Forty-two and widowed, romance writer Jillian Grant believes hospitals equal death. Plagued by loss and convinced more is imminent when her aunt ends up in critical condition after heart surgery; she has come to equate the absence of pain with happiness. When she spots a hot, young landscaper working on the hospital grounds with an eerie resemblance to the male lead in her next novel, she convinces him to pose as her cover model.
Working multiple jobs to put himself through college, twenty-four-year-old Raine MacDonald is no stranger to loss. Behind his handsome face and rockin’ body lies family tragedy and agonizing secrets. When circumstances put him back in the path of his abusive father, fate delivers Jillian as his unwitting savior. Thing is, when he thinks of her, his thoughts are far from platonic.
Despite their age difference, Jillian and Raine discover they’re more alike than they could ever imagine. But torn between facing her own fears and grasping a chance at happiness, Jillian makes a soul-shattering decision that threatens to blow their world apart.
Check out our exclusive excerpt of the first chapter below!
Exclusive Excerpt: Chapter 1
BEEP . . . BEEP . . . BEEP . . .
Unable to keep my hands still, I entwine my ringless fingers so tightly the bones grind together and almost cut off my circulation. The steady rhythm of the heart monitor should be reassuring. But it’s not. To me, it’s a harbinger of death. Counterintuitive, I know, but then again, all I’ve ever experienced here is death.
I lost my husband Robert two years ago, Dad two before that, Mom thirty years ago, and Drew, my first love, in between. Granted, a lot of time has passed since Mom and Drew died, but those four times were my only experiences in a hospital before today.
The antiseptic smell only intensifies my despair. It might seem strange, but I’d rather be hit by a bus and die instantly than end up in this place.
My eyes shift away from my mom’s twin sister who two weeks ago sat at my dining room table laughing and talking about my latest book release, and toward the familiar voice behind me.
My lips warp into a weak smile and I brighten. “Hey, Kitty.”
Kitty shuffles into the room wearing sensible shoes, a pair of shapeless slacks to hide her way-too-generous hips, and a blouse that went out of style over a decade ago. The purse slung over her shoulder gives her an off-balance appearance. Devoid of makeup, and with her graying hair overdue for a dye job, Kitty looks older than fifty-three. But what my older sister lacks in style, she makes up for in heart.
I stand to greet her, and she clutches my shoulders, giving me a kiss on the cheek. I catch a whiff of her distinctive cherry-flavored lip balm. Her refusal to wear lipstick still baffles me.
“How’s Aunt Vera? And how’re you holding up, sweetie?” Kitty asks.
“The nurse said she had dialysis right before I arrived, so she’ll probably be asleep for the next couple of hours.”
I glance back at the hospital bed, and my heart clenches as I stare at my aunt. Long, gray wisps of hair cling to her skull; ashen, paper-thin skin along with a respirator tube taped between her parted lips gives her that “near death” look I know so well. Relief floods through me whenever her leg twitches underneath the thin sheet, giving me hope that there may be some fight left in her.
The sunny August afternoon beckons through the window just beyond the bed.
God, I want out.
When I look back, Kitty gives me a pointed look. “You didn’t answer my question. How are you?”
I blow out a breath, feeling helpless. “As well as I’ll ever be in this place.”
But that wasn’t it. Every time I look at Vera, I feel as if I’m staring at a broken shell that used to be a woman who, even at eighty-two, was still vibrant, funny, and full of life. There’s an emptiness there that resonates with me. A feeling I’ve lived with for most of my adult life, tempered now and filled with things I create through my writing. Things that aren’t real. Characters. Stories. Other people’s lives that aren’t mine.
Unhealthy? Maybe. But at least my characters can’t die without my permission.
Kitty touches my arm and squeezes gently. “Why don’t you go and pick up Jenny in Summit? You go, I’ll stay.”
Guilt accompanies my relief at Kitty’s offer. Picking up my niece from the train station sounds like a fine idea. “Are you sure?”
Kitty nods and looks at me with kind eyes, a much darker shade than my golden-brown. “Honestly, I’m surprised you were able to come here at all.”
Vera and Kitty essentially raised me after my mom died when I was fourteen. It was the three of us, and my dad, against the world. They were my pillars when Dad passed, and then again when Robert died.
I glance back at Vera, feeling the heaviness reenter my heart, and whisper, “How could I not? I can’t believe she’s even here.”
“I know. A bypass at her age is a miserable thing to deal with, but she should make it.”
I hold back a snort, wishing I had inherited Kitty’s optimism. “I hope so.” But I can’t convince myself to believe it. No one I’ve ever loved has made it out of this place alive.
I give Kitty a quick peck on the cheek. “Thanks. I’ll drop Jenny off at the house.”
“You want to stay for dinner?” she asks. She’s obsessed with making sure I eat properly, knowing I have a hate-hate relationship with my kitchen.
“Can’t. Not tonight.”
Her eyebrow lifts. “Oh? Do you have another date?”
I wrinkle my nose. “No . . . that’s Saturday night.”
I hate dating almost as much as I hate cooking and hospitals. But it seems a shame to pack it in at forty-two. Two years of widowhood, and I’m just starting to dip my toe back in the proverbial dating pond. My first impression: it sucks.
I rattle the car keys against my palm and head to the door. “Later.”
“You sure you don’t want to stay for dinner?”
“I’m on deadline. If I don’t get Brigitte a synopsis for this book, she’s going to skewer me. I’ll pick up something on the way home.”
Kitty rolls her eyes. “Fine, but you’re going to fade away to nothing one of these days.”
Hardly. I would do anything to get rid of the muffin top hanging over my jeans. Mistakenly, I believed never giving birth would spare me from midlife belly fat. Uh, wrong.
Maybe that’s why I write about young heroines who don’t have to deal with the disappointment of a slowing metabolism. That, and I give each one of them something I’ve never had: a “happily ever after” in the arms of their hero.
My heart lifts and my shoulders relax the moment I step outside and the sun hits the crown of my head. The click-clack of my high-heeled sandals across the parking lot marks the distance between me and this godforsaken place. After a silent prayer for Vera, I switch mental gears and find my escape.
Drew, the male lead in my novel who’s loosely based on my real-life Drew, slips into my head the moment I sit behind the wheel. He’s particularly loud today, begging me to write some hot scenes with Becca. Ah, to be young and brimming with hormones.
I smile and flip on the air-conditioning. “Down, boy. You’ll need to wait until I get home.” I picture him scowling at me with his muscled arms crossed.
One glance in the rearview mirror tells me I need some major construction on my face. Thank God for waterproof mascara. Kitty missed my mini-breakdown before she arrived. No wonder she kept checking to see if I was okay. I look like total crap.
I pull out my compact and smooth my face with mineral powder, dab on some lipstick, and feather on a subtle layer of blush. Makeup always cures what ails me to some degree. “Look good, feel good,” Aunt Vera always says.
Rather than heading out the front entrance, I turn onto the long, winding drive toward the east-side exit. A chunky dump truck emblazoned with “Petrillo’s Landscape Design” blocks my way. Saplings with puffy treetops are visible over the side.
Seriously? Swearing under my breath, I calculate my chances of squeezing my SUV past the truck and arrive at an unwanted answer. So I shove the car in neutral, set the brake, and get out. I stalk around the oversized Tonka toy to where four guys are digging various parts of a new landscape bed.
My eye gravitates to one in particular. Oh. My. God. Above a pair of dirt-encrusted jeans, his broad, sun-kissed shoulders glimmer in the sunlight. A landscape of ripples contract along his back and arms as he works. His tawny-blond hair is drawn back in a ponytail at the nape of his neck.
I force my slack jaw back into place. “Excuse me.”
Four heads turn at once, and when the blond turns, my breath sucks in fast.
Drew. He looks like Drew—at least in my head and from what I remember. Narrow waist, hard, and lean. Unlike the rest of guys with shovels, he hasn’t used his body as a living canvas for self-expression. He has no ink. But I only wonder why for about half a second. My brain is too busy superimposing Drew as I fight not to gape.
“Um, can someone pull up the truck? I’m trying to get out,” I say, doing my best to be polite. I look away to hide my blush.
An older, dark-haired guy tosses a set of keys to the blond. “Yo. Catch.” By process of elimination, he has to be the “Petrillo” named on the side of the truck. The other two men are smaller Hispanic guys, and the blond doesn’t particularly strike me as a “Petrillo.”
My heart races as the blond trots over with the keys. He scoops up a white T-shirt lying in a mound on the grass on his way over, and wipes his face. Giving me a crooked smile, he heads to the driver’s side. “Hey, sorry about that. You’re the first person to head down this way all day.”
“This exit points me closer to where I need to go. Sorry to be a pain.”
“No problem,” he says, and climbs up into the cab. The timbre of his voice sends chills down my spine. It’s Drew’s voice . . . or maybe just my overactive imagination.
He stares down at me quizzically. “You good?”
I realize he’s waiting for me. “Uh, yeah,” I say, waking up from my daydream haze and forcing myself back into the SUV to back up.
Acrid black smoke rises skyward from the truck’s vertical exhaust accompanied by the dull roar of the engine as he drives past me, his profile catching my peripheral vision.
My brain short-circuits as my sandal hits the gas pedal. How can I just leave?
The idea hits me like a sledgehammer, and I jam on the brakes. The blond guy is on his way back to where the other guys are planting trees when my mouth develops a mind of its own.
“Excuse me,” I yell impulsively through the open window.
He alters his direction and comes over. Stooping down, he leans his hands on my open window. “What’s up?”
His sudden proximity heightens my heart rate. For a split second, I almost lose my nerve until I look into his stunning blue eyes—Drew’s eyes. For a second, I’m back in the summer of 1990, sitting behind the wheel of my dad’s Chrysler.
Drew drops his backpack of schoolbooks onto his driveway, and leans into the open car window. His eyes, blue like the summer sky, connect with mine. Tawny blond hair falls down around his face. “I’ll pick you up at six-thirty for the concert,” he says and presses his lips to mine. Then he steps back, juts out his hips, and breaks into an air guitar riff and the first line of “Wanted Dead or Alive.”
Giggling, I shift into reverse. “Later, Bon Jovi. Love ya.”
“Love ya, too,” he shouts back, scooping his books off the blacktop.
If I’d only known how little time we had left, I would’ve done so many things differently, kissed him a little longer . . . held onto him a little tighter.
I take a second to compose myself and clear my throat. “Um, this may sound strange, but how would you like to be on a book cover?”
His head jerks back slightly, and his eyebrows fly up. “What?”
Undeterred, I give him a sweet smile and repeat slowly, “Would you. Like to be. On a book cover?”
He chuckles. “I’m not mentally deficient. I heard the question. I’m just not sure what you mean.”
I can’t help but stare at his delicious full lips, wishing I were half my age. I take a deep breath and prepare for his refusal. “You happen to resemble the male lead in a novel I’m writing, and I haven’t had a book cover designed yet. I’m wondering if you’d like to be on it.”
The corner of his mouth tips up. “I think I’m flattered.”
I can’t suppress my smile, secretly glad I fixed my face earlier.
“What would this entail, exactly?” he asks.
“A two- to three-hour photo shoot.” As if I haven’t been impulsive enough, I add, “Sometime this week.”
He gives me a pointed look. “Clothed, right?”
I tilt my head, a spark of hope flaring inside me. “Pretty much the way you’re dressed right now, except with cleaner clothes.”
He looks down at his pants and grins. Then his mouth turns into a frown. “Hmm. This week might be tight.”
“Is that a yes?” My heart picks up tempo.
Petrillo yells over, “Yo! Stop flirting with the nice lady and get back to work, man.”
“Hey, I gotta go.”
“Wait.” I fumble in my purse and pull out a business card. Without thinking, I thrust the card at him and blurt, “I’ll pay you $300 in cash.”
His eyes light up. “Really?” Then he glances at my card. “You’re on, Jillian Grant. By the way, I would’ve done it for free.” Wearing a lopsided smile, he shoves the card in his pocket and taps the side of the SUV with his hand. “I’ll text you.”
A thrill shoots through me as he heads off, and then I remember. “Wait! What’s your name?”
He turns and calls, “Raine. With an e.”
I smile. Raine with an e. It suits him, almost better than Drew.
For the first time all day, I feel alive.
LG O’Connor is a corporate marketing exec by day who takes her author cape out at night. An avid reader, she loves books with memorable characters that make her heart sing.
She’s the author of the urban fantasy / paranormal romance series, The Angelorum Twelve Chronicles, and Caught Up in RAINE, her contemporary romantic women’s fiction debut. Shelter My Heart is the second novel in her romantic women’s fiction series, Caught Up in Love. The CUIL series is set in the suburbs of Morris County and the shore community of Spring Lake, both in New Jersey. The series follows three women on their road to redemption and their second chance at love. Her perfect hero always keeps the heroine fed.
You can find recipes from Caught Up in RAINE hero, Raine MacDonald, on her blog. They first appeared as a monthly column Recipes from Raine’s Roost (aka Jillian’s Kitchen) in 2016 on Joyce Lamb’s USA Today Happy Ever After. The third full length novel in the Angelorum series, Book of Four Rings, is set to launch in 2017.
A native ‘Jersey Girl,’ L.G. is in constant search of the perfect cup of coffee and fine Italian leather.
Her motto: “Life is too short for bad food, uncomfortable shoes, and toxic relationships.”
Her advice? Eat well, go barefoot, and hug the people you love.