Fierce-Devin…Chapter One

Chapter One

Not Falling For It

Devin was in his office checking off production schedules when there was a knock at the door. “Hey, Mason,” he said to his cousin, one of the five owners of Fierce-The Brewery. He looked at the clock and saw it was seven. “You’re in early.”

“Couldn’t sleep,” he said. “I’ve got an idea for a new beer and wanted to talk with Ben about it before he got knee deep in other things.”

Ben was one of the brewmasters that worked the closest to Mason. There were plenty of them with the size of the brewery, but Mason seemed to go to Ben the most.

“Checking in on inventory control?” Mason asked. Devin oversaw production and distribution. Not a desk job completely, but a hands-on one too. He liked splitting his time. He worked four twelve-hours shifts and rotated his nights as he saw fit with Mason’s approval to assure everything was working properly on the night shift when the big guys weren’t around.

One could say he was the big guy at night, though he never felt that way. He might be a first cousin to the Fierce Five, but his last name was Andrews.

“How did it turn out?” Mason asked.

“Good. No issues or shortages. I’ll sit down with you at some point about storage and maybe rearranging things, but for now we are good.”

“Glad to know,” Mason said. “It’s one less headache I’ve got knowing everything is under control. I still can’t thank you enough for wanting to work here.”

“I should be thanking you for offering me the job,” he said.

A year ago Devin was living in Georgia working as a distribution manager for a large manufacturing company. He was the middleman getting shit on by those above and below him and he’d had enough. When Mason called and offered him a position he was creating, he’d jumped on it knowing he needed the out. Things were heating up and he was already in the crossfire. Not a good place to be in his position. Union workers weren’t happy and he wasn’t one of them even though they reported to him.

“It’s working out for both of us, and it takes the pressure off of me. Sometimes I look around here and can’t believe how big it’s gotten and I know it’s going to continue to expand. Which we need to talk about.”

Devin started to laugh. “You’re getting more requests from out of state?”

“I am. I’m ready to move into a few more, but we need to work out drivers and shipments and get vendors, figure the trucks out and the list goes on and on.”

“You get me the vendors, I’ll figure out shipping and the drivers, those schedules, you know that.”

“Good. Hope has been getting a lot of calls and putting things together. Maybe I’ll have you meet with her soon and it will give you an idea.”

“Sounds good,” he said. Hope Hall took care of all the orders for the brewery. She was a one-woman show taking calls, tracking down shipments, and dealing with any customer or vendor complaints. He suspected Mason might have to add some more staff on soon, but since that was her only job from a created position not that long ago, he’d already seen the writing on the wall for more expansion.

He went back to work when Mason walked out, would finish up his paperwork, then go down and talk to the guys on first shift once they were settled.

Coming in at ten at night and working until ten in the morning allowed him to communicate with staff on all three shifts. But since Mason and many others were here during the day, he wasn’t needed as much as someone to watch out at night.

When ten rolled around, he’d already had his office locked up and was heading up to remind Mason he’d be off tonight. His four-night weeks were normally Sunday through Wednesday, but he was closing on the house he was buying tomorrow morning and would need the night off to sleep and deal with his move.

“Heading out?” Mason asked him when he popped his head in. Talk about the prime office location. Mason got to look out over the floor of the brewery on a daily basis.

“I am. Just remember, I won’t be in until Wednesday night, so I’ll see you Thursday morning.”

“Oh yeah. Your house closing. Congrats again on that.”

“Thanks. Apartment living was getting to me, though I’m not sure I’m ready to be a homeowner and handle all the work that comes with it.”

“It’s not so bad and well worth the privacy.”

“Living in a development isn’t as private as I would have liked, but since it’s gated and they take care of the lawn maintenance, that was a major selling point.”

Mason laughed. “I enjoy riding the lawnmower on the weekend. It’s my quiet time.”

“Daddy!”

Devin turned to see Jacob and Jeremy come running into the office, followed by Jessica, Mason’s wife. “Mason doesn’t let me mow the lawn,” Jessica said. “I’ve begged him, but he says it’s his first baby and no one touches the tractor.”

“You just want to leave me with these two monkeys,” Mason said, as his twins were climbing in his lap with one reaching for the mouse on the computer, the other pulling at papers. They were a few months shy of three and quite the handful.

“I should have brought some bananas in with me,” Devin said.

“I don’t like bananas,” Jeremy said, jumping down and running toward him for a high five. Not to be outdone, Jacob did the same.

“Are they going to be here all day with you or are you getting stuff to work from home?” Mason asked his wife.

“Your mom is on her way to get them here. She had something to do this morning. I would have come in earlier, but they are wound for sound and I’m not sure I could handle them. She’d said ten.”

“Run,” Mason said to his cousin.

He was ready to turn and leave, but his Aunt Jolene was one foot in the doorway. “Devin,” she said. “How is my favorite nephew? My sister tells me every day how happy she is you are back in town.”

“I’m doing good, Aunt Jolene. Just telling Mason I’d see him Thursday.”

“Your house closing is tomorrow, right?” Aunt Jolene asked.

“It is. I need to sleep tonight and make sure I’m not half awake and signing the wrong papers.”

She laughed at him and then started to dance around in a circle with her grandsons. His aunt never sat still and was always moving fast. Which was why he needed to get out of here before she started to bring up another topic he hadn’t been able to outrun.

“We wouldn’t want that. Maybe once you’re settled, you wouldn’t mind me introducing you to a friend’s daughter. Kaylee is a sweetheart. I know you two would hit it right off.”

He looked at Mason and caught the smirk. “I’m good, Aunt Jolene. I can find my own woman.”

“All my boys said the same thing,” she said, “but we know how that turned out.”

“I’m thankful for Jolene’s interference every day,” Jessica said. “But I’m more thankful when she takes my wild children off my hands so I can get some work done.”

Mason moved toward Jessica and pulled her into his arms, then gave her a kiss. “Work? I was hoping we could play hooky for an hour or so.”

“See how well I did?” his aunt said.

“Yep, you did,” Devin said. “But I’m a big boy.”

“I told you to run,” Mason said. “You’re not fast enough.”

“No one is as fast as me,” Aunt Jolene said. “Just remember that.”

“I don’t need to be fast,” he said. “I need to be aware. And I am. Sorry, but I’m not falling for it.”

She pursed her lips and shook her head. “Ella said that too.”

“And we all know Uncle Gavin was responsible for her.”

“Oh, you better start moving,” Mason said. “Mom hates to be reminded that she didn’t have a hand in Ella’s. That’s why she set Jade up first because she couldn’t not have her finger on the pulse of a girl setup.”

Jade Fierce was Jolene’s niece on the Fierce side of the family. The daughter of one of Gavin’s brothers.

Devin and his brother Ivan and his cousins Liam and Faith O’Malley were Jolene’s kin. And they were all fully aware their parents were now trying to seek the help of Jolene in getting them to settle down.

Not happening.

When his time came, it was going to be of his own choosing. If he wanted it. Because he still wasn’t sure he was hardwired for love. If he was, then why was he almost thirty-five and had never fallen once?

He’d told his mother plenty of times he could find his own woman. He’d told his Aunt Jolene the same.

What he didn’t understand was why no one believed him or would leave him alone.

He decided it was time to escape while he still had some skin on his back after that burn for his aunt. He started to walk down the stairs and toward the offices in the back when he heard his name called.

“Hi, Hope.”

“Sorry to bother you,” she said. “I know you’re on your way out. Mason mentioned that he’d like the two of us to meet at some point to go over expansion into other states.”

“No bother. He talked to me about it this morning. I’m off tonight and will be back Wednesday night, so maybe we can talk Thursday morning? Send me an email of who and where he’s looking to ship to if you can.”

“I will. Thanks. See you in a few days. And congrats on your house closing.”

“Thanks,” he said, not aware she knew. As much as he liked to stop in and talk to her, she always kept it short and sweet no matter how much he lingered.

She turned and he watched her walk away. Her petite frame that barely came up to his shoulders with her brown hair resting against the middle of her back. He figured her to be about five foot two. He was six foot even and fine with it. He wasn’t as tall as his four male Fierce cousins, but being a few inches shorter wasn’t a big deal. Nor was he as big as Brody or Mason. He was built more like Cade, even though he didn’t sit behind a desk full time like Cade did. And he wasn’t as pretty or high fashion as Cade and that was fine with him too.

He was a regular old blue collar worker that put a lot of time in to get where he was.

He’d never be able to compete with his cousins and didn’t want to. Not like so many thought.

He wouldn’t begrudge them all their wealth and success. He wasn’t a jealous person.

He was happy with what he had in life and reminded himself daily.

If he was wishing he wasn’t going home alone at times, he wasn’t admitting it to anyone, least of all his Aunt Jolene.

He said he could get his own woman and he planned on it when he was ready.

Too bad the woman he wanted to get to know better just walked away from him and didn’t seem to be interested in anything other than a work meeting.

Challenging Colt- Enemies to Lovers…Prologue

Prologue

“Have you talked to Stan Brewster yet?”

Colt Baxter looked up at Janet Steele standing in his doorway. She was a partner in the firm he’d been employed with since he’d passed the bar. He had high hopes of moving up and becoming a partner here and in the past few years they’d been squashed more than a kid’s fist hitting their first birthday cake.

Dangling the carrot in front of his face? Yep, been going on for longer than he cared to admit. If he could work up the nerve, he’d leave this all behind him, but starting over was daunting too.

“No. It’s on my list of things to do this week.”

“You need to do it today. Put some pressure on them.”

He put the pen down that was in his hand and stared at Janet. She was probably in her fifties and attractive. Hard not to be with the amount of work she’d had done over the years.

She’d gotten to the top by being ruthless, heartless, and finding a lot of bedmates.

She’d wanted Colt to be in that bed of hers at one point and it’d been a tricky situation to get out of, with her casually hinting his partnership was on the horizon.

That was almost two years ago and he’d managed to slip away without ruffling too many feathers.

Or so he thought until he started to get handed what he felt were some cases challenging his morals. It was one thing he’d never wanted to do in his career and lately it seemed like it was all he did.

“This is getting out of hand,” he said. “Did it ever occur to you that there was a reason Stan was representing himself?”

“Partnerships are offered to those that bring in the money. This was an easy cash cow in your name,” she said, smirking at him.

So she thought she was doing him a favor? Hardly. More like she knew he hated frivolous lawsuits and this was one that was killing him inside. Was it a punishment for not warming her sheets? He had no clue and didn’t want to even think of it now.

“It’s not easy when it’s the guy’s livelihood. He’s representing himself because he can’t afford a lawyer.”

“Colt,” she said in that condescending voice of hers, then moved into his office and took a seat across from him. “There is no reason to go to court for this. That is what his insurance is for. Easy peasy and move onto the next.”

“He doesn’t want his rates to go up or to go bankrupt trying to pay this out,” Colt said. “He’s barely holding it together with the bad press now.”

“And he wouldn’t have had the bad press if he’d just settled months ago when this happened. You knew our client was going to leak this if Stan held out too long.”

He narrowed his eyes. “At your suggestion.”

“If it gets the case closed then it does. You should have been the one to do that. He’s our client and yet you sound like you are working for the Brewsters.”

“I know who I’m working for,” he said. “Now, let me get it done.”

Janet got up and walked out of his office with a shit-eating grin on her face, knowing she got her way. Like she always did.

But unless he wanted to walk out on his job, he had to do it. When had he become such a coward afraid to take that risk? Had he gotten so comfortable here? Or was it the thought of losing everything he’d worked for, all the progress he’d made toward that partnership where he’d be able to choose his own cases?

He picked the phone up and placed the call to the man he dreaded talking to because the truth was, he wished he were working for the Brewsters and could nail his own firm’s ass to the wall for this bullshit. He wondered how much longer he could go on like this when he hated everything this place seemed to stand for.

Believe In Me…Prologue

Prologue

“This is going to be a record year for you, Caden,” Mike Chambers, one of the partners at their firm, said slapping him on the back as he took a seat at the table.

“It seems that way,” Caden said. He’d blown by last year’s earnings last quarter. With most of the month of December to go, he was closing in on the top earner.

“You’ve got the magic touch it seems. Knowing what to buy and when. What’s you’re secret?” Kyle Roberts asked, another partner at the firm. The two men he looked up to the most. The two that took him under their wing when he started.

He knew he was asked here to this dinner with the big guys because he was pulling in major revenue at just thirty-five years old. “Lack of sleep,” he said, grinning.

Mike and Kyle laughed and Caden decided to not tell them it was the truth.

He was working himself into the ground just like he’d done most of his life from the day his mother brought him to a modeling agency. He hadn’t really thought much of it back then even though he knew he was good looking. It wasn’t as if he’d never looked in the mirror.

It hadn’t taken long for him to get signed, and the need to make more money and keep going to be the best filled his blood with adrenaline.

But he’d also been in the running for valedictorian and couldn’t let that slide. Protein, energy drinks, and exercise kept his body in good shape for the modeling, and his brain awake and alert for school.

Bad habits started young and they just carried over into adulthood, only worse. He hadn’t slowed down once.

“Keep up the good work, but don’t burn yourself out,” Mike said. “I’ve seen it happen to one too many.”

Too late, he wanted to say. The waiter came over and poured them all a glass of wine. He hadn’t eaten much more than a protein bar around noon and several cups of coffee that he’d exchanged for those energy drinks years ago. He reached for the glass and took a sip hoping it’d ease the burning he was feeling in his stomach from hunger.

When the wine didn’t work, he went for the water and hoped some bread was brought out soon. The lightheadedness was getting to him too.

“That’s why I do research when I’m working out,” he said. “Live and breathe it.” The TV was always playing tech news and trends when he was home. He never shut it off and never really tried either.

He was still grinning and his two bosses were shaking their heads at him, but continued to smile too. They probably didn’t care too much about his habits if he brought in the clients and kept them all flush.

“As long as you’re still breathing,” Mike said. “I’m starving. I’ve had a big steak on my mind all day.”

Caden picked the menu up. Steak sounded good. Protein always helped him. But when he was looking over the menu, his eyes started to glaze over and his heart was pounding so hard it was almost as if he could hear every beat. Not good at all.

He picked up his ice water and took another sip and realized his hand was shaking.

“Are you all right?” Kyle asked him. “Your face is flush.”

“Just a little warm,” he said. “I haven’t eaten much today.”

Mike lifted his arm and pointed to the breadbasket the waitress was bringing to another table. “Can we get one here too?”

“Sure can,” the waitress said, moving over to grab one and bring it back. She knew she’d get tipped well in a place like this with big spenders. Not only that, Mike and Kyle were regulars.

“Here,” Kyle said. “Get some food in you, then we can talk shop.”

He picked up a piece of bread and took a bite, chewed and swallowed. It tasted good. Almost too good for just bread, telling him he had to stop doing this to himself. There was no reason he couldn’t take fifteen minutes a few times a day to eat a damn meal.

When the bread was gone, he drank some more water. “So, what did you two want to talk to me about?” he asked, hoping for a big promotion.

That’s what all this work was for. He kept telling himself that once he got that corner office he could slow down.

Of course he’d been doing that his whole life. Saying once he’d met his goal he’d cut back. But another goal would pop up and another.

Infinite achiever was a good description of him.

“Let’s get dinner out of the way first,” Kyle said. “We’ve got plenty of time.”

“Sure,” Caden said, resisting the urge to look at his watch. He could be researching stocks right now and reading up on trends. Then he reminded himself this was still work and all part of it.

He picked his water up again, deciding to forgo the wine when his stomach started to burn. Guess the bread didn’t help much and he wished he had his bottle of antacids with him that he went through like candy at his desk like little kids did on Halloween night—only for him it was daily.

By the time the waitress came over, he was ready to order his dinner, but when he opened his mouth, nothing came out and all he saw was blackness.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

Family Bonds- Mac & Sidney…Prologue

Prologue

“You’re later than normal.”

Sidney took a deep breath, prepared to put up with more shit tonight. When she decided to study abroad for her senior year of college she never expected the headache of feeling trapped when she should be enjoying her time. Poor choices on her part once again.

“It was busy tonight.”

“Or you were too slow,” Rod said back. Rodney Enfield was older than her by five years. But at just twenty-seven, his law degree and family money were turning him into a colossal douche. She wished she’d realized it months ago before she moved in with him and gave up her spot in her cramped shared apartment. Now she was stuck with him for another month until the semester was up and she could get the hell out of London.

He didn’t seem so bad at first and maybe it was the newness of the relationship, but the longer she was with him, the more she wondered who the hell he was.

“I have no problem keeping up,” she said back and moved to the kitchen. The flat she shared with Rod was three times the size of the one she’d shared with two other people. She’d take those close quarters back if she could. Instead she had to walk on eggshells to see what kind of guy he was going to be tonight. Loving, sweet, funny or downright rude and in your face asshole. Sometimes scary if he’d been drinking, but she’d been able to handle him most times.

And whenever the undesirable attitudes came out and she told him to cut the shit, he’d apologize and give her gifts the next day. After she’d walked away from him, proving he’d pushed too far.

She was pretty much over it now.

“Oh, then maybe someone wanted a bit more action than a drink tonight?” he asked, grabbing her arm when she tried to walk away.

“No.” She said, pulling her arm away. “But you’ve been drinking tonight I see.”

She knew enough to stay away when he had been. Looked like the asshole was out tonight. Long gone was the guy that was trying to romance her back to his place. She fell for his English charm and would always regret it.

The first time he put her down, she just figured it had to do with his upper crust personality. That he was making a joke and she wasn’t getting it. She even called him out on that and he’d confirmed it.

But then she started to realize that, no, he actually enjoyed putting her down. And when she was pissed off enough, he’d apologize and try to make it up to her and tell her she was too sensitive.

She’d never felt she was a sensitive person. That was Anne. Sidney was more pragmatic and realistic. Then why had she fallen for someone telling her she was more like her twin when he didn’t even know she had one?

Knowing she didn’t have much time left, she was trying to keep the peace as best as she could. He seemed to think she was going to stay here when the month was up even though she’d been talking about going back to Montana. Yep, she was the backwoods country girl he’d called her a few times too.

If there was an insult he could throw at her or demean her, he’d done that.

Sidney didn’t care. The simple life was all she ever wanted. Somehow she got sucked into more here and wished she hadn’t. She just thought it was the chance of a lifetime and did it more because Anne couldn’t. She was doing it because her twin never had the chance.

A stupid reason she’d have to live with.

“Nothing more than what you’ve been serving all the blokes that were hitting on you. I know I’m right,” he said, his hand gliding down her cheek.

She turned her head away and went to move, but he gripped her arm harder and held her in place. “Let go of me. It’s been a long night and I’m tired.” He was scaring her but she didn’t want to let on. Lately he almost seemed like multiple people to her.

“Don’t walk away from me, bitch. You should know better than that.”

This was new…and frightening. Talking down to her was one thing. Insulting her too. Threatening was another. She didn’t take shit from anyone. This country girl knew how to fight back.

“Let go of me now,” she said, her voice low, her eyes narrowed.

It was the wrong thing to do. His arm came up and backhanded her.

Stumbling a few feet back, she tasted blood, felt it pooling in her mouth from where her lip cut on her teeth. She turned and swung at him, but he blocked it and wrapped her up in a bear hug. She started to scream and kick, fight with everything she had. She wasn’t going down without leaving some of her own marks.

She was making enough noise that the tenants next door started banging on the wall and wanting to know what was going on.

“That was stupid,” he said low in her ear, releasing her and shoving her away. She caught herself before she hit the wall.

Marching to the bathroom, she slammed the door, locking herself in for now and trying to get control of her shaking.

An hour must have gone by as Sidney sat in there and cleaned up, hoping he’d pass out. There were tears in her eyes and she let them fall while she figured out her next move. First thing in the morning she’d be out of here when he left for work.

When she thought it was safe, she opened the door and saw the lights out in the flat, knowing Rod must have gone to bed.

She grabbed a blanket and curled up on the couch hoping to fall asleep.

When morning came, she pretended to be sleeping as she heard him moving around. He stood over her, looking at her, she knew. She could feel his eyes on her.

His hand came out and touched her arm lightly, and he whispered, “I’m so sorry, Sidney. Please forgive me. I don’t even remember much of last night. I hope you can forgive me. I must have blacked out. I just love you so much and the thought of you working last night while I was here alone sent me to drink more than normal.”

She battled back the snort along with the tears. He liked to make that excuse, but she knew better.

And when the door shut behind him, she jumped up and turned the deadbolt, then packed up her stuff. She would be gone within the hour and he’d never touch her again.

Fierce-Jade…Prologue

Prologue

Jade was in the kitchen of her townhouse that she shared on campus with three other girls. No one was home but her and she was happy for that.

She started to sniffle and pushed it back. There was more rage than anything at this point. Damn Dylan for what he’d said. For what he’d done. She’d bet if she hadn’t confronted him, he’d keep it up too.

“Are you cleaning the kitchen in a skirt and leather shoes?” Miranda asked when she walked in the door. Miranda had a room on the other side of the townhouse with Stephanie. Jade really didn’t care for Miranda much, but you don’t know everything about someone until you’ve lived with them.

“I am. If you guys were cleaner I wouldn’t have to do it all the time.”

Miranda laughed. “You don’t need to pick up after us. We aren’t that messy, but you can’t help being the control freak. So much so you can’t even change into old clothes to do it.”

She’d been too pissed off when she walked in the door and she knew the mindless task of scrubbing the kitchen and counters would help her a little. She didn’t want to lose control and break down in front of anyone, least of all her roommates who were like vultures on a carcass on the side of the road.

“So I heard Dylan ended things with you,” Miranda said in that voice of hers that gloated about everything.

“I think you heard wrong,” she said back completely in control now. Never let them see you sweat or being weak. That was how she felt.

 It was probably the last straw when Dylan started flinging insults at her and she laughed in his face and told him to stop being so childish and act like a man and admit what he did. She was fully aware he was going to trash her now and it looked like he didn’t waste much time.

“Are you and Dylan done?” Miranda asked.

She had no idea how Miranda could know this soon when it only happened an hour ago. Guess snake venom spread fast. She could lie, but there was no point. “We are.”

“He dropped you because you’re too rigid,” Miranda said. “We’ve been telling you that for years.”

Years was an exaggeration since she’d only talked to Miranda for the last two and if she’d had her way they wouldn’t be sharing a townhouse together, but she didn’t.

She’d been dying to be on her own and go to a different college than the rest of her family. Than her twin. If she’d gone to Duke she could have been rooming with her cousin Ella all along. But nope, she’d thought she was ready to do it alone.

Little good that did when it seemed like she had more conflicts with girls here than she did with all her male brothers and cousins.

She’d thought it’d be better to get out from under them and the way they intimidated all the boys she’d dated, but she found that she would welcome their interference today.

No, that was wrong. She handled Dylan on her own even if he was spreading lies. And she was going to be the bigger person and pretend indifference even if she was heartbroken once again and feeling betrayed.

“He didn’t drop me,” she said, turning and crossing her arms.

“That’s not what he’s saying.”

Jade laughed. “Of course he isn’t going to admit I found out he was kissing someone else and confronted him. I don’t care to be with cheaters.”

“Cheaters,” Miranda said. “I didn’t know you guys were that serious. Dylan has been on a handful of dates in the last month with other women. I thought you knew. We all did.”

Miranda was trying to get a rise out of her like she did most girls on campus. She thrived on it. It wasn’t happening with Jade. “Well, I was exclusive when we started dating and he now knows what I will and won’t tolerate. If it makes him feel better that he is telling everyone he broke up with me, fine. But if what you are saying is true, then we had nothing to break up in his eyes.”

Miranda flushed and Jade knew she’d called the bluff. As always Miranda wanted to cause trouble. “Whatever. Doesn’t matter. You always have some excuse as to why relationships don’t last but the truth is you need to look in the mirror.”

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me. It’s not your brothers since they aren’t here. It’s you. You’re rigid. You’re controlling. It’s your way or the highway.”

Jade snorted. “I’d hardly say that.”

“Really?” Miranda asked. “Your boyfriend that you’ve been gaga over for weeks is caught kissing another girl and you’re not even upset over it. Instead you’re in the kitchen cleaning the way you want it done and rearranging everything to what suits you.”

She wasn’t going to acknowledge any of what Miranda was saying. Not even that she did move the silverware into another drawer that she felt it should have been in all along.

“Why do you care so much?” she asked instead.

“I don’t,” Miranda said.

“I think you do,” she said coolly. “I think you like to see other people upset and hurting. That you thrive on it and it’s just driving you insane that I’m indifferent.”

“That’s a good word for you,” Miranda said. “Indifferent. Another reason why you’ll be alone for a long time to come.”

She turned her back and picked the sponge up, Miranda getting bored and leaving now that Jade wasn’t giving her what she wanted.

When Jade knew the coast was clear, she went into her room and grabbed her pillow, then sat down on the bed, burying her face and letting the tears fall.  No one was around and if they returned they wouldn’t hear her.

Never let them see you vulnerable. People like Miranda just ate it up.

She should be used to this by now. Used to men not understanding her. Not liking her for who she was or the person she wanted to be.

They saw a pretty face and a name that carried some clout but then got bored.

When her tears were done falling, she glanced over at the clock and noticed it’d been almost thirty minutes. She picked up some clothes and went into the bathroom to shower and scrub her face clean, then put a cold washcloth over her eyes.

By the time her other two roommates returned ninety minutes later, she was cool and composed cooking dinner.

“Hey, Jade,” Kaylee said. Kaylee shared the same half of the townhouse with her. “How are you doing?”

“Fine,” she said. “Why do you ask?”

“Miranda delighted in texting me that Dylan broke up with you.”

Bitch, Jade wanted to say, but didn’t. “I see she still wants to say her own version of it.”

Kaylee grinned. “You know her. But you look fine to me. I guess I shouldn’t expect any differently. Nothing seems to bother you. I’d be all red-eyed and sitting on the couch in a blanket with a gallon of ice cream on my lap right now.”

Jade wouldn’t admit she’d had a bowl earlier. No one was around to see her. “I’m not like you.”

“You’re not like a lot of women,” Kaylee said. “You’re much stronger and you’ll be better off for it in the end.”

“Not per Miranda. She thinks strong women are alone most of their lives.”

“But if you’re strong then who cares? You don’t need anyone. That’s what I think.”

Jade just smiled. Why couldn’t she be strong and want someone by her side at the same time? That possibility had to exist, right?