Can Cole out-stubborn the most stubborn woman in the world? He’s going to try

Ellery does not have time for a man. Not when she’s too busy being a workaholic. But when Cole shows up at her bed & breakfast with his sexy voice and dimple, she can’t resist. What harm can one night do?

When her one night of fun has lasting consequences of the baby variety, she figures she’ll give it a go on her own. Cole disagrees. He’s all in to claim this baby and its mom. He just has to out-stubborn her first. No worries. Ellery might be the most stubborn woman in the world, but Cole is the most determined man.

Ready to read if Cole can convince Ellery to give him a chance?

Need some more convincing? No worries. Read the first chapter of Just For Forever below.

Chapter 1

Hard work never killed anyone, but why take the chance?

Four months ago

“Excuse me.”  

At the sound of a man’s husky voice, I halt rummaging through the cleaning supplies. Holy hot flashes. A man’s voice should not be sexy enough on its own to cause a shiver to run down my spine, but that’s exactly what’s happening.

I need to see the face that matches the voice. Since I’m on my knees with my butt sticking out of the supply closet, I stand and whirl around at the same time. Unfortunately, I forgot I was holding onto a box of cleaning supplies and Mr. Sexy Voice is standing directly behind me. The box collides with his body, and I lose my hold on it causing it to drop to the floor and the contents to fly out and scatter through the hallway.

“Shit,” I mutter as I drop to my knees to gather the supplies.

“Let me help.” He offers.

I look up to tell him not to worry about it and – whack! – our heads collide since he’s already leaning over. I fall back on my bottom and place a hand on my head. Ow.

“I wasn’t looking forward to my trip to a small town, but I didn’t expect to get injured the second I arrive.”

I scowl up at him – small towns are awesome, especially if the small town is Winter Falls – but the scowl freezes on my face when I get my first look at him. Yowzah! Talk about a stone cold fox. His dark hair is styled to appear as if he just rolled out of bed – making me itch to run my fingers through it and mess up all the careful styling – while his deep, blue eyes sparkle with humor as he watches me check him out. And then there’s his jaw. Square jaws are like catnip to me. I want to caress his jaw while I kiss him.

He chuckles and I remember where I am – sitting on my ass in the hallway at my bed and breakfast. What is wrong with me? I’m not usually klutzy Karen, and I do NOT check out guests. I mentally slap myself upside the head. Get yourself together, woman. No drooling over a strange man no matter how sexy his voice is.

I ignore his hand offering to help me up and stand on my own. When I reach my full height of a whopping five-feet-two, I realize this man is not only gorgeous but tall. Probably around six-foot. I would fit perfectly snuggled under his shoulder. So much for not drooling over strange men.  

I shut the supply closet door behind me and walk around the reception desk. “Checking in?”

“Won’t your boss get mad at you for checking me in? Maybe you should call him.”

Him? I briefly close my eyes to stop myself from rolling them. Rolling eyes at guests is bad, even when they are being presumptuous.

“It’s fine. She won’t mind.” I make sure to emphasize the she as I wiggle the mouse to wake up the computer and type in my password. “Do you have a reservation?”

He doesn’t respond and I gaze up at him to discover him staring at me. I know I don’t look my best. Rushing around trying to clean all the rooms in the inn after getting up early to prepare breakfast doesn’t exactly equal a fresh and clean appearance. My face is probably red and shiny, and I don’t want to think about how my hair looks.

“Do you have a reservation?” I repeat my question.

He finally snaps out of his silence and nods. “Yes. It’s under Cole Hawkins.”

Dang. A sexy name for a sexy man.

“Are you positive your boss—”

“Here, it is,” I say and cut him off.

I should probably tell him I’m the owner and operator of the Inn on Main at this point, but it’ll be more fun to let him figure it out on his own. And I could use some fun.

“You’ll be staying with us for two weeks?”

“Yes.”

“I’ve put you in the executive suite on the top floor. You won’t …” My words trail off as the Chief of Police stalks into the building.

“Chief Alston.” My voice sounds friendly, but there’s a frown on my face. I always assumed Lyric would become my brother-in-law since my older sister, Aspen, has been in love with him forever, but the two broke up a decade ago and my sister’s been heartbroken ever since.

Being a witness to Lyric moving on with his life and dating other women has been painful, especially since my sister avoids coming home because she’s afraid to see him with another woman. She’ll deny it, but I know it’s true.

He nods to me in greeting before focusing his attention on my guest. “Are you the owner of the Jeep Grand Cherokee?”

Uh oh. Someone’s in trouble.

Cole’s eyebrows pinch together. “I am. Is there a problem? Don’t tell me someone ran into my car. It’s brand new.”

I giggle. Who exactly would have run into his car? The transportation method of choice in Winter Falls is a golf cart. Although I suppose a golf cart could cause some damage to a Jeep. My baby sister, Ashlyn, managed to scratch the heck out of a police car when she lost control of a golf cart while racing down the street when she was in high school.

Lyric places his hands on his hips and glares at Cole. “Did you receive dispensation to drive the car into Winter Falls?”

“Dispensation? What are you talking about?”

Winter Falls’ claim to fame is being the first carbon neutral town in the world. As such, we have a bunch of rules and regulations about energy use including driving cars in town.

Lyric switches his glare to me. “Aren’t guests informed of the rules regarding gas-guzzling vehicles when they book a room at the inn?”

Cole stands in front of me. “Hey! Don’t give her a hard time. She’s merely a cleaner here.”

Lyric cocks his eyebrow. I know he’s wondering why I haven’t corrected Cole’s misconceptions, but I don’t answer to him. It’s none of his business I’m giving Cole a lesson in how to treat people. It’s also none of his business how I practically melted at Cole’s protective stance.

“You need a dispensation to drive a gas engine vehicle in Winter Falls,” Lyric explains to Cole when I don’t speak.

Cole scratches his neck. “I do? How do visitors arrive if not by car? Is there a bus or railroad station?”

He’s got a point. As much as Winter Falls likes to pretend it’s an island, it’s not. There aren’t exactly islands the size of this town in the middle of the Colorado foothills.

No matter how much food we produce locally, there are tons of necessities we can’t produce such as toilet paper. Trust me, toilet paper is a necessity. I am done trying to teach the world how to use a bidet. It’s officially no longer my fight. Toilet paper is a must have and it needs to reach Winter Falls somehow.

But why is Lyric being such an ass? Normally, he doesn’t show up at the inn to harass guests about the vehicles they used to arrive in town with. As long as the vehicle remains parked behind the inn for the duration of their stay, it’s fine. But he’s got a bug up his ass today.

And I think I know why. “You saw Aspen.” It’s not a question.

He frowns. “Did you know she was coming back to town?”

Of course, I knew. Her bookstore and apartment in Dallas burned down a few days ago. Where else was she going to go? But we agreed to keep her return secret because my big sister asked us to. Keeping a secret in this town is akin to a miracle, but we managed.

“Why don’t I get you a cup of coffee and a cookie?” I round the desk and walk to the small refreshment station in the lobby before he has a chance to answer.

I prepare a cup of coffee for him and place a cookie on a plate.

“I don’t—”

I don’t let Lyric finish whatever denial he was planning to give me and press the items in his hands.

“Sit. Take a load off for a while. I’ll get Mr. Hawkins checked in and then I’ll join you.”

His chin drops to his chest, and he takes a seat.

I turn to my guest. “Do you need help with your baggage?” He shakes his head. “I’ll show you to your room then.”

I swipe the room key from the desk and begin ascending the stairs. “The execute suite is on the third floor. Breakfast in the morning is from—”

“Was he serious?” He cuts me off to ask.

“Who serious about what?”

“The chief of police. Was he serious about needing dispensation for my car? What kind of crazy town is this?”

I bristle at his question. Is Winter Falls a bit kooky? Of course, it is. The town was founded by a group of hippies. How can it not be kooky? But it’s also a fun place to live and there’s not one person in this town of a thousand and one people who I wouldn’t trust to have my back. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.

“There’s no need for concern. You are free to drive your car to and from town. Within town, however, you should either walk, bike, or use a golf cart. Bikes and golf carts are free to borrow. There are stations with them scattered throughout town, including behind the inn.”

We reach his room, and I motion for him to proceed me. The executive suite is one of my favorite rooms. It’s not technically a ‘suite’ as the bedroom is not a separate room and there isn’t a kitchen area. But there is a separate living space and a desk set up in front of the large window with a view over Main Street.

“I’m here for work,” Cole says. “I need my car to get to meetings.”

I barely hold in my eye roll. He ‘needs’ his car. Where exactly are his meetings? You can literally walk from one side of Winter Falls to the other in less than twenty minutes.

“What kind of work are you here for?”

He puffs out his chest. “I’m an architect.”

“You’re here for the community center project.” It’s not a question. In a small town – especially this small town – everyone knows what’s going on.

“I’m surprised you’ve heard about it.”

Why is he surprised? Oh yeah. He thinks I’m a cleaner. “I’m actually—”

He cuts me off before I have a chance to tell him how I actually own The Inn on Main. “I guess you must have heard about it from your boss.”

I open my mouth to once again try to clear up the misunderstanding happening here, but Cole is on a roll.

“Anyway, I’m an architect.” Yes, you said. “And my firm is bidding to acquire the project. I’ll be meeting with the mayor and city council.”

“The plot for the community center isn’t far from here. It’s not even a five-minute walk.”

“You’re well-informed for your position.”

I don’t bother trying to clear up his misconception again. I tried. I failed. I’d much rather have a front row seat when he realizes the truth. Someone’s going to be mighty embarrassed. Not my problem. It’s not my fault making assumptions makes you an ass.

Ashlyn has loved Rowan for-freaking-ever 🥰 But he thinks of her as his little sister 😒 Like that’ll stop Ashlyn 😏

Ashlyn has loved Rowan since she was sixteen and he rushed in like her knight in shining football pads to save her from a bully. Now that she’s back in Winter Falls after graduating college, she’s ready to start a full-court press to make Rowan hers.

Too bad Rowan sees Ashlyn as his little sister who needs protecting and not as a woman. But Ashlyn’s convinced there’s no problem too big she can’t overcome it. Even if it comes in the form of a stubborn six-foot-five former NFL quarterback.

Ready to read if Ashlyn can convince Rowan she’s his?

Not convinced? No worries. Read the first chapter below.

Chapter 1

Foul Play – forcing a woman who you know has a crush on you to be in your presence and then ignoring her crush on you

“Are you cheating on me, Ash?”

At the sound of Rowan’s deep voice, every single nerve ending in my body lights up until I’m a bomb of feelings in danger of exploding any second now. Don’t turn around, Ashlyn. Don’t turn around. Do. Not. Turn. Around. And…of course, I turn around. I never was any good at following orders even when I’m the one giving them.

When my gaze lands on Rowan, my body begins to vibrate with the desire to throw myself at him. It’s a desire I’ve been wrestling with since I was a freshman in high school when my crush on the six-foot-five-inch football player became a burning desire. And who can blame me?

Rowan’s body should be splashed across the cover of every men’s fitness magazine. Preferably while he’s wearing as little clothing as possible. His shoulders are broad, and his hips are narrow. And I know the former professional athlete is hiding miles upon miles of muscles under those clothes. Muscles my tongue would love to explore.

But it isn’t his body my fifteen-year-old self fell for. Nor is it the kind face or the sparkling brown eyes. It isn’t even the lips always kicked up in a half smile.

No, my idiot teenage self fell for him when he rescued me. With my birthday falling in October, I was the youngest kid in my class. Everyone in my freshmen class loved to remind me of the fact by teasing me with the nickname ‘baby’. Needless to say, I hate the word baby.

One day I decided I was done with the teasing. I was going to show that bitch Meadow I wasn’t a baby. And I was going to show her with my fists. I managed to get one shot in before she pinned me to the ground and began scratching my arms and pulling on my hair.

Rowan arrived on the scene – my shining knight in football pads. He hauled Meadow off of me and dragged me to the nearest restroom where he proceeded to clean up the cuts on my arms with more gentleness than a man his size should have. I’ve been devoted to him ever since.

“I asked if you’re cheating on me, Ash,” Rowan says and brings me out of my daydream of sliding my fingers through his hair.

I narrow my eyes at him. “My name is Ashlyn. No one calls me Ash.”

The left side of his lips kicks up in a smirk. “I do.”

And him calling me a name no one else uses caused me to think he was finally noticing me as someone other than his friend’s little sister. But Rowan made it perfectly clear he doesn’t consider me as more than a sister he needs to protect at the parade last week.

Which is when I initiated Project Ashlyn Will Get Her Ass Over Rowan Now. How’s it going thus far? Well, I’m standing on the sidewalk outside of Clove’s Coffee Corner drooling over the object of my every desire. In other words, week one of the plan is a failure. Me and plans aren’t the best of friends.

“Not anymore you don’t,” I insist. “The name is Ashlyn. Learn it. Use it. Or don’t use it. Whatever.”

I go for nonchalance. Considering how my voice is growling, I don’t think I succeed.

Rowan raises his hands in surrender. “Sorry, Ashlyn.” He emphasizes the second syllable and I want to smack him. “But you haven’t answered my question.”

Question. He asked a question? When? I cock my hip and place my hand on it.

“What question?”

“Why are you cheating on me?”

Cheating on him? I’ve never had Rowan. How could I possibly cheat on him? What idiot would dare to cheat on this man? Not this girl. I’d covet and cherish him and ensure he knew how special he is.

He nods toward Clove’s Coffee Corner. Oh.

For the past year since I’ve been home after graduating from college, I’ve gone to Bake Me Happy, Rowan’s bakery, pretty much every day. His donuts are to die for. To. Die. For. As my more than generous behind can attest to.

But step one of the get over Rowan plan was to stop dropping by his bakery every day hoping he’ll notice I’m no longer a little girl in need of saving from some bully named Meadow. Thus, my coffee from Clove’s place today.

“Her coffee’s better,” I claim and watch as every single muscle in Rowan’s body tenses. I think I hit a nerve. I bite my lip to stop the smile from escaping and stretching across my face.

“What did you say?”

“You heard me. Clove makes the best dang coffee in Winter Falls,” I say much louder than necessary.

“Prove it. In front of me and everyone else.”

Everyone else? I scan the area and realize the nosy citizens of Winter Falls are surrounding us while eavesdropping on our conversation. They don’t bother pretending they weren’t listening. Not in Winter Falls. You have to pass a test to prove you’re a busy body before you can live in this town. I wish I were joking.

“Bring it.” I’ve never backed down from a dare and I’m not about to now either.

“Blind taste test!” someone hollers.

Rowan grabs my upper arm and drags me down the street. I try to wrestle free, but my efforts are half-hearted at best. Why would I fight his hold when my biggest desire for the past eight years has been to feel his hands on me?

We gather quite the following as we march. I notice my sisters, Aspen, Ellery, Lilac, and Juniper, in the crowd. Shouldn’t they be at work on Monday morning? Ellery and Lilac wave while Juniper gives me a thumbs-up and Aspen winks at me. Naturally, my sisters know about my ‘Rowan obsession’ as they refer to it.

When we enter Bake Me Happy, a table is already set up in the middle of the bakery. Of course, it is. The grapevine in this town is faster than a goat rushing off when you’ve accidentally left the fence open. It was an accident. I’m not my animal-loving sister, Juniper, who thinks animals should be free to roam wherever they want.

Rowan presses me into a chair, and Aspen steps forward with a blindfold.

“Where did you get a blindfold from?”

She waggles her eyebrows. “Do you really want to know?”

No, I don’t. Aspen recently reunited with her childhood love and she’s all rainbows and butterflies. And I’m not jealous at all. Not. At. All.

She fits the blindfold on me and ties it behind my head before primping my hair.

“What are you doing?” I mumble to her.

“Making you pretty.”

“Don’t tell me you’ve joined the matchmaking committee.”

There isn’t really a matchmaking committee. It’s actually a bunch of old women who enjoy sticking their noses in other people’s love lives. I assumed being the youngest West sister at twenty-three would save me from their matchmaking schemes for a few years. But I have the feeling I was wrong.  

“I’ve got ten dollars on Rowan’s coffee,” Aspen exclaims as she steps away from me.

Ah, yes. The other favorite past time of the people in Winter Falls. Betting on any and everything.

I cross my arms over my chest. “Are we going to do this thing or what? I’ve got things to do, places to be.”

“Because you have five-hundred jobs. I wish you’d settle down,” my mom grumbles.

Great. Here we go again. The ‘pick on Ashlyn’s life plans’-hour has arrived.

“Let her be, Ruby. You didn’t exactly stick to your life plan,” Radiance, Mom’s best friend, says.

Radiance is also Lyric’s mother. Lyric as in Aspen’s fiancé. I wouldn’t be surprised if Radiance and Mom planned for Aspen and Lyric to fall in love from the moment they both conceived their bundles of joy.

“Love conquers all,” Mom sings. She probably has the goofy expression she always gets when she’s thinking about Dad on her face, too.

My parents have been married for thirty-three years and are still sickening in love. I blame them for all my romantic notions. Couldn’t they be similar to my college friends’ parents and fight and bicker all the time? No, they have to be best friends and lovey-dovey all the time. What kind of an example are they?

“Here we go,” Clove says before I hear the sound of a coffee cup being placed on the table. “No peeking.”

“Peeking? I couldn’t peek even if I tried. I seriously don’t want to know what my sister uses this blindfold for.”

“I assume it’s for romantic liaisons,” my other sister, Lilac, says. Lilac is Ms. Scientist. Until recently, I didn’t think she knew what sex was. She proved me wrong there.

“Quiet down everyone.” Rowan whistles and the crowd immediately shuts up. “Ashlyn has agreed to prove once and for all how my coffee is better than Clove’s.”

“Wait a minute! I didn’t agree to anything of the sort.”

“Yes, you did.” I can hear the smirk in his voice. Jerk.

“Let’s do this.” The sooner this is over, the sooner I can escape from Mr. You’re Like a Sister To Me’s presence.

I pat the table until I find a cup of coffee. I lift it to my face and inhale the scent of sweet, sweet caffeine. And coffee beans and whatever else they put in coffee. I take a sip and sigh. This is good. Really, really good.

I set the cup down and search the table until my hands land on the other cup. I repeat the smelling and tasting. This cup is amazing as well.

“Do I have to pick one or the other?”

“Bwak. Bwak.”

Juniper makes chicken sounds. She’s probably flapping her arms and pretending they’re wings, too. I wasn’t kidding about her being an animal freak. I genuinely think she likes animals more than people, which makes her job at the Wildlife Refuge outside of town a perfect fit.

I try both of the coffees again. They’re both delicious, but one has a slight caramel taste to it. And I do love me some caramel.

“This one.” I raise the cup and cheers erupt in the crowd.

Rowan whips the blindfold off of my face. He beams down at me. “I’ll expect you at the bakery tomorrow.”  

Damn him to decaf hell and back. I must have chosen his coffee.

Without saying another word, I stand and walk away. How in the world am I supposed to get over the man when he performs stunts to force me to be near him every day?

Aspen’s leaving town as soon as possible. Lyric’s never leaving. Their second chance at love is doomed. Or is it?

Aspen is not staying in Winter Falls. Absolutely freaking not! No way! If you can’t tell, she has strong opinions about her hometown. Especially about the boy who broke her heart. He’s definitely not getting a second chance.

The residents of Winter Falls disagree. They will do everything – and I do mean everything – in their power to ensure Project Weston is a success.

Ready to read whether Lyric can convince Aspen to stay?

Not convinced? You can read the first chapter of their story here. Ready to read more? Read the second chapter below!

Chapter 2

Family tree – a diagram showing your relationship to all the nuts in your family.

When we pull up into my parent’s driveway in Basil’s beast – as he affectionately refers to his tow truck – my entire family is waiting for me on the front porch. There goes my hope for keeping my return home quiet.    

“Thanks for the ride, Basil.”

“No problem, man. No problem.”

With his long hair, bell-bottom pants, and bright floral shirt, Basil resembles a hippie headbanger, which is fitting since he totally is. The first generation of Winter Springs residents are all hippies. It made for an interesting childhood.

My door flies open. “Aspen Cloud, you’re home.”

My mom sounds happy, so I don’t bother reminding her of how much I hate the name Cloud or how I’m not home for good. I’m home for now anyway. I climb out of Basil’s beast straight into her arms.

Mom’s arms wrap around me, and she sways me from side to side. “I can’t tell you how happy I am to see you.”

I close my eyes and sink into the comfort she’s offering. The fear and tension I’ve been feeling since I saw the flames shooting out of my building ease out of me. I’m home. I’m safe. I have somewhere to sleep tonight besides the backseat of my car.

She leans back to gaze into my eyes. “You’re going to be fine, baby girl. Just fine.”

For the first time since my home and business were destroyed, I believe it. “Thanks, Mom.”

Dad elbows Mom out of the way and lifts me into his arms before twirling me around like I’m the seven-year-old girl who thinks playing helicopter is the best thing in the world, instead of the thirty-three-year-old mature adult I am. I giggle as he spins me around. Maybe not a mature adult then.

“Put me down, Dad. I’m not a child.” There’s no heat in my words since I’m giggling like the seven-year-old girl I claim I’m not.  

He sets me on the ground and places his forehead against mine. “You’ll always be a child to me, baby girl.”

“Thanks, Daddy-O.”

“Stop hogging her!”

My sisters, all four of them, attack and I don’t stand a chance. Before I know it, we’re rolling around on the ground.

“It’s good to have you home, big sis,” Ellery says.

The others – Juniper, Lilac, and Ashlyn – murmur their agreement. In case it’s unclear, my parents were hippies – still are actually – and they named their five girls after their five favorite trees. You’d think we’d get teased about it, but in the town of Winter Springs, hippie names are the norm.

I’m the oldest of this gang of sisters with Ellery next. Lilac is smack dab in the middle. Then, comes Juniper and last but not least is Ashlyn.

Woof!

I struggle to my feet. “I need to let Waffles out before he pees all over the interior of my car.”

Lilac, aka Ms. Civil Engineer, curls her lip at the state of my car. “This is your vehicle? It’s in violation of town ordinance.”

I roll my eyes. “Yes, Ms. Know It All, but I didn’t exactly have a ton of cash laying around to buy a car when my life burned to the ground. Literally.”

She flinches. “Sorry, Aspen. I didn’t mean …” She clears her throat. “Anyway, I assume Basil will be removing this eyesore from the driveway.”

“Geez, Lilac. Have some compassion.” Ashlyn bumps her shoulder as she passes her to open the passenger door of my car.

Waffles jumps out of the car, dashes to the lawn, does three circles, and promptly lifts his leg to have a wee. While pee is still streaming out of him, he notices a squirrel on the lawn and rushes after it leaving a trail of pee in his wake.  

The squirrel scurries up a tree, and Waffles paws at the tree while barking up a storm at the poor squirrel. At least, he’s finally done peeing.   

“I got him,” Juniper – my animal loving sister – yells. “You unload the car.”

She holds out a treat to Waffles and he swivels away from the tree toward Juniper. She keeps the treat out in front of her as she backs into the house with my dog eagerly following her.  

“Is this everything?” Dad asks from where he’s peering into the trunk.

“Yeah,” I sigh out.

Ellery wraps her arm around me. “It could have been worse.”

Staring at the three boxes of books and one suitcase of clothes comprising every single thing I own in the world, I have a hard time believing her.

She squeezes my shoulder. “You’re alive. You’re young and you can rebuild.”

“Easy for you to say. You have a successful business. I have nothing.”

Ellery owns the local bed and breakfast. She spent years renovating the delipidated mansion on the southern edge of downtown and turned it into a romantic country inn – The Inn on Main.

“Yeah, well, owning a B&B is not all it’s cracked up to be,” she mutters under her breath.

Before I have a chance to ask her what she’s talking about, she grabs my suitcase and marches into the house.

“What’s going on with her?” I ask Ashlyn.

There’s no sense asking Lilac. Ms. Engineer barely deigns to acknowledge the world outside of environmental engineering exists, she’s hardly going to know why Ellery’s unhappy.

Ashlyn frowns as she watches Ellery retreat into the house. “Rumor has it she’s had some trouble with guests who don’t approve of the no gasoline engine cars in town rule.”

“It’s utterly ridiculous,” Lilac says. “There are free bikes anyone can use. And if a bike isn’t good enough for her guests, they can rent an electric golf cart.”

As part of the whole carbon neutral town thing, alternate forms of transportation are not simply encouraged, they’re facilitated. Biking paths and footpaths are as prevalent – if not more prevalent – than roads for cars.

My parents – as do most residents – use a golf cart as their main source of transportation. They don’t actually own a car – no one in my family does – which is why I had to buy this heaping pile of shit, to begin with.

Once we’ve emptied the car and placed my boxes and suitcase in my childhood bedroom, we gather at the dining room table where Mom has an apple pie waiting for us. Mom thinks apple pie heals all wounds. Her pie kind of does.

“What happened?” Ashlynn asks. “Why did your bookstore and apartment burn down?”

In addition to being a troublemaker of the highest order – something she’s very proud of – my youngest sister was born without the tact gene.

Ellery squeezes my hand. “You don’t have to answer her.”

“It’s fine.”

I’m lying. It’s not. I can still smell smoke in the air despite having showered and scrubbed my skin until it was raw several times since the fire. I practically used an entire bottle of shampoo on my hair trying to get the smell of smoke out of it. All to no avail.

I swallow and force myself to tell the story, albeit a much shorter version. “Waffles woke me up in the middle of the night because he needed to go out. When we returned, there were flames shooting out of the café and bookstore downstairs. I rushed upstairs and managed to throw some clothes and jewelry in a suitcase and put some of my photo albums and books in a few boxes.”

“You went into a burning building?” Dad roars.

“Only the ground floor was actually burning. There weren’t any flames in my apartment above.”

“You could have been killed.”

At his words, I draw the sleeves of my t-shirt down over my hands. Wrong move. My mother would have made the perfect Cold War spy. Ironic since she married a Soviet immigrant. She doesn’t miss a thing. She shackles my wrist and carefully draws the material up my arm.

Her bottom lip trembles and there are tears in her eyes. “You didn’t tell us you were injured.”

“It’s fine. They’re barely second-degree burns.”

“Second-degree burns can cause scarring,” Lilac offers. When everyone at the table turns to stare at her, her eyes round. “What? It’s a fact. You can’t get mad at me for stating facts.”

I sigh. “I’m not mad at you, Lilac Bean.”

Mom stands. “Let me phone Dr. Blue. I’m certain we can get you an appointment right away.”

“There’s no need. I’ve already seen a doctor. He gave me antibiotics. Everything’s fine.”

Mom looks to Lilac for confirmation. At her nod, Mom returns to the table. “But you need to promise to tell me if you’re in pain.”

“I promise.”  

I’m sorry, Ashlyn mouths at me. I smile at her. It’s not her fault. If she was in a fire, I’d want to know everything, too.

“Now,” my dad says once the pie is demolished, “tell me why your insurance company won’t pay out your claim.”

Dad may appear to be a laidback hippie most of the time, but he’s also the town’s attorney. And he doesn’t let anyone mess with his girls.

I shrug. “Since the cause of the fire is unclear, they need to conduct an arson investigation and eliminate me as a suspect before they’ll pay my claim.”  

“Are they out of their minds?” Dad bellows.

Mom pats his arm. “Now, now, Daniel. Getting your heart rate up will not help anything.”

When Mom isn’t spying on or interrogating us until we spill all our secrets, she’s the peacemaker.  She’s the principal of the local school and has plenty of experience keeping the peace. Lucky for me, she wasn’t the principal when I was in school. It’s hard to get away with skipping class when Mom’s the principal.

“Besides,” she smirks at me, “our baby girl is home until the insurance company pays the claim.”

You don’t need to be a mind reader to figure out what she’s thinking. Mom hasn’t exactly been subtle about her desire I return home for good. She never wanted me to leave in the first place.

She’s out of luck. As soon as the insurance money is in my bank account, I’m out of here.

Can Lyric convince Aspen to stay in Winter Falls and give him a 2nd chance?

The last thing Aspen expected was to end up returning to Winter Falls homeless, broke, and jobless at the age of thirty-three.

Not to worry. She’s only back until the insurance company decides she’s not an arsonist and pays her the money they owe her. Then, she’s outta there.

The people of Winter Falls feel differently. They’re determined she rekindle her romance with her first love, Lyric Alston, and stay forever. Not happening. The man broke her heart and she hasn’t forgotten.

But when Aspen calls Lyric out for what he did, he has no clue what she’s talking about. Did she get it wrong? Did she not see what she thought she saw?

Once Lyric realizes she didn’t abandon him, he goes all out to convince Aspen to stay in Winter Falls and give him a second chance. Did he forget she’s not here to stay?  

Chapter 1

Bad day – the point at which even the most well-adjusted person snaps

Shit. Police lights in my rearview mirror is not the welcome home I was hoping for.

“Uh-oh, Waffles, the Fuzz is on our tail.”

My dog lifts his head, peers outside for a second, decides outside is not worth his time, gives a mini-woof, and goes back to his nap.

“I guess I’m on my own,” I mutter.

I check the speedometer, but I’m positive I wasn’t speeding. This piece of trash car can barely make it up to the speed limit without shimmying and shaking like it’s going to fall into pieces right in the middle of the road. I’d be a complete idiot to drive faster than absolutely necessary. And, despite current appearances, I am not a complete idiot.  

Plus, I know once I pass the sign for Winter Falls – the world’s first carbon neutral town – I need to slow down or risk a ticket. There are no warnings for speeding in a town of people who think using fossil fuels is equivalent to mass murder. Decarbonization is serious business in these parts.

I pull to the shoulder and watch the police officer as he exits his vehicle and swaggers toward me. Oh my. The ugly uniform is doing nothing to hide the delicious thighs he’s sporting. My gaze roves higher to his narrow hips. Moving back to home – albeit temporarily – doesn’t seem so bad right now.

He stops next to my window and my gaze lifts until it hits his name badge. No. No. No. No. It can’t be. I force myself to continue raising my head until I can view his face. Damnit. It is. Lyric Alston. Town bad boy. Town hottie. And the boy who shattered my heart into a million pieces. Awesome. Freaking awesome.

“Roll down your window, Aspen!”

Oh, right. Lyric isn’t merely the ‘boy who shattered my heart’, he’s also the Chief of Police of Winter Falls, Colorado. Population – 1,001.

I start cranking the window down. No electric windows on this luxury vehicle of mine. Naturally, the stupid handle falls off in my hand, and I end up dropping it. Ugh! Can this day get any worse?

I bend over to search for the handle when my door unexpectedly opens, and I tumble out of the car into Lyric’s arms. I had to ask if this day could get any worse, didn’t I?

“Still haven’t learned to wear a seatbelt, Aspen?”

I shove him away and scramble to my feet. “I was wearing a seatbelt, officer,” I sneer. “I unhooked it when I came to a stop. I know better than to get trapped in a car during a traffic stop.”

He frowns. “Of course. How could I forget Winter Falls isn’t big enough for Aspen West? Only the city is good enough for you.”

I don’t respond. Why bother? We had this argument at least ten gazillion times after we graduated from college, and I wanted to move to New York City or Denver or anywhere but Winter Falls. Lyric had zero interest in moving. He was all set to settle down in our hometown, get married, and have a bunch of kids. The discussion of other possibilities was not on the table.

“Why’d you pull me over, Lyric?”

He taps the roof of the car. “This vehicle is not roadworthy.”

Tell me about it. I didn’t think I was going to manage the drive from Dallas to my hometown, but I didn’t have any money for anything better. As it is, I had to sell some of my jewelry to buy this piece of crap.

“You know vehicles with gasoline engines are strictly limited in Winter Falls.”

The joys of living in a carbon neutral town. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for green energy and saving the environment but being a savior of the planet is expensive. I would have had to sell all of my jewelry to afford an electric car and since I’m currently homeless, out of money, and out of a job, I had no intention of spending more money than was absolutely necessary.

“Can you give me a break this one time, Lyric?”

“It’s Chief Alston.”

“Really? You’re pulling rank on me right now?” I bite my tongue before I call him a fathead power abusing son of a goat farmer.

“It’s not pulling rank when it’s true.”

He leans over to peer into my backseat, and I block him. Everything I own is in this car. I left this town with hopes of taking the world by storm. I never expected to return ten years later while driving a thirty-year-old car with all of my possessions able to fit in its trunk and backseat. The last thing I need is for Lyric stupid head Alston to see me at my lowest.

I spot the orange stains on my yoga pants. Maybe that particular ship has already sailed.

“What’s going on, Miss Big City? Did you crash and burn?”

I flinch at the word burn. It’s a miracle I’m standing here alive and not burnt to a crisp. Lucky for me, Waffles needed to go out to pee at two o’clock in the morning. If he hadn’t? I shiver. I don’t want to think about what would have happened had I been in my apartment sleeping when the fire broke out.

As if he knows I’m thinking about him, my dog barks at me from the front passenger seat.

“Hold on, Waffles. We’ll go for a walk soon.”

“Waffles? You named your dog Waffles?”

Was Lyric always such a pain in the butt jerk? Was I too enamored with his brown, wavy locks of hair and sky-blue eyes that I ignored all the signs of him being a dickhead?

I cross my arms over my chest, and his eyes dip briefly to my breasts. Yep, I totally missed the signs of dickhead. Good thing I’m no longer sixteen and have built up immunity to broad-shouldered, narrow-waisted, strong-thighed men, who happen to be six-foot-three and eternally tan.

“For your information, Chief of Police who couldn’t find a clue if it hit him in the face, Waffles is a rescue. I found him behind my building. The sole way I could get his shaking, scared out of his mind, furry butt to come near me was to offer him waffles. Thus, Waffles.”

He grimaces. “Shit. You’re right. I’m sorry. And Waffles is adorable.”

You bet he is. He’s my baby.

“You took me by surprise is all. I didn’t expect you to be in town this time of year is all.”

Relief rushes through me. My family has kept my secret. It’s nothing short of a miracle. I half expected the entire town to be waiting to greet my return. No, not return. I’m not here for good. I’m not staying any longer than it takes for the insurance company to stop dragging its feet.

“Small town gossip has failed you, Chief.” I emphasize Chief and a muscle in his jaw spasms before he whips out his citation book and flips it open.

“I’m sorry, Aspen, but I’m going to have to write you a ticket for driving an unapproved gasoline engine vehicle.”

A ticket I won’t be able to afford. I knew using all my savings to expand my business and buy the café next door to the bookstore was a gamble. I just didn’t realize how big a gamble it would be until everything burned down.

“Can’t you give me a warning this one time, Chief?”

He shakes his head. “Policy says otherwise. No warnings for residents of Winter Falls.”

“I’m not technically a resident,” I’m quick to point out.

He rips the ticket off of the pad and holds it out to me. “You grew up here. You can’t claim to be ignorant of the rules.”

I bite my lip as I stare down at the ticket as if it’s a snake set on biting me and infecting me with its poison. I retreat a step. There’s got to be some way for me to get out of this. I’m not commemorating my return – however temporary it may be – home with a ticket.

I look around hoping the field surrounding town can offer me a solution to this problem. My gaze stops when I notice the Welcome to Winter Falls sign. I’m parked about twenty feet in front of it, meaning I’m not within the town limits.

I don’t bother trying to hide my grin. “I’m sorry, Chief, but I think I’m going to have to decline your ticket.”

He waves the ticket he’s still holding at me. “You can’t decline a ticket, Aspen. It doesn’t matter how much we meant to each other as kids.”

Meant? As in past tense? Ouch. My heart clenches, but I ignore it.

“I’m not trying to abuse our past relationship.” I point to the sign, and he swears under his breath.

“If I hadn’t stopped you, you would have driven straight past the sign.”

My grin widens. “But, thanks to you, I didn’t.”

“What are you going to do? You can’t leave your vehicle on the side of the road.”

Because he would take way too much pleasure in writing me a ticket for abandoning my vehicle. Not going to happen.

“I’ll call Basil to tow it.” Basil owns the only tow truck in town.   

He rips the ticket in half. “You better call Basil. I won’t hesitate to write you another ticket.”

Of course, he won’t. I want to ask him who shoved the stick up his bum, but I think I’ve antagonized him enough for today especially since he currently looks ready to throw me into a jail cell.  

“Have a good day, Chief. Thanks for stopping by to remind me of the town ordinances.”

I try to tone down my sarcasm, but judging by the thunder in Lyric’s face, I’m not entirely successful. Despite how he broke my heart when I left town after our college graduation, we’ve been civil to each other whenever I’ve been back home visiting my family. I have a sneaking suspicion our days of being civil have come to an end.

He tilts his hat. “Good day, Aspen.”

Despite what a rule following son of a gun he is, I can’t stop myself from watching him walk away. The way the muscles in his ass bunch as he moves should be illegal.

But it doesn’t matter how gorgeous Lyric Alston is, the man is not to be trusted. He’s a heartbreaker, and the last thing my heart needs right now is another break.

Ruby has no intention of falling in love. Too bad fate has other plans for her.

Welcome to Winter Falls! Winter Falls is a whacky small town settled by a bunch of hippies. I’m not ashamed to say I want to live there (even if the mayor gets caught without his pants on on a regular basis). But, since I can’t, I invented a series of stories set in the town. The perks of being a writer! The Winter Falls series will consist of at least seven books, but there’s also a free prequel.

Ruby has her life planned out. Go to college. Join the Peace Corps. Save the world. But then she bumps into Daniel at a Peace Corps presentation and her life plan doesn’t look as appeasing as it once did. When it takes longer than she expects to get an assignment, she decides to follow Daniel to Winter Falls. By the time her Peace Corps assignment comes through, she’s fallen in love with the town where helping to save the Earth is obligatory, but pants are optional.

Decision time. Does she go off and safe the world as she’s dreamed of since she was seven or stay in Winter Falls with the man she’s falling in love with?

And here’s the first chapter to whet your appetite:

Chapter 1

What’s a police record between friends?

1987

I’m practically skipping as I enter the auditorium. I’m so excited I can barely contain the energy in my body. The Peace Corps. Finally! This is why I’ve spent the past four years studying to obtain a degree in education – to join the Peace Corps and help make the world a better place.

“Excuse me.”

Oops! I didn’t realize I’d stopped to stand in the middle of the aisle to stare at the giant Peace Corps logo on the screen.

“Sorry,” I mumble before turning around to smile at the man.

The smile freezes on my face. Standing in front of me is the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen. He’s tall and stands with confidence staring down at me, but it’s his face that captures my attention. His forest green eyes are sparkling with amusement, and he has prominent cheekbones most women would die for. To top it all, there’s an adorable dimple in his chin I want to lick.

He could be a model. What is he doing here?

I clear my throat and stick my hand out. “Ruby.”

“Daniel.”

After we shake hands, we stand there staring at each other like a couple of dorks. I clear my throat again. “I guess we should take our seats.”

He motions me forward. “After you.”

I find a seat near the front. Yes, I’m that person. The one who sits in the front of the class and raises her hand when she knows the answer to a question. What can I say? Education is important. Thus, the teaching degree.

A rush of excitement runs through me when Daniel chooses the seat next to me.

“What are you doing here?” I ask, but before he can answer, the speaker takes the stage.

We listen to two speakers tell us about their experience within the Peace Corps. One was in Cameroon and one in the Philippines. I’m literally sitting on the edge of my seat as they talk about how fulfilling their work was. I cannot wait!

After they finish, I nearly spring out of my seat loaded with questions for them, but a recruiter comes on stage to talk about the application process and what it entails before I get the chance.  

“Are there any questions?” she asks once she finishes her presentation.

Someone shouts from the back, “What if I have a police record? Can I still apply?”

My heart squeezes at the question. I may be in trouble here.

“It depends on the charges.”

I raise my hand. “What if the charge is disorderly conduct from a protest? And the charges were dismissed?”

“If the charges were dismissed, you have an arrest record and not a police record. You should be fine.”

Phew. My arrest record may be longer than my arm, but I’ve never been convicted of anything. I’ve never even had to pay a fine of any sort.

“Are there are any more questions?”

Questions are shouted out until I start to wonder if the whole ‘the only stupid question is the unasked one’- adage is a bunch of bull hockey. Weapons training by the Peace Corps? Really? The recruiter finally ends the meeting by telling everyone to review their information packets and to contact him if there are any more questions.  

I jump to my feet and clap as the recruiter leaves the stage. A few people clap with me, but most of the crowd hurries to leave.

Once the noise level quiets down, Daniel turns to me. “Please tell me you’ll get a drink with me. I need to know why a good girl like you has an arrest record.”

My nose wrinkles. “Good girl? How do you know I’m a good girl?” My mom calls me ‘my problem child’.

He lifts an eyebrow in challenge. “Am I wrong?”

I never could resist a challenge. “Let’s get that drink.” I’ll prove to him I’m not some innocent good girl.

We exit the auditorium and walk down the block to the local college bar. I push the door open, but he stops me with a hand on my wrist. My skin tingles where he touches it, and all my nerve endings wake up.

“Are you old enough to be in here?”

“I thought I was a good girl? Would a good girl use a fake ID?” For good measure, I flutter my eyelashes.

“I’m starting to think I’m wrong about the good girl thing.”

I wink at him before proceeding into the bar. We settle in a booth along the far wall.

“Okay,” he says once we have our beers. “Tell me why you have an arrest record.”

“I guess since you bought me a drink and all, I can tell you,” I begin. “It’s actually not an exciting story. I didn’t get caught streaking down State Street or anything crazy. I think it’s important my voice is heard is all. I’ve been involved in some anti-nuclear protests and peace protests. The Three Mile Island accident set off a bunch of needed demonstrations about the safety of using nuclear power in my opinion.”

“The Three Mile Island Accident was in 1979. You would have been what? Nine?”

I waggle my eyebrows at him. “Why Daniel? Are you trying to figure out how old I am?”

“My mother taught me it’s not polite to ask a woman’s age.”

I wave my hand. “It’s fine. I’m twenty-two. Hold old are you?”

“Twenty-five.”

Twenty-five? A bit old for a college student. “Are you a student?”

“About to graduate law school actually.”

“Cool. Congrats! And you want to join the Peace Corps?”

“I would, but I don’t think it’s in the cards for me.”

I rub my hands together and lean closer. “No? Do you have a police record?”

He barks out a laugh. “I do not. And, before you ask, I don’t have an arrest record either.”

I sit back and cross my arms over my chest. “Maybe you’re the goody two shoes instead of me.”

“I didn’t have much choice.”

Now, I’m intrigued. I lean forward and whisper. “Why not? Are you a communist spy?”

He frowns. “What makes you think I’m a communist?”

I slap my hands down on the table. “Holy smokes! You are a communist!”

“Keep it down,” he hisses. “I’m not a communist. I’m the furthest thing from it in fact.”

My nose wrinkles. “You’re an ultra-conservative capitalist?”

He sighs. “My parents are defectors from the Soviet Union.”

My eyes widen to the size of saucers. “You have got to be kidding. How exciting! Why did they defect? Were they caught distributing copies of Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak? Or did they vandalize a communist propaganda poster? Oooh. Maybe they were ordinary criminals and used Soviet oppression as an excuse to defect.”  

“You have quite the imagination.”

“Come on. Tell me. If you don’t, I’ll keep coming up with more and more outrageous reasons they might have defected.”

“I’m kind of curious to hear what other outrageous reasons you can come up with.”

Game on. “Did they get caught burying a body after they killed a guard who caught them spitting on Lenin’s grave? Did they—”

He holds up his hand. “Stop. I’ll tell you.”

I drum my fingers against each other. “Yes, my evil plan is working.”

“You’re not an innocent girl, are you?”

I bat my eyelashes at him. “Of course, I am.”

He laughs. “The story isn’t actually very interesting.” I motion for him to get on with it. “My mother is an English teacher. She was arrested for teaching the original version of Robinson Crusoe.”

My nose wrinkles. “Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe? There’s another version? What’s wrong with the original one?”

“It promotes individual acts of heroism. History is made by the collective effort of society, not the acts of individual people.”

“Are you quoting a Soviet propaganda pamphlet?”

He nods. “I am. Anyway, the book was rewritten. The rewrite skipped most of the time Robinson Crusoe spent alone and placed more emphasis on the idea of the importance of society. My mother did not approve of the re-write and refused to teach it.”

“And they arrested her?”

“Yes. She was very young at the time. My father and her hadn’t been married very long. Since my father was a member of the party in good standing, he was able to get her released after she signed a declaration stating she wouldn’t teach the original version of the novel again.”

“Let me guess. It was a declaration she had no intentions of following through with?”

“Exactly. Which is why they decided to defect.”

“But how did they do it? It can’t be easy to defect from a country where the vast majority of people don’t have passports, let alone are allowed to leave the country for vacation.”

He shrugs. “I don’t know. They won’t tell me. They claim to be protecting people.”

“They probably are.” I sit back. “Wow. Your life is way more fascinating than mine. I grew up an hour north of Madison and came to town to go to college. End of story.”

He wiggles his eyebrows. “Except for your arrest record.”

“Now, you’re just trying to flatter me.”

“Is it working?”

I giggle. “Maybe?”

“Shall we order some food?”

My budget doesn’t have room for eating out, even if it is a mere burger at a bar. But what the hell? I’m having a good time, and those are few and far between when you work full time while attending college.  

I give in. “Okay.”   

We make small talk while we eat. There’s a possibility I scarf down my food as it’s the first meat I’ve eaten in over a week. After we finish eating, Daniel takes my hand and leads me to the door.

“I’m to the right,” I say and point that way.

“And I’m to the left.” He points in the opposite direction.

“I guess this is where we say goodbye. Parting is such sweet sorrow.”

“Does this make me Romeo to your Juliet?”

I smirk. “If the tights fight.”

He grins as he leans forward to kiss my cheek. “I had a lovely time tonight. Can I ring you sometime?”

My stomach flips at the idea of this handsome man wanting my number, but I ignore it and act all calm as I respond.

“Okay,” I say and give him my phone number. “I shall say good night till it be morrow.” I wave as I make my way down the street toward my apartment. I can’t resist looking back. When I glance over my shoulder, I find him standing in front of the bar watching me leave. Yes.

Friends. Just friends. Does Lenny not understand the concept? No worries. Lexi will explain it to him.

Lenny is bouncing at the walls, ready for his love story to begin. Lexi? Not so much.

Lexi is determined to keep her relationship with Lenny at friends only. Lenny pretends to agree. He’ll simply break her barriers down one by one until she’s ready for him.

But then Lexi’s past catches up with her and Lenny’s done with gentle. He’s breaking through the friendzone barriers and protecting Lexi. Even if it’s from herself.

Will Lexi succumb to Lenny’s charm? Or are these two destined to remain friends forever?

Want a sample before you buy? No problem. Here you go:

Chapter 1

The difference between a girlfriend and a girl friend is the space in between is called the ‘friend zone’.

Whack! I grunt when the bridal bouquet hits me smackdab in the face. I watch as it falls to the floor. I could catch it, but I’m not going to, because I – Lexi Mullins – have no intention of being a bride, thank you very much.

The current bride, Faith, points to the bouquet and yells, “It’s your turn next!”

At her words, a cheer rises up from the crowd. They can cheer all they want. It doesn’t change a thing. Love is not for this woman. I’ve learned my lesson.

It’s past time to escape, but I don’t have a chance to stand before Lenny appears in front of me. Great. Another situation I don’t want to deal with. The man refuses to understand the term ‘friend zone’ no matter how many times I explain it to him.

But boy, oh boy is the man pretty to ogle. I fist my hands to stop from fanning myself at all the glory that is Lenny looming above me. The man may be over fifty but he’s still sexy as all get out. He has dark brown eyes I can’t seem to look away from, laugh lines around his eyes that tell me he enjoys a good time, and a dimple in his chin I want to lick while I scratch his always present five o’clock shadow.

He’s also several inches over six-foot-tall, and his clothes are covering up a whole bunch of muscles. Trust me. I know. For one delicious moment on New Year’s Eve, my hands roamed all over those muscles.

Unfortunately – ahem, I mean, fortunately – my mind overruled my body and reminded me of how all his friends and my friends are intertwined. Which is a dang shame. If they weren’t, I’d take him for a test drive with no intention of buying. Alas, things would get way too complicated way too quickly, and I can’t do complicated. Not yet, at least.

“Not now, Lenny,” I tell him before he can open his mouth.

I’m not blowing smoke up his ass – no matter how much I’d love to. Now is really not the time to discuss our non-relationship. This is a wedding. Weddings are for watching the newly married couple look disgustingly happy – gag – and laughing at all the single bridesmaids getting drunk and hitting on the single groomsmen.

Considering this wedding is happening on Valentine’s day, I would normally expect the single bridesmaids to jump on any single man in this place before the nuptials have even been spoken. Which would be absolutely hilarious to observe. But there’s one problem. Lenny and I are the only unattached people in the room. Even the bride’s son has a girlfriend.

Lenny ignores my warning – what’s new? – and leans over to place his hands on the back of my chair. He thinks he’s got me blocked in. Silly man. He forgets who I am and where I come from. Also, I don’t fight fair.

“Doll.”

I roll my eyes. He calls everyone doll. He doesn’t seriously believe I think he’s treating me special when he calls me the same endearment he uses for every other woman in his life, does he? How stupid does he think I am?

“When are you going to stop fighting our attraction, Lexi?”

I snort. “Um, never. Friend zone, remember? Do you need for me to explain it to you again?”

“You can’t fight our attraction forever.”

“Never going to happen.” Judging by the heads turning in our direction, I must have yelled. Oopsie.  

“It is,” he growls.

My insides quiver, and my middle tingles at the sound. I ignore my body’s response. It’s not running the show here. I am.

“Dream on.” I shove him out of my way before standing and marching away.

I make my way to the restroom, but I’m ambushed before I can open the door. My friend, Chrissie, stands blocking me with her arms crossed over her chest. I step back and slam into a different body. I whirl around to find another friend, Hailey, barring my escape route. Behind her stands the rest of the girl crew. Aka Suzie, Phoebe, Val, and Mary Ann.

“Goodie. The gang’s all here.”

Faith comes rushing down the hallway. “Wait for me.”

Correction. Now, the gang’s all here.

I’m still not convinced about this group of women. Except for Chrissie, I’ve only known them since I showed up on Christmas Day for Chrissie’s surprise wedding. She wasn’t the only one surprised. I didn’t know the woman was dating anyone, let alone ready to legally attach herself to a man. But her boyfriend, Wally, called me and told me to get my butt to Milwaukee if I wanted to be at my best friend’s wedding.

When I hopped on the plane in D.C., I didn’t believe for a minute Chrissie was getting married. I assumed the call was some part of an ambush. There was an ambush all right. Just not the kind requiring guns and grenades. Instead, Wally surprised Chrissie with a wedding on Christmas Day.  

Chrissie grabs my arm and frog marches to the office. She throws the door open like she owns McGraw’s Pub. She doesn’t. The bride’s husband, Max, owns the pub, which is why the wedding took place in a bar of all places.

As soon as I hear the door of the office click closed, I whirl around on the women. “What is wrong with you people?”

Phoebe raises her hand. “I’m pregnant, my feet are swollen, and I feel nauseous all the time.”

Suzie frowns at her. “She didn’t mean literally.”

“I did,” I say. Mostly, to hear what Suzie’s response is. The woman is crazy. The fun kind of crazy. Not the ‘I have to kill her to save the world’- kind. I’m finished with those kind since I quit my job.

“Oh, in that case, same as whiny girl here. Except for the nauseous thing. I’m over it.”

Mary Ann, who happens to be a nurse, asks Phoebe, “How far along are you? If you continue to feel nauseous, maybe you should discuss it with your OB/GYN.”

With the women distracted discussing pregnancy, I decide it’s time to take my leave. I’ve got the door open and one foot in the hallway when Chrissie stops me.

“And where do you think you’re going?”

I shrug. “Back to the party.”

A champagne cork pops, and Val waves a bottle in the air. “But the party is in here now. Don’t leave me here alone. The pregnant women can’t drink.”

Hailey’s hand shoots into the air. “I’m not pregnant.”

While Val pours glasses of champagne, I decide to try and sneak off again. Once more, I don’t make it far. Chrissie grunts before stomping to me, grabbing my upper arm, and dragging me back into the room. “It’s time for you to fess up.”

I raise an eyebrow. “Fess up? About what?”

She already knows I quit my job. I have no other secrets to tell. My phone in my pocket beeps with a message. Okay, maybe I have one more secret she doesn’t know about.

“I vote we let this play out,” Hailey says.

Suzie snorts. “Yeah, because today’s your day.”

I widen my eyes and pretend I don’t know what’s going on. “What are you talking about?”

“Don’t act as if you don’t know,” Chrissie mutters.

Of course, I know. These women haven’t exactly made a secret of how they’re betting on when Lenny and I will burn up the sheets.

Mary Ann giggles. “Have I mentioned lately how much I love all of you?”

Val lifts her glass. “Here. Here.”

“Can we get this over with?” Faith asks. “I want to get back to my groom.”

I motion to the door. “By all means.”

She doesn’t move. “Not before you tell us what’s going on with you and Lenny.”

If you read the entry for ‘nosy’ in the dictionary, you’ll find a picture of this group. I thought my family was nosy, but they can’t hold a candle to these people.

“There’s nothing to tell.”

Hailey crosses her arms over her chest. “Really? Why was he caging you in your chair?”

“And why did he look like you stole his puppy when you walked away?” Val adds.

I place a hand on my chest and gasp. “I would never steal a puppy.”

Chrissie shoves everyone out of the way to stand in front of me. Her hands fist at her hips as if she’s preparing for battle.

“The quicker you answer our questions, the quicker you can return to the party.”

I place my hand on my chest and feign a tremble. “The big bad intimidating interrogator has arrived. I’m scared.” For good measure, I curl my button lip out in a pout.

Chrissie’s hands drop and her shoulders slump. “You’re one of my oldest friends. Why won’t you tell me what’s going on?”

I’m surprised she doesn’t wipe at her eyes as if tears are forming. There’s more than one way to interrogate a suspect after all. And Chrissie is an expert in all of the methods. I know this for a fact. We used to work together. While I was an analyst who kept my butt firmly imprinted on a chair behind a computer, Chrissie was out in the field doing all kinds of things that would give most people nightmares.

I decide to give in. I need to get out of this room before I fall for one of Chrissie’s interrogation methods and accidentally spill my secrets.   

“There’s nothing going on between Lenny and me.” Before I can finish, everyone’s shouting out their disbelief. I hold up my hand to cut them off.

“I’m serious. Lenny is in the friend zone. And it’s where he’s going to stay.”

Chrissie taps her chin as she studies me. I keep my face blank and wait. After thirty incredibly long seconds, a smile breaks out on her face.

“This is going to be fun.”

I don’t wait for whatever else she has to say. The smile is my get out of jail free card and I’m not wasting it. I open the door and hightail it away from the women.

She has zero interest in a happily ever after. He won’t let another woman down. Too bad they can’t keep their hands off each other.

Who’s ready for Valerie and Barney’s love story?

In case it’s not clear, NEITHER one of them is ready. They both think love is for suckers. Valerie thinks relationships are for idiots, and Barney knows how relationships can crash and burn. Been there. Done that. He’s got the scars to prove it and absolutely zero interest in a repeat.

But when Valerie’s apartment is trashed, all bets are off.

Want a sample before you buy? No problem. Here you go:

Chapter 1

We’re not socks, but I think we’d make a great pair.

“We need to talk, Valerie.” I scowl at Barney’s declaration. I have spent my entire life avoiding having the ‘talk’ with a man. Barney Lewis is not going to ruin my streak.

He may be one sexy middle-aged man – my hands itch to run through the soft texture of his black hair once again and his ever present five o’clock shadow gives my body all kinds of ideas of how his stubble will feel scratching certain areas of my delicate skin – but his handsome appearance doesn’t give him the right to boss me around.

Especially not when we’re at a wedding. A surprise wedding on Christmas day no less. Barney’s friend, Wally, proposed to his girlfriend, Chrissie, this morning, and then when they arrived at McGraw’s Pub to celebrate Christmas with everyone, he surprised her with a wedding. Naturally, Chrissie freaked out, but we got her down the aisle eventually.

Welp. Best get this stupid ‘talk’ over with, so I can get back to enjoying the party. I indicate the hallway leading to the restrooms. When he lifts his chin in agreement, I square my shoulders and march to the hallway as if I’m not dreading this stupid conversation.

Barney doesn’t immediately follow me. Of course not. He doesn’t want anyone to know what we’ve been up to after all. He made those thoughts perfectly clear when he ran away from me on Saturday evening after kissing the daylights out of me.

I reach the hallway and lean against the wall to wait. I cross my arms over my chest and tap my toe as I become impatient – or more impatient, I should say. I don’t want to be in the hallway having some conversation with Barney I don’t want to have. I want to be in the pub celebrating my friend getting married.

Barney appears at the mouth of the hallway and grabs my hand before leading me to the office. His friend, Max, owns McGraw’s Pub. Max is engaged to my friend, Faith, which is how I ended up in this bar in the first place.

“We need to talk,” he repeats once we’re behind the locked door in the office.

I stand in the middle of the room and place my hands on my hips. “So you said.” I raise an eyebrow and wait for him to speak.

He bites his lip and my mind flashes back to when we made out in this very office a few days ago. It was me biting his lip then. His responding growl made me want to throw him down on the floor and have my way with him. Unfortunately, the man made a break for it before I got the chance.

When Barney doesn’t speak, I throw my hands in the air. “Well? Are you going to say actual words or are you going to stand there and stare at me?”

“We need to talk.”

“Dude, you said those words three times already. Get to saying whatever you’ve got to say so we can get this over with and get back to the wedding reception.”

“It’s about us.”

“There is no us,” I interrupt to say.

I don’t do relationships. I may love romance – and I do seriously love romance – but I know better than to expect it for myself. It’s an illusion after all. Once there’s a ring on someone’s finger, they change and anything resembling love and romance flies out the window.

He clears his throat. “Exactly.”

“Good. We agree. Are we done here? I want to get my drink on and celebrate with Chrissie and my friends.”

My friends. I smile at those words. For such a long time, my only friend was Faith. And when Faith left Saint Louis with her son Ollie to live in Milwaukee, my circle of friends was reduced to zero. I can’t be mad at Faith for abandoning me, though, not when she found the love of her life in Max. He proposed to her on Thanksgiving and now they’re planning a Valentine’s Day wedding. I am beyond happy for her.

When I had to leave my job in Saint Louis, I decided to follow Faith to Milwaukee. It’s working out well thus far. Faith’s crazy group of friends didn’t hesitate to include me. Now, I feel more at home here than I ever did in Saint Louis despite growing up and living there my entire life.

“Don’t drink too much,” Barney orders.

“No man tells me what to do.” I march to the door to escape before this conversation becomes awkward – or more awkward, I should say.

Barney clamps a hand down on my shoulder to thwart my escape. I whirl around on him. “What is it now?”

“I don’t want you to be mad at me.”

“Dude, you could give a woman whiplash. You don’t want a relationship with me? Fine. I completely and totally understand. But don’t pretend to care how I feel.”

He growls. “I do care how you feel. You’re my fr—” He clears his throat. “You’re my brother’s woman’s friend.”

His brother’s woman’s friend? I roll my eyes. He can’t even say we’re friends? Geez. Thanks for nothing, pal.

“I’m not mad. I’m annoyed because I don’t want to be here.”

Pain flashes in his eyes before he blinks, and it’s gone. Did I say the guy could give a gal whiplash? I was wrong. He’s going to give me a migraine with the way he runs hot and cold.

I admit it was fun chasing after the guy for the past month. I do love a good chase. And the way he panicked every time I got close made it all the more fun. But since he’s made it perfectly clear he’s not up for a roll in the hay with me, I’m done chasing. I don’t chase men who don’t want to be chased. I’m not a predator.

I inhale a deep breath and straighten my shoulders. I guess I have to be the adult here. And I do hate being the adult. “I understand. You’re not interested. I’m a big girl. I can handle it.”

He rakes a hand through his hair. “It’s not…I’m not…”

I pat his shoulder. “It’s fine. Our lives are intertwined because of our friends. We can be casual acquaintances.”

I march to the door and fling it open to find Faith and her gang of friends – Suzie, Phoebe, and Hailey – waiting on me. Well, not all of the gang.

“Where’s Chrissie?” I ask.  

“She left for her honeymoon,” Faith answers.

“Honeymoon? Wally arranged a surprise wedding and a honeymoon? He literally proposed this morning. He must have been awful sure of himself.”

Suzie snorts. “Have you met Wally? The super-secret spy is very sure of himself.”

“Is he a super-secret spy if you know about it?”

We all think Wally is some type of super-spy after what happened with Chrissie. I don’t know much about it, but apparently, she was in danger from an ex. Wally gathered his former military buddies – including Barney – together and they managed to catch the guy. Since Chrissie is a badass herself, I can only imagine how scary the situation was.

Lexi saunters into the hallway but stops when she notices all of us standing there. Lexi is a friend of Chrissie’s who showed up at the last minute to attend the wedding. “What’s going on?”

Faith raises her eyebrow at me. “Exactly what I want to know.”

“Yeah, Valerie.” Suzie scans my body. “What were you doing locked up with Barney in the office?”

Hailey smiles and rubs her hands together. “They were obviously not getting down and dirty, which means I’m still in the running to win this bet.”

Faith frowns. “Christmas day isn’t over yet.”

I widen my eyes to feign innocence. Ha! I haven’t been innocent in a long ass time. “What are you talking about?”

I know exactly what they’re talking about. Barney and his friends bet on everything under the sun. Somehow the women got involved and now they throw out bets like crazy. Everyone’s currently betting on when Barney and I will finally ‘get together’. Considering the ‘talk’ Barney just subjected me to, Faith is definitely losing this bet.  

Speaking of Barney, where is he? He’s not in the office listening to us talk, is he? I glance over my shoulder, but he’s not there. What the heck?

“If you’re searching for Barney, he’s gone,” Hailey says. “My uncles can disappear into thin air.”

Hailey considers Barney and his friends her uncles since they helped raise her after her mom took off when she was young. In addition to Barney, the ‘uncles’ include Wally, Sid, and Lenny. All of them, plus Hailey’s dad, Max, know each other from their military days. The brothers are now handsome middle-aged men who haven’t let age slow them down one bit. Faith definitely hit the lottery when she walked into McGraw’s Pub searching for a job.

“Speaking of Barney,” Faith begins.

I hold up a hand to stop her. “Nope. I’m not talking about it.”

Her shoulders slump. “Okay.”

Suzie wrinkles her nose. “Okay? No, it’s not okay. I veto. I want to hear about it. Whatever it is.”

“I’m guessing it has something to do with Barney scrambling after Valerie on Saturday night after his ‘date’ showed up.” Hailey stares at me as if she’s waiting for me to contradict her.

She can keep waiting. I know Faith and her friends get all up in each other’s business, but I’m not telling them what happened. Not because I’m embarrassed. I’m not. Barney was the one who was embarrassed when Wally pranked him with a male date. I don’t know why. Being gay is nothing to be ashamed of.

But Barney’s embarrassment was to my advantage when he shoved me up against the wall and told me he was going to prove he’s not into men. It was one of the sexiest moments of my life. Unfortunately, the sexy ended there. After kissing all the common sense out of me, he ripped his mouth from mine and sauntered off without a word spoken.

Time for a diversion, because I’m not telling anyone what happened on Saturday night. I clap my hands. “Who’s ready to learn who the real karaoke queen is?”

Suzie’s hand shoots into the air. “It’s me.”

I wink at her. “I guess it’s time for you to prove it.”

An eternal bachelor convinced he’s finally found ‘the one’ vs. a woman scarred by her past. It’s gonna get messy…

Who’s ready for Wally’s love story?

Wally, sure is. He’s waited nearly sixty years for ‘the one’. Unfortunately, Chrissie isn’t interested in love. She’s too busy worrying about a stalker. Besides, she knows from experience love can burst into flames – literally. But Wally defines the word ‘persistent’. (And maybe stubborn, too, but don’t tell him I said that)

Can Wally, the confirmed bachelor, tempt Chrissie into giving him a chance?

Want a sample before you buy? No problem. Here you go:

Chapter 1

Why is it called the Secret Service if everyone knows about it?

“Welcome to You Cheat, We Eat,” I greet the woman entering the PI offices. “How can I help you today?”

The woman pauses for a moment before screaming like a banshee and launching herself at me. I sigh before getting to my feet and rounding my desk to meet her. I barely stop myself from rolling my eyes at her. Does she seriously think she can take me on?

I’m five-foot-ten, highly trained, and keep myself in shape by lifting weights a few times a week and jogging nearly every day. The woman ‘attacking’ me is approximately five-foot-three, dressed in cumbersome clothing constraining her movements, and is obviously untrained.

I say untrained because she’s flailing her arms at me like she’s a windmill. Does she think she’s Don Quixote? Snort. I know chivalry is dead unlike the knight errant who read way too many romances before deciding to revive the social code of conduct. Another reason to stay far, far away from romance.

I grasp her wrists and spin her around to pin them behind her back. The woman’s shoulders slump and her legs give out from her as she wails. I maneuver her until she’s sitting in a chair and release my hold on her.

“Hailey!” I shout because I can deal with danger, but I don’t deal with emotion and a woman bawling her eyes out qualifies as emotion even if she did ‘attack’ me mere moments ago.

Hailey is my boss at You Cheat, We Eat. As the name suggests, the PI firm specializes in finding spouses who don’t honor their vows. I’m nearly two decades older than my boss and I have the experience to work as a PI, but I’m not interested.

I’m done with wading through the filth of humanity, thank you very much. I’ll stick to accounting, invoicing, filing, and the other boring administrative stuff for now. Although, I do run background checks for all the investigators.

Hailey rushes out of her office, a 9 mm in her hand. Her hand drops when she sees the woman sitting in the chair sobbing her heart out. “Oh.”

I frown. “Yeah. Oh.” I motion my hand toward the woman. “You’re up.”

Phoebe, the other PI at the firm, peeks her head out of her office. She blows out a breath of air when she realizes there’s no danger. “I heard a scuffle, but the big guy wouldn’t let me out of the room to back you up.”

I raise an eyebrow and stare at her. Back me up? She’s hilarious. One, I don’t need backup. Ever. And two, Phoebe couldn’t back me up if she tried. The woman is Ms. Fashionista. Seriously. She’s currently wearing a dress that hugs all her curves and three-inch heels. I don’t know anything about fashion, but I do know enough to recognize expensive, and her clothes are definitely expensive.

I hear a grunt before her husband, Ryker, joins her at the door. Ryker is a badass bounty hunter. At six-foot-six, he’s a mountain of a man. I could still take him.

“Chrissie didn’t need your help.” He stares at me as if expecting me to respond to his statement with information about my background. He can keep staring because I’m not revealing any of my secrets to him or Hailey or Phoebe. I may consider the women my friends, but secrets are meant to remain private for a reason.

“It’s all your fault,” the woman screams and points at Hailey.

Hailey’s eyes widen. “My fault? What did I do?”

“You caught my husband cheating and now he’s left me for the other woman. He’s not supposed to leave me for the other woman! He’s supposed to fall to his knees and pledge his undying love to me.”

I keep my face passive, but inside I’m shaking my head in disbelief at this woman. Someone else who’s been reading too many romance novels.

Hailey’s head tilts to the side as she studies the woman. “Mrs. Winter?” At the woman’s nod, she kneels in front of her. “Why don’t you come into my office, and we can discuss this?”

Mrs. Winter rears back. “What’s there to discuss? Like you would know anything about betrayal with your perfect little life with your perfect little husband.”

She’s not wrong. Hailey married her high school crush, Aiden, at the beginning of the year. The two are still in their ‘honeymoon’ period and are disgustingly perfect. They can’t keep their hands off of each other, but if they think they can have nookie time while I’m in charge of this office, they’ve got another thing coming.

Phoebe raises her hand. “I know a lot about betrayal. Do you want to get a coffee with me?”

Phoebe’s not lying. I don’t know the whole story, but her first husband apparently was a complete and utter dick. In fact, he’s currently in prison for kidnapping her. He wanted to force her to have his children.

Gorgeous women always cause men to lose their minds and, make no mistake about it, Phoebe is gorgeous. She has exotic green eyes with a slight slant to them set in a heart-shaped face. And her body is a perfect hourglass shape.

Hailey is no slouch either. She doesn’t have curves like Phoebe, but she has the whole lithe dancer body thing going on. With her long brown wavy hair and dark brown eyes, she looks like she was the head cheerleader in high school. She wasn’t, though. Apparently, she was a bit of a drama geek and Aiden bullied her about it. There’s definitely a story there.

Mrs. Winter glares at Phoebe. “What would you know about betrayal? You’re beautiful.”

And beautiful people don’t know anything about betrayal? Trust me, betrayal is blind.

Ryker growls and stands in front of Phoebe. “You will not talk to my wife in this manner.”

Sigh. He had to say wife, didn’t he? Idiot. The word wife is totally going to set her off.

“Wife!” she screams and points at Phoebe. “You have no idea.”

“You’re done,” Ryker declares before approaching Mrs. Winter. He hoists her from the chair by her arm before proceeding to escort her out of the office and down the hall to the elevator.

Once she’s on the elevator with the doors closed behind her, he marches back to the office. He glares at me. “You should have handled her.”

I raise an eyebrow. “She wasn’t dangerous.”

“She was rude to my wife.”

“Rude doesn’t equal dangerous. You should know this.”

His nostrils flare as he stares at me. I fold my arms across my chest and stare right back at him. Does he think he can intimidate me? Silly man.

Phoebe tugs on her husband’s arm. “Leave Chrissie alone. Her job isn’t to keep me safe.”

Before Ryker can speak, I do. “You weren’t in danger, Phoebe. And I will make certain you’re always safe when you’re in the office.”

“Maybe we should get you a weapon.” Hailey’s nose scrunches as she considers the idea. “This isn’t the first crazy client we’ve had, and it won’t be the last.”

“I can deal with crazy.” And I can. “Crazy doesn’t equal dangerous, but I can deal with dangerous as well.” Because I already have a weapon.

Ryker grunts and spins on his heel to return to his office. This is his M.O. whenever he thinks the talk will turn to ‘women’s shit’. His words. Not mine.

Phoebe and Hailey sit in the chairs across from my desk. They appear to be settling in for a talk. Oh goodie. In case you missed it, I’m being sarcastic.

“We can get the uncles to teach you to shoot,” Hailey suggests.

The uncles aren’t Hailey’s blood relatives. It’s a group of four men who served with Hailey’s dad in the military.

“I don’t need anyone to teach me how to shoot. Certainly not the uncles.”

Phoebe waggles her eyebrows. “Not even Wally?”

At the mention of Wally, my belly flutters. The guy drives me absolutely bananas, but I can’t deny he’s one handsome man. I put his age somewhere in his fifties, but he doesn’t look a day over forty.

His black hair doesn’t have a hint of gray in it, although his beard is dotted with gray making him appear distinguished. Judging by his broad shoulders and strong biceps, he keeps himself in shape. And I do appreciate a man who takes care of himself. But it’s his eyes that get to me. They’re dark green and when he stares at me, it’s like he’s peering into my soul.

Wally and the rest of the ‘uncles’ retired from the Army ages ago, but I suspect Wally hasn’t completely retired, however. Not when I know he’s been digging into my past. He’s pissed off because he ran into a brick wall. A brick wall I have no intention of pulling down or letting him scale. Skeletons should stay hidden in the closet for a reason.  

“I can shoot.”

Hailey leans closer. “You can? How did you learn? When did you learn? Where did you learn?”

I don’t fill her in on the details. They don’t need to know the US government taught me to shoot nearly every weapon known to man. I shrug instead.

“It doesn’t matter.”

Phoebe giggles. “Wrong thing to say. Now, you’ve made her curious. She’s going to dig and dig until she finds out all the answers to her questions.”

Hailey frowns. “I think you have me confused with Suzie. I can allow my friends to have secrets.”

Suzie is Hailey’s business partner. She used to be the office manager until her brewery business took off. Now, she spends her days brewing beer and I do her job.

Phoebe snorts. “Yeah, right.”

The phone rings and offers me a reprieve. I know better than to dive on the distraction, though. Diving would pique Hailey’s curiosity more than it already is. She won’t find anything if she digs around in my past, but I don’t want to spend the rest of my working days evading her questions either.

“Are you going to answer the phone?” Hailey asks.

“Are we finished with this conversation? I didn’t want to appear rude.”

Hailey stands. “We’re done.”

Phoebe’s nose wrinkles. “We are?”

As I watch Hailey and Phoebe return to their respective offices, I think about how exhausting it is to be friends with people you can’t tell the truth about your past. This is why I’ve never had close friends outside people I met at ‘the office’ before. I should back off from their friendship for a while. I nod to myself. It’s for the best.

Decision made, I pick up the phone.

Can a cynic find love with a Dutchman?

Dutch Online is here! It’s the fifth and – sniff, sniff – final book of the Love in the Lowlands series.

Dutch Online is the love story of Sofia and Rafael. Sofia is the definition of weary of dating. When men date you to meet your beautiful mom, it’s just plain creepy. And Rafael doesn’t have time for love in between three jobs and raising a sister who’s ill with kidney disease. But the two enjoy chatting to each other online. And Sofia may have even developed a bit of a crush on Rafael – sight unseen.

But when they meet in person, it’s a disaster. A prank gone wrong may cause this love story to stall before it can even begin.

What’s that? You need more before you can make up your mind? I aim to please! Here’s the first chapter to whet your appetite: 

Chapter 1

“Can I help you?” I ask when a man sits next to me at the restaurant where I’m waiting for my parents to arrive for Sunday brunch. This guy – whoever he is – is not invited, and he’s certainly not welcome.  

He winks at me. “I think it’s me who can help you.”

I groan. It’s barely 11 a.m. It’s way too early for some random dude to be sprouting stupid pick-up lines.

“I think you’ve got the wrong table, buddy,” I tell him.

Before he can respond, I hear a ruckus at the entrance to the restaurant. Sounds like my parents have arrived. I check my watch. Ten minutes past eleven. Wow. They’re barely late today.

I watch as Mama sends air kisses to everyone and anyone. She does like to make an entrance. If I’m being objective – a feat I find difficult to achieve with regard to Mama – she doesn’t have to work hard at it considering she’s six-foot-tall, has the legs of a ballet dancer, and the face of a model, which makes sense since she is a model.

I stand when she reaches the table. “Mama,” I whisper in greeting as I kiss her cheeks.

“How are you, my little rabbit?”

Before I can answer, she notices the man sitting at the table and claps her hand. “I see you’ve met Tyson.”

Awesome. I’ve been set up by my mother – again. I’m thirty-one years old. The last thing I need is for my mom to find me a man. Mama disagrees. She thinks a man is exactly what I need. It’s not. Especially not the type of man she’s always throwing at me.  

I growl. “Mama.”

“Now, now, don’t be snippy with your mama.” My father leans over and kisses my cheeks.

“Hello, Pai.”

He pulls out a chair for my mother, and she sends him a wink over her shoulder. My parents are like yin and yang. Pai is Afro-Brazilian, whereas Mama is Russian with the palest of pale skins. I don’t think she’s ever enjoyed the sun on her face. I’m not exaggerating. As a model, Mama avoids the sun.

When I was young, I went through a phase during which I was convinced she was a vampire. All the facts lined up – she doesn’t go out in the sun, she doesn’t look a day over thirty, and she hardly ever eats human food. I might have been a bit obsessed with vampire romance in those days.

As soon as Mama’s butt hits the chair, a waiter nearly trips over his own shoes in his rush to our table to take our order. Correction – Mama’s order. While he bats his lashes at Mama, he doesn’t bother to notice the rest of us. You get used to being invisible when your mother is a Russian supermodel.

My father was a model too, but he quit the business soon after I was born. While my mother continued her career, he raised me, and we followed her around the globe to wherever she was working. Being homeschooled while spending your days at various photoshoots throughout the world isn’t as glamorous as it sounds.

“Let’s get the introductions over with, shall we?” Mama says with a big smile on her face. I know this smile. It means she thinks she’s won. Ha! As if. She can force me to have brunch with this man, but she can’t force me to go out on an actual date with him.    

“Tyson, this is my daughter, Fifi.”

I cringe at her use of my childhood nickname. I extend my hand to him. “It’s Sofia actually.”

His hand is limp in mine. “Are you a model like your mother?” He winks at my mom.

“Um, no. I’m a photographer.”

His eyes widen like he’s surprised. “You’re Fifi Silva? The photographer?”

I stop myself before I roll my eyes. Mama loses her mind when I act ‘childish’ and rolling your eyes no matter your age is considered childish in her book. I nod instead.

Tyson places his hand on his chest and gasps. I hope this guy isn’t trying to break into acting because I’m not buying his little act.

“Sasha didn’t tell me her daughter is a famous photographer.”

The snort is out before I can stop it. Mama clears her throat. If she were a normal mother – one who isn’t worried facial expressions cause wrinkles – she’d be frowning at me big time.

“I’m not a famous photographer.” My name is known in the fashion world, but it’s not where my heart lies. Artistic photography doesn’t pay the bills, though.

Tyson completely ignores my words. “What are you working on now? Do you have a shoot coming up? Do you know if they need any talent? Any male talent if you know what I mean.”

How would I know if they need any talent? It’s not like I’m in charge of selecting the models. My job is to show up when they tell me to, do my magic, and leave. I don’t want to be involved with fashion photography any more than that. In fact, I’d give up fashion photography completely if I could. But I can’t. It pays the bills. And there are always bills to be paid.   

“But, Fifi, maybe you could see if Tyson could work on your next shoot,” my mother pushes.

“I’m not working on any fashion shoots at the moment.”

Pai leans forward. “What are you working on, baby girl?”

Pai and I share a special bond since we spent practically every waking moment together until I hit fourteen and was allowed to attend an actual high school. He knows my love of photography has nothing to do with taking pictures of beautiful people.

“I have a show coming up at a little gallery in Chelsea,” I tell him.

“This is wonderful.”

He raises a hand and snaps his fingers. A waitress appears within seconds. My Pai may be nearing sixty, but he remains gorgeous with his smooth dark skin, bright green eyes, high cheekbones, and strong jaw. Between mama and Pai we always receive good service at restaurants.

“A round of Caipirinhas,” he orders.

Mama immediately corrects him. “You know I don’t drink sugar. A bottle of vodka.”

“Why don’t you ask Tyson to tell you about himself?” Mama isn’t asking. She never asks. She orders in question form. It’s an art.

“Tyson, why don’t you tell me about yourself?” I ask like the dutiful daughter I am.

His phone buzzes and he picks it up from where it’s sitting next to his glass of water. He reads the message and types a reply before responding to me. “What did you say?”

Great. Another person who is as obsessed with his phone as he is with his appearance. Where does my mother find these men?

I force myself to repeat the question. “I asked if you could tell me about yourself.”

He gives me what I call the model smile – all teeth and zero genuineness. 

“I’m Tyson no last name, twenty-four, six-foot-two, one-hundred-sixty pounds, and I specialize in fashion modeling.”

I don’t bother responding to him. Instead, I cock an eyebrow at my mother. Is she serious? She’s setting me up with twenty-four-year-olds now? Did she forget how old I am?

I’m not allowed to say I’m thirty-one in her presence. If I’m thirty-one, then she can’t pretend to be thirty-nine. I’ll keep silent, but if she expects me to outright lie about my age, she’s got another thing coming.

“He’s in the prime of his life,” is her response.

My dad clears his throat and puffs out his chest. “I’m in the prime of my life.”

Mama pats his arm. “Of course, you are, dear. Of course, you are.”

Tyson’s phone buzzes again. He chuckles as he reads the message before typing in a response. I’ve had about enough of this.

“Excuse me,” I say and stand. “I need the restroom.”

He doesn’t bother looking up from his phone as I step away from the table. Mama really picked a winner with this one.

I find the restroom and lock myself in. I wish I could claim a bad case of the stomach flu, but I can’t. Mama is a complete germaphobe who would have an ambulance here before I can finish saying stomach flu.

I wash my hands and give myself a little pep talk instead. It’s one Sunday a month. I can handle Mama and her scheming for a few hours once a month. Pep talk done I step out of the restroom to find my father waiting on me.

He doesn’t say a word and hauls me into his arms. “I’m sorry, baby girl. Your mama doesn’t mean to hurt you. She wants you to be happy.”

“I am happy. I don’t need a man to make me happy.”

“I know, Sofia. I know. But she worries about you. You don’t have a man. You don’t date.”

At his words, all common sense abandons me. “What if I had a man?”

He loosens his grip to gaze down at me. “You have a man? This is wonderful news.”

“No, I meant—” I don’t get a chance to explain I was speaking hypothetically before he’s dragging me through the restaurant.

“Sasha, Sasha,” he shouts as we approach the table. “Our baby girl has a man.”

“I—” I open my mouth to explain the misunderstanding, but I don’t get a chance before Mama is jumping from her chair and embracing me.

“This is wonderful news, my little rabbit. Such wonderful news.” She releases me and I see she’s smiling.

She’s actually smiling and it’s not for a camera. Shit. Shit. Shit. There’s no way I can say I don’t have a man now.

“Sit. Sit. Sit.” She points at Tyson. “You go now.”

At her words, he finally stops concentrating on his phone and looks up. “But you said—”

“Leave,” I tell him. “Whatever she promised you isn’t going to happen anyway.”

“I should have known. There’s a reason everyone in the industry calls you an uptight bitch,” he snarls at me before spinning around and stomping out of the restaurant.

“Ignore him.” Mama pours shots of vodka. “Now, we drink.”

She hands me a glass and raises hers. “To my Sofia finding love.”

Love? Who said anything about love? I’ve seen enough of the world to know the love my parents share is rare. I have a better chance of finding an Alpa Reflex Model I camera in perfect condition than love.

But my mama is a romantic. She’s convinced I need to find love to be happy and now she thinks I’ve found it.

I slam my shot of vodka.

This isn’t going to end well for me.

Can a vacation romance turn into a happily ever after? If Char has anything to say about it, it can and will.

Dutch Courage is here! The fourth book in the Love in the Lowlands series is Char’s story. 

When Nico runs Char over with his bike on the Greek island of Rhodes, Char looks up to find a Greek god staring down at her. Actually, Nico is Dutch, but she’s not being picky.

Two days in Greece turn into a long-distance relationship, but Char wants more than occasional visits. She gives up her life in Wisconsin and moves to Holland to be with Nico. Except when she arrives in Holland, Nico ghosts her.

She probably should have told him she was moving across the ocean to live in The Hague to be near him before giving up everything back home. She needs to figure out what to do pronto before her brand-spanking-new American friends in The Hague take over.  

She just needs to gather a bit of Dutch Courage first.

What’s that? You need more before you can make up your mind? I aim to please! Here’s the first chapter to whet your appetite: 

Chapter 1

Do you believe in love at first sight, or should I hit you with my bike again?

I lift my face to the sun and throw out my arms before twirling around in a circle.

“Isn’t this wonderful? The absolute best! Can you believe this weather? Why don’t we live here full-time? Back home, they’re in the middle of a spring snowstorm and here we are with the sun shining and blue skies.”

“It’s bad karma to rub the weather in people’s faces,” my sister, Robin, points out.

I let my arms drop and stick my tongue out at her. “Don’t be a Debbie Downer. I’m not rubbing it in anyone’s face. I’m merely commenting on how wonderful the weather here in Greece is and enjoying not being in cold Wisconsin.” I do an exaggerated shiver at the idea of being back home right now.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my home. There’s a lot to love. My family and friends are nearby. I have a great job that fulfills me even if it sounds corny to say so. And my apartment is absolutely adorable. But the weather? Yuck. A thousand times yuck.

I am not going to think about snow in April right now. I’m on the Greek island of Rhodes and not back home dealing with snow boots, shoveling the driveway, or having my fifteen-minute commute turn into a two-hour drama. I shake my head and push those thoughts right out of my mind.

“I don’t understand why we can’t be on the beach right now,” Robin whines.

“We have plenty of time to lay on the beach. I want to see this monastery.”

“Of course, you do.” Do I detect a fair bit of sarcasm coming from my dear sister? Why, yes. Yes, I do. “But why do we have to hike up this hill? We could have rented a car.”

We’re on our way to the Monastery of Filerimos. I’m absolutely dying to visit since the architecture is different than the usual monasteries in Greece. It was built by the Knights of Saint John in the 15th Century and constructed with stone in a Gothic style.

I wish I was an architect. But after two classes in architectural making at college, I realized I’m more into looking at pretty buildings than I am into designing them. I thought about studying art history, but my dad nearly had a coronary at the idea. Since he paid for my college education and I didn’t want to put him in an early grave, I chose to major in accounting.

“It’s great exercise. After we’ve done this hike, we’ll be able to eat and drink whatever we want all day long without feeling guilty. We can laze at the beach and do absolutely nothing while drinking those fancy cocktails you like.”

“I wouldn’t have felt guilty without doing this ten-mile hike,” she grumbles.  

“It’s ten kilometers, not ten miles. There’s one point six miles in a kilometer making the hike slightly over six miles. Six point two miles to be exact. If I’m being truly accurate, it’s six point two one three seven miles.”

She shoves my shoulder. “Math nerd.”

“Being able to divide ten by one point six does not make me a math nerd.”

Truth is I am a bit of a math nerd. You have to at least like math to end up in accounting. Numbers, numbers, numbers – it’s what we do all day long every day of the year.

I thread my arm through her elbow. “Come on. I think this is the last curve before we see the monastery.”

We’re doing our best to hug the side of the road as we walk since there’s not much of a shoulder on this hilly road. As we follow the bend in the road, I hear shouting before a bike appears out of the blue.

“Watch out,” the biker shouts.

I push Robin to the side, but there’s no time for me to escape. The breaks on the bike squeal as the rider tries to stop his forward momentum, but it’s too late. He barrels right into me. I fly into the bush as the bike crashes on its side.

“Shit. Shit. Are you okay? How do you ask if you’re okay in Greek?”

“Ow! How the hell would I know?” I ask as I rub the shoulder I fell on. It feels wet. I pull my hand away to look at it and discover it’s covered in blood. Crap.

“Move out on my way, you big behemoth. Let me see my sister.”

“I was a scout. I know first aid,” he says as he examines at my shoulder. “Verdorie! You’re bleeding.”

I hold up my hand covered in blood. “No shit, Sherlock. What was your first clue?”

He chuckles. “An English woman with a sense of humor. I thought they didn’t exist.”

I glare at him. “I’m not English. I’m American, you imbecile.”

He inclines his head. “My apologies. Now, do you have any bandages with you? We need to clean the wound and cover it.”

“Yes, of course, I do. I always carry a package of bandages and antibiotic crème with me while I’m hiking in the wilds of Greece.”

He smiles. “Excellent.”

“I’m being sarcastic. Don’t they have sarcasm in Greece?”

“Oh, I’m not Greek. I’m Dutch. Nicolaas de Ruiter at your service.” He does a little bow.

Despite my shoulder burning something fierce, I take a moment to check out the man. He has dark wavy hair I want to run my hands through to see if it’s as soft as it looks. My hands itch to touch his olive-toned skin to discover if the color is natural or the result of suntanning on the beach. His eyes are dark brown and, despite the circumstances, sparkling with mirth. I don’t know what he thinks is amusing, but I want to find out.

I’m forgiving myself for thinking he was Greek because he most definitely looks Greek. In fact, he looks like a man you’d find on the cover of some vacation romance novel set in Greece.  

“I’m Charlotte. You can call me Char or Charlotte, but never Charlie.” I wrinkle my nose. “Charlie is a boy’s name. And the woman leaning over your shoulder is my sister Robin. We’re on vacation.”

“Is the introduction hour over now?” Robin asks. “Maybe we can take care of your shoulder. You know, the one that’s bleeding.” Sarcasm runs in our family.

Before I have a chance to respond, Nicolaas stands and whips off his t-shirt. Now, this is the picture you’ll find on the cover of a romance novel. A sexy romance novel. Wowzer! Someone works out. I lift my hand to touch the ridges of his six-pack abs, but then I remember I literally met this man less than five minutes ago. No touching allowed, Char.

“Here,” he says and places his t-shirt against my bleeding shoulder.

“Ouch! Take it easy. Looking like a Greek god doesn’t give you all-healing powers you know.”  

“You think I look like a Greek god? I may not be Greek but for you, I can pretend.” He winks.

Robin shoves him out of the way. “Maybe we should clean the wound first, lady killer.” She peels the t-shirt away and lifts her water bottle to douse me. I raise my hands to stop her.

“Let’s wait to clean the wound until we’re somewhere I can take my shirt off.” I’m wearing a white tank top. There’s no way she can clean my shoulder without it getting wet. The whole word doesn’t need to get a look at my bra.

Nicolaas wiggles his eyebrows at me. “I can take your top off for you.”

I shove him away. “Creep.”

“I’m merely trying to help.”

A bike skids to a stop next to us. “Wat is er gebeurd?”

Nicolaas motions to the man on the bike. “This is my friend Guus.”

I glance over at the man, but I’m having a hard time looking away from Nicolaas’ bare chest. I notice there’s a smattering of dark hair near his belly button, but otherwise, his chest is devoid of hair. I do love a man who doesn’t have too much chest hair. Miles of smooth skin for my hands to explore.

“We need to get you back to the hotel to clean your wound.” Robin’s words break my trance.

Yes, Charlotte, maybe you should concentrate on being injured instead of drooling over some guy you just met. Some guy who is the reason you’re injured in the first place.

“Okay,” I say and stumble to my feet with Nicolaas’ help.

“Come on. I’ll take you on my bike.”

My eyes widen. He has got to be kidding me. “I’m not getting on that death trap!”

He places his hands over his heart and flutters his lashes. “I’m wounded. A dutchman’s bike is sacred.”

I roll my eyes. “Whatever. I’m not riding on the handlebars.”

“It’s too far to walk back with you injured,” Robin points out.

“Here.” Nicolaas shoves the bike my way. “You can take my bike. I’ll walk back and pick my bike up at your hotel later.”

I bite my lip and study the bike. I haven’t been on one since I was a teenager. And the road is steep as all get out. Trust me, I know. I walked up it.

“Come on,” he pushes, “it’s the least I can do since I ran into you and all.” He’s not wrong.

I guess biking is better than walking. I grab hold of the handlebars. “Thank you,” I say before telling him the name of the hotel where we’re staying and hop on the bike.

“Hey! What about me?” Robin shouts before I can leave.

Guus grunts. “Here. Take my bike.”

I offer Nicolaas his shirt, but he cringes when he sees his white t-shirt is now stained red. “It’s fine. You keep it.”

The bike wobbles as I start pedaling. I tighten my grip on the handlebars. I can do this. There’s a reason for the saying it’s like riding a bike after all.

“See you later,” I shout at Nicolaas and Guus, but I don’t look back. I don’t trust myself to not wipe out if I look anywhere but straight in front of me. One accident is my limit for the day.