Cover Designer: Qamber Designs
Publication Date: August 10, 2023
Retail Price: $3.99
Genre: Contemporary (steamy small town) romance
Tropes/Themes: Military, long distance romance, friends to lovers
Love’s battlefield knows no distance.
As a deployed US Army sniper, my days are filled with little more than my scope and memories of home. That is, until I connect with Zoe, a small town girl from upstate New York whose fun, easy banter brings me unexpected joy in the middle of a war zone.
Our connection is instant and intense, and we soon find ourselves in a long-distance relationship, eagerly counting down the days until we can finally meet in person. The plans I have for us, both in and outside the bedroom, fill both our days with unrivaled excitement.
But just as we’re about to find out if our off-the-charts chemistry translates to the real world, unexpected conflicts—namely Zoe’s ex-boyfriend and my suddenly imploding life-plan—threaten to tear us apart.
As Zoe and I try to navigate the uncertainties of our situation, and I attempt to reintegrate into civilian life while fostering a brand new relationship, we’re forced to confront our deepest fears and decide what we’re willing to sacrifice for love.
Kitchi Falls, Finger Lakes, New York
“Where is the strong, independent woman I’ve come to know and love?” Charlee asked.
We sat, as we often did on a fall Saturday, on the deck of our favorite winery overlooking the lake.
I lifted my glass of cabernet, swirled it around as I watched its legs fade, and thought about how to answer. “Truthfully? That Zoe has been brought to her knees by a man. Embarrassing, but true.”
Charlee and Natalie looked at each other as if I weren’t there. Their “what will we do with her” look made me alternatively embarrassed and sad at the same time. I was the hype girl. The perpetually positive one. Bring the vibe up, not down. That was my specialty.
Until this weekend.
“Which is precisely why we’re here,” Charlee said, thanking the wine bar attendant for her new glass of pinot. “To pull you up off those knees and remind you that how someone treats you is more important than how much you like them or even how they make you feel.”
“Speaking of being on your knees,” Natalie said, “I’ve been meaning to ask. You said you really enjoy giving Lucas blow jobs, but I have to admit. . . I’m not a fan. Ethan, unfortunately, is. So, when we’re done convincing Zoe that Erik is a piece of shit, can we talk about my conundrum next?”
That did get a laugh out of me. Likely Natalie’s intention. Because we’d talked about blow jobs, or her lack of enthusiasm for them before, this wasn’t any sort of breaking news.
“Like I said. . .” Charlee stifled a smile. “It helps if you’re actually turned on by the idea of pleasing him in any way, shape, or form. And honestly? You’re not as much turned on by Ethan as you are accepting of him because he’s the least worst boyfriend you’ve had in recent years.”
“And likes nature,” Natalie pointed out.
As a conservationist, that was basically the clincher in any of her relationships.
“Definitely a winner,” I said, appreciating the distraction, which was working. “Let’s talk about Ethan instead. Maybe I’ll forget Erik ever existed.”
Except, a vision of him walking into my apartment in his scrubs, looking all sexy and doctor-ish, a gleam in his eye even after a long shift. . . the man was primed twenty-four seven. Sometimes I thought he might have a sex addiction he liked it so much and so often, but I wasn’t complaining.
He was the guy every girl chased. The nurses loved him. His patients loved him.
I loved him.
“Oh shit, we lost her,” Charlee said.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, downing the wine in my glass and putting it on the table in front of me. The fire table took away a chill that warned of colder weather to come. “I hate this. I hate myself like this.”
“Listen.” Charlee crossed her legs, the large Adirondack chair swallowing her small frame. “You know what a mess I was when Lucas came back,” she said of her current boyfriend, who’d returned to Kitchi Falls after ten years in the military. “You have absolutely nothing to be sorry about. It’s your turn. But I get it. And you need to give yourself a little bit of grace. You just broke up with a guy you’ve been dating for more than six months. It’ll be an adjustment.”
“He broke up with me,” I clarified.
Two nights ago, Erik never showed up to dinner. When I texted to ask where he was after I waited more than a half hour, his return text was the death knell I never expected.
So sorry, I completely forgot. Late shift.
Listen, Zoe, I don’t think this is going to work out.
Of course, I asked him to call me, which he couldn’t do because of work. A full twelve hours and a lot of tears later, we finally connected. Though I almost wished we hadn’t. He was distant. Cold. I’d say unexpectedly, but the more I thought about the past few weeks, the signs had been there. I just hadn’t wanted to admit to them.
“Minor detail,” Natalie added. “But Charlee’s absolutely right. Cut yourself some slack. He was a part of your life for the last six months. It’s going to take more than forty-eight hours to get used to the idea. One thing I don’t want to get used to? Empty wines,” she said, standing and grabbing my glass without even asking.
What would I do without my friends?
For someone who had precious few of them growing up, I sure did get lucky in adulthood. “Thanks, Nat.”
Charlee smiled sadly at me, likely because I looked absolutely pathetic. The fact that I’d survived nearly ten moves in my life thanks to my career-military dad but was taken down over a man?
“I am stronger than this,” I insisted.
“You’re being way too hard on yourself. You’re allowed to grieve a lost relationship. One you thought might go the distance.”
It was true. I’d already begun imagining a life with Erik, thinking the timing was perfect for kids in the not-too-distant future. My job was secure, as was his. I had my shit together—until now. And maybe that’s what spooked him, talking about next steps. But at twenty-eight, and with Erik approaching his mid-thirties, I didn’t think talking about our possible engagement status was so out of whack.
“You don’t know the half of it,” I insisted. “I wake up and think of Erik. Sit in meetings and think of Erik. At the gym, I think of him complimenting me on how strong my legs have become. In my bed, I imagine all the nights we spent together. Literally every waking moment, all I can think of is. . . stupid, idiotic, Erik. A guy who broke up with someone so casually after six months. What the hell is wrong with me?”
Charlee finished her sip of wine and, without missing a beat, said, “You’ve just had your heart broken, that’s what’s wrong with you. It’s going to take a major social media detox, a lot of tears and wine, not to mention a slew of distractions and talking things out with us—which is what friends are for, by the way—but eventually, you’ll forget about him. I promise.”
Tears welled in my eyes, but I refused to let them fall. No one was sick or dying, after all. I’d been broken up with. It wasn’t the end of the world, even if it felt that way.
“Operation Distraction,” Charlee said, spotting Natalie.
“Operation Distraction,” Natalie agreed, handing me a fresh wine. “To that end, I have a crazy idea.”
I loved crazy ideas. “Shoot.”
“What are you guys up to two weekends from now?”
I would not cry. I would not cry.
“Uh oh,” Charlee said. “Oh shit. Erik had the weekend off. You guys were heading to Mirbeau Inn and Spa in two weeks.”
I nodded since the lump in my throat prevented me from saying much more.
“Charlee?” Natalie asked.
“Nothing that can’t be moved around,” Charlee responded. “Whaddya got?”
“What does Zoe love more than anything in the world?”
I answered immediately. “Erik.”
She rolled her eyes. “What else?”
“Oh geez. I’m talking places. What’s your favorite place in the world?” She held up her hand. “If you say ‘under Erik’ I will come at you.”
I couldn’t help a little laugh at that one.
“New Orleans?” I asked.
“Exactly. New Orleans.” Natalie looked back and forth between us like she’d just won some sort of prize. Proud. Excited.
“Are you proposing we go to New Orleans?” Charlee asked. “For the weekend?”
“In two weeks?” I clarified.
Natalie nodded. And I was supposed to be the crazy one. My eyes narrowed. “What’s the catch?”
“No catch,” she insisted but hedged a bit. “I mean, we are working on a conservation project with implications for the Gulf of Mexico. But that has nothing to do with it.”
Charlee and I exchanged a look. Unbelievably, Charlee shrugged her shoulders as if to say, “Why not?”
“New Orleans,” I mused. “In less than two weeks.”
“Uh huh.” Natalie beamed.
There weren’t a lot of things I could think of that might actually distract me from Erik, but the Crescent City might just be one of them. I loved the French Quarter with a passion, and Natalie knew it. “You’re serious?”
I looked back and forth between them. Both ladies seemed to be in.
“Operation Distraction,” Charlee said. “I’m in.”
“And obviously, I’m in,” Natalie said.
I raised my glass for an air toast. “Let’s do it.”
“Cheers,” both of my friends exclaimed.
“Laissez les bons temps rouler,” I said, in my best French accent.
“Boom.” Natalie sat down like the queen she was.
“Oh,” Charlee said to me. “Before I forget. Lucas’s friend Nate got that package we sent. He wanted to thank you for your note. Do you mind if I give him your number?”
Lucas’s friend and spotter, a fellow army sniper, had been injured serving overseas in Africa. My dad had been injured years ago in a similar way, so I asked Charlee to include a little note in the care package. “Sure,” I said, already thinking of beignets.
When one door opens, another closes.
Erik was the first door, and it seemed a weekend in NOLA with my best girls was the second one. It wouldn’t make me forget about him. And would be a long two weeks in the meantime. But at least I had something to think about. To look forward to.
“To New Orleans,” I said in a second toast.
“To Operation Distraction,” Natalie said.
Charlee added, “Hear, hear.”
Bella Michaels is the pen name of a contemporary romance author.
When not writing steamy small town romance like the Grado Valley Vineyards series—or historical romance as Cecelia Mecca and paranormal (vampire) romance as C.L. Mecca—Bella loves dreaming up new sassy heroines and alpha heroes for readers to enjoy armed with a PhD she no longer uses and copious amounts of chai.
Firmly House Stark, this Disney fanatic lives with her husband and two teens (send help!) in Pennsylvania where she enjoys drinking pinot noir and planning girls trips.
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