HAPPY NEW YEAR!
I want to wish all of my readers a wonderful, hopeful New Year! May 2017 be filled with laughter, love – and happy endings!
I have a couple of little surprises for you today. BLEMISHED is now up for pre-order, exclusively at Amazon and will hit the shelves in e-Book and paperback formats on March 28. No worries to my Kindle Unlimited readers. BLEMISHED will also be offered on KU.
This book is a STANDALONE!
In BLEMISHED, tragedy joins artist Chloe Cabot and rising advertising executive Gavin Fletcher. Together, they discover solace in each other’s arms. While Chloe blossoms as Gavin’s submissive under his tough but tender tutelage, she wonders if he might just be the one to break the façade of fear that surrounded her heart. Just as emotion transforms them from reluctant strangers into unlikely but enduring lovers, heartbreak strikes their relationship again, forcing an unforeseen reversal of roles.
Keep a watch on this website, too, for the cover reveal on January 30, PLUS the official BLEMISHED trailer. I can’t wait for you to see it.
Now, I’d like to introduce you to my hero and heroine of BLEMISHED, Gavin Fletcher and Chloe Cabot with the first chapter of the book!
BLEMISHED by Juliet Braddock
One single sloppy snowflake fluttered through the chill of the early evening air and multiplied quickly into a torrential sleet storm. As yet another cold front swept over the Chicago area, the streets were slick that mid-February evening. Oak Park sat to the west of downtown like a quaint village in a snow globe, with winter swirling over the rooftops and coating the sidewalks.
However, that didn’t stop Gavin Fletcher from pursuing his latest attempt at jogging.
Tennis shoes skidding along the tree-lined street, he pounded each foot forward, ignoring his surroundings as the intensity of his run began to build. This neighborhood he loved now suited him merely as a background to the forefront of his constant raging thoughts.
With the pound of his feet to the pavement, Gavin convinced himself that he’d run away from the chaos that cluttered his mind. He had to escape the sadness that would befall him if he gave himself a single second to think.
Away. He had to run away.
He forced himself to keep on moving, even though he hated to jog.
This, however, wasn’t his first foray into the world of running. He could still remember that damn, forsaken day as if the events had just unfolded that afternoon. Three years had passed, but everything involving that entire era of his life remained vivid to him—especially when he closed his eyes and tried to sleep at night.
He’d fought his own self to forget, but nothing could erase the thoughts from his mind. Heartbreak had weighted his heart, but he fought and won that battle. Now, that emotional turmoil unfolded into anger.
Purposely, he’d left the house because he couldn’t stand the thought of spending another night alone with the silence. However, he realized with a shattering suddenness that he wasn’t running away from the lonesome quiet of his home. In fact, he was about to return to the scene of the crime itself.
By the time Gavin reached the entrance of Scoville Park, sleet covered his red, wavy hair. He was already exhausted, and he could feel the rapidity of his heartbeat pounding against his chest. He never understood who the hell he was kidding every few months when he decided to start working out again. His gym memberships all expired without use. Rollerblading proved disastrous when he nearly blew out his knee. Indoor rock climbing brought about a sudden fear of heights. He just hated to exercise. Sports were meant to be appreciated from his couch with a microbrew in his hand. He kept himself in shape with a pull-up bar in the garage and the treadmill.
Slowing his pace just slightly, he turned up the music, allowing Nat King Cole’s “Day In, Day Out” to drown out any ambient noises. Standards, those classic songs of an era gone by. often had the ability to transport Gavin to another place and time. He often played Sinatra and Tony Bennett all day in rotation when stress mounted to the boiling point. That night, he needed to outright lie to himself: he could conquer the world…right after he ran the Boston Marathon.
Scoville was the Central Park of the neighborhood. Everyone who was anyone in Oak Park always seemed to congregate on the perfectly manicured lawns for concerts, exhibits and picnics. Even at eight o’clock on a cold winter evening, fellow joggers ran the paths and pet parents walked their dogs. It was the social epicenter of that small corner of Chicago, and Gavin often found himself there when he felt alone.
In fact, that’s where he met Amanda Whitton.
No matter how diligently he tried to focus, he couldn’t shake his thoughts of her. He could smell her skin, feel the tickle of her breath and hear the laughter in her voice. If he dared, he could stop and play a few of her voicemails that he’d saved, but he pushed onward. His reward for this run would be arriving home safely to a dry, warm house.
Damn, her. She was the one mistake he couldn’t escape.
In truth, Gavin had the premise for the perfect life. At twenty-eight, he’d already climbed the corporate ladder in the advertising industry. With several awards and successive promotions under his belt at one of the country’s top firms, he decided to branch out and launch his own company. In the two years since he’d opened his doors, the small agency had grown exponentially. He’d built a small but stellar team with a roster of blue chip clients.
So quietly confident during the day, he was a strong leader who under-promised and over-delivered for every project. Gavin exemplified his devotion to his employees with fairness and compensated his top performers handsomely. He wasn’t just well-liked; he was respected and admired by his colleagues.
No one, though, really had an inkling as to the grit of Gavin’s reality. In a time not so long ago, he treasured his personal life, and he made sure that he played just as hard as he worked. Now, he often stayed late just to avoid his own empty home. Once he shut the lights out and locked the office door, the sobriety of his self-induced solitude settled over him.
Sometimes, his conscience swelled with regrets. He’d given up so much of the man he’d become for Amanda, but at the time, he refused to admit his own frustration. The years he wasted left him feeling conflicted, but on that frigid night, a masochist emerged within the Alpha male. Gavin almost felt as if he had to relive every second of his time with Amanda just to cleanse his mind and his soul from her presence.
As he jogged toward the World War II Memorial that towered alongside the barren trees, memories swarmed him once again. Gavin met her on those fucking steps. Embedded in his mind, her image haunted him every time he passed the monument.
Initially, he thought that afternoon was the best one of his life. Amanda was so beautiful with her blond hair blowing in the early spring breeze. He simply had to stop to talk to her. Her enigmatic eyes masked a life she would only reveal with time. The socialite with secrets, she loved to keep him guessing.
Once he had her attention for a minute, he craved more, and he refused to leave until she agreed to have coffee with him. Black coffee. No milk. No sweetener. Just coffee.
Fuck, he still remembered how she took her morning dose of caffeine.
He couldn’t turn the volume on his music any higher. Gavin just had to force himself to stop thinking about her. He couldn’t stay away from this park just because he harbored memories of a ravenous need gone so wrong.
With a weak attempt to convince himself that he’d be fine, Gavin reminded himself that it had only been five months. As long as he didn’t wear the damage on his sleeve, he deserved this time not to find a way to forget—but to move on. He wanted something that wasn’t his to have. Defeat absorbed his energy, and Gavin loathed the thought of losing.
He needed a project. If Amanda taught him anything, that was how to properly spoil a woman.
He stopped for a moment to catch his breath and to shake the snow away. Gavin couldn’t kid himself. Between the overtime he’d purposely put in that week and this jog through a snowstorm, he’d drained his own last ounce of energy. He was done for the evening. Perhaps in the morning, he’d have better luck when he could actually see more than a few centimeters in front of his face, but for now, he had to head home.
Maybe he needed a retreat by himself on some warm island for a few days. He couldn’t leave work behind completely, but he could manage from afar.
Before he did anything, though, he had to get out of these frigid, wet clothes. Gavin stopped for a moment, though, to clear the snowflakes from his eyelashes. His surroundings were just one huge blur to him as the sleet continued to stream from the sky.
As the evening wore on, the park seemed to fill with more people. There were parents pulling kids on sleds, teams of snowball fighters and snowman contests all around. Through the crowd, though, his eyes caught a glimpse of a young woman sitting alone on a park bench. While he couldn’t see all that well with the storm blowing, Gavin squinted his green eyes for a closer look.
Cursing himself, he realized he was back in the same situation he’d found himself with Amanda. He’d be damned if he’d pick up another girl in almost the exact same spot. However, just like Amanda, something intrigued him about this girl.
She wore several layers of clothing, with a pair of well-worn jeans and a pair of tennis shoes. He couldn’t see much more than her light brown curly hair, but she appeared young. However, he couldn’t tear his eyes away from her. She almost looked as if she were hiding in plain sight.
She was probably waiting on a boyfriend to stroll through the Friday evening snowfall. He would have bet that she probably worked for one of the tech startups in the city. Perhaps, she even still lived at home with her parents. But she was pretty from what he could see, with a soft, round face and wide open eyes. If he were closer, he could see the color, but for now, he had to go with his gut and imagine a deep chocolate brown.
Shivering as she arched her back and craned her neck, she wrapped a long scarf around her head. Now, he knew she was waiting for someone. She was nervous. On the lookout. But maybe her significant other was just delayed by the weather.
“You fucking asshole!” Gavin muttered as his breath formed a fog in the air. Now, he had created her entire life’s story.
Conflicted, he knew he had to just leave. He refused to play this damn game again. He couldn’t just approach every pretty girl he saw in the park. He had to get himself a cup of hot chocolate at the café on the corner, hail a cab and go the hell home. Patience left him. There was no way in hell that Gavin wanted to walk home.
Scrolling through his playlist, he tapped his thumb to “The Way You Look Tonight,” and took a deep breath as he turned his head and looked away. It was going to be a very long, lonely night.
# # #
“It’s Valentine’s weekend, Gav. You can’t tell me you’re spending it all alone in that big old house.”
That big house, however, was his safe haven for the moment.
As a child, Gavin’s mother often took him and his older sister Elizabeth from their transitioning downtown neighborhood to the artists’ enclave of Oak Park for some lessons in art, culture and local history.
Since his firefighter father perished in the line of duty when Gavin was seven, his mother worked overtime, both literally and figuratively, to give her children the best lives she possibly could. Living in the inner-city, though, had its drawbacks. Although he always did well in school, Gavin engaged in the occasional rumble on the street. He had no one to stand up for him but himself. Fighting his own battles often sent him home with a black eye and some bruises, but he toughened up and built up a self-confidence to be reckoned with.
For Gavin, this neighborhood had become his respite over the years. Determination bought this house.
Local legends were easy to find in Oak Park, with Ernest Hemingway and Frank Lloyd Wright both having lived on the old yet pristine streets. As a boy, before he fell asleep at night, Gavin often imagined a Hemingway existence for himself as he read by flashlight. He could be anything within the pages of books—a bullfighter, a soldier, husband, lover, friend or foe.
That night, he thought he might need to re-read some of his favorite author’s short stories. He needed a shot of confidence again, but first he had to break into his own home.
One thing about owning an old house that Gavin loathed was the matter of actually owning an old house. The front door lock had been stubborn from the day the realtor passed over the keys. He made a mental note once again to call the locksmith, and he hoped he’d actually remember. He couldn’t allow this precious place to crumble around him.
Gavin fought hard to get this house. As a young man, he had promised himself that one day, he’d make his home in Oak Park, and he was determined to bring that dream to life.
Initially, he’d rented a small apartment in an old Victorian. With what little spare time he had, Gavin happily lost himself in the historic vibe of the neighborhood. The cost of living was also a bit cheaper than in downtown Chicago, allotting him the amenities he sought without the exorbitant price tag. As his career progressed rapidly, he was compensated handsomely for his work. However, he had other priorities, like buying a home for his mother before he bought his own.
Luck had it that a small condo was available not far from his apartment. He and Liz, a prosecuting attorney who put herself through law school, split the cost and moved their mother into her new home before they searched for their own places to live.
Even after they’d taken care of their only surviving parent, Gavin took his time to find what he’d envisioned for himself. He hoped to find some history within his new abode—not the 20-story tower, which would become the tallest building in Oak Park. High rises belonged downtown in the business district, not in a quasi-suburb.
When Lloyd Wright’s first commissioned home came on the market for just over a million dollars, he couldn’t believe his good fortune and negotiated until he held the keys in his hands.
Now, he had a five-bedroom house with no one to fill up the space between the walls.
Life changed in an instant for Gavin. Although he was left to clean up the remainders of what was left, he refused to admit his own heartache. After all, he’d feigned a smile for months.
“I’m not spending Valentine’s Day all alone, Liz,” Gavin’s voice raised an anxious octave as he opened the door at long last. “I’ve got Mason!”
“You have a turtle,” Liz’s frustrated voice hissed in his ear. “What kind of romantic company is a turtle?”
Gavin wanted a pet turtle ever since he caught the sight of the two turtle statues sitting outside Oak Park Library when he was a kid. Perhaps, he was a little too attached to Mason, but he loved that little bundle of reptilian joy.
“Well…who’s beating down your door this weekend?” he challenged as he kicked off his tennis shoes in the foyer. He was still soaked to the bone, and he had to change. He didn’t dare sit down in the living room. Although most of the Mission style décor pieces were Frank Lloyd Wright reproductions, he’d still spent a pretty penny on furniture. He didn’t want to wreck his home with his wet clothes. “You don’t have an answer for me. Do you, Lizzie?”
“You know, I promised Mom that I’d take her to the country club tomorrow,” Liz explained, but he could hear the laughter lingering behind her words. “She said it’s probably a good day for her to…find a suitor…”
“Ouch, Lizzie…” Gavin groaned. “I don’t need to hear that.”
“You should go.”
“Let’s not and say I did.”
“Hey, it’s never too late to have a step-father!” Liz cut him off. “He could teach you all that stuff that Daddy never got the chance to—like…well…like how to use a drill!”
“Uncle Phil already did that,” he reminded his sister.
“He could…he could throw a ball with you in that big backyard of yours,” Liz improvised. “Or you could go out and find a nice girl and marry her and have a son for him to play with.”
“Bye, Lizzie. Give Mom my love…” He could hear her protesting as he hung up. However, he had to smile.
Seven years his senior, Liz exhibited the strength he needed when their father passed away. Age had wedged a natural separation between the two siblings until they found themselves overcome with unfathomable grief. From that moment on, though, Liz became Gavin’s unwavering support and his best friend. In fact, she helped him to gain the success he had at the present.
Gavin got his business degree from the University of Chicago thanks to grants and student loans. With college debts of her own, Liz couldn’t assist with tuition, but she was always there with extra cash for his books and other random expenditures. She also made it a point to either invite her brother out for lunch once a week or have him over for dinner. Gavin never went home without enough leftovers to feed his entire dorm.
They saw each other through love and loss. Liz met a man in law school whom she thought was her soulmate. He was smart and funny and kind to her family. Their marriage lasted three solid years, until he came home one night after work and asked for a divorce. Liz saw the writing on the wall. They’d grown apart and had fallen out of love. However, she still found her heart breaking.
Since her divorce, she dated a myriad of men, but she swore she’d never marry again. Now that Gavin’s relationship with Amanda came to its own abrupt ended, Liz feared that he might slip into that same pattern. He was young. He deserved to meet someone, she told him over and over. He needed to find a girlfriend.
Gavin, however, was also stubborn. If he wanted to spend Valentine’s Day with his turtle, he damn well would. First, though, he needed a beer.
His mother and sister were always quick to point out that Gavin lived in this huge old house, all alone. However, he was proud of the fact that both of his boyhood heroes had ties to the neighborhood. Frank Lloyd Wright designed this home, and Ernest Hemingway grew up right across the street.
This house was actually a benchmark in Lloyd Wright’s career, as it featured some of his early influences in his Prairie style design. Careful preservation maintained the original stained glass windows, and the intricate woodwork remained as pristine as when the house was initially built. Every corner endeavored to seamlessly blend the indoors with the natural landscape surrounding the home.
In the living room, he plopped down in the chair he’d strategically placed next to Mason’s oversized tank and uncapped his brew. On any other night, he would have thrown a log or two on the giant brick fireplace that spanned an entire wall, but he was just too tired to sit through its slow burn.
“What’s the big deal, Mase, about this Valentine’s Day stuff?” Gavin took a swig and rolled his eyes to the back of his skull. “I mean…can’t you just be my Valentine? We have a—bromance, of sorts—going. Okay, maybe not bromance…but how about tromance? Humor me here, I’m strugglin’, pal.”
Mason was the perfect confidante—he always listened, and he never spoke back. Gavin could have sat there all night and unloaded upon his reptilian friend through the glass.
“You know, I almost did something stupid tonight. I almost approached another girl in the same damn spot where I met Amanda.” He looked over toward the tank and into Mason’s eyes that Gavin swore brimmed with empathy. “I know. You never liked Amanda. And I’m lookin’ for love in all the wrong places. So what am I gonna do?”
Polishing off the bottom of the bottle, Gavin stood up, then carefully reached his hand into the tank so as not to scare Mason. With a delicate touch, he stroked his finger over the shell.
“You’re a good friend, Mase. Don’t you forget that, okay?” He puckered his lips and allowed a kiss to flutter through the air. “Now I’m going to bed. And don’t tell anyone about that kiss. Got it?”
# # #
When the alarm rang at six in the morning, Gavin bolted upright in bed, thinking it was a weekday, and reached for his phone. Saturday. February 14. And he’d set the damn thing so that he could get an early start with a run and systematically avoid every last set of lovers in Oak Park on that snowy Valentine’s Day.
Lifting his leaden legs out of the bed, Gavin glanced out the windows. He never bothered with blinds. The house featured wall-to-wall wooden windows in that fused Lloyd Wright’s blend of nature and architecture, and Gavin had no intentions of obstructing the intended view.
A light snow continued to fall on top of the foot that had buried the streets overnight. He wondered if the plow had even bothered to clear the roads yet. Never one to back out of a promise—especially one he made to himself—Gavin tugged his sweatpants over his long legs.
Emergency vehicles had pressed tracks into the snow on the street, making them manageable for foot traffic. Gavin decided that he’d walk to the park and grab a coffee along the way before he actually started to jog. The last thing he needed was to break his leg in the middle of the desolate street as a blizzard continued to fall.
A brisk walk was exactly what he needed. An eerie stillness surrounded him. There was no light aside from the sepia hue of the streetlamps to guide his path. Usually, people were coming and going and living their lives, even at such an early hour. This storm, though, crippled the city with its frigid grip.
Passing the restored Victorians, he quickened his step as fast as the packed snow would allow him to walk. While precipitation had lightened, the sting of each flake against his face prickled. The drifts on each corner had piled to a couple of feet from the plows that had swept the neighborhood already. Only emergency vehicles were on the street. He could only hope the police didn’t stop him. He was just going for a jog in the park in the snow…and hoping to avoid all Valentine’s Day festivities.
Of course, Red Hen Bread wasn’t open, so coffee was out of the question. The quintessentially lively main street was dark and dead that morning. In defeat, Gavin dug his hands into his pockets. He looked at the common across the street and considered his brand of crazy that morning. The usual fifteen-minute walk took almost forty-five minutes. He figured he should at least circle through the park on his way home.
Much to his surprise, he actually saw one young couple, strolling hand-in-hand along the snowy path and stopping for a kiss every few seconds. He’d failed all three of his goals that morning. So much for getting coffee, jogging and avoiding Valentine’s Day.
The need to pass the two young lovers overrode his caution, and he nearly slipped. He should have just worn boots from the beginning, and skipped the whole lie of going for a run.
Perhaps his mother and sister had the right idea of going out today. After he crawled back into bed and slept off this little odyssey of a walk, he might hop on over to the local pub for a drink. As much as he hated to admit, Liz was right. He shouldn’t just sit around.
However, he stopped dead in his snowy tracks and nearly tumbled into the nearest drift when his eyes caught a frighteningly familiar sight. That young woman he’d spotted the previous evening was still there, all alone on that same park bench.
Certain that she had to be an apparition, he blinked his eyes. She wore the same navy blue and green plaid scarf he’d seen the night before, only it was now coated with snow. While his gaze settled upon her, he tried to figure out the situation and slowly approached her. Whatever he did, he was no longer responsible. He felt as if he were having some out-of-body experience.
The truth, however, washed over him as he neared her. With her arms wrapped tightly around herself and her backpack, she slept sitting straight up on that bench.
A pang of sadness hit him suddenly. He could see that she didn’t have a proper coat—only layers of thin, worn sweatshirts and hoodies. Her hands looked so frail and fragile with her nails nearly blue from the cold.
He forgot about what she looked like and went into rescue mode. She had to get out of the cold, even if it meant that she went to the closest shelter.
Speeding up his pace, he took off his gloves, prepared to give them to her. The snow just continued to fall, blanketing her in its biting chill. He hoped he wasn’t too late. She’d been there the entire night. She couldn’t survive much longer. She needed food. She needed shelter. She needed…she probably needed a home.
As he neared her, he took note of her presence. He could see the rise and fall of her chest while she continued to sleep. He almost giggled with relief; she was still breathing. Beneath her scarf, her thick mane of light brown curls were wet and matted. He could see her pale skin, reddened by the sting of winter’s harsh brush. Beyond her physical appearance, her clothes were dingy but not filthy. She just looked like she’d been out for a couple of days.
He realized with a note of disappointment that he might have just created his own little fantasy of her. His own blood turned to ice as he pondered the reality that she could be a drug addict or have a weapon concealed beneath what little she wore in the winter storm. For all he knew, her pimp could have been watching her from behind a tree not so far away.
This was stupid and dangerous, but dammit, he was already too close not to care. Fate had to bring them back together again. He was meant to help her.
Carefully, he reached out his hand to touch her shoulder, prompting her to jerk upright with a scream. That wasn’t the response for which he’d been hoping, and she frightened him just the same with her reaction.
Brown eyes opening wide, she shivered as she stared at him, still lost in her not so deep slumber. He wasn’t sure if the dark circles that formed beneath her eyes were from a lack of proper bed or from hunger. Bringing her hand up to her open mouth, she revealed how thin she was. Holding her backpack closer, she scooted away from him on the bench, scrambled for a moment, and then stood up to dart off down the path.
Gavin, however, wasn’t about to let her get away. He was determined to find her a place to stay that morning and feed her some breakfast.
So much for no running that morning, he raced after her, his voice desperately calling out, “Miss, please—wait! I want to help…I want to—”
While his legs carried him out of the park and to the corner, he slid on nearly the whole length of the sidewalk, and when he stopped, he saw the oncoming lights and heard the unmistakable shriek of tires skidding.
And when he dared to look over and into the street, he saw her lifeless body in the snow just beneath the bumper of a car.