Saturday, August 6, 2016

A Writer's Life...

AGENTS UNDER FIRE is out! 2nd, expanded edition. How expanded? Double the page count (about 450 pgs),with a brand new, bonus short story.


I came up with the idea for these books five years ago and submitted to my publisher, but my publisher passed on the proposal. How sad was I? As sad as Toby was when I tried to decorate him as a Christmas tree, one year.


The trouble is, by the time I work up a book proposal, I tend to fall in love with the characters. So I decided I wanted to tell their story anyway. Maybe somebody out there would like these guys as much as I do. I still had a bunch of other books on contract, however. So I had to squeeze in writing these stories between deadlines, and ended up with three 100 page novellas, all I could manage at the time.

Then you, my amazing friends, read the stories and loved Gabe, Jake and Troy. So that was pretty cool. I felt as cool as when Toby plays secret agent.


The only complaint I ever received was that the stories were too short. And I thought, someday...

Eventually, I moved to another publisher. They published FORCED DISAPPEARANCE. Then I wrote FLASH FIRE, and they didn’t want it. How did I feel? About the same as when Toby had his first flea bath. I’m pretty sure I had that How could you do this to me? look in my eyes.


But I managed to self-publish the book.

Then I wrote GIRL IN THE WATER, and, well... No contract. I considered just hiding under the couch.


But, instead, I’m self-publishing that book soon. Of course, now I have a series where I don’t control the 1st book. And all the promo for a series is done on the 1st book. 99c sale, free book, etc. When someone tries a new series, they want to start with book #1. I have a mess on my hands.

So I had a brilliant idea.


I’d rewrite Agents Under Fire as a prequel to the Civilian Personnel Recovery series. Agents Under Fire wasn’t part of my Broslin Creek series, or my Civilian Personnel Recovery series, or my Hardstorm Saga series. So it never benefited from any promo I’ve done. Which meant, only a handful of people read it. Linking it to Civilian Personnel Recovery solved a lot of problems.

1. The rewrite gave me a chance to make the stories longer. (I ended up doubling the page count.)
2. Now they’d be included in any Civilian Personnel Recovery promo and readers would be able to find these stories.
3. I own the rights to this prequel, this is now the 1st item in this series, and I can control any special promo I do for it.

I swear, figuring all this out has twisted my brain into a pretzel. LOL But I think it’ll work out well.

My only worry is that some readers might think this new edition is an attempt on my part to scam extra money out of people.
So I put the set at $2.99, half price for release week. I thought about putting it up for free, but I’d love to recoup my editing costs, etc.

HOWEVER... If you’ve bought this book before and feel that this is unfair, I completely understand. Believe me, I agonized over this issue the whole time I was updating this box set.

With each new book, I give out a handful of free review copies. However, for Agents Under Fire, if you send me a note and say, I already bought this set when it first came out, I shouldn’t have to buy it again...I will say, “Fair enough,” and send you a free review copy.

Because as important as my characters and my books are to me, it’s nothing compared to how much I love my readers. I treasure the responses I get to my newsletters. We chat daily in my Facebook Book Club, meet at book signings. You guys make my day, every single day. So please don’t hesitate even for a second to let me know if you don’t like something I’m writing or doing. We will find a solution.

Love you all,
Dana

Yes, that’s me, playing airplane with Toby’s ears and making engine noises. He’s a very patient dog.

Disclaimer: No animals have been harmed in the making of this blog entry.


P.S.: The moral of the story is this:

Agents Under Fire, my entire Broslin Creek series, my Hardstorm Saga series, Flash Fire, Girl in the Water...all stories publishers didn't want. These books were only published because YOU support indie authors. Because you don't just go to pirate sites, don't just download free or 99c books. Because you take a chance on me with every single book. Because you share my FB posts and leave online reviews. THANK YOU!!!

Updated with BUY LINK.

Friday, July 29, 2016

If you like Kate Spade...Last Chance to Enter


A VERY STYLISH RAFFLE

(Hey, just because I sit around all day in yoga pants, writing, it doesn't mean I don't know style!)

Enter HERE to win these fabulous British phone booth bookends, a Kate Spade pencil bag with goodies inside, and a signed copy of FLASH FIRE, my 2016 RITA Award winner novel. Super easy one click entry. No hoops to jump through. GOOD LUCK!!!

Raffle ends on August 1st, 2016.

Thank you so much for all the congrats! I'm still floating on air. San Diego is my new favorite city. Quick, somebody get married! I have some fabulous dresses I need to wear more than once. :-)

A couple of people asked what kind of a book FLASH FIRE is. Well... Characters include a goodie-two-shoes female investigator, a lawless, former-SEAL mercenary, Brunhilda--a German librarian who runs a brothel on Mexico's southern border, some seriously badass banditos, and an invasion of chickens. If you were looking for a story about a quiet small town in Montana with a cute sheriff who opens doors for the ladies...this is NOT that story. If you read FLASH FIRE, prepare for a rough ride... Here is an introduction to Clara and Walker. :-)

Chapter One

Nothing woke up a man as quickly in the morning as a scorpion in his pants. The world—which at the moment for Light Walker consisted of the arachnid’s alarming proximity to his most sensitive parts—snapped into focus real fast.

Walker slowly unfolded from his crouching position at the foot of the balsa tree where he’d fallen asleep. Bomb squads moved with less care. He unfastened his belt, unzipped his fly, then—barely breathing—he gently eased his pants away from his body to make a way out for the intruder.

Most people thought scorpions lived in deserts, but his experience said otherwise. Some species liked the rainforest just fine.

He didn’t bother wondering how the damned thing had gotten in despite the fact that his cargo pants were fastened at the ankles. The leeches, scorpions, and other bugs had mystical ways of sneaking past even the best defenses—one of the laws of the jungle.

Instead of reaching in to where the scorpion’s legs tickled his skin, he waited. He knew too well the pain of a sting as it spread through his body, and the accompanying blurred vision he couldn’t afford right now. He’d been bitten not a week back on his elbow, an experience he didn’t care to repeat.

Two days before that, he’d been bitten by a snake. Probably a sign that his luck was running out and he should leave. Another man might have taken the hint. Walker rejected the thought as quickly as it came to him.

“Come on. Out,” he said under his breath. “Get moving.”

Three inches long, coffee brown, and carrying a world of hurt in its stinger, the scorpion inched up on his lower abdomen like it had all the time in the world.

Walker maneuvered his shirttail in front of the little sucker until it climbed onto the fabric. Once the scorpion was off his skin, he reached for the knife on his belt and used the blade to flick the damned thing into the bushes that stood a dozen feet to his right. “Adios, amigo.”

Then he drew his first full breath of the morning. “Hijo de puta.”

As the Mexican jungle sang its lively song around him, he shoved the knife back into its ballistic nylon sheath that hung to the side.

The knife was just the right size and, due to the light aluminum handle, just the right weight. The Mark II combat knife—a classic since Vietnam—and its six-and-a-half inch, double-serrated steel blade had saved his life more times than he could count. Guns had an unfortunate tendency to run out of bullets, or jam, but a good blade never let a man down, for a damn fact.

He fastened his pants, then stretched his stiff muscles. He swore under his breath one more time as he looked after the scorpion.

Could have turned out a lot worse.

He scanned the ground to make sure there’d be no further nasty surprises. The silver-embroidered black sombrero he’d stolen the day before leaned against the tree next to him. He even checked under that.

When he was sure his small area was clear, he folded his six-foot frame into a low crouch again and leaned his back against the balsa tree, the same position he’d spent most of the night in, waiting for the convoy, and—most importantly—the noseless man.

Walker rubbed the last remnants of sleep from his eyes. Hot, humid air filled his lungs as he inhaled the distinct smell of a rainforest—the smell of things growing, flowering, decomposing—the smell of life and death all mixed into one.

Controlled breath in. He checked his watch. Controlled breath out.

He rubbed his hand over his face. He’d fallen asleep. Shit.

He was damned lucky the convoy was late.

They couldn’t have come already. No way would he have slept through the trucks’ passing. He was a light sleeper. For the most part, he existed on quick combat naps, a habit he’d developed in the navy. If the trucks had come, he would have been awake and alert at the first sound that wasn’t part of the jungle’s usual music.

The first hint of human intrusion wouldn’t come from truck engines but from a slight change in the bird song, in the tone of the monkeys’ screeching. The rainforest had its own alarm system to warn of predators.

The local indigenous tribes—Tzeltal and Tojolabal—the proud descendants of the Maya, could read the jungle noises like a news report. Walker knew the basics, the different cries for snake, jaguar, man, different again for an approaching storm.

He listened for the slightest change of sound around him.

Monkeys called good morning to each other above, in high-pitched, manic shrieks. The bugs produced the background sound, their unending song rising and falling, almost like listening to waves crash against the beach. Moisture dripped from leaves above to leaves below, lending another layer to the symphony. Nothing unusual.

Walker let himself relax.

A million shades of green that existed nowhere else on earth but in rainforests surrounded him. Leaves glistened in the sun like jewels. Lianas cascaded from above like an emerald waterfall.

A toucan poked its head from a tree hollow—probably had a nest there—its large green-orange beak a new splash of color.

“What’s up, Sam?” Walker asked the bird. They knew each other from the day before when Walker had first come here to scout out the clearing.

The toucan flew off. Not into morning chit-chat. Walker could relate.

Parrots flashed between the branches—red, blue, yellow—like flowers dancing in the air.

Some people found the jungle beautiful and returned to it over and over as if to a lover. Walker wasn’t here to enjoy the scenery. Where another person might have seen paradise, he saw a killing field.

After two years of careful planning, today was the day: the beginning of the end. He was ready.

He checked his guns—first the SIG P226, twenty-round magazine loaded with 9mm Parabellums; then the semiautomatic rifle, an M14 with a twenty-round detachable box magazine and five-hundred-yard effective firing range.

He stuck with weapons he was already familiar with from his navy days. He needed the dependability, something tried and true. Between the two, they gave him forty shots before reloading. He carried extra magazines in the side pockets of his pants.

He checked his watch again. The convoy was over an hour late.

Eyes narrowed, he looked to the south, not that he could see far through the dense foliage. Maybe the information that the schedule had been brought forward by three weeks was just bait in a trap. Somebody could be setting him up.

Even as unease had him shifting his weight from one foot to the other, the jungle’s music changed to a different, harsher tone. He gripped the M14 and assumed a battle-ready stance. His surroundings came into a sharp focus. He breathed deeply, evenly. Here we go.

Another full minute passed before a low rumble from the distance finally reached his ears. The sound disappeared the next second, then returned, then amplified.

He kept low and held still in the cover of the achiote bushes that stood between him and the dirt road passing about ten feet ahead, winding through the small clearing chosen for the ambush. The trucks were coming from the direction of the Guatemalan border, heading north, deeper into Mexico, a well-traveled drug-smuggling route.

One minute ticked by, then two, three, four before a beat-up Jeep appeared in the lead. Walker bided his time and waited for the two trucks he knew would be following.

The sound of rumbling motors grew as the vehicles neared, drowning out most of the jungle noises, except for the rush of wings directly above Walker as half a dozen birds took flight with sharp cries. He felt none of their panic, just the opposite. As he touched a hand to the dog tags hanging under his shirt—one his, the other his brother’s—a deadly calm descended over him.

The Jeep rumbled toward the far end of the clearing, lurching over tree roots and rocks. Then the two flatbed trucks came out into the open at last. In the back of each truck, about half a dozen men sat on top of the heavy tarps that covered the shipment they guarded. Each man held an AK-47—assault rifles not to be underestimated.

One out of nine of the nine hundred million firearms in existence was some kind of a Kalashnikov, and for a good reason. But a weapon was only as good as the man wielding it, and Walker was damned sure he’d had better weapons training than any of the jerkwads he’d be facing today.

They’d be sweaty and tired, having spent the last four days in the back of the trucks. Their legs would be stiff from all the sitting, their minds at their least alert during the journey. They were almost at their destination.

They had made it through the border. At this point, they’d expect to be in the clear. They’d expect that tonight each would be drinking cold beer at a cantina, then going to sleep in a real bed with a lively whore who’d work the kinks out of his muscles.

If they were thinking of anything, they were thinking of that, and not what dangers the jungle could still be hiding around them.

Walker scanned them carefully, one by one. According to what scant information he had, the noseless man usually covered his face with a bandana. Several of the men had sweat-soaked, twisted bandanas around their necks, but none had his face covered. And they all had their noses, as far as Walker could tell from his cover.

He swallowed his disappointment and anger as the Jeep in the lead rolled forward.

Three, two, one… Walker counted silently. Then the front bumper hit the trip line.

Boom!

The ground shook as the vehicle blasted up into the air in a fiery explosion, crashing back down a second later and shaking the ground again.

The two trucks lurched to a stop, armed men jumping from the cabs, shouting, shooting randomly at nothing, keeping in the cover of the doors, while the rest bailed from the back, dropping to the ground, pulling behind and under the vehicles.

Walker sprayed them with bullets, dropped and rolled, then rolled some more, his path carefully planned and calculated, so as the men returned fire, they hit nothing but trees. Five down. He shot, rolled again. Nine down. He shot and rolled, over and over.

Two men—realizing that they were trapped in the clearing—jumped back inside the first truck and rammed the burning Jeep, desperate to get away. Metal screamed against metal.

Walker shot them through the truck’s windshield, shards of glass flying, blood spraying the cab. When the second truck tried to back down the jungle road, Walker drilled a bullet into the middle of the driver’s forehead.

The handful of remaining men scattered, scampering behind bushes, running away into the trees.

Walker dashed after them.

He didn’t enjoy killing, but he didn’t dread it either. He spent the next couple of hours tracking and hunting the cartel soldiers down one by one, until the last bastard was dead at his feet in a bleeding heap.

E. effing K. I. A. Enemy Killed In Action.

Walker headed back to the clearing, scratched to shit and covered in blood, but nothing life threatening. The worst damage was his busted cell phone—smashed into pieces in the side pocket of his cargo pants when he’d crashed into a rock. He shouldn’t have brought the damn thing. No reception in the jungle anyway.

He thought no more of the men. His focus was on where he stepped. The scorpion was enough for the morning; he didn’t want an encounter with a poisonous snake. He walked with an even stride, no emotion about the massacre, no guilt.

He didn’t replay the ambush in his mind, didn’t analyze it, didn’t celebrate the win, didn’t regret the loss of life. He simply gave no further thought to the attack he’d carried out. He moved on to the next task.

He dumped the bodies from the cab of the first truck and lined the vehicle up for the pulley system he had hidden high in the canopy. Once he had the truck in position, he pulled back the tarp, lowered the pulley from the tree, hooked it up to the pallet that held over two hundred pounds of raw heroin in plastic bags, then he ratcheted the entire pallet up and out of sight.

He moved to the second pallet and hoisted that, then the third, then the fourth. He did the same with the four pallets on the other truck, working until the entire shipment was hidden in the rainforest canopy high above.

Every muscle in his body burned, sweat dripping from his eyebrows, by the time he strode back to his hiding spot behind the achiote bushes where he’d spent the night. He grabbed the sombrero, shot a few rounds through the black felt with his SIG, then carried the hat back to the clearing, and wiped his bloody hands on the brim before he dropped it.

He went in search of the convoy leader next. The man had been in the Jeep, had been thrown clear in the explosion. Walker had noted earlier the spot where the guy had fallen, and now hurried straight to the mangled body.

He reached into the bulging breast pocket on the guy’s camo shirt and pulled out the roll of hundred-dollar bills held together with a rubber band. Around fifty banknotes, five thousand dollars of bribe money, just in case the convoy bumped into some kind of law enforcement that hadn’t been paid off in advance.

Walker shoved the roll into an empty side pocket of his cargo pants, then checked the rest of the men for their loose bills and pocket change. Leaving the money to rot would be a waste. He checked the faces too, carefully, but every one of the fuckers had a nose. He swore under his breath.

Then he found something he hadn’t been looking for, in the footwell of the second truck: a woven palm leaf basket, about two feet wide and a foot tall, lid fastened on with black electrical tape. Probably snakes—either headed for the exotic animal trade or some voodoo doctor somewhere. He hated snakes, dammit.

Slowly, carefully, he used his knife to cut the tape, then he wedged the blade under the top of the basket and raised it an inch, then another until he could peer in. He saw green, with dots of yellow here and there—feathers. He released the breath he’d been holding.

He dropped the lid back on, then lifted the basket out of the truck. One of the men had been smuggling parrots as a side business. At a couple of hundred dollars each, the nearly two dozen birds jammed into the basket meant a veritable fortune around here.

“Let’s liquidate some assets.” Walker tossed the lid aside.

The birds—yellow-naped Amazon parrots—were too stunned for a moment, blinking at the bright light and him. Then the bravest hopped up to the basket’s edge and took flight with a wild cry, his wings brushing Walker’s face. And the next second, the basket was empty.

Or nearly so. Among the bird droppings and lost feathers on the bottom, a baby parrot blinked curiously at him. The chick was flightless, would probably be flightless for another couple of weeks, judging by the length of its tail and wing feathers.

Walker thought of the small-animal sanctuary at the edge of the jungle, run by an elderly do-gooder British couple. What the hell. He scooped up the parrot and put it into his left breast pocket where the chick immediately snuggled in as if into a nest.

The tiny bird felt warm and alive there—almost as if Walker had a heart again.

“You shit in my pocket and our friendship is over,” he grumbled to the chick as he moved forward.

A deadly silence filled the air. The explosion and following gunfire had scared the wildlife away. Even the bugs kept quiet. The scene around him that had been the picture of paradise not long ago was now a snapshot straight from hell, corpses littering the clearing.

He’d annihilated the enemy, while all he had were scratches. He was the indisputable winner of the battle. Yet, if he felt anything, it was bitter disappointment underscored by the cold, dark anger that lived in his bones and never went away.

Where in hell was the noseless man?

The guy had been there when Walker’s brother had been killed. Which meant the bastard would know Ben’s killer. Walker wanted a name.

But he wasn’t going to get it here today.

He swore as he turned onto an animal track and walked away without looking back. He didn’t much care what would happen to the bodies he left in his wake.

Back when he’d been in the navy, he used to believe in valor and honor and all that bullshit. Now he just believed in being better armed and better prepared than the men he planned on killing.

The list was long. He’d barely gotten started. He had a lot to do—including finding the noseless man—and only a week to do it.



Chapter Two

Mexico City, Mexico

The men loading the coffin into the back of the hearse in the US embassy’s courtyard took their time and handled it with care. Sweat beaded on their foreheads, ran down their cheeks, but they didn’t rush. Even as the July sun radiated brutal heat from above, they kept every move careful and dignified, as befitted the occasion.

DOD Investigator Clara Roberts watched the scene through the open door of the embassy’s back hallway, looking past the marine corporal who stood in the opening.

“Anybody you know?” she asked the marine, keeping her voice down.

Behind her, her retrieval target was dozing in a chair, the flaxen-haired college freshman’s legs sprawled halfway across the corridor, drool gathering at the corner of his lips. Bobby Lekker looked beat, but was otherwise in pretty good shape, all things considered.

At least he wasn’t going to the airport in a hearse.

The marine corporal’s somber gaze swung to Clara. “No, ma’am.”

He was about to turn back, but then he paused and added, “Repatriation of remains. A tourist. He died in a Jet Ski incident while on vacation. Third repatriation this week. The other two were car accidents. Flown back to the States the day before yesterday. Rough summer so far this year. We don’t normally see this many bodies.”

The marine stood ramrod straight as he spoke, shoes at top shine, uniform in impeccable order, his hair regulation cut. He was as exact as if he’d been drawn by a mechanical engineer, with the help of a caliper and a bow compass.

Clara fully approved. She liked order and orderly people. He was the exact type of man she would be attracted to if she had time to be attracted to a man. He looked clean-cut and dependable. Someday…

She stifled a sigh. She had a lot of other things to take care of before she could focus on her personal life. Romance was not on her twelve-month schedule.

Not that she had her entire life mapped out in a spreadsheet. But she did have one-year, five-year, and ten-year plans, both for her private life and her career. She liked knowing where she was going and when and how she was going to get there. The very idea of people meandering through life gave her the heebie-jeebies.

She turned her attention from the marine back to the coffin that would probably be on her flight. The thought didn’t bother her. She’d done repatriations herself. While her job was search and rescue, there had been times when she’d reached her target too late and could only fly back with a body.

The remains of US citizens who died abroad were repatriated via the various US embassies, a streamlined procedure that took the grief of their families into consideration. The deceased were afforded all respect and dignity. The staff wasn’t just shipping boxes. The embassies had a system in place, and the people who ran it cared.

As Clara watched, the men closed the back door of the hearse and the car rolled away.

Within another minute, a black SUV pulled up with tinted windows, the Great Seal of the United States emblazoned on the front door in gold—a majestic eagle holding arrows in his talons on one side, an olive branch on the other.

The marine reached for her suitcase. “I’ll take that, ma’am.”

“Thank you, Corporal.”

She couldn’t wait to get back home. Tomorrow was her father’s first chemotherapy treatment, and she planned on being there with him. She wished she could do more, like donate a kidney or bone marrow, anything. There was absolutely nothing on this earth she wouldn’t do for her father. But she couldn’t do anything about prostate cancer.

Clara and the lost-and-found college student, who had disappeared in Acapulco on a birthday trip with friends, would get a marine escort to the airport. Then she would hand-deliver the delinquent frat boy, in exactly six hours and seventeen minutes, to his worried parents, who’d be waiting at Reagan National Airport in DC.

Clara had her schedule mapped out for the rest of the day, and she planned on sticking to it: hand over Bobby, then go home to her condo to drop off her luggage, shower and change. After that, she’d drive to her parents’ house to spend the night. She wanted to drive her father to the hospital in the morning.

She needed to get the schedule of his future appointments so she could go with him as many times as possible. She could take a leave of absence from work, if necessary. She liked her job—the investigations let her use her analytical skills, took her to interesting places, and she got to save people—but family would always come first.

As the marine stepped outside with her suitcase, Clara called back to the sleeping kid. “Time to go home.”

Bobby Lekker blinked awake slowly and stared at her for a long moment before he pushed to his feet.

He’d cleaned up using the embassy’s facilities, but the shadows of the three weeks he’d spent in a Mexican jail were still in his eyes as he lumbered toward her. He wore the jeans and T-shirt Clara bought him—nothing special, but he’d been ridiculously grateful.

“Thank you,” he said again, his sleep-laden voice filled with emotion. “I’m sorry I caused so much trouble.” He hung his head. “My dad’s gonna kill me.”

She gave him a reassuring smile. “Your parents are going to be extremely happy to see you. I promise.”

She was about to say more, but the clip-clop of high heels behind her made her turn. One of the embassy secretaries hurried toward them, a young woman in a sharp black suit and matching heels. “Miss Roberts? You have a call, ma’am.”

All of Clara’s good feelings evaporated in an instant, startled right out of her. God, don’t let it be bad news. Not something about her father. He didn’t have another doctor’s appointment today, did he?

She called to the marine who was halfway to the car. “I’ll be right back.”

Then she hurried off after the secretary, who was already heading back into the maze of hallways that led to the administrative offices of the embassy.

Clara’s heart beat faster. “Who is it?”

But as she hurried down the hallway, her hand knocked against the cell phone in her pocket, and she knew a sudden moment of overwhelming relief. Her father—or her mother—wouldn’t call her at the US embassy in Mexico City. They would call her on her cell.

She slowed for a beat, relaxing her jaw. Then, with her next thought, her muscles tightened again. Why would anyone call her here? She cast a questioning look at the secretary, who still hadn’t told her who wanted to talk to her.

The woman waited until they were out of hearing distance from the corporal and Bobby, and even then, she kept her voice so low, Clara had to strain her ears to hear her. “The Department of Defense is on the line for you in the bubble room, ma’am.”

Clara blinked.

She’d sent in a case update last night so Bobby’s parents could be immediately notified that he’d been found. Why would her boss, Karin Kovacs, call her? Bobby Lekker’s case was straightforward. Clara had pulled off her target recovery without a hitch. She’d located and retrieved the kid within forty-eight hours of her arrival to Mexico.

All that time, his parents had been worried that their son had been kidnapped or worse, Bobby had been sitting in a small village jail for dancing down the street naked. The local police had misspelled his name, so when the first searches were run, he hadn’t come up in the system.

The secretary turned down the corridor. “This way, ma’am.”

They reached the small windowless room, the walls foot-thick metal to keep anyone from listening in. Most embassies had a microphone-proof “bubble room” where top-secret conversations could be conducted without being compromised, but Clara had never been inside one. Her job didn’t involve any state secrets.

She tried not to gawk too much as she glanced around. A round table stood in the middle of the room. An old-fashioned desk phone waited on the desk, with a single blinking red light.

As the secretary walked away, Clara stepped inside and closed the door behind her. The space was small, the ceiling low, leaving her feeling vaguely claustrophobic. Before she could start thinking about what would happen if the door locked on her, she picked up the receiver and pushed the button next to the blinking light. “Clara Roberts.”

“I’ll be connecting General Roberts, ma’am,” a friendly voice said on the other end. “Please hold for a moment.”

Then the general’s deep voice came on the line. “Clara?”

Alarm shot through her as she gripped the phone. “Are you okay, Dad?”

Her father was a retired general, the head of the Civilian Personnel Recovery Unit, a new, experimental department at the DOD where Clara worked. Not through nepotism. She’d been recruited independently, recommended for the position by her supervisor in her previous job at the FBI, long before it was known that General Roberts would be leading the department.

“I’m fine, honey,” he said.

“Is it Grandma Lucy?” Her eighty-year-old grandmother, her father’s mother, lived at an Alzheimer’s facility.

“She’s doing well. I talked to her this morning,” her father told her, but then he hesitated, which was very much out of character and did nothing to dispel Clara’s alarm, especially when he added, “I need your help.”

“I was just about to leave for the airport. I’ll be home in a couple of hours. I can head straight over instead of going to the condo first.”

Was something wrong with her mother?

Before she could ask, he said, again, his tone hesitant and…something else. “Someone I know disappeared in Mexico recently.”

Clara waited for more. Finding and retrieving US citizens missing abroad was what her unit, Civilian Personnel Recovery, did. But this was not how cases were assigned. Case assignments came from her boss, Karin Kovacs, accompanied by the case file and a brief strategy meeting at the office.

The general was the big boss, because the new department needed someone with status, someone the rest of the DOD wouldn’t just roll over, someone who could negotiate with the higher powers as needed. So General Roberts handled that, while Karin ran the day-to-day operations of the department and managed the investigators.

CPRU investigators worked on one case at a time. Technically, they couldn’t take on a new case until Karin signed off on the previous case, until all the paperwork was completed and all the reports filed.

Bureaucracy was an indelible part of any government work. Rules, rules, and more rules. Which suited Clara pretty well. She was a rules and regulations kind of girl, probably because she’d grown up as a military brat.

Life was much easier when you knew what was expected and had the ability to perform to those expectations. Rules made life dependable.

“Someone else from the embassy can escort your current recovery target back to DC,” her father was saying, his voice still off. “I’ll make the arrangements.” He paused, and in that brief gap, she identified the odd emotion in his tone: misery. “I’d like for you to stay where you are, if possible.”

Her brain scrambled to work out what was going on. “Will you be sending me the case file here?”

“No case file. It’s a personal matter. What I’m about to tell you is strictly confidential.”

From our own department?

Before Clara’s brain could catch up, her father went on with, “The recovery target is Rosita Ruiz. Last seen on July first in Furino, in the state of Chiapas. Long black hair, black eyes, five foot four inches tall, about a hundred and ten pounds. She has family in Furino that she was going to spend the summer with, a cousin, Melena Ruiz.”

Her father rattled off a street name and number.

Clara committed the information to memory, then asked, “Age?”

He hesitated once again before he said, “Eighteen.” He paused. “Nearly.”

Clara stared at the desk with a cold feeling spreading in her stomach. Why are we talking about this in the bubble room? Why is this an off-the-record case? “May I ask how you’re connected to the search target? It might help the investigation.”

Maybe it had something to do with the military. Military secrets. Espionage? Why wasn’t the CIA investigating?

A personal matter, he’d said.

She clenched her teeth. Her father was her hero. She didn’t want to hear what she feared she was about to hear. She stared at the phone, at the rows of buttons, wishing for one that stopped time right then and there.

She did receive a small reprieve. For several long moments, silence stretched on the line. Then her father took a deep breath on the other end.

“I’ve done something incredibly stupid.” Undisguised despair underscored his last words. “I’m sorry, Clara.”

Her heart sank. The bottom of her world fell out. She felt like that astronaut in the last movie they’d seen together, her cord from the spaceship snapped, spinning alone in space.

“How?” If this was true, then everything she’d believed in so far had been a lie, and she had trouble comprehending that. “I have a right to know.”

“I’m sorry,” More miserable silence. Then, “The day the doctor told me the cancer came back. Your mother had that benefit gala at the Ritz. She’s the committee chair, and she was receiving an award, had to go. I was going to go with her, but she told me to stay home and rest.”

Clara tried to remember, but her mother chaired a number of committees and received awards regularly for her charitable works, most having to do with veterans and children of veterans.

“The diagnosis caught me off guard,” her father was saying. “We were both reeling. We were going to tell you in the morning. After she left for the gala, I decided to sit by the pool. I suppose I was having myself a pity party. I had a couple of beers.”

Because he wouldn’t want his wife to see him upset. He’d want to be strong for her to the end. So he used what little alone time he had to let his fears and disappointments out. Clara wasn’t going to blame him for that. But anything else…

“It was Friday night,” he said. “Juanita had been there to clean earlier in the day. A young lady showed up, saying she was Juanita’s niece. She said she’d been helping her aunt and left her school bag in the laundry room. She needed her books to do homework over the weekend. I let her in.”

Clara stared at the empty wall. She knew Juanita, her parents’ new housekeeper. “Rosita Ruiz is Juanita’s niece?”

“I’m not going to say that I was too drunk to know what was happening. You deserve more than excuses.”

Damn right. Hot, blind anger swirled through her, an emotional tornado that left devastation in its wake. How could he betray his wife and daughter like that?

“I don’t remember much,” he said. “I’m sorry. That sounds like an excuse too.”

But Clara clamped onto it. She could have sworn on her life that her father wasn’t capable of something like this. “Maybe nothing happened. Did she say something happened? She could be lying.”

But he said, his voice dejected, “Apparently, I took pictures with my phone.”

Her heart broke then and there, because that certainly rang true.

Her father snapped pictures of everything. Photography was his only hobby. He had a shelf full of expensive cameras and, in addition, he always had whatever latest phone took the best pictures. Clara used to joke that they were the most documented family in the world.

But she was far from a joking mood at the moment. She was numb. Then a new terrible thought wedged itself among the other terrible thoughts that were already circling in her mind, and shock pushed the words from her mouth before she had a chance to reconsider.

“Have you done anything like this before? With other women?”

“No.” He sounded pained. “Never.”

“How can I believe you?” she whispered, her heart breaking a little more.

She closed her eyes for a moment. She didn’t want to hear excuses. And maybe he knew, because he didn’t give her any.

She swallowed. She couldn’t deal with the revelation, not right now. So she focused on the assignment she was being given. A seventeen-year-old had disappeared. Clara had to treat this as any other assignment.

Except that she hated the recovery target with a hot, burning passion.

“I’ll do my best to find her.”

“Juanita is really worried,” her father said. “Her niece told her what happened between us but made it sound as if we had some whole twisted relationship. Juanita has come to me to beg me to find the girl. If I don’t, I’m afraid she’ll go to your mother.”

Clara clenched her jaw. Something like this would kill her mother. Meredith Roberts was madly in love with her husband. She would be crushed beyond recovery. She hadn’t dealt well with the cancer coming back.

She’d been worrying so much, she made herself sick, and she had a weak heart to begin with, the result of some exotic virus she’d caught when Clara’s father had been stationed in Africa at the beginning of his military career, years before Clara’s birth.

To have a much-wanted child, her mother had risked pregnancy and labor, even knowing the stress on her heart might kill her. She’d survived, but she had a delicate constitution ever since Clara could remember, which never stopped Meredith Roberts from championing every cause and trying to save the world.

Her husband admired her deeply and loved her endlessly. He would have given his life for his wife at a moment’s notice—for his wife or his daughter. Clara had never doubted that for a second. This whole Rosita situation was a non sequitur. Someone else’s life.

Suddenly, Clara lost her grip on who her father was, felt as if she no longer knew him. But if she knew one thing, it was that she was going to protect her mother.

“I’ll find the girl,” she heard herself say. Think of it as nothing more than your next case. Forget the personal connection.

Then her father was talking, but, her brain a beehive, Clara missed most of it. “Sir?”

Just in that moment, she couldn’t call him dad.

She normally called him sir in work situations.

His office wasn’t on the same level as Clara’s. She reported to Karin Kovacs and not him. Clara and her father had little interaction at work, which they’d always kept professional, both wanting to avoid even the shadow of any favoritism in the workplace.

He repeated the information now, giving her the rest of the details of the case.

She blinked hard, then looked up at the low metal ceiling and kept blinking so she wouldn’t cry. She couldn’t go back to Bobby Lekker and the marine corporal with tears in her eyes. I’m a professional. Deep breath. I can and will handle this with full professionalism.

Her father finished the briefing with, “You will not be filing an official report.”

She cleared her throat. “No, sir.”

“You report straight to me.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Time is of the utmost importance. Two weeks have passed already since the disappearance. Juanita didn’t find out until Rosita missed their weekly phone call. Then she waited for progress from the local police for another week before giving up and coming to me.”

“Who will be my in-house connection?”

Clara would need research done, not to mention remote access to various law enforcement databases. And the state of Chiapas was several hundred miles to the south of Mexico City. She would need plane tickets, rental car, lodging—travel arrangements usually made by the office manager, Elaine Fisher. Elaine, at the very least, would definitely have to be involved.

But her father said, “No in-house connection. I am wiring you funds personally.”

She swallowed. No in-house assistance. Which was completely against the rules. Then again, none of this made any sense.

“Okay. As far as the department is concerned, I’ve caught a nasty virus and I’m in a local hospital, hooked up to IV. I need rest, so I won’t be checking in with work. It’d be best if I didn’t talk to anyone until the mission is completed.”

“Thank you.” The general’s voice was filled with emotion. He cleared his throat. “I arranged for a local facilitator in Furino. His name is Light Walker. Don’t do anything until you talk to him. He said he can meet you at the village guesthouse around Thursday.”

Tomorrow.

Okay. Doable. “Is he with the local police?”

“The local police are not to be trusted. You’ll need to fly under their radar.”

“Yes, sir.”

So the facilitator was a civilian. Her department normally worked with whoever the local investigator was on the given case, usually the local cops. Unless the local cops were completely corrupt. “Walker will help you with whatever you need,” her father said. “He’ll take you around and make sure you’ll safely get where you need to go.”

Sounded like a local travel guide to make up for her not having office backup on this case—a substitute Elaine.

Silence stretched on the line. Her father had finished with the instructions and was probably unsure about what to say next. To have him be unsure about anything was beyond surreal. Clara felt as if he was a different person suddenly, a stranger she no longer recognized.

She drew a ragged breath. “Don’t tell Mom.”

All her life, when everything had always been in upheaval—the dozens of houses they’d lived in, the countless schools she’d attended, the revolving door of friends—the one constant had been the living, breathing love that filled her family.

Her parents loved her and each other. And she loved them. One maybe a little more than the other. She loved her mother too, but from the first moment Clara could remember, her father had been her knight in shining armor, the hero in the uniform she respected who made her feel safe. As far as she’d been concerned, he could do no wrong.

Until now.

Suddenly she was so angry, she was choking on it. She hated him at this moment, and she felt guilty for the emotion, then even angrier at him for having to feel guilty. Because she couldn’t hate him. Because he was dying.

Prostate cancer was one of the most curable cancers. Most men recovered. But not all. Her father’s cancer was back, and this time, the diagnosis was dire. He’d been given six months, with chemo and radiation. That alone was so incredibly unfair it made her want to scream.

And now this.

He’d served in five wars and earned countless medals. But if the indiscretion came out, his reputation would be forever tarnished. The moral failure was all everyone was going to remember him for. This was how her mother would have to remember him.

“I’m not asking for your help for myself,” he said.

She blinked at the phone.

She’d been focused on her mother and herself, but suddenly she saw the wider implications. The Civilian Personnel Recovery Unit only existed because of General Roberts. If his involvement with Rosita got out and caused a scandal… If the general had to resign, Civilian Personnel Recovery could be disassembled as quickly as it had been created.

He’d been looking for a replacement since the day he’d found out he only had six months to live, but he didn’t have anyone selected yet, just a loose list of possible candidates.

Plenty of higher-ups at the DOD questioned the need for CPRU’s existence. The army had Personnel Recovery for military members and Department of Defense contractors who went missing abroad, but those were people the government had sent into harm’s way, and their recovery came out of the army’s budget.

The argument had been made, over and over, that US civilians who went missing abroad had taken their chances going there in the first place. Why should taxpayers be responsible for helping people out of trouble they had gotten themselves into? If they couldn’t take care of themselves, they should have stayed home.

Of course, the counterargument was that, A: the United States government should provide protection to its citizens regardless of location, and B: kidnapped citizens could be used as leverage by terrorist organizations, so the problem was really a matter of national security.

Clara silently ran through what little information she had on the case, as her father said, “The DEA has an office near Furino, in Mercita. If you run into trouble or find that Rosita’s disappearance is somehow drug related, you’ll find help there.”

US law enforcement nearby was a comforting thought. The Drug Enforcement Agency worked with the Mexican government in the war against drugs as close allies. They had several offices in Mexico, but still…

“I’d rather not reach out to official US channels.”

“Your safety is more important than my reputation,” her father said firmly, then cleared his throat. “First step is to find out whether the girl is still alive. If she is, we need to see if the situation can be solved by something as simple as a transfer of funds. If the case is more complicated than that, we’ll come up with a strategy at that point. You are an investigator, not a SWAT team. I want you to observe all precautions.”

“I will.”

She wanted to say a lot more, but swallowed it all back because none of it would have been particularly helpful.

Silence stretched between them.

“I’m sorry,” her father told her again.

But Clara couldn’t give him absolution.

All she could give was a promise. “I’ll find her.”

She clenched her jaw and put the receiver back in its cradle, because she couldn’t say what she’d always said: Good-bye. I love you, Dad.

Her eyes burning, she walked to the heavy door, opened it, then hurried back to let Bobby Lekker know about the change of plans. She didn’t have much time. She needed to get going. The sooner this whole horrible incident was behind her, the better.

She had to find Rosita. Whatever Clara had to do, she could not fail. 



Chapter Three

Town of Furino, Chiapas State, Mexico, 4 days later

Clara doubted she’d make it halfway to the door, if the men caught her spying.

The dim, one-room cantina ten miles from Mexico’s southern border reeked of booze, smoke, and sweat, the haphazardly arranged tables and chairs—none of which matched—the very picture of chaos. The scene was an affront to Clara’s senses as she sat in the darkest corner. The place made her scalp itch.

Three freaking days wasted.

But no matter what it took, she was going to make progress today.

She’d snuck into the cantina during a loud argument—every man on his feet, gesturing wildly and waving weapons. Her dark baseball hat pulled over her face, she’d skirted the wall and hurried to the farthest table in the back. Since then, she’d been doing her best to stay invisible so she might overhear something resembling a lead.

Her cases tended to progress smoothly from point A to point B and beyond. Not this one. She’d been waiting for Walker since Wednesday night, renting a room at the dilapidated, rooster-infested guesthouse across the road.

At least the cantina was chicken-free. Mostly woman-free too. Dressed for undercover work in a plain T-shirt, faded jeans, and a pair of well-broken-in cowboy boots, Clara was hoping anyone who wasn’t looking too hard would mistake her for a boy.

Where in hell was her facilitator?

How could her father hook her up with someone so unreliable?

Clara hadn’t talked to the general since the embassy. She tried to keep her feelings bottled up on the subject. But she’d called her mother to ask how her father’s first chemo treatment had gone, and to tell her that she loved her. At one point, she would have to deal with her father’s mess, but she was determined to find Rosita first. She wanted to hear straight from the girl what had happened.

As she kept scanning the room, her gaze snagged on the largest of the men. The others called him El Capitán. He could have walked straight out of an old Western: ammo belts crisscrossing his round belly, silver pistols by his sides in silver-studded holsters, black boots, black pants, black shirt, black sombrero—all embroidered with silver thread.

His greasy mustache hung to his double chin, bracketing a cruel, fleshy mouth. Clara strained to hear—without appearing to listen—what he was saying.

The captain sat about fifteen feet from her, four empty tables between them. She could only see him in profile, but then, as if sensing someone watching him, he swung his head toward her. His beady brown eyes fastened on Clara. He stilled for a moment before flashing a yellow-toothed grin.

“Gringa! When did you come in?” he shouted over in heavily accented English. “Come here. Let Pedro look at you.”

Clara bit back a groan. So much for her disguise of a boy. All eyes were on her suddenly, narrowed, disapproving gazes, and more than a few predatory leers.

“Come on, gringa. I don’t bite.” The captain’s lips stretched into a toothy, suggestive smile. He winked. “And when I do, you’ll like it.”

She’d seen the captain before from her window at the guesthouse, always with at least a dozen well-armed thugs around him, people scampering out of his way on the street. If she had to make a guess, she’d guess he was the baddest bad guy in Furino.

She must have hesitated too long, because he pushed heavily to his feet and walked toward her, his boots shaking the rough-hewn wood floor with each step.

His smile didn’t reach his eyes as he stopped in front of her table. “What brings you to Furino?”

“Writing a book about the Mayan sites.” She reached down behind the cover of the table as if to scratch her leg in a nervous gesture, pulled her Glock from her cowboy boot, and lay the gun on her lap.

Bringing a weapon into the country, even a pocket knife, was illegal, but her father had arranged for a small Glock through the marines at the US Consulate in Merida, along with a temporary embassy ID that would grant her diplomatic immunity if she was caught with the firearm.

She didn’t want to use the gun. She was to avoid doing anything that would bring her to the attention of local law enforcement. Hopefully, she wouldn’t have to shoot. She had a fair idea that this was just a pissing contest, Pedro exerting his dominance.

The man reached for her. He didn’t waste time on asking; he went straight to taking what he wanted. “You give Pedro a kiss, and I buy you a drink.”

He wiggled his moustache, his fat fingers closing around her arm and biting into her skin as he roughly yanked her to her feet.

But by the time they were chest to chest, she had her gun at his double chin.

Something dark and dangerous stirred in his eyes as he stilled, a cold and calculating expression hardening his features.

She’d underestimated how high his blood Neanderthal level was. She saw death on his face as clearly as if the words judge, jury, and executioner were tattooed on his pockmarked skin.

Should have let him kiss me.

Instead, she had initiated a deadly confrontation. Back down. Turn it around. They stood in the darkest corner, his large body blocking sight of her and her gun from his men. He hadn’t lost face. He could still let this go. They could still have a laugh over the misunderstanding. He could decide he liked her for being spunky.

She plastered a smile on her face and opened her mouth to diffuse the situation, but the back door banged open and a scrawny kid burst in, yelling for Pedro, then yelling something else in Spanish so rapidly Clara had no hope of comprehending a word.

Pedro dropped his hand from her arm. “You wait here until I come back.”

If doom had a voice, she’d just heard it.

But as Pedro walked out, Clara sat back down instead of running. He could find her anywhere in town. She couldn’t exactly blend in and disappear in a place the size of Furino.

And she wasn’t going to run, in any case. She had come here to retrieve a disappeared person. She was going to take Rosita home. Then she was going to let her father handle the rest however he wanted to handle it. At that point, her job would be to stand by her mother.

She pushed those thoughts aside and refocused on the cantina. She needed to keep in investigator mode. Don’t think about the personal connection.

From what she’d overheard so far, Pedro was Furino’s “godfather.” Clara doubted much went on in town he wasn’t involved in or didn’t give his permission to at least.

Now she just had to establish some kind of rapport with the guy and get him talking. She slipped her gun back into her boot. Let’s not remind El Capitán of that little misstep, shall we?

She waved over the waitress the men called Margarita. “Could I have a bottle of tequila with two clean glasses, please?”

The order would take most of the pesos she’d stuffed into her pocket before coming over, but she needed something to break the ice with El Capitán.

The waitress cast Clara a baleful look. The women who served the men at the cantina also took the time to sit on the men’s laps and fondle them, and periodically take a customer in the back. Maybe Margarita thought Clara would be competition.

But after a glance at the swarthy bartender, who gave a barely perceptible nod, the waitress said, “Sí, señorita.”

In Mexico, most cantinas didn’t allow women unless they were prostitutes. But since El Capitán had said he’d be back for her, Clara was safe from removal for the moment.

As Margarita sashayed her petite but voluptuous figure back to the bar, Clara made no comparisons between the waitress’s exotic feminine allure and her own tall, flat body. Nobody would ever call her a sensuous beauty. She dealt with it. She had other admirable qualities.

When Margarita brought her order, Clara cleaned the glasses on her T-shirt, then lined them up neatly with the bottle.

She scanned the room again. Her facilitator could advise her on the local criminal element. She resisted grinding her teeth.

She’d gone to work at Civilian Personnel Recovery specifically because the missions were lone-wolf operations. She did not, as a rule, work with a partner. And she most certainly did not work with partners who made appointments around Thursday.

The amount of time she’d wasted waiting for that idiot…

At least she’d talked to Rosita’s cousin and found out more about the circumstances of the young woman’s disappearance. And she’d gone to the Mayan ruins, plus walked around town to play up her cover as a travel writer, acting like the average American tourist. She’d used the time to get the lay of the land. And she’d made a game of picking out the main local players—none of whom inspired any confidence.

The majority of the town’s shady-looking characters seemed to end up at the cantina at least once a day. Unsavory-character Grand Central. If a crime had been committed in Furino, these were the men who’d had a hand in it.

Most of the banditos sitting around the tables seemed capable of kidnapping. Or straight-out murder. Aggravated murder wasn’t out of the question either.

Her local connection, if he ever showed, should be able to give her some real understanding of the local criminal power structure. She hoped he was good at what he did, even if he was just some hippie who’d come down for the spiritual Mayan sites located around the small town of Furino, then stayed for the tequila and the weed.

She’d run into a few of those already. One Canadian guy ran a bicycle rental; another old hippie from Jersey sold tie-dyed T-shirts with Mayan symbols superimposed over psychedelic swirls.

She expected her facilitator to be a mellowed-out travel agent slash travel guide who could help her with the maze of dirt roads that weren’t on any map and didn’t show up on her GPS. The area had a number of indigenous villages without names, logging camps, and temporary shanty towns where people fleeing South America stopped to rest on their way farther north.

She hoped the guy was on his way instead of permanently delayed somewhere, pushing up agaves. Anything could happen to a man, or a woman, down here.

Clara pulled her baseball hat deep over her face and listened to the resumed conversations around her.

The talk centered on the local armadillo races and Chiapas FC’s chances in an upcoming soccer match at Tuxtla Gutiérrez. The two events seemed to hold equal importance for the patrons.

She looked for patterns: who talked to whom, who deferred to whom, who watched whom with suspicion. In the past hour, she’d identified five distinct groups, each with its own captain, with El Capitán being the overall head honcho.

Drug runners? Gun runners? Human traffickers?

Before she could figure it out, the front door banged open, and she turned that way, still hoping for her travel guide, finding herself staring at a mercenary who looked like he’d just stepped out of one of those high-testosterone video games.

Okay. Wow. Because…wow.

A machete strapped to his back, a semiautomatic slung over his shoulder, a handgun in the side holster, and an army knife on his belt, he walked into the cantina with a swagger that said he could beat any man in town and could take any woman to bed. If he wanted.

He was taller than the locals, his hair a few shades lighter, a couple of days’ worth of bristle covering the lower half of his face. He wore army boots, cargo pants, and a black T-shirt that did nothing to conceal a distracting amount of muscle. White flashed as he chomped on the cigar between his teeth, his eyes covered by sunglasses.

Clara slid down in her chair and backed farther into the shadows as she watched him. So Pedro wasn’t alpha dog of the local pack. This guy was most definitely the top predator in Furino. His body language seemed completely relaxed, yet power emanated from his every pore.

All around, hands surreptitiously migrated to the tops of the tables, as if making sure the newcomer didn’t accidentally misinterpret any move as someone going for a weapon.

The mercenary claimed the empty stool at the far end of the bar. He didn’t ask for a drink. The bartender poured him one anyway. He didn’t so much as crook an eyebrow at a woman. But Margarita went to sit on his lap and rubbed against his well-built chest like a cat. She just about purred.

The waitress’s lustrous mahogany hair tumbled to her waist in waves, curling and swinging all over the place. She looked wild and free. Clara touched a hand to the strict bun tucked under her baseball hat.

The mercenary tossed back his drink with one hand while putting the other one on Margarita’s bare knee, running his palm up her thigh, under her short red skirt. He bent to her neck and nibbled her. Or maybe whispered something into her ear, because Margarita laughed. And then he was laughing too, a throaty sound of pure seduction.

One second, Clara was glaring at them with annoyed disapproval, and the next she suddenly felt her own skin heat, as if the man was touching her, his callused palm running over her naked skin. A long-neglected part of her body tingled, waving a flag. Hey, remember me?

At the bar, Margarita flattened her palms against the muscles of the mercenary’s chest and caressed them, moving lower and lower.

Clara blinked. What the hell was wrong with them? Then she clenched her jaw. What the hell was wrong with her?

It had to be the heat. A dozen fans whirled overhead, swirling the hot, humid air without providing much relief.

The mercenary chatted on with the bartender, as if being publicly fondled was par for the course for him, certainly nothing to remove his sunglasses over.

Appalling. Both his behavior, and that Clara would feel hot and bothered from simply watching the outrageous bastard.

Then he finally slid off his glasses, and the next second his unerring gaze pinned Clara, and it was too late to turn away or slide down in her chair, because he’d caught her watching him.

He gave a knowing smirk as he shooed the waitress off his lap and patted her curvy behind. He never looked at the woman again as he sauntered toward Clara, six feet of pure muscle and laser-focused attention.

The scene should have been the opening shot of an action movie—light glinting off hills of muscles, determination in every masculine move, a cocksure grin. Casting directors all over Hollywood would have peed their pants at the sight of this guy.

He dropped into the chair across from Clara, his muscled thighs spread. She clamped her own thighs together. His white teeth flashed in the dim light of the cantina as he chomped on his cigar and took stock of her.

“Are you lost, Cupcake?” His I’m-a-bad-boy-and-you-know-it voice scraped along her nerve endings. He was definitely American. East Coast, if she had to guess from his accent.

Her grandmother used to say there were men the devil put on earth to test good women. Clara was tempted to ask the guy whether he’d just zip-lined in from hell.

“Go away,” she said instead.

His smile was worth a thousand words, most of them dirty. His voice dipped. “How can I, when your eyes begged me to come over?”

She rolled said eyes so hard, she might have caused permanent damage.

One: she hadn’t begged in her life.

Two: the only thing she wanted was to hit him over the head with the bottle of tequila between them on the table. She was trying to keep a low profile, and he was drawing every eye to them.

He smiled around his cigar. “What’s your name?”

DOD Investigator Clara Roberts, she badly wanted to say to wipe the superior smirk off his face. “None of your business.”

His eyes were a brilliant multicolor green like the rainforest, alive and full of secrets. He let his gaze travel over her chest from left to right, then from right to left with undisguised disappointment.

He tsked. “No tits, no manners.” He shook his head. “You should try to have at least one or the other. A pair of great tits covers a multitude of sins.”

When his gaze reached hers again, the very fires of hell glinting in his eyes, he said magnanimously, “Don’t worry about it, Cupcake. You look like the brainy type. Believe it or not, that appeals to some men. I think I read that on the Internet.” He edged his chair forward until their knees touched under the table.

A tingle ran up her thighs at the contact. She shifted her legs away from his. “Please leave.”

“I can’t. You need me.” He flashed an infuriatingly cocky grin. “Walker.”

A who?

Her mouth dropped open. Light Walker? The hippie travel guide Walker? The one she’d been picturing with long, thinning hair, wearing a tie-dye shirt?

Why on earth would her father send his daughter to a man like this?

Before Clara could figure out what to do with Walker, Pedro stalked back into the cantina. El Capitán was yelling obscenities over his shoulder to whomever he’d been talking to outside. Then the door swung shut behind him, and his gaze swept the room and settled on Clara.

His mouth twisted into a snarl as he strode toward her. “You’re coming with me.” He narrowed his eyes at Walker. “The puta is mine.”

Walker rose in a measured move and stood toe-to-toe, nose-to-nose with the captain, all easy like, displaying none of Pedro’s bustle. The cantina fell silent around them. The hostile looks they exchanged said the two men knew each other, but there was no love lost between them.

Clara wouldn’t have minded knowing what their relationship was exactly.

Pedro’s eyes narrowed another notch. “I don’t have time to argue. Don’t get into the middle of this, gringo.”

Walker hesitated only for a second, then his expression hardened as if he’d come to some sort of decision.

“I’m pressed for time myself,” he said around his cigar and pulled his knife from his belt in a lightning-quick move, shoved the blade into the man’s abdomen, and yanked up hard.

Clara had no time to react other than jumping to her feet. Her gore rose from the wet sound of the blade being pulled back. She stared wide-eyed as the captain grabbed his belly to hold in his guts, a stunned look on his pockmarked face.

And suddenly she could smell the contents of his stomach.

Oh God. She swallowed hard so she wouldn’t gag. She needed to look away, but she couldn’t.

She’d never killed a man. Unlike in action movies, most law enforcement officers never killed in their entire careers. She’d certainly never seen a man disemboweled. Light Walker, on the other hand, hadn’t so much as blinked.

Before she could fully recover, Walker shoved the man onto the nearest chair, then reached across the small table, practically pulled Clara over it as he hauled her against him. He spit out his cigar and slanted his lips over hers in a primal gesture of claiming, his left hand all over her butt, while his right hand wiped then put away the knife and went for the semiautomatic to hold the room at bay.

Her head—and her stomach—were still reeling when his lips pulled away from hers as abruptly as they’d swooped in.

“Chica’s mine for the night. Whoever wants her tomorrow, you work that out amongst yourselves,” he said to the den of thieves in general, then sauntered to the back door without letting go of her. Pedro sat slumped over in the chair, a pool of blood spreading on the floorboards under him. His men rushed to his side. Since the altercation had taken place in the dark corner, they probably hadn’t fully seen what had happened.

And Clara didn’t want to be there when they figured out the particulars. She didn’t protest when Walker pulled her through the back door. Stunned speechless, she followed him.

Her “facilitator” wasn’t a hippy travel guide. He was a stone-cold killer.

The door swung closed at their backs, and Clara squinted into sunshine as Walker dragged her down the rickety wooden steps, his arm a metal band around her middle. The level of noise behind them in the cantina doubled, then tripled, a beehive that had been disturbed. The shock of Pedro’s sudden death was wearing off at last.

“Now what?” she asked, not that she was admitting that Walker was calling the shots. Maybe for the moment. But any second now, she was going to get her act together and take charge.

“Now we run.” Walker let go of her waist, grabbed her wrist, then sprinted forward, crossing the dirt road that was lined by derelict houses on each side, the cantina and the guesthouse the best of the bunch.

He dragged her toward the jungle that began a hundred feet or so behind her guesthouse, and she did her best to keep up, wondering if she could outrun an army of drunken bandits. And whether the bandits were any worse than the man she was running with.

To be completely honest, she wasn’t entirely sure if she was being rescued or kidnapped.

--- If you'd like to keep reading, click here to DOWNLOAD

Thursday, May 26, 2016

A big welcome to my friend Jacki King who just released a funny/super sexy trilogy: THE MARGARITA CHICA FINDS LOVE She's my blog guest today. Enjoy!!!

From Jacki:

You know how "they" say that when you stop looking for love is when you find it?

That applies to so many different fields of life, including writing.

Struggling with a bit of a writer's block, I decided to cut loose and attend an "adult toy party" at a girlfriend's house. She is an avid reader and was very supportive of local authors, so I took two writer-friends with me. We had a blast at this thing, everyone telling stories about their sex lives and how they imagined all the goodies in front of us could help. It was great fun!

And a few weeks later, a story idea was born.

But I wanted to do more than just tell a "naughty story." I wanted a "make lemonade outta lemons" gal (because that was how I got out of my own slump), and I didn't want to follow the traditional "formula" of hero+heroine=happily ever after. This was my first stab at "happily for now" being the stronger ending.

And so Leslie Stetler was born, a single gal looking to make her own way, a gal who certainly enjoyed the opposite sex but wasn't looking for a man to "complete" her. She was my version of a Sex and the City gal, and I had tons of fun writing her.

After all, who doesn't want to go along on an adventure with a gal who can have a scene like this with a hot man:

I felt him roll over, then I felt the tips of two fingers at the hem of my robe and against the skin along my calf.
“Are you still naked under here?” Miller asked.
“You’re not going to find out.”
His fingers continued a trail up my leg but on the outside of the robe.
“C’mon, Stetler. You give me enough wood to keep a family of beavers busy for a week.”
I raspberried at him. “Keep it up, and I’ll find a way to saw your log in half.”

Then turn around and have one like this:

CJ nodded toward the plants behind me. “Enjoying the honeysuckle?”
I spun around and looked at the thick mass of
vines. “That’s what this is? Honeysuckle? It smells fantastic. I’ve never seen real honeysuckle before.”
“Want me to show you a little trick?” I paused to enjoy the glow of sunlight that highlighted his face and gave the bare skin of his arms a bronzed sheen before I nodded.
He plucked one of the yellow blossoms from the vine and pinched it at the bottom of the elongated stem. He twisted it until it broke free from the rest of the plant, then he slowly removed it. A single drop of clear liquid sat on the torn piece of plant.
“What is that?” I asked.
He smiled, then wordlessly reached over and dragged the piece of plant along the pout of my lower lip, leaving a trail of liquid there.
“Taste it,” he said softly.
I ran my tongue over the sticky substance, and his eyes never left my mouth. An explosion of pure sugar flooded my taste buds, and I smiled. Our eyes met, and he returned the grin.
“That is so good! I can’t believe that’s straight out of the flower.”
He picked another one, popped the bottom of it, and sucked the nectar straight from the stem. Watching him set off dozens of little lightning strikes of desire beneath my skin.
We locked eyes once more, and I felt my insides turn as gushy as the middle of those flowers. An invisible, inaudible force built between us, pulling me closer to him like some kind of tractor beam. Hesitation flickered in his gaze, and I stopped.
“Leslie, I really want to kiss you,” he said with what sounded like surprise in his voice.
“So why don’t you?”
He reached forward with his left hand and cradled the right side of my face. He dragged his thumb across my bottom lip, along the same path he’d made with the nectar.

So I hope you get as much of a kick out of Leslie as I did in writing her, as Dana did in reading her (she was a major cheerleader in getting this project out there to the "universe"). Happy reading!

~~~Jacki~~~

Thursday, March 31, 2016

$3,000 Big Romance Author Spring Giveaway



 Attention all awesome people! This month is a cool time to be a reader. 101 of your favorite authors contributed to one massive giveaway! Giveaway rules are listed on the rafflecopter. International peeps can play! Got any questions? Feel free to ask. There are 100 ways to enter for a maximum possible 500+ entries per person. The giveaway lasts the entire month of April, so come back every day and hammer away at a few more entries until you're all done! ONE PERSON WILL WIN $3,000 USD! That's the biggest giveaway I've seen recently! Tell your buds! Don't miss out. You'll kick yourself if you miss this one.
a Rafflecopter giveaway
  Terms & conditions are listed on the rafflecopter. Read it for full details. The winner will be chosen on May 1, 2016 and contacted via the email address they used to enter. CHECK YOUR EMAIL! The winner's name will also be posted on the rafflecopter widget above. Participating Romance Authors: 101 different authors came together to make this giveaway possible. If you've been looking for a new book boyfriend, or you're literally famished between your fave author's releases, check out some of my peeps! They write in various hot romance genres including contemporary romance, new adult romance, erotic romance, steamy romance, urban fantasy romance, dystopian romance, historical romance, futuristic/ sci-fi/ fantasy romance, Teen/ YA romance, inspirational romance and time travel romance! [caption id="attachment_356" align="aligncenter" width="689"]



 Big Romance Author $3,000 Spring Giveaway April 1-30th, 2016[/caption] H.M. Ward
Kim Golden
Drew Jordan
Christi Caldwell
Scarlett Metal
Chris Almeida & Cecilia Aubrey
Heidi McLaughlin
Jenny Gardiner
Stacey Joy Netzel
Merry Farmer
Mallory Crowe
Julia Kent
Jean Oram
Vella Day
Meli Raine
Sherri Hayes
Jayne Rylon
Sarah M. Cradit
Erica Ridley
Christine Zolendz
Beverly Preston
Marquita Valentine
Melissa Storm
Dana Marton
Amy Bartol
Michelle Fox
Magan Vernon
Ainsley Booth
Venessa Kimball
Sidney Bristol
K.M. Scott
C.C.Wood
J.M. Miller
Zara Keane
Eliza Knight
L.P. Dover
Sadie Haller
Patricia McLinn
Suzanne Rock
Katherine Lowry Logan
Erin Richards
Tori Scott
Danielle Stewart
P.T. Michelle
Suzan Tisdale
T.M. Franklin
Evelyn Adams
S.E. Hall
Lauren Hawkeye
Josie Bordeaux
Melanie Marchande
Raci Ames
Catherine Gayle
Sam Cheever
J.M Cole
Brooke Blaine
Ella Frank
Allison Bell
Cristin Harber
Jacki Delecki
Tawdra Kandle
Sydney Logan
Laura Kaye
Laura Kamoie
Evie Harper
P.J. Fiala
Taylor Law
Pamela DuMond
D.L. Roan
Jenni Moen
LG Castillo
Rachel Schurig
Nina Levine
Rachel Hanna
Cheryl Bradshaw
Jessica Scott
Beth Yarnall
J.T. Geissinger
Stacey Mosteller
Kylie Gilmore
Maryann Jordan
Cari Quinn
Lauren Royal
Renea Mason
Christine Bell
Felicia Tatum
Fabio Bueno
RaShelle Workman
Nana Malone
Annika Martin
Sophia Knightly
Nikki Lynn Barrett
Marian Tee
Sarah Castille
Allyn Lesley
Ambrielle Kirk
Jami Davenport
Bonnie R. Paulson
Laura Stapleton
Kennedy Layne

TERMS & CONDITIONS: Must be 18 years of age or older to win. No cash value. Void where prohibited. Open to international & US residents. *The winner will receive an e-gift card via PayPal in the amount of $3000USD for this prize.* Winner must have: 1. an email account, 2. may be requested to fill out additional paperwork for tax purposes, and 3. must have a PayPal account to accept the prize. We are not responsible for fees taken by PayPal for this transaction, nor are we in any way responsible for VAT and/ or taxes. We are not responsible for items damaged or lost in the e-mail. This promotion is in no way sponsored, endorsed or administered by, or associated with, Facebook. We hereby release Facebook of any liability. By entering you agree that we are in no way to be held liable for anything pertaining to this giveaway. Winner(s) will be contacted by email 72 hours after the giveaway ends. You must claim your prize within 48 hours or it is forfeited and another winner will be selected. If you have any additional questions - feel free to send us an email!

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

FREE Short Story



This story is dedicated to the women and men who wait.



My most sincere gratitude goes to my wonderful Dana Marton Book Club on Facebook. My book club members picked the title, edited the story for me, and even helped with the cover. I’ve never met a group of people who are more fun, more knowledgeable about books, and kinder. Being your friend is a privilege!


Broslin Creek Series
DEATHWATCH
DEATHSCAPE
DEATHTRAP
DEATHBLOW
BROSLIN BRIDE
DEATHWISH
WHEN YOU RETURN TO ME (A Broslin Creek Short Story)

When You Return to Me Copyright © 2015 Dana Marton
All rights reserved. Published in the United States of America. No part of this book maybe used or reproduced in any manner without the written permission of the author. www.danamarton.com






WHEN YOU RETURN TO ME
(A Broslin Creek Short Story)


Sometimes, if she stayed very still and quiet, she could swear she heard Cam’s voice calling her name.
Maggie O’Connor held her breath, standing in the middle of her backyard, as she listened to the wind. But instead of a distant whisper, the loud bang of a rifle rent the silence.
Some people lived for danger, enjoyed the challenge, savored the rush of adrenaline. Maggie wasn’t one of them. As soon as she heard the gunshot, she ran like hell, slaloming around chickens that scattered with outraged cries and madly flapping wings.
She didn’t stop until she was behind the barn. She pressed her back flat against the peeling red paint, and tried to catch her breath.
Minutes passed. No repeat fire. “Crazy old geezer.”
The bravest of the hens, already returning to the handful of corn she’d tossed earlier, clucked in agreement.
“I need to start paying attention.” Maggie filled her lungs with crisp country air, drawing comfort from the scent of freshly fallen snow, summer hay, and herbs that hung by the bunch in the hayloft.
She peeked around the corner.
“Hunting season is over!” she yelled as loudly as she could.
Not that shouting helped. Grandpa Gardner next door was as deaf as a milk bucket and twice as blind, and when he got it in his head he was wild turkey hunting…God help Maggie’s chickens.
Keeping in the cover of the barn, she crept toward her house, then scooted in through the back door into the sanctuary of her blue and white country kitchen. She stepped out of her ankle-high boots and left them by the door, pulled off her sweater to hang it on one of the dozen pegs that held her collection of coats, hats and scarves.
She combed through her waist-length hair with her fingers to get the dark mess under control, turned toward the middle of the kitchen, and took a steadying breath. The scent of armloads of lavender waiting for processing enveloped her. Instant aromatherapy—exactly what she needed to settle her nerves.
She pulled aside the curtain and looked out the window but didn’t see anyone. Her neighbor was shooting from his bathroom window again. As he’d reached his nineties, Grandpa Gardner had turned from a rugged huntsman into a creature of comfort. At least Maggie was safe in the house. He still recognized large buildings, and he couldn’t shoot at her house from his bathroom window anyway—wrong angle.
Her gaze settled on the dreamcatcher hanging in the window, the three lines of a Native American proverb written on the ribbons.
“Listen to the wind, it talks.
Listen to the silence, it speaks.
Listen to your heart, it knows.”
Her great-great-great grandmother had been Lenape Indian, her great-great-great grandfather an Irish immigrant. Cameron Gardner, the boy next door, used to say her innate knowledge of plants must have come from the Lenape side, her temper from the Irish.
What temper? she’d ask every time, and Cam would laugh and kiss her.
He’d first kissed her when they’d been fifteen. They’d first snuck up to the hayloft when they’d been eighteen. Now she was twenty-nine, and she no longer had him.
She closed her eyes against the memories. She hurt, but she didn’t disintegrate from the pain that plowed into her. She could finally, more often than not, control the avalanche. She could dig out and drag her broken heart along.
Maggie filled her lungs, opened her eyes, and went to pull an oversized rooster from the freezer. She tossed the freezer bag, then set the bird on a stoneware plate to defrost in the microwave.
The rooster should feed Grandpa Gardner for a week, and if she was lucky, he wouldn’t feel the urge to hunt for a while. Not that he should be hunting at all, considering he couldn’t see worth a damn, and fall turkey season had ended over three weeks ago, at the end of November.
She turned on the oven to preheat then busied herself at the sink, trying to figure out what to do with Cam’s grandfather next door. Sooner or later someone was going to file an official complaint, or worse, somebody would get hurt. He couldn’t go on like this, armed and semi-blind.
The phone rang at the same time as the microwave beeped.
“Maggie.”
“Everything all right out there?” Captain Bing, Broslin PD’s police captain asked on the other end.
Maggie winced. Somebody did call in the gunshot.
“He’s wild turkey hunting.”
“I figured. Blanks?”
Maggie closed her eyes and lied to the police. Instead of mostly, she said, “Yes, sir.”
Old Albert had been selling nothing but empty shells to Grandpa Gardner for the last couple of years, but ever since the store hired a new assistant, you never could tell. The kid couldn’t keep his teeth straight, let alone the special ‘needs’ of his customers. Maggie would have to go down to the gun store and remind him.
Grandpa Gardner might wing a suspicious looking bush or a stray chicken now and then, but Maggie didn’t want him locked away—either in a retirement home or in jail. He was no threat to the public. He only hunted from his bathroom window. Couldn’t hold the rifle otherwise, since when he was on his feet, he needed both hands to hold on to his walker.
Perfect spot, honey, he’d told her more than once. I can sit on the shitter, brace my elbows on the windowsill, and bam! Sure easier on these old bones than lurking out there in the bushes in the cold and the wind.
From his spot, nobody was in danger but her chickens, and his eyesight was so bad, he never hit any of them. Maggie knew his hunting schedule, usually early in the morning, and arranged her barn chores around him. She’d forgotten this morning, her brain lost in experimenting with a new soap recipe for her online business. She’d run out for some lemon verbena without thinking.
“How are you, Maggie?” Captain Bing asked, and Maggie knew he didn’t just mean after the scare of the turkey hunt.
The captain’s wife had been killed years ago in what they’d at first thought was a home invasion. Her loss had taken the man to dark places, especially because as time passed, he hadn’t been able to bring her killer to justice. He knew how it felt to lose half your heart.
But he had been able to move on eventually. He’d even remarried. He’d healed. He was so ridiculously in love with his new wife, Sophie, it felt good just to look at them when they were together.
“How is the adoption going?” Maggie asked instead of answering his question, and she was grateful when he let her change the subject.
“One more week. I don’t think Sophie puts that baby down for longer than she needs to go to the bathroom.”
According to Pennsylvania law, the birthmother had ninety days to change her mind about the adoption. Maggie could see why the captain and Sophie were holding their breath.
“If she ever does want to put the baby down, I’m available for babysitting,” she offered.
“I don’t know. The kid might be too old for a babysitter by the time she’s willing to let him out of sight.” The captain’s voice held so much love, it practically flowed through the line like water.
They talked about the baby for another minute or two. Then Maggie thanked Captain Bing for checking up on her and understanding that all Grandpa Gardner wanted was to die at home in peace instead of some institution, and for not making a federal case out of the occasional turkey hunt.
As Maggie hung up with the police captain, she pulled her blue, enameled roaster pan from an overhead cabinet and set it on the crowded counter, careful not to disturb the nicely rising bread loaves she’d worked on that morning.
Two hours later, the rooster ready and steaming, Maggie pulled it from the oven to slip the six loaves of herb bread in its place. Doris Turbaum had ordered them for pickup for a Christmas party at the VFW hall.
The oven door closed once again, Maggie eyed the golden, steaming rooster, pinched a piece of salty crisp skin from the end of a drumstick, and licked her fingers before putting the roaster’s lid on. She looked out the window. Across the yard, the Gardner house stood silent in the thick shade of tall pines.
No more shots had sounded while she’d cooked. A good sign.
As she turned to the sink to wash her hands, her phone rang again, and she wedged it between her ear and shoulder.
“Hey, Maggie.”
Zak Greenfield was a year younger than she was, ran the feed store with his father. He was smart, funny, hardworking. Half the girls in Broslin were in love with him. He had only a single fault: he was in love with Maggie.
“Hey, Zak.”
She washed her hands with soap, which turned out to be a mistake. Ah. She grabbed after Cam’s ring, but too late. The golden band with the diamond fell straight down, out of her reach.
“So I have tickets to the high school musical,” Zak was saying with a smile in his voice. “Grease. I have to support my brat sister.”
Maggie squeezed her eyes shut and gripped the edge of the sink so hard it made her hands hurt, but she barely felt the pain. She stared at the drain.
Stupid. Since Cam had put that ring on her finger, she’d lost weight, her fingers were slimmer. She would either have to have the ring resized, or put it away before she lost it.
She didn’t want to take it off and put it away. And the resizing… For one, she hated not having the ring on, handing it over to somebody. What if they lost it? And, at the same time, she was afraid of what having the ring resized meant—that after four years, she still wasn’t ready to let go, that she was never going to be able to let go.
“Want to go to the musical with me?” Zak asked, so sweet and cheerful, Maggie could practically see his dimples.
She had to say yes. If she said no, it’d mean that she was really stuck. That maybe she would be stuck forever.
“I’m sorry, Zak,” she whispered.
And after a drawn-out moment, he whispered back, the smile gone from his voice, “He’s gone, Maggie.”
“I don’t feel it,” she confessed, even if she sounded crazy.
“Do you feel anything?”
“I don’t know.”
“Let me help you feel again.”
She bent down and opened the cabinet under the sink. She needed to take the P-trap apart to get her ring back. She straightened and headed to the garage for her toolbox.
Because she’d been silent, Zak spoke again. “Are you still waiting for him to come back?”
She couldn’t say the words, because even to her own ears, they sounded like sheer insanity.
“Maggie, we buried him.”
They’d buried a handful of ashes. “Even the Army makes mistakes.”
“They found his dog tags.”
She stood with her hand on the door to the garage, her chest so tight it hurt. Six soldiers had been on board when the chopper had been shot down over Afghanistan. The remains—what was left of them—had been recovered. Most of the dog tags had simply melted. Cam’s was one of only two that had been recognizable.
A mangled mess, she had it in her nightstand.
“Okay,” Zak said on a sigh. “So if you’re still waiting, what’s this alternative scenario that you’re thinking about?”
She bit her bottom lip. “Maybe he went down with the chopper, but was just badly injured instead of dying. Maybe some local shepherds took him high up into the hills and nursed him back to life. He had amnesia from his injuries, fell in love with the lovely shepherd girl who nursed him, married her and by now they have three children.”
Maggie filled her lungs. Maybe someday he would remember her. As long as he was alive and happy, she could deal with it, even if he wasn’t hers.
“Oh, Maggie,” came from Zak, with tears in his tone.
“Or maybe the bad guys took him and held him captive for the past four years,” she voiced a different, darker dream.
“Even if that’s the case, and he was freed today, and he came back…” Zak let his voice trail off.
“I know.”
Even if Cam came back, especially after four years of captivity and torture, it didn’t mean they could pick up where they’d left off. Miraculously returning after an absence this long, even if he showed up today, he’d be a different person. A lot of soldiers came back changed.
“I’m not going to try anything and push you,” Zak promised. “We can take it slow. Just come with me to the musical. I swear I won’t grope you under the cover of darkness in the high school auditorium.” The lightness came back into his voice. “Of course, if you want to grope me, that’s totally okay. More than okay.”
He made her smile. But she said, “I just can’t, Zak.”
After they hung up, she opened the door to the garage, then realized the wrench she needed wasn’t in her tool box. She’d left it at Grandpa Gardner’s house the day before. He’d had a dripping pipe in his bathroom.
She closed the door. Fine. She was heading over there anyway. She just had to remember to bring the wrench back.
She turned into the laundry room, and from the windowsill she grabbed one of the foot-tall potted rosemary bushes she’d grown from cuttings, forcing herself to focus on that instead of analyzing the conversation she’d just had with Zak. She carried the pot back to the kitchen, put it on the counter, and decorated the needled branches with red ribbons until the plant looked like a miniature Christmas tree.
By the time she finished, the oven dinged, and she pulled out the loaves of bread, then lined them up on the cooling rack.
She carefully placed the potted rosemary into a plastic grocery bag, then hung the bag from her wrist. She picked up the blue enamel roaster, holding the handles with a dishtowel, stepped into her boots, and walked out the door.
She shivered as soon as she got outside, her flannel shirt insufficient protection from the chill. Going back for her coat hardly seemed worthwhile. The two houses had been part of the same soybean farm up until fifty years ago, before someone had subdivided. The distance between her and her neighbor was less than three hundred yards.
“It’s Maggie,” she yelled as soon as she reached Grandpa Gardner’s front porch. “Found a dead turkey behind the barn. Heard the shooting earlier, figured you must have gotten him. I went ahead and cleaned and roasted him for you.”
Balancing the roaster with one hand, she opened the door slowly. “It’s Maggie,” she shouted louder.
Maggie passed through the living room, avoiding Cam’s picture on the wall. The photo had been taken after he’d passed boot camp. He’d worn a crisp green Army uniform, the flag of the United States of America behind him.
They’d been eighteen. By that time, she’d been in love with him for at least ten years. And he’d been in love with her, according to him, forever.
Shutting down that line of thinking, she took the rooster straight to the kitchen and set it on the ancient stove, wondering if the old man was in the garage, sneaking a smoke. His wife, Mildred, had passed away twelve years ago, but he still kept her rules.
The kitchen stood empty and sad with its faded wallpaper and stack of paper plates by the sink. She tried to remember what the place looked like when Mildred had been alive, making her famous walnut brownies for the invading hordes of neighborhood children.
She’d been the warmest woman Maggie had ever known, raising her troublemaker grandson with her husband after the death of their daughter and son-in-law in a car accident. Tough woman, too. She’d been Broslin’s first female police officer in her day. Maybe even first in the whole county.
The year Mildred died of breast cancer, Cam had gone into the Army like his father and grandfather before him. He’d planned to serve eight years, four to honor his father’s own service, four to honor his grandfather’s. While serving his country, he was also going to get an education, and gain skills he could turn into a civilian occupation. Then he was going to come home and they were going to get married.
But he never saw the wedding dress that now hid in Maggie’s guest bedroom closet.
“It’s Maggie,” she yelled again and felt guilty for not coming over enough. Grandpa Gardner had to be lonely.
She popped in every day to check on him, but rarely stayed for more than a few minutes. The memories the house held made her heart bleed.
She took the Christmas rosemary out of the bag and put it on the middle of the kitchen table, fluffed up the flattened ribbons a little. Then she pulled two plates from the cupboard next to the outdated avocado-colored fridge. She had enough time to stay for a quick bite and a chat.
Neither of them could handle talking about Cam, so their conversations were pretty safe at least. She didn’t have to worry that her neighbor would say, Isn’t that a shame that boy’s chopper crashed in the Afghan mountains one week before he was scheduled to come home to us?
A month before the wedding that had never happened.
“Maggie? Is that you, honey?” Grandpa Gardner came from the back at last. At the sight of the roaster pan, a wide grin split his leathered face. “Got another one, didn’t I?”
“It’s pretty decent sized.”
“Wasn’t sure. Can’t see worth a damn these days.”
“Might be a good time to stop hunting,” she suggested gently.
But he countered with, “A man ain’t a man, if he can’t shoot his own dinner.” He squinted at the rooster. Pride laced his voice as he shuffled forward with his walker and added, “I’ll eat off that thing for a week.”
Maggie pulled his chair out for him and made sure he had his noon pills at hand. She smiled at him, even if looking at him reminded her of Cam way too much—that blue gaze, the voice, and definitely the manly-man attitude. Her heart clenched.
She went back to the counter and popped three potatoes into the microwave, then grabbed the leftover peas from the fridge and warmed them. She’d brought the peas over yesterday with a pair of pork chops.
A pair.
And now she was microwaving three potatoes.
Because, even after four years, every time she cooked for Grandpa Gardner, she cooked as if they still had Cam.
After the first year, she’d stopped putting out an extra plate. But she hadn’t been able to stop cooking enough, just in case Cam showed up at the last second.
She drew air into her suddenly too tight lungs. She had to let go. She couldn’t.
Because in her heart of hearts, she still couldn’t accept that Cam was gone; she didn’t believe it.
“Listen to the wind, it talks.
Listen to the silence, it speaks.
Listen to your heart, it knows.”
When she listened to the wind, it brought her the echo of Cam’s voice. When she listened to the silence of her lonely house, it spoke Cam’s name. When she listened to her heart, all she heard was that she loved Cam, and Cam loved her.
She’d been to the funeral, she tried to remind herself. She’d watched the coffin go into the ground.
Her brain understood the stark reality.
Her heart was prepared to die hoping.
From the corner of her eye, she caught a pecan pie on the shelf next to the sink, and it turned her mind into a happier direction. She stole a sniff and nearly moaned from the scent of sugary, nutty goodness. “Who brought this?”
Grandpa Gardner swallowed his pills. “Luanne. Love that girl.”
Everybody did. Even when Luanne had been accused of murder last year, most people in town never believed it.
Gravel crunched outside as a car pulled up the driveway. Probably Captain Bing, checking up on Grandpa Gardner. Since the old man was hard of hearing, calling him on the phone didn’t work. Unless he was sitting in the kitchen, next to the wall phone, he rarely heard the ring.
Maggie put another plate on the table. Maybe Captain Bing would have a few minutes to grab a bite with them.
She stepped to the fridge to grab the sour cream for the potatoes. The front door opened behind her. Closed.
“Hey, Captain—” She turned, dropped the sour cream, didn’t feel the plastic tub bouncing off the toe of her boots.
Inside the front door stood a stranger.
A very familiar stranger, in rumpled Army fatigues. His dark-blond hair was longer, his face leaner, white scars on his jaw. The skin on his neck was puckered where it had burned. He looked…harder, gaunter.
Even his blue eyes weren’t the same. In her memories, his eyes always laughed. Now they looked ancient, as if not just four years had passed since they’d last seen each other, but thousands.
For a moment, she considered that Grandpa Gardner had shot her. Maybe she was lying on frozen ground outside her barn, hallucinating as she bled out, because not enough blood was reaching her brain.
Then he spoke. “I’m back.”
His voice sliced through her.
In her fantasies, this was where he opened his arms and she flew into them. But he just watched her with his ancient eyes. And her feet were frozen to the spot. She wrapped her arms around herself, in shock. She was shaking.
She tried to control her breath so she wouldn’t hyperventilate.
“Maggie,” he said. “Gramps.”
She looked at Grandpa Gardner, because looking at Cam hurt. The old man couldn’t take his eyes off his grandson. His leathery cheeks were wet.
“Cameron. Let me look at you, boy. Come over here. You came at the right time. We’re having Christmas lunch. Not that you could have come at a wrong time.” His voice that Maggie had never heard as much as waver, now broke. “Thank God, you’re back.”
Cam strode over and lifted his grandfather up from the chair in a bear hug. “I missed you, Gramps.”
And the two men held and held.
While Maggie felt as if she was having an out-of-body experience. She picked up the tub of sour cream that, thankfully, hadn’t busted open. Placed it on the counter.
But then she had nothing else to do.
“How?” she asked.
Cam let his grandfather go and turned to her. “I was captured by insurgents and held in a cave.”
Impossible. She’d fantasized about that. How could this be real?
“All this time?”
“I got injured in the crash,” Cam said with a tight expression. “At first I was pretty out of it.”
“And then?”
“I escaped.” He reached up to rub his chest. “A couple of times. They kept catching me.”
Deep down, something inside her fiercely resisted the idea that this was real. Because if she believed in Cam’s return, and once again all this turned out to be an elaborate dream, and she woke up, her heart would break and she would die right there in her bed. She couldn’t feel what she was feeling right now and have all that be yanked away from her. She wouldn’t survive it.
“The Army said there’d been six bodies,” she said. All men accounted for. No survivors.
Cam eyed the third plate she’d just put out moments ago. “Are you expecting someone?”
“I thought Captain Bing might stop by.”
The flash of emotion in Cam’s eyes was gone before she could identify it. He sat by the plate.
“When the insurgents shot us down,” he said, “we fell right on top of them. I was thrown from the chopper when it crashed, slammed into a crevice in the rock. The explosion that came seconds later killed the crew, not the crash. But the explosion must have blown over my head.”
A grim expression sat on his face. “The insurgents lost one of their men. They took me with them. I was out of it. Didn’t know anything until weeks later.” He held her gaze. “I don’t remember much. Just flashes.”
Her chest squeezed so hard she had trouble breathing. “You don’t have to talk about it.”
She stepped toward the door on shaking legs. “I’m sorry. I don’t think I can stay for lunch. I’m baking bread for Doris. I need to check on things at home. I should give you two some time together.”
And then she ran like a coward.
She didn’t stop until she was standing in her kitchen, gripping the sink so hard she thought she’d break it, tears pouring down her face.
She didn’t understand what was happening to her.
She remembered being five years old, wanting to meet Santa more than she’d ever wanted anything in her life. She couldn’t sleep for days beforehand. Then her mom took her to the mall, and Santa was there, and he was perfect, larger than life, all her fantasies and so much better, just there, smiling at her, opening his arms.
She’d screamed and run in the opposite direction, suddenly more scared than she’d ever been. Her mother couldn’t talk her into going within twenty feet of the guy.
He’d been…too much. He’d overwhelmed her so much, her brain had shorted out.
Maggie had been five then. She was twenty-nine now.
Cam was back.
She didn’t understand why his return would gut her almost as badly as his loss.
But she knew one thing. She wasn’t going to run.
“Listen to the wind, it talks.
Listen to the silence, it speaks.
Listen to your heart, it knows.”
She could swear she could hear the wind outside calling her name. In Cam’s voice.
She eased her death grip off the sink and hurried to the door.
She took only a few steps in the yard when she saw him striding toward her from his grandfather’s house.
They both stopped when they were maybe twenty feet from each other. His gaze was filled with uncertainty and caution, his body language a study in control, as if he was struggling to hold back, as if it cost him to make himself just stand there.
“Maggie?”
A single word, but more than a word. Her name on his lips was hope on wings.
And she flew to him.
His arms around her were real. The warm neck she buried her face in was real. She pressed her lips against the puckered scars of his skin and breathed in his familiar scent.
He’s real. He came back.
She couldn’t speak. She could no longer even see. She was crying so hard, her tears soaked his shirt.
He didn’t seem to mind.
His strong arms closed around her and held her so tightly she could barely breathe.
She didn’t want to breathe. She didn’t need air. She just needed Cam to hold her like this, forever.
“Maggie,” he whispered into her hair, his voice laden with emotion. “My Maggie.”
She tilted her head up and smiled at him through her tears.
“Are you still my Maggie?” His tone turned raspy.
“Forever.” The single word came from deep inside her, straight from her heart.
Cam held her gaze. “I thought… You aren’t wearing my ring.”
She explained what happened.
“I’ll get it out.” He closed his eyes for a second, and a look of incredible relief came onto his face, then he opened his eyes, and they were filled with a look of incredible possessiveness.
“You had a plate out for Captain Bing,” he said. “Are you close friends?”
She was ashamed of how much she liked the tone of jealousy. “Not that close. He remarried, actually. Wait until you meet his wife, Sophie. She’s as small as a pixie and looks like Orphan Annie. But she’s a spitfire.”
“She’d have to be, to take down the captain.”
Maggie shook her head. “No takedown. They lifted each other up. I swear, the stuff they went through, it’s enough to turn you to reading romance novels.” She grinned when Cam looked skeptical. “They’re adopting a little boy.”
“I’ll have to stop by the station and congratulate the man,” Cam said. “What else have I missed?”
They were talking about others because the reunion was still too raw to talk about themselves, but that would come. They had time. They had forever.
She couldn’t think. Her brain couldn’t hold any other thought than that Cam was back. But then she said, “We had a serial killer.”
Cam’s arms tightened around her. “In Broslin? Who?”
She told him. Then she said, “You know the guy who replaced Murph Dolan at the PD?”
“Jack Sullivan?”
Maggie nodded. “He got buried alive and everything. Ashley Price dug him up.”
Cam raised an eyebrow in a gesture of pure disbelief. “The artist?”
“They’re together now. He adopted Ashley’s daughter, and then they had another. You know how he was all dark and broody and scary?” She paused a beat. “Now he wears pink tiaras to Madison’s tea parties.”
“I’ll believe that,” Cam said with a bucket load of skepticism, “when I see it.”
“I have pictures on my cell phone.” Maggie grinned. Then she added, “Oh, and Luanne married Chase. He’s Detective Chase Merritt now. Can you believe it?”
“Not really,” he said in a stunned tone. “The Luanne who told everyone in high school that Chase was bad in bed?”
“She was accused of murder. He was the detective on the case. I guess he forgave her past transgressions.” Maggie smiled. “By the way, apparently, Luanne brought a pecan pie by for your grandfather yesterday, so thank her if you run into her in town.”
Cam nodded.
Because Mildred, his grandmother, had been a policewoman, the PD kind of kept an eye of Grandpa Gardner. Captain Bing stopped in often to check on the old man. The wives of the officers brought a pie or a casserole now and then. The PD was like family. They took care of their own.
“Oh, and Captain Bing’s brother, Hunter, is engaged. To a city girl!”
“No way.”
“Way.” She grinned. “Gabi used to be an inner-city cop, but now she’s with Broslin PD. Okay, don’t tell anyone, but Sophie told me, she stopped by the PD to drop off dinner for the captain last week, and she walked in on Gabi and Hunter in the back.”
Cam’s eyes went comically wide. “They were having sex in a holding cell?”
Maggie blushed. “Gabi had Hunter handcuffed to the bars.”
And Cam murmured under his breath, with feeling, “Lucky bastard.”
She fanned herself. “The way those two look at each other, I think they’re singlehandedly responsible for global warming.”
“Like this?” Cam shot her his own smoldering look.
Good Lord, she could practically hear the arctic icecaps melting.
Then he dipped his head, held her gaze. And she staggered under the warm weight of the love in his eyes. He brushed his mouth over hers before he pulled back.
She reached up to touch his face.
He put his hand over hers. “Your fingers are cold.”
He turned them toward his place without letting her go, just tucking her under his arm, the two of them moving together as if they were part of each other.
Grandpa Gardner smiled at them from the kitchen as they stepped inside. “Glad you brought her back, boy.” He winked. “Always said you got your smarts from your grandfather.”
Cam’s lips pulled to the side in an almost smile. “I think I’ve grown up in the past four years, Gramps. You think you’ll ever switch to calling me a man?”
“When you smarten up enough to marry our Maggie here.”
Cam’s gaze dropped to her face. His smile could have resurrected the dead.
He asked his grandfather, “You know a good priest?”
Maggie’s heart beat so hard, she thought it might fall out of her chest.
Grandpa Gardner harrumphed. “He might not want to deal with you again. You never showed for your last appointment.” He struggled to push to his feet, grabbing the walker. “I better get my afternoon nap. Dang pills make me sleepy.”
Cam went to help him get settled in.
While Maggie did the dishes, she could hear the deep murmur of their voices as they talked to each other. Having his grandson back was going to make a world of difference for Grandpa Gardner.
Then Cam was coming down the hallway. “Hold on for a sec. I need to get something.”
He stepped out the back door. Probably for wood. It was Christmas Eve. He was home. Maybe he wanted a fire in the fireplace like back in the old days. She blushed as she thought of the evenings they’d spent necking in front of the fire. Necking and more, the nights Grandpa Gardner spent at his hunting camp with his buddies.
But when Cam returned five minutes later, instead of wood, he was carrying her ring. He’d even shined it up on his way back.
He stepped in front of her, and she held her breath.
“Maggie O’Connor, will you marry me?”
She didn’t have to think about it. “Yes.”
And he slipped the ring on her finger.
He reached up and framed her face between his large hands. “I’m sorry I shocked you by showing up out of the blue. I’ve been spending a lot of time in debriefings with my colonel. I asked him not to notify the family. I didn’t want you and Gramps to think I’d be home for Christmas, then have to postpone and disappoint you, make you wait when another debriefing session was scheduled.”
“You’re not ever allowed to say sorry. For coming back to me, I forgive all past and future transgressions,” she said through tears.
“Can I get that in writing? Because in sixty or so years of marriage, I figure I’m bound to make a few mistakes.” He smiled that smile of his that had been carved on her heart.
He brushed his lips against hers then let her go, his expression tightening, as if holding back required great effort. Then he let a smile soften his face again, and picked up the dishcloth. “I’ll dry.”
“You’re not allowed to do housework.”
His eyes glinted. “Can I get that in writing, too?”
“Don’t get too excited. I meant, today.” She put the last dish on the drip tray, dried her hands, and turned to him. “We are going to ignore housework today.” She stepped up to him and wrapped her arms around his waist. “Let’s do something else.”
“Are you sure? I can wait,” he said in a voice taut with hunger. “I know you’ll have to get used to me again.”
But she lifted her lips to him without hesitation, as if the past four years had never happened. He was the one returning, but somehow she felt as if she’d just come home after a long, arduous journey through a dead and arid land. She felt complete, a deep joy filling her to the marrow.
He kissed the top of her head first, then her nose, and then her lips finally, slowly, gently, as if reintroducing himself.
She needed no introduction. She was his. She opened up to him. She had nothing she wouldn’t give to this man.
He accepted her unconditional surrender and claimed her with a desperate groan, the warmth of his embrace heating as his tongue swept inside her mouth and reminded her what passion was. He held her tighter.
He couldn’t hold her tight enough, as far as she was concerned.
He kissed her into oblivion, into heaven.
Words from the romance novel she’d been reading in the evenings surfaced in her mind: He took her in that kiss, took everything she had, and left her empty.
Cam’s kiss did the opposite. It filled Maggie to the brim.
He kissed her until her knees were so weak, he had to hold her up so she could stay standing. And when, after an eternity, he pulled back, just a little, he kept holding on to her.
“God, the things I want to do to you,” he said, his voice raspy.
“We have several hours before midnight mass,” she suggested oh so helpfully.
His grin was the kind he could definitely not wear to church. He brought her hands to his chest, against his thundering heart, and rubbed his thumb over her engagement ring. “You waited.”
“I knew you weren’t gone.”
“How?” he murmured the single word against her lips.
“I listened with my heart, and I kept hearing you call my name on the wind,” she said, and then she kissed him.


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