Chapter Reveal: EXP1RE by Erin Noelle

 

 EXP1RE

EXP1RE DUET – BOOK 1

BY ERIN NOELLE

RELEASE DATE: OCTOBER 26, 2017

 

Exp1re

Numbers.
They haunt me.
I can’t look into a person’s eyes without seeing the six-digit date of their death.
I’m helpless to change it, no matter how hard I try.
I’ve trained myself to look down. Away. Anywhere but at their eyes.
My camera is my escape. My salvation. Through its lens, I see only beauty and life—not death and despair.
Disconnected from all those around me, I’m content being alone, simply existing.
Until I meet him.
Tavian.
The man beyond the numbers.
How can I stay away, when everything about him draws me in?
But how can I fall in love, knowing exactly when it will expire?

 

_________________________________________
Chapter One 

PROLOGUE
Lyra

10.18.02
The intercom crackles loudly throughout the classroom, interrupting Ms. Sherman’s rather uninspiring Friday afternoon lesson on the life cycle of a star. Even though most of the students around me are furiously jotting down notes about nebulas, red giants, and supernovas, I’m half listening while I doodle caricatures of me and my friends in the margin of my notebook. It’s not that I’m not interested in the material she’s talking about. No, that’s not the case at all. It’s quite the opposite actually; science is my favorite subject, especially anything that deals with astronomy and the unknowns in our universe.
But with a dad who is a super-smart astronomer at Johnson Space Center—or NASA, as most people here in Houston call it—I learned about this stuff she’s teaching before I ever started kindergarten. Heck, just this past summer before fifth grade, Mama and I went to visit him at a planetarium in Hawaii, where he was part of a team that discovered eleven new moons orbiting Jupiter! If I don’t ace this test next week, I better not even go home. I definitely wouldn’t be able to be an astronaut then.
“Ms. Sherman, can you please have Lyra Jennings gather her things and come down to the office? She’s leaving for the day,” the office lady who reminds me of Paula Deen—Mama’s favorite chef—announces through the ancient intercom system.
At the sound of my name, my chin jerks upward from my pencil sketches to the standard black-and-white classroom clock mounted above the projection screen. The hands read 12:45 p.m., nearly three hours before the end of the school day, when my parents are supposed to pick me up as we head out to Dallas for the weekend to celebrate my eleventh birthday. Ooh, maybe getting out of school early was my surprise they mentioned!
I’ve been looking forward to this day since we came home from this same trip last year, and I know my parents planned something special for this year. Every birthday, instead of having one of those silly kids’ parties with pointy hats and piñatas, they take me to the Texas State Fair. There, we spend the weekend riding as many rides as possible, stuffing our mouths with sausage-on-a-stick and fried Twinkies, playing games until we win the biggest of the stuffed animals, and laughing until our faces hurt and happy tears stream down our cheeks. Hands down, it’s my favorite three days of the year, even better than Christmas. And I really, really like Christmas.
Excitement jets through me as I stand up from my desk and hurriedly cram my spiral notebook and textbook into my purple paisley backpack. If we make it there early, I’ll be able to go swimming at the fancy hotel’s indoor pool before dinner.
“Sure thing,” my teacher calls out in response. “She’ll be right down.”
Hoisting the strap of the bag up on my shoulder, I turn to leave the room and my gaze meets Ms. Sherman’s. Her warmth shines in her bright amber-colored eyes, highlighting the numbers 051123 that I see imprinted in her pupils. The same six white numbers I see every time we make eye contact. The numbers I’m not allowed to talk about. The ones everyone thinks are all a part of my healthy imagination.
But they’re wrong. They’re all wrong.
The numbers are real, and they never change or go away. I only wish I knew what they meant. Mama and Daddy—who, by the way, are the only two people I know that have the same numbers—call it my special superpower, but I know they just pretend to believe me. I see the looks they share when they think I’m not watching. They don’t want me to think about all those things the doctors say about me. I may only be ten years old, but I’m 100% sure I’m not crazy, nor do I lie for attention. I’m an only child, for Pete’s sake; my parents are overly interested in my life. Though I do appreciate their support, even if they don’t understand.
“Have a nice weekend, Lyra. Don’t forget we have a test over CHAPTERs six through eight on Monday. Make sure you’ve read all the material,” she reminds me.
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll be ready,” I reply modestly, not sharing with her or the rest of the class I’ve already read through CHAPTER thirteen in the text, including answering the study guide questions at the end of each section. I may be an overachiever, but I’m not a brown-noser.
Luckily, school just comes easy for me, and my parents get over-Jupiter’s-moons proud when I bring home straight A’s on my report card. It reassures them that I’m normal and well adjusted. At least that’s what I heard Mama whispering to Daddy on the phone one night when she thought I wasn’t listening.
I mouth a quick goodbye to my best friend, Beth, who I pass by as I scuttle toward the exit. With her last name being Blackmon and mine being Jennings, we rarely get to sit near each other, as most of our teachers put us in alphabetical order. Beth’s numbers are 022754, and like Ms. Sherman’s, they light up vibrantly when she looks up at me and mouths the words Have fun before I slip out the door.
I never want to break the rules or get in trouble, so I somehow fight the urge to sprint down the deserted hallway and force myself to walk as fast as my long, skinny legs will let me. The swishing sound from my denim shorts rubbing together fills my ears, creating a soundtrack for my excitement. My cheeks ache from smiling so big while I drop off my folders and books in my locker then make a beeline to the front of the school, where my parents are waiting for me. This is going to be the best of the best weekends ever, one that none of us will ever forget. I just know it.
Only, when I swing open the glass door to the main office, expecting to see my favorite two people in the world, I’m surprised to find my Aunt Kathy standing there, her face puffy and pink, the corners of her mouth pointing due south. Our eyes meet, and I can barely see her numbers—123148—because of how swollen the lids are around them.
The fluffy white cloud of elation I floated in on disappears instantly as a dark fog of dread takes its place. Engulfing me. Swallowing me whole. She doesn’t have to say a word—I already know. Not how or when or where it happened, but deep in my bones, I know.
I was right. This will definitely be a weekend I’ll never forget, only it will be for reasons I’ll never want to remember.
“I’m so sorry, Lyra baby girl,” she cries. “I’m so sorry. They’re… they’re gone.”
gone.
Gone.
GONE.
The word bounces around between my ears, getting louder each time it echoes. The first time, it freezes my movements. The second steals all the air from my lungs. By the third time, I’m pretty sure I have no pulse. I want to go, too.
Go.
Going.
GONE.
With my feet stuck to the floor and my body stiff as a statue, Aunt Kathy rushes over to me and wraps her arms around my shoulders. Pulling me up against her chest as uncontainable sobs shake her body, she breaks down in front of the receptionist and attendance clerk, neither of who bother to hide their open staring. Numb, I stand completely still while she wails for several minutes, and I never once make a single sound or try to break free from the death grip she has on me. My thoughts race so fast they’re standing still.
I’m just… here. And my parents just… aren’t. And they won’t ever be again.
They’re… gone.
Climbing into the passenger seat of Aunt Kathy’s fancy sports car—a car I usually beg to ride in because there’s no backseat—I fasten my safety belt and then close my eyes as I lean my head back on the black leather, warm from the hot southern Texas sun. Even though it’s mid-October, I’m still wearing shorts and sandals, and just last weekend I went swimming at Beth’s house. But as I sit here and wait for my aunt to start the car, my teeth chatter loudly and my entire body trembles uncontrollably. My heart is frozen solid, but I’ve yet to shed a tear.
The phone rings and I jump, automatically looking at the caller ID on the screen, thinking… hoping… praying it’s someone calling to let us know this has all been a big mistake, that my parents are really okay.
“Hey, Mom,” Aunt Kathy answers after just one ring. We still haven’t pulled out of the parking space. “Yeah, I have her now. She’s safe and sound.”
My heart plummets even lower into my stomach than it was before as she pauses to listen to Granny Gina on the other end. Granny Gina is my dad and Kathy’s mom who lives in New Orleans, where she moved about five years ago after my grandpa passed away from lung cancer. Since my mom’s parents both died before I was born, she’s the only living grandparent I have, and luckily for me, she’s a pretty awesome one. But today, nothing is awesome. Not even close.
“I don’t know. She hasn’t said a word. I’m sure she’s in shock.” My aunt talks about me like I’m not sitting right here, as I finally feel the car jerk back in reverse.
Another pause. The car lurches forward into drive then we bounce hard as Aunt Kathy flies over a speed bump. I think I’m going to throw up.
“Okay, I’ll take her home so she can pack a suitcase of whatever she wants to bring, and then we’ll go to my place until you get here. You should be in about 5:00?”
Pack a suitcase of what I want to bring where? Where am I going? Why is this happening to me? I’m a good kid. I make good grades and I’m nice to people, even those people who everyone else makes fun of, and I listen to my parents and my teachers. What did I do to deserve this? Why me?
“Yeah, Mom, I know,” Aunt Kathy hiccups. She’s crying hard again. “I’ll take good care of her, and we’ll see you later. I love you.”
I keep my eyes screwed shut as she disconnects the call, scared she’ll want to talk if I open them. I don’t want to talk to her or Granny Gina or anyone but my parents. I want my mom and dad!
Thankfully, Aunt Kathy doesn’t try to talk to me as we drive, but when I feel the car come to a stop and hear the engine turn off, she gently taps my arm. “Lyra, sweetheart, we’re at your house. We’re going to go inside, and I need you to pack up a suitcase or two of the clothes and things you want to take to New Orleans. Whatever you need.”
“New Orleans?” My lids snap open and I whip my chin in her direction. I don’t even recognize my harsh, scratchy voice. “I’m going to New Orleans?”
“Yeah”—she nods sadly as she swipes at the black mascara streaks on her face with her thumbs—“with Granny Gina. After we take care of, uh, of everything here, you’ll go live with her there.”
Scowling, I cross my arms over my chest and grunt. “I don’t want to leave Houston, or my friends, or my school. Why can’t I stay here with you?”
“You know I travel with my job, Lyra. Sometimes I’m gone a week or two at a time, and there won’t be anybody here to stay with you. Granny Gina’s house has an extra bedroom, and since she doesn’t work, she’ll be able to better give you everything you need.”
What I need and will be better for me is my mom and dad. And my perfect birthday weekend at the fair.
She reaches out to attempt to soothe me with her touch, but I wrench away, banging my elbow on the car door in the process. The whack is loud, and the place I hit immediately turns red, but my brain doesn’t register the pain. I feel nothing. I’m broken.
I glance over at my aunt, and the tears spilling down her cheeks make me feel bad for acting the way I just did to her. What happened to my parents isn’t her fault, but I’m angry and this is all moving too fast. How am I supposed to pack up what I need in a couple of bags? I want to stay in my room, in my house, living with my parents.
“I know this is all unfair, baby,” she says through her sniffles, “and I can’t even to begin to understand what you’re thinking or feeling. I mean, I’m freaking the hell out and I’m a grownup who’s supposed to know how to handle these kinds of situations. All we can do is cling to each other as family and try to get through this together. Between me and Granny, we’ll do the best we can for you, and right now, we think the best thing is if you get your things and go stay with her.”
“How did they die?” I blurt out, completely off topic from what she’s talking about. My mind can’t stay focused on any one thing, but this is the question that keeps popping up. “I need to know how it happened.”
Swallowing hard, Aunt Kathy inhales a shaky breath through her nose and blows it out through her mouth, visibly trying to collect herself before she answers me. “It was a car accident,” she whispers after forever, barely loud enough for me to hear. “I don’t know why they were together in your mom’s car this morning or where they were going, but an eighteen-wheeler lost control and hit them. They were already gone by the time the first responders arrived.”
I nod, still unable to cry. I hear the words she’s saying, but they aren’t really registering. They make sense, but I don’t understand. It’s as if I’ve been swallowed up by one of the black holes Daddy taught me about and the darkness is sucking away my ability to think, to feel. All I hear is the word “gone” still replaying over and over and over.
“Okay. I’ll get my stuff,” I say flatly, finally opening the door and stepping out of the car.
My movements are robotic, and I can barely even feel the key in my hand as I unlock the front door to my house. Stepping inside, I’m overwhelmed by a combination of the sweet smell of my mom’s favorite vanilla cookie candle and the sight of my dad’s fuzzy slippers waiting by the coatrack—the slippers he puts on the minute he walks in the door from work every night. When I realize he’ll never wear those slippers again, nor will my mom ever be able to forget if she blew out the candle when we’re about to pull out of the driveway, an acute pain shoots through my chest and I stumble over to the staircase, grabbing the banister to keep my balance.
“I’m right here, Lyra,” Aunt Kathy murmurs from behind me as she slips her arm around my waist. “Let’s just get your things and head over to my place. Later, once we’ve had some time to deal with everything, we can come back to go through the house and all the stuff… if you want.”
Another nod and I let her guide me up the stairs to my room. I want to scream at her that there will never be enough time to deal with losing my parents, that I’ll never be able to go through their things, but I keep my lips pressed together and do as I’m told.
“Where do you guys keep your suitcases?” she asks, glancing around my room as if she’s doing an inventory of what I have. “I’ll go grab a couple while you start pulling out what you want to take. If you forget something, it’s no big deal, because you and Granny are going to be staying at my place for the next few days. I can just bring you back to get it, or I can even ship it to Louisiana if you remember once you’re there.”
“They’re in the storage cabinets in the garage,” I answer while walking over to my desk, my eyes locked in on a framed photo of me and my parents that sits next to my laptop.
“Okay, I’ll be right back.”
The thud of her heels on the hardwood floor grows quiet as she makes her way back down to the first floor, and just as I grab the picture and plop down on the chair, I hear her open the door to the garage. A few much-needed minutes by myself.
I gaze down at the photograph of the three of us from a day at the beach, me sandwiched between their cheerful, carefree expressions, and the first tear finally escapes. Once the dam breaks, I can’t stop the flow, and as I trace my finger over the outline of each of my parents’ faces, I cry for everything I’ll never have again. A supernova of tears.
Faces I’ll never see smile again.
Voices I’ll never hear say my name again.
Arms I’ll never be hugged by again.
A never-ending galaxy of love that I’ll never feel again.
It’s all just… gone.
After several minutes of vision-blurring bawling, I set the picture frame back upright on my desk. A hot pink heart drawn on my calendar with the words Birthday Weekend Begins written over today’s box catches my attention. I then notice the printed numbers next to my bubbly handwriting that read 10-18-02.
Snatching the picture up again, I stare directly into first my dad’s eyes, and then my mom’s. The numbers I see when I look people directly in the eyes only happens when I’m face-to-face with someone, never in photographs or through a screen or mirror. But even though I can’t actually see the numbers right now in the picture of my parents’ pupils, their numbers are forever etched in my brain from looking at them every day of my life. I used to think the reason they had the same numbers meant they were true soul mates, like God made them to match perfectly together, but now….
My gaze flicks over to today’s date of 10-18-02, then back to my parents’ faces, where I envision their numbers—101802.
My plummeting heart collides with my lurching stomach in an explosion of realization.
It’s my Big Bang Momen

_______________________________________________

About Erin Noelle USA Today Bestselling Author

Erin Noelle is a Texas native, where she lives with her husband and two
young daughters. While earning her degree in History, she rediscovered her love for reading that was first instilled by her grandmother when she was a young child. A lover of happily-ever-afters, both historical and current,Erin is an avid reader of all romance novels.

Most nights you can find her cuddled up in bed with her husband, her Kindle in hand and a sporting event of some sorts on television.

Chapter Reveal: Hooking Up by Helena Hunting

Hooking Up

By Helena Hunting

Release Date: November 7, 2017


Synopsis

Amalie Whitfield is the picture of a blushing bride during her wedding reception–but for all the wrong reasons. Instead of proclaiming his undying love, her husband can be heard, by Amalie and their guests, getting off with someone else. She has every reason to freak out, and in a moment of insanity, she throws herself at the first hot-blooded male she sees. But he’s not interested in becoming her revenge screw.

Mortified and desperate to escape the post-wedding drama, Amalie decides to go on her honeymoon alone, only to find the man who rejected her also heading to the same tiny island for work. But this time he isn’t holding back. She should know better than to sleep with someone she knows, but she can’t seem to resist him.

They might agree that what happens on the island should stay on the island, but neither one can deny that their attraction is more than just physical.

Filled with hilariously scandalous situations and enough sexual chemistry to power an airplane from New York City to the South Pacific, Hooking Up is the next standalone, laugh-out-loud romantic comedy from Helena Hunting, the New York Times bestselling author of the Pucked series and Shacking Up.

_______________________________

One

Wedding Unbliss

Amie

This is the happiest day of my life. I allow that thought to roll around in my head, trying to figure out why it doesn’t seem to resonate the way it should. This should be the happiest day of my life. So I’m not exactly certain why the uneasy feeling I associate with cold feet is getting worse rather than dissipating. I’ve already done the hard part; walked down the aisle and said “I do.”

My husband excused himself to go to the bathroom several minutes ago and, based on Armstrong’s itinerary for the day, speeches are supposed to begin promptly at eight-thirty. According to my phone, that’s less than two minutes from now, and he’s not here. The emcee for the evening is awaiting Armstrong’s return before he begins. And then the real party can start. The one where we get to celebrate our commitment to each other as partners for life. As in the rest of my breathing days. Dear God, why does that make my stomach twist?

I sip my white wine. Armstrong pointed out that red is not a good idea with my dress, even though it’s my preference. Besides, I don’t want it to stain my teeth. That would make for bad pictures.

I glance around the hall and see my parents, who are probably celebrating the fact that I didn’t walk down the aisle with a convicted felon. And frankly, so am I. My dating history pre-Armstrong wasn’t fabulous.

The sheer number of people in attendance spikes my anxiety. Speaking in front of all of these people makes me want to drink more, which is a bad idea. Tipsy speeches could lead to saying the wrong thing. I check my phone under the table again. It’s after eight-thirty. The longer Armstrong takes to return, the further behind we’ll get. The music playlist, devised by Armstrong with painstaking efficiency, leaves no room for tardiness. If we don’t start on time I’ll have to take out a song, or possibly two, to compensate for his delay and he’s selected the order in such a way as to make that difficult and that will annoy him. I just want today to be perfect. I want it to be reflective of my decision to marry Armstrong. That I, Amalie Whitfield, can make good choices and am not a disgrace to my family.

“Where the hell is he?” I scan the room and take another small sip of my wine. I should switch to water soon so I don’t end up drunk, especially later, when all of this is over and we can celebrate our lifelong commitment to each other without clothes on. I’m hopeful it will last more than five minutes.

Ruby, my maid of honor and best friend for the past decade, puts a hand on my shoulder. “Would you like Bancroft to find Armstrong?”

Bancroft, or Bane for short, is Ruby’s boyfriend who she’s been living with for several months. Recently I find myself getting a little jealous of how affectionate they still are with each other, even after all this time. Cohabitation hasn’t slowed them down on the sex or their PDA. I have hope that Armstrong and I will be more like Bane and Ruby now that we’ll be sharing the same bed every night.

I’m about to tell Ruby to give him another minute when a low buzz suddenly fills the hall. It sounds like a school PA system. I start to panic—they can’t start the speeches without Armstrong at my side. What’s the point of speeches if the groom isn’t present?

I’m halfway out of my seat, ready to tell the deejay, or whoever is behind the mic, he needs to wait, when a very loud moan echoes through the room. The acoustics are phenomenal in here, it’s why we chose this venue.

I glance at Ruby to make sure I’m not hearing things. Her eyes are wide. The kind of wide associated with shock. The same shock I’m feeling.

Another moan reverberates through the sound system, followed by the words, “Oh, fuuuck.”

A collective gasp ripples through the now-silent crowd. While the words themselves are scandalous among these guests, it’s the voice groaning them that makes me sit up straighter, and simultaneously consider hiding under the table.

“Fuck yeah. Ah, suck it. That’s it. Deep throat it like a good little slut. Fuuuuuccckkkkk.”

My mouth drops and I look to Ruby to ensure I have not completely lost my mind. “Is that—” I don’t finish the sentence. I already know the answer to the question, so it’s pointless to ask. Besides, I’m cut off by yet another loud groan. I clap a hand over my mouth because I’m not sure I’m able to close it, my disbelief is as vast as the ocean.

Ruby’s expression mirrors mine, except hers is incredibly animated since she’s an actress. “Oh my God. Is that Armstrong?” Her words are no more than a whisper, but they sound very much like a scream. Oh no, wait, that’s just Armstrong on the verge of an orgasm. But these sounds are nothing like the ones he makes when he’s in the throes of passion with me.

I clutch Ruby’s hand. The next sound that comes from him is a hybrid between a hyena laugh and a wolf baying at the moon. And every guest at our wedding is hearing the same thing I am. Our wedding. Someone other than me is blowing my husband at my own wedding. My mortification knows no end.

I grab the closest bottle of wine and dump the contents into my glass. Some of it sloshes over the edge and onto the crisp white tablecloth. It doesn’t matter. There’s plenty more where it came from. I chug the glass, then grab Ruby’s.

People lean in and whisper to each other, eyes lift to the speakers. A few people, the ones who are probably just here for the social-ladder-climbing potential, question who it is.

“Is the deejay watching porn?” That comment comes from a table full of mostly drunk singles in their early twenties.

Several eyes shift my way as I carelessly down Ruby’s wine and someone asks where the groom has disappeared to.

The grunts and groans grow terrifyingly louder. This is nothing like what I’m used to in bed with Armstrong. The dirty words aren’t something he ever uses with me, mostly it’s just noises and sometimes a “Right there” or “I’m close,” but that’s about it. He’s never talked to me like he is to the woman currently providing oral pleasure. And I’m very adept at oral. Although with Armstrong it’s very polite, neat oral, with no sounds other than the occasional hum. Slurping is uncivilized and a definite no-no.

I reach past Ruby for the bottle of red since I don’t really give a flying fuck about purple teeth right now. As I sink low in my seat I pour another glass of wine, surveying the people in the ballroom from behind the cover of the centerpiece. The centerpieces are huge and excessive and I don’t like them at all, but at least provides a protective barrier between the guests and my disgust, which I’m certain they must share. He sounds like a wild animal rutting. It is entirely unsexy. I have no idea who he’s getting intimate with, but I’m suddenly very glad it’s not me.

And doesn’t that tell me more about our relationship than it should.

It’s only been about thirty seconds—the most humiliating thirty seconds of my life—before Armstrong comes. How do I know this? Because he says, very clearly, “Keep sucking, baby, I’m coming.”

And “baby,” whoever she is, makes these horrific gurgling noises. It sounds like some form of alien communication. It’s way over the top, and apparently Armstrong is loving it, based on the string of vile profanity that spews from his asshole mouth.

“Holy crap. Is this for real? That was really fast,” Ruby mutters.

I guzzle my glass of wine. Then decide the glass is unnecessary and take a long swig from the bottle before Ruby snatches it away. Wine dribbles down my chin and onto my chest, staining the white satin purple. My dress is ruined. I should be freaking out. But I really don’t care.

“Come on,” Ruby tugs on my hand. “We need to get you out of here while people are still distracted.”

My older brother Pierce and the emcee are standing in the middle of the hall, gesturing wildly to the speakers above us. My other brother, Lawson, is on his way toward the podium in an attempt to do something. I don’t think there’s anything he can do to stop this train wreck from there.

Ruby tugs again, but I’m frozen, still trying to figure out what exactly just happened. Well, I know what’s happened. I just can’t believe it.

The sound of a zipper and the rustle of clothes follows. “Thanks for that, now I’ll be able to last later tonight,” Armstrong says.

“What about me?” A female asks. Her voice is nasally and whiny.

“What about you?”

“Well I helped you, aren’t you going to help me?”

“Didn’t you come with a date?”

“Well, yes, but—” God her voice is familiar. I just can’t figure out where I know it from.

“My cousin, right? He loves my sloppy seconds. Speeches are starting. I gotta get back to my ball and chain.”

Gasps of horror ripple through the room, followed by a few giggles. These people really are assholes.

I think I’m going to throw up. I can’t believe he’s going to come out here and pretend nothing just happened. Like some other woman didn’t just have her lips around his cock. His distinctly average cock. Maybe even slightly below average in length, if I’m being one hundred percent honest.

A door opens and closes.

Lawson turns on the mic behind the podium and taps it, sending screeching feedback through the room, making people cringe. Too bad no one did that a minute ago.

Murmuring grows louder and glances flicker to the head table and then away as Brittany Thorton, a seriously skanky debutante, comes strutting through the doors, using a compact to check her lipstick. She’s made it her mission to attempt to get into the pants of half the eligible men in this room. She’s followed, not five seconds later, by a very smug-looking Armstrong.

“I’m going to kill him.” I grab the closest steak knife, but it appears my hasty, and possibly felonious, plan is unnecessary. My brothers leave their respective posts and stalk toward him. Across the room my mother is gripping my father’s arm, whispering furiously in his ear. Great. Just what I need, additional family drama.

“Oh shit,” Ruby gasps.

I follow her gaze to find Bane converging on Armstrong with my brothers. Bancroft is a tank and he used to play professional rugby. I’ve seen him with his shirt off, he’s built like a superhero and he’ll probably crush Armstrong, or at least break something. Possibly multiple somethings.

For a second I consider that Ruby should probably stop Bane from destroying Armstrong’s pretty, regal face, but then I realize I don’t actually care. In fact, the possibility that he might break Armstrong’s perfectly straight nose fills me with glee. Armstrong’s wellbeing is no longer my concern, it’s more about Bane ending up in prison for murder.

“I hope Armstrong has a good plastic surgeon, he’s going to need it once Bane is done with him.” Ruby echoes my internal hopes and her chair tips as she jumps up. “Come on, let’s get you out of here.” She nods to the right.

I notice my mother and father engaged in a heated discussion with Armstrong’s parents. I really don’t need this right now. Not the drama. Not the humiliation. All I wanted was a nice wedding. Instead I end up with a husband who gets a blow job during our reception—and it’s broadcast to everyone attending.

Ruby urges me into action. “Don’t worry about them. Get your stuff and we’ll get you the hell out of here. I’ll have the limo meet you by the entrance near your bridal suite as soon as I can.”

I nod and stumble unsteadily to my feet, thanks to having consumed the better part of a bottle of wine in the last minute and a half. It’s amazing how ninety seconds can change a person’s entire life.

All hell breaks loose as more men jump in to either pummel or extract Armstrong from the pummeling. I grab my clutch and phone from the table, gather up my stupid, too puffy gown, and head for the bridal suite, where I had prepared for what was supposed to be the most amazing day of my life. And now it’s likely the worst, at least I hope the mortification level I’m experiencing can’t exceed this. I feel like the foulest version of Cinderella ever.

I rush down the empty hall and grab the doorknob as I fumble around in my clutch for the key. I’m surprised when it turns. I thought I’d locked it before we left for the ceremony. Regardless, I need to get away from everyone before I either lose it or commit a felony. Maybe both. Murder in the first. Armstrong will be my victim. And maybe that horrible skank, Brittany.

I thrust the door open and slam it closed behind me, locking it from the inside. Tears threaten to spill over and ruin my makeup. Not that it matters since there’s no way I’m going out there again. I can’t believe my forever lasted less than twelve hours. I can’t believe the man I’m supposed to spend the rest of my life loving couldn’t be faithful to me for even one day. What the hell is wrong with me? With him? I’m as devastated as I am angry and embarrassed. Once I annul this farce of a marriage I’ll become a spinster. I should probably go ahead and adopt six or seven cats tonight.

“I need to get out of this dress,” I say to myself. I reach behind me and pull the bow at the base of my spine. Instead of unfurling, it knots and I only succeed in pulling it tighter. Of course my dress has to be difficult. I growl my annoyance and rush over to my dressing table where my makeup and perfume are scattered from earlier today. Half a mimosa sits unconsumed beside the vase of red roses Armstrong had delivered.

The card read: I can’t wait to spend forever loving you.

What a load of bullshit. I drain the contents of the champagne flute, not caring that the drink is warm and flat. Then I throw the glass, because it feels good and the sound of shattering crystal is satisfying. Next I heave the vase of roses, which explodes impressively against the wall, splattering water and shards of glass across the floor.

I yank out a couple of the drawers and find a pair of scissors. They actually look more like gardening shears and seem rather out of place, but I don’t question it. Instead I reach behind me with my back to the mirror and awkwardly try to cut myself free. It’s not easy with the way I have to crane my neck.

“Goddammit! I need to get out of this stupid dress!” I yell at my reflection. I think I might actually be losing it just a touch now. I stop messing around with the laces in the back and shove the scissors down the front. I nearly nick myself with the blade—they’re a lot sharper than I realized—but that doesn’t slow me down. I start hacking my way through the bodice; layers of satin, lace, and intricate beading sliced apart with every vicious snip.

I just want out of this nightmare.

 

____________________________

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About the Author:

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

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Chapter Reveal + Giveaway : The Heiress by Casia Leo

We’re just a few days away from the release of THE HEIRESS by Cassia Leo – are you ready to read the first chapter? Read it below!

 

Title: THE HEIRESS
Author: Cassia Leo
Genre: Romantic Suspense
Release Day: September 26th

 

About The Heiress

A new heartfelt and suspenseful stand-alone novel from New York Times bestselling author Cassia Leo.

How much is love worth?

Twenty-two-year-old Kristin and her single mom have always struggled to make ends meet. When her mother’s body begins to deteriorate after many backbreaking years of working as a housekeeper, Kristin must say farewell to her college dreams and hello to a full-time job waitressing. She doesn’t really mind. After all, giving up on her dreams will be her penance for that one horrible night.

Her luck begins to turn when she meets Daniel Meyers. Daniel is sexy and funny, but most importantly, he wants to get to know the real Kristin. It doesn’t hurt that he’s also extremely wealthy and intent on protecting her. Kristin feels safe with him. She wants to open up to him, to share the details of the awful night that changed her life. But she can’t shake the feeling that Daniel may be keeping a dark secret of his own…

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Chapter Reveal

Chapter 1
Taken Care Of

The dimly lit stairwells in our five-floor walk-up in the Bronx smelled even more like cat piss than usual.

The August humidity had a lovely way of extracting the aromas that were usually trapped inside the dingy walls of our building. I tried to breathe through my mouth as I climbed the final steps to the fifth floor. But when I stepped into the corridor, a bright yellow notice taped to the front door of apartment 502 made me gasp, and the sharp smell got sucked into my nose again.

I gagged, then marched toward my apartment. “What the actual fuck?”

My curse came out much louder than I’d anticipated.

Dropping my canvas bag of groceries on the floor, I quickly snatched the paper off the door, but not quickly enough. Mr. Williams walked out of his apartment as I bent over to stuff the notice into my grocery bag.

“Good morning, Mr. Williams,” I said, breathing far too heavily for a casual walk to the bodega. “How’s your day so far?”

He tilted his head a bit as his dark eyes remained focused on my bag. “Is that an eviction notice?”

I unzipped my purse and dug frantically through the receipts and half-used drugstore makeup, which had probably been there since I dropped out of college two years ago. “It’s just a mix-up,” I replied with a chuckle when I found my house key. “Same thing happened a couple weeks ago. At least this time it happened on a Monday morning instead of a Friday night. I’m heading straight to the property manager’s office as soon as I get these groceries in the fridge.”

“Is everything okay with you and your ma?” he asked through narrowed eyes.

“We’re fine,” I said, forcing a smile. “Thank you so much for asking, but we’re just fine. This is just a huge mix-up.”

Mr. Williams scratched his scraggly white beard, which sparsely covered his chestnut-brown skin. “Okay,” he said, slowly nodding. “Well, if you need anything, don’t you hesitate to holler at this old fool.”

My smile widened, and this time it was genuine. “Thank you, Mr. Williams. I promise I’ll do that.”

He stuck his chin out and beamed with pride. “That’s a good girl. You take care now,” he said, then ambled back into the apartment across the hall.

When I was five, I often wondered if I was invisible—not metaphorically speaking, but actually invisible. I would watch in complete silence as my mom came home from a fourteen-hour shift, cleaning up other people’s messes. She’d collapse onto the sofa, turn on the evening news, and eat her dinner with a tired smile. Then I’d retreat to my bedroom and dream of a world where I existed.

It wasn’t until a fateful evening in September two years ago, my fingernails peeling off as I desperately clawed my way up a highway embankment, that I finally realized how tangible I was, how heavily I was anchored to this merciless world.

Now, as I rushed inside the humid apartment I shared with my mother in the South Bronx, I wished I could be invisible again.

Closing the door softly behind me—so as not to attract the attention of any more neighbors—I power-walked into the kitchen and tossed my canvas grocery bag onto the counter. Yanking out the bright yellow eviction notice, I contemplated the ten-digit phone number scrawled on it in black marker.

No. I wasn’t going to give those incompetent pricks at the property management office the courtesy of calling before I showed up. No way would I give them time to come up with some trumped-up violation that my mother or I had supposedly committed.

Despite the fact that our building was more than a hundred years old and in serious disrepair, the bylaws consisted of a list of rules—I kid you not—at least sixty pages long. The list was mailed to us every year with an offer to renew the lease—with another rent increase, of course. And every year, the list got longer.

One rule actually stipulated we were not allowed to walk around in high heels after ten p.m. I supposed it was a good thing I had no social life. I was in no danger of violating that rule.

Of course, whatever bone the management was picking with us now was probably not due to anything I did or didn’t do. The eviction notice was almost certainly a response to what I had threatened to do. Three weeks ago, I threatened to file an ADA—Americans with Disabilities Act—complaint if they didn’t fix the loose handrails in the stairwells.

When my mom and I moved into this apartment more than ten years ago, my mom was in excellent physical shape. Despite the fact that she had spent most of her life working as a housekeeper, she had managed to take good care of her body. Until she fell off a ladder at home and shattered her kneecap. Three surgeries later, she was desperate to return to work so I could return to NYU, but no one would hire her back.

If the eviction notice was left on our door, that meant my mom wasn’t home when the notice was served, which meant our neighbor Leslie had come by to take her shopping.

I put the groceries away and stuffed the eviction notice into my purse before I left the apartment. I thought of leaving a message with Leslie’s family, but decided against it. I didn’t want to worry her or my mom.

Leslie was a stay-at-home mother with two kids in high school and a husband who drove a bus for MTA. She helped my mom up and down the stairs once a week to go shopping. Having amazing neighbors like Leslie and Mr. Williams was one of the many reasons I was hesitant to move to another apartment building with an elevator.

One subway ride and nine blocks of walking in the glaring summer sun later, I arrived, sweaty and determined, at the front doors of Golde Property Management. I entered through the glass double doors, which squeaked on their hinges as I pushed my way inside. The black and gold confetti design on the linoleum looked like something straight out of a ’70s discotheque. The faux oak furniture in the waiting room, with the wood-grain laminate peeling off the corners, confirmed that I had stepped into an office stuck in another century.

In the decade since we moved into our apartment, and ever since I began paying the rent a couple of years ago, I’d never had to visit Golde Property Management. I always paid the rent on time, and I always agreed to the new lease terms. If I had known that they were living in the ’70s, I wouldn’t have bothered asking them to bring our apartment up to modern building standards.

Nonetheless, I needed to clear up this eviction nonsense. The last thing I needed was for my mother and me to be thrown out on our asses over a clerical error.

The receptionist sat at a desk behind a sliding-glass window at the back of the waiting room. She watched me approach without even attempting to smile.

I slid the yellow eviction notice across the counter onto her side of the glass. “I want to know what this is about.”

She spun in her chair to face the computer on her left, positioning her fingers over the keyboard. “What’s the property address?”

“Twenty-four eighty-three Hughes,” I replied sharply.

She typed in the address, then her eyes scanned down to the lower-right part of the computer screen and stopped. “It says here that the eviction notice was posted today at 10:02 a.m. by the Bronx County Sheriff’s Department due to violation of the rental agreement. The violation listed here is nonpayment of rental dues in the amount of $7,050.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. “Are you kidding me? Our monthly rent is $1,175. That means $7,050 is what, like, six months’ rent? We’re not even late one month, let alone six. I want to speak to a manager.”

She rolled her eyes as she picked up the beige phone handset and dialed an extension. “Is Jerry in his office?” she asked the person on the other end. “I’ve got a tenant here who says she’s paid up, but she just got served.” She sighed as she balanced the handset between her ear and shoulder. “Well, tell him when he’s done with his meeting that I got someone waiting for him up here. Okay? Okay.” She hung up the phone and looked up at me with a bored expression. “He’s in a meeting with an investor. You’ll have to wait a few minutes.”

I wanted to protest for the simple fact that if I caused a scene it might ruin their chances with this investor, but I decided not to press my luck. “I’ll be waiting right over there,” I said, nodding toward the tweed sofa in the waiting area.

Taking a seat on the sofa that smelled like desperation, I picked up a copy of the NY Post from the coffee table. The paper was dated thirteen months ago. This place needed an investor more than my mom needed a disability-accessible apartment building with an elevator.

Of course, my mom would never admit that she needed anything.

The eldest of four sisters, my mom left her small hometown in South Dakota to make her way in New York City when she was just nineteen. After a brief brush with homelessness, she started cleaning houses and saving up money to start her own cleaning business. Not long after that, I was born, and her dreams of being her own boss were tossed out the window.

I had just finished reading a story about a feud between the hosts of two popular YouTube channels when a door leading into the back office opened. The first man who stepped into the waiting area—whom I assumed was Jerry—looked to be about sixty years old, and wore brown slacks and a short-sleeved blue button-up shirt, the fabric thin enough to show the dinginess of the tank top he wore underneath.

The second man who walked through the door looked more like a mirage than a man.

He was no more than twenty-eight years old, wearing a sharp navy-blue suit and a swagger in his step that said he didn’t just own the place, he owned the world. His dark hair was short, but not so short you couldn’t help but notice it held the perfect amount of wave. Every inch of him, from his prominent brow to his broad shoulders and beyond looked sturdy. This man was built to last a thousand lifetimes.

But it was his face that made me wonder if I was actually staring at a desert mirage.

His strong jaw and brilliant green eyes looked as if they’d been chiseled by Michelangelo. As a former student of sculpture at NYU, I could make that type of comparison in the more literal sense.

If this investor bought out Golde Property Management, I’d probably sign a hundred-year lease.

I shrugged off this ridiculous thought. It wasn’t as if this wealthy godlike man was going to send my next lease renewal along with a handwritten marriage proposal.

Will you be my wife? Check yes or no. Please send reply in the enclosed envelope with full rent payment by the first of the month.

“Are you Kristin?”

I snapped out of my absurd fantasy to find the man I suspected to be Jerry staring at me as he held the door to the back office open. “Excuse me?”

“Are you Kristin Owens?” he replied. “Here about the eviction notice?”

His question set my blood on fire with anger. “Yes. I want to know what this is all about,” I said, getting to my feet as I held the yellow paper in front of me. “We’ve paid our rent on time every single month for the past ten years. If this is about me threatening to—”

Jerry held up his hand to interrupt me. “Okay, okay. Let’s go into my office,” he said, his expression a mixture of shame and anger, probably because I just made a scene in front of his potential investor. He looked up at the man. “I look forward to hearing from you again, Mr. Meyers. Jennie over there can validate your parking.”

Mr. Meyers cocked an eyebrow as he looked me over. “Maybe I should sit in on this.”

Jerry waved off the suggestion. “Oh, no, this is just routine admin stuff. It will be over in two minutes. Don’t want to waste your time.”

I stared at Jerry, making no attempt to avoid looking directly at the huge hairy mole protruding from his temple. “So now I’m a waste of time?” I asked. “If you think you can get away with—”

“Excuse me,” Meyers interrupted, taking a step forward. “Earlier, you said you’ve paid your rent on time every single month for the past ten years. So, forgive me if I’m wrong, but that allows you to continue living in the unit until any further disputes are settled in court. Am I right?”

Jerry shook his head. “But she hasn’t paid her rent,” he insisted. “I thought it was strange when the computer spat out the notice, but they only come up when a tenant is coming up on six months past due. Computers don’t lie. People lie.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?” I shouted. “Are you calling me a liar? You piece of trash. I swear to God, I will bury you in so many legal—”

“Whoa-whoa-whoa…” Meyers interrupted again. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” he said, casting a calm, confident look in my direction, holding my gaze for a moment before he turned back to Jerry. “You said computers don’t lie, but they do sometimes glitch. You even said you thought it was strange the computer spat out her name.”

“Yeah, but it doesn’t randomly spit out names all day long,” Jerry objected.

Meyers nodded and pressed his lips together in an expression that said he understood where Jerry was coming from. This guy was good. He was refereeing this dispute like a seasoned mediator.

“But it’s possible the computer got it wrong,” Meyers continued as he looked back and forth between Jerry and me, smiling when I crossed my arms over my chest. “How about this? I’ll pay the past-due amount until you can figure out the glitch in the system. Does that sound fair?”

I narrowed my eyes at him. “Who the hell are you?”

His veneer of confidence cracked for just a fraction of a second before he regained his composure. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you,” he replied. “You’re right. It’s very presumptuous of me to think I could settle this with the swipe of a pen. Forgive me.” He turned to Jerry and gave him a curt nod. “I have some…thinking to do. I’m not sure your organization is a good fit for us. We’ll be in touch.”

“Wait!” Jerry shrieked. “I think she was just taken by surprise with your offer. Right, Christina?”

“Kristin,” I corrected him. “And I don’t need him to pay my rent. I already paid it. I need you to fix this!” I crumpled the yellow eviction notice and dropped it at his feet.

“I can’t,” Jerry replied as Meyers quietly made his way to the receptionist’s desk. “My lawyer handles the evictions. He won’t close the file until the rent’s paid in full. I can’t pay him if I don’t have your money.”

“You have my money!” I yelled so loudly I could almost hear my vocal cords snap.

I cursed myself as tears stung the corners of my eyes. Blinking them away, I glanced over my shoulder, expecting to find Meyers staring aghast at my lack of control. He probably wasn’t accustomed to that sort of thing in his perfect world of privilege. But he wasn’t there. He was gone. I didn’t know if I felt more relieved that he hadn’t witnessed my outburst, or disappointed that the only sure way out of this eviction mess—at least, temporarily—had just walked out of my life.

God, why didn’t I just let him help me? It wasn’t as if I knew the guy. I didn’t need to maintain some foolish sense of pride in front of him.

I was becoming more and more like my mother every day.

“It’s taken care of.”

I looked up at the sound of the receptionist’s bored voice.

She waved a piece of paper in the air, which looked suspiciously like a check. “He took care of your rent,” she said, looking annoyed.

I turned to Jerry, but all he did was shrug.

What the fuck just happened?

 

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About the Author

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

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Chapter Reveal: Exes With Benefits by Nicole Williams

Exes With Benefits

By Nicole Williams

Release Date: September 18, 2017

Pre Order: Amazon / B & N / IBooks

 

Synopsis:

 

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

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

___________________________________________

 

 

PROLOGUE

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

 

__________________________________________________

 4887264Nicole Williams is the New York Times and USATODAY bestselling author of contemporary and young adult romance, including the Crash and Lost & Found series. Her books have been published by HarperTeen and Simon & Schuster in both domestic and foreign markets, while she continues to self-publish additional titles. She is working on a new YA series with Crown Books (a division of Random House) as well. She loves romance, from the sweet to the steamy, and writes stories about characters in search of their happily even after. She grew up surrounded by books and plans on writing until the day she dies, even if it’s just for her own personal enjoyment. She still buys paperbacks because she’s all nostalgic like that, but her kindle never goes neglected for too long. When not writing, she spends her time with her husband and daughter, and whatever time’s left over she’s forced to fit too many hobbies into too little time.

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

Prologue Reveal: Dirty Filthy Rich Love by Laurelin Paige

 

Dirty Filthy Rich Love by Laurelin Paige

Release Date: September 11th

 

Preorder Dirty Filthy Rich Love TODAY:

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Head to Laurelin’s website to read the FULL PROLOGUE to Dirty Filthy Rich Love:

https://laurelinpaige.com/dirty-filthy-rich-love-prologue-reveal

 

 

Blurb:

I’ve discovered Donovan Kincaid’s secret.

It’s dirty and filthy and rich – as dirty and filthy and rich as he is – and it haunts me as much as he ever did.

Even after knowing what I know now, I still want to talk to him, to touch him. But there’s an ocean between us, and I’m not sure it can be crossed with something as easy as a phone call or a plane ride.

Yet I’m willing to try.

He doesn’t know this yet, but this time I’m the one with the power. And maybe – just maybe – if the air were cleared and all our secrets bared, there could still be a chance for us.

And this dirty, filthy thing between us might end up being love after all.

 

 

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Chapter Reveal: In The Crease by Toni Aleo – The Assassins Series – Book 11

 

In The Crease
Assassins Series – Book 11
By Toni Aleo
Coming August 22nd

 

Jensen Monroe is a unicorn. As handsome as any model, as polite as can be, a goalie of unmatched skill, and the best friend anyone could ask for. But he longs for a particular special someone to make his life complete. He’s been in love with Wren since he was a teenager, but as his best friend’s sister, she’s always been off-limits.

Wren Lemiere has prided herself on being a love ’em and leave ’em girl her whole life. She’s all about equal opportunity in the battle of the sexes. Why should guys like her brother and his best friends get to be the only ones allowed to play the dating game? One wrong move, however, and she finds herself in violation of her own rules.

In need of a fake husband and baby daddy for her unexpected bundle of joy, Wren finally accepts Jensen is the logical one to ask for help. Except he has a counteroffer…one with so many strings attached, they may just find themselves wrapped up in ties that bind. Forever.

*****

Chapter One

Prologue

Five months earlier…

Wren Lemiere felt awful.
The kind of awful where you felt like you were dying.
Not that she had ever been the victim of an almost-death, but she was pretty sure it felt like what she was feeling.
Why she came back home to Colorado when she was this godforsakenly sick was beyond her, but then she hadn’t felt like death when she got on the plane. It was once she got off and for the following three days that the death hit her. She didn’t know what was going on, but she just wanted some drugs to make the excruciating nausea go away. That was all. Just some drugs.
Holding her face in her hands, she inhaled a deep breath before letting it out in a whoosh, begging the turning of her gut to stop. She wasn’t sure what she ate or what bacteria she picked up, but when she found out whatever did this to her, they would suffer. Slowly and painfully. It was probably Vaughn, her brother’s best friend. He was a walking cesspool. Ugh. She had never been so sick in her life, she swore it, but then again, that time she had the flu, she was sure she’d thought the same.
Either way, she was dying.
Plain and simple.
“Ugh,” she moaned as she swallowed back the bile that was threatening to come up her throat. When the door opened and the doctor stepped in, she cried out in relief. “Please, give me something. Anything. Knock me out if you have to.”
Ryan Churner laughed. They had gone to school together, dated briefly, but they’d been just kids. Now, he was married and happy—with lots of kids of his own. Wren, though, was living the single, carefree life. Much to her mother’s dismay. Her mother wanted grandbabies, and since her brother, Wells, was gay, it was easy to say it was Wren’s job to give her mother babies. Which was not going to happen. Wren would suck as a mom. Plus, she couldn’t find a decent guy to love her large ass. So that left her brother, and Wells could adopt. Yeah, he should do that. Take some of the pressure off her. She needed to call him about that.
“I’m afraid there are no drugs for what you have.”
Wren threw up her hands. “It’s a virus?”
He laughed. She didn’t like the sound of that laugh. Or the way he said, “Um, no.”
Her face wrinkled in confusion. “Then, what?”
He grimaced a bit before looking up at her. His dark blue eyes held her gaze as a grin pulled at his lips. “When was your last period?”
She shrugged. “Like six months ago. I have polycystic ovary syndrome, though.” She added while pointing at him, “Not sure that’s in my chart.”
He nodded. “It is, but I hadn’t realized it had been that long.”
“Yeah.” She had maybe two periods a year, possibly three. It was a problem, but her problem. One she was blessed with when she was younger. Her PCOS kept her a little on the thicker side and also wreaked havoc on her hormones, but she managed. She wasn’t going to let it bring her down or dwell on it. She already did that enough.
“Okay, well, are you in a relationship right now?”
She shook her head. “No.”
“Are you sexually active?”
“Always,” she said with an exaggerated wink. Then she paused. “Wait, I’m not hitting on you.”
“I know.” He laughed and she grinned, though, it was brief before she felt a wave of queasiness. “But your pregnancy test came up positive.”
Wren could only blink as her body went cold. She started laughing because surely, she’d heard him wrong. “You weren’t this funny when we were younger.”
“I’m not joking.”
“I’m sorry?”
“Your pregnancy test came up positive, but sometimes with PCOS, you can get a positive result. So I want to do an ultrasound.”
“For what?”
“To see if you’re pregnant.”
“Pregnant? Me?”
“Yes.”
“But…really?”
“Yes,” he said with a smile before he stood, walking to the door. “Well, usually when you have sex, a baby can be made as a byproduct of all that passion.”
“But…” She trailed off, her heart jumping into her throat. Surely that wasn’t the case. She couldn’t be pregnant. They’d used protection. “I have sex with condoms, and I’m on birth control.”
“Are you consistent with your birth control?
She shrugged. “Sure.”
He raised an eyebrow. “That’s not believable, Wren.”
Her face wrinkled more as he called out to the nurse. Sitting there, she tried to remember when this could have happened. She was home last month and had seen him…a lot and all of him, but they’d used condoms. Hadn’t they? Shit.
Soon a cart was brought in, and she was asked to take off her pants. It was all a blur, lying there with a drape over her bottom half and Ryan shoving some damn probe up inside her. Staring at the ceiling, she didn’t know what to think. She hadn’t even thought this was a possibility. With her PCOS, it was supposed to be hard for her to get pregnant. Not to mention, she didn’t want to be a mom. She would suck as a mom. And he would suck as a dad. They were selfish.
“Yup, there it is.”
Turning her head, she looked at the screen to see a little peanut. Seriously, a peanut, or at least, that’s what she assumed it was. But in the middle of the peanut was a little flicker. It was so small, almost undetectable, but she was sure she could see it. Was that the heartbeat?
“That’s it? I’m pregnant?”
“You’re pregnant.”
Blinking hard, she gasped. “Oh, fuck.”

~*~

“I’m pregnant.”
The words felt funky.
“I am pregnant,” she said to her reflection in the rental car’s visor mirror. “We’re having a baby.” She tried saying it while waving her hands. But that felt weird too.
Holy shit, she was pregnant.
She was almost thirty. She had a good job, and she was in a good place. It was not even the least bit expected, nor was it good timing since she wasn’t thirty yet, nor was she married. But it was fine. They would get a quickie marriage, and bam, they’d be good. No one would have to know she was pregnant before they decided to elope. It would be fine. Everything would be fine; her inheritance wasn’t in jeopardy.
But, shit, she didn’t want to move back to Colorado. She would have to because he wouldn’t be able to leave his job. He owned the damn firm, while she was contracted by the Nashville Assassins, the professional hockey team back in Nashville, Tennessee. Her gig was awesome, so damn awesome, and she loved it, but it wouldn’t work. She’d have to be the one to move. Damn it. She’d finish out the season for sure, but that meant she couldn’t sign the five-year extension that was sitting on her desk back home. With the lovely bonus that was going to pay off her car early. Damn it.
She wasn’t sure how he was going to take it, but they were good. They had known each other their whole lives. Been fucking for years, so it was time. She loved him. Ish. Kinda. Well, obviously a little since she continued to sleep with him, but he was a cool dude. And even if marriage was the last thing she wanted, she knew she had to do it.
She needed the money from her inheritance that her dad was holding, which had been passed down from her grandfather. When she turned thirty in October, it would be hers. The only catch was she couldn’t have a baby out of wedlock before she was thirty. It was stupid, and it was barbaric in her opinion. But it was what her grandfather had written up, and her father was standing behind it. It was annoying, to say the least, but if she wanted to pay off all her debt and live pretty damn comfortably for the rest of her life, along with providing a comfortable life for Wells, she had to do what she had to do.
She just hoped he didn’t let her down.
Getting out of the car, she swallowed hard as she walked toward the doors that read Washington, Fieldsman, and Barnes. When she opened the door, she was greeted by the receptionist, and Wren shot her a quick, curt smile. She was nervous. Why was she nervous? Crap, was she going to puke?
Yup.
Dipping into the bathroom before his office, she threw up the rest of her guts and sat there shaking her head. “You’re lucky I love you, kid.”
Wow, that was quick.
Wren had never seen herself as a mother. She’d thought she was going to grow old with lots of money and dogs. She hadn’t seen love or babies in her future. She’d seen lots of fucking, but that was about it. She didn’t have the best luck in love and really hadn’t imagined this coming, but now, she saw herself holding a baby.
Problem was, she still didn’t see him in her picture.
But that would change…right?
Surely.
Crap.
Washing her mouth out and then popping some gum, she walked out of the bathroom and right into another person. “Ah!”
“Crap! I’m sorry, Wren.”
Wren clammed up. Shit. “Hey, Shanna. What you doing here?”
“I had to see Bradley. What are you doing?” her best friend for her whole life asked.
Dammit, Wren hated lying to her.
“I have a meeting with him. He has to go over my contract for the Assassins.”
Shanna lit up. “Cool! Are you still coming for dinner tonight?”
Wren was shaking. Why was she shaking? Shit. “Shan, I texted you. I had to move my flight up, remember?”
“Oh, yes. My bad. Next time.”
“Of course,” she said before Shanna embraced her. Squeezing her eyes shut, Wren knew she would have to tell her. But Bradley had wanted to keep them under wraps. Plus, Wren knew how overprotective Shanna was of her baby brother. Wren had known better, but the dude was hung like a horse and hot to boot. She just hoped she wouldn’t lose a friendship over this. But Shanna would be excited. They’d be sisters like they’d always wanted, and there’d be a new baby. Shanna would love that.
Right?
Right.
Don’t freak out. This is fine.
Saying goodbye, Wren waved as she walked toward his office before knocking on the door. “Come in.” As she opened the door to the huge, posh office, he stood behind his desk, looking every bit as gorgeous as the day was long. His suit was pressed and clung to him. His blond-brown hair was brushed to the side, while a bit of stubble dusted his jaw. She only saw it because the sun was kissing it, shining on it ever so sweetly. He was a good-looking man, beautiful even, but still, she couldn’t see herself married to him. Shit.
Wren smiled though, and when Bradley looked up, heat filled his gaze. “Hey, you.”
“Hey,” she said, shutting the door as he came around the desk to her. Gathering her in his arms, he kissed her hard on the lips, dipping her back slightly as she clung to him. This had to work. He was a great guy.
Pulling back, he kissed her nose. “You look hot.”
She laughed, waving him off. “I look and feel like death.”
“Still?” he asked, concern filling his handsome face. He was a year younger than her, and growing up, they’d called him the baby. Though, he didn’t look like a baby. When he had first kissed her, eons ago, she hadn’t expected it. And even though they had both been with other people over the years, they somehow always gravitated back to each other.
Always.
But that was about to change.
“Yeah. I went to the doctor today.”
Moving his thumb along the inside of her palm, he smiled. “Is it contagious?”
She shook her head, her face filling with heat. “No.”
“Oh, good,” he said, gathering her in his arms and pressing his lips to hers. “So we can take this discussion to the couch.”
She stopped him as he tried to pull her to where she knew they would likely have all kinds of hot sex, but she needed to get this out. “Not yet.”
His brows pulled together. “What’s wrong? Don’t feel up to it?”
She swallowed hard. “It’s not that. It’s…um…” Inhaling deeply, she met his gaze. The gaze she had known her whole life. Though right now, she felt like she was going to puke, her nerves were so bad. “I’m pregnant.”
She watched as his eyes widened, his jaw dropping before he dropped her hands. “Pregnant?”
“Yeah.”
He only blinked. “Is it mine?”
She nodded. “You’re the only guy I’ve been with for the last six months.”
He blinked once more, his eyes burning into hers. “Are you sure?”
She gave him a deadpan look. “I think I’d remember if I happen to fall, pussy first, on a cock other than yours.”
He didn’t laugh like she wanted, nor did he look her in the eye. Instead, he chewed his lip, looking anywhere but at her. “So, no other chance it isn’t mine?”
Her brows drew in. “It’s yours, Bradley.”
Turning his back to her, he walked away, going to the windows as he looked out of them, his hands folded across his chest. “I didn’t expect this. We used condoms.”
“I know.”
“And you’re on birth control, I thought.”
“I am, though I don’t take it as often as I should.”
He looked over at her. “So you trapped me?”
She glared. “You’d better be joking.”
He didn’t answer; he just looked away as her heart started to speed up.
This didn’t feel right.
As he started to pace, she watched him, her blood beginning to boil. She didn’t like his comment, nor did she like the way he wouldn’t look at her. Clearing her throat, she watched him as she said, “Okay, well, I know this is a lot at once, and it’s a lot for me too. But we have something that could pose an issue—my inheritance.”
His face wrinkled up as he snapped, “How does that have anything to do with me?”
She glared at the side of his face. “It has to do with you because your baby is inside of me, and I’m not thirty yet. So if I have this baby before I turn thirty and I’m not married, I’m fucked.”
“Then don’t have the baby.”
Her jaw dropped. Actually dropped, almost catching flies. “Excuse me?”
Still looking out the window, he shrugged. “Go get an abortion.”
“What?”
“Listen, I don’t want this. I don’t want a kid, and fuck, this is going to mess everything up.”
Her heart was in her throat. “Mess up what?
Turning to her, he yelled, “I’m marrying fucking Fieldsman’s daughter.”
It was as if he’d hit her. Reaching out, she braced her hand on the window. He had been seeing the girl, but he swore it wasn’t serious. They were just cool; it was business as he said. But marriage? “What? You said you didn’t want to get married.”
“I know, but I have no choice.”
“You do. You can marry me and help out the mother of your child.”
“No, I can’t. I was going to tell you tonight, that we had to break this off. For good.”
Drawing in a breath through her nose, she shook her head. “Wow.”
“Yeah. So listen,” he said, walking around her and to his desk, but she didn’t move as the tears gathered in her eyes. “Go get an abortion. It’s for the best. Here, this should cover it.”
When she opened her eyes, he was filling out a check before holding it out to her. Shaking her head hard, she muttered, “I don’t want your money.”
“Take it, Wren. Please. I can’t have this fuck up what I’ve got going for me. I’ll have more stock in this firm once I marry her.”
Her lip started to tremble. “But I’m having your baby.”
“I don’t want it,” he said simply. “I don’t want any of it. She will get pissed. She’s already so jealous and thinks I’m fucking around.”
“You are!”
“I know, but not anymore. So, please, get rid of it.”
“I can’t.”
“Wren, come on!”
“You can’t do this. We’ve known each other our whole life.”
“I understand that. So please do it.”
“No.”
“Don’t be stupid, because I’ll deny it. You fuck around. Everyone knows it, and I’ll deny the kid is mine. You’ll have to take me to court to prove it. But by the time that happens, you’ll already have it before your thirtieth birthday, so you’ll be fucked anyway. Just do the right thing. Get rid of it, Wren.”
She wouldn’t let her tears fall. Not for this fucking douche. “I thought I knew you, you selfish asshole.”
The words didn’t even faze him. He glared at her. “I thought I knew you. How could you let this happen? We were never serious. We were just fucking.”
Looking down at the ground, she bit into her lip to keep the tears from falling. Yeah, he was right, but she thought she’d meant more to him than just a fuck. “Just fucking, huh?”
“Yeah, it isn’t like we love each other. I mean, come on. You’re not even my type.”
“Your type?”
“Wren, come on,” he said simply, holding his hands out. “You’re not trophy wife material.”
She was going to deck him. “I can’t believe this.”
“Just take the check.”
He held it out once more, and her eyes landed on it through her tears. She should take it. It really was the only option, yet she knew she couldn’t.
Meeting his gaze, she swallowed hard as she shook her head slowly from side to side. “No.”
“Wren, don’t be an idiot.”
“No.”
“You’re being fucking stupid—”
Standing erect, she stepped over to him, her eyes burning into his and completely cutting off his words. She was sure her eyes were full of heat, full of rage because his words shook her. To the core. She wasn’t sure who this man was, but he sure as hell wouldn’t be the father of her child. Over her dead fucking body. “Fuck you, Bradley. I don’t need your money or even you. So. Fuck. You.”
And with that, she walked away.
With no clue what she was going to do now.
Except for the certainty that she wasn’t killing her baby.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

img_1721

About the Author

 

 

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

Website | Facebook | Twitter | GoodReads

 

 

Chapter Reveal: Inked Expressions by Carrie Ann Ryan – Montgomery Ink Series – Book 7

InkedExpressions72 (1)

Inked Expressions

Montgomery Ink Series – Book 7

By Carrie Ann Ryan

Release Date: June 6, 2017

Pre Order: Amazon / B & N / IBooks / Kobo / Google Play /  Amazon Paperback

****

Synopsis:

 

The Montgomery Ink Series from NYT Bestselling Author Carrie Ann Ryan continues with the brother who keeps his secret and the one woman he shouldn’t want.

Everly Law married the love of her life and on the eve of giving birth to their twins, lost him in a tragic accident. Now she’s a single mother working overtime at her bookstore trying to make sure her boys have the life they deserve. Her life is busy enough without her adding dating a Montgomery. As past secrets come to light, she’ll need Storm more than ever—even if she doesn’t realize it.

Storm Montgomery has spent his life atoning for sins that only few know he’s committed. When he lost his best friend, he promised his widow that he’d always be there for her—even when she wanted nothing to do with him. But when a single touch ignites passions they’ve both buried deep inside, he’ll have to remember exactly who is in his arms and that taking chances might be far more dangerous than they bargained for.

Add INKED EXPRESSIONS to your Goodreads list here!

 

Read the First Chapter of INKED EXPRESSIONS

Then

The babies kicked, sending a shockwave through Everly Law’s bladder. She winced, rubbed the large swell of her stomach, and tried to remember the last time she’d seen her feet.

“Storm?” she called out, now running a hand down her back since that ached, as well. Being eight months pregnant with twins wasn’t an easy task. “Yeah?” her husband’s best friend called out from the back of the house. “You need me?”

That man, she thought with a smile. He always put everyone else first no matter what. Here he was on his evening off, hanging out at her house making sure things were ready for the new babies and finishing up the back deck that Jackson had never gotten around to. She honestly didn’t know why the man was single. Some woman should have snatched him up years ago.

“I just need you to tell me if my shoes match,” she yelled back.

He chuckled as he made his way into the living room where she stood, sorting through the mail. “Your shoes match, Ev. I would have told you if they didn’t.”

She rolled her eyes. “You say that, but I still remember the time you let Jackson walk around campus with toilet paper tucked into the back of his pants.”

While she was a few years younger than both Jackson and Storm, she’d been an undergraduate at the University of Denver while both men were in graduate school finishing up their degrees— Storm his Master’s in Architecture, Jackson his Ph.D. in Anthropology. From the moment she’d begun dating Jackson over a decade ago, Storm had been a part of their lives. The men had been childhood friends, and as such, she’d formed a friendship with Storm also, though it was nothing like what the two men shared.

Storm ran a hand over her belly— the only person other than Jackson she’d ever allow to do that— and smiled. “Jackson deserved that. He pissed me off that morning.” He shrugged, his dark hair falling over his forehead. The man needed a haircut, but he seemed to like it longer on the top than the sides anyway. “I don’t even remember what he did, but I remember that not telling him about what he missed was decent revenge. I’d never do something like that to you.” He winked, those blue eyes of his sparkling. “Not because I’m a nice guy, but because I’m pretty sure you could take me.”

She waved her fist at him, her fingers so swollen she couldn’t even wear her wedding ring. “And don’t you forget it, Storm Montgomery.”

He let out a breath and rubbed her belly again. The babies rolled, enjoying Uncle Storm’s touch, apparently, since they weren’t kicking her bladder again at the moment. “Your shoes match, and you even have pants on, but how about you relieve my stress and sit down on the couch while you look at the mail. You’re like days from your due date and starting to freak me out.”

She let him lead her to the couch since he’d just annoy her if she didn’t— though her ankles had swollen up like her hands, so maybe he wasn’t all that wrong about her needing to sit down.

“I’m a couple of weeks away, Storm, not days,” she countered once he’d settled her on the couch with a couple of throw pillows at her sides.

“You’re having twins, and they don’t usually like to take their time. Believe me, I know. I am a twin.” He winked again, and she snorted.

“Your poor mother,” Everly teased. “Not only twins with you and Wes, but eight children altogether. I have no idea how she did it.” She rubbed her belly, that familiar tension sliding through her. “I don’t know how I’m going to do it.”

Storm frowned and sat down on the table in front of her. “You’re going to be a great mom, Ev. You already take care of Jackson and me. What’s one more set of boys?”

She laughed, despite the worry in her veins. Something was off tonight, she could feel it, but she hoped it was just nerves from the upcoming labor and delivery— and then the whole raising twin boys thing.

“You handle yourself just fine, and Jackson’s not that bad.” She rolled her eyes as she said it, and Storm grinned. “I’m serious,” she said with a laugh as Storm shook his head. “Jackson is always in his head, thinking and working, but he’s not immature or anything. I just like to make sure he’s taken care of because he sometimes forgets daily things.”

Storm narrowed his eyes. “And who is taking care of you?”

You are.

She blinked at that thought and firmly put it away. “Jackson takes care of me, as well. And now we’ll both take care of these babies.”

Storm nodded. “And I take it he won’t be going on as many trips as he has been lately? I mean, this is like the fifth or sixth conference he’s flown to since you found out about the twins. I hope he’s just getting it all out of his system before he comes home and stays here for a bit.”

There was an edge to his tone that Everly couldn’t place, but she was far too tired to deal with it. The babies had kept her up all night, and she frankly hated having half of the bed empty without Jackson there to warm it.

“He said it won’t be as bad when the babies come.” Though Jackson hadn’t sounded all that happy at the time about not being able to do as many guest lectures and conferences, and that did tend to worry her a little. Everly loved the fact that he was so passionate about his work, but she was also happy that he was going to stay at home for longer periods of time to help with their babies. While she knew she was strong and capable, raising twins on her own was not something she desired to do.

“I hope so,” Storm grumbled. “A man needs to take care of his family.”

Everly sighed. “And a woman needs to do the same. We’re fine, Storm, stop fretting. It’s going to turn that beautiful mane gray one of these days.”

His cheeks reddened, and he let out a curse. “You’re just mean, Ev. Plain mean.”

“I’ve had to be if I wanted to keep up with you and Jackson.” She frowned and looked down at her watch. “Speaking of Jackson, he was supposed to have landed already and he hasn’t texted. I hope his flight isn’t delayed.”

Storm stood up and rubbed his back. “He probably just forgot. You know Jackson.”

She did, sadly, so him not texting or calling wasn’t all that surprising. He just got so in his head with his work, he forgot those around him some days. Another thing she hoped would change with the arrival of the twins. He seemed so excited about them, so she figured they would at least keep him out of his head for longer periods of time than he was now. “

Thanks for taking care of me, Storm,” Everly said after a moment. “And taking care of the back deck tonight, though I know you’re not really in the mood.”

He shrugged. “It needed to be fixed since that bottom step rotted out. Jackson’s not exactly handy, and I do happen to own half a construction business. It’s sort of my thing.” He rubbed his back again, and Everly frowned.

“What’s wrong? Did you hurt yourself?” She tried to lever herself up, but he held up a hand.

“I’m fine, Ev. Don’t get up and jostle the babies. I’m just a little sore, is all. Nothing a few stretches won’t fix.”

“Are you sure you should be working on the deck tonight, then?” she asked, worried. “You’re the architect of Montgomery Inc., not the contractor, so I don’t know how much pressure you usually put on your back if you’re this sore. I don’t want you hurting yourself.”

He fisted his hands for a moment before stuffing them into his pockets. “I’m fine, Ev. Stop fretting. Just sit there and relax and before you know it, Jackson will be home, and your deck will be ready for you to actually stand on.”

She huffed a breath. “If that’s some kind of fat joke, I’ll hoist myself off this couch and kick your ass right now. Don’t think I won’t.”

He pulled his hands out of his pockets and held them up in mock surrender. “Dear God, woman. I would never make a fat joke about a lady, let alone a pregnant one. I have three sisters and a mother who can kick my ass just like you can. I know better.”

She smiled sweetly. “I’m glad they taught you a few things.”

He muttered under his breath as he walked away, and Everly grinned, feeling a little better than she had before, though she wasn’t about to tell him that her sitting down had helped. There was only so much ego stroking she could handle.

The doorbell rang a few minutes later, and she frowned. She wasn’t sure who it could be, but Jackson’s parents did live a few miles away and liked to show up unannounced. Just thinking about that set her teeth on edge, so she ignored it and somehow levered herself off the couch. She wasn’t sure Storm could hear the doorbell from outside, and since it was her house, after all, she might as well answer it.

Everly waddled over and opened the door, blinking hard at the sight in front of her. The two officers gave her a sad smile, their chests broad as they took deep breaths. Her hands shook as she gripped the doorknob with one, the frame with the other. “Can I help you?”

“Mrs. Law?” the older of the two officers said softly. “May we come in?” Everly’s throat went dry, and she tried to keep the sense of foreboding from rushing into her, but she couldn’t quite manage it— or think.

“What’s going on, officers?” Storm asked from behind her. He put his hand on her shoulder, steadying her. Everly’s knees went weak, and she leaned into him, knowing she couldn’t stand on her own.

Both men looked up at Storm, frowns on their faces. “We need to speak to Mrs. Law. May we come in?”

“That way, she’s not on her feet,” the younger one added softly, and Everly’s heart raced.

She moved back, pushing Storm out of the way softly. “Come in,” she whispered, her voice hollow.

The two officers could have been there for any number of reasons, and yet Everly knew. She knew that no matter what happened next, her life would forever be altered.

As soon as they sat down, the officers spoke, and Storm gripped Everly’s hands, but she couldn’t hear anyone clearly. It was as if she were in a vacuum and everything was taking longer to reach her ears than normal.

Her husband was dead.

Gone before she could take her next breath.

The commuter plane that Jackson had been on had crashed outside of Boston. There were no survivors. No hope of finding her husband alive and whole, or even his body to put to rest.

The babies kicked at her bladder again, and she pressed her hand against her stomach, numb yet knowing she had no right to be that way. She couldn’t sit here and listen to them talk of grief councilors and who would be in touch with her shortly. Storm spoke for her, and she couldn’t care. She’d deal with everything later.

Right now, she needed to protect her children.

Jackson’s babies.

Babies he’d never see. Never hold. Never know.

She stood up then, only just aware that she’d interrupted whatever the men in the room had been saying. “I have to pee,” she blurted. The officers gave her an odd look, but Storm kept his grip on her hand.

“Everly.” His voice was deep, soothing, and a little bit worried. Yet she couldn’t focus on that.

“I need to take care of the babies,” she rasped. “I’ll… I’ll be right back. Can you…” She swallowed hard. “Can you take care of… just take care of it?”

He nodded before letting her hand go, and she waddled away from the living room, not looking at the officers who sat on her soft loveseat. Storm would take care of them and tell her what she needed to do. She couldn’t focus on anything else just then, only her babies.

They were the most important things.

Tears slid down her cheeks as she locked herself in the hall powder room, her legs shaking. The numbness settled in once more, and she looked at herself in the mirror, wondering who stared back at her, because that wasn’t the Everly she knew.

Jackson is gone, she reminded herself.

Gone.

And when the pinch inside her echoed throughout her body and liquid pooled around her feet, she once again knew nothing would ever be the same.

The babies were coming, but Jackson wasn’t.

He never would be.

And Everly wept.

 

Now

“I need you to breathe in, baby,” Everly said softly as she held Nathan to her chest. Her three-year-old wheezed into the nebulizer, and she tried not to let herself go numb again. She refused to allow that sensation to take hold as it had once before. She didn’t have time to ignore the panic running through her veins, but she could take that panic and turn it into the focus she needed.

Nathan looked up at her, his big eyes full of fear, an emotion that made her want to cry right along with him. James, her other sweet baby boy, held onto her shirt from where he stood beside the bed, tears running down his face.

We’ve all been here before, she thought, though tonight seemed like a far worse asthma attack than usual. She held back a curse and bundled Nathan in a blanket in her arms.

“Okay, Nathan honey, we’re going to go to the doctor just to make sure you’re okay.” She kissed his little face, a thousand things going through her mind as to what needed to be done.

“Uncle Storm,” James said from her side. “I want Uncle Storm.”

Everly looked down at James before looking at Nathan, who nodded beneath the mask. She honestly didn’t want to call Storm because that’s all she’d been doing for the past three years, at least until a month ago, but tonight wasn’t about her. It was about her boys and the fact that, frankly, she needed help.

“I’ll call from the car, now come on, babies. Let’s go.” She bundled them up quickly and got them into the car within five minutes. The fact that she’d gotten into such a routine because of her two boys’ health issues made her heart hurt, but she ignored it. The twins came first.

Always.

And that meant if she had to call Storm for help once again, she would.

Even if it pained her to do so.

 

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About Carrie Ann Ryan

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

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