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About the author:
J.L. Campbell is an award-winning and best-selling author who writes romantic suspense, women’s fiction, new and young adult novels. She has written thirteen books, four novellas and two short story collections. She is a certified editor, who also writes non-fiction.
What inspired you to write your book?
We are a group of romance writers who put together the box set Summer Solstice in June 2016. Based on the popularity of that set, we decided to pull together this box set for the Winter Solstice to celebrate a second chance at love romances.
Here is a short sample from the book:
Behind the Bar by P.C. Zick, excerpt
CHAPTER ONE – SUSIE
Susie glanced on the other side of the bride and groom to where her boyfriend of five years stood. Reggie’s eyes roved around the crowd despite her fervent prayer willing him to look at her as they witnessed the open expression of love between their best friends. As Leah and Dean exchanged their vows, the wind blew in the trees and a small branch fell behind the minister as he blessed their union. Susie always thought she and Reggie would marry first.
That’s what I want. Reggie and I have waited too long.
She looked at Reggie again, but he still surveyed the small crowd gathered on the banks of the river for the wedding. She followed his gaze, and to her surprise, she saw her sister, Lisa, standing in the front row with the others who had come to witness the marriage of Dean Davis and Leah Bryant.
So Lisa had finally come home to Victory. Susie nodded, and Lisa smiled at her. She wondered if everything was all right. As far as she knew, she and Dean weren’t that close, even though they’d graduated the same year. She turned her gaze back to the happy couple, who were engaged in a prolonged kiss. She heard Reggie’s laughter above all the cheering.
“I present to you Dean and Leah Davis, husband and wife.” Jacob, the minister and Dean’s brother, beamed over the heads of the newlyweds.
Susie watched Jacob, and marveled at his transformation from Leah’s fiancé to the minister who married her to his brother. Ever since Dean returned to Victory a few months earlier, lives had turned upside down. Jacob’s faith helped him face the horror of his mother’s abuse over the years, and allowed him to forgive his brother for his past transgressions. Life worked in mysterious ways, and now Susie hoped some of the magic of the day would plop itself onto Reggie’s head. Maybe he’d be inspired enough to ask her to marry him, finally.
Susie brought her attention back to the wedding. The crowd whistled and stomped their collective feet on the grassy knoll above the Deer River. Then they surrounded Leah and Dean. Susie turned around and almost bumped into her sister.
“Lisa, I can’t believe you’re here.” Susie grabbed her sister. “I’m so happy you’ve come home. I’ve missed you so much.”
“And I’ve missed you, baby sister,” Lisa said. “I can’t say I missed this town though.”
“How did you know about the wedding?”
“I didn’t. I flew in this morning, rented a car, and here I am. I came to see you, of course, but the one person I could find in town told me what was happening.”
“I’m so glad you’re here. I can’t wait for you to meet Leah.”
The two women could almost be twins with their auburn hair, blue eyes, and porcelain skin. They were both willowy, although Lisa was slightly taller, with a few more curves than her younger sister.
Reggie came over and gave Lisa a hug.
“You came back,” Reggie said. “I didn’t think I’d ever see you here again.”
“I thought the same thing,” Lisa said. “How you doing, Reg? Still keeping my sister happy?”
“Sure thing,” Reggie said.
“I thought maybe Sam and Trevor would be here, too,” Lisa said. “You know, the fearsome foursome who won the state football championship and all that.”
“Trevor sent his regrets,” Reggie said. “I’m not sure about Sam. He’s a big shot these days.”
“So I heard,” Lisa said. “I saw an article about his success as a publisher.”
Reggie snorted and Susie slapped his arm. “Behave, Reggie.”
“He runs rags and makes a fortune doing it,” Reggie said. “He always knew how to take advantage of a situation. I’m going to get a beer. You girls want anything?”
“I’m going to wait until the toast,” Susie said, and Lisa agreed. “Don’t forget we both have to give a toast.”
Reggie headed for the keg, while the two sisters walked away from the crowd with their arms entwined.
“When are you and Reggie getting married? I thought I’d be attending your wedding before Dean’s.”
Susie shrugged and looked over at Reggie standing at the keg pouring a beer. “I’m not sure. Soon, I guess.”
“Especially now that the famous tat artist has capitulated. Who’s this Leah woman anyway?”
Susie was surprised she’d never mentioned her best friend Leah to her sister. She was sure she had in one of their many late night phone calls. But then again, she spent most of those phone calls listening to Lisa complain about her lack of work and cry over the rejections from trying to get gigs as an actor in New York.
“Leah is one of my best friends,” Susie said. “She was engaged to Jacob, but then Dean blew into town, and the two of them fell in love at first sight.”
“That’s a load of crap,” Lisa said. “There is no such thing.”
“Sure there is. I saw it happen. Leah’s a good person. One of the best. You’ll see if you stick around long enough. She’ll help you put things into perspective.”
“I don’t know how long I’m staying, but I’ll keep an open mind.”
When friends of Lisa’s came to welcome her home, Susie left her sister. She found Reggie talking to Sally Jean who’d managed to pour herself into a very tight red dress for the occasion. Susie was surprised to see her, but not surprised that she and Reggie were talking. When Dean turned Sally Jean down, she started spending far too much time at the Victory Tavern that Reggie owned and ran. She came in with her tits hanging out of anything she managed to wrap around her body like Saran Wrap.
“Hello, Sally Jean,” Susie said when she came up beside them. “I’m glad you made it today. It will mean a lot to Dean.” Susie didn’t say how Leah might feel, but the couple made the decision to openly invite the entire town of Victory to help them celebrate their nuptials. She had to give Sally Jean credit. There were balls squeezed in somewhere under that dress.
“Hi, Susie,” Sally Jean said. “You look very sweet and wholesome today.”
Susie looked down at her plain yellow sleeveless dress. Leah insisted that Susie wear something she already owned or could wear again if she bought something new. Susie had gotten the yellow summer dress at Kohl’s last week. Until now, she thought it flattering to her slim build. But standing next to the voluptuousness of Sally Jean, Susie looked like a school girl.
“Reggie, I think we’re supposed to give the toast now so they can start serving the food,” Susie said.
“Sure thing. I’ll be right there.” He leaned down with his glass and poured another beer. “How about you, Sally Jean? Ready for another brew?”
“Sure, why not? Better to be plastered today. I really thought it would be me marrying Dean.”
“I’m sure there’s someone out there for you,” Susie said. She put her arm through Reggie’s and pulled him with her to the barn. “See you inside, Sally Jean.”
CHAPTER TWO – REGGIE
“Dean, I’m almost at a loss for words today,” Reggie said when he stood next to the bride and groom at the head table. “Who would ever have thought a year ago, I’d be standing here toasting the most eligible bachelor on South Beach? I heard that Bachelor TV show was getting ready to make you an offer. And then you rode that Harley of yours back into Victory, and that pretty gal next to you rode into your heart.” Reggie shook his head and smiled at the couple. “Leah, I’ve known you since you came to Victory four years ago, but I never thought you had it in you to tame the wildest man I’ve ever known. Here’s to Leah and my buddy, Dean. I’m rooting for you two to show the rest of us how to make a marriage last.”
The crowd cheered. How he’d gotten through the toast was the miracle of the day. It was the last thing he’d wanted to do, but he couldn’t let Dean or Leah down. He felt anything but cheerful about Dean’s marriage. Sure, he wanted him to be happy. Leah, too. But did it have to happen here in Victory with Susie hanging on every word and loving touch between the newlyweds? Why didn’t they just elope? He’d been asking himself that question a hundred times for the past week. All the nonsense created tensions between him and Susie. He knew Susie wanted the fairy tale, but his fear of marriage kept him from giving her what she wanted.
He tried to focus his attention on Susie’s toast. If he didn’t, she’d be even more disappointed with him. He watched her hold up her glass, and admired how easily the words came to her. He loved that woman, but why couldn’t they just keep things as they were?
“I wish as much happiness upon Reggie and me as I see flowing from the two of you,” Susie said, ending her toast and clinking her glass against first Leah’s and then Dean’s.
And there it was. Susie’s wish. He knew the drill and what came next. It happened after every wedding they attended. This time it would be worse because it was her best friend’s wedding, and Dean and Leah had only been together for a few months. Susie had been his girlfriend for five years.
Susie pulled him to the buffet table, where Tommy Jackson joined them.
“Tommy, I didn’t know you were here,” Susie said.
“I just got here. I had an assignment this morning, but came as soon as I could. How was the ceremony?”
“Beautiful,” Susie said. “Jacob did a wonderful job.”
Reggie let out a long breath. Here we go. He put a roll on his plate and decided to stay quiet.
“That’s good.” Tommy said. “Odd situation, but everyone seems to have survived, except perhaps Geraldine.” Tommy ran his fingers through his red hair that he kept long on top but short over his ears and neck. His hair was redder than Susie’s was, but he could have passed for her brother.
Reggie thought about how things had changed in the past two months in Victory. When Dean returned to town after an absence of a decade, Leah and Jacob were planning to get married. Dean and Jacob’s mother, Geraldine, ran the church while Jacob served as minister, replacing his father after his death the year before. Leah ran a kitchen for the homeless who lived down on the banks of the Deer River behind the church, but Geraldine plotted to shut it down about the time Dean arrived. One thing after another led to Geraldine’s arrest for embezzling church funds. It was also revealed that she’d sexually abused both her sons. Except right before her arrest, she revealed she wasn’t their mother. Leah and Jacob broke the engagement amicably, leaving the door open for Dean. It gave Reggie a headache to think about it too much.
“You’re right, Tommy,” Reggie said. “It’s been a weird couple of months around here.”
“But everyone survived,” Susie said. “And lived happily ever after.”
“You must believe in fairy tales, Susie,” Tommy said. “So when are you two following suit?”
Here it comes. Reggie plopped a chicken leg on his plate and waited.
Susie laughed. “Ask this guy. And I do believe in fairy tales.”
“Good for you,” Tommy said. “Leah’s marriage and her work with Soup’s On gives even me hope, and I’ve been jaded for years working the police beat.”
“What story were you working this morning?” Susie asked.
Tommy was a reporter for the Tampa Tribune. A few months ago, he wrote about the homeless folks living on Deer River and Leah’s efforts to save the kitchen where she ran Soup’s On.
“I was out at the beach talking to the folks who live there. St. Pete Beach officials are making noises about kicking them out of the parks.”
“If I know you, you’ll write a great article and something good will happen.”
“I hate to see those folks get hassled,” Reggie said. “Are you finding most of them are vets like here?”
“Too many of them,” Tommy said, pouring sauce on his pulled pork. “This place sure turned out great, didn’t it?” He waved his hand around the barn.
“It sure did,” Reggie said. “Leah and Dean did most of the work, but your article really gave the whole program a boost.”
Reggie looked around the old barn brought to new life by Leah and Dean and a whole group of volunteers, including the homeless it served. Thanks to generous donations and Dean’s father’s will, Soup’s On would never be in jeopardy again.
After they’d filled their plates, they walked toward some picnic tables set up under an old live oak tree to the side of the barn.
“I’m going to get a beer,” Reggie said, putting his plate on the red-checked plastic tablecloth. “Anybody else want one?”
“Sure, that’d be great, Reg,” Tommy said.
“I’m sticking to champagne today,” Susie said.
When Reggie made it to the keg, his friends stood around telling stories about the glory days when the Victory football team won the state championship.
“That was one hell of a catch you made, Reggie,” Charlie said, moving aside to let Reggie fill his glass.
“I bet I couldn’t have done that again for a million bucks, boys. That’s why you need to seize every minute.” He brought the full glass of beer to his mouth and chugged it down. When he was finished, he wiped his arm across his mouth. “Thank goodness, Dean didn’t make me wear a tux.”
“No, but I bet Susie wants to tie a noose around your neck now that Dean’s gone and done it,” Charlie said. “You’ll never hear the end of it now.”
“Don’t you worry about Susie. I got it all under control.”
He wandered back to the table, carefully carrying two glasses of beer. He’d rather stay with his friends, but he’d better eat, if he wanted to stay on his feet for the rest of the afternoon and evening.
“I see your sister is back in town,” Tommy said as Reggie sat down. “She come back very often?”
“Not much in the past ten years. She came home for Mom’s funeral, but that’s it.”
“I remember,” Tommy said. “That was a few years after your dad left, right?”
“Yes,” Susie said. “Look at Joshua and Carol. Aren’t they the cutest couple besides Leah and Dean, of course?”
Reggie looked over at the leaders of the Deer River camp. They sat close together with their heads touching. He knew Susie didn’t like to talk about her dad, so he forgave her for talking about another couple in love.
Leah came over to their table and leaned down and gave Tommy a peck on the cheek. “I’m so glad you made it,” she said. “Your article was the best thing that could have happened for us.”
“I enjoyed writing it,” Tommy said. “In fact, the paper liked it so much, they’re sending me out all across the state to do stories on the homeless of Florida.”
“That’s wonderful,” Leah said. “Let me know how I can help.”
“You can give me references if you or your friends here know of any other camps around the state.”
“I’ll check with the others and send you an email. After my honeymoon, of course.”
She smiled then and looked over at Dean who was headed her way. Reggie noticed how both of their eyes lit up at the sight of the other. Some called it true love, but Reggie imagined they were still in the early throes of enjoying sex with one another.
“There’s my beautiful bride, already running off with the first eligible bachelor in the place,” Dean said as he came over to shake Tommy’s hand. “Good to see you, Tommy.”
“You owe me an interview,” Tommy said. “Remember you promised ‘the tat artist turned farmer story.’”
Dean Davis of Victory didn’t exist in South Beach where he’d lived for ten years. There he became known as Harold Grant, tattoo artist. His shop located in the heart of the chic part of Miami attracted the rich and playful. Dean inked some famous body parts over the years. Eventually, everything he inked was his own original design.
“Let me get this honeymoon over with, and I’m all yours,” Dean winked and then grabbed Leah around the waist. “How long do we have to hang around?”
She slapped him playfully on the arm. “We have the rest of our lives to be alone. I want to party with our friends for the rest of the night.”
“Come on, baby.” Dean pulled her close.
“Man, keep it steady,” Reggie said. “Have some pride.”
“I have one question for you,” Dean said, turning to his best man. “When are you and Susie going to jump into the pond with us?”
Susie looked embarrassed, and Reggie felt badly for her. He shrugged his shoulders. “What about those Bucs. Think they’ll beat the Steelers tomorrow?”
“Are pigs flying overhead?” Tommy said as he looked upwards. “Are you crazy?”
“Tommy, that’s terrible,” Leah said. “You should support our team.”
“It’s hard to do that sometimes, baby,” Dean said. “That reminds me, Reggie. Trevor couldn’t make it today, but he sent us tickets to tomorrow’s game as a wedding gift. I guess he didn’t consider the honeymoon. Want to take them off my hands?”
“I can find someone to take them,” Reggie said. “He gave me season tickets, so I’m all set. Just the cure for the hangover I’m sure to have tomorrow.”
Dean pulled out his wallet and took out the tickets. “Thanks for being the greatest best man ever. I’m ready to return the favor whenever you are.”
Reggie took the tickets. “Time for some more beer.”
He walked away, leaving Susie with her banana pudding and cole slaw. He was getting tired of all the comments. Everyone had them married when he hadn’t even asked her yet. He hadn’t even made up his mind if that’s what he wanted to do. He loved Susie, but he wasn’t sure it was enough to break a promise he made to himself a long time ago.
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