Friday, June 26, 2015

Ice Breaker

I have a surprise for you. :) In fact, it's not just a surprise. It's a free gift.

I'm going to be giving away a free short story called Ice Breaker to all my newsletter subscribers.

Ice Breaker is part of the Portland Storm series. It's a prequel to the whole series, in a sense. And it's the story of how Jamie Babcock and Katie Weber first met, back when they were both blushing, adorable teenagers.

In this short story, you'll get an early glimpse at some of the recurring characters in the series: Babs, Katie, Webs, Razor, Zee, Jim, Jonny, and others. I think you'll love it. I know I loved writing it. ;)

Ice Breaker will not ever be available for sale. You won't be able to find it at Amazon, iBooks, Barnes and Noble, or any other ebook retailer. I won't ever have print copies to give out at book signings or reader conventions. You won't be able to download it from my website. The ONLY way you can get your hands on it is to sign up for my newsletter.

I should have it available sometime in the next couple of weeks. In the meanwhile, if you want to be sure you get it as soon as I send it out, sign up here.

Bury the Hatchet - Sneak Peek - Chapter Two

Who wants another taste of Bury the Hatchet to tide you over until it releases? How about the second chapter?

If you missed it, I posted the first chapter already. Go on over and read that now and then come back for another taste.

All right, ready for more?

P.S. Want to win a print copy? Be sure you enter the Goodreads giveaway.

Chapter Two


For whatever reason, he said he would go along with it. I was still dumbfounded that Mama and Mrs. Jernigan had come up with the idea of us getting married to begin with, and I wasn’t positive that I was fully on board, but Hunter Fielding had agreed to marry me, and now everything was moving at the speed of light. I needed to make up my mind, once and for all, before it was too late. Yes, Mama and Lance insisted that I had no choice and was going to have to marry someone, but I was a grown woman. An adult. I had choices. And marriage? That was a big decision to make, even if it was essentially to be in name only and would have an expiration date.

The meeting with the Thunderbirds brass took place on Tuesday morning. That afternoon, Daddy and I sat down in his office with Hunter and his agent and hammered out the details for the prenuptial agreement.

“You’ll live together as husband and wife for one year,” Daddy explained to the other men. He’d already gone over all of it with me, Mama, and Lance well before now. He and I were seated on one side of the long board table at Roth & Rainier, the law firm where he was one of the two primary partners, while Hunter and John sat across from us. “All money and possessions that started out being Hunter’s will remain Hunter’s. The same will go for Tallie. Upon your divorce, everything that she comes into the marriage with will leave the marriage as hers. You’ll maintain a single residence but separate bank accounts.”

“Who will own the house?” the agent asked.

“Hunter buys a house,” Daddy answered before I could interject. “He’ll need one to live in after this all washes over, anyway, since he’ll still be on the team. You’ll live in it together to give the impression of being as completely head-over-heels in love as possible. What happens inside that house with the doors closed is your business and yours only, no matter what her mother and that ass Lance may have to say on that matter.”

Heat raced to my cheeks as I remembered what I’d said earlier about not necessarily remaining celibate. The fact was, Hunter was hot. Seriously gorgeous. He was about half a foot taller than me and solid muscle. His dark hair was too long and curled a little where it hit his shoulders, and he hadn’t shaved in a couple of days, a bit of scruff lining his square jaw. Everything about him screamed Man, with a capital M, from the defined muscles of his forearms to the deep, gravelly sound of his voice. He’d been wreaking havoc on my girly parts since the moment he’d walked into the Thunderbirds offices earlier, and I couldn’t seem to get my hormones under control. At least not while he was staring at me like he was right now. Something told me he was remembering what I’d impetuously said, as well.

“Speaking of Lance,” Hunter said. There was a surly, grumbly tone to his words that shot straight through me and made my temperature rise again. “Who the hell is that guy and what does he have to do with anything?”

I blinked, but Daddy didn’t say anything to answer him. I supposed that meant it was going to be on me to explain. Daddy and Lance had never gotten along. The sooner he could get Lance out of my life, the better. I was almost positive that was why, out of everyone involved, Daddy was the least upset about my mishap in Cancun and the most receptive to the idea of me getting married. No more pageants. He assumed that would mean no more Lance. I wasn’t so positive about that, considering the way Mama was pulling Lance along to participate in every aspect of the aftermath.

“Lance Benton. He’s my pageant guru,” I said feebly. Anyone who’d been involved in the pageant world would understand in a heartbeat, but to the rest of the world, a guru was sort of a mystery. Mama had hired him when I was still just a baby and too young to voice an opinion on the matter, and she’d kept him regardless of whatever complaints I might have about him because he was the best. He got results, and he was the reason I’d succeeded. That was what Mama said, at least.

Sure enough, Hunter just raised a brow in question, his sexy-as-sin face a mass of confusion.

I sighed. “He oversees everything for me, training me in every aspect of my presentation and supervising all of the people who help out—my designer, my hair and makeup people. He runs the show.” Whether I liked it or not, and for a great many years now I’d been leaning toward the side of not. Hunter still didn’t look like he followed, so I added, “He’s kind of like my coach, I guess.”

“Your coach?” Hunter scoffed.

I nodded.

“For pageants? You need a coach for a beauty pageant?” He raised and lowered his gaze, giving me a thorough and disbelieving once-over.

“They’re about a lot more than just physical appearances,” I groused, sick to death of having to explain pageants to people who weren’t part of this community.

He narrowed his eyes at me, seeming to analyze every minuscule bit of my appearance. “Mm-hmm,” he said, making me feel all of an inch tall. “So what the fuck does he have to do with any of this?” he asked, scowling and waving an arm across Daddy’s desk and the papers littered all over it. “This is a marriage, sweetheart. It isn’t a pageant. The guru stays out of it.”

There was no masking the grin that swallowed up Daddy’s face. “You know, son, I think I’m going to like you. I think I’m going to like you a hell of a lot.”

“I might be marrying your daughter, Mr. Roth, but I’m not your son, and you and everyone else around here had better get that through your thick fucking skulls.”

Daddy just chuckled and sifted through the stack of papers to find another one to go over. “Got it. Noted. Not my son.” He winked at me. I had no clue how he could be laughing and winking at a time like this. My whole world was changing. Everything I’d known my whole life had been ripped out from under me the day I’d returned from a summer vacation with my sorority sisters and had to face the scandal of being stripped of my crown.

Hunter met my gaze from across the table, almost staring through me. “You understand what I said about Lance? He has no place in our marriage. At all. Not ever, regardless of how short or long this marriage may be.”

“Of course he doesn’t,” I readily agreed.

I didn’t mention the fact that a wedding was not a marriage, and there wasn’t a chance in hell that I could convince Mama that Lance couldn’t be involved in the planning for the ceremony. He had already started working on it, and she would have a serious conniption fit if I tried to put down my foot about it. The fit that Lance would throw would be big enough to cause the Gulf of Mexico to swell up so far it would cover the entire state of Oklahoma. Whether I was happy about it or not, and no matter what Hunter thought on the matter, Lance’s fingerprints would be all over the wedding and reception. Heck, he’d already made the executive decision that I would be walking down the aisle in my competition ball gown, despite the fact that it wasn’t even close to being appropriate for a wedding. It was white, there wasn’t time to get something else more wedding appropriate made, and it would look stunning on camera, especially after they added some more pizzazz to it. Those were all the reasons he needed to lay down that particular law.

Daddy finally found the sheet he’d been searching for and drew it forward, passing it across so Hunter and John could see it. “This one is more specific to finances. I set up a trust fund for Tallie years ago. It allows her to have access to the funds upon her marriage at a set dollar amount per year, so that should cover all her living expenses during the course of your marriage. In other words, while she’ll be living in your house, she won’t be touching your money. There won’t be any need for it. Additionally, I’ll be paying for the wedding since you’re buying the house.”

“The wedding shouldn’t cost too much, though,” Hunter said, narrowing his eyes. “Not like a house. I mean, maybe if we were waiting a few months and could plan it properly—”

“I promise you,” Daddy interrupted, “my wife can spend money like you wouldn’t believe, on short notice or otherwise.” He passed over another sheet of paper and pointed toward a line so he could explain the terms outlined on it, effectively putting an end to that part of the conversation for the moment.

John took each sheet of paper as Daddy discussed it, poring over it with a fine-toothed comb while the explanation continued. For the most part, it was just Daddy talking. Every now and then, either Hunter or John would pipe up with another question, or John would point out a section of wording that he wanted to have changed before he would advise Hunter to sign on the dotted line. I decided to leave them to it. Daddy and I had already gone over every single detail in these documents even before my husband-to-be had been decided upon, so there wasn’t much for me to contribute.

The basic gist of the rest of our meeting was that Hunter and I would publicly play the parts of a loving couple, putting off the impression that we were exuberantly happy newlyweds. The story we would feed the press was that we’d met at an event while Hunter was in town to meet with his new team, and we’d both been so instantly smitten that we knew this was it. We couldn’t wait, so we’d dropped everything and married as soon as it could all be arranged. In that way, we were revealing things as truthfully as possible without letting the whole truth out. Once we decided to go our separate ways after the requisite year, we would simply state that we’d rushed into things and hadn’t thought it through, that love at first sight had turned out to be just a myth, not reality.

Everything about this marriage business felt cold and calculated, which I supposed it should. That was the truth of it. It was all being decided and arranged in an almost mercenary manner. The craziest part of it all was that Daddy—the one who was most in line with the idea of Hunter Fielding being the man I married for this farce—was also the one who was most able to keep emotion out of the arrangements. Maybe that was to be expected since he was a lawyer. I supposed it came with the territory.

Anyway, once everything was hammered out, the contract was drawn up, agreed upon, and signed by all parties involved. Hunter pushed back his chair and stood, his agent following suit. I glanced up to find Hunter’s eyes trained on me. I’d never seen eyes quite like his. They were light, and on first glance, they seemed to be some sort of blue, almost too crystal clear to be human. But when I looked closer, I realized they were a silvery sage green unlike any I’d observed before, both magnetic and impenetrable. Every time I’d caught him looking at me, his expression had been unreadable, but it grew more and more heated with each glance. Not an angry sort of heat but more along the lines of sexy and sensual, causing tingles to race to every nerve in my body.

“So you’re coming to dinner with me tonight then,” he said.

“Dinner?” That was enough to take me by surprise, and I sat back in my seat, eyes wide. “Why do you think I am coming to dinner with you?”

“Because we’re supposed to be putting on a show for everyone,” he said, aggravation coming through in his tone. “If we wait until after the wedding to start that, there are going to be even more questions than there already will be. Might as well get started now. See and be seen, right?”

I took a gander at Daddy, but he was no help. At the moment, he was gathering up all of the documents that we had just gone over and sorting them into stacks. Traitor. “Maybe we can start in a few days. Mama expects to go over wedding details with me tonight.” I honestly didn’t know if Mama expected anything of the sort, but there were a lot of details that needed to be seen to, and she wouldn’t want to put them off any longer than necessary. Not to mention Lance, but I didn’t see any reason to bring him into the equation right now. The less Hunter knew about Lance’s involvement, the better, at least for the time being.

“How many wedding details can there be? There are only so many things that can be put together at the last minute like this.”

At that, Daddy snorted in laughter. “Son, you’ve got a lot to learn about Southern women and what they can accomplish on short notice.”

I was sure that Hunter was about to gripe that Daddy had called him son again, and I was prepared to interject, but John beat me to it.

“We should really get out of here,” he said. He took Hunter by the arm and started guiding him toward the door. “We still haven’t had time to check in at the hotel, let alone change clothes. Hunter needs to get a rental car. We can work the rest of this out tomorrow, can’t we?”

Hunter would not be deterred so easily. He stopped and turned, narrowing those silky green eyes at me. “Seriously, dinner?”

“Pick her up at six thirty,” Daddy said. “My secretary will give you the address, and she’ll make reservations for you at Giovanni’s Trattoria.”

I did a double take. “Giovanni’s?” Not only was my father blatantly ignoring everything I had said about needing to work on wedding details with Mama but Giovanni’s was one of the swankiest restaurants in town, easily one of the most expensive places we could possibly go. Getting in there at the last minute was next to impossible. I loved their food as much as I loved anything, and I wasn’t worried about the cost, but it seemed like a bit much for the first time we went out together.

Daddy raised a brow in my direction, continuing to sort his papers into stacks. “The goal is to start putting it out there that you two are an item, isn’t it? There’s no better place for that in Tulsa.”

Hunter quirked up a grin, a rarity in the brief time I’d known him and an action that made my heart go pitter patter, and he winked at me. “I’ll see you at six thirty.”

“With a ring, like we outlined earlier,” Daddy said. “Size five. Make sure it’s big enough to draw notice.”

“Got it,” Hunter said, catching John’s eye and jerking his head toward the door. With that, his agent preceded him out of the board room, and Hunter snaked his way out behind him, leaving me with a stunning view of his very tight ass, my jaw nearly hitting the floor at the perfection of it. His jeans hugged every blessed inch of him, defining all the muscle there and in his thighs.

Daddy chuckled after the door closed. “Just be glad your mama isn’t around to see you gawking at him like that.”

“She’ll be seeing plenty of it soon enough,” I muttered. If all went according to plan, everyone in Oklahoma would soon be seeing a lot more than me gaping at Hunter as he walked away. I picked up my purse from the floor, tossing my copies of the pre-nuptial agreement inside before pushing my chair back from the board table. “Daddy, tell me something,” I said as I stood.

“What’s that?”

“Why is it that you’re so hunky dory with all of this? Why aren’t you getting worked up?” Lord knew worked up didn’t even begin to cover it where I was concerned.

The entire structure of my life until this point had been ripped away from me, just because of one night’s worth of poor choices. Now my future looked so different than it had only a few weeks ago that I couldn’t even recognize it. I’d been so close to achieving the goals I’d been working toward since before I’d understood what they were, but that was all gone. No chance. I couldn’t be Miss USA. I couldn’t compete for Miss Universe. At this point, I didn’t even know who I was anymore, or what my life should be about. I’d always had direction and a narrowly defined purpose. Now, all I could do was go along with what I was told. That wasn’t much different from any other time in my life, really. I was good at doing what I was told. That was how I’d gone as far as I had in the pageants I’d competed in over the years, so it came naturally to me.

Still, even with everyone agreeing that I was going to have to marry in order to help my misadventures in Cancun wash over, Mama and Lance were spitting mad over Hunter being the man we’d settled upon. They hadn’t had any better suggestions, and Daddy’s firm had run a thorough background check on him and come up with nothing worse than a brother with some drug and legal issues that had nothing to do with Hunter, but that didn’t seem to make any difference to them. They thought I deserved better for my fake husband and short-term marriage. They thought he should be someone who Oklahoma loved, not someone the people in the state hated with the fire of a thousand suns. They wanted him to sweep in on a white charger and save the day, not be dragged in kicking and screaming like Hunter was. They wanted the impossible.

But Daddy? I wasn’t at all sure what he wanted, and that left me feeling as if I stood on shaky ground. He’d always been my rock, my safe place amid the colliding fronts of Mama and Lance.

Those two pushed me harder and told me I was never going to be good enough if I didn’t do exactly as they said; he smiled and told me he loved me just as I was. They plucked and waxed and airbrushed me, obsessing over my every flaw; he looked at me when I had bedhead and a seaweed mask covering my face and told me I was beautiful. They regimented everything I ate, putting me on fad diets that only allowed for canned tuna and green vegetables one week and hard-boiled eggs and steamed carrots the next week; he brought home Subway sandwiches and cupcakes and sneaked them into my room, winking as he backed out with his finger pressed to his lips.

He winked in that same way now, shoving the stacks of paper aside and placing his entire focus on me. “I’m not getting worked up because, for the first time since you were six months old and your mother informed me she was going to enter you in a baby pageant whether I liked it or not, I’m not worried about the damage she’s going to do to you. You’re going to get out from under her thumb, and you’ll be all the better for it.”

“Out from under Mama’s thumb?” I repeated after him, dumbfounded. It was Lance who had always ruled every aspect of my life as far as I could figure it, dictating everything to Mama from my diet to my bedtime, and even the electives I should sign up for in school. He had determined that I should be in Delta Delta Delta. He’d been the one to decide that I should major in communications at the University of Oklahoma. He’d hired and fired the various designers, makeup artists, and coaches I’d had over the years. It had always been Lance, not Mama, making those decisions for my life. She’d just been the one to enforce my compliance.

Daddy smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Tallie, I tried to fire Lance at least a dozen times over the years, but your mother wouldn’t have it. He’s been the one deciding how you needed to do things, but it was your mother who insisted he be in your life at all. She’s ultimately the one behind it, and I couldn’t be happier to have you finally coming to a point where the two of them can’t dictate your life.”

My life.

But if I went along with the plan and married Hunter, just as I’d been told to do, it wasn’t really my life, was it? I’d just be going along with what they told me to do, and maybe instead of Mama and Lance dictating everything now, it would be Hunter taking on that role. Or maybe they would find a way to wheedle their way in to keep going as they had been.

       It wasn’t my life. Or at the very least, it wasn’t the life I wanted. Now I needed to figure out what to do about it.

Want to read more? BURY THE HATCHET releases on July 9, and you can order it now at AmazoniBooksBarnes and NobleKobo, and All Romance eBooks. Add it to your Goodreads shelf now if you haven't already done so.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Bury the Hatchet - Sneak Peek - Chapter One

It's almost here! The release of BURY THE HATCHET is only a few weeks away. And that means it's time for another sneak peek.

If you like what you read below, be sure you pre-order your copy! BURY THE HATCHET releases on July 9, and you can order it now at Amazon, iBooks, Barnes and NobleKobo, and All Romance eBooks. Add it to your Goodreads shelf now if you haven't already done so.

Here's the first chapter. Also, keep reading all the way to the very end for some other exciting news.


The August sun in Tulsa was intense enough to melt my bones, hotter even than the water I’d recently found myself in after making a few drunken, pissed-off, and ill-advised comments in Vegas last month. I’d been there for the NHL Awards, hoping to celebrate one of my buddies from the goalie guild winning the Vezina Trophy.
I didn’t quite make it to that part of the awards presentation because my agent, John Stine, had slipped over to whisper some unwelcome news in my ear. An expansion draft had taken place earlier in the day so the league’s new team, the Tulsa Thunderbirds, could stock up on players for their debut season. I’d known that was going on, of course. Everyone did. I also knew my team had left me unprotected, meaning it was almost guaranteed that I’d get claimed by the new team since I was far and away the best goaltender left in limbo. Sure enough, I was the first player the Thunderbirds selected.
So instead of battling it out for the starting gig against Nicky Ericsson, another goalie with the Portland Storm, I was heading to Oklahoma to play for a team that would unquestionably be appallingly bad for many years to come. The Storm were a legitimate threat to win the Stanley Cup these days. Needless to say, I wasn’t exactly excited about this latest development in my career.
After getting the news and being assured there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it, I’d spent the rest of the night in the hotel bar, drowning my sorrows in an unending series of tequila shots. It was just my luck that half the contingent of hockey media present was hanging out just outside the bar. They stopped me when John finally hauled my sorry ass out of there, blinding my bleary eyes with their lights and shoving their damn microphones in my face.
Hunter, what do you think about the news that you’ll be playing for the Thunderbirds next season? they’d asked. It’s a real coup that they were able to claim a star goaltender like you in the expansion draft.
John should have jerked my ass away from them right then and there and said something along the lines of Mr. Fielding isn’t taking any questions right now. But he’d been distracted by a phone call from one of his other clients who’d been plucked up in the expansion draft, and I’d shoved my foot so far down my own throat that I should have choked on it and died.
Who the fuck wants to play in a goddamned backasswards place like Tulsa, and for a fucking upstart, no less? I’d replied, ignoring the fact that it might be aired on live TV and the censors would have to bleep me out, oblivious to the harm I was causing myself with a few simple words. Truth or not, sometimes it was better to bite your tongue.
At that point, John disconnected his call and shoved the mics away from me. Too late. The damage had already been done. The words had left my mouth and been caught on film. I couldn’t take them back. I was just going to have to face the consequences.
That was a little over a month ago, and now I had to pay the piper for my inebriated lack of common sense. That was why I was here now. I’d come to Tulsa to meet with the Thunderbirds brass. They wanted to figure out a plan for getting the fans—as if there were any fans to be found here—on my side. Or so they said. I was just waiting to hear what my penance would be for my perceived crimes, and the team’s executives and coaches were apparently my judge and jury.
The second I stepped outside the airport into the blistering heat—fully expecting farmers to rush me with pitchforks—I wished I could walk right back in again, get on a plane, and fly the hell out of here. But I couldn’t. There was no getting out of this unless I intended to walk away from what was left of my career. I was only twenty-nine years old. Way too young to hang up my skates and pads and call it a day. Hell, twenty-nine was when goaltenders tended to hit their prime. I had many years of hockey left in me, and I didn’t have the first clue what I’d do with myself if it was taken away so soon.
I just wished I wasn’t going to have to spend them in this hellhole.
John pulled up to the curb in a rental car and waved me over. He put the car in park and climbed out, as dressed down as ever: shorts, a T-shirt, a Thunderbirds ball cap, and sunglasses. I squinted and wished I had a pair of shades handy, myself. Just one of many adjustments I would have to make if I was going to live here. I got the sense that there was a hell of an education about life in the south in store. He grinned, tossed me a pair of sunglasses that matched his, and popped open the trunk.
“It’s hotter than the underside of Hades,” I grumbled.
He grabbed one of my bags and tossed it in. “You’ll get used to it. You’ll probably like it someday, actually. Especially in October and November when it’s still nice enough to go out without having to shovel a few feet of snow to get your car out. Spring will arrive here nice and early, too. Short winters; long summers. There are a lot of good things in Tulsa.”
I didn’t want to get used to it and John damn well knew it. He wasn’t just my agent. He was a lifelong friend, a guy a few years older than me. I’d grown up with his younger brother, Darren, and played hockey with both of them when we were kids. Darren and I had both been drafted while John was in college. Darren had never panned out with the NHL. He’d played a few years in Europe before deciding to go home and start his family. While the two of us had been playing hockey, John had decided to go on to law school. He’d been ready to start his career as a sports agent by the time the Storm wanted to sign me to my first pro contract.
There was no chance I would end up liking it here, and he knew it, so trying to sell me on the city was a waste of his breath. I knew I should have made him fight harder to get the no-movement clause when we’d signed the seven-year extension with Portland before the beginning of last season. Granted, I doubted even that would have kept me with the Storm instead of landing with the team that would be rock bottom in the league.
I glared at him to shut him up on all the supposed good things about life in Tulsa.
He tossed in my other bag, shut the trunk, and went around to get in the driver’s seat, not bothering to respond. I climbed in and slammed the door, a good dose of surliness taking over. At least he had the sense to have the AC going full blast.
Good thing he let the matter drop. Instead of selling me on the positives, he started shooting the breeze, catching me up on all the goings-on at home since I’d hardly been back to Prince George over the summer. I sat back and listened to him prattle, occasionally tossing in a question to keep the conversation flowing. The more I could get him to talk about that kind of thing, the less I would have to think about my predicament. But when the car came to a stop, we weren’t at a hotel. We were in a parking garage in a big complex that screamed of being the Thunderbirds’ main office.
“Already?” I grumbled. “You’re not going to at least let me settle in first?” I’d hoped to have the opportunity to shower and change into something more comfortable in this heat before dealing with the clusterfuck I’d created.
John shut off the engine. “The Jernigans want to get things moving in the right direction as soon as possible. They said to bring you over the second you landed.”
I ground my jaw. The Jernigans were the team’s owners. Tom Jernigan was a minister at some huge church here in Tulsa, one of those massive congregations that aired on television and they had to hold four or five services over the course of the weekend because there wasn’t enough room in the building to fit everyone in a single sitting. He and his wife, Sharon, were all over the place with Bible study books and videos. I was sure they didn’t know the first fucking thing about hockey. At least they’d had the forethought to hire a few guys who, combined, boasted several decades of experience running NHL teams.
Still sulking, I ambled out and followed John inside. He led me through a series of halls, all decked out with various items bearing the Thunderbirds logo and colors—a Native American warbird with hockey sticks done in turquoise and terra cotta—before stopping at a board room.
A few familiar faces were waiting in there: Alan Krause, the team president who had been around the league longer than I’d been alive; Gary Asher, the general manager who had overseen the Blues for their one and only Cup a few years back; Tim Harvey, a former NHL defenseman who had been an assistant coach for two other NHL teams and would do the same here; Chuck Warren, who’d been a goalie in the league for a while—a backup goalie, no less, and who had never come close to my level of play—who was supposed to be my fucking goalie coach. There were a bunch of other guys in Thunderbirds golf shirts and the like, too. Maybe they were the other coaches, or else some of the PR people.
Off in the corner of the room near the windows, a slim, gray-haired man in a full three-piece suit stood next to a blond woman in the sort of conservative women’s suit that only politicians and clergymen’s wives tended to wear. Her shockingly blond hair looked like a helmet. She probably used a whole can of hairspray to keep it like that. No doubt these two were the team owners, the Jernigans.
It was the group huddled together near them that caught my attention, though: a knockout gorgeous brunette who looked like she should be on the cover of a fashion magazine, an older woman who could only be her mother, and a couple of older men. All three of her companions were currently eyeing me. One of the men seemed curious. The other, along with the mother, were both glaring at me like I was the devil incarnate. But the young woman? I couldn’t figure out what she was thinking because she wouldn’t look at me.
On top of that, I had no clue about the purpose of their presence. It was supposed to be a meeting about me being an ass and learning what I would have to do to appease the team’s brass after letting my idiocy show. What the hell did these people have to do with that?
Alan and Gary came over to shake my hand. They took me through the room, introducing me around to most of the new faces before we headed over to the big board table. I grabbed a bottle of water from a cart along the wall before taking my seat. Alan sat at the head of the table, folding his hands in front of him. He looked as intense as I’d always known him to be. Maybe more at present than usual. His stress had to be at an all-time high right now, trying to get ready for the Thunderbirds’ debut season, and my issues had only added to it. “All right,” he said once everyone settled into place and talk died off. “Let’s get down to business.”
Alan picked up a coffee cup and drank from it. “There’s no point in beating around the bush. We have twelve thousand new season ticket holders and a whole host of other potential Thunderbirds fans here in Tulsa who are up in arms over some comments made by our new star goaltender. They didn’t take kindly to being called backasswards, and they aren’t keen about one of their players not being fully on board with being a key part of this team. So now we need to figure out how to win them over.”
“You mean we need to figure out how I can win them over,” I said.
Alan nodded, a scowl marring his features.
Mollifying people wasn’t my strong suit and it never had been. I picked up my water, focusing more on it than I did on the conversation going on around me. Gary and the coaches all tossed out suggestions like getting me involved in some sort of community service project with some schools in the area or trying to get a grassroots youth hockey program started so that the locals could love and grow the sport here—with me at the forefront of it, of course.
These were exactly the sorts of things I’d been expecting, but they didn’t seem to be what Alan was looking for. He didn’t even like the idea of me starting up a charity here, or at the very least, he seemed to think there needed to be something more to go along with it. He kept brushing their suggestions off, telling them it wasn’t enough. What I’d done was going to take a lot more than a bit of community involvement to rectify, if Alan’s reactions were a good indication.
As for me? I kept my head down and my mouth shut while the rest of them batted ideas around, since John had already made it abundantly clear that I was going to have to play along with whatever they suggested, no matter how much I might not like it. I didn’t get a say since I’d already flapped my jaw too much. But then John kicked my ankle under the table. I shot my head up to find Mrs. Jernigan looking expectantly at me, a too-perfect smile plastered on her face.
“Gentlemen,” she said. “I’ve got the perfect solution. In fact, that’s why we invited the Roths to join us today, as they’ve got a part to play.”
The foursome in the corner met my gaze when I passed a skeptical glance in their direction. Well, three of the four did. The brunette ducked her head and stared at the floor after giving me the briefest glimpse of her honey-colored eyes and button nose. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail, revealing a long, slender neck that looked perfect for nibbling on. That was absolutely the wrong thing for me to be thinking about, though—nibbling on her neck. Or other parts of her, like her pert breasts.
“The perfect solution?” I repeated slowly, one hundred percent positive that whatever whack-job idea this lady had, it would be the complete opposite of what I thought appropriate.
Mrs. Jernigan didn’t seem to notice the sarcasm in my tone. Either that or she was an expert at ignoring things she didn’t want to acknowledge. “You see, the Roths have been members of our church since Tallulah Belle was just a sweet little baby. We always want to help members of our congregation out where we can, and Tallulah’s found herself in a bit of a pickle, too, sort of like you have. There was a dust-up last month while she was in Cancun with her sorority sisters, and now that she’s been stripped of her crown—”
“Her crown?” I interrupted. Who the hell wore a crown? And more importantly, why?
This was quickly devolving into a nightmare.
One of the men in the corner rolled his eyes. He, like Mrs. Roth, had been eyeing me since I’d arrived as if I were a child pornographer or something. “I told you this wasn’t a good idea, Sharon,” he said emphatically. He spoke slowly with a slight lisp, drawing out his words so that they seemed to have grown by a few syllables each. Even in this heat, he had on a blue turtleneck, not to mention a tweed jacket over it, and he waved his hands with every word he uttered. “The Neanderthal doesn’t even know who our Tallulah is,” the arm-waving dude bemoaned.
“Don’t call him that, Lance,” the brunette pleaded. For the first time since they’d been introduced into the conversation, she truly met my gaze, her expression a visual apology. Her face was also quite possibly the most flawless one I’d ever seen. She looked as though she’d stepped out of the pages of a magazine, without a single blemish in sight. Lightly tanned skin. High cheekbones. Impeccably arched, full eyebrows. And that was just her face. Her body? Made me think all kinds of things that I had no business thinking about a woman whose name I didn’t even know. She looked too good to be real, but damn if she wasn’t hot.
He ignored her, gesticulating so much he nearly whacked her in the face, which made me want to pick him up by the scruff of his neck and teach him a thing or two about how Neanderthals expected a man to treat a lady. I stayed put, though, and Lance was oblivious to anything but his own agenda. “He won’t work out. He doesn’t understand the pressure she’s under. The hooligan couldn’t even bother to get his hair cut before making an appearance. He’s exactly the opposite of the sort of man we need her to marry.”
My head snapped back upon hearing the word marry, and I pushed my chair away from the table. “Back the fuck up for a second,” I said. The movement unsettled my water, and the bottle fell over, rolled to the table’s edge, and dropped to the floor, narrowly missing my toes. “Who the hell said anything about getting married? I’m willing to do whatever you need me to do to make up for my perceived crimes—community outreach, volunteering, whatever—but how the fuck is getting married—”
“Which is precisely the point,” Mr. Jernigan cut in, his voice rising over mine. He arched an eyebrow in my direction, either daring me to interrupt or putting me back in my place, one of the two. “You’ll do whatever we need you to do—John assured us you would—and we need you to marry Tallulah. She’s gotten into a scrape. She needs a way out of it. You’re it, son. On top of that, she’s the best way to get the people here in Tulsa on your side.”
“How is marrying her supposed to help me make things up to all the people I pissed off?” I demanded.
“Would you please watch your language?” Mrs. Jernigan demanded, and I just about fell out of my chair. Of all the things to get worked up over, she was getting her panties in a twist over me uttering the words pissed off? How on earth was she going to handle being around a whole team of hockey players? It might be better if she was one of those hands-off team owners like we’d had in Portland, but so far it didn’t look like that would be the case.
She put her hands on her hips, prim, proper, and as incensed as I’d ever seen a woman. “Really, there’s no reason for all that foul stuff. Your mama should have taught you better than that.”
“Let’s leave his mama out of it, Sharon,” her husband said, never removing his gaze from me. No doubt he sensed that I was about to lose my shit, and he wanted to defuse the situation before I did something else I would regret. I might not like his wife, but so far he was okay. Well, except for the fact that he thought I needed to marry some random chick I’d never met before.
He crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair. “Here’s the deal, son.”
I gritted my teeth. “I’m not your son.”
He ignored me. “Tallulah won Miss Teen Oklahoma USA several years back, and then she won Miss Teen USA. She’s the reigning Miss Oklahoma USA, or she was until they stripped her of her crown last month because of a slight indiscretion. She was expecting to contend for Miss USA, and most likely Miss Universe after that. She’s been competing in and winning pageants for years, including some very high-profile ones. The fact is that Oklahomans love her. We adore her. But now her image has been tarnished, and she needs a husband so she can repair her image in the public eye. She fell down a few pegs when…well, never mind that. The point is that they want Tallulah to appear to be the role model they always assumed she was, and to do that, she needs to give the impression that she’s growing up, settling down, and doing the things they’ve expected of her all along.”
“Which is exactly why you can’t just shove her in with him,” the hand-waving man interrupted, pointing a finger in my direction so hard it seemed he might be attempting to jab me in the eye. “He’ll ruin her worse than she already is.”
Mr. Jernigan closed his eyes, shook his head, and sighed. “He’s not going to ruin her. They’ll rescue each other.”
I wasn’t in the mood to play knight in shining armor to anyone, even if she had legs for days and killer curves like this Tallulah chick did, and I’d be damned if I needed anyone to rescue me. I’d dug my own hole; I could damned well figure out a way to climb out of it myself. “I’m not marrying anyone,” I said, loud and clear enough to be heard over everyone else.
“You are.” This time it was John speaking.
I spun my head to glare at him. “You knew this was going on and you didn’t say a word about it?”
“Had to be sure you were going to show up,” he said, shrugging. Like this was no big deal. Like he wasn’t trying to tell me that my life as I had it planned was all being tossed out, and I was going to have to bend to someone else’s rules. Like I should have expected it since I’d been dumb enough to make an ass of myself, and this was my due penance. “We already discussed this. You’ve got to play by their rules, at least for a while. Things are different down here. You’re going to be living and playing in the Bible belt, and there are different expectations. Besides, it’s not forever,” he added sheepishly.
“You expect me to believe that a preacher”—I pointed in the general direction of the Jernigans—“is going to suggest a marriage that will end up in divorce in order to cover up some silly scandal.”
“Well, really, honey pie,” Mrs. Jernigan said. “It’ll be more like an annulment. It’s just for a year.”
“A year?” I scoffed. I didn’t know American marriage law very well, but this didn’t sound like the sort of thing a judge would consider appropriate annulment material. “And I’m not your honey pie. Either way, doesn’t matter since I’m not doing it.”
“Yes,” John said, more emphatically than before, “you are.”
I shot him a go-to-hell look. “No one can make me get fake married for a year. Not even you, and don’t fool yourself into thinking you can. Besides, that would mean I’d have to be celibate the whole damn time.” If the entire fucking state loved this Tallulah chick, the second I was seen with some other girl, hoping to scratch an itch, I’d be the bastard who cheated on Oklahoma’s sweetheart.
“Language!” Mrs. J shouted at me. The woman reminded me more and more of Effie Trinket from the Hunger Games movies, only minus the pink hair.
“Sorry if the mention of sex offends you,” I spouted off, and I didn’t even feel bad about the offended gasp she let out. The longer I was in this room, the shorter my fuse grew. I’d be lucky if I got out of here without them threatening to find a way to void my contract.
Hell, maybe I should really let loose. Maybe then they would try to void it, and then I could sign with some other team. Anything would be better than being stuck here and getting forced into some sham of a marriage.
“You wouldn’t…” Tallulah had spoken up again, drawing my attention, but she clammed up the second her mother and Lance shot looks in her direction.
“I wouldn’t what?” I asked, more out of curiosity than anything.
“It doesn’t matter,” Lance interjected. He reached across and put a hand over Tallulah’s, as though to prevent her from saying another word. The guy seriously needed a good throat-punching, and I was itching to be the one to have that honor. Not to rescue her. More to fuck with him because the half hour or so I’d spent in his company was more than anyone should have to bear in a lifetime. The guy was a serious ass. He met my glare. “No Neatherthals allowed near Tallulah Belle. Not now. Not ever.”
She tugged her hand free, and my esteem for her went up a few notches. She scowled at him before turning to me. “You wouldn’t necessarily have to be celibate the whole time,” she said, staring straight at me. “I mean, I’m not sure I’d want to stay—”
“Tallulah Belle Roth!” her mother interrupted before turning her hateful glare on me. “There will be no hanky-panky, not with Tallulah or anyone else. Just enough hand-holding and light kisses for the cameras, but when you’re not putting on a show for the media, you’ll be keeping your hands to yourself and your little thing tucked away in your pants.”
“It ain’t little, sweetheart,” I said before I could think better of it.
“Well, I never.” She shut up after that, though, crossing her arms and turning her back to me.
Tallulah didn’t keep quiet. “Mama, you can’t speak to him like that. And it’s none of your business—”
“My daughter isn’t my business?”
“—what happens behind closed doors,” she continued, ignoring her mother’s interruption. “The fact is, we will be married. And soon.”
Soon? I was about to speak up again, but the other man—the one who, so far, had kept his mouth shut and merely looked on, mildly amused by the proceedings—leaned forward and locked his gaze on me. “Saturday, actually,” he said, answering my unasked question. “And I’ve already got the prenup lined out. I’ll just need you and my Tallie to drop by my office later this afternoon to go over it so we can get it finalized.”
I pressed my fingers to my eyes, wishing I could push hard enough that my whole head would explode like the dude on Game of Thrones. My head hurt enough that it might explode from the internal pressure without any outside forces.
Not him,” Lance tossed in. “We’ll find someone else.”
“By Saturday?” Mrs. Jernigan asked. “Everything’s already in place for this weekend, and we’ve already wasted too much time. They’re hounding Tallulah everywhere she goes.”
“Find someone else,” I ground out.
“There is no one else,” the father insisted at the same time as John said, “Whether you want to do this or not, you’re going to have to.”
“Why?” I roared. “Why this? What the hell is this supposed to do that couldn’t be accomplished some way that doesn’t involve fucking getting married?”
Tallulah stood up, planting both hands on her hips and drawing my eye exactly there. “Now you look here,” she said, suddenly turning sassy in a way that turned me on despite my better judgment—further proof that hormones had nothing to do with the part of the brain that processed thought. “I’m not any happier about this than you are, and clearly my mama and Lance don’t think you’re up to snuff, but they’re right about this one part. Whether you want to hear it or not, they’re right. The two of us getting married—at least long enough for all of this to blow over—is the best solution for both of our problems. So we’re going to do it. We’re getting married on Saturday, so you’d better just accept the fact that it’s happening. And you should probably call your mama. They don’t like finding these things out after the fact.”
        Well, holy hell. Even Tallulah wanted to go along with it. Apparently, Tulsa wasn’t just hell; it was also the Twilight Zone, only the people I was surrounded by didn’t realize it.

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