Read the first three chapters of Stud Muffin!

Prologue

** Tempest **

I’m getting really good at peeing on sticks. 

Setting the small white tester on the counter, I stand, flush, zip up my jeans and thoroughly wash my hands. After drying them and applying enough hand sanitizer to kill a small infestation of small pox, I begin to pace the bathroom. Counting off my steps as I go, I try to keep from watching the stick.

It’s kind of like a pot of water. If you watch it, it’ll never boil, or turn blue… or say YES. Whatever. 

One, two, three, four … pivot … one, two, three, four … pivot … one, two, three—

“Em?” 

“Two more minutes,” I call back through the closed door, biting at the cuticle on my thumbnail.

“I’m sending all the good juju your way,” Jenn replies and I can hear the smile in her voice. 

It’s no secret I’m trying to get pregnant. 

My husband, Asher, and I have been trying for quite a while, but I had a miscarriage six months ago, so this is the first cycle we’ll be actively trying to conceive again. My hands are starting to sweat a little as I continue to pace. 

I want a baby so badly—more than I’ve ever wanted anything in my life. 

I’ve done all the tricks. Pomegranate juice is my new drink du jour. It’s supposed to increase blood flow to the uterus. Prenatal vitamins are my new best friend. I kicked my coffee habit, which was no small feat, and I’m completely avoiding alcohol. Of course, I exercise and eat healthy. Not to mention, there aren’t a pair of tighty whities to be seen in my house. 

Asher is freeballing twenty-four-seven. 

“Any results yet?” Jenn’s voice startles me this time. I assumed she’d be back to baking. There are over a dozen custom cake orders and she is the queen… the Banana Cake Queen and absolute ruler of Donner Bakery. She and I are often the only workers this early in the morning at the newer location, downtown Green Valley. It’s a satellite location, but fully equipped with the best kitchen equipment available. I love it here. I love the original location too, but this place is a bit less hectic and allows me time to feel inspired and create.

Glancing over at the stick, I notice the screen is still flashing, which means it’s still thinking… or testing… or whatever the little contraption does. It’s kind of inconvenient taking this at work, but when you have to report to your place of employment before the butt-crack of dawn, you make it work. 

“Not yet,” I call back, opening the door to see Jenn standing there with a bright smile and violet-blue eyes staring back at me, hopeful. 

She peeks around my shoulder and then steps back, a sly smile creeping up on her beautiful face. “Looks like someone’s gonna need an early lunch.”

“What?” I ask, whipping my head around. My heart chooses that time to kick into an even higher gear, skipping a beat on its way to overdrive—blood pumping so fast, I feel a little woozy. The smiley face blinking back at me brings immediate tears to my eyes. 

“I’m ovulating,” I whisper, to myself… to Jenn… to the universe as a silent prayer of thanks.

“Yep,” Jenn says with an even wider smile and a quirk of an eyebrow.

“Asher works from home today,” I add absentmindedly as I think out loud and try to get my head on straight. My ovulation is a bit unpredictable, so I have to act fast. “I’ve already prepped the batter for the Muffin of the Day—Back in Baby’s Arms. The Sweet Dreams and Tennessee Waltzes are already in the oven. South of the Borders are on deck,” I gush out, grabbing the test and tossing the test strip. It’s been a Patsy Cline kind of week, what can I say? Waving the still-blinking smiley face at Jenn, I finally take a breath. “I’ll be back in thirty minutes.” 

I’m already halfway out the back door when Jenn calls out, “Take your time! Oh, and make sure you have an orgasm! I heard that helps!”

Laughing to myself, I jump in my car and start it up as another rush of excitement floods my body. 

We’re gonna make a baby.

Driving as fast as I can without drawing the attention of local law enforcement, I make my way across town. Even though I’m in a hurry, I still abide by the laws. I’m looking to get knocked-up not booked-up in the county jail. Although my daddy is the local bail bondsman and he’s in pretty tight with Sheriff James, I’ve never been one to make a scene or abuse my privileges. 

When I approach my house, I note that Asher’s truck is still in the driveway, right where it was when I left a couple hours ago. If I’m lucky, he’s still in bed and I can wake him up with a nice surprise to get things cooking. His morning wood will be working in my favor this morning. He’s always been frisky when he first wakes up and finds it annoying that my first thought has always been coffee instead of sex. 

Well, Asher Williams, today is your lucky day. 

As I’m unlocking the front door, a wicked thought comes to mind and I start shedding my clothes before I’ve even approached the landing of the stairs that lead to our bedroom. Sex and orgasms and sperm making their way to an egg are my only thoughts as I balance against the doorway of our room, just long enough to kick off my shoes. 

And I freeze.

Curled up in my bed—in my fluffy white comforter I picked out at Dillard’s on my last shopping trip with my mama in Nashville and my most-favorite one thousand thread count sheets—is my husband of eight years, sleeping soundly… and right beside him is another head of brown hair that looks suspiciously like Mindy Mitchell.

Been around the block more times than the ice cream truck on a hot July day… Mindy Mitchell.

Screwed the entire football team back in 2009… Mindy Mitchell. 

Naked as the day she was born and curled up next to my husband… Mindy Mitchell.

Standing in the middle of my bedroom in my bra and unzipped jeans with one shoe on and the other in my hand, I feel something snap on a cellular level. 

I’ve always been a relatively calm person. 

But in this moment, as red clouds my vision, consuming my mind, I lose control over everything. 

I feel as if I’m hovering above my body, watching it all play out like a scene from a movie. 

The shoe in my hand flies across the room, making direct contact with Asher’s head, waking him abruptly. When his eyes meet mine, he looks sleepy and confused. Then he turns to look at the sleeping body beside him. I watch as everything registers, just how bad this is. His eyes grow wide and his mouth gapes like a fish as he scrambles for words—an excuse, a plea, an apology? I don’t know, but I don’t allow him the luxury of figuring it out. 

Blindly, I begin to grasp for something… anything. Whatever my hands find becomes my next weapon as I begin launching objects across the room. Anything I can lift becomes airborne.

Glass breaks, things shatter into a million pieces—picture frames, the vase my mama bought us for our wedding flowers, the lamp on the dresser… my heart, my past, my present, my future. 

Everything splinters into a before and after. 

My throat burns and it’s then I realize I’ve been screaming. Coughing, I brace my hands on my knees and try to take a breath, but it gets lodged in my throat on a sob. 

“Tempest!” Asher yells, taking advantage of the pause in action to get off the bed. Hands raised, he looks at me like I’m a stranger, not his wife of eight fucking years. “Get a damn grip on yourself. What are you doing? Have you lost your mind?” 

A harsh bark comes out—deep from the pit of my stomach. “Me?” I yell back. “I think the better question, Asher Williams, is have you lost your goddamn mind? What is she doing here? What have you done?” I scream. My voice sounding foreign, like it’s sourced from the pits of hell—torn and feral. “How could you do this?” 

“I can explain—”

I don’t let him finish that sentence, instead, I pull a dresser drawer open and start throwing clothes at him. “Get dressed and get the hell out of my house!” 

“Em,” he says, pleading as he eases toward me like I’m a caged animal. Maybe I am, because right now I feel like I could chew off his right arm and shove it up his ass… and then… I finally allow myself to look over at Mindy who’s standing on the other side of the bed with the sheet covering her naked body. 

My fucking sheets.

My fucking husband.

“You,” I say, voice trembling as I redirect my ire. I begin to take a step toward her, but Asher tries to intercept, so I turn back to him. “Get. Out.” It’s half cry, half plea, all demand. I need them both out of my house right this second. I need space. I need air. I need … I don’t even know. 

I came home to make a baby … to make love to my husband. 

And this … 

“Maybe you should …” He starts to suggest something, bringing my gaze back up to him, and his expression changes—self-preservation, regret, resignation… I don’t know. But he thinks better of whatever he was going to say. “Okay. We’ll go,” he says, climbing onto the bed to make his way over to her … to Mindy. The way he slips an arm around her waist, protectively, like he’s done to me so many times, it makes me lose what tiny grip on sanity I have left. 

When the dresser hits the ground, my eyes go wide. 

I didn’t even know I could do that. 

As I’m inspecting my work, the door to the bathroom that’s attached to our bedroom shuts behind me and I hear the lock slide into place. 

My head whips around as I glare at the closed door.

Oh, that’s rich

“Are you seriously locking yourself in the bathroom?” I scoff. “Are you scared, Asher? Not man enough to face me?” A humorless laugh escapes and I begin to pace around the room and that action brings me back to the reason I’m here in the first place. Pacing … Ovulating … Happy …

When the lump in my throat becomes too much to bear, I finally let the tears fall. 

My insides begin to rip in two, part of me wanting to stay angry—fired up, and downright pissed the hell off—while the other part wants to crumble into the used sheets and fall apart. 

When I open my mouth to speak this time, it’s broken and small. “How could you…” About the time I let the tears break free and collapse to the floor in front of the bathroom door, I hear sirens from a distance. 

They get closer and closer until they’re right outside the window. 

The next thing I hear is the front door open and my daddy’s voice coming from downstairs. “Em,” he calls out. “Em, it’s Dad. I’m gonna need you to come down here, honey.” 

I shake my head as the lump is back and it begins to squeeze, making me unable to speak. 

“Emmie,” he says a second time, firmer, but I can’t talk. I don’t budge. I can’t. I won’t.

This is my house. 

Asher is my husband. 

I came home to make a baby. 

How did this happen?

“Tempest?” 

This time it’s Sheriff James’s voice that’s carrying up the stairs. “Honey, can you please come down here so we can talk this out like adults? I don’t want to have to take you in.”

“Did you seriously call the cops on me?” I ask quietly, banging my head against the bathroom door. 

Asher’s sigh is muffled, yet audible, and I can only assume he’s mimicking my position on the other side of the door. “You were acting crazy,” he says. “Mindy was scared.”

Bolting up at the mention of her name, my anger fueled anew, I bang my fist against the door.

“Are you fucking kidding me, Asher?” Next it’s my foot that kicks the door and then I’m using the piece of wood like a punching bag. “How long, Asher? How many times?” I scream, letting out all the hurt I’m feeling on the sad excuse for a door. When I kick it again, my foot makes contact with the knob and I hear Mindy scream when it breaks off and falls to the floor. 

“EM!” 

A second later, my dad and Sheriff James are standing in my bedroom, surveying the damage. “What in the—” My daddy’s words break off and he looks over at me with wide, shocked eyes. “Are you okay?” 

I finally step away from the door and let my back thud against the bedroom wall, shaking my head, I begin to sob. 

Sheriff James walks to the bathroom door and gives it a quick knock. “Asher.”

“Uh, yes, sir.”

“Gonna need you to step out, son.”

“Uh,” Asher opens the door, but only exposes his head. “Do, uh… do you think you could hand us some clothes?” 

At least he has the decency to sound embarrassed.

Good, I hope he’s ashamed of himself. 

I hope he’s fucking humiliated. 

Most of all, I hope he’s fucking happy. 

“Could you—” Sheriff James looks to me for some assistance, but quickly changes his mind, obviously deciding that’s a bad idea and goes about collecting articles of clothing from around the room. “Make it quick,” he says, handing them to Asher through the partially open, mostly broken door. 

“You know I’m gonna need to take her in,” Sheriff James says to my dad in a hushed whisper. I see my dad give a resigned nod. Closing his eyes, he breathes deeply and then walks toward me. I pretend I didn’t overhear their conversation and cross my arms as I stare out the window. It’s now light outside and I realize I have no idea what time it is or how long I’ve been gone from work. 

“I need to call Jenn,” I say biting on my bottom lip to keep myself from crying. The pain is a good deterrent. 

My dad sighs and walks to stand in front of me. “Sheriff James—”

“Needs to take me in,” I finish for him, kicking off the wall just as the bathroom door creaks open and a clothed Asher and Mindy walk out, still looking at me like I’m their mortal enemy. I glare at Asher and turn the rage up a notch as I let my eyes slide to Mindy. 

This bitch is in my house.

In my bed.

With my husband. 

My stare intensifies and she flinches. 

Good.

I hope she’s scared. 

I also have no clue what’s gotten into me, but there’s no turning it off now.

“I’m gonna need all three of you to come down to the station,” Sheriff James begins, addressing the room. “Since this has been logged as a domestic disturbance call, we’ll need to take statements from the three of you. 

He gives me a tight-lipped, apologetic smile. Then he lets out a huff and steps back so Asher and Mindy can walk out ahead of him, obviously putting a barrier between them and me. The absurdity of this entire situation settles in my chest and I can’t help the incredulous laugh that erupts. 

“Em?” my dad asks from somewhere behind me. “You okay?” 

“Fine, Daddy.” 

Except for the fact I still want to rip Asher limb from limb. 

And Mindy too.

And maybe break some more shit.

And burn some shit. 

My mama and daddy named me Tempest not because of my red hair, but because I was born on a stormy night. According to my mother, I was howling like the wind. The nurses and doctor even joked about my lungs being overly developed and that maybe I’d be an opera singer when I grew up … an auctioneer … pig caller. 

However, for the majority of my life, I’ve been quite the opposite—calm, cool, collected. I was born in October and am a true Libra, quite often the peacemaker, never making waves. Sure, I’ve been known as a bit of a spitfire, my red hair mirroring my tenacity and determination, but that’s where it stopped. The cliché of a redhead having a fiery temperament has always been lost on me. 

But something snapped today. 

Something has changed and it’s a little frightening to acknowledge the emotions boiling beneath my skin. I want to hit something or someone. I want to break things. I need some kind of outlet to release this pent-up anger and resentment roiling through my body. 

My eyes bore into the back of Asher’s head as we make our way out to the driveway, my daddy ushering me to the back of Sheriff James’s police cruiser. After securing me in the back, he slides into the front, while Sheriff James orders Asher and Mindy into the backup squad car that’s parked behind my truck. 

As we drive off, I turn back to look at the perfect yellow house with white shutters. All of my dreams were wrapped up in that picturesque setting. We were going to have babies and raise a family. And now, the only thing I know for sure is that somewhere—deep inside me—a dormant beast has been awakened.

Chapter 1

** Tempest **

Three Months Later

“Mama,” I grumble into the receiver of the phone, “Please talk Daddy into getting me out of here.”

“Baby, I know this is hard. Believe me when I say that this is harder on him than it is on you, and don’t even get me started on what I’m going through,” she replies with a deep sigh into her end of the phone. 

I can picture her sitting in Daddy’s chair, since he’s here at the police station with me. I’m sure she has her housecoat on and she’s probably watching her stories, which she taped earlier today because it’s Tuesday and she volunteers at the Community Center on Tuesdays. And when I say “taped”, I literally mean “taped”. She and Daddy probably own the only working VHS machine in Green Valley, Tennessee. They’ve yet to catch up with the times and invest in a damned DVD player and don’t even get me started on the DVR Debacle of 2015. I’ve tried and tried to talk them into it, but I always get the same response—the response they give to any modern technology—they’re not letting the FBI into their home. 

Yeah, that’s what I’m working with. 

According to them, anything made in the last twenty years is bugged, wired, or tracked.

I still suffer from second-hand embarrassment that they believe in all that Area 51 bullshit. Big Brother. Shark Spies. Fake Moon Landing. You name it, they subscribe. My mama keeps tin foil wrapped around the end of their television antenna for better reception and to block satellite spies from coming into their living room. 

“Mama,” I plead once more, trying my damndest to work up some legitimate tears, but I’m sad to say, I’m all cried out. 

“You’ve made your bed, Sweetie. Now you’re just gonna have to lie in it.” Mama’s voice takes on the no-nonsense tone she uses when dealing with me or my daddy, especially when we’re not living up to Shauna Cassidy’s standards. My mama is an ideal southern women—prim, proper, big hair, close to God. 

“Mama?” I ask, hoping she’s still there, but then there’s an audible click as the line goes dead and I feel defeated. She was my one phone call. I can’t believe they really only give you one phone call.

“Did she hang up on you?” My daddy’s expression is serious, but I also see a small twitch under his thick mustache as I hand the phone back to him through the bars. I feel like he’s getting a kick out of seeing me in this situation, knowing I’ve already used my get-out-of-jail-free card one too many times. As he sighs and stuffs his hands into the front pockets of his jeans, the term tough love swirls through the air. It’s unspoken, but it’s there. My chest feels tight as my dad’s head bows and he tucks his chin to his chest, scratching the back of his head with a deep sigh. 

Disappointment.

My father, who’s always been proud of me, is disappointed. 

Until a few months ago, I was an upstanding member of society. I recycled, voted, and braked for dogs, cats, and squirrels. I went to church on Sundays. My husband was my high school sweetheart. We had a life cut from the pages of Southern Style magazine—a yellow house with white shutters and a fence to match. 

Now, here I am, sitting in jail. Again. The only thing keeping me company on this side is a flimsy mattress and an even flimsier blanket folded neatly at the end.

“Can I get you something to eat? Maybe a glass of water?” Sheriff James asks, walking over from a desk in the corner of the room. I know he’s only being nice to me because I’m Butch Cassidy’s daughter. 

And before you get to thinking I’m famous, let me stop right there. We’re not the Cassidy’s—Hollywood actors or legendary outlaws. And no, I am not the Sundance Kid. 

The next person who calls me that might get shanked, especially with my recent track record. 

But my daddy is the bail bondsman, so he and the sheriff are buddies. Sheriff James books ’em. My daddy bonds ‘em. They play for the same team. 

“No, thank you,” I huff, with as much menace as I can muster. 

“Tempest, now you know that this is—” my daddy starts.

“Hurting you more than it’s hurting me?” I interrupt. “Yeah, I already know.” 

And I call bullshit. 

Funny thing is that most of my anger is not directed at the man walking out of the jail at this moment, leaving me behind, it’s directed at Asher. 

He brought all of this on himself.

I was a perfectly calm individual until I walked into my bedroom and found him and Mindy snuggled up in my thousand count sheets. My bed. My sheets. My husband. 

Not that I even want him now. I don’t. 

At least, that’s what I keep telling myself. 

But I also didn’t want him to have that damn truck. 

“I don’t really see what the big deal is, anyway,” I mutter to myself and the three concrete walls. “I mean, who says it’s a sin to drive a truck into a pond?” I pause for my own contemplation as I begin to pace the short length of the bars. “The last I heard, this was still a free country. Seems to me that I should be able to park a vehicle wherever I see fit.” 

One, two, three, four. 

Pivot.

One, two, three—

“You know, I’ve always thought Mr. Miller’s pond was a nice place for a swim,” a familiar voice says from behind me, halting my pacing and self-reflection. Glancing up, I see my cousin Cole standing a few feet away, hand on his holster as he gives me his signature smile, dimples on full display. How any criminals ever take him serious is beyond me. 

Fighting back a smile, I turn to face him. I should’ve known he’d be on duty tonight, or if he wasn’t, once he heard my name on the police scanner he’d be here. “I don’t need your smart mouth tonight, Cole Cassidy. I’ve gotten enough of a lecture from my daddy, who, by the way, left me to rot in this damned jail cell.”

“Aww, now. It’s not that bad. Sheriff James just had the beds upgraded last month and I can have Anna bring an extra piece of meatloaf when she drops by later to bring me supper.”

Spinning on my heel, I grip the bars and stare him down. “Oh, no. Don’t you dare tell her I’m in here,” I warn. That would be even worse than my daddy leaving me here or my mama calling her prayer chain. 

Cole shows a sign of zipping his lips and tossing an imaginary key over his shoulder. “Your secret’s safe with me.” Walking over to the desk, he perches on the edge, crossing his big arms across his chest. 

“How long are you holding me here for, anyway?” 

Giving me a small smile, he shakes his head and glances over his shoulder before turning back to answer. “As long as no charges are pressed, you should be free to go in the morning.” 

Letting out a deep, resigned sigh, I walk over to the cot and plop down. 

“So, you really drove that truck right off into Mr. Miller’s pond?” 

I take a second to make myself as comfortable as possible, seeing as though I’m going to be here for the night. Kicking my shoes off, I place them neatly on the floor and then lay back, staring up at the ceiling. “Yeah, drove it right past the dock and straight into the pond.”

“Holy shit,” Cole replies with a chuckle. “I always knew you were a little crazy. It was just hidden down under all your cardigans and china patterns.”

“Shut up,” I tell him with a laugh. “I’m not crazy. Just pissed the hell off.” 

“So, what made you want to do that?” Cole asks and I sit up to look at him. 

“Is this Cole the deputy asking or Cole my cousin?” 

“Always Cole, your cousin.”

“Asher called me today and said since the truck was in his name, he was gonna sell it. At first, I told him fine and that he could come and get it, because I don’t want anything of his anyway. The divorce will be final in another few weeks and I’m ready to be done with it, you know? But then, after I hung up the phone, I really started thinking about, thinking back on when we bought the truck and how happy I was… how happy he was. He wanted me to have something nice to drive. We were happy…” I drift off, unable to finish for a second as my memories bring up fresh emotions. It’s not Asher I’m sad about; it’s the possibilities… my future. “I just couldn’t let him take one more thing from me.”

We both sit in silence for a few minutes until Cole’s walkie talkie starts rattling off some mumbo jumbo I don’t understand. I hear him shift and then clear his throat. “I’ve always got your back. You know that, right?” 

I offer a small, sad smile to the ceiling. “Thanks, Cole.”

“But no more truck swimming,” he says, tapping the wall on his way out. 

It’s strange to think that I, Tempest Cassidy, am in jail. 

I’m not your typical criminal. I didn’t drop out of school. Actually, not only am I a high school graduate, I also graduated from college… with a degree in culinary arts… that I use. 

Which brings me to my other contradictory quality: I’m a hard-working, contributing citizen of society. I take my job very seriously. I’m passionate about muffins, well, baking in general, but since I got hired on at the Donner Bakery and put in charge of the muffin making, I’ve owned it … taken it to a new level … revolutionized muffin making and given them flair.  

If Jenn is the Banana Cake Queen, I am the Duchess of Muffins. 

Which, by the way, I’m glad it’s Saturday night and I don’t have to work tomorrow. I’d hate to have to call into work … from jail. 

However, this isn’t my first episode, as my mama likes to call them. I wish they really were episodes, because then, maybe I could figure out a way to stop them … cancel their subscription. 

I don’t want to be a person with a rap sheet. Orange is not a good color on me. Driving that truck into Mr. Miller’s pond was definitely not my finest moment. Believe me, I know the law, but when my soon-to-be ex-husband is in the picture, all my rationality flies out the window. 

It usually goes something like this:

I’m minding my own business, trying to live my life.

He shows up out of nowhere, his presence alone reminding me of everything I had and have lost. I get pissed off… sometimes just because he’s doing something as simple as breathing.

My vision gets hazy.

My body tingles with untapped aggression.

Then, the crazy sets in and there isn’t a lick of reason to be found. 

From that point on, I have somewhat of an out-of-body experience and I just do whatever feels right in the moment—whatever will ease the pain or let me vent my anger—and hope to hell I don’t get caught.

Chapter 2

** Cage **

As the car I’m riding in passes a sign that reads “Green Valley—population 12,539”, I sit up in my seat a little straighter, focusing on the scenery. But there’s not really much to look at besides trees and hills and the occasional car, until we come across an old farmhouse and a wrecker’s flashing lights gets my attention. 

Craning my neck as we drive past, I notice it’s pulling a truck from a pond. 

Smirking to myself, I shake my head. There’s bound to be a story there. But what do I know about small towns? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I’ve lived in Dallas my whole life, so this, along with everything else that’s transpired in the last couple months, is a serious change of pace.

“Hey, thanks man,” I tell the guy I paid to give me a ride from the bus station, tapping the side of his car once I have my two duffle bags unloaded from the backseat. I could’ve flown into Nashville and rented a car, but the less-traveled path seemed to suit me better right now. Besides, I don’t know how long I’m going to be here and I didn’t want the hassle of returning a rental car. 

A few months ago, I felt like I was in the prime of my life—finally fighting on the professional circuit. Everyone always tells you it won’t last forever. My mom has always been on my case about the future and making plans for the next phase of my life, but I’ve always felt like I’ll either die young or fight until I’m ninety. I’ve never seen an in between for me. There’s never been a second love or a Plan B. It’s always been fighting or nothing. 

A career-ending injury was definitely not on my radar. 

I eat well, train well, take every precaution to keep myself in top shape. Physically, I’m in the best shape of my life, but my right shoulder no longer allows me to have full-range of motion. I can’t complete an uppercut without excruciating pain radiating through my arm and up my neck, which leaves me vulnerable in the ring. 

Cage Erickson is synonymous with champion. 

I’ve only lost a handful of fights in my life and most of those came during my amateur years. And no, I don’t normally refer to myself in the third person, but I’ve made my name my brand and I refuse to let that be tarnished. With forty-nine wins under my belt, seven draws, and five losses, I was on my way to a title and a lucrative career as a UFC fighter. 

I can still remember feeling the tear, something foreign, a pain I wasn’t used to, but I kept fighting. I won the round and eventually the bout. Initially, I thought the injury wasn’t so bad. Maybe a few weeks in PT and I’d be good as new, until the doc sent me for an MRI and showed me the extent of the damage. 

Less than a day later, I was in surgery, having my shoulder cut open. 

Ruptured right subscapularis and bicep tendon tear.

I spent six weeks in a sling and another six weeks doing physical therapy. And another six weeks going fucking stir crazy. Without an outlet for all my pent-up energy, I feel like breaking walls and smashing windows. The slightest thing sets me off these days. 

Which is what brings me to the quaint town of Green Valley, Tennessee. 

As the dust from the gravel parking lot whips up with a gust of wind, I feel like I’m in one of those apocalyptic movies. Except for the blinking sign on the building in front of me and the few cars parked in the lot, this place feels like a ghost town compared to the big city life I’m used to. 

“Cage Erickson.” A familiar voice brings my attention to a side door and Hank is standing there with a smirk on his face. “I wasn’t sure if you were gonna take me up on the offer.”

“Well, I wasn’t sure myself …” I tell him, walking toward where he’s standing, kicking up a little more dust as I go. A few hours back up the road, I was still deciding on whether or not I’d get here just to turn right back around and head back home, or if I’d actually stay. But something about the green trees and mountains and fresh air makes my mind up for me. “But a few miles back up the road, I decided it sounded like a good idea.” 

His smile widens as he lets out a laugh. “Well then. Welcome to Green Valley.” 

“Thanks,” I tell him, giving the building another once over. “So, this is your club?” 

Hank sighs, stepping out of the doorway to peer up at the building. “Yeah, she’s a beaut, huh?”

Chuckling, I nod my head and toss one of my duffles over my good shoulder. “Not too shabby,” I agree, walking toward him. “How about a tour? And where can I find some food in this town? I’m starving.”

When Hank slaps my shoulder, I wince. 

“Sorry, man.” He grimaces, giving me a hard look. “About everything, really.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“You’re a hell of a fighter, best I’ve seen.”

Was,” I correct.

Are,” he insists. “Which is why I hired you to be my bouncer. I need someone around here to keep everyone in line. My girls are too pretty to be harassed.”

As we walk into the building, he escorts me down a dimly-lit hallway and into the open expanse of the club. Surprisingly, it’s well-lit and well-furnished. I’m assuming it’s dark in here during the evening hours, but with the house lights up, everything is exposed, including a scantily dressed waitress walking our way. 

“Hi, Hank,” she drawls in a sweet southern accent. “Who’s your friend?” 

The blonde winks in my direction as she pushes her boobs together to bring them to my attention, which isn’t really necessary. They’re big. And her top is tiny. Along with the equally tiny shorts, she’s giving Hooters’ girls a run for their money. 

“Cage Erickson,” I tell her, dropping my bags and offering her a handshake. If we’re going to be co-workers, we might as well get off on the right foot. 

“Cage is our new bouncer,” Hank informs her. “He’s gonna help me get this place in order.”

She raises her eyebrows and places her dainty hand in mine. “Sarah,” she says with a seductive smile. “Nice muscles.”

“Thanks,” I deadpan. 

She’s pretty enough, but I’m not interested. I’m here to do a job and I’m not looking to get involved. One-night stands have been my style the last few years, but that never goes over well in a place of employment. It’s been a while since I’ve worked a day job, but the rules never change. 

“Well, let’s get you fed and then I’ll show you around,” Hank instructs, guiding me over to a table as he calls out to someone that he needs two burgers and fries. 

“Thanks for this, man.”

“Don’t thank me,” Hank replies. “You’re doing me a favor. I really need some muscle around here. So, don’t act like I’m giving you a free ride.” He laughs and glances over his shoulder before turning back to face me. “Where are you planning on staying?”

I sigh, leaning back in my chair. “I don’t know. Haven’t really thought about it. Just packed up my shit and headed for Tennessee. All I knew was I had to get out of Dallas before I lost my damn mind.”

“Well, you came to the right place.”

Glancing around, I smirk, shaking my head. Never in a million years did I think the road would lead to a strip club in the middle of nowhere Tennessee. “It’s a change of pace, that’s for sure.”

“Yeah, and it’ll keep you out of that damn head of yours while you continue to heal up.” Hank nods, thinking to himself for a second. “How is the shoulder?”

I give it a test spin, wincing when I get halfway around. “Still not back to fighting shape, but it’s better.”

Won’t ever be, I think to myself.

Hank huffs his response, his eyes boring into mine. “You’ll do just fine. Pretty sure you could take most people if you were blindfolded and hogtied.”

We both laugh, and I know he’s probably not too far from the truth. Fighting is in my blood. It’s what I’ve always known, what I’ve always been passionate about. Somehow, I’ve got to find a way to channel all of that into something productive. 

Over the past couple months, I’ve felt the adrenaline building. There’s always this underlying current, something I’ve never been able to put a finger on, but it’s there. Fighting has always been my outlet, keeping it to an electrifying buzz instead of an overwhelming gong. 

Anger?

Anxiety?

Excess energy?

I don’t know, but my father, being a boxer, recognized that when I was in the ring with him, I was a calmer, more collected version of myself. It gave me discipline, taught me respect for myself and others, and even helped me focus on tasks outside of the sport. 

I’ve always been determined, motivated, and one of the best fighters in Texas, and most recently, the country. That is until my injury. Now, everything feels like it’s in slow-motion. A few months ago, I was cruising down a highway with no speed limit, and now, I’m on a back country road, trudging through the mud. 

Without the rigorous schedule of training for fights and the reward of putting all of my hard work to use, I’m feeling pretty fucking lost these days. 

Who knows? Maybe somewhere in this roadside strip club and quaint town, I’ll find myself again.

Chapter 3

** Tempest **

The way people look at me nowadays makes me feel like a stranger. It’s the same way they look at out-of-towners, or people they don’t trust—guarded and suspicious. My mama has given me one too many talks about putting on a good appearance, and Lord knows, I’ve been trying. 

Fake it until you make it

Put on a good face. 

But I’ve never been good at lying and that’s what it feels like. 

My bullshitter has been broken since the day I was born. I couldn’t lie my way out of a brown paper sack. For the life of me, I can’t understand what’s happening… why I’m acting the way I’ve been acting. My only explanation is that Asher brought out something in me, a level of anger and vindictiveness I’ve never known until now.

“I’ve raised you better than this,” my mama leans up and whispers as we sit in the courtroom and wait for the judge. “Tempest June, are you listening to me? You do whatever this judge tells you to and get a grip on yourself.” 

“Not now, Mama,” I hiss back. I love her. God knows I do, but I’m so tired of everyone telling me how I should feel and how I should act and how I should turn the other cheek. Normally, she’d full name me—first, middle, and last—but since she knows the mention of Williams causes my blood to boil, she did me a favor and stopped at my first and middle.

Small mercies. 

“Tempest Williams,” Judge Carson says, as if on cue, and I grit my teeth.

Apparently, he didn’t get the memo.

“Here, Judge Carson,” I say, standing from my spot in the second row and making my way to the podium where I try not to fidget. Forcing a smile, I smooth out the pale-yellow skirt I picked out for today. Not sure why, but it makes me feel pretty and I need any little help I can get these days. 

The last time I saw Judge Carson, we were arguing over the last slice of Mississippi mud pie at the church Pie Supper. When he gives me a stern, serious stare, I wince and give an awkward wave. “Seems to me you’ve been in a little trouble, Mrs—”

“Miss,” I correct, cutting him off and clearing my throat, because if I have to hear Mrs. Williams one more time I’m liable to do something that’d earn me a permanent spot in Sheriff James’s jail and as nice as those upgraded cots are, I’m not looking to change my address. “Miss Cassidy. I’d prefer Miss Cassidy.”

“Is your divorce final?” he asks, looking down through the reading glasses at the tip of his nose as he flips through the stack of papers in front of him. 

“Uh, no sir, but it will be next week.”

Sighing, in either frustration or reluctance, he cuts his eyes back up at me and repeats, “Seems to me you’ve been in a little trouble, Miss Cassidy.”

“Yes, sir.”

Honesty is still the best policy, right? 

“Also seems to me that the trouble stems from your… well, temper, Tempest.”

Temper. Tempest. I see what he did there and the pun isn’t lost on me, but I decide to plead the fifth on this one, keeping my lips in a straight line … and shut. 

“In the last three months, you’ve been brought in on a domestic dispute, disturbing the peace, vandalism … and the most recent count, destruction of personal property. How do you plead?”

I swallow, wanting to turn around and see if my mama is still sitting behind me, but if I saw her, then I’d see my dad, and the look of disappointment I’m sure I’d see on his face would be a little too much for me to bear. “Guilty, your Honor.”

Judge Carson nods, pursing his lips, as he flips back through the pages, obviously thinking … thinking of what my fine will be … or sentence, perhaps. Cole told me that my worst-case scenario is a few days in jail and a thousand dollar fine, neither of which I want. 

The fact of the matter is, this divorce has cost me in more ways than one. Not only did I lose my husband, but I lost my vehicle and soon I’ll have to give up my house, along with half my savings to cover attorney fees. 

Can you believe that shit? He cheats and I still have to pay. But it’s fine because I don’t want anything from him and I’m ready to be done with everything involving him, so the faster this is over the better. 

At least, that’s what I keep telling myself.

There are a few people in the courtroom murmuring, probably talking about me, but I tune them out. I don’t really care what people are saying or what they think of me. I can’t explain the reasoning behind the crazy things I’ve been doing. They don’t really make sense at all. 

However, I know that with each incident—a pile of burnt clothes, a vehicle dumped into Mr. Miller’s pond—I feel a little better inside, like a small piece of myself is coming back. 

The truth is, I want Asher to feel what I feel—to hurt like I hurt—but that’s impossible. What I’ve come to realize lately is that he’s not the person I thought he was. He doesn’t care about me. He doesn’t love me. If he did, he never would’ve broken our vows. I thought they were sacred. I thought we had something special. But I was wrong. 

There’s no way I can hurt him like he hurt me, because I loved him.

I was ready to go to the ends of the earth for him. 

But he threw all that away. 

Metaphorically, he burned everything we’d spent years building to the ground in one afternoon. 

The damage was already done. 

It kills me every time I see him and Mindy around town. I wonder what he’d think if the tables were turned, but again, I’d never do that. I’m Tempest Cassidy and I’m loyal to a fault. 

I also realize that even if I went out and fucked the whole town, I’d just be the new town whore with a broken heart… and maybe a few STDs. I wouldn’t be doing myself any favors.

So, I’ve settled for a different kind of revenge. 

The first time I was arrested was the night I was standing outside of Asher’s new house. I’d been sleeping and had one of my nightmares—this vivid dream where I’m walking into the house all over again. He’s moaning. She’s moaning. Practically the whole house is shaking. And then I’m standing in the doorway of our bedroom and I see them. 

One time, I was pregnant—round belly, my hands protectively placed.

When I woke up, I had tears streaming down my cheeks and my heart literally ached.

That particular night, I decided if I couldn’t sleep, then neither should he. So, I went over there—to his new house. In my fluffy pink house slippers and my red plaid pajama bottoms from Christmas, I stood in Asher’s front yard and yelled out every feeling I’d pent up inside me—the hate, the betrayal, the disgust. I just let it all out, yelling so loud I probably woke the dead, but then the neighbors had called the cops. Before the sirens and flashing lights, I remember feeling completely exhausted and laying down in the cool grass because it felt good on my hot, tear-stained cheeks. 

The liquid courage I drank prior to going over there probably hadn’t helped the situation.

And even though I landed myself in jail, I felt better. That time, my daddy bailed me out pretty quick. I was barely there long enough for the whiskey to wear off. He just drove me home and told me to go back to bed. 

A week later, after I ran into Asher and Mindy at the bank, I went straight home and ran around the house like a crazy person, gathering everything that belonged to him. Clothes left in the closet, shoes left in the garage, his stupid baseball magazines—I piled them all up in the driveway and lit the sons of bitches on fire. 

Apparently, the Homeowner’s Association frowns on fires in the driveway. 

All fires must be contained in a fire pit, fireplace, or grill,” Mr. Ramirez, the HEA president, had said. 

Is this still the fucking south? 

Can’t people burn shit if they want to, damn it? 

That time, I only received a citation and a hefty fine of two hundred and fifty dollars, which initiated my next run-in with the law. 

I figured that since all of this was Asher’s fault in the first place, he should have to pay my fine. So, while he and the missus were at work one day, after I finished up my Duchess of Muffin duties at the bakery, I drove over and broke in the back door of his new house and stole his pride and joy—an autographed football from the University of Alabama National Championship team.

Rammer jammer, my ass! 

I’d like to have rammed that football up Asher’s ass, but instead, I hocked it. 

I know all of these incidentsepisodes … whatever you want to call them—make me sound exactly how everyone labels me these days—crazy, unstable, scorned—but at the time, my actions seemed completely logical. I’m not even mad anymore, really, just hurt. I’m also sorry I wasted all those years putting him on a pedestal, because he never deserved it.

“Tell you what I’m going to do,” Judge Carson finally says, bringing my attention back to him. “I’m going to fine you the minimum five hundred dollar fine, plus …” he says, pausing. His bushy, gray eyebrows furrowing as he looks at me. “Twenty-four hours of anger management. You can either find a class or I’ll appoint one for you.”

I swallow, partially grateful and partially pissed off. I don’t have an anger problem. I have an Asher Williams problem, and as soon as he’s out of my life, everything will go back to normal. 

“Is that understood, Miss Cassidy?” he asks, waiting for me to acknowledge his decree. 

I nod, swallowing again. “Yes, sir.”

“And if I see you back in my courtroom again, I won’t be as lenient next time.”

As we’re walking out, my mama on one side and my daddy on the other, she lets out a huge sigh of relief. “Praise the Lord. See, I told you, prayer works. That could’ve gone so much worse, Tempest. God was looking out for you today,” she says, squeezing my hand and adding under her breath, “and every other day for the past three months.”

“Yes, Mama,” I say, placating her until I can get to the solace of my house. Even though it feels tainted with memories of Asher and Mindy, it’s still mine, for now, and the only place I feel like I can go these days without people staring at me. Although, I have moved into the spare bedroom downstairs, hardly going upstairs in the past three months. 

“We should celebrate,” she says as we approach the parking lot. “Butch, take us for steaks. It’s been a while since we’ve been to the Front Porch. I think today calls for a nice supper. And Lord knows I’m too exhausted to even think about cooking.”

I bite my cheek and let out a deep exhale through my nose, willing my patience to hold out a little while longer.

My daddy walks to the car and opens the passenger door for her. Before he opens the rear door for me, he pauses, leaning on the hood. “You wanna grab a bite to eat?”

“As lovely as a nice steak dinner sounds,” I manage. “I really just want to go home.” I try to put on a convincing smile but he doesn’t buy it. 

“Don’t let him win,” he says quietly, just for the two of us, looking me square in the eye. “Take your punishment, get this mess over with, and move on with your life.”

Swallowing the lump in my throat that comes out of nowhere, I nod. “Yeah, I’m planning on it.”

He sighs again before giving me a quick hug, kissing the top of my head. “You’re gonna be alright.”

“Okay.” I needed that. I needed someone to tell me that so hopefully I’ll start believing it myself, because right now, things seem dismal, and that’s putting it lightly.

My mama doesn’t say much when my daddy turns the car in the direction of my house instead of the restaurant. When he pulls up into my drive, I get out and shut the door, without preamble. 

“Call us tomorrow,” my mama says, rolling her window down. “And I expect you to be at church on Sunday.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I call out over my shoulder, offering her a consolatory wave as I’m halfway to the door. 

I know she means well, but she has been downright stifling lately. She’s constantly checking up on me, coming by the house unannounced, and unloading all of her wisdom whenever she sees fit. I know I need some of it. We all need our mama’s words of wisdom from time to time, but I also need a freaking break. 

I need to breathe. 

I need to forget. 

I need some time for my heart to heal. 

I need to figure out how to fall out of love with Asher Williams.

Because as hurt and mad as I am, there’s still a part of me that loves the man I married. The one I was planning on starting a family with. The guy I planned to spend the rest of my life with. He was in all my plans … five-year, ten-year … retirement. And now, I’m left figuring out who I am without him.

Today’s soundtrack would include Choices by the late, great George Jones. Maybe I’ll pour a glass of wine and listen to him on repeat. Sometimes, the only thing that can soothe my soul is the steel guitar. 

* * *

It’s been two weeks since my last run-in with the law, which is something to celebrate in itself, but I’ve got something even better than that: my divorce is final. 

I met with my lawyer yesterday after work and it’s a done deal. After a short trip to the DMV and the Social Security Office, I’m officially back to being Tempest Cassidy. I’d like to say it feels good, and in a way it does, but I’m also fighting off the impending doom of being alone. 

How did I get here?

The thing I try to keep reminding myself is that, for the rest of my life, I won’t ever have to look at Asher’s face again, if I choose not to. After months of living under the weight of his betrayal, I feel the first ease of tension, like I can breathe again.

And tonight, I feel like letting my hair down. 

Earlier, I contemplated calling someone to go out with me, but most of the people I know have either joined Team Asher or refuse to take sides, which in my book, means they’re Team Asher. The few people who actually are on my team would never be caught dead in a bar. They’re either knocked-up or are your typical wholesome southern woman, which I am neither—with child or a stereotype. 

I’m more than certain my mama and daddy would frown on my choice of location for my celebration, but one thing I’ve learned since my life got turned upside down is that from here on out, I’m doing things my way. 

Operation: Make Tempest Happy. 

Because if I don’t, who will? 

For years, I let my happiness reside in Asher Williams. Twelve years, to be exact, since I was sixteen years old, and look where that got me—cheated on and divorced, with a rap sheet. 

Not anymore. From now on, I answer to no one but myself. 

So tonight, I’m going to the Pink Pony. 

Sure, it’s not my usual scene. Let’s face it, my usual scene for the last eight years has been my house, the bakery, or an occasional night out to dinner. But it’s precisely what I need—half-priced ladies’ night, music to drown out my thoughts, low lighting to keep me as inconspicuous as possible, and half-naked girls to keep the men folk distracted. 

I know, I know. You’re probably thinking, what the heck, Tempest? Can’t you at least go where there are naked men? But the truth is, I don’t want to see any naked men. I just want to feel the numbness that comes from drinking one too many margaritas.

* * *

After I get ready, I pull up my Uber app and pray that someone is available tonight. Being in a small town has its perks, but public transportation is not one of them. And I know good and well that I won’t be in any shape to drive home, so I take my chances. 

Worst-case scenario: I call Cole, but seeing as though he’s a deputy and is married to a nun, he probably wouldn’t want to be an accessory to my night of debauchery.

When my app shows no availability, I sigh, feeling a bit dejected and kind of like crying. 

“Are you kidding me?” I shout to the ceiling. Looking at you, Big Guy

Letting out a frustrated huff, I lean against the wall and for a split-second, I consider changing out of these clothes and letting ice cream and baked goods lull me into a false sense of serenity. But that’s a weak substitution for what I want: a night of no thoughts, no feelings … just the warmth of tequila running through my veins. 

Nothing is ever freaking easy for me these days. 

One night. That’s all I want and I can’t even make that happen on my own. 

Taking a look in the mirror in the foyer, I give myself the once-over—favorite sweater, skinny jeans that make my ass look great, and a new pair of shoes I’ve never had the chance to wear. I’m not wasting this. 

So, I dial Cole’s number and pray.

“Is this Tempest the Burner, or is this Tempest the Ball Buster, or . . .” he asks, pausing for dramatic effect, “is it possible that I’m talking to the one and only Tempest the Beautiful?”

“Always the charmer, Cole,” I deadpan, rolling my eyes. “It’s Tempest … Cassidy.” I put heavy emphasis on my last name and smile, trying to convince myself it’s a good thing.

I’m divorced.

I’m moving on. 

“Well, well, well. Sounds like congratulations are in order,” he says, his voice depicting his pleasure in my current marital status. “Proud of you, Tempest. Really.”

“Thanks. I’m not sure everyone feels the same, but—”

He huffs his displeasure at that statement. “You did the right thing. Regardless of what anyone thinks, none of this is your fault. He’s the asshole. Don’t doubt that. And you’ve been nice for far too long, so no matter what anyone else says or thinks, I’m proud of you.” He pauses and I wish I could reach through the phone and hug him. “So, to what do I owe this pleasure? Please tell me you’re not calling from jail, because I don’t really think—”

“I’m not calling from jail,” I interrupt, rolling my eyes again as I lean back against the wall, chewing on my thumb nail. “I need a favor.”

“Okay, shoot,” he says, then adds, “Not literally, that’s a felony.”

I huff a laugh, knowing I’ll never live down the past three months of my life. “Haha, very funny,” I say, fighting back a smile and working up the courage to ask him what I called to ask. “I was, uh, wondering if I could get a ride … somewhere?”

“You could call Anna, she’ll probably be heading out to the Piggly Wiggly later for her Saturday night grocery run … don’t know how that woman can find entertainment in that, but whatever.”

“Well,” I drawl, breathing out deeply. “I was actually thinking more like the Pink Pony.” The last few words are expelled in a rush and I squeeze my eyes shut in hopes he won’t instantly shut me down.

“Ah, man. Tempest, I don’t feel good about this,” he whines. “Anna will kick my ass when she finds out, and don’t say she won’t find out because we both know that’s a lie. Nobody gossips like the barflies and the Baptists.”

“Cole,” I say, opting for a different angle. “I’d do it for you.”

“You’re gonna wind your ass up in jail. Again.” I can almost hear him pacing the floor, and I feel bad for putting him in this situation—really, I do. If I had another friend to call, I would, but I don’t. “Why you wanna go there anyway?”

Guilt trip in three, two, one …

“Listen,” I say, mustering what little self-assurance I have left and try to put it all in a nutshell, needing him to understand where I’m coming from. “I spent the last eight years answering to Asher Williams’s every whim. I worked while he went to college. I bent over backwards for everything that man ever wanted. And he repaid me for all of it by fucking Mindy… Mindy Mitchell, Cole! Do you remember how mean she was to me in middle school? And now, she’s living with my ex-husband. I don’t know how to feel these days. I have all these misplaced feelings and tonight, if I don’t let off some steam, I’m gonna blow and I really might end up back in jail. Do you want that?” I pause to take a breath and then go in for one last blow. “Besides, I haven’t had any real fun in a long time. After all the shit I’ve been through, I deserve this. Don’t ruin it for me. It’s not like I’m going to apply for a job or dance on the stage.” 

After a few seconds, he finally acquiesces. “I’ll be there in five.”

Ten minutes later, Cole is dropping me off at the front door of the bar. The gravel parking lot is full and dark and Cole is scoping out the perimeter, making sure it’s safe before I get out. 

Also, he’s probably trying to see who’s witnessing the drop-off. And who’s going to be on the phone to Anna before he can even get back home.

“Cole,” I say, stepping out of the cruiser. “Do yourself a favor and just tell her when you get home. You’ll worry yourself sick over her finding out if you don’t.” Leaning back into the car and reaching across the seat, I give his big, burly arm a squeeze. For such a large guy, he sure is a pussy sometimes. “Tell her it’s my fault and she can come over tomorrow and pray over me or whatever, okay?”

His eyes grow wide as he gives me a look of pure shock, unbelieving I’d give Anna Cassidy permission to unleash her wrath on me. It’s almost worse than God’s. 

Finally, he nods. “I’m on patrol all night. Promise me you’ll call when you’re ready to leave. I’ll come pick you up.”

“I will. Thanks, again,” I tell him, leaning over further to kiss his cheek. “And, I’m sorry if I get you in trouble.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time,” he says with a chuckle. 

Nope, it wouldn’t be the first time and I’m pretty sure it won’t be the last. Cole and I are known for getting in and out of trouble together. When he became a cop, things changed a little, but he’s still the same Cole I grew up with. Except, now he’s an adult who works for the law and is married to the most pious person in the Appalachians. 

“Maybe I should go in with you, just to make sure it’s …” His words trail off as he makes hand gestures toward the bar.

“It’s fine. I’m a big girl,” I tell him, smiling as I shut the door and wave over my shoulder.

** END SNEAK PEEK **

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