Amazon – mybook.to/KingsRansomJaneHenry
Goodreads – http://bit.ly/2Y4dAGd
USA Today bestselling author Jane Henry delves deep into the Russian underworld, with a high-stakes, heart-rending story of betrayal, atonement, and a hard-won happily-ever-after.
He’ll make me call him daddy.
Demand my obedience.
Drive me to my knees.
I’ve been in love with Stefan Morozov for as long as I can remember.
He’s fearless. Powerful. A vicious leader of the Bratva underworld.
And he barely notices my existence.
That is, until the day I see something I shouldn’t.
The day the man I love makes me his prisoner.
The day my love turns to hate…
Please note: This dark romance features kinky, sexual scenes, including a Daddy Dom, non-consent, and strong elements of violence. If such material offends you, please do not read.
It’s been too long since we’ve encountered conflict. Too long since we’ve had a skirmish or a battle. We’ve had nothing but peace, and though I appreciate these moments of quiet, I know Bratva life well. I don’t trust the quiet.
I walk the grounds of our compound observing everything. Everyone. Who’s home for the night, who isn’t, if anything’s out of place. As pakhan, I’m father to all and ever vigilant. Trusting no one, I’m always alert for the hint of anything that might put my men, my brothers, my son in danger.
Something’s wrong. Like the quiet before a storm, the still air tonight holds the promise of uncertainty.
Amaliya called me a pessimist. She said I saw a threat in the very moving of the clouds in the sky. But Amaliya is now dead. I’m arguably more guarded than before she was killed.
There are rhythms and cadences, what others might call ups and downs, in Bratva life. It’s not so much highs and lows, but silences. Any musician will tell you that the quiet places in a composition often have the greatest impact.
So when we hit the lulls, the quiet moments, I’m more alert than ever. I hardly sleep.
For well over thirty years I’ve been Bratva. I was inducted as a full-fledged member before I graduated high school. We don’t induct teenagers into Bratva life anymore, now demanding fluency in Russian, signature ink, and jail time sentences served before we even consider new membership. We’ve upped the stakes. I’m glad we have. Teenaged boys need to earn their spurs before they dedicate themselves to the Bratva.
I’d killed a man before I’d even lost my virginity. And I swore to fucking God that wouldn’t be my son, and it wouldn’t be the boys I brought into Bratva life. And I’ve kept my word. Though I still recruit and welcome younger men into our brotherhood, I demand a high school diploma and life experience before I’ll even consider a new applicant.
Christ. I’m getting too old for this shit. At least that’s what I tell myself. I’m barely over fifty, having had Nicolai in my early twenties, but being Bratva since adolescence ages a man.
I sigh, scrub a hand across my brow, and make a mental note to have the landscaping team trim back the bushes by the main entrance. They obscure my vision.
I can’t shake this feeling I have. My instincts say shit’s about to go down, and soon. I think of calling Nicolai to check on him but stop myself when I swipe the phone on. He’s a full-grown adult with a child and a pregnant wife, and I don’t need to be waking him to check ghosts. Soon enough, he’ll be giving me hell about getting old and senile. I don’t need to start now.
So tonight, I make more than one round of our compound. I check every lock, every window. I sweep the beam of my flashlight in every corner of our interrogation room, though we haven’t used it in months. I swear that when I turn away from the ominous darkness, the screams of the men that we’ve interrogated echo behind me.
We should move this room. It’s not hidden well enough.
I even walk back to my office and scan security footage. I see nothing, and almost get up to leave, when a shadow crosses my vision. Someone’s awake, moving. I turn back to the screen. It’s one from my private home.
I squint at the image. It’s a shadow of a woman. I look more closely and breathe out a sigh of relief.
It’s only Taara. Of course.
When Taara’s mother could no longer fill the task as housekeeper and personal assistant, I hired Taara. I like keeping non-Bratva employees within the same family when possible, and Taara is the most attentive assistant one could have.
My worries forgotten momentarily, I sit back in my chair and watch her. It soothes me, and for a moment, I forget my troubles. She’s in the kitchen, wiping down the counters, but she must have some type of music playing in the background, for the girl is dancing like no-one’s watching. She knows I have cameras trained on every inch of our property, but I think she either forgets sometimes or no longer cares.
I watch in rapt fascination as she sways her hips and skips to a beat I can’t hear. And hell, it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
Born a Russian refugee, Afghani blood runs in her veins. With her exotic dark skin and thick, straight black hair she reminds me of a foreign princess. It’s easy enough to imagine her swathed in magenta, her head covered in a traditional chador.
If she were mine, I’d dress her in a burka. I’d cover every inch of her stunning beauty.
My phone rings, shaking me out of my reverie. I don’t know what the fuck is wrong with me, letting my mind wander like that. Taara is young enough to be my daughter, and she’s my employee. I heave a sigh.
It’s been way too long since I’ve had a woman warm my bed. I’ll have to do something about that before I make a decision I fucking regret.
I glance at the image of Taara one more time as I answer my phone.
Nicolai. He never calls me this late. He should be at home with his expectant wife. I scowl at the screen.
“Nicolai.” My gut instinct tells me this is the call that brings the cadence of Bratva life back into full swing. “What is it?”
“Tonight, Marissa went shopping with Laina. The plan was for them to stay at a local hotel, as we’re several hours away from home.”
I wait for the other shoe to drop.
“They were attacked in the parking lot.”
“Jesus.” I’m on my feet, willing myself to be patient, to hear the rest of the story before I act. “Are they alright?”
“Yes. They had three men on them, and what their assailant didn’t realize was that I was one of them.”
Of course. He’s training one of our youngest new recruits. I wait to hear more details.
“I insisted we take the man back to our compound. I’ve got him in the car with me now, and I’ll take him to the interrogation room, but I don’t need a fucking interrogation room for me to tell you who he is.”
His voice is hard, the tone he gets before he’s about to make a ruthless, irrevocable decision. I hear a muffled voice in the background, a hard thump, then silence.
“You know who he is then.”
I watch Taara spin and swirl on the screen in front of me in rhythmic circles. So pretty. So innocent. In such contrast to the violent world outside her door.
“I do. He’s one of the fucking traitors that worked with Myron.”
“Christ.” Myron, Marissa’s father, would have been Nicolai’s father-in-law. Several years back, he sold his daughter into slavery to pay off a debt. Nicolai systematically tracked down every fucking traitor who worked with Myron and eliminated them so none would pose a possible threat to his wife. Or so he thought.
“I was under the impression you got all of them.”
“So did I. I wouldn’t have settled until I did. But he’s said enough that it’s obvious. He’s said way too much.”
“Are Marissa and Laina taken care of?”
“Yeah. I secured Marissa and Laina. Now I’m heading home with this motherfucker.”
Home. That’s here.
I swallow hard. I don’t want another man’s blood on my son’s hand. Not again. “I’ll be waiting. I’ll deal with him for you.”
Taara puts the broom away, then comes back to the kitchen with a rag, wiping down the counters and appliances. I didn’t know she did this at night, but it makes sense. She keeps my home impeccable.
I don’t like having this conversation with Nicolai while Taara is right there. Though she can’t hear me, and isn’t privy to our conversation, it feels wrong. I want to keep her safe, and well insulated against any threat that could harm her.
“No. I know why you’re offering, but I can’t allow it. If I’m to take over as pakhan, you need to allow me to do this.” He takes in a deep breath, and I feel a sense of pride rise in me at my son’s words, despite my desire to keep his hands clean of this. “And anyway, this is my battle to fight.”
When the time comes, he’ll be ready to assume the role of pakhan.
I nod even though he can’t see me. “Where are you?”
“On the road, and I’ll be home in a few hours, but once I arrive, I’d like you to give me time with him before you join me.”
I automatically nod again. He wants to be sure no one else is implicated before he kills him.
Neither of us will sleep tonight.
“Let me know.”
I hang up the phone, staring unseeingly at the dancing girl on the monitor. I don’t want her to suspect anything’s awry. I’ll go back to my home and spend the next hour doing what I normally do, my evening ritual. I’ll let her think I’ve gone to bed.
Then I’ll join my son and witness the execution.
About the author
USA Today bestselling author Jane Henry pens stern but loving alpha heroes, feisty heroines, and emotion-driven happily-ever-afters. She writes what she loves to read: kink with a tender touch. Jane is a hopeless romantic who lives on the East Coast with a houseful of children and her very own Prince Charming.
Connect with Jane at http://janehenryromance.com
In the Unlikely Event, an all-new
“messy, sexy, laugh-out-loud, cry-out-loud romance” from USA Today bestselling author L.J. Shen, is coming November 19th and we have a sneak peek of chapter one!
A one-night stand born from vengeance in a foreign land.
An explosive chemistry neither of us could deny.
We signed a contract on the back of a Boar’s Head Pub napkin that said if we ever met again, we would drop everything and be together.
Eight years and thousands of miles later, he’s here.
In New York.
And he’s America’s music obsession.
The intangible Irish poet who brings record executives to their knees.
The blizzard in my perfect, unshaken snow globe.
Last time we spoke, he was a beggar with no intention of becoming a king.
But a king he became, and now I’m his servant.
I’m not the same broken princess Malachy Doherty put back together with his callused hands.
I have a career I love.
A boyfriend I adore.
An apartment, a roommate, a life.
I changed. He changed, too.
But Mal kept the napkin.
Question is, will I keep my word?
Add to GoodReads: http://bit.ly/2lSW5tE
Be notified FIRST when In the Unlikely Event goes live: http://bit.ly/36MnmAQ
Sneak Peek from In the Unlikely Event:
My life is contained in a round, beautiful snow globe.
The kind no one has bothered to pick up from the dusty shelf in years. Unshaken. Quiet and still. From the outside, my manicured Swiss village looks perfect. And it is. Kind of. At twenty-six, it appears I have my life together.
Well, they’re not lies, per se. All my accomplishments are real. I worked hard for them. Problem is, I promised eight years ago to give them all away in the blink of an eye if I bumped into him again. But back then, I wasn’t the same person I am today.
I was lost. Grieving. Broken. Confused.
Not that it matters, because that was then, and this is now, and it’s not him I’m staring at. Nope. There’s no way.
WANT MORE? Click here: http://bit.ly/2qGn6Tc
First the burning. Then the blood seeping through my fingers. Always the sound of Paolo croaking my name over the crack of more gunfire.
It’s the horror of loss ringing in his voice that makes my heart pound. Not the pain. Not my own fear of death. I don’t think about my demise in the moment. I didn’t when it actually went down, and I don’t in the nightmares that plague me every night.
And always the girl.
She’s in every nightly replay. Sometimes she gets shot, too. Those are the worst. My inability to rescue her, to protect her from damage makes me want to die right there. Other times she runs to me, after I’ve been shot. She wraps her arms around me and we both fall down.
Always her wide blue-green eyes lock onto mine the moment the first gun fires. I watch the terror fill them as the bullet tears through my middle.
That’s the moment that keeps her in my dreams. In that split second, in the window where I’m sure I’m going to die, hers is the face I see. My fears are for her safety, and my anguish over being shot is that I can’t protect her.
In her gaze, I swear I see it all mirrored back at me. She, too, thinks I’m going to die, and her anguish is in not warning me in time.
Because she tried. I remember every millisecond of that part. The five breaths before I got shot. I remember the way she tried to signal with her eyes. The way she refused to leave and get to safety, even though she had to know her cafe was about to explode in glass and wood and bullets and blood.
She’s like an angel in the dreams—her pale face the beacon I use to understand my own death.
Only I don’t die.
I didn’t die.
And you’d think that would make everything crystal clear. The whole near-death experience thing. It’s supposed to make you realize what you regret. What you desire. And then you get a second chance to make good on life.
Instead, I’m trapped in a nightmare-induced fog. Trying to untangle the meaning while I go through the motions of living.
The Caffè Milano girl doesn’t have the answers—I don’t know why or how my subconscious assigned so much meaning to her. She was just caught in the middle of a bad scene between the Russian bratva and our outfit.
And yet I can’t get her out of my mind.
The angel of my death.
Marissa. An innocent girl I have no business sullying.
A girl who already saw too much.
Some things you can’t forget. You can’t unsee. Can’t unhear.
Blood all over these floors. The sound of gunshots. The way my heart stopped when Junior Tacone pointed that gun at me, deciding whether to let me live or die.
I hate this time of day when the customers thin out, business gets slow, and I only have time to remember.
It’s been six months since the battle between the Russian and Sicilian mafia went down in Caffè Milano, and I’m still jumpy as hell. Still examining every customer who comes in, praying he’s not Russian mafia come for revenge. Or to shake me down for information on how to find the Tacones.
But they haven’t come. No one ever came except the Tacones with their window repair guys and a large enough amount of money to upgrade our whole kitchen. Which was good because our walk-in cooler was inches away from dying and this place hasn’t had a remodel since my grandparents opened it in the 1960s.
I pull a bowl of pasta salad from the deli case to put in the walk-in overnight. When I come back, I freeze, a gasp hitting the back of my throat.
At first, I think it’s Junior Tacone standing at my deli counter.
The guy who went gangster on my place and gunned down six guys. The one who is supposedly the protector of this neighborhood.
It’s not Junior, though. It’s his brother, Gio Tacone, the one who took a bullet out on the sidewalk. The man I thought was dead.
“Mr. Tacone!” I curse myself for sounding breathless.
“Gio,” he corrects. “Marissa, how are you?”
He knows my name!
That’s more than I can say for Junior, the current head of the family. And I wish it didn’t do fluttery things to my insides, but it does. Gio rests a forearm on the counter and pins me with a dark-lashed hazel gaze.
He is pure man-candy. With those chiseled good looks, he could easily have been an actor or model, and he has the charm to match.
“You’re alive,” I blurt. I hadn’t heard that he survived. I checked the newspapers and Googled his name after the shooting, and there weren’t any reports of his death, but I saw him take a bullet with my own eyes. “I mean, you made it. I’m so glad.” Then I blush, because, yeah. I’m probably not supposed to talk about what happened, even though it’s just the two of us here.
Gio catches my wrist, stilling my hand. His thumb strokes over my pulse as my fingers tremble in the space between us. “Why are you shaking, doll? You scared of me?”
Scared of him? Yes. Definitely. But also excited. He’s the one Tacone brother I look forward to seeing. Always have, even when I was just ten years old, wiping tables down while the mafia men met.
“No!” I pull my hand away. “I’m just jumpy. You know—since… what happened. And you startled me.”
His gaze penetrates, like he knows there’s more to it than that, and he wants to know it all. A curious shifting happens in my chest.
I tuck an errant strand of hair behind my ear to cover my mounting discomfort.
“You have nightmares?” he guesses, like he’s read my mind.
I give a single nod. Then it occurs to me how he knows. “Do you?”
I don’t expect him to confess it if he does. I come from an Italian family. I know the men don’t admit weakness.
So, I’m surprised when he says, “All the fucking time.” He touches the place where the bullet must’ve gone in.
The corners of his lips quirk into a devastating grin. The man really should have gone into show business. “What? You think real men don’t have nightmares?”
“Maybe not the men in your line of work.”
The smile fades and he arches a brow. Oops. I crossed some line. I guess you don’t mention a mobster’s line of work.
I ignore the increased thumping of my heart. “Sorry. Is that something we don’t talk about?”
He makes me sweat for two beats then gives a half-shrug, like he decided to let it go. “I didn’t come here to ride your ass; I came to check on you. Make sure you’re okay.” He blinks those dark curly lashes that would be feminine except for the manly square jaw and aquiline nose. “Sounds like you’re having a hard time.”
The danger bell starts tolling in my head.
Never accept a favor from the Tacones. You’ll pay for it for the rest of your life.
That’s what my grandfather used to always lament. He borrowed from Arturo Tacone to start his business, and it took him forty years to pay off. But pay it off he did, and he was damn proud of it, too.
“I’m fine. We’re fine.” I straighten and lift my chin. “But we’d appreciate it if you’d hold your business meetings somewhere else in the future.” I don’t know what makes me say it. You don’t piss off a mob boss by insulting him or making demands. I definitely could’ve found a nicer way to make my request.
Again, he considers me for a moment before answering. My palms get clammy but I keep my head high and meet his gaze.
“Agreed,” he concedes. “We didn’t expect trouble. Junior regretted what happened to this place.”
“Junior pointed a gun at my head.” The words tumble out and crash between us. Too late to take them back.
“Junior would never hurt you.” He says it so immediately I know he believes it’s true. But he didn’t see what I saw. That moment of hesitation. The murmuring of his man beside him that I’m a witness.
He thought about killing me.
And then decided not to.
Gio catches my hand again and holds it, stroking the back of it this time. His fingers are large and powerful, making mine appear small and delicate in comparison. “That’s why you’re jumpy, huh? I’m sorry you got scared, but I promise you, you’re safe. This place is under our protection.”
I swallow, trying to ignore how pleasant his touch is. How nice it is to be soothed by this beautiful, dangerous man. I summon more bluster. “Maybe it would be better if it wasn’t.” My voice doesn’t come out steady. There’s a wobble to it that betrays my nerves. I clear my throat. “You know, if you just left us alone.”
I hold my breath, tensing for his reaction.
If I didn’t know better, I would say my words hurt Gio rather than pissed him off. But he just shrugs. “Sorry, doll. You can’t get rid of us. And you’re on my watch now. Which means you’re perfectly safe.”
I want to tell him I’m not his doll and he can take his protection and fuck off, but I’m not insane. Also, some traitorous part of me wants him to keep stroking my hand, keep studying me like I’m the most interesting person he’s seen all day.
But I know all that’s a lie.
Gio’s a player. And my body’s response to his presence is dangerous.
Gio abandons my hand in favor of cupping my chin. “You’re mad. I get it. I’ll let you show me a little claw today. But we paid restitution to your family and will honor our commitments to this neighborhood and to Caffè Milano.”
His touch is commanding and firm, but still gentle. It makes the flutters in my belly grow more wild.
“Gio,” I murmur, turning my face away from him and out of his hand. My nipples are hard, rubbing against the inside of my bra.
He pulls a hundred dollar bill out of his pocket and drops in on the counter. “Give me two of those cannoli.” He points to the case.
I obey wordlessly and tuck the hundred in my apron pocket, not bothering to offer him change. I figure if he used a hundred, it was because he wanted to throw his money around, and I’m going to let him do it.
He smirks a little as he takes the plate with the cannoli and sits down at a table in the cafe to eat them.
Fuck. I am so screwed.
Gio Tacone just decided to make me his pet project. Which means the chances of him ending up owning me just shot sky high.
I can’t believe I just told the Milano girl I have nightmares.
It’s not something I’ve said aloud before. Who the fuck would I tell, anyway? Junior would tell me to man up and get over it. Paolo would probably punch me where the bullet went in and then say, “See? You’re fine.”
And my ma? She doesn’t even know I got shot. We keep the women out of our shit show.
But no, I haven’t been the same since. And it’s not that I didn’t heal—although even that was touch and go for a while there. But I can’t stop thinking about dying now.
Everywhere I look, I see people who could die today without being prepared. A guy crosses the street without looking and boom! He gets hit by a cab. Or some poor sot has an aneurism and croaks while out getting the mail.
No chance to say goodbye. To wrap up loose ends.
That could’ve been me.
And everywhere I go, I also see potential shooters. I’m looking over my shoulder for the bratva assholes, even though I know the saga’s over. They kidnapped my sister, but she married the bastard, and we’ve made an easy truce.
That doesn’t stop me from thinking every hand in a pocket is reaching for a gun. Seeing shadows jump off the walls at me.
I came here today to check on the girl. That part was true. But I also wanted to come back to the place. Face my demons. Make sure I didn’t break out in a cold sweat when I was outside the door where I got shot. Didn’t act like a fucking pussy just because I took a piece of lead for my family.
Good news: I didn’t.
Bad news: I’m not sure what I’m living for.
I mean, I have this second chance.
I didn’t die. I’m a dead man walking. So why does my life suddenly feel so fucking empty?
I sit and watch Marissa bustle around, closing the place up. She’s young—whole life ahead of her. She’s still living for something.
Rather fervently, too.
I suddenly want to know what it is. I want to know all her deep, hidden secrets. Her desires. She darts a few looks at me. I make her nervous. A little self-conscious. But I also make her blush, which makes my dick twitch.
She’s beautiful but hasn’t figured it out yet. Or downplays it because she doesn’t want the attention from men. She’s young, smart, and extremely capable. She can’t be over twenty-five, and she’s been running this place for several years. I seem to recall her grandmother bragging that she went to culinary school.
Lotta good it did her. She’s still stuck in her family business, doing the thing that’s expected of her.
Just like me.
I get up and leave my plate on the table for her to pick up. If she’d been nicer, I would’ve brought it up to the counter, especially considering she’s trying to close the place, and I’m the asshole still here. But she kept my hundred and played bitch.
So, she can pick up after me.
I stroll to the door, forgetting my swagger for a moment when the scene on the sidewalk replays for me. The smell of my own blood fills my nostrils. I see the face of Ivan, the bratva asshole who set us up. The murder in Junior’s eyes when he pulled his gun. I hear Paolo’s panic when he catches me.
A touch on my arm brings me back. I look down into wide sea-blue eyes.
Just like in the nightmares, only this time her face is soft.
She doesn’t say anything for a moment. There’s compassion in her gaze. She understands me. “I tried to warn you.” Tears pop into her eyes. I wonder if her nightmares are like mine only the other way. Does she see me getting shot over and over again, night after night?
I loop an arm around her waist and pull her in for an embrace. “I know you did.”
Fuck, she’s enchanting.
“Thank you, Marissa.” I will her to receive my sincerity.
She hesitates, then brings her arms up around my neck, like one of the dreams. She smells like coffee and sweet cream. I want to lick her skin to see if she tastes as good as she smells.
“I’m glad you made it, Gio. I thought you were dead.” Her voice is low and husky. I’ve been telling myself she’s too young for me, and she is, but everything about her registers as a woman who knows what she’s about.
“Yeah. Me, too, doll.” I drop a kiss on the top of her head and try to ignore the softness of her breasts pressed up against my ribs.
How much I want to kiss her—which isn’t like me at all. I’m more into fuck ‘em hard and smack their asses when they walk out the door.
Kissing isn’t really my gig.
But she saw my death. My near death. The moment that changed everything. She was part of it. So, I’m imagining some kind of connection.
But that’s stupid.
I shouldn’t go assigning meaning to things just to try to understand them.
I got shot.
Time to start living again.
“Watch out, Henry’s on a rampage,” I warn my fellow line chef, Lilah, as I stir the marinara sauce. The temperamental chef’s been ripping everyone a new one right and left.
She rolls her caramel-colored eyes. “When is he not?”
“Well, I guess if I were head chef, I might be a temperamental bitch, too,” I murmur in an undertone as I pull two stuffed chicken breasts from the oven and plate them. “At least we know what to expect. But you know what I really can’t handle anymore?”
Lilah chops asparagus on the diagonal making them all the same exact length. “Arnie?” she whispers back.
“Yeah.” Arnie, the figlio di puttana sous chef is a leering, groping dickwad who somehow thinks all the women in the kitchen are dying to suck him off. “He patted my ass in the walk-in tonight. Patted. It was gross on top of inappropriate.”
“Yeah, if you’re going to grab-ass, at least make it firm, right?” Lilah grins, dimples creasing her chocolate-brown skin.
I snort. Lilah always makes me laugh. She’s the only other young person who works in the kitchen. She started here as a dishwasher when she was sixteen and worked her way up over the last five years. She is definitely one of my favorite people at Michelangelo’s.
“Right? It’s like creepy molestation versus outright sexual harassment. I don’t know—all I know is how violated I feel right now.”
“What did you do when it happened?”
“I told him to keep his hands off my ass.”
“And let me guess, he laughed like you said something cute.”
“You should tell Henry.”
“Right. Because that will end well. Henry’s the one who doesn’t seem to think women can do this job. Arnie hired me. I feel like his solution would be to tell me to quit.”
I plate a steak and spoon some of peppercorn demi-glace over the top.
“Dude, it’s illegal. Michelangelo’s could have a lawsuit on its hands if we report it and they don’t do anything.”
“Yeah…” And my bosses would also know neither of us have the money to sue. “Maybe I’ll just keep a fork in my pocket and next time he comes near me, I’ll shove it in his thigh.”
Lilah smothers a laugh. “That’ll teach him.”
Arnie bustles by and she picks up a fork and looks over at him meaningfully.
I duck my head to hide my laugh.
Sadly, I don’t get a chance to make use of a fork the rest of the night. By the time we finish cleaning and putting everything away, my feet are killing me and I’m about ready to drop dead, but I’m happy.
I love this job, even with all the bullshit. I like joking with Lilah; I like the excitement of putting plate after plate out with the pressure of perfection. I like working with expensive, gourmet ingredients, making the works of art that Henry dreamed up. I’m always on an adrenaline rush that keeps me going long after closing.
I almost wish the shooting had put Caffè Milano out of business so this was my only job. Maybe it’s snobby of me, but I feel like creating fine cuisine in a top-rated restaurant is where I really belong.
But that’s selfish. My grandparents raised me and I owe them everything. Caffè Milano is their entire world and they’re getting old. My aunt and I are the ones who keep the place going. Even with Aunt Lori working there full-time, I have to fill in more and more the older my grandparents get. Which means until they die, or until my little cousin Mia is old enough to help—providing she can with her hip situation, it has to be my entire world, too.
I don’t expect to find anyone up at my grandparents’ when I get home, but all the lights are on.
“Hey, guys,” I say when I push the door open.
Both my grandparents and Aunt Lori are awake, sitting around the dining room table, looking like someone just died. My aunt’s eyes are red-rimmed and my nonna’s mouth is pinched into a tight line, defeat written all over her crumpled face.
“What’s going on?” I ask when they just look at me. “What happened?”
“This hospital called this afternoon.” My aunt sniffs. “Since we don’t have insurance, they refused the surgery for Mia. They said the only way they’re going to go through with it as scheduled is if we show up by close of business tomorrow with a check for thirty thousand dollars.”
“What?” Thirty thousand dollars. That’s the going rate for a hip surgery these days. Insane. “Well, that’s bullsh… crap.”
Aunt Lori tears up again. Her daughter, my eight-year-old cousin, fell on the playground a few months ago and somehow fractured her hip. They did surgery at the time, but the poor kid is still in constant pain and her new surgeon says the screws have come out and are poking her and the whole joint needs to be reconstructed. Again. It’s freaking tragic for an eight-year-old to have to go through this shit.
“I know. And I just don’t even know what I’m going to tell Mia. We’ve been trying to get her out of pain for so long.”
Now I tear up. It’s not right for a kid to be in constant pain. To not be able to play with her friends, or even walk around her school. All because our health care system in this country is so broken.
Working at Caffè Milano, my aunt and I both make too much to qualify for Medicaid but we can’t afford health insurance. At least my grandparents can get Medicare.
I sink into a chair and kick off my shoes. “We’ll figure this out,” I promise.
I don’t know how or when I became the person this family looks to for answers, but at some point, I did. My mom abandoned me as a kid, so this is my nuclear family: my elderly grandparents, my aunt—who, like my mom, got pregnant young and out of wedlock—her daughter Mia and me. We stick together and look after one another. We’re family, and we figure things out.
“How?” Aunt Lori wails. “How are we going to come up with thirty thousand dollars by tomorrow?”
Sometimes it just takes the right phrasing of a question to discover the answer.
It suddenly becomes clear as day. Inevitable, even.
The Tacones have cash. Stacks of it. All there for the asking.
All I have to do is sell my soul.
I don’t say anything in front of my grandparents because I know it would kill them.
“Tomorrow I’ll see if I can get a loan. I’m sure the bank will give us something with the cafe as collateral.”
Aunt Lori’s too distraught to notice my lie. Too desperate to grasp on to any answer. “You think so?”
“Definitely. I’ll get it figured out tomorrow. I promise.”
Mia needs help. Time to put on my big girl panties and do what has to be done.
I wake to the sound of my own shout, the, No! echoing off my bedroom walls, Marissa’s horror-stricken face burnt into my retinas, those bluish green-colored eyes bright with tears.
I throw the sheet off my sweat-drenched body and get up, my side pulling with a dull ache. The scar tissue is getting stiffer every day.
Desiree—Junior’s bride, the nurse who saved my life— says I need to get the fascia worked out. She wants me to see a physical therapist or some other shit, but that bullet hole is evidence to the crime Junior committed, killing those bratva bastards who shot me. So yeah, not happening. I stick to my morning run and lifting weights in my home gym.
I stand shirtless in the window of my apartment and look out at Lake Michigan. Sailboats cut through the water, picturesque as a fucking painting. Maybe I should learn to sail.
The thought falls like a brick, like all thoughts for my life. For my future.
I’m living the goddamn dream here. Penthouse apartment right on Lake Shore Drive, lavish furnishings, the black Mercedes G-wagon in the garage.
I was already pimping it before got a second chance at life. So why am I the least grateful fuck in Chicago? I should be waking up every day thanking my lucky stars for all I have to live for.
Except that’s just it.
There’s nothing to live for.
Not even the glory of business anymore.
I’m not saying I miss it. The violence, the danger. The intrigue. But there was a certain adrenaline rush that came with every interaction. The thrill of taking care of business. Watching money multiply. Loaning it. Collecting it.
Junior shut down a lot of the business after I got shot. Although that may be more about becoming a husband and daddy again than about almost losing me. Not that I think he didn’t suffer over what happened. I know he did. Does.
His job was always to protect me, from the time I was born. And he has. Even when that meant shielding me from the judgment of our own father. He and Paolo were the badasses, and I was the finesse. I did the smooth talking when it was needed. Played good cop, not that we ever played cops.
I wander into the living room, still in my boxer briefs and sit down at the baby grand in the corner. My fingers move over the keys automatically, the muscle memory there without thought. I still have my music. Too bad it’s not enough.
My phone rings beside me, and I stop playing and pick it up. It’s the phone number I use for women, only I haven’t been with a woman since the accident.
Marissa. I gave her the number before I left the other day.
Never expected her to use it.
I pick up. “This is Gio.”
“Gio, hi. It’s Marissa. From Caffè Milano?” She sounds nervous.
“Everything okay, doll?”
“Um, yeah. Well, I need to talk to you. Can I meet you somewhere? Not at the cafe.”
I don’t know what I hoped. That she had the nerve to ask me out. Or was calling to tell me again that she’s glad I’m alive.
That she knows I dream about her every night.
Of course not. There’s only one reason I get a call like this.
And I fucking hate the way it makes me feel.
“Sure, Marissa. Why don’t you come to my home office?” My dick gets hard as I give her the address to my apartment, even though I know that’s not how things are going to go down.
Just the idea of having her here gets me chubby, though.
I hang up and give my cock a rough squeeze. Down, boy. This is business, not pleasure.
Too fucking bad.
I scowl at the computer screen in front of me. As pakhan, the weight of everything falls onto my shoulders, and today is one day when I wish I could shrug it off.
A knock comes at my office door.
“Who is it?” I snap. I don’t want to see or hear anything right now. I’m pissed off, and I haven’t had time to compose myself. As the leader of the Boston Bratva, it’s imperative that I maintain composure.
Nicolai can withstand my anger and rage. Over the past few months, he’s become my most trusted advisor. My friend.
The door swings open and Nicolai enters, bowing his head politely to greet me.
I nod. “Welcome. Have a seat.”
When I first met Nicolai, he wore the face of a much older man. Troubled and anguished, he was in the throes of fighting for his woman. The woman who now bears his name and his baby. But I’ve watched the worry lines around his eyes diminish, his smile become more ready. While every bit as fierce and determined to dutifully fill his role as ever, he’s grown softer because of Marissa, more devoted to her.
“You look thrilled,” he says, quirking a brow at me. Unlike my other men, who often quake in my presence, having been taught by my father before me that men in authority are to be feared and obeyed, Nicolai is more relaxed. He’s earned the title of brother more readily than even my most trusted allies.
“Fucking pissed,” I tell him, pushing up from my desk and heading to the sideboard. I pour myself a shot of vodka. It’s eleven o’clock in the fucking morning, but it doesn’t matter. I’ve been up all night. “Drink?”
He nods silently and takes the proffered shot glass. We raise our drinks and toss them back together. I take in a deep breath and place the glass back on the sideboard before I go back to my desk.
“Want to tell Uncle Nicolai your troubles?” he asks, his eyes twinkling.
I roll my eyes at him.
I made an unconventional decision when I inducted Nicolai into our brotherhood. The son of another pakhan, Nicolai came here under an alias, but I knew he had the integrity of a brother I wanted in my order. I offered him dual enrollment in both groups, under both the authority of his father and me, and he readily agreed. We’ve come to be good friends, and I would trust the man with my life.
“Uncle Nicolai,” I snort, shaking my head. None of my other brothers take liberties like Nicolai does, but none are as trustworthy and loyal as him, so he gets away with giving me shit unlike anyone else. “It’s fucking Aren Koslov.”
Nicolai grimaces. “Fucking Aren Koslov,” he mutters in commiseration. “What’d the bastard do now?” He shakes his head. “Give me one good reason to beat his ass and I’ll take the next red-eye to San Diego.”
He would, too. Nicolai inspires fear in our enemies and respect in our contemporaries. Aren falls into both categories.
“Owed me a fucking mint a month ago, and hasn’t paid up,” I tell him. I spin my monitor around to show him the number in red. “And you don’t need me to tell you we need that money.” As my most trusted advisor, Nicolai knows we’re right on the cusp of securing the next alliance with the Spanish drug cartel. Our location in Boston, near the wharf and airport, puts us in the perfect position to manage imports, but the buy-in is fucking huge. We have the upfront money, but the payout from San Diego would put us in a moderately better financial position.
Nicolai leans back in his chair, rubbing his hand across his jawline.
“And you have meeting after meeting coming up with politicians, leaders, and the like.”
I eye him warily. Where’s he going with this?
“It’s easy to say you need money. But that isn’t what you need, brother.”
I roll my eyes. “I suppose you’re going to tell me what I need.”
“You know what you need more than the money?” he asks. I’m growing impatient. He needs to come out with it already.
I give him a look that says spill.
“You need a wife,” he says.
I roll my eyes and shake my head. “Sometimes I think your father dropped you on your head as a child,” I tell him. What bullshit. I look back at the computer screen, but Nicolai presses on.
“Tomas, listen to me,” he says, insistent. “Money comes and goes, and you know that. Tomorrow you could seal a deal with the arms trade you’ve been working, and you know our investments have been paying off in spades. But a good wife is beyond measure, and Aren has a sister.”
“You’ve been married, for what, two fucking days and you’re giving me this shit?” I reply, but my mind is already spinning with what he’s saying. I never dismiss Nicolai’s suggestions without really weighing my options. Aren is one of the youngest brigadiers in America and has a reputation that precedes him everywhere he goes. He commands men under him, and I’m grateful he hasn’t risen higher in power.
He grunts at me and narrows his eyes. “I’ve loved Marissa for a lot longer than we’ve had rings on our fingers.”
“I know it, brother,” I tell him. “Just giving you shit. Go on.”
“Aren’s sister is single, lives with him on their compound. Young. I don’t know much about her, and haven’t seen a recent picture, but I met her years ago when I first came to America. And she was a beauty then. I imagine she’s only grown more beautiful.”
Seconds ago, this idea seemed preposterous, but now that I’m beginning to think about it, I’m warming to the idea.
“You think he’d let her go to pay off his debt?”
“With enough persuasion? Hell yeah. And a good leader needs a wife. You’ve seen it yourself. There’s something to be said for having a woman to come home to. The most powerful men in the brotherhood are all married.”
He’s right. Just last week, I met with Demyan from Moscow and his wife Larissa. He brings her everywhere with him. The two are inseparable. And he’s risen to be one of the most powerful men the Bratva has ever known.
“And face it, Tomas. You’re not exactly in the position to meet a pretty girl at church.”
I huff out a laugh. The men of the Bratva rarely obtain women by traditional means.
I lift my phone and dial Lev.
“Get me a picture of Aren Kosolov’s sister,” I tell him. Our resident hacker and computer genius, Lev works quickly and efficiently.
“Give me five minutes,” he says.
I hang up the phone and turn to Nicolai. “I want to see her first,” I tell him.
He fills me in about home, his voice growing softer as he talks about Marissa, but I’m only half-listening to him. I’m thinking about the way a woman changes a man, and how he’s changed because of her.
Do I need a wife?
The better question is, do I want Aren Kosolov’s sister to be the one?
My phone buzzes, and Nicolai gestures for me to answer it. A text from Lev with a grainy picture pops up on the screen, followed by a text.
There are no recent pictures. This was from a few years ago, but it should give you a good idea.
Still, it’s a full profile picture. I murmur appreciatively. Wavy, unruly chestnut hair pulled back at the nape of her neck, with fetching tendrils curling around her forehead. Haunting hazel colored eyes below dark brows. High cheekbones, her skin flushed pink, and full, pink lips. She’s thin and graceful, though if I’m honest, a little too thin for me. The women I bed tend to be sturdier and curvy, able to withstand the way I like to fuck.
I don’t want to have this conversation via text. I call him and he answers right away.
“Background?” I ask.
“Never went to college. Under her brother’s watchful eye since her father died.”
“Lovely,” I mutter. He might not give her up easily.
“Temperament?” I ask, aware that I sound like I’m asking about adopting a puppy, but it fucking matters.
“Not sure, but she has no record on file at school or legally. Perfect record. Graduated top of her class in high school.” He snorts. “Volunteers in a soup kitchen in San Diego and attends the Orthodox Church on the weekend.”
Ah. A good girl. Points in her favor. Sometimes the good girls fall hard, and sometimes they’re tougher to break, but they intrigue me.
“Caroline?” I repeat. “That isn’t a Russian name.”
“Her mother was American.”
I nod thoughtfully. Caroline Koslov.
She would take my name.
I drum my fingers on my desk, contemplating. I nod to Nicolai when I instruct Lev. “Get Aren on the phone.”
Love changes people.
I’m the first to admit that I, Keaton Bridges, used to be an immature, entitled ass.
Okay, maybe I’m the second to admit it—after Roxy Carter.
But I’ve seen what true love has done for my friends, and I want it for myself.
Somehow, I’m the only single guy left.
Somehow, she’s the only single girl.
The only time Foxy Roxy hasn’t been a loudmouth?
That time we were making out at our best friends’ wedding.
And every time we’ve seen each other in the five years since then,
because she refuses to talk about it.
Well, she’s going to have to talk to me now.
It’s the dead of winter, and our six best friends were planning a getaway
at a Caribbean couples-only resort.
One of the couples had to drop out, and I refuse to be left out in the cold.
All Roxy and I have to do is pretend to be in love for one week so we can
spend some much-needed time with our favorite people.
And all I have to do is pretend I’m not dying to kiss her again.
I feel like I’m getting ready to go to summer camp to see my friends, except instead of sharing a cabin in the woods with a bunch of farting adolescent boys, I’ll be in a cottage on an island in the West Indies with a blazing hot woman who despises me. And instead of saying good-bye to my parents (one of whom might actually miss me), I’m saying good-bye to a dog whom I know for a fact will not miss me.
I know this because I’m trying to say a heartfelt good-bye to him before going to the office for a meeting, but he’s way too busy saying “hi” to the owners of the dog hotel to notice.
“Okay, bye, buddy.” I rub his back, and he barks happily at the nice lady who’s now holding his leash. I tell her I’ll check in with them tonight, I ask her to send pics and videos, I say good-bye to Jackpot one more time just in case he didn’t hear me the first couple of times, and then leave before I really embarrass myself.
Manny is double-parked outside, and just as I’m getting into the car, I get a call from Chase.
“Hey. Shouldn’t you be on a plane right now?”
“We’ll be boarding soon. Just calling to remind you that if you fuck around with my wife’s best friend, I will castrate you.”
“That is so sweet of you to remind me. Define fucking around.” I signal to Manny that he can drive.
“Any kind of penetration of any part of her body with any of your body parts. Including the metaphorical penetration of her heart.”
“I can’t help it if people fall madly in love with me when I’m not even trying to be charming. Define castration.”
“The slow and painful removal of your testicles.”
“You’re so literal. Does Aimee know you’re making this call?”
“I mean it. I’ve seen the way you check her out.”
“How does Aimee feel about it? Because I bet she’d be thrilled if we got together.”
“In what world are you and Roxy going to get together? I’m saying don’t hook up with her, don’t be a dick to her, don’t be too nice to her, don’t forget that you’re just pretending to be her boyfriend for the sake of the hotel staff and the other guests, and you are in no way obligated or allowed to pretend to be her anything when you’re in the room alone together.”
“I’m not ‘allowed?’ Put Aimee on.”
“Trust me, if you fuck with Roxy, you will be begging me to protect you from Aimee.”
“Did it ever occur to you that Roxy might want me to penetrate one or more of her parts?”
He’s quiet for a moment, and I know he’s squeezing his phone, and I think I can hear the steam shooting out of his ears.
“I’m just messing with you, asshole. I have no intention of fucking with Roxy. We’re oil and water.” As soon as I say the words “oil and water,” I picture myself in the shower with a tanned, naked, oiled-up Roxy Carter—but that doesn’t mean I’m going to fuck with her. That means I’m a straight human male. “So don’t even worry about it. We’re both just going because we want to hang out with you guys. Although right now I’m trying to remember why I’ve missed hanging out with you so much.”
“Yeah, it’ll be fun. I’m glad you’re going. I just had to say it so we’re clear. We’ll see you there. Safe flight.”
“You too. See you there.”
Chase “Straight No Chaser” McKay. That guy. We used to work together. Well, I guess, technically I worked for him when I was the CFO at his legal tech startup, but I was his first investor and I was on the board, so we were pretty equally weighted in terms of power as far as I was concerned. We have long since sold SnapLegal for ten times my initial investment, and he started a thriving business with his wife and I became a full-time venture capitalist. So he’s not the boss of me. At all. But I’ve always liked that he’d give it to me straight, ever since college. It’s why he’s my best friend. I just like it less when we’re discussing my personal life, and I like it very little right now. But he’s not wrong. And I have no intention of fucking with Roxy.
I don’t even have to wonder if anyone’s giving her the same warning.
By the time I get to my office and my assistant has handed me the notes for my meeting, I pull out my personal phone and see a few messages on the lock screen from my Friends group. They’re probably all at the airport now, except for Roxy and me. Vince, Nina, and Joni are going to Indiana. Aimee, Chase, Bernie, and Matt are all flying out to Antigua together. I couldn’t get Roxy and me onto the same flight as our friends because I couldn’t justify rescheduling my morning meeting. Yet another reason for Roxy to be mad at me.
AIMEE MCKAY: I would just like to officially announce in text form how happy I am that Roxy and Keaton are finally a couple! <heart eyes emoji>
BERNIE FARMER: #ROXTON4EVA
ROXY CARTER: <raised middle finger emoji>
NINA DEVLIN: Roxy and Keaton sittin’ in a palm tree…
VINCE DEVLIN: F-A-K-I-I-N-G. Yes I know I spelled it wrong.
CHASE MCKAY: Congrats and keep your hands to yourself, KB
ME: What, these hands? <two raised middle finger emojis>
AIMEE MCKAY: Awww, their emojis match!
BERNIE FARMER: Do you have any thoughts on the matter that you’d like to share with the group, dear husband?
MATT MCGOVERN: I’m literally sitting right next to you, darling wife. Why don’t you just ask me with your sweet voice?
BERNIE FARMER: Because you’re staring at your phone. This is how Matt feels about it, you guys: <neutral face emoji>
MATT MCGOVERN: I am in fact delighted by and for the adorable fake couple.
ROXY CARTER: I hate all of you.
ME: Oh honey, you don’t mean that.
ROXY CARTER: Especially you, Bridges.
AIMEE MCKAY: So cute. We have to board now guys. See you there!!!!!
I cannot fucking wait to get some quality time with those people.
Now I just have to get Oiled-up Shower Roxy out of my head before I go into my meeting and before I pick her up in a couple of hours.
I have not been able to get Oiled-up Shower Roxy out of my head for the past two hours. I don’t even know what I said in that meeting, and I’ve already forgotten who I was meeting with. My brain is a dick. All of a sudden, I’m glad it’s so cold in New York, because Roxy emerges from her building all covered-up with winter clothes. Layers of clothes. So many layers of clothes between me and her naked, probably not oiled-up or wet body.
I step out of the back seat of the car, and I’m greeted with a classic frown.
“Good day,” I say.
“Good day,” she mutters.
When Manny comes around to take her luggage, she presents him with all of the warmth and smiles that she’s withholding from me.
“You got your passport?” I ask.
She rolls her eyes.
“It’s a valid question.”
“An eye roll is a valid answer. Do you have your passport?”
I smile. “Yes, I do. Thank you so much for asking.” I gesture for her to get into the back seat. She smells like cocoa butter. I wonder if she’s already wearing suntan lotion. I wonder if she’s wearing a bikini under there. Maybe she’s planning on stripping down to her bikini as soon as we land in Antigua. That seems like the kind of thing Roxy would do.
I am so fucked.
I get into the car and keep my eyes straight ahead for a good five minutes, I’d say. At first Roxy is typing on her phone, and then I can see out of the corner of my eye that she’s watching me not look at her. She is amused. She is such a jerk.
“How’s it going over there?”
“Fine. Have you been to Antigua before?”
“No. Have you?”
“No. But I’ve been to St. Barts, the Caymans, Turks and Caicos.”
“Of course you have.”
“And you? Have you been to any of the Caribbean islands before?”
“I have not yet had the pleasure, no.”
“Why is that so surprising?”
“They’re so close to the East Coast.”
She shrugs. “I like Florida.”
I roll my eyes and say nothing.
She snorts. “Do we not approve of the Sunshine State? I thought rich white people liked the art scene and the party scene down there.”
“I’ve never been all that into art or partying.” I glance down at the leather messenger bag by her feet and see that she’s brought her laptop. “You planning to do some work while you’re there?”
“A little. Aren’t you?”
I look out the window and continue to think about Oiled-up Shower Roxy because I have completely lost control of my fucking brain and she just smells like she wants to be naked. That cocoa butter is sexually assaulting my olfactory system. I can feel her watching me and smirking. I am quite certain that she knows I’m having sex thoughts and that it amuses her. She is the worst fake girlfriend ever, and I just want to stick my head under her shirt for five minutes and then I’m done. It’s out of my system.
She’s not even my type.
I mean—Roxy Carter is every man’s type.
But she’s not my type.
She’s made it perfectly clear that I’m not her type.
Everyone we know has made it clear that I’m not her type.
I am well aware of the fact that I still have a tendency to long for the women I know I can’t have.
So I won’t dwell on her.
This trip isn’t about her.
It’s definitely not about showering with her.
“Wow, you are an even more fun travel companion than I expected you to be.”
I do not look over at her when I say, “I thought you would appreciate it if I gave you some space.”
“I do, thanks! And I’d really appreciate it if you’d figure out a way to be a little less obvious when you’re having pervy thoughts about me, because it’s creeping me out.”
I slowly turn to glare at her. “Trust me, it’s unpleasant for me too.”
“I’m not having sex with you.”
“I’m aware of that.”
“So pull it together and think about something else.”
“You know what, just keep talking. Every word you utter is like a bucket of cold water being tossed on my pants.”
“Did you just say the word ‘utter’ out loud? You are so pretentious. I do not utter words.”
“You’re right. I meant ‘spew.’”
“You know what—let’s go back to not talking.”
“I’m sure I’ve sufficiently uttered enough boner-reducing words already.”
“I did not have a boner—I’m not eleven—and yes, you have.”
She yanks her scarf off her neck, angrily unzips her coat, and takes it off in a way that is both violent and somehow really fucking sexy and also evil because now I have to look at her in a really thin cardigan over a tight black top.
Perhaps someone should not have removed her coat if she didn’t want to reveal just how aroused she is right now.
“Warm in here,” she says.
Really? Because you look a little cold to me, Roxy Carter.
“How long until we get to the airport?”
“About another half hour, miss,” Manny says.
She exhales loudly and peels off her cardigan, exposing a tight black tank top and her toned bare arms. She lifts her hair up off her neck, revealing the tie straps of a bright red bikini under her tank top. She glances over at me, smirks for like one second, and then lets her hair fall back down around her neck and turns to look out her window.
She’s the fucking devil.
And I want to stick my head under that tank top for twenty minutes and then I’m done.
Before writing steamy romantic comedy novels, Kayley Loring had a fifteen-year career as a screenwriter in Los Angeles (under a different name). She mostly wrote PG-13 family comedies that studios would pay her lots of money for and then never make into movies. In 2017 she decided to move to the Pacific Northwest and write about all the fun stuff that she wasn’t allowed to write about in those PG-13 scripts. Now she’s breathing cleaner air and writing dirtier words. It’s an adjustment she’s happily getting used to.
Talon Gold is a lot of things: good at football, bad at love. Obsessed with scoring, refuses to play by the rules. Cruel. Relentless. Brilliant. Intoxicatingly attractive.
Despite his demanding reputation and propensity for being the most arrogant a-hole ever to strut Pacific Valley University’s picturesque campus, everyone wants a piece of him: coaches, scouts, and pretty little campus fangirls with pouty lips and perfect top knots.
But Talon … he only wants a piece of me.
And four straight years of infuriating rejection means I’m almost positive he’d take a night with me over a national championship trophy.
But I’m no fool—he only wants me because he can’t have me. And with graduation approaching, time is running out. He’s more desperate than ever, pulling out all the stops and doing everything in his power to get in my good graces.
They say, “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”
But to that I say, “Why not both?”
I have my reasons …
Sorry, BMOC. This victory? Not going to happen.
He’s pretending like he might not know my name. He’s pretending like he hasn’t been trying to hook up with me since the fall semester of our freshmen year when I got roped into attending a party at some beer-scented three-story on frat house row and he cornered me the way a mountain lion corners prey, carefully stalking me first from all angles then making smooth and deliberate moves until he positions himself to go in for the kill.
Fortunately for me, his hunting skills were still in need of some fine-tuning back then.
I got away.
And I’ve gotten away every time since.
The auditorium hums with small talk. My body hums with electric amusement. Over the years, this has become a sort of game between us. Cat and mouse. Offense and defense. He’s tried every strategy in the book, but I’ve managed to stick to the one that always works—cold, coy, aloof, and uninterested.
“All right, dudes and dudettes,” the professor rests his hands on his hips, rocking back and forth on his heels as he scans the room. “I’m Dr. Longmire, but you can call me Rich if you want.”
The girl to my left giggles to her friend. “He’s not a regular professor, he’s a cool professor.”
“Welcome to Anthro 101.” Dr. Longmire—Rich—twists the shark tooth necklace that hangs on a leather cord down his tanned chest as he paces the room. “We meet Mondays and Wednesdays from eight to nine with recitation on Fridays. You should have received your syllabus in your email over the weekend. If you need a paper copy, I’ve got a few on the desk up here. That said, I’ve been asked to remind you all that PVU is striving to become a paperless university. Please only print things when absolutely necessary.”
One student gathers his things in a hurry and dashes out the side door. He’s probably in the wrong classroom. It happens and it’s no big deal, but it doesn’t stop a group of meatheads in the corner from finding it hilarious and yelling out, “Loser!” just before the door swings shut.
Professor Longmire cracks a joke about how he doesn’t usually scare people off until after he goes through his entire spiel.
No one laughs.
“You have a good winter break?” Talon asks me, leaning close and keeping his voice low. He’s trying to feign intimacy, trying to act like we’re more than the acquaintances we’ve only ever been. Smooth. But I see through it.
“The best,” I lie, sparing him the details before pointing at the front of the room. “If you don’t mind …”
His heavy stare weighs on me, and a blanket of heat covers my skin in the seconds before the steady trot of my heart turns into an all-out gallop.
This happens every time—the ongoing war between my mind and body every time he comes around.
I’d be lying if I said his attention didn’t flatter the hell out of me. I mean, come on. I’m only human—a mere mortal myself. I just happen to have a hell of a lot more self-control than the average SoCal blondie strutting PVU’s seaside campus. I appreciate the attention, but by no means am I naïve enough to think there’s anything special about it.
Talon wants to screw me.
And he only wants to screw me because he can’t.
Nothing more, nothing less.
“Hey. You have a spare pen?” Talon asks with zero shame, his cinnamon-scented whisper tickling my eardrum.
Dipping down into my bag, I retrieve a hot pink gel pen and hand it over without so much as making eye contact.
From my periphery, I watch as he examines it for a second before his full lips mouth a quick thank you. The garish color doesn’t seem to faze him, doesn’t so much as threaten his jock itch masculinity.
He flips to a clean page in his notebook and concentrates on the screen ahead.
“Now, I’ve been teaching here for over thirty years,” Professor Longmire prattles on as he paces the front of the room. “I’ve been around long enough to know that these eight AM Monday classes are a pain in the you-know-what. I know not everyone is going to go to every single class. I know that there’ll be times you’re hung over or you over-sleep or what have you. Don’t email me. Don’t send me your sob story or made up excuses. I don’t want to hear it. Now some of the younger professors, they post lecture notes on the class website. But I don’t have time for that. So here’s what you’re going to do. Everyone’s going to have an accountability buddy.”
A what …?
“I want you to each to turn to someone next to you,” he says. “That person is going to be your go-to when you need a copy of lecture notes. That person is also going to be your study partner. Their success is your success and vice-versa. Just because this is Anthro 101 doesn’t mean it’s an easy class. In fact, a quarter of you will drop out before the end of the semester, and the majority of you probably won’t walk out of here with A’s.”
Two people—a guy and a girl from opposite ends of the room—gather their bags and show themselves out, heads tucked.
“Aaaand there we go. That’s when I usually scare them away.” Longmire laughs at his own joke before scanning the audience. “Anyway, I’ll give you all a moment to find your partner. Don’t make a big deal of it, don’t overthink it. Just pick someone—anyone—close by.”
I gather a sea-salted lungful of air and take in my surroundings. The two girls beside me are clasping their hands together like a couple of junior high besties. The guys in the row ahead are already exchanging phone numbers, as are the guy and girl to their right. Within seconds, I surmise that everyone else around me seems to be spoken for—everyone, that is, except Talon.
Straightening my shoulders, I angle my body toward Talon and maintain a neutral expression.
The moment our eyes catch, he bites his lower lip and flashes a cockeyed smirk. “Guess it’s us.”
My stomach somersaults, but I play it cool. “Lucky me.”
“Yeah.” He laughs through his nose, his perfect white teeth flashing as he grins. “Lucky you.”
And if you’d like to be the first to know when a new book is coming out, please sign up for her private mailing list here —> http://eepurl.com/bfQU2j
SUSPICION (Black Light #8) by Measha Stone
29th July 2018, Indie Published
“I have my own suspicions about you, Sophie.”
Sophie Nelson knows her kinky interests are no more than fantasy, definitely not something that’ll ever happen in the real world. So the sexual playground Black Light is the best place to turn. A safe place to play. Until Scott.
Detective Scott Russo knows better than to get sexually involved with his partner. Mixing business with pleasure never ends well, but sometimes rules are meant to be broken. He can’t avoid the temptation of giving Sophie exactly what she needs, even if that means a firm hand.
While Sophie and Scott find themselves mired in a high-stakes investigation, their off-duty kinky explorations intensify. With danger at the door, and complications that threaten to tear them apart, can they survive the tug of war.
** EXCLUSIVE CHAPTER REVEAL **
Fate could be a cruel fucking bitch.
Detective Scott Russo stared across his desk to where his newest partner sat clicking away on her computer. Her long hair was twisted into a high and tight bun, meant to keep it from being a danger when they worked cases on the street. To him, he could easily use it to grab in his fist and pull her head back and get her mouth lined up to meet his.
Or to get those pouty lips to start telling him why she hadn’t taken a bite of the chicken sandwich she’d ordered from the takeout cart down the street.
“You gonna stare at me working, or you gonna actually jump in and help?” Sophie smiled at her computer screen.
They’d finished a case, thankfully rather easy and not too gruesome. Working homicide didn’t exactly make for cheerful conversation most shifts, but Sophie’s easy banter made the days less horrific. Since she’d started, he found himself less unwilling to get his ass to work every day.
“I finished mine already,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “You can take a break you know. Your sandwich’s been sitting there for a while. Probably cold by now.”
She stopped typing and glanced at the unwrapped sandwich sitting center stage on her desk. Not once in the short time they’d been partnered up had she skipped a meal. Not even after working a crime scene that could have been taken right out of a Freddy Krueger flick.
Sophie had a few more curves than most female officers in the precinct, but unlike other women he knew, it didn’t seem to bother her. So her staring at the sandwich, with her tongue running along her lower lip, and then shaking her head and going back to her report didn’t sit well.
“I’m good. After I finish this,” she said, her gaze sweeping over his face, but never landing on him.
He didn’t push the issue, but he really wanted to. He wanted to yank her from her chair and demand full honesty, but this wasn’t that sort of partnership. This was only work.
“Sophie, you seem distracted today? Got a new boyfriend causing trouble?” Okay, he was fishing, but he didn’t care. The idea of her going home at night and meeting someone for dinner made his spine tingle. He had no right to lay claim to her. They were partners, friends, and he doubted she would submit to his type of relationship, yet he still needed to probe.
She reached over the desk for a file. “No, I don’t have a boyfriend.” She opened the file and flipped through until she found what she must have been looking for and pulled out the sheet of paper.
“Ah, hard to find Prince Charming in this city, right?” He pressed, pulling himself closer to the desk. His erection wouldn’t be easy to miss if anyone walked past, and damned if he’d let her see how much of an effect she had on him.
“Not every girl wants Prince Charming,” she muttered more to herself than to him and turned back to her computer.
“No, I suppose not.” The last time he’d heard a girl say something along that line, she’d been negotiating a hard flogging scene with him at Black Light.
“But yeah, it’s definitely hard to find what I want in this city- or any other city.” She cast a short glance at him then straightened her back and dove into her report again.
Scott learned long ago not to play in the vanilla world. If a girl wasn’t into submission, he wouldn’t be the one to introduce the topic. But he couldn’t get an accurate read on Sophie. One second she could look at him with the softness he loved in a sub, and the next it was gone.
Aside from the fact she had more beauty in her little toe than that last dozen women he’d taken out, she had the brains and the confidence to go along with it.
“Russo! I need you a second.” Captain Peterson called from his office door.
He discreetly adjusted his hard on in his jeans and threw on his jacket to hopefully help hide it more before he stood up.
“Better go.” Sophie smiled, peeking at him from around her screen. “Don’t want to earn a spanking, “she teased. Her cheeks bloomed pink right before his eyes.
Yeah. Fate was a cruel bitch.
ABOUT MEASHA STONE;
Measha Stone is an international bestselling author of erotic romance. She’s had #1 top-selling books in BDSM, and suspense. She lives in the western suburbs of Chicago with her husband and children, who are just as creative and crazy as her. Her vanilla writing has been published in numerous literary magazines, but she’s found her passion in erotic romance. She loves reading it, writing it, and living it whenever possible.
RYKER (Sinister Knights MC #1) by Aria Cole
21st January 2018, Indie Published
Ride. Protect. Defend.
Anna Kloss grew up as a smart girl in the Sinister Knights Motorcycle Club, an above-the-law group of misfits that fights to safeguard the women of their town. Straddling both worlds, she’s lived the last few years in a college dorm, losing herself in the promise of her future and trying to forget the lost love of her past.
As Vice President of the Sinister Knights, Ryker Beckett has proven his dedication and loyalty by sitting in a county jail cell for three years for saving one woman from a nightmarish assault. The woman. The only one who matters. Prez’s young, innocent, and untouched daughter, Anna.
But now, Ryker is back, his sights set on reconnecting with the woman who occupied every minute of his thoughts while he was away. Anna’s all grown up, but she’s still the only one he can’t have, the only one he craves… Is she ready for this giant, rough-around-the-edges biker to protect and defend her forever?
Warning: Ryker is hard in all the right places—a tall, tattooed drink of water sitting on a powerful engine. He’s got his mind on one woman only, and when he sees her again, he’s determined to get her bred and on his bike for their sexy ride into the sunset.
** EXCLUSIVE CHAPTER REVEAL **
“So when do you think that sexy hunk of man meat will be here?” My best friend, Piper, threw herself onto my violet duvet.
“He’s not sexy.” I turned away from her, heart falling in my chest at just the thought of him.
“Bullshit.” Piper snapped her gum. “You’ve been pining over him since he went away.”
“I haven’t,” I protested.
“Again, I’m gonna have to call bullshit. So when’s he coming back?”
“I don’t know. I heard Dad say the party starts tonight, so I’m thinking sometime between now and then.” Dad would have killed me if he’d known I was eavesdropping outside of his office while he was on my phone, but the old man had refused to give me any information relating to Ryker, and I’d grown desperate for anything.
“Between now and then, huh?” Piper eyed me curiously. “So what are you gonna say to the asshole?”
“He’s not an asshole, Piper.”
“Well, he hasn’t written in the three years he’s been gone.”
“Maybe he couldn’t,” I defended weakly.
“But he could keep in touch with your dad?”
“Dad went to visit him every week, kept him in the loop, but I wasn’t allowed to go.”
Piper frowned. “You should call him on that bullshit. This is your life, you’ve got to get your man.”
“He’s not my man.” But he used to be.
“He was when he went up to County. I’m bettin’ he still sees you that way now.”
“Thirty-six months is a long time to be…” I struggled to find the word. The club didn’t say things like prison, jail, incarcerated. They said, “going away.” It was safer that way.
“He owes you an explanation,” Piper said finally.
“He doesn’t owe me anything. I think he’s given me enough already.” I felt the bundle of tears clogging my throat.
“That’s not your fault, Anna. You’re not the reason he’s up there.”
I paused, holding the gaze of the girl I’d been friends with since I was three. “Feels like it.”
Her eyes searched my face before she collapsed with uncharacteristic emotion and pulled me into her embrace. “I know it does, Anna, but it’s not. I promise you it’s not.”
I wiped at the itchy tears running down my face. Every day without Ryker in my life felt like a bullet fracturing my soul.
Would he even want me anymore? Was I the same girl he left?
I wasn’t sure I was, and somewhere down deep, I felt guilt for changing on him too.
In the weeks following Ryker’s arrest and sentencing, Dad had sent me away to an early entrance college program that could fast-track me to a degree in sociology.
I’d only half wanted to go before the event that changed all of our lives. So when I’d told Dad I planned to stay right here at Falcon’s Nest and wait for Ryker to get home, he’d pulled me off my ass and thrown me out the door faster than I could blink.
All for the best, he’d said.
It’d taken me a long couple years to see the wisdom in that statement.
Now I was only six months away from earning my degree and back home for the summer. Back where it all began.
“So what time does that party start? I don’t want to be late.” Piper twittered behind me.
“We’re not going.”
“Why the hell not? It’s Ryker’s welcome home party, right? We’d like to welcome him.”
“You might like to welcome him. I’d rather sit here and sulk away the pain.”
“I’d really like to check out that bod. I bet he got big in the joint.” Piper’s eyes lit up.
I shook my head. “I don’t care.”
“Ha! He was a big motherfucker before, just imagine him now, Anna. Bulging biceps, washboard abs… Remember when we used to watch him do pull-ups in the garage?” Her eyes glassed over with the pleasurable memory.
“I remember you dragging me down into the ditch and getting covered in thistle weeds when he caught us.”
“He didn’t catch us,” Piper retorted.
“He did.” I laughed. “He told me he did.”
“Not as stealthy as you thought, sister.”
She stuck out her tongue at me. “What are you gonna wear to the party? Something short, show off those legs. You’ve lost at least ten pounds since he last saw you.”
“Twelve.” I groaned, “And I’m not going. I’m staying right here, and if I run into him, I run into him—”
“This one will make your tits look great.” She ignored everything I’d just said and pushed a clingy purple dress over my head.
“Piper!” I spat as I shoved my arms through the holes. “My dad will fucking kill us if we show up. It’s a members-only kind of thing.”
“We’re members.” She adjusted the dress around my boobs, pulling the neckline down a little farther. “Well, you are. And I sorta am…by proxy or something.”
I arched an eyebrow when she spun me in the mirror. I frowned, taking in my curvy form.
“You look fucking hot.”
My frown deepened.
“He’s going to want to bone you the second he sees you.”
“It’s a good dress. And, you’re kind of fucking gorgeous, Anna. I know no one tells you that. I don’t know why they don’t tell you that… It’s that whole, I’m too smart for you unapproachable vibe you’ve got going on, but it’s true. You’re fucking gorgeous, and I bet Ryker beat off to you every night he was in that place, just waiting to see you again.”
A blush burned up my cheeks. “What if I don’t know him anymore, Piper?”
“Well, then it’s time to get reacquainted tonight.” She winked at my reflection in the mirror.
“I’m not going to that party.”
“Over my dead body, sister. Now let’s get into your makeup. It just so happens I brought my falsies with me.” She yanked a pair of false eyelashes out of her huge purse. “You’re gonna look like a Kardashian tonight.”
“Ugh or a hooker. Kill me now.”
“Not until your face is done. After that, I don’t care what you do.” Piper pushed me into my bathroom, flicking on the light and plopping me ass-first onto the bench. “Time for him to see what he’s been missing.”
For a safe, off-the-charts HOT, and always HEA story that doesn’t take a lifetime to read, get lost in an Aria Cole book!
Follow Aria on Amazon for new release updates, or stalk her on Facebook and Twitter to see which daring book boyfriend she’s writing next!
UNDEFEATED by Stuart Reardon & Jane Harvey-Berrick
23rd January 2018, Stuart Reardon Publishing
A powerful contemporary romance set in the fast-moving world of international rugby.
When your world crashes down
When they all say you’re out
When your body is broken
I will rise.
I will return.
And I will be undefeated.
Nick Renshaw is the golden boy of British rugby. When a serious injury threatens his career, he starts to spiral downwards, a broken man.
Feeling abandoned and betrayed by those closest to him, he fights to restart his life. Maybe there’s someone out there who can help him. Maybe he can find his way back toward the light. Maybe … not.
Dr. Anna Scott might be the one person who can help Nick, but she has her own secrets. And when Nick’s past comes back to haunt them both, the enigmatic doctor is more vulnerable than she seems.
Broken and betrayed, the struggle to survive seems intolerable. Who will give in, and who will rise, undefeated?
** EXCLUSIVE CHAPTER REVEAL **
It’s a beautiful game.
It’s a hard game.
And even on a good day your body is battered and bruised. It’s a brutal game with blood, mud and dirt.
See this scar on my cheek? Rugby.
See this scar running through my eyebrow? Rugby.
I have a lot of scars.
I have 13 scars on each arm from keyhole surgery, knee surgery, scars on my forehead and the back of my head, scars on my knuckles, broken fingers. I’ve had both eyelids stitched, surgery on both shoulders, suffered a broken nose twice and spiral fractures in my hands, I’ve broken my fingers so many times, I don’t event count those. I’ve had cartilage cleaned out of my left knee, two medial ligament grade two tears on each knee, three lots of surgery for Achilles tendon injuries, and once I put my bottom teeth through my top lip. Getting stitches in your mouth isn’t much fun. They tug when you eat or speak.
There’s nothing nice about rugby. Maybe that’s why I bloody love it.
Chicks dig scars? Yeah, I’ve heard that, too.
In my experience, they’re not so keen on being around while you’re healing. Being the loser who’s benched, not so sexy. Being the guy who’s career went down the toilet … I’m looking a lot less appealing now.
Trusting a woman when you’re at your lowest—dumbest, stupidest thing ever.
Beat me, break me, butcher my heart.
I’m coming for you. And this time…
I’m going to win.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Stuart is a retired England International Rugby League player who’s career spanned 16 years as a professional playing for several top League clubs. He has had several major injuries that nearly ended his career just as in Undefeated, the amazing collaboration with Jane.
Currently he is a Personal trainer living in Cheshire, and has an online fitness program: Fear Nothing Fitness.
I enjoy watching surfers at my local beach, and weaving stories of romance in the modern world, with all its trials and tribulations.
It’s been the best fun working with Stu on this story. And yes, he did think about joining the Marines once.