Chapter reveal: Kaitlin’s Tale, by Christine Amsden

Title: Kaitlin’s Tale
Genre: urban fantasy/paranormal romance
Author: Christine Amsden
Publisher: Twilight Times Books
Get your copy at Amazon OmniLit
Read an interview with the author on USA Today
Kaitlin Mayer is on the run from the father of her baby – a vampire who wants her to join him in deadly eternity. Terrified for her young son, she seeks sanctuary from the hunters guild. But they have their own plans for her son, and her hopes of safety are soon shattered.
When she runs into Matthew Blair, an old nemesis with an agenda of his own, she dares to hope for a new escape. But Matthew is a telepath, and Kaitlin’s past is full of dark secrets she never intended to reveal.

Chapter 1

To: Cassie.Scot@gmail.com

From: Kaitlin.Meyer12@gmail.com

Re: Jason is Dead

Jason is dead.

Go ahead. Say “I told you so.” You never do, but just this once could you stoop down to the level of us mere mortals long enough to sneer like a ten-year-old? Put a little hip wiggle into it and wrinkle your nose. Roll your eyes at me like I’m the biggest moron on the planet.

After all you did, in fact, tell me so.

And when you’re finished, I need you to do me the biggest favor I’ve ever asked in my life. In all likelihood, the last favor I’ll ever ask. I need you to take Jay. I need you to keep him safe, because you and Evan are probably the only two people who can. I hope that one day you can find it in your heart to love him like you lo ve your own daughter.

* * *

“It’s time, Kaitlin.”

Kaitlin rocked her one-year-old son back and forth, trying to convince him to go down for a nap, but Jay wasn’t having it. He was teething, and it seemed to hurt him worse when he lay down in a horizontal position. He was so tired that Kaitlin swore she’d hold him upright for eight hours if he’d just fall asleep, but he seemed, paradoxically, too tired to sleep.

Jason’s intrusion wasn’t helping. Jay turned his head and reached his arms out for his father – or the vampire who had once been his father – instinctively begging for the love that should have been his by right. But Jason had never taken an interest in his son; he could barely stand to look at him. In fact, if anything had finally convinced Kaitlin that Jason was dead, it was the fact that the real Jason had died for his son. This thing now inhabiting his body wouldn’t even live for him.

“Did you hear me?” Jason asked.

Jay cried harder. Kaitlin shushed him and rocked still more furiously, pretending she hadn’t heard. Pretending she could delay the inevitable for a few more days. But she’d known this day was coming for a while now. Had sensed it would be soon. It was why she had e-mailed her best friend in the world, begging for help, prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of her son. But Cassie had not responded, and Sara, the nanny who had agreed to transport Jay, had disappeared two days ago.

“Answer me, Kaitlin,” Jason said in a voice that at one time would have compelled obedience. It no longer did, even though Jason continued to feed from her daily, simultaneously injecting her body with a venom that should have kept her in thrall. She wasn’t sure why the thrall had gradually dissipated over the past few months, but her new clarity of mind had bigger problems to work out – like the fact that Jason wanted to make her just like him.

Jason took another step into the nursery. He rarely ventured inside these hallowed walls, but Kaitlin had spent more and more time there of late, requiring him to come inside if he wanted her.

“Can’t you make him shut up?” Jason asked.

“I’m trying! Can’t we talk about this later?”

“Can we? You never leave this room.”

And he never came in. Would Kaitlin come in after she turned? Or would she forget Jay’s existence, the way Jason had? Her nightmare was that of Jay screaming for his mother, but she never came. Eventually, he would stop crying. Then after a few days, when no one came to feed him, he would stop doing everything else.

“Please, just let me get Jay down for his nap. Then we can talk.”

“There’s no need to wait.” Another man came to stand just inside the doorway, a man who made Kaitlin’s blood turn to ice whenever she saw him. Xavier looked so deceptively ordinary; it was part of his power. But she had seen him rip the throat out of men and face an entire heptade of vampire hunters without breaking a sweat.

He wasn’t superhuman, though; he was inhuman. She couldn’t fathom his purpose, but she suspected his goal was to create an entire new race of vampires under his control. At least, that’s what she assumed happened to the dozens of people who came into their lives for varying lengths of time, most of them nearly catatonic from the vampire’s thrall. She was not permitted to speak to them, and when they left, she never saw them again.

Xavier was over two hundred years old, but he didn’t look at Kaitlin as though she were a child. He looked at her as though she were food. Kaitlin had long sensed that he was no longer human, that he was somehow alien. She had sensed it in him before the thrall had worn off, though she hadn’t cared. The realization had taken much longer with Jason. Perhaps that sense of other increased over time.

Even Jay could sense the evil in Xavier. The boy started bucking and twisting, his tiny face turning red. He might have had his supernatural strength bound so he didn’t accidentally hurt someone, but even without it he was a marvel of physical strength. He had crawled at about two weeks old. Now, at a year old, he could run like a ten-year-old.

“Please, leave us alone!” Kaitlin cried, trying with all her might to cling to the wriggling child.

“Sara can take him,” Xavier said.

He stepped to the side and Kaitlin’s heart leaped. Oh thank God! Not that she wanted to give up her son. It was the hardest thing she would ever do in her life, but she had gone over it and over it in her mind. She had no choice. Jason would not take no for an answer any longer. He would turn her into a vampire tonight and when he did, Jay would need protection. Even from her.

The middle-aged woman who had helped Kaitlin with Jay over the past year strode into the room as if she hadn’t just disappeared without a word for two days. Kaitlin didn’t need a nanny; as she’d told both Jason and Xavier a hundred times, she could handle Jay on her own. But Sara had provided some companionship and comfort to her, especially in the months since the thrall had worn off. Sara always had a friendly smile on her face, was infinitely patient with Jay (something Kaitlin definitely wasn’t), and despite their age difference, they seemed to have a lot in common. They read the same books, liked the same movies, and both feared the men who haunted this house alongside them.

Kaitlin smiled at Sara despite the churning of butterflies in her stomach. Sara knew what to do. She’d pretend to take Jay for a quick drive to the store, but she wouldn’t stop for diapers. She’d keep going, leaving their two-story house in Virginia and not stopping until she reached Eagle Rock, Missouri.

“Let me try getting him to sleep,” Sara said, striding over.

“It’s no good,” Kaitlin said. “Maybe you could take him for a drive.”

When Sara reached the rocking chair, Kaitlin kissed Jay on the head, surreptitiously saying good-bye. Then she handed Jay to the nanny.

The baby cried harder still, his wails threatening to shake the house down. What was the matter with him? Jay was often quiet for Sara when he refused to settle for Kaitlin.

That’s when Kaitlin recalled the coldness of the woman’s arms as she’d passed Jay into them. The pallor of her skin. The slight yellow tinge to her eyes.

“No!” Kaitlin screamed, trying to get Jay back.

Jason got between the two women, using his superior strength to stop Kaitlin from moving at all. He had her arms pinned to her sides and then, inexorably, he pushed her out the door.

“It’s really not so bad,” Sara said to Kaitlin. “I know you’re scared of turning, but it’s really very liberating.”

“No!” Kaitlin tried to dig her heels into the thick blue carpeting, knowing it was useless. Knowing Jason and Xavier had the strength to make her do anything. Knowing she was as dead as Jason. Knowing, but not yet accepting. “No! Not now! It can’t happen now!”
Jason picked her up easily with one arm and clamped his other hand over her mouth. She fought. She kicked and strained with all he might, but to an outside observer she probably looked as docile as a kitten.

Xavier followed in their wake as Jason made his way down the elegant, hardwood stairs to the sparsely furnished living room. Xavier was rich. Filthy rich after centuries of whatever he did. But he kept few creature comforts. When it came to houses he preferred quantity to quality – he had safe houses all over the world. In the past year, Kaitlin had lived in four of them.

Jason set Kaitlin down on t he beige couch then sat beside her, pinning her there with his size and weight. She had already stopped struggling however; it did her no good. She would have to think of something else, but what? She had been prepared to die to get her son to safety, but now it seemed that she was the only one who could save him.

With that thought steeling her resolve, Kaitlin calmed down. She might be the biggest moron on the planet for agreeing to run away with a vampire in the first place, but she was smart enough to know that if she had any hope of getting out of this, it was through words and cunning. She had no physical strength to pit against a vampire, one of the strongest creatures on the planet. Also, one of the fastest.

Jason placed a heavy hand on her pajama-clad thigh, squeezing slightly through the silky material. Kaitlin felt nothing but cold dead fingers, but she pushed away her revulsion the way she’d been pushing it away for the past few months. Closing her eyes, she melted against him, emitting a soft sigh of surrender.

“There, that’s better,” Jason said as he continued running his cold hand up and down her thigh. “Xavier, I don’t think you need to be here for this.”

“You’ve never watched anyone turn,” Xavier said smoothly. “And you’ve always been a bit of an idiot where that girl was concerned.”

Jason growled and Kaitlin tensed once again, not sure which of the two vampires she feared more.

“She’s mine.” Jason tightened the possessive hand squeezing her thigh; she struggled to keep from crying out in pain. “That’s what we agreed before you ever turned me.”

“She doesn’t want to turn and she’s immune to thrall.”

Immune? Did he know why? She dared to look at him; Xavier smiled, fangs bared, eyes yellow with bloodlust. He had looked at her just that way so many times she had lost count, but still she shivered.

“I can handle her,” Jason said. “But not with you here. She doesn’t trust you.”

“Have it your way.” Xavier supplied a mock bow to Jason, shot Kaitlin another malicious look, then backed out of the living room by way of the kitchen. Since the vampires didn’t eat food, she was sure he meant to go through it to the garage and indeed, a few seconds later, she heard the garage door open.

“Sorry about him,” Jason said. “Now where were we?”

Kaitlin drew in a deep, shaky breath and forced herself to relax as he moved his hand away from her thigh, running it up her hips, around her waist, and then with an almighty tug, he pulled her forward so she sat atop his lap.

“We can’t do this now,” Kaitlin said, keeping her voice gentle and sweet. “I’m weak. You forgot to give me that blood replenishment potion yesterday.”

“I didn’t forget,” Jason said. “It’s time, Kaitlin. Time for you to join me for real, the way you promised you would when you left Eagle Rock last year.”

“I will. Of course I will! But you know how important it was for me to nurse Jay. I want only the best for our son, like you do.” She held her breath, wondering if the lie would continue to hold one last time. She hadn’t actually nursed Jay in at least six months. Apparently, exsanguination isn’t good for a woman’s milk supply, even with regular blood replenishment potions.

Jason frowned, but she forced herself to remain outwardly calm. He might not have seen through the lie; he often got that look on his face when they discussed the baby. If he’d paid any attention to Jay at all he would have noticed the feeding change months ago.

“Isn’t the baby a year old now?”

“The World Health Organization recommends two years.”

“I’m not waiting another year,” Jason growled.

Kaitlin drew in a startled breath but forced herself to continue looking into his inhuman eyes. “I’m not asking you to.” She wound a hand around Jason’s neck and leaned in close to place a soft kiss on his lips that he didn’t return. Not a good sign. “But I should at least wean him slowly.”

“Why don’t you want to turn?” Jason asked.

“Don’t be silly.” Kaitlin ran a finger across his smooth, pale jaw, remembering how it had sported a five o’clock shadow the first time she’d seen him. The first time they’d made love. The night they’d unintentionally made Jay – not that she’d change that part now. Only what came later. “Of course I want to live forever. You know me. I live for ‘happily ever after.’”

“I had to drag you down the stairs,” Jason said. “You’ve been distant since the thrall wore off. Don’t think I haven’t noticed.”

Kaitlin’s mind raced. What were the right words? What would put off the inevitable? She had no idea, so she ended up blurting, “Why did the thrall wear off?”

“Something Xavier did,” Jason said dismissively. “He says it will make you a stronger vampire.”

Will it make me stronger now, when I really need it? Kaitlin wondered, but did not ask.

“Now answer my question” Jason continued. “Why don’t you want to turn? You weren’t in thrall when you first ran away with me.”

“I’m nervous. Weren’t you nervous before you turned? Xavier said it took months to convince you.”

“I was a hunter, brought up within my order to believe vampires are soulless monsters.”

Are you? Kaitlin wanted to ask. Even now, she wasn’t sure “soulless” was the right word. Something lurked behind Jason’s eyes – and even Xavier’s. She just wasn’t sure it was anything she wanted to be a part of.

“Well, I may know better,” Kaitlin began, “but I’m still not sure… I mean…” She cast about wildly for an idea. Something to delay the inevitable. Anything. And finally, she settled on the truth. Or part of it. “You’ve changed. I don’t pretend to understand how. I didn’t know you well before I ran off with you; we only had the one night together. Mostly, I knew you from stories your cousin Cassie told.”

“You know me now,” Jason said, sliding a finger down her slender throat. “You’ve known me for a year. Haven’t I treated you well?”

“Of course you have,” Kaitlin said. “You know I love you.” She leaned forward, letting the top of her button-down silk shirt part slightly, though Jason didn’t seem as taken with cleavage as normal men. His favorite parts of her were the throat, wrists, and inner thighs.

“I haven’t cheated on you,” Jason said. “I haven’t hit you. I haven’t even asked you to get a job. I take care of you.”

“And Jay?” Kaitlin asked, because what he said was sort of true. It wasn’t a high standard, but she’d chosen some real losers in her time who had done all those things – cheated on her, hit her, and sponged off her hard work while they decided they didn’t need a job.

Perhaps if she’d known Jason better in life she could be more certain now that he wasn’t the same man. After all, aside from the bloodsucking thing there wasn’t anything she could specifically put her finger on that was any different from regular imperfect mortals. Some men ignored their children. Some men were up at all hours of the night and slept all day. Some men only seemed to notice her when they needed something from her – blood or sex, it was all the same.

But it all came down to the one thing she knew for sure about Jason: He had loved his son. He had cared so much that he had died to protect the baby from his own father, who had planned to body-hop into Jason, then again into Jay when he was old enough. Jason even turned into a vampire – a being he’d been trained to hate – so he would still be able to guard his son in death. And maybe the vampire Jason would protect Jay if ever put to the test, but Kaitlin wasn’t sure how he would even know the baby was in danger.

The vampire almost didn’t seem wholly connected to this world. He didn’t see it the same way humans saw it. There was something alien in his eyes and cold in his touc h – and it wasn’t just the fact that no blood ran through his veins. Maybe the vampire hunters had it wrong, maybe he wasn’t entirely evil (though she wouldn’t say the same about Xavier), but she didn’t trust the vampire sitting beneath her. He wanted to seduce her into turning for reasons she could not possibly fathom, like trying to understand the will of God.

“Who will take care of Jay after I turn?” Kaitlin asked.

“You will.”

“What if I don’t want to?”

“Sara will. Or we’ll hire someone else. What does it matter?”

Indeed. “Just give me a few days. I told you I need to wean the baby. I can do it quickly. We’ll drop one feeding per day so that will be…” Kaitlin tried to think. How many times per day did a one-year-old nurse? Well, she’d go with the number of bottles she gave him a day and figure it was close enough. Jason wouldn’t know the difference. “… four days.”

“And in four days you’re going to want to turn?” Jason asked. “I want you to want this, Kaitlin. Xavier says it goes better when they want it.”

“I do want it. Of course I want it.” She placed soft kisses on his cheeks, his forehead, his ear. He lifted his face to give her better access, making her think she had convinced him. Lulling him into a false sense of security.

“Liar!” He shoved her off his lap, not onto the couch, but onto the ground. Kaitlin, not expecting the movement, fell heavily to the hardwood floor and yelped when her bottom connected with the unyielding surface.

“Jason?”

He stood, towering over her, and she scooted backwards on hands and knees, getting tangled in her long blonde hair.

“Xavier intercepted that e-mail you sent to Cassie the other day,” Jason said, stalking her as she scuttled across the floor.

“What?” Oh no. But that did explain Sara. And why Cassie hadn’t replied.

“You were going to give away the baby.”

“Why not?” Kaitlin asked. “You don’t want him! You said it didn’t matter who raised him. You can’t even call him yours! Or even by his name.”

“He’s not mine,” Jason said. “But this host wants him, and so do I.”

Kaitlin’s eyes widened. This was the first time Jason had ever let slip a hint that he was not now the same person he had been before he’d turned.

“You can’t run from this fate,” Jason said.

Kaitlin’s scrambling hands had found the edge of the stone fireplace and she stopped, able to m ove no further. Jason knelt to loom over her, cupping her face in his hands. From anyone else, it might have been a caress.

“Cassie and Evan can’t protect you or the boy, you know,” Jason said. “Evan’s strong, but he’s never been much use against a vampire. I should know. I saved his life once.”

“You did? Or your host?”

Jason scowled. “There’s no place you can run. No one to protect you. Give up. Give in. Come gracefully.”

He still wanted her to agree to this, Kaitlin realized. He still wanted her willing cooperation. She had no idea why, but she’d take any opening she could get. “Three days. Give me three days.”

“We have your blood,” Jason said.

“So?” Kaitlin asked.

“Didn’t you learn anything about magic from Cassie? I haven’t just eaten from you. I have your blood, and I’m a sorcerer as well as a vampire. I can use it to find you anywhere on this planet, so unless you can get to Mars, you can’t hide from me.”

“Oh.” Kaitlin was shaking now. She wished she’d thought to start a fire in the fireplace behind her, though she doubted the warmth would have penetrated.

“Tomorrow night,” Jason said. “That’s as much time as I’ll give you to prepare.”

A reprieve. She had no idea how, but she had a reprieve. Twenty-four hours wasn’t much, but it was more than she’d had a few minutes ago.

“Tell me you understand,” Jason said. “Tell me you’ll come to me tomorrow. Tell me like you mean it.”

“I understand,” Kaitlin said.

And then she wound her arms around Jason, kissing him for all she was worth. She explored his mouth with teeth and tongue, tracing the outline of his fangs. He bit her lip, stinging her for a moment before the pain-numbing property of the vampire venom set in. After a minute, he drew his head back, traced the column of her neck with his index finger, and sank his teeth in with such force that for a moment she thought he’d snapped her neck.

“Oh!” she cried, trying to make it sound like a moan. It didn’t hurt, but it didn’t feel as good as it once had, especially now that she worried Jason wasn’t planning to wait another night after all. What if he took every last drop? What if he drained her dry? He had never pulled from her so hard or drunk so long.

“Jason!” Kaitlin finally cried. “Please. You said tomorrow.”

He pulled back, fangs and lips stained red with her blood. The venom coagulated the wound so she wouldn’t bleed out, but she felt so lightheaded she wondered if she’d lost too much blood anyway.

Jason ran his thumb across his lips. “Yes, tomorrow night.”

“Blood replenishment potion?”

“No.” Jason rose to his feet, taking several deliberate steps away from her. “I don’t think I want you strong enough to escape.”

“You said there was no escape.”

Jason didn’t answer, he just turned and walked away, leaving Kaitlin on the floor, her head spinning, her breath coming in shallow gasps, her pulse weak and thready. But she wasn’t dead yet, and as long as she wasn’t dead, there remained hope.

Categories: Paranormal Romance, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Quick Walk to Murder, by J.D. Daniels

QW_lg.jpgTitle: QUICK WALK TO MURDER

Genre: Mystery

Author: J.D. Daniels

Website: www.live-from-jd.com

Publisher: Savvy Books

Purchase on Amazon

Quick Walk to Murder opens with the murder of the son of a local crab fisher folk family. Young Jessie Murphy, an artist from Cambridge, MA who solved a homicide the previous season on the island, joins forces with two quirky, but savvy locals in hopes of bringing the murderer to justice. In her search for the reasons behind the murder, Jessie uncovers hidden—and frighteningly disturbing—relationships between the victim and many of his acquaintances.  Among them? A local crab fisherman who secretly hired the young man, the victim’s girlfriend and her over-protective brother, the victim’s college roommate, an adviser at college, a psychic, the victim’s mother and two strangers who show up on the island with badges.  With no shortage of suspects, Jessie launches a pulse-quickening investigation that  leads her to death’s door. But through her own power of reasoning and feisty Irish refusal to not finish a job once begun, Jessie uncovers a startling, surprising ending.

Chapter 1

The shadowy form of a four-foot snook shot through the waters like a torpedo and disappeared under the dark depths of the dock. Vehicles roared across the drawbridge. A kayaker in the mist lifted her black paddle and making a flapping wing motion, waved. I raised my free hand in greeting, gripping my packed bag. A great blue heron strolled toward two cormorants preening on a decayed piling. The splintered railing felt rough, raw, capable of giving pain. It was late April and past time to leave Matlacha (say Mat-la`-shay) and return once again…alone…to Cambridge.

When I first ventured to the islands with Will in my innocent, love-struck early twenties, Matlacha seemed the most magical, perfect place in the world. That everything was goodness and light. That nothing dark, and certainly not evil, happened. Last year, when I returned and found out Will had been murdered, I was forced to face that I’d been wrong.

My plan as I drove back north was to take a good calculated look at myself. Something had to change. Here was what I knew: Name? Jessie Murphy. Twenty-eight. Single. Paid my bills by managing a few apartments in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Saved enough in six months to travel to a funky, artsy fishing village where I painted and showed my work in the local galleries. Life was good. More than good. But the biological clock was ticking. I wanted a family. Yet, and this was a big yet…I couldn’t make the move to do anything about it.

Chicken. Pure spicy freckled chicken. That was me.

Footsteps pounded. I turned and smiled at my always-good-for-a-laugh friend, Zen. Her thick, now shoulder-length black hair looked like she’d not taken time to comb it. With the extra thirty pounds she carried, it wasn’t surprising that she was out of breath. Seeing her red and swollen eyes, I loosened my grip on the handle of the bag. “What’s wrong?” I asked, looking down at her.

I was five-eight. She was five-two. We were within a couple of years of being the same age. My face was freckled. Hers was flawless and baby doll round.

Zen burst into tears. “Oh, Jessie! Tomas is dead! Gator said he was murdered.”

Blood rushed from my face. “Tomas? Tomas is dead?”

She nodded.

I dropped the bag, hurried to her side, took her elbow and led her to an Adirondack chair.

“Oh, Jessie!” The howl that came from Zen sent the cormorants skyward. I reached for her interlocked fingers.

“When?”

Zen’s body shuddered. She blinked and then spoke in a husky voice. “Gator found him last night. He hadn’t come to Bert’s in a couple of days and we’d begun to wonder what happened to him. It wasn’t like Tomas not to stop by for a chat after his tours. Gator found him lying in his own, oh…on the floor…in the bathroom.” Her phrases sounded like they were buzzed in two by a saw blade.

I worked hard at not letting the picture focus vividly in my head. If the images got too clear, I knew I’d have nightmares. I’d have to spend the next weeks and months painting them away and I really, really wanted to paint positive images: Like Canada geese heading south in synchronized flight and pelicans swimming a perfect V-formation in calm waters, or tourists sunning under umbrellas while little urchins played with their yellow and red buckets as fishermen pulled in grouper. Images that would assure me I was okay. Because I was okay. I was.

Zen’s clutch could snap one of my brushes in two.

I would stay for the funeral, of course.

Since my efficiency was already rented and all other rooms were booked at the island motels and inns, Zen offered to have me stay with her and her current boyfriend, Zebra. Zen said he got his handle at the Naples Zoo where he had befriended one. I wondered if it had more to do with the bleached stripes in his dyed black hair. But they only had a one-bedroom trailer and I had seen the couch. Well, I thought what I’d seen was a couch. So I opted to call around for a motel room for three nights. That, I assumed, would be all that I would need to attend the service, comfort Zen and Gator, then be on my way.

Jake, the baby boomer who filled in for me as manager of two apartment complexes in Cambridge, was heading for Costa Rica in a couple of days. It turned out Jake’s twenty-one-year-old companion was not a flexible person. She wanted him on the flight beside her. If Jake missed the flight, so be it, I’d assured him. The foxy college freshman could go on without him. Since he was almost sixty and had spent painstakingly precious minutes of his time picking out and purchasing her string bikini and yellow bamboo nightie and thong, he wasn’t keen on someone else having the first peek at her in them. So he insisted I needed to get back. Of course I did.

The only place with a room was a cheap motel in North Fort Myers. I preferred island life on Matlacha, but had no choice. I put Gar, my plaster of Paris yard art gargoyle and companion, on the counter, ignoring the sideway looks of the guy who checked me in. He was unshaven and his yellow-toothed smile was more sneer than anything.  His eyes never left my girls. It took all of the discipline I had not to escape the room, run to my car and return to the fishing village where one-story cottages and duplexes stood next to three-story million-dollar homes. Where yachts harbored in the same bay as one-person flat-bottom skiffs that looked like they’d sink at the next crab-trap check. With great effort I managed to overpower my urge to leave. Be brave, I told myself.

Minutes later Zen arrived. “Come on, let’s get out of here. I found a tent. You can sleep in the backyard.”

I looked at the clouds and mouthed “Thank you.”

 

Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Chapter reveal: CAPTCHA Thief, by Rosie Claverton

CaptchaThief-Cover-HighResTitle:  CAPTCHA Thief

Genre: Mystery/Suspense/Thriller

Author: Rosie Claverton

Websitewww.rosieclaverton.com

www.amylanemysteries.com

Publisher: Crime Scene Books

Purchase on Amazon

About the Book:

Agoraphobic hacker Amy Lane and her sidekick Jason Carr are swept up in a tortuous and increasingly dangerous adventure following the murder of a security guard at the National Museum of Wales and the theft of a priceless Impressionist painting. As Amy seeks to help track an art thief and Jason seeks to impress the National Crime Agency investigator Frieda Haas sent to recover the missing painting – and its abductor—Jason and Amy become entangled in a perilous web.   As the evidence leads Amy and the police in circles, Jason finds himself taking more and more risks in his hunt for the thief. Nothing is as it seems. Are Amy and Jason merely playthings for a vicious murderer? Can they survive the game? The stakes are high, and this game is serious. Dead serious….

About the Author:

Rosie Claverton grew up in Devon, daughter to a Sri Lankan father and a Norfolk mother, surrounded by folk mythology and surly sheep. She moved to Cardiff to study Medicine and adopted Wales as her home. She then moved to London to specialize in psychiatry. Her first short film Dragon Chasers aired on BBC Wales in Autumn 2012. She co-wrote the ground-breaking series of short films The Underwater Realm.  Between writing and practicing medicine, she blogs about psychiatry and psychology for writers in her Freudian Script series.

Links: www.rosieclaverton.com

https://twitter.com/rosieclaverton

https://www.facebook.com/rosie.claverton

https://www.pinterest.com/rosieclaverton

https://www.instagram.com/rosieclaverton/http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/8119549.Rosie_Claverton

www.amylanemysteries.com

Chapter 1: A Mere Impression

Night after night, he returned to that one place.

If he listened very carefully, he could hear the water lapping against the gondola. His body seemed to sway with the gentle motion of the little boat, and the air held the cloying mist of a Venice evening, the rich aroma of ripe, roasting tomatoes drifting across the canals. The last rays of sunlight played warm across his face, before the great orb finally dipped below the horizon.

In that beautiful half-light, the vivid pinks and oranges of a Mediterranean sunset, the glorious San Giorgio monastery loomed before him. With the sun behind the tower, he couldn’t see the detail of it, only shadows in grey and greyer and black. It was breathtaking. It was priceless.

But the real beauty lay in the reflection. The building stretched out over the water, rippling with every wave, the boat moving with the monastery. No clear, still reflecting pool this. The ever-shifting waters tossed the light this way and that, until the magnificent tower was no more than an uncertain shadow on the water. An absence of colour.

Chink!

The sharp noise broke his reverie and Paul Roberts was back in Cardiff.

Angry at the disturbance, he moved his flashlight towards the sound. It was probably just the old building settling, shifting some of the workmen’s tools. The museum renovations were taking bloody months—Mike from the day shift said the builders were more often holding mugs of tea than hammers and saws.

Paul returned to the picture, but Venice was gone, the illusion faded with that rude awakening. He was alone in the chilled gallery, his ill-fitting uniform chafing against his skin. He itched at the reddened skin where the waistband of his trousers dug into flesh. He had put on weight again.

He lumbered across the gallery, the last vestiges of Italy falling away behind him, as he headed for the pokey little security office and his instant noodles. He might stream the NFL kickoff game—working night shifts had given him a taste for American sport. As a Welshman, his first loyalty was to the rugby, but American football had its charms. Even if those boys were sissies for needing all that padding just to run about a field.

Shhhhhck!

The ripping sound cut right through him and Paul turned on his heel, flashlight raised like a baton. “Who’s there?”

Between the little puddles of light around the artworks, the black was absolute, only made deeper by the brightness of the lights. Paul squinted into the black spaces, his head beating up into his throat as the seconds stretched into millennia in his panic. Who was lurking in the darkness and what did they want? His boss was never going to forgive him—neglecting his duties, mooning at paintings. If something was lost, could he forgive himself?

He heard a whisper of movement to his right. Despite the screaming of his nerves, Paul ran through the archway into the adjacent gallery, looking left and right for the intruder.

Then he saw her.

The cruel rend was jagged, uneven across the background—more like a lumberjack’s hack than a surgeon’s precision. The top of the canvas had flopped over like a dog-ear, obscuring face and gloves and bustle. All that remained visible were her perfect skirts, fold upon fold of cerulean, azure and sapphire, and that cheeky inch of scandalous toe protruding beneath them.

The bastard had cut The Blue Lady.

Paul could weep for her. His hand stuttered forward, to restore her beauty, but then he jerked back. He must not damage her. Talia and Soo-jin and Noah—they would know what to do for the best. They would save her.

He should call them right away, before the cops. They had to preserve her—the weight of the canvas threatened to tear her further, rip her open like one of Jack the Ripper’s whores. Split open for the vultures—

Thud!

Paul’s head collided with the painting and he slid, stunned, to the ground. He tried to get up, face his attacker, but his arms were strangely heavy, his legs uncooperative. His body was a sack of stones, beyond his control, a ghost of something like pain spreading over the back of his head.

He gasped for air that would not come and, as he looked up at the encroaching darkness, his vision was filled with the most perfect blue.

And a splatter of red.

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Chapter reveal: Dating Death, by Randy Rawls

DD Cover for MGTitle:  DATING DEATH

Genre:  Mystery

Author: Randy Rawls

Website: http://www.randyrawls.com/

Publisher: White Bird Publications

Purchase at Amazon

About the Book: 

Dating Death, the latest mystery by acclaimed novelist Randy Rawls, features South Florida PI Beth Bowman.   She’s tough, tenacious, brash, and bold, but Beth Bowman knows that when the Coral Lakes Police Chief calls, she’d better listen. So when Chief Elston invites Beth for a meeting at the Coral Lakes police headquarters, Beth agrees to hear him out. Seems Elston has a rather unseemly request…

To Beth’s surprise, the topic du jour is South Florida politician Roger Adamson.  Adamson may be loved by his constituents, but he’s for sale to the highest bidder, a fact not lost on the local police.  Elston wants Adamson not just for normal bribes and influence peddling, but for access to the crime lord who supports Adamson’s extravagant lifestyle. Adamson agrees to cooperate— at his own pace, on his terms—if Elston agrees to keep him safe.  And that’s where Beth comes in. After all, someone will have to protect Adamson during public appearances, and who better than Beth Bowman?

Beth agrees, even though accepting the assignment means temporarily upending her life, including her burgeoning romance with Dr. David Rasmussen. Unbeknownst to Beth, this dirty job with a dirty politician could take a shockingly nasty turn…

Adamson’s a sleazy, arrogant jerk, and protecting him is certainly no walk in the park. But this job is leading Beth down a dark, dangerous, and downright deadly path.  Quickly and viciously swept up into a vortex of kidnapping, multiple homicides and violence, Beth Bowman is on the edge of losing everything—including her life.  Backing down isn’t Beth’s style, but this time Beth may have met her match… 

Swiftly paced, shocking, and full of twists of turns, Dating Death is a sizzling, action-packed tale.  Brimming with edge-of-your-seat suspense and a pulse-racer of a plot, Dating Death is hotter than a South Florida summer.  Randy Rawls, who has earned a well-deserved place among the fine writers who call the Sunshine State home, delivers a solid, irresistible and entertaining tale in Dating Death.

About the Author:

Randy Rawls grew up in North Carolina, then spent a career in the Army before retiring to Florida.  After retirement, he returned to work with the Department of Defense as a civilian. Somewhere along the way, he fell in love with writing—a natural progression as he has always been an avid reader. Randy Rawls lives in Delray Beach, Florida.

DATING DEATH

By Randy Rawls

CHAPTER ONE

Beth Bowman, P.I. pulled into a visitor’s parking space and killed the engine on her nondescript Toyota Camry. She sighed and leaned back in the seat staring at the building. Not her first choice for a place to be at ten in the morning, but she felt obligated to be there. The invitation from Chief Elston to meet with him at the Coral Lakes police headquarters could have been declined, but she needed to keep a good relationship with him and his people—or stated differently, she didn’t need to make it any worse.

She stepped out of the car and felt the heat and humidity slam into her—South Florida was living up to its reputation. She knew to enjoy it while she could. Since it was the rainy season, the afternoon and evening could be filled with thunderstorms, lowering the temperature but raising the humidity.

Beth entered through the front door and saw Officer Gantry manning the desk. “Hi. The Chief called me in for a meeting. Can I go back?”

“Yep, he told me to keep an eye out for you. The meeting is in his office. You know the way, don’t you?”

Beth walked past and headed down the hallway. At the Chief’s office, she stopped and blew out a long breath before tapping on the door.

The door swung open. “Come in, Beth. We’ve been waiting for you.” Chief Elston stood and ushered Beth to a chair at the end of his desk.

She looked around. No one there except the Chief and a man she didn’t recognize. He seemed familiar, though. VIP came to mind, but she couldn’t be sure of it. Whatever, he looked like he either had a severe case of heartburn or would prefer to be about anywhere else.

Before she could sort through her memory bank, Chief Elston performed as host. “I’m sure you know Roger Adamson, one of our city councilmen. Mr. Adamson, this is Beth Bowman, the lady I told you about.”

“I gathered that when you called her Beth. Now that introductions are behind us, I’m not sure why you’re wasting my time. Like I said before, how the hell do you expect a five foot, hundred-pound piece of fluff to keep me alive?”

Chief Elston smiled, but it appeared strained. “What I expect is for you to keep an open mind. As I told you, I know what I’m doing. You’re judging the package, not what’s in it.”

“Humph. Do I have to remind you it’s my life that’s in play, not yours? From what I see, she definitely won’t do. You’re going to have to—”

“Just a damn minute—”

“Hold it,” Beth said. “I didn’t come here so you can talk over me like a head of cabbage. Somebody better tell me what’s going on, or I’m out the door.” She scowled at Adamson. “Getting a bikini wax is more enjoyable than listening to this jerk.” She hesitated. “Also, I’m five feet, five inches tall and weigh one hundred twenty-five pounds. I can run a half-marathon, am an expert in self-defense, and trained in the use of firearms. And, just so there’s no misunderstanding, I don’t need shit from you—whatever you are.”

“Not only that,” Chief Elston said, “she can shoot the wings off a gnat, drop a six-six linebacker, and turn a hungry pack of wolverines into a passel of docile pussycats. There are folks in this town who learned the hard way not to get on her bad side. A couple of them are on my force. She kicks like a mule. Now, either you settle down and listen, or I call the Assistant State Attorney and tell her no deal. Make your choice.”

Beth looked from Elston to Adamson and back. City Councilman versus Assistant State Attorney? Good story potential. She leaned back in her chair, willing to listen.

Adamson puffed up like a blowfish, then deflated. “Alright. You’re holding the high cards. I’ll listen, but if this is the best you have, I might be better off in a white-collar lockup. In fact, right now, I’m tempted to change my mind.”

Too much. Beth stood. “I’ve heard enough. If you boys decide to get serious, give me a call. I didn’t come down here to watch two sumo wrestlers circle one another.” She started toward the door.

“Beth, please stay,” Elston said. “I’m sorry. This is not the way I intended the meeting to go. Let me start from the top.”

She stopped. “Okay, but for the record, and you can write it in permanent ink, if this character cracks on me once more, I may kick his flabby butt.”

“If he cracks on you once more, he’s on the short path to a solitary jail cell. That, I promise.”

Beth studied Adamson, her mind pulling pieces together. Roger Adamson, Coral Lakes Councilman. She’d seen an article in the Coral Lakes Post about an official under investigation for accepting bribes. No name, of course, a confidential source. Could Mr. Adamson be the person of interest? If so, where did she fit into the picture?

“Okay, Chief.” She looked at her watch. “I have a manicure in one hour—thirty minutes from here. That gives you twenty-five minutes to convince me I didn’t rush breakfast for no good reason. Let’s go.”

Chief Elston took a deep breath and laced his fingers on his desk. “Mr. Adamson is a dirty politician. By that, I mean he admitted—after we nailed him red-handed—that he takes bribes. Many of them are the standard South Florida stuff—land developers, folks wanting zone changes, unions, etc. You know, the routine leeches that make politics profitable here. However, we believe he also is the beneficiary of some really nasty people, folks who have no qualms about feeding witnesses to the fishes. Those are the people I’m interested in.”

Beth studied Adamson. “I can’t say I’m surprised. He looks the type—greasy, slicked back hair, scruffy beard, Hollywood looks. Where do I fit in? I’m not about to get involved in any kind of undercover stuff.”

 

 

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Chapter reveal: The Wrong Road Home, by Ian A. O’Connor

ianoconnor-72dpi-1500x2000-2Title: The Wrong Road Home – A story of treachery and deceit inspired by true events

Author: Ian A. O’Connor

Release Date: March 31, 2016

Publisher: Pegasus Publishing & Entertainment Group

Pages: 280

Genre: Historical Medical Crime

Format: Trade paperback and EBook

Purchase on Amazon 

Book Description

“An intimate look at a life lived as a lie.” – Kirkus Reviews

Inspired by a true story, The Wrong Road Home is the story of Desmond Donahue. Born into abject poverty in Ireland, Donahue went on to successfully practice his craft as a surgeon for 20 years—first in Ireland and then the United States.  So isn’t Donahue’s tale a classic rags-to-riches, American dream story?  Hardly.  Donahue was girded with nothing more than a Chicago School System GED and several counterfeit medical diplomas. It seems impossible—and understandably so—but it’s a story based on a Miami Herald Sunday edition front page exposé.  An Oprah producer pursued the imposter for weeks, as did Bill O’Reilly. Simply put, Desmond Donahue’s story is a story that really happened.

A gripping story that is alternately shocking, heartbreaking, and unbelievable, The Wrong Road Home will leave readers spellbound. Ian A. O’Connor, an imaginative and skillful storyteller, paints a vivid portrait of a complicated, complex character who comes alive within the story’s pages.   Reminiscent of Catch Me if You Can, The Wrong Road Homefuses elements of true crime, memoir, and drama.  Groundbreaking, inventive and innovative, The Wrong Road Home is an extraordinary story exceptionally well told.

PROLOGUE

I arrived at the law offices of Middleton and Ives, P.A., in Coral Gables, Florida, at nine o’clock on a clear November morning in 1992.  Eighteen months earlier, I had been seriously injured in an auto accident, and still wore a cumbersome neck and back brace.  Pain was my constant companion.

The task this day was to prepare me for a pre-trial deposition scheduled for midweek.  My attorneys had realized soon after filing a claim in court that things could turn dicey simply because I was a longtime friend of the car’s driver, Kathy Murray.  Indeed, her insurance carrier had remained steadfast in refusing to entertain any thoughts of a settlement, and had drawn a new line in the sand by hiring a top Miami attorney named Carl Weston.

“Relax, Desmond,” my friend, Mike Middleton, said. “Your case is a slam dunk.  Just answer all questions truthfully, and don’t volunteer any information.”

“You know this insurance company lawyer?”

Mike chuckled. “Yeah, I know Carl.  He’s no Perry Mason, but he can turn into one tough little bulldog if he smells blood.  But Carl has nothing to go after here because the facts are the facts.”  Mike led me into the conference room then headed for the gargantuan leather chair at the head of the table while motioning me to take the seat on his right.  As he reached for a yellow legal pad, his partner entered.

“Sorry I’m late,” Drew Ives said, and, with a nod, signaled for Mike to begin.

They went over the facts of the accident at least a dozen times, all the while lobbing every imaginable question at me.  They then helped polish my responses, and three hours later pronounced me ready.  “Just tell the truth,” was Mike’s last piece of advice.

Michael Middleton and Drew Ives oozed confidence from every pore.

*     *     *

We were ushered into the floor-to-ceiling book-lined conference room of the law firm of Weston, Hailey and Strunk, P.A., at three o’clock, on the afternoon of November 20, 1992.  After the requisite introductions, and going over a few technical legal housekeeping matters, the deposition started at 3:20 p.m., and lasted ninety minutes.  A court stenographer videotaped the proceeding.

Carl Weston began by guiding me through the preliminaries, those mundane, innocuous items, such as having me state my full name, age, place of birth, city of residence, and marital status.

I began to relax.  I had answered the last question by saying I was a widower these past eighteen years, and how my wife, Margaret, had died in childbirth, as did our child.

Carl Weston wore a suitably sad face as he listened to my recounting.

Then he moved on to wanting to know about my education, beginning in Chicago, where I told how I had attended college at Loyola University, followed by medical school in Cork, Ireland.

“When did you start these Irish medical studies, and when did you finish?”

“Nineteen sixty-nine until nineteen seventy-six.”

“It was a seven year course?” Carl Weston couldn’t keep the surprise out of his voice as he peered at me over the rim of his half-frames.

“Well, it’s normally five, but I did some other things while I was there.” I then went on to explain away my particular circumstances. Mike remained silent.  And why not?  The facts were facts, and he had heard me parrot them ad nauseam.

“So, from nineteen sixty-nine to nineteen seventy-six you were a student at the medical school in Ireland?”

“Yes.”

“That’s seven years?” Carl Weston was now repeating himself

“It is.”

“Did you finally get your degree?”

“Of course.”

“And what degree did you get?”

“Similar to an American M.D. degree.”

“Which is…?”

“An MB, Bch., BAO.”

“That’s quite the mouthful of alphabet soup.  Just what do all those letter mean?”

“MB, Bch., stands for Medical Bachelor, and Bachelor of Surgery.  BAO, Bachelor of Obstetrics and Gynecology.”

“So in other words, you got this MB, Bch., BAO degree in Ireland?”

“I did.” I was beginning to think this hotshot lawyer was somewhat slow in the understanding department.  And still Mike said nothing.

Weston then wanted to know what hospital I had attended for my clinical training while in Cork, and I told him there were several the students rotated through.  That answer seemed to satisfy him.  He next queried the date and the facts leading up to my marriage, then delicately probed for more details about Margaret’s demise and that of our child.

Then he led me through a recitation of events from the time I left Ireland, until my being hired by St. Anslem’s Hospital in Coral Gables, a dozen years earlier.

“And at St. Anslem’s you wear a white doctor’s coat?”

“Of course.”

“And it has Desmond Donahue, M.D. embroidered over the left breast?”

“It does.”

Weston scribbled a quick notation, rifled through some pages, selected one, and began asking about my life and duties at St. Anslem’s.  He wanted to know how much was I paid.  How long was my workday?  What exactly did I do at the hospital?  He then followed with questions regarding the general state of my health before the accident, and an in-depth asking as to my several life insurance policies, and who my beneficiary was.  Ditto for my disability coverage. Then he wanted to know about my relationship with the defendant, Kathy Murray.  I explained she was the widow of a long-time friend who had died of lymphoma three years earlier.

Finally, after many repeated questions, the discussion turned to the accident. Carl Weston led me through the mishap, minute-by-minute, blow-by-blow, my many injuries being duly noted.  He then asked for the names of all the physicians who had, and still were, treating me.

The session ended with a probing of my limited surgical work schedule since the accident, with me explaining how my injuries had curtailed most of the activities I had enjoyed prior to that fateful day.

At last, it was over.  I sank into my chair, exhausted.

Twenty minutes later, I was riding back to Coral Gables with Mike.  “Went well,” he said as we crawled along in bumper-to-bumper traffic on South Dixie Highway.  “I told you Carl’s a bulldog!  Get him fixated on a line of questioning and he will beat it to frigging death.  Hell, there were times in there I had no idea where the man was going.”  Mike let loose a whoop of delight.  “Poor old Carl went on a fishing expedition only to find there were no fish in the pond.  You handled him great, Desmond.”

*     *     *

I got a call from Mike two days before the end of the year.  “I need you in my office as soon as possible.”

“Well, I’m kind of tied up for the next…”

“You’re not listening, Desmond” he interrupted. “As soon as possible means just that.”  No ranting, no raving, just a command.

I immediately went on red alert.  Something big was up.  “Then I’ll be there this afternoon.  Care to tell me what it’s about?”

“This afternoon will be fine, I’ll see you then.”

I made my appearance shortly after two o’clock where a poker-faced Mike Middleton walked me into the conference room and shut the door.  He strode over to the table and scooped up an overstuffed manila envelope which he began waving in front of my nose.  “This was delivered by courier from Carl Weston’s office at nine o’clock this morning.  Care to guess what’s inside?”

I immediately knew the answer.  Carl Weston had dug deep into my past and had struck the mother lode of all mother lodes.  Mike Middleton’s tenacious little bulldog had done what no one else had been able to do in twenty years—he had discovered that my life was a lie, and that I was a fraud.

I hung my head in silent disgrace inside my brace and collar, too mortified to look Mike in the eye.

“Sit down, Desmond,” Mike finally said, then heeding his own advice, sank wearily into his oversized chair and began a vigorous rubbing of his face, a ritual I had witnessed many times.

“It’s time for you to come clean, Doctor Donahue,” he finally said in a voice as dry as dust, deliberately emphasizing the word doctor.  “I want the truth, but first, answer me this: Is your real name even Desmond Donahue?  Because if it isn’t, I sure as hell need to know that particular fact right up front.”

I shook my head and sighed. “Desmond Donahue is my real name.”

“Well, that’s a start, I suppose.  Forget that we’ve been friends for ten years, I want to hear only the truth from here on out.  No bullshitting, no spinning, no you deciding what to tell and what to withhold.  I need to know everything about you from the day you were born, because very soon you’re going to be facing one really pissed-off judge who could send you away for a very long time.  Do you understand what I’m saying?”

I nodded, took a deep breath, held it for what seemed like an eternity, then exhaled in one long swoosh and began to talk.

 

 

 

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Chapter reveal: Original Cyn, by Sylvia Dickey Smith

Title: ORIGINAL CYN

Genre: women’s fiction

Author: Sylvia Dickey Smith

Website: www.sylviadickeysmith.com

Publisher: White Bird Publications

Purchase on Amazon

About the Book: About Original Cyn:  Protagonist Cynthia Carter’s life appears perfect—but for the fact that she and her husband, The Reverend Wilburn Carter, are controlled by fear.  Cynthia is afraid she’ll displease Wilburn and if not him, his parishioners. But her biggest fear is the emptiness swelling inside her.

In the pulpit, Wilburn is the hero:  God’s right hand, the messenger, the revered Reverend. At home, however, is a different story: he’s cold, controlling, selfish and self-consumed.  Every Sunday, Wilburn stands at the podium and worries which parishioner might stab him in the back.  But his deepest, darkest fear is that people will discover he’s a phony.

As Cynthia drowns in her lack of identity beyond what’s assigned by her preacher-husband, she wonders if she should stay in the relationship.  Could there be more to life than just being the Pastor’s wife?  Before she can decide, events force her to flee.  If she goes far enough fast enough, those back home will have to deal with the chaos they created—deal with it or go to hell in their sanctimonious handbaskets. Until a phone conversation leaves her with even more difficult choices…

A powerful, thoughtful, and thought-provoking story, Original Cyn is extraordinary. Novelist Sylvia Dickey Smith takes readers on an unforgettable journey that spans anguish, heartbreak, hatred, love, fear, humor, peace and joy. Resplendent with compelling characters and an exceedingly-relatable storyline, Original Cyn is wholly—or perhaps holy—an original tale about moving beyond the black-and-white and living life in full, vibrant color. Sylvia Dickey Smith’s latest novel is a richly-drawn, rewarding read destined to stay with readers long after the final page is turned.  

ORIGINAL CYN

CHAPTER 1

When the sun came up that morning, Cyn Carter did what every other burned-out unambiguous preacher’s wife did. She crawled out of bed, threw on yesterday’s jeans and tee shirt, and did a quick finger-comb as Wilburn strolled out of the bathroom. “If you don’t mind Cynthia,” he said, “can you get a move on? I have an appointment at eight o’clock, and you haven’t even gone downstairs yet, much less started my breakfast.” Sarcasm dripped from his words.

Big fat hairy deal.  Cyn hustled down the hall toward the stairs. Same story, same attitude, every single solitary day.

Out of habit, she paused just inside the door to her son’s bedroom. His recent departure to college left the house feeling so empty, so quiet.

“I said get a move on, Cynthia,” Wilburn barked as he came up behind her, then stopped to check his reflection in the full-length mirror. After a quick adjustment to his tie, he spun on his heels and walked on, an overdose of aftershave trailing behind him.

Cyn took a long deep breath, as if his departure returned oxygen to the room.

He waited for her at the bottom of the stairs worry lines creasing his forehead. Cyn followed him into the kitchen where he went straight to the coffee pot, prepared and set the night before. He often teased that he expected the coffee ready when he got up every morning, much like the cruse of oil in the Bible. As the story went, the cruse remained full of oil, regardless of how much the poor widow used, implying, of course, that God kept the righteous woman supplied with oil. Guess that made a statement about Cyn’s righteousness, or the lack thereof, for she supplied their coffee.

“I see you’re still moping around like you lost your best friend.” He spooned a heaping teaspoon of sugar into his coffee and stirred, stirred—and stirred.

It made her want to grab the spoon out of his hand and shove it up his butt.

“I wish you’d get over this notion of having nothing more to live for since Justice left for college.” He tapped the spoon against the rim of the cup and tossed it on the granite counter top.

“Don’t be stupid.” Her sharp words startled her. She wasn’t accustomed to talking back.

“Then stop acting like he died. I get depressed just looking at you.”

“You make it sound like I can simply wish away whatever bothers me,” she said through clenched teeth. “That bugs the heck out of me.”

“You watch that pronoun curse word, young lady.” Finger-quotes bracketed his words.

“It’s not a pronoun.” She did her own bracketing.

“Maybe not, but you use it in place of a curse word, so it counts as the same thing.” He tapped his forehead as he spoke as if any idiot should know that. “I never said you could wish anything away, but you sure can do something about it.”

He took a few sips of coffee then ambled to the breakfast table, newspaper in hand. “What I said was to get out and go do something—get it off your mind. Mrs. Turner and a couple of other ladies fold the bulletins on Thursdays. Why don’t you come help them? At least it’ll get you out of the house.”

“No thanks.” She bit her tongue before it released the dictum that a snowball had a greater chance in hell. Mama’s words bounced around in her head. You can think it, Cynthia Ann, but that doesn’t mean you have to say it.

She’d cooked Wilburn’s breakfast so many times she could do it blindfolded, and might as well today, for all the interest and energy she had in doing so. True to form, however, the smell of frying bacon soon filled the house, half-cooked, the way he liked it. After plating the bacon, she basted the eggs, whites firm, and yolks soft.

All while Wilburn read the newspaper and slurped coffee.

As she moved the eggs from the skillet to Wilburn’s plate, being careful not to break the yolks, her mind drifted to the night before. In their twenty-plus years, she’d never known him to take much notice of his dreams, but he’d awakened at straight up 3:00 o’clock in a cold sweat brought on, he’d said, by the image of her vaporizing like an early-morning fog exposed to bright sunlight.

“It’s only a dream,” she’d said, trying to comfort him. She stopped short of admitting how close his dream touched reality, that as of late she felt herself fading into someone else. No, more like exploding into it.

When she put his food in front of him, he folded the paper and laid it beside his plate, eyes still glued on the article he’d been reading. Approaching his mid-forties, Wilburn looked every bit as handsome as he did the day she first laid eyes on him talking to a group of girls at her hometown church. His trim frame and impeccable taste in clothing still made him stand out, regardless of the crowd. The sprinkling of gray at the temples didn’t hurt either. Women, young and old, worshipped him and envied her.

They needn’t have bothered. Although she worshipped him herself before they married, afterward, she’d sworn someone kidnapped him and replaced him with a stranger. Like once he caught her, the romance ended and doing God’s work began. Over the years, he kept her at an emotional arm’s length. Except for the God-talk, she had no idea what went on inside the man’s head.

But she knew what went on inside hers. The day stretched painfully in her thoughts—clean the kitchen, make the bed, wash the clothes, and have Wilburn’s lunch on the table at straight up noon. She poked her eggs with a fork and bit into a slice of toast.

“Cynthia.” His voice was strident.

“What?” She glanced up to see him glaring at her.

“Shame on you. You know we never eat without first saying grace.”

Good lord, she’d broken the cardinal rule of the parsonage, a rule, without a doubt, written on tablets of stone hidden somewhere in the house.

Tempted to say “Grace,” and get on with eating, Cyn thought better of it. Instead, when he bowed his head and closed his eyes, she kept hers up and open, fork in midair. The memory of Justice doing the same thing years ago, and the shame heaped upon him by his father, still rattled her heartstrings.

However, what bothered her the most was Wilburn’s so-called prayers always—always—targeted more than one agenda item, each intended not for God, but for Wilburn’s audience and more often than not, her.

After the blessing, Wilburn glanced her way then back at his food. “You haven’t said anything about my sermon yesterday.” He reached for the blackberry jam and spooned a mound onto his toast. “Didn’t you like it?”

The exact same question, word for word, he’d asked her over breakfast every blessed Monday for the last twenty years. This time, she said nothing. Just kept eating, but not tasting.

An uncomfortable silence filled the room.

Wilburn broke it. “It’s evident you’re still thinking of no one but yourself.” He shoveled in another mouthful of eggs. “You’ve acted like this ever since Justice left for college.”

Their son Justice, a young teen when they first moved to Mobile and into the century-old parsonage, soon started calling his dad’s church the “Do Right Be Good Church,” but never in front of his father.

“I miss Justice, yes, but the boy leaving for college has nothing to do with what I’m going through.” She tried to explain the unexplainable. “It’s not the empty nest that bothers me. It’s me. I’m empty.”

“You’re just depressed. Probably time for your period or something.” He shrugged. “Anyway, if you want something to do, as I said, every Thursday, several women get together and have fun folding the bulletins. If you want to—”

“I don’t want to fold your damn bulletins.” She spat the words through clenched teeth.

Wilburn stood and slung his napkin onto the table. “Watch your language, young lady.” He stormed out of the kitchen, slinging words over his shoulder as he tromped down the hall. “I’ll be home for lunch, Cynthia. See that it’s ready on time. Think you can at least do that much?”

The front door slammed behind him, leaving a tension she could pierce with one of Justice’s epées. Did other dutiful preachers’ wives ever daydream about murder?

Over the years, Cyn had learned not to push. After growing up with an abusive father, Wilburn shied away from physical violence, but he learned the more manipulative ways of his mother. Add to that, he suffered the aggravation of an older brother who acted like Mr. Perfect in front of their parents, and tormented Wilburn without mercy behind their backs.

To say Wilburn never crossed the line wasn’t totally accurate. On occasion, he resorted to his father’s ways of dealing with frustration. He never hit her or Justice, but a couple of times he came mighty close when she questioned one of his religious beliefs, and he couldn’t convince her to see it his way.

Addicts filled their cravings with something. His father used alcohol. At times, Cyn wondered if Wilburn’s extreme religiosity was a type of addiction. The thought of that bothered her as much as his lack of intimacy. The distance between them wasn’t new, but it hadn’t improved over the years either. In fact, it seemed to have grown worse.

She’d vowed to be the submissive wife, to honor and obey him at every turn, and Lord knew she’d done that—for decades. So why hadn’t it worked? Why, instead, did she feel like some soul-sucking monster slipped in and gobbled her up from the inside out?

Cyn shoved the chilling questions aside, shifted her brain into zombie-mode, and loaded the dishwasher, wiped the table, made the bed, and started a load of laundry, her 14,200,656th load—but who’s counting?

After the laundry, she ran the vacuum, boiled a couple of eggs for the tuna salad she’d make later for their lunch, and then headed outside with a mug of hot coffee. Strolling through her flower garden, the one place where she found peace, she cupped a late-blooming gardenia in her palm and inhaled, letting the fragrance soothe her soul.

She wished Wilburn understood her feelings. Wished he wanted to understand them. Perhaps if he did, he might not resent her reluctance to go to church every time someone unlocked the frigging doors. Instead, he nagged about the responsibility she’d accepted when she married a preacher. “He forgets he wasn’t a pastor when we married,” she muttered, “and he certainly didn’t consult me before enrolling in seminary.”

She felt trapped, like she lived inside the world rather than outside where the air smelled fresh, where possibilities came true, or had the chance of doing so. She longed to breathe, to flap her wings like the baby bird after it outgrows its shell and pecks its way out.

Lost in rumination, she hadn’t heard the back gate open and close until a familiar voice called out, “So that’s why you didn’t answer the doorbell. I hoped I’d catch you out here.”

“Dee?” Cyn dumped her coffee into the thirsty soil and hurried to meet her younger sister. “Sweetheart, I thought you were headed to Europe or something.”

“Operative word, headed, until they diverted my flight to Mobile. Mechanical problems they claimed. Canceled the whole trip until tomorrow. I stood in line at the ticket counter for over half an hour trying to make a connecting flight before my boss texted and said, ‘Hold off, complications of some kind.’ So, anyway, I took a taxi and here I am.”

They embraced for the longest, each bubbling with the joy shared by sisters, who couldn’t be more different, yet never got enough of each other.

As a baby learning to talk, Dee struggled to pronounce her older sister’s name, but could only manage the first syllable, Cyn. The nickname stuck, much to Cynthia’s delight and their mother’s horror. From then on, everyone except Cynthia’s mother called her Cyn. That is until she married Wilburn.

He swore no one would ever call his wife Cyn again. A person might be born in sin, but that didn’t mean he’d let someone call his wife that ugly word.

However, with Dee, Wilburn met his match. She simply ignored his order, acted like she hadn’t heard him. The girl knew no fear. All her life, she slashed through any obstacles in her way as if they existed to encourage her, to prod her into action. Perhaps the red hair and freckles had something to do with it. She spent her childhood fighting and scratching through taunts in elementary school until the bullies ran. Unlike Cyn, she did not tolerate bad behavior or fools.

Arm in arm, Cyn and Dee strolled into the house while Dee chattered about her adventures as a foreign correspondent. “You should see my new cameraman.” She flicked her fingers, laughing. “Hot, hot, hot.”

Cyn smiled, wondering what it might feel like for a man to turn her on again, or to be more accurate, for her to turn on a man.

“Now, tell me about my favorite nephew. How’s Justice? He’s in college now, right? What a neat kid—takes after his mom, that’s for sure.” Dee gave Cyn’s waist a gentle squeeze.

“I’m afraid he takes more after his Aunt Dee.” Cyn laughed. “A thought goes in his head and comes out his mouth. Got himself in trouble a few times because of it too.”

Dee raised her eyebrows in question.

“I remember one night at a church picnic when a bossy deacon ordered Justice to go gather wood for the bonfire.” Cyn smiled at the memory. “Justice felt demeaned by the way the guy spoke to him and countered with, ‘You want firewood, go get it yourself.’”

Dee doubled over with laughter. “He didn’t? Really? Good Lord, I’ll bet Wilburn had a coronary.”

“Wilburn wanted to beat the kid black and blue, but thank goodness he didn’t. Ate a big piece of humility pie with the deacon, though, that’s for sure. And Justice received a heated lecture from his dad on the topic of courtesy.” Cyn smiled, remembering how embarrassed she and Wilburn were over their son’s behavior. Later that same night, Justice had asked Cyn why he should treat someone he did not respect with that same courtesy and respect his dad yelled about. Put Cyn back on her heels for a few seconds, but when she felt the answer in her heart, she knew it to be true. “Justice, you treat all people with courtesy and respect, not because of who they are, but because of who you are, a person who treats others with—”

“Respect and dignity,” he said, finishing her sentence. “Okay. I see what you mean, Mom. Thanks.” He’d given her a big hug and went on his way.

She never needed to talk to him about courtesy again.

Cyn and Dee spent the day catching up on the goings-on of family and friends. That, plus Dee’s latest love interest, which changed as frequently as the weather.

Wilburn always asked why Dee didn’t pick one man and settle down. What did she want to do, hump every man in the country? Cyn hated it when he started in on Dee.

The two sisters dropped any further mention of Wilburn until he called after lunch to cancel lunch. “And don’t bother about dinner either,” he added. “I’ve got a building committee meeting this evening and will likely go straight from it to the deacon’s meeting.”

“And you’re just now telling me? I already prepared—”

“The building committee, Cynthia,” he said as if his precious committee took precedence over everything else, especially her. For months, the committee had been working on an expansion project and planned to present their proposal to the deacons for approval later that evening. Last minute rehearsal, she guessed, but she figured he knew about the meeting before now.

She slammed the phone down and threw the spatula across the room. Before it landed, however, she realized with him not home for dinner she and Dee could breathe easier, longer.

Dee shrugged. “Well, at least you’ve already got tomorrow night’s dinner done.” She stood at the sink cleaning up after Cyn’s prep for a canceled dinner. “I swear, girl, I don’t know what you ever saw in the man. He’s good-looking, if you like that type, but he’s a turd, big sister. I know it. You know it.”

“He’s not that bad.” Cyn laughed, but her words felt like fish bones in her throat.

Dee glanced over her shoulder. “If he isn’t, why didn’t you tell him his call came too late. Look at this mess, all for a man who surely knew of a committee meeting before now. Good Lord, if I didn’t know better, I’d think we still lived in the twentieth century.”

Relieved when Dee’s ringing cell phone and her subsequent exit of the room ended the conversation, Cyn moved to the sink full of dirty dishes, took one look, and shuddered. Bits of greasy food floated to the top. Not-so-greasy bits swam around the bottom, waiting.

She shuddered at the thought of putting her hands in that mess under the pretext of cleaning the dishes. It stood to reason, use dirty water, get dirty dishes. Oh, they might look clean, but without a doubt, they contained more germs than before they took the plunge.

All her life, Dee argued dishwashing should be done one way, and one way only. Put in a stopper, fill the sink with hot, soapy water, and plunge every filthy dish into the depths and scrub. Voila, the dishes came out clean.

Not on Cyn’s watch. She pulled the plug and loaded the dishes in the dishwasher.

A few minutes later Dee returned to the kitchen. “My boss called. Former boss, I guess I should say.”

“He fired you?”

“Used the term cutbacks.”

The two stood with their mouths open, staring at each other. Then, Dee cracked a smile. “Look on the bright side, you’ll get to tell dipshit I’m here after all.”

“Don’t act ugly.” Cyn turned her back to hide a grin.

“I’m just sayin’…”

“Well, I’m just saying let’s take a glass of ice tea outside and sit on the front porch.”

What she’d say to Wilburn about her sister visiting, she hadn’t a clue. One thing she did know, she had to tell him before he walked in and saw Dee, or else he’d pout for a week.

Once outside, the sounds of a creaking swing and the rapid-moving wings of a hummingbird soothed the silence until Dee spoke up.

“You know what? I’ve heard Catholic nuns consider themselves married to Jesus, right? Thing is, you’re not a nun. You’re not even Catholic. But I get the idea you married Jesus all the same, or at least to a man who sees himself as second-in-command.”

Weary of the topic, Cyn didn’t respond. How could she, and stay loyal to her husband? Plus, she hated to admit her sister spoke the truth.

Cyn’s silence, however, did not discourage Dee. “I guess when you go to church you still sit on the front pew like Wilburn tells you to, so you can catch his drippings from the pulpit. That’s the silliest thing I ever heard.” Dee laughed so hard she almost spilled her tea.

“He laughs when he says that, and you know it.” Cyn sucked through her teeth.

He joked all right, but Cyn had come to realize that, once again, the joke fell on her. Most church members pooh-poohed the New Age phenomenon of channeling. Humph—nothing new to her. Wilburn channeled God every service and most times in between.

However, she certainly wasn’t going to admit that to Dee. Instead, she changed the subject.

“There’s a women’s circle meeting at church tonight. I’m expected to attend. Hope you won’t mind staying here alone. Wilburn is at a deacon’s meeting, so I should get home before him. You won’t have to face him by yourself.”

“Why don’t I go with you?”

“That’d be great, but are you sure you really want to?” Cyn shuddered to think what Dee might say or do at a group like that. Shock the conservative women right out of their pantyhose and padded bras.

“Better than sitting here by myself. Besides, I’ll make sure those biddies don’t take pot shots at my older sister.”

“Careful on that older stuff.”

It felt good to laugh. Cyn couldn’t remember doing so since Justice left. His antics always gave her comic relief.

Categories: Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Chapter reveal: Irish Jewel, by Julie Ann James

Irish Jewel JpegTitle:  IRISH JEWEL

Genre: Suspense

Author:  Julie Ann James

Website:  www.peppertreepublishing.com

Publisherwww.peppertreepublishing.com

Find out more on Amazon

About the Book:

When Irish Jewel opens, bride-to-be Amy Reid is living out a fairy tale.  She’s engaged to be married to the love of her life, Michael Cambridge, an Irishman. Michael, a member of one of Dublin’s most  prominent families and heir to the Cambridge precious gem business, is everything a girl could dream of—and more.   He’s handsome, loving, charming, smart, successful, and, as icing on the wedding cake, Amy and Michael will be married in an elaborate ceremony in Dublin. This lavish, spare-no-expense event will be an exquisite dream-come-true-affair—a beautiful beginning to their lives together.

But this dream-come-true quickly turns into a nightmare:  what begins as a vague threat quick escalates into something much more sinister. On the eve of what should be the happiest day of her life, Amy is quickly swept up in an insidious web of danger, kidnapping, and murder.

When long buried truths emerge and dark secrets come to light, this fairy tale will be irretrievably fractured.  Nothing is as it seems—and the only way to win this deadly game is to get out alive. But the odds are stacked against Michael and Amy.  Will they even live to see “till death us do part”? Expect the unexpected in this twisted tale…

Irish Jewel

Julie Ann James

Chapter One

The captain’s deep monotone voice interrupted the restless sleep of some 120 passengers to prepare them for touchdown. They were about 20 minutes outside the Dublin airport at the end of a smooth but long flight, something that Amy Reid was still getting used to since her engagement to the love of her life, an Irishman, Michael Cambridge. They had met two years earlier as seatmates on a flight out of Dublin to her hometown of Sarasota, Florida.

Since then, they had been inseparable, other than the exasperating fact they lived across the pond from one another, which put an unexpected spin on the term, “long distance relationship.” Last summer, his proposal was sweet and romantic. Following a shared meal, he offered her an after-dinner mint, and hidden inside the wrapper, a princess-cut diamond ring, a whopping three-carats! His family is in the jewelry business. How lucky can a girl be to wear on her left hand what are literally the family jewels?

It was hard to believe that their wedding would take place in ten days after months of planning, choosing the perfect dress, and brilliantly persuading her entire family to make the trip to Ireland. Now that most of the details had fallen into place, she felt as though she had conquered all. A March wedding in Ireland—inside a castle—was a dream come true for any girl.

The seatbelt sign turned off, giving passengers permission to move about the cabin. Amy rifled through her purse making certain all her belongings were in order, pulled her carry-on out from the overstuffed compartment, and took her place in the crowded aisle.

The flight attendants thanked the passengers for flying Aer Lingus and provided concise directions on how to get from the gate to the baggage claim. Amy couldn’t care less what they were talking about, as her mind was in an entirely different place. She couldn’t believe she was going to marry someone she considered to be her soulmate. As corny as that sounded, she made sure complete strangers were aware that she was about to marry a “Cambridge.”

The Cambridges were known for their generosity, as they donated to charitable organizations throughout the country. They hosted elaborate parties at their estate located just outside County Clare—all on behalf of the miracle of medical research for so many causes. This made a lasting impression on Amy and was one of the many traits she admired about Michael. The Cambridge donations made a huge difference in many deserving lives. The family’s name and pictures were plastered in the newspaper quite often, but for the greater good, which was refreshing to say the least.

Michael wasn’t able to pick her up from the airport due to a work thing, so she was prepared to hail a cab to take her to their temporary flat in the city. It felt so good to be back in Ireland, where the Celtic history overflowed in each charming town. It wasn’t unusual that one of their endearing people would offer a 30-minute dissertation of that history in response to one simple question.

To her pleasant surprise, a limo waited for her arrival outside the airport doors—Michael’s doing no doubt. The driver, in a sleek black suit and top hat, rescued her from her heavy bags and opened the door with a gracious nod and smile.

“Thank you so much—this is great. I can’t believe Michael did this for me. Wait, what am I talking about? Of course, he did this—he’s Michael. You will have to forgive me, driver. I often talk to myself, so pay no attention to me. I am just so very excited to be getting married in ten days—count them, ten days—in Ireland for that matter.” Amy held up her freshly manicured hands to give the visual of ten days as she slid into the back seat.

“So I have heard, Miss Reid. That rumor has been spreading all around town. Believe me, everyone knows of your upcoming wedding. The Cambridges might just as well be royalty.” His eyes sparkled directly at hers, and then he closed the door.

“I am going to be a bride, Michael’s bride.” She giggled and danced her feet on the floorboard of the moving limo.

Amy settled back into the plush leather seat and pulled out her overstuffed wedding planner, skimming the pages for the final “to dos” before the “I dos” actually took place. Of course, her newly launched ad agency back in Sarasota had been somewhat difficult to leave behind and was always on her mind. But she had great confidence in her staff. They should be able to hold down the fort in her absence.

Her clients were few, but the word of mouth proved to be steady and went beyond her wildest expectations. She hoped to double her clientele by the end of next year. She wasn’t afraid to get down and dirty with the rest of them and push her business hard, all the way to the top. Her goals, which had been in place since she was twelve, were to get married before she turned thirty, start her own business, and travel the world—not too shabby for a 28-year-old University of Florida graduate.

Now that her feet were touching solid ground, the reality set in about why she was in Ireland, and the butterflies started to work on her stomach. There was a chill in the air, the kind that went straight to the bone. It didn’t matter how many layers of clothing were applied, one never seemed to warm up. A Florida girl through and through, the frigid cold was something she might never get used to.

The scenery was breathtaking as usual, never disappointing. It was picture-perfect and resembled one of the many postcards she had collected and received from Michael in the past two years.

Suddenly she realized she didn’t recognize the part of town they were driving through. “Driver, excuse me, but I believe you missed the turn back there somewhere, but I could be wrong. Didn’t Michael give you directions to our apartment?”

“He had a change of heart as to where you will be staying for the next few days and wanted it to be a surprise. By the way, my name is Matt—not driver.”

“My apologies, Matt. It’s a pleasure to meet you. I have quite a few friends and relatives flying into the Dublin airport. Will you be picking them up too?”

“Yes, I’m Michael’s new personal driver, and I’ve been instructed on your family’s flight plans, arrivals, and departures.”

“Great, I’ll check that off my list. I thank you, kind sir.”

Amy’s eyes were to her list and not the scenery, so her confusion and wonder peaked when they arrived at a 15-foot wrought iron gate, the entrance to the most enormous castle she had ever seen.

Matt opened the limo door and escorted her up the walkway to the massive entrance. Waiting for her on the other side was a familiar face.

At six foot two, Michael Cambridge’s rugged Irish looks and wavy brown hair would stop anyone in their tracks, as they might wonder how one person could be so amazingly handsome and perfect from head to toe.

“Darling you are finally here! Welcome.” He took her hands in his, and pulling her close, kissed both of her cheeks and her soft lips.

“Michael, what are we doing here? What is going on?”

“Now, don’t worry your pretty little head about anything. God, you look gorgeous. It is so good to see you.”

“I thought you were at work.”

“Nope, I lied,” he said with a sheepish grin.

“What do you mean?” Her voice ascended an octave.

“I lied because that’s the only way I could have pulled off your surprise.”

He opened the double doors to the ballroom proudly. Her entire family stood in the center of the room, each with a glass of champagne in their hand, ready to toast the birthday girl and soon bride-to-be.

“Oh my God, what did you do? I thought they weren’t flying in until midweek.” Tearfully, Amy hugged Michael.

“They wouldn’t miss your birthday, pretty girl.”

“Wait a minute,” she stuttered. “I’m still 28 in my head.”

“Not anymore. You are officially 29, Ireland time.”

“Michael, you say the sweetest things.” As they laughed together, he handed her a glass of sparkling champagne and proposed a toast. Amy listened to his eloquent speech of adoration and flushed with embarrassment from the attention.

“To my blushing bride, Amy, Happy Birthday, my love.”

The sound of glasses clinking echoed, and the crowd called out, “here, here” and “to Amy.”

“Are you surprised, darling?” he whispered in her ear, his strong arm wrapped around her slender waist.

“Surprised? Of course! You never cease to amaze me, Michael Cambridge. This is why I love you so much.” Then she whispered, “I just wish I would have dressed more appropriately. I still have airplane on me, if you know what I mean.”

“But you look amazing to me. You could be wearing a potato sack and still look great.”

“Oh Michael, you are so funny. Who talks like that?”

“I suppose I do,” he confessed.

“I do,” she repeated. “I cannot believe we will be saying those two little words to each other in just a few short days.”

The next 30 minutes or so were spent getting reacquainted and greeting relatives from both sides of the family. Coming together for the first time, the Cambridges met the Reids. It was so odd to see, but at the same time, it felt right. The conversations were mostly small talk, both pleasure and business, but they always segued back to the happy couple.

Dinner was served sit-down style in a smaller room adjacent to the main ballroom. Irish food, something pureed no doubt. Either one loves it or hates it. Mostly, it’s tolerated.

Michael stepped out of the room to take a phone call from the concierge’s desk. While he was gone, one of the servers tucked a note next to Amy’s dinner plate, but said nothing and just refilled her water glass and walked away.

How strange, she thought. She glanced over her shoulder to see the server who had delivered the note, but she only caught a glimpse of the back of his head before he quickly made his exit.

She searched the faces at the table, but it didn’t appear that anyone was looking her way. They all seemed engaged in their own bubbly conversations.

Dabbing at the corners of her mouth with the embellished napkin, she unfolded the note and discreetly read it.

“He is not who you think he is…”

Categories: Mystery, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Chapter reveal: Trish’s Team by Dawn Brotherton

TrishCover800-1120Title:  TRISH’S TEAM

Genre:  Tween Fiction (Middle Grade Fiction)

Author:  Dawn Brotherton

Websitewww.blue-dragon-publishing.com

Publisher:  Blue Dragon Publishing

Purchase on Amazon

The debut release in Dawn Brotherton’s Lady Tigers series, Trish’s Team is a terrific new young adult tale featuring Trish Murphy.  A member of the Blue Birds, a recreational fastpitch softball team for 11 and 12 year old girls, Trish Murphy longs to be a member of the Lady Tigers, the elite travel team comprised of the best of the best players in the area.  When she is presented with the opportunity to try out for the team, Trish jumps at the chance. There’s just one small problem—it seems Trish’s parents don’t understand her love of the game.  Chances are they’ll be even less understanding and when they find out that team practice conflicts with Trish’s orchestra practice…

But being part of the Lady Tigers—and nurturing newfound friendships with the other team members—is Trish’s top priority.  When she tries to pull a fast one to get what she wants without considering the consequences, Trish puts everything in jeopardy. Trish’s decision could ultimately affect more than just the game: it could affect her friends.  Along the way, Trish discovers that being a part of the Lady Tigers is about much more than playing fastpitch softball:  it’s about being a part of a team.  But Trish may have to learn a painful lesson. After all, it really isn’t if you win or lose, but it’s how you play the game.

Chapter 1

Trish Murphy stood in center field and brushed her brown bangs off her forehead with the back of her right hand. Frowning in concentration, she waited for the next pitch. In front of her, Ashley stepped onto the pitcher’s mound, hesitated only briefly, and then spun her right arm in a clockwise motion to deliver a good-looking pitch. Smack. The ball sailed toward center field. Racing forward, Trish got under it, just like the coach had shown her. Plop. It landed snugly in her glove for an easy out.

“Nice catch, Trish!” Coach Tim called from the dugout. She smiled and threw the ball to the infield. It was a beautiful throw, yet it bounced out of the second baseman’s glove and rolled to the pitcher.

Rolling her eyes in frustration, Trish hurried back to her spot in the outfield.

Two outs, one to go.

Trish watched as, on the mound, Ashley took the signal from the catcher. Nodding, Ashley positioned the ball inside her glove, stood tall on her wind up, and fired the ball to the exact low-inside location the catcher had indicated.

“Strike one,” the umpire called.

Shifting her stance to the right slightly so she could look around the pitcher’s back, Trish waited to see where the next pitch would cross the plate. She was betting it would be low and outside this time.

“Strike two!” she heard across the plush grass that lay before her.

Yep, low and outside, she thought, grinning. Ashley was a pretty good pitcher, and with Alisha catching for her, they were a great team.

Trish knew the next pitch would be a change-up, high and inside. She smiled as the batter was caught off guard, swinging before the ball had even reached the plate. “Strike three! Batter’s out!” the ump called.

“Yes!” the team cheered as they raced for the dugout.

Coach Tim met them as they ran off the field, holding his hand out for high-fives. “Come on, girls, gather around. Nice catch out there, Trish. Beautiful strike-outs, Ashley. We’re behind by one run. Let’s swing some sticks.”

The Blue Birds was a recreational fast-pitch softball team for 11- and 12-year-old girls that only played 10 games a summer. The coaches were volunteers and mostly dads of the girls on the team. Trish felt lucky that she was on Coach Tim’s team. Some of the dads didn’t even know how to play softball, let alone teach the girls to play. Coach Tim was different. He had played baseball in college, so at least he knew the game.

Trish glanced around the softball complex hoping her mom might be there. She didn’t really expect to see her, but she was disappointed anyway.

She heard a loud cheer come from the field behind where the Blue Birds were playing. She saw the orange and black uniforms of the Lady Tigers. Trish sighed. She would love to play for the Tigers. The coaches only picked the best-of-the-best players for the travel softball team. They played ball almost every weekend in long tournaments.

“Head in the game, Trish,” Coach Tim said, refocusing her attention on her own team.

“Come on, Becky, you can do it!” Trish yelled to the leadoff batter.

Trish turned to read the lineup hanging on the fence. It was the top of the line-up. Trish grabbed her helmet and bat. She was batting fourth.

Hearing the crack of the bat, she looked up in time to see Becky hit a short pop-up to the third baseman. The player tried to catch it, but the ball dropped in front of her, and Becky beat out the throw to first.

“Batter up!” The umpire seemed in a hurry to keep the game moving. Clara quickly stepped inside the chalk-outlined rectangle of the batter’s box. The pitch came quickly on the inside corner. “Strike one.”

Clara stepped out and took a few practice swings. She settled into the box again. It turned into a long wait as the pitcher threw four balls in a row. Clara jogged to first; Becky went to second.

Trish watched in anticipation as Samantha moved toward home plate for her turn at bat. Trish put on a helmet and stepped out of the dugout to take a few practice swings, getting her timing down for the pitches.

Samantha stepped into the box. She was tall so the outfielders backed up, anticipating that she would hit the ball far. Crack. The ball flew over the third baseman’s head, landing in the grass. The left fielder raced in and scooped up the ball, preventing the runners from scoring.

Bases loaded. No outs. Trish stepped into the box. She knew she didn’t look very impressive. At only four-foot-six, she hadn’t reached her full height by a long shot. Her legs were long, slender, and solid muscle. She was used to people underestimating her, but she liked it that way. It usually worked to her advantage.

Trish settled in as the pitcher began her wind up. The pitch came in. Way inside. Trish leaped out of the way. The next pitch was outside, and the catcher missed it. Becky raced past Trish to cross the plate as the fans cheered.

“Just a base hit, Trish,” her coach called.

“You can do it, Trish!” The fans were all cheering her on. She kept her concentration on the ball leaving the pitcher’s hand.

The pitch was coming in perfect, right down the middle, ideal height. It was slow, so Trish looked at it again. It had a weird spin. She didn’t swing. Right before the plate, it dropped. “Ball three.” Trish was thankful for the many hours of extra batting practice Coach Tim had spent with her. He had shown her how to truly watch the ball.

The next pitch was almost the same, but it didn’t appear to be spinning. Smack. It went over the second baseman, missing the right fielder’s glove and rolled all the way to the fence for a triple. Clara and Samantha scored as Trish rounded the bases.

The fans were cheering. The score now read, “Blue Birds: 9; Redhawks: 7.”

“Nice hit, Trish,” Coach Tim said, smiling broadly.

Trish’s grin lit up her face. She clapped her hands and cheered on the next batter from third base.

Alisha hit a nice single to left center field that allowed Trish to score. The girls lined up to high-five her as she came into the dugout.

Ashley hit a fly ball to right field that cost them an out, but moved Alisha to third. Amber grounded out on a hit to second base, leaving Alisha in place. Ton-Lou flew out to left field to end the inning. The girls were in high spirits because they were winning, and the other team only had one more chance to bat.

“Good inning, ladies; let’s hit the field. Hold them for three more outs,” the coach said.

The first Redhawk hit the ball to Lexi on second base who easily picked it up and threw her out at first. Trish was a little nervous when the other team’s number four batter stepped to the plate. She was tall for a 12-year-old and had already hit it to the fence once this game. She took a few steps back and angled toward left field.

Ashley delivered the pitch low and inside. The batter got under the ball, and it went high into foul territory on the left field side. Much to Trish’s surprise, Ashley put the next pitch in the same place. This time the batter swung and missed.

Trish smiled. She knew the coaches called the pitches from the dugout. She would have to ask Coach Tim why he called two in a row the same way. That wasn’t very common. She liked to learn as much as she could about the strategy of softball, not just the technique.

The third and final pitch stayed low but to the outside corner. The batter swung but didn’t even come close. Two outs.

The number five batter had hit the ball to center field twice already in previous innings so Trish was ready. The batter let the first pitch go by but got ahold of the second. It was a long fly ball to deep center field.

Trish immediately turned her body and began to run toward the fence. She ran full out, praying her left fielder would be there to back her up if she missed it. At the last possible second, Trish dove at where she predicted the ball would be, capturing it in her glove as she hit the ground. That ended the game; final score was 10-7, Blue Birds.

The girls cheered enthusiastically. Trish couldn’t stop smiling as the coach and other girls clapped her on the back as they lined up to shake hands with the Redhawks. Even some of the opposing team members congratulated her on such a great catch. It felt wonderful!

She looked around at the crowd waiting outside the fence, but there was no sign of her parents. Trish wished that they had been there to witness her final catch.

Categories: Children's, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Chapter reveal: Ninth-Month Midnight, by Marie Bacigalupo

Ninth-Month_Feb9 (2)Title: Ninth-Month Midnight

Genre: women’s fiction

Author: Marie Bacigalupo

Website: www.mariebacigalupo

Publisher: KDP

Purchase on Amazon

About the Book

Ninth-Month Midnight is contemporary women’s fiction with a paranormal twist. The novella focuses on Dolores Walsh, a bereaved mother who, hiding a guilty secret and verging on mental breakdown, defies her husband and her religion to get what she wants. With another pregnancy highly improbable, she wants the seemingly impossible: she wants her baby back. The loss has transformed Dolores into a zombie-like chain smoker who stays unwashed and unnourished until her husband, Joe, bathes and feeds her.

Enter Salvador Esperanza, a charismatic psychic who helps the grief-stricken communicate with their dead. Dolores cannot resist this new hope or the man who offers it. But in order to attend Sal’s séances, she must do battle with her jealous husband’s hard-core rationalism. When Sal decides to move on, only a miracle can save Dolores from the numbing despair that threatens her sanity.

About the Author 

When Marie Bacigalupo was nine, she read Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins and was instantly hooked on fiction. She grew up to teach high school English before focusing exclusively on fiction writing, studying under Gordon Lish at The Center for Fiction, taking classes at the Writers Studio, and attending a number of university-sponsored craft workshops.

Marie won First Prize among 7000 entries in the Writer’s Digest 13th Annual Short-Short Story Competition with her entry, “Excavation.” Her other works have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Journal of Microliterature, The Examined Life Journal, Romance Magazine, and elsewhere. Ninth-Month Midnight is her debut novella.

The author is a native New Yorker who lives and writes in Brooklyn. Visit her at www.mariebacigalupo.com.

Connect with the author on the web:

FB: https://www.facebook.com/mariebacigalupo.writer

Twitter: http://twitter.com/windhover813

/////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

Ninth-Month Midnight

Chapter 1

A year has past, and still Dolores hates waking up to another day. The morning light pours, unwelcome, into her bedroom. Dolores feels her husband shift position behind her on the king-sized bed, his lanky six-foot frame extending only four inches beyond hers. She looks outside the open window where the first buds peek through the dogwood branches that front her Fresh Meadows Cape. April again. She fumbles for her pack of Salems on the dusty night table and knocks over the ashtray teeming with butts. Ashes scatter. The odor of stale smoke clings to the carpet, the linens, the furnishings, her clothes. No matter. She props herself on her elbow, lights up, drags deeply, and exhales with a raspy cough.

Dolores turns to her husband. “I can’t find her, Joe,” she whispers in his ear. “Today’s her birthday, and I can’t find her.”

Joe, his sandy hair tousled, faces his wife and draws her close. “I’ll run you a warm bath,” he says, then pushes himself off the bed. He walks barefoot in his jockey shorts to the bath that adjoins the bedroom. When the tub is half-filled, Joe walks back to Dolores, who allows him to draw the faded gown over her head and lead her to the tub. When her husband leaves, she reaches for the pack of cigarettes and lighter on the bathroom vanity. She has scattered cigarettes and lighters around her house and her person—on counters, tables, shelves, and niches, inside handbags and pockets—so they’re always in easy reach.

Ten minutes later, water streaming down her torso and legs, Dolores throws on a white terrycloth robe, and towels the dripping strands of her shoulder-length hair. She walks back into the bedroom, tripping on an area rug and knocking over a night-table photo of three-year-old Bertie at the beach, the child’s hands reaching out, hungry for all the wonders that life promised to serve up—rolling waves, billowing sand, boundless sky. She wears a powder blue playsuit. The wide-brimmed straw hat that protects her face against the high-noon sun has no power to shade her smile. Dolores runs an index finger over the plump cheek.

The sun no longer shines for Bertie. Now it’s always midnight.

Dolores loved being pregnant, and in labor she welcomed the searing pain and pounding pressure that pushed her baby home. She loved being a mother. Who is she now? she wonders. If both her parents were dead, she’d be an orphan, but her mother isn’t dead. If Joe were dead, she’d be a widow, but Joe isn’t dead. Her baby is dead. What does that make Dolores? There’s no word for her because mothers aren’t supposed to outlive their babies.

“Did the bath help?”

She replaces the photo on the table and shuffles into the kitchen, where her husband waits for her, as always willing her into his meaningless world, his eyes full of fear that she might slip away from him.

The white wood cabinets and yellow walls once made the kitchen warm and sunny; now they mock her grief. She sits at the white-tiled table under the pricey pewter chandelier, a relic of the time when she devoted a lot of money and most of her energy to making a home for her family.

A damp curl hangs over her cheek, obscuring one brown eye and a new pimple on her once flawless olive complexion. Joe winds the curl around his forefinger and tugs gently. He’s calling her back.

“I’ll be okay. Please stop worrying.” Dolores checks her pocket for a cigarette and finds one, bent but serviceable.

Her husband opens a window.

“Your mother called me at the office yesterday, said you keep pushing her away.”

“She spent weeks here a year ago. I couldn’t bear it, remember? All she did was follow me around the house and yak, yak, yak.”

“She loves you. She wants to help.”

“Let’s not talk about my mother.”

He waits a beat. “Okay. Let’s talk about our four o’clock appointment with Dr. Kaur. I’ll leave work early, meet you there.”

She says nothing.

“Dee? You were walking in your sleep again last night.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll be all right.”

“Don’t worry? It’s been a year, and it’s not getting any better. You don’t even go to Church anymore. You used to find strength in your faith. I’m telling you, we need help. Give Dr. Kaur a chance, please.”

“I’m not ready for a shrink.” She flinches when he cracks a knuckle.

“It’s time, Dee, time to pick up the pieces. Maybe go back to teaching.”

“I have no interest in other women’s children.”

“Please don’t give up. You have to go on living.”

“Why?”

Dolores is sorry as soon as the word leaves her lips. Joe looks stricken. She knows it’s guilt, not empathy, she feels. No surprise, considering Catholic nuns used to be the voice of her conscience. Dolores can still hear Sister Ann’s last-chance admonitions before she entered a secular high school: Your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost; keep it pure for the man you marry. And remember, a good wife supports her husband.  She stopped listening to that voice when the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, all three of them, let Bertie die.

Maybe Joe’s pain should move her more than it does, but right now, she needs him to stop nagging. “Okay,” she says, “I’ll see Dr. Kaur.” Even though it’s pointless, a certainty she leaves unsaid.

#

When Joe leaves for work, Dolores remains at the table and thinks about her mother’s last visit. She recalls the time her mother was washing dishes, blocking her cigarette drawer. Dolores, standing behind her, addressed her by her given name. Did she mean to goad the woman? She’s not sure, but the reaction was instantaneous. Her mother spun around. “Don’t you call me Roseann!” she said, her voice rasping. “I’m your mother, so it’s Mom when you talk to me!” Dolores took a step back and mumbled an apology.

A week later Dolores put her on a plane back to Florida, though her mother resisted. “It’s better if I stay,” she said. “Your heart is heavy. Let me take care of you.”

“Joe’s made that his job. You’d put him out of work if you stayed.”

The truth is Dolores can’t overcome her bitterness toward Mom. The rift widened when her father died, though her mother saw to all his final needs and, she has to admit, was always an excellent caretaker. Dolores remembers when she caught the chicken pox and wanted to scratch her skin raw. Her mother dabbed calamine lotion on the rash and read Dolores’s favorite fairy tales again and again to distract her. After the stroke, she kept watch at her father’s bedside day and night, assisting the nurses, coming home only to feed Dolores and catch an hour or two of sleep. Still, as far as Dolores is concerned, the loving attention to her dad came too late.

Her head is starting to hurt. When her four o’clock appointment worms its way into her mind, Dolores has had enough. She gets up, returns to bed, and wills herself to sleep.

#

The taxi gets caught in traffic halfway over the Fifty-ninth Street Bridge. Hopelessly immobilized in a cab reeking of pot, Dolores regrets her decision to keep the appointment with the psychiatrist. She’s stuck in a bumper-to-bumper lineup. Frustrated drivers crane their necks, step out of their cars, fling epithets, but accomplish nothing. The cabbie, taking it all in stride as the meter keeps ticking away, hums along to lilting West Indian music.

It takes half an hour to cover the short span of the bridge. Dolores decides to get some air by walking the last few blocks to Park Avenue. The gentle breeze, though, does nothing to lift her spirits. And why should it? April is the cruelest month, the poet said. It promises life and warmth forever, but before you know it, the darkness and cold return. She forces herself to focus on the street numbers. The doorman greets Dolores as she approaches the Park Avenue building that houses a half-dozen high-priced doctors, including Kaur. She hesitates in the lobby. Just get it over with.

Exiting the building elevator, Dolores finds the door marked Afifa Kaur, M. D., and enters an office with upholstered period chairs and a rich walnut coffee table displaying late issues of Architectural Digest and Forbes Magazine. She recognizes a print of Hopper’s Cape Cod Afternoon on the wall. Inside the sitting area, Joe is waiting and greets her with a kiss. Dolores leaves her name with the puppy-eyed receptionist, who looks fifteen but is probably closer to twenty-five, young enough to make her feel old. Joe hands Dolores the partially completed paperwork.

She steels herself for the tedious task of completing multiple forms. Opposite her, a wan middle-aged woman reads a hardcover edition of “The Metamorphosis.” She looks up from her book once, dead eyes meeting dead eyes, and returns to Kafka. “If I’m not called in fifteen minutes,” Dolores says to Joe, “I’m out of here.”

She barely has time to complete the questionnaire when a strikingly attractive woman, black tendrils escaping a tight bun, calls her name. Under a white lab coat, the doctor wears a black skirt-suit that is custom-tailored to downplay her full figure. Dolores grabs Joe’s hand, and she walks into a room where a floor-to-ceiling bookcase shelving medical texts, their spines neatly stacked, lines the back wall, and period chairs posture like peacocks on either side of a fireplace. If the doctor is striving for a homey look, she isn’t succeeding. Brass andirons straddle the fireplace, and a gorgeous mantelpiece of ivory filigree frames it. Behind the doctor’s over-sized mahogany desk, eight-foot French windows open inward.

“I hope, for your sake, the insurance picks this up,” she whispers to Joe.

“Sit, please,” says the doctor, pointing to the chairs in front of the desk. She takes a seat behind it. “We spoke briefly on the phone, Mr. Walsh, when you called on behalf of your wife. Tell me again how I can help.”

“My wife and I lost Bertie, Roberta, our little girl, a year ago,” says Joe. “My wife needs help picking up the pieces of her life.”

The psychiatrist fixes her black eyes on Dolores, whose own eyes dare the doctor to comment.

“Do you agree with your husband, Mrs. Walsh?”

“I guess so.”

“You are not sure?” she asks, using the precise diction of a non-native speaker.

“I don’t know.”

The doctor turns to Joe. “Mr. Walsh, since your wife is the patient, I will ask you to leave the room.”

Joe, about to protest, looks to Dolores for a reaction. When he gets none, he squeezes her hand. “I’ll wait outside,” he says, and closes the door behind him.

Again Dr. Kaur fixes her penetrating eyes on Dolores. “He seems like a loving husband.”

“Yes.”

“The two of you obviously share burdens. Do you make time for leisure activities?”

“Joe tries, but he works long hours.”

“How do you spend your time when Joe is working?”

Dolores is confused. “I don’t know. Waiting for it to pass, I guess.” She runs her fingers through hair the color of bitter chocolate, then checks the spaces between her fingers. At least it’s stopped falling out.

“You look tired. Do you sleep nights?”

“Night and day. The sleep of the dead, at least for a few hours.”

“Are you taking sleep medication?

Seconal.

“Mrs.—May I call you Dolores?”

“Yes.”

“Seconal is a dangerous drug. How long have you been taking it?”

Since . . . no . . . a couple of months after . . . I forget.  I need another prescription. Can you write me one?”

“No. It is not good for you.  Tell me, please, do you dream?”

Dolores hesitates. “Maybe.”

“Maybe?”

“I’m not sure it’s a dream. Sometimes I sleepwalk.”

“Please describe what you say may or may not be a dream.”

“I hear my baby crying, but I can’t find her. I search through the house, but I can’t find her.” Dolores bends over in her chair, her knees at her chest.

“How did Bertie die?”

“Yesterday was her birthday. She’s . . . she’d be five years old.”

“How did she die?”

“She had a cold.” Dolores almost giggles, but catches herself in time. Whenever she laughs or cries, she can’t stop until Joe talks her down.

“She died of a rare cancer. The tumor was in the sinus cavity. At first we thought she had a cold.” She clears her throat. Maybe if we had caught it earlier . . .”

“Did you want a child?”

“I wanted nothing more out of life, but we waited till Joe’s career got started–he’s a CPA–and then till his school loans were paid off. In the beginning I suggested we use the rhythm method—that means abstaining from sex during fertile cycles.  The Church condemns all other forms of birth control as mortal sins. But Joe made a joke of it.  ‘Know what they call people who practice the rhythm method? Parents!’ he said. So I went on the Pill, and every First Friday eve I confessed to Father Tom, my parish priest. I’d say the usual ten Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys till the next time, when I’d make the same confession. Pretty soon I realized I was making a sham of the sacrament.  A person has to be truly penitent to be absolved of sin; you can’t keep committing the same sin and expect God to forgive you. So I stopped going to Confession. And then came the payback: by the time it was okay to conceive, I couldn’t get pregnant . . . eight precious years wasted. Finally, we went to a reproductive specialist.”

“What was the problem?”

“My cervical opening was too small.”

“Please go on.”

“I had an operation to correct it, but the improvement was minimal. Next came injectable hormones followed by endless temperature monitoring, the rhythm method in reverse: wait till the fertile period, then rut like animals.  The sex was joyless. Every month the blood flowed.  Finally someone decided to test Joe. Turns out he has a low sperm count.”

Dr. Kaur keeps her silence.

“The Almighty seemed to be punishing us for our arrogance. We had waited too long. Already thirty-two years old, I would never have a child. But then the miracle happened. I thought God had forgiven me.”

“Do you feel responsible for your daughter’s death?”

“Oh, God, Doctor! That’s so glib! Of course, I feel responsible. I’m her mother. I’m supposed to protect her.” Her broken nails cut into her upper arms. It feels good.

“What did you do wrong?”

“We shouldn’t have waited so long. My eggs got old.”

She can’t continue. She takes time to get herself under control.

“Sometimes I hear her calling me . . . she was talking at two, so bright, my baby, so smart . . . I see her in her Hello Kitty romper. I smell her sweetness. It’s like she’s almost a ghost. I want her to be a ghost. I want her to haunt me, but she’s gone before she fully materializes.”

Dr. Kaur stirs. “Right now you miss your child acutely. You will never forget your child, nor should you, but you can learn to live with your loss, and even in time to take satisfaction in what the world offers.” The psychiatrist ignores Dolores’s twisted grin. “Grief is a process that the bereaved must undergo in stages in order to heal. The danger is getting stuck in one of the stages, in your case despair, and never recovering.”

Dr. Kaur underscores her words with hand gestures, her fingertips adorned by an elegant French manicure. “Right now you are convinced beyond a doubt that you will never be happy again. But if you are patient and kind to yourself, and cooperate with those who would help you, you will one day value life again.”

Dolores hates the doctor’s facile lecture. She rises from her chair. She needs to get out of the office.

Dr. Kaur looks up from her seat behind the desk. “Before you bolt, may I ask what made you come to see me today?”

“Joe. He’s worried that I’m losing my mind, that I’ll do something desperate.”

“Does he have reason to worry?”

“You’re the psychiatrist, you tell me.”

“Those scars on your wrist are not too faint for a doctor to read.”

The antique wall clock ticks off the passing seconds. Kaur’s words have conjured a lurid scene: Only half conscious at the time, Dolores remembers the blood spurting from her wrists, swirling in the bath water, spilling over onto the tiles as she lay face up on the floor. Joe, blue eyes bulging, racing into action, wrapping her wrists, sobs racking his body. Then a shrieking ambulance, jouncing bumps, probing needles, blackness swallowing her.

The doctor breaks the silence. “Those scars tell me your husband has cause for concern. I advise you to get off the Seconal. Barbiturates may be causing some of your symptoms. Sleepwalking and vivid dreams are documented side effects. The drug has even been known to trigger hallucinations.

“I’d like to see you again soon, say in a week. You can make an appointment with Miss Bell at the desk, or call the office at your convenience. For now I am going to prescribe medication to ease your depression.”

“Thanks, but no thanks. My feelings are all I have left of Bertie.”

Kaur writes the prescription and, rising, hands it to Dolores. “Think about filling this. It will make you feel better.”

The psychiatrist continues speaking as she escorts Dolores to the door. “Dr. Kindry tells me he gave you a list of bereavement groups in Queens. I urge you to choose one that is convenient and join.” With her hand on the doorknob, she gives Dolores a final piece of advice. “Build up your physical strength. You need at least another ten or fifteen pounds to support your tall frame. Eat regularly, exercise. The body and the mind work together in the healing process.”

As far as Dolores is concerned, she’s done her part. She has seen the psychiatrist. With a formal handshake, she thanks Dr. Kaur and walks out, ignoring Miss Bell and leaving Joe to make a more gracious exit.

#

Dolores regards Joe’s decision to take a taxi back to Queens as a second exercise in futility. This one forces them to endure the screeching decibels of angry horns and the unintelligible curses of a cabbie brandishing his middle finger.

Joe sits quietly beside Dolores. She knows what’s on his mind and steels herself to ward off his appeals. His final goodbye to the psychiatrist involved an inaudible exchange. Sure enough, even sooner than expected, Joe speaks up.

“A bereavement group makes sense, Dee.” He lists the benefits: she can find out how other people cope; she can talk to mothers who understand; she won’t feel so alone and hopeless.

“I don’t need other people. I need Bertie.” The hurt look on his face annoys her.

When they finally arrive home, Joe wants to talk, but Dolores needs a nap. He helps her out of the worn black coat they picked out together in another life and follows her into the bedroom. Dolores stands motionless as he unbuttons the coffee-stained white blouse and draws it off her arms.

“Dee, please. We need help; we need to learn how to live again.”

“I’m so tired, Joe. Let’s not talk now.”

“We have to talk. You want to give up, and I won’t let you!” He sits her down on the bed, and kneels to remove her scuffed loafers and peel off wrinkled jeans. She smells his pungent after-shave as his lips brush the nape of her neck, and she feels his swelling need against her thigh. She allows his hands and tongue to probe the mounds and recesses of her body in search of comfort; she herself is beyond comfort. He enters her, then heaves his body in desperate lunges. A final frantic thrust brings release. His muffled words moisten her neck. “Dee, Dee, I can’t lose you both.”

“Okay, Joe,” Dolores says, “we’ll try the support group. But, please, don’t expect too much.”

Categories: Uncategorized, Women's Fiction | Leave a comment

Chapter reveal: The Asset, by Anna del Mar

The Asset from AmazonTitle: The Asset

Genre: Romantic suspense, Contemporary romance, Military romance, SEAL romance.

Author: Anna del Mar

Website: http://www.annadelmar.com/pages/home.html

Publisher: Carina Press

Purchase on Amazon

About the Book:

Ash Hunter knows what it is to run. A SEAL gravely injured in Afghanistan, he’s gone AWOL from the military hospital. Physically and mentally scarred, he returns home to his grandmother’s isolated cottage—and finds a beautiful, haunted stranger inside.

Like recognizes like.

Lia Stewart’s in hiding from the cartel she barely escaped alive, holed up in this small Rocky Mountain town. Surviving, but only just. Helping the wounded warrior on her doorstep is the right thing to do…it’s loving him that might get them both killed.

Soon, Ash realizes he’s not the only one tormented by the past. Pushing the limits of his broken body, testing the boundaries of her shattered soul, he’ll protect Lia until his last breath.

Chapter One

My finger twitched on the trigger as I stared down the barrel of my shotgun. A stranger stood on my stoop. The mere sight of him shoved my heart into my throat and sent my brain into default. I widened my stance, tightened my grip on the gun and aimed at the stranger’s chest. No way. He wasn’t going to take me alive.

A sharp bark startled me. The largest, darkest, most handsome German shepherd I’d ever seen stood next to the stranger, head tilted, ears forward, nose quivering in the air. It uttered a quiet whimper and padded over to me without a trace of aggression, circling me once before it leaned against my legs.

I kept my shotgun leveled, but I spared another glance at the stunning dog. The plea in his eyes tempered the adrenaline jolting through my body, reined in my runaway heart and gave me pause to consider the stranger before me.

Framed by the Rocky Mountains and the lake, the man at the threshold blocked the morning’s gray light and cast a huge shadow over my little porch. Raindrops tapped on his leather jacket, dripped from the rim of his cap and ran like tears down the sides of his face. Despite the exhaustion etched on his features, his glacial blue eyes narrowed on my gun.

“That’s a pretty old Remington,” he rumbled. “With the damn safety off, no less. Who the hell are you expecting, Jack the Ripper?”

“Stay back.” I forced the words out. “I’ll shoot if you come any closer.”

“Damn it, girl,” he said. “If you want us to leave, just say so.”

The scowl on his face contributed to his dangerous appearance. So did the scruffy beard and the shaggy hair sticking out from under his baseball cap. If he hadn’t come all the way out here to get to me—and that was still a big “if”—what on earth was he doing here?

I couldn’t see any weapons on him. Was he a drifter? He didn’t look dirty, but a metallic scent wafted from him, an odd, ripe trace I couldn’t place.

He must have seen my nose wrinkle. His whole body stiffened. He drew taller than six feet by several inches, but it was the outrage I spotted in his eyes that reinforced my fears.

“Aren’t you a spitfire?” He pulled out a rumpled piece of paper from his pocket, balled it and dropped it at my feet. “Secluded, cheap and quiet, that’s what the ad said. But I don’t think you want to rent out a room, at least not to me. Come on, Neil,” he said to the dog. “Let’s leave this little hellcat to count her bullets.” He touched the rim of his baseball cap. “And a good day to you, ma’am.”

He braced on a pair of sturdy crutches and hopped down from the stoop. Crutches? I should’ve noticed those before. The sable shepherd looked up at me, then nuzzled my hip and trotted off after his owner. The rubber bottoms of the man’s crutches stabbed the ground as he shuffled to the black truck parked in my driveway, a supercharged Ram 3500 that matched its owner’s brawn.

I exhaled the breath I’d been holding. Bad guys didn’t knock at your door. They didn’t back down, attack while on crutches or hobble away after they came for you. They didn’t call you ma’am, either. I picked up the crumpled paper and flattened it against the stair’s wobbly baluster. It was indeed the one flyer I’d dared to post at Kailyn’s convenience store, printed on pink paper, complete with the ten tear-off rectangles that listed my cell phone number.

The ad. My brain came on line. He was here about the ad?

Crap. Terror had a sure way of wiping reason from my mind. The ad talked about a stone cottage but didn’t include the address. True, mine was the only stone cottage around. Still, my stomach churned.

I stared at the paper in my hands. He’d taken down the ad. Now I had exactly zero chance to rent out the room, which also meant that, since I’d have no money to make the rent, I was going to lose my little stone cottage. I was going to be homeless and I’d have to move on. Again.

But I liked it here. The place suited me well. People in this secluded valley were nice and I’d managed to build a semblance of a life hidden out here. And what about my little friends out back? Who’d take care of them if I wasn’t around?

The pound, that’s who.

I took a deep breath and looked down on my flannel pajama pants and my extra-large sweater. With my hair up in a messy tail, I was pretty sure I looked like a gun-toting, gray-eyed witch, brimming with hostility. I’d just scared away my first and only customer.

A top-notch German shepherd like that couldn’t belong to a crook. It was obvious that the owner took excellent care of his dog. If that wasn’t enough, the man got around on crutches. He couldn’t hurt me and, if he tried, I wouldn’t need a shotgun to defend myself. I’d just have to trip him.

God, the things I thought about. Was I going to live in fear forever?

Yes, I would, but living in fear was better than not living at all.

Right?

I considered the paper in my hand. My rent was due next week.

“Wait!” I jammed my feet into my weathered rubber boots, gripped the gun in one hand and the umbrella in the other, and rushed out into the rain. I caught up with him as he slammed the door of his truck shut.

“Hey!” I waved the flyer in the air. “I didn’t know that you came for this.” I tapped on the window. “Could you please, like, talk to me…please?”

He rolled his eyes, but the window whirled down. “What now? You want to sue me for stinking up your stoop?”

“Oh, no.” I blushed all the way down to my toes. “I just wanted to say—I’m sorry. I’m…um…skittish, you know? Living out here in the boonies all by myself…”

“I get it.” The man’s glare didn’t waver. “Lots of folks don’t like dogs. Or vets. Sorry I scared you.”

“You didn’t scare me,” I lied. “I love dogs. I was just…being careful, that’s all.”

“Careful?” His mouth twisted into that terrible scowl. “Is that why you’re still toting that thing around, cocked and loaded no less?”

My eyes shifted to the shotgun, still clutched in my hand, and then back to the stranger glaring at me. “Oh.”

“That’s what I thought.” He turned the key on the ignition.

“Wait!”

On impulse, I stuck my hand through the window and placed it over his on the wheel. He flinched. I cringed. He was hot, and I mean scalding hot, to my touch. The look he fired in my direction burned just as bad.

“I…I…” I swallowed the lump in my throat. “I think you should come back inside.”

“No way,” he said. “I hate the wrong end of the barrel.”

“It didn’t register,” I said. “I didn’t realize that you were a vet.”

He growled like a cranky bear. “I don’t want your damn pity.”

It was a good thing I recognized pride, fury and defiance when I saw it. Otherwise, I might have forgotten the whole thing and fled back to the cottage with my tail between my legs. Instead, I steeled my nerves and stuck out my chin.

“I’m not offering you any pity,” I said. “But I do need to rent out a room. So let’s start over. Okay? I’m Lia.”

“Lia?” He lifted his cap and scratched his head. His eyebrows drew close together in a frown that deepened the two little vertical lines above his nose. “Have we met before?”

“Not in this lifetime.”

He let out an exasperated sigh. “I don’t think I’m the kind of tenant you were looking for.”

“You might be right about that,” I said. “You’re grouchy and we didn’t exactly get off to a good start. But right now, I’m offering you a cup of coffee. So follow me. If your references check, if you’re not a serial killer or wanted by the FBI, then we’ll talk.”

The dog barked and, stepping over his owner, stuck his huge muzzle out the window and licked my face.

“Come on, boy.” I opened the door. The German shepherd bounced out of the truck, running around me in an explosion of energy. I petted him as he loped beside me on the way to the cottage.

“Neil!” the man shouted. “You traitor. Come back right this minute!”

Neil sat on his hind legs halfway between the house and the truck and woofed.

“See?” I said. “Even your dog wants you to come in.”

The man slapped the wheel and cursed some more. Oh, Lord. He was stubborn. All that anger stiffened my shoulders and churned up my belly. Did I really want a bundle of rage as a tenant?

But Neil wasn’t moving either. This was a war of wills if I’d ever seen one. The umbrella sprang a leak so I got out of the rain, set it on the porch to dry and wiped my feet on the mat. I brought the shotgun into the kitchen and settled it on the counter for easy access. Better safe than sorry. I prayed that my instincts were right on this one.

The German shepherd trotted into the foyer, ears forward, mouth agape and long tongue lolling. He pawed at me, licked my hand and yapped in a way that sounded a lot like commiseration.

“That’s a surly owner you’ve got there.” I scratched him behind the ears. “He’s lucky to have you, yes, he is. I would have shot him without batting an eyelash, but you? No way. You’re too gorgeous.”

I went into the kitchen, grabbed an old towel and laid it on the floor next to the stove. Neil shook his coat and settled on the towel. I set up the coffeepot as the man shuffled with his crutches into the foyer and hesitated at the threshold. I kept my face blank but my senses on alert.

“You look goddamn comfortable,” he said to the dog, before his gaze zeroed in on me again. “He’s never done this before. Go with a stranger? Never.”

“Don’t take it personally.” I set out a pair of mugs. “Animals like me. I like them too. They’re better than people any day.”

“Amen to that,” he muttered, his glare leaving no doubt that I belonged in his despicable human race category.

“Take a seat.” I gestured toward the kitchen table and placed the clipboard at one end. “Fill that out. Coffee will be ready in a moment.”

He set his jaw at a stubborn angle. Yikes. The guy was nothing if not ornery. Neil got up and pressed his body against his owner’s legs. Bluster aside, the man couldn’t resist the plea in the dog’s eyes. He scratched Neil’s head with unmistakable affection. I took that as a good sign, but even as I went about the kitchen, I kept my eye on the man and the shotgun within reach.

“You’re a pain in the ass, Neil,” the guy said as he took off his leather coat and hung it on the rack. “You’re trained a lot better than that. We’ll give this a try, but I’m telling you, this isn’t going to end well. That gun-toting madwoman is not right in the head.”

“I heard that.” I poured some cream into a dish and stuck it in the microwave, “I’m not right in the head? What about you, Mr. Sourpuss who talks to dogs?”

“Neil isn’t just any dog.” He set the crutches against the wall and winced as he lowered himself into the chair. “He’s got brains. He deserves to be talked to. As to the rest, I’m not the one going about in my pajamas aiming loaded shotguns at people.”

“Sorry,” I said, duly contrite. “I’ve only been up for a bit. I’m a waitress, so I work late. But a girl’s got to do what a girl’s got to do—”

“Jesus Christ.” He stared at the clipboard with open alarm. “How many applicants were you expecting? You do know that the nearest town is Copperhill, population two thousand? You’ve got like ten applications here and each one is five pages long.”

“Maybe it was wishful thinking on my part, but I’m like the Boy Scouts, always prepared.”

“I can see that.” He glanced at the shotgun before returning his attention to the clipboard.

Hackles down, girl. I forced myself to breathe. He was only making a point. Still, the permanent knot of fear that churned at the center of my being tightened, an irrational impulse I couldn’t always control. It may have won out, if the ancient microwave hadn’t begun to clatter and rattle like my discombobulated, panic-prone brain.

“Come on.” I pounded on the thing. “Please, don’t break down now.”

“Wow.” The man shook his head. “You also talk to microwaves.”

“If it makes any difference, I only beat naughty appliances that want to quit on me.” I pounded some more until the microwave rattled back to life. “Yay.” I kissed the old clunker.

He rolled his eyes, leaving no doubt that he considered me foolish, eccentric, or both. I watched him from the corner of my eye as I finished fixing the coffee. He pulled out his driver’s license and began to write down his information with a shaky hand. After only a few pen strokes, he stopped midline and dug his fist into his thigh.

The lines on his face set with grim determination. He grumbled something under his breath and jotted down a few more lines. I poured a cup of coffee and parked it in front of him. He squinted, clutching the pen with a white-knuckled grip.

“Are you okay?” I said.

“Fine,” he muttered.

“Are you sure?” I said. “You don’t look fine to me.”

The pen snapped between his fingers.

“Christ.” He stared at the pieces in his hand. “This was a stupid idea.” He pushed away from the table. “I…I need to go.”

He faltered as he tried to get up. I moved quickly. I tucked my shoulder beneath his arm to steady him, but he was heavy and I stumbled under his weight.

“Easy, now.” I helped him to sit down again. Ooof. All that heat coming from his body. It enveloped me like a wave of steam. Neil whimpered. The man tried to stand up again, but he couldn’t.

“Give me a sec.” He slumped on the chair. “I’ll go in a moment.”

This man was sick and in a lot of pain, pain he concealed behind a mask of rage and gruff. He sat there, shivering like a penguin stranded on an iceberg, swaying dangerously in the chair. Who was he and why was he so ill?

I picked up the clipboard and read through the application. He’d only gotten far enough to fill out the top part, but the shaky script spelled a familiar name. I straightened. Holy cow. Could it be? I scanned the driver’s license on the table for confirmation.

“Ash?” I studied the man sweating all over my kitchen table. “Are you really Ashton Hunter?”

I’d never met Ashton Hunter, but I’d heard an awful lot about the town’s very own golden boy. I would have never recognized him from the pictures, but looking closely, seeing beyond the nearly healed scar that split his left eyebrow and all that facial hair…yes…I supposed it could be him. Wynona Hunter’s grandson in the flesh, right there before me, sick as a dog and, judging by his terrible pallor, about to throw up.

I got the pail just in time.

He vomited—such a violent explosion. I almost threw up myself. I did okay with animals, but people? I wasn’t so sure.

Man up, girl, this is Wynona Hunter’s grandson getting sick in your kitchen.

Wynona was the reason I had the cottage in the first place, the one person who’d gone all out for me and possibly the only reason why I’d survived on the lam this long. She was also the closest thing to a grandma—or a friend—I’d ever had.

Losing her had torn me to pieces. Her death had deprived me the opportunity to return her incomparable kindnesses. Which was why now, holding on to her beloved Ash as he puked out his liver, the universe was giving me a second chance to pay her back for everything she’d done for me.

To think I’d confused Ashton Hunter for a drifter. Well, at least he was a local, which explained how he knew where to find my cottage. What was he doing here? Why was he looking to rent a room from a stranger so far away from town? And why was he sick?

“Christ,” he mumbled. “This is embarrassing.”

“Don’t worry about it.” I got a paper towel and wiped his mouth. “Are you really Wynona’s grandson?”

“I am.” He shuddered like a wet dog. “Ash.”

“What’s wrong with you?”

“I’m fine,” he said before he heaved again.

“Hold on.” I groped for my cell. “I’ll call the ambulance. It’ll take a little time to get out here, but they’ll come.”

“No ambulance.” He snatched my hand and tightened his fingers around my wrist.

I jumped back, but I couldn’t shake his hold. God, he was strong. Even as he shuddered with fever, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t free my arm.

“Let go.”

I choked on a wave of panic fueled by the perverse memories that ruled my subconscious. My heart rate sped into triple digits. My fight response kicked in and I threw my best punch. With the reflexes of a baseball player, he caught my fist in his other hand.

“Stop it,” I said. “Let me go!”

His stare was cold, unfocused and remote, his face blank. He snarled some harsh words I couldn’t understand. Nothing that I said registered in his expression, that is, until Neil barked, a set of sharp, loud yaps.

Neil’s barks returned Ash to his senses. As if waking up from a dream, his eyes focused first on the dog, then on his hands, gripping my wrists, and finally on my face, surely frozen in a grimace of terror.

“Christ.” He released his hold on me. “Did I hurt you? Jesus, I’m sorry.”

I thrust myself away from him, against the wall. My knees shook like babies’ rattles. My wrists throbbed with the memory of his grip. Steady. Breathe. Cope. I rubbed my wrists and stared at the man before me, trying to squelch the dread churning in my belly. He was really sick, I reminded myself. He couldn’t harm me, not if he was truly Wynona’s grandson, the boy she’d raised, the man she adored.

“I didn’t mean to lose my cool.” He braced his hands on the table and tried to get up but his legs wouldn’t hold him, so he sat down again. “I’m not like that, I swear. I just need my meds.”

It took all I had to rally my wits and reclaim my courage—that, and the tremendous pain I spotted in Ash’s eyes, plus the memory of Wynona Hunter opening her world to me.

“This medicine of yours,” I said, cautiously. “Where is it? Is it in the truck?”

“Duffel bag,” he muttered. “Front seat.”

“Sit tight,” I said. “I’ll be right back.”

“Don’t call the ambulance. Don’t call anybody. I’m not ready, not like this.”

“Okay,” I mumbled, but I wasn’t sure.

Part of me understood what he meant. Wynona had told me that he was super smart, an extraordinary athlete and an officer in the United States Marine Corps. His family had been prominent in the area for several generations. I sensed he didn’t want to be seen weakened and sick by the folks who’d watched him grow up. Still, the other part of me worried.

My best guess was that Ash had been wounded while serving in the military. It made sense. Other than a curt statement from his unit’s commanding officer notifying us that he’d been “out of reach and on assignment” at the time of Wynona’s death four months ago, no one had heard a word from him.

I’d resented him for missing the funeral. Ash had been Wynona’s last living relative. She’d raised him. He’d been the center of her existence. He should have been there. Instead, he was here, now, four months late, in my house, sick and refusing to go to the hospital where he obviously belonged.

What would Wynona do if she was in my shoes?

I put on my coat, slipped on my boots and ran out to the truck. I grabbed the blue bag sporting the Marine Corps seal from the front seat. Neil waited by his owner when I came back, resting his chin on Ash’s lap. Ash sat slumped over the table, forehead leaning on his crossed arms.

I plopped the bag down on the table and rushed to unzip it. My jaw dropped. A jumble of prescription medicines filled the duffel. There must have been twenty different bottles of pills, liquids and injectables in there, all labeled and marked with instructions.

I forced myself to get over the shock. “Which one do you need?”

He lifted his head painfully and groped through the bag, squinting at a bottle. “No, not this one. It liquefies my gut.” He chucked it aside and picked up another bottle. “This one makes me drowsy. This one makes me stupid. This one, I think.”

I twisted off the cap and handed him the two pills indicated on the label.

He washed down the pills with a gulp of coffee and then picked out a pack containing a loaded syringe. “I’m supposed to have this one too. At least that’s what I think they said.”

He fumbled with his belt. For a sick guy, he moved swiftly. Leaning to one side and then the other, he dropped his pants, ripped the syringe out of the sterile pack and without so much as a word, stabbed it into his thigh and pushed down on the plunger.

A hiss escaped between his clenched teeth. “Motherfucker burns.”

I stared in horror as the veins in his neck bulged. My eyes shifted between the wicked syringe, dispensing its load of liquid fire, his muscular thighs, thick as tree trunks, and the bandage wrapped around his left calf. The ripe smell I’d detected earlier came from that bandage. Mother of God. I was no doctor, but Wynona’s grandson was clearly sick with a full-fledged infection.

He dropped the empty syringe in the bag and pushed himself to his feet. “Let’s go, Neil.”

“You can’t leave.”

“Why not?” He wavered on his feet but managed to pull up his pants and buckle his belt.

“You can’t drive like this.”

“Sure I can,” he said. “And I did.”

He slung the bag over his shoulder, gripped his crutches and, with Neil at his heels, shuffled to the coat stand. How long had he been running around like this?

“But…” I didn’t know what to say. “What about the room?”

He grabbed his jacket and sneered. “You don’t want to rent me a room any more than you want me to puke all over your damn kitchen again.”

“Well…” I gulped. “I’d prefer it if you kept your breakfast to yourself, but…um…you did say you were looking for peace and quiet. So if you want the room, you can have it.”

His blue eyes lasered through my brain, his gaze dulled with pain but alert all the same. This guy wouldn’t accept help from me, from anybody. He would get in that truck, pass out from the fever and kill himself—and his dog—in the process.

He more or less growled. “Why the hell would you want to rent me a room when that upturned nose of yours finds my stink so offensive?”

I fingered my nose, a little self-conscious. “I knew your grandmother. Wynona.”

“You knew her?” He frowned, a familiar gesture now. “How?”

“She—um—she helped me when I first arrived in Copperhill.” I measured my words carefully. “She took me under her wing, found me this place to live and helped me get a job. She was the kindest, most loving person I’ve ever met.”

He closed his eyes and leaned his head against the wall. “That she was.”

I had a moment of hope that he would reason with me, but then the grim expression reclaimed his face and he clutched the crutches with new resolve.

“Nona is dead.” His eyes darkened to indigo. “I don’t need help from you or from anyone else. Neil and I, we can take care of ourselves. So get the hell out of my way.”

I had to make a conscious effort to overcome my fears and differentiate violence from desperation, pain from danger. Helping Ash was a bad idea, but could I really let him leave in this condition, knowing that he had no place to go to and no family to take care of him?

“Your grandma and I were good friends,” I said, against my best judgment. “She told me lots of stories about you. And she gave me this.”

I pulled out the chain buried beneath my sweater and showed him the pendant I wore around my neck. I flinched when he reached out, but I got hold of my fear before he noticed. His square-tipped fingers closed over the pendant, a highly polished obsidian crystal mounted on a silver frame. His eyes narrowed on the stylized frog skeleton carved in the center of the stone. It had the look of an ancient fossil, but it was actually one of Wynona’s edgiest designs.

“Damn.” His broken eyebrow rose in surprise. “She gave this to you?”

I nodded, all too aware of his proximity as he leaned in closer to examine the pendant. A wave of intense, metallic-scented heat radiated from him. His pain-sharpened breaths came out in blustery bursts.

“Courage,” I mumbled.

“What?” he said.

“Wynona told me that obsidian was the stone of courage.” I rallied. “She told me it would balance and restore, calm and soothe.”

“Lia.” His eyes narrowed. “Now I remember. Nona emailed me. About you. You took care of her when she broke her hip last year.”

“It was the least I could do.”

He took off his cap and raked his hair with his fingers. “Damn meds. They muddle my brain. But I know who you are now.”

“Will you stay?”

His brows clashed over his nose. “I don’t need you to feel sorry for me.”

“I don’t, but I think your grandmother would have liked it if you stayed, and I need to pay my rent.”

“Ah.”

That last bit was the type of rationale I could sell to the proud and the stubborn.

The meds were kicking in. Ash’s eyelids drooped and his legs wobbled. His gaunt complexion matched his nickname. He looked like one of those giant lodgepole pines infected with beetles, colorless and brittle, swaying in the wind and about to topple over.

His words came out slow and slurred. “The house burned down.”

I swallowed hard. “I remember.”

“She was in there.”

I shivered inside.

“I was in goddamn Afghanistan.”

I reached out and squeezed his shoulder. “There was nothing you could’ve done.”

He tensed beneath my touch like a feral cat, but he didn’t pull back. He stared at my hand with an odd expression on his face, as if he expected me to recoil in horror, as if he hadn’t been touched with kindness in a long time.

“I think Wynona would’ve really liked it if you stayed with me,” I said. “Let’s do this, for her, at least while you get your act together?”

He fingered the pendant once again. “I don’t know.”

“You must have had a really good reason to come back, even if you don’t feel so good.”

“The property,” he mumbled, thumbing the stone. “I have to deal with that. This place is close. It’s nice here. Not so many people around. Besides…” His stare drifted out the window. “I grew up on that lake. I like looking at it.”

“I do too,” I said. “It’s peaceful and beautiful. Wynona told me that the two of you loved to hike around it.”

“She did?”

I nodded and held my breath. Maybe he would go along with my suggestion. Or maybe I was out of my freaking mind. His presence spelled only trouble for me. My life didn’t have room for complications or mistakes. If he stayed, I’d have to worry about his safety on top of mine.

If all of that wasn’t enough, he came across as proud, stubborn and bitter. He scared me, especially when he got angry. It would be so much easier if he just moved along. If I was smart, I’d let him leave in his fancy truck and be done with it. But how could I let Wynona’s grandson walk out when he needed help?

It was a bad idea. It was a dangerous idea, and reckless. I opened my mouth to send him on his way, but what came out of my lips had nothing to do with my impeccable logic.

“What’s it going to be?”

Ash hesitated for moment, then he squinted down at me. “You still want me to fill out that application?”

“That won’t be necessary.”

“What the hell,” he said. “I do need a place to crash. No one wants dogs. Or screwed-up vets.”

Way to go. I’d just persuaded Ashton Hunter to barge into my carefully conceived, little farce of a life. To my astonishment, he pulled out his wallet from his pocket, and, after counting out a few crisp, hundred-dollar bills, pressed them into my hand.

“First, last and deposit,” he said.

It was already spent, but it was more money than I’d seen all month.

Was I doing the right thing? I hoped so. Damage aside, I was basically a decent human being. But kindness was at the heart of catastrophe and evil thrived on good intentions. The danger in my life was very real. If I was going to come through unscathed, I needed to heal him quickly and then send him on his way. But first I had to think of a way of getting him up the stairs.

“Would you like to check out the room?” I said.

“Damn it.” He looked at the steps. “It’s up that way, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I don’t know if you can make it.”

Even in his drug-induced stupor, he wasn’t one to pass up a challenge. He tucked the crutches under one arm and, gripping the balustrade, tackled the staircase.

Neil whimpered.

“I know,” I mumbled. “This isn’t going to be easy.”

Ash nearly fainted on the landing, then regained his senses long enough to get his arm over my shoulder and make it to the bathroom at the top of the stairs, where he did faint. I managed to get him gently to the floor. He came to as I filled up the bathtub.

“What the hell?”

“Two choices.” I knelt on the tiles next to him. “Either I take you to the hospital or we get your fever down the old-fashion way.”

He lifted his head from the floor and contemplated the old claw-foot bathtub with trepidation. “No hospital.”

“Okay, then.”

He groaned when I took off his boots. I bit down on my lips and suppressed the grimace that tried to overtake my face. Ouch. His left foot was riddled with scars and swollen like a rotten gourd. He unbuckled his belt and, between the two of us, we managed to lower his pants. The swelling in his foot connected with his lower leg, which was also flushed and inflamed. I helped him to take off his shirt. I tried to keep my eyes averted from the other scars on his body, but they were many and most of them were still raw and red. My God. He’d been seriously injured.

He hunched over his arms, hugging himself, shaking uncontrollably, glowering at me through lidded eyes. He snapped when I tried to loosen the bandage around his calf.

“Forget this.”

He heaved himself from the floor to the toilet and from the toilet to the tub and, perching his calf on the ledge, slid into the bath, groaning as he immersed the bulk of his body in the tub, shivering nonstop. A tide of displaced water swelled and spilled over the edges, splashing on the floor and drenching my feet. Within moments, his teeth began to chatter.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to call the ambulance?”

“Sure as shit.”

“I could drive you to the hospital or call the sheriff for help.”

He snarled. “No.”

A tiger trapped in my bathtub might have been a safer bet. A swipe of his paw could take my head off.

Perhaps this was about more than embarrassment. “Ash,” I said. “Why don’t you want me to take you to the hospital or call the sheriff? Are you in trouble?”

“Yeah,” he mumbled. “I’m in trouble all right.”

“With the law?” I said, fearing his enemies as much as mine.

“No, not with the law,” he muttered before he closed his eyes. “With someone a lot more dangerous than the law.”

http://www.annadelmar.com/pages/excerpt.html

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