Book Blitz & Excerpt: Blood from a Stone + Giveaway

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Blood from a Stone by David M. Salkin

Word Count: 68,144
Book Length: NOVEL
Pages: 274

Genres:

ACTION AND ADVENTURE
CONTEMPORARY
CRIME AND MYSTERY
MEN IN UNIFORM
MYSTERY
ROMANCE
THRILLERS AND SUSPENSE

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Book Description

A dream house to share with his love becomes a nightmare when an old diary reveals a dark secret that brings a wounded warrior out of retirement.

When Special Forces veteran Cory Walker purchased the home on Harkers Island, he knew it came with a history. Two white marble angels in the rear yard stand sentinel over the house where Casey Stone and her mother had lived—and died. But that was decades ago, and Cory is now in love with both the house and his girlfriend Amanda. He’s determined to build a new life on the quiet island to readjust to civilian life and enjoy his new love.

Cory’s decision to build a wine cellar turns his dream house into a nightmare when he discovers the hidden diary of Casey Stone. Casey, only sixteen, had been raped and murdered many years earlier, the only horrible crime that had ever occurred on the small island. Her mother was so devastated that she hanged herself, hence the two angels in the yard placed there by Earl Stone. As Cory reads the journal, he discovers that the truth may be much different from what was ever believed.

The wrong man is sitting in jail, and as Cory begins to ask questions about the case, he soon realizes he is opening a box of secrets that may get both him and Amanda killed.

Earl Stone, the formerly grieving husband and stepfather, may be the next President of the United States, and when a man that powerful wants secrets to stay buried, the dangerous possibilities are endless.

Reader advisory: This book includes mentions of sexual abuse and rape of a minor, psychological abuse, violence, reference to warfare including the deaths of children, sometimes graphic injury description and murder.

Excerpt

Amanda was driving down from Twin Oaks. I had a bottle of Italian red, a Super Tuscan called Le Volte by Ornellaia, decanting in the kitchen. I’d made a puttanesca sauce, and the garlic, red peppers and crushed anchovies sautéing in olive oil had perfumed my new home. The sizzle was a magical noise. Into that, I’d added diced Kalamata olives, capers, tomato paste and crushed tomatoes.

The spaghetti alla puttanesca was just a little taste—a traditional Italian pasta before the main course. The secondi would be a huge bone-in rib-eye steak, grilled out back on the patio. I had dry-rubbed the steak with my list of secret ingredients. It’s a secret because I never make anything the same way twice, so it’s a secret to me, too. A little sautéed broccoli rabe and badda-bing, dinner would be served. It would be our first meal together in the new house. I was trying to cook my way into her staying with me forever.

In my other life, I had eaten MREs on a regular basis—government-supplied packets of food designed to make you angry enough to kill people. ‘MRE’—Meals Rejected by Ethiopians, Meals Rarely Edible, Meals Requiring Enemas, Massive Rectal Expulsions. You get the idea. They weren’t very good. As a result, I learned to cook—foraging and becoming a creative genius to turn the rancid packets into something my comrades and I might actually eat.

Amanda arrived right on time, and with her, a breath of fresh air and an aura of positive energy and bright light that I’d been missing all my life. Her mere presence made me smile. I was hoping my cooking skills would make up for whatever other shortcomings I have. It seemed to be working. I have two great skills—cooking and killing people, and I planned to leave the death and destruction part in my former life. I was determined to be a kinder, gentler version of myself going forward. I would gourmet my way into Amanda’s heart.

Dinner was a smashing success, with conversation that covered a hundred topics and had us both smiling like lovestruck teenagers as we caught up on each other’s weeks. It was pretty darn perfect. After dinner, we finished that great bottle of Ornellaia, opened a bottle of port and decided to take a walk to the beach.

It was the kind of peaceful night that reminds one of how amazing life can be when everything falls into place. We ended up in the warm, flat ocean up to our knees and I asked her yet again about moving in. This time she didn’t say ‘no’. Instead, she talked about maybe trying to find a physical therapy job down here, closer to the island.

We walked home and sat outside in the back garden, looking at the stars. The moon lit the white marble faces of the two angels who resided in my yard. The pair had stood sentinel there for years before I’d purchased the house. They came alive softly in the moonlight, and with them, their sad story hung in the still air. The house had a history—one that the folks on Harkers Island wanted to forget.

On Sunday, after a late, leisurely brunch, Amanda left. It was like the air had been sucked out of the house. Loneliness snuck back into my soul and once again I had to fight off the ghosts of those last days in Afghanistan.

I needed a mission to focus on. And this time, it would be for me. A wine cellar… It would be a surprise for Amanda when she came back down in two weeks.

When I had purchased the house, I had been surprised to find it had a basement. The island is only a few feet above sea level. When this house had been built, the foundation had been set on a man-made hill, making the house one of the tallest on the island. It made the stately home regal, perched slightly above the rest of the houses like a castle above the serfs. It had an attitude—and I probably had one of the only basements on the island. There were plenty of newer and fancier homes, several worth seven figures, but this house had character—along with that dark history.

The basement was cool, the perfect temperature for wine. I’d sketched out a design and purchased lumber and some tools. The first thing I did was put in some overhead fluorescent lights. Then I scrubbed the poured concrete floor. The walls were cinderblock, with a few open crawlspaces.

Channeling my energy into something positive, I was going to finish making a rack system against one of the walls. Nothing too fancy. I would have the shelves slightly pitched forward. That way I could see the labels and keep the corks angled to the floor. It was a great way to design a wine cellar, but I couldn’t take credit for inventing it. Back in my days with Special Forces, a buddy and I used to kill time talking about our dream houses, and all of them included a great wine cellar. He would have built it someday—I’m sure of it—if some fanatic wearing a bomb vest hadn’t run into his tent one morning in Kabul and killed him and a few other great guys I knew. I’d build it for him. And that first bottle would be used to toast my friend.

I was cleaning off the cinderblock wall, getting ready to nail in the studs, when the beam of my flashlight caught the edge of something inside the crawlspace. That was when my dream house turned into a nightmare and ancient history became my new reality.

Sitting on the sand behind the top of the cinderblock wall was a small leather-covered book. Old and worn… I picked it up and looked at the cover. It must have been covered with doodles and cartoon flowers years ago, but the ink had faded, and insects and moisture had damaged it. When I opened the front cover, it cracked slightly at the binding.

Casey A. Stone 1991.

It took me a moment to realize what it was—a diary.

The paper was stiff and crinkly in my hands. The penmanship was neat and feminine…

My brain started playing catch-up, making the hair on the back of my neck stand.

Casey Stone.

She was one of the angels in my yard.

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About the Author

David M. Salkin

International, award-winning author David M. Salkin has been entertaining readers since 2005. His brand of thrillers includes military-espionage, horror and crime. Salkin has appeared around the country, including three times as a panelist at New York City’s Thrillerfest and also at Books in the Basin, in Midland and Odessa, Texas. Dave enjoys speaking to book clubs and groups about writing, and has appeared on television, radio, and various print media.

David served as an elected official in Freehold Township for twenty-five years (Mayor, Deputy Mayor and Township Committeeman) and was inducted into the New Jersey Elected Officials Hall of Fame in 2019. He is a 1988 graduate of Rutgers College with a BA in English Literature. When not working or writing, Dave prefers to be Scuba diving or traveling. He’s a Master Diver, as well as a pretty good chef and wine aficionado. David speaks three languages fluently – English, sarcasm and profanity.

David is an associate member of the Philip A Reynolds Detachment of the Marine Corps League, and board member of the Veterans Community Alliance.

Find out more at David’s website.

Giveaway

Enter to win a fabulous gift package and get a First For Romance Gift Card!

David M. Salkin Blood from a Stone Giveaway

DAVID M. SALKIN IS GIVING AWAY THIS FABULOUS PRIZE TO ONE LUCKY WINNER. ENTER HERE FOR YOUR CHANCE TO WIN A LOVELY GIFT PACKAGE AND GET A FIRST FOR ROMANCE GIFT CARD! Notice: This competition ends on 11TH May 2021 at 5pm GMT. Competition hosted by Totally Entwined Group.

Book Blitz & Excerpt: Twist My Heart + Giveaway

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Twist My Heart by Brooke Taylor

Word Count: 96,730
Book Length: SUPER NOVEL
Pages: 379
Heat Rating: Sizzling
Sexometer: 2

Genres:

ACTION AND ADVENTURE
CONTEMPORARY
EROTIC ROMANCE
THRILLERS AND SUSPENSE

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Book Description

After a tornado drops a feisty fugitive into the arms of a steel-hearted warrior, she must convince him to help her and her not-so-little dog evade a wicked enemy.

When a tornado drops Thea Gale and her not-so-little dog Titan into the arms of a steel-hearted warrior, she has no idea the trouble she is in. Lucky for her, the battle-scarred Navy SEAL who comes to her rescue knows a few things about evading wicked enemies.

Nickolas Steele is certain the right thing to do is to turn the filterless fugitive and her overprotective canine in to the authorities. But is the captivating amnesiac really a threat or is she the one whose life is in grave danger?

Nik can’t shake the feeling Thea’s past has come back to claim her, and discovering who she really is might be more deadly than either of them is prepared for. In order to enlist Nik’s help, Thea must not only confront the trauma of her former life but also penetrate the carefully forged armor protecting what’s left of Nik’s heart.

Excerpt

Newly retired Navy SEAL Nikolas Steele rolled an Atomic Fireball around his tongue as he debated continuing down the highway with a tornado watch in effect. The safe thing to do would be to hunker down for a bit, but Nik’s mood teetered precariously toward danger.

Retired.

Nik didn’t feel retired. He felt cocked and loaded.

‘You’ve been their weapon, now find your peace,’ his teammate Will’s pregnant wife, now widow, had told him before he’d left Coronado.

Clamping the spicy cinnamon jawbreaker between his molars, he crushed it to get to the sweet. How the hell was he supposed to do this ‘normal life’ thing when he’d rather risk driving into a tornado than be alone in a quiet hotel room?

Sticking a fuel nozzle into his four-door, matte black Jeep Rubicon, he set the handle to fill it with gas. Kansas prairie air hung thickly charged and stale all at the same time. The unstable weather in Goodland amplified his thrumming nerves. He just needed to come down off of this last deployment. After his teammate Will’s death, it wouldn’t be easy, but when was it ever?

He’d been invited to go with his best friend Coop and Coop’s brother Leo out to a private island owned by the reclusive billionaire Coop worked for. A little sun, sand, and sex therapy on Marakata Cay was exactly what Nik needed to detox the past several months of adrenaline and anxiety out of his system. Get clean, so to speak. He just had to get to Chicago, his rendezvous point with the guys, and in a couple of weeks maybe normal wouldn’t itch so badly.

Right now, what Nik really needed was a drink, and if he got a drink, he’d need a room, and if he got a room, he’d need… Well, there was only one reason an insomniac like himself could stand being in an uncomfortable hotel bed and sleep had nothing to do with it.

What was he in the mood for tonight? Sweet or spicy? Hardly mattered really, it’d been so long. But given how bad his anxiety had ramped up over losing Will and leaving the Teams, it’d be a miscalculation to hold out any longer for an exotic islander. A Kansas farm girl would do perfectly fine, thank you very much.

If Nik were the kind of guy who believed in signs, he might’ve considered the base-model, white Ford truck screaming in hot and skidding to a stop at the pumps to be one. A blonde with country-girl braids and gold-mirrored sunglasses swung from the truck and quickly jiggled a gas nozzle into the tank.

Pouring from the pickup’s cracked windows was his teammate’s favorite drinking song—Johnny Cash’s Cocaine Blues. Replacing the graphic images of Will’s death, which had haunted Nik most of the cross-country drive, was the vision of the shaggy-haired, surfer-turned-SEAL passionately belting out the lyrics as if he were the infamous Willy Lee on the run from the sheriff of Jericho Hill. The way Will would’ve wanted to be remembered.

The blonde’s hips shifted to the train-chugging rhythm of the rockabilly song as her fingers combed her braids out. Lifting her arms, she fought a gust of wind as she whipped the waves into a ponytail. The motion pulled her oversized hoodie high enough to reveal one of the best asses he’d seen in a long while.

Despite the jumpy energy of the old-timey classic, the pumps continued to run super slow and her wild ponytail danced as she sprang impatiently on the balls of her feet. She might as well have been Tigger the Tiger from the Pooh books—bouncy, flouncy, trouncy… He definitely wanted to pouncy.

Nik knew enough women to realize Tigger’s antsy energy meant she was probably more batshit than bouncy, but crazy sure could be a hell of a lot of fun for a night. And one night was all he had to offer.

The last trace of sun slipped below the wheat tips on the horizon as the ominous cloud cover turned what should be a dusky blue-gray sky into a nearly black one. Activated by a light sensor, yellow and red station signage flickered and fluorescent white overheads surged to ignite. Tigger jerked the hood of her sweatshirt over her head, casting her high cheekboned profile in shadow. Nik squeezed his brows and dropped his chin. With a little chuckle, he briefly considered opening with, Who knew the Unabomber had such a smoking-hot ass?

Despite the humor of it, he couldn’t get past the hoodie. The jagged edge to the atmosphere no longer bit down, but the humidity still threatened to choke him out. And she was in a freaking sweatshirt. Women. Why were they always so cold?

Leaning back against his Jeep, Nik crossed the Nile croc cowboy boots Coop had talked him into spending a small fortune on the last time he’d visited Texas. He pretended to check his phone while he kept eyes on Tigger, waiting for his opening.

Her attention, however, had caught on a horse trailer in front of her. The rig had pulled in a few minutes before and Nik had quickly determined that offering to pump the elderly driver’s gas while she went inside would likely earn him an earful, as she was not your average granny. It wasn’t just the long, silver ponytail she sported, either. There wasn’t a single thing soft or round on her lean, work-toned body, leaving Nik quite certain not only that the lady had hooked up the six-horse gooseneck trailer she was hauling all by herself but that she’d also bucked the bales of hay stacked on top.

Tigger panned the convenience store parking lot before climbing up on the fender step to stroke the brown and black muzzles poking through the aluminum slats. After slipping something to them—an apple core, maybe?—and a couple of quick pecks to their soft noses, she hopped down with a little bounce before the lady returned to catch her.

Nik’s fingers worked to unwrap another Fireball. The kissing bandit would turn his way soon. Not to be cocky, but it was surprising she wasn’t already showing interest.

Years of working Special Ops made observing people second nature, and he paid extra attention to the ones who didn’t fit perfectly in their boxes. Tigger had definitely bounced out of her box. She was attractive, but didn’t call attention to it with makeup or clothing. Small-framed, but her posture carried her taller. Imitation gold aviators hid her eyes despite night coming on. And she wore that awful baggy hoodie and jeans even though the heat along the dry line crept up to the mid-nineties.

More annoying than the sweatshirt, the hot-blooded Kansas farm girl was more interested in kissing the lips of horses than the cold-blooded American soldier trying to catch her eye.

He wasn’t the only one frustrated. Tigger repeatedly clasped the fuel nozzle, trying to get it to pump faster. Damn, if those delicate pink-tipped fingers were closing around him, neither one of them would be frustrated for long.

Or if she’d only turn his way, he could take care of them both.

Gather some quick intel, disarm her with a grin and maybe a subtle shot of his abs, divert her to one of the dive bars farther off the highway and buy her a round before finding a hotel and going a different kind of round…or two…or four. Simple.

The mission fresh in his mind, and tired of waiting for her to initiate contact, he rocked his body off the Jeep. Discreetly he shifted his concealed carry holster from appendix to hip, because flashing the six-pack with a semiauto sticking out of your waistband tended to send the wrong message. Run, so I can use you for moving target practice wasn’t the look he was going for in this particular application. You live. You learn.

His Sig P365 safely out of sight, Nik strode forward with a good ol’ boy swagger the Lucchese boots lent him. At the first scuff of his leather soles, her mirrored-sunglass gaze snapped his way. One side of his mouth cocked up. Tigger was paying attention after all.

God, having her full focus turned Nik’s blood a little wild, his breathing just south of controlled. His gut flickered with vulnerability. Feelings he was accustomed to having while palming sketchy explosives, but never from a woman.

Damn if he didn’t love things that go boom.

With calculated casualness he stroked his palm up his stomach, bringing the hem of his black T-shirt with it… Just a peek. Okay. It was a cheesy move. Maybe not as blatantly so as the ol’ yawn and stretch, but he’d fully admit it was the male equivalent to pushing one’s boobs together. Like the boob-squeeze, the ab-flash was a seasoned hook when time was limited. Know a good place to get a drink around here? hovered over his tongue, but she held up her hand, ensuring the words never made it past his teeth.

“Save it, cowboy.”

Cowboy? Coop would get a kick out of that.

The sexy curve to her bare, pink lips teased him closer as her patronizing tone backed him off. All he could do was hold position on the oil-splattered pavement. Before he could even ask her if she wanted to save a horse and ride him instead, she cut him off. “From the way you’ve been staring at my ass, you’d only last two minutes, and I don’t even have time for one.”

His bouncy little Tigger was a tiger after all. Even better. “In that case, darlin’, which would you prefer—I wreck your plans for the next several hours defending my stamina or accept the challenge of getting you done in one?”

Her plush lower lip plumped between her teeth, a clear indication she was considering picking the former. But as easily as she threw the nozzle at the pump, she tossed back at him, “Get yourself done in one.”

Nik blinked.

His speechlessness was rewarded with a devilish smirk as she swung her hot tail into the truck and peeled away. In true Tigger fashion, she bounded over the curb to avoid oncoming traffic. A protest of honking followed in her wake.

Nik chuckled. Sweet and spicy. Yep, she’d be one hell of a tiger to have by the tail. With any luck he’d have another shot at a piece of it farther down the road.

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About the Author

Brooke Taylor

Brooke Taylor lives and writes from her country home in Oklahoma where her pets are a constant, but happy, distraction. When she’s not reading or writing, she enjoys horseback riding, going to the lake, and traveling.

Brooke has worked extensively in the travel industry, from dude ranches to ski resorts to cruise lines. Her many overseas adventures include sky diving in New Zealand, scuba diving with sharks, sailing through hurricanes, and having her tent attacked by wild animals in the Mara game reserve in Kenya. Due to current health insurance rates, Brooke is letting her characters do most of the risk-taking from now on.

Find out more about Brooke at her website.

Giveaway

Enter to win a fabulous gift package and get a First For Romance Gift Card!

Brooke Taylor Twist My Heart Giveaway

BROOKE TAYLOR IS GIVING AWAY THIS FABULOUS PRIZE TO ONE LUCKY WINNER. ENTER HERE FOR YOUR CHANCE TO WIN A LOVELY GIFT PACKAGE AND GET A FIRST FOR ROMANCE GIFT CARD! Notice: This competition ends on 13TH April 2021 at 5pm GMT. Competition hosted by Totally Entwined Group.

Book Blitz & Excerpt: Snowbound with the Billionaire + Giveaway

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Snowbound with the Billionaire
by Aurora Russell

Word Count: 59,719
Book Length: NOVEL
Pages: 222
Heat Rating: Sizzling
Sexometer: 2

Genres:

ACTION AND ADVENTURE
BILLIONAIRE
CONTEMPORARY
ENEMIES TO LOVERS
EROTIC ROMANCE
MYSTERY
THRILLERS AND SUSPENSE

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Book Description

A blizzard traps her in a remote cabin with a man she can’t stand. But what if she doesn’t want to leave when the snow clears?

Marina Lopez might have sworn off love for herself, but that doesn’t stop her from being overjoyed that her best friend Annelise has found true happiness with her new man. Determined to help the couple celebrate in style, Marina drives up early to help organize their engagement party at a lodge in rural Vermont owned by the Gaspards, the future bridegroom’s wealthy, powerful family. Unfortunately, the weather reports were wrong and she gets snowed in with just about the last person she ever wanted to face again.

Pierre Gaspard, the head of his family, company and financial empire, is used to controlling everything and everyone around him and seldom has a regret. However, he does with regard to the harsh lesson he’d decided to teach Marina months earlier, and he’s not thrilled to have her as an unwilling guest at his family’s cabin, which became his sanctuary as he recovered from injuries sustained during an attempt on his life.

Explosive and irresistible chemistry draws them together, but as strange accidents accelerate, they begin to fear that they might not be so alone in the snowy Vermont woods after all. When Pierre sends Marina away over a misunderstanding, he unknowingly puts her squarely into the path of the menace that continues to stalk his family. He rushes to her aid, but even if he makes it in time to protect her, he isn’t certain he’ll ever be able to convince her to forgive him—or that he doesn’t want to take the place of her lost love, but instead to build something new together.

Reader advisory: This book contains a scene of attempted murder and violence.

Excerpt

“Don’t worry, Rina! You’re going to love Rémy’s family. His brothers and sister totally can’t wait to meet you! Also, you look amazing in that dress.” Annelise turned her head halfway to look behind them and Marina wondered what had caught her best friend’s attention in the quiet valet area of the sparkling-clean parking garage.

“In fact,” Annelise continued in a lower voice, “the back looks pretty freaking fantastic. Are you wearing those butt-boosting underwear things? Or have you been hitting the gym harder than usual?” A spark of mischief lit her eyes before she went on. “I don’t mean to be crass…” Annelise waggled her eyebrows.

“Oh, I know I’ve got really nice ass!” Marina had to stifle an undignified snort-laugh as she finished one of their favorite sayings, trying to keep her voice down. “Annelise! Such language so close to the hallowed halls of the Mount Valder Club! I would expect that kind of comment from me, but from you?” Marina mock-chided, but Annelise’s light comment had cut the tension and her anxiety in half.

Annelise flushed pink. “Rémy says it isn’t as stuffy as its reputation would suggest.” She waved her hand dismissively, making the subtle mauve polish that Marina had painted onto her nails a couple of days earlier during a rare girls’ night flash in the soft lighting. “And anyway, it’s not like anyone is going to dare complain about us. Pierre fast-tracked membership for the whole family as soon as they decided to open a Gaspard Industries branch here in Boston, and we have the entire ballroom reserved just for our soiree tonight. All that must have cost, like, a squillion dollars.”

They fell into step together, linking arms by unspoken mutual consent as they headed toward the elevators.

Marina arched one eyebrow. “Look at you, huh? Engaged to a member of one of Canada’s most preeminent families—oh, and wealthiest and best-looking, too—for a little over a month and suddenly even the Mount Valder is small potatoes,” she teased, and Annelise’s cheeks flushed a deeper shade of rose.

“Well, we have been going to a lot of parties—all kinds of parties. The lifestyle Rémy has—really, that they all have—to maintain is kind of crazy. And the events are all so fancy and exclusive and luxurious… I’m getting”—she paused thoughtfully as they stepped into the elevator—“not jaded, but definitely a little less impressed by everything than I used to be.”

Marina showed surprise. “Really? That’s saying something, Anna, for someone who literally plans fancy events for a living.”

Annelise shrugged a little sheepishly, the movement making her shimmery golden dress sparkle all around her. “It’s crazy, right? But I can see why Rémy avoided a lot of this for so long. I don’t know how Pierre does it. He’s in the spotlight the most of all of them, since he’s the CEO and everything.” Annelise leaned closer and Marina smelled the warm vanilla scent her best friend had always favored. “Honestly, I think all of Rémy’s siblings would prefer to be at home most nights, but there are such expectations… They don’t always have a choice.”

Annelise had hinted before at the fact that everything might not be as picture-perfect and easy as it seemed for Rémy’s fabulously wealthy and powerful family. Case in point, just a few months earlier, the Gaspard siblings had had a crazy ex-friend—also the ex-fiancé of Rémy’s sister—who’d ended up trying, repeatedly, to murder them. He was still awaiting trial.

“That does make sense,” Marina agreed, nodding slowly. She thought of how she and Annelise had been struggling over the past months to make time to get together even once every couple of weeks. Marina totally understood that Anna had been caught up in not only the intensity of a new romance but also in being introduced as a member of ‘the Gaspard family’. Marina wasn’t offended—of course I’m not—but she missed Annelise. Plus, not meeting her best friend for lunch or drinks as often anymore had made her own small studio apartment seem so much emptier.

That was part of what had made Annelise’s invitation to tonight’s party so important—so much so that Marina had gotten a little uncharacteristically nervous. It was a small, exclusive event only for close friends and contacts of the Gaspards and also an unofficial celebration of Rémy’s oldest brother, Pierre’s, expected reentry into society. Marina wasn’t sure what had been going on, and Annelise had been maddeningly vague, but Pierre had been letting everyone else shoulder the lion’s share of the family obligations for months while he mysteriously wasn’t around. Personally, her guess was that he had been hanging out on the family yacht off the coast of St. Tropez with a revolving door of supermodels. Whatever the reason, he was finally deigning to come back at tonight’s event.

At that thought, Marina’s previous anxiety started to ramp up again, but she took a deep breath and straightened her spine. I am smart, fun, beautiful and Annelise’s best friend, she reminded herself. This is for Anna, and if they don’t like me or think I’m good enough, it won’t be because I haven’t given it my damnedest. As though feeling her tension, Annelise squeezed her hand reassuringly as they walked toward the brightly lit ballroom with unmistakable party sounds coming from it, and Marina raised her chin with a confidence that she wasn’t sure she totally felt. It was showtime.

Two hours later, Marina was shocked to find that she was actually having fun. Clothilde, Annelise’s future sister-in-law, was kind, down-to-earth and had a wickedly sharp wit that made her feel like an instant friend, in spite of the fact that she looked like she should be on the cover of a high-fashion magazine. Actually, Marina seemed to recall that Clothilde had been on the cover of several women’s magazines in the past. Luc, who was Rémy’s younger brother, had flown in from Paris just for the event and he was absolutely charming, but in a genuine way. He was handsome, funny and his light flirtation had made her giggle and blush.

Still, so much dancing and socializing had worn her down a little bit, so when Rémy had asked Annelise to dance again for the umpteenth time that evening, leaving Marina alone for a moment, she had seized her chance to sneak away and rest her feet. Not that she was ungrateful—no, it gave her warm fuzzies to think of how attentive Rémy and his family had been to her all evening, obviously determined not to let her feel awkward or nervous for a second—but she was just a little overwhelmed. This was Annelise’s scene, not hers, and her cheeks were starting to hurt from smiling as much as her feet were beginning to ache from spending too long in high heels.

She ducked into the dark hallway behind the ballroom and noticed that the rooms were labeled with the names of prominent Bostonians from the past. They looked like conference rooms, and she nearly sighed with relief. No one was likely to be having a conference at this time of the evening, so she could take a little break in peace to pull herself together again. She opened the first heavy, dark-wood door, which was surprisingly well-oiled and silent. Even with the lights out, she could make out the outlines of several chairs surrounding an enormous table. Definitely a conference room. Perfect.

She pulled the door closed behind her and let out a long sigh, stepping out of her shoes immediately and relishing the feel of the cool hardwood floor underneath her stockinged feet. If she were honest with herself, it wasn’t just the physical strain of the party she’d wanted to escape. It was also the brilliant, effervescent happiness and love that she had felt radiating from Annelise and Rémy. She was overjoyed for her best friend—absolutely, I am—but here in the darkness, alone, she could admit that she was envious, too. The hole that remained in her soul, the slash of pain whenever she remembered the beautiful, wonderful man she’d loved and with whom she’d planned an entire lifetime of happiness, ached and throbbed more than any physical wound ever could. Oh, Jaime.

She could picture his face vividly, although now, after so much time, she hated that he was starting to look more and more like the pictures she had of him and less like the man in her memories. He had been young—so incredibly young. She’d been cheated by a stray bullet, friendly fire during a skirmish, out of knowing what he would look like any older than twenty-one. What would he have looked like if he were as old as the woman she saw in her own reflection these days? Would he even recognize her, dancing in a ballroom with multiple men in tailored suits, sipping champagne and eating foie-gras and caviar canapes from silver platters, offered by tastefully dressed and silent waitstaff? Joking and flirting with Annelise’s future brother-in-law as well as several of the other charming older men who were friends of Rémy’s family?

That was the crux of her tiredness…the reason she’d needed to escape. What the hell was she doing, enjoying herself like this when Jaime was cold and buried in the Virginia ground, still wearing his dress blues? And when she’d sent him away the way she had… But she refused to even start to think about that tonight. She tried not to cry anymore, and most days, she succeeded. But this evening, watching Annelise with her fiancé, wrapped up in his love at every moment, had made Marina feel fragile all over again. As if Jaime’s loss were closer tonight, somehow.

She felt for and made contact with the closest chair, planning to sink down onto it.

“Unless you want to find yourself on my lap—which I’m not opposed to, mind you—you’d better choose another seat, chérie.”

Marina yelped and leapt away, her heart pounding up into her throat. The man’s voice had been deep, raspy and amused, and she might have found it sexy under other circumstances. However, alone in a dark conference room behind doors that had looked extremely thick was not the right circumstance for anything but terror.

“Why didn’t you say anything when I came in?” she finally managed to ask, wincing at the accusation in her tone. She heard a rustle and could almost feel his shrug.

“I hoped that you would leave quickly, and I didn’t want to startle you,” he answered simply.

His answer made sense, but Marina was irrationally annoyed. “What are you doing in here, anyway? Who would leave a party to come sit in the dark?”

His chuckle was dry, and goosebumps raised on her arms. “Who indeed?”

She pursed her lips. “Touché,” she acknowledged.

“I’ll reveal some of my demons if you show me yours.” His tone was mocking as he echoed the childish dare. She couldn’t help the way her pulse quickened, as though he were offering to show her something illicit.

“No thank you.” She winced at how prim her tone was, but the stranger’s amused chuckle rolled through the small room.

“I didn’t think you would, but I hoped…” He trailed off meaningfully.

“I’m going to sit down in, uh, another chair,” she announced, trying to change the subject. “My feet are killing me from so much dancing.”

“Be my guest, chérie. Seat yourself anywhere you desire.” Again, his rough voice made his words sound like innuendo. She sank down onto the chair one over from his. “I can imagine your lovely feet must throb from those beautiful yet completely impractical shoes you wore earlier. I could rub them, if you’d like?”

What? Of course not!” Marina gasped, actually shocked at his audacity. “You can’t just…offer to massage a complete stranger!”

“Good point,” he answered in a reasonable tone. “Tell me a few things about yourself so I can offer again.”

She laughed in spite of herself.

His chair creaked as he leaned forward. She could make out his silhouette now that her eyes had adjusted, and from his frame, he looked to be very tall and muscular. A dark, spicy scent teased her nose, masculine and exotic.

“Here’s an easy question. Why did you leave the party? The Gaspards always throw the best… It’s expected.”

It might have been the shroud of darkness that caused her to pay such close attention to his voice, or maybe she was just attuned to him, but there was a curious tension in his tone.

“Apart from my feet starting to ache? I…had to get away from all the happiness for a bit. My best friend is engaged to one of the Gaspards—Rémy—and they’re blissfully in love.” As soon as the words left her mouth, Marina couldn’t believe she’d actually said them out loud—and to a near-stranger no less.

The man made a sound of understanding. “Ah, of course. And you love him, too?” There was a resigned sadness in his voice.

“What? No!” Marina denied instantly. “I mean, he’s great, and wonderful for Annelise, wonderful to her, but…no. I just—” She trailed off, not wanting to tell him about Jaime, not wanting to sound like the totally bitchy, selfish friend she knew she was being.

“You don’t like the Gaspards, then? It is common. They are notorious as well as famous.”

Marina noticed the stranger’s accent more on those words. He was obviously one of the French-Canadian guests, which wasn’t surprising, since they made up the majority of the party.

“I like the Gaspards. Or, at least, I think Rémy is awesome, and even though I just met his brother and sister, Luc and Clothilde, tonight, they seem great too. I’m not sure about the older brother, Pierre. I hear he can be a cold bastard.” She gasped again as she realized she’d been bashing one of the Gaspards to someone who was probably friends with all of them. “I mean, that’s the rumor, but…like I said, I’ve never met him, so I don’t really know,” she finished lamely.

Luckily, her companion didn’t seem offended. “The rumors are correct. Pierre Gaspard can be utterly ruthless when it comes to his siblings and their associates.”

Marina was so relieved that she didn’t pick up on a subtle warning in his tone.

“What matters is that your friend is happy, though, is it not? She must love the lifestyle her fiancé can provide for her.”

“Yes, she does. It’s like a fairy tale, isn’t it? And Annelise is the princess. She always loved pretending we were in a fairy tale when we were kids. I mean, nothing is perfect.” Marina thought of how Annelise had admitted that the lifestyle of being a Gaspard was filled with obligations. “But I’m sure they won’t be so busy handling so many public appearances and duties once Pierre gets back from wherever he’s been. Annelise and Rémy just want a little more time to enjoy each other.” She broke off suddenly, embarrassed again at how much she’d revealed. God, Annelise was going to kill her. She’d been babbling away into the darkness, and she knew part of it was nervousness, but also…the stranger just felt so easy to talk to.

“Ah, yes, the roaming Pierre. Tell me… What do Annelise and Rémy have to say about his whereabouts?” The question was probing. Marina ignored her growing sense of unease, which was buried by her curiosity. Maybe this stranger, who must be close to the Gaspard family, could finally give her more information about where the hell the oldest Gaspard brother had been.

“That’s the weird part. They don’t really have anything to say, but…I think they’re covering for something.”

“Oh yes?” her companion prompted gently.

Marina nodded, even though she knew her mysterious fellow guest would barely be able to see the gesture. “I suppose it could be something like he’s been sick—or maybe he’s an alcoholic or drug addict in rehab,” she speculated, really warming to the topic. “But my best guess is that he’s been living it up on one of their yachts, hooking up with supermodels and too busy partying to take care of his responsibilities.”

There was a long silence that stretched uncomfortably in the darkened room.

“Ms. Lopez,” he began, and Marina felt herself go cold at his use of her name, “I realize that you are new to this world and this level of society, and I am willing to make concessions to your ignorance. However, even you should be aware that as someone closely connected to my future sister-in-law, what you say might very well reflect back on my family.”

Marina felt like she was back in her family’s cozy little home, eight years old again, and being lectured by her nana, who’d just told her that she was disappointed and had expected better of her young granddaughter. She shifted uncomfortably in her seat.

“You should know better,” the stranger continued, “than to speculate on where I have been and what I have been doing. If you can’t control your tongue and prevent it from gossiping, I will be forced to take countermeasures. Do you think you can manage never to gossip about my family again, especially to a stranger who very well could have been a reporter who’d be only too happy to print your comments as truth?”

Marina felt sick as the realization of who the stranger was dawned on her. The flighty, rich playboy she’d been talking about didn’t seem to be very flighty at all, and he was sitting right next to her.

“I apologize for my comments,” she said, feeling the heat of a blush creep up into her cheeks and continuing all the way out to her chest and even her arms. “I don’t normally speculate so much or say things like that to strangers, but… There’s no excuse. I didn’t think of the implications. I will be more careful in the future.”

Pierre rose, even taller and more imposing than she’d realized.

“I hope that you will.” His voice grew colder as he leaned over her chair. “I will do anything…anything at all…to protect my family’s reputation.” Marina thought he was finished, but he continued, surprising her. “Not because it is so precious to me, personally, but because it affects the welfare of thousands of employees who depend on us—on me—and who could be harmed by negative rumors.”

“I understand,” Marina answered, and she realized that she did. While she had focused on how much fun it must be to have so much wealth and power, their company and influence must also be a burden to manage.

“Good.” The word was clipped, and he sounded…disappointed? “Now, will you allow me to escort you to your vehicle?”

Dios, Marina thought. I’m being kicked out politely but firmly. If I don’t leave, is he going to call a bouncer? Does a social club even have bouncers, or does he bring his own? She stiffened her spine and rose with as much pride as she could muster while barefoot in a dark room.

“No, thank you. I can find my own way, Monsieur Gaspard.” She slipped her shoes back on at the door and made an intensely dignified exit.

As the door closed behind her, she thought she heard him whisper, “Too bad.”

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About the Author

Aurora Russell

Aurora is originally from the frozen tundra of the upper-Midwest (ok, not frozen all the time!) but now loves living in New England with her real-life hero/husband, two wonderfully silly sons, and one of the most extraordinary cats she has ever had the pleasure to meet. But she still goes back to the Midwest to visit, just never in January.

She doesn’t remember a time that she didn’t love to read, and has been writing stories since she learned how to hold a pencil. She has always liked the romantic scenes best in every book, story, and movie, so one day she decided to try her hand at writing her own romantic fiction, which changed her life in all the best ways.

You can find out more about Aurora at her website here.

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