Release Date: April 24, 2023
I knew my best friend’s little sister was off limits, I just couldn’t help myself.
When a tragic accident caused Ford Grimes to trade the fast pace of the city for the refuge that came with being a small-town firefighter, the last thing he wanted was romance. Then he met the seductive manager of the local pizzeria and found himself questioning all the rules he’d put into place for his new life.
Hardin Shields may as well have had a neon sign strapped to her that said do not touch in big, glowing letters. The single mother had enough on her plate. With a family restaurant to run and an ex who was making her life difficult, the last thing she needed was for her unrequited crush on her older brother’s best friend to take a turn into . . . something.
When the chemistry becomes too hot to ignore, they decide to keep things light and fun, but when danger comes lurking, threatening Hardin, Ford has to decide if he’s strong enough to let go of the pain of the past in order to protect the woman who’s coming to mean too much, or let her go.
PRAISE FOR SEDUCTRESS:
Prince delivers this small-town romance with tons of swoon, sizzle, and suspense! I couldn’t get enough! – USA Today Bestselling author Adriana Locke
Small town romance with suspense mixed is exactly what I love, and Jessica did it just right with this one. – New York Times Bestselling Author, Susan Stoker
Seductress had everything I love in a small-town romance. It was fun, sweet, and emotional. The chemistry between Hardin and Ford was off the charts. – New York Times Bestselling Author, Corinne Michaels
This is beautifully written & wanted more! Thank you Jessica! Another amazing addition to whiskey dolls – Goodreads Review
This was an amazing book about family , love and a second chance at love for both main characters. – Goodreads Review
What a story. I absolutely enjoyed reading it from start to finish. It had me hooked. – Goodreads Review
Every book in this series gets better and better. I was absolutely consumed by and adored Hardin and Ford’s story. – Goodreads Review
No one ever told me when you became a mother, everyone in your household, no matter how big or small, would stop being able to locate their personal belongings, and that job would fall on you for the rest of your life.
“Mommy! I can’t find my leotard!” my daughter yelled from the general direction of her bedroom while I raced frantically around the kitchen like a chicken with its head cut off, trying to clean up the accidental mess I’d made while pouring my daughter’s cereal for breakfast, get Hazel’s lunch packed, switch the clothes I’d put in the washer the night before then forgot about over to the dryer, and try to keep hold of my sanity for a little while longer.
“Look in the laundry room,” I shouted back, spreading the peanut butter across the slice of bread in front of me with a little too much force and tearing a massive hole in it.
“It’s not there!” she returned.
I let out a growl and fished another slice of bread from the bag.
Of course, it was the last slice, because that was how my life was going. The pantry and fridge were both running dangerously low. I’d spilled the last of the milk all over the counter and floor earlier when I got sidetracked with the million other things I had going on, and the only thing in the freezer was a box of freezer-burned fish sticks that I was unwilling to try to scrape off and bake. So sometime between ballet class, soccer practice, managing the family’s pizzeria since my parents were semi-retired, dropping off and picking up Hazel from school, homework, and dinner, I was going to have to somehow find time that didn’t exist in my crammed schedule to get to the grocery store.
“Have you looked in your dresser drawer?” The drawer where every one of her leotards had been since I’d washed them and put them all away last Sunday.
“Oops! Forgot to look there!”
Of course she had, because looking there would have made the most sense, so why bother?
I managed to get the peanut butter spread smoothly the second time around and made quick work of slapping the sandwich together, stuffing it into a baggie, and throwing it in Hazel’s lunch box while I stuffed the destroyed bread in my mouth and chomped down.
Waste not, want not, right? And besides, this was the best I could do for myself in regard to eating breakfast.
As a mom, I made sure my kid had the most important meal of the day every single morning, but when it came to me, well, it was a feat if I managed to remember to eat at all most days, so this little snack was a win. Most of my meals consisted of whatever I could scarf down on the go, which didn’t leave a lot of room for healthy eating.
Most mornings I held it together better than this. After all, I’d been rocking the single mom gig pretty much since the little pink plus sign popped up on the at-home pregnancy test.
All the red flags in my past relationship had been there. It wasn’t that I didn’t know the kind of man Keith was. I’d been that clichéd woman who’d ignored the warning signs because I was so madly in love, I just knew I could change him.
I’d made excuses for his shitty behavior. He wasn’t a lazy bum, he was a musician who hadn’t had his big break yet. He wasn’t an asshole, he was a temperamental artist. He didn’t have a drinking problem, he was young and would get it out of his system soon.
I’d lied to both of us throughout most of our relationship every time I coddled him and swore up and down that his day was coming or that he was the most talented musician I’d ever heard.
Those rose-colored glasses had blinded me to the fact that Keith was a hack. He was on the long road to nowhere not because he wasn’t lucky, but simply because he sucked. It was amazing what a person could overlook when they were young, stupid, and thought they were in love.
Looking back, there wasn’t much about that relationship I actually liked, but for as terrible as it was, I couldn’t regret it, because it gave me the most precious gift in the world. It gave me my Hazel.
I would never regret her, she was my entire world, and I cherished every single day with her.
It was just that some of those days, I wanted to lock everyone I knew out of the house and scream into a pillow until I passed out from lack of oxygen. Like today.
As if to prove my point, Hazel’s voice carried through the house. “This is the pink one, Mom! I want the purple one!”
My eyelid began to twitch. “The purple one is dirty. Wear the pink one.”
“But I don’t wanna wear the pink one,” she whined. “I wanna wear the purple one!”
I love her, I reminded myself. I love her with all my heart and gagging her with her leotard is considered child abuse.
“It’s dirty,” I repeated loudly. “Deal with it and move your behind. We have to go.”
We were already running ten minutes late.
“But it’s not smelly. Please, can I wear it again?”
Man, kids were gross sometimes. “No,” I barked. “Pink. Now. You have five minutes!”
She let out a ridiculously dramatic Ugh before I heard the slam of a drawer, meaning she caved and finally grabbed the pink leotard for her ballet class this evening.
Before I had a chance to take a breath, my cell started to ring, and because I was already off my game, I answered it without looking at the screen first.
“Hey, Hardin. It’s Kadence.”
My back went straight. A call from Kadence Perry couldn’t mean anything good. The woman had been working as a waitress at Junior’s Pizzeria for less than three months, and she’d already called in sick half a dozen times. Even when she was present for her shifts, her work ethic was seriously lacking.
She’d been a thorn in my side since her first day, and I should have fired her weeks ago. Hell, I wouldn’t have hired her if the call had been mine, but it wasn’t. Even though my parents were supposed to have retired from the restaurant, my father was struggling to let go completely.
A part of me was bitter at that, because I knew if my brother, Owen, had been the one to take over, our dad would have gladly handed him the reins and sailed off into retired bliss. But that wasn’t what happened. Owen never wanted the pizzeria. His dream had always been to become a veterinarian, and that was exactly what he’d done.
Me, on the other hand, well, all I’d ever wanted was to uphold my family’s legacy. I had nothing but happy memories of my family’s pizzeria. This was where I used to come every day after school, sitting in the booth at the back of the room to do my homework while my parents worked. This was the place I’d gotten my first job in high school. My father had even made me come in and interview, claiming I had to earn my spot. I had, and since that very first job bussing tables and washing dishes, I’d had to earn every raise and promotion I’d gotten. I wasn’t the manager because it was my parents’ restaurant. I was the manager because I’d worked my ass off for the position.
But Junior’s had been handed down to the oldest child for generations since it opened when my mom’s grandfather came over from Italy . . . until me.
I wasn’t blind. I’d seen the hope in my mom’s and dad’s eyes over the years. All Owen ever talked about was being a vet, but they’d kept their fingers crossed that he would change his mind.
And I breathed a sigh of relief the place that had been a second home to me all my life was finally going to be mine. Unfortunately, something about being the youngest, the baby, made it harder for my folks to cut the apron strings. Most days, it felt like they didn’t trust me, and I would have been lying if I said that didn’t sting like hell.
Kadence Perry was just another in a long line of examples of one of my parents going over my head. She was the daughter of one of Dad’s poker buddies, so when he’d asked my father if he could help her out, he hadn’t blinked.
That was how I’d gotten stuck with a waitress only one step up from Keith in laziness.
“Hey, Kadence. You on your way to the shop?”
“That’s actually why I’m calling.” Of course, it was. “I’m feeling a little under the weather this morning, so I don’t think it would be smart for me to come in and be around all those people, you know? I could be contagious.”
I pursed my lips and blew out a slow, calming exhale, pinching the bridge of my nose. “Kadence, this the second time in five days, you’ve called off. I moved you from the evening shift because you kept showing up late”—when she showed up at all—“because you said the early shift would work better. Now you’re bailing on that one too. Your job exists to help me and the rest of the staff. If you aren’t doing that, I don’t really see a point in keeping you around.”
She let out an indignant huff through the line. “I don’t know what to tell you. I’m really sick! And I’m sure it’s also against a bunch of health code violations for me to be there.”
She wasn’t wrong about that . . . if she were sick. But I’d stake my reputation that she was full of shit.
“I guess I’ll just have my dad call your dad,” she said in that whiny, nasally voice of hers that drove me up the freaking wall.
I swore I could feel my pulse behind my eyeball as I dropped my head in defeat. “No,” I sighed. “There’s no need for that.”
I knew what a call to my father would do. On more than one occasion, he’d questioned whether or not I was ready to take over Junior’s, and each time he did, it hurt like hell. If he found out I fired a woman he hired as a favor to his friend, he’d start to doubt my abilities again.
“Just . . . get better,” I forced out through clenched teeth. “And we’ll see you on your next shift.”
“Thanks, Hardin! You’re the best,” Kadence squeaked. Then, having won, she hung up on me, leaving me with the start of a nasty headache.
“Okay, Mommy, I’m ready.” Hazel skidded across the kitchen floor in her socks, barely stopping before she crashed into the table.
I arched a brow as I looked down at her feet. “Think you’re missing something, Hazelnut?”
She looked down at her shoeless feet before shouting, “Oops!” and booked it out of the kitchen.
“Did you brush your teeth?” I called back.
There was a pause, then, “Doing it now!”
I was going to have an aneurism before I hit forty. I just knew it.
And because my morning couldn’t get any worse, my phone chose that moment to ring again.
I swiped the screen aggressively and brought it to my ear. “I swear to God, if this is another one of my employees calling in sick, I’m firing everyone!” I barked through the line.
I stopped the tasks I had started of wiping my filthy counters and dropped my head back on a silent scream.
“Hardy? You there?”
“I’ve asked you a million times not to call me that, Keith.”
He cleared his throat across the line like he was suddenly uncomfortable. “Yeah. Right. Sorry.”
“What do you need, Keith? I’m really busy right now, trying to get out the door.”
“No, I know, it’s just . . . Look, there’s something I want to talk to you about. Do you think we can meet up later this week maybe?”
He’d never been one to hem and haw around a point before, or to ask to meet up, for that matter. Our conversations usually consisted of him calling with some excuse as to why he had to miss yet another milestone in his own daughter’s life. I’d get pissed and end up yelling at him for being so selfish, then he’d accuse me of always nagging him before hanging up on me.
It was a vicious cycle that hadn’t changed in the seven years since Hazel had been born.
“Are you calling to cancel your weekend with her? We’ve talked about this, Keith. You can’t keep—”
“It’s not that. Jesus, Hardin. Can we not fight? Just this once?”
I closed my eyes and pulled in a breath, trying desperately to find my calm. It wasn’t even eight in the morning, and I was already wishing this day was over. I’d have given anything to strip off my clothes and crawl back into bed with the covers over my head.
“What do you want, Keith?” I repeated, trying to keep my voice calm.
“Like I said, I’d like us to meet up soon. Whenever you have a chance.”
My frustration was quickly beginning to bubble over. “Why can’t you just say what you need to say now, over the phone? I don’t exactly have a lot of free time.”
“Then I’ll come to you,” he spit out, his tone way too upbeat. “Just name the time and place.”
Alarm bells were ringing in my head, but I didn’t have time to hound him until he came clean. I had other, more important things to worry about at the moment, such as our daughter, who I did roughly ninety-nine percent of the caring for. If Hazel didn’t have such a good time with her father—on the weekends he actually came through—I would have asked him to sign over parental rights a long time ago. It wasn’t like losing the child support would have been a big deal. Starving artists weren’t exactly big on paying their share.
I’d accepted a long time ago that my daughter’s welfare was going to fall on my shoulders alone, and I was okay with that. I’d made the decision to be with Keith. It wasn’t like he hadn’t shown me his true colors. I’d gotten careless and wound up pregnant. I hadn’t really been known for my stellar decision-making in the past, so when things got tough and the man I was tied to for the rest of my life flaked again, I couldn’t place the blame on anyone else.
I’d learned a long time ago to pull up my big-girl panties, stop whining about how unfair things could be, and handle my shit like a responsible grownup.
“Fine,” I said on a sigh more to get him off the phone than for any other reason. “I’ll call you later and we’ll set up a time to meet. But I really have to go.”
I could actually hear the smile in his voice as he said, “Great! Thanks, Hardin. That means a lot. We’ll talk later. Give Hazel girl my love, yeah?”
My brain screamed, because he can’t be bothered to give it to her himself? But before I could finish that thought, he’d disconnected.
I wasn’t sure how I’d pull it off or when I could make it happen, but there was one thing I knew for certain: I needed a break.