I’ve a holiday anthology for you to share! It’s a 99c holiday collection of three stories that are about 30,000 words each.
When mouthy Luna is voted off of Endurance Island: Alaska first, she’s a little bitter about it. The only thing that assuages her pride is knowing that Owen(the sexy-but-douchey guy that ousted her) was out next. This means, unfortunately, that they’re spending a lot of time at the Loser Lodge together. But will their fiercely competitive natures bring them together for the sexiest Christmas of all?
Undressed by Jen Frederick
Noah and Grace’s happy ever after hits a stumbling block in the form of one shady professor threatening Noah’s scholarship eligibility. Noah is given the choice of throwing his New Year’s MMA fight for a big payoff or accepting that the true meaning of love isn’t measured by the thickness of his wallet but the depth of Grace’s big heart.
The Sound of Snow by DS Linney
Widowed billionaire Gabriel Trentham never expected that the new nanny he hired would be the same woman he spent an unforgettable night with six months earlier. She’s determined to keep it professional between them now, but will a blizzard provide him the opportunity he needs to change her mind?
A total of 98,000 words in this anthology.
First Chapter of Undressed.
“YOU’RE MAKING A BIG MISTAKE.” My trainer Paulie Generoli had been repeating this sentence since the moment I walked in the door at five in the morning. It was now seven, and my patience had just about run out.
“I never would’ve guessed.” I rolled my head on my neck and reminded myself that nothing I did ever really satisfied Paulie. It was why we made a good team. He pushed me hard. And I pushed back. I was actually surprised that he kept repeating himself—he had to know by now that I wasn’t going to change my mind. “I told you. This is the first Christmas I’ve been able to spend with Grace. No matter what you say, I’m going.”
“Randolph, tell your fucking friend to get his fucking head out of his ass and to stop making decisions with his fucking dick,” Paulie roared.
Bo Randolph, my best friend for over a decade and my former Marine battle buddy, looked at me with a comical expression of helplessness. He didn’t want to gainsay Paulie because Paulie was always on the verge of kicking Bo out for being too aggressive during sparring matches. Bo held up his hands in a classic gesture of surrender. “I’m Switzerland.”
Being neutral wasn’t enough for Paulie. “Get out then, you worthless fuckhead.”
Paulie’s verbal abuse was pretty much all bark, no bite, but the grin Bo and I exchanged only served to ratchet up Paulie’s temper.
“You think this is funny?” Paulie yelled. His voice was reaching dangerous decibels and his face was redder than the Everlast boxing gloves that were pinned up around Spartan Gym.
“It’ll be better for you both if you just give it up, Paulie. You know Noah. He’s not going to change his mind.” Bo dispatched this last piece of wisdom before gathering his hand wraps and towel and heading for the locker room for one of the cold showers so graciously allowed by Paulie.
Spartan Gym was known for its no-frills workouts and the lack of heated water in the bathroom was just one of the things that Paulie thought made this a real gym as opposed to one where people went to show off.
He was kidding himself, though. There were plenty of show offs in the Spartan Gym, but no one was angling for a date. Instead, inside the painted brick walls there was a constant battle to prove whose dick was biggest.
It was mine, of course.
The winners of this contest were those who could take the most knocks without crying mercy. Bo and I ruled this gym, but I was the king, especially having just come off winning my first professional MMA fight over Thanksgiving. Grace and I hadn’t been talking then, and I was damned if I was going to let another holiday go by without spending it together.
I’d endured too many years apart from Grace Sullivan. She’d shown more patience than any other girl in her right mind would’ve, and I’d almost lost her more than once through my own stupidity. I couldn’t keep taking advantage of her willingness to forgive me. This holiday, I had special plans—and they required us to be physically together.
“You have a goddamn fight on New Year’s Eve!” Paulie yelled at me.
“I’m standing right in front of you,” I said slowly. His endless screaming was firing up my own anger. “No need to yell.”
“I’m fucking yelling because you have no goddamn idea how to fucking prepare for the biggest motherfucking fight of your pathetic fucking life.”
I almost punched him then. Stepping in close so that the only thing in Paulie’s field of vision was me, I leaned over him, my sweat probably dripping onto his bald head. “I’ve worked with you for more than seven months now, but if you don’t let it go, this New Year’s bout will be the last one we fight together.”
I didn’t wait for a response. I spun on my heel and followed Bo into the locker room.
“You think this is a mistake?” I asked Bo after we’d taken our ice-cold showers. The water temperature kept the showering time to a minimum, which required a carefully coordinated system of getting wet, soaping up, and rinsing off that took, at the most, three minutes. Any longer and my balls would crawl up my leg and try to hide themselves in my body.
Bo gave a shrug and tossed his barely wet towel onto the metal bench. Still dripping with water, Bo began throwing on his clothes. It was just that cold in here. “Can’t say. You’re dedicated. You know what you want, and I get that it’s important for you to see Grace. So if you don’t see Grace, your head might be in the wrong place. And that’s worse than missing a week of training.”
“I’m not missing a week of training,” I insisted. This was a sore point for me. Yes, I had a fight on New Year’s Eve and yes, I was going to spend three days with Grace over Christmas. But I was going to be working out during that time, and then I’d be back in Paulie’s hands the day after Christmas.
“It’s three days.” Fisting the towel in my hand, I said, “You know how important it is for me to get this prize money. And the win means sponsors, which means more income from fighting.”
Bo clapped me on the shoulder as he walked toward the locker room door. “Then you’re golden. Don’t sweat it. I’ll go distract Paulie for you.”
Alone in the locker room, I slumped on the bench with the towel wrapped around my waist. The cold water was beading up against my skin, but I barely noticed. I knew Grace wouldn’t mind if I didn’t come home. Hell, her brother was in a bowl game and he wasn’t coming home except for a couple of days before Christmas. In fact, we’d be driving from Las Vegas to Tempe, Arizona early the next morning after the fight so we could make Josh’s game.
I knew Grace would tell me that I should do whatever was best for my career, but between finishing classes, fighting, and running my own little business, I didn’t have much time for her. Part of me, a big part, wondered how long Grace was going to stick around while her boyfriend’s attention was scattered on everything besides her.
I carved out a few hours in each afternoon for her and the nights were all hers, but when I got up at five in the morning to run and train before classes, I was falling asleep before midnight. This was a time for Grace to party and have fun, and I was holding her back.
But if I didn’t pursue all these avenues, I’d never have the money to make all the things happen that I wanted to happen. Grace came from money. When I was on leave from one of my last deployments before separating from the Marines, I’d gone to Grace’s home. I flew into Chicago and drove the hour up the North Shore in my rented SUV. I was too cheap to spring for an upgrade on my own, but the counter person had given me a freebie when she saw my military ID.
When I arrived at Grace’s address, I couldn’t view the house itself because her driveway, which was behind a friggin’ gate, was too long for me to see anything but acres of carefully tended grass and trees. The lawn looked like it belonged in front of museum or a hotel. I’d sat in the truck, staring at the house number etched on a brick post at the edge of the drive. It was the same number that had been on all the return address labels of the care packages and letters Grace had sent to me since she was fourteen. And no matter how long I had stared at it, it never changed.
I’d known then and there that Grace and I weren’t ever going to be anything more than pen pals. I was some trailer trash from a town in West Texas so tiny it could’ve fit into the entire lawn of one of these North Shore homes. While there were guys from all backgrounds that were in the Marines with me, including officers who’d graduated from Harvard, of all the fucking places, we were bound together by the same oaths and goals. We shit in the same dirt and ate the same awful MRE out on patrol. We carried the same rucksacks and suffered the same problems. Girls who cheated on you back home, parents who cried every time you skyped them, not having an ounce of privacy.
But Grace and I didn’t have a thing in common—other than we both resorted to talking about the weather when we were uncomfortable—and I sure as shit knew that wasn’t something you could base a relationship on.
After sitting outside for what had seemed like an hour but was actually only about twenty minutes, I turned and went straight back to the airport. Once there, I’d paid the change fee to get a flight back to San Diego that same day. During the long wait, I’d penned a letter to Grace where I explained we were two different people from two different backgrounds with different futures. It was the last letter I sent to her, and I never got a reply back. My message had been all too clear.
The last few months of deployment were excruciating. I got two more care packages that Grace must have mailed out before my last letter had reached her. One of them included a picture of her looking so sweet and gorgeous that everything from my teeth to my groin ached. I gave everything in the boxes away but the picture and then tormented myself by reading those last two letters of hers over and over again. The what ifs began to haunt me. I became a restless, surly son of a bitch and no one wanted to be around me. Only Bo had stuck by me because well, hell, I don’t even know why. Somewhere in the desert, I figured out that if I could last out four tours of combat, I could do anything—including becoming what Grace needed.
It had never really registered that Grace had fallen for me, an enlisted Marine, without more than two pennies to scrub together when I entered at age seventeen. I still had a hard time comprehending it. Sometimes, when she was lying next to me at night, I’d stroke her arm or leg, not with any sexual meaning—okay, not with a primary sexual intent—just to remind myself that the reality was that Grace was still with me despite my blow off, despite my two-year silence, despite my lack of funds. But I wondered when she’d wake up to the realization that there was someone better out there for her.
AFTER DRESSING, I DROPPED OFF my finance project at Professor Billing’s office. It was an independent project where I was to conduct a feasibility study on the best franchise to purchase in the metro. I figured I’d get my three credit A because I’d not only finished the study but I’d bought an actual franchise.
The self-serve yogurt shop I’d purchased from an elderly Asian man, who’d wanted to move to Denver to be closer to his family, had low running costs. The most expensive part of the business was the labor. But because it required only a couple of high school students to run the register and make sure that all the yogurt and fixings were available, even the wages part of the expense column was manageable. I figured that with the profits from this one shop, I’d be able to open two more before the next semester was out, and then I’d move on to more expensive and more profitable ventures.
This project was really just a way for me to understand how to make money at something other than fighting.
On the upside of his thirties, Professor Billings liked to shoot the shit with me about my professional mixed martial art fighting career and the time I spent over in Iraq and then Afghanistan.
Billings claimed to have served himself, but I didn’t see how that was possible. He would have been too young to have made it through college and grad school and the military unless he had an early discharge due to a medical condition or something. But I never asked because poser or not, at the end of the day he was still responsible for my grade, and I didn’t need to piss him off by suggesting that his story about being military reeked. Even if his company chafed from time to time, he was my advisor, and I needed to make him happy.
Learning how to make people in charge happy was actually one of the things the Corps had taught me. Every officer had their own quirks, and learning what buttons to push to ensure that the rest of the enlisted who served with you didn’t have to suffer was worthwhile.
As long as I wasn’t emotionally involved with them, I could actually read people pretty well. But once my heart was part of the equation, all bets were off. I couldn’t always tell what Grace was thinking. Everyone said she was easy to read—that all of her emotions flitted across her face like an open book. But I was too blinded by my fear that she would leave me to separate out my projections from her true feelings. And recently, she seemed to be hiding from me. That made me extra tense.
Rolling my shoulders, I tried to release some of the tension that I’d tried to work out this morning at the gym. I had to keep up my grades to keep my scholarship and continue to get funds from the GI Bill. I had to win this upcoming Vegas match so that I could get more sponsors. I had to find a decent manager so that my little franchise would actually generate enough money to turn a big profit. I had to keep down my bile at the thought of crossing through the gates of the Sullivan family mansion. An irrational fear lurked in the back of my mind: that when I crossed over onto the hotel-like lawn, floodlights would shine down and dogs would attack me and sirens would sound off, repeating one word, “Fraud. Fraud. Fraud.”
Until I had enough money, I’d always feel like Grace could do better than me. Inhaling deeply, I shoved everything out of my mind except for Professor Billings and my independent study. One task at a time. One step at a time. That’s how I’d survived twenty mile marches in the sand, just reminding myself it was one step at a time.
The door to Professor Billings’ office was open, but I knocked anyway. Showing deference was one way to prop up the egos of self-important people.
“Come on in, Mr. Jackson,” Professor Billings called out. He didn’t stand as I walked in, ensuring that we both knew who held the power in this room. “And shut the door behind you.”
I complied and then dug out my study portfolio and set it on my side of the desk as I situated myself in the chair that sat in front of it. Billings hadn’t offered a chair, but I took one anyway.
With people like Billings, you had to walk the knife’s edge of assertiveness and obeisance. Too little assertiveness and Billings would have no respect for me. He’d give me a poor grade just for appearing weak. Too little obeisance and Billings would feel threatened, and again, his punishment would be a bad grade. No matter how stellar your work, a guy like Billings lacked the self-confidence to grade on the project alone. How much he liked you or thought you liked him would weigh just as heavily as your actual work.
“That your independent project?” Billings tipped his head toward the bound paper portfolio I still had my hand resting on. We both knew it was. Another dick power move from Billings.
“Yes, sir,” I responded promptly and then slid it over to his side of the desk. I sat back and placed my hands on my outstretched legs, feet planted shoulder width apart. My stance conveyed that I was confident in my project, but Billings made no move to take it. Instead, he leaned forward, steepling his fingers together as he rested his elbows on the desk. Interesting. He was fidgeting.
“You familiar with TempChat?” He said finally, after a few moments of indecisive silence. Indecisive on his part. I sat without fidgeting, outwardly relaxed. Inwardly I was alert and ready for an attack.
“I’ve heard of it, but I don’t use it, I said. Tempchat was a popular social media platform for mobile devices that allowed users to exchange private messages that deleted themselves after they were read. The temporal nature of the social media platform allowed for a lot of activity that wouldn’t take place on a public site. I’d heard of everything from guys and girls exchanging nude selfies to drug deals and prostitution taking place on the service.
“What if I told you that TempChat was going public in a few months?” Billings was overly animated. The pulse in his neck was bouncing against his skin and there was a slight flush creeping up his neck. I tried to guess the source of his excitement.
“And you have the opportunity to buy in before the public offering?”
Billings grinned and pointed his finger at me. “Exactly. You are so goddamned smart, Jackson. That’s why we make a good team.”
I had exert conscious effort in order to suppress my surprise at Billings’ declaration that we were a team. He was my professor—my advisor—and I was the student. That wasn’t much of a team dynamic. Billings was unconcerned by my silence. Leaning farther over the desk, so far that his body was practically horizontal to the wooden surface, Billings crowed, “Do you know how much an individual stock share will be after the IPO?”
I hazarded a guess but undervalued it, knowing that this would provide Billings the opportunity to spout off his knowledge of the market. “The last valuation of TempChat was in the billions when Facebook tried to buy it, so close to two-hundred dollars or so?”
Billings sat back hard, the chair’s metal pieces clinking against each other, and he flung his hand at me. “That’s a gross undervaluation. Twitter stock started at twenty-six dollars and then ended at forty-four on the closing day. Facebook. Heck, when UPS went public, everyone from the mailroom to the boardroom made millions.”
Millions. A kernel of envy rose inside of me. The problem with being poor wasn’t that you couldn’t work hard and make money but that these types of ventures were out of reach for you. A person who could buy a few thousand shares pre-public offering could stand to make a killing, but the only people that got offered that opportunity were investment bankers, venture capitalists, and people who had a lot of money already.
I could take my savings, sell my franchise, and offer up all my winnings, and Grace and I would be set for life if I had this opportunity. I’d be able to buy a house on the North Shore that’d make her uncle’s house look like a shack. I’d be able to walk into any store or restaurant and people would know instantly that I was someone of worth just by the cut of my clothes and the leather of my shoes.
I’d never be the poor kid from the west side of town whose mother was dead and whose father drank his food stamps. My stomach cramped as that kernel of envy grew, wrapping its green vines around my innards and squeezing.
Billings leaned back in his chair, oblivious to the dark beanstalk that he’d planted inside me. No, that was unfair. He hadn’t planted it. The dark bean of envy and want had been planted when I was born. All my life I’ve been battling it. His words were just feeding it.
“Millions, Mr. Jackson,” he murmured, almost to himself. He rolled his head toward the window so that I couldn’t see his eyes. “Most of the time, opportunities to buy in at this level, to help fund the capital of the public offering, aren’t offered to peons like us, Jackson. They are for the people who already fly private jets and who are building rocket ships for fun.”
“Most of the time,” Billings had said. What was he hinting at? “Most of the time, sir?”
My response was apparently what Billings had been waiting for. He turned around, facing me full on. His eyes were glittering and the flush had spread across his entire face. “Yes, Mr. Jackson. Most of the time. What if I told you that I had an opportunity to buy some shares of pre-IPO stock?”
“That’s tremendous,” I said evenly, despite the green vines of envy threatening to choke my blood supply.
“You need money to buy in, and unfortunately I don’t have all the funds that I need.” Billings tapped his hands on his desk in restless agitation. I waited for him to continue. “I’ve had a little run of bad luck with my finances. I won’t bore you with it, but suffice it to say I don’t really have the ready cash to buy in at the level I’m required to, and banks don’t lend money for investment purposes like this.”
Clarity rushed in like a cool breeze, chasing away the envy and bringing in a good dose of trepidation. What Billings’ finances had to do with me, I wasn’t sure, but I knew it couldn’t be good.
“You’re fighting on New Year’s, right?”
“Yes, I’m winning on New Year’s,” I responded a bit cockily, but I felt the ground underneath me was shifting and needed to exert myself a bit.
“I looked up the odds on your fight. You’re the favorite.” Billings looked me up and down like I was some kind of merchandise he was evaluating.
Immediately, I knew what he was suggesting. He wanted to bet against me and have me throw the fight. Standing up, I grabbed my pack. “Congratulations on getting the opportunity to buy into TempChat. That’s pretty awesome. Take a look at my work. I think you’ll be pleased at the thoroughness of the feasibility study. The shop I purchased is making a decent profit, and I hope to open at least two more in the next six months, one down here by Central.” I shouldered the pack and stood by the chair, ready for my dismissal. I wasn’t throwing any goddamned fight so that this yahoo could make millions. Maybe I was ruining my grade here, but fuck me. If he thought I was some stooge, he had another thing coming.
“What if I told you that I’d offer you a percentage of those shares?”
“Sir?” Against my will, I stayed and listened to Billings’ offer.
“You help me get my money for the buy in, and I’ll let you have ten percent. The money you make from that will make your little shop look like pocket change.” He gestured rudely toward the independent project that I’d spent hours on.
“I don’t think I can help you,” I said. I wanted to make money, but I wasn’t going to sell my soul for it. I did not throw fights, ever. I wasn’t even sure I couldthrow one. Once I got inside the Octagon, every instinct inside of me roared to dominate, and my body didn’t quit until it sensed submission. I turned on my heel and walked toward the door. When my hand was on the doorknob, Professor Billings’ voice stopped me.
“Your GI Bill requires you to have a passing grade, correct?”
“Yes,” I responded warily.
“In fact, I read that you had to pay back money if you failed?” Billings’ voice was full of disdain now, his true feelings for my scholarship status showing through. Central College was filled mostly with rich kids. Kids like Grace whose family came from money already. The ones who were invited to participate in capital projects for start-ups that netted them even more millions.
“That’s right.” I bit my cheek to prevent myself from turning and yelling at Billings.
If I could crumple metal, the door knob would be in pieces. As it was, I’d probably have the imprint of the ball in my palm for days.
“This company may be bought before it goes public. Once it does, the stock prices will shoot through the roof. You’ll earn millions. Be a shame you didn’t pass this class then. It might even affect your scholarship status.”
“I can’t see how I wouldn’t pass, I shot back. “The independent project required me to determine what would be the most viable franchise in the city. I chose a high-margin, low-personnel business in a high-traffic area. The profits from that space per square foot are higher than every franchise in a ten-mile radius.”
I tasted blood in my mouth, and I took a minute to lick the wound and swallow the blood. “It’s already making money, and it has been since I bought it.” Then, almost recklessly, I charged ahead. “I can’t imagine not receiving a passing grade for this project, and if I did, I’d have to consult with the dean about the fairness of my grade.”
Dr. Billings laughed at me, one part nervous, one part mocking. “I know you aren’t averse to getting your hands dirty…literally. All your previous fighting wasn’t on the up and up. Don’t think I don’t know how you funded the purchase of your little project.”
“I’m not interested,” I told him flatly, but in truth my heart was pounding hard.
I heard the scrape of a chair as Billings stood. I turned to face him. His face wasn’t just flushed now, it was red. “You are a goddamned redneck charity case. Your kind doesn’t belong here, and the dean would agree with me. We take on shit-ass war mongers like you to allow the administration to preen about its devotion to veterans, but the truth is that not one of us can stand you and your kind.”
It was one thing to insult me and entirely another to insult the Corps and the men I served with, the men who died for this fuckstick. “You’re lucky that me and my kind are willing to die so that you can gamble away your cash and still have an opportunity to make money in a stock market that is supported by the sweat and blood of my brothers,” I seethed.
Billings wisely stood behind his desk. The physical barrier wouldn’t be too difficult for me to cross, but it served as a reminder that I couldn’t strike this person, although every nerve in my body wanted to. I held my clenched fists against my side rigidly in hopes that my self-control would hold and I wouldn’t spring across the room and end him.
“You think about this, Noah Jackson,” Billings spat at me. “I’m offering you an opportunity of a lifetime. Throw one little fight, and you’ll be a millionaire. It’ll be your only opportunity to sit with your little Central College friends and feel like you belong. Otherwise, you’ll always be the dirty kid from the wrong side of the tracks looking up at everyone else. It’s not like you haven’t been willing to do illegal things for money before.”
I didn’t give Billings the satisfaction of a response. Instead, I turned and left without another word. But his parting insults pounded in my head. I had fought illegally for money to buy the franchise. He was just verbalizing everything I had ever thought before. I wasn’t good enough for Grace, and I wouldn’t be good enough until my bank account stood up to her uncle’s.