Originally, I did not intend for it to be a part of a series. But, as I'm just starting out, things are still just falling into place. Therefore, while I wrote 'Jackson's Mark' as the first completed novella in the Love's Choice series, it is actually the third book in. The series is about a group of friends who find love. My order of publishing on this series is all jacked up, but I'll sort myself out in time.
The novellas, their main characters, and their order in the series has been listed for you. They will appear as follows:
Reckless Prudence (Nathanael and Kellie: the prequel) Book 1 - Available free
Jackson's Mark (Jackson and Marcia) Book 4 - Available
The Chef's Choice (Peter and Emille) Book 2 - to be released mid August, 2013
Claudia's Rule (David and Claudia) Book 3 - to be released early September, 2013
The Wright Choice (Nathanael and Kellie) Book 5 - to be released late September, 2013
I expect that the next series will be released with more order.
Please enjoy this excerpt from 'Jackson's Mark'.
"I'm going to go ghost on TimeLine from now on," Marcia promised, dusting the crumbs off her fingers before crossing her heart.
Claudia coughed. "Ghosting? Is that some new App that I haven't heard of yet?" She took another bite of her lunch, and before Marcia could answer, said, "I swear, if another twelve year old becomes a dot-com millionaire in one month, I'm just going to roll over and die."
Marcia chuckled. "The older folks are taking away our Social Security, and the kids are monopolizing the cash. At this rate we'll be living under a bridge by the time we're fifty."
"True that!" Claudia laughed. "But tell me about this ghost business. What has Timeline done to you this time?"
Both incensed and embarrassed, Marcia sought a way to name the source of her ire. Only one word summed up her trouble. "Jackson."
Claudia's brows shot high. "My brother, Jackson?"
"Yes." Jackson was the cousin that Claudia's parents had adopted as their own when he was fifteen. Three years older than the girls, Jackson got along famously with his sister. His relationship with Marcia however, was another story. The decade and a half that they'd known each other was filled with legendary battles. Marcia was over the whole 'war-with-Jackson' agenda; but he had developed more experience in pushing her buttons than he had invested in his chosen career - a career that he was extremely passionate about. Apparently, old habits were even harder to kill if you actually enjoyed them.
"What did he do?"
Marcia looked away from her friend. "Have you logged in today?" When Claudia shook her head 'no', Marcia exhaled loudly. "I posted a few recent pictures last night. Close-ups."
"Oh, yes!" Claudia exclaimed. "The portraits. I saw them just before I logged off. Jackson couldn't possibly find anything bad to say about them. They were gorgeous!" But, Claudia knew her brother. Jackson was notoriously excellent at insulting Marcia.
"Your brother," Marcia growled in a frigid tone, memories resurrecting her anger. When she was calm enough to speak clearly, she continued, "Your brother saw the photos and decided to comment."
No further words were necessary, as Claudia's expression moved from curiosity, to worry, to horror.
"Oh, yes. He did!" Marcia emptied her glass of champagne in one gulp. "Hear this," she said, pulling out her cell-phone and logging into her page. "'Marc,'" She scrolled and squinted. "No matter how I tell him that M-A-R-C spells Mark and my name is Marcia, he insists on using that dreadful nickname. 'Marc,' he says. 'Nice pic. Congratulations! Looks like you've lost a whole other person since I saw you last.'"
Claudia coughed wine through her nostrils. "He didn't!"
"I just read it to you!" Marcia shoved her phone under her best friend's nose. "I swear Claudia, if I didn't love you before he came along, I'd have stopped being your friend the moment your mother brought that scruffy mutt home."
"Well, what did you do when you saw it?" Claudia asked eagerly. Whatever Marcia had done was bound to be good. But, since Marcia had refused to continue the feud with Jack after the Fiasco of Last Thanksgiving, her responses to his antics were now a little boring.
Marcia scowled. "I deleted the post of course." Her look said anything less would be uncivilized. "I've got six hundred guys on Timeline thinking that I am and have always been a size two. Now he comes along and ruins it." Her scowl deepened. "Worse still. He didn't let it end there."
"Hold on! I've got to see this for myself." Claudia pulled out her own phone and logged into the social networking site.
"Marc, nice pic. Congratulations! Looks like you've lost a whole other person since I saw you last." - 19 hours ago
Comment removed - 19 hours ago
"Thought I just posted something on here." - 19 hours ago
"Polite sms." - 19 hours ago
"Hey, Marc! Remember this pic?" - 19 hours ago
Tag removed - 19 hours ago
"See what I mean?" Marcia growled. "He's got them thinking I'm an overweight transvestite."
"Haha! You guys are hilarious!" Claudia crowed. "Which pic did he post?"
Marcia glared at her. "Your family has a way of finding the most inappropriate things funny."
"Come on. Tell me. Which picture did Jack post?"
"The one of me at the county fair," Marcia reluctantly confessed.
"Which county fair? We've been going to them since we were twelve."
Wincing, Marcia admitted, "The one from last year."
Claudia's eyes widened in horror. "No!"
"No! I refuse to believe it. Jackson isn't that insensitive. He didn't post the…"
"He did! He posted the chili eating competition."
Fingers moving rapidly, Claudia tapped in to Jackson's page. She was laughing uproariously through the first three photos, causing all the eyes in the trendy tapas bar to turn their way. On the fourth photograph however, her laughter died a sudden and brutal death.
"I'll kill him!" she roared.
"Why?" Marcia asked, a sly smile on her face. "Did you get to the fourth photo? The one of you covered in three alarm chili, and shoveling even more into your mouth? Or is it the one of you holding the pot from Firehouse No.9, and the giant two hundred dollar prize check? Is that why you plan to kill him?" she mocked.
"It's not funny," Claudia wailed. "It's all over Timeline. As long as these photos are posted on his account, mutual friends will see it."
"I tried to tell him to take them down, but he's being Jack the Jerk."
But Claudia was lost in her own torment. "Everyone will see them," she whimpered. "David will see them." And that was the most tragic part of the entire horror story. Claudia's latest boyfriend was a 'friend' of her brother's.
Marcia could empathize with her friend. Claudia had won the chili eating competition five years in a row. She was proud of the trophies she'd acquired over the years, but that didn't mean any woman worth her salt would want her boyfriend knowing about those pictures. It was why Claudia had skipped out on the fair this year, and why she'd decided not to go home to Peachfield, Texas for Thanksgiving.
Knowing her friend's dilemma, Marcia waved her hand and ordered another round. "Don't worry about it Claudie. We'll get back at him, someday."
Miserably, Claudia looked up at her friend. "How? We can't post any embarrassing photos of him. He wouldn't care. And besides, he's disgustingly handsome," she wailed. "Even with chili on his face."
"You are the lowest of the low," Marcia announced, marching into the manager's office of Jackson's Mark.
She'd obviously surprised the owner of the steakhouse by entering his office unannounced, but he didn't show it. Briefly, he glanced up from the paperwork he'd been poring over, and seeing who had invaded his sanctum, promptly turned to work on the computer.
"Judging by the way you 'unfriended' me last night, I thought you wanted to put a permanent end to our association," he murmured silkily, head bowed to hide his slight smile. "The last thing I expected was a visit. I feel special."
"You're something special alright. A special jerk! Do you know that Jack?"
Sighing as if she was a pest who would not leave until she had his full attention, Jackson gave her just that. Marcia had a very specific way of saying his name that always got his attention. He leaned back in his chair and focused the full wattage of his pale green gaze on her. "You might as well have your say."
Not one to ever hesitate in telling Jackson off, Marcia took a seat across the desk from him and immediately launched into her tirade. "You're always acting like a selfish child! Who does something like that? I mean, it's bad enough you embarrass me in front of everyone I know. People who know us know about the feud. But to put up that photo of your own sister… That was the icing on the cake. It's a wonder Claudia didn't have a heart attack when she saw it."
"What's so bad about putting up a photo of a good memory?" he asked, folding his arms across his chest. "You've been gaining and losing extra baggage for years, and Claudia's been proud of her participation in that contest for as long as I can remember. She didn’t enter it this year because she thinks David wouldn't like the girl she is deep down. But, from a man's perspective, Claudia's a much more interesting girl because of that contest."
"You're her brother. Your opinion on what makes her appealing to a guy isn't trustworthy. You put up a picture of her looking like a pig, for all the world to see. That was definitely not kosher."
"If either of you had bothered to look, you'd have noticed that only a very select few have access to those pictures."
"I don't care if it's only you who has access to them," she wheezed in agitation. "You should never have posted them. It's embarrassing!"
"I assume the one of you with the pot tipped to your head is also embarrassing?" he asked mildly. Lethally.
Marcia closed her eyes and prayed for patience. "Have you taken them down yet?" The posting had been up for over twenty-four hours by now, if he hadn't. She'd driven an hour out of her way to talk to him.
"Oh? You should have called if you wanted me to." Jack folded his arms over his chest.
"Jackson," Marcia said, as if she was talking someone down from a roof, "don't you think you should take them off your page?"
"Why should I?"
"Should I call my lawyer?" she snapped, losing patience.
He coughed out a laugh. Marcia was so mad she was vibrating. "You can call whoever you want."
"Jack, don't do this. Claudia's freaking out, and you've single-handedly killed all my dating prospects."
"Not all of them."
"There's nothing to be gained from ruining our lives any further," she continued, having not heard his quiet comment. "I'm not going to fight with you any more. People get hurt, and you never learn. Take down the photographs."
"On one condition."
"No conditions. It's my legal right to ask you to remove those photographs from your page."
He leaned sideways in his chair to look behind her. "I see neither the law or a representative of it with you. And it is my right to post photos of my experiences, even ones you happen to have shared." Settling comfortably back into his chair, Jack steepled his fingers in front of his chest.
"It's also my right to shoot you with that pistol in your desk, but I'm going to be kind and not retaliate because you specialize in annoying me. Take them down."
"Jackson, this is between you and me," Marcia growled, folding her arms across her chest and taking on a mulish expression. "Don't take it out on Claudia. She's an innocent, and she really likes this guy."
"Fine!" Her hands flew into the air. "What do you want?" If he was going to keep upping the ante, she was better off stopping him here. There was no telling what he'd want her to do. Wash his car? Stand outside wearing a bright green check sign around her waist while waving customers to Jackson's Mark? That would be the ultimate in humiliation.
"You agree to three conditions?" he asked, attempting to hide his surprise at her unresisting capitulation.
"I agree, protesting duress, to fulfill your three conditions if you agree to immediately remove all photographs of your sister and me from your Timeline page, and to never post another hereafter."
He shook his head. "No. That won't work. I'll only agree to never post another embarrassing picture of you."
She rolled her eyes. "Your judgment on what is or isn't embarrassing has proven to be flawed too many times for me to trust it now. And no calling me Marc. Never again. Not. EVER."
"Fine," Jack sighed. "Any time I think about posting a picture of you or Claudia, I'll run it by you for approval. And, I'll only call you Marc when we're alone. It'll be our secret." The way he whispered the last pledge was just a hair's breadth shy of scintillating.
"Not even around family?" she inquired suspiciously.
"Only when we're alone," he promised softly.
Since they were hardly ever alone… "That works for me."
For a few seconds, he just sat there, staring at her thoughtfully. His measured expression made her uncomfortable, and he knew it - judging by the slight curl at one corner of his lips.
At first she started wondering what he was looking at. Jackson had this way of just staring at her as if he was looking at every little line and pimple on her face. It was because of that look that Marcia had spent a good fifteen minutes touching up her makeup in the car before coming inside the restaurant. Everything about her was in order. Her hair was newly brushed, even if it had a kink from the ponytail it had been in for most of the day. And her clothing was neat, because you didn't come to the Mark wearing jeans and a t-shirt. All in all, Marcia was presentable, and she knew it. She'd dressed this morning for this meeting, expecting to be under Jackson's inspecting gaze.
She'd also come prepared to launch an intimidation maneuver of her own.
Slowly, she allowed her gaze to rove over his features. Tall, dark, and handsome were the basic descriptions a person would use for him. But, Jackson was so much more than those basic three. His pale green eyes, for example, were fringed by long, spiky lashes. His broad forehead and angled jaw could have only been described as sculpted - evidence that God was indeed a master artist. Jack had always been big and rawboned, the muscular tendons of his forearms - revealed by the rolled sleeves of his white shirt - was proof positive of his strength. His physique was his best asset, it being the tapered musculature that women were genetically designed to desire. If she could find one fault in him, it would be his nose. Once upon a time it had been straight, but during a game of touch football about eight years before, her brother had stiff-armed him and it hadn't been the same since. The damage hadn't been enough, in Marcia's estimation, because the slight bend in his nose only drew attention to the perfection of his full lips. He'd inherited them from his father, she knew because Claudia's mother also had fuller lips. What Marcia liked best though, was the divot line marking the center of the bottom lip, making the glossy surface look like a plump, delectable, lickable…
She blushed, her eyes bobbing to his Adam's apple then to his eyes as he cleared his throat.
"Like what you see?" he murmured silkily.
Guilt at being caught admiring him caused her face to heat even more. She glanced away. "You started it. Do you like what you see?"
The corner of his mouth curled even more. "I wonder what you'd say if I answered that question honestly."
For years now, when he wasn't doing something to annoy her, Jackson never missed an opportunity to try and draw her into flirting with him. Marcia had never indulged him, and she wasn't about to start now. "What are your three conditions, Jackson?" she asked impatiently.
He got up from his seat and took his time strolling around the desk. Willfully, he wedged himself between her knees and the back of the desk, leaning against the edge and forcing her to push back her chair and look up at him. Suddenly, Marcia felt like a rabbit trapped in its hole with a fox nosing at her door. She waited, expecting him to ask for a month's worth of housecleaning. Or maybe a kiss. I really need to stop looking at those lips.
"I'd like you to spend Thanksgiving with me."
"Can't. I already told my mom I'm not coming home for Thanksgiving. I'm not driving all the way to Peachfield for one meal. It's not in my budget. Claudia and I are planning on being there for Christmas though."
"I didn’t say anything about Claudia or your mom. I said, 'with me.' Here. In Austin. Just the two of us."
"Why?" she asked suspiciously.
He folded his arms once more, and lowered his brows menacingly. "Why? Because I already told my folks I'll only be able to make it home for Christmas."
"Why not invite Claudia and David then?"
"David has plans for Claudia."
Marcia's brows bounced at that bit of news. "Does Claudia know that?"
"Maybe," was his mild reply, "if you were busy on Thanksgiving, Claudia would stop making plans for the three of you, and David would be able to get on his with agenda for the two of them." He gave her an ironic look. "Couples come in pairs, you know."
She squinted at him. "Do you know something I don't know?"
"I just told you something you don’t know."
Marcia leaned back then decided to scrape her chair a little further away from him. "Fine. I'll spend Thanksgiving Day with you, but I'm not cooking. And if Claudia isn't engaged at the end of the day, I'm coming after you."
"I'll be waiting," he promised. "But you should remember…"
"Our family celebrates three days of Thanksgiving."
She froze. She had forgotten that. The Coles celebrated with the main meal on Turkey Day, followed by Bone-in-Soup Day, and finally Recovery. It was a tradition that Marcia had liked, and had been taking full advantage of since she'd been a girl. The Cole's house was the place to be for the two days post Thanksgiving. Well, considering that her mother's annual attempts at being Susie Homemaker usually failed, the Cole house was the spot on Thanksgiving Day too.
"Since we're not going to be spending the holiday with your family-" she began, only to be cut off mid-sentence.
"Since I'm still a member of my family, it is my duty to keep the tradition going. You're spending three nights at my house."
"That's not fair. We'll eat each other alive."
Wryly, he replied, "I can only hope."
She chose to ignore that little comment. "That's two conditions."
"That's one condition. You're spending Thanksgiving with me, ergo, you are bound to honor my traditions. Anything less would be rude."
"You've been my nemesis for years. You shouldn't be surprised that I am rude."
"Condition two," he said, not brooking any further arguments. "Every weekend for the next three months after Thanksgiving belong to me."
"That's some messed up math. You're adding conditions to your conditions, Jackson. There's nothing fair in that."
"That means, no work. No play. No nothing, unless you're by my side. And only if I agree to you devoting your attention to something other than me. That means, if a month has five weekends, all five belong to me."
"Have you seen the price of gasoline? I don't have the money to be driving back and forth between here and San Antonio."
"I'll take care of it sometimes. And sometimes I'll come spend the weekend at your house. But, you're going to have to make sacrifices to be with me, Marc."
Her eyes opened in dawning awareness. "They say you should never tell a crazy man he's insane. But that's just ridiculous, Jackson! You've got about ten conditions you're trying to lock me into, and that's not fair."
"My third condition is this. Since I am a fair man, and you can be sure that I might embarrass you from time to time but I'll never do anything to really hurt you, I reserve the right to punish you in any way I see fit. This condition becomes effective immediately, and lasts until Thanksgiving Day of next year."
Oddly, the way he said 'punish' caused a trail of gooseflesh to rise along Marcia's spine. She couldn't conceal a small shiver. Her annoyance grew when his smile widened in acknowledgment of her response. "I'm not a child, and you can't punish me," she protested childishly. "What? You're going to spank me if I decide to spend all day in bed instead of being at your beck and call?" Too late, she realized how provocative her words sounded. And that she'd told him her strategy for how she planned to survive three days in his company.
"Oh," he said with one of those side grins of his where only one side of his mouth moved sexily. "I didn't stipulate any reasons for punishing you, did I? Well, I'm going to give you something to control so I don't spend the next year spanking you every time we meet."
Glaring in mute silence, she waited.
"If for any reason, by word, deed, or thought, you cause me or anyone else around us to think you don't enjoy my company, I'll punish you. So, control your mouth. Control your actions. Control that evil glint in your eye when you're looking at me."
"I don't have to do this. You're no longer my 'friend', and -"
"No. But I'm about to be something else entirely."
"I'll just tell Claudia that David's planning to pro-"
"David's planning to what?"
"Propose. She'll keep the secret."
"The way she kept the secret about that professor who took your class to Spain?"
"She didn't!" Marcia gasped.
"I think his name was Professor Ira Rosenba-"
His eyes gleamed. "If I wasn't a good man, Marc, I just might spank you for that. But, I'm going to be fair and give you some time to let this all sink in."
"Claudia's going to want to wait until he prop-"
"I never said he's going to propose."
"But you implied it."
"But I never said it. And if you say anything to Claudia now, she's just going turn David's house upside-down looking for a ring."
She hated how he sounded so reasonable. "I don't care about the pictures. I don't need to sacrifice myself at the Altar of Jackson Cole to get them off your page. I'll just file a complaint to Timeline against you."
"No. You won't sacrifice yourself for some pictures, but you'd sacrifice yourself to keep Claudia happy. She doesn't want David to see those pictures. And as far as she knows, he hasn't seen them yet. One click of a button and poof! Claudia's worst nightmare becomes a reality."
Marcia swallowed. Claudia was the best friend a girl could have, but… "So, I'll have to live through my worst nightmare to keep my friend happy?"
Jackson grinned fully now, showing a mouthful of straight, gleaming white teeth. "Precisely."
"Fine, Jackson. But when our month is-"
"When our three months are over, I don't want to see you again until next Thanksgiving. And take down those pictures. Today."
"I took them down the moment you walked through the door," he replied, bouncing his brows playfully. Her scowl deepened. "But, what if Claudia and David get married between three months from now and next Thanksgiving?" he asked sweetly.
"What about it?"
"Chances are, I'll be the best man, and you'll be the best girl. Won't we have to dance with each other?"
Abruptly, Marcia stood up and yanked her purse onto her shoulder. "I'm having a club steak for dinner. On your tab."
Still leaning against the desk with his arms folded, Jackson watched her depart. For all of two seconds, he thought about joining her for dinner in the restaurant, but swiftly nixed that idea. She was free to eat alone this time. Their tentative contract wouldn't officially start until Thanksgiving Day. Tonight, he needed to go about his business as if she was just a shadow at her favorite table.