Welcome to Flaming, MO. Kate Aaron and I are thrilled to announce the release of book 1 of the new Flaming, MO series, Loose Lips & Relationships! We have at least 7 books planned in the series, and all of them will feature the cozy feel-good heart of our small town with a little bit of an edge. Ladies and gentlemen, Kate and I give you the cozy thriller.
Title: Loose Lips & Relationships
Series: Flaming, MO
Authors: AJ Rose and Kate Aaron
Release Date: February 26th
Price: $3.99 or FREE for KU Subscribers
Where to Buy: Amazon
Flaming, Missouri is the perfect place for police officer Marc Warren to heal his battered heart after a broken marriage. The tourist town is an easy beat and he finds sanctuary in his beautiful cabin on the Lake of the Ozarks. So when Grant “Good Time” Taylor shows interest, Marc is in no hurry to let Flaming’s resident bad boy rock his boat.
Grant has no interest in dating locals. Tourists are plentiful and don’t want more than he’s willing to give. But a bar bet turns personal when Marc hands him a humiliating public rejection. If Grant wants to get under the mysterious officer’s skin, he’ll have to offer more than a temporary port.
The small town rumor mill gets a jumpstart as Marc and Grant realize what they’ve been missing all along—each other. But not everyone is happy for them. Someone will stop at nothing to sink the budding relationship. Can Marc and Grant overcome their fears to fight for each other, or is their happiness destined to drown?
Award winning authors AJ Rose and Kate Aaron have teamed up to welcome you to Flaming, MO, a cozy thriller series with feel-good themes, charismatic characters, and a small town with a big heart.
“What about that one?” Joe Duran, my best friend, pointed the mouth of his beer bottle at a tourist wearing the summer uniform of board shorts and a t-shirt.
Not bothering to hide my interest, I gave the guy a thorough once-over. “He is hot.” And he was—generous smile, laughing eyes, broad shoulders, and sun-kissed skin from his week at our lake. How did I know he’d been in Flaming, Missouri, a tourist trap on the Lake of the Ozarks, for the week? Well….
Side-eyeing Joe and his girlfriend, Lily, I took a pull on my beer to hide my smirk. “He’s got this great tattoo on his left hip, too. It’s a treble clef, and the swirl in the middle turns into a heartbeat line.” I pointed to my hip, so they’d know exactly how close to his groin the guy—Tim or Tom, if memory served—had the ink.
Joe was unimpressed. “Should I be asking how you know what his currently-covered tattoo looks like, or are we just moving on to the next?”
My grin was shit-eating, and I swiveled my barstool to face the room, resting my elbows on the bar behind me. “To be fair, Joe, you have good taste. For a straight guy.”
“Grant Taylor, you’re such a horndog.” Lily snorted, and I tipped an imaginary hat in thanks for the “compliment.” They began their survey again, taking their roles as my self-appointed wingmen seriously. A surge of affection had me clapping Joe on the shoulder and squeezing.
For an early Saturday evening, The HookUp was fairly crowded, but when the last of twilight faded in an hour, the bar would be wall-to-wall people, shoppers and lake dwellers alike. Most of the tourists wouldn’t run a boat at night, so they’d find their entertainment on land, and the restaurants and bars of Flaming would serve them well until tomorrow, when we’d do it all again. Except Sundays, which were slower; it was generally roll-over day—the weekend visitors would go back to their lives, and the next week’s guests, usually arriving Friday or Saturday, were still getting the lay of the land. Saturday night held the most promise. Those leaving would cram as much fun as they could into their short-lived vacations, and the newbies were just beginning their hedonistic week.
That was the thing I loved most about growing up and living in a resort town. Smallish, at around 10,000 local residents, Flaming’s ranks swelled mightily in the warm months, so the pickings were never slim. It was a little town with endless possibilities, and I was there for all of them. I mean, how could a gay man—or sometimes the tourists were heteroflexible—go wrong in a town called Flaming ’MO?
“What about him?” Lily was subtle about pointing out the next guy.
Ah, Rory. He was a good time. “He’s here every year.”
“Lemme guess.” Her sarcasm was thick. “You don’t do repeats?”
I swiveled to face the bar again and signaled Brandon, the bartender, for another beer. “I’m wounded. He happens to have been fun three summers running.”
“I don’t hear a ‘no’ in there, Tay.” Joe lifted a brow at Lily. “We may have a winner.”
“Sorry, but I have to pass. Last time he made a comment about doing more than hooking up this summer. I don’t want to give him the wrong idea.” Long-distance and I didn’t mesh, but if he lived here, I’d have considered a fling. Briefly.
Brandon set a beer in front of me. “Does he know that?”
“Eavesdropping again, Bran?” I smiled to show I was kidding.
He chuckled and leaned on his elbows. “Do you want me to tell you about the earful I got when you thoroughly ignored him two nights ago?”
I held out a fist for him to bump. “You’re a good guy.”
He didn’t knock knuckles, watching me warily. “Don’t be hitting on me, Tay.”
Brandon was hot, with a full mouth, cheekbones that could cut glass, and shrewd brown eyes, but I’d never considered him more than a friend. I laughed in mock surrender. “I’m not. I swear.”
“Does anyone ever turn you down?” Brandon set a bowl of bar nuts in front of us.
I popped a few and munched with a grin that was all the answer he needed.
Lily reached for the bowl. “Joe and I have a bet on how long his streak will last.”
“Hey!” Okay, that kinda stung. “I hardly think a couple dates a week in the summer is outrageous. You calling me a man whore?”
“Thought you didn’t date them.” Brandon pursed his lips like he’d caught me in a lie.
“Not long-term. I don’t do distance.”
“Me either, hon.” Anne, one of the cocktail waitresses, set her tray beside me. She rattled off five or six drink orders to Brandon, then spoke to me with a wink. “I date locals or not at all.”
“See?” I flapped a hand in her direction like she was my new best friend. “Anne knows.”
“That brings up a question.” Joe looked past me at Anne. “Have you ever seen Grant leave with a local?”
Brandon set two beer bottles and a draft on her tray. “I haven’t.” He deftly made two cocktails and put them with the others.
She hefted the tray. “I haven’t either. But maybe you have the right idea with the visitors. Less drama when they leave.” Then she was off to serve the drinks.
“So your rejection record isn’t representative.” Brandon wiped the bar where he’d splashed Coke. “I say we test that.”
“What do you propose?” Lily was too eager for my taste. The gleam in her eye said she was cooking something up.
“Hey! I’m right here.”
“Hush. Bran, Joe, and I are discussing our wager.”
“Brandon’s not in it.” My bitching fell on deaf ears as they huddled, Joe angled so as to half-exclude me.
“I say Grant should let us choose a local for him to pick up. And he should keep going until someone tells him no.” Brandon’s eyes gleamed with wicked amusement.
“I thought we were friends.” I pressed my shoulder to Joe’s back so I could speak low in his ear. “Are you going to let them do this to me?” When he shrugged and laughed, I shoved him playfully. “You are the worst best friend ever.”
“What’s the matter?” Joe crunched a peanut, letting me back into their circle with an arm around my shoulders. “Lily bet your streak would last longer than I said it would. If I stop them, I’m less likely to win. It’s a fifty-spot, dude.”
I coughed on my gulp of beer, and when I could speak again, I elbowed him. “Traitor.”
Brandon cackled. “I’ll pick your prospect tonight, and you can only veto once.”
“Once in the whole thing, or once every time you pick him a new guy?” Lily shouldn’t have been so invested in this. She had her own love life.
“Now we’re doing this more than one night? You guys suck.”
Brandon pretended to consider. “I guess once each night we’re picking for him.”
“Gee, thanks. You’re so generous.”
He scrutinized the bar patrons with more than his usual interest.
“I still haven’t agreed to this nonsense.” But it was pointless to argue. My pride wouldn’t let me back down now. It was my reputation on the line.
Brandon patted my forearm. “Don’t worry. I know your tastes, and who your mother is, so no hooking you up with the mayor.”
I groaned in trepidation. My mother was Flaming’s chief of police, so if Bran wanted to, he could make my life hell.
“Oh, suck it up.” Joe clapped my shoulder with a good-natured smile. “You have a veto.”
“Don’t you trust me?” Brandon’s grin was pure evil.
“No. But come on. Hit me with it. Then you have to go back to your job. Your cohort is working her ass off while you’re shooting the shit with us.” Linda, the other bartender, was busy slinging drinks, but she smiled and laughed with her customers, so clearly she wasn’t as put out by Brandon’s attention on us as I was.
I swallowed more beer, and the butterflies in my stomach veered harder. I was nervous? I hadn’t felt that since I gave Bryan Jessup my first blowjob.
Okay, this could actually be fun. But there was no way I’d admit that aloud.
“Don’t rush me. I want to pick a good one.” Brandon took his sweet time, but then a twinkle hit his eye as someone over my left shoulder piqued his interest. “Marc Warren.” He crossed his arms in triumph, waiting to see if I’d veto. His smug expression dared me to refuse.
Joe and Lily both oohed his choice.
“Now wait a minute. You said you’d keep my mother in mind. He’s a cop. You’re setting me up to be turned down. Who’s going to date the boss’s son?”
It was Joe’s turn to cackle. “Who said anything about dating? Oh wait.” He pretended to have an epiphany. “If he’s local, an actual relationship isn’t off the table, is it? No long distance.”
Lily slung her arm around Joe’s waist and kissed his cheek. “Let’s not marry him off just yet. See if he can get Marc to say yes to a hookup. Then we work on the date.”
Brandon ticked points off on his fingers. “Marc is only a little older than you, he’s hot, he’s into men, and I happen to know he’s also not looking for a relationship. If this is just a hookup, then working for your mother won’t bother him.” He deliberately looked me up and down. “Unless you’re afraid he won’t be interested.”
The challenge was unmistakable. I fixed Brandon with an unimpressed look while Joe and Lily snickered. Finishing my beer before I casually turned my barstool to the side, I glanced in Marc’s direction. He was by himself, rolling a beer bottle between his palms and staring at the lake through the window next to his booth.
Brandon wasn’t wrong. Marc Warren was a hell of a specimen. He was a very serious man, with a strong jaw and piercing blue eyes. Our interactions at the Blue Cove Marina, where I worked and he sometimes rented Jet Skis, had been nothing but business. Now that I was trying to assess whether he was open to being approached, I realized how hard he was to read. He didn’t display a single tell. Was he brooding? Bored? Contemplating the meaning of life in the lake’s waves?
Now or never. I stood and slid my empty bottle at Brandon. “Watch and learn.”
Joe and Lily whispered, “Yes,” to each other and bumped knuckles as I turned toward my prey.
Three feet before I reached Marc’s booth, he looked in my direction. When those startling blue eyes landed on me, I popped my dimples. I didn’t get a smile in return. Instead, he quirked an eyebrow.
Not as welcoming as I’d hoped. No matter. I’d have him laughing in a minute. With a confident jut of my chin, I slid into the booth across from him. Up close, he was hotter, his tan skin contrasting nicely with a white t-shirt bearing the logo of a boating company. His lips were fuller, more kissable, than I’d originally thought.
“Sure, you can sit.” His other brow rose. “Can I help you?”
I leaned on my forearms and noted his beer was mostly untouched. “You keep rolling that between your hands, it’s going to get warm.”
Marc snorted. “You’re worried about the temperature of my beer?”
“A man’s beer says a lot about him. I’m just making sure yours says what you want it to say.”
He took a pull from the bottle, and I watched his throat bob as he swallowed. He hadn’t shaved, and the scruff suited him. “And what does it say about me?”
I relaxed, resting an arm across the seatback, and grinned. “It’s Sam Adams, so you have better taste than a college kid. A bottle instead of a can says you care more about the flavor than the buzz.” I peered at the label. It was one of the summer varieties. “Little White Rye. I haven’t tried that one. Any good?”
He tilted the lip of the bottle toward me. “Want a taste?”
Oh, good sign. “Yes, I do.” I dropped my vocal register and maintained sultry eye contact so he’d hear the double entendre. Making sure our fingers brushed, I slipped it from his hand, taking care with how the glass fitted to my lips. I watched him watch me tilt back to swallow and didn’t miss his amusement or the way his focus flickered to my neck. I licked my lips as I passed the beer back, surprised by the bright hint of orange and something spicy to go with it. “That has a great finish.”
“So what can I do for you, Grant?”
I signaled Anne, who sidled over from the next table. “Yes, sweets?”
“Two of those.” I pointed to Marc’s beer. “On my tab, please.”
“You got it.” She hurried off.
“I sure hope you have a designated driver after drinking what you just ordered on top of what you’ve already had, seeing as how I’m nowhere near ready for another round.” Marc smiled his first genuine smile, belying the sternness of the words. He had dimples of his own. Nice. He took a long gulp, draining half the bottle.
Through the window I pointed across the inlet separating The HookUp from Blue Cove Marina. “See that bungalow with the porch light on beside the marina?”
Marc squinted through the glass. “Yes.”
“That’s my place.” I shifted my finger to the bar’s dock and the little Bayliner runabout bobbing in the gentle waves. “And that’s my ride. I guarantee you, it’ll be traffic free.” The trip from the dock to my slip took a minute, two if I counted tying off.
Marc frowned. “The Missouri boating limit for blood alcohol is still .08, the same as in a car, Grant.”
“You worried about me, Officer Warren?”
He rolled his eyes. “I’d hate to see anything happen to you. It’d be a waste.” Anne’s arrival with our fresh beers was perfect. Calling his bluff, I reached for both drinks, but he snatched one before I could. “That was probably the most unsubtle anyone’s ever been getting me to accept a drink.”
I grinned again. “I’m not near as think as you drunk I am.”
Finally, finally, Marc laughed. The joke was lame, but he relaxed. “I guess you’re a big boy who can find your way home without my help.”
There was my cue. “Well, if you wanted to help me get home, Officer, I would be open to that.” This time the beer was cold and tasted even better. “Very open.”
He leaned on his elbows, and the low timbre of his voice sent shivers down the back of my neck. “How open?” Those two words dripped sex.
“Like, pay-my-tab-now-and-let’s-go open.” I focused on his lips. “Before I get any more buzzed. You know, for safety.”
The air between us sizzled, and to my surprise, he covered my hand with a smooth, dry palm. His hands were nice, strong, with long, graceful fingers. He squeezed, stroking my wrist in obvious interest. “Okay. Let’s go.”
I stood, adjusting my shorts and tugging the hem of my shirt down so my half-chub wouldn’t be apparent. Marc’s hand on the small of my back burned like a brand, but he guided me to the bar instead of toward the door. Oh yeah, pay the tab.
Someone at the door snagged his attention. A tall man in khaki shorts and a baseball cap, a local whose name I thought was Dustin, waved to him. Marc waved back as we stopped beside Joe and Lily. Brandon was waiting on a customer, but cocked an ear in our direction.
“Joe, I think you know this guy. He’s had a bit too much to drink to legally drive or boat home, so would you see him there safely? His boat’s tied at the dock.”
Joe suppressed a chuckle. “Sure thing, Officer.”
“Now if you’ll excuse me, my date’s here, and I think he’d like this fresh beer Grant was so kind to buy me without asking first.” Marc eased away, his fingers trailing along my forearm with a brief stop to grasp and squeeze my pinky finger. Then he sauntered in his friend’s direction.
There is no way that just happened. I was stunned. Marc greeted the tall guy with a side hug, passing my beer to him. Despite the sting of rejection, I wasn’t wrong about the way Marc’s hand had lingered before he stepped away. Or that pinky squeeze. Unless that was part of the game, making me think he was interested?
Joe and Lily burst into gales of laughter, but I was too mesmerized by the pair threading through the tables to Marc’s booth to tell my best friend and his woman to stuff it. Dustin drank from his—my—beer and smiled at Marc in appreciation.
“Ouch.” Brandon didn’t sound as amused as my best friend and his girlfriend.
The sympathy in that one syllable enabled me to break my stare. I resumed my perch on the stool beside Joe. “That’s never happened to me before.” I looked at Brandon, half-dazed. “Right? I’m in here cruising all the time, and you’ve never seen that happen to me before.”
“I haven’t, buddy. That was… painful to even witness, and I’ve seen a lot.”
I glugged my beer, no longer caring how nice it was. Joe and Lily, taking in my humiliation, finally stifled their mirth.
“Next one’s on me, okay? That was brutal.” Joe draped over my back, slipping his fingers into my hair to scratch my scalp, half Dutch rub, half sympathetic pet.
I shrugged him off. “I’m not a dog. Jesus.”
Lily got off her stool and came to my other side so they bracketed me. She kissed my temple. “Oh, Tay. I’m sorry. He could have just said no thanks. What a jerk.”
I couldn’t reply. I didn’t know what to say.
Joe was good on his word, buying the next round—with the fifty he’d won from Lily, so how nice a gesture was it, really? At least my friends kept me from thinking about it too hard with a steady stream of banter that had nothing to do with Officer Stick-In-the-Mud.
The reflection in the mirror behind the bar kept catching my eye, though. It wasn’t long after Dustin arrived that he and Marc left. I zeroed in on Dustin’s hand on the small of Marc’s back. As they left, Marc made eye contact for the briefest of seconds. Was it my imagination, or did he look genuinely regretful?
Well, he should. That was a dick move.
Then why, suddenly, did I want another shot at him?
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