Monday, August 25, 2014

PREVIEW CHAPTER ONE: Caught in Darkness by Rose Wulf #FreeRead


Caught in Darkness
by Rose Wulf


Blurb:

Night Shadows, 1

Veronica Wyndham had no idea that vampires were real, let alone that her new favorite customer—Tall Dark and Handsome—just so happened to be one. And she never imagined she’d overhear a robbery plan with murderous potential while eating lunch in the park. Making those kinds of enemies just wasn’t a good way to spend a day.

Seth Hunter knew he should have been grateful for Veronica’s unintentional help in exposing the traitors, but all he could worry about was how much danger she’d just landed in. Instinct had him taking it upon himself to keep a protective eye on her, but even then he had to keep his distance. If she found out the truth about the world around her, she would surely get Caught in Darkness.
#####

CAUGHT IN DARKNESS

Night Shadows, 1

Rose Wulf

Copyright © 2014


Chapter One ~
“Coffee, black, no sugar.”
The order rang in Veronica Wyndham’s ears as she snuck a glance over at the mystery man that she and her coworkers had dubbed Tall, Dark, and Handsome. He’d started coming in only a week before, and since then he came in every morning at precisely ten-fifteen, and he always ordered exactly the same thing. Not that she knew how he could stomach it, since it was the middle of July and it was already pushing ninety degrees outside by ten o’clock.
Still, it sort of suits him, Veronica decided as she pretended to focus on filling a cup with freshly-brewed coffee. She snuck another glance at him as she reached for a fitted lid, noting appreciatively that he was dressed like he always was – in black. Black long-sleeved shirt that was just tight enough to showcase his sculpted arms, black slacks that somehow made him look even taller, and black shoes. He was even wearing a pair of black Ray Bans straight out of Men in Black. All of which, of course, complemented his thick, dark hair. And, as clich├ęd as it was, the look definitely worked for him.
Setting the beverage on the small pickup shelf, she called, “Coffee, no sugar,” and offered him a hopefully-casual smile as he reached for the drink. “Have a good day,” she added, smile still firmly in place despite the traitorous strand of blonde hair that had fallen into her eyes as she shifted.
Tall, Dark, and Handsome merely inclined his head before turning and sweeping out of the small building. He seemed oblivious to the multiple pairs of eyes that watched him leave.
Veronica sucked in a breath, gave herself a mental headshake, and returned to her job. You can ogle him again tomorrow, she reminded herself, tucking her hair out of the way. If nothing else, at least she could say that about her recent switch to the morning shift – she’d certainly never had eye-candy like him when she closed.

“Veronica Ann Wyndham,” Carol Wyndham began, her tone clipped, when she answered the phone several hours later, “where on Earth have you been?”
Trying not to roll her eyes, Veronica replied, “I’ve been at work, Mom. I just got home, so I’m calling you back.” Her mother had left her a short, vague voicemail earlier that afternoon, insisting that she call back ‘right away.’ But her mother also had a tendency to dramatize even the most mundane of things, so Veronica had decided not to panic without cause.
Releasing a frustrated breath, Carol declared, “That job of yours gets in the way of your life, you know. You’re twenty-five years old, you’re not getting any younger; you should be out meeting good men so that you can get married and settle down. You don’t want to wait much longer before you start having children.”
Her right eye was beginning to twitch and Veronica sighed as she stepped out of her shoes and sank into her couch. They had this argument at least twice a month. Keeping her voice calm and casual, Veronica said, “I’m sure you didn’t call just to lecture me about how much I’m messing up my life.”
“I never said you were messing it up,” Carol defended. She paused, though, before finally changing the topic and saying, “I called because we’re having a potluck for the new neighbors on Saturday night.”
Warning bells immediately went off in Veronica’s head, but she tried to keep the hesitation out of her voice as she asked, “And you’re telling me this…why?”
“What do you mean ‘why’?” her mother asked incredulously. “You need to know so that you can plan accordingly. It starts at six, so I expect to see you by five-thirty.”
Releasing a heavy breath, Veronica replied firmly, “I can’t go.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I can’t go,” Veronica repeated deliberately. “I already have plans.”
Without missing a beat, Carol said, “Then change them. Darling, we need to welcome them to the neighborhood properly.”
Attempting to remain calm, Veronica said, “I can’t just ‘change’ these plans, Mom. And, in case you’ve forgotten, I don’t live in that neighborhood anymore. I haven’t for years.”
“And how do you suppose it will look if you don’t come?”
“Like your daughter has enough of a life that she’s not available at the last minute on a Saturday night.”
Voice firm, Carol insisted, “Five-thirty, Veronica. This is not up for discussion.” The line clicked a beat later.
Veronica pulled her phone from her ear and stared, dumbfounded, at the blinking display. And then her disbelief melted quickly into anger and her grip tightened on the slim device as she sucked in a sharp breath. It’s like she’s convinced herself I’m still fifteen! Fuming now, she dropped the phone onto the cushion beside her, pushed to her feet, and made her way into her kitchen. I’m not going.
She was constantly amazed at how selfish and thoughtless her mother could be at times. Saturday was her best friend Allison’s birthday – and her mother knew that. She and Allison had been friends since high school. I can’t just bail on Ali’s birthday! It was times like this that she really wanted to yell at her mother, despite the fact that she knew she never would.
Mom’s just going to have to be disappointed, Veronica decided silently as she dug through her refrigerator. Ordinarily, Veronica would let her mother win an argument like this. Whenever she put her foot down on an issue she never heard the end of it – her mother was still giving her grief for working part-time in a coffee shop! And she tried, she really did, not to upset her mother. But this was different. This was something important to someone else, someone who also mattered to her, and her mother was just going to have to accept that.
I am absolutely not going.
* * *
Seth Hunter strode purposefully into the comfortable Baltimore penthouse, offering a courtesy nod to the lone man sprawled lazily out on the sofa in the large living room. Even though he had been in town for over a week now, Seth was still surprised that Robert – the man he was currently heading to see – actually lived in such a flashy space. As the local Family’s head vampire, Robert certainly had the finances and status for penthouse-living, but Robert himself was so unassuming and down-to-earth that it just seemed to clash. Not that it was any of Seth’s business; he wasn’t in town to judge anything other than the loyalty of Robert’s Family.
He came to a stop on the outside of a sturdy, unassuming door and gathered his thoughts. With deliberate casualty (in case anyone was watching), Seth lifted one loosely-curled fist and tapped on the door. He remained entirely still until he heard a faintly muffled voice call to him from the other side, and then he eased the door open and slipped inside.
Robert’s office – originally intended to be used as an additional bedroom – was a good size and lavishly decorated. What was once a closet had now been transformed into a recessed bookcase, and thick, black drapes hung over the single window. Pictures and multiple framed diplomas adorned the walls, and a large, mahogany desk was stationed before the covered window. A corded phone, two more framed pictures, a laptop, and a new printer were scattered across the desk, behind which sat Robert himself.
Robert took a deep breath, letting his well-wrung hands land back on his desk, and lifted his weary, dark eyes up to meet Seth’s gaze. “Thank you so much for coming right over,” he began. “Please, sit.”
Seth inclined his head and settled into one of the leather chairs facing the desk as he said, “It wasn’t a problem. What’s going on?” He had been called into town to help smoke out some suspected traitors, but so far his investigation had been slow-going at best. He could only assume that Robert had called for him because he’d learned something more.
“Ah,” Robert hedged, looking away again. It was obvious that he knew his next words wouldn’t make Seth a very happy vampire. “I’m afraid it seems that my friend, our informant, has disappeared. I haven’t been able to get ahold of him since early last night, and he’s not at home.”
Seth’s lips dipped in a disapproving frown. Robert’s informant was something of a sore subject for him, as Robert had insisted on keeping his friend’s identity secret. Robert’s friend was also the best lead they had. “Has anyone else seen or talked to him more recently?” Seth asked.
“Not that I’m aware of,” Robert replied dejectedly. “I’m worried, Seth. I’m afraid someone might have realized that he knew about their plans.”
“That’s a possibility,” Seth agreed, wishing he could in good conscience point out that he could have been keeping an eye on their informant if he’d known who the man was. But he wasn’t angry enough to point the blame at a man so obviously concerned for another’s safety so, instead, he added, “It’s also possible that his disappearance means our targets will be making their move sooner than later. Did you learn anything new last time you spoke with him?”
Robert slowly shook his head, saying, “No, I haven’t. I was hoping you had.”
It’s hard to get information without knowing who to talk to, Seth grumbled silently. Aloud, he replied, “I haven’t had much luck. Whoever’s involved is at least smart enough not to talk around the new guy, and I haven’t had enough time to dig into everyone’s daily routines.”
“Tiffany’s not going to like any of this,” Robert said on a sigh as he sank back into his chair.
Seth studied his current employer quietly for a moment before forcing himself to bring up an old subject. “Robert,” he began, “I know you don’t like this idea, but maybe it’s time you considered that your friend’s been lying. He could have been feeding you information in order to throw the both of us off of his trail.”
Robert dragged his eyes back from the ceiling, his expression hardening visibly and finally showing an echo of the powerful vampire he truly was. “Absolutely not,” he insisted. “He would never betray me; I would trust him with anything. And I’m not paying you to waste precious time suspecting the wrong man.”
Managing to keep his voice even, Seth replied, “At this point I’m suspecting everyone, including your friend, since I don’t know who he is.” He pushed to his feet, aware that Robert didn’t have anything more for him, and added, “But it shouldn’t take a lot of effort to figure out who’s missing. If I find a lead for him, I’ll let you know.”
“I’m not asking you to investigate his disappearance,” Robert declared calmly. “You told me at the beginning to act normal, and under ordinary circumstances I would be handling his disappearance myself. I was only telling you so that you would know that we won’t have any new information coming our way for a while.”
Lips drawing into a thin line, Seth inclined his head again and turned without a word. He’d taken this case because he’d thought he liked Robert—however, at that moment Robert was his own worst enemy. But there was nothing to be done about it. In the meantime, he still had an undetermined number of traitors to flush out of hiding before they hurt somebody.
* * *
Despite herself, Veronica couldn’t stop reflecting on the ridiculous situation her mother had put her in. Even as she went through her nightly routine, brushing her easily-tangled and still-damp hair, she found herself mentally arguing her point all over again. It was entirely unfair of her mother to demand that she participate in someone else’s potluck, especially on the night of her best friend’s birthday. But she also knew that her mother wouldn’t see it that way.
“Just bring Allison with you,” her mother would say, as if it were the most obvious solution in the world. “She knows how much I adore her.” That was the positive, attempt–at-being-reasonable response. There was always a possibility that her mother would come back with, “Allison will understand. And it’s not like you never see her.”
Yeah, well, it’s not like I never see you, either, Veronica found herself grumbling as she set her brush back onto the nightstand. She groaned aloud, squeezed her eyes shut, and shook her head. Great, now I’m arguing with my mother inside my head!
The worst part was that if the issue were to be brought to Allison’s attention, Veronica knew without a doubt that Allison would tell her to go anyway. That was how Allison was, and, conversely, that was a large part of the reason why Veronica was so reluctant to give in to her mother’s demand. Allison was looking forward to having all of her friends around for her party – she hadn’t even celebrated the year before – and Veronica knew she’d be disappointed if someone had to cancel. The last thing Veronica wanted to do was be that person.
Fleetingly, Veronica wondered if her mother would make her go up to the new neighbor’s door and apologize in person for missing the potluck like she had during her sophomore year of college.
Releasing a heavy sigh, Veronica flopped down onto her mattress and stared, unseeingly, up at the ceiling. That had been so humiliating – not to mention unnecessary – and that had, in fact, been the action that led to her ultimately deciding to move out of the house. She had never been so furious at her mother, nor her mother at her. They hadn’t spoken to each other for nearly a month.
Guilt swirled up in Veronica’s chest, making her stomach clench. She was going to have to do it. Allison would understand, whether or not she should have to, and Carol would not. The only thing she wanted less than to disappoint her best friend was to find herself in the middle of another ultimately-senseless argument with her mother. In the morning, before she got into work, she was going to have to call Allison and explain the situation and pray that her best friend would be willing to schedule a small celebration in the near future.
The world was such an incredibly unjust place sometimes.
* * *
“Let me know if you need a heavier hand,” Jasen Hawthorne reminded on the other end of the line.
Seth cut the engine after easing his Corvette into his usual parking space in front of the coffee house, releasing a silent breath before replying, “Don’t worry; if it comes to that, I will.” Jasen was significantly older than Seth, and their jobs were similar enough that the pair often worked together, despite that their titles were different. Seth was, officially, a Private Investigator of the First Family – a title which granted him jurisdiction to travel between Families without causing problems. In contrast, Jasen was the First Family’s most efficient Enforcer. While Seth was largely an anonymous figure among the vampires, there were few who hadn’t at least heard of Jasen. But working with Jasen had at least as many disadvantages as advantages, so Seth generally tried to work alone.
“All right,” Jasen said, his voice as even and deliberate as ever. “Good luck.”
“Thanks,” Seth replied before pulling the phone from his ear and disconnecting. The screen was already blinking, and he wondered if Jasen had even heard his last response – not that it mattered. With a shake of his head, Seth dropped his phone back into his pocket and climbed from his car. That phone call had nearly made him late for his morning coffee.
The soft jingle of the bells over the door signaled his arrival as he stepped through a moment later and, like he always did, he kept his covered gaze focused on the counter. It was hard not to notice the way the atmosphere shifted as he stepped into line, or the way the young brunette at the register let her gaze flick to him for a lingering moment. But it wasn’t too hard to ignore. And then the probably-late-for-work, early-twenties boy ahead of him stepped aside, having placed his order, and it was Seth’s turn. Like he always did, as her eyes searched his sunglasses curiously, he casually requested, “Coffee, black, no sugar.”
It wasn’t until he was turning away from the register counter, headed to wait for his drink, that he realized he had been hoping to see the same blonde woman from the day before. And he had barely registered the feeling before his eyes landed on her, and some part of him stirred as he studied her. She had her hair pulled back in a high ponytail, her head bowed ever-so-slightly as she prepared the drink ahead of his, and her outfit was covered by the company’s standard dark blue apron. But even from what he could see it was easy to tell that she had a shapely figure to go with her naturally pale complexion.
He watched silently, yet again grateful that he was wearing dark sunglasses, as she set the drink on the counter and called the name of the boy ahead of him. As she pulled back to fill his coffee her bright blue eyes flicked in his direction, the corner of her lips twitching in a subtle smile, and Seth found himself actually struggling to keep from returning the gesture. Fortunately, she looked away just as quickly, and he followed her lead, shifting his gaze to the local advertisements on the board beside him.
“Coffee, no sugar,” she called as she set his cup on the shelf. Her eyes again shifted to him, holding this time for a long second before she smiled and turned her attention back to the drinks still waiting to be made.
Seth released an inaudible breath, wrapped his hand around his coffee, and turned to make his exit. His morning coffee run was turning into a literal bright spot during his stay, but he was beginning to think it was a good thing he only saw her once a day. He suspected she had the potential to hold his attention even in a more important situation, and he still had a job to do.
Even so, as he unlocked his car, he couldn’t help but wonder what her name was.
* * *
Veronica had been right. It hadn’t been any fun at all having to tell Allison that she wouldn’t be able to make the party. But at least we were able to reschedule, she reminded herself. Instead of joining their friends for a couple of movies, dinner, and some games, she would be meeting Ali on Tuesday for a girl’s day. It was the best she could do.
And, in the meantime, it was Saturday afternoon, at least a hundred degrees, and she needed to find a decent place to eat her lunch. Despite the raging heat of the summer, Veronica had decided to grab a sandwich from a local deli and spend some time at the park. Provided, of course, that she could find a little shade. The heat was weighing down the paper bag in her hand, probably melting the cheese on her cold roast beef sandwich, and making her immensely glad that she had opted to go with a lightweight faded blue dress and sandals.
Finally spotting a full, sturdy tree that seemed to have a nice amount of shade beneath it, Veronica quickly moved over and sat down. The faintest of breezes was dancing across her heated skin, toying with her neck-length ponytail but stopping short of actually offering relief. Still, she smiled and tugged her lunch out of the bag. It was likely to be her only enjoyable meal of the day, and she wanted to make it last as long as possible.
She was still nursing the bottle of juice that she’d purchased alongside her sandwich when she heard movement somewhere behind her. She tried ignoring it, assuming that it was just someone taking their dog on a walk, but her interest was piqued when the first voice drifted to her ears.
“You better have a good reason for dragging me out here in broad daylight,” the first voice – male – snapped agitatedly. His voice was gruff and didn’t inspire confidence.
Despite herself, Veronica tightened the cap on her bottle and leaned slightly around the tree, curious now. She easily spotted the three men standing not too far from her. Two stood side-by-side, both a little shy of six foot, and the third stood opposite them, just slightly shorter than his comrades. But it was the way they were dressed that really intrigued her. Two wore ankle-length trench coats over jeans and heavy shirts with baseball caps on their heads, and the third wore jeans and sneakers beneath a hooded sweatshirt. The third man’s hood was pulled up, and all of their hands were tucked into pockets. She couldn’t imagine how they hadn’t already passed out from heat stroke.
The one in the hoodie spoke up next, his voice lower and startlingly darker as he said, “Quit whining, Wilson. You know why we’re meeting out here.”
The man standing next to the one in the hoodie spoke next, projecting his voice just a bit higher as he said, “Unless you want to back out.”
The one standing by himself – the first who’d spoken – scoffed and said, “I’m not a damn idiot; I kind of like my head where it is.”
“Good,” the louder one replied. He shifted his weight, glancing at the man beside him, before adding, “I heard Tiffany on the phone this morning; they’re going out tonight. She thinks they’ll be gone for hours. It’s the best chance we’re gonna get.”
“Tonight?” the first man—Wilson—repeated, a tone of incredulity in his voice. “But we haven’t worked it all out yet. Did you even get the code?”
“I did,” Hoodie said shortly.
Wilson flicked a glance toward him before looking back at the louder man and asking, “So…what’s the plan?”
“The plan’s pretty simple,” the louder man replied. “We wait until Robert’s out, and then we sneak inside and take the money. It’s not like he ever leaves guards; we’ll be in and out before anyone’s the wiser.”
Silence stretched, and Veronica’s eyes widened. Oh my god, she whispered silently. Never had it occurred to her that she’d be overhearing someone talking about a robbery. But that was exactly what it sounded like.
Wilson spoke up again, drawing her out of her thoughts as he asked, “And if someone catches us?”
The one in the hoodie calmly replied, “We kill ‘em.”



Rose will choose one commenter to receive a free eCopy of Caught in Darkness! Leave a comment or question below. Be sure to include your email address.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Preview the First Chapter of MASQUERADE by Lace Daltyn

Masquerade (Secrets, 1)
by Lace Daltyn

Blurb:

The world is full of secrets...

Drea Fortier, a reclusive philanthropist whose painful past influences her belief that there can be no happily ever after for her, reaches out to help others in the hope she can transform their pain and give them hope for the future. Drea’s own story, as well as that of her assistant, Michael Smith, is slowly revealed throughout the Secrets series.

Book One: Masquerade

Frigid bitch. The words seep into Beth Ritmour's soul, no matter how hard she tries to deny them. A year after her divorce, they still haunt her. So when a mysterious benefactor offers a solution to her problem, Beth takes a vacation from her job as a dental hygienist and follows a cryptic note to Chicago, where she’s soon ensconced as a waitress at Club Masquerade. Although how she’s going to prove she’s not frigid is hard to figure out when the boss makes it very clear that sex, or any precursors to sex, with patrons or employees is strictly taboo. It’s not an easy rule to follow, especially when one deliciously hot bartender keeps very, very close tabs on her.



MASQUERADE

Secrets, 1

Lace Daltyn

Copyright © 2014



Prologue

Michael Smith walked off the elevator of the New York high-rise, vigilant as always as he strode down the taupe-shaded hall. Two exceptions spoiled the pretense that this hallway was like any other.

First, only two doors were visible. One, he knew, opened to a secure stairwell that led up to a rooftop helipad or down twenty floors to the underground garage. The second door, which he stood in front of now, led to what he’d come to think of as the inner sanctum.

The other big difference about this hallway was the sophisticated security system that guarded each door. Michael glanced up at the camera following his movements. He’d worked enough protection details to know the PIN and thumbprint pad beside the door was top notch.

A wariness bred by too many back-door ops made him glance over his shoulder before entering the access code. No one was ever behind him. Michael rubbed the back of his neck, recognizing that his employer’s paranoia had rubbed off on him. That wasn’t the only thing, either. A memory of lips tinted with ruby-colored disdain caused him to botch the code, and he endured the required wait time before trying again, knowing she watched him. Knowing she waited for him.

Knowing she knew his thoughts had been of her.

Fuck. How much crap would he tolerate? This struggle of wills was making him say and do things completely against his nature. He’d found out the hard way that being submissive only got him screwed. The promise he’d made himself to never take orders again was sitting like a lump of acid in his throat.

It’s worth it he told himself. She’s worth it.

The room he entered looked like a hybrid living area. A neat, uncluttered modular desk shared space with the futon he’d used more than once as a bed. A small fridge with a combination coffee and water station on top and a low table under the sole window in the room, completed the furnishings.
Michael stowed his duffle and crossed to the table. Grabbing the spray bottle, he lifted the plastic that kept several different species of orchids thriving and misted the dirt. Orchids very much like his boss, both fragile and tough at the same time.

After making tea, he knocked on the door to her office. Entering, Michael reached for the light switch, then pulled his hand back as he remembered.

No lights.

Only a computer screen and one single, shroud-shielded lamp behind the desk provided what little illumination the room held. The rest remained in shadow, swirled in whispers of un-divulged sorrows Michael could only guess at.

He knew his employer was young. Mid-twenties at the most. Slender, unlined fingers as yet untouched by time moved with delicate precision across the keyboard. These were his only indication of her age.

His employer sat behind a black desk, its finish dulled to swallow any light that touched its surface. Even the chrome edges, polished to perfection, found little to reflect.

Though she sat with a posture that only comes with much training, Michael had yet to see her face. Each time he entered, she pulled the ever-present hooded cloak tighter, hiding all but the tip of her alabaster nose and lips that made his balls tighten with each glimpse. Painted blood-red, they were full and lush as if designed for the sole purpose of sucking a guy’s cock.

What enticed him just as much, though, was her voice. Low and sultry, it called to him like a siren. It was as if she had been trained as a courtesan. What little he could see and hear was designed to please, to draw him closer.

Michael felt the familiar hardening of his cock and repressed the desire to indulge the fantasies that had invaded his nights. Her lips, quirked at the edges, reminded him she knew the effect she had on him and Michael tried to bury his arousal deep. He wanted her, needed her like he needed air to breathe. Had ever since starting this gig three months ago. But not for some one-night roll in the hay, glorious as that would be.

For now, he would have to settle for assisting her in other ways.

“Your tea, Drea,” he said, setting the cup at the edge of her desk.

Those lips tightened for the briefest moment. “I have asked you repeatedly to call me Ms. Fortier.”

Michael fought the urge to close his eyes and let her words settle around him like his own cloak. Instead, he slid into the cocky grin he knew annoyed her. “I know.”

“Then why do you not comply? And jeans? Really, Michael. What sort of secretary wears jeans to the office?”

“The sort that doesn’t have normal hours. The sort that works in his boss’s home and got hired because he could maintain and fly that fancy helicopter.” He pointed toward the ceiling. “The sort that does everything from research to security to unclogging drains.”

He wanted to lean toward her, get closer. To smell the elusive spice that defined Drea Fortier. A quick intake of breath warned him he must have shifted in her direction. Her hand shot up to ward off any contact, and the sleeve of her cloak fell back.

Too late, she pulled it down. Too late, he saw the jagged, puckered dots on her forearm. Scars he knew only the hot end of a cigarette could make, and at an angle that was obviously not self-inflicted. Scars that exposed a past even nightmares could not do justice to. Scars he could not erase for her, no matter how much he wished for exactly that.

Michael stepped back, his fists tight against his sides to keep him from pounding a thousand holes in the wall with his bare hands. He knew about pain, both good and bad. This was very bad. Drea had seen violence in her life. When and how he didn’t know, but he intended to find out.

For now, he suppressed the questions, and his libido, and allowed her the rigid control she clung to like a lifeline. Some day in the near future, he would help Drea move beyond her past. First, though, she must learn to trust him. Michael quieted his breathing, focused on lips now pulled in a tight line, and uncurled his fingers.

“I apologize—”

“Don’t.” Sultry gave way to steel as she spoke. Arms clutched across her stomach stretched out as she placed her palms on the desk. No one would notice the slight tremor in her hands or the almost nonexistent hitch to her voice.

No one except him.

“We will not speak of this again.”

It took a granite will to acquiesce to her demand. He nodded, certain that if he spoke, he’d say enough to get an instant pink slip. He couldn’t leave her. Not now.

Maybe not ever.

Drea turned to her computer. “I’ve selected an applicant and would like you to do the usual research and background check.”

Finding the switch back to business difficult to match, Michael grunted his consent, executed a military about-face, and closed the office door behind him with quiet precision.

Sitting at his desk, he stared at the application on his screen. Another lost soul his employer chose to help. He’d thought her crazy when she first had him run the obscure advertisement, but this was the third one they’d worked on together. Helping others to heal seemed to feed her soul. And it proved to him that Drea knew what hope was. That, and that alone, provided the momentum for Michael’s belief that he could, in turn, help her. What had she gone through that she’d shut herself in this dark box? Michael meant to find the key.

One of these days, he’d unlock the secrets that had turned Drea into a recluse who trusted no one. One of these days, he’d find out who had scarred her, both physically and mentally.

And God help that person when he did.





 Masquerade (Secrets, 1) is available here:
B&N / AllRomance / Bookstrand


Other books in the Secrets series:
Ivory Tower (Secrets, 2)
Perception (Secrets, 3)
Coming Soon: Pandora's Shame (Secrets, 4)




Lace will choose one commenter to receive a free eCopy of Masquerade! Leave a comment or question below. Be sure to include your email address.




Monday, August 11, 2014

Preview the First Chapter of PERFECT STRANGERS by Kerri M. Patterson

Perfect Strangers (Bound by Honor, 1)
by Kerri M. Patterson

Blurb:

Chloe Burgesse is crushed after being left at the altar. She thought her life was complicated before embarking on her should-have-been honeymoon—alone. She had no idea how much worse it could get when a Special Forces soldier takes a leap onto her car. She didn’t see the Pandora's box she'd opened for herself by offering aid. She didn’t see the attraction to Jericho coming, nor did she intend to fall in love with a perfect stranger.
Master Sergeant Jericho Eden is in Brazil doing reconnaissance work on a suspected terrorist compound when his team becomes scattered. On his way to his execution, a woman unwittingly offers aid. Together they are thrust into a world of duplicity and danger. Nothing new for Jericho, but Chloe's only chance of survival relies on his instincts, skill, and discipline—something he is having a hard time getting a grip on with his new distraction.


~ Chapter One ~

Approximately 1300 hours, Friday
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

"Hey, watch out!" Chloe Burgesse shouted at the paint-chipped and dented used-to-be gold sedan as the car slipped in front of her from out of nowhere, tires screeching and squealing. Chloe's back came off the seat as she braked, too. The driver ahead succeeded in gaining only a few feet before a tight throng began to spill into the streets between the cars, halting traffic.

She let out a long sigh. Geez, some people should learn to drive. However, in this country she could consider herself lucky not to have been run over by now. Chloe snorted, watching the passers-by, and gripped the wheel a little tighter. A flicker of annoyance raced through her as she noticed the odd absence on her ring finger where a four-carat ring used to encircle, no diamond there now to turn between her fingers as her grip increased.

She honked again, this time with a pinch more aggravation. Pedestrians were the only things here that seemed to slow traffic at all. She glanced down on the map across her knees once more as the shoppers milled between the cars, tracing the road with her finger.

Chloe thumped the map, seeing the road she needed to be on several blocks over, and smacked the map down into the passenger seat—the apparently outdated map she had picked up at her travel brochure acclaimed, five-star, yet nonetheless dirty, hotel. Chloe pushed her sunglasses back up the bridge of her nose and sighed, teeth tightly clamped together.

This day marked the seventh—and last, thank God—day of what should have been her honeymoon in what she thought would be paradise. Wrong. Not that any of the should-have-beens mattered. The not-honeymoon vacation matched the complete aura of her life right now.

She had never wanted to leave a place more. Even the reminder of what awaited her at home didn’t deter her want for normalcy.

Betrayed and left at the altar, she'd found out a little too late her groom wouldn’t make their ceremony—because he'd already married another woman a week before. And what hurt the most, this hadn't been an I-lost-control-and-accidentially-married-a-stripper-in-Vegas-during-my-bachelor-party kind of thing. The happy new couple had known one another for several months, and all the while he had pretended to be loyal to Chloe.

She had seen the warning signs, but had chosen to ignore the red flags without a single question.

Still, she didn't understand his tactless retraction from their relationship.

After the botched ceremony had been cleaned up and her unused gown stuffed somewhere out of sight—she suspected for her mother's fear she might shred it, too—her youngest sister had suggested she take the “honeymoon” alone.

Chloe could still hear her sister, kneeling down beside where she had sat huddled in a chair, grieving and bemoaning her life. Hey, her sister had said. The trip is paid for, so why not? Take some time to recuperate, let off steam, and perhaps have a fling with a hot Brazilian. What happens in Brazil, stays in Brazil, the quirky nineteen-year-old pest had suggested.

None of which had happened.

Chloe had picked up the already packed suitcase without another thought and let her sister whiz her to the airport where she clambered onto the plane at the last second and took full advantage of the in-flight drink menu.

At the time, she had only wanted a distraction to make her forget, to be somewhere far, far away from her sucky life. Somewhere she couldn’t bump into him.

So much for getting away. Her mind hadn’t allowed her.

The entire seven days in Rio had been spent in reflection and beating herself up over the entire relationship. On top of that, she had gotten food poisoning. Gotten sunburned. Slipped on a freshly mopped (or slopped) floor and ended up with a sore tailbone and ruined white capris. Now she'd managed to get lost on the edge of the city as she headed for the airport in her rental.

Chloe lay on the horn as the jackass in the sedan swerved and then braked hard in front of her. She came very close to driving her car right up his ass.

"For the love of Pete!" Chloe euphemistically cursed, pounding the steering wheel, sending three clearly perturbed short honks to the other driver. "Only a few more miles," she yelled, then huffed. "Maybe. And if I don't wreck the car that would be awesome. Thanks!"

The vehicle shot to the far right, off the road, sending up a cloud of dust as the driver veered around a jeep ahead. The jeep wisely turned into a drive, but this left Chloe following the raging driver again.

She clenched her teeth and groaned as she came back into a residential neighborhood. The street narrowed snugly between buildings, and her speed slowed drastically for the sake of more pedestrians. Steadily, she watched the driver ahead. His impatience was evident in the way he swerved left to right in a constant zigzag.

"It's not like your going to pass anyone here," she mumbled, momentarily throwing her hands in the air over the steering wheel, then smacking her palms back on and gripping hard. She sighed deeply and fell back against her seat to rub at her forehead.

A headache was beginning to strengthen, tightening like a band around her skull.

Chloe counted the rows of clothing fluttering on lines above, connecting from building to building in the impoverished neighborhood. At last, the line of cars exited the one street onto a busier thoroughfare. She made a point to get around the angry driver, casting a sharp glare out her window as she accelerated past.

Chloe blew out a breath, relaxing, but suddenly her shriek-growl filled the compact car as the driver yet again swerved back into her lane, tightly. All lanes seemed to freeze simultaneously, and much honking chorused objectionably to the halt. Her car, unluckily, ended the procession, the jam far enough ahead she couldn’t see what had happened.

Great. Chloe slammed back in her seat, this time with much more gusto, and checked her watch. She still had two hours, fortunately, but after a miserable week, she itched to be on the plane headed home to Charlotte, back home to her mom and her two unruly sisters.

An odd movement in the car ahead caught her eye then.

Chloe blinked, squinting as she saw the movement again. "What in the…" Chloe scrunched her nose as she peered closely over her steering wheel, gripping the worn leather tightly. Had the back-end of the car … bounced?

Her eyes flared.

The trunk did it again!

She gasped as a boot-print imbedded the trunk lid of the gold sedan, from the inside out. Chloe sat rigidly. Her eyes widened even more as another dent obtruded up from the top of the trunk.

Her spine stiffened, and she jolted back into the seat, riveted to the tail end of the car. Her hand fluttered to her open mouth. She lost her breath at the sharp realization.

"Oh-my-God," she breathed in a rush. The irate driver had a person in his trunk!

The cars began to move again, though slowly. Chloe inched along in fascination, picking up pace but making sure to stay three car-lengths behind the erratic driver. She really couldn’t afford to pay for her rental on top of the weighing debt from a wedding that didn’t happen, although the insurance on file for her rental was under her ex's name. If anything happened, she would undoubtedly be stuck with that expense, too, since she had fudged the paperwork at the rental agency.

Technically, she was still on his insurance, but didn’t want to have to deal with him to clear anything else up.

They had said all that needed saying on their should-have-been wedding day.

Chloe continued to watch the trunk for any signs of movement.

Swallowing hard, she admitted she really wasn’t sure what to do. Did she dare get involved in a criminal case in a foreign country when she was due to leave within a couple hours? Or let someone else on the busy thoroughfare call in on the deviant driving the gold sedan. She looked around. There were plenty of other passersby. They would surely notice, too.

Chloe scoffed to herself as she realized she didn’t even know any emergency numbers in Brazil, then cringed. Naive, wasn’t that what he had called her the last time they spoke, in the gigantic argument over the phone, which had reverberated throughout the entire church?

The trunk bounced ahead of her, nearly bumping the road.

She pursed her lips and fixated her stare and mind on the footprint. Judging by the size, that surely wasn’t a child in the trunk. Her worry edged a bit, though her brow remained furrowed. The trunk bounced several more times, more heavily than before, nearly contacting with pavement.

Chloe chewed her lip, worrying and pondering over what she should do.

She had sworn off being kind and generous, accused of being too nice by her ex. He had accused her of a healthy number of faults, which had all stabbed too deeply. She'd never thought a person could be too good. Apparently that was the taboo thing to be and not what a man wanted anymore—not what he had wanted.

She sucked in a little sob at the same time as her eyes flared wide. Chloe slammed her brakes as the car's trunk flew upwards. She screamed when a man's face, bloodied and haggard, came into view. Their stares clashed for a brief second as he struggled free of bindings around his shoulders and sat up, catching the trunk lid from flopping closed again.

Chloe screamed louder.

Though she had watched all along, somehow she had not expected quite the sight before her.

Wide-eyed and still screaming, both Chloe's hands flew to cover her mouth. A wisp of a second elapsed before she jumped to grab the wheel and regain control, her rental coming close to the other vehicle as her tires squealed.

Hesitation flickered in the briefest instant.

This poor man, he'd been tied up and looked to have been tortured. Chloe peered around him into the trunk, expecting the worst.

Shit, shit, shit. Her silent mantra began.

Guilt instantly swallowed her for not immediately trying to signal someone for help, too caught up in her own dilemma.

Too caught up trying to be someone she wasn't.

But how could I help him? Chloe wondered, watching the man search the surrounding road, blood crusted on the side of his face. Other cars whizzed past, honking, staring, laughing and pointing, but no one stopping to do anything.

A noise of disgust escaped her.

Did they think this was joke? A stunt?

Chloe glanced around, too, but saw no movie cameras.

Something snapped in her then. She was sick of the world and sick of the uncaring assholes in it. Humans lived to hurt one another and nothing else.

They might not want to be kind, but damn it, she was a kind person.

A seedling of doubt sprouted.

She might be caring, but she was not of hero material by any stretch of the mind. She would stop and help an old lady if she spilled her purse, but this…. Helping this man was out of her league for kindness.

Chloe's shoulders slumped, watching the lid to the trunk as it flopped above the man's arm where he kept it from hitting him on the head. He seemed unsure.Trapped. He struggled to pull himself free of ropes around his legs.

She didn’t know what came over her then, because normally she tended to stay within the beloved “box”, never daring a thought of trespassing those boundaries, but obviously that wasn’t working well for her anymore. Chloe clenched her jaw.

Her ex had claimed she was too predictable, too boring.

A little pang began to ache in her heart, but Chloe chased the memory away with a snort.

Ha!

She could be unpredictable and still be caring.

She sped up, bumping the other car with a slight sense of glee, and beckoned the man to take the leap onto the hood of her car. He looked at her strangely through the windshield, panicked almost. His look made her wonder if he would take the offered help.

She watched as he kicked ropes from his feet, and a tangled net of bindings flew from the trunk as he tossed them. The gold sedan swerved, now well aware its prisoner had freed himself.

Chloe bumped the gold sedan again, harder this time as the driver attempted an all out stop. Just as the other car swerved to the side, the man from the trunk leapt out, catching onto the top of her hood, near the wipers. He grunted at his landing, slipping across the hood, his long legs going over the side. In the last instant, as she thought he would surely slip to the pavement and be hit by an oncoming car, he pulled himself back up.

Chloe tapped her brakes. The stranger growled as he tried to hold on and cast her a look of annoyance through the glass as his body slid up the windshield from her sudden halt.

She swerved again, hitting the gas. The bumpers caught between her car and the gold sedan, sending them in a spiral, and the other car crashed headlong into a ditch and the trunk snapped shut.

As Chloe sped by, feeling triumphant and rushed with adrenalin, she saw the other car's engine steaming. She hoped she hadn't killed the person, no matter how bad they were. Terrified, she kept going, though in the wrong direction of traffic. Many honks sounded around them as cars swerved out of her way. Chloe gassed the car, breaking intermittently as car after car sent her swerving, too.

"Drive," the tortured stranger shouted. "Don't stop." He grunted. Blood smeared against the windshield and light green paint of the hood as he pulled himself toward the passenger side of her car. Chloe met his incensed stare, nodding wildly and tried not to hit her brakes again. She reached over to roll down the window, keeping one hand on the wheel.

Somewhere deep, deep inside she began to wonder if she had gone completely crazy.

Chloe squeaked out a tiny shriek as the man threw his long legs around and slipped inside, effectively filling the small car with his dominating size. He gave her a strange look, as though he thought her insane, too.

Chloe swallowed her tongue and gawked, her stare quickly falling down him. Her foot unconsciously pressing a little harder on the gas-pedal.

His tan t-shirt had open slashes in several places, bloody gashes revealed underneath. Tan pants showed proof he had been through little less than hell. Her gaze halted on the empty gun holster strapped around his thigh.

What in the heck had happened to this man?

Her gaze flickered back up his body, and she stopped to wonder at the smudged—was that paint on his face?—blotches of black and green, too.

Chloe swerved again as another passing car caught her attention. She quickly looked between the stranger and the road.

There was a bleeding, very large man in her car.

She swallowed.

What had she done?

She meant to ask, Was he was all right? Should she take him to a hospital? Where was the hospital? What happened? but none of that came out.

Chloe shook her head, gaping. She was without a doubt shell-shocked, and now that he was inside her car, Chloe was not entirely sure she had intended to let him inside—it had just happened.

"Set your cruise control. Give me the wheel." His voice was deep and rough.

Reality pounded away at her, adrenaline thumping in her veins.

Chloe stifled a cry as his long tanned fingers slipped around the wheel beside her own. Still glancing between the passenger side and the road, she groped to release her seatbelt, and then attempted what he said by fumbling for the little switch on the end of the signal control, first sending her turn signal blinking left, and then right. Chloe flushed, and glancing down, she tried again. Her wipers swiped across the windshield, and she cursed, giving up and tearing her focus away from the stranger and road long enough to do what he'd asked. She set the cruise control.

He gave her a half-smile. "Great, you’re doing fine." His voice was so deep and smooth and calm she almost believed him. "Now, I want you to crawl into the backseat and keep your head down."

"What!" Chloe's voice trembled. She looked at him as though he were insane for the suggestion. She gave a little whimper as she looked at the tight space between him and the console.

He didn’t so much as glance at her as he steered from the passenger seat. "Just do it."

Shakily, she managed, lifting herself from the seat and trying not to make contact with the stranger as she slipped over the console. Her knees and butt dipped to the floorboard, and she pulled her legs through the gap, then inched onto the seat and buckled herself in.

The man commandeering her rental pulled himself into the driver's seat after her and adjusted for his height, muttering curses as the driver’s seat slammed back to accommodate his legs. Their car shot forward and turned right.

"Who are you?" Chloe asked as she ducked into her lap and splayed her hands against the back of her midnight hair. "Please, oh please, tell me you're not a terrorist or in a cartel." She panicked, fear bringing sobs. She squeezed her eyes, berating herself for the burst of impulsiveness.

The car rocked as he swerved for a pedestrian. Chloe's head shot up in alarm. A stack of papers knocked from the hands of the person on the street fluttered behind them.

She tried to scream, opened her mouth, but nothing came out, and so she quickly dropped her head back to her lap and silently prayed she wouldn’t get killed.

"My name is Jericho Eden." He paused to glance back at her. "And no, I am not a terrorist—unless of course you're a terrorist, then you might consider me such … You're not a terrorist, are you?" He cut another quick glance into the backseat, in attempt to ease her fear, and grinned despite the blood caked on the side of his face and in his hair, evident bruising swelled along a strong, darkly-bristled jaw.

Chloe shook her head dumbly, peeping up from her knees. "Me? No."

"Good, Chloe. Things might have gotten really awkward between us had you said yes."

She paused, then came to edge around the seat precariously. "How do you know my name?"

"It's on your bag," he said, turning off the road they had been on, onto the tight street she had traveled some twenty minutes earlier.

They sped along, the people there scattering out of their path. Chloe peeked from over the console. He turned the car back in the exact direction she had come and then off the road the jeep had taken earlier when the sedan sped off the road.

As their car bounced over the unpaved area, Chloe cut her eyes to her bag beside her in the backseat. Of course, she mentally grumbled.

"Don't worry. I promise I won't hurt you." Chloe's attention flinched back to him. Their eyes caught in the rear-view mirror. "I'm one of the good guys," he said.

She swallowed hard, but didn’t drop her gaze. "Then how did you end up in someone's trunk and looking like that?" she asked, her tone rattled. She flicked her gaze over his torn and bloodied clothing, his bruises and cuts.

The stranger winced as a grim expression crossed over him. His stare returned to the road ahead, a darkness filling his gaze.

Copyright © 2013 Kerri M. Patterson



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