When you’re playing with fire, run for safety … or get burned.
Wyatt McEvoy finds weed, alcohol, and inappropriate reading material in his teenage daughter’s apartment. Not to mention sex toys. Frustrated by her poor judgment, he gives her two choices. Attend a camp for troubled youths or move home for the summer and take a job.
Aiden DiBiase hasn’t the time nor the desire to babysit. His new summer employee is immature, smart-lipped, and defiant. Problem is, she’s the daughter of a personal friend who also happens to be one of his biggest sources of income.
Sophie McEvoy is appalled when her first task is to clean the bathroom, and things only get worse after that. She can’t stand Aiden and his draconian rules. He’s dictatorial, makes her do deplorable things that no respectable person should ever suggest, and looks at her with ice in his gaze. Exasperated, Sophie handles his neanderthal personality the only way she knows how. She’s flippant, defiant, and refuses to comply without a fight.
Kyle Holt’s whole world is Aiden. Their nine-year relationship is committed and unbreakable, and he’ll do anything to keep his partner happy. So when he brings Sophie into the mix by inviting her to their bed for a night of no-strings consensual fun, things get complicated in more ways than one.
Falling into a passionate liaison they can’t forsake no matter the consequences, when Sophie discovers Aiden’s dark secret, will she turn away for good? Or fall deeper?
Be Warned: menage sex (MMF), anal sex, sex toys
“What would make you happy, Sophia?”
“Same as anybody else. Peace. Acceptance. Love.” My eyes warmed as I fought thinking of everything I didn’t want to think or speak of. “Someone who looks at me the way you and Kyle look at each other. And you, Aiden. You and Kyle. That’s what would make me happy.”
Running his lips along the curve of my jaw, he said, “Do yourself a favor and walk away from this. Forget the motherfucking invitation. Before I won’t let you.”
The velvet rasp of his voice turned my core to liquid. Maybe he was right in that I should forget this whole invitation, but no. I couldn’t and wouldn’t. I wanted to lose myself in Aiden’s hypnotic gaze and the soul-grabbing hunger behind it. Wanted Kyle’s lips trailing down my back while making the moaning noises I’d heard before. I wanted harsh words, domineering demands, soft and hard kisses, and every sexual scenario imaginable between two men and a woman.
I wanted the three of us.
“What if I don’t want you to let me?”
He cocked a brow, then lowered his forehead against mine, his breath heated and heavy. His voice gentler, he said, “This was inappropriate, and I’m sorry.”
“Inappropriate for who, dammit? Stop pretending you don’t feel th-this thing between us because I know you do.”
His gorgeous face was a map of confusion, his stare so intense it sent ice up my spine. “I’m not some gentle lover who leaves flowers by the bedside and sweet notes at the door. I’m…”
“You’re dominant, Aiden. And Kyle is submissive. It’s hardly a secret.”
“Kyle is submissive with me, Sophia. With you, he’d be a different man. The two of us would tear you apart. Now, be sensible and forget about this.”
“I don’t want to forget.”
Equal parts pissed and turned on, I stared at him while he stared right back with tension returning to his body and hardness in his jaw. With his brows drawing together in an upsetting scowl, he said, “Wear different clothes and shoes to work. I don’t need you breaking a leg on my clock.” He turned his back to me and sauntered toward the front area where Kyle continued what sounded like a personal call.
“Fine! I get it, okay?” Red, fiery anger ignited in my chest while frustration rolled through me and the words on my tongue wouldn’t stop. “Deep down you know you aren’t man enough to please me. So, go ahead and continue doing what you do best. Walking away, barking orders, and looking at me like you’d rather have your dick chewed off by a rabid dog than to touch me. You may be dominant in the bedroom, but you sure as hell aren’t anywhere else. You’re nothing but a scared, candy-assed coward. Besides, I don’t need dick in my life, not yours anyway.”
Like I’d lit a live wire, he stopped, the muscles in his shoulders straining. He turned to face me, his pupils like round black dots, and that vein in his forehead thick and erect. Anger bled in his expression, the intent in his gaze ice cold.
Don’t walk away.
Don’t ignore me.
Don’t abandon me.
“You know what? You talk too motherfucking much, you couldn’t handle my dick if you tried, and you’re fully aware that I don’t need pussy.” He trudged my direction, scooped me into his arms like I weighed nothing, then said, “But since you’ve been begging me to turn your ass red, guess what, little girl? You win. Goddamnit to hell, you win! I’m going to show you what a candy-assedcoward does when he’s reached his limit. And then, Sophia, we’ll see how you feel when you can’t sit for a week.”
He can’t be serious! I pushed at his chest. “You wouldn’t fucking dare!” As much as I’d read and fantasized about spanking and red rooms of pain, a cold dread of fear lifted up my back.
He released a sigh from deep in his chest, warning me that his patience was wearing thin. “I don’t take kindly to dares.” His voice was a low growl and his fingertips dug into the back of my thighs. “Not only do you run your mouth too much, but you’re rude and spoiled, not to mention disrespectful. You deserve every damn thing you’re about to endure. Before the summer ends, I’ll either work the fucking defiance out of you, or spank it out.”
About the Author
Lacee Hightower lives in Texas where everything is bigger! And better! Writer of heat-filled stories, the sex is smokin’ and the men are strong and alpha.
When she’s not stressing over edits, she can usually be found curled up with a steamy book and a good glass of Pinot.
The sweeter the revenge, the more bitter the cost.
Ethan Ashford prefers the private playrooms of his exclusive club to the backstabbing elite society into which he was born. But when his ailing father asks him to attend a gala dinner, he reluctantly agrees. Only to encounter an eerily familiar face that freezes him in his tracks.
He quickly realizes the woman isn’t Joyce, a conniving social climber who almost ruined his family, but her cousin Siena Maynard, a fledgling fashion designer who pings Ethan’s Dom radar from across the ballroom. Even better, her uncanny resemblance to Joyce sparks a plan that will satisfy his hunger for revenge—and his craving to have sweet Siena at his mercy.
Phase one: Dig up every detail about Siena, from her dwindling funds to her brother’s shady connections. Phase two: Back her into a corner with one way out—to accept him as her sole benefactor in exchange for her total submission.
Ethan fully expected to take diabolical pleasure in Siena’s body, tears, and flesh. But he never anticipated she’d sink so deeply under his skin, that losing her would destroy what’s left of his soul.
Note: Twisted Proposal is a standalone romance in the Central Florida Stories – Club Nexus universe. Contains D/s dynamics, dubious consent, intense scenes, and lots of dirty talk.
Ethan hid his smile under his hand and glanced away toward the ballroom’s entrance.
His mind and heart froze.
The woman under the archway had him. Her gazed crossed briefly with his. His breath caught. He dropped his arm.
“No. It can’t be!” he exclaimed. Fury, sudden and blazing filled his soul with hatred. The urge to get close, clutch that pale throat and squeeze until she went limp and lifeless in his fist, overcame all thought. He made a move forward…
“Ah, shit. Stop, Ethan.” Daniel grabbed his arm. “It’s not her. It’s not Joyce!”
Daniel’s words confused him. Ethan blinked and narrowed his gaze. There was no recognition in the woman’s expression as she continued scanning the room and moved past him. A man joined her. Going by the strong physical similarity they were closely related. Siblings?
Ethan recovered. He’d been ejected from the initial stages of a delicious sexual adventure and thrown into shock and loathing. Fractions of a second passed, but as the second ended, important differences, key details, tweaked his initial impression.
Her wideset eyes were of a clear aqua not brown. She’d tied her dark blonde hair, not the same shade of brown as Joyce’s, into an elegant twist, which gave her neck a swan-like arch. The pale blue-green of her gown enhanced her aristocratic bearing. Small aquamarine stones in the flowing skirt and sleeves gave her skintone a warm tanned glow. She was magnificent in her beauty. She wasn’t Joyce Rudloe. The resemblance to her was disturbing.
Valerie touched his arm. “Are you okay?”
“Better now. I thought I saw a ghost.” He had to lie. How could he explain the past and all the pain attached to such disastrous events?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Award-winning and best-selling author Victoria Saccenti writes romantic women’s fiction, contemporary romance, and paranormal romance. Not one for heart and flower stories, she explores the edgy twists and turns of human interaction, the many facets of love, and all possible happy endings. After thirty years of traveling the world, she’s settled in Central Florida, where she splits her busy schedule between family and her active muse at Essence Publishing. However, if she could convince her husband to sell their home, she would pack up her computer and move to Scotland, a land she adores. On a side note, in one form or another, Scotland appears in most of her stories.
Four brewery owners. Two ghosts. Unofficial orders to haunt.
Brewery owners Marco, Bryson, Shawn and Ayden have been friends for years, but their business is floundering. In desperation, Marco makes a formal request to Madeline for orders to haunt his friends and repair the business. All he wants is to bring his family together again.
Audrey is Madeline’s wild card. Although she’d previously fired her from The Order, Madeline brings Audrey back in an unofficial capacity. In desperate need of income, Audrey takes a job at the brewery to go undercover and help Marco haunt his friends.
Audrey has a new brew to craft—hope.
I cannot roll my eyes harder. My sister is ridiculously in love, and while it’s adorable, it’s equally annoying. She and Mom are chattering away, and it’s all I can do to ignore them by sitting on the couch and flipping through random television shows.
They squeal about something, and I shift to face Dad and stop. Cool blue eyes stare at me—that perfectly rounded face, full, red-painted lips and dark loose curls hanging below her shoulder. I sit up straight immediately, every hair on my arms and neck standing straight up.
“Madeline,” I say under my breath like it’s a curse.
The room stills, Stephanie and Mom quieting as they hear my voice. I can’t tear my gaze from Madeline. I never thought I would see her again, not after she tossed me on my ass when I failed my training. It had been awful.
Madeline nods at Steph and Mom but turns her focus directly on me. “Got a minute?”
My stomach is in absolute knots. My voice catches in my throat, and I have no idea what to say. I don’t want her here, not after the embarrassment I left in.
“It’s nothing bad,” Madeline adds, as if she can sense my apprehension, which I suppose she can. She knows everything. She knows what happened six months ago, she knows how I stormed out of The Order with fire on my heels and she knows that I am not anyone she wants working orders. She told me as much.
“Audrey?” Mom asks, as if she she’s going to protect me from this big bad witch.
I try to shift a glance to her, but I can’t tear my gaze from the woman standing in front of me. I curl my fingers into a fist, nails biting into the skin of my palm until I have some wits about me. “I’m fine, Mom.”
“Yeah.” Pushing myself upward to stand, I eye Madeline carefully. “Only place to meet in private is my bedroom.”
I didn’t want to push it and suggest we talk at The Order. That’d be laughable—me walking back into that place as if nothing had happened. Snorting at the thought, I drag my feet forward until I’m inches from her. As is our custom, I grab her wrist and ghost from the living room to my bedroom. Standing inches from her is even more unnerving than when she’s staring directly at me. Never thought that would happen. None of this. Ever.
I shut the door, hoping it’ll give us at least some privacy. Turning around, I wring my hands together before stopping. I can’t show her how weak I am. “What do you want?”
Madeline sighs and shifts to sit on the edge of my mattress. She looks so out of place in my messy room with the unicorn comforter and unicorn stuffies I refuse to get rid of.
“I’m not here to accost you.”
“Could have fooled me.” Why I’m giving her attitude, I have no clue—but it’s probably not going to help my case any. “Again, I ask, what do you want?”
“I’ve some orders I thought you might be interested in.”
“You fired me,” I respond through clenched teeth. “What the hell kind of orders could you have for me?”
Madeline’s lips thin before she pulls them in a half-smile that is no doubt forced. “Would you relax? I’m only here to try to repair this.”
“There’s nothing to repair. It was severed.”
“There are factors at play that you don’t know about. You didn’t fail in your orders as badly as we told you. You were only off by two marks, and if we had the funds to hire another ghost, you would have been allowed to reapply. However, that’s not the case. I’m here with orders to haunt, if you would like them, but they will not be paid by me.”
“So this is me being volun-told to work a job I was fired from?” I raise a skeptical eyebrow at her.
Madeline shakes her head. “No. I would have very much liked to hire you, Audrey. You would be an excellent asset to The Order.”
“You. Fired. Me.” I spell it out slowly because it doesn’t seem like she’s understanding.
“Yes, but if I’d had another choice at the time, I would have made it.”
I narrow my eyes, anger still boiling in my belly. “Why should I work for you—on the side, without pay?”
“Because you are excellent at what you do, which is causing people to think differently about the world around them in unique and creative ways. I always admired your creativity.”
I scoff, walking to plop onto the mattress next to her. “Never seemed like it.”
She waves her hand. “Persona. Please, I mean what I’m saying.”
“What’s the job?”
“Do you know Bams Brewery?”
I nod. I’ve been there a time or two. Decent beer. Nice atmosphere. Asshole manager.
“They need a haunting.”
“All of them?”
“The four owners, specifically. Marco is one of us, so he will assist, but he also needs his own lesson in there, which is where I need your creativity. He has agreed to hire you on, so you will be paid.”
“Hire me for what?”
“Something at the brewery. Something to your skills.”
“I don’t know how to make beer.” I wrinkle my nose.
“You’ll find something. Would you consider it?”
“What’s in it for me, Madeline? Because, honestly, I don’t relish the idea of doing you a favor, which it seems like this is, without knowing why I’m doing it or what I’m doing it for.”
Madeline falls silent. I’m not sure what she’s thinking, but she is contemplating deeply. “The Order is changing, drastically, and it won’t be what your parents remember much longer. I need allies for what it will be when these changes are made.”
“So let me get this right. You fired me, then you want me as your ally?”
She gives a weak smile. “Yes. If you’ll accept.”
“I’ll accept these orders, because, frankly, I need the paycheck, but beyond that? I have no idea. You’re going to have some explaining to do.”
“All in good time. Since you’ve accepted, you’ll need to contact Marco and create a plan. The rest is left up to you two.” Without another word, she’s gone.
Sitting alone in my room, I stare at the wall and shake my head. What the fuck was that? Never in my life have I heard of such a thing, but she knew exactly who to come to. I’ll do anything to get back in the good graces of The Order. I ghost downstairs after changing into a clean pair of jeans and a tight shirt. Mom and Steph look at me curiously. I shrug.
“It was harmless.” I hope I’m right on that.
“What did she want?” Mom asks.
I shake my head. “She didn’t really want anything—at least, she didn’t insist on anything.”
“Madeline doesn’t just show up for nothing,” Steph adds, her eyes widening.
Shrugging, I chug the last of my beer I’d left opened and grin at them. “I’m off.”
In two seconds, I’m standing outside a small apartment I’ve never seen before. At least Madeline had given me that information. Number four-zero-six. Canting my head to the side, I listen to see if he’s home. Unlike Madeline, I’m not an asshole, so I shift into my corporeal form, make a fist and knock on the steel door. Fixing a grin on my lips, I wait to see what greets me.
Marco is insanely handsome. Madeline put me right in his lap, too, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to be putty. His black hair is slicked to the side, combed perfectly and gelled. I just want to stick my hands in it and mess it up. Rubbing my fingers together, I barely resist the idea. His lips are full, which is incredibly sexy on a man. I nearly moan as the thought of pulling his lower lip between my teeth shudders through me.
“Who are you?” he says, his voice wary but also deep.
Fuck, he’s sex on a stick. Madeline is an evil, evil woman for this one. I’m going to get revenge for this. “I’m Audrey.”
“All right.” He raises an eyebrow at me and shifts to block the door. “And who are you exactly?”
“Oh.” I flush, realizing Madeline had left out some very important information for both of us. “Madeline sent me…about the orders to haunt.”
Marco shushes me, grabs me by the wrist and drags me into his apartment. “You can’t be saying that out loud. My neighbors will hear you!”
I squint at him. “Then you need new neighbors.”
“Why didn’t you just ghost in here?”
Putting my hands on my hips, I face him down. “Because I’m not an asshole, and I respect privacy.”
Marco frowns. “What exactly did Madeline tell you?”
“That you’ll pay me.”
Marco’s lips thin. “We will.”
“What will I be doing?”
“Bartending and waitressing.”
“It’s usually one or the other, not both.” He looks cute when he’s frazzled, and I can’t help myself from pushing at him more.
“So what’s the pay?”
“Minimum plus tips.”
I whistle my surprise. “No wonder you can’t keep anyone employed.”
Marco pouts. “Who told you that?”
“I’ve been to your brewery before, Marco, and I’ve seen the employees come and go. Now I know why.”
Sighing, he collapses onto his couch. “The main reason is Bryson. He’s going to be the one you have to work through to get hired.”
“Oh, so this isn’t even guaranteed pay? I’m out.” I start to ghost, but he’s quick. He’s on his feet, grabbing my wrist and dragging me back. “What?”
“Don’t go. I…I need this to happen.”
Clenching my jaw, I give him a hard stare. “Why?”
Marco softens, his entire demeanor changing. He looks so broken. My heart shatters for him, as I see his struggle, the pain this is causing. Sliding up against him, I wrap him in a quick hug.
“Fine, I’ll help. Tell me how to get this job.”
We talk for hours, and he goes from confident to nervous every five minutes it seems, though, he does have good insight into those he works with. It’s after midnight when weariness creeps over me, the events of the day and being thrust into orders I’m not sure are actual orders finally weighing me down. But I don’t know how to leave Marco. First and foremost, he seems lonely, which for a guy who started a business with his three college friends shouldn’t be the case.
Reaching out, I brush my fingers against his arm to get his attention. “It’s getting late.”
Marco nods. “Right. I shouldn’t have kept you.”
“No, it was good.” I give him a gentle smile. I’m not lying. I enjoyed spending the time with him, getting to know him and his friends better. This is going to be one of the best orders I have ever worked, and even if this isn’t a real case, I’m going to see it through—not only to get back into Madeline’s good graces but also for the cold hard cash I really need.
He stares into my eyes, and for a second, I think he might kiss me. I wouldn’t be opposed to the idea, but I’ve only known him for a few hours at this point. He’s adorable and handsome, but this is business. If he wants more—or if I do, for that matter—we need to properly talk about it. Leaning in, I press my lips to his cheek to try to ward off any awkwardness.
“I’ll see you tomorrow at the open interviews.”
He grins. “Yes, later today actually.”
I snort lightly. “Today, then.”
Kissing his cheek again, I ghost into my bedroom. I’m thankful to find it blissfully empty and quiet, though I’m sure Mom and Steph are going to hound me with a million more questions as soon as they can find me. I’m not sure what to tell them. Madeline didn’t swear me to secrecy, but if she’s right and The Order is in for dramatic changes, I don’t know if anyone is going to be happy about it.
Stripping naked, I slide under my unicorn blanket and close my eyes, turning the side lamp by my bed off. I need to sleep so I can have my wits about me tomorrow. Bryson is apparently a beast in the form of a handsome man, and Marco warned me I was going to need to be prepared to pass the interview test. Luckily, Marco was going to help me cheat and gave me some clues as to what might happen. Smiling to myself, I turn on my side and close my eyes. I fall into sleep thinking of the handsome man I’d just met.
Emma Penny is a millennial living in the US. She often moves and loves experiencing new adventures and letting her mind wander to new possibilities. She currently lives north of Denver, CO and has fallen in love with writing steamier romance. Emma started writing when she was a teenager and has never looked back from the creative side of her life. She particularly loves to explore worlds beyond the believable, worlds that stretch her imagination but still root her in the very real personalities of her characters and their relationships.
Larkwood is dangerous, but love scares me even more.
As a selkie, nothing matters more to me than my freedom. Larkwood destroyed that when they took my skin, and with it, my ability to transform. I’ve spent the six years since incomplete, but now that the rumors say Larkwood has changed, it’s my chance to finally get back what they stole.
I need to keep my head down and focus, but from the moment I step foot back in Larkwood, I can’t catch a break. The other shades hate me, the people in charge pity me and the two men I’ve tried to forget won’t leave me alone. Asher, a quiet and intense amarok, and Talon, a mischievous and playful kitsune, seem to think I’ve come back looking for romance.
As we all venture into the most dangerous place in Larkwood to find what was stolen from me, I realize that there is no bigger threat to me and my freedom than the two men I’m falling for. If I don’t keep my wits about me, I might just find myself trapped once again.
Six years since I’d escaped Larkwood’s clutches, since I’d somehow survived a place determined to destroy me, and it hadn’t changed a bit. It had the same imposing walls, the same layout, the same empty desert that stretched out for miles around it. Sure, the news swore the place was different, but I was way too smart to believe that.
Still, I never thought I’d come back here.
At least not willingly.
Even standing in the intake room, the same one they’d used in the past, didn’t help me differentiate between the past and the present.
“Mara?” The familiar voice made me turn and look up into a face that shouldn’t have surprised me. Kit Porter had taught when I’d lived at Larkwood years ago, and he’d been the only shade given such a position. However, since he worked in level 1 and I was officially a level 4, I didn’t think I was important enough for him to take notice of me.
“I’m surprised you remember me,” I said.
“I have an exceedingly good memory.” He bypassed the unasked question of why he knew me, but that was hardly unusual for him. Kit had always kept things close to his chest from what I’d seen. “Besides, seeing you jogs old memories. Not many shades have returned here.”
“I can’t be the only resident with nowhere else to go.”
“Student.” At my look, he clarified, “Larkwood has changed. We have no residents or guards. Those who choose to come here do so of their own free will. They are students.”
I snorted at the explanation, especially from Kit. We’d all known that he was little more than a pet for the Warden, a shade willing to do her dirty work for his own benefit. The fact he remained increased my suspicion about this place.
He lifted one of his dark eyebrows, but before he could say anything else, a woman walked up who I’d seen on the news enough to identify.
Hera Weston. The previous darling of the influential Weston family and now the Director at Larkwood Academy. The scar at her throat had been difficult to see on the TV, but in person it stood out. Her hands moved in a quick, practiced flurry, but I had no idea what it meant.
Kit spoke to her when she paused. “This is Mara Holland. She was here…” He paused, the flat blackness of his eyes making his expression difficult to read. “Six years ago, I believe.”
Hera moved her gaze to me, then signed again.
Kit translated. “This is Hera Weston, the Director. She’s welcoming you here.”
I nodded at the woman, unsure how else to respond. She looked to be around my age, yet where I wore a large hoodie and leggings, like the normal nineteen-year-old trying and failing to figure my shit out. Hera wore a fitted suit that proved we were not at all the same.
She reminded me of the sort of person I’d look for when I realized I needed an adult who was doing a better job adulting than I was.
She was also a person with absolute power. The Warden had looked similarly put together when I’d arrived at Larkwood, so I knew better than to trust anyone in power.
Hera signed again, then waited for Kit to translate. “She wants to know why you’ve come back.”
“I thought all shades were welcome here?” I wrapped my fingers around the strap of my backpack, which had what little I owned crammed inside.
“They are,” Kit offered, his words slow as if unsure how to keep going. “We’ve set Larkwood up as a refuge for those who need it. I just haven’t seen many return here. Usually, when people get out of the place it used to be, they have no desire to return.”
“Yeah, well, it turns out that life outside of here isn’t that great, either. So do I have a room or not?”
Kit pressed his lips together but nodded. He gestured toward a table farther in. “Deacon is handing out room assignments and will pass you off for orientation.”
That made me turn my head to catch sight of the man Kit had mentioned who, again, looked just the same as I recalled. I swallowed down my unease at the fact they’d kept a guard on staff, mostly because I didn’t want to have any more discussion than I had to.
I needed to stay quiet, to do what I’d come to do, then get the hell out of Larkwood again. The last thing I needed was to draw attention to myself.
So I nodded and followed Kit’s directions. Deacon lifted his purple eyes to me but showed no sign of recognition.
Then again, six years was a long time, and it wasn’t as if I’d been a troublemaker. He’d had no reason to notice me.
I knew exactly what I looked like—any teenager not worth a second glance. I kept my dark curly hair cut short and always wore dark leggings and baggy hoodie sweaters. My eyes were dark, and the only truly notable or memorable thing about my appearance was the freckles on my face that stood out on my dark skin.
“Mara Holland.” I kept my voice strong but non-confrontational. Don’t be memorable but don’t be weak, either. The rules of Larkwood were shockingly similar to those in prison.
He furrowed his brows, tapping his finger across the tablet in his hand. “You were here before, right?”
“You don’t recognize our little selkie?” That voice was one I sure as hell wouldn’t forget. Wade walked up, the void older but with the same old smirk. “We only had one in the years I’ve been here.”
“Aren’t selkies level 4s? Why would you know her?”
“She wasn’t housed in level 4.”
Deacon turned his gaze to me, his eyes full of suspicion. His lifted eyebrow asked the question so he didn’t have to.
“They wanted to do experiments and since the North Tower is connected to level 1, they thought it was easier to keep me here—not so far to transport me.” Even as I spoke, I kept my voice flat. If I didn’t, if I went back to the memories of the North Tower, of the hell they’d put me through, I’d let Deacon and Wade see far too much.
“I see,” Deacon said, his tone giving nothing away about how he felt. “Your room’s in level 1. We don’t have that many people, and because they made level 1 to house shades long-term, it’s got the best set-up. We’ve been putting everyone in level 1 while we work on getting the other levels renovated.”
“By which he means that level 1 has kitchens, full bathrooms, and it’s directly connected to the other areas,” Wade explained, as if Deacon needed a translator just as Hera had.
Instead of asking more, I held my wrist out.
Deacon went still, a frown touching his features.
Wade shook his head, then gently set his gloved hand on my wrist. “We don’t do wrist bands anymore.”
Oh… I guess that made sense. I ignored the warmth on my cheeks as Deacon pulled a card from a stack on the table he leaned against, then swiped it through a reader on his tablet. A few beeps rang out before he held the card out. “This will get you into your room— one-three-four-five.”
“Will it get me into the pantry and rec areas?”
Deacon shook his head. “We don’t keep the same security measures they had back then. The only off-limit areas are dangerous or security-centric. Otherwise, none of the areas require special access.”
“The North Tower?” I asked, unable to help the slight quiver in my voice at mentioning that place. It felt like talking about it might call its attention to me.
Deacon didn’t answer, with Wade taking that one. “The North Tower’s locked. There’s way too much stuff in there that we don’t understand yet. Plus, we don’t want people breaking in just to steal things. A lot of what’s there could seriously hurt shades if it got into the wrong hands. Don’t worry, though no one’s working there.”
Which means this is going to be more complicated than I wanted…
“Come on, I’ll show you where to go,” Wade said, gesturing toward the door at the back of the intake room.
“I’m good,” I assured him, tucking the keycard into the side pocket of my leggings. Even after six years away, this place haunted my dreams. I couldn’t possibly forget a single hallway of this prison, of the place that had tried to destroy me…the place that had taken what mattered most from me.
Jayce Carter lives in Southern California with her husband and two spawns. She originally wanted to take over the world but realized that would require wearing pants. This led her to choosing writing, a completely pants-free occupation. She has a fear of heights yet rock climbs for fun and enjoys making up excuses for not going out and socializing. You can learn more about her at her website.
Enter for the chance to win a $50.00 First for Romance Gift Card! Competition hosted by Totally Entwined Group.
Nina’s neighbor sets her up on a blind date with a handsome insurance salesman. After a candlelit dinner, Nina hooks up with him in a posh New York hotel room, but she writes off the date as a one-night stand. Returning home, she discovers her neighbor’s death, her dog’s abduction and the salesman’s possible involvement.
Traipsing across the city with her date in tow, she realizes he’s a quarrelsome billionaire and that her dog may never return. Grieving her losses, she accompanies her date to a ‘billionaire summer camp’ in Sun Valley, Idaho, but the idyllic setting revolves around his whims—and the person who took her dog follows them.
Reader advisory: This book contains scenes of violence and murder.
Standing on the marble front step of her family’s Miami mansion, Gisella tapped her designer footwear, adjusted her sunglasses and blocked out the bright spring day. She breathed deeply and shuffled the bags hanging from her toned arms.
At the end of the driveway, her brother Antonio revved his red convertible’s souped-up engine and pounded the dashboard in time to blaring rock music. Miami traffic streamed past the estate. People stared.
Why can’t he just leave? She marveled at his arrogance, but she kept her expression neutral and her phone in her pocket. He was the youngest of her two siblings, and he had the stocky, tan physique her male family members prized. He also had a propensity to wear outlandish suits, a revolving door of girlfriends and a sophomoric sense of humor. If he caught her taking a selfie in front of the house, he would turn it into a meme, but her account depended on dance stills and teasing hints of glamour. The minute he left the estate, she would take the picture while her hair looked good.
Flexing her toes, she rifled through the bags on her arms. One duffle held her ballet kit, another tote functioned as a purse and the bags from her morning shopping spree hiked her credit card bill. Instead of feeling guilty for the extravagance, she admired her long, lean legs.
Her form allowed her to excel as a professional ballerina, but she worried she had the coltish naivety to match her legs. When would she work up the nerve to demand a driver’s license and stop relying on Antonio for transportation? Every time she talked about her license, her father pouted and asked what more he could do to ensure her comfort.
If her mother had lived, Gisella’s life might be so different.
A car horn honked. A woman blew kisses. “Antonio!!”
He ignored the entreaty, let the engine rumble and scanned the beachside traffic. His muscled forearm hung over the door, and he tapped his fingers against the expensive paint job. Milky fingerprints marred the convertible’s finish.
A second Miami driver slowed to gawk at the handsome, moneyed mobster. A trailing car smashed the vehicle’s lights. Horns blared and doors flew open.
Releasing the engine’s pent-up energy, Antonio took advantage of the distraction and roared across two lanes of traffic.
Gisella rolled her eyes and snapped the picture she needed, but she doubted her high-gloss smile was worth the price of the photograph.
Riding home with her brother from dance rehearsals and a shopping spree, she had stared out of the window and listened to him complain about women and their fickle ways. His problems never changed, but the consistency soothed her. If he spent more time listening to the women, he would have fewer problems with them.
For instance, she had wanted to close her eyes and rest, but Antonio couldn’t take a hint. As soon as she made Principal Dancer, she could move out of her father’s house and make rent, but she would have to stop shopping like a mafia princess.
Squaring her shoulders, she faced her father’s front door. Most Miami residents painted their doors to ward off humidity’s warping effects. Papà imported Cocobolo heartwood and exposed the precious wood to the elements. His house could grace the cover of Architectural Digest, but his acceptance in local society depended on discretion. Biscayne Bay would freeze over before he opened the mansion’s doors to gawking strangers.
Every piece of furniture came with a decorator’s commission, authenticity papers and a cataloged serial number. The insurance company knew the exact cost of her father’s investment, and if the house burned, they’d be wise to pay up.
She appreciated the wealth, but its origins bothered her. Her sweet Papà, Gregorio Vitella, ran drugs from South America up the Eastern shoreline. She feared that enjoying the proceeds made her complicit in his crimes.
Pressed by a tipsy ballet friend, she’d admitted the concession that let her sleep at night. Her father’s legitimate insurance company probably covered her bills, but how could a person separate good money from bad people—and where did that distinction place her?
Pushing open the door, she scanned the marble foyer and dropped her bags, but a green potted palm, a black concert piano and an excruciatingly expensive console table provided little company. The console table rested on acrobatic loops of brass. Beneath a glass top, python skin gleamed with a subtle sheen, and she wondered if the piece’s black crystal pulls would make an interesting jewelry set. Opening a drawer, she checked for mail and flipped through the family correspondence. “Come stai, Papà?”
Her question echoed.
Raising her head, she set down the mail and waited.
A hidden white paneled door opened. Martin, the butler, emerged, wearing the formal black suit and crisp white shirt required for his service. He’d perfected the practiced, subservient gaze on his own. She’d grown to like him, but she wondered how long he would last in the household.
“Signorina Gisella, your father is in his study.”
Keeping a bright smile on her face, she handed Martin her shopping bags and kept her purse on her shoulder. “Thanks. I’ll freshen up and join him.”
The man couldn’t speak ten words of Italian. As soon as staff members picked up a basic understanding of the language, her father fired them. Smart members played dumb. Gisella found her allies among them, but she’d learned to mind her comments, too.
Ducking into the gilt-papered bathroom off the foyer, she pinched her cheeks, added lipstick and prepared to act like a dutiful daughter. Her life revolved around the Miami Ballet Company, beachside runs and formal dinners, but in her father’s house, she would forever be ‘Gigi’.
Bracing her hands on the sink, she tilted her head. Her loving father owned Florida’s biggest commercial real estate company, Cosmica Insurance Holdings, but he also ran the Florida branch of the Italian mob.
He wore a suit to school functions, but when business soured at home, he rolled up his shirtsleeves, and the gentlemanly look faded. When she had been ten, she’d witnessed the reality of his business dealings through a crack in the study door. She’d never seen his victim again, and she’d kept her observations to herself—but she listened.
When classmates at her parochial school asked what her father did for work, she parroted the company line. “CIH offers property insurance, casualty insurance and value-added insurance services across twenty southeastern states.”
They looked impressed.
Why shouldn’t they? Every new homeowner in Florida received a direct mailing touting CIH’s low rates and friendly staff. The mailings glossed over the company’s potential money laundering credentials, but who read the fine print?
Leaving the bathroom, she made her way to the back of the house and to her father’s study. The caviar-black masculine room had views of the pool and heavy leather furniture. Despite a sparking oasis waiting beyond the windows, the room looked like a cave.
Last fall, her father’s interior designer Lisette had joined the family before Sunday dinner. Wearing a pantsuit, she’d sipped a dirty martini and made vague references to former clients. “I prefer to create a visual impact by mixing wood species and texture. That movie star I mentioned”—she sipped her drink—“had a thing for ebony.”
Gisella had wanted to like the woman, but her influence on the house’s décor leaned toward gilt and Hollywood glamour. Having a thing for ebony shocked her as much as Lisette’s cosmetic surgery bill. Once a woman immersed herself in wealth, keeping life entertaining required novelty and a steady flow of cash. “How do you plan to tackle the study?”
Lisette had wrinkled her surgically enhanced nose. “The hospitality industry uses black to create glamour, drama and intimacy. Everyone’s doing it.”
Gisella had sipped her wine and assumed Lisette was doing her father.
Walking across the room, Gisella admitted the study’s black walls created drama, but if her father wanted to scare his minions into compliance, he could pull out the handgun he kept in the desk’s top drawer. To keep her in line, he deployed guilt. ‘What would your mother think?’
She wrinkled her nose.
Walking around the polished walnut desk, she leaned down and pressed a kiss to his cheek. He smelled of black tea, Damascus rose, tobacco and leather. At sixty-five years old, he looked ten years younger. Faint silver streaks threaded his black hair. He could wear chinos and he would still smell like old manners and aged wine caves. “Come è andato il lavoro, Papà?”
“It is what it is.” Continuing in Italian, he set aside his papers. “How was your shopping trip?”
She sat opposite him and crossed her legs. “Fruitful.”
Pulling a stack of receipts from her purse, she slid them across the desk. “The rest will come by email.”
Shrugging, he leaned back in his chair and left the crumpled slips on the table. “Gigi, you’re old enough to drink and old enough to marry.”
She picked at her nails. “Is that so?”
“More than old enough. In the home country…”
Looking up, she tilted her head. “We’re not in the home country.”
He held up a hand. “But if we were, you’d be a bride, and I’d be a grandpa.”
“Ursula is older.”
“Your sister wants to be a nun.”
“So she says.” Looking past his full head of hair, she regretted her outburst and second-guessed her decision to come home after rehearsal. If she’d stayed out and shared a drink with Antonio, she’d have to listen to his stories and give up her evening run. She couldn’t hide from her father. He financed her life and provided patronage for her art. Looking at him, she softened her expression and recalled the sunlit days he’d spent with her and Ursula. “You’re too young to be a grandpa.”
“Hear me out,” he said.
She exhaled. Drinks with Antonio sounded better. At least he planned to fuck up his own life instead of hers.
When her mother had drowned off the Amalfi Coast, Papà had whisked his three children to Miami and begun a new life on the Atlantic’s eastern coast. Given how he’d lost his wife, one would think he would have chosen Oklahoma, but he knew how to make money along a coastline. Aunts and nannies had sopped up spilled milk, but when he’d come home at night, he’d kissed her cheek and left his old-world scent against her shoulder.
Some nights, remembering the smell of roses and leather, she recalled how much consistency mattered to children and old men. “Yes, Papà.”
“I have a series of eligible young men lined up. You will give them each an evening and tell me which man suits you.”
“What if I prefer women?”
“Gisella Santa Maria Vitella!” He slammed his palm against the desk.
A vase rattled but resisted gravity’s lure.
She rolled her eyes and stood. The dates her father arranged would be insurance agents or mob hit men. She couldn’t decide which option she found more appalling. “I can find my own dates, Daddy.”
He gripped the leather armrests. “Sit down.”
Lowering her frame, she kept her back straight and maintained eye contact. The company’s Artistic Director scared her more than her father did, but his familiar expectations could surprise her. Cosseted and pampered, she enjoyed an easy life until she slammed into a glass wall keeping her from enjoying life’s stunning vistas. Eventually, she found an exit, and her father acquiesced to her wishes.
He cleared his throat. “You’re too old to prance around the stage in a tutu.”
She wet her lips. “Too old to dance, and too young to procreate. What’s a girl to do? Marriage is a contract, isn’t it? Do I get a lawyer?”
He raised an eyebrow.
Outside the mansion’s walls, ballet defined her life and gave her predictability. At fifteen, she’d enrolled in the company school and trained for three years. After graduation, she’d joined the ballet as a School Apprentice and spent two years in the trenches before joining the corps de ballet. Three years later, she’d made Soloist, then Principal Soloist. The lure of becoming Principal Dancer kept her focused.
The goal also kept her father off her back. It was like he’d made a deal with his six-year-old daughter, and he refused to back out of his agreement. For the last twenty years, he’d sponsored the company’s performances, but rarely attended them.
Last month, she’d celebrated her twenty-fifth birthday. Most dancers stopped dancing professionally between thirty-five and forty years of age. She’d known her father wouldn’t give her that much time and would propose an arranged marriage. She might have to accept it, but an IUD would buy her time to achieve her dreams. Crossing her arms, she settled back into the chair.
Sometimes, she lay awake at night and imagined defying her father, but he killed the men who disobeyed him, and she lacked a mother to intercede on her behalf. Caught between ideals and reality, she walked a narrow line and kept her gaze focused on the future. Sometimes, she dreamed of her mother, but she wondered how much time had reshaped the memories.
She remembered holding her breath under water to watch fish, but now she hated to swim. Her inability to trust her memories undermined her faith in herself, and her father’s coddling approach undermined her achievements. She could dance across the stage playing a role, but striking out on her own meant vulnerability. Until she knew she could succeed, she would humor his demands. “I hear you, Papà. Who’s the first victim?”
“You will love Marco.”
Tilting her head to the side, she rubbed her scalp. “Doubtful, but tell me where to report.”
“You’re a good girl, and you’ll make me proud. I’ve tried to raise you the old way, but your aunts can’t replace your mother. I’m getting old. You’ve had leeway to pursue your dancing, but tomorrow evening at eight, you and Marco will dine.”
She shook her head. “Not tomorrow, Papà. I organized a beach cleanup.”
“You hate the water. Find someone else to pick up trash…”
Holding up her hand, she interrupted his mandate. “CIH is sponsoring the event.”
His forehead wrinkled.
Maybe he was getting old. “Perhaps Tuesday?” she offered.
His nostrils flared. “Tuesday.”
Standing, she rounded the desk, pressed a kiss against his smooth cheek and let his scent calm her frustration. How many times had he threatened her dancing? How many times had he shipped her back to Italy to take in the old country? Here she remained. Marco and the remaining suitors would fizzle out, and she’d continue dancing. “Ti amo, Papino.”
He pulled back. “You will go on this date.”
“Sure.” Picking up the receipts, she dropped them in the trashcan. “I have plenty of new dresses to wear.”
She winked. Walking out of the office, she let her clicking heels say everything she held back. The marble-backed rhythm sounded so final, like the sound of a bullet fired at close range. Violence hung over her family like a constant threat. If her father understood anything, he understood endings. Keeping him focused on new beginnings remained her job.
Opening the door to her room, she shucked the heels for soft slippers, settled into a stretch and let the music guide her.
Ursula opened the door connecting their rooms and pushed a shoe out of the way. “I thought dancers didn’t wear high heels.”
“They do when they want salespeople to take them seriously.”
Dropping to the floor, Ursula lolled her head. “You’d think a black credit card and a bodyguard would be enough to get their attention.”
“You’d think.” Gisella deepened her stretch and puzzled through Ursula’s recent transformation. Her sister’s dark brown hair, olive skin and generous curves could rock a bikini, but lately she’d insisted on dressing like a martyr. If Ursula deviated from her prayers and walked into a boutique, the salespeople might press the panic button. Gisella suppressed a smile.
Her sister had always been serious, but her devotion had deepened in the last six months. After Sunday mass, Gisella had known why. No longer content to hide behind her hymnal, Ursula had stared at Father Pietro, the hot new priest. The man of the cloth must have given Ursula a bit of pious encouragement.
Gisella shrugged and laid her torso along her leg. If Ursula wanted to plan her life around vespers, God love her. “How was your day?”
“Good. Lots of praying, solemnity, hymns and stuff.”
Gisella raised her head. “And stuff?”
Ursula swallowed. “Church stuff.”
“Maybe you could put the stuff on hold and help me cleanup the beach tomorrow. Every set of hands helps.”
“Sure.” Ursula stood. “I have a few hours to spare.”
Watching her sister slip into the next room, Gisella judged her sister’s choices. Dancing made her feel alive. Why would any woman dedicate her life to an organization that spent so much time imagining what came after death?
Amy Craig lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana USA with her family and a small menagerie of pets. She writes women’s fiction and contemporary romances with intelligent and empathetic heroines. She can’t always vouch for the men. She has worked as an engineer, project manager, and incompetent waitress. In her spare time, she plays tennis and expands her husband’s honey-do list.
Anthony Henson doesn’t do people. He prefers to be left alone with his paint, brushes and canvas. A world that allows his mind to be at ease, without the struggle to do what is right by societal dictates. His quiet universe is sent spinning, however, when a string of recent thefts brings a tall Irish detective into his circle.
Detective Liam Rourke has a hard, firm policy on not intermingling work and pleasure. Until now, it’s not been an issue to uphold it. Enter one painter and all he wants to do is spend more time around him. The lines between professional and personal are blurred.
When everything settles, what will happen to the straight-laced detective and the man whose own messy life doesn’t matter to him?
Reader advisory: This book contains instances of bullying, as well as mention of homophobia, adultery, and family/domestic verbal/emotional abuse.
“There’s a Detective Rourke here to see you, Anthony.”
Anthony Henson sighed, instantly agitated, and spun on the stool, away from the current painting he worked on. With a flick of his wrist as he got to his feet, he covered it. No one would see it until the time was right.
The words were the correct ones, even if the last thing he felt like he should be doing was entertaining another prick of a badge. Pressing the heel of his palm into his upper thigh, he sighed as he tried to work out the stiffness. When he finished on that side, he worked out the stiffness in his other leg. A sure sign he’d been immobile far too long without taking a break.
Supposedly this can be a good thing. I am getting up and moving around. This will serve as my break.
Truth was, he didn’t give a fuck if it was a good thing or not. He didn’t care. He had painting to do. The other things were naught but irritating intrusions of his time.
Marshall vanished without another word and in mere seconds, with his suit impeccable. While Anthony himself, on the other hand, looked like a day laborer. Paint staining his fingers, shirt, pants. Even his shoes.
Damnit. I forgot my shoes. Where did I leave them? In the back room? Beneath my stool?
There were two options. Go back and get them, assuming he could remember where he’d discarded them, or continue on like he was to this meeting.
It’s not like I called the cops to come out here. He’s interrupting my day. Why do I care if I’m wearing shoes? Why should I care? He may not even be a he. I suppose women can be detectives.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew he should care. That would be the proper thing to do. Quite honestly, he didn’t give a fuck about social niceties. That’s what Marshall was for.
Pushing his hands into his pockets, he walked through the back of the studio to the front. Marshall pointed one finger off to his left and Anthony followed.
The man, and it was a man, stood before one of his favorite pieces. A scene in Italy, a seashore.
“Why are you here?”
Beside him, Marshall cleared his throat, softly. Anthony knew what it was, a reminder to be better behaved. Be polite. Sociable.
The man didn’t start, just slowly turned toward him, expression composed. Sharp green eyes lasered out from angular features. Deep red hair with a smattering of gray at the temples. The clothing was typical detective wear—a suit.
His voice rolled from him like a slow-moving wave, not anything to knock you over but you sure as hell knew it had been there.
“That’s who you asked to see. Why else would I be standing here?”
Marshall stepped between them. “I’m sorry, Detective. Yes, this is Anthony Henson. Anthony, this is Detective Liam Rourke.”
There was a look in Marshall’s gaze. It took him a moment before it clicked. Marshall was reminding him not to be so short.
“How can I help you?”
It grated he had to ask that, but Marshall smiled at him and that made it worth it. Being able to make Marshall smile and relax was something Anthony enjoyed doing. He didn’t have a lot of friends. There were people, acquaintances who pretended to like him because of who he was and his wealth and of course his connections, or at least those they thought would help them. But he wasn’t stupid, no matter what those same people said behind his back. He knew they were trying to use him.
The bottom line was, he didn’t give a fuck about them. But Marshall…he was different. The man had been his friend since they’d first met. He’d taken beatings standing up for Anthony and never got offended when Andrew’s bluntness had things falling from his mouth that should have been withheld.
So, no matter how he didn’t want to do something, if Marshall asked him, he would do it. He hid a smirk and tried to give the visitor his attention. It wasn’t easy. This detective was handsome.
“I’m here with a couple of questions about burglaries that have been going on at some of the local galleries.”
Anthony watched and waited, bare toes curling on the cool floor. The eyes held him. That shade of green wasn’t something he’d seen before.
He wanted to paint it.
I want to paint him.
Detective Rourke gave a small nod and pulled out a flip steno pad. “Has there been any trouble here? Any people in here that may be casing the joint under the pretense of looking at the art?”
With any movement, Anthony waited. As did the detective. The man didn’t speak, just held his gaze.
He figured it was a tactic to get suspects to talk, but personally, he didn’t give a fuck. This man didn’t intimidate him.
Arouse him? Yes, for sure.
A hint of impatience laced the man’s tone, even though it was very faint.
“Are those your only questions?” Anthony blinked, once. “Or do you have others?”
The man flattened his lips and gave a slow nod.
“I couldn’t tell you. You would be better served speaking to Marshall.” He looked away from the detective with the intoxicating green eyes. “Marshall, come answer the detective’s questions. I have better things to do.”
Without another word, he turned and walked back toward his studio.
“Wait a minute.”
He paused outside the room and looked over his shoulder. The man strode toward him, brow furrowed.
“We’re not finished.”
Anthony narrowed his gaze. “You told me you had no more questions. I am not the best equipped to answer this, Marshall is.” He cocked his head to the side as a thought struck him. “Are you good at your job? Because you seem to be having a difficult time digesting what I told you.”
Marshall cleared his throat again.
Anthony shrugged. “What? It is a legitimate question.” He waved his hand in the direction of the sexy detective.
I do not need to think of him as sexy.
“He is having a difficult time grasping my statement.” He faced Liam. “Or did something change and you do have different questions for me?”
Liam Rourke wasn’t sure what to make of the man standing before him. He didn’t shy away from eye contact and seemed absolutely shocked Liam wanted to speak to him again. But the blue eyes holding his called to a deeper part of him. One he’d thought he’d closed down, after—
There was scruff on his face, making his jaw shadowed. Messy dark hair fell haphazardly around his features. He’d noticed a limp while Anthony had moved away from him.
Two blinks and the man he’d come to speak with walked away, leaving him there. Dumbfounded.
“I’m sorry, Detective Rourke. Anthony doesn’t mean to be rude. He just—”
“No need to explain.” He had a feeling he already knew. “Why did he tell me to speak to you?”
“Mr. Henson prefers to keep to the back, doing what he loves. Painting. He isn’t one who comes out to mingle with the patrons.” Marshall stepped back and smoothed a hand down his suit. “I handle all of that for him.”
“Okay, let me ask you.”
Liam talked to Marshall for another couple of minutes before closing up his notepad.
“I’ll be by if I have any more questions. If you do see anything, please let us know. We’re trying to stop this group before someone gets seriously hurt.”
“Will do, Detective.”
He gave him a nod and pivoted to the door. All he wanted to do was go in the back and engage with Anthony once more. He shook his head. It had been a while since he’d had a man affect him like Anthony had, despite the brief time they were together.
At the door to Arm’s Hall Gallery, he slowed, at war with himself about whether to go back and see Anthony once more. Exhaling sharply, he pushed through and stepped out into the hot summer afternoon.
Liam slid on his sunglasses and tipped his head up to the glaring sun. His mind drifted back to the paint-splattered man who hadn’t been the slightest bit impressed with having a detective there, trying to help.
He snorted. No, impressed was definitely not the word to use. Annoyed, irritated, bored. So many other ones he could choose.
There had been something sexy about seeing him there, barefoot and a bit messy, which had kicked his senses, reminding him how long it’d been since he’d had a lover. Eyes on his car, he walked toward it, mind focusing ahead to the next stop on his list for the day.
So far the four places that had been burglarized hadn’t had any injuries. In his gut, he figured it was only a matter of time before their luck ran out with regards to that. What he’d not been able to piece together yet was a connection in the art. Other than the obvious—it was art. Something told him it was deeper than how it appeared on the surface.
Not even old art, at least not all. It was like the thief or thieves weren’t after Rembrandts, probably because they were afraid they couldn’t unload them. And he didn’t get the allure of some of what he’d seen. Some of the pieces that had been stolen he personally wouldn’t wipe his ass with, but he’d never claimed to be an art critic.
Now this most recent studio, he didn’t mind what was up on those walls. Not images he would consider all abstract, for there was a definite eclectic taste to what adorned the walls.
Landscapes. People. Animals. Buildings. Flowers. You name it, Arm’s Hall probably had it, and most of what Liam had seen made sense to his mind.
Snapping his gaze up when his name was hollered, he lifted his chin in greeting to another detective, Larson, who had been at a different gallery.
Larson jogged across the street and put his hands on his hips. “Anything?”
He shook his head and pulled his notebook back out, flipping it open. “Nothing that was worth the time it took me to put it down.”
Arms crossed, Larson grunted. “Same. Although, if I wanted a painted picture of a bikini bottom, it could be mine for a measly ten grand.”
Liam choked. “I’m sorry?”
“Yeah, that’s what it was like at the last place I was at. I either make far too little or I went into the wrong business. I mean, I could paint some ladies’ drawers and would be happy to sell it for half their asking price. Christ, what the hell is the draw for something like that? I couldn’t ever put it up on my wall, not if I wanted my wife to refrain from slitting my throat at night.”
Liam laughed, knowing full well Regina, Larson’s wife, would do exactly that, and find a way to blame him for it. Woman was scary and a freaking amazing attorney. He held up his hands and shook his head.
“That’s all you, man. I’m not buying any portion of women’s clothing on a canvas. Much less for that kind of money. We have the same job. I know I don’t make that kind of money.”
“Let’s get back, see if we can’t find a lead somewhere.”
They fell into step and walked in companionable silence to the waiting sedan.
Cambry is everything an omega shouldn’t be. He’s tall, muscular and attacks every alpha who approaches him, shifting into his wolf form before making sure they know their place—away from him.
Cambry’s father sends him to Feral Woods in the hopes that Cambry will return home too shattered to put up a fight against his next potential mate. If one alpha can’t tame him, then why not try two?
With two hundred supervised acres, Feral Woods is a couple’s therapy center run by Bryce and Jake—two massive alphas who could tear Cambry apart. It’s not long before Cambry finds himself drawn to them, his inner beast submissive for the first time in his life. But he is met with dismissive refusal instead of interest.
With his heart on the line and time running out, there is a chance he could remain broken forever.
Reader advisory: This book contains a scene of a shifter orgy.
Cambry grasped the curtain, pulling it away from the polished glass of his bedroom window. The fabric was soft and heavy in his hand—something from the latest designer his mother had fallen in love with. Instead of the previous indigo, it was now a deep blue that blended in with the softer tones of his room.
A fountain spurted beyond the window, its waters guarded by a black gate that matched the fence that surrounded the property. There were grass and trees, too, beyond those gates, not that he ever got the chance to enjoy them.
An alpha retreated along the concrete walkway, his back rippling under his thin T-shirt. Each movement was like a feral dance of instinct and desire. There was a streak of red across his shirt that hadn’t been there when he’d arrived. The alpha had been big, strong, attractive and sweet—everything a proper mate should be.
But Cambry’s plan had been disastrous, like a spectacular firework that had failed to launch and exploded in his face instead. The second the alpha had shown any intent that wasn’t exactly platonic, Cambry’s instinctive side had reared up and taken him out.
Sighing, Cambry let the curtain fall shut, the filtered light dimming to a sparse glow. Luckily, the alpha was only leaving with a scratch and a black eye instead of a broken arm like the last one—or the broken collar bone from the one before him. Maybe it was because Cambry had warned him?
Most alphas sneered at the warning—hence the broken arm and collar bone—but this one had seemed different.
“When you try to touch me, I’m going to react…badly.” Cambry couldn’t remember how many times he had said those same words. He guessed that the first few alphas had assumed that Cambry would react like any other omega was supposed to—with slick and a burst of pheromones.
They hadn’t been expecting violence.
Walking to his dresser, Cambry pulled the top drawer wide, fumbling with a pair of boxers and tugging them up his thick legs. The fabric was smooth and silken and clutched his soft package like a fitted glove. They were worth spending his tiny allowance on, that was for sure. Thank goodness for the little things in life.
The little things being both his package and the expensive underwear.
His old friend Aubrie had asked him why he always splurged on the things if he had no one to show them off to. He had his own mirror, thank you very much, which added ten pounds, even on the best of days. But it was always honest about the boxers, which looked a hell of a lot better than they did on most omegas.
“Why don’t you give up, Cambry? It kills me to see you like this. If an alpha hasn’t induced a heat in you by now, it’s not going to happen.”
Aubrie had probably had the best intentions when she’d said that, but it had pierced Cambry’s soul like a dull pencil crayon. Or maybe that was why Cambry’s father had chosen her as his friend…to wear him down a bit more.
There was only so much loneliness he could take before he tried to be with someone again, hoping that everything would finally work the way it was supposed to. It wasn’t the sex as much as it was everything else. He couldn’t hug someone or even hold their hand without his feral side acting out.
His skin prickled as his door slid back, light footsteps moving across the floor behind him. And there was that.
“Your father is upset,” said his mother, her meek voice slapping him harder than any blow. He couldn’t look at her and see the same disappointment that was in his soul.
He could hear her shaking, her teeth chattering softly as she stayed as far away from him as she could. He was surprised that she had even managed to step into the same room as he was in.
“I tried, Mom,” he said, pulling a second drawer wide and tugging a shirt over his frame. He had to get alpha sizes, seeing as nothing for omegas fit his frame. His father was upset about that, too.
The alpha sizes were shaped differently than he was, though—the shoulders a touch too wide and the waist not quite narrow enough. Nothing had fit him well since he’d hit puberty.
The steady thumps of his father’s steps approached, and he hurriedly pulled a pair of jeans over his legs. They at least fit a bit better, his thighs stretching the fabric to its brink as it cupped his ass. The only place with too much room was the crotch, but he was almost glad that nothing ever touched him there.
He looked at the mirror above his dresser, scowling at his reflection. Fellow omegas were terrified of him, and alphas treated him like he was a strange cousin to the human race who needed to be broken or beaten until he fit into a different shape than what he had been born into.
He sniffed, slamming the drawer shut before his father could step into his room. There was no use crying, no matter how frustrated he was.
“We’ve tried it your way, Cambry. These alphas can’t stand to get close to you, let alone allow you to bond with them,” said his father as he hovered at the edge of the door frame. He was a few inches shy of Cambry’s height and had lost his alpha muscling to his age long before Cambry had been born. Like most alphas, he never got too close to Cambry—just close enough to hurt with words.
Cambry wondered if he would ever forget his father’s way. The restraints had dug into his wrists as a strange alpha had approached him from behind. Guided by an overdressed and undereducated doctor, Cambry’s father had hoped to kick-start Cambry’s omega nature with some good ole fashioned alpha cock. They hadn’t counted on Cambry breaking his own arm as he shifted, turning on the alpha and ripping a chunk of flesh from his throat.
The alpha hadn’t died—thank goodness—but they had never tried to restrain Cambry after that. And they had finally listened to him and had let him try on his own terms by picking up an alpha from a bar. It was about as romantic as a one-night stand could have been.
But it had resulted the same way—minus the shifting and massive blood loss, at least.
“It almost happened, Dad. I was so close,” said Cambry, touching his belly. He’d been naked, which had been a first. And the alpha had managed to touch him once before Cambry’s beast had risen to the surface and socked him in the face. Biting the alpha’s gland to bond with them had been the last thing on his mind.
“Close isn’t enough,” said his father, the snarl in his voice enough to prickle the hair on the back of Cambry’s neck. He’d never attacked a family member, but he had come close enough times that his father rarely approached him without backup. It was probably why his mother was strategically between them, shivering with her eyes downcast.
“Your heat could kill you. You’re already so much older than you should be for your first one, and there’s no way you can manage it alone,” said his mother, the edge of a sob in her voice. Cambry turned, his heart falling as he watched the tears stream down his mother’s face. She, at least, cared for him. His father was more interested in seeing him out of the door in a different alpha’s house—with some financial benefits for himself, of course.
“I’d have to have a heat first.” Cambry turned away as his father’s dark eyes glared into him. Most omegas had their first heat when they were still in high school, the late bloomers sprouting by eighteen at the latest. Cambry had turned twenty-two three weeks before, and he still hadn’t experienced a heat. He was hardly an omega at all by some standards.
But his mom was right. Those that had monthly heats had the mildest cycle, still able to continue their day-to-day lives with only a mild fever and a bit of slickness. Some of Cambry’s classmates had been that way, and he’d scarcely been able to tell.
Those who had heats once a year had to isolate themselves for nearly a week, their scent and instincts so uncontrollable that they could kill any stranger who attempted to approach. They needed a mate to ease them through it, more with their presence than their knot, from what his mother had explained.
For Cambry not to have had a heat at his age meant that his first would reduce him to nothing more than a feral beast that would kill and fuck without conscious thought. The idea was terrifying, especially since he was already so close to feral that an alpha couldn’t touch him.
“I’ve tolerated this abnormality of yours for long enough,” said his father, his mother’s spine stiffening.
“Dear, you promised,” she said, her voice pleading.
“No, he’ll be going to them, and that’s final. That doctor wasn’t worth his degree, but a colleague of mine gave me the name of a facility that he swears by. If one alpha can’t handle him, then maybe two can snap him out of this phase.” He tossed a business card into the room and it fluttered end over end before settling upside down on the floor. Turning, he stormed from the entry.
Cambry finally took a breath as his father disappeared, skirting by his mother to grab the business card. It was deep forest green with the name Feral Woods inscribed along the middle with deep gold lettering.
He flipped it over, his eyes going wide as he read the services listed on the card. “Instinctive therapy? What is that?” It sounded terrifying and alluring at the same time.
His instincts were everything that was wrong with him, though. As much as he wanted to listen to the little whispers in the back of his mind, he knew if he did, he would be alone for the rest of his life. Therapy brought to mind cages and bindings, the hair on his arms and chest thickening at the thought.
If it had been his father’s idea, the latter was probably exactly what was involved. His colleagues weren’t much better in Cambry’s experience, either.
“I hear they are very good,” she said softly, her voice trembling as she took a step back. His heart broke under the weight of her fear.
His parents were terrified of him. Maybe he should be locked in a cage for the rest of his days until they found someone who could make him submit. Or two someones. He quivered.
“When do I leave?” He took a shuddering breath as he looked around his room. What would he be allowed to bring? His collection of rocks from his younger years? Probably not. His romance novels? He should probably give them a proper burial before he left, because his father would burn them and disown him if he found them hidden under the floorboard.
Just another layer of his abnormalities. His father would have a heart attack if he ever read one of them or even caught sight of the cover. They were the only things that Cambry had ever intentionally rebelled with, and they could cost him everything.
“Your father pulled some strings.” Because of course he did. She cleared her throat. “You’re leaving in an hour.”
So his father had expected his plan to fail.
“There are single omegas, Mom. Why can’t he just let me be?” Cambry sighed, drawing a hand down his arm as his fur retreated, prickling as it pulled back under his skin. Others described shifting as painful, and even his mother could hardly bear to do it. But to him, it was a release he only ever found when he was in that form—wild and without the presumptions of a society that hated him.
“You know why,” she said, not even looking at him. He hadn’t noticed the exact moment that she had given up on him, but it had been a long time ago—perhaps when he had matured into an omega, only he hadn’t stopped growing like he was supposed to or maybe when the first alpha had offered him a mating contract and Cambry had bitten clear through his hand.
“I’m sorry,” he said. The reasons were too long for her to list, and he knew them almost by heart. “Your father has so much pressure at work. People are wondering why you haven’t mated yet. People will talk, son, and your reputation will be ruined. We can’t let them know that you’re…unnatural. Your heat will kill you, and if it doesn’t, your father…”
They did have a slight point. He had no desire to die, especially since he hadn’t seen the world except for his tiny slice of neighborhood and the bit of lawn within the black gates. The unmated omegas he’d seen were considered strange anomalies in the circles his father traveled in and were best to be left alone and shunned.
As if they couldn’t function without a knot to drool over.
Cambry rolled his eyes. The idea of a knot made him a bit nauseous. He had no desire to bend over and take it like he was supposed to. His feral side agreed with toothy gusto.
“You should pack. I’ll give you space.” She set a duffel bag on the floor before she swept from the room, the loss of her presence barely palpable in the quiet house.
She was his polar opposite. His beast refused to be compliant and meek, even when he tried so hard to overcome that part of himself. He didn’t want to be his mother, who was a shadow of a human being ruled by society more than her education and emotions.
Sighing, he looked around the room before grabbing the bag. If he were lucky, he would have just enough room to pack his books under a thin layer of clothing. Then, at least, he could take everything that meant something to him.
He looked at the business card one last time. Alpha and omega instinctive therapy sessions. Two hundred acres of supervised development.
Well, on the bright side, he would probably get to see some hot alpha ass. A smile tugged at his lips. He could have a positive attitude. At least he was getting out of the house. And two hundred acres would give his beast a lot more places to run, even if he was supervised.
Checking to make sure the coast was clear, he lifted the floorboards just inside his closet. His collection of books that he’d spent years gathering barely fit in the space anymore. The pages were worn from being read so many times, the front covers smudged from his fingers. The covers gave away everything that his father didn’t need to know. Two men, bigger than even himself and twined in a primal embrace, painted a steamy picture that made his mouth water. Forbidden Alphas.
Heat flushed his cheeks as he packed them out of sight, zipping the bag shut with a hard pull. He balled up a pair of socks and underwear, jamming them into the side pouch to disguise the corners the books had created.
M.C. Roth lives in Canada and loves every season, even the dreaded Canadian winter. She graduated with honours from the Associate Diploma Program in Veterinary Technology at the University of Guelph before choosing a different career path.
Between caring for her young son, spending time with her husband, and feeding treats to her menagerie of animals, she still spends every spare second devoted to her passion for writing.
She loves growing peppers that are hot enough to make grown men cry, but she doesn’t like spicy food herself. Her favourite thing, other than writing of course, is to find a quiet place in the wilderness and listen to the birds while dreaming about the gorgeous men in her head.
A three-letter word made me a murderess at the age of eight years. But having experienced the curses of that word, I was done with men as I grew up. All men. Except to outplay them in the New York financial arena. Then Crowned Sex enthroned in gorgeous velvet charm and lustful gallantry storms into my life. Spewing volcanic lava on my monumental arctic ice block. With the unapologetic fierceness of a savage god. Wearing crackling thunderbolts straight from the god Zeus. Explosive has nothing on it.
Adrian isn’t hot, he’s fucking hellish. He embarks on melting my ice block at the speed of lightning. But I was done with men. I was done with sex. For ever. I. Was.
I scented her darkness from the moment I was told about her. The sight of her sealed my decision. She was the woman created for my own darkness. I set off to protect her even from herself. Protect her to claim.
Fuse her darkness with my own. For. Myself. I’d fended women off me with bazookas when I was done but they weren’t. I wasn’t prepared for the battle I soon fought. Not only with her but also with her family. And New York’s billionaire gangsters who own entourages of corrupt cops and politicians. With every battle I won, she started new darker wars around me. You ate or you were eaten. Not even starving was an option.
NOTE: Although the blurb is in the first person, the story of Leo and Adrian is written in the third person. This story contains adult material including explicit sex and violence. You’ve been warned.
He caught both her flying arms, used her momentum to spin her around onto her back on the couch and landed over her.
Smack bang between her legs.
Pinned her hands above her head and every f****** struggle she tried only forced her to rub against his hard body.
Furious, her thighs tensed but with nowhere to go except around his hips. He planned this. She f****** bet he planned this to the last minute detail.
“You double-faced bastard, get off me!”
“No. You put yourself here. Right here under me, Leo.”
“Get the f*** off m—”
He slammed his crotch right against hers and ground in.
She screamed as some unknown force kindled her center and the sensation rushed simultaneously south to her soles and north to her scalp.
She stiffened, trembling. Then whimpered. Then—
Behind the Scenes with Adrian Cranford
The maître d’ ushered her into the enclosed niche at Park Chinois restaurant in Mayfair, and the earth juddered as I got up and buttoned my blazer to offer her my hand.
“Ms Boswell, Mr Cranford,” the maître d’ said and the trillion dollar quaking literally thrust him out.
Leontine Nigella Boswell in the flesh. Her mesmerizing turquoise eyes that I’d traced countless times with my fingers on her stunning images now munched my mouth with an intensity that forced me to lick my lips. As if I readied myself to eat her. My own eyes tore off hers and descended on her fuck-me mouth with another planetary jolt that glued them together.
“Don’t expect anything from me that’ll adequately answer the way you’re looking at me, Adrian Xerxes Cranford.”
Those were the first words she spoke to me. In a voice that made think of taking arms and adorning my military commander uniform to go to war for her. All my adult life I’d fought off women with bazookas when I was done but they weren’t. Now I was ready to go to war for an Adrian goddess I’d worshipped for ever without her proximity.
Bugger me, I thought as her hand left mine, here is magnificent womanhood cloaked in black marble. I felt her darkness claw out of the marble, absorb me and grab inside the even darker abyss within me. Then take root and blossom like a magical flower creating itself for the first time in life’s universe. That darkness slithered into my own darkness and instantly mated. By the time she sat on the chair I held out for her, I knew she was the woman created for my own darkness.
“Give me the inadequate answer, then, Ms Boswell,” I said settling down in my chair opposite her.
“Your uncle, Sir Gordon—”
“Who happens to be your lawyer,” I said to stop that mouth moving for a moment before its movements ruined me. A mistake. Because the planet hadn’t regained its balance yet and forced a gasp from her as she fought not to squirm, her eyes back on my mouth, devouring it.
Watching our mouths in motion was obviously an issue to both of us.
“Yes. He organized this dinner so you can coach me with regard to the City of London. So how many top investors do you know in the World’s Richest Square Mile?”
With every word she spoke, my magical flower opened to full bloom absorbing the blackness in my abyss. Miraculous in its capability to reflect it back. She filled up my inner sight completely with her dazzling darkness. She couldn’t look away, I couldn’t look away, both of our gazes held and locked like two forces with opposing magnets in a tag of war that would never end. Not ever.
“Are you uncomfortable, Leo?” Projection. Fuck, I was uncomfortable and didn’t know where to bloody take it but throw it back at her.
“What?” Her effort to stop our juddering planet brought her eyes back to my mouth. The same omnipotent power slammed my eyes on her mouth.
“That’s not an answer. It’s at best avoidance and therefore an insult to both of us. Since when do you skirt around challenging situations?”
“Fuck you, Mr Cranford.”
“As long as it’s you, Leo, any time.” In my mind’s eye, as I stared at her mouth, I saw her eagerly open it wide for me to fuck it raw and come deep down her throat.
She was too intense to treat this as a quip. I watched her energy whip itself into a coiled tornado speeding towards me, intent on turning me into dust and blowing me off the face of the planet.
“Are you ready for the aperitifs?” the maître d’ asked, back just in time to save my arse. I’d have preferred to have her blow it to hell just to feel that untameable fury of hers on me.
That first close encounter with the goddess I’d worshipped before clapping my eyes on is forever etched in my memory.
To this day, Leo and I are titanic fire and ice. We burn and freeze each other. We destroy and reconstruct each other. We kill and resurrect each other. We fuck like primal beasts and love like demonic gods. In every mood, location or situation, we’re too extraordinary to ever be normal. We’re irreparably damaged. Our story continues to be written.
Adrian set off to protect Leo even from herself. Protect her to claim. Fuse her darkness with his. I feel totally Adrian. I don’t want whatever Leo and I are to be any other way but as is. Neither do I want our story to end although I know it has to, one day.
AUTHOR Bio and Links:
AP von K’Ory writes the kind of books she herself would like to read and is passionate about, whether romance, psychological thriller or nonfiction. She is the winner of six awards from four continents, the last one being the Achievers Award for Writer of the Year 2013 in the Netherlands. The Selmere Integration Prize was awarded her in 2014 for her engagement in helping African Women in the Diaspora cope with a variety of domestic and social problems. The Proposal, a short story, won the Cook Communications first prize in 2010 and is published in an American anthology Africa 2012. In 2012, she won the Karl Ziegler Prize for her commitment to bring African culture to Western society in various papers, theses, and lectures. Again in 2012, her book Bound to Tradition: The Dream was nominated for the 2012 Caine Prize by the Author-me Group, Sanford, and in 2013 she was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize.
Von K’Ory is married to an aristocrat and politician of Franco-German descent, has a large extended family. She lectures Economics and Sociology in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. She’s migratory and – weather willing – lives in Germany, France, Cyprus, and Greece.
It would be equally wonderful if you could Like my Author page and read more about Shana and Roman new releases, cover reveals and what I’m up to lately on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/AuthorAPVonKOry
Prepare to enter a world filled with pleasure and desire.
Meet Amara, an ordinary twenty-eight-year-old woman trying to navigate her way through life. Amara is a full-time carer for her mum. Her life isn’t easy but is fairly routine…until one night she joins her friends at an exclusive BDSM club, somewhere she hasn’t been in a long time.
She thought it would be a relatively normal night, but she was wrong. Because she met him…Sullivan. He is unlike anyone she’s ever met before.
Since her previous dabbling in the BDSM community, she has developed uneasy feelings about various aspects of her life. But Sullivan has managed to break through her barriers and expose her deepest desires, bringing out the most intense pleasure she’s ever experienced.
Now Amara must decide if she’s ready for this new life of fiery passion.
Will this new romance bring her more pleasure or pain?
Or will it consume and implode everything around her?
One thing is for certain—nothing will be the same again.
Reader advisory: This book contains mentions of dementia, the serious illness of secondary character, past alcoholism, body image issues, seizure, and the off-label use of painkillers.
Amara entered the club and fought the sudden urge to flee. It had been eighteen months since she’d stepped foot inside Haven, Perth’s most exclusive BDSM club, and so much had changed in that time. This used to be her safe haven, the one place she never had to hide her true self. Where she could let go of her control issues and let her submissive side come out to play. Now, it was a strange place. It was somehow more daunting. She didn’t belong here anymore.
With her best friend by her side, she signed in as a guest and handed over her completed waiver and membership forms. The dim lighting from chandeliers and wall sconces cast red and gold glows around the main room. The only well-lit section was around the bar. Everything spoke of darkness, pleasure and sex—the wooden flooring, darkly painted walls, exposed beams that held an assortment of chandeliers.
There was no artwork on the walls anymore. Instead, they were decorated with an array of toys free for anyone to use. Even the position of the bar had changed. Now set against the far-left wall, the oblong wooden bar top sat as a feature of the room. Chains hung from the top beams and deeply set metal links were inserted into the wooden top. Perfect for naughty little submissives, she thought.
A dance floor took up a small portion of the converted warehouse, and the rest of it was taken up by an array of black and brown lounges, armchairs and small tables. But there was plenty of empty space for play, for submissives to be splayed out as tables, as one man currently was. A Domme sat on a black leather lounge and had her boot-covered feet resting on his back. The look on the man’s face, that smile of pleasure and desire as he looked straight ahead while his Domme spoke to him… Amara knew that feeling well and missed it deeply. It filled her with envy.
The familiar scents of leather mixed with sweat and sex invaded her nose as she inhaled deeply. The sounds of leather slapping flesh, bare hands smacking arses and cries of pain and pleasure were comforting. It had been far too long since she’d been involved in any of this. Despite her good reasons, she mentally kicked herself for taking such a long break. The atmosphere of the club called to her. She’d missed this, needed this. When she’d frequented it previously, it had still been a public club. Now, under new ownership, it was private and exclusive. She’d been lucky to get access to a temporary membership. If she hadn’t been helping with a demonstration, she wouldn’t be here at all.
A hand touched her back and guided her towards the bar. Her friend Larissa gestured for her to take a seat on a red leather-covered stool and took a seat beside her.
“Haven looks so different now,” Amara said as she looked around.
“Yeah, the new owner did a complete renovation before he opened it up. He’s always changing things around, though,” Larissa said.
“You’ll have to introduce me so I can thank him for allowing me in.”
“I can’t believe he gave you a month-long pass. Good thing we vouched for you, isn’t it?”
Amara regarded her friend with a small smile, despite the sadness and anxiety that filled her. “Too bad I won’t be using it other than tonight.”
No matter how badly she wanted to, she wouldn’t be returning. She simply didn’t have the time. She was a twenty-eight-year-old woman with almost no social life. And wasn’t that just a little depressing?
“You will be coming back next week. You promised me.” Larissa’s stern expression told her there would be no give on her promise.
“Fine, I’ll come back next week. But after that, you know I can’t.”
“I know why you say you can’t. I’m sure you could work something out.”
Amara accepted her drink from the bartender, thankful for the interruption. She didn’t want to talk. Not tonight. Tonight was about her dipping her toes back into the old lifestyle she’d loved so much to see if there was still a spark there. Not that she expected to play with anyone tonight. Now that she looked around to see all the other women nearby, she realised it definitely wouldn’t be happening. They all held such confidence, self-assurance. Two things she was now severely lacking.
What had happened to her? She used to saunter around confidently, knowing how to turn on her sexual appeal like a switch. Once upon a time she would have shown up in a latex skirt and a tight corset, sexy as hell. Now, she wore a multicoloured pleated skirt that was too short for her comfort and a tight black top that showcased her large breasts and veered attention away from everything else. She’d gained weight and had more fat rolls than she used to, bigger curves than she was comfortable with. In some spots, she was just plain round. She used to love her curves, the roundness of her belly, the mounds of her breasts, the softness of her thighs, but now… Now it was all too much.
A born and bred Aussie, Liia hails from Perth, Western Australia. After spending her childhood years dreaming of far-off lands, she eventually discovered her love of romance and hasn’t looked back since.
A self-proclaimed geek, she loves all things Disney and Star Wars. Being a bisexual, bipolar and ADHD battler, she is passionate about mental health and LGBTQIA+ rights, as well as advocating for animal rights.
When not writing, she can be found curled up with a good book, with her two dogs by her side.
She thinks she might be losing her mind…but she knows she’s losing her heart.
Poised. Elegant. Lovely. The local press loves to write glowing stories about Lana Fitzhugh, the youngest sibling and only sister of the famous Minnesota Fitzhugh family. But Lana’s past holds secrets, pain and shame…so much that she’s unworthy of a relationship with any good man, especially her brother Fitz’s close friend Mac. Keeping her distance from him is the right thing to do, so why can’t she stop thinking about him?
Finally settling into his first new job after long months of recovery from a severe injury, when Joe ‘Mac’ MacKenzie meets Lana Fitzhugh, the former Navy pilot thinks things might finally be looking up for him. His friend’s little sister is gorgeous, kind and makes his heart and body come alive again. But after they share an explosive embrace, she pushes him away so hard he’s still reeling.
When tragedy plunges Lana into the unexpected role of guardian to a preschooler, odd coincidences begin to happen…and grow increasingly more sinister. As Lana begins to fear that she herself might be the source of the danger, Mac doesn’t hesitate to return to help her. The only thing better than the joy they discover as a makeshift family is the passion they find in each other’s arms, but the unknown menace still grows closer every day. Will they be able to move beyond the past to grab for a future together?
“I have to admit that I’m impressed by how well you handled all the questions from the police about Brock Templeton,” Lana said grudgingly. Joe ‘Mac’ MacKenzie was already much too cocky, and his ego hardly needed any stroking. Watching him with the officers, though, had been like watching a master. She could easily see how he’d earned so many promotions and honors as a Navy pilot.
He shrugged, not taking his hands off the wheel, but the small smile he gave—and why couldn’t he be a little less handsome?—was self-satisfied. “It’s the accent,” he answered, really laying it on thick. “Like my daddy said, a Southern man tells the best jokes and is always welcome at any dinner table or gatherin’.”
She snorted, and not the usual elegant sniff that sometimes escaped but a full-on nasal rattling noise. “You sound like Tom Hanks’ cousin from the deeper South—like, the Mariana Trench of Alabama.”
“Oh, no, ma’am, not Alabama—perish the thought! My family’s pure Georgia. How did you guess I was from Mariana Trench, though?” he teased. “My granddaddy was mayor of Mariana Trench, as a matter of fact.”
She raised one skeptical eyebrow. “Matter of fact, eh?”
Her heart felt like it beat double-time at Mac’s charming grin, flashing like the Cheshire Cat’s as it was lit periodically by the streetlights they passed. Lana Fitzhugh, you of all people know better than to get your head turned by a handsome, charming man, she scolded herself. He’d shown himself to be overbearing, jealous and possessive when he’d fired one of the caterers on the spot earlier in the evening without even consulting her. But you didn’t disagree with his decision, the annoyingly honest voice in the back of her head forced her to acknowledge. The caterer had actually been making her uncomfortable, but it had been her problem to deal with, not Mac’s.
“Would I lie to such a stunning creature? You wound me, ma’am, straight to the core.” He pretended to be hit by a bolt to the heart, and she couldn’t help the burble of laughter that she tried to stifle. He was just so ridiculous. He was smart, funny and seemed truly dedicated to helping other men and women who’d recently left the service. Several times over the past few weeks as she’d worked closely with him to plan that night’s fundraiser, she’d found herself liking him in spite of her better judgment.
The party had been an unqualified success for the worthy veteran’s charity that Mac and Fitz, her second-oldest brother, had become very involved with. Well, she mentally amended, it was practically perfect until Brock Templeton, Fitz’s fiancée’s ex-boyfriend, made a scene, insulted Clara and drunkenly confessed to trying to cause her to ‘accidentally’ lose their baby. Brock had clammed up when they’d gotten to the police station, but, thank goodness, Mac had already recorded everything on his phone.
“I know that Fitz and Clara will really appreciate your getting the police to agree to take their statements tomorrow. They don’t like to leave baby Hope for too long,” she answered, sobered by the recollection of the night’s events.
“I’m certain they’ve checked in on Miss Hope, but I do believe they may be doing some, uh, private celebrating of their engagement, too—or, at least, on behalf of lonely single dudes everywhere, I hope they are. It’s not every day that a man gets the woman he loves to agree to marry him.” Mac’s voice was light, but there was something sad behind his tone, just below the surface.
“No…no, it’s not,” she agreed, snapping her mouth shut when she realized she sounded wistful. She had plenty to be grateful for, especially now that Fitz had returned to their lives, bringing the lovely Clara and Hope, shaking up the household and breaking their oldest brother, Drew, and Lana herself out of the cold, boring routines they’d fallen into. “Clara is just lovely—and Hope, too. I couldn’t be happier for them,” she enthused, perhaps a bit too heartily.
Mac quirked one side of his mouth up in a wry smile. “You’ve convinced me…but are you sure you’ve convinced yourself?”
His insight surprised her.
“I suppose you’re right…but please don’t think it’s about Clara, because she really is wonderful. I truly am happy for them.” She paused, forcing herself to be truthful. “Maybe a little envious, too. A long time ago—God, when I was so young and arrogant, self-assured to the point of naiveté and convinced of my own completely irresistible self—I made some really awful decisions.”
If he’d said anything, she probably wouldn’t have continued, but he remained silent, waiting.
“I ended up with a badly trampled heart—let’s call it pulverized instead of broken—and it cost me my best friend and years of my relationship with Fitz, too.” Suddenly uncomfortable with just how much she’d revealed, she gave a weak laugh. “I’m sorry I said that…burdened you with that. You didn’t ask for my life story.”
Mac touched his hand to her thigh for an instant before returning it to make a hard turn with the steering wheel. “Whatever happened, it sounds like you learned a lot from it, although I’m sorry it sounds like it caused you so much pain,” he replied in a low, earnest voice, so different from the light, teasing tones he usually used with her. “And, Lana, nothing you could ever tell me would be a burden,” he finished, clearing his throat. She wondered if he was equally uncomfortable with what she’d revealed.
Taking pity on him, she deliberately lightened the tone. “I bet you say that to all the young debutantes,” she answered. “Does it ever work?”
Mac’s laughter was a surprised bark. “Touché, Miss Fitzhugh. It might shock you to learn that I have, indeed, known my fair share of debutantes, including my two sisters.”
“Now, that is unexpected,” she agreed, although now that she pictured it, she could definitely see Mac all dressed up in a gray afternoon suit, flirting shamelessly and fetching lemonade for some pretty young thing. “Does that mean you can dance? You never asked me once tonight.”
They stopped at a signal so that his face was half in the light and half out, but the expression on the half she could see was distant. The silence between them became thick and uncomfortable. Lana knew she must have mis-stepped, but she wasn’t certain how.
“I don’t think I can dance anymore—or at least not like I used to,” he answered at last, his voice gruff. “I lost my right leg below the knee about eighteen months ago now.”
Lana sucked in a sharp breath. She’d known Mac and Fitz had met in a military hospital, and she’d noticed that Mac walked with a limp, but she’d never wanted to pry, figuring that Mac would tell her about his injury if he wanted her to know. She’d never imagined he’d lost part of his leg entirely.
“Horrified? Tempted to feel sorry for me?” Mac sounded defensive. “I’ve had to deal with just about every type of reaction.”
She touched his shoulder gently. “Nope, just surprised, since I didn’t know,” she answered quietly. “I can’t even begin to understand how difficult recovering from an injury like that would be, and I admire your charity work even more now.”
The enclosed space of the small front seat of the car felt suddenly intimate, especially so late at night, as if the two of them might be the only people awake in the city—or maybe in the world.
They pulled onto the long driveway—well, really a small, private lane—that led to the main house of her family’s compound—Fitzhugh’s Folly, as it was widely known, given how outrageously expensive and ostentatious it had been when her grandfather, Pat, had built it.
Tonight, it looked cavernous and dark…forlorn. Or maybe that’s just me, Lana thought, but recognizing the source of her melancholy didn’t make her feel better. Her oldest brother, Drew, had opted to stay at his high-rise apartment downtown to save time before his morning meeting. Her grandfather and Roger, who was ostensibly their butler but really a member of the family, along with being her grandfather’s long-time companion and probably his closest friend, had gone to bed early, so the lights had likely been out in their wing since ten o’clock or so.
Fitz and Clara were staying in the large separate guest house—which was actually the original house on the property—so Lana would be alone in the north wing of the main house. She should have been comfortable with it—in fact, she was very used to it, since at least three or four nights a week she had the mansion practically to herself, with its multitude of bedrooms, sitting rooms and other various spaces for practically every conceivable purpose. She often relished the solitude, after needing to be ‘on’ for so much of her charity work, which was no easy feat for a natural introvert who would have been happy just reading and drinking tea. Tonight, though, she felt a pang of loneliness.
Before she knew it, they’d pulled up to her front doors. They were tall, made from a thick, dark wood, and the whole impressive entryway looked forbidding, shrouded in darkness.
“They don’t leave the front lights on for you?” Mac asked, breaking the silence and some of the tension.
Lana wished they did, but they weren’t that kind of family. “I often get home late, and my grandfather is surprisingly frugal, so…” She shrugged, looking away. “I’m accustomed to it.” She could feel Mac’s gaze, but she refused to turn toward him. “I go in the side door, anyway.”
Before she could tell him not to, Mac had gotten out of the car and come around to open her door, offering her his arm. He still looked impossibly handsome in the fading moonlight. It was so cold at the tail end of mid-November that his breath puffed out of his mouth in white clouds, but he looked unruffled in his pristine dress uniform.
“Let me walk you there?” he asked. When she hesitated, with one leg on the ground and one still in the car, he spoke again. “So I’m certain you’re safe.”
With a swift bolt of comprehension, Lana realized he must be doing this—ensuring her safety—for Fitz, as a favor to her brother, which made total sense. They hadn’t totally repaired their relationship as brother and sister, since that would take a long time, but they’d made some good headway, and Fitz had always been protective of her when they had been younger. So why do I feel so disappointed? she wondered.
“Since you insist,” she agreed, unable to keep the snap of annoyance from her voice entirely. Still, holding onto Mac’s solid, warm arm, inhaling his distinctive scent, so smooth and comforting, like masculine soap and cinnamon and detergent, she wasn’t sorry not to be alone. No…it was more than that. She wasn’t sorry that Mac was the specific man she walked with.
Across the lawn, she saw a light come on in the guest house, which she recognized was in baby Hope’s room. Silhouetted on the shades, she saw a curvy woman’s figure rocking a child, and a larger outline as a man came up behind her, enveloping them in his shadow with a hug and leading them away from the window. The peace and serenity of the domestic scene, along with recollections of the love that she’d seen on their faces every time Fitz and Clara looked at each other and at tiny, perfect Hope, made her heart hurt, because she knew she would never have anything like it—and didn’t deserve it, anyway. Tears filled her eyes. As their steps slowed when they neared the side entrance to her area of the house, she kept her face averted from Mac so he wouldn’t see.
“I’m here safely, so you can report back to Fitz that you did your duty,” she answered, more coldly than she’d intended.
“Hey, now,” Mac answered, turning toward her in front of the side steps and urging her chin up with one strong but gentle finger so he could look at her face. “I never do anything I don’t want to do—not anymore, in any case—and I wanted to see you to your door safely for myself, so I wouldn’t worry.” He studied her, and she had the uncomfortable sensation that he saw much more than she’d wanted. “Are those tears, sugar?”
“No,” she denied in a thick voice, but her body immediately betrayed her as two droplets fell from her lashes and traced icy paths down her cheeks.
“Oh, darlin’, I’m sorry. Not quite sure what I did or said, but I never meant to make you cry,” he murmured in a deep, sincere voice, and Lana thought that she could have forgiven him just about anything, if there’d been something to forgive.
“It’s not you,” she answered. “It’s just that I feel so…alone sometimes, you know?” she admitted.
“God, yes,” he replied, with feeling. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close into his body, so tightly that something he had pinned to his uniform pressed into her cheek. In spite of the tiny prick of pain, she felt safer and warmer than she had for a long, long while. “You’re not alone now, Lana.”
She tipped her head back, and she wasn’t sure whether she pushed up toward him first or he lowered his head, but somehow he closed his mouth over hers, and it was sublime. At first, his lips were gentle—surprisingly soft for such a brave, tough ex-military pilot—but when she moaned, he deepened the kiss, and she savored his spicy taste, a little like the coffee they’d drunk at the police station, but mostly just his own unique flavor.
She pushed herself against him, feeling his hardness rise, thick and long, against her stomach, and he tangled his hands into her updo, dislodging bobby pins, which made tiny metallic pings as they landed on the steps. He caressed her tongue with his, claiming her mouth in bold strokes until her nipples tightened against his chest as she imagined how he would claim her with other parts of his body.
When he finally raised his mouth from hers, his breathing harsh and uneven, she noticed they must have walked together right up to the wall of the house, and her back was cold against the bricks. The rapid puffs of her breath mingled with the clouds of his, and he leaned his forehead against hers.
“I’m sorry… I got a little carried away,” Mac said, and they still stood so close that she could feel the quick rise and fall of his chest against her breasts.
“No, no…I was just as into it, maybe more,” she said, then flushed with embarrassment. “I didn’t mean…well, you know. I’m sure you could tell that I was enjoying it, but of course we shouldn’t have done that.”
Mac took a step back. “What do you mean?”
Lana bit her lip, feeling like she wished the ground would swallow her up. Where was some handy quicksand when you needed it?
“Well, like you said, I’m sorry, too.”
Mac shook his head. “No, darlin’, I’m not sorry it happened…only sorry we went so fast.”
When she looked up into his face—so handsome, perfectly formed with strong lines and eyes that she couldn’t make out clearly right now in the low light but that she knew were a startling deep green and probably blazing with emotion—she wished she dared to trust herself again with a good man, a kind man, a true friend like Mac. Being with someone like him wasn’t in the cards for her, though. That kind of man wanted more than she could give—more than she was capable of giving anymore.
She put her hand on his chest. “Mac, there can’t be anything more between us. I can’t be with someone like you.” She tried to be gentle, but she rushed her words as thick tears rose in her throat.
Mac took another step back, breaking all contact between them. “Someone like me, huh? Why did I think you were different?” His voice was hollow, resigned…but the tone was underlaid with hurt.
“That’s not—” she started to explain, but he cut her off.
“You know what, Lana? Don’t say anything you might regret. I’ll stay away from you, and you can stay away from me from now on, but no matter what, we’ll still have to see each other sometimes, and I don’t want it to be any worse than it has to be.”
Lana felt as if he’d slapped her, but she forgave him for lashing out. He didn’t understand, but explaining might make it more painful. As Fitz’s closest friend, he was bound to cross her path in the future at important events.
“If that’s what you want,” she agreed, her voice low and sad.
“Does it matter what I want?” Mac’s laugh was mirthless, and he started to turn away. “No, hold on. I’m gonna say one more thing first, because I vowed that if I ever started to feel for someone again, I would say the words out loud—not leave confusion or doubt.”
Lana braced herself for whatever he was going to say, but his words were more surprising for their tenderness than anything else.
“It sounds like we don’t feel the same way and maybe you won’t thank me for saying this, but no matter how you feel, I care about you. I was beginnin’ to think I might be able to care pretty deeply and that maybe you could, too.”
She winced at the raw tone of his voice.
“That doesn’t change overnight. Truth is, for a man like me, that doesn’t really change, period. So if you’re ever in trouble or hurting—no matter everything we said tonight—you can call me and I’ll be there. That’s it.”
His offer stunned her, and letting him turn around and walk away, back into the darkness that was beginning to streak gray with the first light of the coming dawn, was one of the worst things she’d ever forced herself to do. He’d be better off without her, though. She knew it, and he’d recognize it, too, in time.
She’d thought her sad, shredded heart was incapable of feeling anything anymore, but now she learned—too late—that she must have been mistaken. If it had truly been destroyed, it couldn’t hurt so darn bad now. She hurried inside the massive house, her steps echoing off the walls and floors of the empty rooms, and cried for everything that might have been.
Aurora is originally from the frozen tundra of the upper-Midwest (ok, not frozen all the time!) but now loves living in New England with her real-life hero/husband, two wonderfully silly sons, and one of the most extraordinary cats she has ever had the pleasure to meet. But she still goes back to the Midwest to visit, just never in January.
She doesn’t remember a time that she didn’t love to read, and has been writing stories since she learned how to hold a pencil. She has always liked the romantic scenes best in every book, story, and movie, so one day she decided to try her hand at writing her own romantic fiction, which changed her life in all the best ways.
You can find out more about Aurora at her website here.
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