His for the Trusting Sample Chapters!

 

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Chapter One

Nora Adams

SOME PEOPLE COME INTO this world with the luck of a four-leaf clover constantly spinning inside the happy housing of their hearts.  Others are born with the misfortune of an anvil hanging over their heads and the threat of it falling with every step they take.  I, Nora Adams, fit into the latter category and have all the lumps to prove it.  I won’t bore you with the long list of disasters that have befallen me during my twenty-six years on this earth.  Instead, I will start with the latest.  It also happens to be the worst.

Two months ago, I was out walking my precious Pomeranian puppy, Miss Bliss.  The hour was near dusk on a balmy evening in August, but I didn’t let the hot, muggy temperatures or the impending darkness deter me.  I had to get out of the house and away from my mom or go nut-cracking crazy.  You see, she—Taney Adams—is a consummate hypochondriac.  She took on that role the second my dad, Alton, walked out on us ten years ago.  All of her contrived, concocted and cockamamie illnesses have not only metaphorically held her hostage but have literally kept me tied to her side for the last decade.

I couldn’t really blame Dad for wanting out.  Even before she jumped feet-first into hypochondria, Taney was and is a whiny, self-centered, narcissistic nightmare.  However, I definitely blamed him for leaving me behind, especially since he chose to execute his abandonment on my sixteenth birthday.  After all these years of dealing with her, I’ve been able to forgive him.  Everybody has a breaking point.  He apparently had reached his.  Still, as a result of his selfish actions, I was left without a buffer.  It was just me and Mom.

 I’m a strong believer in the fact that being the only child of a single parent has its drawbacks for any kid but, in my case, it was especially devastating.  When Taney realized her fake sicknesses weren’t going to bring my dad running back to her bedside, she thrust the role of sole provider and caregiver onto my sixteen-year-old shoulders.  Without my consent, she signed a consent form for me to drop out of high school so I could become her nurse, housekeeper, cook and chauffeur.

Of course, doing those chores and basically being a Cinderella-type slave weren’t enough.  Since my mom claimed she was unable to work, I also had to hold down a full-time job.  I started out as a page at Plainfield Library, working my way up to librarian in just five years.  Although I don’t love handing my earnings over to Taney to pay for doctor visits and pricey prescriptions she doesn’t need, I do love my job.  I considered the promotion to be my twenty-first birthday present.  Lord knows, I wasn’t getting anything else.  Taney hadn’t given me any kind of gift for any occasion since Dad left us.

The reason I’ve been able to let go of my bitterness toward him is because by my last birthday, I too had reached my breaking point.  Eight weeks ago, on that fateful August evening of my twenty-sixth year, I knew I had to get away.  When I grabbed my purse and Miss Bliss to go for our life-changing walk, my intentions had been to keep right on walking.  To not look back and never return.

But that ever-present, dangling anvil had other plans.  About two miles down a rural road running adjacent to my house, I was abducted by a man I would come to know as Foras, a member of the Rolling Lucifers—a biker gang.

 I’ll never forget that horrible night.  Like the demon of darkness he is, Foras appeared out of nowhere.  Miss Bliss and I had just rounded a blind curve in the road, and there he sat on a sleek, black Harley.  Emblems of fire and brimstone licking down the sides looked hot enough to scorch me to death as he revved the motor. 

I could feel the evil emanating from him, slithering down his stained, leather vest onto his dirty, tight-fitting jeans and finally over his asphalt-scuffed boots.  Every inch of his attire was as black as the bike he was straddling.  Being a plus-size gal and a loather of exercise, I knew I couldn’t outrun him.  Knowing how bad my luck had always been and being unable to deny the definite danger before me, I unhooked my cute puppy from her leash and commanded her to run.

Foras had laughed at the desperation in my voice when I pleaded with Miss Bliss to hurry back home.  Baring his teeth, he said, “That pooch would have made for some mighty fine eating.  You’re going to pay for turning her loose.”

The biker who took me might have been a lot of things, but he wasn’t a liar.  He and the rest of the gang—Bael, Vepar, Deumus, Amon and the leader, Legion—have been making me pay for the last two months.  I just thought living with Taney had been hell.  But it was heaven compared to the time I’ve spent in their camp called The Devil’s Den.

After solitary days of being caged and starved and torturous nights of being fed fermented slop and filthy cocks, my anvil may have finally turned into a four-leaf clover.  Since the day Foras dragged me into the den, Legion hasn’t left.  Being the leader, he is the one who keeps the others in line in every regard, including how much drinking they do.  Limiting them to two alcoholic beverages a night, he never lets his members get intoxicated.  He says drunkenness is a sin.  I would have laughed at the irony of his declaration if my bottom lip wasn’t split from the backhand he had delivered across my mouth before taking his leave.

I didn’t think it would ever be possible for the bikers to grow tired of passing me around for their demented pleasures, but tonight they left me alone. Liquor was the only mistress they were interested in.  Every tip of a bottle, every clink of a glass, every slurp of their mouths and every guzzle of their throats was bringing me one step closer to being free.

With his lips wrapped around a Jack Daniels’ bottle, Deumus—the keeper of the den—has forgotten to put me back in my cage.  Keeping quiet, I huddle in a dark corner and bide my time.  As fast as they are consuming such strong spirits and not being used to doing so, all of them should pass out fairly soon.  I can’t wait to make a break for it.  I paid close attention when Foras brought me to The Devil’s Den.  It’s located in an isolated section of woods less than three miles off the road where I was walking Miss Bliss that night. 

Knowing I have been held captive this close to my mom’s house tells me she has made no effort to find me.  I seriously doubt she has even bothered to report me missing.  Had she done so, the authorities would have already been searching this area with bloodhounds that could have sniffed out my scent.  They could have found and rescued me weeks ago.

 As it is, I will simply have to save myself.  I look forward to getting back home and seeing Miss Bliss.  And this time when she and I leave, it will be in a car and Mom will know the reason why.

 

THERE IS NO WAY escaping can be this easy, I think as I literally walk out of the den and into the early evening completely unimpeded.  The instant the last biker passes out, I rise from the corner I had been hiding in and run out the front door.  I don’t care that the only thing I have on is a sheer, black nightie.  Upon my arrival, Legion took my shoes and clothes, ordering me to wear the lingerie.  It has been my only attire for two months.

It’s early October now, and I am grateful for the cool, crispness of the air as I tear through the woods, racing barefooted over jagged rocks, fallen leaves and dead tree limbs.  The cuts and bruises now decorating the soles of my feet are a small price to pay for freedom.  The combination of exhilaration, adrenaline and fear of being caught and dragged back to the pits of hell propel me to the accelerated speeds of an Olympic runner.

In what I would consider record-breaking time, I cover the distance to the highway.  Just as I make it to the shoulder, I spot a pristine, classic Bentley limousine coming down the lonely stretch of road.  Again, I get the feeling my dark, dismal anvil has morphed into a bright-green clover.

In a million years, I couldn’t have ordered up this amount of good luck.  The idea that an expensive automobile being driven by a Good Samaritan would converge at this exact spot the instant I break through the woods and into the sunlight leaves me feeling giddy and overcome with happiness.  An emotion I haven’t felt in forever.

The driver begins slowing the limo even before I start waving my arms for him to do so.  As soon as he opens the door, I slide onto the buttery-soft, leather seat and give him a huge, grateful smile.

He smiles back.  “My boss won’t believe what I’ve found this time,” he says, clicking the automatic door locks.

Chapter Two

Tretan Voss

STANDING OUT ON THE bedroom balcony of my lighthouse, I grip the newly-restored railing.  The smooth, varnish-sealed grain of well-seasoned oak glistens in the twilight of evening—that short stretch of time when the last scattering rays of the day’s sunshine in the upper atmosphere illuminates the lower atmosphere.  The subtle transformation happens in such a way as to cast the earth’s surface into sepia tones where, like my soul, it is no longer completely lit or completely dark.

This particular time of day inevitably brings with it a somber reflectiveness from which there is no escape other than death.  As long as I draw a breath, I will have to contend with the heaviness of the past.  Some mistakes can be easily forgotten and chalked up to life lessons.  They bring about growth and maturity, lending themselves to the bettering of the person who committed them.  Other mistakes are monumental, defining moments of permanent change which can never be undone or overcome, no matter how much effort is made to do so.

It is my lot in life to languish and lament beneath the burden of the unescapable.  The consequences of bygone times from which total recovery can never be achieved.

The last aura of evening reflects off the churning sea onto the driveway below.  As expected Fernando Morae drives a limo from my fleet onto the black-topped stage, rolling to a stop right in the center of the spotlight.  I turn, quickly making my way down a long, black, wrought-iron spiral staircase to the main entrance, emerging through the heavy, hickory door as Fernando is exiting the Bentley.

With a huge, toothy grin, he says, “This time I found a pet for you, Boss.”

I frown.  Every time I send my simple-minded employee and childhood friend out for supplies, he inevitably brings back a stray.  Four trips ago, it was a three-legged raccoon.  Three trips ago, it was a one-eyed dog.  The time before that, it was a cat missing its tail and left ear.  The last time it was a parrot with a broken beak.  I shudder to think what is lurking behind the tinted windows of the luxury car this time. 

I don’t want to harm his tender heart, but I’m not interested in whatever he has brought home with him.  Rubbing his big, beefy hands together in excitement, he reaches for the handle on the passenger’s side door and unceremoniously swings it wide.

“What the fuck?” I bellow.  Despite the goodness of my earlier intentions, I am unable to keep the fury from my voice.

Fernando’s face falls in a silent yet crushing crescendo of hurt feelings, making me cuss a blue streak beneath my breath.

With his fat, lower lip pushed out, he asks, “Don’t you like her, Tretan?”

Shit! Fernando knows how much I detest the sound of my first name.  The pain of hearing it is the equivalent of having a sharp knife deeply slice into the darkest corners of my soul, leaving rivulets of blood streaming from old wounds which never seem to heal.  He only calls me Tretan when I’ve utterly devastated him, and he wants to retaliate in kind.  If everything is copacetic between us, it’s Boss or Mr. Voss.

I don’t know how to answer his question.  What’s not to like? The woman sitting on the passenger’s seat with her arms protectively crossed over the tempting curves of her midsection is stunning.  Even with her fearful, distrusting, deer-caught-in-the-headlights expression, her face is the most beautiful I have ever seen.  Commanding my eyes to stop their appraisal, I remind myself that the company of a fine woman such as this one is synonymous with acceptance and warmth, passion and pleasure.  Emotions and sensations I do not deserve. 

My tone is softer when I speak.  “Your gift is very thoughtful, Fernando.  But a human being isn’t like an animal.  You can’t procure them and give them away as pets.  Do you understand?”

He shakes his head.  “No, Boss.  I found her on the side of the road just like I did all the other creatures you let me keep.”

Knowing his childlike mind is struggling to grasp what I’m saying, I call on all of my patience.  “You’ve picked up a woman, not a creature.  And by the looks of her, you brought her to me against her wishes.  Am I correct?”

“No, Mr. Voss.  She wanted to get in the car.  I didn’t have to point a gun at her or anything.”

“Why would she willingly go with you?”

He shrugs his burly shoulders and says, “I think she needs help.  It’s kind of hard to tell here in the shadows of nightfall, but she’s broken like the others.  If I take her out of the car, you’ll see all the cuts, scrapes and bruises.  But you can fix her just like you do everything.”

Fernando’s unwavering faith in me plunges that knife a little deeper, throwing a hard twist in for good measure.

Chapter Three

Nora Adams

THE CONVERSATION BETWEEN THE man who drove me here and his boss may be one of the oddest I have ever heard.  That could be because it is, or it could be that the pain and brutality of the past two months have finally caught up with me, crushing me into the dust of insanity.  I had somehow held body and mind together until I was able to break free from the bikers.  My escape hadn’t happened a moment too soon.  I was barely hanging on by a thread when I exited the edge of those woods and made my way to the road earlier this evening.

I thought the luck of the oncoming limousine would be my salvation.  The second before Fernando clicked those automatic locks, beautiful, bright rays of hope had shone across every inch of my existence.  Afterwards, a dark and cold desperation squeezed my throat so hard it nearly choked the life from me.

Now I wish it had. 

Not wanting the seemingly benign yet burly driver to manhandle me, I decide to step out of the car of my own volition.  Given the circumstances, this might be my last act of freewill.

While sitting in the shadows of the Bentley’s front seat, I was unable to make out the details of my environment or the man whom Fernando referred to as Tretan Voss.  But as I stand on the asphalt drive in the last light of day, the view before me fizzles my fear, replacing it with nostalgia.  This ocean-side place with its long, weathered pier and majestic lighthouse reminds me of a scenic postcard I once purchased in a gift store at the beach.

While I study my surroundings, I feel Voss’ golden-brown eyes studying me.  I’ve never seen that exact shade before.  They look like dangerous yet dazzling topaz stones.  Set against the backdrop of tanned skin, dark-chestnut hair and the closing of night, they are as hypnotic and mesmerizing as they are terrifying.

A few years ago, I read an article in a popular women’s magazine stating men with brown eyes were more trustworthy than ones with any other color.  Right now I am hoping like hell that’s true.

After a few moments, he dismisses Fernando and walks stealthily towards me.  Despite the raw, stinging cuts and deep-tissue bruises on my feet, I have to fight the impulse to run and throw myself into the sea.  Drowning is preferable to being held captive again.  To being beaten and starved, then having food stuffed in my mouth with filthy fingers before being repeatedly violated.  Those men in The Devil’s Den had been torturous and cruel, their insides matching their rancid, disgusting exteriors.  But this man is well put together and elegantly polished in his charcoal-grey, tailor-fitted, three-piece suit, crisp, stark-white dress shirt, silk tie and shiny, Italian loafers.  Believe it or not, I am more afraid of him than I was of them. 

Sometimes the darkest evil is wrapped in the prettiest package.

I’m not sure I can speak freely without getting backhanded across the mouth, but I’m about to find out.  “You have a lovely place here, Mr. Voss.  I wish I could stick around for a tour, but I really should be getting home.  If you would be so kind as to let me use your phone, I’ll call myself a cab.”

He shakes his head.  “You don’t look as if you are in good enough condition to do any more traveling tonight.”

He’s right.  I’m swaying on my battered feet, fighting back waves of dizziness with each breath I take.  A weak smile is all I can manage.  “I’ll be fine once I get on the road.”

He takes another step closer.  “You will only be better once you’ve had nourishment and a proper night of rest.  Come with me, please,” he says, gesturing toward the lighthouse entrance.

I drop my chin, mentally anchoring my throbbing, blood-crusted feet to the night-cooled asphalt.  As long as I am outside and not trapped inside those rounded limestone walls, I might still have a chance to get away.

The air around us grows still and the darkness eerily quiet.  He reaches out, places two fingers beneath my chin, lifting my face to his.  “Broken wings need time to mend before being able to fly again.  But on the breath of trust they’ll soar, and they will be stronger than before.”

The heat of his touch and the intensity of his gaze makes me shiver.  I feel as if I might actually be going into shock.  Mustering the last bit of strength and courage I possess, I say, “That’s beautiful, Mr. Voss.  It’s also bullshit.  Both of us know you’re not going to let me go.  And I will never give you my trust.”

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A Curvy Country Christmas Sample Chapters!

A Curvy Country Christmas PRomo One copy

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Chapter One

IT WAS THE DAY before Christmas Eve, and all through the one-horse town of Bullpens, folks were racing around, buying last-minute gifts.  Every retailer from Hattie’s Hardware to Tubal’s Toy shop was overrun with giddy go-getters.

Thankfully, Cassidy didn’t buy into all the commercialism of the season.  Truthfully, she had no interest in the holidays at all.  For her, the most wonderful day of the year, wasn’t.  It never had been.

The merry turned to misery when she was just four years old.  That Christmas morning, she came bounding down the stairs of her parents’ suburban home—a white, two-story with a matching picket fence and the promise of never-ending happiness—to find her poodle, Miss Peaches, standing beneath the Christmas tree with Cassidy’s pet parrot dangling dead from her furry, canine cheeks.  That tragedy was the beginning of the end.  Each holiday thereafter brought with it sorrows more significant than the ones before. 

Instead of bringing joy to her heart, Santa delivered appendicitis on her seventh Christmas.  He threw the soot and ashes of a house fire down the chimney on her tenth Christmas.  He brought a big bag of divorce and despair for her thirteenth Christmas.  Cassidy would never forget her mother sitting beside the hearth, bursting into tears while Cassidy was opening up her first cell phone.  The greatest surprise gift ever turned out to be the worst.  The phone wasn’t for texting her friends.  It was for calling her father because he was moving out to go live with his skanky secretary.

Since reaching adulthood, Cassidy had made a conscious choice to completely ignore Christmas.  As far as she was concerned, it didn’t exist.  Through trial and error, she had found isolation was the best insulation against its cruelty. 

The one exception she made each year was the day before Christmas Eve.  On that day, she rode her stallion Sparky into town to share a cup of coffee and a slice of fruitcake with her best friend, Sylvie Hornbeck.  The two of them always met at Percolator Paul’s. 

Paul was a tall, skinny, red-headed, freckled-faced, Howdy Doody type.  He had a huge crush on Cassidy but was too shy to do much about it outside of building her a hitching post in front of his shop.  He duplicated the ones you would find in an old western like Gunsmoke.

Since Cassidy was big on environmental protection, she rarely used a car if she could saddle up Sparky instead.  With the coffee shop being well within riding distance of her rundown farmhouse—a true fixer-upper she had inherited from her Great-Uncle Roy—she enjoyed the freedom and serenity of galloping through the crisp, cold air of December.

When she stepped inside the shop, the warmth and aroma of richly-brewed coffee made her sigh.  Her cowgirl boots made a pleasant tapping sound against the rough-board flooring as she made her way to a pine slab booth in the corner.  Before she reached her destination, she heard Sylvie call her name. 

“Cassidy! I’m over here,” she chirped, motioning her toward a table on the opposite side of the room.

Despite her distaste for the season, Cassidy couldn’t help but smile when she saw Sylvie’s outfit.  Every holiday her best friend’s attire got more and more outrageous.  This year’s ensemble consisted of fur-topped ankle boots with shiny jingle bells dangling from the tassels; tight-fitting, black leggings; and what had to be the gaudiest, most tasteless Christmas sweater ever to be made.  It was a bright-green tunic featuring a bleary-eyed Santa and Rudolph.  They were obviously soused to the gills.  And in a true flashy fashion, both their noses blinked red.

When Cassidy was finally able to tear her gaze away from Sylvie’s attire, it landed on the laptop yawning before her.  The blue LED light on the side was flashing, indicating the device was sucking hard on Paul’s free wi-fi signal.

Cassidy frowned.  This could not be good.  Any time her best friend implemented the use of technology, it meant she was preparing to butt in where she didn’t belong.  To insinuate herself into someone else’s business without their knowledge or prior consent.

Cassidy had seen the catastrophic results of her handiwork too many times to count.  She felt sorry for whoever the poor sap was on the receiving end of Sylvie’s meddling this time.

Cassidy removed her cowboy hat and tan Carhartt jacket and put them on an empty chair.   She smiled when she saw Sylvie had already picked the red and green cherries out of her fruitcake and laid them on a napkin.  For some odd reason, the woman had an aversion to the fruit part of the cake.

“Whatcha doin’?” Cassidy asked, pulling out a chair for herself.  “Starting a GoFundMe campaign for Paul since we’re his only customers?”

“Ha-ha.  You know why the place is empty.  Everybody’s either last-minute panic-shopping or raking milk and bread off the shelves at the grocery store.  Haven’t you heard the weather report? There’s a good chance we might have a white Christmas.”

“The radio on my saddle is broken.  Besides, every color of Christmas pretty much looks the same to me.”

“Now hon, I want you to knock off that bah-humbug shit.  Just because you’ve had a few less-than-satisfying yuletide experiences—”

“Less than satisfying?” Cassidy asked, her eyes wide and her mouth gaping.  “Sylvie, need I remind you that just last Christmas, I got bitten by a raccoon and had to be treated for rabies?”

“But you did get to meet the handsome emergency room doctor with ice-blue eyes and a cleft chin.”

“Who was gay.”

“That was last year? Well, forget about all that.  This time I’m going to make sure my bestie finally has the Christmas she deserves.”

Cassidy frowned and glared at the laptop.  “Sylvie,” she said warily, “what are you doing?”

“Nothing.  It’s already done, and you’re welcome.  But I need to fill you in on all the details so you can be ready.  I arranged for your gift three days ago.  It is scheduled to arrive tomorrow evening at six.”

Cassidy took a deep breath and tried to remain calm.  “First of all, you and I don’t exchange gifts at Christmas.  We treat each other with little presents all year long.  We agreed not to fall victim to the commercialized pressure of the season.  Second, what do you mean by arranged?”

“See for yourself,” Sylvie said, turning the laptop toward her.

The website she had pulled up was called SingleSantas.com.   Bordered with mistletoe, it featured an impossibly-handsome man in a black tuxedo.  Standing near a silver Christmas tree adorned with bright, white lights and shiny, royal-blue balls, he was embracing a lovely young woman in a silky, black evening dress.  They looked mighty cozy with a fireplace glowing orange embers in the background.  Their slightly-parted mouths were inches apart as he leaned in for what was definitely going to be an earth-shattering, knee-buckling kiss.

A red-ribbon banner read The Weather Outside May Be Frightful, But Inside—With Your Own Sexy Santa—It Will Be So Delightful.

“I am going to kill you,” Cassidy said.

Kiss me, you mean.  Just wait until you see the god I’ve picked out for you.  Here are the details: you and your gorgeous Santa—his name is Robert—will rendezvous in formal attire at Dixie’s Diner at six o’clock sharp Christmas Eve.  I know you’d rather be boot-scooting, but Dixie has graciously consented to play only slow-dancing, George Strait ballads on the jukebox.”

“Who?”

“Never mind, you’ll love him.  After enjoying a rainbow trout and barbecue ribs entrée at a candlelit table for two—along with figgy pudding, of course—you and your Single Santa will be chauffeured in Rafe Cobb’s vintage ’62 Cadillac Coupe de Ville to either A, the Bullpens Little Theatre production of Miracle on 34th Street or B, a romantic ride through Mather Jenkins’ corn maze in a Portland Sleigh with red velvet upholstery.  Your choice.”

“I choose to watch a Lifetime movie by myself on my couch back at the farmhouse.”

Sylvie looked absolutely crushed.  “Why would you hurt me like this?”

“Sorry, I don’t mean to.  But you should have consulted with me before—” Beneath Client Profile she saw a picture of a sprawling ranch house that had to be over 7000 square feet nestled in a valley against snow-capped mountains.  Beside it sat a magnificent stone-and-clapboard barn.  It looked like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting.  A four-rail fence of black wood and ornate posts surrounded what appeared to be two dozen or so thoroughbred horses grazing in a lush meadow.  “What the hell is this?”

“That’s where you live, hon,” Sylvie said with a self-satisfied smile.

“Have you been sniffing glue? That fence is sturdier than the frame of my farmhouse and probably cost ten times as much.  You can throw a cat through some of the cracks in my walls.  The tin roof leaks, the doors get stuck and the front porch slants so much I’d slide out of the swing if it didn’t have arms.”

“But you do have horses.”

“I have a horse.  The sorrel quarter horse you see nibbling on the hitching post outside.  The barn I keep him in could probably fit in one of the stalls of the one pictured here.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Sylvie said.  “Everybody embellishes.  I simply jazzed up your profile a little.  Where’s the harm? Besides, your Santa is meeting you in Bullpens.  He’ll never even see the farmhouse.  I did use a recent photo of you so he could see your oval face, champagne-blonde hair, chocolate eyes and dark brows.  I even said you were a plus-size girl with a lot of curves a man could cuddle up to on a cold winter’s night.”

That you tell the truth about!”

“As you can see there under Preferences, I said you liked tall, blond, blue-eyed men with muscles who are caring and have a great sense of humor.  They guarantee the Single Santa they send will match that description to a tee.”

Even though that was definitely her type, Cassidy shook her head.  “Nope.  Can’t do it.  Cancel the date.”

“It’s too late.  They have to have seventy-two hours’ notice, and payment is non-refundable.”

“I’ll reimburse you.  This has disaster written all over it.”

“Cassidy, it’s not about the money,” Sylvie said, her expression growing serious.  “You are the best friend I ever had, and it saddens me that what should be a joyous time of year for you has nothing but bad experiences associated with it.  Girl, all it would take is one happy Christmas to show you they don’t all have to be miserable.  Yes, I know we never exchange gifts at Christmastime.  But this once, I would consider it a gift if you would accept mine.”

She suddenly felt like the biggest jerk in the world.  She could see in Sylvie’s stark, slightly-misting gray eyes how genuinely she wanted to do this for her.  Sighing, Cassidy reached across the table and clasped her friend’s hands.  “All right, Sylvie.  If it means so much to you, I’ll go along with it.  But I’m definitely getting you an official Christmas present now.  We Quinlans may be poor, but we’re proud.”

“Nonsense.  Just take lots of selfies, and be prepared to give me all the juicy details.”

“I wouldn’t hold my breath,” Cassidy said.  “In my case, ‘tis the season for things to go horribly wrong.  If my hot, single Santa even shows up—which is not a lock by any means—I wouldn’t be surprised if he looks exactly like the red-nosed, sloppy-drunk one on your sweater.”

 

Chapter Two

CRAHAN SLEIGHTON SQUINTED THROUGH the windshield of his helicopter cockpit and cursed.  Visibility through the furiously-whizzing snow was extremely limited.  The wipers on his highly-specialized bird were having a devil of a time keeping up.

He had left the city early, figuring he’d need extra time to negotiate the weather.  The Christmas Eve morning snowstorm was of a greater intensity than the radar had indicated.  Given the super-strong winds, keeping his helicopter level was dicey, to say the least.  Even more troubling was the fact he had experienced sudden, inexplicable dips in the RPM twice in the last ten miles.  Just in case it was an indication of possible mechanical failure and he needed to make an emergency landing, he kept an eye open for flat fields and meadows below.

After letting air traffic control know his situation, he contacted his Atlanta office on his headset radio.  “Miss Emile, I’m roughly five miles outside of this Bullpens place, and I do mean roughly.  Everything at a standstill your way?”

“Pretty much gridlocked, Mr. Sleighton.  The roads are covered with snow on top of a thick layer of ice.  I’ve seen three fender benders outside my office window already this morning.  It never ceases to amaze me how people will so carelessly and stupidly put themselves in dangerous situations for no good reason.”  Her conversational tone suddenly turned apologetic.  “Not that I think you’re stupid, Mr. Sleighton, sir.”

“Miss Emile, there’s a world of difference between foolishly braving the elements to purchase one more stocking stuffer as opposed to fulfilling an obligation to a paying client.  Do we not guarantee satisfaction when one engages our services?”

“We do, sir.”

“Then the most critical part of that guarantee is actually showing up, is it not?”

“It is, sir.”

“I didn’t start SingleSantas.com with the idea of only providing companionship when it suited us or was convenient or when there were no freak snowstorms blanketing the South,” said the 30-year-old CEO.  “Blasted climate change.”

“No, you didn’t, sir.  On that note, Robert Krachef called a little while ago.  He’s still digging out of his apartment, and his company Hummer is buried under an eight-foot snowdrift.  He wanted me to tell you he might be able to make it up to Tennessee by late Christmas evening, perhaps eight or nine o’clock, if that would be acceptable.”

“It would not.  The strict parameters of the date are from six o’clock Christmas Eve until six in the evening Christmas Day.  That is what the client has contracted for, and that is what we shall deliver.  Nothing more and nothing less.  Tell Krachef to stay put and expect his pay to be docked.  I’ll handle this situation myself.”

“Yes, sir.  One other thing: Killian called from Dusseldorf.  He wants to confirm you are still coming over first thing next week to get the export business up and running.”

It was one of several European enterprises Crahan had been developing over the past five years.  He would need to fly there to personally cut the ribbon and host a gala for the investors.  “Tell him I’ll be arriving on the evening of the twenty-sixth.  You’ve arranged my accommodations at Breidenbacher Hof for the next two months, I assume.”

“You’re all set.  Have a good time in Bullpens, Mr. Sleighton.”

“I’m not up here for a good time, Miss Emile.  This is a date.”

Crahan’s helicopter suddenly lost power.  The instrument panel went dark, and his radio went dead.  At the exact moment, a powerful gust sent the bird yawing sharply to the left.  He tried to correct with the foot pedals and the collective, but the copter was unresponsive.

Out of the right side of the windshield, he caught a brief sight of what looked like a white-blanketed field surrounded by barbed wire rising above the drifts.  He hoped the wind would put him directly over it when the main rotors went into autorotation and the helicopter began its vertical descent.

But long before he figured to hit the ground, the machine was jarred violently.  He’d never been to Tennessee before.  Maybe he’d run into one of the snow-capped mountains he’d seen in the client’s profile.  But a mountain would be much higher.  I’ve hit a tree, he thought as he tried to find the delicate balance between firmly holding on while relaxing his body as much as possible.  Extreme relaxation was the reason so many drunks avoided broken bones in a crash.  Relaxed was definitely the way to ride this out.  The last thing Crahan needed was a fractured leg or skull.

In the surreal space of a few seconds which seemed interminable, there was the awful screech of ripping sheet metal mixed with the rending of wood and a dusty smell of hay.

Crahan’s headstone flashed before his eyes:

HE WAS A DULL BASTARD, BUT HE GOT THE JOB DONE.

To read more about Crahan and Cassidy click here: smarturl.it/CurvyCountryRomance

Kickass Dog Parents!

thaddy Mobile

A few months ago our rescue dog, Thad—a border collie/chow mix—began experiencing weakness in his hips due to normal age-related stuff. He is fifteen years old now, so some decline is expected. Anyway, his condition progressed to the point that he was no longer able to propel himself up the thirteen steps to the deck. During that time, my husband carried our 70-pound fur baby up and down the stairs. But it just became too much for Rick’s low-back because Thad was bad to wiggle around when being lifted. After much discussion, we decided our boy needed a ramp. The ones we saw online were not up to our standards and, due to the landscaping, would have been way too steep anyway. So, off to Lowe’s Rick went for a butt-load of lumber. Together, we built the perfect doggy handicap ramp off the end of the catwalk. It is finished, minus the top railing. I am happy to report that Thad loves it and is once again independently mobile. I don’t mind saying that between the bed I made and the ramp we built, Rick and I are kickass dog parents. I was able to catch an action shot of Thad in mid-step. What a cutie!

When I’m not building decks and ramps, I write feel good romances that will leave you feeling great! You can find my latest releases here: Lynn Cooper Romances

Tantalizing Teaser for A Tricky Triangle

Triangle Promo 6 copy

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Chapter One

IT’S ONLY SIX WEEKS until our wedding day.  I’m over-the-moon excited.  I’m also swamped with last minute details.  So steady, dependable Clay Asher—my ruggedly-handsome, black-haired, onyx-eyed fiancé—has gone downtown to pick us up some breakfast.  

Having brewed a fresh pot of coffee, I reach into the antique cabinet Grandma Nettie gave me as a housewarming gift and take down my favorite mug.  It’s made from heavy, white ceramic.  On one side is an image of a hand-carved heart.  It holds a special memory that I keep hidden away.  That I can never share with anyone, especially not my future husband.

Clay and I have a lot in common.  Our love of trivia board games, classic literary novels and tennis, to name a few.  After he gets back and we eat, we’re going to mail off the wedding invitations, head to the club, grab a court and play a few sets.  I’m wearing my new tennis dress, a shimmery, pink little number that showcases my curves.

As I’m relishing the feel of hot, caffeine-infused liquid sliding down my throat, I hear the creaking of the screen door from my front porch.  Since Clay is only going a short distance, and I live in a safe neighborhood, I don’t bother locking up after he leaves.  He hasn’t been gone nearly long enough to complete his errand.  The sound of his footsteps are harried and a bit off.  He must have forgotten something.  I call out to him, “I’m in the kitchen, Clay.  What did you forget?”

“Who the fuck is Clay?”

When I see a man who might as well be a ghost, stepping over the threshold, all the color drains from my face.  The room spins out of control.  I drop the mug.  It shatters into a thousand pieces on the tile floor.  Clutching the edge of the rose-colored, marble countertop to steady my legs, I gasp, “Ian? It can’t be.  Wh—what are you doing here?”

He flashes me that knee-buckling smile that could always make me forgive him for anything.  But what he did to me, to us two years ago, is completely unforgivable.

“I’m here to reclaim my wife.  My home.  Our life together.”

Suddenly, I’m trembling so bad my teeth begin to chatter.  Despite the warm breeze of spring fluttering the sheer, lacy curtains from my kitchen window, I feel cold as ice.  I think my body is going into shock.  Struggling to fill my lungs with air, I slide down to the floor.  Numbly, I begin picking up pieces of the broken ceramic heart.  The irony of Ian Callum literally and figuratively breaking mine, then and now, isn’t lost on me.

He closes the space between us, grabs a handful of paper towels and kneels beside me.  As he dabs at the brown liquid, I can feel his eyes burning into my skin.  His heated gaze could always warm me when nothing else could.

It’s like I’ve been thrust into a time warp, back to the days of marital bliss I shared with Ian—my now ex-husband, only he doesn’t know that yet.  Days where we shared everything from the mundane to the sublime.  From cleaning up a spill like we’re doing now to skiing the slopes of Sugar Mountain before making love all night long by a crackling fire.  It really didn’t matter what activity we were engaged in.  Every moment was a life-altering, mind-boggling adventure.

When the floor is clean, he grabs both my wrists.  Standing, he pulls me to my feet and says, “Talk to me, Helena.  Tell me you still love me.  Tell me I can make everything all right again.”

I shake my head but don’t pull away.  I want to jerk my arms back, breaking the hold he has on me, but I can’t.  The touch of his hands, the feel of his fingers locked around my wrists melts my insides.  I thought I had made peace with never having physical contact with him again, but my body is calling my mind a liar. 

Finding my voice, I say, “I’m no longer your wife, Ian.  You left me two years ago, disappearing without a trace.  When it became horribly, painfully obvious you weren’t coming back, I filed for a divorce.”

He laughs harshly.  “How is that possible?”

I shrug.  “The law allows a woman who has been abandoned a year or more to unshackle herself from a wayward man who cannot be found.”

He drops my hands, bends forward and rests his palms on his knees.  Now he is the one struggling for oxygen.  Through clenched teeth, he says, “I didn’t abandon you.  I would never fucking do that.”

“Then what do you call it?”

He stands taking in a deep, controlled breath through flaring nostrils.  “I call it a piss-poor, insomnia-induced decision.”

I huff, losing patience.  I won’t deny on some level that seeing him all safe and sexy doesn’t make me feel happy and relieved.  But it also resurrects all the feelings of hurt and betrayal I’ve spent the last two years overcoming.

“You’re not making any sense.  And, honestly, I don’t give a rat’s ass what your reasons were for leaving.  All I need to know is you walked out on me.  On us.  On a marriage I thought you cherished as much as I did.  Apparently, I was wrong.”

Angrily raking long, tanned fingers through his beautiful, beach-blond hair, he curses, “Damn it, Helena, you weren’t wrong.  You meant and do mean everything to me.  You are my life.  My whole fucking world.  You always have been and always will be.”

“Then why did you shatter my heart?”

“I didn’t do it on purpose.  If it’s any consolation, my stupidity shattered my heart, too.  Along with the back of my skull.”

Huh?”

He closes his eyes as if conjuring up the memory.  “You know how bad my insomnia can get. That night when I disappeared, I did what I always do when I can’t sleep.”

“Okay.  So you took a walk and what? Kept on walking? Decided the grass was greener on the other side? Got tired of being tied down to one woman?”

“Hell no, on all counts! I had no control over what happened.  I was mugged and robbed, Helena.  The blow to the back of my head left me with amnesia.”

“If that’s true, you would have been taken to the hospital.  I would have been able to find you.”

“I didn’t seek medical attention.  I was too addled and out of it to think straight.  I didn’t even realize the extent of my injuries.  As I was staggering down the sidewalk, an old trucker named Tommy came along and offered me a ride.”

“And you willy-nilly went with him?”

“Yeah.  He was nice and grandfatherly.  I was scared and in pain.  I didn’t know who I was or where I lived.  I latched onto his kindness and rode it a hundred and fifty miles from here to a Vidalia-onion farm in Georgia.”

I shake my head in disbelief.  “You’ve spun quite the fantastic tale.”

“It’s not a tale.  It’s the truth.  You know me.  I’ve never lied to you.”

“I thought I knew you.”

He rubs the back of his neck.  I know I’m frustrating him, but I’m frustrated, too.  For two years, I thought he had intentionally walked away from me and our marriage.  Now, he tells me he was attacked, injured, lost and scared.  I don’t know how to process that.

“I know you’re angry, baby, but I—”

“I’m not your baby anymore,” I snap.

“She’s mine,” Clay snarls, stalking into the kitchen.  He’s carrying a white paper bag with Betty’s Bakery written in pretty calligraphy on the side.  The warm, delicious aroma of her homemade blueberry muffins infuses the air.  I have no idea how long he has been back or what all he has overheard.  I do know he recognizes my ex-husband.  He has seen plenty enough pictures of him. 

Ian ignores Clay, focuses on me and says, “Remember how you and I used to make breakfast together every morning? You would whip up the muffin batter while I fried up bacon strips until they were extra crispy, then both of us squeezed fresh orange juice.  I would never have fed you any store-bought shit.”

I take the bag of muffins and say, “It’s from my favorite new bakery, Ian.  It was built while you were away.  While I was nursing a broken heart.  While, piece-by-piece, Clay was putting it back together again.”

“I just bet he was,” Ian says, glaring hard at my fiancé.  “Looks like he was also making himself at home in my house.”

Clay fists his hands by his side.  “I was doing way more than that.”

Ian’s head snaps around, his ocean-blue eyes locking onto my violet-colored ones.  “What does he mean by that? Has he been in our bed? Has he been inside you?”

I avert my gaze from his.  I know I shouldn’t be feeling an ounce of guilt or shame, but I’m engulfed by both.

Sighing, I say, “I thought you had left me.  I never expected to see you again.”

A sound of agony bubbles from deep in his chest.  “So it’s true? You slept with him?”

“Why wouldn’t she?” Clay smirks.  “We’re engaged to be married.”

Only then does Ian look at the ring finger of my left hand.  He sucks in a ragged breath when he sees the diamond.  “No,” he mutters, shaking his head.  Looking at his own finger, he asks, “Where’s the pretty, delicate band that matches mine?”

I swallow hard, not wanting to answer in front of Clay, but his cemented stance tells me he isn’t going anywhere.  “In the bedroom, on the dresser, in the back corner of my jewelry box.”

Ian fumes, “You mean in our bedroom, on our dresser.  Go get the ring and put it on.”

My heart instantly turns to galloping hooves, jarring the ground beneath my feet while pounding against my ribcage.  I steal a glance at Clay.  His jaw muscles are working, but he remains quiet in what I’ve come to know as silent strength.  Yet he watches and waits to see what I will do.

I look back and forth between two furious men.  One who, in the past, was my everything and one who now fills up my present.  But somehow, I can’t see a future without both of them.  I must be crazy.  Ian’s showing up out of nowhere has likely given me some sort of breakdown.  Throwing my hands up in the air, I run upstairs, leaving them in my wake.

Buy on Amazonsmarturl.it/ATrickyTriangle

His for the Teaching Sample Chapters

His for the Teaching Promo 8 copy.jpg

 

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Chapter One

Violet Driscoll

THE END OF SUMMER vacation is always bittersweet, but this time the mixture of my emotions is particularly potent.  The metaphorical taste on my tongue is bitter because nine months of a school year lies yawning before me and sweet because it will be my last one.  Tomorrow morning, I’ll wake up a senior at Moon Crescent High School in Robeton, South Carolina.  Home of moonbeams and lofty dreams that rarely, if ever, come true.

This long awaited milestone should be filled with anticipation and celebration.  For me, it’s a painful reminder of being all alone in this crazy, topsy-turvy world.  One minute, I was a princess being doted on by a big, strong military man I called Dad and a graceful, classy and demure lady I called Mom.  The man I thought was invincible was blown to bits two years ago by a defective explosive during a routine bomb-diffusing exercise.  My mom, along with some of the soldiers on my Dad’s squad, suspected foul play.  But no one could prove a thing.  Several lawyers and a mountain of debt later, I learned you can’t fight Uncle Sam.  Unfortunate accidents like the one that destroyed my world were often covered up and easily swept under the rug like a long-forgotten dust bunny.

Mom and I had become empty vessels drifting across stormy waters without the loving husband and father who had been the anchor of our little family unit.  A man who will never be forgotten as long as there is breath in my body.

In the aftermath of his death, my mother literally lost herself.  I no longer recognized the woman who raised me.  Gone was the well-put together, fashionable and funny lady whom my dad had daily put on a pedestal.  In her place was a sloppy, intoxicated shell who shed her shyness beneath a chemical-induced haze.  She traded pretty, floral dresses and baking brownies for slutty, skin-tight pants and one-night stands.

On the first day of June, she took off with a shady, greasy-looking traveling salesmen who was wearing a rumpled suit and a bad toupee.  She left me standing in our driveway—the one my dad paved himself—with a look of shock in my big, brown eyes and tears streaming down my face.  As the sleaze-bucket with a Slim Jim bobbing between his lips pulled away, she lowered the passenger-side window and sang with a slur:

Done laid around, done stayed around this                 

old town too long. 

Summer’s almost gone, winter’s coming on.

And it seems like I’ve got to travel on.

And it seems like I’ve got to travel on.

Suffice it to say, she ruined Bob Dylan for me.  Since I didn’t have the luxury of losing my mind or traveling on, I got a job with the Outlaw Rodeo.  All the riders dress up like famous outlaws from the Old West.  It’s their shtick and a huge draw for the clamoring crowds.

After the new high school was built, the town let Billy the Kid Yele set up camp on the old football field.  Bull-riding and calf-roping is a big source of summertime fun in our sleepy southern town.  My dad had been a big fan of westerns, and going to the rodeo was one of our favorite things to do together.  Working here makes me feel closer to him.

The last night of the rodeo is winding down, and so am I.  The fans have dispersed.  The parking lot is almost empty.  A few stragglers hang around to chew the fat with sweaty, dusty, exhausted riders who are anxious to get back to their trailers.

Billy makes his way over to me as I lean back against the bullpen, propping the heel of my cowgirl boot on the bottom rail.

Looking worn out, he says, “If you’ll hold on a tick, little lady, I’ll get your pay.”

I can’t help but smile at his long, lazy drawl.  “I’ll be right here.”

He tips his hat and heads in the direction of a beat-up camper, doubling as his office and sleeping quarters.  I’m going to miss him and the others.  This isn’t my first rodeo, but it will be my final one.  Next summer, if my plans pan out, I’ll be in Italy.

While waiting on Billy, I spot a stranger who looks completely out of place among the dirt-floor arena, leather saddles and bales of hay.  He is the exact opposite of the rough-and-tumble cowboys I have worked alongside for the last three months.  This man has the whole tall, dark and handsome thing going on.  He has paired black penny loafers with navy slacks and a stark-white dress shirt.  The crisp sleeves are rolled to his elbows, showcasing the sexiest, hairiest forearms I have ever seen.  His outfit is the furthest thing from rodeo attire I can think of.

With his full, firm-looking lips slightly parted and his head down as if he were concentrating on his every step, he is headed straight toward me on a collision course I have no desire to stop.  Letting my boot slide off the rail, I lock my knees and brace my body for impact.

Like a countdown to a missile launch, I silently tick off his last few steps.  Three.  Two.  One.  Crash.

The second his muscular shoulder slams into my sleeveless one, I teeter sideways.  Before I can grab hold of the rusty-orange rails, his sexy, tanned hands become brackets of steel on both sides of my hips, steadying me. 

His deep, baritone voice feels like a lover’s caress.  “I’m so sorry.  Are you okay?”

 

Chapter Two

Rhett Calder

SHIT! I KNEW GOING out tonight was a big mistake.  When I’m under this kind of stress, I should always stay home.  Out of the public eye.  Away from my fellow man or woman, as it were.

I was driving to a coffee shop when I saw the arena and heard the roar of the crowd.  My eyes were drawn to the motes of dust and dancing moths beneath the stadium lights.  While they hypnotized me, I had nearly hit a telephone pole head-on.  Now I have carelessly plowed into a young, curvy goddess in snug-fitting jeans and cowgirl boots while I was studying the various-size footprints in the dry, red-clay dirt. 

I feel tongue-tied when she speaks.  “I’m fine, mister.  But you really should watch where you’re going.”

Her southern accent is intoxicating.  With my hands still locked firmly on the flare of her hips, I nod and say with all the bravado I’m not feeling, “Tell me your name.”

She blushes, and it’s one of the sweetest yet sexiest things I have ever witnessed. 

“Violet.”

“Like the flower.”

“Yeah, only I’m not nearly as pretty.”

“That’s a damn lie.”  My tone is too insistent and unyielding.  I have to make a concerted effort to soften it lest she think I am some kind of lunatic.  “I meant to say, the way your beautiful body blooms beneath the moon makes you prettier than any blossom I’ve ever seen.”

Swallowing hard, I do my level best to tamp down the intensity vibrating through my veins.  I really should turn around and walk away before I do something I’ll regret.  Or worse, something she’ll regret.

She smiles and gives her hair a flirty flip.  The whole fucking world tilts on its axis.  The warmth of her breath flutters across my face when she whispers like she’s sharing a secret.  “That might be the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.”

Entranced, I quietly watch as she bites her bottom lip before giving me the gift of her voice again.   “You must be new around here.  I haven’t seen you before.”

I clear my throat but, at this point, nothing can clear my mind.  Silently, I command my hands to release her, but they don’t obey.  “I got into town a week ago.”

“You just passing through, or are you planning on staying a while?”

I step closer, knowing the mere bulk and presence of my body will push hers even harder against the thick, metal rails of the bullpen.  All I can think about is bucking her like a wild bronc.

“I start a new job tomorrow.  I guess you could say I’m putting down roots here.”

She sighs.  “In that case, welcome to Robeton.  We may not be the friendliest town in the South, but we come pretty dang close.”

I can see the glint of teasing in her beautiful, bourbon-brown eyes.  A soft, soulful color a man can quickly drown in.

The attraction between us is sparking with an electricity more powerful than a high-voltage cattle prod.  I’m most definitely the aggressor, but this young woman has given no indication my nearness is unwelcome.  Her dilated pupils and breathy sighs are giving me the green light, and it’s all I can do not to slam my foot down on the accelerator.

Trying to drag in a deep breath through the heat and heavy humidity of an August night, I say, “Violet, if you don’t push me away right now, I’m going to kiss you until you faint.”

She raises her eyebrows.  “Who are you? Rhett Butler?”

“No.  I’m Rhett Calder, and the need to taste you is more than I can endure.  This is your last chance to say no.  To scream.  To slap me in the face.”

“Or knee you in the balls.”

“Both your feet are still on the ground,” I say, glancing down at her cute, cowgirl boots.

“So they are,” she says, smiling sweetly before teasingly licking her bottom lip and tilting her head to the side.

The time for talking is definitely over.  Fisting my hand in her shimmery-blonde hair, it takes every shred of my willpower to barely brush my lips against hers.  All I really want to do is devour her.  To drink the sweet nectar from her lips until I am no longer thirsting to death.  Her pretty mouth opens on a feathery, feminine sigh.  Tightly-bottled control snaps like a fucking rubber band being pulled past its limit.

My hips thrust forward in sync with my tongue.  She accepts the intimate intrusion, not submissively but as an active participant.  As our lips, teeth and tongues meld in a mating ritual more animalistic than I could have imagined possible, her fingers grasp at the back of my shirt, plastering the sweat-soaked material to my scorching-hot skin.  I cup her ass, dragging her forward like some archaic caveman who has no command over his cock.  Her sex sears mine through the fabric barrier of my slacks, making me groan.  I’m two seconds from ripping off every stitch of her clothing when I hear a gruff, countrified voice.

“Is this man botherin’ you, Violet?”

To my surprise, she playfully pushes me away and says, “I’m afraid I was the one molesting him, Billy.  Working with you hayseeds fifty hours a week didn’t leave much time for a summer fling.  I figured I was at least entitled to a kiss before real life reared its ugly head again.”

The cowboy chuckles.  “I reckon there’s no harm in a little smoochin,’ just so it’s consensual.  Did you ask this fella’s permission before ya’ll locked lips?” he asks, handing her an envelope.

She takes it and stuffs it into the back pocket of her Levis.  “I didn’t get anything in writing, but he didn’t seem to mind too much,” she says, winking.

Billy tips his hat at us.  “You two youngsters don’t stay out too late.  The mornin’ comes mighty early.”

 

Chapter Three

Violet Driscoll

THE RELENTLESS LIGHT OF morning stabs my eyes through the slightly-parted blinds of my bedroom.  Getting ready for school is the absolute last thing I want to do.  I couldn’t fall asleep until well after three in the a.m. for thinking about Rhett Calder.  About his hands on my hips.  About his tongue in my mouth.  About his massive, hard-as-granite erection pressed against my jeans-clad pussy.

The man was a walking dream.  One I was positive I had conjured up when he practically disappeared into thin air.  One minute Billy was handing me a week’s wages, and I was tucking it into my back pocket.  The next, I looked up to see the sexy silhouette of Rhett’s backside as he ran off into the night.

Glancing at the alarm clock, I sigh with relief. Despite my forgetting to set it, I have still awoken around six-thirty.  If nothing unforeseen happens, I should get to class with time to spare.  Throwing my thin comforter back, I untangle my legs from the sheets and make my way to the bathroom.  I still haven’t gotten used to the sound of my lone footsteps in this empty house.

My mom has been gone for three months now.  Not once has she called to check on me.  Shortly after she left, she sent me a postcard from Mexico.  I have no idea if she and the slimy salesmen are still slurping tequila and eating refried beans on the beach or if she has moved on with a swarthy Mexican stud, salsa dancing until dawn.

Truthfully, I don’t care what she is doing.  Why should I? She doesn’t care about me enough to even pick up a phone.  If my dad were still alive, her behavior would kill him all over again.  Of course, if he had not been blown into a million pieces, she would still be a model mother and ideal housewife.  Life sure can be a bitch sometimes.  But it can be positively perfect at other times.  Like last night, when a handsome stranger came to the rodeo and kissed me until I got lightheaded and my knees knocked together from weakness and excitement.

Out of my limited wardrobe, I choose a black dress with pink polka dots.  It’s the last outfit my dad bought me, and I need to feel he is close by as I start the final chapter of my high school career.

After all, the first day of a girl’s senior year is pretty significant. 

Since Dad passed away, I’ve packed a few more pounds onto my already plus-size figure, causing the silky material to cling a little tighter to my curves.  Still, I feel fairly satisfied with my reflection in the mirror.  Wanting to look extra special, I decide to add a few final touches—a faux pearl bracelet and matching necklace, sheer-black pantyhose and black heels—then make my way to the kitchen for some milk and a Pop-Tart.  Not the healthiest breakfast, I know.  But it’s quick, and I need to get out the door.

 

CLUTCHING MY PHONE IN one hand and my purse in the other, I wince at the loud, echoing clack of my high heels as I run down the hallway of Moon Crescent High.  That unforeseen thing I had hoped wouldn’t happen, did.  As quietly as possible, I open the door to my first class.  I’m so grateful it isn’t locked.  Naturally, it squeaks on its hinges, and all eyes turn toward me.  Somebody really needs to talk to maintenance and get some WD-40 on the situation.

To my relief, there is no teacher in sight.  To my dismay, the only empty desk is located on the front row.  I’ve always been a back-row kind of a gal, but beggars can’t be choosers.  And I’m just happy as a clam to have snuck in unnoticed.  The last thing I need is a tardy.  If the school tries to contact my mother, they will realize I am living alone.  That is a headache I definitely do not need right now.

Sliding back a bit further in my seat, I cross my legs and take a calming breath.  Before I can complete my exhale, a rich, deep, panty-melting and oh-so-familiar voice reverberates through the room.

“You’re late, Violet.  See me after class.”

I’m torn between fainting and losing my breakfast.  Neither one seems like a good option, so I just sit in my seat dumbfounded, staring at the man I want more than any other.  I can tell by the fuck-me-sideways look on his face that he is in shock, too.  I can only imagine what’s running through his mind—me.  Just like he is running through mine.

Without missing a beat, he pulls up a PowerPoint slideshow on the Promethean Board and begins his lecture on French Impressionist painters like Claude Monet and Gustave Courbet.  I’m assuming I missed the Pledge of Allegiance, roll-call and the morning announcements.  I had no idea I was so late.

Try as I might, I cannot concentrate on a single thing Rhett is saying.  I really should start thinking in terms of calling him Mr. Calder.  My mind must have wandered far and wide because the sound of the bell makes me jump so hard, my knee painfully pops the underside of my desk.

As the other students file out into the hallway, I stay glued to my seat.  Silently, I watch Rhett—I mean, Mr. Calder—cross the room, close the door and lock it.

When he makes his way to me, he takes me by the arm, pulls me out of my chair, marches me to the front of the room and says, “Hands on my desk.  Now.”

My eyes grow wide, but I obey.

“Wh—what are you doing?” I ask, nervously.

“What your parents should have done a long time ago,” he says, lifting the hem of my dress.

My big, rounded ass is covered only by practically-sheer hose.  I didn’t want visible panty lines, so I didn’t put on any underwear.  I can hear the hitch in his breath when he realizes it.  Still, it doesn’t stop him from raising his hand in the air.

My words halt him mid-swing when I say, “I don’t have any parents.”

He drops his arm and the hem of my dress at the exact same time.  “What happened to them? Who looks after you?”

I explain everything to him as best I can and finish by saying, “I take care of myself.”

He knifes his hands in his pockets and stares down at his feet much like he had been doing when he bumped into me at the rodeo.  Then he snarls, “Doesn’t look like you’re doing too good of a job.  You couldn’t even get yourself to class on time for the first day of school.”

Angrily jerking my hands off his desk, I straighten my spine and say, “That’s not my fault.  I checked the oil and put gas in the car.  I can’t help it if the stupid piece of shit died halfway here.  I’m not a mechanic.”

“Watch your language, Violet.”

“I’m eighteen damn years old, Rhett.  I can cuss all the hell I want to.  I can stay up all night if it pleases me.  I can even kiss a total stranger under the stars and make his cock hard as a rock while doing it.  But you already know that.  Don’t you?”

I hear his breath gush from his chest as much as I feel it.  Even though I am as mad as I’ve ever been, the sight of his jaw muscles clenching beneath shadowy stubble makes me wet.  The heat and electrical current that was zapping like lightning between us last night at the rodeo hasn’t died out one bit.

He sits down heavily on the corner of his desk, and I know he is as exhausted as I feel.  I’m betting he didn’t get much sleep either.  Rubbing his chin, he softly says, “I’m sorry about last night.  It shouldn’t have happened.  We have to put it behind us and forget it.  I’m your teacher.  You’re my student.  As far as I’m concerned, we’re just meeting for the first time.”

I place my hands on my hips, give him my best grown-up look and say, “I don’t think your dick got the memo.  As far as it’s concerned, your hands are still filled with my hair and ass cheek.  Your lips are still on mine, and we’re still grinding our genitalia together while you push me against the hard, metal railing of the bullpen.”

He closes his eyes as if in physical pain before opening them again.  Then he repetitively runs his fingers through his thick, black-as-ink hair.  Gazing at me with a silent plea in his dark pupils, he says, “Don’t do this, Violet.  What happened between us can’t happen again.  I behaved irresponsibly last night.  Trust me; I’m goddamned relieved you aren’t a minor, but my touching you in any way is still inappropriate.”

“Watch your language, Rhett.”

“It’s Mr. Calder from here on out.  You need to go before you’re late for another class.”

“And you need to go to hell!” I scream, stomping toward the door.

He lunges off the edge of his desk and grabs me by the waist, hauling my back to his front.  His cock is hard against my butt.  His breath hot in my ear.  “I didn’t sleep at all last night because I ran away without getting your last name, your phone number or your address.  I know it’s a small town, but I couldn’t bear even the remotest possibility of never seeing you again.  So believe me when I say I know you’re hurt.  I am, too.  You think the idea of not holding you again, tasting you again isn’t fucking killing me? It is.  I’m damn dying here.  But this isn’t right.  I won’t ruin your reputation or my career before it even takes off.”

I jerk my elbow backward into his ribcage, taking pleasure in the sound of his moan as he releases me.  Spinning to face him, I say, “That’s what it all boils down, isn’t it? Your precious career?”

“Not entirely, no.  This is merely my second teaching job since graduating college.  I’m only twenty-four, Violet.  Six years older than you, but this community and the schoolboard won’t see us as two consenting adults.  They’ll see me as an older man and you as a teenager.  You’re not technically jailbait, but you are off limits,” he says, pausing to blow out a harsh breath.  “No, I don’t want to have my career flushed down the toilet.  I worked hard to get here.  But more importantly, I don’t want your reputation to be tarnished.  I want to protect you.”

“From what?”

“From everything and everyone.  But mostly from me.”

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Prologue

OVER AND OVER like a mantra, I silently say my name: Paisley Lang Meadows.  They’ve taken everything else.  I won’t allow them to take my identity, too.  I’m going to hold onto who I am until the very end, which likely will come sooner than later.

For the last thirty days, my keepers—two short, stocky men with beer bellies and bad breath—have referred to me as it.  They energetically elbow each other while exchanging aren’t-we-so-damn-clever expressions and saying things like, “Look at it all scrunched up in a ball.”  A fetal ball, to be exact.

When you’ve been locked in a perpetually-cold room and stripped down to nothing but bra and panties, it’s kind of tough to stay warm if you don’t curl into yourself.  Plus, there is the not-so-small issue of modesty.  I don’t fancy a couple of rotten-toothed bastards salivating over my barely-covered personal parts.

My favorite it phrase is when they ask me, “Is it hungry?” Then they slap their stubby knees and laugh as if they’ve just heard the funniest joke in the history of the world.  My captor, whom I’ve never met, has put these clowns in charge of feeding me and keeping me alive until it’s my turn to be killed.

I think I can say with great confidence that I know what the inmates on death row must feel like.  Awaiting one’s day of execution is a heavy burden to bear.  But unlike the horrible, hardened criminal in a jail cell, I have committed no crime.  Plain and simple, I am a victim of abduction.

During my time in what I have aptly named the dungeon due to the dank darkness, I have seen at least fifty girls my age come and go.  At one time or another, all of them have been chained to rows of rusted pipes like the one that keeps me bound to this damp, mildewed cement wall and floor.  Just like me, those girls were here to be sliced and diced for their organs.  I say were because all of them are gone.  Deceased.  Healthy thirteen-year old hearts, livers, lungs and kidneys bring big money on the black market. 

Based on how quickly the others were taken to slaughter—within days, hours or even minutes of their arrival—I would say that I am the only one to be left alive for this length of time.  Having nothing to write with or on and no way to make a mark on the solid cement, I keep count of the days with my hair.  Every evening after I’m fed, I pluck out a long, dark, wavy, strand and wrap it around the orangey-brown pipe.  So far, Twiddle-Dee and Twiddle-Dumb haven’t noticed.  But it wouldn’t matter if they did.  Last night they made it clear I had eaten my last morsel.  Tonight it would be my turn on the harvesting table.

Despite missing the meal, I don’t feel hungry.  There’s something about the anticipation of death that mutes one’s appetite.  When I hear the footfalls echoing down the corridor in front of the dungeon, I have a sudden, overwhelming, nervous-induced, urge to pee.  There’s a recessed, metal drainage hole in the middle of the floor that me and the others were instructed to use as a makeshift toilet.  But doing so would mean standing up and making my way over to it.  Knowing I am moments away from having my internal organs extracted from my body takes my legs away.  My knees are so weak they couldn’t hold me up much less support me while I cop a squat and attempt to urinate.  Oh, well, the discomfort of a full bladder will be of little consequence when I am dead.  At least I can take comfort in that.

My heart jumps up and then lodges in my throat when I hear the squeaky knob turning on the dented, metal door to the dungeon.  Helen Keller could see it’s less than sturdy.  In fact, it’s rather rusty like everything else in this hellhole.  Ironically, it appears to be barely hanging on its hinges.  Had I or any of the other girls not been bound by brand new, invincible and industrial-sized chains, it would have been easy enough for us to escape through it.

Pulling my knees up closer to my chest, I wrap my arms tightly around them just below my knees and struggle to remain emotionally strong.  I refuse to beg or plead or become hysterical.  I won’t give these filthy, bloated bastards the satisfaction of seeing me cry.  I’ll face the end of my life with the same dignity my parents did.  Sadly but proudly, I saw how courageously and relentlessly they fought with everything in their power to save me.  To keep these thugs from taking me.  But no matter how determined my parents were to defeat the foe, it’s impossible to outfight bullets.  In their honor, I am determined to be just as brave.

It always takes a minute for my eyes to adjust when the light filters in from the door.  This time is no different.  I slowly raise my head and squint hard.

I’m expecting the high-pitched, grating, mocking voices I’ve had to endure day-in and day-out.  Instead, I get a singular one that booms and bounces off the cement walls.  “It’s over, Little Lamb.  The Butcher is dead.”

If I were a believer, I might think it was God Almighty Himself.  When my eyes finally focus, I know for certain it’s not.  According to what I learned at vacation bible school—I went one summer with a kid from my neighborhood—God doesn’t wear a solid black suit with a crisp, white shirt, a grey, silk tie and Portico cap-toed oxfords.  I recognize the style from a copy of GQ my dad kept in his study.  A nice pair of well-made shoes was the only thing he ever splurged on.

This elegantly-dressed man walks over to me and offers his big, tanned hand as if I’m supposed to take it without making any inquiries.  Since that isn’t my style, I fire off every question that enters my mind.  “Who are you? Where are Twiddle–Dee and—I mean, the two men who were guarding me? Who sent you? What are you going to do with me? Wh—”

He shakes his head, effectively silencing me mid-word.  “I’ll answer all your questions once we’re out of here.”  Then he turns to a man standing in the shadows.  His skin is so dark, I didn’t see him there.  In that low, powerful voice that seems to resonate through the concrete and into the most intimate parts of my body, the suit says, “Toss the bastards into a pile, and set them on fire.  Make it quick, Dago.  We’ll be waiting for you in the car.”

I watch as Dago nods and disappears into the darkness.  Once again, Mr. Sexy Voice reaches down to help me up.  This time, I shake my head.  “I’m not going to stand up in front of you in my underwear.”

He smiles sweetly, but his smoldering gaze is so hot it makes me feel even colder than I already am.  “Little girls hold no allure for me.”

Suddenly feeling irritated and energized by his remark, I jump to my feet and plant my hands on my hips.  Due to malnourishment, they’ve lost some of the soft curviness that filled out my jeans before the abduction.  My long, previously-well-toned legs are now super-slender and covered in downy-like stubble.

Despite being bound, I tried to keep my limbs strong by doing isometric exercises.  When I could muster the strength, I used the heavy chains holding me hostage as resistance.  But without adequate food and water, I’ve lost a lot of the muscle mass I’ve spent pretty much my entire life building.

One of the most important things my parents, Ashton and Lauren Meadows, taught me was the value of a healthy lifestyle.  Before heading out on a family hike or suiting up for a spirited session of Canadian doubles on the tennis court—me and mom against dad—he would always say, “A family that exercises together, stays together.”  I guess he wasn’t counting on one of us getting kidnapped and the other two being shot down in cold blood.

I know that sounds callous, but don’t think for a second I haven’t spent every single moment of the last month grieving my heart and soul out for them.  Because I have. 

My knees knock together while the man I view as my savior cuts through the thick, shiny chain links that have me tethered.  I have no idea where the tool he is using came from.  It’s as though it appeared out of thin air, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of his hat or a bouquet of flowers from his jacket pocket.

When he grabs the heavy chain and tosses it into the corner, I boldly say, “I’m not a little girl, mister.  I’m a grown-ass woman!”

His dark gaze meets mine before slowly traveling down and resting on my chest.  “Your training bra says different.”

A flash of anger flushes my face; but, before I can formulate a snappy comeback, he slips off his suit jacket.  Gently, he wraps it around my shivering shoulders, scoops me up into his arms and says, “Time to go, Tiny Titties.”

Cradling me against the massive expansion of his chest, he breaks into a run as if racing towards a finish line.  Had I not been busy holding onto to his hulking frame for dear life, I would have slapped his sexy, neat-bearded, ruggedly-handsome face.  How dare he be so insulting? As soon as I have a few decent meals, I’m sure my breasts will plump up nicely.

When we reach the car, he supports the full weight of my body with just one hand and opens the back door with the other.  I fully expect him to deposit me onto the plush, cream-colored leather seat.  Instead, as smooth as silk, he slips onto it with me in tow.  Less than ten seconds after he shuts the door, I look through the rose-tinted car window and see black-as-soot smoke billowing from the block structure where I had been held.  I can almost hear the globules of fat from Twiddle-Dee and Twiddle-Dumb crackling in the fiery flames.

When I arrived here—wherever here is—I was blindfolded.  Until now, I had no idea what this slaughterhouse looked like.  A single tear escapes my eye when I realize I am finally free.  Just as the big, salty drop rolls down my cheek, Dago slides into the driver’s seat, guns the engine and we’re off like three bats out of hell.

Shifting me in his lap, Mr. Fancy Suit reaches into his pants pocket and hands me a handkerchief.  It’s dusk now, and the sun is setting, but I can still see well enough to make out the elegantly embroidered monogram, CTB.  Dabbing the tear away, I gaze up at the sexy, square, stubbornly-set jaw of my savior.  It’s true; chronologically, I’m only thirteen, but I have the heart of a woman.  I meant what I said to him earlier.  I’m not a little girl.  I’ve always had an old soul, and the last month alone has aged me a good five years.  In my mind, I’m legally of age.

As if he can’t bear my unspoken admiration, he growls, “Don’t look at me like that, Little Lamb.  I’m not a goddamn hero.  I’m as dark as they come.  It’d pay you to remember that.”

A grown woman would not let those sorts of comments deter her, so I won’t either.

Reaching up, I run my trembling fingertips over the stubble that’s been beckoning me from the moment I first laid eyes on him.  The texture is like short, coarse blades of new grass in the springtime.  I can’t help but wonder what his beard would feel like against my lips, my breasts and even more intimate places.  He jerks his head away as if I have slapped him.  Slowly, I let my hand drop back to my lap.  “Does the prince of darkness have a name or just initials?”

His smile is small and seems to be laced with sadness.  “Carson Tanner Blackthorne.”

“The third?” I ask, grinning.  “Given the expensive, obviously-tailor-made suit and the sleek Mercedes, I figure you come from several generations of money.”

“You figured wrong.”

“So, you’re a self-made man.  I can respect that.  I’m a self-made woman, too.  I’m independent and don’t need anybody.”

He furrows his brow.  “Does the princess of independence have a name?”

“She does, but she won’t tell until you answer all her questions just like you promised.”

He takes a deep breath.  “You’re a smart kid—”

Woman.”

“As I was saying, I’m sure you’ve already figured out that I killed The Butcher, formerly known as Dr. Dean Mendle.  He was discharged from the military six months ago for mental instability.  When he got out, he fell on hard times and decided the most profitable and expedient way to settle his debts and make a load of loot to boot would be to harvest healthy organs from female teens, then sell them on the black market.”

“I never met him face-to-face, but I heard the others talking.  I was well aware of why he took us.  It was obvious he was the one who ordered my abduction and put those putrid-smelling simpletons in charge of me.”

“Per my client’s orders, I killed them as well.” 

“Client?”

“I’m an assassin.  A gun for hire.  A professional killer.”

I know Mr. Blackthorne expects me to be shocked.  Likely, he expects me to be sickened by his admission.  Or, at the very least, be terrified of him.  But the truth is I’m grateful to him for saving me.  And instinctively, I know he means me no harm.

“Why?”

He looks at me as if I’ve grown a third tiny titty.

“Why do I kill?”

“Yeah.”

“Lots of reasons, but mostly because the evil motherfuckers I put on ice or burn to ashes deserve to die.”

I rest my cheek against his powerful chest and curl my fingers around the soft handkerchief he gave me earlier.  “My name is Paisley Lang Meadows, and I’m glad you killed them.”

He clears his throat the way someone does when they’re uncomfortable with an unexpected or undeserved compliment.  “Well, once you’re back home with your family, Paisley, you can forget all about me.  In time, what you’ve been through will become a distant, fuzzy memory.”

A powerful onslaught of fresh tears stream from my eyes.  In between sobs, I say, “My parents are dead.  They were murdered by those pigs the night I was taken.”

Fuck! I should have tortured the fucking shit out of them before putting a bullet in their heads.”

I sniffle.  “Why didn’t you?”

“In my line of work, time is always of the essence.  No dallying around.  I get in, I get out without a trace.  Don’t you have any grandparents, aunts or uncles?”

I shake my head and blow my nose.  “My parents didn’t have any siblings, and their parents died before I was born.  Terminal illnesses and car accidents took them out.  Like I said before, I’m independent.  I don’t need anybody.”

“Well, that’s damn fine and dandy,” he says, raking a hand through his thick, chestnut-brown hair.  “But I can’t leave a half-starved, thirteen-year-old woman-child on the street.”

Finally the tears subside.  I hadn’t realized just how much I needed to let them out.  Snuggling closer to the heat of his hard, muscled chest, I whisper, “Then take me home with you, Mr. Blackthorne.  I won’t be any trouble.  I promise.”

My lids grow heavier than the chains that once bound me.  As I drift off to sleep, I hear him say through gritted teeth, “Fuck me all to hell.”

 

Chapter One

Five Years Later

Paisley

THE WEEKS, MONTHS AND years spent away from Blackthorne have slowly bled into each other, leaving me even lonelier than I had been in my most solitary hour—in what I had believed was my final hour.  But thanks to my dark knight in a suit of Armani armor, I live and breathe, eat and sleep, hope and dream that one day I will see him again.    

The night he murdered my captor and rent asunder that which had held me prisoner, I was a scrawny teenager who had no idea what to do with a grown man.  I’m eighteen now—legally an adult—with soft curves and a raging desire that burns me up from the inside out.  Unfortunately, I still have no idea what to do with a grown man.  Five years in a private, all-girls school in the middle of nowhere isn’t exactly conducive to male companionship.  Even if I had been surrounded by a sea of men, I would only have eyes for my dark knight.  The undying flames of want flicker bright and hot in my heart, licking low between the petals of my flowering womanhood whenever I think about him.  The affliction of this unquenchable and ever-lasting inferno started the moment Carson Tanner Blackthorne held me in his arms.

As he gently cradled me in the back seat of his magnificent Mercedes, he wanted me to see him as a hard, cold and unfeeling killer.  But somewhere in the darkest depths of his eyes, I saw a softness.  A small, open window to his soul that had not yet been closed off by the nature of his business.  Beneath his steely façade, I caught a glimpse of a man who still feels.  Still hurts.  Still has the ability to care.

He cared enough to pay for my tuition at this school.  Enough to make sure my needs—except the sexual ones, of course—have been met for the last half a decade.  And, most telling of all, he cared enough to stay away.

Hannah Caruthers knocks loudly on my dorm-room door.  “Hurry up, Paisley! We’re going to be late for rehearsal.  You know how miffed old lady Bagwell gets when we’re tardy.”

“Coming!” I yell while pulling on my graduation gown and securing my cap with bobby pins. 

Hannah huffs.  “I just bet you are.”

My face heats with embarrassment.  The first night after arriving here at Bennington Private School for Girls, I was missing Blackthorne awfully bad and feeling horny as hell.  As I clenched his white, silky-soft, monogrammed handkerchief close to my heart, I slid my other hand into my panties.

In my eagerness for relief, I failed to lock my dorm-room door.  Just as I was gasping my pleasure and whimpering my dark knight’s name, the bubbly, blonde—Hannah—came bursting in to introduce herself.  It’s been five years since she caught me diddling my clit, and she’s never let me forget it.

Pushing the last pin into place, I check my look in the mirror.  The reflection staring back at me is one of a well-put-together, soon-to-be high school graduate.  My body belies a maturity my face does not.  I still have a sprinkling of little-girl freckles across my cheeks and the bridge of my nose.

Perfectly-applied makeup conceals most of them, but I know they’re there.  I was hoping they would fade over time or disappear completely before I see him again.  I haven’t laid eyes on him since the night he rescued me.  From utter exhaustion, I had fallen into a deep sleep as Mr. Blackthorne gently held and rocked me in his lap.  When I woke up, I was in this room, wearing a pair of sinfully-soft flannel pajamas.

Agnes—the den mother—told me my guardian had hastily dropped me off.  According to her account of events, I could tell he had concocted that story about a family emergency which required his immediate attention.  It wasn’t in his nature to dally around.  I get in, I get out without a trace.  Only he left a couple of significant traces: a huge donation to Bennington’s and my most prized possession—the handkerchief bearing his initials.

Although my enrollment didn’t comply with traditional guidelines, the school readily accepted me along with Blackthorne’s overwhelming generosity.  The funds paid my tuition in full for five years as well as covering the cost of construction for the brand new library and indoor swimming pool.

Initially, I was pissed and hurt to the bone about him abandoning me.  But in time, I realized he did what he thought was best.  He found a socially acceptable and honorable way to take care of me.  Like he said down in the dark basement of that slaughterhouse, “Little girls hold no allure for me.”

Taking a deep breath, I smooth the black silk gown over my hips, flip the tassel to the left side of my cap and whisper, “We shall soon see if this woman holds any allure for you, Mr. Blackthorne.”

 

Chapter Two

Blackthorne

REALIZING THE WHISKEY GLASS in my hand is nearly empty, I let out a string of low curses.  It’s been the day from hell.  Three kills across two states has left me soul-weary. All I want is some peace and quiet in which to finish off this bottle of booze.  But when I see Dago entering my sanctuary—the private office on my yacht—I know that’s not going to happen. 

He’s eagerly waving a fancy, egg-shell-colored envelope embossed with light, gold lettering.  From behind my oak-finished desk, I can make out the word Bennington in elegant cursive in the upper, left-hand corner.  Without opening it, I know it’s an invitation.

Smiling brightly, he says, “It is Paisley’s big night.  You should be there.”

I grunt.  “I don’t do weddings, funerals or high school graduations.”

“I know, but I thought you might make an exception for her.”

“And why the fuck would I do that?”

“Because on a night like this one five years ago, she got under your skin.  She has been living there ever since,” Dago smugly says, tossing the envelope onto my desk.

I pick it up and flip it into a nearby waste basket.  “That’s bullshit.  You saw what a wreck she was when I found her practically naked, huddled into herself and trembling in that Godforsaken basement.  She was a helpless kid—a victim of a madman.  What was I supposed to do, just leave her there?” I ask, shaking my head.  “I tossed her a bone just like I would have any stray.”

“A bone would have been dropping her off at the Department of Social Services.  Enrolling her in the most expensive, prim-and-proper private school in the state was something else entirely.”

“What of it? A quality education is important if a person hopes to succeed in today’s world.”

“You have no formal education, and you are hands-down the most successful man I know.”

I drain the last drop from my glass and then fill it to the brim again.  “Pulling a trigger doesn’t require a diploma.”

Dago grunts.  “Maybe not, but it demands street smarts, skill and nerves of steel.”

“Thanks for the unsolicited ego boost; now scram.  This scholar of life prefers to be alone.”

My loyal, longtime friend and right-hand man sighs dramatically, indicating he has no intention of leaving.  Based on his serious facial expression and stubborn body language, I know I’m in for one of his long-winded spiels.

Perching on the corner of my desk, he interlaces his fingers in his lap.  “How long have we known each other?”

Careful not to slosh the liquid fire onto my shirt, I take a soothing swallow of amber-colored liquor and say, “Too damn long if you think you can so easily disobey my orders.  Get your ebony ass off my desk.”

He doesn’t move.  “I have been with you for twenty years, Carson.  Two decades of destroying evidence and cleaning up one dead body after another.  Watching you end the lives of hundreds of men like it was nothing.  When will it be enough?”

“When I’ve eliminated every evil fucker who walks the earth.”

Dago stands and looks down at me with sorrow-filled eyes.  “If you killed around the clock for the next fifty years, you could never accomplish that self-imposed task.”

Self-imposed?”

“Yes.  No one is forcing you to take these jobs.  You have enough riches to last you three lifetimes.  Are you not tired of the carnage?”

I down the rest of my drink before answering. “It’s never been about the money.  And, yes, I’m sick to death of death, but a man can’t just forsake a calling.”

“He can if the voice calling him is only in his head.”

Using the edge of the desk, I push myself to my feet and place my hands on Dago’s muscle-bound shoulders.  “If I were able to stop, what would you suggest I do with myself?”

He shrugs, and my arms weightlessly rise and fall with the motion.  “You could take up painting, maybe bird-watching,” he says, chuckling. “Or, you could buy a private island somewhere in the tropics, settle down with a good woman and have lots of Blackthorne babies.”

“And where exactly am I to find this woman who’s dying to tie herself to an assassin, who’s chomping at the bit to pop out his offspring?” I snarl, letting my hands slide off his shoulders.

Bending down, Dago digs the envelope back out of the trashcan and hands it to me.  “Bennington All-Girls Private School.”

I laugh bitterly.  “You’re out of your fucking mind.  I’m seventeen years older than Paisley.  That makes me practically old enough to be her father.  She’s a child.”

“By law and every other way I can see, she is a woman.”

My tone is razor sharp with accusation. “You’ve been snooping around on my computer.”

“Nope.  I was sitting at this desk earlier, cleaning your gun when an IM popped up.  Den mother Agnes was sending you an update on your little lamb.”

“So? I receive reports on the performance of all of my investments.”

“This message had nothing to do with Paisley’s scholastic accomplishments.  I quote, ‘Per your request, Mr. Blackthorne, I’m sending you Miss Meadow’s senior superlative picture.  Everyone here is exceedingly proud of our valedictorian just as I am sure you are.’”  Dago grins arrogantly.  “So do not hand me any bullshit, Boss.  From afar, you have been watching this girl grow into the smart, resilient and gorgeous young woman she is now.”

“You left out innocent.  She’s as innocent as a newborn kitten.”

“And whose damn fault is that?”

“What are you getting at?”

“There were plenty of prestigious private co-ed schools in this state, but you chose Bennington.  Why?”

“Because it was the best fit for her.”

“Or, maybe it was the best fit for you and your ego.”

One-handed, I grab Dago by the throat, lifting his heels a couple of inches off the floor.  “You’ve got thirty seconds to explain yourself before I snap your neck in two.”

I wouldn’t really harm him.  I save my brand of punishment and justice for the scumbags who’ve earned it.  Bad men who do terrible, unforgivable things.  Men like my father. 

Dago stares into my exhausted, bleary eyes and says, “You want me to lay things out real clear for you, then I will.  You did not want Paisley to be around any horny, virile young men a.k.a. possible suitors a.k.a. potential husbands.  That is why you put her in an all-girls school.  You have been selfishly saving her for yourself.  You respect and admire her strength and tenacity.  Her ability to survive.  The two of you have a whole lot in common even if you refuse to see it.  Why can you not just admit she means something to you?”

I release him.  “Because she doesn’t.  Like I told you before, I don’t turn my back on strays.  That’s all there is to it.”

He gingerly rubs his throat where my fingers had been.  “Well, your stray is a sexy-as-shit babe who thinks the sun rises and sets on the massive shoulders of the man who saved her.  Hell, a blind man could have seen the hero-worship blazing in her eyes that night.”

I exhale heavily, feeling the warmth of the alcohol softening my limbs and loosening my tongue.

“I won’t tarnish her mind, body or soul with my brand of savagery.  Miss Paisley Lang Meadows deserves a man better than the likes of me.”

“Try telling her that.  Attend her graduation, listen to her valedictorian speech and then make up your mind.  Long-lasting, fulfilling romances and even marriages are built on way less than mutual respect and hero worship.  I would say the two of you are way ahead of the game.”

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His for the Touching: Sample Chapters

 

His for the Touching Promo 5 copy

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Chapter One

Aviana Leif

THE SIXTEEN-FOOT HIGH, wrought-iron gate in front of my father’s mansion serves two purposes.  One: to keep other people out.  Two: to keep me in.  When a person thinks of a prison, they visualize cold, vertical bars sliding and clanking loudly within the tracks of a rectangular frame.  No one pictures black, burnished steel elegantly constructed in a fancy scroll pattern or gorgeous electronically-driven twin gates that swing open like the massive jaws of a lion lazily yawning. 

They imagine someone being confined in a six-by-eight cell with a grungy toilet and filthy sink.  They cannot fathom a prisoner sleeping in the lap of luxury inside a southern plantation-style home with twenty rooms, five of which have full baths complete with Jacuzzi tubs.  A place so grand it makes Tara from Gone with the Wind look like a dilapidated hovel in the ghetto.

Forgive me for sounding like a poor little rich girl, but that’s exactly what I am.  Within these walls of wealth, I wear the finest fashions.  Daily my body is draped in Dior, veiled in Versace and covered in Chanel while my soul is stripped naked of any real emotional connections.  I consume the tastiest cuisine prepared by the most elite chefs—all trained in France—yet I am starved for even the most basic of affections.

My father—Mander Leif—is a big-shot billionaire perfume manufacturer.  He’s also a brilliant chemist who has created some of the world’s most famous fragrances.  He spends every waking hour on one business deal or another.  The rest of the time, he’s filming his flamboyant perfume commercials, building his blog and advocating his online ads.

Despite his absences, I truly am proud of his accomplishments.  Being an African-American man born into poverty, he literally had to claw his way out of the mire.  With nothing more than a steely determination, a thirst for knowledge and a hunger for power, he built his empire from scratch.  His company—Feline Fragrances—produces the most seductive scents in the entire world.  So seductive he can’t resist screwing the waif-thin models who spritz their feathery-boned wrists and skinny, elongated necks with his brand.

Speaking of the adulterous devil, here he comes now.

Striding into the kitchen like the King of Confidence, he’s wearing a fitted suit from the Armani Collezioni G-Line.  Leisurely, he selects a porcelain cup rimmed with 14-carat gold off a silver, Sheffield serving-tray.  Filling it with espresso, he says, “Good morning, Cherub.”

The nickname is his subtle way of saying I’m his chubby angel.  I prefer it to my mother’s not-so-subtle nicknames for me: fat-ass, pudge-bucket and dough-girl.  In her defense, she mostly uses them while inebriated.  Which is pretty much around the clock unless she’s in a ritzy resort somewhere drying out.  This month it’s the Phoenician in Scottsdale, Arizona.  I can’t say I miss her, but I do pity her.  Why? Because she was really something before electricity.

Based on old photographs, she was the belle of the ball.  Now, due to the heavy drinking and pill-popping, she’s a lily-white, washed-out, wrinkled- beyond-her-years socialite.  That’s right.  I’m the result of an interracial marriage.  I don’t mind my much lighter shade of mocha skin tone or my unruly, raven-colored locks.  What difference does it make how I look anyway when no one but the servants and my bodyguard see me?

Smiling up at my father from the table where I’ve just devoured a pile of smoked sausages and a stack of whole-wheat pancakes with real maple syrup, I say, “Good morning.  What’s on tap for you today?”

He takes a silent sip of his highly-caffeinated beverage—such a debonair man of his financial stature wouldn’t dare slurp—and says, “More of the same.  What sort of lofty plans does my princess have?”

Before answering, I guzzle my non-GMO, organic, pulp-free orange juice.  I know he abhors this type of unrefined behavior, and I take great pleasure in the clench of his freshly-shaven jaw.

I answer his question with a question.  “What sort of plans can a princess locked away in an ivory tower have, King Leif?” 

He sighs heavily.  “Must you be so dramatic, Aviana? You know very well that your isolation is for your own safety.”

“I’m suffocating here!”

“Then go out.”

I blow my breath so hard, a few pancake crumbs roll off the edge of my plate.  “You mean with Landon?”

“Of course.  He’s your bodyguard.  I pay him good money to protect you.”

“Father, can’t you understand how I feel? I long to be free.  To drive through those gates by myself and explore the world.  I want to go for a long walk alone.  To think and dream without intrusion.”

“Do those thoughts and dreams include being kidnapped by some sick psycho and held for ransom? Because that’s a very real possibility, young lady.  There are thousands of criminal opportunists out there waiting to get their greedy hands on my fortune.  And the best way to do that is through you.  Cherub, you have been so sheltered, you have no idea how crazy the world is.”

“I can’t imagine it being any crazier than this world,” I say, spreading my arms in a gesture meant to encompass the entire mansion.  “I know you think you’re taking care of me.  That what you’re doing is for my own good.  But there’s nothing good about being alone all the time.”

He scoffs, “You are not alone.  You have the servants as well as Landon and Laura.  She’s been your nanny since you were born.  You are literally surrounded by people all day long.”

I shake my head.  “Yeah.  People on your payroll.  I have no real friends.  I’ve never even set foot in a classroom.”

“You had the best tutors money could buy.  You have a better education than any student could hope for.”

“Education isn’t entirely about books, Father.  I’m an eighteen-year-old with no life experiences.  No boyfriend.  No hopes of falling in love and getting married.”

He smiles and softens his voice.  “I was going to wait until your mother got back from her vacation to share this news.  But given your current state of despondency, I shall tell you now.  Next month, I will be throwing a debutante-style dinner party for the sole purpose of finding you a suitable mate.  Many of my business associates have fine sons.  Young men with the proper pedigree and financial status to keep you in the lifestyle you’ve grown accustomed to.”

“Oh my God! I have heard it all now.”

“Actually, you haven’t, but I don’t have time to fill you in on all the details.  I’m running late for a meeting,” he says, finishing his beverage.  “We’ll talk more when I get home tonight, Cherub.”

Knowing this will be another one of many unfinished conversations, I push my plate to the side and eagerly grab the entertainment section of the newspaper.  I like to look at the latest movie releases and daydream of sitting in a theatre full of my peers, holding hands with a man of my choosing, watching Hollywood’s best on the big screen.

Of course the mansion is equipped with a home theatre bigger than most cinemas.  My father gets prescreen copies of movies long before they are released for public viewing.  But like so many other activities I engage in, they are completely empty and hollow without someone special to share them with.

As I’m about to dispose of the paper, I see an announcement that turns my insides to jelly and sends me floating away on cloud nine.

I can’t believe it, but my favorite author of all time, Gavin Winslow, is doing a book signing at All Booked Up—our town’s local bookstore.  Because I live a life of loneliness, novels have become my closest friends.  When I was younger, I enjoyed tales of action and adventure.  But when I hit puberty, I discovered the delicious world of romance.  For the last five years, Mr. Winslow’s books have taken front and center stage in my reading.  The man writes women and love scenes so well, I can’t help but imagine how good he would be in bed.

Feeling better and more hopeful than I ever have, I run to my room and start planning my great escape.  No matter what it takes, I’m determined to sneak out and meet Gavin.  I refuse to have such a scrumptious experience tainted with my father’s limo driver waiting by the curb or a bodyguard lingering by my side.  Tonight, I’m going to make a memory with the most passionate, prolific writer in the romance genre.  And guess what? He also happens to be the dreamiest man alive.

How do I know he’s so handsome? His picture is on the cover jacket of all his novels.  I can’t tell you how often I’ve fallen asleep to the sight of his thick, chestnut-brown hair haphazardly falling across his forehead.  How many times I’ve traced my fingertips along the image of his strong, square jaw and the cleft of his chin.  How desperately I’ve longed to feel his full, firm lips pressed against mine.  With any luck, I’ll at least be able to gaze into his emerald-green eyes tonight at All Booked Up.

 

Chapter Two

Gavin Winslow

AS WITH ALL OF my book signings, women of every age, shape, size and social status are lined up out the door and around the block.  Don’t get me wrong; I’m grateful for my readers.  I appreciate each and every one of them.  But I have a gut feeling they wouldn’t appreciate me nearly as much if they understood what a dud I am in the sack.  If they knew I was only able to make love to a woman between the pages of my books, they wouldn’t turn out in droves to see me.  No female romance reader could respect a man who couldn’t do the deed in real life.

And no, it’s not a matter of taking a little blue pill.  My problem is not a physiological one.  It’s a psychological one.  There’s nothing wrong with me physically.  For complicated reasons, I simply have a slew of sexual snakes in my head which prevent me from performing.  I’ve spent as much time on a psychiatrist’s couch as I have watching television on my own sofa.  Years of therapy have done nothing to resolve my issues.  I am no closer to fucking a woman now than when I first sought help.

My latest therapist has suggested I take a hiatus from my writing.  She seems to think I need to steer my thoughts and energy in another direction.  But what the fuck does she know? She’s not the one suffering from blue balls.  She’s not the one whose teeth stay on edge, wanting and needing a coupling that never comes.

Sliding stacks of my latest book to the side, I take a long drink of seltzer water and plaster a smile on my face.  The owner of All Booked Up, Skyler Chapman, gives me a gentle nod and unhooks the red, velvet rope separating me from my fans.

When I turn my attention from her to the first woman in line, I feel a jolt of white-hot electricity in my nether regions.  My cock jerks as hard as a fishing rod with a Hammerhead shark struggling against the line.  With her sinfully-abundant curves and her soft, sad eyes, she instantly has me under her spell. 

My mouth goes dry, and my throat works convulsively as she steps up to the table with my novel—Shadows of Seduction—pressed against her ample breasts.

I’m at a loss for words while the raging boner in my trousers threatens to burst through my zipper.  Clearing my throat, I manage to ask, “Who should I make the inscription out to?”

She blushes.  “To your future wife.”

“Come again?”

“I’m positive you haven’t made me come the first time,” she says, giggling.  “Although I have no doubt you are quite capable of giving a gal multiple orgasms many times over.  Your author bio states you’re single, Mr. Winslow.  And as sure as I know my name, I’m certain you’re the man I’m meant to marry.”

I have no idea what to say to this woman.  I’ve encountered overzealous fans before but none as bold as this one.  She gives shock-value a whole new meaning.  Even if she wasn’t acting completely nutty, she is way too young to be on my radar at all.  Judging by her flawless, creamy skin and her youthful glow, I’d say she can’t be more than eighteen.  I’m a damn decade older than her.

Feeling an overwhelming need to get her gone, I ask, “Why don’t you tell me your name? There’s a really long line behind you.  We mustn’t keep the others waiting.”

“I’m Aviana Leif, soon to be Aviana Winslow,” she says, batting her velvety-black eyelashes.

She’s a natural flirt.  A relentless one.  I will give her that.  But that’s all I can give her.  Even if I were willing to entertain such foolish notions, I couldn’t be a husband in the biblical sense to her or any other woman.  However, I’m sensing there is something super-special about Miss Leif.  Something that calls to me on a deeper than physical level.  A solidly-entrenched loneliness I can relate to.

This woman-child looks as if her soul is barely holding on by a thread.  Her naked vulnerability and the need to be loved cries out from the depths of her soulful eyes.  Pretty peepers that are wise beyond her years.

She slowly, almost reluctantly pushes the book into my outstretched hand.  While I’m signing it, she quickly grabs my extra pen and jots her phone number down on one of the bookmarks I always give out to my readers.  Lowering her voice to a whisper, she folds the bookmark in half, slides it across the table towards me and says, “Don’t lose this, Gavin.  I’ll be waiting for your call.”

With a trembling hand, I pick up what I know without a doubt is a metaphorical Pandora’s Box and slip it into my pocket.

She takes her signed copy of Shadows of Seduction, gives me a little wave and disappears into the night.

 

THERE WAS A TIME when I found a book signing to be invigorating and energizing.  Now I’m just happy it’s over and glad to be back home.  Ready to relax, I flip the lever on the side of my recliner.  It’s not until I’m prone that I realize how exhausted tonight’s event made me.  Maybe my therapist was right after all.  Perhaps a nice long hiatus would do me a world of good.

Clicking the remote, I turn on the late-night news and take a sip of iced tea.  A banner for the lead story crawls slowly across the bottom of the screen.  It reads: Aviana Leifdaughter of fragrance mogul, Mander Leif—has been hospitalized following a mugging outside a bookstore in downtown Sparkle City, South Carolina.  Details of her condition have not been officially released, but sources are saying her injuries have resulted in blindness.

Panic grips my heart as nausea roils in my stomach.  Fighting back disturbing, dick-deflating memories from long ago, I reach into my pocket and pull out the bookmark with Aviana’s number on it.  Against my better judgement, I feel the need to call.  My gut tells me to leave it alone.  To leave her alone.  But my soul says she needs me. 

The phone rings several times before someone comes on the line.  It’s a gruff, male voice, sounding a hundred times wearier than I feel.

“Who is this?” the voice demands.

“Gavin Winslow.  I’m calling to inquire about Aviana.”

“I’m her father.  Where did you get this number?”

“Uh, she gave it to me.”

“When, where and how?”

“Earlier this evening at All Booked Up.  She wrote it down on a bookmark.”

“I see.  So all of this is your fault.”

“I’m sorry.  I don’t follow what you’re saying.”

“What I’m saying, Mr. Hotshot Romance Writer, is this: my one and only child, the heir to my vast empire, is lying in a hospital bed, blind as a bat because of you.

“With all due respect, sir, I would say your daughter’s tragic condition is the mugger’s fault, not mine.”

“I disagree.  Based on what Aviana said after regaining consciousness, she snuck out of the house to see you.  Now, she can’t see anything at all.  Had she not been so severely smitten by your stupid little love stories, she never would have used such poor judgement.  She denies it, but I’m not so sure you didn’t do something to lure her to that bookstore.  Why else would she have foolishly ventured off alone?”

“I won’t even attempt a guess at your daughter’s motivations, but I can assure you there was no luring involved.  Until this evening, I had never met or even heard of her or you.  Please give Aviana my best.  I hope her recovery will be a speedy one.”

“You will give her those well-wishes yourself.  Be at my mansion tomorrow morning at eight o’clock.  This is your mess, Mr. Winslow.  You’re going to clean it up,” he says, ending the call before I can reply. 

Apparently, the arrogant asshole assumes everyone knows where the Leif mansion is located.  I suppose that’s what GPS is for, I think before drinking the rest of my tea and wishing it was something a whole lot stronger.

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