Chapter Reveal – Wide Open Spaces by Aurora Rose Reynolds

 

 

Excerpt

Chapter 1

Shelby

Shutting off my car, I stare at the two-story house I used to call home. It looks the same as it did when I left. The deep blue is still vibrant, even more so now against the backdrop of the gray sky behind it. The white porch is still welcoming, with flowers hanging from the banister.

My grandmother and I would spend hours planting flowers in those boxes during the summer. When she passed away during my sophomore year of high school, I made sure to keep up the tradition in her memory. It looks like, in my absence over these last fifteen years, someone else had taken over the job.

Looking at the bright blooms growing wild, hanging over the sides of the boxes, I wonder if Granddad hired someone to plant them for him when he left to live in Florida. He never mentioned that he cared about the flowers we planted. Honesty, I don’t remember him mentioning them. Growing up, I didn’t even think he noticed, but now, looking at the blooming buds that are artfully arranged, I know they meant something to him after all.

“Mom?” Turning my head, I look at my son Hunter and force a smile as aching pain and regret slice through my chest.

“Sorry, honey. I spaced out. Do you want to unpack tonight, or do you want to wait until tomorrow, kiddo?”

Looking over his shoulder, he eyes the boxes and suitcases piled in the back then looks at me. I hate the sadness I see in his eyes. I hate I’m the cause of his pain. I know he misses his father already, and I know that at ten years old, he doesn’t understand why we’re no longer together even if it’s been over two years since we separated and divorced.

“Tomorrow,” he grumbles, and I feel that ache in my chest expand. He hates me for moving him across the country. Away from his friends, away from everything he knew. And I hate myself a little bit, too, for failing miserably at keeping my family together. I just hope this move will be a new start for us.

“Tomorrow,” I agree softly, unhooking my belt and opening the door.

Rounding the hood of the van, Hunter has already made it to the porch and is waiting at the top of the stairs, with his eyes pointed over my shoulder. Stopping, I look behind me as rain soaks through my clothes. I can’t believe how much the town has changed and grown. When I’d left home, you could see the sound from the front porch of my grandparents’ home. Now, the view is blocked by houses that have been built up side-by-side across the road. The street looks more like a New York City block, rather than a street in small-town Alaska.

“Is it always raining?” Hunter’s voice breaks into my thoughts, and I turn back toward him and take the steps slowly, noticing they are rotting out in a few spots. Something I will have to fix soon.

“Not always, but this is a rainforest, so I guess the answer in some ways is yes,” I tell him, when I make it up to the covered porch.

His brows draw together over his blue eyes, making him look like his father, as he asks, “This is a rainforest?”

“It is.” I want so badly to reach out and run my finger down his cheek, but I keep my hand locked at my side. I don’t know exactly when it happened, but some time ago, he stopped wanting my affection. Stopped being my little boy.

“Really?” he asks curiously, with wide eyes. “It doesn’t look like a rainforest,” he states, and he’s right; it doesn’t look like what you might imagine a rainforest would look like.

“It doesn’t look like one, but it is all the same.” I smile, and his eyes move over my face then to the view, and his face loses the curiosity it held a moment ago.

He turns, muttering, “Whatever.”

Biting my lip, I take the key the lawyer mailed me out of the front pocket of my jeans, put it in the lock, and turn. The door opens with a loud creak and dust rises up from the floors. A loud alarm sounds, making us both jump. Running into the house, I look frantically for some kind of alarm system, finally finding the small white box off the door in the kitchen. Flipping the panel open, I stare at the numbers.

“What’s the code?” Hunter yells over the siren, covering his ears.

“I don’t know,” I yell back, pressing in every single number combination I can think of, but none of them work.

“Is it in the papers in the car?”

“Maybe,” I yell, then run for the door and down the stairs to the van. Swinging open the back door, I shove three boxes out of the way before finding the one I’m looking for. Ripping off the tape, I shuffle through the contents and scan the papers the lawyer sent, searching for the code, but stop and look over the hood of the van when the alarm goes quiet. “What was the code?” I ask Hunter, when he steps out onto the porch.

“I don’t know.” He shrugs, looking over his shoulder into the house, like he’s waiting for someone to come out, which makes me frown.

“Did it just stop?” I question, slamming the van door. His eyes come back to me and he shakes his head then starts to open his mouth to say something else, but is cut off by a deep voice.

“I turned it off.”

It takes one breath to realize who just stepped out of my grandparents’ house. One breath for every moment I spent with the man standing before me to flash through my head. Two seconds for me to feel my world come to a stop.

The boy I once knew is gone. There’s nothing boyish about Zach Watters anymore. His jaw is now sharp, the stubble on it giving him a rugged look while accentuating his full lips. His dark hair has silvered around the edges, drawing attention to his expressive hazel eyes that look like they hold a thousand stories. His red and black plaid shirt is stretched tight across broad shoulders, giving a glimpse of the muscles it’s covering. He’s still every bit as beautiful as he once was, only more so now that time has aged him, taking him from a handsome boy to a gorgeous man.

Swallowing, I look at my son then back again. “Thanks,” I whisper, and Zach’s eyebrows pull together as he sweeps his gaze over me. I have no doubt that I too have changed, but unlike him, time hasn’t been good to me. I’ve gained a few too many pound from eating my feelings over the last year. My skin has lost its youthful glow, and my hair has grown out at the roots without my bi-monthly maintenance appointments.

“Shelby?” he asks, but all I can do is confirm with a nod, since my mouth has dried up and I can’t find my voice. “Jesus.” His eyes widen as he looks down at Hunter then back toward me. “What are you doing here?”

“My… my son Hunter and I are moving in,” I stutter, caught off guard by his presence. I wasn’t stupid enough to believe I wouldn’t see him when I moved home, but I had convinced myself that seeing him would be on my terms, or sporadic at best.

“What?” he whispers, leaning back on his boots, crossing his arms over his chest.

Ignoring his question, I start to move back toward the stairs, asking, “Do you mind giving me the code for the alarm? I’m sure it’s somewhere in the papers the lawyer sent, but…” I stop and look to the left when Zach’s name is called. Standing on the porch of the house next door is a woman I know he got with a few months after I left. A woman he married soon after she gave birth to their twins. A woman I used to call my friend.

A woman I now hate.

I absently hear him say something to her, but the nausea turning my stomach and the sadness prickling my skin have me moving quickly up the steps, focusing on not falling over as I move past him. “Never mind about the code. I’m sure I’ll find it. Thanks for shutting off the alarm,” I mumble, as I walk through the door.  

“Mom.”

“Come on, honey. Let’s have a look around, and then we need to get to the store.”

“Mom,” Hunter repeats, sounding confused. I plaster a fake smile on my face.

“The pizza place we drove past has the best pizza I’ve ever tasted. We could do that for dinner.”

“Mom.”

“Right here, honey.” I laugh, even though that laugh feels like glass edging down my windpipe.

Studying me for a long moment, he finally mutters, “Pizza sounds good. I’m gonna call Dad before we go, and tell him we’re here.”

“Sure,” I agree, watching him pull out his cell phone and walk toward the kitchen. I didn’t agree that he needed a cell phone at his age, but like all things with his dad, there was never any kind of conversation. He didn’t ask what I thought about it; he just did what he wanted to do.

I hear a familiar throat clear. “You’re back?” Zach asks from behind me, making my shoulders slump forward and my eyes slide closed briefly.

“Yeah.” I turn to face him and wrap my arms around my waist, feeling my stomach twist into knots. When I left town, we didn’t fight, didn’t yell at each other, didn’t say things we would end up regretting one day. I just knew there was too much pain between us to make what we had left work, and Zach, knowing the same, didn’t put up a fight when I told him my plans.

“You’re staying here?” he asks, and I nod. Running a hand over his head as his eyes move to the right, where Tina had been moments ago, before bringing his gaze back to mine. “The code for the alarm is one, two, three, four. I told Pat to change it, but you know Pat,” he mutters, and I nod, knowing exactly how stubborn Gramps was. Shoving his hands into the front pocket of his jeans, his voice drops. “I’m really sorry about Pat.”

“Thanks.” I hold myself a little tighter. His eyes drop to my arms around my waist and soften before moving up to meet mine once more.

“If you need anything, I’m next door.” He lifts his chin in that direction, and my world stops again.

“Pardon?” I breathe.

“I live next door.”

Okay, maybe I should have guessed that, since Tina was over there, but I didn’t, and this is not good… as in really not good. There is not one damn thing I can do about it, though, unless I want to load Hunter back into the van and live out of it for the next year or so, which I don’t think will win me any brownie points with my son.

“Cool,” I whisper pathetically, with nothing else to say. Something familiar-looking and soft slides through his features, making my stomachache twist again, but this time in a way I haven’t felt in a long time.

“Well…” I pause, needing this encounter to be over. “Thanks again for turning off the alarm. I wish we had time to catch up,” I lie. “But I need to get to the store before it closes, and then I need to get Hunter some food. Growing boys don’t do well without food,” I ramble, as I put my hand to the door, wanting so badly to shove it closed.

“Sure.” He nods then looks over my shoulder, into the house. “Nice meeting you, Hunter.”

“You too—” Hunter looks between Zach and me.

“Mr. Watters, honey,” I mutter, answering his unspoken question, as he comes to stand at my side with his cell phone in his hand.

“You too, Mr. Watters.”

Zach’s eyes come to me and his face softens once more. “See you around, Shelby.”

“Yeah, see you around,” I lie again, since I plan to pretend he doesn’t exist from this moment forward. I wait, even though I don’t want to, until he is walking away to close the door then stand there for a moment, trying to process what just happened.

“How do you know him, Mom?” Hunter asks.

“When I was younger,” I say, turning to face him, “we were friends.” I shrug, looking toward the stairs. “My room used to be in the attic—it’s the best room in the house—and if you make it there before me, I’ll let you have it.” I raise my brows before taking off in a sprint up the stairs, listening to my son, who I haven’t heard laugh in weeks, giggle as he runs up the stairs behind me.

“Wow, this is awesome.”

Looking over my shoulder at Hunter I smile as he walks into the room with wide eyes. “I told you it’s the coolest room in the house.” I used to love hanging out up here when I was a teenager. The vastness of the space, with its angled ceilings and four large skylights, was a cool place to spend time. Looking at my son now, I can see the excitement in his eyes as he wanders around the room.

“Do you think I could get a telescope?” he asks, looking up at the cloud-covered sky through one of the skylights.

“Definitely.” I bump my shoulder with his as I walk past him toward the couch in the corner that’s covered with a sheet and pull it off. “We may also want to find a cover for this thing while we’re at it,” I say, looking from the floral-covered couch to his scrunched up face.

“Yeah.” He nods, moving to the bed, where he rips off the sheet that is covering the mattress. “I can’t wait to tell Dad about this. He’s going to think it’s so cool,” he mutters, and I bite my tongue to keep from saying, No, your dad will definitely not think it’s cool.

Max, Hunter’s father, grew up wealthy. He never owned anything that had been used. Even when we got married, he insisted I sell the Victorian house I bought when I graduated college, wanting instead for us to buy a newly built house in a cliché subdivision, where all of his friends lived. Shortly thereafter, he insisted I sell all of my old furniture, things I had bought secondhand and refurbished over the years. At the time, I was blinded by hope and love, so I didn’t think anything about it. But over time, I slowly realized I was no longer the person I used to be. I had turned into a trophy wife who lived in a show home and neither of us had any real character.

“Mom,” Hunter calls, bringing me out of my thoughts, and I turn to look at him and notice he has a stack of photos in his hand. “Who’s this?”

“That’s my mom,” I say softly, while walking over to where he’s sitting on the bed, holding out a picture of my mom and me. In the photo, we’re sitting outside on the porch, with our arms wrapped around each other, smiling at the camera.

“You look like her,” he says thoughtfully. “You have her eyes and hair.”

“You think so?” I ask, looking at my mom, who had to have been about my age when the photo was taken. She was beautiful, with long dark blonde hair, big blue eyes, and a smile that lit up the world.

“Yeah.” He nods then looks at me, and asks quietly, “Do you miss her?”

“Every day.” I nod, taking the photo from his hands. “She gave the best hugs,” I say, fighting back the tears I feel creeping up my throat. My mom and dad both died in a plane crash when I was fifteen. My father was the owner and pilot of a local adventure company, and he had taken my mom with him to drop off supplies to some men who were bear hunting out at one of the islands. On their way back into town, the weather shifted, and their plane went down on one of the mountains. Neither of them survived. That’s when I moved to Cordova to live with my dad’s parents.

“Do you have any pictures of your dad?”

I pause, trying to recall if I’ve ever really spoken to Hunter about my parents, if Max ever asked about them, but I can’t think of a single time. “There are a few downstairs on the wall. I’ll point them out to you.” I lean into him a little then stop when his arm wraps around my shoulders, surprising me. “I love you, kid,” I whisper, not surprised when he doesn’t say it back, but happy that his arm tightens ever so slightly.

“I’m starving.” He chuckles releasing me when his stomach growls loudly, breaking the moment.

“We can’t have that.” I laugh, standing from the bed. “Let’s go to Joe’s. Hopefully, the pizza is still awesome. If not, you’re gonna have to suffer and eat it anyway, ‘cause the store is probably closed by now.

“Is there such a thing as bad pizza?”

“I guess we’ll find out,” I murmur, and then head out of the room and down the stairs, grabbing my purse as we leave.

When we make it to Joe’s, I find nothing has changed in the years I’ve been gone. The owner Joe, an older Korean gentleman, is still in the back making the pizzas, and his wife Kim is still working the counter, gossiping about everything and everyone. While we wait for our pizza, Kim talks my ear off, telling me about the people in town, including Zach, who she informs me is not only a cop, but also the sheriff. She also tells me that Zach is single. He and Tina supposedly got divorced nine years ago, and Zach has had full custody of both his kids since then. I tell myself I don’t care that Zach is no longer with Tina, but I still feel some relief knowing I won’t have to witness seeing them together.

“Can I sleep in my room tonight?” Hunter asks, as I finish off my third slice of pizza and wipe my mouth with a paper towel.

“I don’t mind, but everything in the house needs to be washed. So if you want to sleep up there, we have to get your stuff from the van.”

“I’ll get it, and then we can bring in everything else too.”

“You want to clean out the van?” I ask, not at all excited about lugging stuff up three flights of stairs.

“Yeah.” He nods again, taking his half of the pizza box lid that he used as a plate to the trash bin.

“If that’s what you want,” I agree, regretting those words an hour later as I head out for the last box. My arms and legs are tired from carting everything inside and up the stairs. I haven’t worked out in the last year, and I can feel it now as every muscle in my body protest.

Stopping when I hear a door close, I hold the box in my hands closer to my chest and look toward the house next door. I spot a handsome blond boy, who looks a lot like Zach, hopping down the steps, with Tina following close behind. Ducking down, I hide and watch them as they get into an old pickup truck, only coming out of hiding when they drive off.

Having over fifteen years to deal with the adoption of Samuel should make it easier to see Zach’s other children, but it doesn’t. I still feel bitter about the situation. I know it’s the fact that Zach’s children were born a little over a year after Samuel, meaning Tina got pregnant not long after I left town. So not only did Zach have a relationship with Tina, but he built a family with her and kept the kids they had together.

Heading back into the house with the final box, I wonder how I’m going to do what I’ve been doing for the last fifteen years. It was easy to block out thoughts of Zach when I was gone, but now that I’m back and living next door to him, I wonder if it will be as easy to ignore the feeling in my chest that coincides with thoughts of him.

 

~*~*~

Grabbing my quilt from the end the my bed, I carefully balance my Kindle and glass of wine in one hand as I open the sliding glass door in my room and step out onto the balcony. Tonight is one of the first nights it hasn’t rained since we moved in, and I have been looking forward to sitting outside under the stars with a good book all day long. Grabbing my glass, I take a sip then look to the left when the sound of rock music starts up and light flutters across the back deck next door, making me wonder if Zach’s room is off the balcony like mine.

Pushing that thought away, I turn on my Kindle then proceed to get lost in someone else’s happily ever after.

“Shelby.” Jumping, some of the contents from the glass in my hand sloshes out over the side and runs down my fingers as I swing my head to the left, where Zach is leaning on the banister, his eyes on me. A short glass full of dark liquid is in his hands, and the light casts a glow behind him.

“You scared the crap out of me,” I gripe, holding my free hand over my rapidly beating heart.

“I’ve been standing here awhile,” he mutters, then takes a swig of his drink. “I thought you would have noticed.” He rolls the glass between his hands while looking at me intently, making me fight the urge to squirm in my chair.

“When I’m lost in a good book, the world could crash down around me and I wouldn’t notice.” I shrug, taking a sip of wine, using the moment of reprieve as an excuse to look away from him, but realizing for the first time that I don’t know the man standing across from me. Yes, he looks a little like the guy I dated years ago, but he also seems more intense, like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders. He’s definitely not the easygoing kid I dated in high school.

“How are you guys settling in?”

Pulling my legs out from under me, I rest my Kindle on the edge of my lap and turn to face him fully while adjusting the blanket.

“It’s going to take a little bit to get everything cleaned up. I didn’t know Gramps was such a hoarder until now. I think I’ve thrown out about ten thousand issues of National Geographic, along with a hundred empty boxes and every single item you can possibly buy from an infomercial,” I reply, then smile when he laughs a deep rumbling laugh and leans a little farther over the railing between us, causing another plaid shirt—this one blues and yellows—to tighten across his wide chest.

“You didn’t keep them? You never know when you might need an automatic potato peeler.”

“I thought about it, but if I did, I wouldn’t have anywhere to put my shoes, since all of it was stacked up on the floor in his closet, everything unopened.” I smile, watching him grin for a moment before the smile slides away and his eyes move beyond me to the forest that sits behind the house.

“I’m gonna miss him. I know he’s been gone from town for years, but I’ll miss our talks,” he mutters, then looks up at the sky for a moment before meeting my gaze once more. “Why’d you come back? Last time I talked to Pat, he told me you were planning on following him down to Florida.”

His words catch me off guard, since Gramps never told me he kept in contact with Zach. But then again, I never asked. I shouldn’t be surprised they kept in touch, since they we’re close when I was home, and were obviously neighbors before Gramps moved to Florida. Plus, Zach is the sheriff in town. Yet, it still feels strange that he knows about me, while I know nothing about him.

“I was.” I let out a breath, adjusting the blanket around my shoulders. “But I had to wait until…” I trail off, not wanting to talk about my divorce to anyone, especially not him. “Then when Gramps passed away, there was nothing for me in Florida, so I decided to come back here instead.”

“You didn’t want to stay in Seattle?”

“No, I needed something different, so when I found out Gramps left me his house, I just knew I needed to come back here,” I whisper the truth. Ever since I read the will and found out this house was mine to do with as I please, I had a feeling in my gut that I couldn’t get rid of. Something telling me that I needed to come back here.

“This is a good town,” he murmurs, but the look in his eyes is saying something I can’t quite figure out.

“This is the last place I remember being really happy. I hope that I can make it that way for Hunter,” I say quietly, and his face softens.

“He looks like you.” His words and tone catch me by surprise and I sit up a little taller. Never in a million years would I have thought I’d be sitting on my granddad’s deck in the middle of the night talking to Zach about anything. Definitely not about my son.

“You wouldn’t say that if you saw his dad,” I return honestly. “When he was a baby, he looked like me, but not any more.”

“He has your eyes and your smile.” He pauses, taking a drink from his glass. “He seems like a good kid.”

“He’s the best kid.” I take a sip of wine, trying to keep whatever it is I’m feeling right now in check.

“I… I think I saw your son. Um, the other day. He looks like you,” I tell him, wanting to take the words back after I say them, because I don’t want him to think I was spying on him.

“He looks like his mom, but has my personality, which I can’t decide if it’s a good thing or not. My daughter, Aubrey, on the other hand, looks like me, but is sweet down to her core. Where she gets that sweetness, I have no fucking clue.”

“Oh.” I bite my lip, trying to figure out what to say to that. The Zach I knew was a good guy, sweet even. Tina, however, was mostly bitch, and I honestly don’t even know why we were friends. Then again, growing up here, there weren’t a hundred girls to choose from. My graduating class had five girls in it, and none of them liked Tina, which meant none of them really liked me either.

“I better go in,” he says abruptly, cutting into my thoughts, standing to his full height. “I need to be to the station early tomorrow.”

“Sure… uh… have a good night.” The urge to say something that will make him stay hits me hard, and it takes everything I have in me to keep my mouth shut.

“You too, Shelby. And be careful when you’re out here reading. Louie’s out and about around this time of night, searching for food.”

“Louie?” I question, scrunching up my nose. Cordova never had homeless people before, and I can’t imagine it would now.

“Louie’s a black bear. Normally, he sticks to the woods, but he’s been known to nap on the decks now and then.

“Oh, man.” I jump up, looking around for any sign of Louie, not sure how I could forget there are bears out here, since we are in Alaska. “What’s funny?” I frown, turning to face him when I hear his deep laughter.

“You’re in Alaska, babe. You lived here for years. You know there are bears out in those woods.” He nods to the trees.

Babe. Why, oh, why did that word make butterflies erupt in my stomach?

“I know that, but I forgot.” I shake my head and watch his face soften once again.

“Still sweet as pie,” I think I hear him say, but can’t be sure, because his voice dropped to a low rumble that I felt skid across my skin.

“Well, I’m gonna go in too,” I blurt, picking up my Kindle and wine glass. “Have a good night.” And with that, I duck my head and go back into my room. Closing the door I lock it behind me then hurry and get into bed where I try to forget once more about Zach Watters.  

~~**~~

    “Hello?” I answer the phone, still half asleep, then look at the clock and notice that even though it’s light out, it’s barely 6:00 a.m.

“Shelby, I’ve called three times,” Max, my ex-husband, says into my ear, and I pull my pillow over my head with thoughts of suffocating myself with it.

“It’s only six, Max. I haven’t gotten out of bed,” I grumble, tossing the covers back and sitting up. “What’s going on?”

“I want to fly out there this weekend,” he states, and I fight the urge to toss my phone across the room or scream at the top of my lungs.

“This weekend?” I verify, rubbing my face. “We haven’t even been here a week.”

“I have a few days off and would like to see Hunter.”  

I sigh, considering him and his request. “Our stuff is going to be delivered in two days. Then I start my new job next week, and Hunter has swi—”

“You’re not keeping my boy from me,” he cuts me off, and I can tell by his tone that he’s mad and likely pulling at his ever-present tie in annoyance. Something I make him do often.

“I’m not saying you can’t see him, Max,” I clarify, wishing I had at least one cup of coffee before this conversation. “I’m just explaining to you that we’re trying to get settled in here. Can you wait a few weeks before you come out?”

“Such fucking bullshit. I can’t believe you moved to Alaska, of all goddamn places. A boy should have his dad in his life.” My heart stutters and I feel my pulse skyrocket. We didn’t have a custody battle, but I wouldn’t put it past Max to take me to court to gain custody of Hunter if I step out of line in his eyes.

“Max,” I soften my voice as I walk to the kitchen, “you know we talked about this. You can come see him anytime, and in a couple years, he can fly out to see you whenever he has a break,” I say, then drop my voice even lower. “We agreed on him living with me at least until he’s sixteen. After that, he can choose who he wants to live with.”

“I miss you both.” He sighs, making me roll my eyes. I know he doesn’t miss me. I know this, because he’s been dating woman after woman since I asked for a separation. For all I know, he was dating before that. Hell, the last year I spent under the same roof as him, he hardly spared me a glance. Hunter later suffered from his lack of attention, when we lived in the same town after our separation. With Max, it’s always about him getting his way.  

“Max, please just wait a few more weeks, and then you can come and stay as long as you like,” I offer, the words leaving a horrid taste in my mouth. I will do whatever I have to in order to keep my son, though, including putting up with his dad in my childhood home for more than a few days.

“Fine, when?”

Closing my eyes, I whisper, “Next month. Whenever you like. Just let me know, so I can make sure I don’t make plans for Hunter. I know there are a few camps here he’s interested in.”

“Fine. Where is he now? I called his cell phone, but he didn’t pick up.”

“Sleeping. Like I said, it’s only six here, and he was up late talking to his friends back in Seattle on Skype.”

“You really shouldn’t let him stay up so late, Shelby,” he scolds, sounding disapproving, and again, that’s not a surprise.

“It’s summer, Max, and his ‘late’ is ten, not three in the morning,” I mutter, wondering how the hell I put up with him for so many years. “I’ll have him call you when he gets up.”

“Don’t tell him I’m coming out. I want to tell him that myself.”

“Will do,” I grumble, looking at the coffee pot and begging it to hurry up.

“Talk to you later.”

“Talk to you later,” I agree, setting the phone down on the counter. I make myself a cup of coffee and take it out to the back deck, drinking it while the morning sun beats down on me.

wide open spaces cover

New from Aurora Rose Reynolds!

 

Wide Open Spaces releases August 2016!

 

Add to your TBR at: http://bit.ly/1PDVZsf

 

Blurb

That moment your life changes.

That moment that changes your life.

That moment you love someone more than you love yourself.

That was the moment we gave our son up for adoption and the moment I was left bare. A wide-open space that would forever be empty.

There are moments that define you as a person, moments that prove just how strong you are, moments you push yourself to keep going forward when all you really want to do is give up. It was in one of those moments when I reached out and found him waiting for me.

 

When Shelby Calder left home fifteen years ago, she never planned on returning to the Alaskan town she left behind. But after the death of her grandfather and a bitter divorce, she hopes going home will be a fresh start for her and her ten-year-old son.

 

Zach Watters has made a lot of mistakes in his life. But when he sees Shelby Calder, looking more beautiful than ever, standing outside her childhood home, he promises himself that letting her go won’t be a mistake he ever makes again.

 

Some things never change and love is one of them.

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About the Author:

 

Aurora Rose Reynolds is a navy brat who’s husband served in the United States Navy. She has lived all over the country but now resides in New York City with her Husband and pet fish. She’s married to an alpha male that loves her as much as the men in her books love their women. He gives her over the top inspiration everyday. In her free time she reads, writes and enjoys going to the movies with her husband and cookie. She also enjoys taking mini weekend vacations to nowhere, or spends time at home with friends and family. Last but not least she appreciates everyday and admires it’s beauty.

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At the age of fifteen, Anna Baker was ripped from her childhood home, and her one true love, vowing to return the minute she graduated high school.

Professor Liam Harrow once believed his childhood sweetheart would return home to him, but during college he faced reality and hardened his heart to love.
When Historical Hall faces demolition, both Anna and Liam search for options to save their childhood memories, but when secrets unravel and the truth of Anna’s childhood departure is revealed, it could corrupt their memories, risk their present, and destroy their future.
Ciara Knight writes with a ‘Little Edge and a Lot of Heart’ with her contemporary and paranormal romance books. Her most recent #1 Amazon bestselling series, Sweetwater County, has topped the charts and received acclaimed reviews. Her international best-seller, Pendulum scored 4 stars from RT Book Reviews, accolades from InD’Tale Magazine and Night Owl Top Pick. Her young adult paranormal series, Battle for Souls, received 5 stars from Paranormal Romance Guild and Night Owl’s Top Pick, among other praises.
Author Links:
Buy Links: Amazon: http://amzn.to/1mKRYKl
He hugged her to him, holding her arms at her side so she couldn’t hit him. “It’s not too late. You’re not that old, you know.”
She squirmed, but he held tight. “And you’re getting too old to be the playboy of Riverbend. I think it’s time for you to retire that title to a new graduate.”
A shooting star bolted across the sky. “Quick! Make a wish.”
Anna slid an arm free and held his cheek, facing him. “I don’t have to.”
He dared to move closer, to hope she’d return his affection. His heart pounded with adrenaline and his breath quickened. No woman ever turned him around or flipped him upside down like she did. “Anna.”
“Shh.” She gently pressed her lips to the corner of his mouth. A shiver of excitement vibrated from the top of his head to his toes. He held onto her for dear life, hoping she’d never pull away, never leave him again.
“Anna, promise you’ll stay,” he whispered.
A long silence rent the air with indecision. He released her and she slid away, only a few inches, but there might as well have been a valley of broken dreams and wishes between them.


Chapter Reveal – Possess by Kaye Blue

 

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Expected Publication April 27, 2016

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No weakness.

Maxim has stayed alive—and on top—for twenty years through a ruthless combination of brains and brutality. He’s grown the Syndicate into one of the world’s most powerful criminal enterprises.

He cares for no one.

Except her.

The woman he never should have saved…the one who holds the remnants of his long-dead heart.

No limits.

Senna doesn’t know why Maxim spared her all those years ago, or why he’s kept her by his side. But she does know that nothing—not his beautiful cruelty, not the black void where his heart should be—can stop her from loving him. Wanting him.

Even though she shouldn’t.

No turning back.

Years of obsession sharpen to a knife’s edge when Senna begins to crave her freedom. And when an old rival discovers her existence, Maxim must fight to keep her alive, even as he battles his need to possess her completely…no matter the cost.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Prologue

Ten Years Ago…

He stepped over the first body, careful to avoid the blood that pooled around it.

It was best not to make a mess, but as he looked around the room, his disgust rising with every passing second, he was reminded that the man who had come here before him not only had no concerns about making a mess, he reveled in doing so.

He looked around the room again, his face muscles twisting with his displeasure at what he saw. A small, tidy family room, pictures on the wall, a TV in one corner. The TV still played, but the screen was dimmed by the splattered blood that covered it.

He moved deeper into the house and maneuvered around the woman who lay in the middle of the floor.

He didn’t have to look closely to know that she, like the man at the door, was dead, so after a brief glimpse at her stiff, glassy-eyed face, he turned his attention to the scene unfolding in front of him.

“Get out here, you little bitch!”

He face muscles twisting even more, he focused on the man who had bellowed those words in a voice that vibrated with rage, menace, and more than a hint of excitement.

Santo Carmelli had centered himself in the narrow hallway, blocking any chance of exit. He was also frothing at the mouth, his entire body seeming to expand with rage—and anticipation—with each breath he took.

No different than usual, except now that Santo had had a taste of the violence he seemed to feed on, he wouldn’t be satisfied until he’d had his fill. And when Santo was like this, the two he’d already killed wouldn’t be nearly enough.

“No more, Santo. Let’s go,” Maxim said, keeping his voice calm, disinterested, and not letting his irritation come through, difficult as it was to hide it.

If Santo heard, he gave no indication, too far gone in the bloodlust that made him so valued by his superiors and such a pain in Maxim’s ass.

Santo let out an animalistic growl and began stomping down the hallway, uncaring of the gore that coated his shoes and hands.

Maxim didn’t follow immediately, and instead debated whether he should just end this now.

Santo, never a reasonable man, had gotten worse. Much worse. And it always fell on Maxim to clean up his messes, a task Maxim had more than tired of, a task made that much worse by Santo’s sloppiness and his inability to think when he was like this.

Maxim lifted his hand to the small but lethally sharp knife he kept in his waistband.

Finally being rid of Santo would be a relief, and would allow him to focus on more pressing issues. Santo was so distracted it would be easy to get close. Two quick slashes, and one of Maxim’s biggest annoyances and biggest potential rivals would be eliminated.

A tempting prospect, but one Maxim disregarded.

He was close, and all the pieces he needed for his takeover were in place. In a few weeks, the Syndicate would be his.

Then he’d deal with the Santo problem.

Until then…

“Santo,” he said, still calm, tone not betraying how close he’d been to ending Santo’s life.

His voice must have penetrated Santo’s blind rage, for he turned and looked at Maxim.

“Fuck off, Maxim. I’m busy,” he yelled.

“I can see that,” Maxim replied. “Busy and too fucking crazy to do this right. Go now, Santo.”

He shook his head. “No fucking way. She’s back there somewhere trying to hide from me.” As Santo spoke, he glared down the hallway, yelling even louder. Then, he looked back at Maxim, eyes wild with uncontrolled rage. “You think I’m letting this go? That bitch scratched me!” he said, gesturing at the gouges that marked his arms.

Good for her.

Santo probably hadn’t even felt it, but it was good that she’d fought back. Doing so had only pissed Santo off more, and only made Maxim’s already hard job harder, but Maxim didn’t care. A few scratches were nothing, but Maxim would welcome any victory against Santo, no matter how small and symbolic or how much it inconvenienced him.

“I’ll take care of it, Santo,” Maxim said, holding the other man’s gaze.

They were equals in the Syndicate, at least in name, and Maxim had no real authority to give orders, at least not yet. But while Maxim had no official authority over Santo, he had clout, influence, and support that Santo, despite how valued he was by certain members of leadership, did not. And even when he was like this, caught up in his rage and little else, Santo knew that.

Santo’s breath began to smooth out, some of the minuscule reason he had clearing the rage in his eyes.

He finally nodded. “You’re better at this than me anyway. Make it hurt,” he said as he brushed past Maxim and down the hall.

Maxim couldn’t really argue with Santo’s words. He was better, but he wasn’t a mad dog like Santo and he didn’t relish the idea of making someone suffer without good cause, wouldn’t do so simply because Santo had demanded it.

Once Santo was out of the house, Maxim began moving, only barely listening as the others who had entered began to clean the living room, instead focused on the hallway.

Three doors, all partially ajar, darkness spilling out from them.

Two bedrooms and a bathroom, Maxim assumed based on the layout common for houses in this area. This wasn’t the first time he’d been in a place like this, hunting for a person who’d had the misfortune of crossing the Syndicate’s, or Santo’s, path.

A shame, but a part of the job.

Maxim looked down the hall and quickly dismissed the door at the far end. If Maxim was right, and he’d been in this scenario far too many times to be anything else, the person Santo was chasing had planned to slip out behind him as he thrashed through the other rooms. So going to the far door wouldn’t give them the opportunity to get past him.

Which left the second bedroom or bathroom.

Both had merits.

The bedroom offered more places to hide, like the closets people were so fond of. But the bathroom had its own benefits. A window that might serve as an alternate escape, and all kinds of chemicals and cleaners that could do some damage if it came to that.

The scratches on Santo’s arms, the fact that she had gotten away, proved Santo’s prey was a fighter, so Maxim turned into the bathroom and pulled the floral shower curtain aside.

The girl was younger than him, twenty, maybe, and as he’d suspected, clutching a spray bottle of bleach so tightly that her brown fingers were turning white at the knuckles.

Her grip was so tight that it took a moment for her to react, but she did, loosening her hold and then squeezing the nozzle on the spray bottle. Her movements were jerky, panicked, and her aim was off, so the spray flew over Maxim’s shoulder and landed harmlessly behind him.

He glared at her, and her eyes widened but the rest of her body went stiff as she froze in place, staring back at him. Maxim watched her for a moment, two, saw as she debated whether to try to spray him again, saw her fingers twitch around the nozzle as she weighed the consequences of action or inaction.

Saw when she tightened her grip on the bottle.

She met his eyes, and Maxim stared back at her, curious as to what she would do. It felt like the longest time, but in reality it was only seconds. Long enough for Maxim to see that his perception of her as a fighter was true, and long enough for him to tire of their little standoff.

He pried the bottle from her hand and dropped it to the floor, staring at her, considering.

Her eyes were glassy and wet with unshed tears, but tears had long since lost the power to sway him. Maxim couldn’t say for sure if they ever actually had.

He watched her for a moment longer, unmoving. Everything he knew said he should have reached for his knife.

He didn’t.

Instead he grabbed the hand that had been holding the bleach and pulled her out of the shower.

She stared up at him, blinking rapidly, and Maxim could see the beat of her pulse at the base of her throat.

“Are you going to k-kill me?” she asked in a low whisper.

No witnesses. No loose ends. She was both.

The answer was easy.

Yes.

Maxim looked at her eyes again and then shook his head.

“No.”

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Kaye writes hot, gritty, suspenseful romance featuring alpha males and the women who love them.

Author Links

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Chapter Reveal – Vexed by Phoenyx Slaughter

 

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Release Date : April 4th

Cover designed by: AJ Lake

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Falling in love will only leave you vexed.

Recent high school graduate, Athena Vale might seem bubbly and uncomplicated, but she has big plans and even bigger dreams, she’s only ever shared with her best friend, Karina. Athena’s strict upbringing has left her curious about taking a walk on the wild side—just once. And she knows exactly who she wants to go wild with.

President of the Iron Bulls MC, Reed “Romeo” Crownover has no shortage of women willing to entertain him. But these days, there’s only one girl on his mind —Athena. When she shows up at his clubhouse on the night of her eighteenth birthday, he decides it’s time to work her out of his system.

But one night turns into two, two turns into three, and soon the no-strings fun turns into something more passionate than either of them expected. An intense romance neither of them have ever experienced or knew they wanted.

She’s half his age.

He doesn’t fit in her world.

She’s leaving for Los Angeles to start a new life in a few days.

Their connection was vexed from the start.

Vexed is the fourth novella in the Iron Bulls MC series. Although Romeo and Athena make brief appearances in the first three books, Vexed can be read as a stand-alone. It does not end on a cliffhanger.

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CHAPTER ONE

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HOW CAN I STILL BE fucked up over one little girl?

Athena.

That sweet little bitch has had me acting stupid since the day her sassy ass showed up at my clubhouse.

It’s Dante’s fault. My Sergeant-at-Arms found himself a girl, Karina. Hot, smart, and down for about anything. Stare at her for longer than two seconds and you’re asking for an up close and painful introduction to Dante’s fists. My stone-faced-killer friend doesn’t fuck around when it comes to his girl. It’s her best friend I haven’t been able to stop thinking about.

Tagging along with Dante to the girls’ graduation yesterday didn’t help. That’s high school graduation, mind you. All I thought about was how today she’d be turning eighteen. Not even running into her uptight, upscale, bitch-faced parents had settled my dick down.

Like fuck do I plan to chase after her. Not my style. Besides, there’s enough willing girls trolling my clubhouse who’ve been legal longer than five seconds. Any one of them will be thrilled to service me, then go away. The way I prefer my relationships. Quick and uncomplicated.

Unfortunately, my dick isn’t interested in any of them. No matter how hard the girls have tried to get my attention tonight.

Spotting Dante and Karina walk in the front of door, I glance behind them. No Athena.

I’m capable of casually asking about her without sounding like a complete creep, right?

Then she stumbles in the door. With her scared little Goldilocks expression, she looks like she’s about to meet up with the biggest, baddest wolf.

Me.

Dante’s wearing his I need to choke someone face. Hooking my thumbs in my pockets, I approach the trio slowly.

“What’s up?” I ask Dante, who rolls his eyes at me. He’s not fooled one bit by my laid back act.

“Hi, Romeo,” Karina says shyly. I still can’t get over how a scary motherfucker like Dante managed to snag such a beautiful and soft-spoken chick. “Um, Athena and I spent the day with her family for her birthday, and she asked if she could join us tonight. I hope that’s okay.” I appreciate the emphasis Karina puts on the word birthday. What a nice, subtle hint that her friend’s now fair game.

Finally.

“Is it your birthday, sweetheart?” I ask Athena. When I put all my attention on her, she blushes and glances at the floor. A much different reaction than I expected, considering how tough she usually acts.

“Yes.”

Dante sighs and steps away from the girls. Karina leads her friend to the bar and I ain’t happy about not being able to say more than a few words to the girl who’s taken over my every wank fantasy for weeks now.

Taking me by the arm, Dante pulls me a few steps away. “Listen, I ain’t got no say over what you do with your dick, brother. But I feel responsible for her, being she’s Karina’s friend and all. Treat her with care, please.”

It’s a lot for my Sergeant-at-Arms to say. There aren’t many females he gives two fucks about. And I sure as fuck don’t remember the last time I heard please come out of his mouth. For once, I set my sarcasm aside. “Yeah. She’ll be okay with me. I won’t let her out of my sight.”

Dante searches my face and must finally decide I’m sincere, because he nods. We join the girls at the bar. Dante immediately pulls his girl to his side.

“Athena, we’ll be upstairs. You need anything, call your girl.” He tilts his head toward Karina, then drags her upstairs. Not that she protests.

Athena watches them leave, but I can’t take my eyes off her. She pushes her shoulders back and slowly swivels her bar stool toward me. “Am I finally allowed to have a tour of your clubhouse, Mr. President?” she asks in a low, husky voice I don’t expect from someone her age.

Seems Miss Goldilocks isn’t so scared anymore.

“Come here, you,” I say as I pull her closer. I spin her seat, so her back’s to the bar and she has to tip her head back to see my face. Staring down into her bold, steel-blue eyes unbalances me. “Did you have a good birthday?”

“Not really. I think you can make it better, though.”

I can make it better, or I can make it the biggest mistake of her young life. I shouldn’t mess around with this girl. She deserves a nice guy, who isn’t almost twice her age.

Except, I’ve wanted her from the second we met. And now there’s no reason I can’t have her.

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All day I begged Karina to let me tag along to her boyfriend’s motorcycle club, but now that I’m here, I’m terrified.

The reality is so much scarier than all the things I’ve fantasized about since the first time I visited the Iron Bulls MC’s clubhouse.

A few weeks ago, I’d dropped Karina off to visit her boyfriend. I hadn’t expected the president of the club to take an interest me. The intensity of his deep blue eyes tied my tongue in knots and I made a fool of myself. That had been during the middle of the day. Things were relatively calm.

Tonight, the clubhouse is in the middle of a big celebration, and I’ve never seen some of the sex acts being done around me. Not even on those five-minute Pornhub clips I’ve snuck a peek at once or twice when I found my way around my parents’ firewall.

My best friend has been keeping serious secrets. It blows my mind Karina hangs out around this erotic mayhem and never told me. I’m utterly shocked and throbbing with curiosity about everything I see.

You’re a whore just like your friend.

I give myself a shake, hoping to silent my parents’ ever-present criticism and focus. I swore if I had another chance to talk to Romeo, I wouldn’t embarrass myself. Yet here I am, gawking like a scared little girl.

This is the scene Romeo’s used to. The kind of behavior he expects. Sexy, confident girls. Not virgins who have no idea what they’re doing.

Well, some idea.

But my ex-boyfriend, Bobby, might as well have been an armadillo for all the similarity he has to Romeo.

The arrogance of having a road name like Romeo. Either he’s really good in the sack or has a micro penis.

God, I hope it’s not a micro penis.

The way he’s staring at me and running his hand over a chin full of scruff, I think I’m about to find out.

“Did you have a good birthday?” he asks while watching me as if I’m the only person in the room.

Because he wants to get in your panties, idiot.

He doesn’t even pretend he’s not checking me out. His deep sapphire eyes gleam with sex and mischief while they appreciate my long, bare legs, covered by a short, frilly skirt. I practically feel the weight of his gaze as it moves up my body, over my hips, and over the swells of my breasts, barely concealed by the flimsy fabric of my camisole.

“Not really. I think you can make it better, though.” Where the hell did I find the lady balls to say that?

Romeo likes my forwardness. A feral smile lights up his face. Hell help me, this man’s insanely hot. The beard scruff doesn’t hide the hard angles of his jaw. The fitted T-shirt he’s wearing under his leather vest hints at the rock-hard body underneath. Tattoos peek out from every available inch of skin. His thick, dark hair seems too wild to be contained and falls over his forehead in a way that declares badass. Every inch of him screams reckless, gruff, crude, dirty, dangerous, and utterly irresistible.

I’m so in over my head with this guy…this man.

And I can’t wait to see what happens next.

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Phoenyx “Nyx” Slaughter has many roles, including writer, reader, and roughneck wrangler. She loves taboo stories—the filthier the better.

She loves to travel and meet new people with similar interests. Feel free to visit her on facebook or send her an email: NyxSlaughter@gmail.com

Author Links

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Chapter Reveal – Learning to Fly by Lauren Firminger

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Learning To Fly

The Fated Love Series; Book 1

Pages ~ 196

Published By ~ Lauren Firminger

Estimated Publishing Date ~ 4/16/16

Genre ~ New Adult; Romance

Cover Designed by ~ MadHat Covers


~Blurb~

Maddison was just your average Aussie girl. Raised by her uncle when her mum and dad died, she worked, hung out with her friends and had a boyfriend she loved. Or so she thought. When she found her

boyfriend had been cheating on her with her best friend, Maddie decided it was time for a change. She quit her job and started working on a plan to travel.


Enter Morgan Young.


Morgan Young is a Country Superstar and rising higher. He always knew what he wanted and went for it. Maddie was no exception.


What happens when this Aussie meets a country superstar? Secrets revealed and sparks will fly. Will Maddie get her happily ever after or is she destined to fall.



~Pre-Order~

iBooks US ~ AU


~Chapter Reveal~


~Maddie’s POV~


I always wondered what happened right before died. there white lights and seeing your life flashing before your eyes? Would you only see the good things, or would all the hurt and pain come back, too?

I got my answer. I watched the images hit me one by one. From the smells I remembered in those moments to the feelings I felt. I watched people I hadn’t seen in years who made an impact in my life flash before me. Faces I would never see again brought a tear to my eye. All because I had to be on that stage with him. I couldn’t leave him, and now it was going to cost me my life. Could they save me in time, or was evil about to win out?

Let’s go back to the beginning, though. Who am I? My name is Maddison Lee. I was born and raised in a small country town just south of Tamworth. When I say town, I mean it was one of those blink and you miss it kind of towns, but I loved it. I wasn’t the popular girl in school, but I had good friends. It didn’t matter that I could count them all on one hand. They all mattered to me, and I trusted them. I was on my own for the most part. My uncle was my only living relative. My mum and dad died when I was little. Mum died from complications during childbirth, and dad, who had spent his whole life with just one person, died from heart complications. Well, that was how it was explained to me when I was old enough to understand. At the time, I was told he died of a broken heart. That was something I still believed to this day.

Once my uncle found out about

my dad, he moved to Tamworth to live with me until I finished high school. Once I got a job and moved out on my own, he relocated back to Tasmania where he has been living ever since. Sure I still spoke to him every other day, but I hadn’t seen him in a few years. My uncle had never married or been in a serious relationship that I knew of. He was quite happy to live like that. When he wasn’t running his hotels, he was seeing a different part of the world. That’s what I was dreaming of now, and I had now finally decided it was the time to do it, but first, I needed one last weekend with my friends. I needed to say goodbye.

Girl’s weekends were supposed to be about fun, right? Girls drinking too much and making memories. That’s what I thought too until I got to the camp grounds. Yep, camping. The last thing I ever expected to be doing with this bunch. My friends were the complete opposite of me. Their idea of a night under the stars was five-star hotels with room service and bars in pools. How I had gotten them to agree to a five day camping trip in the middle of QLD was something I still had no clue how it had happened. So after packing up my truck, Ellie and I hit the road. We had a seven hour drive ahead of us before we got there and could set up camp. Maybe I should have flown instead.

When I turned the music up a little, Ellie got the hint I didn’t want to talk and went off to sleep. I enjoyed the drive with only the music playing. It gave me time to think. I had recently split from the guy I was seeing, and I was using this weekend as my chance to leave him behind me. Seven hours in a car with Ellie was painful, to put it mildly. You see, Ellie had started dating someone new. The new guy Ellie was dating happened to be my ex, so there was no chance of leaving that all behind me. I had tried everything I could to get out of bringing Ellie with me, but we had this planned before everything came to light about her and Josh, so I couldn’t back out at the last minute, and none of the girls had room with them. I had almost pleaded to swap but work commitments wouldn’t allow that.

“Maddison?” I turned to look at Ellie.

“I thought you were asleep.”

She nodded her head. “I was… I… I just wanted to say… I didn’t steal him from you. I know what you are thinking… I wouldn’t do that to you.”

I couldn’t help but snort and roll my eyes. “El, I think you should find a different way home.”

“What? Maddie, come on. We can talk about this…” Shaking my head, I focused on the road ahead of me.

“I’m not going home, Ellie. This is it for me.” I saw her frown from the corner of my eye. Before I left for our weekend away, I had quit my job. There was something unsatisfying about sitting behind a desk for hours on end when all I wanted to do was be in the big wide world seeing it all. I looked over at Ellie. “I quit, Ellie. I can’t sit in that town for the rest of my life. You can have Josh. Hope he treats you better than he ever did me. I just won’t be around to see it.”

“So what are you gonna do, Maddie?”

I shrugged my shoulders. “I will get by some way or another. Sell my photos maybe. I have enough to get me by for now. Not one for making any plans right now.”

“Do the other girls know?”

I shook my head. “And I ask you not to change that, Ellie. I will tell them when I am ready.” Ellie nodded and closed her eyes again. Hearing “Going out like that” by Reba McEntire, I turned it up louder and focused back on the road. I took a deep breath. What was I gonna do from here?

Once we arrived, I almost kissed the ground as I got out of my truck. God, I was glad that was over and done with. Ellie and I were the last to arrive. I moved to hug the girls, and they could tell there was something up between El and I. I guessed they just put it down to Josh and moved on. After the hellos, I started to set up camp before it got too dark to see what I was doing. None of the other girls knew how. I had to stop and ask myself why was I doing this? Then I remembered this would be goodbye. I caught myself looking around at the girls from time to time. Who knew when I would see them all again. Who knew when I decided to come back home if we would even still be friends.

After the camp had been set up, we showered and relaxed. We got a campfire going and had some music playing while we had a few drinks. The rest of the weekend would start tomorrow, but for now, it was just me and the girls. Taking a sip of my Southern Comfort and lime, I took a deep breath. Looking up, I went to open my mouth when Ellie’s phone started ringing. She looked at me before getting up and walking away from the group. I downed the rest of my drink after that.

“Are you okay Maddie?”

“Just peachy Jas.” With a sigh, I got up and walked away to make another drink. Hearing someone come up behind me, I looked over my shoulder.

“Come on Maddie, we have been best friends since preschool. What’s going on in that pretty little head of yours?” By now, the girls had stopped talking to listen to the conversation. Looking past them to Ellie, I could tell she was listening too despite the phone still being in her hand. I moved to sit down with my drink in hand and looked into the fire.

“I was hoping this could wait, but since you asked…” I looked up at them all watching me. “I won’t be coming home after this weekend. I got someone to look after my place indefinitely and I quit my job. I can’t sit around and wait for my life to start. I’m gonna start living it.” I took a drink

from my glass and just listened to the music and the sounds of the fire going because right now, all the girls were looking at me like I had been speaking another language.

“But… why?”

I raised a brow. “After all the shit these last few years has brought me, I need a change. I can’t sit here any longer. You are all settling down and starting families, and that is great for you all, but I can’t see that life for myself. I want to travel the world with my camera and take photos of it all. I want to shoot for the biggest names. I need to do this now or I am going to be miserable for the rest of my life.” One by one, they all nodded and we silently agreed this had to be the best weekend of our lives.

The next few days seemed to fly past. Before I knew it, it was our last night there, and we were having a few drinks in the “bar,” as they called it. The music and drinks were flowing and it was almost time to call it a night when I felt a tap on my shoulder. The girls’ jaws all dropped before I had the chance to turn around, so I didn’t know what to expect. Quickly downing my drink and turning around, I stumbled seeing who it was. Standing before me was Morgan Young. All  of him. I had just spent the last few days drooling over this man. Not to mention the months beforehand since his music was released a few years ago. His hands found my arms helping to steady me as I looked up into his beautiful brown eyes.

“Are you okay, darlin’?”

My God, that accent made me swoon. I nodded. “Yeah, thanks. Might be time to switch to water, though.” I laughed. His grin widened, and he led me over to the bar. Signaling to the bartender, he came over with two waters and handed me one.

“Ya know, I have been watchin’ ya all weekend.”

“That’s funny, Morgan, I have been watching you, too.” I grinned and took a sip of my water.

“See now that’s unfair, darlin’. You know my name but I don’t know yours.”

I held my hand out to him. “Maddie.”

Moving outside for some fresh air with Morgan, I kept sipping my water. The air inside had been thick while the girls and I dancing in the bar, so it was good to get away from it all. Walking a little way down the path, I found some logs and took a seat on one while Morgan sat on the other. “Are you headed back to the States tomorrow?”

Morgan shook his head. “No, I was taking some time off while I was here to just unwind. Touring these last few months has been crazy.”

I nodded. “You’ll love it. It’s a beautiful country.”

His eyes never left me. “I like the gorgeous views I have seen so far.” I felt heat rush to my cheeks and knew my face would be red right now. Clearing my throat, I took another drink. “Are you headed back to your partner tomorrow, Maddie?”

I couldn’t help but grin. “Smooth Morgan, but no. No partner to go back to. I am actually about to start traveling for a while.” I could see his brows raise in curiosity.

“Where ya headed?”

I took another drink of water I looked away for a minute to compose myself. I had no idea when I left home a few days ago that I would be sitting here with Morgan Young. Not that I was about to admit this to him, but my laptop was a stalker’s paradise to this man. Obsessed was an understatement. I looked back at him and swallowed my water. “Around Australia to

begin with, then who knows where after that. Maybe the States. I would love to see Italy and Greece. The UK, too. Germany for Oktoberfest, Switzerland, Finland to see the Northern Lights from an igloo…” As I talked, his eyes never left my face. I felt my cheeks heat up again “Sorry, rambling.” I took another drink.

“Don’t be sorry. I love to see that passion in someone’s eyes.”

I nodded as I swallowed. “It’s something I have always wanted to do. Photograph my way around the world.”

He shook his head and took a drink from his bottle. “Hard to believe I stumbled on the one person who has ambition and I have to leave her here.” I watched as he heaved a sigh and took another drink.

“When do you fly out?”

“A couple of weeks.”

“Then why don’t you come with me and see some of what my country has to offer then? Then when I get there, you can do the same?”

He looked up and his grin was back. “You have yourself a deal.” He held out his hand to me.  I shook it and met his eyes. I didn’t pull my hand away, and neither did he. Hearing someone coming up behind us and a throat clear, we both reluctantly let our hands drop.

“I’m not interrupting anything, am I?”

I moved to sit next to Morgan. Taken or not, I knew what was coming next. “As a matter of fact, Ellie, you were. Don’t you have a boyfriend to go and check up on? Would hate for you to turn your back on him for too long.” As she narrowed her eyes and took a step toward me, I stood up. I let my lips curl into a smirk because the look in her eyes told me not everything was as picture perfect as she had been painting it all weekend. Out of nowhere, Jas came running up, grabbed Ellie by the wrist, and pulled her away. As my best friend since preschool knew, I was vicious when pissed off, and I had only just scratched the surface with Ellie. I had a lot of ammunition I wouldn’t hesitate to pull out in the future. When she was well away from Morgan and me, I sat back down, and he took my hand again. He laced his fingers with mine and gave them a squeeze.

“You okay?” I nodded, running my free hand through my hair. I rested my elbow on my knee and my cheek on my palm.

“She is part of the reason I am so happy to be anywhere but home. My ex was cheating on me with her, and she still refuses to own up to it despite him telling me everything. They are still together. She has been rubbing it in my face all weekend trying to make out that they are perfect together. All she is doing is trying to convince herself of that. That’s not my problem anymore. I won’t be around to see it crash and burn.” He took his hand from mine, and I felt a little disappointed. That didn’t last long, though. Morgan wrapped his arm around my shoulder and pulled me closer. Leaning my head against his shoulder, I let out another sigh. God, I hated her right now.

“Stay with me tonight?” I blinked and pulled back to look at him

“Excuse me?”

“Sorry, filter didn’t quite catch that thought…” He chuckled and ran his hand along my arm.

“What I meant was, I don’t think you should be going back to stay at camp if the she devil is going to be there. It’s your last night here and I think you should be leavin’ on a high.”

I could see his point. If I went back to the camp, then Ellie would start shit to try to get to me, which would result in

me doing something I really wouldn’t be sorry for after. If I was going to be taking photos for a living, I couldn’t risk hitting her wrong and doing something that would see me stuck back in that town with them. Biting my lip, I nodded

“Okay, I’ll stay.” The grin that spread across his lips was enough to make me forget what just happened and relax. I tucked myself back into his side and wrapped my arms around his waist as I fought to hide a yawn. This was what happened once I stopped after a night of drinking. The buzz would make me sleepy as hell, and I knew it wouldn’t be long before I was crashing. “Do you mind if we get out of here? I have a feeling I am about to meet a wall, and sadly, there is no crashing through it after this weekend.”

“Of course, darlin’, let’s get you comfy shall we?”

I smiled and we both stood up. He wrapped his arm around my shoulders and I tucked myself into his side as we made our way back to where they were camping out. Well, I wouldn’t so much call it camping as I would sleeping in tour buses and campervans, but eh, I wasn’t about to complain. They needed to sleep and when you are camping in tents with this many people around, I can understand why they needed to put a solid wall between them and that. Once we got through the security guys who kept the crazies away from them, Morgan opened up the door and pulled his arm away.

“After you, my lady.” I couldn’t help but grin when he motioned with his hand and dipped his head.

“Why thank you, good sir.” I stepped in after a small curtsy and walked inside the bus, Taking his hand as he led me through to the back. He pointed out everything including the bathroom and kitchen in case I needed anything before he stopped when he got to the bedroom. Yeah, maybe I was rethinking how I should be travelling. I shook my head at the thought and moved to lay down on the bed.

“You take the bed Maddie. I can sleep out in the front part.”

Sitting up slowly, I shook my head. “You should have the bed Morgan. It is your bus after all.”  Morgan shook his head and I tilted my head to the side a little. “You could always come and lay with me…” It took him half a second to think about that before he was pulling his shirt up over his head and moving to lie down on the other side of the bed. “Morgan, where are your shirts?” He raised a brow and pointed to a case in the corner.

Getting up off the bed, I moved to grab a comfy looking one and ducked into the bathroom. Losing the boots and jeans, I took off my shirt and bra folded them all neatly and left them in there. Putting on his shirt, which was swimming on me, I took a deep breath, walked out of the bathroom, and moved to lie down again. I looked over at him, and boy, did I ever regret that. That smirk. My God. I was going to have very good dreams of that smirk tonight. While getting comfy under the covers, I wiggled back against him. “No funny business mister.”

He chuckled and lay down letting his arm wrap around my waist, pulling me closer. “Wouldn’t dream of it…well, maybe I would.” I let out a soft groan as I hid my face in the pillow and closed my eyes. He clapped his hands, and the lights went out before he wrapped his arm back around me. “Sweet dreams, Maddie.”

I mumbled something as sleep kicked in and took me from Morgan. That was the first night I’d had a good night’s sleep in I don’t know how long…

~Author Bio~

Lauren Firminger grew up in a small country town only a couple hours away from where she currently resides in Sydney, Australia.

During high school, Lauren fell in love with books and reading, and like most, was a Potter-head then turned Twi-Hard, Vampire Academy soon followed by the Mortal Instruments.


However, it wasn’t until she got her hands on Sylvia Day’s Crossfire Series that Lauren fell in love with reading again. Soon after, her new writing journey began, bringing her to her official debut release of Learning to Fly.


~Author Links~


Will you be in Sydney in 2017? You can find Lauren and many other amazing authors at the “Books by the Bridge” author event. You can find more information on their Facebook page.


Chapter Reveal – Lay It Down by Carina Adams

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Release Date : April 7th

 

Pre-order links

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The Bastards MC Series Boxed contains the first two books in the series – Always Been Mine and Honey Whiskey

 

Josephine Walker:

My carefully constructed, picture perfect life is crumbling around me. For the first time in fifteen years, I don’t know who I want to be.

 

I need to find me.

 

I’m done playing it safe, done caring what others think. I want wild and crazy. And, as much as I try to ignore it, I want Matt to see me as more than just his best friend.

 

Matty Murphy:

The Bastards live in a world most don’t understand. We follow our own rules, only accountable to each other, the innocents we protect, and the people we couldn’t save. Each of us wears a mask, hiding behind a polite smile and a respectable job, covering the monsters inside. I made peace with who I was a long time ago. I have no regrets.

 

Except one.

 

Jo Walker. I’m not letting her go without a fight.

 

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Prologue

Matty

A giggle floated across the room, snagging my attention from the conversation a few of the guys were having around me. I didn’t have to look up to know who the contagious sound was coming from—Joes had a laugh like no other. It was a sound that always made me smile.

Then again, Jo had an uncanny ability to make everyone around her react that way. I’d once bet a co-worker he couldn’t spend the entire day locked in a car with her without laughing. The crotchety old bastard was adamant that she was annoying as fuck and he wouldn’t as much as crack a smile. He’d even rolled his eyes at her as they were leaving, scowling at whatever story she’d been sharing.

I didn’t gloat—much—when he walked up at the end of the day and put a fifty in my hand. I did laugh loudly as I walked to my car, but that was only because I’d been in his shoes.

I may have been a member of the Josephine Walker fan club, but after that day, Robert Pappas became the president. Any time one of our co-workers complained about the new kid, Old Bobby—as Jo affectionately called him—was quick to put them in their place. Easiest money I’d ever made.

Another laugh pulled my thoughts back to the present, and I looked up, watching her with our work friends. A group of us had come out for our monthly “Babes and Booze” night; I inwardly cringed at the God-awful title it had been given. It was the one evening a month when we grabbed our significant others and went out drinking to forget that we were responsible adults, a night we all looked forward to for weeks.

There was only one rule: no talking about work. It might sound simple to follow, but at least one of us broke it every month. We couldn’t leave the job at the office, no matter how hard we tried. A bad case stayed with you long after you’d gone home. We all had ‘em, but some of us were a lot more fucking unlucky than others. Sometimes you just needed to lift the bottle, drown the memories, and depend on your friends to get you home.

Tonight, that was my plan. As much as I loved my job, some days I wished I’d stayed a carpenter. A bored housewife who wanted to flirt with the help was a hell of a lot easier to forget than the case I’d been assigned this week. Todd, a tiny toddler, had been beaten bloody because his mom didn’t have one fucking ounce of maternal instinct and lacked even the smallest amount of motherly love. I’d seen some fucked up shit—hell, we all had in this job—but I’d never forget his bruised face, eye swollen shut, and the fear that made every inch of his body shrink away when I walked into his hospital room. He would never remember the words I had whispered or even begin to understand what I meant when I promised him he’d never go through it again. But I’d never forget.

That kid had gotten to me. Part of me wanted to scoop him up and take him home, spend the rest of my life making sure he never missed another meal or bath and proving to him that he could be a kid, a real kid, without fear of physical harm. Another part of me wanted to call Rocker and have the boys come take care of the parents, just to make sure they never got him back. Instead, I did my job. I let the law work the way it was designed and prayed that it wouldn’t let me down. Because I sure as shit didn’t know how I would react if his parents got him back and hurt him again. I wasn’t sure I could do my job if there was a next time.

I could rest easier knowing that one of the best foster moms I had ever worked with was staying at his bedside at the hospital until Todd was discharged. Then she would take him home and love him like her own until his parents could get their shit together. She would hold him, and scare away the monsters in the night, tell him he was adorable and funny and sweet, and give him lots of kisses. She was a fucking saint, the kind of mom every kid deserved. The idea that she might save him then I’d have to take him back to shitty-ass parents pissed me off.

Three days later and I was still pissed off. I could feel the tension flow through my body, as if it was just waiting for someone to infuriate me further so I could use my fists and get out some of this anger. I took a long drag off my bottle, hoping it would help me forget this week.

Joes picked that moment to look over at me, her smile slowly fading into a frown as she caught my eye. Shit! I hadn’t even realized I was giving her the death glare until she raised an eyebrow and tipped her head in silent question. I shook mine, hoping she would understand that she wasn’t my target, and sent her a quick smile. Our friend Teagan grabbed Jo’s arm, dragging her eyes away from mine, and said something that made everyone laugh.

Jesus, she was gorgeous when she laughed. My mouth was suddenly dry, and I took another gulp of my Sam Adams, unable to tear my eyes away from her. She’d pulled her dark hair back, giving me the perfect view of her face; her usually pale skin had a pink tone tonight, probably from all the alcohol she’d consumed, but it suited her. Even from halfway across the bar, I could see the pale blue-green of her eyes. She was beautiful all the time, but when she laughed…

No. I shook my head, scowling at my thoughts. She was taken. Seriously fucking taken. Happily married taken. I ground my teeth at the idea. Married to a fucking douchenozzle who didn’t even begin to deserve her. I may have some serious shit buried deep, but compared to that fucker, I looked like a prince. I took another swig, pissed at my thoughts. She was my Joes, my best friend. That was it. That was all she could ever be, and any other ideas that filtered through my mind, I’d blame on the booze or my miserably fucked up week. Just another reason for me to be pissed off at the world.

I needed a shot. Screw one—I needed ten. Chased by a couple glasses of Jack. I turned back to my buddies, made my excuses, and headed to the bar.

“You okay?” Joey’s voice was full of concern as she slid up to the counter next to me.

I nodded, threw my head back, and swallowed, hissing as the harsh liquor burned its way down my throat. “I will be.”

“Wanna talk about it?”

I could feel her heated gaze but refused to look at her. I didn’t need to see the concern I was sure was etched all over her face. Instead I shook my head and lifted the next shot in line. She chuckled, and I turned to her in surprise.

“Jesus, you are a stubborn ass!” She shook her head, but I couldn’t tell if it was in annoyance or humor. Then she smiled and stepped in closer, wrapping her arms around my hips. “I’m sorry you had such a rough day.”

I sighed, moving my arm around her back and pulling her close. If she didn’t care that Billy or our friends saw us like this, I didn’t either. Fuck ‘em. Half of ‘em thought we were already screwing, and the other half knew she thought of me like a big brother. I couldn’t care less about any of their opinions. As for Billy, he could suck it. I leaned my chin down to rest on the top of her head, enjoying her soft body against me, while she gave me a quick squeeze then pulled away.

I let her back up but kept my arm over her shoulders. My mood instantly improved. “What was that for?”

She smiled up at me then shrugged. “You needed a hug.” She laughed lightly, as if embarrassed by her actions. She tipped her head back to meet my eyes then wrinkled her nose. “I like her.”

One of the many reasons she was my best friend, Jo was a master at changing the subject and could distract me from even my worst thoughts. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.” Jo smirked. “I mean, obviously she’s gonna wake up in a few weeks and wonder why in the hell she’s dating an old man who looks like you, but in the meantime, she seems pretty great.”

“Old man, huh? Last time I checked, you were about a minute younger than me.”

“Dude, you turn thirty-five next month and that’s ancient!” Her eyes grew wide in exaggeration, and she laughed. “And what is she, like, twelve?”

I snorted. Tay definitely looked a lot younger than twenty-six. “Yep, something like that.” I couldn’t help but smile down at her.

“Seriously though, she is beautiful. You weren’t lying; I think she may be the prettiest woman I’ve ever met.” A frown crossed her features, but she cleared her face before I could say anything.

I raised an eyebrow, sure I was missing something.

“And she’s nice. I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but I think you’ve finally found it.”

“It?” I didn’t want to know what she meant, but I had to ask.

“Your future.” I didn’t know what to say, and she shrugged knowingly. “You don’t have to say anything, but it’s been written all over your face all night. You’re distracted because of work, yeah, but you’ve got this goofy surprised look too. As if you just realized something important. Kind of like the one you had when you realized you were in love with Becky.” Jo moved her attention to the bar, as if avoiding me, and grabbed my glass of whiskey. After taking a giant gulp, she turned back to me. “I was worried. After Bex…”

She bit her bottom lip and “hmphed” the way she did when she was debating something. That habit always distracted me and pulled my thoughts to places they shouldn’t be, like wondering what sounds she would make if it was my teeth sinking into her. Forcing my mind to clear, I raised the third shot and downed it fast.

“I just worry about you.”

“I know.” I’d been a screwed up mess after my divorce; there wasn’t a bottle of booze I didn’t like.

Joes had come to my hotel a few weeks after I’d left my house, and she made me sober up. She stayed with me for days while I acted like a pathetic loser, whining and crying and telling her I didn’t have a future without my wife or kid. It was an embarrassing time, and I’d wiped most of it from my mind—of course she’d remembered.

I swallowed hard. “You really think Taylor’s future material? ‘Cause she’s obviously too good for me.”

Jo chuckled. “Obviously. But she’s young and you’re… well, you’re you. She’s probably convinced she’s the lucky one.” She shook her head again. “You be nice to her!”

I’d been seeing Taylor for a few weeks, and even though I’d told Jo all about her and Taylor all about Joes, I’d been dreading introducing them. Becky hadn’t been bothered by the fact that my best friend was a woman; she trusted me, and I never would have betrayed that trust. But some—hell, most—of the women I’d dated since the divorce didn’t feel the same way. My last girlfriend had been convinced that I was going to leave her for Jo one day; instead I broke it off because she wouldn’t stop obsessing and wanted me to stop seeing Joes anywhere other than work. I apparently needed to come with a warning label: Hot female best friend included. Petty, self-centered, and jealous women need not apply.

Taylor wasn’t jealous of anyone; she knew she was damn close to perfection and didn’t have a problem letting everyone know she was God’s gift to men. Yet not only was the threat of another woman still there, but I would do anything for the other woman in this scenario. I just didn’t know how Tay would feel once she figured out how close Joes and I really were.

I was worried about Jo too. She’d been crushed after my divorce. She tells everyone that I’m her best friend, but there were times when it seemed that she and Bex were closer than we were. She’d laugh and tell me it was the “girl code” that made her take Becky’s side in arguments and that I was still her best friend. I’d complain about it, but secretly, I liked the fact that the two of them were cohorts, because it meant I got to spend more time with my two favorite girls. When Bex left me though, she’d dropped Jo too, devastating my friend. I didn’t want to be the cause of that pain again. If she and Taylor got close, and Tay and I didn’t work out, Joes would be left once more.

It had been almost a month since we’d started dating, almost two since we’d met, and it was time for me to introduce the two most important women in my life. Figures it would happen at such a fan-fucking-tastic time, but the week had already been shit, and if they didn’t like each other, that would be par for the course my life had taken lately. I may not have shown it, but I was relieved to avoid that bomb and happy that at least Jo liked Taylor.

“When am I not nice?”

Jo only answered my question with an angry one-eyebrow look.

“Hey!” I held up my hands in defense. “I’m nice to her!” I laughed.

“Who are you being nice to?” Pretty Boy Billy Boy came up behind Jo and wrapped his arms around her possessively.

There wasn’t a single man in that bar still wearing what they’d worn to work except for him. No, everyone else had gone home and changed into jeans. But Billy? His pompous ass needed the entire world to see he wore a suit and tie; he needed everyone to think he was important.

Fucking asshat. I reached for my glass and took a long drink as he slid his face into Jo’s neck. I fucking hated him with every fiber of my body, but I nodded my hello. “Billy.”

“Matt.” His voice was just as cool as mine; there was clearly only one reason we needed to talk to each other, and she was standing right between us. He gave Joes a quick squeeze, making her squeak. “You ready to go, Pudge? I’m exhausted!”

My hand tightened on the glass when I heard the nickname he still used. Fucking hate him. I clenched my jaw, remembering the promise I’d made to Jo last year about minding my own goddamned business. As much as I wanted to beat his ass into oblivion for the sly way he constantly talked down to her, I had to hold it in. He was Jo’s choice, not mine. My job was to support her.

Pudge, Joes told me once, was his term of endearment for her. I didn’t understand how a name like that could ever be anything other than an insult. And only an absolute selfish fuck would not be able to see how much it bothered her; it freaking bothered me for her. She wasn’t fat. I hated the word curvy—since it had been overused in the last few years to explain away obesity—but that was exactly what Jo was. She reminded me of the 50s pin-up girls in Uncle Liam’s workshop—full and round in all the right places, tight and toned in the rest. Lately she’d gotten too thin for my liking, a fact I blamed on Billy and his insulting nickname. I tried to keep my face blank but knew my repulsion must show.

Jo caught my look, and for an instant, shame drifted over hers and she broke eye contact. Patting Billy’s hand, she nodded. “Yeah, babe. I’ll be right there. Go get the coats?” Billy grumbled but retreated back to their table, and she turned eyes that vaguely reminded me of the Caribbean Sea to me. “You sure you’re okay? ‘Cause if you need me to, I can stay.” She smirked suddenly. “I’m not sure how your girlfriend would feel about me hitching a ride home, but…”

I fought the urge to haul her into my arms and instead cupped the softness of her cheek. I stared into her eyes, getting lost for a minute as I thought about what I really wanted to say. Fucking right I need you to stay. I need you to come home with me, need you to make this entire week fade into oblivion. Reality crept in, and I shook my head. “No. Go home. I need to go save Taylor from Teagan anyway.”

She reached a hand up, covering mine. “You know I’m here if you need me, right? I’ll always be just a phone call away.”

I nodded. There wasn’t much I was sure about anymore, but that fact was clear.

She dropped her hand to my chest as she stepped into me, stretching up on tiptoes, and kissed my cheek. “Love you, Matty.” She smiled quickly then backed away, my hand falling from her. “See you tomorrow!” Jo called over her shoulder as she made her way to Billy.

I finished off the whiskey before I turned and leaned back against the bar. Taylor was lost in conversation with a group of clerks from work, not even noticing that I wasn’t where she’d left me earlier. I watched her laugh with my friends, waiting for her to realize I was staring, hoping she could feel my eyes on her. She never gave me as much as a glance.

Jo was wrong; Taylor wasn’t my future. I had to be honest with myself, as much as I fucking hated the idea. There was only one woman I wanted to be with for the rest of my life, and she was taken by a dickwad who thought he was too good for her. If she was mine, I’d do anything to keep a smile on her face, make her happy, and keep her safe.

I glowered at that thought, knowing I’d never have the chance. The ball-busting truth was that Billy wasn’t the only one bad for her; the skeletons in my closet terrified even me and were hidden away for a damned good reason. If Joes knew a quarter of my shit, the secrets I kept, she’d run away screaming. I’d never be able to let her in because once I did, she’d leave and never look back. That was not a chance I was willing to take.

No, Jo would never be mine.

That cold hard fact pissed me off more than everything else that had happened this week. Fuck my life. I turned back to the bar and ordered another round.

 

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Carina Adams has been writing and creating characters for as long as she can remember, allowing her to fall in love with the next man of her dreams with every new story.

Thankfully, fate stepped in and granted her the ultimate wish – a life full of men. Carina lives in a picturesque New England town with her husband, the man who ruined the thought of all others, and two amazing sons who always keep her on her toes.

Carina received her MBA in May, but would much rather play with her imaginary friends (the voices in her head) than work her 8 to 5. When she isn’t trying to juggle being a working mom with karate and football practices, surprising her children with her sci-fi movie knowledge, or writing, you can find her with her nose pressed against her kindle, laughing with friends, or living life vicariously as her Derby Girl persona, Writers Block.

Carina is the author the of Bastards MC series and best selling Forever Red. She is currently writing Out of The Blue, the follow up to Forever Red. She loves to hear feedback from her readers, no matter what type. You can email her at:

Author links

Facebook  Goodreads    Amazon page

 

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Chapter Reveal – Challenged by Ryan Michele

 

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Lust, love, and second chances.

Growing up in the fast-paced and rough life of a motorcycle club wasn’t easy. Cleaning up the mess his father had made of Vipers Creed meant sacrifice. Cade ‘Spook’ Baker had given up everything to bring the club life back to what it was supposed to be: a family.

The choices he made were not what he wanted, but they were necessary for the club as a whole.

Second chances rarely came to Spook, so when his Trixie walked boldly into his clubhouse, the decision was made. Trixie would once again be his, this time for good.

Trix Lamasters was raised by a master—a master con. All grown up, she made her life solid by making it about her club, Sirens. But one bad business decision brought her to her knees, forcing her to call on the one person she had sworn she would never trust again.

Pasts have a way of not staying there. Things that were buried deep have a way of finding themselves in the light of a new day. Could something that had once crashed and burned for Spook and Trixie find a way out of the wreckage? With the odds against them, can they find a way to overcome the challenges, or will it all blow up in their faces?

**Due to content, mature audiences only.**

 

 

 

 

 

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Challenged (Vipers Creed MC#1) ©Ryan Michele 2016

Prologue

My head filled with a cloudy, dense fog that I couldn’t shake. Even with my eyes open, a filmy haze covered them, making everything blurry. Voices were muffled, as if I were under water, sinking. I thought I recognized one, but couldn’t tell for sure.

Too hard to think.

I attempted to pull my arms up, but they were immediately halted by something. The hard, cold, heavy attachments clinked like metal. Even straining to move them, my muscles were so weak, so lethargic I couldn’t. I tried my legs, and the same thing happened.

A hard surface pressed against my back as the cool air of the room cascaded over my skin, my nipples, my stomach… Oh God, was I naked?

I opened my mouth, wanting to scream as deep panic set in. Unfortunately, nothing came out except air. Even that took more effort than I had in me.

Placing the pieces of the puzzle together, I couldn’t make heads or tails out of anything.

Heat at my side had me turning in that direction, only to see a fuzzy, black figure. I squinted then blinked, trying to get the focus to come back, but nothing. Not a damn thing.

“Hello, darlin’. Welcome to hell.”

Chapter One

Trix

A lump gathered in my throat settling like a rock, hard and brutal, sucking the wind out of me. My hand slightly twitched as I dialed the number I never in a million years thought I would call. I switched the phone to my other hand in an effort to shake out the trembling, because nervousness wasn’t an option. Trix Lamasters would not turn into some twit who couldn’t think straight over one phone call. Being a shrewd businesswoman, I’d learned from the best not to let shit get to me, how to compartmentalize things and deal.

I swallowed hard, moving the lump from my throat to settle into my gut like a boulder. As I focused, my breathing evened out. The thick steel in my spine could handle anything life threw at me, including this call. Including the man who would be on the other end of the line.

The green button stared back at me, my finger hovering over it. Then I pressed it and pulled the phone to my ear just as it started ringing.

One ring … two … three …

“What?” was barked through the phone line with a male’s voice tainted by harsh impatience.

“Can I talk to Cade? Shit.” I stopped myself. He wasn’t Cade anymore. I needed to remember that a lot had changed. “I mean, Spook. Is Spook around?”

Silence.

“Hello?” I pulled the phone away from my ear, looking at the bright screen, making sure the call hadn’t dropped. Nope, the little numbers in the corner were still counting away. I pressed it back to my ear, waiting a few beats.

“Who wants to fucking know?” His tone turned gruffer, almost as if he were a protective watch dog of Cade’s, and nothing or no one got past him.

Watch dog or not, I wasn’t about to get eaten.

“This is Trix Lamasters. I need to speak to him.”

More silence, not even a breath or noise in the background.

“Hello?”

His voice came over the line right as I intended to speak again. “Stop fucking saying hello. I’m here.”

Hell, maybe someone pissed in his Wheaties this morning, his attitude having nothing to do with me. Or maybe it was just him.

I slapped my hand to my forehead as the word dumbass rang in my mind.

“Sorry, I thought the call dropped.” Now I apologized to the rude man? Get a grip, Trix.

“What do you need with Spook?” The guard dog didn’t give me an inch. Nevertheless, he didn’t need to know my business.

I needed a diversion.

“Can you just get a message to him to call me?”

“Babe, either tell me what you need, or nothing fuckin’ gets to him.” His tone turned flat and resolute.

“Fuck,” I muttered then heard him chuckle. The damn man needed a bone before he played. Asshole. “An employee of mine has been seen at your clubhouse. I need to talk to her.”

“Call her,” he quipped.

“She doesn’t have a phone,” I retorted, feeling the fire burn in my veins.

“Not my problem,” the man sneered. From his attitude, I knew he would have no problem hanging up on me right now, never telling Cade I needed to talk to him. Good thing I dealt with assholes on a regular basis.

“Look, the bitch owes me money.” Anger raced through my body. I let it be heard through each clipped word.

He let out a deep laugh that was almost intriguing if he weren’t a jerk. “You may as well kiss that cash good-bye.”

My pride had other ideas.

“Fuck no. I want what’s owed to me.” I sighed, needing a different tactic. “Look, can you just give Spook my name?” He would either call or he wouldn’t, but maybe that would get the dog to want to nose around. Maybe curiosity would get him to spread my name at least.

“This is gonna be fun. Hang on.” The man must have covered the mouthpiece with his hand, because everything he said was muffled except for him calling Spook’s name. That, I could hear clearly. My adrenaline spiked at the thought of Cade coming on the line.

“Yeah?” a voice I recognized from my dreams said into the phone. The deep, raspy tenor had grown over time and slithered down my spine all the way to my knees, giving them a slight tremble. It took only one word to make my stomach flip.

Fuck, I knew this was a bad idea, but I wasn’t that girl anymore. He would not have power over me. I wouldn’t allow it.

I paced my small living room, needing the movement to get my knees back in line.

“Cade? It’s Trix Lamasters.”

“First, the name’s Spook. Second, who?”

That one kind of stung. All right, more than stung. It tore another hole in my already battered heart was more like it. The asshole didn’t even remember me, but what did I expect, being one in a sea of many? There was absolutely no reason I would have stood out to him.

“We went to school together,” I tried.

Silence.

I rolled my eyes to the ceiling, hoping divine intervention would give me the gift of patience or a gun. Neither came.

“Whatever. I get you don’t remember me, but you have one of my employees there. I need to talk to her. She owes me money, and I need it back.”

“Trixie Lamasters.” I could hear the devilish grin as his words snaked over the phone. Not going to lie, my pussy quivered.

No one called me Trixie anymore, because once upon a time, he did and I had loved it. After he abruptly left my life, taking the one thing I could never get back, I refused to let anyone call me by that name. Never again would I allow the hollow feeling that name represented to seep through me. Now, hearing him after fifteen years, the vault of memories opened wide, something I did not want to happen. I didn’t want to feel, yet each recollection of the past bombarded my mind.

“Long time.”

I paused mid-step as a flash of younger Cade hit me. Shaking my head clear, I continued to pace through my living room.

“Yeah, very long. Anyway, you have a woman there by the name of Nanette King. Can you hand her over to me?”

I wouldn’t let the smoothness of his voice draw me in like it had all those years ago, reducing me to a pile of teenaged mush. Strictly business, I told myself, because business I could handle.

“How do you know she’s here?”

“I had her followed, and it led to you.”

I guessed he didn’t like the fact that I had found her that way, judging from the muttered curses that followed. Each word made me smile. I had a payroll of people who worked for me now, and some little twit-fart would not run off with my money. That wasn’t how I operated my business.

Nanette had fallen off radar. Cade’s club happened to be the last place she was seen; therefore, I had to call him. I may as well have strapped zip-ties around my wrists, locking them in place.

“First, if she’s at the club, there’s a reason. Second, bitches here don’t go by their real names, so I don’t know if she’s around, because I don’t know a Nanette. Third, you come to the clubhouse, and we’ll talk.”

Business was business, but my heart spiked at the thought of seeing him again.

Cade’s club, Vipers Creed MC, had been in Dyersburg for years. Even before I came into this world, their presence had been well known. This town had tales, but these days, the Vipers were mostly known for Creed’s Automotive where they made custom bikes and cars in their own little world located on the outskirts of town.

I’d hoped to avoid a meeting since I couldn’t see any point to it. I wasn’t in the mood for a high school reunion. The past needed to stay there, locked up tight.

“I’ll describe her to you. Tell me if she’s there, and I’ll send someone over to get her,” I declared, trying to veer him from this path.

Negotiations were something I excelled at. There had to be an arrangement that suited us both, one we could manage over the phone. It would be the best course of action. The less contact I had with him, the better. I could have Ike, one of the bouncers at Sirens, pick her up. Win-win all around.

He chuckled, and my body went on alert because of the slyness in it.

“Babe, you don’t get how this works. You want something from me that I have, bring your ass here, and we’ll discuss it. Tomorrow night, seven.” Silence.

This time when I looked at the screen, the number fifty-seven blinked rapidly. He’d hung up on me.

“That arrogant piece of shit!” I growled, tossing my phone to the couch where it bounced on the cushion.

I should have known he’d still be a dick. Some things never changed. Guess I was going to meet up with Cade after all.

I completely ignored the slight tremor that thought caused.

***

During the entire drive, I berated myself for giving the money to Nanette in the first place. One stupid decision started this path, one I could have avoided if I’d stuck to my rules.

Nanette’s eyes were anxiously cast to the floor of my office as she rung her hands together absently.

When she didn’t talk, I prompted, “Speak.” It sounded like a command I would give a dog, but at times like these, when people wouldn’t get on with their shit, it was deserved. I had shit to do, and she obviously needed something.

“I need to borrow five thousand dollars,” she said in a surge.

I leaned back in the leather chair behind my desk, my brow raised as her eyes looked everywhere but at mine. Nervous? No, she was damn near petrified.

I waited out the quiet for her eyes to meet mine, the fear coming across loud and clear.

When they did, I asked, “For what?”

I wanted to hear her out, because if she had problems, I needed to know whether those problems would blow back onto Sirens. It was always about the business.

“The bank’s gonna foreclose on my house if I don’t come up with the money by Friday.” Her eyes filled with moisture.

While I wasn’t a cruel and heartless bitch, this wasn’t my problem. She was a grown adult and needed to handle her own problems, including money to pay her bills.

“No,” I answered firmly. “You can go now.”

Nanette’s face turned to dismay as my answer rolled around in that head of hers. Her skin paled, her nose twitched, and she swallowed hard, as if not to puke. She began to say words; only, they came out as sounds of mumbled breath as she lost her composure.

I held up my hand in an effort to stop her choking rambles. “Stop trying to talk. Listen. I’m not a bank; I’m not an ATM machine; I do not run cash advances. You need money, you work for it. That’s how the world goes round.”

“Please,” she started in a rush. “I’m taking care of my dad. He’s sick, and if I lose the house, I’ll have nowhere to make sure he’s okay.”

“Not my problem.” This was one of the reasons I closed myself off from the people around me, only letting a small few into my tight-knit circle. I had heard so many sob stories over the past five years running Sirens that not much penetrated the thick wall around me.

“Trix, I’ll pay you back every penny with interest. Please. You’re my last hope. My dad has lung cancer, and it’s progressing quickly. All my money goes to his treatments, and because of that, I got behind on the mortgage. I just need an advance on my checks. I’ll work extra shifts, and come in whenever you want.” Her words strung together like a melody, and fuck me, I felt her panic.

She continued, “He has no insurance, so I’m paying for everything out-of-pocket. It’s bleeding me dry. I don’t know what else to do.” Tears rolled down her face. Judging from her body language, which I had learned from the best how to hone in on, the bitch was telling the truth.

Fucking hell. I didn’t want to feel it. I tried to push it back. The businesswoman inside of me screamed, ‘No fucking way!’ while the woman inside of me was proud of how Nanette took care of her father. Was I really going to do this? Shit.

“Twenty-five percent interest to be paid in full six months from now.”

Nanette’s eyes lit up in shock. “Really?”

“That’s six thousand two hundred fifty dollars in my hand six months from this date. A fucking day late, I’ll make your life a living hell.” I would, too, finding every way possible.

“Okay,” she said, swiping away the remnants of her tears, a flash of relief snaking into her eyes.

I folded my hands, placing them in front of me. “I’m not fucking around, Nanette. These are the terms.” I pulled out the gun from the holster attached under my desk, setting it on the hard wood. Her eyes widened. “Every last penny in six months,” I reminded her. “You sure you wanna do that?” It was the only out she would get if she agreed.

She nodded her head then spoke, “I understand. Six months, sixty-two fifty in your hand.”

I put the gun back in its holster, my warning as clear as I could make it.

“Out. I’ll have the money for you by the end of your shift.”

My damn pride would not let this go. The bitch owed me a lot of money. I wanted it back. I wanted her. If that meant I had to go into unfamiliar territory with a guy I did not like, so be it.

***

“Oh, my God, he’s coming this way,” my friend Beth practically screeched.

I hit her arm, trying to get her to stop embarrassing the hell out of me, as the hottest guy in school walked our way. Most considered him on the bad boy list, and damn if that didn’t send my heart a flutter.

His eyes locked on mine. I couldn’t stop staring; he had some sort of trance over me. Those blue eyes held mischief and intrigue.

“Hey. How you doin’?” His voice was deeper than most of the other boys in school, making him seem older and more mature.

“Fine,” I responded, my nervousness coming through on that one word.

“Wanna go out?” he asked as my heart squeezed. The hottest guy in school had just asked me to go out with him. Holy fucking shit.

“Sure,” I replied as calmly as I could.

“Cool. Meet me at six at Regan’s.”

Regan’s was a local diner hangout that we all went to regularly.

“Okay.”

He winked then turned, striding off.

Beth’s wide smile mimicked mine as we closed our eyes and did a silent, little, open-mouth scream. I had a date with the Cade Baker.

As I pulled myself out of my thoughts, my breath hitched at the monstrosity in front of me: huge cinderblocks stacked one on top of the other, higher than my two-story house. The ends looked like princess parapets with sharp points in the roof. Windows all around them provided a view of every direction. At closer look, I noticed men standing inside them, their eyes trained on me. I felt like I was going into a war zone instead of a motorcycle club.

I rolled up, stopping the SUV at the closed gate to the entrance.

Unease whispered around me due to the heavy security. Who in the hell were they protecting in there, the fucking president?

A large man built like a stubby Mac truck with a goatee and light brown hair came up to my window, his eyes covered by black glasses. I hit the automatic button to lower my window, waiting for it to clear all the way down.

“What can I do for ya?” he asked, bending into the window with a smirk on his face. He made no qualms about looking down the front of my shirt at my ample cleavage. I hadn’t worn the shirt for that purpose, but I had very few shirts that didn’t show off the girls.

I snapped my fingers three times in quick succession, and his eyes met mine. “My eyes are up here.”

“But down there is just as fucking good.” He licked his lips as lust blazed off him.

Men, they were all the same Booze, bitches, and boobs.

“I’m here to see Cade.” Dammit, I needed to stop that. Cade wasn’t his damn name any more, but separating the two came as a challenge. “I mean Spook. He’s expecting me.”

“Fuck, boss man always gets the prime pussy.” He groaned in a way that suggested this type of occurrence was routine, an idea which I pushed out of my head as soon as it entered.

I arched my brow. “No one gets my pussy but me,” I combated, tilting my head just a touch.

I told things like they were and didn’t back down from a fight or a challenge. That being said, I had also learned how to cut my losses and get the hell out of a bad situation. Burly man here would not intimidate me.

“Doubt that one.” He nodded to one of the guys in the tall tower, and the steel gate slowly started to open with a loud creak in front of me. “Have a good time, and when you’re done, come find me.”

“No, thanks,” I murmured, driving away from him with no intention of searching him out ever.

The wide area felt vast, almost like a whole city block. I had lived in Tennessee all my life, so of course, I’d known of the Vipers Creed. Everyone did. However, to actually see their compound, to be in their space, unnerved me. There was an aura of power that I felt down to my bones, causing me to fight back a shiver.

Vipers Creed MC had bought an old army compound many years ago. The structure on the outside reminded me of the classic war movies I passed by on television. Inside the gates, though, looked nothing like the starkness of the outside.

Several buildings outlined the space. An enormous structure looked like it had two, maybe three, levels to it. I assumed that was the main building, because several smaller concrete structures surrounded a large courtyard with bright green grass and a fire pit off to the side. Some actually looked as if they were homes with plants and flowers around them. It seemed homey, comfortable in a way, like a family lived here and took care of it.

Off to the far left sat Creed’s Automotive, with several hot rods and a few bikes lining its parking lot.

A spot near the larger building came into view. I parked my car, turned off the ignition, and then sat back in my seat, giving myself a moment. I did this before every business meeting just to make sure I got my head on straight. Too bad this meeting had to be with Cade. If rumors over the years served me right, he was the president of Vipers Creed. The two guys I had talked to confirmed it with the boss man bullshit.

People changed a lot over time, going different paths, some good and some not so good. I wasn’t a judge, jury, or executioner in this scenario, but I had to wonder, with all the security, exactly how much Cade changed from the boy I’d known all those years ago. Did his life happen to be so dangerous that he had to be behind cement walls with guys guarding them? And if it were that dangerous, why would he choose this life?

I wanted to bang my head on the steering wheel. It didn’t matter. I was here for one reason and one reason only. I should have found comfort in the knowledge that the meet was business, but it didn’t come.

With a heavy sigh, I opened the SUV door then hopped down to the blacktop. I pulled my shirt down, readjusting myself and making sure the girls were covered. I’d gone simple, wearing a pair of ripped jeans, a blue V-neck top, and flats. I loaded myself up with silver on my wrists and a couple of chains around my neck. I didn’t do much with my hair besides run the brush through it. I liked having my chestnut tresses fall in thick waves down my back.

“Hey, mouse,” a man with a bald head and a tailored beard said from my left. Black sunglasses covered his eyes, and his lips were lifted into a sexy smirk. He wore a leather vest, which had a Secretary patch on it, over a dark blue T-shirt. He was attractive in his own unique way.

Mouse was a strange greeting, but I went with it.

“Hi, I’m here to see Ca—Spook,” I told him, lifting my hand to block the penetrating sun that my sunglasses had no chance of hindering.

“I bet you are.” He chuckled, running his hand over his beard as he appraised me.

I should have felt heat from his intense stare, but I didn’t. Okay, maybe a flicker if I was being honest with myself. I knew how I looked, considering I saw myself in the mirror every morning.

My body drove some guys crazy because I had an abundance of tits and ass. I understood that. It was even flattering that men found me attractive. At the moment, though, I didn’t his need his appraisal or anyone else’s. I just wanted to get this shit over with. In and out. Wipe my hands clean of Cade again.

“Can you tell me where he is?”

The bald man walked closer, holding out his arm with a crooked elbow like an usher would do at a wedding. I smiled. It was cute, especially from a burly man like him. I placed my hand in the bend of his firm arm.

“Let me show you to him,” he said.

We began to walk, and all the while, the heads of the guys sitting in the courtyard area turned and whistles erupted. I ignored the noise, falling into step with the man.

“Thanks,” I told him with a pat on the arm.

“Anything for the boss man.”

While I didn’t know Cade’s life, I had some assumptions. I watched the television shows about men in motorcycle clubs and all the havoc they raised. I didn’t know if they were actually true, but at least I wasn’t going in completely blind. I did know they had a hierarchy of power, and the men had to ride Harley’s. Other than that, I only knew what the TV shows told me.

Who am I kidding? I was pretty much clueless.

The man chuckled deeply. “So, what’s a hot piece like you coming here for?”

When he asked the question, I looked up at him. Lines sprinkled around his eyes and lips like he’d ridden his bike in the sun for hours. His face matched the tanned color of his head. It wasn’t a look, though; it was him.

A small grin played on his lips, catching my attention. I didn’t know if he already knew the answer to his question and was playing me or if he actually was being inquisitive. Once again, I rolled with it.

“I have word one of my girls is here with you. She owes me money, and I want it.”

He opened a solid, steel door, and we walked into darkness. I ripped my sunglasses from my face as the low hum of the newly turned on lights illuminated the room. The scents of stale booze, cigarettes, and sex permeated the air like a thick haze. I knew those three smells by heart because I smelled them every day. They were my livelihood, the reason I had stepped foot in Cade’s world.

“This way,” he said, pulling my arm.

I followed him into a wide open space. Tables were scattered throughout with chairs at each of them. A long bar sat on the other side of the room with loads of liquor, looking like it could give me a run for my money in comparison to the one I had at Sirens.

I felt kind of strange holding this guy’s arm without knowing his name, so I asked.

He lifted his shades to the top of his head and stared down at me with eyes the color of the ocean. They weren’t blue, and they weren’t green. They were both, and they were breathtaking. I got sucked into them momentarily.

“Stiff.”

“Stiff?” I questioned as he walked me through the space and down a long hallway. What in the hell kind of name was Stiff?

Pictures hung on the wooden planked walls, but at the pace we were going, I had no time to look at them without stumbling over my own feet.

He chuckled. “Yeah, mouse. You stick around, and I’m sure you’ll find out why.” He winked then stopped us in front of a wooden door. With his fist, he banged loudly three times, shaking the pictures on the wall next to the door.

“What?” barked a voice from the opposite side. Even with the wood between us, with that one word, I felt my body instantly awaken, wanting to pull toward the sound.

“Someone here to see ya,” Stiff yelled back.

“Nice intercom you have here,” I murmured.

Stiff chuckled.

Little did I know that opening that door would change my life forever.

AP - about the author.jpg

Ryan Michele has a huge obsession with reading, which only came to life after her best friend said she had to read Twilight. After reading that series, her entire world changed in the blink of an eye. Not only was she sucked into new worlds and all of the wonderful words authors put down on paper, she felt the urge to begin to write down the characters that played inside of her head. In doing so, Safe was born. Then Wanting You and the Ravage MC series.

When she’s not reading or writing, she spends time taking care of her two children and her husband, enjoying the outdoors and laying in the sun.

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