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

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

 

About FALLEN INK

Releases April 17, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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Read the First Chapter of FALLEN INK

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yo, Adrienne, you okay?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m fine.”

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

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

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

There went her stomach again.

Her tattoo shop.

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

Yep, she was going to be sick.

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

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

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

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

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

And there went her stomach again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, let’s do this.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

About Carrie Ann Ryan

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

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

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

 

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

 

About SEED

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

The seeds of doubt have been planted.

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

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

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

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Chapter Reveal

JACK

May 10, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mr. Stratton, please look at me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mr. Stratton?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The words echoed in my mind. His papa.

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

I was a father. I was papa.

***

Present day

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

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

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

“Good morning,” she answered cheerily.

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

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

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

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

Me:

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

Sean:

I’ll be there with bells on.

***

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

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

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

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

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

“Jack Stratton. We have an appointment.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like what?”

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

“So who’s Mike O’Toole?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you find out who did it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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Chapter Reveal: Eternal Mourning by Carrie Ann Ryan

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

 

About ETERNAL MOURNING

Releases February 13, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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Read the First Chapter of ETERNAL MOURNING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was something wrong with Aimee.

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

 

 

About Carrie Ann Ryan

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

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First Chapter Reveal: Unlocking Fear by Kennedy Layne

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

 

About UNLOCKING FEAR

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

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

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

Add UNLOCKING FEAR to your Goodreads list here!

UNLOCKING FEAR releases January 23rd, 2018 – preorder your copy now!

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About the Keys to Love Series

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

 

Read the First Chapter of UNLOCKING FEAR:

Twelve years ago…

The deepening shadows stretched out across the small cluster of trees, causing the footpath to become somewhat obscured by the dark. The dying leaves that covered the floor of the woods rustled as the cool October breeze turned into a strong gust of wind.

A storm must be rolling into town.

Emma didn’t slow down her pace. She was already an hour late for her curfew, but at least this old shortcut would take ten minutes off her trip home. Her parents would probably ground her for at least a week, if not more. She needed to find a better way to sneak back inside the house. The back door squeaked horribly. It could wake the dead.

What was the odd chance her sister would cover for her?

Emma grimaced, already knowing the answer to that question. This was all Shae’s fault, anyway. Why did she always get the car, just because she was older? It was so unfair that she didn’t have to share.

Emma quickened her pace despite the darkness and the chance of tripping over a root. She imagined that she could walk this route with her eyes closed just as easily. She’d come this way a thousand times over. It was used by most of the kids who were still relegated to riding their bikes and walking out to Yoder’s farm to party, especially since most of them lived on the far side of the old woods in town.

A twig snapped in the distance, bringing her up short. Its piercing crack echoed off the trees. Was someone else walking home?

“Who’s there?”

Emma waited for a reply, wincing when her voice was amplified through the small stretch of woods. She tried to peer through the trees, expecting to see Brynn or Julie, but it was too dark to make anything out beyond a few yards.

The faint and comforting sound of her favorite song drifted from the old farmhouse. She looked over her shoulder, still able to make out the orange sparks rising from the top of the raging bonfire as they reached into the night’s sky. It was almost as if the flames were dancing, reminding her of how Billy held her in his arms earlier as they swayed to the music.

Emma smiled as she wrapped her arms around her waist in an effort to keep warm. She could still smell the bonfire on her sweater, along with his father’s cologne that Billy had been wearing. Maybe he graduated to buying his own though, choosing from the limited selection at Murphy’s dry goods. Not eve n the chilly night air could take away her happiness at having secured a chance at a relationship. She’d waited so long for him to notice her.

Tonight had been as perfect as it could get.

Now all she had to do was figure out a way to sneak into her house without her parents catching her in the act or that stupid door screeching out into the night. She needed to be able to say yes to Billy if he asked her out for next weekend. And he would, she was sure of it.

Emma slowly spun around looking for the source o f the noise, not seeing anyone or anything. A quick glance up at the sky told her that the clouds were gathering. She hesitated before walking deeper into the woods that would lead her right to the edge of Seventh Street and the town’s cemetery.

A vision of her standing by her school locker and saying yes to Billy had her continuing forward with a determined stride.

This annual bonfire wouldn’t be their last, of that she was certain, but it was one she would always remember.

She’d heard that old Yoder’s far m had been sold, so future get- togethers would most likely be in the clearing on the north side of the woods. She noticed the new owners had even started renovating the farmhouse, but that hadn’t stopped Chad Schaeffer from organizing one last bash out by the farm pond. It was a miracle the sheriff hadn’t cruised by earlier and sent everyone home. He was usually a real stickler when it came to parties involving the local teens.

No one recognized the name of the new owner. There were no relatives of the Yoders around these parts anymore, so the town council must have decided to auction off the land after clearing it with the courts. She’d meant to ask her dad how someone determined if a piece of property was derelict. She’d heard a teacher talking about it in class. It probably had something to do with property taxes.

Emma hadn’t wanted to bring up the matter, because then her dad would have figured out that she was part of the gang who hung out on the same property the town council complained about.

Now that would have earned her a grounding for at least a month or more.

There was a break in the clouds, allowing for the dirt path in front of her to suddenly became clear. She took another step forward before realizing something was quite wrong, but by then it was far too late.

Emma walked directly into the arms of her killer.

 

About Kennedy Layne

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

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Chapter Reveal + Pre-Order: Sky’s the Limit by Elle Aycart

Tired of waiting for her big break in the fashion industry, Sky Gonzalez, eternal part-time student and overworked retail drone, quits her job, sublets her New York apartment, and embarks on a semester abroad study program in Paris. Paris! Time to throw caution to the winds and jump-start her dreams. What’s the worst that could happen?

How about getting sent to the wrong Paris? As in Paris-frigging-Minnesota?

Bye-bye career dreams. Bye-bye glamour and haute couture. Hello flannel shirts, mind-numbing cold, zero bars on the cell phone, and socially challenged mountain men with tons of unruly facial hair.

So yeah, let the truck barreling her way hit her, please. Less painful.

Logan should have dodged the little lost waif and kept on driving. Who in their right mind walked in the middle of the road, dressed in white from head to high heels, during a snowstorm? Clueless city girls, that’s who. Sky is all that Logan has gladly left behind: stylish, cosmopolitan, and a massive pain in the butt. He wouldn’t trade a single day in his quirky little corner of the woods for all the high-maintenance beauties the city can offer.

Too bad this beauty has been deemed a health hazard and quarantined in his house. Damn his doomsday-prepper neighbors and their paranoid emergency protocols. Now he has to keep Sky in and the pandemic squad out until the roads are clear. The question is, will that happen before or after Sky realizes she’s under house arrest?

Ah, the best-laid plans…

Somewhere in the back of beyond, Minnesota

SOS. Car broke down. Stuck in snowstorm. Check my location and alert troopers.

Sky Gonzalez pressed Send and threw her cell in the air as high as she could. There was nothing but trees and snow around, no cell coverage to be had where she was standing. Maybe another six feet up, the situation was different.

She caught the phone on its way down. Checked the screen. Nope. Jesus Christ, the whole country was infested with butt-ugly, fake-tree cell towers, and she had to get lost in a place where all the damn trees were real.

Turning against the gusts of wind and brushing flakes away from her face, she gave it another go, tossing as far as she dared. Which wasn’t far, really, because she wasn’t the most coordinated person in the world. If she dropped the phone and it smashed into a million pieces, or she lost sight of where it landed, that was it for her last lifeline to the outside world. She’d never find her cute, sparkly cell again—slick and thin and white.

In hindsight, going for that color had been a very poor decision.

Still no dice. Squinting, she tossed the device up again. Hopefully her message would eventually go through, and Lola would contact the authorities. After all, it was Lola’s fault Sky was in this bind. Of all the crazy shit her sister had pulled over the years, this stunt trumped every one of them.

Every. Single. One.

She caught her cell a third time. Nothing. Well, practice made perfect, right? Besides, she didn’t have much else to do except throw that stupid phone into the sky and continue walking. The road must lead somewhere. Sooner or later she’d arrive there. Or she’d get lucky and her cell would catch a signal. Or she’d freeze to death and become a cautionary tale to stupid girls. Whatever came first.

She looked back to where her car was being buried under a steady fall of big flakes. Steam was still coming from the hood. How a car could overheat in the middle of a snowstorm, she didn’t know. That annoying little red light on the dashboard that had flashed at her for the last twenty miles might have had something to do with it. Not that she could have done shit about it, seeing as the last person she’d crossed paths with was at a gas station a hundred miles away. Or so. She wasn’t great at calculating distances or reading maps.

Orienting herself wasn’t one of her fortes either, evidenced by the embarrassing fact that her destination should only have been about fifteen miles from the regional airport and she’d still managed to miss it. She’d tried backtracking, but she’d only succeeded in getting more lost. And that was hours ago. The car’s GPS had stopped working right after she left the airport, and her cell had been without a steady signal for a long while before the car itself died. For all she knew, she’d crossed state lines. Heck, she might be in Canada. Or in frigging Alaska.

Great way to kick off the New Year. Best first of January ever.

Eyes on her airborne cell, she tripped and fell flat on her face, the useless device landing on the back of her head.

Coordinate colors? Forecast fashion trends? Put together a knockout outfit from a thrift shop? All that she could do, no problem. But apparently, throwing an object up in a straight line and catching it on the fly were not in her skill set.

Aggravated, she got up, patted the snow from her pants, and burrowed her hands under her jacket. The wind wasn’t too strong, but the constant bee stings of flakes on her skin, along with her shitty clothes, made her feel like she was freezing. The extremely fashionable hand-me-downs from her boss were not designed for off-road snow trudging.

Then again, she should have been strolling around Paris’s Golden Triangle of luxury boutiques and haute couture labels. Or sitting in a cute little café, watching the sun set over the Champs Elysées, enjoying the mild chill of the French winter—which this year was supposed to be warmer than usual—sipping red wine, and munching on a baguette slathered in gooey cheese. For that, she was perfectly dressed.

Thank God she’d gotten that ridiculous white bunny-ear hat at the airport, ugly as it was, and the white bunny-paw mittens. The snowstorm must have caught other travelers off guard, because those had been the only winter garments in the tiny store. High heels and a bunny hat. Hell of a fashion statement. On the plus side, she was color coordinated down to her underwear. White pants. White jacket. White boots. White hat.

She should have stayed in the broken car. No heat and a cramped space were a thousand times preferable to walking in the open, but she was so tired, she couldn’t afford to sit idle. She’d fall asleep in a second and wake up a Popsicle. Or, more to the point, not wake up at all.

That she’d been awake thirty hours and counting wasn’t helping. But why would she have wasted her last night in New York City sleeping when she thought she had a transatlantic flight ahead of her? Eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. Sky was infamous for drifting off in the weirdest places and the most impossible positions. Tourist class, no leg room, screaming babies? Bring it on. Heck, once she’d zonked out in a jumper seat and snored there for hours, back in the day when she flew standby, courtesy of a friend’s industry-discount tickets.

Looking forward to a cozy nap in coach, she’d gone partying with friends instead of resting—and checking her flight details. Now she was stuck in the middle of nowhere, sleep-deprived, knee-deep in snow, freezing her butt off, and probably catching the mother of all flus.

Minnesota. Where the heck was Minnesota? She was an East Coast person through and through. She hadn’t been this far west since that time she took the wrong train and ended up in Newark. That had been traumatic enough, thank you very much.

She glanced around. It was beautiful, though. Perfect snowflakes poured out of the sky, blanketing the whole landscape in white. Very… Christmassy. Too bad it wasn’t Christmas, and she was lost, alone, and irremediably soaked. Her hair and makeup were ruined. And let’s not talk about her brand-new manicure. Hansel and Gretel dropped bread crumbs. Her? She was dropping fake nails all over the place.

Damn the countryside. Not a single soul around to ask for directions. Where were aggressive taxi drivers when one needed them? Rude walkers, honking cars, hotdog vendors, a Starbucks on every corner—there was nothing like that here. No landmarks she would recognize.

Just snow, trees, and a back road, poorly delineated and with worse signage, all of it getting fuzzier by the second.

And that was the view in the middle of the day. She shuddered to think how all this would look when it started getting dark. Were there wolves in Minnesota? Bears? Because if her high-heeled boots were shit walking in the snow, just wait until she had to climb a tree.

Sky was about to toss the cell up again, but she stopped. Sighed. Who was she kidding? She’d need a rocket launcher to make it past the treetops. She might as well put her phone to better use before the battery died or it got buried in the snow, Fargo style, until the end of time. She pressed the recording function and started talking. “This is the last will and testament of Sky Gonzalez. This message is addressed to my sister Lola. I leave you, Lola, all my belongings, which you’ll find in a car buried under a ton of snow somewhere in the middle of Minnesota, where you sent me!” she yelled into the device. “Know that I blame you for everything, and I will haunt you from the afterlife for freaking ever! You’ll never have a good night’s sleep, I guarantee you. Damn your presbyopia! Yes, you’ve hit forty. Yes, you need glasses. Own it, for Christ’s sake!”

Screaming seemed to help, marginally. To vent her frustration, if nothing else. She knew she shouldn’t be mad at Lola. After all, it wasn’t completely her sister’s fault. Never mind how busy she’d been, Sky should not have asked her sister to fill out her application for the semester-abroad program. At the very least, she should have suspected something was fishy when the secretary in the placement department had been so glad about Sky’s choice of location, she not only arranged the flight for her, but also informed her that the position came with a voucher for a car rental. Big red flag if Sky ever saw one.

“I don’t need a car,” she’d told the woman. Why would she? Public transportation was a far better option in European cities.

The secretary had sounded confused. “Uhh, believe me, you’ll need a car. Any preferences?”

In all her years as a part-time undergrad at that school, taking classes here and there whenever she could afford it, Sky had never heard the old hag be so nice to anyone. So she went for broke. “Okay, if I can choose, a cute little Mini would work.” Driving in style trumped trunk space any day. Besides, parking would be at a premium in Paris.

“A what?”

She’d gone too far. “If it’s too much, I can—”

“No, no,” the secretary had hurried to interrupt. “It will be arranged.”

Probably she’d thought Sky was going to pull her application if she didn’t get her preferred car. Which she would have. In a heartbeat. Not because of the car, but because she had thought she was going to Paris, France. Not Paris, Minnesota. Who in her right mind would choose an internship in Minnesota when Europe was available?

Sky Gonzalez, apparently.

Entering the semester-abroad program had been an ill-omened idea. She should have accepted her destiny as an eternal student and sales clerk turned personal shopper’s assistant. Dressing in castoffs from her boss and living vicariously through others people’s pics on Instagram. Making ends meet, a big smile on her face, happy and satisfied with her lot.

But traveling to Europe in the hopes of becoming a buyer for a classy continental retailer? Not in the cards for a Gonzalez.

Sky blew warm air over her frozen fingers. Manipulating her cell with the mittens had been a no-go, so she’d stashed them in her jacket. Time to fish them out, or she was going to lose more than her nails. Rummaging in her pockets produced only one mitten. Oh, shit. She must have dropped the other one. Fantastic. Getting better and better. Her teeth were chattering. The storm didn’t look like it was lightening up anytime soon, so she put on the one mitten and picked up her speed.

She pressed Record again and spoke into the phone.“I left Arnie at the dog hotel, so you are getting your sorry ass over there and picking him up, Lola. To hell with your allergies.”

Arnie hated it there. Ungrateful mutt. Much as it pained Sky, she couldn’t take him with her overseas. She’d dished out an indecent amount of money, money she couldn’t afford, to that first-class kennel, and he’d looked at her as if she were dumping him into the pound. “If I freeze to death… which at this stage is a very strong possibility, because the clattering sound you’re hearing is my teeth… I expect you to care for him. The expensive doggie treats he likes. His massage and spa days. The whole shebang, Lola. Do not cut corners with my baby. You owe me.”

When Sky stopped yelling into the phone, she realized the screeching she was hearing wasn’t coming from her. It sounded like brakes locking. She turned around in time to see the shiny grill of a black monster truck barreling her way.

Her eyes opened wide. Holy shit.

It was a damn good thing she couldn’t feel half her body anymore, because this was sooo going to hurt.

* * *

The second that Logan saw a flash of long red hair and something resembling human eyes, he wrenched the wheel, sending the truck spinning to the shoulder, barely missing the tiny figure in the middle of the road. Jesus Christ. Who in her right mind wore white from head to toe in a blizzard? The truck screeched to a halt, the passenger side a mere half an inch from the woman. He jumped down and ran around the front. She had fallen to the ground. Fuck, had he hit her? “You okay?”

“You… almost… ran… me… over,” she said, her teeth chattering. From fear or cold, he couldn’t tell. Well, he could. It had to be cold. Her clothes were flimsy at best. Flashy, but not warm at all.

“Are you crazy? Standing in the middle of the road, all in white? I could have killed you.”

He saw a gleam of defiance in her eyes. “White’s… trendy… this… year.”

Right. “There’s nothing ‘trendy’ in this part of Minnesota, lady. Where’s your car?”

“There.” She pointed in the direction Logan had come from. “Or there,” she corrected herself, pointing in the opposite direction. “Not sure now. It all looks… white.”

No shit.

He tried to help her stand, but her legs buckled, so he lifted her in his arms. “Let’s get you somewhere warm, shall we?” After placing her on the passenger seat, he cranked up the heat.

“Can’t leave… without… my bags.”

He stepped outside and scouted the ground a little.

Her footsteps indicated she’d been walking in the same direction he’d been driving, which meant he must have passed her vehicle and missed it. “What car are you driving?”

She sneezed, the useless synthetic-fur hood on her jacket flopping over her bunny-eared head. Out of the whole stupid outfit, that bunny-eared hat was the most sensible piece. “A Mini.”

Great. Wherever she’d left the car, it was probably buried now.

“We’ll come back for it tomorrow,” he decided, jumping back in and revving up the engine.

“My Manolos are in there.”

Manolos. Oh, boy, wasn’t that a blast from the past? Another shoe whore. Just what he needed. “They’ll still be here tomorrow, believe me.”

She was going to object, but a sudden sneeze derailed her. And another and another. He opened the glove compartment, took out a wad of napkins, and offered it to her. “Why did you leave the car?”

“Stopped working,” she answered, grabbing a napkin and wiping her nose. “And when I began walking… it wasn’t snowing so much.”

“You aren’t from anywhere around here, are you?” Her dumb clothes were a dead giveaway. Her actions too. She shook her head, placing her hands in front of the air vent. “New York City.”

It figured.

She narrowed her dark eyes on him. “Why?”

The heat had kicked in. She must have finally felt it, because her teeth weren’t chattering as hard. She was even getting some color back in her face.

He looked resolutely forward and edged the truck into motion. “For your information—next time you decide to take a stroll in the Minnesota countryside, you need better shoes. And clothes. You don’t assume the weather conditions will improve. And you never leave your vehicle. Ever. Under any circumstances. You don’t stand in the middle of the road without wearing reflectors. And—”

A sudden move from the passenger side caught his attention. He gave her a quick glance and saw, flabbergasted, that her head had lolled to the side.

“Lady, you okay?”

A light snore was all the answer he got. “And you don’t get into a stranger’s ride and proceed to check out,” he muttered. Jesus fucking Christ. Talk about a lack of common sense.

After a colorful array of jobs all over Europe ranging from translator to chocolatier to travel agent to sushi chef to flight dispatcher, Elle Aycart is certain of one thing and one thing only: aside from writing romances, she has abso-frigging-lutely no clue what she wants to do when she grows up. Not that it stops her from trying all sorts of crazy stuff. While she is probably now thinking of a new profession, her head never stops churning new plots for her romances. She lives currently in Barcelona, Spain, with her husband and two daughters, although who knows, in no time she could be living at the Arctic Circle in Finland, breeding reindeer.

Elle loves to hear from readers!

elleaycart@gmail.com

Chapter Reveal + Trailer + Playlist + Giveaways: Dirt by Cassia Leo

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

 

Title: DIRT
Author: Cassia Leo
Series: Evergreen Series
Release: January 12, 2018

 

About Dirt

A hard-hitting, emotional new series from New York Times bestselling author Cassia Leo.

Jack and I had everything. Then, in one brutal instant, the universe tilted on its side, discarding us into black nothingness.

Now, I have a cocky a**hole for a husband.

The only way we communicate anymore is when we’re fighting or f**king.

With nothing left to lose, I write Jack a goodbye letter and head for Portland, where I quickly meet a neighbor who helps me find a job.

My new neighbor—broody, tattooed ex-soldier Isaac Evans—is complicated. Nevertheless, we form a fast friendship, bonding over our mutual desire to create something beautiful from the wreckage of our lives.

But despite the distance between us, Jack and I are still trying to make things work—fighting and f**king dirtier than ever. And he doesn’t appreciate my new friendship with Isaac. Not one f**king bit.

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Chapter Reveal

Chapter 1

Laurel

I hugged Jack Jr. tightly against my breast, and he molded his soft, warm body to mine. His eyes remained closed as his tiny fingers curled around the fabric of my blouse, his rosy lips puckering as he geared up for more food.

“You sucked me dry, little fella,” I whispered, leaning in to press my nose against the downy-soft, golden hair on the top of his head. I inhaled his scent and my muscles unspooled. “But I’ll be back to feed you soon. I promise.”

Why do babies smell so damn good?

Before I got pregnant with Junior, my favorite smell was orange blossoms. As a teenager, I often got scolded by my mom for picking the flowers off the orange tree in our backyard in Portland. I’d rub the creamy petals between my fingers, bruise them with my fingernails, then sniff my hand for hours until the scent wore off.

When I was pregnant with Junior, my favorite scent became the rich aroma of the forbidden coffee I could no longer drink.

After Junior was born, and my decaf days came to a glorious end, I realized how wrong I’d been. There was absolutely no scent as sweet and soul-quieting as the smell of the top of a baby’s head. Bonus points if the baby was lying peacefully on your chest sound asleep.

“Are you ever going to put him down?”

I flicked my head sideways, startled by Jack’s clear, baritone voice.

He stood in the doorway of Junior’s nursery, the silhouette of his six-foot-three athletic body framed by the warm light in the hallway. His head was tilted to the side. He’d probably been standing there admiring us for a while. After six years together, I knew Jack’s body language and facial expressions better than I knew my own face.

I stood from the rocking chair and stole one more sniff of Junior’s head before I placed him gently on his back in the center of the crib. I adjusted the left sleeve of his pajamas, pulling it down to make sure it covered his entire chubby arm. I didn’t want to imagine him waking up cold and alone in here.

Jack appeared at my side as I switched on the video baby monitor. “He’s going to be fine,” he murmured, reaching down to stroke the soft patch of hair on Junior’s head. “In fact, he’ll probably enjoy some time alone. After all, he is just like his daddy; sometimes, we need a break from the constant attention from the ladies.”

I rolled my eyes and headed for the door. “Making jokes only makes leaving him slightly less scary, you know,” I said as we stepped into the hallway of our five-bedroom dream home in Hood River, Oregon. I couldn’t wait to fill up every one of these bedrooms with brothers and sisters for Jack Jr.

Jack chuckled as he followed closely behind me. “Less scary is an improvement,” he replied, grabbing my hand to stop me in the middle of the corridor. “You promised Junior you’d be back soon. Can you also make me a promise?”

The hallway lights made his dark hair look glaringly shiny, but I couldn’t help but notice how weary his blue eyes looked tonight. Since Junior arrived three months ago, I’d been so focused on my baby boy’s vulnerability, his scent, his beauty, I hadn’t slowed down enough to appreciate how those were the same qualities that made me fall in love with Jack.

Suddenly, my worries about leaving Junior with my mother for the evening evaporated. All I wanted to do was kiss Jack, grab hold of that dark hair and make love to him for hours. I wanted to replace the weariness in his eyes with dark hunger, or maybe a glint of mischief.

I squeezed his hand and smiled at the thought of possibly having sex with him in public tonight. We hadn’t done that in a while.

“What kind of promise?” I asked.

He shook his head. “Nope, you’re not allowed to ask. Just promise me you’ll say yes.”

My stomach vaulted at the sound of those words. They were the same words Jack spoke when he asked me to marry him. I wondered what he would ask this time.

The phrase “just promise me you’ll say yes” had become like an inside joke, our own private, unspoken promise to each other that we would always do whatever it took to stay together. The last time he had uttered this phrase, he asked me to stop taking my birth control pills. With Junior here, it was easy to trust that whatever Jack asked me for this time would turn out to be exactly what I needed.

I tilted my head back so I could look up and into his crystal-blue eyes. “Yes, I can make you a promise.”

His expression became sober. “Promise me you’ll be present tonight.” He fixed me with a piercing gaze as his large hand cupped my face. “It’s just you and me for the next three hours. Promise me.”

I smiled. “I promise. Just you and me. And I’ll even put my cell phone on vibrate.” As I said the words, a sharp finger of fear prodded my subconscious, telling me it was a bad idea to risk missing a phone call tonight.

The exhaustion in Jack’s eyes melted away as he smiled. “I can deal with that, but you have to promise me one more thing.”

“What’s that?”

His smile turned almost menacing as he looped his arm around my waist and drew me close. “Promise me you’ll lemme smash that blonde bombshell booty,” he said, landing a light swat on my ass.

I shook my head as I recalled how we often had sex in public during our first year together, in our senior year at Oregon State University, Cascades. For some reason, once we graduated and moved in together, having sex in public seemed like something we couldn’t get away with so easily. We decided public sex-hibitions — or throw downs, as we more commonly referred to them — would be reserved for special occasions like anniversaries or vacations.

Truthfully, Jack and I kicked off our relationship by having sex on the first date. He was always a very difficult man to resist. When he showed up at my apartment to pick me up that night, I couldn’t resist his suggestion that we should stay in and make paper masks of ourselves, then put them on and ask each other first date questions as if we were the other person. I had never laughed so much on any date. Ever. But when he asked — while pretending to be me — if I’d ever had sex with someone on the first date, I couldn’t help but respond with, “I’m Jack-fucking-Stratton. I’ve fucked a lot of girls on the first date. But none as gorgeous as you.”

Jack always knew how to keep things fresh and alarmingly sexy. Six years in and my body still craved him almost every second of every day.

Today was our three-year wedding anniversary. We’d only had sex twice since I gave birth to Junior three months ago, and both of those times were truly awkward.

The first time was painful. My C-section incision hadn’t fully healed yet, and even trying to have sex with him behind me was uncomfortable. The second time we tried, Jack was so afraid of hurting me, he stopped midway through. There’d been a lot of oral sex happening in this house since then.

Luckily, a few weeks had passed since our last attempt, and I had repeatedly assured him I was fully healed up now. I was certain that even if the sex did hurt a little, it would still be worth it. I couldn’t understand couples that didn’t consider sex an important part of a relationship. I never felt more complete, more present, more alive than when my body and mind were entwined with Jack’s.

I smiled as I wrapped my arms around his waist. “I think I know just the place for a proper throw down.”

He wiggled his eyebrows. “Ooh. Tell me more.”

As he leaned in to kiss me, my mother’s voice interrupted us.

“Are you two making out again?” she said, standing at the top of the stairs with her hands on her hips as she gawped at us. “Well, don’t let me stop you.”

Jack laughed and I shook my head as we moved toward her.

“We’re just trying to keep you entertained while you’re on vacation, Beth,” Jack said.

My mother cocked an eyebrow. “If I wanted to watch porn, I’d open up your laptop and have a look at your internet history.”

“Mom, don’t be gross,” I protested, trying not to laugh.

Jack smiled as he held out his elbow for my mom to grab hold as they descended the stairs in front of me. “I made a special collection of links for you. They’re in a folder labeled Tantric Geriatric. You’ll love it.”

I rolled my eyes. Jack and my mother exchanged jabs like this all day.

My mother was staying with us for a few days, so Jack and I could have some time to ourselves and get some much-needed uninterrupted sleep. She was leaving tomorrow to go back to the house where I grew up in Portland. Though she pretended as if she was desperate to get home to her Craftsman cottage in the city, and I even teased her about how she was dying to get back so she could see the handsome new neighbor she’d been going on about, I knew she was going to miss Jack’s pretend insults as much as she would miss Junior and me.

My mother practically shoved me toward the front door. “I order you to go have fun,” she said, smiling as Jack opened the door and stepped outside. “And don’t come home until you’re too drunk to walk.”

I shook my head. “Thanks, Mom. Please call if you need anything. And don’t answer the door for anyone. There’s a house that got broken into a few streets away.”

She waved off my paranoia. “Stop worrying so much. We’ll be fine. See you later, babe.”

I blew her a kiss, then I closed the door behind me.

* * *

“I have to admit, having sex on the waterfront was one of my favorite public throw downs ever,” Jack said, pulling his Tesla into the long driveway of our four-acre estate. “But do we really have to wait until our fourth anniversary to do it again?”

I tugged the silky fabric of my skirt straight as I pressed my thighs together. Though my body was still raw with the evidence of the dirty deed we’d just committed, I couldn’t wait to get Jack inside and pounce on him again. I hadn’t realized how much I missed the sensation of him moving inside me, and how good he was at making me feel beautiful.

“We can do that anytime we can snag a babysitter,” I replied as he turned the car off.

He made no move to exit the Tesla. “Well, babycakes, you’d better get ready to interview a fuck-ton of babysitters.”

I laughed. “Babycakes? That’s a new one.”

Jack rarely used the same term of endearment twice in a row. He liked to keep me guessing.

He scrunched up his nose. “Yeah, that one was kind of creepy. Now that I’ve tried it out, I think I can bury that one in the nickname graveyard.”

“Try the incinerator,” I said, reaching for the door handle.

“Duly noted,” he replied, exiting the vehicle.

Jack and I glided unhurriedly along the flagstone walkway, which was lined with sparkling pathway lights. As we made our way toward the steps leading up to the covered porch, I stopped in the middle of the path and closed my eyes as I inhaled the sweet scent of the lavender and honeysuckle I’d planted with my mom’s help.

That was when I made a wish, a corny wish, but I didn’t care.

I wished that every person could find someone they loved as much as I loved Jack. I wished every child could feel as loved as Junior was. And I wished every anniversary could be as perfect as this one.

“No… No, no, no!” Jack’s voice grew louder with each no.

They say mother’s intuition is scientifically proven to exist. I knew by the tone of Jack’s voice, without even opening my eyes, that my world would never be the same. I knew in that instant, I would regret leaving Jack Jr. tonight for the rest of my life.

Though I knew something was wrong, I wasn’t prepared for what we found.

At some point, while we were lost in our blissful celebration, the front door of our home had been forced open. This discovery was what had made Jack cry out in disbelief. Father’s intuition must also be a thing, because he told me later that, even though the door was still closed, the moment he saw the gouges in the wood near the handle, he had felt that same sense of dread. That feeling that the universe had suddenly tilted on its side, discarding us into black nothingness.

The house was ransacked.

Furniture upended, paintings and flatscreen televisions torn off the walls, shards of shattered vases littered the floors. Complete and utter chaos.

The master bathroom doorknob looked as if it had been shot off. We found my mother’s lifeless form huddled against the bathtub, my baby boy’s dead body clutched tightly in her arms.

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About Cassia Leo

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

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First Chapter Reveal: Whiskey Secrets by Carrie Ann Ryan

Carrie Ann Ryan’s WHISKEY AND LIES kicks off in just under a week…but we couldn’t wait to share the first chaper of the first book, WHISKEY SECRETS, with you! Read it below below, find out more about the series (and how it ties into the Montgomery Ink series!) and preorder your copy today!

 

About the WHISKEY AND LIES series

The Montgomery Ink world just got a big larger. Dark heroes, tragic pasts, and heroines who rock their worlds…the Collins Brothers are about to see what happens when their small Pennsylvanian town gets shocked to its core.

The Collins Brothers just want to go about their business and live their lives. They’re in no mood for what happens when three women come into their lives when they’re least expecting it. One comes to change what was lost, another comes to prove what could be, while the third reveals what’s already been there all along.

Whiskey, Pennsylvania just got a little bit bigger and this town might not be ready for what’s coming.

Tabby’s Brothers from Ink Exposed get a series of their own.

Each book is a complete stand alone and can be read in any order.

 

About WHISKEY SECRETS (Whiskey and Lies #1)

Sparks fly between a former cop-turned-bartender and his new innkeeper in the first installment of a Montgomery Ink spin-off series from NYT Bestselling Author Carrie Ann Ryan.

Dare Collins is a man who knows his whiskey and women—or at least that’s what he tells himself. When his family decides to hire on a new innkeeper for the inn above his bar and restaurant, he’s more than reluctant. Especially when he meets the new hire. But he’ll soon find that he has no choice but to work with this city girl and accept her new ideas and the burning attraction between them.

Kenzie Owens left her old life and an abusive relationship behind her—or so she thought. She figures she’ll be safe in Whiskey, Pennsylvania but after one look at her new boss, Dare Collins, she might still be in danger, or at least her heart. And when her past catches up with her despite her attempts to avoid it, it’s more than her heart on the line. This time, it might mean her life.

WHISKEY SECRETS releases January 2nd, 2018 – preorder your copy now!

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Read the first chapter of WHISKEY SECRETS:

Shocking pain slammed into his skull and down his back. Dare Collins did his best not to scream in the middle of his own bar. He slowly stood up and rubbed the back of his head since he’d been distracted and hit it on the countertop. Since the thing was made of solid wood and thick as hell, he was surprised he hadn’t given himself a concussion. But since he didn’t see double, he had a feeling once his long night was over, he’d just have to make the throbbing go away with a glass of Macallan.

There was nothing better than a glass of smooth whiskey or an ice-cold mug of beer after a particularly long day. Which one Dare chose each night depended on not only his mood but also those around him. So was the life of a former cop turned bartender.

He had a feeling he’d be going for the whiskey and not a woman tonight— like most nights if he were honest. It had been a long day of inventory and no-show staff members. Meaning he had a headache from hell, and it looked as if he’d be working open to close when he truly didn’t want to. But that’s what happened when one was the owner of a bar and restaurant rather than just a manager or bartender— like he was with the Old Whiskey Restaurant and Bar.

It didn’t help that his family had been in and out of the place all day for one reason or another— his brothers and parents either wanting something to eat or having a question that needed to be answered right away where a phone call or text wouldn’t suffice. His mom and dad had mentioned more than once that he needed to be ready for their morning meeting, and he had a bad feeling in his gut about what that would mean for him later. But he pushed that from his thoughts because he was used to things in his life changing on a dime. He’d left the force for a reason, after all.

Enough of that.

He loved his family, he really did, but sometimes, they— his parents in particular— gave him a headache.

Since his mom and dad still ran the Old Whiskey Inn above his bar, they were constantly around, working their tails off at odd jobs that were far too hard for them at their ages, but they were all just trying to earn a living. When they weren’t handling business for the inn, they were fixing problems upstairs that Dare wished they’d let him help with.

While he’d have preferred to call it a night and head back to his place a few blocks away, he knew that wouldn’t happen tonight. Since his bartender, Rick, had called in sick at the last minute— as well as two of Dare’s waitresses from the bar— Dare was pretty much screwed.

And if he wallowed just a little bit more, he might hear a tiny violin playing in his ear. He needed to get a grip and get over it. Working late and dealing with other people’s mistakes was part of his job description, and he was usually fine with that.

Apparently, he was just a little off tonight. And since he knew himself well, he had a feeling it was because he was nearing the end of his time without his kid. Whenever he spent too many days away from Nathan, he acted like a crabby asshole. Thankfully, his weekend was coming up.

“Solving a hard math problem over there, or just daydreaming? Because that expression on your face looks like you’re working your brain too hard. I’m surprised I don’t see smoke coming out of your ears.” Fox asked as he walked up to the bar, bringing Dare out of his thoughts. Dare had been pulling drafts and cleaning glasses mindlessly while in his head, but he was glad for the distraction, even if it annoyed him that he needed one.

Dare shook his head and flipped off his brother. “Suck me.”

The bar was busy that night, so Fox sat down on one of the empty stools and grinned. “Nice way to greet your customers.” He glanced over his shoulder before looking back at Dare and frowning. “Where are Rick and the rest of your staff?”

Dare barely held back a growl. “Out sick. Either there’s really a twenty-four-hour stomach bug going around and I’m going to be screwed for the next couple of days, or they’re all out on benders.”

Fox cursed under his breath before hopping off his stool and going around the side of the large oak and maple bar to help out. That was Dare’s family in a nutshell— they dropped everything whenever one of them needed help, and nobody even had to ask for it. Since Dare sucked at asking for help on a good day, he was glad that Fox knew what he needed without him having to say it.

Without asking, Fox pulled up a few drink orders and began mixing them with the skill of a long-time barkeep. Since Fox owned the small town newspaper— the Whiskey Chronicle— Dare was still surprised sometimes at how deft his younger brother was at working alongside him. Of course, even his parents, his older brother Loch, and his younger sister Tabby knew their way around the bar.

Just not as well as Dare did. Considering that this was his job, he was grateful for that.

He loved his family, his bar, and hell, he even loved his little town on the outskirts of Philly. Whiskey, Pennsylvania was like most other small towns in his state where some parts were new additions, and others were old stone buildings from the Revolutionary or Civil war eras with add-ons— like his.

And with a place called Whiskey, everyone attached the label where they could. Hence the town paper, his bar, and most of the other businesses around town. Only Loch’s business really stood out with Loch’s Security and Gym down the street, but that was just like Loch to be a little different yet still part of the town.

Whiskey had been named as such because of its old bootlegging days. It used to be called something else, but since Prohibition, the town had changed its name and cashed in on it. Whiskey was one of the last places in the country to keep Prohibition on the books, even with the nationwide decree. They’d fought to keep booze illegal, not for puritan reasons, but because their bootlegging market had helped the township thrive. Dare knew there was a lot more to it than that, but those were the stories the leaders told the tourists, and it helped with the flare.

Whiskey was located right on the Delaware River, so it overlooked New Jersey but was still on the Pennsylvania side of things. The main bridge that connected the two states through Whiskey and Ridge on the New Jersey side was one of the tourist spots for people to drive over and walk so they could be in two states at once while over the Delaware River.

Their town was steeped in history, and close enough to where George Washington had crossed the Delaware that they were able to gain revenue on the reenactments for the tourists, thus helping keep their town afloat.

The one main road through Whiskey that not only housed Loch’s and Dare’s businesses but also many of the other shops and restaurants in the area, was always jammed with cars and people looking for places to parallel park. Dare’s personal parking lot for the bar and inn was a hot commodity.

And while he might like time to himself some days, he knew he wouldn’t trade Whiskey’s feel for any other place. They were a weird little town that was a mesh of history and newcomers, and he wouldn’t trade it for the world. His sister Tabby might have moved out west and found her love and her place with the Montgomerys in Denver, but Dare knew he’d only ever find his home here.

Sure, he’d had a few flings in Denver when he visited his sister, but he knew they’d never be more than one night or two. Hell, he was the king of flings these days, and that was for good reason. He didn’t need commitment or attachments beyond his family and his son, Nathan.

Time with Nathan’s mom had proven that to him, after all.

“You’re still daydreaming over there,” Fox called out from the other side of the bar. “You okay?”

Dare nodded, frowning. “Yeah, I think I need more caffeine or something since my mind keeps wandering.” He pasted on his trademark grin and went to help one of the new arrivals who’d taken a seat at the bar. Dare wasn’t the broody one of the family— that honor went to Loch— and he hated when he acted like it.

“What can I get you?” he asked a young couple that had taken two empty seats at the bar. They had matching wedding bands on their fingers but looked to be in their early twenties.

He couldn’t imagine being married that young. Hell, he’d never been married, and he was in his mid-thirties now. He hadn’t married Monica even though she’d given him Nathan, and even now, he wasn’t sure they’d have ever taken that step even if they had stayed together. She had Auggie now, and he had… well, he had his bar.

That wasn’t depressing at all.

“Two Yuenglings please, draft if you have it,” the guy said, smiling.

Dare nodded. “Gonna need to see your IDs, but I do have it on tap for you.” As Yuengling was a Pennsylvania beer, not having it outside the bottle would be stupid even in a town that prided itself on whiskey.

The couple pulled out their IDs, and Dare checked them quickly. Since both were now the ripe age of twenty-two, he went to pull them their beers and set out their check since they weren’t looking to run a tab.

Another woman with long, caramel brown hair with hints of red came to sit at the edge of the bar. Her hair lay in loose waves down her back and she had on a sexy-as-fuck green dress that draped over her body to showcase sexy curves and legs that seemed to go on forever. The garment didn’t have sleeves so he could see the toned muscles in her arms work as she picked up a menu to look at it. When she looked up, she gave him a dismissive glance before focusing on the menu again. He held back a sigh. Not in the mood to deal with whatever that was about, he let Fox take care of her and put her from his mind. No use dealing with a woman who clearly didn’t want him near, even if it were just to take a drink order. Funny, he usually had to speak to a female before making her want him out of the picture. At least, that’s what he’d learned from Monica.

And why the hell was he thinking about his ex again? He usually only thought of her in passing when he was talking to Nathan or hanging out with his kid for the one weekend a month the custody agreement let Dare have him. Having been in a dangerous job and then becoming a bartender didn’t look good to some lawyers it seemed, at least when Monica had fought for full custody after Nathan was born.

He pushed those thoughts from his mind, however, not in the mood to scare anyone with a scowl on his face by remembering how his ex had looked down on him for his occupation even though she’d been happy to slum it with him when it came to getting her rocks off.

Dare went through the motions of mixing a few more drinks before leaving Fox to tend to the bar so he could go check on the restaurant part of the building.

Since the place had originally been an old stone inn on both floors instead of just the top one, it was set up a little differently than most newer buildings around town. The bar was off to one side; the restaurant area where they served delicious, higher-end entrees and tapas was on the other. Most people needed a reservation to sit down and eat in the main restaurant area, but the bar also had seating for dinner, only their menu wasn’t quite as extensive and ran closer to bar food.

In the past, he’d never imagined he would be running something like this, even though his parents had run a smaller version of it when he was a kid. But none of his siblings had been interested in taking over once his parents wanted to retire from the bar part and only run the inn. When Dare decided to leave the force only a few years in, he’d found his place here, however reluctantly.

Being a cop hadn’t been for him, just like being in a relationship. He’d thought he would be able to do the former, but life had taken a turn, and he’d faced his mortality far sooner than he bargained for. Apparently, being a gruff, perpetually single bar owner was more his speed, and he was pretty damn good at it, too. Most days, anyway.

His house manager over on the restaurant side was running from one thing to another, but from the outside, no one would have noticed. Claire was just that good. She was in her early fifties and already a grandmother, but she didn’t look a day over thirty-five with her smooth, dark skin and bright smile. Good genes and makeup did wonders— according to her anyway. He’d be damned if he’d say that. His mother and Tabby had taught him something over the years.

The restaurant was short-staffed but managing, and he was grateful he had Claire working long hours like he did. He oversaw it all, but he knew he couldn’t have done it without her. After making sure she didn’t need anything, he headed back to the bar to relieve Fox. The rush was finally dying down now, and his brother could just sit back and enjoy a beer since Dare knew he’d already worked a long day at the paper.

By the time the restaurant closed and the bar only held a few dwindling costumers, Dare was ready to go to bed and forget the whole lagging day. Of course, he still had to close out the two businesses and talk to both Fox and Loch since his older brother had shown up a few moments ago. Maybe he’d get them to help him close out so he wouldn’t be here until midnight. He must be tired if the thought of closing out was too much for him.

“So, Rick didn’t show, huh?” Loch asked as he stood up from his stool. His older brother started cleaning up beside Fox, and Dare held back a smile. He’d have to repay them in something other than beer, but he knew they were working alongside him because they were family and had the time; they weren’t doing it for rewards.

“Nope. Shelly and Kayla didn’t show up either.” Dare resisted the urge to grind his teeth at that. “Thanks for helping. I’m exhausted and wasn’t in the mood to deal with this all alone.”

“That’s what we’re here for,” Loch said with a shrug.

“By the way, you have any idea what this seven a.m. meeting tomorrow is about?” Fox asked after a moment. “They’re putting Tabby on speaker phone for it and everything.”

Dare let out a sigh. “I’m not in the mood to deal with any meeting that early. I have no idea what it’s going to be about, but I have a bad feeling.”

“Seems like they have an announcement.” Loch sat back down on his stool and scrolled through his phone. He was constantly working or checking on his daughter, so his phone was strapped to him at all times. Misty had to be with Loch’s best friend, Ainsley, since his brother worked that night. Ainsley helped out when Loch needed a night to work or see Dare. Loch had full custody of Misty, and being a single father wasn’t easy.

Dare had a feeling no matter what his parents had to say, things were going to be rocky after the morning meeting. His parents were caring, helpful, and always wanted the best for their family. That also meant they tended to be slightly overbearing in the most loving way possible.

“Well, shit.”

It looked like he’d go without whiskey or a woman tonight.

Of course, an image of the woman with gorgeous hair and that look of disdain filled his mind, and he held back a sigh. Once again, Dare was a glutton for punishment, even in his thoughts.

The next morning, he cupped his mug of coffee in his hands and prayed his eyes would stay open. He’d stupidly gotten caught up on paperwork the night before and was now running on about three hours of sleep.

Loch sat in one of the booths with Misty, watching as she colored in her coloring book. She was the same age as Nathan, which Dare always appreciated since the cousins could grow up like siblings— on weekends when Dare had Nathan that was. The two kids got along great, and he hoped that continued throughout the cootie phases kids seemed to get sporadically.

Fox sat next to Dare at one of the tables with his laptop open. Since his brother owned the town paper, he was always up-to-date on current events and was even now typing up something.

They had Dare’s phone between them with Tabby on the other line, though she wasn’t saying anything. Her fiancé, Alex, was probably near as well since those two seemed to be attached at the hip. Considering his future brother-in-law adored Tabby, Dare didn’t mind that as much as he probably should have as a big brother.

The elder Collinses stood at the bar, smiles on their faces, yet Dare saw nervousness in their stances. He’d been a cop too long to miss it. They were up to something, and he had a feeling he wasn’t going to like it.

“Just get it over with,” Dare said, keeping his language decent— not only for Misty but also because his mother would still take him by the ear if he cursed in front of her. But because his tone had bordered on rude, his mother still raised a brow, and he sighed. Yep, he had a really bad feeling about this.

“Good morning to you, too, Dare,” Bob Collins said with a snort and shook his head. “Well, since you’re all here, even our baby girl, Tabby—”

“Not a baby, Dad!” Tabby called out from the phone, and the rest of them laughed, breaking the tension slightly.

“Yeah, we’re not babies,” Misty put in, causing everyone to laugh even harder.

“Anyway,” Barbara Collins said with a twinkle in her eye. “We have an announcement to make.” She rolled her shoulders back, and Dare narrowed his eyes. “As you know, your father and I have been nearing the age of retirement for a while now, but we still wanted to run our inn as innkeepers rather that merely owners.”

“Finally taking a vacation?” Dare asked. His parents worked far too hard and wouldn’t let their kids help them. He’d done what he could by buying the bar from them when he retired from the force and then built the restaurant himself.

“If you’d let me finish, young man, I’d let you know,” his mother said coolly, though there was still warmth in her eyes. That was his mother in a nutshell. She’d reprimand, but soothe the sting, too.

“Sorry,” he mumbled, and Fox coughed to cover up a laugh. If Dare looked behind him, he figured he’d see Loch hiding a smile of his own.

Tabby laughed outright.

Damn little sisters.

“So, as I was saying, we’ve worked hard. But, lately, it seems like we’ve worked too hard.” She looked over at his dad and smiled softly, taking her husband’s hand. “It’s time to make some changes around here.”

Dare sat up straighter.

“We’re retiring. Somewhat. The inn hasn’t been doing as well as it did back when it was with your grandparents, and part of that is on the economy. But part of that is on us. What we want to do is renovate more and update the existing rooms and service. In order to do that and step back as innkeepers, we’ve hired a new person.”

“You’re kidding me, right?” Dare asked, frowning. “You can’t just hire someone to take over and work in our building without even talking to us. And it’s not like I have time to help her run it when she doesn’t know how you like things.”

“You won’t be running it,” Bob said calmly. “Not yet, anyway. Your mom and I haven’t fully retired, and you know it. We’ve been running the inn for years, but now we want to step away. Something you’ve told us we should do. So, we hired someone. One who knows how to handle this kind of transition and will work with the construction crew and us. She has a lot of experience from working in Philly and New York and will be an asset.”

Dare fisted his hands by his sides and blew out a breath. They had to be fucking kidding. “It sounds like you’ve done your research and already made your decision. Without asking us. Without asking me.”

His mother gave him a sad look. “We’ve always wanted to do this, Dare, you know that.”

“Yes. But you should have talked to us. And renovating like this? I didn’t know you wanted to. We could have helped.” He didn’t know why he was so angry, but being kept out of the loop was probably most of it.

His father sighed. “We’ve been looking into this for years, even before you came back to Whiskey and bought the bar from us. And while it may seem like this is out of the blue, we’ve been doing the research for a while. Yes, we should have told you, but everything came up all at once recently, and we wanted to show you the plans when we had details rather than get your hopes up and end up not doing it.”

Dare just blinked. There was so much in that statement— in all of those statements— that he couldn’t quite process it. And though he could have yelled about any of it just then, his mind fixed on the one thing that annoyed him the most.

“So, you’re going to have some city girl come into my place and order me around? I don’t think so.”

“And why not? Have a problem with listening to women?”

Dare stiffened because that last part hadn’t come from his family. No. He turned toward the voice. It had come from the woman he’d seen the night before in the green dress.

And because fate liked to fuck with him, he had a feeling he knew exactly who this person was.

Their newly hired innkeeper.

And new thorn in his side.

 

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Find out more about SECOND CHANCE INK, a newsletter exclusive Montgomery In romance, here!

 

 

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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