Bullets & Bonfires by Autumn Jones Lake – Blog Tour

Today we have the blog tour for Bullets & Bonfires by Autumn Jones Lake! Check it out and grab your copy today!

Title: Bullets & Bonfires

Author: Autumn Jones Lake

 

About Bullets & Bonfires:

The one man she’s always wanted is now the sexy sheriff of their hometown.

Battered but not broken, grad student Brianna Avery returns to the childhood home she abandoned four years ago. With her abusive ex behind bars, Bree needs the summer to relax and recover before returning to school. But her overprotective brother decides she needs someone to babysit her in his absence, and he picks the one person guaranteed to drive her nuts.

She’s the one woman he can’t have.

Telling Bree no has never been easy. Four years ago, Liam Hollister did it to preserve his friendship with his best friend—Brianna’s brother. Now, no matter how she tempts him, he’s determined to do the right thing. As deputy sheriff of their rural area, Liam is torn between protecting Brianna and wanting her for himself.

Take a risk or lose the chance.

Spending so much time alone together challenges them both. Old feelings and hurts resurface immediately. With each hot, sweaty day it’s harder to deny their attraction.

It’s going to be a long, hot summer.

ADD TO YOUR GOODREADS!

Bullets & Bonfires is a complete stand-alone, but if you’re familiar with my Lost Kings MC series, Teller and Murphy make brief appearances throughout.

 

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About Autumn Jones Lake:

Autumn believes true love stories never end. She’s easily amused, a procrastinator and loves romances with true alpha heroes who cherish the sassy women they fall in love with. Her past lives include baking cookies, slinging shoes, and practicing law. Playing with her imaginary friends is her favorite job so far. Autumn prefers to write her romances on the classy side of dirty, and she’s a sucker for a filthy-talking, demanding alpha male hero. The bigger the better.

 

Connect with Autumn!

Website | Facebook | Twitter | IG | Goodreads | Amazon Author Page | Newsletter | Bookbub | Personal Facebook Group

 

 

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Bonding Games by Cathryn Fox – Blog Tour

Today we have the blog tour for Bonding Games by Cathryn Fox! Check out our stop and you’re your copy of this fantastic new romance today!

 

 

About Bonding Games:

Former Navy SEAL Josh Steele gets tasked with a babysitting mission—watch over his boss’s daughter—a job he can only describe as hell. But when his assignment takes him to a tropical island, and he begins to see another side of Holly Fairfax, attraction sizzles between them—but he knows better than to risk his job for it.

 

Holly can’t believe that underneath those baggy clothes tech-guru Josh Steele is all ripped abs and sexy hotness. Ignoring said hotness is tough, especially since she has to work with him on the team-building exercises her boss has assigned if she wants a coveted promotion. It’s even harder when she discovers being around Josh brings out her naughty side – one she didn’t know she had.

 

But if she cracks the code on his cover, everything they’ve built could come crashing down.

Get Your Copy Today!

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About Cathryn Fox:

New York Times and USA Today Bestselling author, Cathryn Fox is a wife, mom, sister, daughter, and friend. She loves dogs, sunny weather, anything chocolate (she never says no to a brownie) pizza and red wine. She has two teenagers who keep her busy with their never ending activities, and a husband who is convinced he can turn her into a mixed martial arts fan. Cathryn can never find balance in her life, is always trying to find time to go to the gym, can never keep up with emails, Facebook or Twitter but loves to spend time writing page-turning books that her readers will love.

Connect with Cathryn

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Available Now – ALL I NEED by Callie Harper

ALL I NEED by Callie Harper is available now! This hot contemporary romance is part of the All In series and can be read a standalone. Be sure to grab your copy today!

 

“It’s just a job, how hard can it be?”

I was hired by his father to become his live-in caregiver.

It sounded like an easy job. But the day I arrived at his broken-down Scottish castle I started to realize it might not be as easy as I thought.

I was not told that I’d be looking after a dark, brooding, rich man mired in a world of pain.

I was not told that this man would push all my buttons and test even my strongest limits.

I was not told that he was devastatingly gorgeous with a wickedly, sinful mouth.

I was definitely not told that what I’d end up feeling and what he would propose would drive me wild. But I’m Annie and this is my new job. And damn it, I’m not going to let anything, even him, that gorgeous, sinful, delicious man, stand in my way.

You believe me? Don’t you?

 

GET YOUR COPY TODAY!

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Don’t miss the other All In books!

 

IN DEEP: A Sports Romance

He’s an Olympic swimmer going for gold. Focused, driven, intense.

She’s a blogger going for the scoop and she has the perfect in. She’s gotten herself hired as his physical therapist. With all that intimate time together, the secrets from his past don’t stand a chance.

And neither does she.

Note: IN DEEP is a standalone hot, contemporary romance. It’s the first of four standalone “All IN” novels with some crossover characters, each of which can be read in any order.

AMAZON / iBOOKS

 

ALL OF ME: A Firefighter Romance

Seven years is supposed to change the way you feel.

Sophie’s not supposed to still dream about the way Liam touched her or the way they moved together. When she heads back to Naugatuck Island, she assumes Liam doesn’t even live there any more. Whatever he once felt, it has to have grown cold by now.

But Liam’s a firefighter. He knows better than anyone, never underestimate the power of a blaze. Those embers may appear cold, but nothing is ever as it seems.

Those embers? They’re just waiting to burst into flames.

Note: ALL OF ME is a standalone hot, contemporary romance. It’s one of four “All In” novels, which can be read in any order, with some crossover characters.

AMAZON / iBOOKS

 

ALL OF YOU: An MC Biker Romance

Night after night, Jax pictures her coming to him. In his dreams, Sky appears in the darkness, ready and wanting. But the night that finally happens, he finds out they’re in the middle of a nightmare.

Sky has nowhere to turn. Only one man can keep her safe, but he’s the most dangerous of them all. Her only choice is to put herself in Jax’s hands. Even if it destroys them both.

Note: ALL OF YOU is a standalone hot, contemporary romance. It’s one of four “All In” novels, which can be read in any order, with some crossover characters.

AMAZON / iBOOKS

 

About Callie Harper

Callie Harper writes hot, fun page-turning romances. She is powered by coffee, wickedly sexy bad boys, and all things funny, intentional or otherwise. Born on the East Coast where she learned the joys of fast-paced sarcastic banter, she and her family are now kickin’ it in the West Coast sunshine. On any given day there’s a good chance you’ll find Callie outdoors enjoying the gorgeous Bay Area, but if she’s indoors, she’ll likely be reading, writing or eating, preferably all at once.

Connect with Callie

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Skirt Chaser by Stacey Kennedy – Teaser Reveal

Today we have the gorgeous teaser reveal for Skirt Chaser by Stacey Kennedy! Check it out and preorder your copy now!

 

Title: Skirt Chaser

Author: Stacey Kennedy

Release Date: August 8th

Genre: Contemporary Romance

 

About Skirt Chaser:

Love gets filthy in this new erotic romance by USA Today bestselling author, Stacey Kennedy.

Greyson Crawford works hard by day and plays even harder at night. And he understands and obeys the rules of the game. One, don’t mix business and pleasure. Two, employees are off-limits. So, he’s been eagerly counting down the days until interior designer, Evie Richards is no longer under contract with his Seattle architecture firm. But when that day comes, he realizes there are more obstacles in his way. The biggest…Evie herself.

Until Evie gets asked to be the maid-of-honor in her best friend’s destination wedding, and Evie needs a date. The circumstances are perfect for Greyson to set his plan of seduction into motion. He will happily play the boyfriend for the weeklong wedding event, if Evie will surrender to his every command and play in his bed.

For Evie, it’s all fun and games until Greyson’s first touch; then she begins to question what’s real. She knows better than to fall for a guy like Greyson—a skirt chasing ladies’ man—but with every slow caress and kinky adventure, she realizes that Greyson knows what he wants, and it isn’t just her body surrendering to him…it’s her heart.

Preorder Today

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Exclusive Excerpt:

Intent and careful to take his time not to scare any other employees in the restroom, Grey entered the simple and modern bathroom with the five stalls. Only one door was closed, and there was no one at the sink, so he moved toward the vanity and leaned against it. Hands shoved into his pockets, he stared at the closed door, giving Evie the time she needed. That’s when he heard her soft cries, and with those pained noises, something inside of him tensed.

It was a sensation strong enough to make him question what it was about this woman that drew him in so intently. She’d gotten a grip on his mind and body so tightly that he pondered her situation, and his, and what he could do about both. He’d become so lost in his thoughts that he didn’t realize she’d opened the door until she was leaving the stall and striding out.

Head down, she hadn’t noticed him yet, so he called out to her, “Evie.”

Her head snapped up, a scream ripping from her throat, hands pressing against her chest. “Holy shit!”

He couldn’t help but chuckle. “I’m sorry for scaring you.” His amusement washed away when he took a good look at her face. There was so much pain there. He didn’t like it.

The shock from her face slowly faded. “Why are you in here?” she asked.

“To return your phone to you.” He moved to her, watching her following his every step. The heat in her eyes was instant, and that’d always been the problem. She wanted him. Christ, did she want him, he could tell. But she was smart and clever, never one to cross the professional line either. She was also a good girl, who likely needed love before sex. Maybe that was the real reason she didn’t ever cross the line. Maybe it was less about the job and more about protecting her heart from a guy that screamed danger. He could understand why.

Though he never was a man who took the easy road, and he sure as shit liked a challenge. He stared into her gorgeous eyes, and a plan formed. One that got him what he wanted, and yet would benefit her, too. He’d never been a sly or shady guy, but he was a good businessman. And that meant using a situation to his advantage.

“So, that’s it. You got out the good cry you needed to,” he said to her, and he liked the way her lips parted when he leaned in toward her; it showed him just how much she yearned for his kiss. “Your ex is marrying your best friend,” he added. “He’s an asshole. She’s a bitch. This is happening, but it’s how you deal with it that truly matters.”

“He’s not an asshole,” she said softly, shaking her head. “And she’s not a bitch. I’ve helped plan their wedding for the last year, and I’m happy for them. I think…maybe it hadn’t sunk in or something.” She drew in a deep breath, releasing it out her nose and added with a soft smile, “But I’m better now. I’m sorry I fell apart out there.”

“One, I disagree with you,” he retorted sternly. “I’m not convinced these aren’t terrible people. And two, do not apologize that their selfishness hurt you. In fact, I’d say it’s time to get revenge.”

The side of her mouth arched slightly. He noted her long exhale, and he knew that had nothing to do with emotions. That it was this push and pull thing going on between them. Call it chemistry, intensity, whatever, it was as addictive as it was captivating. “How exactly do I do that?” She grabbed a paper towel, got it a bit wet with cold water, and then began wiping off her makeup, adding, “Murder them?” She gave him her sexy smile that pooled heat in his groin.

Grey chuckled, leaning his hip against the counter. “Perhaps that’s a bit extreme. Murder means jail time, and you going away is definitely not what I want.”

She slowly glanced at him then, cheeks flushing pink, and the dilation of her pupils was obvious. That look had snagged him the very first day after his COO hired her to design the lobby of the interior of their latest multi-million-dollar high-rise.

Now, the look intensified, hardening his cock, centering his mind on all the wicked things he’d like to do to her. He stepped toward her, as she spun around, leaning against the counter, wide eyes on him. There was something about her, maybe her innocence, maybe this unexplainable connection that had only grown since he worked alongside her, but it captured him in an unbreakable spell.

In the seconds that passed, the desire practically wafted off her, scented so sweet his cock went hard just that easily. As it always did, the space between them felt charged with electricity, but he’d never gotten this close to her before. He never let her feel the extent of how he wanted her. Now, he held nothing back.

“I have a better idea than jail time,” he told her, giving her enough distance that if she wanted to move and leave the bathroom, she could. When she stayed put, he added, “Show these bastards up. Take me with you, and make them both ragingly jealous.”

Her eyes searched his, then she broke out in loud laughter. “Yeah, right. Hilarious.”

She might have said one thing, but the only thing he noticed was that she wasn’t moving, eyes locked on him. “I’m not kidding,” he said, erasing the distance between them, placing both hands on either side of her, trapping her between him and the counter.

“You’re not kidding,” she said, more of a statement than a question.

Grey glanced from her bottom lip she nibbled to her flushed cheeks to her smoldering eyes… Christ, what he’d do to this woman. It would be indecent. “I would never joke about something that so clearly upsets you,” he told her seriously. “I can only imagine you want to one-up them. I know I would. Use me to do it.”

“She’s my best friend,” she said softly. “I don’t need to one-up her.”

He let his gaze roam over her pretty face before looking into her smoldering eyes again. “Tell me it’s never crossed your mind what it would feel like to walk in there not like a sad third wheel but like a woman who owns the world.”

“And how would that ever happen?’

“You’ll have me on your arm.”

Her mouth twisted. “You’re pretty sure of yourself.”

“Angel, I am never the third wheel of anything,” he told her, dead serious. “I’m the engine, the accelerator, and the whole damn car.”

She swallowed deeply and studied him, hard. “All right,” she eventually said, “say I’m game and actually agree to this crazy plan, what do you get out of it?”

“I get you.” He brought his mouth close enough to tease her. She wanted his kiss, angling her head backward, parting her lips. He dragged his nose across hers, and added, “I get to have you in all the ways you know I want you. Beneath me, over me, against a wall, on your knees, screaming my name, whatever I want. Completely under my control.” And to ensure there were no misunderstandings, he sternly added, “My game. My rules. Your surrender, until we’re back in Seattle.”

In a breathy voice, she asked, “Tell me why any sane woman would do this?”

He grinned at her—a sly smile that worked its charm on many women but seemed to have an even greater effect on her. He watched the way the heat rippled through her, and her breath grew rough and raspy, and fuck, did he want to make her moan.

“First, and most importantly,” he answered, staying on point, “you will do this because we both know you’ve been looking for a good reason to say yes to a little guilt-free, no-strings-attached with me. So, here it is. I’m giving you the perfect scenario for us to make that happen. The rules are clear. There can be no misunderstandings.”

She hadn’t blinked. “And second?”

“Secondly,” he said, moving his nose to her neck, inhaling her scent of sugar and spice while he slid back up her smooth skin to her ear, feeling her shuddering under his touch. “I’m that guy that every woman, including your bitch of a best friend, will want.” He lifted his head, staring into her lust-filled eyes. “I’m the perfect guy to show your shithead ex-boyfriend you’ve moved up in the world.”

She finally blinked. “When exactly would this arrangement start?”

“Tonight. My house. Eight o’clock. Bring your suitcase.” He paused, considered his next steps. “Send your flight and resort details to my email so I can get that squared away.”

She nodded. “Okay.”

He took her chin, tilting her eyes to lock onto his. “The proper reply is: ‘Yes, Grey, I agree to your terms.’”

Silence fell.

A slowly seductive, delicious darkness slid over her eyes with her grin. “Yes, Grey, I agree to your terms.”

 

 

About the Author:

USA Today bestselling author Stacey Kennedy has written more than 30 romances, including titles in her wildly hot Club Sin, Dirty Little Secrets, and Filthy Dirty Love series. Her books are about real people with real-life problems, searching for that special thing we call love…in a very sexy way. When she’s not burning up the pages and setting e-readers ablaze, she’s living her happily ever after with her husband and two young children in southwestern Ontario. She’s a firm believer that wine, chocolate, and sinfully sexy books can cure all of life’s problems. To keep in touch with Stacey, get updates right to your inbox at staceykennedy.com/newsletter/.

Stacey’s Website | Newsletter  | Twitter | Facebook Author Page | Instagram | Pinterest | Goodreads

 

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I DON’T REGRET YOU by Jodie Larson – Cover Reveal

 

We are very excited to bring you the cover for Jodie Larson’s I DON’T REGRET YOU. This new standalone contemporary romance releases August 14, 2017.

 

 

About the book:

Regrets.

We all have them.

Like the Aqua Net hairstyles back in the 80’s, the 90’s grunge fad, or the person you lost your virginity to as a teen because you were “totally in love”.

I have a few of my own. Specifically marrying my rebound guy but staying married because I was too weak to fight for my own happiness.

He took me down and kept me there for far too long.

I’m done. Done living with regrets and done not pursuing what makes me happy.

Then you came along and showed me that I was worth more than who I had become.

You are not my regret.

Add I DON’T REGRET YOU on Goodreads!

 
 

Excerpt

 

“Nice and warm.” He kisses the spot behind my ear, sending a new shiver to run up my spine.

I jab my elbow into his side. “Don’t sneak up on me like that. I thought you were trying to kill me.”

He comes around and kisses my nose. “Death by sex?”

I roll my eyes. “Fiend.”

“You made me this way. I’ve had the taste and I need more.”

Pulling on his beanie, I laugh. “You sound like a zombie who needs brains.”

“Why must it be brains? I’m thinking a pussy zombie is more appropriate.”

My laugh echoes around us. “Oh my God, there are kids present. Keep your voice down.”

Henry pulls me flush against his chest, placing his mouth on mine. My cool lips press against his warm ones, melting the icy cold from my bones. Snow starts falling around us, catching in the hair peeking out from under my hat. Henry breaks away, running his fingers through it.

“You’re an angel.”

I shake my head. “More like the devil.”

“Technically, the devil was an angel.”

“And look what happened to him.”

His breath curls around his face as he gives me a toothy grin. “At least he’s not cold.”

I smack his shoulder. “Let’s agree to disagree.”

“Fine.” He looks over his shoulder to the kids. “You think they’re ready to go?”

“Doubtful. I thought they’d be exhausted by now. No such luck.”

“I know how to get them to leave.” With a wink, he walks over to the bottom of the hill, waiting for the kids to slide down.

“Hot chocolate,” he yells at the top of his lungs. I’ve never seen them move so fast in the snow. Four sets of voices chant “Me! Me!” as they race back to my car.

Henry walks back with a smug grin.

“Cheater.”

He stops in front of me, pausing, assessing. Then, without warning, he picks me up and tosses me into a nearby snowbank. All four kids start laughing out loud, telling Henry good job. I wipe the snow from my face, trying my best to suppress a grin.

“You’re going to pay for that.”

Offering his hand, I take it but yank hard enough so he joins me. Peals of laughter can be heard from the kids, along with Henry as he shakes the snow off his hat.

“Is that my punishment?”

“Oh no. You’re not getting off that easy.”

A sly smile creeps onto his lips. “Can I pick when and where?”

I jab my mitten into his chest. “No sexual punishment.”

“You’re no fun.” His laughter dies down as he seals his lips over mine once more. We don’t go far, knowing we have an audience. Promises were made and if we don’t deliver the goods, there will be hell to pay.

“My house or yours?”

I bite my lower lip. Tough decision. But I know what I want.

“Yours.”

“Good answer.” Henry helps me up and brushes the snow off me, spending too much time around my ass and breasts. I bat his hands away with a tsk.

We gather up the kids and head out of town to his place. Jacob and Cassie don’t object. They’re just as excited about going there as I am, though for a completely different reason.

 

About Jodie Larson:

Jodie Larson is a wife and mother to four beautiful girls, making their home in northern Minnesota along the shore of Lake Superior. When she isn’t running around to various activities or working her regular job, you can find her sitting in her favorite spot reading her new favorite book or camped out somewhere quiet trying to write her next manuscript. She’s addicted to reading (just ask her kids or husband) and loves talking books even more so with her friends. She’s also a lover of all things romance and happily ever afters, whether in movies or in books, as shown in her extensive collection of both.

DRUNK DIAL by Penelope Ward – Cover Reveal

We are excited to bring you the upcoming standalone from New York Times, USA Today, and #1 Wall Street Journal Bestselling author Penelope Ward.

 DRUNK DIAL will release on AUGUST 21!

 

 

Cover designer: Letitia Hasser, RBA designs
Cover Model: Vadim Ivanov
Cover Photography: Kevin Roldan

 

 

From New York Times bestselling author Penelope Ward, comes a new, sexy standalone novel.

 It seemed like a good idea at the time. Look up Landon Roderick, that boy from childhood whom I’d never been able to forget—even though he so easily forgot about me—and call him.

Then again, anything sounds like a good idea when you’ve had a little too much wine before bed, right? It was supposed to be just a quick, meaningless, prank call. Instead, I went off on him—unloading thirteen years of pent-up emotions.

I didn’t think he’d call me back.

I certainly could never have anticipated the weeks of sexually tense phone conversations that followed as I got to know the man he’d become.

Turned out, Landon had never really forgotten me, either. That special connection we had was still there. I opened up to him, but there were also things about me he didn’t know. And he had his own secrets.

Over the countless hours we talked on the phone, I wondered what would happen if we actually saw each other. One night, I did something impulsive again. Only this time, I went to the airport and booked a ticket to California. We were about to find out if one phone call could bring two lost souls together or if my drunk dial really was all just a big mistake.

A complete STANDALONE.

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 (No Amazon e-book preorder. Will go live on/around release day.)

 

 

Penelope Ward is a New York Times, USA Today, and #1 Wall Street Journal Bestselling author of thirteen novels. With over a million books sold, her titles have placed on the New York Times Bestseller list sixteen times. She is the proud mother of a beautiful 12-year-old girl with autism (the inspiration for the character Callie in Gemini) and a 10-year-old boy. Penelope, her husband, and kids reside in Rhode Island.

 

Connect with Penelope Ward

Facebook Fan Group | Facebook | Website |Twitter | Instagram

 

 

Chapter Reveal: Saving Mercy by Abbie Roads

We’re thrilled to share the first THREE chapters of Saving Mercy with you! This is to celebrate a rare sale from $6.15 to 99¢! Get this book before the price goes back up!

Series: Fatal Truth Series
Genre: Dark Romantic Thriller
Publication Date: April 4, 2017

Synopsis

He’s found her at last…

Cain Killion knows himself to be a damaged man. His only redeeming quality? The extrasensory connection to blood that he uses to catch killers. His latest case takes a macabre turn when he discovers a familiar and haunting symbol linking the crime to his horrific past—and the one woman who might understand what it means.

Only to lose her to a nightmare

Mercy Ledger is brave, resilient, beautiful—and in terrible danger. The moment Cain finds her the line between good and evil blurs and the only thing clear to them is that they belong together. Love is the antidote for blood—but is their bond strong enough to overcome the madness that stalks them?

 

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SAVING MERCY

 

It’s a sad testament to the state of humanity that we elevate serial killers to the level of mega-celebrity.

~Ellsworth Garyington, M.D, Journal of Human and Philosophical Studies

 

Chapter 1

The air reeked of dirty pennies and death. Days ago the bodies had been removed, but Cain Killion could still feel the desperate energy of the dying and almost—almost—hear the echoes of their screams imprinted on the bones of the house. He abhorred the sight of blood and yet here he was standing in another murder house, in front of another wall smeared, splattered, and sprayed with gore.

His heart banged against the cage of his ribs, trying to bust out and make a break for it. A bead of sweat slid in agonizing slowness down the center of his spine.

“You don’t look so good.” MacNeil Anderson stepped into his line of sight, diverting his attention away from the blood. The furrows around Mac’s eyes cut deeper than normal and three days’ worth of old man stubble fuzzed his cheeks, giving him a haggard and homeless appearance. Not exactly the look the FBI was going for when they promoted Mac to Senior Special Agent.

Cain almost smiled at his own thoughts, but laughter no longer existed in this place. Only horror could thrive here now.

“Do I ever look good when I’m about to…?” Yeah. There wasn’t a name for what he did. To the bureaucrats with their thumbs jammed up their asses Mac called it profiling—had to call it something. But it wasn’t profiling. Not at all. What he had to do with the blood was something worse than profiling. So much worse.

“This is different.” Mac reached up and put his dry palm on Cain’s forehead. “You sick? Have a fever?”

Cain might be thirty years old and lived on his own since he was eighteen, but Mac had never outgrown the role of his adopted dad.

“You can always walk away.” Mac made this offer at every kill scene.

And every time, Cain’s legs twitched with the urge to run. Only determination, masochism, and the promise of sick satisfaction kept him locked in place. “I’m staying. I always stay.”

“I’d stop calling you out for these cases, but I know you’d just find someone else who would.” Mac’s words were slow and glossed with sadness.

“No one else has the history I have. No one else can do what I do. No one else can give you the information I can.” Yeah. His profiles were more accurate, more detailed than anything a traditional profiler could come up with. In the majority of cases his work guided law enforcement directly to their perpetrator. “It’d be stupid not to call me.” Not to mention he needed to be around that dynamic duo—blood and death. They stripped away his mask of normalcy leaving him naked to the one truth about himself he could never forget.

He was Killer Killion’s Kid—Triple K—the media called him. The spawn of a killer with the genetic predisposition to be a murdering machine. One of the only ways he’d found to curb the ugly urges was to force himself to attend these murder scenes. Force himself to witness the destruction.

His deepest, darkest, dirtiest secret—the thing he would never utter out loud because it terrified him: Sometimes he enjoyed himself.

“Son, you don’t have anything to prove. Not to me.” Mac used a caring tone, but that word—son—threatened to transport Cain back to his childhood. Back to his biological father using that word like a curse.

Not going there.

Cain stepped around Mac and moved to look out at window. The Victorian home sat on a miniature peninsula of land that jutted out into a large pond. Such an odd place for a house. A beautiful place, breathtaking, and yet eerie in its loneliness and total isolation. Just the kind of place Cain loved.

Had location been a consideration for the killer? Had he finished with his bloody work then stood in this very spot staring out the window at the water?

Cain sucked in a breath, held it for as long as his lungs would allow then blew it out slowly. “I know I don’t have anything to prove to you. I do this for me.” He tried to make his tone firm, but it came out a little shaky. Mac the-FBI-guy would hear it, but Mac his-adopted-dad wouldn’t press. Time for a change of subject. “You notice anything odd about this place?”

“It’s not the typical.” Mac’s words were spoken on a sigh. “Not that there is a typical. This just isn’t like any other location I’ve been called to investigate.”

“Yeah. Victorian house. In the woods. On a pond. I get why our guy would like the isolation of this place. But there’s something more. It has to do with…” He had trouble finding to words to describe the gut-level truth inside him. “… all of it. The house. The woods. The pond. The family. It’s like this guy wanted the complete package.”

Mac nodded, his expression serious as a gravedigger. “You get that from the blood?”

“Just a feeling I have.” It was the kind of place he’d choose if he were going to plan a murder. Kind of like how salt and sweet tasted so good together—this was violence and peace in one location.

Enough stalling. He turned away from the window and faced the room.

Three walls were covered in Victorian era wallpaper—rich gold background, red blossoms on a vine, and fancy peacocks. Ostentatious was the word that came to mind. One wall, the longest, largest wall had been painted the same color as the paper’s background. Yeah. Four walls of peacocks and posies might’ve caused bleeding eyeballs.

Finally, he forced himself to look at the blood on the wall. Rosettes of red seeped into the wallpaper, the fat watercolor splotches almost blending in with the flowers.

Mac cleared his throat as if gearing up for a formal speech. “The techs released the scene this morning. They worked round the clock to get everything cataloged and bagged so we could get you on this ASAP. The blood is, of course clean, I wouldn’t have called you in otherwise.” He pointed to the three distinct blood pools. “The family—Dad, Mom, girl—were found here. Killed here, too. Forensics places their time of death at—”“Mac.” Cain spoke the name loud enough to smother whatever the guy had been about to say. “Quiet.” He needed the absence of sound to see what happened. And he needed to do it now before he pussied out.Mac clamped his lips closed, nodded, and moved across the room—out of the way.Just fucking get it over with.Cain knelt at the altar of blood. The sweet scent of rotting biological material an abomination to his nose and yet, foul anticipation crawled underneath his skin. His mind slid sideways like it always did when around the red stuff. Back to his childhood. Back to a time when he was very much his father’s son. Back to when blood covered his skin—the slick, silky, warmness of it so wrong and yet so horribly soothing at the same time.He slapped his hands down into the congealed sludge. The coldness sent pleasant shock waves up his arms. He didn’t want to feel pleasure, didn’t want to enjoy this, but that other part of him had terrible intentions. Helpless to stop himself, he smeared his hands around in the red like a kid playing with finger paints. Only when they were coated with the family’s blood did he raise them to his face.A miniscule part of him rebelled against what he was about to do, but the rebellion was quashed before it began. He spread the blood over his forehead, his cheeks, coating his skin in the thick, sweet, goo. He painted his neck, his bare arms, then lifted his T-shirt and wiped his hands on his chest.

His head fell back on his shoulders. His breath came in shallow, hyper-ventilating gulps. From a distance, he heard himself moan, only it wasn’t a moan—it was more like the yowling of a feral cat fighting for its life. Or getting ready to mate.

Blood did that to him—was a pleasure and a pain. A gift and a curse.He had a complicated relationship with blood. He hated it. He loved it. Blood was a conduit, a link, a connection, between him and those who slayed souls. Blood opened a doorway, allowing him to step into the mind and body of those who found bliss in ending life. He became the killer. He saw what the killer saw. Did what the killer did. Felt what the killer felt.

An incandescent light flashed behind his eyelids. Cain was gone. He was now the killer.

He stood on a ladder, rolling simple white primer on the wall.

A song had been locked inside his head for months and only now was it time to give voice to the words.

Lift your feet when you

Dance around the old well,

Be careful or you’ll tumble pell-mell.

Look into the dark, dark, waters

For the blood of your fathers.

Show some courage young man,

Find your calling young man.

 He loved the song. He hated the song. But that was life, wasn’t it? It was all one big paradox.

A breathy sound intruded. He turned on the ladder to see the ones on the floor.

They were laid out in a neat row in the middle of the room. Each of them on their stomachs, hands bound behind their backs and tied to the shackles on their feet, mouths obliterated by duct tape. The male’s wrists were hamburger, dripping blood from fighting against the metal cuffs. But none of them struggled now.

Their faces were wet from tears, or maybe sweat—didn’t really matter—and splotchy red and pale. The child grunted.

“Do you want to sing along?” He used a soft tone, the same as he would if he were cajoling a whipped dog. “I will let you, but you must sing it properly. No mistakes.”

More tears slicked the girl’s face and dripped on the drop cloth underneath her. A bubble of snot blew from her nostril and hovered there waiting to pop. She shrank from him. The female seal-humped herself up and over the girl as if to hide the child beneath her body.

Oh, well. He wouldn’t allow them to destroy the pure freedom of this moment. He turned back to his task, losing himself in his song once more.

Save pomegranate seeds

as payment for the ferry man,

Offer red, red wine

as payment to the bar man.

Carve some red, red meat

as food for the hungry man.

 

Show some courage young man,

Find your calling young man.

 

And then, the wall was done, the completion of it sneaking up on him like a surprise party. He stepped off the ladder, moved it to the side to have an unobstructed view and then unzipped his painter’s coveralls and let them slide down his body.

The cool air whispered over his naked flesh like an endearment, the sensation wonderful after the confines of the material. His head fell back on his shoulders and he stood there absorbing and savoring. Everything from this moment to his finish would be carefully recorded in his memory. No matter what happened, no one could erase his memories. They were his alone—safe and untouchable—to be lovingly replayed until his death.

The female sobbed, deep throaty sounds similar to gagging. He faced the ones on the floor and used a gentle voice. “I do understand this is distressing for you, but I—” He dropped his tone a couple of octaves to show his seriousness. “—need. Complete. Silence.” He took his time, meeting and holding each one of their gazes before he continued. “I need to rest now.”

Only when they all quieted did he sit on the couch he had moved to face the wall. The material he’d spread over the cushions—couldn’t risk leaving DNA when he left—scratched against his ass and testicles, but that couldn’t be helped. He laid back, stretched out, waiting for his body to relax.

The blank canvas before him was a beautiful thing. All the potential in the world was right here. A picture waiting to be born.

He emptied his mind of all thoughts and feelings and stared at the wall. He stared, unblinking, until his vision yellowed and then darkened into something that looked akin to an x-ray. He stared, until tears watered his cheeks and his eyes burned like hot coals in their sockets. Only then did he catch a flash of what needed to be created—all he needed was a glimpse.

Wings. He saw wings.

He was about to create a masterpiece in blood.

A sense of timelessness came over him as he killed and painted. Painted and killed. He lost himself in his work. Not thinking about anything, just letting his hands wield the brushes mindless of the image he produced. When the blood was nearly gone and an image had been born upon the wall he came back to himself.

He stepped away from the wall taking more and more of it in with each footstep until he stood on the other side of the room, taking in the full magnitude.

The color contrast of blood on white was as breathtaking and beautiful as a flock of cardinal against the brilliance of snow. Tears burned his eyes. His face stung, and a wild freedom he’d hadn’t experienced in years surged through him. He recognized the feeling. In this moment he was God. The author of destruction. And creation.

The image he’d painted was so… No words existed to convey the gloriousness. Words were small and meaningless compared to this wall.

On the wall—a man knelt, head bowed, hair falling forward, shielding his face from view. Even in that supplicant’s position, supremacy and authority radiated from him. He looked like the strongest of warriors after a great battle—exhausted, but not weak. No. Never weak. There wasn’t an ounce of vulnerability in his sinew, muscle, and bone. Nor was there any delicacy to the lacework of scars marring the skin of his arms. And on his chest, directly over his heart were two criss-crossed slashes that dripped blood down his torso.

Surrounding him were a magnificent pair of wings. Not the kind you’d see on a sparrow or even on a chubby cupid, but the kind of wings that conveyed power and strength and utter indestructibility.

He loved the picture as he loved himself.

 

An incandescent flash and Cain returned to reality, to the stench of decomposing blood smeared over his face.

His brain re-categorized everything that he’d just seen and done into the it-wasn’t-really-me file. But that didn’t take the feelings away. The awe spreading through his chest at what he’d seen. The guilt sinking into his gut because he’d had no remorse.

A dull thumping started behind his eyes. Usually when he did his blood work, he was there for only a few seconds before skipping on to the next images and the next. Those flashes gave him a migraine every time, but seeing entire scenes like this…The migraine was gonna be a badass bitch today. He had maybe ten minutes before the pain ratcheted up to the level of axe-buried-in-his-brain.

Mac handed him a black towel—black concealed the blood better than any other color.

“You back?” Mac knelt next to him, his face full of concern, but Cain could see the concealed disgust in the way Mac’s mouth turned down at the corners, like he was fighting an outright grimace.

That look—especially when it was aimed at him—always took him back to the moment Mac found him. When Cain had been covered in snot and blood and shame. He had to give it Mac, the guy had tried to hide his horror, tried to pretend Cain was just a kid when he’d never been a kid. He’d been more monster than anything.

Cain scrubbed the material over his face, his arms, wiped his hands. The blood on his body—so thick and dry it smeared into his skin—would only come off after a good scouring down in a scalding shower.

He turned his attention to the image on the wall. But… There was no image, instead the wall had been painted gold, perfectly coordinated with the rest of the room. Mac must’ve called him back before the killer covered up his work with the paint.

Holy.

Fucking.

Christ.

His legs wobbled when he stood. His hand shook like an alcoholic in need of his jolly juice, but he pointed at the wall. “He painted a picture.” His brain bashed against the backs of his eyeballs. He wanted to press his hands to his eyes to keep them from exploding out of their sockets, but his hands were smeared with the family’s blood. The pain was only beginning.

“I… I don’t know what you mean.” Mac’s tone was full of question.

“He painted the wall white—made a blank canvas. Then he created a portrait—using the family’s blood—of some guy—” Cain closed his eyes, seeing on the back of his lids the scars lined up and down the man’s arms, the slashes over his heart, just like the ones on his—

“Fuck!” His lids popped open, his gaze automatically sought the wall, hoping to see the actual image again, but gold paint pulsed in his vision from the thumping inside his head. He held his arms out in front of him. Underneath the thin coating of blood on his skin, a network of white slashes ran from his wrists to his shoulders.

The wounds had healed decades ago, but the scars still remained. He pulled his shirt up high, and looked down at his chest stained with drying blood. A thick white criss-crossed scar rested over his heart—cut into his flesh by his father. Every scar on his body—placed there by his father.

“What is it?” Mac’s tone was full of question, mixed with a bit of suspicion. “You’ve got to talk to me. I don’t know what’s going on.”

Cain’s heart galloped up and down his rib cage, but he forced himself to speak slowly and quietly—in deference to the axe beating against his skull. He told Mac everything he’d seen and everything he remembered about the artwork in blood. “It’s there. You can’t see it, but it’s there. I’m there. Underneath that gold paint.”

It took a lot to catch Mac off guard and score one for Cain—he’d just done it.

Mac’s mouth was slightly open, lips twitching like they were trying to form words, until a one finally spilled out. “Infrared.” The word came out soft and hesitant. “We might be able to see the image using infrared photography.” Things went quiet for a moment while Mac stared at the perfectly painted gold wall. “Why paint you? Why not paint Killion? I mean people are obsessed with you both, but why choose you over him? And this guy made it clear it was you he painted. Without those scars we would’ve thought it was Killion.”

Yes. Cain was cursed with looking too much like his father—like one of the world’s most horrendous killers. It usually took a double-take and some head scratching before people realized he wasn’t Killer Killion.

Mac shook his head. “But then our guy covered up what he’d painted. Probably thinking we’d never know the image was there.”

“He even fucking signed it.” Cain didn’t realize until the words exited his mouth that he had seen a signature.

“He put his name on it?”

“Not his name. A symbol.” Cain wiped his hands harder on the towel then dropped it on the floor. He yanked his cell from his back pocket, and tapped on the art pad app. The white light from the phone lasered into his skull. It was all he could do to keep his eyes open and not groan out loud. He drew a Christian cross then put a hook on the bottom of it that looked like an upside down question mark “You’ve seen this before. I’ve seen this before.”

He showed the image to Mac and watched the guy’s face turn pink, then tomato with recognition.

“Yeah.” Cain voice was straight as a line. “It’s from my father’s last kill. But he didn’t do this. Not unless Petesville Super Max allows weekend furloughs.”

Mac snorted. “Only way he’s getting out of there is in a body bag.”

Couldn’t happen soon enough. His father was a stain on humanity. “So we know he didn’t do this.”

“But…” Mac’s words disappeared for eight thumps of Cain’s brain. “The girl—Mercy Ledger—made that mark on the wall as she was bleeding out from your father cutting… From her throat being cut. It didn’t mean anything. It doesn’t mean anything.”

Didn’t mean anything until today. That symbol was at that scene twenty years ago and it’s here now.”

Mac shook his head slowly like an old dog with neck problems. “No one ever questioned her about it. The prints on the wall were hers. Jesus—we need to find Mercy Ledger.”

Mac didn’t say it, but Cain knew how the man’s brain worked. Mac thought Mercy must’ve done this. “She didn’t do this. She’s been locked down in The Center of Balance and Wellness for the past few years.” The words popped out his mouth before he censored them. And he really should’ve censored them.

He lifted his arm, pressed his eyes against a clean patch of material near his shoulder, and spoke without looking at Mac. “I—” Yeah. Just what was he going to say? It wasn’t like he could confess that he’d been checking up on Mercy Ledger for the past twenty years. That would make him sound like a damned stalker. And stalking was considered the gateway drug to killing. “Liz told me.” Bold faced, flat-out, flaming-bright lie. And Mac would know it. The guy was trained to spot a lie at thirty paces. And yet, Cain would rather endure the cost of the lie, than spend the truth. Call him chicken shit—he would own it. He kept his eyes closed against his shoulder.

“Isn’t that a violation of confidentiality or something?” Mac worded it as a question, but it sounded like a statement. “Liz could lose her nursing license.”

But Liz hadn’t actually told him. He’d guessed. He’d known Liz long before he’d met Mac. In those dark days of childhood, his father had forced Cain to work with him at The Center. Liz had been a night nurse and the only person to ever show kindness to him. Even after his father had been caught, she remained a part of Cain’s life—babysitting him when Mac was away for work. She was one of the few people he considered a friend and the closest thing he’d ever had to a mother. And now he’d tossed her in front of the bus because he was a pussy.

The quiet closed in around him. His head felt like it was about to burst off his shoulders. His stomach started rolling.

“The Center?” Mac finally broke the quiet. “That’s a horrible irony.”

And it was. That Mercy Ledger had lived the past few years of her life among the same hallways his father had roamed as a janitor was beyond irony. It was downright wrong.

 

In a recent online auction, the knife Adam Killion used in the Ledger family murders sold for a record breaking 2.3 million dollars. The Son of Sam Law prohibits convicted felons from profiting from their crime, but someone just made a fortune.

~J. C. Brown, www.criminalnewsinvestigations.com

 

 

Chapter Two

Mercy Ledger sat in the therapy circle with eleven other crazies from Ward B. The pungent funk of unwashed bodies and rotting chicken—thanks to Bo Coray and his chicken fetish—hung heavy in the air. The suicidal, homicidal, or just plain psychotic didn’t care about trivial things like hygiene.

Dr. Payne wore his usual attire—three-hundred dollar shirt, perfectly tailored pants, and shoes so shiny when he stepped in front of her she could see her reflection in them. He looked too GQ to be a psychiatrist in this underfunded, overpopulated, dump of a mental hospital.

He handed her a sheet of paper. In what had once been bold letters, but now were more in the realm of fuzzy gray from over photocopying, it read:

GRATITUDE JOURNAL

Practice an attitude of gratitude!

List three things you are grateful for today!

 

Gratitude? Seriously? After two years on Ward B, there wasn’t a whole lot to be thankful for.

Dr. Payne held out the box of crayons to her. They didn’t trust the residents of Ward B with pens or pencils. Guess no one had ever gotten shanked with a Crayola. “What color are you going to choose?” His words themselves were benign, but each syllable was threaded with judgment.

Her pulse pounded in her veins, her face got hot, her hand holding the paper began to shake.

The vibe that came off of Dr. Payne was something she recognized. Ever since that long, terrible night with Killion she’d been able to sense people’s bad intentions as if she had an early warning system. It had to do with their energy—it connected with her differently than most people. But then most people hadn’t survived what she’d survived.

Her mind’s early warning system flashed her snatches of tomorrow’s session with Dr. Payne. If she selected the yellow or orange crayon he would say she was trying too hard to be cheerful. If she picked red, he would accuse her of having angry or violent thoughts. If she grabbed blue or gray he’d declare her depressed. If she chose black he’d claim she wanted to disassociate. Whatever the color, he would make sure she was going to be wrong, forcing her to spend all of tomorrow’s session with him defending tonight’s color selection. And if she wasn’t successful in her defense—he’d use that as an excuse to have more private sessions with her.

“Mercy. Take a crayon.” Dr. Payne’s voice sounded like a calm ocean, but underneath the surface hungry sharks swam.

Shit. She grabbed the purple crayon.

“I can stay after group to help you process your reluctance.” His tone was full of fake helpfulness.

“No. I’m sorry. I was just daydreaming.” Great. Now she was going to have to come up with a reason why she’d stared at the damned crayon box so long without choosing one. It wasn’t like she could tell him the truth—that she knew what he wanted and had been trying to out think him. The level of control he had over her life scared her nearly as much as Killion had all those years ago.

He moved on to Bo, handing him the paper and giving him a crayon, but she still felt the burden of his gaze on her—watching her, assessing her, looking for an excuse—any excuse—to increase her meds and decrease her ability to think.

She settled her hand over the six-inch ridge of puckered skin scarring her neck. The old injury was always cold and the heat of her palm soothed something inside of her, reassuring her soul that she had already survived the worst of life and she would survive Ward B and Dr. Payne too.

But she better get her hand off her neck, before he decided she needed to talk about Killion again. Dr. Payne enjoyed her tragedy too much.

She moved her hand away from her throat and the scar went cold. She held the purple crayon by the fingers of both hands.

“For tonight’s education group—” Dr. Payne used his Moses-parting-the-seas voice and took the empty seat next to her. He always sat next to her. “—we’re going to talk about happiness and some of the research being conducted in the field of positive psychology. A group of Harvard psychologists have found that happy people have a particular set of habits.”

None of the patients on Ward B gave two shits about happiness. They were all too damned crazy to care about such an elusive term. Now if this evening’s group had been about how to score smokes, line-up conjugal visits, or get extra pudding cups—most of the patients would have been taking notes.

“I’m already happy!” Bo let out a high-pitch little girl giggle that sounded nine kinds of wrong coming from a three hundred pound guy. “I’m Bojangles! See!” He framed his face with his pudgy hands and smiled an open-mouthed, deranged clown smile.

He called himself Bojangles—partly because of his chicken fixation and mostly because the name sounded like a clown’s name and that’s exactly what Bo thought he was—a clown. That crazy smile and his carrot colored afro only solidified the delusion.

“I’m so happy!” Bo swayed violently in his seat bumping in to her, knocking her into Dr. Payne whose arm went around her locking her against his hard body. He held her too hard and too wrong. The room fell away. Bo’s shouting vanished. The only thing that existed was his horrible strength, trapping her against him and the urge—the almost uncontrollable urge—to scream.

“Are you all right? If he hurt you…” His breath fanned across her cheek smelling of sweet tea and summer. He should be the one who smelled like rotting chicken. Her body went into rigor mortis. She couldn’t move or breathe or think.

Bo jumped to his feet and moved into the center of the circle. Dr. Payne let her go. What had felt like an eternity of being pinned against him had probably lasted only two seconds since no one seemed to notice.

“Let’s be happy together!” Bo hollered at the top of his volume range and began twirling like a morbidly obese ballerina. “Bojangles. Bojangles. Bojangles.” He sang his name at an ear throbbing volume.

Dr. Payne didn’t move, didn’t blink, just watched Bo with an expression of absolute indifference on his face. That was part of how Mercy had known he was a sociopath. He never reacted normally—and he didn’t have the excuse of being pumped full of anti-psychotics and sedatives like the rest of the group. He never seemed threatened, no matter the situation. Probably because he was always the biggest threat in the room.

Bo pirouetted to a stop in front of her. “Dance with me baby doll!” He snatched her up against his flabby body and hurled them around. His rotten chicken stench, assaulted her nose, but no matter how bad he stank, she wasn’t scared of him. Bo would never intentionally hurt her or anyone else. He was like a mastiff pup. He didn’t understand how big he was, or how strong, or how his size could intimidate.

“Bo, I don’t feel like dancing right now.” She pushed against his pudgy man boobs.

His bottom lip jutted out shiny with saliva, but he stopped and let her go, just like she knew he would.

His chest bellowed, his lungs wheezed and whistled. Hauling around three hundred pounds would do that to a person.

“Now why don’t you sit down, catch your breath, and let Dr. Payne finish tonight’s—”

Bo began toppling over sideways, taking his time to fall, the way a giant tree goes down in a thick forest. She reached out to grab him, but his momentum and weight were too much. He landed—knee, hip, then shoulder—the sound of flesh slapping concrete punctuated by the thud of heavy bones. Where Bo had been only a second before, Dr. Payne now stood, staring at her. Not the man on the floor.

And that’s where her ability to sense bad intentions fell short. Spontaneity. When someone acted without planning, her internal warning mechanism failed every time. She could never fully rely on it.

“What’d you do to him? He was done. He was going to sit down.” The moment the words flew out her mouth she wished she could suck every syllable back inside and swallow them down whole.

An unnatural silence engulfed the room. No one in the group moved, no one spoke, no one checked on Bo. They all stared at her. At her. As if she’d done something wrong. And she had done something wrong. She’d challenged Dr. Payne—talked back to him instead of being subservient. And worst of all she’d shown caring for Bo.

There was a terrible pattern to her life, one she tried to deny, one she tried to tell herself wasn’t real. But the undeniable truth, the thing that loomed over her ever since that night with Killion: If she cared for someone, they were bound to get hurt.

But didn’t anyone else care about Bo? Or that Dr. Payne had somehow caused Bo to fall? She wanted to scream at the group, at Dr. Payne, but clamped her lips firmly closed.

Click. The sound was a mini explosion in Mercy’s head. Her gaze shot to the panic button clipped to Dr. Payne’s belt and his finger just lifting off the pad.

Her stomach kicked. No no no. He wouldn’t have hit the button because of her words. He wouldn’t put her on Ward A just for questioning him. Or would he? On Ward A he’d have supreme control over her. No interaction with anyone except for him. Just what he wanted and what she’d managed to avoid for the past two years.

Dr. Payne’s eyes were black and unfeeling, his lips pinched in a promise of terrible things to come. He reached into his pants pocket and withdrew a syringe, uncapped it, and took a step toward her.

An odd buzzing sound started in her ears, her vision narrowed until the only thing she saw was that syringe held between his perfectly manicured fingers. She couldn’t let him inject her. Couldn’t let him knock her so completely out that she would be unconscious and then in a sedated, vegetable state for days afterward.

Dr. Payne jammed the needle in Bo’s ass cheek. She sucked in a lungful of air—she hadn’t realized she’d been holding her breath.

Two security guards and two male nurses rushed into the room. She moved away from Bo and stumbled back to her chair, collapsing so hard on the metal seat her tailbone rang.

“Transport him to Ward A.” Dr. Payne returned to his place beside her. “I’ll be down to assess him in a few minutes.”

She wanted to cringe away from him, but forced her body to stillness and watched as each member of the security team took an arm or leg and dragged Bo out of the room—he weighed too much to carry.

“We’ll be cutting group short tonight. Everyone fill out your papers, return them to me, and then go to your rooms.”

Dr. Payne passed her a fresh sheet of paper and the pink crayon—her paper and crayon had somehow disappeared in all the commotion. Using her leg for a solid surface, she scribbled the same thing on all three lines.

I’m grateful to be alive.

I’m grateful to be alive.

I’m grateful to be alive.

Without glancing at Dr. Payne, she handed in her paper and crayon and strained to walk from the room, instead of run. ‘Cause she wanted to run. She wanted far away from Dr. Payne and Ward B and this miserable existence where everything she did was under a microscope.

In her room, she didn’t bother with the overhead fluorescents, she went straight to her barred window and stared out into the night. There were no distant lights dotting the horizon, no stars twinkling in the sky. Nothing to indicate an entire world existed beyond her pane of glass. Just a void—a massive, black nothingness stretching on to infinity. The emptiness—the illusion of being alone—soothed her.

Her door clicked and swung open. She clamped her teeth together and breathed a quiet huff of frustration. Privacy didn’t exist on Ward B. To the staff, privacy equaled delinquency. The wavy image of a person reflected on her window. Liz—the charge nurse—always checked on her after she’d done everyone else. She understood Mercy’s need to experience the only peaceful moments of the day.

“All good here. I’ll get in bed in a few minutes.” Mercy forced lightness into her tone. If she let any irritation or tension leak into her voice, she risked Dr. Payne finding out.

“Mercy—” A man’s voice.

She startled, a jerking of muscle so violent it felt as if she’d been electrocuted. She whirled from the window to face him.

“—I need to make sure Bo didn’t hurt you.”

Her mind rebelled against the message her eyeballs were sending. Dr. Payne stood in her doorway. He never entered a patient’s room. And male staff were not permitted in the rooms of female patients. But here he was and here she was—and this wasn’t going to end well.

Her heart went off like a cannon.

“I’m responsible for you. You’re under my care. I won’t let anyone interfere.” Dr. Payne wore a grin, his deep dimples giving him a look all the women—staff and patients alike—adored.

“I’m fine. No harm done.” There was only a slight tremor in her voice. Maybe he wouldn’t notice. She cleared her throat and aimed for a stronger tone. “Liz knows my routine. She’ll be in to do a check in a few minutes.” Yeah. Remind him that someone might catch him if tried anything. “She’s fine with me being awake as long as I don’t bother anyone else.”

Dr. Payne took a step into the room. “Liz is dealing with Bo.”

Slowly, silently, the door began to fall shut behind him. The light from the hallway pinched off inch by inch until only darkness stood between them. The barely audible click of the latch sent a cold rush of adrenaline through her limbs.

Her internal warning system went off and she knew—knew in the way of instincts and reflexes and urges—knew with a clarity beyond understanding what he had planned for tonight. For her. The images flickered through her mind almost like memories, but they were of things to come. Him forcing her face down over her bed. Him taking what she wouldn’t give. Him making it hurt. Him making her bleed. Him marking her as his.

Fear licked down her spine and bit into her guts, but she refused to cower before him. She wouldn’t be an easy victim. Not her. Never her. Never again. And if he didn’t know that—it just went to prove how much he sucked at his job.

She would handle this. She’d been through worse. She’d survived worse. This time all she needed to do was get to the hallway where the lights were on and the cameras were rolling and there was always someone at the nurse’s station. Ten feet. That’s all that stood between her and safety.

She walked toward him. Better to be on the offensive instead of being forced to react. She put an extra sway to her hips, and prayed he’d be too distracted to realize she was going for the door—not him.

He watched her, that dimpled predatory smile never leaving his lips. Her heart somehow exited her chest, floating up in her head and pounding in her ears. She stopped a mere foot away from him.

Calm. Keep calm. Breathe in slow. Exhale slow. She could freak all she wanted later. But not now. Not when it really mattered.

Slowly, she shifted to his side, a mere two feet from the door. No sudden movements. Not yet. Not until she knew she could grab the handle and get out into the hallway before he stopped her.

“What do you think you’re doing?” His words were liquid nitrogen to her blood. She froze.

He turned to face her, moving further into her space. He wasn’t much taller than her, his dead eyes and taunting mouth right on the level of hers—only inches away.

Do something. Do anything. Don’t let him touch you. Her mind screamed the words to be heard over her heart thundering in her ears.

With every ounce of force she possessed, she rammed her knee into his knobby knockers.

He didn’t make a sound. He didn’t move. Didn’t react.

Had she missed?

He struck out with his fist so fast she didn’t have a chance to flinch, block, or move. The impact sent a shockwave of agony through her face, the sensation so intense she couldn’t feel the epicenter. She stumbled backwards, lost her footing, and landed on her ass. The impact vibrated through every bone in her body like a plucked violin string.

Dr. Payne bent double, cupping his pulverized parts. He shuffle-walked the one step to her, drew back his foot and slammed it into her ribs. Air whoofed out of her. She collapsed back, rolling and writhing to escape the fire in her side.

How long she laid there, she didn’t know. But suddenly, Dr. Payne’s face was in her line of sight and his intentions were in her head. Her mind flashed through images of the stark walls of Ward A, of herself drugged beyond awareness, of Dr. Payne amusing himself with her mind and body.

She tried to move toward the door, but her body wasn’t able to comply. She was lost in an inferno of pain.

Dr. Payne ruffled his hands through his hair, making it messy. He pulled at his perfectly tucked in shirt making it sloppy, then knelt down next to her.

She scooted away from him, but he grabbed her hand, forced her fingers open, gripping her middle finger in his fist. Was this some new form of torture? He yanked her finger to his face, jammed the nail against his cheek, then scraped it down over his skin, leaving a red trough of blood. He slammed her hand against the floor, grinding and mashing it in with his own. But she had reached a familiar place. A numb place. A place where physical pain no longer hurt her. He could slit her throat like Killion had and she wouldn’t feel it.

He stood and hit the panic button, then pulled another syringe from his pocket.

“You were the reason Bo acted out tonight. You stormed off from group without completing your assignment. I came here to check on you. You attacked me. You called me Killion. You’ve had a break from reality.”

The whimpers and whines of a wounded animal filled the room. The sound came from her and no matter how hard she tried to shush herself—something deep inside had broken and wouldn’t be soothed.

He raised the syringe over his head and slammed it down with all the force of a large hunting knife, stabbing her in the thigh. She watched as the clear fluid emptied into her body.

“I think it’s time we stepped up your treatment. ECT should help. I’ll plug you in a couple times. See how you behave towards me then.”

A wave crashed over her, but it wasn’t a wave, it was her body. No, it wasn’t her body moving, it was the drug hitting her system, pounding its way to her mind. The world went gray. She fought to stay on the surface, to not let the sedative pull her under, but the world went dark and she drowned under the drug’s effect.

 

 

What does it say about us that our primary sources of entertainment are shows and movies that glamourize violence, rape, and murder?

~Ellis Worth, M.D, Journal of Human and Philosophical Studies

 

 

Chapter Three

Three days later…

The moon beamed pearlescent rays across the sky. But none of the beauty touched the expansive lawn around The Center. The grounds were tarnished with a hopelessness that could never be polished away. How could anyone get better when the environment itself sucked at your soul?

Cain hated the place. Had hated it from that first night his father brought him to work on the night shift. Cain had been just five years old and forced to split the duties—emptying the garbage, mopping floors, cleaning toilets, scrubbing vomit and feces off the walls on Ward A. By far not the worst of his childhood memories.

From the dense woods surrounding the building a coyote yipped and howled, the sound a wild combination of mournful exuberance.

He pulled his cell from his pocket and hit the screen. 3:35 a.m. Liz was five minutes late. That didn’t bode well for Liz or him or Mercy. Or their clandestine meeting.

He had only two questions for Mercy. Did she remember drawing the symbol on the wall all those years ago? And what did it mean to her? Since Dr. God Complex refused to let Mac meet with her because it might jeopardize her treatment, Cain decided to use the back door—literally, he stood at The Institute’s back door—to get answers. There had to be a goddamned reason a picture of him—in blood—was signed with the same symbol Mercy had drawn as she was bleeding out from the wound caused by his father. He just needed to figure out that reason.

His neck itched and his body twitched. He shifted from one foot to the other, unable to stand still. Christ. He felt like an ADHD kid hopped up on sugar, trying to rein in a surplus of energy. Only it wasn’t energy pumping through him. It was anger. Rage. Fury. That’s what this place did to him. Made him into the sullen boy he’d once been who dreamed of wrath and revenge.

“Mercy.” He whispered her name to the moon and some of the anger evaporated. “Mercy. Mercy. Mercy.” He used the word as a mantra, reveling in the taste of those vowels and consonants inside his mouth. Just saying her name calmed him.

From inside the building, a rusty bolt scraped and banged, loud as a cherry bomb. The door swung inward, the squeal of old hinges shrieking through the night. In the woods, the coyote howled as if claiming its territory against the odd sounding intruder.

Liz backed out the door, pulling a wheelchair. Twenty-five years ago, when he’d first met her here at The Institute she’d looked like a mom—a smile on her face, encouraging words on her lips, and a stout don’t-break-the-rules attitude. Now she looked the grandma version with her gray hair and pleasant plumpness.

“Getting her out here was easier than I expected.” Liz didn’t exactly whisper, but didn’t speak at normal volume. “Ward A doesn’t have cameras since everyone is locked down. Thank the angels the night shift are notorious slackers—we didn’t run into anyone.” Liz turned the wheelchair to face him.

The woman in the chair slumped in the corner of the seat, head hanging as if it were too heavy to lift. Her hair dangled in limp, stringy hanks that reminded him of blond worms.

“This isn’t my Mercy.” Shit. The my had just slipped out. He didn’t look at Liz—didn’t want confirmation that she’d heard the slip.

His Mercy had always been strong. Even at ten years old, throat wrapped in a fat wad of bandages, she’d seemed oddly poised and imperturbable during all the media interviews. She had survived something worse than what he had endured and yet retained her strength. She’d inspired him, intrigued him and tied herself to him without ever knowing.

And she’d always been pretty. All strawberry blond hair and turquoise eyes and features that he’d just wanted to stare at because it made him feel all warm and nice on the inside. He’d never gotten close enough to smell her, but he imagined her scent to be a cross between fresh baked cookies and sunshine—not body odor and vomit like this woman.

“It is her. See what he’s done to her?” Liz’s voice snapped like a whip.

“Who?” Cain asked the question to Liz, but his gaze remained locked on Mercy. She hadn’t moved, hadn’t spoken, didn’t even seem alive.

“Dr. Payne. He’s had a sick fascination with her from the first. Probably because she was the only person on Ward B who didn’t deserve to be there. He’s been pretty harmless until three days ago, when he moved her to Ward A.”

“Why the fuck is she even here if she’s not—?” He’d assumed her past—what his father had done to her and her family—had finally caught up with her. He knelt in front of her wheelchair.

“Don’t you curse at me boy.” Liz’s tone was all angry mom, making him feel like a bad kid. “Her official record says Undifferentiated Schizophrenia and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But I’ve seen psychotic—she’s not psychotic and never has been.”

He’d never spoken to Mercy before, never been this close to her, never dared to. He’d been a wuss—too damned scared of her reaction to approach her. She had every right to hate him. It was his father that killed her entire family, his father that slit her throat, and his father’s blood that ran in his veins.

He touched her hair, feeling the damp stickiness of it on his fingers, and smoothed it back over her shoulder. Moonlight gave him more than enough illumination to see. Mercy’s eyes were half open and half rolled up in her head. A dark shadow marred the side of her face, spreading up and around her eye. His insides went arctic. “Who hit her?” The words exploded, loud and angry and conspicuous into the night. All the rage he’d suppressed came surging back into his body, tensing his muscles, and nestling in his bones.

“Dr. Payne claims she was hallucinating and thought he was Killion.”

Cain flinched as violently as if Liz had struck him. It was a reflex he couldn’t subdue even after all these years. Hearing his father’s name still had that effect on him.

“I don’t buy it. The good doctor claims he was in the process of subduing her when she fell and hit her face. And her ribs. Seems bit odd to me that the bruise where he injected her with the sedative is the exact size of man’s fist around the needle mark.”

Cain sucked in a slow breath, to calm the anger revving through his muscles. He felt like yelling at Liz for everything that had been done to Mercy, but the rational part of him knew it wasn’t her fault. He metered and measured his voice to force it to sound calm. “You reported him, right?”

“There’s no point. It’s his word against who? Mercy’s? My speculation?” Liz’s tone contained the anger that Cain had been trying to control. She was as pissed off about this as he was.

“Dr. Payne claims she’s been unresponsive to meds so now he’s shocked her twice in two days and still has her on enough meds to sedate an angry, bull elephant. But you won’t find any of that on her official record. If it ain’t recorded, it didn’t happen.” Liz’s lips pinched so tight the tiny wrinkles around them turned into chasms. “At this stage the damage isn’t permanent. Only short term memory loss. But the longer she’s with him…I’m not risking my job so you can talk to her—she’s unable to talk. I’m risking it so you can save her life. You have to take her away from here before he destroys her.”

Liz’s words fell into his brain one by one, each lining up until the meaning finally hit him. He jerked back from Mercy and stood. “No way. You know I can’t.”

“You will.”

“I just wanted to ask her a question. Maybe two. That’s all. I can’t take her. Be responsible for her.” He was going to hit Liz with his best shot. “She wouldn’t want me to take her. I look too much like him.” Cain backed a few steps away from Liz and Mercy.

“Cain—” Liz had that take-no-attitude tone. “—if you don’t take her, Dr. Payne is either going to turn her into a vegetable or kill her. Do you want her emotional or physical death on your hands? Because it will be if you walk away.”

His heart jerked. Liz’s words were a bulls-eye straight through everything he feared most—being responsible for someone’s death. And Liz fucking knew it. In that moment, for the first time in his life—he hated her a little for using his fear against him. “I never thought you would stoop so damned low.”

She gave the wheelchair a shove toward him. “I can tolerate your anger, even your hatred, but I can’t endure sitting back and watching Dr. Payne kill her a little more each day. If I take her, they’ll just find her and put her back in here. Her best chance is with you. No one would ever think to look for her with you.”

Cain opened his mouth to say something, to argue the point, but his brain went devoid of thought. Liz slowly turned and walked back into The Institute. She shut and locked the door behind her. Only when she was gone did Cain find the words.

“Holy fucking Christ!”

He was going to kidnap Mercy Ledger.

 

About Abbie Roads

Abbie Roads is a mental health counselor known for her blunt, honest style of therapy. By night she writes dark, emotional novels always giving her characters the happy ending she wishes for all her clients. SAVING MERCY is the first book in her new Fatal Truth Series of dark, gritty, romantic suspense with a psychological twist.

You Can Find Abbie Roads Here:

Website | Facebook | Twitter

Dangerously Dark Darlings Facebook Group

 

 

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From New York Times bestselling author Kristen Proby comes a sexy, new standalone contemporary romance in her Fusion Series, THE BEAUTY OF US, releasing August 22, 2017! Check out the chapter below and get to know Trevor and Riley!

 

 

About THE BEAUTY OF US:

New York Times bestselling author Kristen Proby delivers another sizzling novel in her delectable and sexy Fusion series.

Riley Gibson is over the moon at the prospect of having her restaurant, Seduction, on the Best Bites TV network. This could be the big break she’s been waiting for. But the idea of having an in-house show on a regular basis is a whole other matter. Their lives would be turned upside down, and convincing Mia, her best friend and head chef of Seduction, that having cameras in her kitchen every day is a good idea is daunting. Still, Riley knows it’s an opportunity she can’t afford to pass on. And when she meets Trevor Cooper, the show’s executive producer, she’s stunned by their intense chemistry.

Trevor’s sole intention is to persuade Riley to allow Best Bites TV to do a show on her restaurant. But when he walks into Riley’s office, he stops dead in his tracks. The professional, aloof woman on the phone is incredibly beautiful and funny. But can he convince her that he’s interested in Riley for himself? Or is he using the undeniable pull between them to persuade her to agree to his offer?

 

 

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Chapter 2

~Trevor~

I didn’t sleep worth shit last night. I waited for a response to my e-mail from Riley for a while; I’m not exactly sure why. I just don’t like the thought of her being embarrassed.

Because she has no reason to be. She didn’t know who I was, and it was closing time. She was venting to her friends.

It’s really no big deal.

But I could see the mortification in her big blue eyes when she realized who I was, and that doesn’t sit well with me.

When no response came, and for all I know she hasn’t even read the e-mail yet, I sat down for a game on the PS4. I don’t travel anywhere without it. Some people read to unwind. Some go to the gym, and there are times I do the same. But to truly relax, I enjoy gaming. I have since I was a kid.

So I settled in the apartment the network has rented for me this month and played online with my friends, talking about our days and shooting the enemy.

We played well past midnight, and I usually would have gone right to bed afterward, but my mind was still turning, making falling asleep impossible. The restaurant is better than I imagined through my research on their website and customer reviews. It’s visually stunning, the food is fantastic, and they’ve hit the mark on the sexy factor.

But added to that, the five women who own the place are all beautiful, smart, and will make for great TV. Viewers will eat this show up, pun intended.

I lean over the sink and wash my face, not bothering to shave today, and as I dry off, I reach for my phone.

I have several new e-mails.

The most recent is from Riley Gibson.

Trevor,

Thank you for your kind email. I apologize again for the conversation last night. I would like to promise that we don’t always talk like that at work, but that would be a lie. At least we keep it to closing time over a glass of wine.

Enjoy Portland,

Riley

I grin and sling the towel over my bare shoulders. Riley isn’t what I had pictured in my head before I got here. I knew that she was pretty because their photos are on their website, but she’s much prettier in person.

And animated.

Working with her will be fun.

And a test to my libido. Because Riley is fucking sexy. I’ve never mixed business and sex before, and I don’t plan to start now, but keeping my hands off her will be a test of wills.

And that too should be fun.

After my run this morning, I stopped by a bagel place to eat and read a newspaper, came back to the apartment for a shower, and I think I’ll go to Seduction for lunch. I hadn’t planned to go back there until my meeting with Riley tomorrow, but I also haven’t had lunch there yet.

I dress quickly in jeans and a red T-shirt and walk the six or so blocks to the restaurant.

They’ve just opened, so they’re not busy yet. The atmosphere is calm, the lighting a bit brighter than last night, making it a fun spot to meet with colleagues or friends for lunch.

I’m seated on the far side of the restaurant, where it meets the bar, and I can see Riley and the other women sitting around a high table, talking.

Loud enough for me to hear.

“So, he’ll be here tomorrow. Filming doesn’t start for another week, unless the timetable has been moved up,” Riley says, studying her iPad and checking things off a list. “It would be great if we could watch our language.”

“Right,” Mia says, rolling her eyes. “Because that’s gonna happen.”

“Just watch the F-bombs then,” Riley says with a grin. “And I’ll do my best not to vent to him about my horrible dating experiences. Not that I’ll be having any more of those.”

“I wish I’d been here for that,” Addie says with a smile. “It’s hilarious.”

“No, it’s not,” Riley says, but smiles and covers her lips with her fingers. “Okay, it’s a little funny. I’ll be working from home today.”

“Why?” The blonde speaking, I presume Cami, asks.

“Because I have a roofer coming today,” Riley says. “But if you need me, just call. I can come back after he leaves.”

“Go.” Mia waves her off. “We’ve got this.”

The girls all stand, about to go their own ways to get their day started. They’re clearly good friends, which will come across well on film.

Riley walks out of the bar and glances up, spotting me.

“Hi.” I offer her a smile and motion for her to join me. She sits, sets her iPad aside, and squares her shoulders.

I love a woman with grit.

“Why are you here?” she asks.

“I’m having lunch,” I reply, and gesture to the salad sitting in front of me. “It’s delicious. Adding the brussels sprouts is smart.”

“I’ll pass that along to Mia,” she says, and then laughs. “I guess you heard the part where I asked the girls to not swear.”

“I did,” I reply, and patiently butter a piece of warm bread. “Don’t worry about that stuff. They’re adults.”

“With potty mouths,” she says.

“And we can bleep stuff out, or ask them to rephrase. You’ve already got the gig, Riley. I wouldn’t be here otherwise. This isn’t an audition.”

“I know.” She sighs and reaches over to take a piece of my bread, surprising and delighting me. “I just want things to go smoothly.”

“Perhaps you should order lunch too.”

“I don’t have time,” she says, and then her blue eyes widen as she realizes what she just did. “I’m so sorry. I eat when I’m stressed out, and I didn’t—”

“No.” I hold my hand up to stop her. “It’s fine. I like that you’re relaxed with me. I think you need to relax more often.”

“What are you, my life coach now?”

“If you like. Did you cancel those dating sites like I suggested?”

She bites her lip and looks to the side, then nods. “I did.”

“Good.” I take a bite of salad and nod. “Are you sure you don’t want some food?”

“I rarely have time to eat,” Riley says, and checks the time on her phone. “In fact, I should go. I have to meet the roofer at my house.”

“What’s wrong with your roof?”

“It’s old,” she says with a shrug. “That’s what happens when you buy an old house. I’m fixing it up a little at a time.”

I nod, and find that I don’t want her to go quite yet. I want to talk more, to learn more about her.

“Why don’t you come to my apartment tonight and I’ll cook you dinner?”

She pauses and stares at me for a moment. “Why?”

I laugh and set my fork down. “Because I asked you to. We’re going to be working closely over the next few weeks, we might as well get to know each other a little better. Also, we can discuss my new duties as your life coach.”

“Well.” Her lips twitch as she thinks it over for a moment, a myriad of emotions moving across her beautiful face, and finally she says, “Okay. Do you mind texting me the address and the time?”

“Not at all,” I reply, and immediately pass her my phone. “Plug in your number and I’ll text you this afternoon.”

She complies, passes it back, and smiles. “Okay, see you later.”

And with that, she’s off. Her ass swaying enticingly in her tight skirt, calves flexing from the height of her heels, and the food I’m currently chewing immediately tastes like cardboard.

Jesus.

And I just voluntarily offered to spend time with her. Alone.

I’m a fucking glutton for punishment.

[no ornament]

“I’m starving,” Riley immediately says as I open the door. She’s in jeans and a well-loved University of Oregon sweatshirt, her hair is pulled up in a ponytail, and she looks like she could be a co-ed herself. “I forgot to eat today.”

“Does that happen every day?” I ask as I gesture for her to come inside and close the door behind her.

“Most days,” she admits. “Is this one of those bad choices that you’re gonna coach me through?”

“Yes,” I reply, and lead her into the kitchen. “You have to eat.”

“I know, I just get focused on other things, and the next thing I know, the day is gone and I’m starving.” She passes me two bottles of wine. “I didn’t know what we were having, so I brought red and white.”

“Thanks.” I grin and set them both on the counter. “I made salmon and asparagus with baby red potatoes. What goes best with that?”

Her eyes light up. “The white. Holy shit, are you a chef yourself?”

“I went to culinary school,” I reply, and squeeze some lemon on the salmon before plating it. “But I discovered I was better at a desk job.”

“That’s unusual,” she says, her head tilted to the side as she listens. “Most people fight to get out of a desk job.”

“Not me. I have a ton of respect for Mia, because being a chef isn’t easy, and pleasing people sucks.”

“True.” Riley nods. “She doesn’t get many plates sent back to her, but there are a few. Can I pour you a glass?”

“No thanks,” I reply, and reach in the fridge for a bottle of water. “I don’t drink alcohol.”

“Oh.” She frowns. “I’m sorry. I can drink water too.”

“It’s fine,” I reply, and pat her shoulder. “I don’t mind if you drink. I just don’t.”

“But last night, you were drinking Jack and Coke.”

“Nope, just Coke.”

She sits at the table, still frowning. “I’m sorry.”

“There’s nothing to be sorry for.” I set our plates down. “I’ve been sober for ten years. I’m not the kind of alcoholic who can’t be around others having a drink. It was never that bad for me. I’m just a better person if I don’t drink.”

“Good for you for knowing that,” she says, holding her glass out to clink against my water. “This looks delicious.”

“You sound surprised.”

“I expected pizza or Chinese takeout,” she says. “Honestly, that’s probably what you would have gotten from me. I’m also surprised that you’re not staying in a hotel.”

“I’m here long enough that the network sprung for the apartment. They usually do when I’m somewhere longer than a week or so.”

“You must travel a lot for this job,” she says, eating her food like a starving child. I don’t know if she even tastes it, she’s eating so fast.

“I travel often,” I reply, and grin when she takes the last bite. “Are you going to lick the plate?”

“Maybe,” she says with a grin. “I’m not even embarrassed that I ate that so fast. It was delicious.”

“I’m glad you liked it. There’s more.”

“No, I’m good,” she says, and reaches in her bag, pulling out a pad of paper and a pen. “You can eat while I interview you.”

“For what?”

“For the position of life coach,” she says with a sassy grin. I want to kiss that grin right off her face, but instead I take a bite of potato and gesture for her to begin.

“Okay, first question: What qualifications do you have that make you a good fit for this position?”

“Well, I have a few years on you, so I would say wisdom with age.”

She tilts her head to the side, the way she does when she’s turning something over in her head. “You can’t be that much older than me.”

“I’m thirty-seven.”

“Seven years,” she says, rolling her eyes.

“A lot can happen in seven years,” I reply, and sip my water.

“Okay, I’ll give you that.” She checks something off on her paper.

“Did you really write down questions?”

“Of course. I’m the queen of lists and the roofer was at my house forever.” She bites her lip as she looks at her list. “How many women have you life-coached in the past?”

“Well, I didn’t have an official job title, but I have two younger sisters, and an ex-wife, so I would say three.”

“But the wife is an ex, so maybe that did go well?” Riley asks. “And are your sisters productive members of society?”

“As opposed to being in jail?” I ask, laughing. “You’re hilarious, Riley.”

“You didn’t answer the question.”

“My sisters are great. The older one is married, a stay-at-home mom with two kids, and the younger one is a waitress.”

“But the ex-wife thing didn’t work out.”

“She’s not a mess, we just both decided that she shouldn’t be my wife anymore.”

“Why?”

I sit back in my chair and wipe my mouth on my napkin. “Because she thought it was a good idea to have sex with other men.”

Her eyebrows climb on her forehead and she blinks twice. “That’s a good reason.”

“I thought so.”

“Okay, next question.” She checks something on her paper and looks up at me with a smile. “How do you intend to be compensated for your work?”

“I’m working pro bono,” I reply with a wink.

“Why?”

“Because I’m going to be here anyway, and why not.” I shrug and finish the food on my plate. “What else do you want to know?”

“Is my coming to a virtual stranger’s apartment by myself one of the bad decisions you should have coached me on?”

I smile and set my plate aside so I can lean on the table. “Did the girls tell you that coming here by yourself was a bad idea?”

“I only talked to Cami and she thought I should come. Plus, I have a concealed carry, so I feel pretty confident that I’m safe.”

I raise a brow and cross my arms over my chest. “You carry a gun with you?”

“Hell to the yes,” she replies, and offers me a sweet smile. “I’ve been meeting strange men on the Internet. You bet your ass I’ve been armed.”

“Good idea,” I reply with a nod. “There are a lot of crazies out there.”

“Yes. But I think that if you’re gonna meet a crazy, it could be anywhere. Online, in a bar, at the gas station. They’re everywhere.”

“That’s true too,” I reply, and nod. “Well, I’m glad you’re being cautious.”

“I’m nobody’s victim,” she says, as casually as if she’s telling me her shoe size.

That’s fucking sexy.

“Do you have any other questions?”

“Not really,” she says, and shrugs. “I didn’t really write anything down. But it was fun to interrogate you a bit.”

“Now I have questions,” I reply, and smile when she cocks her head and purses her lips. “Do you really think you need a life coach?”

“No, I have my shit together,” she says with a grin.

“Why were you really on all of those sites?”

She shrugs. “Because it’s not easy meeting people. And sometimes a girl wants to go out on a date.”

“You don’t need me,” I reply, and smile. “But I’ll be around for a while, just in case.”

“Just in case I slip and fall back into the online dating?”

“That, or if you just want to have dinner, or chat. And I think we should watch a marathon of Star Wars. Your lack of knowledge is cause for concern.”

“It’s kind of a guy thing,” she says.

“I know many women who like Star Wars.”

“Well, I would watch one or two.”

“You need to see them all to understand what’s happening.”

“That’s a lot of hours of my life that I’ll never get back,” she says with a frown. “Aren’t there CliffsNotes somewhere? A speedy way to get caught up?”

“No,” I reply, and fist my hands in my lap so I don’t reach out and tuck her hair behind her ear.

Or yank her against me so I can kiss the fuck out of her.

“Are you okay?” she asks.

“Are you always this observant?”

“I’m an overthinker,” she says. “So yeah, I’m an observer.”

“I’ve been labeled an overthinker too,” I say with a grin.

“Would you say it’s an accurate assessment?”

“Oh yeah,” I say with a nod, and stand to clear our plates away. She stands to help. “I’ve got this.”

“No way, you cooked, so I’ll help clean.”

She walks ahead of me, her empty glass in one hand and her plate in the other. “Do you use the dishwasher, or do you wash by hand?”

“There are people who still wash by hand?”

“I’ve heard of them, but I’ve never seen them in the wild,” she says, and smiles up at me when I join her. “So I guess that means we use the dishwasher?”

“Yes.” She rinses and I load, and a few short minutes later, we’re done.

“Well, I suppose I should go,” she says, and checks the time on her phone. “Oh, Cami texted. I guess I should reply so she doesn’t think you killed me after the entrée.”

She smirks and types on her phone, then turns it off and looks up at me.

“Thanks for dinner.”

“You’re welcome.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”

Unfortunately, it won’t be in my bed.

“You will.”

“Okay.” She gathers her bag, notepad and pen, and walks to the door. “Sleep well tonight.”

I grin and congratulate myself for not dragging my fingertips down her cheek.

You sleep well tonight, Riley.”

“Okay. Bye.”

She leaves and I close the door, letting out a slow breath. Jesus, she’s sexy and funny and smart as fuck.

And I’m not going to touch her while I’m here.

How the fuck am I going to do that?

 

Don’t miss the first chapter of THE BEAUTY OF US! You can read it here!

 

 

About Kristen Proby:

New York Times and USA Today Bestselling author Kristen Proby is the author of the bestselling With Me In Seattle and Love Under the Big Sky series. She has a passion for a good love story and strong, humorous characters with a strong sense of loyalty and family. Her men are the alpha type; fiercely protective and a bit bossy, and her ladies are fun, strong, and not afraid to stand up for themselves.

 

Kristen lives in Montana, where she enjoys coffee, chocolate and sunshine. And naps.

 

 

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Lauren Blakely’s HARD WOOD – Cover Reveal

 

 

HARD WOOD is coming October 23, 2017! A standalone romance told from the male Point-of-View, HARD WOOD is the final hot and hilarious book in the Big Rock series. Pre-order your copy today! Kindle users—stay tuned for the preorder right before release! And don’t miss the hot, new cover below!

 

 

Cover Design by Helen Williams with Photography by Wander Aguiar Photography

 

About HARD WOOD:

Women often say a good man is hard to find. And a hard man is even better.

That’s why I’m quite a catch— good, hard, loaded, and wait for it…I’m ready to settle down too. But the woman I want to pitch my tent with is precisely the one I need to stay far away from.

After that fantastic night with Mia Summers, I’m ready to give her many more. But there’s a hitch in my plans — she just hired my company. If there’s one thing I’m committed to, it’s running a squeaky clean adventure tour business. One of the iron-clad rules?

Don’t screw your customers.

I can follow my own guidelines. After all, it’s only a week-long trip with Mia and her employees over the trails and down the hills I guide them on. I can obey the rules—even if it’s hard in the woods.

I’m about to give myself a badge of honor when the storm of the century hits, sending everyone else running for cover, but us—my biggest temptation and me, alone for a long weekend. You don’t screw the client, especially when you’re already in love with her . . .

But what’s a guy to do when she’s so hard to resist?

 

 

 

 

PREORDER YOUR COPY TODAY!

 

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About Lauren Blakely:

A #1 New York Times Bestselling author, Lauren Blakely is known for her contemporary romance style that’s hot, sweet and sexy. She lives in California with her family and has plotted entire novels while walking her dogs. With fourteen New York Times bestsellers, her titles have appeared on the New York Times, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal Bestseller Lists more than eighty times, and she’s sold more than 2 million books. In September, she’ll release MOST VALUABLE PLAYBOY, a standalone sports romance. To receive an email when Lauren releases a new book, sign up for her newsletter! laurenblakely.com/newsletter

 

 

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STUBBORN AS A MULE by Juliette Poe – Release Day

 

 

 

 

Down in Whynot, NC, there are three things that hold true: 1) life moves just a little bit slower, 2) family means everything, and 3) you don’t mess with history.

When his family decides to sell a home that’s been part of their history for over a century, Lowe Mancinkus is madder than a hornet. To add insult to injury, the woman who purchased it is some fancy pants, city girl looking to fix it up and sell it off. Doesn’t matter that she’s sexy as hell or that just being near her gets his blood racing like never before. That home belongs to his family, or at least it did until she came to town.

Well that just won’t do, now will it?

From the moment that she laid eyes on the historical home in rural North Carolina, Melinda Rothschild knew Mainer House was something special. The perfect escape from life in New York City, Melinda signed the papers and set to work restoring the house to its natural beauty. That is until an angry Lowe showed up on her doorstep one day. With a scowl on his handsome, chiseled face. And a shotgun in his strong, muscular arms.

Is it getting hot in here?

Melinda’s about to get a lesson on life in the south, but Lowe is about to learn a lesson of his own – this city girl doesn’t back down from a fight.

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The booming sound coming from downstairs causes me to sit straight up on the mattress that is placed in the middle of the master bedroom floor. I’ve yet to get a good night’s sleep because there’s a damn train that runs parallel to the town. It’s just two blocks over from the Mainer House, and it feels the need to blow its whistle around two AM each morning. This isn’t that big of a deal to most of the residents of the small town of Whynot, but to me… it chafes just a little because, well… I love my sleep.

I’ve been assured by the nice lady who runs Sweet Cakes, the bakery right across the street from Mainer House, that I’ll get used to it, but I seriously doubt it. Even the noise of New York City never penetrated my sleep the way a train whistle does, and I get a totally empathetic look from her when I stagger in for some coffee and a cheese Danish each morning.

I think I’ve slipped into a pattern at night where I now anticipate being woken up by that stupid train, so I’m not even able to get into good REM sleep. It’s probably why I shot straight up in bed at the banging that’s going on downstairs, although I can’t quite pinpoint from where it’s coming. A glance at the alarm clock sitting on the floor shows it’s 5:30 AM. It’s still dark outside, and I’m slightly—okay, greatly—confused. I struggle to process since it’s been almost two weeks since I came to Whynot and I’ve not had a decent night’s sleep since then.

Then it penetrates… someone’s at my front door.

Banging.

At 5:30 AM.

Immediate anger flows through my veins, heating me up from within. Without any further consternation, I know it’s Lowe Mancinkus causing all that noise. It must be him because there’s no one else in the entire world who has ever been such a thorn in my side.

Flipping the blanket back, I roll off the mattress and wince as my knees hit the floor. Almost three decades of sleeping on a mattress, box spring, and a frame, and I can’t get used to being only a few inches off the floor. I’ve held off on buying any furniture for the house until the remodeling is complete.

Pushing first to my hands and knees, I manage to lurch upright and stagger out of the bedroom. Down the rotund, sweeping staircase to the main floor. I don’t even bother to look out the leaded glass panels on either side of the heavy wooden door—so convinced I am that it’s Lowe on the other side—that I fling it open without an ounce of worry.

“What in the holy hell are you doing?” I snarl as the breeze generated from the doorway swinging open so fast actually blows my hair back.

Lowe stands there in mid-bang, fist raised high and a diabolical glitter to his eyes. His eyes lock onto mine for just a moment before they drop and casually run down the length of my frame. I look down at myself and cringe as I realize I’m still in my pajamas, which in the sweltering South consists of a cotton tank top and sleep shorts that are really short. My hand falls from the doorknob, and I cross my arms over my chest as Lowe looks back up at me.

And why does he have to be so damned gorgeous? In ordinary circumstances, this man pushes all my girlie buttons. Tall, just enough muscle to be strong but not freakish, and that dark chocolate hair with bright hazel eyes that are every woman’s fantasy. I always have to remind myself he’s a nasty SOB who I wouldn’t give the time of day to… in ordinary circumstances, that is.

“I’m here to start work,” he says casually as he pushes past me into the main foyer.

“It’s five-freaking-thirty in the morning,” I grit out, not moving from the open doorway. I expect him to be walking right back out again.

Instead, he ignores me and moves down a wide hall beside the staircase that goes to the kitchen. With a growl of frustration, I slam the door shut and then stomp off after him. “It’s completely rude to show up here at this hour.”

He doesn’t respond and as I turn the corner into the kitchen, I find him rummaging through the cupboards. “Where’s the coffee?”

“I don’t have any,” I snap at his backside since he hasn’t bothered to give me a second glance since he barged in. “And I don’t like you ignoring me any more than I like you barging into my house.”

“Get some decent clothes on, and I wouldn’t be forced to look through your cupboards for nonexistent coffee,” he replies calmly, moving onto the next cabinet even though I’ve told him I have no coffee.

In fact, I have hardly anything at all here. A mattress, pillow, sheets, and blanket in the bedroom, some orange juice in the fridge, and towels in the master bathroom. Those are the only creature comforts at this point, and they’re enough to get me through the remodeling. I’ve been eating out almost every meal and this is not a hardship as that’s pretty much what I do when I’m back home in New York. One, however, can only eat so many grits and collards, although I’ll take them over fatback and pickled pigs feet any day.

“I would like to remind you…” I say in a voice that comes off far too rancid and nowhere in control. “That this is my house. I can wear whatever I like to bed, with the assumption I won’t have visitors until a decent hour.”

“I’m not a visitor,” he points out, back still to me. “But because you couldn’t take a little joke and had to run crying to Judge Bowe, I now have to work for you. I also have to keep my own business running, which means I have to work early and late. You need to suck it up, buttercup. This is your life for the next few months.”

 

 

 

 

 

Juliette Poe is the sweet and swoony alter ego of New York Times Best Selling author, Sawyer Bennett.

A fun-loving southern girl, Juliette knows the allure of sweet tea, small towns, and long summer nights, that some of the best dates end sitting on the front porch swing, and that family is top priority. She brings love in the south to life in her debut series, Sex & Sweet Tea.

When Juliette isn’t delivering the sweetest kind of romance, she’s teaching her southern belle daughter the fine art of fishing, the importance of wearing Chucks, and the endless possibilities of a vivid imagination.

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