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Check Out Today’s Kindle Daily Deal For Wednesday, October 2
Plus Andrew J. Morgan’s Sci-Fi Adventure Noah’s Ark

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Noah’s Ark

by Andrew J. Morgan

4.2 stars – 18 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:

Alex Latham had the perfect existence.

He had a loving family, a beautiful child and a successful career.

Then came the darkness.

When the darkness came, there was nowhere to hide. People ran. But they could not escape. The darkness came and the darkness took them away.

Except for one.

Alex thought that he was all that was left.

He was wrong.

5-Star Amazon Review
“This book was very captivating and kept me entertained. Loved the characters and the unexpected twist was brilliant. This book is 100% worth a read… you won’t be disappointed! I would definitely buy and read more from this author in the future.”

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Each day’s Kindle Daily Deal is sponsored by one paid title on Kindle Nation. We encourage you to support our sponsors and thank you for considering them.

and now … Today’s Kindle Daily Deal!

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Free Excerpt From Carlie Sexton’s New Adult Erotic Romance Thriller Fallen for You

Last week we announced that Carlie Sexton’s Fallen For You is our Romance of the Week and the sponsor of thousands of great bargains in the Romance category: over 200 free titles, over 600 quality 99-centers, and thousands more that you can read for free through the Kindle Lending Library if you have Amazon Prime!

Now we’re back to offer our weekly free Romance excerpt, and if you aren’t among those who have downloaded Fallen For You, you’re in for a real treat:

4.3 stars – 40 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:

If you believe your life is the sum total of your choices, what do you do when things just don’t add up? You are about to find out. It won’t be pretty. It won’t be dull. And surely, it won’t be safe. In fact, making just one wrong choice could put evil at your bedside watching you sleep.

And so it is with Kate Simmons, a young woman who, by choosing to regain her life, actually puts it at risk by the very choices she makes. After unimaginable heartbreak stops her world on a dime, Kate falls into a three-year blackness of self blame that brings her to the edge of life, itself. As time finally brings light back through tiny cracks of renewed desire, Kate moves out of the prison she made for herself in her mother’s home to find a new reality, rooming with her best girlfriend, Charlie.

Yet, to be free is to be vulnerable, and Kate’s choices more than ever mark a splattered line between being happy and being dead.

Care to choose? Here’s your menu:
A strangely alluring building manager so possessed with wanting you for his own, he’ll bury more than the fact he has a girlfriend; a buff college student for whom you are clearly hot, as are all the other girls on campus; a pushy lawyer who is as handsome as he is intoxicated with conquest, who doesn’t take no for an answer, who gets what he wants — always.

Sometimes, it’s whom you choose. Sometimes, it’s who chooses you. If you’re Kate, it’s both, and it puts you on a perilous road where good looks and humor are the thin masks of jealous delusion and utter violence.

You’re in trouble when the sum total of your choices is written in blood red.

“Fallen for You” is Book 1 of this New Adult Romance series. The next book, “Taken by You” is available now. Book 3 “:Given to You” will be released on 9/24/13.

*Books must be read in order.
Fallen for You
Taken by You
Given to You

This story is a New Adult Romance that will leave you wanting more.
*This book contains adult situations and explicit content. 17+*

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  And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free romance excerpt:

Fallen for You

Chapter 1

 

A smile the size of the Grand Canyon stretched across Roger’s handsome face as he hung up the phone, causing his dark brown eyes to crinkle. The voice on the other end of the line piqued his interest unlike he’d ever experienced before. If only he could have reached through the line and touched her. What did Kate look like? He would know soon enough as Kate and her roommate Charlie were coming to see the apartment he had for rent next door. Hearing her voice had somehow made him forget that he had a girlfriend. How could the sound of a voice do that?

He had managed Rancho Verde Apartments for several years and always judged potential rental candidates with his gut feelings. His easy conversation with Kate on the phone had been enlightening. She was well-spoken and classy, never interrupting him a single time that he had spoken. Now all he had to do was see her in the flesh. Did her face and body match her sweet, sultry voice?

But who was this Charlie? Was he her brother, boyfriend, a friend? Roger would walk on hot coals right now to find out the answer. He wasn’t good at being patient and he didn’t like surprises. Hopefully, Charlie was a gay friend or her brother. He had honed his gaydar during the eight years he served in the Army.

Right before Kate was due to arrive, he rinsed his mouth with mouth wash and checked himself in the mirror. Not too bad for thirty-eight. He had been blessed with a baby face and no one had ever guessed his age. Women swore he looked ten years younger.

As he wanted to make a good first impression with Kate, he had chosen to wear Calvin Klein jeans with a yellow polo shirt – he had been told that the color brought out the olive in his skin, and he knew that it displayed his broad shoulders.

The sound of the doorbell made his heart race a little faster, and when he pulled the door open and was faced with two goddess-like creatures, he thought: Wow. Someone up there must really like me. Both women exceeded his wildest expectations.

“Hi, I’m Kate Simmons and this is Charlie Andrews,” she said with her hand outstretched.

Roger took her soft delicate hand. He didn’t want to let go of it. He wanted to kiss and caress it, but he didn’t dare.

“It’s nice to meet you. I’m Roger Wilkins, the apartment manager,” he said smoothly. He shook Charlie’s hand as well.

Kate was a stunning woman. Roger couldn’t help but notice her full, beautifully shaped breasts and tiny waistline. She had curves in all the right places and her long, wavy brown hair with blonde highlights cascaded down toward her breasts. He could lose himself for days in those big brown eyes of hers. When she flashed her smile at him, he was certain that she turned heads wherever she went.

The sound of her voice had captivated him and now seeing her, he wanted to know her heart, mind, body and soul. He didn’t believe in love at first sight, but he definitely believed in lust at first sight.

Charlie, to his relief, turned out to be a woman. But not just any ordinary woman. She too made his mouth water. She was petite with long, straight black hair. Her skin made him think of a porcelain doll. It was so smooth. Her high cheekbones would have given any model a run for her money. He was going to do everything in his power to make sure that they rented the apartment right next door to his. His search for the perfect woman might just be over thanks to a fortuitous vacancy.

“Let me show you the apartment. It’s right across the way,” he said, pointing to the door.

Kate and Charlie turned and strolled to the door across from Roger. As he opened the door he said, “I think you will really like this apartment. It is west facing so it stays cooler than the apartments across the way. The kitchen is a good size and you can fit a small table and chairs out on the balcony. I’ll let you look around. Come on back to my apartment when you are done.”

“Thank you so much,” Kate said smiling. “We have been looking forward to seeing this apartment, it sounded terrific in the ad.”

“We’ll see you soon,” said Charlie. Leaving his door ajar, Roger returned to his apartment. As he was six-feet tall, muscular with dark hair and eyes, he felt confident that Kate and Charlie would find him attractive. It was rare that any women turned him down, especially since he had worked at honing his listening skills. Women naturally confided in him, which often provided the quick route to the bedroom: his desired destination.

***

As Kate walked around the apartment, it had a cheerful atmosphere, or was it just the fact that she was moving out of her mother’s house that lifted her spirits? Their relationship had become strained since she was no longer a little girl that her mother could control.

The apartment was on the second floor, so it would be safer than the downstairs apartment that she and Charlie had walked through earlier in the day. With the apartment building manager living right next door, any problems that arose would be handled quickly. Roger seemed very approachable and friendly. The vaulted ceilings and balcony added a charming essence that she was looking for. Stepping out onto the balcony, she noticed the quaint courtyard with a grassy area, magnolia trees, and vibrant flowers that seemed to welcome her. It was also fragrant, with the scent of jasmine and gardenia wafting up to tickle her nose. Drinking coffee out here in the mornings and sipping wine in the evenings would recharge her batteries when low. The two bedrooms and two and a half bathrooms would work out perfectly for her and Charlie. She liked that they each had a bathroom inside their prospective bedrooms and as the apartment had two master suites, they could both have a spacious area to retreat to when they needed some privacy.

Charlie, short for Charlene, liked the apartment too and pointed out that it had washer-dryer hook-ups, a dishwasher, and plenty of cabinets. She was very practical about these things. It was close to San Diego State University, where Kate would be attending college, starting her junior year. Charlie’s job in the HR department of a telecommunications company was only fifteen minutes away, so this seemed the ideal apartment for both women.

“Charlie,” Kate called out, “what do you think of this place?”

Charlie emerged from one of the bedrooms. “I love it. I think that it will work out great.”

“Are you ready to give Roger a deposit and sign the lease?”

“I most definitely am,” Charlie said, nodding her head.

“I can’t believe that we can rent this place for only eleven-hundred a month. It’s a steal,” Kate replied. She hugged Charlie. “It’s going to be great for us to be out on our own together.”

Creating a sanctuary for herself and Charlie was going to be so much fun. She had been walking around on eggshells for long enough with her family, and stepping into this beautiful space, which she couldn’t wait to decorate, made her realize how much she needed a place to call her own. It had great potential for creating the “ah” feeling that she so needed when she walked through the door. Since they each lived with their parents, they had flexibility to move in right away. They walked out of the apartment to find Roger’s door open.

“So, what did you think of the place?” he asked with raised eyebrows.

“We both really like it,” Kate answered with a smile that reached her eyes. “We want to rent it.”

“Great. I thought you would like it. I have your lease ready here if you want to sign today,” he said as he led them into his dining area. “I just need your first month’s rent and deposit.” They each wrote a check for $1,100.00 and handed them to him. Roger went over the lease and had them initial and sign the highlighted areas. Judging by his wide smile Roger seemed pleased at their decision to rent the apartment.

As Kate was signing the lease she asked, “When is the earliest that we can move in?”

“You can move in tomorrow if you like,” he said. “The apartment is ready.”

“Excellent. That would actually work out quite well for us,” she said.

“Good,” Roger replied, standing up. “How about I take you down to the garage then to show you where you can park your cars and then I’ll give you your keys?”

As they followed him downstairs, he informed them that most of the tenants had lived there for a long time and were very quiet. They assured him that they liked the quiet and wanted to respect their neighbor’s privacy. They arrived at the parking spaces which were directly below the apartment, right next to Roger’s spaces.

“Well, if you don’t have any more questions, then I will see you when you move in. The place is yours,” he said, handing each woman her own key.

***

Roger was looking for the perfect woman to complete his life. He had a placeholder for right now, who was pretty and sweet. She met his needs, but she didn’t make his teeth sweat. He wanted the kind of woman who rocked his world and made other guys jealous. Maybe then he could overcome his past and not be haunted anymore. He hadn’t exactly been given a charmed life, but he was working on changing it.

Roger couldn’t have been more satisfied that Kate and Charlie were moving in. As he sat on the sofa in his apartment, his pulse quickened. Both girls were so attractive and incredibly desirable. Kate seemed reserved but friendly. It was obvious that she had no clue just how beautiful she was, making her that much more sexy. Charlie, on the other hand, carried herself like she knew she was gorgeous. She seemed a little more guarded.

They had signed a year’s lease so he would have plenty of time to get to know Kate. He started planning his strategy, as he knew Kate would be the perfect woman for him. He’d keep his door open so that he could figure out her comings and goings. Invitations for wine at the end of the day might loosen her up a little, breaking down her defenses. Once he’d worn her down, he would break things off with Rose to garner Kate’s sympathies. Being next door was very convenient indeed. All he had to do was walk across the landing and he could see her any time he wanted. She didn’t even have to be awake. As the manager of the complex, he had a key to everyone’s apartment. He legally wasn’t supposed to go into someone’s apartment without their consent, but he wasn’t one to get caught up on legalities. It wouldn’t be the first time he watched a sleeping beauty. He would have her figured out in no time. Oh, how the plans swirled around in his mind. Despite the fact that she was a good woman and he appreciated having her in his life, he didn’t see Rose as long-term relationship material. If he had, perhaps meeting Kate would not have cast her aside in his mind so quickly and definitively.

 

Chapter 2

 

Moving day had arrived and Charlie’s Dad and boyfriend were the official movers.

Roger’s door was open when Kate and Charlie arrived at the apartment. He made sure to greet them as they carried boxes up the stairs. He was all smiles until he saw Tom and Mitch show up. Then his face turned a little more serious. Charlie introduced her dad and Mitch to Roger and the men shook hands.

Their moving went on without a hitch. When the truck was completely empty Tom headed home and Mitch stayed to help with the unpacking. The new furniture arrived as Kate and Charlie were organizing their bedrooms and Mitch was putting things away in the kitchen. He was a whiz at organizing and made sure to put all of the kitchen essentials in the most convenient cabinets. Kate directed the delivery men as they brought in the sofas. She had bought some decorative throw pillows to accentuate them, which she got out, fluffed, and placed on the sofas. They were a beautiful tapestry with a muted floral pattern trimmed in hunter green. They gave the sofas the comfy feel that she longed to create in her home. Now all they needed to make the living room homey was pictures, candles, and some knick-knacks.

As Kate and Charlie sat on the sofa, they simultaneously said, “I’m starved.” Mitch pulled out his cell phone and within minutes, two large pizzas were ordered. After inhaling a couple of slices of pizza and a couple of beers, Kate decided she needed a good soak in the tub. Before she could excuse herself, there was a knock at the door.

“I wonder who that could be?” Kate asked as she got up to answer it. “Hi Roger.”

“Kate, I’d thought I would bring over a bottle of wine to welcome you and Charlie to the building.”

“That is so thoughtful of you. Please come in,” Kate said. Roger handed her the bottle of wine as he crossed the threshold to enter the apartment.

“I already opened it in case you hadn’t unpacked the kitchen yet,” Roger explained.

“Mitch was such a huge help and he unpacked all of the kitchen boxes. Please have a seat and I’ll get the glasses. Mitch, Charlie, do you each want a glass of wine?’

“Yeah, that sounds good,” Charlie said while Mitch nodded.

Roger sat on the love seat while Kate went into the kitchen and poured the wine.

“So tell me Roger, have you managed the building for very long?” Mitch asked.

“Just for the last few years,” Roger said.

“Cool. What did you do before that?” Mitch continued.

“I was in the Army for many years. Got out right before the towers were hit.”

Mitch shook his head. “That was a crazy time.”

“Yeah, it sure was,” Roger said.

Kate returned with two glasses, handing them to Mitch and Charlie. She went back to retrieve the glasses she poured for Roger and herself, then joined him on the love seat.

“Thanks for serving our country Roger.” Charlie said. “What did you do in the Army?”

“I worked in the Criminal Investigation Division for most of my time.”

“That sounds intense,” Kate said. “So you helped to solve crimes?”

“Mostly domestic disputes. I took down the information from the wife or girlfriend who had been abused and filed a report.” Roger took a sip of wine.

“Were there a lot of domestic problems in the Army?” Kate asked.

“Unfortunately yes. People who have violence in their relationships rarely break free of it. Most women recanted their stories the next day and forgave the guy until the next time.”

“That’s too bad,” Charlie said.

“When I got out of the Army I applied to the police academy, but due to budget cutbacks at the time it didn’t work out, so I started my own business and began managing apartments,” Roger said.

Kate yawned and let out a sigh. “Roger, thank you for bringing the wine and visiting us, but I’m exhausted. “I’m going to call it a day,” she said with a smile.

Roger stood up. “No worries. Get some rest and I’ll see you tomorrow.” He began to make his way toward the door. Kate followed him and they all said goodnight.

“Thanks for all of your help today, Mitch. You made everything so easy. You did the biggest part by unpacking the kitchen.”

“Glad to do it. You know how I love to organize. Growing up in a sloppy family made me rebel. I have to have everything in its place.”

“Well, you made our lives much easier. I’ll see you tomorrow, Charlie.” She blew a kiss to her new roommate. She wanted to make sure to give them their alone time.

Kate entered her room and found the box labeled “bathroom.” Rummaging through it she found her razor, shave cream, body wash, and bath salts. Just enough salts were left for one bath. Soaking in the tub was undoubtedly one of her favorite pastimes.

When she started running the water and poured in the salts, the smell of Jasmine filled the air, immediately relaxing her. After adjusting the water temperature, she swished her hands through the water to spread the salts. The water felt silky smooth. She normally read a book in the tub, but had forgotten to get one before getting in. Now she had only her thoughts to keep her company.

Her mind wandered to Mitch and Charlie and how happy they were together. She had left them cuddling on the sofa, wrapped in each other’s arms. She was glad that her best friend had such a wonderful man in her life who loved her so much. He was six-foot-four, very muscular, drop-dead gorgeous, and was so in tune with Charlie’s needs. He was thoughtful and considerate, a real catch, in her opinion. She expected that one day soon she would be standing up at their wedding. Kate once had the same thing, but that seemed like a million years ago now. She sighed heavily. Seeing them together made her want what they had; someone to love who loved her back, someone who accepted her unconditionally. But after what had happened, she didn’t think she deserved a second chance at love. She rubbed her hand over her face and then covered her mouth. After all, her dad had abandoned her. The only guy she had ever loved was gone. Maybe she was destined to be alone. Working through those feelings in therapy for the past two years had been challenging.

She shifted to move the water around and she put her feet on the wall above the faucet to soak more of her back. It was a big step she had taken moving out of her mother’s house, and she felt a real sense of accomplishment. She no longer had to tip-toe around her mom or pretend everything was okay—when it definitely wasn’t. She was so thankful that she could be real with Charlie and not have to hide behind a mask with her. Her therapist, Dr. Cox, was the same but as she paid him to listen to her; it was different, he had no choice. Charlie had a choice and had decided that she was worth being friends with even after what had happened. Her throat became thick and she could feel the tears welling up.

How was she going to get over her past? Like a dark shadow, it followed her no matter where she went or what she did. She couldn’t get away from what she had done. Dr. Cox had told her that the past had shaped her life, but it didn’t have to control her life. She knew in her head that he was right, but it was transferring that information to her heart that was so difficult. Dr. Cox, a gifted therapist, was gently urging her to move forward. This was her first step in a long process – moving out, returning to college, and allowing herself to be open when she had been closed off for so long. All she could do was try. It wasn’t going to be easy, but she knew it was right thing to do.

She suddenly realized that with the paper-thin walls and the fact she could hear Mitch and Charlie’s voices, that there was a downside to this new arrangement. She heard the water come on in Charlie’s shower. Mitch and Charlie’s muffled voices caused her mouth to drop open. They were going to conserve water by showering together. How resourceful!

As she pulled the plug to let the water out, she realized that she hadn’t even washed herself, so quickly got the body wash and began rubbing some all over, splashing water to rinse off. She finished just as the last of the water drained. As she stood up and began toweling dry, she could hear Charlie’s unbridled praises and her completely satisfied cries of “Yes, Mitch!” over and over. From what she could tell, Mitch was a wizard in the sex department. Hearing them making love awakened her own desire. Her lips parted and she thought about having a man to satisfy her. Charlie was having unadulterated, hot, steamy sex. As she went into her bedroom, she imagined being with someone, screaming out his name, feeling the world fall away like Charlie was experiencing right now. She put her hand on her throat and let it slide down to her chest. Feeling a little light-headed she wasn’t sure if it was the steam from the tub or the steam from the adjacent bathroom.

She was too embarrassed to tell Charlie that she could overhear them making love, so she opened a box labeled music and took out her CD player. This was the perfect solution to muffle the erotic sounds of Charlie and Mitch’s passion. Finding her favorite Chris Isaak CD, she put it in the player, and hit play. His songs about unrequited love were soothing. Her loneliness was somehow alleviated whenever she listened to him croon about his broken heart.

 

Chapter 3

 

Kate had spent the first week in her new apartment unpacking and organizing, and working her full-time job. She had picked up a few pictures for the living room and a beautiful vase for the dining room table at Ross. She gazed up toward the ceiling and allowed herself a small smile, basking in the comfort of her new home, and thankful that living on pins and needles was no longer required.

She had been fortunate that her boss was going to let her cut back to four days a week so she would have more time for school. She had signed up for two morning classes on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and three classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays were her days off from work, so she ended up working the weekends. Not ideal for a social life, but finishing college was more important than that for now.

She had been working in retail since she was fifteen. Now, she was employed with Nordstrom, which was the best company that she had worked for. Working in the children’s department for the last four years, which was such a fun place to work, she loved her co-workers. They were a tight-knit group. The customers were mostly great too. It wasn’t like being in the ladies department, constantly dealing with figure flaws and women’s insecurities about their bodies. In general, babies and children were pretty easy to fit into clothes. It had been comforting to have her work routine and be surrounded by people that she knew genuinely cared about her, especially through her difficult time.

The first week in the new apartment was very relaxing. She ran into Roger three or four times, but it was always when she was in a hurry to get to work or run errands. He had invited her in for coffee twice and another time a glass of wine, but she had declined since she was headed out the door. She made a mental note to find the time to accept his invitation. She didn’t want to hurt his feelings. He seemed to understand and remained persistent.

***

It was Monday, the first day of the fall semester and the alarm clock went off early. Kate got up extra early on purpose to give herself some reflection time before embarking upon her new adventure. After brewing some coffee, she went out to the balcony to enjoy a few moments to herself. Charlie wasn’t up yet. It was a glorious morning with the sun peeking through the trees in the courtyard. The grass was damp with dew that glistened in the morning sunlight. She noticed a mama bird feeding her young. The day somehow felt fresh with new possibilities. She almost felt like she was floating. Could that be hope filling her heart for the first time in ages?

Kate leaned against the railing of the balcony. Time had a way of going on whether she wanted it to or not. Because of the tragedy, she had dropped out the summer after her sophomore year. Shuddering to think about that time in her life, which now, strangely had become her past, she knew that it was right to be focusing on her future; creating a new life for herself her top priority. Her past had ensnared her for far too long. But who is to say how long someone needs before they are ready to move on? She allowed herself to reflect only for a moment on the heartbreaking event that took place almost three years ago and had completely overshadowed her life. It would have been great if life came equipped with a rewind button. Her eyes stung as they filled with tears. She was almost to a place where she didn’t blame herself anymore. Almost.

She needed to get ready for the first day of the rest of her life. Feeling optimistic she was going to have to open herself up to new ideas and opportunities. A nervous pit in her stomach, but she felt giddy at the same time. She took another moment to embrace whatever the future held and remember what Dr. Cox had said about leaving the past in the past.

She went back inside with her empty coffee mug and set it in the sink. It was time to start getting ready. After rinsing her cup in the sink, she showered, ate her breakfast, and dressed, in what she considered the right outfit for the first day of school. Not having to worry about work, she went with casual and was ready to go after a subtle application of makeup. As she crossed paths with Charlie, she said, “I’m heading out early today, Charlie.”

“Okay. Have a great day. I know that everything is going to be just awesome.”

“Thanks. I’ll see you tonight when you get home,” Kate said as she turned the doorknob.

“See you then.”

She saw that Roger’s door was open. He came to the threshold to talk to her, all smiles as usual.

“Hey, Kate! Would you like to come in for a cup of coffee? I’m currently brewing a fresh pot,” he asked enthusiastically.

“I would love to, but it’s the first day of school and I want to get to class early to get a good seat. Plus, I heard that parking at SDSU is a nightmare. Can I take a rain check?”

“Sure. Some other time,” he said, sounding more than a little deflated.

“How about after I’m done with my classes? My second class ends about ten. I should be home by ten-thirty.”

“That would be great. I’ll be waiting. Do you like anything special in your coffee?”

“Well, I’m a fan of hazelnut, but I don’t want you to go to any trouble. I am a coffee fiend so really anything will be great,” she said.

“Well, it’s a date then,” he said, a glimmer in his eyes. “See you later.”

“See you then, Roger.”

A pit grew in her stomach. Had she just accepted an actual date with Roger or was he just using that word as a figure of speech? Sure, he was good looking and she did find him attractive. He seemed like a nice guy, always inviting her over. He definitely wanted to get to know her better. But what were his intentions? Dating him was probably a bad idea. If things didn’t work out, she would still have to see him on a regular basis. She was going to have to make sure he realized that nothing was going to happen between them. Then again, what if they hit it off and it worked out? Too bad life didn’t come with a crystal ball.

***

Kate made it to campus with forty minutes to spare. The parking garage was a nightmare. She hadn’t found a space until she rounded the fifth floor of the structure. Wow, how many people attend SDSU? The extra time to find parking and walk to class turned out to be critical to keep her from having an anxiety attack. The campus was larger than she remembered and she needed the additional time just to find her first class.

The campus was buzzing with the excitement of returning students. One thing was for certain, electricity filled the air. Everything seemed bright and new. She could feel in her bones that something exciting was coming her way. She felt ready.

When Kate walked into her first class, she immediately noticed the beautiful guy sitting near the window. He was difficult to miss. Tall, muscular and definitely swoon-worthy. Maybe he could be a new opportunity? Her mind flashed to the sounds of Charlie and Mitch in the shower. This guy would definitely fit the bill for chasing away her loneliness. He would unquestionably scare Roger off too.

With his dazzling emerald green eyes, he caught her looking at him and he flashed her his panty-bursting smile. Kate smiled back, but looked away quickly. The intensity of his eyes was more than she could handle. A warm sensation flooded her body as she blushed. How could one smile make her feel so flushed?

Many other students entered the classroom. All of the girls were in a whirr. Several were talking softly about Mr. Gorgeous by the window. Kate chuckled as she heard some of the comments about him. Apparently, she wasn’t the only one he had squirming in her seat.

As her professor took roll, she paid attention to the names so that she would know the name of the best looking guy in class. Mark Baxter. His movie-star looks attracted the attention of every female within a hundred feet. During class, he was at ease discussing ethics with George, their professor. His confidence was so sexy. Oh dear, looks like I’m in trouble!

George had asked the class to call him by his first name since he was Greek and his last name had at least five syllables—something that most of the students fumbled with when they tried to pronounce it. It was a mouthful, to say the very least. George was very entertaining and easy to listen to. Time flew by. When class ended, Mark was immediately surrounded by co-eds. It seemed that he was a ladies man. He worked the room like a politician running for re-election. What a turn-off. Kate discarded the idea of dating him. The last thing she needed was to be involved with a womanizer. At least she had found a man attractive and felt desire well up deep within her. It had been a long time since anyone had caught her eye. Maybe she really was ready to be with someone again. She hadn’t had this kind of reaction to a guy since — she wouldn’t let herself go there. That was in the past. Time to leave it there, where it belonged.

Kate did everything in her power to ignore Mark as she walked to her political science class. However, he was there as well. He had noticed her and seemed to want her attention. When he smiled at her, she gave a brief smile back and then turned her head. She wasn’t about to become part of his harem. Her brave thoughts earlier of being open had quickly dissipated. Fear of intimacy had taken over her body. Being hurt again was something that she couldn’t wrap her mind around. She had loved so deeply and completely her first time and then it was ripped away from her abruptly. Giving her attention to Mark would just be a complication that she wasn’t sure she could handle. The rapid beating of her heart seemed to create a warning sign that flashed in her head, making her realize that she wasn’t ready to open herself up to a man. Especially not this man who seemed so sure that he could have anyone he wanted whenever he wanted. When class ended, she hurried out, preventing “Mr. Gorgeous” from approaching her. It wasn’t too hard, and besides, looking around the room, there were other guys that could provide acceptable eye-candy.

***

As Kate approached the stairs to her apartment, she could smell the aroma of freshly brewed coffee. Roger’s door was open and he was waiting for her. He stood in the doorway when he heard her approaching.

“How was your first day of school?” he asked cheerfully.

Did he really care, or did he know that women wanted to be heard and loved to talk? That was going to be difficult to discern.

“It was great to get started again. I love being in the academic environment. Both of my professors were very engaging. One was a downright comedian. I think it’s going to be an amazing year,” she replied as he ushered her into his apartment.

“I have the coffee ready. I’ll pour you a cup. I set up the sugar and hazelnut creamer on the coffee table. Let me take your purse and you can make yourself at home.”

“Thanks, Roger. Did you already have the hazelnut creamer?” she asked warmly.

“Oh, yeah. I love hazelnut. It’s my favorite coffee flavor.”

“Ahhh. Something we have in common,” she said with a smile. “I’m not going to be able to stay long. I need to start outlining chapters for my classes. I have a full schedule this semester.”

Roger didn’t seem to care as he stared at her mouth. “No problem. I understand that you need to study. I’m just glad we could finally do this,” he said handing her the steaming cup. She sat down on the sectional, added sugar and creamer, and took a sip. A soft moan escaped from her throat.

“It’s delicious.”

“Glad you like it. I tend to make strong coffee.”

His apartment was laid out just like hers. He had a black sectional that took up most of the living room. The motif leaned toward the Spanish influence. There was a picture of a matador on one wall. His coffee table was dark wood with a glass top. It was a total bachelor pad complete with a big screen and surround-sound speaker system. A lava lamp completed the look.

He seemed interested in finding out everything he could about her. He asked her about her family, school, and work. As they chatted, she eyed an enormous picture of a rose on the dining room wall.

“That sure is a beautiful painting,” she commented.

“Thank you. My girlfriend Rose gave it to me last month. She found it at the flea market and thought it would go nicely in my dining room. She really loves this painting.”

“How long have you and Rose been dating?” she asked.

“Nearly nine months.”

“That’s terrific. How did you two meet?”

“Rose worked with my best friend, Rick. He thought that she and I would hit it off so he set us up on a blind date. He was right; we’ve been together ever since.”

“You said ‘worked’.” Do they not work together anymore?” she questioned.

“Unfortunately, a terrible thing happened. A couple of months ago Rick went missing. We’ve known each other since we were in the Army together ten years ago. No one knows where he is. I think that he took off to get some perspective on life. He and his wife separated last year. They were having marital problems. Darcy was cheating on him and he found out about it. The police suspect foul play. His wife and family are frantic with worry about him,” Roger said, shaking his head.

“Wow,” Kate said, placing her hand on her chest. “I’m so sorry that your friend has gone missing. I hope that he comes back or is found soon. Do the police have any leads?”

“No. It’s like he vanished without a trace. I keep in touch with his wife so that I know what is going on. She is hanging on by a thread. Their two daughters cry themselves to sleep every night.”

“Oh, that is such a tragic situation. It is so sad when people cheat and marriages are destroyed. Is Rick the kind of guy to abandon his family?” she asked.

“No. That’s why it’s such a shock to everyone who knows him. He was a good family man.”

She noticed that Roger had used the word “was” to describe Rick. That sounded odd. Why would he use the past tense instead of the present tense? She didn’t question him about it, but decided to change the subject. Looking around the room, she noticed a picture of a curly haired little boy on the entertainment center. She got up to take a closer look at the picture.

Picking up the picture, she asked, “Who is this adorable little guy?”

“That’s my son, Jacob. He’s my pride and joy. I couldn’t imagine life without him,” he said, tilting his head to one side.

“How old is he?”

“He’s six.”

“Do you get to see him very often?”

“Not really. His mother recently decided that she wanted to move back to Germany,” he explained. “I used to see him all the time, but now he’s thousands of miles away.”

She set the picture back on the shelf. “That’s so difficult. I’m sure you are missing him like crazy,” she said, returning to where she had been sitting.

“Yeah, it’s been really hard so far,” he said, nodding his head. “I miss seeing him every day, but it’s understandable that Paulina wants to be near her family. She’ll have more support living with her mother. It just wasn’t working out for her here in the States. I’m planning a trip to visit him soon.”

As she looked at her watch, she realized that she had stayed a little too long. “Oh, my goodness, look at the time. I better get myself home. I have a ton of work to do for school. Thank you so much for the coffee. I’ll know where to come when I need hazelnut creamer,” she said, smiling. “I really enjoyed chatting with you.”

“Please feel free to come over anytime. My door is always open.” Yes, I’ve noticed that.

“Thanks, Roger. I’ll see you later.”

“Yeah, see you later.”

Hearing that Roger had a girlfriend had been a good turn of events. She wasn’t sure what was behind all of the invitations to come over. Was he being friendly or was he actually interested in her? Now she could relax around him. He was just a friendly guy who liked to flirt. If he was attracted to her, she would feel uncomfortable. His use of the word “date” earlier probably didn’t have any hidden meaning to it. It was just coffee.

She spent the afternoon outlining chapters for the classes she had attended today. While taking a break for a snack, she couldn’t help mulling over some of the things that Roger had shared while they had coffee. It was so tragic that Rick was missing and his family was suffering. But Roger hadn’t seemed too choked up about it. He was very casual about the whole situation. And his use of the past tense to describe Rick made her uneasy. Goosebumps covered her arms as she replayed their conversation.

Charlie had texted that she wasn’t coming home after work because she and Mitch had dinner plans with his parents, so Kate had some alone time. She did her workout and then set up a bath to soak her tired muscles. She ran through her mind the activities that she had scheduled throughout the week. She had signed up for an alumni mentor to show her around San Diego State on Wednesday. It was a program that SDSU offered to connect alumni with current students. A mentor would be helpful and save her time trying to figure things out. On Thursday, there was an open house for all of the clubs and organizations that she could join. Her time was limited, but she hoped to get involved with something. She closed her eyes and let her mind wander as her skin began to soften in the water.

***

After Kate left his apartment, all Roger could do was imagine her becoming his. She wasn’t only smoking hot, she was sweet and kind. She showed genuine concern for people she hadn’t even met. He really liked that about her. The only problem was that he already had a girlfriend. He had told her about Rose before he was ready. But she had asked about the painting and he somehow found himself having to explain why he had a giant rose painting in his dining room. It wasn’t exactly masculine. Now he had to figure out if he wanted to keep Rose around or pursue his enticing new interest. He had already fantasized about undressing Kate and exploring every inch of her tight body. Of course, if Rose was in the picture that wasn’t likely to happen. Kate didn’t seem like the kind of girl who would go after another woman’s man. She made that clear with her statement about cheating and marriages breaking up. She had integrity. He had a lot to consider.

Rose was loyal to him no matter what happened, sticking by him through all of the messiness with his best friend.

Rick and Darcy were separated and fighting over custody of their two children. Rick knew that Darcy had been having an affair and had planned on using that information in court to prove that he was a better parent. The last time Rick was seen alive was at Roger’s apartment. Rick had disappeared in May. Even though the police had questioned him about Rick vanishing, they didn’t have any evidence that he was involved in his friend’s disappearance. Rose had stood by him through the whole ugly mess and had defended him when Darcy accused him of making her husband disappear. Darcy had even told Rose that he had cheated on her, but she wouldn’t disclose who the woman was that Roger had been unfaithful with. Rose chose not to believe a single word that came out of Darcy’s mouth. She never even considered that he could have killed his best friend let alone been unfaithful to her. That was unfathomable. She had blind faith in him. This was one of his favorite qualities about her. She believed in him.

The downside to Rose was that she had two daughters, ages eight and ten. Rose’s ex-husband had been physically abusive, making the girls painfully shy and timid around him. The older girl had scars on her back from her dad’s abuse. Roger didn’t feel comfortable being around the girls. He viewed them as damaged goods. He couldn’t see himself being their step-dad or being responsible for them in any way. Since they were a package deal with Rose, he had a tough time envisioning a future with her even though she was good in bed. The question was, could they have a clean break-up? Only time would tell. Meanwhile, the thought of getting to know his new next-door neighbor was increasingly enticing. Rose would serve his needs until he could get Kate between the sheets.

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I could not put this book down. After reading the book for the third time I am still finding things that I did not notice the first or second time around.
Gripped: Your Personality is What's Holding You Back
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Jason Donnelly is a writer in NYC currently seeking world domination. He has an MFA in creative writing and a horrible amount of debt from a University in Pennsylvania that shall not be named. Over the years, he Jason Donnelly is a writer in NYC currently seeking world domination. He has an MFA in creative writing and a horrible amount of debt from a University in Pennsylvania that shall not be named. Over the years, he's held the title of juggler, college recruiter, adjunct professor, headhunter and is currently a copywriter at a NYC ad agency. Find out more than you ever wanted to know about him here, www.jasonwdonnelly.com and then like the book page here, www.grippedbook.com
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Chapter 1

Nicholas Alexander Wright sat impatiently in his mother’s formal sitting room, listening to the women talk of the latest fashion. Nicholas stifled yet another yawn. For two weeks, young women had been swarming around the castle, always having excuses to take Nicholas away from his duties. They would follow him around the castle asking him ridiculous things, like could he please fix their dress that got caught on a branch or fix their hat because it somehow magically fell off. They would ask him to go horseback riding and take walks when he needed to help in the stables. He believed his mother had a hand in this and, after many of these meetings, he knew for sure that it was his mother’s doing. The Wright men have always married young and currently Nicholas’ mother was playing match-maker. He glanced over at his mother and smirked when he saw her giving him her famous warning look.

Nicholas started listening to what the young girl was saying. “Your Colors are marvelous… aren’t you related to the White Tiger?”  she asked.

Nicholas rolled his eyes as his mother Lenora turned and smiled. “Yes, the White Tiger is Nicholas’ cousin.”

“Oh,” squealed the girl, batting her eyes at Nicholas and smiling seductively. “How lovely; the Black Leopard and the White Tiger are related.”

Nicholas sighed loudly. He was waiting for the young girl to ask about the White Tiger; they always did. He was never surprised about it anymore. He was getting tired of this meeting and he didn’t want to stay any longer to hear this girl gush over such nonsense. He cleared his throat as he stood up. “Mother, I have better things to do. Lady Lisa.” He bowed and left the room before his mother had a chance to reprimand him for being so rude.

Nicholas walked briskly through the hallway, cursing about the greed of women. He was known as the Black Leopard for his speed and flexibility in battles and tournaments. His cousin Darce was known as the White Tiger because he had blond hair while Nicholas had dark brown, almost black hair. He was still cursing about the greed of women as he walked down the stairs. He knew what they were after. They weren’t stupid, they knew if one put both the White Tiger and Black Leopard’s fortune together, it would almost be as much as the king’s wealthy coffers. But, the women always seemed to like Darce more, though. They had almost the same build; Darce was a little bit taller than Nicholas. So the women figured if you can’t capture the attention of one, then try for the other.

Nicholas broke out into the sunshine of the courtyard and took off running when he saw a herd of those ungrateful girls heading his way. He did not want to be cornered by them. He really should have a talk with his mother. He loved women and it was all good and fun when they came to pay a visit, but his mother offered their home as a place to stay for a couple of weeks. It was nice to see pretty girls once in a while, but seeing them every day and at all hours was becoming very tiresome. He figured she thought that if these girls were around him, he would finally pick one. They were from the most suitable households and would make good matches, but he just couldn’t get past their snobbish and unintelligent ways. He ran through the back garden and climbed up the tree next to a high stone wall with the speed of a monkey. When he reached the top, he jumped onto the wall and laughed out loud. He laughed at himself for acting like a little boy when he was twenty-five years of age. He walked along the wall for a while to get to the tree where he would be able to lower himself down to the other side into the apple orchard; his favorite place. When he reached the tree, he stopped in his tracks. There was a young woman sitting on a branch, leaning against the tree trunk. She was reading a book and eating a juicy red apple. Her dress was pulled up to her knees and one leg was dangling off the branch. Her dress was an ugly brown; a serf’s color.

“You! Serf girl! What are you doing here?” demanded Nicholas with his hands on his hips and legs spread apart.

The girl looked up and her dark brown eyes met with his cloudy blue ones. She stood up and jumped onto the wall. Her brown dress fell to her ankles, exposing her bare feet. Her dark brown hair went to her waist, the sunlight dancing off the lighter streaks and the breeze caused her long bangs to sway.

On a closer look, Nicholas realized that the dress she was wearing wasn’t made from the normal rough cotton that the lower class wore, but from an expensive fabric. It was a lighter material than cotton, but yet for some strange reason the dress was made to look like a common serf’s dress.

“Forgive me, Milord, I thought I was alone,” said the young woman, curtsying with the grace of a lady.

“What is your name, woman?” asked Nicholas.

“Aurora, Milord,” said Aurora still in the same pose and looking down.

“You may stand. Let me see you,” said Nicholas, crossing his arms across his chest as he spoke.

Aurora stood straight and looked him square in the eye. The beauty of her took Nicholas back. Even the dirt etched across her forehead couldn’t ruin her beauty. Aurora saw emotions going across the earl’s son’s face as quickly as lightning; from shock to desire. His face went blank again and said, “You are new. I have never seen you before.”

Aurora knew she needed to end this conversation fast before he started asking her personal questions. She couldn’t afford to get close to this man. It would put everything she worked for in danger. “Aye,” said Aurora, looking down, “my companions and I came a week ago.”

“I see. Mother did mention that she needed new servants with all these ladies staying with us.”

“I’m sorry, Milord. I must get back to my duties. Please, forgive my rudeness,” said Aurora, as she curtsied again and started walking quickly past Nicholas, toward the tree to get down into the garden. Nicholas watched her for awhile until he realized that the woman didn’t hold herself like a serf, but instead like a lady of the high court. Nicholas ran after her; no serf walked with their head held high like that and for that matter he knew of no serf who could read. He wanted to question her on the matter as he jumped down into the garden, but the serf girl was already gone.

He walked slowly back to the inner bailey, examining every servant girl whom he walked past while they curtsied to him. None of them were the servant girl he saw on the wall. He went inside the castle and began searching for his personal valet, Hodder.  He was sure Hodder would know for certain whom the girl was; he knew every servant that worked in and around the castle. Hodder was a trusted servant who had been with the Wrights for many years now.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Aurora sighed as she crawled out from underneath some bushes in the garden. She stood up, dusted herself off, and headed toward the servants’ quarters. She was careful to stay out of view from the castle and walked around the many outbuildings. When she made it to the servants’ quarters, she stashed her book in the secret compartment she built underneath one of the floor boards under the bed she shared with her two companions. She went over to the stone wall and placed her forehead against the smooth stones and felt the coolness of them. She was so stupid. She should not have been out there in the open like that. She wanted to hit her head against the wall to clear her mind of that man. The earl’s son was all that went through her mind, with his cloudy blue eyes and dark brown hair, almost black, that was cut short. He was tall and muscular. The muscles were clearly visible through his white silk shirt. He was a very handsome man and that oh so very handsome man caught her reading! No common servant reads! Only the personal servants of the family can read and there she was, sitting out in broad daylight reading away when she was supposed to be preparing the kitchen for the evening meal. Plus, not only did he catch her reading, but she looked him square in the eye. Servants were not supposed to look their superiors in the eye. When was she going to learn the rules? She needed to stop this before people started questioning her. She was just about to bang her head against the wall when someone yelled her name from behind her.

She spun around and caught sight of one of her companions with her arms crossed and tapping her foot on the stone floor. “Aurora, where have you been? I have been looking everywhere for you!”

“Lucy, I really don’t need this right now,” said Aurora, looking at the plump woman.

“Oh, you don’t need this, huh? Well, what you do need is a good shake! Your mother put you in my care as her last request, God rest her soul, and now when we are in hiding you are disappearing from my sight!”

“Now, see here Lucy! You may be in charge right now, but I am still your employer. Don’t forget your place! Stop yelling like I am a child. I can take care of myself!” screamed Aurora, her anger rising to boiling point.

“Y-y-yes Milady, forgive me,” stammered Lucy, taken aback by her employer’s burst of anger. She curtsied deeply, afraid to look at Aurora in the face.

Aurora sighed and her anger disappeared almost instantly as she watched Lucy curtsy. “Lucy, stop it.” She shouldn’t be so harsh to the woman; she knew Lucy was just looking out for her. She had protected Aurora since they went into hiding. If Aurora couldn’t do something due to her lack of strength, Lucy was there to help her. Lucy taught Aurora everything she knew to make sure that Aurora could pass as a suitable servant and here was Aurora, yelling at her. She placed her hands on Lucy’s shoulders and made her stand up straight. “I’m sorry for losing my control. I know it’s dangerous to go off on my own; it’s just that I can’t handle much more of this. I look upon you and your daughter Alice with much respect, for now I know what kind of work a servant has to endure.”

They hugged as Alice burst into the room. She was a tall, big woman and many people thought she was stupid since she was unable to speak. Aurora knew better for Alice had a brilliant mind, but a bizarre carriage accident had caused great damage to her vocal cords. There was still a scar on her neck from the wheel that caused it. So, when the cords began healing themselves she very slowly started losing the ability to talk. Soon after that, she was only able to make grunting noises and now she couldn’t make any sound; she had completely lost the use of her vocal cords. She waved her arms in a manner that looked to the other two women like she was eating air.

“Must be time for the evening meal; come Lucy, let’s go serve these people,” sneered Aurora, smoothing her dress out and following Alice out of the room.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The evening meal was a boring ordeal for Nicholas; all those giggling girls swarming him were making him nauseous. He sat between his younger brother, Geoffrey, and his older sister, Ariel. Across from him was a beauty with blond hair in ringlets at her shoulders and deep blue eyes. Her name was Lady Celeste and she was the only one who did not giggle in his presence. Lady Celeste caught sight of Nicholas looking at her, so she smiled and lifted her wine glass to him. Nicholas smiled back and then leaned over to his sister and whispered something into her ear.

Ariel leaned back toward Nicholas and said quietly, “To answer your question, mother hired three new servants; Aurora, Lucy, and Alice. Aurora is the youngest, only eighteen years of age. Lucy is the oldest. Alice is Lucy’s child and she doesn’t speak. Why do you ask dear brother? You were never interested in the domestic part of running a household before.”

“No reason,” said Nicholas as he raised his wine glass to his lips and pretended to be interested in the political discussion his father was leading at the head of the table. Earlier in the day, Nicholas had hunted down his personal valet and questioned him. Hodder was really no help at all. He knew there were three new servants in the household, but he wasn’t exactly sure what their duties were. He knew there was a young one and two older ones and they had beautiful recommendations, but that was all. That was when Nicholas decided to ask Ariel about the servants. She was learning the trade of running a household and she would know about any new servants, but apparently she knew very little as well.

Little did Nicholas know, Aurora was just on the other side of a doorway, busy with the kitchen hands. She was getting the desserts ready for the guests in the next room. The true kitchen wasn’t attached to the main house, but the preparing room was, so it made it easier to get the food to the guests quickly and warm.

She stopped what she was doing and peeked around the doorway and sighed as she watched the merriment in the next room. Aurora felt a hand on her shoulder and she looked up in Alice’s sad face. She shook her head slightly and Aurora said, “I know. I know. It just pains me to know that once we were on that side and were so happy.”

Aurora turned from the doorway and went back to help the hands start serving the desserts. Aurora looked at the small mirror to adjust her white hat. She had twisted her long hair on top of her head like a crown and pinned it tightly. She had replaced her brown plain dress with the uniform of the household servants. It was a long black dress with gold trim along the hem of the gown, sleeves, and collar and a white apron tied around the waist. The tiny black buttons went down the front of her dress and her collar went to her neck. She picked up a tray along with the other maid and they walked out quietly. They began passing out the dishes while the conversation continued. No one noticed the servants doing their job. Aurora kept her face averted from Nicholas, just in case he did notice, but she didn’t have to worry, because he was completely mesmerized by the lovely Lady Celeste.

As Leo, the Earl of Irisburg, watched the servants serve the last course of the meal, he decided that it was time to make his announcement. He knew his oldest son wasn’t going to like what he was going to say, but it was time to push. He and his wife had decided that it was time for their son to make a decision to marry and start producing heirs. The invitations were already sent out, without Nicholas’ knowledge, and the date was set for tomorrow. He cleared his throat as he stood up. The room grew silent. “My friends, my wife and I are very pleased with the turn out of our little get together here. We are also pleased to announce that tomorrow there shall be a grand ball and that is when my oldest son, Nicholas, shall make a lovely lady his future wife.”

Nicholas coughed into his glass of wine that he was sipping as everyone started clapping politely at the announcement. The women around the table started giggling and looking at each other while they clapped. Lady Celeste picked up her glass of wine and smiled into it. Aurora began silently laughing and almost dropped the tray she was holding. She couldn’t believe that Nicholas’ parents put him into such a classic dilemma. They were probably getting tired of him running wild with the women and they wanted him to settle down. She was glad her parents never did that with any of her brothers, because they probably would have looked like Nicholas as he stared up at his parents.

How dare they do this to him!  thought Nicholas. It was bad enough that his mother paraded him around like some piece of property for sale, but now he must choose a woman he barely knows to make a respectable match with in a day? He was completely outraged. He stood up abruptly, glared at his parents one last time, and then stormed out of the hall.

Chapter 2

Nicholas awoke with a start and sighed when he realized he was in his own bed. He stared up at the canopy, thinking over last night. After his parents made the announcement, he stormed out of the Great Hall and went to get a drink from the library’s stash of brandy. A little bit later, his parents showed up and started yelling about how it was disrespectful to leave their guests like that. Nicholas’ temper boiled over and he clenched his hands into fists as he explained that he was a grown man and could find a wife on his own time. His father argued that Nicholas was wasting time and he wanted to make sure grandchildren were on the way before he died to ensure an heir. After a speech on how Nicholas was the oldest and everything would come into his hands in due time, the subject was closed and Nicholas had to fall in with his parents’ wishes or risk losing everything. Tomorrow he was to be engaged and that was the end of it. He was lucky he was the one who got to choose the woman and he should be grateful that his parents were allowing such free rein. Nicholas listened stiffly and as soon as they were done lecturing him, he stormed out of the library and up to his bedchamber without another word.

Now, he sat up and let his silky sheets fall from his nude body. His ears picked up the sounds of the servants moving about outside, doing their morning chores. One of the servants must have come in while he slept and opened the window and shades for him, like they do every morning, unless it was raining. He stood up, stretched, and was about ready to pull the rope to alert his valet that he was ready to begin the morning routine of dressing, when he heard someone scream, “Aurora! Please stop!” He walked to the window and peered over the edge down into the courtyard. It was a beautiful spring day with a slight breeze, but what caught his eye was a brown-headed girl walking briskly across the yard with her hands in fists. There was another servant behind her, trying to keep up with her fast pace.

“Aurora! Please! Where are you going?” yelled the plump woman. “Aurora!”

Aurora stopped and spun around. She was breathing heavy and her mouth was in a sneer. Her hair was tightly braided down her back and she was in the same old brown dress. She yelled, “I am going home! I’d rather fight him a million times than Myrtle! The woman is trying to kill me!”

The plump woman hurried over to Aurora and grabbed her by the shoulders and said something quietly to her. Aurora clung to the woman, crying in frustration, while the woman pulled her toward one of the many out buildings.

Nicholas turned away from the window and pulled the rope to indicate he was ready to dress. He was going to find this Aurora and find out everything he could about her.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

After dressing and sitting through a boring breakfast with his family, Nicholas searched the grounds for the mysterious Aurora. His search kept getting interrupted by those annoying girls who wanted to have a word with him about some trivial matter that he didn’t deem important. After a while, he couldn’t handle all the women following him, so he headed out toward the training grounds. He knew none of the women would be out there. He reached a big stone wall that circled a field. It was a place where an old castle once stood, but when they built the newer castle they had no use for the older one, so they dismantled it and kept the outer wall standing. It was the perfect place for the men to train because it was away from the newer castle and it always gave the guards some privacy when they practiced. They kept the grass cut short, so it would be easier for the men to train and at the far end of the field stood a canopy and a small building. The men used that area to change and to cool off after their training sessions were over. That was also where they kept the training swords locked up. The entrance to the field was a giant stone archway that used to be the gate to the old castle grounds.

Nicholas walked through the arch into the training grounds and caught sight of one of the trainers throwing a sword to a woman. Nicholas jumped back into the archway and flattened himself against the wall. He peered around the corner as the woman turned. It was Aurora and she was examining the blade of the sword. Nicholas looked toward the trainer and realized it was Douglas. He was a big man with long brown hair that was tied back with a leather strap. His green eyes danced as he watched Aurora examine the sword. Aurora looked like a dwarf standing next to the burly Scot. He had on leather boots and a green Scottish kilt. His white shirt was open, exposing his muscular hairy chest. In his right hand he held on to one of the trainers’ typical long swords. He scratched his beard with his left hand as he said to Aurora, “Is the sword to your liking? It’s just a training sword I’m afraid.”

Aurora lifted her small training sword up and looked at it and said, “It will do. It’s for my training, right?”

“Aye, lass, you said you wanted to practice last night,” said Douglas as he moved his neck from side to side, stretching the muscles. “This will be a good time to practice; we don’t want anyone to see us. Everyone will be busy getting ready for the ball.”

“You are right and I need practice,” said Aurora, swishing the sword through the air.

“Now, what does a lass like you need to practice for anyway?”

Aurora smiled. “I think everyone needs to be able to defend themselves. What if Milady asked me to go for an errand into town and highway men were to attack me? I need to be able to think quickly and defend myself.”

Douglas thought for a moment, nodded, for it seemed reasonable enough, and positioned himself for battle. Aurora stood at the ready, and then they ran at each other; swords slicing through the air. Nicholas watched as the swords came together. Aurora moved quickly around her opponent, stabbing and blocking, as Douglas countered her moves. She was very good, thought Nicholas. A few times Douglas barely escaped her attacks. They continued on for what seemed like forever, neither one of them wanting to give up. Finally, Aurora outwitted Douglas by dodging his attack, rolling around him on the ground, and putting her sword at the back of his neck. There was no way for Douglas to escape that and he had to throw his sword away in surrender.

Aurora dropped her sword as Douglas stood up with a scowl on his face and said, “You are a master already, you kept that from me.”

Aurora smiled. “My father was a sword master and has taught me well. I felt there was no reason to tell you.”

Douglas looked stunned for a moment and then laughed out loud as he slapped his hand on her shoulder. “There are many things you hide, but no matter. We shall do this again, for next time I won’t hold back. You had the advantage this time, making me think you knew nothing of the sword, but for now, you best get back to your duties. I am sure they will be missing you.”

Nicholas moved from his hiding spot and advanced toward the two. Douglas dropped his hand quickly and bowed deeply. “Milord, I did not see you there.”

Aurora’s heart started pounding as she started to slowly back away from the men. She got caught again by this man; she was going to be in so much trouble now. It was forbidden for workers to train, especially the women. Lucy was going to have her head on a silver platter, but she couldn’t just sit here in hiding while her family was off fighting. She needed to train so she could go and help them. Nicholas spoke to Douglas for a moment and then turned his attention on the girl. Aurora raised her shoulders and before he could say one word to her, she bolted around him and ran toward the archway. She continued running until she got to the stables and darted inside. She knew all the outbuildings well and knew which buildings had back doors and which ones did not; this one did and she ran with all her might. She would jump from one building to the next until she lost him.

It was almost too easy; by the third building she had lost him. He apparently did not venture into the servants’ realm much. She ran into the back of the castle and went into the washing room where she was supposed to be gathering the sheets that were already washed and dried. Her duty was to prepare the beds for the guests that would be staying the night after the ball.

Nicholas kicked the door as he walked out of the garden shed. He could have sworn she entered that building, but she was nowhere to be seen. He turned over barrels and boards, thinking perhaps she was hiding behind something, but she just vanished. The woman was infuriating; this was the second time she ran from him and had lost him. He vowed to himself that when he caught up with the chit, he was going to give her a good shaking. No respectful servant runs from the owner of the home and thinks they can get away with it. He walked around the building to make sure she wasn’t hiding behind any of the equipment outside when a servant came running up to him.

“Milord,” said the servant, bowing, “Hodder told me to find you. It is time for you to dress for tonight.”

Nicholas sighed, but nodded. He followed the servant up to his room where Hodder, his valet, was setting out his evening attire.

“Ah, Milord,” said Hodder, bowing. “I was getting a little worried when I couldn’t find you within the castle.”

Nicholas held out his arms so Hodder could begin undressing him, saying, “Yes, I had some things to take care of out in the training yard before I could greet my guests properly.”

Hodder smiled; he could understand why his master was so tense. It’s not an easy task to pick a wife out of so many women whom he hasn’t had time to get acquainted with. He finished dressing his master in silence. As soon as Hodder was finished, Nicholas moved to the mirror that was hung over his wash table and looked at his reflection. He had decided that he was not going to make the decision. He refused to be pushed around; if his parents wanted him to take on a wife then they could pick the woman themselves. A knock came at the door and Hodder went over and opened it. A maid curtsied in the doorway and informed him that guests were starting to arrive for the ball.

“Very good,” said Hodder.

Nicholas quickly scribbled a note and handed it to the maid. “Please, take this to my parents.”

“Yes, Milord,” said the maid, curtsying again and leaving.

A little after that, Nicholas slowly descended the stairs in his formal wear. He did a quick search among the servants that were on hand to assist the guests, but couldn’t find Aurora among them. When he reached the bottom, a herd of girls instantly surrounded him. The only ones who did not join the crowd of girls were Lady Celeste and her companion, Lady Lucia, who stood standing in a corner.

“What do you think of him?” asked Lady Lucia, sipping some wine from her glass.

“A little too skinny for my taste, but his money is well worth it,” said Lady Celeste, smiling to Nicholas’ parents who were standing near the doorway to the ballroom with the other older aged guests and watching their son.

“Indeed, what do you think of this rumor that rippled through the house just a few minutes ago, about how he will not choose and his parents will have to do it for him?”

“That is what I wanted to hear,” smiled Celeste at her friend. “If they will choose for him, they will most certainly pick me.”

“How do you know his parents will pick you?” asked Lady Lucia, raising an eyebrow.

“I spent many hours with his parents; they will pick me and when they do, I intend to make the White Tiger my lover,” said Lady Celeste, laughing at the expression on her friend’s face. “Oh, don’t look like that, dear Lucia. My plan is perfect: I will have the Black Leopard’s money and the White Tiger’s favors.”

Lucia was about ready to speak when a bell rang throughout the hall to indicate dinner was being served. All the guests went into the dining room to start the evening meal. Celeste made sure she was next to Nicholas when they were being seated. As soon as everyone was seated, the servants started serving the courses.

Nicholas was simply memorized by the lusty Lady Celeste. She was beautiful and she made witty remarks to everything he said. Her laugh was angelic and Nicholas regretted giving his parents the power to pick his wife, because he would have picked this beautiful, intelligent woman as his own.

Apparently his parents were thinking the same thing. At the end of the meal, Leo stood up and spoke, “My friends, it is a great honor to have you all here. We all know why we are here to begin with though.” Many people started laughing down the table as Leo smiled broadly before continuing. “My son informed us that he did not want to choose for himself and gave my wife and me the power to do it for him. My wife and I decided that a match between our Nicholas and the lovely Lady Celeste would be the perfect match, if she accepts him, of course.”

Everyone laughed again and applauded as Celeste stood up and smiled. “Of course I will have him, Milord. I will try to be a good wife and make him happy.”

Everyone applauded again as Lady Celeste sat down and the new couple smiled at each other. When the clapping stopped there was a laugh that rang through the dining room. Everyone turned toward the source and Nicholas saw her. Aurora, the strange serf, was leaning against the door and clutching her side. She was laughing, but when she realized everyone was staring at her, she went from laughing to coughing. Lucy came out of the room and started slapping her back slightly and said, “Forgive her, Milord and Milady. She was just so pleased with your choice that she couldn’t control herself. She must have swallowed too much air.”

“Well, take her into the kitchen to give her something to drink,” said Lady Lenora, standing up. Lucy pulled Aurora into the next room as Lady Lenora addressed her guests. “Let’s celebrate this happy announcement with a dance in the ballroom.”

The guests stood, and as they moved past the newly engaged couple to the ballroom, they congratulated them. The musicians started up and couples began choosing partners to begin the dance while other couples took flutes of champagne and conversed. Nicholas and Celeste circulated around the room while speaking to the guests and at times took turns on the dance floor. The lord and lady of the castle stood with their older generation friends as they watched their future daughter-in-law entertain.

“She certainly has a way,” said Lady Marcia, sipping her champagne. Lady Marcia was a dear friend of the Wrights. She was an elderly lady with gray hair pulled back into a beautiful French chignon. Her blue eyes had a sparkle in them. Her blue gown was in the height of French fashion, with a tight bodice and long sleeves. The lacy collar was attached to her bodice and went up to her neck to cover her breasts as the older women did. Her skirt was full and open to show the inner layers of her gown.

“Indeed,” agreed Lady Lenora. “She has had a very good upbringing and her family has good lineage.”

“Where is the girl’s family?”

“I do believe they are out of the country at the moment. Lady Celeste stayed behind to take care of their manor and to visit us,” said Lady Lenora.

Lord Leo yawned slightly at his wife’s side and decided that it was time to take a spin on the dance floor with her. He gave his flute to a passing servant and took his wife’s hand, leading her onto the dance floor.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Two hours later, Lucy hurried into the kitchen where Aurora was still giggling about the match. Aurora had her head buried in her arms, trying hard to stifle her giggles and make it sound like sobs.

“You may stop pretending now,” said Lucy with her hands on her hips. “You have been doing this for an hour and a half now.”

Aurora looked up and smiled. “I don’t know what you are talking about, Lucy.”

Lucy raised an eyebrow and said, “I have orders from the mistress.”

Aurora stood up. “What does she want?”

“Nicholas wants a bath and the mistress and Lady Celeste are in the ladies’ private chamber deciding on how to remodel the rooms to Lady Celeste’s liking. They are also discussing wedding plans.”

“They aren’t even married yet!” exclaimed Aurora, trying hard not to laugh again.

“In three weeks time they shall be wed, but the mistress wants you to do the bath.”

“Why me?”

“All the other maids are doing other duties.”

“Wonderful, at least I don’t have to deal with Dragon Lady,” said Aurora, heading toward the door.

“Dragon Lady?” asked Lucy.

“Lady Celeste, Lucy. Lady Celeste,” said Aurora, laughing as she walked down the hallway.

She couldn’t believe that these people couldn’t see how Celeste really was; a money-hungry, controlling woman. Now, in three weeks time, she would get what she wanted, power and money just by saying ‘I do’. Her oldest brother had to deal with women like this all the time. He was knowledgeable of their ways though and he never committed himself to them. She was sure he took them as his mistresses. She was no novice in the ways of men, but he never took one as his wife. Her brother wanted to protect the family and not let some outsider woman take everything away from them. Aurora continued walking up the stairs thinking that Nicholas was a poor man and Celeste was going to crush him into a small pulp.

Aurora entered one of the upper stairs bedrooms and was shocked to see Lady Lenora leaning over a steaming tub of water. Aurora thought the lady was supposed to be in Lady Celeste’s private chambers working on wedding plans and remodeling.

“You called, Milady?” asked Aurora, curtsying.

“Yes,” said Lenora, straightening up and turning to Aurora. “I have things to take care of with Lady Celeste and most of the other maids are doing other duties. I need you to finish Nicholas’ bath, then you may retire for the evening.”

“Yes, Milady,” said Aurora, curtsying again.

Lady Lenora nodded and then without another word swept past Aurora and closed the door as she left the room. Aurora turned and stared at Nicholas. He was sitting in the tub with his eyes closed and head back. The water went just under his chest; the hair on it was wet, thick, and curly. A drop of water was slowly running down his face. Aurora swallowed hard. She had never seen a fully naked man before. She, of course, had seen her brothers without shirts on while they practiced their sword skills on the training field, but never without their pants. She was nervous to touch him. What would his body feel like? What would his hair feel like? Questions swarmed inside her head until Nicholas brought her out of her trance with a cough. “Serf, you may start. The water is cooling.”

“Yes, Milord.”

Nicholas opened his eyes at the sound of the voice and exclaimed, “It’s you!”

Aurora gave him a questioning look as she got soap and a cloth from a table near the tub. Nicholas cleared his throat and said, “You may start with my back.”

He leaned forward as Aurora went behind him and knelt down next to the tub. Her hand was shaking as she stretched her fingers out to touch his bare skin. When her finger contacted with his skin, tingles shot up through her arm, making her heart beat faster. She pulled her hand away quickly. Nicholas shifted and said, “What are you waiting for?”

“Nothing, Milord,” said Aurora as she dipped the cloth into the bath water and rubbed some soap into it. She put it against his back and began scrubbing.

“Who are you?” murmured Nicholas as he closed his eyes again.

“I am a mere servant, Milord,” said Aurora as she continued scrubbing and then rinsing him off with a jug of warm water that was sitting next to the tub.

Nicholas snorted. “I do not think so. You walk and talk like high society. Your clothes might look like a serf’s clothing, but to the trained eye it’s made of very fine fabric. I repeat, who are you?”

Aurora ignored the question as she whispered under her breath. “Well, aren’t you observant, Milord.”

Nicholas nostrils flared as he heard the sarcasm coming from that statement. He had excellent hearing and he certainly heard what she had said. The girl moved to the front of the tub and buried her hands into the hair on his chest. He sucked some air in through his teeth and almost forgot what she had said. She was playing with his chest and it was making him aroused; all he could think of was her delicate hands playing with his skin. He shook his head as his father’s voice came into his mind. No lord of the manor should ever let his servants overstep their boundaries; they must be constantly reminded of their position in life.

Nicholas forced himself to speak with authority. “No servant would dare speak their mind as you just did. Let this be a warning; speak like that again to me or in my presence and you will be severely punished.”

Aurora was taken aback as she pulled her hands away from him. She didn’t think he had heard her speak and certainly didn’t think he had heard what she had said. She should just walk right out after that threat, but she knew if she did, she would be punished. She was playing a role and she kept forgetting what that role entailed. She couldn’t afford to slip up, but yet she kept doing it, especially when this man was around. She swallowed her pride and her retort as she picked up one of his legs and began washing it.

“Yes, Milord, forgive me. I will not speak like that again.”

Nicholas nodded as he leaned against the tub and allowed her to continue washing his legs. They did not speak again after that. Nicholas kept his eyes closed as he let his senses go. His skin tingled from her touch, his nostrils were filled with her womanly smell of flowers, and his ears picked up every movement she made as she washed his body. Once the water was cold, Aurora finally stood up and Nicholas opened his eyes and looked up at her. He couldn’t read her expression as they stared at each other. It looked curious and shocked at the same time. He looked down and realized he was definitely aroused by this woman’s touch. He crouched up in the tub, grabbed a towel, and while standing up wrapped it around his waist. Aurora took a step back, turned, and left the room without taking a backward glance at him.

… Continued…

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