Friday, August 11, 2017

Get Viable Threat by Julie Rowe for Only $0.99!

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Special Forces soldier and medic Walter River would give anything to snatch more than a few seconds of down time to see if he can rattle the no-nonsense and incredibly hot Dr. Lloyd he's protecting, but dodging explosions, snipers, and student radicals who've unleashed a lethal bio-engineered microorganism have made that almost impossible. Maybe he'll get a chance—if he can figure out how to keep them both alive.

CDC microbiologist Ava Lloyd races to find a cure for a bio-terrorism organism sweeping El Paso. The few stolen moments with her very hunky bodyguard River have been explosive, but no matter how alluring he is, she can't afford to get distracted. The clock is ticking, people are dying by the hundreds, and once this crisis is solved, they'll both be off on their next assignment, thousands of miles apart.

Excerpt:

She rested her head against the back of the seat and gave him a strange sort of sad smile. “You know what I’d like to do right now?”
He grunted and wagged his index finger. “That is a trick question.”
She laughed. “Yeah, I guess it is.”
He liked seeing the smile on her face. He liked seeing her face, period. “Tell me, Mouse, what would you like to do right now?”
She waved him closer, and he leaned toward her. She did it again, then put a hand on his shoulder and pulled herself up so she could whisper in his ear, “I’d like to take that respirator off you and kiss you, silly.”
She let go of him and resumed her previous position on the seat. He sat perfectly still. It took just about everything in him to not rip the mask off and grant her wish.
“I’m sorry,” she said, with as close to soundless as a voice could get. “I didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable.”
He looked at her and realized she thought he was embarrassed or some shit like that.
“I’m uncomfortable,” he murmured. “Because I’ve had a damned hard-on since I bandaged you up.” Her pupils widened, and her mouth dropped open. “When this is over, you can kiss any part of me you want for as long as you like, just as long as I can return the favor.”
“Oh,” she breathed out. When her tongue licked over her lips, he had to chain his hands to his sides to keep from grabbing her.
Though a blush heated her cheeks, tears filled her eyes until they spilled over and tracked down her face. “Chances are, that’s just a dream.”
It just about killed him to see her so sad. “Hey.” He couldn’t keep the growl out of his voice. “No Negative Nancys allowed on this trip.”
“I’ve got a headache, River. A fever can’t be far behind.”
“That happy bastard Henry is going to come up with some kind of magic potion that will kick this bug’s ass.”
“If that were possible, we’d know.”
“We’ve been so busy blowing shit up, we might not have been told.”
She slanted a disbelieving glance at him. “You just spoke with our boss. I think she would have mentioned any magic potions, if they’d been available.”
He ran his hands through his hair. “Could you work with me, Mouse? We’ve got a mass murderer to catch, and I need you ready and able to help reel in the son-of-a-bitch.”
“Ah, I see what you’re doing. Trying to put me in a good mood.”
“Jesus fuck, woman, you think I’d tell you how much I want you just to put you in a good mood?” He leaned down, grabbing the top of the seat on either side of her head. “Do I look like a motivational speaker?”
She studied him, her gaze flicking across his face and uniform. Covered in dirt, debris, and blood, he looked like a walking nightmare. “You look like a soldier on a mission.”
“That’s true, but not all of it.” He whispered, “I’ve got another mission. A personal one. You.”

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The In-Case-of-Emergency Workbook by Vicki Hinze

$9.97

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While recovering from an unforeseen medical emergency, author Vicki Hinze realized just how little her family knew about the practical but necessary information of routine and everyday life—doctors’ names, insurance policies, location of the will, information about the mortgage, passwords, accounts, etc. If her family had floundered this much when they could still ask her for answers, she wondered just how difficult it would be for them if they couldn’t ask, or if she wasn’t in a position to tell them.

With the The In-Case-of-Emergency Workbook, Vicki has created a space to capture all of this vital information so that families and loved ones like hers will have the necessary tools to handle affairs properly and without anxiety—in case of an emergency. Sections contained in this invaluable booklet include:

Financial
Medical
Legal
Auto
Passwords
Personal requests
And more

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Read Chapter One of Captured by Chocolate (Love at the Chocolate Shop Book 11) by Steena Holmes


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Radio DJ Dylan Morgan enjoys small town life in Marietta. Unlike his longtime girlfriend and globetrotting photojournalist Casey Michaels, he’s never been tempted to spread his wings. Until an east coast job offer at a major radio station catches his eye. He considers taking the position, but then Casey calls… She’s coming home.

After years of wandering the globe, Casey Michaels is tired and needs a break and while she didn’t plan on coming home for good, the idea is starting to grow on her. All she wants to do is spend time with her forever boyfriend, Dylan. But all she meets is suspicion as everyone waits for her to pack up her suitcase once again. To convince Dylan she’s home for good, she plans a grand gesture–a photography show celebrating Marietta life. And then, the phone rings. She’s needed in London…


Excerpt:
Chapter One
Casey Michaels hated airports.
Once upon a time she’d considered airports exciting, a place of magic to transport her to places she’d only ever dreamed about. They were the first stop on a new adventure, a journey on a road she’d never traveled. These trips meant she was doing something with her life, something more than just settling to be a girl in a small town where the most excitement she could expect was working for the local newspaper and covering the yearly rodeo or the Easter egg hunt in the town park.
No thanks. She was meant to do more, to be more than a small town newspaper journalist. And she was. She now worked for Real Time Magazine as their photo journalist as well as contract journalist for a few online publications. Her photos and articles had won a few awards, gained her some notoriety which helped to gain attention to the issues she focused on in her travels.
It used to be that instant she stepped into an airport her body buzzed with excitement, the hairs on her arms would rise, and any sadness she felt about leaving Dylan behind disappeared.
That wasn't the case anymore.
She didn't enjoy people watching while sipping her coffee.
She didn't enjoy lugging her carry-on through security and having to expose her life to strangers.
She especially didn't enjoy the lengthy flights and monotonous food offered on the flights, the cramped seats and smelly seat mates who didn’t understand the use of deodorant.
As much as she hated to admit it, that excitement she used to feel when getting to leave for a new trip, it wasn’t there.
In fact, the idea of another trip exhausted her.
Which told her one thing. It was time to run home for a break. As much as she didn’t want to settle in Marietta, it was still her safety net, coming home to her family and to Dylan.
For the umpteenth time since leaving Nepal, Casey searched her pockets for her cell phone before remembering she'd lost it. The panic of not having her phone was still there but quickly erased by a sense of freedom. Without the phone no one could contact her. That meant no repeated emails and text messages asking if she was okay, why did she leave so quickly, when she was coming back and what about the project.
Truth be told, she ran away as fast as she could and wasn’t ready to look back.
Coming home, Casey had hoped the layer of fear, anxiety and panic that threatened to bury her would go away. Wishful thinking apparently because it was all right there, haunting her, taunting her.
One wrong step, one wrong word, one wrong look and she’d fall apart, splinting into tiny little pieces.
She was a wreck.
She knew it.
Casey breathed in deep and let the fact she was home seep in.
Coming home meant she could heal. She couldn’t fix all the mistakes she’d made but she could try.
She wasn’t sure how though. The woman she’d been the last time she’d been home had disappeared.
Casey Michaels had become the one thing she had always hated.
She was weak. Broken. Damaged.
While she waited for her luggage to arrive, Casey searched the waiting area for an available phone. She needed to call her dad to let him know she’d arrived.
She held her breath as the phone rang.
“Hello?”
Tears welled up in Casey's eyes as her father's voice came over the line.
"Dad? It's me I'm here. I'm home."
"Casey, love finally. Your mother and I've been sick with worry. Your flight landed hours ago in New York. You're okay, right? Anything you need?"
Casey took a minute to push back the tidal wave of tears.
“Actually, Dad, I’m here. Home.” She cleared her throat. “I lost my cell phone somewhere in the Kathmandu airport, I think. Or on the plane. I'm not sure.”
“You lost your phone? It’s password protected right? Dylan talked about keeping your information safe when it comes to phones last week on the radio. Have you contacted the phone company yet? They need to track it or kill it. Wait, your mother has the information here somewhere, why don’t we call for you?”
And this was one of the many reasons she knew coming home had been the right decision.
“Yes, there’s a password on it and I’ll take care of it, don’t worry. But thank you.”
“I just don’t want someone taking your identity, that’s all. You need to be careful.”
“I know.” It didn’t matter she was a grown woman who travelled the world for her career, in her father’s eyes, she was still that little girl who was afraid of the dark and spiders.
“So where are you?”
“Here. My flight just landed and I’m waiting for my luggage.”
“You're here? Honey, she's home.” Her father yelled out to her mother.
Casey had to fight back a sob as she heard her mothers squeal of excitement.
“My baby’s home?” She heard in the background.
“She's home love. Our baby is home. Casey, you sit tight and I'll be right back. Talk to your mother while I get the air running in the car. She won’t go anywhere lately unless the inside of the car is cooled down first. Hope you’re ready for the weather, we’re in the middle of a heat wave.“
Casey chuckled. Obviously her father forgot she’d spent months in Nepal recently. If you wanted heat, you’d for sure find it there.
“Don’t you be leaving me behind, you hear?” Casey's mom chided her father.
Casey chuckled as she listened to her parents bicker in the background.
"I miss you mom,” Casey said, the realization hitting her hard. She’d missed her parents, her family, more than she’d realized.
“Oh honey, I miss you too. I’m so glad you’ve come home. You know your room is ready for however long you need it.”
By now tears were coursing down Casey's cheeks. The sound of her mothers voice broke what little strength Casey held onto and she turned so no one could see her cry.
“I'm glad I'm home too.”
“Was Jordan okay with you leaving? Did he understand?” Her mom asked.
Casey snorted. Did Jordan understand? That was a bit of an understatement. More like confused, angry, troubled by her decision to leave.
He felt betrayed. She didn’t blame him, but didn’t agree with him either.
“Jordan expects me back in a few weeks. He thinks all I need is a little bit of home cooking, a little bit of Dylan and a whole lot of Marietta before I come running back.”
A few weeks wasn’t going to do it this time though. It’d been a while since she actually took some time off, maybe now she would. At least a month before she left again.
But even then, the idea of leaving in a month was too much for her to handle. She hated feeling like this.
“Well, that man obviously doesn't know you very well, does he? As if a little bit of Dylan was all you needed.”
Casey appreciated her mother coming to her defence.
“Jordan is only focused on the project. It's his life. I get that.”
Their project was about the paper orphans of Nepal, rescuing children sold as orphans or slaves. She’d met him years ago on another project she’d been hired to cover in southeast Asia.
Casey was a photojournalist, a visual storyteller through the lens of her camera and her favorite subjects were families. Children, parents, grandparents. She loved to tell the stories of the untold but over the years, those stories had started to weigh on her heavily. She was finding it more and more difficult to walk away from one project to another and Nepal…Nepal broke her heart.
Literally.
“No, of course it's not, especially after…well, we won’t talk about that right this moment. I'm just glad that you're home. Your father is honking the horn so you sit tight and we’ll be there as fast as we can.”
Casey returned to the carousel just as it started to move. She watched as case after case slid down the conveyor belt and person after person retrieved their bags. She prayed to God that her luggage was here and not stuck in New York or god forbid, Kathmandu.
Her life was in that luggage.
One suitcase. One equipment case. One carry-on and her purse. For the past 10 year that's all she owned.
She’d often find things along her travels that she fell in love with and would figure out a way to ship it home. Her mom once complained that they had to move all her boxes down into the basement because there wasn’t any room left in her bedroom. The last time she’d come home for a brief visit, her mother hadn’t been kidding. Her shipped items literally took up the majority of her parents’ attic.
One day all of this would fill her house. Lamps, light fixtures, wall hangings, precious limited edition books she’d found in off the beat bookshops, paintings from artists no one had heard of but that she fell in love with immediately and gifts from various families she’d photographed.
There were also quite a lot of things for Dylan. Gifts meant for his birthday and for Christmas and for just-because day’s to let him know she missed him.
Which reminded her.
Today was the perfect day to come home.
She grabbed a cart for her luggage after it finally arrived and sat down on a bench by the front door. She would have preferred to sit outside, soaking up the sun, but the radio was playing and she waited for Dylan to start speaking.
It’d been so long since they last spoke. She played his last voice message over and over during the long evenings when the loneliness hit the hardest.
She’d never loved another man like she loved Dylan.
He was her soul mate. Her best friend. The one person she knew would always be there.
They lived such different lives however, that it never seemed right for them to take their relationship to the next level. He wasn’t much of a traveler and needed to stay close to Marietta for Josie. She couldn’t imagine not traveling the world and the idea of being tied to one place for the rest of her life was a chokehold on her soul.
One day that would change and when it did, then it would be time for them. She’d often been accused of being selfish, of taking Dylan and their relationship for granted but she didn’t care what others thought or felt. All that mattered was that this worked for the two of them right now.
It wouldn’t be like this forever, they both knew that. They also both knew that when it no longer worked, they would sit down and talk about what that meant. She couldn’t imagine never having him in her life.
She was the lucky one. She knew that. To have the man she loved wait for her at home…he was one of a kind.
She was really looking forward to seeing him, to being in his arms again, to sit out on the back porch of his and say absolutely nothing while saying everything at the same time.
She couldn’t wait to surprise Dylan and tell him she was home. Maybe just seeing him, being in those arms of his would be all she needed to heal her broken heart.
Maybe.



One Last Blind Date by Erin Brady


$2.99 or FREE for Kindle Unlimited Subscribers

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From the author of The Shopping Swap and The Holiday Gig comes another feel-good romantic comedy!

Erin Brady has another winner on her hands. If I thought her other novels were hilarious and fun, The Blind Date hits a new level. A must-read for anyone who wants to get lost in a story that will make you laugh out loud!~ Sarah Price, Best-Selling Author of the Plain Fame Trilogy

Sarah Jenkins just turned thirty and instead of a “girls only” weekend getaway to a tropical island or the designer bag she’s been eyeing for months, her best friend, Amy, gives her a six month subscription to an online dating service, SoulMates4Everafter. From the glossy brochures of perfect couples riding into the sunset on horseback to the hundreds of testimonials on their website, the dating service promises to find Sarah an ideal soulmate from it’s heavenly database. Despite her skepticism, Sarah decides to give it a try. After all, nothing ventured, nothing gained. But when she has trouble putting together her online profile and she’s about to give up on her search before it even begins, she finds divine help from Gabriel, a unlikely guardian angel from the company’s tech support department. With Gabriel’s help, Sarah finds herself thrust into the unpredictable world of blind dates. Will she find the man of her dreams or
will she take a fall from heaven’s cloud nine?

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Death of a Bachelorette (A Jaine Austen Mystery) by Laura Levine

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Freelance writer Jaine Austen thought working for a knock-off reality show in the tropics would be paradise. But when she and her kitty Prozac find themselves trapped between a dimwitted leading man, catty contestants, and a cold-blooded murderer, the splashy gig becomes one deadly nightmare...

Jaine’s life has been a royal pain since she started penning dialogue for Some Day My Prince Will Come—a cheesy dating show that features bachelorettes competing for the heart of Spencer Dalworth VII, a very distant heir to the British throne. As if fending off golf ball-sized bugs on a sweltering island wasn’t tough enough, Jaine must test her patience against an irritable production crew and fierce contestants who will do anything to get their prince...

But Jaine never expected murder to enter the script. When one of the finalists dies in a freak accident, it’s clear someone wanted the woman out of the race for good—and the police won’t allow a soul off the island until they seize the culprit. Terrified of existing another day without air conditioning and eager to return home, Jaine is throwing herself into the investigation. And she better pounce on clues quickly—or there won’t be any survivors left...

Praise for Death of a Bachelorette


“The cast and crew of a reality show are perfect foils for sharp-tongued Jaine, who outwits everyone on the set, except possibly her cat.”—Kirkus Reviews
“I’ve loved Jaine Austen and her cat Prozac, as well as her dysfunctional family and friends, from the first book in this entertaining series.”—Tanzey Cutter, Fresh Fiction

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Food Temptress: 2nd Edition by Rekaya Gibson

$2.99 or FREE for Kindle Unlimited Subscribers

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Ambrosia Bourgeois, the New Orleans Goddess of Gastronomy, uses food to seduce men in hopes of concocting Mr. Right. Paralleling Southern cuisine, each chapter captures the hearts, minds, and even the bodies of various men. Ambrosia tries to perfect her craft by using traditional recipes from her deceased grandmother, while occasionally consulting her eccentric elderly aunt. When she discovers that her meals fall short of converting each man to her calculated preference, she moves on to the next one—a total of sixteen. Her subjects range from a local sheriff to a Bourbon Street musician. Will she reach her goal of complete succulent seduction before the monstrous hurricane hits her city? The Food Temptress offers countless delectable treats illustrated through Ambrosia's continual quest for both romantic and culinary perfection.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Triple Chocolate Murder by Sally Berneathy - $0.99 Goodie!

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USA Today Bestselling Author

Books 1, 2, and 3 from bestselling series, Death by Chocolate

BOOK 1: DEATH BY CHOCOLATE

Lindsay Powell's only secret is the recipe for her chocolate chip cookies, but she is surrounded by neighbors with deadly secrets. Suddenly Lindsay finds herself battling poisoned chocolate, a dead man who doesn't seem very dead and a psycho stalker.

Her best friend and co-worker, Paula, dyes her blond hair brown, hides from everybody and insists on always having an emergency exit from any room. Secrets from Paula's past have come back to put lives in jeopardy.

Determined to help Paula and to save her own life, Lindsay enlists the reluctant aid of another neighbor, Fred, an OCD computer nerd. In spite of his mundane existence, Fred possesses tidbits of knowledge about such things as hidden microphones, guns and the inside of maximum security prisons.

Lindsay needs more than a chocolate fix to survive all this chaos.

BOOK 2: MURDER, LIES, AND CHOCOLATE

Rodney Bradford comes into Lindsay's restaurant, eats her brownies, and drops dead on her sidewalk. Lindsay enlists the aid of her enigmatic neighbor, Fred, to help solve the mystery of his death while trying to keep her police detective boyfriend, Trent, from getting in their way with his insistence on all those silly cop rules.

On the positive side, sales skyrocket for the special dessert Lindsay calls Murdered Man's Brownies.
BONUS! Chocolate recipes included. Poison optional.

BOOK 3: THE GREAT CHOCOLATE SCAM

After two years of waiting, Rick has finally agreed to sign the divorce papers and give Lindsay her freedom. But while she’s waiting in her lawyer’s office for him to appear, his car blows up in his driveway. Lindsay is left with an image of her estranged husband’s green SUV flying around the neighborhood along with pieces of Rick—a blue contact lens in Mrs. Hawkins' driveway, a perfectly creased trouser leg hanging on the street sign, a vertebra on the immaculate lawn.

Since their divorce wasn't final and Rick has no family, Lindsay assumes she is his only heir. But before his estate is settled, poor orphan Rick has more relatives than a lottery winner.

Is the obnoxious Rickie Jr. really Rick's son? Why is the woman who claims to be Rick's mother so certain the child is not her grandson? Are these people really related to Rick, or was he actually an alien stranded on earth when the mother ship left without him?

Come for the Cookie Dough Cheesecake Bars, stay for the murder, mayhem and fun!

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Read an Excerpt from Sweet Summer's Kiss (Love at the Chocolate Shop Book 10) by Debra Salonen

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A storybook kiss on New Year's Eve at the Big Sky Mavericks Masked Ball in Marietta, Montana should have been the beginning of a grand romance for Gretchen Zabrinski and Daniel Andrews. But when Gretchen overhears a phone call from Daniel to his brother about what he really wants from a woman, she takes off...without leaving so much as a glass slipper behind.

Daniel wants a family. Gretchen will never be able to give him that. So why does fate keep throwing them together so cruelly? First, at a Copper Mountain Chocolate Shop Speed Dating event, then when he’s hired to open a new division at her PR firm. But competing, shoulder-to-shoulder, to sell the most exotic chocolate kisses for charity really is the last straw.

Is love a cosmic connection or a karmic joke? Sometimes, the answer reveals itself in a kiss—a sweet kiss shared beneath a warm Montana summer sky.

Excerpt:
CHAPTER ONE


New Year’s Eve

Sometimes, a girl just wanted to have fun.
Gretchen pursed her lips to apply the unnaturally bright and shiny Liquid Sin to her lips. Liquid Sin. Gretchen had laughed out loud when the woman at the makeup counter had picked out the aptly named color for Gretchen’s spur-of-the-moment makeover.
Girl, you’re going to make Prince Charming’s knees go weak when he sees you at the ball.”
Except Gretchen’s Prince Charming was a stranger. A blind date arranged by her new boss. A man someone on social media had labeled The Prince of Playboys.
Playboy.
Strange word.” She blotted her lips with a piece of tissue. Too outdated for someone as hip and cool as Daniel Andrews. She tapped her phone to see his online profile photo again.
A squiggly thrill ping-ponged through her upper chest.
Heartbreaker-slash-modern-day-pirate worked better than playboy. Thick, gorgeous hair. An earthy loam lightened either very professionally in a salon or very fortuitously by the sun. His lovely square jaw sported a beautifully masculine shadow of beard.
Will I get whisker burn when we kiss at midnight?
In high school and college, she’d only dated boys who were clean-cut and wholesome looking, the kind who fit her good-girl image. An image that, with luck, was going bye-bye tonight.
One doesn’t reinvent oneself and keep all of one’s old baggage. Like the virginity she’d naïvely saved for the father of her future children.
A familiar tightness in her chest made her stare critically in the mirror. Too much cleavage? Maybe I should have left my hair down.
She gave a tug on the silky material of her dress for modesty’s sake. She knew what Samantha, her sister the pastor, would say when she saw Gretchen’s outfit—but tonight was about change, about letting go of old dreams and opening to fresh possibilities in Marietta, Montana. Her new home.
Not a move Gretchen had anticipated or planned for, but sometimes life didn’t give a choice.
A light tapping sounded on the door of the parsonage’s guestroom where Gretchen had been staying for the past couple of weeks. “Knock. Knock. Your date just drove up, Auntie. In a limo.” The last came out with a squeal.
Makayla. Fifteen. Amazing. Gretchen still remembered holding her newborn niece for the first time at age seven. From that moment, she’d known beyond any doubt that she, too, would be a mother. Someday.
She swallowed hard against the lump in her throat and pushed to her feet. Her ankles wobbled on her ridiculously high heels, and she bumped her thigh against the old desk she’d been using as a makeup table. “Coming.”
Did her voice sound tight and squeaky? Darn. She needed to work on throaty and sexy if she were going to seduce the playboy prince tonight.
She threw open the door and stepped back, hands out. “Well, what do you think? Will my date be impressed?”
Makayla’s mocha, heart-shaped face lit up with excitement. “Oh, my gosh, Gretchen, you’re gorgeous. He’s going to fall in love with you.” She reached out to touch the soft, nearly liquid material of the gathered, floor-length skirt. “Your dress is amazing.”
The bodice was made of the same material but cleverly fitted to her form with a sweetheart neckline and beaded cap sleeves that gave the dress an almost off-the-shoulder look. The inch-wide belt made her waist look thinner than it normally was. Six months of stress and depression had killed her appetite.
I can’t believe your boss gave you a designer gown.”
Technically, it’s on loan.”
Krista Martin, one of the partners of BlueSky Promotions, was a self-proclaimed Hollywood brat who had access to hand-me-down designer gowns through her actress sisters. “Krista would have worn this if she wasn’t on the West Coast with my date’s older brother.”
Gretchen slipped the white, fake fur jacket that had come with the dress off the padded hanger and picked up the small silver purse she’d filled earlier in the day. “Would you carry these for me, honey? I hope my date remembered the invitations. I’ve heard this event is pretty hoity-toity.”
Makayla laughed. “Funny word! Must be a Detroit thing. I’ve heard Mom use it, too.”
Speaking of Sam. Where is she? Not grilling my date on the stoop like Dad would, is she?”
Makayla made a pouty face. “Probably. Luckily, Gage is here, too. He helps tone down Mom’s…um…enthusiasm some.”
Gretchen smiled. Her sister was the most zealous pastor she’d ever met. Samantha never tried to convert a stranger to the church, but she’d talk an arm and a leg off to bring them into the family fold—and in Pastor Sam Zabrinski’s opinion, everyone was family.
Gage Monroe, Gretchen’s brother-in-law, had already proven invaluable in keeping Sam from prying too aggressively into Gretchen’s reasons for moving to Montana. At the Christmas Eve cast party for members of Cornerstone Mission’s Living Crèche, he’d stood between Gretchen and Sam like a referee when Samantha’s second eggnog made her demand to know the real reason behind Gretchen’s impulsive move. “Your sister will tell you in her own good time, Samantha. Give her some room to get settled.”
We’d better hurry. I don’t want him to hightail it and run the other way. Krista told me the food was prepared by a famous chef and the dessert bar is to die for.”
She took her niece’s hand and squeezed it the way she had whenever they’d walked together throughout Makayla’s childhood, from toddler to teen. Until Gretchen left for college, she’d probably seen Sam and Makayla every day. Then, two and a half years ago, Samantha was offered her own ministry in the small town of Paradise, Montana—a short drive from their father’s family in Marietta.
You’re not coming home tonight, are you?” Makayla asked in a low whisper. “I heard you and Mom talking.”
Gretchen’s cheeks heated up. “As I told your mother, I have no expectations, one way or the other. But I’m done setting limits on myself, too. I’ve played by the rules all my life. Now, I’m not.”
She stopped short of the living room door and put her lips close to her niece’s ear. Makayla’s tightly curled Afro tickled Gretchen’s nose and made her smile. “But I’m twenty-two and a half. You’re not. Don’t forget that.”
Makayla rolled her eyes. “Yes, Mom.”
Mom. A brutal shaft of pain sliced through Gretchen’s chest wall, exposing the still-bruised heart she’d fled to Montana to nurse. “Idiopathic premature ovarian failure,” the specialist had said. “With the right dosage of estrogen, you should live a long and healthy life, free of complications. You just won’t be able to bear children.”
Just.
The word still brought a spurt of anger. Such a small thing, right? Only the one truth she’d considered an integral part of her chemical, biological, and emotional makeup for her entire life.
She plastered a fake smile on her face and inhaled deeply. “Let’s go meet Prince Charming.”
#
Daniel stood on the stoop of the old parsonage, gloved hand raised to the door. The exterior temperature gauge in the limo read nineteen degrees. He needed to grab his date and get back in the warm car, not stand there like a teenager at prom, shifting from one foot to the other, hoping the soles of his Salvatore Ferragamos wouldn’t wind up encased in ice.
Just do it. Knock and get this over with.
He’d mastered the complexities of dating in college. Women were fun, interesting, and interchangeable. And this particular one—Gretchen Zabrinski—was a one-off. A favor for Krista, his future sister-in-law. A break from the mindless boredom of dog-sitting for his parents, who were due to return in three days.
He glanced over his shoulder at the nearby church steeple backlit by a bright moon reflecting off the recent snowfall. His date lived in a church rectory? How had he missed any mention of that in the fifteen-plus texts he’d received throughout the day from Krista Martin?
You’ll be a gentleman, right? I’m starting to get nervous about your reputation. Jonah called you a playboy.”
He’d shot off the sort of reply he would have sent his brother. “Playboy? Who says that? Did you two go through a time warp in California?”
He barely knew Krista. They’d commiserated over wine and pasta about the unwelcome news she’d received concerning her mother’s health before she’d handed him three dog leashes and raced out his parents’ door to track down his annoying older brother in California. Now, Jonah and Krista were zipping along the sunny, warm West Coast while making plans to move in together.
News Daniel hadn’t seen coming and was still coming to grips with. Jonah was supposed to be the bachelor geek of the family. Everyone knew it was only a matter of time before Daniel found Ms. Right and settled down. But then the holidays hit with a vengeance. Daniel’s girlfriend of six months broke up with him on Thanksgiving, declaring he wasn’t “marriage material,” and eloped with their company’s head of human resources two weeks later.
Since the company closed from Christmas to January third, Daniel honestly wasn’t sure what this awkward situation would mean when they got back to work.
Daniel hadn’t been in any rush to return to Denver after celebrating Christmas in Florida with his parents and sister. When Jonah begged him to fly to Marietta and watch the dogs for a few days, Daniel had boarded the private jet Jonah chartered for him and, after a quick stop in Denver to pick up warmer clothing, came home. The shocker was finding Krista bawling her eyes out on his mother’s kitchen floor.
Daniel still wasn’t sure how he felt about Jonah’s romantic windfall. For a guy who once settled a ridiculous palimony suit outside of court because he felt his ex had a point—“Living with me isn’t easy, Daniel”—to wind up falling madly in love with the co-chair of a Marietta charity Mom and Dad had been involved with for years, defied understanding. After just a few weeks together, Jonah and Krista were talking marriage, babies, getting a dog, and buying a house.
Jonah wins. Again.
A dinging sound made him reach into the pocket of the dark gray woolen overcoat he’d impulsively worn when he’d boarded the plane in Denver. Too dressy for dog-sitting but warmer than his ski jacket. Besides, he liked it.
A new text from Krista showed up on the screen. “Gretchen’s a sweetheart and needs a little TLC. Just be nice, okay?”
Nice?” What did that mean exactly? Polite? Attentive? Charming without a full-court press resulting in hot, meaningless sex?
If it hadn’t required him to remove his lined leather glove, he would have typed: “I’m always nice. Want testimonials? A thousand women can’t be wrong.” Instead, he pocketed the phone, adjusted the wool scarf at his throat, and then used the side of his fist to rap on the tiny bit of space outside the huge holiday wreath encircling the frozen knocker.
Nothing.
He leaned sideways to put his ear to the door. Christmas music. Still?
The multicolored lights spilling from behind the curtains of the picture window should have been his first clue. These were holiday people. Daniel had deconstructed the holiday décor Jonah and Krista set up at his parents’ home the day after Christmas.
The tips of his gloves were too thick to get under the brass knocker but he managed to dislodge the tapper part, rattling it with some force. The door swung open a second later, nailing him in a swatch of bright, golden light. He blinked, trying to make out the backlit figures opposite him.
Good evening. Happy New Year. I’m Daniel Andrews. Here to pick up Gretchen.”
The taller of the two shadows grabbed his hand in a firm, commanding shake. “Daniel. Welcome to the lion’s den. I’m Gage, and this is Sam.”
Come in. Come in.” Sam, the woman who barely reached his shoulder, leaned out, grabbed the sleeve of his coat, and tugged. “My sister is almost ready. You have no idea how exciting this is. I missed her prom. Never forgave myself. Now, we have a second chance. Sort of.”
She slammed the door and spun about on calf-high Uggs. Her reindeer-print fleece pajama bottoms were tucked into the boots and her red I-Heart-Paradise sweatshirt sported a necklace of crumbs and a blob of what looked like whipped cream just above the pink heart. Hair pulled into a messy topknot and no makeup, she obviously had the what-you-see-is-what-you-get thing down to a science.
I need pictures.” She poked her hands into the pockets of her PJs. “Where’s my phone? Makayla?” she hollered. “Do you have my phone?”
I think I saw it in the kitchen. Be right back,” Gage said.
The man walked away with a long-legged gait that didn’t fit in the small house. Daniel could picture him on a ranch somewhere doing an honest day’s work for an honest day’s wage.
I bet Makayla has it. She’s been trying to play fairy godmother all day. Thank God for Pinterest. That’s all I can say.” The woman marched off in the opposite direction toward a hallway leading, presumably, to the bedrooms.
Alone, Daniel removed his gloves and unbuttoned his coat as the comforting heat from a wood-burning stove filled the room. Homey holiday decorations clustered on a mantel with a pine-bough background. Three regal angels with wings made of real feathers were grouped together, not far from a lighted ceramic nativity scene. The other anchor point was a white church with a tall steeple not unlike the building adjacent to this home. A candle—fake, he hoped, for safety’s sake—flickered inside, showing off the building’s stained-glass windows.
Gage returned first, smartphone in hand.
Daniel nodded toward the six-foot tree, its green boughs nearly obscured by ornaments and twinkle lights. “Still have your tree up, I see. My mom is the same way. Milks the season for all it’s worth. Dad, on the other hand, would take down their tree on Christmas night if Mom would let him.”
The man, who probably had ten years on Daniel, held up his free hand and crossed his fingers. “I’m shooting for the Super Bowl. If it stays up any longer, the Volunteer Fire Department may have a say in the matter.”
Daniel had just loosened his scarf when Sam came hurrying toward them. “Here she comes. I know I’m going to cry.”
She charged into her husband’s open arms.
When he showed her the phone, she gave Gage a noisy buss on the cheek. “My hero.” Then she spun about, phone upraised. “Wait. Wait. Not yet. I need to turn on the video.”
She managed to get the camera working just as a slim, ethereal vision with dark, upswept hair stepped into view. Her dress of liquid silver moved with a faint hushing sound, as if to still the common riffraff. A young, adoring minion followed a step behind, carrying the princess’s white fur coat and sparkly purse.
Wow,” he and Gage said together.
So beautiful. An invisible elephant resting on his chest made it hard to take a full breath. His lungs seemed to have forgotten how to work. He experienced the oddest sense of stepping outside his body as he walked toward her, hand out in greeting. “It’s lovely to meet you. You look like a dark-haired Princess Diana. Regal and elegant.”
His glib greeting brought a natural blush to her beautifully sculpted cheeks.
She’s perfect.
Also sweet and much too innocent for you, buddy boy.
The last came across in his brother’s voice.
Daniel’s shoulders straightened as he brought her hand to his lips. “I’m Daniel. I have a feeling I’m going to be the envy of every man at the ball tonight.”
Then he reached into the inside pocket of his coat and pulled out the two masks he’d purchased that morning in Bozeman—one black, the other silver.
Oh, it’s beautiful. Silver. How did you know what color to buy?”
She showed it off to her sister and niece with obvious delight. When she ran her fingers lightly over the crystal beads outlining the eyes, he felt a shiver pass down his spine. It was as if she were touching him intimately.
Your fairy godmother told me.”
At her delightfully mocking look, he leaned closer to whisper, “Krista. The Queen of Texts.”
Her laugh did something crazy to his equilibrium and her perfume made him want to bury his nose in her neck and come up for air next year. Which, with luck, might well be the case tonight.
#
The orchestra finished playing the Big-Band-era classic “The Way You Look Tonight” as the MC for the evening walked to the microphone. Austen Zabrinski, CFO of Big Sky Mavericks Charitable Group and older brother of Paul Zabrinski, who Daniel vaguely remembered from high school, cleared his throat and waited until the crowd on the dance floor quieted.
Daniel reluctantly released his hold on his date and checked his watch. Holy crap. We’ve been dancing for three hours?
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d danced so much. “Do you think someone spiked our champagne with a magic youth serum?”
She tossed back her head and laughed. “We are young. What I can’t get over is how great you dance. You make me feel like I know what I’m doing. I don’t want the night to end. I’m having a ball.”
From the moment he’d helped her into the limo and handed her a glass of champagne, Gretchen’s surprise and delight had made his heart swell and contract in a crazy way he didn’t have the words to explain. Her infectious, wide-eyed wonder made him want to readjust the slightly jaded spectacles through which he looked at life.
He’d not only attended dozens of high-end fundraisers over the years, but he’d also organized a few for clients who demanded only the best. He knew what to expect from the evening—dinner, an auction, maybe a speaker or two promoting the goodwill and accomplishments of their charitable cause. Normally, that would be his cue to write a generous check…then dance his date straight to the hotel he’d splurged on just in case things went as he hoped they would.
But tonight, he oddly wanted to slow things down. He needed time to memorize the softness of her hand nestled trustingly in his. To recall perfectly the slightly crooked smile she’d flash when someone bumped into them on the dance floor. Kind and gentle weren’t words that came up often in his normal life.
Austen motioned toward the orchestra. “May we have a big round of applause for our band, please. Like last year, we’ve invited them to dine with us, then join the party when our fabulous DJ takes us to the final countdown of the year.”
Gretchen applauded politely before leaning toward him to whisper. “I loved the ballroom dancing—I truly did—but I’m going to need a faster beat to work off all the fats, protein, and carbs I plan to eat tonight.” Despite the glittery mask that made reading her expression a challenge, he recognized the flirtatious twinkle in her eyes when she added, “Unless you can think of some other cardio activity to burn off calories and get our heart rates up.”
His brain drew an instant picture of naked, sweaty bodies tangled in fine cotton sheets and nothing else. His pulse spiked, erasing from his mind every glib, uber-cool sexy comeback he’d ever used to seduce an interested female. And Gretchen was interested. He had no doubt whatsoever.
Austen filled in the dead air, thank goodness. “Feel free to head toward the tables, where dinner will be served momentarily. Those of you planning to wait till the last minute to bid on silent auction items should make your last-ditch effort sooner rather than later.”
As the crowd around them started to move, Gretchen put her hand on his arm. “I hope you don’t mind. I bumped into my aunt, Sarah Zabrinski, in the restroom. She invited us to join their table for dinner. I said yes without thinking you might have made other arrangements. I’m sorry.”
The women he usually dated didn’t apologize for anything. They were professional types who fought tooth and nail for the success they quite rightfully achieved and didn’t feel the need to explain squat. “I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t given our table arrangements any thought.” Because my mind doesn’t work right when I’m with you. “I’d be happy to join your family. I grew up in Marietta, remember? I’m sure I’ve met a few of your cousins, although I’ve haven’t been back much since I left for college.”
She let out a relieved sigh. “Thank you. Hopefully, they’ll be too busy eating to grill you too badly. I think Sarah and Uncle Robert are trying to keep an eye on me for my parents.”
He tilted his head. She’d already told him she was twenty-two. And that she’d lived in a dorm for two years and had been sharing a house with three other students for the last year and a half. “Are your folks a bit overprotective or is this a youngest-daughter thing?”
Probably a bit of both. They weren’t crazy about my moving to Montana. But here I am.” She did a little pirouette that made her gorgeous dress float about her ankles in a Disney-princess sort of way.
A feeling of bone-deep yearning made him reach for her hand, but at that exact moment, a male server around ten years older than Daniel bumped into him, causing the giant serving platter laden with cloche-covered plates to wobble and tip. Adrenaline kicked in, and Daniel grabbed one edge of the platter to keep the contents from sliding to the floor as the server caught his balance.
Oh, man, thank you so much. I was hurrying too fast when I clobbered you. I’m sorry. That could have been a disaster.”
Daniel waved off his apology. “Been there, done that. I waited tables all through college. Go. Do what you gotta do. It’s all good.”
Gretchen sidled up to him and slipped both arms around his middle. “My hero,” she said, unknowingly echoing her sister’s words from earlier in the evening. The look in her eyes made his heart jump painfully.
Adrenaline overload or something else? He was afraid to look too closely for an answer. Instead, he pointed toward the dining area, where the beautifully set tables were quickly filling up. “Lead the way, milady.”
She pretended to curtsey. “I’m starving. My cousin, Mia, told me they serve bison steaks so tender you can cut them with a fork, and their vegetables are flown in from an organic farm in California. And the dessert bar includes a special treat Copper Mountain Chocolates owner, Sage Somebody, makes especially for this gala. I love chocolate. How ‘bout you?”
Who doesn’t?”
She rose on her toes to search for her family’s table. “Which is your favorite? Dark? Or milk?” She turned so abruptly she nearly tumbled into his arms. “If you say white, I will make you sit at a different table.”
A grin the size of the steak on a nearby plate stretched his facial muscles, dislodging the mask he’d nearly forgotten he was wearing. A lightness he hadn’t felt in years made him want to shout or dance a jig or blurt out something equally inappropriate. Instead, he forced himself to whisper in her ear, “Dark.” Like my soul…until you appeared.
Gretchen,” a voice called. “Over here. We saved you a place.”
Once seated, Daniel noticed nobody at the table was wearing a mask, so he removed his, too, and used it to tap Gretchen on the nose. She turned her back toward him. “Can you undo my tie?”
Her proximity made the heat between them rise. The sweet curve of her bare shoulder begged to be kissed. The innocent glimpse of flesh displayed by the décolletage of her dress made him instantly hard. His hands trembled in his haste to untie the silver ribbon.
She caught the mask and set it in her lap, followed quickly by the large, black cloth napkin. Once settled, she looked around and smiled. “Hi, everyone. I saw most of you at Sam’s Christmas open house, but it’s good to see you again. I’d like to introduce my date, Daniel Andrews.”
Daniel shook hands with those close by and nodded to the couples on the far side of the table. Some faces seemed familiar, but most were strangers. Under normal circumstances, he would have made more of an effort to work the room, so to speak, but tonight, his focus had narrowed to three things. Midnight. Kissing. Gretchen.
As their salads were delivered, Gretchen gamely tried to include him in her conversation with the couple to her right. “Daniel, did you know my cousin, Mia, is the C.E.O. of Big Sky Mavericks Charitable Foundation? Her husband Ryker is a world-famous photographer.”
Daniel recognized the name. “Ryker Bensen? I bid on a couple of your photographs in the silent auction. They’re amazing.”
Thank you. Do you live around here?”
Denver. I’m the substitute dog-sitter for my parents. It was either fill in for my wayward brother or join friends in St. Barts.” He looked at Gretchen. “No contest. I’m right where I want to be.”
He hadn’t realized he’d said the last bit out loud until every woman at the table sighed in unison. He was saved from too much embarrassment by the arrival of the same waiter he’d helped earlier. The man delivered each plate with a flourish as he detailed Daniel’s act of “heroism.”
Luckily, the food lived up to its hype. Within seconds, everyone appeared focused on the meal, instead of Daniel.
The bison is delicious. Thank you for suggesting it,” he said after washing down a bite with a sip of the fabulous merlot Ryker had poured for him. “Note to self—find out the name of the chef for future reference.”
You’re welcome. And while your risotto looks good, I’m afraid you made a terrible mistake by not ordering the potatoes-au-gratin.” She shoveled a giant bite on her fork and held it toward his face. “I taste three distinct kinds of cheese.”
He laughed because he couldn’t remember the last time someone tried to feed him. After he took the bite, he chewed with his eyes closed to savor the unique flavors. When he opened his eyes, he noticed the matriarch of the Zabrinski clan watching.
You’re right. Amazing. But let’s see which of us wins the dessert challenge of milk or dark.”
Unfortunately, when it came time to visit the dessert bar, Daniel didn’t have room for another bite. He sipped the cup of coffee their favorite waiter poured and watched his date fill a plate to share with the table.
Mrs. Zabrinski took what looked like a white truffle adorned with bits of candy cane. “Oh, my, this is tasty,” she said.
Sage has outdone herself. Be sure and thank her for me if you see her before I do,” the woman told Gretchen. “I know she does a lot of business with your company. Robert and I will be busy watching Meg and Hank’s kids for a week so they can have a long overdue honeymoon.”
Mia smacked her lips in appreciation of a dark chocolate morsel and then chimed in, “They’re going to Tahiti. I’m so excited for them. My sister deserves this trip so much. She was the surrogate for our twins, Daniel. Would you like to see their pictures?”
Daniel, you haven’t sampled a piece of chocolate yet,” Gretchen said, shifting his way. “Or I could get you a piece of the layer cake. It looked amazing.”
He set down his cup to look at her. Was he the only one who heard the near panic in her tone?
Apparently, yes. At least, her cousin seemed oblivious to Gretchen’s sudden distress as she handed him an oversized phone glowing with the image of two toddlers, a boy and a girl, sitting on Santa’s lap. “Cute kids,” he said, passing it back to her. “That sounds like quite a story.”
It’s pretty amazing,” Mia said. “We are truly blessed. One of Ryker’s old friends owns the resort where Meg and Hank are staying, and he plans to treat them like royalty.”
Sarah Zabrinski tapped his shoulder and motioned for the serving dish. “Thank you. Gretchen, you should bring Daniel by the house tomorrow. Very laid-back. Lots of food, family, and a few friends. And lots of kids, of course.”
For the first time all evening, Gretchen’s smile struck him as fake. “Thanks, Aunt Sarah. I’ll try.”
Or not. He hoped her dissembling meant she planned to be with him at his hotel on New Year’s Day, but maybe that could be wishful thinking on his part. Before he could ask, a loud voice came across the PA.
Happy, happy New Year’s Eve, revelers. Are you ready to dance your shoes off?”
Gretchen jumped to her feet. “Daniel, I believe they’re playing our song.”
We have a song?” He got up, tapped his napkin to his lips, and then nodded to the table. “It’s been a pleasure.”
But the pleasure was nothing compared to what he hoped was coming once the clock struck midnight.
##
It’s almost twelve. Do we have to leave our masks on until then?”
The reliable slow-song crowd pleaser “My Girl” made it easy for Gretchen to relax in Daniel’s arms. She’d taken ballroom dance to fulfill a P.E. requirement, but none of her partners danced as well as Daniel. “Not sure. Don’t people throw them in the air after they kiss? Or is that graduation?”
I can’t remember. Maybe I’ve had too much champagne. What was the question?”
He spun them out of the way of another couple, his arm tightening with just the right amount of pressure across her mid-back. A thrill of sexual tension coursed through her body. A viable pull had blossomed between them, beginning in their first moments in the back of the limo.
I don’t care. I’m ready to see your face without the silver crystals. You’re more beautiful than this thing.”
He snatched the mask from her face so smoothly she might not have noticed if not for the sudden coolness on her skin and the slight tug of the band that got hung up in her hair. When she pulled it free, a lock of hair tumbled lazily across her shoulder.
You’re a natural-born rule breaker, aren’t you? I took a class in early childhood education on how to handle mischief-makers.”
Ooh. Discipline. Tell me more.” Even with his mask still in place, she could see the teasing look she’d fallen a little in love with over the past five hours.
Another desire-laced thrill shot to her girl parts. She liked him.
But do I like him enough?
Enough to spend the night with him?
A resounding yes echoed throughout her brain.
If he asks.
And if he didn’t?
Then she’d make the first move. Or second. Or whatever number they were on by the time they kissed at midnight.
Not that she was worried. They hadn’t left the other’s side for more than a few moments since they arrived. They’d even managed to carve out small, private moments while dining with the loud and boisterous Zabrinski family.
She could have lived without listening to Mia recount the miraculous birth of her twins. One day, hopefully, her heart would grow enough scar tissue that she’d be able to look at baby photos without breaking into tears.
Luckily, they’d been able to escape to the dance floor before she embarrassed herself too badly. Dance. The perfect excuse to touch him. To breathe him in like rarified oxygen.
How did you become such a wonderful dancer?”
Lessons. My parents are both teachers. They don’t believe in leaving anything to chance—and given my father’s terrible lack of rhythm, Mom refused to inflict that on any woman in case two left feet was a dominant gene.”
Please tell her I owe her a debt of gratitude.”
You can tell her yourself. Dad called this morning. They’re starting home in the morning. My sister is ready to deal with her new reality alone. She might move back to Montana at some point, but for now, she doesn’t want to uproot the kids on top of adjusting to losing their dad.”
He’d alluded to a sad mystery surrounding his late brother-in-law’s death, but there were too many getting-to-know-each-other topics to get into any one conversation too deeply. Including her reason for dropping out of college and moving to Montana.
That would come out later. After the music ended. After the countdown began. After their kiss. After a night of unimaginable bliss in each other’s arms.
She crossed her fingers and stopped thinking. Tonight was about feeling. About taking risks and experiencing life to the fullest.
Moments later, the DJ played an Ed Sheeran song Makayla had shared with her earlier that week. Perfect. A shiver ran down the length of her spine.
She’d immediately downloaded the song and added the video to her playlist. She imagined the love story he sang about was her love story—the one that never happened. She squeezed her eyes tight, wishing she still wore a mask.
Daniel’s hold tightened a tiny bit, then he kissed a bare spot where her neck and shoulder met. “Nice song. I’ve never heard it before, but you truly do look perfect tonight.”
She swallowed the lump in her throat. “Thank you. I love my Cinderella dress. Krista’s sister has great taste.” He pulled back, a questioning look in his eyes. Did he think she was pretending to show false modesty or fishing for compliments? She blurted out a question she’d meant to ask earlier. “So, do you always take a tux with you when you travel to a dog-sitting gig?”
My best friend has a key to my condo. He took it to a shipper I use all the time.” He looked down. “Luckily, he remembered my Ferragamos. Dancing wouldn’t be quite the same in snow boots.”
She recognized the designer’s name even if she hadn’t recognized the brand on his feet. My first time is going to be with a guy who can afford designer shoes.
In what felt like a blink, Austen returned to the stage, carrying a large digital clock and a microphone. “We are fast approaching the bewitching hour, my friends. A new year is about to begin. On behalf of the Big Sky Mavericks Charitable Group, thank you all for coming. We promise to put your generosity to beneficial use locally, and we’ll see you next year.”
On cue, people started shouting, “Ten…nine…eight…”
Gretchen turned in Daniel’s arms so their fronts were pressed together. Reaching up, she slipped her fingers under the rim of his mask and pulled it free. They looked into each other’s eyes as what she hoped was an unspoken understanding passed between them.
She looped her arms across his shoulders and brought her face closer to his. “Two…one…Happy New Year!”
His lips were warmer than she’d expected. And softer. And when she gave a little “Oh,” his tongue slipped inside her mouth. Curious, friendly, interested. His taste was hers. His smell? Completely his own and something she’d forever identify as Daniel Andrews.
She melted against him, needing to touch as much of her body to his as possible. Gretchen wanted him to be the one. Her first. From what she’d learned about him on social media, he was a fun-loving go-getter who didn’t seem the least bit interested in settling down.
Perfect.
When it came to women, he was…um…experienced. Perhaps a bit of a player.
Works for me.
She wanted to be with someone who would treat her with gentle finesse…or maybe not-so-gentle finesse. How would she know what she liked until she tried it?
An unnatural buzzing sensation near her breast made her startle.
Daniel groaned and pulled his phone from his inside jacket pocket. “My brother. Do you mind? He and Krista are in California. Different time zone.”
Not at all. We wouldn’t be here if not for them. Please.”
They’re on FaceTime. With all the noise, we won’t be able to hear a thing. Oh, well.”
He touched a button. A second later, two faces appeared on the screen. Krista let out a squeal of glee. “Oh, Gretchen, you look fabulous. Show me the dress, Daniel. Show me the dress.”
Daniel rolled his eyes, but he took one step back. He lowered and raised the phone as Gretchen did a spin. Then, he pulled her in close again.
Krista blinked as if to keep away tears. “I absolutely love it. You look like a fairy-tale princess. Are you having fun?”
It’s been magical. Daniel hired a limo, and he dances like a dream. He’s been a perfect gentleman.” Until later, I hope. She bumped her nose against his cheek. “Thank you so, so much for making this happen.”
No thanks necessary. Jonah and I are having a wonderful time, too. We only called to wish you Happy New Year.”
Jonah squeezed in. “We’re an hour behind you, so we get to make out in public twice. But hey, Daniel, quickly, did you leave the TV on for the dogs? In case someone starts shooting off guns? You are in Marietta, Montana, after all.”
Gretchen missed Daniel’s reply when Sarah Zabrinski walked up to them. “Aunt” Sarah was Gretchen’s father’s first cousin by marriage, but because of their age difference, people forgot they were part of the same generation.
She gave Gretchen a quick hug. “You two are just the cutest couple. We really enjoyed meeting Daniel. I hope you bring him tomorrow.”
Tomorrow. Since she’d never spent the night with a man, she didn’t know what to expect from the morning after.
Gretchen made what she hoped was a noncommittal reply and waved goodbye as the crowd swept Sarah away.
She turned back to Daniel. She reached out to touch his shoulder but stopped when she heard him say in a low, confidential tone, “I never thought I’d say this, brother, but I think I just kissed the mother of my future children.”
She sucked in an involuntary gasp when a pain as sharp and gut wrenching as the one she’d felt in her doctor’s office the day he’d explained the ramifications of her diagnosis made her knees wobble. Panic hit a second later.
No. No. It’s not supposed to be like this. Tonight is mutual fun, no commitment. No future. Period. Anything else wouldn’t be fair.
Especially to Daniel.
But she couldn’t speak those words aloud because then he’d ask why…and she hadn’t said those words to anyone. Not yet.
Intent on disappearing, she turned and melted into the crowd exiting the party. She grabbed her jacket from the coatroom, grateful her tiny purse held her cell phone. Her Uber app showed one driver in her area. Three minutes later, she was on the road back to Paradise. Her sister and niece might not be expecting her, but Sam would understand. And that was all Gretchen wanted. Someone who wouldn’t ask for something she couldn’t give.

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