© 2023 by Sara Leanne Adams
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or used in any manner without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Warning: this book contains sexual content not suitable for persons under 18 years of age.
This is a five chapter excerpt. The remainder of the book will be available on Galatea - date tba. Book 1 & 2 can be found on Galatea under the Stillwell Cowboys Series.
Poinsettias blanketed the front of the church. A vibrant red garden of festive plants, surrounding the casket of a man who hated Christmas.
Preston Priggishwine would be horrified if he knew the church was decorated for a holiday he deemed commercialized rubbish, while his funeral service was being held there.
Too bad the entitled son of a bitch was dead.
I took my place in the front pew with my stepchildren, where the grieving widow of the beloved media mogul belonged.
My last social event as Mrs. Preston Priggishwine.
I could taste my freedom. I was ready to leave my short-lived, arranged marriage behind me, and move on with my life. The first step was getting far away from Ornate Bay, the snooty suburb of Vancouver where I grew up.
My belly fluttered, the tiny kicks a reminder that I would never be completely free of Preston. I loved my babies, and I would never hold the sins of their father against them. They wouldn’t grow up in a dictatorship household like I did. My children would be free to choose their own path in life.
“I’ve known Preston for over fifty years,” the minister said. “We met while attending an all-boys private school, and we’ve been friends ever since. He was a man of faith, who never missed Sunday morning service. Preston was a successful businessman, carrying on the legacy his father left him with Priggishwine Media. He was a pillar of our community, and a loving husband and dedicated father.”
I glanced down the pew at my stepchildren.
Pru was the only daughter. The eldest of the four children from two of Preston’s three previous marriages. At age forty, my stepdaughter was fifteen years my senior.
She stayed away for the past twenty years, missing out on the love and dedication, until her old man was dying. Pru wasn’t stupid. She wanted to make sure she got her inheritance. I couldn’t really blame her. She earned it, growing up in a home very similar to my own.
The three boys were in their thirties, the eldest the only one who stuck around. Preston Junior was now the CEO of the family empire. The younger two lived on the East Coast, and wanted nothing to do with their father, refusing to visit him on his deathbed. I had no idea why they decided to make an appearance at his funeral.
People sobbed behind me while the minister droned on about Preston, and what a great man he was. It was such a tragedy that he was taken at the young age of sixty-five, when he still had so much life left to live.
Blah, blah, blah.
The fact that not a single tear had been shed in the family pew, spoke volumes about what kind of man he really was.
I glanced at my watch.
How much longer was this going to drag on?
At least we didn’t have to go to the cemetery. Preston was being entombed in the mausoleum.
A huge to-do was being held at the country club, but I had no plans to attend.
There was a plane ticket in my purse. A first class seat on the red-eye, next to my stepdaughter.
It took forever to get out of the church. Hundreds of people showed up for the funeral, and they all wanted to offer phony condolences.
If one more person rubbed my belly, and said what a shame it was that my babies would never know their father, I was going to lose my mind.
“Ready to make a run for it?” Pru whispered.
“I’m six months pregnant with twins, Pru,” I laughed. “I’m not running anywhere.”
“I didn’t mean literally, but I see your father heading this way, so you might want to put some speed into that waddle.”
“Miriam!” he called out.
I hustled toward Pru’s car, my sensible, flat-heeled boots propelling me across the dry pavement. If it had been an icy day, I would’ve never escaped.
Pru jumped into the driver’s seat and hit the gas, swerving around the crowd of people still lingering in the parking lot.
“Are you going to answer that?” she asked when my phone started ringing.
“If I don’t, he’ll just keep calling.”
“You could turn it off.”
“I could, but then he’s apt to call the police, or have one of his goons track me down.”
“Won’t he do that anyway?”
“Probably,” I sighed. “I’m not exactly going into hiding by staying with you.”
“There’s no reason for you to hide, Miriam,” she said. “You’re twenty-five, and your father has no say in how you live your life.”
“That doesn’t mean he’ll stop trying.”
“You have to be firm with him.”
“Is that how you escaped from your father?”
“Yes,” she confirmed.
“I’m not as strong as you, Pru.”
“What makes you think I was strong back then?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I can’t picture you being a wimp. You had the courage to stand up to your father.”
“You’re not a wimp, Miriam. Answer that damn phone, and tell your father to go fuck himself.”
I stared at the screen, my finger trembling when I hit the answer button.
“Miriam, you better be on your way to the club.”
“I’m not going to the reception.”
“Yes, you are, young lady,” he ordered sternly. “How will it look if Preston’s wife isn’t at his funeral? You have an image to uphold, Mrs. Priggishwine.”
“I went to his funeral, Father.”
“And now you’re going to attend the reception at the club, because that is what is expected of a grieving widow. Do you understand?”
I hung up the phone, tucking it away in my purse.
“Miriam,” Pru chastised, shaking her head with a heavy sigh.
“It’s just easier to lie to him.”
“What’s going to happen when you don’t show up?”
“I don’t know.”
“When are they going to start boarding?” I whispered, glancing around nervously.
“They should be calling first class passengers soon,” Pru said, emptying her glass of wine.
“I just want to get on the plane before my father shows up.”
“Did you tell him where you were, Miriam?”
“No, of course not,” I said. “Preston told him.”
“That little weasel,” she muttered. “Why would he do that?”
“Because he’s your father’s son. It’s all about business.”
“Yes, I know,” she sighed. “PJ is so far up your father’s ass, the tip of his nose is permanently stained brown.”
“Ew!” I cried. “What a disgusting analogy.”
“Accurate though,” Pru chuckled.
“My father threatened to come and drag my disobedient ass home.”
“He’d have to purchase a first class ticket to get in here.”
“My father is worth forty-five billion dollars, Pru. I’m pretty sure he can afford a first class ticket.”
“Or buy one for his goon,” she whispered, nodding her head toward the door.
I glanced over my shoulder.
“He sent Feltham!” I gasped. “He won’t take no for an answer.”
“That’s our boarding call,” she said when they requested first class passengers over the PA.
“How am I going to get past him?”
“Miriam,” Feltham said in the quiet but commanding tone he’d been ordering me around with my entire life. “Let’s go.”
I grabbed my carry-on and followed Pru toward the exit, ignoring the six-foot-eight monster in the three-piece suit. He followed us to the gate, his heavy footsteps sending a familiar bolt of terror through me. Whenever I was disobedient, my father sent Feltham to discipline me, leaving it up to his goon to determine what was required to make me comply with his orders.
Barrett Stone never dirtied his own hands. He always paid someone else to carry out what he considered to be unpleasant tasks he deemed not worthy of his time.
“Keep moving,” Pru said, letting me go ahead of her in the short line.
“Miriam,” Feltham commanded. “Do not get on that plane.”
The attendant finished scanning my boarding pass and checked my ID. My heart was pounding when I hustled down the gangway as fast as my pregnant body would go. I could hear Feltham arguing with the lady at the gate.
What if he actually boarded the plane?
“Are you okay, miss?” the flight attendant asked when I stepped onto the plane.
“Yes,” I panted. “Just a little out of breath. But I’m fine. I have a doctor’s note that says it’s safe for me to fly.”
Pru appeared a moment later, shaking her head. “He won’t get on the plane,” she said. “He wants them to escort you off.”
“No worries, Miriam. I told them he’s your ex-boyfriend, and he’s trying to stop you from leaving him.”
“Did they believe you?”
“Yes,” she confirmed, taking the window seat. “Sit down. I assume you want the aisle, since you have to pee all the time.”
“The flight is only ninety minutes.”
“You’ll have to go at least once.”
I settled in the aisle seat, my eyes trained on the door as the passengers filed in. “What if he decides to get on the plane?”
“They won’t let him. Airport security was talking to him when I left. He was making all kinds of threats.”
“That’s not Feltham’s style. He’s usually calm, cool, and collected. Always in control.”
“He knows how angry your father is going to be when he returns without you.”
“My father will send him for me. Do you really want him showing up at your door?”
“We’ll deal with it. He can’t force you to go with him.”
“He doesn’t use physical force,” I said. “Feltham is very intimidating. He knows how to get what he wants, without resorting to violence.”
“You have to be strong, Miriam. Stand up to your father. Otherwise, you’re going to end up back under his thumb, until he finds another man to marry you off to, as part of his next business deal.”
“You have no idea what he’s like, Pru.”
“My father wasn’t exactly a pushover.”
“He didn’t send thugs after you when you left.”
“No, he didn’t. He tried to use my trust fund to manipulate me. But I didn’t need it. I had one from my grandmother that he couldn’t touch. It wasn’t a lot of money, but it was enough to keep me going until I got my feet on the ground.”
I breathed a sigh of relief when the plane started moving.
I was finally free.
“Are you crying?” Pru asked.
“It’s just hormones.”
“I know it’s scary to leave everything you’ve ever known behind, but if you don’t, your life will never be your own. And your father will do the same thing to your daughters. Is that what you want for them?”
“No,” I whispered.
“You’re going to be just fine,” she said, reaching over to squeeze my hand. “I didn’t have a belly full of babies when I ran, but I was a lot younger than you, and I survived.”
“I really appreciate everything you’re doing for me, Pru.”
“I know what happens to the women in the social circle we come from, and until someone breaks the cycle, it will just keep happening. The men have all the money and power.”
“PJ isn’t going to change anything,” I sighed.
“No, definitely not,” she agreed. “I can’t believe his wife lets him order her around like that.”
“Her father is Hudson Hillsbride. She was raised in that type of environment.”
“Yes, the Hillsbrides,” she muttered. “They were family friends growing up. I couldn’t stand them.”
I stared out the window as the plane took off, the lights of Vancouver slowly disappearing as we headed up into the clouds, carrying me to my new life.
A new beginning for me and my daughters.
“You weren’t kidding when you said you lived in the country,” I laughed, leaning forward to rub my achy back. “We haven’t passed another car in a long time.”
“It’s five in the morning,” Pru said. “If it was summer, you might see some tractors out at this hour, but not at this time of year.”
“How much further to your house?”
“About twenty minutes. I hope you don’t have to pee. There’s nowhere for me to stop now.”
“I can hold it for a bit longer.”
“I bet you’re tired. Why didn’t you sleep on the plane, or during the three-hour car ride from Calgary?”
“I couldn’t get comfortable.”
“I suppose not,” she said, glancing at my belly.
“What is your husband like?”
“Brooks is a pussycat,” she shared. “At home, anyway. But Brooks, the CEO, is a different person. He runs the family business with a firm hand, and keeps his brothers in line. Brooks is the only one with any business sense. He is the reason that Stillwell Enterprises is so successful.”
“Are you sure he’s okay with me staying until I have the babies?”
“He doesn’t know you’re coming.”
“What?!” I cried.
“He’s not going to say no. You’re pregnant, and penniless.”
“I have some money saved.”
“You’re going to need every cent of it later on, Miriam. I can’t believe my father made you sign a prenup.”
“Your father was a cold-hearted and self-serving man.”
“You’re too kind with your words, honey. He was a cruel bastard. A ruthless fucking asshole. And I’m glad he’s dead.”
“Would you rather me be like all those phony snobs at the funeral?”
“He was still your father.”
“That doesn’t mean he gets a free pass. The only reason I came home was to make sure I got my inheritance. My father was a lot of things, but stupid wasn’t one of them. He knew why I was there. But on some weird level, I think he respected that, because that is something he would’ve done. He was proud of me for growing up to be a shrewd businesswoman, with no scruples.”
“How can you be okay with that, Pru?”
“It’s who I am. I own it. If there is one thing that I’m not, it’s phony. Except when it comes to closing real estate deals. Those require a certain level of fakeness, if you will. It’s a necessary skill to be successful. And fake Pru is very good.”
“Do you have a big house?” I asked, chewing on my lower lip while I glanced out at the dark, tree-lined country road.
“It’s nothing like the houses you and I grew up in, but it’s plenty big enough,” she confirmed. “It’s a three thousand square foot, one-storey ranch, with a full basement. But the basement is not finished. We just use it for storage.”
“How many bedrooms do you have?”
“I guess that’s plenty of space for two people.”
“Yes, it is, but we have houseguests right now, so it’s a bit crowded.”
“Who are your guests?”
“My brother-in-law and his dingbat fiance, and his three illegitimate humans from three different mothers.”
“Jasper’s house burned down last summer. The crazy half-sister of one of his children set it on fire, because she wanted him, or some silliness. I’m not really sure how setting a fire in a man’s house is the way to his heart, but the girl is as cuckoo as her mother.”
“Oh my goodness,” I gasped. “That’s terrible.”
“Yes, it is,” she agreed. “I arrived home one afternoon, after being in Vancouver for most of the summer, as you know, and found my home littered with baby crap. Cami, that’s the fiance, was out on my terrace with the psycho half sister. The girl was planning to kidnap Cami, deliver her baby, and then kill her and stuff her in the deep freezer with her dead father, and take the baby back to Jasper.”
“That’s very scary,” I said. “What happened?”
“I restrained the girl until the police arrived, and saved Cami’s life.”
“Wow. That must’ve been very frightening for you.”
“Yes,” she replied absently, staring straight ahead at the road. “Anyway, Brooks invited Jasper and his brood to stay at our house without even discussing it with me, knowing full well how I felt about Cami. That’s why I didn’t feel that I owed him any advance notice you were coming to stay.”
“I’m not really comfortable just showing up unannounced, Pru.”
“It’s fine, Miriam.”
She slowed down, turning into a private laneway. I gazed up at the archway. Stillwell Ranch was spelled out on a wrought iron sign hanging from the top of the wooden gate. Large ornate sconces lit up the entrance.
Pru followed the main road, her headlights bouncing off a large farmhouse with a barn and silos next to it.
“That’s the main house,” she explained. “Brooks and his brothers grew up there.”
“Who lives there now?” I asked, just before she took a sharp left down a narrower laneway.
“Brooks’ older brother, Huxley. He and his wife Suzy have ten children. Some are grown and out on their own, though.”
“Did you say ten?”
“Yes,” she snorted. “The Stillwells are a virile bunch.”
“But you didn’t have any.”
“Here we are,” she announced.
“The lights are on,” I noted. “Somebody is up early.”
“Brooks gets up at five every morning. And Jasper and Cami have three infants. They’re up and down all night.”
“Three babies must be a lot of work.”
“We’ll leave our luggage in the trunk,” she said. “The boys can get it later.”
I followed her up the walkway, the fancy path lights illuminating exquisite interlocking brick, weaving between perfectly manicured bushes covered in a light dusting of snow.
“You have a gardener?”
“Yes,” she confirmed. “I don’t have the time or inclination to maintain my outdoor living spaces, and my husband wouldn’t know a hoe from a hose.”
She entered a code in the key pad and pushed open the front door. The comforting aroma of fresh coffee and toast put me at ease in the sterile foyer.
I smiled at the contrast of marble tiles and antique furniture with children’s shoes scattered across a cheap plastic mat. Tiny winter jackets and hats were piled on the vintage caned window bench.
I knew a lot about antiques, but not because I had any particular interest in them. My late husband’s house was full of expensive old furniture. And he liked to bore me to death with long, detailed explanations about the history of each piece.
The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, at least when it came to home furnishings. I thought I’d gotten to know Pru while she was staying with us.
But how well did I really know her?
Did she inherit more than just a love for antiques and smart business sense from her tyrant of a father?
Heavy footsteps approached from the back of the house, and what I assumed was the kitchen, based on my pregnancy enhanced olfactory senses.
My stomach churned with trepidation.
Nobody likes an unexpected house guest.
And I was starting to get the impression there was trouble in my stepdaughter’s marriage.
I had an English degree.
Words usually flowed easily from my brain.
Tall, dark, and handsome was so cliche.
I lost all respect for my romance authors when they used that to describe the hero. My collection of heartwarming love stories was long gone. Tossed in a dumpster after my husband discovered them. I thought I’d secured a great hiding spot in the Priggishwine mausoleum, but apparently it wasn’t good enough.
“I wasn’t expecting you until tonight,” the man boomed, glancing curiously at me, his dark eyes going straight to my belly.
“I got an earlier flight,” Pru said.
“Who’s your friend?”
“Miriam Priggishwine, my stepmother.”
His eyes widened, his thick, but well manicured brows shooting up to his forehead. Every hair in his close crop cut was in place, rich brown, with just a tad of grey at his temples.
“Nice to meet you, Miriam,” he said, stepping forward with his hand outstretched. “Brooks Stillwell.”
I accepted it, his large fingers swallowing my tiny hand when he pumped it gently.
He held on a little too long.
I gazed into the most gorgeous eyes I’d ever seen.
But it wasn’t the perfect shade of dark chocolate that sent my heart on the upside down roller coaster at top speed, in reverse, through three loops.
It was the magnetic pull.
The strong and immediate connection.
Like I’d met this man before, in another lifetime.
Brooks Stillwell was my soulmate.