Category Archives: Chapter preview

EXCERPT REVEAL ~ Rock Star by Stacey Kennedy

ROCK STAR by Stacey Kennedy, one of the five books in the upcoming BAD BOY HOMECOMING series, releases June 27th, but we couldn’t wait to share an excerpt!

Get a sneak peek below and preorder your copy today!

 

About ROCK STAR

A high school reunion is about to get down and dirty and a whole lot more complicated in this new erotic romance from USA Today bestselling author Stacey Kennedy.

Veterinarian, Rae Evans expects to attend a dreadful ten-year high school reunion. Instead, she’s confronted by a past she’s never gotten over. The love of her life, Travis Walker, has returned to Catfish Creek, and the now-famous rock star wants only three things: Her. Naked. And screaming his name.

Fresh off his last world tour, Travis has returned to town to get a dose of reality. With fame casting a superficial cloud over Travis’s life, he’s scrambling to stay afloat. He needs an anchor, and Rae is that for him. But as he finds himself, he’s determined to remind Rae of the heat that once burned between them.

Before they know it, their one hot night is three, and soon, just like ten years ago, Travis holds the strings to Rae’s heart. But Rae’s not that young girl who watched her high school sweetheart race off to become famous. She’s a woman who knows what she wants and realizes when a man needs her. She just has to decide if she should put the past on repeat, or walk away from it forever.

Add ROCK STAR to your Goodreads list here!

Find out more about the BAD BOY HOMECOMING series on the website here!

ROCK STAR releases June 27th, 2017 – preorder your copy now!

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Read an Excerpt from ROCK STAR

Determined to find her, Travis moved farther into the crowd, just as his cell vibrated in his pocket. Knowing exactly who it’d be, and that he couldn’t ignore the call, he reached for his phone and then frowned at the text from his manager, Scott Price.

Awesome job. The video is already up on YouTube. Fans are loving it. The mask was a nice touch. Don’t miss your flight in the a.m.

Travis shifted the black masquerade mask around his eyes, and the muscles along his shoulders tightened with the reminder of the weight they carried; of the need for him to always be on point, and the fact that nothing, not even his high school reunion, was sacred anymore.

Life had changed dramatically since the last time Travis stepped foot in the conference center. But he didn’t want to think about the shit weighing on him, so he fired off a response—I’ll be on it—then tucked his cell phone back into his pocket.

He had tonight to fix everything that was wrong with his life, and he wouldn’t waste it.

In the eyes of his manager, Travis had come to the reunion to put on a show and to look real to his fans. But Travis hadn’t come for the publicity; he had come for one very good reason: to find his anchor—the woman who stopped his world from spinning wildly out of control.

Lately, in a sea of chaos, he’d finally stopped drowning and saw a way back to the happiness he once had. That happiness had started with Rae, and surely, she was his way to find himself again.

One touch. One taste. He wanted to remember what that happiness felt like.

Again, he searched the crowd, ignoring the way some men glowered at him, and some women batted their lashes. Rae. That’s whom he’d come here to see tonight. Only her.

The band behind him started playing another ballad, and that’s when he found her, staring right at him from across the room. She wore a sleek, black, strapless gown around her slender figure with matching long, black gloves.

His muscles surged with adrenaline, and he went to move toward her when a hard voice came from behind him.

“Karly wants you to play another song.”

Travis slowly glanced over his shoulder to find the biggest asshole in Catfish Creek High School history, Jason, a blond-haired, slender, one-time big shot. Rae was best friends with Kate, and Kate had loved—and later married and divorced—the dipshit behind him.

Times had changed.

Travis didn’t owe Jason anything now, and he certainly didn’t owe the reunion’s event planner, Karly, shit. “You can tell Karly that I told her I’d play one song, and that’s exactly what I did. Bother me again, and we’ll have a problem.”

Jason didn’t make a move or say a word in rebuttal. Once a coward, always a coward.

Refocused on the only person who mattered tonight, and pulled by the energy only Rae conjured, Travis stretched out his fingers, shedding his frustrations as he moved with purpose through the crowd. Her pretty, hazel eyes surrounded by dark makeup followed his every move, and she yanked him forward with a simple look.



Find out more about the other four books in the BAD BOY HOMECOMING series on the website here!

DROPOUT by Carrie Ann Ryan
TROUBLE by Avery Flynn
PROM QUEEN by Katee Robert
HONOR by Kennedy Layne

 

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 About Stacey Kennedy

USA Today bestselling author Stacey Kennedy has written more than 30 romances, including titles in her wildly hot Club Sin, Dirty Little Secrets, and Filthy Dirty Love series. Her books are about real people with real-life problems, searching for that special thing we call love…in a very sexy way. When she’s not burning up the pages and setting e-readers ablaze, she’s living her happily ever after with her husband and two young children in southwestern Ontario. She’s a firm believer that wine, chocolate, and sinfully sexy books can cure all of life’s problems. To keep in touch with Stacey, get updates right to your inbox at staceykennedy.com/newsletter/.

Stacey’s Website | Newsletter | Twitter | Facebook Author Page | Instagram | Pinterest | Goodreads



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CHAPTER REVEAL ~ Blood Enemy by Mina Carter

 

 
 
 
 
 
Coming June 27th
 
 
Feral doesn’t do babies. Or pixies. So when someone dumps a pixie baby of all things on his doorstep, he does the only thing he can think of. He tries to palm it off on someone else. Unfortunately his neighbor is out of town, leaving her sister, Tessa, to house-sit. Her single and disturbingly attractive sister. Which leaves Feral with a couple of problems, especially when a bunch of pixie ninja wannabes break into the place and try to steal the baby. Does he turn his back on the pixies, a race he’s always hated… or will Tessa cast her own spell on the strong, silent-type Kyn Warrior?

 


 
Chapter one

There was a baby on his doorstep.
Feral stood in the open doorway of his apartment and looked down at the small bundle with confusion. Wrapped in a pale-yellow blanket, one pudgy arm and leg had escaped from the folds to punch and kick with enthusiasm. Gurgles filled the air, bursting with baby satisfaction and happiness. Whatever it thought it was fighting, in its mind it was obviously winning.
He scrubbed a hand over his shorn head. What was a baby doing on his doorstep?
“Well, hello little…actually, what the hell are you?” he murmured. “And how did you get out here?”
He squatted down to pick it up. It took three attempts. His large hands weren’t the right shape to pick up something so tiny. Lifting the squirming bundle carefully, he glanced up and down the corridor, trying to catch a glimpse of whoever had knocked on his door.
Nothing. Zip. Nada. Not surprising. Even if someone had been lurking in the shadows, the near six and a half feet of bare-chested kyn male who’d opened the door would have scared them off for sure.
Then the smell hit him.
Pungent and forceful, it stripped several layers off the inside of his nose like a gallon of paint thinner. Recoiling, he wrinkled his nose in disgust. “Fuck, are you supposed to smell that bad, mate?”
He looked at the baby in surprise, settling it into the crook of his arm. He didn’t really want it so close, not smelling as foul as it did, but he couldn’t leave it alone on the floor.
“Okay, let’s see who you are then.” He reached out to move the edge of the blanket covering the baby’s face and then froze. His lips peeled back from his fangs.
Its hair was bright pink.
Which meant two things: one, the baby was male, and two, it was a pixie. They were the only species Feral knew of with such weird hair colors.
“You just had to be a bloody pixie, didn’t you?” He glared up and down the corridor again. Still no one.
He sighed heavily. There was no point standing out on the doorstep like a spare prick at an orgy. A chill ran up the hallway and he looked down at the baby. He couldn’t leave it out here, even if it was a pixie. It would freeze to death.
He stepped back into his apartment, hooking a bare foot around the door and kicking it shut before wandering into the main room. Coming to an abrupt stop in the middle of the open area, he frowned. What the hell did he do now?
It was one of his rare nights off, so he wasn’t dressed for company. A pair of ripped, faded jeans hung off his hips and his feet were bare. Alone as he was, he hadn’t bothered with a shirt. And he’d already had a couple of beers, make that a lot of beers, so he couldn’t drive. Which left him with a problem. A small, baby-shaped problem.
He looked down, a smile tugging at the corners of his lips as the baby opened its eyes and blinked at him. Its wide, bright eyes were peacock blue.
“I don’t suppose you’ve got any suggestions as to what we should do?”
The baby just looked back and smiled the toothless, gummy smile of the very young. Feral had to admit, for a pixie, he was cute. The sort of cute that women went gaga over. The baby was also more placid than he’d been led to believe babies were. As the thought wandered through Feral’s mind, though, the baby’s face crumpled.
“WwwwwwwuuuuaaahhhHHHHHHHHHH!”
The cry started off low, but then swelled and grew in volume, like an old-fashioned air raid siren. Feral had only ever heard them in films, but now, he held an appreciation of what it must have been like in London during the Blitz. It seemed impossible someone so small could make so much noise. But he was, threatening to pierce Feral’s eardrums with the sheer volume.
“Shh…shh…shh, it’s fine. Everything’s fine!” He jiggled the baby a little, trying to calm it down, but this action only released fresh waves of the foul stench emanating from the diaper.
It wasn’t fine. It was so far from fine it beggared belief. He must really have pissed the fates off at some point for them to dump a baby on him… a pixie baby no less, when his dislike…no, his hatred of pixies was well known. Perhaps he’d kicked kittens or puppies in a former life or something.
Out of ideas, he strode across the room to the breakfast counter. The apartments on his block were open plan, with the kitchen and dining room leading into the main living space. Bathrooms and bedrooms were separated by the narrow excuse for an entrance hall.
He located his cell behind a couple of empty beer bottles and flicked it open. Vixen would know what to do. His partner of several years, and a mother herself, she’d know what to do with a baby. If he was lucky, she might even offer to look after the child for him.
Here’s hoping, he thought, hitting speed dial for Vixen and lifting it to his ear.
“Hi, you’ve reached Vixen’s phone…”
“Crap,” Feral swore as his patrol partner’s voicemail cut in. He’d forgotten Vixen’s mate, Kalen, had taken her out of town for the weekend. A second honeymoon since Vix had been eight months pregnant, and the size of a house, during their first.
“Fuckit.” He flicked the phone shut and tapped the edge of it against his teeth. Then he realized the terrible wail had stopped and he looked down in surprise. Peacock blue eyes were fixed on his cell.
“Oh, you like this, huh?” He smiled and waggled the phone. The baby watched it, tracking the movement. Feral frowned—he didn’t know they could do that until they were older. He shrugged. He must be mistaken. The little man was tracking the phone like a hawk.
Pudgy fists emerged from the blanket and made a grab for the sleek silver case, fastening around it and wrenching the thing from Feral’s grasp. He chuckled, an expression that turned to horror the next instant as the baby stuffed it into his mouth.
“No no no… Not good, not food!” he exclaimed as his phone was used as a teething ring.
“Give the phone back to Feral. There’s a good little boy,” he coaxed and worked to get a finger between the baby’s mouth and the phone. But the slobbering little thing had formed an unbreakable seal and he couldn’t even get his smallest finger in. He hissed in frustration, looking at the baby in confusion as he tried several different angles. It was no good. His hands were too big, more accustomed to battling rogue vampires than dealing with tiny babies.
Finally, he managed it, sliding his finger down the side and popping the phone free. He grimaced as his finger and the phone came away covered in baby slobber, and he held the phone up in triumph. A furious squeal tore the air while little fists struggled and pummeled the air.
“WWWWWWAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!”
“Shit. Here.”
Feral stuffed the phone back in the baby’s mouth, silencing the squeal as quickly as it had started. Great, so what did he do now? He had no clue how to take care of a baby and had no time to learn. He needed to do something about the smell soon as well because it was getting worse.
Diapers. He needed diapers. But what sort, and where could he get them from? Disposable ones would be fine—he wasn’t all earth-momma like the woman two units down. He often saw her in the basement with laundry loads of white diapers.
His eyes widened. A woman with children. Even better, she had pixie blood. Once you’d seen one pixie woman, it was easy to spot them. Which meant he wouldn’t have to explain why the baby was sporting what looked like a bad dye job.
Grinning, he did an about face. Sliding his feet into a pair of heavy boots, he trudged out the door in search of salvation.

***

The tub of ice cream in the freezer was calling Tessa’s name. Chocolate fudge brownie—her favorite comfort food. After the crap day she’d had, she didn’t care about the extra calorie load. Fresh from the shower and swaddled in one of her sister’s huge toweling robes, she padded into the kitchen to collect the tub and a spoon. She didn’t bother with a bowl. Instead, she just pulled the lid off and dug in, right there in front of the freezer.
“Mmm…” She moaned in pleasure as the first taste of the chocolatey, gooey treat hit her tongue. The stresses of the day melted away, aided by the long, hot shower she’d just had and the taste of the ice cream. A little taste of her childhood. She closed her eyes and leaned back against the freezer.
Today had been the day from hell. Working in a busy logistics office meant everything had been put on hold when the trunk shipments had been late, throwing the whole day into disarray. It also meant Tessa didn’t get to leave until late. Considering she’d been on duty since 6 a.m., it hadn’t impressed her.
Finally, she’d been able to escape, a long weekend ahead of her. But even then, she hadn’t been finished. She’d agreed to house sit for her older sister Lisa, who was off for a break with her hubby and the twins. So, it had been a mad dash home to throw whatever she needed into a weekend bag and then a breakneck drive over to the apartment to catch Lisa before she left to get the usual “remember to feed the fish” chat. Lisa was only a couple of years older than Tessa, but anyone would think she was Methuselah the way she carried on.
Now though, all was calm. Tessa had waved Lisa and James off, twins already asleep and packed up in the back of the car, a little over an hour ago. Just enough time to unwind over a glass of wine as she watched the evening news and take a long, hot shower.
She just loved the shower here. A power unit, it had a setting that felt like needles bombarding her skin—thousands of tiny, dull pinpricks that took her breath away and felt wonderful after the day she’d had. She’d stood there for a full five minutes under the spray before even reaching for the shower gel.
Opening her eyes, she dug the spoon into the ice cream again, tucking the tub into the crook of her arm as she headed through to the main room. Flopping down in the middle of the comfortable sofa, she rooted around for the remote, spoon in mouth. It was there somewhere, she just needed to find it and then she’d be all set. The player was loaded with tonight’s choice of chick flick movie, one she’d been looking forward to watching for weeks but just hadn’t found the time to see. Now, she had the time. This weekend was all about her and relaxation. Lots of relaxation.
“Ahh, there you are.” She recovered the missing remote from under one of the scatter cushions. Her sister was obsessed with the things. Either that or they were breeding in here.
Sighing in satisfaction, she spooned more ice cream into her mouth as she flicked the player on. She curled her legs up under her and settled herself into a more comfortable position as the opening credits rolled. Life didn’t get much better than this.
Rap, rap, rap.
“Damn it.” She looked over her shoulder, but the knock on the front door continued as she stared. Who was that? Had to be a cold caller, she decided. A total control freak, Lisa would have let all her friends know she was going to be away. Which meant it had to be someone who didn’t know Lisa or James. And if it was, perhaps they would go away if she ignored them.
Rap, rap, RAP.
No such luck, the hammering got worse. Tessa sighed as she contemplated moving, flicking pause on the remote and freezing the scrolling text on the TV screen.
“This had better be good,” she grumbled under her breath as she put the tub on the floor, drove the spoon into the melting ice cream with a vicious stab, and then got to her feet. It had better be good…and quick, since she had a major fan-girl thing for the actor in the movie. The quicker she got back to ogle his toned and sculptured bod, the happier she’d be.
She grumbled under her breath all the way to the door, her bare feet silent on the wooden floor. Ever security-conscious, she threw the chain over before she opened it a crack.
“Hello?” That was as far as she got. The sight that met her eyes stopped any further comment in her throat.
On her doorstep was the most handsome, ripped guy she’d ever seen. Her eyes started at the middle of the broad chest, noting the heavily toned muscles as they moved outward. A long way outward. The guy was huge. And tall. Her eyes flicked upward. He had to be well over six feet. Made her feel kind of dainty, which wasn’t something Tessa got to feel very often.
He was also carrying a baby.
She blinked in surprise. Okay, this was one situation she wasn’t used to facing. Drop-dead gorgeous men did not appear on her doorstep with babies. They didn’t appear on her doorstep at all, with or without babies.
“Sorry, can I help you?”
“You might just save my life.” His voice was a low rumble that took Tessa’s breath away. The sort of sound that did things to her insides on a very primitive level.
“Um, okay?” she managed, dark eyes flicking to the bundle he carried. Then a slight breeze in the corridor, someone must have opened a door down the way, carried the unmistakable scent of a dirty diaper.
“Hmm, not being funny… but you might want to change the baby before you take it out visiting,” she suggested. And maybe put a shirt on, she added mentally. Although, she was enjoying the view. What kind of a father was he, though, bringing his baby out with a dirty diaper?
“That would be the problem.” He shifted the baby in his arms and smoothed the edge of the blanket down. Tessa caught her breath at the color of its hair.
It was bright pink, a color she’d only seen in the full-blooded members of her mother’s family. He looked at her and smiled, the merest hint of fang showing. “As you can see, it’s not mine. Someone just left it on my doorstep and I haven’t a clue what to do with it.”
He was a vampire.
The knowledge stunned Tessa for a moment, almost as much as his appearance on the doorstep had, and fear hit her system like a bullet. As she watched, he shifted on his feet a fraction and the light fell across the marks across the left side of his face and body. Her breath left her lungs in a rush.
“You’re a kyn warrior,” she exclaimed in relief, glad she hadn’t opened her door to a rogue vampire.
Even though the small amount of pixie blood flowing in her veins protected her from being turned into a vampire, rogue vamps were more interested in the high from a kill than turning their victims. And they generally didn’t use a baby as a decoy. They were more into breaking the doors down to get at their victims. A baby would be little more than a macabre snack.
“Live and kicking…name’s Feral,” he introduced himself, grinning a little. The small expression curved his full lips, transforming his rather cruel features…features made starker by the shaved hairstyle… from merely gorgeous, to devastating.
“Tessa, pleased to meet you,” she replied on automatic, silence stretching between them.

***

“So,” Feral continued, “you going to help me out here? The little guy…he’s really beginning to smell bad…” He watched her, hope coiling in his chest. When she’d first opened the door, his heart had sunk. She wasn’t the woman he remembered in the laundry.
However, she was a pixie. He could see the slight glamour clinging to her, making her appear more human. On second inspection, there was also a faint family resemblance to the woman with the diapers. Younger sister maybe? He tried that route.
“I remembered your…sister?” He smiled, a cautious edge in his voice as he hoped he’d gotten it right. Women could be funny about ages. Relief shot through him as she nodded.
“I remembered your sister has kids, so when I found him, I came ‘round to beg mercy…and a couple of diapers.” He grinned as he tried his hardest to be charming and personable. She only had to look at him to see he wasn’t a baby sort of guy. Practicing for making babies, yes. Dealing with the result, no.
Come on, sweetheart, say yes.
His silent plea seemed to work, her coffee-cream eyes flicking over him again. Feral shivered, the look like a caress over his skin. His nipples tightened as a thrill shot through him. She stepped back and released the chain.
“Come on. Bring him in and we’ll get him cleaned up,” she ordered, her voice brusque. Feral stalled, not used to being ordered around… no that was a lie. He was used to being ordered around. Vixen did it regularly, as did their boss Marak, the current kyn monarch. But both Vixen and Marak weren’t people one would want to piss off in a hurry while this woman was, well, tiny. And curvy to boot—the figure the shapeless toweling robe hinted at was enough to make his mouth water.
He followed her into the living room, looking around the plush interior and dismissing it just as quickly. It had all the hallmarks of expensive interior design and was about as interesting as the back of a cereal box.
“Come on. Let’s have him down here then.” She dragged out a changing mat from its hiding place behind the sofa, plopping it on the floor as she glanced at him. “The diapers will be a bit big, but it’s better than leaving him dirty. Can you take his diaper off while I get a fresh one?” She arched an eyebrow, obviously doubting his ability to carry out even that simple task.
“Of course.”
He kneeled to settle the baby in the middle of the changing mat. He could do this. But for such a small, little thing, it took virtually every part of Feral’s body to make sure he was placed carefully on the mat.
“Look, mate, you aren’t making this easy you know,” Feral muttered, trying to get his nose as far away from his hands as he could without turning his head or being on the other side of the room. He’d managed to remove the diaper, but he hadn’t been prepared for what it contained.
He grimaced as he considered the contents, not sure what he was supposed to do now. He’d watched Vixen change her little daughter, Marianne, more times than he could remember, and she’d always made it look easy. Grabbing a wipe, he tried to remove the sticky mess on its ass and quickly found out it wasn’t as easy as it looked.
“What the fuck is this stuff?” he muttered, not managing to clean it off but just smear it around more. “Fucking industrial glue?”
He heard a stifled giggle and found the little pixie woman watching him. At the sight of her, he sucked in a hard breath. She was utterly beautiful. He’d known she was a pixie, and he’d thought he could see through her glamour to what lay beneath, but now he realized the truth. He could see the glamour itself, and the potential of what lay beneath, but nothing more.
Now though, she’d stripped the glamour away and he could see her true appearance. And it was stunning. Exotic, feline-cast eyes dominated a small heart-shaped face, with a tiny button of a nose and full lips he ached to taste. Her chin was small but delicate and the arch of her slender neck, half hidden by the mass of dark curls, made both his cock and his fangs ache. One look and he wanted her in the worst way, under him as he drove both his fangs and his cock into her soft sweetness.
“Just where I like to see a man,” she quipped, “on his knees. Come out of the way. You’re just making it worse.” She shooed him away and then knelt in front of the baby, who was taking advantage of the moment to try and flip himself over. Reaching a hand out, she stopped him just before he managed it and tapped his nose playfully.
“Oh no you don’t, handsome,” she chuckled, catching his ankles in one hand and cleaning him up with the other. Her movements were swift and efficient and within a few seconds, the baby was cleaned up with a fresh diaper on him. Feral blinked, unsure how she’d managed it so quickly. Magic, obviously.
“There we go, all clean and dry. Aren’t you a clever little man?” She fastened his top as he wriggled again, doing his best to escape. Grinning, she caught him, his chortles filling the room as she tickled his sides.
Smiles wreathed her face and Feral bit back another surge of lust. He wanted her. Badly. She wasn’t his normal type. Kyn women tended to be tall, slender and pale whereas she was petite and curvy, with dark warm hair and eyes that reminded him of chocolate. But he didn’t care. Everything about her called out to him. Unaware of his attention, she tickled the baby again, running her fingers along the soles of his bare feet as she reached for his trousers.
“He’s a gorgeous little thing,” she commented. “So, he was just left on your doorstep?”
“Yeah, about half an hour ago. Was a bit of a surprise…usually I just get pizza delivery,” he chuckled, shrugging a shoulder. “Not the domestic type.”
“Pizza? I didn’t think vampires ate?” She flicked a glance up at him while she finished dressing the little one. Picking him up, she handed him over. “Here, hold him for a moment while I clear this lot up. Hey…what’s this?”
A piece of paper fell free of the yellow blanket as she picked it up. Reaching down, she recovered it from the floor as Feral watched, jiggling the now clean-smelling baby in his large arms. It was a sheet from a reporter’s notebook, crumpled and folded into quarters. She smoothed it out and frowned at the words scrawled on it in a hasty hand.
“What’s it say?” He shifted closer, peering over her shoulder. The scent of shower gel and warm woman enveloped her, causing a shiver to run down his spine. He really needed to get laid if just being close to a woman stirred up a reaction like that.
She shook her head. “I don’t know. It’s an old fae script, I think… This is more Lisa’s kettle of fish than mine. Some of it I recognize,” she pointed out a word in the middle, fingernail tapping the paper lightly. “This is the word for Morrigan. Oh, shit!”
She looked up at him, eyes wide.
“What? What is it?” Feral frowned, brows raised.
“He…the baby…he’s a Morrigan. There’s a fae prophecy about a male Morrigan… The only male Morrigan.” She swallowed, visibly shaken. “When he grows up, I think he’s going to be a god.”
 


 
 

Mina was born and raised in the East Farthing of Middle Earth (otherwise known as the Midlands, England) and spend her childhood learning all the sorts of things generally required of a professional adventurer. Able to ride, box, shoot, make and read maps, make chainmail and use a broadsword (with varying degrees of efficiency) she was disgusted to find that adventuring is not considered a suitable occupation these days.

So, instead of slaying dragons and hunting vampires and the like, Mina spends her days writing about hot shifters, government conspiracies and vampire lords with more than their fair share of RAWR. Turns out wanna-be adventurers have quite the turn of imagination after all…

(But she keeps that sword sharp, just in case the writing career is just a dream and she really *is* an adventurer.)

The boring part: A full time author and cover artist, Mina can usually be found hunched over a keyboard or graphics tablet, frantically trying to get the images and words in her head out and onto the screen before they drive her mad. She’s addicted to coffee and would like to be addicted to chocolate, but unfortunately chocolate dislikes her.
 
 
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CHAPTER REVEAL ~ Country Nights by Winter Renshaw

 

 
 
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Sixty country days and sixty country nights—that’s all I wanted.

I needed to get away from the city, away from the hot mess that had become my life.

When I stumbled upon my childhood home on RentBnB.com, I took it as a sign, cleaned out my life savings, and hightailed it to the only place that ever meant something to me, a place I hadn’t seen since a lifetime ago.

Only when I arrived to the familiar South Dakotan farmhouse, I was met by a brooding, we-don’t-take-kindly-to-strangers cowboy by the name of River McCray, who insisted this was his house and most definitely not a rental property.

I’d been internet scammed.

And that cocky, smart-mouthed stranger had the nerve to make me a humiliating offer: I could stay in his house for the next two months rent-free, but I had to work for him.

He’d be my boss. And my roommate.

With no money and nowhere else to go, I agreed. But nothing could have prepared me for the tension, the attraction, and the bombshell revelation that changed … everything.
 
Coming June 27th
 
 

 




Leighton

“Babe, I’m not done yet.” My fingers press into the back of his arms as his naked body unsticks from mine. My lips, parted and breathless, wait for his to return, craving the heat of his tongue as I bask in the early Arizona sunrise peeking through our curtains.
Grant pushes himself away from me, rolling to the cold side of the bed. The contents of his climax spill from the unsatisfied ache between my thighs.
“Thought I told you.” He offers a two-second apologetic smile. “I’m meeting a client at eight. Have to go in early.”
I glance at the vintage alarm clock on his nightstand. There’s more than enough time.
“Five more minutes?” I roll to my side, my swollen lips curling into a slow grin as I trace my fingertips along the crumpled sheets between us. “Please? That’s all I need.”
He smirks, like he thinks I’m being cute, and then he walks around to my side of the bed. Bending to kiss my forehead, he drags his thumb along my lower lip and exhales through his nose.
“Here,” he says, reaching toward my bedside table. Pulling the top drawer open, he fishes through the contents before retrieving my purple vibrator, a relic from the early days of our relationship when I was still trying to be the girl I thought he wanted me to be. A plan that backfired and then some. “This ought to help.”
If there were more light in our bedroom this morning, he’d probably be able to see the color draining from my face.
“You don’t want it?” he asks, pausing for a beat before placing it on the bed to my left.
I can’t answer.
I’m speechless.
Ever since Grant finished law school at NYU and made partner at his uncle’s prestigious law firm in Scottsdale, he’s become self-involved, self-obsessed, and disgustingly self-centered. It’s all about him, all of the time.
I didn’t want to see it.
I didn’t want to believe it.
All this time, I made excuses for him, convincing myself it was a phase. Convincing myself one of these days I’ll get the old Grant back …
… the one with the charming smile who couldn’t keep his hands off me …
… the one I fell in love with fresh out of college …
…the one who was obsessed with me, seeing to it personally that my happiness was above all else …
… the one who almost made me forget about the ones before him and not think twice that there might ever be one after him …
Grant strides toward the en-suite bathroom, his tight ass flexing as he moves, and I listen as he flushes the toilet a moment later. The shower begins to spray. My eyes move to the vibrator. I refuse to touch it.
And besides, my mood has miraculously vanished.
Twisting the diamond engagement ring on my left finger, I run my fingertip along the sharp edges of the glimmering brilliant-cut stone.
It was supposed to symbolize his commitment to me. Hope for the future. Infinite love that never ends.
Peeling myself out of bed, I wrap the percale sheets around my body. Suddenly the idea of standing naked before him feels awkward and vulnerable in a way I’ve never felt around him before. As I make my way to the bathroom, I clear my throat and feel the creep of nervous heat as it blooms up my neck.
He turns to me, rinsing suds from his eyes as his fingertips massage his thick, sandy blond hair. “You want to get in?”
“I don’t want to be with you anymore.” I didn’t rehearse the line. I didn’t ponder the decision longer than the time it took me to walk from the bed to the en-suite. Sliding the diamond ring from my finger, I place it gently next to the sink.
Grant scoffs, pressing the glass shower door open and sticking his head out. “Leighton.”
I shrug before tucking a messy strand of dark hair behind one ear, unable to meet his gaze because although my head knows the man standing before me is different from the one I once knew, my heart knows no difference. As soon as he leaves for work, I’ll clean myself up and pack my things.
I’m not sure where I’ll go, but I’ll figure it out. Anyplace would be better than sticking around here like Grant’s personal doormat.
“All because I didn’t give you an orgasm?” He laughs. He isn’t taking me seriously.
Shaking my head, I say, “It’s not that.”
He rinses the soft white suds from his body, steps onto the mat, and wraps a white towel around his waist, tucking it at his hip. The scent of cedar wood shower gel permeates the muggy air, suffocating my senses as his hands circle my waist.
Spinning me to face him, he cups my chin in his right hand.
“Talk to me,” he says, focused. “What’s this about? What’s going on here?”
“You’ve changed.”
He rolls his eyes, still smiling. “Of course I’ve changed. I’m building the life we’ve always dreamed of. The long hours? The Maserati? The wardrobe? It’s all part of an image I have to project. Nobody wants to hire a lawyer who rolls up in a rusty sedan in an off-the-rack suit. Come on. You know that.”
“I’m not talking about that.”
His brows meet. “Then how have I changed?”
“You’re selfish,” I say, “And you never used to be. We used to be in this together. You and me. We used to fit together so easily, and now … now it’s like we don’t even line up anymore.”
“Christ, Leighton. You know I love you. You know you’re the center of my world.” He drags a hand through his damp hair. “I’m sorry my career is overshadowing what we have right now, but I promise it’s not forever.”
My mind replays a moment from last weekend, when we attended a charity gala in downtown Phoenix. I counted at least eight women who couldn’t take their eyes off Grant all night, and the man was well aware. He strutted around, peacock proud, introducing himself to anyone who so much as met his cunning emerald gaze. Never once introducing me as I stood in his shadow like a forgotten afterthought.
There’s a difference between networking and schmoozing.
The old Grant would’ve worn me proudly on his arm, kissed my forehead every chance he got, and introduced me like a true gentleman.
Instead he left me alone by the open bar, at one point spending twenty-five minutes chatting up a leggy redhead in head-to-toe Givenchy. She couldn’t stop smiling in his presence, touching his arm as she laughed at everything he said, and he stood unusually close to her.
I’m not a jealous woman, and I never have been, but seeing how Grant looked at every other woman that night with the same gaze he used to lovingly reserve for me filled me with doubt and made me question our relationship for the first time since we met.
“You scheduled a client dinner on our anniversary last month,” I say. “And you forgot my birthday this year.”
Grant places a hand over his perfect, chiseled chest. “And I apologized for those incidences, did I not?”
“The old you—”
“—the old me?” His brows lift, incredulous. “There is no old me. Stop being dramatic. I’m going to work before you make me late with all of … this.”
A little piece of me dies every time he takes that tone with me, which lately has been more frequent than ever.
He shakes his head, disgusted, and heads to the closet. When he returns with a red gingham tie in hand, he releases a quick breath.
“We’ll finish this when I get home tonight.” He places the tie on a robe hook, and his tone is softer than it was a second ago.
For a splintered moment, I second guess my decision.
Am I being rash?
Do other people spend almost eight years with someone and then wake up one morning and decide it’s over? That it’s not worth trying to salvage? That it’s suddenly come to this?
I watch Grant as he stands over the sink, lathering shaving cream onto his chiseled cheek bones, humming a Rolling Stones song to himself like it’s any other day. I don’t think this man has ever worried for a single second that he might lose me, and maybe that’s why he’s pushed me to the back burner over the last couple of years.
“I love you, Leighton.” He stares into the mirror, our eyes meeting in his reflection. “I’ll fix this. Whatever’s bothering you, we’ll figure it out tonight. I’ll make it right, I promise.”
That’s Grant: cold and cutting one moment, sweet and tender the next.
He never used to be this way.
Grant’s razor drags along his cheek, leaving a track of smooth, tanned skin in its place, and he flashes his trademark disarming smile that makes me think the old him might still be in there somewhere, waiting for me to breathe him back to life.
I pause before stepping out of the bathroom and heading back to bed. Mondays are my late day, and I don’t have to be at work for another three hours, which will give me more time to think this through.
Passing his nightstand, I catch his lit phone screen from the corner of my eye.
Normally I wouldn’t look, but there’s a nagging sensation in the pit of my stomach, a jarring feeling that tells me something isn’t right.
Peering into the bathroom, I don’t see Grant. He must be in the closet, changing into his suit. Sucking in a deep breath, I steal a look at the text message taking up half of the screen.
And then my heart drops to the floor.

I’M READY FOR MY CROSS EXAMINATION THIS MORNING, COUNSELOR, BUT I HAD A COUPLE OF QUESTIONS BEFORE WE PROCEED. LACE OR SILK? MY OFFICE OR YOURS? XO

A million questions swarm my mind, all of them circling at once.
Who is she?
How long has this been going on?
Is she the first?
How could I not know?!
Why would he initiate sex this morning?
Why would he tell me he loves me and then run off to fuck someone else?
“Leighton?” Grant’s voice brings me back, and my frozen stare moves from his phone to the bathroom doorway where he stands. His hands adjust the Windsor knot of his tie, though right now I’m wishing they were my hands, pulling it tighter and tighter still. If I can’t breathe right now, why should he get the privilege? “What’s wrong?”
My vision drowns in warm tears.
It was different earlier. There was a sense of pride in knowing I could make the decision to end things based on principle.
But now …
It seems the decision has been made for me.
There’s no recovering from this.
There’s no bouncing back.
This is the bottom dropping out.
“Leighton, talk to me.” Grant moves closer, lowering to his knees and taking my limp hands in his. I want to recoil at his touch, but I don’t have the energy. “Did something happen? Is it your grandmother?”
He doesn’t get it, at least not right away.
But when his eyes move toward the phone, his breath catches. And then he lets me go, his hands sliding off of mine, slow and careful.
Grant stands, straightening his posture before slipping his phone into his pocket and studying my face.
The weight of his stare is heavy, but the silence between us is heavier.
The man who has argued hundreds of cases over his budding career is officially speechless, unable to defend his reprehensible actions.
And how could he?
The evidence is damning, and his lack of words may as well be a guilty plea.
He leaves.
I stay.
But not for long.
  


 
 
Wall Street Journal and #1 Amazon bestselling author Winter Renshaw is a bona fide daydream believer. She lives somewhere in the middle of the USA and can rarely be seen without her trusty Mead notebook and ultra portable laptop. When she’s not writing, she’s living the American dream with her husband, three kids, and the laziest puggle this side of the Mississippi.
 
And if you’d like to be the first to know when a new book is coming out, please sign up for her private mailing list here —> http://eepurl.com/bfQU2j
 
 
Author Links
 


BLOG TOUR ~ Bellevue Bullies Series by Toni Aleo

 

Jude Sinclair here, hockey player for the Bellevue Bullies and lover of all ladies. Hockey’s in my blood, and not to sound full of myself, but I’m good at it…really good. The draft is within my reach—it’s mine to take—but that’s not the only reason people know my name. They know me because of my way with women. They know the score, and I aim to please. I just tend to stay away from repeat performances. In other words, I don’t do relationships beyond my family and friends. I’m happy with life. However, I should warn you that my story and how I see it playing out is about to change due to a certain redhead on campus.
She’s beautiful. Stunning. Breathtaking.
She’s my game changer.

***

He’s trouble from the moment I see him. I don’t know what I’m thinking, but from the moment I meet his gaze, I’m his. It’s a scary feeling.
I’ve never trusted anyone outside my aunt and uncle—and even that took months. I didn’t have it easy growing up. My mom was usually strung out, and she didn’t give me a second thought. Drugs and the men who paid her were more important to her. It was horrible, but I’m stronger today. Because of my past, security is what I need most. Money assures me that I can take care of myself today, tomorrow, and next month. I don’t want to ever be hungry or go without again, so I work hard for every penny.
Oh, by the way, I’m Claire Anderson. I’m a hard-studying sophomore at the University of Bellevue, dancer for the school dance team, and a burlesque dancer at a club, but that’s my secret.
You may think you know how our story ends, but you have no clue. It’s not easy falling in love… or living happily ever after. At first it may seem so, but when is anything worth having ever won without a fight?
Especially when you’re boarded by love.
 
 
 
 
 

 


 
 
 
Things are heating up for the Sinclair boys! With one already in the NHL, Jayden Sinclair is hoping to be next!

This has been the toughest year of my life. I watched my brother go into the draft without me, my mom got divorced, and the weight of my family’s issues is heavy on my shoulders. I feel like it’s my job to fix everything while working my butt off in school and trying to make my game better. I have to go into the draft. It will give my family the support they need, and it will prove that I’m good enough. But to get there, I have to show I can be the best captain for the Bellevue Bullies. The spot is mine—no one can take it. First though, Jude is making me go on a brother’s weekend. Innocent enough, I guess…until I see her. She’s the biggest competitor I’ve ever faced. Not only for my spot but also my heart. It’s hard to ignore someone like Baylor Moore.

***

I don’t lose. I can’t. My dad has bred me to be the best in anything I do. I am driven, I am smart, and I am going to be the first woman in the National Hockey League. No two ways about it. I’ve worked too hard. I’ve been through too much not to have what I want. I know I can do it. I will make my dad proud, and no one will stand in the way of that. That is, until I let him in. He scares me. He makes me feel. And he could very well be the one person who can make me want more than just to win.
We both have the same goal. Victory. But how do you compete against the person you want to win? It’s not easy. Love isn’t something you can control. It isn’t like a puck that can be handled by a stick. No, it has a mind of its own and does what it wants.
Neither of us saw it coming, and we really don’t know if there is a way to score, especially when you’re being Clipped by Love.
 
 
 
 
 
 

 


 
 
Things are out of control for the Sinclair boys! With two already in the NHL, Jace Sinclair is ready to follow in his brothers’ HUGE skates in the last Bellevue Bullies novel…
Jace Sinclair here, and I’m amazing. There is no other way to describe me. I am the leading scorer for the Bellevue Bullies, I’m the captain, and people love me: my family, my teammates, my coach, and the NHL. This is my last year in college–I already have one foot in the draft. Hockey keeps me warm even when it’s freezing. It’s always there when nothing else is. And it pushes me to be the best I can be. It’s my one and only love.
That is, until I see her against a tree with a guitar.
Avery.
The last thing I wanted was to meet anyone. My heart is on the bench because of what happened with my parents, and I don’t want that for myself. I don’t want to be hurt by anyone. I can’t give them that power.
But my heart is begging for ice time, and I can’t control it around her.

* * *

I’ve always been in the background. No one has ever had time for me and that’s fine; I’ve learned to cope. Coming from a family where hockey is life, the last thing I want is some big, burly hockey player charging at me. I don’t have time for it, but Jace Sinclair isn’t one to be deked around.
I didn’t want to meet anyone. I didn’t want to end up freezing the puck with him. It’s not what I want.
I have demons.
I have issues.
Living in the shadows, no one even knew until it was too late. But Jace wants to know.
He wants me.
And that scares me the living hell out of me.

We were so worried about what would happen if we fell, but we never thought what could happen in the process of falling. We never saw it coming. But it’s here, and the repercussions are not pretty. We should have known that there is no way out of the zone when you are being Hooked by Love.
 
 
 

 


 
Boarded by Love
The Bellevue Bullies Series
 

Claire

Something is off tonight.

I don’t know what it is, and I don’t know why I’m feeling like this tonight. But as I sit staring at myself in the mirror, I can’t help but want more than what I’m doing right now. I mean, I have a good life and I am happy now, but something, something is missing. It honestly makes no sense; I’m actually loved and happy, so I have no clue what is wrong with me. I have everything I need and could ask for. But instead of being thankful and grateful, I question myself – my life – when I shouldn’t because thankfully, I don’t have to live the way I did four years ago.

I no longer have to worry constantly if my mom will be coming home with food instead of drugs or booze, that she wouldn’t be alone. She was never alone. She always came home with some random sleazy guy that she would make me call “uncle,” if he was around for more than five minutes. And soon the food she hopefully brought with her, usually cold, greasy KFC or burgers, would be forgotten. Instead, shit would get weird in our hundred square foot trailer; my heart would race, and I would be hiding underneath my bed from my new “uncle.”

She had a tendency to pick the supershitty guys – it was like her superpower, one I hope she didn’t pass down to me. She especially managed to pick the ones who liked to touch little girls, but thankfully, I was pretty good at getting away. I was always a kicker, a biter, and a nut-puncher. But that all changed when I turned fourteen – my mom brought home a guy that did get to me.

Because that time I didn’t try to get away.

Wasn’t my greatest decision, and I regret it now, but at the time I wanted to feel something. I wanted to feel what my mom felt, because obviously she was feeling something great, judging by the noises she made, but I felt absolutely nothing. I really wanted to eat that day. I hadn’t eaten in four days, I was starving, and he worked at the grocery store, so I figured it was a good bet. I was empty in more ways than one, so I did it to get what I needed.

And because of that moment, for the next two years, I lived just like my mother. Drinking the Two-Buck Chuck she brought home, having sex with any guy who wanted me and promised me dinner. Disgusting, I know. I was basically what my mom was – a whore. And I was living the life I thought I was destined for, living the life I was dealt because no one gave a shit enough to tell me that there could have been anything else.

That all changed when my mom was brutally killed.  

It was surreal, and for a long time I didn’t believe it. I also blamed everyone, I think because I was so disgusted in myself that I wasn’t sad. I didn’t miss her. I was glad to be free of her, but I thought that made me a bad person. I was mostly mad at my real uncle for not saving me when he could. I’ll never forget the moment that my uncle Phillip came into my life. I was sixteen, and I was angry that my mom was gone because of her own stupidity. I was scared that I was going to end up like her. For the first time, survival was not the most important option, and I was messed up. My great-aunt had been hell, putting me in religious rehab, calling me a whore and telling me I was just like my mother, and trying to “SAVE ME WITH THE JESUS.” I just couldn’t go back to her version of rehab with the orderlies that had grabby hands. That was not an option, so I did the most logical thing. I tore her house apart and packed what little shit I had and was gone.

I was walking down the street, getting ready to walk right out of town if I had to. But I knew I needed to stop and think, so I went to my favorite place, the Sculpture Garden in Minneapolis where I grew up. As I thought about my next move and what to do, Phillip was there to get me. He was driving from my aunt’s house, trying to find me, and when he did, he wasn’t going anywhere without me. He convinced me to go get waffles at this diner across the street, and it was there that he told me that he wasn’t going to let me go the way he had let his sister go. Of course, I didn’t believe him. I was used to men making promises they didn’t keep just to use me. But now, three years later, I couldn’t be more grateful for him.

At the time, I didn’t understand how anyone thought a single, twenty-nine-year-old man would know how to take care of an angry sixteen-year-old, but obviously someone knew that he was what I needed. It wasn’t easy. The first six months of being with him were complete hell. I drove him crazy; I tried to sleep with a couple of the guys from the Assassins, the team he played pro hockey for. I tried to push every button I could on him, but he never broke. He kept strong, told me he loved me, and would always be there for me, no matter what I did.

I’d never had that.

My mom only told me she loved me when she was strung out, wearing ripped up fishnets with makeup smeared on her face while she leaned back on some guy, his eyes locked on my small, fragile body. Or when she needed me to go to the store for cigarettes, or condoms, or something. And as I got older, she stopped saying it because I was competition for the attention of the men she brought home. I wanted to vomit when she would say it because I knew it wasn’t true. If she really loved me, why was I living in a roach-infested house, hiding under my bed from the fourteenth “uncle” of the month? Why would I lock myself in the bathroom and cry because I was so hungry while she had lines of cocaine laid on every flat surface in the house, higher than a kite. Why wasn’t I important enough?

I was destined to end up like her, and I probably would have ended up like her – beaten, raped, and found in a ditch – if Phillip hadn’t come into my life.

It wasn’t just Phillip, though; it was Reese too, his now soon-to-be wife. Before, I never had goals; I only wanted to get through the next day, wanting to feel anything enough to sleep with the next guy who wanted me. I used to think that I wasn’t worth much, but Reese helped me to see that being a coked-out stripper like my mom wasn’t what I was meant to be. I wasn’t easy to talk to, but she found a way, and that was through dance. I’ve always loved to dance, not of the stripper variety like my mom, but more like the really awesome, choreographed stuff. I would spend hours watching music videos, when my mom would remember to pay the cable bill, and I would mimic the girls in the videos. I was amazing, and when Reese found me doing just that in her sister’s house, the next thing I knew she had me in her studio learning routines with her.

And soon my dream was born.

Even looking at myself now, that dream still wants to be a reality. I feel it in my heart. I want to be a world-famous choreographer, teaching people like Justin Timberlake amazing routines to perform all over the world, or in Vegas, choreographing shows. The only problem is I’m not sure if it will to keep me safe, stable, and steady. I need that. After years of not knowing when my next meal was coming, I can’t just throw caution to the wind and hope I make it. I need safety. I need stability. I’ve had that the last three years because of Phillip, but I can’t depend on him my whole life. I can’t depend on anyone. I have to work for me.

So while I would have loved to go to a dance school like Reese suggested, I decided to stay home near them and go for business. Maybe I’ll take over Reese’s dance studio, or maybe start my own. The possibilities are endless, and I think that maybe I’m working here just to have the option to go do something amazing later.

“Claire, you go on in thirty.”

I nod without looking as I know the voice belongs to Ms. Prissy, before reaching back to French braid my bright red hair. Tucking it up in the back since my hair is so long, I reach for my black wig and slide it on my head. Pinning down the wig real tight, I start to put on my makeup in a rush. I’m running a tad bit behind since I stayed at the studio later, working on a routine for a duet that will compete in a couple weeks. As I apply my eye shadow in a dark, dramatic way, my hand pauses as the only advice my mom ever gave me rushes through my mind: Never look back, baby. That’s a real good way to get hit, head-on.

Crap, why am I thinking of that? I can’t sit here and think of her right now. I don’t do it often, but when I do, I dwell, and right now is not the time to dwell. Ms. Prissy doesn’t like when you’re late, and I try never to be. I needed a job like this and got lucky when she wanted to hire me. I know that Phillip and Reese would give me the world if I asked, but I don’t like to ask for things. I want to stand on my own two feet, be able to afford my next meal, and working here, I’ve managed to bank more than I ever thought, and I don’t plan on stopping until I graduate. Then I’ll have a down payment for a business of my own or to redo Reese’s. I don’t know. We will see.

“Oh my God, Claire!”

I look back at one of my friends, Ellen, with a puzzled look on my face. “What? What happened?

She didn’t look like anything was wrong, but you never knew with her. Ellen reminds me a lot of my mom. She isn’t an addict or anything, but she sure does love the men, and they love her. With her luscious blond hair, big breasts, blue eyes, and big, plump lips, the guys eat her up. She’s sweet, but outside of work, we aren’t friends. I don’t need someone in my life who reminds me of my mom.

“That asshole I was sleeping with, he gave me crabs!”

I gasp, “What? One of your rockers?”

“Rockers” was what the girls who worked in the Rock Room called the guys who came in there. When the station beside me shakes, I look over to see my friend Tessi rushing to get ready. I shoot her a grin before turning back to Ellen.

“No! Heck no, but because I got the crabs, I can’t fucking dance in there till I get rid of them. That’s like a WEEK! I’m so fucking pissed.”

I nod. I’d be pissed too if I actually worked in that room, but I don’t, by choice. I don’t have to grind on some forty-five-year-old for extra money. The girls in the club pay me extra to choreograph their routines – management does too for the group numbers – so I am pretty secure without the extra dough, plus my tips are fantastic. Some of the girls say they bring home thousands, but still, I can’t do it. There is a difference between dancing onstage in only a bra and undies and dancing naked on some guy. I don’t mind being looked at, but I do have a problem being touched. Hence the reason I haven’t had sex in three years. I feel I did that enough in my younger teen years to suffice for the rest of my life.

“So who were you sleeping with?” I ask Ellen.

“Allen West, told ya he was a sleaze,” Tessi says from beside me. I glance over at her before looking back at Ellen and then looking back at Tessi. I’m confused.

“Allen? My Allen? Tall Allen?”

“Yeah, didn’t you go out with him a few times?” Ellen asks.

I blink a few times, confused. “I am still going out with him.”

Tessi scoffs beside me as Ellen exclaims, “What?! That douche told me you broke up!”

“I mean, we weren’t really together, but we were seeing each other. I never slept with him or anything,” I say, but I still can’t believe that not only has Ellen been sleeping with him, but he gave her crabs. Small miracles… Small freaking miracles.

“Damn girl, I’m so sorry,” Ellen says with a worried look on her face.

I shake my head, waving her off. “Don’t worry about it.”

With a curt smile, Ellen runs off as I sit with my brush still held up to my face. I can’t believe it. Allen West was a decent guy, solid, or at least I thought he was. I stayed clear of guys my freshman year and the beginning of this year, but somehow Allen talked me into a date and then another. The next thing I knew, we were walking across the quad holding hands. We had never officially put labels on each other, but he was fun to hang out with, and I thought that he would be a great guy to end my celibacy streak with, but I guess I was wrong.

“Wow. Just wow. Man, I can pick ’em, huh?” I say with a shake of my head.

“Yeah, I was gonna tell you about that today. Ellen called me last night, but I forgot to call you when I looked back down at my sociology work. I am going to fail that class,” Tessi says as she brings her brown hair up into a high ponytail. Tessi, my friend Skylar, and I are the only girls from UB who work in the club. It’s great money, easy hours, and they let you come and go as you please. Plus we have actual security so we won’t get jumped in the parking lot. Girls who waitress at TGI Fridays have more problems than we do. And make less in tips.

“It’s okay, and no, you won’t fail. I’ll help you,” I say as I watch her for a moment. Tessi gives me a bright smile as I continue to watch her get ready. I’m zoning out a lot tonight, which is unusual. Usually I’m on top of things, helping the other girls who are behind. Tessi never needs my help, though. She’s a lot like me, a go-getter, climbing out of her own issues. That’s probably why we’re such great friends. We both get it. We met at freshman orientation and became fast friends. I am the one who got her the job here. She is a great friend and one of the most beautiful girls I have ever seen.

She has beautiful, big brown eyes, with thick black lashes framing them, big breasts, and beautifully plump lips. She has dangerous curves and a really great attitude. Like me, she had lived a pretty rough life, and now is doing everything to make sure she never has to go back to the life she used to live. She’s going to school to be a social worker; she wants to help kids who had shitty lives. She always tells me that she wishes someone had been there for her and me, and I do too, but then I think that maybe it was for the best. We learned from that shit and pulled ourselves together, and going to live with Phillip was probably the best thing ever. I know that it wasn’t ideal for a kid to grow up like that, but I’ve accepted it. I figure it made me stronger. I learned from it and got my drive from it. I’m stronger than any of the silly girls I go to school with, and I like that. I wear my childhood like a badge of honor instead of being ashamed of it.

She turns to look at me and smiles. “You’re not torn up by this, are you? Allen was a dick. You can get someone way better, girl. Don’t sweat it.”

She was right, obviously he didn’t mean that much to me, because I’m not mad or even broken up about it. I don’t even feel like I lost anything. I feel nothing. Surprise maybe because he was harboring an STD but nothing else. I nod. “Nope, not torn up at all. I’m not mad that he slept with someone else while talking to me, but I am mad that he could have gotten my vagina sick.”

Tessi nods sagely as she moves some gloss along her bottom lip. “I would be too. Give him hell, girlfriend, but right now, you need to pop your contacts in and get onstage. Ms. Prissy hasn’t been laid in weeks, and she is in full bitch mode, I can promise you that.”

I laugh out loud as I turn to look back at myself. I still have a lot to do. I wish I could be like Tessi and not care if someone recognizes me in this place, but it always freaks me out that Phillip could come in here, or one of his friends. I’m not ashamed of what I do by any means, but I still don’t like to advertise it. Plus, I’m not a hundred percent sure how Phillip would feel about this. Reese knows, but I’ve never brought it up to Phillip, and neither has she. But really, the thought of some guy coming up to me outside of the club is enough, so I do everything I can to change my appearance.

Reaching for my contact case, I open it quickly, popping in my dark brown contacts to cover my bright blue eyes. Positioning some fake lashes to make my eyes look fuller, I finish my eye makeup before applying some bright red lipstick. Pursing my lips at myself, satisfied with the way I look, I smile at my reflection before standing up to get ready. Reaching for my outfit for the night, I hurry to get ready because, like Tessi said, Ms. Prissy could be a major bitch when she wasn’t getting laid regularly. After sliding the crystal-encrusted booty shorts up over my black fishnets, I slide my feet into a pair of black high heels as Tessi stands up to help me tie up the back of the crystal-studded corset.

“Claire! Let’s go,” Ms. Prissy yells.

Tessi laughs before swatting me on my butt. “Good luck.”

I flash her a grin as I grab my fans and make my way to the curtain. Tonight, I’m doing an old-fashioned burlesque fan dance. I’d seen it on TV one night and then spent the next two weeks researching and rehearsing my set before I showed Ms. Prissy and management at the club. That was a year ago, and now I was the most popular act on the busiest night. I also do pole and regular burlesque dancing, but the fans are my favorite. I send Ms. Prissy an apologetic smile as I run to my mark, but all I receive back is an eye roll before she gets on the radio to let the tech guys know I’m ready. When “Diamonds” by Rihanna starts, I slowly pull the curtains back, revealing myself to the crowd as it erupts with catcalls and men hollering my name.

Showtime.

Oh, by the way, my name is Claire Anderson and I’m a nineteen-year-old sophomore at the University of Bellevue here in Tennessee. By night though, onstage and in this club, my name is Diamond, and I’m the best burlesque dancer at Ms. Prissy’s Gentlemen’s Club.

Nice to meet you.  

 



 

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

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The sins of his past can’t be forgiven.

Mason Thatcher gave me chills when I first laid eyes on him. The good kind. The kind that makes your body ache and your heart hammer.

What’s better is that he looked at me the same way.
There was a hunger in his eyes that wouldn’t be sated, and a confidence in his stride that told me I could never run from him. Back then, I didn’t want to.

It’s not fair that his touch eased my pain.
That his lips on mine made my worries vanish.
That his love gave me a reason to breathe again.

With him, I felt complete, as if fate had given me a second chance.

Then I learned the truth: the sins and secrets of what really brought us together.

I knew it was too good to be true, but I could never have imagined he’d be capable of something so cold and cruel. That he was the reason my world crumbled.

There’s no way we can go back to what we once had and it’s not as easy as walking away. He can’t risk me telling his secrets.

I don’t know what choices I have or how I’ll survive this.

What he’s done is unforgivable, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to let me go.


Unforgiven is the second book in the new series, Sins and Secret Series of Duets by Wall Street Journal and USA Today Bestselling author Willow Winters. It is book 2 of a 2 book duet although other standalone duets will be featured in the series. It is not necessary, but highly recommended that you read book 1, Imperfect, before reading Unforgiven.
 

Chapter 1

Julia



I get chills when I look at him,
My heart filled with dread.
He ruined me and left me scarred,
Yet pulled me in his bed.

He lied to me and made me weak
and hid his sins from view.
The truth always comes out;
It’s time he gets his due.

Fear, sadness, regret?
I have nothing left but hate.
How dare he say he loves me.
Forgiveness?  It’s too late.


I’ll make you forget everything but my name and what I do to you tonight.
Mason whispered the words so close to my ear, sending a shiver of want through my body.  It’s everything I desired when I met him.  He made that promise to me the first night and I so easily fell into his bed.
Desperate to feel anything but the heartache and misery I’d succumbed to.  
If only I could take it back.  
If only I knew this man was the cause of my pain.
I stare at him on the other side of his bedroom.  His broad shoulders are lit by the dim light of the room as he sits on the edge of the reading chair in the corner.  His elbows rest on his thighs as he hunches over with his head in his hands.  His fingers rub back and forth over the back of his head as if there’s a thought inside his mind he can’t quite reach.
He won’t look at me; he stares at the ground in complete silence.  
My body aches with restlessness and my eyes burn a desperate need to cry but have nothing left.
I try to scoot my body up on the bed to soothe my sore arms, but the rope tied around my wrists chafes and tightens with the sudden pull.  I wince and suck in a breath through clenched teeth; my shoulders are screaming in pain.  
Hours must have passed by now since I found out the truth.  Hours of me screaming and fighting him, clawing at him and trying to escape his strong grip.  Hours of being tied to the bed.  
Only minutes since he’s come back into the room though. Minutes since he’s opened that door and let his eyes rest on me just how I am.  Pathetic, weak and completely at his mercy.  Captive to a man I loved who hid a secret so dark and corrupt it’s ruined me.  I’ll never be the same.  There’s no way to recover.
Tick, tock.  Tick, tock.  
Minutes since he’s lowered himself to the chair without a word to me.  A chair I brought from my home to his.  A chair I’d cried so many tears in after my husband died.  
“I hate you.” The words slowly cut their way up my sore throat.  They’re barely heard, so raspy and weak from the constant screaming.   
He slowly lifts his head, his corded muscles rippling. For the first time since I’ve been with Mason, after months of falling in love with him, I feel real fear.
The sharp lines of his jaw look more intense in the dim light, the shadows only making them seem more severe.  His grey eyes are like daggers as he imprisons my gaze.  
I can’t breathe; I can’t look away.  
“You don’t,” his voice is rough, deep.  Stronger than before.  But it’s a lie.  All lies.
I do.  I hate him more than I could ever express.  
Finally, I gasp for air, breaking his gaze and staring at the ceiling in the room.  Even that little movement makes the raw wounds at my wrists hurt.  I don’t show it though, I try to hide it.  
I gave this man everything, never hiding a piece of me.  I won’t be so foolish again.  Never again.  
“I hate you more than you’ll ever know,” I murmur to the ceiling in an eerily calm voice.
I hear the creek of the floor and my eyes whip to him as he stands.
He rises so slowly.  His muscular frame seeming so much larger than before.  He was always dominating and intimidating, but this is something darker… something so much more.
I have nothing to protect me, not even a cover.  He tore the comforter off and I’m left in only the baggy, thin-cotton t shirt and underwear I was wearing this morning.  The chill is getting to me.  My body feels cold.  So fucking cold and tired.  
The bed dips and groans as he leans a knee on it, just a foot away from me.  I struggle to pull away, but I’m stuck here.  Tied to the fucking bed and held against my will.
“I love you, Jules,” his words are a mix of strangled pain and determination.  He’s a broken man with a tortured soul.
I’ve met men before who are considered to be wound tightly, waiting to go off like a bomb.  Constantly on edge and ready to fight.  But Mason’s not like that.  He’s loosely wrapped around the spindle and nothing but a mess of tangles. The thread’s sharp to the touch and there’s no hope at unknotting them without cutting yourself.  
I never knew how deeply he’d wounded me.  I had no idea that while I was busy mending myself and leaning on him for support, he was behind me watching me bleed out, but saying nothing.  The closer he got, the deeper the wound, but that didn’t stop him.
I let my head drop to look him in the eyes.  It makes my heart swell with an unbearable pain to have him so close to me, to see how injured he is but knowing it’s nothing compared to what he’s done to me.  
I truly loved him.  I thought fate had given me a second chance.  I knew it was too good to be true.
“You’re a sick fuck,” I spit the words at him, narrowing my eyes and waiting for him to strike me back with the same venom I’ve given him.  
I listen to him breathe so calm and even, I watch his chest rise and fall and then look back into his cold eyes.  
“Maybe,” he answers me before rising off the bed and turning away from me.  My heart sinks low in my stomach, my body temperature dropping so quickly, my entire body shivers. It hurts.  It physically hurts to see his pain but it hurts more to know what he’s done to me.
The wood floors creak as he heads towards the door.  Leaving me here and not giving me any indication of what’s to come.  
“Aren’t you going to say you’re sorry?” I whisper the painful words.  
He opens the door part way, stopping in his tracks as he registers what I’ve asked.  He turns slowly to look back at me over his shoulder, his hand still on the carved-glass doorknob.
“I told you I’m sorry; you were never supposed to know.”
“You’re only sorry that I found out?” I ask him with equal amounts disbelief and agony.
His eyes dart to the plush, carpeted floor and the bedroom door groans as it opens slightly more.  
He glances up at me, as if debating on telling me something.  It would be the truth, I can see it, I can feel the intensity.  But he says nothing, swinging the door open and walking through with even strides, before slamming the door shut behind him.

 


 
 
 
Willow Winters is so happy to be a USA Today, Wall Street Journal and #1 Contemporary Bestselling Romance Author. She likes her action hot and her bad boys hotter. She certainly doesn’t hold back on either one in her writing!

Want a text alert when Willow has a new release? Text “Willow” to 797979!
Or if you prefer by email, Sign up for her Naughty List to get all the newest bad boy releases, sales,
great giveaways and a FREE Bad Boy Billionaire Romance 


Willow started writing after having her little girl, Evie, December 2015. All during her pregnancy with Evie she continued to read and she only wanted to read romance. She was reading a book a day — sometimes two.

In January 2016 Willow was staying up late with Evie and just thinking of all these stories. They came to her constantly so she finally sat down and just started writing. She always wanted to do it so she figured, why not? Today Willow cannot be happier for making that decision!
  
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COVER REVEAL ~ Writing Mr. Right by T.K. Leigh

 
 
 

 

 
Title: Writing Mr. Right

Author: T.K. Leigh

Genre: Romantic Comedy
Cover Design: Tracy Kellam, Cat Head Biscuit, Inc.
Release Date: June 26, 2017

 
Blurb
My name is Molly Brinks, but most people know me as Vivienne Foxx, bestselling author of chance meetings, stolen glances, and the much-needed happily ever after. My addictions include coffee, home improvement television, and the occasional pint of ice cream. The love of my life is an eighty-pound labrador retriever named Pee Wee. At the age of twenty-nine-plus-one, I am at the top of my game…professionally. My personal life is a completely different story, one best left untold. Success has its sacrifices and I’ve been more than happy to put my search for Prince Charming on the back burner while I create fictitious tales of the naïve virgin, the broken girl with a torrid past, and the strong-willed
student finding their own Mr. Right… Until one hell of a case of writer’s block and a tight deadline set by my publisher forces me outside my cozy downtown Boston apartment in search of inspiration.
 
Armed with an account on every dating website out there, I devise a plan. Meet some nice, professional men. Go on a few dates. Hope one of them has the spark I need to finish my book. Then walk away.
 
But plans are meant to be broken.
 
My name is Molly Brinks, and this is my story about Writing Mr. Right.
 
 

 

 
 

 

 
Pre-order Links
 
99c for a limited time
 
Exclusive pre-order on B&N/Kobo/iBooks releasing on June 20, 2017 for 48 hours
before being released on Amazon/Kindle Unlimited on June 26, 2017
 
 
 

 

 
 
 

 

Excerpt

 

 

Author Bio
T.K. Leigh, otherwise known as Tracy Leigh Kellam, is the USA Today Bestselling author of the Beautiful Mess series, in addition to several other works. Originally from New England, she now resides in sunny Southern California with her husband, dog, and three cats, all of which she has rescued (including the husband). In late 2015, she gave birth to her first (and only) baby. When she’s not planted in front of her computer, writing away, she can be found training for her next marathon (of which she has run over twenty fulls and far too many halfs to recall) or chasing her daughter around the house.
 
T.K. Leigh is represented by Jane Dystel of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. All publishing inquiries, including audio, foreign, and film rights, should be directed to her.

 

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COVER REVEAL ~ Strong Enough by Melanie Harlow & David Romanov

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Strong Enough, an all-new sexy standalone from USA Today Bestselling
author Melanie Harlow and David Romanov is coming June 19th!

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Strong Enough

by Melanie Harlow & David Romanov

Genre: Contemporary MM Romance

Publication Date: June 19, 2017

Cover Designer: Letitia Hasser, RBA Designs

Photographer: Vitaly Dorokhov


***********************

I wasn’t looking for Derek Wolfe.

I wasn’t looking for anybody. All I wanted was to start a new life in America. But when I found myself stranded here with no place to go, he came to my rescue, offering me a place to stay.

He’s smart, successful, and sexy as hell—I can barely sleep knowing he’s right down the hall. And when the chemistry between us explodes one night with fierce, fiery passion, it’s hard to deny there’s something real between us.

But he does.

He says he was drunk. He says it was a one-time thing. He says he’s not into guys and what we did meant nothing.

He’s lying. Because it happened again, and again, and again. And it’s better every time.

I know we could be good together, and I want the chance to try, but I’m done hiding. If he’s not strong enough to admit the truth, I’ll have to be strong enough to walk away.

Check Out the First THREE Chapters of Strong Enough HERE:


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About Melanie:

Melanie Harlow writes sexy, emotional romance about strong, stubborn characters who can’t help falling in love. She’s addicted to bacon, gin martinis, and summer reading on the screened-in porch. If she’s not buried in a book or binging on Netflix, you might find her running, putting a bun in someone’s hair, or driving to and from the dance studio. She lives outside Detroit with her husband and two daughters.

Melanie is the USA Today bestselling author of the HAPPY CRAZY LOVE series, the FRENCHED series, MAN CANDY, AFTER WE FALL, IF YOU WERE MINE, and the sexy historical SPEAK EASY duet, set in the 1920s.

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About David:

For David Romanov, STRONG ENOUGH is to a great extent autobiographical. Born in Russia and raised in Europe, he landed in the United States at the age of 24, where he learned a lot about cultural differences between East and West.
David firmly believes in ‘The One’ and learning through love. When he isn’t traveling or educating Melanie in Russian culture, he enjoys books and the company of his husband and dog in Los Angeles.

Connect with David:

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CHAPTER REVEAL ~ Blood Sacrifice (Kyn series #2) by Mina Carter

 

 
 
BloodSacrifice_550.jpg
 
 
 
Coming June 13th
  
 
Whatever else he was, she had to admit he had guts. She wouldn’t want to be shut up in a room with an angry Kyn either. While his pixie heritage might have protected him from being turned into a vampire, it did bugger all to protect him from being dead.

The only vampire warioress in existence Vixen has spent most of her life proving herself in a man’s world, but she’s never been able to squash some very feminine thoughts where fellow warrior Kalen is concerned. Kalen however, has sworn off love, preferring to deal in lust instead.

But a passionate encounter blows their carefully constructed indifference to each other and when Vixen is kidnapped will they be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to give their love a chance?


 
 
Prologue

He fucking hated balls. Pain in the ass court functions filled with simpering nobles who couldn’t find their asses with both hands and a map. He especially hated balls where he stood on the sidelines as his lady wife danced with every one of the assholes besides him.
It had pissed him off so much, he’d taken her dance card and changed a few names to his… only she’d fucked off, leaving the ball before their first dance to come home.
Kalen Sauveterre stormed through the door to his wife’s rooms, his mood so foul that the wood crashed into the wall and rebounded, just barely avoiding hitting him as he strode through it.
“Astra! Where the hell are you?” he growled, finding the sitting area empty. Before he could walk into her bedroom, she appeared in the doorway, a vision of slender loveliness in pink silk, her almost-white blonde hair a cloud around her shoulders.
For a moment he allowed his gaze to wash over her. He tried to conjure some of the emotions he’d once felt for her—the feelings he’d had when they’d married and before they’d had Naeva—but there was nothing. No feeling, no emotion, no nothing. It had all been leeched away in the months of arguments since their daughter’s birth. Months in which it seemed he could do nothing right, in which it seemed Astra would rather he didn’t exist, never mind not touch her.
“What do you want, Kalen?” she pouted, the sulky expression covering what he could have sworn was panic. He had to be wrong though… what did she have to panic about?
“What was that about? Leaving like that?” he demanded, keeping his hands in closed fists at his sides. Anything to keep the rage boiling in his veins to himself so as not to scare her. Astra was a noblewoman, not a warrior like he was, and he knew the darker side of his nature scared her. So he tried to minimize her exposure to it.
She shrugged, her expression becoming even more moody, which pissed him off and he stepped forward.
“For fuck’s sake, Astra, you know better than to travel alone. What if the rogues had caught you? One driver isn’t enough to protect you.”
“Oh god, this again?” She sneered dismissively, looking down her nose at him. Somehow, even though he was noble-born and she wasn’t, she always made him feel he was beneath her because he was a warrior. “The way you talk, you’d think there were rogues hiding around every damn corner. You’re paranoid, Kalen. You should go and get your head checked.”
He bit back his growl, just the corner of his lip twitching as he kept his reply to himself. If she knew what he and the other warriors faced every night on patrol, it would scare the ever-loving crap out of her and every other civilian. The fact that they lived practically cheek to cheek with the scourge that preyed on their race… they’d go running in fear and never leave their fortified houses.
“So why did you leave?” he asked, trying to bring the conversation back on topic before she could get onto the subject of his supposed paranoia.
He knew what she was getting at… that he was mad, or slipping into blood-rage. All male kyn were at risk, but warriors, given they were so close to the rogue vampires they hunted, were even more so. If she could get him diagnosed as blood-mad, she could live the life she’d always wanted… that of a noble lady… but without the pesky encumbrance of an actual husband. He was fairly sure she prayed each night when he went out on patrol, not for his safe return like most women would have, but for the rogues to kill him and make her into a widow.
“I was bored,” she said with a sniff, not moving from the door.
His eyes narrowed as he registered her stance. It almost seemed as though she was guarding the door. But from what? Him? He almost snorted at the thought. He hadn’t been invited to her bed for months, forced to feed from one of the blood-women supplied to the warriors. It wasn’t the same as being balls and fang-deep in his beloved wife, though… a pale imitation of the bond he’d thought he had with Astra.
“Bored? You missed our dances. I would have made sure you weren’t bored.”
He stepped to the side nonchalantly, testing her reactions. She moved subtly to block him. Yeah, she didn’t want him getting into her bedroom. Why? He took a slow breath, tasting the air for any hint of a male in the room behind her, but it came up clean. The only two scents in here were his and hers.
She sniffed, leaning against the doorframe to study her nails. “Really? You bore me all the time, Kalen. I’m afraid I prefer the more…” her gaze raked over his tall form, the court clothes not able to disguise his warrior’s physique. “Intellectual man, shall we say? Not a dinosaur of a warrior.”
Anger boiled over, the snarl escaping Kalen’s lips before he could stop it. “Really? Well, tough shit. I’m still your husband, rather than one of those limp-wristed assholes.”
“Yeah, you are.” She picked at one of her nails. “For now.”
The red at the corners of his vision crept inward. “For now? What the fuck does that mean?”
In a surge of movement, he pushed past her and into the bedroom beyond, her slender frame no match for his warrior’s bulk. Instantly his gaze fell on the open trunk by the bed, half filled with her dresses.
“You’re leaving me?” he demanded, turning on her. Fury filtered through his veins, deepening his voice and making his jaw ache as his fangs tried to descend.
“You can go,” he said, accepting the inevitable. They’d been over for months, but he’d refused to accept it. “But you’re not taking Naeva. My daughter stays with me.”
He stared her down, resolute on the fact he would keep their baby. She was the one good thing that had come out of their marriage and he would ensure that she was cared for and raised as befit her station as a kyn noble.
Astra laughed, one eyebrow raised. “Ohh, you poor darling,” her voice dropped to saccharine venom. “You really think a savage of a warrior could have sired a child, let alone a daughter? No, Kalen, you didn’t. She’s not yours. She never was.”



Chapter One

Men were assholes, pure and simple.
Vixen grunted, flat on her back on the weight bench, and shoved the barbell up as though she were a pneumatic lifting machine in overdrive. Anything to avoid answering the smug piece of shit male posing on the other side of the gym.
“Com’on, blondie,” Kalen Sauveterre smirked, flexing his arms and looking over his shoulder at her. “You know you wanna take a peek.”
Vixen just grunted and threw an extra couple of plates onto the barbell before sliding under it again. Kalen was a perpetual pain in her ass. All. The. Time. The blond, muscled, handsome poster boy for the kyn warrior “brotherhood,” he’d been on her case since the moment she’d joined their ranks.
She’d been so pleased and triumphant the day she’d walked in here, right into the warriors’ training compound like she owned the place. And that day, she’d thought she did. After years, the elder council had finally conceded that, even though she was female, she had been born with the warriors’ marks over her face and body, which meant she belonged with the other warriors, fighting the rogues. Had she been male, she’d have been accepted without question and sent to the training compound when she’d come of age instead of having to fight for years to be recognized.
She’d thought her fight was over once she’d walked through those doors. It hadn’t been. Instead, she’d just faced a new fight… to gain the trust and respect of the males she worked with. Males just as strong and fast as she was. They weren’t the scrawny men she was used to who hid behind words, but big, brawny warriors. Men she finally had to look up to rather than down on.
And they weren’t impressed about having a woman amongst them for the first time. Most had given her a wide berth, silently weighing her up and trying to avoid being partnered with her. This had meant she’d spent the first month as a warrior tagging along with another pair until finally one, Feral, had thrown her weapons at her and told her she’d better not get him or herself killed. Since that day, she and the big, shaven-headed warrior had been patrol partners, and the rest of the warriors had followed in accepting her.
All besides Kalen Sauveterre. As blue-blooded as their warrior king, Marak, he was the son of a lord and heir to a noble title. Like her, he was an anomaly. Warriors’ marks rarely showed up amongst the nobility, but that didn’t seem to matter to him, or create a sense of kinship. Instead, he’d taken to needling her from the moment she’d arrived.
The normal shit-talking crap she’d have knocked seven shades of shit out of any other guy for. Trying that with a warrior though was a sure-fire way to, if not get her ass handed to her on a plate, at least get herself a going over that would make hunting the rogues uncomfortable for a while as she healed. The normal crap most men spouted about her—being too weak or that women shouldn’t be warriors—didn’t bother her.
Kalen’s flirty, snarky comments did.
They reached in and got right under her armor. She was used to being the outcast and men seeing her as a freak… usually only talking to her on a dare or to find out what being with a warrior would be like… so there was no way that a male like Sauveterre, with his impeccable breeding and good looks, would be interested in her.
“Blondie?” He never used her name. Fuck knew why. “It’s not nice to ignore a guy. Don’t you know we have delicate egos?”
She almost snorted at that. If Kalen’s ego was delicate enough to be damaged by her ignoring him, he’d have been done for years ago.
“Leave her alone, K,” a deep voice growled, a shadow falling over Vixen as the newcomer blotted out the light. “Can’t you see she’s busy working out. Which you should be doing, instead of posing in that mirror.”
She squinted up to find Marak, their monarch, looking down at her. Like her, he was an oddity, born both the heir to the throne and a warrior, his marks dark against his skin as he stood by the bench, spotting her until she’d finished her set.
“You shouldn’t let him needle you. He’s just looking for a reaction,” Marak said gruffly, hands under the bar to help her get the last inch as her muscles screamed blue murder at her.
“Yeah. Because he’s an asshole.”
She ignored the snort from the other side of the room, deliberately not watching as Kalen sauntered past them on the way to the showers.
“Not arguing with you on that one.” The corner of Marak’s lip quirked as he racked the bar and offered her a hand to help her up. “Vixen, I need a favor.”
She paused, hand halfway to her water bottle, and looked up at him. Not only was Marak the leader of the warrior brotherhood, but he was also the kyn monarch. He didn’t need to ask. He could just order her and they both knew it. So the fact he was asking… that was big.
“Sure. What do you need?” She grabbed her water bottle, slugging some back as she wiped the back of her neck with the small towel she always brought into the gym to wipe herself and the benches down. She hated to get onto a sticky bench and refused to leave them that way, unlike some heathens who used the place. Men were utter pigs.
Marak looked uncomfortable, shifting from foot to foot before he realized she was watching him and his expression smoothed out. “Well, the wedding next week? You’ll be there?”
She grinned instantly. All the warriors knew that Marak had finally found his bond-mate, and about the merry dance she’d led him on. It was practically legend, or would be soon.
“Yeah, wouldn’t miss it.”
“Good. Will you be a bridesmaid?”
Every cell in Vixen’s body froze.
“Beg pardon?” She laughed a little, wariness filling her voice. “It sounded like you just asked me to be a bridesmaid…”
Marak folded his arms over his broad chest. “I did.”
She blinked. “Err… have you looked at me recently? Not being funny, sire, but I’m not exactly bridesmaid material. And besides, shouldn’t that be Maria’s decision?”
The big kyn shook his head and then paused, frowning. “Well, yes, traditionally, but I said I wanted to ensure her safety and would arrange a bodyguard.”
Vixen’s eyes widened with surprise. “And you escaped with your life?”
She couldn’t imagine the determined queen-to-be, a woman who, despite being only half-kyn, had been determined to take on the rogues before Marak had claimed her as his own, being told anything, much less what bridesmaids she would have.
Marak snorted, amusement flaring in his eyes. “Persuasion, you could say—”
She held her hand up suddenly, cutting him off. “Yeah, that’s all I need to know about that.”
There was a snigger from the other side of the room and she tensed, thinking Kalen had come back. Instead, familiar grunts and groans joined the sound of a weight machine getting pummelled. Feral, her patrol partner, seemed to be working off some aggression.
“Yeah, no problem.” She couldn’t help her smile at the relief that spread over Marak’s face.
“Thanks, Vix. You’re a lifesaver,” he said. “I know it’s just from the Ravensford estate and she’ll be escorted by the Ravensford knights all the way… but you know what knights are like. I’ll be far happier knowing there’s at least one of my guys in there too.”
She was forced to bite back her smile as a sense of pride filled her. He’d called her one of “his guys,” not “the female warrior.” She had to agree with his point about knights, though. There was a definite and centuries-old rivalry between the two branches.
All warriors trained hard to keep up their speed and reactions, constantly learning and practicing new forms. It was necessary, a matter of survival. Rogue vampires were fast as hell, and thanks to the madness in their veins, stronger than their kyn counterparts. A slow warrior was a dead warrior.
It wasn’t the same with knights, though, not that Vixen had seen. Once you were a knight, sword across the shoulders and all that, you were always a knight. No one took that away from you, even when you got too old and slow to raise the sword.
“I was going to stick Feral in a dress just for the hell of it, but he’d only sulk.” Marak’s expression turned wicked, his chatter revealing how nervous he was. Marak had never been chatty. He was more the silent, brooding type. Until he’d met Maria. Vixen liked the change. It suited him.
She chuckled. “No, he’d definitely sulk. Then I’d have to put up with his moods for weeks. Where do I have to be and when?”
***
She looked like a damn gorilla in a dress.
Vixen looked down at herself and suppressed a grimace. Primed and preened to within an inch of her life, she didn’t even recognize herself in the mirror. Normally she made sure her face was clean and her hair was tied back, so to see herself made up with her blonde hair caught up in a stylish mess of curls on top of her head was startling.
Her lips formed a soft pout, and she watched in fascination as the reflection mimicked her. No, it had to be a mistake. The slender beauty in the mirror couldn’t be her. There had to be an enchantment spell on the mirror… She leaned forward to study her face, finding the tiny scar at the corner of her lips that hadn’t quite been covered with makeup. She couldn’t get over how amazing her eyes looked… like a cat’s, all mysterious and exotic.
She blinked and leaned back, careful not to move her feet. Her normal leathers had been replaced with a fitted sheath dress and skyscraper heels. She took a tiny step to the side and instantly had to readjust her balance. A groan left her lips. There was no way she was walking in the things without face-planting.
She cast a glance over her shoulder and studied the other bridesmaids surreptitiously. They giggled as they helped each other get ready, obviously close friends. Tiny and dark-haired, they were all seneschal girls. Maria, the bride had been born half-kyn, so she’d refused to adhere to tradition and have kyn noblewomen from the main families as her attendants. Instead, she’d chosen from the seneschal families. Vixen had to admit it was a clever move, even if she herself stuck out like a sore thumb.
Even worse, the dress was pink. Of course it was. It even had a large bow right on her ass. She grumbled to herself, twisting and turning to look at her backside in the mirror. They might as well have slapped a “wide load” sticker on her.
She suppressed a sigh. She’d never feared anything. She was Vixen, big, scary kyn warrior. She spent her nights hunting and killing rogue vampires, and she was damn good at it. Just last week her patrol had topped the leader board for the most kills for the third week in a row.
What was being a bridesmaid compared to that? A dress, some flowers and following the bride up the aisle to make sure she didn’t break a nail. It couldn’t be that hard, right?
Wrong, dead wrong. Moments to go and she shook with nerves, panic rising. She looked ridiculous. She’d thought she was clever, avoiding the dress fittings for training. Boring as they’d been, the reason behind them was now crystal clear.
Her dress didn’t fit.
The pink silk was stretched tightly across her bust, so tight she could hardly breathe. She couldn’t take a deep breath, in case the delicate lacings across her back—already stretched to the limit—ripped. The dressmaker was no help. Annoyed at having to work without a dress fitting, she’d ordered Vixen not to breathe. Vixen didn’t know if that was to not breathe deeply, or not breathe at all. Not breathing was the best option. The neckline was so low one movement the wrong way and her breasts would spill out over the top.
She cursed under her breath as she looked around the small antechamber. Just off the main hall of the court where the ceremony was to take place, it followed the rest of the building in its style. Heavy wood paneling covered half the walls while ornamental plaster carvings covered the rest. The symbols of ancient kyn families surrounded them as the bride prepared to walk up the aisle. Like a lot of vampire buildings, there wasn’t even a damn window she could wriggle out.
As soon as the idea of escape occurred, she dismissed it. She couldn’t run out on the wedding of the king. It just wasn’t done. She didn’t give a damn about protocol, but if she didn’t show, Marak would track her down and bust her ass for it.
She straightened her back. She was a kyn warrior, and warriors did not run from anything. She didn’t run from anything. Even if her knees shook under her skirt.
“Now… you look amazing.”
As if Vixen’s thoughts had conjured her up, Maria appeared at her elbow like a genie out of a bottle. A genie in a full wedding gown with veil and tiara.
“Me?”
Vixen resisted the urge to tug on the dress again as she turned to face the bride. Yanking it up until it felt more secure reduced the risk of her breasts falling out, but it meant the spilt up her thigh would rise indecently high. Pulling it down to solve that gave her the fall-out problem again. Catch-22.
“I don’t. I look ridiculous.” She gave in to temptation and went through the whole pull up, pull down routine again. “Like a damn gorilla in a dress.”
“What are you talking about? You don’t look like a gorilla at all. You’re stunning.” Maria’s gaze made a quick assessment of Vixen’s dress. Slim-fitting, it molded to every curve she had. A fact she was uncomfortably aware of.
She wore tight clothing on patrol, but that was work gear. Somehow, skin-tight leather pants with a skinny-fit tee didn’t seem quite as bad as her cleavage, or the entire length of her leg on display.
“You can see my underwear,” Vixen muttered, tugging at the dress again, nearer to a panic attack than she’d ever been in her life.
“Don’t be stupid. It’s perfectly decent. You’re just used to hiding yourself away down in the compound… Leave it. You’ll crease the silk.” Maria swatted at Vixen’s hands, her impatience obvious.
Perhaps she could still make a break for it, Vixen pondered as the bride moved off to speak to another bridesmaid. Already, Maria had adopted the role of hostess, a skill she’d need as Marak’s queen. Hope filled Vixen—Maria would understand…
Nope. She steeled herself, forcing her spine to straighten. She was a warrior, not used to being pulled about and tarted up as she had been this morning, by beauticians and hairdressers, but she would do this.
“Feral would still have looked better in this.”
She was careful to keep her muttering under her breath. Kyn hearing was acute. The last thing she needed was everyone to find out she felt like a complete and utter idiot.
“What was that?” Maria appeared at Vixen’s side again, but her attention was diverted as the door opened and a tall figure appeared.
In a heartbeat, Vixen was all attention, her body tensed and readied for an attack. She knew how much some people wanted to make sure this wedding didn’t go through, for Marak not to marry. As she recognized the man who stepped into the room, she relaxed marginally, silent understanding passing between warrior and knight.
“Are you ready, sweetheart? They’re all waiting for you out there… Marak’s like a cat on a hot tin roof.” Garen Ravensford crossed the room to his daughter, and Vixen could see the pride sparkling in his eyes as he took in her appearance. “You look wonderful, honey. Beautiful. Just like your mother did. She would have been so proud of you.”
Vixen turned away with a lump in her throat, uncomfortable at trespassing on a tender moment between father and daughter. Despite having fallen in love with a human, Garen had stood by her and the two half-kyn daughters she’d borne him. It was an old scandal—one of the most eligible lords in the court had married a human for love. It had nearly cost Garen his title. A match between a kyn and a human? Unheard of.
If she had been converted, it would have been a different matter. Occasionally though some humans couldn’t be converted. No one knew why. The scientists thought it might have to do with a strain of paranormal DNA in their genetic makeup, something not human in their family tree, that stopped the conversion. Regardless of the pressure on him, Garen stood by his mortal wife until she died, and Vixen admired him for that.
Her own father had been a different matter. He’d seen the warriors’ marks across the face and body of his newborn daughter and had walked out, leaving Vixen and her mother to fend for themselves.
“Yes, I’m ready… is everyone else? Do y’all have your bouquets?” Maria asked, twisting and turning to check as Garen lifted her veil to draw it down over her face. Vixen lifted her bouquet and waggled it in with the rest, adding her voice to the chorus from the assembled bridesmaids.
The panic left Maria’s face as her father drew her hand onto his arm and led her toward the door. The bridesmaids fell into the order they’d had drilled into them by the wedding coordinator and followed her. Vixen brought up the rear, her hand closing around the handle of her bouquet and the stiletto hidden there. Just in case. Bridesmaid for the day, protector for life.
The moment of truth was upon her. Vixen took a deep breath before stepping through the door. All eyes in the hall swung toward them. Vixen bit the inside of her lip, wishing she was somewhere—anywhere—other than here. If a rogue burst into the hall right now, she’d kiss it, before kicking its ass.
Feral should’ve worn the dress. She fixed her gaze on Maria’s slender figure, concentrated on putting one step in front of the other, and ignored the crowded room around her as she followed the queen-to-be up the aisle.


Mina was born and raised in the East Farthing of Middle Earth (otherwise known as the Midlands, England) and spend her childhood learning all the sorts of things generally required of a professional adventurer. Able to ride, box, shoot, make and read maps, make chainmail and use a broadsword (with varying degrees of efficiency) she was disgusted to find that adventuring is not considered a suitable occupation these days.

So, instead of slaying dragons and hunting vampires and the like, Mina spends her days writing about hot shifters, government conspiracies and vampire lords with more than their fair share of RAWR. Turns out wanna-be adventurers have quite the turn of imagination after all…

(But she keeps that sword sharp, just in case the writing career is just a dream and she really *is* an adventurer.)

The boring part: A full time author and cover artist, Mina can usually be found hunched over a keyboard or graphics tablet, frantically trying to get the images and words in her head out and onto the screen before they drive her mad. She’s addicted to coffee and would like to be addicted to chocolate, but unfortunately chocolate dislikes her.
 
 
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WANTED: Single dad needs nanny–In more ways than one.

Martin “Brick” Bricker is living the good life. He’s playing the sport he loves, has all the women he can handle, and parties like a rock star. At twenty-six, he has no interest in slowing down or taking anything seriously–except hockey, of course.

Then a knock at his door changes everything.Suddenly he’s the single father to a five-year-old daughter he didn’t know he had, and he’s trading his playboy ways for Barbies.

Amelia Stacey struggles to make ends meet and juggles her day-care job with a full load of college classes. When she’s offered a temporary, two-week nanny position making more money than she imagines, she jumps at the chance. Before she knows it, she’s in over her head, not just with her five-year-old charge but with the girl’s hot single father.

Brick always goes after what he wants, and he wants Amelia. Only responsible Amelia doesn’t want anything to do with the party boy. Struggling with fatherhood and his unexplainable attraction to his nanny, Brick has to figure out where his daughter and Amelia fit into his life.If they fit at all.

But one thing’s for sure: Brick can’t block this shot straight to his heart.





EXCERPT:

Chapter 1—In the Net

Martin “Brick” Bricker was one lucky bastard. He had it all. Good looks, ripped body, more money than he could spend, and more women than he could handle.

It was good to be him. Really, really good.

Being named sexiest male athlete last week by the Hot Hockey Hunks website was icing on his already rich, gooey cake. And he loved that cake, indulging every chance he got.

Who could blame him? He was young, attractive, and virile. He loved all females, tall and slender, short and curvy, and anything in between. And women loved him.

But Brick’s good fortune didn’t stop there. He was the starting goalie on one of the NHL’s hottest young teams. The Seattle Sockeyes were touted as Stanley Cup contenders by the preseason predictors, whoever the hell those people were. Brick wanted the Cup so badly he imagined the deafening roar of the crowd as the final buzzer rang, the weight of the Cup in his hands as he skated victoriously around the arena, and its sweet metallic taste as he drank champagne from it. He might only be in his fourth year, but he coveted the Cup as much as a guy who’d been in the league for fifteen years and had never won it. He sure as hell didn’t want to be that guy. He wanted to win it while he was young—and keep winning it.

With a weary sigh, Brick stretched and rolled out of bed. He squinted at the clock—two in the fucking afternoon.

Damn.

He’d had a wild night last night and had staggered home well after the sun had come up. He’d been gifted with incredible stamina and a hardy constitution that required little sleep but for some reason last night’s activities had hit him harder than usual.

After taking care of business in the bathroom, he walked naked into the kitchen of his large Lake Union condo. He hated clothes, partially because of his propensity to overheat and partially because he enjoyed the shock value. Brick sweltered in warm rooms. They reminded him too much of how hot his stepmother—correct that, father’s second wife—chose to keep their house. The place suffocated him. He’d always preferred the chilly temps of his mom’s cabin in the woods.

Putting a Tully’s K-Cup in his Keurig, he waited for his mug to fill. Taking a sip, he carried it to the wall of windows and stared down at the water below. Houseboats rocked gently on Lake Union, and he had to smile. Ever since he’d seen Sleepless in Seattle, one of his mother’s favorite movies, he’d sworn if he ever moved to Seattle he’d own one of those houseboats. His Realtor had been toiling for months to find the right one. So far, no luck, but Brick was a patient man.

For now, he had to be content with his condo and the privacy it afforded his current lifestyle. He kept his place at arctic temps and never invited women over. He preferred an impersonal hotel room from which he could escape in the early hours, as he’d done this morning. He practically had a room on retainer in the luxury boutique hotel five minutes down the street. He was certainly on a first-name basis with everyone who worked there.

Brick rubbed his eyes, wishing he hadn’t caved to his teammates’ insistence he party with them, but he’d never been one to turn down a chance to raise hell. Staying home was never an option. Brick had a reputation to maintain, and he needed his people, probably more than they needed him. After all, if he wasn’t fun-loving, beer-guzzling Brick, people wouldn’t like him. Even worse, he might have to spend time alone with only himself for company, and he probably wouldn’t like what he found. Better to be the shallow party boy everyone loved than the introspective, serious guy everyone avoided.

The doorbell rang, rescuing Brick from a rare and unwelcome moment of personal reflection. He frowned. He wasn’t expecting anyone, and he didn’t encourage uninvited guests. None of his hookups had a clue where he lived, and his teammates rarely visited because of the frigid temps, except Rush. His teammate was from Russia and didn’t notice how chilly Brick kept his condo.

This person couldn’t be his buddy, though. Rush would still be passed out after a night of partying. He needed eight to ten hours of sleep, unlike Brick’s three- to four-hour requirement.

Perplexed, Brick took two steps toward the door and paused. Usually, he had no qualms opening the door bare-ass naked, but some sixth sense stopped him this time.

“Just a minute,” he shouted, and strolled to the master bedroom. He dug around for a pair of sweats and a T-shirt.

Walking back to the entryway, he looked in the peephole and saw nothing. His condo door opened to the outside, rather than into a hallway with a secure entry. That’d never bothered him before. He could handle himself in a fight. Yet something felt off. Those same instincts that alerted him where the puck was when he couldn’t see it clanged warnings in his head.

With his hand on the doorknob, he hesitated. Frowning, he glanced around for a weapon. An umbrella leaned against the wall. He grabbed it, then yanked open the door.

Staring into the rainy Seattle afternoon, he saw nothing until he looked down.

A little girl with long dark hair and huge brown eyes like an anime character rested her tiny hands on her hips and stared boldly up at him. He stared back, then glanced around for the mother. Tensing, he expected a gang of home invaders to emerge from the dreariness and force their way into his house. He saw nothing, except an old Toyota barreling out of the private parking area and down the street.

What the fuck?

“Are you lost?” he asked the little girl.

She shook her head, still staring, as if she expected something from him. “Are you Mr. Brick?”

“Yeah,” he said uneasily.

“Daddy!” She launched herself at him, displaying incredible strength for one so small. He staggered back against the wall as she grabbed on to his leg and hugged him tightly. Brick managed to regain his balance and extricated his leg from her tight grip. Placing his hands on her thin shoulders, he held her at arm’s length.

Daddy? A shot of fear stronger than the hundred-proof vodka he’d indulged in last night burned down his throat.

“Where’s your mother?” His uneasy feeling dialed up higher.

“In heaven.” The little girl’s expression flipped from happiness to sadness faster than the flick of a light switch. She picked up a raggedy doll and hugged it to her.

Oh, fuck, fuck, fuck.

“Uh, okay. I’m sorry to hear that. Where do you live?”

She craned her head around him and looked into his house. “With you.”

He felt as though he’d been dropped into the twilight zone. “With me?” he croaked.

“Yes, with you.” She nodded with absolute certainty.

“Uh, I don’t know who put you up to this, but I don’t have any kids.” This had to be a scam to get money out of him. Or one of his teammates had concocted an elaborate joke. Once again, he looked for an adult skulking near the stairs.

“Yes, you do.” She narrowed her eyes and studied him, scowling as if she’d found him lacking. She held out an envelope. It was smudged and wrinkled as if it’d been clutched in her hands for a long time. He stared at it, not wanting to take it and feeling as if the bottom was about to drop out of his charmed life.

She shoved it toward him, and Brick accepted it with a shaking hand. He ripped open the envelope and pulled out a coffee-stained piece of paper.

Mr. Bricker,

I’m dying of cancer, and my granddaughter is all I have left. Her mother has gone to heaven, and that’s on you. I only have a short while left to live. By the time you get this, I’ll be dead. I don’t want Macy in foster care. I have asked a friend to deliver her to your house upon my death.

She is your daughter, and she deserves to have all the things you can afford to give her. Please take care of her and love her. You owe us that.

Sincerely,

Sue

He scowled. This had to be a scam. “How old are you?”

“Five.”

He did the math quickly in his head. He’d been playing on a major junior team in Vancouver, his hometown around the time she’d been conceived, and he hadn’t lacked female companionship.

He thought back six years but couldn’t recall anyone who stood out, not that his lack of memory meant anything. He couldn’t recall the names of the women he slept with last night, either. And he’d spent a lot of his late teens and early twenties in a drunken haze on non-game nights.

He read the letter again, stumbling over the sentence her mother has gone to heaven, and that’s on you. On him? Why would this stranger’s death be on him? Had she been some crazy stalker fan who’d committed suicide? Surely he’d have heard about it. At the least, his agent would’ve told him.

Her accusation probably meant nothing. He was reading too much into it.

He ran his hand through his close-cropped hair and blew out a sigh. He needed to call his attorney and his agent immediately. They’d know what to do.

In the meantime, what the fuck did he do? He didn’t want a kid. They were okay, and he got along fine with them at signings and shit like that, but he wasn’t father material. Thank God, she probably wasn’t his.

Though he had to admit, there was a resemblance, which made his blood run cold. Really cold. She looked like pictures he’d seen of his sister at that age. And those eyes… Damn, those huge eyes could melt the most strongly barricaded heart.

“Uh, why don’t you come in while we straighten this out?”

She nodded and tried to lug a battered suitcase as large as her inside. Brick took it, and she ran ahead of him, dragging the doll by one arm.

She stopped and surveyed the living room. Frowning, she hugged herself and shivered. “You can’t afford heat, either?” she asked.

“Huh?”

“My granna couldn’t afford heat so it was always cold in her house, too.”

“I, uh, can afford heat.” He was at a loss for words.

“I’m cold.” Her lower lip puffed out in an unmistakable pout. She was a demanding little thing.

“I’ll fix that.” Brick hurried to the thermostat before she could do something scarier than shit, like throw a tantrum or, heaven help him, cry. He raised the temp from fifty-five to seventy and also turned on the gas fireplace.

“Thank you.” She sounded so adult, as if she’d lived ten lifetimes in five years. Brick didn’t form connections with people, not real ones, but something about her tugged at a deeply hidden vulnerability he hadn’t known he had.

Walking to the massive stone fireplace on one wall, she sat on the hearth as it flared to life. Brick wiped his brow, overheating already.

“What’s your last name, honey?” he asked, hopeful this could all be cleared up with a few phone calls.

“Bricker, like yours.”

“What about your granna? What was her name?”

“Granna.”

Sighing, he reached for his cell. “Wait right here. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

“Are you going to send me away?”

He froze in midstride. “I—uh—uh—” There went that tug again, harder this time, even a little painful.

“Granna said you would take care of me, but I didn’t believe her. No one wanted me but Granna and Mommy. Now they’re both gone.”

This was getting worse and worse. Brick didn’t need this complication in his footloose-and-fancy-free life. But he couldn’t send the child to foster care. He’d never been in foster care himself, but he’d had friends who were, and he wouldn’t wish that fate on anyone.

“I’ll be right back.”

She gazed up at him, clutching her doll to her chest. Tears filled her luminous eyes, and one dribbled down her cheek.

The tug turned into a hard yank.

Oh, crap.

Before he did something stupid, he hurried to the bedroom, dialing his phone as he walked. His agent shared his time between Seattle, where he had a huge number of clients, and sunny California. Just so happened he was in Seattle right now.

“Al,” he said before Al could get one word in.

“Ah, Brick, my man. What’s up?”

“I have a fucking problem.”

“You always have fucking problems. What psycho woman did you piss off now?”

“I wish it were that simple.”

Al started laughing as if he were looking forward to Brick’s pain.

“Get your ass over here. I need you.”

Brick didn’t wait for an answer and hung up. He sank onto the edge of his bed and buried his head in his hands, suddenly feeling much older than his twenty-six years.

* * * *

When Brick returned to his living room, Macy was running around his kitchen island, arms outstretched as she unraveled a roll of paper towels while making barking sounds. She skittered around him, yapping like the obnoxious poodle his aunt Hazel once had. The sound grated on his nerves, which were already frayed.

“Stop.”

She didn’t stop, only raised her voice until the barking neared ear-splitting decibels. He prayed Al showed up soon and rescued him from this particular hell.

The doorbell rang, and he bolted, tripping over the paper towels wrapped around his legs. Macy was one step ahead of him. Right before his eyes she transformed from a one-child wrecking crew to a sweet little princess with a cherubic smile.

She yanked open the door. “Hi,” she shouted in her piercing little-girl voice. “I’m Macy. Do you want to have a tea party with me and Daddy and Simone?” She raised the doll upward in one hand.

Al’s eyebrows shot all the way to his hairline. A slow, devious smirk spread across the bastard’s face. “Daddy?”

“I, uh, uh.”

Al laughed and knelt in front of the little girl. “Hey, honey, I’m Al. I’d love to play with you and Simone, but your daddy and I have a few things to discuss. Do you think you could sit over there like a good little girl and watch TV for a few minutes?”

“Okay.” She skipped to the couch. “How do you turn it on?”

Brick let out a sigh and flipped on his eighty-inch UHD flat screen. He scrolled through the channels until he found a children’s station, then quickly retreated to the relative safety of the kitchen.

“You gotta help me.”

Al grinned a toothy, wholly unsympathetic grin. “You think? I’m your agent, not your babysitter.”

Brick glared at him. “She’s not my child.”

“She thinks she is.” Al was entirely too amused.

“I need your help. I’m desperate. I can’t have a kid here.”

Al chuckled and glanced at Macy, who was singing along to the TV. “Care to explain what’s going on? You were childless when I talked to you yesterday.”

Brick filled him in, ignoring the bastard’s growing amusement. “Here’s the note.”

Al looked it over with a shrewd agent’s eye. “Interesting. Any idea who the mother might be?”

“You’re shitting me, right?” Brick growled, forcing himself to keep his frustration at bay and his voice low.

“It might be an important part of the puzzle.”

“Can’t you find out where she came from? I pay you to clean up my messes.”

“Not enough.” Al threw back his head and laughed.

“This isn’t funny. You gotta help me.” Brick’s gaze was drawn to the little girl sitting on his couch singing to her doll. His gut clenched, and he swiped at his sweaty brow.

“Okay, I’ll get my PI friend on this. Find out any existing relatives. See if I can get a picture of the mother. We’ll run a DNA test, but that’ll take time.” Al switched into troubleshooting agent mode, even though his mouth still twitched with amusement.

“I don’t have time. The regular season is under way. I have a road trip in two days, and I can’t have a kid living here.”

“It’s not like she’s a stray cat you can dump off at an animal shelter.” Al pointed out the obvious and drew a well-deserved scowl from Brick. “And most likely she is yours. She looks like you.”

Brick scowled all the more. “I always wear a condom.”

“Condoms fail.”

“I can’t believe we’re having this conversation.” Brick groaned and dropped his ass onto a dining room chair. He searched his memory, trying to recall any condom malfunctions. Yeah, there had been a few incidents during bouts of rambunctious sex, but he couldn’t begin to remember those women’s faces.

Al sat across from him. “Let’s see what the DNA test says. If she’s not yours, we’ll call Child Protective Services.”

“And if she’s mine?”

His agent’s smirk was downright annoying. “Then welcome to the world of the single dad.”

“What the fuck do I do with her in the meantime?” Brick scrubbed his hands over his face. He couldn’t believe this was happening. He lived a charmed life. Everything always went his way.

“For starters, clean up your language.” Al snorted and leaned back in his chair.

“I can’t take care of a kid. I have a life. I play hockey. I’m gone half the season.”

“Real-world problems, my man. Real-world problems.”

“You’re not helping any.”

“Since when do my duties involve family matters? Be lucky you only have one—so far.”

Brick shuddered. “Don’t say that.”

Al snickered and winked. “Good luck. I’ll call your attorney, make sure housing this child is legal and all.” He stood and headed for the door.

Brick leaped to his feet and followed him. “You can’t leave me like this.”

Al waved at the little girl, completely engrossed in some kid’s show. “Bye, Macy.”

She waved back. “Bye, Uncle Al.”

“Uncle Al?” This kid was making way too many presumptions.

“I like the sound of that.” Al opened the door. “You’d better get cracking. You have a road trip in two days.”

“Where am I going to find a nanny in two days?” Brick groaned. He’d always avoided responsibility outside the rink, and an instant child was way too much responsibility.

“I noticed a day care a few blocks down the street. Ask them.” With those parting words, Al left Brick to fend for himself.

Glancing at the child, Brick considered his options. She smiled at him, and he swallowed around an odd lump. He managed a smile back.

He could dial his mother. She’d know what to do. She’d probably travel from Vancouver tomorrow and take this kid off his hands. His stepfather, Rick, wouldn’t mind. He loved kids. If only his mother had married him while Brick had still been living at home, maybe his teen years wouldn’t have sucked so much.

Brick slunk into the kitchen so Macy couldn’t hear him. “Mom?”

“Hi, honey, how are you?”

“I’m not so good.”

“Oh God, Marty, what did you do now?”

“I didn’t do anything. Not exactly.” He hedged, trying to come up with a way to break this to his mother. He decided on honesty and ran through the entire story. When he finished, silenced reigned.

“Mom?”

“I’m a grandmother?”

He couldn’t tell if she was pleased or pissed. “I’m not sure. We need to do a DNA test.”

“Who leaves a child on a stranger’s doorstep and disappears?” His mother sounded indignant.

“I don’t know. That’s the least of my worries. I need help. I have a road trip coming up. Could you come to Seattle tomorrow and get her?”

Another long silence.

“Mom?” He wasn’t feeling too good about his odds right now.

She blew out a long-suffering sigh only his mother could produce. “It pains me to say this, but no.”

“What?” Surely he hadn’t heard her correctly.

“You heard me, young man. Did you forget Rick and I are leaving in a few hours for a month and a half in Europe?”

“Uh, yeah.” He hated to admit he’d forgotten. He’d been so focused on his surprise, he’d spaced on their trip.

She sighed. “You’re not the only person in this world with plans, Marty.” As if he hadn’t heard that before.

“I know.”

“I agree. With your schedule and not having a wife or steady girlfriend, it’d be next to impossible to raise a young child. Let me discuss this with Rick, and we’ll see what we can do when we get back, assuming she’s yours. This problem is your responsibility for now.” Leave it to his mother to be pragmatic about the situation.

“But—”

“I have to go now. I’ll call you in a few days and see how you’re doing. I can’t wait to see my granddaughter when we get back.” The phone went dead.

Brick felt a tug on his sweats.

“I’m hungry.” The little girl looked up at him with the biggest, most innocent cocker spaniel eyes, and who could resist a cocker spaniel? His hardened heart cracked a little, and he shored it up with mental duct tape. He wouldn’t fall prey to this child. She couldn’t stay with him.

He tried another number. His sister would help. All he had to do was text her a picture, and she’d fall in love, as she did with every stray animal.

Nona answered. “Hey, Brick, to what do I owe the pleasure?”

“How’s my favorite sister?”

“I’m your only sister. What’s up?”

“Just called to see how you were.”

“No, you didn’t.”

He was guilty as charged of calling his sister only when he needed something. Brick pulled out all the stops. “Ah, Nona, seriously. What’s wrong with me wanting to have a conversation with my sister?”

“Nothing’s wrong with it other than you never call me just to talk, so fess up, Marty.”

Brick groaned. “Okay, I admit it. I need your help. Desperately.”

“Oh, really.” He could hear her devious wheels turning as she calculated what he might possibly be calling for and how she could use it to her advantage in their friendly, ongoing sibling rivalry.

“Yeah, really,” he said gloomily.

“Daddy, can I have some milk?” The little urchin stared up at him with pleading eyes.

“Daddy? Did I hear that right?” His sister’s voice came through loud and clear, as did the restrained laughter. “Is that your problem?”

“Yeah, found her on my doorstep this afternoon.”

“Are you kidding?”

Brick made his way to the refrigerator and poured Macy a glass of milk. She thanked him and returned to her TV. Certain she was occupied, he relayed the story to his sister, who was dying of laughter by the time he’d finished. Why people found his predicament so hilariously funny was beyond him.

“And what do you expect me to do?”

“Come and get her. I have a road trip in two days.”

“Oh, no, you don’t. You’re the one who can’t keep it in your pants. Welcome to adulthood, baby brother. I’m in graduate school. I don’t have time for a child. And Mom’s leaving on her trip.”

“I know,” he answered grumpily.

Nona erupted with more laughter. The women in his family had no appreciation for the dilemma he was in. “You could always call Dad and Liz. You know how touchy-feely our beloved stepmother is.”

Brick shuddered. He knew all right. The woman could melt a hole in an ice rink with one glare. As desperate as he was, he’d never subject a child—any child—to that cold, calculating bitch.

“Never mind. I’ll deal with this myself.” He sighed and disconnected the phone, his sister’s laughter still ringing in his ears.

Macy yawned, and Brick realized with a guilty start she’d probably had a long, tiring day, even though it was early evening.

“Time for bed.”

“I don’t want to go to bed.” She screwed her face up into a nasty scowl worthy of Ice, the Sockeyes’ surly defenseman.

“Sorry, but you need some rest.” He was so not cut out for this parenting shit. He could leave her to her own devices. He was tired, even if she wasn’t. He must be getting old. Partying all night never used to wear him out, but last night’s binge had taken a toll.

“No.” She crossed her arms over her chest and stuck out her little chin. Her belligerence wore on his patience.

“Please, Macy, it’s been a long day for both of us.”

They stared each other down, but she was out of her league. He could stare down the best of them.

Finally, she looked away and stuck out her lower lip, which quivered. “Okay.”

Brick didn’t give her a chance to change her mind. He grabbed the suitcase and led her to the guest room. He showed her the adjoining bathroom.

She stood near the bed and rubbed her eyes. Her attitude had dissipated, leaving a scared little girl so alone in the cold, cruel world.

Brick stood in the doorway, praying she didn’t cry. “Do you need help getting ready for bed?”

She shoved her knuckles in her mouth and shook her head.

“Okay, well then, good night.” Drawn by emotions he couldn’t begin to explain, Brick crossed the room, knelt down, and gave her a hug. Her little arms went stiffly around his neck. He blinked several times, finding his eyesight a little blurry.

Sitting back on his haunches, he held her shoulders. “It’ll all be okay. I promise.”

She sniffed and nodded, gazing at him with disbelieving brown eyes. Not liking how close to the surface his own feelings were, he rose to his feet.

“Good night.” Her little voice wavered, and Brick got the hell out of there. He turned down the heat, stripped off his clothes, and crawled into bed. He sank into the welcoming mattress and closed his eyes. Only sleep didn’t come.

He was an asshole. A big asshole. Instead of comforting this scared child who’d been abandoned on his doorstep, he’d run like a coward. Sure, he’d hugged her, but he could’ve done more.

Brick stared into the darkness for God knew how long. Finally, he got out of bed, threw on a robe, and walked down the hall to the guest bedroom. He listened at the door and heard nothing. Cracking it open, he peeked inside. Macy lay under the covers, her doll clutched tightly to her. Her eyes were shut.

He walked closer and stared down at the cherubic face. She was a pretty little thing and would be a beauty by her teens, requiring her father to sit on the front porch with a shotgun to scare off the boys. He shuddered at the thought, not because he’d pictured himself hefting that gun, but because he knew what teenage boys were capable of.

He reached down and brushed a stray lock of hair from her cheek. Tenderness welled up in his chest, leaving him momentarily incapacitated. When she’d thrown her arms around him and called him Daddy, he’d lost his sanity for a split second and almost wished it were true. But it wasn’t, and he wasn’t fit to be any child’s father.

Brick backed away, fighting a surprising paternal urge to care for and protect this child.

What the fuck was wrong with him?


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About the Author:

USA Today Bestselling Author Jami Davenport writes sexy contemporary and sports romances, including her two new indie endeavors: the Game On in Seattle Series and the Madrona Island Series. Jami’s new releases consistently rank in the top fifty on the sports romance and sports genre lists on Amazon, and she has hit the Amazon top hundred authors list in both contemporary romance and genre fiction multiple times. Jami ranked Number Seven on Kobo’s Top Ten Most Completed Authors, an honor bestowed on the year’s “most engaging” authors based on an average page completion rate by their readers.

Jami lives on a small farm near Puget Sound with her Green Beret-turned-plumber husband, a Newfoundland cross with a tennis ball fetish, a prince disguised as an orange tabby cat, and an opinionated Hanoverian mare.

Jami works in IT for her day job and is a former high school business teacher. She’s a lifetime Seahawks and Mariners fan and is waiting for the day professional hockey comes to Seattle. An avid boater, Jami has spent countless hours in the San Juan Islands, a common setting in her books. In her opinion, it’s the most beautiful place on earth.

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CHAPTER REVEAL ~ A Fighting Chance by Annie Stone

 

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

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

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

 
 
 
ONE

Mackenzie

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

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

 

 
 
I’m a contemporary romance writer, who likes her men tattooed, her women independent and her coffee strong.

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

Love, Annie
  
 
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