Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Yvette's Birthday Celebration & Giveaway: Featuring Exclusive Excerpts, Teasers & More from Various Authors

HUGE thanks to Lauren Blakely, Jay Crownover, Nyrae Dawn, M. Leighton & Rachel Van Dyken for their contributions to Yvette's birthday celebration and giveaway. Featured in the post below: (1) an epilogue to Playing with Her Heart by Lauren Blakely not included in the original book (2) a sneak peek at Rowdy by Jay Crownover previously released to a limited number of readers (3) a sneak peek at Nyrae Dawn's work in progress, The Weight of Destiny (4) an exclusive excerpt of M. Leighton's upcoming release, All Things Pretty and (5) a deleted scene from The Wager by Rachel Van Dyken.

Prize: A Paperback Copy of Rebirth signed by various authors at the Red Dirt Boco (Jamie McGuire, Colleen Hoover & E.K. Blair, to name a few) event & swag from the authors who contributed to the birthday post (US only).

*Rebirth includes excerpts from books from most of the authors that attended the Red Dirt event.

Playing With Her Heart (Caught Up In Love #4) by Lauren Blakely

Blurb:

From the NYT & USA Today Bestselling romance author, a sizzling and addictive story of a woman with a broken past and the man who can't fight his attraction to her...

Twenty-three year old rising theater star Jill McCormick has built a life out of pretending. Pretending she's happy, pretending she's not haunted by the dark secret that shattered her world six years ago. But then she comes face to face with her new director - sexy, sophisticated, possessive, all-alpha Davis Milo. He tries to resist the actress he's cast, but the attraction between them is too powerful, and soon their private rehearsals spiral into new, forbidden territory. The passionate connection, the intense chemistry is undeniable, and it hits them anywhere, and everywhere - in the theater, on the piano, in the limo, in the restaurant...But the tragedy in Jill's past stands between them. Davis has walls too, so they can either face their fears together, or risk the deepest love and greatest passion either has ever felt...


Playing With Her Heart Ever After



           

Jill

“I knew you would win.”

It’s Davis, and he’s waiting for me backstage in the wings at Lincoln Center after I’ve just accepted my award.

I’m still flying high, floating on a cloud of pure and absolute electric happiness because I’m holding a Tony statue that’s all mine. I can’t believe it. I won the Tony for best actress in a Broadway musical. In my first show. I am living in a dream, but then there’s Davis’ hand on my arm, warm and firm as he pulls me into a little offstage nook behind the curtain as the awards ceremony on stage heads into a commercial. He backs me up against the wall, knowing my weakness, that I am turned inside out with lust when he traps me with his strong arms.

“And I can’t wait to kiss my Tony winner of a wife,” he tells me, his dark blue eyes blazing with heat and pride.

“Not your wife yet. You only asked me to marry you last night,” I tease, but then my teasing is silenced with a kiss as he claims my mouth, kissing me hard, his lips capturing mine in a deep and hungry moment. A whimper escapes my throat as his hand skims my back, bare in this backless evening gown I wore tonight for the awards.

“I know, but it doesn’t matter. You feel like mine. You are mine. You’re going to be my wife soon, but for now I need to kiss you again, because I watched you accept your award and I was torn between being proud of you and wanting to strip you down to nothing and have my way with you.”

A shiver runs through me, and I know where this is going. He’s going to unravel me, like he always does with his words, his touch, his lips, his hands.

“Right here, in the wings of the theater at Lincoln Center while everyone is out there in the audience and there are camera crews around filming the awards show live for network TV?” I say, arching an eyebrow, challenging him.

The sound of technicians roaming the stage and feverishly setting up for the next shot fills my ears, and I know I should scurry off stage and be the consummate professional. But yet, we’re in this private little corner, hidden behind the curtain, and no one can see us, and I’m tempted, so tempted to give in to the moment, because this man – my almost husband – makes me hot.

“Maybe,” he says in that low and sexy voice that’s layered with innuendo, as he slips a hand down the back of my dress, his palm finding its way to my bare ass. “Would you like that?” He whispers in my ear, then nips my earlobe. “Or do you want me to take you back to our place right now and fuck you properly on the kitchen counter, or in the shower, or on the table? How is that I haven’t yet fucked you on the table?” He muses as he slides his hand lower over my ass, and then there…between my legs, finding his way to the promised land.

“It would seem to be quite an oversight,” I say, trying to tease him back, but then his agile fingers slide across me, and I grab hard onto his shoulders, and mute myself because sparks of desire are shooting through my body as heat flares between my legs. “You can’t do this right now. I have to go talk to reporters and be professional. And you might win a Tony for best director. Your category is up in five minutes.”

He pushes his hips against me, and I can feel his erection against the silky fabric of my dress. “How embarrassing that I might have to go on stage then rock hard, because of how much I want to have the woman who’s going to be my wife,” he says, grinding against me, as his lips buzz along my neck, and I nearly cry out again. Everything he does sends me into such an altered state of desire. “But you need to know what I’m planning on doing to you tonight. After you say all those nice words to the press, and they congratulate you for your award, I’m finding a coat closet or a bathroom, and I’m going to back you up against the wall, and you’ll wrap your legs around me and I’ll slide into you. I want you to grab hard on my hair and hold on tight because it’ll be fast and hard and deep.”

Reason is not going to win tonight. Passion is.

I rock into him, and he slides his fingers across me once more, hitting me where I want him most, and in an instant, I am soaring. Oh my fucking god. He’s doing it to me again. I breathe out hard, nearly panting, and then I hear the booming voice of the emcee – Neil Patrick Harris – as Davis hits me all too perfectly with his amazing fingers.

“And now ladies, and gentleman, it’s time to run through our nominees for best director,” he says, his voice echoing across the venue.

“Davis,” I whisper desperately in my breathy, stilted voice that reveals how close I am. “You need to go.”

“Don’t worry, Jill. I need to go, but I also need to make you come,” he says as he strokes me faster, and runs his tongue against my earlobe, making my legs quake. He holds me tight and then I ride his hand unabashedly as the climax I never saw coming slams into me. I bury my face in the crook of his neck, and clamp my lips shut, so no one can hear me moan.

I shudder, my whole body still awash in the aftereffects of what feels like the millionth orgasm Davis has given me. He is relentless in his pursuit of them, and he can’t resist making me come.

“And now I should go so I can stop in the men’s room to wash my hands,” he says and kisses my cheek, then heads out, leaving me here, slumped against the wall, behind the stage, lingering in the glow.

Minutes later, Neil Patrick Harris finishes listing off the nominees. “And now the winner for best director of a Broadway musical is….Davis Milo for Crash the Moon.”

I gasp loudly, and smile broadly, and then from my secret hideout backstage, I peer around the curtains as my man strides to the stage looking gorgeous and oh-so-professional in his tux, leaving me the only one wiser to what the winner of best director did to the winner of best actress minutes ago.

“Thank you so much. This is truly an honor, and I wish to thank all of those who made this possible, from the producers to the stage hands, to the ticket takers at the St. James as well as the show’s composer Frederick Stillman. I am fortunate to have had the most amazing cast to work with and they made my job easy, so I owe them the biggest thanks of all. But most of all, I wish to thank the woman who’s going to become my wife, because she changed my life, and I love her immensely. This is for you, Jill.”

Four Months Later

Davis 

“And do you, Davis, take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife? To love, honor and cherish for as long as you both shall live?”

“I do,” I say, looking into Jill’s deep blue eyes. There is no more beautiful, or more wonderful, woman in the entire universe than her. We are standing on the stage of the St. James Theater, the very spot where she first auditioned for the musical she went on to star in – the play where we fell in love. This stage is our stage. Of course, we’ve done more than fall in love on it. We’ve christened it in every way possible. On the piano, late at night several times after the cast had taken their bows and the audiences cleared out. Backstage, in her dressing room, even in the front row. But I tell the dirty part of my mind to be still for a few minutes as the wedding ceremony finishes. Our guests aren’t in the seats. They are here on stage with us, as it should be. My friend and lawyer, Clay, arranged for us to use the theater on a Sunday when it is dark for shows.

“And do you, Jill, take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband? To love, honor, and cherish for as long as you both shall live?”

“I do,” she says with a beaming smile.

“By the power vested in me by the state of New York, I now pronounce you husband and wife. You may kiss the bride.”

But I’ve never really needed to be told to do that. Kissing Jill comes easily, naturally, countless times a day. So I gather her in my arms, and kiss her softly, the first time time I have kissed her as her husband. Her lips part, and she tastes as delicious as always, but I restrain myself from kissing her the way I want. There are too many people around for that – my sister, Jill’s brother and his wife, Jill’s best friend Kat and her husband, as well as her friend Reeve and his wife, then Clay and Julia, and the rest of our friends and family surround us.

I’ll have my way with Jill later.

“Are you finally going to tell me where you’re taking me on our honeymoon?” She asks as I break the kiss.

I’ve kept it secret for months, wanting to surprise her. “Soon,” I tell her, and then it’s time for photographs, and embraces and congratulations all around.

But when the guests head to Sardi’s next door for the reception, I take her hand, guide her up the stairs to the dressing room above the stage, and open the door. It’s her dressing room now. It has been since she took over the lead role in Crash the Moon, though her run is ending soon. She has offers to star in other shows and has been debating what role to tackle next. For now, I plan to tackle her.

“I need a minute alone with you before the reception,” I tell her.

“Whatever for?” She raises an eyebrow knowingly.

“For this,” I tell her, then cup her cheeks gently, before I kiss her slowly, agonizingly slowly, trailing my tongue across her lips that I can never get enough of. Then I break the kiss. “I needed to kiss you properly as your husband now.”

She runs her index finger across my top lip, then leans in for another quick kiss that makes me groan with lust for her.

“We should go to the reception, but you should do something else properly first,” she says.

“Whatever could you possibly have in mind?”

She kisses my jawline, leaving sweet kisses along my cheek as she travels to my ear. I yank her close, savoring the feel of her in that gorgeous white dress against me, wanting all of her, all the time. “Tell me where you’re taking me on our honeymoon,” she says playfully.

I laugh. “Ah, and all this time I was thinking you’d want to consummate our vows.”

“Well, we can do that too,” she says toying with my bowtie and unknotting it. Then she plays with the buttons on my white shirt, fingering them as she has always loved to do. “But tell me first.”

“I see you are a good negotiator.” I thread my hands into her soft, luxurious blond hair, and tell her. Her eyes widen, and she claps once happily. I love her reaction. I love her happiness. I love her madly and deeply and always.

She presses her body against me. “I’m sure our first time as husband and wife should be all proper and missionary, but I’d just really like it if you could lift me up and take me right now against the door, Mr. Milo.”

“Nothing would make me happier, Mrs. Milo,” I say as I follow her instructions to the letter.


Jill

The sun beats down, warming me as I lounge on the hammock on our deck. The water is tranquil and a pure crystal blue here on our bungalow over the ocean in Fiji. Davis is next to me, and my life is everything I have ever wanted and then some.







Rowdy (Marked Men #5) by Jay Crownover

Blurb:

After the only girl he ever loved told him he would never be enough, Rowdy St. James knocked the Texas dust off his boots and decided he was going to do everything in his power to live up to his nickname. Life was all about a good time, good friends and never taking much too seriously. Rowdy learned his lesson early on, when you care that much about anything it can destroy you, and he never wants to risk feeling like that again. Only now he has a new coworker, a ghost from the past who’s making him question every lesson he ever learned.

Salem Cruz grew up in a house with too many rules, too many regulations, and no fun allowed. That never worked for her so she left it all behind as soon as she could, but she never forgot the sweet, blue-eyed boy next door who’d been in love with her little sister. Fate and good intentions from an old friend have placed her right in Rowdy’s path and she’s determined to show him he picked the wrong sister all those years ago. A mission that is going along perfectly until the one person that ties them together shows up and could very well tear them back.


Prologue & Chapter 1



Prologue…

Salem

I don’t have a lot of great memories from my childhood.
There were too many rules. Too many regulations. Too many disapproving looks from
my father and not enough support or backbone from my mother.
We lived in Loveless, a tiny Texas town with an achingly accurate name. I was the
minister’s daughter, and if that didn’t come with enough inherent expectations, the man who was
beloved behind the pulpit but a tyrant in our home heaped them on ever higher. I was meant to be
quiet, compliant, and conventional. Problem was…that was never me.
When I was nine, I convinced my mom to let me try out for a very exclusive dance team.
I longed for something different, something that would make the day to day less agonizing. I was
so proud, so excited when I made it, only to have my father tell me dancing like that wasn’t
permitted and no daughter of his was going to make a spectacle of herself. He wouldn’t stand for
it. It was how everything in my life went, and my mom never seemed willing to take a stand and
defy him even if it meant giving her daughter something she so desperately wanted. Anything
that went against my father’s wishes or was deemed inappropriate and shameful got kicked to the
curb along with any sense of uniqueness and enjoyment. My parents wanted to squeeze me into a
too small box, painted white and tied with a bow of tradition. Me being me would never be good
enough.
It was a situation made even worse by the fact that my younger sister was the apple of my
parents’ eye. The perfect golden girl. I loved Poppy with all my heart too. She was gentle and
kind but she was also docile and obedient, ready to jump whenever my father barked an order.
I was never going to be perfect and compliant like my adorable little sister. I had no
plans to end up a happy-homemaker like my mother. And I sure as hell was never going to fit
into the conventional mold of the traditional, Mexican woman like my father so desperately
wanted me to. So at nine years old, I decided that I would make my own way. I saw a light at the
end of the tunnel, I just had to be patient.
When the time came, I broke free. I hit the road with exactly the kind of guy my father
hated. I was barely eighteen, not really grown, but I had to get out. I had to run I just didn’t see
any other way to survive. I fled Loveless, shaking the dust off my boots and never looking back.
I have very few regrets about the choices I made for myself back then. To this day I am a
woman that stands by my decisions—good or bad. I’m independent. I’m strong-willed. I’ve
made my own way in life, and had, up to this point, been extremely successful at it. There were
times when I stumbled. There’ve been times when I laid alone in the dark and wanted to cry.
There were quiet moments that snuck up on me that reminded me my parents weren’t the only
people I ran from in that tiny Texas town. But overall I tried to take full accountability for my
happiness and wellbeing and that was the way I liked it.
I still kept in touch with my sister, Poppy. We were close even though she had married a
man I wasn’t too fond of a few years ago. She still lived in Loveless. So deep was my hatred for
that place and the memories that lived there I couldn’t even bring myself to attend my sister’s
nuptials which had of course taken place under my father’s watchful eyes in his church. I liked to
move around, so Poppy would come visit and get a feel for whichever big city I was calling
home for the moment. Her visits had become much sparser over the years and now I could only
get in touch with her ever so often for a quick chat on the phone.
At first my gypsy ways had landed me in Phoenix and then Reno all before LA had called
to me, which had then been quickly followed by New York. I had tried New Orleans on for size
and had a blast in Austin for a few years. Most recently I had landed in Vegas and something
about the lights, the noise, the constant flow of people, the way it really felt like a transient town
had stuck. I stayed in the neon jungle for far longer than any of the other places on the list and
settled in to a really profitable career that hinged on all those decisions I had made that my
parents were so sure were going to doom my future.
I had a great job, a killer apartment, and I was even seeing a guy that was hovering on the
edge of something closer to serious than I normally liked when I got a call out of the blue from
Phil Donovan’s son.
Phil Donovan was legendary in my world---a veritable god in the tattoo industry. He was
the tattoo guy other tattoo guys wanted to be. He was the artist you wanted to say had worked on
you. He was groundbreaking. He was famous. The list to apprentice under him was a hundred
million miles long. Phil was a supremely talented man and according to his son, Nash, he was
sick and his odds on pulling through were slim to non-existent. Nash had inherited Phil’s shop in
the heart of downtown Denver and had also been tasked with getting a new tattoo shop up and
running in the more trendy, Lower-Downtown-LoDo part of the city. Phil had thrown my name
in the hat for Nash to consider as the shop’s manager.
I had only met the older man once. It was during a convention in Vegas, and I had just
wanted to meet the notoriously handsome artist. Well, Phil was indeed a gorgeous example of a
rock and roller aging well, but he was also charming, polite and something about his demeanor
had spoken to my very wayward soul. We ended up talking for hours and hours. He offered to
tattoo me, and there was no way I was going to say no. I spent the next day under his needle and
ended up spilling my entire life history under his watchful purple gaze. It was like being
absolved of every sin I had ever committed by a very tattooed and cool pope.
When he asked where I was from and I told him ‘all over’ he had just laughed. When I
mentioned I grew up in a very conservative town in Texas called Loveless, I could feel
something change in his demeanor. He became more intent, asked a truckload more questions,
and by the time my elegant, beautiful and very traditional Lady of Guadalupe tattoo was done on
my calf I felt like Phil knew me better than I tended to know myself.
We said goodbye and I never really thought much past that encounter other than I had a
killer tattoo from Phil Donovan, which totally gave me bragging rights. Nash’s call had taken me
off guard so I was prepared to blow him off. I was sad to hear about Phil and I didn’t really want
to leave Vegas. Colorado was cold and had mountains. I had zero use for either of those things. I
was getting ready to hang up when Nash told me to look up the shop on the internet. To check
out the artists and their work. He told me that Phil was absolutely sure I would be interested in
the job and the move once I did. I shrugged it and him off and hung-up but my curiosity was
piqued so I did indeed pull up the shop on my phone.
The Marked had a stellar reputation. The ratings were out of this world and the portfolios
of the work they were producing were breathtaking. But it wasn’t until I flipped over to the
artists’ specific pages that my entire world and my future went from Vegas to Denver in the span
of a heartbeat.
There on the tiny screen of my phone was the one solid and always good memory I did
have from my youth. The one thing that I had held in a warm fuzzy place no matter where I was
or how I was feeling. There looking back at me was the grown up version of the blue-eyed boy
who was the one person in my entire life to ever make me feel accepted. The only person who
had ever made me feel like it was okay just to be me and that being me was actually a pretty
great thing.
Rowland St. James…Rowdy. The boy next door who was so sweet so wide-eyed, so
afraid of being sent back into the system, so afraid being alone.
The first time Poppy dragged him over to the yard to play with us I remembered watching
him struggle to figure out how to have fun, how to loosen up and have a good time. He was so
little with such big, sad eyes my heart squeezed for him. Every little kid should know how to
play, should want to roll around in the dirt and cause a ruckus, every little kid except for Rowdy.
I think I felt so bad for him because I knew exactly how he felt. I was barely a teenager
and even then I didn’t want to think about how going inside with scraped knees or ripped clothes
would go over with my tyrant of a father. I would get yelled at, I would be punished, I would
have all my privileges—the few I had--revoked, and all the fun in the world wasn’t worth the
repercussions it caused so I typically resigned myself to sitting on the sidelines and watching
everyone else enjoy themselves. Only once Rowdy was part of the picture I no longer had to sit
there alone.
That was how I first found out how artistically gifted he was. Drawing on paper was
clean and tidy, it was normally boring and there was no possible way I could get in trouble or
end up grounded for playing tic-tack toe or hangman. Little had I known handing a few sheets of
plain drawing paper and a few colored pencils to Rowdy was going to unlock artistic potential
that had blown me away. Even at ten he had been able to craft images and landscapes that looked
real enough they deserved to be framed and hung on a wall somewhere. The boy was skilled, and
it was the first time I ever saw him really smile. He loved to draw, loved to sketch and mess
around with paint so whenever we ended up cast off to the side that was what we did together.
Draw and doodle. I sucked at it, but I loved that it made him so happy.
Even with our age gap and obvious differences Rowdy just understood what it was like to
want more and be more than we were currently stuck with. He was a kindred spirit, and he made
my heart smile when my day to day was so dreary and desolate. We were two kids just trying to
make do in households that didn’t really want us or understand us. We might have been on the
outside looking in at our own families and our own lives, but at least we could stand outside
together. He was quite simply the best friend I ever had—he still was. Sometimes though, I
wondered if he was content to be on the fringe with me, okay with his nose pressed against the
glass just because he was another person in my life blinded by Poppy’s perceived perfection. We
watched everything move around us, never feeling included or wanted but he never took his eyes
off of my little sister.
I had always known that Poppy was the Cruz sister for him, but somehow I forgot that in
my last moments in Loveless. Just as the Belvedere was about to peel out of my parents’
driveway, I caught sight of his brilliant sky-blue eyes in the rearview mirror. I jumped out of the
car, and in that split second something changed from kinship and our deeper bond of not
belonging. I saw him as older, saw him as so much more than a confused teenaged boy. He was
only fifteen, too young to have so much loss and despair in his heartbreaking gaze. Too young
too suddenly look so grownup and like something else. In that half of a heartbeat he became
desirable and forbidden to my suddenly thundering heart. Neither one of us were ready for the
other, at eighteen I didn’t have a clue how drastic my actions were or how long the effects would
last, but I had to kiss him goodbye, had to let him know that he mattered in so many different
ways even though I was leaving and never coming back.
Only now thanks to serendipity and Phil Donovan Rowdy was staring back at me, all
grown up and gorgeous. He was still blond, still smiling in a way that made my heart trip but he
was bigger, badder and those blue eyes had to compete with a riot of ink covering most of his
visible skin for attention now. It was like looking at everything that I suddenly wanted in the
center of a crystal ball telling me that was what my future was supposed to look like.
Without even taking a second to think I called Nash back and accepted the job. I think he
said something about interviewing, but I could hardly hear him through the blood rushing
between my ears. Sure I would have more details to figure out before I packed up and left but I
had a new destination and a clear goal in mind. I wanted to see if it was still there, the
synchronicity we had, the undeniable connection and pull that had made us work together so well
when we were too young and too lost to know what to do with it.
It took a minute to cut ties with the current shop I was working at, mostly because they
had just signed a deal to do some kind of tattoo reality show and I think having me at the front
desk was one of the big selling points. I also had to break it off with Mr. I Want More and head
to New York for a photo shoot I had booked for a tattoo magazine. As each day passed I got
more and more anxious. I wanted to be in Colorado, wanted to lay my eyes on the grown up
version of Rowdy. I was dying to see what the years had done to him besides make him
undeniably sexy. He had always had the best personality. Affable and laid back even though his
life had been anything but a bed of roses. I always admired him. I envied the way he seemed to
just roll with whatever landed in his lap. I was the exact opposite. I made everything into a battle,
a fight for survival and it was exhausting.
Fighting for everything made fighting for the things that actually mattered get lost in the
noise and lose their significance.
I threw everything I owned into my car and once again hit the road. It was the first time I
ever left one place headed towards another with a clear destination in mind. The anticipation of
not only facing the one happy thing I held onto from another life, but also the lure of helping to
build a tattoo empire, of extending Phil’s legacy out in the world with the next generation of
Tattoo-Gods was exciting and I loved a good challenge.
When I hit Denver in May I was stunned at how beautiful the place actually was. The city
was so clean and the way the Rockies loomed out in the distance really was breathtaking. It had a
life to it, a vibe that was different from any other place I had ever been and I instantly felt bad for
dismissing it out of hand. When I sucked in a breath it was like I could feel the mountain air
doing something to my insides. Or maybe I was just suffocating because of the lack of oxygen.
Denver really was a mile above sea level and to a city girl trying to breathe at that elevation was
proving to be a little tricky.
I found a tiny, furnished apartment to stay in. After all I was a master at uprooting my life
and bouncing from one place to another. I gave myself a pep talk to convince myself that I
wasn’t crazy to move to an entirely new state on a whim and a picture of a pretty boy. I got
myself gussied up, did my hair, slicked on some blood red lipstick and donned my most killer
pair of heels and went to charm my potential new employer.
My new boss was a babe. So was his business partner. Seriously they should be on a
calendar featuring the hot tattooed and pierced men of Denver. They also considered me
carefully. Checking out my ink, not in a leering, creeper way, but to see if I could tell the
difference between good and bad work. I must have passed inspection because the tiny blonde
with the baby and the attitude smiled at me and told them to hire me or else. Mr. Sexy with the
flames tattooed on his head, Nash, like I wouldn’t have known who he was from the eyes alone,
offered me the job. Of course I accepted.
The guy with the black Mohawk and all the swagger made a few sarcastic comments and
flashed me a grin that would have made my blood heat if I hadn’t noticed the very obvious
wedding ring he was sporting. Those two were trouble. The very best kind and I told them I
knew it was going to be a good time and that I was excited about the opportunity to get in on this
opportunity with them on the ground floor. We were all set to go I told them just to email me the
forms I needed when I heard his voice.
It was deeper, smoother but under the baritone was the soft Texas twang I remembered
from all those years ago. When his head cleared the top of the stairs I saw his eyes widen,
watched them fill with recognition and trepidation. I couldn’t help but smile. Even though he
looked less than thrilled to see me, everything about seeing him made me happy and I knew, just
knew I had made the right choice. I moved towards him like there was a force field pulling us
together and listened to my heels tap on the wooden floors in time with my heart beat.
I stopped right in front of him. Even with him hovering a step down below the landing
and with me in heels he was still taller than me. He was broad and strong. He was watching me
like I was some kind of apparition.
I was. I was very much a ghost from his past just like he was for me.
I ran a finger over the bridge of his nose, fought the urge to lean forward and press my
lips to his slack mouth.
I said his name, his real name so he could tell it was really me, “Hello, Rowland,” and it
made his entire body jerk in response. “You sure did grow up nice.” We stared at each other in
silence for a minute and I saw all the color bleed out of his face. He whispered my name back at
me in a strangled tone.
He had a massive anchor tattooed on the side of his neck. It looked like it was alive with
the way his pulse thundered rapidly under the ink.
I looked back over my shoulder and told the rest of our bewildered audience, “Strike that,
it’s going to be a great time. See you guys at work on Monday. E-mail me whatever forms you
need me to fill out.”
I made sure my hand brushed across Rowdy’s chest when I walked past him as I made
my way down the stairs. I could feel his heart racing, could feel the way he trembled. I’m sure it
was more from shock than any kind of appreciation of my feminine charms but I didn’t care.
For the first time in my entire life I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

Chapter 1

Rowdy

The pool balls cracked together with a loud SMACK and rolled aimlessly across the table. Not a
single one, solids or stripes, found its way into a pocket. I leaned heavily on the pool cue I
planted on the floor and glared at the table.
“Man, you are off your game.”
In more ways than one. I snorted and looked across the pool table at my best friend Jet
Keller. He wasn’t in town much anymore. He was usually off making up and coming bands into
stars or busy playing rock star himself. It was a rare night when he was actually in town and not
attached to his very pretty wife. Normally I would be all over some bro-time with Jet, but like he
said, I was off.
I reached behind me and grabbed the bottle of Coors light I had left on the high-top table
it was resting on. Beer normally was the answer to all of life’s problems, but the things that were
running around in my mind, the things keeping me up at night, no amount of beer could quiet. I
shifted my weight on my feet and watched as Jet sank almost every single one of his shots. I had
no idea how he managed to lean over the table and take the shots he did without his pants ripping
in half. It was a long running joke between the two of us that I kept telling him if he ever wanted
to have kids in the future he better buy some regular Levis. I felt bad for the guy’s balls.
I had known Jet for years and was used to his hard-rock style. It fit who he was. It fit his
personality. He rocked it on stage and off. It didn’t, however, fit in at the run down dive bar well
off the beaten path I’d dragged him to.. I was avoiding the bar closest to the tattoo shop because I
had no intention of running into my newest co-worker.
It was hard enough seeing her day in and day out at the shop. It was a struggle hour by
hour to keep the nine million questions I had from flying out of my mouth. I wanted to know
everything, wanted all the answers, but knew even if she had them it wouldn’t make up for the
fact she had let me down all those years ago. So I just remained quiet. I kept my trap shut and
went out of my way not to look at her, not to talk directly to her and I sure as shit made sure not
to be where I thought she might be outside of work. My avoidance tactics meant the watering
hole by the shop was currently off limits and so was the Bar, the rundown dive owned and
operated by a close friend. Those were the only two places that I frequented with my friends and
the rest of the gang from the tattoo shop so it made sense that those would be the places Salem
might pop up. Ergo, I dragged Jet’s ass to a place that looked like it hadn’t been cleaned since
Colorado experienced the gold rush and where every pair of suspicious eyes were on us.
“It’s been a strange few weeks.”
Jet arched a black eyebrow at me and motioned for me to re-rack the balls.
“That have anything to do with the babe from Vegas?”
I felt my shoulders tighten involuntarily. “Maybe.”
I took my time getting the colored balls back in the triangle and when I was done, stood
and leaned on the table with my hands braced on the edge. My tattooed knuckles almost turned
white under the pressure. That was the thing with having a tight knit group of friends that
substituted as family. No one’s business was off limits and everyone wanted to stick their fingers
in the mess and try and help.
I narrowed my eyes at him slightly as he ordered us another round of beers from the
cocktail waitress that looked like she had been doing this since the womb. Haggard didn’t even
begin to cover her worn appearance and it annoyed me. If I wasn’t being such a nutcase we
could’ve been at the Bar where Dixie was the cocktail waitress. She was a doll. A redhead with
and easy going attitude and a bright smile. She was also down for spending quality time with me
naked and not expecting anything the next morning so that made the fact I was getting snarled at
by Betty even more aggravating.
I snapped at Jet, “What have you heard?”
He grinned at me in the way he had that let me know I was being a dumbass. I didn’t get
riled up easily. I never saw the point. Things always had a way of figuring themselves out and it
was the harder people worked at trying to change the outcome that really made everything a
clusterfuck. I firmly believed whatever was meant to happen would happen and there was no
way to control the outcome.
He tipped the waitress and took the beers and handed me one.
“Just that she is something else. I heard she can give Cora as good as she gets, that she’s
awesome with the customers, that she knows her shit when it comes to managing a tattoo shop
and that she’s not just a ten, she’s a ten times ten and that you’re avoiding her like she came from
a leper colony not Sin City.”
Cora Lewis was the business manager for The Marked, the tattoo shop I worked at. She
was tiny, mouthy and the real boss of all of us and next to Jet she was my closest friend in the
world. The fact that she had immediately taken to Salem, had brought her into the fold without
even stopping to ask me how I felt about it bugged me and also made me feel like the odd man
out. Everyone seemed to love Salem, couldn’t stop singing her praises and touting about what a
lifesaver she had been with the shop expanding into a new location. If you asked anyone else I
worked with she was the saving grace of The Marked.
I wanted her to go back to where she came from and to take all the memories, the feelings
that she had tied to her with her. I had worked long and hard to bury most of my pre-Colorado
life and I didn’t need a daily reminder that I had loved and lost both Cruz sisters.
“She’s beautiful. She always was.”
Salem Cruz had everything a modern day pin-up girl needed to have in order to be a
showstopper. There were the curves she had for days. There was miles of amazing, dark hair that
seemed endless and it had a brilliant shot of bright red in the front of it. She had eyes the color of
obsidian winged in black liner and a mouth painted in a perfect blood red pout. Every day she
looked like something out of a hot rod magazine. Her style was perfectly designed to be both
sassy and sexy in a way that made her almost impossible to ignore. Every day the little ruby,
Monroe-piercing she wore above her lip winked at me and every day I tried not to notice that her
tattooed arms were masterfully done and filled with artwork that I envied as a professional and as
an artist. I also tried really hard not to remember when she wrapped them around me when I was
young and scared all the time as she tried to make me feel better.
“You know her from way back when?”
Jet had no idea how loaded that question was.
“Yeah. I grew up next to her family in Texas. I spent a lot of time at her house when I
was just a kid.”
She had looked different then, far more conservative and traditional. Her hair was darker
then, but her eyes were still midnight black and mysterious. Her smile was the same and so was
the way I could feel my blood thicken when she walked past me or accidently brushed by me.
Back then I thought it was wrong. I thought it was terrifying and dangerous to react to a girl that
I knew wasn’t for me but now I knew Salem was irresistible and it was physically impossible not
to react to her.
“So what’s with the freeze out?”
Normally I was charming, affable and engaging with the opposite sex. I just had a way of
talking to them that let me get my way and left everybody happy at the end of the day. With
Salem I couldn’t do that. With her I couldn’t find words that weren’t accusation, blame and
downright hateful. I was mad at her for leaving and madder at her for suddenly showing back up.
“She left Loveless when I was fifteen. She packed a bag and took off in the middle of the
night with the town’s biggest weed dealer. Her parents were big in the church and her little sister
worshiped her so it was hard on everyone when she disappeared.” I sucked down a heavy
swallow of beer and sighed heavily. “It was really hard on me.”
I had loved Salem’s sister Poppy with every piece of my young soul. She was my one and
only, she was the center of my entire world. At least she had been until I followed her to college
and ultimately had her tell me we were never going to be a thing. Salem however, had been my
confidante, my confessor and maybe most importantly she had offered a lonely and unwanted
boy friendship and acceptance. She was my very best friend and I was lost without her. When
she left without so much as a goodbye it had been the second time in my life that I felt like I was
being abandoned. I was once again left behind by someone that was supposed to care about me
forever. Salem left me gutted and hollowed out.
“So you were tight and then she bounced and this is the first time you have seen her in
ten years and now you’re all twisted up about it?”
If only it was that simple. The Cruz sisters had done a number on me coming and going. I
would be perfectly happy to have never had to see or think about either one of them again.
If I didn’t have my hair slicked up and styled like a character out of Crybaby I would
have shoved my hands through it in frustration.
“I’m not twisted up. I just don’t have anything to say to her. A decade is a long time.
She’s a stranger.” And anything I said wasn’t going to come out right anyway. The words would
be twisted with rage and memory.
Jet gave me a look and pointed the open end of his beer bottle at me. “Right. She’s a
stranger, a super-hot stranger and instead of talking to her or flirting her up like you normally do,
you’re acting like a mute weirdo. Nope, not twisted at all.”
I contemplated cracking him over the head with my pool-stick, but I had a soft spot for
his wife, Ayden, and I wouldn’t want her to get upset with me.
“Shut up. You’re not around enough to make commentary on how I’m acting anyway.”
I meant it as a joke, a way to change the topic of conversation but I saw him flinch and
his hands tightened involuntarily on his beer bottle.
Jet worked hard. He was hell bent on making a name for bands he had faith in. He was
killing it as the head of his own record label, but the tradeoff was that he had to go where the
music was. That meant he was forever off to LA, Nashville, New York, Austin or even Europe.
It was hard for him considering he and Ayden had only been married a little over a year and they
were in love-really, really in love. I could see it wearing on both of them but neither one had said
anything, and like I said there was no stopping fate no matter what that nasty bitch had in store
for you.
“Everything alright with you on the home front?” I didn’t want to pry but it was way
better than dredging up my past for him to dig through.
“Ayden and I are great. It’s everything else that sucks.” He shook his dark head and
looked at me from under a frowning brow. “She’s going to apply to transfer to the grad program
in Austin.”
I paused for a second so I didn’t say something stupid.
“You want to move to Austin?”
He chugged back the rest of the beer in his hand and laid the pool stick across the table.
“Want to-no, but it makes the most sense. She can transfer to UT Austin and finish school
and I can actually see my wife more than two or three times a month. It just sucks. Our friends
are here. Her brother is here and Cora just had the baby.” He shook his head again and his chest
rose and fell in a heavy sigh. “It was her idea, but it still makes me feel like shit. I renovated the
studio thinking it would be enough but it just isn’t.”
It did suck but it was understandable.
“When will she find out if she gets in?”
“Not for a while. It takes some time to get into grad school and even if they do want her
she has to go and do an interview and jump through a million hoops before it’s official. Try not
to say anything to Rule or Nash. She hasn’t told Shaw or Cora yet. She wants to wait until we
know for sure what we’re doing.”
Rule and Nash ran the tattoo shop and Shaw was not only Ayden’s best friend but also
Rule’s brand new wife. All three of the girls in our little world were super tight and if one of the
dudes let this major development slip it there would be carnage to follow for sure. Those girls
were a solid unit and the idea of one of them leaving was definitely going to be the cause of
some serious emotional upheaval.
“That’s some pretty big news. Keeping it quiet might not be the way to go. Has she told
Asa she’s thinking about leaving?”
Asa ran the Bar and was Ayden’s older brother. He was a little bit of a wild card and the
only reason he had settled in Denver was to be closer to his sister. The two had a strained
relationship due to the fact that Asa had a history of being a major shithead and petty criminal,
but the siblings were just starting to mend some long broken fences.
Jet nodded and propped a hip up on the table. I really did expect those jeans of his to split
in half every single time he moved. It was endlessly fun to rip on him about it.
“They talked about it. He told her to do whatever makes her happy. I think it bummed her
out he didn’t ask her to stay.”
I grunted and cocked my head to the side a little as I noticed a group of guys several
years older than us giving us squinty eyed looks from the far corner of the bar. I mean I knew we
didn’t fit in with the rundown ambiance, the rough and tumble vibe of the place but we were
minding our own business and we always respected the local’s territory.
I told Jet absently while keeping an eye on the group, “He spent her entire life asking her
to do things for him. After he almost died it makes sense that maybe for once in his life Asa
would want her to do something for herself. He knows you’re what makes her happy. He isn’t
going to try and keep her from being happy anymore.”
Asa was an enigma. He sort of just showed up out of the blue and had dragged Ayden
into a mess full of her past and a group of angry bikers. The end result had landed Asa in a coma
and Jet and Ayden in matching wedding rings. We all had welcomed the blond southerner into
the fold, but everyone watched him with careful eyes. He was lucky Rule’s brother had come
home from the war and ended up owning the Bar. For some reason the older Archer took a shine
to Asa and had put him to work. I think we were all just kind of waiting to see how it played out.
The group that was watching us bent their heads together and the guy I figured was the
leader met my gaze and flipped me off with a sneer.
I set my beer down and looked back at Jet.
“The natives are getting restless. We probably wanna go.”
I didn’t mind a good old fashioned bar brawl. After all I had played football up until I had
dropped out of college at the end of my freshman year. I was still built like an athlete even if on
the outside I looked more like James Dean. I was taller than most of them and definitely in better
shape, but I liked to think I had grown and matured in the last few years. Avoiding bloodshed
and broken knuckles that would mean I couldn’t tattoo was obviously the better option.
Jet looked over my shoulder and dipped his chin down in agreement, only our decision to
depart came a split second too late. We were walking towards the door, eyes up and alert when
the men decided they couldn’t just let us walk away. I stopped and Jet paused next to me when
we were suddenly faced with three fairly drunk, middle-aged guys that looked like they worked
long hours doing manual labor. The one that had flipped me off made it a point to scan me from
the top of my head to the toes of my worn black cowboy boots. He made a face and elbowed one
of his buddies in the ribs hard enough to make the other guy grunt.
“Who do you think this joker is supposed to be? Elvis?” His gaze flicked over to Jet.
“And who are you supposed to be? Ozzy Osborne? Marilyn Manson? Someone needs to remind
you boys that Halloween is in October.”
I felt Jet tense next to me but neither of us moved.
“How long did it take you make your hair all fancy like that? It would be a real shame if
someone went and messed it all up.”
I had awesome hair and it did in fact take longer than I liked to admit to get in the lifted,
retro style. If this dude thought he was putting his hands anywhere near my head he another thing
coming. I was going to tell him that we didn’t want any kind of trouble, that we were happily on
our way out the door when I saw his arm start to lift up. I was going to grab his wrist, and tell
him to fuck off when the guy he had tagged in the ribs beat me to the punch.
He reached out and smacked his mouthy buddy’s hand out of the way of the way and
pointed at me.
“You look familiar.”
I cut Jet a sideways look and he shrugged.
“I don’t see how. It’s our first-and last time in here.”
The guy considered me. I mean really looked at me for a long minute until it got kind of
awkward. The guy with the mouth looked like he was ready to pipe up again when the gawker
suddenly snapped his fingers and broke out into a huge grin.
“I know! You played college ball for Alabama.”
I blinked and it was my turn to stare. No one recognized me from that part of my life. I
mean no one. Those days were long past and I had only been on the field for one season.
“Uhh…” I heard Jet snicker a little next to me but I didn’t want to waste this chance at
making a clean escape. “I did play, a very long time ago.”
“I graduated from the University of Alabama so I follow the Crimson Tide like it’s my
religion. You were a running back. I remember everyone saying that you had a boat load of
potential. I remember thinking the coaches had some serious balls putting you in first string. You
were fast, fast enough to help them get to the Sugar Bowl that year. Rowland
something…right?”
I reached up and rubbed the back of my neck. The rest of the super-fan’s cohorts had
fallen quiet and were no looking at me in an entirely new way. Nothing like football to calm the
raging blue-collar beast.
“Rowdy St. James.”
He nodded. “Right. Rowdy, because you were wild and unpredictable. No one could ever
tell what kind of pattern you were going to run. Something happened though. I don’t remember
what but I remember you didn’t play in the bowl game or the following season. I remember them
taking about you on ESPN. You just vanished and everyone wondered why.”
That was not something I wanted to discuss, especially not with a group of guys that had
been all too eager to start shit a second ago.
I shrugged and forced a sheepish grin. “Well you know, the pressure got to me. I wasn’t
ready for the big show. It just wasn’t meant to be.”
A professional football career really wasn’t in the cards for me, but it had nothing to do
with the pressure and everything to do with me not being invested in it. But I wasn’t about to
share that with these guys.
“You were a talented kid. It’s a shame you didn’t follow through.”
I gritted my back teeth and offered a shrug. It had nothing to do with follow through and
everything to do with the fact I nearly beat the starting quarterback to death with my bare hands a
few weeks before the bowl game. Man what was it with the ugly past rearing its head and
refusing to stay in the dark where I left it?
There was only one way were getting out of here. I reached out and clapped the super-fan
on the shoulder and hollered as loud as I could, “ROLL TIDE!”
It was immediately followed by an answering holler from the guy that recognized me and
that of course started an epic debate about college football and the Big 10, which of course
transitioned into talk of the Broncos and their tragic loss in the Super Bowl earlier in the year.
Before the guys had noticed Jet and I managed to slip out the front door leaving the sounds of
arguing male voices and clinking beer bottles echoing behind us.
In the parking lot Jet doubled over in laughter and I couldn’t help but smack him on the
back of his head as we made our way to the flashy Dodge Challenger he drove.
“Shut it.”
“What the fuck does Roll Tide even mean?”
He popped the locks on the car and we got in.
“How about, ‘Thanks for saving us from having to fight our way out of there, Rowdy?’”
The car started with a sexy purr and I had to cringe when thundering guitars and
screaming vocals assaulted my eardrums. I dug what Jet did for a living and there was no doubt
that he was a very talented dude, but that metal music he liked and played was not my favorite. I
reached out to turn it down without asking which made him laugh again.
“It’s a football thing. Something you musicians wouldn’t understand.”
“Hey I watch football when it’s on.”
“I’ve watched games with you. You watch for five minutes then check out and either get
falling down drunk or go find something to write with and end up writing twenty new songs by
half time. That is not watching the game, my friend.”
He didn’t argue with me. “Still, I had no idea you were seriously famous for throwing a
ball around. I mean I knew you played when you were younger but not that you were like on
ESPN and shit.”
I groaned and leaned back in the seat. “I didn’t throw a ball. I caught a ball and ran with it
and the only reason anyone cared one way or the other was because I walked away from all of it
without an explanation.”
He looked at me out of the corner of his eye and I purposely looked away.
“I don’t suppose you want to explain it now?”
“You suppose right.”
“Well hell. I thought my old lady was the master of keeping the past a secret. Turns out
she don’t got nothing on you.”
I just grunted in response.
The truth was I never really thought about my past. I had put my heart on the line after I
followed Poppy to college, watched it get shredded and had decided then and there I was never
going to invest myself anything or anyone like that every again. I dropped out of school, not like
I really had a choice after the incident with the quarterback anyway, and ended up doing the
same thing Salem did, packed a bag and hit the road leaving everything behind.
I left Texas-all the memories she held, football, college and Poppy Cruz in the dust where
they had stayed until a few weeks ago when Salem sauntered back into my life like she had never
left it.
Jet was right. I was twisted about Salem being in Denver. So twisted that I wasn’t sure
how I was ever going to get myself straight again as long as she was around. That girl had ruined
me once when I was young. I would never forget the way I felt when she walked away. I didn’t
want Salem anywhere near me. I couldn’t trust myself not to fall back into caring about her,
trusting her, being captivated by her only to have her move on once again leaving me empty and
alone.




The Weight of Destiny by Nyrae Dawn (Work in Progress)

Unedited Excerpt: 

“You’re strong and beautiful.”

She chuckles softly and shakes her head.

“It’s just a different kind of strength. You are who you are and you don’t care what people think. You don’t care that you’re sober at a party where everyone is drinking. You don’t give a shit if you’re the girl who leaves to do her homework because that’s important to her.”

“Is it still strength if the reason behind it is fear?” She sounds like she’s drifting away, her voice getting softer and softer. I need to reel her back in, keep her close so I roll to my side. Lean my head into my hand and let my elbow prop me up. With my other one, I brush her cheek with my thumb.

“I don’t know. You’re the smart one. Regardless, I know you’re strong.” Because I know she’s dealing with more than I’ve seen, I just don’t have a clear picture of what it is.

“We’re still different though, so why me?”

Words get trapped in my throat. I can tell her it’s because of what we said—she’s beautiful and strong. I can tell her it’s because sometimes the loneliness in her eyes mirrors mine, only I didn’t know it was there before her. Maybe it’s to prove I won’t screw up with a girl like her the way Luke thinks I will. There are a million possibilities, not all of them good. The only thing that manages to come out though is, “Because the weight isn’t as heavy when I’m with you.”

Her breath hitches. I let my fingers gently glide against her neck, her throat. “The weight of what?” she asks.

When she speaks, I feel the words vibrate through my fingertips. It’s a crazy-wild feeling and I want it to keep going, want to touch all her words.

I don’t know… I shrug. “Of everything.”

But it’s not my words that settle into my chest. It’s hers. Virginia shakes her head and answers her own question. “Of destiny.”

It’s in this moment I realize I’m not sure if the life I’ve always seen for myself is the one I want. Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. I’ve always just accepted it, accepted my fate, my destiny. Dad always told me I’m good and I needed that. Craved to be good at something. Dad never asked, he just assumed.

Luke tells me what I want, tells me I’m stupid for what I do. He never asks either.

But is it what I want?

It’s another thing I don’t know. There’s one thing I know for sure though. “Virginia?”

“Yeah.” She rolls her head to the side slightly so we’re making eye contact.

“Just so we’re clear this time, I want you to be my girlfriend.”

Her smile is so big I think it could make the whole world happy. “Yes.”

All Things Pretty (Pretty #3) by M. Leighton

Blurb:

Pretending to be something they’re not, afraid to trust anyone completely, destined to tear each other apart– this is the story of unlikely love and unbearable consequences.

Sig Locke is a cop. He was raised by a cop and all his brothers are cops. He bleeds blue, believes in right and wrong, and sees in black and white, never in shades of gray.

But that was before he met Tommi.

Tommi, with her long legs and bright green eyes, she captured Sig’s interest from the moment he saw her. Even after he discovered who she was–the girlfriend of a drug dealer, the beauty behind a criminal–he still found her utterly irresistible. What Sig doesn’t know, however, is that she has a secret even a cop can’t uncover.

Tommi Lawrence hasn’t had an easy life, and it only got more complicated the day she met Sig. She learned long ago that she can’t trust anyone. Her gut tells her that Sig is no exception, her heart tells her that he is. But that was before she found out his real identity.

Can love be forged in a fire of lies? Or will the truth destroy them both?


Exclusive unedited excerpt from ALL THINGS PRETTY by M. Leighton, coming September 30, 2014- content subject to change.

My cheeks burn as I brush past Sig and hurry to the bathroom. I know he will follow me. I can see the anger on his face. He’s too mad to think about self-preservation, which is why I have to preserve for him.

He comes in behind me and closes the door. I cover myself as I turn to him, not expecting him to be right next to me.

“Why?” he hisses. “Why the hell do you let him do this shit to you? You’re better than this. Better than him.”

And then his mouth is on mine, hot and urgent. His fingers thread into my braid and fist, pulling my head to the side as he slips his tongue between my lips. I taste the dark hint of whiskey combined with a sweetness that seems to be just Sig, and I realize that I’m thirsty. So thirsty for this. For him.

He kisses me with a wildness that awakens an abandon in me, a desire to throw caution to the wind and dive into this. And for a few moments, I do.

I dig my nails into his straining biceps and I open for him, I let him into a place that few people have ever seen. It’s a place where I hide, I hide the real me with all her emotions and hurts and wants.

Sig winds his arms around me, the fingers of one hand squeezing my butt while the other skates up and down my naked side. When his lips leave mine and trail along my jaw, I arch for him, my only thought to feel his kiss on every surface of my skin.

“When you go back out there, you think of me,” he growls lustily, his teeth biting into my chin as he passes on his way to my neck. “My hands, my lips, my tongue.”

I feel breathless and hot. On fire, from the inside out. When his mouth latches onto my nipple, I gasp my response to him as quietly as I can. “I was. I was already thinking of you.”

“Now you’ll know,” he says around my flesh, his tongue and teeth and lips licking and nipping and sucking. “You’ll know what it feels like. And what it’ll be like when I have you naked, underneath me.”  

The Wager (The Bet #2) by Rachel Van Dyken

Blurb:

Lose a bet, lose your heart...

What is it about a junior-high crush that can send an otherwise intelligent woman into a tailspin? TV reporter Char Lynn wishes she knew. Jake Titus is too rich, too handsome, too arrogant: a trifecta that once lured Char into the best night-and worst morning-after-of her life. Now they've been thrown together in a wedding party. It's awkward, but survivable . . . until Jake stops acting like a jerk, and starts acting like the man she'd always hoped he could be.

If watching your brother marry your best friend is weird, being attracted to your best friend's other best friend is downright bizarre. Unfortunately for Jake, Char hasn't forgotten how he once tossed her aside. Worse still, Jake's already-nutty grandma is even crazier about Char. Cue meet-cute shenanigans and all manner of meddling, and somehow, Jake's falling. For Char. Now all he has to do is make her believe it . . .




The Wager Deleted Chapter



Jake

“Come on…” Jake licked his lips, “You know you want to.”

“Do I?”
“Huh?”

“Do I really know I want to?” Char eyed the tequila shot like he was the wicked witch in Snow White offering a poison apple.

“I dare you.”

Her eyes narrowed, “Does that normally work for you? Dare a woman to take a shot, she does it, and her clothes automatically float off her body?”

Jake rolled his eyes, leave it to Char to be dramatic, “Please, like clothes can actually float.”

“Jack ass.”

“No Jake, the name’s Jake, how could you forget, we’re practically best friends now.”

“Oh yeah?” Char took the shot from his outsretched hand, her fingers brushing lightly against his, “How do you figure?”

“Tequila.” Jake leaned in so he could smell her perfume, “And the fact that I’ve just had the worst night of my life and I’ve done nothing for the past two hours except drink and freaking bleed my feelings across the table. That makes us best friends.”

Char snorted.

“What?” Jake shrugged innocently, eyeing her tight black dress as it hugged every damn curve on her body. She wanted him, she was giving him all the signs, all she needed was a bit of liquid encouragement, and all he needed, hell all he wanted was to just forget.

Forget about what he did to Kacey.

Forget about the fact that he still wasn’t answering his Grandmother’s phone calls.

And forget the fact that he was so ridiculously lonely that every time he inhaled it was as if a giant ass piano was laying on his chest.

“Just. One. Sip.” He whispered, then poured some salt onto his hand and held it out to her. “Lick.”

Char eyed his hand and then the shot, her breathing was ragged as she finally leaned in, her pink tongue slipping out, coming into full contact with his hand. Holy shit. He gripped the table with his other hand, who knew the woman had such an erotic tongue. Could tongues be erotic? Was that possible? She licked off every damn remnant of salt and then bit his hand. Hard.

“What the hell!” He jerked back just as Char tilted her head, the shot going down in seconds. “Why’d you bite me?”

“Because you’re still an ass.” She winked, “And because you’re trying to get me as drunk as you.”

“Not true.” Jake waved over the waiter and ordered four more shots, “I’m already tanked. I see two of you and when you smile I’m not sure whether or not to be freaked out because it looks like you have four sets of teeth, or turned on because now I know what they feel like embedded in my skin.”

“A teeth fetish?” Char’s eyebrows shot up, “I would have pegged you more for a leg girl.”

“Breasts.” Jake blurted, “Legs.” He shrugged and looked away, “After a while they’re all the same.” He took a long drink of his beer and concentrated on the table while the bitter liquid ran down his throat. Really, it had all been the same, woman after woman, they never offered him anything different, anything special.

“Wow, I feel so sorry for you.” Came Char’s dry retort, “Legs, boob, and the ass of your choice….you’re a regular martyr.”

Jake let out a dry laugh trying to give the impression that he didn’t care, “You’re funnier than I remember.”

“Oh?” Char’s damn mouth twitched making him want to grab her by the back of the neck and press his lips against hers. “Funny, because I was going to say you’re more depressing than I remember.”

“Right.” Jake answered as the waiter came and delivered shots. Without thinking he grabbed one and threw it back, “Look,” He winced and took a bite out of one of the limes on the table, “I may be drunk as hell and more depressing than the old guy sipping his tenth Corona at the bar—but I’m here. And. I. Want. You.”

“P-pardon?” Char froze midair as she was reaching for the tequila shot.

“You heard me.”

Char took the shot without hesitation and then took the other, wiping her mouth delicately with a few fingers before clearing her throat and looking down at the table. “I did.”

“So?” Jake let the offer hang in the air as he reached across the table and grabbed her free hand, “What do you say?”
Char was silent for a minute, she grabbed his hand but did nothing, simply stared at it as if it was a deformity rather than an invitation. “I think…” She lifted her head and grinned, “That you need to try harder.”

“Done.” Jake said without thinking. Because girls like Char, the ones with soft hands, beautiful bodies, and perfect mouths? Not to mention able to hold his attention through an intelligent conversation? They were worth a hell of a lot more effort than a few shots and some smooth talk. “Let’s dance.”

“Dance?” Her dark wavy hair fell across her face making her look more seductive than should be legal, “I thought Jake Titus didn’t dance anymore?”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, you swore it off after childhood ballroom dancing lessons.”

“True.” He stood and led her away from the table towards the dance floor, “Then again, I also swore off hitting on friends.” He twirled Char around him and dipped her, “And look what we have here.”

“According to you best friends.” Char smirked.

“A hell of a lot more than that, Char.” He whispered and then kissed her firmly across the mouth. She didn’t put up a fight, not when he licked the seam of her lips, not when his hands moved slowly down her body landing firmly on her hips.

“I’ll need more shots.” She whispered against his mouth.

“You’ve had enough.”

“Huh?” She pulled away, looking way too sober for his taste.

“Fine,” He looped his arm in hers, “let’s go somewhere we can talk and I’ll get us a bottle of tequila. You can have as many shots as you want.”

“Oh, really?” Char breathed, looping her arm in his.

“Really.” Jake said seriously. He wasn’t that drunk. Which was why he kept mentally kicking himself the entire way up to his hotel room suite. He knew what he was doing but he was still going to do it. Why? Because he’d spent too damn long sleeping with women who he didn’t care about.

And for the second time in his life, he wanted to be with one who he actually did. He’d been with Kacey—that hadn’t ended well, and of course he knew it never would. She was his best friend.

But Char? She was more than that-- if that was even possible. She’d always been more. He’d been nervous as hell around her since middle school. In high school she was always “The Untouchable One”, no guy dared near her for fear of getting rejected

It helped that her body was that of a goddess and her skin was smoother than silk. He just wanted---to take one more selfish night and live it. With her. By his side, in his bed, without consequences.

After all.

When would he ever see her again?





“I’m not so sure this is a good idea…” Char whispered as Jake pushed the elevator button.

“Great.” He beamed, “Good ideas are for boring people.”

“And we’re…what, exactly?” Char leaned harder against Jake, it had been a while since she’d drank so much. At the bar it hadn’t seemed like that much tequila, but suddenly it was hitting her a bit too hard, her own voice sounded funny, as if her words weren’t quite pronounced correctly when she said them.

“We’re awesome.” Jake squeezed her shoulder, “Best friends, remember?”

“Last time you slept with your best friend you almost destroyed her.” Char fired back, and then wanted to slap herself in the face. Jake Titus. The Jake Titus, her crush since middle school was hitting on her, taking her back to his hotel room and she was bringing up Kacey? Really?

“I remember.” Jake whispered. The doors opened. He tugged Char inside, so at least she was still invited. She almost blurted that he could just call her a cab, when he hit the stop button, causing the Elevator to jolt somewhere in between the fourth and fifth floors. “You want to know what else I remember?”

Char shook her head and took a step away from Jakes warm body.

He gripped her arms and gently walked her backwards towards the wall. Once she was trapped, she looked up into his eyes.

Cold, lustful, fiercely beautiful. Jake Titus was all of those things, but in that moment, he looked damaged. And she so wanted to be the one woman to fix it—to fix him.

“I remember your lips.” He stroked her neck with his palm as his fingers danced across her jawbone, “I’ve always wanted to taste them. I want my tongue in your mouth. I want my hands on your body, and I want you to think of me and only me. Tonight, just lose yourself Char.”

“What if I can’t find myself when I wake up?” Char whispered hoarsely, as Jake’s other hand grazed her hip and then pulled her body flush against his.

“Why, Char…” Jake grinned, his sensual mouth promising pleasure she’d never experienced before in he rentire life, “I think that’s the whole point.”

“Losing yourself to a man?”

“Nah..” His mouth descended, hot and slow, he kissed her and then pulled back, “Losing yourself to pleasure. Letting go. Not being able to find yourself after a night with the very one you know you should run away from. That’s the point Char. That’s the point I’m making. You should have walked out that damn door the minute I said your name. But you didn’t.” Char’s breath hitched, “Because you want to be lost with me.”

“Maybe.” Her body trembled underneath his touch. “Maybe not.”

“I like you.” He said it so simply, so honestly, that the very last wall she’d erected crumbled at her very feet.

She’d waited twenty-two years to hear him say that.

And she wasn’t stupid enough to let the one chance she had with him, fall between her fingers.

“Okay.”

“Okay?” Jakes eyebrows shot up. “I give you an epic and pretty damn convincing speech and you say, okay?”

Char reached around Jake and hit the button releasing the elevator so it could go to his room. “Jake, if it’s okay with you. I’d rather not talk right now.”

She gripped the front of his shirt in her hands and crushed her mouth against his.

“No talking.” He jerked back, “I like it.”

“Kissing.” Char panted, “I like it.”

“Okay.” He teased.

The elevator opened. Jake grabbed her hand and very slowly walked her to his room.

“This will change things.” He slid the keycard into the slot and opened the door.

A suite. Of course.

And a bottle of tequila was waiting, as promised.

“I like change.” Char answered, throwing her purse onto the nearest table. “And I happen to like you.”

“I know.” Jake shrugged out of his jacket and threw it onto a chair, “I can tell by the way you kiss.”

“Jake Titus,” Char started opening the bottle of tequila, “Did you just call me a good kisser?”

“Yes.” He came up behind her, wrapping her body in his scent, he placed his hands on hers as he helped her open the bottle, “I did.”

He placed the bottle on the tray and back away from her, she swayed on her feet.

“Let’s toast.” Jake said calmly, “To a night of forgetting.”

Char smiled, “A night of forgetting.” She poured a double for both of them and threw the shot back hoping that it wouldn’t’ numb a damn thing. Because the last thing she wanted to do was forget her first time.

It didn’t matter in the end. She wanted a forever with him. And tonight he had given her a glimpse into his insanity, he wanted a relationship he was just afraid of what it meant.

She could be that girl.

She would be that girl.

Tonight, was just the beginning.

Final Deleted Scene

Jake 

The curve of her hips was driving him to distraction. She let out a contented sigh as her arm tightened around his body.

Jake wanted to stay there forever.

He wanted to make a damn fool of himself.

He wanted to kiss her swollen mouth until she burned with pleasure.

He wanted to tell her he loved her.

And that’s why he had to walk away.

Jake reached out and ran a hand down her naked back, memorizing the way her smooth skin felt underneath his fingertips—he knew he was destroying more than just a friendship. It was as if part of his heart had been taken out of his chest and was now resting in Char’s hands. And he hated it. Hated that a woman could make him feel so vulnerable and weak. Especially a woman that he didn’t deserve in the first place.

He’d given her a damn one night stand. And in return, she’d given him everything.

Cursing, he slowly moved away from sin incarnate, temptation in the form of a dark haired goddess, and moved to his feet.

Char stirred lightly, but didn’t open her eyes.

With each article of clothing he put on, he felt more and more sick to his stomach and it had nothing to do with the tequila.

When he put on his shirt, he thought of her hazy expression when he ripped hers off.

When he buttoned his jeans, his mind replayed images of her shimmying out of her black linen shorts.

Shit! He ran his fingers thorugh his hair and sat on the chair, needing a minute to calm down before he walked out that door.

Char flipped over onto her back and whispered, “Jake.”

His breath hitched. Was she awake?

Instead a beautiful smile spread across he face as she snuggled closer to the pillow he’d left where his body was supposed to be laying.

The damn clock next to the night stand with its stupid red numbers may as well have said 666. He was going to hell for doing what he was about to do. But at least he could rest assured that an angel like Char would never be there. He refused to take her down the road he was on.

A road of self destruction and selfishness. What could he possibly to do deserve a girl that looked at him as if he was the freaking answer to every damn thing in her life?

“Jake?” She said again.

He silently padded over to the bed and grabbe her hand. It was warm, feminine, he’d never forget those fingers, those hands, the way they’d touched him, the way they’d accepted him.

Damn he was going to rot.

“I’m here,” He whispered.

“Mmm.”

One more kiss. He leaned down and brushed a kiss across her temple and whispered, “I could have loved you. In another life, in another time, Char. I could have loved you.”

With one last look at the clock he scribbled a note:

“Im not worth it. You were beautiful, you are beautiful. What am I saying? I can’t even leave you like this. I like you. I want you. Over and over again. I want to make you scream. I want to lose myself in you. But that’s the problem. You make me want things a guy like me will never deserve. I’m sorry for leaving, but what you make me feel scares me shitless. And I can’t…I can’t go down that road again..I just can’t. Char, I’m so damn sorry.”

He signed the note, Jake.

And left it on the nightstand.

He walked four steps towards the door, his heart pounding in his chest with each step.

If he left that note she’d wouldn’t give up. This was Char! She’d pity him, she’d try to save him, and he’d let her, and he’d feel guilty the whole time.

Better that she hate him.

Because he hated himself, what was one more person?

So he walked back picked up the note, stuffed it in his pocket and instead wrote:

Thanks for the great night.

He wanted to stab himself with the pencil in his hand. Instead he broke it in two and cursed under his breath.

When he reached the door, he stole one last glance at the perfection he was leaving behind.

“Goodbye, Char.”




         






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40 comments:

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