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BLOG TOUR ~ Exes With Benefits by Nicole Williams

 

 

 

 

 

 

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***He wants a second chance. I want a divorce. To get what I want, I’ll have to give him what he does.***

From New York Times & USA Today bestselling author, Nicole Williams:


The only benefit I want from my ex is a divorce.


We got married for all the wrong reasons. The one thing we got right was our separation. I should have known better than to think I could bet on forever with a guy like Canaan Ford. Everything about him screamed impermanent, from his wild eyes to his restless soul.

When I left him and the small town I’d spent my whole life in, I swore I’d never go back. Never only turned out to be five years. Canaan claims he’s changed, but he hasn’t—same knowing smile, same rough demeanor, same body crafted from sin and sinew. And yet, something is different. He thinks this is his chance for redemption. My disagreement comes in the form of divorce papers dropped in his lap. He refuses to sign them. Unless . . .

He wants a month to prove himself to me—that’s his offer. One month to make me fall in love with him again and if I don’t, he’ll sign the papers. As much as I want to say no, I agree. I can suffer my ex for a short amount of time if that’s what it takes to be free of him once and for all. I fell for him once; I won’t make that same mistake twice.

He says we’re not over. I say we were over before we got started. Only one of us can be right, and I can’t let it be him.



 

“One month. That’s nothing in the scope of a person’s life.” He slid a bit closer.
“One month is everything when it comes to opening myself back up to you.”
He didn’t argue that. He let silence speak for him instead.
“What exactly are you expecting during this one month?” I might have winced when I heard myself say those words.
He rubbed his mouth, trying to hide whatever was trying to form. “For you to give me another chance. For you to be my wife.”
The term made me nauseated. “Your wife? As in your indentured servant? No way.”
It was a smile he was trying to hide. Not very successfully. It made me thankful I’d slipped into these old boots so I could give him a solid kick in the ass if necessary.
“Like be willing to spend time with me. That’s it. That’s all,” he added when he correctly interpreted the question in my eyes. The question.
“What will we be doing during that time we’re spending together?” I pulled at the chest of my dress when I noticed the way his gaze had lingered there a moment too long.
His shoulder rose. “Got any ideas?” There was an unmistakable glint in his eyes.
“No,” I answered instantly.
“You used to have plenty of ideas for filling the time.” He took a swig of his Coke.
“And then I learned how to use my brain.”
He studied my fake smile, almost like he was contemplating what it would feel like against his mouth. “Dinners. Dates. Simple stuff like that.”
I held my best poker face, considering his offer. I didn’t want to stay married to him. If one more month was what it took to be free of Canaan Ford, I could suck it up. I’d already made it five years. “No expectations of anything of a physical nature?”
“If I remember right”—his eyes narrowed as he rubbed the back of his head—“it was generally you who instigated all of that back then.”
I shoved his chest. Bad idea. Solid. Firm. Home.
My jaw ground as I worked to erase that word from my conscious where he was concerned. “And you were just the perfect gentleman.”
Canaan snatched my hand before I could pull it away. Holding onto it, he dragged me closer. Not so close that our bodies touched, but close enough the separation was painful.
“Exactly,” he said in that low voice of his. The one he’d whispered my name in so many times as he moved inside me. “A gentleman gives his woman exactly what she needs. As many times as she need it. Just doing my part.”
“How noble.”
“That’s right. So if you want to make any changes to this one month agreement, consider me your humble servant.” When his hand dropped to my waist, his touch hesitant at the same time it was insistent, I didn’t flinch out of instinct the way I should have.
Instead, I had to remind myself to pull away from him; to flinch at his touch. “I have a boyfriend, Canaan.” Even to my ears, it sounded like a weak protest.
His hand didn’t fall away when I stepped back. “You’re a married woman, Maggie.”
“My husband forfeited his rights years ago.” My eyes found his, expecting them to shoot away once mine made contact.
They didn’t. His gold eyes held to mine. “He’s here to reclaim them.”

 


 

 



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Nicole Williams is the New York Times and USATODAY bestselling author of contemporary and young adult romance, including the Crash and Lost & Found series. Her books have been published by HarperTeen and Simon & Schuster in both domestic and foreign markets, while she continues to self-publish additional titles. She is working on a new YA series with Crown Books (a division of Random House) as well. She loves romance, from the sweet to the steamy, and writes stories about characters in search of their happily even after. She grew up surrounded by books and plans on writing until the day she dies, even if it’s just for her own personal enjoyment. She still buys paperbacks because she’s all nostalgic like that, but her kindle never goes neglected for too long. When not writing, she spends her time with her husband and daughter, and whatever time’s left over she’s forced to fit too many hobbies into too little time.
 

Nicole is represented by Jane Dystel, of Dystel and Goderich Literary Agency.

 

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CHAPTER REVEAL ~ Exes with Benefits by Nicole Williams

 

Coming September 18th

 

AP new - synopsis.jpg
He wants a second chance. I want a divorce.
To get what I want, I’ll have to give him what he does.



From New York Times & USA Today bestselling author, Nicole Williams,
comes a new standalone romance in the same vein as Roommates with Benefits.


PROLOGUE

Goodbye.
It was the one relationship guarantee we could all expect. Whether it was death or circumstance, tragedy or choice, it was the only promise we were assured. Goodbye. It had been coming since the day we met, and now it was here. Sooner than I’d hoped. Even sooner than the sensible segment of me had predicted.
Still, it was later than maybe I should have expected out of a relationship with Canaan Ford.
I’d been waiting all night for his truck to rumble up the driveway when it finally did just past two a.m.. Before his footsteps echoed up the stairs, I shouldered the couple of bags I’d packed and waited in the shadows of the hallway. My paintbrushes were sticking out of one of my oversized totes, tickling the underside of my arm. I’d packed everything that seemed important at the time, but now, I wasn’t sure that what I’d stuffed in my bags mattered at all.
It was late, dark, and Canaan would be coming home exhausted, hurting, and some degree of drunk. He wouldn’t see me, and I could just slip away without him knowing.
Maybe I should have left before he made it back, but whenever I tried, my feet froze to the floor before I could make it to the door. I needed to wait for him to get home first—to make sure he was okay before I left him. That might have been a messed up model of morality, but most of Canaan’s and my relationship was messed up, from the beginning to now, the ending.
He struggled with the key in the lock before shoving the door open and clomping straight toward the couch. He’d stopped crawling into bed beside me after a night of fighting and drinking months ago, like he thought it would spare me the pain of seeing him bloodied and plastered. It never had. The black eyes, the swollen lips, the bruised ribs; they were that much worse in the light of morning.
Canaan had barely crashed onto the sofa before his breathing evened out. Still, I waited another minute in the hallway before moving into the living room.
Don’t look, Maggie. Don’t let yourself look at him.
I looked. Of course I looked. I never listened to what was best for me—if I had, my life would have wound up so much differently.
He was already passed out, sprawled across the couch we’d bought at a yard sale the summer before . . .
Before all of this.
One arm and one leg were hanging off the end, his face tipped far enough toward me I could gauge the type of fight he’d been in tonight. A good one by Canaan’s definition—the best kind. The type where his opponent got in as many hits as he did. The type of fight that made him almost question if it would be the first one he’d lose. Canaan loved the challenge, the fight. He thrived off of chaos, seeming to wilt when life was simple. I used to admire that about him, and maybe I still did. It just wasn’t the life for me. I couldn’t live life like it was a battle—not anymore.
He was passed out hard, but I still crept slowly toward the front door, my heart thundering as the boards creaked below me. Even though I was moving toward the door, my eyes stayed on him.
Look away.
I couldn’t. Canaan was the best part of my life. And the worst. The best memories. And the worst. He was the high and the low and I was so damn tired of the sick cycle I thought would kill me one day.
As my hand cupped around the cool doorknob, my eyes burned. This was it. As resolved as I’d felt in the weeks leading up to this, I felt like I was being torn in half by walking away. I knew if I stayed, this relationship would be the end of me. But at the moment, leaving felt like the same.
Lying on that couch, he looked so vulnerable. Almost like he needed someone to protect him. From the world. From his demons. From himself. I’d tried. God, I’d been trying for what felt like forever, but the only thing I had to show for my efforts was scars and pain.
One of his eyes was swollen shut, his bottom lip three times its normal size, and he’d split the same eyebrow open again. It was going to need stiches. Six, I guessed. I’d gotten really good as estimating the number of stiches needed to seal a wound.
A sob rose from my chest, but I managed to swallow it back down. He was the only boy I’d ever loved—the only one I’d ever come close to loving. In some ways, he was perfect for me. But in more ways, especially lately, he was entirely wrong for me.
That was why I needed to leave. We might have been good together, but we weren’t good for each other. I knew that now.
I opened the door slowly, so it wouldn’t make a sound, then I let myself take one last look at the life I was leaving behind before I forced myself to walk away.
Now that I wasn’t looking at him, moving was easier. Each step down from our little apartment above the garage came quicker, so by the time I reached the ground, I was jogging.
Canaan’s truck was parked right beside my old car. Ancient was maybe a better description of how “mature” my car was. It was almost like he’d known I was going to leave tonight, because he’d parked his truck so close I could barely crack my door open half a foot. Getting my bags tossed into the backseat and managing to wiggle in through the door was a tight fit, but I made it work.
The moment I was inside, I jammed the key in the ignition and turned it over. I didn’t pause. I didn’t flinch. The hardest part was behind me, and now I needed to keep moving.
Easing my car around the truck, I noticed the one light burning inside the big house in my rearview mirror. Grandma knew what was happening tonight and was keeping her light on for me as her unique way of expressing that no matter what, she was here for me. She’d keep the light on—even when it felt like there was nothing but darkness around me.
My throat constricted as I kept backing down the long driveway. I’d tried saving him, but it had cost me almost everything. I was taking what I had left and saving myself.
As I rolled past Grandma’s front porch, my gaze shifted from the rearview mirror to that little garage apartment I’d lived the last eleven months in. The door was open, light was streaming from inside, and a dark, towering shadow loomed in the doorway.
My foot instinctively moved toward the brake. Canaan was too far away for me to determine the look on his face, but I could imagine it. It came easy since I’d known him as long as I had. Knowing his face was like second nature.
He stayed unmoving in that doorway for a moment, my car doing the same. It wasn’t until he started moving down the stairs that my foot flew back to the gas. If he got to me before I made it out of this driveway, I wouldn’t leave. I knew it. Walking away from someone I loved was hard enough, but Canaan wasn’t just someone I loved—he was someone I’d shared everything with. He’d walked with me through the hardest part of my life, and I’d walked with him through his. We’d been each other’s beacon, shelter, and compass through all of life’s shit . . .
So how had we gotten here? To this hopeless, dead end of a place?
He was charging down the stairs now, taking them two at a time. How was he able to move that nimbly when he’d just been comatose on the couch?
“Maggie!”
The windows were rolled up, but his shout broke through the glass, sounding so close it was almost like he was pressed against me, whispering it into my ear.
He sprinted the moment his feet touched the ground, his long arms pumping hard at his sides.
“Canaan, don’t,” I whispered inside the car, my lower lip trembling as I focused on the driveway behind me. “Please don’t.”
I didn’t miss the shadow that had appeared in that lit window. Grandma was watching me leave, witnessing Canaan trying to convince me to stay. Before, his attempts had been successful, but not this time. I couldn’t stay for him one more time—I had to leave for me.
“Maggie! Please!”
Canaan’s shouts were so loud, they were going to wake up the neighbors a few acres over. Each word emanated like a blast inside the car.
“Let me go,” I whispered as I swung the car onto the street.
Right before I could punch it into drive and hit the gas, Canaan swooped in front of the car. His chest was moving hard from the exertion, his snug white tee stained with fresh and dried blood. His face was so messed up it was practically unrecognizable, but I couldn’t help seeing the young boy with a clip-on tie walk up to me when I was frozen on a porch step, appraising me with those wild gold eyes before holding out a tiny box. How had that boy, who’d saved me back then, become the ruin of me now?
When I revved the engine, he didn’t move. Instead, he slid closer so his legs were pushing against the bumper. He raised his arms like he was surrendering, his unswollen eye landing on me. “I’m not letting you leave. Not without a fight.”
A breath rolled past my lips—a fight. Everything was a fight with him. He couldn’t land enough hits or take enough. His guilt wouldn’t let him.
Cranking down the window, I made myself glare at him. It was harder to achieve than it should have been. “I’m not something you win or lose in a fight.”
His jaw moved as he pressed his hands into the hood of the car. “You fight for what’s important. That’s the way life is. And you are worth every fight I have in me.”
“You’re too busy fighting everyone else—including yourself—to fight for me.” My sight blurred as I stared at him. So little of the person I’d fallen in love with remained. So little of who he’d fallen in love with remained in me as well. “I can’t wait around, watching you kill yourself one fight and drink at a time.”
He wiped at his split-open brow, leaving a streak of blood on his forearm. “I can change.”
My fingers tightened around the steering wheel. How many times had I heard those words come from his lips? Those same lips that claimed ownership of my first kiss?
“Yeah, you can.” I steeled myself against him a little more. “That’s not your problem. Your problem is that you won’t change.”
“This time I will.” His head whipped side to side. “It’s taken this, you trying to leave me, to slap some sense into me.”
I’d tried leaving so many times. This was just the furthest I’d ever made it. “I’m not trying to leave you. I am leaving you.” I made myself look at him. I made myself appear strong when I felt so very opposite. “This is it.”
He slowly came around the side of the car toward me. I rolled up the window halfway, aiming my eyes at the road in front of me.
“One more chance.” Even from a few feet back, I could smell the alcohol on his breath. I could smell the sweat and blood on him mixed with it, the trace of perfume that didn’t belong to me.
“You’ve had a thousand one more chances.” I studied him from the corners of my eyes, knowing better than to let them lock on his when he was this close. “This was your last one.”
“Maggie . . .” His hands formed around the lip of the window. His knuckles were split open and swollen, dried blood covering them. Still, I wasn’t sure I’d ever craved having them reach for me more. I wasn’t sure I’d ever needed him to pull me to his broken body and soul more than I did right then.
In that moment, I might have needed him more than I needed air, but I couldn’t give in. Kicking the habit was the only way to cure myself.
“Let me go, Canaan.” My legs were trembling as my foot moved back to the gas.
His head lowered so it was in line with mine. “You’re my wife.”
My left hand curled farther around the steering wheel, until I couldn’t see the gold band circling my finger. “No. I was your wife.”
His head dropped for half a second, his eyes flashing with defeat right before. “I love you.”
​My chest ached. The man was the boy again, and I wanted to save him the way he’d saved me. But I couldn’t. The only person who could save Canaan Ford was Canaan Ford.
“I promised to love you forever, and I will.” My foot touched the accelerator. “But I can’t spend forever with you.”
His hands braced around the window harder when I rolled forward. “I made a promise. To you, and to myself. A promise to love you forever. To look after you as long.”
When I found my mind drifting to that overcast afternoon eleven months ago, my heart wringing when I remembered the way he’d stared at me as we repeated those phrases in the courthouse, I shook my head. Good memories weren’t enough. Hope wasn’t enough. Empty promises weren’t even close to enough.
“We exchanged vows.” My eyes focused on the road in front of me, letting go of the dead end beside me. “There’s a difference between saying them and meaning them.”
When my foot pushed down on the gas, Canaan moved with the car. “I’m not letting you go. I’m not giving up.” The car moved faster, his feet pounding the asphalt as he struggled to keep up.
“I know. But I’m giving in.” Breaking my own rule, I let my eyes meet his before punching the gas pedal as far down as it would go. “Goodbye.”
That was enough. Hearing that word shocked him just enough to still him. For one second. I didn’t ease up on the gas, not even when I heard his fists pounding the trunk as he struggled to keep up.
“I can change!” His footsteps were thundering after the car. “I will change.”
With him behind me, I let the tears I’d been fighting fall. Everything I’d ever known—my whole life—was getting smaller and smaller behind me. With every tick of the odometer.
“MAGGIE!!!” His voice pierced the air one last time before I was too far away to hear whatever came next.
It was morning by the time I stopped seeing his reflection in the rearview mirror, still chasing me into my new life.


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Nicole Williams is the New York Times and USATODAY bestselling author of contemporary and young adult romance, including the Crash and Lost & Found series. Her books have been published by HarperTeen and Simon & Schuster in both domestic and foreign markets, while she continues to self-publish additional titles. She is working on a new YA series with Crown Books (a division of Random House) as well. She loves romance, from the sweet to the steamy, and writes stories about characters in search of their happily even after. She grew up surrounded by books and plans on writing until the day she dies, even if it’s just for her own personal enjoyment. She still buys paperbacks because she’s all nostalgic like that, but her kindle never goes neglected for too long. When not writing, she spends her time with her husband and daughter, and whatever time’s left over she’s forced to fit too many hobbies into too little time.
 
Nicole is represented by Jane Dystel, of Dystel and Goderich Literary Agency.

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PRE-ORDER BLITZ & GIVEAWAY ~ Exes with Benefits by Nicole Williams

 

 

 

 
Coming September 18th

 

 

AP new - synopsis.jpg
He wants a second chance. I want a divorce. To get what I want, I’ll have to give him what he does.


From New York Times & USA Today bestselling author, Nicole Williams, comes a new standalone romance in the same vein as Roommates with Benefits.


 

$10 Amazon Gift Card

 

A signed copy of Trusting You & Other Lies
Click HERE to enter


AP new -about the author.jpg

 

Nicole Williams is the New York Times and USATODAY bestselling author of contemporary and young adult romance, including the Crash and Lost & Found series. Her books have been published by HarperTeen and Simon & Schuster in both domestic and foreign markets, while she continues to self-publish additional titles. She is working on a new YA series with Crown Books (a division of Random House) as well. She loves romance, from the sweet to the steamy, and writes stories about characters in search of their happily even after. She grew up surrounded by books and plans on writing until the day she dies, even if it’s just for her own personal enjoyment. She still buys paperbacks because she’s all nostalgic like that, but her kindle never goes neglected for too long. When not writing, she spends her time with her husband and daughter, and whatever time’s left over she’s forced to fit too many hobbies into too little time.
 
Nicole is represented by Jane Dystel, of Dystel and Goderich Literary Agency.

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RELEASE DAY BLITZ ~ Roommates with Benefits by Nicole Williams

 

 
 
 
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Soren Decker. He’s the epitome of the “bad boy, good man” persona. The best of both worlds. The worst of them too. He’s the type of guy most girls would not mind sharing a confined space with, except my new roommate isn’t all swagger and chiseled abs.

He’s bossy. Messy. Cocky. Infuriating. Doesn’t believe in personal space. Has no qualms about roaming the apartment with a loincloth-sized towel cinched around his waist. Seems under the delusion he’s my personal protector (refer back to infuriating). He plays college baseball and holds down a part-time job—I don’t know where he finds the time to get on my nerves.


We’re got nothing in common . . . except for one thing. Our attraction to one another. And in six hundred square feet of shared space, the tension only has so much room to grow before one of us gives in to temptation. But really, what chance do a couple of young kids chasing their dreams in the big city have of making it?

Since Soren claims I know squat about sports (he might have a semi-point), here’s a stat for him—one in a million. That’s our odds.
 

 
 
 

 


AP new -about the author.jpg
 
 
Nicole Williams is the New York Times and USATODAY bestselling author of contemporary and young adult romance, including the Crash and Lost & Found series. Her books have been published by HarperTeen and Simon & Schuster in both domestic and foreign markets, while she continues to self-publish additional titles. She is working on a new YA series with Crown Books (a division of Random House) as well. She loves romance, from the sweet to the steamy, and writes stories about characters in search of their happily even after. She grew up surrounded by books and plans on writing until the day she dies, even if it’s just for her own personal enjoyment. She still buys paperbacks because she’s all nostalgic like that, but her kindle never goes neglected for too long. When not writing, she spends her time with her husband and daughter, and whatever time’s left over she’s forced to fit too many hobbies into too little time.
 
Nicole is represented by Jane Dystel, of Dystel and Goderich Literary Agency.
 

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CHAPTER REVEAL ~ Roommates with Benefits by Nicole Williams

 

Coming June 5th

Pre-order exclusively via iBooks HERE

 

goodreads-badge.png
AP new - synopsis.jpg
Soren Decker. He’s the epitome of the “bad boy, good man” persona. The best of both worlds. The worst of them too. He’s the type of guy most girls would not mind sharing a confined space with, except my new roommate isn’t all swagger and chiseled abs.

He’s bossy. Messy. Cocky. Infuriating. Doesn’t believe in personal space. Has no qualms about roaming the apartment with a loincloth-sized towel cinched around his waist. Seems under the delusion he’s my personal protector (refer back to infuriating). He plays college baseball and holds down a part-time job—I don’t know where he finds the time to get on my nerves.


We’re got nothing in common . . . except for one thing. Our attraction to one another. And in six hundred square feet of shared space, the tension only has so much room to grow before one of us gives in to temptation. But really, what chance do a couple of young kids chasing their dreams in the big city have of making it?

Since Soren claims I know squat about sports (he might have a semi-point), here’s a stat for him—one in a million. That’s our odds.





I felt like all of my dreams had, or were about to, come true.
​Waved farewell to Podunk hometown? Check.
​Arrived in posh metropolis with luggage in tow? Check.
​Signed to a top agency? Check.
​About to roll up to my swanky new pad? Check.
​The world wasn’t just at my fingertips—I felt like it was clutched in the palm of my hand. All the obstacles—everything I’d had to overcome to get here—and I’d done it. I’d paid the price. Now I was ready to reap the darn reward.
​“Oh, crap.” My heart soared into my throat when I glanced at the taximeter for the first time since leaving the airport. I’d been totally preoccupied with staring at the bright lights and sights of New York City. “Is that how much it will cost for the entire ride? Hopefully?” My eyes widened when the meter tacked on another fifty cents.
​The driver glanced at me through the rearview. He must have thought I was making a joke until he saw my face. “What? You serious, kid?” His meaty arm draped across the passenger seat. “That’s how much it costs to get to right here.” He speared his finger out the window, two bushy brows lifting. “There’s still another mile before we hit the address you gave me.”
​“Pull over. Please. Pull over.”
Digging inside my purse, I counted out what I owed the driver. Which left me with a whole two dollars and some cents to my name. Ever since I was a little girl declaring my plans to make it in the big city, everyone had been warning me that New York City was expensive. I guessed I hadn’t realized that translated to public transportation as well.
​Once the driver had pulled up to the curb, I handed him what I owed. He waited, blinking at me like I was missing something.
​“Oh, yeah.” I pulled out the last two dollars and handful of cents I had left for the tip. Even dropping the last penny to my name in his palm, it was a puny tip.
​Heaving a sigh, he crawled out his door to pull my suitcase from the trunk. The dark streets looked different now that I’d be walking them alone.
“Do you have a map or anything I might be able to have?” I asked as he rolled my suitcase around to me.
​The driver pointed his finger down the street we were on. “Keep going straight one mile. That will get you there.”
​I felt my palms clam up when I realized I was about to attempt to navigate on foot a city I’d never been to, with all of my personal belongings in tow, without a dollar to my name. The small-town girl I’d been wanted to cry and run to the first phone to call home. The big-city woman I was born to be had me clutching the handle of my luggage and lifting my chin. By the time, I took my first step toward my new life, the taxi was long gone.
​Even though it was almost eight at night, the streets were still bustling. Unlike Hastings, Nebraska, where a person could hear the whir of their neighbor’s washing machine by nine every night, New York looked like it was just getting warmed up. Cars whipping up and down the streets, horns blasting, people moving, bikes weaving in and out through it all; this was an entirely different life than the one I’d grown up knowing.
​I loved it.
​I felt like I passed more people on every block than had made up the whole population of Hastings, and the people here were dressed like they were off to a meeting with foreign dignitaries, instead of the 4-H meeting every Saturday morning at The Hastings Grange.
Fashion. God, I loved fashion. Designing it was my endgame, but first, I had to get my foot in the door however I could. Modeling would give me that opportunity.
​By the time I’d rolled myself and my luggage down what felt like a million city blocks, I figured I had another three or four to go. My feet were killing me, since I’d worn heels instead of the comfy flats my mom had suggested when dropping me off at the airport earlier. I’d argued that I didn’t want to arrive in NYC with faux leather loafers, but man, those discount store flats sounded pretty amazing right now.
​Sheer willpower got me through the last few blocks, and I arrived at what I guessed was my destination, afraid to look at my feet for fear of finding them swimming in pools of blood or swollen beyond recognition. Or on fire, based on the feeling coming from them.
​When I stopped in front of the address I’d written down, I had to triple-check that the numbers on my paper matched the ones on the outside of the building. They did, but this sure didn’t look like Big City Living at its Finest, as the classified had listed. It more looked like Big City Living at its Most Primitive.
​Then again, maybe it was one of those apartment buildings that looked like a dump on the outside but was a palace on the inside. You know, to keep the bourgeois away. That had to be it. There was probably a chandelier hanging in the elevator and the hallways were lined with gleaming white marble, but no one would guess that from the outside.
​Doing one final check to make sure I was at the right address, I lugged my suitcase up the stairs. Someone was leaving as I made it to the front door, but either they didn’t see me or didn’t care to hold the door open for the woman in three-inch heels wrestling a monster-sized bag into submission. The door practically slammed in my face, heavy enough it almost sent me sprawling backward. I managed to snag the handle to keep it open long enough to shove inside.
​Okay, so there were a lot of differences between Hastings and New York City.
​I still loved it. A lot.
​It would just take an adjustment period to get used to. Before I knew it, I’d be keeping up with the best of the city girls.
​Once I’d made it past the front door, I paused to catch my breath and take in the interior of the apartment building. So the halls weren’t exactly lined in marble. Or gleaming, whatever surface it was they were covered with. There was an elevator though, but as I took my first steps toward it, I noticed the sign taped to the doors. Out of Order.
​Why not?
​Shuffling toward the bottom of the staircase, I stared up them, thankful there were only six floors to the top. Kicking off my heels, I collected them in one hand and started heaving my suitcase up all six flights, one stair at a time.
The upside to arriving on the sixth floor in a panting, sweating mess? I’d just gotten my cardio in. For the whole week.
​My chest felt like it was about to explode as I rolled down the hall, checking the number on each door as I passed. There wasn’t any marble up here either. Or chandeliers. Or anything that held a semblance of shine, actually.
​There was a smell though—a mix of mildew and garbage and. . . some other scent I didn’t want to assign a name to. A couple of bulbs were burnt out on the ceiling, casting an eerie tone to the environment.
There were noises, too. Music, hammering, talking, screaming . . . other heavy breathing sounds. It was like the walls were made of plastic wrap and painted white’ish to give the illusion of privacy. I could hear every word of the heated conversation coming from the door behind me.
​Number sixty-nine. That was a number nine, right? I checked the piece of paper in my hand just to be sure. Yep. My eyes weren’t playing tricks on me. The door’s paint was chipping, the numbers cockeyed, and from the damage done to it where the locks were, it looked like there’d been multiple attempts to break into it. There was nothing welcoming about this door.
​This couldn’t be the right place. No way. I had to have written something down wrong, or misread the address outside, or something—anything—that would assure me this wasn’t the place where I was about to spend the next six months of my life.
​As I debated knocking on the door or fleeing from it, a door screeched open down the hall.
​“You finally made it.” A young guy emerged through the door, his focus on me. “Have you been waiting there long? When you were late, I decided to swing by Mrs. Lopez’s and give her a hand with a few things.” He was still talking to me as he slid his feet into a worn pair of Converse. His fly was down too, but that didn’t seem to be on his concern radar.
​It looked like he’d decided to give Mrs. Lopez more than just a hand.
​“Oh, god. You don’t speak English, do you?” He exhaled, making his way down the hall. “You’re one of those Eastern European chicks, right?”
​I stepped back as he moved closer.
In another situation, I wouldn’t have been trying to back away from the stranger approaching with a look that could make the most frigid of girls melt. He was easy to look at—a little too easy—walking that ever-so-fine line of cute meets hot. He was cute-hot. Hot-cute. Whatever. He was candy to the eyes, and had we run into each other at the Jolt Café back in Hastings, I wouldn’t have been creeping away from him as I was now.
“Do I know you?” I asked.
He finally realized his proximity was making me uncomfortable, and he stopped right outside of Number Sixty-Nine. “You do speak English. Good. Because I’m not sure I have the brain space to figure out how to say ‘The water bill’s due yesterday’ in Latvian.”
I guessed the look on my face echoed my prior question.
“Soren Decker.” He held out his hand then slid it into his jeans’ pocket when it caught nothing but airtime. “And you are . . . ?”
“Not at the right address. Clearly.”
He leaned into the dilapidated door. “What address are you looking for?”
I had to lift the piece of paper in my hand to remember. Once I read it off, he shrugged.
“You have arrived at your destination.”
That’s what I was afraid of. “I must have the wrong apartment number then.”
The way he was looking at me told me exactly what he was thinking—that I was mental. “What apartment are you looking for?”
Another review of the paper. Just to be sure. “Sixty-nine.”
When his brows bounced, I felt my cheeks heat. I balanced my temporary embarrassment by narrowing my eyes.
“Sixty-nine.” He rapped his knuckle below the crooked numbers on the door. “Home sweet home.”
That was when the obvious started to settle in. “You’re looking for a roommate? You posted the ad I responded to?” I swallowed. “You?”
He glanced down at himself like he was checking for a stain on his shirt. In the process, he noticed his fly was still open. “I really didn’t think this would be so confusing,” he said, pulling his zipper back into place. “Yes, this is the right address. Yes, this is lucky apartment number sixty-nine. And yes, I am the one looking for a roomie, who you replied to last week.”
My heart had lodged into the back of my throat from the feel of it. This was the person I’d be living with? This was who I’d be sharing the same space with for the next half year?
He looked part California surfer, part vintage Hollywood film star. Pretty much the type of guy anyone attracted to males and in possession of a functioning set of eyes would drip some degree of drool over. Light hair, blue eyes that projected trouble, matching his smirky smile, good—great—body; he was pretty much the result of creation’s best efforts.
Most girls probably would have been chanting jackpot in their heads, but I gaped at the perfection that was him, freaking out.
“You said you were looking for a girl,” I said.
“I am.” He motioned at me.
I motioned right back at him. “You’re a guy.”
“Wow. Okay. So much confusion.” He shifted from one foot to the other, tipping back the red ball cap on his head.
“Why would you prefer a girl roommate when you’re a guy?”
Again, the look that implied I wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer. If he kept it up, I was going to start throwing daggers at him. Provided I had any. Or even one. Which I didn’t, because airline regulations and all.
“For obvious reasons,” he said.
“For obvious reasons like what? A built-in bedmate?”
His expression flattened as he realized what I was getting at. “You think I’m looking for some kind of ‘roommates with benefits’ type of thing?” He rubbed his chin like he was considering it right that moment. “I hadn’t thought about that, but now that you mention it . . .” Whatever he saw when he glanced at me sparked an amused gleam in his eyes. “I’m not looking for that. I swear.”
“Then why insist on a female roommate?”
“Because the female species tends to be neater than the male, ape variety. Plus, you smell better, too.” His hand dropped to the doorknob. Before he opened the door, he tipped his chin at me. “And you’re nicer to look at.” When I didn’t move after he motioned inside the apartment, he leaned into the hall and crossed his arms. “Come on, give it to me. I can tell you’re dying to say whatever it is you’ve been biting your tongue over since I had the nerve to address you.”
The way he said it, I realized I was maybe leaning toward the bitchy end of the spectrum. “It’s just that I thought you were a girl. I didn’t realize the person I’d agreed to room with was a guy.”
“That’s not my fault.” As soon as my mouth opened to argue, he added, “You could have asked. But you didn’t. You assumed.”
My teeth chewed on the inside of my cheek, hating that he was right.
“If you’re uncomfortable moving in because I’m a guy, okay, no problem. I’m not going to force you to move in. Even though I took down the ‘roommate wanted’ ad when you placed dibs. Losing out on a whole week of finding someone.”
My fingers pinched the bridge of my nose as I struggled to form one rational thought. If this guy would shut it for one minute, I could think.
“You know, and what’s this whole thing about gender equality and erasing those lines that used to separate the sexes? You’re pretty much saying you’re okay with moving in with a total stranger, sight unseen, just so long as that stranger doesn’t come equipped with a scrotum.”
“What?” My hand dropped back at my side. “Gross. Just stop talking. Please. Give me a second to try to figure out what is happening right now . . .”
Squeezing his lips together, he tipped his head back against the wall, making a “carry on” motion in my direction.
Okay. Think.
Swanky new pad was more a nasty, biohazardous dump.
Hip New York roommate was more a crass, vile entity of dubious intentions. Who came equipped with a scrotum, as he’d so articulately put it.
I had an appointment in the morning with the agency, potential go-sees right after, and a whole zero dollars and zero cents to my name. A hotel was out. A really shady motel was out. I supposed I could sleep on a park bench, but instead of just one man, I’d have to be worried about the rest of the city sneaking up on me as I slept.
I didn’t have many options.
Actually, I wasn’t sure I had any at all.
Taking another good look at him, he didn’t seem so bad. He wasn’t tattooed from head to toe, didn’t have that predatory look parents taught their daughters to identify from twenty paces back, and he didn’t reek of alcohol or other substances of questionable repute.
He was no Boy Scout, that was for darn sure, but he didn’t have the look of an axe murderer either. Besides, I was a tough chick. If he tried anything, he wouldn’t walk away with that cute-hot face unscathed.
“I’m Hayden.” I rolled my shoulders back and crossed the distance. “Hayden Hayes.”
“Soren Decker. In case you missed it the first time.” He held out his hand as I approached. “By the way, I’m a dude. You know, to clear up any confusion you might have on the subject.”
“One of those creatures that comes with a scrotum?” My eyebrows lifted as I shook his hand.
He cracked a smile as he shoved off of the wall. He didn’t have a terrible smile. Not even a little bit.
“Wow. Dang.” He twisted his cap around so it was backward as he stood as tall as he could. “You are tall. Like, please don’t wear heels around me tall.”
I held up the pair of heels I was still clutching. “Just missed them.”
“Good. I can’t have a girl roommate who’s taller than me. It might emasculate me.”
“More than you already are?”
“A fellow smartass.” He made a face of approval as I moved inside the apartment. “We’re going to get along just fine.”
“So long as I don’t wear heels when you’re nearby?”
“See? You get me. Two and a half minutes into our relationship and you understand me. Why can’t the rest of the girls on the planet seem to get it?” He didn’t give me a chance to fire back my idea on that topic. “Seriously, though, how tall are you?”
“Five ten.” Once I rolled my suitcase inside, he closed the door behind us.
“Liar, liar. Designer jeans on fire.” He waved his finger at me as he moved into the apartment.
These were designer jeans. The one pair I owned and would be living in until I could afford a second pair. It had taken me three months of mucking out stalls to make enough to afford them.
“Fine. Five eleven.” When his brows disappeared into his ball cap, I sighed. “And a half.”
“My six one is suddenly not feeling so big and bad.”
The inside of the apartment was an improvement on the outside. Somewhat. Paint wasn’t chipping off the walls, and the funky odor wasn’t quite as strong in here. Although there was a different one—that sweat-and-dirty laundry man smell with the faintest hint of aftershave or cologne mixed in.
“So. Here it us. My humble abode.”
Emphasis on humble.
​There wasn’t much to see. A shoe-box-sized kitchen was right inside the door—at least there was a stove and a fridge—with a same sized bathroom across from it, and what must have been the main living space, which we were standing in now, was made up of a line of windows, a couch I would not sit on unless a sheet of plastic separated me from it, a couple of room dividers, and a rectangular metal table with four mismatched chairs.
​It was semi-clean and super small.
​“Where’s the rest?” I asked when he stopped beside me, nodding at the space like it was the definition of opulent.
​“What do you mean? This is it.” He indicated the room.
​My gaze circled the space again. A secret hallway. There had to be one of those hiding in here somewhere. “Where are the bedrooms?”
​He made a clucking sound with his tongue, leading me to one corner tucked behind a sad divider. “Here’s mine,” he said, letting me peek behind the divider.
My heart did that hiccupping thing again when I noticed a twin mattress lying on the floor, a whirl of blankets and pillows scattered on it. There was a big plastic bin too, which looked like it served as a dresser.
“And yours is over here.” Guiding me to the corner across from this one, he proudly waved at the empty space behind the second divider.
​There was nothing there. Unless you counted the dust bunnies.
​“You’re kidding, right?” I blinked, frowning when I found the exact same scene in front of me.
​“About what?” he asked, straight-faced.
​“This being a bedroom.” My arms flew toward the empty space. “This is a stall. Actually, I’ve mucked out stalls twice as big back home.”
​His brows pinched together. “Like a bathroom stall?”
​“No, like a stall inside a barn. A horse stall. A cow stall. Shoot, even the pigs get a better deal than this.” My voice was rising, as I realized he wasn’t messing with me. This was supposed to serve as my bedroom, and there were a few big things missing to make it my definition of a bedroom—for starters, a door.
​“Wait. So you’re one of those small-town girls?” He appraised me with new eyes, like everything was finally making sense.
​“Yes, I’m one of those small-town girls, but not small town enough to realize I’m getting the big city runaround.”
​“The runaround?” His arms crossed. “What do you mean the runaround? I didn’t say anything about there being a private bedroom straight out of the Four Seasons, girlie.”
​I tried to remember the “roommate wanted” ad I’d seen online last week. Specifically, the wording. “Yeah? And what about the penthouse views?” I crossed my arms just like he was. “This is the opposite of a penthouse, and the view sucks.” I glanced out the row of windows, where there was a view of the building across the street.
​Soren’s eyes lifted before he moved toward the windows. He waited for me before pointing his finger up. Way up. “Penthouses.” His finger was aimed at the tippy top of the buildings around us. “We have a view of penthouses.”
​My mouth opened. “That’s not how you meant it to be taken, nice try.”
​“How do you know how I meant for it to be taken? Penthouse views. That’s the truth.” He was still pointing out the window. “You make a lot of assumptions. Might want to work on that if you plan on surviving in the city.”
​Turning away from the window, I scanned the apartment. Had it shrunken in size when I’d turned my back? “You said it was a generous living space.”
​He indicated the same apartment I was looking at. “Are you kidding me? This is a generous living space.”
​“Compared to what? A cardboard box?”
​His mouth snapped open, but he closed it before whatever was about to come out, did. He rolled his head a few times, his neck cracking in a way that made me cringe. “Listen. You are obviously from a different world than I am. I grew up in Brooklyn. My definition of generous is clearly different than yours.”
​“I grew up in Hastings, Nebraska, raised by a single mom with a high school education after dear old dad bailed on her and his three daughters.” I paused, staring at him. “I was not raised in the lap of luxury, nor am I a spoiled brat, but this . . ..” My hand waved between his and my “bedrooms,” my stomach churning when I counted off maybe ten feet of separation between them. “This is not generous living space.”
​“Then fine. Don’t move in. It’s not like you’ve unpacked your things. You’re the one looking for an apartment, not me. Go find some other place to live in the heart of the city for less than eight hundred dollars a month. Good luck with that.”
When he started toward my suitcase, I intercepted him. I didn’t have anywhere else to go. No friends. No family. No money. My first rent check here wasn’t due for a couple of weeks. Accepting that should have made this place seem much more appealing, but instead I felt more like an inmate resigned to their cell.
​“It’s been a long day. There have been lots of surprises. I’m feeling overwhelmed.” I rolled my suitcase toward my barracks so he didn’t roll it out the front door.
​“You’re not in Nebraska anymore. You’re in New York City.” He indicated out the windows before storming toward the kitchen. “Buck up, buttercup.”
​I bit my tongue when I wanted to fire something right back. My life had not been easy, and I hated that he assumed it had been because I was shocked I’d be sharing a room with a strange boy. This wasn’t normal. This was five thousand percent not normal.
​“You want a sandwich?” he called from the kitchen as he started tossing things onto the counter.
​“A sandwich?” I repeated. Hadn’t we just been in a moderately heated conversation? And now he’d moved on to sandwich-making twelve seconds later?
​“You know, meat, cheese, condiments? Two slices of bread holding it all together?” He shot me a smirk as he twirled open the bag of bread.
​My stomach answered for me. “Actually, yeah. Thanks.” Leaving my suitcase behind the divider, I moved toward the kitchen.
​“What brought you to the biggest city in the country from Nebraska?” he asked, glancing at me.
​I stopped behind one of the plastic chairs around the table. It didn’t feel right to just make myself at home . . . even though this was my new home. “Modeling.”
​He made a sound like everything made sense now, then stalled with the knife in the mayo jar. “So when you say you want a sandwich, you mean two pieces of celery smashed together?”
​My eyes lifted. I’d been called a stick, a twig, a pole, a beanpole, accused of being anorexic, bulimic, a drug addict, you name it, because I was genetically predisposed to having a thin frame. Now that I was officially a model, it was only going to get worse, I guessed. “I hate celery.”
​Soren spread a thick layer of mustard on one piece of bread. “Too many carbs?”
​“You’re annoying.”
​“So I’ve been told.”
​Of course my roommate would be one of the few people on the planet who was capable of getting under my skin. Who better to share a six-hundred-square-foot space with than someone who couldn’t look at me without triggering mild irritation? The more he talked, the less cute-hot he became. Silver linings. I didn’t need to harbor some minor attraction to the guy I was sharing an apartment with.
​“Don’t you have any questions for me?” I asked after a minute.
​One shoulder rose as he layered on what looked like pastrami. “You don’t smoke?”
​“Nope.”
​“You don’t stay out late partying, getting your drink on, and come home smelling like the city barfed on you?”
​“Definitely not.” I wasn’t straitlaced, but I wasn’t a hot mess either.
He pulled a couple of plates from a cupboard, tossed the sandwiches onto them, and moved toward the table. “You aren’t prone to stealing other people’s property? Namely my Nutter Butters?”
It didn’t seem like a serious question. The look on his face told otherwise. “No,” I answered.
He held one plate toward me. “Then we’re good.”
When I took the plate, my stomach growled. The last thing I’d eaten was the pretzels on the plane.
“Thanks,” I said, feeling a stab of guilt for the way I’d acted since meeting him. He was the only person in New York who’d offered me a place to live, and he was giving me a free meal.
“You don’t look like you could afford to miss one more meal,” he said. I didn’t miss the way he inspected my arms as I took a seat. “So now that you’ve had the grand tour, do you have any questions for me? And by that, I mean actual questions, not accusations.”
When I shot him a look, he gave me a big smile right before stuffing his sandwich in his mouth. Let’s see. I knew his name, his gender, where he’d grown up, that he was a smartass, and that he was cute-hot when he wasn’t talking.
“What do you do?”
He lowered his sandwich. “I model,” he said, his expression flat. “Men’s underwear mainly. Sometimes women’s. If they pay me enough.”
I smiled at my sandwich as I lifted it. “I thought you looked familiar. I just didn’t recognize you without those big wings and the million-dollar diamond bra.”
He chuckled, tearing off another bite of his sandwich. “I play ball,” he said, still chewing.
“Like dodgeball?” I took a small bite of the sandwich he’d made me so it wouldn’t seem like I was starving.
He shot me a tight smile. “Like baseball.” He waved his sandwich toward his “bedroom,” where a big red duffel was, a mitt and bat hanging out of it. “I play at one of the junior colleges close by since none of the D1 schools wanted to take a risk with me.”
​“A risk?” I took another bite, this one bigger. I wasn’t usually a fan of pastrami or mustard, but dang, this was the best sandwich I’d ever had.
“Let’s just say I was a bit of a hothead in high school, and D1 schools would rather have the golden boy with some talent than the wild card with mad talent.”
“Hothead . . .?”
“I got into a few fights at some games.”
I circled my sandwich in the air. “Like pushing, name calling type fights?”
“Try fists flying, dust spinning type of fights.” He must have guessed where my mind was taking me. “Don’t worry. I never have or never would put my hands on a woman like that, and I’ve calmed my shit down a lot since then. Nothing like being forced to eat a slice of humble pie at junior college to get a player in line.”
Nibbling off a corner, I curled my legs up onto the chair. I’d been too busy freaking out over my new living arrangements to notice how chilly it was in here. I couldn’t see my breath or anything, but it felt only a few degrees away from that.
“What are you studying?” I asked.
He dropped the last piece of sandwich into his mouth before wiping his hands on his jeans. “I’m just banging general requirements out of the way right now. I don’t care about becoming an accountant or a project manager or whatever the hell else other guys go to college for. I want to play ball. I go to school because it’s a package deal.”
“So your plan is to transfer to a D1 school to play ball after you’re finished?” I asked, like I knew what I was talking about. Which I didn’t. Sports weren’t my thing. Watching or partaking in them.
“I want to get drafted by the best professional baseball team in the whole wide world. That’s my plan.” He shoved out of his chair, carrying his plate into the kitchen.
“You want to play professional baseball?”
“No. I’m going to play professional baseball. And the one good thing about playing at a junior college is that I can be drafted any time they want me. I don’t have to wait until I graduate like I would have if one of those D1 schools had recruited me.” He rinsed his plate in the sink before setting it on a drying rack. He hadn’t used soap, but I supposed it was better than licking it clean and sticking it back in the cupboard. “Want anything to drink? Another sandwich?”
I lifted what was left of my first sandwich. It was only halfway gone and I was already feeling full. It wasn’t because I was a small eater either—he made his sandwiches like he was entertaining a team of linebackers. “I’m good, thanks.”
He lifted a package of Nutter Butters, one hanging from his mouth, a half dozen clutched in his other hand.
“I just promised I wouldn’t steal your Nutter Butters.”
“But I’m offering you one. There’s a difference.”
“Thanks, but no thanks. Looks like you need them.” I eyed the stack in his hand as he stuffed the package back on the top shelf.
“I play ball two to four hours a day. I go to school four to six hours. Homework on top of that, and a part-time job in between. I have to take advantage when I have a minute to stuff my face.” He padded back to the table and set one cookie from the pile in his hand on my plate. “For dessert.”
I thanked him, even though I wasn’t a fan of Nutter Butters. I was more a chocolate person than a peanut butter one.
“You want a hand bringing up the rest of your stuff? I’ve got some time before I should hit the books. I have a biology test tomorrow morning.” His nose crinkled as he stuffed another cookie in his mouth.
For his apparent love affair with cookies, he sure didn’t have the body of a cookie enthusiast. Thanks to his light-colored tee, which hugged particularly nice parts of the male anatomy, he looked like the type who ate egg whites and kale in his sleep.
“Oh, I don’t have anything else. Just my big suitcase and me.” I set my sandwich down after taking one more bite.
“So you don’t have any more stuff to move in?” When I shrugged, he frowned. “No more stuff as in a futon or mattress or . . .?”
My head shook as I moved toward my suitcase. I needed to throw on a sweatshirt before I gave myself frostbite. “They don’t let you check mattresses or futons on the airplane. But I brought a pillow and a sleeping bag.” Setting down the suitcase, I unzipped it and pulled out those very items.
“Hardwood floors.” His foot tapped the floor.
“I’ve slept in barns, train depots, and the backseat of a ’77 Malibu.” Shaking the sleeping bag open, I shot him a smile. Whatever had happened or was about to, I was chasing my dreams. Life was pretty damn good. “Buck up, buttercup.”

 


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Nicole Williams is the New York Times and USATODAY bestselling author of contemporary and young adult romance, including the Crash and Lost & Found series. Her books have been published by HarperTeen and Simon & Schuster in both domestic and foreign markets, while she continues to self-publish additional titles. She is working on a new YA series with Crown Books (a division of Random House) as well. She loves romance, from the sweet to the steamy, and writes stories about characters in search of their happily even after. She grew up surrounded by books and plans on writing until the day she dies, even if it’s just for her own personal enjoyment. She still buys paperbacks because she’s all nostalgic like that, but her kindle never goes neglected for too long. When not writing, she spends her time with her husband and daughter, and whatever time’s left over she’s forced to fit too many hobbies into too little time.
 
Nicole is represented by Jane Dystel, of Dystel and Goderich Literary Agency.

 

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CHAPTER REVEAL ~ Tortured by Nicole Williams

 

 

 

  

Coming April 9th
Pre-order exclusively via iBooks HERE

 

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When he left for a twelve-month deployment, she knew it would feel like forever before they saw each other again. She didn’t realize how right she was.

When Lance Corporal Brecken Connolly gets taken as a POW, Camryn hopes for the best but steels herself for the worst. In the end, steel was what she needed to survive when he didn’t. She moves on the only way she knows how—gilding herself in more steel.

Years go by.

She builds a new life.

She leaves the old one behind.

Until one day, she sees the face of a ghost on the news. Brecken seems to have risen from the dead, but she knows she can’t perform the same miracle for herself. While Brecken was held in a torture camp for the past five years, she’s been trapped in her own kind of prison. One she can’t be freed from.  

The man she mourned comes back to join the living, but the girl he wanted to spend his life with isn’t the same woman he comes back for. Brecken isn’t the same person either. The past five years have changed them both. While he’s determined to put the pieces back together, she’s resolved to let hers rot where they shattered.

 

Broken or not, Brecken wants her back. He’ll do anything to achieve that. Even if it means going against the warden of Camryn’s personal prison—her husband.



PROLOGUE


Whenever he had to leave, it was torture. You’d think I’d get used to it, but I didn’t—each time got harder. This one might have felt especially brutal because of how long he’d be gone. A year. We’d done weeks, we’d done months, but we’d never done the full year.
​Being with someone in the military, I knew I’d have to get used to it. The separation. The worry. The loneliness. The feeling that I was trying to catch my breath for however long he was gone.
​It was a way of life. And he was my life. So I’d just have to figure it out.
​“I’m never going to look at dog tags the same way again.” Brecken’s mouth turned up as his eyes roamed over me splayed across the backseat as he tucked in his T-shirt. He twisted his wrist, his gaze moving to his watch. A crease folded into his forehead. “But I’m going to need those back before I climb onto that bus. Something about military regulations. Not wandering around enemy territory without them. Those marines are sticklers for the rules.”
​He was trying to make me feel better—trying to get me to smile—but little could lift my spirits other than finding out he didn’t have to leave for the Middle East for twelve long months.
​“You don’t need them. Not really.”
​“Why’s that?”
​“Because you only need them if you’re planning on dying, and so help me god, I’m not taking these off my neck if you have plans for some kind of a hero’s death.” My hand curled almost defensively around the metal tags hanging against my bare skin as I focused on the way the cool metal warmed in my hand. The way it seemed to come to life in my hold.
​“I’m not planning on dying over there. I’m not going to die,” he corrected the moment my eyebrow started to lift. “But I do have plans of scoring some gnarly war wound so I have a story to tell our grandkids one day and can hang one of those Purple Hearts off my chest.”
​I flattened my face as best as I could, even though it was kind of impossible with the way he was grinning at me as he wrestled his jeans back into place. “Not funny.”
​“Come on. It’ll make me look tough.”
​“You already look tough. Too tough,” I added as I scanned him for the millionth time since he’d arrived back in Medford for a week-long vacation before shipping out. Whenever I looked at him, I didn’t just see the good-looking guy others did—I saw every good memory from my past. I saw every good memory that would be formed in the future. Brecken had been a part of my life since I was eight, and he was as much a part of me as I was.
​“Nah, I need one of those big, angry-looking scars running across my chest. Or one of those bullet hole scars on my thigh. Something real tough like that.”
​“And why do you need your dog tags for that?” My fingers tightened around the thin metal ovals, refusing to let them go as if I hoped in doing so, he couldn’t go either.
​“Blood transfusion. Medics are going to need to know my blood type when they’re trying to patch up my unconscious body.”
​“Unconscious body?”
​He nodded all solemn-like. “I can’t be one of those guys who earns his Purple Heart by getting a scratch on some barbed wire. I need to lose a quart or two of blood, maybe even code on the operating table. Something worthy of that medal.”
​The thought of Brecken marching through a hostile country with a rifle in his hands, with god only knew what aimed his way, made me feel weak with worry. The thought of him fighting for his life in some marine medical tent about took whatever was left of my sanity.
​I must not have been doing a good job hiding my emotions, because his face broke when he saw my eyes, his arms opening toward me. “It’s going to be okay, Camryn. I’m going to be okay. We’re going to be okay. The year will fly by, and before we know it, we’ll be getting married and buying a little house as close to the beach as we can afford. Okay?”
His arms wound around me, swallowing my body, and I let him tuck me close to him. I’d never known the feeling of being safe until Brecken Connolly’s arms had shown me the meaning.
​My hand planted in the middle of his chest, feeling his heartbeat vibrate against my palm. “Why can’t we just get married now? Why can’t I join the marines and go with you, wherever that is, so we can be together?”
​His laugh was muffled from his mouth being pressed against my temple. “Well, you can’t join the marines and my unit because the military’s under this impression that us marines of the male species become distracted and one-track minded when the women we love are marching beside us. They’re convinced the only things on our minds are protecting you, flirting with you, or screwing you.”
​Quietly, I counted off on my fingers, “Protecting, flirting, screwing . . .” Then I nodded. “Damn, they sure have you pegged.”
​Brecken’s fingers brushed up and down the bend of my waist. “And we can’t get married right now because you’ve got two more months of high school to finish before you earn that nifty diploma thing.” He kept going, undeterred by my grumble. “And I need to save some money to give you a proper ring and wedding. I’m not doing the courthouse thing with cheap silver bands. Not for you. You deserve the best.”
​My head tucked beneath his chin as I let him hold me in the backseat of his aunt’s old Corsica. The only good thing I could say about the car—which was a coin toss if it would start any given day—was that it had a decent-sized backseat that Brecken and I had made more than ample use of. Growing up in a strict household with my dad as Brecken grew up in the packed household a few houses down, privacy had been in short supply for both of us. Thankfully, his aunt was willing to lend Brecken her car whenever she could, like today, when I’d just made love to the only boy I’d ever loved for the last time for the next year.
My fingers curled into his chest as I willed time to freeze. “I have the best.”
Brecken grunted like he doubted that, his head lifting to check out the windshield. We were parked way back in the bus depot lot. His bus would be leaving for the long drive back to Camp Pendleton in a few short minutes.
“Besides, you already got me a ring.” I raised my left hand in front of him, rolling my fingers so he could see the adjustable birthstone ring on my finger.
He shook his head. “I won that for you at an arcade when we were ten.”
“It cost you twelve hundred tickets too. You saved up all summer to get that many tickets.”
His fingers touched the ring, twisting it around with a small smile on his face. “And it probably has the street value of a nickel. Not exactly the kind of wedding ring I want my wife to have.”
I found myself staring at the ring with him. The gold paint had started chipping off the thin band years ago, but the small pink birthstone still sparkled when the light hit it just right. “Well, it’s priceless to me. I don’t care what the street value is. Or how many tickets it cost.”
“Even so, I’m getting you a nice ring. With all of the hazard pay I’ll earn this year, you’d better start working that left ring finger out so it can bear the weight of the diamond I’ll be dropping on it.”
I was glad he couldn’t see my face, because he hated knowing how worried I was about him. He said hazard pay like a sales rep mentioned a bonus, but I heard it for what it really was—the government giving you a little more money for the likelihood of losing your life increasing.
“One more year. That’s it. Then we’ll be able to be together like we’ve always planned. Away from here.” Brecken’s arms loosened around me. We didn’t have much longer. “Away from these people.”
An uneven exhale came from him, the muscles in his arms twitching. I knew who he was talking about without him going into detail. Neither of our lives had been charmed or particularly easy, but mine had been worse. Being raised by a single dad who was so strict he made a monk’s life seem carefree, I’d had an unusual upbringing. Brecken only knew what I let him know about it, which was barely half of the reality.
“I don’t like leaving you alone with him,” he said, his voice a note lower. “If things get hard again, just leave. Move in with my insane family or a hotel or anywhere. Don’t let him hurt you. Words or fists. He does it again”—Brecken’s hands curled into balls as his back stiffened—“I’ll kill him. I swear I will.”
“He won’t,” I said instantly, in my most convincing voice. “He’s working on all that. Not drinking as much.” I made sure to hold his stare to sell as much conviction as I was capable.
My dad wasn’t just a strict man. He was a sad one, a lonely one. After my mom left, he’d turned into someone else, almost like she’d taken everything that had been good about him and stuffed it in that small suitcase too. Since I was the only one around and bore a striking resemblance to my mom, I’d taken the brunt of my dad’s grief. In the form of cutting words and, occasionally, outstretched palms.
Brecken had been walking down the sidewalk one day when he saw my dad strike me across the cheek for attempting to leave the house in a skirt he described as “fitting for a whore.” Brecken had only been thirteen, but he’d taken my dad down, managing to land a few punches before I could pull him off.
My dad stopped hitting me after that. At least where anyone passing by could see.
Not that I needed to tell Brecken that now. Though I guessed it would get him to stay a while longer . . . if only to be charged with murder and thrown into prison for the next twenty to thirty years.
Suddenly, that year didn’t seem so bad.
“He won’t,” I reiterated, when Brecken continued to give me that penetrating stare, like he was capable of finding a lie if I was hiding one.
Both of his brows lifted. “He better not.”
“If anything happens, I’ll crash at your family’s place, I swear.”
Sitting up, he pulled his wallet out of his back pocket. “With fourteen people sharing twelve hundred square feet of space, good luck finding a quiet spot to do your homework.” He pulled every bill out of his wallet. Even the last crumbled dollar. “Take this, hide it from your dad, and use it if you need to. That’s enough to get you a week or so at a hotel that isn’t a dump, and as soon as I get my next paycheck, I’ll send more.”
My head was shaking as I tried to stuff the money back into his wallet. He’d already closed it and was sliding it back into his pocket though. “I’ll be fine.”
Brecken’s gaze dropped to the money in my hand. “Yeah, I know.”
“Brecken.”
“Camryn,” he mimicked.
“I’m not taking the last dollar in your wallet.”
“Why not?” he asked, making a face. “I’d give you the shirt off my back, the air in my lungs, the last drop of blood in my veins. The last dollar’s a cakewalk compared to, you know, dying of suffocation or bleeding out.” He winked as he folded my fingers around the wad of money in my hand, then he leaned down to pull on his boots. He was moving quickly, glancing in the direction of the buses like he was making sure his wasn’t pulling away from the curb yet.
“Do you want to walk with me to the bus?” His focus stayed on cinching up his last boot as he waited for my answer.
He already knew it though. Good-byes weren’t my forte. Especially not the kind where I had to wave good-bye to the man I loved as he prepared to head into the middle of a war zone for the next year. Good-bye came with a whole different context when you said it to a marine.
“I know, Blue Bird. I know.” He sighed, his eyes narrowing at the weathered floorboards before he reached for the dog tags still hanging around my neck.
I didn’t make any move to lift my head or slide my hair aside to make it easier for him. As long as those tags were on my neck instead of his, he was safe. He was alive.
“I’m not going to die over there,” he whispered, pulling the tags over his head. They clinked together as they fell against his chest. “I’m coming back to you.”
My throat was burning from trying to keep myself from crying. “You can’t promise that.”
He reached for the blanket that had fallen on the floor and gently tucked it around my still-naked body. It was strange how I’d forgotten I was naked until he’d taken his tags off of me. Now though, I felt bare. Exposed. Vulnerable. My dress was somewhere around, even though I didn’t see it. We’d barely managed to make it to the parking lot before falling into the backseat together.
“Yes I can,” he said, his thumb tracing my collarbone before tucking the other corner around my shoulder. “Have I ever broken a promise to you?” He angled himself so he was in front of me, so I was forced to look him in the eyes.
“This is different. You can’t know for sure.”
“I’m going to enjoy watching you eat those words when I’m standing in front of that pretty face in twelve months, Blue Bird.”
I pulled the blanket tighter around me. “You know I don’t like it when you call me that when I’m mad at you.”
“You’re mad? At me?” He blinked. “Why?”
“You know why.” My eyes automatically moved toward the line of buses.
“To set the record straight, it’s the marine corps sending me to Iraq. Not me by personal choice.”
“No, but you made the personal choice to join the marine corps.”
“Yeah, because I didn’t want to spend the next twenty years pumping gas at the Qwik Mart.” His hand curled around the back of the front seat. “We’ve talked about this, Camryn. I’m not cut out for college, and I sure as shit am not going to spend my life working a minimum-wage part-time job and stuck in Medford. The marines is a chance at a real life. A career where I can be promoted and provide for a family and get a chance to kick a little ass every once in a while.” He leaned forward to kiss my forehead. Then my lips. “This is the ticket to that life we’ve been talking about for years. But it comes with a price.” His mouth covered mine again, this time a bit longer. “I’ll be okay. I’ll make it back.”
My eyes closed so I could focus on the taste of him left behind on my mouth. “You’re always the first to charge into anything. You don’t hang back. You don’t like the shadows. You like being the one who cast those shadows.”
When my eyes finally opened, I found his dark blue ones inches away from mine. His light hair, buzzed short so he was all ready for deployment, the few freckles scattered across the bridge of his nose, the way his jaw tightened when he stared at me, those were the things I’d remember when I’d lay awake at night, wondering where he was. If he was safe. If he was thinking about me. As long as I held on to a part of him, he could never really leave me.
“I’m coming home to you,” he said like a solemn vow. “It might be in more than one piece, but I’m coming home to you.”
I tucked his tags inside his shirt. They’d become cold again. “A thousand pieces, I don’t care. Just come home.”
His smile was almost as forced as mine as he leaned in, pulling me into his arms one last time. He held me for a minute, one hand secured around my neck, the other around my back, rocking me against him. Then he kissed me one last time. “Gotta go, Blue Bird. The Middle East isn’t going to settle itself down.”
As he threw open the back door to go around to the trunk to grab his bag, I leaned across the seat. He was leaving. For what felt like forever. “Yeah, don’t think you’re single-handedly responsible for tackling that agenda either.”
Throwing the bag over his shoulder, he crouched beside me. This smile wasn’t contrived. It was real. Perfect. “I’ll see you soon.”
“Soon?”
His hand formed around my cheek as his thumb traced the seam of my lips. “Sounds better than see you in a year, right?” Tucking his thumb into his mouth, tasting my lips on it, he gave me a wicked smirk before shoving to a stand and starting toward the buses. “I’m coming back for you, Camryn Blue Gardner, so you’d better be waiting for me, or I’ll just have to come find you and remind you why you fell crazy in love with me.”
Tucking the blanket around myself, I slid out of the car, leaning over the open door. “I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be waiting.”
He’d started to jog backward. “Waiting as in a few days until some other guy makes his play?”
My eyes rolled as I gave him a look. Brecken and I’d been together since I was fifteen and he was seventeen. Even before that, we’d been inseparable, no one able to come between us.
I cupped my hand around my mouth. “Waiting as in forever.”
“I won’t keep you waiting that long. Just long enough.” He was shouting now, the rumbling buses muffling his voice.
“Long enough for what?” I yelled back.
Even with this much distance between us, I didn’t miss it. The look in his eyes. The tip of his smile. “For you to agree to marry me the moment I get back.”
The breeze played with my hair, sending it away from him, like forces out of our control were already pulling us apart. “I will!”
He paused just below the bus steps, his eyes consuming me from a hundred yards away. “It’s, I do, Blue Bird. I do.” He grinned and handed his bag off to the person stuffing them into one of the outside compartments. Then his hands cupped around his mouth, and he dropped his head back. “I do, too!”
His voice echoed across the parking lot, earning the attention of more than just me.
That was it. He climbed the stairs, turned the corner, and disappeared inside the bus. I wouldn’t see him for a year. I might not see him ever . . .
My jaw tensed as I put a stop to that train of thought. Wedding vows and rings were the last things on my mind as his bus lurched away from the curb.
“Just come back to me,” I whispered to no one. “Just come back.”

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Nicole Williams is the New York Times and USATODAY bestselling author of contemporary and young adult romance, including the Crash and Lost & Found series. Her books have been published by HarperTeen and Simon & Schuster in both domestic and foreign markets, while she continues to self-publish additional titles. She is working on a new YA series with Crown Books (a division of Random House) as well. She loves romance, from the sweet to the steamy, and writes stories about characters in search of their happily even after. She grew up surrounded by books and plans on writing until the day she dies, even if it’s just for her own personal enjoyment. She still buys paperbacks because she’s all nostalgic like that, but her kindle never goes neglected for too long. When not writing, she spends her time with her husband and daughter, and whatever time’s left over she’s forced to fit too many hobbies into too little time.
 
Nicole is represented by Jane Dystel, of Dystel and Goderich Literary Agency.

 

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BLOG TOUR ~ Hate Story by Nicole Williams

 

 

 

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Nina can’t let herself fall in love with the man she’s going to marry. Both of them have experienced the sting and sham of love and have no intentions of falling victim to it twice. Love is expensive—hate is free.

Three years. A million dollars. A solution to both of their problems. They planned it all, from the story of their first meeting to the date of their divorce. Nothing could go wrong.

But what they didn’t consider was chemistry, and Nina and Max have no shortage of it. After too many near-kisses, Nina convinces herself that hating Max is better than loving him, and the more she gets to know this soon-to-be-husband of hers, the more she discovers just how very much she truly, madly, and deeply . . . hates him.

This isn’t a love story. This is the other kind.

 


He hadn’t stopped smiling at me, and it wasn’t the friendly kind of smile. It was the kind that made it seem like he was in on some secret I wasn’t privy to. The kind of smile that made me feel like I was being trifled with and made the punch line of a hundred jokes I had yet to hear.
I wanted to wipe the cocky smile off his face, but that would have required touching him and even I wasn’t gutsy enough for that. A woman did not touch a guy like him unless she wanted him to be her undoing. Nope. You didn’t play with fire. You didn’t touch it. You didn’t even come close.
Fire. That was all I saw when I looked at him. I was playing with it by agreeing to this kind of arrangement with him.
Even the way he lounged in the chair was smug. Like it was his throne and he was just waiting for minions to come bow before him.
“You’re younger than I thought you’d be.” He broke the silence first.
Though it was faint, I could just make out an accent. It was European, but I couldn’t nail down the country. To look at the bastard, you’d think he was Scandinavian—blond hair, blue eyes, commanding frame—but his accent was too sharp to hail from the land of Vikings.
I was tempted to glare at the tipped smile aimed at me, but I didn’t want to lead him to the impression I cared. I gave him my version of the same smile, abandoning my “no expectations” policy for the prospect of pissing him off. “You’re older than I thought you’d be.”
His smile shifted into the realm of a smirk, like he knew I was lying. So yeah, maybe I was lying about thinking he was older, but I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of confirming his silent accusation. He was older than me, but not by much. He might have been closing in on thirty, but he wasn’t past it.
He leaned forward in the chair. When his gaze circled my face to my fiery red hair, his brow elevated. Yes, I am the stereotype. Be warned.
“Prettier too.”
I stiffened. He was fucking with me now. I’d already agreed to marry him. How much more did he think he could screw me over?
I gave him a cursory glance and kept the unaffected look on my face. “Uglier.”
He cocked a brow like he knew better. “And the personality of ten women rolled into one.”
“Intimidated?”
His head shook once. “Intrigued.”
“Irritated?”
His eyes investigated me again. It felt intrusive, definitely not cursory. “Impressed.”
“As impressed by me as the woman in heat who was just mauling you over by the bar?”
“You mean the woman who gave me this?” He pulled something out of the inside pocket of his suit jacket and set it on the small table between us.
It was a hotel card key. With a lipstick kiss pressed into it.
“Classy place, this five-star hotel.” I glanced back at the woman at the bar. She was still there, watching him as though he was the height of the male species. “Did you tell her the reason you were here?”
His attention stayed on me. “Yes, I told her I was here to meet the woman I was going to marry.”
My stomach wrung. This was the man I was going to marry.
Holy shit.
“And she didn’t ask for her room key back?” I asked.
“She didn’t give it to me until right after I mentioned that.” His stare was intense. Too intense. I felt like every secret—every piece of who I was—was strewn out on that table for him to see. “Women love a man who isn’t afraid of commitment. It’s like an aphrodisiac.”
“You know what else women like?” I didn’t pause for an answer because I guessed he didn’t have a clue. “A man who’s humble.”
He fought a smile and leaned back in his chair when a server approached with a couple of drinks on a tray. “No, they like to think they do, but they don’t.” His head shook authoritatively. “They like the cocky bastard who goes after what he wants and doesn’t take no for an answer.”
Because the server was shielding some of me from his view, I allowed myself to shift. I was getting fired up, and if he kept saying the same kinds of things with the same kinds of looks on his face, that drink was going to wind up in his face.
That was when I noticed what the server had set in front of me. A tumbler with something amber in color. The same thing she was setting in front of him. Although from the curve of her smile, she was offering to give him a blow job on the side, compliments of the house.
“What is this?” I asked. Him. Her. Whoever wanted to answer.
“Scotch,” he answered, ignoring the server lingering between us.
My nose curled at the drink.
“Expensive scotch.”
“I don’t care if it came from the fountain of youth. I won’t drink it.”
His forehead creased with what appeared to be irritation, but I couldn’t be sure. Maybe it was confusion, like he couldn’t decide what to make of me. “You would have me believe you wouldn’t take a sip of that if you knew it would give you eternal life?” When I shook my head, his head tipped. “Why?”
“Because I value my free will far more than long life.” I pushed the drink away until it clinked against his. “I’d rather live one day free than an eternity in a cage.”
He was quiet for a moment. The server stayed between us, staring at him, waiting.
“Then why are you here?” he asked me finally.
I leaned forward and hoped my stare was as powerful as his. “Because free will is expensive.”

 



 

 

 


AP new -about the author.jpg
Nicole Williams is the New York Times and USATODAY bestselling author of contemporary and young adult romance, including the Crash and Lost & Found series. Her books have been published by HarperTeen and Simon & Schuster in both domestic and foreign markets, while she continues to self-publish additional titles. She is working on a new YA series with Crown Books (a division of Random House) as well. She loves romance, from the sweet to the steamy, and writes stories about characters in search of their happily even after. She grew up surrounded by books and plans on writing until the day she dies, even if it’s just for her own personal enjoyment. She still buys paperbacks because she’s all nostalgic like that, but her kindle never goes neglected for too long. When not writing, she spends her time with her husband and daughter, and whatever time’s left over she’s forced to fit too many hobbies into too little time.
 

Nicole is represented by Jane Dystel, of Dystel and Goderich Literary Agency.

 

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RELEASE DAY BLITZ ~ Hate Story by Nicole Williams

 

 

 

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Nina can’t let herself fall in love with the man she’s going to marry. Both of them have experienced the sting and sham of love and have no intentions of falling victim to it twice. Love is expensive—hate is free.

Three years. A million dollars. A solution to both of their problems. They planned it all, from the story of their first meeting to the date of their divorce. Nothing could go wrong.

But what they didn’t consider was chemistry, and Nina and Max have no shortage of it. After too many near-kisses, Nina convinces herself that hating Max is better than loving him, and the more she gets to know this soon-to-be-husband of hers, the more she discovers just how very much she truly, madly, and deeply . . . hates him.

This isn’t a love story. This is the other kind.

 


 

“Okay. So how do you think this is going?” Max tipped the broom handle between us. “You and me?”
My forehead pinched together. “You and me the plan? Or you and me the surprise?”
Max’s brow answered my question.
“And this topic is what you consider not-so-deep?” I nudged him and moved to finish stocking syrups.
“All I’m looking for is a simple estimation. Since we were just talking about school, give us a grade for how you think this is going.”
“A grade? Like A, B, C, D, F?”
“Exactly like that.”
I shook my head. “Did you have a rough day at work today? Lose an Olympic-size swimming pool of money or something? Are you needing your daily ego stroking to come from somewhere else today?” When I glanced back at him, I found Max leaning into the door he’d relocked, arms crossed and waiting.
“Our relationship is unique,” he said. “Intricate. I’m asking not because I need my ego stroked, but because I care. If I need to make some changes, I’m willing to. Anything you need, whatever you want, that’s what I’ll give you. But first, I have to know how I’m doing.”
If a man could get a woman pregnant from a piercing stare and a collection of words, I’d just gotten myself good and knocked up. With twins.
“You know how it’s going,” I said, trying to focus on the syrups instead of what—or who—I wanted to focus on.
“I know how I think it’s going. I’d like to know how you think it’s going.”
My mouth went a little dry. Having these kinds of talks was hard for anyone—they were next to impossible for me. “Well, you haven’t gone and confessed your undying love or scared the hell out of me by asking me to be your baby mama, so you’re keeping your promise to take it nice and slow.” When he gave a mini bow, I rolled my eyes. “Not to mention you aren’t too shabby in the sack, you don’t leave dirty dishes in the sink, and you share the remote well.”
Max’s face went flat. “Not too shabby?”
“Oh, please. You know how good you are. Stop fishing for compliments.” A flush crept up my neck as I thought of the most recent evidence to support that theory.
A slow, crooked smile spread across his face. “I want a grade.”
“Like comprehensive? Or broken down by category?” I was stalling, and Max knew I was stalling.
“You’re making this way too difficult,” he grumbled.
“An A minus,” I said abruptly. “I’d give you an A minus.”
“Why not an A plus?”
I kept my head turned so he couldn’t see my smile. Only Max Sturm would be outraged by an A minus. “Because there’s always room for improvement. And I wouldn’t want it to go to your head, that’s why not an A plus.”
The door creaked when he shoved off of it. He made no move to tame the way he was checking me out, leaning into the counter as I organized the syrups. “Something’s definitely going to my head.”
My gaze roamed his zipper region. “I was talking about the one north of your neck.”
“And I’m talking about the one at the end of my dick. My, at present, hard dick, thanks to you.” He came up behind me, fitting himself against my backside as his hands moved around to work on my jeans.
“Max,” I protested, my eyes closing a second later when his dick nuzzled deeper into my backside.
“Nina. I’m taking your body. Here. Now.” His chest pressed into my back as he lowered my zipper. “Accept that so we can move on to the next part.”



 

 


AP new -about the author.jpg
Nicole Williams is the New York Times and USATODAY bestselling author of contemporary and young adult romance, including the Crash and Lost & Found series. Her books have been published by HarperTeen and Simon & Schuster in both domestic and foreign markets, while she continues to self-publish additional titles. She is working on a new YA series with Crown Books (a division of Random House) as well. She loves romance, from the sweet to the steamy, and writes stories about characters in search of their happily even after. She grew up surrounded by books and plans on writing until the day she dies, even if it’s just for her own personal enjoyment. She still buys paperbacks because she’s all nostalgic like that, but her kindle never goes neglected for too long. When not writing, she spends her time with her husband and daughter, and whatever time’s left over she’s forced to fit too many hobbies into too little time.
 
Nicole is represented by Jane Dystel, of Dystel and Goderich Literary Agency.

 

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CHAPTER REVEAL ~ Hate Story by Nicole Williams

 

 
 

Coming December 26th

 

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AP new - synopsis.jpg

 

Nina can’t let herself fall in love with the man she’s going to marry. Both of them have experienced the sting and sham of love and have no intentions of falling victim to it twice. Love is expensive—hate is free.

Three years. A million dollars. A solution to both of their problems. They planned it all, from the story of their first meeting to the date of their divorce. Nothing could go wrong.

But what they didn’t consider was chemistry, and Nina and Max have no shortage of it. After too many near-kisses, Nina convinces herself that hating Max is better than loving him, and the more she gets to know this soon-to-be-husband of hers, the more she discovers just how very much she truly, madly, and deeply . . . hates him.

This isn’t a love story. This is the other kind.




 

 

   Second thoughts. I was having them.
   Experiencing these any time before stepping into the lobby of the swanky hotel I was meeting him at would have been helpful.
   “Sure you’re ready for this?” my best friend, Kate, asked, surveying the lobby like he was going to be lurking there with a sign hanging above his head.
   “I’m sure.”
   It was a lie. I wasn’t sure I was ready, but I didn’t have a choice. The bills had gone from a pile to a pillar, and if I didn’t do something soon, I would lose the house. I couldn’t lose the house. Not ever. It was the only home I’d ever known.
   “You don’t have to do this, you know? There are other options. When I mentioned this a few months ago, it was just a far-off suggestion, not one I thought you’d actually run with.” Kate slowed down as we got closer to the hotel lounge where he was supposed to be waiting.
   “There are no other options that include me keeping the house. At least not ones that are any less illicit than this one.” I licked my lips out of nervousness. With the way things had been lately, it was a miracle they hadn’t turned into sandpaper.
   “You know you could go to jail, right?”
   My tongue touched my lips again. “Only if I get caught.”
   Kate shook her head, and her light hair whipped across her shoulders. She was everything I wasn’t. Tall, rail-thin, straight blond hair that cooperated, skin that looked like she’d been gilded in something ethereal, and dressed like life was one endless party. Our personalities were a stark contrast as well. She was effervescent, where I fell somewhere closer to the jaded end of the scale. She wrung the life out of each day, loved like she’d never been hurt, and laughed like she’d never known sorrow.
   What she saw in me that kept our friendship enduring, I didn’t know. I just hoped she hadn’t hung around when others bailed because she felt obligated. I didn’t want to be anyone’s pity penance.
   She snagged my arm when I walked in front of her, braking me to a stop when I was a few steps from the lounge’s entrance. “Do you know what he looks like?”
   I tempered my irritation before glancing at her. She was coming from a place of concern, but I was committed. I just needed to get this over with already. “No.”
   “About how old he is?”
    My armpits were starting to sweat. I hadn’t even seen him yet and I was already pitting out. “No,” I answered, lifting my arms a little for ventilation.
   “Do you know what he’s going to be wearing tonight?” Kate glanced over my shoulder, almost glaring into the lounge.
   “No.” I twisted from side to side to create as much of a breeze as I could. I so should have splurged for the clinical strength deodorant instead of this cheap dollar-store junk that was probably going to give me cancer one day. If my budget hadn’t been worked out to the last quarter, I would have.
   “Do you know anything about him?” Kate sighed, motioning at me like I was the lamb who’d just brayed as the first volunteer for the slaughter. “Other than, you know . . .” She swallowed. “What he wants?”
   My stomach rolled. I definitely knew what he wanted.
   “I know his name.”
    Kate waited a moment. “And his name is . . .?”
   “Sturm.”
   Her nose wrinkled. “What kind of a name is that?”
   “Sturm’s his last name. I don’t know what his first is.”
   Kate’s nose went back to normal, but a high eyebrow took over its job of disapproving. She was especially expressive. That was another way we were different. Kate seemed to have no desire or inclination to hide what she felt, whereas I had every desire and inclination to hide.
   “So what is he expecting you to call him? Mister Sturm? Because this twenty-first-century feminist is so not okay with one of her best friends addressing this guy like that.”
   “Yeah, neither is this twenty-first-century feminist.” I flapped air in the direction of my armpits because they were only getting worse.
   “The same feminist agreeing to marry a man for money?” Kate drew her hand up to her hip and stretched into every inch of her nearly-six-foot frame.
   The word still sucked the air out of my lungs, but it had lost some of its potency. “Exactly—agreeing to marry him for money instead of lame reasons like love or feelings or to grow old together. How much more feminist does it get?”
   Kate looked down at me. “Eh, how about instead of marrying him for money, you could turn him into the authorities for trying to commit green card fraud?” She peeked over my shoulder and craned her neck to look into the lounge. “Besides, what is a million dollars really? That chick in that Indecent Proposal movie got a million and she only had to spend one night with him. Plus if you factor in inflation, since that movie’s almost as old as I am, you are getting the proverbial and literal shaft. In the ass.”
   I gave up the armpit sweat battle and hung my arms at my sides. Why did I care if this guy’s first impression of me was as a profuse sweater? I wasn’t asking for his approval or even expecting it. He was a business transaction to me. I was a means to an end to him.
   A case of two people embracing the capitalist spirit of America.
   “Yeah, but she had to sleep with the guy. That’s not part of our deal,” I argued. “But if it was part of the fine print, believe me, I’d ask for a hell of a lot more.”
   We had an agreement. Kind of. It was more a rough draft that had just as many amendments as it had bullet points, but I preferred having everything ironed out in advance. I wanted to know exactly what I was getting into before sinking up to my neck in it, which I was minutes away from doing.
   “So you’re saying you would sleep with him if the price was right?” Kate’s other hand flew to her hip.
   I gave her the most indifferent face I could. I might have been able to look the part, but I certainly didn’t feel the part. “Hey, Morality Police, I’m already agreeing to marry a guy so he can get a green card. Give me a break.”
   Kate’s phone chimed in her clutch. She’d wrangled up a couple of friends to meet her at this lounge tonight so she could keep an eye on me. I guessed she was worried the guy might not be on the up-and-up and might be using a green card as a cover for wanting to sell me off for internal organs or into the sex trade. I wasn’t worried about that, but I was thankful she was here for support if nothing else.
   After punching in a quick text, Kate circled her phone at me. “And what are you wearing? Did you think there was going to be a ribbon handed out at the end of the night for the most colorful outfit?”
   I glanced down at myself. I liked color. Lots of it. Living in a place like Portland, Oregon, a person had to find a way to fight off the perpetual gray. This was my chosen method.
   “I wanted to make sure he knew who I was,” I said, just barely peeking inside the lounge. Dozens of bodies, all of them different shapes, sizes, and colors, and all of them were dressed like they’d conspired to match. “If I’d known everyone would be in some shade of gray or blue, I wouldn’t have dressed in a green polka-dot dress, fuchsia shoes, and a blue checked scarf.”
   Kate bit her lip to keep from laughing. “You’re a fashion intervention begging to happen.”
   I stopped rubbing at a wrinkle in my dress. If an iron hadn’t been up to the challenge of smoothing it out, my thumb wasn’t going to do it. “I don’t care. I’m not here to impress him or earn his approval.”
   “Yeah, that’s obvious,” she mumbled just loud enough for me to hear. When I went to give her a little shove, she slid out of the way. “And if you’re not trying to impress him, why are you wearing the first dress I’ve seen you in since, god, probably when you wore that very one at spring fling of our senior year?” Kate was looking inside the lounge now, her gaze skimming the space like she was looking for something. Her friends must have already been there because she waved at someone before lifting her finger in a just-a-minute kind of way.
   “Because I didn’t think this place was a holey jeans and sneakers kind of place,” I argued, wondering why I was defending my wardrobe choices to someone who dressed by the less-is-more standard.
   “Let’s hope Mister Sturm is fashion blind.” The way she said it earned her another little shove.
   “He’s a single, foreign man who’s paying someone a hell of a lot of money to marry him.” I crossed my arms at her as she kept peeking into the lounge. “I think it’s safe to say I’m not about to come face-to-face with a guy who spends his nights flipping the pages of GQ. And if you call him Mister Sturm again, I’m going to pull your hair.”
   Kate winked at me. “My scalp’s a little sensitive from the hair pulling last night.”
   I rolled my eyes. “Alexander?” The last man du jour she’d mentioned to me.
   “Trenton.” She kind of sighed his name. Actually, it held the hint of a moan. God. I could never imagine sighing-slash-moaning some guy’s name. Ever. The closest I’d ever gotten to a sigh-moan was over the peanut butter pie my grandma had made for my last birthday.
    “Fine,” I said, interrupting the last notes of her moan.
   “Then I’ll slap your ass if you say it again.”
   She flashed a wicked smile my direction before giving her hips a shake. “Just as sensitive.”
   “God, fine,” I groaned. “Just stop. Your sex life nauseates me.”
   “Jealous is not a good look for you. Besides, someone needs to make up for your lack of it.” Kate waved at me like my sex life was visible for all to read.  
   “At your rate, you’re making up for the entire city’s lack of sex life.”
   She nodded solemnly. “You’re welcome.”
   “Besides, sex is not all it’s cracked up to be.” At this point, I was stalling, but I was nervous.
   “Believe me, with the right person who knows what they’re doing, it is all, and more, it’s cracked up to be.” Kate bounced her brows. “Some guys just know how to use their dick better than others.”
   I frowned. “Wow. I’m about to orgasm all over the place.”
   Kate laughed as she slid in front of me and teased my hair with her fingers.
   “Oww,” I whined as she ripped and pulled at my hair. “And I hope you washed your hands with bleach after the last dick you touched.”
   She responded by smearing her hands down the sides of my face. “Most action you’ve ever seen.” She scrubbed them down my face one more time. “You’re welcome.”
   I stepped out of the reach of her filthy little paws and waved her toward the lounge.  
   “I’ll be right there. Just give the signal if the guy turns out to be a serious creeper, okay?” She waited for me to nod, then she kissed the air in my direction. “Go get him, tomcat.”
   I didn’t know how to reply to that, so I went with an okay signal.
   I waited a minute after Kate had disappeared into the lounge. Then I waited one more before forcing my feet forward. It wasn’t like my dwindling courage was going to find its way back the longer I stalled.
   Taking in a slow breath, I pictured my house. The one I’d grown up in. The one that had housed a Burton for sixty years. The one that would probably be gutted or ripped down and replaced by whatever rich a-hole bought it at the foreclosure sale. I pictured relief from the stack of bills, the freedom to have choices, and a future that wasn’t already painted with bleak hues and dark strokes.

   Then I moved inside the lounge and took my first step toward my future husband.

 


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Nicole Williams is the New York Times and USATODAY bestselling author of contemporary and young adult romance, including the Crash and Lost & Found series. Her books have been published by HarperTeen and Simon & Schuster in both domestic and foreign markets, while she continues to self-publish additional titles. She is working on a new YA series with Crown Books (a division of Random House) as well. She loves romance, from the sweet to the steamy, and writes stories about characters in search of their happily even after. She grew up surrounded by books and plans on writing until the day she dies, even if it’s just for her own personal enjoyment. She still buys paperbacks because she’s all nostalgic like that, but her kindle never goes neglected for too long. When not writing, she spends her time with her husband and daughter, and whatever time’s left over she’s forced to fit too many hobbies into too little time.
 
Nicole is represented by Jane Dystel, of Dystel and Goderich Literary Agency.

 

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CHAPTER SPOTLIGHT – Touching Down by Nicole Williams

 

 

 
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The whole world might be in love with him. But all he’s ever loved is her.


Grant Turner’s name is synonymous with football. The fans and media can’t get enough of the player known as The Invincible Man, a nickname he earned while growing up in one of the toughest neighborhoods in the country and the nickname he’s kept by being one of the best players in professional football today. No one can take him down. He’s unstoppable.

But even a suit of armor has its weak point, and Grant’s has always been Ryan Hale.
They were a couple of kids when they fell in love, and just when it looked like the happy ending neither expected was within reach, Ryan disappeared. No explanations. No good-byes.

Grant coped by throwing himself into the game for seven years, and he’s finally moved on. Or so he thinks.

When she walks back into his life, all of those feelings come crashing back, despite the warnings in his head that tell him she’ll leave him again. Grant can withstand the league’s toughest defensive line, but he’s always been weak where she’s concerned.

No man can take Grant Turner down.

But one woman certainly can.

One woman will.

 
 
 


   
ONE MOMENT YOU’RE soaring. The next one, you’re touching down, scraping rock bottom.
   I never planned on coming back here. The day I fled The Clink was both freeing and debilitating for a multitude of reasons I had no interest in revisiting. It had been the only home I’d ever known. It had housed the only people I’d ever loved. Still, I knew when I left seven years ago, I’d never be able to come back. That was the way it would have to be.
   So why was I coming back now?
   For another multitude of reasons I had no choice but to respect. That was what I kept reminding myself of as I turned onto the block that had been the one beacon of hope in this urban heart of darkness. Juniper Avenue was the official name, but all of us kids had only known it as Aunt May’s.
   All of us kids who’d grown up in one of the prison-like subsidized housing complexes stretched across the one-square-mile stretch of land known as The Clink. It was one of the toughest neighborhoods in the country—violence the way of the land, drugs the currency of the kingdom. Murder, domestic violence, drug use, unemployment, ex-cons—The Clink was known for every last one of them.
   It was basically a cesspool of humanity. My childhood home.
   If it hadn’t been for Aunt May, I never would have escaped The Clink. If it weren’t for her, none of us would have. That was why I’d come back. For her. To say good-bye.
   But I’d also come back to see him. To say what had been seven years coming.  
   Aunt May’s funeral was my chance to make my peace with the dead. And the living.
   Just thinking about confronting him made my hands tremble, which made trying to squeeze my old Toyota into the parking spot tricky. As expected, the streets around Aunt May’s house were packed. Everyone from the corner drunk to the mayor knew who Aunt May was and would want to pay their respects to the person she’d been.
   The lives she’d saved from these streets couldn’t be counted on a hundred sets of hands. I was just one of those lives. He was one of the others.
   Even though he lived thousands of miles away now, I knew he’d be here tonight. I needed him to be here tonight because I’d run out of options, and one day, I’d run out of time too.
   Typically these streets were not a place a woman wanted to roam on her own at night, but tonight, I wasn’t worried. Tonight, in honor of this woman, the streets would be at peace. Tonight, the gangs would set aside their turf wars, and the criminals would play nice. It was The Clink’s version of an armistice.
   After locking my car, I forced myself to take each step that brought me closer to Aunt May’s house. Each one became harder to take, until the one that would lead me up her front walk felt impossible.                                    
   The sight of her house hit me harder than I’d expected. It looked exactly the same, from the lace curtains hanging in the windows, to the beds where her rose bushes had been put to rest for the season. Flowers didn’t grow in The Clink—mainly because people didn’t have any disposable income to spend on them or any patience to tend to them—but they grew here. They had always grown here, and something about realizing that now that Aunt May was gone, that might change, made my eyes burn.
    The house was packed with so many bodies, people were starting to trickle out onto the front porch. There was music playing in the background, friends were catching up, lovers were embracing, and it looked more like a summer party than a fall funeral. But that was the way Aunt May would have wanted it. She wouldn’t have wanted people to mourn her death—she would have wanted them to celebrate their own lives.
   From the looks of it, she’d gotten her way.
   Despite the dread clawing up my throat, a smile started to journey into place as I watched the scene before me. That first step onto hallowed ground became possible, and before I knew it, I was crossing the threshold of the front door.    
   A few people nodded at me in passing, but it was too dark outside for recognition to settle into the brief exchange. I knew that would change when I stepped into the light of the house.
    How right I was.
   I could practically feel the whoosh of air crash over me as it felt like every head in the room twisted my way when I stepped inside Aunt May’s house for the first time in seven years. Some of the faces I recognized, some I didn’t, but it felt like every person recognized me. I was met with everything from eyes filled with accusation to brows raised in judgment, but I knew I deserved it.    
   I hadn’t just been another one of the many children Aunt May set a warm meal in front of or provided a safe haven when there was no other safe place. I’d been one of her favorites.
   If you asked her, she’d say she loved all of us the same, but certain ones of us had been labeled her favorites. The truth of it was, it wasn’t because Aunt May held any more affection for us than the others; us “favorites” were the ones whose home lives were the most fucked up. The ones who spent more time with Aunt May than the rest because going back to our shithole apartment in one of The Clink’s Tower Apartment Complexes felt like playing a game of Russian Roulette each day.
   So yeah, I’d been deemed one of Aunt May’s favorites because my childhood had come right out of the Fucked Up Guidebook. He’d been one of her supposed favorites too, for the exact same reason. That was a big part of the reason we’d bonded as kids. Our connection had been forged in the fires of a proverbial hell on earth. Our bond built by our shared struggle to survive.
   We’d all paid a price for reaching adulthood. For some of us, the cost had been our innocence. For others, it was our soul.
   My price for being here today was both. And more.
   As my inspection moved from one person to the next, I felt my heart crawl higher into my throat, knowing he was close. Feeling he was close.
   That was when I saw him. He was in the middle of the living room, surrounded by a crowd of people and towering even more above the mob than I remembered. It had been seven years since I’d last seen Grant Turner. An entire lifetime had passed in that time. But instead of feeling the anesthetization seven years should have tempered the pain with, the sting felt seven seconds fresh.  
   Time hadn’t dulled the pain; it had clearly only sharpened it.
   I’d barely had a moment to brace myself for the onslaught of feelings that came at me from seeing him again, before his head finally followed the direction most of the others in the room had taken. Right toward me.
   His jaw set the moment he saw me, his posture going rigid the moment after that. Clearly, time had not eased any of his pain from my betrayal either.
   Then, as quickly as his attention had fallen on me, it fell away. He angled himself so his back was to me, putting up what I hoped wasn’t an impenetrable wall between us. I knew leaving the way I did must have hurt him. I knew it had to have confused and angered and betrayed him . . . but it had been seven years. Grant Turner wasn’t the same boy struggling on the streets of The Clink. His name was known by millions, his life a true Cinderella story. The troubled boy from The Clink became the man whose name was synonymous with professional football.
   His life had gone from microscopic to all-encompassing. I’d assumed he’d buried what had happened between us in some unmarked grave and forgotten about it and me years ago. I’d come prepared to remind him of who I was and then bridge the reason why I was back, but I had not come prepared to take on a scorned lover. I’d come equipped to explain myself, not to defend myself, but from the look on his face just now, I’d have to do both.
   Following his lead, most of the people in the room got back to doing what they had been before I showed up, seeming as content to ignore me as he was.
   My arm curled around my stomach like it was trying to keep me from breaking in half. Too much. Too fast.
   What had I been thinking, coming back after all this time? After the way I’d left? After the way I’d hurt Aunt May and Grant with my abrupt disappearance? What I had to tell him would be difficult to tell a closest confidant—how was I supposed to explain it to someone who clearly couldn’t stand me being in the same room as him? How could I expect him to listen to what I had to say once I worked up the courage to voice it?
   I looked over my shoulder, eyeing the door I’d just come through with a bit too much longing. I couldn’t leave. I’d come to make peace, and I was going to do just that. No matter how much it cost me.
   That was when I felt an arm slide through one of mine, as someone started to lead me into the kitchen. “Welcome to The Pariah Club. Your membership card’s in the mail. Here’s a new member tip—if it feels like everyone in the room is silently judging you, it’s because they are.”
   The voice was familiar, and when I matched it with the equally familiar face, I nudged my fellow pariah in the side. “How much are the annual dues?”
   Cruz tapped his chin a few times as he steered us through the herd of people that had overflowed into the kitchen. “Just your dignity, self-respect, and faith in humanity.”
   I felt a smile surfacing. Cruz’s gift of making people smile had transferred into adulthood. “What a bargain.”
   After Cruz had steered us into a somewhat private spot in the kitchen, he crossed his arms and waited with an expectant look on his face. I wasn’t sure what he was waiting for, but that might have been because I was still reeling from being plunged so suddenly into my past.
   “So?” he prompted, rolling his hand a few times at me. “Are you going to explain what happened seven years ago, or are you just hoping I’ll be content to pick up right where we left off?”
   My forehead creased. “Kinda hoping we can just pick up where we left off.”
   Cruz looked like he was considering that for a minute, which gave me the opportunity to catch my breath. Confronting The Clink, Aunt May’s house, and Grant all within the same five-minute span made me feel like the room was spinning. Not to mention the eyes I kept feeling zeroing in on me—everyone’s thoughts were almost as loud as their words.
   At least with Cruz, I knew I was safe from the judgment. Safe because he’d been a lightning rod for it, growing up as one of the few openly gay kids in The Clink. Being one of the only out-of-the-closet gay boys living in a neighborhood where testosterone and overt male bravado ruled the streets hadn’t been easy for him. He’d survived it though, his humor and ability to laugh at himself his saving grace.
   “Lucky for you, I’m one of those people who’s okay with forgiving and forgetting. Even when a good friend bails without so much as a good-bye or an occasional call to let her worried-sick friends know she’s okay.” Cruz’s brow carved higher into his forehead. “But I know someone who isn’t so into the forgive-and-forget philosophy.”
   My gaze followed Cruz’s into the living room, where it was impossible to miss Grant’s imposing frame. His back was still to me, almost like he was acutely aware of where I was and determined to keep his back pointed my way.
   My shoulders fell. Once upon a time, we’d been each other’s everything, and now, I felt as though we had nothing left of what had been so grand and beautiful. “He was really angry with me, wasn’t he?”
   “Oh, cupcake, angry is for guys who wear polo shirts and walk miniature doggies. Angry is not for the likes of Grant Turner.”
   Cruz and I exchanged a look. The realm of average human emotion had never been quite appropriate for Grant Turner. From the time he’d moved to The Clink with his dad all of those years ago, I’d known that. There’d been an intensity about him, a spirit that wound deeper into his core than most.
   “So you’re saying he was really angry after I left?”
   Cruz smiled tightly, patting my arm a few times. “He was the human equivalent of Chernobyl. How about we leave it at that because that’s as fitting of a metaphor as I’m capable of right now?”
   My heart ached as I imagined the pain I’d caused him—for the one-millionth goddamn time. “That was forever ago. He’s moved past it, I’m sure.”
   “Sure, sure,” Cruz agreed, waving in Grant’s direction. “Just look how at moved on past it he is.”       
    My  eyes stung from watching how Grant seemed to prefer the company of everyone besides me. It felt like yesterday when the opposite had been true. I wouldn’t cry though, no matter how badly my eyes burned. I’d dried myself out years ago.
   “I never meant to hurt him,” I whispered. “I never meant to hurt any of you.”
   Cruz wound his arm through mine again. “I know that. Aunt May knew that. Hell, even Grant knew that.” Cruz paused, his face turning toward mine. “But that doesn’t mean you didn’t hurt us.”
   My body leaned into his, almost like I needed his support because I was unable to stay upright on my own. It was odd the way our roles had shifted. Back then, it had been Grant and me who Cruz leaned on for support, and now, I was leaning on him.
    “I’m sorry.” My words came out louder than I’d intended, drawing the attention of a few people close by.
   If Cruz noticed my louder-than-needed apology, he didn’t show it. “Apology accepted.” His arm wound around my back when my head dropped to his shoulder.
   “Do you think apologizing to Grant will be that easy?” I asked, even though I already knew the answer.
   “Has anything been easy where Grant Turner and you are concerned?” I didn’t have to give that a moment’s consideration.
   “No. Nothing ever has been.”
   It never would be either.

 


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Nicole Williams is the New York Times and USATODAY bestselling author of contemporary and young adult romance, including the Crash and Lost & Found series. Her books have been published by HarperTeen and Simon & Schuster in both domestic and foreign markets, while she continues to self-publish additional titles. She is working on a new YA series with Crown Books (a division of Random House) as well. She loves romance, from the sweet to the steamy, and writes stories about characters in search of their happily even after. She grew up surrounded by books and plans on writing until the day she dies, even if it’s just for her own personal enjoyment. She still buys paperbacks because she’s all nostalgic like that, but her kindle never goes neglected for too long. When not writing, she spends her time with her husband and daughter, and whatever time’s left over she’s forced to fit too many hobbies into too little time.
 
Nicole is represented by Jane Dystel, of Dystel and Goderich Literary Agency.

 

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