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Exposed (Dare to Dream Book 3) by Jennifer Kittredge (1)


 

 

 

Dedication

 

Gram, there aren’t enough words to describe how much you are missed. I wish you were here. I know you would be so proud of me. I miss you every day. This one’s for you. -Your Princess.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

 

 

Melinda

 

‘Melinda Morgan, one of America’s top models, can’t keep a man to save her life.’

If you Googled me, you’d find a headline reading something like this, and it would be…well, let’s just say it would be fairly accurate. I have no trouble getting a man. In fact, there have been multiple times in my life where I needed a long stick to keep them away from me. While the attention is flattering, I’m at a point in my life where I long for something more than a surface romance. Quite frankly, I’ve had more than enough of those and I’m tired of them. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’m unlucky in love. It sounds cliché, I know, but for me, it happens to be true.

People tend to fall in love with the idea of me, but when they get to know the real me—the one who isn’t made-up or photoshopped, they decide they like the airbrushed version better and eventually leave. Only this time, it’s a little different. I’m the one who will actually leave.

The tension in my body has me wound tight. Knowing I will tell my soon-to-be-ex-fiancée that I’m leaving him has made my level of anxiety sky-rocket. I fidget nervously with a strand of my hair. Lately, I feel as though I’ve lost who I am and need to gain some serious perspective on my life. Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for all that I have. I mean, who wouldn’t be? I live in a beautiful penthouse apartment in New York City that overlooks Central Park. The longevity of my career is staggering compared to other models, and I have wonderful friends whom I’ve essentially grown up with in this industry. I appreciate all of it, even though I feel that it’s suffocating me at the moment.

I walk to the large floor-length windows and look out at the park. I’ve worked hard to get where I am. It’s something I don’t take lightly as I know it can all be taken away in a moment. That’s why I’ve expanded my career to include not only modeling, but also a clothing line, perfume, and eyewear. I wanted multiple streams of income, so expanding into different avenues has allowed me to achieve that.

I jump when the front door opens.

“Hey, Aunt Mel. I didn’t think you’d be home today.”

“Hey, Em.” I smile at the sight of her. “I took a mental health day,” I respond with a low chuckle as my twenty-one-year old niece looks quizzically at me.

“When have you ever taken a mental health day?”

“Never,” I admit and shrug my shoulders, “but there’s a first time for everything.”

“Is everything okay?” she asks hesitantly.

I sigh and fold my arms over my chest.

“Truth?”

“Truth.”

“Not really. I feel a little caged in. And I’m breaking up with Nathanial.”

“What?” Her eyes bug out of her head. “What do you mean, you’re breaking up with Nathanial? I thought he was the one.”

“I did too.” I sigh as I turn to look out the window again, my arms still folded.

“I don’t understand.”

“I hate to admit it, even to myself, but Nathanial hasn’t been exclusive,” I say and try to hide the hurt in my voice.

“I’m so sorry,” she says as she stands beside me and leans her head on my shoulder.

Emily is my brother Ryan’s daughter. She came to live with me when she graduated high school. Her mother passed away when she was six months old, which changed the trajectory of all our lives. I was fifteen when the accident happened. Ryan was devastated and Mom and I swooped in to help him the best we could. I would run home every day after school to be with her so he could go to work at the restaurant he now owns. Life fell into its own comfortable groove and Emily became the most important thing in my world.

When it was time for me to leave and pursue my dream to become a model, I almost let it all go to stay home with her. Ryan and my mom wouldn’t hear of it. They would not let me put my life on hold in order to stay in my hometown with Em. Leaving was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. Before Emily, I couldn’t wait to get out of my hometown, but after she came, it was like ripping me from my own child when I had to leave her. I was thrilled when she asked to stay with me when she was accepted to NYU. I think the only reason Ryan let her attend was because I was here.

“I’m so sorry, Aunt Mel. You deserve better.”

“Thank you, my girl.”

I plaster a smile across my face because I don’t want to let on how I really feel. I’m crumbling inside but put on a brave face for her because I know she’ll worry.

“What do you have planned for the rest of the day?” I ask, changing the subject.

“I’m meeting Matt and Britt at the coffee shop to study. I stopped by to grab a few things,” she says as she walks off toward her bedroom.

I love that kid. She is beautiful, smart, crazily funny, and has a good head on her shoulders. I have loved having her here these past few years. It will be a big adjustment when she leaves at the end of the school year. She already knows she wants to study abroad for a year. I, of course, will use that as an excuse to travel to wherever she is to see her. My big brother isn’t thrilled with the idea, but I think it will be the experience of a lifetime for her.

She returns to the living room with an arm full of books.

“Where’s your backpack?”

“I left it downstairs with Pete. I’ll slide everything in it once I get back down there.”

“You take advantage of Pete.” I laugh as I walk her to the door.

“I know. But he loves me.” A wide grin spreads across her face. “I’ll see you later,” she says before she kisses me on the cheek and heads out the door.

I shake my head and smile. She does have Pete wrapped around her little finger. He’s been our doorman for years and is in his late-sixties, but you’d never know it. He took a shine to Emily from the beginning and said she reminded him of his granddaughter. There’s nothing he wouldn’t do for her, including watch her backpack so she doesn’t have to lug it upstairs.

My phone rings and jolts me out of my thoughts. I move reluctantly to find it, knowing it could be something important for work. The name of my manager flashes across the screen.

“Hey, Melissa,” I say as cheerfully as I can.

“Melinda. Hi. How are you?”

“I’m as good as can be expected.”

“Yes. I was calling about that. It seems TMZ has obtained some pictures of Nathanial with a woman in Cabo. They are pretty graphic, Mel, I won’t lie to you. They’re all over each other.”

“Of course, they are,” I say sarcastically and try not to sound hurt. I pace in front of my windows again.

“You know the press will be outside your door the minute they get wind of this? They’ll hound you for some sort of statement.”

“Isn’t that what I pay you for?” I snap before I bite my lip and pause before speaking again, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have snapped at you. It’s not your fault.”

“We’ve worked together long enough for me to know you didn’t mean it. I’ll take care of it and put out a generic statement for now.”

“Thanks,” I say flatly.

“For what it’s worth, Melinda, he’s not worth it. He was never good enough for you. You deserve better.”

“Bye, Melissa. I’ll talk to you later.” I hang up as I don’t want to stay on the line any longer than I have to.

“You deserve better,” I murmur out loud to myself. “Yeah, well, how come I can’t ever seem to find better?” Tears sting my eyes, but I refuse to let them fall. He doesn’t deserve them. After two and a half years together, this is how we end—with him as a cheating bastard. I twist a strand of my hair in frustration. Something in my mind tells me this isn’t the first time. It’s merely the first time I’ve heard about it.

I don’t know why I fall for the same type of guy over and over again. I come from an amazing family and have two parents who adore each other and have been married for forty-five years. I have the role models to show me what a real relationship looks like, yet I always find men who apparently commit but are never truly committed. I think I need to swear off men until I figure out what’s wrong with me and fix it. I grab my laptop and Google TMZ.

“That son of a bitch,” I say through clenched teeth.

Dozens of pictures of him with a young, leggy blonde are on the first page of the website. Nathanial kissing her, grabbing her ass, her lips on his neck, her straddling him on a lounger, to name only a few.

I’m physically sick to my stomach just looking at them. Heat rushes through my body as hurt, humiliation, and anger rise up within me. I snatch my phone and hit his number in my speed dial before I take time to think. While the phone rings, I let out a long slow breath and jump when I hear his voice on the other end of the line, surprised he even bothered to answer.

“Hello, sweetheart. I miss you. When are you coming out to see me?” Right now, I hate the sound of his voice. Slimy and insincere are the words that come to mind.

“How about never?” I snap at him.

“Whoa, what’s going on Mel?” He sounds surprised now.

“I called to ask you the same thing. Would you like to tell me who the blonde is?” I ask venomously.

The silence on the other end of the line speaks volumes.

“We’re over, Nathanial. Do you hear me? O-V-E-R!” I scream into the phone I end the call.

The reality of my life hits me like a ton of bricks. I allow myself to collapse to the floor, curl into a little ball, and finally let the tears fall.

 

 

 

Mason

 

It’s midnight. I’m tired, yet here I sit in the parking lot of one of Tampa Bay’s most notorious strip clubs, waiting for my client’s sleaze ball of a husband to either show up or walk out. Whichever one it is, I’ll be here to catch him in the act.

According to my client, Mrs. Bannon, her husband has cheated for quite some time. She let herself overlook it because they had been together for some time—ten years, in fact—and she liked the lifestyle he provided her. According to her, she didn’t mind not having to have sex with him herself. She decided that whoever he was cheating with could keep him satisfied and she wouldn’t have to.

That all changed when he came home drunk the other night and asked her for a divorce. She declined and tried to reason with him and that’s when the shit hit the fan. My client wound up in the hospital with a black eye and broken arm. Now, she was out for blood, although she didn’t press charges at the time. She lied and said she slipped down the back steps of their home, which is complete bullshit, of course.

The door to the strip joint opens and two women stumble out. So much for no drinking in the place. They were clearly drunk or on something. I pull my baseball cap down to cover my face. Not that they would notice me. They’re totally wasted. Having found their balance, they pause and look over their shoulders as if they’re waiting for someone else to join them.

My gaze returns to the door as it opens again and my client’s husband, Allen Bannon—aka one of the top officials in the city—steps out. A cigar hangs out his mouth and he motions for the two women to come to him. They both giggle and take fumbling steps toward him.

My camera is up and the shutter clicks away as I capture the scene that plays out before me. A car pulls up—I assume his driver—and they all pile in. I put my car in drive and pull out of the club a good distance behind them them. They head south down Dale Mabry Hwy and take a right on Cypress and I continue to follow. I have a feeling they’ll head to one of the hotels in the area. I’m proved right when the driver pulls into the Double Tree. I pull in, find a place to park, and get out of my car.

I’m good at blending in, so I take a bag out of my trunk and follow them into the lobby. Unbeknownst to the trio in line in front of me, I’m recording the entire scenario. Allen apparently made a reservation beforehand, because his room key is ready and waiting for them.

“Enjoy your stay, Mr. Bannon,” the receptionist says as the three of them head for the elevators.

“Oh, we will, Heather,” he says over his shoulder as the two women fall into giggles.

“May I help you, sir?” Heather smiles at me—a wide, inviting grin that most men would fall for in a minute. Except I’m not one of those men, so her charms fail on me.

I pretend to search my pockets as if I have forgotten something.

“I apologize. I left my wallet in the car. I’ll be right back,” I say as I head toward the exit. I’ve got what I need so there’s no need to stay here for the antics of the three upstairs. God knows how long it will last. According to Mrs. Bannon, not long. A grin escapes my lips, it’s not nice, but the guy’s a complete scumbag. Any man who hits a woman doesn’t deserve any respect in my book, including Mr. Bannon. He deserves to be in jail. I still don’t understand why so many women won’t press charges against their abuser. It doesn’t make sense to me.

I’m home fifteen minutes later. Thank God I live in the area and I wasn’t in some town far from home. Oliver immediately barks when he hears my key in the door.

“Hey, boy,” I say and he jumps up for me to pet him. His paws land on my stomach as I try to maneuver my way inside.

“Oliver.” I laugh. “You need to let me get inside first.”

I throw my baseball hat on the couch and plop down beside it. He jumps up as well, makes one turn, and curls into a ball to fall fast asleep.

“I only wish it were that easy.”

I haven’t slept well since I was a kid. I’ve tried sleeping pills, alcohol, and even marijuana, but nothing works. While I manage a few hours here and there, it’s never substantial and never enough. My brother Gabe says I’ll simply fall over from exhaustion one day. I don’t doubt it. When I close my eyes, the images I try so hard to forget come rushing back in. Gabe doesn’t remember. He was too little, but I do. They’re something I’ll never forget, even though I would love to erase them from my memory. I get up, pour myself a stiff whisky, and take a gulp. It’s the only thing that will help me get a few hours in. I sit beside Oliver and let the whiskey burn the back of my throat.

Early the next morning, I wake in the same position on the couch, the empty whiskey glass in my hand. My mouth feels like I’ve swallowed cotton. I don’t even remember how many drinks I had to fall asleep.

“Dude, you can’t keep doing this to yourself.”

“Fuck off,” I grumble.

“Mason, come on man. You need to go see someone. How long has it been?”

“I said fuck off.” I groan as I try to stand and stumble.

“I’m fine,” I say as I catch my balance.

“You’re not fine. You haven’t slept in days, maybe even months. You can’t keep doing this, man. You’ll hurt yourself.”

I draw myself up to my full height of six-two and puff my chest out. This is my little brother, after all, so I don’t need him to tell me what I should or shouldn’t do. I make eye contact and glare at him. He raises his eyebrow and waits for my response.

“I won’t go to see someone, little brother, so stop pushing. I’m fine.”

“Whatever you say, brother,” he retorts as he huffs a frustrated breath. He grabs his briefcase and heads out the front door. Oliver’s head pops up as the front door slams.

I rub my face with my hands in an attempt to knock away the cobwebs. It’s no use. I live in a state of perpetual exhaustion. When I moved in with Gabe a few years before, I only intended to stay for a few months. Two years later, I’m still there.

When Sheila and I divorced, I needed a place to go since she wanted the house and anything else she could get her hands on. I didn’t put up a fight as I didn’t want it. We weren’t married long. A year, maybe two. I can’t remember and it all seems like a blur. I knew from the beginning it wouldn’t work out, but I decided I was getting older so I should at least try to make a go of it. That was really piss-poor thinking on my part. It was a disaster from the beginning.

Back then, I still practiced law and Sheila loved everything about that. When I told her I would stop practicing to become a P.I., she flipped out. I think her exact words were, “How could you do this to me? What will people think? A private eye? Is that even a real job?”

So much for unconditional love and support. We split a few weeks later. She didn’t like the direction I was going in and it wasn’t what she had envisioned for her life. Papers were filed, the divorce was quick since we had a prenup and no kids, and I gave her the house and some money. She was happy to settle quickly and move on. And move on she did with another attorney in Tampa Bay. One of my least favorite people in the world, but at least they can make each other miserable.

I reach for my phone and leave a voice mail for Mrs. Bannon to notify her that I have the photos and video she requested. I’ll get them uploaded and sent to her attorney today. Blackmail isn’t a nice thing, but this prick deserves it after the beating he gave her. She said it was the first time, but I don’t believe her. I think it’s gone on for a while and this time was merely one of the worst. I hope she gets away from him before it’s too late.

 

 

 

Melinda

 

When I finally peel myself off the floor and end my pity party, I head to the shower. I decide to go to my office to occupy myself. I let the warm water run over my body, washing away the filth I feel over Nathanial’s transgressions. Then it occurs to me that I should probably get checked for STD’s.

“Fuck!” I yell aloud as the thought sickens me. If that son of a bitch gave me something, he’ll be sorry.

I dress quickly and head downstairs to the lobby of my building.

“Ms. Morgan.”

“Hi, Pete. How are you?” I turn toward him and smile warmly.

“I’m well, thank you for asking. I wanted to warn you there is a swarm of paparazzi out front. They’ve been here for the last hour and have asked if you’re here, so I wanted to give you a heads up.”

I release a long sigh. “I see. I’ll have my driver come around back. Would you mind accompanying me?”

“Of course. Let me tell Julian I’ll step away for a moment.”

“Thank you.”

Frustrated, I step to the side as I don’t want to give any of the paparazzi a glimpse of me. I can only imagine the mayhem that would ensue if they do. Feeling trapped, I shake my head and look down at the floor and wish it would open and swallow me right now.

“Right this way, Ms. Morgan.”

Pete extends his arm for me to go before him. He’s always been such a gentleman, the quiet anchor to the building, and goes above and beyond his duties. I’ve asked him a million times to call me Melinda, but he won’t hear of it.

I glide past him and down the long corridor to the back of the building. I had texted my driver earlier and hope that he has already made it around back. Pete takes the liberty of opening the door to check before I step outside.

“All clear,” he says as he steps toward the black Cadillac SUV and opens the back door. I hop in quickly, eager to get out of here before anyone notices.

“Thank you, Pete.”

“It’s my pleasure. I’ll keep an eye out for Ms. Emily to ensure they stay away from her.”

My eyes widen. I had forgotten about Emily. Those vultures will do anything for a story, including harassing my twenty-one-year old niece.

“I’ll have her text you when she gets close to home. She can meet you around back so you can let her in, okay?”

“Of course.” He tips his hat, shuts my door, and steps backward toward the building.

“Hey, Mel.”

“Hey, Harry.”

“You okay?”

“Truth?” I ask as I make eye contact with him in the rearview mirror.

“Truth.”

“Not really. Did you see the headline today?”

“I did.” He pauses momentarily, then catches my eye in the rearview mirror. “He’s a prick.”

I smile a half smile. Harry and I have been together since I became famous. I never in my wildest dreams thought I would have a personal driver and I didn’t want one, but as my fame increased, it made sense. My popularity soared, and having a driver made it easier for me to get in and out of places quickly. He’s part body-guard too. He may be twenty years my senior, but he’s one of the people I trust most in this industry. In some weird way, he reminds me of my own dad, which is comforting.

“Listen, Mel. You deserve better than Nathanial. I know you probably couldn’t see it to begin with but a lot of us could. He’s self-centered and was looking for a get-famous-quick ticket.”

“Why do I keep dating the same kind of guy over and over? They may have different faces, but they all end up being the same.”

“Truth?”

“Truth.”

To those closest to me, meaning those I trust, truth is important, no matter how much it hurts.

“You don’t think you’re worthy of a good, healthy love. You think everyone out there is out to get you, so that’s what you continually attract. Same man, different face.”

My mouth opens to say something, but I shut it before I do. Maybe Harry’s right. Maybe I don’t think I deserve anything more than what I’ve had. My whole life, I’ve believed men have only liked me for my looks, so that’s what I’ve attracted. Men who think I look good on their arm, but the value of our relationship stays at the surface. There’s no real depth to them because all they see is my beauty. I swear, my looks are a curse.

Harry pulls up to the curb in front of my office, gets out, and looks around motioning for the reporters to step back before opening my door. The minute my feet hit the pavement, bright lights go off in my face.

“Ms. Morgan, any comment on your fiancée? Ms. Morgan, who is the woman with your fiancée? Did you know he was cheating? Ms. Morgan, how are you feeling…are you still engaged to Nathanial?”

I stiffen and brace myself for the walk to my office door. While I shade my eyes with my purse, Harry takes my arm and shields me as best he can from the paparazzi. He walks me briskly to the front door and I let myself in.

“Mel, are you okay?”

I’m comforted by the sound of my best friend’s voice. Sarah and I have been friends since I moved to New York City. We met on a shoot when we were eighteen and hit it off immediately. We’ve traveled together, fallen in and out and of relationships with each other’s support, and have managed to maneuver this industry together to the best of our abilities. I’d say we’ve done pretty damn well. Sarah is now my business partner. She helps me run my MM brand, and I’m so thankful she’s with me.

I turn with a flat smile, tears brimming in my eyes, and simply shrug my shoulders because I’m afraid if I speak, my voice will betray me.

“Let’s go to your office, okay?” She links her arm in mine and steers me down the corridor to my office. I chose the one at the end of the hallway on the corner because I wanted a view of the city, and oh, did I get it.

Sarah shuts my door quietly behind us and I hear the faint click of the lock. I don’t turn to look at her because I know I’ll fall apart if I make eye contact.

“Mel?”

I shake my head back and forth.

“Mel, you’ve got to talk to me. Don’t shut me out. What the hell is going on?”

A loud sob escapes me. “I’m the biggest loser when it comes to love.” She’s behind me in an instant, wraps her arms around me, and lays her head on my back.

“Melinda Morgan, that’s bullshit, and you know it.”

“It’s not,” I say quietly through my tears. “Look at my history. I can’t keep a man to save my life and I don’t think I would know a good man if I saw one. Why do I keep choosing the assholes?”

She releases me and steps back to circle around in front of me.

“Because you don’t believe you deserve anything better.” She grimaces as the words tumble from her mouth.

I open my mouth to say something then shut it again. I hear the echo of Harry’s words and I’m not sure how to respond.

“Listen, you keep dating the same guy over and over again. They merely have different faces. You tend to go for the good-looking assholes who are full of themselves. Sure, they wine and dine you in the beginning and tell you everything you want to hear. But all of them have only wanted to say they’ve been with you, Mel. I’m sorry but it’s true. You’re worthy of so much more.”

I walk behind my desk and stare out at the city before me. Of the millions of people who are in this city, you’d think there’d be one, just one, who would be right for me.

“You’re right,” I say wearily. “I get so caught up in the glitz and glamour these guys tend to come with that I lose all sight of what I really want. Why in hell do I do that?”

“Hormones.” She laughs and a snort escapes her.

I smirk at her and a laugh bubbles up from within. I let it flow out of me and we are both suddenly annoyingly hysterical at her comment. God, it feels good to laugh. I feel like I haven’t done it in a million years.

“I think you’re right,” I say and try to catch my breath.

“Listen, I’m not saying I blame you. I mean, some of the men you’ve dated are hot as fuck. However, they have all turned out to be complete assholes in one way or another. It’s time to stay single and evaluate what it is you truly want, my friend.”

I crumple a piece of paper and throw it at her. “I hate it when you’re right.”

She catches it, throws it up in the air, and swats it back at me. “I know. It’s why you keep me around.”

Sarah and I brief for the next thirty minutes and catch up on where we are with the brand. I’m so glad she’s on board and keeps this ship sailing in the right direction. I’d be lost without her. She’s not only my partner but also the social media genius behind our platform. She thrives in this environment and I love seeing her so happy. She left modeling a few years ago, when the brand finally took off. She said she was tired of all the running around and wanted to be more settled. I get it, although I still haven’t given it up myself. There’s something about it that I still love and haven’t been willing to give up yet. I lose myself in work for the next few hours. It feels good to actually do something instead of having a pity party. I look up when I hear a knock at my door.

“Ms. Morgan, this came for you. It’s marked urgent.”

I notice the small package in Viv’s hand as she walks toward me. She’s been my assistant for a year and a half, came highly recommended by a friend, and we immediately clicked. Viv’s attentive, knows when to back off, and gets shit done when I need it to be done. In simple terms, she’s a go-getter.

“Thanks. I’ll have a look.”

“Is there anything I can get you?” She pauses momentarily and waits for my response.

“Hmm? Oh, no. Thank you. I’m fine.”

I take the package from her and turn it over in my hands. She eyes me curiously but doesn’t say another word and exits my office. I can tell she’s gone because the vibe of the room has changed. I walk back to my desk to open it.

“What in the world is this?” I say aloud to myself.

In the package is a thumb drive. I don’t think much of it as I pop it into my computer and wait for whatever’s on the thumb drive to open up. It feels like it’s taking forever when in all actuality, it’s not.

“Holy shit,” is all I can manage as hundreds of pictures pop up on my screen. But they’re not ordinary pictures. They are all of me in explicit sexual encounters with Nathanial, my ex-fiancée. Bile rises in my throat and I cannot keep it down. I reach for the trash can under my desk and let my stomach unload. There are few things I hate more than throwing up. It always makes me cry and want my mom. Call me crazy, but it does.

I empty my stomach, lean back in my chair, and my eyes stare at the ceiling. The only thing I can think of is that my life is over if these pictures get out.

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