Five bestselling authors got together to see what happens when bad boy heroes (and even a bad girl or two!) roll back into a small town in Texas for their High School reunion. Sexy times, angst-filled memories, and second chances abound with this contemporary romance series. The series can be read in any order and we hope you love the hidden connections and easter eggs spread throughout the novels!
“How long is it?” “It’s a twelve-letter word,” Derek Spencer replied, staring at the same crossword puzzle he’d been working on for the past two days. There had been too many interruptions, and he could only stare at the lattice of white blocks for so long before his eyes began to burn. It was better than the alternative. “Behaving or looking as though one thinks one is superior to others.” “Supercilious.” “No shit,” Derek muttered, dutifully writing down the letters in the appropriate squares while doing his best to ignore the irritating bleeps and pings coming from the various machines. He found it best to focus on the mundane puzzle rather than to look at the bundle of long tubes running to and from his father’s fragile body. It only forced him to remember that his parents weren’t invincible, but thankfully his father had beaten the odds this time. He’d live to see another day, but who would’ve thought the great Benjamin Albert Spencer could be taken out by a little heart attack? Ben wasn’t a weak man, not by any stretch of the imagination. He owned and operated Spencer’s Meat Market, the only full service butcher shop where the residents of Catfish Creek bought their prime cuts of meat, whether it was beef, pork, or chicken. He was old school and his shop stood behind his product. He always took the time to talk with each and every customer. His father’s motto? Everyone needs a friend in the meat business. A friend provided a square deal at a reasonable price, and friends were family. A good man like him shouldn’t be lying in some hospital bed clawing away for his life, recovering from open heart surgery. “That’s a wrap.” Derek folded the newspaper that he stole from the nurse’s station yesterday, immediately reaching for this morning’s entertainment section he’d found in the cafeteria. He’d set it on the rolling tray, saving it for last. It gave him something to do to pass the time, while his father slept on and off for most of the day. “Let’s see what today’s theme is.” Derek did his best to ignore the antiseptic smell that seemed to always permeate his clothes by the end of the day. As a combat Marine, that sterile odor generally meant someone was either wounded or had gotten injured during training. More recently, it was the equivalent to losing a man on the line…loss of combat effectiveness. It didn’t help that he hadn’t gotten the benefit of a few days’ transition to get used to his old leave and liberty clothing again after being in Afghanistan for the last four months. It wasn’t that the black T-shirt he wore was uncomfortable. It just didn’t smell right. Of course, there was also getting used to the brand new, stiff denim of his jeans that he’d had to buy since almost all his crap was still in storage back on base. Damn, he never thought he’d miss those cotton utility pants he’d worn day in and day out overseas. The thing of it was, he’d rather be over there fighting for his fellow Marines than sitting idly by to witness his father fighting for his life back in the world. “Why don’t you go and grab some lunch and leave me be?” Ben pressed for the third time that morning in between bouts of snoring. Derek pulled down one side of the newspaper and gave his father a questioning look. “You’ve been cooped up in here for four days straight. Go see some of your old friends, or take a drive by The Grange and see Frank. He just turned sixty-five, if you can believe that. It should be his old ass in this damned bed and not mine.” The last time Derek had visited The Grange had been about two years ago, right about the time Frank had installed a hand-me-down mechanical bull one of those city nightspots had outgrown. As a former third place finalist in the National PBR Championship in 1968, the old crusty bull rider even had a plaque on the wall with the once upon a time personality who currently held the title—Frank Dallas, of course. It was hard to imagine the infamous bull rider was sixty-five years old. It was even harder to believe that Derek’s father wanted him out of this hospital room. “Spit it out.” “Spit what out?” Ben lifted the remote control he had tucked beside him, pressing the power button so that the television came to life. He’d never been a good poker player, and now was no different. “I’m most likely going to be released and heading home tomorrow morning. It’s not like you need to babysit me for your mother’s sake. I am fifty-nine years old, son. I’m hardly a basket case.” Derek studied his father, trying to decipher why he suddenly had a different opinion in the last five seconds than he’d somehow held for the last four days. His dad had welcomed his presence at first, saying over and over again how much he appreciated the buffer between his wife and the hospital staff. Helen Spencer loved her family very much, but she tended to hover a little too much in circumstances like this—not that he or his dad would ever say that to another living soul. “Mom should be back within five or ten minutes,” Derek reminded his father, watching closely for a reaction. He folded the newspaper once more in half and used the clip of the pen to keep it that way. What exactly was his father up to? “You know that she likes to have lunch with you. She’ll probably bring me something healthy from The Hamburger Shack, not that I’ve gotten to eat anything remotely greasy since I came home. Who knew they even made salads?” “Join the club,” Ben said irritably, pressing a series of buttons on the control a little harder than necessary. “I almost attempted to bribe Tessa to sneak me in a juicy steak last night, but then I worried what your mother would do to her and I caved.” Derek tensed slightly at the mention of Tessa Daniels, still wondering why she’d gone out of her way to give him the cold shoulder ever since he’d walked into this hospital. He wasn’t so sure he could use the term cold. It was more like she appeared preoccupied or unsure. He and Tessa had been friends back in the day, always running in the same circle, and now she was his father’s second shift nurse. She didn’t appear too inclined to talk with him in depth, except to tell him to move out of the way when she was changing his dad’s dressing or checking his father’s IV. “You don’t need to be cooped up here with me for hours on end. Live a little before they send you back over there.” His father had turned on the History Channel and appeared to settle back against his pillow. He even waved his hand toward the door, not bothering to look Derek’s way. “Go. Catch up with some of your old friends or something. Drink a cold beer. For Christ’s sake, have two.” “I have a nice change of clothes for you, Ben,” Helen said after having used her hip to open the hospital room door. Derek automatically stood and took the small duffle from his mother’s hand, also reaching for the to-go bag from The Hamburger Shack. It didn’t surprise him to catch sight of lettuce in one of the clear plastic containers. Maybe he should take his dad up on his offer to get out of the hospital for a bit. “Derek, did your father have a chance to tell you about Tessa?” Derek never broke stride as he continued to cross the sterile floor, though that gut instinct hit him hard that he wasn’t going to like where this conversation was going. His mother always meant well, but she never left well enough alone, usually tinkering until the soup was ruined. It didn’t help that she’d been pushing the issue of him settling down and giving her grandchildren lately. No wonder his father had wanted him out of the room. Subtlety just wasn’t one of his father’s best attributes, and therefore Derek also lacked the antenna required to pick up a hint. “No, Dad didn’t mention anything,” Derek answered, setting the bag with his father’s clothes on the chair next to the side table. It didn’t go unnoticed that Ben was shaking his head at his wife, who feigned being too oblivious. Helen knew exactly what she was doing and she was proud of her straightforward manner. He needed to set the record straight. “Mom, you know that I’m only here for one more week on emergency leave. I hope you didn’t go and make any plans that I can’t keep. I have Marines in harm’s way over there and I’m responsible for them.” Derek held the to-go containers hostage, not that it mattered to his dad. One of the nurses had followed Helen into the room with a tray of food in her hand. It didn’t smell any better than the ranch dressing in the bag he was holding. “How are you doing, Mr. Spencer?” “I’m ready to go home today. You need to tell the doctor that. There’s no reason to wait until tomorrow,” Ben grumbled, pressing the button on the remote control that maneuvered the top half of the bed upward. He ever so slowly rose it a little more, so that he could feed himself. “What have you got for me today, Jackie? It doesn’t look like a ribeye.” Jackie went on to describe a wonderful dish of cuisine that must have been kidnapped and pureed before ending back up on the tray she’d just set down on the rolling table. She arranged it so that his father would have easy access to his food, even going so far as to pour him another cup of water and setting it down on its own round slot in the tray. She flashed a smile Derek’s way—the knowing kind. It was a measure of pity dosed out for the condemned. He gritted his teeth at being the only person in the room who was currently in the dark about his mother’s forthcoming news. “Derek, were you planning on attending your ten-year high school reunion?” Jackie asked, apparently taking pity on Derek and giving him some insight as to what his mother might have done. It only served to make him slightly nauseated and any hunger pains he might have had went by the wayside. He shot a look toward his father, who had covered his mouth with his hand. Was he laughing or gagging? “Tomorrow night is the reunion. Well, technically there have been activities throughout the week, but they decided on a masquerade ball as a main theme. It’s all the rage now, and it’s been the talk of the town for months.” Jackie Bauer had graduated a couple of years after Derek, but she’d been a cheerleader and was most likely still friends with the same general group of people he’d hung out with back in the day. Granted, he’d played high school football, but he’d been way too busy working at his father’s butcher shop to go to anything other than the after-parties with his unattached buddies. He hadn’t been the social type and hadn’t changed much in ten years. The men he’d spent time with recently were all Marines and they weren’t much for trendy themed balls. As a matter of fact, they only attended one ball each year, and that occurred on November 10th. No matter where he’d been on that date each year since his enlistment, they all had managed to gather together in far-flung places to celebrate their brotherhood. “I think I’ll pass on the ten-year high school reunion,” Derek stated, hoping his mother had heard him clearly. “I’m here to visit with my family and make sure Dad gets the rest he needs before I go back to my brothers in the Corps.” “That’s what your father and I wanted to tell you,” Helen gushed, as if she’d done Derek a favor. Ben nearly choked once again on his cherry Jell-O. Jackie took a step back, attempting to fade into the background as she crossed her arms and settled in to hear what gossip she could share with her friends. Her gaze was on his reaction, recording him as if he were on video. He didn’t recall her hanging out with Tessa back in the day, but maybe that had changed since they worked together in the same ward. He honestly didn’t want to hear what his mother may have cooked up, but there was no stopping her now that she’d gained momentum. “Tessa wasn’t going to attend either, but I suggested to her that she just had to go with you and keep you company since you didn’t have a date either. You’ve been with us every second of the day, making sure your father and I have everything we need. It’s time you go out, catch up with your old friends, and have some fun.” Two weeks. That’s the standard period of emergency leave granted to Marines like Derek, who had received a red cross notification with occasion to take away from his post in Afghanistan. All he’d wanted to do was come home to square things away, ensure his father was in stable health, and then head back overseas to complete his mission. Focusing on his assignment was something he’d lived and breathed for the past ten years. His life had changed from what it was. He didn’t have time to go to reunions and he certainly didn’t need his mother to set him up on dates. Ben coughed, most likely covering up the laugh he’d been holding back or attempting another thinly veiled alert which Derek would almost certainly fail to interpret properly. His dad reached for the water Jackie had poured him and took a drink. He’d had every opportunity to step in and stop his wife from launching this unthinkable disaster, but he’d let her get away with it anyway—probably for his own amusement. What had he always said over and over that kept the peace during their thirty-seven years of marriage? Yes, dear. Yes, it was appeasement, but that wasn’t the point. Sun Tzu said that you should only fight the battles that you needed to win. “Mom, you’ll have to explain to Tessa that I didn’t come here to attend a reunion.” There was no way in hell that Derek could eat lunch now, especially a salad. He reached across the lower half of the bed and handed his mother back the bag of food from The Hamburger Shack. Maybe he should head over to The Grange after all. He certainly needed some fresh air and a beer, but the crushed look on his mother’s face gave him pause. Damn it. “You know what? I’ll talk to Tessa myself. I’ll explain my situation and how I want to spend time with you and Dad before I head back to my unit. I’m sure she’ll recognize this as a simple misunderstanding.” “Mrs. Spencer,” Jackie said, putting a hand on Helen’s shoulder in comfort, “Tessa really didn’t want to go to the reunion anyway. You know that she’s been avoiding Bennett for the last three months.” Derek caught himself just in time. He’d been about to ask who this Bennett was until the name rang a bell. Bennett Harris. Who else could Jackie been talking about? Bennett was an unusual enough name that there could only be the one. He hadn’t gone to Catfish Creek High School all four years, either. He’d only attended his senior year, blending in with the crowd. The only reason Derek even remembered him was because he used to come into the butcher shop to pick up his mom’s order. He’d apparently made a name for himself locally, considering the large billboard sign right outside the city limits. Financial advisor of some sort, wasn’t it? “Well, that takes care of that,” Derek advised, appreciating that Jackie had given both he and Tessa an excuse to back out of attending the reunion. He forced himself not to ask what issue Tessa had with Bennett, because it wasn’t any of his concern and he didn’t much care. He wasn’t a fan of idle gossip. In the Corps, they called it scuttlebutt. It wasn’t encouraged amongst the ranks. It was time for him to leave while he still had the advantage and the ability. “We wouldn’t want Tessa to endure spending an entire evening by being in the same room with someone she has issues with, whatever those may be. However, I am going to take you up on your offer regarding me catching up with some old friends. I’ll be back in around an hour. I just want something more substantial to eat. Maybe I’ll get that steak you were talking about, Dad.” After having deflected his mother’s focus, Derek didn’t waste any time heading for the door. He breathed a sigh of relief when he stepped out into the busy hallway. It was always hectic this time of day, especially when people took advantage of their lunch hour to visit friends and family. He immediately headed off down the corridor, not wanting to get stopped by Jackie should she be right behind him. He’d dealt with enough for the day. His father’s health was improving, his mother didn’t appear to be too worried, and things were returning to normal. He had more important things to be concerned with other than social events in Small Town, USA. The next week would go by fast enough, considering Derek would be helping out around the butcher shop getting people and operations set into place until his father was back up on his feet in a couple of weeks. He didn’t mind in the slightest, but it was time to take a break, have a beer, and take stock. Afghanistan was a very dry place, and he was looking forward to his first cold taste of a refreshing American malt beverage, fresh from the tap. The Grange was calling his name.