If you've read any of the books in the southern romantic-suspense collection, you'll know that each novel is a stand-alone story that can be read on its own--no cliffhangers! But, I pull supporting characters who have proven their worth to star as protagonists in the follow-up stories. If you've read Land of the Noonday Sun and When Noonday Ends, you'll know that one of those characters was set with a choice at the end of the last novel. And as always, I left it to my avid-reading friends to let me know if they wanted to read her story. I'm happy to say there was a resounding YES! So for those of you who've been waiting to see who she chose, welcome to the first excerpt in the next Nantahala Book.
Again, while I do not write cliffhangers, you will learn secrets of the first book, so if you're interested in this series, start here...
Warning!!! Spoiler Alert!!!
Michelle Turner allowed her gaze to wander over her two would-be suitors. Both men were about the same height, just slightly taller than her five-nine, but that was where the similarities ended.
Andy Montgomery, relation to one of the most powerful and wealthy families in North Carolina, looked like a prince out of one of the fairy tales she read to her fifteen-month-old daughter every night.
With platinum-blond hair, eyes as blue as the North Carolina sky in the summer time, and a narrow face with a strong chin, she could almost imagine him whisking her back to his palace on his white stallion.
Jason Bearns’ rounder, more boy-like features, even though he was nowhere near a young innocent boy, matched his strength and his mood most of the time: dark. Most women might not understand his dark demeanor, but she did. And admittedly, she liked it. His hair was the color of chestnuts and his brooding, deep-brown eyes, the color of melted chocolate. She was pretty sure she could stare into his eyes forever and never learn all his secrets. Then again, he’d never insist on knowing all of her secrets either.
God help her, she never thought she’d be in the predicament of choosing between two men. But here the two men stood, waiting for her. She’d been alone for the last couple of years, but now both men looked sharp in their black tuxedos and were such gentlemen that neither would step up to the plate. How could she possibly choose between the two men?
As much as Andy’s classic good looks and headstrong demeanor appealed to her, Jason was just as handsome in a rugged country boy way. And as a retired cop, now a private detective, Jason could certainly understand her and her previous life as a Marine. Not many men were comfortable with a woman who could kill a man with her bare hands. Then again, Andy had taken down her brother with one punch, and had been willing to go to jail to protect his sister. That spoke of loyalty. Of course, Jason had also protected Andy and his sister, her new sister-in-law, by taking out the two people who’d tried to murder them. Either of her suitors would be a great father to her daughter and would protect her and her family unto death.
Unable to decide, she stood her ground, smiling at both men, hoping one of them would forget to be a gentleman for a moment and make the decision for her.
As if on autopilot, she tilted her head as a new man approached, weaving his way through the round tables that were set around the room of her brother’s wedding.
Oblivious to her predicament, the man’s familiar eyes focused on her. His bright blue eyes set against olive skin seemed to dance in the shimmering candlelight in the ballroom of the Biltmore Estate. If it weren’t for the fact that he looked so much like her ex-boyfriend, Chad, she never would have recognized him. As it was, she couldn’t even remember his name. It’d only been a few hours...a few hours that had changed her life forever.
Smiling, he walked right between Andy and Jason and took her hand, leading her to the dance floor. Michelle thought about protesting, but her words froze in her mouth as she watched the staggered expressions of Andy and Bearns turn to dark suspicion.
Serves them both right. One of them should have manned-up. She bit down on her lip as she attempted to hide the emotion bubbling just below the surface. Yes, the man she’d had a one-night stand with a little more than two years ago looked like Chad, but he was nothing like her ex-boyfriend.
Their day—and night—together rushed to her senses. He’d staked his claim from the moment she’d stepped into the whitewater raft. He’d looked at all his friends, then had lowered his head with a quick nod. She’d laughed at first. She’d hung out with enough of her Marine Corps brothers to know the deal. The first to claim the girl, won. And she’d played along… all night. She’d be upset about her actions, which she had in the beginning. But she could never be upset about the consequence of her decision.
Why couldn’t she remember his name? Think, Michelle. You held your own. You knew what you were doing.
The striking man swung her around. “I’d hoped that the guide at the ROCK hadn’t been secretly pining for you and hadn’t sent me into a trap, sending me to a wedding of all places to find you.” He frowned when she didn’t respond. “Please tell me you remember me, or I might die of embarrassment.”
Michelle swallowed and cleared her throat. “I remem—”
“Mommy,” her baby girl chirped, “Look. I’m dan…ceen with pappy.”
The good-looking man who held Michelle in a light embrace stared at her dark-haired, blue-eyed little girl, then back at Michelle. He couldn’t miss the fact that her little girl was as dark-haired and blue eyed as he was, whereas Michelle had blond hair and hazel eyes.
“You wanna run now?” she whispered.
He smiled at the toddler who looked so much like him. “What’s your name, princess?”
“I’m not…prin…cess,” her daughter said through a giggle, “I’m Sam.” She batted her little eyelashes, then hid her face against her grandfather’s arm as he twirled her on the dance floor.
“Well, you look like a princess to me, Sam. I’m Nicolaus, but you can call me Nick. Can I have the next dance?”
Nicolaus… Nick, he’d told her to call him, Michelle now remembered.
Her daughter peeked up and nodded. Michelle gritted her teeth together as her father narrowed his brow, probably wondering why she’d let a total stranger dance with his granddaughter. He had to recognize the resemblance. The rumors that her baby was Chad’s must have even convinced her parents, even though she’d sworn to her father and mother repeatedly that it wasn’t Chad’s baby.
Lie a few times and suddenly no one trusts you anymore.
Michelle glanced up at the man who still held her. He was tall, close to her brother’s height of six-two, which was tall for most women. For her, he was perfect. His height, that is. Not him… He was younger than she was…she remembered that tidbit too. And he’d been moving back to New York. He’d just been a one-night stand, a stupid fling on her part to get back at Chad for taking off and marrying another woman. An indiscretion that had changed her life forever.
“How did you find me?” she asked.
“I told you. Mark, the rafting guide.”
“But why? Why did you try?”
“I’m not accustomed to one-night stands, Michelle. Why did you run out on me?”
“I woke up and you were gone. Besides, we were drunk. It didn’t mean anything.”
His dark brows furrowed. “I wasn’t drunk. I only had a few beers. I knew you were too drunk to drive, the reason I insisted you get a room. But I didn’t think you were too drunk to make decisions.” His warm breath caressed her neck as he lowered his head while he continued to speak, lowering his voice to a whisper, “You acted as if you knew what you wanted when you asked me to stay?”
She released a nervous laugh. “Yeah...I guess I hide my liquor well. Marine and all. Had to keep up with the guys.”
He pulled her closer, dipping his head again. “How old is your daughter?”
He looked up at the ceiling for a second. “Which means you got pregnant the spring before last?”
Michelle bit her lip, nodding her answer.
“So, she’s mine?”
Michelle felt her eyes fill and her throat close. She swallowed again. Mine? What did he mean by mine? Her daughter, like her, didn’t belong to anyone. It didn’t matter. He was too young, a few years younger than she was, which made him about twenty-seven. He was looking for a reason to run, she was certain.
She stepped back from him, knowing that their dance was over. “Yes.”
“Okay.” He reached for her, pulling her back into his arms, tighter than before, reminding her why she hadn’t let him leave that night.
The music changed to an upbeat song, so Nick escorted Michelle off the dance floor. He almost laughed at the searing gazes two men threw in his direction. The two men were as different as night and day, but clearly, they shared a common interest: Michelle.
“Friends of yours,” he asked as he held out a chair for the beautiful blonde he’d worked to track down the moment he’d arrived in North Carolina. Hell, he’d been thinking about her for the last two years, but his life had been too busy. North Carolina was the perfect escape from what he’d been dealing with, though, and Michelle had been the reason he’d chosen this city.
Michelle sat and looked up at him. “You could say that.”
Ignoring the glares from the men, Nick sat down beside Michelle and layered his arm over the back of the chair, staking his claim, as he’d done the first time he’d seen her. If the men wanted to approach her for the next dance, fine. But he’d make them second-guess themselves.
“So, Sam’s—”A tap on his shoulder had him bolting around in his seat. He really hadn’t expected either man to be so bold.
“You son of a—I should have known.” One of his buds from college, Tom Turner, yanked him up from his seat, pulling him in for a man-style half-handshake, half-hug embrace. “What the hell, dude? You didn’t tell me you knew my sister.”
Nick looked down at Michelle then back at Turner. “Oh, snap! I went to the ROCK looking for you. You weren’t there, so a few of my friends and I decided to go rafting, and…”
“And, you obviously did more than raft. I should have known. If anyone could be confused with Chad, it’d be you.” Turner clearly saw what Nick had seen the moment he saw Michelle’s baby, but didn’t seem upset. Instead, he was looking around the room. “Your cousin is here. Have you seen him?”
“Cameron’s here? Wow. It’s like a college reunion.”
“Excuse me, boys.” Michelle stood up. “I’ll take a break while y’all catch up.”
“Don’t leave,” Nick tried to implore Michelle as she walked off, but Tom held onto his arm.
Turner waved her off. “She’ll be fine. She likes to control men, so she’ll try right from the start to see if she can get you to grovel at her feet. Don’t let her, man. She’ll walk all over you.” Turner raised his hand, motioning to Cameron, who stood on the other side of the room, next to two tall blondes. The one woman held a small baby and the other was wearing a wedding dress, a young boy latched to her leg.
Cameron kissed the woman holding the baby, then trotted across the room.
Nick looked back at Turner. “I can’t believe Cameron has a baby. Aunt Candy wrote to my parents, but I haven’t had a chance to catch up with him much since he graduated.”
“Times change, dude. See the woman with the little boy.”
“That’s my wife, Shelby, and my son, Justin.”
“Congratulations, man.” Nick smacked his old friend on the back. “Wow…both of you have kids…” Cameron made it to the table, cutting off his words…his thoughts. He had a kid too. Wow! What a shock. He’d been looking for the woman he couldn’t stop thinking about for two years, only to find out he was a father. Why didn’t that fact bother him?
“Nick!” His cousin, who didn’t look anything like him, since he’d taken after his father’s side, not his Greek side of the family, hugged him. “My mom didn’t say you’d be here.”
Nick shrugged. “I didn’t know. Purely coincidental. I came here looking for Michelle.”
Cameron smiled. “Michelle…Turner?”
“Yeah…I didn’t know…”
“About that,” Tom started, flopping down in his chair, “what the hell? You knock up my sister, then never call her back.”
“I didn’t know,” Nick defended himself. “We went rafting, then went to have a few beers and shoot pool in Bryson. She had a little too much to drink, but she was fine. I just didn’t want her to drive, so I took her keys from her. I got her a room where we were staying…and…she wouldn’t let me leave. But I swear, man, I didn’t know she was your sister, and I definitely didn’t know she was drunk.”
Tom shook his head. “But why didn’t you call her back? She said she woke up and you were gone.”
“Honestly, I was a little ticked. After we’d spent the entire day together, she’d called me by another dude’s name. But I was coming back. I had to. We had such an awesome time. I went back to my room to change, and when I came back, she was gone. I would have gone back to the ROCK, but I had a flight to catch. Dad was already ticked.”
Tom nodded. “So, how’s all that?” He glanced around the room, at Cameron, then lowered his head. “You straight?”
“Tom, you know I’ve always been straight. I told my dad I wouldn’t have anything to do with his family business.”
Cameron nodded at Tom. “Mom said her brother wouldn’t let him anyway. He’s clean, Tom.”
“Good. I can’t have my sister and niece involved with the stuff your family’s into.” Tom shook his head again. “I can’t believe it. You’re the dad. I should have known. Are you staying here?”
“Dude, I just got here. I had no idea.” Nick ran his hands through his hair. “Damn, a father. I just. I had no idea. She’s beautiful. Hard to believe I made something so beautiful.”
Tom laughed. “My sister’s not so rough on the eyes.”
“Not at all.” Nick nodded to the table with the two men who wouldn’t stop staring at him. “Who are those guys?”
Tom turned. “Oh…yeah. Umm…well, the blond guy is my brother-in-law. The dark-haired, sullen-looking guy’s a private investigator, used to be a cop, so you guys will get along great. And yeah, they both kind of have a thing for my sister. But like I told you…you gotta be tough to deal with Michelle.”
“What are you saying about me, baby brother?” Michelle slid down in the chair next to him. “Don’t believe a word he says, Nick. I’m an angel.”
Cameron and Tom both burst out in laughter.
“The Death Angel maybe, sis!” Tom said.
Michelle rolled her eyes, but then shrugged. “So, how long are you back in town, Nick?”
Nick flashed a quick glance at Tom and Cameron.
“Oh, hey,” Cameron said, “I’ll chat with you later, Nick. I have to run. Alexandra will need help with the baby.”
“Me too, Nick. My bride is certainly looking for me.” Tom winked at his sister, then trotted off next to Cameron.
Nick turned his gaze back to Michelle, then took her hand. “A few days. I hadn’t really made plans. Just needed to get away.”
“And you thought if you tracked me down you could get a quick lay?”
He huffed out a breath. “Ah, yes, I remember you. Beautiful lady who likes to go whitewater rafting and shoot pool, but is crass and talks like the Marine she used to be.”
“I speak my mind.”
“I remember that too. Sadly, your mind had been on another guy while we were together.”
She cocked her head. “What do you mean?”
“You called me ‘Chad’. That’s why I left. I was ticked. But I couldn’t stay away. I went back to my room and cleaned up. When I came back, planning to take you to breakfast, swap phone numbers, plan our day, you’d already left.”
Michelle bit down on her lip. “Oh, sorry. But, swap numbers? How was that gonna work? You live in New York, right?”
“Sure, but North Carolina is a short flight away, and you’d said that you hated Nantahala anyway. That you wanted to move to the city.”
“Things change. I have a little girl I have to think about.”
“And this Chad guy? What about him?”
“It’s been over for years. Five months before I met you, as a matter of fact. I just didn’t want to accept it. We’re okay now. I’m actually good friends with him and his wife.”
“And I look like him? Your brother said he should have known.”
Michelle dropped her head. “You do.” She pointed behind him.
“He’s here?” Nick whipped around to see whom his competition was, the guy who he supposedly looked like. His eyes traveled over the room and rested on a dark-haired, tanned man. The man had a toddler perched on his hip and had his arm around a beautiful brunette who looked to be pregnant. “He has a kid and one on the way?”
“That’s him. Our kids get along great together.”
Nick narrowed his eyes. Our kids… His daughter. “You trust him with our daughter?”
Michelle narrowed her eyes too. “I would trust Chad with my life. Trust me. You won’t find a better man than Chad. I love my brother, and your cousin Cameron is cool too. But Chad is a saint.”
“Sounds like you still have feelings for him.”
“I don’t. We’re just friends. But if you think you’re gonna walk into my life after two years and start telling me whom my daughter can see, you have another thing coming.” She pushed away from the table and stood up.
“Michelle, wait. I didn’t mean.” Nick jumped up, but before he could make it to her side, the two men from earlier blocked his path. “I’m not looking for any trouble, gentlemen.”
The dark-haired man rested his hand on his side. “Then, I suggest you leave now.” A cop, Tom had said. Yeah, he noticed his stance and how he rested his hand on his concealed weapon.
“Do you need assistance to the door?” the blond man offered. He wasn’t large, but Nick could see the muscles twitch in the man’s jaw. He was a scrapper. He’d seen his kind on the streets.
“I’m good.” He reached in his jacket, but stopped when the dark-haired man grabbed his arm. “I’m just getting my wallet.” The man nodded, so Nick pulled out a business card. He held out the card to Michelle. “I’m sorry if I offended you. My cell number’s listed. Please call me.”
Michelle leaned forward and snatched the card out of his hand, but made no effort to call off her hounds, so Nick turned and walked away. He saw Tom and Cameron, but he’d catch up with them later. He had a few business matters to take care of anyway.
The last thing he needed was a scuffle and for his name to end up in the paper. He didn’t need anyone to find out he was here.
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