Archive for the ‘Extracts’ Category

The Wedding from Hell, Part 3: Exclusive Excerpt of Consumed by J.R. Ward

The Wedding from Hell, Part 3: Exclusive Excerpt of Consumed is the final part of J.R. Ward’s The Wedding From Hell ebook serialisation. Don’t miss this exclusive teaser to her upcoming standalone suspense, Consumed (available in October 2018).

See why “Consumed takes it to a whole new level” (Lisa Gardner, #1 New York Times bestselling author). 

 

Chapter 1

 

Harbor Street and Eighteenth Avenue

Old Downtown, New Brunswick, Massachusetts

Box alarm. One-niner-four-seven. Two engines and a ladder from the 499, responding.

Or, put another way, Anne Ashburn’s Friday night date had showed up on time and was taking her to a show. Granted, “on time” was the precise moment she had sat down for a meal at the stationhouse with her crew, and the “show” was a warehouse fire they were going to have to chorus-line for. But if you judged the health of a relationship on its constancy and whether it brought purpose and meaning to your life?

Then this firefighting gig was the best damn partner a woman could ask for.

As Engine Co. 17 turned the corner onto Harbor with siren and lights going, Anne glanced around the shallow seating area of the apparatus. There were four jump seats behind the cab, two forward-facing, two rear-, the pairs separated by an aisle of gear. Emilio “Amy” Chavez and Patrick “Duff” Duffy were on one side. She and Daniel “Dannyboy” Maguire were on the other. Up in front, Deshaun “Doc” Lewis, the engineer, was behind the wheel, and Captain Christopher “Chip” Baker, the incident commander, was shotgun.

Her nickname was “Sister.” Which was what happened when you were the sibling of the great Fire Chief Thomas Ashburn Jr., and the daughter of the revered- falsely as it turned out- Thomas Ashburn, Sr.

Not everybody called her that, though.

She focused on Danny. He was staring out the open window, the cold November wind blowing his dark hair back, his exhausted blue eyes focused on nothing. In their bulky turnouts, their knees brushed every time the engine bumped over sewer-access panels, potholes, manholes, intersections.

Yes, she wanted to say to fate. I know he’s there. You don’t have to keep reminding me.

The hardheaded bastard was a lot of things, most of which carried terms you couldn’t use around your grandmother, but he knew she hated the “Sister” thing, so to him, she was Ashburn.

He’d also called her Anne—once. In the middle of the night about three weeks ago.

Yes, they had been naked at the time. Oh, God . . . had they finally done that?

“I’m gonna beat you at pong,” he said without looking at her. “Soon as we get back.”

“No chance.” She hated that he knew she’d been staring at him. “All talk, Dannyboy.”

“Fine.” He turned his head toward her. “I’ll let you win, how about that?”

His smile was slow, knowing, evil. And her temper answered the phone on the first ring.

“The hell you will.” Anne leaned forward. “I won’t play with you if you cheat.”

“Even if it benefits you?”

“That’s not winning.”

“Huh. Well, you’ll have to explain to me the ins and outs of it when we’re back at the house. While I’m beating you.”

Anne shook her head and glared out the open window.

The first tap on her leg she ascribed to a bump in the road. The second, third, and fourth were obviously—

She looked back at Danny. “Stop it.”

“What?”

“Are you twelve?” As he started to smile, she knew exactly where his mind had gone. “Not inches. Age.”

“I’m pretty sure I peak more like at sixteen.” He lowered his voice. “What do you think?”

Between the sirens and the open windows, no one else could hear them—and Danny never pulled the double entendre if there was a risk of that. But yes, Anne now knew intimately his heavily muscled and tattooed anatomy. Granted, it had been only that once.

Then again, unforgettable only had to happen one time.

“I think you’re out of your mind,” she muttered.

And then they were at the scene. The old 1900s-era warehouse was a shell of its former useful self, sixty-five thousand square feet of broken glass panes, rotting beams, and blown-off roof panels. The outer walls were brick, but based on the age, the floors and any room dividers inside were going to be wood. The blaze was in the northeast corner on the second floor, billowing smoke wafting up into the forty-degree night air before being carried away by a southerly wind.

As Anne’s boots hit the ground, she pulled on the top half of her turnouts. Her ponytail was up high on the back of her head, and she stripped out the band, reorganized the shoulder length, and cranked things tight at her nape. The brown was still streaked with blond from the summer, but she needed to get it cut—so all that lightness was on the chopping block.

Of course, if she were a woman “who took care of herself,” she’d get it highlighted through the winter months. Or so her mother liked to tell her. But who the hell had time for that?

“Sister, you sweep the place with Amy for addicts,” Captain Baker commanded. “Stay away from that corner. Danny and Duff, run those lines!”

As Captain Baker continued to bark orders out, she turned away. She had her assignment. Until she completed it, or there was an insurmountable obstacle or change of order, she was required to execute that directive and no other.

“Be safe in there, Ashburn.”

The words were soft and low, meant for her ears alone. And as she looked over her shoulder, Danny’s Irish eyes were not smiling.

A ripple of premonition made her rub the back of her neck. “Yeah, you, too, Maguire.”

“Piece’a cake. We’ll be back at pong before ten.”

They walked away from each other at the same time, Danny going around to the stacks of hoses in the back, her linking up with Chavez. She liked being paired with Emilio. He was a four-year veteran who was built like an SUV and had the brains of a Jeopardy! contestant. He also did what he said he was going to do with no drama.

Godsend, really.

The two of them went to a compartment on the outside of the truck, threw up the protective metal panel, and grabbed for their air tanks. After pulling her hood over her head, she velcro’d and buckled up her jacket and loaded her oxygen source onto her back. She let the mask hang loose, put her helmet on, and gloved up.

Moving forward on the truck flank, they opened another compartment, and she strapped a hand axe on her hip and added her radio and a box light. When Emilio was ready, the pair of them jogged across the frosted scruff grass, hopping over a debris salad of rusted-out car parts, random pieces of building, and weathered trash. The flashing red lights of the trucks made bulky shadows out of their graceless movements, and the clean air going in and out of her throat was the kind of thing she made sure to enjoy.

It was going to be a while before she had it again.

As they came up to a side door, the knob was locked, but the panels were loose as a bad fighter’s front teeth.

“I got it,” she said.

Turning a shoulder in, she threw her weight into the flimsy barrier, busting it wide open. As splinters fell in a clatter, she triggered the light beam on her helmet and looked around. Not what she expected—which was the norm. You never knew what a building’s interior was going to look like for sure until you got inside, and instead of one cavernous space, she and Emilio were in a makeshift hall. Offices, narrow and short-ceilinged, opened off of it, the repurposing transforming the warehouse into a den for administrators of some sort. Or telemarketers. Day traders.

Of course, whatever it was had been a going concern a good ten years ago. Now, the place was uninhabitable.

She and Emilio took opposite sides, and as they progressed, she checked out a lot of old office equipment from the Ally McBeal era. Everything was busted up, water-stained, and covered with grunge, which explained why it hadn’t been looted.

No scent of the fire. No heat. Air was clear of smoke.

The smell was rot, urine, mold.

They made quick time, going through the maze. As they went along, their radios kept them updated, the alternating hiss and talk the kind of thing she took in without being aware of hearing it.

“-wind changing. Northeast.”

“-getting that roof ventilation opened now—”

In the back of her mind, she noted the former, but didn’t worry about it. The blaze had been small, the engine was on it with a good water source charging the lines, and they had plenty of ladder access from above. Plus, the place was so big, she and Emilio were a mile away from the hot spot.

As they came up to a staircase, she stopped. “You take the second floor, I’ll keep going.”

“That’s not protocol.”

“There’s no reason to stay together. The fire’s all the way over there—it’s more efficient.”

“But it’s not—”

“Are you suggesting I can’t handle myself.”

Emilio shook his head. “I’ll take upstairs.”

“I’ll join you soon as I’m through down here. There’s one more corner to go, that’s it.”

As Emilio headed up the tight, jury-rigged steps, she continued on. The farther she went, the more mold compromised the air quality, but she had thirty minutes of oxygen on her back—fifteen if she were exerting herself—and she wasn’t going to waste it on a bad smell.

Up ahead, something flashed across the corridor, the figure scrambling in the darkness.

“Stop!” she called out as she took off after the person.

Anne went left, right, hit a straightaway, her lungs working, thighs churning, equipment bouncing on her body. In the helmet’s jumping beam, the man or woman went in and out of phase with the illumination, a ghost dressed in rags.

They ended up in a shallow room with no door, no window, nothing but the archway they both entered through. The vagrant was muddy as a hound, his hair so matted he had tails growing out of his head. His breathing worried her. Very labored. And that flush, too. He was on something, and probably had pneumonia.

She put her gloved hands up. “I’m not the police. I just want you out so you don’t get hurt—”

“I’ll kill you!” he panted. “I’ll fucking kill you!”

Stepping away from the jambs, she put one hand on her short axe. “I don’t care what you’re on, or why you’re in here. There’s a fire in the building behind us. Do you know where the ways out are?”

The man nodded.

“Go then. I won’t stop you.”

“I’m not going back to jail!”

“That’s cool. I’m fire, not police. But you have to get out of the building—if only because the cops will show up here. If you don’t want to be arrested, leave now. I’m not in your way.”

The vagrant took off, streaking past her and running flat out in his mismatched boot-and-shoe combo. If he had been saveable, she would have played a different card. But she was not going to get hurt trying to convince someone they needed help, and she wasn’t going to waste time vouching for rehab and treatment when there might be somebody who was in medical distress two doors farther down.

Three minutes later, she was at the far end of the building. “First floor cleared,” she said into her radio.

As she came back to the stairwell, she got her initial scent of smoke, that change in wind direction blowing the fire into its source of combustibles instead of away from it—

Bam!

The frontal impact was so quick and hard, she got blown backward off her boots, her body landing on her tank as gravity took her to the ground. With the air punched out of her lungs, her vision flickered, and she heard another of those vagrants disappear at a dead run.

Rolling off her air cylinder, she braced herself on all fours and looked at the wake of what had hit her. All she caught was a black shape disappearing around the corner.

“Sonofabitch.”

With a groan, she got back to vertical and took a couple of deep breathers. Pain was registering on her spine, but other than that case of the owies, she was okay.

No reason to go after that addict. He or she had gotten the GTFO memo.

Pivoting around, her beam flashed along the graffiti’d wall and then penetrated the stairwell. Emilio must have flushed the person down from the second floor—

The explosion was so loud, her ears lacked the capacity to accommodate it as sound. Pain was what registered, and covering her head and going into a crouch was both instinctual and part of training. Her immediate thought was meth lab. They’d had something similar the month before, with the chemicals used to make the drug blowing a two-story duplex sky-high.

She grabbed for her radio. “Emilio. Are you clear? Emilio—”

“Roger that. I’m way off in southwest corner second floor. What was that?”

Thank God, she thought. She did not want to lose him—

The rumble overhead started as a creak and a rattle. It did not stay that way. The collapse was as unexpected as it was fast, all kinds of heavy and hard landing on top of her, an avalanche of God only knew what raining blows on her body.

And then flames were everywhere.

Crushed under debris, pinned to the concrete floor, and without her air mask on, Anne had only one thought.

All her life, she had been determined to follow in her father’s footsteps.

Now it looked as if she might die in the same way he had.

 

Chapter 2

 

“Where the fuck were you just now?”

As Danny Maguire went to the pumper truck for an axe, he shot a glare over his shoulder at Captain Baker. “Running lines like you told me.”

“Duff’s working alone over there, Maguire.”

“I was with Doc. We had a problem with the pump.”

“You do what you’re told, goddamn it! Doc can handle his shit!”

Captain Baker was in a nasty mood, and that was what happened when you quit smoking. But come on, man. Talk about handling shit.

“You want some Nicorette?” Danny muttered.

“No.” Captain Baker walked away. Came back. “Yeah.”

Danny went inside his turnouts and took two squares out of the ass pockets of his work pants. “Chew ’em both. Trust me. I got three between my molars and they’re barely taking the edge off.”

“I want you and Duff on—”

A loud explosion buffered out through the cold air, coming in waves that Danny could feel against his face. Over the captain’s red helmet, flames and sparks burst out the second story of the abandoned warehouse, escaping through busted glass like fire through the nostrils of a dragon.

“Check in, people! Check in!” Baker said into the radio.

As firefighters started calling out their IDs, Danny lunged for an air tank—only to stop dead as a female voice came out of the radio. “Twelve-ten down. Base of north stairwell. First floor.”

A cold flush went through him, his vision going tunnel on the blaze that had suddenly gone absolutely, positively really-fucking-complicated on him. He looked at Baker. “Send me in, Captain—”

“No, Maguire. I just called the six-one-seven for backup and I want you on the hoses. You’re the strongest one we’ve got, and Duff’s got that busted shoulder—”

He put his face right into his captain’s—and had to remind himself he was not going to tear the man’s throat open with his canines. “Send me the fuck in.

Baker punched at his chest. “You are on hoses. That is an order, and don’t pull your shit with me!”

White-hot fury blanked him out, but before he could go rank stupid, a pair of heavy arms spun him around. Patrick Duffy, a.k.a. Duff, slapped him with an open palm and no emotion.

“Don’t do this.” The man grabbed his lappies and shook him. “Look at me, Danny. No one needs to add more paperwork to this bitch and you do not want to get suspended again.”

Twelve-ten was the call number for Anne Ashburn, the sole female firefighter at the 499, and the word “down” meant she was trapped in the burn. Under normal circumstances, Danny would have given her his right arm if she’d asked him for it. The fact that she needed assistance and might be hurt—

Duff yanked his lapels again, and then hung off of them so that Danny was forced to bend down from his six-six height. “Amy’s going after her. We’re getting on those hoses.” In a lower voice, the guy said, “You gotta regulate yourself. This is not about Sol.”

No, it was worse. If he failed Anne, that was going to make losing the stationhouse’s sergeant look like a cake walk.

The pair of them stayed nose-to-nose for a hundred and one years—that somehow passed in the matter of a moment.

Accept. Adapt. Change.

“Okay,” Danny said. “Fine.”

He shoved Duff off his jacket like the two-hundred-and-fifty-pounder was nothing but lint. Then he hooded up and strapped on that air tank.

“What do you need that for?” Duff asked.

“The wind just changed. I’m not going over there with a hose without an oxygen supply. That okay with you? Or do you want to try to make out with me again.”

He didn’t give the man a chance to answer that one. And everybody got out of his way as he went around to where he’d been assigned to go.

Firefighting followed in the military’s chain-of-command boot steps. You took orders or you were out. Even if that meant leaving the love of your miserable wasteland of a life in the middle of a now two-alarm fire to get burned to death inside her turnouts.

Happy Friday night, motherfuckers.

Trapped underneath debris and fallen wooden beams, the first thing Anne did after checking in on her radio was get enough freedom of movement so she could secure her mask over her face and turn on the airflow. As she breathed that metallic-and-plastic swill of oxygen, she did an internal check-in with her body. Her left arm was wrenched up above her head, and one leg was twisted at the foot and straining at its knee joint.

Her helmet beam was off, and she pulled her right hand free to feel around for it. No go. The unit had snapped off, and there was no reaching her box light.

“Check in, twelve-ten!” Captain Baker said over the radio. “Twelve-ten, what’s going on?”

Forcing her lungs to work, she rasped, “It’s getting hot in here.”

In her mind, she heard Danny’s voice: So take off all your clothes. I . . . am . . . getting . . . so . . . hot . . . I’mwannatakeoffallmyclothes.

She thought about the hell she was going to catch when Captain Baker found out she had split up from Emilio. Although maybe the man would be dead if they’d stayed together down here.

“We’re coming for you, Anne,” the captain said. “Injuries?”

“Negative.”

Twisting her head to the right, she only made it halfway around, her helmet getting crammed into something—

Through the visor of her mask, she got a crystal-clear on the field of orange flames roiling out of the stairwell and across the ceiling, the bubbling movement like a hundred rats fleeing rising water in the sewer, its escape the large hole above her that had been a ten-by-fifteen-foot section of the second floor, but was now the debris field trapping her in place.

Pushing against anything that was on her, she phoenix’d-from-the-ashes like out of The Walking Dead, a stiff, bad-angled version of herself rising from the floor. As she made it halfway to full height, it was a relief that her legs were fully capable of holding her weight.

That was the last piece of good news she got.

“Twelve-ten, check in,” came over the radio

“I’m okay.” She looked around and tried to place herself directionally. “I’m up on my feet.”

“Good girl—”

“Don’t call me ‘girl.’”

“Roger that. We’re coming for you—”

There was a sudden shifting overhead, one of the old timbers groaning as it was forced to shoulder an unexpected burden. She glanced up. The fire was closer, and she could feel the heat more. Smoke was beginning to build, too, bringing with it a galaxy of cinder stars that floated around, innocent and beautiful as fireflies in a summer field.

She realized she was trapped when she attempted to fully straighten her spine. Her right side was fine. The left half of her came up only so far as her arm would permit.

Leaning back, she pulled against the tether. Her hand, fat from her glove, refused to yield, some triangulation of trash turning the extremity into a rope with a blood supply.

The pulsating orange waves licking above her threw off enough illumination for her to see the problem. Desk. There was a desk that had fallen through the ragged hole in the ceiling, and somehow, the thing had managed to mate with one of the massive ceiling beams. No, two old beams.

Her hand was the bad-luck hole-in-one in the middle of the tiddlywinks from hell.

Planting her gloved right palm on the closest length of oak, she braced her feet in her steel-toed boots and shoved hard.

Nothing.

She tried a different hand position on the beam. And then an alternate angle of counterforce. Her big-ass glove was the problem, and with no way of reaching over things to release it, she was stuck with a Popeye problem at the base of her wrist.

And all the time, the fire spread, eating its way down the flammable, ancient carpeting on the stairs, spreading through the beams still on the ceiling, consuming the cheap particleboard that had been used to make walls.

“Twelve-ten, hang on there—”

Another collapse rumbled all around her, more sparks flying, another helping of debris added to her plate.

She pulled harder. Pushed more.

Inside her turnouts, something welled and river’d. She prayed it was sweat and not blood—and as much as she told herself to preserve oxygen, her lungs started to inflate and deflate like she was on a sprint, her cognition, her thoughts, fragmenting.

Talking into her radio, she tried to make like she was calm. “You guys almost here? Are you—”

The third collapse brought down a wooden beam that was breeding open flames two inches in front of her mask.

“Twelve-ten!” Captain Baker yelled through the radio. “Check in—twelve-ten!”

 

Chapter 3

 

617 Stationhouse

Hurst and Benedict Avenues

Fire Chief Thomas Ashburn stared over his messy desk at the two geniuses before him. Idiot number one, on the left, was a third-generation Italian firefighter, a stand-up guy who was built like a pro wrestler, never blinked in the face of death, and, aside from an intermittent off-duty drinking problem, had no red checks after his name.

If he had a dozen Chuck Parnesis in his firehouses, he wouldn’t be prematurely gray and divorced.

Okay, fine, he’d probably still be divorced. But his hair wouldn’t be almost white.

Genius number two was the problem—and the carrier. Neon-blue-haired and heavy-metal-loving Damian Reichmann was a walking hemorrhoid, the Typhoid Martin of Bad Behavior, a man capable of reducing even a relatively tight guy like Chuckie P to the lowest common dominator of a twelve-year-old at summer camp. Damian absolutely, positively measured his life’s worth on how many people around him were pissed off. Nickname? Damnit. Because pretty much every time the asshat was addressed, it was along the lines of “Damnit, why did you . . .”

“I am too old for this shit.” Tom glared at Damian. “And so the fuck are you.”

Damnit’s smile had fat-kid-loves-cake all over it. “What I do?”

Tom leaned back in his old wooden chair. And stared at the guy.

Damnit shrugged. “Look, Chuckie P got no game. I thought I was helping.”

“You set up an eHarmony account,” Chuck cut in. “And sent women to my house. To go on dates. With me.”

“Did any of it work?” Damnit gave a two-thumbs-up. “Did we get it in?”

“They were fetish models!”

Tom had to give that detail a “huh.” “I didn’t know those type of women were on eHarmony.”

Damnit shook his head. “It was an ad on Craigslist, actually.”

“What the fuck!” Chuck glared at the guy. “People get killed off that thing!”

“Annnnd you’re still breathing. Also haven’t answered the question. What about that redhead who was into bondage—”

“Enough.” Tom backhanded his neck to rub away the steel beam that was his spinal cord. “Look, I can’t let this go. This is one too many times in the last month.”

“Come on, Chief.” Damnit smiled some more, flashing the gold canine he’d added last month. “It was a practical joke. That could possibly have gotten him a blow job—if he weren’t a repressed Viagra candidate—”

“Chuck, punch him in the junk, and you’re even.”

Damnit cut the shit and stood up straighter. “What.

“I love you, Chief.” Chuck put his hand on that heavily muscled chest, right over his heart. “And I mean that as a leader, a friend, an example of good works everywhere—”

Damnit double-clapped his happy tackle. “Seriously, I’ll sue. I will sue you, the city, him, this firehouse. There are rules, you know.”

“Oh, right.” Tom reached back and took the city’s human resources manual off his shelf. Cracking it open, he drawled his forefinger down the table of contents and then opened the thing at about the halfway mark. “I better make sure I follow procedure—okay, I’m supposed to give you a warning first.” He looked up at Damnit. “Damian Reichmann, Chuck Parnesi is about to turn you into a soprano. Chuckie, g’head.”

“Take it like a man, Damnit.” Chuckie smiled like Jason on the right Friday of the month. “Besides, it’ll help you hit the high notes in the shower—”

The old-school clanging of the alarm bell going off was an eraser on a dry-erase board, swiping away the fun and games.

“Back to work,” Tom said as he pivoted and checked his computer screen.

“What we got?” Chuck asked.

“One-alarm that’s now a two down on Harbor and Eighteenth. Looks like the four-nine-nine is already there.”

“One of those warehouses?” Damian said.

“Yeah. They’re only requesting one engine. You boys take the call. Ropes’s still got that bum shoulder from last night—”

Vic Rizzo, a.k.a. Ropes, broke into the office. He had a cell phone up to his ear, and one arm in a sling. “It’s Anne. Your sister’s trapped in there.”

Tom knocked his chair over as he burst up. “Is she alone? Where’s the rest of the crew?”

Later, Anne would wonder what exactly it was that made her look over her shoulder. It couldn’t have been a sound because her heavy breathing drowned out even the roar of the fire. And it wasn’t anything visual. She didn’t have eyes in the back of her helmet. But

some kind of instinct called her from behind, and she pivoted against her left arm, glancing toward a wall of fire that had spread down the vertical particleboard.

From the midst of the swirling red and yellow flames, a massive figure plowed through the partition, its force so great, things didn’t so much break apart as powder into sparks.

And it had a chain saw.

There was only one person that size who would be insane enough to bring a gas-powered tool with him to rescue her.

As a lit part of the walling fell off Danny Maguire’s enormous shoulder, his head beam hit her square in the face, and she looked away as her retinas squeezed tight.

Thank you, God, she thought as she blinked to clear her vision.

“I’m trapped, Danny! I’m stuck—” When she didn’t hear her own voice over the radio, she realized her unit must have been compromised.

Pulling back against her hand, she pointed to show him what her problem was, and he nodded, that light of his moving up and down. With a powerful pull, he ripped the chain saw to life and came forward, wielding the fifty-pound piece of equipment like it was an empty coffee mug. Pumping the gas, a high-pitched whine rose and fell above the din as he assessed the wooden beam that had just fallen and was now part of the tangle. Moving herself to the side, she shoved something relatively light off her—a laptop, or what was left of one.

The blade and its chain came within inches of her facial mask, but she didn’t wince. As reckless as the man could be in real life, he was a surgeon with anything that cut wood or building materials—

Without warning, a ten-foot-by-ten-foot section of the ceiling fell on them, and she dropped her head, bracing for impact. When she wasn’t crushed, her first thought was that Danny was holding that whole corner of the building up—but no. That beam he’d been about to cut had caught the load and was keeping it at bay.

If he cut the length now, they would get buried.

The chain saw’s engine went silent, and as he put it down at his feet, she could tell he was cursing inside his mask, his eyes in a nasty squint as he scanned the collapse. Then, with an arch to rival a bridge span, he grabbed ahold of her forearm. When she nodded and sank into her legs, she watched the brim of his helmet dip three times.

One . . . two . . . three.

They both pulled and the pain that shot up her arm and into her shoulder had her grinding her molars to keep from screaming. When she couldn’t handle it for a second longer, she shook her head and bumped her body against his.

Danny released her. Looked around again. Behind his mask, his mouth was moving; he was talking into his radio—and she could guess what he was saying.

Anne gave a couple more half-hearted pulls. Then, with a curse, she pointed at the wall he’d come through. “Go!” she yelled inside her mask. “Leave me!”

Danny leaned over and grabbed her arm again, that cranking grip of his locking on her so tightly her bones compressed. As he pulled with his incredible power, her teeth clenched, and her breath shot out of her ribs—and she took as much of it as she could.

“Stop! Stop!” She sagged as he relented. “Stop . . .”

Anne shook her head and motioned toward where he had entered. “Go! I’m done!” Moaning in her throat, she pushed at his huge body. “Go.”

When that got her nowhere, she released her mask and shoved it aside. Hot, deadly air, the kind that toasted your esophagus and BBQ’d your lungs, closed her throat.

“Go!”

Behind his mask, Danny was furious and his gloved hands went to try to force her oxygen supply back into place.

“No! Get out of—”

Creaking over their heads made them both duck on reflex. As sparks rained down through the smoke, Anne weaved on her feet. “You’re going to die in here! Go!”

Danny put his face in hers. He was ripshit and letting her know it behind his mask, and for a split second, she watched him from a great distance even though their faces were six inches apart.

I’m going to miss you, she thought. Of all of the people I work with, and everyone I know . . . I’m going to miss you the most.

Danny yanked his own breathing mask away. “Put your goddamn oxygen back on!”

“You’re going to die!” she screamed.

“I’m getting you out of here!”

“It’s too late for me! Go!”

As if the fire was excited by their yelling, a hot flare burst out next to them, roasting the skin on one side of her face. Danny cursed and forced her mask back on, and she was still hollering at him as he reestablished his own air and then bent all the way over to the floor. Picking up the chain saw, he backed away a couple of feet and went on a discus spin, releasing the Craftsman at the top of the arc, the tool flipping end over end into the wall of fire. Then he covered her with his body, forming a shield.

The explosion was loud and immediate, the gasoline in that tank heating up until it created sufficient pressure to blow the Craftsman apart, the bomb detonating with a brutally hot kiss.

Anne ripped her mask off again. He was barking into his radio, but the time had come and gone for plans, and rescues, and her salvation.

“You need to go,” she ordered him. “Now.”

Danny stopped talking, his face going still behind his clear shield. And then he removed his oxygen supply. “We die together, then.”

He was every bit as resolved as she was, an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. Exactly as it always had been between them. God, why did she think death would change anything? And the man wasn’t going to leave her. Between his brother dying on the job a couple of years ago and then him losing Sol six months ago, all of his nope-I-don’t-have-PTSD was going to make it impossible for him to go through that again.

Anne looked down at her arm. It was her left one. Not the hand she wrote with. And she was never getting married, so it wasn’t like she needed to worry about a ring finger.

Clean cut, she thought.

“Cut it off,” she said over the crackle and spit of the fire. To help him understand, she pointed to her forearm. “Tourney and cut!”

Danny’s blue eyes flared, and he shook his head as he looked around again, assessing all of their no-go options.

Anne released the straps on her tank under her pits and let the weight drop off her. Then she bit her glove off and spit it out. The fastenings down her fire-resistant jacket released one by one, and she kicked the heavy folds off so that that one sleeve pooled the entire weight at her trapped wrist.

“Tourney!”

Shit, it was hot. She could feel her skin prickle in warning—or maybe that was her shirt melting into her arms. But she had other problems.

Danny released his mask and put his face in hers. “Listen, James Franco, this isn’t fifty-seven hours!”

“The movie was 127 Hours!”

“Are you seriously arguing about that right now!”

“Tourney me and do it!”

“That’s it. I’m demanding backup—”

“Do you want to kill all of us? Either leave me or do it!”

She would have taken care of the problem herself, but the angle of the blade needed to be right . . . and oh, God, was she out of her mind? What was she saying?

“Cut my hand off or leave me!”

 

Chapter 4

 

Danny was rank furious as he tried to get Anne’s jacket back on her. Was she out of her fucking mind—

A resounding groan escalated into a roar, and more of the floor above collapsed around them, coming down the slope created by that panel held up by the beam. Arching over Anne, he protected her, bricks and pieces of particleboard punching at his shoulders and crashing on his helmet.

When things stopped hitting him, he got an unexpected bene. Smoke was escaping fast in a new direction, the rush-hour-worthy evac suggesting a way out might have opened that hadn’t been there before. The flames were so thick, he couldn’t be sure.

“Cut it off!” she yelled at him.

“Will you shut up with that!”

He kicked shit out of his way and dragged her protective jacket back into place, but she fought him—even as consciousness began to go in and out for her, her eyes rolling back, her weight weaving. And still that goddamn hand of hers was squeezed in between a tangle of beams and crap that looked like pieces of machinery and a desk.

“Pull with me!” He wrapped himself around the back of her again and took her forearm in his palms. “On three. One!” Maybe this will work. “Two!” Please, God, let this work. “Three!”

They both strained, her strong body bowing until her boots slipped out from under her and he had to catch her.

“Dan!”

As Anne barked his name, he refocused on her—and she put her free hand to the side of his mask.

“Do it, Dan,” she said. “Or you have to go. I’m okay with dying. Honest.”

He stared into her eyes through his mask. His breathing was a freight train in his ears. His body was shaking under his PPEs. His mind was racing through solutions, too many of them getting rejected.

Oh, wait, actually all of them getting tossed.

“Fuck,” he said.

“I’m sorry.”

Releasing his mask, he pushed it aside and locked eyes on hers without any barriers. It wasn’t supposed to end like this . . . although even as he thought that, he wondered what the hell their other option was. He and Anne Ashburn were both death-wish idiots, the kind of people who pushed limits, and themselves, until shit got broken.

Danny looked around one last time. Then he shifted his eyes to her arm and wondered, Can I do this?

“It’s the only way,” she said into the smoke and heat. “If you won’t save yourself.”

He didn’t make a decision. He just started moving. Because if he thought for a moment—for one goddamn millisecond—that he was going to hurt her? He was going to vomit the pepperoni-and-onion pizza, side of fries, two Cokes, and a cherry pie he’d had for dinner all over the fuck.

With hands that shook, he pulled off his gloves, unlatched the front of his jacket, and reached in through his bunkers to his woven nylon belt. When he brought the strap out, Anne closed her lids. And shrugged out of her heavy jacket again.

Danny drew the strap around her upper arm, busted the fork in the buckle, and pulled the length tight. She was right with him, reaching across with her good hand and taking the end, cranking it over until her bicep puffed up around the ligature.

Nope, he thought. If she lost consciousness and couldn’t hold that tight, she was going to bleed out. Plus, he was going to have to carry her once she was free because chances were good she was going to go into shock—so he couldn’t do it.

Pushing her hand away, he loosened the length and made a slipknot. “Brace.”

When she nodded, he used all of his strength to make a self-holding tourniquet, and the grunt she let out went through the center of his chest like a bullet. But it worked. Even though her upper arm was well muscled, the nylon bit into her flesh like fangs, going deep and locking in.

With a yank, he pulled her PPE back into place so she would be protected from the heat, making sure the tough fabric was flat and tight over her forearm for a clean cut—

Another warning creak from up above had him ducking and looking to the ceiling at the same time.

“Do it!” she yelled.

The long-handled axe was on his belt, and he popped it free and removed the head cover. The grip was insulated, certified to handle up to twenty thousand volts of electricity. Too bad the bitch was not rated to cover the shock of cutting off a piece of your partner. Just so you could maybe, possibly, probably-not-but-still, save her life.

Anne stared up at him, unblinking, unafraid. And that steely expression on her face reminded him, not that he needed it, that she was the single most courageous person, man or woman, he had ever met.

I love you, he thought. Not for the first time.

“Put your oxygen on,” he ordered. “Or I’m not doing shit.”

When she complied, Danny closed his eyes, but only for a second. Then he changed position so he could get a clear swing with good aim. Testing his angle, he lowered the blade so it rested on the PPE sleeve in the middle of her forearm. And then he settled his body into a stance, and thought about all the firewood he had been chopping out at Jack’s sister’s place.

This is no different, he told himself. This is a piece of wood.

If he thought for one second it was Anne’s flesh and blood, he was going to lose his nerve and fucking maul her.

Clean cut.

One chance.

 

Have you been consumed and want to read more? Then follow this link to order your copy now:

 

Playing with Fire, Renee Graziano Excerpt

To celebrate the release of Renee Graziano‘s sexy thriller Playing with Fire, we’ve got a sneaky excerpt for you… If you can’t help but want more (we couldn’t!), the ebook is out on Thursday! Enjoy!

It wasn’t like the dress was really over the top.

Might just be the body in it.

Nick Fattelli took a sip from his snifter and negligently set it aside, watching, but he wasn’t the only one. He was pretty sure every man in the room had turned to look.

The woman who had just come into the room was not even classically beautiful. Long dark hair, yes, he approved of that, and the sultry unusual eyes to set it off. Her skin was flawless, but her features were not perfect. That was fine—he wasn’t looking for perfect. A tilt to the eyes, just a hint, and a shade of a Roman nose, but still she was very striking. The dress didn’t hurt either, cut low enough to showcase her firm breasts and tight enough to accentuate what he thought was a world-class ass.

He approved 100 percent.

“Reign.”

He turned and glanced at the man who had apparently caught him staring. “What?”

“That’s her first name. Reign.” Joey Carre took a small round cracker topped with pink shrimp and herb-flecked cheese from a tray and somehow managed to pop it into his mouth and still make the movement look sophisticated. He chewed and swallowed before he commented, “Saw you looking. Long stare, about two seconds over the ordinary. Don’t worry, you aren’t the first.”

Of that, he had no doubt now that he’d seen her. “Okay, guilty as charged.… The story?”

Carre knew everyone. Maybe it was his connection with the fashion icons in a city where how a person was dressed told you more about them than a background check. Carre was slightly overweight, but the cut of his jacket fooled the eye, and his fair hair was thinning just enough to accent a high forehead and austere features. His eyes were a very pale blue and, rumor had it, missed nothing.

“She’s connected.”

Nick believed that. Their circles were fairly tight, this party an example. He glanced around the penthouse, saw the sleek furnishings and the tall shining windows that gave way to a terrace overlooking New York City. The skyline was brilliant through the wall of windows, and the floor was polished marble. Ten million bucks, easy, for this place.… The invitations were not passed out on street corners. “To?”

“Practically everyone, but not what you are thinking right now.” Joey shook his head and took a sip of champagne. “She’s a pretty face, but it doesn’t stop there.”

So … intelligent, gorgeous in her own way, and willing to walk into a party like this one wearing a flamboyant green dress with all that ebony hair spilling down her back.… Good presentation. Every other woman had on the classic little black number. She stood out.

He admired her style. “Fashion?” He acted like it was a guess. He knew where her studio was and had even done a background check on her assistant.

“And good taste. They don’t always go hand in hand.” Carre looked affable, but Nick actually rarely thought that was his true persona. Carre added succinctly, “She’s good. Just starting really to break in.”

“Married?” He asked it politely enough, though he already knew the answer. Several offers in her past, but the one “yes” hadn’t worked out.

He knew pretty much everything about her; they just hadn’t met yet.

“Married? Absolutely not.” Carre looked noncommittal. “Not in the market either.”

Good both ways. So was Nick.

He shot his cuffs. “Introduce me.”

“You don’t want to play with this one.”

Nick’s smile was ironic. “I think I get to make that decision on my own, don’t you agree? Since you know her, let me rephrase. Please introduce me.”

Carre shrugged and shook his head, those pale blue eyes appraising. “Fine. But I’m telling you, she’s not looking. Robert Philliponi has been trying for months. She barely gives him the time of day.”

“I admire her taste already.”

He didn’t care for the man. Philliponi’s name had been linked to several hits, and he was under surveillance. Nick kept his distance as much as possible out of a finely honed sense of self-preservation. No harm in being at the same party like this one, because there were a lot of influential people, from socialites to politicians, but he would never want to hang one-on-one. Bad idea. He didn’t need the association.

Nick followed Carre through the crowd, stopping now and then to greet someone, the room humming with music and dozens of conversations, before they finally reached the corner where his quarry stood talking to an elderly man and another woman. The woman was far too young to be the older man’s wife but had her hand possessively on his well-tailored sleeve. Nick didn’t recognize either one of them.

“Rupert Hanover,” Carre murmured. “You might want to meet him. Owns several trucking companies, which isn’t the most glamorous way to make over fifty million dollars a year, but obviously the blonde is willing to overlook it.”

“Wife?”

“Not yet but give her time. Did you know she used to be married to a state senator?”

“I didn’t know she existed,” Nick said truthfully. And he still didn’t, really, his gaze fastened on the dark-haired woman in the green dress. She turned when she caught sight of them approaching, and she smiled, presumably for Carre, since she didn’t know Nick.

Yet.

Gorgeous green eyes framed by long lashes flashed a glance at him, and then took a long second look.

He looked right back.

“Hurry up and introduce me,” he said under his breath, the evening taking on an intriguing promise.

*   *   *

Even though she’d worn the fuck-me dress, Reign really wasn’t in the mood for a party.

Yes, the glitter of the skyline was gorgeous, the food was no doubt delicious—though she wasn’t all that hungry after her frustrating day—the expensive clothing of the crowd both flamboyant and outrageous, or else extremely tailored, depending on the individual, and usually she liked the sophisticated hum of a gathering like this.… But not tonight.

Therefore, she had very little patience for the over-effusive—yet unmistakably hostile, she was getting the vibe loud and clear—woman stuck to Mr. Hanover. Reign wanted to just say out loud, Don’t worry about it, sweetheart, he’s all yours, but that would be a little blunt even for her, and she’d learned a long time ago that speaking her mind wasn’t always the best idea.

So when she saw Joey Carre approaching, she was infinitely grateful. It wasn’t like they actually worked together, but they crossed paths often in their business and he was pretty much someone she might consider a friend. “Pretty much” meant that she trusted not that many people, and she didn’t trust him exactly, either, but whether it was naive or not—she didn’t distrust him.

Crazy, but then life was pretty crazy most of the time.

The tall man with him was not familiar, and she would have remembered him if she’d seen him before.

For sure.

Nice face. Angular but still handsome enough. Good body, if a girl liked them long and lean and athletic looking. Dark hair, and to her surprise, blue eyes—hardly a pale Scandinavian blue, but a dramatic Mediterranean blue that set off his Italian coloring.

She did her best to not stare.

Great suit. It was her job, after all, so she always had an eye for style. Hand-tailored to his broad shoulders and perfectly fitted. She wouldn’t have picked that tie, but she learned something new every single day; it worked, actually. A midnight hue to match the unusual color of his eyes, the pattern almost so low-key she didn’t notice, but when he approached, she saw it was a shadowy block down the length of the expensive silk. The play of dark color against his white shirt was stylish and made a statement quite different from the vibrancy of her dress.

An opinion of him immediately started to form. She normally liked to be noticed; he didn’t want to be noticed at all.

That was interesting.

It could be that he was pretty noticeable in the first place. Not just his height and those nice wide shoulders, but he had some pretty delicious hair going on—dark and wavy, cut expertly someplace expensive—his jaw slightly square but not too much, his arched brows over those cobalt eyes, and his slightly diffident air didn’t reflect what she thought was a dangerous edge underneath.

She knew dangerous men. Her whole life they’d been there. Godfathers, uncles, cousins … her sixth sense was geared toward feeling the difference between people who made the rules and those that broke them. It didn’t mean they were bad guys.… It wasn’t that cut and dried. It was more how it was all handled. There were rules, and there were rules. Not everyone viewed them the same way, and for that matter, not everyone had the same rules in the first place.

This man was, hands down, a rule-breaker.

The worst sort of man for her.

But fuck, she liked his smile. It was a really boyish mesmerizing curve of his lips, though cute would never apply to his sophisticated image. Maybe it would be better described as deliberate, and as a rule she was absolutely not susceptible to that. She could seduce, but she couldn’t be seduced.

At least before this moment.

“I’m Nick,” he said in a low, smooth whiskey voice. Just a hint of some place other than New York in there. Italy maybe. It was hard to place.

“Reign. Think royalty and not weather.” She took his fingers and judged the tensile strength there. No attempt to convince her he was a man by crushing hers—thank God—but enough pressure to let her know he was interested. She’d already gathered that, yet it was good to know he could play on the nice side of the team.

Unless he needed to play it rough. She hated herself a little for the flicker of interest. All her life, it had been this delicate balance between the good guys and the bad ones, but that wasn’t so easy, she was discovering.

Some men were mostly bad. She’d met them, shunned them, and ran the other way as fast as she could whenever possible. Some thought they were good—she almost hated those self-righteous bastards even more—but she was in her thirties now, and one truth just kept popping up.

No one was all good, and no one was all bad. That was unfortunate. It would make it so much easier to make wise choices.

Around them the room worked, the people moving, the conversations humming, the music playing—something low, Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino Caro,” she thought—and a waiter passed with a plate of stuffed mushrooms, but they both shook their heads.

“Interesting first name,” he said.

“My parents were a little eccentric as a couple.”

He let go of her hand with a deliberate reluctance. “Can you tell me that story over a drink?”

Joey had already left, maneuvering away from them, taking the future Mrs. Hanover and her prey with him. No one could work a room like Joe. It wasn’t like Reign and the new arrival were alone, but apparently he’d read the signs and decided to give them some space.

She read the signs too.

Mr. Fattelli had asked for an introduction. Reign weighed her response, and the pause was long enough for him to acknowledge it. Good. She wanted him to know she didn’t talk to every guy that hit on her. The gleam of amusement in his eyes settled the deal. She said, “Johnnie Walker Black. Rocks, please.”

“I like the lady’s choice. Be right back.”

She watched him go to the bar, saw him flash that killer smile at the female bartender who definitely returned it, and then he was shouldering his way back through the crowd, drinks in hand. He drank bourbon neat, she noted, two fingers in his glass.

“Thank you.” Their fingers brushed as she accepted the drink, and she caught his gaze for a moment.

“Terrace?” he suggested. “It’s a little difficult to carry on a conversation in here.”

She took a sip and nodded. People were watching them already, but she didn’t care too much as he moved back politely to let her walk in front of him through the open glass doors.

A gentleman. That scored him a point.

They were hardly alone there either, but then again, it was a warm clear night. Still, it was a lot more intimate than the jammed apartment. Mostly there were couples, standing around talking.

“Reign?” he prompted, his eyes inquiring. “Your name? You promised me the story.”

She lifted her shoulders. Why not tell him? “My mother’s idea. I think the basic concept was that every single day I should be reminded that I am in charge of my own life. Not to let anyone tell me what to do and when to do it. Reign Supreme. Supreme. Can you believe that is my given middle name?”

“I admit that’s a new one to me. Do you live up to it?” His hand moved his glass casually to his mouth, and he took a small drink, watching her.

Hell yes, I do.

“I think Joey will confirm I do. Tell me, Mr. Fattelli, what do you do?”

“I’m an investment banker.”

“Just that?”

“Mostly.”

A little oblique. Well, maybe he was into finance, but she knew that wasn’t all he was from the dangerous glitter in his eyes.

If he was too evasive, she’d be smart to walk away. Her career was going well, and though not having an active romance wasn’t perfect in her estimation, it wasn’t bad either. She loved her job and people left her alone. She moved in the inner circles but did not actually have to be part of them.

All of it under control. Well, most of the time. The lure of the Life existed. It was practically all she knew. It stood in front of her at the moment in the guise of a handsome man with those striking eyes.… He represented danger, and she had the golden ticket for that ride.

She knew at that moment she was going to go home with him and give him the fuck of the century.

Bad boys were a weakness of hers, and she had the feeling he was a very bad boy indeed. Before he could answer the question, she said abruptly, “No. Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know after all. Is there any chance you want to give me a ride home?”

Playing with Fire is out on April 27th! Get it here!

 

Every Little Thing, Samantha Young Excerpt

To celebrate yesterday’s publication of Samantha Young‘s incredible Every Little Thing we have a special excerpt from the novel! Read on for Chapter 1: 

The early morning was dull, the waves a little rougher, a little more hurried than usual as they rushed the shore, and gulls flew above in a sky that matched the water perfectly in its melancholic gray.

Behind the floor‑to‑ceiling glass of his penthouse suite Vaughn stared out from his boardwalk hotel at the scene and thought how it wasn’t whole without his other senses in play. The boardwalk below, the beach, the ocean, it all seemed but a moving picture. The reality of it was in the caws of the gulls he couldn’t hear behind his expensive triple glazing. The reality of it was in the smells beyond the window— the salt air, the hot dogs, burgers, and the warm sweetness of cotton candy.

That’s what made his boardwalk feel like home.

Home.

Hmm.

He’d come to Hartwell to escape the ugliness he’d left behind in Manhattan. Hartwell was peaceful. Although it had thousands of tourists pouring in every summer, and there was always some kind of festival or celebration going on, there was a tranquility here that crowds of people couldn’t diminish.

Vaughn had needed that serenity. The plan was to soak up all that peace until the time came for him to go back to the center of his business operations in New York.

Somewhere along the way, Hartwell changed from a refuge to home.

Home is where the heart is.

His gaze wandered back outside to the stillness of the boardwalk, and to his utter frustration his heart jumped in his chest at a glimpse of bright auburn hair. He leaned forward to get a better look.

Sure enough.

It was her.

Bailey.

She strode down the boardwalk from the direction of her own establishment, Hart’s Inn, her long hair blowing in the wind. Vaughn pressed closer to the glass, trying to get a better look, but it was impossible from this height.

All he could make out were the jeans she wore tucked into brown ankle boots and the green sweater that was far too thin to be worn this early in the morning.

He frowned. The woman needed to buy a goddamn jacket.

She smiled and he caught sight of her neighbor Iris approaching her. For a moment he envied Iris that smile. It was hard to resist Bailey Hartwell’s smile. It had an effect on people.

On him.

Unfortunately.

Especially since he couldn’t recall a time when that smile had ever been directed at him.

Bailey followed Iris out of his line of sight.

He tried to follow them and smacked his head off the glass. “Fuck.” Vaughn rubbed at his forehead and turned away from the window.

His eyes were drawn to the huge bed across the room where a slender redhead whose name he couldn’t remember was lying sleeping.

One immediate problem was that he saw Bailey everywhere.

He even saw her in other women despite his best efforts to channel his attention elsewhere.

Ignoring the growing ache of longing in his chest, a half-dressed Vaughn took the white shirt that had been pressed and hung up for him off the hanger and shrugged it on. Then he chose a blue silk tie from his collection. His waistcoat and jacket followed suit. Dressed for the day, he strolled over to the bed and leaned down to nudge the redhead awake. She groaned and opened her eyes and instead of clear green eyes that made his blood burn, brown ones stared up at him.

“Time to leave.” He walked away without looking back.

Every Little Thing is out now! Get it here:

Amazon

Waterstones

WHSmith

Exclusive, Early Excerpt from Darynda Jones’ Eleventh Grave in Moonlight

Eleventh Grave in Moonlight

It’s Day 10 of #WelcomeToMyWorld and we are no where even near to running out of treats! Because today we have an exclusive early excerpt from Darynda JonesEleventh Grave in Moonlight!

 

1

Lord, help me be the sort of person

 my psychiatrist medicates me to be.

—T-shirt

 

I lay on a psychiatrist’s couch, a couch I’d named Alexander Skarsgård the moment my gaze landed on its buttery curves and wide back, and wondered if I should tell Dr. Mayfield about the dead kid scurrying across her ceiling. Probably not.

She crossed her legs—the psychiatrist, not the kid who was male—and gave me her most practiced smile. “And that’s why you’re here?”

I bolted upright, appalled. “Heavens, no. I’m totally over the whole evil stepmother thing. I just thought, you know, full disclosure and all. FYI, I had an evil stepmother.”

“Had?”

“She died.”

“I’m sorry.”

“No worries. She had an ugly demon inside of her at the time.”

“I see.”

“Wait, no, that was her outfit. The demon wasn’t that ugly.”

“Ah.”

“No, seriously, her outfit was hideous.”

“Perhaps we should get back to the fact that you’re the grim reaper?” She pushed plastic-framed glasses up a slender nose. Thankfully, it was hers.

“Oh, right.” I relaxed again, falling back into Alexander’s arms. “I pretty much have the reaper thing down. It’s the godly part of me I’m struggling with.”

“The godly part.” She bent her head to write something in her notebook. She was quite lovely. Dark hair. Huge brown eyes. Wide mouth. And young. Too young to be analyzing me. How much life experience could she possibly have?

“Yes. Ever since I found out I was a god, I’ve felt a little off balance. I think I’m having one of those identity crisises.”

“So, you’re a god?”

“Wait. What’s the plural of crisis?” When she didn’t answer, I glanced back at her.

She’d stopped writing and was looking at me again, her expression mildly expectant. And ever so slightly taxed. She was trying to decide if I was playing her. I wasn’t, but I could hardly blame her for thinking that. Dealing with delusions of grandeur was probably an everyday aspect of her life. Trying to sort out the legit from the cons.

When she continued to stare, I said, “I’m sorry, what was the question?”

“You’re a god?”

“Oh, that. Yes, but to quote a very popular movie, I’m a god, not the God.” I snorted. Bill Murray was so awesome. “Did I forget to mention that?”

“Then you’re not the grim reaper?”

“Oh no, I’m that, too. I volunteered. Kind of. Long story. Anyway, I thought you could hypnotize me. You know, give me a full-access pass to my pre-birth memories so I won’t be blindsided again.”

“Blindsided?”

“Yes. That’s why I’m here. Because my sister refuses to do regressive therapy with me, and—”

“Your sister?”

“Dr. Gemma Davidson?” The shrink-wrap community couldn’t have been very big. Surely she knew my sister.

“Dr. Davidson is your sister?”

“Is that a problem?”

“Not for me.”

“Fantabulous.” I rubbed my hands together. “Okay, so, you know how you’re going through life, remembering everything that ever happened to you since the moment you were born—”

“You remember the moment you were born?”

“—and suddenly someone says, ‘Hey, remember that time we singed our eyebrows lighting that bowling alley on fire?’ only at first you don’t remember singeing your eyebrows while lighting a bowling alley on fire, but then you think about it and it suddenly comes to you? You totally remember singeing your eyebrows while lighting a bowling alley on fire?”

She blinked several times, then wrenched out a “Sure.”

“It’s like that. I remember being a god, but not totally. Like parts of my celestial life have been erased from my memory.”

“Your celestial life.”

“Right. Before I became human? I think I have a glitch.”

“It’s . . . possible, I suppose.”

“I mean, who knows? I might already have a way to defeat a malevolent god that’s loose on this plane and not even realize it.”

“A malevolent god?”

“The malevolentest.”

“And he’s loose on this plane?”

“Yes. And trust me when I say you do not want him here. He takes his death and destruction very seriously. And he has zero respect for human life.”

“Mmm.” She nodded and went back to taking notes.

“Zero,” I added for emphasis, making an O with my fingers. Then I waited. She had a lot to write down. When she kept at it long enough to outline a novel, I filled the silence with, “It’s funny. My husband thought it would be pointless to come here.”

She laid her pen across her notepad and gave me her full attention. “Tell me about him.”

“My husband?”

“Yes.” Her voice was very soothing. Like elevator music. Or summer rain. Or Darvocet. “How’s your relationship?”

“How much time do we have?” I snorted, cracking myself up.

My husband, a.k.a. Reyes Alexander Farrow, didn’t find my joke as funny as I did. It happened. I felt him before I saw him. His heat brushed across my skin. Sank into me. Saturated my clothes and hair and even warmed the cool gold band on my ring finger.

As he passed over me, all darkness and billowing smoke, he paused to whisper sweet nothings in my ear. I barely heard him over the rushing of my own blood. Whatever he said made my nether regions clench in anticipation. Then he continued on his journey, materializing on the other side of the room where he stood in a corner to watch from afar. Ish.

“Just kidding,” I said as his eyes glistened in the low light. “He’s kind of awesome. He’s from down under.”

“Australia?”

“Hell.”

His eyes narrowed, but any threats he may have been trying to hurl my way were nulled and voided by the smirk playing about his sensual mouth. He crossed his arms at his wide chest and leaned back into a corner to observe my goings-on.

He’d been doing that a lot lately. Popping in to check up on me. It could have had something to do with the fact that I had waged war with not one god but two. The malevolent one and the Good One. The Big Guy upstairs.

I decided to ignore my husband to the best of my abilities. I was here on a job. If I couldn’t stay focused despite being bombarded with the most delicious distraction this side of the Flame Nebula, I was no better than a gumshoe-for-hire PI.

Oh, wait. I was a gumshoe-for-hire PI. Which would explain the job I was currently on. It paid the bills. Sometimes.

Eleventh Grave in Moonlight will be out January 24th, and you can pre-order you copy now:

Amazon

Waterstones

Kindle

Kobo

iBooks

Google Play

If you’re new to Darynda’s Charley Davidson series, you can get the first book in the series, First Grave on the Right, for just £1.99 in the UK at the moment.

Exclusive, Early Excerpt from Christine Feehan’s Leopard’s Fury

Leopard's Fury

Be the first to read Chapter 1 of Christine Feehan’s Leopard’s Fury

Christine is one of the leading lights of paranormal romance, hitting it out the park with each of her series from the Carpathians to her latest Shadow series, and for #WelcomeToMyWorld she’s shared the first chapter of Leopard’s Fury with us.

Happy reading!

 

Damn it, Evangeline, you need to come back home.”

Evangeline Tregre shook her head and took a slow look around the bakery. It wasn’t exactly thriving, but it was still afloat and becoming more popular every day. The walls were painted a soft blue. She’d done that herself. Every cupboard, every placement of the display cases, every single thing from the lettering to the floor— she’d done it. The dusty old, torn-up space had been renovated by her. It was now cozy and inviting with the tables and chairs. She loved the way the bakery smelled. Every single morning when she got up to bake, she looked forward to the day. Back “home” she detested her very existence.

This is home, Robert. I love it here and I’m stayin’. It’s more home to me than that place ever was.” She kept her voice quiet. Low. She was used to being silent. She didn’t argue, nor did she like arguments. She especially didn’t like Robert Lenoux coming to her hard-won business and insisting she return. “In any case, I thought you were travelin’, going to the Borneo rain forest.”

She knew all about Robert, although she’d never actually met him until he’d walked into her bake shop. He had been sent away in disgrace, had served a brief jail stint, but got out of a real sentence from the law by turning evidence against his friends. Murderers. He’d participated in beating and robbing the elderly in their homes, in raping exotic dancers. He had committed countless crimes against his lair, and looking at him, she knew he didn’t care about anyone but himself. Especially women.

“Fuck that,” Robert spat. “I’m not goin’ to be sent away from my home by some outsider who thinks he can order me around. The entire point of goin’ to Borneo is to bring home a woman. You’ll do just fine. I don’ care that you aren’ a shifter.”

Her stomach lurched and then tied into knots. She took a deep calming breath. She’d left that world behind. She wasn’t about to allow a bad- tempered, evil male leopard, one who no doubt didn’t mind hitting a woman, into her life.

“The answer is no. I am never goin’ back there.”

“You have a duty to the rest of us.” Robert reached out, settled hard fingers around her upper arm and yanked her close to him.

Alarm skittered down her spine. She took a step back but his fingers only tightened into an iron band. “Let go of me, Robert. Now.” She hissed the word, letting him see she wouldn’t stand for being pushed around by him. By anyone. Not ever again. “I want you to leave. This is my shop and I’m askin’ you politely to leave.”

The bell over the bakery door tinkled merrily, at odds with the tension in the room. Both turned their heads toward the sound. Evangeline’s breath caught in her throat. She’d grown up around dangerous men. Criminals. Horrible, cunning, viciously cruel men. She knew criminals. She had a radar for them. No one needed radar to know without a single doubt that the man walking through the door of her bakery was dangerous. Terrifyingly so.

He glanced around her beautiful little shop and saw every single detail, yet he didn’t see it because there could be no appreciation. None. There was no emotion on his face or in his flat, cold, dead eyes. Beautiful eyes. Gorgeous eyes. A shocking blue. Like the blue ice of a glacier. His lashes were long and as black as night, framing those icy blue eyes. But there was not a single hint of emotion, not even when his gaze settled on Robert’s hand on her arm. Absolutely nothing. He walked. He breathed. He probably killed people. But if he did, he did it with absolutely no emotion. And he’d heard them arguing. She could tell by the way he looked at Robert’s fingers wrapped around her.

He was very tall, ruggedly built, all roped muscle, and he looked absolutely invincible. She was used to men with muscle, but he was a fighter, through and through. The way he moved—the control, the containment, smooth, fluid, easy, as if he glided or flowed across the floor rather than walked. He did that in absolute silence too, as if his very expensive Italian leather shoes didn’t actually touch the floor.

His suit looked as if it had cost as much as the renovations on the bakery space and been custom made for him—which it probably had been. His icy gaze remained on Robert’s fingers digging into her bicep. She’d all but forgotten he was gripping her so hard until fear sent a chill arrowing through her.

Robert must have felt it too. He was leopard. A shifter. She knew from gossip he had a nasty temper and was as strong as an ox. Like most shifters, he didn’t fear much. His leopard would shred an enemy in seconds if he were threatened. Still, he let her go and stepped back away from her. Away from the newcomer. Subtly putting her between them.

“Can I help you?” Evangeline asked. Her voice sounded different, even to her. Her accent was deeper, a soft sultry lure she hadn’t meant to throw, but really? Every single cell in her body was aware of him. The bayou came out in her voice more than it ever had before, and it sounded like an invitation to spend the night floating down a lazy canal together under a starlit night.

She wasn’t the type of woman to flirt with a man, let alone speak to him in a voice like that. She knew better. She knew danger when she saw it, but she came alive the moment he entered her bakery. Her body had been asleep but now it was wide awake and very aware of every inch of the Iceman. She’d already nicknamed him and thought of him as her Iceman, even if it was just in her fantasies.

His eyes focused on her. He looked at her through a blue glacier without once blinking. “Coffee. Black. A piece of your cinnamon cake.” His voice was deep. Dark. As cold as his eyes. As cold as Siberia—the dead of winter in Siberia. At the same time, it was low and sensual. She couldn’t stop the little shiver that ran through her body at the sound of it. Heat pooled low and wicked, and something wild and feral deep inside her stirred. She had an unexpected urge to take all of that molten heat spreading through her and see if she could unthaw the Iceman’s cold.

He spoke with a heavy Italian accent. For some reason that shocked her. She didn’t expect Italian. More . . . Russian. Maybe because she associated him with Siberia. She couldn’t get that out of her mind. To her, he would always be her Russian Iceman.

Evangeline nodded and turned away from his male potency. He was definitely out of her league. Out of her world. Her universe. This was not a man any sane person would want in their life. Her hands trembled as she poured the coffee— her special all- natural brew customers raved about. The pieces of the cinnamon cake were generous and she arranged one on one of the oblong-shaped plates with her fancy gold logo on it. The E for Evangeline running through the center of it.

He took it without a word. He simply nodded at her, those icy blue eyes never lighting up, never registering life in them at all. No emotion. No nothing. He certainly wasn’t feeling the electrical attraction she was. He turned away and moved across the room. He pulled a chair around so that his back would be to the wall facing the plate-glass entry. He dragged a small table in front of him, put the coffee and the plate on the table and then went to the small stand where the napkins and silverware were.

Evangeline took a deep breath and let it out. She couldn’t— wouldn’t— stare at him. Robert stepped close again, leaning into her, so that his breath puffed into her ear, an intrusion that annoyed her. She’d been so aware of the Iceman that she’d all but forgotten Robert.

“We aren’ finished, Evangeline. I’m takin’ you back with me.”

“I asked you to leave,” she said equally as quiet. “And please don’ come back.”

Robert hissed at her, his eyes going sheer cat, his temper rising at her defiance. She stood her ground, her heart suddenly pounding. She didn’t want to be afraid of him, but it was impossible with him standing so close, scowling fiercely at her. He was deliberately trying to intimidate her. She barely knew him, only what her friend Saria Boudreux— now Donovan—had told her about him, and none of it was good. Saria knew everyone, and Robert Lenoux was from one of the seven shifter families leasing thousands of acres in the swamp. Robert stepped even closer, deliberately towering over her smaller figure. Once again his fingers bit into her arm, this time hard enough to leave bruises. There was the softest of rustlings and they both turned to see the Iceman standing a few feet from them, one great big fist encased in a very expensive leather glove, shoving a napkin into the trash can. His eyes were on Robert’s face and they were colder than ever. The blue in them appeared to be glowing, a flame beneath all that ice.

Evangeline’s breath caught in her lungs and everything in her stilled. He was leopard. A shifter. It seemed impossible there in San Antonio, a place far from where she grew up. Shifters were rare and to find one in a city . . . Impossible, but there was no mistaking those eyes. Exotic. Terrifying. Totally focused on Robert.

“Let. Her. Go.” Each word was soft. Spoken in a low tone. Ice dripped from the voice. The Iceman didn’t look at Evangeline, his entire focus on the man hurting her.

Robert couldn’t fail to see those eyes, read death in them and know what the Iceman was. He hissed a curse word, let go of Evangeline, turned and stormed out, slamming the door. The Iceman turned back toward his table.

“Thank you,” Evangeline said softly. Meaning it. She’d left all that behind her and she never wanted to go back. It didn’t matter that this man clearly was a criminal. Or far more dangerous than Robert could ever be. Or that Robert ran like a rabbit from him when his leopard had to have been raking and clawing for a fight. He’d stepped in when he didn’t have to, and she was grateful. He deserved to know it.

The Iceman turned slightly, looking at her over one broad shoulder. His glacier-blue eyes swept over her and then he nodded slightly before turning away.

Evangeline let out her breath slowly and turned back to straightening the baked goods in the case. She got up at three A.M. every morning and baked the day’s goods so they were fresh. She couldn’t afford to hire anyone else to work in her shop, so she did it all. The baking, the coffee, the dishes, the cleaning of the shop, all of it, and she took pride in her work. She was getting by, managing to pay the bills each month, and that meant she could keep her independence. She was determined to make it on her own.

She snuck another quick look at her Iceman. He wasn’t paying her the slightest bit of attention. Not. At. All. She knew she was easy on the eyes. Since coming to San Antonio, men had flirted outrageously with her. She had no idea what to do with their attention, nor did she want it, but she’d come to realize all the things Saria had tried to convince her about her looks might actually be true.

She wasn’t quite five foot four, so she didn’t have those long legs that attracted men, but she had generous curves and a small waist to emphasize them. Her hair was long and very dark, her eyes a true green, like emeralds, a startling color surrounded by long, thick, black lashes. She had great skin, a luscious mouth and a small, straight nose. All in all, she wasn’t hard to look at. But he wasn’t looking.

Fortunately, so she didn’t make a complete fool of herself, customers began to trickle in. She knew when he got up and left that he didn’t look back.

Over the next week, her Iceman came in three more times. He tried something different each time by pointing or jerking his chin, not speaking. She noticed he preferred things with cinnamon and he liked apples. He always took his coffee black and all three times he indicated he wanted a refill. Each time he came in he rearranged her tables so he could sit with his back against the wall. After the third time, she moved the table herself and left it there permanently for him. He didn’t acknowledge that she’d done it, and in a way she was glad. She needed the business, but she didn’t want a relationship with him.

She’d thought with time he would become less scary, less intimidating, but she was wrong. He was more so. An aura of danger clung to him like a second skin. He never laughed. He never smiled. He barely acknowledged her, yet he was aware of everything, every movement, in her shop and on the street. She was certain he was armed to the teeth and sometimes she was afraid the few cops who frequented her shop would come in at the same time and there would be a shoot-out or something equally as awful.

Two months passed and he came in three times a week, sometimes four, but he never spoke beyond placing his order. She found herself watching for him. Smiling at him when he came in. He never smiled back, but he did stay longer. At least a half an hour longer than he had before.

A few others dressed in Italian suits came in over the third month, never at the same time as her Iceman, but she knew he’d sent them her way. Business seemed to pick up even more after that, as if seeing people in her shop brought in even more customers. That meant she had to work harder, baking more goods, but she didn’t mind; she was finally making it.

She’d all but forgotten Robert. He was waiting for her to open on a Thursday morning, a day her Iceman rarely came in. That told her Robert had been watching the store, probably looking for a pattern. Her heart stuttered when she saw him come through the door. He casually reached over and turned her sign from open to closed.

She reached for her cell phone. He leapt across the room the way leopards could do, jerking it from her hand and flinging it onto the floor a distance away. It shattered, pieces scattering. Evangeline took a deep breath and moved out from behind the counter, not wanting anything to get broken.

“You bitch,” Robert bit out. “You aren’ gettin’ away with this.”

“What are you talkin’ about? I’m not tryin’ to get away with anythin’.”

“You told Saria I wasn’t in the rain forest. You couldn’t just let it go.”

She frowned, shaking her head. “I haven’t spoken to Saria in months. I’ve been too busy.” She should have. Her friend would be worried about her.

Robert stalked her across the room, and she couldn’t help herself. In spite of her determination not to give ground, she did, backing up almost to the door.

“Fuckin’ liar. Tryin’ to get me in trouble. I was goin’ to let it go. The last thing I want is a woman who can’t shift, but now you’re goin’ to pay for tryin’ to get Drake and the others to come lookin’ for me. This is the way it’s goin’ to be. I’ve been stayin’ in a room in town but now I’m goin’ to be stayin’ with you. Hand over the keys to your house. And I need money. I know you got it, and you can give it to me.”

“You’re out of your mind if you think I’m goin’ to let you move in with me. I earned any money I have and it goes to payin’ bills.”

He backhanded her. Hard. Her cheek felt as if it had exploded. Her eyes teared up and she found herself on the floor. He was strong, incredibly strong, and his leopard was close. She could see it in his eyes, those yellowish- green eyes glowing with menace at her.

Deep inside her, wildness woke a feral, dark creature; furious, raging even. The skin raised along her arms and legs, an itch heralding the arrival of her other.

No, Bebe, she said sharply. He can’t know about you. She’d take a beating before she’d ever expose her best friend to such an abomination of a shifter.

Robert came at her again, deliberately using the stalking motion of the leopard. When she tried to get up off the floor, he hit her again, striking the same side of her face. The pain made her feel sick to her stomach.

She heard the bell over the door as if in the distance, and then, blinking to clear the tears from her eyes, she saw Robert doubling over, grunting, his breath a sob. Her Iceman was standing over him, his big, gloved fist hitting hard, over and over. She heard ribs crack. Heard them. A short uppercut to the chin staggered Robert and he went to his knees. The Iceman caught him around the waist and half walked, half dragged him out the door.

Evangeline tried to pull herself up by using the wall, all the while staring out the window. There was a black town car with darkened windows parked in front of her bakery. A man in a suit held the door open while the Iceman thrust Robert inside and then climbed in after him. It wasn’t more than thirty seconds at most before he emerged, looking exactly the same.

Through the open door of the car she caught a glimpse of Robert slumped on the seat, his neck at an odd angle. She shivered as her Iceman spoke briefly to the driver and then slammed the door. He waited until the car drove off, spoke briefly into his phone and then returned to the shop.

He hadn’t changed expression. Not once. Not when he’d been beating the crap out of Robert and not when he’d gotten out of the car. She was almost certain Robert was dead. Her Iceman hadn’t bothered to call his leopard to fight Robert’s. She knew that would have been a sign of respect and clearly the Iceman didn’t feel any at all for Robert.

“Are you all right?” He crouched beside her.

Up close he smelled as good as he looked. A little wild. But like a cool forest, one covered in snow in the winter. His eyes were even more beautiful than she’d first thought. So cold they made her shiver. So blue she thought she could drown.

“Evangeline.” She needed him to know her name. “I’m Evangeline.”

“I know.” He touched her cheek with gentle fingers. He wore gloves, so it wasn’t skin-to-skin contact, but it didn’t matter, her body still reacted with heat.

How could he know her name? It wasn’t like it was on the bakery anywhere. Just an E. She’d used calligraphy and the letter came out elegant, just what she was going for in her shop. Small Sweet Shoppe. She’d loved that for some odd reason and she still did.

“This is where you tell me your name.”

He wrapped his arm around her waist and lifted her to her feet, retaining his hold so that she didn’t fall. That something wild in her unfurled. Stretched. Reached toward her Iceman until her skin felt tight, itched like crazy and then receded.

Don’t you dare, she cautioned.

She had the impression of amusement and then she was alone again.

“You don’ want me to keep callin’ you my Iceman. That’s what I do in my head. Better to have a name, don’ you think?”

Her cheek throbbed and burned like hell and she knew it was swelling. So was her eye. Great. She’d have to go all day answering questions when customers started coming in. If they came in. She’d forgotten the sign was turned to closed.

His glacier-blue eyes moved over her face. No change in expression. So much for being alluring with her sense of humor and her really nicely swollen face. She had to look awful. This was what came from being vain about her skin.

“Alonzo.”

A word. His name. Elation swept through her even as she knew, deep down, he was lying to her. His name was not Alonzo. She heard the lie. Still, she let him get away with it because he’d just saved her from a savage beating. Robert would have robbed her as well.

“Is he alive?” She knew he wasn’t. She knew it with the same certainty that she knew Alonzo wasn’t her Iceman’s real name.

“Does it matter?” He began walking her toward the back room, going around the counter space over her beautiful display cases.

Did it? It was wrong to kill someone by civilized law. The law of the shifters was different, and rogues received a death sentence if they endangered others of the lair. She’d left the lair and that life behind.

She glanced up at him to see him looking down at her with a leopard’s focus. No change in expression. He was as cold as ice.

“He mean something to you?”

She shook her head and immediately wished she hadn’t. A small sound escaped before she could stop it. He instantly lifted her into his arms, clearly done with their slow progress. In his arms, held tightly against his chest, she could feel those heavy muscles rippling as he glided across the floor. There was no jarring of her body, not the way he moved, so fluid, and not the way he held her, nearly crushing her against his chest.

He swept into her kitchen, placed her into a chair and went to the refrigerator. She wished she’d worn something nice. She didn’t have a lot in the way of nice. She’d used her money for a down payment on a small house, and the rest of it went to the bakery. Every cent she had was tied up in her business, so no nice clothes. She didn’t date so she didn’t need them—until now.

He pressed a bag of ice into her hand. “Hold that against your cheek and answer me. When I ask a question I expect an answer.”

“Does that go both ways?”

Her eyes met his and she shivered again. The glacier had just gotten colder if that was possible. “I barely knew him. He was a troublemaker back home. I’d never met him until he came to the bakery. He wanted money.”

“And you. He wanted you.”

She didn’t think so, but she wasn’t going to argue with him.

“Does it matter if he’s dead?”

She took a deep breath. Really, she didn’t want to answer because it wasn’t going to show her in a good light, but Robert wouldn’t have stopped at a beating. She knew his reputation.

Evangeline lifted her chin, looked him straight in the eye and shook her head. “Only if it meant you would get into trouble for savin’ me.”

“He won’t bother you again.” He didn’t take his gaze from hers, watching carefully for her reaction.

She felt relief more than anything else. And guilt that she felt relief. The ice burned on her cheek but felt good. “Thank you. It seems I owe you again. I guess I’ll have to give you free cinnamon cake for the rest of your life.”

He didn’t respond. Nor did he smile. She sighed and looked down at her lap. She shouldn’t want his attention. He’d just killed a man. She couldn’t be certain, but if he had, he’d done so casually and without emotion. She would be insane to be attracted to him and yet . . . she was. Attracted wasn’t even a word she would use for what she was around him.

“Why are you here? You never come on Thursday, that’s why he chose today.”

“His bad luck. I wanted to get a few dozen of your cinnamon-apple cookies for my boss. I came in early so you would have plenty.”

She started to put the ice pack down but he pushed her hand back, covering it with his own. He always wore those butter-soft gloves. Under them she could see the bulges of several rings. Big square, thick ones. She noticed them every single time he reached for his coffee mug. They intrigued her, just as the tattoos she could see drifting up his neck from under that perfect suit. For some reason those tattoos made him all the hotter to her. She’d awakened twice now from a dream of peeling that suit from him to uncover all the treasures underneath.

She felt the color rising, and there was no way to stop it. “I have to open the store.”

“You have to sit for a full fifteen minutes with that ice pack on. Then you open the store. Your customers will wait.”

Even his voice affected her body, bringing all her nerve endings alive as if he had created an electrical charge between them. Again, the female inside her moved toward the surface, toward him. Lazily, really. As if she couldn’t quite be bothered. She subsided quickly as she’d done before, leaving behind an unsettling itch that settled between her legs. Deep. She was going to kill her leopard.

Stop, you little hussy. You don’ want him takin’ an interest in us.

Again there was that impression of amusement before Bebe settled completely.

Evangeline had been born into a family of shifters. Her  brothers had leopards. Her father and uncle did. It stood to reason she might as well. Saria had talked to her about the feeling when a leopard began to surface. She knew she was one. She’d always known. Her female, Bebe, was as much a part of her as her own skin. As breathing. She had hidden the fact that she had a leopard from her friends, from her family. They would insist she return to the lair and she was never going back there.

“Evangeline?”

Her name rolled off Alonzo’s tongue with that accent that sent another shiver of awareness down her spine. Heat curled but Bebe stayed still. Hidden. She breathed a sigh of relief and looked up at him.

“Did he get you anywhere else?”

She shook her head and again wished she hadn’t moved so fast. Her cheek pounded and her eye hurt. Oh no. That was swelling too. Of course—she just had to look the absolute worst when he came in.

He glanced at his watch, took the ice pack from her, threw it into the sink and tipped her head back, using one finger under her chin. “You’re going to bruise, bad enough that makeup won’t hide it, but you can make up some story for your customers. I noticed there are a lot of men. They’ll believe anything you have to say.”

Her gaze jumped to his face. His voice was exactly the same. His face could have been carved from the glacier in his eyes. Remote. Uncaring. Dead. With all that, she felt like there was just a little bite in his remark, as if maybe the thought of those male customers didn’t sit well with him.

He looked at her for a long time, wholly focused on her, his gaze drifting over her body and then moving back up to her face. He nodded and turned away from her. Instinctively she knew that was the most she was going to get out of him. He bought three dozen of her cinnamon-apple cookies and didn’t stay to drink coffee. Another car, this one also a town car, but with red trim through the black, was waiting at the curb for him.

He came back on his usual days, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, sat in his seat with his back to the wall and drank his coffee and ate his baked goods. They had progressed to smiles and greeting him by name on her part and a nod with one single word, “Evangeline,” on his. She looked forward to him coming in. She tried to give him his cinnamon-apple cake free, but he merely looked at her and pushed money across the counter at her. At least he said her name. That was progress, even if it took six months for him to do it.

Several customers, male, noticed him, but left him strictly alone. When he wasn’t there, they came back and warned her that he was dangerous. She shrugged and said he was a good customer and never caused any problems.

One of the many times her Iceman sat at the table drinking his coffee, he suddenly looked up, his gaze going straight to the walkway outside her shop. Evangeline followed his gaze and immediately stiffened. This could be bad. Quickly, she reached inside her cash register and grabbed the envelope stuffed there and hurried toward the front door. Alonzo was there before her. One arm circled her waist and he gently but very firmly put her behind him as he opened the door for the two men coming in. Only he blocked the entrance, preventing them from coming inside.

“Alonzo.” One of the men smiled hesitantly at him. “We’re here on business.”

Alonzo shook his head. Evangeline curled her fingers into the back of his suit jacket and held on, her heart pounding. If she didn’t pay these men off, like everyone on the street did, she would find herself without a shop. They’d come in when she was renovating and explained they would never take more than necessary to keep her shop safe. She knew that meant pay up or they’d burn her out or something equally as horrible. She’d talked with other shop owners and all of them paid protection money. She figured the price into her monthly budget.

“They have guns,” she whispered against his back. “I’ve got their money.”

“The boss won’t like this,” one said, but he took a step back.

“You let me worry about that. This shop is mine to take care of. He has a problem with that, I’ll settle it myself.”

She was fairly certain he was talking about the mafia. Was he involved? The men shaking her down knew him by name, but they appeared to be afraid of him. She didn’t want him in trouble with a mafia boss.

“I’ve got the money,” she reiterated, trying to reach around him to hand the envelope to the two men.

Both men nearly fell backward, stumbling away from her hand. Her Iceman caught her wrist with a gentleness that shocked her and brought her hand down to his thigh. Alonzo didn’t look at her, but continued staring at the two men who turned and walked very briskly away.

“If I don’ pay, they’ll ruin my business,” she said, taking a step around him toward the door.

“They won’t.” He tugged on her hand and led her back to the counter. “In the six months I’ve been coming here, your male customers have quadrupled and they hit on you continually. You never date. Why?”

It was the last thing Evangeline expected him to ask. She still clutched the envelope in her hand, holding it tight against his rock-hard thigh. “Why do you ask?”

“A woman like you has no business being alone.”

“Like me?” She echoed it, trying to figure out where he was going with his questions and that statement that she found alternatingly annoying and alarming. Did he know she was leopard? Just what did “like you” mean?

Subtly she twisted her hand, expecting him to release her. She couldn’t keep her palm pressed against the heat of his thigh with his muscles moving deliciously beneath it and not react. Heat spread through her like molten lava, a slow fire building in her veins and pooling low.

He didn’t release her hand. He didn’t even seem to notice her small movement of retreat, but she knew he had. He noticed everything. His gaze remained on her face. All ice. So cold she thought she might freeze. There was no hint of his leopard. There never was. She could almost forget he was a shifter, but she could never forget the danger that clung to him like a second skin.

“Yes, Evangeline, like you. I’ve never seen a more beautiful woman in my life. This isn’t a bad part of town, but it’s near enough. You come here at three in the morning and work alone until you close. You need a man.”

He wasn’t volunteering, that was for certain. But he’d said she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. That was something. Of course he’d said it in his cold, devoid-of-all- feeling voice, but he had at least thought it to say it. Again, even though there was no emotion in his voice, she still felt that little bite, as if he were annoyed beyond all endurance that she was single.

She lifted her chin at him. “Some women prefer to be single.”

He was silent, studying her face. Slowly he shook his head. “Some women shouldn’t ever be single.” He let go of her hand. “They won’t come back. They know they will answer to me if they do.”

She dared to lay her hand on his arm as he turned away from her. “Alonzo, I don’ mind payin’ the money. I don’ want you to get in trouble with anyone. Those men made it sound like someone was goin’ to be upset with you for interferin’. I’d rather pay the money than have you get into trouble.”

He halted and looked down at her hand. Her fingers didn’t even curl halfway around his forearm. As a deterrent her hand seemed rather absurd to try to stop him. Still, he remained there, towering over her. “Don’t worry about me, Evangeline.”

“I think when you said if there was a problem, you’d take care of it yourself, you meant you’d pay the money. I’m not going to let you do that.”

He removed her hand very gently and stepped away, toward the door. “You don’t really have a choice one way or the other.” He walked out like he always did—without looking back.

Evangeline waited for him for the next two weeks. She had the envelope filled with cash waiting for him or for the two men who came to collect each week. Neither showed up and that worried her. Had something happened to him because he’d stood up for her? There was no way to get in touch with him. She didn’t know his last name or where he worked.

The other customers, the ones in their suits that she was certain Alonzo had sent, suddenly stopped coming in as well. She’d heard on the news that Antonio Arnotto, famous for his wines, had been murdered. It was rumored he was actually a crime boss, and his territory was wide open for takeover. Speculation of a war began with various faces being flashed on the television screen. She watched carefully, but none of those faces belonged to Alonzo.

Another week went by and still he didn’t come. She was fairly certain he wouldn’t now, and she went over every single thing she’d said and done. She’d touched him. She knew better. He was a man alone. He was frozen. Dead inside. Without emotion—and she’d crossed a line.

She wasn’t able to sleep very well, dreaming he’d been shot and killed. Beaten and stabbed. Buried alive in cement. She was afraid to close her eyes. The shop was thriving, but it didn’t seem the same, not without him in it. She kept the news playing at home and work. On week five, she saw a picture of him on the television. He was standing beside another known crime boss, Elijah Lospostos, and his wife, Siena. Siena was the granddaughter of Antonio Arnotto. Alonzo Massi had been a soldier for her grandfather and was now her soldier. The news anchor asked if Alonzo Massi was the new crime boss rising out of the ranks to become the newest don, taking over Arnotto territory.

At least she knew he was alive. Still, she knew he wouldn’t be coming back. And Siena Arnotto Lospostos was gorgeous. She couldn’t hope to hold a candle to her, whether or not her Iceman had declared Evangeline the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. Siena might be married, but how could Alonzo possibly think Evangeline was beautiful next to Siena? Was he taking care of Siena? Her soldier. What did that mean? That he wasn’t coming back. That was what it meant.

Leopard’s Fury will be out November 8th and is up for pre-order now:

Amazon

Waterstones

Kindle

Kobo

iBooks

Google Play

In the meantime, if you haven’t read Christine’s Dark Ghost or Viper Game both are £2.99 at the moment.

Jayne Ann Krentz Shares Scene from Illusion Town

Illusion Town

Jayne Ann Krentz, also known as Amanda Quick and Jayne Castle, has a scene from her brilliant Illusion Town for us today! Jayne’s world? Head on over to Harmony and discover a whole world where some natural-born talents have created some very dangerous people – and dust bunnies are real!

 

This scene takes place shortly after Hannah  West wakes up next to a man she barely knows, Elias Coppersmith.  Neither of them can remember what happened during the night . . .

 

 

“The night clerk is still on duty downstairs,” Elias said.  “He remembers checking us in.  He also said no one showed up asking questions about us.”

“Well, that sounds like good news,” Hannah said.  “Sort of.  I guess.”

“Yeah, that’s my take on it.  Assuming he wasn’t lying, of course.  But I’m inclined to believe him.”

“Why?”

“Because we’re still here and there’s no indication that anyone has tried to get into this room.”  Elias angled his head toward Virgil.  “Also, your dust bunny pal doesn’t seem to be concerned.”

Hannah looked at Virgil.  He was fully fluffed.  You could hardly see his ears or his six paws and only his baby blue eyes were showing.  When things got serious, his second set of eyes – the ones he used for hunting – popped open.  He was in full cute mode at the moment.  That was reassuring.

“Good point,” she said.  “But why are we dressed up?  It looks like we went out on the town.”

“A date, I think,” Elias said.

“I never date clients.”

“First time for everything.”

 “Let’s start with the basics,” she said.  “Where, exactly are we?”

“The Shadow Zone Motel.”  Elias plucked an old brochure off the nightstand and handed it to her.  “ ‘A luxurious retreat and spa in the heart of the Shadow Zone.  Every amenity designed with your privacy in mind.  Honeymoons our specialty.’”

“Honeymoons, hmm?”  She surveyed the room, taking in the shabby furnishings, yellowed walls and worn carpet.  “Looks like a hot sheet kind of place.”

“Yeah, that pretty much describes it.  But it seems clean.  Probably why we chose it.”

She started toward the bathroom.  The room shifted on its axis and then settled back into place. She stopped abruptly and massaged her temples, trying desperately to recover some memories.  The harder she tried, the more elusive the fleeting images became.

“Damn it, what happened to us?” she asked.

“I don’t know.” Elias went to the window.  He used the barrel of the strange weapon to ease the blinds aside.  “Best guess is that we got psi-burned sometime last night.  Somehow we found this place, checked in and crashed.”

Psi-burned.  That was not good.  She tried to remember what she knew about getting burned.  The effects were notoriously unpredictable and could vary from temporary amnesia to serious trauma or even complete destruction of the paranormal senses.   A really bad psi-burn could kill.

“We’re not dead,” she said. 

“There’s that,” he agreed.

She groped for memories and got only fleeting, meaningless flashes.  A dark street.  The full-throated roar of a big motorcycle engine.  A cupcake iced with white frosting.

A cupcake?

Another little rush of panic flickered through her, tightening her breathing.  Maybe she was hallucinating.  She told herself to process things slowly.

“I need to wash up,” she said.  “Maybe some cold water will clear my head.”

“Good luck with that.  Didn’t do much for me. Just make it quick.”

“Who, exactly, do you think is after us?”

“I have no idea,” Elias said.

“Oh, hey, don’t try to sugarcoat your answer.”

“Sorry.  Figured you’d want the truth.”

“I do.” She paused.  “I think.”

She started toward the bathroom again, automatically rezzing a little talent.  Overwhelming relief snapped through her when she felt her para senses stir in response.  Between one breath and the next the room was suddenly illuminated in a range of colors that she had not been able to perceive while in her normal vision. 

Not that the place looked any more attractive when viewed in light from the paranormal ends of the spectrum, she thought.  It was still a hot sheet motel.

“Yeah, I’ve still got my talent, too,” Elias said.  “Whatever burned us didn’t wipe out our para senses,  just our memories of last night.”

She stared at him.  “You could feel me rez my senses?”

“Sure.  Hard to not notice.  You’re strong.”

That was true.  But it took a powerful talent to sense that sort of thing from across the room. 

Well, she had known that he was a high-end talent, she reminded herself.  She hurried toward the bathroom.

“I’ll be out in a minute,” she said.

“By the way, one more thing you should know about our current situation,” Elias said.

She paused in the doorway and looked back at him.  “How bad is this one more thing?”

“Depends on your point of view.  We’re married.”

Want to keep reading? Get your copy:

Kindle

Kobo

iBooks

Google Play

And don’t forget, Jayne’s Lost Night is £2.99 for the week!

Exclusive Scene from Suzanne Wright!

Suzanne Wright

It’s Day Two of #WelcomeToMyWorld and the treats keep coming! We’ve had an exclusive excerpt from J. R. Ward’s Blood Vow, the superhero chat with Jayne Ann Krentz and Emma Jane Holloway and giveaways over on Facebook. Now we have an exclusive scene from Suzanne Wright, author of the Dark in You series!!!!

Come join Harper and Knox at Grandma Jolene’s Halloween party!

 

It was quite a sight. The streamers and banners fluttered with the breeze. Pumpkins lined the path, and fake tombstones, and dismembered limbs were strewn across the lawn. Knox could hear the music and laughter from there. Not his scene at all. But somewhere inside was his mate, who was deliberately ignoring his calls.

“Look on the bright side,” said Keenan, his sentinel. “She could be dressed in a slutty maid uniform. They’re always fun.”

Reaching the porch, Knox looked carefully at the life-size Grim Reaper near the door, not trusting that it was simply a prop. Imps took delight in tormenting people. Keeping a wary eye on the reaper, Knox pressed the bell, and a bloodcurdling scream sounded from nowhere. He didn’t jump. Not even when plastic spiders rained down on them. But his heartbeat did kick up just a little—something he’d take to his grave.

The door opened, and a woman in a Maleficent outfit grinned at them. “Knox, always a pleasure,” said Jolene, Harper’s grandmother. She frowned at Keenan, who was frantically batting nonexistent spiders from his head. “You got them all, sweetie. Now come on inside.”

Knox walked into the house, squinting to see through the smoke. “Is this courtesy of Martina?” Harper’s aunt lived to set shit on fire.

“No, just a smoke machine. Martina’s over there.” Jolene gestured to a zombie showgirl who was doing the Cancan dance while a bunch of imps cheered her on.

“Where’s Harper?” The sooner he found her and got out of there, the better.

“Somewhere inside. Go one through.”

The smells of candy, popcorn, hairspray, and cookies scented the air. Lots of people gathered around the hall, talking, drinking, and laughing; all were dressed in Halloween costumes. Some outfits were good, like the Edward Scissorhands costume and the weird yet creepy scarecrow getup. Other outfits were clearly DIY, like the guy wearing a red cardboard ‘Kissing Booth’ . . . who, Knox quickly realized with a frown, happened to be Tanner—one of his sentinels and Harper’s bodyguard.

Bemused, Knox walked over to him. “You dressed up?”

Tanner’s cheeks flushed. “This is Jolene’s doing.” The hellhound took a swig from his bottle of beer. “I’m just being a good sport.”

“Huh,” said Keenan. “How busy is your booth?”

Tanner spared an approaching hellcat a longing glance and said, “Not busy enough.”

Devon sidled up to Knox, fingers digging into her hair. “This wig itches like crazy.” Her Medusa dress rustled as she gestured down the hallway. “I’m pretty sure Harper’s in the living room.” She spun with a hiss when Tanner tugged on her wig.

Tanner just smiled. “Such a cranky kitty.”

She scowled. “Don’t you have some bones to bury?”

Leaving Keenan to try to stop the two from arguing, Knox stalked down the hallway and peeked into the living area. There was no sign of Harper. There was, however, an imp singing Ghostbusters to his hedgehog on the Karaoke. And that wasn’t weird at all.

Spotting Harper’s cousin, Ciaran, dressed in a Where’s Waldo costume, Knox headed over. “Where’s Harper?”

Ciaran smiled. “Happy Halloween to you too. She was in the dining room last time I saw her.”

Turning, Knox strode out of the room. As he ducked to avoid a fake spider web, he almost crashed into a little girl.

She waved up at him, her smile angelic. “Hi, Knox!”

“Heidi, you look . . .” Like a creepy kid ghost from a scary movie. “Cute.” Her hair had been backcombed, her face was white with black smears under her eyes, and she was carrying a headless doll.

“Grandma Jolene did my make-up,” she said proudly. “Want some candy?” She pointed to the dining area, where there was a table filled with novelty candy, ghost-shaped cookies, sandwiches, popcorn, and pumpkin pie.

“No, thanks. I’m looking for Harper.”

“She’s in the kitchen.”

“Thank you.” Knox held out his hand. “I’m going to need my wallet back.”

Grumbling something under her breath, the little pickpocket handed it over.

With a nod of thanks, Knox headed to the kitchen. There was yet again no sign of Harper. As he got a good look at the guy in the Mad Hatter costume, he couldn’t help but think that it was the right choice of outfit. Knox inclined his and greeted, “Lou.”

The devil grinned. “Surprised to see you here. How come you didn’t dress up?”

“Because I’m not eight. Have you seen Harper?”

“She went outside with her friend.” Lou popped a jelly eyeball in his mouth. “You got her pregnant yet?”

Knox sighed. “I’m not having this conversation with you.”

“All I want is your solid oath to name your first born son after me.”

“It’s not going to happen, Lou, let it go.” As a motion-activated hand scuttled across the floor, Knox moved aside, almost bumping into a guy wearing a hospital gown complete with a plastic bare ass. As Lou picked up the electronic hand and started using it to fondle the plastic ass, Knox stalked out of the kitchen and into the backyard.

And there was his mate, sitting on a hay bale with her friend. They both looked up at him, Harper shot him a bright smile. With that, his frustration eased away.

Raini, who was dressed as Harley Quinn, gave him a quick wave and retreated inside.

Taking Harper’s hand, he pulled her to her feet and kissed her hard. “You taste like candy apples.” He skimmed his hands up her bare arms, which were chilled by the breeze.

She frowned, smoothing a hand down his shirt. “You didn’t dress up.”

“You did,” he said, studying the beige dress that had stitch marks, patches, and a red heart on it. “But I can’t work out what you’re supposed to be.”

“Duh, a voodoo doll.”

“Ah, I see it now.” He kissed her again, ending it with a punishing nip to her lower lip. “You didn’t answer your phone.”

“You tried calling me?” She blinked, all innocence. “There’s a lot of noise in there.”

“You were hiding from me. I’ve no idea why. You knew I’d come for you.”

She shrugged. “Hiding from you was really the only way to get you to come inside.”

“Sneaky.” He cupped her hips. “Tell me you’re ready to leave.”

“We haven’t gone out to terrorize all the trick-or-treaters yet.”

“I want to take you home.” He slid his hands down to cup her ass. “There are a lot of things I want to do to you, and I can’t do any of them here.”

“Stop using your sex voice.”

He kissed, licked, and bit her neck, knowing how sensitive it was. “Come home with me.”

“But it’s early.”

“You love me, right?”

“Yes,” she breathed.

“Then come with me.”

“But I haven’t—” She froze, brow furrowing. “Is that… is that Lou singing Tina Turner’s What’s Love Got to Do with It? on the karaoke?”

Knox gave her a faint smile. “Yep. And if the whistles and catcalls are anything to go by, he’s dancing and possibly even stripping. I think we both know that Baby Got Back will be next.”

She groaned. “Let’s just go.”

“If you insist.”

 

For today only in the US and Canada get Burn for $0.99.

 

Nook: http://fal.cn/…

Amazon US: http://fal.cn/…

In the UK and Australia Burn is available at half price for the week:

 

Amazon Australia: http://fal.cn/…
Amazon UK: http://fal.cn/…
iBooks UK: http://fal.cn/…
Google Play: http://fal.cn/…
If you prefer you books in audio Burn and Blaze are now out in the UK and Australia, and will be coming to the US soon.
Burn Audible UK : http://fal.cn/…
Burn Audible Australia: http://fal.cn/…
Blaze Audible UK: http://fal.cn/…
Blaze Audible Australia: http://fal.cn/…

 

And for those of you who’ve already read Burn and Blaze . . . Ashes will be released worldwide in July and is already up for pre-order in some countries!

Amazon US : http://fal.cn/…

Nook US : http://fal.cn/…

Amazon UK : http://fal.cn/…

Kobo UK: http://fal.cn/…

Google Play UK: http://fal.cn/…

 

Exclusive Early Excerpt from J. R. Ward’s BLOOD VOW

Blood Vow

We’re kicking off #WelcomeToMyWorld with an exclusive, early excerpt from J. R. Ward’s Blood Vow. Rhage and Mary and Bitty are all back!

BLOOD VOW

Trainees  at the Black Dagger Brotherhood’ training centre continue to prepare  for the fight against the Lessening Society, but fighting is the last  thing on Axe’s mind. Still plagued with the guilt of his father’s death,  the brooding loner finds himself battling an unlikely attraction to  Peyton’s bright, aristocratic cousin, Elise.

Elise feels it too – and when the two are thrown together in unusual circumstances Elise must decide whether she can trust Axe to help her uncover the mystery  surrounding her sister’s death.

Meanwhile, Mary and Rhage are in the process of adopting Bitty, a young pretrans orphan, until the  appearance of a young male claiming to be Bitty’s blooded uncle threatens to tear the new family apart.

 

CHAPTER TWO

The Black Dagger Brotherhood Mansion

“So what is that?”

As Rhage’s daughter piped up, he froze with his gun halfway into his under-arm holster. For a split second, he decided to pretend that he hadn’t heard her—but that was going to get him nowhere. In the two months or so that he and Mary had had Bitty, they’d both learned that she was smart as a whip and tenacious as flypaper.

Ordinarily, he got a kick out of those two defining characteristics. When it came to describing the technical specs of a forty-caliber killing weapon to his thirteen-year-old? Pass. He wished she had an empty skull and ADD.

“Ah . . .”

He glanced into the mirror over the bureau, hoping against hope that she had moved on to something, anything else. Nope. Bitty was sitting on his and Mary’s new bed, the one in the third-floor suite that Trez had graciously moved out of so the three of them could have adjoining rooms. The girl was way on the small side, her skinny arms and legs the kind of thing that made him want to move to the tropics instead of live in Upstate New Freezing-Fucking-Cold. Hell, even under a body weight’s worth of fleece, she seemed fragile.

But the oh, dainties ended right there. Her brown eyes were direct as an adult’s, old as a mountain range, keen as an eagle’s. Her dark hair was thick and shiny, falling past her shoulders, nearly the exact color of Mary’s. And her aura, her . . . whatever, life force, spirit, soul . . . was as tangible as her physical form seemed almost transient.

He took pride in the fact that the longer she stayed with them, the more she was emerging. Not like a flower.

Like a fucking oak.

Buuuuuuuuuuuuuut that didn’t mean he wanted to get into the nitty gritty of his job killing lessers with her.

And nope. Really not interested in the whole birds-and-bees talk, either. At least they had another twelve years or so to prepare for that.

“Father?” she prompted.

Rhage closed his eyes. Okay, so every time she called him that, his heart got too big for his chest and this unreal, won-the-lottery feeling sunrised all over him. It took him back to right after he and Mary had been mated and he’d gotten to call her shellan for the first time.

Pure, full-bore awesomeness.

“What is it?” Bitty prompted.

That happy pink bubblegum glow faded as he seated the gun and clipped its strap over the butt. “It’s a weapon.”

“I know—it’s a gun. But what kind?”

“A Smith and Wesson forty.”

“How many bullets are in it?”

“Enough.” He picked up his leather jacket and smiled. “Hey, you ready for movie night when I get home?”

“Why don’t you want to tell me about your gun?”

Because if you’re the audience, I can’t separate what I do with it from a discussion of its specs. “It’s just not all that interesting.”

“It’s what keeps you alive, though, right?” The little girl’s eyes locked on the black daggers that were holstered on his chest, handles down. “Like your knives.”

“Among other things.”

“So that’s interesting. To me, at least.”

“Look, how ’bout we talk about this when your mom and I are both here? You know, like, later tonight.”

“But how do I know you’ll come home safe?”

Rhage blinked. “I am never not coming back to you and Mary.”

“What if you die, though?”

His first thought was:

MAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARY!

His Mary, as a trained therapist—who had treated Z with all his demons, for godsakes—could deal with this so much better than some meathead fighter like him could. But his shellan was at Safe Place, working, and he didn’t feel right about calling and possibly interrupting her with anything other than an arterial bleed or a house fire. Zombie apocalypse. H-bomb behind the compound.

And fine, maybe if they were out of cheesecake.

Except he needed to man up. What was going down right now? This was Father Shit, and not only had he signed up for exactly these kinds of hard conversations when he and Mary had started the adoption process, he really didn’t want to admit this early that he couldn’t handle the job.

Okay, note to self: Find an online course on being a father. Surely there had to be a curriculum for this kind of thing.

“I’m just worried,” she said. “It’s scary for me, okay?”

Jesus, it was scary for him, too. He had so much more to lose with her in his life.

Rhage went over and knelt down. Bitty had tucked her arms around herself and her eyes were steady as if she were not going to accept a load of bullcrap.

Opening his mouth, he . . .

Closed it. And wondered what he needed to do to jump-start his brain. Maybe bang it into a wall?

“You know my car?” he heard himself say.

As Bitty nodded, he had an image of Puskar Nepal–ing himself until he passed the fuck out from foot-to-forehead contact: Of all the things for his subconscious, or whatever was running his program, to spit out, he led with his GTO?

“Well, you know when I was teaching you to drive?”

Yeah, Bits, right before those kids attacked Mary and you found out that I have a dragon for an alter ego? Har-har, good times, good times.

God, he wanted to throw up.

As she nodded again, he said, “You remember when you were figuring out the gears and the steering wheel and the brakes? Going back and forth, again and again, until you could get it right?”

“Yes.”

“You know how I drive that car?”

“Oh, yes.” Now, she smiled. “Fast. Very fast and fun. It’s like a rocket.”

“So, someday, you’re going to drive her just as well as I do. You’re going to know where the gears are by feel, and you’re going to work the clutch and the gas without thought. And if someone swerves in front of you, you’re going to react so quick and so sure, you’re not going to be aware of even thinking about it. If somebody slams on the brakes, you’re going to shift lanes instinctually. You’re going to feel the tires hydroplaning on the highway in the rain and you’re going to know to slow up on the gas, but not hit the brakes. And all of that is going to happen because you’re going to practice, practice, practice on a car that is kept in tip-top shape.”

“I’m going to practice. So I drive better.”

“Right. Even if the people around you drive dangerously, you’re going to be aware and focused and trained to deal with whatever comes at you.” He put his palm over his daggers, over his heart. “I have been out there fighting for a century, Bitty. And everything I take with me into the field—the weapons, the gear, the support in the form of my brothers—all of it is engineered to keep me safe. Is it a perfect system? No. But it’s the best it gets, I promise you that.”

Bitty’s arms uncoiled and she looked down. The pink and green bracelet on her wrist was made out of faceted beads that sparkled like real gems. Moving the thing around and around, she took a deep breath.

“Are you . . . good at it? I mean, the fighting?”

God, he wished he was an accountant. He really did. Because if he were some pocket-protector’d numbers cruncher, he wouldn’t be having to tell an innocent that he excelled at killing things.

“Are you?” she prompted.

“I’m very good at keeping myself and my brothers safe. I’m so good at it, they’re having me teach younger people how to do it.”

She nodded once again. “That’s what they were saying. At Last Meal the other night. I heard people talking about you and the other Brothers teaching people.”

“That’s where I’m heading right now. While you hang here with Bella and Nalla, I’m meeting the trainee class out in Caldwell to show them how to stay safe.”

Bitty tilted her head, her brown hair cascading over her shoulder. And he let her stare at him for as long as she wanted. If that made him a little late to work, who cared.

“You must be really good at it to be a teacher.”

“I am. I swear to you, Bitty. I am effective and I take no more chances than I absolutely have to in order to get my job done.”

“And the beast will keep you safe, won’t he.”

Rhage nodded. “You better believe it. You saw him. You know what he’s like.”

She smiled, sunshine replacing the worry. “He likes me.”

“He loves you. But he doesn’t love people who get aggressive with me.”

“That makes me feel better.”

“Good.” He put his palms up, and as she high-fived him, he said, “You’re never going to be alone, Bitty. I promise you.”

In that moment, as he sought to relieve any and all of her anxiety— and his own, for that matter—he nearly came out with the one thing Bitty didn’t know about her adoptive parents. Yes, her new old man had a dragon living under his skin, but her new mom had an even fancier secret.

Mary was a unique flavor of immortal. Thanks to the Scribe Virgin— and this remained true even though V’s mahmen was no longer in charge—Mary did not age, and could choose when she went unto the Fade. It was a gift beyond measure, insulating this family in ways that other people’s weren’t.

Except Rhage stayed quiet on that front. Even though the knowledge might have helped Bitty in the moment, he really felt like it was Mary’s information to share, not his.

“You’re never going to be alone, Bitty,” he repeated. “I swear to you.”

***

As Mary sat behind her desk at Safe Place, she put her bag down and shrugged out of her parka. Extending her arm, she pulled the sleeve of her turtleneck up and smiled at the pink and green bracelet that twinkled at her wrist.

She and Bitty had made matching ones the other night, the pair of them sitting at Fritz’s kitchen table in the mansion, a jewelry-making kit spread out everywhere, a huge array of clear plastic boxes holding a rainbow’s worth of iridescent beads. They had talked about nothing and everything, and greeted each person who came in, and split a bag of Combos and a Mountain Dew. They had also made a necklace for Rhage, a different-colored bracelet for Lassiter, and braid for Nalla to play with. And even Boo had come over and curled up to watch, the black cat’s green eyes inspecting everything.

In a mansion full of priceless stuff? That time together had been the most precious, irreplaceable thing.

Looking across her desk, Mary reached out and picked up a photograph of Bitty from two weeks before, when the little girl had been taking selfies with Rhage’s phone. Bit was making a crazy face, her dark hair back-brushed until she looked like something out of an eighties glam metal band.

And in fact, Lassiter was over on the left, doing his best Nikki Sixx impression.

Unexpected tears pricked Mary’s eyes. In all her life, she had never expected to be a woman who had pictures of a daughter at her work desk. Nah, that hypothetical, blessed, stranger of a person, that lucky female who had a husband and a family, and holidays to look forward to, and homemade things on her wrist? That had always been someone else, a stranger whose reality was something you watched on TV or saw in Maytag ads or overheard at the table next door in a restaurant.

While you were eating alone.

Mary Luce was the nurse to an ailing mother who had died horribly and too young. Mary Luce was the cancer survivor left infertile after chemo. Mary Luce was the ghost on the fringes, the shadow that passed unnoticed through a room, an allegory of where you didn’t want to end up.

Except life had corkscrewed on her in the best of all possible ways. Now? She was exactly where she had never even dared to dream of being.

And yup, this unexpected destiny came with a not-too-small dose of PTSD. Hell, sometimes, when she woke up next to her gorgeous vampire of a husband? And especially now, when she tiptoed into another bedroom to check on Bitty at nightfall? She expected to wake up, back in her nightmare of a real life.

But no, she thought as she put the picture down. This was the real stuff. Here and now was the story she was living.

And it was . . . amazing. So full of love, family, and happiness that it felt as though the sun lived in the center of her chest.

They were all survivors, her, Rhage, and Bitty. She of her illness. Rhage of the curse he had to live with. Bitty of the unimaginable domestic abuse she and her mahmen had suffered at the hands of her birth father. The three of their lives had started to intersect here, at Safe Place, when Bitty and her mahmen had come in seeking shelter. And then Bitty’s mother had died, leaving her an orphan.

The opportunity to take the girl in had seemed too good to be true. It still did, sometimes.

If they could just get through this six-month waiting period, the adoption would be final and Mary could take a deep breath. At least there were no relatives coming forward. Even though Bitty had talked initially about some uncle, her mother had never mentioned having a brother or disclosed anything about any blood relations, either during intake or in subsequent therapy sessions. Notices posted on closed Facebook and Yahoo groups had yielded nothing so far.

God willing, it would stay that way.

On that note, Mary signed in to the computer network, her heart starting to bang in her ribs, a sick flush blooming in her body. As social media aficionados went, she was below amateur status, the anti-Kardashian—and yet every night, but only once a night, she hopped onto Facebook.

And prayed she found nothing.

The FB group she checked was one specifically devoted to vampires, its closed roster restricted to members of the species. Created by V after the raids, moderated by Fritz’s staff, the clearinghouse was an opportunity for folks to connect about anything from safe-house locations—always in code—to garage sales.

Scanning the posts in the last twenty-four hours, she exhaled in a rush. Not at thing.

The relief made her office spin around—at least until she went to check the Yahoo group. Recipe for Crock-Pot. Knitting group having a meeting . . . snowblower for sale . . . question about where to get a computer fixed . . .

Also nothing.

“Thank you, God,” she whispered as she put another small check on her wall calendar.

Almost to the end of December, which meant they were nearly two whole months down. By May? They could move forward.

As her heart shifted out of tachycardia, she wondered how in the hell she was going to face this IT gauntlet another hundred and thirty times or so. But she had no other choice. The good news was that she was able to stick to this once-and-only-once-a-night check. Otherwise she’d be on her damn phone every fifteen minutes.

She had to be fair, though, to whoever else might be out there. Extinguishing parental rights in blood relations was serious business, and with no modern precedents in the vampire race to follow, she, Marissa, as head of Safe Place, Wrath, the Blind King, and Saxton, the King’s head counsel, had had to devise a procedure that provided an adequate notice period.

Emotions did not have waiting periods, however, and moms and dads who loved their kids couldn’t toggle back the speed of their hearts.

As if Marissa could read minds, the female put her head in the open doorway. “Anything?”

Mary smiled at her boss and her dear friend. “Nothing. I swear, I have never been more excited for May to get here.”

“I’ve always had a good feeling about this, you know.”

“I don’t want to jinx anything, so I’m staying quiet.” Mary focused on the calendar again. “Hey, I’m not going to be in tomorrow night. Bitty’s got her physical exam scheduled.”

“Oh, that’s right. Good luck—and it’s too bad you have to go all the way in to Havers’s.”

“Doc Jane says she just doesn’t have the appropriate knowledge base. Pediatrics for vampires is a thing, apparently.”

Marissa smiled gently. “Well, my brother may be complicated for me personally, but I have never questioned his ability to provide good care to his patients. Bitty couldn’t be in better hands.”

“I’d really rather just keep her with us at the training center’s clinic. But at the end of the day, what’s right for her is all we care about.”

“That’s called being a good parent.”

Mary looked at her bracelet. “Amen to that.”

 

Pre-order your copy of Blood Vow:

 

Amazon: http://fal.cn/…

Waterstones: http://fal.cn/…

Kindle: http://fal.cn/…

Kobo: http://fal.cn/…

iTunes: http://fal.cn/…

Google Play: http://fal.cn/…

An Early Excerpt from K. Bromberg’s Down Shift

Down Shift L

Check out an early excerpt from K. Bromberg‘s Down Shift. Only one more day to go before it’s out!

Prologue
ZANDER

Blood.
There’s so much blood. Coating my hands. Soaking into my Scooby-Doo pajama pants. The ones with the hole in the knee from that nice lady with the funny glasses at the Salvation Army.

It’s easier to think about her. Focus on her. Instead of the blood.
It’s everywhere. And it keeps coming out. Keeps spreading.

It won’t stop.

I can’t make it stop.

Dust dances in the air. Little pieces float in the light showing through the crack of the blackout blinds of the
hotel room. My eyesight is fuzzy. My mind exhausted.
And buzzed.

Because this alcohol-induced haze is much better than the dreams that won’t stop. The ones that aren’t really dreams anymore. The ones that started the minute I opened that box three weeks ago and pulled out the piece
of paper that rocked my world.

I lift the bottle of Jameson to my lips. Take a swig. Except the burn’s not there. The warmth is fleeting. But
it’s enough to numb my mind. To let the dreams fade.

To let the truth seem false.

The Band-Aids. They’re everywhere. The box is almost empty. The white pieces I peel off stick to my arms—but they don’t matter. The blood keeps coming. It doesn’t stop.

I can’t make it stop.

Another sip. And then another.

I’m so tired. But I’m so sick of feeling this way. So sick of wondering if my adoptive parents knew. Of course they knew—so why’d they lie to me? Didn’t I have a right to know what was on that paper? To accept? To deal with it?

Fuck no. Fuck yes. I just don’t know.

Another sip. Then a gulp.

The scissors. The shine of silver lying next to her. The dark red coming through my closed fingers as I try to fix her. Help her. Save her. Stop. The. Blood.

The taste of fear. My scared pleas. The helpless feeling.

I can remember all that, so why can’t I remember if I did or if I didn’t . . . ? I must have. That’s what the report said. Why would it lie?

Wait. There’s sunlight. I can see the dust dancing. When did that happen?

A lift of the bottle. There’s nothing left. An deep breath. Slumping back in the chair. Now I can’t forget anymore. Fuck.

The pounding on the door startles me. I know I should have expected it. Know I’m fucking up again. But does it
really matter in the grand scheme of things?

I know who it is before he even speaks. Somehow I knew he’d find me. Just like I know he’s going to be pissed
before I hear his voice.

Ask me if I care.

“Zander.” Boom. Boom. Boom. His fist on the hotel room door sounds like thunder in my head. “Open up.”
Boom. Boom. Boom. “Open the goddamn door!

And when I open it, there’s the lightning: The bright light of the hall blinds me after so much darkness. I block
the glare with my forearm. It’s futile until he shifts his stance and blocks its blaze.

Colton.

My mentor. My boss. The person who knows me best.

My dad. Well, adopted dad, but does it really matter?

We stare at each other. His green eyes fill with concerned disgust as he gives me a once-over to take in my
rumpled clothes—the same ones from last night—and makes a show of sniffing the air to let me know he can smell the stench of alcohol that’s probably seeping out my pores.

Yes. It does matter.

Lies always matter. Especially when they’re from people you thought loved you.

“You forget something?” There’s a bite of anger to his question, and I’m buzzed enough that I don’t think twice
about my smart-ass response.

“Not that I can think of.” My hand’s on the door, swinging it shut in his face before I finish the sentence.

If I thought the sound of his fist knocking on the wood was loud, the sound when he slams it back against the
interior wall is deafening. I deserve nothing less than his wrath, but it’s proving really hard beneath this alcoholic haze to find any fucks to give.

He shoves past me, flicking the light switch on and bumping me in the chest with his shoulder as he passes
by. It’s all I have not to take everything out on him right now. Use my fists to relieve the anger and disbelief and
hurt and every damn thing bottled up inside me.

Like all the shit that’s definitely my fault but that I’d rather blame on him. On my adoptive mom, Rylee. On
the whole fucking world.

The thoughts stagger me. I shake my head, try to figure out how I could want to raise my fists at the man who
has helped to give me everything, and yet the images fill my head again: the blood, the Band-Aids, the scissors.

My mom.

The truth my mind has been hiding from me.

The one he has obviously been keeping from me too.

With my fists clenched and entire body vibrating, I force myself to remain where I stand and hold back the
anger that’s been running like a river through my veins the past few weeks.

“You know what I can’t figure out?” he asks nonchalantly as he picks up the empty bottle of Jameson before
tossing it on the perfectly made bed with a chuckle. And then a sigh. “Why?”

Such a loaded question. One I’m not quite positive I feel like pulling the trigger on answering. And yet my finger’s itching to. I’m just not sure I can handle the blowback right now.

So I don’t answer. The question hangs in the stale air of the hotel room, his silence weighing on me as he surveys the space. After a few seconds his eyes find mine and ask the question again. But I choose to be the asshole. It’s just so much easier than having to admit out loud what I still don’t want to believe myself.

“Why what?” I finally answer. Sarcasm tinges my tone. Along with a healthy dose of It’s none of your fucking
business.

“This isn’t a joke, son.” A lift of his eyebrows. Another shake of his head. His face a mask of disgust.

Just more shit I don’t want to deal with. Questions bubble up inside me. Fester like infected wounds. Eat at me
until I can’t bite back the anger.

“Nope. It seems I’m the joke these days.” The autopsy report flashes in my mind’s eye. Fuels my fire.

He narrows his eyes. Tries to figure out where my hostility is coming from. “Damn straight, you are,” he says,
and for the first time I notice his lucky shirt and workout pants. His superstitious pre–fire suit getup.

Then it hits me that I’ve just royally fucked up. The thoughts flash through my mind. It’s daylight. I’m supposed
to be somewhere, do something other than get lost in this bottle.

“Ahhh . . . Did you forget about your scheduled track time this morning? Team testing for final adjustments?
Or maybe you forgot about the race tomorrow altogether? After last night, I’d want to forget all about being here in Alabama too.”

His last comment jogs a memory. Images flash: loud music; huge VIP bar tab; race bunnies sliding up, wanting
a piece of me. Everyone wanting a piece of me.

Push. Push. Push. Everyone pushing.

Snap.

Smitty restraining me—biceps locked under my arms in a vise grip, pulling my shoulders back. But why? How? What the hell happened? All I remember is him dropping me off back here. The hotel. My home for the week.

“Just having a good time,” I say with a sneer. Covering up for the blank spots in my memory. “What the fuck do
you care?”

He’s on me in a flash. Forearm pressed into my chest, my shoulders backed up against the wall. He’s quick.
Guess I’ve never tested this side of him before.

Our eyes hold—father to son, mentor to protégé, boss to employee, man to man—and for one split second I see
the hurt in his eyes that I want to ignore.

“Why do I care? WHY do I care?” he growls, voice escalating on each word and forearm pressing harder against
my chest. “Let me count the ways. Showing up late to training at home is one thing, Zander. Thumbing your nose to your sponsors by standing them up at the dinner they throw in your honor as you sat in the bar next door and laughed so loud they know it’s you? Inexcusable. The endless stream of questionable women. Sweet Jesus, Zander . . . I was all for getting laid when I was your age, but even I had some standards.”

I roll my eyes. Snort in disbelief. Does he think I’m buying his holier-than-thou bullshit right now when I’ve heardthe old stories? Like he didn’t play the field in his day.

“You think this is funny?” he shouts with another hard shove to my chest. “My idea of funny isn’t missing testing the day before a race when you’re in the goddamn driver’s seat to take another championship. Just blowing it off without a word. Letting your team down. Your crew. The hundred or so fans you had sitting in a VIP tent two hours ago waiting to meet their idol, and guess what? He didn’t show because he was too goddamn busy getting shitfaced on cheap whiskey like a drunk. So you tell me, Golden Boy . . . how is that funny?”

“Get. Off. Me.” I grit the words out even as I welcome the biting pressure of his forearm on my chest.

He steps back, but his hands take a little longer to let go from where they’re fisted in my shirt. But I still don’t
move. His glare pins me motionless. There’s disappointment there. Concern. And a shitload of anger.

I cling to the anger he’s giving off, can relate to it, but for completely different reasons from the ones he has.
The irony. He’s pissed because he expects more from his son, and I’m furious because I expect more from my dad.

“You’ve been late, showed up to the track hungover, and have chewed out your crew and treated them like shit
for no reason. You’ve blown off Rylee, been an asshole to me, and pulled away from your brothers. You’ve fucked up royally and you’re asking me why I care? I think you need to ask yourself that question, son.”

“It’s none of your business.”

“Bet your ass it’s my business. Everything about you is my business and you’re out of control.” He talks right
over me. The resentment I can hear in his tone causes my chest to constrict. “You’ve stepped way over the line.”

“Like you are right now by getting in my business? Get the fuck out.” I spit the words out, not caring that my anger is misplaced or that I can’t take them back.

He takes a step toward me, head angled, jaw clenched, hands fisted. The proverbial gloves are off. “You hurting,
son? Want to lash out at someone for something you don’t want to talk about? Trying to throw all your hard work away with your bullshit stunts? It’s best you remember who you’re talking to,” he says between gritted teeth, referring to the abusive childhood he survived before being saved and adopted. The implication being that he understands what’s going on in my head. “I know rage like you feel, Zander. I know hate that burns in your gut and turns your heart black. But it fixes nothing. Nothing. I’ve tried to be patient. Tried to be here for you. Asked you to talk to me, let me be there for you in whatever you’re going through, and you’ve refused. Now I’m watching you sabotage everything good you’ve got going for you, and you want me to stand by and let it happen? Are you out of your mind?” He takes a moment to catch his breath while I seethe over his words. Over my inability to get past this and just ask him the questions I need to ask.

Because hurt not only clouds your judgment, but can also blind you from the real reason you’re mad.

“I’ve kept the press away. Held back Rylee from interfering. Given you enough rope to hang yourself and now . . . now I can’t help you. Congrats, there’s no more rope left. You’ve lost your sponsorship.”

What? The silence in the room screams around me. It’s so loud I let it drown out what he just said. Don’t want
to believe it.

It’s his fault. That’s all I can focus on. All I can rationalize. He didn’t prevent it. He didn’t fix this. He probably
did it on purpose because he wants to control me. Control everything about me.

Including my past.

God, I need a drink. A whole goddamn bottle to make this just go away. To make sense of all the bullshit I’m
selling myself when it sounds ridiculous just thinking it.

“You’re lying!” My voice is completely opposite to his. Loud. Screaming. Enraged. And my head’s so fucked‑up
that it hurts and craves the pain all at the same time.

“I’d never lie to you, Zander.” Calm. Even. Dead serious.

And those words—the ones I know to be a lie—are like a match to the embers that have been smoldering
over the past few weeks.

“That’s bullshit and you know it!” I shout. Become unhinged, fists itching to punch something, and I’m sure
ruining the drywall of this fancy hotel wouldn’t win me any favors. My body shakes with the anger. The rage inside me takes over. “You lied—”

“And you don’t think you’re out of control?” Colton says, taking an aggressive step into me. Taunting me in
my irrational state. “Since when is it okay to even think about taking a swing at your old man?”

You’re not my old man. The words flicker and fade through my rage. Shock me. Plant thoughts in my head that
I’ve never considered before. And even though they’re bullshit, they still linger. Still taint my anger and jade my
words.

“I’m perfectly in control,” I grate out through gritted teeth. Anger. Spite. Frustration. All three spin on the
merry‑go‑round in my head. Muck up the truths and feed off the confusion.

“Perfectly in control?” he asks with a disbelieving shake of his head as he reaches into his pocket and grabs his cell phone. Confusion and dread run through me simultaneously. It’s like deep down I know this can’t be good and yet can’t for the life of me figure out what he’s going to show me on the screen once he’s finished flicking through images. “Let’s just say you owe Smitty big-time, because I’m done paying for your fuckups, Zee. This was the only picture taken last night. Lucky for you, the VIP room was empty by the time this happened. Smitty was worried enough about you to stick around to make sure you didn’t get into trouble. The lone paparazzo who snuck through and snapped this had to forfeit his camera to the bouncer, because it was against house rules.”

The look on Colton’s face and his eyes trained on the image on his phone unnerve me. The anxiety breaks
through the hold the anger has on me. Worries me. Makes me shift my feet in anticipation of something I know has to be bad to earn me this speech.

Thoughts ghost through my mind. A hot blonde. A dick-hardening kiss. A pissed-off boyfriend. Testosterone-laced tempers. My words, “I’m Zander fucking Donavan.”

This can’t be good.

“Cut the dramatics and just show me.”

“Dramatics?” Colton thunders farther into the room as he holds the phone out so I can see it. I reject the image
immediately. A moment of clarity amid the confused haze. Know it didn’t happen the way the picture shows.

Just the same way your dream about your mom was different than reality too.

I stare at the image, my body tense, my jaw clenched, and try to fill in the missing holes between what’s in my
mind and what the picture shows. The worst part is I can’t know for sure that I didn’t do that.

“Is that dramatics, Zander? Looks pretty crystal fucking clear to me.”

It’s me all right. Fist clenched, arm cocked, a rage on my face like I’ve never seen before—but it’s nothing like
the look on the woman’s face in front of me. Scared. Stunned. Fearful.

“That’s not what . . .” I shake my head. Try to rationalize that her asshole of a boyfriend must have been next to
her, out of camera range. The one my cocked fist was aiming toward. For a split second I see my dad in my face. My biological dad. The monster. The abuser. Everything I promised myself I’d never be.

I reject the thought immediately.

“It is you, Zander. Take a closer look. You think losing a sponsor is bad? Let this image get out—just how you
think a lady should be treated—and you’ll lose a shit ton more than that. You raised your fist to a woman.” He
shakes his head and chuckles in shocked disbelief. “And you don’t think you’re out of control?”

Push

“You need help.”

Push

“To talk to someone.”

Push

“This isn’t the son I raised—”

Snap.

“I’m not your goddamn son, so quit acting like you’re my father!” I shout at the top of my lungs with every
ounce of rage and hurt and confusion that I’ve been fighting back down the past few weeks. Something, anything, to make this stop. To make the pain stop. The confusion end. Keep the past from tainting my future.

The lies from being true.

He stumbles back a few feet, eyes wide, mouth lax. For just a moment he stands there staring at me. Reining in
his temper. Trying to comprehend what I just said.

The look on his face alone should knock the fight out of me—shock, hurt, disbelief—but the truths he just threw
in my face, the ones I have to acknowledge but don’t want to hear, are like kerosene to my anger. They create a back draft loaded with resentment that explodes instantly, wiping out all reason.

“Excuse me?” He straightens his spine. His voice comes out with a controlled calmness. And I should heed the
warning. The loud, angry wrath of my dad is one thing, but the cool, even quiet manner is much scarier when you’re on the receiving end of it.

But I don’t.

“You heard me.” Our gazes lock. Our mutual anger feels heavy in the room as I lash out the only way I know
how to right now.

“Loud. And. Clear.” The tone remains even, though his eyes reflect a wounded fury I refuse to acknowledge. He
tucks the phone into his back pocket, nodding his head the whole time as I stand there wanting everything he means to me gone: salvation, hope, family, friendship, unconditional love. All I can feel is the crushing disappointment from everything I’ve done to purposely try to fuck this all up.

“You’ve left me no choice.” When he looks back up, his expression is blank, shoulders squared, eyes hard.
You’re fired.”

“Come again?” He wouldn’t dare. I’m leading the points. I’m the reigning champion. There’s a reason they call me Indy’s Golden Boy.

But as the silence stretches out and nothing about his posture changes, the lump in my throat gets bigger and it
becomes harder to swallow.

“You heard me.”

My laugh is loud enough to sound condescending. Part of me is in disbelief, but he wants to be a prick and go this route? Fine. I’ll show him I don’t need him or his lies. I don’t need anything from him.

It’s not like I’ve never been on my own before.

Blood. Scissors. Band-Aids.

But first, self-preservation. The hurt radiates through me. The stain on my soul darker than ever before.

“Fine. Got it.” I shake my head, our eyes locked, with his saying, Let me help you and mine telling him, I don’t
need your lies. Confusion turns to anger. “I don’t need you anyway.”

“Good luck with that, son—Zander,” he corrects himself quickly. The sting at the sound of my name on his lips
is more than obvious. “And don’t bother trying to approach any other teams. One, it’s midseason and two,
they won’t hire you anyway.”

“You can’t do that.” Anger turns to rage. He wouldn’t threaten other teams to not hire me.

“Watch me.” That cocky-bastard flash of a grin that unnerves his competitors is directed my way. He takes a step closer. “I’ve been around a lot longer than you have. No one would cross that line even for a sure thing like
you. Oh, wait. . . . You’re not exactly a sure thing anymore when you’re losing sponsors, blowing off testing,
and there’s concern whether you’ll even show for race day. It’s not like you’ve been exactly discreet with your
bullshit.” He takes another step, a mocking laugh falling from his mouth. “Take it from a team owner. You’ve become a risk. A liability. And no one wants a loose cannon on their team regardless of how good of a driver you are.”

Rage turns into a ball of disbelieving fury; I want to lash out at him with everything I have, regardless of the
damage it causes. Self-preservation at its finest.

“Fuck you, Colton.” His name is a sneer loaded with disrespect. I come out swinging with words I can’t take
back. Needing to save face when everything about me is being questioned. “It’s always about the team with you,
isn’t it? The next victory. The next paycheck. Fuck the racers, right? Screw them and any shit they have going
on—lie to them if need be—so long as they perform for you. Isn’t that right, boss?”

Sticks and stones,” he says with a lift of his eyebrows. The taunt of a smile. The ice in his voice. “You think
that’s going to get your job back? Think again.”

“Fuck. You.” I’m overheated, but my body breaks out in goose bumps, because the chilling look in his eyes tells
me this isn’t a joke at all. Not some psychobabble bullshit he’s using to try to get me to talk like he has in the past.

He chuckles long and low again and the sound grates on my nerves as I try to wrap my head around everything that’s happening: the dreams, the picture, Colton’s no‑bullshit punches.

“It’s not just me you’re hurting, but everyone else that depends on you. I’m leaving your car without a driver.
Won’t fill your spot. If I worried only about money, that wouldn’t be the case, now, would it? What I’m worried
about is you. You’re out of control and pushing the limits, and I can’t stand by to watch you crash and burn without stepping in. I’m sorry it has to come to this, but I don’t mind being the asshole if it’s going to save you. I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again in a second.”

We stand in silence, hearts torn apart, and so much of our connection shredded on the floor between us. For the first time since he’s walked in here, I notice how tired he looks. Concern etches the lines of his face. And the need to say any more, damage us more, dies on my lips despite the discord still echoing within me.

With a nod of his head, he turns and walks toward the door. My eyes follow him despite the desperation for him
to be gone so I don’t have to see the defeat in his posture. He grabs the handle and hangs his head. “Take the time, Zee. Fix what you need to fix. Deal with whatever shit you need to deal with. Let someone in instead of shutting everyone out. It doesn’t have to be me. Or Rylee. Or anyone we know, but let them in; you’ll be a better man because of it. Sometimes it takes a new ear, a fresh voice, to put things in perspective for you. Shit, take a drive, a trip—I don’t care—but use the time to make you right. Don’t come back until you are. I don’t know what’s going on and I wish like hell you’d talk to me about it, but I understand better than most that sometimes you can’t. My only advice is not to let the dark eat you whole. You deserve better than that.” He clears his throat from the emotion clogging it, and I hate everything about this conversation more because of that disconcerting sound. “Regardless of what you think, you are my son and it doesn’t matter how bad you fuck up—I’ll always love you.”

The door opens. Closes. The dust dances again. The silence suffocates me.

I fight the urge to go after him. I resist unleashing more of my anger and the need to yell and shout and trash the room to get it all out. None of it will fix a goddamn thing.

Grabbing the bottle of Jameson, I lift it to my lips until I remember it’s empty. The crash of the glass shattering
as it hits the wall across from me is deafening.

Shaking my head, I fall back on the bed. Try to make sense of what just happened. What I’ve let happen. What
I didn’t stop.

To my mom back then and to my family now.

The loudest thing I hear is the rejection from the man I’ve looked up to, idolized, who helped me heal. The man who just walked out of this room and hurt me more than he’ll ever know.

Can you blame him, Zander?

I close my eyes and rub my hands over my face. My buzz is gone. The haze removed. Everything important
taken away from me with the slam of the door: my family, my ride, my anchors. And the sting is real.

But so is the anger. The inability to rationalize. To accept. To ask the things I need to ask.

To apologize.

Fuck that. I’m not apologizing. I’m not the one who lied.And I would never threaten to hit a woman, let alone actually follow through with it. The image on Colton’s phone flashes through my mind. Another lie to throw in the pot.

The rage is instantly back. Misdirected but back. My body feels restless, but my mind is whipped to the point
where I can’t think about this any more. Don’t want to. I just need another bottle to get lost in. Then I’ll figure
where to go from here, since it looks like I have some time off coming to me.

And yet I don’t get up from the bed to walk down to th:

e bar. I can’t, because somewhere deep down that voice
of doubt grabs hold of my heart and squeezes tight. Twists it. Letting me know there are two truths I have to accept before I can move forward.

I am Colton’s son.

And I’m the one who killed my mom.

Pre-order you copy here:

Amazon

Waterstones

Kindle

Kobo

iBooks

Google Play