BELLA ABBASCIA STRUGGLED to keep her grip on a ceramic toilet as she crossed the gravel road in Seaside, the community where she spent her summers. It was one o'clock in the morning, and Bella had a prank in store for Theresa Ottoline, a straitlaced Seaside resident and the elected property manager for the community. Bella and two of her besties, Amy Maples and Jenna Ward, had polished off two bottles of Middle Sister wine while they waited for the other cottage owners to turn in for the night. Now, dressed in their nighties and a bit tipsy, they struggled to keep their grip on a toilet that Bella had spent two days painting bright blue, planting flowers in, and adorning with seashells. They were carrying the toilet to Theresa's driveway to break rule number fourteen of the Community Homeowners Association Guidelines: No tacky displays allowed in the front of the cottages.
"You're sure she's asleep?" Bella asked as they came to the grass in front of the cottage of their fourth bestie, Leanna Bray.
"Yes. She turned off her lights at eleven. We should have hidden it someplace other than my backyard. It's so far. Can we stop for a minute? This sucker is heavy." Amy drew her thinly manicured brows together.
"Oh, come on. Really? We only have a little ways to go." Bella nodded toward Theresa's driveway, which was across the road from her cottage, about a hundred feet away.
Amy glanced at Jenna for support. Jenna nodded, and the two lowered their end to the ground, causing Bella to nearly drop hers.
"That's so much better." Jenna tucked her stick-straight brown hair behind her ear and shook her arms out to her sides. "Not all of us lift weights for breakfast."
"Oh, please. The most exercise I get during the summer is lifting a bottle of wine," Bella said. "Carrying around those boobs of yours is more of a workout."
Jenna was just under five feet tall with breasts the size of bowling balls and a tiny waist. She could have been the model for the modern-day Barbie doll, while Bella's figure was more typical for an almost thirty-year-old woman. Although she was tall, strong, and relatively lean, she refused to give up her comfort foods, which left her a little soft in places, with a figure similar to Julia Roberts or Jennifer Lawrence.
"I don't carry them with my arms." Jenna looked down at her chest and cupped a breast in each hand. "But yeah, that would be great exercise."
Amy rolled her eyes. Pin-thin and nearly flat chested, Amy was the most modest of the group, and in her long T-shirt and underwear, she looked like a teenager next to curvy Jenna. "We only need a sec, Bella."
They turned at the sound of a passionate moan coming from Leanna's cottage.
"She forgot to close the window again," Jenna whispered as she tiptoed around the side of Leanna's cottage. "Typical Leanna. I'm just going to close it."
Leanna had fallen in love with bestselling author Kurt Remington the previous summer, and although they had a house on the bay, they often stayed in the two-bedroom cottage so Leanna could enjoy her summer friends. The Seaside cottages in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, had been in the girls' families for years, and they had spent summers together since they were kids.
"Wait, Jenna. Let's get the toilet to Theresa's first." Bella placed her hands on her hips so they knew she meant business. Jenna stopped before she reached for the window, and Bella realized it would have been a futile effort anyway. Jenna would need a stepstool to pull that window down.
"Oh...Kurt." Leanna's voice split the night air.
Amy covered her mouth to stifle a laugh. "Fine, but let's hurry. Poor Leanna will be mortified to find out she left the window open again."
"I'm the last one who wants to hear her having sex. I'm done with men, or at least with commitments, until my life is back on track." Ever since last summer, when Leanna had met Kurt, started her own jam-making business, and moved to the Cape full-time, Bella had been thinking of making a change of her own. Leanna's success had inspired her to finally go for it. Well, that and the fact that she'd made the mistake of dating a fellow teacher, Jay Cook. It had been months since they broke up, but they'd taught at the same Connecticut high school, and until she left for the summer, she couldn't avoid running in to him on a daily basis. It was just the nudge she needed to take the plunge and finally quit her job and start over. New job, new life, new location. She just hadn't told her friends yet. She'd thought she would tell them the minute she arrived at Seaside and they were all together, maybe over a bottle of wine or on the beach. But Leanna had been spending a lot of time with Kurt, and every time it was just the four of them, she hadn't been ready to come clean. She knew they'd worry and ask questions, and she wanted to have some of the transition sorted out before answering them.
"Bella, you can't give up on men. Jay was just a jerk." Amy touched her arm.
She really needed to fill them in on the whole Jay and quitting her job thing. She was beyond over Jay, but they knew Bella to be the stable one of the group, and learning of her sudden change was a conversation that needed to be handled when they weren't wrestling a fifty-pound toilet.
"Fine. You're right. But I'm going to make all of my future decisions separate from any man. So...until my life is in order, no commitments for me."
"Not me. I'd give anything to have what Kurt and Leanna have," Amy said.
Bella lifted her end of the toilet easily as Jenna and Amy struggled to lift theirs. "Got it?"
"Yeah. Go quick. This damn thing is heavy," Jenna said as they shuffled along the grass.
"More..." Leanna pleaded.
Amy stumbled and lost her grip. The toilet dropped to the ground, and Jenna yelped.
"Shh. You're going to wake up the whole complex!" Bella stalked over to them.
"Oh, Kurt!" Jenna rocked her hips. "More, baby, more!"
"Really?" Bella tried to keep a straight face, but when Leanna cried out again, she doubled over with laughter.
Amy, always the voice of reason, whispered, "Come on. We need to close her window."
"Yes!" Leanna cried.
They fell against one another in a fit of laughter, stumbling beside Leanna's cottage.
"I could make popcorn." Jenna said, struggling to keep a straight face.
Amy scowled at her. "She got pissed the last time you did that." She grabbed Bella's hand and whispered through gritted teeth, "Take out the screen so you can shut the window, please."
"I told you we should have put a lock on the outside of her window," Jenna reminded them. Last summer, when Leanna and Kurt had first begun dating, they often forgot to close the window. To save Leanna embarrassment, Jenna had offered to be on sex-noise mission control and close the window if Leanna ever forgot to. A few drinks later, she'd mistakenly abandoned the idea for the summer.
"While you close the window, I'll get the sign for the toilet." Amy hurried back toward Bella's deck in her boy-shorts underwear and a T-shirt.
Bella tossed the screen to the side so she could reach inside and close the window. The side of Leanna's cottage was on a slight incline, and although Bella was tall, she needed to stand on her tiptoes to get a good grip on the window. The hem of the nightie caught on her underwear, exposing her ample derriere.
"Cute satin skivvies." Jenna reached out to tug Bella's shirt down and Bella swatted her.
Bella pushed as hard as she could on the top of the window, trying to ignore the sensuous moans and the creaking of bedsprings coming from inside the cottage.
"The darn thing's stuck," she whispered.
Jenna moved beside her and reached for the window. Her fingertips barely grazed the bottom edge.
Amy ran toward them, waving a long stick with a paper sign taped to the top that read, WELCOME BACK.
Leanna moaned, and Jenna laughed and lost her footing. Bella reached for her, and the window slammed shut, catching Bella's hair. Leanna's dog, Pepper, barked, sending Amy and Jenna into more fits of laughter
With her hair caught in the window and her head plastered to the sill, Bella put a finger to her lips. "Shh!"
Headlights flashed across Leanna's cottage as a car turned up the gravel road.
"Shit!" Bella went up on her toes, struggled to lift the window and free her hair, which felt like it was being ripped from her skull. The curtains flew open and Leanna peered through the glass. Bella lifted a hand and waved. Crap. She heard Leanna's front door open, and Pepper bolted around the corner, barking a blue streak and knocking Jenna to the ground just as a police car rolled up next to them and shined a spotlight on Bella's ass.
CADEN GRANT HAD been with the Wellfleet Police Department for only three months, having moved after his partner of nine years was killed in the line of duty. He'd relocated to the small town with his teenage son, Evan, in hopes of working in a safer location. So far, he'd found the people of Wellfleet to be respectful and thankful for the efforts of the local law enforcement officers, a welcome change after dealing with rebellion on every corner in Boston. Wellfleet had recently experienced a rash of small thefts-cars being broken into, cottages being ransacked, and the police had begun patrolling the private communities along Route 6, communities that in the past had taken care of their own security. Caden rolled up the gravel road in the Seaside community and spotted a dog running circles around a person rolling on the ground.
He flicked on the spotlight as he rolled to a stop. Holy Christ. What is going on? He quickly assessed the situation. A blond woman was banging on a window with both hands. Her shirt was bunched at her waist, and a pair of black satin panties barely covered the most magnificent ass he'd seen in a long time.
"Open the effing window!" she hollered.
Caden stepped from the car. "What's going on here?" He walked around the dark-haired woman, who was rolling from side to side on the ground while laughing hysterically, and the fluffy white dog, who was barking as though his life depended on it, and he quickly realized that the blond woman's hair was caught in the window. Behind him another blonde crouched on the ground, laughing so hard she kept snorting. Why the hell aren't any of you wearing pants?
"Leanna! I'm stuck!" the blonde by the window yelled.
"Officer, we're sorry." The blonde behind him rose to her feet, tugging her shirt down to cover her underwear; then she covered her mouth with her hand as more laughter escaped. The dog barked and clawed at Caden's shoes.
"Someone want to tell me what's going on here?" Caden didn't even want to try to guess.
"We're..." The brunette laughed again as she rose to her knees and tried to straighten her camisole, which barely contained her enormous breasts. She ran her eyes down Caden's body. "Well, hello there, handsome." She fell backward, laughing again.
Christ. Just what he needed, three drunk women.
The brunette inside the cottage lifted the window, freeing the blonde's hair, which sent her stumbling backward and crashing into his chest. There was no ignoring the feel of her seductive curves beneath the thin layer of fabric. Her hair was a thick, tangled mess. She looked up at him with eyes the color of rich cocoa and lips sweet enough to taste. The air around them pulsed with heat. Christ, she was beautiful.
"Whoa. You okay?" he asked. He told his arms to let her go, but there was a disconnect, and his hands remained stuck to her waist.
"It's...It's not what it looks like." She dropped her eyes to her hands, clutching his forearms, and she released him fast, as if she'd been burned. She took a step back and helped the brunette to her feet. "We were..."
"They were trying to close our window, Officer." A tall, dark-haired man came around the side of the cottage, wearing a pair of jeans and no shirt. "Kurt Remington." He held a hand out in greeting and shook his head at the women, now holding on to each other, giggling and whispering.
"Officer Caden Grant." He shook Kurt's hand. "We've had some trouble with break-ins lately. Do you know these women?" His eyes swept over the tall blonde. He followed the curve of her thighs to where they disappeared beneath her nightshirt, then drifted up to her full breasts, finally coming to rest on her beautiful dark eyes. It had been a damn long time since he'd been this attracted to a woman.
"Of course he knows us." The hot blonde stepped forward, arms crossed, eyes no longer wide and warm, but narrow and angry.
He hated men who leered at women, but he was powerless to refrain from drinking her in for one last second. The other two women were lovely in their own right, but they didn't compare to the tall blonde with fire in her eyes and a body made for loving.
Kurt nodded. "Yes, Officer. We know them."
"God, you guys. What the heck?" the dark-haired woman asked through the open window.
"You were waking the dead," the tall blonde answered.
"Oh, gosh. I'm sorry, Officer," the brunette said through the window. Her cheeks flushed, and she slipped back inside and closed the window.
"I assure you, everything is okay here." Kurt glared at the hot blonde.
"Okay, well, if you see any suspicious activity, we're only a phone call away." He took a step toward his car.
The tall blonde hurried into his path. "Did someone from Seaside call the police?"
"No. I was just patrolling the area."
She held his gaze. "Just patrolling the area? No one patrols Seaside."
"Bella," the other blonde hissed.
"Seriously. No one patrols our community. They never have." She lifted her chin in a way that he assumed was meant as a challenge, but it had the opposite effect. She looked cuter than hell.
Caden stepped closer and tried to keep a straight face. "Your name is Bella?"
Feisty, too. He liked that. "Well, Maybe Bella, you're right. We haven't patrolled your community in the past, but things have changed. We'll be patrolling more often to keep you safe until we catch the people who have been burglarizing the area." He leaned in close and whispered, "But you might consider wearing pants for your window-closing evening strolls. Never know who's traipsing around out here."
The Bradens are a joy for me to write, and every email I receive from fans spurs me on to write more and to bring you new and different journeys toward love featuring fun, sexy, and flawed characters with whom you can laugh, cry, and, of course, swoon over.
Taken by Love takes place on a breeding horse ranch, and I am grateful to Shanyn and Earl Silinski, who have answered my endless questions with patience and humor. I've taken creative liberties in my writing. Any and all errors are my own and are not a reflection on the Silinskis. Kathie Shoop, my friend and go-to person to help me bang my ideas loose, your friendship is a gift to me. Thank you for being who you are and welcoming me into your circle.
The support of the members of Team Pay-It-Forward, the blogging community, and my sisters at heart, the volunteers of the World Literary Café, is endless. Stacy, Amy, Bonnie, Christine, Tasha, Clare, Rhea, Wendy, Emerald, Amy, and Gerria, thank you all for embracing me and enabling my obsession for romance.
My editorial team deserves a standing ovation for their meticulous and experienced skills. Thank you, Kristen Weber, Penina Lopez, Jenna Bagnini, Juliette Hill, and Marlene Engel. Special thanks to Lynn Mullan, one of my early readers. My amazing cover designer, Natasha Brown, and my formatter, Clare Ayala, are not only talented, but able to put up with me and my endless tweaks. That speaks volumes about you both. Thank you for allowing me to take advantage of your mad skills.
To my husband, Les, who listens to me read chapter after endless chapter, remembers each character, and fleshes out plot lines without complaint, you are my world. Thank you.