First Chapter Friday: Informed Consent

If Grey’s Anatomy makes your heart flutter . . . this trilogy is for you.

Emma

My new life in Harper Springs, working at St. Agnes Hospital, would be almost perfect if it wasn’t for Dr. Deacon Girard. He’s arrogant, intense, and unfortunately, hot as hell. He frustrates me, and he drives me crazy.
Maybe he’d finally listen to me if I kissed him.

Deacon

When I hired Emma Carson, I didn’t know she was so stubborn–or so sexy. She fights passionately for our patients, but I think her favorite habit is arguing with me. She makes me nuts.
Maybe she’d shut up if I kissed her.

Read the first chapter here:

“Just who in the blazes do you think you are?”

The voice that rang out behind me shook with fury. Anxiety threatened to close my throat, but I kept walking anyway. 

“Stop!” She was much closer behind me than I’d thought, but still, my step stuttered only slightly. 

“I said, stop walking.” She grasped my upper arm, not so much to hurt me as to get my attention. A large part of me wanted to shake her off and keep running away, but the wiser portion of my mind—and years of training—prevailed. I drew myself up and turned to face her. 

“I’m sorry—Mrs. Hoskins, was it? Did you need something?” I pasted on what I thought might have passed for a pleasant smile. “I didn’t hear you.” 

We both knew I was lying, but she was too fired up to call me on that. 

“Yes, I do need something. I need you to not go into our patients’ room and change their care plan—to tinker with what Dr. Girard has carefully and thoughtfully put in place for their treatment. You have no right.” 

I sucked in a long breath. “On the contrary. I have every right. I was hired to do exactly what I’ve been doing all morning—meeting patients and talking about ways we can make their path toward healing better and more comfortable.” I crossed my arms over my chest. “If you’d like to discuss the role of the naturopathic doctor in oncology, I’d be happy to sit down with you—but not right now. I still have to see several other patients on the floor before lunch, and then I’m going down to meet with the dietician and nutritionist, so we can discuss how we can supplement the current meals to meet the unique needs in this wing.” 

I’d been involved in medicine in one way or another for a decade, but I’d never actually seen a human face go purple with rage—until that moment. 

Ms. Carson—” she began, but I interrupted. 

“Dr. Carson. Please.” 

“Whatever you want to call yourself. You were not hired to undo all the effort that the rest of us have put into this hospital, especially the hard work done to make this new wing a reality.” She glared at me. 

“No, I was hired to enhance it. I was asked to come on board so that my expertise—” I was subtle in my emphasis of that word, but she picked up on it. I could tell. “—could complement the work of the other professionals here. I took this job with the understanding that what I have to offer would be appreciated. I wanted to be part of a team that operates smoothly—together. I don’t know why that’s so difficult for you to understand.” 

“You were not our first choice, you know.” The head nurse spit out the words. They stung, but they didn’t surprise. I’d only been at St. Agnes Memorial Hospital for a few hours, but already, I could tell that this oncology wing was their pride and joy. I’d met a few nurses and techs who had enthused about the committee who had raised the funds, made the plans, and put them into action. Above all, I’d heard one name over and over again: Dr. Deacon Girard. 

It hadn’t taken a brain surgeon to realize that the team working here had been carefully assembled. Since the first call I’d had about the position had come only about four weeks ago, I’d had a hunch that either the idea of adding a naturopath had been a last-minute decision, possibly forced on Dr. Girard and his devoted crew by a board of directors, or that they’d had someone else in mind before me. Mira Hoskins had just confirmed my assumption. 

“If that’s supposed to make me dissolve into tears of disappointment and hurt, you’ll be waiting a long time,” I snapped back. “I don’t care who your first choice was. I don’t care if I was your one-hundredth choice. The point is that I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere. I was hired by this hospital’s board of directors. Now if you or your precious Dr. Girard have a problem with that, you can take it up with them. But until such a time as I’m informed that they’ve ended my employment, I’m doing my damn job—and that’s improving the lives of my patients. Whether or not you agree with my methods does not concern me at all.” 

If Mrs. Hoskins was a cartoon character, steam would’ve been coming out of her ears. “Dr. Girard—” she began. Once again, I broke in. This woman was going to hate me anyway. I didn’t need to make nice.

“Where is old Dr. Girard, anyway?” I cocked my head. “Lots of people are talking about him, but all I get are some vague answers about him being out of the country. Why isn’t he here?”

She squared her shoulders. “Dr. Girard is out of the country. He was called away at the last minute to work with an organization that battles childhood hunger. He helps the group by offering medical treatment for conditions caused by or complicated by lack of proper nourishment. Nothing else but the most pressing emergency would’ve made him leave this hospital right now, I can assure you.” 

I had to admit that as excuses went, that one wasn’t bad. It didn’t let Madam Sore Ass off the hook, though. “Fine. Well, when he comes back, he and I can have a conversation about how this wing will operate. But for the moment, I’m doing my own thing. You have two choices: you can apologize right now for the way you just spoke to me, and we’ll let bygones be bygones. One thing you’ll learn about me is that I have a quick temper, but it burns out fast, and I don’t hold grudges. We’ll work together, and life will be better for us both.”

Mrs. Hoskins said nothing, but one of her eyebrows rose. 

“You might think that your second option is to keep this up, to fight me on everything I try to do, shoot daggers at me every time I try to get something done, and slow me down. But you’d be wrong. It isn’t. Your other choice is to get the hell out of my way so I can do my job.”

Her eyes flashed, and her mouth opened. I held up one hand. “You know what? Don’t answer me right away. Take some time and think about it. I’m going to introduce myself to the next patient on my list, go downstairs for my meeting . . . and then I’m going to take the rest of the afternoon off, because I still need to get settled in my new home. I’ll be in bright and early tomorrow morning. We’ll talk then.” 

Pushing off the wall, I walked away with what I hoped looked like swagger, and I didn’t look back before I turned to go into the room on my right. 

“Who the hell are you?” The man who sat in the chair alongside the bed was thin and bald. He wore a black T-shirt and hospital issue pajama pants. A hep-locked IV was in the back of his arm, and he stared at me with a mix of interest and distrust. 

“Mr. Crew?” I took one step forward, careful not to invade his space. Patients had to feel an ownership of their hospital room; there was so much else that was out of their control that anything we could do to give them a modicum of independence and sense of self was integral to their survival. 

“I’m Donnie Crew.” He inclined his head. “You here to poke at me, or ask me touchy-feely stuff?” 

I laughed. “Neither. I’m here to talk, but I’m not from psych. Promise.” I held up my hand as though I was making a vow. “My name’s Emma Carson. I’m a naturopathic doctor, and I wanted to introduce myself and see if we could chat about your treatment plan, how you’re feeling now, and if there’s anything I can do to make your cancer journey a little easier.” 

Mr. Crew frowned. “What’s a  . . . what was that you said? Naturo . . .”

“Naturopath.” I ventured further into the room and leaned against the back of another chair. “I’m a doctor, but my medical school training was somewhat different than what traditional doctors receive. My focus is on using methods that are closer to nature. I try to find what might work with your body to make it stronger and to heal faster.”

For a long minute, Mr. Crew was silent, and then he nodded. “Okay, then. Have a seat. Let’s chat.” 

* * *

An hour later, I left Mr. Crew’s room, feeling somewhat better than I had when I’d gone in. He wasn’t an easy man, that was for sure, but on the other hand, he’d been fighting multiple myeloma for almost four years. He’d been in remission for two years; now, the stem cell transplant that had given him a few years of relative health had to be repeated. He was in the hospital for a clinical drug therapy prior to the next stem cell harvest. 

The man had been through excruciating pain, crippling illness and fatigue. I couldn’t blame him for being tired of more doctors, more questions and more options. Still, he’d opened up enough to listen to me for a while and had seemed amenable to further discussion, once I’d had the time to review his file more thoroughly.

Back in the hallway, I wasn’t unaware of the eyes that followed me with interest as I wandered toward the staff lounge. The head nurse and I hadn’t been exactly circumspect in our disagreement, and if this hospital was like the others in my experience, the gossip web had already spread the word about us. I was making quite a reputation for myself, and it was barely noon on my first day in town.

I’d made a big deal to Mrs. Hoskins about having a meeting with the dietician, but the fact was that I hadn’t actually set up anything there yet. I’d just needed to make it sound like I had a plan for integrating myself into their system. I definitely was going to meet with them soon, but right now, I was too rattled, too tired and too disgruntled to do anyone else any good. Pushing open the door, I sighed with relief when I saw the lounge seemed to be empty.

Sinking into a chair, I dropped my head into my hands, taking a deep breath and exhaling long.

“Hey. That was some run-in you had with Mira the Dragon.” 

I glanced up, surprised to see a woman who was probably just a little younger than me. She was wearing cheerful pink scrubs with some kind of design I couldn’t make out. Her curly brown hair was pulled up into a ponytail, and her eyes were sympathetic as she smiled at me. 

“Ah.” I cleared my throat. “Well . . . I guess that maybe I might have been a little too quick to push my own agenda. But she just came at me.” I lifted a shoulder. 

“Hey, no judgement here. I’m on Mira’s good side most of the time, but she can be a real battle-axe.” Extending a hand, she added, “I’m Jenny Ward, by the way. I’m a nurse practitioner on this floor. And you’re the naturopath we’ve been waiting for, huh?” 

“Emma Carson.” I took her hand and squeezed it. “Nice to meet you, Jenny.” 

She took a seat across the small round table from me. “Where did you come from? I take it you’re not local.” 

I snorted. “Not hardly. I grew up outside Philadelphia, but I’ve lived in the city for the past five years or so. How about you?” 

“Virginia.” She sighed. “I’ve been here a couple of months now.” 

“Do you like it?” 

Jenny shrugged. “Most of the time, yes. It’s a small town in the middle of lots of country, in case you haven’t noticed. Just about everyone knows everyone else, and if you didn’t grow up with them, you’re an outsider. But the people who work here have been friendly to me for the most part. We have a book club if you’re interested. The last couple of times, we’ve met at my house, but it’s supposed to circulate meeting spots. Let me know, and I can hook you up.” 

“I appreciate that.” I rubbed my forehead. “My head is kind of spinning right now.”

“First day blues.” Jenny winced empathetically. “I get it. I got here a few weeks before we opened, but even so, that first day was . . . weird.” Something flitted across her expression and was gone before I could figure out what it was. “Listen, as one non-Floridian to another, if you need any help getting settled, figuring out your way around . . . you know, like where’s the best place to get a cup of coffee or buy chocolate or find shelf liner for your new place, give me a call.” Reaching into the pocket of her scrubs jacket, she tore a piece of paper from a pad and scribbled down her number. “I’m available day or night. My . . .ah . . . roommate is out of town right now, so don’t worry about calling whenever you want.” 

“Thank you so much.” I picked up the slip of paper Jenny slid across the table. “And I might take you up on it. I’ve had a hell of a day, and it’s only just lunch time.” 

The door to the lounge opened, and a woman poked her head in. “Jenny, Mrs. Jackson wanted to talk with you about the change in her meds, if you have a minute?” 

“Definitely.” Jenny stood up, pausing for just a moment as she glanced at me. “Don’t hesitate to use that number. Everyone needs a friend—especially when you’re in a new place.”

I nodded. “Thanks. I promise, I will.”

She left, and I was alone again. The silence was nice, I decided. Since it was just about lunch time, I expected the lounge would be filling up as people on this floor came to eat or just to take a break. I wasn’t in the mood to meet anyone else—not right now. I’d introduced myself to a few nurses when I’d reported to work this morning, but I hadn’t had any kind of official welcome from the staff. Unless, of course, I counted the take-down and ticking off by the head nurse. Which I didn’t. 

Outside the window, the sun was shining, and suddenly, I needed to be out there. One of the only drawbacks to my job was that most of the time, it kept me inside. If I had my way, medicine would be practiced in the open air, under the sun, sitting in green grass . . . maybe with baby goats bounding around. 

In the absence of that, I could go sit out in the small courtyard I’d spied on my way in this morning. It wasn’t happy meadows and baby goats, but it was something. 

* * *

The humidity wasn’t bad today, but it was still muggier than I would’ve liked. Still, the sun was warm, and there was the slightest breeze keeping me from sweating through my cute little short-sleeved top and pencil skirt.

I closed my eyes, lifting my face to the warmth, letting the soft air mend the hurt and upset from this morning. Intentionally relaxing my shoulders, I began the deep-breathing exercises that I knew would help bring me back to center.

“Is this a private class, or can anyone join?”

I jerked up, my eyes flying open. In front of me, nearly blocking the sun, a man was looking down at me. In my surprise, as I squinted at him, I had the fleeting thought that he looked like a god, huge and backlit and impossibly attractive. 

“Um, what?” Ever the mistress of a snappy comeback, I blinked, trying to take him in.

He pointed to me and then waved around the general area. “I figured this had to be a yoga class, right? You were doing that deep-breathing stuff that we do at the end of every session.”

“Oh.” I gave a half-laugh. “I was just taking a moment. I’ve had a hell of a morning, and—” I bit off the words. I was oversharing, and I was going to sound pathetic. “And then here I am, sitting by myself. Clearly, none of my yoga students showed up for this session.” Going along with the joke seemed like the best way to recover. 

“Maybe they’re just running late.” His mouth twisted into a grin. “Would it be okay if I sat down, or are these benches saved?” 

“By all means.” I spread my hands. “At least until my students show up. Then you’ll have to scram.” 

“Got it.” He sank down at the end of my bench, and the whole thing creaked and shifted under me. I was willing to lay money that there wasn’t an ounce of fat on this guy’s drool-worthy bod; he was just big. Huge, in fact, with shoulders I knew I’d never be able to stretch my arms around and a chest that I could use as a lounge chair. 

My staring might have been just a little obvious, because he quirked an eyebrow at me. “What?” 

“Oh, sorry.” I gave my head a little shake. “You just . . . I mean this in the best way possible, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone as large as you are. Please tell me that’s natural and that those muscles don’t come from steroids or some kind of weird enhancement.” 

Just when I thought this dude couldn’t possibly get any cuter, he blushed. I was afraid I might slither off the bench into a molten pool of want. 

“I don’t do anything that could be considered the least bit unnatural.” He slid me a sideways glance. “I wouldn’t do it anyway, but in my line of work, I could lose everything if I had anything like steroids in my system.” 

I frowned. “So you’re . . . in some kind of professional sports? God, tell me it’s football and not something like pro wrestling.” 

He chuckled. “You got something against wrestling?” 

“I’ve never actually watched it,” I confessed. “But I’ve seen the ads, and it looks horrible, all the body-slamming and yelling.” I shuddered. “Not my thing.”

“I guess I’m in luck then, because I’m not a wrestler. I do play football.” He rolled one shoulder and settled into the corner of the bench. “I’m Noah.”

I bent one leg and tucked my foot beneath me, facing him more fully. Meeting this man was the most promising thing that had happened to me all day. Hell, all week. Maybe all month. 

“Nice to meet you, Noah. I’m Emma.” I held out a hand, and after a moment, he took it, his finger closing gently around mine. I was charmed by how careful he was. 

“Emma.” He nodded. “Well, Emma, what made this morning so hellish?” 

“Oh.” I waved my hand. “Nothing. I was just being dramatic. I’m fine.” 

“Uh-huh.” Noah grinned. “I have three sisters. I know women. Fine never means fine.” He turned his wrist and looked down at his watch. “I happen to have fifteen minutes to kill. I’d rather not go into the hospital until I have to. I’ve got a great listening ear, and as you might have noticed, my shoulders are broad.” He winked. “Lay it on me, Emma.” 

I hesitated, staring into the light blue eyes that looked back at me with humor and compassion. It was the compassion that cracked me. 

“Today’s my first day at a new job.” I twisted the ring on my finger. “I’ve been working at a medical center in Philadelphia, but I wasn’t able to really do the work I wanted there. So when this opportunity popped up, I was so excited to get to be part of shaping this brand-new oncology wing. I couldn’t wait to get here.” 

“Ah.” He nodded slowly. “You’re a doctor?” 

“Yeah—uh, a naturopathic doctor. I practice medicine, but with a focus on natural processes and remedies. When I talked to the board of directors here, they said they wanted a balanced approach to treating cancer. They were excited about what I was bringing to the table.” 

“That’s great.” Noah smiled. 

“It was. So I quit my job in Philadelphia, gave up my apartment, bought land down here and arranged for a temporary home there, packed my car and drove south. I planned it out so I’d arrive here the day before yesterday, plenty of time to get settled in my new place and be all set to start the job today.” 

“I’m guessing that didn’t work out.” He shook his head. “You know what they say about the best-laid plans.” 

“Exactly,” I agreed. “I was in Georgia, right on schedule, when my navigation app told me that there was road work ahead and offered an alternate route. I took it, but somewhere along the way, I missed a turn or an exit or something, and the next thing I knew, I was on this back road in the middle of nowhere. And that’s where my car decided to stop running.” 

“Oh, shit.” Noah winced. “And you were by yourself?” 

“Well, yeah.” I rolled my eyes. “Who else was going to be with me? Anyway, I called the roadside emergency service people, and they sent a guy out to tow my car to his garage. This dude—his name was Boomer, and I’m not making that up—he takes me and my car to this small town, and he tells me he can fix it, but it’s going to take a day to get the part he needs. I was stuck in this little backwater town—it was called Burton—cooling my heels for a day.” 

“Which means you got here late for your first day,” Noah guessed. 

“Oh, no. I was on time.” I unfolded my leg and stretched it out—my foot was asleep. “But in order to be on time, I had to drive all night. I got here just after sunrise this morning. I stopped at a convenience store to wash up and change my clothes.” I let my head drop back against the bench. “I haven’t even been out to see the place where I’m living. I bought it sight unseen from a company that handles modular homes.”

“Brave.” Noah’s tone indicated he might really mean crazy. 

“I was tired, I was numb, but I was still stoked about the job. I showed up at human resources, but the rep wasn’t in, so they told me to just go ahead and get started, because apparently, Dr. Girard, who’s some kind of medical legend around here, is off fighting childhood hunger across the globe, and they needed help on the wing. No problem. I love jumping right into the deep end. I did exactly what I was hired to do, and the next thing I knew, the head nurse was chasing me down the hall, yelling at me because I did my frickin’ job!” I finished, my voice reaching a decibel that was downright scary. 

For a long moment, Noah simply regarded me, his expression thoughtful. “See what I was saying? You didn’t really mean you were fine, did you?” 

I couldn’t help laughing. “You got me. I’m totally not fine. And now I feel even worse, because I just dumped my recent life’s story on a stranger.” 

“Hey, don’t sweat it. I offered. You didn’t dump on me.” He leaned forward. “It sounds to me like you need to take the rest of the day off. You should tell the folks here what you just told me. You need to go see your new home, unpack a little and get a good night’s sleep. Then come back fresh tomorrow and start over again.” He paused. “The people on the oncology ward are a decent bunch. You might’ve gotten off on the wrong foot, but I have a feeling that if you explain everything, they’ll give you another chance. Even old Ironsides Hoskins.” 

I loved that image. “I was thinking of her more like a dragon.” 

Noah grinned. “She’s very protective of this hospital, and she can be a little brusque, but she’s not bad once you get to know her.” 

“Are you from around here?” I cocked my head, feeling the blood drain from my face as a thought occurred to me. “Oh, dear Lord, please tell me you’re not Mrs. Hoskins’ son. Or brother. Or that you’re related to the saintly Dr. Girard or something.” 

“Nah.” He shook his head. “No relation. I’m not from this area originally—I grew up in Wisconsin—but I’ve lived in the Tampa area for the last couple of years. And I’ve gotten to know Dr. Girard pretty well.” He was silent for a beat before he drew in a breath. “My wife is one of his patients. She’s on the oncology wing.” 

“Oh.” A kaleidoscope of feelings flickered before me. Disappointment that he was married, because Noah was not only painfully hot, he also seemed to be genuinely nice—funny, kind and intelligent, too. Sympathy, because I figured Noah couldn’t be more than twenty-seven or twenty-eight, and cancer in a young person was particularly brutal. Guilt because I’d just said some things about the doctor treating his sick wife and the hospital where she was a patient. 

“I’m so sorry, Noah.” I reached out to touch the back of his hand. “I had no idea.” Something began to dawn on me. “Your wife—is she Angela?” Most of the patients were middle-aged or older, but Angela Spencer was just twenty-seven. I remembered that from her records. 

“Yeah,” Noah confirmed. “That’s my girl.” The smile that lit up his face told me everything I wanted to know about their marriage. It was wonder and love and amazement and pain . . . all in a single expression. 

“I met her this morning.” I was about to say that it had been my changes to Angela’s treatment plan that had triggered the head nurse’s ire, but I decided that might undermine his confidence in his wife’s care team. “She’s a lovely woman. You’re both very lucky.”

“Don’t I know it.” Noah sat up, stretching his arm across the back of the bench. The wingspan on this guy was insane. “We’ve been going out since high school. I always say I snapped her up before some other guy realized that she’s perfect. We went to college together, and we got married right after graduation.” His eyes took on a faraway look. “I was drafted by Houston, so we lived there for a couple of years before I was traded to Tampa.” His lips pressed together. “We decided to start a family once we were settled here. Ang went for tests, you know, because we wanted to make sure we were doing everything right. And her blood work came back . . . wonky.” 

“That sucks.” Sometimes, the simplest expression of sympathy was all I could offer. More than anyone, I understood that cancer didn’t differentiate between loved ones and strangers, or the young and the old. Disease was the great equalizer. 

“Yeah. So instead of picking out baby names and buying cribs and shit, we’re talking about chemo meds and how she’s going to look with a bald head.” Noah rubbed his huge hand over his face. “I wanted to do the solidarity thing, you know? Shave my head, too, so she knew we were in this together. But she wouldn’t let me. Angela doesn’t want anyone on the team or in the press to know that she’s sick.” 

Understanding dawned. “That’s why you’re here and not at some big medical center.” 

“Well, that’s part of it,” Noah conceded. “We were referred to Dr. Girard as soon as Ang was diagnosed, and she had her initial treatments closer to home. But when he told us about this wing he was opening in his hometown hospital, and how it was going to be state of the art care in a quieter setting, it just seemed like the perfect place, you know?” 

“I get that.” I nodded. “And from everything I’ve read before and seen today, I think this is an incredible facility. Please don’t let my whining just now make you think anything different. That’s my deal, not a reflection on St. Agnes.”

“I know. Trust me, if I didn’t think my girl was getting the best care here, we’d be gone. I’m letting Ang have her way for now, because I’m still kind of new with this team, and she thinks I shouldn’t be defined as the guy whose wife has leukemia. But if I got even a hint that there was a better place for her, I’d have her there in a heartbeat. Angela’s recovery is the only thing that matters. This career, this team, money, fame—none of it means jack if she’s not okay.” 

“Of course.” Noah’s hand was near my shoulder, and I reached back to pat it. “I promise that I’ll do everything in my power to make sure you two get the life you deserve. Someday, you’ll look back on this time as nothing more than a blip on the radar screen of your lives together.” 

“I always thought I was so aware and appreciative of what we had, but all this has been a wake-up call about how much I take for granted.” An alarm beeped, and Noah looked at his watch again. “Okay, that’s my cue to leave. Angela doesn’t want me to hang out at the hospital all the time. She still does some telecommuting for her own work, and I’m not allowed to show up until she’s finished for the day.” 

I rose to my feet along with him, more conscious than ever that he dwarfed me by comparison. “Thanks for letting me vent to you.”

“Hey, any time. It was good to meet you, Emma. I’m sure I’ll see you around.” With a last crooked smile, he was off, moving with the sort of grace that seemed incompatible with his size. 

After Noah left, the peace of the courtyard felt somehow . . . lacking, as though he’d taken with him all of the restful energy. I hesitated for a few more moments before making a decision. Hitching my handbag onto my shoulder, I headed for the parking lot.

Read the rest of the story here!

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First Chapter Friday: Pretend You’re Mine

I’ve had the mother of all crushes on my brother’s best friend since I was a preteen.
Who can blame me? Nico is the perfect guy: he’s kind, funny, smart . . . he’s a talented chef, and he looks like a Greek god.
When he helped me get this job, I was excited that we were actually going to live in the same town again. But then he moved to Chicago, sub-letting me his house, which is awesome for my budget but sad for my body. And my heart.
The fact that Nico’s on my mind is the only excuse I have for why I used his name when I needed a pretend boyfriend in order to keep my new job. But now that I’ve done it, it’s no big deal, right? I mean, he’s in Chicago, and I’m in Florida. He’ll never have to know . . .
Until the unexpected happens, and Nico’s back home. Suddenly, I have a lot of explaining to do.
Although I convince Nico to play along, each day it gets harder to make believe something that feels so real. How long can I keep pretending . . . before the truth comes out?

Read the first chapter here!

“I will never be able to thank you enough for this. Not as long as I live.” 

I turn in a small circle, my arms wrapped about myself, taking in all the details of the room where I’m standing. It’s all shades of tan and brown, a complete study in understated elegance, and I am one hundred percent in love. I can’t wait to lay on the extra-wide couch and watch Grey’s Anatomy with a big glass of wine. Or a beer. I’m not that picky.

“Jen, you’re making this a bigger deal than it is. You’re helping me out, too, you know. I mean, I’m moving to Chicago, and I still have a year left on this lease. I’m just happy that someone I trust can sub-let from me.” 

Nico stands across the room from me, leaning against the doorjamb, his back to the screened patio and pool. The late afternoon sunlight casts a glow on him, gleaming on his silky black hair and burnished skin. With his impossibly wide shoulders and the broad chest that tapered to narrow hips, he looks like a god who’s popped down from Olympus to toy with us mere mortals. 

Or maybe that’s just me. 

Clearing my throat, I glance away from him before I do something wacky, like fall at his feet and beg him to kiss me. Or something. 

This isn’t anything new. I’ve been coming up with ingenious ways to hide my feelings for Nico Angelos since I was nine years old and saw him take off his shirt for the first time. I was too young to really get it then, but I was precocious enough to know that if I blurted out what was on my heart—that I wanted to worship the shadow he cast on the ground for all of eternity—I’d never hear the end of teasing from my brother Kyle, who happened to be Nico’s best friend and the reason the object of my obsession was always over at our house. 

He’s talking again now, and with no small amount of difficulty, I wrench my attention to his words and away from the way his hands look as they rest on his crossed arms. 

“ . . . and the cool thing is, just about everything is taken care of here. The landlord has a company to clean the pool once a week, plus it’s got one of those perpetual motion vacuums, too. There’s a lawn service—they show up every Monday—and the sprinklers are on a timer. You don’t even have to touch it.” He pushes off the wall and heads down the hallway toward the garage, motioning over his shoulder for me to follow. “I want to show you the panel for the security system, too. It’s not hard, but you have to remember to turn it off when you come home, or the cops will show up—and if it’s not a real emergency, you could get the bill for the unnecessary call.” 

I wrinkle my nose. “Oh, I don’t think I’ll need to worry about setting an alarm system way out here in the middle of nowhere. It’s not like this is New York. I bet people don’t even lock their doors.” 

Nico casts me a serious look as he stops next to the door that leads to the garage and points to a small electrical panel with buttons on it. “You’d be wrong. You need to set the alarm every single time you leave the house. Yeah, Harper Springs isn’t exactly the big city, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t crime, and it doesn’t mean you can ignore your own safety.” 

He punches four buttons. “That’s the code for when you leave, to set the alarm. It’s four, three, five, nine.” Touching my arm, he adds, “Don’t move, okay? As soon as the alarm is armed, the motion sensor is working, too.” 

I stand still as a statue, insanely aware of Nico’s fingers still warm against the skin of my bare arm. He keys in another code, reading off the numbers to me again. “That’s what you enter when you come inside. It disarms the alarm.” 

“Got it.” I breathe, all too aware that my voice makes me sound like a porn star who’s just been instructed on her next move. 

“Now, if you’re in for the night, or the rest of the day or whatever, set the alarm again, but then hit this button. It turns off the motion detector, so you don’t have to worry about walking around the house.” 

“Nico.” I tilt my head and allow myself to look into his eyes because even though it’s still dangerous for me, it’s also perfectly natural to give attention to the person I’m addressing. Right? “I really don’t think I need to set the alarm every time I’m here. You do know I’ve lived alone before, right? I’m twenty-five years old. I’m not a baby.” 

His lips curve into a smile that nearly stops my heart, and he reaches down to brush my cheek with the backs of his fingers. “Jenny, you’ll always be my baby.” With a cough, he adds, “My baby sister. Or just like it. I’ve known you since you were still in diapers.” 

I cringe. “Thanks for that visual.” 

Nico goes on as if he hasn’t heard me. “Humor me, please. Promise me—” Stepping back, he shakes his fingers in my face, those dark eyes serious. “Promise me that you’ll use the security system. Not just now and then—all the time.” 

I give in, of course, because I really don’t have a choice. I can’t imagine ever telling Nico no about anything. 

“Okay, okay. I promise.” I roll my eyes because even though I’m giving him his way, old habits die hard and I don’t want him thinking I’m that easy. 

“Good.” He taps the tip of my nose with the same finger he just shook at me. “I know you might not understand it, but I feel responsible for you. I’m the one who helped you get this job. I’m the reason you’re down here in the middle of nowhere, as you put it.”

“Hey, that’s just one more reason for me to be grateful,” I counter. “Getting in on the ground floor of the new oncology wing of this hospital—that’s the kind of position I’ve been dreaming about. I never would’ve even gotten the interview if it wasn’t for you.”

Nico shrugs. “I didn’t do that much—just asked a friend to give you a recommendation. You nailed the interview—and you’ve been working hard for a while now, so you have a great resume.” He grins. “I remember the first time you told me what you were going to do—what you wanted to be. I’d never really even heard of a nurse practitioner, but you knew all about it. You laid it out and educated me. I think you were maybe. . . fourteen? Fifteen?”

“Fourteen.” I nod. “It was right after Grampy went into remission. Watching him fight lung cancer, and being at the hospital when he was getting his treatments, really made an impression on me. That was when I met Brooke—she was one of the NPs on the floor, remember? I knew right then that I wanted to be like her when I grew up.”

“And here you are.” Nico smiles at me again, and my soul lights up. I’m amazed that he can’t see it. “I think you’re going to do all right here, Jen. Harper Springs isn’t exactly a bustling metropolis, but from what I’ve seen, the people are decent.” 

“Do you know your neighbors?” When we were outside looking at the pool a few minutes ago, I’d seen the backs of two other houses. Neither are close by—each property in this area includes a lot of land—but still, they’re close enough to walk over if I needed to borrow a cup of sugar or something. 

“Nah.” Nico shakes his head. “The place where I worked is about forty minutes away, close to the coast, so I spent most of my time there. I never even saw them to wave. Weird, I know, but I was gone early and didn’t come home until late.” 

“That’s a long commute,” I comment. Nico is a chef. He’s got crazy talent, but right out of college, he had a terrible experience working at a restaurant, so after that, he took a job with a hospitality company, designing menus for their hotels, resorts and cruise ships. He’s spent two years nursing his wounded pride down here in the sticks of Florida, but now he’s moving to Chicago to work with a friend of his on a brand-new restaurant venture. I’m excited for him and glad he’s finally getting back to where he should be—in a kitchen, making hundreds of people happy every night—but I’m also super disappointed that he’s moving a thousand miles away from me, just when we were going to live in the same zip code again for the first time since he’d graduated high school.

Still, his move is what made this gorgeous, sprawling house mine for now. Nico’s been renting it from a guy who doesn’t really care if he makes any money on it or not, and he’s cool with me taking over the lease. And of course, Nico didn’t require a security deposit or first and last months’ rent from me. 

“Yeah, housing is crazy around here,” he says in response to my comment about his commute. “Because it’s mostly small towns and rural country, there aren’t apartment complexes or condos—and very few houses for rent. I was lucky to meet the dude who owns this one. Otherwise, I probably would’ve had to live somewhere even further.” 

“And your luck is my luck.” I wander further down the hallway to peek at the huge master bedroom that is now all mine. “I would’ve had to look for a roommate, I guess.” 

“Probably.” Nico glances at his phone and grimaces. “I hate to drop all this info on you and then run, but I need to get on the road. I want to make Atlanta before midnight.” 

He’s driving up to Chicago so that he doesn’t have to ship his car. I swallow back a sigh of disappointment that he can’t stay longer and put on a happy face. 

“Oh, don’t worry about me.” I keep my tone breezy. “I’ve got this. I’m just waiting for you to hit the road so I can really explore.” 

“Yeah? What’re you going to do first?” His eyes hold a teasing gleam. 

“Hmmm.” I pretend to consider it. “As soon as your car is out of the driveway, I’ll run into the bedroom and throw myself across the bed. Bounce on it a little, because, you know, why not? Then I’ll rip off all my clothes and dive into the pool.” I give him a saucy wink. “Skinny dipping’s my favorite.” 

Do I imagine it, or is there a flare of . . . something in the depth of Nico’s eyes when I say that? I decide it’s probably just wishful thinking. He’s never looked at me as anything but his buddy Kyle’s kid sister—and that’s not likely to change any time soon. 

With that firmly in mind, I turn and throw my arms around him, giving him a tight bear-hug that is entirely appropriate for an honorary little sister to give her surrogate big brother. If my lady parts sing when my boobs press into that incredibly muscled chest, or if my heart gives a happy little sigh when his hands rub my lower back . . . well, no one needs to know but me and my lonely, yearning body. 

“Safe driving,” I tell him when I pull away, which is much sooner than I want to end the embrace. “Text me when you hit Atlanta. Eat a peach for me.” 

“You got it, Jenny.” He touches my face briefly. “Remember what I said about the alarm. Be safe.”

“Promise.” I hold up my hand as though I’m taking a pledge. 

“Enjoy your skinny dipping.” With a move so deft I don’t even see it coming, he reaches around and smacks my ass, making me shriek in surprise. I’m still giggling—and Nico’s still chuckling—when he shuts the front door behind him. 

I listen for the sound of his car backing out of the drive, and I watch out the front window until he disappears around the curve in the road. 

Once he’s gone, the house is eerily quiet. I don’t jump on the bed or swim naked as I’d teased Nico; instead, I indulge my hurting, neglected heart and curl up on that giant sofa for a good, long cry.

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First Chapter Friday: Fifty Frogs

When Vivian left town for a three-month residency, she had no idea that she’d come back to find her life turned upside down.

The casual boyfriend who’d seemed ready to commit? Changed his mind.

The job she’d loved so much? Gone.

The parents she’d assumed would be there for emotional support? Off on the adventure of their lives.

When she realizes that she’s essentially homeless, jobless and boyfriend-less, Vivian knows something has to change. She needs to take charge.

Inspired by her aunt’s idea that a girl has to kiss at least fifty frogs to find her prince, Vivian comes up with a plan: she’s going to go on a series of first dates only, and each one must end in a kiss. She’ll chronicle each date–the good, the bad and the downright unbelievable–and turn the stories into an in-depth magazine series about the realities of dating in the twenty-first century.

While none of the frogs she meets–and kisses–make her heart leap, there’s a guy closer to home who definitely does . . . and despite the fact that Charlie always seems to catch Vivian at her most awkward and embarrassing moments, she can’t help wondering if it’s time to ditch the plan . . . and kiss just one more frog.

Read the first chapter here

“Still five pounds overweight.”

A collective groan rose from the line of people behind me. I ignored them all, even as I felt my face going just a little bit redder. 

“Okay, then.” I unzipped the rolling suitcase, dug into it, and pulled out a handful of clothes along with a random shoe. I tried to stuff them into my carry-on backpack, but it was already too full. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to close the bag as it was. 

Still . . . with a frown, I bit my bottom lip and tucked what I’d just removed into the crook of my arm. I’d figure out what to do with it later. “Try it now, please.” 

“Lady . . .” The airline baggage check attendant sighed and rolled his eyes. “That’s not five pounds’ worth of stuff you just took out.” 

Fine.” With a barely-contained snarl, I replaced the shoe in the suitcase and pulled out more clothes instead. I didn’t stop until the better part of my wardrobe was in my arms. “Please check it now.”

The attendant shrugged and lifted the suitcase back onto the scale. All of us—the employee, the people who’d been waiting not-so-patiently in the ever-growing baggage check line and me, of course—held our collective breath as the numbers blinked, finally settling at an ugly fifty-three. 

“Son of a bitch,” I muttered under my breath. 

“Look, just pay the damn fee already, okay, princess?” The man who was next in line behind me had a heavy New York accent. His meaty forearms were covered with tattoos, and he wore a Yankees cap. His baseball fandom alone was enough to make me dislike him. What he did next sealed the deal. “Here.” He reached into the back pocket of his sagging jeans and retrieved a wallet. “What’s the fee? I’ll pay it. Anything to get us moving again here.”

“I can pay my own fee, thank you very much.” I gathered as much dignity as I could, considering I was draped in a mismatched ensemble of clothes. “But I’m not going to do it. The airlines already charge us a ton of money to ride on the plane in a seat that’s barely big enough for a toddler, let alone a regular-sized adult. They let us bring on one flipping piece of luggage. Hell if I’m going to give them more money just because my bag weighs slightly more than the average suitcase. It’s the principle of the matter.”

“Your principles are going to make us all miss our flights!” This time, the complaint came from the woman standing four people back. “Just pay the damn fee.”

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I’d hoped my little speech about the injustice of airlines would have the effect of rallying everyone around my cause until the airline employee just gave in and let me check my bag as it was. But no. They were not standing with me in solidarity against the industry. Instead, they all looked almost ready to lynch me if I didn’t give in and pay up. 

The check-in attendant cocked his head, looking at me with some measure of sympathy. “It’s the shoes, you know? It’s not the clothes. Not really. And you can’t carry your shoes all loose onto the airplane. I’m sorry, miss. I think you’re going to have to pay the fee.”

“Nope.” I dumped all the clothes I’d been holding onto the floor and began unpacking the backpack, too, adding the clothes there to my pile. Once it was empty, I transferred the shoes from the main suitcase to the carry-on. When they were all out, I was able to add back some of the clothes, watching the numbers on the scale carefully each time I did. When it hit fifty, I stopped, zipping up the suitcase with a triumphant smile. 

“Okay, great.” The attendant picked up the bag and tossed it onto a conveyer belt behind him. “Now what are you going to do with all those clothes? You can’t leave them here.” 

“I have a plan.” Bending down, I scooped everything into my arms and held the bundle against me before I picked up the stuffed backpack. “Thank you so much for your help. And thanks to all of you for your patience.” I raised my voice and turned my head to cast a quelling stare at the line of people. 

“Honey, they won’t let you just carry those on, you know.” The lady who had been so helpful earlier threw a little more advice my way. 

I ignored her and marched off, praying that none of those people whom I’d just delayed were on my flight to Florida. I was beginning to sweat under the weight of all the clothes I was carrying, but I managed to get to the nearest women’s room, which, thank God, didn’t have a line but did have a small bench. It was probably there for nursing mothers, I figured, but today, it was going to be a good place for me to organize what I’d liberated from my suitcase. 

Once I’d dumped all everything onto the bench, I began to organize it into piles, thanking heaven that I hadn’t packed that many pairs of jeans. Instead, when I’d been choosing outfits to wear during my three-month writing residency on Amerails, I’d gone for leggings, anticipating that they’d be more comfortable on the long train rides. I’d been right about that . . . and now, these leggings were my new best friends. 

I was already wearing one pair under a loose trapeze dress. Choosing the tightest pairs first, slowly I tugged each one onto my legs. At first, it wasn’t too difficult, but each subsequent pair felt that much tighter, until by the last one, when I was barely able to get the elastic waistband to the top of my thighs. 

“Oh, this is going to be fun,” I muttered to myself. But there wasn’t any time to sit and mope; I still had seven shirts to pull over my head. 

By the time the bench was devoid of extra clothes, I resembled something out of an old-time freak show. Or maybe one of those sumo wrestler suits people wore on sitcoms or reality shows for extreme sports. Let’s just say it wasn’t my best look.

My legs could barely move, and I couldn’t hold my arms down to my sides. I’d tied a denim jacket around my waist—it barely reached around my new bulk—and the sleeves of a cardigan sweater were around my neck. My face was beet red and damp with sweat. Limp strands of my brown hair clung to my forehead and neck. 

“But none of that matters,” I told puffy, sweaty me in the mirror. “I might look like a lunatic, but it’s okay because I have my principles. And an extra twenty-five dollars that didn’t go to the airlines.” I snorted, shaking my head. “Yeah. I’m totally the winner here.”

Rolling my eyes at myself, I picked up my stuffed backpack and began lumbering to the gate. Of course, because this was me, the line for security reached to the border of New Jersey. With a sigh, I took my place at the end of the queue, behind a woman with two small girls holding her hands. Dropping my backpack at my feet, I smiled at the child who’d turned to stare at me.

“Mommy.” She tugged her mom’s purse, her gaze never leaving me. “Mommy, why does that lady look so weird? What’s wrong with her?” 

“Kelsey, shhhhh.” The mother, who looked cool, calm, and completely put together in her cropped cotton pants and sleeveless blouse, patted her daughter’s head and glanced over her shoulder at me. Her eyes went wide. 

“Hi.” I tried out my best wide smile. “I know, I look crazy, don’t I? I’m not, I promise. Although I guess even if I were, I might tell you that I’m not . . . but I’m not. I just had too many clothes for my suitcase, and the airline was going to charge me more, and I couldn’t fit them into my carry-on. So . . .” I gestured down my body. “I beat them at their own game. I wasn’t going to pay some stupid fee just because an airline bigwig came up with an arbitrary number for how much my suitcase should weigh.” 

The woman’s back stiffened a little. “It’s not arbitrary. The airlines study these things—and the fees are in place to help protect the baggage handlers so that they don’t get hurt lifting bags that weigh too much.” 

“Huh.” I huffed out a breath. “Because of course, the baggage handlers get the extra money we pay for heavy bags. Yeah, that’s how it works.” Sarcasm dripped from my words. “It goes to the owners and the board of directors, not to the people who do the real work.”

The other little girl turned around, looked me up and down with one raised eyebrow, and piped up to share her two cents. “My daddy works for the airline.” 

Her mother drew both girls a little closer. “Sloan, that’s enough. Stay with me, girls.” She whipped a cell phone from her pocket, her thumb flying over the screen. I hoped she wasn’t alerting her husband who worked for the airline to send security to drag me out of the airport. This day just got better and better. 

I made it through security, which was a miracle in itself. Thanks to some deity who was finally giving me a freaking break, I didn’t set off any alarms as I walked through the sensor. I shuddered to think of what a pat-down would’ve meant under these circumstances. They probably would’ve made me take off the clothes, and God only knew how I would’ve gotten them back on.

At the gate, I fell into a chair with a loud exhale, relieved to be sitting for a little while. Digging my cell phone from the outer pocket of my backpack, I scrolled through, looking for the right name. 

Vivian: Well, I’m finally at the gate. Wait’ll you hear the story I have to tell you. 

I hit send and sat, phone in my hand, watching the screen as I waited for Jeremy’s response. It didn’t come right away, and I frowned and then shook my head. It wasn’t like he was sitting around expecting to hear from me. I’d only let him know a few days ago that I was on my way home because the date had been kind of fluid for a while. His response had been vaguely positive, but that was men for you, right? 

I flipped back through our conversation until I got to the day I’d left Florida, three months ago. It didn’t take long to get there. Jeremy’s messages to me in the beginning of my residency had been longer and more involved, filled with talk about our future and plans for what we might do when I returned home. I waited for a feeling of giddy anticipation to fill me, that sense of excitement that I was returning to the arms of the man I loved. Instead, though, I only felt an anemic flare of . . . something. It wasn’t joy or pleasure . . . but it wasn’t unhappiness, either. I didn’t think it was.

That was okay because this was what grown-up commitment felt like. I’d spent three months talking myself into this. Closing my eyes and leaning back as far as the clothes would allow, I remembered the night before I’d left.

Jeremy and I had been seeing each other casually for about a year. We’d met through friends at a birthday party, and about a week later, Jeremy had called to invite me out for coffee. That had been pleasant enough, and neither of us was too weird, so for our next date, we’d moved on to dinner, and then a few days later, to a movie. 

After that, we’d just fallen into the habit of each other. Our friends had assumed we were together, and there hadn’t been any reason not to be. I’d introduced Jeremy to my parents, who lived in the same town I did, and when his mother had flown down for a visit, I’d met her, too. It had all been very calm and easy. Jeremy and I never fought about anything. We never disagreed. If I wanted to do something that didn’t interest him, I simply went by myself, and he did the same. We saw each other a few times a week and chatted occasionally on the phone to confirm plans.

My best friend Teddi, who shared my apartment, said that Jeremy and I had the most mature relationship she’d ever seen. “You never argue. I never hear either of you even raise your voices. I don’t know how you do it. Shane and I fight about everything.”

I’d smiled but stayed silent. I knew all too well how much Teddi and her boyfriend Shane argued because the walls in our place were thin, and I spent a lot of time at home. I had a front-row seat to their disagreements and to their makeup sex, which tended to be loud and tumultuous. In contrast, Jeremy and I were less . . . physical. The compatibility we had didn’t exactly lend itself to passion. In fact, when I let myself think about it, the distinct lack of intimacy made me wonder exactly why Jeremy and I were together at all. 

At first, I’d been impressed that he didn’t pressure me. We’d gone on six dates before he’d tried to hold my hand, and another four before he’d attempted a kiss goodnight. If we’d been sixteen, that would’ve been sweet and honorable. At twenty-six, it gave me pause . . . when I examined it too closely, which I tended not to do often. 

There were so many wonderful things about my boyfriend that focusing on the aspects that weren’t awesome seemed petty, especially when my single girlfriends bemoaned their dateless states. 

“You’re so lucky you have Jeremy. You never need to worry about what you’re going to do on Saturday nights or special occasions. You’ve got a built-in plus one for every wedding invitation.”

That was all true. And Jeremy did clean up well, although maybe that was the wrong figure of speech to use, because I never saw him get dirty—and I don’t only mean that in terms of sex . . . even if that was true, too. He wasn’t the type to want to go hiking or camping or, God forbid, to the beach. He wouldn’t even go running with me outside, preferring to get his exercise in an air-conditioned gym.

In light of that aversion to outside activities, I’d asked him why he’d moved down to Florida from New England. He’d looked faintly surprised and puzzled as he answered.

“Because the job down here was the best one offered to me. It had the best salary and benefits package and the most promising opportunity to advance in the company.”

“Uh-huh.” I’d nodded. “But did you ever think hey, Florida! Sunshine, beaches and year-round summer? I want to get me some of that?

Jeremy had frowned. “No. The place didn’t mean much to me. If the job had been in Montana or Oklahoma or Maine, I would’ve given it the same consideration that I did with it being in Florida.”

Being a Florida native, I couldn’t really speak to what I myself might’ve done under a similar circumstance. I’d been born here in central Florida, gone to the college where my dad was a professor, and after graduation, I had taken the one and only job I’d been offered. Still, I couldn’t help feeling that maybe Jeremy’s logical, practical approach to decisions like this revealed some kind of lacking in his sense of adventure. We were young, after all; weren’t these the years when we were meant to be impulsive and carefree?

But aside from these few concerning differences in philosophy, I didn’t have anything to complain about with Jeremy. He was steady, tolerant, and understanding, and if we had a distinct lack of the same heat I saw between other couples, well, maybe that was just because he was so mature for his age. 

When I’d been notified that I’d won one of the coveted writing residencies on Amerails, discussing it with Jeremy hadn’t even crossed my mind. I’d been giddy with excitement when I’d told him that I’d been selected to spend three whole months riding trains around the US, writing blog posts about changing family travel in the twenty-first century and how the train could be part of that shift. 

Because Jeremy was nothing if not polite and supportive, he’d taken me to dinner to celebrate. Over the next two weeks, as I’d run around preparing to leave, I hadn’t seen too much of him. But we’d agreed to spend the evening before my flight together at his townhouse. It had been a lovely night, with perfect Florida spring weather. Jeremy had ordered out from my favorite Italian restaurant, poured me a glass of my favorite red wine, and just before dessert, he’d dropped a bombshell.

“Vivian, I’m so happy about this chance you’re getting, to pursue something you’ve always wanted to do. And I think it comes at the perfect time for the two of us.” 

The ravioli I’d just enjoyed suddenly felt like lead in my stomach. Holy shit, was he breaking up with me?

“I’ve been giving this a lot of thought,” Jeremy went on, studying his hands where they were folded on the table. “Not just over the past few weeks, but actually, for a while before. I’ve weighed pros and cons, upsides and downs, and ultimately, I came to a decision.”

I held my breath, waiting for the blow. 

“I think you should move in with me.” 

If Jeremy had told me he’d decided to sprout wings and fly around the world, I would’ve been less surprised. I stared at him, my mouth open, for the space of several heartbeats. 

“Well?” He smiled and reached across the table to touch my hand. “What do you think? It seems to me the timing couldn’t be more perfect. You told me that Teddi has been talking about living with Shane. If you move here, she could have your apartment. While you’re away, I can put everything into motion so that when you come home, we can have the movers lined up.” 

“Jeremy.” I found my voice. “Um . . . I know it will sound trite if I say this is so unexpected, but it really is. I had no idea you were even considering this.” 

He shrugged. “We’ve been seeing each other for a year, Vivian. This is the next logical step. It makes sense.” 

The nausea that had come on when he’d first begun to speak hadn’t gotten any better. In fact, now it was much worse. Jeremy sounded as though he were proposing a merger, not something romantic and exciting. 

“Right.” I nodded. “The thing is, Jeremy, I haven’t been on the same wavelength as you, I guess. This is coming out of left field. So I can’t give you an answer tonight. Would you let me take this time while I’m away to think about everything? When I get home, we can see if you feel the same way—”

“Oh, I will.” He looked faintly amused that I’d suggest otherwise. “I told you, I thought this through. My decision is made.” He patted the back of my fingers. “But you take all the time you need. I’ll be here when you come home. You’re worth the three-month wait, Vivian.” 

It was on the tip of my tongue to blurt out something sarcastic, but I knew he was being earnest. This was what passed for sweet nothings in my boyfriend’s head. 

For the first three or four weeks that I was away, Jeremy texted me regularly—and I responded. We didn’t talk on the phone, because it was virtually impossible for me to have any kind of real privacy on the train, and the cell phone signal was usually iffy at best. 

I did think about what he’d said, though. At first, my gut response was to say no. His suggestion had made me realize that I’d never considered a long-term future with Jeremy. I’d been fine with things between us as they were, but I had never pictured myself marrying him or settling down for the rest of our lives. Maybe this was the perfect time to make a break that was long overdue, even if it meant I’d be single again. I realized that impending singleness was more upsetting to me than the idea of not having Jeremy in my life. That was telling. 

But as the weeks slipped by, I began to change my mind. I watched families on the train, and I thought that maybe I did want that sooner rather than later. And there was no question that Jeremy was an excellent candidate for responsibility and commitment. He’d be a very good father, not to mention a steady, reliable husband. I began to hear a voice in my head that remarked, “You could do worse.” 

Now a voice not in my head but over the loudspeaker interrupted my ruminations, announcing that the flight was beginning to board. When my section was called, I rolled onto my feet, clumsily slinging my backpack over one very padded shoulder, and joined the line. 

By the time that I got into the plane, seats were limited, and I could tell by the expressions on several faces that I was the last person they wanted sitting in their row. I guessed I couldn’t blame them; aside from how nuts I looked in my multi-layers, I was probably not smelling as fresh as the proverbial daisy. 

I finally found an empty aisle seat in the back, next to an older lady who beamed at me as I stuffed my bag into the overhead compartment and settled myself alongside her. We exchanged small-talk pleasantries until after takeoff. When the pilot announced that we were at cruising altitude, the woman turned to me with a smile. 

“You said you live in Florida. What do you do for a living?”

I perked up. “I’m a writer. A journalist, actually. I work for a local weekly journal, writing about the leisure opportunities in our community. I had a three-month residency on Amerails, traveling on the train all around the country, and I’m going home now that it’s over.”

“Oh, that sounds like fun. What an adventure to have while you’re still young and . . . unattached?” She took a sip of her complimentary ginger ale. “Do you have a special someone in your life?” She eyed my left hand meaningfully.

“Well . . .” I paused. “I think I do. Actually, I’ve been dating this guy for a year, and right before I left for this residency, he asked me to move in with him. I was shocked, because I never considered us that serious. But now I’m thinking I’d be crazy to turn him down.” 

“Oh.” She folded her hands, her face softening. “Are you just completely in love with him?” 

“Um.” I fiddled with the corner of my napkin on the tray. “He’s really a great guy. He’s got an amazing job at a bank, and he’s smart about money and all that. He’s courteous, he dresses well, and he takes care of himself. He treats me with a lot of kindness and respect.” 

“Hmmm.” She narrowed her eyes. “You didn’t answer my question.” 

I threw up my hands. “What kind of idiot wouldn’t be in love with a man like that? So yeah, I guess I am. I think I’m going to do it, too. My roommate’s boyfriend moved into our apartment while I was gone, and they just boxed up my stuff and stored it at my parents’ house, along with my car.” I nodded decisively. “I’m going to go to my mom and dad’s garage, put all my crap into my car, and move it to Jeremy’s townhouse. That’s the grown-up thing to do.”

“Are you sure about that?” She looked dubious, this stranger on the airplane who was dissecting my life at thirty-nine thousand feet above the earth.

“Yes. No. I think so.” I shrugged. “I don’t have a good reason to say no.”

“That might not be the best reason to say yes,” she observed. “Okay, tell me this. Is he madly in love with you?”

I hesitated again. “Ummm . . . he likes me. He finds my company enjoyable, I think.”

Judgy woman made a sound in her throat. It sounded very skeptical. “Is he anxious for you to be back with him in Florida? Has he been calling you? Texting you?”

I picked up my phone, reminded that Jeremy had never responded to my last message. “That’s just not who he is, you know? He’s not the lovey-dovey type. He’s not physically demonstrative.” 

“Hmmm.” She pursed her lips. “And how are things in the sack?”

I raised my eyebrows. “Excuse me? I don’t think that’s any of your business.” 

She lifted a shoulder. “None of this is when you get down to it, but you brought it up. Or maybe I did, but it doesn’t matter. We’re both in deep now. And let me tell you something, sweetie. If this man doesn’t blow off the top of your head when you’re in bed together now, it’s not going to get any better. Trust me. My first husband and I had amazing chemistry. We couldn’t keep our hands off each other. Now, we were young and stupid, and we ended up getting divorced over something trivial, but the sex never stopped being fantastic.” She sighed. “My second husband was the steady, dependable type, but he couldn’t get me off to save his life.” 

My face, which had already been flushed, thanks to the layers of clothes, went even hotter. “Ummm . . .”

“And then one day, I got smart. I left the dud, went back to husband number one, and told him that if we agreed to have sex every time we wanted to argue, we’d be fine.” She grinned and elbowed me. “That’s been forty-two years and counting.” 

“That’s, uh . . . nice.” I shifted a little. “But I’ve never met anyone like that. Before Jeremy, I never really had any steady boyfriends, just guys I dated a little, here and there. So maybe I’m not the type to get the top of my head blown off.” 

“Honey, we’re all that type. You just haven’t met the right one yet. From what you’re not saying, I assume this Jeremy doesn’t get the job done?” 

“Oh, he never leaves me unsatisfied. I mean, he hasn’t in the three times we’ve, um, done it.” I swallowed and stared straight ahead at the seat in front of me. Nothing like admitting to a seventy-something woman that she had a hotter sex life than I did. 

Three times?” Her eyes went wide. “In a year? Holy cannoli, honey. You need to call this one. Code blue. Run in the opposite direction.” 

I sighed. “But what if I never meet anyone else? What if he’s my one shot?” 

“In that unlikely event, you’d still be better off alone than with a man who you can only tolerate. Trust me, sweetie.” She craned her head back, taking me in. “And look at you. You’re pretty. I mean, under the undeniable crazy of wearing all your clothes at once, which I’ve shown remarkable restraint in not asking about, you’re probably a very nice-looking girl. Do you have a cute little shape?” 

I covered my face with my hands. “I don’t know. I guess. Maybe. I’m not fat when I don’t have eight layers on me. I could have a little more in the boob department, but I think I’ve got a decent ass.” Shaking my head, I rolled my eyes. “And why the hell am I talking to you about this?” 

“Well, why not?” She laughed. “We’re stuck together for three hours in a tin can careening over the earth. We could stick to boring small-talk, which is a waste of time and energy, or we could get to know each other a little better, and maybe part as friends. I take this flight every two or three months when I visit my sister in Winter Haven. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve gotten to know this way. We’re all friends on Facebook.” 

“That’s wonderful.” And it really was. I hoped that in fifty years, I was full of life and making new friends. “I’ve got a couple of people like that in my life. Only we didn’t meet on airplanes.”

“Doesn’t matter how it happens, but it’s always good to have a support system. A man in your life is a wonderful benefit, but a girl still needs her posse, right?” She reached over and patted my leg. I couldn’t feel it through all the leggings, but it was a nice gesture. “Now, I hope when we land, you’ll think long and hard before you make any decision about your future with this young man. Life’s too short to waste it with the wrong person, darling. Take it from me.” 

I nodded. “I’ll definitely take everything you said under consideration. But it’s not easy out there, you know? I dated in college and afterward. It was never serious, just guys I knew through friends or met in classes. But the idea of being back out there, trying to date, makes me feel slightly nauseated.” 

“That could just be all the layers you’re wearing, hon.” She snickered. “I do understand. But trust me. Someday, you’ll look back and regret it if you don’t at least take some time to consider what you could be getting yourself into. Don’t settle for less than the man you absolutely can’t live without.” She drained the plastic cup in front of her and set it on my tray before flipping her own back into position. “Now I’m going to take a little rest. My sister has tickets for us tonight to the all-male revue, and I want to make sure I’m wide awake for that.”

She leaned back then and closed her eyes. I would’ve done the same, but the seven shirts I was wearing made it tough for me to rest my head against the seat. Instead, I laced my fingers together on my lap and considered my seat neighbor’s advice. 

I’d thought I’d made up my mind. Now . . . I wasn’t sure about anything. Hearing myself talk about Jeremy reminded me why my gut reaction had been to tell him no. I tried to picture a future with him, getting married, having children, and growing old together. It made me feel claustrophobic, as though I was going to jump out of my own skin. 

But was I willing to give up a sure thing if the alternative was being alone?

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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.

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“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.”

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The Prayer Book

You might know that my dear friend Olivia Hardin and I have worked together on several projects over the years. We’ve done boxsets, anthologies, promotions, parties . . . but one that is dearest to our hearts is related to our shared faith journey.

A few years ago, we released The Faith Book, a collection of essays on our spiritual journey. This Sunday, just in time for Easter, we’re releasing the follow-up: The Prayer Book.

 

“Prayer is nothing else than being on terms of friendship with God.”

These simple yet poignant words from Saint Teresa of Avila beautifully describe the prayer journey Tawdra and Olivia share in their second collection of essays about spirituality.
Best friends for many years despite over a thousand miles between them, their abiding friendship and devotion to one another were cemented by their shared journeys of faith.
In The Prayer Book, Tawdra and Olivia explore the act of prayer and their personal growth in relationship with their Lord. In each chapter, they discuss the revelations, miracles, and blessings of Christ in their lives as they continue to turn their eyes upwards to Him.

We’re also co-writing a daily devotional that begins on Easter Sunday and runs through Pentecost.

You can access that on Kindle Vella, right here. 

Get Your Copy of The Prayer Book here!

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AND don’t miss The Faith Book

discounted to 99 cents for a limited time!

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