The One

Gillian Bridges had an idea of where she’d be at this point in her life. Nothing worked out the way she planned and she can’t help but wonder where she went wrong or what was wrong with her. She is trying to put herself first, but self-doubts keep getting in the way.

Rick Masters put work before everything. Family, friends, a personal relationship, even his health. When he realizes the world is passing him by, he makes the decision to move back home and start over. To focus on the important things. But is it too little, too late and did he lose his chance?

A Journey For Jasmine…Prologue

Prologue

“Why?” Jasmine Greene asked her mother. “I don’t understand why we have to move again.”

“You know how it is,” her mother said. “Your father’s work takes us all over the world. We never stay anywhere longer than a few years. We’ve been here for two.”

She didn’t care that her mother was using a gentle voice right now. The one she used when she was trying to teach English to the native children.

They were in Cambodia currently and her twelve-year-old mind was just fed up with picking up and moving nonstop.

“Why can’t we stay longer?”

“You hated it here when we came,” her mother said. 

“I remember,” Mark said. Her oldest brother never did side with her. 

There were five of them and she was smack dab in the middle.

Mark was sixteen, Dahlia fourteen, Jasmine at twelve, Ivy ten and Chase, the baby, rounding it out at five. She figured her mother was done after Ivy but guess they had one more in them.

 All five of them had dual citizenship having been born in different countries.

Maybe it’d be cool to some kids, but not her.

“Stay out of it, Mark,” she said. “You hate it just as much as I do. We all do, but Mom and Dad do what they want when they want. We are just stuck to go along with it.”

“Jasmine,” her mother said sternly. “Enough. I’m going to have to go through this with Dahlia and Ivy when they get done with their work too. I’m not sure what it is about you girls that are always giving me grief.”

“Maybe we are sick of hopping all over the world. This is your and Dad’s dream, not ours. We are just the baggage you tote along with your clothes.”

“Go to the gardens and take a time out. You need it. I need it. I expect you to calm down and be supportive of this. Your father does wonderful work in the world and you know it.”

Her father was a doctor working with Doctors Without Borders. She knew it’d always been his dream to take this journey with his wife. But maybe they should have thought more of it before they had five kids.

Kids that never sat in an American classroom one day in their life.

They didn’t get to have friends they’d grow up with. Play sports either.

They were home-schooled by their mother. 

Sure, they traveled more than most do in their entire life, but it wasn’t for everyone. 

She was sick of always having to learn a new way of life. Figuring out pieces of the language to be understood. Only having her siblings that she could speak freely with.

“I’m not saying he doesn’t,” Jasmine said. “I just don’t understand why we can’t stay with someone else and live like normal teens.”

“Neither of your grandparents can take all five of you and we wouldn’t ask that of anyone,” her mother said. “You know that and I’m not sure why you bring it up at times. We’re a family and we are going to stay one. You’re traveling the world like so many would love to do.”

“I’m not one of them,” she said, stomping away and going into the garden as her mother told her to do.

It was her quiet place, and the only good thing she could say was that her mother loved flowers as much as her. 

Every temporary home they’d lived in, her mother made it as comfortable as she could. They had a little garden with flowers and vegetables and they learned to care for them.

No, she didn’t like Cambodia any more than she liked living in Chad, Ethiopia, Madagascar or Haiti. She didn’t even remember the other places they’d lived other than she knew she was born in Peru. 

Where she wanted to be was back home in America. Only she had no home there. 

She had family there and nothing else. Everything in her life was temporary.

“I heard,” Ivy said, sniffling, twenty minutes later. Jasmine had been walking around and touching the flowers. There were so many jasmines in the garden and she found it funny. You’d think she’d be at peace here more, but she wasn’t. Just with the flowers, but it didn’t matter what country they were in.

She turned to look at her ten-year-old sister. The girls were all named after flowers and maybe that was why they stuck together and gave their mother fits. Who knows? It probably had more to do with the fact everyone was fed up with the life.

“I’m sick of it,” she said.

Ivy had tears in her eyes. “I hate flying. I don’t want to fly again.”

Jasmine forgot about that. She was so stuck in her own misery that she didn’t remember Ivy was afraid of heights and airplanes. Not that her parents seemed to care because they were all going to find themselves on another one in a few weeks. She didn’t even ask where they were moving to. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway.

She opened her arms and Ivy came running to hug her. “It’s going to be fine. You can sit by me.”

“I don’t want to be on one of those small planes again that shakes.”

She sighed. They spent a lot of time on them to get to these remote places. “You can close your eyes and listen to a movie like we always do. It could be worse. You could be like Dahlia and get sick half the time.”

“I heard that,” Dahlia said. She shifted and saw Dahlia in the doorway looking pissed off. The oldest girl of the group was by far the moodiest. “This bites.”

“Glad to know I’m not alone,” Jasmine said.

“Chase is sucking up to Mom saying he can’t wait for another adventure. Mark is laughing at us,” Dahlia said, “but he only has one more year of this and then he gets to go to college. This is probably his last move.”

“God,” she said. “Lucky him.” 

Not that she had any clue how that would work out either or where her brother would go during breaks. It wasn’t her concern. She just wanted to get past this and figure out where their next step was going to be. 

She was so over packing too, but it’s not like any of them had a lot of possessions. They lived minimalistic lives. Lives of a nomad in her mind.

“I can’t wait until it’s my turn to be done with this,” Dahlia said.

“Me neither.”

“Then you’re all going to leave me with Chase,” Ivy said, wailing.

“You might get lucky,” she said. “Mom and Dad might get tired of it by then.”

Dahlia snorted. “You always say what is on your mind, but you know as well as I do, it’s not going to happen.”

“Nope,” Jasmine said. “Looks like it’s another change. I guess the best we can hope for is Mom is done having kids.”

Dahlia laughed and Ivy just cried harder. Someone had to joke about it because it was the only way she felt she could get through.

A Journey For Jasmine

Jasmine Greene had a childhood many would dream of. Traveling the world. Learning new cultures. Experiencing things most only saw on TV. But to her, she’d lost so much and only wanted to be like others her own age. She’s on her own now, in the small town of Mystic, doing what she loves. What she is still missing out on is a relationship with a man and hopes to find it someday. It’d be on her terms though because letting others call the shots in her life is a thing of the past.

Wesley Wright tragically lost his wife and was struggling to move on with his life. When he saw the opportunity to buy a marina that he’d vacationed at with her, he took a risk and changed courses. He is terrified he is in over his head and treading carefully to stay afloat. The last thing he is ready for or thought he’d find is another woman to lose his heart to and maybe give him what he’s been needing and wanting for so long. He only has to convince her that he really is ready to let the past go.

Family Bonds- Alex & Jennie… Chapter One

If you haven’t read the Prologue, check it out now.

Chapter One

Just Different

Eighteen Years Later

“Happy New Year, Zandra. Do you want to come to Aunt Jennie?”

“Don’t encourage her,” Griffin said when he walked into the living room on New Year’s Day. 

Jennie had lived on Amore Island for around six months now. After all these years, she’d finally found her brother again. 

She’d taken that step to find him. Not the other way around. He’d said he’d always be there for her, but he wasn’t.

She didn’t hold it against him. Or at least she didn’t think she did. Not after worrying he’d died when she found no trace of him months after they were placed in separate foster homes.

He’d graduated from high school, left her a note that he was going away, but saying he’d be back when he could. That he was going to try to build a life for them.

She believed him, but he never came back.

It wasn’t until earlier in the year she realized he’d enlisted in the service and was there until about eight years ago.

If she was pissed he didn’t seek her out then, she’d voiced it a few times since they reconnected but realized that Griffin had a lot more demons than she did.

No, actually he didn’t. His were just different.

But Griffin had a family now. One he made for himself with the Bond family—his employers—and then now with his fiancée, Penelope, and daughter, Alexandra.

“I like Zandra,” Jennie said, winking at her future sister-in-law.

“See, Griffin,” Penelope said. “It’s got a nice ring to it. Zandra Zale.”

Her big brother took his daughter out of her hands, kissed her and said, “Alexa Zale or Lexa. Or, I don’t know,” Griffin said, “how about her name, Alexandra, which Penelope chose. Now I’m starting to realize it was only to shorten it on me.”

Jennie reached for her niece again. It did her heart good to see her brother more lighthearted than she ever remembered before.

Griffin had always been intense as a kid. She supposed they didn’t have much of a choice in their household.

She’d noticed it more when she sought him out earlier last year, but now he was just a different person.

One that was turning back into the overprotective brother she remembered before with a side of sweetheart mixed in.

He listened now when he didn’t years ago. She felt like she was heard, but it was like taking a stick and beating it into the rock of his head more than she wanted.

“You’re so much fun to bust on,” Penelope said. “Right, Jennie?”

“If you say so,” she said.

She didn’t remember ever busting on Griffin much. There wasn’t a lot of laughter or joking in their house.

She’d fought hard to move past that and felt she’d gotten to that point.

Sometimes she got sucked back in, but it was getting better. She hoped.

Hard not to when she lived on this small island off the coast of Massachusetts. She had a job she loved and always dreamed of. For the Bond family. And hadn’t been thrilled when that happened and was positive Griffin had something to do with it, but she told herself she had to let it go.

She was working her butt off to prove she could do the job.

Like she worked her butt off to get her degree and make something of her life. The easy way would have been to get a job after she turned eighteen. To share an apartment with people and live paycheck to paycheck.

Instead, she was lucky enough that the last foster family she ended up with helped her. They guided her.

They wanted her to make something of herself.

She worked hard in school, she got a lot of aid and scholarships and didn’t have a ton of student loans. Not as much as many did in her situation.

She had a job and an apartment in college with other students and was able to live there when school was out and work more.

Paycheck to paycheck had been her world until about four years ago. 

She finally felt like she was on her feet some more, money was in the bank, her debt manageable. 

Then Griffin stepped in without talking to her and wiped it all out.

Looking back, she knew he was making up for the promise of being there for her. Come to find out, he’d had his eye on her for years but she’d hadn’t known. He did not want her to know.

She was still pissed about that too. Him taking it upon himself to decide if she could handle him in her life again.

That he didn’t want to disrupt what she made of herself.

She’d had it. No more with people telling her what to do.

“Penelope says a lot,” Griffin said. “I’ve learned not to argue either.”

“I need your secret,” she said to Penelope. “It seems all Griffin and I do is argue.”

Jennie was grinning but noticed the pained look on her brother’s face. “I’m trying,” he said.

“I know,” she said, sighing. “I appreciate everything you’ve done this year. I really do. I owe you for a lot and I’m not used to owing anyone anything.”

“You don’t owe me a thing,” Griffin said. “Never.”

“Here we go again,” Penelope said, snatching her daughter away. “You two are going to have to figure this out. Jennie, we are thrilled you are here. I’m so glad Griffin has you in his life. He needs you as much as you need him. He was wrong to be gone as long as he was and he’s trying to make it up to you. Trust me, I’ve lectured him enough about it.”

“She has,” Griffin said. “I’m ganged up on here.”

Jennie grinned. “I don’t want you to feel that way. I love being here. I love that you made it happen. I’m not used to anything like that in my life. Not working for billionaires. Not knowing my brother is best friends with one and even owns some of a freaking casino.”

Her brother’s best friend was Eli Bond. Griffin confessed to her months ago that he owned five percent of the casino when she was arguing about him buying her a house. She’d said no way. She was fine with her apartment. The one her employers, Drew and Bode Bond, owned and squeezed her in before others on a waiting list.

She worked for Bond Realty and needed a place to stay. She’d been making do at Atlantic Rise for months until the apartment became available. 

Since Penelope owned Atlantic Rise Hotel with her sister, Emily, they wouldn’t let her pay to stay in one of the suites. Another thing handed to her and this time she had to argue with not only Griffin but Penelope too.

She’d lost there.

“I’d hardly say you’re ganged up on,” she said, laughing. “You’re bigger and stronger than all of us.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” Griffin said sarcastically. 

She laughed, as she’d only been joking. Jennie was pretty stubborn herself. She had to be. There’d been no one watching out for her for years. 

“Penelope, is there anything I can do?”

“Nope,” Penelope said. “Relax. Emily will be here soon with Crew and my parents. I don’t often get to cook holiday dinners and offered this year. It’s cold and blustery out and I don’t want to bring the baby out in it.”

Her niece was barely two months old at this point. Cute as a button and the apple of her brother’s eye. She also knew that once the rest of the family got here, she’d be fighting for a chance to hold her niece, which was why she came early.

“Does Alexa need a bottle soon?” she asked, looking over to see her brother wink at her. She wasn’t sure she’d ever seen him do that before.

“She does. Griffin can get it for her while I check on the snacks in the oven. Everyone will be here soon and I’ll have it all ready.”

She walked over and sat in the rocking chair and heard her brother and Penelope talking quietly in the kitchen. She could almost see them, but they were at the far end and not facing her.

When they returned together, Griffin handing her the bottle to give her niece, and Penelope sitting down, she knew something was on their minds.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

“Why do you ask that?” Penelope asked when Griffin sat next to her.

“Because I can feel it in the air. You two want to talk to me about something. Just say it.”

“It’s not me,” Penelope said. “It’s your brother. I told him if he was going to do it, he better do it now before everyone got here.”

Her shoulders dropped. “What are you going to try to do for me now?”

Penelope grinned. “Told you,” she said to Griffin.

“I don’t care,” Griffin said. “Hear me out before you say no or freak out.” 

She didn’t like the sound of that. It was bad enough Griffin paid her student loans and car off on her before she moved here, but then he paid all her moving expenses and had her fly with her stuff on the Bond private jet. Talk about overkill.

“You’re only doing this now because I’ve got your daughter in my arms and you know I won’t yell.”

“She’s got you there,” Penelope said.

“I bought a house,” Griffin said.

“Okay. Good for you. Is that for when Penelope is ticked off and it’s bigger than a doghouse to go to?”

Penelope giggled. “He’s still got his apartment on the penthouse floor of the casino for that.”

“I won’t need it,” Griffin said. “Penelope loves me too much to make me stay there. She wants me in bed at some point each night.”

“Don’t let Griffin kid you,” Penelope said. “He likes to cuddle in the guise of hogging the bed. But he’s the one that wants me in it with him.”

“Aren’t you two just so cute,” she said, shaking her head.

“If my fiancée is done cracking jokes like she always does, I’ll tell you I bought the house not far from here. It’s not big. It’s a cottage. Three beds, two baths. About eighteen hundred square feet. If I tell you I bought it for you, you’ll flip out.”

“Damn straight,” Jennie said. “Sorry. Darn straight. I don’t need you buying me a house.”

They’d been around this block enough, and she’d thought she’d finally gotten through to him.

“It’s mine. Not yours. However, I’ll rent it to you for what you are paying for your apartment,” he said.

“Which is a fraction of what you can get for rent on this island and you know it,” she said.

It wasn’t cheap to live here. Older homes that needed a ton of work were still hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

“It’s closer to your job. It’s closer to us. You can come visit Alexa anytime you want. Maybe babysit?” he said, smiling.

“Oh, now I see how it is,” she said with a small grin.

“Jennie,” Penelope said. “This was the best compromise I could get out of him. I’m on your team. You know as well as I do, Drew and Bode need the apartment for the workers for the retirement community.”

She did know that. She was a financial analyst for Bond Realty and her main job was attached to the retirement community. 

The townhouses were all up with residents in them. They were privately owned with just monthly HOA fees for the grounds and other services that would be provided in the future.

But the apartments were still a ways from being completed.

By the end of summer, the goal was half of the one hundred apartments would have residents in them on one side of the building while the remaining half were worked on over the next winter. This was easily a two- to three-year project.

Other buildings needed to be completed this summer too. The rec center, a gym, a cafeteria and more. All that was going to be done so that those fifty filled apartments had things to do and services provided for them.

It would still grow for years, but they were getting there.

And the sooner it filled up, the busier she’d be also. She had some time on her hands work wise and Drew had her doing other work for the business and filling in as needed where things tied together. She didn’t care and only wanted to prove her worth.

“You’re hitting low,” she said. “Did you get that from Griffin?”

“She’s sneaky,” Griffin said.

“That is what you love about me,” Penelope said. “I had to be sneaky to get you. I wore you down without you even knowing.”

“Yeah,” Griffin said. “Like a tick under my skin and by the time I realized you were there I was already infected.”

Jennie snorted. “That’s kind of gross but probably accurate too.”

“Very much so,” Penelope said.

“Back to the house,” Griffin said. “I’m closing on it in a few weeks. Then we can go in and make any changes to it.”

“I don’t need to make changes,” she said. “It’s your house. You can rent it and make more money since workers need to be on the island.”

“You know that isn’t what he wanted or needed,” Penelope said. “Your apartment would be part of Drew and Bode’s benefits package for their workers. It’s one bedroom, but they’d still get two beds in there, if not a sleeper sofa too.”

She sighed. Penelope was right. She knew those things because it was part of her job. And if two to three men could live in her place and not take the ferry back and forth, they could work more because they wouldn’t be handcuffed to the limited transportation to and from the island with the tighter ferry schedule in the winter months.

“I’ll think about it,” she said. “But I’m not making any changes to it. Or if I want that, I’ll do it. No more money, Griffin.”

“It was updated in the past seven years. It’s not huge, but a lot more space than you’ve got. Penelope will show you the pictures of it online.”

Penelope stood up and got her iPad, then brought it over and started to swipe through while Alexa was still drinking her bottle. 

She saw Penelope try to swipe fast past the price, but she’d caught it and bit her tongue. It wasn’t her money and she had to get over the fact that her brother was worth more millions than she could ever imagine. That didn’t take into account that he was marrying into the Bond family who had wealth like in fairytales.

She was making more at her job than she’d thought she would and figured they’d paid her that because of her relation to Griffin. Then she realized it had more to do with the cost to live on the island. She’d seen the salaries of others in the company and realized what she was making was generous but fair with the company and not any kind of special treatment.

“The place doesn’t need any work,” she said. 

“The paint colors are ugly,” Penelope said. “Don’t you think?”

“They are,” she said. “And if I decide to move there, I’ll paint it myself. But it’s livable. Trust me, I’ve lived in a lot of places. That’s the nicest and you know it, Griffin.”

“I know,” he said. “There were others I looked at, but this is a nice small home that doesn’t need work. Yep, I can rent it out and make money, but I didn’t buy it for that reason.”

“You bought it for me,” she said. “Regardless of whose name is on the title. Let’s not kid ourselves.”

“Fine. I bought it for you. You can pay me rent. I know what you’re paying now. I asked Drew. You can have more than double the space and your own place. You’ve never had that before. I want you to. Please, Jennie. I’m not going to say I owe it to you. I owe it to me. I was wrong for what I did. I made a promise to you and I’m going to keep it. I said I’d always be there and I am. I was absent for years, but I’m not now.”

She looked at her brother. The words hitting home. A reminder of what he’d said to her on the worst day of her life. 

Those words were the truth. He’d been absent for years, but he was trying now. She had to give in and try with him.

“Fine. It’s a lovely place. I’d be thrilled to live there. But no more, Griffin. This is it. Do you hear me?”

He got up and walked over to kiss her on the cheek. “I hear you. As a thank you, you can babysit your niece one day this week too so I can have a date night.”

“Of course,” she said. “Anytime and you know it.”

The door opened a few minutes later, Emily and Crew’s voices coming down the hall. “Perfect timing,” Penelope said. “Griffin broke the news and he won. Mark your calendars on that one.”

All she could do was shake her head. Her brother really thought she was going to say no when she’d be crazy to.

She only had to remind herself to not get too used to this, as she’d seen how quickly her life could change. 

Family Bonds- Alex & Jennie…Prologue

Prologue

Jennie Zale was walking home from school like she always did. She was alone at this point, the few neighborhood kids she’d normally walked with home by now.

She knew enough to come straight home or her father would find out and he’d be ticked off. Pissed. Yep, at ten years old, she shouldn’t be using the word pissed, but in her household, that word was mild.

The only good thing was her older brother, Griffin, should be there with her mother. Her father would be at work for a few more hours and maybe when he got home he wouldn’t be so angry.

She turned the corner and saw the police cars, her heart skipping more than one beat. Her brain was frozen, but her legs started to move.

She was on a sprint by the time she got closer and realized it was her house, police tape everywhere, but Griffin intercepted her, picking her up and turning her to not see anything.

“What’s going on, Griffin?” she asked in a panic. “It’s Mom, isn’t it? Dad should be at work. Did someone call the cops on him again?”

“Shh,” Griffin said, moving away from the house and not letting her down. Her brother was big for seventeen and easily carried her away. Or maybe it was the strength of grief that she felt radiating off his body.

“Tell me, Griffin. It’s Mom, isn’t it?”

Griffin set her down at the corner again, far enough away, her back to the direction of their house. “Yes.”

There were tears in Griffin’s eyes, ones she hardly ever saw. Even when he was taking a beating in her or her mother’s place. 

In the past few years, Griffin had put himself in harm’s way to protect them. He fought back plenty enough times to the point their father didn’t walk away unscathed much.

Maybe that was why her father didn’t do much more than yell and throw things when Griffin was around.

But something told her Griffin hadn’t been around this time. He hadn’t been there to step in front of their mother. He was probably in school like her.

“Is Mom going to be okay?” she asked. She’d seen the ambulance along with the police cars. 

“Mom is going to be at peace now,” he said. “Dad can’t hurt her again.”

She let out a sigh. “So Dad is going away for good now? We can really relax? Mom doesn’t have to deal with him anymore?”

Griffin ran his hands over his face and neck. “Dad can never hurt Mom again because Mom is gone.”

“What do you mean she’s gone?” she asked. “She left? Can we find her?”

“Dad killed her, Jennie. I’m sorry.” The tears were running down his face and he was sucking in his breath fast.

“You’re lying,” she said, hitting his arm and crying. Her throat was dry and it wasn’t until Griffin pulled her close and was almost suffocating her that she realized she’d been screaming. “Tell me you are.”

“No,” he said quietly. “I wish I were. I wish I could kill that son of a bitch myself.”

“Don’t say that,” she said. “That’s not you.”

“It feels it now,” he said.

“I need you both to come with us.”

She felt Griffin tense and turned to see two police officers standing there. One female and one male. They both had sympathy in their eyes. She’d seen it enough in her life. From neighbors and teachers, to social workers. Anyone who had tried to help their family but couldn’t seem to get through.

The threat of what their father did had been hanging in the air so long the fear had been choking the family for years.

“I want to stay with Griffin,” she said, holding him tight. She didn’t need to worry; her brother had a strong grip on her.

“We’ll try,” the female officer said. “But it’s out of our control. Why don’t you tell us some of the things you need in the house for a few days and we’ll go in and get them.”

“What?” she asked. “I can’t go in the house?”

“No,” Griffin said. “You don’t need to. You don’t need to go on the property either. Can she stay here?”

“I think that would be smart,” the female officer said.

“I can take you in,” the male officer said to Griffin. “We’ll keep your sister here. She’s safe.”

Griffin let go of her, but she wasn’t letting go of him. “Don’t leave,” she cried.

“I’ll be back,” he said, turning and squatting down to look her in the eye. “I’m just going to get us some things for a few days. I won’t leave you, Jennie. But if we are separated, be strong. I’ll be back for you when I can. It’s my job to protect you and never forget it.”

She was sobbing when Griffin walked away, the female cop taking her hand and walking with her a little in the other direction.

“I’m never going to see my brother again, am I?” she asked.

“I’m sorry, sweetie. I just don’t have any control over this. Everyone will try as hard as they can to make sure you are kept together.”

“It won’t happen,” she sobbed. “No one cares enough about us. If they did, this wouldn’t have ever happened to our family.”

She took off running toward the house and Griffin, almost making it before Griffin turned and intercepted her. “Stop,” he said. “Be strong for Mom. I’ve got you. I’ll always have you. Even if I’m not with you, know that I always will be. We’ll get through this. It’s my promise to you.”

“Mom promised nothing would happen to her and look at how well that worked out,” she screamed and then ran in the other direction away from everyone.

Family Bonds- Alex & Jennie

Alex Bond is the carefree playboy of the family. The sexy fireman who only takes his job seriously and not much else. Not many knew why and he’s sworn never to say. Until he finds someone that made him realize that sometimes in life you have to put the past behind you to move into the future.

Jennie Zale was orphaned at ten. Her older brother Griffin and she were separated in foster care and she never saw him after he graduated again. Years later, she takes the step to find him and bring him back into her life. But she is struggling with those past demons and insecurities and the last thing she needs is for her big brother to step up now. Least of with her choice in men when she finally finds someone that makes her feel like she can have a happy future.

Fierce-Ivan…Chapter One

If you haven’t read the PROLOGUE yet, check it out.

Chapter One

The Matchmaking Bus 

One Year Later

“Ivan,” Ella said to him when he knocked on her open doorframe and walked into her office. “I appreciate your willingness to meet today, but shouldn’t you be at your other job?”

“I took the day off,” he said.

“And yet you’re working here?”

“I’ve got nothing else better to do and I’m only giving the time back at the end of the year if I don’t use it.”

“Maybe you should take a vacation.”

He turned to see Cade, who’d asked that question, standing in the doorway now. “Please,” he said. “It’s no fun on your own.”

“It’s more like you don’t want to spend the money,” Cade said, snickering and moving on.

“Ignore him,” Ella said. “He has his life and you’ve got yours.”

He’d heard before he was cheap and he never denied it. He couldn’t help it.

Ivan had a degree in economics and worked full time doing risk management for an insurance company. He’d recently been promoted to overseeing the department. He was thrilled with the money but not so thrilled with managing the people.

He was getting better with the staff after adapting his job and keeping to himself. He had no problem managing the work, but petty shit got under his skin. His staff was starting to realize he was fair as long as they did their job. That was all he cared about.

“I don’t need a flashy car or big house like Cade. It’s transportation that gets me from point A to B the same as his.”

“That’s right,” Ella said. “And your house is lovely, if plain. You did a spectacular job with it and Travis still wishes that he’d been around to help knock walls down.”

Ivan grinned. He lived in a development and had a house bigger than he needed. Renting threw money away, but he wasn’t going to buy something he couldn’t put some sweat equity into. His father worked in construction for years and Ivan was handy. Just because he didn’t want to swing a hammer his whole life didn’t mean he couldn’t do the work.

His goal had been to find the ugliest most rundown house in a decent area and bring its value up. He’d done just that and was thrilled.

“I’m not all about bright colors and decorations either,” he said.

“Travis complains all the time about it, but he knows better. He has his space and I’ve got the rest of the house.”

He’d been in Ella’s massive house. It looked as if a designer had staged it, but it was homey too. Ella and Travis’s daughter, Madison, had a bedroom all little girls dreamed of, and now with baby number two on the way in four months, he was sure their son was going to have a room to match.

“What is it you need me to do?” he asked.

For the past two years or so, he’d been working for Fierce doing what he loved to do. Risk assessment. Money management. Trends and forecasting in their industry.

Things Ella did when Fierce started to expand. She just didn’t or couldn’t do it the way he did. 

Fierce had gotten so big, even without having a family to care for, Ella couldn’t possibly do it all alone.

There were some things they only wanted family to be part of and he’d been thrilled when they asked him to help out.

They’d offered him a job full time, but he liked where he was. He liked the security of it and the work he did. He wasn’t positive there was enough work for him at Fierce full time and didn’t want to take advantage of the family connection.

This worked out better. He got to keep his hand in the pie. To him it was a hobby he loved that paid him well for his time. He didn’t have to work weekly but found he was always reading articles and looking for information when there wasn’t data for him to analyze and trend out.

“Mason is thinking of branching out into liquor. The brewery, as you know, is our largest percentage of revenue. Like Aiden selling his spices and sauces, this is another avenue we need to look into before we decide the scope of it. Do we start small? Do we add onto the brewery and buy the equipment needed?”

“Devin mentioned something to me about it a few months ago,” he said. 

His brother, Devin, was Mason’s right-hand man at the brewery. He worked nights and managed the distribution part of the business, allowing Mason to focus more on the actual brewing.

“It has merit with a shift in drinking trends,” Ella said, “but I don’t want to jump on the bandwagon just yet. No one does. Look what happened with spiked seltzer. Everyone jumped and businesses are losing money left and right on it. It is a fad and the market is so diluted that product is sitting on the shelves.”

“Let me do my research and see what I can find. Are you looking high end or more affordable? Whiskey or vodka, maybe gin? Tequila? Devin didn’t say.”

“Mason would prefer bourbon or whiskey. You know he has a few brews that are aged in bourbon barrels. He’s thinking that makes more sense. Produce our own bourbon to mix with the brews.”

“And we know your father loves a good bourbon,” he said of his uncle Gavin.

Ella grinned. “I believe this is part of it. My father is excited over the possibility, but you know as well as I do, he would want to do what is right for the business. He can buy his bourbon anywhere.”

“But there isn’t as much enjoyment as saying your son made it,” he said.

“Very true.” There was a knock at the door. “Kendra, perfect timing. Ivan, I thought you and Kendra would work on this together while I’m out on maternity leave. She’s been doing some research too for me. Broader than anything else.”

“Hi, Ivan,” Kendra said, pushing her glasses up on her nose a bit. 

Ella’s assistant had been employed since his cousin returned from her maternity leave with Madison. She was a quiet woman, a little on the plain side. Long brown hair pulled back and held with a clip at the base of her neck, her black rimmed glasses a little big on her face.

Her pants and shoes were black, her shirt was gray. 

She was simple and polite and right up Ivan’s alley.

He didn’t like anyone flashy. No one that looked like they were high maintenance.

Not even loud or bold. He got that enough in his family.

“Kendra,” he said. He didn’t see her often but had a handful of times. They didn’t talk much and had never worked together. He might have been trying to figure out in his mind how to get to know Kendra more but had kept it to himself.

“I’ve got the reports you asked for,” Kendra said with the binder in her hand. “They are color coded too.”

“Of course they are,” Ella said, laughing. “It’s the only color you enjoy seeing.”

Kendra laughed and he felt his blood rush through his veins. It was the first time he’d heard it and had no idea he’d react this way. 

“Solid neutral colors make life easier,” Kendra said.

“And faster to get dressed in the morning,” Ivan said.

“See,” Kendra said. “Your cousin gets it.”

Ella shook her head. “I’m filling Ivan in on what we are looking for and what you two are going to be working on together. Kendra has printed out potential costs for you. Machinery we might need, manpower, building upgrades. Things like that if we expand. There are costs there to start small, and costs to go big.”

“Perfect,” he said, reaching his hand for the binder. “Can you email me that information too?”

“I already did before I walked in here,” Kendra said. “I know you’ll want to play with those numbers, but if you’re anything like me, it’s easy to flip through and see it in front of you on paper while you are playing with numbers on the computer.”

“Very much so,” he said.

“I’ll let you two talk some more,” Kendra said. “I’ve got a call in a few minutes. Ivan, you’ve got my email and extension here if you need anything. At some point we can figure out a time to meet, but I know you’ve got another job. I can be flexible.”

 “Thanks,” he said. “I won’t make you work nights or weekends. I’ll take time off of work like I did today. We’ll figure it out.”

“No worries,” Kendra said and she walked back to the door, his eyes still on her until she left the room.

“This is going to be fun,” he said. “How long has Mason been playing with this?” he asked

Ivan knew his cousin wouldn’t attempt anything unless he’d perfected it.

“We got the distilling license years ago because he’s been playing with it on his own time at home. In the past few years he’s made several batches and has been aging them for different periods of time. He thinks he has it down to what he is looking for. Definitely to use in his brews. The question is if it will sell. Kendra has the costs of the supplies and timelines too. She’s been working on that for the past several months and getting the information from Jessica. I know we would start small. Just selling it in the store at the brewery and go from there. Have it here at the bar too, and Aiden using it for cooking. Again, that information on the savings from purchasing other bourbon and whiskey and sales here needs to be factored in. Kendra should have some of that for you in that binder.”

He was rubbing his hands together. “Right up my alley,” he said. This was totally a hobby to him that paid well. Money he didn’t need that he invested carefully.

He made sure he could live comfortably on his full-time job and the rest was bonus.

“There is my nephew.”

Ivan turned to see his Aunt Jolene standing in the doorway. “Why is it you always know when I’m here even when I’m not often?”

“Don’t look at me,” Ella said. “I’d never throw my cousins under the matchmaking bus.”

“Oh, please,” his aunt said, waving her hand. “You watch me like a hawk. It’s as much fun for you to catch me as it is for me to set someone up, Ella.” His aunt turned to him. “Your brother is married, your cousin Liam engaged. Lots of babies everywhere. What is your hold up, Ivan? You’re not getting any younger.”

“Did you just call me old?” he asked his aunt.

“I did. If you don’t get a move on, your little swimmers might dry up and then how are you going to give your mother and father a child to carry on the name?”

Ella burst out laughing. “You’re in rare form today, Mom. What’s the matter? Did Devin and Hope not give you the answer you wanted on when they were having a baby and now you need to pick on Ivan?”

He appreciated Ella going to bat for him. “I’m going to tell you what Devin did. Probably what everyone has said to you, Aunt Jolene. I’m onto you.”

His aunt laughed. “You all think you are, but you fall for it anyway. Just ask my girl here. The one with the second baby in her belly.”

“Dad set me up, not you,” Ella said. 

His aunt scrunched her nose. Ivan knew it was a sore subject that his uncle started this all years ago without his aunt knowing. No one got anything past Aunt Jolene…except her husband.

Sometimes her kids.

He was going to make sure his name was added to that group and that was why he hadn’t made a move toward Kendra yet.

He’d bet anything his aunt had it all figured out and he’d be damned if he was going to let someone else call all the shots in his life.

Boring or not, it was his.

***

“Seriously, Mom,” Ella said. “How is it you know when Ivan is here all the time?”

Jolene walked to the door to look around and make sure that Ivan was gone, then shut her daughter’s door. “It’s my sixth sense.”

“Bullcrap,” Ella said with a massive grin on her face. Her hand dropped to her belly to rub. 

“Is my grandson active?” she asked. “He hears my voice.”

“Yeah and he’s learning to run in the other direction like everyone else does,” Ella said.

“Wiseass.”

“You didn’t answer me on how you knew Ivan was here. For all you know he could have been at his other job.”

Jolene didn’t want to give away all her secrets, but she’d learned a long time ago if she gave a little it got her daughter off her back.

“I was talking to Shay earlier today. It just so happened that she mentioned Ivan was coming to dinner tonight.”

“And that made you think he’d be here?” Ella asked.

“No. He works late. He’s never out on time to go to dinner. Not unless he isn’t at work. Following the logic, I decided to come to the pub and get lunch and check in on things. Imagine my surprise when I heard his voice upstairs.”

Ella snorted. “Yeah. Imagine that.”

“You’ve got him working on numbers for Mason and his bourbons?”

“I do,” Ella said. “You know all the business that is going on here. There isn’t much that gets by you nor would we keep those things from you and Dad.”

“You five have done a wonderful job running and expanding this business for years. We trust you.”

“We know you do. But you still like to stick your finger into the pie and pull it out for a taste.”

“I do love my desserts,” she said. “I might have to see what is on the special today too and bring something home for your father.”

“Is there anything else you needed from me?” Ella asked.

“Is Kendra working on this with Ivan?”

“You’re barking up the wrong tree there, Mom.”

“I asked a simple question,” she said. “What are you talking about?”

“Kendra and Ivan. That is your plan. I know it. Admit it. You’ve had it in your mind for a year and you see it’s not going anywhere.”

There was no reason to lie about this. Again, some things were better to be out in the open. “I don’t understand what is taking so long.”

Ella lowered her voice. “I’m not sure if Kendra is into dating.”

“She’s not gay,” she said. “No way. I’d know. I can sense that.”

Ella laughed again and put her hand over her mouth to stop the noise. “I didn’t say that. I said I’m not sure she is into the dating scene. I’ve never heard her mention a man before and she’s been here over a year.”

“She’s very private about her life,” she said. “She has a lot on her shoulders caring for her mother.”

Jolene knew Kendra’s story now. She didn’t when they interviewed the young woman last year. She didn’t know much more other than her gut, which told her Kendra would be a great asset to the team, her daughter, and potentially her nephew Ivan.

But again, damn Ivan was giving her fits and dragging his feet and she wasn’t sure what the problem or issue was.

“You’re making more out of it without knowing all the facts,” Ella said. “Any facts, for that matter. I talk with Kendra more than anyone. She’s private and quiet, but she doesn’t spend as much time caring for her mother as much as you think. Or as much as maybe she used to.”

“She’s probably cheap just like Ivan and that is why she doesn’t go out and date. You know it and I know it. You can see it by her limited wardrobe and the car she drives.”

“Kendra is very practical. There isn’t anything wrong with that. It’s her life.”

“She’s boring. Come on. You know it. You pick on her clothing colors all the time.”

“I don’t pick on her,” Ella said. “Not in a mean way. She always compliments me on my clothing and I asked her once why she doesn’t wear more colors.”

“What did she say?” Jolene asked, crossing her arms.

“She said she gets more usage out of plain solid colors.”

“Exactly something Ivan would say. See, perfect for each other.”

“Or so much alike they’d put each other to sleep. As I said, you might be barking up the wrong tree on this one. Let it go and move on to someone else.”

“Nope,” she said. “I love a challenge.”

Fierce-Ivan…Prologue

Prologue

“Kendra, is that you?”

“Yes, Mom,” Kendra Key said when she shut the front door to the first-floor apartment her mother lived in. She was on the third floor, renters on the second.

To some it might not be ideal or the best location outside of downtown Charlotte, but owning the multiple-level home gave her some financial freedom and let her care for her mother.

“Don’t you look pretty,” her mother said. Kendra walked into the little room off the living room that her mother used as her office. It was more like a large closet than an actual room. She supposed someone could use it as a nursery, but with it facing the road, it wasn’t that quiet. It had some good light and that was what her mother needed.

“Like you can tell,” she said, letting out a laugh.

“I can sense your excitement and happiness,” her mother said. “And you aren’t boxy like normal so I think you’ve got a skirt on.”

She let out a sigh. Her mother couldn’t see details. She couldn’t recognize colors either other than lighter and darker shades, but she could piece together shapes more than anything if someone was close enough. 

“I do have a skirt on. I wanted to make a good impression on my third interview with Ella Fierce McKinley. Jolene Fierce was in this interview too along with a few other members of the family and office staff.” Six people total and she’d been sweating more than she did when she got her drivers’ license and had to start carting her mother everywhere.

Most kids would be excited to have that mobile freedom, but Kendra knew deep down it was the start of her world changing forever. Maybe that was why she dragged her feet taking the test. She saw the writing on the wall.

“I’m going to assume it went well,” her mother said. “Your energy is almost infectious. You are all but dancing in your spot.”

“They offered me the job. I didn’t even make it to the driveway when the call came in.”

“You answered it while you were driving?” her mother asked.

Kendra knew that tone. “Hands free, Mom. I’ve told you that before. It’s hitting a button on the steering wheel. I was almost home. I wasn’t distracted.”

Her mother smiled. She wished her mother could see her own reflection when she did that. 

Karen Key was an attractive woman at fifty years old. Kendra was an only child, her mother having her at the young age of twenty-one.

Back when things were better in her mother’s life. Just not for long.

“So you’ve got the job,” her mother said. “That’s wonderful. Is it what you want? You know how I feel about you changing jobs all the time. I’ve had mine for fifteen years.”

Her mother was fortunate that way. That she worked for a company that would create a job for her as her vision started to deteriorate so badly that she couldn’t read letters on a screen. She couldn’t drive anymore or do most daily functions as she had years ago. Or the same as she had years ago.

Kendra cared for her mother but not to the point she felt strapped to her.

Her mother was able to move around her apartment well. Feed herself, cook a few things without Kendra worrying about the house burning down. More like Kendra and her mother cooked meals together a few times a week and enough for her mother to warm up when Kendra wasn’t around.

It wasn’t as hard or bad as she’d thought it would be when she was sixteen and looking into the future with fearful eyes. And right now they had their own spaces.

“You’re lucky that way. But you know why I wanted to leave my current job.”

“You need to be happy with your career and not so much worrying about me.”

“I hate my job,” she said. “That is why I’m leaving it. There is no growth there.”

She was an executive assistant for a wealth management firm. She had a bachelor’s in business administration but no concentration in any area.

She didn’t like accounting enough to focus on that. She didn’t see herself doing sales or marketing. She didn’t find she was strong enough to be a manager.

She liked to keep to herself, do her job and organize. 

Give her a task and she’d finish it before it was due. She liked to manage projects not people. She liked to analyze data and assist. 

In her eyes she was a problem solver. She was a team player.

The only issue with that—there weren’t many jobs out there that fit her skill level.

She’d thought being the executive assistant for one of the vice presidents would give her more responsibility from her previous job. 

Nope. For three years she’d been here and they hadn’t given her much more to do than what she was hired for. 

No, that was wrong. She was making lunch orders and picking them up. Getting coffee for clients. 

Definitely not what she signed up for and wasn’t going to continue much longer.

Not only that, they were asking her to stay later and later for what she considered stupid shit. She had no problem working late when needed, but she had to plan at times too or let her mother know. Her mother didn’t complain, but she still felt bad.

Or maybe it was more an excuse because she was hating on her job so much lately.

Either way, she started to look and was shocked when she came across an ad for Fierce. She figured she wouldn’t have a shot at it and was stunned by the first interview and flabbergasted by how well the second one went. The third one today had her shaking in her boots, but she must have killed it to get the offer.

“I only want you to be happy here. So they offered and you accepted?” her mother asked. 

“I did. Ella is so nice but businesslike.” 

The first interview Kendra had shown up in brown pants and a button-down collared shirt with flats on her feet. The main office was above the bar and pub, the restaurant in the back. She hadn’t expected it to be formal but made sure she was dressed appropriately. A person from HR and Jolene Fierce had interviewed her and she’d felt she was presenting professionally for the environment.

The second interview was with Ella and a few office staff. She’d worn black pants and a light gray button-down shirt this time. A similar outfit as the first time.

She’d been shocked to see Ella in a navy pencil skirt, a printed silk top and nude pumps on her feet. She’d felt completely out of place and figured she’d blown it. 

When she got the call for the third interview she wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice.

“Is that what you’re looking for?” her mother asked. “I thought you wanted something not as stuffy.”

“It’s not stuffy. Trust me. Today Jolene and Cade Fierce were in the interview along with a few other office staff I’d be working with that I didn’t meet last time. They were all dressed more casually and Cade was a riot. So was Jolene.”

“That’s good to know. You normally keep to yourself anyway. Tell me what you’ll be doing.”

“Ella is returning to work full time after having her daughter six months ago. She needs someone to be a right-hand person to help her out. Ella pretty much runs the operations as a whole for all three businesses and the office staff.”

“That’s a lot of people and businesses,” her mother said. “The brewery and restaurants too?”

“Yes and no. Mason runs the brewery, Aiden the restaurant, Brody the pub and bar. Those three run the day-to-day operations. Ella is at a higher level behind the scenes. Overseeing finances is a big part of it. It’s funny. They are all married and their spouses work in those parts with them. Cade is the attorney and does the marketing and has an office by Ella. Anyway, I’ll be doing so much stuff. I’ll have my hands in all pies. Everything Ella does, I’ll have some tiny piece of it.”

“It all sounds great,” her mother said. “As long as you don’t end up as a gopher again.”

“I don’t see it happening,” she said. She wasn’t sure why, but in her gut, she knew this was where she had to be. Maybe it was the kindness of Jolene. The motherly voice when Jolene was stern with her kids during the interview but equally funny.

It reminded her of her mother and their relationship. Anyone like that couldn’t be a bad boss in her eyes. Or raise her kids to be that way.

At least she hoped. 

She’d had a lot of blind faith in life. Pun intended. And this was going to be one of those times too.

Fierce- Ivan

Kendra Key’s life was flipped upside down when her parents divorced leaving her to care for her mother who was slowly going blind. Her trust and faith in men were shattered when she was forced to be an adult all the while attending high school and college. Life is stable…finally. Now her mother wants her to find some happiness and live her life like a normal twenty-eight-year-old, but she isn’t so sure she can find someone who will understand that she’s a package deal and has no intention of changing that.

Ivan Andrews is his Aunt Jolene’s next target in her matchmaking scheme. She is batting a thousand and he knows there is only so long he can avoid her attempts. He set his sights on Kendra from the minute she was hired at Fierce but told himself to sit tight and look at all the angles. He’s never been one to rush into anything in life. Over a year later, it’s confirmed in his mind, his aunt has Kendra picked out for him, but he decides he’s doing it on his terms and hopes to hell he isn’t the first failure of the group.

Made For Me…Prologue

Prologue

Addison Fielding stood next to her brother at the cemetery as the priest spoke words about her father. The words weren’t registering anything other than ambient noises. She didn’t see the people or hear the sounds they were making.

All she could think of was her father being too young to drop dead of a heart attack. Or her mother being the one to find him at home when he didn’t return from his lunch break.

Roc Fielding was too healthy to have a heart attack. He was big and strong and hard like his name, Roc. Well, that was short for Rocco, but to her, her father was the rock of the family.

Now he was gone and it didn’t seem real.

Her brother, Cash, was standing like a statue, not moving, not flinching, until his hand touched hers. She wasn’t sure if it was an accident or not, but she grabbed it and held on. She didn’t know how her mother was holding it together when Addison had all she could not to sob loudly and fall to her knees that were knocking and shaking loud enough in her ears to be a drum solo.

“Would the family like to come up and say a few words?” the priest asked.

Cash looked at her mother. Addison knew her mother had a few things prepared but was going to keep it short and sweet. 

Madeline Fielding moved to where the priest was and said, “Listen. We all know Roc. We know what he’d want us to do and it’s not to stand here gabbing about him. If I talk too long he’d make some crack about needing a few more holes dug for people standing in this heat.” There were some chuckles around over that, but Addison just cried louder rather than smiling. Her father was one for bold statements to make her laugh, but it wasn’t happening now. “Roc was a good man,” her mother continued. “A great husband and a wonderful father. He’s going to be missed, but he wouldn’t want us to mourn too long, so I’m telling you all you better not.”

Her mother said a few more things, but she couldn’t hear it over her own sniffling and gasping for breaths. She felt Cash remove his fingers from her grasp and go stand next to her mother.

“Like my mother, I’ll keep this short. Dad told me once when we were at one of these…he said, ‘Don’t give me a long speech or anything. Just throw the dirt on me and get a beer in my honor.’”

There were a lot of grins and head nods and Addison wondered if she’d be allowed to have one of those beers to dull this pain inside of her. Then she realized there couldn’t be anything to dull it, she was sure.

“We’ll be having a gathering at the house if you’d all like to attend,” her mother said.

When they were back at her house, several of her friends were there by her side being her shadows. Many tried to make her laugh and she wasn’t sure why. A few of her close ones just held her hand or hugged her when they felt she needed it the most.

Maybe they were babying her, but she couldn’t be like Cash and hold it in. She wasn’t sure her brother shed a tear today, but she knew he did at night. She’d heard him last night in his room and got up to knock on the door and then stopped. If he saw her, he’d stop and she didn’t want to be selfish. He needed his time to grieve like she did.

Hours later, everyone had left and they were cleaning up the massive garage in the back where all the food and drink had been.

“Come here, you two,” her mother said. “Have a seat.”

“Are we going to lose the house?” Addison asked, crying. 

She’d heard people talking today when they didn’t think she was around. Talks about the landscaping business and how it’d probably fall apart without Roc there to run it.

And if the business failed, then would they be homeless too?

“No,” her mother said. “I wanted to tell you that I’m running the business from the office like I always did. Matthew and Michael Butler both assured me the contracts were still in place. They’d help me find some men to complete the work if I needed it. Your father did the work of more than one man.”

“I’ll get it covered,” Cash said.

“Cash, you’re nineteen.”

“Dad would want me to step up. I can do it.”

Her mother sighed. “He would and he’d be proud of you, but you’re learning. Other men have been here longer and you can learn from them.”

“We aren’t losing anything,” he said firmly. “I won’t let it happen.”

Her mother walked over and put her hand on his shoulder. “Neither will I. Your father is going to continue to watch over us. We are going to be just fine and you know it.”

Addison started to cry harder and her mother pulled her into her arms. “It’s okay, Addison. It’s going to be okay.”

“It doesn’t feel like anything will ever be okay again,” she said, holding onto her mother as tightly as she could.

“It’s just going to take time,” her mother said, running her hand over her hair.

She looked up at her mother’s face and saw the tears mirroring her own. Pulling away, she shouted, “There isn’t enough time to ever make this okay,” then ran to her room and slammed the door.

How could anyone say that when her world had come crashing down on her?

She’d no longer be Daddy’s little girl.

She wouldn’t be able to pick on him about being stricter with her than Cash.

She wouldn’t be able to hug him and hold him and tell him she loved him.

Her rose-colored glasses were now covered in dirt.