Tuesday, September 30, 2014

FIRST CHAPTER: Black Abaddon by Sasha Hibbs #YA

Black Abaddon

(Vulcan Legacies #2)

by: Sasha Hibbs


Vulcan Legacies, 2
Ally Watson struggles to live with the choices she made, the worst of which resulted in her soul mate's death. Michael’s sacrifice to save the girl he loved may have reversed the Apocalypse, but not the permanent damage inflicted by living with his loss.  

Ally begins a journey where she soon discovers that death is not always the end, but sometimes the very beginning. With old friends, she journeys to the Nosferatu Nation where she meets with new alliances willing to help her in her quest to defeat the Devourer.  At every turn, Ally unearths secrets that threaten to destroy those she loves.

The second installment of The Vulcan Legacies series will put Ally to the ultimate test, forcing her to face her fears and the true destiny she will fulfill as Azrael, the Seraph of Death. 


Sasha Hibbs Copyright © 2014

 ~ Chapter One ~ 

It was abnormally cold for a southern summer day. The raindrops pelting against Ally chilled her to the bone. She stood in His Eternal Garden. It was the only cemetery in Snow Creek, North Carolina, and also the final resting place of Michael’s mother, Lilith Blackwell. Today, His Eternal Garden was gaining another member of the Blackwell family. Uncle Argyle decided to break the horrible news to Michael’s grandmother. Telling someone their only grandchild died wasn’t the kind of news you delivered via phone. He went to Florida only to find an empty shell of what once was Grandma Blackwell. She had progressive dementia and had been moved to an assisted living facility. Uncle Argyle came back without even telling her. Ally wondered if Grandma Blackwell would have been able to even register what Ally had done, and thought that maybe her debilitating neurological system was a blessing in disguise.
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust….” Ally heard Belle Crow say, as the High Sons of Nashoba stood on either side of Michael’s long shiny black coffin waiting to lower him into the ground.
A slide show of the last several weeks played through her mind as she waited for the cold ground below to swallow up her beloved Michael and take him away from her forever. Ally graduated from Mitchell High. She and the twins, Jessica and Dave, had plans mapped out of attending North Carolina State University. She hated to leave the farm and her uncle, but she yearned to taste life through a normal college experience. And then all hell broke loose. In the course of a few days she had been introduced to necrosapiens, also known as the evil undead, Seraphs, Nosferatu, The High Sons of Nashoba, and Gypsies. 
She had been overloaded with prophecies, predictions, and manipulated by what she was supposed to do. Instead of listening to her heart and following her feelings, she had allowed herself to be like clay on a potter’s wheel, and Marik—The Devourer incarnate—had been the one to shape her into his version of Azrael, the Seraph of Death.
Ally was so blinded by his cunning words, it had cost her Michael. Ally had been put through the sacrament of love—a test designed by the Authority—one where she could tip the scales towards preventing the Apocalypse or be the cause of it. All she had to do was choose correctly. So simple. But Ally didn’t. She made the wrong choice even though the right one had been in front of her her entire life, and Michael paid the price for her, for the whole world, with his life.
Ally looked around. Michael had no family here. In the end, Ally, Dave, Jessica, Elizabeth, the Ravenscraft sisters, Belle Crow, the High Sons, Lucy, Uncle Argyle, Parthenia, and Brandi were the only ones attending Michael’s funeral.
Belle Crow finished her sermon, a mix of Gypsy and contemporary tradition, as the High Sons lowered Michael’s coffin into the ground. Uncle Argyle and the High Sons began shoveling dirt into Michael’s grave. Large clumps of dirt reverberating off the casket was the only sound heard. All was silent.
Ally looked up. Tears ran down Jessica’s face. Dave’s chin quivered. Brandi and Parthenia’s eyes were downcast, their faces a mask of sorrow. Her beautiful black German Shepherd, Miss Elma—the guard chosen for Ally from the Gates—lay beside Michael’s grave. She was in pain, too. Ally could see it in her sad hazel eyes. Griselda and Irini Ravenscraft walked up beside Belle Crow. As their eldest sister Denaulda began humming in her soft sweet voice, Belle Crow tapped her staff, glittery purple light shooting out into the air. Each purple spark sizzled out as they collided with soft drops of rain reminding Ally of Michael’s essence: his light had been extinguished too.
Denaulda’s soft tune soon turned into a heart wrenching melody as she lifted her voice. Ally could deal with silence, but Denaulda’s tune wrapped tightly around her heart, so tight Ally felt it would burst. Her knees buckled as Uncle Argyle came up behind her, catching her.
“I’ve got you,” Uncle Argyle said.
Ally looked into his eyes. Words weren’t needed at a time like this. He clung onto her as she looked back to the High Sons shoveling the last bit of earth over Michael’s grave. Hot tears streamed down her face. When all her tears finally dried up, she would still weep inwardly. Time would never erase the missed opportunities she should have had with Michael. Time would never ease her guilt at the events that led up to that horrific night on the beach when Michael paid for her sins. And time would never remove that moment, that one moment in time when Ally first realized it had been Michael her mother had saved all long. It was as though Ally was still in that hospital room with Michael, the recognition of those arctic blue eyes staring back at her. She could never scrub her memory clean. Those stains were there permanently.
Ally hid something, too. When her mother forced her back into the present, some things, some pieces of her, were left behind.  She dared not question why, but her wings were gone, as though clipped. Maybe it was a small punishment for her choosing the Devourer, like the Authority himself had cast her from the Gates as he did Vulcan all those years ago. She felt different, too. She didn’t know how long she could conceal the black vein-like patterns spreading on her skin. Since waking into the present, it was as though her body had physically been altered. What did her mother do to her when she grabbed her dreamcatcher? It was as though her immortality had been spilt down the middle. Ally could feel this nameless change in her soul. She wasn’t the same. And the biggest secret was her fire had diminished into nothing more than her palms glowing. It was like she was dying. But yet here she stood, half of what she once was and still drawing air into her lungs.
“Let’s go home,” Uncle Argyle said, hugging Ally’s shoulders.
Ally let him lead her in whatever direction he chose to go. She was too numb to do anything other than be led around like a lost lamb.
The group followed behind Ally and Argyle. As they stepped through the entrance of His Eternal Garden, Belle Crow froze in her tracks. A growl reverberated from Eli as Jeb and Solomon looked behind them.
Ally leaned into Uncle Argyle as she turned around to see what had them spooked. The rain died to a drizzle. Ally could see nothing but the rows of head stones His Eternal Garden housed within.
“Mom, I feel something…” Dave said, his words cut off by Elizabeth.
“Shh. I do too.” She held up her hand to silence him.
Eli closed the gap between him and Jessica. Brandi and Parthenia, however, wore looks of astonishment and pain.
Belle Crow struck her staff on the ground, the purple stone erupting in fire. The blaze shot out into the distance, the purple globe spreading out as though trying to ensnare something in the air.
At once, her mystical globe burst into small shards of glass, raining down on them as Silva swooped low to the ground. Her mother’s guard—an ivory white pelican—flew towards them. Landing on the ground at Ally’s feet, Silva looked up to Ally. Silva had somehow managed to live, although Ally’s mother, Laurel, the Seraph of Faith, had died years ago. Heavenly guards and their Seraphs did not exist without the other, but Silva somehow did. And she had tried to take Ally to the truth. Silva managed to show up at the oddest times, in the strangest places.
“Silva….” Brandi said, visibly shaken.
“This guard was our sister's. There is no danger…” Parthenia said as Eli cut her off.
“Yes, there is. It’s not the guard, but those that follow her that is dangerous,” Eli said.
Silva’s wings twitched as though she were growing anxious.
“She’s trying to warn us,” Brandi said.
“No, I don’t think so,” Belle Crow said.
“She brings someone with her,” Denaulda said.
“Not someone. Nosferatu. I can smell them, two, maybe three,” Eli said, his guard still up.
Ally looked beyond the hill behind His Eternal Garden. As she did, the rest followed her gaze, waiting to see who Silva led to them.
A figure came into view, then another and finally a third. Small, petite. They were female Nosferatu. Ally couldn’t see their faces for the black veils that covered them.
“It’s still daylight. Will it not burn them?” Dave whispered.
“It’s overcast. The veils are to protect them against any rays of light,” Jeb answered. Since Dave’s transformation into a Nashoba, Jeb had taken him under his wing. His girlfriend Lucy began teaching him their ways and history while Jeb instructed him on instinct, tracking, and control.
“Who are they? Why are they here?” Jessica asked.
“Silva led them here,” Ally said, mechanically stating the obvious. She strained to see them through her red and swollen eyes. As they came closer into view, Ally briefly thought of Marik. He was the only Nosferatu she met and nothing good came from that introduction. What became of him? Was he still imprisoned within the Devourer? While the Devourer masqueraded as Marik, a prince of the Nosferatu Nation and Michael’s brother by blood, was there any consciousness that remained of Marik? Did he even know the Devourer used him physically to kill his own brother?
The three Nosferatu stopped a few feet away. Ally noticed the two on either side of the Nosferatu in the middle. They each rested a hand on the hilt of what Ally believed to be swords, as though protecting her. The Nosferatu in the middle stepped out away from the other two.
“Why have you come here?” Belle Crow took a few steps towards the Nosferatu.
Silva flew towards the one that singled herself out. She gracefully landed, perching herself on a shoulder as though indicating there was no harm meant.
The Nosferatu eased her veil up, long blonde hair spilling out around her shoulders. She tilted her head up. Her voice was soft as she said, “My nation has been attacked by necrosapiens. This creature saved us and led us here. We come in peace. But there are questions, many, many questions I have, and I’m hoping someone here can answer them.”
“We are in mourning. Who are you to show disregard for our dead?” Eli said, the hostility in his voice clear.
She lifted her veil then, exposing her icy blue eyes, irises that were a mirroring image of another. 
Ally froze in disbelief.
“I am King Vladamant’s daughter, Mariah. And with one brother missing,” she looked back sadly at Michael’s grave, “and my long lost twin brother dead, I assure you, we are in mourning too.”

Sasha Hibbs will choose one commenter to receive a free eCopy of Black Abaddon! Leave a comment or question below. Be sure to include your email address.

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Monday, September 22, 2014

PREVIEW CHAPTER ONE: Taking Chances by S.J. Maylee

Taking Chances

(The Love Projects #1)

by: S.J. Maylee


Lydia’s father walked away from her when she was eight. She’s struggled to not let him affect her, but fears she wasn’t loveable enough to make him stay. Jake wants to love one woman, but after scaring the last woman he met outside of the club, he doubts he deserves the right. She protects her heart by sticking with her fantasies and he lives by a set of rules that excludes women who choose a vanilla lifestyle.

The two will be kept in a conference room working together until their special project is complete. If Lydia and Jake hold tight to their bland lives, they’ll always yearn for love that is out of reach. Together they find common ground, passion, and a reason to take chances. Once they discover the grand possibilities of the love they desire, they find themselves in the very place they tried never to be again, facing unguaranteed loved.

Taking Chances (The Love Projects #1)

S.J. Maylee Copyright © 2014

 ~ Chapter One ~ 

Lydia's boss stared the team down. She squirmed in her seat and worked to contain her fidget. The glower she recognized. Mr. Keller’s fiery gaze swept over every person in the conference room. Praying he would skim right past her, she shrank a smidge in her seat. The transition to their new product management database had bombed. He wanted someone to blame.
The team worked hard, and yet dozens of things had gone wrong, but no one deserved to get chucked under the bus. Politics was never a strong suit for Lydia, and neither was talking in front of a group. Who would enjoy sweating profusely and forgetting all words except ah and um?
The threat of humiliation fired through her, making her eager for a solution. If she could figure out a way to shift the meeting away from the possibility of someone getting fired, she’d relax. An idea rolled about in her head, but not even a drop of courage lingered within her reach.
“Keller, the policies and procedures need strength and substance if we’re going to move forward as a team with our new system.” Jake pushed back from the table.
She needed to add mind-reading to the list of Jake’s gifts. She’d had the exact idea. It wasn’t the first time he offered a solution she’d been contemplating. It often left her with the idea they’d get along well, which was ludicrous. Men like Jake didn’t pay attention to a woman like Lydia. Hesitation was more her style, and it certainly wasn’t Jake’s. As a department director, he made things happen, and along the way he intimidated the heck out of her.
Of course she’d never been alone in a room with Jake, never even had a casual conversation. Fortunately, he never sought her out. Whenever Jake neared, her pulse raced, and naughty ideas filled her mind. Her fascination with him had started on her first day with the company over a year ago.
The sidewalks had been a mess of snow and ice in front of their building that morning. She’d picked style over practicality in shoes and was rewarded with a slip and fall, flat on her butt. Jake had helped her up. He’d placed her purse strap in one hand and held the other while he asked if she was okay. Embarrassment might have flared through her, but his gaze had melted her, and she hadn’t been able to think straight in his presence since.
He made her aware of her body, the way it heated and awakened. It wasn’t the chiseled cheek bones, or his tall lean body that had to be fit as a Navy Seal. Okay, maybe in her fantasies it was heaven to grab onto his thick neck and shoulders. When Jake was around, she either got lost in a fantasy or felt like a teenager worrying about her hair being flat, smudged mascara, or worse things. What if he saw her nipples hardening? Luckily for her they worked in two different departments and didn’t find themselves with the need to talk to each other.
If she could get to know him she wouldn’t suffer so much. Most people had issues, and if she could find his she wouldn’t be so intimidated. She had a long history of finding flaws in people. First with her dad, she had been eight when he left. She led a lonely existence and wore it like an armor, and it stopped her from being let down.
“I think you’re onto something.” Boss man Keller usually agreed with Jake.
Disappointment ticked at her ragged nerves. Once again someone else was getting credit for an idea she couldn’t voice.
For Keller to ever agree with her, she'd have to have the audacity to speak about her own ideas. Until she had the guts to offer her own opinion there would be no recognition, no advancement. Soon it would be time to go back to her familiar little box, a place she usually thought of as comfortable, a place made easy to hold onto her armor.
“I’d like you to head the team on this.” Keller inclined his head toward Jake. “Pick one of the technical writers from this table, lock yourselves in a room, and get it done. I want a report tomorrow, my office, ten o’clock.” He stomped from the room and took another opportunity to sneer at each of them.
The room, without Keller’s presence, grew eerily quiet.
All attention turned to Jake. He towered over them as they waited for the chosen partner to be selected. Whispers bubbled up around her.
A door slammed down the hall, probably Keller letting off some steam. She didn’t want to think about Keller. She desperately wanted to fill her mind with one idea, that she could be the technical writer Jake chose. He could choose her.
She blocked out her surroundings, peeled back her protective layer and allowed herself to feel. She bit her lower lip and sucked it into her mouth. She could be locked in a room with Jake. Her mouth dried, and her heart pounded. She took another look at Jake and drank in his dark features and the muscles she imagined hidden under his blue collared shirt. A fantasy, starring the infamous Jake, filled her imagination.
He sauntered around the table and stopped at her chair. His hand took hold of hers, and he pulled her into his strong arms. Once he settled her bottom on the table, he stepped in between her thighs. As he devoured her mouth in eager kisses, he popped the buttons on her blouse, unclasped her bra, and exposed her. Powerful hands molded her breasts. She let her needy body fall to the table to give him access to every inch of her.
The fantasy was in full swing now. Jake shouted her name. Oh, her name sounded sinful on his lips.
“Lydia!” someone shouted.
Something pushed her elbow, and it fell awkwardly from the table, releasing her from her inner thoughts. Everyone at the table stared her way.
“Thanks for rejoining us. Clear your calendar, and meet me back here in a half hour.” Jake locked his gaze with hers.
“Yes, Sir … I mean, okay, I’ll be here.”
She couldn’t handle his powerful expression and dropped her stare to the table. It was too intense, him standing there like an unyielding statue. Had she said something wrong? Before an idea could enter her mind, he stormed from the room. The rest of her department followed him like nothing tremendous happened. Just like that, they went on with their day, talking about lunch plans and other mundane things. Lydia, on the other hand, couldn’t move.
It had been a split second, but his eyes had narrowed in on her and dimmed to a shade darker than black. It was intimidating, but she desperately wanted to see it again. She should slap herself or pinch her arm. She was at work. This wasn’t a time for fantasies.
Lydia stood on shaky legs, her heart beating widely. She shuffled in a daze to her cubicle to stare at her desk. She needed to calm down and ready herself for the work ahead. Mindlessly, she refilled her favorite coffee mug. The deep aromatics kicked her back to reality as the rich brew caressed her frazzled nerves.
She knew the new system inside and out, and she’d prove it today. Jake had made a smart move in choosing her. A smile flirted with her mouth, but fizzled as nerves danced for attention in her chest. If the nonsensical feelings were left to fester she’d tumble into a panic attack.
They had a big task in front of them. Loads of work would fill the day, and there was no need to get emotional. Her brain heard all the reasonable thoughts, but her body continued to brace against panic. She closed her eyes and concentrated on the pace of her breathing. She needed a distraction. She opened her eyes and found it in the mess on her desk. Her hands shifted pages, such a normal thing for her to do, except she wasn’t reading a thing.
Figuring out what polices to write could take the whole morning. She hoped the size of the job would help keep her mind on the task. It was ludicrous to think Jake selected her for any reason other than the job. She was a technical writer and a logical choice for the task.
He picked me.
Her department contained several people Jake could have chosen. He could have selected Gina. She was familiar with the changes but would know more if she didn’t spend a ridiculous amount of time socializing. Gina was a nice enough girl and beautiful, too. Her dark hair and pale blue eyes were stunning. But Jake didn’t choose Gina. It felt strange, but she liked Jake more for that fact. Her breathing started to slow.
“You’re not nervous are you, Lydia?”
“No, why would I be?” Lydia looked up in time to see Gina sauntering over with a smirk.
“Well, don’t let Jake bowl you over.” Gina sat on the corner of her desk. “Make sure he hears what you have to say. Jake’s a strong guy, and he doesn’t like meek women.”
“Thanks for the tip, Gina.”
How did Gina have any idea what Jake preferred? Gina was the type of girl she could see on Jake’s arm. The two would look handsome together. Lydia didn’t have Gina’s shape or her pretty features. Gina was clever, too. The guys often laughed at the things she said.
“Hurry along now. You don’t want to make him wait.” Gina scurried her out of the cubicle.
Lydia grabbed hold of her mug, which was once again empty. She struggled to straighten her blouse.
“You look fine, Lydia. Get moving.”
Fantastic, now Lydia felt hurried and insecure. Shaking her head, she wound her way to the conference room and was thankful when she found it empty. She left her things on the table and shook out her arms as she walked to the window.
The ravine behind the building fascinated her. She took a moment to appreciate the sprawling landscape, the varying shades of green, plants and mosses covering most of the ground. Everything was coming back to life after a long winter. Several trees lined each side of the ravine, and one had fallen across the middle. An eagle soared across the sky, the hypnotic flap of the wings filling her with strength and serenity. The peaceful view slowed her raging thoughts and brought quiet peace to her senses.
Finally. She wanted to laugh for getting carried away to her dream land earlier. Naughty fantasies didn’t belong in the middle of the work day.
Her fingers grazed the cool surface of the window, and her imagination thrust her into her earlier fantasy.
He had not expected to feel the pull of lust to Lydia, let alone the desire to dominate her body. Sure, she called him Sir, and that alone would please many dominants. The fact the formal address came from quiet Lydia’s lips made his cock rock hard. He adjusted himself, but it didn’t help the building pressure. He had a half hour to gather himself before getting locked in a room with her for the rest of the day.
He went through the motions of replying to emails and updating his projects. Nothing required enough concentration to shake his thoughts from Lydia. How had this woman grabbed his attention? She was the type you didn’t notice often, except her frequent trips to refill her coffee mug. This morning might have been the first time he heard her sweet voice.
Now all he could think about were the other things he had never noticed before, such as the length of her long, brown hair and the intensity shining in her hazel eyes. He could get a nice grip and pull her hair as he fucked her from behind.
Get control of yourself, man. There will be no fucking. It was a pity, because the curve of her beautiful, full behind would look amazing with the red impression of his hand.
“Hey, Jake.”
He jumped at the sound of Keller’s assistant’s voice and then shook his head. “Oh, hey. Hi, Anne. I was lost in thought there for a second.”
“Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you, just wanted to see if you and Lydia would need anything today.”
Typical of Keller, he would want to make sure they were productive, but what else was he up to? Keller always claimed he had nothing to do with the matches that seemed to take hold after one of his strategic requests. In fact, Jake vaguely remembered Keller talking about Lydia yesterday at lunch. Had the conversation unknowingly put Lydia’s name in his mind this morning?
He only knew two things about Lydia before yesterday. She wrote their technical instruction manuals, and she drank coffee like a chain smoker.
“I’ve seen her caffeine addiction, so I’ve already set a fresh pot to brew. We’ll work through lunch, so it would be great if you could order something for us.”
She probably knew Lydia. He should ask her … what? He already knew what he needed. According to Keller, she was famously precise in her studies of their new software. That’s why he’d picked her today. Lydia was the right person for the job. Whether she was right for him was irrelevant.
“Sure, no problem, I’ll wait to hear from you. See you later, Jake.”
Jake would stick by the three promises he made a long time ago. First, he would never again approach a woman outside of the kink clubs. Second, he would never again scare a woman. He craved for a woman to willingly submit. Third, he was not relationship material. His rules protected him, but more importantly, they protected the women around him.
Most women at the clubs understood a Dom not wanting a relationship. It was his job, as a Dom, to ensure no one got hurt, physically or emotionally. It was a big job, but his rules handled most of the work. Even though Keller liked to employ people he met at the club, none of his submissive coworkers were a match for Jake, and his rules were intact.
His rules hadn’t been a problem until a few minutes ago when Lydia called him “Sir”. She was probably vanilla. He wouldn’t find out, because their conversation would stick to policies they needed to draft. There was a lot to do in the next twenty-four hours, and he was thankful. He needed all the help he could get to keep his mind off of Lydia’s assets.
On his way out of his office he ran into his friend Simon.
“Hi, Simon.” The two friends fell in step with each other.
“Hey, man. I was hoping to run into you before your new project started.”
“You heard about that?”
“Sure did. I’ll handle the team meetings for you this week.”
“Thanks.” Jake clapped Simon across the shoulders. He could be an arrogant guy, but he always watched everyone’s back.
Simon stopped walking and turned to Jake. “I wanted to warn you to be on the lookout. I’m getting the feeling Keller is back in his covert match-making mode.”
“Shit, I was afraid of that. It’s been a while.” Keller knew about his rules. Jake felt reasonably safe, but a tick of concern swiftly followed. He started walking again, suddenly not as eager to see Lydia.
“I got a call from Charlie this morning that might cheer you up,” Simon said.
“Some more meals from that Dominatrix would cheer me up. That woman can cook.”
“She didn’t promise food, but she’s looking for some new trainers and wanted to know if we were interested.”
He might be able to survive the week with Lydia if he knew he had a sub waiting for him on Friday night. “Yeah, sure, tell her I’ll be there Friday.”
“Great, I’ll go with you. I’ll tell her we’ll do it if she cooks for us Saturday morning.”
“Simon, I like the way you think.”
He returned to the conference room early with the excuse of clearing the table. Maybe his mind would calm by doing simple tasks. The door opened to reveal Lydia with her back to him across the room. His body heated at the sight of her. She looked out the window. He tried to do the same, but his gaze wouldn’t detour from the slope of her neck.
They needed to work on drafting policies and procedures. His body didn’t want to listen. Work is all they would be doing in this room. Visions of him restraining her and demanding she submit filled his mind.
He was in a lot of trouble.

S.J. Maylee will choose one commenter to receive a free swag pack! Leave a comment or question below. Be sure to include your email address.

Monday, September 15, 2014

PREVIEW CHAPTER ONE: Colors of Us by Sandra Bunino #NewAdult

Colors of Us
by Sandra Bunino

McAvery Brothers, 1
Everything she knew to be true fell apart. Then fell apart again…
Michelle Willis is running from her past. What better place to hide than in the anonymity of New York City. Finding refuge in a tiny SoHo art gallery, she rebuilds her life one painting at a time.
A wrong turn sends Hunter McAvery on a crash course with disaster. He fights his own demons by following his big brother’s lead – drinking and bed-hopping his way through Manhattan.
A glance at Michelle’s self-portrait triggers emotions Hunter can’t tamp down. Driven to meet the artist, he discovers a fiery chemistry as their lives collide. But when their past threatens to tear them apart, can their love survive?

McAvery Brothers, 1

Sandra Bunino Copyright © 2014

~Chapter One~

Michelle woke with a gasp and sat straight up in her bed. Fear slithered down her spine as she pulled the dampened sheet to her chest. It was just a dream. Just a dream. Rubbing her temples, she recalled the last time she’d had a nightmare. A month ago? Maybe two. What used to be an almost nightly occurrence dwindled to one every few months. The ever-increasing time between bad dreams meant she’d come a long way from the day she’d stepped off the bus at Penn Station and started a new life in The Big Apple.

She rubbed the knot of tension under her shoulder. “Shake it off, Willis. Everyone has nightmares once in a while,” she muttered before taking a deep breath and blowing it out slowly through her lips.
Sunlight streamed into her tiny studio, and the familiar morning noises of her neighbors wrapped around her like a warm blanket. The single mom with the stomping toddler in the apartment above her, the elderly man from down the hall who shuffled past her door on his way to the corner bakery, even the newlyweds next door who enjoyed a lusty morning quickie before heading to work—all provided a degree of comfort that everything was right in the world.

Stretching her arms, she caught her reflection in the mirror on the wall. Light shadows replaced the dark circles that had once resided under her eyes, thanks to sleep and her daily workout routine in her building’s basement. She’d hoped to exchange sessions on the worn-out treadmill with early morning runs through the streets of neighboring Tribeca, but she wasn’t ready for it yet. Baby steps.

Michelle slipped out of bed, padded across the room to her kitchenette, and ripped open a store-brand oatmeal packet. Turning the faucet knob to hot, she dumped the contents into a chipped mug and held it under the steamy water for a moment. Flakes of dried oats floated to the top as she sprinkled a packet of sugar over the meager meal. Stirring the contents together, she moved to her closet and kicked the door open. There wasn’t much to choose from in her tiny storage space. A few pairs of black pants, blouses, and sweaters from the consignment store made up her work wardrobe, yoga pants and sweatshirts were weekend clothes, and one little black dress reserved for gallery events.
The metal hangers rattled as she pulled her best pair of dress slacks and black sweater from the closet and slipped them on. A quick trip to the bathroom to brush her teeth, tie her long hair into a neat bun, and swipe on some blush and lip gloss completed her morning routine. She grabbed her backpack and rushed down two flights of stairs to her second-hand bike, which was locked to the rack in the narrow lobby. Turning the numbers to the correct combination, she freed the chain from the lock and wound it around her seat. A gust of wind ruffled a few strands of hair loose from her bun as she pushed the front door open and walked her bike down the short flight of cement stairs to the sidewalk.

Mounting her bike, she sucked the cool city air through her nose and released it slowly from her mouth. The tight muscles in her back relaxed while she pedaled, slow at first, until the light changed and the cars emptied out of the side street. She pumped her feet and rode as fast as they would take her to the end of the block, enjoying the cool air hitting her face, making her feel alive. Turning left onto busy Canal Street, she stopped pedaling, allowing the wheels to coast on their own as she threaded between cars, street carts, and the hundreds of pedestrians on Chinatown’s streets. The air nipped at her knuckles, reminding her she’d need her knit gloves and hat soon.

She wished she’d had a dollar for each time someone called her crazy for riding a bike in Manhattan. There were more deaths of city cyclists than any other accident in New York, well-meaning people said. They never understood. Being perched on the seat of her used bike meant security and control to Michelle. Every muscle in her legs flexed and contracted with the rhythm of her tires along the pavement, a feeling she never quite had while walking on the sidewalk. Mass transit was out of the question for her. She’d never forget how she’d felt like a trapped animal with nowhere to escape the
one and only time she rode the subway. Buses were out too, which was why she paid the exorbitant rent for her little Chinatown studio.

Gliding onto Mercer Street, where the smooth city asphalt turned into the original cobblestone streets, was her favorite part of the ride. Every bump she hit as she passed galleries, shops, restaurants, and lofts reminded her of how lucky she was to be living and working in the trendy art district of SoHo. Her tires bounced over the uneven road as she steered into the alley behind the gallery. Her breaks squeaked and she coasted to a stop. Swinging her leg over the bike’s frame, she leaned it on the fence while examining her overgrown container garden.

Most of the fruits and vegetables had long been picked, not that there were many in the small assortment of pots and planters Miranda allowed her to keep in the narrow alley. A single red pepper shone bright at the top of one of her staked plants. She twisted it off by the stem and dropped it into her backpack before chaining her bike to the fence. It was the last of the free, fresh additions to her plain iceberg lettuce salad lunches. Pulling the cord that hung around her neck from under her shirt, she found the key belonging to the gallery, stuck it in the old lock, and turned it until she heard a click. Pushing open the door, she entered Miranda’s office and studio.

“Morning, sunshine,” her friend Cheyenne sang as her heels clicked along the wood floor.

Michelle closed the door and smiled at her friend. “Pink, huh?” Cheyenne’s hair glowed like a cotton candy aura around her face.

Cheyenne ran her fingers through her hair. “You like?” She changed her hair color like most women changed their nail polish.

“It’s cute, but I still like the purple,” Michelle said as she dropped her backpack onto the seat of the desk chair. “I can’t believe it’s already the last Arts Walk of the season. Any action?”

“Nah, but it’s still early. With the summer tourists gone, we’ll just get the well-heeled urbanites out for a girls’ day later this afternoon after they’ve downed a few martinis.” Cheyenne tipped back her head and made a drinking gesture with an imaginary cocktail. SoHo’s Arts Walk event happened the third Thursday of each month from May through September. Art galleries opened their doors to visitors in hopes of making their somewhat-intimidating spaces more accessible to curious window shoppers. Some served refreshments, while others invited various artists to show their art and chat with potential customers.

Michelle chuckled. She knew the rich girlfriend group type well. There were three kinds of people who frequented SoHo’s galleries: tourists, who never bought anything; rich housewives from Manhattan and neighboring Connecticut and New Jersey, who acted as though they were in the market for something but rarely made purchases; and real art lovers, who artists hoped would fall in love with their work. Most of the Arts Walk crowd belonged in the first two categories, but Michelle didn’t mind. She loved the extra visibility for her own work, which hung near the window in the gallery.

Like many of her New York City peers, Michelle prayed someone would fall in love with her work, or at least like it enough to make a purchase. But unlike many of her counterparts, Michelle’s work was on display in an actual SoHo gallery. Most new artists waited years for an opportunity like it. It was sheer luck she had met Miranda Locke two years ago. Michelle had been almost out of money and had no clue what to do next. In Michelle’s eyes, Miranda took pity on her when she walked into Locke Gallery for a job, but as Miranda explained, it was Michelle’s work that won her over. “You’ll make it big one day, little one” was one of the gallery owner’s favorite sayings.

“Any word from Miranda?” Her boss was in Europe on a multicountry art tour, looking for new collections to bring to Locke Gallery. Miranda was more than Michelle’s boss. She was her friend, confidante, and the person who had made it possible for Michelle to live and work in New York doing the only thing she’d ever wanted to do. She missed chatting with Miranda on a daily basis and counted the days until her closest friend returned home.

“Not yet, but I’m sure she’ll message us later to see how the Arts Walk went.”

Michelle nodded and turned to the coffee machine perched on the table in the office. “I need coffee. I’ll brew a pot, then meet you up front.” She opened the cabinet where the coffee was kept.

“Oh damn. I made the last of it yesterday and forgot to buy more on my way in. But there were some free coffee coupons under the door this morning from that new Primo Java place that opened
down the block.” Cheyenne pointed to the orange certificates on the table. “If you feel like running over there, grab me a cup too.”

Michelle eyed the colorful slips of paper. “Hey, we can’t turn down free coffee, now, can we? Let’s get a fancy overpriced cup of something sinful. Caramel macchiato, mocha brûlée, what’s your poison?”

“Sounds like you know what you’re talking about. I’ll leave it up to you.” Cheyenne waved her hand and headed back to the main gallery, her stilettos clicking along the hardwood floor.

Michelle stuck the certificates in her pocket and followed Cheyenne to the front. “I’ll surprise you with something yummy.” Extras, like gourmet coffee drinks, weren’t in her budget, so it was a rare but appreciated treat. Pushing open the gallery door, she pulled her bun free from the elastic and shook her hair loose as the wind combed through it and whipped the ends along her shoulders. She tucked her chin to her chest and quickened her pace, thankful the coffee shop was on the corner.

The leaves on the lone tree standing tall in the patch of dirt dug into the sidewalk had already begun to change—yet another reminder summer was almost over. She swung open the coffee shop door, and the rich scent of brewed coffee wafted to her nostrils, sending her taste buds into overdrive. The small shop buzzed with activity. She scanned the gleaming floors and freshly painted walls. It seemed the neighborhood approved of the new shop. Patrons with their noses in laptops and tablets took up every available stool, sipping from plastic-lidded cardboard cups at high tables. Shuffling to the back of the line, she stood on her tiptoes and visually followed the long parade of heads in line waiting to place an order. Michelle estimated a twenty-minute wait at least, but she’d make the sacrifice for a free cup of specialty coffee.

“You would’ve thought this was the only coffee shop in the city,” a husky voice said behind her.
Michelle turned and acknowledged the voice with a casual nod while keeping her eyes averted downward. Her glance rested on a pair of black boots—scuffed and broken-in, like old friends. She had a pair just like them. Her gaze trailed to the frayed cuffs of worn jeans and roamed up denim-wrapped muscular legs.

“But I guess I shouldn’t complain, since it’s a free cup of coffee,” the graveled voice continued.
Her gaze made its journey along faded jeans to a certificate identical to the ones she had. His thumbnail caught and released the edge of the card, making a clicking noise. A hint of an intricate tattoo peeking out of his leather jacket sleeve caught her eye. “Me too.” Michelle dug the certificates out of her pocket and glanced at the voice’s owner. She held her breath for a moment as she scanned his face, starting with a firm mouth outlined with dark stubble that extended past his square jaw. Her gaze roamed to shoulder-length hair that covered one brown eye flecked with green. Realizing he was aware of her stare, she glanced away as heat crept up her neck.

“Those cookies look pretty good, though. I guess corporate America knows what they’re doing with these chain restaurants. Send local businesses a few freebies to get them into the shop, then hook them on expensive coffee and baked goods.”

Michelle gladly focused on the pastry case so she didn’t gawk at the man behind her. She spied her favorite cookie, peanut butter chocolate chip, and licked her lips.

“You work around here?” he asked.

Michelle turned to the stranger again. He closed some of the space between them, leaving her an option to step back. An option she chose not to take. He casually brushed the hair from his eye, revealing a jagged scar above his eyebrow. Her fingers itched to reach up and touch the imperfection that somehow seemed perfect on his face.

His lips curled upward. “You don’t have to tell me. Shit. I usually don’t chat up strangers.” He held up his index finger. “Correction: I usually don’t chat up strangers in a coffee line. I chat them up behind the bar. Occupational hazard.” He scrubbed his fingers over the scruff on his face.

“I work in a gallery. I take it you’re at one of the bars,” she said quietly.

“I’m at McAvery’s.” He tilted his head and smiled. “Ever go there?”

Michelle tried not to stare at the way his lips showcased straight white teeth. He could melt an icicle with his smile. She met his gaze. “No, but I ride past it on my way to work. I love the facade. It’s a great building.”

He nodded. “It’s one of the oldest bars in the city. I’m Hunter, by the way.” He placed the certificate in his left hand and offered her his other. “Ride, as in a motorcycle?”

“Michelle. And no, ride as in a bicycle.” She slipped her hand into his. The heat of his palm warmed her fingers. His sleeve rode up a corded forearm, revealing more of his tattoo before his sleeve covered it again. The colors and intricate design intrigued her, even though she wasn’t sure what it depicted.

“Looks like you’re up, Michelle. Pick your poison.” Hunter nodded to the counter.
Michelle pulled her hand away and ordered two caramel macchiato coffees with extra whipped cream.

“Anything else, miss,” asked the barista.

Her mouth watered as she glanced at the dish of peanut butter chocolate chip cookies in the pastry case and remembered her empty pockets. “Thanks, but just the coffee,” she said, pushing the certificates across the counter.

The barista turned to Hunter. “What can I get you?”

“Coffee, black, and....” He turned to Michelle. “What do you recommend?”

Michelle’s gaze darted to the plate of her favorites. “I’d get the peanut butter chocolate chip cookie.”
Hunter held up two fingers. “Two of those, please.”

Michelle collected her drinks, took a sip from one of them, and closed her eyes. The creamy foam warmed her throat.

“That good?” Hunter asked after he passed his voucher and a few dollars to the barista.

“Yeah, really good. Have a nice day.” Michelle took another sip and turned toward the door to leave.
“Hold on a sec.” He pulled one of the cookies out of the bag and handed it to Michelle. “Thanks for the recommendation.”

She shook her head. “Oh, no thanks. Save it for later. I gotta get back to work.”

He smiled. “Please take it as a thank you for keeping me company in that long line.”

Michelle looked from the cookie to his golden-honey eyes. “Thanks.” Reaching for it, her fingers brushed against his, sending a tingle to places in her that hadn’t been touched in a long time. She lingered a moment longer than she should have. Glancing at him, she saw a sly smile form on his lips. She took the treat and turned before the heat creeping up her neck became visible on her cheeks.
“See you around.” Hunter called.

Michelle pushed the door open and hoped the cool air would restrain the heat building in her belly. Heading in the direction of the gallery, she took a bite of the cookie and savored the sweet and creamy goodness dancing on her tongue. The flavors of her favorite cookie teased her taste buds as she entered the gallery.

“What are you all smiles about? And why are you all flushed?” Cheyenne asked with her hands on her hips.

“I just ate something delicious. Here, I saved you half.” She handed her the coffee cup and half the cookie.

Cheyenne took a bite and groaned. “Oh, yeah. This is good. So good. Were they giving these out too?”

“Nope. The guy I talked to while we stood in line bought a couple and gave me one.”

Cheyenne held her finger up as she chewed and swallowed. “Hold on. You met a guy?”

“I didn’t say I met a guy. You make it sound sordid,” Michelle said, swatting her friend’s arm. “But, yeah. I guess I did. His name is Hunter, and he works at McAvery’s.”

Cheyenne’s mouth dropped open. “Hunter McAvery?”

Michelle shrugged. “I guess. Why? Do you know him?” It wouldn’t surprise her if Cheyenne did. Cheyenne seemed to go out every night. Concerts, clubs, bars—you name it. If there was a party in the city, Cheyenne found it.

“Hunter and his brother, Alex, are always pictured in The Village Mouth at the best parties and club openings. Total players. In fact, I heard Miranda and Alex used to be involved for a while. I asked her about it once, but she wouldn’t talk about it.”

“You read about that in The Village Mouth, that weekly gossip rag? No wonder she wouldn’t talk about it. It’s a bunch of trash.”

Cheyenne rolled her eyes. “Did he ask you out?”

Michelle snorted, and her mind wandered to the man with well-worn boots and a eyes she could easily get lost in. “No. We just talked while waiting for our free coffees. End of story.” A group of women walked in before Cheyenne could respond. “Here’s the first group of gawkers.”

The door buzzer continued to sound all day as people entered and left the gallery. Michelle ducked into the office for a quick lunch and to check the gallery’s e-mail account when she noticed a message from Miranda.

Hi! I hope the last Arts Walk brings in some business. My cat sitter messaged me and is running late today. If it’s not too busy, would one of you run over to my apartment and feed Fuzzy for me?

Michelle smiled. Miranda loved her cat, and it killed her to leave her precious Fuzzy for a month. She tapped a message back and hit send before returning her salad back to the small refrigerator under Miranda’s desk. “Chey. Miranda needs one of us to run over and feed Fuzzy. I’ll go since it’s my lunch break.” Michelle called into the gallery as she pulled open the desk drawer and removed the spare set of keys to Miranda’s building and apartment.

“No problem. Things have quieted down here. Take your time.” 

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