Believe In Me

Caden Finley has been the success story that dreams were made of. A model in his teens, valedictorian of his class, graduated the top five from Carnegie Mellon and landed a job right on Wall Street where he continued to make a name for himself. Too bad all that work landed him in the hospital. Embarrassment over his health leads him to relocate to upstate New York and a slower lifestyle. He’s out of his element and frustrated with it, but determined to keep his past mistakes where they belong…hidden.

Sarah Walker has always been second behind her professional baseball player brother Harris. She was totally fine with it too. Until she realized that was the only reason half the men she dated wanted to be with her. Fed up with never being first in someone’s life, she’s decided it was time for a change. Time to put herself first and foremost and if she ended up single, then so be it. If she was happy, that is all that mattered…or so she tried to convince herself and her insecurities.

One More Chance…Prologue

Prologue

Taryn Miles was rubbing her hands together. She wasn’t sure if it was anticipation, excitement, or fear. Probably a combination of them all.

Here she was ready to tell her family she was moving to Florida a few short months after graduating from college.

She hadn’t been able to find a job and it was driving her insane. It shouldn’t be this hard, but it’s not like many jobs were flowing around her unless it was in tourism and she was going for accounting. Boring, just like everyone said she was.

But she’d gone to Tampa with a few friends for two weeks and got back to town three days ago. She’d had so much fun there, more than she’d ever had here. She’d looked at her life and realized it was pretty quiet and dull and maybe it was time for a change. An adventure of sorts.

She was young yet. Now or never, she’d been telling herself.

She squared her shoulders and marched out of her bedroom that she’d shared with her sister, Kennedy, growing up. Kennedy was living with friends in an apartment in town and working as a massage therapist. Kennedy had always known what she wanted and had no problem lining up a job when she was ready. She’d own her own place someday because Kennedy said she would and she always followed through.

Her brother, Trevor, was home for another week and then would be going back to God only knows where in the Army where he was a Ranger. At twenty-two years old, Taryn really didn’t want to live home with her father, the chief of police, and her mother who was a nurse.

Being the baby of the group, she always had them hovering over her more than the others. It was time to move onto something better. Something more exciting.

Anything other than Lake Placid where everyone knew and questioned her.

She saw her family was relaxing out back on the deck, and decided to join them. A Sunday dinner like she’d had so much growing up.

“Are you ready to tell us what is going on?” her mother asked. She should have known there was no hiding this, so she just decided to jump right in.

“I got a job.”

“You did?” her father said. “That’s great. I know you’ve been dying to get out there to work, but you’re going to be working your whole life.”

“I know. I just hate sitting around doing nothing. It’s driving me crazy.”

“Why sit around when there is a ton to do here,” Kennedy said. “But you don’t care to be outdoors that much and never did.”

“It’s not that,” she said. “I’m just not so much into nature and hikes or hunting. You like that stuff. I don’t mind swimming and being on the lake, but there is only so much I can do of that too.” She’d always found it calming to sit on the dock and stare at the lake.

“If you want to meet a guy you’ve got to get out of the house,” Kennedy said, winking.

That was another problem here. Slim pickings for men. Not that she dated much, but she wanted to. Most guys in this area had issues dating the chief of police’s daughter.

“Leave your sister alone,” Trevor said. “If she wants to date that’s fine, but he has to pass my test.”

She narrowed her eyes at Trevor. “No, thank you. It’s bad enough being the daughter of the chief of police. I don’t tell many my brother is in the Army.” And very few he was an elite Ranger. And almost no one but family knew he was a sniper.

“So where did you get a job?” her mother asked.

Here goes nothing. “Tampa.”

“There’s a company called Tampa around here?” her father asked, with an odd look. He’d never think she’d leave, she knew that.

“No. In Tampa,” she said. There was dead silence. “One night I was just looking online when we were in the hotel and I decided to apply for kicks and giggles. I never expected to get called in for an interview the next day. Then a second one after that. They called me on my last day and offered me the job.”

“You’re moving to Florida?” Kennedy asked her with a big grin on her face.

“Yes. What’s so funny?”

“Nothing. Good for you. It’s no secret you don’t like being here. I guess I just didn’t think you’d do this. It’s kind of sudden.”

Her mother had tears in her eyes. “It is sudden. Are you sure you’ve decided?”

“You’re not going to try to talk me out of it?” she asked, shocked.

“You’ve always been pretty independent and determined once you set your mind on something,” her mom said. “I’m not sure there is much I can say if this is what you want. Nor do I want you to have regrets if you don’t go, even if you’re my baby and it’d kill me to watch you drive away.”

She didn’t think they’d take this so well. But she looked at her father and saw he was struggling. She was a bit of a Daddy’s girl. “When do you start?”

“In three weeks.”

“Where are you going to live?” her mother asked. “Or did you find a place already?”

“I want to know that it’s safe,” her father said. “I want to know the name of the place to check out myself.”

She expected as much and wouldn’t fight them on it. “I don’t have my own place yet. Jami’s cousin that we were visiting offered to let me stay with her until I got settled and found a place. She’s in a two-bedroom apartment and said she could use the money.”

Her parents were looking at each other. “How much do you know about this person? What’s her name again?”

“Ellen, and you’ve known Jami my whole life. You know her parents. You like Jami and her parents. Ellen is nice. She’s a year older and been on her own about six months. She’s making ends meet but would like some breathing room. It’d be cheaper for me to just split the rent with her too now.”

“Tell us about this job,” Kennedy said.

She was happy Kennedy was changing the subject for the moment. “It’s a staff accountant at a law office. The pay is really good. It might be more than I would have made here and the cost of living isn’t as high there either.”

Her mother started to cry and came forward to hug her. “I know there is no talking you out of something when your mind is set on it, but we’ll support you and help you get set up. If you want, your father and I can help move you.”

She nodded her head. “Thank you. I’d appreciate that. I don’t have much and just figured I’d take a few days to drive my car down there.”

“Your car isn’t in that great of shape,” her father said. “We’ll help you get set up like your mother said, but let me look the car over first.”

“Thanks, guys,” she said, going to her father and hugging him too. “This means the world to me.”

“Just remember,” her mother said. “You can always come home with no questions asked.”

She nodded again and wiped at her tears. She knew that but had no plans on returning. She was getting out of here and couldn’t wait.

One More Chance

Taryn Miles decided to give Lake Placid one more chance after leaving home after college. Greener pastures were in her future. Or so she thought. What should have been a better life turned out to not be much different than what she had.

Justin Cambridge and his father’s relationship changed the moment he said he had no interest in taking over the family golf resort in little old Lake Placid. What he wanted was an exciting career in emergency medicine in a big city. But when his father falls ill, he decides to bury the hatchet and return home to help care for him and maybe mend the relationship before it’s too late. Staying there long term wasn’t an option…only he should know by now that saying of the best laid plans…

Family Bonds- Emily & Crew…Chapter One

Check out the Prologue first.

Chapter One

A Wakeup Call

“Crew, sweetie, I’m so glad you could make it.”

Crew smiled at his grandmother when he walked into the retirement home’s large common room where she was playing cards with her friends. “I wouldn’t miss it. You know that. This is easier for me than Christmas. Maybe I should fly you to me for Christmas.”

“Heavens, no,” she said. “Did you hear that, Ethel? My grandson wants to fly me to some remote island in the East.”

“Go,” Ethel said. “Take a bikini with you. You can borrow mine.”

His eyes went wide and then he heard his grandmother laugh. “I don’t need to borrow yours when I’ve got plenty of my own. How’s the ocean this time of year? It’d be just like taking the Polar Plunge.”

Thoughts of his grandmother in a bikini running into the freezing ocean were causing his heart to hurt in more ways than one. “How about we save the ocean until it’s warmer? Maybe you could visit in the summer?”

“We’ll talk about it another day,” his grandmother said. Which probably meant no. He’d been trying to get her to move with him for the six months that he’d lived on Amore Island.

Nope, she was content to stay in the retirement facility that he paid for back in Boulder, Colorado. She understood his need to leave and he just wished she would have come with him.

He only came back to visit one or two times a year and never the same time. He didn’t want his remaining family to know when he might be in town and he knew his grandmother would keep that secret.

“Are you ready to get some dinner?”

“I am. No one came to visit with you today?” he asked.

Lucy Hanson was his maternal grandmother. The only one he wanted to be around after his parents died tragically. He’d been in college burning through their money and partying the same way they were. It was a wakeup call to find out the small plane his father had just purchased and was flying crashed during a storm one night and there were no survivors. Pilot error had been the final call.

“Your Uncle Richard only comes around if he thinks you will be here. The same with his greedy kids.”

“You mean your other grandkids,” he said, smirking. Dina and Derek Hanson weren’t that close to him growing up even though they were around the same age.

Crew’s parents were just blue collar workers living paycheck to paycheck their whole lives until they struck it big on the lotto.

His mother’s brother decided that maybe his younger sister was worth something now. Like a handout when he’d never helped his parents when they needed it. After it was all left to Crew, his uncle and cousins thought they could squeeze some green out of him. Not happening.

“It doesn’t matter what their names are, they rarely come around. They are too busy with their lives.”

“Good for them,” he said sarcastically. He’d never abandon the one person to take him in and love him unconditionally. His grandmother loved everyone the same. Or she used to. She had little tolerance for her son and other grandkids now. “Let’s go back to your rooms and get your jacket.”

He offered his hand and helped her up even though she didn’t need it. She might be seventy-five, but she’d give most fifty-year-olds a run for their money in many things in life.

Once they were in her two-room suite on the first floor of the complex, he looked around the open area. There was a decent-sized living room with a four-person table near the galley kitchen. Her bedroom and bathroom were off to the side. She loved it here and he knew if he couldn’t get her to go with him, she was at least being looked after.

She came out of her bedroom with her jacket on over her black pants and UGG boots and he couldn’t hold back the laughter. “What?” she said. “You bought them for me.”

“I did,” he said back. He’d been stunned when she said she wanted a pair but figured they would be nice and warm on the grounds, not that she’d go out in public in them. Even her black pants were stretchy with a longer sweater. She looked pretty modern to him too.

“Then don’t laugh at me,” she said.

“I wouldn’t think of it,” he said back. “Even if I did.”

She slid her arm through his and they went to his rental, then drove to the restaurant for a Thanksgiving dinner.

“How long are you staying?” she asked after they’d placed their order.

“I’m flying out tomorrow,” he said. “I need to work this weekend.”

“You couldn’t take one extra day off?” she asked. “You flew in last night late and then tomorrow you’ll be gone again. It’s like you’re barely here.”

Which was the way he wanted it. The less chance of running into not only his mother’s family, but his father’s as well. Leeches were everywhere.

“Packages need to be delivered. I was lucky to get tomorrow off to travel and I managed to get out early yesterday.” Which hadn’t been easy either. It’s not like he could just drive to the airport. He had to get on the ferry, then go to Boston International. He got the earliest flight he could tomorrow so he wouldn’t have to worry about missing the ferry back to the island as it was.

“You’re a busy man, I know. If I haven’t said it enough, I’ll say it now. I’m proud of you for settling down.”

He wasn’t so sure he was settled. At thirty-two years old, he’d been traveling around for five years. After the death of his parents, he’d dropped out of college. It wasn’t like the degree in business he was getting was going to do much for him. He was barely passing as it was.

But he had to do something with his time and, for the hell of it, he applied to the post office. Good benefits and a nice federal job, what the heck. He only applied for part time and stayed that way for years allowing him the time to hang out with friends and party all he wanted. Even travel when he wanted most times.

Five years ago he’d had enough though and put in for a transfer to Phoenix for a full-time position, then later to Houston which he’d left to come here about six months ago. The cold was getting to him and it was time for warmer weather. Until he realized the heat wasn’t much better when he was walking around in it all day.

That started his journey to different places until he landed on Amore Island and felt like he might have found his home.

“I’ve got a good job and a nice house. If that’s considered settled, then yay for me.”

“I’d love to see you with someone special,” his grandmother said. “Have you been dating anyone?”

“I haven’t really dated anyone in years and you know it. You know why too.”

“One person, Crew. She was a piece of shit.”

He started to cough on the drink he’d just taken. “Good point.”

Lisa knew about his money and she liked to have fun. He was fine with that. Then his parents died and she was there for him. Until she told the biggest lie imaginable and cost him a shitload of stress and another major wakeup call. That had been the final straw for him to begin making plans to get out of Dodge.

“It was years ago, Crew. How many?”

“Almost ten,” he said. “And yes I’ve dated in that time. Of course I have. I just haven’t found anyone as wonderful as you.”

She laughed and he was glad of it. “And you never will. But you shouldn’t be comparing. Do you at least have your eye on anyone?”

“Yes,” he said before he could stop the word from tumbling out like snow during an avalanche. What the hell was wrong with him?

“Tell me about her,” his grandmother said.

“Not much to say. I paid three thousand dollars to have a date with her. I’m still waiting to set it up.”

“Crew! I hope you’re lying to me. Good Lord, that is one high-priced call girl.”

This time he couldn’t stop the laughter and decided not to correct her.

***

“Have you called the guy you owe a date to?”

Emily looked at her mother as she set the table for Thanksgiving. It was just her parents and her sister, Penelope, for Thanksgiving. She was fine with that as she was exhausted from traveling this past week.

“No, Mom. You know I’ve been out of town and we’ve had one issue after another at the hotel.”

“Which your sister and I have dealt with,” her father said.

Her parents and Mitchell Bond together owned thirty percent of Atlantic Rise Hotel. They’d fronted the cash for her and Penelope to get their start and then the two of them split the remaining seventy percentage and maintained majority shares. Not that her father or Mitchell did much more than offer suggestions or help when they needed it.

Her mother, Sophia, had introduced Mitchell to his wife, Janet; then Mitchell had returned the favor introducing Sophia to Mason Rauch. Mason, her father, was semi-retired now, just working remotely as Mitchell Bond’s Vice President of Marketing. Mason’s family was in the tourism business most of his life so he came by it naturally. Marrying her mother just added to his portfolio that would be handed down. Lots of rental properties and other investments more than anything, but the girls had no shortage of things they could do when they were older.

They went the hard route though and wanted to start from scratch.

No, neither she nor her parents were as wealthy as Mitchell or Scott Bond, or some of the other Bonds in the family, but they held their own.

“But it’s Emily’s baby,” Penelope said. “You know she can’t disconnect for one minute.”

“You’re no better,” Emily said back to her sister. “You’re just as much of a control freak as me.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Penelope said. “You bring freak to a whole new level. I just like to be organized. You want things your way or it’s the highway. I’m the nice one the employees like to talk to. You, you’re the one that they run from.”

“Your sister has you there,” her mother said.

“I can’t help it if I’m serious and determined. Penelope is just as much and you know it.”

“But I’ve got a softer approach than you.”

“Which is why we make a great team,” she told her younger sister.

“We do,” Penelope said coming over and putting her arm around her shoulder. “See. Soft approach.”

She rolled her eyes at her sister. “To answer your question, Mom. No. I haven’t reached out to Crew, but I plan on it next week.”

“What do we know about this guy?” her father said. “You said he’s your mailman? That’s a lot of money to pay to have a date with someone when he could just ask you. Do you even talk?”

“We talk all the time,” she admitted. “I mean when I’m home and he delivers a package. He normally rings the bell so I know it’s there. I’ve asked him to so it doesn’t sit on the porch.”

“So he drops a package off and leaves after he rings the bell?” Penelope said. “Maybe he has a crush on you to do that.”

“I doubt it,” she said. “Men like him want nothing to do with someone like me.”

“Uptight and a control freak?” Penelope said.

Emily didn’t think she was that uptight but understood many thought otherwise. Including her ex, Simon. He didn’t think she was so uptight when he was riding on her coattails. Maybe she shouldn’t have voiced that to him during one of their fights.

Oh well, in the past.

“Whatever. He’s nice. He’s always smiling and has a joke to say or something funny. I’ve given him cookies and drinks. Sometimes it’s really hot out and since he does go out of his way to ring the bell, it’s the least I could do. You know others just toss things and run off the porch.”

“You’re feeding the mailman,” her mother said. “That’s so sweet.”

She wanted to grind her teeth. This was why she didn’t tell her family things. But over the summer it could get hot out and there had been a few days Crew was carrying up some of her packages. They were big and heavy and he was sweating, his biceps and forearms were flexing, even his thighs and calves when he squatted down.

She’d actually been almost embarrassed to be staring and more so when he’d caught her. She immediately offered him a bottle of water that day and then a few more times when she saw him.

Most times he dropped her mail in the box by the end of the driveway, but if she was home and had a package, she’d almost always go to the door to get it and offer him something and talk for a minute. It’s not like she had packages sent daily, and she did track them to know the day they’d be delivered and worked her schedule around to be there for them.

Sometimes she wondered if she was just lonely that she was looking forward to seeing him.

But the last thing she expected was that he’d buy a date with her.

“That’s me. Sweet. Maybe he just wanted to pay me back for being nice to him. See, Penelope? Soft approach here too.”

“By upping the bid a thousand?” his father said. “No. There has to be more to it. I’m waiting for Helena to get more information on him to do a check.”

“Dad, he works for the federal government. Don’t you think they’d do a background?”

“No clue and don’t care. Mitchell will run the check once Helena gets the information. We just want to make sure there is no criminal background,” her father said.

“Which I’m sure Mac can do for you easily enough too,” she said of the chief of police. Mac Bond was family, he knew about the auction and though he said there was no way in hell he was getting on stage when he was asked, he still understood why the event was done. Though this was the first year Helena got the hair-brained idea to auction people off.

“Maybe I’ll have Mac deal with it then,” Mason said. “Especially if you are calling him next week to set up this date. Remember, stay in a public place.”

“Dad,” she said. “I’m thirty years old. I’m a big girl and know the dating rules. It’s a few hours and we’ll stay on the island. The date is his choice, he bought it.”

“I wonder what he has planned,” her mother said.

“Maybe he wants to take the time to tell Emily to cut back her shopping so he isn’t breaking his back,” Penelope said.

“You buy just as much as I do,” she complained.

“I do. But I don’t have a hot mailman delivering mine. Maybe I need to move to your neighborhood. Hmm, maybe that is why you are buying more and more lately. What do you think of that, Mom?”

She wasn’t going to agree with her sister that Crew was hot. It was bad enough they already knew she was giving him food and drink while he worked. And right now everyone was eying her funny too.

She was done talking about this. “So did you find out what it would cost to add more selections to the room service menu?”

“Emily has spoken,” Penelope said. “Back to work mode. It was fun while it lasted.”

Her mother sighed and looked at her watch. “One hour until the turkey is on the table. That means no more shop talk after. Understood, everyone?”

“Understood,” everyone said back.

If anyone wanted to know where she got her personality from, it was her mother. She speaks and everyone listens.

Family Bonds- Emily & Crew-Prologue

Prologue

“Next up is Emily Rauch, co-owner of the Atlantic Rise Hotel,” Helena Bond said. “As many of you know, she is from Patricia’s side of the family. Come on up here, sweetie.”

Emily squared her shoulders. The last thing she wanted to do was be put up for auction for the Bond family fundraiser, but it was for a good cause bringing in a lot of money that went to various much-needed and underfunded causes on the island. This year it was for the health clinic that many of her cousins worked at too.

“Here goes nothing,” she said to her younger sister, Penelope. Irish twins they were. Her mother having them just under one year apart. For one week a year, they were both the same age. This past summer, late August, they were both in their twenties. Then she turned the big three oh.

“You’ll be fine. I’m just glad she asked you and not me,” Penelope said.

“She didn’t ask you because she heard you were out on a date a few weeks ago and thought you were taken. I should have said it was a blind date and didn’t work out so you’d be stuck too.”

Penelope laughed and pushed her toward the stage where Helena was waiting with a big grin on her face.

Not her aunt, but close enough to one. Her mother, Sophia, was actually best friends with Janet Bond, Helena’s sister-in-law. Janet and Helena ran this fundraiser, but Helena was more the voice of it. Or at least the voice of the auction since it was her idea.

“I’m coming,” Emily said to Helena, who held her hand out, then grabbed Emily’s and patted it.

She did have a fear that she wouldn’t get that many bids. Or none at all. Her cousin Bode’s went well and she was afraid that might be a hard one to follow. Hailey Bond was after her and she knew damn well that would be high. Anyone with the last name Bond did well in life.

But she liked that she could hide behind being part of the family without really announcing it to the world.

“The bidding can begin,” Helena said to the auctioneer. Thankfully, it wasn’t one of the fast-talking kind and it was more in fun.

After she got an opening bid at a thousand, she felt a little bit better. When it started to go up in hundred-dollar increments by men she didn’t know, she was worrying a little, but everyone would be vetted before the date occurred through security measures.

The bidding was still going and she was standing there stiff in her fitted black dress and Valentino Garavani studded nude pumps. They made her feel powerful and feminine at the same time. She’d learned to master that in her life if she wanted to get ahead.

She had no problem getting noticed for her looks, but she was damn well going to make sure that wasn’t all someone saw.

Tough. Businesslike. Get out of my way if I’m in the zone.

Yep, that was what people thought of when they saw her.

Not sexy and laid back.

Not standing on stage with a big smile on her face waiting for some guy to pay a few thousand dollars to spend a couple of hours with her.

For the life of her she had no idea why anyone would want to.

But it was for charity, and on the island, the Bonds put that first.

When the bidding stopped, the auctioneer said, “Going once, going twice—”

“Three thousand,” she heard in the back. Damn, that just jumped up a thousand. There were some chuckles in the crowd and she was trying to see who belonged to the paddle that was just raised but couldn’t make out his face.

“Someone is interested in winning a date with Emily,” the auctioneer said. “Going once. Going twice. Three thousand it is to number sixty-one in the back.”

She nodded her head and walked off the stage, then caught sight of who it was and started to laugh. “Wow. Guess that might be the only way to get a date with me.”

Crew Ackley, her mailman, grinned and winked at her and she wondered how the heck he was able to drop three thousand dollars on this and why he would.

And at the end of the night, she made her way over to him. “That was nice of you. It will go for a good cause.”

“I’m sure it will,” he said.

“I’m not sure how this is going to work. You obviously know where to find me to set this up, but why don’t I get your number? I’ve got to go out of town next week and then with Thanksgiving, it might be a few weeks if that works for you?”

Crew pulled his phone out and she tried hard not to stare at his large hands. Everything about him was big and intimidating and she almost had to do a double take to realize it was him in the dark suit and black tie rather than the government-issued blue-and-white one with a bag over his shoulder as he hopped in and out of the truck driving around her neighborhood.

His dark eyes were laughing at her and she was trying her hardest not to flush like she always wanted to when he smiled at her. She’d never been attracted to big men before or ones that were rougher looking, but Crew got her salivating more than juice from an orange being squeezed in a press.

“That works for me,” he said, reading off his number. “Do I get yours so I don’t think it’s some cold call and send you to voicemail?”

“I guess you do,” she said. She sent him a quick text, heard his phone go off. “There you go. We’ll be in touch with each other.”

“We will,” Crew said, walking away. She tried her damnedest not to follow his movements, but when she heard Penelope laughing she knew she was caught.

Family Bonds- Emily & Crew

Emily Rauch was proving to be a powerhouse in the hotel business at a very young age. She and her sister had a vision and she was making it come true come hell or high water. She had to be tough in a man’s world and had no problem with it. Even in her family’s world…the Bonds. But she was determined to come out on top. If it meant staying single because men were intimidated by her, then so be it.

Crew Ackley was just a middle class kid until his parents hit the lotto and left it all to him when they died tragically. Then he learned that everyone wanted to be with him for a handout only. Fed up with not being able to figure out who was real and who wasn’t, he left the area and was starting over on a small island off the coast of Massachusetts. He thought that’d make him happy until he found a woman he wanted to get to know better who didn’t see him as anyone other than the man delivering her mail. But if he told her his worth, would she only see that?

Fierce-Ryder…Chapter One

Catch up on the Prologue here.

Chapter One

My Last Hope

Almost ten years later

Marissa McMillan took a deep breath and made her way into Dr. Sam Fierce’s office. This was her last resort. She’d been emailing him and calling his office for months and finally got through.

Never in a million years did she see herself in this position in life. A single mother, a child with a medical condition and being told it was too risky to operate, but watching her son suffer wasn’t an option either. He wasn’t getting better and he might not if they couldn’t do this surgery.

If one more doctor told her to wait a few years while he grows, she might scream. Those doctors didn’t live with her son. They didn’t care for him while he got infection after infection. 

“Marissa McMillan,” the nurse said. “Dr. Fierce will see you now.”

She got up and followed the nurse into Dr. Fierce’s office. Tommy was off having some tests done after his exam twenty minutes ago. Though she wanted to be with him, she was told she couldn’t go, that he’d be in good hands. So far everyone had been nice, even Dr. Fierce.

“Why don’t you have a seat,” Dr. Fierce said when she was led into his office. He got up and shut the door. “Why did you reach out to me?”

“Because I’ve had multiple opinions and I don’t like what I’m told. You’re one of the best there is and I’m hoping you can operate.”

“Tommy is young. The mass doesn’t seem to be growing or not much. I’ve looked over all his files.”

Oh no. Not again. She couldn’t do this another time and felt her eyes start to fill up. “He’s sick a lot. You see that. He gets infection after infection. If I didn’t push his doctors to run more tests they wouldn’t have even found that mass on his liver.”

“You’re right. They probably wouldn’t have. Why did you push?”

“He shouldn’t be getting as sick as he is. It’s like it came out of nowhere. He went from being this healthy energetic kid to always having a cold. A sinus infection. Stomach pains. Ear infections. It’s like his body can’t fight much. The pains in his side are what made me push the tests last year.”

No one wanted to believe her. They’d said Tommy was just a sick kid. A weak immune system. Some kids had them, but she refused to accept that answer.

Finding out he had this mass on his liver and it was now pushing against bile ducts gave her the answers she needed. But knowing no one would operate while Tommy continued to get sick made it worse. 

“He had a biopsy done on it about eight months ago,” Dr. Fierce said. “It’s not cancerous.”

“No. But that doesn’t mean it’s not affecting his health. You can see his medical records. I feel like you are my last hope.”

Dr. Fierce sat back and crossed his arms. “Tell me the real reason you sought me out.”

She started to get nervous. “I told you. You’re the best there is.”

He laughed, not really a funny sound. “I am. But there is more to it.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“I think you do. What’s Tommy’s middle name? What does the R stand for?”

Crap. She knew this might come up. She’d hoped not, but once she got a look at Dr. Sam Fierce the odds were almost against her. He looked a lot like Ryder.

She wasn’t going to lie. It wouldn’t benefit anyone at this point. “Ryder.”

“Tommy is my nephew, isn’t he?”

“Why do you ask that?”

“Really?” Dr. Fierce asked. “Are we going to play it this way?”

She started to cry. It was all just too much for her. “Yes. He is. Ryder Fierce is Tommy’s father. Tommy doesn’t know. No one knows.”

“Obviously not my brother either. Ryder might be a lot of things in life, but he’s not someone who would abandon a child. We weren’t raised that way. And if he even considered doing it, my brother and the rest of my family would kick his ass with me leading the way.”

“He doesn’t know. I never told him.”

“Tell me why and what happened.” When she didn’t make a move to speak he said, “I want to help you and I want to help my nephew, but this is a tricky situation. The least you can do is humor me and explain this.”

“Ryder and I were dating for a few months our last semester at Clemson.”

“He never said a word about you. I’d remember your name. I’d remember your face if I saw a picture. Trust me. I know my brother’s tastes and you aren’t anything like who he dates now and things are starting to make sense.”

She didn’t know if there was an insult in there or not but knew there was no reason to cover anything up at this point. She’d been caught and for Tommy’s sake it was time to let the cat out of the bag, even if all his claws were out trying to stay hidden. 

She looked around and saw tissues on his desk, helped herself to one and blew her nose. She shouldn’t be upset Ryder had never told his family about her and it just reminded her again and again she never knew him that well.

That Ryder had said all the right things at the time and then turned around and broke her heart right before finals.

“He broke up with me the week of finals. Or the week before. He was harsh about it and I was devastated. He said he didn’t want to look at me let alone talk to me ever again. I didn’t even know I was pregnant until almost two months later.”

“It took you that long to know?”

“My parents were in a car accident two weeks after graduation. They were both severely injured and it wasn’t a good time in my life for a lot of reasons.”

She’d finally found a job and then got terminated because she missed so much work trying to care for her parents. Thankfully she’d found another one a month later and though her parents needed her help, she had to put the child she was carrying first.

Her brother, Cody, was home for the summer and he’d been a great help. Her parents were getting better. Her mother recovered and went back to work, her father a little slower as he needed more surgery to repair his broken back that never healed the way it should have.

“I’m sorry about that. But that doesn’t excuse why you couldn’t make a phone call and let my brother know he was going to be a father.”

  “Tommy’s middle initial didn’t give it away. What did, Dr. Fierce?” she asked.

“I think under the circumstances you can call me Sam,” he said. No smile at all, not like when she first met him. He was pissed; she could see it and she couldn’t blame him. “And you have to know Tommy looks just like Ryder. The Fierce genes are strong. He’s almost the spitting image of my brother at that age.”

“I wouldn’t know. I just know he doesn’t look a lot like me.”

“He has the shape of your eyes,” Sam said. “But the blue of Ryder’s. Not even the light blue of yours, but darker like Ryder’s. Ryder is the only one in the family with blue eyes.”

She remembered those blue eyes of Ryder’s too. Much darker than her light ones. Sometimes they even came off as brown, but when he wore blue, they just stood out so much. 

She’d been blown away that Ryder Fierce was interested in her. She thought she might be on the rebound from her breakup with Bryan and didn’t want anything to do with him when he approached her.

But he’d managed to convince her that he’d had a crush on her for weeks and when he found out she was single he wasn’t going to give up until she gave him a chance.

She stupidly fell for his good looks, charm, and smile. It bit her in the ass more than sitting on a mound of fire ants.

“I knew I was taking a risk coming here, but it was one I needed to take.”

“Once I get the scans and test results back today, I’ll make a final decision. I’m pretty sure I can operate, but you need to know the risks involved.”

“Thank you,” she said, crying again.

“I won’t know for sure until I get everything back. This is a risky surgery. He’s a child and though I understand why others have said to watch and wait, I’m also concerned that his bilirubin number was at the top of the acceptable range when he had blood work last. It’s not the end of the world, but knowing he has the mass against his liver and his frequent infections, it’s concerning.”

“I’m just glad you are seeing that.”

“I’d see it regardless of the patient. You weren’t going to the right specialists and I have to ask why. Is it an insurance thing? It says you work as a financial adviser.”

“I have a job. I have insurance, but it’s not the best insurance. I’m out of network for this visit and I don’t care. I’ll pay whatever it takes. I’ll deal with what I have to owe that insurance won’t cover. I don’t want anything from you or your family.”

“That’s just too damn bad,” Sam said. “Because you’re going to get it.”

“I don’t need anything other than you to help my son,” she said.

“Tommy is my parents’ first grandchild. They are going to freak out. In a good way. If you want my help that means you need to tell my brother he is a father. My family needs to know. And the first thing that will be done is adding Tommy to Ryder’s insurance which will cover this surgery.”

She wanted to argue, but knew it’d be stupid. Her pride had to be put aside. “I don’t want him or your family to think I’m coming after you for anything. I’ve got a good job. I can take care of my kid.”

“I’m sure you do and you can. But that doesn’t change the fact that Tommy is family and should have been a part of our lives for years. My wife is pregnant right now. It’s making me almost crazy thinking about not knowing if I had a child. Whatever your reasons were or are, you stole these years from Ryder and my family. That is going to be hard to get past.”

All the more reason not to tell Ryder or his family. She didn’t need them against her when she needed all the support she could get. But she’d made the decision to keep Tommy’s paternity a secret and she was going to have to deal with that when the time came. It seemed the time was now.

“I understand. I had my reasons. Whether anyone thought they were right or wrong doesn’t matter now. All that matters is Tommy.”

“What does Tommy know about his father?” Sam asked.

“Nothing,” she said. “That’s wrong of me. I know it. I just said that it was someone I used to date in college. When he was younger he didn’t ask a lot of questions. He doesn’t ask much now. He’s got my father and my brother in his life. I know when he gets older he’ll have a ton of questions.”

“And now he’ll know who his father is. Who his family is. How long are you in town for?”

“Just the day,” she said. “I planned on driving back home after this appointment.”

Sam didn’t look happy and pulled out a piece of paper and wrote something down. “Ryder’s cell phone number. I’d like you to call him before you leave. At least talk to him.”

“It might be best to not show up with his son at the same time. Not sure how to do that,” she said.

“You’ll need to figure it out,” Sam said. “If you want to wait until the end of the day, I can keep an eye on Tommy for you. If you trust me. Since you trust me to operate on him, I’d think you’d trust me to watch him for thirty minutes before you introduced the two of them.”

There was so much going through her mind right now. None of it was this. She’d known there was a chance Sam might figure this out, but she hadn’t planned on seeing Ryder today or introducing her son to his father for the first time.

Then again, there was so much in her life she hadn’t expected to happen either.

“I don’t know if he will even want to see me,” she said.

“He will.” Sam looked at his watch. “It’s three right now. He’s at work. You’ll be here another hour or so easily, I’m sure. I’m done with my appointments at four thirty. Ask if you can meet at his office.”

“Your family’s firm?” she asked. Talk about being outnumbered.

“Yes,” he said. “You can follow me over there and I can wait with Tommy on another floor. My father’s building is four floors and his firm takes up the top two. We can wait in the lobby on the first floor until you’re ready.”

“I don’t think I have much of a choice. If he’ll see me.”

“Like I said, he will.”

Fierce-Ryder…Prologue

Prologue

“Not much longer,” Ryder Fierce said to his girlfriend Marissa. They’d been dating for a few months now and he was head over heels for her. 

He’d never in a million years thought he’d be struck by Cupid’s arrow this soon in his life, but when it was right, it was right. And this was as right as his mother’s apple pie that he’d steal and hide in his room to eat by himself so his brothers couldn’t have any.

  “Easy for you to say,” she said back. They were sitting on a couch in the lounge of her dorm. There weren’t that many people around, but enough. “You’ve got a job all lined up. You’re going home to work for your father’s firm.”

  He was in his fifth and final year and he’d busted his ass to get his degree in Architecture. Just because he had a job to go to when he was done didn’t mean he had everything handed to him or took the easy way out in life. No one in their family did and it drove everyone nuts when people made that assumption.

“It’s not like I didn’t earn my place there,” he argued.

 “I didn’t mean it that way,” she said, patting his leg. “I’ve been sending out resumes myself. No one is biting just yet, but I’ve got a phone interview set up for next week.”

  Marissa was in her fourth and final year as an economics major. She was going into financial planning and investments. She was from Greenville, not far from them at Clemson right now. 

“You don’t want to look for a job in Durham?” he asked. “My family knows a lot of people. I’m sure they could put a good word in for you and get you some interviews.”

“No,” she said quickly. “I don’t need a handout.”

“No one said anything about a handout.” She always got defensive when he brought this up. Or brought anything up about his family compared to hers. Like she was self-conscious or something. He’d told her again and again he wasn’t comparing anything and hated that she did.

“I’m sorry,” she said again. “My mind is just on finals next week. I’m so happy to be done, but this semester has just kicked my butt. If it wasn’t for the English elective we both had, I’d have six econ and finance courses.”

Marissa loaded her semesters the last two years since she’d changed her major. He knew that because he knew a lot about her. What they had, what he wanted in the future—it was everything he’d hope to find at some point in his life. He didn’t expect to find it at twenty-three though. And he was positive she felt the same way, if he could only get her to take the wrench and go lefty loosey instead of righty tighty on the bolts connecting her spine and take a chance and go back to Durham with him.

“I understand,” he said. 

“Marissa, the room is yours if you need some peace and quiet,” Jody, Marissa’s roommate said. “Kayla is in the library doing a group project and I’m going to dinner now.”

“Thanks,” Marissa said. “Guess we can go to the room if you want.”

He ran his hand up and down her leg. “You know I do.”

They stood up and made their way to the third floor. Between her two roommates and his two roommates, they didn’t get a lot of time alone and, knowing they only had a few weeks left together, he wanted to make the most of it. He’d have to work on her more to look in his hometown for a job, but for now, all he cared about was getting her naked once again.

The hometown sweetheart. The girl next door. The type he’d never thought he’d fall for.

He’d always been the loud annoying one in the family. The one his cousins busted on and had told him to get lost half the time for being a pest.

But Marissa didn’t think any of those things of him. She understood him. She got along with him. She loved him. The first person he’d ever said those words to.

She was the calm in his crazy energetic world. She grounded him. She brought him down a few pegs so that he wasn’t so cocky.

Once they were behind closed doors, they were reaching for each other’s clothes and shedding them fast, knowing their time might be limited.

The next morning, he rolled out of bed in his own room, showered and then decided to walk over and surprise Marissa and take her out to breakfast. Neither of them had class for a few hours and he knew she’d be up early studying.

He waved to plenty on his trek to her dorm; many knew him. He had a reputation as a partier here. Maybe even one with the ladies, but he didn’t think it was anything nearly as bad as his brother Sam or his cousins Wyatt and Cade had at Duke.

When he got to Marissa’s dorm, he climbed the stairs to her floor and turned the corner to see Bryan, Marissa’s ex, ahead of him. What was he doing on this floor and moving toward Marissa’s room?

He went to another wall and hid behind it, then waited to see where Bryan was going. Before he could get to Marissa’s room, the door opened and Marissa came out. She looked surprised to see Bryan there. Ryder couldn’t hear the words being said, but he saw the kiss. 

That was enough, forcing him to turn and leave without confronting them. No reason to. He wasn’t blind, but he was obviously stupid.

Fierce-Ryder

Ryder Fierce is the biggest playboy in the Fierce family. The blonder, the ditzier, the more artificially enhanced they are, that was what he ended up with despite his parents’ nonstop complaints. No one knew the reason. No one asked. If they did, he had no intention of telling them it’s because he wanted the complete opposite of what he had lost. Of the person who broke his heart and he still hasn’t gotten over her.

Marissa McMillan has had a big whopping secret she’s held for nine years. She knew it was wrong to keep it and she’d probably regret it for the rest of her life, but when your heart is broken as badly as hers, you did what you could to survive. But now she needs the help of the Fierce’s and that secret she’s held onto…well, everyone is in for one big surprise. The question is, could she ever be forgiven for what she’s done?

Mistletoe Magic…Prologue

Prologue

Robin pulled down the long driveway of her gated residence just outside of Saratoga that she shared with her husband. She never had anything like this growing up, but when she met Alex Fischer four years ago her world changed.

She’d kept her job as a dental hygienist four days a week and she volunteered at a local animal shelter every Monday and on a few Saturdays, but money wasn’t an issue.

Her paycheck was hers and hers alone. Alex’s family had oodles of money and he was determined to make sure he paid for everything. That he was the hero and the provider in their marriage.

If she was uncomfortable with it at first, he put her mind at ease.

Early on in their relationship, and even their marriage two years ago, he’d won her over spoiling her rotten even when she insisted she didn’t need flowers and fancy dinners. Balloon rides and vacations.

Now though, things weren’t as sweet or wonderful as they used to be.

Where his mind was at and why he seemed so distant just made her wonder if there was someone else in his life.

Rather than pull into the garage today, she parked in the half circle in the front, unlocked the door and moved up the stairs. She should know better by now to bring a change of clothes when she volunteered at the shelter, but she’d been upset with how short Alex had been with her this morning when she brought up counseling before starting a family that she left without thinking of it.

Now she had mud all over her jeans and the sleeve of her shirt from a rumbustious puppy she was handling during the vet’s exam. When she tried to bathe the Pitbull boxer mix after, the puppy had thought it was playtime and she ended up wetter than the dog.

As she made her way up the stairs, she thought she heard a voice. That was odd. No one should be home. She stopped and listened again, heard some more mumbling sounds, then quietly moved down the hallway toward the master suite.

When she got to the doorway, it was only open a quarter of the way. She was the last to leave this morning and she never shut the bedroom doors.

She peeked her head in and saw Alex in bed on top of someone. Naked with the sheet halfway up his waist. His dark head was down, his mouth kissing someone with more passion than he’d ever shown her.

She popped out and put her back to the wall as the tears started to form in her eyes.

This would explain why he was so detached from her lately. More like six months easily. They’d barely had sex a handful of times in the past year. They’d never had an active sex life. Even when they were dating. Since Alex had a large sordid dating past and he was older than her by five years, she’d thought it was odd, but since he was so sweet and loving to her, she’d let it go. He’d even convinced her he was ready to settle down and stop having fling after fling when she was reluctant to comment early on. He wore her down though.

How stupid she was!

Now she had her answer to his recent behavior. He was sleeping with someone on the side.

Rather than run out the door in tears, she pulled her phone out of her pocket, put the video on. She squatted down, made sure she got enough of an angle of him in the bed and then kept her arm there while she closed her eyes. She didn’t want to watch, but she was going to nail his ass to the wall for this.

After a minute, she heard the bed moving and the sheets rustling around, Alex’s voice laughing and saying he was hungry, and she knew it was time to leave.

She raced down the hall as quietly as she could with her hand over her mouth to muffle her sobs, left the way she came, then drove away.

When she was at the end of the long driveway and knew her car couldn’t be seen, she saved the video to her cloud, emailed it to herself and then to her brother for safekeeping, telling him not to watch, she’d explain later.

After a few deep breaths and wiping her tears, Robin decided she’d better watch the video. She had to know who this woman was. Was it someone she knew? A friend that betrayed her? Anything for her to get a better understanding of how she could be such an idiot.

And what she saw made her realize that nothing could blindside her quite like this.