P.S. I Miss You by Winter Renshaw ~ Chapter Reveal

Melrose,

The first time I met you, you were a stranger. The second time, you were my roommate. The third time, you made it clear you were about to become the biggest thorn my side had ever known.

You sing way too loud in the shower and use all the hot water.

You’re bossy as hell.

You make my life all kinds of complicated.

But no matter how hard I try, I can’t stop thinking about you.

And truthfully … I can’t stop wanting you.

I was going to tell you this. I was going to sit you down, swallow my pride, hang up my noncommittal ways and show you a side of me you nor anyone else has ever seen before … but then you dropped a game-changing bombshell; a confession so nuclear it stopped me in my tracks.

How I didn’t see this coming, I’ll never know.

Sutter

P.S. I miss you.

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Melrose

I’ve been a dog-walker on an episode of Will & Grace.
A bakery shop owner in a Lifetime movie.
Ryan Gosling’s kid sister in an indie flick that never saw the light of day.
Victim #2 in a season eighteen episode of Law & Order: SVU.
But today I’m faced with my most challenging role yet; a camera-less reality show called Girl with Lifelong Crush on Best Guy Friend starring Melrose Claiborne as … Melrose Claiborne.

Standing outside Nick Camden’s Studio City bungalow, I straighten my shoulders, smooth my blonde waves into place, and press my index finger against the doorbell. The heavy thump of my heart suggests it’s going to fall to the floor the second he opens the door—but I’m hopeful the butterflies in my stomach will catch it first.

He has this effect on me.

Every. Single. Time.

And that’s saying something because it takes a lot to make me nervous, to throw me off my game. But my crush on him has only intensified over the years, growing stronger with each unrequited year that passes.

But last night, out of nowhere, Nick called me—which was strange because Nick never calls. He only ever texts. He’s so against calling, in fact, that he has his ringer permanently set to “off’ and his voicemail box has been full for the last six and a half years.

“Mel, I need to talk to you tomorrow,” he’d said, breathless almost. There was a hint of a smile in his tone, giddiness. “It’s really important.”

“Nick, you’re scaring me,” I told him, half wondering if someone slipped something into his drink and he was drugged out of his mind. “Just tell me now.”

“I have to tell you in person. And I have something to ask you, something crazy important,” he said. “Oh my god. This is insane. I’m so damn nervous, Mel. But as soon as you get here tomorrow, I’ll tell you. I’ve been wanting to tell you about this for a long time, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t until now. But now I can. And I can’t fucking wait. This is huge, Mel. This is … oh, God.”

“Nick …” I paced my bedroom floor, my left palm clasped across my forehead. In nearly two decades of friendship, I’d never heard Nick so worked up before. “Can’t you just tell me now?”

“Come over tomorrow. Around three,” he’d said. “This is something that needs to be done in person.”

I ring his doorbell again before checking the time on my phone. Stifling a yawn, I rise on my toes and try to peek inside the glass sidelights of his front door. Knowing Nick, he probably got sidetracked or ran out for burritos and got caught up in conversation with someone he knows.

Then again … he was pretty insistent about talking to me in person at three o’clock about this “major” thing. I can’t imagine he’d space this off.

All night, I tossed and turned, trying to wrap my head around what this could possibly be, how I could know someone for so long and fail miserably trying to get a read on them.

Growing up, Nick lived next door, and the two of us were inseparable from the day he first moved into the neighborhood and I found him by the creek trying to capture bullfrogs—which I promptly forced him to set free. By the end of the day, we both realized our bedroom windows aligned on the second floors of our houses, and by the end of the week, he gave me a walkie-talkie and told me I was his best friend.

When we were ten, he gave me a friendship necklace—like the kind girls usually give to other girls. He gave me the half that said “best” and wore the “friend” half but always tucked it under his shirt so no one would give him any shit—not that anyone would.

Everyone loved Nick.

It wasn’t until the summer after seventh grade that Nick hit a growth spurt and everything changed.
His voice got deeper.
His legs got longer.
Even his features became more chiseled and defined.

It was like he aged several years over the course of a couple of months, and I found myself looking at him in ways I never had before. And when I closed my eyes at night, I found myself thinking about what it’d be like if he kissed me.

Almost overnight, I’d gone from running next door with a messy ponytail to see if he wanted to ride bikes … to slicking on an extra coat of Dr. Pepper Lip Smackers and running a brush through my hair any time I knew I was going to see him.

Suddenly I couldn’t look at him without blushing.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one who noticed Nick’s head-turning transformation.

Nick’s door swings open with a quick creak and I don’t have time to realize what’s happening before he sweeps me into his arms and swings me around the front porch of his rented bungalow.

“Melly!” He buries his face into my shoulder, squeezing me so hard I can’t breathe, nearly suffocating the swarm of butterflies in my middle.

I breathe in that perpetual Nick scent, the one that always feels like home. Like the faintest hint of bar smoke and cheap fabric softener and Irish Spring soap.

Growing up in Brentwood, the son of a successful screenwriter and composer, Nick could’ve had it all—materially and professionally. His parents had connections that would put Steven Spielberg to shame.

But all he ever wanted was to be a regular guy who got by on merit, and I adored that about him.

“Look at you,” he says when he puts me down. His hands are threaded in mine as his ocean gaze scans me from head to toe. “I haven’t seen you in months.”

Three months, two weeks, and five days—but who’s counting?

The last time we hung out was on my birthday, and there were so many people at the bar, I barely had a chance to say more than two sentences to him all night. We’d made plans to get together the following weekend, but his band booked a gig in Vegas and I was leaving to film a Lifetime movie in Vancouver the day before he was coming back.

Life’s been consistent that way, always pulling us in separate directions at the most inconvenient of times.

“You find the place all right?” he asks as he leads me inside. The scent of Windex and clean laundry fills my lungs, and a folded blanket rests over the back of a leather chair in the living room.

I chuckle at the thought of Nick tidying up before I got here. He was always a slob growing up. Case in point? One year I tripped over a pair of his Chucks as I entered his bedroom and almost knocked my front teeth out on a messy stack of vinyl records. His empty guitar case caught my fall, but the next day he bought a shoe organizer.

“I did,” I say, glancing around his new digs. Last time I saw him, he was living in some apartment with four roommates in Toluca Lake. The time before that he was shacking up with a fuck buddy-slash-Instagram model named Kadence St. Kilda, but that was short-lived because the girl ultimately wanted exclusivity, and that’s something Nick’s never been able to offer anyone—that I know of. “When did you move here?”

“Last month,” he says. “I’m subletting from my drummer’s cousin.”

The sound of pots and pans clinking in the kitchen tells me we’re not alone, but I’m not surprised. Nick has always had roommates. He’s painfully extroverted. Guy can’t stand to be alone for more than five minutes but not in the clingy, obnoxious sort of way. More in the charismatic, life-of-the-party, always-down-for-a-good-time sort of way.

I follow Nick to the living room, and he points to the middle cushion of a cognac leather sofa before slicking his palms together and pacing the small space.

“Nick.” I laugh. “You’re acting like a crazy person … you know that, right?”

His ocean gaze lands on mine and he stops pacing for a moment. “I’m so fucking nervous.”

“You don’t have to be nervous around me. Ever.”

“This is different.” He stops pacing for a second. “This is something I’ve never told you before.”

Oh god.

My heart flutters, and some long-buried hope makes its way out in the form of a smile on my face, but I bite it away.

I’d never admit this out loud, but last night a very real part of me believed this entire thing centered around Nick wanting to tell me he has feelings for me, that he wants to date me.

The idea is absurd, I know.

Things like this don’t happen out of nowhere.

I’m not naïve and I’m not an idiot. I know the odds of my best friend going months without seeing me and suddenly professing his love for me are slim to none, but I’ve tried to come up with alternate theories, and none of them made sense because Nick’s never been nervous around me for any reason.

Ever.

What else could possibly make him nervous around me other than a heartfelt confession?

Crossing my legs and sitting up straight, I say, “Come on. Spit it out. I don’t have all day.”

He cups his hands over his nose and mouth, releasing a hard breath, and when he lets them fall, I find the dopiest grin on his face.

His eyes water like a teenage girl with a backstage pass to a Harry Styles concert.

Nick tries to speak but he can’t.

Oh my god.

He’s doing it.

He’s actually telling me he likes me …

“Melrose,” he says, pulling in a hard breath before dropping to his knees in front of me. He takes my hands in his, and I swear my vision fades out for a second. “You know when we were kids and we used to tell each other everything?”

“Yeah …”

“There was something I never told you,” he says, eyes locked with mine. “I guess … I guess I was afraid to say it out loud. I was afraid this thing I wanted so bad, this thing I wanted more than anything I’d ever wanted in my life, wasn’t going to come true. And I thought that by admitting it, I was only going to jinx myself. So I kept it to myself, but I can’t anymore. It’s too big. It’s eating away at me and it has been for years. But it’s time. I have to tell you.”

He’s rambling.

Nick never rambles.

His trembling hands squeeze mine and then he rises, taking the spot on the couch beside me. Cupping my face in his hands, he offers a tepid smile that’s soon eaten away by his own anxiety. “This is insane, Melrose. I can’t believe I’m about to tell you this.”

My mouth parts and I’m milliseconds from blurting out something along the lines of “I’ve liked you since we were kids, too …” but I bite my tongue and let him go first.

“You know how I have my band, right?” he asks, referring to Melrose Nights, the band he founded in high school and named after me.

I nod, heart sinking. No … plummeting.

“What about it?” I ask, blinking away the embarrassed burn in my eyes.

“My dream, Mel, was always to hit it big,” he said. “Like, commercially big.”

My brows lift. This is news to me.

He was always about the indie scene, always so against the big music corporations that controlled every song the American people were played on the radio.

“Really?” I tuck my chin against my chest. “Because you always said—”

“I know what I always said,” he cuts me off. “But the more I got to thinking about it, the more I thought … I just want my songs to be in the ears of as many people as possible. And it’s not even about becoming famous or having money, you know I’m not about any of that. I just want people to know my songs. That’s all.”

I swallow the lump in my throat and glance toward a wood-burning fireplace in the corner where a crushed, empty can of Old Milwaukee—Nick’s signature beverage of choice—rests on the mantel next to what appears to be a crumpled lace bra.

Guess he forgot a few things when he was straightening up …

“Okay, so what are you trying to tell me?” I ask, squinting.

“We got signed …” his mouth pulled so wide, he looks like a bona fide crazy person right now, “… and not only that, but we’re going on tour with Maroon 5.”

I try not to let my rampant disbelief show on my face, but something tells me I’m failing miserably. He reads my expression, searching my eyes, and his silly grin fades.
“You hate Maroon 5,” I say.

“I used to hate Maroon 5,” he corrects me. “Anyway, the act they had fell through last minute, so they got us. We leave next week.”

“Next week? For how long?”

“Six months.” His callused hands smack together. “Six months on the road with one of the biggest music acts in North America.”

He says that last part out loud, like he’s still in disbelief over this entire thing.

Which makes two of us.

“Wow, Nick … that’s … this is huge. You were right. This is some big news,” I say. Everything is sinking. My voice. My heart. My hope. “I’m so happy for you.”

I throw my arms around him, inhale his musky scent, and squeeze him tight. There’s a pang in my chest, a tightness in my middle, like that indescribable sensation that washes over you when you know something’s about to change and things will never be the same again.

But I meant what I said. I am happy for him. I had no idea this was what he wanted, but now that he’s shared this with me, I am thrilled for him. He’s my best friend, my oldest friend, and all I want is for him to be happy.

Plus, he deserves this.

Nick is insanely talented.
Music.
Lyrics.
Singing.
Playing.
Producing.
Mixing.
It all comes natural to him. Keeping it under wraps on some lowdown indie scene would be doing a disservice to the rest of the world.

“I get that this is huge, Nick, but I’m curious … why couldn’t you tell me this over the phone?” I ask. “Why’d you make me drive all the way out here just so you could tell me in person?”

Nick leans back, studying my face as he rakes his palm along his five o’clock shadow. “Because I have a favor to ask you …”

Lifting one brow, I study him right back. He’s never asked me a single favor as long as I’ve known him (excluding those times he wanted me to talk to girls for him in middle school or steal him an extra Italian Ice at lunch).

“See, I’m taking over this guy’s lease,” he says. “I pay fifteen hundred a month for my half of the rent. Plus utilities. You know what a cheap bastard I am, right? I just don’t want to throw that money away over the next several months, and I don’t want to stick Sutter with my half of the rent and everything because that’s just shitty.”

“Sutter?” I ask.

“Sutter Alcott. My roommate,” he says. “Cool guy. Electrician. Owns his own company. You’ll like him. Anyway, I know you’re living in your Gram’s guesthouse, but you’re the only person I know who’s not locked under a lease, so I thought mayyyyybe you might want to help me out for a few months? As a favor? And in return, I’ll … I don’t know. I’ll do something for you. What do you want? You want a backstage pass to a Maroon 5 concert? You want to meet Adam?”

“You’re already on a first name basis with Adam Levine?” I ask, head cocked.

Nick smirks. “Not yet. But I will be.”

“I don’t know …” I pull in a long, slow breath. “What about Murphy?”

“We’ve got a fenced-in yard,” he says, pointing toward the back of the house. “He’ll love it here.”

“What about your roommate? Would he be cool living with a stranger?” I ask.

“Totally.”

“And you’re sure he’s not a serial killer?” I keep my voice low, leaning in.

Nick chokes on his spit. “Uh, yeah, no. He’s not a serial killer. Lady killer? Sure. Serial killer? No way.”

Our eyes hold and I silently straddle the line between staying put and saying yes to this little favor.

My cousin-slash-roommate, Maritza, recently moved out and got a place with her boyfriend, Isaiah, so it’s just Murphy and I in the guesthouse now. It gets quiet sometimes. Lonely too. And Gram’s on this travel-the-world kick lately. One week she’s home, the next week she’s in Bali for twelve days with her best friend Constance or one of the Kennedys.

A change of scenery might be nice …

“I’ll do anything, Mel. Anything.” He clasps his hands together and sticks out his bottom lip, brows raised.

Dork.

“Begging’s not a good look for you. FYI,” I say.

“Okay, then what’s it going to take for you to say yes?” His hands drop to his lap.

I try to speak, but I don’t know what to say.

“See,” Nick says. “You don’t even have a good reason to turn me down.”

He’s right.

I can’t blame it on the location because it isn’t out of the way. I can’t blame it on my dog. I can’t blame it on a lease. I can’t blame it on money because fifteen hundred a month is exactly what Gram charges me for rent, because free rides aren’t a thing in the Claiborne family.

But aside from all of that, I know Nick would do this for me if I ever needed him to.

Shrugging, I look him in the eyes and smile. “Fine.”

A second later, I’m captured in his embrace and he’s squeezing me and bouncing like a hyper child. With one word, I’ve unearthed a side of Nick I never knew existed.

“I freaking love you, Mel,” he says, hugging me tighter. “I love you so much.”

I expected to hear those words today … just didn’t think I’d hear them in this context.

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Wall Street Journal and #1 Amazon bestselling author Winter Renshaw is a bona fide daydream believer. She lives somewhere in the middle of the USA and can rarely be seen without her trusty Mead notebook and ultra portable laptop. When she’s not writing, she’s living the American dream with her husband, three kids, and the laziest puggle this side of the Mississippi.

And if you’d like to be the first to know when a new book is coming out, please sign up for her private mailing list here —> http://eepurl.com/bfQU2j

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P.S. I Hate You by Winter Renshaw ~ Chapter Reveal

Dear Isaiah,

Eight months ago, you were just a soldier about to be deployed and I was just a waitress, sneaking you free pancakes and hoping you wouldn’t notice that my gaze was lingering a little too long.

But you did notice.

We spent a “week of Saturdays” together before you left, and we said goodbye on day eight, exchanging addresses at the last minute.

I saved every letter you ever sent, your words quickly becoming my religion.

But you went radio silent on me months ago, and then you had the audacity to walk into my diner yesterday and act like you’d never seen me in your life.

To think … I almost loved you and your beautifully complicated soul.

Almost.

Whatever your reason is—I hope it’s a good one.

Maritza the Waitress

PS – I hate you, and this time … I mean it.

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Chapter One

Maritza

“Welcome to Brentwood Pancake and Coffee. I’m Maritza and I’ll be your server,” I greet my millionth customer of the morning with the same old spiel. This one, a raven-haired, honey-eyed Adonis, waited over seventy minutes for a table by a window, though I suppose in LA time that’s the blink of an eye.

He doesn’t so much as acknowledge me.

“Just you today?” I ask, eyeing the empty chair across from him. The breakfast rush is about to end, and lucky for him, I only have one other table right now.

He doesn’t answer, but maybe he doesn’t hear me?

“Coffee?” I ask another obvious question. I mean, the diner is called Brentwood Pancake and Coffee for crying out loud. Everyone comes here for the coffee and plate-sized pancakes, and it’s considered a Class-D felony to order anything else.

Placing his mug right side up on his saucer, he pushes it toward me and I begin to pour. Waving his hand, he stops me when the cup is three-quarters of the way full. A second later, he adds two creams and one half of a sugar packet, but the way he moves is methodical, rigid. With intention.

“Ma’am, this really can’t be that interesting,” he says under his breath, his spoon clinking against the sides of the porcelain mug after he stirs.

“Excuse me?”


“You’re standing here watching me,” he says. Giving the spoon two final taps against the rim of the mug, he then rests it on the saucer before settling his intense amber gaze in my direction. “Isn’t there another table that needs you?”

His eyes are warm like honey but his stare is cold, piercing. Unrelenting.

“You’re right. There is.” I clear my throat and snap out of it. If I was lingering, it wasn’t my intention, but this I’m-sexy-and-I-know-it asshole didn’t need to call me out on it. Sue me for being a little distracted. “I’ll be back to check on you in a minute, okay?”

With that, I leave him alone with his menu and his coffee and his foul mood and his brooding gaze … and his broad shoulders … and his full lips … and I get back to work, stopping at table four to see if Mr. and Mrs. Carnavale need refills on their house blend decafs.  

By the time I top them off, I draw in a cleansing breath and head back to Mr. Tall, Dark, and Douche-y, forcing a smile on my face.

“We ready to order?” I ask, pulling my pen from behind my ear and my notepad from my Kelly-green apron.
He folds his menu, offering it to me despite the fact that my hands are full, but I manage to slip it under my arm without dropping anything.

“Two pancakes,” he says. “Eggs. Scrambled. Rye toast. Butter. Not margarine.”

“I’m so sorry.” I point to a sign above the cash register that clearly reads ONE PANCAKE PER PATRON – NO EXCEPTIONS.

He squints, his expression calcifying when he reads it.

“So that’s one pancake, scrambled eggs, and buttered rye toast then,” I recite his order.

“What kind of bullshit rule is that?” He checks his watch, like he has somewhere to be.

Or like he doesn’t have the time for a rule that I entirely agree is pure bullshit.

“These pancakes are huge. I promise one will be more than enough.” I try to deescalate the situation before it gets out of hand because it’s never pretty when management has to get involved. The owners of the diner are strict as hell on this policy and their day shift manager is even more so. She’ll happily inform any and all disgruntled customers there’s a reason the “pancake” in Brentwood Pancake and Coffee is singular and not plural.

I’ve seen many a diner walk out of here and never return over this stupid policy and our Yelp review average is in the dumps, but somehow it never seems to be bad for business. The line is perpetually out the door and down the block every weekend morning without fail, and sometimes even on weekdays. These pancakes are admittedly as delicious and more than own up to their reputation, but that stupid rule is nothing more than clever marketing designed to inflate demand.

“And what if I’m still hungry?” he asks. “Can I order a second?”

Wincing, I shake my head.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.” He sits up a little, jaw clenching. “It’s a goddamned pancake for fuck’s sake.”

“Not just any pancake,” I say with a practiced smile. “It’s a Brentwood pancake.”

“Are you trying to be cute with me, ma’am?” he asks, directing his attention at me, though he isn’t flirting. His nostrils flare a little and I can’t help but let my mind wander the tiniest bit about how sexy he looks when he’s angry—despite the fact that I would never so much as entertain the idea of getting down and dirty with an asshole like this.

He’s hot AF but I don’t do jerks. Plain and simple.

I’d have to be drunk. Like, really drunk. And I’d have to be desperate. And even then … I don’t know. He’s got some kind of chip on his shoulder, and no amount of sexiness would be able to distract me from that.  

“Let me put your order in, okay?” I ask with a smile so forced my cheeks hurt. They say good moods are contagious, but I’m starting to think this guy might be immune.

“As long as it’s the full order, ma’am,” he says, lips pressing flat as he exhales. I don’t know why he keeps calling me “ma’am” when I’m clearly younger than he is. Hell, I couldn’t legally drink until three years ago.

I am not a “ma’am.”

“The cook won’t make two,” I say with an apologetic tone before biting my bottom lip. If I play it coy and helpless maybe he’ll back down a little? It works. Sometimes.

“Then it’s for my guest,” he points to the empty seat across from him. His opposite hand is balled into a fist, and I can’t help but notice his watch is programmed in military time, “who happens to be showing up later.”

“We don’t serve guests until they’re physically here,” I say. Yet another one of the restaurant’s strict policies. Too many patrons have tried to use that loophole over the years, so they had to close it. But they didn’t just close it—they battened the hatches with hurricane-proof glass by way of a giant security monitor in the kitchen. They even make the cooks check the screen before preparing orders, just to make sure no one’s breaking the rules.

The man drags his hand through his dark hair, which I’m realizing now is a “regulation cut.”

Military.

I bet he’s military.

Has to be. The hair. The watch. The constant swearing juxtaposed with the overuse of the word “ma’am.” He reminds me of my cousin Eli who spent ten years in the U.S. army, and if he’s anything else like Eli, he’s not going to let up about this.

Exhaling, I place my palm gently on his shoulder despite the fact that we’re not supposed to put hands on the guests for any reason, but this guy is tense and his muscled shoulders are just begging for a gentle touch.

“Just … bear with me, okay?” I ask. “I’ll see what I can do.”

The man serves our country. He fights for our freedom. Despite the fact that he’s unquestionably a giant asshole, he at least deserves a second pancake.

I’m going to have to get creative.

Heading back to the kitchen, I put his order in and check on the Carnavales one more time. On my way to the galley to refill my coffee pot, I pass a table full of screaming children, one of which has just shoved his giant pancake on the floor, much to his gasping mother’s dismay.

Bending, I retrieve the sticky circle from the floor and place it back on his plate.

“Would you like the kitchen to fix another?” I ask. They’re lucky. This is the only time they’ll make an exception, and I’ll have to present the dirty pancake as proof.

The child screams and I can barely hear what the mother is trying to say. Glancing around the table, I spot five little minions under the age of eight, all of them dressed in Burberry, Gucci, and Dior. The inflated-lipped mother sports a shimmering, oversized rock on her left ring finger and the father has his nose buried in his phone.

But I’m not one to judge.

LA is lacking child-friendly restaurants of the quality variety, and it’s not like Mr. Chow or The Ivy would welcome their noisy litter with open arms. I don’t even think they have high chairs there.

“I don’t want a pancake!” The oldest of the tanned, flaxen-haired gremlins screams in his mother’s face, turning her flawless complexion a shade of crimson that almost matches her pristine Birkin bag.

“Just … just take it away,” she says, flustered, her palm sprawling her glassy, Botoxed forehead.

Nodding, I take the ‘cake back to the kitchen, only I stop when I reach the galley, grabbing a stack of cloth napkins and hiding the plate beneath it. As soon as my military patron finishes his first pancake, I’ll run this back to the kitchen and claim he accidentally dropped it on the floor.

“Order up!” one of the line guys calls from the window, and I head over to see my military man’s breakfast is hot and ready—though I may have accidentally moved it to the front of the ticket line when no one was looking because I don’t have the energy to deal with him freaking out if his breakfast is taking too long.

Grabbing his plate, I rush it out to him, delivering it with a smile and a sweet, “Can I get you anything else right now?”

His gaze drops to his food and then lifts to me.

“I know,” I say, palm up. “Just … trust me. I’ll take care of you.”

I wink, partially disgusted with myself. He has no idea how difficult it is for me to be accommodating to him when he’s treating me like this. I’d love nothing more than to pour a steaming hot pitcher of coffee into his lap, but out of respect and appreciation—and only respect and appreciation—for his service, I won’t resort to such a thing.

Plus, I work for tips. I kind of have to be accommodating. And lord knows I need this job. I may be living in my grandmother’s gorgeous guesthouse, but believe me, she charges rent.

Free rides aren’t a thing in the Claiborne family.

He peers down his straight nose, stabbing the tines of his polished fork into a chunk of fluffy scrambled egg.

He doesn’t say thank you—not surprising—and I tell him I’ll be back to check on him in a little while before making my way to the galley where another server, Rachael, is also seeking respite.

“That table with the screaming kids,” I ask, “that yours?”

She blows her blonde bangs off her forehead and rolls her eyes. “Yup.”

“Better you than me,” I tease. Rachael’s got three of her own at home. She’s good with kids and she always seems to know the right thing to say to distract them or thwart a total meltdown.

“I’ll trade you,” she says. “The family for the dimples at table four.”

“He has dimples?” I peek my head out, staring toward my military man.

“Oh, God, yes,” she says. “Deep ones. Killer smile, too. Thought maybe he was some model or actor or something, but he said he was an army corporal.”

“We can’t be talking about the same guy. He hasn’t so much as half-smiled at me and he’s already told you what he does for a living?”

“Huh.” Rachael lifts a thin red brow, like she’s wondering if we’re talking about two different people. “He asked me how I was doing earlier and smiled. Thought he was real friendly.”

“That one. Right there. Dark hair? Golden eyes? Muscles bulging out of his gray t-shirt?” I do a quick point before retracting my finger.

She takes another look. “Yeah. That’s him. You don’t forget a face like that. Or biceps like that …”

“Weird.” I fold my arms, staring his way and wondering if maybe he has a thing against girls like me. Though I’m pretty ordinary compared to most girls out here. Average height. Average weight. Brown hair. Brown eyes.

Maybe I remind him of an ex?

I’m mid-thought when out of nowhere he turns around, our eyes catching like he knew I was watching. Reaching for a hand towel in front of me, I glance down and try to act busy by wiping up a melted ice cube on the galley counter.

“Busted.” Rachael elbows me before heading out to check on the Designer family. I swat her on the arm as she passes, and then I give myself a second to regain my composure. As soon as the warmth has left my cheeks, I head out to check on him, relieved to find his pancake demolished, not a single, spongey scrap left behind. In fact, his entire meal is finished … coffee and all.

Reaching for his plate, he stops me, his hand covering mine, and then our eyes lock.

“Why were you staring at me over there?” he asks. The way he looks at me is equal parts invasive and intriguing, like he’s studying me, forming a hard and fast opinion, but also like he’s checking me out which makes zero sense because his annoyance with me practically oozes out of his perfect, tawny physique.

“I’m sorry?” I play dumb.

“I saw you. Answer the question.”

Oh, god. He’s not going to let this go. Something tells me I should’ve taken Rachael up on her offer to trade tables. This one’s been nothing but trouble since the moment I poured his coffee.

My mouth falls and I’m not sure what to say. Half of me knows I should probably utter some kind of nonsense most likely to appease him so he doesn’t complain to my manager, but the other half of me is tired of being nice to a man who has the decency to ask another waitress how her day is going and can’t even bring himself to treat his own server like a human being.

“You were talking about me with that other waitress,” he says. His hand still covers mine, preventing me from exiting this conversation.

Exhaling, I say, “She wanted to trade tables.”

His dark brow arches and he studies my face.

“And then she said you had dimples,” I expand. “She said you smiled at her earlier … I was just thinking about why you’d be so polite to her and not me.”

He releases me and I stand up straight, tugging my apron into place before smoothing my hands down the front.

“She handed me a newspaper while I waited. She didn’t have to do that,” he says, lips pressing flat. “Give me something to smile about and I’ll smile at you.”

The audacity of this man.

The heat in my ears and the clench in my jaw tells me I should walk away now if I want to preserve my esteemed position as morning server here at Brentwood Pancake and Coffee, but it’s guys like him …

I try to say something, but all the thoughts in my head are temporarily nonsensical and flavored with a hint of rage. A second later, I manage a simple yet gritted, “Would you like me to grab your check, sir?”

“No,” he says without pause. “I’m not finished with my breakfast yet.”

We both glance at his empty plates.

“More eggs?” I ask.

“No.”

I can’t believe I’m about to do this for him, but at this point, the sooner I get him out of here, the better. I mean, at this point I’m doing it for myself, let’s be real.

“One moment.” I take his empty dishes to the kitchen before sneaking into the galley and grabbing that kid’s dirty pancake. My pulse whooshes in my ears and my body is lit, but I forge ahead, returning to the pick-up window and telling one of the cooks that my customer at table twelve dropped his ‘cake on the floor.

He glances at the plate, then to the security monitor, then back to me before taking it out of my hands and exchanging it for a fresh one. It’s a verifiable assembly line back there, just a bunch of guys in hairnets and aprons standing around a twenty-foot griddle, spatulas in each hand.

“Thanks, Brad,” I say. Making my way back to my guy, I stop to check on the Carnavales, only their table is already being bussed and Rachael tells me she took care of their check because they were in a hurry.

Shit.

“Here you are.” I place the plate in front of my guy.

He glances up at me, honeyed eyes squinting for a moment. I wink, praying he doesn’t ask questions.

“Let me know if you need anything else, okay?” I ask, wishing I could add, “just don’t ask for another pancake because I’ll be damned if I risk my job for an ingrate like you ever again.”

“Coffee, ma’am. I’d like another cup of coffee.” He reaches for his glass syrup carafe, pouring sticky sweet, imported-from-Vermont goodness all over his steaming pancake, and I try not to watch as he forms an “x” and then a circle.

Striding away, I grab a fresh carafe of coffee and return to top him off, stopping at three-quarters of the way full. A second later, he glances up at me, his full lips pulling up at the sides, revealing the most perfect pair of dimples I’ve ever seen … as if the past twenty minutes have all been some kind of joke and he was only busting my chops by being the world’s biggest douche lord.

But just like that, it disappears.

His pearly, dimpled smirk is gone before I get the chance to fully appreciate how kind of a soul he appears to be when he’s not all tense and surly.

“Glad I finally gave you a reason to smile.” I’m teasing. Sort of. And I gently rub his shoulder, which is still tight as hell. “Anything else I can get you?”

“Yes, ma’am. I’ll take my check.”

Thank. God.

I can’t get it fast enough. Within a minute, I’ve punched my staff ID into the system, printed his ticket, shoved it into a check presenter, and rushed it to his table. His debit card rests on the edge when I arrive, as if I’d taken too long and he grew tired of holding it in his hand.

He’s just as anxious to leave as I am to get him out of here. Guess that marks the one and only thing that puts us on the same page.

“I’ll be right back with this,” I tell him. His card—plain navy plastic with the VISA logo in the lower corner and NAVY ARMY CREDIT UNION along the top—bears the name “Isaiah Torres.”

When I return, I hand him a neon purple gel pen from my pocket and gather his empty dishes.

“Thank you for the …” he points at the sticky plate in my hand as he signs his check. “For that.”

“Of course,” I say, avoiding eye contact because the sooner I can pretend he’s already gone, the better. “Enjoy the rest of your day.”

Asshole.

Glancing up, I spot our hostess, Maddie, flagging me down and mouthing that I have three new tables. Great. Thanks to this charmer, I’ve disappointed the Carnavales, risked my job, and kept several tables waiting all within the span of a half hour.

Isaiah signs his check, closes the leather binder, and slides out of his booth. When he stands, he towers over me, peering down his nose and holding my gaze captive for what feels like a single, endless second.

For a moment, I’m so blinded by his chiseled jaw and full lips, that my heart misses a couple of beats and I almost forget our little exchange.

“Ma’am, if you’ll kindly excuse me,” he says as I realize I’m blocking his path.

I step aside, and as he passes, his arm brushes against mine and the scent of fresh soap and spicy aftershave fills my lungs. Shoving the check presenter in my apron, I tend to my new tables before rushing back to start filling drinks.

Glancing toward the exit, I catch him stopping in the doorway before slowly turning to steal one last look at me for reasons I’ll never know, and it isn’t until an hour later that I finally get a chance to check his ticket. Maybe I’d been dreading it, maybe I’d purposely placed it in the back of my mind, knowing full well he was going to leave me some lousy, slap-in-the-face tip after everything I’d done for him. Or worse: nothing at all.

But I stand corrected.

“Maritza, what is it?” Rachael asks, stopping short in front of me, hands full of strategically stacked dirty dishes.

I shake my head. “That guy … he left me a hundred-dollar tip.”

Her nose wrinkles. “What? Let me see. Maybe it’s a typo?”

I show her the tab and the very clearly one and two zeroes on the tip line. The total confirms that the tip was no typo.

“I don’t understand. He was such an ass,” I say under my breath. “This is like, what, five hundred percent?”

“Maybe he grew a conscience at the last minute?” Her lips jut forward.

I roll my eyes. “Whatever it was, I just hope he never comes here again. And if he does, you get him. There isn’t enough tip money in the world that would make me want to serve that arrogant prick again. I don’t care how hot he is.”

“Gladly.” Her mouth pulls wide. “I have this thing for generous pricks with dashing good looks.”

“I know,” I say. “I met your last two exes.”

Rachael sticks her tongue out before prancing off, and I steal one last look at Isaiah’s tip. It’s not like he’s the first person ever to bestow me with such plentiful gratuity—this is a city where cash basically grows on trees—it’s just that it doesn’t make sense and I’ll probably never get a chance to ask him why.

Exhaling, I get back to work.

I’ve worked way too damn hard to un-complicate my life lately, and I’m not about to waste another thought on some complicated man I’m never going to see ever again.

 

Wall Street Journal and #1 Amazon bestselling author Winter Renshaw is a bona fide daydream believer. She lives somewhere in the middle of the USA and can rarely be seen without her trusty Mead notebook and ultra portable laptop. When she’s not writing, she’s living the American dream with her husband, three kids, and the laziest puggle this side of the Mississippi.

And if you’d like to be the first to know when a new book is coming out, please sign up for her private mailing list here —> http://eepurl.com/bfQU2j

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SEED by Cassia Leo ~ Chapter Reveal

The explosive continuation of the Evergreen Series from New York Times bestselling author Cassia Leo.

The seeds of doubt have been planted.

Two to six weeks. That’s how long it takes, on average, to get a divorce in Oregon.

With Jack convinced I betrayed him, I expect to be served divorce papers within hours of moving out. But weeks pass without word from Jack, and the papers never arrive. Though my heart isn’t ready to give up on him, I can’t shake the feeling that we may be better off apart. And Isaac is more than happy to help me move on.

But just as I begin to build some semblance of a life and career, a new and improved Jack arrives on my doorstep. Divorce papers are the furthest thing from his mind as he delivers news that both shatters me and restores my faith in the love we shared. But is it too late for us?

SEED will be available on all retailers on March 16, 2018 for the release week special price of $2.99. After release week, it will resume regular price of $3.99.

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There is no preorder for Amazon, SEED will be a LIVE AMAZON RELEASE.
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JACK

May 10, 2015

“Stay with me, baby,” I murmured as I stroked Laurel’s hand to keep her from falling asleep. “You realize our son is going to be born on a very special day.”

Her eyes rolled back in their sockets as another contraction hit. “What?” she groaned.

I had been trying to keep her mind distracted from the pain with idle conversation about the things she most liked to talk about. So far, I’d engaged her in a wide array of topics: Stoic philosophy, ridiculous names for baked goods, inappropriate wedding songs, and her favorite topic, names for baby boys.

“His birthdate is going to be May 10th, 2015. In numbers, that five, ten, fifteen.”

She managed to groan and chuckle at the same time. “You’re so American. The rest of the world would say it’s ten, five, fifteen,” she said. She breathed in and out a few times through pursed lips before she continued. “Drea would make fun of you if she heard you say that.”

“It’s a good thing Drea’s not here then.”

As soon as I said the words, I wanted to take them back. I didn’t want to bring attention to the fact that, besides Drea, Laurel’s mom also was not here.

As if on cue, Laurel asked, “Where’s my mom?”

I squeezed her soft hand, which seemed to be getting colder. “She’s stuck in traffic, baby. There’s an accident. But she’s trying to get here as soon as she can.”

I didn’t have to lie for Beth. I had to lie for Laurel. I didn’t want her to worry that her mother was abandoning her in her time of need. This was probably the most important day of Laurel’s life, and her mother couldn’t be bothered to come when called.

Beth insisted this was a private moment for Laurel and I to share. According to her, most grandmothers weren’t in the labor and delivery room to see their grandchildren born. That was the parents’ “job.” She insisted she would get here as soon as the baby was born.

The fact that Beth referred to what I was doing at this moment as a “job” only made me angrier. I wasn’t here with Laurel because it was my job to be here. I was here because I loved Laurel, and this was where she wanted me to be. If Laurel told me to leave, I’d leave. She was the one making the decisions today, not me or Beth or  the fucking Dalai Lama.

The midwife came into Laurel’s room just as the baby’s heart rate monitor began to beep loudly. The swift, hollow tap of our baby’s heartbeat had slowed to a slow, muffled thump. The midwife’s black eyebrows shot up as she raced to the monitor to get a better look at the flashing red numbers.

“What’s happening?” Laurel asked, but her eyelids were only half-open as her voice trailed off. “Is the baby… Is the baby okay?”

Maisie, Laurel’s Filipino midwife, lifted the sheet covering Laurel’s legs and her dark eyes became as wide as planets.

“What is it?” I demanded as the doctor rushed in.

“Get Florence and tell the others to get the OR ready,” the doctor ordered Maisie, who quickly disappeared into the corridor.

“Dr. Eastman, what’s wrong?” I demanded.

But as my words fell like stones at our feet, Laurel’s hand went slack. Suddenly, four nurses raced into the room and shoved me aside as they locked the side rails on Laurel’s bed and systematically disconnected her from various machines.

My stomach went sour as they rushed her out of the labor and delivery room to the operating room. As I followed closely behind them, I felt as if I were having an out of body experience. I was watching these medical professionals pushing a gurney with someone else’s unconscious wife. Maybe I’d fallen asleep in the chair in Laurel’s hospital room and this was all a nightmare.

But when we arrived at the double doors to the OR, someone grabbed my arm to stop me from entering. That was when I knew this was really happening.

Before the doors swung shut, I caught a glimpse of three more nurses inside the operating room. They appeared to be hanging bags of blood on IV stands and prepping instruments.

“She’s hemorrhaging,” Dr. Eastman finally said, as I watched what was going on through the windows in the double door.

“What do you mean? How? Why?” I replied as I watched two nurses wheel Laurel’s bed into the center of the OR.

“Mr. Stratton, please look at me.”

I turned toward the doctor and the grave look in his eyes sent me into a panic. “What’s going on? Tell me what the fuck is happening to my wife!”

“Do you remember at a previous sonogram when I said we would have to do more sonograms every three days instead of every week, to keep an eye on the placenta?”

I nodded vigorously. “Just cut to the chase and tell me what the hell is happening to my wife.”

Eastman sighed. “The placenta was not over the cervix at the start of labor, but it seems the contractions have moved it down and Laurel’s losing a lot of blood. We’ll have to deliver the baby via C-section.”

I tried to follow a nurse into the OR, but Maisie and Dr. Eastman stopped me again. “I have to be in there!” I shouted.

“We need to scrub before we can enter the surgical suite,” East said. “Follow me.”

In the washroom, Eastman introduced me to the anesthesiologist, Dr. Brunei, who was already washed up as a couple of nurses helped him slip into a fresh pair of scrubs.

“Doctor, I need you to be straight with me,” I said as I set down the disposable nail brush and proceeded to rub the red Hibiclens soap all over my hands and up to my elbows. “Should I be worried?”

“Hemorrhaging in labor is not ideal, but it’s not uncommon. It’s a situation we’re always prepared for, especially with what we saw in the previous sonograms. You’re in good hands today. We’re going to deliver your baby and replace the blood your wife lost. I just need to verify that neither you nor your wife have any religious objections to receiving blood transfusion?”

I shook my head as I held my arms under the running water. I couldn’t speak. This couldn’t be happening.

When Eastman and I were gowned and gloved, we entered the surgical suite in time to see the nurses using a sheet to lift Laurel’s limp body off the hospital bed and onto the operating gurney, her arm flopped over the edge of the mattress.

Her skin was drained of the usual golden-peach glow. Her fingers were blue.

No. I shook my head, unwilling to accept what I was seeing.

“Mr. Stratton?”

I turned my head to the right and found four-foot-eleven Maisie staring up at me.

“You’re very pale, Mr. Stratton. You should sit,” she said, motioning to a chair on the other side of the room, closer to Laurel.

I nodded as I trailed behind her like a lost puppy. “Thank you,” I muttered, but I didn’t take a seat. I couldn’t rest when both my babies needed me.

Due to the hemorrhaging, Laurel would be put under general anesthesia instead of the usual spinal block used for C-sections. Maisie made it clear that this meant I would be the first person to hold our baby, not Laurel. I knew this would make Laurel sad, when she woke and I had to tell her what happened. But I wasn’t prepared for how I would feel about it.

I held Laurel’s hand through the entire surgery, stroking and kissing the back of her hand and murmuring words of encouragement as if she were awake. When our son was pulled from her womb, his blue skin covered in blood, I stopped breathing. Mere seconds passed before he took his first wailing breath of life, but it felt like an eternity.

As the nurses cleaned him up, I kept a firm grasp on Laurel’s hand while I whispered in her ear, narrating what was happening. I hoped that somewhere in her subconscious mind, she was listening, and maybe someday she could piece together this moment.

Maisie smiled as she approached me with the bundle wrapped in a striped baby blanket. As I took my son in my arms for the first time, I was overwhelmed by a wave of emotion so powerful, it should have knocked me out of my chair.

Tears streamed down my cheeks as I looked down at his puffy, pink face. “This is my boy,” I said with a chuckle. His tiny body moved in my arms and it my chest filled with sheer wonder and joy. I shook my head, unable to believe I’d made something so pure and so real. “This is our son.” I put my finger next to his tiny hand and my heart nearly burst when he grabbed on. I kissed his fingers the way I’d kissed Laurel’s hand earlier and his eyelids fluttered. “Laurel, baby, I wish you could see this.” I looked up at Maisie. “Doesn’t he need to be breastfed or something?” I asked.

She smiled. “They will bring her out of anesthesia in a few minutes, once she’s stitched up. For now, he needs to be held by his papa.”

The words echoed in my mind. His papa.

My face screwed up as I was overcome with emotion. The fear and doubt I’d felt about becoming a father seemed like a distant memory. I’d never been so filled with absolute joy in all my life.

I was a father. I was papa.

***

Present day

I had let my jealousy and rage distract me from what was truly important. I’d driven Laurel away twice, at a time when my pixie needed me most. I knew Laurel didn’t owe me a third chance, which was why I was going to earn my way back into her arms. And there was only two ways to do that.

One way was to catch the bastard who stole our happiness. The other way might prove more difficult. It would involve closing my case files and admitting that my need for justice was tearing my marriage apart. But I couldn’t do that, not until I gave my quest for justice one final effort. If I couldn’t get justice for my boy by the time Laurel turned thirty next month, I would pack away my case files and do whatever I took to get her back.

I handed my suitcase to the guy wearing the fluorescent safety vest, then I climbed the steps of the private charter plane at exactly eleven a.m. Immediately, I slid my cell phone out of the interior pocket of my sport coat and called my assistant, Jade Insley.

“Good morning,” she answered cheerily.

“Jade, I need you to forward all my calls, even the ones to my cell, to your desk phone. I’m out of town and I don’t know when I’ll be back.”

“Absolutely,” she replied. “What should I tell the partners?”

“Tell them I’m visiting family. I’ll check in occasionally for messages.”

I ended the call and immediately removed the SIM card from my phone, tossing the tiny chip over the side of the staircase before I stepped inside the plane. I gave the attendant my drink order — club soda with lime — then I tucked my cell into my coat. Sliding the burner phone out of the front pocket of my slacks, I took a seat in the plush leather seat. I turned the phone on and shot off a text.

Me: Plane taking off. Should land in less than two hours. We still on for three p.m.?

Sean: I’ll be there with bells on.

***

I pulled my rental car into a space in front of a two-story office building clad in weathered cedar shingles. The dark tinted windows and lack of signage made it look like a place one would go to get illegal plastic surgery. Other than my rented Chevy Tahoe, the only other cars in the lot were a beat-up Cadillac Eldorado and a pristine 80s era cherry-red Porsche.

When I stepped into the lobby, I was not surprised to find a directory missing a third of its letters. But I was still able to determine that “SEA  D GHE TY PI 2 1” meant Sean Dougherty, Private Investigator was in suite 201 or 211. That narrowed my options down significantly.

I opted not to take my chances on the wood-paneled elevator and took the stairs up to the second floor. The smell of body odor and desperation engulfed me as I walked down the hallway. The first door I saw was 201 and I quickly reached for the doorknob, eager to escape the smell in the corridor, but the knob didn’t turn. I rapped on the steel door a few times, certain that no one would hear me. I was surprised when my knocking was met with a loud grunt from within.

I immediately lifted the right side of my sport coat, my hand hovering over the gun holstered on my hip as I waited for the door to open.

“Who is it?” a gruff voice called from the other side.

“Jack Stratton. We have an appointment.”

The door opened slowly and we both smiled when we realized we both have our hands poised over our sidearms.

I slowly moved my hand away from my weapon and held it up in front of me. “All good.”

The man lowered his hand and pushed the door wide open. “Good to meet you, Jack,” he said, holding out his hand. “I’m Sean.”

We shook, and I was not at all surprised to find his calloused hand had a killer grip. “It’s really good to meet you,” I replied as I stepped inside suite 201.

My shoulders relaxed instantly when I realized Sean’s office was actually quite clean and modern and smelled like coffee. Not a hint of despair. Sean was a sturdy man in his early fifties, with thick salt and pepper hair and muscled limbs clothed in a crisp button-up and slacks. Not at all what I expected from a gritty private investigator who worked in the ninth circle of office park hell.

“The exterior throws people off. Only the people who are serious make it past the front door,” he said as if he were reading my thoughts. “Have a seat.” He continued speaking as I took a seat across the glass desk. “Hood River PD approved my request to see the file this morning, and I was able to go through most of it before you got here. We’re both obviously most interested in this memo they received from Boise PD. Have you spoken with Detective Robinson yet?”

I shook my head. “She couldn’t say much over the phone. I have a meeting scheduled with her tomorrow. She didn’t seem very optimistic that this would lead anywhere. She hasn’t had a whole lot of luck with sealed adoption records. But I’m working on a piece of software to cross-reference birth records and the NCIC persons files for individuals in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. I should have the code finalized and ready to run in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, I wanted to get you on the case to see if we can track down that adoption decree. I mean, I don’t even have the guy’s name. I’m flying blind.”

NCIC stood for National Crime Information Center, the database shared between the FBI and federal, state, local, and tribal criminal justice users to cooperate on investigations and policies.

Sean leaned back in his desk chair and cocked an eyebrow. “So what put you onto this lead anyway? This is a pretty serious accusation.”

I shook my head as I stared at the manila folder on his desk. “Just a hunch, I guess. I always felt like there was more to Beth than any of us knew.”

“And Beth is your wife’s mother, right?”

I nodded. “Don’t get me wrong, Beth was a great mom and I couldn’t have asked for a better grandmother for my son. She… She gave her life trying to protect my boy. I hold no ill will toward her. But there was always something about her that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

“I used to chalk it up to the same mysterious quality Laurel has. A strange, otherworldly kind of beauty and wit. But with Laurel’s mom, there were other signs that I didn’t know the real Beth.”

“Like what?”

“Just general secretiveness when it came to what caused her divorce from Laurel’s father and stuff like that. It wasn’t until someone in our Facebook group passed on the tip to Boise PD about Mike O’Toole that Detective Robinson decided to do a little digging into Beth’s past.”

“So who’s Mike O’Toole?”

I waved off the question. “A dead lead, but it did get Robinson asking questions and that’s why I’m here. The PI I spoke to in Portland told me that it could take years to win a battle to unseal adoption records. She said my best bet, if the suspect is living here in Idaho, would be to try to find someone who could track him down here. So here I am, hoping like hell you can help me find the piece of shit that killed my son, because… I’m on the verge of losing everything.”

Sean is silent for a long while as he stares at the glass desktop, and when he finally looks up, his square face is fixed with a tight smile. “Well, you were honest with me, so I guess it’s my turn for a little show and tell.” He reaches behind him, opens the top drawer of a two-drawer file cabinet, and pulls out a silver picture frame. “This is my Rosie,” he says, placing the picture on top of his desk so I could see the photo of a teenage girl with wavy blonde hair and a beaming smile. “Rose hated when I called her Rosie,” he said, staring at the picture with a wistful look in his steel-gray eyes.

“She’s beautiful,” I said, stopping myself before I could say she reminded me a bit of Laurel.

“Rose was seventeen when she went to an ice skating rink with some friends. Same as she’d done every winter since she was eight years old. But this time, she went outside to have a smoke. A nasty habit. I kept grounding her to try to get her to stop, but she just wouldn’t listen. She was too pigheaded.” He finally looked up and met my gaze. “That was the last we saw of her until her body was discovered two months later, in a creek forty miles away.”

I clenched my jaw as I imagined how I would have felt if I’d had seventeen years with Junior before he was murdered. Or if, God forbid, it had been Laurel who had been taken away from me. I wouldn’t want to live in a world without Laurel.

“That was a knockout punch. I was down for the count. No coming back from that, I thought,” Sean continued. “So I doubled down on how fast I could wreck my life. I was a financial crimes detective at the time, but I began sleeping in my office, poring over the case files day and night. I became obsessed.”

I lowered my gaze as his words shamed me. All the nights I’d spent sleeping on the couch in my home office instead of in the bedroom with Laurel were mirrored in Sean’s story. And somehow, I didn’t think his story had a happy ending.

“Did you find out who did it?”  

Sean smiled as he shook his head. “Nope. I lost my job. Lost my marriage. Lost my house. That bastard took my daughter from me, but I willingly gave him everything else. You understand?”

I nodded in silence. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t think of a single cynical thing to say. I was only in this office because this was my last resort. I couldn’t come back to Laurel emptyhanded. I’d given her every material thing she could ever want. I gave her shelter and security. I gave her my love. But I hadn’t given her my full attention.

Unfortunately, I knew myself too well to know that I would not be able to focus on my marriage and work until I was certain I’d done everything I could for Junior. And, yes, even for Beth. She may have had her secrets, but I meant it when I said Junior could not have asked for a better grandmother. She deserved justice as much as my boy did.

Sean Dougherty and the software program I was working on, which I had dubbed PNW Checkmate, were my last hope. If the software helped us find Junior’s killer, I would expand the software to include all fifty states and territories. For now, I had to focus on this area, and specifically Boise. If Ava Robinson’s suspicions were correct that Beth and Junior’s murders were not random, this was surely the missing piece of the puzzle we needed to help us crack this case. Laurel and I might finally be able to turn the page on this gruesome chapter of our lives.

Sean and I chatted for more than two hours. I filled in any holes in the case file he’d received from the Hood River Police Department. I laid out my suspicions about Beth’s past, information I’d gleaned through conversations with Beth and Laurel over the years. The most interesting tidbit being the time Laurel told me her mother had left her father for a few months when she was about five years old. It wasn’t definitive evidence, but it was one brushstroke in a colorful picture of a woman who lived her life with as much verve as the flowers she so carefully nurtured.

“Whatever you do, do not—I repeat, do not attempt to approach any potential suspects or interviewees on your own. You hear me?” He glared at me with his thick eyebrows raised, awaiting my agreement.

“You have my word,” I replied, probably not as definitively as I should have.

“I’m serious, Jack. Don’t get yourself killed or arrested for this shit. It’s not worth it. Tell me you understand.”

I nodded. “I understand,” I said with a bit more vigor.

He eyed me warily. “I’ll handle all interviews. You’ve got too much at stake. Too many emotions that pose a threat here. And I’m the experienced interrogator. So this is not a request. This is an order. You hear me?”

I looked him dead in the eye. “Loud and clear.”

 

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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(Will go live at 6:00 a.m. PST / 9:00 a.m. EST on March 9th)

https://www.facebook.com/authorcassialeo/posts/1728327510589533