Afghanistan war Vet Diamond Lotte needs to find a new heart for her sister, Maddie, and she’s running out of time. Maddie is on the critical list, and new hearts are expensive. Prohibitively so. Diamond has run out of options for obtaining the money when she discovers that someone is willing to pay top dollar for information on the whereabouts of the son of a New York billionaire who went missing in Washington, D.C.
Unlike Diamond, Warner Hastings is not short on money, but like Diamond, he is short on time. His brother, Jasper, was kidnapped because he threatened to go public with some condemning evidence about a very powerful and influential senator. Without Diamond’s help, Warner may never find his brother alive. But the problem with that is, Diamond’s been hired by the very man out for Warner’s blood.
Diamond bent low over the table, ass in the air. The fingers of one hand formed a bridge while her other hand held the cue stick. She readied herself to take the perfect shot she’d set up. A nice cut shot should finish this one off. Sink this one and win the game.
“Eight ball, corner pocket.” She jabbed the white cue ball with her cue stick, sending it sailing into the side of the eight ball with a clack, which drove the eight ball into the appropriate pocket for a nice clean win.
She looked up into some very disappointed faces. The heavyset, pockmarked faced man who had identified himself only as “Stubby” said, “Thought you said you barely knew a cue stick from a broom handle.” The front of his coveralls had some sort of faded stain on them. If she had to guess, she’d say it was chaw juice. Or maybe gravy. Yeah, Stubby didn’t look like a stranger to a good meal.
“Beginner’s luck I guess,” Diamond said, feigning a golly-gee-aw-shucks smile. They didn’t need to know that Diamond’s nickname came not from her love of shiny things as she’d told them, but instead came from the word for the markings on a pool table used to help line up a shot.
“Aw hell. Ain’t that much luck in the world,” his friend, a tall, thin man with a high, wind-in-the-reeds-like voice who’d identified himself as “Lucky” drawled with a thick Georgia accent. “You play awful well for someone who’s not s’posed to know a lick about pool.”
“I guess I’m a quick study,” Diamond said, glancing briefly at her partner in crime, Elle. The look on her partner’s golden brown face told Diamond what she already knew. Time to get the hell out of dodge.
“I reckon we been had,” Lucky said in that oddly high-pitched voice of his. He looked across the table to his unfortunately large friend. “Whatchya think about that, Stubby?”
“I don’t like it,” Stubby said, cracking his knuckles in a very cliché movie bad guy sort of way. He chewed on the wad of tobacco stuck in the side of his mouth a couple more times before sneering at her, thin lips pulled up on one side. His brown teeth were a dead giveaway that the wad between his gums and cheek was far from his first.
“It’s not our fault you assumed we were two clueless women who were no match for two such big, strong men,” Diamond said mockingly.
“Diamond!” Elle hissed, her tone letting Diamond know that she was once again letting her big mouth get her into trouble. Diamond kind of knew that already, but these ridiculous men had been getting on her nerves for hours. She couldn’t help but give them a little bit of what they’d been asking for. What with all their cracks—so-called jokes—about addle brained women who were better off barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen than out trying to compete with menfolk, taking their jobs and the food out their mouths and they really had used the word “menfolk.” Okay, well maybe Diamond was slightly exaggerating. But only slightly. Just like the sight of Stubby and Lucky was only slightly tolerable.
“I think what my friend is trying to say,” Elle said. She stepped over to the table and put herself between Diamond and Stubby. “Is that it was nice meeting y’all, it sure was fun playing pool with you, and if you could just give us our winnings, we’ll be on our way.”
Elle gave those two troglodytes one of her thousand watt she’s-such-a-charmer smiles. Elle always had been the smoothest talker of the two of them. Diamond didn’t have the patience for such foolishness.
But these men were immune to Elle’s charms. Diamond had the feeling that would have been the case even if she—Diamond—hadn’t riled them up.
“Winnings?” Stubby said as if this was the first time he’d ever heard of the word. He snorted like the pig he was. “What makes you think we’re going to give you any money?”
“Yeah.” Lucky, who had come around from the other side of the table, stepped up beside his pink, piggish friend.
“The fact that we won it from you fair and square,” Diamond said, narrowing her eyes at the pair of sorry excuses for human beings.
Lucky guffawed, but he didn’t seem amused. “I wouldn’t call that trick you played on us fair,” he said, a glint of violence coming into his gray-blue eyes. His bald head glistened with sweat under the glare from the green-shaded light fixture hanging over the pool table.
“Now, gentlemen, we had an agreement,” Elle said, pulling herself to her full five-feet five inches. Her small frame belied her ability to scrap. She’d helped Diamond get out of more than a few scrapes over the years since they’d met back when they were in the Marines.
“We earned that money,” Diamond said.
“Like hell y’all did,” Lucky snarled. He advanced on them.
“You’d best to get going,” Stubby said. “You’re not going to get any money, and I can guarantee you’ll get something you don’t want if y’all stick around here.” He jabbed the butt of his cue stick into the ground a couple of times as if that was supposed to do something. Maybe she was supposed to be intimidated.
“Yeah,” Lucky chimed in. “You’d best to get a move on while we’re still in a good mood.” His high voice made everything he said come out sounding like a whine. “Go on now.”
“You in the habit of not making good on your debts?” Diamond asked. She hefted her cue stick from hand to hand, testing its weight. Stubby wasn’t the only one who could think of multiple uses for a cue stick. And Diamond was willing to bet she knew her way around one better than the two of them put together on their best day did.
“We ain’t the liars here,” Lucky said.
“And I’m not the idiot here,” Diamond returned smoothly, not missing a beat.
“That’s it. I’ve had about enough of you,” Lucky said. He drew back a fist. That wasn’t his first mistake of the night, but Diamond would make sure it was the one he regretted the most.
Diamond and Elle had served in Afghanistan together. After getting out, they’d remained friends and had trained in mixed martial arts together. They sometimes sparred with a friend who was a UFC fighter. Oh, and there was also the fact that Diamond could bench 180, and Elle wasn’t much behind her. Diamond was pretty sure their fighting skills would be as unexpected to these two as their ability to play a stellar game of pool had been. Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumb didn’t want none of this, and they were about to find that out the hard way.
Before Lucky could get his fist anywhere near Diamond’s face, she ducked. Springing back to her full height, she sliced her cue stick through the air. Lucky let out a howl of pain as it broke across his back. He doubled over in pain. That’s when he took a knee to the nose from Diamond. She uppercut the hell out of him when he had the nerve to try and stand up straight. He stumbled backward, and she landed a hard blow square in his gut.
Diamond grabbed half of the cue stick she’d broken over Lucky’s back earlier and clubbed him with it until he fell to the ground, crying out and holding his head. Then she turned her attention to helping out Elle with the ass whooping she was handing to Stubby.
Not much later, Diamond and Elle were escorted from the pool hall with the owner—a friend of Elle’s—yelling at them that they were lucky he hadn’t called the cops. If he and Elle hadn’t been such good friends, he might have. Elle knew people. That knowledge had saved the owner’s life once and saved his ass more times than he likely cared to count.“I thought you said those two would be an easy kill,” Diamond said, nodding her head back in the direction of the bar. Steam rose from their overheated bodies as the early November night air hit them. Even though they’d left their jackets inside with all the commotion going on, Diamond was too keyed up from the fight to feel the sting of the cold.
Man-eater Marci King uses men and tosses them aside like so many McDonalds napkins. As a busy grad student, she doesn’t have time for relationships. Besides, she considers this a preemptive strike against the battlefield that is love.
Owen Matthis is a serial monogamist. Ever since his last girlfriend left him for a trust fund baby, he’s been looking to replace her. He seems to be looking in all the wrong places, though. Until one fateful day when he encounters a beautiful woman in a very unfortunate way.
Marci becomes the victim of a bike-pedestrian accident when Owen crashes into her one morning and scalds her with her own coffee. Marci has no desire to see Owen again no matter how attractive he is. Too bad. Because Owen is immediately smitten with Marci. One night, a little too much bravado on Marci’s part and a crazy bet draw Marci and Owen together again. She can’t deny that she wants his body. Owen wants a relationship. Marci doesn’t do relationships, but the two of them work out a friends-with-benefits deal. The deal seems like a good idea at first, but both of them will end up with plenty of buyer’s remorse.
Playboy Rain Foster is nowhere near ready to settle down, but if there's one woman he would make that sacrifice for, it's Carolina Perez. When Carolina tells Rain she's getting married, he decides he must find a way to stop that wedding.
Overly cautious Daphne Moore has had a thing for Rain Foster since she first saw him at college freshman orientation. However, she's learned to be careful with her heart when it comes to guys--especially guys like Rain. Besides, Rain has always had his eye--and more--on their other friend, Carolina. When Rain asks to be Daphne's date to Carolina's wedding, Daphne knows saying yes will lead to big trouble. Still, she's never been good at saying no to Rain.
After Daphne makes a huge mistake with Rain, she avoids him for the sake of her own sanity. She shouldn't have done what she did because she knows Rain is and always will be a womanizer. Rain can't get Daphne out of his system. For the first time in his life, Rain is turning into an absolute mess because of a woman. Then comes another first for Rain: he finds himself chasing a woman.
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With his eyes still closed, Rain raised his arms above his head and stretched. He stopped short when his arm hit someone else’s. His eyes flew open.
Oh crap, he thought. One slipped through. He had a rule against this sort of thing. Letting them sleep over tended to give them the wrong ideas. He sat up in bed and looked down at the blonde lying next to him. Sure, she was cute—round, perky breasts—but he could get another one just like her tonight if he went out looking. That was the fun part. The not-so-fun part was falling asleep before remembering to kick them out of bed.
She blinked and smiled sleepily at him. “Hi.” Running a hand through her curly blonde hair, she sat up next to him in bed.
How was he going to get out of this? “Uh, hey.” If you let them stay the night, it was tricky getting rid of them—so much more awkward. If you got rid of them the night of, it was kind of expected. They knew the deal.
“Last night was amazing.” She tickled his arm with her fingernails.
Of course it was. “Oh, um, thanks.” He slid out of bed and spotted his jeans halfway across the room. Walking over, he grabbed them and tugged them on. “Yeah, you, too.” What was he supposed to say? See, this was another good reason to get rid of them before any sleeping happened. He never knew what to say the morning after. He didn’t want to encourage them, but he didn’t want to be a total ass, either. It was all in good fun. Everyone got something they wanted out of the deal.
“I love this bed.” She fell backwards and burrowed deep in his sheets. Well, it was a high quality bed. Only the best for him.
Yeah. Don’t get too attached. “Well, it’s—a bed.” Yeah, dumbass. That’s exactly what it is, he thought. He looked around the room for his phone as he spoke. He scratched the back of his head, having no clue where he left it.
This was why partying with Skylar was a bad idea. No matter what they were doing or where they were, Skylar managed to get him in trouble. From getting arrested in Montreal, to hitchhiking in Brazil, to blow-out parties Rain couldn’t remember later, Skylar was usually the common denominator in the bad situations Rain ended up in. The thing was, Skylar was usually involved in the most epic of Rain’s adventures, too.
“…Breakfast?” she was saying.
“Huh?” Rain looked up, startled. That was not a word he wanted to hear. Breakfast implied they would be in each other’s company longer. He couldn’t even remember her name. The name thing was another problem with allowing them to spend the night. He rarely bothered trying to retain such details. It wasn’t like he planned on seeing these women again.
A new voice made Rain jump. He’d forgotten there were two. A woman walked out of his bathroom wearing only one of his shirts. “Yeah,” she said. “I’m hungry.” This one was a redhead. Her bright red hair couldn’t be natural. Now he remembered. He suppressed a grin. Last night had definitely been a good time. No wonder he’d been so tired he passed out afterward. He still didn’t remember either one’s name, though.
“I think breakfast is a great idea,” he said. He finally spotted his phone on his desk. Walking over to it, he said, “You two can get to know each other better…” Or crap. Were they already friends? He couldn’t remember that, either.
“Wait, aren’t you coming with us?” the blonde asked with a frown. She got out of bed and stretched her gloriously naked body.
“I can’t,” Rain said. “I have this thing…I have to do…it starts in—” He stared down at his wrist before realizing he’d taken off his watch last night and left it in some location he couldn’t remember at the moment. He glanced at his phone and pretended to study its face. “Whoa. Starts really soon. I have to get going, ladies.” Hm. He had a new message from Carolina. He hadn’t heard from her in a while.
“Oh yeah?” Red’s expression told him she wasn’t buying his story. “And what exactly is this ‘thing?’”
“It’s for my grandma. She needs me to feed her cat.”
“Oh? That can’t take long. We can wait for you.” Her look went from incredulous to scrutinizing.
He coughed. “In New York. I have to…cat sit. I’m cat sitting for my grandma. Yep. That’s right. You know. I forgot. I gotta take this train. I’m already late. It leaves really soon. I have to get out of here like…now, ladies.”
The blonde and Red exchanged glances. Then the blonde asked, “Don’t you have to pack a bag?”
He was sweating over there even though he hadn’t put on his shirt yet. Couldn’t they give him a break? “I have clothes there,” he said, fully aware of how lame he sounded. “I visit Grandma a lot. And…her cat. Very hungry cat.” He nodded. They stared at him for a moment, and he interjected a “Yep,” into the uncomfortable silence.
“Don’t you get it?” Red said to the blonde. “He’s trying to get us out of here.” She yanked off the shirt of his she wore, popping a few buttons off in the process, and pulled on her jeans and top.
“Oh yeah,” the blonde said. “I get it.” She bent to grab her dress from the floor, and he couldn’t help but appreciate what he’d enjoyed last night. She pulled her mini-dress over her perfect bubble butt. “He’s doing a shitty job of it, though.”
Red snorted. “Asshole.”
“No, it’s not like that,” he said, but he was dancing a jig of relief on the inside. “I had fun last night.”
“Yeah,” they said. “We bet.”
“Let me walk you two out.”
The blonde pushed past him, followed by the redhead.
Red tossed him an ugly sneer. “Don’t bother,” she said.
The two of them walked out together, slamming the door after them. After they left, Rain looked down at his phone again. He smiled.
Carolina. They’d met in college and dated for a while, but Rain wasn’t the serious relationship type. They’d stayed friends for a long time and were sometimes more. Rain hadn’t heard from her a lot in the past few months or so, but life got busy. He assumed they were both tied up with things and hadn’t thought any more about it. Hopefully, this text meant she was in town and wanted to get together.
He opened the text and read it. It said that he needed to call her whenever he woke up because she had some huge news for him. He grinned. She knew him so well. She never called before noon on the weekends because she knew chances were he wouldn’t be conscious yet.
He pulled up her number and pressed the send button. A few moments later, he heard her sexy, throaty voice. He could hear music and loud voices in the background. It sounded like some sort of party was going on.
“Rain!” Carolina said. “Oh, it’s so good to hear from you. How’ve you been?”
“Good. I’m glad you called. I miss you,” he said.
“Let me walk outside. We’re having something at Tia Rosa’s house and these people are so loud. Hold on a minute,” she said, talking so quickly that her words ran over one another the way she usually did. He heard her moving around. When she stopped, it was quieter. “There. That better?”
“Yeah,” he grinned. His grin faded. If she was at her Aunt Rosa’s, that meant she was in Brooklyn. New York. Nowhere near D.C. But maybe she was coming down to visit soon and wanted to make sure he would be in town. He wouldn’t give up hope yet. “So what’s up?” He sat on the corner of his desk. He scanned the room, continuing a visual search for his watch, as he waited for her to answer. He couldn’t lose another Piaget. Those things were pricy to replace. Not that he couldn’t afford it, but he hated throwing money away.
“Gosh, it’s been so long since we talked,” Carolina said. “We have so much catching up to do. Are you seeing anybody? Or you still breaking hearts?”
He grinned. “You know me.”
She laughed. “Don’t I?” Her voice took on a faraway tone for a moment. Before he could put his finger on what was strange about it, she continued, “Anyway, how’s the job? How’s life? Come on, talk to me.”
“Everything is good.” Rain was a partner in a small venture capital firm. He’d started the business with a couple of people he knew from business school. He used to work with Skylar—he’d helped Skylar start his company—but they made much better friends than they did business partners. He’d left the business to save the friendship. Carolina had heard plenty of his griping about that, though. “How are things with you?” He was ready—more than ready—to get to the good part of this conversation. “Coming to D.C. any time soon?”
“No, not really,” she said distantly. “So. Remember this guy I was telling you about? Manny?”
“Sounds familiar,” Rain lied. “He a boyfriend?” He didn’t care to learn anything her boyfriends. He saw them only as nameless, faceless guys standing between him and good times with Carolina. The only things he ever felt toward them were ambivalence or a vague sort of jealousy.
“He was. Now he’s a fiancé.”
“He’s a what?” Rain pulled the phone away from his ear, stared at it a moment, and held it back to his ear.
Carolina squealed, and he held the phone away again. He put it back to his ear again just in time to hear her say, “I’m getting married!”
“You are?” He couldn’t have been more shocked. “I’m so happy for you.” He was pretty sure that was the right thing to say in this situation.
“Yes! January first. We’re starting off our New Year with our new marriage. Isn’t that beautiful? It’s going to be in San Juan, Puerto Rico.” She chattered on with more details—destination wedding, family in Puerto Rico, blah, blah, blah. He didn’t catch most of it. He was still busy trying to comprehend the fact that Carolina was getting married.
She stopped talking, so he assumed he was supposed to say something.
“Oh. Great,” he said woodenly.
“Don’t you think it’ll be beautiful?”
“You’ll love Manny.” Her tone of voice changed when she said the man’s name. He’d never heard her say anyone’s name like that.
“I’m sure I will.” He was still on auto-pilot.
“My family adores him. He’s here now because Tia Rosa insisted on throwing us an engagement party. I put it off for months, and I kept trying to tell her we didn’t need one, but you know how that woman is. I think she thought I would never get married. She is so excited. You would think she’s the bride.” Carolina went on about her aunt.
Rain laughed in all the right places, but he couldn’t really concentrate on her story about her aunt. He was trying to remember the last time he’d seen her. What had they done? What had they talked about? Suddenly, it seemed so important, but that last visit melted into all the others in his mind. He’d had no idea it would be the last time he’d see her while she was a single woman.
“I hope you don’t have plans for New Year’s already. I didn’t get around to sending you one of those save-the-date cards,” she said. “I, you know, things get busy.”
Hm. That sounded like the sort of lame excuse he might give her. “Nah, nothing yet.” Rain wasn’t the type to make plans that far in advance unless they were work-related plans. New Year’s was over two months away.
“I know it’s a lot to ask for you to fly all the way to Puerto Rico for my wedding, but it’d mean a lot to me if you were there,” she said, her voice sounding a lot more solemn than it had been when she was gushing about Manny a moment ago.
“Yeah, I mean, of course I want to be there. For you.” He still couldn’t believe he was having this conversation. He was talking about Carolina—his Carolina—getting married. How was that possible? She’d never even mentioned anything about wanting to get married. And weren’t they too young for this? They’d just graduated college. Wait. Had it really been five years ago that they graduated?
“Okay, thank you so much! Give me your address so I can make sure I have the right one. I need it for your invitation.
He rattled off his address while thinking that something felt out of place about this whole thing. Something seemed really wrong. He finished his conversation with her while still kind of zoning out and not able to focus on what was being said. All he knew was the next time he saw Carolina, it would be in Puerto Rico. And he would be there to see her getting married to some other man.
No more Carolina? No, that couldn’t happen. Could it? All through college when they’d been off and on, he’d never imagined this. In all the times she’d visited him in D.C., he’d never imagined this. They’d driven each other crazy in good and bad ways, and they’d driven each other away, but they always somehow managed to come together again. She’d teased him about this very thing sometimes, and sometimes the words had taken on an angry tone: some day, you’re going to realize you missed your chance. That’s going to be a bad day for you, she’d said.
Carolina was a beautiful woman. There was no doubt about that. And spending time with her was mind altering incredible. She was the only one he’d found worthy of repeat sex since his only serious girlfriend in high school—not that high school really counted. He remembered the first time he’d seen her. Tight jeans over lovely hips, a tiny tank top, and a smile a mile wide on her beautiful golden face. He’d felt his lips tug into a matching smile almost of their own accord. Her smile had always demanded a matching one from him. Always. Right from the start.
He guessed he’d assumed they’d end up together. He should have had plenty of time to get to that end, though. He wasn’t interested in settling down yet. Other things were priorities right now—taking over the telecom industry, seeing the world, just enjoying the single life. Relationships and all that didn’t go with his brand of ambition, and they didn’t seem like enjoying life to him. That sort of thing seemed stifling. Like a trap. He’d seen it suck the life right out of friends of his that had fallen prey to the marriage trap. Friends he rarely if ever saw anymore. He wouldn’t mind putting that whole thing off for a few more years. He needed more time.
He didn’t have more time. He was getting closer and closer to losing Carolina forever every moment. In fact, the date had been set for The Loss. New Year’s Day.
He put his phone down on the desk and stared at it for a moment before it hit him. It bothered him not because of jealousy. Or not only because of it. It didn’t even bother him that she was getting married. Not really. What bothered him the most was a combination of those things.
Carolina was getting married, and he wasn’t going to be the groom.
“My God,” he said, shocked and horrified with the realization as it entered his brain. “I think I’m in love with her.”
Yeah, he’d go to that wedding, but not to smile and nod and throw rice at her and whoever this Manny jerk was.
He was going there to get his Carolina back.
Download the first three chapters of Otherwise Engaged here.
In Love Locked, four friends struggle against letting their futures be determined by their pasts.
Rafe Cardoso is a third year law student whose guilt over a tragedy in his past keeps him tied down in ways he doesn't even realize himself. He's not the relationship type for sure. When cyclone Sadie Gibson blows into his life, she upsets the balance.
Sadie Gibson has enough on her plate with helping take care of her great uncle, trying to get her many businesses off the ground, and keeping up with her social life. She doesn't need another complication. However, her on-again, off-again boyfriend doesn't seem to understand that. And when sexy Rafe Cardoso gets added to the mix, things become even more of a mess.
Third year law students Denise Rich and John Archer have finally found peace and happiness. Unfortunately, not everyone is happy with their happiness. Denise is planning a wedding while wading her way through her last year of law school and fending off those who are less than
content that the wedding is taking place. John's past comes back into his life in constantly new and expected ways. There's no doubting that their love is strong, but it will be tested.
Add Love Locked to your Goodreads.
Late on the first day. The only thing Rafe hated more than being late was being late on the first day. He paced the entryway to his condo, wondering where she could possibly be. He was stuck waiting for her because it was too late to get a replacement. Why had he agreed to watch Gus in the first place?
He was about to try the cell phone number she gave him for the tenth time that morning when Gus went crazy. A second later, he heard a frantic pounding at the front door. Opening the door, he came face to face with a woman wearing purple tinted sunglasses, a loose fitting tie-dyed top, and a long brown skirt. Her light brown hair framed her face in a fluffy afro. She wore a tentative smile on her full lips. She was attractive, but her attractiveness wasn’t going to get him to class on time. He was too annoyed to fully appreciate her beauty.
“Sorry I’m late,” she said. “May I come in?”
He stepped aside and allow her to enter the condo. Gus bounded over to her and jumped up to say hello. Gus thought he was still a puppy. Although the year old lab wasn’t fully grown, he was too big to be tearing around Rafe’s place and crashing into things and knocking everything over. And he hadn’t quite gotten the concept of not jumping on people either. His parents needed to get back from their trip soon.
“I don’t have a lot of time,” Rafe said pointedly. “So I’ll keep this brief.” He handed her a key to his place and a list. “I’ll only need you for the day, so you can leave the key on the table in the entryway and lock only the bottom lock when you drop Gus off this afternoon. Here’s a list of instructions. His food is on the bottom shelf in the pantry. My cell number is at the bottom of the list if you have any questions.” Rafe took a deep breath, and his nostrils flared as he exhaled. “As you seem to have forgotten it.”
“I’m sorry. I would’ve called. Only…I found my phone in the toilet this morning. Long story, but I’m sure you don’t want to hear excuses.” Sadie rubbed slim, long fingers with perfectly oval nails across her forehead.
“No. I don’t,” he said. “I really should get going anyway.” He picked up his books and car keys.
“I’d really love another chance.” As she spoke, she was bent over, rubbing Gus behind the ears. Gus was in heaven. And Rafe couldn’t say he was unhappy with the view down Sadie’s loose fitting shirt. There wasn’t a whole lot there to handle, but from what he could tell, what was there would be nice to handle. “I’ll give you a ten percent discount on this week’s walks,” she said. “I promise nothing like this will happen again. This is the newest of my business ventures, and I’m just getting things off the ground. I’d really hate to lose your business on the first day.” She took her glasses off and set aside and gave him an apologetic look with startling light brown eyes. She had really nice eyes.
Making direct eye contact with her was unsettling in a way that wasn’t unpleasant but wasn’t welcome, either.
“Isn’t that right, Gus? Yeah.” She started crooning to the dog.
Rafe considered his options for a moment. He didn’t know much about looking for dog sitters or about owning a dog at all. Gus had been foisted on him by his parents while they were visiting family in Brazil followed by a trip to see friends in Belize. He didn’t have time to go around looking for and vetting a whole bunch of dog sitters. He’d found Sadie on Craigslist. Maybe not the most reputable source, but she was obviously good with animals. Gus was in love with her already. Her references had been good—glowing even. And he was beyond out of time to debate this. Class had started five minutes ago. What was the harm in giving her one more shot? Besides, there was also the benefit that she was nice to look at.
“Okay,” Rafe said with a sigh, relenting. “I’ll give you another chance. But if you’re late again, it’s over.”
“Thank you,” Sadie jumped up and walked over to him, leaving a disappointed Gus behind. Gus found something else to entertain himself quickly, though. With Gus being the rambunctious and not well-disciplined dog his parents had entrusted to him, Rafe wasn’t surprised. As the dog bounded off, Rafe braced himself for the crash he was sure would soon follow. “I promise I’ll be on time tomorrow.” She shook her head. “Early.”
He nodded but wasn’t too concerned. Now that she had the key to the condo, he wouldn’t have to worry about her making him late again.
“Just make sure Gus gets his walks and that he has plenty of food and water when you leave for the day.”
“Of course. Again, thank you.” She reached out for his hand. When he shook hands with her, he found he didn’t want to let go right away. Her palm was warm and smooth. Being so close to her, he could smell some sort of flower scent on her. Jasmine maybe? Whatever it was smelled nice.
Realizing he was lingering over the handshake, Rafe pulled his hand free and cleared his throat. “Well, I have to get going.”
Sadie gave her head a little shake as if she’d been in a similar trance. She smiled but not as widely as before and there was something dazed about it. “Right. Yeah.”
Rafe headed for the front door, still puzzling over what had happened with Sadie just a moment ago. In fact, he was in so much of a fog over it that he didn’t pay any attention to what Gus was up to. Until he opened the front door of his condo and Gus, sensing his chance for escape apparently, bolted out of the front door.
“Gus, no!” Rafe shouted at the same time that Sadie called out the black lab’s name. Groaning, Rafe dropped his books and took out after the dog. Sadie was right behind him.
“Get going!” Sadie called out from behind him. “I’ll take care of him!”
“You’ll never catch him,” Rafe shouted behind him. Besides, Rafe knew all of Gus’s favorite spots and where he was likely headed right now. This wasn’t the first time during his short stay that Gus had bolted on Rafe. Turning the corner of his building, he saw Gus headed for the park that bordered the back of the property. Sprinting through the parking lot while mentally cursing his luck, Rafe pursued the overgrown puppy.
Rafe lost sight of Gus after he entered the park but wasn’t too worried. He headed toward the grove of trees that bordered the small park and went into a dead run for the stream. Sure enough, Gus was at the edge of the stream with a big dog grin on his face.
“Don’t you dare,” Rafe muttered. As he lunged for the dog, Gus leaped into the water. Sadie had caught up to him and lunged at the same time. She miscalculated her leap so that she landed on Rafe. With both of them trying to extricate themselves from the situation at the same time, they ended up just getting in each other’s way more and more so that their legs ended up intertwined.
Sadie threw her head back and laughed. His eyes went to her slender throat and then moved down to one of her shapely legs, which had been exposed by her skirt riding up while they were struggling to get free of each other on the ground.
“What a start to this morning, huh?” she asked.
He put his arms around her waist and felt and heard her sharp intake of breath. Gently moving her aside, he pulled his legs away from hers. Then he sat up and nodded his agreement.
“Between Gus and me, I think we’ve made you sufficiently late,” she said, giving him a brilliantly white toothy grin. “Why don’t you get going? I’ll get Gus back to the house. By the way, today’s walk? Free of charge. You’ve done half the work after all.”
“Thanks.” He stood and dusted off his pants. “I’m plenty late now. There’s no rush,” he said with a sigh. His tardiness was going to be really obvious and look really bad whether it took him an extra five minutes to get there now or not.
“You said you’re in law school at CVU when we talked on the phone earlier and you offered me the job,” Sadie said.
Download the first four chapters of Love Locked here.
Melody could have really used a break, but the lemon that insisted on masquerading as a car she drove didn’t seem to understand that. Her best friend, Jen, had told her not to try to make it all the way down to Miami—and taking the backroads to avoid traffic—from Atlanta in the clunker.
“If you have to drive, which I think is ridiculous to start with,” Jen had said, “Please, Melody, I’m begging you, rent a car.”
But the same stubbornness that had prevented Melody from buying a plane ticket had prevented her from taking her friend’s advice. She’d been so sure that old Aretha could make the trip—especially since she’d just gotten a tune-up a few weeks earlier in anticipation of the trip. A year ago when she’d bought the thing, she’d been convinced giving the car her favorite singer’s name would bring her good luck. But obviously, she’d been wrong.
Buying a new car was not in her budget at the moment. She didn’t make tons of money at New Face Records—a struggling independent label—and she had better uses for money than buying a depreciating, shiny, new piece of metal and fiberglass. That would also mean a higher car insurance premium. Another cost. She’d never save up enough money to go into business for herself as a music manager if she kept increases her expenses.
The new-to-town Used Car Shopping Mall, as it was known on the commercials that flashed across local television stations back home in Midtown, had lured her in with its promises of low prices and CARFAX background checks. When she’d realized the used car industry had crapped on her, The Used Car Shopping Mall had refused to take their jalopy back, and they’d canceled her warranty on a technicality. She’d heard that pursuing Georgia’s lemon laws was a useless fight. Besides, a lawyer would be yet another expense. And for a case she probably wouldn’t win. She didn’t have the energy or money to fight yet another losing battle. She’d had her fill of courtrooms during the divorce.
“Crap, crap, crap,” she muttered to herself, glaring at the check engine light. Her nemesis. The thing came on at least three times a week, and usually she ignored it because it didn’t necessarily mean anything was wrong with the car. But that day, it meant horrible things. The rattling sounds coming from the engine were a bad sign. Smoke started smoke billow up from the hood. She eased the car over to the side of the road. Just when she got all four tires off the road, the engine spluttered and died.
Making a sound that was somewhere between a moan and a wail, she banged her head against the steering wheel. This was no good. At all. Saeed was going to kill her. With all the cutbacks her company had been making lately, now was not a good time to piss off the new boss. His real name was Saeed Zahedi, but he was known as The Cleaner. He’d been brought in specifically to clean house at New Face Records. He was known for his efficiency. And his ruthlessness.
Saeed had made it clear he thought going to Miami to check out this R&B group was a waste of time. He called them Boyz II Men wannabes who were lacking in freshness and originality even though he’d never heard them sing. He had let her know quite clearly the company wouldn’t be covering her traveling expenses.
Driving had not been smart at all. Especially taking the back roads. But Melody had always loved road trips, and she needed time to clear her head. Things had been crazy around the office since Saeed arrived. She needed time to herself to plan her next move. So the road trip to Miami—at her expense, using her own seldom-used vacation time—had seemed like a good idea.
A last-minute plane ticket to Miami would have been exorbitantly expensive, and renting a car would have used up money she could have put in savings toward quitting her going-nowhere job and starting her dream job. She wanted to be a music manager. Finally, she’d be able to foster creativity instead of stifling it in the name of profits and bottom lines. She would still be working in the music industry, but she would be her own boss.
Melody reached into the backseat for her purse. She always kept it there out of a habit she’d formed long ago because most of the time, she had a passenger in her front seat. She pulled it into her lap and groped around inside for her wallet. When her fingers closed over everything but her square brown wallet, her heart dropped. No. She hadn’t. Staring down into her purse, she realized she had. There was no wallet in there.
“What is wrong with me lately?” she asked herself, banging a fist against her purse. Sure, she’d been distracted that day, thinking about her last conversation with her boss and about the group in Miami. Things weren’t going well at all with her surly, curmudgeonly boss, but that didn’t make her any less angry at herself for being so scatterbrained.
She searched the car even though she was almost certain her wallet was back at the little diner where she’d had lunch over an hour ago. She probably looked like a maniac standing out in the sweltering Georgia sun, darting in and out of all of her car doors like a whirling dervish, throwing around maps, reusable shopping bags, her toiletry kit and whatever else she found in the back and under the front seat.
She went to the trunk, poking around and under her yoga mat, the carry-on sized suitcase she’d packed for what should have been no more than a weeklong trip at most, her emergency roadside kit, and other things. Then she sank down behind her car, propped her back against the hot fiberglass, and buried her face in her hands.
She looked up. Her cell phone. She’d stuck it in the center console after talking to Jen before she’d gotten to the diner. She hadn’t wanted to talk to anyone else right then. She’d had another fight with Saeed before talking to Jen, and she wanted to eat at least one meal in peace. She’d forgotten to take it out when she got back in the car after leaving the diner. She jumped up and ran to the driver’s side door. She could call triple A.
Putting a knee in the driver’s seat, she leaned over to the center console and popped the latch on the area where she stored her CDs. There was her smart phone. With a cry of triumph, she grabbed it and held it up. Oh no.
She punched numbers. Held the power switch down until her thumb hurt. Then, she banged it against her thigh. Nothing. It was dead. Maybe the heat had killed off the part of the battery she hadn’t used while gabbing to Jen. Her car charger was useless at the moment, and so was her wall charger for obvious reasons.
Walking up to the wheel well, she kicked the front driver’s side tire out of frustration. “I used to drive a Range Rover!” she shouted at it like it would care. She’d had to sell her truck—and a lot of other things it’d been very difficult to part with—after the divorce. She’d needed the money to leave California and come back to Georgia to start over.She was sunk. Out by the side of the road with only a cow pasture to keep her company. Those cows looked kind of wily. She didn’t like animals bigger than she was no matter how docile they supposedly were.
Download the first full chapter of His Melody here.
After Quenby Rhodes leaves her cheating bridegroom at the altar, she meets Caleb Fletcher-Smith, a med student and the cousin of one of her bridesmaids for the wedding that didn't happen. She tries to convince herself that the instant pull she feels to Caleb is just a rebound thing. She keeps going with this even after the incredible kiss she shares with Caleb at her wedding-reception-turned-freedom party.
Caleb came to Virginia to get out of Georgia for the weekend and to make sure his cousin didn’t get herself into too much trouble. Falling for a runaway bride wasn't in his plans. Especially since he’s sworn off women. However, after he shares a kiss with Quenby, he can’t just go back to Georgia and forget about her. This woman might be what he’s been looking for and failed to find through his two botched engagements.
Caleb and Quenby share some hot times. Quenby tells herself it’s just a post wedding debacle fling. Caleb, however, wants more. And Caleb is a man who’s used to getting what he wants.
Quenby paced back and forth, her white heels clicking against the wooden floor. Macon and Indigo kept trying to get her to stand still so they could pin on her veil, but she wasn’t having it.
She was dressed the part, but no longer sure there was going to be a wedding. Macon had done Quenby’s hair up in a French roll, topped with a tiara, but her veil lay on a nearby table. Her friends had given up on trying to pin it on her for the moment.
“At least I know what I’m getting with him.” She knew she was trying to convince herself more than she was trying to convince them, but she didn’t care. “Guys cheat. It’s what they do. He would never leave me. He hasn’t so far.” Besides, he was financially stable, intellectual, and dependable—other than the cheating thing.
“Yeah.” Indigo, her maid of honor, snorted. “I guess that’s true. He didn’t leave you the first time or the second, or…what number is Lisa? Fourth? Fifth? Tenth?”
“Please,” Quenby said. “There have not been ten.” Her gown had a tight bodice glittering with rhinestones. The skirt billowed out around her. She had to lift it up in both hands to keep from tripping over it as she paced back and forth across the room.
“I don’t know why you’re doing this to yourself, Quen. You’re so much better than him.” Macon, Quenby’s friend from her college field hockey team, threw up her hands. She wore her wavy brown hair loose down her back and her red, strapless gown showed off her tanned shoulders. Macon was one of Quenby’s bridesmaids. Or she would be if the wedding happened.
She wouldn’t cry and ruin her makeup. The warm tones Indigo had blended on her face and that went so well with her reddish brown skin were too perfect for her to mess up with her stupid tears.
“He was late. To his own wedding. And now he’s standing out there all smug,” Quenby muttered.
“What was that?” Indigo perked up. “Was that the sound of you coming to your senses?”
“Not everybody has a marriage based on monogamy. What about swingers?” She never stopped pacing as she spoke.
Indigo shook her head, the small diamond stud in her nose flashing in the sunlight. “That’s crazy talk. It’s hard enough for me to be here for this without you talking crazy talk.”
The song changed. Indigo and Macon looked at each other as if they were attending a funeral instead of a wedding.
“That’s our cue, I guess,” Indigo said. She lingered as if hoping Quenby would tell her not to take that cue.
“Last chance, Quen,” Macon said.
Quenby nodded, waving them out of the door. “It’s fine. Really.” She watched them walk out of the double doors with the other bridesmaid. The three of them let the doors close after them.
She’d just found out Derek spent the night with some woman named Lisa after his bachelor party. Adia had caught them and told Quenby. Adia had been too disgusted to show up at the wedding that day. Hypocrite.
When the wedding march came on, Quenby walked out of the dressing room and woodenly took her father’s arm. She plastered on a smile for her dad who was completely in the dark about Derek’s indiscretions. Her dad already treated Derek like a son.
He led her down the aisle to her groom. She felt so cheated that she couldn’t enjoy the sight of him. Broad shoulders under his black tux. Auburn hair cut close. Green eyes twinkling at her. Looking like he could do no wrong.
Her friends thought she was blind to all his wrongdoing. At least she knew what she was getting with Derek. He was handsome, smart, and he had a great job. And guys were going to cheat. That was the way it was. Her mom and dad had gone through their ugly days when her dad was younger and couldn’t keep his eyes or hands to himself. Derek would probably grow out of it, too. Just like her dad.
She kept telling herself this as her dad gave her away and Derek smiled into her face. It was that smile that started undoing her resolve. Then he mouthed ‘I love you’ to her while the preacher was rambling away. She couldn’t concentrate on the preacher’s words because a sick feeling of rage and humiliation came over her in that moment. Derek really thought she was an idiot. He could at least acknowledge that she knew what the situation was as well as he did.
She glanced behind her. Indigo gave her a look that clearly said, “don’t do it.” Macon didn’t look much happier.
When the preacher asked if anybody had any objections, Quenby found herself saying, “I do.”
“No, honey. Not yet,” Derek said. Murmurs of laughter followed his statement. She had to turn away from his stupid grin before she slapped it off his face.
She looked out into the congregation. What would she say to those people? The groom was a whore? Sorry and thank you for coming?
“No, Derek. I can’t do this,” she said. The church went dead silent.
The smile faded from his face. “Can’t do what?”
Quenby stumbled backward a step and felt Indigo’s hand close over hers. Clearing her throat, she continued in a loud, steady voice. “I’m not marrying you.”
Macon stepped forward to make a quick, impromptu speech to the guests. Indigo, Derek, and Quenby stepped into an alcove behind the altar.
“You’re not—what? Why?” He looked genuinely confused. How was that possible? Then again, knowing the size of his ego, how could she ask that?
“You know why,” Quenby hissed.
“Quenby, this is not the time or the place,” he said from behind that fake grin.
Indigo threw down her bouquet. “Don’t you dare talk about the time or the place now.” She stepped between him and Quenby said in a hushed yet angry tone, “You weren’t thinking about all that last night.”
“I’m talking to Quenby.” Derek lost the fake smile and craned his neck to look Quenby in the eyes.
“What did you just say to me?” Indigo barked.
“No, you’re not,” Quenby said. “I’m done with you.”
“What the—you can’t just—I mean, there are people from my company here.” He shook his head. “What’s gotten into you?”
“No, it’s what you got into, not me. Lisa ring a bell?”
Derek groaned and rolled his eyes. “Fucking Adia.”
Read the first full chapter of Pink Champagne here.
Whitney Jones's first priority is making partner at DC mega law firm Gibson and Grey. She feels guilty for not seeing her family as much as she should, but she always make it home to River Run, Virginia to spend Christmas with her mom, stepfather, and the rest of her large family. This is how she quite literally runs into Chace on Christmas night as she's rushing toward the 7-11 to buy a very last minute Christmas gift.
Chace Murphy thinks he's hit rock bottom when his girlfriend dumps him on Christmas Eve for a man old enough to be his grandfather. However, the worst day of his life turns out to be not so bad when he takes Whitney off guard outside of the 7-11. He bumps into her while he's trying to drown his sorrows that night. She's gorgeous, but after the way they meet, he worries that she'll think he's just a bumbling wino. He doesn't think he'll ever see Whitney again until a chain of events leads to him going back to DC with her after Christmas.
The closer Whitney gets to Chace, the more trouble she has figuring out what's really important to her. Chace makes Whitney challenge her most basic assumptions about her life. In a good way. When Whitney's chances of making partner are endangered, she is shocked to realize that there may be something more important to her than money and power--something as simple as Chace's embrace.
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Chapter One: No Place Like Home For The Holidays
Whitney didn't know what the big deal was. All the potholders looked the same to her. But why stress out her holiday-mode mother more than necessary?
"Okay, Mom, these?" Whitney held up the red and green potholders. She was tired of digging through the giant drawer full of miscellaneous kitchen gadgets, aprons, potholders, and other such things. Especially after having been pricked by unidentified objects hidden deep within the drawer twice already.
"No, Whitney." Jo, her mom, heaved a sigh, temporarily blowing her bangs off of her forehead with the upward puff of air. "I'll do it. Just come stir this pot for a minute."
Whitney switched places with her mother, going over to stir the pot of goo thickening into gravy.
"Don't stir too fast," Jo called across the kitchen while digging through the drawer of mish mosh wonders.
"Mom, I think I can stir gravy."
Jo put her hands on her hips before giving her daughter a playful smile. "This from the girl who burns water."
They laughed. It was true. Whitney wasn't the world's greatest cook. Her brother and sister had inherited the cooking gene, not her. Maybe it was the sort of thing that skipped the eldest daughter.
"Are they still out in the woods?" Whitney asked. Her stepfather, brother, and some of her cousins were out hunting deer.
"I guess so," her mom said.
"It's a wonder they haven't frozen to death yet," Whitney said while staring down at the bubbling, thickening liquid she was stirring.
"Yeah, they should be back soon, though. It's already dark out there." Jo rushed over to the pot and peered inside. She set a pair of blue and white potholders featuring smiling snowmen on the counter next to the stove.
"I really am capable of this," Whitney said as her mother bumped her out of the way with a small hip check and took the wooden spoon from her.
"Hmph. You ain't gonna burn my gravy up. You know how Shorty loves this stuff," Jo said. Shorty was Whitney's stepfather.
"Where'd you find these?" Whitney said, picking up the potholders. "I swear I never saw them in the drawer."
"Don't swear and they were right in there, plain as day, honey."
Whitney's BlackBerry vibrated on the counter opposite the stove and she went over to check the screen.
"I wish you would put that thing away for one night," Jo said. "It's Christmas Eve. They can let your family have you for one night, can't they?" Jo poked at the gravy with a long, wooden spoon.
"How do you know it's work?" Whitney felt too guilty to open the email from Gibson & Grey, the law firm she worked for, after her mother's comment. She set her BlackBerry on the counter.
"When is it not work, oh daughter of mine?" Jo opened the oven door. The mouth-watering aroma of baking bread that had filled the kitchen already became even stronger. Homemade yeast rolls were one of Jo's specialties. Although, Whitney and her siblings often said that everything was their mother's specialty.
"I have friends. They call," Whitney said with a defensive little shrug of her shoulders.
"I know that," Jo said. "But you know what all your friends are doing right now? Helping their mothers prep Christmas dinner and get a good Christmas Eve meal on the table for their families." She lifted the lid on a pot. "Only those bloodsuckers you work with are on their phones right now trying to make more money instead of being at home with their families." Jo bustled around the kitchen making sure dough was rising, meats were defrosting, and spices and other dry ingredients were lined up for the baking she had to do after dinner.
"I'd help if you'd let me," Whitney said.
"I didn't mean it that way." Jo laughed. "I don't want you burning my house down or my turkey up. The others will be back any minute. Everything's almost ready. We'll eat soon," she said. "You just keep me company, honey. And help me get ingredients and stuff ready for the cooking I'll do after dinner. That's plenty."
Whitney grinned. Her mother was the only person who could get away with comments like that. "Okay. Well, I've set the table. I made the lemonade and the sweet tea. Sodas are in the fridge. And I stuck a pitcher of water in there, too. What's next?"
"Run over to the pantry and get me a can of--" Her mother's voice broke off at the sound of the front door slamming open soon followed by loud male voices and boisterous laughter. "Y'all take off them boots before you make one more step or I'll kill you!" Jo shouted toward the sound of the voices.
"Of course, dear honey pie!" Shorty shouted back.
Whitney grinned. She couldn't imagine two people being better matched than her second stepfather and her mother. Jo said Shorty was living proof that the third time was a charm.
Jo rolled her eyes, but her face flushed and she smiled. She told Whitney she still got jittery, and flutters started in her stomach when Shorty walked into a room. Whitney wondered if that would happen for her one day, but she wasn't too worried about it. She wasn't even thirty. Not quite yet anyway.
Shorty and the others walked in wearing their hunting gear--camouflage coveralls in shades of pale brown and tan along with their orange hats. On their feet they wore only socks ranging from white to gray to black depending on which man those feet belonged to.
Shorty, Whitney's half brother Devon, and two of her cousins stood hulking over the counter and sniffing around the kitchen, talking about how hungry they were and how good everything smelled. Devon's father was Whitney's first stepfather. Shorty was her second stepfather. The cousins were her crazy aunt's children.
"Umph, I can't wait to get into that gravy. When are we eating?" Shorty said, starting toward Jo.
Jo held up her hands to keep him where he was. "Don't you take another step in my kitchen all nasty with the woods on you like that. You know better." She pointed him toward the doorway. "We won't eat 'til y'all wash up."
Shorty laughed. "Yeah, I knew better, but my stomach led me in here anyway." He nodded to the others. "All right, y'all, let's wash up so we can get down to business."
The group of hunters walked toward the half bath on the first floor. Shorty branched off toward the master bedroom, which was also on the first floor.
Whitney smiled after them, thinking of how those were the things that made her so happy to come home and visit. That was why despite her crazy schedule, she always made it home for the holidays. She wished she could've been there more often, though. Gibson & Grey kept her busy working sixty to eighty hour work weeks, so she didn't have time to go anywhere much besides the office.
The front door banged open again and Whitney heard Aunt Cheryl's voice. "Umph. Jo, why you burnin' that gravy in there for?"
Whitney's smile faded. And then there were those things that made her visits a little less pleasant than she would have liked.
Whitney started to ease out of the kitchen.
"Don't you dare leave me alone with her. I'm about to strangle that woman the way she's been acting lately, and I need a buffer," her mother called across the kitchen in a loud whisper.
Whitney groaned, but stayed put. She leaned against the counter near an empty muffin tin and a package of brown sugar.
Download and read the full first chapter here.
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After graduating from college, Jemma returns to the one place in the world she never thought she'd see again--her hometown of Derring, Virginia. She can't stay away any longer when she realizes her best friend from high school is getting married. Returning home also means seeing Davis again. He broke her heart in high school and she's not sure she's over it yet. She's been thinking about him a lot since she turned down a marriage proposal from her college boyfriend. However, she has a new life now and Davis is a part of the past she's determined to put behind her.
Davis knows Jemma can do better than him and he wants her to. So even though his heart nearly stops when he sees Jemma for the first time in six years, he's determined not to get attached to her again for her sake. Trying to ignore what he feels for her isn't his only problem. His two brothers may want to sell the house their dad left all three of them. His brothers abandoned him to their abusive father and now he's sure they only want to come back into his life to take the house away from him.
Neither Jemma nor Davis want to fall in love with each other again, albeit for different reasons. However, it's hard for them to fight the forceful attraction that hasn't disappeared over the years. If anything, it's grown stronger.
Jemma wasn't ready for the train to stop, but it did anyway. She grabbed her bags and joined the line of people in the aisle who were making their way out of the car and onto the platform. She'd come home for the first time in six years and hopefully the last.
The humidity weighed everything down and she felt it the moment she stepped off the train. If air could sweat, it was doing so that day. She pulled her suitcase behind her, scanning the faces of the people on the platform. She wanted to surprise Emily Rose with her return, so she'd asked Mary to pick her up from the train station. She hadn't been looking for her very long when Mary grabbed her.
Mary said, "It's so good to have you home."
She squeezed Mary's shoulders. "It's good to see you, too. It's not permanent, though," Jemma said, not wanting her to get her hopes up over something that wouldn't happen. "I'm just here for the wedding really." She'd come home to see her best friend get married. Even accounting for the other thing she had to do, she'd be out of Derring in three weeks. Tops. If possible, she was leaving earlier than that.
Mary nodded. "I know that's what you keep telling me."
On the drive home, Mary chatted away about life in Derring for the past six years. Jemma was fine with that as it didn't require her to say much. Absorbed in the sense of familiarity yet distance she felt as they passed landmarks she hadn't seen in years, she was lost in her thoughts.
Emily Rose and Jemma had found each other again over the internet. Whatever else had happened in the past six years, Emily Rose wouldn't get married without her.
"I knew you'd come home to us," Mary said as they pulled into her yard. Jemma stepped out of the car. Yellowed grass crunched under her brown flip flops.
Jemma nodded, choosing not to remind her so soon that the situation was temporary. She walked to the trunk to grab her suitcase.
"No, girl, let me carry this for you. You had that long train ride and everything? You just go on in there." Mary handed her the house key and shooed her away. She wondered what it would have been like to have Mary as a mother. She often wondered that.
Carrying only her shoulder bag and her purse, she walked up to the front door of Mary's cozy house, which was more cottage than anything. The sky blue exterior paint had started to peel, but it still seemed cheerful somehow. After unlocking the door, she breathed in the familiar scent of cinnamon. Six years and nothing important about Mary's home had changed.
She walked to the room Mary had let her use for those last few weeks before she ran away. A faint smile played on her lips as she crossed the threshold. Mary had transformed the space from her quilting room into a bedroom. There was a small white lamp on a white night stand. A beige comforter covered the bed. A white dresser and matching desk were against the wall opposite the door.
"I fixed it up for you. I knew you'd be back," Mary said from behind her.
She walked farther into the room. "Oh my goodness. Where did you find this? I don't even remember taking this picture." Jemma picked up a photo of herself, Mary, and Fred in their work uniforms.
They'd all been cashiers at the Gas and Go, a small convenience store in "town" if you could call any part of Derring County a town.
She felt a brief pain inside for that sad little girl with horrible split ends and the straight, skinny body. But she wasn't that person anymore. She'd changed. She was sure of it.
Mary said, "Oh. That. You know that's the only picture I have of you? I keep a copy in my room. On the dresser."
"Does Fred still work there?" She traced the woman's dark, weathered face in the photograph with her finger. Her full name was Alfrieda, but for some reason, everyone had always called her Fred. Mary still worked at the store. She'd told Jemma that on the drive to the house.
"Yeah. She still works the day shift."
"Emily Rose come in much? Or Wendell?" She couldn't bring herself to name the one she really wanted to ask about.
"Sometimes Emily Rose does when she's home. Wendell moved away from here. He hardly ever comes back that I know of. I think he's in D.C. now," Mary said. "Well, I better try to get some sleep. I work tonight. You know you're welcome to anything I have. That includes my car. If you go anywhere, make sure you're back around eleven so I can get to work on time."
Jemma nodded, taking the car keys. She forced a smile for Mary.
"See you tomorrow."
"Okay. And thanks. For letting me stay here."
Mary disappeared down the hall, calling over her shoulder, "You know you're always welcome here."
She'd told herself that the time she spent in South Carolina was supposed to change everything.
Being back in Derring, smelling the air and seeing all the places she'd grown up in, made her think maybe she'd lied to herself. Maybe time wasn't such a great healer after all.
She sat on the edge of the bed, pulled the slip of paper out of her purse with Emily Rose's number on it. She hadn't put the number in her phone yet. She stared at the black ink on the white scrap of paper, thinking about how long it had been since she'd seen Emily Rose, not counting photos online. And thinking of how long it'd been since they'd talked--really talked. Not just messaging each other online.
She wanted to see Emily Rose so dialing the number shouldn't have been so hard for her. Still, she had no idea what would happen when she dialed it. Six years was a long time and she'd avoided the person who was supposed to be her best friend all of that time. It was wrong, she knew that now, but she'd needed to cut Derring out of her life in order to move on. Emily Rose hadn't seemed angry when they'd talked online, but things might be different face-to-face.
But wasn't that why she'd come home? To be there for Emily Rose on her wedding day? To make things right with her? With a heavy sigh, she dialed the number.
They met at the community center. Emily Rose was there doing a walk-through since that was where the reception would be and she was her own wedding planner. Jemma was halfway across the parking lot when she heard the squealing.
All she saw at first was a swirl of blonde hair against dark blue. "Jemma!" Emily Rose squeezed her close.
"Em Rose, you look great," she said, pulling back from the hug a little. And she really did. Her blue shirt dress complemented her curvy figure.
She struck a pose and laughed. "My wedding dress is a size ten. Can you believe it? I've never owned anything in a ten. Oh my goodness. Come on, why are you still standing there? You have to meet Michael's mom. I have so much to tell you. I can't believe I'm getting married in a little over a week. I wish I had time to get you a bridesmaid dress. You should've let me know you were coming."
She grabbed Jemma's hand and headed across the parking lot.
"I wanted it to be a surprise," she said, allowing her friend to pull her into the community center.
Emily Rose introduced Jemma to Ms. Fletcher, Michael's mother. She was a tall, slender, severe-looking woman with her brown hair swept into a bun and her pale lips drawn into a line. She didn't look nearly as thrilled as Emily Rose about the wedding. Then again, she didn't look like the type to get thrilled about much at all.
"Emily, dear, why don't you and your friend catch up and we can talk later about the flowers? There's a conference call I said I'd dial into if I had time," Ms. Fletcher said.
"Sure," Emily Rose said. When she was gone, something changed in Emily Rose's face. "She's really been riding me about every choice I've made. I don't think she wanted it to be here. In Derring. I think she wanted it up in Manhattan. And sometimes, I don't think she wanted me to be the bride, either."
Before Jemma could respond, the storm cloud passed over Emily Rose's face and was gone. "Well, she's right about one thing. We have tons of catching up to do. I still can't believe you're really here." They linked arms and headed out to their cars.
Download chapter one as a pdf in its entirety here.
Denise Rich isn't interested in anything except getting her law degree and becoming a lawyer. There's a plan. A very good one. And John Archer isn't part of that plan. But he comes along anyway and blows the plan to pieces. He takes away her ability to hold everything in perfect order. Up until him, she was happy to live vicariously through her two best friends, Suse and Astoria.
At first, Denise thinks what John gives her in trade for her old life is worth the disruption of everything she's known -- a chance at real love. And it is until he takes it away. Denise is now at the end of her ability to love and believe. Her journey to get that ability back is a rocky one that involves a trip to Vegas and almost ends in disaster.
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Finally, I walked out of Wal-Mart, relieved and victorious with my crappy present for my best friend swinging at my side in a white, plastic bag. I shielded my eyes from the late afternoon sun's rays and looked around the general vicinity of the rows of cars where mine should be.
Spotting it, I walked over to my car. My whip. My ride. My...well at least it had four wheels and a motor. Yeah, with a rusted out tail pipe, a busted rear door, paint missing in large patches over the trunk, the roof more rust than paint, half a faded Dartmouth sticker left over from a previous owner, and of course my college and law school stickers, my Sentra that had been gray at some point in its life wasn't going to win any prizes at the car show. But it got me where I needed to go--most of the time. And the rest of the time, well, the auto club needed someone to keep them in business, right?
Unfortunately, that evening was not to be one of the times my car wanted to get me where I wanted to go. The traitor left me there in the Wal-Mart parking lot alternating between heated threats and cajoling murmurs in an attempt to get my engine to turn over. Stupid Dad just had to be right about replacing the battery. Well, I just hadn't had time. But sitting in that parking lot, I was wasting plenty of time trying fruitlessly to get the car to do something I knew it wasn't going to do.
Just as I was about to scream, I heard a voice that made me freeze in mid-curse. "Denise?"
I didn't want to look up because I knew I would see John Archer's face if I looked up. Sitting there in my stupid jalopy, I would see John Archer standing by the driver's side door.
"Denise, are you okay?"
Okay, maybe more embarrassing not to look up. I slowly turned my head and looked up at John Archer. John, make my palms sweat, make me smile like a moron, make me have a crush for the first time since high school Archer. He stood there in a black T-shirt and khaki shorts, his hands in his pockets.
Somehow, I managed to find part of my voice. "Hi."
"I think it's the battery."
"I have jumper cables," he said, jerking his head in the direction of his black Mercedes Kompressor. "I could give you a jump."
Damn. Why, why, why did it have to be him? "Sure. That would be great. I'd really appreciate it," I blubbered.
"No problem," he said, already walking back in the direction of his car.
I watched him walk back, thinking about the first time I'd seen him -- the first day of classes three weeks earlier.
The first thing I'd noticed about him was his teeth.
I know it's weird, but I have this thing about perfect, straight white teeth. He was laughing at some corny joke our Evidence professor had made. Dark hair cut close. Bright green eyes. The kind of guy you look at and look at yourself and say, Yeah. Like that's gonna happen. But he caught my eye -- probably because I was burning a hole in the side of his head -- as his laughter died away and smiled. I gave a half smile, unsure he was looking at me, and turned to my laptop, suddenly fascinated by my screen saver.
I hadn't been able to keep him out of my mind since.