Four novellas filled with passion, magic and deep, dark secrets…
Shadow of Truth by Shannon K. Butcher
Socially awkward nerd and video game designer Winnifred Archer has a rich fantasy life. So, when a badass, sword-wielding warrior decides he wants her, she’s not sure whether or not he’s real. She’s not equipped her to handle a man like him, or the things he wants from her, but she must find a way to face her fears and fight by his side or she will lose everyone she loves.
Bad Ass Bear by Kathy Lyons
Hiding from the secret that ended her last relationship, flight attendant Margaret Taylor settled for the next best thing to love: a friends-only status with her handsome, paraplegic neighbor, Gary Baldner. But Gary has a secret, too. It’s about to break free, upend their worlds, and bring them both perfect happiness.
Nowhere to Hide by Terri L. Austin
Running for her life, Hailey managed to escape from the psychotic billionaire who imprisoned and tortured her. Now using her secret clairvoyant powers, she’s trying to stay one step ahead of certain death. Sexy sorcerer, Vane, has a duty to take down Hailey’s enemy, even if it means using her as bait.
Shards of Light by Anna Argent
When Lark witnesses a bizarre murder, a decade-old secret resurfaces and forces her to find her old flame. Dex is no longer the easygoing guy she knew. He’s dark, deadly and involved with a secret society that believes magic is real and hunts down those who abuse it. As their passion reignites, Dex must find a way to keep the darkness in his life from touching Lark or he will end up just like the things he hunts.
The Secret She Keeps is now available for order!
The imaginary friend Winnifred Archer had summoned when she was four years old was a stone cold badass, and the guy standing in line for coffee looked just like him.
“What are you staring at?” asked Calista Bijou, her best friend since their first day of high school. They’d been inseparable for the last ten years—both roommates and business partners—and Winni couldn’t imagine life without her.
Calista was model-tall, with long, blond hair that never frizzed, a perfect size two figure, stunning features every camera loved, and eyes the color of clear, faceted emeralds. Winni—being the socially awkward, physically average, athletically challenged nerd she was—would have hated her on principal if not for her sweet personality, amazing artistic talent, and fierce loyalty to all lucky enough to call her friend.
Winni’s favorite coffee shop, Bean There, was busy today. The tables were stuffed full of people seeking a late afternoon caffeine boost. College kids from the nearby campus filled half the seats, studying or soaking up the free wi-fi. Two middle-aged women sat with their heads bent close together, plotting their first children’s book with animated glee. A trio of suited business men filled the table closest to the door. A thick stack of legal sized paper was being passed around with many frowns and a few stinging curses.
A gray-haired woman at the next table scowled at their profanity, then donned her headphones with enough anger, she practically scraped off her glittering clip-on earrings in the process.
The smell of coffee and freshly baked cookies filled the air, along with onions and celery from the savory soup of the day. While the menu’s offerings were few and changed frequently, everything was tasty and made with real food, rather than hydrogenated corn syrup and genetically modified petroleum byproducts.
The whole space was humming with activity and promise, as if each cup of frothy, sweet, dark, bitter whatever held a little drop of magic.
“See that guy?” Winni whispered. She nodded to the giant Viking warrior lookalike who towered over the rest of the people in line at the counter.
He was well over six feet tall, with massive shoulders and a thick frame layered with seven kinds of muscles. Even under his casual jeans and T-shirt, she could see bulging ripples of strength that couldn’t be hidden by any mere cotton. His thighs pressed against the denim that strained to contain them, but the effort to cover up that much sexy had left the threads faded and worn.
From her table in the corner, Winni only had a view of the side of his face, but what she could see of it was as angular and bold as the rest of him. He had a wide jaw, broad forehead, and a deep dimple in his chin. As he turned his head slightly to greet the cashier, Winni caught a glimpse of bright teal eyes glittering beneath a heavy brow.
All he needed was a sword and long, braided beard, and his Viking warrior look would be complete.
His gaze caught hers and held it for a second. He offered her a slow, curling smile. It was easy and warm, like they’d been friends for years, though she knew she’d never met him. If she had, she would definitely have remembered.
Winni’s heart rate kicked up. The air in her lungs seemed to swell, but her throat was too tight to let out a breath. Every cell in her body started quivering, but she couldn’t tell if it was because they wanted her to run away or get closer.
Much, much closer.
Was she supposed to smile back? She didn’t think she could do that with her mouth hanging open like it was. Of course, a man who looked like him had to be used to women gawking at him. She just hoped she wasn’t drooling as well.
She tried to grin, but her face felt numb. Her brain—which was usually more than capable of accomplishing any task that faced her—seemed to be skipping like an old record stuck in a deep groove. She couldn’t remember how to smile, or even if she should.
Calista’s gaze flicked up to the man, before dismissing him in favor of her tablet and her current project. “How could I miss him? He’s huge.”
It was his turn to order. He finally looked away, breaking the spell his breathtaking male appeal had on Winni. She’d seen plenty of buff guys, but never before had one drawn her in and put a choke-hold like that on her.
Maybe because she felt like she knew him.
It took Winni three tries, but she finally managed to get out the words. “He looks just like Bumpy.”
Calista peered at him again, narrowing her eyes in scrutiny. “He kinda does. He’s even got the necklace. Maybe he’s a fan and heard you hang out and work here.”
“No,” Winni said. “You don’t understand. He looks exactly like Bumpy, not some cosplaying wannabe.”
Calista gave her a stunning smile. “I hate to break it to you, honey, but imaginary friends are called that because they’re not real. Besides, how could a guy his age be your beloved Bumpy? Even if you’d seen him in the flesh when you were four and turned him into your mental playmate, he would have only been a kid then. That man can’t be out of his twenties yet. Thirty if he takes really good care of himself.”
He definitely did that. His physique was amazing, likely involving more hours at a gym than not every day.
Normally, Winni would have overlooked a man like that as having misplaced priorities. She much preferred men who developed their hearts and minds more than their bodies. Besides, she was no paragon of physical perfection herself. Men like the guy in line would only be interested in women who looked like Calista—perfect, thin and toned.
Maybe that smile he’d given her hadn’t been meant for Winni at all. Maybe he’d aimed it at Calista, but his male magnetism had drawn her in like a tractor beam and made her think it was all about her.
“You should go talk to him,” Winni said, though a tiny spark of a fantasy died as she said the words. “I think he’s into you.”
Callista blew out a scoffing breath. “Pfft. No thanks. I work with men like that on half the photo shoots I do. I am sick of hearing about their diets and workout regimens and what part of their cycle they’re in.”
“They can’t stay cut all the time, so they gain and lose fat in a cycle. Photographers have to time their photoshoots accordingly, so they keep a stable of guys who rotate in and out.”
The bizarre concept gave Winni something to think about besides the fact that her Bumpy’s doppelganger had gotten his food and was now walking right in their direction.
He was even more amazing from the front—all intriguing angles and rigid planes, like some kind of rock formation tourists from all over the world would flock to see. The closer he got, the bigger he looked, until he was towering over their table, tray in hand.
“Mind if I share your table?” he asked with a charming grin. “The place is full and I don’t see any empty tables.”
Winni opened her mouth, but only a squeak came out.
Calista saved the day by filling the awkward silence. “Are you here for an autograph?”
A flickering frown crossed his handsome face for a second. “Sorry, but I didn’t realize you’re famous. No autographs required. I’m just here to eat my sandwich.”
Calista moved her purse so there was room for him to slide into the seat directly across from Winni, who still hadn’t regained the ability to form words.
She peered over the screen of her laptop, wishing she could sink under the table and disappear. It had been a long time since she’d been flabbergasted like this in front of a man—so long that the subjects of her admiration had only been boys at the time.
This guy was all man. And then some.
Bumpy’s doppelganger took the lid off his coffee to let it cool. “So, you’re famous?” he asked Calista.
“Not me. This is the amazing Winnifred Archer. She’s the creator of the video game, Shadow of Truth. I thought you might be one of her fanboys.”
Winni blushed at the attention. She was used to nerdy folk of all kinds approaching her, but never anyone like this man.
His bright teal gaze caught hers, and everything in her went still. Not a single neuron fired. She didn’t breathe or blink. All she could do was stare at him, like he was the long lost missing piece of a years-old puzzle.
“Is that so?” he asked, his voice deep and warm. “I’ve never met a famous video game designer before. I’m Garet. It’s nice to meet you.”
He held out a hand. Calluses graced the pads of his palm, darker and shinier than the rest of his supple skin. His hand was so wide and thick, she wasn’t sure if it was real. And even if it was, she had no clue what she was supposed to do with something of that epic scale. She certainly couldn’t touch it. It was too…powerful.
“Uh,” was all she managed, followed by a wet gurgling noise she couldn’t contain or identify as any known means of communication.
Calista kicked her under the table, then shook his hand so as not to leave him hanging. “Sorry, Garet. We don’t touch the talent,” she said, covering for Winni’s total lack of cool.
Her lungs were so starved for air, they finally took over and forced her to start breathing again.
She was certain her face had to be red from lack of oxygen, and she couldn’t trust that her hands wouldn’t shake if she lifted them from her keyboard.
Whoever this man was, he packed one hell of a punch, leaving her stunned and floundering.
“What’s your game about?” Garet asked Winni. His long fingers wrapped around the sandwich, making it look like child’s sized, rather than the large, multi-layered concoction it was.
“Fighting and stuff,” Winni wheezed. “Monsters. Swords. Magic.”
Calista patted Winni’s thigh under the table as if to sooth her and took over the conversation. “Winni’s game is the story of Princess Pellonia Pendragon and her search for her lost love, Sir Starkadhr. He was cursed to spend eternity alone in darkness by the evil one-horned demon who wanted the princess for himself, but she refuses to give up her quest to find her true love.”
“Calista does most of the artwork,” Winni finally managed, proud of her complete, coherent sentence. “She draws the characters exactly like I see them. It’s a gift.”
Rather than turn his gaze to the only beautiful woman at the table, Garet continued to look at Winni. “But the story idea was yours?”
She gave him a tight, fast nod that made her head spin. “You look like Sir Starkadhr.”
“Really?” His tone was one of amused curiosity. “Can I see?”
Calista tapped on her tablet, then turned it around to show him the artwork of Starkadhr—the character for which Winni’s imaginary friend Bumpy had been the main inspiration.
The drawing was of a muscular man in tattered pants, holding a gleaming, golden sword. His long blond hair flared behind him as if a breeze had just caught the shimmering strands. An iridescent band filled with a hundred swirling colors circled his throat, clinging to the contours as if it couldn’t get close enough. His bare, bulging chest was covered in a large tattoo of a gnarled, ancient tree, along with more than one scar he’d earned in glorious battles against dark, evil monsters.
This was how Bumpy had appeared to Winni the night of her mother’s murder, fully formed and seared in her mind. This was the image that flared to life every time Winni had been afraid or lonely. This digital picture, though not nearly as lifelike as the one in Winni’s head, was as close as Calista had ever come to capturing the raw essence of Bumpy’s power. It was the first thing she saw before she opened her eyes in the morning, and the last one she saw long after she laid down to sleep every night.
He was her constant, unwavering companion, long past the time most children had shed their childhood crutch and stopped believing in what wasn’t real.
His blond brows shot up. “Wow. I really do look like him.”
Calista nodded. “He’s based on Winni’s childhood imaginary friend, Bumpy.”
He grinned at the childish name. “Bumpy?”
“He appeared to me when I was little,” Winni said as she blushed. “He had lots of big muscles, but I didn’t know what to call them. I just thought they were lots of bumps. Thus, Bumpy.”
All signs of humor fled his expression. “Appeared? In person?”
The answer seemed so important to him, she couldn’t help but give it. “No. He’s just a figment of my overactive imagination.” And deep soul-wrenching terror and grief.
Not that she’d say that part. She’d never told anyone what had happened that night. Not even Calista, who she loved and trusted more than anyone on the planet.
“How old were you when Bumpy appeared?” he asked. His tone was casual, but his focus on her intensified, as if the answer was important.
Why had she told him that? It wasn’t like her at all to blurt out her darkest secrets to complete strangers. No one but Calista knew about her imaginary friend—that she still had one at the ripe old age of twenty-four, well past the time he should have faded out of existence.
“Just a baby,” he said, his tone one of deep speculation.
Winni drained her coffee cup as an excuse to avoid his gaze.
She was such a spaz. Why didn’t he just finish his sandwich and leave already? Surely there were at least ten other women in here who would have been better company.
After a couple of bites, his intensity seemed to fade, leaving behind the casual, easygoing vibe he had about him. “What’s the deal with the tree tattoo?”
Winni had talked about her game more times than she could count. She’d even managed to string together a few coherent answers to questions when she’d been on a panel in front of a crowd at the last ComicCon. Surely, if she could speak in front of five hundred people, she could answer the questions of one single man—even one of galactic proportions.
“It shows the passage of time in the game. If the princess can’t rescue Sir Starkadhr before the last leaf falls, then he dies and the game is over.”
“Sounds harsh,” he said.
“It is,” Winni said. “It takes most gamers months to figure out how to save him from the one-horned demon before he’s devoured.”
“Devoured? Not just killed?”
“The monsters in my world feed on the blood of descendants of an ancient race of beings. Starkadhr is one of those people.”
“And Princess Pellonia? Is she one of those people as well?”
“Of course,” Winni said. “Why else would the one-horned demon want her?”
Garet’s gaze flicked to Calista. “Do you have any drawings of the princess?”
She pulled up the artwork for the cover of the upcoming sequel, Shadow of Truth II, and showed it to him.
He studied it with a look of disappointment.
“What’s wrong?” Winni finally asked.
“I thought she’d look like you. Too bad.”
Winni let out a laugh that was the mutated offspring of a snort and a sneeze. “If Princess Pellonia Pendragon looked like me, no one would buy the game.”
“I would,” he said, completely serious.
Silence reigned over the table—the long, awkward kind that made Winni fidget and clamp her fingers into fists.
“Do you want a refill?” Calista asked as she took Winni’s coffee mug and dashed away before she could get an answer.
The move left her completely alone with the giant Viking who made her skin tingle—especially her most sensitive areas, even the skimpiest of bikinis would cover.
He finished off his sandwich, wiped his mouth, then leaned back in his chair. The whole time, she stared at him because she couldn’t help it. Every move he made reminded her more and more of the imaginary companion she’d had since she was tiny.
Finally, after a long moment of studying her, he asked, “Are you afraid of me, Winni?”
“You make me feel funny,” she said.
Oh, hell. Had she really admitted that?
Humiliation heated her cheeks.
At least she hadn’t added in my swimsuit area on the end. If she had, her embarrassment would have been fatal.
He laughed, but it wasn’t the cold, scoffing laugh she was used to from men who saw themselves as too good for her. Instead, it was a warm, inclusive laugh, like she’d made a joke.
Maybe he was too dumb to realize just how socially awkward she was around him. He was certainly handsome enough that also being smart would have been completely unfair.
He leaned forward. His body was big enough that he nearly engulfed her personal space, even from across the table. His voice lowered to a whisper she had to inch closer to hear. “You make me feel funny, too. In a good way.”
And just like that, Winni was once again speechless. Her mouth opened and closed a few times, but no air passed her lips. She could feel her face heating and turning red, but there wasn’t a thing she could do to stop it.
Calista came back with fresh coffee in hand to rescue her.
Garet eased back to his side of the table but kept his attention firmly on Winni. “I have an appointment right after sunset, but I’d love it if you’d have dinner with me tonight.”
Winni looked at Calista, waiting for her to accept his invitation, but when her best friend gave her an expectant look, she knew she was screwing things up with this man again.
“She’d love to go,” Calista said on her behalf.
“Me?” Winni squeaked. “You were asking me out?”
“Who else?” he asked.
“Calista, of course. She’s the pretty one.”
“He’s not interested in me, honey,” Calista said gently, grinning. “This is all about you.”
Winni had no idea what to say to that. She was too confused to make sense out of what was happening. “But hot guys never ask me out.”
He laughed again like she’d said something funny.
Calista shook her head and rolled her eyes. To Garet, she said. “There’s a little Italian restaurant a few blocks from our apartment. The area is rundown, but the food is amazing. She’ll meet you there at seven.”
She scribbled the name of the place on a napkin and slid it across the table.
Garet gave Winni one last charming grin and said, “See you tonight, Winnifred. I can’t wait.”
She sat there in stunned silence while he walked away. As soon as the strange sense of disorientation dissipated, she turned to Calista. “What just happened?”
“You just agreed to go on a date with the man who looks like your imaginary friend.”
Calista laughed. “Because he’s completely into you and hot as hell. Why not?”
“What if I make a fool of myself?”
Calista patted her hand and said in a gentle voice, “Honey, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but you already did that. He didn’t seem to mind. In fact, I think he found your stammering awkwardness charming.”
“It appeared so.”
“That’s too weird.”
“It is,” Calista agreed. “But if you want my advice, I say you run with it. I can tell by the way a man walks how good he’ll be in bed.”
“I know. It’s one of your superpowers.” Then it hit Winni what her friend was saying. “How good is he?”
Calista bobbed her eyebrows. “On a scale of one to ten? He’s easily a solid twenty-seven.”