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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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: EXP1RE by Erin Noelle

 

 EXP1RE

EXP1RE DUET – BOOK 1

BY ERIN NOELLE

RELEASE DATE: OCTOBER 26, 2017

 

Exp1re

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

 

_________________________________________
Chapter One 

PROLOGUE
Lyra

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

_______________________________________________

About Erin Noelle USA Today Bestselling Author

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

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

Chapter Reveal: Hooking Up by Helena Hunting

Hooking Up

By Helena Hunting

Release Date: November 7, 2017


Synopsis

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

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

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

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

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One

Wedding Unbliss

Amie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about you?”

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

“Didn’t you come with a date?”

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

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

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

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

A door opens and closes.

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

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

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

“Oh shit,” Ruby gasps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I just want out of this nightmare.

 

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 helenahuntingpic

About the Author:

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

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