Monday, July 29, 2013

Excerpt-a-ganza: Haunted Wolves by Moira Rogers

Today we have some more shiftery goodness with the Always Awesome Moira Rogers's latest release, Haunted WolvesEnjoy!

He hunts nightmares. She survives them.
Green Pines, Book 2
Lorelei Adams has lost many things—her humanity, her life, even her son. She’s always fought through her exhaustion, always stayed strong for her pack, but now there are new alphas to take care of the others. Unfortunately, time to rest means time to think about her own pain.

Colin Knox knows about exhaustion. He’s acted as judge, jury, and executioner to rogue wolves for over a decade, but never lingered long enough to help the survivors pick up the pieces—until now. Lorelei rouses his instincts, both protective and carnal. She’s willing, but only to indulge in physical distraction. Colin wants more, to be the hero who slays her monsters.

Especially when it becomes clear that malicious magic is loose in their sanctuary. The danger draws them together until it’s impossible to separate lust from affection, good intentions from rationalizations. Darkness is stirring at Green Pines. If they can’t fight it together, they could lose everything they have left.


Product Warnings: Contains a weary vigilante hero looking for a place to call home and a stubborn werewolf heroine unwilling to admit she needs help. Also appearing: small-town prejudices, big-city dangers, naked chases through the woods and ghosts. Lots of ghosts.

EXCERPT:

The pull of the moon sang in her blood, and Lorelei fell into it.
She’d been more desperate to shed her skin and run under the silvered light before, but not by much. Each day brought new challenges, new hurdles to clear. Apparently, declaring sanctuary for abused and beleaguered wolves was easy. Making it a reality? Not so much.
Mae ran with her, at her side but always that one step behind. Weeks of safety had settled some of the girl’s worst fears, but still she hung back, more than willing to let Lorelei charge ahead. Trusting her to set their course.
So much responsibility, as much as she’d had in Memphis. Funny how it felt lighter here, in the absence of constant, grinding danger. Light enough for Lorelei to slow her stride, making the run easier for her companion. There was nothing to escape, no one to outrun.
But Mae tired more easily. As they circled near the clearing where most of the pack had left their clothes, Mae veered off, her sides heaving with panted breaths by the time they reached the tangle of fabric she’d left behind. She dropped to the grass and started the slow, agonizing process of regaining her human form.
It took a while, and by the time Mae knelt on the ground in her human skin, Lorelei had already gathered the girl’s clothes for her. “It’s getting too cold to lounge around naked. Before long, we’ll have to build a fire before we run.”
“Next month, for sure.” Mae wiggled into her underwear and jeans, but bypassed her shirt in favor of hauling Shane’s hoodie over her head. “I may need a heater in the barn, though I guess I could move some of the supplies inside.”
It was only October. “There has to be something safe to use in the barn. I’ll ask Kaley.”
“Yeah, she’ll know.” Mae settled on the grass, pulled on her socks and tossed a blanket to Lorelei. “You don’t have to stop running if you don’t want to. I know I get tired out before you.”
It wouldn’t take long to warm the chill off the blanket, but the night beckoned. “I don’t mind hanging out for a—” A scent, familiar but just shy of comforting, tickled Lorelei’s nose. She turned and peered through the darkness, but saw nothing.
Colin was out there.
She wrapped the blanket around her body and tucked in the end near her shoulder. “What was I saying?”
“That you don’t mind hanging out.” Mae snuggled down into her too-large borrowed sweatshirt and patted the grass next to her. “Only if you really don’t mind.”
“I don’t.” Lorelei stretched out on the grass. “Do you and Kaley have lots left to do before the craft festival?”
“Mostly the nitpicky stuff.” Mae sighed. “I like that part, usually. The packaging. Turning a skein of yarn or a bar of soap into a product. But it’s never had so much hanging on it before. It’s more pressure.”
The festival was a yearly event, combining craft sales with harvest festivities. Though relatively small, it drew enough regional media coverage to mean the difference between Mae’s soap business garnering a healthy local customer base or languishing in obscurity. “You can count on me for putting in booth hours or whatever else you need.”
“I know. Thank you.” Mae pressed her forehead to Lorelei’s shoulder, the quiet touch of a wolf who needed pack. “Shane’s making us a fancy new website—well, upgrading the one I designed. I don’t really know what he’s doing, but I guess it’s going to be high-tech, maybe help manage inventory and invoices. We’ll be a real business.”
“I know. And you can do it, too. I have faith in you.”
“That’s why we can do it. Because you had faith.”
It left Lorelei feeling strangely self-conscious. “No, you and Kaley were already making plans.”
Mae shook her head. “We were trying to, but we wouldn’t have gotten out of Memphis without you. I’m just…grateful, that’s all. Nothing bad’s happened in a month, and maybe that means it works. We’re going to be okay. So I’m grateful.”
Desperate but hopeful, the words of someone life had not yet broken. Lorelei patted Mae’s hand. “You are going to be okay.”
“I am.”
A howl drifted out of the trees, joyous and answered immediately by a second and then a third. It was Mae’s turn to pat Lorelei’s hand as she drew away and rose to her knees. “Go. I’ll be safe walking to the house. Colin’s probably out there, waiting to follow me home.”
She’d given no indication, but maybe she had noticed his presence. “I think you may be right.” Lorelei stood, folded the blanket and held it out. “I’ll see you later.”
Mae smiled and headed for the barn. Lorelei caught that hint of Colin’s scent again, but instead of drifting away after Mae, it grew stronger. Magic sparked behind her, and Colin stepped out of the trees. “Were you going to run again?”
Awareness prickled over her skin, but she resisted the urge to cover herself. Instead, she indulged in a slow appraisal of his naked body—he deserved it for spying, after all—and shrugged. “I’d considered it.”
He accepted her scrutiny with a too-still expression, the kind that had to be deliberate because his face was so rarely devoid of emotion. “If you don’t want company, I can leave. Just thought I’d offer. Shane will make sure Mae gets back all right.”
“Do I want company,” Lorelei asked softly, her gaze flicking over his tall, solid form again, “or do I want company?”
His lips pressed into a flat line. Stern eyes, stern expression, but he used the same voice with her that he used with Mae when panic gripped her—the soft, soothing tone of a man comforting a broken girl. “You know that’s not required of you here, and it never will be again. Company, Lorelei, that’s all this is. Pack to run with.”
She couldn’t blame him for the assumption—that she’d be crawling in his bed for safety and protection, not pleasure. What else could he think? Everyone knew she’d been the one to bargain for their safety in Memphis…and everyone knew exactly how she’d done it.
What they didn’t know was that she refused to feel bad about it.
She walked past him, keenly aware of the tingles that cascaded through her when her shoulder brushed his, sparking a heat the chilly autumn night couldn’t quell entirely. “All you had to say was no, thanks.”
Colin turned and caught her arm, but he released her without tightening his grip, as if touching her at all had been a moment of lost self-control. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—” But he cut himself off with a sigh. “Never mind.”
“Stop apologizing.” She hopped up and balanced on a fallen log for a few seconds before stepping off the other side. “You don’t owe it to me.”
“Maybe I owe it to myself.”
“That’s none of my business.” And then she couldn’t believe the words that came out of her mouth. “But if you want to talk, I’ll listen.”
Colin shook his head, but not without a tiny smile. “Maybe another time. Moon’s still calling me pretty hard. I’ll be even more irritable than usual if I don’t run it out.”
She could feel it too, a jagged need that pulsed through the air, and it reminded her of other, more carnal, needs. Best not to stick around, especially if he planned to keep his hands to himself. “I’m going to call it a night.”
“Do you want me to walk you back?”
“I’ll make it. No need to worry about me.”
“No way to stop me.” He nodded once, an oddly formal gesture. “Have a good night, Lorelei.”
Good night, Batman. She bit her lip against the words. She shouldn’t tease, but it fit him so well—broody and handsome, the dark avenger hell-bent on protecting them all from the injustices of the world. A woman could drown in a man like that, lose herself completely.
Good thing his need to protect her extended to her own self-destructive physical desires.
She turned away. “Good night, Colin.”

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Friday, July 26, 2013

Excerpt-a-ganza: Blind Passion by Kelli Scott

Today for the Excerpt Extravaganza we welcome deliciously clever erotic romance author Kelli Scott to share a bit of her release, Blind Passion, with us. Dig in, reader-friends!

Nicole Adkins’ silly crush on her neighbor is slowly starting to resemble an obsession. After months of watching him from afar, she’s resorted to orchestrating accidental elevator encounters and bumbling through rehearsed conversations that go terribly wrong.

Salvatore Lopez is legally blind. To him, Nicki is a pleasant-smelling, sexy-sounding blur in a rotating rainbow of different-colored clothes. He’s intrigued, but fears he’s nothing more to her than a charity case.

But Sal’s blindness means Nicki can watch him risk-free from her apartment and fantasize about sensual encounters. Most of all, she can pretend he’s watching from his apartment as she pleasures herself. He’s the perfect man to indulge all her dark fantasies. If he regains his sight, it could be the beginning of a beautiful romance—or the end.


EXCERPT:
Here he comes. Here he comes.
Nicole fluffed her unruly brown hair with one hand and smoothed her skirt with the other while licking her lips, before realizing he wouldn’t notice her efforts. His darling dog wouldn’t even notice.
She closed her mailbox loudly so he’d know she existed, and said as brightly as possible, “Hi Sal.”
Salvatore Lopez stopped and fished the key to his mailbox out of his jacket pocket. “Hi yourself.” He flipped through the keys, thumbing each one until he found the right key. “6C, right?”
“Right.” He remembered me. He ought to, as much as she put herself in his vicinity. She pointed to herself, for all the good it would do. “Nicole Adkins. Nicki.”
“Nicki,” he repeated. Her name rolled off his lips like the beginning of a love poem. Ode to Nicole. “Nicki the accountant, right?”
Not exactly poetry.
She gently patted the top of Hercules’ head because Sal had told her previously that she could, so she did. The adorable golden lab panted. If only his owner would do likewise.
“That’s right.” Although she possessed an accounting degree, her position was more of an accounting assistant for a major department store. She was one of many accountants in a large pool, all scrambling to climb to the top of the heap and shine.
Sal was a lawyer but ought to be an underwear model. One of those butt-hugging, cock-cradling, boxer-brief-wearing underwear models. Not that he would hug a butt or cradle a cock. His boxer briefs would. She knew all about his underwear of choice and—damn—she approved. If she were a better person she’d remind him he had window blinds for a reason. Instead she simply enjoyed the view of his apartment from the large picture window of her apartment. In his business suit, birthday suit or underwear—it was all good as far as she was concerned.
“Seems we have the same schedule,” he said, pocketing his mail.
If by same schedule you mean I’ve been waiting twenty minutes for you to amble by, then yeah. “Seems.” She pushed her black-framed glasses up the bridge of her nose. If he were any other hot New York City male she’d regret the glasses and lament not investing the time into putting in her contact lenses that morning. But Sal couldn’t care less about her appearance. “I’ll get the elevator.” Nicki crossed the lobby and tapped the button. Five more minutes and they’d run the risk of riding up with old lady Kerensky and her bickering nephew again. Awkward.
“Thanks.” He smiled and followed.
Sal probably had no knowledge of the dimple on his cheek or the effect that dimple had on her libido. Feeling hot, she guessed her face was flushed a rosy pink, but who cared? Not her. Certainly not him.
“No bother at all.” She held the door for him and Hercules. Once the doors had slammed shut, she said, “You got any big plans for the night?” Please, no. If he told her he had a date—blind or otherwise—she’d spend the night curled up in the fetal position sucking on a bottle of tequila.
He sighed. “I think I’ll just chill out with a beer and listen to a baseball game on the radio. You?”
“Wine and a good book.” She rocked on her heels. Or a dirty book. Yeah, that. Her tummy dipped—because of the elevator ride, or due to his total hotness, or maybe from nerves. She’d never made the first move before, but she’d grow old waiting for him to do it. It was time to take their relationship, such as it was, to the next level—as terrifying as that sounded. “Exciting lives we live.”
Sal pocketed his sunglasses. “We should get a life.”
Funny he should mention that. That was what Nicki had been thinking. “If…you know…if you ever get bored, you should come over. We could order takeout and watch a movie.” Nicki heated up more. A movie? Seriously? “Or…or something else. Not a movie. A board game. Wait. That’s even stupider.” She pounded the heel of her hand to her frontal lobe.
The elevator doors dinged and opened. Why couldn’t they live on the top floor of a twenty-story building with a slow elevator?
Sal chuckled and stepped into the corridor, led by Hercules. “It’s not stupid. I have a TV, you know. And a deck of cards in braille. But it’s true—I do suck at most board games.”
“Then come,” she blurted. “Over, I mean. Sometime. Doesn’t have to be tonight. Some other time. If you want. Or…or I could come to you.” I sound so desperate. “You don’t have to dress.”
“Excuse me?”
“I mean you don’t have to dress up,” she said. “Come casual.”
“Sounds like fun,” he said, turning in the direction of his apartment. “Rain check?”


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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Excerpt-a-ganza: Deadly Bonds by Anne Marie Becker

Today the Excerpt Extravaganza continues with some dark and gritty romantic suspense!  Anne Marie Becker's third Mindhunters book is out this week and we get a look at Chapter One.  Check out Deadly Bonds!

A dedicated profiler. Dr. Holt Patterson has thrown himself into his work since his wife's death, and his relationship with his young son, Theo, is suffering. He's caught in an impossible choice—how can he make the world a safer place for his son without sacrificing valuable family time?



An unrequited love. Sara Burns, the director at Theo's prestigious academy, once loved Holt Patterson, but he was her best friend's husband. Now a decade has passed, and Sara realizes that her feelings are just as strong—but how can she act on them without betraying her friend's memory?


A terrifying killer. A violent man develops an interest in Sara, and sends a body instead of flowers to get her attention. Holt is determined to keep her safe. But the killer is much closer than they expect…
EXCERPT:

Late July


Finally. Who would have thought an asshole with a broken moral compass would be working this late on a Friday? But then again, maybe the almighty Illinois State Senator Roy Beechum had unfinished business with his piece-on-the-side secretary before going home to his wife for the weekend.
From the floor of the backseat of the bastard’s Mercedes, Toxin could see—with only a slight movement of his head—both the side-view and rearview mirrors. In the latter, Beechum’s image finally appeared. He stepped off the elevator without so much as a glance at his surroundings. His attention was glued to the screen of his phone as he confidently made his way across the basement-level parking garage, his shiny shoes reflecting the dim yellow light. His steps echoed off the concrete walls.
The guy’s suit was tailored to an average-sized body kept in above-average shape. Toxin’s surveillance had revealed that Beechum worked out daily and was careful about what he put into his body. Hell, the senator took care of everything in his life—including this Mercedes with the vanilla-scented air freshener and the untouched leather backseat. He took care of every fucking little thing except defending the helpless constituents who needed him. Yet the majority of Chicagoans thought Beechum was John F. Kennedy reincarnated. There were even rumors of a future presidency in a decade or two.
The guy could be Superman and none of that would matter. Once Toxin’s little surprise hit Beechum’s bloodstream, his heart would stop beating within, oh, two and a half minutes. Kryptonite in the form of a lethal venom. No amount of healthy living could counter that.
Justice: one. Two-faced politicians: zero.
Besides, Beechum wasn’t the only one who’d been working out. In order to carry out his mission, Toxin had been strengthening his body and mind against weakness for months. A warrior had to prepare for anything.
Careful not to make any detectable movement, Toxin’s glance slid toward the side-view mirror as Beechum got close. Still clueless, the guy simultaneously texted someone with his right hand and pulled his keys out of his pants pocket with his left. Toxin’s quick glance to the rearview mirror showed the garage was still deserted, long ago emptied of cars that belonged to people eager to be home for the weekend.
A distracted target. A secluded, deserted location. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. This one’s for you, Josh.
Adrenaline flooded Toxin’s bunched muscles as he clutched the needle in his left hand. His black hooded windbreaker, carefully matched to the Mercedes’ black leather interior and tinted windows, would hide him until Beechum was too close to evade the attack. He ignored the pain in his legs, which burned and cramped from crouching behind the driver’s seat. Not much longer now. His breathing quickened and he reviewed the anger management tips he’d picked up in those mandated group therapy sessions, surrendering himself to a focused calm. Good to know those unbearable hours surrounded by miscreants had yielded something useful. Little did that chirpy do-gooder who taught the classes know the skills she’d bestowed upon him would be used to kill. The upshot was Toxin would find much relief for his anger in about twenty seconds.
Beechum stopped at the driver’s side and tucked his phone into the pocket of his pants, then shifted his keys to his other hand to unlock the door. Definitely right-handed, as previous observations had indicated. It was a useful tidbit of information when it came to withstanding any attempts by Beechum to deflect the attack.
Toxin wasn’t going to fail. He hadn’t before. He wouldn’t now. He was unstoppable because he was right and these other people were so, so wrong.
Beechum pulled open the door. The car’s equilibrium shifted slightly to the left and the leather creaked softly as he sat in the driver seat. Keys jangled. Before making a move, Toxin waited for the gentle scrape of metal indicating Beechum had inserted his key in the ignition.
Leaping into action, Toxin wrapped his right arm across the guy’s neck and shoulder from behind. He put his forearm against Beechum’s chin, forcing his head up and back into the headrest and silencing any attempt to scream or shout. Not that there’d be anyone to hear.
Beechum grunted and tried to open his mouth to bite, but with Toxin forcing his chin up, it was useless and ended in more grunts and groans. As expected, Beechum’s hands came up to Toxin’s arm, trying to dislodge it.
With his free hand, Toxin jabbed the needle into the exposed left side of the man’s neck. His thumb depressed the plunger. Beechum’s hands clawed, his manicured fingertips ineffective against the polyester windbreaker and gloves sheathing Toxin. The senator bucked in his seat, but Toxin held firm.

Right makes might.
He hummed a tune that would fill the final two and a half minutes of Beechum’s pathetic life.

* * *

“He’s supposed to be here by eight-thirty, after staying up late with friends?” Holt made his doubt and suspicion clear. He was having what his nine-year-old son Theo would have called an opposite day—if Theo had been where he was supposed to be this beautiful Saturday morning. Everything that was supposed to go smoothly was as lumpy as his mother’s oatmeal, starting with Holt showing up to pick his son up from his parents’ house, only to find they’d given Theo permission to sleep over at a friend’s house the night before. “Didn’t he know I’d be picking him up?”
His mother set down a bowl of steaming scrambled eggs next to a plate heaped with pancakes, freeing her hands to flutter about. “We asked him to be home by ten.” Anxiety was evident in the edge in her voice and her jerky movements, but Betty Patterson never let anyone see her sweat. His mother had an agenda—and it smelled suspiciously like an intervention. The expansive breakfast so artfully arranged on the table was the bait.
Ten? He could have gotten two more hours of case analysis done.
Betty’s gaze went to her plate. “We were hoping to talk to you. We never get a chance to sit down together. You’re always rushing this way or that.”
Holt’s father pushed his plate aside. “Oh, for God’s sake, Betty,” Ron muttered. “You’d think he was some stranger. Just tell him.”
Betty glared at Ron before turning a miserable look on Holt. “We’re worried. You’re not okay, and it’s time you admitted it and let us help you. It’s been nearly a year.”
Holt laid his fork down on his plate, leaving the rest of his pancake sitting there, soaking up a puddle of syrup. The sweet smell of maple was suddenly abhorrent, and his stomach clenched. His mother couldn’t seem to sit still. She rose and retrieved the coffeepot from its perch on the counter, then returned to the table and refilled everyone’s mugs. Just what Holt needed, more caffeine to amp up his racing pulse.
“And in the meantime, Theo is also suffering,” Betty continued. “More so, since it seems he’s lost his father too.”
Theo had lost a mother and Holt had lost a wife and a good friend. Yeah, the world was sometimes a shitty place. But Theo hadn’t lost his father. “I’m here for him.” Holt was unable to keep the defensiveness from his voice.
“On the weekends, yes. And on nights that you’re not working late, which isn’t all that often.”
“He knows I’m only a phone call away.”
“He knows nothing of the sort. In fact, he’s been acting out at school, trying to get your attention.”
“He’s nine. It’s normal for kids his age to engage in pranks.”
“And Theo is a bright boy who shouldn’t have to go to summer school, and yet that’s where he’s spending his time.”
Better there than with his father. Holt smashed the thought. At his elbow, his phone rang, jostling against the table where it sat. Relief flooded him until he realized the call must be from work. On a Saturday morning, that was never a good sign. It looked like today’s metaphorical oatmeal had formed another lump. He picked up the phone.
The lines that bracketed his mother’s mouth deepened. “Can’t that wait? We’re talking about your future, your son’s future. Sara is very concerned.”
Sara. The name set Holt’s teeth on edge even as a memory of warm, soft lips slipped past his defenses. He stuffed it away. “It’s work. I’ll just be a moment.”
He went out the sliding door onto the patio and took a deep breath of cool, summer-morning air. Freedom. He didn’t want to discuss his future. He was just starting to get his bearings in an Elizabeth-less world. His wife had been a bright light, a firecracker that added spark to the monotony. For the past few months, he’d finally been able to climb out of bed each morning without an anchor weighing his chest down. But flashes of the past and his failure to save Elizabeth sometimes left him curled into the fetal position. Was that what his parents wanted to hear? It wasn’t something he particularly wanted to share.
He answered the phone before it could go to voicemail. “Dr. Patterson.”
“Good morning, Holt. Your assistance has been requested.” Damian Manchester’s voice was deep and sure and rarely fluctuated. The man was all business, but he was damn good at that business. As one of Damian’s employees, Holt appreciated that.
“Where and when?”
“Here in Chicago. Now. The CPD found a body they believe is linked to two other murders over the past several months. They called us because the latest victim is high profile.”
Us was the Society for the Study of the Aberrant Mind, otherwise known as SSAM, a private organization that assisted law enforcement agencies in hunting repeat violent offenders. Another function of SSAM was to teach the public to both recognize danger and avoid it. Holt’s role as a profiler—a mindhunter who delved into the minds of the criminals they hunted—was more focused on detection than prevention.
“The victim?”
“Illinois State Senator Roy Beechum.”
“A politician?” Damn. It would be a particularly sticky case. Profiling potential suspects could be complicated by myriad interested parties with their own agendas.
“I’m sending you the details now. Head over to the scene ASAP. I want you to get the lay of the land while the coroner’s still there.”
Holt hung up and surveyed the backyard that was as familiar as his hand. Summer barbecues and winter snowmen. Growing up in the suburbs north of Chicago had given him a childhood blessed with all four seasons and oblivious to the dangers in the real world. His mother was a gardener and landscape designer, constantly surrounded by all things lovely. His father, who’d been a police officer with the Evanston Police Department for thirty-two years before retirement, had, one day when Holt was nine, sat him down and told him all about the dangers of the world. I should do the same thing with Theo. Holt’s throat tightened. Of course, the kid already knew about loss and grief.
“Holt?” His mother stepped out onto the patio. Her eyes brimmed with concern. “Is everything okay?”
His heart softened. He shouldn’t have been so hard on his parents. He’d probably given them good reason to worry that he was slipping into a depression. It had been a very real possibility for weeks after Elizabeth’s death, especially as it had followed many months of chemo and radiation. But he was getting his feet under him.
“Yeah.” He tucked his phone into his pocket. “Just got a new case.”
“We don’t mean to chase you away by talking about Theo’s future.”
“It’s just hard to think about the future, period. But I’m starting to. I promise.”
“We love having Theo here. You know that.” They’d set up the arrangement when Elizabeth’s health had taken a nosedive after the third round of chemo had failed. Theo stayed with Betty and Ron whenever Holt was working odd hours. Luckily, they didn’t live more than fifteen minutes from his place, or from Theo’s school.
“I know. And I miss seeing him more. I do,” he said when his mother continued looking at him with concern. “But my job is no place for a kid.” And what the hell did that say about his life choices? With Elizabeth around, it had been manageable. Sane. But the kind of hours—and cases—Holt worked weren’t optimal for raising his son alone.
His mother stepped forward and embraced him. Her lilac scent flooded him with memories of a secure, happy childhood. But the subtle jiggle in his pocket from his phone reminded him Damian’s email, with the details of the horror he would be facing today, had arrived in his inbox.
He squeezed his mother and stepped away, bending to brush her creamy cheek with a kiss. “I have to go. Duty calls.”
“We didn’t get to discuss Theo. Sara says—”
Holt stepped away and moved toward the house. “Sara doesn’t know everything.” When he’d first gotten to know Sara, she’d struck him as intelligent, thoughtful and funny. He’d sensed something special about her. He’d been wrong.
His mother inhaled sharply, then followed him inside as he retreated from the argument. “She’s excellent as the Academy’s director. And she really cares about Theo. Since you won’t return her calls, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know her while we talk about my grandson’s issues.”
“Theo doesn’t have any issues. He’s in transition, dealing with a major life change. It’s normal.”
“Whatever happened between you and Sara and Elizabeth is in the past. Having her in Theo’s life was what Elizabeth wanted.”
But his trusting mother didn’t know the full score. Before she’d died, Elizabeth had finally forgiven her former best friend, but he didn’t see why he had to.
“Theo needs you. Sara says he’s had more issues at school. The fact that a bright kid like him even had to take summer school should have told you something was wrong.”
Holt heaved a sigh. “He seems okay to you, though, right?”
His mother hesitated before nodding. “He’s okay at home, but at school…”
“Good. Look, I promise if Theo’s issues worsen, I’ll contact his teachers. Right now, I have to get to work.” He gave his mother a sheepish look.
She sighed. “You want us to keep Theo for the day?”
“That would be great. If it weren’t so important…”
“But it is. One day, though, you’re going to reassess your priorities and realize experiencing every aspect of Theo’s childhood is—or should have been—important too.”


Thankfully, the heat of the summer day didn’t penetrate the stark confines of the concrete building, especially on the basement sublevel. The parking garage was cool, dark and smelled of stale motor exhaust and death.
The area had been cordoned off by the CPD, an easy feat since the government building the garage lay beneath was closed up tight on the weekends. There were no other cars, no curious bystanders. At least something was going right today.
As Holt approached the only car and the few people gathered there to process the scene, he nodded to the detective who stood to the side. The other man’s scowl wasn’t exactly a warm-fuzzy greeting. Of course, he’d probably been stuck in this place for hours and now Holt was treading on his territory. Judging by the cold welcome, SSAM must have been called in by one of his superiors. Holt was accustomed to the lack of appreciation of his talents and let the man’s assessment roll off him. In the end, what mattered was apprehending a murderer.
Behind him, the coroner was squeezing into the passenger seat of a black Mercedes, careful of any evidence, assessing the body in the position it was found before it was removed and taken to the morgue. Talk about up-close and personal.
Holt offered his hand to the detective. “Dr. Holt Patterson. My specialty is forensic psychology.”
The detective accepted his hand with a clammy grip. He was shorter than Holt’s six-foot-two, but the guy’s paunch made him twice as wide. “Detective Wayne McDowell. My specialty is catching murderers.” His tone held a degree of sarcasm that Holt chose to ignore.
“Then let’s get to it.”
McDowell jerked his head toward the Mercedes. A crime scene technologist circled, taking pictures of the car and the garage. Judging by the coroner’s actions, the body and the car interior had already been extensively photographed and processed. “Victim is Roy Beechum. State senator with an office upstairs. Worked late yesterday. Was found this morning as the weekend cleaning crew arrived. They’ve been questioned and cleared.”
“Any suspects?”
“I suppose that’s why you’re here. Ask anybody around here and nobody hated the man. Christ, one of the cleaning ladies was actually in tears when she found out. At forty-five years old, Beechum was young, attractive and relatively competent. What’s not to like? In fact, recent polls showed he has the highest approval rating of any Illinois state senator in history. Happy marriage too. Nineteen years. Nuclear family with a son and daughter in high school. No rumors of shady side dealings, at least nothing we know of yet.”
“Why didn’t his wife report him missing?”
“Apparently Beechum was due to leave town last night. She didn’t expect to see or hear from him until today.”
Holt glanced into the dark recesses of the garage. Sure enough, a camera hung in the corner near the elevator. Hallelujah. “Video surveillance should give us more.”
“We have someone processing it.”
“If you don’t mind, SSAM has an expert who can help out too. Einstein has a lot of experience.”
“Einstein?”
“Just a nickname. But an accurate one.”
McDowell eyed him a moment, then sighed. “Sure. I’ll have someone send a copy over.”
The coroner was now standing beside the car, pulling his gloves off. The yellowish light of the garage glowed against his bald spot as he joined them. He nodded a hello to Holt before turning his attention to McDowell. “Same signs of struggle, same style wound, same weapon of choice as the previous two scenes. I’d say your guess about this being the same killer has merit.”
“Fuck. That’s what I thought. Thanks, Rick.” The detective dropped any lingering signs of an attitude as he turned back to Holt. Lines formed across his wide forehead. “We found black fibers under a few of Beechum’s broken nails, but I doubt it’ll lead anywhere. Just like the others. This murderer doesn’t leave any traceable evidence behind, except for what he wants us to find.”
“Which is?”
“A hypodermic needle and syringe. Other than the weapon, he’s careful. Methodical. And deadly. Beechum wasn’t the first victim, or the second. And I’m guessing he won’t be the last. That’s why you’re here, Dr. Patterson. We suspect we have a serial killer on our hands, and I’ll be damned if I have any idea who’s next on his list.”


Theo Patterson’s creativity was off the charts but Sara couldn’t say that. Not yet, anyway. As director of the Hills Boys’ Academy, she had to hide her surprise behind a mask of disapproval as he and his science teacher faced off across the desk from her. It wasn’t even ten in the morning and her Monday was veering off a cliff. Summer was supposed to have a more relaxed atmosphere with fewer students around, yet this was Theo’s fourth time in her office. There was clearly more going on here.
“This—” Mr. Lockhart, a valued professor at the Academy, shook a spiral notebook in Sara’s face, “—is why he’s going to be held back and forced to retake fourth grade. Summer school is his chance to finally pass this class, yet he’d rather doodle about nothing than learn something useful.”
She bit back the defense that sprang to her lips. The doodles had hardly been aimless. Given Theo’s youth and lack of training, they were amazing. In a comic book format, the boy had created an entire cast of unique characters that told a coherent and compelling story. Sure, it had elements of violence, and she would speak to him about that, but at least the notebook was a healthy outlet.
Sara took Exhibit A from Lockhart before he could shove it under her nose again and tucked it into a drawer of her desk. Theo’s groan was audible, but one sharp look from her quelled the outburst she knew was brewing. The boy showed signs of his father’s intelligence and his mother’s devil-may-care attitude. Still, she had a soft spot for the son of her best friend. More than that, she’d made a promise before Elizabeth had died.
“Thank you for bringing this to my attention, Mr. Lockhart. You can return to your class now.” Sara’s words had the man’s jaw dropping.
“You’re going to let him get away with this?”
“Absolutely not. He’s staying so we can have a little chat.”
“Chat?” Lockhart’s neck turned bright red.
“I understand how serious this is, and you can be sure I’ll be addressing it.”
“I’ve spoken to his other teachers, and we all agree his attention span is equal to a gnat’s and nowhere near par for this school. Punishment is the only acceptable recourse.”
Sara rose from her chair and came around the desk to stand toe-to-toe with Lockhart. Though he had a few inches on her average frame, he took a step back. “As director, my goal is to act in the best interests of the school as well as its students. I assure you, I plan to. I take my job and the reputation of this school very seriously. Don’t ever doubt that. Will there be anything else?”
“No, uh…no.” Lockhart glared at Theo. “I’ll expect that extra work on my desk by the end of the week.”
As the door closed behind Lockhart, Sara retreated behind her desk, then dropped into her chair. She picked up the phone and dialed the outer office, where Cheryl, efficient as always, picked up immediately.
“Shall I hold your calls?” her secretary asked, a hint of amusement in her voice. Sara added mind reader to the list of Cheryl’s talents.
“Yes, please. Thank you.” She put the phone back on its cradle and eyed Theo.
After a moment of quiet, he lifted his head to meet her gaze. “I thought we were going to chat.
She didn’t miss the sarcasm slathered in a thick layer over that comment. “We are. But a conversation requires two participants, and our previous experience together suggests you won’t exactly be eager to talk.”
Theo shrugged. “Not much to say.”
“I disagree, but I think you’d rather communicate in other ways.” She pulled the notebook from her drawer and laid it on the desk between them. “You’re very talented.”
“Thanks.” His mumble was reluctant, but she caught the glint of pride in his eyes before he glanced down at his lap. When he looked up again, the seriousness of his gaze immediately brought Holt to mind. Her heart squeezed. “Can I have my notebook back?”
“No.” Just like that, she felt their tremulous connection break. “At least, not yet. Let’s talk about the content. Your story has a lot of violence.”
Theo rolled his eyes. “They have to fight. They’re an army of mutants who battle the minions of death. They’re not just going to lie down and take a beating.”
Sara wondered if Theo realized how his comic illustrated his own frustrations, fears, and pain of the past year and a half. He’d probably channeled all those deep emotions into this creative outlet. “You’re right. It’s hard to fight evil forces without a battle or two. But we don’t approve of violence here at the Academy. I have to be sure you don’t intend to act out any of these fantasies.”
Theo looked surprised. “I would never hurt anyone for real.”
“I’m glad to hear that.”
“So, can I have my notebook now?”
Sara wanted to give in, but there was no better opportunity to connect with Elizabeth’s son. “How about I make you a deal?”
His eyes narrowed in suspicion. “What kind of deal?”
“I’ll return your notebook if you promise me one thing.”
His response was swift. “Deal.”
She held up a hand. “You haven’t even heard the deal yet. You’ll meet with me on Friday afternoons, after your summer school class, for the rest of the term.”
He scowled. “To do extra homework or something?”
“No. You’ll be working on a special project with me. I hope you’ll share your notebook with me too.”
“You want me to work on my story?” Surprise chased the frown from his face.
“Absolutely. But if your grades don’t improve and your teachers don’t stop complaining, we’ll have to chat about other ways to curb your distractions—maybe the extra homework or chores you mentioned. Do we have a deal?”
“Sure.” Theo accepted the hand she reached across the desk toward him and punctuated the agreement with a tentative smile.
Again, Sara thought of Holt and his reluctant grins. He’d always been serious in a thoughtful, distracted, studious way. But when he smiled, it seemed to be filled with boyish wonder or mischief. She wished she could forget that smile.
“So, that’s it?” Theo asked. “That’s my punishment?”
“Nice try, but there’s more. This is the fourth time you’ve been sent to my office in the last few weeks—”
“—because my teachers have no sense of humor—”
“—and I’m seeing a pattern here. A disturbing pattern that has to end now, before school rules require I expel you.” She stifled a smile as Theo paled. At least the kid wanted to be here. “Pranks, cutting class, and distractions like comic books…I am going to have to call your dad. He might decide on an additional consequence.”
“He won’t answer.” Where other kids might have sounded triumphant at the prospect of getting out of further punishment, Theo sounded sad. Worse, she suspected he was right. That certainly had been the case in the previous instances she’d attempted to reach Holt. She’d ended up discussing things with Theo’s grandparents, with whom Theo seemed to spend most of his spare time anyway. At least they’d been concerned and supportive.
Hoping Theo was wrong this time, she dialed the number she found in his contact information. The phone rang and went to voicemail once again. Holt’s recorded voice requested she leave a message.
Keep it professional, no matter how much you want to wring his neck. “This is Sara at the Academy. Theo is in my office once again. Please call me at your earliest convenience so we can arrange a parent-teacher conference. It’s imperative that you contact me.” She left her number, hung up and met Theo’s gaze.
To his credit, Theo didn’t back down, didn’t look away. There was wisdom beyond his years in those hazel eyes, tinged with pain. His shrug was deceptively casual. “Told you.”
Buy it here.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Biting Nixie On the House!

We take a brief break from the Excert-a-ganza for an important message:

BITING NIXIE is FREE!  I love this book.  Laugh-out-loud paranormal goodness - vampires in the small town midwest.  You know you want to read this baby.   Get it FREE Today!

Monday, July 22, 2013

Excerpt-a-ganza: Mated by Moonlight by Jessa Slade

I've been binging on shifters lately and this story caught me from the first time I read the description.  Today's excerpt is from Mated by Moonlight by the talented Jessa Slade.  You're welcome, shifter lovers.  ;)

As the latest in a long line of female Alphas, Merrilee Delemont lives by the code be strong always. While she will never forsake her duty to her pack, she sometimes longs for a mate to share her life with. At least she's found someone to share her bed: Beck Villanova, leader of the neighboring wolf pack.

Their red-hot attraction and struggle for dominance leads to wild sex, but any chance of a real relationship goes up in smoke. Until phae invaders threaten the peace of their remote valley, forcing Merrille and Beck to finally decide which is more important: vying for power, or a passionate partnership that could change their lives forever.

EXCERPT:

Beck was magnificent, even for wolf-kind. He sacrificed none of his immense size to the change. If anything, his heavy ruff and luxurious tail tipped with silver made him seem even larger in the verita luna.
His eyes were the same molten gold though. Not exactly the same, of course. A wereling’s eyes always seemed brighter, as if some tarnish of the human flesh was scoured away in the Second Truth. Despite the flattening effects of the moonlight, the gold gleamed at her with a purity that made her shuffle her paws uncomfortably in the long grass.
She didn’t want to stare into his eyes. She hadn’t lured him all the way out here to deal in truths—first, second or any other number.
She tilted back her head to stare up at the moon and breathed out a long sigh as she shifted. Her bones ached and her skin felt seared by terrible sunburn as she made the change. She reared up onto her back legs—no, her only pair of legs now as she shifted back to her human flesh—so she could stand over him.
But when her vision cleared, Beck was standing too, big and naked.

Buy It Now.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Get Your Shifter On!

I'm still in Asia (hello from Bangkok!), but this was so exciting I had to find some internet and share! 

Good news, shifter lovers!  The contracts are signed and countersigned, i's dotted and t's crossed.  It's official!  The first book in a new series set in the world of the Serengeti Shifters will release in June of 2014! 

Meet the new lion pride - complete with a scattering of tigers, bears, and even a jaguar or two.  Look for the first release of the Lone Pine Pride, Jaguar's Kiss, to hit the shelves next summer!  Can I get a woohoo?

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Excerpt-a-ganza: His Uptown Girl by Liz Talley

Today we continue the Excerpt Extravaganza with a contemporary romance by Louisiana native Liz Talley.  (I am in love with her accent.)  Here's a sneak peek at her latest, set in her home state, Uptown Girl:

After enduring the destruction of her antique store and a sex scandal involving her late husband, Eleanor Theriot has spent years licking her wounds and raising her daughter, ignoring the woman beneath the cashmere sweater set in favor of playing it safe. Knowing she must reclaim herself and step out of her comfort zone, Eleanor doesn’t expect the first guy she flirts with in twenty years to make her knees weak.
But he so does…
Jazz pianist Dez Batiste is back in New Orleans ready to face his past and reclaim the future he’d left behind in the flood waters of Katrina. Opening an Uptown jazz club soothes the loss of his former dream, and when Eleanor steps into his path, igniting a different passion within him, he knows coming home was the best thing he’s done in years. Too bad Eleanor and her merchants’ association is intent on keeping his new club out of the historic building on Magazine Street.

But when desire sizzles and Dez proves himself to be a good neighbor in times of trouble, Eleanor must rethink everything about her benign life and dare to claim passion with a younger man. And when Eleanor’s daughter comes home from college and casts her eye on Dez and her prejudiced mother-in-law plays hardball with the family, Eleanor has to put on her big girl panties and fight for her happiness. Add in a nineteen year old street kid with a secret and a viral music video and you have the makings of tumultuous journey to love.

EXCERPT: 

Uptown New Orleans, September 1, 2005

Looking over his shoulder, Tre Jackson ducked between the buildings and then slid behind an abandoned car. For several seconds, he focused on gulping down the soggy air pressing in around him. Okay. Just breathe, Tre. In. Out.
Breathe.
His heart galloped, slamming hard against his ribs. Shadows enveloped him, but he worried his grubby white T-shirt stood out too much. He crouched to make himself smaller, peeking out from behind the grill of the Honda. The street before him looked empty, but Tre knew eyes were everywhere—eyes belonging to desperate people who could grab him, shake him down and leave him for dead.
Crazy white folks with guns.
Eff’d up brothers with guns.
Police with guns.
Made an eleven-year-old kid holding shit he stole feel like he couldn’t breathe too good. After all, what was one more dead black kid?
Fear washed over Tre, hard and fast, but he beat it back with the baseball bat he kept in his head. No time for thinking too much. Had to act. His mama and brother Devontay counted on him to be cool.
He clutched the junk he’d taken tighter to his chest, wishing he’d been brave enough to break the window of the grocery store—the place had looked empty, but Tre knew some store owners sat inside with shotguns. So he’d passed it and rooted around in a store with windows already busted. Not much anyone would want left—bunch of junk—but he’d found a weird box filled with coins wrapped inside an old shirt. It had been hidden on a high shelf. He’d grabbed it, and climbed back out into darkness. Tre had no clue if any of the stuff would score food and water in a trade, but he’d find out.
Stepping softly, he crept around the side of the old Honda, its gaping windows reminding him of the man he’d seen several blocks back. Vacant. Abandoned. Dead.
A rat ran across his grave, but Tre ignored the shiver creeping up his back. He didn’t have time for no rats or dead men lying like trash in the gutter where black ribbons of sludge trailed into the clogged sewers. The water had gone down in some places, but that made it even more dangerous. Like a war zone he’d seen on TV once.
Yeah. Tre was livin’ in a war zone. But he always had. Magnolia Projects ain’t no cakewalk. He’d seen dudes shot. Seen bitches beat down. Kids ignored. Ain’t easy living in ’Nolia. But outside the projects, there had been order.
Until four days ago.
Tre searched around for something he could use to hit somebody…if they got the idea they could mess with him. He was afraid to look in the car. He’d seen other dead people. Old folks who thought they’d be all right, but found out quick the storm wasn’t like all the others.
He didn’t see anything he could use, but he had the kitchen knife in the back of his pants. He’d made his mama keep the gun. G-Slim hated his mama, and G-Slim was one mean brother, quick to anger. With no soul. Better Mama and Shorty D keep the gun.
Tre stuffed the stolen bundle down the front of his shirt, hiking up his pants and cinching tight his one school belt. Made him look kinda like a pregnant lady or one of those starving African kids, but it kept his hands free. He slid the knife from where it fit against the curve of his back and removed the cheap sheath, shoving it in the pocket of his jeans.
Time to go.
He listened hard before he moved, but the city was silent. Not like it normally sounded. No music. No laughter. No horns honking on the overpass. Like a whole ’nother place, a whole ’nother place that smelled of death…and fear.
Certain no one was about to grab him, Tre slipped out from behind the car, wishing for the third or fourth time he’d pulled on a dark T-shirt. He stepped over an old oil can and waded through muck and trash piled up on the sides of the street. Water still sat in some low areas, but he’d avoid them. He knew the way back to ’Nolia. He’d walked there from every direction.
Twenty minutes later, after ducking out of the beams of a few National Guard trucks, and seeing a couple of boats with spotlights in some of the flooded streets, Tre waded through nasty water to reach the steps of his building in the Magnolia Housing Projects. He’d seen only one lone soul on his journey back to his place—some crazy dude sitting on his porch staring past Tre into the inky, still night.
Tre gripped the knife tighter as he crept toward the safest stairwell. He inched open the rusted-out door, wincing at the sound. Once he got inside, he’d be safe. The world would forget about him, his mama and Shorty D holed up like rats, sitting inside with rotten milk, the whole place smelling like shit. Even G-Slim would forget about them. About how much he hated Tre’s mama. About how she’d ratted him out to that detective a month back. About getting even with her.
The air left his lungs as he got jerked backwards.
“What you doin’, lil’ Tre?”
He stumbled, losing his balance, and the knife flew from his hand, clattering onto the cement stoop.
A bowling ball sank in his stomach. Daylight protected him in the projects. Usually, the Dooney Boys left the little kids alone, but this wasn’t “usual” and night covered up stuff. Tre should have left earlier. He should have—
“Damn, son. Got you a knife. What you gonna do with that, cuz?” G-Slim asked, lifting Tre up by the back of his T-shirt.
Tre couldn’t breathe. He coughed and swiped at G-Slim’s arms.
The man let him go, laughing when Tre sprawled on his ass, hitting a stone planter Miss Janie had left on the stoop. She’d let Shorty D plant some seeds a couple of months ago. Now those planters held weeds and dirt. “What you got in your shirt?”
Tre almost pissed his pants. G-Slim had killed some Chinese guy a couple streets over when he wouldn’t pay for some smack. Tre’s friend had seen the dude’s brains and stuff. “Nothin you want.”
“How you know?” Another smile. And it wasn’t no good smile. Nasty and mean. Tre scooted back, teetering on the edge of the stoop, his heart tripping on itself with fear. He tried to think about how to get away, but his mind wouldn’t work. Tears filled his eyes and he forgot how to be hard. How to pretend he was brave.
G-Slim peered down at Tre. “Where’s your mama, boy?”
“She ’vacuated.”
“Why you still here?”
Tre tried to swallow but his mouth felt full of sand. “I—I didn’t wanna go. Mama took Shorty D on the bus, but I ran away ’cause I ain’t leavin’ Big Mama.”
G-Slim stared at him, and Tre prayed the man bought the lie. His grandmother had already left before the storm, but G-Slim didn’t know that. And he didn’t know Shorty D and Mama were still on the third floor.
In the moonlight, Tre could see only the whites of the man’s eyes. But he knew what lay in their coal black depths. Revenge. “That so?”
“Yeah. I’s going back to get Miss Janie’s horn and then I’m going to Big Mama’s.”
G-Slim moved toward him. Tre shrank against the rough brick, feeling around for the knife, hoping somehow he could save himself. Maybe G-Slim wouldn’t kill him, but maybe he would.
A gun fired, the shot hitting far above Tre’s head. He squeezed his eyes shut as dust fell on him.
“Get your janky ass away from my boy,” Tre’s mom said from the doorway. Tre opened his eyes, shocked to find his mother standing on the stoop in a stained T-shirt. Talia’s braids were ragged, but both her gaze and the gun were steady.
G-Slim held up both his hands like Tre’s mama was the police. “Whoa, now. I ain’t hurtin’ your boy.”
“I’m going blow a hole in you a truck can drive through if you don’t back the hell up off my boy,” she said, eyeing G-Slim like he was a cockroach sitting on their table. “Get upstairs, Tre.”
Tre moved quick as a snake, bolting through the space between his mama and the doorway.
“Oh, that’s how it is, bitch?” G-Slim said, his voice not sounding the least bit scared. G-Slim was hard. He’d been in prison a couple times, always out because no witnesses would testify against him…because they knew they’d bleed their life out on the street.
“That’s how it is, Gerald,” Talia said, her voice firm but sad. Tre felt the tears on his cheeks. He hadn’t even realized he’d started crying. And his pants felt wet. Maybe he’d peed them. He couldn’t remember.
“Go on then,” G-Slim said. Tre couldn’t see him, but he imagined he’d dropped his hands and turned toward Talia. G-Slim wasn’t afraid of a bullet. He wasn’t afraid of Talia. He’d beat the shit out of her many times before declaring her a waste of space. G-Slim didn’t even give Talia anything for Devontay, and G-Slim was Shorty D’s daddy.
“Oh, I am, and you better stay the hell away from me and my kids. I got plenty of bullets,” Talia said, inching back through the door. She didn’t take her eyes off the banger in front of her. “Tre, get your ass upstairs like I told you. Bout that time, baby.”
Tre turned and ran up the stairs two at a time, the bundle of stolen goods thumping against his belly. He and Mama had planned for every scenario in regards to the storm and G-Slim. He knew what he had to do even though it made him feel sick. His job was to get Shorty D out of ’Nolia. Mama had gotten bad sick over the past days, and she’d told Tre he had to be the man. It was up to him.
He ran into the apartment, ignoring the smell of vomit and spoiled food. Shorty D stood in his baby bed in the corner wailing, a lone sound in the still of the building. Most folks had left. Gone with the National Guard. Like they should have done. But Talia wouldn’t leave because she said the old people had to go first. And she hadn’t found Aunt Cici.
Tre pulled out the bundle from his shirt and ran to the closet. They had a place they hid stuff. G-Slim had used it to hide drugs, but now Talia used it to hide the gun, bullets and other stuff they didn’t want anyone to find. Tre lifted the wood subfloor and jabbed the bundle into the space between the aged joists, tucking it in good, slamming the board back into place and tugging the tired green shag carpet over it. He’d just backed out of the closet when Talia came through the front door, sliding the dead bolt into place and doubling over in pain.
“Get Devontay and go. G-Slim ain’t waitin. He mad and we ain’t got time.”
“Mama—”
“You do what I say, Trevon.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, grabbing Shorty D who still cried. Tre jabbed a pacifier in the toddler’s mouth and Shorty stopped whining. “Come on, Shorty. We gonna play a game. Gonna be fun.”
Tre dragged his brother over the bed’s rail and sat him on his hip. He grabbed the dirty cloth diaper bag sitting on the table, shouldering it as he moved to the bedroom, sparing a parting look at his mother, and at the room where his only worthwhile possession sat on his bed—his saxophone. Couldn’t carry it with him. Shorty D was too big as is.
“I’m scared, Mama.”
“No time for scared. You’s a man now.”
“Come with us,” Tre said, shifting his brother to his other arm. He didn’t care that the tears fell on his cheeks. G-Slim would kill his mama if he got hold of her. Talia wasn’t strong enough. He couldn’t believe she’d fired a gun and stood up to G-Slim earlier.
“I’ll come when you safe. Go. Now.”
Tre moved quickly because it was all he could do. He flung open the closet, stepping over his few pairs of shoes, pulled the air-conditioning vent from where it sat under a makeshift shelf. It was a false front, put in by whoever had the apartment before them. The hole led to a small space in the wall, which led to a similar vent in the apartment next door—Miss Janie’s apartment. No one had ever questioned the vents, though the projects didn’t have no air conditioning.
Shorty D fussed as Tre scraped his head on the crumbling drywall. “Shh, Shorty, shh.”
The toddler quieted and laid his head on Tre’s shoulder. Tre patted his brother’s back and pulled the grate into place. For a moment, he paused, trying to hear his mother. Trying to decide if he really had to take Shorty D and go find a policeman.
Then he heard the door break open and his mama scream.
Gunfire made him clap his hand over Shorty D’s mouth.
More gunfire before his mama yelled, “Run!”
Tre choked back a sob as he punched in the grate in Miss Janie’s apartment, pushed past a small cabinet hiding the secret entrance and headed for the window and the ancient fire escape.
Shorty clung to Tre as if he knew what was going down, as if he knew his life depended on holding on.
As if he didn’t know his father was next door killing their mother.
Tre set Shorty D down so he could open the crumbling window. G-Slim would figure things out soon enough…unless he was dead. Tre couldn’t count on that so he snatched up Shorty D, climbed out onto the iron scaffolding, and shut down his mind, focusing on simply breathing.
Just breathe, Tre. In. Out. Breathe.
CHAPTER ONE
New Orleans, 2013
“Hot guy at two o’clock,” Pansy McAdams said, craning her head around the form mannequin and peering out the window.
Eleanor Theriot rolled her eyes and swiped her dust cloth over the spindles of the rocker she knelt beside. “You think half of New Orleans is hot.”
“No, I’m just optimistic.”
“Or need a good optometrist.”
Pansy didn’t turn her head from whoever had drawn her attention. “I have perfect vision, thank you very much, and this one is worth the drool I’ll have to wipe off the glass.”
Eleanor pushed past Pansy who’d plastered her nose to the window of the Queen’s Box. Eleanor could only imagine the picture her friend and employee presented to passersby. Pig nose.
But no actual drool.
“Let me be the judge,” Eleanor said, playing along. Pansy had spent the past month reminding Eleanor of her resolution to get back into the dating game. When Eleanor had examined her life, as everyone is wont to do on New Year’s Day, she’d discovered her home felt empty, and most of her lingerie had been purchased from a wholesale club. Time to start dating again, to start claiming a new life for herself outside widowhood and motherhood. Up until now, Eleanor had been good at ignoring the male sex—hot or otherwise—but today, Eleanor felt game. Maybe it was the phone call earlier from her mom who had cut out an article about healthy living for the premenopausal woman.
Not that Eleanor was going through menopause.
Yet.
So an innocent ogle sounded…harmless.
Across the street, in front of the place where tradesmen had been streaming in and out like worker bees, was a pickup truck. Leaning against the side of that truck was someone who made her swallow. Hard.
Pansy soooo didn’t need glasses.
The man resembled an Aztec prince. Like his honeyed skin should be twined in gold and turquoise, bedecked in a feathered headdress. And a loincloth. He’d be breathtaking in a loincloth.
“Told ya,” Pansy said, shouldering Eleanor out of the way. “He could eat crackers, chips and freakin’ beignets in my bed any day of the week.”
“Not sure your husband would appreciate an extra bedmate.”
“Eddie lets the dog sleep with us. What’s one more hairy beast?” Pansy straightened the ceremonial Mayan mask that sat next to the silver candelabra in the window display before sliding off the edge of the window stage, her long body loose and loping. Pansy was over six feet tall, flat-footed and thin to the point of painful, but she had a sharp sense of humor and a heart that was big, fat and full of good cheer. Like Santa Claus in Olive Oyl’s body.
Eleanor glanced again at the man standing beside the pickup, peering at his phone. He wore well-worn jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt. His face had a sort of sexy Brad Pitt thing going on with sensuous lips, but his jaw was hard, nose straight, brows dark and drawn to a V as he tapped on the phone. His skin was a creamy cafĂ© au lait and his hair jet-black, clipped close to his head. Broad shoulders and narrow hips finished off the visual treat. A damn chocolate cupcake from Butterfield’s Bakery wasn’t as tempting as this man. “Hey,” Pansy whispered over Eleanor’s shoulder, making her jump. “You should go get him and see how you like sleeping on cracker crumbs.”
“I already know I don’t like sleeping on cracker crumbs.”
“With the right guy, you’ll never feel ’em. Trust me.”
Running a hand over a well-crafted Federal chest of drawers, Eleanor turned to Pansy and wiggled her fingers. “Dust.”
“Chicken.”
Eleanor wasn’t going outside to talk to a guy leaning against a work truck. She wasn’t that kind of girl. Never had been…even if she was determined to get out there…wherever “there” was. “No way.”
“Candy ass.”
“Calling me names won’t work. Get the lemon oil and let’s make sure our pieces up front look pretty. Tourists will be pouring in with Mardi Gras weekend coming up. I could use some sales.”
Pansy propped her fists on angular hips and narrowed her piercing blue eyes. “Come on, El. What will it hurt to do a little flirting? You’ll probably never see him again and you need to get your feet wet. Beyond time, sugar.”
Yeah, it was way beyond time. That’s what her daughter Blakely had yelled at her over a month ago—to get her own life. But Eleanor wasn’t going outside and getting her feet wet with some random house painter. Even if she’d never see him again. Even if it was harmless, silly and somewhat daring. “I’m moving on, Pansy. I am. I even checked out that eHarmony site last night, but I’m not the kind of girl who goes up to a random guy and says, uh, I wouldn’t even know what to say.”
“Pretend you’re locked out and need a screwdriver or something to jimmy the lock. I’ll hide in the back.”
“Jimmy the lock? Who are you? Nancy Drew?”
Pansy faked an elaborate laugh. “You’re so funny. Share it with the sex god across the street. Unless you’re…chicken?”
Eleanor looked around the antiques store that had been her salvation, first after the hurricane and then after the sex scandal, and felt the security she always did when she really thought about who she was. Did she want to be another relic of the past like the beautiful pieces in her store? Hmm. Pansy was right. Blakely was right. She needed to step out and get a life. “Okay. Fine.”
Pansy froze. “Really?”
“Yeah, what’ll it hurt? Not like I’ll see him again.”
Pansy pulled Eleanor to her, snatching the ponytail holder from Eleanor’s hair. “Ow!”
“Hold still,” Pansy said, tugging strands of Eleanor’s hair around her face and studying it critically.
Eleanor batted her hands away. “Jeez, Pans.”
“Let me grab the coral rose lip gloss I bought at Sephora. It will look nice with those new red highlights you just put in.”
“I’m—”
“Shh,” Pansy said, pressing a finger against Eleanor’s lips. “He’s a little out of your league so we need to prepare you for—”
“Please.” Eleanor pushed past her friend and tucked her shirt into her new gold Lilly Pulitzer belt. “He’ll be gone before you could perform all that magic. Besides, he’s not out of my league. Forget the lip gloss.”
“Whoa, that’s my sassy girl,” Pansy called, scurrying to the back of the store, thin arms and knobby knees moving so fast she resembled a clumsy puppy. She sank behind the counter leaving only her eyes visible. “I’ll hide back here so he buys the story.”
“This is nuts,” Eleanor proclaimed.
Pansy’s hand emerged over the register, shooing her toward the door. “Just go.”
Taking a deep breath, Eleanor pushed the glass door, ignoring the dinging of the sleigh bells affixed to the knob, and stepped onto Magazine Street, which had started waking up for the day. She shut the door behind her, slapped a hand to her forehead and patted her pockets.
Damn, she was a good actress.
She started toward hunky painter dude, looking both ways before crossing the street ’cause she’d learned that rule when she was seven years old. The closer she got, the hotter—and younger—the guy looked.
God, this was stupid. Pansy was right. The man was out of her league.
Too hot for her.
Too young for her.
She needed to go back to her store and abandon the whole ruse, but as she began to turn, he lifted his head and caught her gaze.
Oh, dear Lord. Eyes the color of smoke swept over her and something shivery flew right up her spine. It wasn’t casual or dismissive. Oddly enough, the gaze felt…profound.
Or maybe she needed to drink less coffee. She must be imagining the connection between them. It had been almost twenty years since she’d tried to pick up a man, so she was out of practice. That was it. She imagined his interest.
He lifted his eyebrows questioningly, and she tried to remember what she was supposed to ask him. A horn honked and she turned her head.
Yeah. She stood in the middle of the street like a moron.
The Aztec sex god turned his head and nodded toward the car. “You gonna move?”
“Yeah,” she said, stepping onto the sidewalk. She licked her lips, wishing she’d put on the stupid lip gloss. Not only did she look stupid, but her lips were bare. Eleanor the Daring was appalled by Eleanor the Unprepared who had shown up in her stead.
“Can I help you?”
You can if you toss me over your shoulder, take me to your temple and play sacrifice the not-exactly-a-virgin on your stone pillar of lust.
But she didn’t say that, of course.
“I’m looking for a screw,” she said.
 Dez Batiste lowered his phone and stared at the woman. “I beg your pardon?”
“Huh?”
“You asked for a screw?” he repeated.
She turned the color of the red tiles that framed the doorway behind her. “No. I didn’t ask you—uh, I meant a screwdriver.”
He almost laughed because he could see where her thoughts had jumped to…which was kind of cute.
He’d parked in front of the club five minutes ago, pissed he couldn’t get his damn contractor to show up. He’d dialed Chris Salmon three times, but hung up each time he heard the voice mail. He wasn’t in a good mood, didn’t need some woman bothering him, but when he’d really looked at this one, he had put his bad mood on pause.
“A screwdriver?”
She nodded and a chunk of hair fell from behind her ear. She pushed it back.
“At first I thought you were propositioning me.” He smiled to let her know he wouldn’t bite. At least not hard.
Her face turned even redder. “Heavens, no. I just got distracted, uh, by that car.” She glanced at the antiques store across the street and rolled her shoulders.
“Why do you need a screwdriver?” he asked, liking what his questions were doing to her. Why? He hadn’t the foggiest. There was simply something about her that made him want to peel away layers.
“The stupid lock to the store is messed up, and I’m locked out. No one else is here yet, and I don’t have an extra key.”
He glanced inside the truck. “Don’t have one out here, but I can check to see if anyone left something you can use inside.”
She caught her lower lip between her teeth, drawing his attention to the perfect pinkness of her mouth. Soft. As if she’d been painted upon canvas and intentionally smudged. Her fire-streaked hair with a stubborn flip fell to her collarbone, which was visible beneath a shirt the color of ripe watermelon. “I suppose I could ask Mr. Hibbett at Butterfield’s. He might have one.”
Not wanting to miss an opportunity to make friends in the area, he held out a hand. “I’m Dez Batiste. Let me unlock the door, and we’ll see if there’s something you can use. Wouldn’t want to bother Mr. Hibbett, would we?”
Her gaze lifted to his. “Batiste? As in the guy who wants to open the nightclub?”
His fascination with the woman immediately nosedived. Five months ago, he’d chosen to roll the dice on an Uptown location for his nightclub rather than a place on Frenchmen Street. TremĂ© might be the hottest jazz scene in New Orleans, but Dez was pretty sure his old neighborhood near the Garden District would welcome the upscale club opening in less than a month. However, there had been opposition to Blue Rondo from some of the merchants. He’d recently received a letter from the Magazine Merchants Association questioning the judiciousness of opening a business that could potentially harm the family-friendly atmosphere. It hadn’t been “welcoming” at all. More like holding a veiled threat of ill-will. “I’m Dez Batiste the guy who will open a nightclub.”
He started to lower his hand, but she took it. “I’m Eleanor Theriot, owner of the Queen’s Box.” She hiked a thumb over her shoulder toward the large glass-front store directly across the street from where they stood.
“Oh,” he said, noting the warmth of her grasp, the sharpness in her gaze and the scent of her perfume, which reminded him of summer nights. He knew who she was, had seen that name before. On the bottom of a complaint to the city council. One of his friends had scored a copy and given him a heads-up.
She dropped her hand. “I assumed you were a worker or something.”
“Why, because I’m ethnic?”
Her eyes widened. “No. That’s insulting.”
He lifted his eyebrows but said nothing.
“You’re dressed like you were coming to work or something.” She gestured to his old jeans and faded button-down, her face no longer as yielding.
Okay, he was dressed in paint-streaked clothes and the truck had Emilio’s Painting plastered to the door, so maybe Eleanor wasn’t drawing incorrect conclusions. Because though his grandfather was black, his grandmother Creole and his mother Cuban, Dez didn’t look any distinctive race. “Yeah. Okay.”
For a moment they stood, each regarding the other. Dez regretted the shift in mood. He’d wanted to flirt with her, maybe score her digits, but now there was nothing but a bad taste.
“I’d wondered about you, a renowned New Orleans musician returning to open a club in the old Federal Bank,” Eleanor said, glancing up at the crumbling brick before returning her gaze to him. Those green eyes looked more guarded than before. “So why here in this part of New Orleans? Aren’t there better places for a nightclub?”
“Uptown is where I’m from,” Dez said, folding his arms across his chest and eyeing the antiques dealer with her expensive clothes and obvious intolerance for anyone not wearing seersucker and named something like Winston. “What? I don’t meet your expectations ’cause I’m not drunk? Or strung out on crack?”
Her eyes searched his, and in them, he saw a shift, as if a decision had been made that instant. “And you don’t have horns. I’d thought you’d have horns…unless they’re retractable?”
She didn’t smile as she delivered the line. It was given smoothly, as if she knew they were headed toward rocky shores and needed to steer clear. So he picked up a paddle and allowed them to drift back into murky waters. “Retractable horns are a closely guarded musician’s secret. Who ratted me out?”
Eleanor locked her mouth with an imaginary key.
“Guess a screwdriver wouldn’t help?”
She shook her head.
Again, silence.
It was an intensely odd moment with a woman he’d resented without knowing much about her, with a woman who opposed his very dream, with a woman who made him want to trace the curve of her jaw. He’d never been in such a situation.
“Just two things before I go back over there and walk through that very much unlocked door,” she said with a resolute crossing of her arms.
“Really? The door’s not even locked?” He arched an eyebrow.
“A ploy to come check you out dreamed up by my not-so-savvy salesclerk. Totally tanked on the whole thing from beginning to end. It’s pretty embarrassing.”
“I’m flattered. Thank your salesclerk for me.”
Her direct stare didn’t waver. “Oh, come on, don’t even pretend you’re not the object of a lot of ‘Can I borrow your pen?’ or ‘Do you know what time it is?’”
“Wait, those are pickup lines?” he asked with a deadpan expression. There was something he liked in her straightforwardness along with the soft-glowy thing she had going. Not quite wholesome. More delicate and flowery. This woman wasn’t lacquered up with lip gloss and a shirt so low her nipples nearly showed. Instead she begged to be unwrapped like a rare work of art.
He shook himself, remembering she was a high-classed broad and not his type.
“Maybe not pickups per say, but definitely designed to get your attention,” she said, sounding more college professor than woman on the prowl. Or maybe she wasn’t really interested in him. Perhaps she knew who he was in the first place and wanted to goad him, size him up before he made trouble.
Dez leaned against the truck he’d borrowed from his neighbor since his Mustang was in the shop. “So what did you want to tell me?”
“One.” She held up an elegant finger. He’d never called a finger elegant before, but hers fit the billing. “I oppose the idea of a nightclub in this particular area. All the business owners here have worked hard since the storm to build a certain atmosphere that does not include beer bottles and half-dressed hookers.”
He opened his mouth to dispute, but she held up a second finger.
“And, two, this little,” she wagged her other hand between them, “thing didn’t happen. Erase it from you memory. Chalk it up to midlife crisis, to a dare, or bad tuna fish I ate last night.”
“What are you talking about?”
She frowned. “Me trying to check you out.”
Something warmed inside him. Pleasure. “I don’t even remember why you walked over.”
A little smile accompanied the silent thank you in her eyes.
Dez answered the smile with one of his own, and for a few seconds they stood in the midst of Magazine Street smiling at each other like a couple of loons, which was crazy considering the tenseness only seconds ago.
“Okay, then,” she said, inching back toward her store.
“Yeah,” he said, not moving. Mostly because he wanted to watch her walk back to her store and check out the view.
“So hopefully I won’t see you around,” she said lightly, turning away, giving him what he wanted without even realizing it.
“Don’t count on it,” he said, playing along.
She didn’t say anything. Just kept walking.
“Hey,” he called as she stepped onto the opposite curb. She turned around and shaded her eyes against the morning sunlight. “I’m going to change your mind, you know.”
“About?”
“My club and the reason why you came over here.”
He straightened and gave her a nod of his head and one of his sexy trademark smiles, one he hadn’t used since he’d left Houston.
And from across the street, he could see Ms. Eleanor Theriot looked worried.
Good. She should be…because he meant it. His club wouldn’t draw hookers or anyone who would smash a beer bottle on the pavement. Nor would it draw the sort of club-goers who would break windows or vomit in the street. No rowdy college crowd or blue-collar drunks.
Blue Rondo was different—the kernel of a dream that had bloomed in his heart when everything else around him had fallen apart. The idea of an upscale New Orleans jazz club had sustained him through heartbreak and heartache. Had given him sanctuary when the waters erased all he’d been, and the woman he thought would be his wife had turned into someone he didn’t know. Seven damn years wasted and all he’d held onto was the dream of Blue Rondo, the club named after the first song “Blue Rondo a la Turk” his father had played for him when he’d been a boy.
And no one was going to take that away from him.
Not when he’d risked so much to get here.
Not when he’d finally faced his past and embraced New Orleans as his future.
So, yeah, she could strike number one off her list.
And as Eleanor stood staring at him on the opposite side of the street, he knew she could strike number two off, too. She may not want him to remember her “attention-getter,” but his interest was piqued.
Straightforward eyes the color of moss.
Lush pink lips.
Ivory satin skin.
Color him interested.
Dez tucked away that idea, turned and contemplated the faded building behind him—the old Federal Bank that would house his dream. He sighed.
Another wasted morning.
He could have slept in after a late night in the Quarter playing with Frankie B’s trio. They’d stretched it out until the wee hours, playing sanitized versions of tourist favorites, and he’d made plenty of dime. The city had started seeping back into him.
Dez checked his messages once again. Still no Chris. So he pulled up his schedule. He could spare a few hours cutting tile for the bathroom floors before he needed to head back to the place he’d leased a few blocks over and grab a shower. He had another gig at seven o’clock that night, but wanted to stop in and talk to a couple friends who’d opened some places in the Warehouse District about glassware and distributors.
Dreams could come true, but only with lots of work.
He pulled his keys from his pocket and headed toward his soon-to-be jazz club.

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