

That one night with me will relax you.

Girls like her love bad boys, whether they admit it or not. I imagine it’s similar to visiting a haunted mansion. Exciting, at first. One foot slips through the door, then the next. Heart hammers. Blood races. It’s a rush. A fix. Never knowing what’s around the next corner, through the closed door, beyond the shadows. Trying to find a way out. Not really wanting to leave. Wondering how close a person can come to danger before something bad happens. Looking for the moonlight at the end of the tunnel, an exit.

Sometimes there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

I can show her excitement like she’ll never experience with that boyfriend of hers.

But I don’t say any of those things. Instead I let my lips brush her ear lobe as I answer.

“That you will leave satisfied.”

 ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Amber Hart grew up in Orlando, Florida and Atlanta, Georgia. She now resides on the Florida coastline with family and animals including, but not limited to, bulldogs, a cat, and dragons. When unable to find a book, she can be found writing, daydreaming, or with her toes in the sand. She’s the author of BEFORE YOU, AFTER US, ECHOES, and ECHOES’ sequel (untitled as of yet). Rep’d by Beth Miller of Writers House. 

 

Links:

Website: www.amberhartbooks.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/AuthorAmberHart

Twitter: www.twitter.com/AmberHartBooks

Pinterest: www.pinterest.com/AmbersShelf

Goodreads: www.goodreads.com/AmberHart 

Amazon: www.amazon.com/author/AmberHart

GIVEAWAY

Two copies of Before You

  a Rafflecopter giveaway

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MENDED by Kim Karr Cover Reveal!!!

Mended

Title: Mended (Connections #3)
Release date: June 3, 2014
MENDED SYNOPSIS:

MUSIC HAS THE POWER TO HEAL ALL…BUT NOT ALL BROKEN HEARTS CAN BE MENDED.

Always in control, Xander Wilde considered life on the road to be a perfect fit for him. But when disaster strikes on the Wilde Ones’ latest tour, fate intervenes…and a newly single Ivy Taylor, the only girl he has ever loved, steps back into his life.

After moving past her painful breakup with Xander years ago, Ivy was poised to become the next big name in pop music…when suddenly she withdrew from the limelight—the same day she announced her engagement to her controlling agent, Damon Wolf.

Xander knows he should keep his distance. But once they’re on the road, he can’t resist pursuing her for a second chance. Yet a jealous Damon can’t let her go—and he’s keeping dangerous secrets that could destroy them all.  

When the three of them come together, everything falls apart. But if Xander and Ivy can hold tight to the bond that connects them, they just might have a chance at reclaiming the powerful love they thought they had lost forever….

PRE-ORDER LINKS

MENDED BOOK TRAILER – 

EXCERPT

Excerpt from Mended

Connections #3 by Kim Karr

© 2013 by Kim Karr

Published by the Penguin Group

Release date: June 3, 2014

Xander Wilde

The magic of rock and roll—it casts a spell on you. I’m no exception. I’m a band

manager and I’m living the dream, touring with The Wilde Ones, helping them secure

their well-deserved place in the music industry. I love being a part of it all, especially

watching the band perform live—the crowds, the cheers, the music.

It’s a high and a low

all at once and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Every step of the way with this band has

been fun, exciting, stressful—every possible emotion. Obviously we’ve had some breaks

but mostly we all put in a lot of hard work—myself, Garrett Flynn, Phoenix Harper,

River Wilde, and now Zane Perry.

“Can you hear me now?” he bellows.

I nod my head as my heart pounds in my chest. My hands feel cold and clammy and

a nervousness that makes me weak and shaky takes over. Doubts race through my head

and I’m questioning if he’s going to make it through this. A vague awareness that

something bad could happen kicks around in my mind and I can’t shake it. The Wilde

Ones are doing a sound check on stage and Zane’s not on his game.

It’s July and the weather has been brutally hot. But today it seems cooler. Maybe it’s

the California weather maybe it’s the excitement of being home. The Beautiful Lies Tour

bus finally rolled back into our home state of California after six months away. When we

pulled into the amphitheater, we could see tanned kids in board shorts and bikini tops

already lined up at the will call window. Security guards in polo shirts directed us to the

artist parking lot, and we were officially home. Tonight we’ll be headlining our biggest

show to date. We’re on tour without my brother, River, and still more than half of the

shows are sold out, including tonight’s. River quit the band—touring just wasn’t for him

but even so the album is on its way up the charts. Who knows it may even hit gold status.

The songs on the album were written and sung by River but are performed in concert by

Zane. Having him as my brother’s replacement has been the key to our successful

transition in a world where replacing leads is normally unsuccessful—simply put, we’re

lucky as hell to have him. River promised to make a surprise appearance at our next stop.

It’s going to be epic.

But tonight is all about the arena—Mountain View and the Shoreline. “That’s

enough,” I yell to the band and call rehearsal. This place is the biggest outdoor venue

we’ve played and I couldn’t be more stoked—or more nervous. A sold out show and a

rocking opening band—what a combination. But a lead singer with another cold and a

weakened voice that can’t be heard throughout an amphitheater scares the shit out of me.

I head straight for the bus and spend the next few hours hashing out a song with Nix

that he calls a jumbled mess of muscular sense and big-riff sunshine—whatever the hell

that means. All I know is that it needs help and that’s why he’s turning to me. I hadn’t

played guitar since I was eighteen but for some reason over the course of this tour I’ve

picked it back up. At first I used whatever was lying around but last month I had my

mother mail my old one to me and it feels like home. It’s a light blue and brown Gibson

and I had to have it because it was the guitar that Slash played on. Playing again seems to

help pass the time and brings a calm over me that I haven’t felt in awhile.

Hours pass and before I know it, it’s almost show time. We make our way over to the

Amphitheater, do the typical festival schmooze fest, and then settle back to wait. Waiting

for them to take the stage is always the most nerve-racking time. I’m sitting in the

practically vacant makeshift meet and greet area back stage and sipping a beer in a

worthless effort to calm my nerves when a voice travels through the sound system. It’s a

powerful and emotive mezzo-soprano range that is nothing short of explosive. She

sounds unlike any singer I’ve ever heard before—with only one exception, Ivy Taylor. I

push back the memory of her name and the emotions it evokes—the memories are just

too painful. I

can’t see her on stage but I know that the voice belongs to Jane Mommsen.

Her band Breathless is playing right before The Wilde Ones.

A hand on my shoulder startles me. I twist and glance up as Amy sits down beside

me, crossing her legs. “Hi, Xander. I thought I saw you earlier at the hotel.”

She’s a beautiful woman—long, wavy dark hair, petite figure, very natural looking.

She’s wearing jeans, a blue shirt with some kind of foil design, and silver sandals.

Grinning at her I say, “Finally we catch up. Can I get you a drink?”

“I’d love that. How’s life on the road been?”

“You know, it has its ups and downs but actually not bad. You?”

“Jane’s been going full-force for a while now. But the tour ends with the summer.

I’ll be glad to be back in LA.”

Standing up, I laugh. “I know the feeling. I’ll be right back, let me grab us that

drink.” Tossing my empty bottle, I make my way to the coolers lined up under the tent

and grab two beers. I know she’d rather have a glass of Chardonnay but beer it is. Amy is

Jane’s assistant and I’ve taken her out more than a few times. We went to high school

together and Amy and I know most of the same people so whenever I need a date, I ask

her. Last time I saw her was almost nine months ago when I took her to River and

Dahlia’s wedding.

Heading back to the table I hear Jane yell out to the crowd, “Are you ready for three

of the hottest guys in music?” The audience starts screaming and the stage lights dim

cuing the guys that it’s the fifteen-minute countdown until they take the stage. The band

huddles together in their typical pre-performance stance. I’ll have a quick drink with

Amy and then join them. As I hand her the bottle my fingers touch hers and we both grin,

knowing that we will end up alone by the end of the night.

“You sticking around for the whole show?”

“I think I might,” she smiles.

“How about we ride back to the hotel together and grab a real drink at the bar?”

“Sounds like a plan.”

“Great. Time for me to get back to work.”

She rises from the table, I do the same. She stands up on her toes and kisses me

quickly on the lips. “See you tonight,” she smiles.

“Catch you later,” I say and then cross the room to join the band.

“You’re late,” Nix snickers. “What’s with you two anyway?” he asks.

I shrug my shoulders. “Nothing. We casually see each other once in a while.”

Garrett raises an eyebrow. “Chicks are never cool with casual.”

Shaking my head at him, I don’t bother to disagree. Amy and I have been doing this

for years. It works for her and for me. We like each other’s company but only see each

other sporadically. I’ll call her once in a while and we’ll go out but we are in no way

exclusive. I don’t ask her about other men and she doesn’t ask me about other women. I

grab the bottle and pour the amber liquid into the shot glasses stacked on the cap. It’s our

pre-show routine. A shot and a prayer, so to say. It’s Garrett’s turn tonight to ‘pray’ so

this should be good.

He raises his glass. “Here’s to hoping Xander gets laid so he’ll get off our backs.”

Tipping my glass back, I quickly down the amber liquid. It burns as it makes its way

down my throat. Once we’ve all drank our two shot maximum before a show Garrett

follows his toast up with, “Seriously man, you need to get laid.”

The guys laugh and I actually join in. Jerking off in the small bathroom on the bus is

definitely one of the downsides of touring. I’ve slept with a few girls at some of our stops

but screwing groupies isn’t really my thing. I’m not one to have time for a girlfriend but

I’m also not about to pull my dick out backstage, so it’s been a long six months.

Zane coughs after he slings back the shot and I look at him with concern. “You’re

going to a doctor tomorrow.”

He shakes his head. “Yes, Mom, if you say so.”

“I’m not kidding. Your voice sounds like shit.”

“It’s a fucking cold. I took some medicine. I’ll be fine.”

“Doctor. Tomorrow. I mean it. I’ll have Ena set it up.”

“I can always sing,” Garrett chimes in and I smack the back of his head.

“Hey. I can.”

The lights start to flicker and I look at Zane with that feeling of uneasiness again.

Second time this tour he’s coughing and hacking. We’re screwed if he really gets sick.

He nods at me as I pat him on the back. Slinging his guitar over his shoulder, he heads

out first raising his arm in the air. The crowd goes crazy. The six foot guy is a chick

magnet and no one misses my brother tonight. Garrett heads out next yelling, “Great to

be here Mountain View!” and Nix follows with his trademark nod. Zane skips his normal

charming banter and I know he must be saving his voice. Again, I think about how we’re

fucked if he gets sick.

I stand at the edge of the stage all night until they finally come to their last song. “It

Wasn’t Days Ago,” is a simple but crowd affecting ballad and Zane belts it out. Shouts

from nearly thirty thousand fans call for an encore. Turning away from the microphone

Zane coughs again. Biting his thumbnail he looks over at me and I slice my finger across

my neck.

“One more song for tonight,” he tells the screaming fans and my blood pressure

rises. “This one is a cover, an ‘ode to’ I’ll call it. It’s for Xander Wilde, the band’s

manager and it’s his favorite song. Everyone ready?” As he starts to sing Linkin Park’s

“Iridescent,” I close my eyes and listen. When he hits the chorus his voice gets so low my

eyes snap open. Zane turns to grab a bottle of water while the guys continue to play but I

can tell something isn’t right.

***

Last night definitely didn’t go as planned—a visit to the ER, then sleeping in a chair

next to Zane all night on the bus because the steroids he was given freaked him out. It’s

noon and Amy and I are just arriving at the Pelican Hill Resort. Breathless was leaving

right after the show last night so Amy had already planned to ride with us and meet up

with them in Irvine. She invited me to some party being thrown by her band’s label that I

would have rather not gone to but Ellie, the tour manager, insisted we all go for the good

PR.

I’m exhausted and really need some sleep before dealing with the press and

tomorrow night’s show. The paparazzi have been everywhere—by the bus as we exited to

the waiting car in LA, outside the doctor’s office, at the gates of Zane’s father’s house,

and now they’re here in Irvine at the hotel.

To avoid the chaos awaiting us in the lobby, I call Ellie, who is already here, and ask

her to check me in and meet me at the pool bar with the key. Draping my arm around

Amy, we head that way. I’ve been here a few times so I know my way around. Cutting

through the grotto and over to the pool and cabanas, I steer Amy to the right and stop in

my tracks as all the air rushes from my lungs.

My body floods with adrenaline and my gut twists. I don’t even have to do a double

take because I’d know her anywhere. There’s no mistaking her. She’s just so beautiful—

the elegant planes of her face, those high cheekbones, red lipstick, her platinum blonde

hair shorter than it used to be tucked behind her ear, that face of an angel. She looks the

same. No, she looks better. Her skin glistens in the sun and my gaze automatically

follows the shape of her long legs. They look smooth and tan against her white bathing

suit. An ache forms in my chest as I think about running my fingers up them. She’s still

that eighteen-year-old girl I once knew but now she has the body of a woman—lean and

toned and full of curves. When she moves it’s so familiar it doesn’t seem like a day has

passed—and everything I ever felt for her, it’s all still inside me.

My pulse races at the mere sight of her. She’s lounging in the cushioned chair

reading a magazine just outside a cabana. My heart slams harder in my chest when she

sticks her earphones in her ears like she always used to do and it transports me back to

the last time I saw her do the very same thing. We’d skipped school and were at my

grandparents’ house—their pool. She was lying on the lounge chair listening to music

and singing along—her voice so full of soul. I’d moved to sit with her under the guise of

putting lotion of her back. She sat up and smiled that shy smile she didn’t need to have

when she was with me. I squeezed the tube into my hand and after rubbing them together

I slowly applied it to her back kneading my way up and down, touching every inch of her

that I could.

It brings me back to the here and now when she suddenly sits up and looks over at

me. Her eyes pin me in place. She looks at me as if she remembers me for who I was,

what we were, not what I did to her. With my chest pounding, memories of us keep

flashing through my mind. Fighting a smile, I wonder if she’s thinking the same thing—

remembering what we were, what we shared, how we loved.

She quickly breaks our connection when she averts her eyes over to the man handing

her a drink. I suck in a deep breath trying not to feel sick at the sight. He’s nearing fifty,

wearing a terrycloth robe. He’s about my height, dark brown hair, meticulously groomed

facial hair, and not exactly ripped but fit. He’s Damon Wolf, a man I’ve never actually

met but hate all the same. I’ve seen their picture on TV and in magazines. He’s her agent,

her fiancé, and I’m sure he’s the reason she’s not singing anymore.

She looks up at him with that same forced smile she used to give people she just

wanted to appease and mouths “thank you.” I have a sudden urge to go over and deck

him when her gaze shifts back to mine and he pulls her chin back to look at him. I can

sense a discomfort between them. We could sense each other’s feelings even when we

weren’t near each other.

Amy’s hand slides down my face and I have to blink a few times before I can hear

what she’s saying. Glancing one last time at Ivy I see that she’s staring at me again. Then

suddenly her mouth forms a scowl and she flicks her attention toward him. Hooking her

arm around his neck, she pulls him down for a kiss and I think I might throw up.

“Are you okay?”

I nod. Not able to say a word.

“Isn’t that Ivy Taylor over there? The girl you used to date in high school?” Amy

asks. There’s an irritated tone to her voice I’m not used to hearing and it makes me

agitated.

“Yeah, it is,” is all I say. She’s not just a girl I used to date…she’s the only girl I

ever really loved. She’s also the girl whose heart I broke. Seeing her now brings back all

those feelings I blocked, ignored, tucked aside. So many times over the years I wanted to

go after her and tell her the truth—but I never did. Why I don’t know. Then one day it

was too late—she had gotten engaged.

Amy chatters on. “I think that’s Damon Wolf with her. We should go say hi.”

My body goes cold and my face blank at the thought. I straighten and just as I’m

about to say, “No fucking way,” my phone vibrates in my pocket. Squinting at the screen,

I see that it’s my brother. I look over to Amy and motion toward the bar. “Hey, this is

River. I need to take it. I’ll meet you over there in a minute.”

“That’s fine. We can catch up with them later. I’ll go order us a drink.” She smiles

and starts toward the bar.

Turning around to avoid staring at Ivy, I answer the phone. “It took you long enough

to call me back.”

“I was in a meeting and stepped out as soon as I could, so don’t start. What did the

doctor say about Zane?”

“He’s out for the rest of the tour and we’re fucked.”

“You sure? You’re back in LA for almost two weeks after tomorrow night right?

Isn’t that enough time for him to heal?”

“Technically yes. But his old man wants him out. The doctor said that he couldn’t be

sure how long the blood that accumulated under his vocal cords had been there but

obviously last night, the amount of ruptured vessels was enough to cause his voice to

change. He advised at least two weeks of rest before another evaluation to see if surgery

is necessary. Zeak wants his son to take a longer period of time off. He’s just afraid that if

Zane keeps singing and it keeps happening, scar tissue will build up and cause his voice

to change forever.”

“Do you blame him?”

“No I don’t,” I tell River and I feel like shit that I have to put him in a position to do

what he didn’t want to do in the first place. But I also know that if I don’t, the band won’t

survive. If I have to cancel this tour—the Wilde Ones are done. So I ask, “Did you talk to

Dahlia?”

He sighs. “Yeah, I did. She’s cool with it, Xander. I’m just trying to figure it all out.”

“You know I’ll do whatever you need me to do, right?”

“Shit why can’t you just be an ass and make it easy for me to say no?”

“Because you have no idea what this means to me.”

“Actually I do, and that’s why I’m going to make it happen. But Xander, remember I

can’t play a twelve string.”

Laughter and relief take hold of me. I feel a huge weight lifted off my shoulders.

“Right now I wouldn’t care if you only played the violin,” I joke.

He laughs and I add, “You’ll be here tonight?”

Now he sounds slightly annoyed. “I said I would. We might be a little late so don’t

get your panties in a wad.”

“That’s cool. Thanks for everything. Hey, one more thing.’

“What?”

“Ivy Taylor’s here.”

“No way. Have you talked to her?”

“Fuck no. You know she won’t talk to me. And besides she’s with that asshole.”

“You should talk to her. Tell her the truth.”

“What’s that going to do now? She’ll just think I’m lying.”

“You want me to talk to her? I can explain everything.”

“No. I don’t need my little brother to fight my battles. I’ll talk to her if I feel the time

is right. Do you hear me?”

“Whatever you say. Look, I have to run but I want to discuss this later. And

Xander…you don’t know he’s an asshole. Just because Dad said his name once doesn’t

mean shit.”

“Right. Okay, see you tonight,” I say and end the call. My head is spinning knowing

that after all these years I’m actually in the same place she is. I want to talk to her, tell her

everything but what would it matter now anyway. Glancing behind me, I catch another

glimpse of her with him that turns my stomach. He’s such a slime ball. Since his father

was hospitalized and he took over the business, he’s been scooping up labels, tearing

them apart, and rebuilding them with bands he thinks are better fits. My guess is he

picked up Jane’s label—that’s why he’s here. I heard they were having some financial

difficulty and he’s just the kind of bottom feeder that would want to capitalize on not

only being her agent but now also her producer. The sight of him touching Ivy makes my

skin crawl.

Damon Wolf—two of the last words my father ever spoke to me before killing

himself, and I never knew why. Of all the guys in the world Ivy had to end up with him—

why him? I look up and they’re gone. But I’m anything but relieved. Rubbing my chin,

I’m antsy, agitated, pissed as hell, but feel more alive than I have in years.

INFORMATION ABOUT BOOK #2:
Title: TORN (Connections #2)
TORN SYNOPSIS FROM NAL:
Rock star River Wilde brought Dahlia London back from the brink of hopelessness with his unwavering love and devotion. But their entwined history is about to test the strength of that love…

Dahlia was certain she had found true love and met her ‘Once in a Lifetime’ when she reconnected with River. But Dahlia’s world comes crashing down when someone from her past resurfaces, and all of River’s carefully hidden secrets are exposed.                                                                                                                  River wants to show Dahlia that life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass—it’s about dancing in the rain! But how many times can one broken heart be mended?  Will River and Dahlia be able to face the turmoil together or will they be torn apart?
Available for purchase at: 
 
INFORMATION ABOUT BOOK #1:
Title: Connected (Connections #1)
CONNECTED SYNOPSIS FROM NAL:
 
What if a ‘Once in a Lifetime’ could happen twice?

Suffering from a past full of tragedy, Dahlia London’s soul has been left completely shattered. Happily ever after is a far cry from reality in her world. But, when she is reconnected with her past, the bonds that form are irrefutable.

When River Wilde, lead singer of The Wilde Ones, comes back into Dahlia’s life, the intensity that fires their relationship combined with underlying feelings that have never died lead her to believe she has met her soulmate.

Struggling with confusion as old connections fade and new ones begin, Dahlia’s grief begins to lift–but guilt remains. River wants to be the one to mend all that is torn within her. 

But with a past that is never really gone, can their future survive?

Available for purchase at:

INFINITE POSSIBILITIES by Lisa Renee Jones Review

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Secrets and lies. They are everywhere: haunting her, tormenting her. In the midst of it all, he’d been her escape, her passion. The only person she’d trusted in six years. And then he’d made her doubt that trust, cutting her deeply. But as she’d once told him, she was damaged, not broken. She is ready to fight and not just for survival. She is fighting for the truth and she won’t stop until she has it, not even for…him.

MY REVIEW (Colleen)

4.5 STARS

        Book Two in The Secret Life of Amy Benson Series finds Amy again on the run; from lies, from love, from her past. She is tormented and hunted both by the  evil that wants her dead and the man that supposedly loves her. Can they be one in the same?

        Once again, Lisa Renee Jones delivers a mysterious, suspenseful and powerful read. I could not wait for the second installment of the Amy Benson series! Ms. Jones is certainly weaving a tale of intrigue. Everytime that I thought that I had the story figured out, another set of circumstances popped up and made me reevaluate everything that I thought I knew. The action, suspense and romance are what keep me coming back to Lisa Renee Jones’ books time and again.

        I am routing for Amy. She has had a tough, complicated and dangerous past six years of her life. She is a strong, brave woman who fights back instead of giving up. I love that she has a backbone. Amy is no wilting flower. Every time she gets knocked down she rebounds standing taller then ever.

        Liam is as yummy as he is in the first book but I still don’t trust him completely. There are too many twists and unanswered questions to be 100% positive that Liam is as noble as he seems. He is a tasty little treat and I do enjoy his schmexiness!

        Excellent, provocative read from the first page straight through to the last. I couldn’t read it fast enough and thoroughly devoured it in a matter of hours. Eagerly anticipating the next installment in the series!!!!

TIES by Steph Campbell and Liz Reinhardt Synopsis and Review

TIESblogtour

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TIES

by Liz Reinhardt and Steph Campbell

Ties is a companion book in the Lengths series NOT a sequel. It was written as a stand-alone title. The other books do not need to be read prior to Ties in order to follow the story.

When a shiny new convertible arrives for her twenty-first birthday, Hattie Beckett has had enough of her absent dad trying to buy a place in her life. It’s time for him to face her–or get out of her life forever.

She tosses some clothes in a bag, looks up her father’s last known address, and sets her GPS for Silver Stand, California.

When she arrives at a beach-bum paradise that’s totally foreign to her New England upbringing and finds nothing but an empty lot where her dad maybe once lived, her immediate instinct is to pack up her car and head right back to Connecticut.

But she also finds… Deo. The half-brother she never knew she had. He and his hippy-dippy mom insist that Hattie stick around—at least for the summer. And with all of her friends spending the summer abroad, what else does she have to do?

Her ideas about family are blown wide open as Deo and Marigold pull her in with their charm and love. But there’s still a huge question mark where her dad is concerned, and that question mark definitely looms over her ideas about love and relationships.

When Hattie meets Ryan, the college dropout turned competitive sailor, her perspective flips with her heart. Like it or not, Hattie is falling fast and hard for Ryan… even if it’s the last thing that she expected – and the last thing her newly found brother wants for her.

MY REVIEW (Colleen)

4 STARS

        I was conflicted when I first began reading Ties. I loved Deo and Whit’s story so much and remembered Ryan so I really didn’t think I would enjoy the storyline. I was wrong.

        Hattie is a strong female character which I love but at times I felt that she was too harsh and too focused on her “rules.” I completely understand why she is the way she is but those guidelines that she held herself to drove me nuts. I loved it when her softer side came through. For example, when she was in the kitchen cutting onions so she could cry over Ryan and no one would know. She really needed someone to break down her walls and show her that it’s ok to feel.

        I was terrified Ryan was going to be a jerk but I couldn’t have been further from the truth. He reformed his playboy ways and found a way to ground himself. He is the complete opposite of Hattie which is what made them so perfect for each other. If opposites attract, these two should collide together with the force of a nuclear explosion!  I loved that Ryan fell for Hattie so deeply and unashamedly with his whole self even though most of the time she acted like a crazy dictator with all her freaking rules.

        Ties is a good edition to the series but can be read as a stand alone as there is a reintroduction to most of the important main characters. I am hoping that there are more books coming in the series. I’d love to find out more about Enzo!!!!

Author Bios:

Steph Campbell grew up in Southern California, but now calls Southwest Louisiana home. She has one husband, four children and a serious nail polish obsession.
Steph’s works include Delicate, Grounding Quinn and Beautiful Things Never Last; My Heart for Yours and My Fate for Yours (with Jolene Perry); A Toast to the Good Times (with Liz Reinhardt) and the bestselling new adult LENGTHS series with Liz Reinhardt: Lengths, Depths, Limits, Ties & Riptides.
@stephcampbell_

Liz Reinhardt was born and raised in the idyllic beauty of northwest NJ. A move to the subtropics of coastal Georgia with her daughter and husband left her with a newly realized taste for the beach and a bloated sunscreen budget. Right alongside these new loves is her old, steadfast affection and longing for bagels and the fast-talking foul mouths of her youth.
She loves Raisinettes, even if they aren’t really candy, the Oxford comma, movies that are hilarious or feature zombies, any and all books, but especially romance (the smarter and hotter, the better), the sound of her daughter’s incessantly wise and entertaining chatter, and watching her husband work on cars in the driveway.
She is the author of the Brenna Blixen series (Double Clutch, Junk Miles, Slow Twitch), the Youngblood series (Fall Guy, Perfectly Unmatched), and co-writes with the awesome Steph Campbell in the Lengths series (Lengths, Depths, Limits, Ties, Riptides).
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