The Secrets Duet is now FREE for everyone!

You read that right.

Both books in the Secrets Duet are now free. Can’t find them on your favorite retailer? That’s because I’ve put them on Wattpad instead.

All you have to do is follow me over there and you’ll receive updates as I post. I’m refreshing the content before I do and planning on posting one part/episode per day.

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Secrets & Lies Rachael Brownell

Imperfect Love Story

CHAPTER ONE

Long Road Home

 

Green pastures pass in a blur as I make my way down the highway, my heart beating wildly in my chest. I focus on the road ahead, the mountain peaks off to my left, and my plan.

Get in. Get it done. Get out.

I’m sure my mother will leave me little time for anything else. Five days of pure organized chaos. That’s the way things always are when my mother is involved. It still shocks me that she’s turning fifty years old this weekend and moving at the pace she does. She’s going to have to learn to slow down eventually.

At least that’s what I keep telling myself.

The downside to her slowing down is she’ll have more time to meddle in my life. I’m putting a stop to that this weekend. I’ve been letting her guilt me into decisions my whole life. Her “suggestions” were to be taken into consideration, but when decisions were made, they never really felt like mine. They were always what I thought Mother would support. What Mother wanted. What Mother would agree with.

That ends now.

I’m going to keep telling myself that until I start to believe it.

With only fifteen miles until the edge of town, and thirty miles to my parent’s ranch, I need to find my confidence soon.

Ding, ding, ding.

Reaching for my phone, I flip it over to see who’s messaging me. Reception out here is sketchy. With more than seventy miles between towns, I’m surprised anything even came through.

Nothing. No text. No voicemail.

Ding, ding, ding.

Where the hell is that noise coming from?

Looking down at the dashboard, my question is answered. I’m about to run out of gas. Town is only fifteen miles ahead. I should be able to make it. I’ve only run out of gas once in my life, the only other time I’ve made this drive.

Ten minutes later as my car shudders to a stop on the side of the road, I curse my dumb luck and beat my hand against the steering wheel.

“Fuck!”

Why? I’m so close. Literally. I’m staring at the “Welcome to Fairview” sign. The gas station is just around the next bend, too far to walk in this heat but close enough that I’m pissed off.

Resting my head against the back of the seat, I close my eyes and try to remember the phone number to the garage. I refuse to call my parents for help. I’m already running two hours late and if I can avoid it, I really don’t want to see anyone else while I’m in town.

Stepping out of the car, I shake my phone and walk around until I have a faint signal. Dialing quickly, I pray he doesn’t answer. It’s been a long time. I doubt he even works there anymore. I’m sure he’s moved on. There’s no reason for me to think he’ll be the one answering my call.

Then again, when you least expect to meet people, that’s when they come into your life.

***

“Are you seriously going to leave me here?” I scream at Josh as he opens the door to his truck.

“Maybe if you weren’t such a snooty bitch I wouldn’t.” His words, laced with laughter, get under my skin the way he was hoping.

There’s one thing I’m not and that’s snooty. I can be a bitch from time to time, everyone can, but I never act better than the next person. I could care less if you ride your bike to school or drive a twenty-thousand-dollar truck like Josh’s. It’s not about money, it never has been for me. It’s about character, and Josh has none. He’s proving that right now, in front of most of our senior class.

“You know what? Go. I can do this. I don’t need you. I can do anything. I’m stronger than you’re giving me credit for. But let me remind you of one thing. If you think you can call me tomorrow, apologize like you always do, and I’ll come crawling back to you, you have another thing coming. We’re done, Josh. For good this time.”

Straightening my shoulders, I never broke eye contact with him as his smile faded. Once I was done, his frown turned into a mega-watt grin, the same grin I fell for two years ago when he was the new kid in school. His eyes drift from mine and when I follow them, I realize why he’s acting like an asshole.

Ginger.

That’s not her real name, but that’s what I like to call her. Fiery red hair with legs for days. She’s at least four inches taller than me. In the heels she’s rocking tonight, maybe six or seven inches. Her breasts are about to pop out of her shirt, per usual, and her shorts leave little to the imagination.

Two weeks ago, she showed up at the first football game of the season. We all noticed her, it was hard not to. After the game, I caught them talking outside the locker room. When I asked Josh about it, he brushed it off. Tonight, I’m having a hard time believing there wasn’t more going on back then. When she climbs into the cab of his truck, I don’t have to wonder anymore.

“I won’t be calling this time, Chloe,” Josh says, driving the knife in my back a little deeper.

In shock, I stare as he pulls out of the parking lot, a line of trucks behind him. His cavalry. They’re all probably headed to the lake to celebrate the big win tonight.

Well, fuck him. I don’t need him. I’ve never needed him. He was more for show than anything. My father liked him. He comes from a respectable family. If they only knew what their son was really like.

“Garrett’s Auto,” an unfamiliar voice says after only one ring.

“Hi. I’m at Fairview Academy, in the parking lot closest to the football field, and my car won’t start. I think my battery is dead,” I explain quickly, looking behind me when I hear a twig snap.

The lot is empty, my car the only vehicle left. My mind begins to race at the thought of someone sneaking up on me.

“Sure thing, Miss. I’ll head out there right now.”

“Thank you,” I reply as I climb into my car and lock the doors. “I’m the only car in the parking lot so you can’t miss me.”

When the lights of the tow truck finally come into sight, I step out of the car and wave my hands over my head. I probably look like a crazy person, but it’s been twenty minutes of heart-pounding silence, frequently interrupted by freaky sounds that I couldn’t identify. I’m ready to get the hell out of here.

He pulls the truck directly in front of my car, temporarily blinding me. I hear the slam of the door and walk over to meet him, keeping my hand shielded over my eyes.

“Thanks so—” My words escape me as he steps in front of the lights and I get a good look at him.

At least six inches taller than my tiny five-foot-five-inch frame, it seems like he towers over me. If I thought Josh had a fit body, his looks to be made of steel. The way his shirt hugs each muscle has my mind headed into dangerous territory.

If he looks this good with his clothes on… hmmm. Damn. Even sexy isn’t an accurate way to describe him. Sinful, maybe? Delicious, definitely.

His hair is dark, brown or black but I can’t tell with the glow of the headlights. I wish I could see his eyes. I feel them watching me, checking me out the same way I’m checking him out. I hope he likes what he sees as much as I like what I see.

What surprises me most is the fact that he’s my age, maybe a little older.

“Hey,” he replies.

Even his voice is sexy as hell. Smooth as silk, the sound causes a chill to run up my spine despite the warm fall night.

“I, um, I’m Chloe,” I say, taking a step closer to him and extending my hand.

When he takes my hand in his, the warmth of his calloused hands brings a smile to my face and kickstarts my heart. Making eye contact for the first time, I find that I’m having the same effect on him.

“Wyatt,” he finally says, my hand still wrapped in his.

“Wyatt. I don’t think we’ve met before.”

“Probably not. Still new to town. I just moved here over the summer.”

Nodding, I’m at a loss for words. I want to ask him a million questions, but no sound leaves my mouth. This boy, this man, has me speechless and I don’t know anything about him yet, but I want to. I want to know everything.

Where’s he from? Why did he move here? Does he feel what I’m feeling right now?

“I should probably take a look at your car before Willy wonders why I’m not back.” Reluctantly I pull my hand back and nod. “Can you pop the hood for me?”

Doing as he asks, I watch as he fiddles with a few cables and checks things out. After ten minutes, he slams the hood closed and turns to me, the headlights from his truck illuminating the hard lines of his jaw. I want to reach up and run my fingers over them.

“I need to tow you back to the shop and see if Willy can figure out what’s wrong with it. Your battery seems fine, but it could be a bad connection.”

“Okay. Can I get a ride back? My parents are out of town this weekend, so I don’t have anyone else to call.”

“What about a boyfriend?”

Is he fishing? He has to be fishing. Please let him be fishing.

“Nope,” I reply, popping the P for emphasis. “Single at the moment.”

And never happier to be single. Josh and Ginger can have each other.

“Well, why don’t you ride back with me and hopefully we’ll have you fixed up tonight.”

Grabbing my purse, I jump into the cab of the truck. Wyatt hooks my car up and we’re on the way in no time. There’s an uncomfortable silence between us as the ten-minute ride feels like it takes an hour. Every now and then I sneak a peek over at him. When the street lights illuminate his face, I can see how nervous he is.

I’m nervous too. His presence makes me nervous in a good way. I’ve never felt like this being near a guy before. That has to mean something. At least, I hope it does since I’m about to put myself out there and I hate rejection.

“So, before we get there, I was kind of hoping that you might ask me out.”

The truck comes to an abrupt halt. I reach for the dashboard as the sound of the wheels skidding on the dirt echo through the cab.

“What the hell!” I scream, turning to face him.

“Chloe, will you go out with me?”

“Dramatic much?” I laugh.

“Let’s just say I didn’t want to wait another second and I wanted to be able to look in your eyes when I asked you.”

Pointing out the front window, “You realize that the garage is about ten feet from here, right?”

“So, will you?” he asks, ignoring my question.

“On one condition,” I reply, causing him to raise an eyebrow. “I get to drive next time.”

Smiling, he replies, “I have one condition too.”

“What’s that?” I ask as I watch him unhook his seat belt and slide toward me. “I can kiss you right now because I’m not sure I can wait much longer.”

Reaching for his jaw, I run my fingers along the hard lines. When his lips meet mine, my heart explodes in my chest. His kiss is gentle but passionate. It’s the most perfect kiss I’ve ever had.

Until Willy knocks on the window, interrupting the moment.

***

“Garrett’s Auto.”

“Hi, I just ran out of gas near the town limits and I was hoping someone could come help me out.”

“Sure thing, Miss. Name?” His voice is grizzly on the other end of the line. I recognize it and as soon as I say my name, he’s going to recognize me.

“Chloe Warren,” I whisper into the phone. I could scream my name and no one would hear me where I am, yet I whisper, hoping to avoid the spread of knowledge through my tiny hometown.

I can hear them now.

Chloe’s back. I wonder why after all this time? She should have stayed away.

“Well, Miss Chloe, it’s nice to hear your voice. It’s been awhile. Give me ten minutes and I’ll be there. Sound good?”

“Yeah, Willy. Sounds great. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Hey, Willy,” I say, apprehensively.

“Yes, Hun?”

“Can we keep me being here between the two of us, please?”

“You know, Wy—”

“Please?”

“Yes, Miss. See you in a few minutes.”

Even the partial mention of his name has my skin tingling. I’ve tried not to think about him, especially today, to no avail. He’s still a part of my world, even if I don’t want to admit it.

My heart is beating wildly in my chest at the memories of that night long after I hang up. It aches for him, to see him again, to feel his arms wrapped around me. Not a day goes by when I don’t think about him, or the time we spent together.

He was the one.

The one that got away.

My breathing increases as the ache settles in my chest.

My second panic attack today. The reason I was running behind to begin with.

Closing my eyes, I breathe in deeply and exhale, repeating my mantra over and over again.

I can do this. I can do anything. I am strong.

It takes a few minutes to subside, but once I’m able to breathe, I open my eyes and wipe my face. The tears started to fall long before I was able to stop them. I haven’t even hit the city limits and I’m overwhelmed with memories of Wyatt.

I knew I would be. He had me from the moment I laid eyes on him.

 

AmazoniBooksNook

Adventures of a Full-Time Author – Day 18

IT’S RELEASE DAY!

Hey!!!

How was your holiday weekend? I spent mine here at home, with the fam. My son and I went swimming and we had a family water balloon fights. LOTS of yummy food. Most of all, we made some great memories.

Then…

I found a part-time job.

It’s nothing fancy but I think I’m going to love it. I like both of the people I interviewed with and everyone else I’ve encountered during the process. The best part of the job… it’s not going to interfere with my writing.

Since I started writing full-time, I’ve found that I work best in the morning. Get up, get started, put the kid on the bus and I crank out words. That’s still the plan and since this job is a few nights a week from 430-10, I’m confident that I will still be as productive.

It means I’ll be busy this summer, especially once the kiddo is home. I’m up for the challenge though. I’m ready to get out of the house a little. After the last few weeks, its become clear to me that I was never meant to be a stay-at-home anything.

Just because it’s not for me doesn’t mean I haven’t enjoyed it. It just means that I need social interaction on a daily basis with someone other than my husband. I need to feel needed by other people and working in customer service will fulfill that need for me.

So… if you are a stay-at-home person, my respect for you has grown immensely. I feel trapped here but I know that’s not always the way everyone feels. Every day less gets done because I know that I can do it tomorrow.  My house that was spotless the first week is in desperate need of attention today.

And it’ll get done.

So will writing.

And the school picnic.

And release day.

Yep. Today is going to be a great day because I have ALL the things to do and the challenge will be to accomplish them. I never back down from a challenge.

So, for now, go pick up book 1 in the Rumors series for FREE. It’s my way of celebrating the release of book 3 today. Also, don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter so you don’t miss another sale or new release.

2018 RONE Awards

HAPPY, HAPPY MONDAY!!!

What a way to start a new week, right? Talking about things that make you feel good, like book awards.

Any time I’ve been nominated for an award I’ve been consumed with this overwhelming feeling of gratitude. Why? Someone read my book. Someone loved my book. Not only that, they REMEMBERED it, it left an impression on them, long after the story was over.

That’s what this is all about, right?

Writing books that people love. Touching someone’s heart. Making lasting memories because, for readers, most of the time, reading is an escape. For a few hours, they can immerse themselves in another world. That world can be filled with danger or lies or happiness or gut-wrenching humor. Whatever they’re in the mood for, there’s a book out there that should satisfy what they’re craving.

When I wrote Dear Maggie, it never occurred to me that it was going to be a romantic comedy. I started with an idea that blossomed over and over again. At first, it felt like I was putting my main character, Lauren, through some crazy s**t just for fun. Once the story really started to come together, I saw the bigger picture.

Sometimes in life, there are moments that define you. The moments that defined Lauren’s life in that book led her to her HEA. A few of those moments had me in stitches. (Yes, her face landing in someone’s crotch on a first date defined her.)

A month ago when I found out Dear Maggie was a 2018 RONE (Reward Of Novel Excellence) Award nominee in the New Adult category I almost broke down in tears. I love my characters. I love their journeys, but Lauren’s was especially fun for me.

Voting for the New Adult category begins today and ends Sunday, May 13. If you’ve read and loved Dear Maggie as much as I have, I’d appreciate your vote. There are 11 nominees and only 4 will move on to be finalists.

VOTE HERE!

Learn more about the RONE Awards.

 

“Dear Maggie” is an exciting read, with a very original idea. Lauren is a character readers will love to love. Her adventures — as she fills in for the vacationing love columnist and conducts her “research” — are hilarious. Each chapter begins with a letter to Maggie asking for her sage advice, which dovetails nicely with Lauren’s budding romance with Kyle, a love interest from her dating service. A smooth and enjoyable read from beginning to end, author Rachael Brownell has penned a winner!  Cuddle up in front of the fireplace with a cup of hot chocolate and enjoy the time spent with Lauren and her friends.  – InD’Tale Magazine Review, Crowned Heart review

LIVE ALERT!!!

The next book in the Rumors series is now LIVE!!! Justine & Devon’s story is available exclusively on Amazon and enrolled in Kindle Unlimited. It’s also $1.99 TODAY ONLY so go #oneclick while you can.

BUY NOW!

“Like wildfire, rumors are easy to spread… and hard to extinguish.” 

Broken heart after broken heart, Justine is about to give up on dating when an unexpected meeting, followed by a night spent getting to know each other, leads Justine to believe that she may have found the man she’s been waiting for. Things are finally looking up until the man who ruined her waltzes back into her life.

For Devon, it was supposed to be a quick trip up north. A surprise party for a friend’s birthday, but the surprise is on him. He didn’t count on falling for Justine and he wasn’t in the market for anything serious, but she makes him want to change everything. After spending every available moment together, Devon’s ready to take the plunge and uproot his life for her.

Rumors begin to fly, reaching Devon in Chicago. He doesn’t know whether to believe what he’s being told and forget his feelings for Justine or stand up and fight for what he wants.

 

Get Rumors 3 FREE!!!

→ FREE BOOK ←

I’m in LOVE with the Rumors series and I’m excited to share these books with all of you so I’ve decided to GIVE AWAY book 3 and host a read-along in my reader group next month.

What’s the catch?

1. You have to have read books 1 & 2 AND left a review for each on Amazon/GoodReads.
2. You must be a member of my reader group (if you join now you can get in on all the release week giveaways that start on Monday)

It’s that simple.

Want to join?
https://www.facebook.com/groups/BrownellBookLovers

Sign up for the read-along here → http://bit.ly/2F2WVHT

Book Nerd Chatter

Happy Thursday!

Are you a Kindle Unlimited subscriber? Would you like the chance to win some prizes and discover great new KU books? Join Book Nerd Chatter on Facebook.

Each month different authors participate by taking over the group and telling you about their books. The group is active EVERY day with a different author sharing and talking books. There are daily giveaways as well as a monthly prize for posting reviews on the books you read. It’s a great way to discover an amazing new author and get the inside scoop on some fantastic KU books. You have the subscription, why not use it, right?

Want to learn more about the April Reading challenge and which authors (besides myself) are participating? Click HERE for all the info.

I hope you can join in the fun. I’ll be hanging out, chatting on the 12th of this month but you should really pop in every chance you get. You never know what you might discover…

Honorary Sale

Hey!

Happy Easter Sunday! I hope everyone was able to spend time with their families and loved ones today.

Sunday is normally a day I write all day but not today. Not because it’s Easter. Today is my grandma’s birthday and although she’s no longer with us, I spend the day remembering the things she taught me and reflecting on the memories we made together. Born on April Fools Day, she wasn’t a funny woman, but she was the strongest woman I know. She was devoted mother and wife as well as a neo-natal nurse (she took care of the really sick babies). Her family was more important to her than anything else so on her birthday, I find it comforting to be around family.

She was also one of my biggest supporters when I decided to become an author. Her and my grandfather, may they both celebrate together in Heaven today. She would listen to me talk about my ideas, the storylines and give me feedback. She was an avid reader and although it’s been three years, her library of books remain in the home, untouched by anyone. We’ll donate them eventually but I don’t think any of us are ready just yet.

The one thing she always told me was to make sure I found a way to give back to my readers, as a thank you for supporting me and my dreams. It was one of the last conversations we had, actually, as she was helping me work through the storyline for Saving Bliss. It took me eighteen months to finish that book after she passed. I felt lost without her and I wasn’t ready to dive back in with those characters without her by my side.

So, in honor of my grandmother and in celebration of her birthday, Saving Bliss is on sale this month. From 4/9-4/15 you can snag it for only 99 cents. If you subscribe to Kindle Unlimited, you can read it at any time. It’s companion novella, Losing Chelsea, is also enrolled in KU.

If I’m a new-to-you author, Saving Bliss is a great place to start. I also have a number of books enrolled in Kindle Unlimited if you subscribe, including my most recent release, book 1 in the Rumors series.

Mark your calendars. April 9th will be here before you know it and you won’t want to miss the sale.

“This was such a compelling story!! I was in such suspense waiting to see what was happening, why Owen was there for Bliss and what his story really was. “ – Amazon Reviewer

OWEN HUDSON

I was hired to protect her. I was told to keep her safe, shadow her every move, and keep my eyes open at all times. He wouldn’t tell me from what, or whom. He wouldn’t even admit she was in danger. It turns out, she is. So am I. Now, I’m falling for her, and that changes everything. I need to find a way to keep her safe without compromising my heart.

BLISS COOPER

I don’t need a babysitter or a bodyguard. I can take care of myself. If I had wanted a roommate I would have one, and it wouldn’t be him. He’s too… intriguing. Stubborn. Sexy. If I need protection from anyone it’s from him. He sees too much, knows too much, and the way he looks at me is causing the walls I’ve built around my heart to weaken. I need him to back off, but I want him closer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

LIVE ALERT!!!

Emerson & Ryder’s story is LIVE!!!  I’m so excited to share this series with you. I FLOVED writing these characters and the gossip that spread through the office. There’s humor, drama and a little bit of steam in this series that you won’t want to miss.

You can start the series TODAY for only #99cents AND you don’t have to wait long for the next book. For the complete release schedule, click HERE. To snag your copy of book 1, click HERE.

Enjoy!

PS – Please leave a review after you’re finished. It’s the easiest way to support the authors you love.

Rumors – book 1, chapters 1-3

CHAPTER ONE

“Did you hear?” Justine asks as I take the seat across from her.

Allison, who is sitting next to her, nods her head in acknowledgment. I have no idea what they’re talking about, but I can only imagine that it’s someone else. That seems to be their “thing” from what I can tell. Gossip.

So far, my new co-workers have been welcoming and helpful. With my boss taking an unscheduled vacation on my first day, they’ve been my saving grace. I was lost until they found me. I’ve learned a lot from them, including who’s dating who and the latest gossip going around the office.

That’s not normally my thing. I’ve listened, but that’s as far as I’ve gone with it. They state the rumors as facts, engrossing each other in conversation about anyone and everyone who works with us. Some days it feels like high school all over again. It’s hard to tune out.

For instance, I know that Justine used to date a guy in accounting. It ended suddenly when he started seeing one of her friends. The moment they broke up, which was only last week, Justine had nothing but bad things to say about the both of them. I let her vent, listening intently as she berated him for having a tiny penis and not knowing how to use it.

Allison encouraged her. Prodded her for more information. Wanted to know everything there was about him.  That’s when I realized that she was the hub of information. She knows everything before anyone else. She’s also not afraid to share anything she hears. My second day, she told me that someone commented on the length of my dress and that I needed to dress more appropriately for the office.

It hung past my knees.

Apparently, that meant it needed to be shorter judging by the outfit she was sporting that day. I’ve been wearing pantsuits since then. I’m sure they have an opinion on that too. She hasn’t shared hers with me, but I’m sure it’ll come in time.

With my boss gone for the last ten days, I’ve been as bored as one can be with little to no work on their plate. I’ve scheduled appointments for him in the coming weeks, answered phone calls, and organized my desk. His first scheduled appointment is Monday afternoon. If he’s not back in town by then, I’ll have to call and cancel it. For the third time. Aside from that, I’ve spent most of my days playing games on my phone.

Hopefully he comes back soon. The problem is, no one knows when he’s coming back.

“Yeah, I overheard him on the phone with Hunter this morning. Hunter sounded angry, started to yell, so of course I moved closer to the door,” Allison says, popping the tab on her Diet Cherry Coke.

“I can’t believe it. Why didn’t she call us?” Justine asks, frowning as she takes a bit of her salad.

“I’m not sure he’s told her yet. I’m guessing that’s why he took her on vacation, so he could end things on a high note. I doubt she’s going to go down without a fight. I can hear her now, screaming at him. Threatening to take him for everything he’s worth. There’s no prenup, you know?”

Listening intently to their back and forth, I attempt to figure out exactly what they’re talking about. As soon as they mentioned vacation, I knew it was my boss, Ryder Dixon. The fact that they’re discussing his lack of a prenuptial agreement can only mean—

“He’ll be back tomorrow,” Allison says, grabbing my attention.

“Tomorrow?” I ask, needing confirmation.

“Yeah. They fly back tonight. I guess he has a meeting with his father in the morning. Probably with his lawyer too,” she chuckles.

Not wanting to get involved with their gossip, I finish my lunch quickly and head back to my desk. If I’m going to meet my boss for the first time tomorrow morning, I want to make a great first impression. For that, I require a little assistance.

Shooting Angela a text, I ask her to come over tonight to help me pick out an outfit.

ANGELA: Can Ian help you? Tyler and I are having dinner with his parents.

Tyler Dixon. My boss’ brother. The middle Dixon brother. Angela’s boyfriend of almost two years. He’s the reason I have this job. I’ve met him a handful of times since moving home to Sunnyside, and I couldn’t be happier for Angela. She’s found herself a keeper. I just hope that Ryder is as nice as his brother. Knowing my luck, he’s going to be a dick. A big one.

ME: I’m sure he’ll be delighted.

Knowing Ian, he’ll roll his eyes when I ask for his opinion and tell me everything looks great and to wear what I want. He’s not happy with my decision to take this job and hasn’t let me forget it. The fight might be over, but it’s still nagging at me that he doesn’t support my career choices.

That’s the problem, though.

He wants to support me. He wants to provide for us. He doesn’t want me to work. Dare I say, he wants me barefoot in the kitchen, pregnant, dinner on the table when he comes home from a long day? That’s not what he said, but that’s the image that popped into my head when he was trying to convince me not to take the job.

ANGELA: Sorry. Shoot me pics and maybe I can help.

ME: Deal.

I’ll take any help I can get.

I spend the rest of the afternoon picking up Ryder’s office. I’ve only been in there twice since I started, not wanting to disrupt the organized chaos. Knowing he’ll be here in the morning and his office is still a mess has my OCD alarms blaring.

Cans of both Coke and Diet Coke are littered around the room. There’s a pile of mail on the coffee table in front of the leather couch by the windows. I weed out the junk mail and leave the rest where I found it. Running my finger across the glass, I notice it’s dusty so I head into his private bathroom to look for a cloth.

Happy with the improvement so far, I wince as I stare at the one place I have yet to clean. His desk. It’s a disaster. Every available surface is covered. I’m not sure what needs to be kept and what can be tossed. Better to keep it all.

Stacking papers neatly on his desk, my eyes are drawn to a mahogany picture frame centered on his desk. It’s the only picture he has in his office. An adorable little brunette is watching me as I clean. It has to be his daughter, Amara. She’s smiling in her pink tutu, curtsying.

It’s after six o’clock when I finally pack up and head out for the night. The only person left in the office is Helen. She’s always the last to leave, which surprised me at first. She’s the receptionist. Why would she be here later than anyone else?

“Goodnight, Helen,” I say as I head to the elevators.

“Goodnight, Miss Emerson. Mr. Dixon will be here at seven tomorrow morning. Will you be coming in early?” she asks, standing so she can see me over the desk. She’s a stout woman, no more than five feet tall. She stands any time the elevator dings so she can greet people face to face.

When I first started, she was calling me Miss Hastings which made me feel old. My mother is Mrs. Hastings. I wasn’t ready to be address so formally. She finally agreed to call me by my first name, but still refused to not call me Miss. It bothered me at first but now that I know her better, I think it’s actually cute.

“I suppose I will.”

“Very good, Miss. See you then,” she says as the elevator doors slide open and I slip inside.

Ian isn’t home when I arrive. There’s a note on the counter that he’s down the street at a bar with friends. He wants me to join him but I’m not in the mood. I shoot him a text, asking him to bring me food, and head to sort through my clothes.

My options are limited. Until Dixon and Sons hired me two weeks ago, I was broke. I’m still broke, actually. I get my first paycheck next week and until then, I can’t go shopping for anything. I’m stuck with what I have, most of which are too big on me.

When Ian and I started dating two years ago, I was twenty pounds heavier and bordering on overweight. So was he. Together we joined a gym and have spent the last couple of years not only losing weight but getting healthier. It’s hard sometimes, especially since I sit on my ass most days, but I’m still working hard. Trying to eat better and work out when I have the time.

The nicer, professional clothes I own are all from before I lost weight, back when I first started interviewing for internships in college. When I graduated, my parents bought me two new suits so I looked presentable when I started looking for a “real” job.

That’s been six months.

This is the first break I’ve had since then.

No one is hiring in the advertising world. Not new graduates, even with my exceptional portfolio. They want experienced professionals. Five years or more in the corporate world. I was even turned down for two entry-level positions. When I asked why, they told me someone with more experience was a better fit for their needs.

Laying all my options out on my bed, I match blouses with skirts and shoes. Nothing seems to work just right. Taking a few pictures, I send them to Angela and pour myself a glass of wine while I wait patiently for her reply.

ANGELA: Try them on!

Ugh! I was trying to avoid that. I’m going to look frumpy.

Snapping a few full-length selfies, I’m pleasantly surprised that the clothes don’t look as sloppy as I assumed they would. I send Angela my favorite three options and she replies instantly.

ANGELA: Burgundy blouse from the first pic with the skirt and shoes from the third pic. Pull your hair to the side in a braid and put on bright red lipstick.

ME: I don’t own red lipstick.

ANGELA: Invest in some. It will look great on you. Lunch tomorrow?

ME: As long as I can sneak away.

ANGELA: Ryder has a meeting with his dad in the morning and legal in the afternoon. You should be able to unless there’s anything else on his schedule.

ME: Not that I know of, but I wasn’t aware of those meetings.

ANGELA: He sounds busy so he won’t even notice if you’re gone. Remind me to never get divorced. It sounds like a pain in the ass.

Divorced.

Confirmation. That was what Justine and Allison were talking about earlier. I didn’t want to know or be involved in the gossip, but I can’t avoid it now.

ME: Noon at the bistro in the lobby?

ANGELA: Perfect. See you then.

Snagging the pieces Angela picked for me, I iron my skirt and hang everything from the door of my closet. My nerves are on end wondering about tomorrow. I have no idea what to expect from him or what he expects from me. It’s like my first day all over again.

Not to mention, if he’s getting divorced, what will his mood be like?

Will he be pleasant?

Angry? Indifferent?

Should I stay out of his way or offer to help? I’m supposed to be his left hand according to his father. At least that’s what I was told during the interview. But this seems like a personal matter that he may want to handle himself. Honestly, I don’t want any involvement in his divorce. That seems outside my job description.

“Emerson!” Ian shouts, slamming the front door. “I have food.”

Yum. I’m starved. My stomach grumbles in protest as I walk into the kitchen. I’m hungry and I need to eat, but my mind is running a million miles an hour in anticipation of tomorrow. The last time I had this problem, my food didn’t stay down.

“How was your day?” I ask, unpacking the takeout boxes, popping the lid on each to see what he brought home.

“Fine. Another new account and a few potentials to look into tomorrow,” he replies, making it sound like his achievements are no big deal

Of course he has another new client. He’s a damn magician. People flock to him for some reason. He can convince anyone to sign a contract. That’s why he was sought after before he even graduated. We received the same education and worked the same internships. He was a year ahead of me and was offered multiple jobs before he received his diploma.

I did not.

No offers. No recruiters blowing up my phone with offers. Not until a month after graduation when I received one call, for a marketing position. I was so excited about the interview until I looked into the company.

Telemarketing.

Not my thing. Sure, I can talk to anyone about anything as long as I’m knowledgeable. Cold calling innocent people to get them to purchase items they don’t want or need? Getting hung up on or sent to voicemail? Nope. I can’t do that all day.

As much as I love Ian, when he brags, even if he’s being modest about it, it’s aggravating. He knows this, yet it doesn’t stop him. I’m not even sure he realizes how often it happens or how much it bothers me.

“That’s good,” I say, biting my tongue.

“What about you? How was your day?” he asks, taking a bite of his spicy noodles.

“Good. My boss comes back tomorrow, finally.”

“Really?” he asks, intrigued.

With Ian working for a competing advertising firm, he claims to know all about Ryder and the rest of the Dixon family. He won’t tell me anything he’s heard. He wants me to form my own opinion. When I asked him what he thought of Ryder, he said he’s only met him once. “Pompous ass” was the way he described him.

Funny, that’s how I would describe Ian sometimes. Especially where his work is concerned.

“That’s what I’ve heard. He has meetings scheduled off the books for a few things, so I’m not really sure. I’ll find out when I get there, I guess. I’m going in early, by the way,” I say as I shove a bite of chicken and rice in my mouth, hoping he won’t catch the last few words.

“Why?”

“Because if he’s there, I need to be there,” I reply, taking a more defensive tone than I had planned.

I can feel the tension between us growing. It was bound to happen. Any time we talk about my job, there’s a thickness in the air. I hold my tongue most of the time. I hate fighting with him, but he seems to be unable to filter his thoughts.

“You’re just his assistant, Em.”

And there it is. It’s funny how three little words can cause such a dramatic shift.

Just. His. Assistant.

I’ve been waiting for him to say something along those lines. He’s come close more than once but stopped himself. For as much as he claims he didn’t want me to work, that he wanted to take care of me, I have a feeling it’s more about who I’m working for. Who I’ll be working with.

His competition.

If I succeed, I’m the enemy.

If I fail… well, that’s not going to happen. I’m determined to work my way up with this company. I may only be an assistant right now, but I don’t plan to stay an executive assistant forever.

“I’m sure once he gets settled, I’ll be able to help in other ways. I plan to ask for more responsibility. I mean, I have a degree. I want to put it to good use.” My tone doesn’t hide the anger I’m attempting to keep at bay. I’m not sure anything could right now. I can feel it pulsating through my veins.

“That’s not what you were hired to do. Your job is to answer phones and schedule appointments,” he says dismissively with the wave of his hand.

“You’re right,” I reply, pushing my barely touched food aside. I’m done with this conversation. No matter what I say, he won’t change the way he sees my opportunity. “I am just his assistant, but if that’s all I can be right now, I’m going to be the best damn assistant he’s ever had. So, I’m going to bed since I plan to go in early tomorrow. Is that okay with you?”

Without waiting for a response, I leave Ian in the kitchen and head to our room, closing the door behind me. The urge to lock it is strong, but I resist. Knowing Ian, he’ll be right behind me. He’ll attempt to apologize and hopefully mean it.

Five minutes later, I realize I’m watching the door, waiting for it to open. Why? If he hasn’t come after me yet, he’s not going to. Slipping into an oversized t-shirt and shorts, I crawl under the covers and curl toward the outside of the bed. Closing my eyes, I focus on my breathing in an attempt to calm down.

I have enough to worry about right now, fighting with Ian is too much to handle. Why can’t he be happy for me? Why can’t he support the decision I made? I don’t want to be a housewife. I’m not interested in staying home. I would be bored out of my mind.

Advertising is what I love to do. If being an executive assistant is my foot in the door, that’s what I’ll be for as long as it takes. One day I’ll move up and be able to use my degree. I’m certain of it. Until then, I plan to work hard to prove my value to the company in any way possible. Ian needs to learn to accept that, or we’ll have bigger problems ahead.

CHAPTER 2

My alarm. I knew I was forgetting to do something last night. Focused on my anger toward Ian, I completely forgot to turn it on. I blame him. He knew he was pushing my buttons. He knew I would get upset. He probably even suspected that if he got me distracted enough, I would forget to set my alarm.

Well played, asshole.

The only thing he didn’t count on was his alarm going off just after six o’clock this morning, waking me up as well.

Hauling ass, I’m smiling at Helen a little over an hour later.

“Good morning, Miss Emerson,” she greets me as I step off the elevator. Before I can reply, she sits back down, disappearing from view.

“Is he here already?” I ask, rounding her desk and taking a seat on the corner, carefully tucking my skirt under my butt.

“He’s in with Mr. Dixon already.”

Looking down the hall toward Herman Dixon’s office, I find the door and blinds are both closed. Have the blinds ever been closed before? I don’t think they have since I’ve been here.

“I guess I’m going to grab a cup of coffee, then. Would you like one?” I ask Helen, bouncing off the edge of her desk as the elevator dings, announcing its arrival. Who else would be here this early?

Looking over my shoulder, I watch as Hunter and Tyler Dixon walk off the elevator, engrossed in conversation. The two oldest Dixon brothers. Both turn and say hello to Helen. Hunter ignores me completely while Tyler smiles, giving me a wave as Hunter continues talking to him.

Hunter is the spitting image of his father. At least, what his father used to look like. There’s a wedding photo of Herman and Margaret Dixon in his office, on the edge of his desk. I accidentally knocked it over during my interview. Not my finest moment.

Just slightly over six feet tall, Hunter is the oldest of the three Dixon brothers. His jet-black hair is a complete contradiction of his light, sandy-brown eyes. He keeps his hair cut short, and he’s always dressed in a black suit with a stark white shirt. The only color he wears comes from his tie. Most of the time red or blue, but today it’s green.

The few times I’ve interacted with Hunter, he’s been nothing short of professional. His focus is work, building the company and their brand. He keeps everyone in line, on task, and moving forward. This includes his little brother Tyler.

Tyler Dixon, the middle child, is the wild card. His hair and eyes mirror Hunter’s in color and shape. A few inches shorter than his brother, he’s cut just as lean. It’s his hair that gives me the impression he writes is own rules from time to time. It grazes the tops of his shoulders when he doesn’t have it pulled back.

The wild side is what attracted Angela to him. She’s a bit of a wild child herself. Since moving home, I’ve talked to him maybe five times. Once outside of work, and that was only the third time we had ever met. He seems nice and genuine. You can tell he adores Angela and that’s really all that matters to me.

When it comes to work, he is the opposite of Hunter. He’s more casual, creating a relaxed work environment. Things still get accomplished; he just removes the pressure.

Watching Tyler and Hunter walk into their father’s office, it makes me wonder what their little brother will be like. Will he be a mix of the two or completely different? Casual yet demanding? Laid back or strictly professional at all times?

Does he look like their father as well or more like his mom? She’s a gorgeous woman. Sandy-brown hair and amazing vibrant blue eyes. I’m sure he’s going to be as attractive as the rest of his family. Hopefully not in a distracting way since I’ll be working for him directly.

“Are you going to stand there all day or are you going to get us coffee?” Helen asks, poking me in the side.

“Coffee. Yeah. On my way,” I reply, my eyes still trained on Herman’s office door as I call the elevator.

Safely inside, I relax against the back wall and try not to let my imagination run wild with thoughts of my boss. I might hate him or hate working for him even if he is attractive. He could be rude and demanding. Or, he might be ugly as sin, the opposite of the rest of his family. The black sheep. That would be better, actually. Less distracting.

Why do I even care? This job is my opportunity to prove myself. That’s what I need to focus on. Not Ryder Dixon.

Of course, that’s easier said than done.

The line at the cafe in the lobby is long. It’s the magic hour. People are rushing to their offices to begin the workday. Even though there look to be five or six people working, it still takes me almost twenty-five minutes to get two coffees and make it back to the office.

When I return, Helen smiles at me apologetically as I hand her her cup.

“What?” I ask, pulling her coffee out of reach.

“You missed him again. He was asking for you too. I covered, told him I sent you on an errand. He’ll be back after lunch, but only for a minute. He left you a few things on your desk to keep you busy.”

“Seriously?” I ask, the defeat in my voice evident. He probably walked right past me when I was waiting for our order. I hand Helen her coffee. “Here. I should get started I guess. I don’t want to make a worse first impression than I already have.”

“I wouldn’t worry much about Mr. Ryder, Emerson. He’s focused on other things right now.”

Helen seems to know a lot. She talks to everyone, sees everything. She’s the hub of the office. I shouldn’t be surprised that she’s already aware of what’s going on. If Allison knew, Helen probably heard about it first.

“Thanks, Helen,” I reply, pulling the strap of my purse higher on my shoulder.

A few things to work on. She should have said a towering stack. It’s leaning to one side so I carefully split it in two and get settled. I have meetings to schedule, artwork to upload, and marketing materials to package and send. The list is never ending.

Two weeks’ worth of work to catch up on in the next four hours.

Canceling my plans with Angela, I work straight through lunch in hopes I don’t miss Ryder again. I accomplish more than I thought possible. Aside from taking packages to the mail room, I’ve finished almost everything. His calendar is full for the next two weeks. I hope he doesn’t mind eating on the go because I barely left him a break for lunch some days.

Out of the corner of my eye, I notice the elevator doors slide open, and Helen stands to greet the visitor.

It’s him.

It has to be.

He towers over Helen as he pulls her in for a hug. If Hunter is tall, Ryder is a giant.

Turning toward me, our eyes meet, and I confirm that he’s a Dixon brother. Those eyes, light-sandy-brown in color. His hair is lighter, dark brown instead of black, gelled back in place, and looks long enough to run your fingers, maybe even grip onto, but cut cleanly above his ears.

Standing, I take in the full view.

His suit jacket is neatly folded over his arm, leaving him in only a white, button-down dress shirt with the sleeves rolled almost to his elbows. The shirt is either too small or he’s that defined because I can see the outline of his chest through the fabric as it stretches in an attempt to accommodate him.

I wondered if he would be a mix of his older brothers and now I don’t have to guess. He’s a happy medium, only sexier. Dangerously sexy. One look at him and my pulse is racing, my palms beginning to sweat. No wonder Ian didn’t want me working for him.

Ian.

Shit. I’m ogling my boss, noticeably, and I have a boyfriend. It’s not like I’m going to act on the sexual desires that are building as he walks closer to me, a sly grin on his face, causing a small dimple to appear on his left cheek.

Nope.

Can’t act on those needs.

That would be wrong.

For so many reasons.

“You must be Emerson,” he says, extending his hand as he approaches.

Wiping my hand down the front of my shirt to make sure I don’t have sweaty palms, I shake his hand and say “Nice to meet you, Mr. Dixon. You can call me Em.”

“And you can call me Ryder. Mr. Dixon is my father.”

Exactly like his brothers. They all want to be called by their first name. Even Hunter, which still surprises me. I guess it’s the only way to differentiate who you’re talking to or about with so many of them.

“Sure, Ryder.”

“Why don’t you come in my office and we can chat a bit. I have a meeting soon, but you already know that, don’t you?”

“That’s all you have this afternoon, sir,” I say, reaching behind me to pick up his calendar, knocking over the stack of boxes I need to take to the mail room in the process. “Shit,” I mutter under my breath and I crouch down to pick them up.

“Here,” Ryder says, handing me two boxes and pushing the others under my desk with his foot. “We can get those later.”

“Thanks.”

Pushing open the door to his office, he motions for me to follow him, a sympathetic smile on his face.

Great first impression, Emerson. Now he thinks you’re a klutz.

Straightening my shoulders, I walk past Ryder and into his office with my head held high. I’m sure he can see right through the facade. I’m not as confident as I’m trying to appear. In fact, I’m the exact opposite of confident. His mere presence has knocked me on my ass.

I wasn’t expecting to be attracted to him. Not that I expected him to be heinous, I’ve seen his brothers. He’s just… more. Tall, dark, and handsome doesn’t even begin to describe him. He has a magnetic pull to him. I want to get closer, to be closer, yet I can also see he’s dangerous. He probably rides the fine line between cautious and carefree, jumping across it depending on how he feels that day.

He’s sinful. In looks and mannerisms.

Like right now.

I’m openly staring at him from across his desk. He’s patiently waiting for me to say something, but the things on my mind right now shouldn’t be shared. Never out loud and especially not with him.

“Why don’t you have a seat, Emerson,” he says, his eyes shifting toward the chair next to me.

Slowly lowering myself, I tuck my shirt under my ass and pray that I don’t accidentally flash him. With how things are going so far, I wouldn’t be surprised.

“Thank you for cleaning up my office, by the way.”

“Of course.”

“It was a nice surprise. Vacation was somewhat of a last-minute thing,” he explains, shifting uncomfortably in his chair. “So, tell me about yourself,” he says, breaking eye contact.

“What would you like to know?” I ask, carefully selecting my words in an attempt to sound professional.

“Where are you from for starters?” he asks as he begins shuffling papers around on his desk, in search of something.

“This is my home. Born and raised in Sunnyside.”

“College?”

This is my chance to shine. My opportunity to show him that I’m qualified to be more than his executive assistant.

“I earned my Bachelor’s degree in Advertising from Michigan State University.”

Looking up, he squints his eye and studies me for a moment. What’s he thinking about, I wonder just as he resumes his paper shuffling.

“What brought you back to Sunnyside?”

This question. I knew it would come up. I’m going to sound like a lost little girl if I tell him the truth. A million lies have crossed my mind, but I’m not a liar. Never have been. Never plan to be. And I suck at it.

“My boyfriend was offered a job here, so we both moved back.”

That got his attention. Sitting up, he relaxes back into his chair and forms a temple with his fingers, studying me. He suddenly appears more comfortable than he’s been since meeting me.

“What does your boyfriend do?”

“He works in advertising as well.”

“For who?”

“Perregrine.”

“Ah, my favorite rival firm,” he replies, his signature dimple appearing alongside a devious grin. “Why not here? Did he apply?”

In lieu of an answer, or in this case a lie, I shrug my shoulders. My guess would be that he did, but I’m not sure either way. It’s been almost eighteen months since Ian was offered the job at Perregrine and a year since he started. I know he applied at a few other firms and there aren’t that many here in the city.

“Well, if he didn’t, he should have. How does he like it over there?”

“He’s happy.”

“And why aren’t you working for them?”

“Oh, I applied, but they didn’t have any positions available.”

“Where else did you apply?”

“A few places in Lansing before I moved back here.”

“And you decided that being an executive assistant was a better gig?”

His question catches me off guard. Is he judging me? I get that enough at home. I don’t need it from him too.

“No, it was my only option,” I reply, clearly irritated. “No one seems to be hiring at the moment.”

“What are your goals, then?” he asks, sitting up in his chair, my irritation with his line of questioning causing him to become uncomfortable.

“To move up. I’ll prove my worth to the company, and hopefully, there will be a place for me here in the future.”

“I’m sure you will,” he replies, a knowing look on his face.

Looking at the clock on the wall, I notice the time. “You have an appointment in ten minutes. Is there anything I can get for you before it starts?”

“Always focused on work. That will benefit you, I promise. No, Emerson. That won’t be necessary. My lawyer is a bit of a prick, so I try not to be too nice to him. He tends to work faster so he doesn’t have to deal with me.”

His lawyer. Does that mean the rumors about the divorce are true as well? Probably, but no matter what, it’s none of my business. It doesn’t affect me one way or the other.

Letting myself out, I close the door behind me but not before sneaking one more glance at Ryder. That turns out to be a bad idea. He was watching me.

CHAPTER 3

One day down, a lifetime to go. Hopefully not. Hopefully, I can move up quickly. I’m not sure I can stand to be an assistant for long. I’ll never admit that to Ian, of course.

I didn’t see Ryder after his lawyer arrived. The door remained closed for the rest of the afternoon and by the time five o’clock rolled around, I was ready to get out of there. I needed food and a mental break.

My mind kept wandering from lust for him and anger at his line of questioning. Sure, he needs to know my intentions. I’ve never been an executive assistant before. No, he wasn’t here to hire me. Still, it’s better to give someone the benefit of the doubt, especially when they hold a degree in the field they’re working in, than to assume they’re working undercover.

Because after thinking about it, I figured out that’s what was on his mind.

Was I working for the enemy? Was I trying to get information for them? That’s not the case, and I plan to make sure to tell him that Monday morning as soon as he walks through the door.

The weekend is stressful. Not only do Ian and I fight most of the time, but his words cause me to doubt my importance to the company. In my heart, I know my job is important. My position was created for a reason and I was hired to fill the position for a reason. I have the skill set needed to be successful.

At the end of the day, though, Ian’s words cause me to doubt everything.

Sunday night, girls’ night, Angela and I meet up for a drink. It’s exactly what I need to end my weekend on a better note. To my surprise, we have company.

Sitting next to Angela is a woman I don’t recognize. Then Angela mouths her name to me when everyone’s eyes are focus elsewhere. It’s none other than Megan, Ryder’s soon-to-be ex-wife. Next to her is Allison and across from Angela is Justine. The girls I work with are nice, don’t get me wrong, but I was looking forward to spending tonight with my best friend, venting about my boyfriend. Oh, and I was hoping to talk about my new boss, the one who’s been fulfilling my fantasies while I slept the last two nights.

Neither of those things will be happening now. The look on Angela’s face is apologetic. She knew I needed a night for just the two of us. It’s become a weekly thing with us, drinks one night a week. No guys. No one else. Just the two of us. We can bitch about everything and anything we want. With the gossip girls here tonight, I won’t be saying much at all. I’d rather my life not be turned into their next rumor.

“Hey,” I say loudly as I take my seat.

Megan forces a smile in my direction while Justine and Allison are friendlier, saying hello and introducing me to Megan. I’m sure she appreciates it when Allison announces that she’s Ryder’s wife as if everyone at the table doesn’t already know they’re about to get divorced.

Angela causally shrugs her shoulders when I look in her direction before raising her hand to grab the waitress’ attention. No matter how many times I try to explain to her that “flagging” down the waitress is rude, she can’t seem to comprehend why.

“What are can I get for you ladies?” she asks, a clearly irritated smile on her face.

“Seven shots of tequila,” Angela announces.

“Seven?” I ask as the waitress retreats.

“Yeah, you need to catch up with us since you were late,” she declares, passing me her drink.

The watered-down brown liquid could be a number of things. Knowing Angela, it’s a Long Island Ice Tea with an extra shot of vodka in it. She’s been drinking those for as long as I can remember.

Taking a sip, I relax back in my chair and let the liquor burn a path to my stomach. The not-so-gentle reminder Angela yelled at me about being late is now all I can think about. Another fight with Ian, one that was prolonged by the fact that we were interrupted by a call from his boss, led to me storming out and slamming the door behind me.

I can’t take the fighting anymore.

Things have to change. Today, not tomorrow. Now, not next week.

“You act like you don’t love me anymore,” he said.

“I do love you. I don’t love the way you try to make me feel less important than I am. I may not have the job you do yet or make the kind of money you make, but I have my foot in the door. It takes time.”

“Not for some of us,” he snarked.

“Well, I’m sorry I’m not as perfect as you. I’m sorry you don’t approve of the route I’m taking to get where I want to be. If it’s that big of a damn deal, why don’t you find someone more on your level? Someone you can relate to more. Someone who cares about their work more than they care about anything else!”

“Em—”

“No! I’m done with this conversation. Figure your shit out, Ian or I’ll figure it out for you. I’m done having the same fight over and over again. Either make your peace with my decision or don’t.”

For once, I got the last word in. Only because his phone rang, distracting him. When he slid his finger across the screen and greeted his boss in a cheery voice that was the final straw. I slammed the door on my way out, causing something to fall and shatter.

I’ve never been so angry in my life. I found the confidence to say things to him that I’ve wanted to since we first started to have this fight weeks ago. Things that I never thought would cross my lips.

“What’s got you on edge?” Justine asks, nudging me in the shoulder.

“Nothing,” I reply, reaching for the two shots of tequila that have magically appeared in front of me.

“Liar. You can tell us,” she says, her voice getting sickly sweet as she leans closer to me. The other girls, including Angela, follow suit and before I know it, they’re practically in my face waiting for me to confess all my sins.

“It’s nothing, really. I got in a fight with Ian and it’s still bothering me.”

There. Maybe that will suffice.

“What was it about?” Megan asks, clearly uninterested as she picks at her nails.

“He thinks his job is more important than mine,” I reply without hesitation.

Maybe it will help talking about it. Maybe they’ll understand. I know Angela does, but we’ve been friends so long it’s hard to tell when she’s agreeing with me to make me feel better or because she actually thinks I’m right.

“What does he do?” Allison asks.

“He works for Perregrine.”

“Advertising,” Justine states blandly. “I’m guessing he’s a big shot.”

“Nope. Small fish in the big pond still.”

“But he’s not someone’s assistant,” Megan chimes in, a wicked grin spreading across her face as she stares me directly in my eyes, daring me to say something. She knows exactly what she’s doing and there’s not an ounce of compassion in her voice.

“Nope. He has an assistant. He has his own office and everything,” I say, my anger rising with each word. “He also makes a bunch of money, more than me of course. Because all I am is an assistant to your soon-to-be ex-husband.”

As soon as the words slip past my lips I regret them. All eyes turn to Megan, who’s currently holding her grin in place as if my words haven’t devastated her.

“You think my divorce is big news? Is that it? Well, let me tell you a little secret,” she starts, leaning forward and lowering her voice. “I was you once. I was at his beck and call, did whatever he needed me to do for him. I helped him make it through college. I was by his side through thick and thin for years. I’m the mother of his child and will always be in his life. He can divorce me and move on, but I’ll never be out of the picture. So if you think announcing my divorce is a slap in the face to me, you’re wrong. He’s not the one leaving me, I’m leaving him.”

“But I thought you said—” Allison starts, a sharp glare from Megan causing her to cut herself off.

“Time to go, girls. I think I’ve had enough fun for one night.” Standing, Megan pushes her chair into a woman behind her, causing her to fall forward. Looking over her shoulder, she laughs before turning her attention to me once again. “Have fun with my leftovers. Try to keep him in line, will you? He was hard to tame the first time around. I’m sure it won’t be easy for you.”

Allison and Justine follow Megan out of the bar without so much as a goodbye. Angela has yet to say anything. We both watch them go until the door closes behind them and we’re left alone at the table. Sliding over into Justine’s seat, I reach for her untouched shot of tequila and down it.

“That was awkward,” Angela finally says.

“You’re kidding, right? She made it sound like I was about to jump in bed with Ryder and that’s not the case. I can only imagine what the rumors will be tomorrow morning at work. I’m probably already sleeping with him even though I have a boyfriend. No one seems to care if the rumors make sense or not. As long as there’s gossip…” I say, letting my voice trail off.

“I’m sorry, Em. I really am. I’m not sure what got into Megan. I mean, she can be a bitch, but that was over the top. I think the divorce is bringing it out in her to be honest.”

“That’s not my fault. It’s not like I told him to ask her for a divorce.”

“It’s her fault, that’s the problem,” she mutters, barely loud enough for me to hear her over the bustle of the bar.

“What do you mean?”

“She cheated on him. She’s the reason they’re getting divorced.”

Well, shit. No wonder she’s being such a bitch. She got caught and now she’s paying the ultimate price. Her family is being split. Her daughter will be confused and one day she’ll have to tell her the truth about why mommy and daddy aren’t together.

“That’s sucks,” I say for lack of anything better. “Another shot?”

“Or two,” Angela says, flagging down the waitress again. I don’t have the energy to correct her manners.

“So much for girls’ night,” I say as I down my fourth tequila shot.

“It’s only eight o’clock, Emerson. Did Ian give you a curfew?” she jokes. That only happened once, and I blew past it by an hour just to prove a point to him.

“Nope. But I wanted to bitch about work and Ian and talk about Ryder and none of that seems like a good idea anymore.”

“So bitch. I thought Ryder would make a good boss. Is he as menstrual as Megan is with the divorce?”

“I don’t think so. We’ve only had one real conversation, but he seems nice. He caught me checking him out, though.”

“Emerson!”

“What? You can’t deny he’s attractive. I’d be an idiot not to notice him.”

“All the Dixon boys are attractive. It’s ridiculous.”

“Agreed. Maybe that’s what has Megan’s panties in a twist. She realizes what she’s lost and that he’ll eventually find another. It won’t be me, I’m spoken for, but she obviously thinks it will be.”

“Who says it won’t be you?” Angela asks with a sly smile on her face.

“Um, let me think. I do.”

“Yeah, but by the sounds of it, you and Ian are on the outs. That could be because he knows exactly who you are working for. He might be jealous.”

“Even if that’s the case, it doesn’t give him permission to treat me the way he’s been treating me. He’s been a downright asshole the last few weeks. He’s making me feel worthless, and that’s not the kind of relationship I want to be in. He’s not the person I started dating. He’s changed.”

“Or you have.”

There’s a knowing look on Angela’s face that I’ve seen once before. The last time she gave me this look was right before I broke up with my last boyfriend, Kevin. He was cheating. I didn’t find out for almost two months. Angela knew something was off about him, that he was hiding something. She had to convince me of what she was seeing.

She’s always claimed to be able to see past the facade that most people put on in their daily lives. She can spot a lie a mile away, it doesn’t matter if they’re trying to lie to her or someone else. It’s a gift. I hate it because she’s always right.

“Spill it,” I demand, reaching for her tequila shot.

“He hasn’t changed, Em. He’s the same person you’ve always dated. He’s never let you wander far without him. He’s constantly pressuring you to make decisions that he approves of. There’s a reason you’re back here in Sunnyside. It’s not because I live here. It’s because this is where he wanted you. He’s in control, no matter if you want to see that or not. It’s the reason I’ve never liked the two of you together. He’s too possessive. The fact that you work for another man, a very attractive, successful man, scares the crap out of him. He can’t control what happens at the office. That’s why he’s trying to pressure you to quit. Please tell me you can see this.”

Relaxing back into my seat I think about the last few weeks. He’s been on edge since I told him about the job at Dixon and Sons and even more so since I accepted it. It got worse when I told him who I was specifically working for. I think he was hoping that I was working for Tyler. That would have been safe. Tyler is with Angela and they couldn’t be happier.

He turned up the pressure for me to quit when I told him that Ryder was returning to the office. It was all he wanted to talk about this weekend. What did I think of him so far? Did I want him to help me find a new job?

It makes sense. All of it. Everything Angela says fits perfectly into place with how Ian has been the last few weeks. The problem is there’s nothing I can do to change it. Unless we split. He won’t change. His opinion won’t change. That’s the one thing about Ian that I don’t love, his inability to see the other side of a situation.

Promising Angela I’ll think about what she said, I change the subject to her upcoming vacation with Tyler. They’re traveling after the holidays again this year. She happily obliges and starts shooting off potential destinations. I try to stay focused on our conversation, happy for Angela, but my mind wanders aimlessly.

To Ian.

To Ryder.

To my future and the uncertainty it holds.

 

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© 2017, Rachael Brownell, All rights reserved.