Wednesday, March 8, 2017

All Horns & Rattles: The Baxter Boys #5 (The Baxter Boys ~ Rattled)


Twelve years since Nina White’s family was ripped apart.
Twelve years since she’s seen her siblings. 
Twelve years she’s had to fight for everything, including her own life and her freedom.  

Tex has known Nina since she was a smart-mouthed, tough teen working with him at Miguel’s Gym. Tex knows nothing of Nina’s past, and he’s never had to fight for anything, until he decides he wants Nina, scars and all.

Nina has had it bad for Tex, not that she’d ever tell him. His sweet smile and a heart the size of Texas are way too good for her. If he ever learned about the ugliness of her past, he’d go back to his perfect family and his perfect home and his perfect life. What sane man wouldn’t? 

Tex insists that she try to find her family.
Tex insists that she lower the walls surrounding her heart.
Tex insists that she love him back.

One kiss sends her world spinning out of control. The past has a way of catching up with you, and the future she never dreamed of is within her grasp.  Will it be fleeting? Or can she make it hers? 

***New Adult novel intended for audiences over the age of 18 due to adult language and sexual content**

* * *



 “You’re eighteen today, Nina.” Mrs. Graft yells into my room. “State won’t pay for you anymore so you’ve gotta go.”
I knew this day would come, but are they really kicking me out this early? It’s like seven in the morning.
On New Year’s Day!
“Can I get a shower and food first?”
She steps into the bedroom I share with three other girls and scowls at me. “Make it quick. No point in dragging out the inevitable.”
“Thank you.” I push back the covers on my lower bunk and get out of the bed, careful not to bump my head, which I’ve done more times than I can count.
“Do you really have to go, Nina?” Ellie, the six-year-old who is on the top bunk asks, tears in her deep brown eyes.
“I’m eighteen. Those are the rules.”
A tear leaks out of the corner of her eye as she holds out her scrawny arms to me.
I lean in and hug her. She’s such a sweet little girl and has only been with us about six months.
“I’m going to miss you,” she whispers into my hair.
“I’ll miss you too, but remember what I told you.” I pull back and look into her eyes. “Take care of yourself, be strong, and don’t ever be afraid to tell your caseworker, policeman, firefighter or teacher if someone is being mean to you.” She’d been physically abused, but like so many children in her situation, had been too afraid to say anything. It wasn’t until a trip to the emergency room after a teacher noticed she was in pain and couldn’t reach a parent that Ellie finally spoke up. She was taken from her home and put into the system. She misses her mom and dad, and despite all the physical pain they inflicted on her, they are still her parents.
I remember all too well feeling lost and scared when I’d been taken from my family. Except I didn’t miss my parents. I missed my older brothers and younger sister. I especially remember asking why I couldn’t be with Dylan. He was the oldest and was the one who tried to take care of us.
“I promise,” she says.
I wish I could keep her and make a place for just her and me so she didn’t have to go through what I did, but no social worker is going to allow me to raise a kid. I can barely afford to take care of myself.
“Go back to sleep,” I whisper and tuck her into bed, along with the stained and battered rag doll she keeps close.
I grab my toiletry bag and hurry off to the bathroom as I try to swallow past the lump in my throat. It’s not that I love it here, but it’s a roof over my head and food in my stomach. Once I walk out that door, I’ll be on my own.
At least I have a part-time job. Make that two part-time jobs. Not that they pay enough, combined, to rent any kind of apartment, but at least I’ll get to keep my paychecks instead of handing them over to Mrs. Graft.
She takes money from all the foster kids in the house. Her rule is that as soon as we are old enough we have to get a job to help out financially. She claims the state doesn’t pay her enough to house, feed and clothe us. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I never asked my caseworker about it because my paycheck is a small price to pay to live in a house where I’m not bothered or scared, and the others are basically decent people. If I would have snitched on Mrs. Graft, I may have been pulled from here and put somewhere else. I wasn’t about to risk ending up someplace worse than this. I’ve been to worse and didn’t want to go back.
Plus, I have half of my tips from the past two years. As soon as Mrs. Graft asked for my paycheck, I told her that I had to turn in all my tips so taxes could be taken out. Which is partially true if a customer paid with a card. However, any cash left for me, I got to keep, after sharing it with the cook. I bus my own tables since it’s only a diner, so I don’t have to share with a lot of people like at larger restaurants. I’ve saved what I could, hiding it, because I knew this day would come.
Eighteen and out and I’ve saved $1,506.47. It’s not much, but it’s a start for the first day of being an adult.
Truthfully, I’ve been on my own since I was six. Just like Ellie, and it’s just the beginning for her.
Twelve years, and even though I’ve been in about half a dozen foster homes, I’ve been alone.
This one might be the hardest to leave. Not because the Grafts are exactly loving, because truthfully they are in in for the money, but I’ve been here for two years and I like the other kids. And, I’ll worry about Ellie. But, there is nothing I can do for her and I know as well as anyone that a kid’s hands are tied. We just need to roll with the rules, and the punches, and protect ourselves as best as we can.
At least I had the forethought to push through school and get all the necessary credits so I could graduate early. There was no way in hell I was going to try and finish out my senior year while living on the streets. Just eight months to survive and then I’ll be in a dorm. I hope. I’m still waiting to hear back if I’ve been accepted to any colleges.
December graduates go quietly. We take our last test and walk out the door for good. But, I will walk with the rest of my class in May. I busted my ass for good grades and I want the pomp and circumstance, and the cap, gown and diploma.
Shit! The cap and gown. I ordered and paid for it, but it won’t arrive at the school for a few months.  Once I get a place, I’m going to have to let my counselor know where I am. If I don’t have a place, I’ll ask Miguel about using the gym’s address for mail and stuff. I work there part-time and practically live there anyway when I’m not at my other job or when I wasn’t at school.
My suitcase is waiting by the front door when I finish my eggs and toast. It’s old and battered, but it’s mine. I found it beside a dumpster when I was eight and took it back to my foster home and cleaned it up. It’s much better than a garbage sack. That’s what most foster kids put their stuff in and I hated it. When it’s time to leave and go to a new home, the old parents just toss your clothes and toys, if you are lucky enough to have any, into a big plastic bag and send you out the door, just like the garbage. I’ve had this suitcase for ten years, and it’s my home. Not that I sleep in it, but anything that is important to me stays in that suitcase.
Mrs. Graft hands me an envelope. “It’s got your immunization record, school transcripts and anything else you need.”
My life in one large manila envelope.
Swinging my bag over my shoulder, I shove the envelope inside and lift my suitcase. “Thanks for everything.”
Five kids from ages six to seventeen are standing on the other side of the room watching me. Ellie is holding onto the hand of Darius. He’s seventeen and will be the next to go, but Darius will watch out for Ellie until then. He’s a good guy who has learned to keep his head low, quiet and just get through.
This is their future, they know it. Just like I knew it when I was the one watching another eighteen-year-old leave. Except, the others usually had a social worker come by. That’s not an option for me. It’s a holiday and the one I’ve been assigned is out of the office for a few months.
I step outside and take a deep breath as the door closes behind me. Ten a.m. on the first day of the year. Nothing but the future ahead of me.


It sure is a beautiful sunrise. I only wish I wasn’t watching it alone. My family is asleep in the big old farmhouse I grew up in, and my friends, who I was once really tight with, are likely hung over and have a long, painful day ahead of them.
We had a great time last night, but it wasn’t the same as in the past. We’ve grown apart, which I suppose is normal, but it has me questioning a lot of things. Like my future.
The wide open plains of Texas are spread out before me and go on forever. There’s a nip in the air and it’s just cold enough that I can see my breath in the early morning dawn. To Texans, this is cold, only a few degrees below freezing. To me, after living in New York for the past couple of years, this is just chilly.
The fields and the cattle before me are the scenery I grew up with and thought I’d come home to. Except, I’m not so sure Texas is really my home anymore. Going to college in New York was my way of seeing the world. Stupid young kid going off to the big city two and a half years ago. I was going to be a boxer. The best.
I’m not a boxer and no matter how much Miguel tries to teach me, I’ll never be great.
At least I went after my dream. That’s all anyone can do and I won’t be suffering from the what ifs when I’m old.
But, what now? I graduate in a year and a half and need to decide if I stay there or come back home. I’m working on a degree in Sports and Fitness Administration so I could be a fitness director, athletic trainer and run a gym.
I like sports and the physical and have always been athletic. I’m just not good enough to ever be professional. Out of all the sports I played in high school, and I played them all, boxing was the one thing I loved, and I didn’t learn that at school but at a community center that has long since shut down.
Maybe I can come back and reopen it. Give the kids a place to go since there isn’t much to do in this tiny town. It doesn’t even need traffic lights. Hell, if you stick to the back roads, you can drive from one end of the county to the other and only run into a handful of stop signs.
I don’t want to come back here to nothing and do nothing. What I want is to stay in New York and keep working at Miguel’s.
Miguel’s gym was the first place I headed after unpacking in my dorm room. Mom and Dad said I could pursue my dream of boxing, and encouraged it, as long as I got a degree in something. They didn’t really care what as long as I got a piece of paper with a bachelor’s degree on. They knew I had to get the boxing bug out of me before I could move on.
Well, the boxing bug isn’t gone, it’s just been refocused.
I’ve learned a lot from Miguel and the other guys at his gym, but if I do anything with boxing, it will be training, not fighting, and I’ve come to accept that.
I don’t know what I’d do without that old man. Miguel is like my father in New York. I have a great mom and dad here too, but Miguel kept my head on straight when I could have made some poor ass decisions. I was so unprepared for everything New York City had to offer. It’s not like I hadn’t been to big cities before, but I was basically raised in the country, on a ranch, not far from a town that can boast a population of like three thousand, on a good day. Worse, I think I may be related to half of the residents one way or another.
I just had to get out of here. I didn’t want to live in Texas for my entire life even if I do love the land. I needed more. Wanted more. My roots are here, in the desert, cattle, horses and oil. My heart is in New York.
Except, she will be leaving in the fall. Not that Nina has any clue she’s the reason I don’t want to come back to Texas.
I don’t even know when it all happened and when she became so important to me.
Heck, when I stepped into Miguel’s for the first time, she was just a kid, smart-mouthed, tough, and armored up like an armadillo, contrary and so fucking brave that she’d charge into hell with a bucket of ice water. All horns and rattles, that one. The slightest thing could get her riled up and she’d go off on the person, which is why I started calling her Horns. It used to be just me but more and more people started calling her that, and not really knowing why. The last time I ordered team jerseys I even had Horns put on the back of her jersey, instead of her last name, just to be ornery.
She’s not so much that way anymore. She’s still armored up, but she’s softened. Not that she’s all warm and fuzzy, never that. But I’ve seen some glimpses beneath her tough exterior, more and more over time, and as much as Horns will deny it, she’s got a really soft heart.
Eighteen today in fact. And she’s not like any of the girls I’ve ever known, which became painfully clear after hanging with my friends these past couple of days, and I had to face what my gut already recognized. Nina may be just eighteen, but she’s got a world of maturity and common sense above the girls who are my age and whom I’ve known since we were all dragging our diapers on the ground.
I’ve always admired Nina but she’s no longer just another girl at the gym. She’s my friend and I’ve fallen hard for her. I didn’t even see it coming until it was there.
And, she has no fucking clue about how I feel and I have no idea what to do about it.
I’d ask Miguel because I ask him everything, but I can’t talk to him about Nina. She’s like a granddaughter to him, put up on a pedestal to be seen and not touched. If the old man had any clue what I was thinking or wanting, he’d kick my sorry ass out of the gym and lock the door behind me.
But damn, she’s prettier than the sunrise, with her light brown hair and light grey eyes, pert nose and the most kissable lips God has ever created.
Lips I haven’t kissed. Lips I don’t dare kiss. Lips I can only dream about, like the rest of her. Slim, strong and toned with legs that any man would love to have wrapped around him. Not that I’ve really seen all of her legs because she only wears shorts that come down to her knees, but I sure as hell can imagine.
       And, they’ll never be wrapped around me. She’s my friend and I love her, but if I cross that line and let her know how I feel, I will lose her, and having a part of Nina is better than not having her at all. 

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Lady Lilian Bliant appears to be a serene earl’s daughter, but under her exotic fa├žade she has a spine of steel.  She is determined to thwart her manipulative father’s plan to shackle her to a weak-willed man of the ton and is successful until Lord Maxwell Warrick becomes a suitor.
Lord Maxwell is anything but weak-willed. He is happy with his life until Lady Lilian wreaks havoc on his heart. No lady has ever tempted him as she.
Will Max be able to resist, or will he succumb? And, if he does, will Lily be able to resist?

This book was previously published as The Healing Tree by Amy De Trempe



London, England – May, 1817

“I’ve made my decision, Lilian.” Henry Bliant, the thirteenth Earl of Artemisia, placed his fork in the center of his plate, the handle overlapped in direct alignment with his glass of wine. Satisfied, he signaled the footman to remove his plate.
At his cue, Lilian folded her hands on her lap and lifted her eyes to her father without raising her head. “What is your decision, Father?”
She lowered her eyes once again, and fixed them on a safe object, the goblet. With an elegant and perfectly manicured right hand, she lifted the crystal and brought it to her lips. This action would hide any immediate reaction to his words, a trick she perfected long ago.
“I was wise in waiting to present you until later in the Season. Your dark coloring is no match for the fair young ladies presented this year. Your appearance beside them would have only forced the comparison I wish to avoid.”
She set the glass back down in the exact spot where she had lifted it from. Even a fraction off could see her dismissed from the table and banned from breakfast tomorrow. Lily straightened the cloth napkin on her lap and waited for him to continue. She hoped dessert would be placed before her with haste to give her yet another excuse to avoid his gaze. 
“It is one of the reasons I visited my solicitor this afternoon.”
Lilian’s gaze shot to her father, but she quickly recovered her composure. Lord Artemisia demanded a serene countenance from his daughter at all times, and any show of emotion, no matter how slight, never failed to anger him. 
His eyes narrowed as he looked at her in disgust.
Lilian immediately regretted letting her emotions show. She held her breath, hoping her one mistake did not send him into a fit of rage.
With no comment on her reaction, Artemisia continued his announcement with annoyance, “I won’t bother you with all the details as you wouldn’t understand.” He dismissed her with a wave of his hand. 
Lily inwardly breathed a sigh of relief even though his dismissal was once again a reminder of his disappointment that his only heir was a female, thus far inferior in intelligence. It was only one on his long list of her faults. 
Lily masked her emotions and waited for the remainder of his diatribe.  
“Obviously, I will have to offer more than most fathers to see you married,” he continued.
Money, one of the many things more important than his daughter. “I am sorry if seeing me married is costing you so dearly, Father.” She buried her sarcasm in a soft tone.
Artemisia pounded his fist on the table, nearly upsetting the perfectly placed china. “As if you have any awareness of the expense to see you dressed properly and tutored to be a lady. My only goal has been to attract a suitable husband for you.”
Lily lowered her eyes demurely when her anger built. Another trick she learned at a young age and one her father mistook for respectful submission. To Lily, it was simply an act of self-preservation. She studied the pattern on the new china, Wedgwood she believed, and hoped it kept her from reacting to her father as he continued to lecture.
“Regardless, the funds will bring me what I need. A son to take over when I’m gone.” Lord Artemisia lapsed into silence while the custard was set before them and they waited for the servant to leave the room.
A son! He had a son. Yes, Wesley had been born on the wrong side of blanket, but he was still the only living son of her father. Even if he couldn’t inherit the entailed lands, Wesley would do well in managing the remaining estates and wealth. Lily lifted her left hand, but stopped herself before it was too late. After all these years, why hadn’t she developed the habit of eating with her right hand as her father insisted? She had no wish to have her left arm tied to her waist to keep her from using it again.
“I can’t leave the matter of attracting the right husband in your hands. Additionally, I have hopes of receiving permission to allow your husband to inherit my title when I die.”
Lily daintily slid her spoon into the custard and forced herself not to react. Her father must be half mad to think he could transfer a title meant for a male blood relative.
“The king is always in need of capital. Luckily, I can afford this particular privilege, if it is approved.”
Only her father would attempt such a ludicrous and impossible feat. On the other hand, given the king’s current faculties, or lack thereof, King George might just grant her father’s equally mad wish. The thought made her ill. 
If anyone should be granted that opportunity, it should be Wesley, not some gentleman her father decides, who doesn’t have a drop of Bliant blood in his veins.
She remembered to keep her posture erect when the earl launched into yet another lecture. He could speak continually for half an hour if he so chose, and she hoped to make her dessert last long enough to keep her busy while he spoke, and to avoid having to look in his direction. Her participation wasn’t required, as long as she appeared to be listening.
“As your future husband will receive everything that is mine, it is my duty to choose the right successor. The perfect choice is the younger son of a peer. They are more willing to marry an heiress regardless of her faults. No true gentleman wishes to earn his own way, or rely on what little pension his family provides. The farther the son is from a title, the more willing he will be to overlook your flaws.” Artemisia sighed heavily. “At least I have that small advantage on my side.”
Lily tried to force the food down her constricted throat.
“If he agrees to those terms, then all that is mine will be his.” Lord Artemisia sat back.  “There are a few minor details to work out, but Dudley doesn’t anticipate any problems.”
Afraid that he might see her bitterness, Lilian did not raise her eyes. She only sensed when he rose and walked toward the foyer. Of course, Dudley, his solicitor, always managed to achieve what the earl most desired, with the exception of a legitimate son.
Lilian remained where she was and listened for her father’s departure. Yet, he’d let his own son make his own way in the world without a care or concern for him.
“Gloves, hat, cane,” he yelled at the valet. “Never hat, gloves, cane.”
Lilian winced at his tone, yet the footman should know by now not to disturb her father’s peculiar habits.
Only when she heard the door close did she let her spoon drop from her hand, and she raised eyes toward the entrance. He may have his plans, but she had her own. Never would she marry. Especially not a man her father handpicked, who married out of greed, with a willingness to turn his back on his own family name and heritage.
If she took care with her plan and execution, she would remain unbetrothed and thus unwed at the end of the Season, and every year following, without her father having the slightest hint she sabotaged his every effort. He would be angry, lay blame, and inflict punishment, of course, but she could live with that, knowing someday she would be free, having the ultimate triumph over the man who had caused her mother’s death.

* * *

It was an unusual occurrence for Lord Maxwell James Warrick to find himself sitting next to his own father, of all people, at two o’clock in the morning in the receiving room of Haven, an orphanage where Max presided on the board. Hadn’t he just been here not twelve hours ago? 
Following Sunday services, he and the children enjoyed a pleasant lunch and played in the park until dusk. The children were exhausted by the time the staff finished getting them into bed and Max hadn’t expected to return until Wednesday afternoon.
Unlike most of the supporters, he became a living, breathing part of the home, which was why Mrs. Harper, the headmistress, had sent for him when there had been a break in. 
Max couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to rob an orphanage. Besides the children, there was very little of value inside. However, it was also near Seven Dials, so perhaps the criminals didn’t realize they were more likely to come away with a runny nose than a quid. 
The children had been frightened when he arrived, but after calming their fears, he sent for the Bow Street Runners to investigate and then for a locksmith to fix the door that very night, regardless of the cost. He had been waiting for the man to finish when his father, the Duke of Wayland, arrived. 
When he first walked through the doors, Maxwell suffered a sudden panic, afraid something had happened to one of his family members. That had not been the case. Apparently his father simply yielded to one of his own odd moods of contemplation. As his wife was already abed, and his three other sons were at home with their wives, Maxwell, his youngest and only unmarried child, was the one he sought out when he had learned from Max’s butler where to find him. 
They visited until the locksmith finished and then, after a final check of all the doors and windows, took their leave into the dark, foggy night. While his father lit a cheroot, Maxwell strolled with him to the hackney waiting at the corner. Neither man brought their own carriage to this area of town after nightfall. The attention would attract the more unsavory inhabitants.
“Is there something in particular on your mind this evening, Father?” Max asked.
The duke shook his grey head and sighed. “I met up with an old schoolmate from years ago—Artemisia.”
Maxwell stepped into the hackney and settled into the well-worn seat. He ignored the pungent smells and stained shabby interior. Dank, musty air surrounded them and Max tried not to breathe too deeply. It was best not to contemplate what may have occurred in this space prior to their arrival. 
“Artemisia married later than I. Your mother and I only had the pleasure of visiting with her on a few occasions. I always found Artemisia to be a pompous fool, but his wife was a very lovely woman.”
“She is no longer?”
“No.” Lord Wayland shook his head. “She died several years ago, along with the son to whom she had just given birth.”
Maxwell said nothing.
“Lord Artemisia has a daughter who is twenty and is just now being presented. That is what brought him back into London. The man has been completely cut off from society, a recluse, for all these years. Seemed rather grateful to run into me. He doesn’t have any friends in Town.”
Maxwell eyed his father with suspicion. For the past year and a half, since he had turned five and twenty, his parents had been after him to take a bride. “Oh, I see.”
Lord Wayland continued. “No, no, Maxwell. I leave the matchmaking to your mother.”
Maxwell relaxed. If his father had been speaking of a possible match, he would have admitted to it. “Then what is troubling you?”
“The way the man spoke of his daughter. They have been in London for weeks, and she has yet to make an appearance.”
“Perhaps he isn’t very anxious to see her married.”
“No. That is not the case at all. Artemisia was investigating. He wants to ensure his daughter brought the highest dowry this season.”
“Does he hope to have every destitute lord on his doorstep?”
“Artemisia refuses to consider any titled gentleman.” His Grace frowned. “He didn’t explain his reasoning, odd though it is.”
Maxwell could only wonder at what must be wrong with the girl if the cost of purchasing her husband was so high. And what father didn’t want a title for his daughter? Usually those gentlemen were the first to be considered before any lesser gentleman. “Have you met the young lady?”
“No, though I would like to. What could be so wrong that Artemisia feels he must purchase a husband, while rejecting those most sought after? Unless he doesn’t believe anyone of title would consider his daughter. But why discount them before she’s ever made an appearance? It’s all rather confusing to me.”
“The thought does give one pause. Artemisia did not mention why he felt there would be no offers otherwise?” Max asked.
Again, the duke shook his head, his mouth turned down in a frown. “No, except for her mother’s tainted ancestry.”
Maxwell raised a surprised eyebrow. It wasn’t unusual for a noble English family’s blood to have previously mixed with the French, Scots, Italians, or other European countries. But to be tainted…
“The man is very bitter over the fact that he doesn’t have a legitimate son, and resentful for having a daughter who cannot attract a husband on her own.”
“Then he has an illegitimate one?” Max asked.
His father frowned. “At one time there were rumors, but they were quickly hushed.” He shrugged. “Rumors or no, it does not change that fact that his only heir is a female.”
“But you have four sons,” Maxwell reminded his father. “How would you have felt at not having any? Or, if rumors are to be believed, your only son was born on the wrong side of the blanket?”
“Your mother would have been all too happy to have a daughter, not that she doesn’t love each of her sons,” the duke assured him.
Max chuckled. The entire family knew his mother had always wanted a daughter, and still hoped for a granddaughter, though one had yet to be produced.
“Are you sure this isn’t the real reason you came looking for me?” Max’s lips pulled into a smile.
“Whatever do you mean?” His father blinked in confusion.
Maxwell’s smile broadened. “After all, I am the son of a duke with no hope of ever obtaining a title. I would be a perfect candidate for the lady’s hand.”
His father smiled sheepishly, and Maxwell thought perhaps his jest was in fact, the truth. 
“It wasn't my intention, but before I knew of Artemisia’s own circumstances, I had boasted quite a bit about my own family. Now I know why he asked more pointed questions, about you in particular.”
Maxwell didn’t bother to hide his groan. It wouldn’t be the first time he had been sought out because his father was a duke, regardless of the fact that he was the fourth son and his older brothers had produced a total of four sons. The most tragic of circumstances would need to occur, which would mean the deaths of three brothers and four nephews before Max could make it to the head of the line. First, he loved his family dearly and it would destroy him to lose even one. And second, the last thing he ever wanted to become was the Duke of Wayland.
“I am sorry, Maxwell.”
Maxwell shrugged. His father hadn’t intentionally tried to play matchmaker. “No harm. If those are her father’s qualifications, he would have learned my name eventually.”
His father sighed deeply. “I suppose so.”