Man, oh man, have we got a treat for you today! We cajoled the publishers of your favorite author, she who creates those mega alpha heroes, Kristen Ashley, for an exclusive sneak peek at KA's upcoming Jagged, the next book in the Colorado Mountain series. Kristen sets the scene for us..
Jagged stars Zara and Ham. When Ham was unwilling to commit, Zara found someone new. Only now her marriage and her job are gone, and she's barely making ends meet. Until Ham shows up to help …
And now for the excerpt:
Suffice it to say that, even though it was probably Mindy, Maybelline, Wanda, one of my other friends Becca, Jenna, Nina, or possibly Arlene, Cotton, or anyone else in Gnaw Bone seeing as I lived there all my life, everyone in town knew what had happened to me so everyone was watching over me, I still kept the chain on when I opened the door because my shitty apartment didn’t have a peephole.
When I saw who was outside, my mouth dropped open.
Luckily, the doorbell buzzing stopped.
Unluckily, the last person on earth I wanted to see was standing outside my door.
“Jesus, you don’t have a peephole?” Ham growled, looking incensed and Graham Reece looking, or worse, being incensed was a very bad thing. I’d learned that five months ago.
I didn’t have it in me to concern myself with Ham being incensed. I was more concerned with him being there at all.
To express this, I asked, “What the hell?”
“Open the fuckin’ door, Zara.”
I stared a beat, then pulled myself together.
This was not happening.
We were done.
I pushed the door closed.
The problem with this was it didn’t work, seeing as the toe of Ham’s boot was wedged between it and the jamb.
“Open the door, Zara,” he repeated.
“We’re done,” I told him through the gap in the door. “Move your foot.”
“Open the door.”
“We’re done, Ham,” I snapped.
“Right, then move back.”
He didn’t repeat his order. He moved his foot but only so he could rear back and plant his shoulder in the door.
The chain popped right open, as did the door, and I went flying.
I righted myself as Ham, now in my apartment, slammed the door.
“You’re payin’ for that!” I yelled.
His eyes were beyond me, examining my new space as his mouth moved.
“Not a problem. I’ll reimburse what they take out of your security deposit when we move you out of this dump.”
I didn’t know what he meant and I also didn’t care.
I switched subjects.
“How did you get here so fast?” I asked, and his eyes finally came to me.
“I hope to Christ you didn’t miss local gossip because you’re spendin’ your days at Deluxe Home Store and your nights at some titty bar.”
“I’m not working at a titty bar, Ham, so you can stop concerning yourself with me and move on”—I paused—“again.” I bit off the last word then what he said penetrated and I asked, “What gossip?”
“Managing The Dog, Zara, have been for a week. I live in Gnaw Bone.”
I felt my eyes get huge as my stomach clenched.
“You’re managing The Dog?” I whispered, aghast.
“Yeah. And you just got a new job. You start after you work out your notice at Deluxe,” he returned.
“What?” This also came out quiet and horrified.
“You’re waitressin’ for me. Shit hours but, if I remember correctly and since the view hasn’t changed except to get better, with your face, tits, and ass, great tips. In the meantime, we’re movin’ you out of this shithole and, you don’t got a girl who can take you on, you’re bunkin’ with me.”
Bunking with him?
Was he high?
“I am not moving in with you,” I declared.
“You aren’t livin’ in this place either.”
“It’s fine,” I snapped.
“It doesn’t have a fuckin’ peephole, and, babe, reminder, I just popped that fuckin’ chain not two fuckin’ minutes ago.”
“Well, seeing as my other callers won’t force themselves into my place, that shouldn’t be a problem,” I retorted.
“Zara, got a scar on my shoulder that proves fucked up can hunt you down just ’cause you’re breathin’ and you’ve lived in this county through some serious, crazy, sick-fuck shit. You need a goddamned peephole and a decent lock. And, you can get it, a man at your back and that man’s gonna be me.”
“You’re either high or you’ve lost your mind, Graham Reece, because there is no way in hell I’m moving in with you.”
“I don’t want your body, Zara. I want your safety,” he shot back.
Ouch. That stung.
With no other choice, I powered through the sting. “Either way, neither are yours to have or give anymore, Ham. We’re done.”
“Don’t let pride or bein’ pissed stand in the way of reason, babe.”
It was then, I’d had enough. More than enough. Of Ham. Of life. Of everything.
And, seeing as I’d had enough, I totally lost it.
“You’re not listening to me!” I leaned in and shrieked the last three words so shrill Ham’s head jerked. “We. Are. Done. I don’t want to see you again. I don’t want to talk to you again. I do not want you in my…fucking…life. Now get out, get gone, and please, God, stay gone.”
Shockingly and infuriatingly, this tirade did not make him move toward the door. Instead, it made him take a step toward me, lift a hand my way, and say in a soothing voice, “Cookie, take a breath and calm down so we can talk.”
“I’ll calm down when you’re out of my fuckin’ house.”
I took a step back, turned, didn’t know why the hell I was turning since, in that tiny pad, I had nowhere to go, so I faced Ham again, and said quietly, “I lost my home. I lost my dream when I lost my shop. I nearly lost my stupid car and I had to sell a bunch of shit like my stereo so I wouldn’t. I lost my husband and with him went my furniture. I’m working at a place I hate, making practically nothing. I have no idea what my future will bring. I have nothing to look forward to. I live day to day doin’ nothin’ but gettin’ through the day. I do not need this shit. Not now. Not from you. Not from anyone. If you care about me even a little bit anymore, Ham, you’ll get gone and stay gone.”
“I’ve always cared about you, Zara.”
God! Killing me!
“Then get gone.”
“You gotta listen to me—”
“You’re not getting gone,” I snapped and he leaned in.
“Shoe’s on the other foot, babe, you knew I needed you, would you leave me? No matter how much I said I wanted it, you knew my shit was fucked, would you walk away from me?”
Seriously, it was exasperating that he had a point.
I decided not to speak.
Ham saw his advantage and took it while taking another step toward me.
“You saw me on TV, babe, and I know, the way you were freaked, you picked up the phone within seconds. We were disconnected for fuckin’ years, you saw the shit that went down with me, you reached out. So I know you wouldn’t turn your back on me.”
Ham kept going.
“I got a two-bedroom condo, good views, balconies off both bedrooms and the livin’ room, and you’ll have your own bathroom.”
“You can’t think I’d even consider movin’ in with you,” I replied.
“And I got a decent fuckin’ TV.”
I wished he hadn’t mentioned the TV.
I stared at him and Ham held my stare.
I found this nerve-racking so I tried something new.
“I have a year lease that I signed one month ago.”
“And I have a way with talkin’ folks around to my way of thinking.”
I knew that. In fact, I was experiencing it at that very moment.
I tried something else.
“I have furniture and I don’t have the money to put it in storage.”
“That’s good,” he returned instantly. “Since I got a place that’s not furnished and I haven’t got ’round to buying anything.”
“I thought you said you had a decent TV?”
“Darlin’, I’m a guy. We can’t breathe without a decent TV. I don’t have furniture in the living room but I bought a bed and TV my first day in Gnaw Bone.”
And again. Exasperating.
“Do you have an answer for everything?” I clipped.
“When it comes to gettin’ you safe. Yes. I do. Absolutely.”
And again. Killing me.
“Okay, then tell me this, Answer Man,” I demanded. “I lose my mind and move in with you, who do I get? The Ham I thought I knew or Dickhead Ham who came to my house months ago and broke into my place just now.”
“Never had a roommate, babe, except those four months you lived with me, and we did all right back then.”
My stomach muscles contracted with the force of that blow.
He’d never had a roommate?
Except for me?
I decided not to go there.
“Right, to speed this along, I’d appreciate it if you’d leave so I can consider your gracious offer.”
“Not leavin’ without an answer.”
“Strike that. Not leavin’ without the answer I wanna hear.”
I glared at him before something hit me.
“What are you doin’ here?”
His brows shot together. “Babe, I’m here offerin’ to help you deal with your shit.”
“Not here.” I pointed to the floor. “Here.” I swung my arm out wide. “Gnaw Bone. Why did you take the job at The Dog?”
“’Cause I got a hatchet to the shoulder, made me slow down, think about shit, and reconsider. Don’t mind tendin’ bar. Prefer doin’ it paid a manager’s salary. Been a lot of places and got treated kind. When I thought on it, this one stuck out. Don’t know why. Don’t care. It did. Just happened as I was thinkin’ that shit through, The Dog needed a manager. Jake didn’t want the promotion, he gave me a call. I told ’em I was interested. I’m here.”
That was unsurprisingly forthcoming yet surprisingly thorough.
“And what about me?” I asked. “The town isn’t all that big, Ham, and I doubt I have to remind you that the last time we shared breathing space, we didn’t leave things all that great.”
“Mendin’ fences with you was on my list of things to do.”
I had no idea if he wanted to do this so we could exist in the same town where we would undoubtedly run into each other or because he didn’t like the way things ended the last time he’d seen me.
I told myself it didn’t matter. What mattered was moving on.
To do that, I took in a deep breath, drawing in rational thought as I did so and, on the exhale, I shook my head and said, “Ham, our fight was extreme. I think we need to learn from that situation that we can wound each other, be smart, and steer clear. Gnaw Bone isn’t that big but if you promise to act like a decent person should you see me, I’ll do the same.”
“Zara, our fight was extreme ’cause I just got hunted by an ax murderer. He was a sick fuck, obsessed with Feb, and did something about it to a woman I care about, and I got caught up in that mess. And I walked in on you while you were dealin’ with some serious shit you were not in a place to process with me. We took that shit out on each other. It got outta hand and we wounded each other. Now, I got a life plan and you gotta find a place where you’re safe while you make one. That place is with me. No strings. No bullshit. You work for me and make decent money. You live in my second bedroom. You sort your shit out. You make a plan. You move on. And in the meantime, we find the way to the new whatever-it-is we’re gonna build with each other. No pressure. Nothin’. Just you safe, me not havin’ to worry about you, and us not up in each other’s shit.”
Why did this suddenly sound completely reasonable?
“Honestly, Ham, I need some alone time to think about this,” I told him.
“You can’t have it. You don’t move in with me, I’m sleepin’ on your couch ’cause if police chiefs can kidnap pregnant women one town over, anything goes. So with your chain popped, no fuckin way I’m leavin’.”
I closed my eyes and dropped my head.
“Cookie, you’ve had it shit for a while,” he continued. I opened my eyes and lifted my head to look at him. “Everyone’s worried about you. Way I hear it, they’re doin’ all they think you’ll let ’em do to help you out. Told you, you matter to me. For fuck’s sake, babe, let me help you out.”
“Livin’ together is not a good idea, Ham.”
“Worked for us before.”
“We were lovers before,” I whispered and Ham’s jaw got tight.
Then he stated, “Right. I get your point. So, ground rules. You hook up, you do it at his place. I return the favor. Agreed?”
Me sleeping in Ham’s second bedroom knowing he was out all night, hooking up.
That would be devastating
I wasn’t going to let on that I felt that.
I was also not going to share that I was never hooking up. Not ever again. For the rest of my life.
“That’s a good rule,” I said instead. “Another one, you replace any of my beer you drink.”
His mouth twitched and he agreed. “You got it.”
“And you’re weirdly tidy,” I informed him. “If I leave my shoes out or something, you can’t light into me.”
“Babe, I’m not weirdly tidy. I’m just not a slob like you are.”
“I’m not a slob,” I returned.
“I’ve known three times where you had to take emergency trips to the mall to buy underwear. This somethin’ you actually did instead of laundry.”
“That was before I had a washer and dryer in my house. I didn’t have an aversion to laundry. I had an aversion to that weird guy who’s always sleeping in the Laundromat.”
At that, Ham grinned. “Lucky for you, I got a stackable in the hall.”
“Yippee,” I muttered.
Ham’s grin got bigger.
It faded and he said quietly, “We’ll work it out.”
“Cookie, we’ll work it out.”
I pressed my lips together.
“Tell me what I wanna hear,” he prompted.
We know, we're dyin' for more too! We'll have to wait until November 5th to know the whole story. For more romance in the meantime, be sure to visit our Everything Romance page.