Read More from Calle J. Brookes

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His first instinct was to always check a room when he entered. For a threat. Ben Tyler had lived that way since his army days. He had no intention of stopping. Even at the diner. 

His second instinct here was to look at the waitresses to see if his cousins were among them, or if his sister was hostessing. Then, he’d check the Talley girls. Just checking to make certain they were ok. 

Since everything that had happened to his sister a little over a year ago, Ben had made a point of keeping an eye on things—especially around the diner. His sister Nikki still hung around the diner almost every day, at some point or another. Sometimes her movie star husband was with her, sometimes Hunter wasn’t. 

Looking out for Nikki, and her friends because they were there with his sister, had become almost as natural as breathing. Apparently, it was Dusty working tonight. That meant it had to be a Monday or Tuesday.

Sometimes he lost track of the days when in the throes of the next book. He studied her for a moment. He liked to look at Dusty—she was the kind of woman who could scramble a man’s insides the instant she turned in his direction. 

She didn’t take advantage of that fact—because she didn’t realize she could do it. He didn’t know why she didn’t realize that. He wanted to figure her out. Purely for professional reasons, of course. 

He’d spent a lot of time over the last year analyzing—and watching—his kid sister’s pal Dusty. So he could put her in a novel someday, mostly. He liked trying to figure Dusty out. 

He felt obligated to keep an eye on her. She’d almost died because of her relationship with his only sister, after all. Dusty Talley was Nikki’s closest friend. He’d been looking out for her since she’d been a kid. He didn’t have any intention of stopping that—no matter how often she snapped at him—anytime soon. At least not until she found a guy who could watch out for her instead. 

He was surprised that hadn’t happened before.

Ben followed his cousin Junie to a table at the back of the diner. She was hostessing tonight, apparently, even though it wasn’t one of her regular nights at the diner. It was usually where he wanted to sit—where he could watch each corner of the diner more easily. Tonight, he planned to grab a burger and sit his ass down and finish the second chunk of his next book. 

Things had gone sideways for his main character, good old Harold Miller. He kept getting distracted by a lady. Ben didn’t have time for Harry to go out on an unplanned romantic tangent with a woman just a little too young for him right now.

One who was starting to look a lot like Dusty, actually.

He didn’t like it when Harry started doing whatever Harry wanted to do instead of what Ben wanted him to do. Things got complicated that way. Fast.

Harry was just not cooperating right now.

He checked on Junie quickly—she’d had some rough knocks lately. But Junie had a will of iron. She was doing ok.

There weren’t that many Talleys in here tonight, though. Dusty and Meyra—who normally wasn’t out this late—and Marin. Three beautiful women he adored—even if he’d never be crazy enough to tell them that. He’d known them practically their whole lives. 

Marin sashayed over—there was no other way to describe that woman—and took his order. “I’m glad you’re here tonight.”

There was something in her big blue eyes that had Ben’s focus sharpening on her. “What’s up, kid?”

“I don’t know. Just a chill across my spine, mostly.” She looked over her shoulder at the cousin who’d be taking over for her soon.


“I’m just not too keen on leaving her here alone tonight. Either of them, really. Meyra’s filling in for the cook who quit tonight.” Marin shrugged lightly, but Ben wasn’t stupid. “Just ghosts, I think.”

“I’m good to stay a few hours, if you need me to.” He’d just nurse a few cups of coffee, tap into the diner’s wifi, and work on the laptop he kept with him for on-the-go writing. “I was feeling a bit hemmed in, anyway.”

“I’d appreciate it.” 

She was called away, leaving him with his coffee. Ben just sat there, and watched the room around him. The women around him, mostly.

But mostly, he just watched her. Destiny, who refused to go by her real name, choosing Dusty instead. If he could figure her out in the real world, the fictional woman tormenting his main character might start cooperating and doing what Ben needed her to do within the confines of the story he had already planned in great detail.

But no. The woman in his story—Sasha Gray—was being…extremely difficult. And enigmatic. And becoming more and more like Dusty every day.

He had not planned on that at all.

There was nothing dusty about that enigma in the least. He didn’t know when he’d first started finding his baby sister’s closest friend fascinating. Well, fascinating enough to put in his book as a side character instead of a throw-away, anyway. That was all.

She’d only had two mentions in the previous eight books, along with the character that was a great deal like Nikki. He’d called Dusty’s counterpart Sasha, because it fit her. Now, though, Sasha was showing up everywhere. 

She was even getting her own point-of-view scenes. She wasn’t supposed to do that.

She was a side character. That wasn’t supposed to happen at all. 

Ben spent a lot of his time trying to figure that woman out. Well, women—the live version…and the fictional.

He was no closer than when he had first cooked up this book in his head.

Dusty kept creeping into his thoughts lately. The last two books he’d written had started off with a female character who looked like, spoke like, and acted like that green-eyed woman. But he’d been able to get her to do what he wanted, where he needed her, too. 

He’d changed the physical description in edits, though. A little. But…Sasha had been described as a green-eyed blonde in the first book he’d mentioned her in. He’d just filled her out a little, until she resembled Dusty completely.

He hadn’t done it in one scene, it had just evolved as the stories had progressed. He’d never had a character resemble someone he knew quite so strongly. Well, except for his alter-ego, good old Harry Miller.

Marin had talked about ghosts tonight? Well, he had one haunting him now. But the living, breathing version was headed his way… 

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