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Friday, March 5, 2021

Related by Murder

Related By Murder

by Jo A. Hiestand




GENRE: British mystery






From the moment ex-police detective Michael McLaren arrives at his friend’s house, he’s plunged into a nightmare of a case. Two men, hanged a year apart, each killed on a Good Friday. A barrister. A solicitor. Related careers. Related by murder. Related motives?


Pottery shards, a torn newspaper article, and biscuits are found in each man’s pocket. What do they signify? And the blackmail letters Melanie receives… Are they related to the murders, or are they separate, terrifying in their own way?


Professions, calendar date, McLaren’s attack. Could it all be entwined? Or is the motive for murder something else, something so secret that keeping it is worth attempting a third one?



NOTE: The book is on sale for $0.99.






McLaren had been there during the daylight hours on his previous visit. Now, at night, the place was eerie, mystical. The circle—one hundred yards in circumference—had originally held forty stones, but now just thirty-three remained. None were upright. Still, if he used his imagination he could easily conjure up the feeling of ancient cultures. 


He walked farther into the circle, the grass damp and clinging to his boots, the odors of sodden soil and sheep droppings mixing with wet stones. A small puddle, most likely left from the evening’s rain, glittered from the moonlight that seemed trapped within the dark water, and he stepped around it. A bit farther on, he came to what he hoped would be a good vantage point. He knelt behind one of the taller stones, though none of them were more than a yard tall. From this perspective not only was he hidden if anyone approached from the lane, but also distanced enough from the entrance so no one would suspect he was there.


Minutes passed. The wind picked up, stirring the dampness in the air and pushing it into McLaren’s bones. Or at least that’s how it felt. Even his sweatshirt felt incredibly thin and unequal to keeping him warm. He chastised himself for not wearing his jacket, and rubbed his arms.


A barn owl soared silently overhead, its ghostly-white feathers oddly appropriate in this strange-feeling landscape. It’s appropriate, McLaren thought, watching the bird sail over a copse of trees. We’re both out hunting.

 A Word With the Author

1.Did you always want to be an author?

I grew up reading Dumas, Twain, duMaurier, Dickens and the Brontes.  I loved the atmosphere of those books. Add watching the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce movies and the moods of 1940s/50s movies like Brief Encounter, Night Must Fall, and The Thirty-Nine Steps, and I knew I wanted to write mysteries, and the books had to be set in Britain. This all came upon me during my school years, and by college I decided I had to give it a try.


2.Tell us about the publication of your first book.

It took me some years and many tries before my first book, A Staged Murder, came into print.  

I got a fair number of rejection slips, though not so many that I could wallpaper my room with them, and I kept wondering what was wrong with the book or my writing.  Some editors scribbled a few words at the bottom of the slips, giving me an encouraging word, but I couldn’t break through the barrier.  After all, I had done all the research and had all the tools for my writing, which are British mysteries, by the way.  Since I’m an American, I had to overcome several obstacles right off the bat.

The first problem was language.  Britons and Americans almost speak the same language, and the vocabulary can trip up the Unsuspecting.  Luckily, I’d lived in and vacationed in Britain for a number of years, so I had some word exchange down well. Biscuit instead of cookie, registration plate instead of car license plate, knackered instead of worn out, full whack instead of retail price...  I had a British dictionary and English friends I could email for translation help.  I knew that the English bobby of the 1940s movies who strolled around quaint villages was now usually stationed in town police stations; some drove vans on a set schedule to villages to help residents that way.  I felt confident that most of the hurdles to correct writing had been cleared.  All but medical help.

I’d asked various people if they knew a doctor who’d be willing to answer on-going questions, but couldn’t find anyone.  I was bemoaning my problem to a co-worker one day when she said, “Oh, maybe my sister could help you.”  Thinking her sister was a regular patient of an M.D., I asked, “Who’s your sister?”  She replied, “A pathologist/coroner.”  Bingo!

The medical question was solved, and I knew I had good writing credentials: I’d graduated from Webster University with departmental honors in English.  So with all of this in place, why couldn’t I get a novel published?

At the time, mystery author Shirley Kennett was a member of our local Sisters in Crime chapter. She had five novels out, and I wanted her opinion on my writing but I was afraid to approach her since she wrote grittier, more hard-boiled stuff than I did.  When I got up my nerve to ask and she did read the manuscript, she gave me a thorough critique and three major suggestions:

·      Turn one of the two male protagonists into a female

·      Tell the story 1st person from the female’s POV

·      Give the major female a female friend in whom she can confide, so the reader can know the major female’s thoughts and feelings

I was hesitant to make these changes.  After all, it was my book.  I’d developed the characters I liked and I’d given them their personalities and relationships.  But I wasn’t getting published with my approach, so why not try Shirley’s suggestions? 

I went through the manuscript, made the changes, and picked a publisher from the list I still had. Amazingly enough, they offered me a book contract.  

Getting that first book accepted had been a struggle, and at times I really felt like giving up.  But I knew I’d never be published if I did that.  I kept trying, seeking help from everyone I met.  It finally paid off.  With twenty-six published novels now on the shelf, the rest, as they say…


3.Besides yourself, who is your favorite author in the genre you write in?

The Golden Age mystery writer Ngaio Marsh is my idol.  Her writing is beautiful, her characters well drawn and full of detail, her plots ingenious.  I think her superb character development stems from her years of working in the theater as an actress and directing plays both in her native New Zealand and in London. She’s accustomed to characters acting out their emotions and thereby strengthening the storyline. Her theater experience has also given her a great ear for dialogue, which she used quite well. When I read her books, I can so easily feel and hear and see what her characters feel and hear and see. They are real people moving in their own world, not mere props used to convey a story. 


4.What's the best part of being an author? The worst?

Whew… This is difficult to answer. I get a great joy from holding the physical books and I love the covers. But as much as I like that, I think the best thing is doing the second edit. The drudgery of the first draft is over, getting the story down and reading through it to find holes in the plot or obvious goofs. The second draft is when I add scenes I’ve thought of, or add descriptions or perhaps more dialogue. I make sure the word choice is what I want—does ‘hint or ‘whisper’ better suit the situation. It’s intensely gratifying and a sense of relief to complete that draft and consider the book nearly finished.

The worst part of being an author is seeing bad reviews. Of course I’m not going to garner five stars on every book all the time, but some reviews are downright nasty. I never know if the reviewer is a frustrated writer who can’t get published so she takes it out on others who are, or if the reviewer glories in the power of the written word. I remember one review: the writer gave me a one star because my characters didn’t always speak in complete sentences! Now, who in the world does? I bet she doesn’t. And I bet she’s in middle school and just had an English class on sentence structure. Those types of reviews are laughable, but the ones that sting are the ones that make me wonder why I keep on writing.

5.What are you working on now?

Well, just a few days ago I began plotting the next McLaren book, HAUNTED WATER. McLaren investigates the cold case of a young man drowned in a lake in Cheshire, England. The lake is associated with the myth of a morgen, a Welsh water spirit who drowns men. In the past few days I’ve created my characters (names, ages, occupations) and given them relationships to each other and to the victim. I’ve invented my fictional village and located it near Congleton, Cheshire. It’s a place I actually visited once, so that will help with my description of the area. Now I’m working on motive and whodunit!




AUTHOR Bio and Links:


I grew up reading Dumas, Twain, duMaurier, Dickens and the Brontes.  I loved the atmosphere of those books. Add the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce movies and the moods of 1940s/50s movies like Brief Encounter, Night Must Fall, and The Thirty-Nine Steps, and I knew I wanted to write mysteries, and the books had to be set in Britain. That was a must even though I knew only what I’d seen in the movies and read in the novels.  But the British pull was tenacious.  Three years ago I discovered that I have literally centuries and centuries of English, Scottish and Welsh ancestry.  Do genes mean anything?


My first visit to England was during my college years and that cemented my joy of Things British.  Since then, I’ve been lured back nearly a dozen times, and lived there for a year during my professional folksinging stint.


What do I write?  Well, at the moment, I write two British mystery series: the McLaren Mysteries and the Peak District Mysteries.  The McLaren novels feature ex-police detective Michael McLaren, who investigates cold case murders on his own.  The Peak District books feature a different British custom/tradition that is the backbone of each book’s plot.  These are a combo cozy/police procedural, and members of the Derbyshire Constabulary CID Murder team work these cases.


I combined my love of writing, mysteries, music, and board games by co-inventing a mystery-solving treasure-hunting game, P.I.R.A.T.E.S.


I founded the Greater St. Louis Chapter of the international mystery writers/readers organization Sisters in Crime, serving as its first president.  


In 2001, I graduated from Webster University with a BA degree in English and departmental honors.  I live in the St. Louis, MO area with my cat, Tennyson, and way too many kilts.
















Jo A. Hiestand will be awarding a $20 Amazon/BN GC to a randomly drawn winner via rafflecopter during the tour.




a Rafflecopter giveaway

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Light of the Sky

Title: Light of the Sky
Series: Of the Gods #2
Author: Gina Sturino
Genre: Fantasy Romance
Release Date: February 26, 2021

“Gina created a world in the first book, Fruit of the Land, then gave us a totally new experience in Light of the Sky...equally wonderful! MUST READ!!” ~ 5 Star Amazon Review

Will she fly or will she fall?

After completing her divine mission in the mortal realm, Novalee is offered the ultimate reward: a station in the Kingdom, the heaven of heavens. Accepting this fate means she’ll become purely divine as an angel, no longer burdened by the ache of humanity.

Claiming her ticket to serenity should be an easy decision, but the repercussions—including losing the ability to transcend the realms—last an eternity. Unprepared to leave behind those she loves most, Nova questions her destiny and returns to the mortal realm in search of closure and answers.

Instead, she finds Dane.

Nova’s mysterious new neighbor has her swooning, but his yo-yo signals give her mental whiplash. As Dane and Nova fight an undeniable attraction, they find solace in one another, each seeking peace with the past. With Dane’s help, Nova sorts through her muddled, masked memories. But the bounty hunters of the divine are hot on her trail, and she must find closure before they find her.

The second book in author Gina Sturino’s Of the God series brings an unforgettable story of redemption, hope, and a love that defies fate. 

While each book in the series can stand alone, reading them in order prevents spoilers and offers the best experience. Enjoy the journey!

Gina Sturino has been devouring romance novels since her teenage years. After marrying her very own Prince Charming, she found the inspiration to write her debut novel. While her husband isn’t a god (like Nick in Fruit of the Land), he’s pretty darn close (he may or may not have told her to write that), and helped inspire the character. They’ve lived in cities coast-to-coast and have settled in their hometown outside of Madison, Wisconsin, where they are raising their daughter.


Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Beyond the Book: A New Dream

 What’s your dream?  Have you achieved it yet?  Most of us have lofty ambitions and dreams when we’re young, but as we grow older, reality intrudes and we settle for something less than what we wanted.  Luckily, most of us find happiness in our new dreams and have a fulfilling life.  

Guess what I wanted to be when I was a child?  I wanted to be Miss America.  My family made a big deal out of watching the Miss America pageant every year.  My aunts and girl cousins would all come over, and we’d eat snacks, criticize the talent competition, and try to pick the winner.  Well, I didn’t become Miss America.  Instead, I became a social studies teacher, wife, mother, grandmother, and finally an author.  Am I content?  I sure am.  My life is full and happy.

But what would happen if you had a huge dream that came to pass and gave you everything you’ve ever wanted, and then you lost it?  Could a replacement dream ever take the place of your old dream?  

In my novel A New Dream that’s exactly what happens to Matt McCallum.  Matt achieves his dream of playing pro-football.  He was a first round draft pick for the Green Bay Packers, and during his rookie year he kicked the winning field goal in the Super Bowl.  He has fame, money to burn, and a sexy fiancĂ©e.  Life doesn’t get any better than this.  And then he loses it all when a car wreck takes his career away.  Here’s a blurb and excerpt from the book.  In the excerpt, Matt awakes in the hospital and finds out about his loss.


What do you do when you lose everything?

After an auto accident destroys his pro-football career, Matt McCallum struggles to find a new dream for his life, but nothing engages him the way football did. After a stint in rehab, he takes a job managing a grocery store where he meets Violet Emerson.

Violet works in the bakery department, but her dreams carry her far beyond the doors of Chef’s Pantry. As soon as she can save the money, she plans to open a catering business. And she thinks the new manager’s broad shoulders and blue eyes are simply divine.

Thrown together at work, Matt and Violet find a common dream for their lives, but a loose end from Matt’s past returns to jeopardize their future. Will love be enough to save their new dream before it turns into a nightmare?

Excerpt: My hero wakes in the hospital and is talking to a nurse.

Matt closed his eyes for a moment and rubbed his throbbing temples. “I don’t remember what happened.”

“That’s normal. You may never remember everything.”

Matt tried to sit up, but he couldn’t muster enough energy.  “What’s wrong with me? Why is it so hard to sit up?”

“Oh, that’s because of the medication we gave you to help you rest.” She patted his arm and checked an IV that he hadn’t noticed until she touched it. “We didn’t want you tossing and turning all night.”

“What’s wrong with me?” he repeated.

“Shh, don’t worry about that now. The doctor can talk to you later when you feel better.”

Matt didn’t like the blank expression on the nurse’s face at all. I must be hurt pretty bad. “No, tell me now,” he insisted.

Nurse Whittaker stuck a thermometer in his mouth. “You have some trauma to your legs, Mr. McCallum, but the doctor says you’re going to be fine.”

Matt spit the thermometer out. “Trauma to my legs?”

“Yes, sir, and I’d rather you talk to Dr. Williams about it.”

It’s bad. It has to be. “Tell me,” he demanded.

“Mr. McCallum…”

Matt forced himself to sit up. His head spun and made his stomach turn over, but he managed to pull the sheet off his right leg. Wow, he must really be out of it. It looked like most of his leg was gone. He shook his head to clear away the cobwebs and looked again. His leg was gone!

He started to shake and grabbed the nurse by the arm. “Where’s my leg?” he cried.

The nurse took a look at one of the monitors in the room and called, “Jenny, would you bring me another dose of Mr. McCallum’s medication?”

A nurse arrived with a syringe which she injected into Matt’s IV. “There you are,” she soothed. “You’ll be comfortable in a few minutes.”

Dizziness washed over Matt. “What did…you…give…me?”

“Something to make you rest,” Nurse Whitaker answered. “You go to sleep and don’t worry about a thing. We’re taking very good care of you.”

Pretty bad, huh?  Think Matt will find a replacement dream?  Of course he will, but keeping his new dream may prove unexpectedly difficult when a loose end from his past comes back to haunt him.


Title: Eyeful
Series: Gladiators of the Gridiron #2
Author: C.R. Grissom
Genre: New Adult Romance
Release Date: March 2, 2021
Cover Design: Erin Dameron-Hill

College life should come with a content warning.

All Phoebe Sharpe wanted was to start over at a new college to escape the drama and humiliation of her mom’s sordid past. But her present is hardly less complicated. To avoid sleeping on the streets, Phoebe seeks sanctuary at a 24-hour gym. When she meets the smoking hot Tiago, her desire to remain anonymous disappears.

Fortis University kicker Tiago Trindade has more on his plate than the average college sophomore. He’s trying to keep his GPA high enough to maintain his football scholarship while balancing practice and a job at the local gym to help support his family. When he learns his grandmother's been swindled out of the title on her house—which would leave them homeless—he’s determined to save them. And then he meets the girl of his dreams...who just might be involved in her mom’s con.

When Phoebe learns the truth about her mother’s role in scamming Tiago’s family, she’s torn. Should she protect her own family or save Tiago’s?


Phoebe and Tiago are endearing protagonists and the engaging supporting cast—especially free-spirited senior citizen Agnes Marlowe, and Phoebe’s supportive friend Faith—add delightful depth to the taut narrative. Fans of new adult romance will be swept away. (Mar.) ~ Publishers Weekly (Full review: )


Phoebe Makenna Sharpe 

THERE ARE SOME things in life you can’t unsee.

My grandmother’s new smartphone dings with her first text. I stare down at an ancient and rather large, erect penis nested in gray on the six-inch screen in my hand and nearly bobble the phone. Gross. I blink to clear the image, but it remains burned on my retinas. 

Grams asked me to transfer the contacts from her muse- um-worthy flip phone, and I’m entering them one at a time. It’s the sole reason I’m staring down at a wrinkled ball sac. Geriatric dick pics. FML. 

I must have made a sound because Grams joins me at her dining room table. “What’s wrong, love?” 

Words fail me, so instead I tilt the phone her way. 

“What on earth?” Grams coughs into her hand. “The name is too tiny for me to read. Who does it belong to?” 

I make a mental note to increase text font size for Grams and say, “Gavin MacKinnon.” 

“I’d heard the rumors of course, but I didn’t believe it.” She clears her throat. “Phoebe, I’m sorry you saw...” 

Me too. Penises shouldn’t be used like emojis. Ever.
“I’m going to call Gavin right now and give him a piece of my mind. Be a dear and show me how on my new toy.”

I initiate a voice call and pass the device to Grams, who steps into the galley-style kitchen, a mere three feet away. We’re both brunettes, though at the age of seventy-two, a hair stylist helps Grams maintain hers. We both have violet- blue eyes, but hers glow with intelligence and humor. Mine don’t. Cameras shoved in your face for months on end dull the sparkle. But that’s what happens when your uneventful life becomes newsworthy.

Grams has trouble hearing. As a result, she speaks loudly. I can’t help but overhear.

“My granddaughter got an eyeful of that picture.” A pause. “Yes, it’s impressive,” she huffs. “Oh. You mean right now? This isn’t something you saved and sent?” 

Grams! She can’t be discussing... Oh, no. No. No.

She giggles. “Fine. I’m on my way but keep it up.”

I’m certain Grams doesn’t realize I can hear.

“That’s not an attractive thing to say, Gavin. If you lose it, it won’t be my fault. Of course, I’m hurrying. Unlock your door.” She tsk-tsks in apparent exasperation. “Use your left, God gave you two hands, didn’t he?” 

Now I know exactly what they plan to do about his stiffy. 

Grams grabs her purse and keys off the counter. “Sweetie, I have to go. Lock up when you leave for the university. Don’t you have an afternoon class?” 

“Not today.” 

She looks elegant in her dark blue pantsuit paired with two-inch heels in candy apple red. Grams rushes out the door before I blink, all without the benefit of a calf check,  which means she either doesn’t care or Grams manages leg stubble better than me. The fact I’m tabulating her pre-coitus habits proves how screwed up my life is right now. 

Mother in jail? Check. Grams left me for a booty call? Check. And the third check that completes my pathetic triumvirate—I live with Grams at Shades of Willow Glen, a community complex for retired people. I’m surrounded by the technology-challenged senior set in Silicon Valley. Except for Gavin, who grasps the concept of sexting but missed the manscaping memo. 

I won’t complain about living with Grams in her stylish, if small, apartment. She welcomed me into her home when my life fell apart. I’m wait-listed for student housing, but Mom’s earnings—regardless of whether she scammed them—are too high for me to qualify for assistance. The odds of student services contacting me with an opening is probably worse than me hitting all six numbers in the lottery. 

Framed family photos taken in kitchens and various restaurants over the years cover the wall in the dining room. In her living room, a photo of Grams, Mom and me on the couch at our Las Vegas house taken three summers ago hangs on the wall behind the sofa. Grams says she wants to be surrounded by her family even if it’s only two-dimensional. 

I avoid looking at the pictures of Mom. Too many mixed feelings. Too much hurt. I’m at the brutal end of a long list of people she betrayed. 

A loud knock at the door makes me jump. I glance through the peephole to see two security guards. They aren’t cops, but the memory of Mom’s arrest makes me lose the ability to see anything beyond the badge and uniform. I breathe deeply. 

The last time security showed up, they complained Grams parked over the line and took two spaces in the lot. This transgression earned a ten-dollar fine. Grams and her friends—in protest of the outrageous fee issued for a simple mistake—declared all-out war on the guards. 

I plaster a smile on my face and open the door. “Hello,” I manage. “Can I help you?” My voice wavers on the last vowel. 

“We need to speak to Mrs. Makenna,” the taller, thinner guard says enunciating each word like a complete sentence. We. Need. To. Speak. To. Mrs. Makenna. But he infused menace in his tone like an angry robot bent on eradicating all humanity. 

“I’m afraid you just missed her, but I’ll tell Grams to call down to the gatehouse when she gets home.” 

The shorter, rounder guard straightens his spine, waving a piece of paper clutched in his hand. “Command Center,” he corrects, through clenched teeth. 

“Of course. My bad.” 

I start to close the door, but Skinny wedges his foot into the space. “See that she gets this warrant of code violation.” 

Perspiration pops along my spine like a glass of iced tea exposed to desert heat. Warrant. Will Grams get arrested, too? Then the short dude shoves the paper at me, and I realize it’s not a warrant for her arrest, but an official notice Grams violated her lease by harboring a visitor for over ten days. 

“Young lady, you need to leave or you both can find a new place to live. Section B, Article Thirteen states guests aren’t allowed to stay beyond the designated time period.” 

It takes a special kind of mean to kick someone out of their home. This is the second time in forty days I’ve been told to pack up and go. It’s numbing. 

The guards sneer at me. They’ve found a land mine to detonate under Grams by evicting her granddaughter. Yes, it’s a rule, but none of the tenants adhere to it because many have long-term guests stay without issue, until now. 

“If you stay, we’ll submit the paperwork to the governing board. Your grandmother will be fined the maximum amount for each additional day you sleep here and she’ll face eviction,” says Skinny. 

The other guard chimes in, “But if you leave tonight, we’ll forget you stayed past the ten-day limit, as a favor to your grandmother.” 

The guard moves his foot, I close the door, and twist the lock. Sliding to the hardwood floor, I rest my head between my knees while regulating my breathing to avoid passing out. I’m so screwed. Dad died before I was born. Mom and Grams are my only family. I have nowhere to turn. I refuse to ask Mom’s boyfriend for anything. 

He dragged her into this mess. 

There’s no way I can afford to rent a place in this area. Studios cost four figures to rent per month and I don’t have that kind of money. I pull my phone from my pocket to search the internet for the nearest youth hostel, but the only one near me is booked solid until mid-January. Crap. 

I type cheap places to stay in San Jose in my browser. I scan the links, ignoring the clickbait to hotel booking sites I can’t afford. The ReVu site looks like a promising source to search for places, so I land there and check out the website. A few posts mention Pump It Fit as a cheap place to work out and shower. They’re always open, even during holidays. 

One contributor suggests loitering there to skip out on the expensive motel rates rampant in the area, which must be the reason it popped up in my search. Monthly memberships start at ten dollars. No registration fees either. But, another ten gets you an assigned locker for thirty days. 

The reviewer suggests crashing on a massage table fed with quarters. A shudder rolls through me. In Las Vegas, my hometown, even slot machines no longer accept change. At least at the better casinos they don’t. Anything you drop coins into belongs in the part of town you want to avoid. 

The gym’s location appears to be within walking distance to Fortis University. I have a scholarship there, courtesy of the Theo Celles Foundation and Mom—before her arrest. 

The landline rings. I move to answer the call. Picking up the receiver I hear an automated voice: You have a prepaid call from Helen Sharpe, an inmate at the Henderson Detention Center. To accept this call press five. To decline this call push seven. To block this caller press nine. I hit seven and hang up. While I’m tempted to hit nine, Grams hasn’t given up on her daughter. 

I check my mobile. It’s two o’clock. I have to clear out of here tonight. I want to check out my options before telling Grams about the guards’ latest attempt at payback. Grabbing my backpack and helmet, I lock up. I climb on my bike for the three-mile trek to the gym. When I pass the gatehouse, I’m tempted to stick my tongue out at the guards, but I don’t want to cause more trouble for Grams. I have no other choice but to make it work. Between the gym and the school library, I should be able to sleep, study, and shower until I find a job and save enough money to rent a room. It sucks, but there are plenty of people who are homeless. 

The thought of all the people Mom forced out of their homes makes my stomach cramp. If I could go back in time and stop her, I would. In a heartbeat. It’s a useless wish when reality arrives in the form of two overeager security guards with a grudge against Grams and a real threat to her home. I won’t let anyone hurt Grams. 

I lock up my bike and step through the doors of the gym. It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dim lighting. When they do, I’m struck speechless by the guy manning the desk. His dark mane of hair is not long or short, but some- where in between with a slight wave and a lot of shine. How does he pull off such perfect hair? 

Wide shoulders taper to a smaller waist. He’s wearing a black sleeveless T-shirt screen-printed with the Pump It Fit logo snug against his ripped chest. He has tanned, sculpted arms, roped with muscle, without the overdeveloped appearance of a dedicated gym rat. Lion eyes, bold and gold, stare back at me. 

I’m hit with the inexplicable urge to wrap my arms around him and press my mouth against his lips. Odd. I never have strong sexual reactions when I meet a man. It’s been my experience they aren’t worth the hassle and never match the hype. 

His lips quirk, but he doesn’t smirk outright. “What can I do for you?”

His deep voice is perfect for podcast commercials promoting adults-only resorts with clothing-optional beaches. I clamp down hard on my rampant hormones and scold myself for objectifying a stranger. I’m pragmatic about not getting involved in relationships. I squash my own bugs, and I’ve learned not to delegate my pleasure to someone else. High expectations lead to sexual frustration. Who needs that? Besides, a guy this pretty will usually know it. He’ll break the spell by doing something completely conceited. 

He waves his hand in front of me to get my attention. “Are you a member?” 

Focus. “Not yet. Is there someone who can show me around? I’d like to see the place before I join.” 

His smile goes wide. “Gotta make sure the gym’s worth the ten dollars it takes to commit?” 

Hmm. His smile reveals a slightly crooked canine tooth. The tiny imperfection only adds to its charm, while the overall bundle devastates. If I were up for a bit of destruction, he’d be my conqueror of choice, but my life can’t survive more demolition. 

“I won’t dig into my wallet without inspecting the goods.” Shit. I did not just say that. It sounds dirty. Like I’m propositioning him. 

His eyes light, and he barks out a laugh. “Fair enough. Let me get my colleague to cover the desk.” He speaks into a two-way: “Hey, can I borrow you out front? I’m going to do a quick walk-through.” 

The voice on the other ends says, “Copy.”

Before I can blink, a blonde wearing a charcoal-gray shirt with the gym logo embroidered in fancy script arrives. “Hi,” she says with a smile. “Enjoy your tour.” 


The gorgeous dude before me says, “I’ll be your tour guide. I’m Tiago, but people call me TJ.” He extends his hand toward me. “What’s your name?” 

“Phoebe.” Makenna, I finish in my head. I won’t use Sharpe. I stopped using my legal surname after Mom’s arrest, and had it legally changed. Back in Las Vegas, our name was synonymous with callous greed. I had to distance myself from Mom’s notoriety. 

The warmth of his hand surrounds mine. The zing from the contact travels up my arm, across my chest and down to tingle somewhere beneath my ribs. I release his hand. 

His pupils dilate a fraction. “All right, Phoebe, we’ll start upstairs. The basic membership provides twenty-four seven access to all the equipment and free weights.” 

We walk side by side, and I can’t help noticing he’s nearly two inches taller than my own five-ten. Tiago—I can’t think of him as TJ, because he’s too exceptional for a simple nickname—leads me to the second floor. While the equipment isn’t state of the art, it’s in good condition. The place smells like sweat, rubber mats, and disinfectant. Paper towel dispensers mounted to the walls provide a convenient way for members to wipe down machines after use. And if the Neanderthal before you didn’t clean up, you can do it yourself. 

It’s busier in the machine section. Treadmills and elliptical equipment spread out in three rows. Huge ceiling fans mounted in each corner of the room blow cool air over the gym’s occupants. Five flat screens provide news without sound. Closed-captioning scrolls across the televisions for those paying attention. The TV is tuned to national weather and the temp for Las Vegas flashes across the screen. It’s projected to hit one hundred and one degrees today. 

I glance away and notice four girls my age tracking Tiago’s progress as we walk around the space. 

“Anything besides the basic machinery costs more.” He points to a spin class in session in another room. 

I’m mesmerized by the flex of his biceps. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. My face flares with heat. I’m embarrassed by my reaction to him. 

“If it isn’t a machine or a barbell, it’s not included.” 

He talks with his hands. I follow and read the movement of his arms like I’m reading closed-captioning. 

“You’ll find prices on the sign next to the front desk, plus registration sheets if you’re interested in classes. They fill up fast.” 

We use the opposite staircase to return to the first floor. “Women’s locker room is on the left side of the building. Take a look inside. I’ll wait for you here.” 

I step into the locker room. The fact it’s clean and smells like a lemon-scented product is a welcome perk. The walls are painted a lilac color, with snowy-white granite countertops marbled with black. Restrooms at the university aren’t even as well kept. The membership fee is cheap. I don’t get it. They could charge more. I expected a dump, convenient but seedy. 

When I exit the locker room, Tiago leans against the mirrored wall, grinning at his phone. I’m pierced by envy. I wish life could be simple for me, too. Texting a friend or posting on social media without a care. Not having to worry about finding a place to crash. 

He hasn’t once ogled any of the women working out or glanced at his reflection. So much for vanity. 

His gaze meets mine, and the golden warmth of his eyes makes my belly clutch. He slips the phone into his pocket then darts to the left where an older woman struggles to lift a kettlebell. 

“Careful, Mrs. Paulson.” He gently takes the heavier weight from her grasp. “Use yellow. I don’t want you to hurt yourself.” 

“Thank you, TJ.” She beams. “You’re so considerate, just like my nephew, Austin. He’s about your age.” 

“My pleasure, Mrs. P.” 

Courteous. I assumed he’d be self-involved. I’m embarrassed by that judgment now. 

“Thanks for waiting,” Tiago says to me. “We don’t have a pool or sauna, but we do have token-operated massage tables.” 

Lordy. He leads me to an area behind the front desk. Four tables along with another three treadmills are located in this small section. Anyone using the equipment can watch the check-in counter. I have a feeling these must be popular when Tiago’s manning the desk. 

“Have you ever tried HydroMassage?” 

Not unless a flexible, pulsing showerhead counts. “Not yet.” 

C.R. Grissom lives in San Jose, California—smack dab in the middle of Silicon Valley. She works for a high-tech company by day, and at night writes contemporary sports romance featuring young adults as they transition to college.