Chapter Reveal + Pre-Order: Falling For Her by Monica Murphy

We are excited to share this chapter reveal from FALLING FOR HER by author Monica Murphy!

 

I sort of hate how good looking he is. And then again, I sort of love it.

 

Falling for Her by New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, Monica Murphy is coming June 2, 2020!

Cover Designer: Hang Le

Photographer: Wander Aguiar

Model: Lucas L.

 

Jake Callahan. Prince of the popular crowd.

My mortal enemy.

Gorgeous. All the girls want him.

Quarterback. All the boys want to be his friend. He’s the most popular boy in the senior class.

And he hates me.

Or so I thought.

What I mistook for hatred turns out to be…interest. There’s that thin line, right? It makes me crazy. I can’t stand it. Attraction, chemistry, whatever it is, I also can’t resist it.

And neither can he.

Together, we make no sense. The odds are against us. His friends definitely don’t approve. I’m not a part of their crowd. Not one of the cool kids. I don’t fit in, or so they say.

But that doesn’t stop him from falling for me.

And it won’t stop me from fighting for him.

 

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Chapter One

Jake

“How about that one?”

We all snicker when we see who Diego’s discreetly pointing at as we walk past her in the hallway. Some freshman who looks about ten, with big blue eyes and a mouth full of metal. She’s cute enough, but way too young.

“I don’t think so,” I tell my friends as we stride toward the quad.

It’s lunchtime. Our senior year. We’re able to drive off campus now, but not today. Coach wants us to watch game film of the team we’re playing tomorrow night. So we have about fifteen minutes to grab food before we all meet in the team room to study our opponents. Learn their weak spots, their strengths. See if they’re better defensively or offensively.

When I say Coach, I’m talking about my dad. I just try to keep that shit separate. It’s easier that way.

“Check her out,” says Diego—one of my best friends—nudging me in the shoulder and now not-so-discreetly pointing at a group of girls sitting at a nearby picnic table.

“Which one?” Again, they’re young. Maybe sophomores? I don’t really recognize any of them. If they’re a couple of years younger than me and not friends with my sister Ava, who’s a junior, or on the football team, I don’t bother getting to know them.

That makes me sound like an asshole, but I don’t have the time. I have my circle of friends. I even have my circle of acquaintances. This year, my last year in high school, I don’t need to add to either group. I’m perfectly content with what I have.

“Any of them.” Diego slaps me on the back, a giant grin on his face. “You need to find  someone, bro. This single, I-don’t-bother-with-any-girl business is getting old.”

I don’t bother with any girls anymore because when I do, they tend to take my heart and rip it to shreds. It’s ridiculous, but when I fall, I tend to fall hard.

Sophomore year I got my heart broken twice, once by Cami Lockhart. We got back together the beginning of junior year only for her to cheat on me—and I found out via Snapchat.

That sucked.

I’ve never bothered with a girl again. Fuck ’em. I’d rather focus on football and my friends and school, exactly in that order.

“Too young,” I tell Diego, and Caleb, my other best friend, bursts out laughing.

“Oh come on. She’s cute. I’d bet she’s down,” he says with a smirk.

Caleb is an actual asshole. He hooks up with an endless stream of girls, yet most of them don’t complain. It’s like they’re proud to be a Caleb fan girl.

“Find him a senior then,” Diego says, stopping in the direct center of the crowded quad. He settles his hands on his hips and turns in a slow circle, scanning the area with a narrowed gaze. Diego has a girl and they’re supposedly madly in love. I mean, good for him. They seem totally into each other—for the most part. They’ve been together for over a year, and Jocelyn treats him like a god, while she’s his princess, as he calls her. I’m pretty sure they’ve talked about getting married, which is just…insane if you ask me.

“Her.”

We all swivel our heads to see Tony—our quietest friend—inclining his head toward a table to the left of where we’re standing.

There’s a girl sitting there, her back to us. Alone. She’s wearing a black T-shirt, her reddish-blonde hair spilling down her back in loose waves. Her elbow’s propped on the table and she’s resting her cheek on her fist, an open book in front of her. Like she’s reading. For fun.

What the hell?

“No way,” Diego says with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Jake’s not into smart girls.”

I’m immediately offended. “Who says?”

“You, with the choices you’ve made in the past,” Diego points out.

He’s got me there. Cami wasn’t that smart. None of the girls I’ve dated were. Not really.

“I like her hair,” Tony says, his tone, his entire demeanor impassive, like we’re talking about the weather. “She’s cute.”

“You should go for her then,” Caleb suggests to Tony.

“Nah. Not my type.” Tony’s gaze meets mine and he tilts his head, like he’s giving me permission to talk to her.

Huh.

“How do you know she’s a smart girl?” I study her, taking in her narrow shoulders, the elegant slope of her back. She brushes her hair back from her face, tucking the strands behind her ear and offering me a glimpse of her profile. She’s pretty in an understated way, I guess. Upturned nose. Pale skin. Freckles.

I don’t recognize her at all.

“Because she’s reading a book, dumbass.” Caleb sounds enormously pissed off, though I know he’s not. That’s just how he always sounds. “If you don’t ask her to wear your jersey, I think I’ll ask her instead.”

Yes, this is what we’re doing on a Thursday afternoon during lunch. Trying to find a girl for me to ask to wear my jersey on game day. It’s a big deal at our high school, and so far during my reign as the varsity team’s quarterback, I’ve only had one girl ever wear my jersey, and for only one time. It was Cami Lockhart, right at the beginning of our junior year, when I thought there was a possible chance we could work shit out and be a couple again.

But then someone sent me her private story off Snapchat—a video of her making out with motherfucking Eli Bennett, the quarterback for our rival school’s team, and I was done. Finished.

For some reason, this year my boys want to see me make a claim. Find a girl. They tell me I’m too grumpy. That maybe if I’m getting some on the regular, that’ll mellow me out. Some of them even complain I’m too focused, which I don’t get. Why wouldn’t they want me focused?

Focused wins games. I’ve had that drilled into my head over the years by my dad.

“No way,” I tell Caleb when he acts like he’s going to approach the mystery girl sitting at the table. “I’ll do it.”

I don’t know why I’m bothering with this. I don’t know her, but I’m guessing she knows me. Most girls would probably be flattered if I asked, but I’m not that sure if she’s into football, or if she even goes to the games. But it would be cool to see her wear my number around school all day.

Maybe I could make it a thing. Give it to a different girl every week. They’d start fighting for their chance. It could turn into a contest. Maybe it would go viral…

“Go ask her.” Diego gives me a shove in the girl’s direction, his hand right in the center of my back. “Before you chicken out.”

Okay, that shit’s annoying. And it’s just the incentive I need to make it happen. Glancing over my shoulder, I glare at my three best friends, but all they do is make clucking noises at me in return like they’re a bunch of chickens.

Assholes.

Slowly I approach the table, wondering what I should say first. I don’t have a problem talking to girls. I never really have. I almost wonder if this is because I grew up in a household full of women. Don’t get me wrong, Dad is a strong personality and is a big influence on me, but he wasn’t around much when I was little. He was busy working all the time.

Growing up, I was always with Mom, my older sister Autumn and my younger sister Ava. Our little brother Beck didn’t come along until years later, and by then I was resigned with the idea that I’d never even have a brother.

So I was constantly surrounded by girls. Autumn and Ava used to fight like cats and dogs. Now that Autumn’s gone, away at college in Santa Barbara, we don’t see her that much. Ava is happier with Autumn gone, I think. Having an older sister trying to boss you around all the time gets old.

I know I got tired of Autumn’s bullshit. Now, I miss her. Not that I’d ever tell her that.

Deciding I need to approach this mystery girl straight on, I walk around the table, keeping a wide berth so she doesn’t get suspicious or think I’m a stalker. And once I’m facing the table, I take a good, long look at her.

She’s vaguely familiar, so I’m assuming she’s a senior like me, or maybe a junior. Our school is small, so most of the time I feel like I know everyone, but I can’t place her. I don’t remember her name. Her hair is this burnished, reddish-gold color and her eyes are big and blue. Her features delicate—except for her mouth. Full, bee-stung lips that fill my head with dirty images.

Every one of them involves my dick.

Not that I’m actually interested in this girl. I don’t even know her. But as far as my first choice to wear my jersey this week, it’s not a bad one.

Not a bad one at all.

One of my friends, I’m not sure who, makes a bok-bok noise and I send them all a menacing look before I march right up the table and clear my throat. “Hey.”

The girl lifts her head, sky-blue eyes meeting mine, her expression open. Friendly.

Until she keeps looking at me, her gaze narrowing, that open, friendly expression disappearing within seconds. Almost as if she realized who she’s looking at and doesn’t like what she sees.

Damn.

When she still hasn’t said anything, I decide to keep talking. “What’s your name?”

Her eyebrows shoot up. “You don’t know my name?”

I know this sounds weird, but I like the sound of her voice. A lot. “Should I?”

“I know yours.” She sniffs, shutting the book she was reading. “Jacob Callahan.”

Ah, see? She knows me. She’ll totally agree to wear my jersey. “You have the advantage then.”

“Because you still don’t remember my name?”

I shrug helplessly and flash her a smile that’s hopefully equal parts bashful yet charming. “Guilty.”

She rolls her eyes, resting her arms on top of the table. “Did you have a question or something?”

Her tone is short. Dismissive. This girl is totally trying to get rid of me. “Yeah, as a matter of fact, I do have a question for you.”

“I’m waiting on pins and needles,” she says, her voice going up a notch, those blue eyes of hers extra wide.

They’re pretty, I’ll give her that. She’s pretty. There’s a sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of her nose and she has very white teeth.

“I was wondering if you wanted…” I let my voice drift and I glance down at my shoes, kicking at the base of the picnic bench. I’m trying to up the anticipation a notch. Going for the golly, gee bashful vibe. Girls seem to like it.

“Wanted what?”

Huh. Guess she’s not one for anticipation.

“If you wanted to wear my jersey tomorrow.” I lift my head, my gaze meeting hers straight on, and I see the surprise in her eyes. I’ve shocked her with my request.

Come on, I can see why. I’m me and she’s…whoever she is.

She studies me for a while, and now it’s my turn to wait with anticipation. Her full lips part, like she’s about to say something, but instead, she looks away from me, grabs her things and starts shoving them into her backpack.

As if she’s about to leave.

When she shoots me an irritated glare, slides off the picnic bench and walks away without another word, I chase her, surprised by how quick she is. My friends are laughing, I can hear them as I follow after this chick—still don’t know her name—but I can’t worry about them right now.

Even though they’re total assholes for laughing at me.

“Hey!” I call out, but it’s like my voice only spurs her on. She’s practically in a full jog as she heads toward Adams Hall, and I wonder if her plan is to duck into a classroom and hide from me.

Putting a little speed behind my step, I catch up with her easily, hooking my fingers around her upper arm and stopping her escape. She turns to face me, the look on her face so full of disgust I immediately release her and take a step back.

“Why are you chasing me?” she asks breathlessly. Her cheeks are pink, and she’s practically panting. I get the sense that maybe she doesn’t exercise much? I mean, I’m not even winded.

“You never answered my question.”

She lifts her chin. Blows out an exaggerated breath, like what I’m asking is too damn much. After enduring the last five minutes with this chick, I don’t even want her to wear my jersey now. She’s making way too big a deal about this.

But for some weird reason, I have to know what her answer is.

“My name is Hannah,” she finally says, and it all hits me at once. I do know her. Barely. Hannah Walsh. Senior. Moves in a completely different crowd. As in, she doesn’t really move with any crowd. I’ve never had a class with her ever, because she takes all the advanced courses. My friends were right.

She’s a smart girl.

“Right. Hannah.” I nod and smile. “I know you.”

She smiles in return, though it doesn’t quite reach her sky-blue eyes. “Uh huh. Sure you do.”

“I do. You’re friends with…” My voice drifts. I don’t know who she’s friends with. I can see their faces, but at the moment, I can’t recall their names.

“Please.” She reaches out, settling her hand on my forearm, and it’s like a spark of electricity between us the moment our skin makes contact. She snatches her hand away like I burned her. “Stop trying so hard.”

I almost want to laugh. This girl is telling me to stop trying so hard? Does she even know who she’s dealing with? The power I wield at this school? I’m the most popular guy in the senior class—maybe in all the classes. This is my year to shine. My year to reign.

And this Hannah nobody is telling me to stop trying so hard?

Get the fuck out of here.

Can’t back out now, though. I’m fully committed.

“So what do you say, Hannah? Are you in? Do you want to wear my jersey tomorrow?” Not like I want her to anymore. She’s been rude from the moment I started talking to her.

“Gee, I sure appreciate the offer, but…” She scowls at me, her lush lips pursed. “No.”  

Meet Monica:

Monica Murphy is a New York Times, USA Today,  and international bestselling romance author. Her books have been translated in almost a dozen languages and have sold over two million copies worldwide. Both a traditionally published and independently published author, she writes young adult, new adult and contemporary romance. She’s also known as USA Today bestselling author Karen Erickson.

A native Californian, she lives on fourteen acres in the middle of nowhere with her husband, two kids, one dog, and four cats. When she’s not writing, she’s an assistant coach for her daughter’s high school cheer team, which is a two season sport. Meaning, she’s at practice with a bunch of teenage girls all the time. Or she’s at a football game. Or a basketball game. Maybe someday, she’ll even write about this experience.

Connect with Monica:

Facebook: http://bit.ly/MonicaMurphyFB

Goodreads: http://bit.ly/MonicaMurphyGR

Amazon: http://amzn.to/1YUl0Vm

Website: http://monicamurphyauthor.com Newsletter: https://www.monicamurphyauthor.com/newsletter

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Twitter: http://bit.ly/MonicaMurphyTW

Chapter Reveal: On The Corner Of Love And Hate by Nina Bocci – Hopeless Romantics Series – Book 1

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On The Corner Of Love And Hate

Hopeless Romantics Series – Book 1

By Nina Bocci

Release Date: August 20, 2019

Pre-Order: Amazon

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Blurb:

For fans of Christina Lauren and Lauren Layne comes a delightfully sassy and sexy romance about a campaign manager who reluctantly works with the local Lothario to help revamp his image for the upcoming mayoral elections, only to discover that he’s hiding something that can turn both their lives upside down.

What’s a campaign manager’s worst nightmare? A smooth-talking charmer who’s never met a scandal that he didn’t like.

When Emmanuelle Peroni’s father—and mayor of her town—asks her to help rehab Cooper Endicott’s image, she’s horrified. Cooper drives her crazy in every way possible. But he’s also her father’s protégé, and she can’t say no to him without him finding out the reason why: Cooper and her have a messy past. So Emmanuelle reluctantly launches her father’s grand plan to get this Casanova someone to settle down with and help him lose his lothario reputation.

Cooper Endicott wanted to run for Mayor, but he never wanted the drama that went with it. Now that he’s on the political hamster wheel, the other candidates are digging up everything from his past. Even though he’s doing all the right things, his colorful love life is the sticking point for many of the conservative voters. He wants to win, badly, and he knows that if he wants any chance of getting a vote from the female population, he needs to change his image. The only problem? He might just be falling in love with the one person he promised not to pursue: the Mayor’s off-limits daughter.

A perfect blend of humor and heart, On the Corner of Love and Hate is the first in a new series from USA TODAY bestselling author Nina Bocci.

OTC good enough

Chapter Reveal

Thud. Whoosh. Slap.
Thud. Whoosh. Slap.
The trio of irksome sounds repeated another half-dozen times. My eyes darted upward, a silent prayer falling from my lips.

Dear God, please give me the strength not to shove that tennis ball somewhere that would require surgery. Amen.

My coworker casually leaned back in his chair, his long legs out- stretched and crossed at the ankles on the shiny surface of the con- ference room table. Beneath his brown leather loafers sat a report.

His unfinished-yet-due-tomorrow report.

I marveled at his ability to multitask. It would have been more appropriate if he had been, say, working. Instead, he was tossing a ball against the conference room wall with one hand while texting with the other. Even though he didn’t take his eyes off his phone screen, he caught the ball every single time. If I hadn’t been so annoyed, I would have actually been impressed.

The clock ticked against the pale yellow wall above his head. With each passing tick, the ball struck with a thwack to its right. “Cooper, could you please stop?” I finally said, rubbing my

temples to ease the headache that was forming.

Thud. Whoosh. Slap.

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2 NINA BOCCI

“Cooper,” I repeated, glancing up from my laptop. “Hello?” Thud, whoosh, slap was the only response I got.
Sliding back my chair, I stood up and walked around the long

maple conference table. It was only when I got close enough to see the scantily clad woman in his text window that I noticed the wireless earbuds that were blasting music into his ears. As the ball left his hand, I touched his shoulder.

Startled, he lost his grip on the ball, sending it sailing behind him. “What’s up?” he sputtered, quickly pulling his earbuds out. I didn’t miss his hand sliding his phone into his pocket. He looked every bit like a teenager caught red-handed by the principal.

“Are you kidding me?” I exclaimed. “You’ve had music on this entire time? I read nearly two pages of the brewery expansion proposal out loud to you twenty minutes ago!”

At least he had the decency to look remorseful. “I thought you were talking to yourself, so I”—he motioned to the black Beats— “figured I’d give you your privacy while I caught up on work.”

My eyebrows must have reached my hairline, because with a mildly guilty expression he pulled his legs down from the table.

I snorted. “Yes, I start all sentences with, ‘Cooper, what do you think about’ when I’m talking to myself. Were you just smiling and nodding for my health?” Shifting in his seat, he straightened. I huffed.

The small laugh lines around his mouth became more pro- nounced, an indication that he was fighting back a smile. “Em- manuelle,” he purred smoothly.

“Don’t Emmanuelle me,” I clapped back. “That tone may work on your fan club, but not me.”

He held his arms up in a defensive position. “Okay, okay, I’m sorry. What did I miss?” He grabbed for the papers in my hand.

Holding them back against my chest, I scowled. “Hope Lake Brewing Company. Expansion. Asking for input before it goes to the town council for approval.”

He whistled and rocked back in his chair. “Council is going

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ON THE CORNER OF LOVE AND HATE 3

to reject anything that comes across their desk from them. They hate the ‘vibe’ the brew house brings, and the addition would make the council’s heads explode.”

I nodded. “Yep, which is why the guys asked us for help. To try and edit the proposal to appeal to them. It’s also why I booked us the conference room for this meeting that you just Tindered your way through.”

“That’s not a word, and I wasn’t—” he began, patting his pocket absently. Probably making sure the evidence was tucked away safely.

I held up my hand. “Save it. I don’t care what or who you’re doing. Just that you’re not paying attention. Again.”

When the owners of HLBC, Drew and Luke Griffin, first came to our department, Cooper and I had championed their proposal to build a brewing company, tasting room, and outdoor entertainment space just along the lakefront. It was one of the first projects Cooper and I had worked on together, and it was just what we’d needed in town back then—a fun, innovative business that catered to every age. Now, six years later, HLBC was one of Hope Lake’s most popular spots, and the brothers were looking to expand their space to include rooms for private events and a small restaurant. Cooper and I were supposed to be discussing how to approach the town council about it.

Looked like I’d just been talking to myself instead. “I’m going back to my office, where I can work in peace,” I said. Exasperated, I started gathering up my stuff.

After a few seconds of awkward silence, he cleared his throat. “You’re right. I’m sorry. Let’s go over it. Again.”

I stacked my files, feeling my blood starting to boil. Having to repeat myself irked me, but I needed his input whether I liked it or not.

Glancing up, I noticed Cooper readying to say something else when our shared assistant, Nancy, hurried in with the main office calendar and a fistful of Sharpies clutched in her hand.

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4 NINA BOCCI

“I’ve been searching for you two everywhere,” she said, looking wide-eyed at each of us in turn. The conference table, at least on my side, was covered in charts, graphs, and photos of the lake- front. On Cooper’s side—well, there was a lot of polished maple visible.

“Did you discuss the project?” she asked hopefully, her face falling when I shook my head. “Okay, well, I guess you’ll handle that, uh, later. I’m sure.” She gave me a look. “I hope,” she mouthed, then cleared her throat and pulled out the head chair of the confer- ence table and sat down with the main office calendar in front of her. “It’s time for the afternoon rundown—are you ready?”

Cooper groaned. Not at Nancy but at the calendar she had opened. It had been on my desk this morning when I’d filled it with upcoming appointments and meetings. By the looks of it, Nancy had managed to fill almost every empty space that remained.

We kept it old school at our office. Instead of using Google calendar or iCal, we used a large paper desk calendar with a color-coded legend, labels, and tabs to keep our government of- fice running like clockwork. It’s not as though we hadn’t tried to modernize, but some of the, ahem, older department staff were frosty toward change.

Nancy, Cooper, and I worked at the Hope Lake Community Development Office on the top floor of Borough Building. In a small town like Hope Lake, my department was sort of the home base for everything. From simple things such as parade permits to more detailed ventures—for example, helping to secure funding for business owners like HLBC—the CDO, as we tended to call it, had its hand in pretty much everything. It wasn’t big, but what we lacked in size and staff we made up for in energy and results.

“The upcoming week is brutal,” Nancy apologized, looking at Cooper, who, not surprisingly, was on his phone again. “Emma, I’m afraid you’re a bit overscheduled.” She tapped a Sharpie on the table.

I waved a dismissive hand. “It can’t be any worse than that

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ON THE CORNER OF LOVE AND HATE 5

week the staff came down with the flu.” I had practically run the office that week even though I was heavily medicated myself.

“It’s close.” She held up two fingers barely an inch apart. “You’re back-to-back Monday. There is a pocket of time during the event this weekend with the future Mr. Mayor here and his opponent.”

Cooper perked up then. He knocked twice on the wooden table. “Don’t jinx me.”

Oh, sure, you’re paying attention now.

“You’re a shoo-in. People love you, Cooper. And with the mayor already behind you, how can you not be?” Nancy assured him.

Nancy wasn’t blowing smoke. Cooper had decided to run for office this year, and his magnetic personality made him the per- fect political candidate. He was brilliant, liked by the majority of the town, and had confidence to spare because he knew he was the best choice for the job. Even I could admit that, and we were often at odds.

“Emma, I know you wanted to have a sit-down with Drew and Luke from the brewing company about the proposed expansion before they go to the council, but I don’t see how it’s going to happen.”

Nancy jotted a note onto the calendar. Over the years, we’d gotten our system down to a science: orange for me, blue for Cooper, hot pink for our department administrative assistant, green for Nancy, and red for the mayor, because red was my dad’s favorite color. Blue, not surprisingly, was the color least vis- ible on the entire calendar. It was sporadically used, even from my vantage point, which meant that Cooper had a light schedule this week.

Shocking.

I chewed the pen cap, irritated. Nancy continued reading off meeting after meeting throughout the week.

“These two on Thursday—I can probably sit in on them to give you a break, Emma,” she offered.

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6 NINA BOCCI

Looking over Nancy’s shoulder, I marveled at the Technicolor scheduling system. It might have been old-fashioned, but at least it looked good.

Shaking my head, I pointed at the partially torn yellow Post-it stuck on the edge of the frame. That was how my father added mayoral meetings to the calendar. Stickies. He was nothing if not professional. “No can do, my friend. You’re going to be at a ribbon cutting with Mayor Dad.”

She looked up, her lips a thin, flat line. “I am? He didn’t tell me.”

Sighing, she jotted the information down. “I wish he’d told me I was supposed to go, too!”

She took her calendar duties very seriously. I for one appreci- ated it, and I knew my father did, too, even if he did use his own odd system to add to it. It kept all of us in line.

Together, Nancy and I figured out the rest of the week, Coo- per staying silent and, surprise surprise, on his phone. We looked over the days, pointing and crossing out, trying in vain to find somewhere to squeeze in a last sit-down. “It’s not going to work,” I lamented, sinking into the chair beside her.

“Well, someone from the department needs to at least show their face at the city events meeting,” she urged, looking point- edly at Cooper. A notebook was now on his lap, his hand moving swiftly over the page. He didn’t look up when she said his name or when she repeated it a few seconds later. He was too deeply invested in whatever he was doing.

At least he’s off the phone.

Tearing the Post-it off the calendar and balling it up in her fist, Nancy lobbed it at him. “Cooper!” she shouted, snapping her fingers as if she were telling a dog to sit.

Fitting.

He smiled at her. “I’m listening.”

“Uh-huh, we need you to take a meeting or two on Thursday so Emma can head down to the lake to meet Drew and Luke. Unless you’d rather take the HLBC meeting.”

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“Thursday?” he repeated, sliding his phone out from behind the notebook.

When did he take that out? He was stealthy like a teen texting in class.

With a shrug, he shook his head. “Sorry, I’m booked all day and I’ve got a campaign publicity debrief at noon. That’s taking up most of the afternoon.”

“Doesn’t that just mean you and Henry are meeting at the diner to play on Facebook and Twitter together?” I scoffed, feeling the blood rushing to my face.

Henry was one of my and Cooper’s oldest friends. As a teacher, he had limited time to meet up with Cooper, so I understood Cooper’s reticence to reschedule, but—

Then it hit me. “Wait . . . why are you having mayoral meet- ings during work and school? How’s Henry getting out of class to meet you?”

Setting his phone down, he stood and straightened his tie. “I’ll have you know, I’m meeting him at the high school. I wish I could help, but alas—”

“You can’t,” I finished, sliding out of my chair to stand myself.

With Cooper running for mayor of Hope Lake, the brunt of his work at the CDO was taking a backseat. I noticed, the staff noticed, and the mayor noticed. If it had been anyone else, they probably would have been fired, but Cooper was Hope Lake’s golden boy. Once he was elected, we could hire someone new to replace him. But until that happened, it fell to us to pick up his slack.

Cooper walked toward the door, leaving his phone—aka his most prized possession—on the conference table. Surely he would be back in for it the second he realized it wasn’t attached to his hand.

“Wait, you can’t leave!” Nancy called after him. “I need the theater proposal paperwork. You guys have that meeting with the council on Monday and the mayor wants the weekend to review

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8 NINA BOCCI

the specs. Cooper, it has to be before end of day since you have the debate tomorrow! Everything is done, right? Please tell me it’s done.” “It’s handled,” Cooper said smoothly over his shoulder, tap- ping his temple. “And it’s not a debate. It’s a photo op, remember?

Pose, smile, shake hands. You know, the usual.”
“Thank God. I don’t have time today to do it if you didn’t,” she

said, pretend wiping her brow.
Smiling broadly, he clapped his hands together. “Oh, come on,

Nance. Have I ever left you hanging?”
Her silence spoke volumes. If she’d had the time, and the

inclination, she could have created a depressing list of how often that had happened.

Looking uncomfortable at Nancy’s lack of response, Cooper disappeared through the door, only to reappear two seconds later. “That would have been bad!” he said with a tight smile, jogging in to grab the iPhone.

“Cooper, are you sure you can’t reschedule your Thursday plans with Henry until after work so Emma isn’t pulled in nine- teen directions?” Nancy said quickly. “It’s just about the local sports participation in the Thanksgiving parade. They’re looking for guidance with the floats and theming—it won’t exactly take up all your brain space. The other is an initial meeting to see if the CDO can finally purchase the old bank.” Nancy already had a blue Sharpie at the ready, clutched between her fingers. “Or if you wanted to switch with Emma, you could meet with Drew and Luke and Emma could handle the parade instead. You’d probably get some free beer out of it.”

For a moment, he looked like he was going to agree. His jawline ticked anxiously, a habit he’d had since we were kids. It appeared whenever he struggled with a decision. Reluctantly, I admitted to myself that it was happening more often than not.

“I’m really sorry, I can’t,” he finally said. “You know how im- portant these meetings are for the core of my campaign. I’ve got to run. I’m late.”

7P_Bocci_CornerLoveHate_WB.indd 8 6/17/19 4:21 PM

ON THE CORNER OF LOVE AND HATE 9

I glanced at the clock. “It’s barely four.”
“I have a thing.”
“You came in at ten because of a ‘thing.’” I air-quoted it be-

cause although he said those things were for the mayoral cam- paign, I didn’t believe him. Call it years of experience or just a gut feeling. “Cooper, I need you to focus. You’re all over the place, and things are going to start falling through the cracks here. We can’t afford any missteps. Not when we’re under a microscope. The council is looking for any reason to put the screws in this department.”

Cooper’s opponent, Kirby Rogers, had been on the town coun- cil for the past few years. He had made it his mission to strip the CDO—funding, staff, all of it gone.

With nothing but a grimace, Cooper left, leaving no opening for discussion. I shook my head at his retreating form.

“Forget him, I’ll figure it out,” I said, glancing between the cal- endar with the work appointments and my nearly empty personal calendar. “I can pop over to the brewery and see Drew and Luke on my way home Tuesday or Friday night. They owe me dinner, anyway,” I said with a weak laugh, an attempt at loosening the anxiety-ridden ball in my stomach. How am I going to accom- plish all of this? “Just see when they’re free.” I tapped away on my phone. Making a note, I double-checked my iPhone’s calendar as Nancy read off the rest of the upcoming schedule.

“Emma,” she said with a heavy sigh, “I don’t want you to over- work yourself.”

“I’m fine. It’s an adjustment we’re going to have to get used to since we’re going to be picking up all the Cooper slack,” I insisted, knowing that she was always worried about me in a big-sisterly sort of way. “Promise,” I said after seeing her frown.

Months ago, before he had decided to run for mayor and before he had become so distracted by the election, Cooper had been an asset. I longed for those days. He had a gift, an ability to coax the very best of ideas out of you, and he transformed them into solid

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10 NINA BOCCI

plans that we then presented to Mayor Dad and the town council. His undivided input would have been valuable here.

That part of Cooper I respected and enjoyed working with. Pre-candidate Cooper. Except lately, so much had changed. I missed the focused Cooper. The guy who would pull together a presentation in just a few hours. The guy I could count on to bring the best ideas out of me when I thought I had hit a wall. Or even the guy who got his work done on time. I hated myself a little bit because I was missing that coworking partnership. We did make a good team when we weren’t arguing.

“Not for anything, but you’d think he’d want to head over to Hope Lake Brewing Company to see the guys.”

“His head was so buried in his phone, he probably didn’t hear you mention them.”

Nancy nodded. “What do you think? Is this going to get better or worse as the campaign progresses?” She packed up her Sharp- ies and hoisted the large calendar off the table, mindful not to drop any of the Post-its and papers tacked to it.

I slung my arm over her shoulder. “Worse. So much worse.”

__________________________________

Author Bio

14164319Nina Bocci is a novelist, publicist, eternal optimist, unabashed lipgloss enthusiast, constant apologist, and a hopeless romanticist. She has too many college degrees that she’s not using, and a Lego addiction that she blames on her son.

 

Website ~ Facebook ~ Twitter  ~ Goodreads

Chapter Reveal: Handle With Care by Helena Hunting – Shacking Up Series – Book 5

Handle With Care cover

Handle With Care

Shacking Up Series – Book 5

By Helena Hunting

Release Date: 8/27/2019

Blurb:

HE WANTS TO LOSE CONTROL.
Between his parents’ messed up marriage and his narcissistic younger brother, Lincoln Moorehead has spent the majority of his life avoiding his family. After the death of his father, Lincoln finds himself in the middle of the drama. To top it all off, he’s been named CEO of Moorehead Media, much to his brother’s chagrin. But Lincoln’s bad attitude softens when he meets the no-nonsense, gorgeous woman who has been given the task of transforming him from the gruff, wilderness guy to a suave businessman

SHE’S TRYING TO HOLD IT TOGETHER.
Wren Sterling has been working double time to keep the indiscretions at Moorehead Media at bay, so when she’s presented with a new contract, with new responsibilities and additional incentives, she agrees. Working with the reclusive oldest son of a ridiculously entitled family is worth the hassle if it means she’s that much closer to pursuing her own dreams. What Wren doesn’t expect is to find herself attracted to him, or for it to be mutual. And she certainly doesn’t expect to fall for Lincoln. But when a shocking new Moorehead scandal comes to light, she’s forced to choose between her own family and the broody, cynical CEO.

 

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CHAPTER 1

WHAT HAVE I GOTTEN MYSELF INTO?

WREN

I slip onto the empty bar stool beside the lumberjack mountain man who looks like he tried to squeeze him- self into a suit two sizes too small. He’s intimidatingly broad and thick, with long dark hair that’s been pulled up into a haphazard man bun thing. His beard is a hip- ster’s wet dream. His scowl, however, makes him about as approachable as a rabid porcupine. And yet, here I am, sidling up next to him.

He glances at me, eyes bleary and not really tracking. He quickly focuses on his half-empty glass again. Based on the slump of his shoulders and the uncoordinated way he picks up his glass and tips it toward his mouth, I’m guessing he’s pretty hammered. I order a sparkling water with a dash of cranberry juice and a lime.

What I could really use is a cup of lavender-mint tea and my bed, but instead, I’m sitting next to a drunk man in his thirties. My life is extra glamorous, obviously. And no, I’m not an escort, but at the moment I feel like my morals are on the same kind of slippery slope.

 

“Rough day?” I ask, nodding to the bottle that’s miss- ing more than half its contents. It was full when he sat down at the bar an hour ago. Yes, I’ve been watching him the entire time, waiting for an opportunity to make my move. While he’s been sitting here, he’s turned down two women, one in a dress that could’ve doubled as a disco ball and the other in a top so low-cut, I could almost see her navel.

“You could say that,” he slurs. He props his cheek on his fist, eyes almost slits. I can still make out the vibrant blue hue despite them almost being closed. They move over me, assessing. I’m wearing a conservative black dress with a high neckline and a hem that falls below my knees. Definitely not nearly as provocative as Disco Ball or Navel Lady.

“That solving your problems?” I give him a wry grin and tip my chin in the direction of his bottle of Johnnie. His gaze swings slowly to the bottle. It gives me a chance to really look at him. Or what I can see of hisface under his beard, anyway.
“Nah, but it helps quiet down all the noise up here.”He taps his temple and blurts, “My dad died.”
I put a hand on his forearm. It feels awkward, and creepy on my part since its half-genuine, half-contrivedcomfort. “I’m so sorry.”
He glances at my hand, which I quickly remove, and refocuses on his drink. “I should be sorry too, but I think he was mostly an asshole, so the world might be better off without him.” He attempts to fill his glass again, but his aim is off, and he pours it on the bar instead. I rush to lift my purse and grab a handful of napkins to mop up the mess.

“I’m drunk,” he mumbles.
“Well, I’m thinking that might’ve been the plan, con-sidering the way you’re sucking that bottle back. I’m actually surprised you didn’t ask for a straw in the first place. Might be a good idea to throw a spacer in there if you want tomorrow morning to suck less.” I push my drink toward him, hoping he doesn’t send me pack- ing like he did the other women who approached him earlier.

 

He narrows his eyes at my glass, suspicious, maybe. “What is that?”

“Cranberry and soda.”
“No booze?”
“No booze. Go ahead. You’ll thank me in the morning.”
He picks up the glass and pauses when it’s an inch from his mouth. His eyes crinkle, telling me he’s smil- ing under that beard. “Does that mean Imma wake up with you beside me?”

I cock a brow. “Are you propositioning me?”

“Shit, sorry.” He chugs the contents of my glass. “I was joking. Besides, I’m so wasted, I can barely remem- ber my name. Pretty sure I’d be useless in bed tonight. I should stop talkin’.” He scrubs a hand over his face and then motions to me. “I wouldn’t proposition you.”

I’m not sure how to respond. I go with semi-affronted, since it seems like somewhat of an insult. “Good to know.”

“Dammit. I mean, I think you might be hot. You look hot. I mean attractive. I think you’re pretty.” He tips his head to the side and blinks a few times. “You have nice eyes, all four of them are lovely.”

This time I laugh—for real—and point to the bottle. “I think you might want to tell your date you’re done for the night.”

He blows out a breath and nods. “You might be right.”

 

He makes an attempt to stand, but as soon as his feet hit the floor, he stumbles into me and grabs my shoulders to steady himself. “Whoa. Sorry. Yup, I’m definitely drunk.” His face is inches from mine, breath smelling strongly of alcohol. Beyond that, I get a whiff of fresh soap and a hint of aftershave. He lets go of my shoul- ders and takes an unsteady step back. “I don’t usually do this.” He motions sloppily to the bottle. “Mostly I’m a three drink max guy.”

“I think losing your father makes this condonable.” I slide off my stool. Despite being tall for a woman, and wearing heels, he still manages to be close to a head taller than me.

“Yeah, maybe, but I still think I might regret it tomor- row.” He’s incredibly unsteady, swaying while standing in place. I take the opportunity for what it is and thread my arm through his, leading him away from the bar. “Come on, let’s get you to the elevator before you pass out right here.”

He nods, then wobbles a bit, like moving his head has set him off balance. “That’s probably a good idea.”

He leans into me as we weave through the bar and stumbles on the two stairs leading to the foyer. There’s no way I’ll be able to stop him if he goes down, but I drape one of his huge arms over my shoulder anyway, and slip my own around his waist, guiding him in a mostly straight line to the elevators.

“Which floor are you on?” I ask.

“Penthouse.” He drops his arm from my shoulder and flings it out, pointing to the black doors at the end of the hall. “Jesus, I feel like I’m on a boat.”

“It’s probably all the alcohol sloshing around in your brain.” I take his elbow again, helping him stagger the last twenty feet to the dedicated penthouse elevator.

 

He stares at the keypad for a few seconds, brow pulling into a furrow. “I can’t remember the code. It’s thumbprint activated though too.” He stumbles forward and presses his forehead against the wall, then tries to line up his thumb with the sensor, but his aim is horren- dous and he keeps missing.

I settle a hand on his very firm forearm. This man is built like a tank. Or a superhero. For a moment, I recon- sider what I’m about to do, but he seems pretty harm- less and ridiculously hammered, so he shouldn’t pose a threat. I’m also trained in self-defense, which would fall under the by any means necessary umbrella. “Can I help?”

He rolls his head, eyes slits as they bounce around my face. “Please.”

I take his hand between mine. The first thing I notice is how clammy it is. But beyond that, his knuckles are rough, littered with tiny scars and a few scabs, and his nails are jagged.

“Your hands are small,” he observes as I line his thumb up with the sensor pad and press down.

“Maybe yours are abnormally big,” I reply. They are rather large. Like basketball player hands.

“You know what they say about big hands.”

I fight not to roll my eyes, but for a brief moment, I wonder if what’s in his pants actually matches the rest of him. And if he’s unkempt everywhere, not just on his face. I cut that visual quickly because it makes me want to gag. “And what do they say?”

His eyes crinkle again, and he slaps his own chest. “Something about big hands, big heart.”

I bite back my own smile. “Pretty sure you’re mixing that up with cold hands, warm heart.”

His brow furrows. “There’s a good chance.”

 

The elevator doors slide open. He pushes off the wall with some effort and practically tumbles inside. He catches himself on the rail and sags against the wall as I follow him in. I honestly can’t believe I’m doing this right now.

He doesn’t have to press a button since the elevator only goes to the penthouse floor. As soon as we start moving, he groans and his shoulders curl in. “I don’t feel so good.”

Please don’t let him be sick in here. If there’s one thing I can’t deal with, it’s vomit. “You should sit.”

He slides down the wall, massive shoulders rolling forward as he rests his forehead on his knees. “Tomor- row is going to suck.”

I stay on the other side of the elevator, in case he tosses his cookies. “Probably.”

It’s the longest elevator ride in the history of the world. Or at least it feels that way, mostly because I’m terrified he’s going to yak. Thankfully, we make it to the penthouse floor incident-free. On the down side, now that he’s in a sitting position, getting him to stand again is a challenge. I have to press the open door button three times before I can finally coax him to his feet.

In the time between leaving the bar and making it to the penthouse floor, the effects of the alcohol seems to have compounded. He’s beyond sloppy, using the wall and me for support as we make our way to his door. There are two penthouse apartments up here. One on either side of the foyer.

He leans against the doorjamb, once again fighting to find the coordination to get his thumb to the sensor pad. I don’t ask if he needs my assistance this time since it’s quite clear he does. Once again I take his clammy hand in mine.

 

“Your hands are really soft,” he mumbles.
“Thanks.”
The pad flashes green, and I turn the handle. “Okay,here we go. Home sweet home.”
“This isn’t my home,” he slurs. “My cousin’s family owns this building. I’m crashing here until I can get the fuck out of New York.”

I scan the penthouse. It an eclectic combination of odd art and modern furniture, like two different tastes crashed together and this is the result. Aside from that, it’s clean to the point of looking almost like a show home.

The only sign that someone is staying here is the lone coffee cup on the table in the living room and the blan- ket lolling like a tongue over the edge of the couch. I’m still standing in the doorway while he sways unsteadily.

He tries to shove his hand in his pants pocket, but all he succeeds in doing is setting himself off-balance. He nearly stumbles into the wall.

“Thanks for your help,” he says.

He’s back in his penthouse, which means my job is technically done. However, I’m worried he’s going to hurt himself, or worse, asphyxiate on his own vomit in the middle of the night, and I’ll be the one catching heat if that happens. I’ll also feel bad if something happens to him. I blow out a breath, annoyed that this is how my night is ending.

I heave his arm over my shoulder and slip mine around his waist again, leading him through the living room toward what seems to be the kitchen. There’s a sheet of paper on the island, but otherwise it’s spotless.

“What’re you doing?” he asks.

We pause when we reach the threshold. “Which way is your bedroom?”

 

He looks slowly from right to left. “Not that way.” He points to the kitchen. It’s very state of the art.

I guide him in the opposite direction down the hall, until he stumbles through a doorway, into a large but simply furnished bedroom. Once we reach the edge of the bed, he drops his arm, spins around—it’s drunkenly graceful—and falls back on the bed, arms spread wide as if he’s planning on making snow angels. “The room is spinning.”

“Would you like me to get you a glass of water and possibly a painkiller for the headache you’ll likely have in the morning?” I’m already heading for the bathroom.

“Might be a good idea,” he mumbles.

I find a glass on the edge of bathroom vanity—which is clean, apart from a brand new toothbrush and tube of toothpaste. I run the tap, wishing I had a plastic tumbler, because I’m not sure he’s in any state to deal with break- able objects. I check the medicine cabinet, find the pills I need, shake out two tablets, and return to the bedroom.

He’s right where I left him; sprawled out faceup on a massive king-size bed, legs hanging off the end, one shoe on the floor beside him. I cross over and set the water and the pills on the nightstand.

I make a quick trip back to the bathroom and grab the empty wastebasket from beside the toilet in case his night is a lot rougher than he expects.

I tap his knee, crossing my fingers he’ll be easy to rouse. “Hey, I have painkillers for you.”

He makes a noise, but doesn’t move otherwise.

I tap his knee again. “Lincoln, you need to wake up long enough to take these.” I cringe. I called him by name, and he didn’t offer it to me while we were down at the bar. Here’s hoping he’s too drunk to notice or re- member. His name is Lincoln Moorehead, heir to the Moorehead Media fortune and all the crap that comes with it. And there’s a lot of it.

 

One eye becomes a slit. “Every time I open my eyes, the room starts spinning again.”

“If you drink this and take these, it might help.” I hold up the glass of water and the pills.

“’Kay.” It takes three tries for him to sit up. He tries to pick the pills up out of my palm, but keeps missing my hand.

“Just open your mouth.”

He lifts his head. “How do I know you’re not trying to roofie me?”

I hold up the tablet in front of his face. “They don’t say roofie, so you’re safe.”

He tries to focus on the pill and then my face. I have my doubts he’s successful at either.

His tongue peeks out to drag across his bottom lip. “The cameras in the hall will catch you if you steal my wallet.”

I laugh at that. “I’m not going to steal your wallet, I’m going to put you to bed.”

“Hmm.” He nods slowly and opens his mouth.

I drop the pills on his tongue and hand him the glass, which he drains in three long swallows. “Would you like me to refill that?”

“That’d be nice.” He holds out the glass, but when I try to pull away, he covers my hands with his. His shockingly blue eyes meet mine, and for a moment they’re clear and compelling. Despite how out of it he is, and how much he resembles a mountain man, or maybe because of it, I have a hard time looking away. “I really wish I wasn’t this messed up. You smell nice. I bet your hair is pretty when it’s not pulled up like that.” He flops a hand toward my bun. “Not that it’s not pretty like that, but I bet if you took it down, it would be wavy and soft. The kind of hair you want to bury your face in and run your fingers through.” He exhales a long breath. “I haven’t had sex in a really long time, but I feel like I would have zero finesse if I tried right now.”

 

I smile and turn away. In the time it takes for me to refill his glass, he’s managed to get one arm out of his suit jacket. He’s made it most of the way onto the bed, feet still hanging off the end, but he’s on his back, which is not ideal.

I set the glass on his nightstand, along with a second set of painkillers, which I’m assuming he’ll need in the morning, and give him another nudge. “Hey.”

This time I get nothing in the way of a response. I poke him twice more, but still nothing. He can’t sleep on his back with how drunk he is. He needs to be on his side or his stomach with a wastebasket close by.

I can’t in good conscience leave him like this. My options are limited. I shake my head as I kick off my shoes and climb up onto the bed with him. This is not at all what I expected to be doing when I brought him back up here.

I stare down at his sleeping form. His lips are parted, they’re nice lips, full and plump, even though they’re mostly obscured by his overgrown beard. His hair has started to unravel from its man bun, wisps hanging in his face. He has long lashes, really long actually, and they’re thick and dark, the kind women pay a lot of money for. His nose is straight and his cheekbones— what I can see of them—are high. With a haircut, a beard trim or complete shave, and a new suit that actu- ally fits, I can imagine how refined he’ll look. More like a Moorehead than a mountain man lumberjack. I shake my head. “I need you to roll onto your side, please,” I say loudly.

 

Nothing. Not even a grunt.

I pull on his shoulder, but he’s dead weight. Leaning over him, I make a fist and give him a light jab approxi- mately where his kidney is. “Lincoln, roll over.”

And roll he does, knocking me down and turn- ing over so he’s right on top of me. We’re face-to-face. Good God, he’s heavy. His bones must be made of lead. He shifts, one leg coming over both of mine. I push at his knee, but his arm swings out and he wraps himself around me on a low groan, pinning my arm to my side. He’s like a giant human blanket.

“How did this become my life?” I say to the ceiling, because the man lying on top of me is apparently out cold.

I try to wriggle free, I even yell his name a bunch of time before I give up and wait for him to roll off me. And while I wait for that to happen, I replay the con- versation with his mother, Gwendolyn Moorehead, that took place forty-eight hours ago and put me in this awk- ward position underneath her drunk son.

I’d been standing in Fredrick’s office, still digesting the fact that he was dead. It was shocking that a mas- sive heart attack had taken him, since he was always so healthy and full of life.

Gwendolyn, his wife—now a widow—stood stoic behind his desk, papers stacked neatly in the center.

“I’m so very for your loss, Gwendolyn. If there’s any- thing I can do. Whatever you need.” The words poured out, typical condolences, but sincerely meant because I couldn’t imagine how my mother and I would feel if we lost my father.

 

Gwendolyn’s fingers danced at her throat as she cleared it. “Thank you,” she whispered brokenly and dabbed at her eyes. “I appreciate your kindness, Wren.”

“Let me know what you want me to handle, and I’ll take care of it.”

She took a deep breath, composing herself before she lifted her gaze to mine. “I need your help.”

“Of course, what can I do?”

“My oldest son, Lincoln, will be returning to New York for the funeral, and he’ll be staying to help run the company.”

A hot feeling crept up my spine. I’d heard very little about Lincoln. Everything from Armstrong’s mouth was scathing, Fredrick’s passing references had been with fondness, and my interactions with Gwendolyn had been minimal as it was Fredrick himself who hired me, so this was first I’ve heard of Lincoln through her. “I see. And how can I help with that?” I could only imag- ine how difficult Armstrong would be if he had to share the attention with someone else, particularly his brother.

“Transitioning Lincoln.” Gwendolyn rounded her desk. “You’ve managed to turn around Armstrong’s rep- utation in the media during the time you’ve been here. I know it hasn’t been easy, and Armstrong can be difficult to manage.”

Difficult to manage is the understatement of the entire century where Armstrong is concerned. He’s a cocksucker of epic proportions. He’s also a misogynis- tic, narcissistic bastard that I’ve had to deal with for the past eight months on a nearly daily basis—sometimes even on weekends.

My job as his “handler” has been to reshape his horrendous reputation after his involvement in several scandalous events became very public. It wasn’t a job I

necessarily wanted, and I was prepared to politely reject the offer, but my mother asked me to take the position as a favor to her since she’s a friend of Gwendolyn.

Beyond that, my relationship with my mother has been strained for the past decade. When I was a teen- ager, I discovered information that changed our rela- tionship forever. Taking the job at Moorehead was in part, my way of trying to help repair our fractured bond. The financial compensation, which was ridiculously high, also didn’t hurt. Besides, Gwendolyn is on nearly every single charitable foundation committee in the city, and since that’s where my interests lie, it seemed like a smart career move.

“Since you’re already working with Armstrong and things seem to be settled there for the most part, I felt it would make sense to keep you on here at Moorehead to work with Lincoln. He’s been away from civilized society for several years. He’s nothing like his brother, very altruistic and focused on his job, rather than recre- ational pursuits, so he should be easier to manage.”

I fought a scoff at the last bit, since “recreational pursuits” was a reference to the fact that Armstrong couldn’t seem to keep his pants zipped when it came to women.

Gwendolyn pushed a set of papers toward me. “It would only be for another six months. And of course, your salary would reflect the double work load, since you’ll still have to maintain Armstrong in some capac- ity while you assist Lincoln in transitioning into his role here.”

“I’m sorry, what—”

Gwendolyn pulled me into an awkward hug, hold- ing onto my shoulders when she stepped back. Her eyes were glassy and red-rimmed. “You have no idea how much I appreciate your willingness to take this on. As soon as your contract is fulfilled, you have my word that I’ll give you a glowing recommendation to whichever organization you’d like. Your mother told me you’re in- terested in starting your own foundation. I’ll certainly help you in any way I’m able if you’ll stay on a little longer for me.” She dabbed at her corner of her eyes and sniffed, then tapped the papers on the desk. “I already have an agreement ready and an NDA, of course. Every- thing is tabbed for signing.”

 

I’m pulled back into the present when Lincoln shifts and one of his huge hands slides up my side and lands on my breast. At the same time, he pushes his nose against my neck, beard tickling my collarbone. He mut- ters something unintelligible against my skin.

I’m momentarily frozen in shock. Under any other circumstances, I would knee him in the balls. However, he’s not conscious or even semi-aware that he’s fondling me. Thankfully, now that he’s moved, I have some wig- gle room.

I elbow him in the ribs, which probably hurts me more than it does him. At least it gets him to move away enough that I can slip out from under him. I roll off the bed and pop back up, smoothing out my now-wrinkled dress. My stupid nipples are perky, thanks to the atten- tion the right one just got. Probably because it’s the most action I’ve seen since I started working for the Moore- heads eight months ago.

I hit the lights on the way out of the bedroom, pause in the kitchen to grab a glass of water and check out the sheet of paper on the counter. It’s a list of important de- tails regarding the penthouse, including the entry code. I nab my purse, snap a pic, and head for the elevators.

I have a feeling this is going to be a long six months.

_________________________________________________

 

About the Author:

Helena HuntingNYT and USA Today Bestselling author, Helena Hunting lives outside of Toronto with her amazing family and her two awesome cats, who think the best place to sleep is her keyboard. Helena writes everything from contemporary romance with all the feels to romantic comedies that will have you laughing until you cry.

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Handle With Care cover

 

Chapter Reveal: Making Up by Helena Hunting

Making Up, an all-new laugh-out-loud romantic comedy standalone from New York Times bestselling author Helena Hunting is coming July 16th and we have a sneak peek!

Making Up_ebook.jpg

Cosy Felton is great at her job—she knows just how to handle the awkwardness that comes with working at an adult toy store. So when the hottest guy she’s ever seen walks into the shop looking completely overwhelmed, she’s more than happy to turn on the charm and help him purchase all of the items on his list.

Griffin Mills is using his business trip in Las Vegas as a chance to escape the broken pieces of his life in New York City. The last thing he wants is to be put in charge of buying gag gifts for his friend’s bachelor party. Despite being totally out of his element, and mortified by the whole experience, Griffin is pleasantly surprised when he finds himself attracted to the sales girl that helped him.

As skeptical as Cosy may be of Griffin’s motivations, there’s something about him that intrigues her. But sometimes what happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay in Vegas and when real life gets in the way, all bets are off. Filled with hilariously awkward situations and enough sexual chemistry to power Sin City, Making Up is the next standalone in the Shacking Up world.

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Pre-order your copy today!

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Excerpt from Chapter One

Sexy Suit

Cosy

Working in an adult toy store is the opposite of glamorous. Sure, I get a fifty-percent discount, which is a real perk, but it doesn’t offset some of the weirdness I have to deal with. Such as Eugene, one of the locals who frequents the shop on a regular basis. He came in this morning and handled all the display toys. He’s mostly harmless, but the silicone fondling is pretty high on the creepy factor. Eventually I told him I had to close up for a few minutes so I could grab lunch. The deli across the street has the best daily specials.

While I wait for my chicken shawarma, I make a mental list of all the things I need to do this afternoon: check the magazines to make sure the pages aren’t stuck together, restock the flavored lube, and wipe down everything Eugene molested with toy cleaner. Once I’ve tackled those less-than-fun chores, I can work on my assignment for my hospitality class, provided I don’t have real customers.

I glance out the window, checking to make sure Eugene isn’t loitering around in front of the store, waiting to be let back in. Sometimes he’ll stop by more than once during my shift. He’s not there—thank God—but there’s a black sports car parked in the lot. It looks nice and possibly expensive, which might mean an actual customer who will spend money.

Loki, the cashier at the deli, hands me my drinks and shawarma.

“Thanks! Have a great day!”

“You too,” Loki says to my chest.

As I leave the store, I see a man in a suit reading the sign I taped to the door. I don’t want to miss a potential customer, so I take a deep breath and mentally shift gears, putting on my best sales-person mask. I have to pretend to be a completely different person when I deal with customers, so I can get through what would otherwise be a fairly embarrassing event. Discussing the ins and outs of sex toys with strangers is not something I particularly enjoy, but it’s a paycheck, so I’ve learned to roll with it.

My root beer foams and drips down the straw while my coffee sloshes onto my hand—the lids never fit right—and my chicken shawarma dangles perilously between my pinkie and ring finger as I cross the street.

The suit doesn’t look creepy like Eugene, but then, suits can be deceiving. Half the time they think they can proposition me like a sex worker. Or they pretend the weird stuff they’re buying is a gift and not for them. Pfft. I know better.

Suit turns and heads for his car, so I call out, “Hey! You in the suit, hold on!”

His shoulders hunch, as if he’s trying to be smaller, which is physically impossible. Based on the size of him, he probably played college football. Or he has Marvel comic hero blood relatives. Either way, he’s a big dude.

He stops walking, though, which is good. I could use some sales today. The commission boost is always a plus to the shitty minimum wage. Rent is due next week, and judging by his car, he has money to burn.

My heels are skyscrapers, and everything I’m wearing is either too short or too tight to facilitate running—the Sex Toy Warehouse uniform is supposed to be sexy, aka revealing—so I awkwardly jog the rest of the way while trying to get the key to the shop out of my pocket and not drop my shawarma. The manager gave me my own set since I frequently open the store.

“Sorry to keep you waiting; plastic dicks don’t quite cut it for lunch.” Inwardly I cringe, because seriously, why did I say that?

“I would imagine they’re not all that satisfying,” he replies in a deep voice that would probably sound good whispering naughty things in my ear.

I’m not sure if he meant that suggestively or not. Regardless, I walked right into that one.

I finally look up. Dear sweet Jesus on a cloud of marshmallows, this is my lucky day. The suit is gorgeous. Like the kind of hotness that sucks the breath right out of your lungs and sends all the blood in your body rushing between your legs. It’s a good thing clits don’t react like penises, otherwise mine would be hanging out of the bottom of my shorts with excitement. I’m thankful my physical reaction is limited to damp underwear and tingles.

His dark hair is straight and cut short, parted at the side and neatly styled. He’s a cross between a mobster, and a fifties movie star. Capone and Ward Cleaver rolled together and dipped in lust. His nose is straight, lips are full, and he’s got a chin that looks like it could cut glass. His features are strong, but he somehow manages to be boyish even though everything about him screams pure, undiluted masculinity.

His tongue drags across his pillowy bottom lip and his throat bobs. I lift my gaze and meet his eyes. They’re a strange color. Not brown, not green, but some kind of honey-lemon color, ringed in emerald. Like a cat maybe.

Read the rest of Chapter One: http://bit.ly/2KO3Mf6

About the Author

New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of PUCKED, Helena Hunting lives on the outskirts of Toronto with her incredibly tolerant family and two moderately intolerant cats. She’s writes contemporary romance ranging from new adult angst to romantic sports comedy.

 

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Chapter Reveal: Raphael by Tillie Cole – A Deadly Virtues Novel

 

 

 

 

 

They are the Fallen. A brotherhood of murderers whose nature compels them to kill. But guided by their leader, Gabriel, the Fallen have learned to use their urges to rid the world of those it is better off without.

For Raphael, sex and death are intertwined. Where there is one, there must be the other. He is a lust killer, luring his victims with the face of an angel and a body built for sin.

And Raphael lives to sin.

His newest mission takes him into the sadistic underworld of Boston’s secret sex clubs, and puts him face to face with his greatest fantasy made flesh.

Maria is everything he’s ever dreamed of, the kill he’s always longed for. She’s not his target. And he knows he must resist. But the temptation is too strong…

Yet Raphael is not the only one with a mission. Maria is not quite what she seems. And as her secrets and Raphael’s unravel, Maria begins to question everything she thought she knew—about evil, about the place she calls home, and about the beautiful sinner she was sent to destroy.

Dark Contemporary Romance. Contains sexual situations, violence, sensitive and taboo subjects, offensive language and topics some may find triggering. Recommended for age 18 years and up.

 

The Fallen: Genesis a prequel novella in The Deadly Virtues Series and MUST be read before RAPHAEL (DV: book one).

 

 

 

 

The sound of Gabriel’s Gregorian chant music drifted up the Tomb’s steep, winding stairs. Raphael ran his fingertips along the gray stone walls. They were damp underneath his skin, slick with the stagnant water that trickled in from the overflowing lake outside. Forest-green moss crept in through cracks and fractures in the brick, betraying the manor’s age.

With every step he descended into the candlelit darkness, Raphael’s heart began to thunder into a heady velocity. The string that forever sat on his right index finger was so tight he could feel his pulse throbbing in the very tip. He focused on the rhythm of the beat, on the tightness of the string wrapped around and around and around his flesh. A fire of pleasure broke out in his chest and surged through his veins at the tightness, the suffocation, the hedonistic asphyxiation of the digit. It was a denial of blood, of the life his finger needed to survive, to thrive—to exist. Raphael’s lip kicked up in a smirk. He knew the tip of his finger would be blue, starved of the sustenance it needed to function. He hissed out in pleasure when the fire that vision ignited darted straight to his cock. Raphael didn’t care if his brothers heard him moan out loud. They would be caught in their own heads, their own excitement of possibly getting the kill, to care—they never cared.

Raphael felt Michael breathing heavily behind him, affirming his point. He knew Michael would be stroking the vial of blood around his neck while almost coming in his leather pants at the thought of sinking his sharp teeth into a vein and sucking down the blood. Gabriel told them Michael had something called hematolagnia. He had a word for what he claimed “ailed” all of them.

Nothing ailed them.

Gabriel just didn’t understand the way the six of them were, the way they had to be. The six of the Fallen who were nothing like Gabriel. They liked to kill. Needed to as much as they needed to breathe. It wasn’t abnormal to them. Blood and flesh and cries of pain inflicted by their hands didn’t bring repulsion, only satisfaction.

It was simply who they were.

Out of all the brothers, Raphael was closest to Michael. But right now, each of the brothers was completely alone. The Revelation ceremony brought out the utmost selfishness in them.

The chance to bring death consumed them.

Controlled them.

And Raphael wouldn’t have it any other way.

Raphael’s cock grew hard in his jeans at just the thought of taking someone’s last breath. He pushed the heel of his hand against his crotch as the blood rushed to it, but the burst of painful pleasure that spiraled up his spine only made him groan louder. The rubber cage he always wore around his dick constricted his flesh and began to strain, biting into him as the rubber rebelled against his hardening. The BDSM contraption was designed to bring pain. And it was successful; pain it brought. But Raphael didn’t see pain as a punishment. He lived for pain. The more agony he felt, the more pleasure he felt. He basked in the throttling of his penis, relished the choking of his erection as it tried to break free of the rubber constraints.

Raphael lost his footing, his back slamming into the wet wall. He barely even noticed his shirt growing damp as his eyes closed. All Raphael could focus on was the cage’s incessant strangling. His hands curled into fists as the addictive fire ravaged his body.

Flashes of his ultimate fantasy poured into his mind, fueling his ecstasy. He was powerless. He couldn’t stop them if he tried. But why would he? It was what inspired him to get out of bed each day, birthed every single breath his lungs inhaled. What he had waited years for, and would wait a lifetime more to capture. Raphael’s breathing became deep and labored as he imagined the scene—the king-sized bed, the red rose petals thrown on the pure white Egyptian cotton comforter. And her, the one, sprawled out for him on her back, naked, a temptation made true. Her cheeks would be flushed, and her lips would be cherry red. Her skin would be so soft, no blemish in sight, eyes bright and fixed on Raphael, piercing his gaze with nothing but adoration. She would be his, and he would be hers. There would be nobody else for either of them. She would be his one possession that he would have for all of his days.

Raphael knew his pupils were dilated beneath his closed lids—oddly colored golden-brown eyes that set him apart from everyone else. His greatest tool, eyes that lured in his victims—meaningless women he would chase for a while, seducing, enticing, making them enamored with everything he pretended to be . . . before he pillaged their lives, fucking them hard as death collected their souls, releasing into their dying bodies as he consumed their final heartbeat and breath with his unyielding hands.

Raphael’s eyes snapped open when he heard the church bell echo around the stone basement—Gabriel’s signal to robe for Revelation. As he descended the final steps, the tight rubber cage around his cock caused pre-cum to leak into his jeans. He lived for the sexual strangulation. He needed it as much as he needed to breathe.

Raphael realized he was late. He raced through the wide wooden door of the Tomb. His brothers were already in robes, the heavy hoods covering their heads as they silently awaited his arrival.

 

Tillie Cole hails from a small town in the North-East of England. She grew up on a farm with her English mother, Scottish father and older sister and a multitude of rescue animals. As soon as she could, Tillie left her rural roots for the bright lights of the big city.

After graduating from Newcastle University with a BA Hons in Religious Studies, Tillie followed her Professional Rugby player husband around the world for a decade, becoming a teacher in between and thoroughly enjoyed teaching High School students Social Studies before putting pen to paper, and finishing her first novel.

Tillie has now settled in Austin, Texas, where she is finally able to sit down and write, throwing herself into fantasy worlds and the fabulous minds of her characters.

Tillie is both an independent and traditionally published author, and writes many genres including: Contemporary Romance, Dark Romance, Young Adult and New Adult novels.

When she is not writing, Tillie enjoys nothing more than curling up on her couch watching movies, drinking far too much coffee, while convincing herself that she really doesn’t need that extra square of chocolate.

Author Links

 

 

 

 

Chapter Reveal + Pre-Order + Giveaway: Satisfaction Guaranteed by Lauren Blakely

 

SATISFACTION GUARANTEED by Lauren Blakely
Release Date: June 10th

 

Add to Goodreads:
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For a chance to win a Kindle Paperwhite and a $50 Gift Card
(TWO winners will be chosen!!)
ENTER HERE:
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PRE-ORDER TODAY!!
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Blurb:
Look, she started it.

She issued me a challenge I couldn’t back down from. Make her purr like no man has done before.

Fine, she’s my business partner’s daughter. All right, I’m also working in the same damn practice with her. Yes, she happens to be my ex-fling. But that was seven years ago, and it was barely a week-long thing.

Except, Sloane is still the one I can’t stop thinking of — brilliant, sexy, captivating Sloane. Maybe a week of taking her to new heights will get her out of my head.

So what if we spend a few nights on the town too? So what if I romance her across Manhattan? It’s all in the name of scientific pursuit of more magnificent Os.

Until the rules change…

 

 

Chapter Reveal:
“It’s been telling me that you and I are becoming friends,” I say, but my tone isn’t entirely friendly.

Her lips curve up. “Is that so? We’re friends?”

“Feels that way.” But it actually feels like we’re in Tahiti again. And tonight is its own separate night, apart from time and space and reason.

“It does feel that way,” she agrees softly. “Do you think we found that alternate universe you mentioned?”

I inch closer. “I’d like to spend a night in that alternate universe.”

She licks her lips. “Everything’s different there.”

“Nothing’s off-limits there.”

“Maybe that’s where we are.” The words come out a little husky, a lot sexy, and I know what’s changing.

The reminder of who she is, how we’re connected, isn’t keeping me away.

The barrier isn’t strong enough tonight.

No matter how much we talk.

No matter how hard we try to be friends or colleagues or business partners.

The wall can’t hold.

The kind of chemistry we have doesn’t disappear with the snap of your fingers or the flip of a switch.

Yes, I want this newfangled friendship. Yes, I want all our various business arrangements to go swimmingly. And tangoing with someone I work with in close quarters is all kinds of risky.

But hell, this woman and I, we have a lot of unfinished business.

And I want to finish it.

Tonight.

I set a hand on her leg, spreading my palm over the fabric covering her thigh. She trembles under my touch. “There’s something I’ve been wondering,” I say, my fingers playing with her dress.

Her voice is a feather. “What’s that?”

I don’t take my eyes off her. Traveling along her body, I wrap my hand around her hip, tightening my grip. The feel of her is intoxicating.

I’ve definitely had more than one drink. I’ve had a whole bottle.

And I want another.

I move my hand to her face, cupping her cheek, sliding my thumb over her lip. “I can’t stop wondering if you taste like champagne.”

Her eyes are etched with desire, blazing with heat. “Why don’t you find out?”

A voice says Do it.

It’s not a little voice. It’s not Truly’s voice.

It’s in my head, and it’s all mine.

And, honestly, it’s probably connected straight to my libido, since that voice has the tendency to override everything else in moments like this.

Like, for instance, good judgment.

Like warnings from business partners too.

I dip my face to hers, savoring every sliver of a second. Her glossy pink lips part the slightest bit, an invitation.

I take my time, because I want to experience every moment of kissing her again. I dust my thumb over the corner of her lips and seal my mouth to hers, capturing her kiss.

Seven long years unfurl. The moment on the street the other week was a mere snapshot. A five-second trailer to tease the audience, to leave them wanting more. This is the opening credits. The start of the whole story, unfolding on screen.

Her lips part, welcoming me. Roping her arms around my neck, she brings herself closer as I sweep my lips over hers.

Our mouths explore. Touching. Discovering. Tasting.

My brain goes hazy, and as I deepen the kiss, I’m nothing but sensations that overwhelm all else.

It’s sparklers waving, lighting up the darkened sky on a hot summer night.

It’s the exhilarating first dip of a sixty-mile-per-hour roller coaster.

It’s the first sip of a vintage Scotch. A taste that makes you moan. That makes your mouth water and crave so much more.

Kissing Sloane is everything good in the world. She tastes like champagne, and it goes to my head. Her hair smells like vanilla, and it floods my senses. I want to kiss her breathless. Yanking her closer, I grind against her, needing her to feel how much I want her. She groans as she clearly gets my message.

Then she sends her own message, wrapping her hands tighter around my neck. She’s fierce, kissing me harder, rougher.

It’s like past times and it’s like present times, because there’s a brand-new urgency between us.

My pulse spikes and my blood heats. It’s as if a clock is ticking. Hell, time’s speeding up, spinning faster.

I’m vaguely aware we’re in public.

But I don’t care because the woman I’ve wanted for years is rubbing against the outline of my cock. Her fingers dart to my hair, tugging. “Harder, more,” she pants.

Damn, those are two of my favorite words.

I give her a rough, demanding kiss, but soon she breaks it, taking a moment to breathe, to smooth her hair.

“So how are we doing as friends?” she asks, a naughty glint in her lovely brown eyes.

I need a second to recalibrate, since we just went from racing around the track to a leisurely drive.

“I’d say we’re great friends in our alternate universe.” I lower my face and kiss her neck, whispering, “If friends do this . . .”

 

 

About the Author:
A #1 New York Times Bestselling, #1 Wall Street Journal Bestselling, and #1 Audible Bestselling author, Lauren Blakely is known for her contemporary romance style that’ssweet, sexy and witty. Her heroines are strong and smart and her heroes have hearts of gold and fantastic funny bones. With fourteen New York Times bestsellers, her titles have appeared on the New York Times, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal Bestseller Lists more than 100 times, and she’s sold more than 3 million books.

In June she’ll release SATISFACTION GUARANTEED and in September INSTANT GRATIFICATION.

She’d love to give you a free book today! Check out her web site to grab your free read: laurenblakely.com/one-free-book/

 

 

Connect w/Lauren:
Website: http://www.laurenblakely.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/LaurenBlakelyBooks
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Chapter Reveal: Unlocking Lies by Kennedy Layne

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

About UNLOCKING LIES

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

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

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

Add UNLOCKING LIES to your Goodreads list here!

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

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Read the First Chapter of UNLOCKING LIES:

CHAPTER ONE

Twelve years ago…

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

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

She didn’t want to die today.

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

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

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

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

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

How could this be happening?

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

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

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

Light!

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

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

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

This was it.

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

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

Would Shae miss her?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I hate you!”

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

Lightning lit up the sky overhead, illuminating her surroundings.

He was gone.

He was nowhere to be seen.

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

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

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

It was him.

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

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

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

She was safe.

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

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

Something was wrong.

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

Only she was mistaken.

No one was here to save her.

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

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

 

 

 

About the Keys to Love Series

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

 

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

 

About UNLOCKING FEAR

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

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

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

Add UNLOCKING FEAR to your Goodreads list here!

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About UNLOCKING SECRETS

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

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

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

 

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About Kennedy Layne

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

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Chapter Reveal + Pre-Order: Fallen Ink by Carrie Ann Ryan

We’re less than a week away from the release of FALLEN INK by Carrie Ann Ryan – and you can read the first chapter now! Read it below!

 

About FALLEN INK

Releases April 17, 2018

The Montgomery Ink series continues with a spin-off in Colorado Springs, where a familiar Montgomery finds her place in a new tattoo shop, and in the arms of her best friend.

Adrienne Montgomery is finally living her dreams. She’s opened a tattoo shop with her brother, Shep, and two of her cousins from Denver and she’s ready to take the city by storm with her art—as long as she can handle the pressure. When her new neighbors decide her shop isn’t a great fit for the community, however, she’ll have to lean on the one person she didn’t expect to fall for along the way…her best friend.

Mace Knight takes pride in two things: his art and his daughter. He knows he’s taking a risk by starting over in a new shop with the Montgomerys, but the stakes are even higher when he finds himself wanting Adrienne more than he thought possible.

The two fall fast and hard but they know the rules; they can’t risk their friendship, no matter how hot it is between the sheets and how many people try to stand in their way.

FALLEN INK releases April 17th, 2018 – preorder your copy now!

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Read the First Chapter of FALLEN INK

Adrienne Montgomery wasn’t going to throw up, but it would probably be a close call. It wasn’t that she was a nervous person, but today of all days was bound to test her patience and nerves, and she wasn’t sure if all those years of growing a spine of steel would be enough.

Maybe she should have worked on forming a steel-lined gut while she was at it—perhaps even a platinum one.

“You’re looking pretty pale over there,” Mace said, leaning down low to whisper in her ear.

She shivered involuntarily as his breath slid across her neck, and she looked up into her best friend’s hazel gaze. The damn man was far too handsome for his own good, and he knew she was ticklish, so he constantly spoke in her ear so she shivered like that.

She figured he’d gotten a haircut the day before because the sides were close-cut so you could see the white in his salt-and-pepper hair. He’d let the top grow out, and he had it brushed to the side so it actually looked a little fashionable rather than messy and just hanging in his eyes like most days. Knowing Mace, he’d done it by accident that morning, rather than making it a point to do so. Her best friend was around her age, in his thirties, but had gone salt-and-pepper in his late twenties. While some men might have started dying their hair, Mace had made it work with his ink and piercings—and the ladies liked it.

Well, at least that’s what Adrienne figured. It wasn’t as if she were one of his following. Not in that way, at least.

“Yo, Adrienne, you okay?”

She glowered, hearing the familiar refrain that had been the bane of her existence since she was in kindergarten and one of the fathers there had shouted it like the boxer from that movie she now hated.

“What did I say about using that phrase?” She crossed her arms over her chest and tapped her foot. She was at least six inches shorter than her best friend, but since she was wearing her heeled boots, she could at least try to look intimidating.

Mace being Mace just shrugged and winked, giving her that smolder that he’d practiced in the mirror after seeing Tangled with her years ago. Yeah, he was that guy, the one who liked to make her smile and knew she had a crush on the animated Flynn Rider.

“You know you like it.” He wrapped an arm around her shoulder and gave her a tight squeeze. “Now, are you okay? Really? Because you honestly look like you’re about to throw up, and with the place all new and shiny, I don’t know if vomit really sets the tone.”

Thinking about the reason the place—her place—was all new and shiny sent her stomach into another roll, and she let out a long breath.

“I’m fine.”

Mace just stared at her, and she kicked his shoe. Mature, that was her name. “Try it with a little more enthusiasm, because while I’d like to believe you, the panic in your eyes doesn’t really portray the right confidence.”

“I’ll be fine. How’s that?” she asked and gave him a wide smile. It must have looked a little manic, though, since he winced. But he gave her a thumbs up.

“Okay, then. Let’s get out of this office and go out into your brand new tattoo shop to meet the horde.”

There went her stomach again.

Her tattoo shop.

She couldn’t quite believe it. After years of working for others in Colorado Springs instead of going up north to Denver to work at her cousins’ shop, or even south to New Orleans and her brother’s former shop, she was now part-owner of Montgomery Ink Too, the first offshoot of the main shop in downtown Denver.

Yep, she was going to be sick.

“It’s mostly family. Not quite a horde.” Sort of, at least. Even three people felt like a lot at this point since they’d all be there…waiting for her to say something, do something, be someone. And that was enough of that, or she really wouldn’t make it out of the office that day.

“True, since most of your family didn’t come. The entire Montgomery clan would probably fill four buildings at this point.”

“You’re not wrong. Only Austin and Maya came down from Denver since Shep and I asked the others to stay home. It would be a little too much for our small building if everyone showed up.”

“But your sisters and parents are here, plus Shep and his wife, of course, and I’m pretty sure I saw their baby Livvy out there, too. And then Ryan, since you hired him.” Mace stuffed his hands into his pockets. “It’s one big, happy family, who happen to be waiting for you to go out there and possibly start a tattoo a bit later for your first client.”

After what had seemed like months of paperwork and construction, today was opening day for Montgomery Ink Too—MIT for short. Ryan and Mace had called it that one day, and the nickname had stuck. There was nothing she could do now but go with it, weirdness and all. There had been delays and weather issues, but finally, the shop was open. Now, she needed to be an adult and go out into the main room to socialize.

And there went her stomach again.

Mace’s strong arms came around her, and she rested her head on his chest, tucking herself under his chin. He had to lift his head a bit so she could fit since she wasn’t that short, but it was a familiar position for them. No matter what anyone said about Mace, he gave great hugs.

“You’re going to be fine.” His voice rumbled over her, and she could feel the vibrations through his chest and against her cheek.

“You say that now, but what if everything tumbles down and I end up with no clients and ruin the fact that Austin and Maya trusted me with their first satellite shop.”

Austin and Maya were two of her numerous Denver cousins. There were eight freaking siblings in that family, and all of them had married off—with Maya having two husbands even—so it added up to way too many people for her to count. Maya and Austin owned and operated Montgomery Ink in downtown Denver—what was now the flagship shop it seemed.

Her cousins had come to her over a year ago, saying they were interested in expanding the business. Since real estate was sparse off the 16th Street Mall where Montgomery Ink was located, they’d come up with the idea of opening a new tattoo shop in a different city. And wasn’t it nice that they had two other artists in the family so close? Well, Shep hadn’t actually been close at the time since he was still living in New Orleans where he’d met his wife and started his family, but now her big brother was back in Colorado Springs and was here to stay.

Maya and Austin were still the main owners of the business and CEOs of the corporation they’d formed in order to add on, but Shep and Adrienne had bought into the franchise and were now partial owners and managers of Montgomery Ink Too.

That was a lot of responsibility on her shoulders, but she knew she could do it. She just had to buck up and actually walk into the tattoo shop.

“Stop freaking out, Addi. I wouldn’t have come with you on this journey if I didn’t believe in you.” He pulled away and met her gaze, the intensity so great that she had to blink a few times so she could catch her breath.

He was right. He’d given up a lot for her. Though, in the end, the whole arrangement might work out better for him. Hopefully. He’d left a steady job at their old shop to come and work with her. The trust in that action was staggering, and it gave Adrienne the final bit of strength she needed to do this—whatever this was.

“Okay, let’s do this.”

He held out his hand, and she took it, giving it a squeeze before letting go. It wasn’t as if she needed to brace herself against him again or hold his hand as they made their way into the shop. Enough people already wondered just what went on behind closed doors between the two of them. She didn’t need to add fuel to the fire.

Mace was just her best friend, nothing more—though certainly nothing less.

He was at her back as she walked through her office door and into the main room, the heat of him keeping her steady. The shop in Colorado Springs matched the one up north in layout, with only a few minor changes. Each station had its own cubicle area, but once people made it past the front section of the shop where onlookers couldn’t peep in, it was almost all open. There were two private rooms in the back for those who wanted tattoos that required a little less clothing, as well as folding panels that could be placed in each of the artist’s areas so they could be sectioned off easily. Most people didn’t mind having other artists and clients watch them while they got a tattoo, and it usually added to the overall experience. As the licensed piercer in residence, Adrienne could do that part of her job in either of the rooms in the back, as well.

While some shops had closed-off rooms for each artist because the building was a converted home or office building, the Montgomerys hadn’t wanted that. There was privacy when needed and socialization when desired. It was a great setup, and one Adrienne had been jealous of when she was working at her old place on the other side of the city.

“About time you made your way back here,” Maya said dryly, her eyebrow ring glinting under the overhead light.

Adrienne flipped her cousin off then grinned as Maya did the same back. Of all her cousins, she and Maya looked the most alike. They each had long, dark hair, were average height, and had just the right amount of curves to make finding jeans difficult. Of course, Maya had birthed two kids, while Adrienne’s butt came from her love of cookies…but that was neither here nor there.

Everyone stood around talking to one another, cups of water or coffee or tea in their hands as they looked around the place. As they weren’t opening up for tattoos until later in the day, they were able to easily socialize in the main entry area. Their new hire, Ryan, stood off to the side, and Mace went over to him so they would be out of the way. They were really the only two non-Montgomerys, and she could only imagine how they felt.

“The location is pretty damn perfect,” Shep said with a grin. His wife Shea stood by his side, their daughter Livvy bouncing between them. How her niece had gotten so big, Adrienne had no idea. Apparently, time flew when you had your head down, working. “We’re the only tattoo shop around here, which will be good for business.” They were located in a strip mall off the busiest road in their area—other than I-25, of course. That’s how most of the businesses around were set up, with only the large market chains and restaurants having actual acreage behind them.

Adrienne nodded, though her stomach didn’t quite agree. Most of the shops like hers were farther south, near the older parts of downtown. There were trendier places there, and a lot more people who looked like they did with ink and piercings. Up north, on North Academy Blvd, every building was the same: cream or tan-colored, and fit in almost like a bedroom community around the Air Force Academy.

Shep and Adrienne wanted not only the cadets but also everyone who lived in the sprawling neighborhood who wanted ink to find them and come back for more. Beginning something new was always difficult, but starting something new in an area of town that, from the outside at least, didn’t look as if they’d fit in wouldn’t make it any easier.

She knew that a lot of the prejudices about tattoo shops had faded away over time as the art became far more popular and almost normal, but she could still feel people’s eyes on her when they noticed her ink.

“It’s right next to a tea shop, a deli, a spice shop, Thea’s bakery, and a few fancy shopping areas. I think you fit in nicely,” Austin said, his arms folded over his chest as he looked around the place. “You almost have a little version of what we have up north. You just need a bookstore and a café where you can hang out.”

“You’re just spoiled because you don’t even have to walk outside into the cold to get coffee or baked goods,” Adrienne said dryly.

“That is true,” Austin said with a laugh. “Adding in that side door that connects the two businesses was the best decision I ever made.”

“I’ll be sure to mention that to your wife,” Shep said and ducked as Austin’s arm shot out. The two men were nearly forty years old but fought like they were teens. Shea picked up Livvy and laughed before heading over to Maya. Adrienne didn’t actually know her sister-in-law all that well since she hadn’t seen her much, but now that the family had relocated, she knew that would change.

“They’re going to break something,” Thea said with a small laugh as she watched the two play-fight. She was the middle girl of the family but tended to act as if she were the eldest. When the retail spot three doors down from Thea’s bakery had opened up, her sister had stopped at nothing to make sure Adrienne could move in. That was Thea, taking care of her family no matter what.

“Then they’ll deserve it,” Roxie, Adrienne’s other sister said, shaking her head. “As long as they don’t ruin something in the shop, of course,” she added quickly after Adrienne shot her a look. “I meant break something on themselves.” Roxie was the youngest of their immediate family, and often the quietest. None of them were truly quiet since they were Montgomerys, but Roxie sometimes fit the bill.

“Thanks for thinking of my shop that hasn’t even had its first client yet.” Adrienne wrapped her arm around Roxie’s waist for a hug. “Where’s Carter? I thought he said he’d be here.”

Roxie and Carter had gotten married a few months ago, and Adrienne loved her brother-in-law, though she didn’t know him all that well either. He worked long hours, and the couple tended to be very insular since they were still newlyweds.

Roxie’s mouth twisted into a grimace before she schooled her features. “He couldn’t get off work. He tried, but two guys called in, and he was up to his neck in carburetors.”

Adrienne kissed her sister’s temple and squeezed her tightly. “It’s okay. It is the middle of the day, after all. I’m surprised any of you were able to take time off for this.”

Tears formed at the backs of her eyes at the fact that everyone had taken the time to be there for her and Shep. She blinked. She looked up from her sisters and tried not to let her emotions get to her, but then she met Mace’s eyes. He gave her a curious look, and she smiled at him, trying to let him know that she was okay—just a little overwhelmed. Mace had a way of knowing what she felt without her saying it, and she didn’t want him to worry. That’s what happened when you were friends with someone as long as they had been.

“I just wish he would have come,” Roxie said with a shrug. “It’s fine. Everything is fine.”

Adrienne met Thea’s gaze, but the two sisters didn’t say anything. If Roxie had something she wanted to share, she would. For now, everyone had other things on their minds. Namely, opening day.

“Shep punched Austin in the shoulder one more time before backing away and grinning. “Okay, okay, I’m too old for this shit.”

“True, you are too old.” Austin winked, and Adrienne pinched the bridge of her nose.

“Great way to show everyone that we’re all so professional and ready to lead with our own shop,” she said, no bite to her tone. This was her family, and she was used to it all. If they weren’t joking around and being loveable, adorable dorks, she’d have thought something was wrong.

“It’s sort of what we signed on for,” Ryan said with a wink. “Right, Mace? I mean, the legendary Montgomery antics are why any tattoo artist worth their salt wants to join up with them.”

Mace gave them all a solemn nod, laughter dancing in his eyes. “It wouldn’t be a Montgomery gathering without someone getting punched. Isn’t that what you taught me, Adrienne?”

She flipped him off, knowing that Livvy’s head was down so she wouldn’t see. She tried not to be too bad of an influence on her niece.

“Okay, party people. Finish your drinks and cake and then let’s clean up. We have three clients scheduled between one and two this afternoon, and Ryan is handling any walk-ins.” Though she wasn’t sure there would be any walk-ins since it was day one and they were doing a slow start. Some of their long-time clients had moved with them, and they already had a waiting list because of it, but that could change on “dime. Having word of mouth would be what made their shop a success, and that meant getting more clients in who weren’t just the same ones from before.

The door opened, and she held back her frown. They weren’t officially open yet, but it wasn’t as if she could tell a potential customer off. The door had been unlocked, after all.

As a man in a nicely cut suit with a frown on his face walked in, Adrienne had a feeling this wouldn’t be a client.

“Hi there, can I help you?” she asked, moving her way through the crowd. “We’re opening in an hour or so, but if you need any information, I’m here.”

The guy’s face pinched, and she was worried that if he kept it up, it would freeze like that. “I’m not here for whatever it is this establishment does.” His gaze traveled over her family’s and friend’s ink and clothing before it rested back on her. “I’m only here to tell you that you shouldn’t finish unpacking.”

“Excuse me?” Shep asked, his tone serious. The others stood back, letting Adrienne and Shep talk, but she knew they were all there if she needed them.

“You heard me.” The man adjusted his tie. “I don’t know how you got through the zoning board, but I can see they made a mistake. We don’t want your kind here in our nice city. We’re a growing community with families. Like I said, don’t unpack. You won’t be here long.”

Before she could say anything in response to the ridiculous statement, the man turned on his heel and walked out of her building, leaving her family and friends standing beside her, all of them with shocked looks on their faces.

“Well, shit,” Mace whispered then winced as he looked behind him to where Livvy was most likely with her mom.”

“We’ll figure out who that was. But, Adrienne, he won’t be able to shut us down or whatever the hell he wants.” Shep turned to her and gave her that big-brother stare. “Don’t stress about him. He means nothing.”

But she could tell from the look in his eyes, and the worried glances passing back and forth between her family members and friends that none of them quite believed that.

She had no idea who the man was, but she had a bad feeling about him. And every single warm feeling that had filled her at the sight of her family and friends coming together to celebrate the new shop fled, replaced by ice water in her veins.

So much for an easy opening day, she thought, and her stomach roiled again. Perhaps she would throw up because she just knew that wasn’t the last time they’d see that man. Not by a long shot.

 

About Carrie Ann Ryan

Carrie Ann Ryan is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of contemporary and paranormal romance. Her works include the Montgomery Ink, Redwood Pack, Talon Pack, and Gallagher Brothers series, which have sold over 2.0 million books worldwide. She started writing while in graduate school for her advanced degree in chemistry and hasn’t stopped since. Carrie Ann has written over fifty novels and novellas with more in the works. When she’s not writing about bearded tattooed men or alpha wolves that need to find their mates, she’s reading as much as she can and exploring the world of baking and gourmet cooking.

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Chapter Reveal + Playlist + Pre-Order + Giveaway: Seed by Cassia Leo

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

 

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

 

About SEED

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

The seeds of doubt have been planted.

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

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

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

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Chapter Reveal

JACK

May 10, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mr. Stratton, please look at me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mr. Stratton?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The words echoed in my mind. His papa.

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

I was a father. I was papa.

***

Present day

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

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

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

“Good morning,” she answered cheerily.

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

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

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

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

Me:

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

Sean:

I’ll be there with bells on.

***

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

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

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

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

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

“Jack Stratton. We have an appointment.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like what?”

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

“So who’s Mike O’Toole?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you find out who did it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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About Cassia Leo

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

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Chapter Reveal: Eternal Mourning by Carrie Ann Ryan

ETERNAL MOURNING releases February 13th – but if you can’t wait, you can read the first chapter below! Check it out now and preorder your copy today!

 

About ETERNAL MOURNING

Releases February 13, 2018

In the seventh book of the Talon Pack series from NYT Bestselling Author Carrie Ann Ryan, a Healer is forced to come to grips with the idea that he can’t save everyone…including the woman he loves.

Walker Brentwood vowed to the moon goddess that he’d protect his Pack and Heal with every last ounce of his power. He’s watched his siblings and cousin battle the worst circumstances to find love and is now afraid that the one woman who could be his might not have much time left. The rules of mating have changed, and Walker will do what he has to in order to protect the bonds that have eluded him for so long.

Aimee Reagan knows there’s something wrong with her. She’s known since the first time she found out shifters were real and magic existed. When the Talon Pack’s enemy sets his sights on her, her battle to survive becomes even harder.

Walker and Aimee must turn to each other when the powers around them change and the paths that had been laid before them are no longer clear. But when their passion threatens a curse far older than anyone dreamed, they’ll only have one chance to save something worth more than a mating bond. Their future.

ETERNAL MOURNING releases February 13th, 2018 – preorder your copy now!

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Read the First Chapter of ETERNAL MOURNING

Walker Brentwood let out a slow breath, figuring as long as he didn’t growl or brood like any of his other family members he’d do okay. The rain began to pick up around them, the drops hitting the leaves of the tall trees with little splats and sputters. The sound was almost soothing, as if it could rock the pups to sleep. The scents of ozone and forest filled the air, soothing his wolf. His family would probably find that idea weird since he was generally the calmest of them all, but he was still a wolf.

Because their wolves had scented rain in the distance, the mating ceremony had been moved to the wooden archway of one of the large den buildings. Given how deep the deck was, and the fact that, thankfully, there wasn’t any wind, no one would get wet, and the mated couple could be blessed by their Alpha in peace.

Mitchell and Dawn truly deserved that after everything they had gone through to mate. Though most mating ceremonies happened soon after the couple completed their bond, his cousin and Dawn had decided to wait a bit since the world had almost crashed down around them right when they finally cemented their union.

Walker frowned as he remembered everything that had happened around the time the two had marked each other. He didn’t know the specifics of their relationship or why they had decided to wait, but he’d been there when they were forced to save each other in the end.

The Pack had almost lost Dawn when the fire witch took her, but the outcome of that had brought Mitchell’s new mate into the Talon Pack as one of their own. She was a Central Pack wolf no more, and no longer alone. She had the Talons.

And from the shy smile on her face when she looked up at her growly mate, Walker had a feeling she was just beginning to understand that.

Gideon, Walker’s brother and Alpha, stepped up onto the bottom step that led into the house, so he stood just slightly above everyone else. Despite the fact that Gideon wasn’t one of Walker’s triplet brothers, his Alpha still looked a lot like him. They all had thick, dark hair that curled at the ends if it got too long— though their sister Brynn’s was only slightly wavy. And the whole lot of them had the Brentwood blue eyes. A color he figured came from their Irish ancestors, who had traveled over to the western side of the continent a century before the rest of the world had figured out how to make the trek without dying. Wolves were strong for a reason, and keeping themselves secluded and spread over the land was only one of them.

Even Mitchell and Max— brothers themselves yet cousins to Walker— looked like the rest of them. Their paternal line was dominant in their genes, and sometimes, Walker wondered what their maternal line contributed.

He knew the answer, of course, but that only made him frown harder. Each of them had a gentler side that had been beaten out of them over the years under his father’s rule as Alpha. Only his cousin Max had been able to keep his sense of innocence throughout the years. Technically, Max was older than Walker and his fellow triplets, Kameron and Brandon, but to them, Max had almost seemed younger with his exuberance and thirst for life. But the wolf had lost any sense of who he was before when he lost his arm and so much more during the final battle of the Unveiling over a year ago.

“If you keep frowning like that, you’re going to scare Dawn and her little friends away,” Kameron whispered low enough that not even the wolves close to them would hear. As shifters, they had sharper senses than humans and used that to their advantage to not only survive but also thrive. They could see longer distances, even in the barest of moonlight in the dark, and they could detect prey from miles away if the wind caught the scent just right. They could also hear sounds across the spectrum from a great distance. It took willpower and training to learn to live peacefully with so many sights, sounds, and scents bombarding them on any given day.

Walker forced his thoughts away from what had almost cost his family and Pack everything and schooled his features. He was truly happy for Mitchell and Dawn, and it was only the direction of his thoughts that had made him look like a brooding bastard. He’d do well to think of what angered him later when in private, rather than worry Dawn or any of the humans who accompanied her.

He gave Kameron a tight nod as Gideon began speaking about the newly mated couple and forced his gaze from them and the three small humans who stood at Dawn’s side. This wasn’t a human marriage ceremony, so there was no need for pomp and circumstance. The ceremony itself was what cemented the bond within the Pack, though even that wasn’t truly necessary. Some couples didn’t need the entire Pack around them when they vowed their love, devotion, and pledges to one another. This time, however, with Dawn’s past— or rather, the past of her Pack— the Talons had wanted to make sure everyone knew she was accepted within the den.

Walker’s attention snagged on one of the three standing by Dawn, and he did his best to keep his wolf in check. Curious by nature, his other half needed to know the whys of existence and truth, yet Walker had a feeling this urgency within him when it came to the pale blonde at Dawn’s side wasn’t just curiosity.

Dawn had kept her wolf’s existence a secret within the human world, even after the Unveiling where the idea of shifters— at least wolves— was revealed to the public. She had three human friends who she had become truly close to over the years, but she had only recently been forced to reveal who she was to them.

The three women, Dhani, Cheyenne, and Aimee, had surprised them all when they turned out to be stronger-willed than many of the wolves he knew within the Pack. They’d done their best to prove to Dawn that they would stand by her no matter what, and Walker was pleased that Dawn wouldn’t truly be alone in a new den. Not that these three were Packmates, but they were welcome guests within the wards when they chose to visit.

And the fact that his attention kept snagging on one of them in particular? Well, that was just something he would have to unravel later when others weren’t watching.

The world had been shown the magic of wolves and witches, yet they were still in the dark when it came to some magics, such as demons and now… cat shifters. Walker wasn’t sure what else was out there, and as a man who thought he knew the depths of what existed outside of humans, the idea that he truly had no clue worried him.

Then again, this wasn’t the place to worry about that. Not when the couple in front of him was vowing their love to one another. He still wasn’t quite sure how Mitchell had fallen so hard and fast for the quiet wolf standing by his side, but then again, fate and the moon goddess had their own plans when it came to the goddess’s children.

“I promise to honor who we are together and who we can be,” Dawn said softly. Walker wasn’t watching her, however, as he still had his eyes on the pale blonde. The dark circles under Aimee’s eyes were more pronounced, and she seemed to be listing to the side every so often until one of the other women brushed against her gently, causing her to stand straight again.

He held back a frown as she blinked hard a few times as if trying to keep herself focused and awake. There was something wrong with Aimee, and his wolf needed to know what it was. She might not be of his Pack, but she was close to one of his own.

But if he were honest with himself, he knew it was because of something more than that. She called to his wolf in a way he didn’t quite understand. And it was something he knew he wanted to figure out.

He wasn’t like his brothers or cousins. When they found their mates, it seemed to him that, other than his sister Brynn, each of them had fought the pairing. None of them had been in the right mindset to find mates, yet the moon goddess had blessed each of them.

Gideon had found his mate in Brie, a submissive wolf from another Pack. The two of them had carefully taken their steps down the path to mating to not only tighten their connections but also those between the Talons and the Redwoods. Brynn had been the one searching for her mate, and when she found it in Finn, she’d almost broken along the way. Ryder hadn’t been looking for his fate when he found Leah, a water witch who had saved their den more than once. And Walker’s fellow triplet, Brandon, had thought he’d not be long for his world but had ended up mating not one but two wolves— Parker and Avery.

As for Mitchell? Well, he too had fought the mating bond for reasons of his own. But he had given in when he fell in love with Dawn. The moon goddess gave each of her wolves potential mates that they could find during their long lives. Sometimes, there was more than one, but the wolf and the human would decide if that person was their true fate. Walking away would hurt, a pain beyond agony, but sometimes, it was the only choice. Once the mating bond was made— a bite mark for the wolf, and sex for the human— none of the people involved would ever feel another potential mate as long as the mating bond stayed in place.

Walker had only heard of one mating bond being broken by anything but death, and he was pretty sure the terror that had come with that dark magic hadn’t been truly worth it in the end.

Yet Walker, the one who was ready for a mate and wanted that connection, couldn’t seem to find his. He’d been searching ever since Gideon became Alpha and their father’s tyranny ended. He held back a shudder at that thought as he always did. His father had been a horrible man, a worse Alpha, and had truly scarred each and every one of his children to the point that it had shaped not only their lives and futures but also the way they found their mates.

But, no matter how many humans, witches, and wolves he met, Walker hadn’t felt that tug, the pull that would tell him whether the other person was his mate.

Then Shane, a former human soldier who had been partially turned into a wolf thanks to a human torture experiment gone wrong, had been brought into the Pack, and mating bonds had changed yet again. Shane had been on the verge of dying and Gideon had been forced to make the decision to save his life. No one had known the ramifications of that act, but now Shane had two mates who would forever be thankful for what had happened, and the Pack had survived because they had a new member whose secrets had led them through the darkness.

Now, it was beyond difficult to tell who was your mate or not, and it took getting to know the person or persons as a human before the wolves were able to reveal who they could be. And even then, sometimes it didn’t work. Each couple or triad was different, and finding the true path to mating didn’t seem like it would get any easier anytime soon. Walker was afraid that some would lose out at finding their mate because there were so many obstacles.

He’d been happier when mating bonds were set in stone. Now, everything seemed so up in the air. Shifters had spent centuries finding their other halves one way and now having to find them another way meant that their world might forever be altered. It was shocking that anyone could find their mate.

Hence why this mating ceremony between Mitchell and Dawn was so important. This proved that mating bonds could still happen, even if it took a little more work. Dawn’s eyes were bright, and Mitchell looked like a new man, a small smile playing on his lips as if he had a secret that only the woman standing in front of him knew. And as Mitchell bowed his head and took his mate’s lips in a passionate kiss, Walker hoped that there was a way to find a potential mate that didn’t end in pain and suffering.

Walker was a Healer, the Healer of the Talon Pack. It was his duty and honor to Heal those under his care from physical wounds, just as it was his triplet, Brandon’s, responsibility as Omega to heal their emotional ones. Through his connection to the Pack, he was able to Heal injuries that were life-threatening, as well as simple cuts and scrapes. It physically hurt him not to use his energy and powers to help people.

And the idea that there were wolves— and now cats— out there who might be missing out on finding their mates because of a change to the Pack structure that wasn’t their fault hurt him, as well.

“As Alpha, I bless this union as the moon goddess instructs me. I wish you both long, healthy lives as you find your true calling as mates.” Gideon’s deep growl ended on a howl, and Walker threw back his head, joining in on the song of his people.

The other wolves around him howled as well, and even the few witches who had been mated into the Pack and helped strengthen the wards joined in. The only three who didn’t were the human women who had come with Dawn’s brother and parents. Walker lowered his head and opened his eyes to watch them as they glanced around, laughter in their eyes. He had a feeling Dawn hadn’t mentioned this part of the ceremony, but thankfully, none of them looked put off. If anything, they appeared as if they might have wanted to take part, but weren’t sure how.

Given how much time they were spending with the Talons, they just might have their chance to find their places within the den wards at some point— even if they weren’t Pack. There were a few humans in the Pack, but it was through special circumstance. In order to live as long as the wolves, they had to be changed. Only witches were able to truly tie their life forces to the Pack’s without the change, though some of them did anyway. So, having these three humans within the den wards was… interesting.

And from the way they looked at Walker and his family, he had a feeling they thought it was interesting, as well. He wasn’t like some of his family who heard the moon goddess’s whispered words and spoke prophecy, but he had a feeling the lives of these women and his Pack would be forever entwined.

How that would happen, and what it would mean, he wasn’t sure.

Kameron tugged on his arm, pulling him out of his thoughts, and he followed his triplet inside where the maternal females and submissives had set up a feast for everyone to celebrate Mitchell and Dawn’s joining. He’d been tasked with setting up a few of the long tables, but he hadn’t helped as much as the rest of his family since he’d been called away to help with a pup who had accidentally found a bush with thorns while chasing after a ball.

His family and Pack had welcomed Dawn in much smoother than some of the previous mates. Change was always hard, especially after their Pack had spent so long fighting for the right to exist, so he was glad the elders and the rest of the Pack had seemed to lighten up when it came to Dawn and her former Pack’s past.

“I need to head out to do another run along the perimeter,” Kameron said softly. “I’ll swap shifts with one of the soldiers who couldn’t come to the ceremony. That way, they can at least be part of the reception.”

Walker nodded and picked up a cup of punch, handing it over to his brother before taking another for himself. Though their metabolisms as wolves worked much faster than humans’, they could still get drunk after a while. And since Kameron was about to go on duty, and Walker was always on call as Healer, they’d stick to punch. He nodded to Leah, his brother Ryder’s mate, and held up his cup. The water witch was his assistant in Healing, though her powers were much different than his. But, hopefully, she would understand that she could drink if she wanted to. However, since she had a young pup in her arms, he wasn’t sure she’d want to indulge.

Their family had grown so much over the past few years, it was almost hard to keep up. But Walker would. Each and every member of his Pack and family were a part of him, soul deep, and he’d do anything to protect them.

Walker turned to his brother. “Anything I can do to help?”

Kameron shook his head. “We’re on routine shifts right now since we’re not sure who the fire witch was working for.” He gave Kameron a look. Oh, they knew all right, but there wasn’t anything they could do about it yet. Their new enemy was too good at keeping the blame off him and held far too much power.

Even working with the Redwoods, the Talons weren’t strong enough to take on Blade and the Aspens yet. And even if they were, Walker wasn’t sure it was the Aspens who were their new enemy, or just an Alpha gone rogue. And for an Alpha to go rogue… well, that was something that could change everything.

Walker inhaled the sweet scent of a woman who made his wolf curious and turned as she stumbled into him. He caught her, pulling her soft body to his to keep her steady.

“You okay?” he grumbled, his voice lower than he’d intended.

“I’m fine. Just clumsy.” Aimee pulled away, and he released her, aware that she was much weaker than he was, and he’d been taught not to let the humans realize that they weren’t as strong as the wolves with everyday things.

“If you’re sure.” Kameron let out a sigh behind him, and Walker ignored his brother. He’d have to deal with the questions about his intense… whatever this was at some point.

“I’m fine,” she repeated. “Thank you for catching me.” She turned away then, going back to Dhani’s side, and Walker did his best not to stare.

It wasn’t only the Healer and wolf inside him that was drawn to this woman, but he wasn’t sure if it was something more. His wolf wouldn’t tell him if she was his mate or not, and with the new rules of mating that weren’t actually rules at all, Walker wasn’t sure he’d ever know.

But no matter where his mind went with potentials and fates, Walker knew one thing.

There was something wrong with Aimee.

And he was afraid there wouldn’t be enough time with her on this Earth for him to find out what their connection was… or could be.

 

 

About Carrie Ann Ryan

Carrie Ann Ryan is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of contemporary and paranormal romance. Her works include the Montgomery Ink, Redwood Pack, Talon Pack, and Gallagher Brothers series, which have sold over 2.0 million books worldwide. She started writing while in graduate school for her advanced degree in chemistry and hasn’t stopped since. Carrie Ann has written over fifty novels and novellas with more in the works. When she’s not writing about bearded tattooed men or alpha wolves that need to find their mates, she’s reading as much as she can and exploring the world of baking and gourmet cooking.

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