First Chapter Friday: Hot Off The Press

Sophie Kent loves her new job as press liaison for Kyra Duncan, fiancee of Britain’s Prince Nicholas. But there’s one downside, and it comes in the form of a very sexy, very annoying American reporter named Garrett Smith.

He’s determined to make life more difficult, and so far, he’s succeeding. But these two just might discover their chemistry is stronger than their combat.

Read the first chapter here!

“Kyra! Hey, Kyra! Look here, love!”

“One picture, Kyra! Give us a smile!”

“Kyra, any wedding details?” 

“Kyra, does Her Majesty approve of you shacking up and living in sin with her grandson?”

In front of me, with her chin high and a vague smile pasted on her face, Kyra Duncan waded through the crush of journalists and photographers as we pushed our way from the car to the door of her office building. She was doing fine, ignoring all the yells and questions, until that last one zinged in. Even then, her steps stuttered just a little bit—and maybe I was the only one who noticed, because I was watching so carefully.

She kept going, though, walking up the three cement stairs to the door and pausing as the lobby security guard opened it for her. Within seconds, she had disappeared behind the tinted glass. 

I continued behind her, sweeping my gaze from left to right as I registered who was here from the press as part of the Kyra contingent. I tried to maintain a general idea of which papers and media outlets were covering her so I could follow what they wrote. Today, I recognized everyone in the crowd . . . but only one made my stomach clench with irritation and nerves. 

He was at the front of the pack—of course, he would be—and he was impossible to miss. He stood a head above the other reporters, but even if he’d been shorter, it wasn’t hard to see that he was different; his dark hair was long, brushing the tops of his shoulders, and above the collar of his jacket peeped the top edges of several colorful tattoos on his neck. His face, I thought to myself, wouldn’t be half bad if it wasn’t for the expression of arrogance it carried. 

Garrett Smith had shown up about two months ago, right around the time I was named to my current position of press liaison to Kyra Duncan, fiancée of Prince Nicholas. At first, I hadn’t known who he was; I’d spent the first five weeks buried deep in the Kensington Palace offices, learning all the ins and outs of navigating the press as an official member of the Royal Family’s staff. There were so many rules, so much I had to absorb, that I barely paid attention to anything in the outside world. 

But even there, the infamous Garrett Smith somehow managed to intrude. I’d been sitting at a table one day, studying old press releases and announcements from the Palace with several of the more experienced members of the staff, when Aline Perkins had sailed in, a scowl on her pretty, perfectly made-up face. 

“The nerve of this man. I mean . . . really, the nerve.” She threw her hands in the air and rolled her eyes. I’d never seen this woman, who was second-in-charge of the press office here at Kensington Palace, as anything but calm and collected. Something drastic—or someone extreme— had to have rattled her. 

“Who is it, Aline?” Jessica leaned forward, her eyes displaying the same curiosity as I felt. 

“That awful man. That Garrett Smith.” She spit out his name as though it tasted foul on her tongue. 

“Ugh.” Jessica shook her head. “Him again? What’s he done now? What horrid story has he written this time?” 

“It’s not what he’s written—although there was a piece in a tabloid rag today with his byline. In it, he speculated that Ms. Duncan forced the prince into an engagement through her grandparents’ business connections.” 

I couldn’t help a snort of derisive laughter at that. “Prince Nicholas is crazy about Kyra! How could anyone think otherwise?” 

Aline spared me just a passing glance, but still, I was well aware that I’d broken a couple of protocols. We did not speculate or comment on the lives of the Family, nor did we refer to them by anything other than their correct titles. Even though Kyra insisted that I call her by her first name, I knew well enough to stick to Ms. Duncan when I was in the office. 

“But those sorts of stories are to be expected. We see them every week. What else did he do to upset you, Aline?” Jessica tilted her head expectantly. 

“He’s requesting an interview with Ms. Duncan. A personal, one-on-one interview.” Her tone was incredulous. “He made some overblown claims about the need to offer a balanced view, that it would only be right to have the American press represented and able to ask her questions that apparently only an American reporter could produce.”

“He’s got to be joking.” Jessica shook her head, and around the table where we all sat, there rose a murmur of agreement. After all, even I knew better than that. Interviews with any member of the Family were granted sparingly, usually on special occasions such as landmark wedding anniversaries, engagement announcements and certain state occasions, and even then, those interviews were given to carefully vetted journalists, usually those who had been long-time supporters of the Royal Family. An American freelance paparazzi had no chance of winning one of those coveted spots. 

“I would have thought so, but he’s persistent. He won’t stop submitting requests and calling my office.” She lifted her nose as though she’d scented something unpleasant. “He’s a pest.” 

That day was far from the last time I heard Garrett Smith’s name—and it was always in that same tone of voice. And then once I actually began my job . . . I met him, and I realized why Aline, Jessica and everyone else in the press office felt the way they did.

Now, as I made my way through the dispersing crowd of reporters and photographers who knew that their quarry would likely stay in her office for the rest of the day, I made a deliberate effort not to look at Garrett Smith. I didn’t want to give him any opening to begin lobbing questions at me. 

“Hello, Sophie, how’s it going on the other side?” Bob Cruise, a reporter I’d known when I was still a staff member at The Lloyd Post, smiled at me. He was one of the friendlier members of the self-dubbed Kyra Corps, the mass of news people who dogged my new boss’s steps from dawn until dusk—and often, beyond. 

“Can’t complain, Bob.” I nodded at him, careful to be friendly but not too familiar. That had been one of the lessons drummed into my head during my crash course at the palace press office: I had to remember who I was now, and even more importantly, for whom I worked. Aline hadn’t made a secret of the fact that the power brokers inside the palace didn’t like to hire from within the ranks of journalists. They’d only grudgingly given into Kyra’s stubborn demand that if she had to have a press liaison, only I would do.

“Lucky you, not having to tromp around in the weather anymore.” Bob cast a sideways glance at the black car that waited at the curb. “Stepping up in the world, I see.”

I bit down on the corner of my lip, swallowing the need to jump to my own defense. I might have had just a little bit of a guilt complex about the perks of my new position. 

“Always good to see you, Bob.” I flashed him a quick smile that I hoped looked genuine. “Stay warm and dry.”

He chuckled, and I headed for the door again, studiously ignoring the fact that Garrett Smith was still lingering just at the top of the short set of steps, about two feet away from my destination.

“Sophie Kent.” He didn’t yell my name the way he did Kyra’s; instead, he said it in a leveled, moderated tone. 

I risked a quick glance at him, more of an automatic response to hearing my name than anything else. But when my eyes met his, I was startled to see the interest in those piercing crystal blues. It wasn’t the calculating, crafty expression I’d expected. Instead, he seemed almost . . . friendly.

Flustered, I gave a brief nod, not willing to say anything that could be considered an invitation to a conversation. 

“Former staff reporter for The Lloyd Post. Worked the social circuit for a few years, reported on weddings and parties for the most part. Covered the royals here and there. Was just breaking into real news when Kyra Duncan burst onto the scene, and then you were assigned to report on her romance with the prince. You spent months two years ago following Kyra around Maine and Florida. When he dumped her in the fall, you wrote an impassioned piece, talking up Kyra and basically calling the prince a fool.”

I paused with my fingers wrapped around the handle of the glass door, frozen, listening to him recite my curriculum vitae, as if it were somehow news to me.

“And then, once the happy couple hooked up again and made it official this time, Kyra hired you to be her press rep. From what I hear, she actually battled to have you on her staff.” He shifted from one foot to the other. “Now, here you are, trailing behind her every day while the rest of us grub around to get a decent picture or a genuine quote. Must be nice.”

Irritation flared, making my heartbeat stutter. “Mr. Smith, was there a question buried in there somewhere, or was that recitation of my recent past meant to make some sort of point?”

He laughed, softly. “Neither one. I was only trying to get your attention.” 

I felt my face go red. “Why?”

“Maybe just to see if I could. Now that I did, how about considering my request for an interview with Kyra?”

I heaved a huge sigh and rolled my eyes. “There it is. I knew it was coming. Mr. Smith, all requests for interviews with members of the Royal Family go through the press office. I believe you’re well aware of that.” 

“Yes, I’ve heard that line before. Once or twice, I guess.” He winked at me. The shameless idiot winked at me, like we were some kind of old friends. “But the weird thing is, even though I submit the requests every week and go through the so-called proper channels, I never hear a word back. I figured maybe if I went directly to the source, you could set me up. Make it happen. Cut through the red tape.” He smiled then, his full and generous mouth stretching into a wide, winsome grin. “Help out a fellow stringer.”

“Mr. Smith.” I gritted my teeth in an effort to keep my voice even. “You’re wasting your breath. Even if I were inclined to help you—and I assure you, that’s a big if—I don’t have the amount of influence you seem to think I do. I’ve just begun this job, and I’m the lowest of the low at the press office.” Not to mention that my loyalty was still in question, in the opinion of many of the higher-ups—but that wasn’t something I cared to divulge to Garrett Smith. 

“That’s why now’s the time to strike. Step out and make this job your own. You have Kyra’s ear. Tell her about my request. I’m open to laying down guidelines or topics that are off-limits. I just want to nail the first interview.”

I quirked an eyebrow his way. “Too late. Both Ms. Duncan and the prince were interviewed on the occasion of their engagement announcement.” 

Garrett waved his hand. “That doesn’t count. Everyone knows that’s just the palace’s chosen reporter asking exactly what the suits tell him.” 

The wind had begun to whip up, and a chilling gust swept through the street, making me shiver. My fingers on the door handle were beginning to go numb. 

“I’m sorry to disappoint you, Mr. Smith—”

“Garrett.” He stepped slightly closer. “My name’s Garrett.” 

I ignored that. “—but I’m not willing to jeopardize my own job so that you can have bragging privileges to Ms. Duncan’s first solo interview. Now if you’ll excuse me—”

“Have a drink with me.” 

I’d begun to open the door, but in my surprise, I let it go. “Excuse me?”

“C’mon, you heard me. Have a drink with me.” 

I blinked, incredulous. “It’s barely past nine in the morning.” 

He laughed, throwing back his head, the corners of his eyes crinkling, and I got a better look at those intriguing tattoos. They were colorful, and I was suddenly insanely curious about what they looked like in full. 

“I didn’t mean now, sweetheart. I meant later. After work. Come around to the bar, and we’ll chat. I’ll buy you a beer. Or do you only drink fine wine, now that you’re part of the establishment?” He cocked his head, and in his gaze, I read challenge.

“That’s none of your business, and thank you, but no. I’m not interested in a drink. And I have to get inside now.” I grabbed the door again and pulled, and this time, when he called after me, I just kept walking.

* * *

“All right, lay it on me. What did I do wrong?” 

Kyra’s office at the London headquarters of Honey Bee Juices was smaller than one might expect, given that she was, for all intents and purposes, running an entire division within the company. But I’d come to realize early on in my tenure with Kyra that the Duncans as a whole tended to be unassuming people. Her grandparents, whom I’d met soon after I’d been hired, were a gentle, loving couple who laughed easily. They were given to grand gestures of generosity, and I’d seen that same trait in their granddaughter. 

She sat behind her desk now, her elbows resting on the blotter as she steepled her fingers and peered at me, waiting for my response to her question.

I settled myself more comfortably in my chair. “I think you did very well today, overall. You kept your head up this time, and you weren’t thrown one bit by all of the questions thrown at you.” 

Kyra sighed. “But . . .”

“No but.” I smiled. “As far as I can tell, you’ve made loads of progress. Once the pictures hit the internet, I can let you know if there’s anything we need to address there.” I paused. “Even when that horrid Garrett Smith called out, you barely reacted at all.”

“But I did react. I just—he seems to be able to figure out the most unexpected question and then throw it at me.” 

“He’s insufferable.” I sniffed. “I can’t stand him.” 

“Wellllll . . .” Kyra drew out the word. “I mean, he’s just doing his job, I guess. And he might be a little rough around the edges, but there’s no denying the dude is seriously hot.” 

I wrinkled my nose. “Do you think so? Really?” Under the cover of the desk, my leg jiggled just a little. 

“He’s not my type,” Kyra hastened to assure me. “I’m more into shorter hair and that good guy vibe—with just a hint of bad boy thrown in for good measure. But you have to admit that from a purely objective point of view, Garrett Smith is sexy.”

“Hmmm.” I was noncommittal and hoped Kyra didn’t notice.

“I think it’s his size. And his hair. And the muscles on top of muscles. And the tattoos—don’t they make your mind wander? Like, to really interesting places, like . . . how far do those tats go? And what are they, exactly? Don’t those things just pique your curiosity?” 

I coughed. “Not at all. Not one bit. He’s a crude, pushy . . .” I couldn’t think of a word to fit what I needed to say. “. . . reporter.” 

“Oh, really?” Kyra regarded me with narrowed eyes. “You know, Sophie, Garrett’s not my type, but that doesn’t mean he’s not someone else’s type.”

“I suppose so. My gran used to say there’s a lid for every pot.” I refused to be drawn into Kyra’s teasing. “And on that note, you have work to do, I’m sure. I’ll take a look at the photos as soon as they go up, and then we can review them when you arrive home.” 

“Oh, joy. I just love looking at pictures of myself and figuring out how to make sure I don’t look like a moron when I’m walking from the car to my office.” Kyra made a face. “I’m having trouble mastering the vague smile. It just eludes me.” 

“Practice makes perfect.” I stood up. “The more you do it, the easier it will become—until you’re smiling vaguely without even thinking about it.” 

Kyra snorted, a most un-princess-like sound. “That doesn’t really sound like a life goal I want to have.”

Laughing, I executed a perfect queenly wave as I paused in the doorway.

“Welcome to the royal life, Ms. Duncan.”

Get the entire book here!



Apple Books




First Chapter Friday: The Anti-Cinderella Conquers the World

The royal wedding was only the beginning of my happy ending . . .

I’m now a full-fledged member of the royal family. That means all my problems are over, doesn’t it?

Apparently not.

Even though I’m now a princess-by-marriage and a duchess-by-title, I’m still the same Kyra who’s prone to putting her sneaker-clad foot into her mouth.

It’s a good thing Nicky loves me. Our work is thriving and our marriage is strong. Together, we can tackle any challenge. But it’s not until our peaceful existence is threatened that I realize how precious it is.

And they lived happily ever after . . . right?


Read the First Chapter Here!

There was a soft click, rousing me from the deep slumber of an afternoon nap. I stirred in the soft sheets and reached blindly toward the spot where my husband should have been lying next to me. 

It was empty, and my eyes still closed, I frowned. 

“Nicky?” I murmured. “Are you all right”

His hand brushed over my hair. “How could I be anything else?” The mattress dipped as he slid under the covers with me. “I’m here in this paradise with the most beautiful, fascinating, sexiest woman in the world, who just happens to be my wife. There’s nothing in the universe that could make me anything less than perfectly blissful.” 

Still more than half asleep, I smiled. “Prove it.”

Nicky chuckled softly. “Again?”

“Always.” I rolled toward him, opening my arms and snuggling against his solid strength. “Love me, Nicky.” 

He bent his head to kiss me. “Forever.”

* * *

“Do we really have to go back?” I trailed my toes along the rushing surf, one hand still clinging to Nicky’s as we meandered along the shore. “I mean . . . would anyone miss us? Between the two of us, I think we’d have enough money to hide away here for a couple of years, at least.”

“As if you’re remotely cut out for a life of hedonistic pleasure,” Nicky snorted. “In moderation, you handle it quite well. But if we stayed here forever, within a week, you’d have the locals organizing gardens and farm co-ops, and then you’d set up some experimental fields, just to test the regional produce markets.” 

I narrowed my eyes. “I think I could very easily get used to being a lady of leisure, thanks very much. Don’t forget, I’m not Kyra Duncan anymore. Now I’m Her Royal Highness, the Duchess of Kendal. I could do all kinds of shit I couldn’t before.” 

My husband began to laugh. “All right, then, Your Royal Highness. Let’s stay here for another two weeks and see how it goes.” There was a note in his voice that dared me to call his bluff. 

“Fine. Two weeks will be amazing. I’ll work on my tan, and I’ll read another of those mysteries I’m enjoying so much, and—oh! I almost forgot. I have the company-wide meeting five days after we’re due to be back in London. And there’s the kickoff for the new gardens in Tottenham—the St. Joseph of Cupertino fields are opening early next month.” 

Nicky’s grin stretched over his face. “Uh-huh. And this was the woman who thought she could live the idle life here indefinitely?” 

I shot him a withering glare. “That was a mean trick.” Swinging my foot, I sent a little bit of sand in his direction, spraying his legs with the fine white powder. “You know I meant it more as in the spirit of our honeymoon. I know we can’t stay here for the rest of our lives. You, for one, would be letting down the family, and I’d never be responsible for that. Second, I’d feel horrible about not stepping up to do my duty as Her Majesty has asked.”

“And that’s why you’re the perfect wife.” Nicky spun me until I had no choice but to fall against his chest. “Because you can dream about running away, but you’d never actually do it.” 

“Probably not,” I decided. “I’m not tremendously excited about going back and having to deal with the Palace people and the reporters when we’re in England, but I know it’s my life now, and I’m very okay with that. As long as I’m with you, I can handle anything.”

“That’s good because you’re not going anywhere.” He pressed a hard kiss to the top of my head. “I’ve gotten too accustomed to having you at my beck and call.” 

“I’ll always be your beck and call girl.” I snuggled against Nicky’s chest. “And meanwhile, we have another week here. I plan to take full advantage of every opportunity for—what did you call it? Hedonistic pleasures.” Pressing my breasts into the hard planes of his body, I looped my arms around his neck. “You know, like making out in the surf with my husband . . . or laying in the water, kissing passionately like they did in South Pacific.” 

We’d enjoyed a screening of the classic film a few nights before, and the love scenes had made an impression on me. 

“Hey, when I suggested that sort of thing, you told me that—uh, ‘beach lovin’ was out of the question. You said that the risk of sand in sensitive spots would make it—I believe you referred to it as ‘unpleasant.’” He smirked, remembering. 

“That’s true, I did. And then you said we could have the best of both worlds if we made love on the lounge chair, but you got so involved in demonstrating what we might do out there that we never actually made it to the beach itself.” 

“We didn’t, did we?” Nicky rubbed one gentle hand down my back until his fingers teased the edge of my bathing suit bottoms. “Then maybe we need to test out my theory. There’s a lounge chair in the secluded part of the beach, you know. The section where no one’s allowed to go except the two of us.” 

Desire buzzed through my veins and pulsed in some very specific places—namely, between my legs. “I might know the spot you’re talking about.” 

His fingers dipped lower to pinch my bottom. “Race you there. If you get to the chair before me, you get the first orgasm.” 

I frowned. “That’s not fair. Your legs are longer than mine, and you’re a faster runner.” 

“I’ll give you a head start, darling.” His voice was deep with want. “Believe me, I have a vested interest in letting you win.” 

“But maybe I don’t want you to let me win.” I pretended to sulk for a moment, just long enough to disentangle myself from his arms. Once I was free of his embrace, I took off, racing at top speed toward the cottage that had been our hideaway and love shack for the past three weeks, sending sand flying in my wake.

“You little vixen!” I heard Nicky’s laugh-filled accusation behind me, but I didn’t stop running. It was marvelous, this freedom to be myself, to be crazy and wild and stupid in love with the man I’d just married. 

And when that man caught me and swung me up into his arms, I knew that I’d never been happier in all of my life. 

Wasn’t that the point of the fairy tale? We were living happily ever after, and nothing in the world would ever change that.


Apple Books




First Chapter Friday: The Anti-Cinderella Takes London

Falling in love with a prince wasn’t something I planned . . .

When I reconnected with the first guy I ever kissed, I never dreamed I’d end up moving to England to be closer to him. But Nicky and I are in love, and living together was the next logical step.

If I thought dating royalty was a tough gig when I was living in the USA, I’m learning that it’s even more challenging now that I’m in London. Every move I make, every word I say, is under the microscope. Becoming part of Nicky’s family while staying true to who I am isn’t easy.

Nicky makes everything worthwhile. The hours when we’re alone together are paradise. And if the press and the pressure are the price I have to pay for him . . . I’ll choose Nicky, every single time.

After all, London’s just another town. Right?


Read the first chapter here!

“Heading home, Kyra?” Serena Kessel turned a bright smile toward me as I passed her desk. Although it was only mid-afternoon, I was on my way out of the brand-new London offices of Honey Bee Juices.

“Actually, I am. I know it’s early, but I’ve found that it’s—ah, easier to avoid—well, it’s better if I vary the time of day that I come and go.” I hated being so vague, but I’d learned the hard way that discretion was the better part of valor—or wisdom, in this case. Being my normal chatty self could potentially put an innocent person into a bad position if she was cornered by the press.

“Of all people, Kyra, you certainly don’t need to explain to anyone why you’re leaving before five. No one would ever question you.” Serena didn’t sound anything but respectful and cheery, but her words struck a nerve. 

“Do you mean because my grandparents own the company? Is that why it’s okay for me to cut out early? Or is it because of who I’m . . .” I stopped abruptly. I heard the almost-shrill tone in my own voice, and I hated it. “Serena, I’m sorry. I know you didn’t—well. I’m sorry. That was uncalled for.” 

“I understand.” The woman was completely unflappable. Here I’d just insulted her, and she didn’t even lose her smile. “I only meant that you work so hard and put in so much more time than the rest of us that no one doubts your dedication.” 

“Thank you. I appreciate your understanding.” I was certain my cheeks were red with embarrassment. “That’s very kind of you.” 

“Not at all.” Serena inclined her head. “Have a lovely weekend. I’ll see you Monday?” It was more of a question than a statement. 

“Yes, of course.” I hiked the strap of my handbag more firmly onto my shoulder. “See you then.” 

My heels clicked on the gleaming tile floors as I walked out of the suite of our offices and down the hallway to the elevator. I passed a few people, some of whom greeted me with a nod and smile, and others of whom glanced at me with open curiosity. I worked hard to keep a blank but pleasant expression on my face.  The hardest thing, I was finding, was not reacting to anything or anyone around me. I thought I’d perfected that ability back in Maine, when the press had first begun following me, but it turned out to be much more challenging here in London. 

The elevator was blessedly empty, and I sagged against the wall, closing my eyes with a long sigh. But once the doors slid open, I was alert and ready again. 

“Heading out, Ms. Duncan?” Alfred, our tall and elegant doorman, smiled at me. “Anything I can do for you?” 

Alfred asked me the same question each day as I left, as if he might be able to suddenly wave a magic wand and make all of the reporters and photographers waiting for me beyond the frosted glass doors disappear. I only wished he could. 

“Thanks, Alfred. I’ll be fine.” I paused to offer him a genuine smile. “I hope you have a nice weekend.”

“You too, Ms. Duncan.” He paused. “Keep your chin up, if you don’t mind me saying it. Everyone here thinks the world of you.” 

“Thank you.” I wished I could say something more—I could tell that Alfred, like so many of the people with whom I worked, hoped that I might relax and share a little with him. But I liked him too much to put the dear man into that position. 

So I simply gave him a wave and another smile before I braced myself for the onslaught and pushed open the door. 

The late-afternoon sun in London in November was anemic at best, but it was shining directly into my eyes, making me blink madly. And it was then the clicking began.

“Kyra! Kyra! Look here. Kyra!”

“Are you joining Prince Nicholas in Africa this weekend? A little pre-engagement honeymoon?”

“Has the Queen given her approval? Have you met Her Majesty, Kyra?” 

“Give us a smile, love! One good picture, Kyra!”

They all shouted at once, and the flashes went off, and they crowded around me. The same panic I felt every single time this happened roared to life, making me long to push them out of my way and run. Run far away and escape from their relentless questions, particularly when they were asking about matters that were tender spots just now. 

My car was parked just a few yards down the block, and with as much purpose as I could manage, I waded through the hoard of press, my lips pressed together and my jaw clenched. I didn’t make eye-contact with any of them, and I tried not to react when they shouted out my name . . . over and over again.

Once I was finally safe in the driver’s seat, I wasted no time before I started the engine and carefully eased away from the curb. I’d learned my lesson during my first week at Honey Bee London, when, in an effort to make a fast getaway, I’d peeled out without looking over my shoulder and nearly side-swiped a passing car. That had made the newspaper and the internet rounds, with the less-charitable publications christening me ‘Krashpad Kyra’. 

Today I managed to get into my lane without any issue. By now, I could make the drive from my office to Kensington Palace with my eyes closed, and it didn’t take long before I was pulling in through the gates at a special residents-only entrance, restricted from public view. The guard waved to me, and I waved back with a quick grin. 

I always experienced an odd mix of feelings when I was back here at the Palace. There was relief, of course, because this was one place where I didn’t have to worry about photographers or reporters, provided I stuck to the more secluded sections of the grounds. But at the same time, I felt a pang of sadness, a sense of being stifled, because in all of the small island nation, this was the only place where I could relax. It felt rather like living in a zoo, I thought as I made my way slowly to the cottage that Nicky and I shared. A beautiful, historic zoo with tons of security and lots of benefits—but a zoo, nonetheless.

Since it was Friday, there weren’t many people around the palace grounds. Most of the residents had decamped for the country either yesterday or earlier in the day; Nicky’s cousins, all of whom were ahead of him in the line of succession, owned estates outside of London, where they could indulge in fun things like hunting and riding horses. One of his sisters lived here with her husband, but they too were away now, representing the Queen on a trip to Spain. 

I let myself into the cottage and glanced around. We didn’t have a housekeeping staff, although Nicky had had a weekly housekeeper before I’d moved in, and she still came by to dust and sweep every Friday morning. But I knew that with Nicky in Africa, I could stay here in the cottage all weekend and never see another soul. 

I wasn’t sure if that idea was appealing or appalling. 

But first things first. I glanced at the clock on the wall and gave a happy little hum as I kicked off my heels and settled onto the plush loveseat, retrieving my laptop from the leather bag I’d been carrying. It was just after four here, which meant that in New Mexico, it was . . . I frowned, doing the mental math. Eight in the morning. The perfect time to call a friend. 

Within moments, I had the FaceTime app open and was waiting expectantly as the line buzzed. It stopped abruptly, and the screen was suddenly with the sleepy face of my best friend, Shelby.

“Hey,” she croaked. “If it isn’t my favorite princess-to-be.” 

A wave of unease slid over me. “Don’t say that. Someone might hear you and think there really are plans in the works.” I paused. “As of right now, I’m still just the girl living at Kensington Palace with Prince Nicholas. His shack-up lady. The cow who’s giving him the milk for free.”

“Oh, for God’s sake.” Shelby cleared her throat and rolled her eyes at the same time. The woman had talent. “First of all, you know you’re more than just a fling for Nicky. You’re living with him because you both decided you didn’t want to have an ocean between you—and if I remember correctly, darling friend, you’re the one who told Nicky you didn’t want to rush into anything official since you’d never lived in the same time zone. Second, what’s this business about the cow giving away the milk? Are we living in 1955? You aren’t giving anything away—you’re having loads of hot and heavy consensual sex with the man you love.”

“I know you’re right.” I dropped my head to the back cushion of the couch. “It’s just been a long day. A long week, actually. And all of those things I just said are shouted at me daily by the reporters who follow me around. So it’s hard not to internalize some of them.”

“Hmmmm.” Shelby shifted her phone slightly, and I could see that she was still in bed. 

“Hey, shouldn’t you be getting ready for work?” After we’d finished our graduate program in Maine, Shelby had received and accepted an offer for an internship at a center for experimental farming in New Mexico. It was quite an honor, since each year, hundreds of applicants vied for those positions. 

“Nah, I don’t go in until noon today. I worked a late shift last night.” A shadow passed over her eyes, and I wondered if everything was as great as she’d been claiming. Before I could ask, she spoke again. “So you’re just finishing your workday, right? What do you and Prince Charming have planned for this weekend?”

I blew out a long sigh. “Nicky’s in Africa at a conference for No Hungry Child. He won’t be back until Tuesday.”

“And you didn’t go with him? Why not?”

“Because he’s there in an official capacity.” I lifted one shoulder. “I can only travel with him when we’re going someplace for leisure. Like a vacation or a holiday trip. Because as I’ve been reminded more than once, I don’t have any official standing now.”

“That’s bullshit. You’re the prince’s girlfriend. Can’t he tell them he wants to take you with him?” Shelby was bristling, ready to jump to my defense as always. 

“No. I mean, he could, I guess, but it wouldn’t make any difference. There are ways of doing things in this family, and they don’t change on a dime. We’re talking centuries of tradition.” I hesitated. “It’s not easy, though, for either of us. I spend a lot of time here at the cottage by myself.”

“That sucks.” Shelby was still indignant, tradition be damned. “What about Nicky’s sisters? His family? Can’t you do things with them?”

It was all so complicated, a situation mired in potential pitfalls for me, and since I barely understood all the whys and wherefores, I knew it would be difficult to explain to Shelby. “If we’re invited to dinner by his parents or Alex and Jake, his sister and brother-in-law, I can go, as long it’s just a family meal. But they don’t do that very often. Everyone’s busy with their own lives and commitments. And if it’s the larger family, with the Queen and all the aunts and uncles and cousins—then I’m not included. I can’t go with Nicky if he’s going to a party or a movie premiere or a charity benefit if he’s there in his official capacity.”

“But if he’s going as a board member for his charities—the hungry child one and Waste Not—those you can go to with him, right?” Shelby persisted. 

“As long as it’s deemed a quiet event, like a lunch or a tea or something at a private home. It’s just the way they do things here, Shel. I’m not mad or anything—I understand it. Only, sometimes I’m a little lonely.”

“Of course, you are.” She was quiet for a few seconds. “Have you made any friends of your own there, so you have people to hang with when Nicky’s occupied?” 

I shook my head. “No. I have a working relationship with the people at Honey Bee, but I can’t socialize with them really—not in any genuine way, because I’m constantly worried that one of them might go to the press and share something. I can’t just go to a pub and make friends, either. If I’m not here at the cottage, I’m at the Honey Bee offices. That’s my life.” To my horror, a sob caught in my throat. I backed away a little, hoping Shelby hadn’t heard it. 

But no such luck. “Kyra, that’s no way to live. You sound miserable.” Her forehead drew together. “Isn’t there anything you can do to make things better? I mean, the Royal Family can’t make you stay home alone, right? If you’re not official enough to go to public events with Nicky, then they shouldn’t have the power to force you into anything.”

“Nobody is forcing me to do anything.” I pressed my fingers to my temples, where suddenly a headache pounded. “But would you want to go sightseeing if a throng of reporters were following you everywhere? Or if you couldn’t even run to the corner shop without being recognized and having people stare and point?” I shuddered. “Trust me. Staying here is far preferable to that.”

“Oh, Ky.” Shelby bit her lip, her eyes worried. “This isn’t good.” She studied me through the camera. “When’s the next time you’re coming home for a visit?”

“Two weeks.” I was so looking forward to the trip—and dreading it at the same time. “I’m spending Thanksgiving in Florida with the entire family.” 

“Florida? Don’t the Duncans usually do Thanksgiving in Maine?” Shelby had been my best friend long enough to know our traditions. “And is Nicky coming with you?

I shook my head. “No. It’s not a holiday for him, you know, and he already had engagements for that week, so it’s just going to be me.” I swallowed over the lump of worry that had risen in my throat at the thought of leaving him behind. It was far too reminiscent of what had happened between us last year, when we’d broken up for six months. Giving myself a little shake, I went on. 

“And you’re right about Maine. Usually we do celebrate there, but this year, Honey’s been sick. She was in the hospital with pneumonia for a week in October, and the doctor advised against her traveling this winter.”

“Wait a minute—Honey was sick—in the hospital—and you didn’t tell me?” Shelby scowled at me through the camera. “Is she okay?” Shelby adored my grandparents, who were known as Handsome and Honey by both family and friends. I’d given them those names when I was a toddler, and to their delight, the nicknames had stuck. 

“From what I hear, yes, she’s going to be fine.” I crossed my legs and shifted on the cushion of the sofa. “Believe me, I wasn’t any too happy about being all the way over here when she was sick. But my dad promised he’d keep me informed. He was concerned that if I flew to Florida, the press circus might be too disrupting for the family while they were trying to take care of her.” 

“I understand.” Shelby tilted her head, sympathy in her eyes. “Not being there must’ve been killing you. But here’s some good news—if you’re going to be in Florida for Thanksgiving, I can come see you. I’m flying home for that week, too.”

I sat up straighter, giving a little squeal of delight. “Oh, my God! That’s awesome. If you can come over to the beach, we can have a girls’ night. Movies and wine and ice cream.” I paused. “Maybe not in that order.” 

Shelby laughed. “I’m in. I’m spending the first three days with Vivian and Charlie and the baby, and then I need to fit in a visit with the parentals and Aunt Gail. But by the weekend, I’m sure I’m going to be more than ready for some best friend time.” 

“Okay. It’s a date.” I’d been looking forward to going home for the holiday anyway, but now I was even more excited. 

“It definitely is.” She glanced at something off-camera and wrinkled her nose. “But right now, I need to get my ass in gear. I want to grab some breakfast before I go to work. So . . . we’ll text about the details, but otherwise, I’ll see you in two weeks.” 

“I can’t wait.” I frowned a little. “But Shel, is everything all right there? I feel like we talked about all my problems and you didn’t tell me how things are in New Mexico.” 

That same shadow passed over her eyes again. “It’s all good, Ky. Maybe slightly complicated, but—well, I love the work, and the people are mostly nice. I’m learning so much. I just wish . . .” Her voice trailed off. “We’ll talk at Thanksgiving, babe, and I promise, I’ll spill my guts then. You can give me wise counsel over wine.” 

“Okay. You know I’m here for you no matter what, right, Shelby?” I had a feeling that she was evading my questions. “Best friends trump everything, even Royal Family orders. That’s not going to change.” 

“Of course, it isn’t,” she returned. “I know that. Ciao for now, sweetie. And hang in there. Everything is going to work out for you and Nicky. I just know it.” 

I ended the call with a smile, but once I’d shut the computer, the silence of the cottage weighed on me even heavier, and the empty hours of the weekend stretched out before me. 

“Well, I guess it’s just me and Netflix once again,” I sighed, reaching for the television remote. “Another glamorous weekend in the life of Prince Nicky’s girlfriend.”



Apple Books



First Chapter Friday: The Anti-Cinderella

How many girls can say their first kiss was with a prince in the British royal family?

I was fourteen and he was sixteen, and yes, it was magical. But that kiss didn’t exactly change my life. To tell you the truth, I didn’t even think about it-or Nicky Windsor-for the next ten years . . . until fate, in the guise of my grandparents, brought us back together again.

Now everything has spun out of control. I’m ducking reporters and photographers when I try to leave home. My friends act as if I’m someone they don’t know anymore. The whole world seems to be watching me, wanting to see some kind of modern Cinderella story.

But trust me, I’m no man’s princess. I’m more comfortable in tennis shoes than in a tiara, more likely to rock a bucket than a ball gown, and more liable to fall on my face than to pull off a graceful wave.

The only thing that keeps me from running away and hiding is Nicky. He’s all I’ve ever wanted in a man: hot, hunky, and head-over-heels in love with me. I think I feel the same way. I think I want to be with him forever.

But the idea of life with the royal family terrifies me. Even if I have found my one and only, can I handle what comes after our happy ending?


Read the first chapter here!

“Woooohooo! Hot mama walking alert.” Shelby, my roommate and best friend in the world, waved her hand in front of her face in an exaggerated fanning motion as she lounged in the doorway of my bedroom. “Damn, girl! Sometimes I forget how good you clean up.”

“Funny. Very funny.” Rolling my eyes, I balanced myself on one foot. “I need your input. Which shoes work best? Option one . . .” I switched feet, lifting the first one up behind me. “Or option two?”

“Hmmm. It depends. Are you going to a club? Or is this date a quiet affair at an elegant restaurant?” Shelby wiggled her fingers, grinning at me wickedly. “C’mon. Tell me all the details.”

I blew out a breath. “Neither one. And get real. Where would I find either a club or an elegant restaurant within thirty miles of us? Tonight is a command performance at my grandparents’ house.”

“You’re going to visit Honey and Handsome without me?” Shelby frowned, pushing out her bottom lip. “I thought you loved me.”

“I do, which is why I’m not taking you with. This isn’t the fun kind of H squared visit. It’s a formal dinner. It’s going to be long and boring.” I shook my foot. “Shoe answer, please.”

“Uh, the first one. It’s cute, but it’s not trampy.”

“Excellent. That’s exactly what I was going for.” I kicked off the shoe that hadn’t made the cut and found the match to the one I was wearing. “Tell me again why I put myself through this shit.”

“Because your grandparents are funding your graduate school career and keeping you fed, with a roof over your head?” Shelby tilted her head. “Those seem like wonderful reasons.” 

“Yeah, that’s right.” I turned a little, checking myself out in the full-length mirror. My black dress was silk, sedate and stylish, the most important three S words for this kind of occasion. “Plus, there’s the whole thing where I love them.”

“What’s not to love? Honey and Handsome are the coolest people I know. No one who’d just met them would ever guess that they’re both in their seventies.”

“Or that they’ve been married for over fifty years.” I frowned, concentrating on fastening my earring. 

“Yes! They’re so dang cute together. Remember when they came here to help us move in, and we caught them making out in the kitchen?”

I held up one hand. “I don’t want to remember that, thanks. Eww. You might find it adorable, but it’s not something you want to see if they’re your grandparents.” 

“I guess I can see that.” Shelby was silent as she watched me dig through my backpack, pulling out essentials like my driver’s license, cash, tissues, and mints and depositing them into a small evening bag. “What’s the occasion tonight? Why did they ask you to come to one of their fancy dinners?”

“I’m not entirely sure,” I scowled. “Honey was being a little cagey when she called to tell me. She said they wanted me to be there because of my unique point of view on the subject at hand, or something like that. It probably has to do with ecological sustainability. They like to have me there as back-up so it seems like they have the latest research on conservation.”

“Are you saving the moose this time?” 

I snorted. “Totally possible.”

“Well, whatever the cause, I know you’ll end up having a blast. Your grandparents never throw dull parties.”

“Yeah. You’re not wrong. I’m not afraid of being bored. I just don’t want to smile and act happy around a bunch of rich people. Even if they might someday consider donating millions to one of my projects.” I patted my bag, took one more look in the mirror, and straightened my shoulders. “All right. I’m set, I guess. Do I look okay? Will I do?”

Shelby scrutinized me with narrowed eyes. “You will. You’re gorge, babe. You’ll knock them all dead. And who knows?” She gave me wide, dramatic eyes. “Maybe one of them will bring his hot and sexy grandson, who just happens to be rich as hell, and your eyes will meet across the crowded room—”

“Ugh!” I stuck out my tongue at her. “Just stop. You’ll get my hopes up, and when no one under the age of seventy is there, I’ll have to drown my disappointment in some of Handsome’s best whiskey. That never ends well.”

“Hey, it could happen. And if it doesn’t, at least your grandfather’s whiskey is primo.” She leaned in to kiss my cheek. “Have fun. Drive safe. Make good choices. Give the two H’s my love.”

“Will do. See you tonight.” 

I stopped at the tiny front closet by the door to grab my long raincoat. Yes, it was late April, but this was Maine, and although today’s high temperature had broken the sixty-degree mark, as soon as the sun set, the chilly air would get downright frigid. I’d lived here long enough that I didn’t mind the cold so much, but my dress tonight was sleeveless, and there was no way I was going to shiver when I could avoid it. The raincoat wasn’t exactly haute couture, but it would do the job. 

Opening the door to the hybrid compact Shelby and I shared, I tossed the evening bag onto the passenger seat and eased behind the wheel. I was unreasonably grumpy about this dinner. My grandparents were wonderful, amazing people, and I adored them beyond reason. One of the reasons I’d chosen Grant’s graduate program was because the school was close enough to Honey and Handsome’s summer home that I could visit when they happened to be living there. But I wasn’t in any mood to play nice just now, when I’d spent all day mucking around in a muddy field, working on the research for my final project. 

The sun was drooping low in the sky, but I still needed my sunglasses, thanks to the eye-level glare. I knew this route by heart since I’d been driving it for two years now. Still, this time of evening was when the moose liked to come out and play, and God knew I didn’t need to hit one of those monsters tonight. So I kept my car to a reasonable speed, sliding my eyes right and left as I passed wooded areas and open fields. 

Darkness settled slowly, and I finally shed my sunglasses a few minutes before I reached the turn that led me down my grandparents’ driveway. Their home was large, but it wasn’t ostentatious. No one would ever guess that these two had founded and still owned—and were actively involved in—one of the largest organic juice and sandwich businesses in the country. Honey Bee Juices had won accolades over the years for its business practices, growing methods and passionate commitment to conservation and activism. I was proud not only of my family’s success and efforts to do the right thing but of the fact that they used their wealth in practical ways. 

This estate, for instance, housed a group of horticulturists for a month in the summer, men and women of all ages who won scholarships to a camp where they were taught the latest methods for natural gardening. Not only that, but Honey and Handsome always opened their home to anyone visiting the nearby college—the one I was currently attending. 

“Nothing we have is truly ours, Kyra,” Handsome liked to tell me. “Everything is held in trust. And if we don’t share, what’s the point in anything?”

My grandparents were, without doubt, the coolest, kindest, and most compassionate people I’d ever known. Growing up, I’d spent a lot of time with them—not because my parents were absent or neglectful, but because we worked and played as a family so often. Both of my parents worked in the juicing business, and I was always there, too, listening, watching, and learning. 

It was natural that I became close to my grandparents, of course, who had wanted me to call them Grammy and Grampy. But even as a toddler, I’d had my own mind. I’d noticed from a young age that my grandmother always referred to her husband as Handsome, while he called her Honey almost without fail. If it was good enough for the two of them, it worked for me, too, which was why all of their grandchildren—and their grandchildren’s friends—henceforth used the same names for our grandparents. 

I smiled as I stopped the car and climbed out, my heels crunching on the gravel of the drive. Handsome and Honey gave selflessly to all of us, whether it was time, attention, or education. They didn’t lavish us with gifts, exotic trips, or designer clothes, but my grandparents were the reason I was now in my last year of graduate school at Grant. They’d covered the tuition and bought the adorable little cottage that Shelby and I shared. I worked hard to keep up my grades, and Shelby and I were responsible for all the maintenance on our home, in addition to the improvements Handsome requested, but that was a small price to pay for the freedom to study and live without worry. 

That was why I never really balked when H squared, as Shelby teasingly called them, asked me to make an appearance at one of their gatherings or fundraisers. They didn’t force the issue, ever, nor did they invite me to any social affair that would make me uncomfortable. Truth be told, I almost always ended up having a good time and meeting interesting people. 

Which, come to think of it, made me wonder why my car was the only one in the circular drive as I climbed the steps of the porch. Usually, other guests’ vehicles would be here, too, by now; I was running late, as I usually was. Everything was quiet, and for a moment, I wondered if I’d somehow misunderstood my grandmother and gotten the date wrong. 

“Kyra, are you planning to come inside, or should we deliver your dinner on a tray to the porch?” Honey’s voice behind me held more than a hint of laughter. “You look like you’re lost.”

“I was beginning to think maybe I was.” I turned around to face the front door, where my grandmother stood. “Where is everyone? I know I’m not early. That just isn’t possible.”

“You’re just exactly right on time.” Honey drew me into a tight hug and kissed my cheek. It was impossible to believe, looking at her, that she was over seventy years old. Her skin was smooth, her eyes clear, and the hint of white in her hair was well-camouflaged by her natural blonde. The smile on her face held just a hint of mischief, which made me pull back a little, my eyes narrowing in suspicion. 

“Honey, what are you up to?” 

“Up to? Whatever are you talking about?” She affected innocence, but I knew better.

“Honey . . . you told me this was a formal dinner with some people you wanted me to meet. Tell me you’re not scheming about something else.” 

“I never scheme, sweetie. And maybe you misheard me. I said it was a formal dinner, and you might meet someone interesting.” She gave a little nod, and I remembered that she was right. That was exactly how she’d phrased it. 

“You’re not making me feel any better.” I followed her into the foyer. “How many people are you expecting? And where is everyone?”

“Already sitting down, waiting for you.” Honey inclined her head, indicating the direction of the dining room. “Your grandfather is entertaining.” 

“Oh, brother.” I giggled, leaning conspiratorially against Honey. “That means long-ass stories, doesn’t it?” 

She bent her head so her mouth was next to my ear. “‘When I was first coming up with the recipe for pineapple sunshine, the juice that put us on the map . . .’” Her impression of Handsome made me laugh even harder. 

We walked across the foyer and down the wide hallway that led toward what my grandparents called the public side of the house—where the large, formal dining room, the conference rooms, and the ballroom were all located—but to my surprise, Honey steered me to the left and opened a door. 

When I hesitated, she only smiled. “Since it’s just the four of us, I thought it would be cozier to eat in the family dining room.” When I didn’t move, she patted my back. “Come on, now, no one’s going to bite you. Don’t you trust me?”

“All of sudden, not so much.” I frowned, but I allowed her to move me along. 

This part of the house was comfortable and warm. The sitting room where I’d played dolls as a kid flowed into the kitchen and dining room. As we rounded the corner, I heard the sound of my grandfather’s laughter mingling with someone else’s voice. 

I didn’t know who it was—not really—but for some reason, my heart began to pound, and I felt a little lightheaded. There was something familiar—something in me that recognized the tone and timbre of the voice. 

We rounded the wall that hid the table from my view, and I came to a sudden, abrupt halt. Sitting at the table next to my grandfather, leaning back in his chair as though his being here was the most natural thing in the world, was a man I thought I’d never see again—not in person, anyway. 

He looked so different—and yet, of course, not that very different. He wasn’t the boy I’d known ten years before. He was a man now. Still, although I hadn’t been in the same room with him—or even in the same city, to the best of my knowledge, since I was fourteen, it wasn’t as though I hadn’t seen him. I hadn’t sought out glimpses of him, but they’d been impossible to avoid on magazine covers at the grocery store checkout counters or splashed over social media. 

Yet, he was more a stranger than a friend now. Too many years divided us, and those years had taken us in opposite directions. Neither of us was who we’d been back then on the Florida beaches. 

And then he saw me, and the way his eyes lit up was heart-rippingly familiar. A smile spread over his face, and slowly he rose to his feet.

“Hi, Ky.”


Read the rest of it here!

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B&N Press


First Chapter Friday: The Mustang

Duty. Honor. Country. 

Love. Romance. Passion.


Look, I don’t need a psychologist to tell me why I am the way I am. I grew up with a mom who was forever chasing her happily-ever-after, never considering the cost to herself–or to me. That’s why I’m not interested in fairy tales or in finding some elusive prince charming to solve all of my problems.

Until I meet him in the bar where I work. One night of fun somehow begins to mean more, and it scares the crap out of me.


I joined the Army when I was just a kid, mostly because I didn’t know what else to do with my life. I never dreamed I’d love it enough to make it my career, but now here I am, an officer, stationed at West Point, leading a company of soldiers. What started as an escape has become my passion–and it’s one that doesn’t have space for anything–or anyone–else.

Until I meet her at my buddy’s bachelor party. I think I’m indulging in one meaningless night, but I can’t stop thinking about her. Remembering her. Wanting her.

Read the first chapter here!


“Hey, baby, let me buy you a drink.”

The guy sitting at the end of the bar leaned forward to catch my eye, and I bit back a smile. This was a regular routine, something we went through at least once a week.

“Dale, honey, I told you before. You’re too much man for me.” I patted his hand and slid him the beer I’d just poured. “Also, take my advice. You want a woman who hasn’t known you since you peed your pants in kindergarten on the first day.”

He winced. “Awwww, Lark, why’d you have to bring that up again?”

I chuckled. “Sorry, dude. It’s what happens when you live in a small town and then try to hit on someone who’s known you too long.” Lowering my voice, I added, “But we just hired a new waitress who moved here from West Cornwall. She’s super cute, too. You should talk to her. I think you two might hit it off.”

His face brightened. “Is she hot?”

“Sure.” I wasn’t really comfortable commenting on the hotness or lack thereof in other women, but Dale definitely wasn’t a man who understood enlightenment when it came to the female of the species. Any rant I might go on would be lost on him.

“Can you introduce us?”

“Dale, get your own sorry ass over to one of her tables and introduce yourself.” Rhonda came lumbering around the bar and glared at the man in front of us. “Lark has better things to do than to play matchmaker.”

I shrugged and mouthed sorry toward Dale as he groaned and rose from his barstool, carrying his beer with him. He lumbered across the seating area, searching, I assumed, for a likely empty table.

“So what do I have to do that’s more important than Dale’s love life?” I winked at Rhonda. “Because obviously, that’s my purpose in life, to help him find his one true love.”

“That would take a stronger woman than you or me.” Rhonda slid her tray under the bar. “Listen, honey, do me a favor. Take that table over on the other side of the dining room. They’re going to be here for a while, I’m pretty sure, and I need to get off this knee.”

She hiked the hem of her gray dress up just enough that I could get a glimpse of her leg. I winced, wrinkling my nose when I saw how swollen and discolored her knee was.

“You need to get to the doctor,” I scolded. “I think that needs medical attention.”

Rhonda rolled her eyes. “Then it needs to get in line behind my back and this cough I can’t shake.”

There wasn’t a good answer to that, because I knew, as most of us working here did, that seeing a doctor wasn’t a viable option unless there wasn’t any other choice. Chronic and worrisome didn’t fall into the emergency category for those of us without any health insurance.

“Well, go on home and rest.” I gave her a gentle push. “I’ll take your tables.”

“It’s just the one.” Rhonda untied her apron and dropped it into the basket beneath the bar. “I was only here for another half hour, anyway.”

“I got it,” I repeated. “I’ll see you tomorrow—if you’re feeling better. If you’re not, you keep your sick and hurting butt at home. You hear?”

“Yes, Mom.” She patted my cheek, her smile weary. “The way you talk. Like I don’t have more than twenty years on you.”

“Yeah, yeah. Stop grousing and get moving.” I reached for her order pad and flipped it open as I watched Rhonda limp toward the door. Once she was gone, I headed to her table of guys, my gaze roaming over the occupants as I approached.

I was used to seeing soldiers and soldiers-to-be in this job. First, second and third classmen often wandered over to our bar from the confines of the post, looking for some relief from the nearly constant rigor of training that made up the four years of education at West Point. Fourth classmen, also called plebes, were not given the same liberty to leave post, so we didn’t get as many of them as patrons.

Even more than cadets, we tended to serve the soldiers who worked at West Point, both the officers and enlisted who served as instructors at the Academy or performed other duties on post. The men and women who were stationed there tended to be polite, good customers for the most part. Still, I had an innate distrust and wariness when it came to soldiers, borne of years of watching them walk all over our town as though they owned the place, as though being stationed at West Point entitled them to both mock and abuse Highland Falls. They laughed at the people I’d grown up with, they made fun of our small-town life . . . and the men saw the women in our town the same way they did candy in a vending machine.

But over the years, I’d learned to hide my feelings and put on a good show. Pasting a smile on my face, I paused at my new table, arriving just in time to catch a little bit of their conversation.

“ . . . none of your damn business.” The guy sitting in the middle seat glared at his friends. “What happens on Flirty stays on Flirty.”

I smirked. This was just the sort of opening a girl like me was made to sashay through.

“Yeah, I’ve heard that before.” I paused for a moment, as the attention of six hot guys swiveled around to focus on me. Their eyes widened, taking me in, and I added, “If I had a dollar for every time a cadet sweet-talked me into just taking a walk on Flirty . . . well, let’s just say I wouldn’t be your waitress tonight. But here I am.” I shifted my weight onto my left foot and hooked a thumb at my chest. “I’m Lark, and I’m taking over for Rhonda. She passed on your drink orders to me, so I think I’m all set. Are y’all ready for another round? Or are you planning to order some food first?”

The man sitting at the corner of the table was the first to speak. I’d seen him earlier doing some kind of bizarre dance, swaying back and forth while his friends made fun of him. I was curious about that, but right now, my job was to get these guys drinks and food.

“How about another round for everyone, and maybe some wings for the table?” The dancer guy glanced at his buddies. “How does that sound?”

“Let’s do it.” The one sitting closest to me lifted what appeared to be an empty beer bottle. “But I’d like to switch to ice water, please. I still need to drive this group back to post once we’re finished.”

“You got it.” I flashed him a smile. “Anyone else wanting a change in drink order?”

“Yeah.” A third man spoke up and tapped the neck of his empty Corona. “I’d like to switch to a Hudson Valley Lightbringer.”

I cocked my head, allowing my eyes to show some surprise as I checked out the dude. “Coming up.” I began to turn around and then paused. “Are you a local, then? Not many people know about the craft brews around here unless they live in the area.”

“I’m stationed at West Point.” He jerked his head in the direction of the man who’d asked for ice water. “My buddy here is getting married on post this weekend, and all of his friends came up for the wedding. So this is kind of like a sad version of a bachelor party. Minus the lap dances.”

I laughed. “Yeah, Benny’s is known for a lot of things, but lap dances aren’t one of them.” I winked at the groom-to-be. “Congratulations, by the way.”

“Thanks.” He beamed at me, and his obvious happiness gave me an odd, almost envious feeling, as though I was jealous of the girl he was marrying . . . which was ridiculous, since I didn’t even know her and this dude was not my type at all.

Giving myself a little shake, I pivoted and headed for the kitchen to deliver their wings order before I returned to the bar for the drinks. As I went, I was aware that one pair of eyes, in particular, was watching me go.

Four more people had taken seats at the bar when I stopped back to fill my table’s drink order, and all of them looked at me expectantly as I hesitated. We tried to staff a dedicated bartender every night, but sometimes, that wasn’t possible, which meant one of the wait staff had to juggle both tables and bar—which wasn’t usually a big deal. Weeknights could be slow. Apparently, though, I was going to have to balance customers in both areas tonight.

“Miss! We’re waiting to order.” A thin-lipped woman with carefully coiffed gray hair raised her voice.

“Sorry for your wait. I’ll be right with you.” I flashed the lady a smile, hoping to charm her into patience. “I just have to drop these drinks—”

“We’ve been sitting here for ten minutes, and no one has even offered us a water.” At the other end of the bar, another woman put in her two cents. This one was a younger bleach-blonde with enormous boobs that threatened to spill out of her low-cut shirt.

“I apologize. I’m on it now.” Grabbing two glasses from under the bar, I scooped ice into them and reached for the still water hose.

“The service here is usually so good,” the first woman’s companion remarked, and I gritted my teeth against a growl.

“Hey.” A deep voice floated down to me, and I glanced away from my task briefly to see the guy who’d ordered the local beer peering at me over the bar. “Can I help?”

I released the hose and straightened, sliding the water glasses to the younger women who were now openly eyeing up the Army officer as though he were the special of the day. Rolling my eyes, I turned my attention back to the object of their lust.

“I’ll be right over with your drink refills.”

“I didn’t come to harass you. I came to help.” He pointed to the empty space next to me. “Can I come back there? I’m happy to lend a hand—and I promise, I won’t demand a share of the tips.” He winked, and something deep within me went melty.

“Okay.” It wasn’t exactly standard operating procedure to invite a patron back behind the bar to help out, but on the other hand, he’d offered . . . and it would only be for a moment. “Tell you what. Here’s your table’s drink order.” I whipped the pad out of my apron pocket. “You take care of that, and I’ll serve these lovely folks.”

He rounded the bar swiftly, took the pad from me and began moving. “On it.”

With only the slightest niggle of worry, I focused my attention on the customers sitting at the bar, beaming at the older couple first.

“Now, what can I get you this evening?”

* * *

The bachelor party table kept me busy for the next couple of hours, but it was the kind of busy I appreciated: the men were funny and friendly, but none of them crossed the line into creepiness. No one was inappropriate toward me, although their jokes with one another weren’t exactly PG. That was okay; I wasn’t a prude, and it was clear that they all had the kind of friendship that thrived on slightly dirty humor.

In between checking on them, keeping their drinks filled and removing dirty plates and glasses, I made sure everyone at the bar was happy, too. Once I’d caught up, thanks to the help of the sexy soldier who’d stepped up, it wasn’t hard to get into a rhythm and keep all of my patrons smiling.

After the group from West Point had paid their check, each of the men made a point of thanking me for taking care of them—and even better, when I began clearing some of the glasses away ahead of our busboy, I found that they’d left a tip that was more than generous. Of course, I’d share that with Rhonda, but it was enough for both of us to feel very appreciated.

Neal, our busboy, appeared at my elbow as I reached for another mug. “Sorry, Lark. I was working on clearing out the booths and wiping them down. I figured we can close down that section if you want. Anyone who comes in from this point on will want to sit at the bar, I bet.”

I nodded. “Yep, that sounds good. Thanks, Neal.” I lifted the tray I’d filled already. “I’ll drop these off in the back.”

“Thanks for the help.”

After I’d deposited the first wave of dirty dishes with the dishwashers, I slipped back behind the bar. Usually, things began to slow down at this point in the evening. I’d be able to coast until last call, just filling drink orders and closing out tabs. Glancing down the length of the bar, I counted three couples, two women who’d come in about an hour ago and were probably about to call it a night . . . and the same guy from the bachelor party group who’d lent me a hand.

Frowning, I narrowed my eyes, trying to ignore the way my heart had begun to thud against my ribs. I’d thought all the officers had left at the same time, but apparently, I was wrong. What was interesting was that this man, in addition to his help earlier, also happened to be the one who’d proudly proclaimed himself as the only unattached dude at the table as well as the one who’d ordered the local brew and told me that he was stationed at West Point.

He was watching me, his gaze unapologetic and admiring. There wasn’t a lot of room for doubt about why he’d stayed or what he was looking for. Whether I picked up on what he was laying down or chose to ignore it was up to me. It wasn’t out of the ordinary for one of my customers to hope that I might be interested in a little harmless one-night fling after I’d closed, but I was the one with the power to say yes or no. I made certain of that.

I took my time deciding tonight, checking in on my other customers first. I refilled a couple of wine glasses, took an order for fries and delivered the check to the two women who were finishing up. Once I’d made sure everyone else was covered for the moment, I paused in front of him.

“Are you lost, or did your buddies ditch you?” Resting my folded arms on the edge of the bar, I leaned forward under the guise of resting both my back and my feet. If this position also offered someone a tempting view of my boobs where my neckline dipped, that was just a happy accident.

The dude did not disappoint. His gaze wandered down to check me out before returning to my eyes—just as I’d hoped it would. The smile he gave me was full of lazy promise.

“Neither.” He answered my question with a single word. “Just wasn’t in the mood to go home yet. I thought I’d hang around and sample some of your stuff.” Before I could call him on that cheesy line, he quickly added, “The local beer, I mean.” Then he winked at me.

I had to give him props—this guy was good. He was playing with me, testing me out to see if I was game for . . . what? A little fun flirtation to round out the evening? Or was he hoping for more?

And if it were the latter, was I down for that? Maybe. Some nights, I was down to burn off a little sexual energy with someone who was a good bet—someone who understood the drill. No expectations, no sappy romance, no repeats.

The men from the Academy who hung out here on occasion were good for that, usually. Most weren’t looking for love or anything even resembling commitment, so that meant we were on the same page. I had standards, of course; I didn’t sleep with married men (and yes, it was easy to tell who they were) or anyone who gave me a wiggins vibe. I always made sure someone else knew who was coming home with me, for my own safety as well as for the guy’s peace of mind. In this day and age, I was well aware that there were women just looking to cash in, and soldiers were especially vulnerable. An accusation of non-consensual sex could ruin a career in the Army.

The man currently watching me with one raised eyebrow seemed to check all the necessary boxes. I knew he was single—his buddies had verified that for me through their conversation—and he didn’t seem to be looking for a love connection. He’d been decent enough to jump in and help me without making a big deal of it. Plus, he was the hottest opportunity to walk into this bar in many a month. His body filled out the jeans and Henley nicely, his clean-shaven face was angular and interesting, his lips were full and intriguingly sensuous . . . and the eyes tracking me held just enough promise to tempt my active libido.

I made my decision swiftly, letting one side of my mouth tip upward in a smile that answered him. “What can I get for you? I mean, while you’re waiting to sample the really good stuff?”

He smirked and tapped the card in front of him, the one that listed our local brew offerings. “I think I’ll start with this one—it’s called A Monument to All Your Sins. Have you tried it?”

“Are you kidding? Of course, I have. The name alone was enough to pull me in.” I turned to find his beer in the cooler. “Two Villains is actually an awesome brewery if you haven’t been to it yet. It’s totally worth the trip to Nyack.” Popping the top, I slid the bottle across the bar.

“I’ll have to get down there and check it out.” He wrapped one hand around the beer and extended the other toward me. “I’m Nolan, by the way. Nolan Shaughnessy.”

I hesitated only half a beat before I took his hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. “You already know I’m Lark.”

“Do you have a last name, Lark, or is that it? Like Cher or Madonna?”

I rolled my eyes. “Pirillo. Lark Pirillo. I don’t claim any similarities with Cher or Madonna, thanks.”

Nolan still held my fingers captive in his. “Nice to meet you, Lark.” He didn’t drop his eyes from mine for a solid moment, and between our locked gaze and his touch on my hand, I could feel my body beginning to sizzle like a live wire.

Finally, I cleared my throat and tugged away from his grip. “Better enjoy that beer while it’s still cold.”

He took a long gulp, even as he continued to watch me. “What time do you finish tonight?”

“I’m closing, and last call is midnight. With any luck, I’ll be out of here by twelve-thirty.”

Nolan used the back of his hand to wipe his mouth. “Do you have any objections to me waiting around to see you out after you’re done?”

I wanted to laugh. “Oh, you’re such a gentleman, huh? Just want to see me to my car? How chivalrous of you.” Irony filled my voice. “And then what? You’ll kiss my hand, hold the door and watch me drive me away before you go back to your lonely barracks?”

He leaned up and lowered his voice. “There isn’t a damn thing wrong with being gentlemanly, Lark. But if you want me to lay it out plain—okay. I’d like to wait for you to finish work so I can go home with you, and when we get to wherever you live, I’m not looking for tea and cookies.” He eased back slightly, and some of the intensity left his tone. “As far as chivalry . . . my definition of the word is making sure the woman I’m with comes before I do.” Nolan paused to let that sink in before adding, “Twice.”

My mouth went dry, making it hard to swallow. “Okay. Wow. Laying it out plain is now my favorite thing ever.”

He grinned at me. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

I needed to get back to work—the fries one couple had ordered were ready to be delivered, and another pair of customers were looking at me pointedly, probably wanting to settle their tab.

“You’re sure you don’t mind waiting for me to be done?” I had another solid hour before closing, though if everyone cleared out soon and no one else came in, I might be able to leave right at midnight.

“Nope.” Nolan lifted his beer. “I’ll just enjoy this. Take your time.”

I gave him a brief nod and went back to work, but even as I smiled and chatted and made nice with the last few customers, my body was buzzing and my mind was still on him.

Midnight couldn’t come fast enough.

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