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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.