Chapter Reveal: OPPORTUNITY (Office Roulette Book 3 ) By USA Today Bestselling Author KENNEDY LAYNE Releases August 14th!@KennedyL_Author @InkslingerPR

The final book in Kennedy Layne’s Office Roulette trilogy, OPPORTUNITY, releases August 14th! You can read the first chapter below!

 

About OPPORTUNITY (Office Roulette #3)

Available August 14th

USA Today Bestselling Author Kennedy Layne brings you the thrilling conclusion to the Office Roulette trilogy…

Gareth Nicollet had been born into wealth, but he’d learned at an early age that money wasn’t everything it was cracked up to be. Regrettably, he’d made a meaningful choice early on in his life that now threatened his future with the woman he loved.

Cynthia Ellsworth valued many things, but trust and loyalty were at the top of her list. She’d always known the man who shared her bed had secrets, but she never thought in a million years that he had the ability to destroy her career and her heart with a single blow.

Someone once said that greed was balanced by fear, but that wasn’t entirely true when there was nothing left to lose. Unfortunately, Gareth’s secret is the very reason the roulette wheel is spinning and Cynthia’s life hangs in the balance.

OPPORTUNITY releases August 14th – preorder your copy now!

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Read the first chapter of OPPORTUNITY

“Steve, you can’t order this gift for the client.”

Cynthia Ellsworth made her way across the trading room floor with her favorite pair of black high heels clicking precisely the way she wanted. She’d purposefully pulled them out of the back of her closet for this purpose. The designer shoes were like battle gear to her, and she needed all the ammunition she could get, today of all days.

“Why?”

“Did you really just have the audacity to ask me that?” Cynthia’s steel tone got Steve Lewis to turn around in his desk chair. She understood that he was busy and in the middle of the stock market’s opening, but that didn’t mean she would allow him to cut corners. The last thing this firm needed was to raise another red flag. “I can actually see those little black squirrels in your head running a million miles an hour on that treadmill. You’ve got less than zero chance of putting one over on me. You know the SEC rules regarding gifts, as well as our own compliance regulations. You’ll have to choose another gift with a lesser value.”

“The gift is only a few dollars over the usual acceptable tolerance.” Steve went back to monitoring his screens, as if her role here at Manon Investments wasn’t as esteemed as his. She’d already had a hell of a morning. This situation was something she could nip in the bud, which she fully intended to do. “Jerry and Darla are getting married next month. I’m sure you can figure out a way to skirt the rules.”

“Oh, really?” Cynthia asked, tacking on a bit of syrupy inference to her words. She was quicker than he was when it came to answering one of the many ringing lines. He came up short when she leaned down and managed to set the palm of her hand over the receiver before him. “I’m glad to see I now have your attention, Steve. In case you’ve forgotten, my role here as compliance officer is to protect the firm— unfortunately, that includes protecting you from yourself. So, you are going to pick another gift to give Jerry and his future wife or you’re going to pay for it out of your own pocket like any true friend would do under normal circumstances.”

Cynthia didn’t wait for Steve to acknowledge her request as she walked away.

Okay, it wasn’t a request, but she didn’t have the patience to draw out a heated debate knowing full well she would win in the end. Besides, she’d spent the past hour taking care of smaller issues that had risen this morning. She had more important things on her to-do list.

It was finally time for her to focus on the issue that had kept her up most of the night.

“Cynthia?” Marilyn called out from her seat behind the reception desk, preventing Cynthia from walking to her office. The older woman was in her sixties and the glue that held this company together. “Paul called in and said to tell you that he’s running a few minutes late.”

Of course.

Why wouldn’t Paul be running late today of all days?

The universe had been conspiring against Cynthia for the past eight months. She hadn’t known about that bit of treachery until yesterday, but it had been there all the same.

“Thank you, Marilyn.” Cynthia managed a smile, not wanting to take her bad mood out on the older woman. Steve had been another matter altogether. “Would you please let me know when Paul comes in?”

Marilyn nodded her response, but it was clear that she had something else to say. She leaned forward so that her words didn’t carry outside the large foyer. Cynthia’s stomach knotted, because now wasn’t the time for the mother hen to smooth over ruffled feathers. She was wasting her time.

Nothing could be said or done to ease Cynthia’s pride at being duped by a man she’d thought was better than the rest.

Gareth Nicollet had pretty much brought her to her knees, and she’d been the one to give him that power on a silver platter. Apparently, she’d even tied a bow around the fucking thing.

Why was it that the most important lessons were always the hardest to learn?

“You know that Steve is having a hard time.” Marilyn gave a rather sad smile, conveying the remorse that most of the employees were dealing with at the moment. Was it wrong that Cynthia didn’t care about any of them when her own heart had all but been ripped to shreds? “He’s just trying to—”

“Steve had an affair with his boss’ ex-wife, lied to his former colleague and friend, and then attempted to taint my reputation in front of the entire staff not even three weeks past.” Cynthia could go on and on about Steve’s behavior over the last month, but it would have been a useless endeavor. She was just grateful for the sliver of anger that pushed aside the hurt. “Look, you and I both know that Steve is most likely moving to London to work with his brother-in-law when Manon investments closes its doors. So save the drama. Honestly, I think that’s the wisest choice, but that doesn’t mean he gets a free pass to do as he pleases until that eventuality.”

Cynthia was saved from another lecture delivered by Marilyn when Laurel Calanthe and Grace Dorrance breezed through the glass entry doors from the elevator bank. Her two best friends must have gone downstairs to the café to caffeinate themselves, because Laurel was holding a smoothie in her left hand that clearly wasn’t hers. The woman was a coffee drinker through and through. She’d have an IV installed if it were medically possible.

“Looks like we’re just in time,” Laurel said with a tentative smile that was meant for Marilyn. “Cynthia hasn’t had her protein smoothie this morning. You know how she gets.”

“I’m standing right here in front of you,” Cynthia responded wryly, not wanting to get dragged into Laurel’s office for a pep talk that was only going to make things worse. “Remind me why we’re friends?”

“Because you have the keys to the gates of hell,” Grace called out without hesitation as she continued to walk toward Laurel’s office. “We wouldn’t want to be left standing out in the cold.”

“Come on,” Laurel encouraged as she handed over the smoothie. Cynthia’s stomach revolted, but she took the cold beverage anyway. “Let’s go into my office and walk through what you’re going to say to Gareth.”

“Marilyn, I’ll be in Laurel’s office. Please let me know the moment Paul walks through those doors.” Cynthia fell into step beside Laurel as they both slowly followed Grace down the corridor. “Laurel, I’ve already decided not to say anything to Gareth, and I don’t want to argue about it anymore. I’m dumping this entire situation into Paul’s lap later this morning before washing my hands of it. Then I can finally move on with my life.”

Cynthia didn’t miss Laurel’s quick glance toward the corner office door at the end of the hallway, so she most likely hadn’t heard a word that was said. Her friend’s revolted shudder was more than evident, but Cynthia couldn’t blame her after what had taken place.

“It’s probably a good thing we’re moving offices at the beginning of the year.” Cynthia hated that Laurel had to continually see the place where she’d found their boss— Brad Manon— murdered with his throat cut a little over three weeks ago. It couldn’t have been healthy to look at that view numerous times a day. “A fresh start is exactly what we all need.”

“What you need is to find out why Gareth Nicollet didn’t tell you the truth about being Brad Manon’s brother,” Grace interjected from her seat on Laurel’s credenza as she waited for them to cross the threshold. “None of us believe that Gareth is capable of murder, but he obviously kept his family relationship with Brad a secret for a reason. You need to find out why exactly that is.”

“No, I don’t.” Cynthia ignored the throbbing pain in her chest. She was a business professional. She had known better than to mix business with pleasure, but she’d done it anyway. Now it was time to pay the piper. “As I was just telling Laurel, I’m meeting with Paul the moment he sees fit to get his ass into the office today. He can make any decisions that need to be made regarding Gareth. I’m out.”

Cynthia reluctantly took a seat in one of Laurel’s guest chairs, crossing her legs and smoothing the material of her black skirt. When was the last time any of them had a conversation that didn’t involve any one of them or their colleagues going to prison?

Far too damn long, that’s when.

It was all Laurel’s fault. She just had to come into the office three weeks ago at some ungodly hour to grab some stupid files. Leave it to her to stumble upon Brad’s dead body and unknowingly set all their lives on a collision course for the deepest pit of hell.

It was times like these that unfortunate secrets were revealed and lives were ruined.

These days, it seemed like everyone and their uncle had something to hide.

The police certainly weren’t lacking for suspects in Brad’s murder. Almost every employee had the means, motive, and opportunity to commit the gruesome act according to the record thus far. The changes in Brad’s personality over the years hadn’t gone unnoticed by many, and the man had basically become isolated in that corner office as a result of his own actions.

It only seemed fitting that he’d died there in a cell of his making, but Cynthia wasn’t known for her tact. She told it like it was, and she didn’t harbor any regrets.

Well, sometimes.

Very few.

Other colleagues weren’t so blunt, and that was part of the problem. It was hard to tell where people stood in the grand scheme of things. Not that they had to declare their allegiances, for fuck’s sake.

Take Paul Slater, for instance. He’d been Brad’s best friend and business partner. Over the years, Paul had spent more of his time out of the office persuading high net worth individuals to invest their money in Manon Investments than he had in the office dealing with Brad’s insolence over minor issues that could be mitigated by others.

Then there was Steve Lewis, the head trader she’d had to deal with a few minutes ago. He’d been having an affair with Meredith Manon and keeping that little secret from his best friend and colleagues, not that it was technically any of their business. Normally, no one cared who was sleeping with who, but when it involved the ex-wife of the once beloved boss… well, people tended to get their hackles up in situations like that.

Speaking of the recent ex-widow, it wasn’t like she was inheriting a fortune, considering Brad had been in massive debt at the time of his death. Still, the police always seemed to suspect the spouse… or ex-spouse, in cases like these.

Then there were the conflicting motives of Vern Roberts, Blair Holmes, Phil Colbert, Joshua Green, Marilyn Kent, Smith Gallo, the two ladies currently in this office, and quite a few others. As a matter of fact, all of those individuals were just some of the employees who met all three of the criteria to commit murder.

“You’ve been seeing Gareth Nicollet on and off for close to a year,” Laurel said, taking a seat in her desk chair as she set a sympathizing gaze on Cynthia. She didn’t bother to correct her friend by saying it had only been eight months. Her speaking would only drag out this conversation, but it did take all her effort not to snap at her friend. Both Laurel and Grace were only trying to help. Unfortunately, there was nothing that could ease the pain of betrayal Cynthia was currently suffering at the glaring omission manifested by the man she’d fallen in love with. “Your instincts are better than both of ours. You can’t tell us that you think Gareth is capable of murder.”

“I never dreamed he would deceive me, either,” Cynthia countered sharply, wincing when her anger slipped through her composure. She was fully aware that the employees of Manon Investments weren’t the only suspects the police had on their rather large list. And now it was she who was liable for adding another name to the catalog of suspects. “Look, I appreciate what you two are trying to do right now. I really do, but nothing can erase the fact that Gareth kept the truth from me from the very start.”

Cynthia didn’t even bother to bring Brad into the equation. Hell, the police were likely to include her name in the pool after discovering that Brad hadn’t seen fit to tell her that he was related to Gareth— a client, for that matter.

It was now official.

The throbbing in her temples had now become a full-fledged headache.

“In case you forgot, I was falsely accused of murdering Brad,” Grace said while sharing a concerned glance with Laurel. “Detective Nielsen arrested me in front of all my friends and colleagues. It was beyond humiliating. You coming clean about Gareth’s connection to Brad might very well lead the police to you. Don’t you realize your own situation? It gives both of you motive.”

Cynthia’s hands had been cold since yesterday, when she’d discovered Gareth’s lie in Brad’s personnel file. She must have stared in horror at that seemingly inconsequential piece of information for at least ten minutes before she’d accepted it as truth. As it stood, she didn’t need the added chill from the smoothie, so she set the plastic cup on Laurel’s desk before curling her fingers into her palms.

“I know exactly what Gareth’s omission has done to the both of us, but covering up for someone is exactly what got you arrested in the first place.”

None of them had been overlooked by Detective Nielsen.

Laurel was the first to be questioned, and not just for the reason that she’d found Brad dead in his office. She’d been having an affair with Smith Gallo, another employee and the man with whom she’d been competing in regard to partnership at the firm. Both of them had been under scrutiny, especially when the police discovered that Smith had been planning to leave Manon Investments in order to open his own hedge fund.

Neither Cynthia nor Laurel had known at the time that Grace had given a false alibi for the timeframe of Brad’s death. She’d lied to protect the man she was seeing— Rye Marshall— who just happened to be Manon Investments’ largest competitor.

The killer had obviously discovered Grace’s attempt to protect Rye, because a knife had been planted inside of her vehicle. An anonymous call had led the police straight to Grace’s doorstep— or in this case, to the offices of Manon Investments.

Whoever was responsible for Brad’s death was connected to all of them in some way or another, giving that individual the advantage. That specific detail told her that this wasn’t a circumstance to be trifled with, which was why she was washing her hands of the entire situation.

“Grace isn’t saying that you should lie.” That was exactly what their friend was suggesting, but Laurel ignored the obvious. “Having been in similar situations, we’re suggesting that speaking with Gareth before you talk to anyone else might be in both your best interests.”

“Similar situations?” Cynthia slowly stood, not wanting to take her anger out on the two people who had her back in this cutthroat business. She fully understood that her friends were trying their best to help her deal with the fallout of a relationship that never should have begun in the first place, but they were going about it the wrong way. “You seem to be forgetting something rather important, ladies. The men in your lives never lied to you about who they were. Now as I stated earlier, I’m dumping this police matter into Paul’s inbox and washing my hands of this whole problem.”

Cynthia sensed Gareth’s presence before either of her friends glanced toward the doorway in shock. She wasn’t sure how to explain it, but a blanket of warmth always came over her when he was in the vicinity. The fact that he could still have that effect on her after what he’d done gave her the internal fortitude to compose herself.

Hell would freeze over before she ever showed Gareth Nicollet that he still had the power to destroy her heart. Bracing herself, she straightened her shoulders before turning on the heels that had gotten her through many power struggles. Unfortunately, he gained the upper hand when he spoke first.

“Do you think it’s going to be that easy to get rid of me, Cyn?”
 

Missed MEANS (Office Roulette #1) and need to catch up? Get your hands on it now!

About MEANS (Office Roulette #1)

From USA Today Bestselling Author Kennedy Layne comes a sexy trilogy that involves greed, power, and the desire to do it all over again…

Smith Gallo has everything a man could ever want at the tip of his fingertips, except of course the woman he loves. To what lengths will he be willing to go to make his ambitions come true?

Laurel Calanthe is one successful stock pick away from making partner when she finds herself in desperate need of an alibi. There’s only one problem. The man who can save her from being arrested is her only competitor and the one who now holds her fate in his hands.

Greed is a powerful motivator in the game of making money, but desire can overcome even the strongest motive.

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READ MY REVIEW:

MEANS REVIEW

About MOTIVE (Office Roulette #2)

The Office Roulette trilogy continues with an epic battle between blame and forgiveness…

Rye Marshall had it all—wealth, prominence, and the love of his life. But nothing lasts forever, and his perfect world came crashing down around him. When the dust settled, he found himself alone and starting from a clean slate.

Grace Dorrance had made many mistakes in her life, but one stood out above the rest—an epic ending to a complex and passionate relationship. She left her former lover’s life in complete ruins and tried her best never to look back at the wreckage.

Seconds chances are hard to come by, but even more difficult when Grace is arrested for a murder she didn’t commit. This gives Rye the perfect motive to forgive and forget, allowing for new beginnings. Unfortunately, someone’s playing a game of office roulette with everyone’s lives.

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READ MY REVIEW:

MOTIVE REVIEW

 

About Kennedy Layne

Kennedy Layne is a USA Today bestselling author. She draws inspiration for her military romantic suspense novels in part from her not-so-secret second life as a wife of a retired Marine Master Sergeant. He doubles as her critique partner, beta reader, and military consultant. They live in the Midwest with their teenage son and menagerie of pets. The loyal dogs and mischievous cats appreciate her writing days as much as she does, usually curled up in front of the fireplace. She loves hearing from readers–find out how to connect with her at www.kennedylayne.com.

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OPPORTUNITY ( OFFICE ROULETTE #3 ) BY KENNEDY LAYNE IS COMING

Chapter Reveal: BUTTERFACE, A Sexy Romantic Comedy from USA Today Bestselling Author AVERY FLYNN is Releasing July 30th! @averyflynn @jenw23

 

Butterface, a fun and sexy romantic comedy from USA Today bestselling author Avery Flynn, is coming July 30th and we’ve got a sneak peek!

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Read the first chapter of Butterface today: http://wp.me/P2BIBX-11q

Synopsis

Looks aren’t everything.

It’s true. I’m not what most people would call “pretty” and, well, high school was rough. Fast forward ten years and life is good…

Until a bunch of jerks think it’s hilarious to put the “butterface” (AKA me) on a wedding Kiss Cam with the hottest guy ever—and that old humiliation hits hard.

I recognize him immediately. The hottest cop in Waterbury and totally out of my league.

But then he kisses me.

And we totally forget the room, the crowd, everything.

Then he tells everyone we’ve been dating for months.

Soon everything starts to feel too real, from adorable fights over “necessary” tools to fix my broken porch to surviving a free-for-all dinner with his six siblings to picking up where our last kiss left off.

But there’s something he’s not telling me about why he’s really hanging around, and I’m pretty sure it has to do with my mob-connected brothers.

Because this is not a makeover story, and Cinderella is only a fairy tale…

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Pre-order your copy today!

Amazon US: https://amzn.to/2ykgQEa

Amazon Universal: http://mybook.to/Butterface

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Nook: https://bit.ly/2tmqf8m

Kobo: https://bit.ly/2K3Cn8U

Add to GoodReads: https://bit.ly/2sSXjEL

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About Avery

USA Today bestselling romance author Avery Flynn has three slightly-wild children, loves a hockey-addicted husband and is desperately hoping someone invents the coffee IV drip.

She fell in love with romance while reading Johanna Lindsey’s Mallory books. It wasn’t long before Avery had read through all the romance offerings at her local library. Needing a romance fix, she turned to Harlequin’s four books a month home delivery service to ease the withdrawal symptoms. That worked for a short time, but it wasn’t long before the local book stores’ staffs knew her by name.

Avery was a reader before she was a writer and hopes to always be both. She loves to write about smartass alpha heroes who are as good with a quip as they are with their *ahem* other God-given talents. Her heroines are feisty, fierce and fantastic. Brainy and brave, these ladies know how to stand on their own two feet and knock the bad guys off theirs.

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Connect with Avery

Website: http://averyflynn.com

Bookbub: https://www.bookbub.com/authors/avery-flynn

Mailing List: http://averyflynn.com/newsletter/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AveryFlynnAuthor/

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Join the Flynnbots: https://www.facebook.com/groups/Flynnbots/

http://averyflynn.com

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Book Blitz + Giveaway: HART OF DARKNESS ( The Hart Series ) by S.B. ALEXANDER @sbalex_author @XpressoTours


Hart of Darkness
S.B. Alexander
Publication date: June 12th 2018
Genres: Adult, Romance, Suspense

The road to love is paved in the dark.

Former gang member Dillon Hart abandoned the streets to join the US Merchant Marines. He feels his life is finally on track until he returns home to discover that his sixteen-year-old sister is missing. With his younger brother in jail and his older brother living a life of crime, it’s up to Dillon to find Grace. After four years of searching, a phone call from a morgue gives him a lead that he can’t pass up. Enlisting the help of a cutthroat reporter may be his only hope.

Crime reporter Maggie Marx has just the right mix of grit and sex appeal to get anything she wants, even the darkest stories on the street. Growing up in a gang, she had her fair share of setbacks and obstacles. When Dillon Hart seeks her help, she’s more than ready to take down the street’s biggest enemy. Her actions could help her exact revenge or land her in the belly of the beast.

As Dillon and Maggie team up to search for Dillon’s sister, they aren’t prepared to find what lies ahead. One family is torn apart. Another is brought together. Hearts are shredded, secrets are uncovered, and love takes on a whole new meaning.

Intended for audiences 18+

Goodreads / Amazon / Barnes & Noble / iBooks / Kobo

Link to read Chapter 1 in Hart of Darkness: CHAPTER ONE

 

EXCERPT:

I parked two blocks from a sea of red and blue flashing lights. I grabbed my bag, hopped out of my car, and ran up to the crowd that had gathered around.

I sidled up to an older lady. “What’s going on?”

She didn’t even look my way. Instead, she lifted up on her tiptoes to see over others’ heads. “Word is the cops are in a standoff with some gang.”

My internal radar was firing on all cylinders. “What gang?”

She clutched the robe she was wearing. “Not sure.”

I plowed through the throng to get a better view. Some protested as I wiggled my way up to a man in blue, whose name read Miladin on his uniform shirt. I knew some cops but not him.

Police cruisers and unmarked cars littered the street on the other side of the police barricade.

I flashed my reporter credentials. “I’m here to see Detective Ted Hughes.” I scanned the men in blue and some in plain clothes. Ted was tall, lanky, and sometimes hard to miss with his thick mustache that was similar to the actor Tom Selleck’s. I did another once-over and spotted Rick. He wasn’t as tall as Ted, but he was husky, compliments of the gym he lived at during his off-duty hours.

Officer Miladin narrowed his dark eyes. “Civilians are not allowed past this barrier.”

“I work for the paper, so let me through.” I knew working as a reporter held no clout to get me into an active police scene, but most cops knew I was close to Ted.

Officer Miladin stabbed a finger at another police barrier along the sidewalk in front of the brick homes that lined the street. “The media is over there.”

I didn’t budge from my spot. “You’re new. Aren’t you?”

Miladin’s voice dropped an octave. “I said over there.”

I huffed and decided it wasn’t worth arguing. Ted would only kick me out anyway.

I spotted Deidre, a news reporter for CBNT, a local station in the city. If anyone had a lead, it would be Deidre. She was relentless in her hunt to get the big story. I was about to make my way over to her, when a shot rang out through the humid night.

People screamed and scattered.

The cops took cover behind their vehicles.

I managed to duck behind one of many cars parked along the curb. The lady in the robe joined me, breathing heavily, while the crowd scattered to take cover.

Then silence ensued.

I slowly peeked through the car window, when the lady in the robe nudged me.

She pointed a red-painted nail toward the driveway of the house across from us. “Look.”

A girl with bold red hair darted from the back of the house, setting off the motion sensor.

Miladin, who had abandoned his position, edged along the base of the house and down the driveway. He said something into his radio, when the redhead climbed the chain-link fence.

Considering the girl was running, I suspected the cops didn’t have the house completely surrounded. Or if they did, then their attention wasn’t on the girl.

The crowd seemed to be holding its breath.

 

Author Bio:

S.B. Alexander is a bestselling romance author of the Maxwell Series. Her books are filled with stories that tug at your heart, and are filled with romance, drama, action and suspense. As much as she loves to write, she also loves to read. Some of her favorite authors growing up were Stephen King and Edgar Allen Poe. She stills enjoy reading Stephen King. In fact, she loves most genres, although in the past three years she has gravitated toward the romance genre, which is when she started her journey to write her first book. Her motto: write what you love to read.

Aside from writing, she’s a huge sports fan, in particular, baseball. Since she hails from New England, she is a diehard Red Sox fan. She’s also a navy veteran and former math teacher, loves white powdered donuts, and handbags. Her husband calls her the bag lady. When she’s not writing, she enjoys playing golf and hanging out with friends and family.

Facebook Fan Page / Facebook Reader Group / Twitter / Instagram / Amazon / Bookbub

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S.B. ALEXANDER

Chapter Reveal: UNLOCKING LIES ( Keys To Love Series Book 3 ) by USA Today Bestselling Author KENNEDY LAYNE @KennedyL_Author @InkslingerPR

 

We’re a little over a week away from the release of UNLOCKING LIES by Kennedy Layne – but you don’t have to wait! You can read the first chapter now. Check it out and be sure to preorder your copy!

 

About UNLOCKING LIES

A grim discovery in Lance Kendall’s home proved one thing—the residents of Blyth Lake had a serial killer in their midst. Now Lance had unintentionally put a target on his back. Worst yet, he’s made the only woman he ever loved known to a murderer.

A trip down memory lane with the man who’d broken Brynn Mercer’s heart wasn’t the smartest thing she’d ever done in her life, but their reunion was a slow burn of temptation that she couldn’t ignore.

Together, they will only have one chance to correct the past. Will the hidden secrets he uncovered threaten their love or solidify it for a future that has always been out of their reach?

Add UNLOCKING LIES to your Goodreads list here!

UNLOCKING LIES releases May 22nd, 2018 – preorder your copy now!

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Read the First Chapter of UNLOCKING LIES:

CHAPTER ONE

Twelve years ago…

Lightning streaked across the sky in multiple jagged forks overhead. The waning flash eventually morphed into an ominous rumble of thunder, creating a malevolent omen as it continued to sing its song throughout the collapsing resonance.

Emma Irwin bit back the sob that threatened to escape her throat, causing her breath to hitch.

She didn’t want to die today.

The hulking man standing in front of her abruptly lunged forward, causing her to cry out in alarm. She instinctively stumbled backwards and somehow managed to twist around without falling.

Emma ran for her life, and she didn’t look back.

There was only one path she could take that would lead her to safety. Under normal circumstances, she would have been able to navigate these woods like the back of her hand. Now? Terror flooded her bloodstream, making it nearly impossible for her to formulate a plan.

The thunderstorm above all but descended the forest into darkness after each flash. Without night vision, the footing amongst the roots crisscrossing the forest floor became treacherous. She had to keep an arm raised as she ran through the trees to prevent the low hanging branches from slamming into her face. Her hands were already bleeding from her previous fall, but fortunately, there was no pain as a result of the endorphins.

She couldn’t afford the distraction her pain would cause.

How could this be happening?

Emma wanted to stop and scream at him at the top of her lungs. She’d known him her whole life. She had trusted him, and yet she didn’t doubt that he would kill her with no more remorse than he would experience by putting down a game animal.

All she needed to do was make it to Seventh Street. If she could reach the edge of town, someone would help her.

Would anyone believe her? Was any of this even remotely plausible? She was a teenager. It was her word against…

Light!

The streetlamp was barely visible, but it was there ahead of her just up the gradual slope. The blazing beacon provided her hope.

The drizzling rain became more of a steadier stream the closer she got to the edge of the woods. Unadulterated fear kept up her forward momentum until her ankle boot slipped on a small pile of loose leaves.

Emma hit the ground so hard that her lungs emptied of any air that may have been left in her body after running so far at such a fast pace. She opened her mouth to drag in what oxygen she could, but her lungs seemed incapable of working. Her brain was screaming at her to get up and move or else she would die.

This was it.

She was going to die here, because she couldn’t overcome the fear.

Little by little, her straining muscles relaxed to the point where she was able to suck in a small measure of oxygen. It was enough to stop the flashing lights that had started to circulate in her line of vision. In their place, images of her sister began to materialize.

Would Shae miss her?

Emma didn’t want their last words to be those of hate. She’d said some awful things to her sister this afternoon all because Shae had gotten the car tonight.

“It’s not fair!” Emma screamed at her mom, stomping out of the kitchen and wishing there was a door to slam. All she wanted to do was hit something or someone. It didn’t help that Shae was coming down the staircase with an amused smirk on her face. “Why did you have to be the older one? How come you always get to be first?”

“I don’t know why you’re so upset.” Shae shrugged as if this night was no big deal. Emma bit her tongue as she passed her sister on the steps. Their mother was most likely listening to them in the kitchen, and the last thing Emma needed was to get grounded before the biggest bonfire of the year. “You get the car all week long while I’m at college. Besides, you got to use it last weekend.”

“No,” Emma argued, unable to stop herself. She spun around on the second step to face Shae, who had already reached the landing. “I only got to use the car on Friday night. Remember? You went into the city all day on Saturday.”

“I’m in college, Emma. I’m not allowed a vehicle on campus, so I should get the car two nights out of the week. Those days just happen to fall on the weekends.” Shae crossed her arms like she did when she was trying to make a point and look all mature. Just because she was in college didn’t mean that she was an adult. “What’s the big deal, anyway? You can have one of your friends pick you up. It’s safe that way.”

“Brynn’s car is in the shop, and you know that Julie doesn’t have access to one.” Why should Emma have to explain why she wanted the car? “You know what? Take the car. I don’t care anymore.”

“Good, because I am taking it. It’s my turn.”

“I hate you!”

A tear ran down Emma’s right cheek, though the rain washed it away. She didn’t hate her sister. Shae was everything Emma wanted to be.

Lightning lit up the sky overhead, illuminating her surroundings.

He was gone.

He was nowhere to be seen.

Emma was finally breathing again, though her heart was beating hard against her chest. She scrambled to her feet and did a full turn to scan her immediate surroundings. She was alone in the dark, but something told her he would appear out of nowhere her if she didn’t keep moving.

She took off once again for Seventh Street, relief washing over her as she finally reached the paved road. Not once did she think of slowing down her pace, though she did veer to the right so that she could follow the road that would lead her past the cemetery and toward the back end of town. She’d take the shortcut to her house from there.

It was then she saw the silhouette standing on the other side of the road blocking her path.

It was him.

That’s why he hadn’t come upon her when she’d fallen on the leaves. He’d somehow run ahead to cut her off before she could get home.

Emma had no choice but to run back toward the woods. There was no holding back the sobs that had been trying to escape. Why was he doing this to her? What had she done to him?

It was hard to see through her tears, but she ran blindly through the trees nonetheless. She didn’t follow any path, and she certainly never expected two arms to reach out of the darkness to save her. They embraced her warmly, and she even heard the soothing words that everything would be alright.

She was safe.

Emma broke down, holding onto the strong arms so that she wouldn’t sink to the ground.

“H-he’s coming,” Emma managed to say, trying to warn whoever had saved her. Was it Billy? Lance Kendall? Chad Schaeffer? It didn’t matter. “He’s right behind me and—”

Something was wrong.

Emma furiously blinked her tears away and looked up at her savior.

Only she was mistaken.

No one was here to save her.

All hope vanished. She didn’t understand how it happened, but the man she was running from hadn’t been the one standing in the middle of Seventh Street.

He’d been waiting for her in the shadows all along.

About the Keys to Love Series

Their homecoming wasn’t so welcoming. Four brothers and one sister each gave twelve years of their lives to serve their country and fulfill their family’s legacy of service. As each of them return to their home of record, they weren’t prepared for what awaited them—an unforgivable sin that has been hidden for twelve long years. Secrets and lies are concealed in the dark shadows of the very town they were raised in, and the Kendall family will have no choice but to rely on one another to unravel the sinister evil that they all hold the keys to unlock.

 

Missed UNLOCKING FEAR or UNLOCKING SECRETS and want to catch up? You can grab the first two books in the Keys to Love series now!

 

About UNLOCKING FEAR

A chance mishap with a sledgehammer was the sole reason a chilling nightmare was unleashed in Blyth Lake.

Noah Kendall’s grisly discovery left him in the middle of a murder investigation and a neighbor who knew more than she was willing to say. Reese Woodward had returned to town with dark secrets, and he was determined to unravel them. While evil lurks in the darkness, seduction burns between them…only time was their enemy.

Will her secrets destroy what they’ve built, or can he earn her trust before the killer strikes again?

Add UNLOCKING FEAR to your Goodreads list here!

Get your copy of UNLOCKING FEAR now!

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About UNLOCKING SECRETS
 

A grim discovery in Lance Kendall’s home proved one thing—the residents of Blyth Lake had a serial killer in their midst. Now Lance had unintentionally put a target on his back. Worst yet, he’s made the only woman he ever loved known to a murderer.

A trip down memory lane with the man who’d broken Brynn Mercer’s heart wasn’t the smartest thing she’d ever done in her life, but their reunion was a slow burn of temptation that she couldn’t ignore.

Together, they will only have one chance to correct the past. Will the hidden secrets he uncovered threaten their love or solidify it for a future that has always been out of their reach?

Add UNLOCKING SECRETS to your Goodreads list here!

Get your copy of UNLOCKING SECRETS now!

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✦iBooks http://apple.co/2mN73R5
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✦Kobo http://bit.ly/2nrCOw6

 

 

About Kennedy Layne

Kennedy Layne is a USA Today bestselling author. She draws inspiration for her military romantic suspense novels in part from her not-so-secret second life as a wife of a retired Marine Master Sergeant. He doubles as her critique partner, beta reader, and military consultant. They live in the Midwest with their teenage son and menagerie of pets. The loyal dogs and mischievous cats appreciate her writing days as much as she does, usually curled up in front of the fireplace. She loves hearing from readers–find out how to connect with her at www.kennedylayne.com.

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Chapter Reveal: MORE THAN WORDS ( Guarding The Gods Book Three ) By Bestselling Author ANN LISTER @Jo_isalovebooks @AnnListerAuthor

HOSTING CR MTMW 19TH MARCH

Take a sneak peek and read chapter sixteen today.

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Special Chapter Sneak Peek

MTMW out now

Gay Erotic Romance ready for your reading pleasure.

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Mason Foxworth has spent the last several months recovering from injuries he received doing personal security while on tour during the horrific fire in Germany. He feels useless and alone, and the worst part of it, the physical scarring left behind from the burns has ruined his self-esteem. Who would want him now, when he is so damaged inside and out and has nothing much to contribute? He doesn’t have many friends and his co-workers feel it’s safer to keep Mason at a desk in the office pushing paperwork, rather than out in the field working security. Mason wants to change that status before he loses the last thread of his sanity, and the main obstacle in his way is a bum leg that’s taking far too long to heal.

Tessler is an enigma in the sci-fi literary world. A young, reclusive author, known for the mystery swirling around him, realizes he’s lost any real joy in his life until he suddenly starts to feel the strange emotion pumping through his veins. Barely beyond the age of twenty-five, and he’s already made more money than most see in a lifetime, but Tessler feels empty inside. What made him this way must remain the secret it is, or he feels he’ll lose the empire he’s created. But meeting a man who could possibly bring all his pieces together is challenging his reasons for anonymity, and Tessler suddenly finds himself wanting more from life and for himself.

Mason wants his life back and Tessler is just looking to have a real life. Can two vastly different men find a way to smooth out their hard edges and blend their lives to offer the one ingredient neither has? Personal growth comes in many different shapes and Mason and Tessler have a mountain of it to climb in order to find their HEA, but it’s a journey both of them are ready to take.

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Zac’s Mulligan Book 1

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Honor And Pride Book 2

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COMING SOON!

GUARDING THE GODS BOOK 4

The Black Key Journal

ANN LISTER MEDIA PICTURE

Ann Lister is a native New Englander currently living on the island of Martha’s Vineyard with her husband. She has pulled details from her years living in the New England area and uses many local settings and landmarks in her novels.
After graduating art school, marrying, and raising two daughters, she established her own video production company. Her nearly two decades working in video production included work within the music industry and won her a coveted Telly Award. Her ‘behind-the-scenes’ exposure to the music world and her love of rock music is the inspiration for her erotic rock star romances.
The Rock Gods series gave her Bestselling Author status on Amazon. Beyond The Music, Book 7 in the series, hit #1 in the Gay Erotica genre during the Pre-Order and held that spot for several weeks. This last book in The Rock Gods series launches the spin-off series, Guarding The Gods, which releases in early Summer of 2016.
Fall For Me, Book One in the series was a Finalist in the 2013 Rainbow Award. Each book in this series brings her two favorite elements together: musicians and the love between two men. These stories focus on what it truly means to love; love unconditionally, love without restrictions or labels, love without fear or judgment – to just simply love.
 

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Chapter Reveal: UNLOCKING SECRETS ( Keys To Love Series #2 ) By KENNEDY LAYNE @KennedyL_Author @InkslingerPR

 

We’re a little over a week away from the release of UNLOCKING SECRETS by Kennedy Layne – but you don’t have to wait! You can read the first chapter now. Check it out and be sure to preorder your copy!

About UNLOCKING SECRETS

A grim discovery in Lance Kendall’s home proved one thing—the residents of Blyth Lake had a serial killer in their midst. Now Lance had unintentionally put a target on his back. Worst yet, he’s made the only woman he ever loved known to a murderer.

A trip down memory lane with the man who’d broken Brynn Mercer’s heart wasn’t the smartest thing she’d ever done in her life, but their reunion was a slow burn of temptation that she couldn’t ignore.

Together, they will only have one chance to correct the past. Will the hidden secrets he uncovered threaten their love or solidify it for a future that has always been out of their reach?

Add UNLOCKING SECRETS to your Goodreads list here!

UNLOCKING SECRETS releases March 20th, 2018 – preorder your copy now!

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Read the First Chapter of UNLOCKING SECRETS:

CHAPTER ONE

Twelve years ago…

Emily stared into the cold dark eyes of a man she should have recognized—only she didn’t.
Why did he seem so distant? So far away?

“I-I’m going home,” Emma choked out around the nervous constriction in her throat. Fear immobilized her feet to the ground. “Everyone is leaving the party. I’ve got to get home before my parents find out I’m not in bed.”

She ran her sweaty palms down the brand-new pair of ripped jeans she’d bought to impress Billy Stanton. She’d found them on the clearance rack after having saved enough of her allowance to afford them. She wanted to look over her shoulder where the bonfire was still raging, but his unsettling stare kept her from taking her attention off him.

What was he doing here anyway?

Something deeply inherent to her survival told her that she was in danger, but that was impossible. Things like that didn’t happen in their small town. He would never really hurt her, right?

“I know I’m late. My mom and dad will freak if they find out I’m late for curfew.” Emma wished she’d waited for Brynn or Julie, but it was already an hour past the curfew her parents had initially set up a few years ago. Is that why he was here? Had her parents discovered her empty bed? Shoot. That would mean the sheriff was on his way out here and everyone would blame her come Monday morning for the party being busted. “I didn’t m-mean to lose track of time.”

Emma shifted her weight in unease. He hadn’t said a word. Why was he staring at her with such a blank expression?

“Julie and Brynn are right behind me. They’ll be here in just a minute.”

Emma wasn’t sure why she’d lied like that. It wasn’t like he didn’t know the annual bonfire was taking place and who was in attendance. After all, the alcohol had to be supplied by someone.

His gaze drifted over her shoulders toward the farm.

It wasn’t until that moment that she became aware of how still he’d been standing in front of her with his arms hanging down at his sides.

Would he tell her parents where she’d been?

Wait. That didn’t make any sense. He’d be in just as much trouble as the rest of them, maybe even more so given the circumstances.

“You’re here to warn us, aren’t you?”

Relief came over her in waves as she finally connected the dots. She was so stressed about missing curfew that she must have misread the situation.

“My dad called the sheriff, and he’s on his way out here, isn’t he?” Emma did look over her shoulder, grimacing at the fact that mostly everyone would be grounded come the weekend. They’d all say it was her fault, and Billy would never ask her out. “You should go warn the rest of them. I’ll run home and try to make up an excuse as to why I was out so late.”

Emma didn’t wait around for him to answer. She took off at a dead run, brushing past him as the adrenaline and fear pumped through her at facing the disappointing reaction of her parents.

How could she possibly get out of the grounding of her life?

She ran deeper into the woods, ignoring the rumbling sound of thunder overhead. The gathering clouds made it rather difficult for her to see the path in front of her, but she’d memorized this route from the many times she’d taken it over the years.

The air contained a bit of a chill, especially since she’d been by the bonfire for the last few hours. The only good thing about the fast jog she’d undertaken was that it kept her heartrate up, chasing away the cool breeze stinging her cheeks.

She cried out when the tip of her boot got caught in the root of a tree. The leaves on the ground cushioned her fall, but the palms of her hands still suffered scratches from the coarse sticks littered amongst the foliage. It wasn’t her skin she was worried about so much as the condition of the cute little ankle boots she’d borrowed from her sister. If she so much as scuffed the toe, she’d be in deep shit for taking them without asking.

Emma shifted off her hands and knees, choosing to stand instead of sitting on the ground. The clouds took advantage of the moment and slowly covered the moon, limiting the light she’d been using to lead the way. She couldn’t see the damage done to her sister’s boots, nor the severity of the cuts on her hand. The warm stickiness alerted her to the fact that she was bleeding at least a little.

Was it bad of her to think that she could use this to her advantage? She squinted to try and see how bad the scratches were so she could adjust her story. She could always say she’d fallen on her way home and stopped at Julie’s house to clean up the wounds. Would her parents believe her slight misdirection?

Emma didn’t have anything to wipe her hands on, but surely she could find something before reaching home.

She flinched when a raindrop hit her cheek. Simultaneously, a low rumble of thunder traveled across the sky. That didn’t stop a sliver of moonlight from slipping through the storm clouds…only to reveal a stretched shadow that was coming in her direction.

Emma spun around, surprised to find him no more than ten feet away.

“W-what are you doing? Didn’t you go and warn the rest of them?”

“Julie and Brynn haven’t started walking home yet, have they?”

It sounded more like a statement than a question. Why would he ask her that question?

A sickening sensation rolled her stomach to the point where she physically had to take a step back from the cause.

Something was wrong with him.

He didn’t sound like he usually did, always polite and fun to be around.

Why was he acting this way? Was he showing off?

“Y-you don’t want to get into trouble, either,” Emma pointed out as she struggled to maintain her composure. He was scaring her with his bravado, and she didn’t like it. She went on the offensive. “You supplied the keg. I know you did, and so does everyone else that was here tonight.”

The man lifted the left side of his mouth as if he were amused by her warning.

It was then she realized she was in trouble…real trouble.

“They couldn’t possibly imagine what I’m going to do to you, Emma. They’ll all be looking in the wrong direction.”

 

About the Keys to Love Series

Their homecoming wasn’t so welcoming. Four brothers and one sister each gave twelve years of their lives to serve their country and fulfill their family’s legacy of service. As each of them return to their home of record, they weren’t prepared for what awaited them—an unforgivable sin that has been hidden for twelve long years. Secrets and lies are concealed in the dark shadows of the very town they were raised in, and the Kendall family will have no choice but to rely on one another to unravel the sinister evil that they all hold the keys to unlock.

Missed UNLOCKING FEAR? Grab the first book in the Keys to Love series now!

 

About UNLOCKING FEAR

A chance mishap with a sledgehammer was the sole reason a chilling nightmare was unleashed in Blyth Lake.

Noah Kendall’s grisly discovery left him in the middle of a murder investigation and a neighbor who knew more than she was willing to say. Reese Woodward had returned to town with dark secrets, and he was determined to unravel them. While evil lurks in the darkness, seduction burns between them…only time was their enemy.

Will her secrets destroy what they’ve built, or can he earn her trust before the killer strikes again?

Add UNLOCKING FEAR to your Goodreads list here!

Get your copy of UNLOCKING FEAR now!

✦Amazon http://amzn.to/2oDD6Tg
✦iBooks http://apple.co/2ouRvO6
✦Barnes and Noble http://bit.ly/2AYCo5e
✦Kobo http://bit.ly/2odmleE

 

 

 

About Kennedy Layne

Kennedy Layne is a USA Today bestselling author. She draws inspiration for her military romantic suspense novels in part from her not-so-secret second life as a wife of a retired Marine Master Sergeant. He doubles as her critique partner, beta reader, and military consultant. They live in the Midwest with their teenage son and menagerie of pets. The loyal dogs and mischievous cats appreciate her writing days as much as she does, usually curled up in front of the fireplace. She loves hearing from readers–find out how to connect with her at www.kennedylayne.com.

Website | Twitter | Facebook | Newsletter | Instagram

Today we have the Chapter Reveal for SEED by CASSIA LEO! Check it out and pre-order your copy today!@AuthorCassiaLeo @inkslingerpr

 

 

Today we have the chapter reveal for SEED by Cassia Leo! Check it out and pre-order your copy today!

 

Title: SEED
Author: Cassia Leo
Series: Evergreen Series
Release: March 16, 2018

 

About SEED

The explosive continuation of the Evergreen Series from New York Times bestselling author Cassia Leo.

The seeds of doubt have been planted.


Two to six weeks. That’s how long it takes, on average, to get a divorce in Oregon.

With Jack convinced I betrayed him, I expect to be served divorce papers within hours of moving out. But weeks pass without word from Jack, and the papers never arrive. Though my heart isn’t ready to give up on him, I can’t shake the feeling that we may be better off apart. And Isaac is more than happy to help me move on.

But just as I begin to build some semblance of a life and career, a new and improved Jack arrives on my doorstep. Divorce papers are the furthest thing from his mind as he delivers news that both shatters me and restores my faith in the love we shared. But is it too late for us?

 

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Chapter Reveal

JACK

May 10, 2015

“Stay with me, baby,” I murmured as I stroked Laurel’s hand to keep her from falling asleep. “You realize our son is going to be born on a very special day.”

Her eyes rolled back in their sockets as another contraction hit. “What?” she groaned.

I had been trying to keep her mind distracted from the pain with idle conversation about the things she most liked to talk about. So far, I’d engaged her in a wide array of topics: Stoic philosophy, ridiculous names for baked goods, inappropriate wedding songs, and her favorite topic, names for baby boys.

“His birthdate is going to be May 10th, 2015. In numbers, that five, ten, fifteen.”

She managed to groan and chuckle at the same time. “You’re so American. The rest of the world would say it’s ten, five, fifteen,” she said. She breathed in and out a few times through pursed lips before she continued. “Drea would make fun of you if she heard you say that.”

“It’s a good thing Drea’s not here then.”

As soon as I said the words, I wanted to take them back. I didn’t want to bring attention to the fact that, besides Drea, Laurel’s mom also was not here.

As if on cue, Laurel asked, “Where’s my mom?”

I squeezed her soft hand, which seemed to be getting colder. “She’s stuck in traffic, baby. There’s an accident. But she’s trying to get here as soon as she can.”

I didn’t have to lie for Beth. I had to lie for Laurel. I didn’t want her to worry that her mother was abandoning her in her time of need. This was probably the most important day of Laurel’s life, and her mother couldn’t be bothered to come when called.

Beth insisted this was a private moment for Laurel and I to share. According to her, most grandmothers weren’t in the labor and delivery room to see their grandchildren born. That was the parents’ “job.” She insisted she would get here as soon as the baby was born.

The fact that Beth referred to what I was doing at this moment as a “job” only made me angrier. I wasn’t here with Laurel because it was my job to be here. I was here because I loved Laurel, and this was where she wanted me to be. If Laurel told me to leave, I’d leave. She was the one making the decisions today, not me or Beth or the fucking Dalai Lama.

The midwife came into Laurel’s room just as the baby’s heart rate monitor began to beep loudly. The swift, hollow tap of our baby’s heartbeat had slowed to a slow, muffled thump. The midwife’s black eyebrows shot up as she raced to the monitor to get a better look at the flashing red numbers.

“What’s happening?” Laurel asked, but her eyelids were only half-open as her voice trailed off. “Is the baby… Is the baby okay?”

Maisie, Laurel’s Filipino midwife, lifted the sheet covering Laurel’s legs and her dark eyes became as wide as planets.

“What is it?” I demanded as the doctor rushed in.

“Get Florence and tell the others to get the OR ready,” the doctor ordered Maisie, who quickly disappeared into the corridor.

“Dr. Eastman, what’s wrong?” I demanded.

But as my words fell like stones at our feet, Laurel’s hand went slack. Suddenly, four nurses raced into the room and shoved me aside as they locked the side rails on Laurel’s bed and systematically disconnected her from various machines.

My stomach went sour as they rushed her out of the labor and delivery room to the operating room. As I followed closely behind them, I felt as if I were having an out of body experience. I was watching these medical professionals pushing a gurney with someone else’s unconscious wife. Maybe I’d fallen asleep in the chair in Laurel’s hospital room and this was all a nightmare.

But when we arrived at the double doors to the OR, someone grabbed my arm to stop me from entering. That was when I knew this was really happening.

Before the doors swung shut, I caught a glimpse of three more nurses inside the operating room. They appeared to be hanging bags of blood on IV stands and prepping instruments.

“She’s hemorrhaging,” Dr. Eastman finally said, as I watched what was going on through the windows in the double door.

“What do you mean? How? Why?” I replied as I watched two nurses wheel Laurel’s bed into the center of the OR.

“Mr. Stratton, please look at me.”

I turned toward the doctor and the grave look in his eyes sent me into a panic. “What’s going on? Tell me what the fuck is happening to my wife!”

“Do you remember at a previous sonogram when I said we would have to do more sonograms every three days instead of every week, to keep an eye on the placenta?”

I nodded vigorously. “Just cut to the chase and tell me what the hell is happening to my wife.”

Eastman sighed. “The placenta was not over the cervix at the start of labor, but it seems the contractions have moved it down and Laurel’s losing a lot of blood. We’ll have to deliver the baby via C-section.”

I tried to follow a nurse into the OR, but Maisie and Dr. Eastman stopped me again. “I have to be in there!” I shouted.

“We need to scrub before we can enter the surgical suite,” East said. “Follow me.”

In the washroom, Eastman introduced me to the anesthesiologist, Dr. Brunei, who was already washed up as a couple of nurses helped him slip into a fresh pair of scrubs.

“Doctor, I need you to be straight with me,” I said as I set down the disposable nail brush and proceeded to rub the red Hibiclens soap all over my hands and up to my elbows. “Should I be worried?”

“Hemorrhaging in labor is not ideal, but it’s not uncommon. It’s a situation we’re always prepared for, especially with what we saw in the previous sonograms. You’re in good hands today. We’re going to deliver your baby and replace the blood your wife lost. I just need to verify that neither you nor your wife have any religious objections to receiving blood transfusion?”

I shook my head as I held my arms under the running water. I couldn’t speak. This couldn’t be happening.

When Eastman and I were gowned and gloved, we entered the surgical suite in time to see the nurses using a sheet to lift Laurel’s limp body off the hospital bed and onto the operating gurney, her arm flopped over the edge of the mattress.

Her skin was drained of the usual golden-peach glow. Her fingers were blue.

No. I shook my head, unwilling to accept what I was seeing.

“Mr. Stratton?”

I turned my head to the right and found four-foot-eleven Maisie staring up at me.

“You’re very pale, Mr. Stratton. You should sit,” she said, motioning to a chair on the other side of the room, closer to Laurel.

I nodded as I trailed behind her like a lost puppy. “Thank you,” I muttered, but I didn’t take a seat. I couldn’t rest when both my babies needed me.

Due to the hemorrhaging, Laurel would be put under general anesthesia instead of the usual spinal block used for C-sections. Maisie made it clear that this meant I would be the first person to hold our baby, not Laurel. I knew this would make Laurel sad, when she woke and I had to tell her what happened. But I wasn’t prepared for how I would feel about it.

I held Laurel’s hand through the entire surgery, stroking and kissing the back of her hand and murmuring words of encouragement as if she were awake. When our son was pulled from her womb, his blue skin covered in blood, I stopped breathing. Mere seconds passed before he took his first wailing breath of life, but it felt like an eternity.

As the nurses cleaned him up, I kept a firm grasp on Laurel’s hand while I whispered in her ear, narrating what was happening. I hoped that somewhere in her subconscious mind, she was listening, and maybe someday she could piece together this moment.

Maisie smiled as she approached me with the bundle wrapped in a striped baby blanket. As I took my son in my arms for the first time, I was overwhelmed by a wave of emotion so powerful, it should have knocked me out of my chair.

Tears streamed down my cheeks as I looked down at his puffy, pink face. “This is my boy,” I said with a chuckle. His tiny body moved in my arms and it my chest filled with sheer wonder and joy. I shook my head, unable to believe I’d made something so pure and so real. “This is our son.” I put my finger next to his tiny hand and my heart nearly burst when he grabbed on. I kissed his fingers the way I’d kissed Laurel’s hand earlier and his eyelids fluttered. “Laurel, baby, I wish you could see this.” I looked up at Maisie. “Doesn’t he need to be breastfed or something?” I asked.

She smiled. “They will bring her out of anesthesia in a few minutes, once she’s stitched up. For now, he needs to be held by his papa.”

The words echoed in my mind. His papa.

My face screwed up as I was overcome with emotion. The fear and doubt I’d felt about becoming a father seemed like a distant memory. I’d never been so filled with absolute joy in all my life.

I was a father. I was papa.

***

Present day

I had let my jealousy and rage distract me from what was truly important. I’d driven Laurel away twice, at a time when my pixie needed me most. I knew Laurel didn’t owe me a third chance, which was why I was going to earn my way back into her arms. And there was only two ways to do that.

One way was to catch the bastard who stole our happiness. The other way might prove more difficult. It would involve closing my case files and admitting that my need for justice was tearing my marriage apart. But I couldn’t do that, not until I gave my quest for justice one final effort. If I couldn’t get justice for my boy by the time Laurel turned thirty next month, I would pack away my case files and do whatever I took to get her back.

I handed my suitcase to the guy wearing the fluorescent safety vest, then I climbed the steps of the private charter plane at exactly eleven a.m. Immediately, I slid my cell phone out of the interior pocket of my sport coat and called my assistant, Jade Insley.

“Good morning,” she answered cheerily.

“Jade, I need you to forward all my calls, even the ones to my cell, to your desk phone. I’m out of town and I don’t know when I’ll be back.”

“Absolutely,” she replied. “What should I tell the partners?”

“Tell them I’m visiting family. I’ll check in occasionally for messages.”

I ended the call and immediately removed the SIM card from my phone, tossing the tiny chip over the side of the staircase before I stepped inside the plane. I gave the attendant my drink order — club soda with lime — then I tucked my cell into my coat. Sliding the burner phone out of the front pocket of my slacks, I took a seat in the plush leather seat. I turned the phone on and shot off a text.

Me:

Plane taking off. Should land in less than two hours. We still on for three p.m.?

Sean:

I’ll be there with bells on.

***

I pulled my rental car into a space in front of a two-story office building clad in weathered cedar shingles. The dark tinted windows and lack of signage made it look like a place one would go to get illegal plastic surgery. Other than my rented Chevy Tahoe, the only other cars in the lot were a beat up Cadillac Eldorado and a pristine 80s era cherry-red Porsche.

When I stepped into the lobby, I was not surprised to find a directory missing a third of its letters. But I was still able to determine that “SEA D GHE TY PI 2 1” meant Sean Dougherty, Private Investigator was in suite 201 or 211. That narrowed my options down significantly.

I opted not to take my chances on the wood-paneled elevator and took the stairs up to the second floor. The smell of body odor and desperation engulfed me as I walked down the hallway. The first door I saw was 201 and I quickly reached for the doorknob, eager to escape the smell in the corridor, but the knob didn’t turn. I rapped on the steel door a few times, certain that no one would hear me. I was surprised when my knocking was met with a loud grunt from within.

I immediately lifted the right side of my sport coat, my hand hovering over the gun holstered on my hip as I waited for the door to open.

“Who is it?” a gruff voice called from the other side.

“Jack Stratton. We have an appointment.”

The door opened slowly and we both smiled when we realized we both have our hands poised over our sidearms.

I slowly moved my hand away from my weapon and held it up in front of me. “All good.”

The man lowered his hand and pushed the door wide open. “Good to meet you, Jack,” he said, holding out his hand. “I’m Sean.”

We shook, and I was not at all surprised to find his calloused hand had a killer grip. “It’s really good to meet you,” I replied as I stepped inside suite 201.

My shoulders relaxed instantly when I realized Sean’s office was actually quite clean and modern and smelled like coffee. Not a hint of despair. Sean was a sturdy man in his early fifties, with thick salt and pepper hair and muscled limbs clothed in a crisp button-up and slacks. Not at all what I expected from a gritty private investigator who worked in the ninth circle of office park hell.

“The exterior throws people off. Only the people who are serious make it past the front door,” he said as if he were reading my thoughts. “Have a seat.” He continued speaking as I took a seat across the glass desk. “Hood River PD approved my request to see the file this morning, and I was able to go through most of it before you got here. We’re both obviously most interested in this memo they received from Boise PD. Have you spoken with Detective Robinson yet?”

I shook my head. “She couldn’t say much over the phone. I have a meeting scheduled with her tomorrow. She didn’t seem very optimistic that this would lead anywhere. She hasn’t had a whole lot of luck with sealed adoption records. But I’m working on a piece of software to cross-reference birth records and the NCIC persons files for individuals in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. I should have the code finalized and ready to run in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, I wanted to get you on the case to see if we can track down that adoption decree. I mean, I don’t even have the guy’s name. I’m flying blind.”

NCIC stood for National Crime Information Center, the database shared between the FBI and federal, state, local, and tribal criminal justice users to cooperate on investigations and policies.

Sean leaned back in his desk chair and cocked an eyebrow. “So what put you onto this lead anyway? This is a pretty serious accusation.”

I shook my head as I stared at the manila folder on his desk. “Just a hunch, I guess. I always felt like there was more to Beth than any of us knew.”

“And Beth is your wife’s mother, right?”

I nodded. “Don’t get me wrong, Beth was a great mom and I couldn’t have asked for a better grandmother for my son. She… She gave her life trying to protect my boy. I hold no ill will toward her. But there was always something about her that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

“I used to chalk it up to the same mysterious quality Laurel has. A strange, otherworldly kind of beauty and wit. But with Laurel’s mom, there were other signs that I didn’t know the real Beth.”

“Like what?”

“Just general secretiveness when it came to what caused her divorce from Laurel’s father and stuff like that. It wasn’t until someone in our Facebook group passed on the tip to Boise PD about Mike O’Toole that Detective Robinson decided to do a little digging into Beth’s past.”

“So who’s Mike O’Toole?”

I waved off the question. “A dead lead, but it did get Robinson asking questions and that’s why I’m here. The PI I spoke to in Portland told me that it could take years to win a battle to unseal adoption records. She said my best bet, if the suspect is living here in Idaho, would be to try to find someone who could track him down here. So here I am, hoping like hell you can help me find the piece of shit that killed my son, because… I’m on the verge of losing everything.”

Sean is silent for a long while as he stares at the glass desktop, and when he finally looks up, his square face is fixed with a tight smile. “Well, you were honest with me, so I guess it’s my turn for a little show and tell.” He reaches behind him, opens the top drawer of a two-drawer file cabinet, and pulls out a silver picture frame. “This is my Rosie,” he says, placing the picture on top of his desk so I could see the photo of a teenage girl with wavy blonde hair and a beaming smile. “Rose hated when I called her Rosie,” he said, staring at the picture with a wistful look in his steel-gray eyes.

“She’s beautiful,” I said, stopping myself before I could say she reminded me a bit of Laurel.

“Rose was seventeen when she went to an ice skating rink with some friends. Same as she’d done every winter since she was eight years old. But this time, she went outside to have a smoke. A nasty habit. I kept grounding her to try to get her to stop, but she just wouldn’t listen. She was too pigheaded.” He finally looked up and met my gaze. “That was the last we saw of her until her body was discovered two months later, in a creek forty miles away.”

I clenched my jaw as I imagined how I would have felt if I’d had seventeen years with Junior before he was murdered. Or if, God forbid, it had been Laurel who had been taken away from me. I wouldn’t want to live in a world without Laurel.

“That was a knockout punch. I was down for the count. No coming back from that, I thought,” Sean continued. “So I doubled down on how fast I could wreck my life. I was a financial crimes detective at the time, but I began sleeping in my office, poring over the case files day and night. I became obsessed.”

I lowered my gaze as his words shamed me. All the nights I’d spent sleeping on the couch in my home office instead of in the bedroom with Laurel were mirrored in Sean’s story. And somehow, I didn’t think his story had a happy ending.

“Did you find out who did it?”

Sean smiled as he shook his head. “Nope. I lost my job. Lost my marriage. Lost my house. That bastard took my daughter from me, but I willingly gave him everything else. You understand?”

I nodded in silence. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t think of a single cynical thing to say. I was only in this office because this was my last resort. I couldn’t come back to Laurel emptyhanded. I’d given her every material thing she could ever want. I gave her shelter and security. I gave her my love. But I hadn’t given her my full attention.

Unfortunately, I knew myself too well to know that I would not be able to focus on my marriage and work until I was certain I’d done everything I could for Junior. And, yes, even for Beth. She may have had her secrets, but I meant it when I said Junior could not have asked for a better grandmother. She deserved justice as much as my boy did.

Sean Dougherty and the software program I was working on, which I had dubbed PNW Checkmate, were my last hope. If the software helped us find Junior’s killer, I would expand the software to include all fifty states and territories. For now, I had to focus on this area, and specifically Boise. If Ava Robinson’s suspicions were correct that Beth and Junior’s murders were not random, this was surely the missing piece of the puzzle we needed to help us crack this case. Laurel and I might finally be able to turn the page on this gruesome chapter of our lives.

Sean and I chatted for more than two hours. I filled in any holes in the case file he’d received from the Hood River Police Department. I laid out my suspicions about Beth’s past, information I’d gleaned through conversations with Beth and Laurel over the years. The most interesting tidbit being the time Laurel told me her mother had left her father for a few months when she was about five years old. It wasn’t definitive evidence, but it was one brushstroke in a colorful picture of a woman who lived her life with as much verve as the flowers she so carefully nurtured.

“Whatever you do, do not—I repeat, do not attempt to approach any potential suspects or interviewees on your own. You hear me?” He glared at me with his thick eyebrows raised, awaiting my agreement.

“You have my word,” I replied, probably not as definitively as I should have.

“I’m serious, Jack. Don’t get yourself killed or arrested for this shit. It’s not worth it. Tell me you understand.”

I nodded. “I understand,” I said with a bit more vigor.

He eyed me warily. “I’ll handle all interviews. You’ve got too much at ´stake. Too many emotions that pose a threat here. And I’m the experienced interrogator. So this is not a request. This is an order. You hear me?”

I looked him dead in the eye. “Loud and clear.”

 

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About Cassia Leo

New York Times bestselling author Cassia Leo loves her coffee, chocolate, and margaritas with salt. When she’s not writing, she spends way too much time re-watching Game of Thrones and Sex and the City. When she’s not binge watching, she’s usually enjoying the Oregon rain with a hot cup of coffee and a book.

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“Cheeky Royal is a crown jewel of sexy, princely fun! A modern-day fairy tale with a wayward prince, an adorably new-to-her-job palace guard, tons of laughs, and tons of steam. Five crowning stars!” — Sierra Simone USA Today Bestselling author

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All they want is everything they can’t have.

Penny…

Yes, yes, I’ve heard the rumors.
The prince is royal, and cocky and has a—well never mind about all that.
The problem is, he’s also my job.

When the King called on me to retrieve the wayward prince, I was ready to walk away.

Then I caught my boyfriend cheating—and suddenly leaving never felt like a better idea.

Sebastian…

I never wanted the throne.

When I left behind my gilded cage of a palace, it all sounded so simple: find my long-lost brother & make him the prince so I don’t have to rule the kingdom like my father expects.

Then I meet my new neighbor, and quickly realize I’ve found the queen of my heart—and bed.

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What good is a King without his Queen?

Sebastian…

I never wanted the crown, but now it’s mine.
Instead of my freedom–instead of her.
But even though she’s not mine to keep, I can’t seem to stay away.

Penny…

The moment he became king, I knew we were over.

Now I’ve returned home some kind of conquering hero.
If only they all knew that we’d both lost our hearts.
If only I could stay out of the royal bed.

What good is being cocky if you can’t get what you want?

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About the Author:

USA Today Bestselling Author, NANA MALONE’s love of all things romance and adventure started with a tattered romantic suspense she borrowed from her cousin on a sultry summer afternoon in Ghana at a precocious thirteen. She’s been in love with kick butt heroines ever since.

With her overactive imagination, and channeling her inner Buffy, it was only a matter a time before she started creating her own characters. Waiting for her chance at a job as a ninja assassin, Nana, meantime works out her drama, passion and sass with fictional characters every bit as sassy and kick butt as she thinks she is.

The books in her series have been on multiple Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble best seller lists as well as the iTunes Breakout Books list and most notably the USA Today Bestseller list.

Until that ninja job comes through, you’ll find Nana working hard on additional books for her series as well as other fun, sassy romances for characters that won’t leave her alone. And if she’s not working or hiding in the closet reading, she’s acting out scenes for her husband, daughter and puppy in sunny San Diego.

Want to hit me up? Just email me: nana@nanamaloneromance.com

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Book Blitz & Bonus Chapter: VICIOUS ( Sinners of Saint ) By L.J. SHEN @authorljshen @Isajones75 @Jo_isalovebooks

VICIOUS

(SINNERS OF SAINT)

by Author

L.J. SHEN



EMILIA

They say love and hate are the same feelings experienced under different circumstances, and it’s true.
The man who comes to me in my dreams also haunts me in my nightmares.
He is a brilliant lawyer.
A skilled criminal.
A beautiful liar.
A bully and a savior, a monster and a lover.
Ten years ago, he made me run away from the small town where we lived. Now, he came for me in New York, and he isn’t leaving until he takes me with him.

VICIOUS

She is a starving artist.
Pretty and evasive like cherry blossom.
Ten years ago, she barged into my life unannounced and turned everything upside down.
She paid the price.
Emilia LeBlanc is completely off-limits, my best friend’s ex-girlfriend. The woman who knows my darkest secret, and the daughter of the cheap Help we hired to take care of our estate.
That should deter me from chasing her, but it doesn’t.
So she hates me. Big fucking deal.
She better get used to me.
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Chapter One

Emilia

My grandmama once told me that love and hate are the same feelings experienced under different circumstances. The passion is the same. The pain is the same. That weird thing that bubbles in your chest? Same. I didn’t believe her until I met Baron Spencer and he became my nightmare.
Then my nightmare became my reality.
I thought I’d escaped him. I was even stupid enough to think he’d forgotten I ever existed.
But when he came back, he hit harder than I ever thought possible.
And just like a domino—I fell.

Ten Years Ago
I’d only been inside the mansion once before, when my family first came to Todos Santos. That was two months ago. That day, I stood rooted in place on the same ironwood flooring that never creaked.
That first time, Mama had elbowed my ribs. “You know this is the toughest floor in the world?”
She failed to mention it belonged to the man with the toughest heart in the world.
I couldn’t for the life of me understand why people with so much money would spend it on such a depressing house. Ten bedrooms. Thirteen bathrooms. An indoor gym and a dramatic staircase. The best amenities money could buy…and except for the tennis court and sixty-five-foot pool, they were all in black.
Black choked out every pleasant feeling you might possibly have as soon as you walked through the big iron-studded doors. The interior designer must’ve been a medieval vampire, judging from the cold, lifeless colors and the giant iron chandeliers hanging from the ceilings. Even the floor was so dark that it looked like I was hovering over an abyss, a fraction of a second from falling into nothingness.
A ten-bedroom house, three people living in it—two of them barely ever there—and the Spencers had decided to house my family in the servants’ apartment near the garage. It was bigger than our clapboard rental in Richmond, Virginia, but until that moment, it had still rubbed me the wrong way.
Not anymore.
Everything about the Spencer mansion was designed to intimidate. Rich and wealthy, yet poor in so many ways. These are not happy people, I thought.
I stared at my shoes—the tattered white Vans I doodled colorful flowers on to hide the fact that they were knock-offs—and swallowed, feeling insignificant even before he had belittled me. Before I even knew him.
“I wonder where he is?” Mama whispered.
As we stood in the hallway, I shivered at the echo that bounced off the bare walls. She wanted to ask if we could get paid two days early because we needed to buy medicine for my younger sister, Rosie.
“I hear something coming from that room.” She pointed to a door on the opposite side of the vaulted foyer. “You go knock. I’ll go back to the kitchen to wait.”
“Me? Why me?”
“Because,” she said, pinning me with a stare that stabbed at my conscience, “Rosie’s sick, and his parents are out of town. You’re his age. He’ll listen to you.”
I did as I was told—not for Mama, for Rosie—without understanding the consequences. The next few minutes cost me my whole senior year and were the reason why I was ripped from my family at the age of eighteen.
Vicious thought I knew his secret.    
I didn’t.
He thought I’d found out what he was arguing about in that room that day.
I had no clue.
All I remember was trudging toward the threshold of another dark door, my fist hovering inches from it before I heard the deep rasp of an old man.
“You know the drill, Baron.”
A man. A smoker, probably.
“My sister told me you’re giving her trouble again.” The man slurred his words before raising his voice and slapping his palm against a hard surface. “I’ve had enough of you disrespecting her.”
“Fuck you.” I heard the composed voice of a younger man. He sounded…amused? “And fuck her too. Wait, is that why you’re here, Daryl? You want a piece of your sister too? The good news is that she’s open for business, if you have the buck to pay.”
“Look at the mouth on you, you little cunt.” Slap. “Your mother would’ve been proud.”
Silence, and then, “Say another word about my mother, and I’ll give you a real reason to get those dental implants you were talking about with my dad.” The younger man’s voice dripped venom, which made me think he might not be as young as Mama thought.
“Stay away,” the younger voice warned. “I can beat the shit out of you, now. As a matter of fact, I’m pretty tempted to do so. All. The fucking. Time. I’m done with your shit.”
“And what the hell makes you think you have a choice?” The older man chuckled darkly.
I felt his voice in my bones, like poison eating at my skeleton.
“Haven’t you heard?” the younger man gritted out. “I like to fight. I like the pain. Maybe because it makes it so much easier for me to come to terms with the fact that I’m going to kill you one day. And I will, Daryl. One day, I will kill you.”
I gasped, too stunned to move. I heard a loud smack, then someone tumbling down, dragging some items with him as he fell to the floor.
I was about to run—this conversation obviously wasn’t meant for me to hear—but he caught me off guard. Before I knew what was happening, the door swung open and I came face to face with a boy around my age. I say a boy, but there was nothing boyish about him.
The older man stood behind him, panting hard, hunched with his hands flat against a desk. Books were scattered around his feet, and his lip was cut and bleeding.
The room was a library. Soaring floor-to-ceiling, walnut shelves full of hardbacks lined the walls. I felt a pang in my chest because I somehow knew there wasn’t any way I’d ever be allowed in there again.
“What the fuck?” the teenage boy seethed. His eyes narrowed. They felt like the sight of a rifle aimed at me.
Seventeen? Eighteen? The fact that we were about the same age somehow made everything about the situation worse. I ducked my head, my cheeks flaming with enough heat to burn down the whole house.
“Have you been listening?” His jaw twitched.
I frantically shook my head no, but that was a lie. I’d always been a terrible liar.
“I didn’t hear a thing, I swear.” I choked on my words. “My mama works here. I was looking for her.” Another lie.
I’d never been a scaredy-cat. I was always the brave one. But I didn’t feel so brave at that moment. After all, I wasn’t supposed to be there, in his house, and I definitely wasn’t supposed to be listening to their argument.
The young man took a step closer, and I took a step back. His eyes were dead, but his lips were red, full, and very much alive. This guy is going to break my heart if I let him. The voice came from somewhere inside my head, and the thought stunned me because it made no sense at all. I’d never fallen in love before, and I was too anxious to even register his eye color or hairstyle, let alone the notion of ever having any feelings for the guy.
“What’s your name?” he demanded. He smelled delicious—a masculine spice of boy-man, sweet sweat, sour hormones, and the faint trace of clean laundry, one of my mama’s many chores.
“Emilia.” I cleared my throat and extended my arm. “My friends call me Millie. Y’all can too.”
His expression revealed zero emotion. “You’re fucking done, Emilia.” He drawled my name, mocking my Southern accent and not even acknowledging my hand with a glance.
I withdrew it quickly, embarrassment flaming my cheeks again.
“Wrong fucking place and wrong fucking time. Next time I find you anywhere inside my house, bring a body bag because you won’t be leaving alive.” He thundered past me, his muscular arm brushing my shoulder.
I choked on my breath. My gaze bolted to the older man, and our eyes locked. He shook his head and grinned in a way that made me want to fold into myself and disappear. Blood dripped from his lip onto his leather boot—black like his worn MC jacket. What was he doing in a place like this, anyway? He just stared at me, making no move to clean up the blood.
I turned around and ran, feeling the bile burning in my throat, threatening to spill over.
Needless to say, Rosie had to make do without her medicine that week and my parents were paid not a minute earlier than when they were scheduled to.
That was two months ago.
Today, when I walked through the kitchen and climbed the stairs, I had no choice.
I knocked on Vicious’s bedroom door. His room was on the second floor at the end of the wide curved hallway, the door facing the floating stone staircase of the cave-like mansion.
I’d never been near Vicious’s room, and I wished I could keep it that way. Unfortunately, my calculus book had been stolen. Whoever broke into my locker had wiped it clean of my stuff and left garbage inside. Empty soda cans, cleaning supplies, and condom wrappers spilled out the minute I opened the locker door.
Just another not-so-clever, yet effective, way for the students at All Saints High to remind me that I was nothing but the cheap help around here. By that point, I was so used to it I barely reddened at all. When all eyes in the hallway darted to me, snickers and chuckles rising out of every throat, I tilted my chin up and marched straight to my next class.
All Saints High was a school full of spoiled, over-privileged sinners. A school where if you failed to dress or act a certain way, you didn’t belong. Rosie blended in better than I did, thank the Lord. But with a Southern drawl, off-beat style, and one of the most popular guys at school—that being Vicious Spencer—hating my guts, I didn’t fit in.
What made it worse was that I didn’t want to fit in. These kids didn’t impress me. They weren’t kind or welcoming or even very smart. They didn’t possess any of the qualities I looked for in friends.
But I needed my textbook badly if I ever wanted to escape this place.
I knocked three times on the mahogany door of Vicious’s bedroom. Rolling my lower lip between my fingers, I tried to suck in as much oxygen as I could, but it did nothing to calm the throbbing pulse in my neck.
Please don’t be there…
Please don’t be an ass…
Please…
A soft noise seeped from the crack under the door, and my body tensed.
Giggling.
Vicious never giggled. Heck, he hardly ever chuckled. Even his smiles were few and far between. No. The sound was undoubtedly female.
I heard him whisper in his raspy tone something inaudible that made her moan. My ears seared, and I anxiously rubbed my hands on the yellow cut-off denim shorts covering my thighs. Out of all the scenarios I could have imagined, this was by far the worst.
Him.
With another girl.
Who I hated before I even knew her name.
It didn’t make any sense, yet I felt ridiculously angry.
But he was clearly there, and I was a girl on a mission.
“Vicious?” I called out, trying to steady my voice. I straightened my spine, even though he couldn’t see me. “It’s Millie. Sorry to interrupt, y’all. I just wanted to borrow your calc book. Mine’s lost, and I really need to get ready for that exam we have tomorrow.” God forbid you ever study for our exam yourself, I breathed silently.
He didn’t answer, but I heard a sharp intake of breath—the girl—and the rustle of fabric and the noise of a zipper rolling. Down, I had no doubt.
I squeezed my eyes shut and pressed my forehead against the cool wood of his door.
Bite the bullet. Swallow your pride. This wouldn’t matter in a few years. Vicious and his stupid antics would be a distant memory, the snooty town of Todos Santos just a dust-covered part of my past.
My parents had jumped at the chance when Josephine Spencer offered them a job. They’d dragged us across the country to California because the health care was better and we didn’t even need to pay rent. Mama was the Spencers’ cook/housekeeper, and Daddy was part gardener and handyman. The previous live-in couple had quit, and it was no wonder. Pretty sure my parents weren’t so keen on the job either. But opportunities like these were rare, and Josephine Spencer’s mama was friends with my great-aunt, which is how they’d gotten the job.
I was planning on getting out of here soon. As soon as I got accepted to the first out-of-state college I’d applied to, to be exact. In order to do so, though, I needed a scholarship.
For a scholarship, I needed kick-ass grades.
And for kick-ass grades, I needed this textbook.
“Vicious,” I ground out his stupid nickname. I knew he hated his real name, and for reasons beyond my grasp, I didn’t want to upset him. “I’ll grab the book and copy the formulas I need real quick. I won’t borrow it long. Please.” I gulped down the ball of frustration twisting in my throat. It was bad enough I’d had my stuff stolen—again—without having to ask Vicious for favors.
The giggling escalated. The high, screechy pitch sawed through my ears. My fingers tingled to push the door open and launch at him with my fists.
I heard his groan of pleasure and knew it had nothing to do with the girl he was with. He loved taunting me. Ever since our first encounter outside of his library two months ago, he’d been hell-bent on reminding me that I wasn’t good enough.
Not good enough for his mansion.
Not good enough for his school.
Not good enough for his town.
Worst part? It wasn’t a figure of speech. It really was his town. Baron Spencer Jr.—dubbed Vicious for his cold, ruthless behavior—was the heir to one of the biggest family-owned fortunes in California. The Spencers owned a pipeline company, half of downtown Todos Santos—including the mall—and three corporate office parks. Vicious had enough money to take care of the next ten generations of his family.
But I didn’t.
My parents were servants. We had to work for every penny. I didn’t expect him to understand. Trust-fund kids never did. But I presumed he’d at least pretend, like the rest of them.
Education mattered to me, and at that moment, I felt robbed of it.
Because rich people had stolen my books.
Because this particular rich kid wouldn’t even open the door to his room so I could borrow his textbook real quick.
“Vicious!” My frustration got the better of me, and I slammed my palm flat against his door. Ignoring the throb it sent up my wrist, I continued, exasperated. “C’mon!”
I was close to turning around and walking away. Even if it meant I had to take my bike and ride all the way across town to borrow Sydney’s books. Sydney was my only friend at All Saints High, and the one person I liked in class.
But then I heard Vicious chuckling, and I knew the joke was on me. “I love to see you crawl. Beg for it, baby, and I’ll give it to you,” he said.
Not to the girl in his room.
To me.
I lost it. Even though I knew it was wrong. That he was winning.
I thrust the door open and barged into his room, strangling the handle with my fist, my knuckles white and burning.
My eyes darted to his king-sized bed, barely stopping to take in the gorgeous mural above it—four white horses galloping into the darkness—or the elegant dark furniture. His bed looked like a throne, sitting in the middle of the room, big and high and draped in soft black satin. He was perched on the edge of his mattress, a girl who was in my PE class in his lap. Her name was Georgia and her grandparents owned half the vineyards upstate in Carmel Valley. Georgia’s long blonde hair veiled one of his broad shoulders and her Caribbean tan looked perfect and smooth against Vicious’s pale complexion.
His dark blue eyes—so dark they were almost black—locked on mine as he continued to kiss her ravenously—his tongue making several appearances—like she was made of cotton candy. I needed to look away, but couldn’t. I was trapped in his gaze, completely immobilized from the eyes down, so I arched an eyebrow, showing him that I didn’t care.
Only I did. I cared a lot.
I cared so much, in fact, that I continued to stare at them shamelessly. At his hollowed cheeks as he inserted his tongue deep into her mouth, his burning, taunting glare never leaving mine, gauging me for a reaction. I felt my body buzzing in an unfamiliar way, falling under his spell. A sweet, pungent fog. It was sexual, unwelcome, yet completely inescapable. I wanted to break free, but for the life of me, I couldn’t.
My grip on the door handle tightened, and I swallowed, my eyes dropping to his hand as he grabbed her waist and squeezed playfully. I squeezed my own waist through the fabric of my yellow-and-white sunflower top.
What the hell was wrong with me? Watching him kiss another girl was unbearable, but also weirdly fascinating.
I wanted to see it.
I didn’t want to see it.
Either way, I couldn’t unsee it.
Admitting defeat, I blinked, shifting my gaze to a black Raiders cap hung over the headrest of his desk chair.
“Your textbook, Vicious. I need it,” I repeated. “I’m not leaving your room without it.”
“Get the fuck out, Help,” he said into Georgia’s giggling mouth.
A thorn twisted in my heart, jealousy filling my chest. I couldn’t wrap my head around this physical reaction. The pain. The shame. The lust. I hated Vicious. He was hard, heartless, and hateful. I’d heard his mother had died when he was nine, but he was eighteen now and had a nice stepmother who let him do whatever he wanted. Josephine seemed sweet and caring.
He had no reason to be so cruel, yet he was to everyone. Especially to me.
“Nope.” Inside, rage pounded through me, but outside, I remained unaffected. “Calc. Textbook.” I spoke slowly, treating him like the idiot he thought I was. “Just tell me where it is. I’ll leave it at your door when I’m done. Easiest way to get rid of me and get back to your…activities.”
Georgia, who was fiddling with his zipper, her white sheath dress already unzipped from behind, growled, pushing away from his chest momentarily and rolling her eyes.
She squeezed her lips into a disapproving pout. “Really? Mindy?”—My name was Millie and she knew it—“Can’t you find anything better to do with your time? He’s a little out of your league, don’t you think?”
Vicious took a moment to examine me, a cocky smirk plastered on his face. He was so damn handsome. Unfortunately. Black hair, shiny and trimmed fashionably, buzzed at the sides and longer on top. Indigo eyes, bottomless in their depth, sparkling and hardened. By what, I didn’t know. Skin so pale he looked like a stunning ghost.
As a painter, I often spent time admiring Vicious’s form. The angles of his face and sharp bone structure. All smooth edges. Defined and clear-cut. He was made to be painted. A masterpiece of nature.
Georgia knew it too. I’d heard her not too long ago talking about him in the locker room after PE. Her friend had said, “Beautiful guy.”
“Dude, but ugly personality,” Georgia was quick to add. A moment of silence passed before they’d both snorted out a laugh.
“Who cares?” Georgia’s friend had concluded. “I’d still do him.”
The worst part was I couldn’t blame them.
He was both a baller and filthy rich—a popular guy who dressed and talked the right way. A perfect All Saints hero. He drove the right kind of car—Mercedes—and possessed that mystifying aura of a true alpha. He always had the room. Even when he was completely silent.
Feigning boredom, I crossed my arms and leaned one hip on his doorframe. I stared out his window, knowing tears would appear in my eyes if I looked directly at him or Georgia.
“His league?” I mocked. “I’m not even playing the same game. I don’t play dirty.”
“You will, once I push you far enough,” Vicious snapped, his tone flat and humorless. It felt like he clawed my guts out and threw them on his pristine ironwood floor.
I blinked slowly, trying to look blasé. “Textbook?” I asked for the two-hundredth time.
He must’ve concluded he’d tortured me enough for one day. He cocked his head sideways to a backpack sitting under his desk. The window above it overlooked the servants’ apartment where I lived, allowing him a perfect view directly into my room. So far, I’d caught him staring at me twice through the window, and I always wondered why.
Why, why, why?
He hated me so much. The intensity of his glare burned my face every time he looked at me, which wasn’t as often as I’d like him to. But being the sensible girl that I was, I never allowed myself to dwell on it.
I marched to the Givenchy rubber-coated backpack he took to school every day and blew out air as I flipped it open, rummaging noisily through his things. I was glad my back was to them, and I tried to block out the moans and sucking noises.
The second my hand touched the familiar white-and-blue calc book, I stilled. I stared at the cherry blossom I’d doodled on the spine. Rage tingled up my spine, coursing through my veins, making my fists clench and unclench. Blood whooshed in my ears, and my breathing quickened.
He broke into my friggin’ locker.
With shaking fingers, I pulled the book out of Vicious’s backpack. “You stole my textbook?” I turned to face him, every muscle in my face tense.
This was an escalation. Blunt aggression. Vicious always taunted me, but he’d never humiliated me like this before. He’d stolen my things and stuffed my locker full of condoms and used toilet paper, for Christ’s sake.
Our eyes met and tangled. He pushed Georgia off his lap, like she was an eager puppy he was done playing with, and stood up. I took a step forward. We were nose to nose now.
“Why are you doing this to me?” I hissed out, searching his blank, stony face.
“Because I can,” he offered with a smirk to hide all the pain in his eyes.
What’s eating you, Baron Spencer?
“Because it’s fun?” he added, chuckling while throwing Georgia’s jacket at her. Without a glance her way, he motioned for her to leave.
She was clearly nothing more than a prop. A means to an end. He’d wanted to hurt me.
And he succeeded.
I shouldn’t care about why he acted this way. It made no difference at all. The bottom line was I hated him. I hated him so much it made me sick to my stomach that I loved the way he looked, on and off the field. Hated my shallowness, my foolishness, at loving the way his square, hard jaw ticked when he fought a smile. I hated that I loved the smart, witty things that came out of his mouth when he spoke in class. Hated that he was a cynical realist while I was a hopeless idealist, and still, I loved every thought he uttered aloud. And I hated that once a week, every week, my heart did crazy things in my chest because I suspected he might be him.
I hated him, and it was clear that he hated me back.
I hated him, but I hated Georgia more because she was the one he’d kissed.
Knowing full well I couldn’t fight him—my parents worked here—I bit my tongue and stormed toward the door. I only made it to the threshold before his callused hand wrapped around my elbow, spinning me in place and throwing my body into his steel chest. I swallowed back a whimper.
“Fight me, Help,” he snarled into my face, his nostrils flaring like a wild beast. His lips were close, so close. Still swollen from kissing another girl, red against his fair skin. “For once in your life, stand your fucking ground.”
I shook out of his touch, clutching my textbook to my chest like it was my shield. I rushed out of his room and didn’t stop to take a breath until I reached the servants’ apartment. Swinging the door open, I bolted to my room and locked the door, plopping down on the bed with a heavy sigh.
I didn’t cry. He didn’t deserve my tears. But I was angry, upset and yes, a little broken.
In the distance, I heard music blasting from his room, getting louder by the second as he turned the volume up to the max. It took me a few beats to recognize the song. “Stop Crying Your Eyes Out” by Oasis.
A few minutes later, I heard Georgia’s red automatic Camaro—the one Vicious constantly made fun of because, Who the fuck buys an automatic Camaro?—gun down the tree-lined driveway of the estate. She sounded angry too.
Vicious was vicious. It was too bad that my hate for him was dipped in a thin shell of something that felt like love. But I promised myself I’d crack it, break it, and unleash pure hatred in its place before he got to me. He, I promised myself, will never break me.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
L.J. Shen is an International #1 best-selling author of Contemporary Romance and New Adult novels. She lives in Northern California with her husband, young son and chubby cat.

 

Before she’d settled down, L.J. (who thinks referring to herself in the third person is really silly, by the way) traveled the world, and collected friends from all across the globe. Friends who’d be happy to report that she is a rubbish companion, always forgets peoples’ birthdays and never sends Christmas cards.
She enjoys the simple things in life, like spending time with her family and friends, reading, HBO, Netflix and internet-stalking Stephen James. She reads between three to five books a week and firmly believes Crocs shoes and mullets should be outlawed.
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Chapter Reveal: SILVER FOX By MISHA ELLIOTT is Releasing February 5th!!

 

Richard Sisk has never been much of a risk taker. At eighteen, he gave up his dreams for the future—to do the right thing—and marry his pregnant, high school love. Over the years things changed, and now he finds himself divorced. Jill Caldwell has spent the last eight years caring for her younger brother, Evan, being both sister and parent. Now that he is settled into college, she finally has the gift of freedom.
Years ago, their lives crossed paths and now, eight years later, will Richard be able to take a risk for a new love.
Jill knows that together she and Richard can build a life of everything they ever wanted; that is if he can get over being her silver fox.
 

AND NOW THE MOMENT YOU HAVE ALL BEEN WAITING FOR

READ THE CHAPTER NOW⇩⇩

 

The minute I walk into the bar, I realize I am probably the oldest guy here. Friday nights were always peak times for going out, if my memory serves me correctly. As I look around the packed space, I realize how much I did not miss being single. If this is all the world offers single people, they can keep it. There is an open table off to side of the bar, close enough to have an unobstructed view of the stage, so I decide to take it.
Reality slaps me hard in the face, erasing any delusions I had about coming here. I feel out of place, like a teenager huddled awkwardly in the corner at a dance. Couples dance toward the edges of the dance floor together as music plays from a jukebox.
This is the first step on my new path. I am not here looking to fall in love again; I do plan to get my dick wet on a regular basis though.
I am about to lose my mind, need some goddamned space to clear my head. But tonight I would settle for a distraction. A trio of giggling, youthful girls walk inside with matching short dresses resembling something my daughter used to dress her dolls in. It seems clear to me they came in with fake IDs, trying to act older than they are. No doubt planning to trap some unsuspecting fool in their snare. It’s fucked up.
I got snared into being a sucker for far too long.
I spent the best years of my youth wanting to please someone, trying to be the best husband, provider, and father.  Doing everything she ever asked—it still was not enough for her.  By the time I realized she mistook my kindness for weakness, it no longer mattered.  It was all a fucking waste of time.
I glance at the clock on the wall; the time reads 8:23 p.m. It has been so long since I have gone out like this. Even if the band is not any good, since most cover bands aren’t great, as nothing can compare to the real thing.  This night symbolizes my newfound freedom. I finally got my balls back.
This is my gift to myself. One night of doing whatever I want, with whomever I choose, damn the consequences, but now it is time for my sex life to no longer be nonexistent. I want to feel something again. Even if it is meaningless, then this will not be so foreign. My cock is ready to make up for lost time, so it appears I am here for the duration.   
Knowing I need to coat my stomach with food since I haven’t eaten much today, I study the white placard. The picture of sliders immediately appeals to my eyes and causes my stomach to rumble.
My eyes veer from the photos, and I watch through the doors as an older woman makes her way through the crowd. As she walks past the bar, she runs her palm lightly across the back of one of the college guys, giving him a come-hither stare.
Something tells me to put my head down and get back to the task at hand, which is food. I do the opposite.  Instead, I keep watching as she tries to joke and fit in with the younger men around the bar, none of them offering to buy her a drink. Hell their focus doesn’t move from the big screens on the wall.
That’s when it happens. She catches my eye. “Shit,” I mutter under my breath and offer up a silent prayer she is not heading this way.  She winds her way around to the side of the bar to my table, her very expensive, heavy perfume wafting through the air.   The familiar scent of this perfume irritates me. I hate it. Now a stranger wears it, but my body reacts the same way. Repulsed.
A young woman with blue hair and a nose ring comes over to ask if I want any food, and I place my order for sliders and fries, hoping the woman will take the hint and be on her way. She doesn’t. I notice when she adjusts her boobs, giving them a boost and licks her lips. I have no interest in her, but when a man sees a pair of tits he looks. She continues to stand there at the table, staring at me as if we are on the African plains and she is on the hunt.
Here we go.
With her short, curled hair, blonde with hints of silver, she has privilege written all over her. Diamonds flash from her ears, to the pendant on her neck, then down to her wrists and fingers.
She presses two manicured palms flatly on the table and leans down, well aware the shirt she wears is showing off quite a bit of flesh. “God, you look good enough to eat,” she murmurs, not bothering to keep her voice low. “You make all my womanly parts tingle.” When she smiles, some of the red gloss from her lips has stained her front teeth.
“The name’s Veronica, but you can call me V. So, tell me handsome, do you like older women?” I am taken aback by her bold statement.
The years have not been especially kind to her. I see the orange, leathered look of her skin, and the fact she’s trying to act several decades younger than her age, I conclude she was rode hard and put away wet.
Even though I haven’t touched a woman, let alone had sex, for longer than I want to admit, I am not desperate enough to be with her.
There is only one thing a person in my situation can do. I need to lie through my teeth and politely tell her I am meeting someone. Before I can open my mouth to speak, the door opens. A faint blue light from the neon sign spills inside.
Right away I can tell the woman who walks through it is different.
Something about her draws my eyes to her, I am pulled back from my current situation and the rewind review of my life.  A warm, sweet charm about her pulls me in.
I cock my head slightly to the side, giving me a perfect view of this woman. She carries herself with poise, she has clearly invested time in putting herself together, but it is not too much.  I can see she has beautiful, long brown hair currently held hostage in a ponytail.
The big sixty-two-inch screen above the bar shows a football game. I watch as almost all the eyes on the bar are no longer focused on the screen. Heads turn to stare at the new sexy addition to their midst.  She takes it all in stride, raising up a hand, and catching the attention of the bartender. They begin a reciprocal exchange of jovial smiles as she places an order.
A moment later, a perfectly tapped mug of beer is placed in front of her. She smiles her gratitude back. Just as she lifts her beer to take a drink, she turns her head to scan the room. I know I should avert my eyes and not keep staring, but I am unable to help it. When her eyes meet mine, she smiles.
 
To my surprise, she heads in my direction. A sweet smile lingers on her lips, lips glossed in a pale shade of pink. Her gaze stays fixed on me, like she is a woman on a mission. She gets close enough for me to tell the color of her eyes: honey-brown. What I see in them is enough to knock me off my seat and onto the floor.  It is desire. It has been too long since someone has looked at me with a hint of promise, rather than the usual disapproving glare.  Not knowing her story, or why she is here, or if she is even available, I decide to enjoy this moment.
It can’t recall the last time an attractive woman, not counting Veronica, tried to pick me up in a bar, so when this young woman comes and stands beside me, giving me a come-hither stare. She continues to watch me with her soft eyes. “Hi,” she says.  “Have you been waiting very long?” Then she sets her beer down on the table.
My first instinct is to tell her she has me confused with someone else or she is at the wrong table.
She leans over to give me half a hug, “Just go with it,” she whispers into my ear, sending chills throughout my entire body.
“Not too long, baby, I just ordered food.” Those words feeling foreign as they leave my lips, and all I can do is think about kissing hers.
I am taken away by the simplicity of her beauty. Even though most women prefer heavy makeup, she is perfect with just a natural look.  It is obvious this woman is pretty in a real way and doesn’t need a stitch of makeup.  On top of all that, she has voluptuous curves wrapped in the perfect shade of blue. The dress accentuates the swell of her breasts and hips.
“Excuse me, ma’am, but I think this is my seat.” As she turns to face Veronica, I wonder what will happen, but being the older lady, Veronica doesn’t flinch. She merely smiles, eyeing me up one more time.
“Too bad,” she lays a hand on my shoulder, flipping her hair as she as she turns her attention back to the sea of potential options. “The night is young, after all. You could’ve been husband number five.”
“Thanks for the assist, just now, I did not know how I would have gotten Veronica to leave.”
I have no idea who my savior is, but I am willing to buy her a beer, or anything else she wants, for getting me out of an uncomfortable situation.
 
“Wow. If she’s already been married four times, she told each of those men she loved them and committed to them. Veronica must not understand what real commitment and loyalty means,” declares this beautiful stranger.
The impact of her words hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks.  I did not want that to be me. Promising love and commitment without follow through.
After my failed marriage, I am determined not to settle for anything less than true love. If that made me sound cheesy, so be it.
I don’t know how, but I am sure I’ll know it when I find it. This time, it will mean something. Over the years, I tried to camouflage the fact there was no longer the deep connection Sheila and I once shared as teenagers. Made concessions for her easily annoyed, impatient tone with me because she suffered from sleep deprivation. Brushed off her disinterest in sex as par for the course after motherhood.  There was no longer any chemistry or those little things we held in common. I still tried to ask about her day, and she stopped pretending to care about mine.
I close my eyes and pray for the band to start soon. I need something to stop my mind from replaying bad reruns from my past so I can put my full focus on her.
 
   
Her hand slides the chair around to sit next to me. Now we are both able to have a clear view of the stage. She takes another sip of beer, relaxes against the back of the chair, and leisurely looks around at the crowd.
“I guess it is a good sign, if this many people are out, the band must be pretty good.” For a moment I don’t respond to her, my mind obviously still in shock that she is here with me.
I promised myself I was going out to have many well-deserved drinks and flirt with anyone and everyone who interested me.  Perhaps I wouldn’t be alone tonight. A one-night stand may not be the new start I am looking for, but it would be the perfect ending to this day.  A chance to let loose of all the built-up tension, and feel something without the emotional baggage and stress.
“I hope you’re right.” I take a sip of my beer and let it run down throat. What is happening to me? It is like I turned back the clock to high school.
I speak without looking at her and turn with my drink in hand to catch her eye.  That is my first mistake.  Even in this dimly lit bar, being in this close proximity to this woman is enough to give me a jolt.  It shocks my system, unfortunately causing my bottle to slip from my hand, and the golden liquid to pour from the table, all over the front of her dress. In a flash, I pick up napkins to clean the mess up around the bottle, while I turn it upright with my other hand.
When I am finished, I use the napkin to dab at some wet spots on the top of her dress.
It takes a few moments before we both realize I am gently dabbing at the spot above her cleavage. My hand reacts as if it has touched fire.
“One beer and I’m already clumsy.  Maybe I should switch to water instead.” I have never been so embarrassed in all my life. If it was not before, it should be obvious to her now I am a little rusty at this. I used to excel at talking to girls in my youth.   
“No need to worry about it, actually it’s par for the course with how my day has been going.” When she looks at me, it is still with the same gleam in her eyes I saw earlier, which helps me relax.
“I feel so bad, I have ruined your dress. Let me pay for it,”
“Don’t give it a thought, besides I may not be staying long anyway.”
Her statement disappoints me; my body desperately wants her to stay. To reach out and see if those brown waves of hair are as soft as they look. I need physical contact with her supple lips, to see how swollen they get after being properly kissed.
“You may not remember me.” She stretches her hand out to shake mine. “I’m Jillian Caldwell, most people call me Jill.”
“We’ve met?” I nearly choke on my drink. How could I have forgotten someone like her?
“Yes, Mr. Sisk, we have.” She sounds cocky and confident.
I haven’t the slightest clue where we could’ve met.
    “It is nice to meet you again, Jillian, and you can call me Richard.”
Bottle in hand, I bring it up to my now dry mouth for one final pull. I scramble trying to figure out where we could have met, hoping she will let something slip and give me some clue.
    “Well, Richard, are you cruising the bars for pickups on Friday night?”
I almost spit out the last swallow of beer. Jillian sits leaned back in the seat, taking a slow sip as her eyes boldly admire me.
    I signal to the bartender in need of a replacement drink.
“No, I was actually planning to come here to drink away my sorrows, alone in the corner,” I say with a self-deprecating shrug. “Then you came in and sat next to me. Now it seems my mind is making other plans.” The words slip out of my mouth before I have the chance to think.
This is not information I want to share. Maybe if I tell her she’ll want to console me. A pity fuck wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.  No. Tonight there would be no talk about divorce, ex-wives, custody. I am merely a single man hanging out at a bar.
The bartender comes around and Jillian orders another beer also.
    “You look like a very smart man. Richard,”
I shrug. “Won’t argue with you there,” I say. “My eyes have been staring at you since you came in, and my brain is in agreement; you are beautiful.”
“Are your eyes the only thing that’s taking notice of me, right now?” She leans in closer, our arms and legs brush, her tone saying all the things missing from her words.
My gaze drops back to her cleavage, and then I look up into those copper pools and know I am drowning.  “I don’t think there is a part of me doing anything but taking notice of you, right now.” My frank tone is filled with raw sexuality, and I hope my words do not throw things off track.  
By the time our drinks come, I have regained my composure. I don’t remember flirting being so easy. Or maybe Jillian just brings it out in me.  “So, Jillian, you said we’ve met before. Would you like to fill me in?”
“No.” She lifts her glass and levels the drink to half its content, a mischievous glint in her eyes.  
    “Why don’t you tell me about why you were going to throw a pity party for one tonight?”
    This is territory I don’t want to enter. If I overshare, the next thing I know I’ll be giving too much information and making this more personal than I want it to be.  I need to deflect.
    “Museum or movie?” I take another pull and wait for her response.
“That’s a tough one. I would have to say museum only if I have time to spend the day.  Movies, unless they are too long. Sitting for a movie longer than two hours feels like I’m being held prisoner.”
    “Rock or country?” she shoots back.
    “Both. All kinds of popular music, actually.” I take another sip of my beer, relaxing into the conversation. “I’m not especially picky. But for favorites, I would say rock.”
Jillian nods with a smile on her face. “Cat or dog?”
“Dog, of course?” I balk at the question, as the answer should be obvious. “I don’t think guys can be cat people.”
“Of course they can be.”
Just then, the opening lines to “Let’s Go Crazy” blare out through the speakers and Jillian lifts her mug to her lips and finishes her beer. “This is my favorite song.”
In a flash, she jumps on her feet and is slowly shaking to the music. She reaches out a hand and invites me to come along. For a moment she stands inches away with her hands stretched out toward me. I am not the type of person who dances in public, not for years anyway. I do not want to disappoint her and turn her down. So I lift up my hand and take hers and I get up from my seat. My legs feel uneasy as I stand.
I haven’t danced in over a decade. But something about Jillian makes me want to give it a try. This is the beginning of a different life, after all.
“Come on.” She giggles as she drags us both right to the middle of the floor and we start to dance. Dancing in public is not as bad as I thought, at least, not when I dance with her.
    My hand goes around her hips and her back plasters to my front as we shimmy to the beat of the music. Then I have her spinning around and she curls her hand in my shirt as her hips sway to the rhythm.  I am taller than Jillian, so tall she has to tilt her head to look at me.
We continue to dance as the band covers all the popular hits.
Something about her expression tells me her mind is somewhere else.  The band is singing as the bar patrons start to move with synchronized hand movements to the words, die for you.
“This is a good song,” I offer.
“It is not one of my favorites. Can we go back to the table?” She seems dismissive, quiet, completely unlike the confident young woman from before. There is a story in her eyes, one she is not ready to tell.
I follow her back and as we settle into our seats, I duck my head down to so she can hear me over the band. I want to keep talking to her. I find myself drawn to her, wanting to know more about her.
“You never told me,” I say, waving my hand to catch the bartender’s eye. “What brings you out tonight, Jillian?”
“Well, I was supposed to be meeting my best friend tonight, but something came up so she’s a no-show,” she says in a nonchalant manner.
I hear a buzzing and realize it is coming from her bag.
She leans down to fumble for something, and with her cell retrieved; she pauses for a moment to consider if she should answer it. When she looks at the display, her expression turns to slight irritation when she sees who the call is from.
She holds up a finger. “Please excuse me, I need to take this, it’s Evan.” She answers the call and holds the phone up to her ear.
“Yes, I’m okay,” she shouts over the music. “Just text me.”
She hangs up and stares at the screen for a moment. Then her fingers glide across the glass, tapping out a message. Her brows are furrowed and suddenly I feel jealous, wondering who Evan is and why he’s ruining my moment.
“Is everything all right?” I ask her in concern.
“Yes, I am fine. My brother is on his way to pick me back up at midnight.” Already? How can she leave, she just got here?
“He says, he’ll text when he’s outside.” As she speaks she lets out a deep sigh; her eyes still fixed on the screen. She seems disappointed, and in fact, I am as well, our time together is being cut short.
I am surprised by my reaction. My eyes look up to the clock, the digital numbers mocking me. Less than an hour is what we have left, so I opt to make the most of it.
    “Do you want me to get you something to eat?” Trying to think of anything I can to buy more time with her.
“No, I’m good.” She lifts my half empty bottle of beer up to her lips and takes a long pull.  “Aah, this is good stuff.” She is on her way into the drunk stage now.  Her eyes glass over and in them I see a hint of mischief.
“I just feel bad you aren’t eating anything.”
    “Don’t. I’m a meal skipper. This was perfect actually. Today I came to grips with the fact I deserve a much-needed break from my life. You know that feeling you get when you’ve given everything to someone else and realize there’s nothing left for you?”
    The honesty in her words strikes a chord deep within me. They sting. Something tells me both of us have been molded by something hard in our lives, and we are on a journey to find solace.
    At a perfect moment, a familiar set of bars of music tickle my ears. It seems appropriate. Yes, I am on a journey to be a better man. There’s an earnestness and sincerity in the lyrics.
Without a word, the two of us smile at each other and hold hands. Making our way back to the dance floor, I want the pleasure of holding this beautiful woman in my arms as long as possible.
When she wraps her bare arms around my shoulders, something stirs in me like we have a deep connection. One song leads to several more. It is peculiar the way certain songs can remind me of moments in the past. Moments like this will always stay with me.  From now on, when I hear this music, it will remind me of Jillian.
Her head rests perfectly on my chest and I breathe in deeply, taking in the apricot scent of her hair and skin. We move in perfect harmony to the song, letting the music guide our steps effortlessly. She feels so good and light in my arms, I easily let my mind spin a fantasy of where this night could lead.
My plans are interrupted as her wrist buzzes again. “Evan’s here, I can dance one more song then I have to go.”
As if on cue, the band plays their final song and I thank her for the dance. Jillian leans in, squeezing my middle, and we share a hug goodbye.
“I’ll see you around, Richard.” As I watch her walk out of my life from the same door she entered, I rack my brain for any sign of her before now.  It baffles me I come up empty.
I hope she is correct and we cross paths again. I would need to up my game though, and work through my issues so another opportunity wouldn’t pass me by.
There is something about being in Jillian’s presence that seizes every ounce of oxygen from my lungs, and my heart slides up in my throat. Tonight, all answers evade me as to why, but know I have to see her again.
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About Author Misha Elliott
Misha Elliott is a nomadic soul, living all over the US with her Scottish husband. During their travels she fell in love with the written word and put her hands to the keyboard to romanticize her journeys. When not writing you can find her at Scottish Highland games (she’s there for the men in kilts) or at the beach…as long as It’s not hurricane season.
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