One to Take (Stuart & Mariska)_ Tia Louise

One to Take

Stuart & Mariska

Tia Louise

Acknowledgments

Acknowledgments are the hardest part of the book for me to write. So many people play a role in the evolution of my books, as I sit here trying to think of them all, I’m petrified I’ll forget someone.

For starters, I’m so thankful for Mr. TL, my amazing husband, who I still remember wore cowboy boots on our first “real” date. Thanks for being my best editor, my toughest critic, and my most encouraging supporter. You’re my sexy cowboy.

To all the loyal fans of the series who have patiently (and sometimes not so patiently) waited for this book, and to the new readers who I hope fall in love with Stuart and Mariska for the first time—THANK YOU for reading and believing in me.

It touches my heart when people love my novels because I write them from the heart, and these characters become very real to me. So HUGE THANKS to my beta readers, to Ilona and Candy, to all the bloggers and advance review copy readers, who started messaging me weeks before release date raving—you make my life.

THANKS so much to my author-friends who read early versions and encouraged me, to Aleatha Romig and Ilsa Madden-Mills. I can’t express how much you mean to me.

Super Thanks to Elle Ramsey for helping me keep all the plates spinning these past few months! You’re an amazing helper.

Thank you to Steven Novak for always giving me a beautiful cover design, and to Alfie Gordillo who insisted I at least look at his cowboy photos. (Har-har—I know. My job is SO tough, right?)

Thanks to Lisa at TRSOR for helping me spread the word and always being such a great resource! Thanks also to Heather Thompson for that incredible book trailer.

Last but not least, Thanks to my BABES and to my “A-Team”!!! I LOVE you ladies more than I can ever say! You help me, you encourage me, and you keep me motivated more times than I’m sure you’re even aware. MWAH!

Finally, to everyone who believes in faith and love and second-chances, Thank you.

Tia <3

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Prologue

Running. Must keep running…

All around are shadows. Streetlights expand and contract before my eyes in the greenish-gloom of a moonless night.

“You failed. We know you failed. You failed AGAIN!”

To my right is a brick wall. I’m barefoot, and my gown is too thin. It’s too white and too thin, and I’m shaking so hard. It’s so cold. Must keep running…

Whispering voices, “You can’t escape.”

Wet pavement is under my feet. I almost slip on the slime covering it. The noise of traffic tells me I’m in a city, but nothing is familiar. I’m lost.

Keep running…

An alley yawns to my left, and I dash down it trying to escape the hissing voices, only the further I run, the narrower it grows. It’s closing in on me… It’s a dead end!

Turn back! Only… They’re there.

Walking slowly, they close in on me. They’re dressed in black with buttons and badges. Black uniforms and guns. I can see the whites of their eyes, the whites of their teeth.

Sinister smiles with glittering eyes above them. “You can’t escape.”

Dodge to the right—Oh! Water! I’ve slipped. I’m falling…

My stomach flies to my throat as the asphalt zooms toward my face.

“NO!” I scream, kicking the covers off my legs as quickly as possible, slapping back the hands. A large one reaches for my arm, and I slap it away. “Don’t touch me!”

I frantically push higher, my back against the headboard. My stomach cramps so hard, I bend forward. Sweat coats my skin in a thin sheen, causing my entire body to shake.

“Mariska!” Stuart’s voice finds me in the darkness. Commanding even in sleep, he steadies me with his strength. With a trembling exhale, I collapse to a sitting position on the pillows. “You’re okay. It was a dream.”

Just a dream. The room slowly comes into focus as I blink away the haze. Tan walls dotted with brown wooden shelves. Our blankets are a jumbled heap at my feet, and the familiar, comfy suede leather chair faces me from across the room. I’m warm and dry and safe.

I can just make out the broad, sculpted shoulders of my fiancé silhouetted in the dim light, and I reach out to smooth his dark hair, a messy bedhead. I can’t see his hazel eyes,