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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:

 

Blue Shift by Jane O’Reilly – Excerpt

To celebrate the release of Jane O’Reilly‘s new novel, Blue Shift,  we’ve got a sneaky excerpt for you… If you can’t help but want more (we couldn’t!), the eBook is out on June 1st! Enjoy!

 

24TH JUNE 2187

Vessel: The Finex. Class 2 long- haul freighter

Destination: Earth

Cargo: Platinum ore

Crew: Eleven

Droids: Two 

(…)

Something was wrong.

The phase drive had stopped.

The freighter jerked to a standstill, as if a giant hand had reached out and grabbed it. It shouldn’t have been physically possible for a vessel the size of the Finex to stop like that. But it did. Jinn was flung backwards, falling hard, the base of her spine taking the brunt of the impact. The lights went out as she hit the floor, sinking her into darkness so complete that she wondered fora moment if she’d gone blind. Everything hurt. Everything. All she could do was lie there and think about pain.

Then the emergency lighting switched on. The alarms started screaming, an electronic shriek that threatened to break her skull and made it impossible to hear her own thoughts as she staggered to her feet and turned to look at the control panel. She grabbed the back of the pilot’s chair, hanging on to it as the freighter tilted left. Empty Soylate cups went flying, as did discarded pieces of uniform and a couple of personal comm. units.

Pulling herself round, Jinn pushed her backside into the chair and gripped the edge of the control panel, forcing herself to stay seated. The data screens flashed. She stared at them, trying to make sense of the streaming feed, but none of it meant anything.

They had been cruising along Space Lane Seven. It wasn’t the busiest of routes, but it wasn’t the quietest, either. Now with a dead phase drive, they weren’t so much cruising as floating, and the last thing she wanted was to get in the way of another freighter. They weren’t exactly designed to stop in a hurry.

‘Viewscreen on!’ she yelled.

Everything around her seemed to freeze. She couldn’t breathe.

She wasn’t even sure her heart was still beating. There, floating alongside the Finex, was a ship. Not a freighter, or one of the smaller transporters used by the traffic police, but something else. It was long, fat and bulbous at one end, narrowing to a slender point at the other. It reminded her of the giant squid trapped in the frozen seas back on Earth, with its strange curving shape and the eerie way it was just . . . there.

It drifted closer, sinking lower. A vast glowing orb moved across her line of sight like a curious eye. Jinn jumped in her seat, her heart pounding up into her throat. She swallowed, fingers shaking on the control panel. She pressed her feet hard into the floor and tensed the muscles in her legs. ‘Just a search light,’ she told herself firmly, as the eye moved. ‘Just a light. Not a cannon.’

That didn’t stop her from feeling like a specimen under a scope.

The ship appeared to have been made from multiple vessels, taken apart and then stitched together with rivets and filth. She had never seen anything like it. It wasn’t a government ship, nor did it belong to one of the corporations. That left only one possibility.

Pirates.

Why? Jinn silently screamed, terror stealing her words as the other members of the crew came staggering onto the control deck, all in various states of undress, smelling of chemical sleep and confusion.

‘What in the void is going on?’ asked Zane. He was the longest-serving and therefore the most senior employee on board, something he liked to remind everyone of. Frequently.

‘Pirates,’ Jinn replied, her tongue thick and heavy. ‘It’s pirates.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘See for yourself.’

Someone swore, a short, sharp word.

‘Don’t just sit there!’ Zane yelled at her. ‘Get us out of here!’

Shamed by her own stupidity, Jinn pressed her palms against the small, circular ports that would link her to the on-board system. Within seconds, the tiny Tellurium nanobots that inhabited the flesh of her forearms had formed into long, thin wires and pushed their way out of her hands and into the port.

Wetware connected to hardware, and she was in.

It took her precious seconds to navigate her way through the on-board system, which seemed to be in the middle of a full- scale meltdown. Jinn overrode it and switched to emergency protocol, which would enable her to fly. But the freighter was big, and it was heavy and fully loaded. It wouldn’t move in a hurry.

‘Shit,’ she muttered, when she realised that it wouldn’t move at all.

‘What?’

‘I can’t power up the phase drives.’

And so the scramble for the emergency escape pods began.

Zane moved first. Heavy boots thudded on metal as the crew sprinted to the little transports, located down in the belly of the freighter. Why hadn’t she thought of that? There was a way out of this and she was sat in the pilot’s chair like an idiot as the Finex drifted closer to the pirate ship, close enough for her to see the individual metal plates that formed the hull. From the way the freighter was moving, she knew the pirates had them in a tractor beam. There was a chance that the emergency pods would be able to avoid the pull if they used the freighter as a shield. That chance was a lot bigger if she was piloting one of them. She had to get to one of the pods, and fast.

Pulling in air, Jinn focussed on the tiny nanobots, willing them to disconnect and move back inside her body. The view screen was still active. As she watched, a small docking portal in the side of the pirate ship spiralled open and a spacewalk emerged, unfolding its way through space. They were going to be boarded.

Jinn had spent enough time watching the streaming newsfeeds to know what that meant. She closed her eyes, and with one massive push of concentration, dragged the Tellurium back inside her body and disconnected from the computer. Her hands burned but she ignored it as she sprinted down into the belly of the ship, chasing her way down endless sharply angled staircases.

Her boots clattered on the metal, her palms slipping as she tried to grip on to the safety rails.

She was almost at the hatch that led to the escape pods when she heard the spacewalk connect. Every second was precious now. She had to keep moving, and that seemed to switch off her fear. She felt nothing, thought about nothing, simply moved to the first hatch and pressed her thumb against the lock pad. It didn’t open, the light flashing red to indicate that the pod had already jettisoned. Jinn rushed to the second hatch, repeated the process. They couldn’t all have gone. They couldn’t. A shiver dropped down her spine as she stood staring at the hatch door, the slow flicker of the emergency lighting showing her the world in brief flashes of sickly yellow light.

‘Hull breach detected,’ came the voice over the internal loudspeaker.

‘Immediate evacuation recommended.’

‘Thanks for the advice,’ Jinn muttered. A hull breach meant that the pirates had cut their way in. They would find her in a matter of minutes. Or, worse, they wouldn’t, and she’d still be on board the Finex when they set it adrift, when it was left to float out into space with a rapidly diminishing oxygen supply and malfunctioning on board computer.

‘Shit.’ She tried the lock one last, desperate time. She was aware of something crowding the edges of her consciousness, an instinctive sense that danger was closing in, moving closer with every second wasted. Abandoning the second hatch, Jinn moved to the third and final one. She jammed her thumb against the lock, staring intently at the control panel. The light stayed red, stayed red.

Then it changed to green. The hatch door spiralled open, and

Jinn found herself staring into the belly of the little escape pod.

Three of her crewmates were inside. Their heads jerked round and they stared at her. ‘There’s no room,’ Zane said.

‘They’ve already boarded.’ Jinn moved closer to the hatch, wrapped her hands around the opening and set a foot to the edge, ready to get in with them. ‘If I pilot us out of here, we can use the ship as a shield. Avoid the tractor beam.’

‘This is a three- person pod,’ Rula said. ‘It doesn’t have enough oxygen to support four.’

‘We’re on Space Lane Seven,’ Jinn pointed out. The pirates were close. She could almost taste their sweat in the air. ‘We’ll get picked up long before we run out.’

‘I’m not taking that chance,’ Zane replied. His hand flicked up, and in it Jinn saw a blaster. ‘Get away from the hatch. Or I’ll spill your guts all over the floor, Dome bitch.’

‘Don’t do this,’ Jinn pleaded. Deep down, she had known they disliked her, but this was more than that. She looked at Zane.

‘Let me pilot. It’s our only chance.’

His response was to power up the blaster. ‘Get the fuck away from the hatch. I won’t tell you again.’

The blaster whined. Jinn closed her eyes.

Then two strong hands closed around her upper arms and jerked her away from the hatch opening. ‘What have we here? ‘Said a voice, deep and rough and unfamiliar.

Those hands turned her around, and Jinn found herself looking up, up, and into the face of a man she didn’t know. Thick eyebrows framed hard green eyes separated by a nose that was slightly out of kilter. If the dark hair hadn’t already told her he was an Underworld, that nose would have. All his features were like that, slightly too big, not quite in line, like he’d been put together in a hurry. It was hard to guess his age. His skin said early twenties.

His eyes said something else entirely. She saw no obvious signs of prosthetics, but his size screamed genetic modification.

And her body screamed out in fear.

‘Take her!’ Zane yelled from somewhere behind her. ‘She’s Dome- raised. You’ll get decent credits for her!’

The pirate kept his gaze fixed on Jinn. ‘I’ve already got more credits than I can spend.’ He lifted a hand, wrapped a lock of her hair around his finger, the white contrasting sharply with his skin. ‘Now what is a Dome brat doing on a Galactinex freighter?’

‘I’m the pilot,’ Jinn managed.

‘I see.’ He poked the retinal implant at her temple. Then he grabbed her hand and examined the implant that banded her wrist, the lights glowing amber to indicate that it was functioning.

She knew if he increased the pressure, her bones would give.

She could sense that in him, that impossible strength. It was why she didn’t try to fight him off.

There were others with him, too. They were in the shadows, and Jinn could barely make them out, but they were there, menacing backdrop to the scene. She ignored them. They didn’t matter. This one did. She’d imagined pirates to be half starved and dirty and desperate, but this man wasn’t desperate at all. His clothes were expensive, he didn’t smell, and he didn’t seem in any particular hurry to get on with the business of stealing everything on board the ship.

‘Please . . .’ she whispered.

‘Please . . . what?’ he asked.

‘Please don’t hurt me.’

‘Now why would I do that?’

‘Because . . .’ she began, but the sentence remained unfinished, as the sound of the hatch door closing behind her cut through her words.

The pirate released his grip, and Jinn almost fell. It was only through sheer force of will that she stayed anything close to upright, and when she regained her balance she realised that he was no longer in front of her.

He stood at the hatch, and the hatch was open. One big hand wrapped around the edge of the opening, and one big black boot rested casually on the base. She saw him lift that hand, saw him beckon her crewmates out of the pod. Heard the whine of the blaster and the call of pirate scum a second before it was fired.

Instinctively, she held her breath, her entire body shaking. It better have been a clean shot, because she didn’t even want to imagine what this man would do if it hadn’t.

A half-breath later, she found out. It all happened so fast that she barely had time to comprehend it. All she could think later was that maybe her mind had replaced reality with the memory that she would recall time and time again, of the pirate moving at a speed no human possessed. Of her crewmates flying out of the escape pod, their bodies shooting across the narrow deck before they hit the wall and dropped to the floor. She could taste shock in the back of her throat, the slimy bitterness of it, coated with a thick overlay of fear. Were they dead? Her mind told her to move closer, but her body refused to obey. All she could do was stand there, an open target, and wait her turn.

The pirate climbed out of the pod, the blaster in his hand.

There was blood on his shirt and plenty of it, a bloom of red against the white, but he didn’t move like a man in pain. He strode straight past her towards the rear of the bay where the rest of his crew waited. Jinn could see movement in the shadows, then more as they stepped forward. Lean bodies, gleaming, hungry eyes. All of them were dark- haired, with the expected prosthetics.

She saw miners, farmers, engineers, though these were undoubtedly Bugs, people who had skipped out of their colony jobs before they’d paid off the cost of their modifications.

‘Strip it down,’ the pirate said to them. ‘Take the ore and the droids, and whatever else you can find.’

‘Aye, captain,’ one of them said. Silver streaked the sides of his dark hair, and his left hand had been replaced by a prosthetic, the kind that spun and flicked out an assortment of intricate tools. A biomechanical engineer, which meant he was intelligent and highly skilled, not some low- rent thug. He wasn’t what she’d expected. None of this was what she’d expected.

The engineer gestured to the others, and they got to work.

Some of them moved further into the ship, some of them detached laser- cutters from their belts and began to strip out the walls of the bay. Like a group of starving scavengers, they picked it clean, but they did it carefully. Nothing was trashed, nothing was broken. Obviously they weren’t just going to take the ore from the hold, they were going to take everything. By the time they’d finished there might not even be a ship for them to leave her on.

The opportunity was there, again, and this time Jinn took it.

But she stumbled as she made her way towards the now- empty escape pod, her feet sliding in the blood that patterned the steel plate beneath her feet. If she hadn’t, she might not have heard the voice that came from behind her.

‘Help me.’ It was little more than a whisper, that desperate plea. ‘Please.’

Jinn glanced back. It was Zane. She risked a glance at the pirates on the other side of the bay. They were rapidly dismantling the cooling system, stripping out the pipes and wiring that allowed the vessel to stay at a temperature that the human body could tolerate. Without it, the freighter would rapidly start to overheat. Blood would warm, enzymes would denature, and the biological systems that kept the body functioning would stop.

Anyone left on board would, quite literally, start to cook.

‘Bloody supernova.’ Jinn turned, started towards Zane. She couldn’t leave him to die like that. She barely made it two paces before the pirate captain was in front of her.

He stared down at her with those odd green eyes. ‘Don’t be foolish,’ he said. Then he turned, strode over to her crewmate, and planted one big boot firmly on Zane’s chest. ‘They made their choice. I offered them work on my ship. They didn’t want it.’

Zane struggled against the weight of that boot, but it was futile.

Jinn flexed her fingers and wished desperately for a weapon. Blaster, a knife, and a personal comm. unit she could fling at the pirate’s head. Anything.

‘Now make your choice,’ the pirate said. He gestured to the pod. ‘Leave.’ He gestured to the rest of the bay. ‘Or stay and die with the rest of your crew. It’s up to you.’

‘Why?’ she asked, unable to help herself, knowing the choice she had to make, yet wanting to delay it. Not wanting to face that inevitable moment when she would leave her crew behind, leave them to die. ‘Why let me go?’

‘You’re Dome- raised. No- one cares what happens to a few Underworld workers. But you . . . I don’t need that sort of trouble.’

From the other side of the bay, a shout pushed through the hot, sticky air. ‘We’re done here, captain. Two- minute countdown.’

‘Get back to the Mutant,’ the pirate replied. He barely raised his voice, yet it had the power to carry across the space. Thence looked at her, straight at her. ‘You heard,’ he said. ‘Get in the pod.’

But she couldn’t. She couldn’t willingly leave the others here to die. Not while there was still a chance. ‘Let me take them with me.’

‘Why?’

‘Because . . . .’ she began, but the words were cut off when she saw Zane push himself up on one elbow. In one unsteady hand, he held a pocket grenade. If he threw it, it would kill all of them.

‘No!’ she screamed.

But the pirate had already seen. He broke Zane’s arm with swift kick, which sent the grenade flying up. The pirate caught it, balancing it on the palm of his hand for a moment, then deftly deactivated it and slid it into his pocket. Zane lay sprawled on the floor, his arm bent at a peculiar angle, his eyes dull. A thin trickle of blood ran out of the corner of his mouth as his throat worked for air.

Jinn turned, flung she towards the escape pod. Feet slipping, hands struggling for grip, she made her way inside, scrambled into a seat. As the restraints automatically wrapped themselves around her torso, she punched the bright red touchpad that would trigger the emergency launch. The hatch spiralled shut and then she was blasted out into space. The pod spun as it rushed away from the freighter, turning her world upside down, and doing the same to her stomach. By the time the boosters kicked in, slowing the pod to a speed that didn’t make her want to puke, the Finex was little more than a fragment in the distance.

There was no sign of the pirate ship, only the skeleton of her ship floating alongside Space Lane Seven. She watched it in agony; the only sound that of her own laboured breathing. She watched as it drifted, watched as it burned, watched until there was nothing left.

Then she lowered her hands to the ports on the control deck and plugged in. ‘Sir,’ she said, when her superior appeared on their screen. ‘I need help.’

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:

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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.

Linda Jones & Linda Howard – A day in the life of a writing team

Frost Line

Ever wonder how two people work together to create one seamless, fabulous novel? We have, and now Linda Jones and Linda Howard, the authors behind Frost Line, have answered in their #WelcomeToMyWorld piece.

 

5am – We’re both up, drinking coffee with iPads or computers in our laps. We touch base with our exciting plans for the day (laundry, grocery shopping, walking dogs or plans with grandkids, and oh yes, writing. Where are we in the book today?)

 

9am – By this point, something has been written by at least one of us. We’re both morning people and the writing is more critical than the humdrum, so laundry and grocery shopping will have to wait. Dogs and grandkids do not wait, but we do the best we can. Linda Howard writes a scene and sends it to Linda Jones. Linda Jones realises she has just written a scene that might be either nearly identical or contradictory. Wait! In some email last week, didn’t we decide we’d do something entirely different? We begin sorting through our folder of emails, looking for the one that addressed this. Oh, yeah. Delete, delete, start over. No, maybe that isn’t right. We need to think about this.

 

10am – This isn’t working. We get in our cars and head for the Cracker Barrel restaurant that is conveniently situated midway between us, about an hour from each of our houses. Trying to hammer down details over email or the phone is just not the same as discussing face to face. We draw a map and realise that we’ve been looking at the scene in a mirror image. No wonder one of us went left while the other went right! Other customers give us strange looks, and the wait staff avoids us. Yes, we are definitely discussing murder, but it’s of a character, not a real person.

 

Noon – We have avoided arrest, and head home. Linda Jones has decided the laundry can wait, and she’s sent her husband to the grocery store. An hour drive gives us both time to ponder, which is always a good thing. When we get home, we head straight to the computer to share whatever good ideas came to us in the car, via email. Linda Howard deals with a dog or husband situation, sometimes both, and becomes snarly at the interruptions.

 

2pm – A final scene, or perhaps even a chapter, is done. The laundry is still not done, and Linda Jones’s husband came home from the grocery store with far too many chips and cookies, but we can sigh with relief and walk away from the computer, for a while. Then Linda Howard realises she has a stretch of time when both husband and dogs are possibly napping, and she heads back to the computer where she first reads through the folder of emails to make certain she’s got the details straight, consults the notebook of notes she made while they were at the Cracker Barrel, and tries to get a head start on the next chapter, and the next day.

Linda Howard & Linda Jones have been writing together for years, and they have now launched an all new series centred on characters of the Tarot cards as they enter our world.

Frost Line is now out:

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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:

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

P C Cast’s Full Moon Beauty Empowerment Ritual

Goddess of the Sea

For #WelcomeToMyWorld P C Cast, author of the Goddess Summoning and House of Night series, has prepared a beauty empowerment ritual for us. The ritual can include pink champagne, and for P C Cast includes a crystal bowl that changed her life!

 

The full moon is a powerful time for completions and full circle moments.  It’s a wonderful opportunity to remind ourselves that we are beautiful and worthy of every bit of joy we can seize as we sound our barbaric yawps over the moon drenched rooftops of our world!

Begin your Beauty Empowerment Ritual on the evening of a full moon.  Decide upon a lovely beverage of your choice – my personal favorite this month will be a chilled glass of pink champagne.  Then gather what you’ll need:

  1. A special bowl. This vessel should not be plastic or metal.  Look for something unique, made of crystal/glass, pottery, porcelain, or wood.  It should have special meaning for you, or you should find it especially beautiful.  Example: The plot of my first novel, DIVINE BY MISTAKE, was inspired by the “accidental” purchase of an exquisite cut crystal bowl.  It was the winter of 1989, and I was super broke.  I went to an estate auction in the middle of a blizzard trying to snag a deal on furniture, and there was this amazing crystal bowl up for auction.  I was obsessed with it. But it was a luxury I really couldn’t afford, so I allowed myself to bid, but only up to $25.00 for it.  The bowl sold for over $300.00. I shrugged off my obsession and continue to bid on furniture deals.  Suddenly there was a flurry of activity around the auctioneer, and the beautiful crystal bowl was up for re-auction!  The buyer had discovered a hairline crack in the bottom of it that had not been disclosed, and rejected it.  When it went up for re-auction, I was the only bidder, and I got it for $2.50!  That bowl, and its flaw – which I find beautiful – inspired me to create the flawed urn Shannon Parker buys at an auction, which sends her on an adventure that changed her fictional life and my real one.  That is the bowl I’ve used for my rituals!
  2. A handful of fresh herbs or rose petals. Carefully choose your herb (or petals) as your choice will set your intention for your beauty ritual. If you want to focus on stress relief, choose lavender.  If you want to focus on rejuvenation and retrieving memories, choose rosemary.  If you’d like to focus on drawing love, choose rose petals.  If you simply need to purify and cleanse, choose basil.
  3. A pinch of sea salt.
  4. Clean, fresh, water – enough to cleanse and fill your bowl.
  5. A white candle you haven’t used for anything else.
  6. A small, clean towel.

Preparing for the ritual:

First, set your intention.  You are going to focus on empowering and reviving your inner – and outer – beauty, with intent.  Example: If you want to draw a lover, picture him or her, and think about all the beautiful traits you have that will draw your new lover to you.  Or if you simply need to relax, picture yourself in a place that brings you great comfort, and focus on that relaxed feeling of comfort.

Pour yourself a glass of your chosen beverage and sip away as you begin!

Wash your bowl carefully, first using the pinch of sea salt mixed with water.  Rinse your bowl thoroughly, and then dry gently.

The ritual!

Begin at sunset.  Choose a spot outside that catches a nice amount of moonlight.*  It needs to be a spot where you can leave your bowl for the entire night.

Fill your bowl with fresh water, and take it to your chosen spot.

Light your white candle and place it in front of your bowl.  Take a moment to meditate on your intention, and/or invoke the deity of your choice.

Take the fresh herbs or rose petals and gently rub them between your hands.  Breathe deeply – inhale the scent as you continue to focus on your intention.  And then allow them to fall into the bowl.  Use your fingers to mix them into the water.

When you are ready, blow out the candle and leave the bowl there to collect the magick light of the full moon.

As soon as you wake in the morning, go to your bowl, bringing your small towel with you.  Relight your candle.  Sit quietly for a moment, reminding yourself of your intention.  Then, use your fingers to part the moon soaked herbs/petals, so that you can see your reflection in the water. Using your hands, bathe your face in the water as you whisper this invocation.**

 

Sweet sliver moon lend your beauty to me

Wild and free with magick inspire

From within to without filled I shall be

Alight with moon drenched desire

Come to me moon magick delight

Through this vessel bathed in sacred light

 

Gently dry your face and pour the water and herbs/petals from your bowl in a circle around the base of your favorite tree.

Get ready to welcome gentle, loving magick into your day!

In P C Cast’s first book in the Goddess Summoning series, Goddess of the Sea, things get rather interesting for US Air Force sergeant Christine Canady after she recites a divine invocation to revive her humdrum life.

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*If you live in a place where you can’t safely leave your bowl outside all night, find a window that catches the light of the full moon and place your bowl there.

**You may always use an invocation of your own creation!

Amanda Bouchet Welcomes You to the Kingmaker Chronicles

Amanda Bouchet

Amanda Bouchet’s stunning debut novel, A Promise of Fire, wowed us, it wowed authors and it wowed reviewers (see below). And now Amanda, an author who’s been inspired by Ilona Andrews and Sarah J. Maas, welcomes you to the Kingmaker Chronicles as part of our #WelcomeToMyWorld celebrations.

‘So much love for this book! Buuuuuuy it!’ – Nalini Singh

‘Absolutely fabulous. I didn’t want to put it down. Amanda Bouchet is now on my auto-buy list!’ C. L. Wilson

‘I want more of these characters and I want more of this world. I cannot remember the last time I wanted to both savour and devour a book’ – Smart Bitches, Trashy Books

‘Give this to your Game of Thrones fans’ – Booklist, starred review

‘We found it, the next brilliant series that everyone is looking for’ – Us

Welcome to the world of the Kingmaker Chronicles! It’s a place where the meeting of eyes across a crowded space can shape the course of lives and change the destiny of kingdoms. In the icy north, where magic is might, capricious royals rule with cold hearts and iron fists. In the dusty, magic-deprived south, muscle and cunning decide who lives or dies. In A Promise of Fire, the two cultures collide in the form of Cat and Griffin, a smart-mouthed soothsayer and a determined warlord. Their explosive first meeting leads to danger, intrigue, magic, monsters and soul-stirring romance. With Gods dabbling in the lives of men, beasts roaming the land, and nations ripe for a takeover, it’s a dangerous time to be the Kingmaker – the most coveted diplomatic weapon in the realms. Cat and Griffin’s not-so-chance encounter kicks off a romantic adventure of epic proportions, one where Cat must decide what – and who – is worth fighting, and even dying, for. Beware: Here be Dragons.

Five rules to surviving in the world of the Kingmaker

  1. The Gods can be trusted – usually.

  2. If you think an adversary has more magic than you do, bluff like there’s no tomorrow – there might not be.

  3. Don’t play with knives – use them.

  4. Decapitation is the surest way to kill just about anything – even a God.

  5. Consider everyone an enemy – they probably are.

 

Get your copy of A Promise of Fire now:

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You can now pre-order your copy of Book 2 in the Kingmaker Chronicles, Breath of Fire, out January 3rd.

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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.”

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