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ENSNARED excerpt & giveaway with J.S. Scott

 

Wildlife conservationist Jade Sinclair isn’t used to having money. But when she and her siblings learned they were part of the mega-rich Sinclair dynasty, they became billionaires overnight. Jade doesn’t even know how to act rich, especially when she’s dealing with an arrogant, privileged, unreasonably sexy snob like Eli Stone.

Unlike Jade, Eli grew up rich, and he just keeps getting richer. Eli is always looking for an adventure, and he’s found an inviting one in Jade—as resistant as she is irresistible. His less-than-honorable plan? Get her alone in the wilderness by buying out all the spots in her survival class.

Calling a truce, they strike a bargain: Jade will teach Eli basic survival skills, and he’ll teach her how to navigate the world of the wealthy elite. Jade has only one condition—she will not let herself be seduced by him. But some things are easier said than done . . .

***

I slowed down as I turned off the main highway. 

I pulled onto the rough road to the small cabin on the property. There were enough bunk beds in the rustic structure for everybody, but students had the option of pitching tents or building their own shelters if they chose.

After I parked my Jeep, I unloaded some supplies and checked out the cabin. Although I encouraged foraging and trapping, I always made sure to have enough basic food so students didn’t starve.

I sat on the wooden steps and took a deep breath, relaxing to the sounds of the birds and the feel of a light breeze that caressed my skin.

I opened the book I’d brought along, the latest from my favorite erotic romance writer. The reading material was one of my secret pleasures, maybe because I’d never been overwhelmed by lust for any man, but I loved to read about the possibility.

I was mostly a realist, but I loved the fantasy of some hot guy sweeping me off my feet.

Other than a boyfriend in college who had used me to help him get his degree and then disappeared after graduation without a word, I’d never been in a sexual relationship.

Honestly, my ex hadn’t exactly rocked my world. But I liked to think that love and lust existed.

Brooke had always accused me of being a closet romantic. And maybe she was right. As a scientist, believing in soulmates, love, and unbridled lust didn’t make much sense. But I couldn’t stop myself from wanting to believe it was real anyway.

It had happened for my twin, and Brooke deserved the love she had with Liam. Her capacity to care about other people was endless.

A sigh escaped from my mouth as I started reading the scene I’d left off on the last time I’d picked up the book.

It was hot.

It was sensual.

And even though the male hero was an obnoxious alpha sometimes, I adored the way he wanted to give his woman everything and protect her from anything bad in the world, and how incredibly devoted he was to the woman he loved.

“Hello, Jade,” a smooth baritone said from above me, the deep voice startling me so much I instinctively slammed the book closed.

Even though I loved steamy romance, I didn’t exactly broadcast it, except to my friends who read the same type of books.

Unfortunately, I’d gotten so lost in the hot fairy tale that I obviously hadn’t heard my first student arrive.

I shaded my eyes and looked up, curious because the voice was familiar, but I was pretty sure that since I lusted after Eli Stone, I was hearing that whiskey-smooth baritone voice only in my imagination.

My heart skittered as I focused in on the face belonging to the sexy male voice.

It was Eli Stone, and I gaped at him like an idiot because I couldn’t seem to reconcile him and being out in the middle of nowhere.

I scrambled to my feet, feeling at a disadvantage because I was so far below him. But the position change didn’t help all that much. I was average height, and Eli Stone was all muscle—broad, tall, and pretty damn intimidating, even though he was casually dressed in jeans, a T-shirt that only showed how ripped he was, and a pair of hiking boots.

For just a moment, my eyes were drawn to the dark scrolls and sharp angles of the tribal tattoo that covered his left arm, ending at his wrist. The markings were a stark black against his tanned skin, and the ferociousness of the design left me speechless.

I wasn’t into tats, and I’d seen Eli’s in images many times, but there was something about those markings that made my heart lodge in my throat. They were fierce, but for some reason they only made me feel . . . sadness.

“What are you doing here?” I finally asked hesitantly as my gaze went back to his face.

He folded his muscular arms in front of him as he answered, “You didn’t seem to want to come to me, so I’m coming to you. I’m your student for the next thirty-two hours or so, Jade.”

I might not have been fond of Eli Stone, but his presence was still a little bit overwhelming.

Okay, maybe more than a little bit.

It had been so long since I’d seen Eli in person that I’d started to tell myself that I’d overestimated the tension that had flowed between us in his office.

But I really hadn’t.

My body was taut just from being in close proximity to him, and the hypervigilant awareness I felt when I looked at him was very, very real.

The feelings were so powerful that I couldn’t focus on anything else but him.

I didn’t understand it.

But I was truly experiencing it.

The same awkward, potent attraction I’d fought in his office months ago.

I swallowed hard, my brain working to figure out exactly how I could get rid of Eli Stone before I made a complete and total fool of myself.

***

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J.S. “Jan” Scott is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of numerous contemporary and paranormal romances, including The Sinclairs series. She’s an avid reader of all types of books and literature, but romance has always been her genre of choice—so she writes what she loves to read: stories that are almost always steamy, generally feature an alpha male, and have a happily ever after, because she just can’t seem to write them any other way! Jan loves to connect with readers. Visit her website at www.authorjsscott.com.

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JUST THIS ONCE & Giveaway with Mira Lynn Kelly

He can’t have her.

So he moves in with her…

What could possibly go wrong?

As heir to a chain of luxury hotels, Sean Wyse III always gets what he wants. So when he sees a freeloading roommate taking advantage of his spunky best friend, Molly Brandt, he doesn’t hesitate to step in. He kicks out the roommate…and moves himself in.

Molly loves quality time with Sean, but spending nights with him one wall away threatens to wake the crush she thought she’d gotten over. A crush Sean knows nothing about, which might be a problem…considering how hard Sean’s been working never to think of Molly that way.

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Sean took a step back and ran his hand through his hair, pausing when he realized the state of disarray Molly’d left it in. “You messed up my hair,” he accused, his grin telling her that he knew how much she’d liked doing it.

She shook her head, unable to play along. “You’re messing up my mind.”

The half smile fell away, and then Sean was stepping closer, his eyes going serious. “If this is about the dancing, Moll—”

“It’s not. It’s about you and me figuring out how to get past this inconvenient attraction and get back to just being friends.”

Sean sighed, looking relieved. “You’re right. I keep hoping whatever’s going on between us will go away on its own. That if we just ignore it, eventually it will stop being an issue.”

Molly nodded, then shook her head and stepped into Sean’s space. “Or maybe… Okay, I know this is going to sound nuts, and it probably is, but I was talking to Jill inside and…” And this sounded so stupid, she couldn’t believe she was even thinking about suggesting it, but then Sean ducked low, putting his face back into her line of sight and giving her that smile that promised she could tell him anything.

“What is it?”

“Do you ever really wish you could have a doughnut, but you know you shouldn’t? Like you’re trying to cut back on bad carbs or processed sugar, or maybe they were just out of doughnuts when you went to the stand and you figured you’d just wait until you could get one another day, but then all day you think about the doughnut, because you didn’t just have it when you wanted it, so when you finally, finally see a chance to get the doughnut again, you make a really bad decision and buy, like, all the doughnuts they have and eat and eat and eat until you’re sick to your stomach and filled with regret?”

That endearing smile had left Sean’s face, but being Sean, he was taking her question to heart. He rubbed a hand along his jaw and cocked his head to the side. “No. I bust my ass at the gym so I don’t worry about carbs and sugar, and when I want a doughnut, I get one. And I mean, this sounds pretty obnoxious, but if I really want a doughnut and the stand doesn’t have one, I call down to Jerry, and I’ve got one in the next twenty minutes.”

Molly blew out a breath in a silent plea for patience. This guy ran the most successful hotel in the city, could do her taxes in his head, and knew the answer to every Jeopardy question every time they watched the show…and yet he couldn’t see where she was going with this?

“Say it’s a special doughnut and—”

“I’m more of a bagel guy.”

Maybe she should have used an éclair.

You’re the doughnut, Sean!” she snapped, exasperation wearing her thin. “You are the doughnut I’m craving. The one I keep thinking about when I’m supposed to be thinking of other things. You. And all I was saying is that maybe what we need to do is give in just a little. Have a taste to curb the craving… Before we crack and wake up surrounded by shredded Dunkin’ Donut bags and a bed filled with crumbs.”

Sean had stopped moving. Heck, he looked like he might not even be breathing, he was so still. Except for his eyes, which had gone dark and serious as they searched hers.

“Molly, what kind of a taste are you talking about?” he asked, his voice gone gravelly rough.

She swallowed past the anxious knot in her throat. “A kiss. Not more than a doughnut hole.”

His stare dropped to her mouth. “You’re talking about now? Here?”

She angled her head, taking in the setting. The concrete was cracked, and Dumpsters lined one side of the alley, while fire escapes hung overhead. She looked at someone’s discarded McDonald’s bag and nodded. “Yeah, this is probably perfect for our needs.” At Sean’s raised brow, she explained. “It’s not romantic, so I don’t have to worry about you getting caught up in some princess fantasy. We’re only semiprivate out here. While if we were at home, we’d have zero chance of getting interrupted.”

“Plus, the assortment of sexable surfaces on hand back at your place.”

“I know. Don’t get me started. But here, the atmosphere isn’t really conducive to going too far. You know what I mean?”

The muscle in his jaw bounced, and he met her eyes. “You worried about things going too far?”

He wasn’t? “No. But better safe than sorry, right?”

He moved a step closer, his single slow breath seeming to fill out his chest and broaden his shoulders. “Sure.”

She swallowed hard. “Honestly, it’s probably going to be gross when we finally do it.”

Sean nodded, close enough now for his hands to settle on her hips. “If you say so.”

Her hands met his stomach, her fingers briefly catching the fabric of his shirt before coasting up to rest lightly on his shoulders. “Just a taste,” she whispered, her lungs tight as their eyes met.

“Just enough to satisfy the craving,” he corrected, lowering his mouth to hers so slowly, she knew he was giving her this last chance to back out. Maybe she should have, but after all the years of wondering, being this close to knowing what Sean’s kiss tasted like was something she couldn’t back away from.

And then…contact.

MARY BURTON, MELINDA LEIGH, & MARY ELLEN TAYLOR'S MYSTERY QUIZ & GIVEAWAY

 

Fall Into A Romantic Mystery 

With the temperature dropping and leaves turning colors, it’s time to get ready for the cool days of fall. And what better way to prepare for the long nights ahead than to download a great whodunit novel with a dash (or heaping helping) of romance. Below we have crafted a quiz to help you find your next great read, but be warned, the titles all have mysteries that need to be solved and villains that must be brought to justice. So grab a thick blanket, a cup of hot cocoa, and answer the following questions to discover which romantic mystery you will want to “fall” into next. 
 
1. Where is your perfect romantic mystery set? 
 
a) In “small town USA”. The everyday setting makes the violent crimes all the more shocking. 
 
b) The rolling hills of Texas where there are lots of places to hide.
 
c) In a historic mansion near the choppy waters of Virginia, giving the story a Gothic feel.
 
2. I want to read about a heroine who is … 
 
a) …one hundred percent devoted to her family yet balanced enough to find success in her chosen career. 
 
b) … intelligent and diligent, with a pressing drive to help others. 
 
c) … currently in mourning after losing a loved one, but strong enough to take on any challenge.
 
3. Is your heroine in peril? 
 
a) She may face down a bad guy (or two), but thankfully her significant other is always there to guard her with his life. 
 
b) In my fictional world nobody is safe. NOBODY! 
 
c) The heroine doesn’t face physical danger, but her emotions take a severe beating as she learns terrible secrets from the past. 
 
4. When your heroine needs backup, who is she going to call? 
 
a) Her BF who just happens to be a private investigator that solves crimes for a living. 
 
b) A steely-eyed Texas Ranger who is known for delivering justice.
 
c) The town leader who is a successful businessman and pillar of the community. 
 
5. My ideal hero is….
 
a) …totally and completely devoted to supporting his woman. 
 
b) …dependable and incredibly strong, however, he has suffered a loss and every once in a while his vulnerability shows through. 
 
c) …steadfast, principled, and dedicated to his community. 
 
6. When sitting down to read a mystery, the crimes should be… 
 
a) … studied in a clinical, professional manner.
 
b) … frequent and terrifying! I want something that keeps me up at night. 
 
c) … in the past. I like trying to figure out who the bad guy is instead of focusing on violence. 
 
7. When the last page of the book is read, I want to feel… 

a) … that second chances are not only real, but they can be incredibly joyous.
 
b) … a sense of deep satisfaction that justice has been found and order restored. 
 
c) … tremendous hope and optimism for the future. 
 
***
 
If you choose mostly As … then get ready to follow dedicated defense attorney Morgan Dane as she takes on her next case in Melinda Leigh’s What I’ve Done. 
 
Morgan has been hired to defend Haley Powell after the young woman wakes up in a pool of the victim’s blood. And while Haley has no memory of the night and no alibi, Morgan is sure that there is more to this crime than a simple case of murder. With the help of her private investigator boyfriend Lance Kruger, Morgan inches towards answers all the while dodging threats meant to keep her silent. 
 
Purchase What I’ve Done by Melinda Leigh Here >> 
 
***
 
If you choose mostly Bs … then the lightning fast twists and turns of Mary Burton’s romantic suspense novel Cut and Run is just right for you. 
 
Medical examiner Faith McIntyre is used to investigating grizzly crime scenes, yet she is totally unprepared when faced with a barely-alive victim that looks EXACTLY like her. With no answers and nowhere else to turn, Faith teams up with her colleague-with-benefits Texas Ranger Mitchell Hayden. Together they discover decades old crime scenes, as well as new victims of a serial killer. 
 
Preorder Cut and Run by Mary Burton Here >> 
 
***
 
If you choose mostly Cs … then get ready to be transported to the windswept beaches where Mary Ellen Taylor sets her next release Winter Cottage. 
 
When heroine Lucy Kincaid loses her mother, she receives an unexpected inheritance—a lonely old estate big enough to hold the secrets of Lucy’s family. Why did her mother never mention the mansion or the sea swept town of Cape Hudson? Who is Lucy’s father? And why is there a (literal) skeleton on Lucy’s property? With more questions than answers, Lucy turns to handsome local Hank Garrison only to find he has a motive for wanting the Winter Cottage all to himself…
 
Preorder Winter Cottage by Mary Ellen Taylor Here >> 

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Kianna Alexander's COULDN'T ASK FOR MORE Excerpt & Giveaway

Fake engagements are a dangerous business.

Bryan James’s job is on thin ice unless he can secure a contract with a popular design house. He knows his best friend’s sister can help—but her terms are more than he bargained for.

Alexis Devers’s debut fashion line is a hit. But when Alexis’s publicist tells buyers that it landed her a wealthy, gorgeous fiancé, Alexis needs to come up with one—fast. Bryan’s offer to strike a deal is perfectly timed. She’s more than willing—on one condition…

It’s the perfect plan…until feelings start getting in the way. Suddenly, the dangers of mixing business and pleasure become much more real than either of them expected.

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Alexis and Bryan meet for coffee and she wears her attraction on her sleeve.

The moment she stepped inside, the rich aroma of roasting coffee beans filled her nostrils, replacing the scent of the copious evidence of plant reproduction she’d dealt with outside. She inhaled, a smile stretching her lips. The shop wasn’t too crowded, but she could see there were a good ten or so people inside, seated at tables, on benches, or in the fluffy armchairs. She eased her way to the counter, reading the chalkboard that displayed the day’s special concoctions.

Bryan strode in.

The moment he entered the space, she felt his presence. It was as if her senses awakened whenever he was near. She looked toward the door, letting her gaze sweep over him. He wore a pair of navy slacks and a light-blue button-down shirt. He’d forgone a tie, and the top two buttons of his shirt were undone. His black dress shoes gleamed in the overhead light. A pair of dark sunglasses obscured his eyes but could not hide the smile that brightened his handsome face when he saw her.

He removed the sunglasses, tucking them into the hip pocket on his slacks. Their gazes met as he crossed the space.

Her heart pounded in her ears. What was it about him and his killer smile that made her feel like an overzealous fangirl in the front row of a concert? Even now, she could feel the rise in her body temperature, and she could tell it had nothing to do with the climatic conditions of the coffee shop.

No. This man was hot, plain and simple.

Standing abreast of her, he spoke. “Have you been waiting long?”

“No. I was a little early, but I haven’t been here that long.” She blinked, hoping to break the spell he seemed to be casting over her. “Do you want to order something?”

“I’m gonna grab a mocha. You look nice, by the way.” He let his gaze travel over her body.

She glanced down at her simple outfit of a long gray tunic, black leggings, and metallic silver ballet flats. “Thanks.” She hadn’t changed clothes after leaving work. As a designer and as a consumer, she held firm to the belief that comfort should coexist with looking put-together.

The young woman working behind the counter asked, “What can I get you, ma’am?”

Alexis turned toward the menu again but found it hard to decide. Nothing there looked quite as delicious as the tall drink of man standing behind her. In the end, she went with her usual. “Can I have a medium French roast with cream and a caramel drizzle, please?”

“No problem, ma’am. Anything else?”

“No.” She occasionally ordered a muffin or some other pastry to accompany her dark roast, but the butterflies in her stomach left little room—or desire—for food. She reached into her black shoulder bag for her wallet, but she heard Bryan speak as she rifled around inside her purse.

“I’ll be paying for the lady’s drink. And I’d like a medium mocha, please.”

She snapped her head up in time to see him hand the barista his credit card.

As if he sensed her wide-eyed stare, he turned her way. “What is it?”

“I was intending to pay for my drink.”

“Nonsense. It’s the least I can do for my beautiful fiancée.” He winked.

Her mouth watered, and she swallowed. Was it from the heady scent of coffee and baked goods arousing her taste buds? Or from the way he looked at her, which aroused her in an entirely different way?

“Did you already pick somewhere to sit?”

His question drew her back to reality. She shook her head. “Like I said, I haven’t been here that long.”

He gestured to a table for two, situated in the far back corner of the coffee shop, to the left of the counter. “That looks nice and private.”

She couldn’t help noticing the way he seemed to emphasize the word private. She swallowed again. “Sounds good.” Based on what they were about to discuss, it made sense for them to seek a table away from the other patrons.

Once the barista handed them their steaming ceramic mugs, he started toward the table he’d chosen. She fell into step behind him, and her traitorous eyes dipped to his hips. He had a glorious backside that nicely filled his slacks. It looked tight enough to bounce the proverbial quarter off. Chastising herself for the direction of her thoughts, she jerked her gaze upward as they reached the table.

And found him watching her, an amused grin on his face.

Her hands began to tremble beneath his scrutiny.

He set his mug down, then grabbed hers and put it down as well. “You okay?”

She nodded, slipping into her seat. “Yes. I’m fine.”

He sat in the chair across from her. “I know where you were looking.”

Her eyes widened, and she slid her cup to the side so she could rest her forehead on the cool surface of the tabletop. She certainly hadn’t intended to be so obvious in her ogling. She remembered that she’d caught him doing the same thing when he’d first visited her office. His inability to hide his behavior had amused her, yet here she was, doing the very same thing.

He chuckled. “Don’t be embarrassed. The fact that we’re attracted to each other will only add to the realism of this little game we’re playing.”

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Katie Ruggle's ROCKY MOUNTAIN COWBOY CHRISTMAS excerpt & giveaway

In the heart of the Rockies

One white Christmas can change everything. 

When firefighter and single dad Steve Springfield moved his four kids to a Colorado Christmas tree ranch, he intended for it to be a safe haven. But he never expected danger to follow them to his childhood home…

Or that he would come face-to-face with the one girl he could never forget.

Folk artist Camille Brandt lives a quiet life. As the town’s resident eccentric, she’s used to being lonely—until Steve freaking Springfield changes everything. Brave and kind, he’s always had a piece of her heart, and it doesn’t take long before she’s in danger of falling for him again. But as mysterious fires break out across the sleepy Colorado town, Steve and Camille will have to fight if they want their happy family to survive until Christmas…

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Stuffing her new stocking hat and mittens into one of the coat pockets, she tried to smooth her hair, but she knew it was hopeless. Glancing at Will, she saw he was smirking as he pulled on his coat.

“I know.” She flattened her hands on either side of her head, trying to hide as much of her hair as possible. “I broke the cardinal rule: once the hat goes on, it has to stay on for the rest of the day.”

“Nah, it’s fine. Take out your ponytail.” A little warily, she tugged off the hair band, not sure where he was going with this. “Bend over so your head’s upside down, and shake it out.”

Now she really thought he had to be messing with her.

“Hurry up,” he urged. “Dad’s having to ring things up and wrap, and he’s horrible at wrapping. If he had his way, he’d roll everything up in newspaper, slap some duct tape on it, and throw it into a plastic garbage bag.”

She did what Will said, amused despite herself by the silliness of it all.

“Okay, stand up and flip your hair back.”

Her hair flip was only semisuccessful, so curly strands hung in her face. She shoved them out of her eyes and looked at Will expectantly.

“Nice, just…” He reached toward her head and then paused. “If it’s okay?”

“Go ahead.”

After he quickly adjusted a few strands, he stepped back and eyed the end result before giving a satisfied nod. “Check it out.”

Glancing at her reflection in the small window, she frowned. It was hard to see much, since the sun was shining outside, but from what she could tell, it looked a little…wild. “It’s not too…” She blew out her cheeks and flicked her fingers in an explosive gesture.

“Nope.” He grinned at her before dashing out of the office. “It’s perfect.”

She hesitated for a few seconds before deciding to trust Will. Leaving the office, she slipped behind the counter, taking the spot next to Steve, who was in the middle of wrapping a fat candle, his face screwed up in a mixture of frustration, concentration, and panic.

A laugh bubbled out of her. “Will wasn’t kidding,” she said, taking the candle and fifty sheets of tissue paper he seemed to think he needed to wrap it in. “You’re really bad at this.”

“I am,” Steve readily agreed. With his attention no longer fixed on the candle, he looked at her, smiling. His expression froze, his eyes widening.

“What?” she whispered. Now she was the panicked one. With her hands busy wrapping up the candle, she couldn’t even pat her hair to see what was wrong. Had Will been messing with her after all?

“Oh. Uh…nothing. Just your hair. It…uh, looks nice.” He finally yanked his attention off her and turned back to the register, but Camille was not convinced, especially since his face was brick red, and he seemed to be having issues hitting the right button on the register screen.

“It’s horrible, isn’t it?” She tucked the candle into the gift bag, forcing a smile for the woman who’d just purchased it. She, at least, didn’t seem horrified by the mess on Camille’s head. “Will talked me into it, and the window in the office is a terrible mirror. You’re going to have to help me think of a good way to get him back. No! I’ll ask Maya and Zoe. They’ll know what to do, and they’ll help me pull it off. They’re awesome like that. Where’d Maya go?” She spotted the girl on the other side of the store, helping a mom with young children pick out a tree stand. “As soon as she makes her way back over here, I’m going to ask her to brainstorm revenge strategies.”

By the time she finished rambling, Steve’s face had almost returned to its normal color, and he looked like he was holding back a laugh. “First of all, please don’t ask Maya or Zoe to help plan your revenge, since they’ll come up with something much more creative and excessive than necessary, like an ejector seat in his new car or a trapdoor in front of the toilet or something that explodes.”

Camille thought that two out of three of those ideas sounded genius, but she stayed silent as Steve handed her a small wreath to bag.

“That’ll be thirty-one forty-four. Thank you. Second, Will didn’t do anything wrong. I’ve just, uh, never seen your hair down before.” He was flushing again, ears going red at the tips. “I like it.”

“Thanks. I… Thanks.” She flushed too, keeping her head down so he wouldn’t see how red her own cheeks had gotten. Emotions churned in her chest—excitement and gratitude and nervousness, the usual combination she felt when she was around Steve. Her thanks seemed to hang in the air, feeling incomplete, so she blurted out, “I like yours, too.” When he gave her a sideways look and offered a dry thanks, she became even more flustered. “Your face, too. It’s nice.” She waved a hand, indicating his whole form. “There aren’t any not-nice parts of you, in fact. You’re pretty much nice all over.” She had to stop saying nice. In fact, she had to stop talking, period, but there seemed to be a delay between her thoughts and her mouth, because words were still pouring out of her. “So, basically, I like all of you. A lot. A whole lot. A whole, whole—”

Stop. Talking. Now.

She closed her mouth and pressed her lips together.

He cleared his throat. “Thank you?”

Camille instinctively opened her mouth to say “You’re welcome,” then decided not to risk speaking again, just in case. Instead, she gave a wordless grunt and focused on wrapping.

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Kari Lynn Dell's MISTLETOE IN TEXAS excerpt & giveaway

He’s always been the black sheep: the troublemaker.

But this Christmas, the prodigal cowboy returns.

Rodeo bullfighter Hank Brookman was headed straight for the top. But after a single misstep resulted in a devastating injury, he disappeared under a mountain of regrets. Now he’s back, ready to face the loved ones he left behind—starting with the one girl his heart could never forget.

When Hank stormed out of Texas, he left Grace McKenna picking up the pieces…and struggling with a secret that changed everything. He may be back looking for redemption, but after everything they’ve been through, how can she admit what he really walked away from all those years ago?

Hank always knew persuading Grace to trust him again would be a tall order. Convincing her they deserve a happily ever after? That may take a Texas-sized Christmas miracle.

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When Steve and Johnny pulled into the driveway, everything at the Brookman ranch seemed fine. A warm front had pushed in overnight and the horses dozed in the sunshine, their feeder full of hay. Hank was nowhere in sight, though, and neither were the dogs.

“Where do you suppose he ran off to?” Johnny grumbled, after they’d checked in the barn and around the corrals.

“Sanchez Trucking,” Steve said. “He mentioned to Cole yesterday that he’d reserved a repair bay this afternoon to swap out the wheel bearings on your pickup.”

Johnny glared at him. “You knew he’d be gone.”

“Hell yeah. Did you figure I’d toss the two of you together after what happened last time?”

Johnny cringed. Almost exactly three years ago, Hank had strolled into the Corral Café as casual as if he’d only been gone a day, not six months. And Johnny had been so shocked that the first words out of his mouth were “What the hell do you want?”

To say the conversation had gone downhill from there would be a massive understatement.

“If you’re so sure it’s gonna be a wreck, why did you hire him?”

Steve sighed. “The doc says you have to be in that sling for a month. You had to hire someone. And we were hoping this might be the shove you both needed to work things out.”

Was that why Hank had accepted? Did he want to come home? Johnny couldn’t imagine why, but he was rapidly losing the ability to think at all. The ache in his broken collarbone had grown teeth, and he was wiped out from a stroll around the yard. He sure as hell wasn’t up to butting heads with his son.

“I want to grab a few things from the house,” he said stiffly.

But when Steve opened the door, Johnny smelled food, and the mouthwatering scent of roasting beef was coming from his oven. As he stepped out of the mudroom, the figure at the stove turned…and his jaw dropped.

There was a woman in his house. A beautiful, copper-skinned, black-haired woman in faded jeans and a bright-pink shirt that matched her toenails. And if he wasn’t mistaken, she had been dancing to the music playing on the radio.

Barefoot. In his kitchen. And cooking actual food.

She smiled, amused by his goggling. “You aren’t the Brookman I was expecting.”

But she must have seen them drive in and watched them walk around. And had plenty of time to prepare herself—unlike Johnny. Now that his eyes had adjusted, he realized she was older than he’d first thought. Closer to fifty than forty. But who…

“I’m Bing,” she announced. “A friend of Hank’s.”

Johnny’s eyebrows shot up.

Her red-painted lip curled. “Not that kind of friend, but I’ll take it as a compliment.”

Steve stepped around Johnny and extended a hand that swallowed hers, even though she was taller than average and what you might call strong-boned if you were trying not to notice her curves. “I’m Steve Jacobs. Sorry for barging in. We didn’t see a car outside.”

Wait. Was Steve apologizing because Johnny had walked into his own home without knocking?

“Hank has told me all about you.” Bing clasped her other hand over Steve’s with a smile so dazzling it was like a flashbulb going off. “And I don’t have a car. Gil picked me up from the airport and brought me out.”

Now that he’d regained a few of his faculties, Johnny realized this had to be the woman Melanie had told him about. The one who’d fetched Hank from the hospital in Yakima and all but adopted him.

“Ah. You must be from Montana?” Steve guessed, in the absence of any attempt at conversation from Johnny.

“Yes.”

“What are you doing here?” Johnny blurted, then winced. Real smooth, Brookman.

Head cocked, arms folded, she inspected him from head to toe. She didn’t look particularly impressed. “It took me nineteen months to undo a fraction of what you did to that boy. I don’t intend to let you screw him up again.”

Steve made a choking noise that might’ve been laughter. Nice that someone was getting a kick out of this. “Did you find a place to stay?” Steve asked, deploying his southern manners to fill the charged silence. “There are football playoff games in Dumas and Canadian this weekend, so it might be hard to find a motel with a vacancy.”

Sunlight from the window caught in the inky-black spikes of her short hair as she glanced around, then back at them. “Melanie said I could use her room.”

Here? She intended to plant herself in Johnny’s house? With Hank, and with Melanie’s blessing. Damn it all, they were ganging up on him.

“How long are you staying?” Johnny choked out.

“Until you’re back on your feet.” That dark gaze pinned him to the wall, and she all but bared her fangs. “Or you say one word to Hank that doesn’t sit right with me.”

Johnny was set back on his heels by her outright hostility. Not much question whose side she was on. He fought the bizarre urge to laugh. Wouldn’t you just know it? There was finally a woman his own age in this house again, and she hated his guts.

And this one wasn’t even married to him.

“We should be going,” Steve said.

“I’ll let Hank know you stopped by,” she said.

As if this was their place, and Johnny was the intruder. The hell with that. “I’m staying.”

He had the satisfaction of seeing her eyes go wide.

“You can’t—” Steve began.

“It’s my house,” Johnny said. “And now I won’t be alone in it…so I’m staying.”

Steve swore under his breath.

Bing just raised those perfectly sculpted eyebrows. “Go ahead, make yourself at home.”

“I will.” And before his knees failed him completely, he strode across the living room, down the hall, and slammed his bedroom door behind him. He waited inside for a few beats, but Steve didn’t come after him.

But what now? Johnny couldn’t make her leave, and he couldn’t share a house with that woman. She’d probably poison his coffee. But he’d have to figure it out later, because right now he had to get horizontal before he fell on his face. He lowered himself onto the bed and stretched out flat with a huge sigh. His bed. His pillow. Lord, he’d missed them. And as long as he was gonna act like an overtired brat, he might as well take a damn nap.

When he woke, his room was dark. He levered himself out of bed and staggered to the attached bathroom. Even taking a piss was a major operation without the use of his left arm.

The house was dead quiet. Maybe that woman—what kind of name was Bing, anyway?—had left with Steve. But when Johnny cracked the door to Melanie’s room, he saw a suitcase on the bed, clothes spilling out along with a scent that made him think of exotic flowers and tropical nights.

He shuffled into the living room, lit by the lamp beside his recliner. Over on the bar he spotted a covered dish. He peeled back the foil and breathed a curse. She had unearthed Hank’s childhood Sesame Street plate from somewhere in the cupboards. One compartment held potatoes and gravy, the second carrots, and the third pot roast—all cut into toddler-sized pieces.

As he slid the plate into the microwave, he could see her laughing at him. But he wasn’t gonna waste good pot roast.

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MORE THAN A PHOENIX excerpt & giveaway with Ashlyn Chase

What do you get when you take

Two phoenix shifter brothers

Throw in one powerful witch

And one…monkey shifter?

Mallory Summers is losing it. She’s discovered she can talk to dead people—and she might be able to shift to monkey form. Firefighter Dante Fierro knows the quirky beauty isn’t crazy—just supernatural. But what would she think if she knew his secret?

Hothead Noah Fierro has his own sparks flying with gorgeous ER doctor Kizzy Samuels. While the attraction is mutual, so are the supernatural secrets. With this much sizzle going on, how do you not get burned?

Fighting fires is easy… Finding love is the hard part.

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“Why did you say no?” Ruth whispered from her spot on the buttery-soft leather sofa.
“I didn’t say no. I said ‘not now.’ It’s not the same thing,” Kizzy explained. Their father would be returning any minute. She had to shut down this conversation.
“It is to a guy. When was the last time you dated?”
Kizzy elbowed her sister in the ribs as their father ambled into the living room, scanning the thick tome in his hands.
“I don’t know, girls. I don’t see anything in here about who could be looking for the other books or why. We don’t even know for sure that there are two more. The story that the three together create unlimited power could be just that. A story. You swear you’ve felt someone probing, Ruthie?”
“I swear, Dad. I don’t know who it is, but the energy feels malignant.”
“Holy pickled pig’s feet!” Kizzy said. “Malignant? Are you sure?”
“Why is everyone questioning my psychic sense? I wouldn’t have said anything if the energy was neutral, benevolent, or if I wasn’t sure.”
“I’m sorry, Sis. Even though Dad and I are less psychic than you are, I would have thought we’d pick up on something like that.”
“Well, I don’t know about Dad, but you’ve had something else on your mind.” Ruth winked at her. “Besides, you can develop your psychic power, if you’re willing to spend the time practicing.”
“Oh? You’re distracted?” Their father picked up on the one thing Kizzy didn’t want to talk about. “Doctors like us can’t afford to let that happen. Is everything all right, Kizz?” He set the book on the mahogany coffee table and sat in the adjacent chair.
“Everything’s fine, Dad. Nothing to worry about.”
“Really? Because you girls know if there’s ever anything you need to talk about, I’m here for you. I’ve been both father and mother for fifteen years, and with the help of a nanny, I think I did a pretty good job.”
“You did. And we know you’ll always be there for us,” Kizzy said. “Don’t worry so much. You raised us to be independent women, able to handle ourselves.”
“Oh, go on. Tell him,” Ruth said.
“Tell me what?” He sounded alarmed. Now, he’d never let it go until she offered an explanation. She gave her sister the stink eye.
“There’s nothing to tell. It’s okay, Dad. Really. I just met a guy. Nothing may come of it.”
“She met a tall, dark, and handsome firefighter. And he asked her out. I hope she’ll give him a chance. It’s been too long, Kizz.”
“A firefighter? Oh, honey. That’s not a good choice. The job is dangerous. You’ll always be worried about him. And talk about crazy hours… They’re on for at least twenty-four at a stretch. I don’t see how that’s even legal. No one can function after a rough double shift. We both know that firsthand.”
“She turned him down,” Ruth said.
“Thank goodness.”
“Now, wait a minute,” Kizzy said. “I only said no for now, because of what Ruth was telling me. It sounded like a bad time. I didn’t necessarily turn him down for a date sometime in the future.”
Aaron Samuels sat forward. “It is a bad time. And so is any time in the future, as long as he’s a firefighter. I imagine that won’t change. They tend to be adrenaline junkies.”
“Come on, that’s an unfair generalization.” Kizzy knew she sounded defensive, but she didn’t care. “Noah’s whole family is part of the fire service. Keeping the city safe is a noble profession, and he seems to love it. Plus, he’s careful, and he does things for charity. He’s a good guy, Dad.”
“Noah? That’s his name?”
“Yes.”
“And he works in Brookline?” her father asked.
“No. Downtown Boston.”
“Oh, cra—I mean, crumb bunny.”
“What does that mean?” Ruth asked and giggled.
“It means that’s a crummy place to work. He probably sees the worst of humanity there. If he were working here or in Chestnut Hill or somewhere in the suburbs, it might not be so bad.”
“For crying out loud, Dad. It’s the financial district! Not Dorchester or Roxbury. Maybe he’ll get a hot stock tip from a grateful broker. Why do you always assume the worst?”
“Dad, Kizzy, we need to focus on the book.” Ruth sent her an apologetic look. Clearly, she hadn’t expected the conversation to take such a pessimistic turn.
“Yes, you’re right, dear,” the elder Dr. Samuels said. “I wish I had your psychic powers, but I don’t. Male witches in our family have other gifts, but divination isn’t one of them. I have to rely on the two of you to keep me informed. Please put your love lives on hold until we figure out what this threat is. Please? Humor an old man, okay?”
Kizzy frowned. “I already did that, remember? I said ‘not now,’ and Ruth thinks I might have discouraged him altogether—even though I didn’t mean to.”
“And I’m engaged but without a date set, so I’m all yours for the time being. I’d rather not move back home though. Then I’d have to explain why to Gordon, and I don’t think he’d understand.”
“Look, I know you’re adults, but I’m still concerned for your safety. You’ll just have to put up with me being a little overprotective.”
“Don’t you think it’s time to tell Gordon the truth?” Kizzy asked.
“I’m not convinced it’s necessary yet,” their father said. “Until a date is set. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not pushing you to get married. Neither one of you. I’d rather you be one hundred percent sure of the man’s love, devotion, and trust.”
Kizzy sighed. “I know, Dad. And believe me, I’m grateful I don’t have to put up with some of the pressure my friends do. They tell me about parental conversations that include phrases like ‘I won’t be around forever’ and ‘you need to get married before the dreaded 3–0.’”
“You have plenty of time, Kizz. I like your sister’s idea of developing your psychic powers. Maybe between both of you, the other books can be located.
“We don’t know what’s coming for us,” he continued. “If it’s as malicious as you say, we may be facing something truly evil. I never told you this, but on her deathbed, your great-grandmother begged us not to let ‘the entity’ get all three books.”
“The entity? That’s what she called…it? Or them?”
“I wish I knew more. We tried to get her to elaborate, but she died moments later.”

* * * *

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WILD ON MY MIND excerpt & giveaway w/ Laurel Kerr

 

“What are you working on?”

Katie tilted the screen in Abby’s direction. “A new website. Do you want to see what I’ve done so far?”

Abby nodded eagerly. As Katie flipped through the unfinished pages, the girl leaned close.

“That looks so awesome!” she said.

A smile spread across Katie’s face. Sharing her work with a tween was completely different from showing her old, grouchy boss. Abby squealed constantly and even clapped her hands twice. She pointed at the screen, excitedly giving suggestions. Some, especially her personal stories about the animals, were great. Katie’s fingers flew across the keyboard as she felt a rekindling of her old excitement for web design. In fact, she and Abby were so engrossed in the website that they didn’t even notice when Bowie woke up.

“How long was I out?” he asked. Katie turned to see him sitting upright on the air mattress, rubbing the back of his head. The gesture caused his already disheveled shirt to hike up, revealing several inches of nicely toned abs. It also had the side effect of flexing his right bicep—his very nice, very muscular bicep.

Katie’s stomach flip-flopped. The man was seriously attractive.

Even a model would have trouble pulling off sexy dishabille so effortlessly. Sleep had cured Bowie’s drawn features and dark circles. The fact that he wasn’t fully awake only added an element of intimacy, despite Abby’s presence. His black hair stood up in uneven spikes, making Katie want to smooth it down…and not just because it looked messy.

Bowie wore the sexy look well—too well.

Katie didn’t want to feel that slow, pleasurable tug again. It had muddled her mind in the past, and she didn’t want to start gazing at him with puppylike adoration, especially now. She was having enough trouble trying to figure out her career path without adding distraction into the mix—especially distraction of the male variety.

She was an adult. She understood the pull of sexual attraction and knew how to prevent it from turning into infatuation. She certainly knew not to mistake it for love.

“It’s six thirty,” Abby chirped happily, bouncing up from the floor. “I gave your breakfast to Katie. I’ll go grab another bagel.”

She bounded from the room with the energy only someone under the age of thirteen could possess. Bowie yawned and stretched, showing even more of his stomach muscles. Halfway through, he must have realized that his shirt had slid up, because he stopped and yanked it down.

Pity. Although, really, wasn’t that what Katie wanted?

“You should have woken me,” he told her, standing up.

She shrugged. “You looked like you needed the rest, and I was on a roll with the website.”

Bowie shifted uncomfortably and said gruffly, “Thanks, but you didn’t need to do that. I’ve run on little sleep before.”

“No biggie. So have I. And I had plenty of fuel.” Katie gestured to the two empty cans of Red Bull beside her.

“Did the cubs wake up for a feeding?”

She nodded. “They drank like champs.”

“So what were you and Abby looking at when I woke up?”

Katie got up and handed him the laptop. “She was helping me put together information about the animals for the website. What do you think so far? I’ve kept it professional and user-friendly. We can add some flashier features, but I think the portal should be streamlined.”

“This looks great,” Bowie said, the enthusiasm in his voice sounding legitimate. “You accomplished all this last night?”

A part of her thrilled at his words. Even long after Katie should have known better, she’d yearned for his and Sawyer’s respect. Suddenly, her dad’s words from yesterday popped into her mind. Was a part of her still trying to prove herself? Is that why she wanted a flashy job so badly? To have something to brag about? To automatically impress people?

Before Katie could reply, the door opened, and Lou entered. He walked a little stiffly but was still steady on his feet. She wouldn’t call him frail, but he didn’t quite fit the category of robust either. Lou glanced back and forth between her and Bowie, and Katie didn’t like his speculative look. Both the elderly zookeeper and her mother were a little too eager for them to work together. Thankfully, Lou didn’t make any comment. Instead, he just greeted them cheerfully.

“So how are my charges this morning?” he asked.

“They’re good,” Bowie told him. “Katie said they took their bottles well last night.”

Lou turned toward her. “So, you stayed the whole night. Couldn’t tear yourself away from the little critters, could you?”

“Nope, especially when they were curled up in little balls next to Sylvia. Plus, Bowie looked like he was on his last legs, so I thought I’d give him a few extra hours of sleep.”

Lou’s eyes gleamed at her last comment, and Katie nearly winced at her blunder. She did not want to encourage the elderly vet’s matchmaking.

“Would you like to help me weigh the cubs and check them over?” he asked.

Katie nodded eagerly. “I’d love that.”

“I’ll be out feeding the animals,” Bowie said. “Let me know if you’re too tired to drive home, Katie. Lou can watch the cubs, and I’ll give you a lift.”

“I’ll be fine,” she told him, surprised by his offer.

He gave her a close look. “Are you sure? It’s not easy staying awake after an all-nighter.”

“It’s not my first,” Katie said. “I’m wide awake.”

Bowie nodded and was starting to leave when Katie thought of something. “This is most likely nothing, but I thought I heard an animal last night. It was probably just my imagination.”

He immediately turned around, his voice resigned. “What did you hear?”

“A chittering sound,” Katie said, and then, as best as she could, she mimicked it.

Bowie exchanged a look with Lou. Then both men said simultaneously in the same exasperated tone: “Fluffy!”

“Who’s Fluffy?” she asked.

“The zoo’s honey badger, but he isn’t a true badger. He’s more closely related to a weasel or a marten,” Bowie answered.

Katie had never heard of the creature, which surprised her. “What part of the world are honey badgers from?”

“Africa,” Lou answered before he turned to Bowie. “You better get Abby before she leaves for school.”

“Abby?” Katie asked in confusion.

Bowie nodded at Lou before turning to her. “Abby is the only person who can catch Fluffy.”

“Honey badgers are ornery critters,” Lou said, “but Fluffy has a real soft spot for our girl.”

Bowie scowled. “It’s those honey-covered larvae that she sneaks him.”

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Love runs wild at the Sagebrush Flats Zoo,
where a motley crew of big-hearted animals
helps the most unlikely couples find love.
When Katie Underwood discovers a litter of newborn cougar cubs, the last person she expects to come to the rescue is her former crush—and high school nemesis—Bowie Wilson. The worst part? He doesn’t seem to remember the trouble he caused her.
As a single father and owner of a cash-strapped zoo, Bowie struggles to balance budgets while raising his preteen daughter and a host of rascally animals. He considers himself lucky when Katie agrees to lend her talents to a publicity campaign in support of the zoo’s animal rescue programs—until he learns just what she’s planning…
This time, Katie is determined to resist Bowie’s charm. But a lovelorn camel, a matchmaking honey badger, and a nursemaid capybara have different plans. Can they and the rest of the zoo’s menagerie help Bowie break through the barriers surrounding Katie’s heart?
Love can’t be tamed…
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Cheryl Holt's New JILTED series & Giveaway

In the beginning of my career (back in the 1990s), books were much longer, and when I started writing, my stories were long and delicious and emotionally satisfying.  Then I spent a decade, having to make them much shorter, which meant (with the reduced page length) they were much less satisfying.  With the reduced length, I had to include less and less plot and action.

For the past few years, I’ve again been writing books that are much longer.  This gives me the opportunity to really dig into the characters and plot, so I can constantly tantalize readers in whole new ways.  When I first fell in love with historical romances (many years ago!), they were long and wild and fun, with the heroines staggering through in unpredictable circumstances, and I’m trying to take my writing—and my readers—back to the sorts of classic books I loved when I was first starting out. 

I’m releasing the three books together on the same day, so readers can scoop them up and read the whole story without having to wait for the next installment.  The books will be available as print books and e-books.  Mark your calendars!  Coming September 20th!  I’m counting down the days!    

PROLOGUE

“What time is it now?”

Josephine Bates, simply called Jo by her acquaintances, whispered the question to her half-sister and lone sibling, Maud.

“Almost one-thirty,” Maud whispered in reply.  “Something must have happened to delay him.”

“He’ll be here any second,” Jo loyally insisted. 

“Yes, I’m certain he will be,” Maud halfheartedly agreed.

They shifted uncomfortably, jumping as the vicar cleared his throat.  They were seated in the front pew at the church, so he was able to glare down at them with stunning effect.  He checked his timepiece, and he wasn’t discreet about it.  Then he cast an exasperated scowl at his wife.  She tiptoed over to Jo and leaned down so they could speak quietly.

“Miss Bates,” she said, “my husband has another wedding to perform.  The bride and groom are waiting.”

Jo and Maud didn’t have to peek over their shoulders to realize that fact.

The church door kept opening, and they would whip around to see who had entered, being positive Jo’s fiancé, Mr. Cartwright, would march in.  He’d be laughing and full of apologies as to why he’d been late for the most important appointment of his life.

But it had never been Mr. Cartwright.  Couples were lined up to wed after Jo, and they were accompanied by their friends and families.  Jo was the only person with no entourage.  Her only guest and witness was to be Maud.  Mr. Cartwright wasn’t bringing anyone either.

The members of the nuptial party behind them were occupying several rows and impatient for Jo to get out of the way so they could start their own joyous event.  Their glowers cut into her back.

When Mr. Cartwright had scheduled the ceremony, the vicar had firmly explained that it would be wedding day at the small chapel.  Every half hour, he would officiate with a new bride and groom.  He offered a quick service for those who didn’t have a pile of money to waste on frivolities or who couldn’t abide the enormous fuss and bother of a big celebration.

Jo was definitely part of that group.  She craved a fast conclusion where she could shuck off the past and become a bride.  She was eighteen, and with her pretty looks, sunny demeanor, and acceptable dowry, it was an opportunity she’d always expected to occur.  Yet she hadn’t expected it to occur quite so soon.

Mr. Cartwright had burst into their world like a comet streaking across the sky.  With very little effort, he’d swept Jo off her feet.  Her head was still spinning over how swiftly it had all coalesced.

She was about to have her own home, was about to escape Maud’s snits and rages.  It was so thrilling to be marrying, to have found a spirited, amiable husband like Mr. Cartwright.  She couldn’t believe she’d been so lucky.   

“I’m sorry to have been an impediment,” Jo said to the vicar’s wife.  “Please tell your husband to proceed with the next ceremony.  My betrothed, Mr. Cartwright, should be here shortly.  If your husband is amenable, perhaps he can squeeze us in afterward.”

“Yes, that will work.”  The vicar’s wife frowned at Maud, then at Jo.  “Should we send someone to check on Mr. Cartwright?  He’s over an hour late.”

Jo would have declared that he’d appear at any moment, but before she could defend him, Maud butted in.  “Maybe we should send someone, Jo.  I’m worried he might have suffered an accident.”

At the prospect, Jo’s pulse raced.  “He hasn’t had an accident, Maud.  Don’t jinx us.  There has to be a perfectly good reason for his failure to arrive.”

The vicar’s wife didn’t seem to think so.  “I can have my son, Tim, ask after him.  We’ll all be relieved to receive some answers.”

Jo wanted to remain steadfast, wanted to argue that Mr. Cartwright hardly needed to supply any answers, but Maud silenced her with a dour grimace.

He rented a room at a men’s boarding house.  Maud provided the address to Tim.  He nodded and rushed off.

Maud and Jo moved to the rear pew so the newcomers could have the front.  They sat through the ceremony, then the next one, and the next one too.  Jo’s spirits had flagged to their lowest ebb.  People passing in and out cast curious glances at her, having heard her groom hadn’t shown up. 

She slunk down, wishing she were invisible.  Who treated a bride as Mr. Cartwright was treating her?  Who treated any woman—bride or not—so shabbily?

Yes, Mr. Cartwright was always late.  He joked about it, and initially, she’d been irked by his sloppy manners.  But then, after she’d learned how jolly and carefree he could be, she’d set aside her aggravation.  He wasn’t like other men, and she was glad he wasn’t.

She’d grown up at her father’s estate in the country.  Her mother had perished when she was a baby, and Jo’s father had been a detached parent who’d mostly stayed in London.  She’d been raised by servants, with Maud as her sole companion.  Maud was five years older than Jo, and she was stoic, petty, and vain.  She barked and criticized, so having her as a companion was like having no one at all.

Jo had lived a modest, simple existence, and she hadn’t had any experience with wooing or romance.  The chief male to whom she could compare Mr. Cartwright was her deceased father.  He’d been grouchy and unhappy, so Mr. Cartwright was a breath of fresh air who’d brought excitement into her dreary world.

He didn’t love her.  They hadn’t known each other long enough for strong feelings to develop, but he certainly possessed a tender regard.  He wouldn’t leave her in the lurch.  Still though, it had been two hours. 

The weight of the day pressed down on her, and it was incredibly difficult to maintain her calm façade

“I have to step outside,” she mumbled to Maud, and she hurried away without pausing to discover if Maud followed.

She walked out, and she tarried, studying the busy street.  They were in London, at a chapel to which she and Maud had no connection.  She’d have liked to be married at her local church, but she’d let Mr. Cartwright convince her that London was better.

He’d been anxious to proceed immediately with a Special License, then he planned to whisk her away to Manchester so he could introduce Jo to his sister.  It was easiest to depart from London.  She’d agreed to his every suggestion, and why wouldn’t she have? 

She was thoroughly smitten, and he was such a delightful fellow.  Even Maud liked him—when she didn’t like anyone.  But now, with Jo standing by herself—her hair curled and braided and her bouquet wilting—she was beginning to panic.

What did she really know about Mr. Cartwright?  She’d had no parent to make inquiries or furnish advice.  There was only Maud, and Maud—her guardian—was as eager to be shed of Jo as Jo was to flee their tedious home.  When Mr. Cartwright had proposed, Maud hadn’t hesitated to consent. 

The church door opened, and Maud sidled out.

“Has he jilted me, Maud?” she asked.

“I refuse to speculate.”

“If he doesn’t come, I’ll die.  I’ll just die!”

“Nobody’s dying.”  Maud’s tone was very stern.

“Where is he then?”

“It’s his habit to be tardy.”

“It’s been over two hours!” 

Jo burst into tears.  She couldn’t help it.  The stress of the prior few weeks had finally caught up with her.  With Mr. Cartwright’s speedy courtship and his insistence on a quick wedding, she’d barely had time to pack her belongings and say her goodbyes.

One minute, she’d been a young lady living with her spinster sister in the house Maud had inherited from her grandmother.  Then the next, she’d been engaged and racing toward her new life as a bride.  It was too much to take in.

Maud pulled out a kerchief and stuffed it in Jo’s palm. 

“Don’t cry,” Maud scolded.  “You always look horrid when you do.  What if he strolled up this very second and your face was all red and mottled?”

Jo chuckled miserably.  “Dear Maud, you never cease to put me in my place.”

“Someone has to.  Otherwise, you’d be quite out of control.”

“Yes, that’s me—a wild, unrestrained girl.”

A hysterical laugh bubbled up, and she swallowed it down.  There was no more boring, reserved person in the kingdom than Josephine Bates.  To consider herself as ever being out of control was hilarious.

Down the block, the vicar’s son, Tim, was returning, and they stiffened.  He was alone, Mr. Cartwright not with him.  Maud actually clasped Jo’s hand and squeezed her fingers.

“Miss Bates?” Tim said as he ran up.  “I checked on Mr. Cartwright for you.”

“Yes.  What have you learned?”

His cheeks flushed as if he was embarrassed.  “I’m sorry, Miss Bates, but Mr. Cartwright left town this morning.  At dawn.”

Jo cocked her head, as if he’d spoken in a foreign language she didn’t understand.  “Left…for where?”

“Apparently, he was off to Scotland for some hunting.”

Maud sucked in a sharp breath, and Jo weaved side to side, scarcely able to keep her balance.  She couldn’t have heard correctly.

“You’re sure?” Jo asked.

“Very sure.”  Tim withdrew a letter from his coat and offered it to Jo.  “The proprietor of the boarding house made me give you this.”

Jo gaped at it as if it were a venomous snake.  She was afraid to reach for it, but ultimately, she grabbed it and read it slowly as Maud tried to peek over her shoulder. 

“What does he say?” Maud asked.

“It’s a bill for Mr. Cartwright’s lodging,” Jo murmured.  “He didn’t pay what he owes, and the proprietor is demanding we pay for him.”

“You’re joking!”

“No.”

Maud yanked the letter away and scanned to the bottom to the amount that had accrued.  “Well, I never!” she huffed.  “What gall!  What insolence!  How dare he?”

Jo couldn’t decide if Maud was referring to Mr. Cartwright or the proprietor.

There was an awkward silence, then Jo said to Tim, “By any chance, was there a message for me from Mr. Cartwright?”

“No, Miss Bates.  He simply packed his bag and departed.  He…ah…claimed he’d had enough of London and the people here.”

“I see…”

“I told the proprietor about your wedding.”

“And…?” Maud asked when Jo couldn’t.

“Mr. Cartwright never mentioned any wedding,” Tim responded, “and the proprietor had no idea he was betrothed.  He’d been…ah…keeping company with an actress the entire time he was staying at the man’s house.”

“What?” Maud gasped.

“I thought you should know,” Tim muttered.

Jo’s knees gave out, and she collapsed down onto the step. 

Behind her, Maud was whispering to Tim.  She slipped him a coin, telling him to talk to his mother, to apprise the vicar that Jo’s name could be scratched from his schedule.  But Jo couldn’t focus on them.

She could only ponder handsome, cheerful Mr. Cartwright who was supposed to rescue her, who was supposed to provide the contented future she’d dreamed of having.

“What now?” she wailed to the gray sky.

It had been cool and cloudy all day, and it was starting to sprinkle.  The drops plopped on the sidewalk, on her shoulders and bonnet too.  The rain was cold and uncomfortable, but she didn’t feel it.

She didn’t feel anything at all.

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Cheryl Holt is a New York TimesUSA Today, and Amazon “Top 100” bestselling author of forty-eight novels.

She’s also a lawyer and mom, and at age 40, with two babies at home, she started a new career as a commercial fiction writer. She’d hoped to be a suspense novelist, but couldn’t sell any of her manuscripts, so she ended up taking a detour into romance, where she was stunned to discover that she has an incredible knack for writing some of the world’s greatest love stories.

She is considered to be one of the masters of the romance genre, and her emotional, dramatic, and riveting stories of passion and illicit love have captivated fans around the world. She has won or been nominated for many national awards. For many years, she was hailed as “The Queen of Erotic Romance”, and she’s also revered as “The International Queen of Villains.” She is particularly proud to have been named “Best Storyteller of the Year” by the trade magazine Romantic Times BOOK Reviews.

Cheryl lives and writes in Hollywood, California.

 

Erin Nicholas' GOING DOWN EASY excerpt & giveaway



Gabe had sent her flowers.Addison stood staring at the gigantic bouquet of white flowers sitting on the desk she was using for the day.

“These are magnolias, right?” she asked Elena.

“They are. The state flower of Louisiana.” Elena stroked the petal of one of the gorgeous flowers. “Someone knows your weakness for all things New Orleans.”

He definitely did. Addison hadn’t even needed to read the card to know who the flowers were from. Gabe knew she was a sucker for anything that was traditionally associated with the city. Beignets, bourbon, masks, beads, gas lanterns, and balconies with looping wrought iron railings. For six months he’d been taking her out on the Sunday she was in town and letting her soak up the city. And now she’d gone from associating those things with New Orleans and the unique spirit of the city to associating them with him.

But why was he sending her flowers? That was new. So far, their routine was she showed up at the bar on Saturday night, they spent the weekend together, she left on Monday morning, and then thirty days later, they repeated it all over again. There was no contact in between times. No texts or calls—they didn’t have each other’s number. No letters or gifts—he didn’t have her address. And definitely no flowers.

“See you soon, Gabe,” Elena read from the card. She lifted her eyes, meeting Addison’s. “Gabe? Who’s Gabe?” Then her eyes widened. “Wait. These aren’t from Gabe Trahan, are they?”

Oh, crap. Addison took a deep breath, thought briefly about lying, and then realized there was no real reason to not tell her friend the truth. “Yes.”

Elena’s eyes widened, almost as if she hadn’t expected that answer. “Really? You’ve seen him since that first night?”

Addison rounded the desk and set the folder she was carrying on top of the nearest stack, straightening the pile of already straight files. “Yes,” she said simply. The fewer details she offered, the better, probably.

“When?” Elena asked. “I had no idea you’d seen him again.”

And then it hit Addison . . . Elena wasn’t just her friend anymore. She was Addison’s boss. Was this going to reflect badly on her? Was a just-when-she-was-in-town affair something Elena would frown upon?

“I didn’t think it was important to mention. We just . . . went out a couple of times.” They had. They’d gone out to Preservation Hall for jazz. They’d gone to Café du Monde for coffee and beignets. They’d gone to the French Market. They’d gone to Gabe’s bedroom. And his shower. And his kitchen table. And his balcony . . .

“You’re dating Gabe Trahan?” Elena asked, planting her hands on her hips.

“No,” Addison said quickly. “Not dating. We’ve had . . . drinks when I’ve been in town.” And many, many orgasms. And laughs. And fun.

“Which time?” Elena asked.

“Which time what?”

“Which time that you were in town did you have drinks?”

Addison sighed. “Each time.”

“You’ve seen him every time you’ve been in town since you met him?” Elena asked, clearly shocked.

“Yes. But,” Addison added before Elena could go on, “it’s nothing serious. It’s been . . . a fling. Just a little fun. No big deal. And”—she took a deep breath—“this weekend was the last time. Now that I’ve moved here, I won’t be seeing him anymore.”

Saying it out loud made her heart clench even harder than it had when she’d driven away from him that morning.

***

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As far as flings go, single dad Gabe Trahan is pretty sure that Addison Sloan is his best bet. Once a month, Addison comes to New Orleans and then…It. Is. On. Until Addison returns to New York, it’s just hot, happily-no-strings-attached sex. And beignets. And jazz. But lately for Gabe, it isn’t nearly enough.

Sure, maybe Addison’s gotten a bit hooked on Gabe. After all, who can resist a guy who’s so sexy, so charming, and so…available? But maybe he’s too available for her right now. Addison’s just moved to New Orleans, and relationships are definitely off the table. Besides, guys always bail when they learn her secret: she’s a single mom.

Only Gabe’s not running. Worse, he’s thrilled. But Addison never signed up for ever-after romance, and Gabe won’t settle for anything less. Now it’s a battle of wills—and when it comes to the woman he’s falling for, Gabe isn’t above playing a little dirty.

 
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New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Erin Nicholas has been writing romances almost as long as she’s been reading them. To date, she’s written over thirty sexy, contemporary novels that have been described as “toe-curling,” “enchanting,” “steamy,” and “fun.” She adores reluctant heroes, imperfect heroines, and happily ever afters.

Erin lives in the Midwest, where she enjoys spending time with her husband (who only wants to read the sex scenes in her books), her kids (who will never read the sex scenes in her books), and her family and friends (who claim to be “shocked” by the sex scenes in her books).