The Naked Truth by Vi Keeland ~ SNEAK PEEK

It was just a typical Monday.

Until the big boss asked me to make the pitch for a prospective new client.

After two years on shaky ground at work because of my screw up, an opportunity to impress the senior partners was just what I needed.  

Or so I thought…

Until I walked into the conference room and collided with the man I was supposed to pitch.

My coffee spilled, my files tumbled to the ground, and I almost lost my balance.

And that was the good part of my day.

Because the gorgeous man crouched down and looking at me like he wanted to eat me alive, was none other than my ex, Gray Westbrook.

A man who I’d only just begun to move on from.

A man who my heart despised—yet my body obviously still had other ideas about.

A man who was as charismatic and confident as he was sexy.

Somehow, I managed to make it through my presentation ignoring his intense stare.  

Although it was impossible to ignore all the dirty things he whispered into my ear right after I was done.

But there was no way I was giving him another chance, especially now that he was a client…was there?

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“May I get you something to drink while you wait for the rest of your party?” the waiter asked.

I would normally wait to see what the client did and follow his lead on alcohol. But tonight was not the norm.

I rubbed at my stiff neck. “I’ll take a vodka cranberry, please.”

I hoped it would help calm my nerves and release some of the tension in my jaw before I gave myself a full-blown headache. Taking out my phone, I started to scroll through emails to distract myself while waiting for my drink and dinner companion.

My head whipped up at the sound of Gray’s voice behind me. “Sorry I’m late.”

My heart unexpectedly fluttered, and I fought against the feeling of excitement. “Are you really? Because I get the sense you don’t have any manners after the way you interrupted me a million times today.”

He completely ignored my attitude as he took the seat across from me. “Traffic is a bitch getting downtown at this time. Next time we’ll have dinner at my place.”

“There won’t be a next time.”

Gray’s mouth curved into a smug smile as he snagged my gaze. “Sure there will. There’ll be plenty of next times. And eventually you’ll stop pretending you don’t enjoy my company.”

I hated that my body reacted to him. Right from the very start, we’d had a crazy chemistry between us that was difficult to dull.

I sighed. “What are you doing, Gray? Why did you come to my firm?”

He lifted the cloth napkin in front of him and laid it across his lap. “Isn’t that obvious? I need new legal representation.”

“At my firm? And you’d prefer that representation come from an associate instead of my boss’s boss—the head of our securities division? Or even from Pittman, who would gladly hold your hand and provide you whatever legal advice you need from his fifty-plus years of experience?”

“Loyalty is important to me. I want someone I can trust with my business.”

“And you’ve decided that’s me? An associate with five years experience who just got off probation with the Bar Association for violating attorney-client privilege?”

The waiter arrived with my drink. “Here you go, ma’am.” He turned to Gray. “May I get you something to drink? Or would you like to wait until the last of your party joins you this evening?”

“It’s just the two of us. I’ll have a Macallan, neat, please.”

“Coming right up.” The waiter walked around to the other side of the table and started to remove the third place setting.

I put my hand out, stopping him. “We actually do have another party coming, so you can leave that.”

“Very well.” He nodded.

Gray waited until the waiter was out of earshot. “I didn’t invite anyone else to dinner.”

I sipped my drink and offered a saccharine-sweet fake smile. “I did. Figured an important client like you should have more than one attorney to answer his questions.”

Just as I set down my glass, I saw the other man I was waiting for enter the restaurant. He scanned the room, looking for me, so I held up my hand and waved.

“Perfect timing. There’s Oliver now.”

Gray glanced at the man heading toward us and back to me. Instead of being pissed off, the jerk was amused. “That’s cute. You invited a chaperone because you don’t trust yourself with me.”

Vi Keeland is a #1 New York Times and Wall Street Journal Bestselling author. With more than a million books sold, her titles have appeared in over fifty Bestseller lists and are currently translated in fourteen languages. She lives in New York with her husband and their three children where she is living out her own happily ever after with the boy she met at age six.

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Break by Cassia Leo ~ CHAPTER REVEAL

A humorous and heartbreaking second-chance stand-alone romance from the New York Times bestselling author of the Shattered Hearts Series.

For six years, she was the only one. My best friend. My kitten. My world. Then, I broke us by getting caught in a web of lies.

Hard to believe, after everything we’d been through, I could do what I did to her… in front of 600,000 people.  I doubt she’ll ever believe I did it because I love her.

Three years later, my music career is booming. I have a movie deal in the next comic book reboot. And now the only parent I have left has been given a death sentence. I have to go home, but going home means facing what I did to her.

***   BREAK is available for preorder on all retailers. It will be available for purchase on all retailers for ONE DAY ONLY, July 26, 2018. After July 26th, it will only be available on Amazon. You do not need to have a Kindle Unlimited subscription to purchase BREAK on Amazon.   ***
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Prologue

Charlie

Then

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I would say a picture is worth a lifetime of words, since a single photograph can change your entire life.

When I was fourteen, a chubby girl in my freshman Spanish class attempted suicide after her former boyfriend posted a naked photo of her on MySpace. It was the scandal of the school year. I publicly expressed my disappointment with the way my fellow classmates were body-shaming her. Privately, though, I judged that girl. I couldn’t help but wonder… Who would be foolish enough to trust a teenage boy with nudes?

 

* * *

 

Just ten more minutes. Don’t pass out yet. Just hold on for ten more minutes.

I repeat the words over and over in my mind, like a mantra. Just ten more minutes and I can go home, drink a gallon of NyQuil, and sleep away this dreadful flu.

The art gallery just off the Sonoma State campus is small, but not quaint. Situated in the middle of 4th Street in Santa Rosa, among an eclectic mix of upscale and fair trade shops, the gallery has a wall of windows facing south. This wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t eighty-two degrees outside and the gallery’s air conditioning wasn’t working.

I loosen my black scarf and swallow the saliva pooling in my mouth as the urge to vomit begins to overtake me again. Closing my eyes, I take a few deep breaths as I attempt to quell the sensation.

“I’m sorry. I just need a minute,” I say to my professor as we move onto the next photograph in the exhibit.

If I knew, when I chose to be an art major, that I’d have to do my final exam — a solo show using selected pieces from my photography portfolio to tell a story — in an overheated art gallery, while secretly popping Tylenol every time my professor turns his back on me, I might have seriously reconsidered my dream of being the next Annie Leibovitz. Or I might have chosen a major where I could take my final exam in an air-conditioned lecture hall. At the very least, I’d rethink my brilliant idea to wear a scarf today.

My attempt to look like an artsy-fartsy ballerina — in my lucky black scarf, baby-pink bateau-neck top, black skinny jeans, and pink ballerina flats — and my refusal to request a postponement of the solo show the moment I came down with the flu, will be my downfall. No matter how hot it gets in this gallery, I can’t take off my lucky scarf. Therefore, I predict, if I don’t get high marks on this final, I’m going to drop dead on the high-gloss marble floor.

I trail behind Professor Healy like a baby duckling, answering his questions about lenses, exposures, and filters while trying not to stare at the Florida-shaped birthmark in the center of his bald spot. The show is supposed to tell a story, and the only story that matters in my world is the story of Ben and me. The exhibit begins with images of the beach, where Ben and I first met, then moves through a collection of places we’ve visited together. With Ben’s fame becoming such an issue these past few years, most of the pictures depict secluded landscapes: sparkling lakes, rocky coves, and misty forests.

As I discreetly wipe the sweat trickling down the back of my ear, my phone vibrates in my hand. I quickly slide it into my back pocket as we approach the picture I took of the Sky-house.

The Sky-house is a hollowed out Redwood tree near the forested campsites of the Bodega sand dunes, just steps away from where my boyfriend Ben Hayes and I grew up next door to each other in Bodega Bay, California. The Sky-house was Ben’s hideout before it became ours, and we promised we would never reveal the location to anyone. He approves of my use of the photo for my final, but I’m supposed to destroy the evidence after my solo show. We named our tree the Sky-house because you can look straight up through the hollow trunk and see the sky.

Also, because it was fun to play “house” in there.

I wish Ben was here. He would kiss my forehead and tell me everything was going to be okay. Afterward, he’d take me home and make me some instant ramen — because he couldn’t make chicken soup if his life depended on it. Then, we’d cuddle on the couch to watch Futurama until falling asleep.

Oddly enough, I didn’t get my usual good morning text from Ben today. He must have been up late and decided to sleep in. But he knows today is my show. It’s not like him to forget to wish me well before a big test.

As Professor Healy examines the photograph of our hideout from various angles, my phone begins vibrating in my back pocket — nonstop. One pulse of vibration after another, like a phone call that keeps ringing or when one of my Instagram pics goes viral and my notifications are blowing up. But I haven’t posted any pics on social media in a few days. I’ve been too busy preparing for the show.

Bzzz. Bzzz. Bzzz. Bzzz. Bzzz.

Maybe my voicemail isn’t working. Or maybe the mailbox is full. I’m notoriously guilty of letting unchecked voicemails pile up.

Bzzz. Bzzz. Bzzz. Bzzz. Bzzz.

The vibrating continues for what feels like at least five minutes straight, but is probably only a couple minutes. I finally pull the phone out of my pocket and apologize to Healy for the interruption. Glancing at the screen as I reach for the power button, I see a long list of Instagram mention notifications on my lock screen, and my heart drops along with my jaw.

 

2 min ago: @charleywinters have you seen this, girl?

2 min ago: lmao. @charleywinters just got dumped in front of 600K people. #sorrycharley

2 min ago: @charleywinters More like millions of people! This is gonna be news.

1 min ago: @charleywinters Don’t pay attention to these assholes. You didn’t deserve this. #sorrycharley

1 min ago: so fucked up. can’t believe @officialbenhayes would do something like this to @charleywinters #sorrycharley

1 min ago: @charleywinters don’t pretend you haven’t seen this post. @officialbenhayes is too good for you. #byefelicia #sorrycharley #actuallynotsorry

1 min ago: haha! so true! Why doesn’t @charleywinters get that bump on her nose fixed? #sorrycharley

 

“Charlotte, are you listening?”

I suddenly understood why Ben didn’t text me this morning. I can literally feel my blood pressure dropping. My entire body feels cold and light as a feather, like I barely exist.

The room begins to spin as I look up from my phone screen. “What?” I murmur as Healy’s red, bulbous nose comes in and out of focus.

I unlock the phone as my professor’s voice murmurs in the background of my consciousness. Tapping the Instagram app, then a recent notification, I’m taken to a picture of Ben riding a motorcycle on the beach at sunset. Sitting on the back seat, with her head thrown back in gleeful laughter, is a blonde I recognize right away. A blonde the entire world could probably recognize.

The caption on the photo reads:

@officialbenhayes to new beginnings. #instalove #newlove

MAY 11

I blink as Professor Healy steps around me so he’s facing me straight on.

“I asked, ‘How long is the exposure on this picture?’” he glances at the label beneath the frame then turns back to me. “The one titled ‘Sky-house.’ You’ve achieved a stunning depth of field with this lens. How long is the exposure? Based on the softness, I’m guessing it’s at least a thirty-minute exposure, since it doesn’t appear to be motion-blurred or out of focus or over-exposed.”

I open my mouth to speak, but only word comes out. “Exposed.”

“Charlotte, your face is blood-red. Are you all right?” he says, grabbing my elbows.

I shake my head, still unable to speak as my phone continues to vibrate in my hand.

“Oh, dear. Let’s sit you down. This is not the first time I’ve seen this happen,” he says, placing a hand on the middle of my back to guide me toward a gold velvet tufted bench about ten feet away.

“Do you need some water?” the gallery curator, a middle-aged woman with dark hair as glossy as the marble floor, asks.

I shake my head again as I sit on the bench. “No,” I whisper, reaching up to pull off my lucky scarf.

“Are you sure? Do you mind if I feel your forehead?” the woman asks gently.

I nod this time, closing my eyes and flinching slightly at the sensation of her cold hand on my face.

“Oh, my God. You’re burning up. I’m calling an ambulance,” she says, setting off to find a phone.

“Wait,” I call out, holding up my still-vibrating iPhone. “I have a phone… Here. Take it. I don’t want it.”

As she walks toward me, I can’t help but think about that chubby girl in my Spanish class. We are kin now. Today will be known as the day a single photograph changed my life.

The curator is a couple feet away from me when I lose my grip, dropping the phone on the floor as I pass out.

 

 Chapter One

Charlie

Now

 

Social media is a blessing and a curse. It can be used to galvanize support for important issues, like shedding light on social injustice. It’s the best resource we have for sharing inspiring art and funny memes. On the other hand, social media has also become a means to pass judgment on people before they can defend themselves. The court of public opinion delivers its justice swiftly and without remorse.

I killed all my social media accounts about two and a half years ago. I’d rather be a nobody than a cog in that kind of machine. My friends, however, have started to question my commitment to this philosophy.

The yellow glow from the streetlight pours in through the glass storefront, illuminating Michelle’s cinnamon skin as she hits the switch on the wall to dim the lights inside The Dunk seafood restaurant. Her silky black hair is pulled up tightly in one of those high ponytails that always make me wonder if she’s secretly walking around all day with a massive headache.

Michelle works as the general manager at The Dunk, because her dad doesn’t trust anyone else to run their family business. After locking the entry doors, she slides her jangling gaggle of keys into the front pocket of her black waist-apron and begins wiping down the tabletops.

I stand up from the table nearest the register, to stretch my arms and legs. Every Tuesday through Sunday, from eight p.m. to eleven p.m., I sit at this table to keep my best friend company while she closes up the restaurant. Sometimes, I help her clean so we can get out of there faster. Mostly, I use the time to edit photos on my laptop while chatting with Michelle.

“Is there any chili left?” I ask, closing the lid on my MacBook.

Michelle makes a mean chicken and white bean chili. Her mom, Monica, started making it for me when we were kids, when she realized I couldn’t eat their original chili recipe because it contained pork sausage. It was one of the rare times my mother’s Jewish heritage resulted in the creation of a culinary masterpiece.

Michelle grabs a clean towel off the shelf under the counter and heads toward the dining area. “Julio! Pack me a quart of chili, please!” she shouts toward the kitchen.

“Okay, Mitch!” the cook shouts back.

“Want to hit the beach tomorrow?” I ask as I slide my laptop into the snug foam compartment of my waterproof travel case.

Michelle sprays lemon-scented cleaner on the table next to mine and nods. “Fuck yeah. I need a beach day,” she replies, then sinks down into the seat across from me. “Which one?”

“Portuguese?” I reply, closing my laptop case and taking a seat again.

Michelle slides her phone out of the pocket of her blue skinny jeans, her top lip curling in disapproval. “Portuguese Beach is so crowded in the end of June.”

“Not on Monday mornings. We can get there early to get a good spot, then book it when it starts getting too crowded in the afternoon.”

She shrugs. “That’s probably better. It’s not like I need a tan.”

Every time Michelle references her skin color, it makes me sad. It reminds me of the one time she let down her guard and admitted to me how she hated the way people treated her differently in the summer, when her cinnamon-brown skin became a rich coffee-brown. We all have things we hate about ourselves, physical features that feel more like betrayals than assets. For me, it’s the bump in my nose I inherited from my Jewish mother. For Michelle, it’s her skin color. For our other BFF, Allie Kim, it’s her slanted eyes. Maybe that common thread of self-hatred is why we’ve been best friends since elementary school.

I pull my phone out of my pocket and text Michelle a single, lonely poop emoji.

She looks up from her phone screen. “If you need to release the chili demon, just go. You know you don’t have to ask to use the restroom.”

I smile as I let out a fart. “Not necessary when I can let it out right here. I just wanted you to look up from your phone.”

She rolls her eyes as she understands this reference. “You have to dump him. Stat. That guy gives me the creeps.”

The “him” Michelle is referring to is Tyler Bradford, the son of Mayor Tom Bradford, whom I had started dating four months ago. Tyler has an annoying habit of texting me emojis to get me to look up from my phone when we’re hanging out. Michelle and Allie do not like Tyler. To be fair, I don’t know if I even like him. But in my opinion, being alone during the summer is worse than being alone during the holidays. If I do dump Tyler, it will be in September or October.

“He’s not that bad,” I say, opening up my bank account app to check my balance for the tenth time today, a new and disgusting habit I acquired recently.

Michelle looks up from her phone again and cocks an eyebrow. “The guy nicknamed you his ‘little oyster.’ He’s a creep.”

The smile on my face vanishes when I see my account balance. “Ugh. I need some new clients ASAP.”

Michelle’s face softens. “Are you in trouble? Like, are you not going to be able to pay your phone bill, or something?”

“It’s not that bad… yet. But I definitely need to figure out a way to bring in more clients or it’s R.I.P. Winters’ Weddings.”

She turns her attention back to her phone, types something, then turns the screen toward me. “Maybe if you put your photos on Instagram, like this girl, you’d get more business.”

I stare at the Instagram profile for a girl named Elizabeth Messina, who Michelle follows on Instagram. “Yeah, and maybe if I hadn’t failed my final exam, I’d have a degree I could use to get a job.”

“You didn’t fail your final. You refused to retake it,” she replied as casually as if she were commenting on the weather.

“Really? This again?” I reply, my voice climbing an octave. “You’re saying I was supposed to fight my way past the sweaty paparazzos so I could give a solo show of pictures depicting the places where my boyfriend and I had sex? The boyfriend who dumped me on Instagram?”

Her eyebrows shot up as she looked up from the screen. “I’m just saying that maybe you could have chosen some different pictures and hired a bodyguard to get you past the paparazzi. If you really wanted the degree, that stuff shouldn’t have stopped you.”

I shook my head. “You know what happened the last time I tried to create another Instagram account.”

I narrowed my eyes at her, telepathically willing her to remember the time I created a new profile for Winters’ Weddings. A client named “Isla” messaged me on Instagram and booked me to do her engagement shoot at a nearby vineyard in Sonoma. She even paid the fifty-percent deposit. When I got to the vineyard, I parked my car and entered the barn, where we planned to meet. “Isla” and her friends were there with their cell phone cameras at the ready to record my reaction to a cardboard cutout of Ben down on one knee proposing to Becca Kingsley, the pop singer he dumped me for. I vomited on the straw-covered floor and ran to my car.

I shook my head when Michelle didn’t acknowledge this catastrophe. “Forget it. I’m not arguing about this again.”

“You’re the one who brought up your cash flow problems. I was just offering social media as a solution. A little self-promotion can’t hurt, you know? And yet you still shoot me down, as usual. Anyway, we both know that’s not what this is about.”

“What are you talking about?”

She purses her lips. “I’m talking about that gigantic chip on your shoulder. It’s been there since Hunter’s graduation last month.”

My eyes widen. “Are you kidding me right now? Are you accusing me of being jealous of my little brother?”

“There’s a difference between bitterness and strength. You’ve gotten more bitter with every year that passes since you and Ben broke up. If you’re not careful, you’re going to push away the people who helped you get through that shit-storm. Which is sad, because we’re the ones who actually love you.”

I lower my gaze and take a deep breath to tame the angry lion inside me. I also try not to think about Ben, but the tattoo on my wrist makes that impossible. Michelle is pretty strongly implying that what Ben did to me indicates he’s obviously not one of the people who actually loves me. But after three years, I still look at the tattoo on the inside of my left wrist and wonder if that’s true. Could Ben have been pretending to love me for all those years?

I lay my hand over my wrist to cover the words “I love us” written in Ben’s handwriting. He has a matching tattoo on the inside of his left wrist in my handwriting, if he hasn’t attempted to get it covered up. During the four years that Ben and I were officially together, and the few years before where we hid our relationship from our families, we only got into one huge fight that almost tore us apart. Almost.

I remember vividly how I told Ben I loved him, but I didn’t think I was secure enough to be with someone famous. He told me I had nothing to feel insecure about. “I don’t like myself without you. Actually, sometimes I think you’re the only thing I like about myself. I love you, Charley, and I’m not ashamed to say I love you more when you’re mine. I love us.” After that, “I love us” became our slogan. I cringe inside as I remember how we joked about trademarking the phrase.

“Let’s change the subject,” Michelle says, probably reading the signs in the painful expression on my face, the signs my mind has wandered into the dark corner where I hide my memories of Ben. “If you don’t want to do social media — which I totally understand — then, maybe all you need to do is figure out what’s worked in the past, you know, to generate business.”

I lean my head back and sigh. “I feel like this is the hundredth time we’ve had this conversation. I don’t know why you put up with me.”

“Because I love you,” she replied casually. “Okay, I remember when you were booking wedding shoots more than six months in advance because you were so busy. When was that? Two years ago? Maybe you were doing something back then that you might not be doing now.”

I shook my head. “That was pretty much right after the breakup, when I first started the business. When people were still googling ‘Charley Winters ugly cry’ a thousand times a day. Bookings have steadily decreased since then.”

Michelle winces at my reminder of the time a paparazzo published a video of me ugly-crying while talking to my mom in our backyard shortly after the breakup. The video went viral and, at its peak, the phrase “Charley Winters ugly cry” was Googled more than 800,000 times in one day. The video is still on every celebrity gossip channel on YouTube. I don’t have the emotional fortitude or the money to hire a lawyer to force Google to take it down.

Michelle stands up and rounds the table so she can wrap her arms around my shoulders. “The only good thing I can say about Benjamin Hayes is that he’s smart enough not to show his face around here anymore. I hope he gets antibiotic-resistant chlamydia and his dick falls off.”

I laugh a little too hard and another tiny toot comes out. “I don’t think that’s how chlamydia works.”

“I’m still holding out hope. And you really need to stop eating so much damn chili,” she says, giving my shoulders one more squeeze before she sets off toward the back of the restaurant. As she rounds the counter, she glances back at me and flashes me a beaming smile, which quickly disappears as her eyes become fixated on something outside.

I glance over my shoulder toward the storefront and a flicker of intense pain fires through every nerve in my body when I see Ben standing on the other side of the glass.

New York Times bestselling author Cassia Leo loves her coffee, chocolate, and margaritas with salt. When she’s not writing, she spends way too much time re-watching Game of Thrones and Sex and the City. When she’s not binge-watching, she’s usually enjoying the Oregon rain with a hot cup of coffee and a book.

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NEW RELEASE!! Saving Beck by Courtney Cole

Reminiscent of the beloved novels by Mary Kubica and Jodi Picoult comes a chilling portrayal of a son’s addiction and its harrowing effects on both him and his mother from New York Times bestselling author Courtney Cole. SAVING BECK releases July 17, 2018. Check out the teaser below, and pre-order your copy of SAVING BECK today!

There comes a time when offering your life for your child’s doesn’t work, when you realize that it’ll never be enough. 

The cold needle in his warm vein was a welcome comfort to my son at first. But then it became the monster that kept us apart. 

Heroin lied, and my son believed. It took him to a world where the last year didn’t happen, to a place where his father was still alive. What Beck didn’t understand was that it couldn’t bring his father back from the dead. It couldn’t take away his pain, not permanently. 

You think it can’t happen to you, that your kids, your family, will never be in this situation. 
I thought that too. But you’re wrong. 

Step into our world, and see for yourself. 
Watch my golden boy become a slave to this raging epidemic. Watch me try and save him. 

Drug addiction comes with a price. 
Trust me, you’re not equipped to pay it. 

Don’t miss this heart wrenching, evocative, yet hopeful novel—it will leave you forever changed.

Amazon | B&N | iBooks | Kobo | Audible

“Isn’t that Taps?” I asked finally, and my eyes were wet. I didn’t look up from Angel’s lap.

“My mom used to sing it to me when I couldn’t sleep. It was the only lullaby she knew,” Angels said, defensively.

“I’m not attacking your mother,” I told her.

“I know.”

“Why did your mother send you away?” I asked, because Angel’s song was so sad, and her voice was so broken. “She must’ve loved you.”

She shrugged and held me tight, her fingers afraid to let go of me.

“She said I was better off going back to foster care. That should she couldn’t afford to live on her own, and her boyfriend hated me. She said she wanted me to have a shot at life, and she couldn’t give to that to me.”

“I’m sorry.” I patted her back with my free hand. It was a mindless motion and it didn’t help, but I tried.“How long were you in foster care?”

“A while,” she answered. “The state thought I was better taken care of there. I lost my virginity to a foster father. I don’t have a sweet story like yours and Elin’s.”

Her voice was bitter now and she was so hurt and she was so used.

I wanted to pick her up and shield her from the world.

I told her that.

She laughed, a hard sound. “Too late, King,” she said.

“It’s never too late,” I argued.

She was thoughtful now.

“So why did you leave your home?” she asked. “If it’s never too late. Maybe you should go back?”

“It’s complicated,” I answered. “I can’t go back.”

“But why? Your mom is a good mom, right?”

I paused. “Yeah. She is. But she’s got her own shit going on. There’s a lot to deal with, you know. When someone dies.”

“Yeah, I bet,” she answered. “But she probably misses you.”

I shrugged. “It’s hard to say.”

The silence swallowed us up, and we wallowed in it, stretching our legs and swimming in it.

“I was thinking that when this is done,” and she gestured toward my crown royal bag that held our stash, “that we should give it up.”

That hit me in the face and I stared at her.

“Give it up?”

The idea was ludicrous, because without H, I’d feel everything. I wouldn’t be able to escape and there was nothing I wanted less than to do that. But Angel was nodding and she was serious.

“I think we should,” she said finally. “Look what it did to my mother. She gave up her own kid. You left a good life behind. For what? For this?” she swept her arm around gesturing to the rickety walls of the warehouse. “We’ve got to make good on ourselves, King.”

I eyed her.

“What’s your real name?” I asked, trying to change the subject. She scowled.

“Don’t do that. This is serious.”

“So is your name,” I answered.

“My name is Angel now,” she answered. “And I want us to get clean. We’ll have to do it together so we can help each other. We’ll get each other through it, King.”

I stared at her hard, and she was so solemn, so determined.

“You can’t be serious,” I said and I was shaky just thinking about it.

“I am,” she nodded. “You don’t know it because you haven’t seen it, but when I’m sober, I can do anything, King. We could get a little house, and be roommates. Winston can have his own little bed. You can go to college and I’ll get a GED, and we’ll have a life, King. A real life.”

I thought on that for a second.

A real life.

I studied the track marks in my arm, and I knew what I’d have to give up.

“I don’t know if I can,” I said truthfully. “I don’t know if I’m strong enough.”

“Of course you are,” Angel said firmly. “You just don’t know that right now. But I do, King.”

“My name isn’t really King,” I told her. She smiled and in this moment, she was pretty, even with her jagged extra-short hair.

“I know,” she answered. “I’m not stupid. But you’re my King, and I like it that way.”

“Do you want to know my real name?” I gave her the choice, but she squeezed my hand.

“No. That was then, and this is now. You’re King and I’m Angel.”

She fell asleep, so I was left awake alone.

I held her tight because she was all I had, and her breathing was soft and quick. It was still chilly enough in here to see her breaths in the air, but I kept her warm with my body.

She’s Angel and I’m King.

I thought about that.

Then I thought about a time when I was still Beck.

I was another person, with the world on a string and all the promises it had to offer sat on my lap.

Potential was a shiny thing and I’d been full of it then, so much so that I couldn’t see past the bright promises.

But with those promises came curses. If I hadn’t gone to Notre Dame that day, if we hadn’t stayed so long, then it wouldn’t have been so late when we drove home. Elin wouldn’t have called to check on me, and I wouldn’t have answered. My dad wouldn’t be dead.

My life would still be shiny and bright.

I would still be at home and my mom would be making me banana pancakes on Saturdays.

I was sure she’s still making them now for Dev and Annabelle. Thoughts of them hurt my heart and I missed them. I hadn’t allowed that for weeks and weeks, but it was true.

I missed them.

Looking down at Angel’s face, I wondered what they’d think of her.

But I already knew.

They’d take one look and know she’s an addict too, and I’d be just another disappointment. One of many.

No matter how much I missed my life, that was then. This was now.

Angel stirred and moaned a little and I soothed her quietly, my hand on her shoulder.

“Shhh,” I said into her ear. “It’s going to be all right.”

“King, promise me we’ll quit,” she said, half asleep. “Promise me.”

I didn’t want to. I wanted to. I didn’t want to.

“Okay,” I finally said. “Okay.”

She smiled and her lips were curved and pink in the night. She was happy now, I realized with a start.

“Sing to me,” she said. “Make me feel safe.”

I sang her mother’s lullaby and she closed her eyes to sleep.

Courtney Cole is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling novelist who would eat mythology for breakfast if she could.

She has a degree in Business, but has since discovered that corporate America is not nearly as fun to live in as fictional worlds.

Courtney was born and raised in rural Kansas, but has since migrated south. She now lives in Florida and writes beneath palm trees.

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Until We Are Gone by Gia Riley ~ EXCERPT REVEAL

Until We Are Gone, an all-new Standalone Emotional Romance by Gia Riley is coming July 30th!!

I wanted a family with Cash.

We had dreams –building a house, kids, a dog, and, yes, even the white picket fence.

Or so I’m told.

I don’t remember anything about my husband. Not the wedding or the vows we shared.

The past ten years were erased and with time, they’re supposed to come back.

But this isn’t your typical case of amnesia

What if I’m not supposed to remember?

What if I was meant to forget?

Maybe I don’t want my old life back.

Because if the accident hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have uncovered the truth.

Losing my memory wasn’t tragic.

Losing my memory was fate.

The man grabs my hand and laces his fingers with mine, careful not to jostle the IV. Nothing about his hand is familiar, and I’m left wondering if it’s okay to be touching at all.

“Who are you?” I ask him, wondering why he still hasn’t told me his name. If he’s someone who saved me, then I want to know. I need to know. “Are you the pilot?”

He sucks in a breath, and the tears flow harder down his cheeks. There’s a long, uncomfortable pause, and he barely blinks.

A few seconds later, he clears his throat and says, “Cash. I’m Cash. Your husband.”

I search his face for anything familiar. A dimple. A wrinkle. Maybe a freckle. But nothing about him triggers a single memory. I should feel more than this. I should have love for the man I married. I’m not sure how long ago, but we exchanged vows. Vows I don’t remember. And I’m sure I wore a white dress, probably my dream dress, and I don’t even know if it was made of lace or satin. My first Holy Communion dress was an expensive chiffon, and I hated that itchy material, so I’m sure it couldn’t have been chiffon.

Cash brushes his finger down the side of my face, chasing away a tear. I didn’t realize I was crying.

“I think I want to be alone,” I whisper.

He pauses and then lets go of me.

I wait for him to say something, but he just tucks closed fists into his pockets and stares at the floor.

 Author Gia Riley has been in love with writing romance since high school when she took her very first creative writing class. From the small but mighty state of Delaware, she’s a country girl at heart, traveling back to her roots in Pennsylvania as often as she can.

While New Adult and Contemporary romance have been her passion, she’s dabbled with more erotic plotlines lately, enjoying discovering the sexier side of love with each story she pens. After all, she’s a lover of all things romance – a firm believer that everyone deserves their

happily ever after no matter what it takes to get there.

When she’s not writing, you can find her roaming the aisles of Kirkland’s, up to her elbows in Play-doh, or trying to hunt down spoilers for her favorite reality television show.

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Saving Beck by Courtney Cole ~ Waiting on Wednesday

Reminiscent of the beloved novels by Mary Kubica and Jodi Picoult comes a chilling portrayal of a son’s addiction and its harrowing effects on both him and his mother from New York Times bestselling author Courtney Cole. SAVING BECK releases July 17, 2018. Check out the teaser below, and pre-order your copy of SAVING BECK today!

There comes a time when offering your life for your child’s doesn’t work, when you realize that it’ll never be enough. 

The cold needle in his warm vein was a welcome comfort to my son at first. But then it became the monster that kept us apart. 

Heroin lied, and my son believed. It took him to a world where the last year didn’t happen, to a place where his father was still alive. What Beck didn’t understand was that it couldn’t bring his father back from the dead. It couldn’t take away his pain, not permanently. 

You think it can’t happen to you, that your kids, your family, will never be in this situation. 
I thought that too. But you’re wrong. 

Step into our world, and see for yourself. 
Watch my golden boy become a slave to this raging epidemic. Watch me try and save him. 

Drug addiction comes with a price. 
Trust me, you’re not equipped to pay it. 

Don’t miss this heart wrenching, evocative, yet hopeful novel—it will leave you forever changed.

***  PREORDER NOW ~ RELEASES JULY 17, 2018  ***
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The hospital is a beacon of light and hope as we pull in. I barely remember to put my car in park before I jump out and I leave it in the middle of the lane, the tires wrenched haphazardly toward the curb.

“Ma’am, you can’t park there,” a guy in a security uniform says with his fake badge, but I don’t answer. I toss him my keys and push my way to the doors, and that’s when I see him.

My son.

They’ve pulled him out of the ambulance, and he’s so still, so white. He’s got the body of a man and the face of a boy, and he’s got vomit in his hair. One hand dangles over the edge of the gurney, orange flecks dripping from his fingers to the floor, but no one notices, no one cares.

“Beck,” I breathe, and he doesn’t open his eyes. “Beck,” I say louder, as loud as I can. His mouth is slack, but he’s not dead, he can’t be dead because someone is pumping his heart with her fist. She’s running next to the gurney, and she’s pounding on his heart, making it beat.

“Coming through,” she yells at the doors, and there is a team of people working on him. They’re frantic, and that’s not good.

I chase after them, through the emergency room, through the people, but someone grabs me at a giant set of double-doors, the gateway to the important rooms.

“You can’t go in there,” a nurse tells me.

“That’s my son,” I try to tell her, but she doesn’t care. “Beck,” I scream, and I try to see through the windows, but I can’t because he’s gone. “I love you, Beck. Stay here. Stay here.”

The nurse grasps my arm, and I can’t stand anymore. My legs are tired and the adrenaline… it numbs me. I collapse beside her and she tries to hold me up, but she can’t… I’m on the ground.

My face is wet, when did I start crying?

“You have to save my son,” I beg her, my fingers curled into her arm. I stare into her eyes. Hers are green, ringed with blue, and she looks away. Something about her seems so familiar, something about those eyes.

“We’ll try, ma’am,” she says uncertainly. It’s the uncertainty that kills me. “We’ll do everything we can. I’m going to take you to a quiet room, and give you a blanket. Is there anyone I can call for you?”

I shake my head. “No. I already called my sister.”

“Okay,” the nurse says quietly and her name tag says Jessica. She takes me to a waiting room, a quiet private one, the ones they use when the outcome might not be good. I know that because I’ve been here before.

I swallow hard and she puts a cup of coffee in my hand.

As she does, she pushes a stray hair out of her face and her bracelet catches my eye. A simple chain with a silver dolphin on it. I’ve seen it before.

“You were here the night my husband was brought in,” I realize slowly. “Weren’t you? Do you remember me?”

It was a year ago. A year, two months… I check my watch… six days and twenty-two hours ago. Of course she doesn’t remember me.

But Jessica nods.

“I’m so sorry about your husband,” she tells me now, her voice quiet and thick. “I swear to you, we did everything we could.”

“I know,” I tell her. Because I do. The accident was so bad, there’s no way anyone could’ve survived. Except for Beck. He lived. But Matt...his injuries were insurmountable. That’s what the doctor told me that night.

I stare at the door, and this is the same room and that is the same door, and this is the same blue-tiled floor. For a minute, I’m back in that moment, and the doctor is coming in. I’d waited for hours and his face was so grave and I knew, I knew, before he could utter a word.

I shook my head because I didn’t want to hear what was coming next, but he spoke anyway.

Matt’s injuries were insurmountable, he’d said. We did everything we could.

But everything wasn’t enough, and my husband died.

“Is it a different doctor tonight?” I ask suddenly. “I need a different doctor. One who can save my son.”

I know it’s illogical. I know it was never the doctor’s fault, but it doesn’t matter because Jessica is nodding. “It’s a different doctor tonight,” she tells me. “Dr. Grant, and he’s very, very good.”

“Okay,” I whisper. “Okay.”

“If you need anything, you tell me,” Jessica says and I can see that she means it. She likes me. Or she feels sorry for me. It doesn’t matter which. I nod and she’s gone, and I’m alone.

Just like I was a year ago, and just like that night all I can do is pace.

I’m a caged mama wolf and there’s nothing I can do, but I know that if I stop moving, Beck might die. My energy is attached to his energy. I have to move. It all depends on me.

So I walk in circles.

I walk six paces, over the six white tiles, then I turn, taking three steps over the blue. I tread back six paces over the white, and then turn again, taking three more over the blue.

I will not stop, Beck. I won’t fail you. I won’t.

It becomes rhythmic, and I match my breaths with my steps. I’m a machine, a time-keeper, a being made of clock-work as I walk in circles, marking time. Every step I take, Beck is still alive. I feel it in my heart. It’s all up to me.

Courtney Cole is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling novelist who would eat mythology for breakfast if she could.

She has a degree in Business, but has since discovered that corporate America is not nearly as fun to live in as fictional worlds.

Courtney was born and raised in rural Kansas, but has since migrated south. She now lives in Florida and writes beneath palm trees.

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A Date for Hannah by Callie Henry ~ COVER REVEAL

Fans of Hallmark movies and sweet stories of first love will adore Callie Henry’s new series!

High-schooler, Hannah, has always been self-conscious about her weight, so when hottie swimmer, Liam, pays her extra attention at her sister’s wedding, she has a hard time trusting his interest. Throughout the evening, Liam’s charm wins her over, until they’re falling hard for each other. But the next day, Hannah learns something that may ruin it all.

*****

All stories in the LIFE (Love is for Everyone) series portray true-to-life, teen-aged characters, with real personalities and common issues, who experience the lightning bolt of first love in their own, individual ways!

***  Special Pre-Order Price of Only 99¢ ~ RELEASES AUGUST, 2018  ***
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TITLE: A Date with Hannah
AUTHOR: Callie Henry
SERIES: Love is for Everyone
GENRE: YA Romance
RELEASE DATE: August 6th 2018

Excerpt from A DATE FOR HANNAH (Love Is For Everyone, #1) by Callie Henry. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

“Hey, you know what? You didn’t let me finish my pitch before, when I asked you to go on a date with me.”

She sighed, her eyes losing a little brightness and her smile dimming as she turned away to look at the reception guests on the dance floor. He tilted his head to see her better, and though he didn’t know her well enough to read her expression with accuracy, he saw wariness as her eyebrows knitted together. But when she sucked her lower lip into her mouth, he perceived a little bit of longing too, which made him press his advantage.

“Didn’t you wonder how I knew all that Shakespeare stuff?” he asked.

“Yes, actually,” she said, looking surprised by his question. “Come to think of it, I did wonder, but then you distracted me.”

He grinned. “Good distraction, right?”

She rolled her eyes, but her lips tilted up a little, which made him happy. “You were saying?”

“The OSF is twenty minutes from my house. I worked there taking tickets over spring break last year. So, if you’d like to go with me sometime—as a date—I might even be able to take you backstage. I’m sure Julia would give us a tour of the Allen Elizabethan Theatre.”

“Julia?” said Hannah, raising an eyebrow.

He saw it in her eyes, the way she was mentally backing away from him at the mere mention of another woman. Is that how she saw all men? As players? As someone who’d hurt her and cheat on her if she let her guard down? He couldn’t help the way his feelings for her surged as he watched her—how much he wanted to be the person to prove to her that she could give her heart to someone who would keep it safe.

Julia is my Mom’s friend who works in group sales, is married, and has two kids.” He pulled Hannah’s hand behind his back, holding it hostage and drawing her closer until her chest pressed against his. “And to be clear? I wouldn’t ask you out if I was seeing someone else. I don’t do that. I’m not with anyone right now, Hannah … except you.”

She flinched, and her face went utterly blank, except for her eyes, which looked worried and uncomfortable.

“You’re not with me,” she said softly, loosening her hand from his grasp and stepping away from him.

“I didn’t mean—”

“I have to use the ladies’ room. I’ll find you in a little bit, okay?

She turned and started walking away, while he babbled incoherently at her back:

“Wait. Hannah! No. I didn’t…I just—I just meant…Crap!”

He stopped talking when she was out of sight.

Dang it, Liam! Why do you have to be so freaking intense?

Probably because it bothered him that she kept trying to friend-zone him when he didn’t feel friendly toward her and pretty much hadn’t from the moment he’d laid eyes on her.

There were some girls he met—especially the shallow, self-absorbed ones—who turned him off the moment he met them. Most of the popular girls at his high school thought he was trouble, and even after he’d straightened himself out, they didn’t give him a chance. Not really. They’d fool around with him at a party—there was never a shortage of popular girls who wanted to make out with a bad boy—but on Monday morning, they’d act like they were too drunk to remember kissing him. And it sort of sucked, because Liam Callahan was one of those guys who quietly longed for a girlfriend, even though his reputation had pegged him inaccurately as a player.

He wanted to date someone. He wanted to leave a party with her on Saturday night, and hold her hand when he walked into school on Monday morning. He wanted to be the first person she texted when she was happy or upset about something. He wanted to invite her over for dinner with his mom. He wanted to introduce her to his friends:

You guys, this is my girlfriend.

He’d imagined saying those words about a thousand times, but he’d never had the chance to say them, and it bothered him. A lot.

But tonight? Meeting Hannah? Somehow it felt like maybe what he wanted was actually, finally, possible.

When Hannah looked up at him with those huge, vulnerable, dark brown eyes, he felt hopeful.

“Damn it,” he growled softly, frustrated that he’d pushed her too hard.

Maybe he was being pushy, but he liked her, and for all he knew, she was driving back up to Brookings in the morning. He wanted her to say yes to a date—his heart needed to know that he’d see her again.

Callie Henry is the YA pen name of New York Times bestselling contemporary romance author, Katy Regnery

Katy lives in the relative wilds of northern Fairfield County, Connecticut, where her writing room looks out at the woods, and her husband, two young children, two dogs, and one Blue Tonkinese kitten create just enough cheerful chaos to remind her that the very best love stories begin at home.

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ENTER HERE

Disgrace by Brittainy C. Cherry ~ Sarah A’s Review

Disgrace, an all-new emotional standalone from Brittainy C. Cherry is NOW AVAILABLE!!

Each day I prayed for my husband to love me again.

After seventeen years together, he walked away from me, and into the arms of another.

I didn’t know how to cope. I didn’t know my worth. I didn’t know how to exist without him by my side.

All I wanted was for him to come back to me.

Then, Jackson Emery appeared.

He was supposed to be a distraction for my mind. A summer fling. A confidence boost to my bruised heart.

We were perfect for one another, because we both knew we wouldn’t last. Jackson didn’t believe in commitment, and I no longer believed in love. He was too young for me, and I was too damaged for him.

Everything was fine, until one night my heart skipped a beat.

I didn’t expect him to make me laugh. To make me think. To make my sadness somewhat disappear.

When our time was up, my heart didn’t know how to walk away.

Each day I prayed for my husband to love me again, yet slowly my prayers began to shift toward the man who wasn’t right for me.

I prayed for one more smile, one more kiss, one more laugh, one more touch…

I prayed for him to be mine.

Even though I knew his heart wasn’t destined to love.

***  AVAILABLE IN KINDLE UNLIMITED  ***
Amazon

Holy tears, Batman!  I know Brittainy C. Cherry writes heartwrenching stories, I know this, I should be prepared for this. Yet, I was utterly shocked by the number of tears I shed while I was reading.  And I’m not talking graceful single tears sliding down my cheek; I was full-out bawling, couldn’t see the words on my kindle, needed a Kleenex for the snot crying.  This book, and other books like it, are precisely why I read.  To have another person’s words move me so profoundly my soul weeps for the story they’ve told is such a powerful experience.

I was very frustrated with Grace for a good chunk of the beginning of this book.  That frustration stemmed from anger for her; it was hard to watch her allow everyone she encountered to belittle her – particularly her mother. When the realization hit her that she knew so little about herself, my heart broke for her, and that frustration melted away.   As she found herself and came out of the shell she’d been forced into by all the people who’d purported to care for her throughout her life, she was a thing of wonder.  The glimpses of strength she’d shown blossomed into a garden of independence and self-confidence.

For all his outward gruffness and cruelty, from the first moment Jackson interacted with Grace it was apparent it was all a façade to protect himself.  He was beyond broken, and my heart hurt for him each and every time he acted out.  As strong as he was, as much as he carried on his shoulders, there was so much of him that had been destroyed when he was a little boy, and he needed someone to take a minute to understand the core of who he was.   As he flourished with Grace’s gentle, unwavering support I knew my initial impression of Jackson was only the tip of just how amazing a person he was.

Disgrace brought a light to an issue rarely talked about in real life, let alone in romance novels and the story resonated so deeply with me because of it.  There were several kinds of loss covered in this book, all heartbreaking in their own ways, but the loss Grace survived over and over again is beyond devastating, and there is no way to express how it affects a person until they’ve experienced it for themselves.  I loved the grace with which Ms. Cherry tackled this topic and the awareness and potential support system she conveyed with Grace’s story.

For all the repeated grief Disgrace covered, it was a book of hope and healing.  It served to show that what’s right doesn’t look the same through every set of eyes and often the picture painted of a person is far from the actuality of who they are when you look closely.  There were so many messages in this book, and I was touched by each of them.  This is truly a story that will stay with me for some time.

Brittainy C. Cherry is one of the best writers of deeply emotional stories I’ve had the joy of reading.  She continually writes about difficult subject manner with poise and respect.  I have never walked away from a book she had written without feeling the story deep in my soul, and it’s obvious she puts a part of her heart and soul in each novel she releases.

Jackson

“I’ve read about boys like you in books, ya know,” she whispered, her fingers slowly spinning spirals on my chest.

“Oh, yeah? What did those books teach you about boys like me?”

“Well…” She bit her bottom lip, and with a small inhalation, she whispered, “They taught me to stay away.”

“Then why are you so close?”

She tilted her head up, looking me straight in the eyes. “Because in those stories, the heroine never ever listens.”

“And then there’s trouble?” I asked.

“Yes, and then there’s trouble.”

From the way she said those words, I knew trouble was exactly what she was in search of. We were the classic cliché. She was the good girl next door, I the monster from around the block. We were perfect opposites for the perfect storm, and she was asking me to be her next flaw, her greatest mistake.

And, well, who was I not to live up to her request?

“I could destroy you,” I warned.

“Or save me.”

“Is it worth the risk?”

“Isn’t it always worth the risk?”

The more she touched me, the more I wanted to touch her back. I wrapped my hands around her wrists flipping us around so she was now against the wall with her hands above her head. “I have rules.” I leaned in closer, lightly brushing my lips against her neck. God, she smelled good, like peaches and my next sin. “You can’t break these rules, either.” My tongue rolled from my mouth and circled against her neck before I gently sucked her skin.

She shivered at my touch. “What are they?”

“Rule one,” I whispered, my mouth moving across her collarbone. “You never stay the night.”

“Check.”

“Rule number two,” I said, dropping her left arm to the side. Taking my hand to the bottom of her blouse, I slowly raised it up and massaged her skin. “You never develop feelings.”

“That’s easy enough,” she replied, her breaths uneven as I teased at the top button on her jeans. “I don’t believe in feelings anymore.”

I didn’t know why, but that made me sad for her. I, too, didn’t believe in falling for people, but that was my norm. Grace seemed the type to believe in something bigger than love, so the fact that her belief was completely gone was a bit surprising.

Maybe we had more in common than I thought.

“Rule number three…we don’t talk about my life.”

“Like ever?”

“Never.”

“Okay.”

“And lastly, rule number four…” My mouth brushed against hers, and I slid my tongue slowly across her bottom lip. “If your favorite pair of panties get ripped, don’t expect me to replace them.”

Hi! I’m Brittainy! Join me as we travel through my mind as a Romance Author. This includes such things as my random thoughts, tricks, tips, things I’m learning, things I’m re-learning, things I’m forgetting, and my weird ways of crafting stories.

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Broken Love Story by Natasha Madison ~EXCERPT REVEAL

Samantha

I had the perfect life; a husband who loved me, and two kids who were my world.

Until someone else answered his phone and my perfect life shattered.

When he died, I was left with answers he couldn’t give me and a box full of lies.

He left me broken.

Blake

I fell in love when I was fifteen, knowing she was the one.

For five years, she was my everything—my every breath, every heartbeat, every thought.

She made me promise to move on, promise to find love again, but I broke those promises because I can’t move on.

 

Two broken souls brought together by tragedy and heartbreak.

Can a broken love story be fixed?

***  PREORDER NOW ~ Releases July 10, 2018  ***
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Samantha

Standing in front of the full-length mirror in my room, I smooth down my black skirt. My blond hair is tied up in a ponytail, my cheeks are sunken in more than normal, and the blackness around my eyes indicates I haven’t slept well since this whole thing happened. Since I found out that not only did my husband die, but that he also married someone else. 

I sit on the made bed and look down at my wedding band. My thumb of my right hand touches it, and the lone tear that falls out of my eye lands straight on it. “Mommy.” I look back at Lizzie, who is standing in the doorway wearing a black one-piece dress similar to mine with ballerina flats. 

My mother-in-law went shopping yesterday and bought us all new outfits for today. “We need to put our best foot forward,” she said as I watched her walk in with the six bags. “We can’t let people talk.”

I turned around and walked out of the room, going upstairs. Shutting myself in my bathroom with my back against the door, I cried quietly, trying to hide my sobs. “We can’t let people talk,” I whispered to myself. The hatred I had begun feeling when I remembered my husband.

Lizzie walks to the side of my bed and sits next to me. “I hate this dress,” she says when I put my hand around her shoulder and bring her to me, kissing her head.

“I know, baby,” I whisper, “but after today, it’s going to be all over.”

“That’s what Grandpa A said.” She mentions the name she calls my father-in-law. Grandpa A because you can’t get better than an A. 

“Is everyone ready?” I hear Ethan yell from downstairs. “The limo is picking us up in twenty.”

“Let’s go, baby,” I tell her, getting up and holding her hand while we walk downstairs. My in-laws are both sitting in the kitchen. My mother-in-law in a black skirt and top while my father-in-law has on a black suit. “Where is Daisy?” I ask them.

“Elliot is upstairs changing her. She spilled milk on her dress,” Judy tells me, looking at Lizzie. “You look like such a big girl.” She blinks her tears away.

Elliot comes down the stairs with Daisy on his hip, smiling at me when he walks in. “Okay, you girls go sit in the living room while us grown-ups talk,” my father-in-law says, and the girls both know to leave the room. When he knows they are both out of earshot, he starts. “Today is going to be tough, tough for us all, but we have to stand together. We have to be the family that we are.” I lean against the counter while he talks. “The situation with the other one has been taken care of, and she has been served papers.” I look at him and then at Elliot and Ethan, both of them looking down when our eyes meet. It’s almost as if they feel guilty for meeting this woman. My father-in-law continues, “After all this is done today, we are meeting with the lawyers in person, so we can go over the will, start the paperwork for the insurance, and make sure she doesn’t touch a thing that belongs to him.” I stop listening at this point, turning to look out the window at the backyard.

The swing set that he built in one day to make sure the kids could use it when he left the next day. The patio set he had delivered to us, so I could have somewhere to sit while I watched the girls while he was living with another woman. I shake my head, walking out of the room. I sit on the couch, and the girls come to sit next to me, one on each side. “Today is going to be really hard,” I whisper to them, “but we have to be strong for Daddy.” They both look at me, their eyes exactly like their father’s. “But, if at any time, you need to leave or you need me… I don’t care who is talking to me or who is around; you come and get me.”

“Grandpa A said we had to sit and wait,” Daisy whispers just as Elliot comes into the room and kneels in front of us.

“What is this meeting about?” he asks, smiling at us. The circles around his eyes are just as black as ours. He hasn’t left our house since this happened. 

“Mommy said if we need her that we can go to her,” Daisy says, looking at him and then me, “even if Grandpa A said no.”

He leans in, whispering, “You can come to me too, and I’ll make sure that you get Mommy.” 

“Okay,” Lizzie and Daisy both whisper at the same time, and then the doorbell rings.

We get up, put our jackets on, and one by one file into the black limo that has come to take us to the funeral home. We arrive before everyone else. “We get an hour with him, and then they will open the door,” Adrian says as Judy grabs her tissue and dabs her eyes. 

I look around the funeral home. I’m not sure what I’m looking for, not sure where he is. I haven’t seen him since he kissed me goodbye four days earlier. His last words to me were, “Call you when I can.” That phone call never came.

I follow my in-laws to the big brown door that is closed. “I want to go in before the girls.” Everyone turns to look at me.

“We can keep them in the lobby,” says the lady who greeted us at the door. She told me her name, but I just didn’t listen. 

I nod at her as she turns to ask the girls if they want hot chocolate. Daisy’s eyes get big as Lizzie turns to look at me. I nod my head, giving her permission, so she can go with the woman.

The doors open, and I don’t even know what to expect. I’ve never been to a funeral. Never known anyone well enough to pay my last respects. Judy and Adrian walk in first, followed by Ethan, and Elliot waits with me. I step foot into the room, and it’s so cold that I shiver. The smell of flowers hits me right away, making me turn my head. The number of flowers and wreaths shocks me; the whole room is almost full. Some wreaths blocking others. Rows and rows of brown chairs line the room, all facing toward the front of the room. My eyes land on the brown wooden casket at the front of the room. The open half showing you the white satin inside. I walk down the aisle toward him, and then my eyes land on him. Eric. I can’t take another step forward because my knees give out, and I fall. Elliot isn’t fast enough to hold me up, and my knee lands with a thud. But the pain doesn’t matter because nothing could take the place of the pain in my heart. The sound of wailing fills the room as I look up at my dead husband. 

I feel arms around me; I feel myself lifted; I feel myself almost floating. He isn’t the Eric who kissed me goodbye; he isn’t the Eric who I made promises to; he isn’t the Eric who made all my dreams come true. This isn’t him.

The man with makeup caked on his face isn’t my Eric.  My sobs overtake my body as I look at him, expecting him to open his eyes. Expecting something, anything but this. “I want the casket closed,” I say, my voice soft. “I want it closed.”

“Samantha,” my father-in-law starts, “it’s—”

I shake my head. “I don’t want the kids to see him like that,” I say softly. I know that for me they wouldn’t even consider it, but for the girls, they would move heaven and earth. “They need to remember him alive and smiling, not like that,” I say, pointing at the casket.

“Dad,” Ethan says after me, “I agree.” 

“Me too,” Elliot says from beside me. “Close it.”

He just nods at us, then walks to the man standing in the corner. The man looks at him as they have a hushed conversation and then just nods his head. “Do you need some water?” Ethan says to me, and I nod. I don’t bother listening to what else he says; instead, I get up and go to the casket. Standing before the brown box, I look at him, really look at him. You see some bruising under the makeup, and his nose is a little swollen. His hands are folded over his stomach, resting on his black suit. The suit he wore when we got married. Why? I ask him in my own head. Why did you do it? I ask him, hoping I can hear him whisper something to me, whisper anything back. To answer my questions, to give me something; anything to make me understand why he did what he did. Why he left me with so many fucking questions and not one answer. 

The man comes over to close the casket. Eric’s face disappears slowly, the shadow filling his face till the casket finally shuts. “I’m sorry for your loss,” the man says, nodding at me. “If at any time you want it open, we can open it back up.” I turn around now, looking at the chairs that will fill up as soon as the people start coming in. Ethan consoles my mother-in-law, and Elliot stands where we were just sitting, his hands in his pockets. 

“I’m getting the girls,” I tell them and then walk out with my head held high but my shoulders slumped. Defeated is a word that you use so many times not really understanding what can actually defeat you. I know now, my husband dying, him cheating on me, my kids without a father, my dreams of growing old with him gone. Beaten straight down to my core, straight down to my bones. 

I walk over to them as they look up. “Let’s go, girls,” I tell them as they both get up and walk to me. Lizzie takes one hand, Daisy takes the other, and we walk back into the room that holds a piece of our hearts. The room where their father lies, with no answers and no tomorrow.

We stand in that room for four hours while people come up to me and give me their condolences. I nod my head and play the part of the grieving wife. I am the grieving wife, but I’m also the wife whose husband didn’t love her enough to just be with her. The wife who knew her husband was slipping away but couldn’t catch it in time. The wife he said he would love and protect. The wife who stands here between his girls wishing that for one second he suffered horribly. The wife who has to pick up the fucking pieces and lie to her girls about what a great guy he was. The wife who, at the end of the day, just wasn’t good enough. 

We listen as people tell us how amazing he was, how much he loved his family, and how much he loved his girls. The whole time, I’m yelling on the inside, ready to stand in the middle of the room, throw my head back, and yell at the top of my lungs. But I don’t do what I want. I don’t tell them what a fraud my husband was. I don’t tell them that it was almost all lies. I don’t tell them that the day he died, they called his other wife and not me. I don’t tell them that I wasn’t the one with him when he died.

I stand here thinking about this other person—his other wife—and wonder how she would handle this. How she would be with my in-laws. Would she just let them control her and do everything for her? Would she want it to be open and weep for him beside the casket instead of standing next to it? 

I look around the room at all the people who came to pay their respects, and my eyes find someone I’ve never met before. Someone I’ve never seen before, and our eyes connect. His green eyes stare into mine as I watch him nod to me and turn to walk out. As he walks out of the crowded room, I strain my neck to watch his back. I don’t have long to think because Elliot comes up and whispers, “It’s time.”

Perfect Love Story – Available Now
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When her nose isn’t buried in a book, or her fingers flying across a keyboard writing, she’s in the kitchen creating gourmet meals. You can find her, in four-inch heels no less, in the car chauffeuring kids, or possibly with her husband scheduling his business trips. It’s a good thing her characters do what she says because even her Labrador doesn’t listen to her…

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Ashes of the Sun by A. Meredith Walters ~ COVER REVEAL

Everything I had been raised to believe is a lie.

Prayer became the voice of dishonesty.

Manipulation was disguised as faith.
Abuse was masquerading as devotion.
And the man I worshipped as a leader, as a father, has been revealed to be a monster.

The only choice I have is to run.

To leave The Gathering of the Sun behind me and try to build a new life in a world I have been told is full of evil and corruption. A world that will destroy me.
Love will be my guide. Bastian will help me search for the girl I could have been. The girl who was erased by the people claiming to be my family.

But hope is a fragile thing. Holding onto it in the face of fear and doubt feels almost impossible. Because even the sun can’t keep the clouds at bay.

And I’ve learned the only thing I can do is walk into the storm.

I was raised to believe in things you can’t see.

It is the foundation of everything. I am taught to accept the unacceptable. To embrace the terrifying.

To give everything to my family.
To my church.
To my god.

Because I have a purpose. I have been trained for my calling for as long as I can remember. As an acolyte for the Gathering of the Sun, I am taught that my life isn’t my own. I worship. I serve. And when the time comes, I will greet my fate with open arms and a sin free heart.

People call us a cult.

We are judged. We are ridiculed and reviled. Pastor Carter tells me they will be lost when the end comes. So we hide ourselves away from their sick and dangerous world. And my soul is safe because I follow the path.

I am the perfect disciple. I am confident in my devotion.

Until doubt arrives wearing the face of a boy I never expected to love.

Bastian doesn’t follow the path. His destiny is his own. He paints me a picture of a beautiful world. His words contradict everything I have been told.

He invites me to live when I have been prepared to die.
He gives me something new to believe in.
Love becomes the ultimate crisis of faith and now I am torn between two futures.
One that saves my soul.
And one that saves my heart.

The New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Contemporary and New Adult romances including the Bad Rep, Find You in the Dark, Reclaiming the Sand, and Twisted Love series.

Freed by Carly Phillips ~ EXCERPT REVEAL

An all-new emotional and romantic standalone from New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Carly Phillips is coming July 10th!

Fall for the missing Ward sister…

Juliette Collins is privileged and isolated from the world by her over-protective father. She thinks she knows the truth about her history until a file in her father’s safe reveals she has sisters she never knew about. A family she’s never met. Betrayed, she realizes there’s a life waiting for her outside the walls of her daddy’s New York City penthouse and Juliet is determined to live it. Against her father’s wishes, she heads to a small beach community to meet her siblings… and finds herself way out of her depth instead.

In the personal protection business, Braden Clark thinks nothing of taking on a job to watch over a city girl in town for the summer. If her father wants to know his daughter is safe, it’s no problem and an easy way of earning a paycheck. Except Braden doesn’t count on falling for the sheltered Juliette. Watching her experience her firsts, getting an apartment, finding a job, meeting up with her lost sisters, soon Braden’s brand of protection becomes a little too personal. He’s mixing business with pleasure and lying to a woman he’s coming to care deeply about.

Sexual attraction burns bright between them and Braden is by her side as she finds herself, her family, and what it means to love… but what happens when she discovers his secret? That he’s been paid to watch over her all along?

A Standalone Novel

***  PREORDER NOW ~ RELEASES JULY 10  ***
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“What are you doing?” The first hint of true panic since he’d been found out sliced into her father’s voice.

“I’m leaving.”

He rushed over, placing a hand on her suitcase. “Juliette, no. We can work this out. I want to make this right.”

“You can’t.” The damage was done by withholding information about her family.

“Be reasonable before you storm out. You’ve never been away from home alone. Never held a job. What are your plans?”

“And whose fault is that? You’ve kept me dependent on you, but now it’s time for me to be an adult. To meet my sisters and live my own life.” She closed her suitcase and zipped it around before turning to face him. “I can promise you, I will be perfectly fine.”

“I only ever had your best interest at heart. You have to know that.” He stepped back, a defeated expression on his face. “Would you consider taking a bodyguard?” he asked. “Someone to watch you from afar?”

She snorted at that. “No. I’m an adult and it’s time you started treating me like one. I’m taking the summer for myself. I’ll decide what happens at the end of August. Until then, please respect my privacy.”

He hesitated, then perhaps seeing the determination in her expression, hearing the certainty about her decision in her voice, he lifted a hand and stepped back. “Fine. I’ll expect to hear from you. Often.”

She shook her head. “Sorry, Dad. You’re not telling me what to do anymore.” She hesitated, knowing he had a bad heart and not wanting to upset him more despite how hurt and angry she was. “I know you love me,” she said, voice softening. “And I love you, but it’s way past time for me to be on my own.”

“So be it.”

She narrowed her gaze, surprised at his capitulation. She’d expected him to turn his chilly anger on her, but he was letting her go without too much of an argument.

Relief and excitement filled her soul. She was going to meet her family, experience everything she’d missed out on, and finally, live her own life.

For herself and nobody else.

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Carly Phillips is the NY Times and USA Today Bestselling Author of over 50 sexy contemporary romance novels, including the Indie published, Dare to Love Series. She is happily married to her college sweetheart, the mother of two nearly adult daughters and three crazy dogs. Carly loves social media and is always around to interact with her readers.

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