Read an Excerpt
Take A Chance On Me
A Something New Novel
By JENNIFER DAWSON
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Jennifer Dawson
All rights reserved.
God was punishing her.
It was the only logical conclusion. Madeline Donovan had done the unthinkable, and now she had to pay.
Sister Margaret had warned her time and again, but she hadn't believed.
Well, today she was a believer.
A bead of sweat slid down her spine as she took another painful step, wincing as the blister that had formed on her pinky toe half a mile back rubbed against the strap of her four-inch-heeled sandal.
Of course, she could take the shoes off, but then she'd be forced to walk barefoot on a deserted highway in the dark. Seeing as she was on the Lord's bad side, keeping the heels on was the safe bet.
The wind whipped, swirling around her like a mini tornado as another car zipped past at eighty miles per hour. Stupid Southern-belle curls, long transformed into a tangled heap, flew into her face and blinded her. She pressed closer to the bushes lining the two-lane road. Best not to tempt fate by walking too closely to motor vehicles.
Her dress caught on a wayward branch and she ripped it free. The sound of the tearing fabric seemed to echo down the highway. She sighed with satisfaction. The damned thing's destruction was the only bright spot in an otherwise miserable day.
Off in the not-too-distant horizon, peeking through the trees like a beacon of hope, a red neon sign blazed in the night sky. The word BAR blinked, winking at her, making her mouth water, urging her on. She'd been following the sign since her car broke down, and it got closer with every anguished step.
Tightening her grip on the small purse, her fingers dug into the tiny crystal beads. She had fifty bucks. More than enough to plant her ass on a stool and get drunk. Maybe not the smartest choice, given her situation, but she'd stopped caring about smart the second she'd pulled out of that parking lot.
All-too-vivid images of this afternoon filled her mind while sweat, already dampening her temples from the humidity and the long walk, trickled down her hairline.
What had she done?
This morning she'd had no idea she would take this kind of drastic measure. There'd been no sense of impending doom, no inner knowledge of what was to come. All she'd woken up with was an upset stomach and the complete certainty of where the day would end.
It hadn't included walking down a dark, unknown highway in the dead of night.
Now look at her: one act of desperate panic and she was stranded in the middle of Illinois farmland. Well, punishment or not, she would make it to that bar.
With her gaze trained on the red sign, she took another determined, torturous step toward salvation.
What felt like an eternity later, Maddie threw open the door. Adrenaline alone had kept her going for the last quarter mile. Her dress was torn and streaked with dirt, but she'd finally made it.
Maybe God hadn't abandoned her after all.
A warm gust of humid air and probably a few mosquitoes followed her into the nearly empty bar. She'd have bites tomorrow, but she wouldn't think about that now.
No. She'd think about that, and everything else, later.
Frozen, she panted for breath so hard that she was surprised her breasts didn't spill out of the strapless dress. She gave it a hard tug to be safe. No use adding flashing to her list of transgressions.
Tangled, hairspray-sticky curls covered her back and neck like a sweaty blanket. She was thankful she didn't have a pair of scissors or she'd be tempted to hack it off. This day had been disaster enough; she didn't need to add bad hair to the mix.
She sucked in a lungful of beer-laced air and glanced around the ancient, dimly lit bar. Worn paneling the color of driftwood baked in the sun too long looked as old and tired as the male patrons sprinkling the tattered landscape. There wasn't a female in sight.
A trickle of alarm slid down her spine. Maybe she shouldn't be here alone.
The thought flittered away when her attention fell on an empty stool. She'd be fine. Growing up with three older brothers had made her well schooled in the art of self-defense, and these guys seemed more interested in their drinks than in her.
Besides, she couldn't walk if her life depended on it.
The bar loomed straight ahead. Its old, faded panels and black countertop could serve on any this-is-where-alcoholics-come-to-die movie set, but to her, it was nirvana. The distance to the stool grew exponentially the longer she stood on feet pulsing with pain. She gritted her teeth. It was only a few tiny steps.
She could do this. She'd already done the impossible.
She took one hobbled lurch, then another, until she was finally right where she wanted to be.
With a weary sigh, she plopped onto the round, cushioned stool. A slow hiss of air leaked from the seat as it took her weight. She closed her eyes. Heaven. She might never move again. An air-conditioned breeze brushed her overheated skin, and she just about groaned in sheer pleasure. Dropping her head into her open palms, she luxuriated in the pure joy of sitting.
She'd made it. The pressure on her feet eased to an insistent ache. She was safe. For the first time since her car had died, she allowed the fear to sink in. She wanted to lay her cheek on the cool laminate counter and weep in relief.
"What can I get for you, Princess?" a low, deep voice rumbled.
Maddie's head shot up and a man blinked into focus. Her mouth dropped open. In front of her stood the most gorgeous man she'd ever seen.
Was she hallucinating? Was he a mirage?
She blinked again. Nope. Still there.
Unusual amber eyes, glimmering with amusement, stared at her from among strong, chiseled features.
She swallowed. Teeth snapping together, she tried to speak. She managed a little squeak before words failed her. A hot flush spread over her chest. Men like this should be illegal.
Unable to resist the temptation pulling her gaze lower, she let it fall. Just when she'd thought nothing could rival that face.
Shoulders, a mile wide, stretched the gray T-shirt clinging to his broad chest. The muscles in his arms flexed as he rested his hands on the counter. A tribal tattoo in black ink rippled across his left bicep. Oh, she liked those. Her fingers twitched with the urge to trace the intricate scroll as moisture slid over her tongue.
For the love of God, she was salivating.
Stop staring. She shouldn't be thinking about this. Not now. Not after today.
It was so, so wrong.
But she couldn't look away.
Stop. She tried again, but it was impossible. He was a work of art.
"You okay there?" The smile curving his full mouth was pure sin.
That low, rumbling voice snapped her out of her stupor, and she squared her shoulders. "Yes, thank you."
His gaze did some roaming of its own and stopped at her dress. One golden brow rose.
Before he could ask any questions, she said, "I'll have three shots of whiskey and a glass of water."
His lips quirked. "Three?"
"Yes, please." With a sharp nod, she ran a finger along the dull, black surface of the bar. "You can line them up right here."
When he continued to stare at her as if she might be an escaped mental patient, she reached into her small bag and pulled out her only cash. She waved the fifty in front of his face. "I assume this will cover it."
"If I give you the shots, are you going to get sick all over that pretty dress?" He leaned over the counter, and his scent wafted in her direction.
She sucked in a breath. He smelled good, like spice, soap, and danger. She shook her head. What was wrong with her? She was so going to hell.
She pushed the money toward him. "I'll be fine. I'm Irish. We can handle our liquor."
"All right, then." The bartender chuckled, and Maddie's stomach did a strange little dip.
He wandered off, and Maddie released a pent-up breath, trying not to stare at the way his ass filled out his faded jeans. Never mind the flex of powerful thighs, the lean hips, or the—
Snap out of it.
What was wrong with her? She had bigger things to worry about. Her car was dead. She had no clothes. She'd made a huge mess of her life. And she was spending the only money she had on booze.
She couldn't afford to add impure thoughts to her rapidly growing list of sins. She needed to pull it together. She'd drink her shots, figure out a plan, and be on her way.
To where? She hadn't a clue.
The future stretched before her like a blank, empty slate. Fear and panic bubbled to the surface. She'd never been on her own. She wasn't sure how to go about it. It was sad, considering she was twenty-eight, but true.
A new thought worked its way through her muddled brain, breaking over her like the dawn of a new day: she was free. Free in a way she hadn't been in too many years to count. She could do whatever she wanted. There was no one looking over her shoulder, no one watching her with worried eyes. Maybe she'd have a chance to breathe and remember the girl she'd been before her life had gone to hell.
Before she could think too much about it, the gorgeous bartender returned. He lined up three shot glasses and tilted the bottle with a flick of his wrist. In one fluid pour, the smoky amber liquid filled each glass to the rim. "Bottoms up."
She picked up the small glass and downed it in one gulp. The alcohol burned as it slid down her throat and hit her stomach, warming her in an instant. She reached for the next shot and downed it, too. Muscles that had been tight for years loosened, and her shoulders returned to where they belonged, instead of hovering at her ears.
The alcohol rushed through her veins at Mach ten, and too late she remembered that she hadn't eaten. Not her brightest idea.
Oh well, that was the theme of the day.
The bartender stood over her, his watchful gaze burning a hole into her. She didn't need to look up to sense his questions. She took a sip of water and tried not to fidget.
In record speed, the whiskey did its work, with her brain going a little fuzzy and the world turning a little brighter. With each passing moment, her situation seemed less dire. She could do this. It would be an adventure.
And what adventure was complete without eye candy?
Said eye candy still hovered over her, making her skin prickle with awareness. Unable to resist the pull of him, she gave up.
It didn't hurt to look, did it? Raising her head, she met his amused eyes and smiled.
He smiled right back. "Let me guess, you haven't eaten."
"How'd you know?" She traced her fingertip over the edge of the empty shot glass.
"I'm astute that way."
Tongue-tied, she picked up her water again and took a long gulp, draining it. The ice clinked as she placed it on the chipped counter.
"Thirsty?" he asked, in a low voice that vibrated in her belly.
She straightened and tried to look proper. "It's important to stay hydrated when you get drunk."
He laughed. "And why the rush to get drunk, Princess?"
"Stop calling me that." The scowl she'd intended died halfway to her lips.
Another meaningful glance at her attire. "If you don't like being called a princess, maybe you shouldn't wear such a sparkly dress."
"I suppose you have a point. I'm normally more of a jeans and T-shirt kind of girl." The last shot of whiskey sat in front of her, and she took a little sip. A drop of alcohol clung to her lower lip, which she licked.
His gaze tracked the movement, eyes darkening to burnished gold.
The tip of her tongue stalled mid-swipe and retreated to press against her teeth.
Was something happening here? Appreciating the view was one thing, but she needed to be good. She'd been good for a very long time and now wasn't the time to break her streak. Maybe the alcohol was playing tricks on her, making her imagine things. She gave herself a tiny mental shake.
"What's your name?" he asked.
He was a stranger. She shouldn't tell him her name. She shot back. "What's yours?"
Again, the corners of his mouth twitched. "Mitch Riley."
She sighed. Well, now he'd been forthcoming so she had to tell him hers. "Maddie Donovan."
He held out his hand. "It's nice to meet you, Maddie Donovan."
She slipped her palm into his. His grip was warm and sure, and a tingle raced along her arm. She snatched back her hand as though she'd been burned.
"Hard day?" he asked.
"You could say that."
"Wanna tell me about it?" "No thank you."
"Don't you know you're supposed to confess to your bartender?" He reached for her empty glass and filled it with fresh ice and water before placing it in front of her. "Drink this."
She frowned. She'd had more than enough of people telling her what to do. She wasn't about to take orders from a stranger, no matter how gorgeous. "You're kind of bossy."
"Proper hydration was your argument." He moved down the bar and returned with a bowl of pretzels. "Here, eat these."
Brows drawing together, she stared at the bowl full of tiny brown twists. Once upon a time, she hadn't let anyone push her around. "What if I don't want to? What if I want more whiskey?"
More liquor wasn't a good idea, but now she had a point to make. Sure, she'd wobble if she got up, but she had something to prove and alcohol fueled bravado.
A crooked, boyish grin slid over his lips. She suspected it was designed to disarm her, but it failed miserably. He placed the flat of his hands on the bar. "If you want more whiskey, you'll have to eat first. I don't want you knocked on your ass."
She blew out an exasperated breath. "What do you care?"
"It's a nice ass." He peered over the bar to evaluate the body part in question. "From what I can see, that is."
Just to be defiant, she picked up the rest of the shot and downed it. "I'll have another."
He pushed the bowl toward her. "You'll eat pretzels. They're good for soaking up alcohol."
"What about 'the customer's always right'?" she huffed and crossed her arms. Was she being ridiculous? Maybe, but who was he to make decisions for her? She'd had enough overbearing men to last her a lifetime. From now on, she called the shots. And if she wanted more drinks, then by God, she'd get them.
Maddie looked past him, her vision skipping around the bar. A blond, surfer-looking guy sat in a corner booth with papers scattered over the table's surface, perusing them with obvious interest. She pointed to him. "Maybe I need to tell your boss you're refusing to serve me."
A deep, amused rumble. "You can't get higher than me, Princess. I own the place."
Deflated, her shoulders slumped. "Oh. Well, never mind."
He pushed the bowl again until it was right under her nose. "Eat some pretzels and drink some water while you tell me what kind of trouble you're in."
With her spine snapping ruler-straight, she asked, "What makes you think I'm in trouble?"
He gave her a slow, meaningful once-over. "Do I look stupid to you?"
No, he didn't. All the more reason to stay away. If she could walk, she'd leave, but for now she was at his mercy.
Between the buzz in her head and her swollen, aching feet, she might never move from this stool again and be forced to deal with his bossiness forever.
"I had car trouble. I broke down on Highway 60 a couple of miles back."
His lips curved down and his golden eyes flashed. "You walked?"
"What was I supposed to do?"
"It's the twenty-first century. Where's your cell?" He scowled as though she'd done something wrong.
How could she know she'd need one? She held up her tiny purse. "It didn't fit."
His gaze flicked over her. "What's with the dress?"
Not wanting to say it out loud, she toyed with a piece of the fabric and said, "What, this old thing?"
"Cute." His jaw hardened into a stubborn line. "So?"
Denial was pointless. The dress fell from her fingers. "I ran out on my wedding."CHAPTER 2
"Was this before or after 'til death do us part?" Mitch asked the tipsy bride swaying on the stool. He'd shove those pretzels down her throat if necessary. Irish or not, if she didn't get food in her stomach, she'd be sick.
Green eyes flashed as brilliant and blinding as the crystals covering her overflowing wedding dress. "Before. I'm horrible, but not that horrible."
Good. He'd learned his lesson where husbands were concerned. No matter how appealing the woman, he wouldn't make that mistake again. "I take it this was a rushed exit."
"If you must know, I climbed out the church window." She placed a hand over her forehead and squeezed her lids shut. "My mother is going to kill me. She'll never forgive me."
Interestingly, there was no mention of the guy she'd ditched at the altar. "I'm sure she'll get over it."
Excerpted from Take A Chance On Me by JENNIFER DAWSON. Copyright © 2014 Jennifer Dawson. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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