Conflict of Interest has been an emotional roller coaster since I conceived the idea of a Midwest farmers series. The problem was that I wanted to explore the what-if: What if these two were meant to be together, but this was how they met? Take a peek at the blurb:
After returning home from the Army, Dillon honors his father’s last request to get help for his “drinking problem,” but it’s a waste of time. He has other matters to worry about than the few beers he has after work…every day.
When Dillon Walker swaggers into Elle Brady’s office, she fully understands the appeal of a small-town farm boy. He’s handsome, charming, helps run his family’s successful farm and ranch, and he’s definitely interested in her. Too bad she’s an addiction counselor still caring for her recovering alcoholic father, and she’s more than gun-shy of someone with Dillon’s baggage.
Elle scraps their professional relationship after a smoldering kiss. She attempts to quit seeing Dillon altogether until his truck is stolen and used in a crime, and only she can provide an alibi. As she falls for him, her past with alcoholism taunts her with all the reasons why a future with Dillon won’t work. If he refuses to admit to his problem, not even she’ll be able to help him, and she won’t stick around to watch.
So there, you have it. I planned to traditionally publish this series and keep self-publishing paranormal romance. After all, it did pretty well on the contest circuit. Agents and editors didn't want to touch the premise. They liked the idea of farmers, but thought the actual conflict of interest was disturbing, concerning, troublesome, inappropriate, etc...
All that was just one email from an editor.
I ran to my critique group to ask their thoughts. I wanted to write this world, and I wanted to write this story, but I didn't want to be truly offensive. Ultimately, I chose to self-publish because it proved it had general reader appeal when it was a finalist in four contests (two second place wins and two third place wins!).
So, I planned it out. Five cousins who farm together (farmers are like cowboys, but with bigger equipment) and each one gets a book.
Conflict of Interest October 1st
Mustang Summer November 1st
Long Hard Fall December 1st
Guilt Ridden January 1st
Book 5 (not yet named and not yet written!) February 1st (fingers crossed!)
Here's sneak peek of Chapter One:
Elle Brady tapped a foot against the side of her desk as she studied the insurance statement.
“I got bills,” she muttered, tossing it to the side. She rubbed her face, a flare of panic burning in her gut.
The “member responsibility” section of her explanation of benefits was absurdly high. She mentally tallied her other bills, including rent and her vehicle payments, and it equaled…not enough. Cutting down on groceries, again, might help, but she needed to buy quality food for her dad or he’d get sick again, and boom! More bills.
Her pager vibrated and she sighed, missing the more updated alert system her old job used. She peeked at it. Ah, her next patient. Wait—client. The Moore Mental Health Center insisted on not referring to their customers as patients. In a town as small as Moore, “client” went over better.
Week by week, she’d built her client base since beginning her new job. Her calendar for today was nearly booked. A welcome sight for a paranoid mind that whispered she might never build enough business to hold her job. A full planner meant a full paycheck, and she needed every dime to support her and her dad.
Elle checked the clipboard with her next client’s information and oriented herself with his name.
Dillon Walker, a first-time client.
A deep voice radiated through her closed door. “Is there a cube of cheese at the end of this maze?”
The receptionist chuckled. “It takes a while to get use to all the twists and turns.”
When the door opened, Elle’s gaze landed on the navy-blue ball cap that read “Moore Implement.” A tan work jacket stretched across broad shoulders and rugged blue jeans that’d seen better days completed a look that screamed farmer. A popular style around Moore, Minnesota.
Eyes as blue as the April sky outside her window stared at her.
She plastered a welcoming smile on her face. “Have a seat, Dillon.”
“How’re you today, Doc?”
Even though it was a common mistake, she chuckled. “Call me Elle, please. I have a master’s in addiction counseling, not a Ph.D. in psychology, so I’m not a doctor.”
His voice dropped to a low timbre. “Whatever you want…Elle.” He shrugged out of his coat and draped it over the back of his chair.
Whoa. That was almost suggestive. She’d had male clients close to her in age before, but it wasn’t common for the person across from her to be interested in anything other than counseling. What was uncommon was her breathless sensation. Ridiculous—she was above that type of reaction to a client. She swallowed hard and gathered herself.
As he settled into his seat, she swiveled away from her desk to face him fully.
“So how do we do this?” Dillon’s hands rested on his thighs, but his fingers tapped nonstop. “You ask me questions, I answer?”
His bright gaze swept her body, interest apparent in their depths. Any other room but her office, she’d delight in his attention, but as soon as his name was entered into her schedule…well, off limits was an understatement.
Readying her pen, she prepared to take notes. “Why don’t we start by you telling me why you’re here?”
His gaze dropped to the floor, his mouth pressed in a firm line. While he formed the right words to explain what brought him into her office, she glanced over at his papers. Twenty-seven. Only a year older than she was. His pause may not be so much about choosing his words, but more about spilling his concerns to a woman his age he’d never met before.
He switched his attention out the window. “My dad wanted me to come.”
He adjusted his cap. Rearranged it again and finally took it off to reveal a head of reddish-brown hair. “He thought I’d been drinking too much since I came home from the Army.”
“But you don’t think so?”
One shoulder rolled in a shrug. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a few beers. I put in long days in the field, long hours helping work the family cattle. Sometimes it’s nice to kick back and chill at the end of the night.”
Yet, his dad worried about him—and he was here. Since the alcohol question was a little touchy… “You’re a farmer?”
“Born and raised,” he drawled. “You can’t throw a stone in this town and not hit one of us.”
Her lips twitched. Truth. The town of ten thousand was surrounded by fields in all four directions. “Do you enjoy it?”
“Other than the weather and seasons dictating my hours, I’m my own boss—mostly—and I get to drive tractors with tires taller than I am.”
I’m my own boss could also mean I like to be in control.
Time to test the waters. “Tell me about your history with alcohol, from when you started to why your dad’s worried.”
“Hell, Doc,” he drawled, “it’s a small town. Drinking begins in high school around here. Back then, the weekends were spent partying in a field where our parents wouldn’t catch us and the cops wouldn’t see our cars from the road.”
Elle smiled at his nostalgia. So young and carefree. Her high school experience had been anything but. No partying for her. She’d checked groceries and swum her heart out to earn a scholarship. Those two things had been her only hope at getting into a decent college.
“I still find teenagers sometimes,” he continued with a laugh, “trying to hide on my land and party. I have the deputy on speed dial.”
Small towns and drinking. No wonder Moore could support an addiction counseling center. Not the kind of job security she liked to see, but what an asset for the community. She wished there had been a center around for her parents when she’d been growing up.
And Dillon had just admitted to turning the partying kids in. He didn’t join in.
He didn’t offer up any more information, so she pressed on. “And what about after high school?”
His expression faded to neutral. “I joined the Army, stayed in for eight years, got out, and came home.”
Flat tone. No fidgeting. Dead in the water. He hadn’t acted like that type of person, someone who holds himself back, when he’d walked in. Her first impression of him had been the kind of guy that attracted people, helped them open up, not shut down on them.
She switched topics. “Tell me about your dad.”
“He died six months ago.” Dillon’s voice lacked inflection.
Oh… He’d lost a parent, and it was probably the only way he would ever have agreed to book a session with her. “I’m sorry, Dillon.”
A noncommittal shrug.
Dillon’s emotionless tone didn’t speak to his relationship with his father. Was it built on animosity or had they been extremely close? Was he in her office in a belated attempt to repair a father-son relationship, or because they’d been so close, he couldn’t not do it? She sensed he wasn’t ready to open up. “And your mother?”
His face lit up. “She’s living in Sioux Falls. After Cash and I came home from the Army, my parents and my aunts and uncles sold the Walker Five to us cousins and retired in style.”
He nodded. “I farm with four cousins. That’s why I’m only mostly my own boss.”
Heaven help the girls of Moore, Minnesota, if the rest of the Walker Five looked as good as Dillon. Four other cousins in the business alone. A big family could offer a lot of support. She considered Dillon. After only a few minutes, she pegged him as the one the others looked up to. Dillon had that appeal, the I’ll-take-care-of-you-don’t-worry-about-me kind. Elle could’ve used someone like Dillon in her life.
She jotted down the details. Working with family often came up in her sessions as a trigger point. “Tell me about the Army.”
“It was okay.”
She waited. Nothing. Aaand another tidbit to jot down. “What did you do for work, and where were you stationed?”
“Infantry. I was in Georgia for a few years, Fort Benning. Then went across country to Fort Irwin, California, for the rest.” His voice was as bland as when he’d spoken of his dad passing.
So, he closed himself off to emotionally loaded aspects of his life. She jotted that down.
“Iraq. Three of them.” A robot would have more inflection.
Just a single deployment brought many current and former military to her office. The odds of three giving Dillon issues he hadn’t dealt with yet were high. “Are you concerned about post-traumatic stress disorder?”
Dillon scoffed like PTSD was a mythical creature. It was the biggest reaction she’d gotten from him since he’d walked into her office. “No. I’m not doing anything crazy that’ll hit national news.”
Elle suppressed a sigh. Typical soldier reaction. “PTSD isn’t always dramatic and severe. It can be insidious. Affecting you in small ways at first. Have you been having nightmares, possibly related to your time overseas?”
A muscle tensed in his jaw, but he shook his head. “No.”
“Is there anything that happened during your deployment that you want to talk about?”
His expression rivaled granite. “No.”
Just once, couldn’t it be easy? Yeah, now that you mention it, I had this awful, nightmare-inducing incident that’s haunted me ever since. Let me tell you all about it.
She could continue asking questions and determine where he shut down, or she could get to the point. “What do you want out of our sessions?”
Dillon considered Elle’s question. He wanted her number. He wanted to know if she was free Friday night. He wanted to know if he’d ruined his chances with the hot doctor—counselor—by heeding his dad’s last request and making this stupid appointment. He’d always been attracted to intelligent women, but her soft-spoken persona, the way she considered his words but hadn’t pressed further…appealed to him in a way that surprised him.
“We have five rounds together,” he finally answered, “you tell me what goes on.”
“Well, it depends. Usually when someone comes to me, they’re ready to work on their recovery or face the reasons behind their addiction.” She shifted in her seat, uncrossed her leg and crossed the other one. He glimpsed a knee between the top of her boots and the hem of her skirt. “What are you here for?”
Good fucking question. His head hurt because he’d been sleeping like shit. He had a tractor calling his name and a field that needed plowing.
He glanced around the room. Was it too much to ask for a clock? How rude would it be to pull out his phone to look at the time? As much as he wanted to stay just to be in Elle’s fresh apple pie-smelling office, watching that lone tendril of flaxen hair caress her cheek, his foot started tapping.
“I’m not here because I’m an alcoholic. Honestly, Doc, I feel like I’m wasting your time.”
Understanding lit her emerald eyes. “You were close to your dad.”
He blew out a breath. How’d she interpret that from what he said? “Yeah.”
“And he was worried about you? Why?”
Dillon spread his hands. “I’m guessing because I kept my beer in his fridge. He wasn’t a big drinker so anything I drank looked like a lot to him.”
Scratch, scratch. She jotted down notes. “How much do you drink?”
“Couple of beers here and there.” He smirked because seriously, it was a normal amount. Giving in, he pulled out his phone and checked the time. Good God, hardly any time had passed. “Sorry to cut and run on ya, but I gotta get going.”
Her brows lifted, surprise in her eyes. “You have your next appointment set up?”
“Yep, all four of them.” That I plan to cancel on my way out the door. “See you next time.”
Geez, he hated feeling rude, especially to a sweet-smelling goddess with a smile that made him want to talk about things he worked so hard to ignore.
“Okay.” She appeared to recover from his announcement that he was leaving. “For next time, I’d like you to think about what you’re feeling when you have a drink.”
Dillon threw his cap on and stood. She was still talking so he didn’t want to completely run out on her, but that’s what his feet were telling him they wanted to do.
“Just general emotions.” She rose with him. “If you have something more specific, like an event, a conversation, that’d be great.”
“Got it.” He gave her the smile he used on his gram when she hounded him about his lack of sleep. “See ya, Friday.”
He sensed her following him to the door. When he stepped into the hallway, he stopped, a moment of panic spiked. For fuck’s sake, how did he get out of this place?
“Take the first left and then a right and you’ll the see the waiting room sign.”
“Got it.” He mentally scowled at himself. A day that started out as pure crap disintegrated to downright humiliating. He could barely string more than a few words together to talk to her and he was lost in the damn hallway. To save face, he shot her another charming smile over his shoulder. “See you Friday, Elle.”
As he turned away to walk down the hall, the image of her was seared into his consciousness. He’d chosen Elle after cruising the clinic’s website and reading in her bio that she was new to town. Perfect, he’d thought at the time, she didn’t know him and hadn’t grown up with any of his family. While her professional photo had shown a pretty lady, the real Elle Brady knocked his socks off.
No way was he going in there four more times. He didn’t want to see professional concern in her gaze, he wanted to see interest. She was a good-looking woman around his age. He didn’t want to cry on her shoulder—not that he had anything to sob about. They should be flirting, making plans for a date…normal shit. Not this therapy bullshit.
Yet he breezed past the receptionist desk without canceling his appointments. The drive to see her again too strong. Just one more time. He’d cancel after the second session. Ugh. But she’d asked him to do some thinking before then.
Fine. She asked him to think about what was going on in his noggin when he had a beer. Now, he could guarantee that all he’d think about was her.