Chapter Reveal/Pre-Order 99 cents/Excerpt

Title: Nick
Series: O’Connor Brothers
Author: A. S. Kelly
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Release Date: August 20, 2019
I’ve never liked lies. I’m an honest guy: I say exactly what I’m thinking without any filter. Without considering the consequences.
That’s why people always think I’m an idiot. Someone who only wants to have fun, who never has any problems.
Someone who never worries about the future.
I’ve made my decision.
I’ve chosen myself and left everything else behind.
But what happens when karma comes back to turn your life upside-down? When you find yourself standing in front of someone who could break down all of your walls?
The only woman capable of looking past the façade, and seeing Nick O’Connor for what he really is: a liar.
Would it make sense to keep lying? And, for the first time in my life, could I live with just being Nick?
It’s a dangerous game, a match to be played.
The last match. My match.
I’m Nick O’Connor, and the whistle’s about to blow: I’m about to face the biggest match of my life. But will I be able to fight until the end? Or will I give in, like I always do?
Because I already know I’m going to lose this challenge. We both will.
Because she deserves everything.
And I have nothing to give.
 

1
Nick

 

I park the car and swing the driver’s door open, throwing myself out into the car park. I slam it shut behind me and sprint towards the entrance, anxiety choking me and excitement exploding through my veins. I stop for a second in front of the automatic doors and take a deep breath, trying to calm myself down before I throw up the entire contents of my stomach all over the entrance. I place one foot inside, ready to face this new challenge, when a huge, muscly mass smacks against my left shoulder.
“Don’t even think about it,” he warns, pulling me aside.
“I got here first.”
“It’s not a race.”
“Looks like it is.”
“No, it’s not, because you’ve already lost.”
I turn to face him, so that we’re chest to chest. “Get out my way.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Oh, come on!” An irritated voice floats in between ours. “Why do you two always have to be like this? All these muscles are blocking off your brains.”
Chris wriggles between us and steps inside first, then turns to look at us from the other side of the sliding door with a satisfied grin.
“I’ll be her favourite aunt anyway,” she says, teasing us both, before jogging down the hospital corridor, her flame-red hair falling in waves down her back.
“You’re both losers.” Evan takes another whack at our pride before he strides past us to follow his mother, his hands shoved into the pockets of his jeans and his hood pulled up over his head.
“No way,” Ryan takes advantage of my confusion to step inside the hospital before me. “She can be the favourite aunt, but I’ll be her favourite uncle,” he states triumphantly, before running off behind them. He frustratedly slips in between Chris and Evan, making Chris laugh, as he wraps his enormous arms around their shoulders and protectively pulls them in towards him.
Is his unlikely, messed-up family not enough for him? Does he really have to take the only joy left in my life?
Like fuck he will.
I’ll be her favourite uncle.

 

~ ~ ~

 

When the four of us get to the waiting room, we’re met by Ian, so anxious he’s almost ready to pass out.
“So?” Chris goes over to him right away. “How’s it going?”
“Good,” he says, rubbing a hand over his face. “At least, for them. I…I feel…”
“Oh shit!” Ryan catches him before he can hit the floor.
“Come on, what’s the big deal?” I say, stupidly. What a dick.
Chris glares at me. “If you don’t have a vagina, you’re not allowed to comment.”
She sits down next to Ian and helps him take a few deep breaths, making him rest his head on his knees.
“Breathe, Ian. It’s just all the excitement,” she says kindly.
“It’s just that you’re a loser,” Evan tells him, winding him up.
This kid is starting to remind me more and more of Ryan. I feel really sorry for Chris having to put up with them both.
“Do you want me to go in with her for a bit while you’re recovering?” Chris asks.
Ian slowly lifts his head. “I can do it.”
That’s good. At least he’s found his balls again.
He gets back up and heads towards Riley’s room, wearing his green hospital gown, as we make ourselves comfortable in the waiting room. Chris sits on Ryan’s knee and he wraps his arms around her waist, leaning his chin on her shoulder; she smiles and rubs her face against his as Evan watches them, shaking his head. He turns to me and mimes vomiting all over the waiting room, and I laugh in response.
Yeah, I know. We could be twins.
He comes over and sits in the empty chair next to me, stretching his legs out in front of him. It won’t be long before they’re longer than mine.
Jesus, this kid – who’s not really a kid anymore – will be able to tear me to pieces pretty soon.
“What d’you reckon, Uncle Loser? Shall we grab a coffee? It’s four in the morning and I’m shattered – I only got home two hours ago. This baby couldn’t have chosen a better time.”
“I’m not Uncle Loser.”
“Sure you are.”
“If anyone’s a loser here, it’s Ryan.”
He lifts his head and looks at me, pretending to be annoyed.
“What’s that about losers? Because I can see three of them right here.” Jamie’s shrill voice makes us all jump. He stands there, hands on hips, with a smile that lights up his entire face. His expression tells us that he has no intention of being second-place.
“So, O’Connor, let’s just clear something up. I’m the only perfect uncle around here.”
Ian suddenly appears among us, his face even whiter than before. I jump to my feet and approach him; he looks at me, but not really. It’s like he’s looking past me, lost, distant, overcome by his own emotions.
“What…? Ian, what?” I ask, anxious.
He shakes his head and rubs his eyes.
“Talk, for fuck’s sake!” I raise my voice, attracting everyone’s attention.
“Nick…it’s…my daughter,” he says, overwhelmed. “Mine.”
I smile and let out a sigh of relief.
“I have a baby, Nick.”
I place a hand on his shoulder and squeeze it affectionately.
“I’ve never seen anything more beautiful.”
The others come over to us, waiting to hear the rest – but Ian can’t do anything but laugh and cry, almost hysterical. I almost slap him to bring him back to his senses, but he’s already been battered enough tonight by his own emotion. So I decide to leave him be – at least, until next time.
Slowly, he calms down, looking around at everyone with bright eyes, pride oozing out of every pore: he gathers up his courage and announces:
“I’m the happiest man in the world.”
And I’m pretty close to tears now, too.

 
2
Nick

 

One by one, we quietly file into Riley’s room. We weren’t all supposed to come in together at this time of night, but luckily we have friends in high places in this hospital – something Ryan is not at all happy about.
Martin, Evan’s dad and Chris’ ex, is warning us not to make any noise, to behave like mature adults.
Seriously? He’s saying that to us?
He clearly hasn’t spent enough time with our family yet.
“Just for five minutes, okay? Don’t make me regret this,” he threatens, with a stare that says I’m a fucking doctor and this is my hospital, so don’t make me look like a dick.
Poor Dr. Dick.
When Riley sees us, she smiles, tired but happy. “You’re all here.”
“Fuck, yeah,” Ryan says, raising his voice. Chris shoots him a glare.
At least he’ll be kicked out first. One less to deal with.
Ian sits down next to Riley and kisses her forehead. Then she turns to us, showing us the tiny little bean wrapped in a pink blanket – I’d be scared to even brush against her with my enormous, clumsy hands. Hopefully Ian’s are more delicate than mine.
“Look, Jamie: this is your family.”
“J-Jamie?” Riley’s brother asks, appearing in the doorway.
“Where the hell were you?”
“I went for a walk and got lost.”
“Lost underneath someone, I imagine…” Ryan taunts.
“Did this really seem like an appropriate time, Jamie?” I chime in, teasing him.
“Mind your own business, O’Connor. We’re talking about something important here,” He turns back to his sister. “So…Jamie?”
She smiles at him. It’s clear to everyone now who her favourite uncle will be.
Fuck him.
“But isn’t Jamie a boy’s name?” Evan asks, making me love him even more. I really need to revaluate his role in this family.
“No, it’s unisex,” Riley explains. “And we couldn’t have chosen a better name for our little girl. The name of the person who made all of this happen.”
“Fuck, are you trying to make me cry?” Jamie whinges.
“Please,” Ryan interjects. “It was bad enough when it was Ian,” he says, gesturing towards his brother.
Ian, sitting next to Riley, is inconsolable. He can’t stop crying, stroking her, looking at his baby daughter as if she were the most precious gift life could give him.
Here he is: my brother, once a hard-arse, and now a snivelling shell of a man. Ryan seems to have joined him now, too, after meeting Chris. I think I’m the only Alpha-male left in this ridiculous story. I just hope it doesn’t turn into a series – keeping up this role for much longer will be draining.
I’m not like them. I don’t pretend to be a bastard, and then melt like an ice lolly as soon as the sun hits. Jesus, no. I’m an adult. I’m mature, tough, good-looking – at least that will never go away – emotionless, a bit of a dickhead. Not even the best of therapists would be able to analyse me.
I’m Nick O’Connor. I’m the eldest, the strongest. I’m the one nothing can break down.
Yeah, right.
I look at Ian, then look at his girlfriend and his daughter; their fingers are intertwined, their smiles filled with love and hope. Life is teeming around them, giving back everything it took from them. And I feel something break inside me: a quickly-growing crack spreading across my chest. It makes no noise, no one can hear it – but, inside me, the rumble is deafening.
I rub my eyes. I can feel something niggling at me, maybe a fly or some dust – fuck, they should really keep a closer eye on the hygiene in this hospital – but nothing can stop the burning. I rub at them roughly with the sleeve of my hoodie, but it only makes it worse. The tears come gushing out anyway and I can’t do anything about it; I can’t even remember the last time this happened to me. And they’re tears of joy, because my brother has just had a baby, because I’ve become an uncle, because our family is growing. I’m so happy that a sob escapes my lips, and I can’t do anything to stifle it.
Everyone turns to me.
“Well, what do we have here?”
Riley smiles at me and passes me the baby. “Go on, Jamie. This is Uncle Nick.”
“Why does he get to go first?” Ryan whines.
“Because I’m the oldest,” I retort, gently taking this new life in my arms and suddenly feeling myself fill up with love, with gratitude. With hope.
“Hey, little Jamie,” I say, even though I know full well that she can’t understand me. But you never know – better to make things clear. “I’m the best-looking uncle, the one who will take you shopping to buy anything you want. I’ll teach you how to kick guys in the balls, and buy you beer when your mum and dad aren’t around—”
“Hey…” Ian scolds.
“But I’ll also be the one you can always count on, because look: your dad and all these other uncles here are useless.”
“Oh my God, Nick!” Ryan’s angry now.
I lightly kiss her forehead and stand there, looking at her, overjoyed. “Jamie, you’ll be the only girl in my life, I swear.”
“We all knew that.” Ryan ruins this magical moment with my niece, just as he’s ruined pretty much every moment of my life.
“Come on, come to Uncle Ryan,” he says, delicately taking her from my arms.
“You alright with her, mate?” Evan asks him.
“Fuck off! What’s your problem?” Ryan retorts.
“Guys, you really need to start watching your language. Seriously,” Riley warns.
“But she’s only just been born, she doesn’t understand yet,” Ryan responds.
“Sure, but it’ll be a long road to recovery for you guys,” Riley adds, making me laugh. She’s right. It’ll be almost impossible.
“So, little Jamie,” Ryan says to the baby. “Apart from your questionable name…”
“You’re just jealous,” Jamie cuts in.
“…you’re…you’re…” He takes a deep breath, then look at Ian. “Holy shit, Ian,” he says, relaxing.
Everyone laughs, resigned to the fact that this little girl is going to grow up surrounded by an ocean of ‘holy shits’. 
“Yeah, Ryan,” Ian nods. “Holy shit.”
 
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Chapter Reveal

He said it would only hurt a little …

On her sixteenth birthday, Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel. On my twenty-second, I pricked mine on the needle of a tattoo machine wielded by a beautifully complicated man who would go on to become my ruin.

Madden Ransom was everything I was never allowed to be: unfeeling, opinionated, rebellious … free.

He was also everything I was never allowed to be with.

And while Sleeping Beauty fell into a peaceful slumber as she awaited true love’s kiss, I fell into something else entirely—my heart in the hands of a man who’d never given nor received anything remotely like love.

It turns out when Madden told me it would only hurt a little … he didn’t mean the tattoo.

Brighton
“I can’t help but notice you don’t have any tattoos.” At least none that I can see beyond his white tank top and ripped jeans. I scan the smooth, tanned arms and the arch of his muscled shoulders as he concentrates on my bare flesh. “Why is that? If you don’t mind my asking?”
“I’m going to need you to stop shaking.” The raven-haired man with bronze skin ignores my questions and quiets the buzz of his tattoo machine. He forces a hard breath through his nostrils like he doesn’t have time for this, resting his forearms on the tops of his thighs as he studies me. “You want this to be crooked?”
“It’s a little chilly in here.” And I might be the tiniest bit anxious. If I could stop myself from shaking, believe me, I’d have done it by now.
A cool draft of air from the AC kisses the bare skin of my exposed abdomen, and a rush of goose bumps spray across my flesh.
His full lips press together as he studies the custom drawing he sketched and stenciled on me a little while ago, and I can’t help but wonder if he always looks this serious. I figured the owner of a tattoo parlor would be more on the laidback side, but Madden Ransom hasn’t so much as smiled since I got here, and every time our eyes meet—little bursts at a time here and there—there’s a kind of heaviness in his stare that I’ve never seen on anyone else before.
“A lot of people come in here saying they don’t have a thing about needles, and then as soon I get started—”
“—I don’t have a thing about needles.” I clear my throat, my fingertips tucked under the hem of my shirt, which is lifted just enough to cover the lowermost part of my bra. “I’m pre-med actually.”
I offer a nervous chuckle and, in this moment, I detest how much I sound like my mother, casually and nonchalantly working humble brags into conversations. Only despite the way it might seem, I’m not bragging, I’m simply trying to prove a point.
“Good for you.” He doesn’t look up, doesn’t seem to care in the slightest. His needle returns to my skin, the buzz filling my ear, and my body tenses. “The pain okay?” His voice is monotone, disingenuous. I suppose if a person does this job long enough, their sympathy eventually wears off. “You need a break?”
Madden stops.
“No … keep going.” Dragging in a hard breath, I let it linger in my chest as I brace myself against the hard bed beneath me.
He readjusts his black latex gloves before switching the machine on again. And that’s what it’s called—a machine. According to the research I did before coming here, tattooists hate when you call it a “gun.” I wanted to make sure I knew the vernacular before I wandered in here like a lost child off the street (or an overprotected, naive, Park Terrace princess who’s rarely allowed to venture outside her castle).
“So, why don’t you have any tattoos?” Once more I ask the question that’s been bothering me since I walked through the doors of Madd Inkk a half hour ago. A ribbed tank top made of bleached cotton hugs his sinewy torso, and I couldn’t help but notice when he took me back to his station that there wasn’t so much as a hint of ink on his perfect skin.
The man at the next station over gives a puff of a laugh, his full chest rising as he shakes his head.
“Madd’s got commitment issues for days,” he says, turning his crystalline blue focus back to his client and filling in a geometric pattern with ink the color of midnight.
The sturdy-shouldered man in his chair doesn’t so much as flinch as the needle pricks his skin. He just keeps scrolling his thumb along his phone like it doesn’t feel like a thousand tiny kittens are scratching his flesh.
“Can’t commit to a woman, a car, or a tat,” the artist adds.
“Fuck off, Pierce.” Madden returns a gloved hand to my ribcage and starts the machine once more. A moment later, the needle peppers tiny specks of ink into my skin. Every so often, he wipes the area clean and starts again. “About half done.”
He said it would only hurt a little, and that it wouldn’t take long, but the past eight minutes have all but dripped by, like morphine into saline, tiny drop by tiny drop.
“Seriously though, why don’t you have any?” I ask.
I’m not letting this go because it’s a valid question given his profession as both an artist and the sole proprietor of this shop.
Plus, I’m curious.
And I need a distraction to get me through the rest of this. The front of the shop is covered in wall to wall “flash.” Drawings and renderings. Hundreds if not thousands of them. Back here the walls are less interesting. There are certificates. State licenses. A few framed photos. And a privacy curtain.
I don’t expect some lengthy, personal response. I’ve spent maybe a half hour with this man and he’s said all of fifty words to me. A simple answer would suffice.
The needle drags against my ribcage and his mouth flattens into a hard line. “Guess I haven’t found the right one yet.”
I don’t buy it. And I’m pretty sure he’s giving me an answer just to shut me up, but it’s not like I can call him a liar. I don’t even know him.
“It’s ink, bro. Not a woman.” The artist at the next chair—Pierce—says without so much as glancing in our direction.
“No fucking shit, bro,” Madden snaps back at him, and I can’t tell if he’s joking or not. His expression hasn’t changed since the moment I first laid eyes on him.
I lift my gaze to a hand-written sign across the room, hanging behind the cash register.
NO TRIBALS
NO CHINESE SYMBOLS
NO INFINITY SYMBOLS
NO TRAMP STAMPS
The distractingly pretty, lavender-haired girl working the front snaps her gum as she hunches over the glass counter, her face colored with boredom as she thumbs through her phone. The shop isn’t as busy as I thought it would be, but then again, it’s the middle of the day on a Wednesday. It’s not exactly peak hours around here.
“I think you’re going to like this.” He wipes a damp rag across my stinging flesh, his inky brown eyes resting on his work. Madden sniffs, though it isn’t quite a laugh. “Shit. You better. It’s forever.”
He looked at me sideways when I told him I wanted him to choose the design. I didn’t come prepared. I didn’t bring screenshots or Pinterest pins or any other kind of inspiration. To be perfectly honest, this isn’t about the tattoo so much as it is about getting the tattoo.
“I trust you,” I told him as his dark brows knitted together, and then I added, “I just want it somewhere hidden.”
A moment later, I was handed a clipboard and a small stack of forms to complete, trying my hardest to steady my breathing as he prepped his station.
When he brought me back, Madden suggested the side of my ribcage, in an area easily hidden by bras and bikini tops, and he didn’t once ask me why I’d take the time to have this done if I wasn’t going to show it to anyone. His one and only caveat was that I never ask him what it means.
Ever.
He was adamant.
“Not even on your deathbed,” he said. One of his colleagues overheard him and called him a “heartless bastard,” offering a laugh that was more amusement than anything else, and for a split moment, I felt like the butt of some inside joke.
And then I wondered if he was gaslighting me. I know what people see when they look at me.
Privileged.
Naive.
Innocent.
Gullible.
Easily had.
“Still doing all right?” he asks, not glancing up.
I nod even if he isn’t looking at me right now. “Yes.”
The muscles of his forearm flex as his left palm splays across my skin. A moment later, our fingers brush when he pushes the fallen hem of my top out of the way.
In the strangest way, this feels like a dream.
The icy-cold air on my bare flesh …
The sterile scent of alcohol wipes and powdered gloves …
The vibrating sting of the needle against my skin …
The heavy metal playing on speakers in the back …
The shaved heads, “sleeved” arms, Harleys parked out front, and the girls in half-shirts and mini-skirts all work together to form an ambience foreign to any I’ve ever known …
I try not to stare too much, but this must be what Alice felt like when she first arrived in Wonderland.
“There.” Madden shuts off the machine when he’s finished, and then he cleans the tattoo one more time before dabbing on a finger-sized scoop of ointment.
“Can I see it first?” I ask when he reaches for a bandage.
He stops, turning to face me, his shoulders slumping like I’m asking the world of him. “Right. Go ahead.”
Sitting up, I contort myself until I can almost see the beginning of a black and blue outline against warm pink skin.
“Here.” Madden shoves a handheld mirror toward me.
It’s a butterfly. Small. Not much bigger than a silver dollar. Brilliant blue with black veining.
“You done now? We good?”
I place the mirror aside and let him patch me up. Tattoos are flesh wounds, I know that. And I’ve already read up on the aftercare. I say nothing as he hands me a set of instructions printed on yellow paper.
Madden cleans up his station before yanking off his gloves and tossing them in the trash. “Missy will check you out up front.”
“Oh.” I’m not sure why I expected him to walk me up. He’s not a hairstylist or aesthetician. People don’t come here because of the service.
Sliding off the client bed, I tug my shirt into place and locate my bag. My skin throbs from beneath the bandage, but it’s tolerable and not as bad as I expected.
“Thank you,” I say, turning to him before I make my way to the front. My gaze falls to his right hand for some reason—as if my subconscious was expecting a freaking handshake—and he definitely notices.
Awkward.
I can’t get out of there fast enough, and as I trot to the front in my pink Chanel flats, I’m not sure if all eyes are actually on me or if I’m imagining it. I’m sure to them, I’m an alien—a strange sight. I even heard one of them say, “They don’t make ‘em like that in Olwine,” when I first arrived.
If they only knew how much I’d rather be like them than like … me.
I envy their freedom more than they could ever know.
As soon as I pay—$150 cash plus a twenty-five percent tip—I step lightly toward the door and eye my little white Volvo parked on the corner, but the closer I get, the more I realize something looks … off.
“Oh, my God.” I clap my hand over my mouth when I see it—the boot. “No. No, no, no.”
A sign a few feet back says: NO PARKING 4-6 PM MONDAY THROUGH FRIDAY, and I check the time on my phone.
4:07 PM.
“Seriously?” I talk under my breath, a habit my mother detests. But if she knew I drove to Olwine today to get a tattoo, she’d detest that even more.
I grab the ticket off the window and dial the number on back, which goes to voicemail after a few rings.
Great.
Taking a seat on the curb, I hold the ticket in one hand and my phone in the other and try, try again.
And again.
And again.
I just need the jerk who did this to take it off so I can get home before my mother marches down to the police station and tries to file a Missing Persons’ report—which she’s done before when I was forty minutes late coming home from the library once.
True story.
“You, uh, need help?”
Following the sound of a man’s voice, I twist around and shield my eyes from the afternoon sun.
Madden.
Rising, I tug my shirt into place and exhale. “Seven minutes past and they put a boot on my car.”
“Probably just did it to be a dick.” He almost smiles. Almost. It’s more of a smirk.
“Really?”
“Probably thought you were some yuppie, suburban soccer mom with that Volvo.”
I wish I could tell him that I didn’t choose that car, that I didn’t even want it, but my parents insisted because they wanted the safest, most reliable car they could find for their “precious cargo.”
Digging into his pocket, he retrieves his phone and thumbs through his contacts. A moment later, he lifts it to his ear and paces a few steps away. The sound of traffic and revving motorcycles drowns out his words, but when he returns, he slides his phone away and rests his hands on his hips, studying me.
“He’s on his way,” Madden says.
“Who’s on their way?”
“Dusty. Works for the city. You’re lucky he owes me a huge fucking favor.” His gaze grazes over my shoulder before returning. “You can wait inside if you want.”
“Thank you,” I say, taking careful measures not to look at his hand this time. “I really appreciate this. This has never happened before. I don’t know what I’d have done if—”
Madden gives a nod before strutting off while I’m still mid-sentence, almost like a silent way of telling me to shut it.
No one’s ever done that to me—walked away while I was speaking to them.
I watch him stride down the block, stopping next to a black muscle car with two white racing stripes—I think my brother had a model of something like that many years ago—and when he climbs inside, I catch him glancing at me for a single fleeting second.
Fumbling with my keys, I get into my own car and crank the air. It was kind of him—at least I think he was being kind—to offer for me to hang out and wait in his shop, but I think I’m going to ride out the storm in my own little UFO, counting down the minutes until I’m en route to my home planet of Park Terrace.
I kill some time on my phone and pretend not to notice when Madden drives by, his engine rumbling with the kind of contradictory unruffled intensity that almost matches his personality perfectly.
Twenty-six minutes later, a white-and-yellow City of Olwine truck pulls up behind me and a little gold light on its roof begins to flash. A minute later, a man in a gray uniform steps out, grabbing an oversized wrench of some kind from the back and waddling toward me.
I roll my window down. “Thanks for coming. I tried calling the number on the ticket, but I couldn’t reach anyone.”
Dusty, as the name on his shirt reads, doesn’t look up from what he’s doing, crouched next to the front tire on my side.
“You’re lucky you’re friends with Ransom,” he says when he stands, his face red and his breaths shallow. The wrench hangs in one hand, the boot in the other.
Free at last.
“Ransom?” I ask before remembering that it’s Madden’s last name.
“Madden,” he says. “I was on break. You’re lucky I answered for the bastard.”
An elaborate “piece” runs down his left arm, intricate and filled with bold greens and reds and purples, and barely hidden by the cuffed, long-sleeved button down the city forces him to wear even in June.
“Oh. Right. He was just helping me out. We’re not actually friends.”
Dusty snorts, his squinting eyes scanning the length of my car. “Yeah. Of course you’re not.”
“I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Right.” He begins to walk away.
Climbing out of the car, I yell for him to wait. “Do I need to pay the ticket?”
He hoists the wrench in the back of his truck, the metal hitting metal with a hard clunk, and then he waves his hand.
“So is that a ‘no’?” I ask, just to be sure.
Dusty gives me a thumb’s up before squeezing back into his truck.
I swear, it’s like I don’t even speak the language here.
The tattoo hidden beneath layers of bandages begins to throb just enough to grab my attention, and I return to my idling five-star-safety-rated princess carriage. Pressing the “home” button on my GPS, I head back to Park Terrace, back to Charles and Temple Karrington’s castle-like manse complete with iron gates, a staff of seven, and a million security cameras.
You can make a prison beautiful but at the end of the day, that doesn’t make it any less of a prison.
But I’m making plans to break out.
And this tattoo? It’s only the beginning.

Wall Street Journal and #1 Amazon bestselling author Winter Renshaw is a bona fide daydream believer. She lives somewhere in the middle of the USA and can rarely be seen without her trusty Mead notebook and ultra portable laptop. When she’s not writing, she’s living the American dream with her husband, three kids, and the laziest puggle this side of the Mississippi.And if you’d like to be the first to know when a new book is coming out, please sign up for her private mailing list here —> http://eepurl.com/bfQU2j

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Chapter Reveal

 

 

 

 

 

 

She wanted happily ever after.
He thought he had it.

Underneath the perfect exterior of Calista Bennett’s marriage lay an ugly truth that threatens to drown her when she is betrayed.

Across town, Nickolas Mikos isn’t doing much better after his life is plunged into his new reality by his wife’s lies.

Life can change in the blink of an eye. Can Cali and Nick comfort each other’s raw pain enough to allow for a second chance at happiness, or will their fears and anger prevent them from uncovering the blessing in the betrayal?

 

I’m sorry, Cali. I know it isn’t what you wanted to hear, but the test was negative.”
Her hopeful apprehension morphed to dread. “Are you sure? Should we do another?”
Dr. Galloway smiled indulgently. “That won’t be necessary. The tests are very reliable. I’m sure you took one at home as well, didn’t you?”
“Yes.” Her dejected reply was barely a whisper.
“Then you already know taking it again would just be a waste.” The OBGYN doctor wheeled his rolling stool closer to the exam table to pat Cali’s knee in a fatherly way. “I know you and your husband are anxious to get your family started, but you’re only twenty-four. You have plenty of time. We have a lot of options we haven’t tried yet.”
Cali struggled to hold back her tears. How could she tell her kind doctor how important it was for her to get pregnant?
“I think it’s time for us to do testing on your husband. Since we haven’t found any smoking gun on your side of the equation, it’s time to take a look at Mr. Bennett’s sperm count and mobility. That will help me decide our next steps.”
“I don’t know about that, Dr. Galloway. Kevin is so busy with his job. He joined his father’s law firm last year and is working crazy hours. I doubt he can come in for an appointment.” Cali didn’t know how to tell the good doctor her husband had made it very clear giving him an heir was her responsibility, and the only help he planned contributing to the process was a ‘daily hard fuck.’ The array of bruises scattered across her body were proof he was living up to his hard promise.
Calista trembled as she realized her temporary veil of protection had fallen with the negative test result. Kevin was gentler with her during the weeks of the month she might be in the process of forming a fragile new life. For the last year, each month the results were negative, he not only deemed it his responsibility to punish her for failing him yet again, but he then proceeded to make up for lost time. The next two weeks of her life were going to be hell.
No. She couldn’t tell the kind doctor that.
“What would he have to do?”
“Us men have it pretty easy, to be honest,” the doctor grinned wolfishly. “You poor women get poked and prodded with all kinds of needles and drugs. Your husband just needs to come in and give us a deposit of his sperm. He’ll have a private room and will be able to bring along reading or viewing material he might need to help. All in all, the men have it pretty good in this deal.”
How right he was. “Okay, I’ll talk to him about it.”
“Sounds good. Keep your chin up. We’ve done a lot of tests, and I see no reason why you can’t get pregnant. It’s gonna happen when the time is right and not a minute before.”
“Thanks again, doctor.” She forced a smile to hide her growing sense of dread. “I’ll see you next time.”
As Calista redressed, she said a small prayer that Kevin would be in a good mood when he got home today. He’d been out of town on business the last two days. Since passing the bar exam, he’d been working eighty hours a week or more, and in truth, he was gone so much, it made her life less stressful most of the time. Unfortunately, he still checked in at home often enough to dump his dirty laundry and contribute his duty to operation ‘give me an heir.’
Sitting at a stop light on the drive home, Cali once again questioned why she stayed with her husband. He’d changed so much since they got married almost two years before. He had always been dominant… demanding. The problem was he’d begun to take the definition of dominant to a whole new level. Cali used to think of herself as a submissive. Lately, she felt more like a well-worn doormat.

Cali was just doing a final check of her makeup in the large vanity mirror when she heard the garage door opening one floor below. She had taken extra care in her preparations for tonight’s Bennett, Bennett, and Moore post-holiday party. She knew how important it was to her husband.
She may not have understood why Kevin had singled her out when they’d met during her senior year at the University of Virginia, but she certainly knew now. Cali had been flattered when the president of the university’s most prominent law organization had set his sights on her. As a final year law student, he’d been charming, sweeping her off her feet with gifts, assurances of love, and romantic gestures.
Now, a few years later, she knew what a mistake she had made believing a single word he’d said. He had made it abundantly clear after she had said her ‘I dos,’ she was his showpiece. His grandfather and father were managing partners in one of Washington D.C.’s most prestigious law firms, specializing in international tax law. The fact Kevin had the last name Bennett had assured her husband a top spot at the large firm straight out of law school. It also meant she was married to a man who had unlimited resources to make her life a living hell should she try to leave him. She ought to know. She had tried. Just once, a year ago. She’d learned first-hand as ugly as it was being married to him, trying to leave him was worse.
Cali had been lost in thought, missing his arrival in their master suite. She caught his reflection in the mirror as he stood in the doorway. Her stomach churned at the sight of his predatory glare that reminded her of a hunter, about to pounce on his prey.
“You’re as gorgeous as ever, my dear. I see you took my advice and wore red.” His words may have been complimentary, but they didn’t distract Cali from the danger just under the surface of his handsome exterior. He had proven his mood could change on a dime.
“Of course, I wore red. I didn’t think it was a suggestion, rather an order.”
“Of course, it was an order.” He took deliberate steps closer, never taking his eyes from her reflection. “But an obedient wife wouldn’t be so crass as to point out that distinction. I keep warning you, Calista. You’re being groomed. You’re not going to hear other partner’s wives talking in that tone tonight. You’d do well to watch and learn, my dear.”
He had stepped up behind her as she sat at the make-up mirror, resting his manicured hands on her bare shoulders. His touch was deceptively gentle. She never forgot how hard those hands could turn when he was angered which was why she had made it her new life’s mission to keep him as happy as possible. Just like a good little wife.
“Yes, sir. I’ll remember that.”
“You do that. What a shame. It looks like you’re almost ready. I had hoped to fit in a little exercise before we left for the party.”
She hated to exercise with her husband. It was his code word for delivering her ‘daily hard fuck.’ She had hoped he would delay at least until after the party if she was already dressed.
“I wanted to be ready when you got home. I know how much you hate to be late.”
“How thoughtful of you.” His steely blue eyes were cooling. “And here I was thinking it was because you didn’t want to tell me the results of your appointment this afternoon.”
Cali’s heart was thundering so hard, she felt the pounding in her ears. She froze with panic, made worse as Kevin’s hands slid from her shoulders to circle her throat, slowly constricting until she had to fight for her next breath. She pushed against the marble countertop in a feeble attempt to free herself from his grip, but he pressed her forward, making her thrashing futile. Her husband cut off her airflow until she began to see stars, finally releasing her while leaning down to whisper menacingly into her ear.
“You’re such a disappointment to me, Calista.”
Cali gasped, filling her lungs with precious air, hating the tears streaming down her cheeks from the exertion. Trails of dark mascara marred the reflection of the beautiful woman with long black hair staring back at her from the mirror.
“I only ask one thing of you.” His quiet rage was simmering hotter. “I plucked you out of poverty and gave you the life of a princess. Yet you insist on keeping that ridiculous job teaching other people’s children when what you should be focused on is providing me with the child I need to fulfill the requirements in my grandfather’s will. He hasn’t been well, and I’m going to hold you responsible if the old man kicks it before I have time to claim my share of the pie with an heir.”
Fear helped her fight down the urge to remind him she was trying to create a baby, not an heir. “I was disappointed too, Kevin. I was late this month, and I really did think we had a chance.” Cali should have stopped there. “Dr. Galloway wants you to make an appointment to come in to be tested as well. He needs your test results to decide what the next course of action should be.”
Cali knew immediately she had made a grave error. Kevin’s blue eyes had turned to ice, venom flowing from them.
“How dare you blame me for this, you bitch? You have one fucking job in this marriage, and when you can’t get it done, you decide to put the blame on me?”
“No… that’s not… I mean it’s just…” Her voice quavered. “It’s a formality, that’s all. The doctor does this with all couples who have problems conceiving.”
He wasn’t placated. “Like I have time to go in to be poked and prodded. I’ll be damned if I’m going to turn into a pin cushion because you can’t do your job.”
She wanted to scream that everyone knew it took two to create a child, but she wisely kept that retort to herself.
“He promised you wouldn’t be poked or prodded. It’s easy for the men. You’ll just need to give a sperm sample.”
“Ah, is that all? I just need to go jack off behind some lame curtain like a lab rat? Well, no thanks. I provide sperm samples each and every day I fuck you. In fact, I missed a day yesterday. I think you need a reminder of exactly how frequently I have provided sperm samples in this marriage.”
She should have been prepared, but she hadn’t expected things to escalate so quickly. Kevin gripped her biceps in a vice grip and yanked her to her feet just long enough to smash her body forward. She was sprawled across the marble countertop, her forehead smashed against the oversized mirror. Cali squeezed her eyes closed, trying to shut out the vision of her husband’s icy eyes as she felt him flipping the skirt of her dress over her back just before he ripped the lacy underwear from her body. He insisted she wear stockings and garter belts with skirts, so she was now bare.
It only took him a few seconds to fumble with his zipper before she felt his hard erection spring free. It was inside her in one hard thrust. She was grateful she’d been careful to lube both her pussy and ass thoroughly after her shower. She had learned the hard way to make sure her body was prepared at a moment’s notice to take Kevin’s punishing cock.
She tried so hard to hold back the scream but failed miserably. His responding chuckle reminded her she was married to a sadist.
As he set a fast pace, Cali’s fight turned internal. As much as her brain hated what he did to her and how he made her feel, there was no denying her body betrayed her time and again. Kevin liked to use the natural lubrication flowing copiously from her body as proof she actually liked to be treated like his punching bag. Cali may have started to hate her husband, but she hated her own body more.
He fucked her like a machine, pistoning her to her first humiliating climax. She lay limp across the counter, receiving all he gave her, his ridiculing laughter only raising her humiliation. She was too lost in her orgasmic fog to recognize the few second intermission in the action. The piercing pain of his cock shoved balls-deep in her lubed rectum consumed her. She barely made out his grunting words.
“Lucky you lubed yourself. This would have hurt like a bitch if you’d forgotten.”
Cali lay boneless, receiving her hard fuck of the day, knowing it was unfortunately early enough there was a good chance he might go for round two when they got home from the party. She had learned the trick to surviving this particular exercise was to relax into it. Her husband had grabbed her hips, gripping her hard enough, she was sure he was leaving fresh bruises over the faded ones from past exercise sessions.
They were in a race. Her body was beginning to betray her again. She couldn’t fight him, but she went to work, waging war against herself, trying desperately to hold back her orgasm, not wanting to give him the satisfaction of dragging it from her.
He didn’t play fair. He leaned down and pressed his chest to her back. She wasn’t fooled into thinking he wanted the added intimacy of their sweaty skin caressing each other. No. He only did this so he could reach her clit with his left hand. He wasn’t trying to bring her satisfaction, rather humiliation as her body exploded into another strong climax. He joined her a minute later, collapsing on her, almost cutting off her breath again. He added salt to her wounds as she lay recovering.
“That’s the only good thing about you not being pregnant. We have a few weeks before I need to start making deposits in your pussy again. I do love taking this ass of yours. It’s nice and tight, just the way I like it.” He pulled out as abruptly as he had inserted, slapping her ass with his open palm while stepping away from her. “I’m gonna take a shower. Put yourself back together. We’ll leave in thirty minutes.”
He didn’t wait for her answer. He didn’t need to. He knew she was too afraid to do anything but what he asked.

 

 

USA Today bestselling author Livia Grant lives in Chicago with her husband and furry rescue dog named Max. She is fortunate to have been able to travel extensively and as much as she loves to visit places around the globe, the Midwest and its changing seasons will always be home. Livia’s readers appreciate her riveting stories filled with deep, character driven plots, often spiced with elements of BDSM.
 

 

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Chapter Reveal, The Wilderness, Lavender Shores Book 8 by Rosalind Abel

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Will Epstein had it all—playboy good looks, wealth and prestige, and a gorgeous fiancé to costar with him on a reality television show. But that was years ago, before he was abandoned at the altar on national television. In the aftermath, Will’s world completely crumbled, leaving him humiliated, alone and lost.

Andre Rivera married his first love and lived a dream life until tragedy stepped in. His wife’s sudden death left him devastated and struggling to build a life for his young daughter. Being a pilot offers Andre a sense of freedom from Lavender Shores, but he feels trapped in his grief and unable to move forward.

A shared sense of loss fosters a surprising friendship between Will and Andre, giving them both the salvation they need. But when feelings cross the lines of friendship and secrets are revealed, Will and Andre have to confront their own fears.

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Rosalind Abel grew up tending chickens alongside her sweet and faithful Chow, Lord Elgin. While her fantasy of writing novels was born during her teen years, she never would have dreamed she’d one day publish steamy romances about gorgeous men. However, sometimes life turns out better than planned.

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