Things aren’t always what they seem…
To outsiders, Ashlynn Summers has it all: she’s the star of her own TV cooking show, respected by her community, and a devoted wife. Until she discovers something that shakes her rock-solid world. Now, all she wants is to focus on getting her life back on track. Volunteering at a homeless shelter renews her sense of purpose, but when she meets the insolent Luke Brault, Ashlynn can’t help but think there’s more to him than meets the eye.
Although Luke keeps to himself, his daughter is his sole priority. Guilt surrounding his single father status has eaten away at him, leaving a gaping hole. He and Ashlynn become friends, yet Luke fears his past will destroy the bond they’ve created. When they discover their pasts are intertwined and unimaginable secrets are revealed, Ashlynn and Luke find themselves on shaky ground in the aftermath. Suddenly, building something solid on a hollow foundation seems impossible. Can they find a way to repair the damage of the past, or is it too heavy for them to bear?
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About the Author:
Karlee Winters is a romance writer living beneath the hot Arizona sun with her husband and their cat, Kaylie. She devotes her days to working, and her nights writing, allowing the characters in her head to come to life. When not working or writing, she can be found reading, binge-watching Netflix, or playing video games. A romantic at heart, she has a love for stories, and all things ending in happily ever after.
Karlee loves to meet new people. Stop by and say hello!
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“The video’s gone viral.”
I peered at my assistant, Kiki, from behind my coffee mug. Her dark brown eyes widened, darting nervously between me and her tablet as technicians, gaffers, and interns filtered in through the studio.
“I thought you said yesterday it wasn’t that bad,” I whispered as I forced a smile and waved at Corrine, my make-up artist as she walked in.
“I-I know, and it wasn’t. At first. But I checked again this morning and your video’s had eleven million views over the past twenty-four hours.”
I sucked in a sharp breath. I was used to being in the public eye, having every little move I made scrutinized by strangers who felt entitled to judge me. Ever since the launch of my cooking show, From Ashes, where I showed viewers how to make gourmet meals out of scraps and leftovers, I’d learned that everyone is a critic and those critics are a lot braver behind a computer screen where their fingers do the talking.
“Has Steve seen it yet?”
She bit down on her bottom lip and worried it between her teeth. “I don’t know. His door’s been closed all morning.”
As if on cue, Steve’s door swung open and he stepped out of his office, clapping his hands together. “All right, people, listen up! I’ve got stuff I need to get done, so let’s get this shoot going. Where’s my star of the show?” His eyes roamed around the room until he spotted me. “There she is!” He started moving toward me, but stopped mid-stride when he realized no one was moving because their eyes were glued to their phones. “I said move it, people! I’m not paying you to stand around.”
Everyone immediately jumped into action, bustling around the studio to prepare for my segment. Steve approached me and placed a hand on my shoulder. “Hey Ash, let’s grab lunch after we wrap this up, okay?”
I nodded and smiled brightly at my boss, despite feeling like I was agreeing to walk into the lion’s den.
It took three hours to film the thirty-minute segment, and by the time we finished, I was more than ready to leave.
Maybe I was just being paranoid, but I swore every time someone picked up their phone, they were watching me lose my shit on camera. I tried not to think about it. I tried to remain focused. I wanted to believe that it was all in my head. I’d worked with a majority of these people for the past three years; surely that meant they were my friends. But then I remembered I was in Los Angeles, a place where your friends are the ones to push you down a flight of stairs before asking if you need help up.
“You all set?” Steve asked, clapping me on the back.
“Yeah, let me just grab my purse.”
We made our way outside the studio, passing by Sharla, one of the newest interns, on the way. Steve winked at her and she blushed. I smiled politely, pretending to ignore the fact that my forty-two- year-old boss was watching her nineteen-year-old ass walk away.
“Damn,” he mumbled as he pulled out his car keys and unlocked the doors to his brand new Jag. “The things I could do to that ass.”
“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.”
“Probably best. That way you have plausible deniability for my next sexual harassment complaint.”
“I don’t know which is worse, the fact that you’re expecting another complaint, or that even knowing what will happen, you still plan to make a move on her. I’m surprised you even still have a job at this point.”
We slid into the car and bucked our seatbelts. Steve pulled down his sun visor and smiled at his reflection before pulling out of the parking lot. “They’re not going to fire me. I’m the best producer this network’s seen. Besides, Karen and I have a deal. She keeps the execs off my back, and in exchange, I dust off the cobwebs from her pussy a couple times a year. She may not be as young as I’d like, but the things she can do with that mouth—”
“Oh, God, stop,” I groaned, shaking my head. “Let’s just end this conversation before it goes any further. You’re my boss and producer.”
“For a TV show. There’s plenty of sex on TV.”
“Yes, but I talk about cooking. The only thing that ends up naked is the chicken.”
He laughed and merged onto the freeway which was congested with cars. The sky was painted a dusty orange color as thin beams of sunlight attempted to pierce through the smog. Giant billboards loomed off to the side, reminding drivers that physical perfection is just a scalpel and a phone call away, and right beside it was a board with the number to call for when you need to sue because perfection didn’t turn out like you thought it would.
We arrived at my favorite lunch spot, a small Korean BBQ place hidden in the back of a nearly deserted strip-mall. The hostess showed us to a table in the corner and turned the grill on that sat in the center of the table. A few minutes later, our server brought out a tray full of side dishes for us to try alongside slabs of raw meat.
“Ashlynn.” He grabbed a slice of beef and placed it on the grill, using his chopstick to poke at it until it laid flat. “So, the reason I asked you to lunch is because I actually have to talk to you about something.”
I didn’t say anything, already knowing what the “something” was.
“Look, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the network execs saw the video,” he continued. “And now they’re worried about your mental state.”
“My mental state is fine.”
“They’re not convinced. They’re worried that your outburst was just the tip of the iceberg.”
I sighed and rolled a piece of meat with some lettuce. “Steve, you know me. You know I’m not crazy.”
“Yes, but I can’t deny that what I saw was a bit troublesome.”
“I’m not crazy,” I repeated.
“You were running around the hotel lobby, holding a butcher’s knife, threatening to carve his heart out and feed it to the homeless.”
“Yeah, I was pissed. I’m still pissed. When you go out to dinner and find your husband of six years having an affair with your best friend, you’re gonna be pissed.”
Two days before, I’d agreed to meet my friend Staci for dinner at a new hotspot in Santa Monica because the chef and I had gone to culinary school together. We decided to grab ice cream before parting ways, and that’s when I saw it. Right across the street was my husband, Ben, with his tongue shoved down the throat of my best friend. Their hands sloppily grabbed and groped each other, as if they were sixteen-year-old kids, desperate to finish their make-out session before curfew.
He was supposed to be working late at the office.
He was supposed to be loyal.
He was supposed to be mine.
It was a strange sensation feeling betrayal that deep. I’d always imagined that all my emotions would hit at once, sweeping over me like a tidal wave. But it didn’t happen like that. Rather, it started at my feet, as if that’s the only place where shock couldn’t get to quickly enough to numb them. Tiny little pin pricks of agitation, crawling along the nerves, slowly coiling up my ankles, along my calves, wrapping around my knees until they buckled. By then, the shock was beginning to thin, and a solid mass of pain snaked through my intestines, squeezing my stomach with a vice-like grip until I was sure I was going to pass out. The pain curdled as it seeped through my ribs, poisoning my heart until it was black, transforming from pain into something much viler: fury. Anger took my brain hostage, twisting every thought until I was no longer in control of myself. I was simply a marionette, and resentment held the strings.
How dare he.
How dare she.
I stared at my left hand, the gaudy two-carat emerald-cut diamond glinting beneath the bright florescent lights. Mocking me. Taunting me. Ridiculing me until all I wanted to do was rip it off my finger and use it to serrate his heart the way he’d eviscerated mine.
I watched them on the sidewalk for a couple minutes, before they greeted the doorman like an old friend and stepped through the revolving doors of the Larkspur Hotel - a place he’d once told me was too cheesy for someone like me when I’d asked to spend our anniversary there. I realized then that he hadn’t wanted to take me there because it was theirs. He didn’t want to tarnish the memories of his affair with those of his wife.
“He says they’re in love,” I scoffed, taking an angry bite of my food. “Sixteen months, that’s how long this has been going on behind my back, and now he wants a divorce so he can be with her.”
“I’m really sorry, Ash,” Steve said placing his hand over mine. “I know how much they meant to you.”
“Hilary was my maid-of-honor at our wedding. I’ve known her since we were twelve. I was in the Burger King bathroom with her when she got her first period, and I spent an entire weekend watching The Notebook after Ken Carlson dumped her right after she gave him her virginity. We were supposed to get pregnant together and raise our families next door to each other so that our kids could be best friends…We…” My voice cracked and I stopped to let out a shaky breath. Not wanting to risk another viral video, I cleared my throat and took a sip of water. “Sorry.”
“Look, I know you’re going through a rough time, so maybe it’s a good thing that the network wants you to take some time off.”
My eyes cut to his and my whole body stiffened. “I’m sorry?”
His shoulders slumped as he let out a sigh. “The network execs think maybe you need to take some time off the show. You know, just until things settle down.”
“Some time…” I said slowly, letting the bitter taste of each syllable slide off my tongue. “And how long exactly is some time?”
“I’m not sure. They didn’t specify.”
“Are you fucking kidding me with this Steve?”
“I’m afraid not. They’re worried about the bad press.”
“Isn’t that why we have a public relations specialist? Besides, I thought all press was good press.”
“Pretty sure that only works if you’re a washed-up movie star looking for attention. Your show is about bringing families together with food. How do you expect us to keep airing it after this?”
He plucked his phone from his pocket and typed something in before turning it towards me. Images of me standing in the hotel lobby, wielding a large butcher’s knife in my hand popped up. My mocha colored hair was no longer hanging neatly in loose waves, but rather, flying recklessly around my face as my lips pulled back in a snarl. My usually pale green eyes looked wild. Unhinged. Destroyed.
“You can see why the execs are a bit worried,” he continued as he scrolled through various photos.
“Okay, I get it, you can put it away now,” I replied, waving him off. “Isn’t there something you can do? Talk to Karen. Surely you can think of a way to get her to agree to keep me on…”
“Please,” I begged. “This show is everything to me. I just lost my husband and my best friend, and because we didn’t have a prenup, I’ll probably lose half of everything else I own. Don’t take my show away from me, too.”
He sighed and leaned back in his seat. “Okay. Just sit tight and lay low. I’m not promising anything, but I’ll see what I can do.”