And now a collection as hot as the season it’s named for!
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Publisher: dba 7th House Publishing, Imprint of Andromeda LLC
Date of Publication: May 26, 2015
Number of pages: 1,610
Word Count: 483,000
Cover Artist: Victoria Danann
20 ALL NEW summer romances by New York Times, USA Today, and National Bestselling authors.
Love when it’s hot? So do we. Especially when we’re writing about gritty alphas, angsty bad boys, sizzling attraction, and unrequited passion. Military, cowboy, biker, humor, second chance love, and more.
SO LOOSEN YOUR BUTTONS, TURN THE FAN TO OSCILLATE, AND JOIN US FOR THIS STEAMY, GROUNDBREAKING BUNDLE OF SUMMER TALES THAT ARE HOT HOT HOT.
- Gennita Low Sizzle Spies, Lola and Jake, fall hard for each other. Is their love strong enough for one assignment that would risk everything?
- R.J. Lewis Sinful Two different people from two different worlds find their lives colliding in the most sinful way.
- L. Wilder Summer Storm VP Guardrail’s life has always been his MC club. It’s up to him to fix a wrong, but he wasn’t expecting Allie to take him by storm.
- Victoria Danann A Season in Gemini The first time sexy biker, Brant Fornight, saw Garland St. Germaine, he knew she was going to turn him inside out. And she did.
- Kym Grosso Solstice Burn Love and temptation flare in a tropical paradise. When Chase rescues Penny, she learns to embrace her inner fantasies.
- Cat Miller Sun Burnt Kesslyn inherits a ranch, but the city girl is unsure she’s up for the challenge. Can her sexy foreman rope her into staying forever?
- Mimi Barbour Big Girls Don’t Cry He’s everything she’s ever wanted in a man. And she’s nothing like the girl she wants to be. Something’s gotta change…
- Clarissa Wild Killer Secrets could kill you. He murdered her husband. She’s the prime suspect seeking justice. Only one of them can win.
- Teresa Gabelman Rodeo Romance Jake McCabe had one rule. Never date a client. Trisha Summers had a new rule. Never date a man again. Rules were meant to be broken.
- Helen Scott Taylor Irish Kisses Ten years ago he said he loved her, then he left and broke her heart. Now he’s back, and he wants her again, but can she trust him?
- Victoria James Sweet Surrender Cade showing up on her doorstep is not what Julia wants-but this bad-boy is back and ready to convince her that this time is forever…
- Mona Risk Husband for a Week A Sicilian vendetta, a fake husband, and a matchmaking grandmother complicate Jonathan and Isabella’s lives. Can love conquer all?
- Patrice Wilton A Man for Hire Jordon’s ex-boyfriend is bringing home a bride. To save face she hires a hot guy for the weekend. Sparks fly–can this be love?
- Linda Barlow My Mile-High Mistake Six years ago, she yearned for her sexy, forbidden high school teacher. Now she can’t resist his temptation at 35,000 feet.
- Joan Reeves Heat Lightning Her husband found her, claimed her, rescued her. His touch makes her throb. Her body knows him, but she remembers nothing about him.
- Danielle Jamie Tan Lines and Salty Kisses Becca and Parker have a second chance at summer romance. The spark is hotter than a Georgia July. Can it withstand news of his secret?
- Terri Marie Someone Exactly Like You Cameron Barron’s plan was solid. A few lies, a disguise, and an apology to Chastity Newberry… What could possibly go wrong?
- Lorhainne Eckhart His Promise A love they thought would last forever. A promise forgotten. Until one summer night.
- Brandy L Rivers Summer Rhythm Doug never could resist Chloe. She always runs. Will this time be different or is their summer rhythm destined to repeat.
- Nicole Blanchard Anchor I thought it was a weekend from hell, until he showed me a little piece of heaven.
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A Season in Gemini
Intro to the Sons of Sanctuary MC By Victoria Danann
7th House Publishing, Imprint of Andromeda LLC © 2015
All rights reserved. Reprint is prohibited except where specific permission has been given.
First Two Chapters EXCERPT…
God bless the child that’s got her own. – Billie Holiday
David St. Germaine had sent a van and two guys to move his daughter out of her primo room at her Dartmouth sorority house. He was extremely proud of the fact that she’d been voted Panhellenic Rep by her sorority sisters. In fact, he’d told her that it was a more impressive accomplishment than any other office because she was the embodied statement that her sorority sisters wanted to make about their chapter when sororities and fraternities had a joint meeting. Garland liked having her father’s approval when getting it didn’t interfere with what she wanted to do.
Every day for the ten days between finals and graduation she’d packed up a few things in preparation for a final move-out. She was torn between having loved university life and wanting to get on to whatever came next. She wasn’t clear about what that was. Certainly she’d never planned to be actually employed with a B.A. in Classical Studies. She could read and write Greek and Latin, sketch an example of a Corinthian column on demand, explain Socratic Method, and accurately recount the exploits of even the most obscure demigod.
A quarter million dollars of education and education-related expenses later, that degree and a few dollars would get her a Starbucks. But she wasn’t worried. Livelihood wasn’t an issue. She was the only child of a rich widower who rarely denied her anything.
She showed the movers to her room and pointed out what should go. After one last look, she plugged her phone into the console of her wine-colored Masserati, selected the music playlist she’d titled ROAD TRIP, and pointed the car toward New York south thinking that, since it was Sunday, the traffic wouldn’t be bad. At least not as bad as usual. She could probably do the trip in four and a half hours with a potty stop enroute. After four years, she knew the route’s good, bad, and ugly restroom tour.
The New York Times still printed society pages on Sundays, only these days it was called “About Town” and included celebrity doings and sightings along with traditional news about members of the Social Registry, particularly charity galas and Arts League balls. The concession to modernity was that in recent years there had been sensationalism-creep. The news had begun to treat members of the Social Registry more like celebrities in the sense that scandals were printed right alongside who was seen with whom at balls, galas, VIP museum exhibits, and art show openings. It had turned into a gossip column thinly disguised as the time-honored newspaper tradition of setting aside valuable print space for flattering the moneyed elite.
Garland pulled up in front of her building, grabbed the rolling suitcase with essential stuff, smiled at Max, the doorman, and gave him the car keys so that he could have the car parked in a two thousand dollars per month garage spot nearby. She might not use it again for weeks, or even months, but it was nice to know she could.
“I’m home!” She took a deep breath and called out to anyone who might be in the flat. Since it was Sunday that would probably be either her father or no one.
She walked the length of the kitchen and beyond to a small, but elegant and sunny breakfast room that overlooked Central Park and was rarely seen by anyone other than the two living St. Germaines and staff.
“I say, ‘I’m home!’”, she repeated as she flopped into a chair opposite where her dad was having coffee and reading the paper.
David St. Germaine looked over the top of the Wall Street Journal. “So I see.”
“Wow. Welcome home.”
He slid a section of the Sunday Times toward where she sat across the glass top table. “I second the ‘wow’.”
Before looking down at whatever he wanted her to see, she could tell that he was the farthest thing from happy. When she’d seen him two days before at graduation, he’d been delighted. He and his date for the day. Garland didn’t remember her name. There was no point. Her father rarely saw women more than once.
On the cusp of fifty, he was still handsome, with a little silver above his ears and a tan that never faded completely because he made a point of sailing twice a month, when weather and business permitted. He’d been referred to as ‘eligible bachelor’ in the, ahem, society pages more than once, but Garland doubted the veracity of that claim. Since her mother’s death, he hadn’t given anyone reason to think he was ‘eligible’.
Garland tore her eyes away from his scowl, not his most attractive expression, to look at the paper in front of her. The front and center color image was none other than herself wearing a short sparkly dress that had ridden far too high as she fell backwards spilling a colorful beverage when she went sprawling into the laps of laughing friends.
The headline read, “Germane Enterprises Princess Out on the Town. Daddy’s little girl lets her hair down and her skirt up.”
As she stared at the page, her father said, “Nice dress,” in a tone dripping with sarcasm.
Without looking up, she said quietly, “We were just having some fun. We just graduated…”
“How many times have I told you that what you do reflects on me? And, by extension, on Germane Enterprises?”
She met his glare. “Thousands.”
“That’s right! Thousands. You would think a girl capable of graduating Dartmouth summa cum laude would get it after mere dozens of times.”
“You’re not everybody else though. Are you?”
She lowered her eyes. “No.”
“With great privilege comes great responsibility.”
She bit back a comment that tried to take possession of her mouth. Something about using condoms and clubbing with a designated driver. But she thought better of it, deciding that sort of retort would make her sound weak and juvenile. So she said nothing. After a few seconds of staring, her father continued.
“Christ, Garland. You and your miscreant friends got thrown out of some cheap dive? That’s pretty hard to do. Places like that host Ladies Nights to attract young women to come in.” She lowered her eyes. There really wasn’t a defense. He let out a frustrated breath. “What are your plans?”
“Yes, Garland. As in, what do you plan to do when you wake up tomorrow?”
“I just finished school. I was thinking I’d take a couple of weeks to shop and get together with friends before…”
Truthfully, she hadn’t gotten to the what. Her vision included lunching and shopping. “I haven’t worked that out yet.”
“Good. Then you won’t be inconvenienced to have to cancel anything.”
“What do you …?”
“I’ve made plans for you. I’ll be spending most of the summer at the property we’re renovating in Texas. You’re coming with me.”
“To Texas!?!” She looked as horrified as if she’d just been told she’d be summering inside a tank on a war torn border somewhere between the remnants of Arabia and the remnants of Persia.
He went on as calmly as if she hadn’t spoken. “This,” he glanced down at the tattling paper, “is an indication that you’re not ready to make your own choices. So I’ll make them for you. Austin this summer then Wharton School this Fall. Thank goodness your GPA is high enough. I’ll have to call in some favors and probably contribute a fortune as well, but you will get in.”
“To Business School? I don’t want to study business. I can’t think of anything less fun. And Philadelphia? Really?”
She saw the traces of a smirk appear around his mouth. “This has nothing to do with fun, Garland. It’s about being a productive member of this family and, by extension, a productive member of society. When you have an MBA from Wharton, you’ll be ready to step into Germane Enterprises and do something worthwhile with your life.”
Her eyes flashed. “You can’t make those decisions for me. I’m not a little girl.”
His face softened slightly, but was no less serious. “No. You’re not. And you’re welcome to show me your independence by walking out that door with your clothes and the college degree you just earned. You can start at home plate, instead of on third base. Like I did,” he added.
The range of limited options flew across her vision like a rapid-fire music video. And she didn’t like anything she saw.
Staring at her father across the table, Garland wanted to be the girl who took that option. She wanted to stand up and say, “Okay. I’m out.” But after a lifetime of pampering, she didn’t think she was cut out for pioneering a whole new way of life.
“I guess you win then. I’m not prepared to be homeless.”
“It’s not a matter of me ‘winning’. It’s about what’s best for you.” He snapped the paper and went back to reading. “We’re leaving in two days. You can shop and play with your friends until then.” He lowered the paper again long enough to say, “Do you think you can manage to stay out of the news for that long?”
Since the question was rhetorical, she simply rose and left the room. There was nothing more to be said. It was the adult version of being grounded.
Garland didn’t hate her father. She knew he loved her in his own distant, emotionally detached, heavy-handed way. She’d also spent enough time in the homes of friends to know that warmth and affection had been missing in their household since her mother had died when she was thirteen.
Visiting with friends was a great vicarious pleasure for her. She loved observing the dynamics of families where love was shared openly and without agenda. She wanted that for herself someday. Desperately.
Be a simple kind of man. – Lynyrd Skynyrd
Brant Fornight was a third generation Austin native and everything about the town suited him just fine. He wasn’t one of those people who lived in the mountains, but dreamed of a house on the beach. Or vice versus. No, indeed. Dry air, hills, and Live Oak was good enough for him.
He’d made up his mind that he wasn’t interested in the life the motorcycle club could offer him. Since he’d grown up around his dad’s club, he was able to make an informed choice. He didn’t have the kind of angry fire in the belly that motivated a man to choose that path. He wasn’t overly interested in money, especially not if it came with the risk of a prison sentence. And he hadn’t experienced the sort of gross injustice that had caused the original seven members, all Vietnam vets, to band together with a third finger prominently raised and pointed at all aspects of society who didn’t get what they were about.
Brant thought of himself as a simple sort of guy even though he was an avid reader of classic works and secretly pondered some of the great philosophical brain-scramblers while he worked as a mechanic. If there was a time when Brant hadn’t loved mechanics, he couldn’t remember it. He was born with a talent for taking things apart and putting them back together, in better condition than before. The MC, the Sons of Sanctuary, had nurtured that natural born gift by mentoring and letting him work on their vehicles.
After high school, he drifted from one Austin repair shop to the next, accidentally improving his resume with each move to a larger shop that earned a better title and more money. When he was twenty-five, he took a job as Head Mechanic at the Yellow Rose Country Club and Resort. It required skill as a mechanic and as a manager of fuckwads who needed a babysitter more than a supervisor. Even though he was younger than almost all the guys who reported to him, he handled it. One way or another.
He smiled about that. It’s exactly the sort of thing his old man liked to say. Get it done. One way or another.
It never occurred to Brant to wonder if there was more to life, and maybe he never would have, if Garland St. Germaine hadn’t gotten lost on her self-exploration of the resort grounds. Occupied by her own dark thoughts, not looking at much but the pavement in front of her, she’d wandered far afield of guest paths. When she looked up, she was in front of the vehicle maintenance barn. She didn’t know how she got there and wasn’t sure about how to find her way back.
Since she’d been at the Yellow Rose for a week, she’d acquired a golden tan that would be the envy of any lotion ad. Her ash blonde hair had also lightened several shades and taken on some dramatic, but still natural, highlights. Wearing a tank top, knee length shorts, and flip flops, she walked into the open-bayed warehouse and froze when she came face to face with Brant Fornight.
He was wearing jeans and a black tee with the Yellow Rose logo and text that simply read CREW.
He looked her over too quickly to be accused of leering at a guest. And everything about her screamed guest, from the small diamond studs in her ears to the designer sunglasses to the skin that had that look of perfect nutrition and expensive lotion.
“What can I do for you, darlin’?”
The endearment was politically incorrect according to the new standards, but if she complained, he could always say it was just part of the local charm.
Coming face to face with the twin fires in his striking black eyes, she temporarily forgot what she needed. It was hard to tell whether the amusement on his handsome face was a permanent expression or if he was having fun at her expense.
She cleared her throat. “I was having a look at the property and I guess I got turned around.”
“Yeah.” He gave her a slow smile that had all her lady parts perking up and standing at attention. “We don’t get many people who start out looking for the pool and wind up here,” he drawled while wiping his hands on a rag.
She scowled. “I wasn’t looking for the pool. I was just…”
“Havin’ a look at the property.” He smiled. He pointed to a black and green vehicle that also bore the Yellow Rose logo. “Whatever. Hop in this golf cart and I’ll drive you back.”
“I don’t want to put you out.”
He laughed out loud and shook his head. “This is the best thing that’s happened to me this year. Come on. I’ll go fast enough to get the breeze goin’ and cool you off.”
She had gone past attractive glow to out and out sweat some time ago. As if on cue, she felt a trickle of perspiration run between her breasts when he said ‘cool you off’ and blushed for, what she was sure was, the first time in her life.
“Well, it is kind of hot out here,” she said, looking around as if someone might argue. Or intervene.
He looked over at the temperature gauge. “Only 96 in the shade. ‘Course that’s the way they report temps. In the shade. But,” he looked down at her feet,”it’s really about 115 where you’re standin’ on that asphalt in the sun.”
Following his eyes down to the tarmac beneath her feet, she realized that she did actually feel as if she was slow cooking.
“Thank you. I appreciate it.”
His grin was even more heart-stopping. He opened a refrigerator, withdrew a bottle of water, and set it in the cart’s drink holder. After she seated herself on the passenger side of the cart, he handed her the ice cold bottle of water, “All part of the service, ma’am.”
“Thank you.” She took it gratefully, but as badly as she wanted to drink, she wanted to feel the cold bottle against her skin even more. She held it against her chest, closed her eyes and moaned. “You’re an angel in disguise.”
When she opened her eyes and saw the change in his expression, she realized that calling attention to her breasts may not have been the smoothest move.
Brant tore his gaze from the water bottle. It may have elicited a moan that would haunt his fantasies forever, but even he knew that ogling guests was crossing a line. He wasn’t sure whether he should be glad that he’d given her a cold compress, or curse himself for it. The new view was just as interesting. She’d removed her sunglasses and stuck them on top of her head, which left him exactly sixteen inches away from amber-colored irises that were stunning, and so unusual with her blonde locks that she looked almost exotic. At the moment they were also questioning why he wasn’t starting the engine.
He pushed the ignition button and they lurched forward. When they started down the hill, the cart picked up speed and Garland was surprised to realize that he was right. It didn’t take much air movement to cool her wet and heated skin.
She took a big swig of cold water and laughed. “You’re right. This feels good. You could sell rides to the overheated.”
He smiled, steering and stealing glances at the unlikely passenger and the strange, but welcome turn his morning had taken
. “Doesn’t seem to take much to thrill you. That’s a nice quality. So where to?”
“You know where the hotel is?” He raised one eyebrow. “Well,” she laughed, “of course you do.” They coasted down a hill then laughed when the cart struggled to climb up the next. When they reached the top, the hotel came into view, sitting on a ridge as if presiding over the Yellow Rose’s five championship golf courses, three of which were under renovation.
She pointed to the right of the eighteen-story hotel. “We’re in one of those villas next to the hotel.”
He whistled long and low. “So I’m guessing you’re not using a stay-two-nights-get-the-third-free coupon.”
She laughed because she had no other response, not knowing if there was such a thing or if he’d just made that up. “Oh, you know, my father is here on some business thing. Told me to either be here for the summer or look for a box under a bridge.”
When Brant looked over, he seemed to be studying her. He suspected that she was early twenties. So what she said about being there with her father didn’t really make sense. “You in a box under a bridge. Can’t see that.”
“Hmmm. Well, it could happen. You remember the story about that ex movie star who was living in the bushes in Central Park?”
“No. I guess I missed that.”
“You must not watch “Entertainment Tonight”.”
He chuckled. “Guilty.”
Brant puzzled at his reaction to that. He hadn’t liked getting an image of another guy calling this girl anything.
“What’s your name?”
“Brant Fornight. What’s yours?”
“Garland St. Germaine.”
His eyes slid sideways. “Pretty name. And unusual. I don’t think I’ve ever run into a Garland before.”
“It was my grandmother’s maiden name. The one good thing about it is that it doesn’t lend itself to cutesy nicknames.” She chuckled. “The closest anybody ever came to making one stick was this guy at school who used to call me Garfield.”
Brant puzzled at his reaction to that. His gut had tightened. Apparently he didn’t like getting an image of another guy calling this girl anything. Once Brant realized that he wanted to prolong the ride as long as he could, that he would probably never see the beautiful girl with the terrible sense of direction again, he slowed the cart down as much as possible without raising suspicion.
When they reached the walk to the door of her villa, she turned toward him. Her hesitation made him wonder if she was just as reluctant to end the unlikely encounter.
She smiled warmly, “Well. I guess this is me.”
“I guess so.”
“Thank you for the ride, Brant.”
“It was my pleasure, Garland. Whenever you get lost anywhere around vehicle maintenance, the chariot will be at your disposal.”
She grinned. “Flowery words for a vehicle maintenancer.”
“Maybe I’m not one-dimensional.”
She stared as if she was trying to read his mind. “Maybe you’re not.”
“At least I know that maintenancer is not a word.”
She was laughing softly as she got out and walked to the door, knowing that he was watching her derriere under the pretention of seeing her safely home. She swiped the card key, opened the door then turned to smile and wave. In return she was rewarded with a macho chin jerk that made her smile even bigger.
Prequel to Stalker
By Clarissa Wild
UNEDITED EXCERPT – Subject to change
COPYRIGHT © CLARISSA WILD. All Rights reserved.
Never in my life did I think I would be the prime suspect in my husband’s murder. But looking back at the choices I made, it’s not so strange that people think I’m a killer.
I’m not as innocent as I portray myself. Looks can be deceiving.
However, I won’t go down for this. Not when I don’t deserve it.
I should’ve known it would end up this way. That man … Phoenix Sullivan … The moment I saw that deadly gaze in his eyes, the dark way he looked at me, I knew I was in trouble.
And something tells me there’s more where that came from.
This game of catch won’t be ending any time soon.
Look at her, in her fancy white dress, with her fake blonde curls, and that sweet, deliciously fake smile. Don’t you just want to fuck that pretentious smile off her face? I do. And I will.
She has no idea what’s coming for her. Or her husband.
You see, I’m not a nice person. When I have my eyes set on something, I do it. In this case, it’s killing the man she’s married to. She probably won’t like it, but that’s not my problem. She’s not my target … and she’d better not turn herself into one.
I’m here with a purpose, and nothing stands between me and my goal. Not even a pretty girl with an ass worth fucking. Nobody stands in my way, and if they do, they die.
Too bad for her I’m like a fucking canon, and when I shoot, shrapnel flies everywhere. If she gets caught in the fire, that’s on her.
When I want something, I’m going to get it, no matter the price. Whether it’s killing someone, or fucking her.
She wants justice, I’ll give her justice … my justice.
I bet she isn’t willing to pay the price.
Too bad for her I always win.
Tonight’s the perfect night to kill.
I can feel it in my veins; that undeniable urge flowing through me on nights like these. Exciting like drugs; the murderous kind.
Clouds prevent the moonlight from bursting through and cover the land in perpetual darkness. There are plenty of lanterns lighting the road ahead, but not the alley I’m headed for. In front of me is a small puddle of water, so I walk past the side to avoid my new leather shoes from getting wet. You see, I just bought these, and I prefer to keep them clean for as long as possible. They will probably lose their shine after tonight’s killings.
Oh well, it’s not like I’ll need these shoes for anything other than entering the party ahead and pretending like I belong. Gotta be fancy enough for the big crowd, because of course, someone in jeans couldn’t be nearly important enough as someone in a suit.
Bunch of fake fuckers. If I could, I’d burn the whole fucking place to the ground with them in it, but I’d rather not end up in jail if I can avoid it. Killing has to be done as inconspicuous as possible, so nobody will know it was me until I’ve already disappeared from sight.
It’s my thing, it’s what I do, or rather what I’ve become. After all these years, I don’t even remember what it was like to not be a murderer. Not that I want to remember; hell, I prefer this life over any other, especially the lives of those people in that party who are about to witness death.
I’ve got to admit, it is a rush. I just love killing, especially when it’s for the right reasons. Those reasons are obviously always to benefit me. Why the fuck else would I murder people if not for my own pleasure? Well, and for the money that sustains me, of course.
What can I say? I’m the scum of the earth, the disgusting vile that creeps in the corners to jump you at night … and I don’t regret being like this for even a second.
I turn into the alley and come face to face with a bulking, barely-fitting-in-his-suit, bodyguard. I cock my head as he frowns at me, probably wondering what I’m doing here.
“Excuse me, you can’t come here,” he says as I walk closer.
I smile. “Why not? This is where the party is.”
He folds his arms, making himself seem larger, but all it does to me is make it more laughable. “This is the rear entrance. If you want access, you have to take the front door. If you have a ticket, that is …”
He doesn’t believe me? Even in my fucking fancy suit? Well, fuck him. I wanted to spare his life, but questioning my slickness isn’t something one can get away with on my watch.
“Oh, I have a ticket, all right,” I say, narrowing my eyes. “How dare you talk to a guest like that.”
“I’m sorry, Sir,” he says, “But I’m not allowed to let anyone pass through this door. You will have to go to the front entrance where they can check your ticket. Sorry.”
Of course they all think I’m not a guest, because let’s face it … I look like a guy you wouldn’t want your daughter to talk to, even if it was in broad daylight in your own fucking home. With my piercings, black hair, and merciless attitude, I usually scare people to death. I have the kind of face you’d see in your nightmares … except, when you see me in real life, you’re really dead.
Like this guy.
“Yeah, yeah … so let me get this straight …” I shuffle around, looking at the floor, distracting him. “You’re basically telling me I can’t walk here, even though this is a public alley, just because this isn’t the ‘correct’ entrance to the party I’m supposed to be attending?”
“I’m only doing my job.”
I look up at him. “So am I.”
In a fraction of a second I’ve grabbed his coat and flip it over his head. I twist around, to his back, and wrap it around his neck. His screams are quickly muffled by the fabric stuffed in his mouth, choking him as I drag him back into the corners of the alley. He claws at the coat, desperate to free himself before time runs out. Stumbling backwards, we fall to the ground, and I wrap my legs around his chest to prevent him from moving. His body fights for survival, his legs thrashing, his hands punching in the air. It’s no use. I will win this fight, as I always do. He’s losing his energy fast, and his muscles are losing their strength. It won’t be long now. With his fingers growing whiter every second, all the blood is rushing to his face, in a last attempt to breath. But it’s already too late; there is no oxygen left and his lungs are shutting down.
His legs stop moving and his hands drop to the floor, the last groan slipping off his tongue like a ghost leaving his body.
Death has made his entry.
I unwrap the coat from his face and crawl out from underneath him. Then I drag his body to the dumpster in the back and put him on the side facing the brick wall. I take his coat off his dead body and swing it around until it’s long and thin, like a rope. Then I tie it around a handle of the dumpster and tightly wrap the other end around his neck. I make sure his body is positioned right and the tension on the coat is just right, so that when the paramedics or police find him they’ll think exactly what I want them to think; that this was a mindless suicide with no further need to investigate.
Hopefully, they won’t find him before morning, when I’m long gone.
Before I leave I fish in his pockets and take out a rather convenient card that will grant me access to the backdoor of the building. Smiling at him, I say, “Sorry, dude. Business is business. No hard feelings.”
One look, a simple glance, can change everything.
A nod, narrowing eyes, or a twitch of the lips is all it takes to convey a message that destroys everything.
I should’ve trusted my instincts, should’ve listened to the warning signs. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up, the dread rippling through my veins, telling me this wasn’t right.
Instead, I give my husband the glass, my smile, and a soft pet on the shoulder.
“Here you go, darling,” I say, giving him a peck on the cheeks.
When I turn to look back at the man I exchanged looks with, he’s gone.
My husband laughs and takes the glass from my hand, pulling me from my thoughts. “Vanessa, let me introduce you to Cordelia.”
The woman next to him holds out her hand, her smile full of fakery as she says, “Cordelia, I’m a fan of your husband’s work.”
“Vanessa, lovely to meet you. My husband seems to have many fans at this party.” I laugh and smile like the good wife, pretending not to have noticed the wink she gave him. Her tightly squeezed dress reminds me of my husband’s hand, which was on her ass just seconds ago. I wonder if the squeeze was good enough, or if he’ll find more asses to pat later.
In one go, I chug back my drink.
Everybody looks at me like I’ve gone insane, but I ignore them. I place my glass down on a tray held by a waiter passing by and return with a smile. “So, Cordelia, I’ve heard a lot about you. You’re one of the actresses in my husband’s movies if I’m not mistaken.”
“Yes, our latest movie will be airing in January this year, so I’m quite excited about that.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful. Did you work closely with her?” I ask my husband. “Since you two seem to know each other so well.”
“Ah, yes, well …” My husband chokes on his wine.
“Phillip showed me all around the set. He’s quite a charm,” she says, giggling. “He knows so much about this business, I swear, I feel like a rookie again when I’m around him.”
“Hmm … I can imagine,” I say, smiling again. First name basis already. That went quickly.
Phillip coughs a couple more times, his wine glass shaking so much that it spills and droplets fall to the ground.
“Oh dear, are you all right, Phillip?” Cordelia asks, placing her hand on her chest.
He coughs some more, this time bending over, punching his own chest. I grab the glass from his hand and put it down. “Phillip? Talk to me,” I say.
“I’m … fine,” he mutters, but I can clearly tell he’s not. He’s coughing too much, more than I’ve ever seen him do, and that’s noteworthy, as he’s a fervent smoker.
“Do you need me to help you?” I ask.
“No … no, no, I just need some air.
I place my hand on his back. “Let’s go outside then.”
“I think it’s better if you took him home,” Cordelia says, swallowing away the lump in her throat. “He seems … ill.”
“Thank you for your concern,” I say. Always so involved. “We’ll be fine.”
“No, she’s right.” Phillip places a hand on mine. “Let’s go home. Seems this wine was a little too much for my body to handle. I’ve had enough drinks for one night.” He laughs, but it’s more pathetic than anything. “Besides, I’ve shown my face and talked to some people. The party will probably go on fine without us.”
“All right, if you’re sure. See you later, Cordelia,” I say, waving back at her while I take my husband outside.
The doors are opened for us as I escort him outside. My husband dismisses all the help the waiters want to give him, much to my dismay. I help him down the stone staircase, which is quite a feat. The more we walk, the more he leans on me, and it’s becoming harder and harder to help him walk. Soon, I’m the one carrying most of his weight.
“What’s happening to you? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” he says, the coughs still increasing in volume. “Just had a little too much, that’s all.” He stumbles across the pavement, almost pulling me down with him. I can barely keep us both on two feet.
“Phillip, this isn’t right, you can’t even walk,” I say, walking him all the way to our car.
“Nothing’s wrong, I’m just a little … tipsy, that’s all.” He fumbles in his pockets, leaning against the car as he takes it out and I open the door to step in.
“No, no, I’m driving,” he says.
“What? No way, you can’t. You’re too intoxicated.”
He frowns. “No, I’m not. Now, step aside and let me drive.”
I make a face. “Must you always be so damn stubborn? Just let me drive. I can bring us home safely.”
“There’s nothing wrong, now move aside, woman.” He shoves me so hard that I have to hold onto the door to stay steady.
Before I have time to protest, he sits down behind the wheel and slams the door shut.
My hands turn into fists as I storm to the other side of the car and mouth some foul words. This man … ugh, the amount of crap I have to put up with is driving me insane.
I open the door and sit my ass down, slamming the door shut behind me. The car starts and he drives off with a hiccup, hitting a stone ridge to the side of the road.
“Watch it!” I say.
“Oh, c’mon,” he says, driving out of the parking lot. “Can you just give me a break?”
“No, this is dangerous, and you know it.”
“I said I’m fine, what more do you want from me, huh?” He starts driving faster.
“Oh, not this again,” I sigh.
“Keep quiet then and let me do my job.”
“Your job is driving?” I jest, as we ride through the city.
He throws me a glance. “Can you just not make it worse? Like, for one fucking second in my life, can you just not annoy the ever-loving shit out of me?”
The car is going faster and faster, even when a traffic light is eminent.
“No, you stop.”
“No, I mean, the lights!” I yell.
Too late, he’s already rushing straight through while it was red. I put my hands in front of my eyes so I won’t see the impending disaster. My heart is racing, my breathing is ragged, and when I open my eyes again nothing has happened. Phillip is still sitting next to me, his breathing loud and his veins bulging through his skin, his face red with rage.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” I scream.
“Nothing, you’re what’s wrong with me!” he yells back.
“You just drove straight through a red light. Are you insane?”
“If I am, it’s your fucking fault for always getting on my back,” he hisses.
“And this is payback? Scaring me? How dare you,” I say. “Stop this car.”
We’re nearing the highway, and I don’t want this to get worse. I need to get out. “Phillip, stop this car. Right. Now.”
“No,” he repeats, fuming.
“Let me out!” I scream.
“We’re not doing this. Not now,” he says, grinding his teeth.
I look around, but all I see are roads and other cars, no grass in sight to even remotely think of jumping out, even though that’s a ridiculous idea. But when you’re afraid, stupid things go through your head. I hate danger.
Shit, we’re already driving on the highway. It’s too late.
“What are you doing?” I ask. “Get off the highway!”
“I’m getting us home. Now will you shut up already?” he yells. “You’re driving me crazy with your constant whining.”
The yelling causes him to cough so hard, the car is swaying.
“Be careful,” I say, sweating like crazy.
“Shut up! Just shut up, all right? If you can shut your mouth for like ten minutes, we’ll get home safely, and I’ll be rid of this nasty cough,” he growls, still coughing.
“Fine,” I say, and I turn my head to look out the window.
The lights pass by quicker with every mile we drive, cars shooting by as if they were never even there. I try to focus on my breathing, trying to calm myself down so I can think of a rational solution to this problem. The problem being his cough and incredibly bad temper. I try to ignore the fact that the car is still speeding up and that his cough still has not subsided, even though he said it would when we’d stop talking. After a few minutes, the swaying becomes so bad, I turn my head to see if I can help.
What I see makes my heart stop.
Phillip’s eyes open and close.
His body is limp.
His hands aren’t on the steering wheel.
And the car has already veered from one lane into the other.
“No!” I squeal, grasping the wheel with all I have, trying to straighten it in time.
But the car is already too skewed, and when I turn, it starts to spin.
The backside slips to the left, crashing into the guardrail. Another car hits ours so hard it catapults us into the air.
At this moment in time, my body is bumping into my seat and into the window, my head exploding in pain. My vision becomes blurry as the car cartwheels across the road. I swing from left to right, up and down, as the belt proves to be of little use to protect me. My hands clamp around my face in an attempt to protect myself as the car flips again and again.
When the car comes to a stop, I’m hanging from the top, gravity pulling on my body. My lungs are about to burst from the air locked inside. For a moment, my mind leaves my body, and I fade in and out of consciousness. Blood trickles down my nose, keeping me awake. My hands feel numb and my feet are swollen, but somewhere inside me, I find the courage to move.
I lift the belt and unbuckle myself. My body drops to the hard roof, which is now the floor, crushing my ribs. I howl in pain, but stop when I can’t breathe. I blink to clear my view and look around. Phillip hangs next to me, his body lifeless and limp. And then I notice the smoke.
“Phillip,” I whisper. “Phillip, wake up.” My throat burns and my muscles ache as I attempt to free him. However, a flicker of fire is enough to make me stop in my tracks. Flames are eating up the car, and by the time I slide out of the car, they have swallowed the metal.
I crawl further away, hoping to get on my feet and run to Phillip’s side so I can drag him out myself, but when I try to stand my legs won’t budge. Cars around us stop as I fight to get away from the car. The fuel entering my nostrils is the adrenaline that pushes me to keep going.
When I turn my head to look at the car, flames have engulfed it.
My ears are ringing, my eyes tearing up from the pain.
My husband is in there, and despite my efforts, I can’t make it back in time.
He’s burning alive.
“No!” I yell, but then cough because I can’t bear the pain. It’s so hot, and everything hurts.
As I look around, someone comes toward me. One of the people from the cars that stopped. My vision is getting blurry again, and my strength is fading fast. Even though I try to lift my arms, they don’t listen to me, and I lie lifelessly on the cold asphalt, waiting for the ordeal to end.
Feet come closer until they stop in front of me. I pour my last ounce of strength into gazing up into the eyes of the one who will pull me out of here.
He’s none other than the man I saw at the party.
But his eyes show no mercy.
A Man for Hire
By Patrice Wilton
Part of the Summer Fire anthology releasing May 26, 2015.
“Kari–I have a confession to make.” Jordon Marshall paused for a second, delaying the moment of truth. Her sister wouldn’t judge her harshly, but she’d be ticked off that Jordan hadn’t told her before.
“I hope it’s a good one,” Kari said. “You’ve been acting mysterious about this whole weekend, and I’m dying to know why.”
Jordon propped her elbows on the wooden table, and glanced around at the other patrons in the small, dark tavern. No one within hearing distance, but still she lowered her voice. “I’ve slept with him.”
“Slept with who?”
“With him. You know. Bradley Langford. The guy who’s my date for the weekend.”
“But how could you? You haven’t even met him!”
“Actually I have.”
“Okay, okay! Backtrack here.” Kari lowered her voice. “Exactly when did you meet him and sleep with him, and all that good stuff? And why am I just hearing about this now?”
“Well, it wasn’t important before.” It had been an incredible night she’d kept close to the chest. “But now it is. You don’t tell me about every guy you hook up with, do you?”
“No, but you wouldn’t want to know. You, on the other hand, have had one boyfriend in the past two years.”
“True. But, Kari, we weren’t even on a date!” Jordon felt her cheeks warm, just saying the words. How could she ever have done such a thing? She wasn’t a party girl. Her sister…but this was not about Kari. It was Jordan’s moment of truth. “I didn’t even know him,” she said in a final rush, fanning her flushed face. She would be so happy to get this conversation over with.
“Holy crap! That is so not you. You never go for cheap hook-ups. You’ve never slept with someone that you weren’t in love with.” Kari laughed. “As your sister, I know every guy you’ve had a crush on since you were nine years old!” She snorted. “Until now.”
“The whole situation was really messed up. So was I.” She put one hand over her chest and the remembered pain. “You know the day I found out about Tom getting married? Well I went out with Cindy. Some new hot shot bar in mid-town where we met after she got off work.”
“Cindy? The one you worked with at the PR office–before you made the biggest mistake of your life and took the job at the winery?” Kari didn’t hide her dislike of all things related to Tom, including the family business.
“Yeah, that Cindy. And it wasn’t the biggest mistake of my life. Sleeping with a total stranger tops that by a mile. Anyway, let me finish.” Jordan sighed and took a sip of the wine she’d ordered, hoping it might ease her nerves. What would he say when he saw her again?
“Go on. I’m all ears.”
“Yeah, well, it was happy hour. Cindy and I were having martinis and I was telling her the whole ugly story. She’d met Tom several times, and we’d gone out together as couples. So, she couldn’t believe it when I told her he’d met someone in Italy, and was bringing her home as his bride.” She inched the wine glass away before she drained it.
“I know, honey. I couldn’t believe it, either. Mom and Dad are still in shock. They loved him. We all did. The two-faced jerk.”
Jordon’s throat closed, and she shut her eyes for a moment to hold back another round of tears. She’d shed enough. Tom was not going to get one more drop out of her. “Yes, well, I guess he just didn’t love me. I thought he did, but how could he leave for a few months and fall in love with someone else so fast? After two years of dating he never asked me to marry him.” She sniffed. “And after only a few months he decides he’s met the person he wants to spend the rest of his life with?”
After a moment’s silence, Kari spoke gently. “Oh, Jordon, I’m sorry that this still hurts, but you never seemed anxious to get married. Maybe he wanted that, and sensed you were more focused on your career than starting a family.”
“That’s not true. Or fair. I loved him.” Jordan ran her finger through the condensation on her wine glass, thinking about her relationship with Tom. They had loved each other. Not like a romantic movie where people were crazy in love. She and Tom were just really good together–compatible in every way. Sex between them hadn’t set off any fireworks, but it was very satisfying. She’d rate it a B+, or maybe a good solid B. Not like sex with Bradley Langford. That had been extraordinary. Off the charts. Probably because she’d had too much to drink, or because it had been naughty when she was usually nice.
Ashamed of where her thoughts had taken her, Jordon added in her defense, “We had a good relationship. We were both so busy trying to put his family’s winery on the map that romance took a back seat.”
“Maybe if you’d gone to Italy with him?”
“The Martello’s pay me handsomely, but they expect me to be “hands on”. I’m their jack-of-all-trades business manager.”
“Well, by keeping you here, they lost you as a daughter-in-law,” she said hotly. “They’ll be sorry, and so will Tom.” Kari, loyal to the bone added, “When he sees you again, he’ll realize what an idiot he’s been. He probably just got lonely without you, and this conniving bitch somehow figured a way to entice him. That’s all. One look at you and he won’t marry her.”
“Too late. This weekend celebration is to introduce his new bride to their regular customers and his extended family and friends.” Jordan sighed. “I told you that.”
“Why in the world are you going? I can’t believe his parents would put you through that torture, no matter how well they pay.”
“My fault,” Jordan admitted. “I insisted it didn’t bother me. Then I said I’d met someone and they seemed surprised, but delighted. So, I had to find someone fast, and that’s what I did.”
“That’s why you slept with a stranger at a bar?” Her sister’s voice rose in mock horror. “I’m almost proud of you. I’d high five you if I could.”
“It wasn’t like that. I didn’t go there with a plan in mind. Just happened. Cindy had to leave early because her husband expected her for dinner, and I had just ordered another martini. Anyway, I heard this guy talking on his cell outside the restrooms, and he seemed even more upset than me. When he returned he took the bar seat next to me, and I sent him over a drink. So I guess I picked him up, but we were both miserable, and I didn’t want to go home. Misery loves company. It’s true.” Jordan shook her head at the memory.
“So what was he like? Or do you even remember?” Kari teased.
“Of course I remember. He was nice. Tall, good looking with light, sandy-colored hair. Bright blue eyes. Well dressed. Clean finger nails.” She closed her eyes as images flashed in her mind. “We talked for hours. He ordered some food, we had another round of drinks, then he insisted on seeing me home in a taxi. I planned to walk, but by then I wasn’t walking so good.”
“Well, at least he behaved like a gentleman. So how did you wind up in bed together?”
“He helped me to the door. I opened it, and turned around to thank him and say good-bye. He gave me this really sweet, puppy dog smile, and without thinking I just grabbed him by the tie and dragged him in.”
Kari laughed. “I like that part. So is he going through a divorce? Is that it?”
“He’s already divorced. Told me he was a lawyer and that his wife had kept the Hampton home and now wanted to put their daughter in some fancy schmancy boarding school. That’s what he was so angry about. He said if she wasn’t going to take care of her, he would.”
“Nice. I like him already.”
“Well, he seemed legit, but then when I needed a “make believe boyfriend” for this weekend I went to an exclusive dating service. Imagine my surprise when I cruised through photos and found his.”
“Oh, no! So he lied about his profession? What else did he lie about, I wonder? Maybe the whole conversation was a hoax to make you feel sorry for him.”
“I don’t think so, but that’s why I selected him. I want to find out.” “As soon as this weekend is over, you better call me. Okay? I am as curious as you are.”
“I will. Promise. Look. I’ve got to go. I think he just arrived. A sleek silver Jaguar just pulled into the parking lot, and this is more of a pick-up truck kind of bar.” Her heart raced at the thought of seeing him again.
“Have fun. And good luck.”
“Thanks, Kari. I’m going to need it.”
Bradley pushed the door of the tavern open and glanced around the semi-darkness. He spotted a lone woman in a booth and headed her way. God, he hated this job. Being an escort with a lonely hearts service was not something he’d ever aspired to, but for now it was a means to an end. He had to pay five grand a month alimony to his ex and make colossal payments on the four bedroom cottage in the Hamptons, which she’d been awarded from the divorce. He was only a junior lawyer in a mid-size firm, not some high-priced Wall Street type.
The only thing he still owned was the car outside and a studio loft in Hoboken. Not that he gave a damn. Crystal could have the house, half his money, and drag his name through the muck. What ate at him and left an acid hole in his gut was that he missed his daughter terribly. Seeing her every second weekend wasn’t enough.
A buddy of his who’d been in a similar circumstance a few years back had told him about this agency. He’d said it was a lark and that Bradley would easily make enough money to pay his alimony and mortgage. Bradley had figured it was a nice payback to his wife, who’d put him through hoops to get everything she could out of their twelve year marriage.
Okay. The divorce had been his fault. While his wife played in the Hamptons all summer, he’d been alone in the city. A workplace flirtation turned into a dinner, and it should have ended right there. He honestly had never planned it any other way. Heck, Cindy was married too. After working late one night he suggested grabbing a bite to eat. They’d just stepped out of the Soho restaurant when Cindy tripped on the sidewalk and sprained her ankle.
He’d picked her up, flagged down a cab and taken her to his place so they could ice it. God’s truth. That had been his only intention. She had lain on his couch, her ankle wrapped up in ice and he’d poured them both a glass of wine. Big mistake. The next thing he knew they were both naked and rolling off the couch. They both regretted that one indiscretion and never mentioned it again. Truthfully, they avoided each other like the plague. No more flirting around the water cooler or texting each other, or sharing smiles as they past in the halls.
A couple of weeks passed, and he began to breathe easier. Cindy wasn’t going to make trouble and his wife didn’t ever have to know. He would never, ever misbehave again. He’d learned his lesson. Abstinence was a better bedfellow than guilt.
As luck would have it, his wife Crystal came to visit him midweek and found an earring partially hidden in the sofa. He’d explained the unfortunate situation the best he could, but she wouldn’t forgive him no matter how hard he begged. Instead she’d set out to see that he paid, and paid, and paid.
Yes, it had been wrong. He had been bad. So here he was. Trapped in another weekend of pretence.
He straightened his shoulders and marched toward the back booth where a young woman sat. The walls inside were brick, the lights dim and he couldn’t see her very well. As he drew near he caught sight of her long auburn hair, and the profile of her face. He stopped dead in his tracks. She looked like a woman that he’d recently met, one he couldn’t forget.
Life was stranger than fiction, but he didn’t expect to get so lucky. Not twice with the same woman.
She lifted her chin and looked him directly in the face.
“Hello, Bradley,” she said in her throaty voice.
“Jordon?” His heart pounded. During their amazing encounter, he’d never mentioned moonlighting as a paid escort. It wasn’t something that he told many people, since he wasn’t particularly proud of it. But she had paid highly for the pleasure of his company this weekend. On purpose? “You’re my weekend date? How did you find me?”
“Why, the usual way, I suppose. I needed an escort, and you fit the bill. What a pleasant surprise. A lawyer a month ago, and now an escort with No Strings Attached. You do get around.”
The look in her eye made him cringe. He wasn’t used to feeling as low as a cockroach, at least not since the mud-slinging divorce. Why should he apologize for not divulging this information? Their hook-up had been an unexpected surprise, but he hadn’t owed her his life story. Not then, and not now. After all, she was the one paying a man to be her pretend lover, right? Nothing high and mighty about that.
“I suppose you want an explanation,” he finally said to ease the situation. No point in getting off on the wrong foot. Besides, he liked her. A lot. She was beautiful, sexy, intelligent, and a dynamo in bed. “Well, truth is I need the money. Everything else I told you was real.”
“Everything?” She smiled, but her green eyes were accusing. “I thought we were having a heart to heart that night in the bar. You left out an important part.”
“Not the way I see it.” He cocked his hip and met her gaze straight on. “I am what I said I was, and this is just a sideline to ease the financial strain. It’ll end in a few years. Meanwhile, it’s easy money and enjoyable most of the time.”
“Oh, I can only imagine,” she said, sticking her pretty nose in the air.
“No Strings Attached is very clear about their dating rules,” he reminded her. “No sex allowed. So whatever you’re thinking that I do with these women, forget it. I stick to that agreement a hundred percent of the time.”
“Really? Well, what if I want more than just a friendly date? After all, I paid a hefty price.”
“You’d have to take it up with management. Maybe Elizabeth Ward could find you someone else more agreeable.”
“I don’t want anyone else. I want you.” She looked him up and down as he was still standing. The gesture made him feel like a piece of meat.
“Do you mind if I sit?”
“Not if you plan to stay.” She scooted over, making room on the wooden bench next to her.
Bradley slid into the booth, careful not to make contact. “So. I was told a weekend long house party with hundreds of guests and some dancing. It must be for the guy you told me about. The one who ditched you and married someone else.”
“He didn’t ditch me.” Jordan edged further into the corner, picked up her wine glass and slugged it down. “He just married someone else.”
“In my books, that’s ditching. But let’s not get into semantics.” He felt sorry for her, realizing that showing up at this party would be unbearably hard. “It’s going to be a tough weekend for you. I’ll do what I can to make it as easy as possible. I will flatter you, romance you, do all the right stuff. No one other than you and I will ever guess that we aren’t a couple in love, and boinking our brains out every night.” He smiled. “I promise.”
“Maybe I want to do some boinking. It would serve Tom right.” Her chin lifted and she studied his face. “Besides, we had a good time, didn’t we?”
His eyes held hers and he reached for her hand, gave it a squeeze. “We did, but this weekend will be awkward enough. We don’t want to complicate things.”
“How can great sex complicate anything? It’s not that I care about you. Just don’t want to feel discarded and unwanted. I hope when Tom looks at me he’ll see that ‘freshly fucked glow’.”
Bradley looked at her mouth and thought about the things he had done to her. With her. It had been a wild night of pleasure. So much so, that he felt himself stir at the heated memory. He attempted to cross his legs under the table but there wasn’t room. “Look. I wish I could help you out here, but I can’t. It isn’t right. I only agreed to being an escort, not to be used for sexual gratification. If I did that, I’d be nothing more than a cheap hooker.” “Hardly cheap.” She rolled her eyes, and sighed. “And of course you’re not a hooker. At least I don’t think you are. I never really thought about it at all. It’s just that we did do it once. For free. So I figured you wouldn’t mind. Add some spice. Make Tom jealous.”
“How would you feel if it were the other way around? If I’d hired you to make my ex-wife jealous? And…if I expected to make love to you because I’d paid good money.”
“I would be greatly insulted.” Her shoulders dropped. “Sorry.”
“Forget about it.” He waved to the waitress. “Bring us two glasses of whatever she’s having.”
“Yes, sir,” she blushed and gave him a flirtatious smile. “Right away.”
He waited a sec for the waitress to be out of earshot, then turned toward Jordon. “There were plenty of escorts to choose from,” he said, trying not to get his hopes up. “Why did you choose me?” Had she enjoyed his company too? Could it be the beginning of something? More than just incredibly hot sex.
She licked her lips, and he wanted to taste them.
“Why? I’m not sure. We had a good time together. Amazing chemistry. And I wanted to find out why you’d told me you were a lawyer, and yet your photo and bio were on Elizabeth’s exclusive site. I found it odd.”
He ground his teeth together. He’d searched high and low for her, scouting out bars, hoping to run into her again.
“Do you believe me now?” He looked directly into her eyes.
“Yes,” she whispered, a little breathless.
“You want chemistry? I think I can manage that.” He cupped her chin. Damn. He wanted to kiss her right now. “How hot do you want it?”
Her cheeks grew warm and her green eyes glittered. “As hot as you’ve got.”
By Brandy L Rivers
Copyright 2015 Brandy L Rivers
Cover Design by Brandy L Rivers
Edited by Shaner Media Creations
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.
Intending to head for the bar, Chloe got lost in a daydream when she stepped through the door. A familiar song caught her attention. Glancing up, her gaze locked on her biggest regret.
Molten brown eyes, shaggy brown hair, perfectly curved lips twisted in a sinful smirk. That sexy mouth, and talented fingers—and damn, the man could play an instrument. Nearly any.
Smoldering eyes locked on hers for a brief second, igniting hope. Then his brow furrowed as he looked away. Closing his lids, Doug Walsh threw himself into the music like he wanted to banish her from his mind. She couldn’t blame him.
Her desire was a cruel twist of fate. He was even hotter than the last time she saw him, eight years ago. A twinge of guilt thrummed through her and she turned, with the intention of walking out the door.
Someone looped their arm through hers and dragged her toward the bar.
“Thought I mentioned your favorite mistake was playing tonight,” Jackie sing-songed. They’d been best friends since kindergarten. As much as Chloe loved her, Jackie was going to torture her.
She didn’t want to think about the way she’d let Doug in, only to shut him out the next morning. Not once, but twice.
Hopeless, she looked over. “If you had, I wouldn’t have come.”
With a dejected sigh, she climbed onto a stool and dropped her chin into her hand. Nodding at the bartender, she ordered, “Long Island, please?”
Bartender dipped his head in acknowledgement.
Jackie nudged her. “Why not? Clearly you’re still hung up on him. I saw your reaction.”
“He probably hates me.”
“Nah. He never let it slow him down.”
Her mouth fell open. “Are you saying Doug turned into a man-whore?”
Jackie’s brow scrunched. “Not exactly. Though he doesn’t have a problem picking up women.”
“That’s karma for you.” Chloe turned to find her drink. Tracing the disposable coaster, she took a sip from the tall glass before asking, “Why did you invite me here?”
“Figured it would be like old times. Only without having to sneak into bars.”
Chloe giggled. “What the hell. He’s already seen me and the worst he can do is ignore my sorry ass.”
A smirk lifted one corner of Jackie’s mouth as she looked to the stage. “Doubt he’ll ignore you long. He can’t seem to keep his eyes off you.”
Unsure what to say, she kept her mouth closed. It wasn’t like she could turn back time and stay those two nights.
Jackie led her to the stage. Chloe’s eyes landed on the lead singer of Nights Embrace. Roxy was pregnant—like way pregnant.
“Holy shit!” Chloe leaned in to ask, “Tell me Jordan didn’t knock her up.”
“Not a chance. She dumped him years ago. Though Jordan’s not the ass he used to be. Roxy married an Irish hunk from a different band. You’ll have to come early enough to see his group play sometime. But he’ll be singing Nights Embrace’s last song with her.”
“And the guys? What have they been up to?”
“Like I said, Jordan straightened up his act. He even has a girlfriend. Mike’s with a feisty woman, they’re perfect together. And Doug is still flying solo.”
“You like to torture me, don’t you,” she shot back.
Jackie shrugged, attempting an innocent smile as she glanced up at the ceiling.
“You’re here for good, right? You’ve always wanted to fix things. Well, now’s your chance.”
Chloe glared back. “He’s avoiding looking at me.”
“Yeah, because he wanted more than one night, and you bailed on him. Twice.”
“Totally agree. Can’t blame him if he ignores my existence.” That’s why she tried to forget the boy who stole her heart with his big brown eyes, and passion for music. He wasn’t afraid to be true to himself.
For too many years, she tried to please her parents until she finally realized she needed to live for herself.
Chloe made it into Brown University and graduated at the top of her class. Then she went on to medical school against her parent’s wishes. Had they paid attention, they would have realized she ditched the idea of being a lawyer before her first day of college. Her mother had always been more interested in trying to get Chloe to fit her mold.
She came back to Seattle exactly once while away at college. That first summer break when she got swept up in Doug on a warm lazy evening. Then she remembered the next seven years she’d be in Connecticut, across the country. A long distance relationship, distracting from her studies, was the last thing she needed.
Her mother found out she’d spent the night with Doug. Mom had laid into her about how improper it was to be fooling around with a kid who would never go anywhere, a poor two-bit musician, as opposed to a young man worthy of.
In tears, she got herself to the airport and left for good, or so she thought. Her excuse was that she needed to prepare for her next semester. In reality, she needed to find herself.
Part of her hoped she would find Doug, confess everything, and he would forgive her. If his scowl was any indication, it was far too late.
Can I resist her this time around?
Probably fucking not.
Doug tried to forget the longing on Chloe Mae’s beautiful face when she walked in and her eyes landed on him. She’d already stabbed him in the heart twice. The night of graduation, and again the following summer.
He wished like hell she didn’t still affect him. She always had, probably always would.
Stupid considering she’d proven he was nothing more than a hot bod and a decent lay. Both times, she disappeared without a word, no explanation, nothing. This time, he wasn’t falling for her sexy smile and pouty lips. She would have no problem finding another man to keep her satisfied.
Mindlessly keeping tempo, he strummed the bass rhythm and scanned the crowd. Right there, two feet in front of him, she stood with Jackie Oceans. Chloe’s eyes were locked on his. Her expression somewhere between lust and—guilt?
Can’t be guilt. Even if it is, she’ll only pull the same stunt.
Thank god. Time for the last song. Maybe everyone would be ready to leave early.
Trevor walked on to sing with Roxy, and he couldn’t help smiling at the pair. They were so damned perfect together. And Mike found his match. Even Jordan was happily monogamous even if they were still in the fuck-like-bunnies stage and not a real couple.
Maybe one day he’d find love.
His eyes travelled the crowd and landed once again on Chloe who stood perfectly still, watching his every move. Why did she look so hopeless?
by Cat Miller
Kesslyn Walker stared mournfully into her Jack and Ginger. She sat at the end of a bar in a honky-tonk in the middle of Nowhere, Texas. Okay, it wasn’t exactly nowhere. It was just outside of her destination of Walker Creek, Texas, where her legacy waited for her to claim it.
She supposed most people would be excited to learn they’d inherited a massive ranch and more money than she’d ever imagined having in her life, but Kesslyn wasn’t. This should have been her father’s inheritance. He would have known what to do with a ranch. He’d grown up on the ranch and would have known how to carry on. He at least would have had some clue as to how a ranch was run. That was, if he wanted to keep the property at all. Her father had never taken Kesslyn or her mother, Lara, to visit his birth place. Sadly, she’d never even met her grandparents and Kesslyn didn’t really know why that was. She only knew there was a disagreement between her father and grandfather that had lasted since before she was born.
She’d been working at her job as her best friend, Mitchell’s, personal assistant and office manager three fateful weeks before, when the call came from a lawyer with a thick Texas accent looking for the daughter and only child of Russell Walker, Jr. Just hearing her father’s name had brought tears to Kesslyn’s eyes. Her parents had been killed more than two years before in a car accident one snowy day on their way home from a skiing trip in Pennsylvania. A semi had lost control in the slippery conditions and crossed the double lines into the lane where her father was driving. That fast, her parents were both gone, and Kesslyn was left alone in the world.
Mr. Hodges Baird, Esq. was her grandfather, Russell, Sr.’s, lawyer. He’d been searching for her father to inform him of the passing of his parent’s, when he learned of Russell, Jr.’s untimely death. Claire Walker, her grandmother, had passed the year before, during her battle with breast cancer. Russell, Sr. passed eleven months later, ostensibly from a broken heart. So Kesslyn was needed in Walker Creek, Texas, to sign the appropriate paperwork and inspect her property and the business it supported.
Kesslyn’s father had also been a lawyer, so she understood the legal mumbo-jumbo. She’d worked for his firm until his passing, at which time, she found it too difficult to sit outside of the office he had occupied. They would have gladly kept her on to work for the new partner, but Kesslyn couldn’t do it. She needed a change. Her life was up in the air, and she had no idea where the piece would fall. So she’d gone to work for Mitchell, who was a very successful realtor. She put her business degree to work helping Mitchell build and run his company. Mitchell was overly understanding, in her opinion, and had told her to take all the time she needed to get affairs in order.
“You never know, Kess, this might be just what you need. Maybe it’s time for you to move on. You’re wasting your time her with me,” Mitchell had reasoned. “Don’t scowl at me like that. I didn’t expect you to work here forever. Honestly, I’m surprised you’ve stayed this long. I know you’re bored being my office manager. You have so much potential. This could be your fresh start.”
Mitchell was a great guy. They’d been best friends since high school, and she loved him. He was her family. The only family she had left. When he’d driven her to the airport, Mitchell made her promise to keep an open mind. She was to take the time she needed to learn about life on a ranch and every aspect of the business before she made a decision about the future of the ranch.
She knew he really meant she needed to make a decision regarding her future and where she would live it. Somehow she doubted it would be feasible to run a ranch and business long distance. Baltimore was a long way from Walker Creek. Even if it were possible, she was far too much of a control freak not to be on hand to oversee the business herself. The ranching bit, well that was another story. Kesslyn was a city girl, born and bred. She’d learned to ride a horse with her dad. She enjoyed riding, but that was far cry from living on a ranch.
The trip, itself, had been a nightmare. Her flight was delayed. In the middle of nowhere, on a country road after driving for two hours, her rental car began to sputter and smoke. She’d pulled to the side of the road with a sigh of resignation. She pulled out her cell phone to call Triple A, but of course, she had no damn signal.
There was no use in getting out to open the hood. She had no clue what she was looking at on a car. She owned a car, but being the city dweller she’d been raised to be, Kesslyn rarely drove. She lived and worked in downtown Baltimore. Her job was walking distance from the red-brick row home she’d grown up in in the shadow of Camden Yard. Most other places she needed to go could be reached on mass transit. So, no, she wouldn’t be fixing the car on her own. Until her parent’s passed away she hadn’t even taken her own car for scheduled maintenance. He father had done that for her. She could hear his voice in her head saying, “I told you you’d need to know these things one day, Peanut.”
Luckily, she hadn’t been as far off the beaten trail as she’d believed herself to be. After walking for a bit, a car stopped to offer her a ride, but Kesslyn was too wary of strangers to accept. The kindly old man told her he’d send the sheriff out to pick her up. She thanked him and kept walking. It was rude, she supposed, to turn down the ride, but she was a stranger in a strange land, and old habits die hard. Before too long, a patrol car came into view. The deputy pulled alongside her and rolled down his window.
“When Old Man Johnson told me there was there was sweet little filly,” the officer made air quotes when he repeated the other man’s description, “walking down the county road I thought he was into the moonshine again. I’m glad I decide to investigate, anyway.” He stepped out of the cruiser and tipped his hat to Kesslyn. It wasn’t your average police hat, though. It was a cowboy hat. He was a tall, lean man, and quite handsome with a wide, straight smile and the beginnings of little lines that crinkled at the corner of his blue eyes when he smiled. “I’m Sheriff Shaw, Walker Creek P.D. Most folks just call me Tate, though,” he said in a slow drawl that reminded her of her father when he was tired or angry, and his accent became thicker.
Kesslyn smiled and extended her hand, relieved to be close to the end of her journey and happy to see an officer of the law. He was younger than Kesslyn would have imagined a Sheriff would be. The man couldn’t be much older than thirty-five, if that.
“I’m Kesslyn Walker. Thank you so much for coming to my aid, Sheriff Shaw. My rental car called it quits down the road a bit.”
She gestured over her shoulder toward the compact vehicle she’d picked up at the Dallas/Fort Worth International.
Sheriff Shaw looked a bit stunned as he took her hand. “You said your name is Walker? Would you happen to be any relation to Russell Walker?”
Again, the mention of her father’s name sent sadness coursing through her. Kesslyn smiled weakly. “Russell Walker was my father. He and my mother were both killed in an auto accident a couple of years ago.”
The sheriff’s face changed from curious to compassionate. “My deepest condolences, ma’am. And now both your grandparents are gone. I’m so sorry for your loss.” Kesslyn could already tell she would like this man. Sincerity shown in his eyes, and an air of upright authority radiated from him.
“Thank you, Sheriff Shaw. I miss them both very much. Please, call me Kesslyn. It seems I’m going to be around for a while.”
“Of course, Kesslyn. I’m sorry to look so surprised. The whole town has been buzzing about the return of Russell, Jr. The news of his passing hadn’t made it back to Walker Creek.”
That statement gave Kesslyn a pang of guilt. She should have contacted her grandparents directly. Her father’s firm had handled all of the legalities for her and arranged most of the funeral arrangements. Her parents’ final wishes had been spelled out in their will, so there weren’t really any major decisions to be made. She’d assumed they’d also be reaching out to her grandfather, but after a thirty year separation, he hadn’t come to the funeral. She didn’t really blame them. It now seemed that her grandparents had passed away without knowing their son was also gone. That explained Mr. Baird’s shock at learning the news. Her grandfather’s will left everything to her father. Her father had left his entire estate to Kesslyn, so she inherited it all. She didn’t want any of it. She just wanted her family back.
The sheriff gently ushered her to the passenger side and opened the door for her before trotting around to the driver side. He hopped in and took her, first, to her car to get her bags, before beginning the short ride to downtown Walker Creek. It was a quaint little town. Everything was spotless. People milled about Main Street, and judging by the stares as they passed, Kesslyn didn’t think anyone had missed the stranger in the sheriff’s car.
Her family’s ranch was on the outskirts of the opposite end of town, and it stretched for miles and miles according to the sheriff. It was weird that the town was named after her family, but the lawyer had explained that the town grew up around the ranch that had been there for generations.
Tate, as he insisted she call him, offered to take Kesslyn straight out to the ranch, but she wasn’t ready to face it yet. From what Mr. Baird had told her, the main house hadn’t been uninhabited since the passing of her grandfather. She had no idea what she’d find out there and it was getting late. The sun was just setting, and all Kesslyn wanted was a hot bath and decent meal. After calling the local garage to go retrieve her car, Tate dropped her off at the nicer of the two hotels in town.
On the way to the hotel, she saw a hair salon, an ice cream parlor, a gas station, and a general store, and only two red lights. One of the larger houses had a sign by the street proclaiming it a clinic. This was Hometown, USA, for sure. It reminded Kesslyn of Mayberry.
She was grateful to see Notcha Momma’s Diner located directly across the street from the hotel. After checking in and showering off the travel grime, she started to walk over for some dinner, but the neon red sign of Hooligans just down the road caught her eye. She could use a drink, or eight. The heat of the day had kind of turned her stomach. She was used to humidity. Baltimore could be suffocating in the summer, but the level of heat in Texas was something else. Something cold to drink was just what Kesslyn needed.
So there she sat, polishing off her third drink while she tried not to cry. She’d had a crap-tastic day. She missed her Mom and Dad so much, and she really wished they were there to give her some guidance. Her compassionate mother would tell her to go with her heart. Her father would have her reason out why she was so anxious over something she couldn’t avoid. It had to be dealt with one way or the other. So why avoid it? Why stress over what you can’t change?
In the end they would want her to come to her own conclusion, and they’d support whatever she wanted to do. She sighed, not really knowing why she was there. She was clueless and honestly still too heartsick over the loss of her parents to be any use to anyone. Her plan was to sell the ranch. Mitchell wanted her to give it a try before she made that move, but really, who was she kidding? She couldn’t do this. She just couldn’t.
She sighed deeply and tossed back the last of her drink before gesturing to the barmaid – a petite woman in shorts that didn’t exactly cover her booty and a spaghetti string tank top that read Walker Creek Eagles – for another drink.
When the barmaid smiled prettily and went to work on her drink, Kesslyn had a look around the barroom. It was quieter than she’d expected. The music was plenty loud, but the bar wasn’t full of two-stepping, whiskey swilling, brawling cowboys like she’d expected. There were a few couples dancing on the floor to a song about a neon moon. The tables dotted around the bar were about half full of an odd mix of people in western wear and others in fancier attire.
“Hi there.” The barmaid sat a fresh drink on a clean napkin. “My name’s Bitsy. Well, it’s actually Rebecca, but they’ve been callin’ me Bitsy my whole life.”
Kesslyn tried to smile for the friendly woman, but it fell short, she knew. “It’s nice to meet you, Bitsy. I’m Kesslyn.”
“Oh, that’s a right pretty name, Kesslyn.”
“Thank you.” Her parents couldn’t tell where the name had come from. They couldn’t find a name they both liked, and her mother had been labor when they finally settled on Kesslyn.
“I didn’t mean to interrupt your ruminating. You just looked so sad. I thought I’d say hello, you know, in case you need to talk. I’m a bartender. That’s almost the same as a shrink. We hear everybody’s worries on this side of the bar.” Bitsy patted her hand kindly.
Kesslyn had to laugh. She bet Bitsy knew everything about everybody in Walker Creek. “Thanks, Bitsy. For now, just keep the drinks coming.”
Bitsy nodded and danced back down the bar, stopping to ask each customer if they needed anything on her way. Kesslyn turned her attention back to her drink.
Beau Knox stared down his pool stick and took a deep breath. The scratchy collar and confining sleeves of the white dress shirt he had worn aggravated him. He hated the damned monkey suit he’d been wearing all afternoon. Beau was a working man far more comfortable in jeans and boots. He rolled up the long sleeves of the shirt and loosened the collar a little more. He’d ditched the tie and jacket in his truck after his good friend Deacon’s wedding reception. He pulled back and shot the stick forward to hit the cue ball. There was a satisfying crack of the cue ball knocking against the other balls when he broke.
At least he’d gotten some use out of the suit he’d bought for his grandfather’s funeral several months before. It had been dry cleaned and hanging uselessly in his closet when Deacon Hughes came to Beau to ask him to be his best man in a wedding to a woman Beau didn’t know and Deacon had just met. In spite of Beau’s misgivings about the match, Deacon was sure Rissa was the only one for him. That had been a week ago. One week. Deacon was only willing to wait as long as it took Rissa to find a dress and plan a simple but elegant ceremony and reception.
Beau shook his head at his friend’s rash decision. Marry in haste, repent at leisure. Wasn’t that how the saying went? Deacon was at his leisure, now. Beau hoped his friend wouldn’t regret the head first dive into matrimony.
Beau’s own parents were married just days after they met, according to his grandpa, and look how that had turned out. It was less than a year later when his father left his mother eight months pregnant for another woman. He’d never come back again. Never even visited his parents again. His mother was so in love with her husband that she’d gone a little crazy. She’d dropped Beau off with his grandparents when he was just a few months old and went out to “find herself.”
His ma would show up from time to time and drag Beau off for another try at parenting. When she couldn’t figure out how to balance partying, working, and being a single mother, she would eventually deposit him back in Walker Creek. It was during one of what he’d come to think of as her mommy phases when he was ten years old that things had changed.
You see, the cops don’t take kindly to folks using their kids as designated drivers. He’d driven her home lots of times. It was the waiting in the car for hours while Ma went into the bar that he hated, but Ma had always let him have whatever kind of fast food he wanted on those nights. So it was cool. He took the books his nana sent him to read to pass the time.
It was about three in the morning, and the streets were empty when they left the bar. Except for that cop he hadn’t seen hiding in the shadows. Shit, Beau was a good driver, even at ten years old, but his ma had started vomiting on the bench seat next to him, and Beau had jerked the wheel in his surprise. That’s when he’d seen the red and blue flashing lights. After that, his grandparents hadn’t had any trouble getting permanent custody.
Yup. Marriage did bad things to people, but they insisted on doing it anyway. All of his friends were very married now. Beau didn’t begrudge anyone their need to be tied together for better or for worse. It was just that, statistically speaking, for worse was a far more likely outcome. Beau had no interesting in experiencing the devastation that came when the shine wore off those gold bands. He’d lived through enough of that shit already.
He could admit that there were times when marriage did work out. His pop and nana for example, had a long and happy life together, but now his nana was suffering. After fifty-five years of wedded bliss, to hear his nana tell it, she was alone in the big old farm house her husband had built for her and their family.
Beau tried to shake off his bad mood. It was Saturday night. Bitsy swung by and dropped another bottle of beer off at his high-top table. Hooligan’s wasn’t overcrowded for a change because everyone had gotten drunk at the wedding reception and went home early. He was going to relax and play a little pool.
He was just about to take another shot when his attention was drawn away from the table to a pair of ridiculously long legs as they passed him on the way to restroom. Who the hell was that? He got a glimpse long red hair pulled back in a ponytail, an Orioles t-shirt, and a nicely rounded ass in snug black shorts as she disappeared into the lady’s room. Orioles? How had he missed the news of a honey in town? He looked around the room to find that everyone else had just noticed her too.
Bitsy was grinning and shaking her head behind the bar. She’d obviously just been waiting for the rest of the bar to see the lovely long legged newbie. If she’d just arrived, the news would be all over town before the end of the breakfast rush at Notcha Momma’s in the morning.
Never one to miss the opportunity to be neighborly and welcome a new resident to Walker Creek, Beau laid down his pool stick and casually walked toward the restrooms for a little accidental run in. The first real smile in days split his face. This night had just taken a turn for the better. He was gonna catch him a redhead.
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