Fierce-Cody

The Fierce women are at it again! Jolene, Carolyn, and Diane have gotten their children settled and it’s time to move on to their nieces, nephews, and friends of their kids. Secretly…of course.

Cody McMillan hasn’t known much in life other than protecting and caring for others. It started in childhood when his closest friend was seriously injured, then his father’s accident, and finally watching over his sister. When his sister relocates to Durham to marry, he decides it’s best to follow her and made sure she’s fine. That’s what brothers do, right? Put everyone before themselves? That is until the Fierces get involved and make him see he should put himself first.

Raina Davenport had the unthinkable happen to her in college. She dropped out and returned home to land a job at Fierce Engineering. She is trying to move on with her life and thinks she’s doing a grand job of it. Men and relationships aren’t in her plans…until the Fierce’s get involved and make her see that baby steps are a start, but sprinting gets you there faster.

A Lover For Lily…Chapter One

Check out the Prologue if you haven’t read it yet.

Chapter One

An Ulterior Motive

Thirteen years later

“Daddy, I want to get the pink ones. And purple. Oh, blue too. Aunt Zara loves blue.”

Zane Wolfe let out a sigh as his daughter, Willow, yanked him all over the flower shop on Main Street. He didn’t have time for this with work pulling at him faster than being sucked into quicksand. And quicksand was what it felt like when he moved from job to job trying to keep his head above the mess. But Willow wanted to get his sister flowers for teaching her how to tie her shoes and he found it hard to tell his little girl no.

He supposed he should be buying his sister all sorts of things for the work she’d done with Willow since he returned to Mystic almost three years ago.

“Why don’t we try to find one of the ready-made arrangements,” he said, nudging her toward a cooler in the back. If he let her start putting one together herself it’d look like rainbows threw up after a night out partying and give Blossoms a bad rep.

Willow let out an exaggerated sigh. “You don’t understand, Daddy. I know what Aunt Zara likes. You’re a boy. You don’t know anything about girl stuff.”

He narrowed his eyes at her brown pigtails when he’d heard a snort and laugh turned into a cough over by the counter. Guess the staff heard his daughter schooling him on all things girlie.

“I suppose I don’t,” he said. “And today isn’t the day to learn it. I need to get home and feed you. You know if you don’t eat you won’t grow. You don’t want to be that short your whole life, do you?”

Willow giggled. “Don’t be silly. I’m going to be tall just like you.”

He squinted one eye at her. “Maybe not that tall.” He didn’t know too many six-foot-three women and he didn’t want his daughter standing out anymore in life than she was going to, having a mother that abandoned her.

“Can I please pick out the one I like though?”

“Sure,” he said, knowing she’d probably go for the biggest and brightest arrangement in the case. Most likely the gaudiest too.

They moved to the back and he picked her up so she could get a view of the flowers on the top shelves. She was small for her age, but she was smart as a whip hitting all her milestones faster than the average kid. Or so Zara told him. She’d know, as a preschool teacher that had his daughter during the waking hours more than him.

“That one,” Willow said, pointing to the design on the second shelf. “The piece with the unicorn stick in it.”

Yep, rainbows and unicorns, bright and glaring and making his tired eyes burn. “Why do you want that one for Aunt Zara?”

“Because I like it,” she said.

“Do you like it for you or do you like it for Aunt Zara?”

He was grinning while he watched Willow concentrate on his question and prepared to buy the flower arrangement that was clearly for a child and not an adult.

“For me,” she said, “Can I have it?”

He backed himself right into the corner there. “Of course,” he said. He had no backbone with Willow when she was putting others first. “How about that arrangement right there for Aunt Zara. It’s pink and purple just like you said she likes.”

“That’s pretty,” Willow said. “We can get both.”

He put his daughter down and opened the door, then pulled out the small one with the unicorn for Willow and the bigger one with pink roses and purple and pink carnations—he knew that much at least—for his sister.

When he got to the front counter, the woman behind it was looking at the computer but glanced up. He was happy she didn’t ask if they needed help because Willow would have been all over starting up conversations like a lonely man on a park bench to anyone that walked by.

“Are you all set?” she asked with a smile on her face. A face he recognized. Lily Bloom.

“We are,” he said, waiting to see if she said anything to him. Why would she? He was just a guy that talked to her years ago in high school and wanted to get to know her better. She hadn’t been interested.

Both arrangements were rung up and the price was more than he thought. He supposed he should have looked at the tags. Who would have thought flowers would be so pricey?

He pulled his credit card out knowing he didn’t have that much cash on him and handed it over. Her long slim fingers reached out and shifted the machine in front of him. He remembered that about her in school. Long and lean. She was tall for a woman. Not six foot three like his daughter wanted to end up, but probably five foot eight or nine. With the high counter in front of her, he didn’t know if she was as skinny as she was in school, but she seemed thin enough.

“Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t see it there.”

“No problem,” she said. “I’m a little cluttered here today. I’m not normally manning the store, but I’ve got someone on deliveries and another out sick.”

He nodded, not sure what to think of her comment about manning the store. Maybe she ran it now? He supposed it was fitting considering she was named after a flower. He remembered her sisters were too.

When the machine beeped, he pulled his card out and put it away, then signed his name on the pad. “Would you like the receipt printed or emailed?” she asked.

He didn’t expect a small place like this to have technology that up to date. “Printed is fine,” he said. He didn’t need any more spam in his email.

“Would you like a box for those arrangements?” she asked. 

He thought for a second. “Actually. If you’ve got one handy, that’d be great. This one,” he said, nodding his head to his daughter who was busy looking at some vases on a shelf. He better hurry up or she’d be asking him for that instead of the one arrangement he originally came in for. “Needs to be kept close.”

“Hang on. We’ve got a lot in the back.”

She moved off to the side and he got a better look at her in tan pants that were fitted to her body, letting him know that she was as he remembered. Now she had a few curves instead of the straight boy-like body from high school, but damn, it brought back memories.

 Her hair remained a light brown, straight and falling to the middle of her back. She didn’t have much makeup on, but she was more put together than she was years ago. 

“Daddy, this candle smells so good. Here, smell it.”

“Don’t pick it up,” he said to Willow of the glass jar. She’d probably drop it.

“But smell it,” Willow said.

He leaned down to indulge his daughter while he waited. It did smell good. He picked it up and saw it was lemon verbena and the jar had the name Blossoms on it. Must be their own brand. Then he glanced at another wall and saw a bunch of candles in jars lining shelves along with what looked to be lotions and soaps.

“Here you go,” Lily said, returning and putting the box on the counter, preventing him from checking out the rest of the inventory. He wasn’t sure why he was interested in it anyway. He was here for flowers and got them.

Once the arrangements were in the box, he picked it up with one hand, then grabbed Willow’s hand with the other and made his way to his truck out front.

It didn’t take long to get to his sister’s house. She didn’t live far from his little cottage by the water. The one he’d bought on a tax sale and fixed up years ago. It was the right size for him and Willow, but he was more interested in the land and barn that held all his tools.

“What are you doing back here?” Zara asked when he walked into her house. Her nursery school was in a building in the back. One he spent a lot of time in getting set up for her two years ago when she decided to go out on her own. Guess neither of them was meant to work for someone else.

“We got you flowers,” Willow said. “I picked them out.”

“Flowers?” Zara said. “Why is that?”

“A thank you for everything. But it was Willow’s idea to thank you for teaching her to tie her shoelaces. I should be thanking you for so much more.”

“It’s all part of my job,” Zara said, grinning. “But Willow doesn’t like Velcro. She has her eyes on a pair of sneakers she wants with laces on them.”

He snorted. “I should have figured there was an ulterior motive.”

“Girls and their shoes,” Zara said. “Better get used to it.”

“Willow is the only girl who is having shoes in my house,” he said.

“Zane. Come on.”

“Zara,” he said. “No. I don’t have the time so don’t go there.”

His sister was determined to set him up, but he’d said more than once he had no time or interest in it. A woman to warm his sheets was about all he was looking for. 

Lily, the woman he’d just seen at the florist shop, might have been the first girl who wasn’t interested in him and he didn’t take it to heart.

He didn’t expect all women to fawn over him. Or want to go on a date if he asked.

But he sure the hell didn’t expect the woman he had a child with to up and say she was done, that it wasn’t for her, forcing him to end the career he’d always dreamed of.

“Willow, why don’t you go play in the other room while your father and I have a talk?”

“Daddy told me he was bringing me home to feed me so I could grow,” Willow said. “I’m hungry.”

His sister lifted her eyebrow at him and shook her head. “Why don’t you have a banana.” Zara pulled one out of the fruit bowl and cut it up quickly to give to Willow and sent her in the other room.

“Now that you got rid of her, what is it you want to say? No, I’m not going on a date with one of your friends.”

“That isn’t what I was going to say. I wanted to say you didn’t need to do this. To bring me flowers, but I appreciate it. I love Willow like my own and everything I do for her I’d do for my own child. I don’t like seeing you working yourself into the ground.”

“I’m busy,” he said. “Business is booming and calls are coming in fast enough I’m having to turn people away or hire more. I’m not sure I want the liability of more than the three guys I’ve got.”

“That’s your choice,” Zara said. “But you know as well as I do, that turning business away isn’t always good either. You’ll figure it out.”

“I will. I always do,” he said firmly.

His sister started to examine the flowers more. “What did you think of Blossoms? It’s not like it used to be.”

“I don’t know. Looks like a flower shop to me. I don’t think I’ve ever been in it before. I did recognize Lily Bloom though. She waited on me and made some comment about not usually being behind the counter.”

 “I’m sure she’s not,” Zara said. “I’m surprised she was. I didn’t know you knew her.”

“She was a few years behind me in school. We talked for a period of time.”

“Ahh,” Zara said. 

“Don’t go there either. But you obviously know her to make the comment about her not being behind the counter. Does she manage the place?”

Zara laughed. “You are so out of touch. I guess you weren’t around when it all happened and there wasn’t a need to fill you in about things over the years.”

“What happened?” he asked.

“Lily owns Blossoms and she and her sisters are millionaires. That little flower shop was the start of their ecommerce empire.”

“You’re joking, right? I don’t remember much about her other than she and her sisters had names like flowers.”

“They do. Lily, Poppy, and Rose Bloom. A few weeks before graduation, Lily’s mother was killed when she was hit by a driver on one of her nightly walks. Lily ended up marrying the owner of Blossoms where she worked. Rumor has it the owner always had a thing for their mother, who worked there, and figured Lily was easy pickings in her grief. I mean the guy was older than her mother.”

“So she’s married?” he asked.

“A widow. He died about six years ago. She got the flower shop and her sisters were adults then and out of college. They went from barely having a roof over their head to extremely wealthy. Guess there is something to be said about being with an older man.”

He didn’t bother replying. Why would he? It was not his concern if Lily was just like most women he’d crossed in his life who used a man to get what they wanted or needed in life. Then they’d moved on when they were done or had no need for the guy anymore.

A Lover For Lily…Prologue

Prologue

Lily Bloom looked over the sea of gray tombstones lined up in their precise locations. She’d never come here before. Why would she? No one in her family had died that she knew of in her eighteen years.

Except now one of the most important people in her life did die. Her mother. Suddenly. Tragically.

Lily stood holding her younger sisters’ hands on each side of her. Poppy was sixteen, Rose fifteen. The three of them stared at the tiny marker on the ground. They couldn’t afford much and there would have been no casket or burial without the help of her mother’s boss, Carl Blossoms. Lily wouldn’t take advantage of his kindness and told him she was grateful for any arrangements he made. That and the donations coming their way for the three girls that were now orphans was the only way this small gathering could happen.

“Do you need another tissue?” she asked Poppy.

Her sister turned and stopped wiping her nose on the sleeve of her black shirt. It was June and hot, but the girls didn’t have a lot of clothes and certainly not dark clothing. The trickle of sweat between her shoulder blades reminded Lily she was actually wearing a black dress of their mother’s. Pulling it out of the closet this morning almost caused her knees to buckle.

She’d held it together because she had to.

“Yes,” Poppy said. Lily, being the oldest of the girls and the one who looked out for them when her mother wasn’t around, pulled a small packet of tissues out of her purse and handed one to each girl.

Rose shook her head and looked away. Her eyes were still dry, as she was holding it all in. When it came out it was going to be an explosion of epic proportions, Lily was sure. She just hoped she would be around to care for Rose then.

The priest that Carl had arranged spoke, but nothing he said registered. He was a stranger to the family. Not many knew the Blooms. Or they didn’t care that much about the single mother that lived above Blossoms Florist and worked there full time. Mystic was more a tourist area so those passing through were just that…passing through like most did in their lives.

“I’m so sorry for your loss,” Maggie said. She worked at the florist shop too. Nice older lady that was a part-time employee with Lily and her sisters. Carl was kind enough to give them all jobs and help out the best he could. She had no idea how old he was, older than her mother for sure, and single. She’d never known him to ever date that she could remember. Not that she paid much attention. Maybe he was gay. She’d heard the rumors but brushed them off. He treated her and her family well and that was all she cared about.

“Thank you,” she said to Maggie.

One by one, shop owners and employees that worked on Main Street and had the time to stop their busy day came over to the three girls and gave their condolences. It was a blur of voices and faces. As sad as it was, the only thing going through her mind was how she could hold her family together when she only worked part-time and was starting college in the fall.

Community college might not seem like much to many people, but it was more than her mother had and it was a start for her. Anything to get out of the working poor trap she’d been in her whole life.

“What’s going to happen to us?” Poppy asked. She was the most open and sensitive of the three of them. Rose internalized everything. Lily was just serious. She had to be. The stand-in mom had been her role for way too long.

“Let’s not worry about it now,” Lily said. “I’ll figure it out. I’m legally an adult, so until or unless someone comes knocking on our door, we are staying together.”

“Where?” Rose asked. “We don’t make enough money to pay rent and everything else we need.”

“Don’t worry about those things,” she said, running her hand over Rose’s dirty blonde hair. It was tied back, but the warm breeze had worked some strands loose and they were floating along her cheeks making her look younger and more vulnerable.

That was the word that was screaming in her brain over their current situation. Vulnerable.

“How can we not?” Poppy asked, starting to sniffle. The dramatic one, but if any time called for it, it was now.

“Leave it to me. I’ll figure it out.”

They got back into her mother’s car, Lily wondering when the next payment was due and how that was going to work too. Today couldn’t be the day for any of this.

When they were back in their apartment, she heard a knock at the door and went to open it. A few people had dropped off food already, which was going to be helpful.

“Carl,” she said to her boss. “Hi.”

“Can we talk?”

Great. Just what she needed. She’d bet this was when he told her they had to move out of the apartment. She wasn’t about to beg though.

“Sure,” she said, opening the door wider.

“Downstairs in my office would be best.”

She nodded her head. Carl looked more skittish than normal. He wasn’t much taller than her, probably just as skinny. His hair was thinning and there was some sweat on his brow. He looked nervous, which only made her more nervous.

“I know what you’re going to say,” Lily started as soon as he shut the door to his office. “Can you give me a little time to figure things out and then you can have the apartment back?”

“What?” he said. “You think I’m going to kick you out?” He looked shocked and almost hurt over her words.

“I figured you probably need the space to rent. But I want to see if I can handle the expenses and find a full-time job.”

“No,” he said quickly. “I’m not kicking you out. I mean not like you think.”

That sounded like having to leave to her. “So then what?”

“I know this is going to come out of left field to you. And some are going to talk and I don’t care. I liked your mother as a person. She was nice to me when a lot of people weren’t, even including me in holiday dinners. I’ve watched you girls grow and consider you a family of my own on some level.”

“Mom was that way.” Holly Bloom was a kind gentle soul who happened to fall in love with a loser that never wanted to marry her and then abandoned her to raise his daughters alone.

“She’d want me to take care of you girls. I want to do it. But I’ve got no legal tie to you or your sisters. I’m not sure how it would work. Guardianship takes time. I’ve never been through those channels. There would be lawyers involved. All sorts of things.”

“I appreciate that. Going through the courts might raise attention to us and I’d rather not do that. Maybe we can skate through for a few years until the girls are older and adults. I’ll try to find full-time work and pay the bills.”

“No. You wanted to go to college and it’s your mother’s dream that the three of you would. I think the best way to make sure you stay together and survive is that you marry me.”

“What?” Lily asked, not sure she heard him right. She turned eighteen a few months ago. She was an adult in number only. She should be able to keep her sisters…maybe. Well, definitely not on her own, but she had no intention of letting the girls know that.

“I know it sounds crazy. But it would solve a lot of problems and worries for you girls. You can stay in the apartment for now, but my house is big and empty and there is plenty of room. We could figure things out as we go. I won’t pressure you for anything. It can be short term. Just a few years if you want. I really mean it.”

 There was so much going through her mind, but the hard truth and basic facts were—Carl was the only solution she had. And she’d do anything to keep her family together.

A Lover For Lily

At eighteen, Lily Bloom made a promise on her mother’s deathbed…to care for her two younger sisters and keep them together at all costs. So she did the only thing available to her to achieve that goal, she married the owner of the flower shop she worked at part-time. Now a widow at just thirty-one, she’s made a name for herself and plans on keeping it. Men? The last one she had was a necessity. The next? Nah, not worth it.

Zane Wolfe is a single father who had to cut his military career short when his ex decided parenting wasn’t for her. With no choice in the matter and not about to give his child up, he moved back home to start his own business and get the help of his family to give his daughter the life she deserved. Women? He has no time or need for them other than a physical release. Relationships? Been there, done that, and not crazy enough to try again…or is he?

Forever Mine…Chapter One

Have you read the Prologue yet? If not check it out first.

Chapter One

Still Come True

Four years later

“You look tired,” Ryan said when he walked into her office.

“Do you talk to your wife like that?” Whitney asked, grinning. 

Ryan laughed. He was one changed man and she knew first hand that love could do that. He was still considered a newlywed, having gotten married two months ago over the summer.

“Never,” he said. “She is beautiful no matter how much sleep she gets.”

“Where is Ryan Butler and what have you done to him?”

“Yeah, I know. I can’t help it. I never thought I’d see this day. Shannon and I brought Jeffrey for his first day of school today. Shannon cried; Jeffrey pleaded with me to get her to stop. It was funny.”

“You wanted to shed a tear, didn’t you?” she asked.

“No. I know they aren’t my kids, but it feels like it.”

“They are yours now,” she said. “Jeffrey looks at you as his father and Maddie adores you.”

“It is a nice feeling,” he said, puffing his chest out. She wasn’t sure if he was aware he’d made that move. Ryan’s wife, Shannon, was a widow with two young kids when she relocated to Colonie fifteen months ago. Whitney was pretty sure the last thing Shannon thought she’d find here was love again so soon and a second marriage.

“So the question is, when will you have your own child?” she asked.

“Probably soon,” he said. He stopped to look at her. Really stare at her. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry,” she said. “I’m not.”

She didn’t need her brother to apologize to her for finding love and a family and wanting to add to that. “Yeah, but we all thought it’d be you with the kids by now. It’s been your dream.”

“And dreams can still come true. As we know, it wasn’t meant and it’s a damn good thing nothing is tying me to Kevin.”

“Asshole,” Ryan said.

“He was that. And many more choice words. But he’s out of my life for good.”

She’d thought for sure she’d have to buy him out, but during the divorce proceedings, she got her fast divorce and they went on their separate ways. The fact their biggest asset, their home, wasn’t in either of their names worked in her favor. They had a joint savings account that she only put part of her income in, they split it and divided up some things in the house and he was gone as if she’d snapped her fingers and he went up in a puff of smoke.

“Damn straight,” Ryan said. “Now you need to get on that horse again. Don’t let him hold you back.”

“I’m not,” she said. “We’ve had this conversation several times. I don’t hate men and never did. I’ve got too many good examples of them in my life to feel that way. I’m just more selective now.”

She wouldn’t admit trust was a factor with moving on completely, but she figured many assumed it.

“If Evan can find someone, anyone can,” Ryan said of their older cousin.

“Evan isn’t nearly as bad as you used to be and Parker is perfect for him.”

“You’re obsessed with Parker because she was on Survivor.”

Whitney did a little shoulder wiggle. “She was awesome. Girl power there. Sorry, reality shows are my guilty pleasure.”

“Just don’t sign up for any of those Bachelor shows.”

“Good God no. I’ve had enough drama in my life. Anyway, one of my backup smoke alarms was beeping last night and it kept waking me up and I had a splitting headache this morning. It’s fine now.”

“Does it need a new battery? Do you want me to stop over and check them out? It was cold the last few nights, your furnace kicked on fine?”

“I don’t need my baby brother to change a battery that I did this morning. After I figured out which one it was. It’s all good. And yes, my furnace is working.”

“Okay. I know you are all independent and everything, but if you need anything you can ask any of us.”

“And I do when it’s something I can’t figure out on my own.” She appreciated the help and support she got from her father and brother. No one lived that far from the other in Paradise Place. Her whole family lived there, except Christian who was always buying and flipping homes all over the area on the side.

“If you have a minute I wanted to go over some supply orders with you,” Ryan said.

“Pull up a seat,” she said. She was a jack-of-all-trades for the business. The office was fairly big and she ran it. She oversaw the staff and the building itself. She dealt with most of the new build paperwork that went through their realtor, Ruby Turner. She handled all the customer and vendor relations. Not to mention the website for the business and marketing.

Yep, she had staff under her and they were great and she could delegate, but her job was her baby at this point in her life. She used it as a substitute for motherhood.

Was it wrong? Yes, it was. But it was what it was since it was all she had.

Before Ryan sat, he moved over to her filing cabinet, opened it up and pulled out a package of Twinkies. She kept junk food in there for her brother and cousins.

“You’re never going to grow up, are you?”

“No way,” Ryan said around a mouthful. “I eat these here so Shannon doesn’t yell at me for setting a bad dietary example in front of the kids.”

“You don’t need this junk food when Shannon is always baking for you.”

He rubbed is hand on his flat stomach. “Don’t I know it. But you keep filling the cabinet and I know you won’t eat these. Got to keep my sister happy too.”

She smiled. Not too many other than family worried about her happiness in her life.

“And you do. I am happy.”

“You are,” Ryan said. “We’ve seen it for years. That is one good thing.”

It wasn’t like a flipped switch when she kicked her lying cheating husband out of the house. There were times things got even darker and her family saw it. 

She had secrets. Or Kevin did that she’d discovered. They’d hurt her. They’d burned her. They made her lose faith in men.

Until she realized that Kevin was his own brand of douche. She just wished she’d seen it before and hadn’t wasted so much of her life.

“It is.”

But she wasn’t so happy when hours later she got a call that her security system was going off at home and the fire department had been dispatched.

She pulled the cameras up fast to look around and didn’t see smoke, but couldn’t figure out what was going on as she rushed out the door without telling anyone the reason.

The office wasn’t that far from the development her grandfather had started over fifty years ago.

She pulled into her driveway at the same time the firetrucks arrived. “Whoa, where do you think you’re going?” one of the firemen asked.

“It’s my house,” she said. “There is no fire. I can see it on my cameras. There is no smoke either. I’d rather you don’t break a door down to get in.”

“Captain,” the guy yelled. “The homeowner is here. She says there is no fire inside.”

She turned her head to see the fireman in full gear coming toward her and felt her heart slam into her chest at the sight of her first love. The boy that broke her heart and pushed her into the arms of Kevin.

No, no. That was wrong. He didn’t push her toward another man. She went there on her own when the one she wanted discarded her.

“Trey,” she said, pulling her shoulders back. She wouldn’t let him know she was affected. She’d shed more than enough tears over him when she was seventeen. She wasn’t that young girl anymore.

He wasn’t that boy either that said he was going to be a fireman like his father and it scared her. No, this was a man in front of her. One she’d tried to push from her mind for years.

“Whitney,” he said. “Do you want to let us in, or just tell us to leave since there isn’t a fire?”

“Can I go in or do you have to go before me?” she asked. “I don’t see a fire on my cameras, but I’m not stupid enough to send you away without having the house looked over.”

“Let me see the camera,” Trey said. She pulled her security system up and handed her phone over. “I’d like to go in first, if you’re okay with it?”

She handed over the key. “Here you go.”

“Stay here. We’ll be right back. We won’t break anything, don’t worry.”

She cracked a grin. “I know a few men who could fix it if you did.”

He didn’t smile back. Not like the boy she used to know. Guess they’d both changed a lot.

Forever Mine…Prologue

Prologue

Whitney heard the beeping of a horn and got up to look outside her office window. There was Kevin sitting in a black Mercedes convertible. 

She let out a sigh and went outside to see what her husband wanted this time. As if she couldn’t figure it out.

“You’re out here making enough noise,” she said when she moved to the driver’s door. “Testing out another new car?”

“We got this on the lot a few hours ago. What do you think?”

“I think it’s something that isn’t practical,” she said.

“It’s perfect for you,” Kevin said, grinning at her. At one point she’d fallen for that grin. When she was young and impressionable. Stupid even, but she’d never admitted that to anyone in her family.

“It has two doors and hardly a backseat. Where would we put a car seat?”

Kevin rolled his eyes. “You’ve got an SUV for that when the time comes. This is for fun. You need fun in your life. You’re too damn uptight.”

She’d been hearing this for years now. “And you’re irresponsible. Life isn’t all about fun.”

“Please,” he said. “You used to be a lot of fun. Now you’re a downer all the time. Take a test drive with me. You’ll love it.”

She wanted to grind her teeth over one more insult he threw her way. It never ended. She couldn’t be good enough for him. At least not in the past several years.

“I’m working,” she said. “Don’t you need to get to work?”

“Your family owns the business. You can come and go when you want and you know it. Not sure why you always feel like you owe them so much.”

He didn’t get it and never would. Butler Construction was her family business and part of her legacy. One she planned on handing down to her kids someday. 

If she ever had a child.

“Because they’ve done a lot for us.”

He snorted. “Yeah, right.”

It’d never been enough for her husband that was six years older than her and wanted the world on a platter without prepping in the kitchen. He sold cars for a living. Yes, he was good at his job. He made a lot of money. But he spent his time schmoozing with the guys and flirting with the women. She knew it. She’d seen it.

She had the money between them. Or her family did. And Kevin always expected that her parents would hand it over whenever she asked, even though she wouldn’t and didn’t.

“I’m not going to get into it with you right now,” she said quietly. “The boys are on their way for a meeting and I don’t want another scene.”

Her brother Ryan had never liked her husband and thought she’d gotten married too soon. Too young.

Yep, a month before her nineteenth birthday while she was in college was too young for her twenty-five-year-old husband. Everyone said it, but she was in love and saw the future family she’d been dying to have.

It still hadn’t happened almost ten years later.

“You always side with them,” Kevin said. “What’s your deal today? You were all pissy when you got up this morning too.”

“Nothing,” she said. Of course he wouldn’t remember she had to have more tests done today to find out why she couldn’t conceive a child. He hadn’t been to the doctors with her in years and didn’t ask questions when she tried to talk to him about it. It was obvious to her she was the only one interested in starting a family.

“What, are you on the rag again?” he asked, laughing.

He never used to be this crude either. “No. I had a doctor’s appointment this morning. They still can’t find anything wrong and don’t know why I can’t get pregnant.”

“Because you’re so damn uptight. We know it’s not me. You got pregnant once. It’s you. Relax. Come for a ride with me. Maybe we can conceive junior in this.” He was smirking and she wanted to just wipe it off his face.

Yeah, she got pregnant before they were married. She’d taken a home pregnancy test and told Kevin. He was shocked and not all that happy but said they should get married. They hadn’t been dating long, but she loved him and knew everything she wanted was coming true.

A week later, she’d gotten her period before she could get into the doctor’s office to have it verified. The doctor said it was normal for that to happen, she was young and wouldn’t have a problem conceiving in the future.

How wrong they’d all been.

Kevin had been so sweet during that time and they continued to plan their wedding, her knowing she’d get that family in time.

Since she was in college, it was decided they’d wait until she finished to try again. It just wasn’t meant, she’d told herself.

“I’ve got to work. So do you,” she said again.

“Fine. I want steak for dinner tonight. Stop and get some on your way home.”

He put it in drive and sped away. Heaven forbid he’d ask what she wanted. Or offer to cook let alone stop at the store to get anything.

She turned her head and saw Ryan pull in with her cousins Evan and Christian for a meeting. 

“What did that dick want? Doesn’t he have a job?” her brother asked.

“Nice way to talk about your sister’s husband,” Evan said to Ryan.

Ryan scowled at Evan, then turned to her. “Let me guess. He wants you to buy him that new toy?”

She forced a grin. “He said it’d be perfect for me.” She wasn’t going to relay the whole conversation. She never wanted to give Ryan more ammunition to hate her husband.

“Really?” Ryan said, looking over to the end of the parking lot. “Talking you into that new SUV that he said he could get a good deal on three months ago wasn’t enough?”

“I don’t need a money manager,” Whitney said. “It’s a nice vehicle and will last me years.”

“Until Kevin brings home something else,” Evan said, grinning.

Her cousin Christian shoved his brother, Evan. “Don’t get involved. It’s Whitney’s life.”

“Thanks, Christian. It is my life and my money, and no, I’m happy with that and I’m not a pushover when my husband wants me to be.”

She’d put her foot down years ago when the credit card bills started to pile up. The last thing she wanted to do was go to her parents and ask for money so she’d consolidated and paid them off. She cut the plastic up and told Kevin to get his cards in his name. She wasn’t doing this again.

Of course that was another fight that lasted a solid month, but at least he was paying his own bills off…or so she hoped.

“Let’s get the meeting going,” Ryan said. “Are you okay? You don’t look good.”

Under her younger brother’s rough exterior was a caring heart. “I’m fine,” she said, fighting back the tears. “Just a long couple of days.”

Ryan rubbed his hand on her arm. “Why don’t you go lie down. You had a doctor’s appointment today, right?”

Even her brother knew and asked and she hadn’t told him. Her mother knew, so she suspected he got the information that way. “Yeah. I’m fine.”

But at the end of the meeting, she had a splitting headache and decided to leave. She ran to the store and got the steak that Kevin wanted for dinner because she wasn’t in the mood for another argument today. He was going to start one about the car, she knew.

She went into the house that her family had built three years ago for them in Paradise Place. She’d never told Kevin it wasn’t in her name, but her father’s. She couldn’t get the loan because Kevin’s credit was so bad, but she was still making the payments.

When she went into their walk-in closet to change, she noticed one of Kevin’s shirts on the floor and picked it up to hang. He was such a slob at times. But once the light gray button-down shirt was in her hands, she smelled something floral and brought it to her nose.

Perfume? No. She didn’t wear any. And though Kevin wore cologne, this wasn’t the scent either.

She started to go through his side of the closet and found another shirt balled up in the back, and pulled it out. It smelled the same, but this time there was a red stain on the collar. Lipstick. 

She didn’t wear lipstick.

After taking a deep breath, she started to snoop everywhere on his side of the closet, then went to his home office. She didn’t go in there often; there was no need to. There was now.

She went through his desk, found his stack of bills to pay. The ones in his name. The envelope for a credit card bill had been opened, so she pulled it out and tried not to cringe at the balance. 

When she saw the three charges for hotel rooms locally she didn’t burst into tears—she got angry. Ryan wasn’t the only one with a temper and Kevin better damn well be prepared to be served more than steak when he got home.

Forever Mine

Will broken hearts and promises hold these two lovers back from finding their second chance?

Whitney Butler had dreams of a family of her own. Maybe she shouldn’t have voiced them to her high school sweetheart so early, scaring him away. But she found who she thought would be her forever love soon after him. Only it wasn’t. Not even close. Left alone with a broken heart once again, she decides it’s best to focus on being happy rather than planning it all out.

Trey Bridges was in love as much as any seventeen-year-old could be. But when Whitney started to talk about weddings and babies, he bailed and moved on. Years later, he is a single father trying to make life work when he gets called to an alarm at his high school sweetheart’s home. Flames rekindle, but old memories and insecurities are hard to forget. He realizes he threw the best thing in his life away and hopes to hell he doesn’t do it again.

Family Bonds-Eli & Bella…Chapter One

Check out the Prologue

Chapter One

The Incident

Six Years Later

Eli felt his phone vibrate in his pocket and pulled it out to see a text from the front desk. He didn’t like his name paged through the building. That was tacky in his eyes. His casino might be on a small island, but you were getting luxury once inside. And luxury to him meant discreet.

He called the front desk. “Yes, Kaitlin.” He knew his staff well. He had hundreds and didn’t care. He tried to learn everything he could about them and make them feel like a family. It was how he was raised and how his father and others in his family ran their businesses too.

“There is a woman at the front desk asking for you. She won’t give her name but says it’s important.”

“No name, huh?” he asked with a grin. It was not the first time someone had done that. “Is Griffin around?”

Griffin Zale was his head of security that normally could be seen by his side at night when he was in the casino. During the day, they weren’t together nonstop like most thought they were. 

“I haven’t seen him yet this morning,” Kaitlin said. “Should I try to contact him first?”

“No,” he said. “That’s fine. I’ll be over in a few minutes.”

The last thing he needed was shit from his best friend that he couldn’t handle a woman. 

He was in his office going through correspondence that built up way too fast. He had a lot of great employees he could delegate to, but nothing was done without his knowledge either. That meant spending mornings behind a desk when he’d rather be on the floor mingling.

Once he finished up with the email he’d been writing, he got up and walked out of his office in the back of the casino on the first floor. “Nancy, I’m going up front. You know how to find me if you need me.”

“Will do,” Nancy said. 

She’d been with him for the five years that Bond Casino had been up and running. She’d worked for his father for years and was steady, stable, and reliable. She could crack the whip on anyone that tried to bug him too much and she kept him in line too. Probably came from knowing him since he was a toddler when she first started as his father’s assistant.

He turned the corner to the lobby and saw the back of a woman with long blonde hair, soft and flowing over a petite frame, standing at the front desk off to the side just looking around.

“Eli,” Kaitlin said to him. “Thanks for coming up.”

The blonde turned, the punch to the gut followed, and he knew right away who he was looking at. How could he forget? “Bella. Is that really you?”

“Hi, Eli,” she said. “Sorry about not giving my name. Um, is there somewhere private we can talk?”

“Sure,” he said. “Thanks, Kaitlin.” The first thing he noticed was her French accent was missing.

“Did you want me to reach out to Griffin?” Kaitlin asked.

“No. I’ll see him shortly.”

“Griffin?” Bella asked. “The guy from my uncle’s casino?”

He laughed. He’d never forget the night he met his best friend and head of his security. “One and the same,” he said. 

“I hadn’t realized you were friends. You said you didn’t know each other back then.”

“We didn’t back then.” He wasn’t going to get into a conversation about his history with Griffin. He’d stayed at Bella’s uncle’s casino for a total of two weeks. He’d wanted to hightail it out of there, but to prove who he was and what he was doing, he decided to stay that extra week after the incident.

They were moving back through the lobby. He swiped a card to enter the door to the back, then two more to get to his offices. 

“It’s pretty secure here,” she said.

“Very,” he agreed. “I learned that the hard way. Or I should say through experience.”

She laughed. A nervous sound. Just like that night he was dragged into the security pen. “Sorry about that. I explained it all to my uncle.”

“I know you did. It helped. We worked it out.” Not as fast as he would have liked, but hey, he learned a ton from Oliver Dubois.”

“I know you’re busy and I appreciate you taking the time to see me.”

“Never a problem,” he said. After six years she no longer looked like the fresh-out-of-college girl but more like a woman. He might have been attracted to her but wasn’t about to make a move back then. Not after just talking to her got security on him. 

Besides, he’d only been there a week afterward and she was by no means the vacation fling type. He knew. He’d come across enough during his travels.

He passed by Nancy, grinned at her raised eyebrow and then shut the door to his office and gestured with his hand for Bella to have a seat. “Thanks,” she said. “I’m sure you’re curious why I’m here.”

“I am. Of course you could be on vacation and wanted to say hi, but that wouldn’t explain your reason for not giving your name to the front desk.”

“No,” she said. “I’m staying in a hotel in Boston. Or I did last night and took the ferry over this morning. I need your help. Or rather my uncle needs your help. No, it’s more about me.”

“Really?” he asked. “I find that hard to believe.” 

Oliver Dubois was easily one of the top billionaires in the world. He didn’t own just the one casino in Monte Carlo that Eli was in, but more in Monaco and all over Europe. It was Eli’s luck Oliver had been in town that week. If he weren’t and Eli hadn’t been able to talk to Oliver personally, he might still be sitting in the holding cells.

“This letter should explain things better,” she said, pulling it out of her purse. “I found it in my room a few days ago along with a plane ticket to Boston and hotel reservations made under my grandmother’s maiden name.”

Interesting. He reached his hand out to take the envelope. “Do you know what this says?” he asked, noticing it was sealed.

“No. I had another letter that stated he had to leave the country and needed me to do so also. He’s private and I never ask questions, but he’s never done this before. His head of security is gone too. I sought out his second in command who took me to the airport in the middle of the night for a private flight to get me out of Monte Carlo.”

Eli opened the envelope and silently read:

Eli, I need you to watch after my niece for some time. If anyone can it’s you and Griffin on your small island. People are looking for me and it’s not safe for Bella to stay here. She needs to be protected from her past while she is there and doesn’t need to be concerned with the trouble that I am currently going through. I will be forever in your debt if you could keep Bella safe. I’ll be in touch. Don’t try to reach out. It will draw attention to you or Bella. You will be compensated for all your troubles and expenses when I return if you would allow Bella to live the life she is used to in my absence.

He read the letter over twice. He’d had no idea that Oliver was aware Griffin was with him.

“You don’t know anything that is in this letter?” he asked.

“No. Can you tell me?”

The letter didn’t say he couldn’t, but he was going to be vague. “Just that your uncle needs some time away. He’d rather you are looked after somewhere remote where no one can connect you to him.”

“Oh,” she said. “I know he’s always been private, but I’m scared for him. He’s the only family I know. He didn’t say anything else?” she asked, her eyes filling with tears.

Man, he was going to be toast in a second seeing that. He was such a sucker for tears.

“He mentioned that you needed to be guarded against your past while you are here. He felt that Griffin and I could do that. Can you explain that much to me?”

He figured saying that much was better than mentioning the current issues since she seemed in the dark. “So he knew that Griffin was with you?”

“Obviously,” he asked. “What do I need to know about you? Why are you in danger? Or aren’t you? I’m going to assume you are to start before I can go any further.”

“I don’t think I’m in any danger,” she said. “Not from my past at least. However, my father and mother died when I was a teen and Uncle Oliver became my guardian. He’s always protected me due to my father’s career. He believed there might have been danger, but I don’t remember that ever being the case.”

“Let’s start with the facts then,” he said.

“Are you sure?” she asked. “I know you’re a busy man.”

He laughed. “I might be busy, but your uncle is asking a huge favor of me and he must know I wouldn’t turn you away. I can’t do what needs to be done if I don’t know what is going on. I get the impression you’d rather tell me first, but I can get Griffin.”

“No. You’re right. I’d rather tell you first.”

Family Bonds- Eli & Bella…Prologue

Prologue

“Hey,” Eli Bond said to the cute blonde hostess. At least he figured she was one since she was outside the show that would be starting in an hour. “Can you answer a few questions for me?”

“Sure,” she said. “I’ll try. I’m not normally doing this but just filling in. More like getting my feet wet.”

She did look a little young to him. Soft spoken too with a gentle French accent. It didn’t matter, she might be sweet on the eyes, but anyone that looked young here was most likely even younger than they appeared. 

He wasn’t stupid enough to venture into that wading pool of risk, especially in a foreign country.

“Great place to dip a toe in,” he said of the casino in Monte Carlo he was visiting. He’d been traveling around the world for almost two years on and off checking out different casinos to gather information and get his own up and running the perfect way. Plans were being finalized so the travel was intermittent now.

“It is. What can I help you with?” she asked, brushing her hair behind her ear. Her hand wasn’t steady and he wondered if it was nerves since she’d more or less admitted she was new.

“Just tell me about the shows and how they are set up. How do you seat and manage the crowd? Things like that. Who arranges what form of entertainment if you know that.”

“Oh,” she said. “I thought you wanted to know about the show tonight. I can help you with that. I don’t think I’m at liberty to tell you much more.”

He sent her a smile, noticed her nametag and said, “Bella, right? What a pretty name. I’m trying to see how different casinos manage their entertainment.” 

She turned her head to some men in another doorway. Security, he knew. They were in suits and probably hiding their weapons. What the hell was going on here that she couldn’t answer a few questions?

“I don’t understand your need to know that,” she said.

“I’m opening my own casino in America. It’s in the works now. I’m traveling around the world checking places out for ideas.”

She frowned like she doubted him. “Really? You seem kind of young to be building a casino.”

He wasn’t going to let her statement get to him. She had no idea about his background, his wealth, or his family backing. He was only making conversation.

“Age means nothing,” he said. “Again, just looking for ideas. So why don’t you tell me about the show tonight? I purchased my ticket for the second show, but do you take walk-ins? If so, do you limit the amount?”

Bella looked over to the side again and apparently realized they were being watched. Good grief, that was one thing he wasn’t going to do…make it so staff couldn’t talk to the guests. 

“We do leave some seats open for walk-ins, but I’m not positive the number. I guess it depends on the show.”

“And this show tonight? Is it one booked for a few weeks only or longer?” He’d already checked that information out on the website. Sure, he could email someone to talk and ask questions, but he’d found getting it from working staff while he explored was the best way.

He’d never thought he wasn’t easy to speak with or couldn’t dump the charm on until now. “I think this one is for a few weeks. Excuse me a second,” she said.

He looked behind him and saw someone waiting to get her attention so he moved a step to the right while she took care of them and looked around the marble entryway. Definitely going this route for sure. Luxury on the island was his first thought. 

He’d take his camera out for some pictures if he didn’t already have the security’s attention. Maybe another day.

This casino was huge. The biggest he’d been in while he enjoyed his time in the French Rivera. His room had a beautiful view and was luxurious. Everything he was going for on Amore Island.

No, the little island off the coast of Massachusetts wasn’t going to be anything like being in the Mediterranean, but he could give that vibe inside while people dropped their money on the table.

He noticed people moving in and out. Not everyone was dressed in thousands of dollars’ worth of shoes and accessories. He wasn’t even counting the diamonds and gold he’d seen. There were plenty that looked like an everyday Joe. Like the guy sitting on the bench not too far away listening to the conversation. He was in plain clothes and Eli wondered if he was additional security or not. He had the look to him.

When Bella was alone again, Eli stepped back to her. “So back to my questions.”

“He is bothering you?” one of the suited security men said, coming over.

“I’m just asking questions about the show,” Eli said, smiling. “Got my ticket right here for later.” He pulled it out and held it up.

Didn’t seem to make a difference though. “Then you know when it starts and can leave our employees alone to do their jobs,” the guy said.

“He’s fine,” Bella said. “It’s okay.”

“It’s not okay,” the big burly man said. “He’s been asking more questions than he should for a simple show. Maybe we need to bring you down for some questioning to find out the reason why.”

“Leave him alone,” the guy from the bench said. “He’s doing exactly what he said.”

“Two of you, huh?” the security guy replied and nodded his head to his partner against the wall.

Oh shit. How the hell did this turn into something that was going to throw him in the pen? Especially in a foreign country. “It’s all good,” Eli said. “I’ll take my leave now.”

“Not quite,” the first security guy said. “We can do this the hard way or the easy way. Why don’t you follow us for a few more questions anyway.”

There was no reason to cause a scene. “The easy way of course.”

The second security officer moved to the guy on the bench and said, “Same with you. Easy or hard?”

“Hard,” the guy said. He didn’t look pissed. He had no expression on his face that Eli could tell. “I’ve done nothing but sit here and watch the scene. I have no idea who this dude is.”

Eli had noticed the military cut on the man who’d now stood up. He was about the same height at a little over six foot, lean and somewhat mean looking. Not a person to cross in an alley.

“Why don’t we just go along peacefully?” Eli offered the man. “I’ll take care of any of your troubles or time.”

“No troubles because I’m not going anywhere,” the man said. 

The security guard reached to secure the man, only to find he was on the ground, the military dude’s knee in the back of the black suit, one arm behind the suit’s back.

That’s when a gun was pulled, Eli’s hands going up in the air and Bella gasping. “Dude,” Eli said. “Move back. I don’t need any blood on my conscience.” 

Other security showed up and both Eli and the stranger were manhandled more than he appreciated and escorted into holding.

Well, now he knew how to handle a situation like this in his place should it ever happen. If he got out of this country alive.

Family Bonds- Eli & Bella

Eli Bond has always had life under control. He knew what he wanted and was determined to succeed at any cost. He surrounded himself with people to make that happen and nothing was standing in his way. When a woman from his past drops into his life unexpectedly…he’s going to make sure she understands that he isn’t letting her go this time.

Bella Kingston could never forget the man that was detained at her uncle’s casino years ago for just talking to her. She’s been protected her whole life, even if she didn’t want it. Suddenly there is a threat in her life and her uncle ships her off to Amore Island to be guarded and watched over by Eli Bond. Now the question was, is the threat to her heart?