Chapter Reveal – A WISH FOR US by Tillie Cole

I am so insanely in love with the cover of A Wish For Us by Tillie Cole, I cannot wait to be able to devour this entire book! But in the meantime, I have the first chapter available for your viewing pleasure! Enjoy!!


From the author who brought you A Thousand Boy Kisses comes the new emotional novel, A Wish For Us.

A story of music. A story of healing. A story of love conquering all.

Nineteen-year-old Cromwell Dean is the rising star of electronic dance music. Thousands of people adore him. But no one knows him. No one sees the color of his heart.

Until the girl in the purple dress. She sees through the walls he has built to the empty darkness within.

When Cromwell leaves behind the gray skies of England to study music in the South Carolina heat, the last thing he expects is to see her again. And he certainly doesn’t expect that she’ll stay in his head like a song on repeat.

Bonnie Farraday lives for music. She lets every note into her heart, and she doesn’t understand how someone as talented as Cromwell can avoid doing the same. He’s hiding from his past, and she knows it. She tries to stay away from him, but something keeps calling her back.

Bonnie is the burst of color in Cromwell’s darkness. He’s the beat that makes her heart skip.

But when a shadow falls over Bonnie, it’s up to Cromwell to be her light, in the only way he knows how. He must help her find the lost song in her fragile heart. He must keep her strong with a symphony only he can compose.

A symphony of hope.

A symphony of love.

A symphony of them.

CHAPTER ONE

Cromwell

Brighton, England

The club pulsed as the beat I was pouring into the crowd took over their bodies. Arms in the air, hips swaying, eyes wide and glazed as my music slammed into their ears, the rhythmic beats controlling their every move. The air was thick and sticky, clothes slick to people’s skins as they crammed into the full club to hear me.

I watched them light up with color. Watched them get lost to the sound. Watched them shed whoever they’d been that day—an office worker, a student, a copper, a call-center worker—what the hell ever. Right now, in this club, most probably high off their faces, they were slaves to my tunes. Right here, in this moment, my music was their life. It was all that mattered as their heads flew back and they chased the high, the near nirvana I gave them from my place on the podium.

I, however, felt nothing. Nothing but the numbness the booze beside me was gifting me.

Two arms slipped around my waist. Hot breath blew past my ear as full lips kissed my neck. Spinning my final beat, I grabbed the Jack Daniels beside me and took a shot straight from the bottle. I slammed the bottle down and moved back to my laptop to mix in the next tune. Hands with sharp fingernails ran through my hair, pulling on the black strands. I tapped on the keys, bringing the music down low, slowing the beat.

My breaths lengthened as the crowd waited, lungs frozen as I brought them to a slow sway, readying for the crescendo. The epic surge of beats and drums, the insanity of the mix that I would deliver. I looked up from my laptop and scanned the crowd, smirking at seeing them on the precipice, waiting . . . waiting . . . just waiting . . .

Now.

I slammed my hand down, holding my headphones to my left ear. A surge, a thundercloud of electronic dance music plowed into the crowd. Bursts of neon colors filled the air. Greens and blues and reds filled my eyes as they clung to each person like neon shields.

The hands around my waist tightened, but I ignored them, instead listening to the bottle of Jack as it called my name. I took another shot, my muscles starting to loosen. My hands danced over the laptop’s keys, over my mix boards.

I looked up, the crowd still in the palm of my hand.

They always were.

A girl in the center of the club drew my attention. Long brown hair pulled back off her face. Purple dress, high necked—she was dressed nothing like everyone else. The color surrounding her was different to the other clubbers—pale pink and lavender. Calmer. More serene. My eyebrows pulled down as I watched her. Her eyes were closed, but she wasn’t moving. She was still, and she looked to be completely alone as people crashed and pushed around her. Her head was tipped up, a look of concentration on her face.

I built up the pace, pushing the rhythm and the crowd as far as they could go. But the girl didn’t move. That wasn’t normal for me. I always had these clubbers wrapped around my finger. I controlled them, in every place I spun. In this arena, I was the puppet master. They were the dolls.

Another shot of Jack burned down my throat. And through another five songs, she stayed there, on the spot, just drinking in the beats like water. But her face never changed. No smile. No euphoric high. Just . . . eyes closed, that damn pinched look on her face.

And that pink and lavender still surrounding her like a shield.

“Cromwell,” the blonde who was all over me like a rash said into my ear. Her fingers lifted up my shirt and tucked into the waistband of my jeans. Her long nails dipped low. But I refused to tear my eyes away from the girl in the purple dress.

Her brown hair was starting to curl, sweat from being sandwiched by clubbers taking its effect. The blonde who was one step from wanking me off in full view of the club snapped my fly. I keyed in my next mix, then grabbed her hand and threw it away from me, snapping my fly closed. I groaned when her hands slid back into my hair. I looked at my mate who had spun before me. “Nick!” I pointed to my decks. “Watch this. And don’t mess it up.”

Nick frowned in confusion, then saw the girl behind me and smiled. He took my headphones from me and moved to make sure the playlist I’d set up played on cue. Steve, the club’s owner, always let a few girls backstage. I never asked for it, but I never turned them down either. Why would I refuse a hot bird who was up for anything?

I swiped my Jack off my podium as the blonde smashed her lips to mine, pulling me back by my sleeveless Creamfields shirt. I wrenched my mouth from hers, replacing it with the Jack bottle. The blonde dragged me into a dark spot backstage. She dropped to her knees and started again on my fly. I closed my eyes as she went to work.

I sucked on the Jack as my head hit the wall behind me. I forced myself to feel something. I glanced down, watching blond hair bounce below me. But the numbness I lived with every damn day made me feel virtually nothing inside. Pressure built at the base of my spine. My thighs tightened, and then it was over.

The blonde got up. I could see the stars in her eyes as she looked at me. “Your eyes.” She reached out a finger to trace around my eye. “The strangest color. Such dark blue.”

They were. Coupled with my black hair, they always drew attention. That and the fact that I was one of the hottest new DJs in Europe, of course. Okay, maybe it was less to do with my eyes and more to do with my name, Cromwell Dean, gracing the headline spot on most of the biggest music festivals and clubs this summer.

I zipped up my fly and turned to see Nick spinning my next mix. I cringed when he failed to transition the beats like I would have. Navy blue was the backdrop to the smoke on the dancefloor.

I never hit navy blue.

I brushed past the girl with a “Thanks, love,” ignoring her hiss of “Prick” in response. I took my headphones off Nick’s head and put them on my own. A few taps of the keyboard later, the crowd was back in the palm of my hand.

Without conscious thought, my eyes found their way to the spot where the girl in the purple dress had stood.

But she’d gone. So had the pale pink and lavender.

I threw back another shot of Jack. Mixed another tune. Then zoned the fuck out.

*****

The sand was cold under my feet. It may well have been the start of summer here in the UK, but that didn’t mean the night wind didn’t freeze your balls off the minute you stepped outside. Clutching my bottle of booze and my cigarettes, I dropped down to the sand. I lit up and stared at the dark sky. My phone buzzed in my pocket . . . again. It’d been going off all night.

Pissed off that I actually had to move my arm, I pulled out my mobile. I had three missed calls from Professor Lewis. Two from my mum, and finally, a couple of texts.

Mum: Professor Lewis has been trying to get hold of you again. What are you going to do? Please just call me. I know you’re upset, but this is your future. You have a gift, son. Maybe it’s time for a fresh start this year. Don’t waste it because you’re angry at me.

Red-hot fury shot through me. I wanted to throw my phone in the damn sea and watch it sink to the bottom along with all this messed-up shit in my head, but I saw Professor Lewis had texted too.

Lewis: The offer still stands but I need an answer by next week. I have all I need for the transfer except your answer. You have an exceptional talent, Cromwell. Don’t waste it. I can help.

This time I did drop my phone beside me and sank back into the sand. I let the rush of nicotine fill my lungs and closed my eyes. As my eyelids shut, I heard quiet music playing somewhere nearby. Classical. Mozart.

My drunken mind immediately drifted off to when I was a little kid . . .

“What do you hear, Cromwell?” my father asked.

I closed my eyes and listened to the piece of music. Colors danced before my eyes. “Piano. Violins. Cellos . . .” I took a deep breath. “I can hear reds and greens and pinks.”

I opened my eyes and looked up at my father as he sat on my bed. He was staring down at me. There was a funny expression on his face. “You hear colors?” he said. But he didn’t sound surprised. My face set on fire. I ducked my head under my duvet. My father pulled it down from my eyes. He stroked my hair. “That’s good,” he said, his voice kind of deep. “That’s very good . . .”

My eyes snapped open. My hand started to ache. I looked at the bottle in my hand; my fingers were white as they gripped the neck. I sat up, my head spinning from the mass of whiskey in my body. My temples throbbed. I realized it wasn’t from the Jack, but from the music coming from further down the beach. I pushed my hair back from my face then looked to my right.

Someone was only a few feet away. I squinted into the lightening night, summer’s early rising sun making it possible to make out the features of whoever the hell it was. It was a girl. A girl wrapped in a blanket. Her phone sat beside her, a Mozart piano concerto drifting quietly from the speaker.

She must have felt me looking at her, because she turned her head. I frowned, wondering why I knew her face, but then—

“You’re the DJ,” she said.

Recognition dawned. It was the girl in the purple dress.

She clutched her blanket closer around her as I replayed her accent in my head. American. Bible Belt was my guess, by her thick twang.

She sounded like my mum.

A smile tugged at her lips as I stayed mute. I wasn’t much of a talker. Especially when my gut was full of Jack and I had zero interest in making small talk with some girl I didn’t know at four in the morning on a cold beach in Brighton.

“I’d heard of you,” she said. I stared back out over the sea. Ships sailed in the distance, their lights like tiny fireflies, bobbing up and down. I huffed a humorless laugh. Great. Another girl who wanted to screw the DJ.

“Good for you,” I muttered and took a drink of my Jack, feeling the addictive burn slide down my throat. I hoped she’d piss off, or at least stop trying to talk to me. My head couldn’t take any more noise.

“Not really,” she shot back. I looked over at her, eyebrows pulled down in confusion. She was looking out over the sea, her chin resting on her folded arms that lay over her bent knees. The blanket had fallen off her shoulders, revealing the purple dress I’d noticed from the podium. She turned to face me, cheek now on her arms. Heat zipped through me. She was pretty. “I’ve heard of you, Cromwell Dean.” She shrugged. “Decided to get a ticket to see you before I left for home tomorrow.”

I lit up another cigarette. Her nose wrinkled. She clearly didn’t like the smell.

Tough luck. She could move. Last time I checked, England was a free country. She went quiet.

I caught her looking at me. Her brown eyes were narrowed, like she was scrutinizing me. Reading something in me that I didn’t want anyone to see.

No one ever looked at me closely. I never gave them the chance. I thrived on the podium at clubs because it kept everyone far away, down on the dancefloor where no one ever saw the real me. The way she was looking at me now made nervous shivers break out over my skin.

I didn’t need this kind of crap.

“Already had my dick sucked tonight, love. Not looking for a second round.”

She blinked, and even in the rising sun, I could see her cheeks redden.

“Your music has no soul,” she blurted. My cigarette paused halfway to my mouth. Something managed to stab through my stomach at her words. I shoved it back down until I felt my usual sensation of numbness.

I sucked on my cigarette. “Yeah? Well, them’s the breaks.”

“I’d heard you were some messiah or something on that podium. But all your music comprised was synthetic beats and forced repetitive bursts of unoriginal tempo.”

I laughed and shook my head. The girl met my eyes head-on. “It’s called electronic dance music. Not a fifty-piece orchestra.” I held out my arms. “You’ve heard of me. Said so yourself. You know what tunes I spin. What were you expecting? Mozart?” I glared at her phone, which was still playing that damn concerto.

I sat back, surprised at myself. I hadn’t talked that much to anyone in . . . I didn’t know how long. I took in a drag, breathing out the smoke that was trapped in my chest. “And turn that thing off, will you? Who the hell goes to hear a dance DJ spin, then comes to a beach to listen to classical music?”

The girl frowned but turned off the music. I lay back on the cold sand, closing my eyes. I heard the soft waves lapping the shore. My head filled with pale green. I heard the girl moving. I prayed she was leaving. But I felt her drop beside me. My world darkened as the whiskey and the usual lack of sleep started to pull me under.

“What do you feel when you mix your music?” she asked. How the hell she thought her little interview was a good idea right now was beyond me.

Yet, surprisingly, I found myself answering her question. “I don’t feel.” I cracked one eye open when she didn’t say anything. She was looking down at me. She had the biggest brown eyes I’d ever seen. Dark hair pulled off her face in a ponytail. Full lips and smooth skin.

“Then that’s the problem.” She smiled, but the smile looked nothing but sad. Pitying. “The best music must be felt. By the creator. By the listener. Every part of it from creation to ear must be wrapped in nothing but feelings.” Some weird expression crossed over her face, but hell if I knew what it meant.

Her words were a blade to my chest. I hadn’t expected her harsh comment. And I hadn’t expected the blunt trauma that she seemed to deliver right to my heart. Like she’d taken a butcher’s knife and sliced her way through my soul.

My body itched to get up and run. To pluck out her assessment of my music from my memory. But instead I forced a laugh, and spat, “Go back home, little Dorothy. Back to where music means something. Where it’s felt.”

“Dorothy was from Kansas.” She glanced away. “I’m not.”

“Then go back to wherever the hell you’re from,” I snapped. Crossing my arms over my chest, I hunkered down into the sand and shut my eyes, trying to block out the cold wind that was picking up and slapping my skin, and her words that were still stabbing at my heart.

I never let anything get to me like this. Not anymore. I just needed some sleep. I didn’t want to go back to my mum’s house here in Brighton, and my flat in London was too far away. So hopefully the cops wouldn’t find me here and kick me off the beach.

With my eyes closed, I said, “Thanks for the midnight critique, but as the fastest-rising DJ in Europe, with the best clubs in the world begging for me to spin at their decks—all at nineteen—I think I’ll ignore your extensive notes and just keep on living my sweet as fuck life.”

The girl sighed, but she didn’t say anything else.

The next thing I knew, the sun was burning its light into my eyes. I flinched when I opened them. The screech of swarming seagulls slammed into my head. I sat up, seeing an empty beach and the sun high in the sky. I ran my hands down my face and groaned at the hangover that was kicking in. My stomach growled, desperate for a full English breakfast with copious cups of black tea.

As I stood, something fell from my lap. A blanket lay on the sand at my feet. The blanket I’d seen beside the American girl in the purple dress.

The one she’d been wrapped in last night.

I picked it up, a light fragrance drifted into my nose. Sweet. Addictive. I glanced around me. The girl was gone.

She’d left her blanket. No. She’d covered me with it. “Your music has no soul.” A hard clenching feeling pulled in my stomach at the memory of her words. So I chased it away like I did anything that made me feel. Caging it deep inside.

Then I took my arse home.



A WISH FOR US – Out June 11th!
Goodreads | Kindle



Tillie Cole hails from a small town in the North-East of England. She grew up on a farm with her English mother, Scottish father and older sister and a multitude of rescue animals. As soon as she could, Tillie left her rural roots for the bright lights of the big city.

After graduating from Newcastle University with a BA Hons in Religious Studies, Tillie followed her Professional Rugby player husband around the world for a decade, becoming a teacher in between and thoroughly enjoyed teaching High School students Social Studies before putting pen to paper, and finishing her first novel.

Tillie has now settled in Austin, Texas, where she is finally able to sit down and write, throwing herself into fantasy worlds and the fabulous minds of her characters.

Tillie is both an independent and traditionally published author, and writes many genres including: Contemporary Romance, Dark Romance, Young Adult and New Adult novels.

When she is not writing, Tillie enjoys nothing more than curling up on her couch watching movies, drinking far too much coffee, while convincing herself that she really doesn’t need that extra square of chocolate.

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Week In Books – w/e – 15/4/18

Week In Books is a feature where I catch you up on my week in the book world, whether it be new books I’ve one-clicked, books that have caught my eye, book-world news, reviews, and what I’ve been reading that week. I’d love to see your own Week In Books in the comments!

I have finally started my ARC of The Chateau by Tiffany Reisz, and I couldn’t more excited to be back in the world of the Original Sinners. I’ve only just started it so no real views yet, but I’m positive it’s going to be another amazing read from this author.

I’m thinking it’s going to have to be the fantastic writing duo Christina Lauren’s latest release, Love And Other Words. I’ve heard nothing but incredible things about this one, it’s not like anything they’ve written before and I’m itching to dive in.

  • So as you just saw, Christina Lauren released Love And Other Words on Tuesday. You can still read the prologue, chapter one, chapter two, chapter three, and Chapter four over on their blog.
  • Michelle Leighton (formerly writing as M Leighton) has released her first book in quite some time titled The Dandelion. This looks to be a heartbreaking second chance love story – a definite one-click!
  • Another new release came from Jewel E Ann – she released the second book in her Transcend duo, Epoch. All my book friends rave about this series so Transcend and Epoch are high on my TBR!
  • Sally Thorne has a new book coming out in January 2019 (I know it’s age away!!) and you can pre-order it now! It’s called 99 Percent Mine and even the title makes me excited to read it!
  • Ricochet by Kerri Lake is on sale for just 99p! I really liked this one, it’s a dark standalone antihero romance.
  • Meghan Quinn’s book Three Blind Dates is just 99p for a matter of days so you need to snap this one up!!
  • There’s a new Reapers MC novella coming!!!! I am crazy obsessed with this series and Rome’s Chance by Joanna Wylde is releasing on April 24th! I cannot wait!!!
  • Kate Stewart has a new book out! It’s called The Real and I’ve heard it’s another epic romance which is sure to bring tears!
  • I got 2 reviews up on the blog this week! First up was Pepper Winters’ latest, The Boy And His Ribbon, and OMG you guys, it was beyond incredible. Read my 5 star review and get clicking! It’s a must!!
  • And I finally reviewed the awesome Rock Chick series by the Queen Kristen Ashley. I gave the series an overall 4 stars but there’s a few hidden 5 stars within. I’m sad the series is over but if anyone hasn’t yet met the Hot Bunch, have a read of my review and dive in!

That’s all I’ve got for you this week, make sure you check back for the next Week In Books, and sign up to my blog to receive email updates!

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Week In Books – w/e 8/4/18

Week In Books is a feature where I catch you up on my week in the book world, whether it be new books I’ve one-clicked, books that have caught my eye, book-world news, reviews, and what I’ve been reading that week. I’d love to see your own Week In Books in the comments!

I’ve just dived into Pepper Winters’ latest, The Boy And His Ribbon, which I’ve heard nothing but amazing things about. It released this week and true to Pepper’s style it’s a long one so I expect I’ll spend most of the week (between work and kids) reading it. Anyone else reading this one too?

It’s more than likely going to be my ARC of The Chateau by Tiffany Reisz. For any newbies to my blog, I am a crazy huge Tiffany Reisz fan, and her Original Sinners is one of my very very favourite series. It’s impossible not to love Kingsley so I’m so excited to be jumping back into the world of my favourite pervert.

  • Christina Lauren, revealed two more chapters from the book they are releasing on April 10th called Love And Other Words. (In case you missed my previous post you can check out the prologue, chapter one, and chapter two) Now you can also read chapter three, and Chapter four!
  • Mariana Zapata’s book Rhythm, Chord And Malykhin is currently on sale (at time of posting) for just £1.99! This is a HUGE sale for this book so grab it quick!
  • 5 star 99p sale alert!!! Drive by Kate Stewart is a book everyone should read, and (at the time of posting) it’s less than a pound!! This was my joint favourite book of 2017 and you can find my 5 star review right here!
  • The ultimate Queen Of the Alphas, Kristen Ashley, turned 50 this week, and to celebrate she revamped the covers of the entire Rock Chick series, put them all on sale, AND she gave us a new book!!! Shirleen finally gets herself a well deserved HEA and I absolutely loved it!! You can check out my post about all this by going here, and keep an eye out next week where I’ll have a Rock Chick full series review!
  • And finally, I finished One Day In December by Josie Silver and it was just the most incredible, heartbreaking and heartwarming read. You guys, it took me a while to recover from this one, and as the book doesn’t release until September, the publisher wants me to hold off on reviewing on my blog until closer to that time, but I can post on Goodreads, which I will be doing this week when I can find the right words. This is a major must buy!

That’s all I’ve got for you this week, make sure you check back for the next Week In Books, and sign up to my blog to receive email updates!

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Excerpt – REAPER’S FIRE by Joanna Wylde

Book #6 in the Reaper’s series by Joanna Wylde is nearly here, and I have an excerpt from the book for you today! I am currently reading Reaper’s Fire right now, and I am loving Gage and Tinker! This is definitely a book you need to pre-order! (I think I’ve gone exclamation crazy!)

reaper's fire

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New York Times bestselling author Joanna Wylde returns to the “wild and raw”* world of the Reapers MC with the story of Gage and Tinker…

The club comes first.

I’ve lived by those words my whole life—assumed I’d die by them, too, and I never had a problem with that. My Reaper brothers took my back and I took theirs and it was enough. Then I met her. Tinker Garrett. She’s beautiful, she’s loyal, and she works so damned hard it scares me sometimes . . . She deserves a good man—one better than me. I can’t take her yet because the club still needs me. There’s another woman, another job, another fight just ahead.

Now she’ll learn I’ve been lying to her all along. None of it’s real. Not my name, not my job, not even the clothes I wear. She thinks I’m nice. She pretends we’re just friends, that I’ve still got a soul . . . Mine’s been dead for years. Now I’m on fire for this woman, and a man can only burn for so long before he destroys everything around him.

I’m coming for you, Tinker.

Soon.

image

Tinker

It was almost seven that evening when I felt the AC kick back on. I’d been lying on my back on the (relatively) cool tile floor behind the counter, staring up at the pressed-tin ceiling and trying to remember why I hadn’t already moved back to Seattle.

In Seattle it rained.

Cool breezes blew off the bay and the lush greenery covered everything with its shaded canopy. People didn’t really need air-conditioning, but if they happened to have it and it broke, there were lots of repair men available.

Of course, Seattle also had Brandon. Not only that, my dad didn’t want to move, and I’d come to realize I couldn’t leave him here alone. It wasn’t safe for him, not since Mom died.

Ugh.

At least the AC was working again, blowing down from the ceiling vent across my sweaty body, reminding me that while the world might not be crawling with perfect men, at least there were still a few useful ones running around. Cooper Romero was a keeper, and it had nothing to do with how sexy he was . . . although the fact that he was sex on a stick—make that sex with a stick—didn’t exactly diminish his appeal.

When I’d dragged him up to the black tar roof to show him the ancient AC, I’d expected him to make a run for it. Any sensible man would. Instead, he’d spent the whole afternoon busting his ass to save my chocolates—Oh God, I wish that were code for something more exciting—officially qualifying him as a superhero in my book.

As for me, there wasn’t much I could do once I got all the sweets safely downstairs into the basement. There weren’t any customers walking in off the street, and seeing as I couldn’t make or ship candy in a 102-degree shop, I’d alternated between attempting to read a book, looking over orders I couldn’t fulfill on my laptop, and bringing Cooper glasses of iced tea. I’d been nervous around him at first, but you can only stay nervous for so long when you’re sweating like a pig—there’s a certain freedom in knowing you look like hell and there’s no saving your hair. I’d thrown my arm across my eyes in a pathetic attempt to block out reality toward the end.

When cold air started flowing into the room, I could’ve cried with relief. He’d never had a chance to fill out the application form, and I’d long since decided it didn’t matter. Unless he was an ax murderer, I’d give him the apartment and the job.

Might give it to him even if he was, to be honest.

“It’s working again,” Cooper announced, and I jerked, startled. Shit, had I fallen asleep? Opening my eyes, I looked up to find him standing over me. Dear God in heaven—that was one hell of a bare chest.

Holy. Shit.

I’d taken note of his build when he first walked in the shop, but everything under his shirt had been theoretical. Now there was six-foot-plus of raw sex appeal right there, all sweaty and sculpted and . . . well, let’s just say I’d be stopping off on the way home to pick up some fresh batteries.

That’s when the situation hit me—Cooper Romero was the hottest man I’d met in forever, and he’d just found me lying on the floor in my own sweat and filth like a dog. Typical luck. I scrambled to my feet, pretending I wasn’t totally embarrassed (I was) and not in the least bit freaked out by how unspeakably attractive this guy was. Okay, “attractive” wasn’t quite the right word, because it implied a certain level of polish and class that just didn’t fit Cooper at all.

Brandon was attractive.

Cooper?

I’d lick him all over and massage his butt if he asked. He stared down at me, his eyes carefully blank, making it very clear he wasn’t asking. Story of my fucking life. Sitting up, I pushed myself to my feet without bothering to dust off. Lost cause at this point.

“Not sure how much life the AC has left,” he said slowly. “I managed to get it going, but fixing it right would cost more than it’s worth and then some.”

Of course it would.

“I just need to get through the summer,” I told him, wiping a finger under my eye. My perfectly applied, vintage-style makeup had melted, leaving me with a clown face. Fortunately I’d (mostly) given up on caring three hours ago, right around the time I’d discovered the floor tiles were cooler than the rest of the room. “After that, I’ll worry about the furnace and by next summer I might not even be here anymore.”

“Really?” he asked, cocking a brow. “You selling out?”

“Not sure,” I told him. “I’m not thinking that far ahead right now. Things are very iffy with my dad . . . I think he’s got some—”

No. I couldn’t say it. Saying it out loud made it too real, plus the last thing I needed were a bunch of rumors flying around town. So far we’d kept dad’s situation mostly to family and friends.

“Tinker?”

Shaking myself, I smiled at him. “Thank you so much for fixing that. I’m not even sure what I would’ve done—I can’t afford to miss a week’s worth of orders. Not only would it put me behind, it would burn my customers.”

He nodded, studying me thoughtfully. God, he really was beautiful . . . Nothing like Brandon’s polished sophistication. No, Cooper gave off more of a warrior-tossing-you-over-his-fearless-steed kind of vibe. Yeah, like that would end well, because my track record with men was so fucking perfect, right?

Pull your head out of the gutter. He probably has a girlfriend.

At least I could finally lock up this hellhole of a shop and get a shower.

“Thank you so much—you have no idea how much I appreciate it.”

“No, but the whole throwing yourself at my feet thing was a subtle hint,” he said, and I realized he was teasing me. Was he flirting? I couldn’t decide if that kicked ass or scared the shit out of me.

“Anyway, it’s getting late,” I told him, feeling suddenly awkward. “I’m going to grab some dinner down the street, and then I could take you over and show you the apartment.”

A small, knowing smile crossed his face, and I realized he thought I was hitting on him.

“No,” I said quickly, mortified. “I wasn’t asking you out. Omigod, this is weird.”

“What, you aren’t turned on by a man who smells like old socks?” he asked lightly, raising his arm and giving a sniff. He was joking, but the sweat wasn’t a turnoff. Nope. Not even a little bit. “If that’s not enough for you, the roof tar on my ass should be a big attraction.”

Closing my eyes, I bit back a groan. He started laughing. Not in a cruel way, but companionably, which I guess made sense because both of us were disgusting as hell. Of course, now I wanted to check out his ass, but I managed to keep my eyes on target (mostly) when I answered him.

“Well, it’s sexy but I’ll manage to control myself somehow. I do want to grab dinner, though, and we need to figure out the apartment details.”

“I’ll take the place, doesn’t matter what it is,” he replied. “I’m in a hotel and it’s getting old. I’d love to move in on Sunday, but I can’t go look at it right now—gotta get my ass cleaned up. Meeting up with someone later.”

Of course he was, because men who looked like Cooper didn’t spend Friday nights alone.

“Sounds great,” I told him, refusing to show any disappointment. “Just text me when you’re ready, and I’ll get you the key.”

He opened his mouth to say something, but a sudden pounding against the locked shop door caught us both off guard. I spun around to find Talia Jackson glaring at me through the glass. Talia and three of her skankier friends, including Sadie Baxter, a girl I used to babysit when I was in college.

A girl who was now twenty.

Damn.

“Cooper!” Talia shouted. “What the fuck are you doing?”

I glanced at my new handyman, startled. Talia Jackson and her brother, Marsh, were two of the nastiest people I’d ever met. Marsh was president of the local motorcycle gang, a group called the Nighthawk Raiders motorcycle club. The club had been around most of my life, but it was only in recent years that they’d turned really bad. I mean, they were never the kinder, gentler sort of bikers, but I’d never been actively afraid when I’d heard a motorcycle, either.

Now? Let’s just say we’d all gotten a little edgy.

“That’s my girl,” Cooper said, and something deep down inside of me died a little. Of course he’d go for someone like Talia. She might have the heart of a deranged circus clown—you know, the kind that survives by eating the souls of innocent children—but she was hot.

Really hot.

Not only that, she was slutty, and while I wasn’t into the whole slut-shaming thing (like I had room to judge after the bachelorette party debacle . . . ugh), I wasn’t naive enough to think he was attracted to her personality. Cooper Romero might have a sweet smile, and he’d fixed my AC, but now I had proof positive that he’d never be into a girl like me.

Specifically, a grown-up with curves.

All righty, then. Probably for the best anyway.

“Just a sec!” I called to her, determined to take the high road, then I grabbed my keys so I could open the door. She pushed inside with her posse, and I do mean pushed. Little bitch shoved me so hard I nearly knocked over the display of antique Russian teacups my mother had lovingly collected. (So far as I knew, she’d never sold a single one of them, but it’d made her happy.)

“Careful,” I warned, and Talia turned on me.

“What did you just say to me?”

“Babe, let’s talk,” Cooper said, catching her arm and pulling her into his body. She squealed, going from aggressive to flirty in an instant.

“You’re all sweaty. It’s sooo disgusting.”

I noted she wasn’t trying to get away. Cooper smiled down at her, a hint of something feral in his eyes. Yeah, okay—whatever smile he’d been giving me, it hadn’t held any of that kind of intensity.

Yours truly was officially chopped liver.

“I was just about to head out and grab a shower,” he told her. “Wanna come with me?”

She pouted. “I can’t. The girls and I need to get fixed up. I’ll see you at the bar, though, right?”

He looked down at her, offering a sexy, indulgent smile. “Can’t wait.”

“Perfect,” she said, reaching around to grab his ass for a quick squeeze. Then she turned and strutted back out without a word to me, her gaggle of girls following like well-trained geese. Sadie gave a little finger wave on the way. The door closed behind them with a cheerful little jingle, and I wondered why the hell I even bothered with Hallies Falls.

I missed Seattle.

So what if it had Brandon? I could drown him in Lake Washington. Problem solved.

“Sorry about that—Talia is a little high-strung,” Cooper said.

“Oh, I know all about her,” I replied, hoping I didn’t sound as catty as I felt. Cooper didn’t seem to notice.

“I’m new to town, but she’s been showing me around,” Cooper continued, stepping over to stand in front of me, hands shoved deep in his front pockets. “I should get going.”

“Of course—don’t let me keep you. What time do you think you’ll be in touch tomorrow?”

“Afternoon work?”

“No problem. Looking forward to hearing from you.”

He nodded and pushed through the door, walking down the street without a second look back. I locked up behind him, wondering why all the hottest guys were douchebags. Not that Cooper had acted like a douche, but he had to be my age or older—late thirties—and Talia was the same age as Sadie. She was also a raging bitch. There was only one reason a man like him would date a girl like that, and it had nothing to do with personality or character.

Cooper Romero might be beautiful, but obviously he was shallow. Suppose it was too much to hope for a man who could fix an air conditioner and have a soul at the same time.

Pity



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Prologue and Chapter Reveal – HE WILL BE MY RUIN by KA Tucker

KA Tucker’s next novel is sure to be an addictive, thrilling ride, and it’s due for release in just a few weeks! Check out the prologue and first chapter below, and make sure you pre-order!

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The USA TODAY bestselling author of the Ten Tiny Breaths and Burying Water series makes her suspense debut with this sexy, heartpounding story of a young woman determined to find justice after her best friend’s death, a story pulsing with the “intense, hot, emotional” (Colleen Hoover) writing that exhilarates her legions of fans.

A woman who almost had it all . . .

On the surface, Celine Gonzalez had everything a twenty-eight-year-old woman could want: a one-bedroom apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a job that (mostly) paid the bills, and an acceptance letter to the prestigious Hollingsworth Institute of Art, where she would finally live out her dream of becoming an antiques appraiser for a major auction house. All she had worked so hard to achieve was finally within her reach. So why would she kill herself?

A man who was supposed to be her salvation . . .

Maggie Sparkes arrives in New York City to pack up what’s left of her best friend’s belongings after a suicide that has left everyone stunned. The police have deemed the evidence conclusive: Celine got into bed, downed a lethal cocktail of pills and vodka, and never woke up. But when Maggie discovers a scandalous photograph in a lock box hidden in Celine’s apartment, she begins asking questions. Questions about the man Celine fell in love with. The man she never told anyone about, not even Maggie. The man Celine believed would change her life.

Until he became her ruin.

On the hunt for evidence that will force the police to reopen the case, Maggie uncovers more than she bargained for about Celine’s private life—and inadvertently puts herself on the radar of a killer. A killer who will stop at nothing to keep his crimes undiscovered.

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Prologue

Maggie


December 23, 2015

My wrists burn.

Hours of trying to break free of the rope that binds my hands behind my back have left them raw, the rough cord scrubbing away my skin and cutting into my flesh. I’m sure I’ll have unsightly scars.

Not that it will matter when I’m dead.

I resigned myself to that reality around the time that I finally let go of my bladder. Now I simply lie here, in a pool of urine and vomit, my teeth numb from knocking with each bump in the road, my body frozen by the cold.

Trying to ignore the darkness as I fight against the panic that consumes me. I could suffocate from the anxiety alone.

He knows that.

Now he’s exploiting it. That must be what he does—he uncovers your secrets, your fears, your flaws—and he uses them against you. He did it to Celine.

And now he’s doing it to me.

That’s why I’m in a cramped trunk, my lungs working overtime against a limited supply of oxygen while my imagination runs wild with what may be waiting for me at the end of this ride.

My racing heart ready to explode.

The car hits an especially deep pothole, rattling my bones. I’ve been trapped in here for so long. Hours. Days. I have no idea. Long enough to run through every mistake that I made.

How I trusted him, how I fell for his charm, how I believed his lies. How I made it so easy for him to do this to me.

How Celine made it so easy for him, by letting him get close.

Before he killed her.

Just like he’s going to kill me.

Chapter 1

Maggie


November 30, 2015

The afternoon sun beams through the narrow window, casting a warm glow over Celine’s floral comforter.

It would be inviting, only her body was found in this very bed just thirteen days ago.

“Maggie?”

“Yeah,” I respond without actually turning around, my gaze taking in the cramped bedroom before me. I’ve never been a fan of New York City and all its overpriced boroughs. Too big, too busy, too pretentious. Take this Lower East Side apartment, for example, on the third floor of a drafty building built in the 1800s, with a ladder of shaky fire escapes facing the side alley and a kitschy gelato café downstairs. It costs more per month than the average American hands the bank in mortgage payments.

And Celine adored it.

“I’m in 410 if you just . . . want to come and find me.”

I finally turn and acknowledge the building super—a chestnut-haired English guy around thirty by my guess, with a layer of scruff over his jawline and faded blue jeans—edging toward the door. Given the apartment is 475 square feet, it doesn’t take him long to reach it.

I think he gave me his name but I wasn’t listening. I’ve barely said two words since I met him in front of Celine’s apartment, armed with a stack of cardboard flats and trash bags. An orchestra of clocks that softly tick away claim that that was nearly half an hour ago. I’ve simply stood here since then, feeling the brick-exposed walls—lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and filled with the impressive collection of treasures that Celine had amassed over her twenty-eight years—closing in on me.

But now I feel the need to speak. “You were the one who let the police in?” Celine never missed work, never arrived late. That’s why, after not showing up for two days and not answering her phone or her door, her coworker finally called the cops.

The super nods.

“You saw her?”

His eyes flicker to the thin wall that divides the bedroom from the rest of the apartment—its only purpose is to allow the building’s owner to charge rent for a “one-bedroom” instead of a studio. There’s not even enough room for a door. Yes, he saw her body. “She seemed really nice,” he offers, his throat turning scratchy, shifting on his feet. He’d rather be unplugging a shit-filled toilet than be here right now. I don’t blame him. “Uh . . . So you can just slide the key through the mail slot in my door when you’re finished, if you want? I’ll be home later tonight to grab it.”

Under different circumstances, I’d find his accent charming. “I’ll be staying here for a while.”

He frowns. “You can’t—”

“Yeah, I can,” I snap, cutting his objection off. “We’re on the hook with the lease until the end of January, right? So don’t even think of telling me that I can’t.” I’m in no rush to empty this place out so some jackass landlord can rent it next month and pocket my money. Plus . . . My gaze drifts over the living room again. I just need to be in Celine’s presence for a while, even if she’s not here anymore.

“Of course. I’m just . . .” He bites his bottom lip as if to stall a snippy response. When he speaks again, his tone is back to soft. “The mattress, the bedding, it’ll all need to be replaced. I would have already pitched it for you, but I figured that it wasn’t my call to make. I pulled the blanket up to cover the mess and tried to air the place out, but . . .”

I sigh shakily, the tension making my body as taut as a wire. I’m the only jackass around here. “Right. I’m sorry.” I inhale deeply. The linen air freshener can’t completely mask the smell. Her body lay in that bed for two days.

Dead.

Decomposing.

“I’ll be fine with the couch until I can get a new mattress delivered.” It’ll be more than fine, seeing as I’ve been sleeping on a thin bedroll on a dirt floor in Ethiopia for the past three months. At least there’s running water here, and I’m not sharing the room with two other people. Or rats, hopefully.

“I can probably get a bloke in here to help me carry it out if you want,” he offers, sliding hands into his pockets as he slowly shifts backward.

“Thank you.” I couple my contrite voice with a smile and watch the young super exit, pulling the door shut behind him.

My gaze drifts back to the countless shelves. I haven’t been to visit Celine in New York in over two years; we always met in California, the state where we grew up. “My, you’ve been busy,” I whisper. Celine always did have a love for the old and discarded, and she had a real eye for it. She’d probably seen every last episode of Antiques Roadshow three times over. She was supposed to start school this past September to get her MA in art business, with plans to become an appraiser. She delayed enrollment, for some reason.

But she never told me that. I found out through her mother just last week.

Her apartment looks more like a bursting vintage shop than a place someone would live. It’s well organized at least—all her trinkets grouped effectively. Entire shelves are dedicated to elaborate teacups, others to silver tea sets, genuine hand-cut crystal glassware, ornate clocks and watches, hand-painted tiles, and so on. Little side tables hold stained-glass lamps and more clocks and her seemingly endless collection of art history books. On the few walls not lined with shelves, an eclectic mix of artwork fills the space.

Very few things in here aren’t antique or vintage. The bottles of Ketel One, Maker’s Mark, and Jägermeister lined up on a polished brass bar cart. Her computer and a stack of hardcover books, sitting on a worn wooden desk that I’d expect to find in an old elementary schoolhouse. Even the two-foot-tall artificial Christmas tree has well-aged ornaments dangling from its branches.

I wander aimlessly, my hands beginning to touch and test. A slight pull of the desk drawer finds it locked, with no key anywhere, from what I can see. I run a finger along the spine of a leather-bound edition of The Taming of the Shrew on a shelf. Not a speck of dust. Celine couldn’t stand disorder. Every single nutcracker faces out, equidistant from the next, shortest in front, tallest in back, as if she measured them with a ruler and placed them just so.

Being enclosed in this organized chaos makes me antsy. Or maybe that’s my own ultra-minimalist preferences coming out.

I sigh and drop my purse onto the couch. My phone goes next, but not before I send a text to my personal assistant, Taryn, to ask that she arrange for a firm double mattress to be delivered to Celine’s address. Then I power the phone off before she can respond with unnecessary questions. I’ve had it on silent since my plane landed in San Diego five days ago for the funeral. Even with two proficient assistants handling my organization’s affairs while I’m dealing with my best friend’s death, the stupid thing hasn’t stopped vibrating.

They can all wait for me, while I figure out where to begin here.

I know I have a lot of paperwork to get to the lawyer. All estate proceeds will eventually go to Celine’s mother, Rosa, but she doesn’t want a dime. She’s already demanded that I sell off anything I don’t want to keep for myself and use the money for one of my humanitarian efforts in her daughter’s name.

I could tell Rosa was still in shock, because she has always been a collector by nature—that’s where Celine got it from—and it surprised me that she wouldn’t want to keep at least some of her daughter’s treasures for herself. But she was adamant and I was not going to argue. I’ll just quietly pack a few things that I think would mean a lot to her and have them shipped to San Diego.

Seeing Celine’s apartment now, though, I realize that selling is going to take forever. I’m half-tempted to dump everything into boxes for charity, guesstimate the value, and write a check. But that would belittle all the evenings and weekends that Celine devoted to hunting antique shops, garage sales, and ignorant sellers for her next perfect treasure.

My attention lands on the raw wood plank shelf that floats over a mauve suede couch, banked by silky curtains and covered with an eclectic mix of gilded frames filled with pictures from Celine’s childhood. Most of them are of her and her mom. Some are of just her. Four include me.

I smile as I ease one down, of Celine and me at the San Diego Zoo. I was twelve, she was eleven. Even then she was striking, her olive skin tanned from a summer by the pool. Next to her, my pale Welsh skin always looked sickly.

I first met Celine when I was five. My mom had hired her mother, Rosa Gonzalez, as a housekeeper and nanny, offering room and board for both her and her four-year-old daughter. We had had a string of nannies come and go, my mother never satisfied with their work ethic. But Rosa came highly recommended. It’s so hard to find good help, I remember overhearing my mother say to her friends once. They applauded her generosity with Rosa, that she was not only taking in a recent immigrant from Mexico, but her child as well.

The day Celine stepped into my parents’ palatial house in La Jolla, she did so with wide brown eyes, her long hair the color of cola in braided pigtails and adorned in giant blue bows, her frilly blue-and-white dress and matching socks like something out of The Wizard of Oz. Celine would divulge to me later on that it was the only dress she owned, purchased from a thrift shop, just for this special occasion.

Rosa and Celine lived with us for ten years, and my daily routines quickly became Celine’s daily routines. The chauffeur would drop Celine off at the curb in front of the local public school on our way to my private school campus. Though her school was far above average as public schools go, I begged and pleaded for my parents to pay for Celine to attend with me. I didn’t quite understand the concept of money back then, but I knew we had a lot, and we could more than afford it.

They told me that’s just not how the world works. Besides, as much as Rosa wanted the best for her child, she was too proud to ever accept that kind of generosity. Even giving Celine my hand-me-down clothes was a constant battle.

No matter where we spent the day, though, from the time we came home to the time we fell asleep, Celine and I were inseparable. I would return from piano lessons and teach Celine how to read music notes. She’d use the other side of my art easel to paint pictures with me of the ocean view from my bedroom window. She’d rate my dives and time my laps around our pool, and I’d do the same for her. We’d lounge beneath the palm trees on hot summer days, dreaming up plans for our future. In my eyes, it was a given that Celine would always be part of my life.

We were an odd match. From our looks to our social status to our polar-opposite personalities, we couldn’t have been more different. I was captain of the debate squad and Celine played the romantic female lead in her school plays. I spearheaded a holiday charity campaign at the age of thirteen, while Celine sang in choirs for the local senior citizens. I read the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times religiously, while Celine would fall asleep with a Jane Austen novel resting across her chest.

And then one Saturday morning in July when I was fifteen, my parents announced that they had filed for divorce. I still remember the day well. They walked side-by-side toward where I lounged beside the pool, my dad dressed for a round of golf, my mom carrying a plate of Rosa’s breakfast enchiladas. They’d technically separated months earlier, and I had no idea because seeing them together had always been rare to begin with.

The house in La Jolla was going up for sale. Dad was buying a condo close to the airport, to make traveling for work easier, while Mom would be moving to Chicago, where our family’s company, Sparkes Energy, had their corporate headquarters. I’d stay wherever I wanted, when I wasn’t at the prestigious boarding school in Massachusetts that they decided I should attend for my last three years of high school.

The worst of it was that Rosa and Celine would be going their own way.

Rosa, who was more a parent to me than either of my real parents had ever been.

Celine . . . my best friend, my sister.

Both of them, gone from my daily life with two weeks’ notice.

They’re just a phone call away, my mom reasoned. That’s all I had, and so I took advantage. For years, I would call Celine and Rosa daily. I had a long-distance plan, but had I not, I still would have happily driven up my mom’s phone bill, bitter with her for abandoning me for the company. I spent Christmases and Thanksgivings with Rosa and Celine instead of choosing to spend them with Melody or William Sparkes.

To be honest, it never was much of a choice.

Through boyfriends, college, jobs, and fronting a successful nonprofit organization that has had me living all over Africa and Asia for the last six years, Celine and Rosa have remained permanent fixtures in my life.

Until thirteen days ago, when Rosa’s sobs filled my ear in a village near Nekemte, Ethiopia, where I’ve been leading a water well project and building homes. After a long, arduous day in the hot sun, my hands covered with cuts from corrugated iron and my muscles sore from carrying burned bricks, it was jarring to hear Rosa’s voice. California felt worlds away. At first I thought that I hadn’t kept myself hydrated enough and I was hallucinating. But by the third time I heard her say, “Celine killed herself,” it finally registered. It just didn’t make sense.

It still doesn’t.

Hollowness kept me company all the way back—first on buses, then a chartered flight, followed by several commercial airline connections—and into Rosa’s modest home in the suburbs of San Diego. The hollowness held me together through the emotional visitation and funeral, Rosa’s tightly knit Mexican community rocked by the news. It numbed me enough to face Rosa’s eyes, bloodshot and rimmed with dark circles, as she insisted that I come to New York to handle the material remains of her only child.

The case is all but officially closed. The police are simply waiting for the final autopsy report to confirm that a lethal dose of Xanax— the pill bottle sitting open on her nightstand was from a prescription she filled only two days prior—combined with an unhealthy amount of vodka was what killed her. They see it as a quick open-and-shut suicide case, aided by a note in her handwriting that read I’m sorry for everything, found lying next to her.

The picture frame cracks within my tightening grasp as tears burn my cheeks, and I have the overwhelming urge to smash the entire shelf of happy memories.

This just doesn’t seem possible. How could she do this to her mother? I shift my focus to the picture of Rosa—a petite brunette with a fierce heart, who gives hugs to strangers who look like they’re having a bad day and spouts a string of passionate Spanish when anyone tries to leave the dinner table before every last bite is finished.

Before this past week, I hadn’t seen Rosa since last Christmas. She still looks frail eleven months after the doctors told her that the double mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation had worked and she was considered in remission. It’ll be a year in January since the day Celine phoned me to give me the good news: that Rosa had fought breast cancer hard. And had won.

So why the hell would Celine make her suffer so horribly now?

I roam aimlessly through the rest of the apartment, in a state of extreme exhaustion after days of travel and jet lag and tears, taking in everything that remains of my childhood friend.

But there are things here that surprise me, too—a closet full of designer-label dresses that Celine couldn’t possibly have afforded on an administrative assistant’s salary, a bathroom counter overflowing with bold red lipsticks and daringly dark eye shadows that I never saw touch her naturally beautiful face, not even in recent photos.

Knowing Celine, she bought those dresses at secondhand stores. And the makeup, well . . . She would have looked beautiful with red lipstick.

I smile, sweeping the bronzer brush across my palm to leave a dusting of sparkle against my skin. I’m supposed to be this girl—the one with the extravagant clothes and makeup, who puts time and stock into looks and money. As the fourth generation of one of the biggest energy companies in the world, I will one day inherit 51 percent of the corporation’s shares. Though my parents don’t need to work, they each run a division—my industrialist father managing the ugly face of coal burning while my mother distracts the world with a pretty mask of wind and solar energy farms, hiding the fact that we’re slowly helping to destroy the world.

I grew up aware of the protests. I’ve read enough articles about the greed and the harm to the planet that comes with this industry. By the time I turned twenty-one, still young and idealistic and embroiled by the latest disgrace involving our company and an oil tanker spill off the coast of China, I wanted nothing to do with the enormous trust fund that my grandmother left me. In fact, I was one signature away from handing it all over to a charity foundation. My biggest mistake—and saving grace—was that I tried to do it through my lawyer, a loyal Sparkes Energy legal consultant. He, of course, informed my parents, who fought me on it. I wouldn’t listen to them.

But I did listen to Celine. She was the one who persuaded me not to do it in the end, sending me link after link of scandal after scandal involving charity organizations. How so little of the money ever actually reaches those in need, how so much of the money lines the pockets of individuals. She used the worst-case scenarios to steer me away from my plan because she knew it would work. Then she suggested that I use the trust fund to lead my own humanitarian ventures. I could do bigger, better things if I controlled it.

That’s when I began Villages United.

And Celine was right.

VU may only be six years old, but it has already become an internationally recognized nonprofit, focused on high-impact lending projects throughout the world geared toward building self-sustainable villages. We teach children to read and give them roofs to sleep under and clean water to drink and clothes to wear and books to read. Between my own money and the money that VU has raised, we have now left a lasting mark on thirty-six communities in countries around the world.

And I’m not just writing checks from my house in California. I’m right there in the trenches, witnessing the changes firsthand. Something my parents simply don’t understand, though they’ve tried turning it into a Sparkes Energy PR venture on more than one occasion.

I’ve refused every single time.

Because, for the first time in a long time, I’m truly proud to be Maggie Sparkes.

I haven’t even warned them about my newest endeavor—providing significant financial backing to companies that are developing viable and economical green energy solutions. VU was preparing to announce it to the media in the coming weeks. As much as I can’t think about any of that right now, I’ll have to soon. Too many people rely on me.

But for now . . . all I can focus on is Celine.

I wander into her bedroom, my back to another wall of collectibles as I stand at the foot of the ornate wrought-iron bed, the delicate bedding stretched out neatly, as if Celine made it this morning. As if she’ll be back later to share a glass of wine and a laugh.

I yank the duvet back, just long enough to see the ugly proof beneath.

To remind me that that’s never going to happen.

Edging along the side of her bed—I actually have to turn and shimmy to fit—I move toward a stack of vintage wooden food crates that serve as a nightstand. A wave of nostalgia washes over me as my finger traces the heavy latches and handmade, chunky gunmetal-gray body of the antique box sitting next to the lamp. The day that I spied it in an antique store while shopping for Celine’s sixteenth birthday, it made me think of a medieval castle. The old man who sold it to me said it was actually an eighteenth-century lockbox.

Whatever it was, I knew Celine would love it.

I carry it over to the living room, where I can sit and open it up. Inside are sentimental scraps of Celine’s life. Concert stubs and random papers, a dried rose, her grandmother’s rosary that Rosa gave to her. Rosa is supremely religious, and Celine, the ever-devoted daughter, kept up appearances for her mother, though she admitted to me that she didn’t find value in it.

I pull each item out, laying them on the trunk coffee table until I’m left with nothing but the smooth velvet floor of the box. I fumble with a small detail on the outside that acts as a lever—remembering my surprise when the man revealed the box’s secret—until a click sounds, allowing me to pry open the false bottom.

Celine’s shy, secretive eyes lit up when I first showed her the sizeable compartment. It was perfect for hiding treasures, like notes from boys, and the silver bracelet that her senior-year boyfriend bought her for Valentine’s Day and she was afraid to wear in front of Rosa. While I love Rosa dearly, she could be suffocating sometimes.

My fingers wrap around the wad of money filling the small space as a deep frown creases my forehead. Mostly hundreds but plenty of fifties, too. I quickly count it. There’s almost ten thousand dollars here.

Why wouldn’t Celine deposit this into her bank account?

I pick up the ornate bronze key and a creased sheet of paper that also sits within. I’m guessing the key is for the desk. I’ll test that out in a minute. I gingerly unfold the paper that’s obviously been handled many times, judging by the crinkles in it.

My eyes widen.

A naked man fills one side. He’s entrancingly handsome, with long lashes and golden-blond tousled hair and a shadow of peach scruff covering his hard jawline. He’s lying on his back, one muscular arm disappearing into the pillow beneath his head, a white sheet tangled around his legs, not quite covering the goods, which from what I can see, are fairly impressive. I can’t tell what color his eyes are because he’s fast asleep.

“Well then . . .” I frown, taken aback.

I’m not surprised that Celine could attract the attention of a guy like this. She was a gorgeous young woman—her Mexican roots earning her lush locks, full lips, and voluptuous curves tied to the kind of tiny waist that all men seem to admire.

Nor am I surprised that he’s blond. It has always been a running joke between us, her penchant for blonds. She’s never dated anything but.

But I am surprised that she’d have the nerve to take—and print out to keep by her bed—a scandalous picture like this in the first place.

I wonder if she ever mentioned him to me. She always told me about her dates, utter failures or otherwise. Though it’s been years since she was seeing anyone seriously, and she was definitely seeing this guy seriously if she was sleeping with him. Celine usually waited months before she gave that up to a guy. She didn’t even lose her virginity until she was twenty-two, to a guy she had been dating for six months and hoped that she would one day marry. Who broke up with her shortly afterward.

So who the hell is this guy and why didn’t I ever hear about him? And where is he now? When were they together last?

Does he know that she’s dead?

Worrying my bottom lip between my teeth—it’s a bad habit of mine—I slowly fold the paper back up. Celine’s cursive scrawl decorates the back side in purple ink. Words I hadn’t noticed before.

Words that make my heart stop now.

This man was once my salvation. Now he will be my ruin.

HE WILL BE MY RUIN – Out February!
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Born in small-town Ontario, K.A. Tucker published her first book at the age of six with the help of her elementary school librarian and a box of crayons. She is a voracious reader, and currently resides in a quaint town outside of Toronto with her husband, two beautiful girls, and an exhausting brood of four-legged creatures.

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