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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:

 

Friday Treat 22/06/2018

 

To enter simply comment under the competition post on the Piatkus Facebook.

This competition is run by Little, Brown UK. If you have any issues please email: competitions@littlebrown.co.uk

Terms & Conditions

1. This is a prize draw for one person to win Wicked and the Wallflower and When Katie Met Cassidy . To enter simply comment below the competition post on the Piatkus Facebook.
2. The winner will be selected at random from the entries received in accordance with these terms and conditions by a member of the Little, Brown Book Group marketing team, whose decision will be final.
3. The winner may see their entry posted on the Little, Brown Book Group (hereinafter the ’Company’) website and on other websites and social media accounts.
4. There is no purchase necessary to enter.
5. The prize draw opens at 12:00am GMT on 22.06.2018 and closes at 11:59 pm GMT on 29.06.2018. Any entries received outside these specified times and dates will not be eligible for entry into the competition.
6. The prize draw is open to anyone aged 18 or over in the UK, except employees of the Company, their families, or anyone professionally connected to the competition either themselves or through their families.
7. Only one entry per person allowed. Second or subsequent entries will be disqualified. Entries will not be accepted via agents, third parties or in bulk.
8. The Company is not responsible for contacting or forwarding prizes to entrants who provide unclear or incomplete information or for entries lost, misdirected, delayed or destroyed.
9. The Company reserves the right to alter the prizes or cancel the prize draw without notice. No cash alternatives to prizes will be provided.
10. The winner’s name will be published in a direct email to them, as well as the competition page on the Piatkus Entice website, confirming they are the winner. They then have 7 days to claim their prize. If they have not responded via email in 7 days, a new winner will be chosen.
11. The Company will make available the name and county of the winner to anyone who requests this information by writing to the following address Carmelite House, 50 Victoria Embankment, EC4Y 0DZ.
12. The email addresses of entrants may be shared with companies within the Hachette group of companies but will not be shared with other companies outside the Hachette group. It will be used by the Hachette companies to send you news about books, products and promotions. You will be given the option of opting out in those emails if you don’t want to receive any further news.
13. By entering the prize draw you agree to be bound by these terms and conditions.
14. This competition is being organised by Little, Brown Book Group, Carmelite House, 50 Victoria Embankment, EC4Y 0DZ.
15. These terms and conditions and any disputes or claims (including non-contractual disputes or claims) arising out of these terms and Conditions shall be governed and construed in accordance with the laws of England, whose courts shall have exclusive jurisdiction.

Royal Romance competition

To enter simply like and share the competition post the competition post on the Piatkus Facebook.

This competition is run by Little, Brown UK. If you have any issues please email: competitions@littlebrown.co.uk

Terms & Conditions:
1. This is a prize draw for one person to win A Promise of Fire, The Palace of Lost Dreams and Too Wilde To Wed . To enter simply like and share the competition post on the Piatkus Facebook.
2. The winner will be selected at random from the entries received in accordance with these terms and conditions by a member of the Little, Brown Book Group marketing team, whose decision will be final.
3. The winner may see their entry posted on the Little, Brown Book Group (hereinafter the ’Company’) website and on other websites and social media accounts.
4. There is no purchase necessary to enter.
5. The prize draw opens at 09:45 am GMT on 16.05.2018 and closes at 11:59 pm GMT on 20.05.2018. Any entries received outside these specified times and dates will not be eligible for entry into the competition.
6. The prize draw is open to anyone aged 18 or over in the UK, except employees of the Company, their families, or anyone professionally connected to the competition either themselves or through their families.
7. Only one entry per person allowed. Second or subsequent entries will be disqualified. Entries will not be accepted via agents, third parties or in bulk.
8. The Company is not responsible for contacting or forwarding prizes to entrants who provide unclear or incomplete information or for entries lost, misdirected, delayed or destroyed.
9. The Company reserves the right to alter the prizes or cancel the prize draw without notice. No cash alternatives to prizes will be provided.
10. The winner’s name will be published in a direct email to them, as well as the competition page on the Piatkus Entice website, confirming they are the winner. They then have 7 days to claim their prize. If they have not responded via email in 7 days, a new winner will be chosen.
11. The Company will make available the name and county of the winner to anyone who requests this information by writing to the following address Carmelite House, 50 Victoria Embankment, EC4Y 0DZ.
12. The email addresses of entrants may be shared with companies within the Hachette group of companies but will not be shared with other companies outside the Hachette group. It will be used by the Hachette companies to send you news about books, products and promotions. You will be given the option of opting out in those emails if you don’t want to receive any further news.
13. By entering the prize draw you agree to be bound by these terms and conditions.
14. This competition is being organised by Little, Brown Book Group, Carmelite House, 50 Victoria Embankment, EC4Y 0DZ.
15. These terms and conditions and any disputes or claims (including non-contractual disputes or claims) arising out of these terms and Conditions shall be governed and construed in accordance with the laws of England, whose courts shall have exclusive jurisdiction.

Win one of three copies of The Thief!

To celebrate the hardback publication of The Thief by J.R. Ward (eeeek), we’ve got THREE copies to giveaway!

New enemies rise and desire burns in the next thrilling novel of the New York Times bestselling paranormal romance series the Black Dagger Brotherhood.

Sola Morte, former cat burglar and safe-cracker, has given up her old life on the wrong side of the law. On the run from a drug lord’s family, she is lying low far from Caldwell, keeping her nose clean and her beloved grandmother safe. Her heart, though, is back up north, with the only man who has ever gotten through her defenses: Assail, who never meant to fall in love – and certainly not with a human. But they have no future, and not just because she doesn’t know he is a vampire, but because he is not about to stop dealing arms to the Black Dagger Brotherhood.

Fate, however, has other plans for them. When Assail falls into a coma and lingers on the verge of death, his cousins seek out Sola and beg her to give him a reason to live. The last thing she wants is a return to her past, but how can she leave him to die?

As a lethal new enemy of the vampires shows its face, Sola finds herself not only a target, but a mission-critical force in a war she doesn’t understand. And when Assail’s truth comes out, will she run from the horror . . . or follow her heart into the arms of the male who loves her more than life itself?

To enter, simply fill in the form below. UK only, closing 31st May 2018. Good luck and don’t forget to read the T&Cs!



 

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.’

Playing with Fire, Renee Graziano Excerpt

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

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

Might just be the body in it.

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

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

He approved 100 percent.

“Reign.”

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

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

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

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

“She’s connected.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good both ways. So was Nick.

He shot his cuffs. “Introduce me.”

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

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

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

“I admire her taste already.”

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

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

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

“Wife?”

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

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

Yet.

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

He looked right back.

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

For sure.

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

She did her best to not stare.

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

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

That was interesting.

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

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

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

The worst sort of man for her.

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

At least before this moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Interesting first name,” he said.

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

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

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

She read the signs too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A gentleman. That scored him a point.

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

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

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

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

Hell yes, I do.

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

“I’m an investment banker.”

“Just that?”

“Mostly.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Five forbidden love stories

Inspired by the heartrending forbidden love story at the heart of J.R. Ward’s The Chosen, we’ve chosen (ho ho) five of our film favourites . . .


Shakespeare in Love
: Will Shakespeare is suffering from a bad case of writer’s block, and it seems like inspiration will never come – that is, until he meets Viola. Arresting, brilliant and one of his greatest admirers, their love quickly blossoms but is challenged by mistaken identity, backstage drama and the dastardly Lord Wessex . . . A funny, fresh and contemporary take on Shakespeare and his writing, we’ve seen this film countless times and still love it.


Moonlight:
arguably the best film of 2016, Moonlight sheds new light on the forbidden love trope as we follow a young boy, Chiron, coming to terms with his sexuality and racial identity against a backdrop of poverty and violence in contemporary Miami. When he forges a friendship with the charismatic Kevin, Chiron begins to realise just who he is – even if circumstances conspire against their burgeoning relationship. Quietly profound and gorgeously realised, this is a film for the ages.


The English Patient:
When amnesiac WW2 pilot Lazlo de Almásy is pulled from a plane wreckage in North Africa, he finds himself under the care of the beautiful but troubled nurse Hana, who helps him to remember his love affair with the married Katharine Clifton before the war. One of the most sumptuous romantic epics of recent times, and as heartbreaking today as it was on initial release.


All That Heaven Allows: a 50s melodrama that has inspired many other tales of forbidden love (including Fear Eats the Soul and Far From Heaven), the film focuses on the plight of a middle-class widow Cary Scott who falls in love with her much younger gardener (played by Rock Hudson), to the consternation of her snobbish friends and family. Tissues at the ready . . .

 

Harold and Maude: forbidden love is all about breaking down taboos, and this offbeat cult comedy does so with aplomb. When death-obsessed 20-something Harold meets the free-spirited septuagenarian Maude, an unexpected romance blossoms – and though society seems unwilling to accept them, this eccentric couple couldn’t care less.

Free excerpt from Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dragonmark . . .

Tomorrow Sherrilyn Kenyon‘s amazing Dragonmark comes out in paperback! Read an excerpt below… 

—————

Samothraki, Greece 9501 BCE
“The bastards cut his throat. Severed his vocal cords entirely.” Materializing from the frigid depths of his lair, Falcyn cursed as he saw his brother, Maxis, dragging Illarion into his dark den behind
him. For years they’d been searching for their youngest dragon-brother, who’d been captured by humans for who knew what nightmarish horrors. But no trace had ever been found of the young dragonet.

Until now.

So large that he barely fit through the cave opening, Maxis released his hold on their baby brother and allowed Illarion to sprawl across the floor. Blood seeped over his yellowish-orange
scales. Both of his wings lay broken and useless against the cold earthen floor. His breathing shallow as he struggled desperately to stay conscious, Illarion blinked his serpentine yellow eyes slowly. Painfully.
So much needless misery—it radiated from the child to the core of Falcyn’s being. And it made his own eyes turn vibrant red as bloodlust rose
within him. Knowing he couldn’t tend his brother in his native dragon body, Falcyn shifted into the hated form of a human. The moment he did so, Illarion let out a gurgling hiss and rolled into an attack position even though it had to be agony for him to move.

“Easy, little brother.”

Falcyn spoke in their native drakyn—the true language all dragons spoke. One that sounded feral and unintelligible to humans. He held his hand out toward Illarion as a peace offering. While he might temporarily wear the skin of a man, Falcyn was and would always be a dragon in his heart and soul. “You know me. I need this form to heal you. Now calm yourself before you do more harm.”

A single crystalline tear fell from the corner of Illarion’s serpentine eye.

In that moment, Falcyn hated humanity more than he ever had—something he wouldn’t have thought possible. He reached to stroke Illarion’s gray-scaled snout. “Shh . . .”
Illarion backed up, then collapsed. Maxis gasped as he gently nuzzled the much smaller dragon and tucked his own wings against his body. Ignoring the fact that Max was a giant beast of a dragon who
could swallow him whole in his current incarnation, Falcyn shoved Max’s head away. “He’s passed out from the pain, Yaya. Now move your hulking arse so I can help him.”

Max shuffled back to make more room. “Will he live?”
“I don’t know. Where did you find him?”
“I didn’t. He found me.” Guilt and agony haunted Max’s eyes. “He can no longer Bane-Cry. The bastards took his ability to call us when they slit his throat.”
Falcyn ground his teeth as even more unmitigated rage tore through him. “Then we will teach him a new way to call for us. One they won’t be able to stop.”

Max nodded and looked away. “This is my fault.”
“Don’t!”
“It is and you know it. My mother gave him to the humans to get back at me for what I said to her. Had I cooperated . . . given her what she—”
“She would have screwed over the world, and he still would have paid for her cruelty. The lilitu are without the ability to care for their young. You know this. My own mother watched as they sacrificed me on my birth. All it did was teach me that we’re in this life alone, cradle to grave, and make me bitter and disgusted.”

Max swallowed before he spoke again. “Is that why you can take human form when no other dragon can?”

Falcyn didn’t answer his question. It was the one thing he would never speak of. To anyone. No one needed to know anything about him. Not even those he considered his brothers. Nor was he the only dragon who could shift . . . But there were many things his brothers and sisters didn’t need to know about this world.

“His physical injuries are not so bad,” he said, changing the subject. “We should be able to heal him.”
“But?”
“He’s only a child. I fear for the mental damage they’ve wrought.”
“As do I. They were using him to fight in their wars. Riding him like he was a thoughtless beast.”
Falcyn winced. Too bad Illarion hadn’t been a full-grown drakomas. That was the fury the humans deserved. Not the small child who lay helpless at his feet. One who’d been unable to fully fight them and give them the fyrebreath and dragon’s fury they deserved. In that moment, he felt the demon within him rising. It wanted to set fire to the world and watch it burn to cinders. If mankind had any idea how often they tempted him toward destruction they’d never sleep again. Times like this, it took everything he had not to give in to that darkness that burned inside him, calling for the hearts and souls of all sentient beings. Even the gods.

That was what made it so hard to relate to Maxis. Part Arel, he was the direct opposite. He saw only good inside even the most corrupt. It was sickening, really. The way his brother wanted to help others. That innate need Max had to protect and to serve. It was ever revolting. Now Illarion had been given his first taste of humanity. And like Falcyn’s, it had been a most bitter meal. If the dragonet did survive this, he wouldn’t have Max’s blood in him that would want to protect the human vermin who’d tortured him. Illarion’s father was the Greek god Ares. A war god. The humans had no idea what they’d been toying with. With the blood Illarion carried, he would become one of the strongest of their kind once he reached his majority. A dragon of fierce, unmatched powers.

Falcyn’s hand lingered at the brand on his brother’s back where the humans had marked Illarion like cattle. It festered and bled. Sadly, it would leave as bad a scar on his body as this entire ordeal had left on his brother’s psyche. May the gods have mercy on them all. . . .

For Illarion would not.

—————

Need to read more? We feel your pain! Order the PB below, and keep watching Piatkus Fiction for upcoming Kenyon competitions….

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The War Bride, Pamela Hart Excerpt

To celebrate Pamela Hart‘s gorgeously romantic novel The War Bride being shortlisted in the Epic Romantic Novel category for the 2017 RoNAs, we’ve got an excerpt from it for you! Enjoy!

Prologue
13 January 1920

There didn’t seem to be a band playing. And only a few people on the wharf at Dawes Point. A handful of Army types, a man in a suit waiting with a taxi, and the normal number of stevedores lounging around, grabbing a smoko while they waited for their cargo to arrive.

Frank was surprised. The last time a war-bride ship had docked – when his mate Smitty’s girl came out – there had been crowds, an Army brass band, streamers and shouting and crying – even a man with a placard saying, ‘Welcome to your new home, Mavis’. He’d thought about making one of those for Margaret, but now he was glad he hadn’t. He felt silly enough, clutching a bunch of roses in a sweaty hand.

He hoped he’d still recognise her. Two years and four months was a long time, and women did things with their hairstyles. Clothes were different. But surely Margaret’s tall, slender form would stand out the way it had at Reading train station, when they’d said goodbye. Surely he couldn’t mistake that lovely, soft smile of hers for anyone else?

It was hot already, and humid, as Sydney summers always were, but he was ruefully aware that the sweat running down his back wasn’t only from the heat.

Wound tighter than a watch spring, he was. Two years and four months and no giving in to temptation, no matter what. A married man, and he’d stuck to it, and God hadn’t it been hard! But today . . . the house he’d found for them was all ready, the bed made with brand-new sheets. A thorn pricked his thumb and he loosened his grip; not long now.

The SS Waimana loomed closer; still painted in its camouflage colours, even now, fourteen months after the war had ended. Frank blinked, confused. There weren’t any passengers lining the rails – no, wait, there were a couple on the top deck, holding up some kiddies to see. Where were the women? This was supposed to be a war-bride ship. It should have been packed to the gunnels.

The ship was tied up and the gangplank put across the gap. A trickle of passengers came down, but the only young woman who emerged was a redhead. She winked at him as she went past, her hand tucked into a corporal’s arm. That was all – the others were a family group and a couple of men in suits.

Where was Margaret? He checked the letter from the Repatriation Committee again, for the tenth time; yes, the Waimana, arriving January 1920, check shipping news for arrival date. Which he had. Surely she hadn’t got off at Fremantle or Melbourne? Maybe most of the women had been going to Melbourne, and that was why the ship was nearly empty. That would be it. But where was Margaret?

Who could he ask? An Army sergeant was checking off the corporal and his redhead from a list. With the enlisted man’s instinctive avoidance of authority, Frank went instead to a sailor who was securing the mooring ropes at the bow of the ship.

‘My wife was supposed to be on this ship,’ he began.

The sailor hawked and spat into the greasy Harbour water. ‘Soddin’ women.’

Frank ignored his comment.

‘Margaret Dalton?’ he asked.

The sailor looked at the sky and sucked his teeth, thinking. ‘Brown hair? Good looker? About so high?’ He measured against himself. Frank nodded.

‘Yerse, I remember her. There were only a couple without their blokes. She came on board, but she took herself off again. Women – always changing their bluidy minds.’

He’d felt cold like this when he’d been shot, at Passchendaele, in the streaming mud, trying to crawl under barbed wire. The shock had gone through him the same way, exactly.

‘Took herself off . . .’ he managed.

The sailor shrugged and made fast, then circled him to get back on board.

‘Life’s a shit, eh?’ he said as he climbed the gangplank.

Frank threw the roses into the gutter as he walked away. Walked and walked, hot in his good suit (his only suit) and his shiny shoes.

Part of him wasn’t surprised. He’d always known that Margaret was too good for him. Too beautiful, too kind, too loving. He wasn’t worth that kind of girl; a nameless orphan with nothing more than what his two hands could make. But she hadn’t seemed to realise that. Had seemed to think they were on a par, that she was making a good bargain. Had seemed to look forward to a life in Australia.

When she’d walked with him to the station to see him off to the front, she’d cried silently, surreptitiously rubbing the tears away from her face, not wanting to make him feel any worse. They’d only been married a month, then, and parting had been so hard. When they’d kissed goodbye, her soft mouth had been salty with tears.

She’d loved him then, he was certain.

Two years and four months was a long time. Long enough, it seemed, for her to change her mind, even if it was at the last moment.

He’d had letters; but not for a while, now he thought about it. A few months. Maybe that should have made him realise. Made him prepare himself, instead of being side-swiped like this.

She should have warned him. Told him she’d had doubts. He could have reassured her. Hell, he would have gone to England to fetch her if he’d had to.

Unless someone else had changed her mind for her.

The thought of Margaret with another man hit him low and hard, and left him gasping.

He needed a drink. There was a pub on the corner. Not one he’d been in before, but it was open. He went in and hesitated, then ordered a whisky. Beer wouldn’t chase away this shaking feeling inside him; wouldn’t put him solidly on his feet again.

One whisky didn’t, either. He had another, and another. A vague sense that he was spending too much money sent him out the door, jingling the coins in his pocket, along with the key to the house he’d prepared so carefully for Margaret.

It made him sick to think of living there alone. Made him walk faster, as if to outdistance the thought.

He stopped for breath and realised that he’d walked a long way; had taken a familiar path, to Stanmore, and Gladys.

Well, why not? Hell, he’d been faithful the whole time, and what did he have to show for it? Anger rose up in him, finally chasing away the cold, sick dread. If Margaret didn’t want him, there was one who did. Who always had. And there was no reason now that his daughter couldn’t have a proper father.

That thought was the first good one he’d had. It would be wonderful to see more of Violet.

He turned into Cavendish Street and walked up to number 64, Mrs Leydin’s boarding house, where Glad had a room for her and Violet. For a moment, before he knocked, he was afraid that she wouldn’t want him, either. That she’d throw him off because he hadn’t chosen her over Margaret, despite the fact that Margaret was his lawful wedded wife. He was frozen with that fear, for a moment; that he’d be back to being alone in the world, as he always had been until that miraculous day that Margaret had said she would marry him. Alone and forsaken. But he wasn’t alone. Violet would always be his.

His knock would have woken the dead.

It was still early; Glad was on second shift at the biscuit factory, and she hadn’t left for work yet. She answered the door and put her hand to her heart as she saw him; did he look that bad?

‘She didn’t come,’ he said.

Her pale little face flushed and she took his hand almost shyly. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. That was Gladys. She was sorry, always, at anything that caused him pain. She really loved him. Tears came to his eyes but he didn’t want her to see, so he pulled her into his arms and hugged her. Violet came running out of their room and crowed with delight to see him.

‘Papa!’ she yelled. She barrelled into his legs and he swept her up with one arm, still holding Gladys tightly with the other. He kissed Vi’s cheek and she threw her little arms around his neck. There was nothing like that feeling.

Gladys leaned her head against his shoulder; her love and acceptance soothed the raw wound of Margaret’s rejection.

‘You and Vi should move in with me,’ he said. ‘We’ll be a proper family.’

‘Yes,’ Glad said. She smoothed his hair back and smiled at him. There was a hint of sadness at the back of her eyes, but he concentrated on the smile, mirroring it until the sadness disappeared. ‘A proper family.’

The War Bride is available to buy now! Get it here:

Ebook

Amazon

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WHSmith

And Pamela’s newest book, A Letter From Italy is published in ebook tomorrow!! Pre-order here!