Welcome B2BCYCON Blog Hoppers!
Welcome to my blog…thank you for taking the time to stop by. Look, I could bore you with the same old crap most authors do: here’s my bio, here are my books, please leave reviews, blah, blah, blah, gag! Am I right?
You don’t need me to throw those steaming piles of “you now what” at you…after all, you’re on my website. You can see my tabs. You can read what you want to read. I mean, sometimes it’s nice to go to the dealership and not be descended upon by ravenous sales people.
I do have some rather funny fun facts under my “About Casey” tab if you’re so inclined to laugh at me *cough* I mean, with me.
So here’s what we’re going to do, I’m going to give you the first three chapters of Sunset at Lake Crane, winner of the 2016 Golden Leaf Award. I’m also going to give you a link to a free copy of my novella, Heartstrings. If you take advantage and read it, I would love a review, if you’re willing to take the time.
Intent on getting to Grant’s, Erynn closed the cash register, locked it, and dumped out the remains of the ginger ale she had nursed throughout the day for her queasy stomach. Almost free, she shut down the lights in the entrance of the bookstore and stepped out into the warm, humid air. Traffic moved up and down the road as she pulled the door closed and locked it.
She turned the corner, arrived at her car, and used the key fob to unlock the doors. She looked up as she started the engine, noticing the manila envelope tucked under her windshield wiper. With a frustrated sigh she stepped out, grabbed the corner of the envelope, and snatched it out from under the wiper. She peeled the tab away and reached in to pull out the contents.
The image on the paper stole her breath. Her heart hammered in her chest. Her skin tingled as she looked all around her. Glancing back at the photo, there she was, on Grant’s front porch, trying to leave while he pulled her back for one more kiss. She knew the image had been taken this morning, could remember the exact moment, the last time she kissed him.
She flipped the picture over and saw nothing but clean white paper with a translucent Kodak symbol in diagonal strips along the back. The image wasn’t crisp like it would be had it been developed professionally. No, this was the work of a home printer. At a loss, she peered back in the envelope to see a folded piece of plain white printer paper. Her hands shook as she read the words on the paper.
1. PACK YOUR THINGS AND GO AND THIS PICTURE WILL DISAPPEAR.
2. STAY AND THIS PICTURE WILL BE DISTRIBUTED THROUGHOUT THE COMMUNITY. RUINING YOUR REPU-TATION, AND HIS, AS WELL AS HIS CAREER.
CHOOSE WISELY. YOU HAVE 24 HOURS. AND ERYNN…DON’T EVEN THINK OF STOPPING TO SAY GOODBYE TO HIM.
The image fell in her lap as she looked around through a haze of tears. Was there even a choice? She loved him. There was nothing she wouldn’t do to protect him. Reputations were one thing, but careers were another. Could he be arrested for this? It was ridiculous, nothing happened while she was a student and, damn it, she’d been a legal adult for a year and a half.
None of the justifications her mind could come up with re-lieved that niggling in the back of her mind that this would ruin his career. Look at what one accident had done to her life and reputation. Now, a few months shy of two years later, and she still suffered the effects. Memories were long in a small town.
Erynn had no doubt about how the majority of the town would view a young teacher dating a former student, just two months after graduation. They would salivate over the juicy gossip. They would speculate as to when it started, how much “extra credit” she had to do for her good grades, where it took place…the list was endless. She was used to people talking about her, but Grant? He hadn’t been marred by any scandals. His career would be ruined by this. How would he ever get another teaching job? His family—God. His family would find out and be so ashamed.
She couldn’t let it happen. She loved him too much. If he had to be hurt, it would be because she left protecting him, not because she stayed and let his life fall apart.
The pain welled inside her, threatening to bubble to the surface, as tears streamed down her cheeks. She made the short drive home on autopilot, the roads so familiar, the movements between steering wheel and pedals second nature. She didn’t notice anything going on around her. She didn’t see the driver in the silver Toyota parked on the corner, focused solely on Erynn’s car, just waiting to see what road she took.
The minute she walked through the door she threw her keys on the oak entry table and ran down the hall to her room. She picked up the phone and dialed Kat’s number with shaking fingers. Kat answered on the second ring, but Erynn couldn’t make a sound beyond a whimper.
Kat, sounding worried, managed a rushed “I’m on my way” before hanging up.
Erynn dug out a couple big red suitcases and started filling them with the contents of her dresser and closet.
She wasn’t going to chance it. She would leave now, not in ten hours, fifteen hours, or even twenty three hours. Now.
Erynn heard Kat burst through the front door without knocking, frantically calling Erynn’s name.
“In here.” Erynn yelled, as she heard Kat making her way through the house.
Kat froze in Erynn’s bedroom doorway. She looked to the luggage covering the bed.
“What the hell?”
Erynn looked at her and handed over the letter. She continued throwing clothes into the suitcase–socks, underwear, bras, all of it–carelessly tossed in a growing pile.
Kat looked up sharply. “You can’t be serious? You’re leaving?”
“I can’t stay. I can’t do that to him.”
“And if this is some sort of prank? What if you do this and it’s all just some sick joke?”
Erynn’s eyes flashed to Kat’s. “And if it’s not?” She shook her head and turned back to her task. “I can’t take that chance. Not with him.”
Kat sat on the bed and laid a gentle hand over Erynn’s, stilling her frantic movements. “You know what this means don’t you? You can’t come back…as long as he’s here, you can’t come home.”
Fat tears gathered in Erynn’s eyes, falling a second later. For how long? Would it ever be safe? Or would the person doing this always be out there waiting to see if she had the nerve to return?
She took a seat next to Kat and swiped angrily at her tears. “I know, but I can’t let this happen to him. Maybe one day he’ll move or this will be so far in the past that it will be a nonissue. Maybe he’ll change careers. I don’t know.”
She took Kat’s warm hands in her cold ones. “Bill and Anna already planned to take care of the house while I’m on my trip with Uncle Sammy. When it gets close to time for me to come home, I’ll call and let them know I’m not coming back. Maybe Uncle Sammy can deal with the house at some point. I should have done it already.”
She pulled Kat in and hugged her tight. “Promise me—”, she choked up. “Promise me you’ll come to see me, wherever I end up.”
Kat nodded against her shoulder. Erynn pulled away abruptly and with tears streaming down her face, she zipped the suitcases shut. Erynn took in the room around her, the pictures of her and Kat—on a class trip to a horse farm, bowling with Uncle Sammy, posing in the photo booth at the mall. Erynn still had the bright blue wig from the picture. She knew Kat did too, on the top shelf in her closet, displayed on a mannequin head. Erynn eyed the stuffed turtle Kat won for her at the county fair, sitting on a corner chair. All reminders of what she was about to lose. She wasn’t prepared, but looking at the haphazard stack of luggage piled by the door, she knew her time was up.
It took two trips to get everything into the car. In just minutes, Erynn was locking the front door. She nervously looked around before stopping to take in what would be her last view of her home—the white clapboard and brick house where she spent all of her best times, and her worst. Now, she walked away, without time for a proper goodbye.
Erynn grabbed Kat’s arm and spun her around for one final tight embrace. “I’ll miss you so much.” She hugged Kat and tried to commit the feeling to memory. “I love you…call me, all the time…promise me.”
“I promise, every day,” Kat whispered fiercely.
Erynn let Kat go, jumped into her car, and fastened her seatbelt.
“Wait.” Kat’s knuckles turned white as she gripped the edge of the car door. “What do I say? If he asks me why you left?”
Erynn knew the one thing she could say that wasn’t overtly mean, but would most likely keep him from looking for her. “Tell him, more wasn’t enough.”
Erynn shifted into reverse. She backed out of the driveway and her life as she knew it.
Grant stood before the large windows facing Lake Crane. He jingled the change in his pocket with one hand, while lifting the glass to his lips with the other. The whiskey burned a trail down his throat and warmth settled in his belly. His new career afforded him the ability to live anywhere, to own multiple homes, even, but his needs were few. He wanted a house he loved, and this log cabin he’d built fit the bill. He required knotted wood walls, rough beams, huge windows, a modern kitchen gleaming with granite, and stainless steel for his dream home. Perhaps most important, a stone fireplace with stonework extending up two stories to the ceiling.
He valued his space, so he’d opted for five-thousand-square-feet. The cabin took the builder eleven months to finish. He enjoyed a massive master bedroom, an office with a full lake view, a library, and two guest suites. With some modifications to the plans, he ensured that fireplaces were in the master bedroom, library, and office.
The decorating took another two months with the help of his mother’s decorator friend Monica. Dynamic, driven, and ten years older. She stood just shy of his six foot three, jet black hair to her waist, blue eyes, thin, with a tight ass and high breasts. While she did the house, he did her. At the end of the job, they parted ways, both having gotten what they wanted professionally and personally. She’d created a warm space with plenty of custom log tables, soft leather couches, hand-woven Navajo area rugs, and tasteful art from only local artists.
Tonight, comfort and beauty couldn’t quiet his agitation. Tension lingered after spending the past ten hours in his office, finishing final edits for his third thriller. Two weeks after Vengeance Fulfilled was released, he would know whether or not it would be a bestseller. Time would be up and decisions would need to be made about the multimillion-dollar contract offered to him.
After draining the last of the amber liquid, Grant left his dog Brewster snoring by the fireplace and returned to his office. He shut down his computer, picked up the three days’ worth of mail accumulating, and entered his library. With the flick of a switch, the flames sprang to life. Lifting the decanter, he refilled his glass and took a seat in one of the two leather chairs facing the fireplace. The familiar groan of the old leather chair was the only sound in the stillness. He loved that old chair, it had been handed down from his grandfather. Many a night he’d spent in his grandfather’s lap, in this very chair, reading story after story. Happy memories flitted through his mind, giving him a small measure of comfort, but no relief from the restlessness that plagued him.
After sifting through the accumulated stack of neglected mail and seeing only bank statements and insurance documents, he slid his copy of Contemporary Literature from under the pile, opting for entertainment over responsibility.
They featured an in-depth article on Kevin Korian. Interesting. Grant had met him once, and within minutes determined he was a tool. Curious to see Norah West’s take, he opened the magazine to page fifty-six. “Intellectual Adventurer.”
He read the next line and his blood ran cold.
What the fuck?
By Erynn O’Neal. He didn’t have to ask if it was his Erynn. Her smiling headshot confirmed it.
A myriad of emotions coursed through him; anger, sharp and distinct, at the root of it. So she’d surfaced. He tossed the magazine to the table, telling himself he no longer cared to read the article. Liar. He wanted to devour every word. His desire spoke volumes about the hold Erynn held on him, even after eight years. Disgusted, he topped off his glass and walked to the window to stare out into the darkness concealing the lake where it all began.
He’d considered hiring a private investigator to search for her, but decided not to bother. He’d spoken to Kat, Erynn’s best friend, she’d relayed Erynn’s parting words. So, why would he? He got the message loud and clear. He wasn’t enough and would never be enough. Why else take off? Why not end it? Instead, she took off fast, without a word to anyone other than Kat.
He’d nursed his anger toward her for years, never quite acknowledging she’d broken his heart. He didn’t know how their relationship would work, but he knew she was the one. Where would they be now if she’d stayed? Where would she have gone to college? Would they be married? Would she be warm against him now? Would their kids lie sleeping upstairs, energetic little redheaded girls who looked like their mother?
He used to dream about her, her laughing at one of his stories while snuggling on the couch. The creases formed between those delicate arched brows when she concentrated on his partially developed novel ideas. He remembered every detail of her soft, beautiful face relaxed in sleep after he spent much of the night inside her. Worse, he dreamed of her pregnant with his child, rocking with him on his porch swing, his hand pressed against her belly, feeling their restless child kick against him. The dream, so real, he surged upright, drenched in sweat, his eyes and throat burning.
After eight years, he still wanted her, which made him a world-class idiot. Shit.
He was no longer young and stupid, he’d turned thirty-three this year, and enjoyed a successful career. No way was he getting sucked in again. Now, payback—that held appeal. Mind made up, he picked up the phone and called his agent. Charlotte Simms had represented him since his first book. Her no-nonsense approach when giving direction kept him on track. If she said he had time to think about something, he had time. If she said it was time to shit or get off the pot—well, it was time to do just that.
“Hello, Grant. Give me good news.”
Her unwavering energy, even now, at almost eleven at night, reassured him he had chosen well. She sounded fresh for a new day. “I’m ready, but on my terms. One interview, in depth, but only with Norah West at Contemporary Literature.”
Grant listened to the stunned silence on the other end and smiled. His first smile in quite some time, in fact.
“Wow. What brought this on? I mean, I’m happy. Don’t get me wrong. It’s unexpected, though.”
More confident in his decision now, he went on, “It’s time. I’ve wrapped up my book. I have a contract to consider. If I do it now, I keep it on my terms, and they won’t be easy.”
“So let’s hear the details.”
“Thirty days, with only Norah West. I want a meeting ASAP with her. I’ll be in New York next week, either Tuesday or Wednesday, at Lorenzo’s, seven p.m.”
“You got it. I’ll give you a call when I set the plans up.”
He wished Charlotte a good night and hung up. Abandoning his drink, he stepped over to the bookshelf. After scanning the titles for a moment, he spotted the one book he sought. He opened the brittle cover, the familiar scent of a well-worn tome filling his nostrils. He pulled out the picture tucked inside. Erynn’s face, upturned to his as they smiled lovingly at each other. It would be different this time. He would run the show. No falling in love with her again, no making plans, no hoping for a future. Their relationship would be on his terms. He would take his fill, get her out of his system, and after thirty days, he would say goodbye and not look back.
Erynn awaited word about her reassignment. Ten minutes into her day, she received the call. She dropped everything and hurried to John’s office. After being home for a week, she itched to research her next subject. Learning the public’s perception of the writer before going into these assignments boosted her confidence.
His door stood open, but she knocked anyway. John glanced up from his desk, nudged his glasses up higher on his face, and greeted her. He gave her a quick hug, enveloping her in the scent of Old Spice, reminding her of her father. At one time, she struggled with those painful reminders. With time and perspective, they provided comfort. She’d shed the sadness and focused on the wonderful, cherished memories she had of her parents. He gestured toward one of his leather chairs. “Please sit.”
She took a seat in the high-back leather chair opposite him. Mounds of paperwork in neat stacks on each side waited for his attention. He shuffled the last of the papers before him off to the side, crossed his hands, and addressed her. “Before we get to your new assignment, I need to apologize. Clearly, you didn’t see it, but a mistake was made in the editing department and your last article went out with your real name, and a headshot next to it.”
Her breath stuttered in her lungs. Gooseflesh broke out on her arms. A loud hum began in her ears. “How did this happen?”
“Korian threatened us with his lawyers, and frankly, I didn’t like it. To stick it to him, I rushed the article to print. Avery was unavailable to sign off, so I gave it to Carmen. Carmen decided to try to make her mark by altering your article in a way she thought was for the better. Little did she realize your contract stipulates a confidentiality clause that, I’m sorry to say, we breached.”
Erynn couldn’t speak. Literally couldn’t find words. The article had been out for a week. She hadn’t heard a word from home, her family, or anyone else who might crop up to make her life difficult. No news was good news. Right?
“I’m sorry, Erynn. I can have new copies sent out, but the damage is done. Your true identity is out there. I’ve arranged for profits from this month’s publication to be direct-deposited into your account, as a small compensation for the breach. I’m so sorry Erynn, it’s the best I can do.”
“I understand,” she choked out. “I just ask that next month, I’m featured as Norah West again. I also need your assurance this will never happen again.”
“Absolutely. You’re being very understanding about this.”
Shock and fear did that to a person. “It’s not like I can un-ring a bell, right?”
“No, I don’t suppose you can.” He grinned. “So, your new assignment…I think it’s going to make up for our blunder. I don’t know how you did it, but you landed the interview of the century.”
Her mouth fell open. “Excuse me?”
“You’ve been requested by none other than Alex Cole.”
She sat there, stunned speechless again, this time with her mouth hanging open. This, of course, only made John laugh.
“The kicker: he’s requested only you, for thirty days. There are details he wants to work out, in person, tomorrow night at Lorenzo’s.” He leaned back in his chair. “I’m assuming your assignment works for you?”
“Yes, it does.” Alex Cole had gained huge, instant success three years prior when he released his bestseller, Vengeance Torn. The internet produced nothing on him. She’d searched after reading his first book, then searched again after reading his second book. He was a ghost. For the first time, she would walk into a situation blind. “What time do I meet him tomorrow?”
John glanced at his notes. “Seven p.m. He’ll be waiting.” He took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “With this being such a long interview, and since it is Cole, we’re going to spin this as the midyear special feature. He gave us sole rights. We’ll reveal his true identity.”
Her mind raced in contemplation of the preparation ahead. “Did he say why me?”
“No, he didn’t. Charlotte said he would only work with you.” John shrugged. “He might be a fan.”
Hmmm. “With less than forty-eight hours until our meeting, I better start researching.” Maybe if she tried again she would find something this time around.
John stood to walk her out. “Don’t worry about the meeting this afternoon. I prefer you take the time to prepare. Go get ‘em.”
Several hours later, after no results from her research, she stood in front of her closet. She pondered the contents, she needed just the right clothing for her meeting. Nothing too sexy. Without knowing anything about Alex Cole, she would exercise care in her choice. She searched for professional, but feminine attire. She settled on a black pencil skirt stopping at the top of her knee, and a dark red V-neck cashmere sweater, with three-quarter-length sleeves. To finish the outfit, she chose high-heeled boots. Satisfied, she joined her roommate Avery in the living room to relax in front of some much-needed reality TV.
As much as she tried to focus, her thoughts drifted to the meeting tomorrow night. She detested going into this blind. Cole protected his privacy. She honestly figured that tomorrow night, she’d be the one under the microscope, not Alex Cole. Her more guarded interview subjects struggled to open up after being so private. Easy conversation and answers were sure to be in short supply.
Avery paused the DVR and turned to her. He raised her chin with his finger. “What’s going on in your pretty little head, love?”
Any woman would drool at the sight. Tall, lean, well-muscled, blond hair, tan skin, perfect teeth, looked great in suits, jeans, on the beach, and his accent…Australian. Yummy. Regretfully there was no spark, and there never would be, she hadn’t been born with the right equipment. They sought comfort from each other, incapable of finding true intimacy with others.
What a pair we make.
Avery also worked at Contemporary Literature, as head editor. They’d bonded the first time they met in Manhattan, outside of the magazine headquarters. She’d suffered a wardrobe malfunction when one of the ties of her wrap dress caught in the door of a cab. When she spun around, it fell open, leaving her standing in a scant lace bra and a small pair of bikini panties. Avery, bless him, wasted no time removing his suit jacket and holding it up to protect her privacy as she put herself back together. They’d remained inseparable ever since.
He’d proven himself honest, kind, and protective. His flawless fashion sense was the whipped cream on top of her butterscotch sundae. Working and living together ruined many friendships. Different positions in the magazine allowed them both space.
“I have nothing on Alex Cole. Not the usual nothing, but nothing nothing.” Nervous, she plucked the edges of the blanket.
Avery turned to her, propping his leg on the cushion next to her. “You’re not one for surprises, are you?”
She rested her head against the back of the couch. “Surprises are fine. I’d call this the unexpected, though. The unexpected never works out well for me.” Her grandmother’s stroke. Her parents’ car accident. Leaving Grant. Losing the small pieces of him she took with her. The unexpected sucked.
“It was a long time ago, love. Life went on for you. You achieved success. It’s time to take a chance again.”
“Really? I don’t see you taking any chances.”
“My situation is different.”
“No, it’s not. We’ve both lost people. We both still want people we can’t have. We both let our issues keep us from connecting on an intimate level.”
“We’ve connected with each other.”
With a deep sigh, she abandoned her nervous plucking and turned her head. The cool leather soothed her hot cheek. “Yes, but I’m not attracted to you and you’re attracted to men.”
“Erynn, you’re the kind of person made to fall in love, get married, and raise babies. You’re not the torrid affair type.”
Hopping on this merry-go-round again changed nothing. “I could have a torrid affair.”
“Ha, please. Like the one you have with Paul. You meet every few months to scratch an itch. That doesn’t a torrid affair make, love.”
One eyebrow rose. “Who’s scratching yours?”
Avery glanced away. “Why are we even talking about this? This is about Cole. So what do you think he’ll be like?”
Ah, the million-dollar question. All she had to go on were his two grotesque thrillers. “His books indicate he’s disturbed.”
“Maybe he’s hot.”
“Or maybe he’s old and incontinent,” she said.
“Well, that’s disgusting.”
He took her small hand in his big one. “This isn’t like you. You’re cautious, not pessimistic. You might walk into the most amazing interview of your life. Be positive.”
“I’m trying. Something seems off. Why the extreme lengths to hide his identity? Why me?”
He shrugged. “Or don’t be positive. Look, you’re smart; you’re excellent at seeing inside authors; you find the pieces of their past and present that shape their writing and you put it flawlessly on the page. Our magazine is the only one of its kind, and, I might add, is well-respected. So, why not you?”
“I guess. I just hope I’m not walking into a nightmare.”
Erynn left work early to touch up her hair and makeup before her dinner meeting with the elusive Alex Cole. She’d nursed a nervous stomach all day. Now, after a second shower and the application of fresh peach body butter, she twisted her hair into a low bun at the nape of her neck. She finished with her treasured locket, it had been handed down through each woman in her family, and simple diamond solitaire studs.
The train ride into Grand Central Station took forty minutes. She spent the time running every possible scenario through her head. Now that the time had arrived, there was no turning back.
The ride went much faster than she’d anticipated, considering the lingering of smoke in the cabin from someone disregarding the no-smoking sign. As she exited the station and hailed a cab, she wished for more time to compose herself. She took a deep breath. The air was humid and the lingering clean scent of the spring rain, that had washed the city clean not even an hour earlier, clung to the air.
The driver left her alone with her thoughts, thank goodness, because she was too nervous to keep up with idle chitchat. She ignored the familiar city lights, her focus on a family photo taped to the dashboard. The corners had curled with age, the image faded. No matter how time and the harsh effects of life had worn the image, the smiles of the kids clustered in the arms of their mother shone brightly through. What was his story? Had his salary supported and nurtured that family? Or was this a second job to bring in much-needed tuition money now that they were older? Somehow, knowing she rode with a man who so obviously cared about his family, put her at ease. She relaxed into the worn cloth seat and rested her eyes for a precious few minutes.
Before too long, they turned onto a quieter street in Manhattan lined with restaurants, pubs, and nightclubs. Light traffic flowed, with handfuls of people entering and exiting various establishments.
On Friday and Saturday nights, the same sidewalks and businesses were filled to capacity with endless lines weaving between velvet ropes, hoping for an opportunity to get inside. Cole had picked a weeknight. Give the man one checkmark in the pro column.
The digital clock in the taxi assured her she’d arrived three minutes early. Erynn slid her company charge card through the card reader. Not waiting for a receipt, she handed a five to the driver for a tip from her personal cash and stepped out of the cab.
Situated in a historical brick building, Lorenzo’s was a cross between loft and lodge style, with exposed heating, pipes, brick, and dark wood beams. Dim lighting, leather booths, and a mingling of styles gave a contemporary yet historical atmosphere to the space. The cream walls on each side of the long, narrow dining room held black-and-white movie stills from the Hollywood classics, A Farewell to Arms, Night and Day, and Casablanca. Muted lamps in between the photos cast a golden light on the heavy black frames. Pendant droplights with soft illumination dotted over every booth, creating a warm, intimate atmosphere for the patrons.
Patrons laughed and talked in hushed tones. The mouth-watering scents of garlic, butter, and meaty pasta sauce drifted through the air, making her stomach growl. Her nervousness throughout the day had made it virtually impossible for her to eat.
She stepped up to the dark mahogany podium and stared at the tall, striking blonde hostess wearing a snug black cocktail dress. She belonged on a catwalk. Her nametag read Caroline. Nope, no boy name for her. Erynn cursed her lack of height and the extra twenty pounds she carried. Most times she liked her curves. However, when she saw a woman with a svelte body, she fought the urge to tug at her fitted clothes and double-check she wasn’t squeezing out anywhere.
“My name is Norah West. I’m here to meet Alex Cole.”
The hostess’s warm smile made it impossible to hate her. Erynn really wanted to hate her. “Absolutely. Right this way.”
Erynn’s heart pounded with each step. Those wildlife videos of the innocent zebra, drinking from a small pond in the serene wilderness, only to be pounced on by a ravenous lion, played through her head.
Her skin heated on the three wide steps leading into one of three intimate dining areas. Caroline stopped short of the most private booth and extended her arm for Erynn to precede her into the bench across from Alex Cole. He sat with his back to her, lifting a highball glass to his lips. The hairs on her arms and the back of her neck stood up as she sensed the stirrings of recognition. She stepped forward and stumbled to a stop, gripping the high back of the bench for support.
Familiar chocolate-brown eyes regarded her and her professional composure went up in flames. This could not be happening.
Caroline’s brows wrinkled, “Are you all right Miss West?” She clasped Erynn’s elbow, steadying her.
Erynn pasted a smile on her face. “Thank you, yes, I’m fine.”
She took a seat quickly, before her shaking legs gave out on her. Her cheeks flamed. Her blood raced. Could he see how he affected her? She tucked her purse next to her on the soft leather. Feigning calm, she looked up into his eyes, his were laser-focused on her.
More gorgeous than ever, his once boyish face had matured into hard lines and edges. He stared at her, his chiseled face hard and his sensuous mouth unyielding. A touch of gray threaded through his dark, wavy hair at the temples. He had become ridiculously sexy with a broader and harder body. Her traitorous eyes fell to his hard arms, hugged by the fitted black dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up below his elbow. Two buttons open at the top of his shirt revealed tan skin, but hid the sprinkling of hair she remembered to be underneath. Much to Erynn’s dismay, despite the tension rolling off him, she found every bit of him attractive. The familiar fire that raced through her veins whenever he was near incinerated her now.
The sucker-punch to his gut left him speechless. His body reacted, telling him he still wanted her. His hands curled into fists. She’d replaced her wild curls with sleek, shiny strands tamed into a soft, loose bun. Shit. Now he critiqued hair? This is what she’d reduced him to?
His eyes roamed her face. She still only wore the barest of makeup, much to his relief. In a world where darkly lined eyes, fake eyelashes, and bold lipstick dominated, she remained fresh faced. A light smattering of freckles accented her rosy cheeks and full pink lips.
He remembered tugging her hair, exposing her slim throat to his eager mouth. Sweat broke out on his neck. An antique locket nestled in the soft skin of her cleavage drew his eye. A gift from a boyfriend? He couldn’t imagine her ever being more beautiful, but this Erynn, with the classy clothes, sleek appearance, and the same telltale flush of her cheeks, stunned.
Before either of them spoke, their waiter, a short and round older gentleman approached the table to take their drink order.
“The lady will have red wine and I’ll take another of these.” He jiggled the ice in his glass.
Eyes on his, she raised a copper brow.
The waiter, Arturo, according to his nametag, frowned before remembering himself. “Yes, sir, I’ll be right back with your drinks.” He bowed toward her and smiled. “If I may, you’re a vision, my dear.”
Grant’s lips straightened into a hard line when she offered Arturo a genuine smile. “Thank you. You, my good man, are a flirt.”
He smiled even wider and winked. “Don’t I know it.”
“You wrap everyone you meet around your finger, don’t you?”
Erynn’s eyes widened in surprise, and her fingers fiddled with the locket between her breasts. “I beg your pardon?”
“Your demure smile, the flushed cheeks, the unwavering eye contact. I must admit, you’ve perfected it since you last used that tactic on me.” He knew he was being a dick, but he couldn’t seem to help himself. He had consumed enough alcohol to make him mouthy, and he resented how she still got to him.
“They’re called manners. You should try them sometime.”
Grant clenched his jaw, making his teeth grind.
“Look, I understand if you’re upset, but—”
“If I’m upset?” He snorted. “I’m not upset. I know how you operate, and I’m immune.”
Full of alcohol and looking for control, he bit his tongue. Opening his mouth proved he hadn’t gotten over it.
He held up a hand. “Let’s move on.”
Arturo arrived with their drinks. “Can I get you anything else?”
“If you give us a couple more minutes we’ll have our dinner order ready.”
Erynn folded her hands. “I’m here to do a job. This isn’t personal, or at least not for me. We need to keep this professional.”
Too bad. He would get close to her. He would seduce her into his bed. He would take his fill and leave her the way she’d left him. But for now, he would play her way. Anything to get her into a contract, into his house, and into his bed.
“Understood. Professional.” He closed his menu. “Have you made a decision?”
“You mean I have a choice?”
Her quick comeback delighted him, and he smiled. Her temper would serve him well to push her buttons and maintain the upper hand.
“The filet is excellent, as are the scallops and the ravioli.”
She set down her menu and picked up her wine, tipping the sparkling glass to her lips. His pants grew tight from watching her swallow the sweet, dark wine.
Arturo appeared. “Are you ready to order?”
“Ladies first.” Grant hooked an arm over the back of the booth.
“I’ll have the lasagna. Thank you.”
He couldn’t stop his smile. “Mushroom ravioli.”
At Arturo’s retreat, Grant took a measured sip of his whiskey. “My terms are non-negotiable. Thirty days, you live with me, every minute of your time is spent with me, following my routine. When I get up at three a.m. to work on an idea, you get up with me. I am still involved with the high school, so I will come up with an explanation as to why you’re with me. Under no circumstances will you divulge my writing identity. Only a handful of people know, and it needs to stay under wraps until this interview comes out. Understood?”
“I have to handle a few things when I arrive and I need some time off every week to relax.”
“You can’t expect me to go to Livingston for the first time since I left and not have business to handle. I walked out of my family home eight years ago and haven’t been back since. This is the only time I expect to be back in the area. The house needs attention. My parents’ things need to be packed. I need time to visit my grandmother.”
“Fine, two days.”
“And the time off?”
She leaned forward, eyes flashing. “Yes.”
He sat back and regarded her. She surprised him. She held fast to her requirements despite how she’d left him. Instead of being irritated, he found this side of her sexy as hell. Not twenty minutes into seeing him again and she’d gathered some resolve. He grudgingly respected her for it.
Erynn leaned back and crossed her arms over her chest as she cocked an eyebrow at him. “Well?”
He took another long sip of his drink, taking his sweet time enjoying the view of her arms pushing her cleavage up even higher. “Fine, one day off a week.”
“One day on the weekend and one evening during the week.”
“Fine. Anything else?”
“You work in my office with me. You take your meals with me. Anything you do, you do with me. No questions are off limits and, in return, you’re mine for thirty days.”
“I’m not a whore. I’m a journalist.”
He scoffed. “I don’t want you in my bed, but I demand your undivided attention and focus or the deal is off.”
Her skin flushed scarlet. She slowly blinked. “I’m quite capable of doing my job.”
“Good. I expect you Saturday night, so you have one weekend day and one weekday to get your affairs in order before we begin. Charlotte will send you the details.”
He stood, pulled out two hundred-dollar bills and dropped them on the table. He took one last look at her, his eyes drawn to the locket. He wondered who’d bought her such an extravagant piece of jewelry. “Nice locket.”
Without saying goodbye or so much as a glance in her direction, he clenched his jacket in his fist and walked away.
Her breath whooshed out and she slumped back in her seat. How could she continue to protect him if she returned to Livingston after she was warned to leave?
She brushed her locket with trembling fingers. Arturo arrived with their meals. His brows knitted with confusion upon seeing Grant’s side of the booth empty before he set down their steaming plates.
“Thank you Arturo for everything, but would it be too much trouble to get these dinners packed up to go?”
“Of course not. Is everything okay?”
A loaded question. “Everything is fine. Mr. Cole had an emergency.”
“Ahhh, I hope all is well. I’ll be right back.”
She tried for a smile, but suspected she’d missed her mark. “Thank you again.”
With a final nod, he walked away.
Self-preservation would have her calling the interview off, but she couldn’t. John would demand an explanation that would be impossible to give. She had to pursue this subject as she did all others, even if she ended up more damaged in the end.
Despite his gruffness and angry disposition, her body recognized his. Her focus had slid several times to the way his lips curled on the glass he lifted to his mouth. Years ago, he left no parts of her body unexplored with those sensuous lips.
And those hands. She watched him watch her, fascinated by the rhythmic motion of his long fingers moving up and down the side of his glass. Condensation made the tips of his fingers wet. Her throat went dry. Her mind flashed to vivid memories of those fingers moving over her in much the same way.
At least she didn’t have to be worried about being tempted into his bed. He didn’t want her there. He would try to control her. He would anger her, make her grovel, and try to humiliate her. All in the name of revenge. She would manage his treatment of her while managing everything coming her way with her impending return to Livingston.
Hours of poring through her parents’ belongings, deciding what to keep and what to donate came first. Every saved drawing, report card, faded picture, and souvenir from family vacations would evoke bittersweet memories.
The things she kept she would send to her storage unit in Stamford, Connecticut. Several pieces had been handed down through her family for generations. Many pieces belonged to her Grandma Joan; they had been transferred to her parents’ home after a debilitating stroke forced her into assisted living at the Hamden House. She still couldn’t bring herself to move the pieces into her condo. The memories hurt too much.
She would list the house for sale. The house would benefit a growing family. She would hire someone to paint and to clean after she emptied it. If she priced the house right, a buyer would snatch it up. She didn’t care about money. Her job paid well. She still retained substantial savings from the insurance money paid after her parents’ deaths. No amount of money would soften the loss she’d lived with the last decade.
Moving away from the constant reminders of all she lost had given her the breathing room to carve out a new life. She controlled her emotions. Sure, she suffered the occasional pang of loss, but in Livingston, in her childhood home, grief and pain stifled her. The time had come to let go of burdens and move on.
She needed to check in on her grandmother. Even though she couldn’t interact or recognize people, Erynn carried guilt for leaving her with strangers. Every visit before leaving, Grandma Joan would just sit, staring off at nothing, her hands linked in her lap. Fingers that had deftly braided Erynn’s and her favorite doll Maggie’s hair at every sleepover, strong fingers that had provided for her family, now remained still.
Erynn had no choice but to manage under Grant’s scrutiny. She needed every bit of fortitude she could muster to get through the next month.
The possibility loomed that whoever threatened them before, still lived in Livingston. For thirty days, she would study every person, peer around every corner, always wondering if their secret would be discovered.
Avery glanced up from where he lay watching TV when Erynn came through the door. “What the hell happened to you? I thought you met with Alex Cole?”
Erynn glanced away. “I did.”
“Then you walked through an automatic carwash?”
She glanced down at her rumpled clothes. She still clutched a wad of crumpled tissues in her left hand. The remnants of her once perfect makeup lay in black smears on the tissues. The now wrinkled bag of takeout was clenched in the other.
“I look that bad?”
“Yeah, love, you do.”
“So, fill me in.”
“I’m in way over my head.”
Avery shut off the TV. “What do you mean?”
Erynn walked into the kitchen, grabbed a bottle of wine from the wine cooler, and poured a generous glass. She swallowed almost half the glass in one gulp. “I told you about the guy I was in love with and left back home.”
Avery snorted. “Vaguely.”
She drained her glass, set it on the cool granite, and poured a refill. “He’s Alex Cole.”
Avery poured his own glass and took a seat at the island. “I’m listening.”
“He taught English my senior year.”
Avery choked on his sip of wine, leading to a world-class coughing fit. His watering eyes regarded her. “Jesus, love, when you step in it, you really step in it.”
“Torrid enough for you?”
“Yup, you win. How did this come about?”
“The summer after I graduated, I ran into him at Lake Crane. One of the guys from the baseball team threw a Frisbee. It landed against my hip. He collected it. He invited me to stay for their barbecue, where we grew close. You know?”
Avery’s eyes softened. “Yeah.”
“A month later, I walked to my car and found a manila envelope with a picture of him and me kissing, and a threat to leave town or his career would be ruined. Six hours later, I crossed into Ohio, and I’ve never returned.” She took a deep breath. “Until now.”
Avery stared at her as if she’d sprouted a second head. “Did he give you terms?”
“One month.” She laid her cheek against the cool granite. Erynn struggled for control over her tears. She’d cried through the cab ride and most of the train ride. Tears couldn’t help her now. Hell, nothing could help her now.
“Are you going to take the deal?”
“I have a choice? I can’t explain to John that Cole is my former teacher, who I banged the summer after I graduated.”
“So is he good looking?”
Erynn’s mouth fell open. “Are you serious? My life is about to fall apart and you’re asking me if he’s good-looking?”
Avery held his hands up, palms out. “Hey, I’m trying to get a picture here.”
She picked up the bottle of wine and her glass, circled around the island, walked over to the couch, and tugged off her boots. She dropped into the soft fabric and tucked her feet under her. Thank God for fermented grapes tonight. The sweet tang dulled the raw-edged emotions bubbling under the surface. The tension eased when Avery sat down next to her and began kneading her stiff neck.
“He’s gorgeous. Even more so. It’s not fair.”
“You can have a naughty,” Avery suggested, and winked at her.
“I’m not sleeping with him. He doesn’t want me, he made that clear. Besides, it wouldn’t be fair to Paul.”
“Yeah, well, Paul has a big stick up his—”
“I get it, you don’t like him, but he’s there when I need him.”
“Which is rarely.”
She shot a glare at Avery. “He fits in with my colleagues.”
She sighed. “We never fight.”
“How do you fight with no passion?”
A tear slipped down Erynn’s cheek. Exhaustion settled over her. Such strong feelings had awoken in her, leaving her struggling to regain control of her emotions. The short amount of time with him at Lorenzo’s had left her drained and aching.
Avery reached for her, pulling her into his lap. She greedily accepted this comfort and curled into him. “You’re going to be okay, love. Maybe this is necessary. As long as you spend your life going through the motions, with your past unsettled, you won’t move forward. You’re stronger now. Do you still love him?”
She nodded her affirmation with her face buried in his neck.
“Look at me.”
She pulled back and stared into cool blue eyes. The kindness and love in his expression caused more tears. He smoothed his thumbs under her eyes, wiping away the moisture.
“You need to find out for sure if you two have a future. If you don’t, you come home, and move on.”
Sniffling, she nodded. “I love you.”
He pressed his lips to her forehead. “I love you too. You want to stay with me tonight?”
She nodded. Before heading to Avery’s room, she sent an email to Kat saying only, “I’m coming home.”
They put away their glasses and got ready for bed. She sighed as he held her while she fell into a fitful sleep. In her dreams, she and Grant were married. He worked at Livingston Valley High School, her former high school, during the day, while she stayed home taking care of their children. They spent their nights in each other’s arms. At three in the morning she woke up crying. The dream had been so real. Avery tucked her against his side. He ran his fingers through her hair in long, slow strokes. She focused on the mesmerizing feel until she fell asleep again.
Grant leaned back in his office chair and stared out at the still reflection of the lake, disturbed occasionally by a hungry fish feeding at the surface. Watching the pink, red, and orange streaks shooting jagged lines through the sky relaxed him most nights. Not tonight. He’d underestimated his reaction to Erynn. He needed to find control before Saturday. He’d be damned if he would give her the satisfaction of knowing how much she affected him.
Their relationship had ended before they reached the sparring stage. They would spar now. She would dig into his life, leaving no detail untouched. She would learn about his family, his life growing up, and all the experiences that made him. Funny, her leaving, more than anything else, had shaped the man he became.
When Erynn didn’t call or return, he’d tried to call her, only to get her voice mail. He’d tried texting her, again with no response. With only one person privy to their relationship, he called Kat. When she didn’t answer, he sent her a text. Much to his relief, she replied right away.
B right there
He paced and worried. Twenty minutes later, Kat knocked on his door. She stood wringing her hands. He stepped back to let her in. Worried, he lost all patience. “Where is she?”
She looked everywhere but in his eyes. “She’s gone.”
“She left town.”
He dropped to the couch. “What?”
“Why didn’t she tell me?”
She sat down in the chair across from him. “She wanted me to tell you ‘More isn’t enough’—she said you’d understand.”
Three words coming from someone he loved had brought him to his knees. For months after he’d pored over every moment they spent together. He racked his brain to remember every exact word to try to figure out where he went wrong. Memories of all they’d done a month before, a week before, a day before, played in a repeating loop. She took off with no warning, no goodbye, nothing.
Loving her and losing her affected every relationship that followed. Once tight with his family, he started pulling away. His parents sat him down, tried to figure out what had happened to their peaceful, even-tempered son. His siblings showed up on occasion claiming they missed him. They tiptoed around why they stopped by at first, but inevitably the questions began. Why was he pulling away? What made him so unhappy? Why was he angry? Did he care what kind of worry he caused their parents?
When their pleading and gestures didn’t reach through, the accusations came. They called him cruel and selfish. His sister Lauren asked him if he wanted to end up alone. He already was. Five short weeks with Erynn had confirmed what he wanted, but could no longer have. With so much time isolated, he focused on his goals. Write as much as time would allow. Mold the story, perfect it, and move mountains, if necessary to publish.
He’d imagined raising his own family one day, but the vision never solidified in his mind, until his summer with Erynn. His original goals remained unchanged, and he added new ones to the list. A wife, a home, and kids became his direction.
What would it be like to hear his child’s heart beating inside of her? To feel his baby kick against her tight skin? How would she handle labor? He imagined her being strong and enduring. He’d hold her hand while nature tested her in the most physical of ways. Their baby’s first breath and cries, binding them forever.
For the first time, his future had faces. But Erynn’s message ripped his vision away. His future no longer held anything beyond teaching and writing. Even his hazy images of a wife and family deserted him, leaving him bitter.
He abandoned his comedies for dark slasher novels. He chose a pen name to protect him from humiliation if he flopped. His attorneys wrote privacy clauses in each book deal. He taught and wrote. On occasion, he got out his frustration in the arms of meaningless women. His age helped him form bonds and reel in even the most reluctant student.
At thirty-two, things changed. He created an accelerated creative writing program at LVH. He finished his first book and committed to another. He switched from full-time teaching to a part-time position with his creative writing students, and continued to coach varsity baseball.
For fun, he socialized with friends and dated. The women he entertained knew the deal. He was in for a good time, good sex, but no commitments. He spent money on them, he flattered them, and he took everything they gave. If he thought they became too attached, he ended it.
Currently, he enjoyed a sweet little arrangement with the local vet in neighboring Jacob’s Bend. She demanded nothing of him. They’d enjoyed their mutually beneficial arrangement weekly for several months now. With Erynn coming, they would need to take a break.
Grant leaned back, crossed his arms behind his head, and propped his feet on the corner of his desk. Brewster’s soft snore drifted through the room. He envied his dog’s ability to relax into a deep sleep. A small smile played upon his lips as an idea took shape in his mind. Maybe he wouldn’t be taking a break from Liz after all. He dialed her number and made plans for Saturday night.
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