Read HOOKED #StudsInSpurs Chapter 1

HOOKED (STUDS IN SPURS)

“Cat Johnson…brings the sport of bull riding vividly to life.” Book Reviews & More by Kathy

In all of her years as a sideline reporter for the pro tour, Annie Grant has never been tempted by any of the sexy bull-riding studs in spurs she interviews . . . until she learns Luke Carpenter is back on the market.

CHAPTER ONE

Annie Grant steered the rental car into a spot and cut the engine. She was just gathering her stuff—a large tote bag, a bottle of water and car keys—when the sight of two cowboys crossing the parking lot caught her attention.

Her brain turned to mush and her heartbeat sped. Annie scrambled out of the car so fast she forgot to grab the change of clothes hanging from the hook behind the driver’s seat.

“Damn, damn, damn.” She grumbled aloud to no one as she unlocked the car and grabbed the hangers covered in the plastic dry cleaning bag.

Forgetting things and cursing aloud to herself were just two more indications she’d gone crazy. The first had been when she’d realized she had a crush on one of the professional bull riders she worked with.

What woman in her right mind would want to date a rider? A man who made his living by traveling the world amid hordes of women intent on bedding the star the moment he got off the back of a bucking bull? If he got off without being critically injured or worse.

Apparently Annie was not in her right mind because veteran rider Luke Carpenter had caught her eye a while ago. Recently, more of her anatomy than just her eyes had become very interested in him.

Without even knowing it, Luke had captured her, body and soul. It seemed she wasn’t getting either back from him anytime soon, despite her realization that hoping for more than a working relationship with him was crazy.

And now two of his friends, the guys he’d driven with from the hotel to the arena yesterday, were walking straight toward her.

It was obvious to her now Luke wasn’t with them today, but her hands were shaking anyway just from the brief moments she’d thought he might have been.

Frustrated with her body’s ridiculous reaction at the mere thought of Luke, Annie blew out a loud breath.

Dry cleaning bag draped over one arm and the tote bag weighing down the other, she flung the car door shut with probably more force than was necessary.

She really needed to get control of herself and her schoolgirl crush.

Who knew if Luke would even look twice at her as a woman instead of just a female co-worker? He hadn’t in all the years she’d known him . . . but he’d also had a steady girlfriend all that time.

Now, since the tour had taken its midseason break, that girlfriend was suspiciously absent.

For the first time in years Luke had been going out with the other riders and acting more like a single man than a taken one.

If Annie didn’t get her butt in gear, some other woman would scoop him up. There were plenty of ready and willing women hanging around the local bars after an event looking for riders to flirt with.

That for the past couple of months Annie routinely knew Luke’s whereabouts—who he hung out with, where he went in his free time—only further proved she was crazy.

Practically a stalker.

He would probably run away in fear if he knew she was keeping tabs on him. But she couldn’t worry about that right now, because veteran riders Mustang Jackson and Slade Bower were standing next to her car waiting to walk her inside, because that’s what cowboys did.

Of course Mustang and Slade wouldn’t let a lady walk alone in a parking lot at dusk. If Luke were here, he’d do the same. She knew that for a fact because, like his fellow riders, that’s the kind of gentleman he was.

So why were Annie’s dreams strictly about getting naked and sweaty with Luke and never with any of the other very attractive guys she spent so much time with?

She wished she knew.

“Here’s our little Annie. How are you doing today, darlin’?” Mustang greeted Annie, pulling her out of her pondering.

“I’m good. How are you two?” Annie directed the question to both Mustang and Slade next to him.

GET HOOKED NOW

“In a couple of hours I’ll be in that arena riding and hopefully taking home some money, so I can’t say I could be any better if I were twins.” Mustang laughed.

Slade nodded. “Amen to that.”

Their enthusiasm had Annie smiling. These guys truly loved their jobs.

Actually, she loved hers too. Yes, the constant travel could be tough, but it wasn’t like she had anyone waiting for her at home.

That thought was less than uplifting.

She smothered a sigh and decided maybe now was the time to do something about her lonely situation. These two cowboys might be just the ones to give her the information she needed about Luke and his current dating status.

“So, are your girls coming to the next event?” With all the casualness she could muster, Annie began some investigating.

She’d have to start slowly and skirt around the real object of her interest for a bit so they wouldn’t get suspicious and realize she was interested in Luke.

“Unfortunately, no. Sage has some tests for her college classes to deal with.” Mustang screwed up his mouth in an unhappy expression.

“Jenna will be there.” Slade practically glowed when he spoke his girlfriend’s name. Obviously he was a man in love.

With a frown, Mustang shot his friend a look. “Yeah, yeah. Rub it in.”

“What? Sorry. I can’t help it if my girl can get away more often than yours can.” Grinning, Slade didn’t look very sorry at all.

Mustang blew out a loud breath. “It’s been two weeks since I’ve seen Sage. My nights have been awfully lonely.”

“Aw. A whole two weeks? I’m there for you, buddy.” Slade slapped Mustang on the back.

“Yeah, thanks a lot. A man has needs, Slade. Ones you sure as hell can’t fill.” Mustang glanced sideways at her with a grimace. “Sorry, Annie. I shouldn’t be talking like that in front of you.”

Annie laughed at Mustang’s reaction to his slip. “It’s fine, really.”

Thanks to her job as a sideline reporter she was around men pretty much constantly. She was used to them forgetting she was there and talking the way they would among themselves.

Besides, women had needs too. She could totally relate to Mustang’s frustration. In fact, her own needs in that department hadn’t been met in quite some time. Definitely much longer than Mustang’s two week stretch.

Annie smothered the envy she felt. She wanted a man of her own to look like Slade did when he spoke about Jenna. A man to miss her desperately the way Mustang missed being with Sage.

She needed to see about getting one.

Not just any one, but one in particular. “So, um, you know who I haven’t seen around lately? Luke’s girlfriend, Lilly.”

“Huh, you noticed that, did you?” Mustang asked. “No, you haven’t seen her around. Not since the tour went on summer break. Why do you ask?”

The smile that spread across Mustang’s face combined with the intensity of his stare made Annie realize this guy was a little more intuitive than she’d given him credit for.

Annie shrugged as if it didn’t matter and regretted saying anything. “No reason. Just wondering is all.”

“Uh, huh.” Mustang continued to grin while Annie tried to estimate exactly how much longer it would take to walk to the arena from here. She needed to get away from his probing.

“Mustang, leave poor Annie alone.”
One look at Slade proved that even though he was defending her, he was grinning too.

“Why are you two acting so weird? Jeez, all I did was ask about Lilly, just like I asked about Sage and Jenna. It’s nice to have other girls around here after being with you guys all the time.” Annie scowled when they continued to look at her like they didn’t believe a word she was saying.

“Sorry, darlin’. It’s just we’ve noticed how you look at Luke. I was wondering how long it would be before you made a move.”

Mustang had noticed her stalking—uh, observing—Luke? Crap.

“What do you mean how I look at him? I watch all you guys ride. It’s part of my job.” If she was going to report on air about the competition, she had to watch both the rides and the riders.

Of course, keeping an eye on Luke before and after the events was a different story, but hopefully Mustang hadn’t noticed that.

“Nah, uh.” Slade shook his head. “You don’t watch the rest of us the way you watch him.”

“You’re both crazy.” Knowing her expression would show exactly how unhappy she was about the course the conversation had taken, and how close to the truth they’d come, Annie lowered her head to hide from the two cowboys’ scrutiny.

She picked up speed, only to be foiled by the closed door leading from the parking lot to the building. She reached for it as Mustang sprang forward. He grabbed the handle and she was forced to wait for him to open it for her.

Only he didn’t.

He stood, waiting and watching her until she felt compelled to do or say something to get this conversation over with.

If only she could think of something to say.

“Look, Annie. I have one thing to say then I’ll leave you alone.” Mustang’s gaze zeroed in on her face as she waited. The fact he’d used her name and hadn’t followed it up with the usual darlin’ told her he was serious. “For years now we’ve worked with you and you’ve been nothing but professional. Not a one of us will think any less of you if you decide to go for it with Luke.”

Next to Mustang, arms crossed over his chest, Slade nodded. “Agreed.”

Annie let out a half-laugh, half-sigh. “First of all, you’re assuming I’m interested in going for it. Second, who says Luke, or any of the other guys, would be interested in me? Huh? With all the pretty young things hanging around the chutes after the events to meet you guys why would anyone look twice at me?”

At thirty-something—Annie couldn’t even bring herself to name the exact number in her head—she felt suddenly very old next to the barely twenty-somethings hanging around in pursuit of their own champion bull rider.

Slade rolled his eyes and let out a snort. “Yeah, right.”

Meanwhile, Mustang laughed. “Yeah, you’re really old. Jeez, woman. No young girl is going to turn Luke’s head when a real woman is interested. Luke’s been around here long enough to know the real deal when he sees it.”

Was Mustang saying Luke thought she was the real deal? Had Luke talked to them about her while they were hanging out? The guys had all gone out for dinner and beers together last night.

“I’ll believe that when I hear it from Luke.” She’d played it off a dismissive as she could, like she was joking, but her traitorous heart pounded as she waited for them to react.

She was letting Mustang get her hopes up about Luke when she was supposed to be playing it cool. She sucked at dating and men.

“I won’t speak for Luke, darlin’.” Mustang shook his head as he finally opened the door and waited for her to step through. “But you can ask him yourself, now can’t you?”

Damn cowboy code. One rider would never betray the confidence of another. Annie should have known better than to even hope they would.

As they walked down the hallway toward the arena, Mustang glanced at her again. “I can tell you this though. Any man who isn’t interested in getting to know you better is crazy.”

“Mustang Jackson, are you flirting with me?” She laughed, happy to have the subject stray from Luke into territory she could deal with.

He shook his head with a grin. “No, ma’am. If I was flirting, you’d know it.”

On the other side of Mustang, Slade let out a burst of a laugh. “Oh yeah. I can vouch for that.”

Slade’s cell phone rang and he excused himself to take the call, leaving her to walk alone with Mustang.

“Listen, I’m just saying don’t wait for what you want. None of us knows how long we’ve got. Not here on this earth and certainly not here in the pros. In eight seconds out there on that dirt, a man’s whole life can change.”

Annie sobered immediately. She knew. She’d seen it happen. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Make sure you do.” Mustang tipped his hat. Then he headed down the stairs to the rider’s dressing room, leaving Annie with quite a bit to think about.

Annie must have been thinking harder than she realized, because the next thing she knew she’d walked head on into something about as hard as a brick wall, although a lot better smelling.

The rich scent of his cologne—a combination of leather and spice perhaps—assaulted her senses as she gazed up and into the tempting, handsome face of Luke Carpenter.

He grabbed both her arms in his big, firm grasp and steadied her.

Tiny, incredibly endearing crinkles appeared in the corners of his intense blue eyes as he smiled down at her. “Whoa, there. Where are you heading in such a daze?”

He released his hold, but the warmth where his hands had been remained.

Flustered at being caught by the very man who’d been occupying her mind and had caused the daze, Annie scrambled for an excuse. “I, uh, need to change before the broadcast.”

She held up the drycleaner bag full of clothes draped over her arm, feeling the need to prove to him she wasn’t lying. That it wasn’t thoughts of how and when to make her move on him that had her so distracted.

“Ah, gotcha. A woman has to look her best for the cameras.” He smiled.

What was he saying? That she needed all the time she could get to look good?

No, of course not. Now she was being paranoid.

Luke continued, “I better do a little prep work myself.”

“Why?” she asked, letting herself glance at how great he looked in jeans and his sponsor shirt. “You look great already.”

And he smelled even better.

“I meant, I need to get my rope cleaned and rosined up, but thanks.” Luke grinned and Annie couldn’t help but stare at his lips, wondering if they’d be soft or firm when—if—he ever kissed her.

She swallowed hard. “Oh, yeah, of course. Um, maybe I should get that on camera. You know, for the viewers. They might like to see all the preparation you guys go through before a ride.”

God, did that sound as lame to him as it did in her own head? Hopefully it wasn’t totally obvious to Luke that this idea for a piece was strictly so she could spend more time with him, even if it was on camera.

“Great idea. Anytime. You know where to find me. Right now I better get. See ya later?”

She nodded. “Later.”

With a tip of his brown cowboy hat, he was gone, but the effects lingered on.

Annie sagged against the wall and drew in a deep breath to settle herself before she made her way to where she needed to get to herself.

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HAPPY IS THE BRIDE

“Johnson gives us humor and heat”- RT Book Reviews

Scroll down to read a full chapter excerpt!

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHORS LORI WILDE * JANET DAILEY * CAT JOHNSON * KATE PEARCE

1 Wedding, 4 New York Times Bestselling Authors, 5 Happily Ever Afters!

Opposites attract when a wealthy cattleman and a penniless artist decide to get hitched at a Texas dude ranch in tornado country—and the whirlwind festivities are as filled with surprises as their love…especially when the guest list includes: one pretty party crasher on a mission, a sheriff known as the One Night Stand King, and a workaholic event planner who definitely did not plan to fall for a laid back cowboy.

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Enjoy this EXCERPT from “Getting Saddled” by Cat Johnson in HAPPY IS THE BRIDE

It was hot as hell. But then again, that shouldn’t be a surprise. This was Texas after all, but today was hotter than usual for a day in late May.

Tanner should be able to handle the heat. He’d been working a ranch most of his adult life. He didn’t let that stop him from bitching about it now.

“Damn, it’s hot as blazes out here today.” Letting out a huff, Tanner ran his handkerchief across his forehead.

The thin cotton was so damp with sweat and smeared with the dust he’d been working in, the red paisley pattern was barely visible any longer.

Knowing it would only get worse before he was done for the day, Tanner shoved it dirty into the rear pocket of his jeans.

“Eh, the heat won’t last. Supposed to cool off a bit next week.” Randy, the young ranch hand working with him, didn’t look particularly disturbed by the heat kicking Tanner’s ass.

That made Tanner feel old, which only annoyed him more.

Was he just getting old? He considered the possibility.

Nah.

He quickly dismissed the thought. At forty-one he was still in his prime. But that didn’t mean he had to like sweating under the noonday sun. Oh he’d do it, but he sure as hell didn’t have to enjoy it.

Taking the tool in hand again, Tanner went back to work.

The steady sound of the post-hole digger—the chomp of the metal blade hitting the dirt and the swoosh as Tanner pulled it out again—became hypnotic. Combined with the warmth of the sun and the touch of the wind, it lulled him into a relaxed rhythm.

After today’s work he’d sleep good tonight.

City folk wouldn’t need yoga for their meditation or pills to sleep at night—and more pills to get through the day—if they’d just pick up a tool and work up a good sweat every day.

Planting his tool in the ground, Randy leaned on the long wooden handles and let out a long, low whistle. “Holy cow . . . Who is that?”

Frowning at Randy, Tanner wondered what had the kid ignoring his work this time.

Today’s youth had a crap work ethic.

With that thought, Tanner realized he really was starting to act old. That was something his papaw would have said. In fact, Papaw might have actually said it, word for word.

He supposed he shouldn’t be quite so cranky, but damn, was it hot. And it would be nice if the ranch hand helping him would actually, you know, help.

Tanner planted his own posthole digger into the dirt and leaned on it as he tried to see what had Randy so distracted. He spotted the car parked in front of the Cutwrights’ house.

Actually, it was less car and more mommy minivan, but either way it was nothing for Randy to be so excited about. People came and went all day around here, especially since Brady had gotten engaged. And as far as vehicles went, this one was pretty plain. Straightforward. White. Square. Probably useless in the mud.

Then a woman stepped from around the nose of the van and into Tanner’s view and he had to give Randy a pass for staring.

She opened the passenger door and bent at the waist as she fiddled with something inside.

Holy cow was right. A few other exclamations, not quite as tame, flew into Tanner’s mind.

“Don’t know who that is.” But Tanner would sure like to get to know her.

Mommy van or not, she certainly didn’t look like any mother he’d ever seen. Though he wouldn’t mind if she called him daddy.

Even at this distance he could see the glint of red as the sun hit her glossy chestnut hair while it bounced around her shoulders.

And that body . . . phew!

In spite of the length of the skirt that came all the way down to her knees, he could tell she had legs that went on for days and hips he’d really enjoy getting his hands on.

Nope, he didn’t know who she was or why she was here, but he’d have to make it his business to find out.

It was a rare occurrence that a female—and one that shapely to boot—showed up unexpectedly at the ranch. Brady Cutwright’s wife-to-be, Ellie, was here a lot. And Brady’s friend Meg Stoddard, who owned the adjacent ranch, visited all the time. But this woman . . . he was sure she’d never crossed his path before.

Maybe she was lost. If that was the case, it was up to him to investigate and help her out; she might need some direction. In fact, his being ranch boss meant it was Tanner’s duty to be on top of what happened around here.

He pulled off his work gloves and shoved them into the belt on his jeans. “I’m gonna go check it out. See if she needs any help. You keep digging. I’ll be right back.”

“Hey, why do I have to stay and keep working and you get to go?”

Tanner glanced back and saw the kid’s deep frown. “’Cause I’m your boss, that’s why.”

Before Tanner took even a step toward the house, Randy scowled deep. The kid’s reaction made Tanner grin, but it sure as hell didn’t make him change his mind.

Someone had to get those holes dug. Lucky for Tanner, he had somebody to delegate to. Besides, from what he could see at this distance, the lady in question wasn’t Randy’s type. The kid liked them young and dumb, in painted-on jeans and showing enough cleavage to be illegal.

The twenty-two-year-old cowboy wouldn’t know what to do with a real woman, and as far as Tanner could determine, that was what the mysterious lady was. A real woman who’d need a real man, and he was just the guy for the job.

The closer he got as he headed toward the house, the more details he could make out. Their mysterious visitor’s tight skirt looked like it belonged on a naughty librarian or a sexy secretary . . . and maybe Tanner had watched too many dirty movies during his misspent youth.

Sometimes his current lack of a steady lady in his life made itself very apparent. Today’s little fantasy about the Cutwright family’s unexpected feminine company was proof of that.

Tanner sidelined his fantasies and got his head back to the business of being the ranch manager greeting a guest . . . before his hard-on greeted her for him.

Given she was still bent over, he would have to address her posterior, which was no problem for him. “Excuse me, ma’am. Can I help you?”

She bolted upright and turned, arms loaded. It had been a long while since Tanner had been in school, but what she held looked like a couple of years’ worth of schoolwork barely contained in a few large white binders. His fantasy immediately shifted from naughty librarian to hot for teacher.

“Hi.” She frowned. “Um, any chance you’re Brady?”

Tanner let out a snort. He respected his boss, the whole Cutwright family, but no way any one of them would be covered in sweat and dirt from digging holes the way he was now. “No, ma’am. I’m Tanner Black. Ranch manager. Brady’s my boss.”

“Oh good. At least I’m in the right place.” She smiled until it reached her sky-blue eyes.

Up close he could appreciate the porcelain quality of her complexion. This woman would fry up in no time out in the sun, which would be a perfect reason to keep her inside—in his bedroom.

She still hadn’t offered up who she was or why she was here, but upon further inspection the van provided his answer. The lettering on the side panel supplied him with a company name. He considered the other tidbit of information that the van’s lettering supplied—the company’s location.

Austin.

She was a city girl.

Pity. City folk made Tanner twitch.

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“You the wedding planner?” he asked.

“I am. Erin Saddler, owner of Happy Is the Bride Event Planning. I’d shake your hand, but . . .” Her gaze dropped to the binders about to slip from her overloaded arms.

“That’s a’ight.” As dirty as he was, it was probably best she couldn’t shake his hand. In fact, he thought twice before offering to take the notebooks from her for fear he’d ruin those pristine white binders. “Can I help you with some of those?”

“Thanks. There are actually a few more.” She took a step back from the open door and he saw them on the floorboard.

“No problem. I’ll get ’em.” Tanner was reaching into the van for the books when he heard the screen door of the house slam.

“Erin?” The voice of Brady’s fiancée came from the porch.

“That’s me. And you must be Ellie, my bride-to-be.” At Erin’s reply, Tanner went from wondering what the hell she had in these binders that weighed so damn much to thinking no woman’s voice had ever cut through him quite like Erin’s did.

And she wasn’t even talking sexy. They were talking about his boss’s wedding, for cripes’ sake. Nothing that should have every cell in him aware of her.

Tanner straightened up in time to see the bride-to-be trotting down the stairs, beaming with the biggest grin on her face. That was pretty much how Brady had looked lately, too.

Young love—they’d better enjoy it before they got cynical like him.

“I’m so glad you could meet with us so fast.” Ellie reached out to take one of the books in Erin’s hands.

“Not a problem. The sooner the better. It’s going to be tight.” Of course, Erin was talking about the timing of the wedding, but Tanner’s mind went to bad places as he started to ponder everything that was tight on Erin’s tempting little body.

Down, boy.

Tanner wrangled his libido into check and reminded himself that city girls and country boys didn’t mix well. Been there, done that, and he had the scars on his heart to prove it.

“We realize the date we chose is coming up fast, but neither of us wanted to wait.” As the bride turned toward the house, Brady appeared in the doorway. “Oh good. Here’s Brady now.”

Erin flashed first Brady and then Ellie a brilliant smile that showed off her perfect white teeth. “And now I can see why you don’t want to wait.”

Ellie giggled. “I know. Isn’t he the cutest?”

Tanner rolled his eyes as he followed behind the two women. He felt nothing but respect for the Cutwrights, but this shindig, which seemed to grow daily until it had taken on a life of its own, was bullshit in his opinion. Waste of time and money, if you asked him.

Then again, unlike Tanner, the Cutwrights had the money to waste. That was probably one reason for the wedding planner’s warmth as she greeted Brady: dollar signs.

Thinking of Miss Erin Saddler, wedding planner extraordinaire, as just another money-hungry big-city business owner helped. Tanner needed something to balance out his other, baser feelings for the woman as she climbed the steps ahead of him and he got another eyeful of her shapely behind in that skirt.

Yeah, he needed to get out of there before he embarrassed himself.

Ellie led Erin into the house and Tanner could finally think again, now that her tinkling laugh and twinkling eyes were safely out of range.

“Here you go, boss. Have fun.” Grinning, Tanner shoved the books toward Brady while thinking that whatever those binders contained was going to be anything but fun.

Brady was no dummy. He narrowed his eyes. “Oh no. You don’t get out of here that easily.”

Tanner frowned. “What’s your wedding got to do with me?”

“Ellie and I have another appointment we have to get to this afternoon, so I need you to take the wedding planner over to Meg’s and show her where the reception’s gonna be. And drive her out to the chapel so she can see where we’re having the ceremony.”

Oh no. No, no, no. Him alone in his truck with her was not gonna happen.

He’d been too long without his hands on a woman to be alone with Miss Sex on Heels inside the confines of the cab of his truck.

Tanner was in to many things, but self-torture wasn’t one of them. He had a bad feeling Miss Saddler was already going to invade his sleep tonight, just from this one brief encounter by the minivan.

He didn’t need to fuel that fire with any more time spent with her—alone and in his own damn pickup truck to boot.

“Why don’t you just give her the directions? Meg can show her around there.”

“Meg is meeting us in the city for our appointment. It’s wedding stuff and Ellie wants her there.”

Tanner lifted one shoulder to concede Brady’s point as he crafted another suggestion to get himself out of escorting Miss Tight Skirt. “The dude ranch has staff. They can take her around.”

“Meg’s crew has their own work to do. This time of year you know she’s booked full up. It’s nice enough of her to clear her reservations for the week of our wedding on top of letting us have the ceremony and the rehearsal dinner and the reception there. I’m not gonna take her crew away from their work.”

“Fine. I’ll do it.” Tanner scowled, unhappy with the turn of events. To make sure his displeasure was fully known, he added, “It’s not like I got a fence to put up or anything.”

Brady shook his head. “I knew you were a confirmed bachelor, but I had no idea your aversion to marriage included other people’s weddings, too.”

“Maybe it’s my aversion to city folk and not weddings. You ever think of that?” Tanner cocked a brow high.

The problem was, this particular city girl made him want to break his own rule. Made him want to run his hands through her hair to see if it felt as soft as it looked. Made him want to lean in and get a better whiff of whatever damn scent she wore, which still clung in the air long after she was gone.

“Well, you can get in that fancy air-conditioned truck of yours and chauffeur that city girl in there around for an hour or so while Randy works on the fence and finishes the afternoon chores in this heat. Or I could see if Randy wants to take her over to Meg’s while you finish up work here for the day. You decide.” Brady folded his arms and waited.

Given those options, there was no choice in Tanner’s mind. “What time you figure she’ll be ready for me to take her over to Meg’s?”

Brady grinned. “Thought you’d say that. And I’d say in about an hour.”

“A’ight.” With a nod, Tanner spun on one boot heel and headed back out to the new paddock to break the news to Randy and then get himself and his truck cleaned up before either could mess up pretty Miss Erin and her skirt.

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New Release Excerpt from That Mistletoe Moment

That Mistletoe MomentTHAT MISTLETOE MOMENT (a multi-author anthology from Kensington featuring my story, “A Boyfriend by Christmas”, as well as two other great new stories by two fabulous authors Kate Angell and Allyson Charles) is available today in eBook and print. Read an excerpt from my story below. Enjoy! Cat

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“In Johnson’s charismatic ‘A Boyfriend by Christmas’, a chance meeting on Thanksgiving and a text sent to the wrong contact lead to alluring romantic possibilities…” ~ Publishers Weekly

EXCERPT

 

Nikki sat perched on one of the bar stools at the kitchen island, focusing on her cell phone. “So, I downloaded this app . . .”

“Mmm-hmm.” Noelle sat too, reached for a second cookie, and took a good-sized bite out of it.

“I signed you up.”

Her sister was always doing stuff like that. Signing her up for mailing lists and websites without her permission. Noelle pulled her mouth to one side. “Great. Now I’ll get a bunch of e-mails because they have my address. What’s it for, some store?”

“Uh, no, not a store.” Nikki put her own cell down just as Noelle’s phone vibrated with a text alert. Nikki eyed the phone on the countertop, where Noelle had tossed it. “You gonna check that?”

Suspicious, Noelle put down her mug and picked up the phone. There was a new text from a number she didn’t recognize, but it was from her local area code. She frowned at the screen as she hit the button to read it.

Hello, beautiful! Reply to this number to start chatting with your new boyfriend.

“What is this? What did you do?” Noelle glared at her sister.

Nikki’s face lit up with a grin. “I got you a boyfriend.”

“A what?” Noelle’s voice rose high.

“Not a real one. Relax. It’s the Build-A-Boyfriend app.” Nikki held up her phone as if that would explain it all. “Remember, I told you about it at Thanksgiving?”

Noelle grabbed her sister’s phone and glanced at the screen. “But I don’t understand. Who is this text from?”

“Actually, I’m not really sure. That’s kind of proprietary information. I read an article about the app in the Wall Street Journal before I signed you up, and the owners of the company were pretty secretive about how they actually generate the texts.”

“Oh, well, that’s comforting.” Noelle rolled her eyes.

Ignoring the sarcasm, Nikki continued, “The exact process and technology is kept under wraps, but there’s speculation it might be a combination of computer technology and real-life human interaction.”

“So basically the nicest compliment I’ve gotten in recent memory is from either a computer or someone being paid to text me.” Noelle twisted her mouth unhappily.

“Yes. But that’s the beauty of it. You get to pretend you have the perfect boyfriend for the family at Christmas without dealing with any of the problems of a real man.”

“None of the problems but also none of the fun,” Noelle reminded her overly jubilant sister.

Nikki dismissed that complaint with one flick of a wrist. “Oh, seriously. When was the last time you had fun with George? I mean real fun, where he didn’t criticize you or act like a stick in the mud?”

It was a knee-jerk reaction to defend George to Nikki, but just the mention of his name raised a horrible realization that had Noelle gasping. “George’s parents will be at the Christmas party.”

Nikki nodded. “I’m sure they will. And I think you’d better prepare yourself that George could very well come, too.”

Noelle widened her eyes. “You think he would?”

How could she face him? And what if he came with a date? He wouldn’t have the nerve—would he? She had the bad feeling he might.

“Yes, I do. And I think you need to be ready. Which is why we’re setting you up with a new boyfriend.”

“I don’t think a couple of possibly computer-generated texts are going to convince anyone I have a boyfriend.”

“The app does more than just text. You can get e-mails. Even a real handwritten letter. And you can set up for flower and gift deliveries, too, but that’s an extra charge.”

All of that sounded expensive. “How much is this thing going to cost me?”

“Nothing. There’s a free trial. For the basic membership during the trial period you get a limited number of texts, and we can design a complete boyfriend. We name him. Give him an occupation. We can even download photos from their database.” When Noelle continued to look skeptical, Nikki continued. “I’m telling you, this will work. We post a couple of status updates and pictures online, and you’ll have what looks like a completely convincing relationship.”

“No. I’m not posting pictures of a made-up boyfriend. That’s too much. Then what happens when I meet a real guy and there are these pictures of my fake boyfriend all over the web?”

“Fine. No guy pics right away, but we’re going to revisit that idea before the party. Okay?”

Noelle sighed, too beaten down to fight her sister. “Okay.”

“Even without pictures of a guy, we can fabricate a complete relationship online starting right away.”

“How in the world are you going to do that?”

“Easy. A close-up shot of two glasses of champagne with a status update that reads something like, Enjoying some bubbly at Sunday brunch with my new man. A pic of a Christmas tree lot with the post, Good thing my boyfriend is strong since I chose the biggest tree here. A few posts like that and George and the relatives will think you have the most active social life of anyone we know.”

Shocked, and admittedly a bit impressed, Noelle stared at her sister. “You do realize that if you put this much creativity and effort into your dissertation and building a career, you’d be making enough money to move out of Mom and Dad’s place, right?”

“Ugh. Work and school are no fun. This is fun. I can’t wait to create all sorts of dates for you and—wait—what are we calling him?” Nikki picked up her phone again. “There’s a place for all that info in the dashboard of the app. So, what do you want to call your new fake boyfriend?”

“First of all, can we stop referring to him as my fake boyfriend?” Noelle sighed with self-pity. “Other than that, I don’t know what to call him.”

“Just choose a guy’s name. Make it something strong and sexy.” Nikki waited, phone in hand as Noelle glanced around the room, looking for inspiration and not finding much that would work for a good name.

“Strong and sexy . . . Hmm. Ooh, wait. I got it.” She smiled in triumph as an idea struck. “Type in that his name is Nathan.”

“Nathan. Okay. Sounds good to me.” Nikki typed in a few things. “Where’d you get that name from?”

“He was this guy I met at the store when I ran out to buy more cranberries on Thanksgiving.” Back when she’d been happy and hopeful for a future with George. Apparently, also back when she’d been delusional that she and he were in the same place in their relationship. “Anyway, there were only two bags left and he was going to buy them both but he gave one to me.”

“That was nice of him.”

“Yeah. It was. I gave him my cranberry recipe as a thank-you.”

Nikki sucked in a breath. “You gave it to him and you won’t even give it to me?”

“Fine. I’ll text it to you.” Noelle scrolled to the outgoing text with the recipe and sent a copy to her sister. Nikki’s phone chimed a few seconds later and Noelle said, “There. You have it now. Happy?”

“Yes. Thank you.” Nikki continued to tap away on her phone before raising her eyes to Noelle. “Okay. I’ve put everything in your app dashboard. You’re all set up, or rather he’s all set up. Remember to save that Build-A-Boyfriend number into your contacts under Nathan. It will be good proof.”

“Proof for whom? Who’s going to see the texts on my phone?”

“Everyone you show them to at the Christmas party when you’re telling them about how great your new boyfriend, Nathan, is and reading them what sweet things he is going to text to you.”

Picking up her phone again, Noelle sighed deeply. She spotted the number with the local area code and hit the button to create a new contact. She narrated her actions aloud for her bossy sister. “Create new contact. N-A-T-H-A-N. Save. Anything else, boss?”

“Well, you’re going to have to text him back so he can respond. That’s how it works.”

“Stop saying ‘him’ likes it’s a real guy.” Noelle tried not to think that at best her texts would be from some bored Build-A-Boyfriend employee, and at worst from a computer.

“If you don’t start acting like he’s real, how do you expect anyone else to believe it?” Nikki cocked a brow and ignored Noelle’s pout. “Now, go put on something cute and festive. We need to go out and start faking some dates.”

Noelle wasn’t sure she had the ability to be cute or festive right now. “Why?”

“For the pictures. We’ll take some of you getting your Christmas tree. Oh, and bring an extra sweater and a scarf or hat with you so we can fake a few different dates to post all throughout the week.” Nikki stopped her planning long enough to shoot Noelle a glare. “What are you waiting for? Go.”

“Fine.” Rolling her eyes, Noelle slid off the stool and turned toward the hall.

“And put on some makeup. You look like death.”

“Thanks.” She shot her sister a glare over her shoulder.

Nikki responded with a broad grin. “You’re welcome. Ooh and mistletoe. We definitely have to buy some mistletoe. We can take a picture of it hanging up. It’ll be perfect.”

Nikki continued talking as Noelle walked away. Her only concession was to raise her voice louder.

In her bedroom, Noelle shook her head at this whole thing. Faking a relationship was a lot of work. It might be easier just to find a real man.

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New Release! Romanced by a SEAL (Hot SEALs)

Jon and Ali have been together since I started the Hot SEALs series in 2014. They met in Book 1 Night with a SEAL and, as readers and reviewers have so lovingly pointed out, Jon never proposed . . . until now! But you know the course of true love never did run smooth and that’s true here as well. Ali is making Jon work for it! Please enjoy the below excerpt from ROMANCED BY A SEAL, available now in eBook and paperback.

Hot SEAL s Book 9

Romanced by a SEAL (Hot SEALs)

As a SEAL, Jon Rudnick dodged copper and lead without flinching, but just the thought of one tiny gold band around his ring finger has always sent him into a cold sweat. Love is one thing, but marriage is another. He’s not sure he’s ready for that just yet . . . until a near miss serves as a wake-up call he can’t ignore.

Now he’s ready, but his girlfriend Ali has gone from rushing him toward the altar, to running in the opposite direction at full speed. Hell if Jon can figure out why, but he knows one thing. All’s fair in love and war and he’s not going to rest until he makes Ali his again. This time for good.

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Romanced by a SEAL Hot SEALs #9

Romanced by a SEAL Excerpt

Jon drove faster than he should have given the conditions and it wasn’t long before he stood at the door of his condo.

He drew in a big breath as the emotions he’d kept on lockdown while he’d been gone started to surface, unlocked the door and swung it open.

The first sight to greet him was Ali, curled up on the sofa, wrapped in a blanket.

At the sound of his entering, she spun around. Her eyes flew wide when she saw him in the doorway . . . before they narrowed beneath her frown.

“Nice to see you made it home alive. And nice to see that you finally shaved.” She’d obviously gotten over her shock of seeing him home and had moved right on to her anger over him being gone.

It didn’t take a genius to see she was good and pissed at him, but he didn’t care. He’d been to hell, danced with the devil and made it back to her and he’d be damned if he wasn’t going to at least kiss her now.

Determined, he strode across the room, pulled her off the sofa and drew her to him in an embrace that was as much for his benefit as hers.

She let him hold her, but she remained stiff in his arms. He decided to take what he could get and be grateful.

“I know you’re mad but it’s so good to hold you.” The words were muffled as he clasped her tight and buried his face against her hair. She smelled familiar and felt like home.

He’d missed her. He didn’t realize how much until now while she was in his arms. He pulled back and tipped her face up. There was no controlling the urge to take her mouth.

The danger of posing as an ISIS fighter hadn’t scared him as much as knowing that just days away from being safely home and with Ali he’d nearly died.

It only proved what he knew already. No one could predict what could happen or when. He could live to a hundred or he could die tomorrow. It was about time he started really living.

“God, I missed you.” The words were barely out before he crushed his mouth against hers.

Overwhelmed by the need to feel safe and alive, he kissed her hard and thoroughly. The long list of miracles that had brought him home mostly unscathed grew by one more when Ali didn’t push him away.

She sank into his kiss, clinging to him through the jacket he’d never taken the time to remove.

He wanted to get her to the bedroom. Wanted the clothes separating them—his damp ones and her warm ones—gone.

But he wanted something else more.

Breaking the kiss, he blurted out the words that would make her his for the rest of his life. “Marry me.”

She pulled back from him. “What?”

“Marry me.” Now that he’d said it once, the words spilled out even easier.

Her eyes narrowed. “Why are you asking me that now?”

“What?” He was too confused to comprehend her frown or the suspicion in her tone. Wasn’t this what she’d wanted?

“Did you come right here or stop somewhere first?”

Further confused by that question, he said, “I stopped at the office.”

Her nostrils flared. She was mad he went to the office?

He continued, trying to diffuse this bomb while blind. “I had to. My truck was parked in the lot. And my house keys were there too. Ali, I don’t know what’s happening here. All I know is I want to marry you.”

“You didn’t before you left.”

“I did. I just—”

“I can’t be here with you right now.” After cutting him off she moved toward the door.

What the fuck had just happened?

How could things have gone to shit so fast? All he’d done was try to give her what she wanted. What he now realized he wanted too.

He knew one thing, as the tears streamed down her face and she struggled to get her shoes on by the door, he wasn’t going to be able to reason with her now.

“Ali. You stay. I’ll go.” Confused at why she refused to be under the same roof as him, Jon still wasn’t going to make her go out in the rain just to get away from him.

He knew he could crash at Chris and Brody’s apartment for the night. The office was probably a better bet. He really didn’t want to deal with any questions. This was his mess and he’d deal with it on his own in private.

“No. You stay. This is your place. It was never mine. I can sleep at Darci’s. She already offered me Rick’s bedroom.”

Why the hell would Darci be offering her a place to sleep when Ali was living with him? What had happened while he’d been gone? Had Ali been confiding in Darci about wanting to leave him?

He had a feeling he wouldn’t like the answer.

Meanwhile, Ali continued to ramble as she reached for her jacket. “Sierra’s in LA filming a movie and Rick will be out there with her for the next few weeks. It’s been all over the television . . . but you wouldn’t know that since you haven’t been around.”

He didn’t argue that he probably wouldn’t have known about Sierra and her movie even if he had been around. If Rick wasn’t Darci’s brother, and Darci wasn’t Ali’s best friend, Sierra Cox wouldn’t even be on Jon’s radar.

He honestly couldn’t give a shit where Rick was at the moment. All he could focus on was that she was leaving for some reason he couldn’t even begin to guess. “Ali, I don’t want you to go. Can’t we talk about this?”

Dry-eyed now, she just shook her head. “I’m not sure you know what you want, Jon.”

There was no anger in the statement. Just resignation.

Jon would rather she yell at him. Rant. Throw things.

At least that would show some passion and make him feel as if she cared. Not like this new freakish calm that had settled over her as she grabbed her purse and walked out the door and out of his life.

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Did you miss Jon & Ali’s backstory? Read it in NIGHT WITH A SEAL

Night with a SEAL Hot SEALs series

Countdown to Release Day Excerpt

Romanced by a SEAL releases July 12th. That’s one reason that makes this the perfect time to reread the story of how Jon and Ali met in NIGHT WITH A SEAL if you already own it or to grab Night with a SEAL now if you haven’t read it yet, because the new release is the story readers have been asking for. Jon is finally proposing to Ali! Coincidentally, the 4th of July holiday is coming up and Jon and Ali meet at a barbecue on the fourth in Night with a SEAL! I love a theme. Enjoy the 4th of July excerpt below.

Night with a SEAL in eBook, paperback & audio~

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Hot SEALs 1

~Excerpt~

“So how far away are you?” Darci asked.

“I don’t know. Not too far. What’s the big hurry?” Ali was on her way to a Fourth of July barbecue, not trying to catch a flight at the airport.

“A bunch of Rick’s friends are here already.”

Ali glanced at the clock on the dashboard. “It’s barely even two yet. I thought that’s when you said to come over.”

“I know, but from what I’ve seen, SEALs are never late. Not even the retired ones.”

Ali still didn’t see the need to rush. It wasn’t like she was the one bringing the appetizers, or more importantly the beer. Then Darci might have reason to panic. Ali could imagine that Darci’s brother could easily freak out if he’d invited all his Navy buddies over and there wasn’t any beer when they arrived.

To appease her friend, Ali said, “I’ll be there in a couple of minutes.”

“Good. There’s someone I want you to meet.”

The reason for Darci’s persistence was suddenly very apparent to Ali. “Um, no.”

“Why not?”

“Because I told you I don’t want to be fixed up with anybody.” Ali scowled at the mere thought.

“I think you’ll change your mind once you meet him. Dark hair. Cut muscles. Six-foot-two and eyes of blue.”

“So now we’re rhyming? Stop. It’s creepy. You’re like some weird cross between Dr. Seuss and the Millionaire Matchmaker.”

Darci let out a laugh. “Well, Rick and his friends certainly aren’t millionaires, but they are hot. I can promise you that. The US Navy churns out men with some of the hardest bodies you’ve ever seen. And I don’t mean like those pumped up steroid-filled monsters you find at the gym. These guys are in seriously good shape. They work them until they’re completely exhausted to simulate the stress of combat.”

“How do you know all this?” Ali frowned. “I thought all this SEAL stuff was top secret.”

“Pfft. Thanks to the media, there’s not much that stays secret for long nowadays. Besides, that Rick had to do hundreds of sit-ups and push-ups and stuff like that when he was active isn’t exactly classified information. I mean who cares if the enemy knows our guys are in tip-top condition? That should only make them think twice about trying anything. Right?”

“I guess.” What did Ali know about national security? Not much, that’s what. But she did know her friend was as single as she was, which raised a good question. “So if they’re so hot, why aren’t you dating one of them?”

“I can’t date one of Rick’s teammates. I know them too well. They’re like brothers to me. Before he got out, Rick was with these guys practically twenty-four-seven.”

That brought up another question—or more an objection disguised in the form of a question. Alison remembered just last year when Rick was still in the military and he disappeared. He not only hadn’t told Darci where he was or what he was doing, he also didn’t respond to any of her attempts to contact him. For weeks. Darci had absolutely flipped out, convinced he was dead and the Navy just hadn’t told her and their parents yet.

To this day Darci didn’t know where he’d been. Security was that tight. Ali wasn’t sure she was up for that kind of stress in a relationship. Dating a nice boring normal guy was hard enough without the challenges of operational security thrown in.

“This guy you’re so hot to set me up with, is he still in the military or is he out like your brother?”

Not having come from a military background, it was very odd for her to be talking about guys just a few years older than herself as having retired from their Navy career, even if Rick had been forced to get out because of his knee issues. But like Darci said, the life of a SEAL was rough, which she supposed made it a younger man’s game. No different than being a top professional athlete, she guessed.

“He’s still active duty,” Darci answered.

Ali let out a frustrated huff. “Forget about it. Now I’m really not interested. I’m not about to get seriously involved with a guy who’s away all the time on secret missions. I have a bad enough track record with men who actually stay put.”

“Fine, then don’t start anything long term. Have a fling instead.”

“I can’t do that.” Ali’s voice squeaked over Darci’s suggestion.

“Why not? I sure as hell won’t judge you.”

Darci better not judge. In the two years they’d worked together at the bank, Ali had acted as Darci’s wingman for more than a few of her friend’s hook-ups.

Alison didn’t mention that and moved right on to answering the question. “I’m not going to have a fling with him because I’m sure Navy SEALs have so many women who want to sleep with them, they have to beat them all off with a stick. I am not going to get in that line just so I can be another notch in one of their belts.”

Thanks to the military installations at Dam Neck and Little Creek, being anywhere in this part of Virginia meant that the bars were always full of women looking for SEALs and men, both Navy and civilian, taking advantage of that fact.

“Just please, Ali. Keep an open mind until you meet Jon. Okay?”

“Okay.” At least Ali knew his name now. She’d know to avoid this Jon during the barbecue before Darci embarrassed them both by blatantly throwing them together.

“So how close are you now?” Darci asked, still sounding a bit too enthusiastic for Ali’s arrival.

God, save her from well meaning friends. Ali sighed. “Relax. I’m on your street, and if you let me get off the phone so I can park the car, I’ll get there even faster.”

“Good. Hurry up.” Darci disconnected the call while Ali drew in a bracing breath and prepared for what would greet her at this party.

Sometimes being single was too much work, especially amid do-gooder friends trying to play matchmaker.

Ali pulled up to park behind a truck so large her fuel-efficient economy car almost fit beneath it. No doubt it belonged to one of these SEALs Darci was so hot for Ali to meet. While these guys were off saving the world, they should probably also consider the environment and the impact their gas-guzzlers had on it.

As Ali flipped down the visor she shook her head, mad first at Darci and then at herself for feeling the need to check her hair and make up before she went inside.

This barbecue had gone from low key to stressful in the span of one phone call. She even began to second-guess her outfit. The sundress showed enough skin to make her look like she was inviting male attention, when in reality she’d worn it because of the heat. The same reason she’d put her hair up instead of leaving it down for the day.

Too late to change anything now. She slid her sunglasses on—they’d be a good shield so she could unobtrusively observe the others and avoid eye contact—and opened the door. Time to face the music . . . or at least her interfering friend and some SEALs.

Ali walked around the car and was almost to the path before she remembered to grab the potato salad out of the trunk. Darci’s phone call had her all distracted, and for nothing too because there was no way she was going to fall for or have a fling with one of the guys here today.

That resolve firmly in place, she strode to the front doorstep, where she had to work to balance the plastic container filled with potato salad between her arm and hip so she could hit the doorbell.

“Need a hand?” The deep, masculine voice startled her.

Ali jumped and nearly fumbled the very container she’d been struggling not to drop. She hadn’t seen the guy come around the corner of the house. He’d stalked silently across the grass like a ninja or, she supposed, a SEAL.

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New Release Today! Wed to a SEAL (Read a new Excerpt)

Wed to a SEAL Hot SEALs Teaser

WED TO A SEAL (HOT SEALS)

Marry her. It was a crazy idea… and the more he thought about it, the better he liked it.
In his career as a Navy SEAL, Rocky Mangiano has been called a Jersey boy, and a Yankee, and a few other choice names he shouldn’t repeat in mixed company, but never has anyone called him daddy. If the bundle of joy he finds on the doorstep is any indication, things are about to change and he has no clue what to do about it.
When the baby’s single mother enters the picture things get even more crazy, but given the fringe benefits that come along with the complications of their marriage of convenience, Rocky’s not complaining. Not one little bit.

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Wed to a SEAL Excerpt

He’d been at the club for fun countless times, which made it particularly odd being there today for this self appointed close personal protection assignment.

Enlightening was an even better word than odd.

Rocky usually thought of himself as more observant than the average person. It came with the job. But it was becoming more than obvious that he sure as hell didn’t employ his skills of observation when he came to the club looking for mindless pleasure.

How many hours had he sat in this very room and never noticed the security cameras? And was the music always so god-awful and so loud?

His phone vibrated in the pocket of the jacket he wore to hide his shoulder holster. He pulled it out and saw Rick’s name on the readout.

He hit the button to answer and pressed it to his ear. “Hey.”

“Where are you?” Rick asked, though it was damn hard to hear him.

“I’m still at the club. Her shift’s got another two hours or so.”

“Any sign of Isabel’s Latin lover yet?”

Rocky hated that reference. It reminded him too much that a man who didn’t come close to deserving Isabel in any way had already had all of the pleasures with her that Rocky could only dream of experiencing.

“Nope. Just a handful of young sailors with their attention glued to the girls.”

And the three minutes that Isabel had been on stage in front of the leering boys had been pretty damn stressful . . . for both of them.

She’d kept her eyes on the audience, no doubt watching for Tito. Rocky had done the same, while keeping just as close an eye on the kids from the base to make sure none of them got out of line with her.

Then there was the other thing that he had to deal with—trying not to leer himself.

He couldn’t believe he’d never noticed Isabel before, because she was exactly his type. A dark-haired beauty rounded in all the right places.

Of course, he’d been away a lot and she had to be new here given the fact she’d had Lola only a few months ago.

“Tough job you assigned yourself there, bud.” Rick’s displeasure at the division of labor came through clearly in his tone and brought Rocky back to the conversation.

Even if he hadn’t heard the baby crying in the background above the sound of the music in the club, Rocky would have known Rick was unhappy.

“What’s up with Lola?” he asked.

“No clue. Darci and Ali changed her. Fed her. Danced around with her while singing songs. We’re running out of ideas here.”

“Not that I know what I’m doing any more than you do, but did you burp her?”

“I’ll pass that question on to the girls and see if they did.”

“I can grab Isabel and ask her if you really need—”

“Nah. Don’t bother her yet. She’s got enough to worry about. If we can’t get the baby settled down soon, I’ll give you a call back. Maybe I’ll call Thom.”

Rocky laughed at that. “I think you should. Why shouldn’t he get to share in the fun?”

“Right. Oh, and Jon just left. He said he’s going to keep an eye on the club parking lot. Make sure Tito’s not hoping to get to her there.”

“Good idea.”

Rick snorted. “My opinion? He just wanted to get away from the babysitting duty but yeah, it was a sound enough plan I couldn’t stop him from going. And there’s no way Darci will let me or Chris leave when she and Ali are stuck here with the kid.”

“Chris is there too?”

“Yup. One of the duties of dating my sister. He has to do what she says. But he’s as useless when it comes to babies as the rest of us.” Rick paused. “Oh thank God, she’s quiet.”

“What did you do?”

The sound of Rick walking was followed by a soft laugh. “It looks like Chris got the idea to put her on top of the dryer while it’s running.”

“Jesus. Is that safe?”

“She’s strapped in the car seat. We’ll have to watch and make sure the seat doesn’t vibrate off but hell, that’s worth it for some quiet.”

Rocky cringed at the image of Lola and the seat toppling off the machine. “Please don’t let her fall on her head.”

“Dude, I think four adults can handle one tiny baby.”

Rick hadn’t sounded so certain of that just a few minutes ago, but Rocky let it go. “I’ll call to check in later.”

“You just worry about Perez. We got it covered.”

“I’m calling anyway.”

“Fine. Talk to you later.” Rick disconnected and Rocky tried to not worry.

“Another water?”

Rocky turned to the bartender and saw the unhappy expression on his face. He reached for his wallet and pulled out a bill. “You can make it a diet soda this time. I’m sorry. I’m not drinking today.”

The hulking older man reached for a glass as he eyed Rocky. “You’re not watching the girls all that much either, so what are you doing here?”

“Just helping out a friend.”

The man glanced around the bar. “Well, you were here before them.” He lifted a chin in the direction of the seamen, all clad in NAVY T-shirts. “And they don’t look like they need any help from you, so I’m figuring it must be one of my girls.”

Your girls?”

He tipped his head. “Yup. I’m the owner of this club.”

“Oh.” He turned to face the man more fully and extended his right hand. “Rocky Mangiano.”

The man gripped his with his own beefy hand. “Pete O’Neill. You Navy?”

No use denying that. It was on the damn bumper sticker on his truck in the parking lot. He should probably peel that thing off but for now, he nodded. “Yeah.”

“You involved with one of my dancers?”

“No. Well, yes, but not in the way you’re insinuating.”

“Wasn’t insinuating anything. I’m outright asking.” The man’s gaze was steady as it held Rocky’s.

Rocky was usually a pretty good judge of character and this man struck him as trustworthy. “Isabel.”

The man’s brows rose. “Since you know the name I cut her checks to and not her stage name, I’m going to take that as a yes, you are involved.”

“It’s not as simple as that.” Rocky leaned in, keeping is voice as low as he could and still be heard over the pounding dance music. “You know she has a kid?”

“I think I’ve heard that, yeah.”

“Well, I’m here to make sure both Isabel and Lola stay safe.”

“Safe from whom?”

“Someone from her past who’s bad news.”

“The kid’s father?”

Surprised he’d guessed, Rocky said, “I didn’t say that.”

“You didn’t have to.” The bartender leaned closer. “I figured there was some reason she showed up here looking for a job. We get all kinds of girls working here, but not usually like her.”

“Meaning what? What’s she like?”

“Shy. Timid almost.” He shook his head. “Her audition was so bad, I honestly only gave her the job because I felt sorry for her.”

Rocky frowned. “She didn’t look so bad up there today.”

“That’s because the other girls took her under their wing. Taught her. She’s a quick learner and a hard worker. Now she’s got a couple of months here, you’d never know she was so completely wrong for this job when she started.”

Rocky wasn’t sure if Isabel being such an accomplished stripper now was a good thing, but he could agree completely she was bright and a hard worker. He could see that himself.

“You know, I pride myself on making sure my girls are safe.”

“I didn’t mean any offense that you’re not doing a good job, but we’re not talking an overzealous admirer here.”

“I guess not or she wouldn’t need hired muscle.”

Rocky snorted. “Since she’s not paying me, I’m not exactly hired muscle.”

“No. You’re just a friend.”

Rocky nodded. “Yup.”

The bartender pulled his mouth into a crooked smile. “Okay. Got it. And if she needs any time off to deal with this situation, she’s got it. The girls are good about taking extra shifts.”

“Thanks. That’s helpful. I’ll tell her. She was worried about taking time off.”

“No problem. Oh, and by the way, your friend is about to take the stage again.”

Rocky spun toward the raised, spotlighted wooden runway as the bartender chuckled behind him.

At the moment, he didn’t give a shit what the club’s owner thought. Besides, the man was right. Rocky wanted to be much more than Isabel’s friend . . . particularly now as she strutted her stuff across the stage.

He’d never felt so torn in all his life. Half of him wanted to wrap a blanket around her to hide the costume that showed much too much skin. He’d love to jump up on that stage, toss her over his shoulder and take her far away from all the gawking eyes on her now.

The other half of him had gone dry in the mouth as he watched her bend at the waist and stick her tempting ass high in the air. That half wanted to jump on stage too, but not to cover her up. Rather to strip her down and take what she so artfully offered.

It was just a show, he reminded himself. That offer wasn’t real at all and it wasn’t for him. It was for every man in the room willing to part with a dollar—or twenty—so she could pay her rent and support her daughter.

That thought brought him back around full circle and he wanted her off that stage and back safe at Rick’s place with Lola.

He noticed the icy glass of soda the bartender had set on the cocktail napkin by his elbow on the bar. Rocky drew in a long slow sip through the straw.

Maybe he should order a drink. Between the guilt, the desire, and the hard-on pressing against the zipper of his jeans he sure as hell felt like he needed one about now.

The guilt wasn’t enough to keep his eyes off the stage though, or his mind from slipping into lurid thoughts of Isabel.

He should probably just go sit with that group of drooling sailors who were now standing so they could better shove dollar bills into the very few items she still had on.

Rocky curled his hand into a fist and drew in an angry breath.

The bartender’s laugh had him glancing at the man, who grinned and shook his head. “It takes a lot of strength to be able to handle falling for a girl in this profession.”

He opened his mouth to say he hadn’t fallen for her, until he realized he didn’t believe his own bullshit, so there was no way the bartender was going to.

Instead, Rocky tipped his head. “Yeah. I’m starting to realize that.”

What’s next in the Hot SEALs series? Check out ROMANCED BY A SEAL, on preorder now for a July 12th eBook and paperback release.

Romanced by a SEAL Hot SEALs Book 9

To see the entire Hot SEALs Series Click Here

Countdown to Release Day Excerpt: Wed to a SEAL

WED TO A SEAL (HOT SEALS)

Marry her. It was a crazy idea… and the more he thought about it, the better he liked it.
In his career as a Navy SEAL, Rocky Mangiano has been called a Jersey boy, and a Yankee, and a few other choice names he shouldn’t repeat in mixed company, but never has anyone called him daddy. If the bundle of joy he finds on the doorstep is any indication, things are about to change and he has no clue what to do about it.
When the baby’s single mother enters the picture things get even more crazy, but given the fringe benefits that come along with the complications of their marriage of convenience, Rocky’s not complaining. Not one little bit.
Wed to a SEAL in eBook & Print April 12th

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Preorder today and wake up to Rocky on Tuesday!

Wed to a SEAL

Wed to a SEAL Excerpt

“Holy shit. Whose is that?” At Jon’s question, Rocky couldn’t take it any longer.

He edged past the blockage and finally got a look around Jon at what all the cursing was about.

A car seat containing a baby sat in the center of the dining room table. And surrounding the table were three very unhappy looking women.

Darci crossed her arms. “That’s exactly what I’d like to know.”

“Zane’s maybe?” Rick lifted one shoulder. “He was a real dog before he got together with Missy.”

The usually lovely and perfectly composed Sierra Cox, at least when he’d seen her on television, didn’t look as if she was buying it.

“There’s one problem with that theory. Your friend Zane doesn’t live here,” Sierra pointed out.

Darci nodded. “But you do, Rick.”

Uh oh. It looked like Rick was in big trouble as both his girlfriend and his sister presented a united front against him.

Rick stood his ground and leveled a gaze on his girlfriend. “The problem with that circumstantial evidence is that before you I lived like a monk. So no, it’s not mine if that’s what you’re both insinuating.”

Darci glanced at Sierra. “That is true. He like never dated. Ever.”

Rick scowled. “Thanks, sis. And might I remind you that you live here too? Maybe this is about you.”

Darci lifted a brow. “I think I’d know if I had a baby, Rick.”

“I didn’t mean you. I’m talking about Chris.”

Rocky watched wide-eyed as Rick threw Chris Cassidy, Darci’s boyfriend, under the bus. He’d worked with Chris on that op in Nigeria. He was a good man and all evidence indicated he’d been a good SEAL before he’d retired and joined Jon’s team on GAPS.

Darci visibly paled at her brother’s accusation.

Rocky didn’t feel right standing by silently. If Chris’s friends and former teammates didn’t defend him, he would. “Hey, now. Let’s not make any assumptions. Chris isn’t here to defend himself.”

Meanwhile the baby, already squirming in the seat, began to wail. The noise only seemed to ramp up the tension in the room.

No one made a move toward the baby and the screaming continued. It probably went on for less than a minute but it felt like an eternity.

A crying baby was one of those sounds that grated on the nerves pretty fast.

Finally Jon’s girlfriend Ali stepped forward. “For goodness sake. If no one is going to pick up the poor child, I will.”

Instinct and training kicked in for Rocky. A terrorist wouldn’t think twice about wiring a baby seat to explode. He took one step forward. “No!”

Almost simultaneously, Jon shouted, “Ali, don’t!”

Rick ran for Sierra and shoved both her and Darci into the kitchen as Thom dropped to the floor and shielded his head with his forearms.

All of them had to be thinking the same thing. As SEALs they’d all been in too many hellholes in the world where US forces would go to investigate a body or help what appeared to be a person in need, only to be blown to bits when they got close.

Heart pounding, Rocky watched Ali release the buckle and slide her hands beneath the crying baby’s arms.

The whole scene seemed to move in slow motion. She lifted the baby from the car seat before Jon got to her.

Seconds ticked by in the surreal way they do when adrenaline is pounding through the bloodstream during a crisis. But the explosion never came.

Ali frowned at Jon. “What’s wrong with you?”

“Get into the other room.” Jon shoved Ali and the baby toward the kitchen doorway, where Rick had already pushed Sierra and Darci.

Once she was clear of the immediate area, Jon bent low to peer beneath the car seat on the table. Thom hoisted himself off the floor as Rocky stepped forward to join Jon in examining the seat.

Sad but true, the innocent-looking baby seat could be wired with explosives. The fact they were standing in Rick’s dining room in Virginia in the good old United States didn’t matter. ISIS was here in America. That was a proven fact.

“What do you think?” Rocky asked Jon.

“Hell if I know.” Jon glanced up at Thom. “Get over here. You have kids. You’re the only one who knows what this thing is supposed to look like.”

Thom stepped forward and bent low too, the three of them squinting at a contraption that looked innocuous enough—to a person who hadn’t spent the last decade of their life searching for threats around every turn and beneath every rock.

Darci peeked past Rick’s bulk as he blocked the women in the kitchen. “You guys are ridiculous.”

Rick scowled. “Darci, be quiet and let us figure out what’s going on.”

“How about you read that note that fell out of the blanket when Ali picked up the baby? Maybe it will give you men folk a clue while us helpless women hide in the kitchen.”

Darci’s statement about a note had Rocky tearing his gaze away from the seat. He searched the area beneath the table. Sure enough a paper was resting on the carpet by Jon’s feet.

Jon bent to pick it up. He lifted a brow and then glanced up. “Rocky?”

“Yeah?”

“It seems this delivery is for you.”

Rocky’s eyes flew wide. “What?”

Thom leaned closer to Jon to inspect the paper. “Yup. Says Rocky right there on it, plain as day. Dude, what have you been doing?”

CATCH UP WITH THE REST OF THE HOT SEALS HERE

Hot SEALs Series

NEW RELEASE EXCERPT: the final Midnight Cowboys novel is out!

Midnight Heat by Cat Johnson review quote graphic

MIDNIGHT HEAT (Midnight Cowboys)

“Johnson does what she has always excelled at doing: pairing a wonderfully unlikely pair in an inventive unique scenario and showing how they work together.” RT Book Reviews

“[Johnson’s] sensitivity to difficult topics is evident in her skillful storytelling.” Publishers Weekly on Midnight Heat 

He needs to escape… Justin Skaggs is on the road to anywhere—as long as it’s far from home—when fate throws a kindred spirit across his path.

She needs to get to Oklahoma… Phoenix Montagno can’t believe her luck when she runs into the hottie from the bar. He’s the key to her getting everything she’s always wanted, but she can’t tell him that. Luckily he’s not interested in learning her story any more than he is in sharing his.

Both have secrets they don’t want to share… It’s the perfect arrangement. No personal details. No talking at all. Just two strangers sharing the cab of a truck heading the direction they both need to go . . . until they decide to share a bed, too.

Midnight Heat now in eBook, Print & Audio

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EXCERPT

The headlights hitting a bright yellow Volkswagen in the driveway caught his attention first. Followed shortly by the girl from the bar, walking away from the front door toward the car in the driveway.

What the hell?

He checked the reflective numbers posted on the mailbox and compared that to what Rohn had scrawled on a piece of paper. Yup, this was the place all right.

The only question was, how did the sweet young thing with car trouble fit into this puzzle?

The best thing to do was just ask her. He pulled up along the curb so as not to block her in the driveway.

She glanced up and stumbled to a stop when she saw the truck and trailer. He saw her eyes widen even from the distance. She continued to look surprised as he cut the engine, swung the door open, and stepped down from the truck.

After walking around the truck, Justin squinted at the Volkswagen. By the light of the street lamp he saw it had California plates. Whoever she was, she was definitely not a local, and that ruled out his real estate agent theory.

He ambled up the driveway. When he got closer to the woman, she asked, “What are you doing here?”

Amused by her questioning of him, Justin lifted a brow. “Well, howdy to you, too. And as for what I’m doing here, I was wondering the same thing about you.”

His comment seemed to stump her. “Uh, I was . . . um . . . looking for the homeowner.” She tripped over her own words, which only made Justin more interested in who she was and why she was here and acting so nervous.

Moving to her car, he leaned against the door, effectively blocking her escape should she try to make one before offering him an acceptable, believable explanation. For some reason—whether it was her body language or his gut instinct—he didn’t believe her so far.

“The homeowner, huh? And who is that?”

“Bonnie Martin.” Her correct answer, delivered in a firm tone, threw him.

“And who might you be?” Justin asked.

She hesitated just a second before saying, “Phoenix Montagno.”

He would have thought she was lying, but who the hell could make up a name like that?

Had she come back with Jane Smith, there’s no way he would have believed her.

“Who are you?” She crossed her arms to mirror his stance and turned the question back to him.

“Justin Skaggs.” He gave her a minimal answer, still not certain why she was there or trusting her completely, even if she had supplied Bonnie’s name.

“What business do you have here?” Her gaze cut to the truck and trailer as she followed up with a second question.

Justin wasn’t quite ready to answer that just yet. “I believe I asked you the same thing.”

“I told you. I’m here to see the homeowner.”

“Bonnie Martin.” He tipped his head in a nod. “Yup, that you did, but you didn’t say why.”

“That’s a private matter.”

“So is my reason for being here.” He wasn’t about to tell this stranger that the house was unoccupied. Not until he had more information on the girl.

Sad but true, even cute-as-a-button girl-next-door types could be up to no good. He figured it said a lot about his maturity that he could ignore the perky breasts beneath the tight T-shirt and remember that. He was pretty proud of himself.

“You’re not going to tell me?” A deep frown creased her brow.

“Nope.” He grinned. Justin was enjoying this back and forth with the mysterious and lovely Phoenix.

She blew out a breath and looked totally baffled at his unwillingness to give her information. “Then I guess we’re at a standoff.”

“I guess we are.” He glanced down at her car, which he was still leaning on. At first glance, the vehicle seemed just fine to him. “I see the car got better.”

He used her own words from the bar regarding the car to tease her.

“I drove it here.” She didn’t offer any further explanation.

“So I see.” Suspicious bastard that he was, Justin started to wonder if it ever had been broken down to begin with, or if she’d lied for some unknown reason.

There’d been a time, not too many years ago, when Justin would have taken this woman at face value and not cared about more than how to get her alone and naked.

Again, he supposed this was another sign of his maturity.

Sometimes acting like a responsible adult sucked.

“Well, the homeowner isn’t here, but I’ll be sure to tell her you stopped by.” He had the house key Rohn had given him in his pocket. He pushed off the girl’s car and fished out the key. He tipped his hat to the blonde as he passed. “Have a good day.”

He moved to the front stoop, opened the storm door, and slid the key into the lock.

“Wait.”

The girl’s voice had him turning. “Yes?”

“You have the key?” she asked, though it was obvious he did.

“Yup.” He pushed the front door open and then slid the key out of the lock as evidence. He let the storm door slam closed and remained outside on the front step.

“And you know Bonnie Martin?” That adorable little furrow creasing her forehead as he confused her was too damn cute. It made him want to tease her more.

“That’s how I have the key.” He held it up, letting it dangle between two fingers for her to see. She took a step toward the house, while he stayed on the stoop, waiting to see what she had to say next. “You wanna tell me why you’re so interested?”

“I’m just, you know, interested in speaking with Ms. Martin.”

“I’m getting that. My question is, why? Who are you? And what has you driving all the way from California just to see her?”

“I told you, that’s—”

Justin nodded. “None of my business. Yes, so you’ve said before. I’m afraid I can’t answer your questions if you can’t answer mine. Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s been a long day and I still got stuff to do.”

He waited a beat. When she didn’t offer a valid explanation for her presence or a reason for not answering what should be simple questions, he gave up. Drawing in a breath, he took one last look at the cute but evasive girl by the car and then turned back to the house.

He should have been taking inventory of the house. Seeing whether everything would fit in the trailer, how neat he’d have to be while packing it all in. Determining if he could lift the sofa by himself or if he’d have to get the neighbors’ help.

That was what Justin should be concentrating on.

Instead, he leaned against the wall to one side of the front window and peered at the driveway through the crack in the blinds.

READ ANOTHER MIDNIGHT HEAT EXCERPT HERE

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THE MIDNIGHT COWBOYS SERIES Available Now

Midnight Cowboys Series by Cat Johnson

You never forget your first… Midnight Wrangler Excerpt

You Never Forget Your First quote graphic

Read on for an excerpt from Cat Johnson’s hot cowboy romance, Midnight Wrangler

Midnight Wrangler (MIdnight Cowboys Series) Cat Johnson

One Lonely Widower… One Woman with a Secret… One Night That Changes Everything…

Rohn Lerner is a successful Oklahoma rancher. He’s old enough to know what he likes, and still young enough to enjoy it. But losing his wife five years ago wore him thin. He’s not ready to date, but he needs someone to share a meal with as badly as someone to warm his bed.

 Bonnie Martin fled her Oklahoma home years ago, leaving behind her abusive father, and Rohn, the lost love she never forgot. Now she’s back to settle her father’s estate, but she has no idea that she’s about to bump into Rohn or that they’ll fall for each other all over again.

MIDNIGHT WRANGLER EXCERPT:

Rohn had just stepped out of the truck when a woman who looked too familiar to be a stranger caught his attention. He squinted through the midday glare, frowning, until recognition hit him like sledgehammer to the chest.

A smile bowed Rohn’s lips. It had been a long time, but it was her. Yeah, she had changed a bit. She was older, a bit curvier, but he’d recognize her anywhere. From the blond curls that had tickled his cheek when they’d embraced, to the curve of the hips he’d held on to tight in the bed of his truck where they’d first made love, he knew her. Even twenty-five years later.

In deference to the heat, she wore a tank top that showed enough of her creamy white skin that he could see she was still as fair-skinned as ever. Her shoulders were pink on top, proving that just like when he’d known her, she’d still freckle and burn rather than tan.

Back in the day she would have been wearing cut-off shorts, Daisy Dukes that showed off her legs to such advantage that Rohn had been able to think of nothing else but having her thighs wrapped around him. Today she wore knee-length khaki shorts, but that didn’t stop him from picturing what lush curves were hidden underneath.

Gone were the cowboy boots she used to love to wear every day on the farm, even in the summer. In their place were sandals that let her toes peek out.

She stood with her back to him as she held the door open for an older couple walking out. When they stopped to say thank you, she turned her head enough that he could see her face.

If he hadn’t been one hundred percent certain before, he was now. He took a few long strides in her direction. “Can it be? Bonnie?”

She turned at the sound of his voice. When her eyes widened, he knew she recognized him, too. “Uh, yeah. It’s me. I didn’t know you were still in town.”

“Yup. Never left. I own a place not far from here. Cattle ranch.”

“Oh. Nice. Good for you.”

“Bonnie Blue Martin. Back in town. Wow.” It was still a shock. He’d been thinking about her just last week.

She let out a short laugh but it somehow lacked humor. “I haven’t heard anyone call me that since high school.”

“That’s good to hear.” Rohn cocked one brow. “I don’t know how I’d feel about some other guy using the name I used to call my girl.”

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Midnight Cowboys Series by Cat Johnson

Click to see the rest of the Midnight Cowboys Series

“Johnson…sensitively paints a sweet and sizzling contemporary romance” Publishers Weekly Starred Review
“a moving story about second chances and rediscovered love that will delight fans” RT Magazine

Making Black Friday Nice & Naughty and Red Hot

I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving! I’m staying home today and not fighting the sale crowds. If you are too, please enjoy this Black Friday EXCERPT–the complete Chapter 1 from “Mr. December” in NICE & NAUGHTY !

Nice & Naughty

MR. DECEMBER CHAPTER 1 EXCERPT
What’s better than a fireman? Twelve of them, naked, on the pages of your calendar…
The hot firemen you loved in Opposites Attract are back with their friends, but now they’re wearing a lot less clothing and heating up the holidays like never before. Be prepared for secret identities, a sizzling calendar shoot, smoldering bachelor firemen up for auction, sexy Santas and a whole lot more!

 

Jason Bryant knew two things with absolute certainty. First, working in retail during the holiday season was absolute insanity and second, he wouldn’t want it any other way. Although glancing around the already frazzled faces of his store employees, he had to wonder if he was the only one who felt that way.

Sheesh. It was only the day after Thanksgiving and they all already looked like they’d been to war and back. He’d seen happier faces in photos taken during the Great Depression.

Meanwhile, Jason couldn’t be happier as the post-holiday sale adrenaline rush surged through his body. Black Friday, the day retail institutions went from running in the red to the black often with the highest one-day intake of the year. Just the phrase took his breath away.

He rubbed his hands together and then checked his watch. Six-thirty. He clapped his hands to get the attention of the large group assembled in the break room. “People. We open in half an hour.”

There was a collective groan over the extra early opening and the extended holiday hours. He decided to continue his inspirational speech undaunted, hoping his personal contribution of fresh hot coffee and donuts would help to boost morale.

“Come on. You know the song. It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Smile. We love our customers and we want them to love us. Get some coffee, meditate, do whatever you have to, but get yourselves merry by the time those doors open in thirty minutes.”

It wasn’t exactly Shakespeare’s Saint Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V. Hell, it wasn’t even the win one for the Gipper speech from that old Ronald Reagan movie, but it would have to do.

Employees shuffled at a zombie-like pace toward the coffee as Jason considered getting an inspirational sign to hang above the door of the break room. Something like the sign that hung in the locker room at Notre Dame to inspire the football team before a game. Something to consider. He’d add it to the already lengthy list of things to do currently entered in his smartphone.

It was hard for Jason to even imagine that the seemingly living dead who were his employees didn’t share his holiday excitement. Admittedly, he may have different feelings about the day after Thanksgiving than the others in the room. He was sure all they could think about was the leftover turkey waiting in their fridge and the football games they were missing on television. While all Jason could think about was the energy that positively radiated from this old building at Christmas, until the bricks and mortar seemed to possess a life force all their own.

Bryant’s Department Store was like a gracious lady bedecked in her gayest finery during the holiday season, and every tourist and local came to admire her. Jason had loved Bryant’s at holiday time ever since his Grandpa Bryant first brought him here to sit in Santa’s lap. That was before Jason had even learned to walk. Since his grandfather’s retirement, the store was now Jason’s ship to steer, and he intended on navigating the staid local institution into an even brighter future.

Jason bounced on his toes, as if a giant ball of energy trapped in his body was trying to get out. If only he could send some of his vigor the way of those around him. He was considering some options when his assistant came up and tapped him on the shoulder.

He smiled at the older woman. “Peggy. You look festive.”

She did, dressed in a dark green pantsuit with a red berry pin. He recognized both items as being store stock and smiled. Peggy was a loyal store employee, he’d wager right down to her Bryant’s private label underwear.

Peggy, who had assisted his grandfather for over twenty years and now belonged to him, raised one painted-on eyebrow. “We’ll see how festive you feel after I tell you what’s happening.”

Jason frowned. Whatever it was, he was not going to let it ruin his first Black Friday at Bryant’s helm. He hadn’t worked his way up from stockroom clerk, to floor associate, to manager, to Chief Operating Officer to let anything get in his way now. He gripped Peggy with one hand on each of her bony shoulders and stared deeply into her eyes. “What is it, Peggy?”

She released a loud cackle. “Well, Jesus. It isn’t that bad. No one’s dead. I just got a call from the Santa who’s supposed to be here today.”

Jason nodded. “Mmm, hmm. One of the local firemen promoting the charity calendar.” There was a stack of calendars for sale at every register in the store.

“Yup. Mr. December, Troy O’Donnell, Ladder Company No. 3. Six feet tall and two hundred pounds of solid muscle, from what I can see.”

“Yes, Peggy. I get it. What about Mr. O’Donnell?”

“He ain’t coming. His girlfriend or somebody called.” Peggy waved a dismissive hand, seeming far less interested in Mr. O’Donnell’s dating status than she was in his physical attributes. “She said he’s been throwing up for hours. They’re not sure if it’s the full-blown flu or just a little stomach bug, but he was apparently up and getting dressed between bouts of vomiting. He was trying to come here for his shift when she called me so I could tell him myself, officially, that he should stay the hell home.”

He agreed, but hoped Peggy hadn’t actually used the phrase stay the hell home. “Of course he should stay home. It wouldn’t do to have Santa vomiting on the children, or spreading a stomach virus to our customers and staff.”

“That’s what I told him. But now what do we do about getting a Santa last minute?”

“Have you called the firehouse to see if they have a spare?”

Peggy laughed at that. “Have you seen those firemen in that calendar? If they do have a spare, they can send him over to my house.”

Yes, Jason had seen the nearly nude fireman calendar, all twelve months of it. Aside from selling it at his store, Peggy had it hanging in her office for almost a month now even though it didn’t officially start until January of next year. The item seemed to be very popular with the ladies. Apparently from her rundown on Mr. December, Peggy had memorized all of the hunky firemen’s stats already.

He rolled his eyes and had to smile. Peggy was seventy if she was a day.

“Stop rolling your eyes at me. I’m old. I’m not dead. And yeah, I called. They got nobody for us today. All of their fireman Santas are either on duty at the firehouse or spoken for elsewhere. They got them playing Claus all over town, you know, not just here. The children’s hospital, the library. They said they might be able to swing somebody for tomorrow if he’s still not better.”

Jason pursed his lips as an idea struck him. He’d often wanted to be a fly on the wall in the store, see what his employees were up to when he wasn’t around, hear unsolicited comments from customers. But his face was too well known in the store. This little misfortune could turn out to be a perfect opportunity.

“Peggy. We’ve got the Santa suit here, correct?”

“Yup. Up in my office. Just got it out of the dry cleaners.”

“Excellent. I’ll arrange for a Santa. Oh, and I’ll be out of touch for the day, so if anyone calls for me, just take a message.”

Peggy cocked an already sharply arching black brow at him. “What are you up to?”

He winked at her and held one finger up to his lips to indicate she should keep quiet.

She shook her head. “You’ve got the devil in you, just like your grandpa.”

Jason smiled and laid an arm around her shoulders, steering them both out the door of the break room. “And you’ve worked for us both, for over twenty years now. So what does that say about you, my dear Peggy?”

She let out a loud crackling laugh. “It says that I know I’ll have a lot more fun working for a devil than a saint, that’s what. Come on. I may have to find more padding for the suit. You’re in better shape than last year’s guy.”

He grinned at her. She knew him too well, the mark of a great assistant.

Santa Claus for a day, this was an unexpected treat. He was feeling jollier by the minute. He may not be a hunky fireman calendar model, but in the world of retail, Jason considered himself to be Mr. December. Maybe he should print his own calendar. Hunky men of retail…something for the list.

Five hours and what felt like countless hundreds of children later, Jason was reconsidering his initial opinion about the merits of the Santa Claus business. He experienced a veritable rainbow of behaviors when it came to the children, with the emphasis on naughty rather than nice. A few skeptics pulled his beard, others ran screaming in fear, and some were struck speechless in the overwhelming presence of the great Mr. Claus. There were the criers, the pants-wetters, the whiners and the demanders. Children who didn’t know what they wanted, children who wanted everything, and parents who had waited on one line too many and were ready to take it out on anyone, Old Saint Nick being no exception.

If his little walk on the jolly side served any purpose, it was to help him understand the haggard looks on the faces of his employees. And as for wanting to be a fly on the wall and listen to unsolicited comments about the store, he must remember in future to be careful what he wished for. Apparently, according to the mothers in line, Bryant’s prices were too high and the clothing too, in the words of one customer, farty. How in the world was he going to convey that comment tactfully to the buyers?

The end result was that Jason used his entire whopping fifteen-minute break entering notes and ideas for improvements into his cell phone’s organizer application. Things like more cash registers, reserved time slots for seeing Santa and fashions that were…what exactly was the opposite of farty? Hip. Stylish. Phat? He’d have to ask one of the younger female sales associates for a term relevant to today’s buyer.

Jason sighed. He was only in his thirties himself, but he was a man, not a woman. He kept up with retail trends. Hell, they had the best clothing money could buy in the men’s department. He’d thought he had his finger on the pulse of the buying public, but apparently, he was falling short in women’s fashions.

He had already taken the step to lure in younger female buyers by allowing the firemen from the charity calendar to play Santa at Bryant’s for the week after Thanksgiving this year, as well as agreeing to host their charity bachelor auction and cocktail party at the store. Jason was on the board of directors of the local children’s hospital and since the proceeds from the sales of the firemen calendar were going directly to the hospital, of course Bryant’s would help promote it. And if events like the auction attracted a younger female consumer into Bryant’s, it was a win-win situation for all.

But it appeared that simply luring a younger customer base into the store wasn’t the problem. Having something they’d be interested in purchasing, besides the hunky firemen, was. Jason would have to get out, shop the competition and see what was hot or Bryant’s was a grand old lady doomed and on the brink of extinction.

Feeling rather less than jolly, Jason took his seat—actually, his golden red velvet throne—for the afternoon round of precious little ones. The coffee he’d consumed during his break hadn’t helped revive him any, and he felt embarrassed for offering it up as inspiration to his employees that morning as if it was a cure all. Perhaps a bottle of Irish Whisky would work better. No, he could never actually do that, but at the moment, it was a tempting thought.

Then something more tempting stepped into view and Jason nearly pulled off his white wig and fake spectacles to make sure he was seeing correctly. Perhaps he was delirious because she cut the line of kiddies still being held back behind the “Feeding the Reindeer—back in 15 minutes” sign and perched her shapely behind right on his knee.

“Don’t you look cute. Can I tell you what I want for Christmas?” She treated him to a gorgeous smile, followed by an immediate frown as she hopped off his lap. “Oh my God. You’re not Troy.”

No, he wasn’t, but right then, Jason sure wished he were. He did manage to shake his head to indicate to the woman that indeed, no, he was not Troy.

“I apologize. I must have gotten my signals crossed. I thought Troy O’Donnell was supposed to be here today.”

He finally found his voice. “No apology necessary. Your friend,” at least he certainly hoped they were only friends and nothing more, “was supposed to be here today, but he’s ill.”

She frowned. “Oh. I’ll have to call him. But, I sat in your lap. I’ve gotten friendlier with you than I did with my last date. I’m so sorry.” She cringed and covered her reddened face with her hands.

He stored away that information about her unfriendly last date for later use. “No apology needed for that either. Compared to what I’ve endured today, it was my pleasure.” Jason smiled. His pleasure, indeed. He took in the tall strawberry blond and her bottomless blue eyes.

The woman of his future dreams stuck a hand out. “I’m Troy’s sister, Tessa O’Donnell. I don’t recognize you from the fireman calendar. I was the photographer. Are you from the firehouse?”

He shook her warm hand and pondered his answer. “Um, no. The store brought me in last minute.” There, that wasn’t exactly a lie.

She smiled and shook her head. “I still can’t believe stuffy old Bryant’s is holding the Hunky Firemen Bachelor Auction here.”

Hmm. Farty and now stuffy too. Jason stifled a sigh. Instead, he opted for damage control. “I actually heard that the new COO is trying for a younger image for Bryant’s.”

Tessa screwed up her face. “The new COO is still a Bryant, isn’t he? Born with a silver spoon in his mouth and a maid, nanny, butler, chauffeur and chef up his butt from the day he was born. I wish him luck, but I don’t think there’s any hope of changing Bryant’s image after all these years. Particularly for a man who has no clue what life is like in the real world.”

Jason swallowed. She’d forgotten the private tutor and the gardeners that came with his upbringing, and also that he’d moved out of the house—all right, mansion—the moment he was old enough to escape that life and prove to himself and his family he could make it in the real world. But he had been born a Bryant and was now in charge of Bryant’s. That would represent nepotism at its best in Tessa’s eyes. Forget he had worked his way up from the bottom to get where he was today. He was still his grandfather’s heir and always would be.

She glanced over her shoulder at the growing line of irate mothers and irritated children that he’d been trying, and failing, to ignore as he concentrated on her. “Looks like the crowd is getting restless, so I better get to business before they rebel. I’m actually the photographer for the auction too, so I came by to check out the site. I’m taking press shots for PR. They promised us coverage in the local paper.” She frowned. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”

“It’s Ja…um, Jay Bee.” Jason nearly groaned. He’d never been a good liar, particularly not on the fly.

She smiled and repeated, “JB, nice to meet you. You better get back to work before the big boss fires you.”

He nodded, noting that she said big boss as if he were the big bad wolf, something to be both mocked and feared at the same time. Although he could live with JB. Better than his invention of Jay Bee, and it wasn’t even really a lie, just his initials.

“Maybe I’ll come back later and take some candid shots of you and the kids, if you don’t mind.” She raised a brow, waiting for his answer.

“Um, sure.” Hopefully she wouldn’t need a name to go with the pictures or he’d have to lie about a last name. He didn’t want to lie, but he couldn’t exactly tell her he was the hated big bad boss, now could he? This was getting complicated.

“Great.” Tessa treated him to a wave and a smile, and then she was off, leaving Jason to slump in his throne.

He groaned. The first female in a long time to make his heart beat faster, and she not only hated the real him on principal, but he’d already lied to her. It didn’t bode well for their future romance. But he’d faced bigger dilemmas than this before, and a Bryant never gave up.

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Don’t miss Opposites Attract where readers first see Troy and his sexy firemen friends.