Excerpts

SNEAK PEEK: A Little Too Late by Staci Hart

Hannah

 

The first time I saw Charlie Parker, I didn’t see one thing at a time; I saw all of him. It was an assault on my senses, an overwhelming tide of awareness, and for a moment, the details came to me in flashes over what was probably only a few seconds but felt so much longer.

His hair was blond and gently mussed, his face long and nose elegant. I could smell him, clean and fresh with just a touch of spice I couldn’t place. I tipped my chin up—he was tall, taller than me, and I hovered just at six feet—and met his eyes, earthy and brown and so deep. So very deep.

And then he smiled.

He was handsome when he wasn’t smiling. He was stunning when he was.

I was so lost in that smile, I didn’t register the flying gob until it whapped against my sweater. Tiny splatters of something cold speckled my neck.

This was the moment the clock started again, and the sweet serenity slipped directly into chaos.

A blond little boy looked up at me from his father’s side with a devilish gleam in his dark eyes. The spoon in his hand was covered in blood-red jam and aimed at me like an empty catapult.

Several things happened at once. Charlie’s face morphed into embarrassed frustration as he reached for who I presumed to be his son. The boy—Sam, I guessed from the names I’d been given by the agency—spun around lightning fast and took off down the hallway, giggling. Another child began to cry from somewhere back in the house, and a bowl clattered to the ground, followed by a hissed swear from what sounded like an older woman.

I glanced down at the sliding, sticky mess against my white sweater and started to laugh.

Charlie’s head swiveled back to me, his face first colored with confusion, then in horror as he looked at the Pollock painting on my sweater.

“Oh my God,” he breathed, his apologetic, wide eyes dragging down my body. “Jesus, I am so sorry.”

I was still laughing, almost a little hysterical. I couldn’t even tell you why.

I waved a hand at Charlie, and he took my elbow, guiding me into the house as I caught my breath. Another crash came from the kitchen, and a little girl came toddling out into the entry, leaving powdery footprints on the hardwood.

Charlie’s face screwed up. “Sam!” he called, stretching the word, a drawn-out promise of consequences.

A riot of giggling broke out in the kitchen.

We both snapped into motion. I followed him as he scooped up his crying daughter and stormed toward the kitchen. The little girl watched me over his shoulder with big brown eyes, her breath hitching in little shudders and her small finger hooked in her mouth.

Charlie stopped so abruptly, I almost ran into him.

When I looked around him and into the kitchen, my mouth opened. I covered it with my fingers as laughter bubbled up my throat.

A bag of flour sat in the middle of the floor, the white powder thrown in bursts against the surrounding surfaces and hanging in the air like smoke. The floor next to the bag was the only clean spot, shaped like a small bottom—the little girl’s, I supposed. A bowl lay upside down, its contents oozing from under the rim and slung in a ring from ceiling to cabinet to floor, as if it had completed a masterful flip on its way to its demise. And in the center of the madness stood an older woman with flour in her dark hair and dusted down the front of her. Clutched under her arm was a wriggling Sam, offending spoon still in hand.

Her face was kind but tight with exasperation. “Please tell me this is the new nanny,” she said flatly.

“I doubt we could convince her to stay at this point,” he said with equal flatness.

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Excerpts

SNEAK PEEK: Sick Fux by Tillie Cole

Prologue

The first time I met Heathan James he was picking the wings off a butterfly. When I asked him why, he turned his light gray eyes my way and said, “Because I want to watch it die.”
I watched as his gaze rolled back to the squirming wingless insect in his hand. Watched his lips part as the sad creature withered and died in his palm. A long, soft breath escaped his parted lips, and a victorious smile tugged on his mouth.
I once heard of the theory that the simple flutter of a butterfly’s wings, a tiny perturbation, that merest whisper of movement in the air, could start the process of building something much bigger; a tornado, devastating thousands. A tsunami crushing iron-heavy waves onto sandy shores, obliterating everything in its path.
As I looked back on the moment we met, this introduction to Heathan James, the man who became my entire world, the pulsing marrow in my bones, I wondered if his deadly act of ripping the wings from the bright blue-and-black butterfly started such a perturbation in our lives. Not a tsunami or a tornado caused by a simple flutter, but something much darker and more sinister, caused by stripping a beautiful creature of its ability to fly, to thrive. A path of destruction no one saw coming; the sweetest, most violent deaths carried out with the gentlest of smiles on our faces and the utmost hell in our hearts.
Heathan James was never the light in my life, but instead a heavy eclipse, blotting out the sun and anything bright, bringing with him endless, eternal night and murderous tar-black blood pumping through my veins.
Heathan James was the genesis of my soul’s reawakening . . . a soul not meant for peace, but one handcrafted for death and murder and blood and bones . . .
Soulmates forged in fire, under the watchful gaze of Satan’s mocking eyes.
Heathan.
Ellis.
Just a couple of sick fux . . .

Excerpts

SNEAK PEEK: Dark Promises by Winter Renshaw

“Run into an old friend?” I ask when she returns, handing her flute back.
“There was a girl crying in the restroom,” she says. “I had to console her.”
Mary Kate.
“Let’s make rounds, shall we?” I ask, downing the rest of my champagne before leaning into her ear. “I’d like to get out of here while the night’s still young. You slinking around here in that dress and knowing I can’t touch you the way I want to is driving me fucking insane.”
Her chin tucks and her mouth slips into a smirk.
Rowan slips her hand into the bend of my elbow, and I lead her into the crowd. The ballroom is filling by the minute, guests still arriving, and the jazz band in the corner is playing some Frank Sinatra tune.
Everywhere we go, people stare, and I don’t blame them.
We look incredible together, but it isn’t just our outward appearance. It’s everything. We just mesh. We fit. She gets me. I get her.
“I want to introduce you to someone,” I tell her, squeezing her hand as we approach a bald man in a dark gray suit. “Senator Harvey.”
The senator turns, his eyes landing on Rowan first then lifting to me, and when he recognizes me, he extends his hand, grinning wide.
“Keir,” he says. “It’s been a long time. Look at you.”
“Rowan, I’d like you to meet Senator Bill Harvey,” I say. “He was one of my most influential professors at Dartmouth. Now he’s influencing millions. Congratulations on passing that reform bill last year. I know what a labor of love that was for you.”
He rolls back on his heels, nodding. “Almost lost hope for a second, but it pulled through at the last minute. How have you been? How are things going for you?”
I glance at Rowan before answering. “Never better.”
And I mean it.
Rising on the balls of his feet, he makes eye contact with someone in the distance. “Looks like my wife is trying to flag me down, Keir. It was nice talking to you. And great meeting you, Rowan.”
Moving on, I take her from senator to representative to ambassador to billionaire benefactor, all of this serving two purposes.
Primarily, I want these people to feel comfortable supporting me once I announce my candidacy, and in order for them to feel comfortable, I want them to see that I’m getting settled, calming my wild ways. And second, I want Rowan to feel at ease in this world. I want her to feel like a part of it, a part of me. If she stays with me, she’ll need to schmooze and smile and socialize while I get my career off the ground.
When we’ve spent a solid two hours making our rounds, I call the car around.
I want to get her home and I want her all to myself.
I’m done sharing her.
And tomorrow, when she makes her decision, it better be me. And if it isn’t, I’m going to do everything in my power to change her mind.
I can’t lose her. I can’t let her go. Not now, not ever.
I realize tonight, with complete certainty, that I’m falling madly in love with this woman.

Excerpts

SNEAK PEEK: Jeremiah by Casey Peeler

Chapter 1

Jeremiah

With the sound of the small metal bell clanging against the glass door, I glance up from underneath the Chevy Impala I’m changing the oil in. Looking to it, I do a double-take as a blonde with long, flowing hair like an ocean walks in and smiles my direction. Her jeans are painted on, with a tight-fitting black tank top and curves that would make every man’s dick hard. She doesn’t say a word; instead, she walks toward Mr. Mayes’ office and closes the door. What the fuck is going on? Who the hell does she think she is and why is she in that office?

As soon as the last few drops have escaped, I place the oil plug back in place and change out the filter before lowering it from the lift. Once its four wheels hit the concrete, I take off the cap and fill it with the golden liquid. Taking the dip stick, I check it once more and turn the engine to make sure all the lights are off. Killing the engine, I glance over my shoulder to Davis.

“I’m gonna go see who the fuck that was walkin’ in Mr. Mayes’ office,” I say to him as I wipe my hands on the rag and toss it on the work table. Standing outside his office door, I see the same blonde sitting behind his dusty desk with a look of disgust on her face. Quickly, I knock on the door. She pauses and looks up. Without waiting for a reply, I turn the knob and walk in.

“Ma’am, is there something I can help ya with?” I question, trying my best to be polite.

She looks at me, rolls her eyes, and basically tells me to fuck off without opening her mouth, and all that has me wanting to do is turn her over my damn knee and spank her nice little ass.

“Excuse me?” she says with an abundance of attitude.

“I said can I help you? Mr. Mayes isn’t here, so maybe I can help you with what you need.”

She begins to laugh and it pisses me off.

“No fuckin’ shit, Sherlock! He’s in the hospital and I’m here to take care of things until he’s able to return.” What the hell did she say? I’ve been here since I was sixteen years old and he’s been priming me to take over the day he calls it quits. He’s left me in charge and I’ll be damned if a little girl comes in here acting all high and mighty wanting to take over.

“Ma’am,” I say cautiously once more, knowing I really want to cuss this bitch out. “I’m in charge while he’s out. What can I help you with?”

“Like hell you are, Jeremiah.” The way she says my name makes me pause. How the hell does she know my name?

“Why’s this the first I’ve heard of it? I just saw him yesterday.”

“Hell if I know, but whatever. Look, I’m here to handle the books, but I don’t mind helping out on the floor.”

“On the floor? What the hell does a pretty girl like you know about that?”

The look on her face goes blank as she slides back out of the worn green leather chair. She places her hands on the desk and looks me directly in the eyes as my legs press up against the old worn couch.

“I know plenty. Now, question my ass again about what I do and don’t know about this shop and I’ll show you who’s fuckin’ boss. Got that?”

Standing there, I look at her, speechless. I’ve heard of feisty women. I vaguely remember a woman with a mouth that got her slapped around as a kid, but I also remember a mom who took us in, didn’t take shit from anyone, but had the kindest heart. Something about her makes me want to climb over that desk and kiss the hell out of her until she screams my damn name, then it hits me.

“Landry?” I question.

“Damn right, it’s me.”

Landry

The moment that office door opens, I try my best to refrain from letting my mouth drop to the floor as I look at the hottest thing I’ve seen since sliced bread. It’s Jeremiah Drake, the youngest Drake brother. He’s tall, dark, handsome, and a grease monkey. It’s like music to my ears.

Growing up, I learned how to do anything and everything in this shop. I remember Jeremiah as I kid, but he never noticed me. I was a girl that was a few years younger, off limits, and a tomboy. Who am I kidding? No guy around here paid any attention to me so I focused on what I loved most—Paw and cars. My summers were spent in this shop, his old barn and out at the creek.

“You going back to work or you gonna gawk all fuckin’ day?” I ask.

The way he cuts his eyes toward me makes my damn panties want to drop. “I’m goin’ back to work. Look, I’m not sure what the deal is, but I was told I was in charge. I don’t mind you hanging around and looking pretty, but this place is no place for a girl.”

Without thinking twice, I begin to laugh at his comment. He might think that I can’t handle myself on the floor, but I learned from the best and I refuse to let the best down.

Excerpts

SNEAK PEEK: Exp1re by Erin Noelle

PROLOGUE
Lyra

10.18.02
The intercom crackles loudly throughout the classroom, interrupting Ms. Sherman’s rather uninspiring Friday afternoon lesson on the life cycle of a star. Even though most of the students around me are furiously jotting down notes about nebulas, red giants, and supernovas, I’m half listening while I doodle caricatures of me and my friends in the margin of my notebook. It’s not that I’m not interested in the material she’s talking about. No, that’s not the case at all. It’s quite the opposite actually; science is my favorite subject, especially anything that deals with astronomy and the unknowns in our universe.
But with a dad who is a super-smart astronomer at Johnson Space Center—or NASA, as most people here in Houston call it—I learned about this stuff she’s teaching before I ever started kindergarten. Heck, just this past summer before fifth grade, Mama and I went to visit him at a planetarium in Hawaii, where he was part of a team that discovered eleven new moons orbiting Jupiter! If I don’t ace this test next week, I better not even go home. I definitely wouldn’t be able to be an astronaut then.  
“Ms. Sherman, can you please have Lyra Jennings gather her things and come down to the office? She’s leaving for the day,” the office lady who reminds me of Paula Deen—Mama’s favorite chef—announces through the ancient intercom system.
At the sound of my name, my chin jerks upward from my pencil sketches to the standard black-and-white classroom clock mounted above the projection screen. The hands read 12:45 p.m., nearly three hours before the end of the school day, when my parents are supposed to pick me up as we head out to Dallas for the weekend to celebrate my eleventh birthday. Ooh, maybe getting out of school early was my surprise they mentioned!
I’ve been looking forward to this day since we came home from this same trip last year, and I know my parents planned something special for this year. Every birthday, instead of having one of those silly kids’ parties with pointy hats and piñatas, they take me to the Texas State Fair. There, we spend the weekend riding as many rides as possible, stuffing our mouths with sausage-on-a-stick and fried Twinkies, playing games until we win the biggest of the stuffed animals, and laughing until our faces hurt and happy tears stream down our cheeks. Hands down, it’s my favorite three days of the year, even better than Christmas. And I really, really like Christmas.
Excitement jets through me as I stand up from my desk and hurriedly cram my spiral notebook and textbook into my purple paisley backpack. If we make it there early, I’ll be able to go swimming at the fancy hotel’s indoor pool before dinner.
“Sure thing,” my teacher calls out in response. “She’ll be right down.”
Hoisting the strap of the bag up on my shoulder, I turn to leave the room and my gaze meets Ms. Sherman’s. Her warmth shines in her bright amber-colored eyes, highlighting the numbers 051123 that I see imprinted in her pupils. The same six white numbers I see every time we make eye contact. The numbers I’m not allowed to talk about. The ones everyone thinks are all a part of my healthy imagination.
But they’re wrong. They’re all wrong.
The numbers are real, and they never change or go away. I only wish I knew what they meant. Mama and Daddy—who, by the way, are the only two people I know that have the same numbers—call it my special superpower, but I know they just pretend to believe me. I see the looks they share when they think I’m not watching. They don’t want me to think about all those things the doctors say about me. I may only be ten years old, but I’m 100% sure I’m not crazy, nor do I lie for attention. I’m an only child, for Pete’s sake; my parents are overly interested in my life. Though I do appreciate their support, even if they don’t understand.
“Have a nice weekend, Lyra. Don’t forget we have a test over CHAPTERs six through eight on Monday. Make sure you’ve read all the material,” she reminds me.
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll be ready,” I reply modestly, not sharing with her or the rest of the class I’ve already read through CHAPTER thirteen in the text, including answering the study guide questions at the end of each section. I may be an overachiever, but I’m not a brown-noser.
Luckily, school just comes easy for me, and my parents get over-Jupiter’s-moons proud when I bring home straight A’s on my report card. It reassures them that I’m normal and well adjusted. At least that’s what I heard Mama whispering to Daddy on the phone one night when she thought I wasn’t listening.
I mouth a quick goodbye to my best friend, Beth, who I pass by as I scuttle toward the exit. With her last name being Blackmon and mine being Jennings, we rarely get to sit near each other, as most of our teachers put us in alphabetical order. Beth’s numbers are 022754, and like Ms. Sherman’s, they light up vibrantly when she looks up at me and mouths the words Have fun before I slip out the door.
I never want to break the rules or get in trouble, so I somehow fight the urge to sprint down the deserted hallway and force myself to walk as fast as my long, skinny legs will let me. The swishing sound from my denim shorts rubbing together fills my ears, creating a soundtrack for my excitement. My cheeks ache from smiling so big while I drop off my folders and books in my locker then make a beeline to the front of the school, where my parents are waiting for me. This is going to be the best of the best weekends ever, one that none of us will ever forget. I just know it.
Only, when I swing open the glass door to the main office, expecting to see my favorite two people in the world, I’m surprised to find my Aunt Kathy standing there, her face puffy and pink, the corners of her mouth pointing due south. Our eyes meet, and I can barely see her numbers—123148—because of how swollen the lids are around them.
The fluffy white cloud of elation I floated in on disappears instantly as a dark fog of dread takes its place. Engulfing me. Swallowing me whole. She doesn’t have to say a word—I already know. Not how or when or where it happened, but deep in my bones, I know.
I was right. This will definitely be a weekend I’ll never forget, only it will be for reasons I’ll never want to remember.
“I’m so sorry, Lyra baby girl,” she cries. “I’m so sorry. They’re… they’re gone.”
gone.
        Gone.
                   GONE.
The word bounces around between my ears, getting louder each time it echoes. The first time, it freezes my movements. The second steals all the air from my lungs. By the third time, I’m pretty sure I have no pulse. I want to go, too.
Go.
       Going.
                     GONE.
With my feet stuck to the floor and my body stiff as a statue, Aunt Kathy rushes over to me and wraps her arms around my shoulders. Pulling me up against her chest as uncontainable sobs shake her body, she breaks down in front of the receptionist and attendance clerk, neither of who bother to hide their open staring. Numb, I stand completely still while she wails for several minutes, and I never once make a single sound or try to break free from the death grip she has on me. My thoughts race so fast they’re standing still.
I’m just… here. And my parents just… aren’t. And they won’t ever be again.
They’re… gone.
Climbing into the passenger seat of Aunt Kathy’s fancy sports car—a car I usually beg to ride in because there’s no backseat—I fasten my safety belt and then close my eyes as I lean my head back on the black leather, warm from the hot southern Texas sun. Even though it’s mid-October, I’m still wearing shorts and sandals, and just last weekend I went swimming at Beth’s house. But as I sit here and wait for my aunt to start the car, my teeth chatter loudly and my entire body trembles uncontrollably. My heart is frozen solid, but I’ve yet to shed a tear.
The phone rings and I jump, automatically looking at the caller ID on the screen, thinking… hoping… praying it’s someone calling to let us know this has all been a big mistake, that my parents are really okay.
“Hey, Mom,” Aunt Kathy answers after just one ring. We still haven’t pulled out of the parking space. “Yeah, I have her now. She’s safe and sound.”
My heart plummets even lower into my stomach than it was before as she pauses to listen to Granny Gina on the other end. Granny Gina is my dad and Kathy’s mom who lives in New Orleans, where she moved about five years ago after my grandpa passed away from lung cancer. Since my mom’s parents both died before I was born, she’s the only living grandparent I have, and luckily for me, she’s a pretty awesome one. But today, nothing is awesome. Not even close.
“I don’t know. She hasn’t said a word. I’m sure she’s in shock.” My aunt talks about me like I’m not sitting right here, as I finally feel the car jerk back in reverse.
Another pause. The car lurches forward into drive then we bounce hard as Aunt Kathy flies over a speed bump. I think I’m going to throw up.
“Okay, I’ll take her home so she can pack a suitcase of whatever she wants to bring, and then we’ll go to my place until you get here. You should be in about 5:00?”
Pack a suitcase of what I want to bring where? Where am I going? Why is this happening to me? I’m a good kid. I make good grades and I’m nice to people, even those people who everyone else makes fun of, and I listen to my parents and my teachers. What did I do to deserve this? Why me?
“Yeah, Mom, I know,” Aunt Kathy hiccups. She’s crying hard again. “I’ll take good care of her, and we’ll see you later. I love you.”
I keep my eyes screwed shut as she disconnects the call, scared she’ll want to talk if I open them. I don’t want to talk to her or Granny Gina or anyone but my parents. I want my mom and dad!
Thankfully, Aunt Kathy doesn’t try to talk to me as we drive, but when I feel the car come to a stop and hear the engine turn off, she gently taps my arm. “Lyra, sweetheart, we’re at your house. We’re going to go inside, and I need you to pack up a suitcase or two of the clothes and things you want to take to New Orleans. Whatever you need.”
“New Orleans?” My lids snap open and I whip my chin in her direction. I don’t even recognize my harsh, scratchy voice. “I’m going to New Orleans?”
“Yeah”—she nods sadly as she swipes at the black mascara streaks on her face with her thumbs—“with Granny Gina. After we take care of, uh, of everything here, you’ll go live with her there.”
Scowling, I cross my arms over my chest and grunt. “I don’t want to leave Houston, or my friends, or my school. Why can’t I stay here with you?”
“You know I travel with my job, Lyra. Sometimes I’m gone a week or two at a time, and there won’t be anybody here to stay with you. Granny Gina’s house has an extra bedroom, and since she doesn’t work, she’ll be able to better give you everything you need.”
What I need and will be better for me is my mom and dad. And my perfect birthday weekend at the fair.
She reaches out to attempt to soothe me with her touch, but I wrench away, banging my elbow on the car door in the process. The whack is loud, and the place I hit immediately turns red, but my brain doesn’t register the pain. I feel nothing. I’m broken.
I glance over at my aunt, and the tears spilling down her cheeks make me feel bad for acting the way I just did to her. What happened to my parents isn’t her fault, but I’m angry and this is all moving too fast. How am I supposed to pack up what I need in a couple of bags? I want to stay in my room, in my house, living with my parents.
“I know this is all unfair, baby,” she says through her sniffles, “and I can’t even to begin to understand what you’re thinking or feeling. I mean, I’m freaking the hell out and I’m a grownup who’s supposed to know how to handle these kinds of situations. All we can do is cling to each other as family and try to get through this together. Between me and Granny, we’ll do the best we can for you, and right now, we think the best thing is if you get your things and go stay with her.”
“How did they die?” I blurt out, completely off topic from what she’s talking about. My mind can’t stay focused on any one thing, but this is the question that keeps popping up. “I need to know how it happened.”
Swallowing hard, Aunt Kathy inhales a shaky breath through her nose and blows it out through her mouth, visibly trying to collect herself before she answers me. “It was a car accident,” she whispers after forever, barely loud enough for me to hear. “I don’t know why they were together in your mom’s car this morning or where they were going, but an eighteen-wheeler lost control and hit them. They were already gone by the time the first responders arrived.”
I nod, still unable to cry. I hear the words she’s saying, but they aren’t really registering. They make sense, but I don’t understand. It’s as if I’ve been swallowed up by one of the black holes Daddy taught me about and the darkness is sucking away my ability to think, to feel. All I hear is the word “gone” still replaying over and over and over.
“Okay. I’ll get my stuff,” I say flatly, finally opening the door and stepping out of the car.
My movements are robotic, and I can barely even feel the key in my hand as I unlock the front door to my house. Stepping inside, I’m overwhelmed by a combination of the sweet smell of my mom’s favorite vanilla cookie candle and the sight of my dad’s fuzzy slippers waiting by the coatrack—the slippers he puts on the minute he walks in the door from work every night. When I realize he’ll never wear those slippers again, nor will my mom ever be able to forget if she blew out the candle when we’re about to pull out of the driveway, an acute pain shoots through my chest and I stumble over to the staircase, grabbing the banister to keep my balance.
“I’m right here, Lyra,” Aunt Kathy murmurs from behind me as she slips her arm around my waist. “Let’s just get your things and head over to my place. Later, once we’ve had some time to deal with everything, we can come back to go through the house and all the stuff… if you want.”
Another nod and I let her guide me up the stairs to my room. I want to scream at her that there will never be enough time to deal with losing my parents, that I’ll never be able to go through their things, but I keep my lips pressed together and do as I’m told.
“Where do you guys keep your suitcases?” she asks, glancing around my room as if she’s doing an inventory of what I have. “I’ll go grab a couple while you start pulling out what you want to take. If you forget something, it’s no big deal, because you and Granny are going to be staying at my place for the next few days. I can just bring you back to get it, or I can even ship it to Louisiana if you remember once you’re there.”
“They’re in the storage cabinets in the garage,” I answer while walking over to my desk, my eyes locked in on a framed photo of me and my parents that sits next to my laptop.
“Okay, I’ll be right back.”
The thud of her heels on the hardwood floor grows quiet as she makes her way back down to the first floor, and just as I grab the picture and plop down on the chair, I hear her open the door to the garage. A few much-needed minutes by myself.
I gaze down at the photograph of the three of us from a day at the beach, me sandwiched between their cheerful, carefree expressions, and the first tear finally escapes. Once the dam breaks, I can’t stop the flow, and as I trace my finger over the outline of each of my parents’ faces, I cry for everything I’ll never have again. A supernova of tears.
Faces I’ll never see smile again.
Voices I’ll never hear say my name again.
Arms I’ll never be hugged by again.
A never-ending galaxy of love that I’ll never feel again.
It’s all just… gone.
After several minutes of vision-blurring bawling, I set the picture frame back upright on my desk. A hot pink heart drawn on my calendar with the words Birthday Weekend Begins written over today’s box catches my attention. I then notice the printed numbers next to my bubbly handwriting that read 10-18-02.
Snatching the picture up again, I stare directly into first my dad’s eyes, and then my mom’s. The numbers I see when I look people directly in the eyes only happens when I’m face-to-face with someone, never in photographs or through a screen or mirror. But even though I can’t actually see the numbers right now in the picture of my parents’ pupils, their numbers are forever etched in my brain from looking at them every day of my life. I used to think the reason they had the same numbers meant they were true soul mates, like God made them to match perfectly together, but now….
My gaze flicks over to today’s date of 10-18-02, then back to my parents’ faces, where I envision their numbers—101802.
My plummeting heart collides with my lurching stomach in an explosion of realization.
It’s my Big Bang Moment.

Excerpts

SNEAK PEEK: The Rivalry by Nikki Sloane

Holy mother of God, this guy knew how to kiss. Jay’s lips pressed to mine. Gentle, and slow, but it ignited a fire that burned all through my body, sizzling out to the ends of my fingertips and toes.

The way he moved his tongue in my mouth was something else. It was sexy. Maybe even a little dirty, and a whole lot of awesome. Beneath his kiss, I was going to melt. If he wasn’t careful, I’d turn molten and pour down the side of the stone wall he’d set me on.

The added height of the wall was great. All he had to do was tilt down to meet me. His face was in my hands, and I brushed my thumbs over his cheekbones, enjoying the sensation of the rough ends of the whiskers on his jaw.

He smelled freaking amazing. I didn’t just want to make out with this guy, I wanted to inhale him. It’d been some kind of torture slow dancing with him earlier. My body had been tight with anticipation, hoping he’d make a move later. Only, here we were, lips locked—and the anticipation didn’t go away. It graduated into need.

How long could we be out here before anyone noticed we were gone? I couldn’t think like that. We were secluded in the shadows, and as the sunlight continued to fade, it’d only feel more intimate here in the woods with him.

Jay left a trail of damp kisses across my jaw as he made his way to my ear. His hot breath rasped the moment before his lips landed on the sensitive skin on my neck, just below my earlobe. I was burning alive, yet I shivered. Goosebumps broke out on my legs. Oh my God, that felt good. Something as simple as his warm mouth against my skin made every inch of me weak with desire. I ached.

“I’m kind of pissed at Dave,” Jay mumbled into my skin, right at the spot where my neck met my body.

“Yeah?”

“Why the hell didn’t he introduce us?”

I wanted to laugh. Or tell him I’d had the same thought. But Jay’s lips had rendered me unable to do anything. I couldn’t even breathe. Every inch of me was sensitized and hyperaware of him. I was turning to liquid in his hands, and he was barely touching me.

My eyes fluttered closed as his mouth crept along the length of my collarbone to the base of my throat and continued to the other side. His hands settled at my waist, but the longer we kept kissing, the bolder he seemed to grow. His palms inched upward.

It was like I’d drawn up a playbook and every route was executed flawlessly by Jay.

Breath caught in my lungs as his hands slid to a stop on my ribcage, pausing just below my breasts. The heat of his palms was a hot iron, seeping through my chiffon dress. I wanted him to keep going, but I also grew nervous. I wanted him too badly. Too much. I wasn’t the type to be reckless or have a random hookup.

Was I?

His mouth found mine, and his kiss was urgent. Needy. It was loaded with lust, and I was desperate to give in to it.

“You were right,” I said, trying not to pant it out. “Your kiss needs to come with a warning.”

A noise escaped the back of his throat. A deep, wicked chuckle.

It was too hot for Ohio in August. Even in the shade, it was a million degrees Fahrenheit. Sweat blossomed on my skin, beading into tiny drops as Jay shifted his stance between my parted legs and urged me closer. I dry swallowed when there was no space left between us, and his hips pressed against the insides of my thighs. My skirt rode up, and I could feel the firm bulge in his pants nudging me.

It was powerful knowing I’d turned him on, and it was just my kiss that seemed to be doing it. My blood had burst into steam in my veins the moment his lips locked onto mine. I’d never had a kiss like his. Didn’t even know I was capable of this kind of feeling.

I hadn’t intended to do more than kiss him, but now I craved more. “Oh, God, do it,” I whispered, arching my back and making it as clear as possible what I wanted. I stared into his intense blue eyes, watching his lust-filled expression as he followed my plea. I sighed in relief as he moved his hands one inch up, followed by another.

Until his hands covered my breasts, gripping me through my dress. I moaned, but it was swallowed up under his dominating kiss. Jay drew my bottom lip into his mouth and bit down. Just a hint of teeth. I inhaled sharply, but not in pain. His action had sent pleasure zinging between my legs.

“Kayla.” He broke the kiss only for a moment. “You are so fucking hot.”

The earth was spinning like I was drunk, only I wasn’t even buzzing from alcohol. This was entirely him.

Excerpts

SNEAK PEEK: A Saving Grace by Annie Stone

ONE

Hunter

On our way back to Camp Leatherneck, I sit in the back seat, looking out the window at the monotonous wasteland around us. Our mission at the COP is over, and I’ve completed my second deployment to Afghanistan. It’s back to Virginia for me.
I’m looking forward to going back to the States. Maybe I’ll manage to meet up Carey this time. The more time that passes since the thing with Mac, the easier it gets to live with it. I haven’t forgotten her, of course—and I never will—but it no longer hurts as much as it did in the beginning.
Suddenly, the front left of the car is yanked up off the ground. I hear screams and swearing as I try to steady myself in my seat. But our armored vehicle flips and lands on its side. All I can hear are shots, moans, and screams in Pashto, Dari, and English.
I can’t move. My leg is stuck. I try to say something, but nothing comes out. As I attempt to free my leg, the vehicle is hit and thrown up in the air again, throwing me through the window. I land on the ground a few feet away, disoriented and confused.
I want to get up and look for my buddies, make sure everybody’s okay, but I realize I can hardly hear anything. Then my field of vision shrinks, blackness creeping in around the edges. Before I can even lift an arm, I pass out.

 

TWO

Mackenzie

I’m antsy throughout the entire flight, unable to focus on anything. Reading, watching a movie, distracting myself in any other way—forget about it.
I knew it all along. I was up all night, sure something had happened to Hunter, and the next morning, Carey and I heard Hunter had been injured in an attack and flown to Ramstein. By the time we were notified, he was in surgery. And that was all they could tell us.
I immediately got on a plane to go see him, even if it was tough for me to leave Hazel with Carey. I had to. I don’t know if Hunter is going to survive. I need to see him again, tell him how much I love him. I can’t let him go without that knowledge. Even if he can’t speak to me. He only needs to hear me. He needs to know I care.
I knead my hands until it feels like my skin’s going to fall off. I’m sitting beside the aisle, so I keep getting up to pace the length of the plane. How long can one flight last?
Twelve hours. Twelve long, agonizing hours later, we land in Frankfurt, and I board a shuttle bus Carey booked to take me to Ramstein Air Base. Carey also made sure I’ll get a visitor’s pass when I arrive.
The entire hour I’m on the van, I chew my nails, my thoughts going in circles. How is Hunter doing? Is he still alive? Am I too late?
Please, don’t let me be too late! I can’t imagine life without Hunter. Please, no! I don’t want to be without him.
When we get to the gates, I have to write my name on a form and show them my ID before they give me a pass and let the shuttle through. I go straight to the hospital and tell them at reception I’m here to see Hunter, but they ask me to have a seat in the waiting room. So I wait.
And keep waiting.
I call Carey to tell him I got here and ask about Hazel. Carey instructs me to hold the phone to Hunter’s ear as soon as possible he can hear him.
I swallow. “What if…” No. I can’t get the words out.
“No, Mac, no!” Carey snaps. “If it was that bad, somebody would have told me! I haven’t heard anything. We need to hope for the best.”
“You’re right. I’ll call you back later, okay?”
“Okay, wait a second. Hazel wants to talk to you.”
“Hazel?”
“Mommy! When you tummin bat?”
“Soon, angel. I’ll be back soon. You be good for Carey till then, okay?”
“Otay!” she squeals. “Ice tream!”
I smile. “Lots of ice cream, and then I’ll be back. I love you, honey.”
“Love you too!”
I didn’t cry on the plane, because I thought I simply had no tears left, but now they start rolling again.
“Mackenzie Hall?” somebody calls across the waiting room.
I turn and see a doctor in a doorway leading back into the hospital. With trembling legs, I get up. “Yes?”
“I’ll take you to your fiancé now. Sergeant Tilman’s brother told us you were authorized to see him. Obviously, Sergeant Tilman will need to confirm that when he wakes up from his coma.”
“Coma?” I repeat, shocked.
“Don’t worry. We thought it was best to induce a coma after surgery. We’re already reducing the meds, so he should wake up within the next few hours.”
“Can you tell me what’s wrong with him?”
“He suffered several non-lethal wounds, one to his shoulder, one to his arm, and a graze to his thigh. He has internal injuries, but we were able to stop the bleeding. The worst of it is that when he was ejected from the vehicle during the ambush, his leg suffered the greatest damage. We had to amputate below the knee.”
“Amputate?” I repeat dumbly. “He…He only has one leg now?”
The doctor nods gravely. “Yes. Amputating was the best option. He can wear a prosthetic, and if he’s lucky, he’ll be able to walk just like he used to.”
For a moment, I feel like I can’t breathe. But then relief wins out. “But…he’s going to make it?”
“There may be some other complications, but if everything heals like we think, then yes, he’ll make a full recovery. With some rehab and therapy, he’ll be able to lead a good life with his prosthetic.”
“Thank you,” I say, the words coming from the very depths of my heart. Everything is going to be okay, as long as Hunter lives. “Can I stay here with him?”
“Of course.” The doctor nods over his shoulder. “We’ll set up a cot for you in his room.”
“That won’t be necessary. I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep.”
The doctor gives me a strict look. “Ma’am, you look like you haven’t slept in a long time. You breaking down with exhaustion is not going to help Sergeant Tilman. He needs you to be strong right now. Do you understand?”
I nod. “I’m a trauma therapist. I understand.”
“Okay. I’ll take you to him.”
I follow the doctor through the double doors of the waiting room and down a hallway, only stopping in front of the last door the doctor walks through. I have to work up all the strength I have left in me.
Hunter needs me to be strong, I repeat to myself.
When I finally step through the doorway and see him, I’m shocked. He looks so different than he did three years ago. Like I expected, he looks more masculine. He’s grown a beard, and his brown hair is still cropped short, but he has a ghastly tube in his mouth, and several others protruding from his body.
But the worst thing of all is seeing the place where his calf used to be. Because now there is…nothing.
I’m glad he’s not awake, because it gives me a chance to get used to the sight of him. This way, when he wakes up, I really can be strong for him. It’s good I’m getting this moment. I shed a few tears before reminding myself it could have been worse. People live with prosthetics every day, and an amputation below the knee is the best-case scenario. Everything will be okay. What matters is that he’s alive, that he’s going to recover. And that he’s finally going to listen to me. The stubborn ass.
Sliding a chair next to his bed, I sit down and take his hand without the port in it. Gently stroke his knuckles, I watch his beautiful face. He seems bigger—at least wider. He didn’t have shoulders like that three years ago, did he? Even though he’d already grown in width back then, he seems even bigger now. But my memory is surely a little blurred. I met him when he was seventeen and only saw him once at the age of twenty-one. What a history we have.
“I don’t know if you can hear me, Hunter,” I say, swallowing. “Some say people in comas can hear what’s going on around them. I’ll tell you all of this again once you’re better, but just in case you can hear me, I want to tell you right now that I love you. I’m sorry I didn’t take your hand without hesitating, even for a second. I can only blame a moment of derangement. I did not choose Carter, do you hear me? I chose you. I love you. So much! And you have given me the greatest present a man can give a woman. Her name is Hazel Claire. H for her daddy, C for her uncle. Carey is crazy about your daughter, Hunter. And I hope you will be, too. I’ve missed you so much. Carey has missed you so much. Hazel needs her dad. Please, Hunter, wake up and get well again. For me, for her. We need you.”
I tell him little stories about Hazel, like when she tried to eat the needles of the Christmas tree we bought last week. And how she learned to write the letter H and took her paintbrush to write Hs all over the hallway. That she’s a good eater but doesn’t like Brussels sprouts, even if you mash them together with potatoes. That she can say “Dad,” even if she never gets to use it. But she knows her daddy from pictures and videos.
At some point, I put my head down next to Hunter’s hand on the bed. I’m exhausted. I haven’t slept in three days, which gives me an idea of how he must have felt in boot camp—minus all the other types of torture he had to endure, of course.
A nurse wakes me up to measure Hunter’s vital signs, and I look around sleepily. It looks like morning. “Why don’t you lie down on the cot?” she suggests gently.
“I want to be with him,” I murmur.
She nods. “But you need to take care of yourself, too. And your little girl.”
“How do you…?”
She smiles. “You told him stories about your daughter for hours last night. Hazel.”
I nod. “She’s so precious.”
“And he doesn’t know about her?”
I bite my lip. How do I explain that he doesn’t know we have a child when I’m supposed to be his fiancé? “He hasn’t met her, no. He hasn’t been home.”
“It’s okay, love.” She pats my hand. “I don’t need details.” She winks at me before leaving the room.
I don’t want to leave Hunter, but I need coffee. So I scurry away to the cafeteria and get myself a cup before returning to his bedside. The doctor said he would be awake within the next few hours.
How many hours? I think miserably. Maybe he meant days…
“Hunter?” I rush forward. Fluttering—I saw his eyelids fluttering!
I squeeze his hand, and all of a sudden, he’s squeezing back.
“Hunter!” I put a hand on his cheek. His lashes twitch in unison with his eyelids. Oh my God! He’s waking up! “Hunter, it’s me!” I sob. “I’m here. Please wake up.”
He moves his head a little, and then suddenly his eyes fly open. There’s panic in them. He fights against the tube in his mouth.
“Hunter, calm down, it’s all right!” I put both hands on his face, forcing him to look at me. “Shhh. It’s okay. They’ll remove the tube in a second. It’s okay. You’re safe.”
He gives me a confused look but calms down a little. Releasing him for just a second, I press the button to call the nurse, and she comes in a moment later. She calls the doctor, who checks Hunter’s pupils and vital signs before removing the tube from his throat. Hunter gasps, coughs, and retches, but when he starts breathing again, tears run down my cheeks.
“Mac?” he asks hoarsely.
“I’m here, babe,” I say, taking his hand again.
He squeezes my fingers.
“Sergeant Tilman,” the doctor interrupts gently, “I’m Dr. Ferguson. I operated on you. You sustained injuries to your shoulder, arm, thigh, and leg. And there was internal bleeding from damage to your spleen. Do you remember the mission on which you were injured?”
Hunter squints. “Yeah. We were on the way back to Camp Leatherneck… Wait, what happened to Jax?”
“Jax?”
“Corporal Jackson Halliwell,” Hunter clarifies with difficulty.
Dr. Ferguson shakes his head sympathetically. “I’m sorry. I’ve never heard the name. He wasn’t brought here.”
Hunter swallows heavily.
“Do you remember what happened?” the doctor asks.
“We were ambushed.” It’s still difficult for him to speak, so the nurse hands him a glass of water with a straw. He carefully drinks a few small sips before continuing. “The vehicle was thrown up into the air, and I was ejected through the window.”
The doctor nods. “Ripping off your leg.”
Hunter’s eyes widen, his nostrils trembling. “My leg?” he repeats, like he doesn’t quite understand. He tries to sit up, squeezing my fingers so hard I hear a popping sound.
“I’m sorry, Sergeant,” the doctor says. “We had to amputate your left leg below the knee.”
The nurse presses a button that raises the head of Hunter’s bed. The panic in his eyes breaks my heart. And when he sees the blanket lying flat on the mattress where his leg should be, he sobs. I squeeze his fingers, not knowing how to help him process this. It must be surreal. The last time he was awake, he still had two legs. Now he only has one.
“Oh God,” he mumbles, again and again and again.
“Hunter, babe,” I murmur, putting an arm around his shoulders.
“Fuck, Mac!” He leans his head against my chest and cries. I reach around him with both arms, pulling him firmly to my chest.
“I’m so sorry.”
His tears soak my shirt. Somehow, it’s different to not just see his pain but feel it, too. I kiss his head, whispering calming words, even though I know they’re completely inadequate. His world is breaking down.
“Everything’s going to be okay,” I murmur into his ear.
He pulls away, and there is madness in his eyes. “Nothing is going to be okay! I lost my leg!”
“I know, babe—”
“Don’t call me that! You chose him, you fucking whore!”
I know he doesn’t mean to hurt me. He’s just unable to deal with this situation. “Hunter—”
“I don’t want to see you.” He averts his eyes to the ceiling. “And I don’t want you to see me like this.”
“But I—”
“Get out, Mac! Be happy and forget about me,” he says bitterly.
I reach for his hand, but he pulls it away. “Don’t, Hunter, please… Listen to me!”
“Get out! Now!” He’s almost screaming by this point.
Though I don’t want to leave, the doctor and nurse escort me out of the room. Hunter’s not listening! He’s not interested in what I have to say. Not now.
“Ms. Hall, please go now,” Dr. Ferguson says. “You can talk to him later, when he’s had time to calm down. Right now, it’s best if you leave.”
“No, please,” I beg. “He needs me—”
“He does, but as long as he doesn’t understand that, he’ll just keep sending you away,” the nurse interrupts gently. “We’ll let you know when something changes. You can sit in the waiting room.”
“Okay,” I say defeated. “But please…d-don’t forget.” I walk down the hallway, my arms wrapped around myself. I haven’t felt this lonely in a very long time.
I don’t actually want to talk to anyone, but Carey must be worried, so I dial his number as I sit in an uncomfortable chair.
“Mac?” Carey answers. “How is he? Have you seen him? Can I talk to him?”
I sob the moment I hear his voice.
“No, Mac, no, no!” he desperately calls into the phone, his voice breaking.
“He’s alive, Carey, he’s alive,” I hurry to say, launching to my feet. His thoughts are taking him down the wrong track, and I can’t let him go there. “He’s awake.”
“Fuck! Mac!” Carey swears, relief evident in his voice. “What happened?”
“His convoy drove into an ambush. They were shot at, the vehicle was thrown up into the air, and he was ejected. His leg was ripped off.”
“Ripped off? What do you mean ripped…? Oh, no…”
“They amputated it.”
“Fuck! No! I… Oh my God!”
After a long moment in which neither of us know what to say, Carey asks, “How is he taking it?”
“Not great,” I admit. “And I didn’t make things any better. God, Carey, he hates me.” I lean against the wall, trying to control my tears.
“What did he say?”
“At first, he let me hug him, but then he sent me away and said he never wants to see me again because I chose Carter.”
“That was just the shock,” Carey says lamely.
I nod, even though he can’t see me. “Yes, I know, but I think he meant it, too.”
“Oh, Mac. Give him some time. He needs to sort himself out. After that, you’ll get your chance. I’m sure of it.”
I shake my head. “You didn’t see him. So cold and distant. I’ve never seen him like that before.”
“Give him time. Don’t rush things,” Carey insists, nearly begging. “You can’t leave him alone right now.”
“I’m not. I’ll stay here with him. Even if he doesn’t want me to.”
“Thank you, Mac.”
“How is Hazel?”
“She’s sleeping. She misses you.”
I smile a little. “My baby girl.”
“Mac, he loves you. I know he does. You just need to get through his hard shell. Don’t give up. He needs you.”
“I know.”
After we hang up, I wait there in the waiting room for hours. Every time I ask after Hunter, they tell me he still doesn’t want to see me. I curl up on one of the benches there, wrapping my sweater around myself for warmth. At some point, a nurse brings me a blanket. I fall asleep, but I’m restless the entire night.