Sneak Peek: The Beginning of Everything

Check out the first chapter of my historical romance, The Beginning of Everything, below – available now on Amazon and in Kindle Unlimited.

“Elizabeth Anne Reynolds!” Ruthie Ginsberg’s voice rose to an ear-splitting pitch as she threw open the door to her adorable little butter-yellow ranch house and scooped Betty into her arms. “It feels like forever since we last saw you!”

Ruthie had been married for a little more than six months, but it only took her about a month to lose all sense of self. Nowadays, everything was we and us and our. Betty couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen her best friend without her husband, Joseph, and she was starting to wonder whether they’d already scheduled the surgery that would officially join them at the hip.

“I brought a bottle of chardonnay,” Betty said, her heels sinking deep into the thick carpeting as she stepped into the living room. She could hear voices coming from further inside the little house and for a few seconds, she had a strong urge to grab Ruthie by the arm and steal her away. They could go downtown on the L and Betty could have Ruthie all to herself like she used to when they were girls.

That would be nice.

But Ruthie was already pulling her deeper into the house. She relieved Betty of her coat, then took the wine out of her hands and made some impressed sounds as she inspected the label. “This is so grown-up!”

“I know!” Betty beamed. She was twenty years old and she had a good job in the city, but nothing had made her feel quite as grown up as going to a wine bar after her shift and laying down her hard-earned cash for that bottle of good chardonnay. “The man who sold it to me said it’s ‘fruit-forward with a smoky finish’… whatever that means!”

Ruthie giggled and Betty swelled with pride as her best friend linked arms with her and guided her toward the dining room. Betty knew the layout of the little house well – she’d been at the housewarming party right after Ruthie and Joseph got back from their honeymoon to Niagara Falls, and she came over once a month ever since to have Ruthie trim her split ends on a stool in the kitchen. 

Ruthie was just a homemaker trimming hair for a little mad money. She didn’t have a cape like they had at the salons, and Betty always left the house feeling itchy with dozens of little hairs under her collar, but it was always worth the discomfort to enjoy the feeling of Ruthie’s delicate fingers against her head as she washed Betty’s hair in the sink. Ruthie always took a long time, getting distracted and chatting and letting the warm water cascade over Betty’s forehead, and Betty would look up at Ruthie’s crisp white ceiling and occasionally steal glimpses at her pretty blue eyes. Sometimes Betty would look at the underside of Ruthie’s bust shimmying as she worked shampoo into Betty’s dark locks. It wasn’t like Betty could help it – Ruthie never was very aware of her body while she was distracted with Betty’s hair, and sometimes her stomach would press up against Betty’s arm while she worked, her chest just inches from Betty’s face.

It always made her cheeks flush a violent red, and then she’d have to lie and tell Ruthie the water was too warm and it was making her feverish.

Betty always seemed to be just a little bit too warm in Ruthie’s presence, and the Peter Pan collar at her neck felt a little tight as they went into the dining room now. Tonight kicked off the first of a series of dinner parties that Ruthie had decided to throw in order to comingle her old high school friends with Joseph’s new friends from the Chicago Tribune, where he worked as a salesman. 

“Look who I found!” Ruthie said, her voice climbing into a shrill register again as she drew everyone’s attention. “And she brought wine!”

Every face turned to Betty and Ruthie standing in the arched doorway, and Betty felt like she was on display – especially once she’d done a scan of the room and realized that there was only one other single person here tonight, a stranger who was looking somewhat slack-jawed at her.

“Sorry,” Ruthie said, leaning close and whispering into Betty’s ear. “But we can’t very well have a dinner party with an uneven number of guests – it would throw the whole flow of the conversation off.”

Betty was just about to point out the fact that she still lived with her parents and the three of them had had quite a few successful dinner conversations after her brother moved out, odd-numbered though they were. But Ruthie didn’t give her the chance. She set the wine bottle down on the table and grabbed Betty by the hand, dragging her over to the man who would be her companion for the evening.

“This is Ed,” she said. “He works with Joseph at the Tribune – he’s a typesetter. Isn’t that neat?”

“It’s nice to meet you,” Betty said, holding out her hand. When Ed took it, she noticed his fingers were permanently stained with dark newspaper ink, and she was relieved when none of it rubbed off on her hands. 

“This is the friend we were telling you about,” Ruthie told Ed. “Betty works downtown, too.”

“Oh?” Ed said, and the slight derision that appeared on his face didn’t escape Betty, even though it was only there for a second. One of those ‘a woman’s place is in the home’ types, Betty thought as she appraised him and Ed asked, “What kind of work do you do?”

“I’m a secretary,” Betty said. She could talk at length about how she’d gone to secretarial school after high school because it offered her an alternative to getting hitched like the rest of her friends – at a price much more affordable than college. She could tell him that, in the six months since she started working for the Lumbermens insurance company, she’d already been promoted from the steno pool and gotten assigned as a personal secretary in the claims processing department. But Ed didn’t really want to know all that – he was just being polite. And this was going to be a long dinner party.

“Interesting,” he said. 

“It is interesting,” Betty told him, and when Ruthie caught the edge in her voice, she stepped in. She and Betty may have gone down very different paths after high school, but they’d known each other long enough to read one another’s moods from ten yards away.

“And, of course, you know Nancy and Charlie,” she said, pulling Betty’s attention away from Ed. 

Betty, Ruthie and Nancy had all been cheerleaders together in high school – go Wildkits – and Charlie was the star quarterback. He and Nancy had gotten married right after graduation and she already had a bun in the oven – they were the epitome of an All-American family unit, and Nancy was positively glowing with happiness as she daintily sipped apple juice from a wine glass. 

“You look great, Nancy,” Betty said, going over to hug her. She’d never been as close with Nancy as she was with Ruthie, but the three of them had had their fair share of sleepovers when they were younger. “How far along are you, three or four months?”

“Five!” Nancy said, beaming at Charlie, who took his cue to wrap his arm proudly around her shoulder. 

“Wow, you wasted no time at all,” Betty said, feeling a little bit dizzy before the chardonnay had even been opened. Motherhood – now there was another thing that, like marriage, she was in no hurry to get to. Unlike every single one of her high school friends, it seemed.

“I can’t wait to meet this little one,” Nancy said, her hand on her stomach. She looked at Betty – a little sadly, it seemed – and asked, “What about you? Are you looking forward to finding Mr. Right?”

Nancy’s eyes flitted subconsciously over to Ed, who was now helping himself to a bottle of gin on the sideboard. He poured himself a glass and grimaced as he took the first sip. He wasn’t ugly or anything – a little bit paunchy around the middle, maybe – but Nancy and Ruthie had both given Betty looks that made her think they expected her to make a love connection tonight.

When was she supposed to fall in love with this man she’d never met before? In between the salad course and the entrée? Would he help her put on her coat at the end of the night and look into her eyes, and suddenly she’d be ready to get hitched? Was that how it worked for other girls?

Maybe that wasn’t exactly what Ruthie had in mind when she invited Ed to even out the conversation, but it sure felt like lately, all of Betty’s friends were collectively holding their breaths and waiting for her to find the one. And that was to say nothing of her mother, who got more desperate by the day.

It was like there was a clock counting down right above Betty’s head, and she was the only one who couldn’t see it. Six months, twelve days and twenty-one hours until Betty Reynolds officially becomes a spinster. Except even if she could see the clock, she would have had a hard time figuring out what everyone else was so concerned about. She had a good job. She was saving up to rent her own apartment. And she’d never even been in love – it didn’t look like Ed No-Last-Name, the typesetter with the inky fingers would be the one to break that pattern.

“Maybe someday,” Betty told Nancy.

Nancy looked a little uncomfortable for her, then Joseph pulled the cork out of the chardonnay just then and poured a glass for Betty and Ruthie. Ed poured a few more glasses from the minibar for the other men, and while they all just stood there and sipped for a minute, Betty took a few seconds to swirl the light golden liquid in her glass. She smelled it before she took a small taste, just as she’d watched the man at the wine bar do it.

It was a ten-dollar bottle and she’d expected it to be a revelation, but it tasted just like all the other white wine she’d ever had – like grapes that had gone slightly fermented. Oh well.

“I think the roast should be done now,” Ruthie said after a minute. “Joseph, will you help me take it out of the oven?”

They disappeared through a swinging door on one wall and then a good deal more giggling emanated from the kitchen than was strictly necessary for a roast-extraction. Then, about ten minutes later, they all sat down to eat. Betty tried to feign surprise when Ruthie herded her toward the empty seat beside Ed, and she spent the whole meal trying to maintain a polite detachment from him lest he get the wrong idea and start thinking that this matchmaking nonsense was actually going to work out in his favor.

Ed was probably a perfectly nice guy. One of Ruthie’s other nearly-spinster friends might be happy to snatch him up. But Betty was waiting for one of those see each other from across the room, heart stops in your chest, can barely breathe, love at first sight moments, and what had happened when she met Ed was about as far from that as she could get without flatlining in a bad way. 

Betty’s mom called that love at first sight idea silly romantic drivel – she blamed it on Betty’s brother, Robert, and said he was infecting the whole family with his crazy Hollywood notions. But Betty couldn’t imagine spending the next sixty years of her life with someone who made her feel less alive than she did when she was getting her hair washed. 

“So, Betty, tell us about working in downtown Chicago,” Nancy said after a little while. “It must be stressful.”

“Sometimes,” Betty said. “On my first day working for Mr. Peters, I was so nervous I knocked a cup of coffee over on his desk and I had to spend the whole afternoon retyping a stack of insurance claims that got ruined. I figured he’d send me right back to the steno pool, but he was pretty understanding about it.”

Ruthie raised an eyebrow, as well as her wine glass. “Is he single?”

Betty let out a small sigh, trying not to let it show on her face. Why did everything always have to come back around to that? What would happen if she did get married – what would they have to talk about then? She glanced at Nancy sipping her apple juice. Babies – that’s what.

“No,” Betty said. “He’s married, and at least sixty.”

“Oh,” Ruthie said, disappointed that there wasn’t more of a story there. She switched gears quickly, though. “Ed, did you know that Betty-”

“Okay, that’s enough girl talk for one night,” Joseph said, cutting off his wife mid-sentence. It was rude – definitely not something the etiquette maven Emily Post would have approved of at her dinner table – but Betty could have gotten up and hugged Joseph right then and there for the interruption. Oblivious, he asked, “Charlie, how’s it going working for your old man?”

“Not bad, but I can’t wait to save up the money to open a shop of my own,” he said. Charlie’s dad ran a mechanic shop here in Evanston and Betty’s father had been taking the family cars to the Thompsons for years. They were honest workers who didn’t overcharge and always did the work right, but the subject of carburetors and oil changes bored Betty to tears almost as much as talking about her marriage prospects.

Fortunately, Ruthie proved to be a stern hostess. She let the conversation go on for a couple minutes while she passed around second helpings of juicy pot roast and the buttery new potatoes she’d baked to go with it, then she put her hand delicately on her husband’s arm and said, “Yawn, sweetie. No offense, Charlie, but half the people at this table think you two must be speaking a foreign language right now.”

“What’s so unrelatable about serpentine belts?” Charlie asked, looking to his wife for support. 

Nancy gave him a sympathetic smile – the exact same one she’d given Betty when she asked her when, oh when, she was planning to fall into line with the rest of the girls from their graduating class and get married. It shut Charlie up, though, and then Ruthie turned her attention back to Betty.

“Tell us what Robert’s up to in California,” she said, her eyes glittering with anticipation. For Ed’s sake, she explained, “Betty’s older brother moved to Hollywood last year to be an actor.”

“Oh, wow,” Ed said, showing a little more interest in that news than he’d shown in Betty’s career. “Has he been in anything I would have seen?”

“Not yet,” Betty said. “He’s still trying to get his big break. But he goes to loads of auditions and he’s gotten called back a couple of times. I talked to him last week and he said he had a meeting with an agent coming up, so that could be really good for him if it works out.”

“That’s so exciting!” Nancy said. “What kind of films does he want to make?”

Betty laughed. “Any kind he can book, I think. But he pictures himself as a leading man – a Marlon Brando or a James Dean type.”

“Robert? James Dean?” Charlie asked with a snort, and Nancy smacked his chest with the back of her hand.

“Be nice,” she said.

“I’m sorry,” Charlie said. “But I went to school with the guy and he’s more of a Desi Arnaz. Don’t you all think?”

He looked around the table for confirmation and Joseph nodded, a little reluctantly. They weren’t wrong – Robert had acted in all the high school plays and he’d distinguished himself as a fantastic comedic actor, but he was determined to leave all that behind when he went to Hollywood because it was the leading men who became household names, not the funny guys.

“My mother thinks all of it is an impossible pipe dream,” Betty said. “She and Dad wanted him to apply for a college scholarship instead, but Robert told them college would still be here if Hollywood doesn’t work out.” She gave a little chuckle, thinking back to the peculiar shade of purple that her mom had turned the last time Robert called home. “I’m not sure my mom will still be here, though, at this rate. She lays an egg every time he calls from LA.”

“I don’t blame her,” Nancy said, her hand on her stomach again. She was still four months away from having that baby but it seemed like she had started thinking like a mom at the moment of conception. “I think it’s neat that he’s following his dreams, but I could never do that. I don’t think I’d be too comfortable with it if one of ours decided to do it, either.”

She looked at Charlie, her brow knit with concern. She hadn’t even had this one yet and already, she was thinking multiple kids into the future. 

“Well, I think Robert’s a badass,” Betty said, drawing a couple of surprised looks on account of her language. “He’s going his own way and damn the consequences. I think that’s brave.”

Ruthie smiled at Betty, but Joseph muttered into his glass of gin, “Or foolhardy.”

With both Ruthie and Betty working on it, the chardonnay bottle was empty long before the party ended and the conversation turned to the movies, books and television that everyone had seen lately. They talked for a good half an hour about The Andy Griffith Show alone, and by the end of the night, Betty had completely forgotten that she was supposed to be there ‘with’ Ed – until he picked up her coat for her and offered to drive her home.

“Joseph is calling a taxi for me,” she said as she allowed Ed to help her into her coat.

“It’s no trouble,” he said, touching his fingers to the tip of his nose in a display of sobriety and adding, “I’m completely sober and a real good driver.”

“No, thank you,” Betty said. “I always take a taxi when I leave here.”

Ed looked a little put out at not being allowed to drive her, and they had to go back and forth with offers and refusals a couple more times for etiquette’s sake, but in the end, Betty won with only a small compromise. Ed would stand on the sidewalk with her until the taxi arrived, then slip the driver five dollars to cover her fare.

“It’s only a ten-minute ride,” Betty objected. “I have the money.”

“I’m sure you do, working girl,” Ed said, then handed the money through the passenger window anyway. 

Betty had to struggle not to roll her eyes as she plastered on a smile and said, “Thank you.”

Thank you, but this doesn’t mean I owe you anything, she thought as she climbed into the back of the yellow Checker Taxi. Ed waved as the car pulled away from the curb, and behind him, Betty saw Ruthie stepping onto the front stoop to wave goodbye. 

Joseph stepped out beside her and put his arm around Ruthie to shield her from the cold, and she nestled against him with a smile. Everyone else seemed to know exactly what they wanted and most of the time, it just so happened to be what was expected of them. There was something missing in Betty’s life and she wasn’t quite sure what it was, but she was sure that it wasn’t a husband.

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Sneak Peek: Cider & Chill

He wants to explore my pumpkin patch…

Cider & Chill is a steamy romantic comedy novella and book two in the Holiday Valley series of standalone holiday romances. If you love a cozy small town atmosphere, hot apple cider and sizzling chemistry, you’ll love this story – available now on Amazon.

Read the first chapter below.

As busy as the cider stand is today, you’d think apples were going out of style.

It’s November first and my family’s seasonal business – a pumpkin patch and cider stand duo – usually starts to wind down after Halloween. We do a good gourd business in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, but as the air turns colder and the leaves begin to blanket the ground, people stop buying pumpkins in favor of more wintery fare.

That’s what happens most years, anyway. This year, it seems like the influx of tourists who have been coming to Holiday Valley in droves lately are determined to buy every last pumpkin in the patch.

That’s perfectly fine with me – the more profitable I can make my little piece of the Morton family’s seasonal business empire, the easier it will be to convince my parents that I’ve got what it takes to run the whole thing when they retire next year.

Right now, I’m not doing a particularly admirable job. I’m whipping up hot apple ciders as fast as I can, but there’s a line of at least two dozen people forming in front of the cider stand, and on the other side of the gravel parking lot, I can see another six or seven people lugging huge pumpkins over to the unattended check-out register at the edge of the pumpkin patch.

Today was a hell of a day to be shorthanded, but my only ‘employee’ is my sixteen-year-old cousin, Jenny, whose high school soccer games take priority over working for me on a volunteer basis. Beggars can’t be choosers, I guess.

“Here you go,” I say as I pass a hot apple cider across the counter to a waiting customer. “Enjoy!”

My next customer steps up and flips a strand of dark hair out of his eyes, giving me a slightly crooked smile. He’s tall, dressed in an expensive-looking jacket, and his rich brown eyes have a certain brooding quality about them that make me momentarily forget my line.

I’ve said it at least ten thousand times since I started working the cider stand in high school, and yet, the words elude me. Hi, what can I get for you? I’m not normally this flustered – especially not on the job – and when that little half-smile deepens into a smirk, I blame my muteness on the stress of the day.

It’s too much trying to manage two lines of customers with no help, and I’m clearly cracking up.

“Hi,” I finally manage, shaking the cobwebs off my brain. “How can I get you?”

Oh God. I see this handsome customer’s canines as he grins at me and I consider just melting right into the plywood floor of the cider stand. How can I help you had melded with what can I get for you and become something that just might be my downfall.

I grab a cup from the stack to my left and start preparing an apple cider before he can even place his order – it’s either that or die of embarrassment. “Hot apple cider?”

“Sounds great,” he says. He’s studying me carefully as I fill the cup from the big carafe on the counter.

Definitely a tourist – Holiday Valley is home to about 5,000 year-round residents and in my 25 years, I’ve come to think of most of them as my extended family. I can tell by the designer jacket that he’s no townie – I’m pretty sure that plaid lining is Burberry. What is that, a thousand-dollar coat? Damn.

“Whipped cream?” I ask.

“Please,” he answers. He’s got a neatly trimmed beard and when I bend down to retrieve the whipped cream from the mini-fridge below the counter, I catch a whiff of his aftershave – spicy and warm. Yummy.

While I carefully swirl whipped cream on top of his cider, I ask, “Are you on vacation?”

I make small talk with all of my customers. A lot of people think it’s a schtick – a gimmick to make the tourists feel welcome – but the truth is that I’m a little bit nosy. I’ve spent most of my life in this town and living vicariously through the tourists that come through here is the next-best thing to seeing the world for myself.

Plus, it really does help the business. People love talking about themselves and they’re usually more than happy to tell me where they’re from and what their lives back home are like. Apparently, working a cider stand is a family-friendly version of being a bartender. If you open up the lines of communication, people confide in you.

That’s why I’m not expecting the snort that Mr. Burberry gives me. “Vacation? Not exactly.”

I cock my head to the side. “Are you here to stay then?”

Be still, my heart.

“God, no,” he says. “I’m hoping to leave as soon as possible.”

Now I’m a little taken aback. I may have a slight case of travel envy, but I love this kitschy little town with all my heart.

“Are you not enjoying your stay in Holiday Valley?” I ask as I put the cup down on the counter and slide it across to him. I give it a little too much English and sticky, hot cider sloshes over the rim, hitting the counter and splashing in his direction.

He jumps back but it’s too late to avoid the spatter.

“Oh, shit,” I say. I look at him with horror – have I just made a powerful Yelp enemy? “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” he says, grabbing a napkin from the dispenser on the counter.

“Here,” I say, taking another one and wetting it with a water bottle behind the counter. “Let me.”

I rush around the end of the cider stand and start blotting his jacket with the damp napkin while he protests that it’s not a big deal. Finally, he takes me by the hands to still my frantic cleaning attempts and I look up into his eyes.

His aftershave is even more potent now, when I’m just inches from him. I spend all day in a pumpkin patch where fallen leaves mix with sticky, fresh cider. It’s one of my favorite smells in the world – the scent of autumn – but the way his spicy aftershave mixes with the natural earthiness of his skin is quickly moving into the top of my mental charts.

My core grows warm as he looks me in the eyes and says, “Really, it’s fine.”

“Okay,” I breathe.

And then suddenly my mother materializes out of thin air and puts a hand on each of our shoulders. “Hannah!” she exclaims, “Are you spilling things on our customers?” Before I have a chance to answer, she adds, “You know the pumpkin patch line is getting out of control, right?”

I look across the parking lot, where the line has ballooned to about ten unhappy-looking people. Shit.

“Mom,” I say, giving Mr. Burberry an apologetic smile, then going back into the cider stand. “What are you doing here?”

“Your dad and I are on our way to the farmer’s market to pick up some fresh baked bread for dinner tonight,” she says. “We figured we’d make a pit stop and see how you’re doing. Busy today, huh?”

“Yeah,” I say, gritting my teeth slightly. Of course they couldn’t drop in on me on any other day – like when Jenny was here to help, or a day that wasn’t so unexpectedly swamped with customers. Mr. Burberry tries to hand me cash for the cider but I wave him off. “Free of charge. Sorry for the mess.”

My mom comes into the cider stand and squeezes into the small space behind the counter, jostling me and keeping me from getting lost in those brooding eyes again.

“It’s really not a big deal,” he insists. “I assume Holiday Valley has a dry cleaner?”

“Yes, of course,” I say. I’m about to offer to pick up the bill for that when my mom crouches down in front of me and I nearly lose my footing. I ask her, “What on earth are you doing?”

“I know it’s around here somewhere,” she mutters, mostly to herself.

I look at the line growing in front of me and the line at the pumpkin patch, then at my mother rummaging around in the storage space beneath the counter. And I look at the tall, dark and handsome man who smells like warm spices and apple cider. He’s smiling that slightly crooked smile, amused at the color rising into my cheeks along with my frustration.

I roll my eyes and snatch the five-dollar bill out of his hand, saying, “I hope you enjoy your time in Holiday Valley.”

“Maybe I will after all,” he says, and gives me a quick wink.

My belly floods with warmth again, but then he’s stepping aside and an impatient family of four steps up to the counter wanting the works – whipped cream, caramel drizzle, chocolate shavings, sprinkles. Load ‘em up!

I’m halfway through making the order, trying to work fast so I can whittle down the line, when my mom says, “A-ha!” and pops up, almost tipping an entire cup of piping hot cider onto herself.

“What are you looking for?” I ask, exasperated. I hear a little chuckle and look up – Mr. Burberry is standing a few feet away from the stand, sipping his cider and enjoying the spectacle. I shake my head at him, but I can’t help being at least a little amused – this must look like a Three Stooges skit to him.

Well, two Stooges, anyway.

“This!” my mom says, holding up the red and white Help Wanted sign that I’d taken the liberty of shoving beneath the counter two weeks ago. “I told you that you needed help. Your poor dad’s ringing people out on his day off.”

I look over at the pumpkin patch line and see that she’s right – at least he’s got the line moving, though. I slide the fully-loaded ciders across the counter to a pair of kids who will probably be bouncing off the walls for hours from all that sugar, and take a twenty from their dad. Then I tell my mom, “I’ve got Jenny.”

“She’s at her soccer game,” my mom points out. “We talked about this – you need real, paid help. Look at these lines, Hannah – business is booming and you can afford an assistant.”

I grumble as I take the next person’s order. My mom is right – I can afford it financially, but the last thing I want is an assistant. The last person I hired didn’t exactly work out and I’m not eager to go down that road again.

Besides, if I can’t even run a simple pick-your-own pumpkin patch and a little cider stand on my own, how will I prove I’m capable of running the whole Morton family empire? Besides the pumpkin patch, we’ve got a Christmas tree farm that’ll open up for business in a couple of weeks, a floral shop that does a mean Valentine’s and wedding season business, and a strawberry field that’s very popular in the summer.

I want to claim my birthright when my parents retire, but I’ve got a history of messing things up. If they don’t think I can handle it, they’re going to sell the whole company and let a stranger run it. I can think of nothing worse.

“I’ll think about it,” I tell my mom.

“What’s to think about?” she asks. “Just hire someone. Now, do you have some tape around here somewhere?”

She’s looking for a way to stick the sign to the front of the cider stand when Mr. Burberry steps forward and surprises us both.

“No need,” he says. He holds his hand out to me across the counter and gives me another one of those core-melting half-smiles as he says, “My name is Roman Laurentis and I’d love to make cider with you.”

My mouth drops open for the second time this afternoon.

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Sneak Peek: Destroyers

The Elimination Game is reduced to ashes but Daniel and Sasha can’t afford to celebrate. Every Watcher in the state is looking for them, so when a resistance group calling themselves the Destroyers offer a safe haven, they have no choice but to accept. The Destroyers don’t give out charity, though. They expect help in return and as they arm themselves to take down the Watchers, Daniel and Sasha must choose: fight or flee?

Destroyers by Mae Orwell

Destroyers is the third book in the Watchers trilogy, available now on all major retailers. Read the first chapter below.

The scene in the motel room is chaotic when Sasha, Daniel and Levi return from the office, first aid kit in hand.

“Quick, open it up,” Aisha barks at them the moment they’re in the door. “Is there antiseptic? What about a hemostat?”

“I don’t know what that is!” Sasha says, panicked, as she comes over to the bed and pulls open the kit.

Aisha has Brody’s leg elevated with a stack of pillows and her hand is clamped over his thigh. Jane’s standing by with her arms full of what looks like every towel from the bathroom, and there’s blood everywhere. It’s on Aisha’s hands, on the comforter, and on the wash cloth she’s using to put pressure on the wound.

“Oh my God,” Levi says, his eyes as big as saucers. “Is he going to be okay?”

“Go sit over there,” Aisha barks at him. “You’re in my light.”

She nods to the front of the room, where Francie and Erica are huddled together beneath the window. They’re both just as pale as Brody, clinging to each other and looking sick with worry.

While Sasha frantically sifts through the first aid kit looking for anything that’ll help, Daniel takes Levi’s arm and guides him over to the window. The two of them sit down with Francie and Erica, and Daniel arranges his body so as to block their view.

“Don’t watch,” he says. “Aisha’s going to take care of Brody.”

“Are there Watchers out there?” Erica asks, her voice barely audible. She looks up and when she reaches for the curtains, Daniel sees her hand shaking.

He takes it before she can rustle the thin curtains, squeezing her hand in what he hopes is a comforting gesture. “No. Not right now, but we have to be careful.”

“They’ll be looking for us,” Levi says.

“We can’t worry about that right now,” Daniel answers.

“He’s bleeding out,” Aisha says, drawing everyone’s attention back to the bed. “Screw the antiseptic – I need that hemostat now. It looks like scissors, but with a gripping end. Any luck?”

Sasha riffles through the first aid kit, making a mess of bandages all over the stained comforter until finally, she fumbles something small and metal out of the box. “Is this it?”

Aisha doesn’t bother to confirm – she just snatches the hemostat out of Sasha’s hands and goes to work. When she lifts the towel from Brody’s thigh, blood comes bubbling out of the wound like baking soda from a science fair volcano and Erica makes a retching sound.

Daniel puts his hand over her eyes and then he closes his own. The darkness is only marginally better than watching Aisha dig into Brody’s thigh with the instrument.

“I have to get the bullet out,” Aisha says. “Or else the bleeding won’t stop.”

Brody regains consciousness as the thin metal pincer invades his already shredded thigh muscles. He wakes up with a scream of pure agony and Aisha motions to Jane.

“Keep him quiet or the Watchers will find us!”

Jane drops to her knees beside Brody’s head, taking his hand. “It’s going to be okay. Aisha’s fixing you up. Squeeze my hand as hard as you need to.”

“Okay,” Brody says weakly. Then Aisha twists the hemostat inside the bullet hole and this time Brody and Jane both scream as he clamps down on her hand.

“That’s not good enough,” Aisha warns. “Put a towel in his mouth.”

Jane gives her a shocked look for a split second, but she does as Aisha orders, letting Brody bite down on a clean hand towel.

“How many people are checked into the motel tonight?” Sasha asks Levi. He’s got his knees hugged to his chest and he doesn’t answer her right away. “Levi!”


“How many people are here?” she asks again. “Are they going to hear this and report us?”

“No,” Levi says, his voice shaky. “Even if they heard, the type of people who stay here aren’t the kind who can afford to report people.”

“Good,” Sasha says. “Are you okay?”

“Umm,” Levi says, losing his concentration again. “Yeah.”
“Got it!” Aisha says, retracting the hemostat, a small-caliber bullet pinched between its prongs.

“Thank God,” Brody says after Jane removes the towel from his mouth. He lifts his head just long enough to see the proof before his head falls back on the bed and he’s unconscious again.

“Is he going to make it?” Jane asks. 
“I need to stitch him up,” Aisha says, “and he’ll need better antibiotics than that first aid kit is likely to contain. But getting the bullet out was a good first step – it bought us a little time. Sasha, is there a needle and thread in there?”

“Yeah, I found a sewing kit,” Sasha says, passing a little pack of thread to Aisha. “But I don’t think it’s for stitches.”

“It’ll have to do,” Aisha says.

They all sit in silence for a few minutes while she stitches and then bandages Brody’s leg. Some of them are watching her, cringing along with each poke of the needle, but most of them wouldn’t watch if a pair of lunatics on a sound stage offered them a million dollars.

When she’s done, Aisha stands and goes into the bathroom to wash her hands. She comes back into the room and takes a clean towel from Jane to dry off, and every single set of eyes is on her.

Levi is the only one who has the courage to speak. “Now what?”

“We should get him to the Destroyer compound as soon as possible,” Aisha says. “Without further intervention, he could go septic, and we all know we can’t risk taking him to a hospital. The Destroyers have all the medical equipment I need and-”

“I’m sorry, what?” Daniel interrupts. “The who?”

“The Destroyers,” Levi fills in enthusiastically. “Aisha’s one of them. She came to take down The Elimination Game.”
“Well, actually,” Aisha says, “I came for you, Daniel.”

Daniel just narrows his eyes at her and Sasha stands, taking an instinctive step toward Daniel. “What does that mean?”

“I already told all this to Sasha and Levi,” Aisha says, her tone patient. “I’m part of a resistance group called the Destroyers. Our mission is to take down the Watcher system, and the first step in our plan was to dismantle The Elimination Game because it was the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with the mentality of American citizens right now.”

“You didn’t take down The Elimination Game,” Jane objects. “We did. We fought our way out.”

“Yes, you did,” Aisha says. “But that’s only half the story. The reason you were able to fight your way out and those evil people didn’t just let you burn was because the Destroyers hacked into the network and made sure the viewers saw what was really going on there. I can tell you all about it and even show you what we did if you agree to come to the compound with me.”

“Agree,” Daniel snorts, looking at Sasha. “Well, at least she’s giving us the illusion of freedom, unlike Gary and the game.”

“You are free,” Aisha insists. “If you don’t want to go, that’s your decision to make – but the Watchers will be looking for you and the Destroyers can offer protection.”

“In exchange for what?” Daniel asks, narrowing his eyes at Aisha. He may have been a sheltered, naive person six months ago when he walked away from his father’s campaign, but now he knows better – nothing in life is free.

“We think you could be of service to the revolution,” Aisha says.

“Me?” Daniel asks.

“Yes,” Aisha answers, looking earnest. “With your growing online celebrity-”

Daniel looks to Sasha, confused. Sasha takes his hand and squeezes, saying, “It’s true – Levi showed me while you were gone. There are actually people out there who have been rooting for us.”

“Sure didn’t seem like it every time I went into that Elimination Room,” Daniel says.

“Look,” Aisha says, “we don’t have many options right now. Brody won’t survive unless he gets some proper medical care and none of us can stay in this motel room. I’d give the Watchers about six hours before they trace us, and that’s being generous. Come with me to the compound and hear our plan, and if you don’t like what you hear, you’re free to go.”

“Just like that,” Daniel says, skeptical.

“Just like that,” Aisha says. “But I’ll warn you in advance – I’m going to need to blindfold you at some point during the journey because if you choose to leave, you can’t know where the compound is.”

Under the window, Erica whimpers and Jane goes over to her, putting one arm around Erica and the other around Francie. Levi’s still wide-eyed, but his expression has changed from horror to fascination.

“I want to go,” he says.

“How far is it?” Daniel asks.

“About three hours,” Aisha says. “I’ll have to call my contact to pick us up, but we can be there before morning if we act fast.”

“How many people are there?” Sasha asks.

“Half a dozen right now,” Aisha says. “We’re small, but our supporters are growing in number every day.”

The idea turns Daniel’s stomach, but Levi’s clearly bought in. Sasha looks on the fence like he is, and Jane looks nervous, too, but Aisha’s right. They only have two choices. They can take their chances with the Watchers on the streets, who will certainly show them no mercy if they’re found, or they can take their chances with the Destroyers at an undisclosed location.

Brody groans, his hand going instinctively to his leg, but when he touches the bandage, he winces in pain. Aisha diverts her attention to him, inspecting his injury. Blood is already beginning to bloom on the fresh bandage and everyone knows that’s not good news.

“Look, I’m not going to sugar coat it,” Aisha says to everyone. “It’s going to be dangerous, and if a Watcher drone zeros in on us while we’re traveling, there’s a chance we won’t even be able to get to the Destroyer compound. But if we don’t try, Brody is going to die.”

Silence descends on the room and everyone looks from Aisha to Brody, and then to Daniel. They’re waiting on his call.

He takes a deep breath, trying to settle his nerves.

“Okay,” he says at last. “But if you try to imprison us when we get there, I’m going to be very disappointed. I’ve had about enough breaking out of places to last me a lifetime, but I’ll do it again if I have to.”

“I promise, you can leave whenever you want,” Aisha says.

“Call your contact,” Daniel says.

Sneak Peek: Fighters

After narrowly escaping America’s most deadly game show, Sasha and Daniel are on the run from bounty-hunting Watchers. When Daniel is recaptured and thrust back into The Elimination Game for an even more brutal round two, Sasha must recruit new allies to help her rescue Daniel – or better yet, burn the whole sadistic game to the ground.

Fighters by Mae Orwell

Fighters is the second book in the Watchers trilogy, available now on all major retailers. Read the first chapter below.

The prison camera is poor quality, grainy and without color. The building itself is at least a hundred years old and its technology isn’t much newer. But it’s good enough to pick up the features of the woman being marched down the hall by a guard.

She’s wearing a baggy prison jumpsuit that drags on the floor beneath her thin-soled sneakers, and she’s holding a small pile of threadbare sheets. A flat thing that’s barely padded enough to qualify as a pillow is stacked on top, and that’s all she will possess for the next six months.

Her crime? Pointing a gun into a crowd on the street outside her apartment. Even the drones were insufficient to de-escalate that situation, and when the armed Tier 1 Watchers have to deploy, it’s a guarantee that somebody’s going to prison.

The inmates on this cell block are watching the new arrival with interest. It’s not that she’s particularly interesting, but there’s not much excitement in the women’s wing of the Philadelphia County Correctional Facility. Intake day is always a source of entertainment. The other prisoners leer at her and the surveillance camera picks up a few cat calls along the way.

“Hey, baby,” one of them says. “There’s room in my cell for that sugar.”

“Shut up, inmate!” snaps the guard.

He’s walking on the woman’s right, his hand around her plump forearm. She’ll lose plenty of that weight during her stay here – the cooks take great pleasure in making the food as awful as possible for newcomers.

As the woman and her escort walk closer to the ceiling-mounted camera that’s capturing all this, she keeps her jaw set and her eyes straight ahead. Her dark hair is greasy and unkempt, but she doesn’t look like the type who would wind up here. She definitely doesn’t look like the kind of person who would snap and start waving a gun around, but then again, they never do.

She and the guard walk beneath the surveillance camera and there’s a momentary pause as it continues to film an empty corridor. An inmate puts her hand out from between the bars of her cell, flicking off the guard behind his back. Then the view switches to another ceiling-mounted camera farther down the hall.

The guard squeezes his new charge’s arm, his fingers digging into her flesh, then brings her to a halt.

“Here it is – home sweet home,” he says, then shouts to another guard stationed out of view at the other end of the hall, “Open cell 145!”

A buzzer sounds and the woman flinches as the cell door slides open.

The guard releases her arm only to shove her head-long into the empty cell. The camera pivots, following the action as the woman careens into the edge of a steel bed frame and drops her pile of sheets on the floor.

The room is very small and the bed takes up the majority of the space. The cell is about six feet square, with a sink-toilet combo in the corner. There are no windows – no natural light at all. Her only view for the next six months will be the woman in the cell across from her and, of course, the surveillance camera mounted right outside her cell.

The guard smirks. When the woman regains her balance, he steps into the cell and slugs her. His meaty fist connects with her jaw and she stumbles backward. She hits the concrete block wall with a sickly thud, getting the wind knocked out of her, then slides down to the floor.

The guard takes another step toward her and she puts up her arms in self-defense, but the other guard hollers from his station at the end of the hall. “Evans! Everything okay in there?”

Evans’ back is to the camera but his clenched fist shows just how irritated he is by this interruption. He shouts over his shoulder, “Yeah, just helping her make the bed!”

He turns back to the woman still cowering on the floor. He rolls his shoulders back and makes a stomach-churning hawwwwk sound. When he steps to the side, the camera catches the glimmer of a massive loogie sliding down the woman’s nose. She’s doing her best not to react, not to give him the satisfaction of seeing her disgust.

“Traitor,” he growls. “I hope you get what you deserve in here.”

Then he marches out of the cell and gives the order to close the door. It slides shut and the camera captures a sly grin spreading across his face. He pulls a billy club from his utility belt and rattles it against the bars, then shouts at the top of his lungs, “Lookie what we got here – this one’s a Watcher!”

That gets the other inmates riled up good, and just in time for their mandatory exercise period in the yard. A lot of mumbling and discussion can be heard from all around the cell block. There’s a Watcher in their midst, one who’s not in a guard’s uniform and carrying a baton.

It’s payback time for the infamous Elvis Splorch.

Sneak Peek: The Shark

I’ve teamed up with five incredible lesfic authors to write a series about finding love, convention style.

Crowds, cosplay, chemistry – it’s all happening for these lucky ladies.

Twelve women – from tv stars to rabid fans – descend on Las Vegas for one weekend to attend the biggest mystery, thriller and suspense convention of the year.

Love connections are made, hearts are brown, and these romances are not going to stay in Vegas.

The books in this series are all interconnected – each one is a standalone and they can be read in any order, but you’ll find fun cameos, events and other ‘Easter eggs’ that we’ve hidden throughout all six books.

I had so much fun collaborating with Lily Craig, Hildred Billings, Anna Cove, Sienna Waters and Kate McLay on this series, and I hope you have fun exploring the convention! All six books are available on Amazon and in Kindle Unlimited.

Check out the first chapter of my book, The Shark, below.

Sabrina Grace stood in front of her bookshelves, nibbling the edge of her fingernail as she looked at the manuscripts in front of her.

There were at least a hundred of them arranged neatly on the shelves, along with action figures and Pops for all her favorite TV shows. Her manuscripts ranged from spec scripts for single episodes of existing shows to entire seasons of things that only existed inside her own head. She’d been adding to the collection since she was a teenager and there was nothing she loved more than the satisfying feeling of seeing those shelves fill up with the printed versions of all her hard work.

Of course, it’d be even more satisfying if she’d actually sold some of them, but that was why she was going to ShudderCon, wasn’t it?

She eyed all her manuscripts. She’d only have the chance to pitch one idea at the convention and it had to be her very best. That was a tricky decision. The best spec script? The best characters? The fastest plot? The one with the most world-building depth?

So many scripts to choose from and only fifteen more minutes before Sabrina’s Uber driver arrived to take her to the airport. She’d been agonizing over the choice for weeks already and when her dad called her from down the hall, she welcomed one final, brief distraction.

“Sabrina? You haven’t left yet, have you?”

“No, Dad,” she called back. “Would I leave without saying goodbye?”

She walked down the hall to meet him. She and her dad lived in a nice little Cape Cod in a decent suburb of Cleveland—a house Sabrina couldn’t dream of affording all on her own. Not on a call center employee’s salary and not when so much of her income went to her dad’s medical care. Every dollar she had left after the bills went toward her unending quest to get the attention of TV producers who could make her scripts into reality.

Well, the quest had been unending. It was coming to a very definite end now, and much sooner than she’d like. Sabrina was attending one last convention where she could pitch her ideas and chase her dreams. Then they would come to a screeching halt on Monday morning.

She shook that thought from her mind and went into the kitchen, rounding the corner with a smile. “Hey, Dad. Smells good in here—what’s for breakfast?”

“Cheesy grits,” he answered. “Carla makes them just how I like them.”

“So, mostly cheese?” Sabrina teased, crossing the kitchen.

Her dad was in his wheelchair as always, clean-shaven thanks to his homecare nurse and wearing his favorite Cavs jersey. Instead of sitting at the dining table, Carla had pushed him over to the big picture window to enjoy the late October sunshine while he ate.

“You got it,” Carla said, holding another spoonful up to his mouth. “But they’re nothing special—just the instant type. The secret is to add extra butter. Sabrina, do you want a bowl before you leave?”

“No time,” Sabrina said, glancing at her phone. “Ten minutes until the Uber arrives.”

“Did you decide which show to pitch?” her dad asked. Sabrina gave him a tortured look.

“No,” she said, covering her face. “I still can’t choose. Is that terrible?”

“You’re worrying too much, honey-girl,” he said. “All of your writing is fantastic. Besides, you know my vote.”

Sabrina smiled. “The apocalypse.”

“What?” Carla asked with a snort.

“She wrote it over the summer,” Sabrina’s dad said. “It’s brilliant—her best script yet.”

“But will it be good enough?” Sabrina asked wistfully. She leaned against the windowsill, changing the subject. “Are you two sure you’re going to be okay for the weekend? I could shorten my trip, or—”

“No, you go,” her dad interrupted. “Enjoy your last hurrah before your new job starts. You deserve it.”

Sabrina smiled, but the expression didn’t reach her eyes. She didn’t get to as many conventions and industry events as she’d like to, but she still managed to make it to a couple each year. ShudderCon was the biggest in the genre and Sabrina always looked forward to it, but it was hard to leave her dad, even just for the weekend.

He’d been diagnosed with ALS three years ago and the fact that he was still around was no small miracle. He still had pretty good control of his voice, and although he’d been forced into the wheelchair full-time about two months ago, he was still in good spirits. They were lucky the disease was progressing slowly, but each trip Sabrina took got harder to justify.

Even though Carla always took good care of her dad when Sabrina was gone, she could never quite shake the worry. What if something happened to him while she was off chasing a pipe dream?

That was part of the reason why she’d applied for a promotion when the opportunity came up at the insurance company where she worked. The hours and pay in the communications department were far better than in the call center, and it gave her dad some peace of mind. Come Monday, Sabrina would set her childish Hollywood dreams aside to climb the corporate ladder in the name of financial security.

It was just too bad she was already expecting her new job writing policy manuals to be mind-numbingly boring.

“Thanks, Dad,” she said. “Do either of you need anything before I go?”

“In the next few minutes before your car arrives?” her dad asked. “No, honey-girl, Carla and I will be just fine. You enjoy your trip.”

“Okay,” Sabrina said. “I’ll try.”

She gave him a hug, then glanced at her phone again. Five minutes to pick the best manuscript out of the bunch—the one that would make or break her TV writing dreams.

Was the apocalypse a big enough idea to get the job done?

She hustled back down the hall and scanned her shelves one more time to be sure. There was a lesbian detective agency, a small-town police department chasing down a literally invisible killer, and a Sherlock-inspired drama with an all-star dream cast of queer actors that Sabrina had spent many a night developing… but the apocalypse was her most recent project. It was freshest in her mind and her dad was right—it was good stuff.

She grabbed the script for the pilot episode and tucked it into her carry-on bag, along with a zip drive containing all her writing on the project, just as her phone chimed.

Your Uber driver, Gloria, is here.

Sabrina’s heart skipped a beat and she slung her bag over her shoulder.

When she got outside, there was a red SUV waiting on the curb and Sabrina jogged over to it. She worried about her dad when she left town, but she also couldn’t deny the excited, eager feeling that filled her chest every time she set out on a new adventure.

ShudderCon was the top mystery, thriller, and suspense convention in the country and Sabrina had only missed it once in the last five years. It was a four-day weekend filled to the brim with fans, writers, actors and every other type of industry insider all fawning over their favorite shows and stars. It was impossible not to get excited—mundane office job be damned.

As Sabrina slid into the back seat of the SUV, she resolved not to give her real life worries another thought until her plane touched down in Cleveland again on Sunday night.

“Going to the airport, huh?” the driver asked. Gloria turned out to be a middle-aged woman with her hair pulled back in a wispy bun, and she had no problem filling the silence on the twenty-minute drive to the airport. “Business or pleasure?”

“A little of both,” Sabrina said. “But mostly pleasure.”

“Sounds like my kind of trip,” the woman said with a glance into the rearview mirror. “Where are you headed?”

“Las Vegas,” Sabrina said. She was excited about the convention and trying hard not to think of the actual flight. She wasn’t the biggest fan of flying—or rather, she wasn’t a fan of take-off or touch-down.

“Oh, Sin City!” Gloria driver perked up, immediately more interested in Sabrina’s trip. “What’s your business, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“TV writing,” Sabrina said, a smile creeping across her face as she noticed a glimmer of awe in the woman’s eyes. Never mind the fact that she’d never sold a single script—her Uber driver didn’t know that, and she didn’t need to know that being a TV writer was nothing but a pipe dream for Sabrina. She leaned forward as much as her seatbelt would allow and asked, “Have you heard of ShudderCon?”

“No, what’s that?” Gloria asked, looking ready to be amazed no matter what Sabrina’s answer was.

The excitement building in Sabrina’s chest grew, making her forget about the plane for another minute. These were the moments she lived for—when she got to unapologetically geek out about her passions. “It’s incredible. You know ComicCon, right?”

“That’s the thing all the comic book nerds flock to, right?”

“Yeah. ShudderCon is just like that, only for mystery, thriller and suspense nerds,” Sabrina explained. “It’s in a different city every year and they rent a huge convention center where you can go to panels with your favorite actors, get autographs, and see sneak peeks of new shows and movies. Everyone who’s anyone in the industry will be there.”

“And you’re somebody?” Gloria asked. She was looking at Sabrina in the mirror like she was one name-drop away from veering to the side of the road to ask for an autograph.

“Not yet,” Sabrina had to admit. It would have been fun to fantasize, to pretend she’d already sold her script and she was a famous TV writer. But she couldn’t bring herself to lie to this woman, even if she would probably never see Gloria again. “But I’ve got a script in my bag that I’m hoping I can sell to one of the networks this weekend.”

“Ooh, use me for practice,” Gloria said, her eyes lighting up. “Pitch me your show.”

“Okay, so there’s this new strain of superbug infecting people all over the country,” Sabrina said, a grin forming on her lips. It really was a good script, which would make it all the more painful if she had to come home Monday morning empty-handed. She pushed the thought aside—no more worries until the weekend was over. “There’s an epidemic that’s getting really serious. People start thinking it could be the apocalypse, and the first episode opens with a group of scientists isolating themselves in a high-tech bunker, desperately looking for the cure…”

Keep reading now…

Sneak Peek: Watchers

A disgraced senator’s son and a resourceful orphan are thrown together on a sadistic reality show in this dystopian trilogy for fans of The Hunger Games and 1984.

Watchers is the first novel in the Watchers trilogy, available now on all major retailers. Read the first chapter below.

The computer screen switches from an old television test pattern to video of a shabbily dressed woman. A stretched-out rubber Elvis Presley mask obscures her face.

She is sitting in a small, dimly lit room with one corner of her desk visible in the frame. It is littered with soda bottles and wrinkled fast food bags, giving the impression that she does not leave this space very often. The only other thing that is visible in the shot is an Emoji Movie poster on the wall behind her.

The woman adjusts a microphone, moving it closer, and we hear a slightly muffled version of her voice through the mask. It is slightly atonal and lethargic as she begins the broadcast.

“Good evening everyone and welcome to another episode of Dystopia Today. I’m your host, Elvis Splorch, and I’ve got a special treat for you today.

We’ve been following Sasha and Daniel, our favorite couple in the Elimination Game house, for the last five weeks and y’all have been pestering me relentlessly to dig into their backgrounds. As you know, contestants don’t exactly audition and many of you have been asking for the story behind America’s favorite indentured lovers.

One of you even managed to deliver a letter to my house, which is impressive since we all know the United States Postal Service has not cared for snow or rain or heat or gloom of night for years now… but it was creepy as hell and I’d like to take this moment to kindly ask all of you to refrain from looking up dear old Uncle Elvis in real life.


Anyway, I heard your pleas. I spent days and days digging through old surveillance footage all over the city and I found that sweet, sweet background information you’ve been asking for.”

Elvis holds up a small external hard drive, waving it teasingly at the camera, then continues.

“There are eight hours of video here, all queued up and ready to go live at the push of a button. Are you ready? Are you hungry for it?”

The comments section below the video lights up with the barely literate ravings of people who have nothing more to look forward to than the life stories of a couple reality show contestants. They’ve already cleared their schedules from now until Kingdom Come and they want it.

Elvis sets down the hard drive and crosses her arms in front of her chest with a sigh.

“Here’s the thing. I can’t show you this video yet,” she says, genuine discomfort edging into her voice. “I can’t afford to show you this video and I think you all know where I’m going with this.

My donations page is currently sitting at $10. That $10 is what I have to live on this week, and it’s what keeps the lights on around here. Do you realize what the McDonald’s Dollar Menu costs these days? Let me tell you, it ain’t been a dollar in a long time.

So here’s what we’re going to do, and I want you to keep in mind that you’re forcing my hand.

I’ve got this footage all ready for you and I’m going to push that ‘play’ button just as soon as we get my donation page up to $100. That’s barely enough to keep the McDonald’s on the table and the Splorch lubricated, but I’m willing to make it happen because I love you guys. But until we reach the $100 mark, you guys are going to be watching a live stream I found of the day room at the Lower North Philadelphia Assisted Living Facility.”

The screen abruptly switches from the self-styled Elvis to a grainy black-and-white feed of a room in which five or six elderly people are sitting around, not doing much of anything. The comments section explodes with objections as a ticker appears in the bottom corner of the screen, showing Elvis’s ransom goal.

On screen, three wrinkled old women sit in recliners so plush they’re nearly swallowing their occupants. They stare blankly at a point just below the camera, and by the glaze of their eyes, it’s probably a television just out of frame.

Behind them, there are two hunchbacked old men sitting at a table with a checkerboard between them, but they both appear to have forgotten that there’s a game in progress. One is staring at the empty nurse’s station across the room and the other is picking at the hem of his shirt with a shaky hand.

It only takes a minute for the ticker in the corner to jump from $10 to $15 and Elvis says over the elderly live stream, “That’s more like it, folks. We’re not here to watch the relentless march of time – we’re here to forget about that. Keep the donations coming and we’ll be watching Daniel and Sasha in no time… and let me assure you, it’s juicy stuff!”

The ticker jumps again, this time from $15 to $23.

Sneak Peek: Scary & Sweet

In this fierce rivalry, only one of us can end up on top, and Zach Holiday thinks he’s got me right where he wants me. He may be up to his old tricks but I’ve got a few of my own to teach him.

Scary & Sweet is the first novella in my steamy romantic comedy Holiday Valley series, available now on Amazon. Read the first chapter below.

It’s a quarter to five and that means I’ve got exactly fifteen minutes to hustle up the steps of the Holiday Valley town hall and deliver my petition signatures with the intent to run for mayor.

I know it’s kind of crazy – especially considering the fact that my last name is not Holiday – but a girl with big political aspirations has to start somewhere, and I can’t think of a better place to begin my career. I’ve lived in Holiday Valley all my life, where everyone treats each other like family, and sometimes it feels like this silly, festive place is actually a part of me. What better way to honor my birthplace than to take a turn shaping it for future generations?

Yeah, I might be a little sappy, and a lot optimistic, but I’ve got big ideas and this little town is the perfect place for me to practice for the future.

That is, if rush hour traffic doesn’t bring my hopes and aspirations to a grinding halt.

The town’s having a bit of a moment right now. Some big shot reporter from Travel + Leisure came to our annual Halloween bash at the Holiday mansion last year, fell in love with the town just like everyone does, and wrote a glowing piece for the magazine. Ever since then, we’ve been inundated with tourists who can’t get enough of our kitsch.

When they found out we also do it up big for every other major holiday, well, they kind of lost their shit. Everyone from families looking to recapture that nostalgic holiday spirit to Instagrammers seeking the perfect seasonal backdrops started flooding into the town at every major holiday.

And the townies? We freaking love it – but of course, a bunch of weirdos who choose to populate a small town whose whole raison d’être is holiday cheer would say ‘the more, the merrier’.

The only thing that puts a damper on our newfound popularity is that Holiday Valley is a small town and we don’t quite have the infrastructure to handle this influx of visitors. The town’s about five miles square, with a quaint Main Street full of shops and restaurants, and houses branching off in all directions.

That’s one street that gets awfully congested around our newfound ‘rush hour,’ and which makes being a pedestrian way harder than it used to be.

As I basically sprint my way down the sidewalk, petition tucked into the crook of my arm, I actually wonder if I’ll make it to town hall before Barb, the town clerk, locks the doors. Would she accept my bid for mayor if I shoved my signature sheets under the door along with a pleading note to forgive the wrinkles?

When I left my house ten minutes ago, I knew it would be a close call, but when I walked into the kitchen to find my petition still sitting on the counter – right where I’d left it this morning – all I could do was run and silently pray. My little brother was supposed to drop it off on his way to school this morning. He promised me he’d remember. But who knows what goes on in the girl-addled mind of a teenaged boy?

I’m breaking a sweat even in the cool breeze that signals the beginning of my favorite time of year – sweater weather. And my long, dark hair, pulled back in a bun, is a wild, wind-blown mess.

Good thing Barb’s not the judging type, and the town hall should be pretty much empty by the time I arrive. The last thing I want is to run into Maggie Holiday, the town’s current mayor, with my cheeks red, wheezing from the effort of running.

I’m – gasp – here to run for mayor, I can just imagine myself saying as I hold out my petition for her to see all the signatures I’ve gathered, damp with palm sweat. Please take me seriously!

I know – and every single person who signed my petition knows – that if the exact circumstances that are currently conspiring did not exist, I would have a snowball’s chance of winning. That’s why I’m hauling ass to the town hall – if I miss this deadline, I’ll probably never get another chance to run for mayor of Holiday Valley.

The town’s been around for about 150 years, settled by Alexander Holiday himself, and it’s more or less stayed in the family ever since.

Every single member of the Holiday family has served at least one term as mayor, and Maggie Holiday has been in the position for the last sixteen years. She’s absolutely adored by the whole town, and the only reason I stand a chance is because I’m not running against her – she’s retiring once her term ends.

That leaves a narrow opening for me, right after Maggie retires and before her heir apparent son, Zach, is ready to take his turn in the mayor’s office. He’s still in college, one year younger than me, thank God.

I’m going to slide into the mayor’s office like my little brother slides into the cheerleaders’ DMs.

Right now, though, I’m looking for an opportunity to slide through the roundabout that is the last obstacle standing between me and town hall. Mayor Holiday put it in last spring after we’d just gotten through the gauntlet of winter holidays, promising it would alleviate the traffic bottlenecks that tend to happen on Main Street every day at nine and five. That, it did, but it also made pedestrian traffic feel like playing a game of Frogger.

Should I receive your vote, I promise to find a solution for both motorists and walkers alike, I practice in my head while I look for an opening.




The stream of cars is nothing like in big cities, but it’s pretty endless for a girl with a stack of papers in her arms and a time-sensitive deadline on her dreams fast approaching.



Maybe now?

I step off the curb and no sooner does my heel touch the asphalt than a car horn blares in my ears, making my heart pound and panic rip through me.

A car whips around the roundabout, aiming for the exit where I’m standing. Am I about to be a little green splat on the road, game over?

Someone grabs my arm and yanks me back onto the sidewalk, loosening my grip on my petition in the process. Papers go flying, hell, my skirt goes flying momentarily over my hips, and the car speeds past.

Must be a tourist – a townie would never try to flatten me without so much as a friendly Holiday Valley Sorry, bud!

“Trying to get yourself killed, Abbi?”

I freeze as the owner of the hand that yanked me out of harm’s way speaks and I know that voice. I could never forget it. Zach Holiday, heir apparent and, it just so happens, my childhood bully.


I regain my composure and pull my arm out of his grasp, then turn to face him, ready to scowl and shoot a snappy comeback at him. But then my eyes lock with his smoldering hazel ones and any comeback I might have had – snappy or otherwise – fades from my tongue.

Damn it, I haven’t seen him in three years, ever since he went away to that fancy college I could only ever dream of, but the Ivy League has been good to him.

He’s always been good-looking, with a strong jaw and a tall, athletic build. But now he’s got a thin crop of scruff along that delicious jawline, and it’s obvious that he’s been spending even more time on the golf course than he did in high school. His biceps are bulging out of a sleek, sporty t-shirt and his skin is tanned and golden.

I’m pretty sure he notices the slack-jawed way that I’m appraising him, because a satisfied little smirk forms on his perfect lips.

“What are you doing back in town?” I snap at him while I bend down to start collecting the petition papers that have scattered all over the sidewalk. The breeze picks up and a second bolt of panic shoots through me as I picture all my hard-earned signatures scattering to the wind.

“You’re welcome for saving your life,” he says, deftly catching one of my blown papers before it has a chance to get away.

“The thank you card’s in the mail,” I grumble as he steps into the roundabout with utter, cocky confidence, holding his hand up to stop the traffic while he retrieves another piece of my petition.

When he comes back and holds it out for me, I snatch it away from him, trying not to look directly into those gorgeous hazel eyes. I catch a waft of cologne mixed with the smell of fresh-cut grass as his body comes nearer to mine, and my legs feel a little weak.

He really shouldn’t have the power to affect me this way – not after three years apart, and not after all the hell he put me through in school.

I can still vividly remember the milk snake he and that jackass best friend of his, Luke, slipped into my trick-or-treat bag one year when we were kids. I looked down to find it wriggling through the Milk Duds and screamed, and Zach damn near had an aneurysm laughing.

The snake turned out to be Luke’s pet and sure, it did turn out to be kind of cute when I was finally done having the vapors, but I never went trick-or treating again.

If everyone in Holiday Valley is like family, that would make Zach my cruel younger brother. And yet here I am, getting weak in the knees every time he looks at me. I must be a secret masochist.

Zach grabs the last loose piece of my petition, but instead of handing it back to me, he holds his arm out and says, “Here, allow me to escort a lady across my mother’s death trap.”

I don’t want to accept charity from Zach Holiday, of all people, but it’s now just five minutes til five and I have to admit defeat. Either he parts the sea of traffic for me, or I don’t get my petition filed on time to run for mayor.

“Thank you,” I say, surprised when he grabs my free hand and wraps it around his forearm like a true gentleman. It makes my cheeks burn and I hope he’s too distracted bending the traffic to his will to notice.

When we arrive safely on the other side of the roundabout – just about thirty more steps between me and Barb’s desk – I hold out my had for the last page of my petition, but Zach holds it out of my reach.

No – now is not the time for a schoolyard game of keep-away!

“Intent to run for mayor,” he reads, scanning his eyes over the signature.

“Yeah,” I say, standing a little taller. “Your mom announced that she’s retiring right after I finished my political science degree. It seemed like a sign.”

Zach gives me a sympathetic look and I can’t figure out what that’s all about. Trying to psyche me out? Steal my confidence? He might have been the pigtail-pulling prankster type in school, but he was never that kind of cruel.

“Can I have that back?” I ask, getting antsy as I glance up the town hall steps. Time’s running out. “Today’s the last day to file.”

“Just a second,” Zach says, pulling a pen out of his pocket. I gawk as he adds his name to the bottom of the page, then hands it back to me with another one of those odd, slightly pitying looks. “Good luck.”

“Thanks,” I say, furrowing my brow and studying him as I take the page. I don’t have time to figure out what’s going on in that handsome head of his.

I turn and head for the steps, and my confusion only intensifies as he follows me. What game is he playing now?

Sneak Peek: Good Vibes

An eccentric adult shop owner. An agoraphobic game collector. A romantic comedy about finding love and self-acceptance in the strangest places. Opposites attract when Theo offers to help Libby with her shop, but will they be brave enough to play the game of love?

My latest novel, Good Vibes, is available now on Amazon. Read the first chapter below.

“Oh wow, did you know the expansion pack has blank cards you can fill in yourself?” Theo Kostas asked her roommate.

She was sitting on the couch with a ripped-open mailer envelope beside her and a brand new card game spread out on the coffee table in front of her. This one was called Escape From Moon Base 9 and it was all anyone in her online gaming circles were talking about.
Of course, that didn’t mean it impressed her roommate.

Andie rolled her eyes on her way from her bedroom to the kitchen. “Nerd alert.”

“Shut up,” Theo teased. “Do you really think spending an entire Friday night waiting in line to get Nat Butler’s autograph is any less nerdy?”

That was what Andie had done last night. She’d gotten home around two a.m. and found Theo staring like a zombie at YouTube videos. She’d talked non-stop for at least thirty minutes about her spiritual connection with the rock star and how she was destined to become the future Mrs. Butler before finally pouring herself into bed around three.

Theo hadn’t heard a peep from her until she emerged from her bedroom, dyed blonde hair wild with sleep, apparently with the sole motivation of making fun of Theo’s hobbies.

Oh, and coffee.

“Make enough for me, will you?” Theo called into the kitchen. Andie grunted and Theo went back to inspecting her new deck of cards. 
Not enough people took advantage of the fill-in-the-blank cards – it took a certain amount of cockiness to think you knew a game better than the developers, but Theo took it as a personal challenge. Her mind was already turning with possibilities when Andie flopped onto the couch beside her, shoving the empty mailing envelope out of the way.

“Five-minute ETA on the coffee,” she said. “Did I tell you Nat’s eyes have this other-worldly quality to them? Like dark chocolate ganache infused with gold flecks…”

“Yeah,” Theo said, distracted. “About ten times last night.”

“Oh. Well, they’re amazing.”

“So I’ve heard.” 
Nat Butler was not unattractive, and Theo liked her music as much as anyone could like something their roommate played as if today was the last day it would exist. But Theo wasn’t a celebrity chaser, even though she and Andie lived in New York City and they’d bumped into a few. 
She wasn’t much of a woman chaser at all, in fact. All she needed lately was Moon Base 9 and her gamer friends online.

“Come on,” Andie said. “You would swoon if you met her.”


“You should have come last night,” she said, dragging herself off the couch as the coffee maker percolated. “I bet you would have had fun.”

Tight crowds in stadium seating. Long bathroom lines. An hour and a half subway ride in the sweltering July heat. Theo’s pulse jumped up and she shook her head. “I had fun at home.”

“You’re 32 years old,” Andie said on her way to the coffee maker. “Don’t you ever get tired of being 80?”


Maybe an attack card to mess with another player’s gravity field… Theo was just mentally filing the idea away for one of the blank cards when the apartment buzzer sounded. Andie was mid-pour so Theo went to the intercom. 

“Buzz me up,” her sister said. “And make it snappy – this stuff is heavy.”

“You need help?”

“Nah, I got it.”

Theo buzzed her sister into the building and took the chain off the apartment door, then went into the kitchen to retrieve her coffee from Andie. She was just gathering her Moon Base 9 cards to put them away when Penny burst into the apartment and dropped her 20-pound wedding binder on the coffee table.

“Careful!” Theo said. “I just got those cards.”

“They’re fine,” Penny said with a roll of her eyes. “Thanks for the help, by the way.”

“You said you had it.”

“Now, girls,” Andie said. “Quit your bickering or I’ll have to send you to separate corners.”

“Love you, baby sis,” Penny said, pinching Theo’s cheek. 
Theo swatted at Penny’s hand, then went into the kitchen to get her a cup of coffee. When she came back, Penny had completely overtaken the coffee table.

“What is all this?” Theo asked.

“Wedding supplies, of course!” Penny said. She took a long sip of coffee, but by the looks of it, she didn’t need to be caffeinated. She’d been riding the wedding planning high for about three months already with no signs of slowing down – and the wedding wasn’t for another eleven months. “You two are my maids of honor – please tell me you did not forget your promise to help me pick out invitations today.”

“Oh Lord,” Theo said, inspecting some of the stuff spread across the table. Theo was no savant, but it looked like there were at least two hundred different sample invitations there. “Where did you even get this many samples?”

“It’s amazing what you can get if you’re willing to ask,” Penny said.

“Or if you want to spend an entire week talking to suppliers, from the looks of it,” Andie said. “Ooh, this one’s pretty.”

“Too floral,” Penny said, plucking the invitation out of Andie’s hand and starting a discard pile. “There – one down, just a few more to go.”

“You’re insane,” Theo said. “What does Chet think of all this?”

“Well, he did send me over here,” Penny said.

“Thanks a lot, Chet,” Theo said. “I’ll remember this at Christmas when I’m choosing his gift.”

Andie and Penny laughed, and Theo brought a chair from the dining room so her sister could take her seat on the couch. The way she saw it, it was her sisterly duty to give Penny a hard time about how impressive it was that she’d become a Bridezilla the instant Chet put that ring on her finger. 
But sifting through wedding invitations was actually not a bad way to spend a Saturday morning. It wasn’t all that different from getting acquainted with the Moon Base 9 cards – only these were a lot more formal and, tragically, none of them made reference to space monsters.

“How about this one?” Theo asked, passing an elegant card with pretty calligraphy to her sister. “It’s simple but the font makes it feel modern.”

“I like it,” Penny said. “This’ll go in the maybe pile.”

The three of them sorted wedding invites for close to an hour before they could finally see the coffee table again beneath all that card stock. The discard pile was towering by the time they finished and Penny had narrowed it down to about ten maybe cards for Chet to weigh in on.

“Is that all for today?” Andie asked with a yawn. Obviously the coffee, followed by a rigorous invitation scavenger hunt, had done nothing to offset her Nat Butler-induced sleep deprivation.

“Maybe you’ve got a thousand first dance songs for us to listen to?” Theo suggested. “Or fifty different brands of Jordan almonds to taste for the wedding favors?”

“Don’t tempt me,” Penny said, tapping the overstuffed wedding binder, the weight of which was most definitely going to throw her back out before next June. “I do have one more wedding-related item to discuss with you two. The bachelorette party.”

“Planning that already?” Theo asked. A little nervous jitter worked its way through her stomach – wasn’t that something to worry about next spring?

“Yeah, isn’t that something you’re supposed to leave up to your maids of honor?” Andie asked.

“I would, but you know me – I don’t want to,” Penny said with a laugh. She turned to Theo. “And I know you don’t like taking trips…” 
The nervous jitter turned into a fist clenching Theo’s stomach. No, she very much did not like taking trips, and she didn’t like where this was going. 
“But this is my wedding and I only get to have one bachelorette party – I want it to be perfect.”

“Ooh, are we going somewhere fun?” Andie asked. She was always up for an adventure and Theo was already calculating Andie into her escape plan. She’d go in Theo’s stead, simple as that.

“Vegas,” Penny said and Theo’s stomach promptly dropped about five inches like a heavy stone had just materialized inside it.

“Las Vegas? Nevada?”

“Sin City, baby,” Penny said. Her big blue eyes were alight with excitement and she was obviously already married to the idea. Theo felt sick. Vegas was not just a quick day trip, which she might have been able to handle, or even a weekend trip to the family cabin in the Catskills. Las Vegas was a full-on trip and it was giving Theo hives just thinking about it.

The airport. The plane that was nothing more than a steel tube coasting through the air. The lights, the crowds, the distance from her safe little apartment with the shelves full of card games and her computer and everything else she needed just a few clicks away.


“I can’t,” Theo blurted.

She pulled Penny and Andie out of their reverie. They were already getting excited about hotel rooms and cocktails and exploring the Strip, and now they were both staring at Theo. Andie looked sympathetic but Penny had a hard look in her eyes that reminded Theo of their dad. He was the tough-love type, always telling her to ‘suck it up’ rather than let her weasel her way out of the things that scared her.

“You have to,” she said. “I’m sorry, but you’re my co-maid of honor and I need you at my bachelorette party.”

“You’ll have Andie-”

“I love Andie, but you’re my sister,” Penny said. “It’s just for a few days – Friday to Sunday – and it’s not happening for nine more months. I figured we’d go in April before the weather in Nevada gets too brutal.”

Theo’s whole body felt too hot, like someone had turned her internal thermostat way up. The trip could be in a week or eight years from now and she’d feel exactly the same way about it – Penny might as well be asking her to go to freaking Moon Base 9.

“I want to,” Theo said. Lie. “I’ll do my best.” 
Another lie. She was already brainstorming a dozen ways she could get out of it. Work obligations. Sudden illness. She’d pick a fight with Penny the day before the trip if she had to. It wasn’t that Theo was looking forward to disappointing her sister – after close to three decades of fighting the same exhausting battles over and over inside her own mind, she would love to just get on a plane and travel carefree across the country.

But Theo was barely capable of getting out of her chair right now, let alone taking all the steps required to go to Vegas and come back in one piece.

“I’m sorry, but that’s not good enough,” Penny said, her hands on her hips.

Well, that was new. 
Theo’s pulse started racing again. Everyone in her family was used to Theo’s anxiety-related limitations and she’d trained them a long time ago to expect a certain failure rate when it came to following through on plans. 
She always meant well, but sometimes she’d be standing in the doorway of her apartment, all ready to show up and not be a disappointment for once. But then a little voice inside her head would whisper in her ear, It’s not safe out there. And she’d be frozen to the floor.

Her family might not understand it, but they accepted it.

Until now, apparently.

“I don’t ask much of you,” Penny said. “Do you know how much of a pain in the ass it is to carry twenty pounds of wedding invitations across town on the subway? But I brought them to you because I know you’re more comfortable here. I do shit like that for you all the time, Theo, and I don’t mind. But this is my wedding. I want to go to Vegas with my best friends to celebrate and my sister will be there.”

Those blue eyes could turn icy when Penny was angry. Theo had seen it a few times, like when Andie told the entire middle school about Penny’s embarrassing crush on a teacher, or when Mom grounded Penny for a month over a dented bumper that had actually been a successful frame-job by Theo. 
She never got used to it when that icy stare was directed at her. Theo shivered and said, “Okay.”

Easier said than done – much easier said than done. But obviously Penny wasn’t messing around and Theo’s well of excuses had run dry. It didn’t matter if Theo had crippling agoraphobia, or if her boss needed her to work through the weekend, or if she was so sick she was actually dead. 
She was going to freaking Vegas in April.

Sneak Peek: Love Trauma

Krys Stevens is the best trauma doctor at Lakeside Hospital. She runs the ER like a finely choreographed dance, she has coworkers she calls friends, and she’s a superstar at the free clinic where she volunteers. What more could an ambitious young doctor want? One day, a patient arrives in the ER intubated with a ballpoint pen and changes everything – that’s how Krys meets Darcy, a former combat medic and a woman after her own heart.

My latest novel, LOVE TRAUMA, is available now on Amazon. Read the first chapter below.

Graduation day was a warm May afternoon and for about an hour, Krys Stevens was able to ignore the pager clipped to her hip.

That was pretty rare for her. She’d been working in the emergency department of Lakeside Hospital for almost five years and she could count on one hand the number of times she requested a day off. She always jumped to answer every page and took any extra shifts she could because there was nowhere in the world she’d rather be than in the ER, saving lives.

But today the hospital would have to get by without Krys Stevens because she was here to watch her friends become doctors.

She found a seat near the bottom of the bleachers of Northwestern’s stadium, where she might be able to catch the attention of Megan, Ivy and Chloe as they walked across the stage set up in the center of the football field. There were thousands of other people there, proud parents and friends, but Krys wanted the girls to know she’d come to support them. They were an eclectic bunch, worming their way into her life by force at times, but she had grown to love them by now.

Krys was in her seat and ready for the ceremony to start by eleven-fifteen, and she had about forty-five minutes to kill. Fortunately for her, she’d planned to get some work done while she waited. She had a rolled-up medical journal tucked under her arm along with the graduation program she’d been handed at the stadium entrance, but first she had a few emails to catch up on.

That was one thing about the ER that she’d never gotten used to – no matter how efficiently she triaged and treated her patients, the paperwork never stopped piling up. The possibility of coming out to support her friends and then getting some work done while everyone else crossed the stage was appealing in more ways than one.

She was just tapping out a reply on her phone to Russell, her boss at the free clinic where she moonlighted, when she heard someone shout, “Krys! Hey, Krys Stevens!”

She looked up – it might be like finding a needle in a haystack to locate the source of her name in a crowd of thousands. But then a couple of hands went up and she saw some familiar faces. There was Alex – Megan’s fiancée – and Dr. Thomas from the pediatrics department standing up and waving to her from a few rows over.

Krys waved back and Alex cupped her hands around her mouth to shout, “Come sit with us!”

Krys looked longingly down at her medical journal – The Annals of Emergency Medicine, which she’d been intending to read for weeks now – and then tucked it under her arm and picked her way across the rows of bleachers to them.

“Hi,” she said as she slid into a seat at the end of the row.

“We thought you’d be working, or else we would have invited you to come with us,” Dr. Thomas said.

She was wearing a flowing floral dress and she looked exactly the same as she did in the hospital, minus the white coat and stethoscope.

Alex, on the other hand, looked like a whole new woman without her navy paramedic’s uniform. Krys saw her on a daily basis in the ER and she hardly recognized the girl with the carefully curled hair and the feminine-cut blouse sitting in front of her. Then again, Krys didn’t look much like herself today, either.

She’d foregone her usual utilitarian ponytail, for one thing, and she felt out of sorts without her hospital scrubs.

“I’m glad you came,” Alex said. “It’ll mean a lot to the girls. Have you met Megan’s parents?”

She gestured further down the bleachers to a woman who was unmistakably Megan’s mom, complete with fiery red hair and delicate freckles across the bridge of her nose. Beside her sat a man with a warm smile and his arm around his wife’s shoulders. Krys reached down the row to them, shaking their hands over Alex and Lily’s laps.

“Are Ivy and Chloe’s parents here?” she asked.

“Yeah, but they drove separately and we haven’t been able to locate them,” Alex said. “It’s okay – we’ll catch up with them at the reception afterward. Are you sticking around for that?”

She was talking about the cocktail hour that the university was putting on after the graduation was over. Krys was planning to attend it and make an immediate beeline for Ivy, Chloe and Megan so she could congratulate them, then get back into the action for a night shift at the free clinic. Instead of admitting all this, though, she said, “Yeah, for a little while.”

“Good,” Alex said. “You need to get away from the hospital more often.”

Krys rolled her eyes good-naturedly, and when Alex turned her attention back to her future in-laws, she wondered if it would be rude to go back to her emails. Plus there was an intriguing article about cystic fibrosis that she’d been meaning to read…

“Did you bring a medical journal to a graduation ceremony?” Dr. Thomas asked, as if she were reading Krys’s mind. Then she swiped the journal out of Krys’s lap to confirm her suspicions. “Seriously?”

“We’re here to support Chloe Barnes, Megan Callahan, and Ivy Chan,” Krys pointed out. “What are you planning to do while everyone from D through Z walks across the stage, Dr. Thomas?”

“Be supportive,” she said with an amused grin. “And we’re not in the hospital – call me Lily.”

“Only if you give back the journal,” Krys said. The prospect of wasting two whole hours that she could be using for professional development made her want to break out in hives. Dr. Thomas – err, Lily – handed back the journal and Krys flipped it open, finding the article she wanted. Then she passed it back to Lily. “Have you read this? It’s about treating respiratory distress in the ER – I figured it might be useful for the next time Malik comes in.”

A shadow fell briefly over Lily’s face, and then she smiled.

“Let me check it out,” she said. She and Krys had both spent a lot of time with their young CF patient, and he was everyone’s favorite patient when he came in for his breathing treatments. Lily gave Krys a side-eye, then closed the journal and slipped it into her purse, saying, “after the ceremony. You’re here to support your friends, so be present in the moment, hon.”

The idea made Krys feel itchy, but Lily had a point.

After a few minutes, the crowd settled down and the first few bars of Pomp and Circumstance could be heard over the speakers. As the music grew louder, everyone stood and the graduates began filing onto the field, taking seats in the white folding chairs that were set up in front of the stage.

Krys and her group cheered when they saw the girls come out – Megan and Chloe with bejeweled and decorated mortarboards, and Ivy holding her chin high, her posture impeccable. Their backs were to the audience but Krys clapped loudly for them and laughed when Alex let out a whoop for Megan.

“Chloe starts her residency with me next week,” Lily said as they spotted her. “She’s going to make a great pediatrician.”

“They’re all going to be good clinicians,” Krys said. Then she laughed and added, “Ivy practically bullied me into being her mentor, so I guess we don’t have to worry about them taking an active role in their careers.”

The football field slowly transformed into a sea of purple and black robes. Ivy and Megan were two of the most decorated graduates, with multiple honor cords hanging from their necks, and Chloe used her charm to bribe the other graduates to sit down out of order so that she could squeeze Ivy’s hand throughout the ceremony.

It was about two hours long, and Lily had been right about the medical journal. Even though Krys only knew three faces in the crowd, she felt proud and invigorated to watch over a hundred and fifty new doctors receive their diplomas.

Hell, it made her want to race back to the ER as soon as she could to pour out that prideful energy on her patients.

Beside her, Lily clapped for each and every student that walked across the stage, and their whole group stood and cheered loudly as Chloe, then Megan, then Ivy received their diplomas. They were able to locate Ivy’s family sitting at the bottom of the bleachers near the field because while she was shaking the dean’s hand, her brother stood up and screamed, “Congratulations, big sis!”

Ivy scowled at him for embarrassing her and Krys couldn’t help smiling. It must be both a blessing and a curse to have siblings who took pride in humbling you during your most significant moments.


After the ceremony was over, Krys went with Lily, Alex and Megan’s parents to the reception. There was an enormous white tent set up on the lawn not far from the stadium, with refreshments stations set up beneath it, along with quite a few tables dressed in fine white linens. The five of them got drinks and then sat down to wait for the graduates to pour in.

Krys checked her pager, more out of habit than for any other reason. She wasn’t on call today and she wasn’t due back at the hospital for another sixteen hours, but she never truly forgot the weight of the little black pager that lived forever on her hip. As she was getting ready for the ceremony this morning, she’d stood in front of the mirror in her bathroom and looked at herself in the navy dress pants and flowing summer blouse she’d chosen, and she felt naked until she clipped the pager to her waistband.

“Didn’t you request the whole day off?” Lily asked when she noticed Krys glancing at her hip.

“I did,” Krys said. “But you know how things can be in an emergency department. They can get overwhelmed easily and sometimes they call me to fill in even when I’m not on call.”

“Do you ever stop working?” Lily asked as she sipped on her glass of chardonnay.

Krys had opted for an iced tea with lemon, just in case. She smiled and said, “Not if I can help it.”

Lily gave her a slightly disappointed look that reminded Krys of her mother, then said, “Don’t burn yourself out, girl.”

Krys was saved from the lecture as the graduates arrived at the reception. A sea of purple robes invaded the tent as everyone spread out, locating their loved ones and enjoying the celebration. Megan made it to the table first, greeting Alex with a kiss and then hugging her parents. Krys spotted Ivy and Chloe entering the tent hand-in-hand, but they went to round up their own parents before joining the group.

“I wish your brother could have been here,” Megan’s mom was saying.

“It’s fine,” Megan said. “He’s in college now – I don’t blame him for not wanting to come home for this.”

“You only graduate from medical school once,” her mom objected, and then she let the subject slide and said, “You looked so beautiful crossing the stage, honey.”

“Thank you, mommy,” Megan said. Then she turned to Krys, pulling her into an unexpected embrace. Krys flushed for a moment – she wasn’t used to being part of a group like this and it always took her off-guard when these girls treated her as more than just a coworker. By the time Megan released her, she’d gotten her color under control again and Megan said, “I’m so glad you came, Krys.”

“I am, too,” she answered. “How does it feel to be a doctor?”

Amazing,” Megan said. She grabbed Alex’s hand and said, “Now I have everything I ever wanted.”

“Barf,” Ivy interjected as she led Chloe and their parents over to join the group. “Get a room.”

Megan laughed and kissed Alex’s hand, where a sparkling diamond ring circled her finger, and then they all pulled a second table over, joining the two so everyone could sit together. Ivy and Chloe introduced their parents to the group and Krys was amused at how much they mirrored the girls.

Ivy’s family – except for her rambunctious brother – was stoic and reserved like Ivy had been when Krys first met her. Meanwhile, Chloe’s mom, dad, and teenage sister were all very expressive, hugging her and jumping right into the conversation with vigor. That was going to make an interesting family dynamic if one day they all became in-laws.

“What do you two think?” Lily asked the new arrivals Krys’s question. “How does it feel?”

“Terrifying,” Chloe said with a nervous laugh. “I’m allowed to practice medicine all by myself now. I can’t believe it.”

“I’ll be right by your side,” Lily said. “You’ll do fine.”

“Of course you will,” Ivy agreed. “And I can’t wait to do some cutting.”

“Surgeons,” Krys said. “You’re all alike. What about you, Megan? Where are you doing your residency?”

“At the coroner’s office,” she said. “I’ve been keeping in touch with Dr. Markovich ever since our medical school rotations and he agreed to mentor me on top of the usual residency. Although that might have to happen in my sleep for the first couple of months because I don’t know when I’ll find the time.” She linked her arm in Alex’s and added, “Wedding planning is way more work than we were expecting.”

“I offered to plan it for you two,” her mother said. “I did warn you.”

“And we appreciate the offer, but we want to have our wedding,” Megan said with a smile. “Not yours.”

“July, right?” Krys asked.

She’d been surprised and honored when she received their Save the Date in her hospital mailbox, and that was another date she’d been happy to request time off work for, although she suddenly realized that her RSVP card had gotten buried under a pile of medical journals in her apartment.

“Yep,” Alex said, giving Megan a quick kiss on the cheek. “And you better not show up stag.”

“What’s wrong with that?” Krys asked. She hadn’t even begun to consider the possibility of bringing a date. The idea seemed preposterous, in fact. When would she have the time to find someone?

Megan put on an act of hardship, ticking off all the reasons why Krys should bring a date. “It throws off the caterers and the seating arrangements will be a mess. Everything we order, from party favors to linens, seems to come in even numbers…”

“You’re just trying to couple everyone up because you’re in love,” Krys said.

“And what’s wrong with that?” Megan asked, putting her arm around Alex. “Everyone should be so lucky.”

“Seriously, you’re nauseating,” Ivy said, but she scooted her chair a little closer to Chloe’s and slid her hand more covertly into her girlfriend’s beneath the table.

The conversation turned to Ivy and Chloe’s plans next. They’d finally decided after half a year of bouncing back and forth between their two apartments that it was time to take the plunge and move in together, and their families were going to help them relocate while they were in town this weekend.

Ivy was just discussing the challenges of moving in together and beginning a rigorous surgical residency all in the same week when Krys felt her phone vibrating in the pocket of her pants.

“I’m sorry,” she said, excusing herself from the table. She didn’t get many phone calls. Her parents called from Denver once a week, but never on a Saturday afternoon, so that meant only one thing – either the hospital or the clinic needed her. She could feel her heart rate increasing already.

It turned out to be Russell, asking if she could come in and cover the free clinic after one of the other doctors got called in to work an extra shift at his day job. Krys said she’d be happy to, and then she went back to the table to say goodbye to the new graduates.

“I’m sorry to bow out, but I’ve got some patients waiting for me at the free clinic,” she said, trying to ignore the disapproving look Lily was giving her. “Congratulations, everyone. It was so good to see you

graduate, and I’m proud of all of you.”

Megan, Ivy and Chloe had come a long way since Krys met them in the early years of their medical education, and she had no doubt they’d go on to become fine doctors. As such, she knew they would understand why she needed to leave.

They all said goodbye, and then Krys headed out of the tent. Behind her, she heard Ivy saying, “It just made sense to move in together, although I do have a study carrel reserved at the library in case I need to get away to catch up on my reading.”

Krys smirked and just before she got out of earshot, she heard Chloe quip, “We haven’t even moved in together yet and she’s already making plans to escape.”

Sneak Peek: Mind Games

My latest novel, MIND GAMES, is available now on Amazon. It’s the first book in my new Fox County Forensics series blending romance with a CSI-style dive into forensic investigation.

Read the first chapter below.

“Today is the day,” Kelsey Granger told herself as she put her hand on the door of the Fox County Coroner’s Office.

She was alone in front of the building, her light brown hair pulled back in a professional ponytail and the top of her head growing warm in the late afternoon sun the longer she stood still.

It had only been a minute or two and she was pretty sure no one had seen her lingering there – inside the glass door there was a small lobby where the day shift receptionist, Reese, sat. She was always gone by the time Kelsey arrived for the night shift, but today she had come in early.

Today was a special day.

Reese’s desk was off to the side of the lobby and she’d have to lean over the counter to see Kelsey standing there like a dork with her hand on the door, doing her little ritual.

Better safe than sorry, though.

Kelsey put her hand back down at her side and took a deep breath, filling her lungs with hot summer air. It was a big day for her and she wanted everything to be perfect. She put her hand on the door one more time and said, “Tonight is the night. You can do this.”

There – that time felt right.

She tilted her chin up and pulled the door open, then went inside. The air conditioning hit her immediately, chilly against her bare arms in a short-sleeved button-up blouse. She smiled toward the desk. “Hi, Reese. Were we busy today?”

“Not particularly,” the girl said with a shrug.

She was in her early twenties like Kelsey, but unlike Kelsey, Reese didn’t seem fazed by anything other than office gossip. There could have been a mass casualty today and she would probably still have answered Kelsey’s small talk question with that nonchalant Not particularly.

Today, though, she gave Kelsey a second glance on her way through the lobby. “Slow days usually mean busy nights. You ready?”

Kelsey clenched her teeth to keep her smile from fading as a ripple of nerves rolled through her midsection, but she kept her chin up. “Sure am – I can’t wait for my first solo case.”

“Give ‘em hell, Kel,” Reese said, smiling back at her even though she was probably more amused by her own rhyme than at Kelsey’s unconvincing answer.

Kelsey went to the door on the back wall of the lobby. It led to the rest of the building and there was a keypad on the handle to keep members of the public – or the media – from wandering into the labs or, God forbid, the morgue.

Kelsey punched in her code, then headed to the forensic investigators’ cubicles.

She’d been working the night shift at the coroner’s office for about six months, shadowing and learning from the veteran investigators. During her job interview, the lead investigator, Maya, told her that most rookies needed about six months of training before they were ready to fly solo on death scenes.

“You’re right where you ought to be,” Maya had reassured her last month when Kelsey asked her about her progress. She’d given the same answer the month before, and the month before that.

Those words were meant to be encouraging, but Kelsey had always been at the top of her class. Sometimes it felt like the word overachiever was a flashing neon sign above her head, and she liked it that way. She didn’t take much comfort in being ‘right where she ought to be’ because her life already hadn’t turned out like it was supposed to.

A year ago, she was on track to go to medical school. She should have been dissecting cadavers in anatomy labs with her roommates right now, not investigating deaths for the Fox County coroner. But here she was, and whether it was med school or death investigation, Kelsey was determined to be the best. She just needed one last reassurance from Maya before she went out on her first death scene, and that was what brought her to the office several hours early for her shift. She had to catch Maya before she clocked out.

“Granger,” one of the other day shift investigators, Tyler, called when he saw her. “Are you pumped or what?”

Kelsey smiled. “I am.”

Tyler came over and clapped her on the back. He was a few years older than her and he’d been the rookie investigator before Kelsey was hired on. He’d only begun solo casework himself a few months ago and he used to work the night shift with Kelsey. They’d quickly become work friends and Tyler was always nice to Kelsey, unlike some of the more senior investigators.

They tended to be matter-of-fact or even blunt when she asked too many questions she already knew the answer to, or asked them to double or triple-check her work.

Tyler had transferred to the day shift last month and Kelsey missed him, but he had a wife and a kid at home so the move made sense. Kelsey had nothing waiting for her but a couple of messy roommates and a never-ending sink full of dirty dishes.

Kelsey set down her work bag at her cubicle. “I re-read my copy of the Death Investigator’s Handbook over the weekend, then I made myself a checklist just in case I forget anything,” she said.

Tyler laughed as she pulled the laminated list out of her bag to show him. “Isn’t that book, like, 500 pages?”

Kelsey shrugged. “I had nothing better to do, unless you count the investigation I conducted in my own kitchen on Sunday night to figure out which one of my roommates keeps leaving empty jars of peanut butter in the pantry.”

Tyler snorted and handed the laminated sheet back to her. “You’re more than ready. Relax – you’ll do fine.”

“I know,” Kelsey said, setting down the checklist and trying to be inconspicuous about lining it up with the edge of the desk.

“So?” Tyler asked. “Don’t leave me hanging. Who was the peanut butter culprit?”

Kelsey laughed. “Who else? Danica – she said it was not empty. According to her, there was at least a tablespoon of peanut butter clinging to the sides of the jar.”

She rolled her eyes – her roommates were both busy and stressed because of school and Kelsey wasn’t even supposed to be living with them in university housing after she dropped out. They were doing her a favor by keeping their mouths shut and letting her squat there while she saved up the money for a security deposit on a place of her own. So she let a lot of their bad roommate behavior slide and took on maid duties because she was the only one who actually cared how much peanut butter was in the jars in the pantry. In the grand scheme of things, she was lucky that was the worst she had to deal with.

She sat down to check her email and Tyler headed back to his cubicle, ready to end his shift. The room held about thirty investigators who, on three different shifts, served Fox County – population two million.

“Are you ready for this, Granger?”

Kelsey looked up from her emails and found Maya walking over to her cubicle. She balanced one arm on top of Kelsey’s cubicle wall, giving her a stern look.

Maya’s long, dark brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail just like Kelsey’s – pretty much the only appropriate hairstyle for a job that involved regularly coming into contact with dead bodies. But that was where Kelsey’s resemblance to Maya ended.

She was about ten years older than Kelsey, without so much as a wrinkle to prove it, and at least forty pounds lighter with prominent muscles beneath her crisp white shirt and black slacks. If she wasn’t investigating a death scene or grudgingly giving Kelsey her monthly pep talk, Maya was lifting weights or running on the treadmill in the gym she and a few of the other investigators set up in the building’s basement.

She was beautiful, strong, intimidating, and if she wasn’t so mean, Kelsey might have had a crush on her. But it would simply be masochism to be attracted to someone who consistently tore her confidence to shreds.

“Do you think I am?” Kelsey asked. “I re-read my handbook-”

“You gotta stop trying to be so damn perfect all the time,” Maya said. “Just relax. You’ve been trained well, lord knows you’ve studied that handbook enough, and if you get in any trouble, you can call one of the other investigators. Aaron’s working tonight – he’ll help you out.” She let out an audible sigh and added, “And if push comes to shove, you’ve got my cell. You can call me if you get in trouble – but try not to get in trouble.”

“Okay,” Kelsey said. She stood up and adjusted her posture, looking Maya in the eyes. “I’m ready to go solo.”

“Attagirl,” Maya said, adjusting the gym bag that Kelsey noticed was slung over her shoulder. She looked impatient to clock out. “Unless you need anything else, I’m heading out for the night.”

“No,” Kelsey said, her hand going reflexively to the laminated checklist on her desk. “I’ll be okay.”

Maya nodded, rapped her knuckles on the top of Kelsey’s cubicle wall, then headed for the time clock near the door. It was a few minutes after five and the day shift was about to clear out – the afternoon shift was already hard at work, and Kelsey planned to spend the next couple of hours mentally preparing herself for when a call came in for her.

It was usually quieter at night, but not always.

Just as Maya reached the time clock, one of the autopsy assistants ran into the room in a blind panic. She nearly knocked Maya off her feet.

“Who’s on shift?” the girl, Jordan, asked loudly, a wild look in her eyes.

Kelsey’s heart skipped a beat and she looked around the room. The two afternoon investigators weren’t at their desks. Kelsey looked to Maya, who was watching quietly – waiting to see if she’d step up.

Tonight’s the night – you can do this. Kelsey repeated her mantra, then stepped into the aisle. “I am. Did a call come in?”

“Yes,” Jordan said. “There’s been a boating accident on the lake – at least a dozen bodies. Should I tell them you’re on your way? You better take the big truck.”

“What?” Kelsey asked, all the courage draining out of her. “A mass casualty? Maya–”

“You told me you were ready,” Maya said. “Are you?”

“Yes,” Kelsey squeaked. “Okay…” She glanced at her checklist, trying to collect her thoughts. “Where’s my handbook?”

She was just reaching for a thick black paperback, praying she could quickly and efficiently refresh her memory on mass disaster protocols, when Jordan sputtered behind her and started to laugh.

Then she heard Maya cracking up, too.

Kelsey turned around, hoping she didn’t look as pale and drained as she felt. “Was that a joke?”

Jordan wore a broad smile, her pearly whites on full display as she cackled, amused at her own sparkling sense of humor. “You should have seen your face! I thought we were going to have to call a hearse for you.

Kelsey scowled, then looked at Maya. She could see from the smirk on her lips that they’d planned this together – a little practical joke to kick off the most important night of Kelsey’s budding career. And she’d fallen for it completely, just like she’d fallen into every other trap that Jordan the jokester had set for her over the last few months.

She was so hilarious.

Kelsey sighed and leaned against her cubicle wall, trying to catch her breath.

“Relax,” Maya said. It sounded like an order, and somehow that did calm Kelsey down a little bit. “We wouldn’t send a rookie to lead a mass casualty investigation – you know that. Now do whatever you gotta do to chill out before you get called out to a scene – nervous investigators make mistakes.”

Kelsey nodded, doing her best to keep her composure while Maya and the other day shift investigators clocked out and left one by one. On her way out the door, Jordan let out another guffaw and said, “That was too easy, Kelsey. Thanks for the laugh.”

Tyler mouthed the word breathe as he passed Kelsey on his way out. She nodded, wondering if he’d known about the prank and didn’t have the decency to warn her.

When she was finally alone in the office, Kelsey sank back down in her chair. She tried to take Tyler’s advice, putting one hand on her stomach and drawing in three long, deep breaths. She closed her eyes and felt the air inflating her belly. It was a strategy Kelsey’s therapist taught her – inhale to a count of four, hold for seven, exhale for eight. Repeat.

It worked little by little, bringing Kelsey’s heart rate down to a reasonable level, but it wasn’t quite enough. She needed to feel in control tonight so she went to the cabinet that held all the investigation kits – large, black plastic briefcases that weighed about twenty pounds each and held all the forensic evidence collection tools an investigator needed at a death scene.

Kelsey grabbed the kit that had her name printed on masking tape across the handle and carried it to a long conference table that doubled as the investigators’ break room. She grabbed a paper towel from the sink nearby and wiped the table down, then carefully lay out every item in her kit.

There were plastic evidence collection bags, swabs and vials, a gunshot residue kit, luminol for blood detection, a digital camera, latex gloves, and dozens of other specialized items. Spreading everything out neatly in front of her, taking inventory and putting it all back exactly as she liked it to be organized always made Kelsey feel better.

She carried out this unpacking and repacking ritual at the beginning of her shift almost every afternoon and sometimes when she had a rough one, she’d do it again before she clocked out. No one in the office knew she had Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and she wanted to keep it that way, so it was lucky that they all just considered this ritual to be further evidence

of her fastidious personality.

She needed all the pieces to be exactly where they should be, packed precisely to make sure that once she got out on the scene, she’d have total control of her investigation. Tonight was more important that all the investigations she’d shadowed before, so Kelsey counted everything in the kit twice.

She retrieved her laminated checklist and added it to the kit, then counted it all one more time just to be safe.

Keep reading – get MIND GAMES on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited now