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(Unedited) Chapter one of Maybe Matt’s Miracle

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Skylar

 

Today would be a beautiful day if not for the casket at the front of the church and the three children with wet faces and red eyes sitting beside me on the front pew.  The service hasn’t started yet, and people keep wandering to the front of the church to look down at my half-sister, Kendra. Some of them whisper soft words to her and reach out to touch her cold hand. I touched it too. That was the second and last time I would ever touch her. She’s the sister I never got to meet until the day she died. 

I startle as the pew shakes. Seth, the oldest of Kendra’s children, jumps to his feet and cries, “Grandpa!”

Grandpa? What? He has a grandpa? I look up and see my very own father.  He’s here?  What? He wraps Seth up in his arms and squeezes him tightly. He sets him back and looks into his eyes. “How are you holding up?” he asks quietly.

Seth’s eyes travel toward the casket. “We’re okay,” he says. He swallows hard. I can hear it from where I’m sitting.

Dad takes Seth’s face in his hands and stares into his eyes. “Everything is going to be fine,” he says. “She’s in a better place.” He looks over Seth’s shoulder toward me. “And you have Skylar now,” he whispers. Seth nods.

A better place? When can I go to a better place?  Anywhere would be better than this church where my dad is paying homage to his illegitimate daughter.

Dad walks over to me and kisses my cheek. “How are you, Sky?” he asks. He’s not nearly as friendly with me as he is with the grandchildren I never even knew he had until a few days ago.

“Fine,” I bite out.

Dad sits down and motions toward Kendra’s girls with a crook of his finger.  The little one, who is three, scrambles into his lap, and the older one, who is five, leans into his side. He drops an arm around her and holds her close. He knows these kids. He knows them a lot better than he knows me.  That chafes at me so badly that it makes me squirm in my seat.

Dad’s brows scrunch together in subtle warning.  I stop moving.

I really need to learn that look now that I’m a mom. 

Yes. I’m a mom.  My dad came to me about a week ago and asked for my help. And there it was – instant motherhood.

 

I should have known that my father wanted something. Or he never would have invited me to lunch.

“Skylar,” Dad says quietly. “I need you to do something for me.”

I look up from my manicotti and force a grin to my face. “Did you get another speeding ticket?” I ask. I’m a brand new attorney as of last month.

“No,” he says slowly. He won’t look into my eyes. “It’s about Kendra.”

I drop my fork and it clatters loudly to the table. I scramble to catch it, and then brace myself with my palms on the table. “What about her?” I ask.

I know who Kendra is.  She’s the daughter my dad had with his mistress.  I found out a few years ago when my mother went on a drunken bender and unburdened her soul. And burdened mine. 

Kendra is the daughter my father loved. Her mother was the woman he loved.  It didn’t matter that my father was married to my mother. It didn’t matter that he had three kids with my mother.  It didn’t matter that we were the perfect family with the house on the hill and a summer home at the Cape. Our family was perfect until we found out he had another one. One he actually loved.

He had a whole other life with Kendra’s mother.  Right up until the time she died.  They shared an apartment together and they had a daughter. Dad went back and forth between our house and theirs.  But he was never really present when he was at ours.  My mother was too resentful. So he stayed away more and more. With them.

Then suddenly one day he was back. His eyes were rimmed with red and he retreated to his study with a bottle of Glenlivit.  He didn’t come out for days.  When he finally did, my mom walked around for a week singing, “Ding, dong, the witch is dead.” Kendra was already an adult at that point, and married.

But I had my father back after that day. I didn’t understand at all how it had come to be.  I didn’t know until much later that he had another daughter. Another woman he had once loved. Another life.  But he did. And now he wanted to talk about her?

“Kendra is dying,” he says. His eyes fill with tears, but he won’t let them spill over. He blinks furiously, his face reddening.

“Oh,” I say. What am I supposed to say to that?  Ding, dong, the witch is dead… “What happened?”

“She has cancer. She found out when she was pregnant with her youngest daughter, Mellie.” He wipes his eyes with a cloth napkin and motions for a waiter to bring him a drink. “I got her into a really wonderful chemical trial. But she wanted to wait until Mellie was born.” He heaves a sigh. “If she hadn’t gotten pregnant, she might have made it.  She could have gotten an abortion, but she refused. She waited too long. The cancer is going to win, and she doesn’t have anyone to take the children.”

I can’t breathe. My chest stills and I feel like I’m going to pass out. Dad shoves a glass of water at me, and I raise it to my lips, sputter into the rim of it, take a sip, swallow, and inhale. I take in a deep breath. And I wait. Because there’s more. There’s always more with my dad.

“She has three children.  Seth is sixteen.  Joey is five. And Mellie is three.” He covers my hand with his and squeezes it. “They don’t have anyone but me. And I can’t take them.” He sits back and rubs the bridge of his nose. “You know how your mother is,” he explains.

Yes, and I know how my mother was betrayed. Yes, I know how my mother found out about his mistress. Yes, I know how my mother hates the ground they all walk on.  Sometimes I think she hates me too. It’s hard to tell. I really don’t think she loves anyone or anything.

He looks me in the eye. “I need for you to help me. They’re your nieces and nephew, no matter what your mother has taught you.”

I am stunned. Absolutely stunned. “You love them,” I say quietly.

He nods. “I do.”

“You love her.” The words fall on the room like cracks of thunder.

“I do.”

I lean back against the chair. “Can I ask you something?”

He nods. It’s a quick jerk, but I see it.

“What did they give you that we couldn’t?” I ask.  I don’t even cry. I just ask it. I always wanted to know.

“Your mother made it really hard for me to be a part of our family,” he says. “After she found out.” He raises his hand to stop me when I open my mouth to complain. “Wait,” he says. “Hear me out.”

I nod. I couldn’t talk if I wanted to.

“I loved you and your brother and sister. But I loved Kendra’s mother too, and I should have divorced your mother and made a clean break.”

“Without us,” I say.

“No, I would have taken you with me if I could. But I couldn’t. Your mother would have ruined me politically, but I could get over that. She would have gotten custody of you all. And I couldn’t just leave you with all that hatred, without at least trying to be a buffer.”  I don’t remember him as a buffer. I know him as that man I never knew. He balls up his fist and squeezes tightly.  “That’s why I never left completely. Your mother is more than a bit vindictive, as you know.” He scrubs a hand across his perfect white hair. “Sometimes I think she would have been okay with it if Kendra’s mother was white.”

What? Kendra’s mother’s not white? My father had an affair with a woman of a different race?

“If you do this for me, your mother is going to be very angry at you.”

No shit. She’ll hate me. But I think she already does anyway.

“I understand if you say no,” he says on a sigh. “But they don’t have anyone else.”

“Where is their father?” I ask.

He shrugs. “Fathers,” he says, enunciating the word.  “Seth has a dad who probably never knew about him, the girls’ dad has a new family and not enough time for them.”

“So, what do you want me to do?” I ask. I throw my napkin into my plate. My manicotti is churning in my stomach.

“I want you to go and get them.”

“Did you ask Tim? Or Lydia?” They’re my brother and sister and both are older than me.

He shakes his head. “They have families of their own.”

“And I don’t.” Shit, I don’t have anyone. No one but a boyfriend I almost never see. My mother is a nutcase and my father’s heart lies with another family.

“You’re single. You would be wonderful with them.” He lowers his voice and looks around the room. “You won’t look at them like they’re unwanted, bi-racial children. You’ll love them. I know you will.” He glares at me. “Will you at least go and meet them? Please? I know it would be a challenge. You’d have to learn a lot but Seth is almost sixteen. He helps to take care of the little ones. Hell, in two years, he can take custody himself. That’s what he wants.”

Dad’s pleading with me.

“I’ve never asked for anything before,” he says.

He’s right. He’s never asked for a good night kiss. Or any of the things fathers want. Well, he probably asked for them from Kendra.

“I’ll go,” I say. They’re just children after all. And children need to be loved. I wasn’t, but I can make it better for Kendra’s kids. Can’t I?  There’s a tiny little piece of me that wants to make my father proud. To make him love me.

He deflates like a balloon. “Oh, thank God,” he says. He lays a hand on his chest. Then he gets up, lifts me by my elbows and pulls me into him. I can’t remember ever getting a hug from my father before, and I don’t know what to do with it. He holds me like that, breathing into the hair on the top of my head for a moment. Then he sets me back. His eyes are wet with unshed tears.  “Thank you,” he says. “Thank you so much.”

I nod. I can’t do anything more.  I feel like somebody took my insides and shoved them into my throat. 

 

I’m jerked from my memories when someone sits down on my left.  I look up and instantly recognize Matthew Reed. He was a friend of Kendra’s from the cancer center.  I went to visit right before Kendra died to get the kids, and he was waiting with her. He stayed with Seth so they could be there when she took her last breath.  I took the little ones home, because I didn’t think they needed to remember their mom that way.

His blue eyes gaze into mine, and he sticks out a hand to shake. He doesn’t say anything. I look up at him. He’s wearing a blue turtleneck and a black button down shirt, with a pair of really nice trousers. He tugs at the neck of the turtleneck and I see a tiny peek at his tattoos.  “You clean up nicely,” I say. I smile at him, because I don’t know what else to say.

“Thanks,” he says quietly. His blond hair is held back with a leather band at the nape of his neck, but a piece falls forward and he tucks it behind his ear. He has a row of piercings up the shell of his ear, and I count them in my head. I have a suddenly insatiable desire to see his hair hang loose around his face.  He looks down at my black skirt and my white shirt. “So do you.”

I think I was wearing something similar the last time I saw him. But I smile anyway. He squeezes my hand and pulls his fingers from my grasp. I probably shouldn’t have held his hand so long. I’m an idiot. He leans across me and reaches for my dad’s hand. “Mr. Morgan,” he says with a nod. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

Dad nods in thanks and grips Matt’s hand tightly. Dad’s eyes are rimmed in red and he swipes a finger under his nose. He goes back to talking to the girls, and they’re getting closer and closer to him as he murmurs softly to them.

Matt reaches past my dad and bumps knuckles with Seth. Seth smiles at him, but then the preacher walks to the front of the church, they close the casket, thank God, and the sermon begins.

Matt takes my hand in his again and I feel tears sting my eyes. I blink up at him and he smiles softly at me. He squeezes my hand gently and listens to the pastor. But he doesn’t let me go. 

 

 

Matt

 

“She looks lonely,” Emily says as she elbows me in the side. She’s my brother Logan’s fiancé and she holds a little piece of my heart. But sometimes I want to elbow her back when she pokes me with her scrawny limbs.  “You should go check on her,” she whispers vehemently. She raises her elbow again and I grab it before she can jab me.

“Fine,” I bite out. I get up, stepping on my four brothers’ feet as I scoot past them. Of course, I’m in the center of the aisle and I have to go by all of them. Reagan, Pete’s girl, reaches out and squeezes my hand as I walk by her. I love Reagan, and Emily, too. But Emily is a little more outspoken. Reagan is famous for her tender touches, and Emily is the opposite.

I adjust my suit coat and tug at the turtleneck I borrowed from Logan. He gets free clothes from Emily’s parents, who own Madison Avenue, the upscale clothing company. I feel like a monkey dressed up in a coat and a top hat. One of those that dances at carnivals.  Dance, monkey, dance.

I drop into the open seat beside Skylar, Kendra’s half sister, and I reach out to shake hands with her.  She holds on a second too long, and I don’t mind it. She looks tired. Her dad is sitting beside her, but there might as well be an ocean between them.  It’s only a few inches, but even I can feel the divide.

I shake his hand and bump knuckles with Seth. Seth and I were together with his mom when she died. We shared the most difficult moment of his life, and it’s a time I will never, ever forget.

I watched Kendra take her last breath and all I could think was how lucky I was that it wasn’t me dying there in that bed. I could have so easily been me. Kendra and I were in the same chemical trial, but I got better and my cancer went into remission, and hers didn’t.

She died.

I’m alive.

I look down at Skylar. She looks nothing like Kendra.  Kendra was biracial, so she had skin the color of sweet coffee, and she wore her hair natural, but short. Skylar is light skinned, blonde and blue eyed. She has rhinestone-encrusted sunglasses pushed up on top of her head, holding her hair back from her face. It hangs half way down her back in soft waves.

The preacher starts to speak at the front of the church, and Skylar closes her eyes. She squeezes her hands together in her lap, and I can’t tell what’s going on in her head. I wish I knew.

Without even thinking about it, I reach out and take her hand in mine. I tuck our twined fingers down on the seat between us, and I give her a gentle squeeze. She looks up at me and blinks slowly, her blue eyes startled. But then they soften and she blinks at me, and really looks at me. She squeezes my hand back and I don’t let her go. I hold it until our palms start to sweat together.

I get so wrapped up in the feel of her hand in mine and the soft drone of the preacher, that it startles me when a cough jerks me out of my trance. I look up and see a tall man looking down his nose at me. He nudges my knee. “I think you’re in my spot,” he says.

I look at Skylar, and she is just as shocked as I am. She pulls her hand from mine and wipes it on her skirt. I scoot over and he settles down beside her. He drops an arm around her shoulders and she leans over to press her lips to his. It’s a quick kiss, not a kiss like I would give her, because if I kissed her, I would never, ever want to come up for air.

Shit. Where did that come from?

Finally, they roll the casket from the church and we all follow to the graveside. I am a pall bearer and so are my brothers.  My brothers are really good for things like that.  I volunteered them when Mr. Morgan called to ask me to do it.

I take the carnation off my lapel and lay it on top of the casket, and go to stand with my brothers behind the crowd.

Emily threads her arm through mine. “Who is the guy?” she asks, nodding toward the man who’s standing with Skylar.

I shrug. “I have no idea.”

“Does she have a boyfriend?” Reagan asks.

My brothers are silent. I wish Logan and Pete would tell their girls to shut it for a few minutes and to quit being so nosy. I tap Emily on the tip of her nose and she scrunches up her face. “Stop being so curious,” I tell her.

I wrap my arm around Reagan and pull her into me. I like it when she goes all soft against me, because when she’s not soft, she’s ready to take my head off with a karate chop. I have been on the wrong end of a startled Reagan before and I don’t particularly want to go there again. “You okay?” she asks quietly.

I heave a sigh. “I guess.” I shake my head. “I still can’t believe she’s gone,” I say.

Reagan kisses my cheek and then stops to wipe her thumb across the lipstick she must have left on my cheek. She smiles. “I’m glad you got better,” she says quietly.

I squeeze her. “Me too.”

But shit. I feel guilty. Kendra left behind three children.

I see Skylar walking toward us, and Emily and Reagan step back. The heels of the three-inch high shoes Skylar’s wearing sink into the earth and she totters a little because of it. I reach out to help steady her with a hand on her elbow. She stops in front of me. “Thank you for being there with her,” Skylar says quietly.

“She was my friend,” I explain.  I don’t know what else to say.

She looks into my eyes. “Was she in a lot of pain?” she asks. She shakes her head. “I tried to talk to Seth about it, but he pretty much pretends that I don’t exist.”

I shove my hands in my pockets. “What do you mean? He’s not giving you a hard time, is he?”

She shakes her head again. “No. He’s perfect. He takes his sisters to daycare in the morning and picks them up after school. He feeds them and he bathes them. He won’t let me do anything. I think I’m just a placeholder.” She blows out a heavy breath.

I scratch my head. I don’t know how to tell her what I want to say.

“What?” she asks, her delicate brow arching.

“Kendra asked him to make it easy for you,” I admit. “When she was dying, she told him some things about how to be a good man. Always open car doors. Carry  a handkerchief on dates, because you never know when she’ll cry. Never let her pay for dinner.” I take a deep breath. “And she told him to make it easy for you.”

She’s speechless. Her mouth opens like she wants to say something, but nothing comes out. She closes it tightly, biting her lips together. “What else did she tell him?”

“Just normal stuff about dying,” I tell her. It was soul-wrenching to watch. And I’d finally had to leave the room so I wouldn’t upset them both with my sobbing, so I missed some things. 

“I don’t know what to do with kids,” she says.

“They don’t really need much,” I say. “Just for you to love them.”

“I’m trying,” she says.

I want to lay my hand on the back of her hair and draw it down the length of it. I bet it feels like silk.

“I, um, should have introduced you to my boyfriend,” she says. “Do you want to meet him?”

I shake my head. I see him talking with Mr. Morgan. Skylar’s dad doesn’t look like he’s impressed.

“When you, um, took my hand…” she says. “I should have told you.”

“Why?” I look down at her. She comes up to my shoulder, even in her heels.

“I, um, didn’t want you to get the wrong idea.”

This time it’s me raising my brows at her. “Why did you think I took your hand?”

Her face colors. “I’m not sure,” she says.

I wrap my hand around her wrist and give her a soft squeeze. “I took your hand because you were trembling,” I say. “That’s all.”

“Oh,” she breathes.

She has her phone clutched in her free hand so I take it from her and add myself to her phone book. “Do me a favor?” I say.

She looks up at me and then back down at the phone.

“Call me if you need anything. Anything at all. I promised their mom.”

“Okay,” she replies. “Thanks for everything.” Her blue eyes meet mine and I have never seen anyone look quite so lost. But then her eyes narrow as her gaze shoots past me. “Shit,” she suddenly spits out.

“What?” I ask, looking over my shoulder toward the sedan that just parked.

“My mother is here,” she says. She squares her shoulders and I suddenly see a spark that wasn’t there a moment ago. “Can you watch the children for a minute?” she asks.

“Why?”

“Just because,” she says. She grits her teeth. She looks up at me. “Promise me. No matter what, don’t let her anywhere near the children.”

Is she going to tackle her mother? What the fuck? I look back at the sedan. The door opens and an older version of Skylar gets out. “Okay…” I say slowly. Skylar nods her head, steels her spine, and walks toward where her mother is getting out of her car.

The rigidity of her posture makes me think of my own mother’s the time that Johnny Rickles stuck a kick-me note on my back and then watched all the other kids laugh. My mother went ballistic when she saw it.  It’s a look that says danger will have to go through her before it gets to the children, and I think I just met Seth, Mellie and Joey’s mom for the very first time. Her name is Skylar Morgan, and she’s tiny and gorgeous and awesome.

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For my readers – A free short story!

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*** This is a short story. It’s not a full book. It’s only 7000 words, plus samples of the Reed Brothers series. ***

Sean has been in love with Lacey for as long as he can remember, but she has pushed him firmly into the friend zone and plans to keep him there. Or so he thinks.

Lacey did put Sean in the friend zone, but now she’s ready for more. Only he won’t make a move.

Lacey enters a contest in which a kiss from her will be the prize. Can Sean win the contest? Can he win the girl?

Available for free at Smashwords:

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/391939

Nook:  http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/just-jelly-beans-and-jealousy-tammy-falkner/1118002569?ean=2940045545020

Kobo:  http://store.kobobooks.com/en-US/ebook/just-jelly-beans-and-jealousy

Coming soon to other retailers!

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Unedited Chapter Three of CCC!

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If you missed the first two chapters, you can find them here:

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Pete

 

Damn, she’s pretty.  Then again, she’s the first girl I’ve had my hands on in almost two years. She lay there on top of me for a second looking down at me and I immediately knew who she was. I’ll never forget her. But the last time we met… it wasn’t a good night for her. And she would probably be uncomfortable if I brought it up.  I don’t want to get sent back to the city. I want to be here. I want to work with these kids. I want to have this damn tracking bracelet off my leg so I can go back to some semblance of a normal life. I just want to be Pete.

I wish the fuck I knew who Pete is. I had a pretty good idea of what my life would be like, until my brother Matt got sick.  Then things got all fucked up. 

Then I did what I did and ended up in jail. It was all my fault and I take full responsibility for it but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck ass.

She has green eyes and the same freckles I remember across the bridge of her nose. Shit. I can’t even think about things like that. If I were at home, I would ask her out to dinner. I would tell her about how I know her. I would find out if she’s all right. Then I would ask her out on a date. But here, I’m nothing. Nothing but a man who would get his nuts chopped off for talking to her. I have no doubts that her father was serious. Dead serious. I adjust my junk and keep moving.

But then she looks over at me, glancing over her shoulder. Her face colors, and my heart starts to do a little pitter patter in my chest. I’m an ex-con who’s still on house arrest, and she’s looking at me like I’m a real live man? She licks her lips and turns away to talk to someone else. I want her to look at me again.

Her blond hair is damp and it’s tangled up into a messy knot on top of her head. She’s not wearing any make up. The women I know paint their faces until they’re almost unrecognizable when they get out of the shower.  This one is all natural. And I like it. I shouldn’t. But I do. I could look at her all day.

There was a second there when she fell on top of me that she looked fearful. Was that because of what happened to her? Does she even remember me?

But then a motorized wheel chair zips toward me. “Hold on there, Speedy Gonzales,” I say, stepping in front of him. “Where are you going in such a hurry?”

The young man is blond and fair and he has a piece of plastic sticking out of his neck. He signs to me, but his movements are jerky and off balance.  They’re not fluid like sign language usually is. Marshmallows, he spells with his fingers. He jerks his crooked finger toward where someone is lighting a campfire.

I wonder if this is the boy I’m supposed to work with.  An older woman runs up behind him, her breaths heaving from her. “Sorry,” she pants, clutching her side. “He’s hard to keep up with in that chair.” She extends a hand. “I’m Andrea. And this is my son, Karl. Karl’s excited to be a camper this year.” I shake hands with her and drop down in front of Karl.

“You can hear, right, Karl?” I ask, signing to him. He nods and smiles, but it’s jerky and crooked. He’s so damn excited he can barely sit still in his chair.

I can hear, he signs. I just can’t talk.

I nod. I get it. “How old are you?” I ask.

Fifteen. He looks around me toward the camp fire. I think he really wants to get to where the other kids are congregating.

“Such a lovely age,” his mother says, rolling her eyes.

He’s fifteen? He can’t weigh more than a hundred pounds. I step out of his way. “Go get ‘em, Gonzales,” I say, nodding my head toward the fire. He grins and rolls away from me, stopping beside where Reagan is now setting up chairs by the fire.

“I think he already has a crush on Reagan,” she admits.

“Reagan?” I ask. My Reagan?

She arches a brow at me. “The owner’s daughter.”

Reagan is Caster’s daughter? All this time My Reagan’s father has been my pro bono attorney? Shit. This just got even more convoluted. I shake it away and I look at Gonzo’s mom. “Can you tell me a little about his challenges so I know what I’m working with?” I ask.

“Not what you’re working with,” she corrects. “Who you’re working with.”

“That wasn’t what I meant,” I start.

She lays a hand on my arm. “Where did you learn to sign?”

“My brother is deaf,” I say. She nods, taking in my tattoos and my piercings, which I couldn’t even get back in after I got out of jail.  I had to get re-pierced last night, and they’re still sore. At least I don’t feel naked anymore. “I didn’t mean to insult your son,” I say. Now I feel bad.

“Karl’s only limitations are that he’s in a body that doesn’t do what he wants it to do, and that he can’t speak.” She looks at him across the clearing, her eyes full of love for her son. And exhaustion. “He still has all the desires and urges of a fifteen year old boy. There are just some things he can’t do.” She heaves a sigh. “He gets frustrated easily. That’s the hardest thing for him. His mind is sound and his body just won’t cooperate.”

I nod. I know what it feels like to be out of control. “Why don’t you take a break for a half hour or so?” I say. “I’ll go hang with Karl.”

Her eyes widen and she looks so excited that I wish I’d made the offer as soon as they arrived. “Really?” she asks.

I nod. “Have fun. I’ll take care of him.”

Tears fill her eyes and I realize how much this woman desperately needs a break.

“I’ll see you in thirty,” I say.

She nods and walks toward her cabin. She’s tired. And I can tell.

I walk toward the campfire. The sun has just barely set and there are only a few kids out here. “Hey Gonzo,” I say to Karl. He turns around and looks at me, his grin big and goofy and so fucking adorable that I already love this kid. “You giving Reagan a hard time?” I drop down to sit on a log that rims the fire.

She’s really pretty, he signs. He looks up at her, blinking his blue eyes, his face tilted toward hers. She smiles at him.

“What did he say?” she asks.

“He says you’re really pretty,” I translate.

He throws up his hands in protest. You’re not supposed to tell her!

Sorry, dude, I sign back, trying not to grin. If you’re going to talk about her, I’m going to have to tell her what you say. I grab his shoulder and squeeze. This is a rule my brothers came up with and we always stand by it. You don’t get to use sign language to talk about people. It’s for communication. So, unless you want her to know it, you better keep it to yourself.

Traitor, he signs. But he’s grinning.

Reagan blushes. But she says, “Thank you, Karl. I think you’re kind of cute, too.”

I’ve never seen a kid grin quite so big. She looks down at him. “Do you want to go with me to find some sticks for the fire?”

He nods, and he’s already moving, before she’s even ready to go.

“You think we should bring your mouth piece?” she asks, nodding her head toward me.

He signs to me. I got this. You stay here. He waggles his eyebrows at me.

Not a chance, dumbass, I say back. He laughs. It’s the first sound I’ve heard him make. She’s too old for you.

Maybe she likes younger men.

I look around like I’ve lost something. I don’t see any other men here. I see a pretty lady and a boy who’s hoping to get some action.

He grins and nods.

I laugh. She’s too old for you. So, lay off. We’ll find you a different one. One more your speed.

My speed is faster than you think.

Apparently.

She turns back from where she’s been walking in front of us. “Are you talking about my ass?” she asks. She doesn’t even crack a smile.

Gonzo points to me as if to say, “He was.”

She laughs and blushes again.

Traitor, I sign when she turns back around.

He laughs, jumping in his chair a little.

Now all I can do is stare at her ass. She’s cute. Like a fairy princess walking in the woods, picking up sticks. When her arms are full, she looks at Gonzo and says, “Can you be my hero and carry these back?”

He nods and lets her fill his lap up with sticks. He turns to take them to the fire, and leaves us standing there, gathering more of them.  “Hurry back,” I call to him. He turns back and signs, Hands off my girl.

I hold my hands out to the side and then give him a thumbs up.

She turns to me and extends her hand. “I’m Reagan.”

She doesn’t remember me. Should I even remind her? She probably works hard on a daily basis to forget that night.

I take her hand in mine and heat shoots straight through me. And it’s not because it’s been two years since I’ve had a woman in my arms. There’s something about this girl. She jerks her hand back and looks into my eyes. I want to ask her if she felt that. She wipes her hands on her jeans, and I realize she was just pulling back because my hands are sweaty. I’m an idiot.

“Pete,” I say.

“Why do you call him Gonzo?” she asks.

“Why not?” I continue to pick up sticks.

“He’s a sweet boy,” she says.

“He’s a hormone on wheels,” I correct.

She laughs. “At least you see him as a normal young man. Most people see the chair.” She shakes her head and looks up at me. I feel like she’s looking directly into my soul. “What makes you different?” she asks.

You mean aside from my tats, piercings and the fact that I came from prison? I shrug. I look in his direction. He’s already on his way back. “I just see a boy who wants to be treated like one.” I call to him when he gets close. “Hey Gonzo,” I say. “Can you take another load?” He grins and nods.  We load him up and he leaves again. I turn to her. “So, what makes you different, Reagan?” I ask. I want to touch her. But I don’t dare. So, I just look at her instead. I watch her lips and wait for her to explain the meaning of life to me.

 

Reagan

 

He has the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen. It’s a little distracting, because his piercings draw your attention away from his eyes and then you have to find your way back. He has tattoos all the way up his arms, from his wrists to where his t-shirt breaks up the designs. Then they start again and go all the way up his neck. He’s broad and tall, and he’s a little intimidating. But he’s not, all at the same time. He saw me at my most vulnerable point, and he did exactly what I needed.

“I don’t think I’m different,” I say. “I’m just like every one of those kids.” She nods toward the cabins. “No better. No worse. Same fears. Same drives.” I shrug.

He nods slowly and starts to pick up sticks again. He has a tattoo on the back of his neck. It’s written in gothic, chunky letters and it says, SAM.

“Is Sam your girlfriend?” I blurt out. I immediately want to bite the words back, but they’re already out there.

“Sam?” he asks.

I rub the back of my neck, then point to his. “The tattoo.”

He smiles. “Oh, that.”

But he doesn’t elaborate. I feel like a dummy for even asking the first time. I’m not going to ask again.

“So, you’re home from college?” he asks.  I can’t believe he doesn’t remember me.

I nod.

“Where do you go?” he asks. He looks at me, waiting for my answer. And I don’t think I’ve ever had this much attention from a man that I actually want to talk to. He really cares about what I say. Or at least he wants me to think he does.

“NYU,” I reply. “Junior this year.”

“My brother goes to NYU.”  He smiles. “Logan Reed?” he asks. But it’s a big school. The chance of me knowing his brother is small.  But I know about all his brothers because I asked a lot of questions when I was looking for him.

I shake my head.

“He’s deaf.”

I shake my head again. The only time I have seen him was outside the prison yesterday, but never at school.

“All tatted up, like me.” He looks down at his arms, and I take the opportunity to look at his tattoos.

“Can I see?” I ask. I don’t want to be rude, but I really want to look at him. I don’t want to touch him, but I want to look.

He grins. “You can look, but you can’t touch,” he teases. It’s like he read my mind. My heart starts to thud. I’m the last person he has to worry about touching him. “Because I like my nuts exactly as they’re hanging.”

My face floods with heat. But I don’t let the opportunity to study the drawings on his skin pass me by. I look at the cross that has the word “Mom” written inside it. “What’s this one for?” I ask.

“My mom died a few years ago.”

He also has the word “Dad” with wings attached. “Your dad died too?” I ask.

“He left after our mom died.” He stills. He’s suddenly tense, and I hate that I asked.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

“I don’t want your sympathy, Princess,” he says.

I snort. “Princess?”

He nods, his gaze lingering on my eyes, then my lips. He licks his, and draws his piercing into his mouth to play with it with his tongue. “Princess,” he says slowly.

“You couldn’t be farther from the truth,” I say. He has me pegged all wrong.

“I doubt it.” He looks at me for a minute too long.  My stomach flips.

But suddenly, I hear the crash of boots stomping through the woods. I look up and see my dad walking toward us, a scowl on his face, and he has the hatchet in his hand. Pete immediately crosses his hands in front of his lap and steps away from me.

“Go help with dinner,” Dad snaps at me. He glares at Pete.

“Yes, sir,” I say. I take the sticks Pete has in his arms and smile at him. “See you later,” I whisper.

“Don’t go,” he whispers back. “Who’s going to protect my nuts?”

“Princesses don’t do that.” I grin at him and walk away. It’s hard to do, but I don’t even look back over my shoulder.

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Chapter One (unedited) of Smart, Sexy and Secretive

Smart, Sexy and Secretive will be out in August! Here’s the unedited version of Chapter One that I shared with my newsletter subscribers last week!

Couple romancing together

Emily

My dad doesn’t want me to go back to New York. He’s wholeheartedly opposed to it. But New York is where my heart is. It’s where Logan is.

I met Logan in the fall. He took care of me when I needed a place to stay and he let me take care of him when his brother got sick with cancer. Matt needed an expensive treatment, and the only way to get the money was for me to suck it up and take one for the team. So, I did. I went back to California, leaving the only man I’ve ever loved in New York, and returned to my estranged family – the one I’d run away from. Matt went into treatment, paid for by my father. And Logan went on with his life.

I have wanted to communicate with him so many times. But communication is hard between us. Logan is deaf, and he communicates by writing. I have dyslexia, and reading is hard for me. So letters and phone calls are not possible for us. The Reed family is poor and they don’t even have a computer. I considered buying them one and shipping it to them so we could talk using sign language on Skype, but they are both poor and proud, which is a killer combination. They don’t take handouts.

It’s been almost three months since the last time I saw Logan. It has been just as long since I’ve talked to him. I want to look into his eyes. I need to see him. Soon.

The pilot announces that we’ll be arriving in New York over the intercom. Mom and Dad look over at me. Mom is smiling. Dad is not. Dad’s bodyguard sets his newspaper to the side and buckles his seat belt. My dad has money. Lots and lots of money. My mom spends money. Lots and lots of money. I am so glad my mom married my dad, because no other man on the face of the earth could ever afford her.

Dad owns Madison Avenue. Not the street—the upscale clothing and accessory line. It’s a popular line of really expensive items that started out in California, and has now spread nationwide. My parents have more money than God.

“Are you excited, Emily?” my mother asks as the wheels touch down. I take a deep breath. I can already breathe easier just knowing I’m in the same city as him.

I look directly into her eyes, since she knows how much I love Logan and she’s in favor of us being together, and say, “More than you know.”

“I don’t know why you feel the need to go to college, Emily,” my father barks. “You could have just gotten married and lived a life of ease and privilege.”

Last year, my dad tried to marry me off to the son of one of his business partners. But it didn’t work out. That’s why I left California with nothing and took a bus all the way to New York. I didn’t take a dime of my father’s money, and I supported myself by busking in the subways with my guitar for change. My dad doesn’t know everything about my life away from him. Like how I lived in shelters when money was tight. And how I went for days without food sometimes. He chooses to think I lived an upscale life when I was here. But I didn’t. It was hard. But I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. Because it’s what brought me to Logan.

God, I want to see him so badly. I want my parents to go away, but they want to see me settled into my new apartment. It’s around the corner from the college I’ll be attending, Julliard. I’ve always wanted to study music and now I can. That was my mother’s doing.

My mother smacks my father on the arm. It’s a breezy wave, but it gets his attention. “We’ve already discussed this, darling. She doesn’t want to get married. Least of all to the young Mr. Fields.

I snort. I wouldn’t marry that ass if he were the last man on earth.

“Fields is a fine young man,” my father says. What’s bad is that he believes that. Trip is an opportunistic asshole who wants to climb the financial ladder and he wants to use me as the top rung. He’ll never get over this rung, I can say that much.

“Mmm hmm,” I hum noncommittally.

“Fields is an ass, darling,” my mother says. She gets her purse and we disembark the plane. The limo is waiting for us outside, and we all slide inside while someone I will never see unloads the luggage.

“He blows his nose constantly, Dad,” I say. And he doesn’t shower after he plays basketball.

My dad’s lips twitch. “That boy has a lot of potential. Great vision. He would make a fine husband.”

What he means is that we could combine the two families like a business deal, increasing the net worth of both. I have no interest in being richer. In fact, the happiest time in my life was when I lived with Logan and his brothers. He has four – two older and two younger. They live alone since their mom died and their dad left. They don’t have much, but they love one another like crazy. My parents love me, but it’s not the same thing. Not by a long shot.

“You should partner with him, Dad. Because I never will,” I grouse. I can’t count the number of times in the past few months I have had this conversation.

My dad heaves a sigh. He is a master at business, but he knows very little about relationships.

“Do you plan to see that boy while you’re here, Emily?” my dad asks.

Only every chance I get, if he’ll have me. “I doubt he’ll want to see me. I left him without a single word and haven’t talked to him since then.” He’s probably angry at me. So angry that he has moved on. My heart lurches at the very thought of it.

My dad refused to let me contact Logan after I came home. I knew that I was giving Logan up when my dad paid for his brother’s treatment, but I didn’t assume it would be permanent. I look down at the tattoo on my inner forearm. My father hates it. I love it. It is a key and Logan’s name is printed down the shaft of the key. Logan unlocked my world. He accepted and loved me just as I am. I just hope he still does.

It takes forever to get to my apartment. I have to listen to my dad talk about how fit Trip would be as a husband the whole ride. My mom makes a face at me. She makes me laugh. We have a new understanding since I spilled my guts to her after coming home. I think she gets it and she’s on my side. But that doesn’t make things any better with my father.

“If that boy is smart, he’ll stay far, far away from you,” my father nearly snarls. He’s adamantly opposed to me being with someone so poor. Logan is rich in all the ways I wish I was. He’s rich in family, steeped in love and compassion, and he loves what he does for a living. Logan’s an amazing artist and he works at his family’s tattoo parlor putting his fabulous art on people’s skin. The last time I talked to him, he wanted to go back to college. He got a scholarship, but he had to get a deferment when his brother Matt got sick. They took out a lot of loans to pay for Matt’s first treatment, but then Matt couldn’t work anymore so Logan quit school and took over for him.

“If that boy has any sense at all,” Mom says, “he’s just waiting for you to come back to New York.”

I hope that’s the case. But that’s asking for an awful lot.

Mom pats Dad on the knee. “How is his brother doing, darling? I know you get reports.”
I scoot to the edge of the seat. Please tell me he’s ok. Please.

“Fine.”

That’s all he says. Just that one word. I flop back against the seat back.

“Elaborate, please,” my mom says, smiling at my dad.

“The treatment is working. But he’s not out of the woods. He has scans every month and then they’ll start spreading them out as time goes on.”

My heart clenches in my chest. Matt is better. My sacrifice wasn’t for nothing. Tears prick at the backs of my lashes and Mom reaches over to squeeze my knee. “That’s good, darling,” she says to Dad. “I’m so glad you were able to help him.”

“I did it so she would come back home,” he says. He glares at me. “Our deal was that she would come home, not go to Julliard.”

Mom pats his knee again. “She did come home, darling. And now she’s going to Julliard.”

“I just hope he stays away from her,” Dad grumbles, more to himself than to me. We all know who he is. He’s Logan. And he had better not stay away from me. Not for a day. Not for a minute. Not for an hour.

We arrive at my apartment, and my dad scowls. “This is the best you could find?” He glowers at my mother.
“It’s perfect,” I say. It’s pretty, with a small garden out front. I’m on the tenth level, and that’s all right with me.
There’s a doorman and he smiles at me, bowing to all of us as we walk into the building.

“Ah, Mr. Madison,” he says. He knows who my dad is. He doesn’t hold out a hand, though he does take mine when I extend it. I am not better than this man. I want him to know it. “Miss Madison,” he says, grinning at me. “Henry is my name.”

“Mr. Henry,” I say, squeezing his hand in my grip.

“Just Henry will do.” He looks over at my father’s scornful face.

“Don’t make friends with the help, Emily,” my dad warns.

Henry’s face falls.

I wink at Henry. “I wouldn’t dare try to make friends with Henry,” I say. “He’s way too good for the likes of us.”

Dad’s brows draw together. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Kindness trumps money, Dad,” I say. I learned that the hard way. And even though I can’t read well, I feel so much smarter than my dad right now. I bump knuckles with Henry and he smiles at me.

He holds up a finger and goes to a locked box beside his desk. He retrieves a key. “I’ll be sure your luggage is delivered, Miss Madison.”

“Thank you, Henry.” I wink at him as my family walks to the elevator. He smiles back at me like I just gave him a million dollars.

My parents are quiet on the ride up. My dad taps his thumb on the railing, and Mom just stands quietly. “I don’t know why you felt the need to come here. I can settle myself in.”

“I’m not sending you off to a strange city all by yourself.” He glares. He knows I was all alone in this city last year. “That was your choice,” he says quietly. “Not mine.”

I step up on my tippy toes and kiss his cheek. He looks down his nose at me, which makes me grin. “I’m glad you’re here.” I just hope they don’t stay long. I want to go and see Logan. It’s Friday night, and he’s probably at the club working. He’s a bouncer there.

My dad walks around my new apartment, appraising it with a critical eye. It was rented furnished, and it’s actually really cute. It has one bedroom, and a security system that NASA couldn’t beat.

I wanted to be in the dorm, but Dad felt like it was a bad idea. I kind of agree with him. At least I’m close by.

My mom winks at me and says, “Darling, I think we should get to the hotel, soon.”

He lifts a brow. “Already?”

“Yes.” She doesn’t say more than that. Just yes.

Dad heaves a sigh. Then he kisses my forehead, wrapping my head up in the crook of his hefty forearm. “We’ll see you first thing tomorrow.”

I nod. “I’ll be here.”

“Are you sure you don’t need anything?” He worries. Excessively.

I need Logan. That’s all I need. I shake my head.

My mom whispers in my ear. “Use protection, dear.”

A grin tugs at my lips. “Yes, Mom.”

The door closes behind them. I need a shower. And I need to go and find Logan. I need him like I need air.

Logan

A hand lands on my back, the fingers light and teasing, as someone draws a figure eight with her fingertips. I look back over my shoulder and flinch inwardly when I see Trish. I take her hand in mine and pluck it from my back, then set it to the side as gently as I can.

“Oh, Logan,” she says, her lips tipped upward with laughter. I’m really glad I can’t hear, because if her laugh is anything like her, her laughter is as grating as that smile. It’s one of those smiles without any real happiness behind it. Her hand lands on my chest, her fingers pressing insistently against me. “How long are you going to pine for that one girl? There are so many other fish in the sea.”

I can talk. But sometimes I choose not to, and people accept it from me because I’m deaf. I tap the face of my watch and look at her, arching my brows. She’s due to be back on stage in two minutes.

She heaves a sigh and tromps off in that direction.

If I had been forced to answer her question, I would have said forever and always. Emily is supposed to be back in New York any day now, as spring courses are starting at Julliard. I just started my own classes at NYU, and she shouldn’t be far behind. That is, if she’s coming. I haven’t talked to her since the day she left, and that was months ago.

I have, however, seen her in the tabloids. She’s been to lunches, clubs and social events with her ex-boyfriend, Trip Fields. The media outlets never cease talking about the way they fell apart and then came back together. But when I see them in the papers, she doesn’t look happy, not like she was when she lived with me. I like to think it’s all a ruse.

Emily sold herself back to her father in exchange for Matt’s life. He’s my brother, and he means the world to me. Matt’s alive because of her sacrifice. I’m glad she did it, but I miss her like crazy.

I haven’t looked at another girl since she left. Not one. She’s all I think about. When girls like Trish touch me and say let’s go with their eyes, I can’t imagine anything that might make me want to go. Or whatever made me want to go in the past. All I can think about is Emily.

I look toward the door where Ford, one of the other bouncers, is barring the entrance. Bone is in the doorway and Ford knows that if he comes within five feet of me, I’ll try to kill him with my bare hands. My younger brother, Pete, is going to get himself in trouble with Bone. I caught them together talking in the street a few days ago. I don’t like it. Bone is an accident waiting to happen, and I told him last week to stay the fuck away from my family. Pete doesn’t seem to understand what kind of trouble Bone could get him into.

I take a step toward the doorway, but my brother Matt is suddenly in front of me, getting between me and Bone. It’s not worth it, he signs.

Would be to me, I reply. I’ve been trying to catch that bastard alone ever since the last time I saw him with Pete. Pete suddenly has a phone and he suddenly has money in his pocket. The boy has a job, but he’s not making enough money to pay for those things. And he puts every dime he legitimately takes into the family kitty to pay the bills. I’m afraid Bone is going to get Pete in trouble.

He’s scum. My hands fly wildly as I talk, drawing the attention of several people around us.

I know, Matt replies. We’ll take care of it. But we don’t need to do it here. He looks me in the eye. You know he’s strapped.

One more reason to keep him out of here.

Matt shakes his head. Not tonight.

Damn it. Ford moves to the side and admits him when the owner of the club walks over to force the issue. He glares at Ford. Ford’s a good friend. And he knows how I feel about Bone. All things considered, I don’t want to put Ford into Bone’s line of fire, either. I’m glad he let him through just for that reason.

Bone smiles at me, looking directly into my eyes as mine follow him across the room. Then he slides into a booth and breaks eye contact.

A fight breaks out at the front of the bar. I clap my hands together to get Matt’s attention. He’s not working tonight. He’s not strong enough for bouncing yet, but he’s here as a wingman of sorts.

I see it, he signs. The big one is drunk.

The big ones always fall the hardest.

And they’re a bitch to pick up off the floor.

Matt laughs. I’m so fucking glad he’s getting back to normal.

I’ll take the little one, if you’ll take the big one. He cracks his knuckles and grins at me.

You’re such a pussy, I sign. And you can’t even claim chemo did it to you because you were a pussy before you got sick. I grin at him.

He shrugs his shoulders and smiles unabashedly back at me. It makes me so happy to see him like this. I watched him deteriorate last fall to the point where we though he wouldn’t pull through. He still might not. But we have hope.

At least I can get some pussy if I try. He looks down at the crotch of my jeans. Your dick, however, is going to rot off from lack of use.

I can’t help it if I’m a one woman man.

He claps a hand on my shoulder and squeezes. When do you think she’ll be back? I need to thank her.

She wouldn’t want any thanks. I shrug my shoulders. I wish I knew.

Matt points toward the fight, which is about to escalate into a full out brawl. The little guy is dumb enough to shove the big guy. The big guy falls into a woman behind him, and then her boyfriend starts swinging.

Now, Matt says.

Now. I fucking love this part of the job. It takes four of us. Matt and I, Ford and another bouncer all jump into the fray and then we have it under control. But the big one is on the floor with his eyes closed. He has a smile on his face and he’s murmuring something but I can’t read his lips.

I think he’s singing? Matt says, his brows arching in question. Girl you make my speakers go boom boom?

I laugh. People look over as noise bursts from my throat. But I don’t care. Laughter feels good. Emily taught me that. Help me get him up.

Matt takes one arm while I take the other and we hoist him onto his wobbly legs. His girlfriend, who is pretty unsturdy herself, says, “We need a cab.”

Matt and I haul him out to the cabstand and throw him into a taxi. The girlfriend gets in behind him. I feel bad for the cab driver who will have to throw his big ass out on the sidewalk.

I dust my hands off. At least it’s done.

Snow is falling on us and I brush my hand across my hair. Suddenly, Matt tenses beside me. What? I ask.

He smiles, claps me on the shoulder and says take the rest of the night off. Then he points beyond me.

I turn around and freeze. My lungs refuse to do their job, and I stand there, not breathing, not moving, trying not to feel anything. But there she is. Emily is standing on the sidewalk looking at me. She shifts from foot to foot, looking nervous as hell. Snow is falling on her hair and she’s not wearing a coat. Surely she can afford a coat. Her family is worth billions.

Her dark blond hair, so unlike the black hair with the blue stripe she had when I met her, falls down to the middle of her back, and she has it tucked behind her ear. She’s not wearing clothes from around here. She’s full-on Madison Avenue right now.

But the best thing about it is… she’s mine.

Matt says something to her. But she doesn’t speak to him. She doesn’t break eye contact with me, and I feel like there’s an invisible tether between the two of us.

I look at Matt to tell him I’m going wherever she is. He grins. I guess we won’t have to worry about your dick dying from lack of use after all.

I’ll see you later.

I doubt it, he says. But he’s still grinning that goofy smile. I want to go and hug her, but I guess you get first dibs.

And last dibs. And all the dibs in between.

He waves to her and signs the word later.

She nods, throws him a kiss with the tips of her fingers and then she starts toward me. Her boots leave footprints in the snow, and I force myself to stay still. I tuck my hands in my jean pockets to keep from grabbing her.

Hi, she signs.

I can’t stand it any longer. I reach for her so quickly that she startles, but she’s reaching for me, too. I haul her against me, needing to feel her heart beating against mine.

Her breath brushes my ear and I am almost overcome with emotion. I tuck my face into her neck and breathe in the scent that is uniquely her. She wraps her arms around my waist, and her hands slide into my back pockets. We stand there in the snow like that until I feel dampness on my shirt. I tilt her face up to mine so I can look at her.

“I’m so glad you’re home.” I use my voice because I don’t want to take my hands off of her.

“Me, too,” she says. And a lone tear tracks down her cheek. I wipe it away with the pad of my thumb.

“You’re back?” I ask.

She nods, turning her head to kiss my palm.

“For how long?”

“Always.” She smiles. God, she can undo me with that smile.

“Promise?” My heart is pounding in my chest.

She nods and draws a cross over her chest. “I swear it.”

“What about your father?”

She shakes her head. “I don’t want to talk about my father right now.”

“I’ll never survive it if you leave me again.” I swallow past the lump in my throat.

“Can you come home with me?” she asks.

If I take her home right now, we won’t get to talk at all, because I’ll be all over her. “Let’s go and get some pie,” I say instead.

Her face falls. “You’re mad at me.”

“I love you like crazy, girl. How could I be mad at you?” I drink her in, from the crook of her lips to the way the way that her eyes look almost back in the darkness of the night.

She squeezes my hands. “Is Matt all right?”

I nod. “Thanks to you, yes.”

She exhales, and it’s like a balloon has been emptied inside her. “What do we do now?” she asks.

“Pie,” we both say at the same time. I take her hand in mine and lead her to the diner where we had our first meal together. Pie is safe. Pie is good. Pie will buy me enough time to be sure she still loves me as much as I love her.