Poked in Paris Sample Chapters

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Chapter One

THEY SAY PARIS IS the City of Love.  But I’m not here to give my heart away.  I’m here to get laid.  I know that makes me sound kind of slutty, but the truth is, I’m a good girl.  So straight-laced and God-fearing that I was all set to marry Luke Maxwell—a sweet, sanctified servant of the Lord.

Then it all went to hell.

One week before our big day, the wedding planner, Bridgette Wilson, and I walked into the chapel to find Luke plowing dick-first into the ridiculously-skinny church secretary, Winnie Carlton.  Instead of her poring over the books, balancing the monthly tithes, she was bent over a pew, balancing herself on tiptoes while receiving Luke’s offering.

Bridgette gasped and said, “Oh.  My.  God.  You dodged a big-ass bullet with this one, Mandi Lang.”  For some reason, she always addressed me by my first and last name.

I, on the other hand, remained silent and mesmerized.  It was an odd reaction, for sure. But I was stunned down to the ground.  Luke had always behaved like a perfect gentleman.  A Christ-loving, bible-thumping saint who was saving himself for marriage.  For me.

The funny thing was, the sex-loving, pussy-pumping sinner I witnessed that summer afternoon was the man I had always wanted.

Sadly, his transformation did me no good.  Cheating is a big, unforgivable no-no, so I did what any woman in my position would.  I took the money we had saved for our honeymoon and hopped a plane.

Now, standing here at the airport luggage claim, I vow to find the hottest, sexiest Frenchman around.  This curvy girl is getting poked in Paris.  And I should be able to earn any extra money I might need to fund my sexual explorations.  Two months before Luke proposed, I had applied for a prestigious, well-paying job as a teaching assistant for a theology and philosophy professor at Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris.  Most of my life, I had dreamed of traveling and working abroad.  Had Luke not proposed when he did, I was on track to do that.  I knew our romantic relationship was serious and might be heading toward the altar, but his proposal still caught me out of the blue.

With him being a man of God and all, I figured he was already married to the church.  Apparently, I was wrong.  He obviously has huge commitment issues.  Bridgette was right.  I did dodge the proverbial bullet.  And since I have, I don’t want to waste a second more on regrets.  It’s time for me to follow my heart and my dreams as well as my libido.

After graduating at the top of my class, earning a history degree with a minor in philosophy, I was the perfect candidate to be Dr. Gaston Beaumont’s TA.  In fact, I still am.  Incredibly, as of this morning, the position has still not been filled.  I checked the job postings on the website after my plane landed at Charles de Gaulle International and thanked my lucky stars I might have a second chance to get things right.

Taking my smartphone from my purse, I activate the Uber-Paris App.  Within five minutes a car pulls up to the curb.  The driver checks his phone, confirming the profile pic on my account matches my face.  His grin is wide and friendly.  “You are Mademoiselle Mandi Lang.  Oui?”

“Oui, Monsieur.”

My French is basic and limited.  Like a dumbass, I took Spanish in high school just to look cool when ordering out at our local Mexican restaurant.  Had I been thinking like an adult, I would have studied the language of love instead.  Oh, well, I’m certain I’ll pick up enough of the lexicon to get by. 

The really good thing about Panthéon-Sorbonne University is that thirty percent of the students are from abroad and from mostly English-speaking countries.  So all the professors are bilingual, speaking both French and English fluently.  It’ll make things a lot less complicated when I interview with Dr. Beaumont.

For some odd reason, the hiring process for this particular position has been an extremely lengthy one.  A few months back, I first applied online.  Then I received a video call that served as my first interview.  It was conducted by a nice, middle-aged, American lady who identified herself as Anne Norcross, department head of human resources.  She made it clear Dr. Beaumont would not be involved in the preliminary screening of candidates.  Apparently, his time was far too valuable to be spent on such a menial task.  

However, she told me he would be taking over during the second and final interview and giving his decision.  Mine just so happens to be scheduled for tomorrow.  Amidst all the excitement and wedding planning, Paris and the job flew right out of my head.  I suppose my failing to cancel my appointment could be seen as divine providence in an ironic kind of a way.

I have to admit I’m developing a case of nerves.  Should I get the job, one of the requirements is that I enroll at the university for a semester and take Dr. Beaumont’s philosophy class.  Like a lot of students, the pressure to perform and succeed makes me a basket case.  I can’t imagine how much more taxing it will be to work with such a brilliant professor while also studying under him.  But I believe I’m up for the challenge.  Even with a hurt heart and wounded pride over Luke’s betrayal, I am ready to get on with my life.  Onward and upward, as they say.

The ride to my hotel is an uneventful one.  After confirming my identity and appearing assured I am indeed his intended passenger, the driver doesn’t speak another word to me.  I am glad because the view from the car is epic.  The beauty of Paris in the dusky darkness of late evening is every bit as overwhelming as I thought it would be.

The best two words I can think of to describe the city are magical and luminous.  The golden light of the Eiffel Tower in all its magnificent glory easily outshines the sun.  I had read it takes twenty thousand bulbs to create this spectacular light show.  But nothing has prepared me for seeing it in person.  I can’t take my eyes off it, covetously holding it in my gaze until the Uber drives out of view.

When I arrive safely at my destination—Hôtel De Nice—it is beyond nice.

Walking into the lobby is like stepping back in time.  The entire hotel is done up in a Parisian décor complete with intricate engravings, old prints of famous painters and exquisite antique furniture.  According to the online brochure, my room should reflect a similar décor sporting rich shades of gold and burgundy.

One of the most fascinating features of each room is that they are soundproof.  This greatly appeals to my naughtier side.  I like knowing the other guests at the hotel won’t be able to hear my screams and moans of pleasure as I’m being ravished by my hot Frenchman.  I’m certain it is simply a matter of time before I find him.

Since my amazing accommodation is only a five-minute walk from the Picasso Museum, Seine River, Notre Dame Cathedral and a ten-minute train ride to the Champs Elysees, I should have plenty of opportunities to meet the lover of my dreams.

After checking in at the front desk and arranging for a bellhop to bring my luggage up, I’m anxious to get to my suite and take a shower.  It was a long flight from the United States to France, and I’m definitely starting to feel the effects of being jetlagged.

Allowing the last of the adrenaline coursing through my veins to propel me, I quickly make my way across the expansive lobby.  The frames of the mahogany elevator doors slowly slide open, yawning like a lazy lion before me.  As with everything else in the City of Lights, the finely-carved, frosted-glass panes are breathtaking.

Given the lateness of the hour, the élévateur—as the French say—is practically empty save one lady leisurely leaning into the far right corner.  Dressed in a loose-fitting peasant blouse, fitted jeans and low heels, she’s a handsome woman in her late forties or early fifties.  With her thick, dyed-brunette hair, high cheekbones and piercing blue eyes, she’s still quite stunning.

As I reach out to press the button for the third floor, she says, “In Paris, everyone wants to be a participant.  No one is satisfied with being a spectator.  Therefore, you must say yes to my invitation.”

I give her a tired smile, planning to leave it at that, but curiosity gets the better of me.  “What sort of invitation?”

“Why, the one to my masquerade party, of course.”

She says it with such flair, I have no doubt this elegant and dramatic woman has spent a great deal of time on the stage.

“Thank you, Madame—?”

“Pay no mind to the wedding rings, dear.  My beloved Antoine passed on almost a decade ago, but I can’t seem to part with the jewelry he gave me.  Simply call me Camille.”

“Nice to meet you, Camille.  My name’s Mandi, and I truly appreciate the offer, but I’m awfully tired from my flight.  I’m in desperate need of a shower and a good night of sleep.”

“You can slumber when you’re six feet under.  Besides, I’ll simply wither up and die if you turn me down.”

I don’t have the heart to tell her I plan on being cremated.  Nevertheless, her enthusiasm is contagious and her flamboyancy irresistible.  I’ve always heard the French can be rather brusque and rude, but this lady is every bit as friendly and hospitable as the folks back home.  And seeing as how I am a stranger in a strange land, it will be nice to have a friend.

Nodding, I say, “I accept.  But I’m afraid I didn’t pack a costume fit for a masquerade party.”

She flaps her slender hand in the air.  Every vein is visible beneath her nearly-translucent skin.  “Nonsense, my dear.  It’s hardly the Grand Masked Ball at Versailles.  The attire is entirely up to you although some of the attendees love to dress up.  All that’s required is a mask, and I have a whole box of those you can choose from.  I throw this sort of soirée all the time and, usually in drunken carelessness, many of the masks get left behind.”

“I’m not a germophobe or anything, Camille, but I’m not crazy about wearing a mask that has been on someone else’s face.”

“You’re not alone.  I also have some new ones still in their boxes in my room.  If I bring one over to you later, will you consent to join us?”

“How could I refuse?”

“Oh, how divine! Things will be underway in two hours.  Make sure to come thirty minutes early so we’ll have time to chat.  Plus, you must have your mask in place before any of the other guests arrive.  Anonymity is the name of the game,” she says, stepping out of the elevator behind me.

For a second, I wonder if she’s following me for some reason.  Then I realize she is staying in the room two doors down from mine.  Instantly, the old Dolly Parton song pops into my mind.  I begin to hum it as I get ready for what will no doubt be one of the most interesting and entertaining nights of my life.

 

Chapter Two

HE COULDN’T DO THIS anymore.  Not and still think of himself as a man.  At some point, you had to put your foot down, say no to whomever or whatever had you over a barrel, and damn the consequences.  Let the chips fall where they may.  Otherwise, you were left to sit back and continue watching little pieces of your soul eaten away.

Sometimes, he wasn’t sure there were any left.

Ambition was a relentless taskmaster.  It had been fervently driving him from the moment his mother informed him Conrad had left them.  Abruptly walked away from his seven-year-old son and his wife of ten years because he was tired of the day-to-day responsibility.

Abandoned by the family’s drunken, verbally abusive breadwinner, he’d had to grow up quickly.  Hunger had a way of instilling a burning desire to improve one’s station.  By the age of ten, he was delivering newspapers and cleaning up yards before going off to school each morning because his mother had sunk into a deep depression.  Claudette could do nothing but cry and sleep.  It was hard, seemingly impossible at times, but they were at least surviving.  That is, until the afternoon he returned home to find she had abandoned him as well.

Closing his eyes to shut off the painful memory, he went down the hall to his bedroom and resignedly opened the chest-of-drawers.  While he hoped there would come a day when the ghosts of loneliness and destitution did not drive him so powerfully, today was not going to be it.

Rifling through the drawers, he picked out a clownish, mish-mash ensemble to reflect how much he despised the success slave he’d become.  He dressed and went back to the den.  From the liquor cabinet, he took out a pint of whiskey and sat down on the loveseat.  He was going to need more than a few healthy swigs to get through this evening…

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Chapter One

Zuri Patton

AS I AWAKEN TO the horribly-pungent, antiseptic odor that can only come from a hospital, the last thing I remember is being dragged off the city bus by a big-bellied cop.  With a translucent ring of glazed sugar from a doughnut crusting the corners of his mouth, his curses sounded comical.  He huffed and puffed like an asthmatic as he cuffed me.  Still, I continued to kick and scream and claw at his beet-red face until a zap of electricity from his Taser gun crumpled my knees.

Now those cold, hard, metal bindings have been replaced by padded, leather restraints.  I don’t like the feeling of being strapped down.  My heavy eyelids fly open while panic grips me like a pair of icy, angry fists.  I flail my arms and jerk my legs in an impotent effort to free myself.

A deep, graveled yet soothing vocal sound floats through my fuzzy brain from a shadowed corner.  “Struggling will do you no good, Miss Patton.”

Swallowing past the dry, cottony lump in my throat, my voice comes out scratchy.  “Where am I? Who are you?” I ask the stoic-looking man sitting in what appears to be a well-worn but comfortable-looking, fabric-upholstered chair.

He stands and shoves the piece of mint-green colored furniture across the bright-white, tiled floor.  It stops just short of my bedside.  Sitting once again, he gives me a searching look.  The intensity of his dark gaze makes me shudder. 

Opening the top drawer on the nightstand to his right, he extracts a notepad.  He then pulls a deep-burgundy-colored pen from the inside pocket of his tan, tweed jacket.  His choice in writing implements is telling.  The sleek design.  The shiny finish.  The elegance and expense all say this man has plenty of money.  That he wouldn’t be caught dead with a regular, run-of-the-mill Bic ballpoint in his possession.

Removing the gold-trimmed cap, he jots down a few words and says, “I’m Dr. Midian, and you are in the psychiatric ward of Doyle Pleasant Hospital.  Do you recall the events of last evening?”

“Yes.  Can you take these restraints off me?”

“Upon completion of my evaluation, should I find you to be of no harm to yourself or others, I will gladly remove the cuffs.  Now tell me what happened last night.”

Feeling frustrated, I press my head back even harder against the edge of a pancake-flat pillow that has practically slid down past my shoulders.  “I was taking the five o’clock bus home and ended up getting arrested,” I say, sighing.  “Normally, I don’t use public transportation, but my relic of a car died last week.  And I don’t currently have the funds to get it fixed.”

“What did you do to warrant the involvement of the police?”

I shrug, blushing profusely.

He clears his throat, and I wait for him to prompt me.  I’ve seen enough television to know if a patient isn’t forthcoming, a shrink will ask leading questions.  I would rather be lead than to come right out and say such embarrassing things.

“The bus driver said you were causing a disturbance near the backseat.  When he asked you to cease what he classified as bizarre behavior, you became argumentative.  He called for a cop to meet him at the next stop and physically remove you from the bus.  Does that sound like a fairly accurate assessment?”

“Yes and no.”

“Clarify.”

“Yes, the bus driver called the cop.  But I wasn’t causing a disturbance.  I was simply making good on a dare.  I couldn’t very well quit until I had finished.”

Dr. Midian scribbles something on his pad then looks me square in the face.  He is so friggin’ handsome I can hardly stand it.  With his onyx eyes, strong, bearded jaw, thick, jet-black hair and straight, white teeth, he could be a GQ model.  A psychiatrist has no right looking this hot.

“Tell me about this dare.”

I nod.  “My best friend Myrna threw down the gauntlet a couple a nights ago over pepperoni pizza and lemon-drop martinis.”

He smiles.  The warmth and illumination of it is like the sun bursting through a dark cloud on a dreary day, bringing with it a tropical breeze to caress my skin.

“That’s an interesting combination,” he says.

“Myrna’s a little bit different.  She has eclectic taste in most everything, including food and beverage combos.  She is the queen of quirky.”

“What did she dare you to do, Miss Patton?”

“I can’t talk about this when you sound so formal.  Can you call me Zuri, please?”

He frowns.  “For the record, this is a formal evaluation.  But if my calling you by your first name makes you more comfortable, so be it.  Answer the question, Zuri.”

Stalling, I ask, “What’s your first name, Doctor?”

He shifts in his chair, extends his long, muscular legs and crosses them at the ankles.  Leveling his gaze at me, he sternly says, “You calling me by my first name is not appropriate.  If you have any hopes of getting out of those restraints, you will answer me in a professional and timely manner.  Am I making myself clear, Miss Patton?”

Crap! I pushed too hard.  Now he won’t call me Zuri, and I really, really liked hearing my name on his sexy lips.

“Fine,” I huff.  “Myrna dared me to give a guy a blow job in public.  If my car hadn’t broken down, I would have driven to the park and done the deed with my man sitting on a bench.  Since I happened to be on the bus last night, I figured that was as good a place as any.”

Dr. Midian makes a few more scribbles.  Without meeting my gaze, he asks, “Was Myrna on the bus, too?”

“No.  How could she be? She can’t leave her apartment.”

He stops writing, flashes those dark eyes on me and asks, “Why not?”

“She’s a full-blown agoraphobic.  To my knowledge, she hasn’t stepped a foot outside for over ten years.”

“How did the two of you meet?”

I grin at the memory.  “I answered an ad she had placed for a personal assistant on Craig’s List.  When I arrived at her address for the interview, she was wearing hot-pink pajamas with light-pink bunny slippers.  Her hair was buzzed in the style of a Mohawk with streaks of pink highlights.  A sterling silver ring with an oval, pink-ice stone adorned her index finger.  I got a good look at it when she pointed at me and asked if I had ever turned down a dare.  When I told her I hadn’t, she hired me.”

“So this daring business is commonplace in your relationship with Myrna.”

“Sure.”

“Does she always present you with the kind of dare that might get you arrested?”

“You mean like the kind where I get down on my knees in front of the backseat of the city bus and perform fellatio on—”

“Your boyfriend?”

His question slices through my response mid-sentence, sending a tingle of excitement all the way through me.  The doctor’s inquiry makes me think he is fishing for intimate information about my life.  Maybe on some baser, animalistic level, he is as attracted to me as I am to him.  Perhaps he’s just a little bit jealous of any man I might give a blow job.  Heck, he very well could be imagining me deep- throating him right now while he rhythmically taps his fancy pen against that faded, yellow notepad.

“No.  On a stranger.”

“You mean to tell me you approached a man you don’t know on a bus last night and offered him oral sex on the spot?”

“Yes.”

“And he what? Unzipped, whipped out his prick and pushed it between those pretty, pouty lips?”

I feel Dr. Midian’s instant regret.  He definitely had not intended to compliment my mouth.  That along with the hitch in his breath, the dilation of his pupils and the hoarseness of his voice screams his arousal.  He might be fooling himself into believing he is keeping this evaluation strictly professional, but I can see the want-to in the dark depths of his eyes.  I can smell his desire and feel the vibrating undercurrent of his need.

My gaze drops to his crotch.  The flimsy sheets of bound paper do very little to conceal his erection.

Instead of answering his questions, I just smile sweetly. 

His agitation is palpable, but he does a decent job of tamping it down as he says, “The arresting officer stated in his report that you didn’t have a cell phone in your possession.”

“So?”

“So if Myrna wasn’t on the bus to see your performance for herself and, if you didn’t record it on your phone, how was she supposed to know you made good on the dare?”

I sigh and say matter-of-factly, “Given the number of passengers, I’m sure plenty of them got me on video.  Heck, I’m betting they’ve already uploaded it onto every social media network out there.  Myrna has probably viewed it a hundred times by now, given it a thumbs-up and made a bunch of raunchy remarks in the comment section.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it hasn’t already gone viral.”

“And if it has, would that please you?”

“No.  I don’t care either way.”

“Really? Well, maybe your family will care or your other, non-dare-taking friends or your co-workers or your employer.  Aren’t you concerned about what they might think? Are you not worried you will lose your job?”

“Myrna is my only true friend.  I’m an orphan and have no family.  I am self-employed, making me my own boss.  I’m pretty much a self-contained entity.  My actions have zero effect on anyone else.”

 “I disagree.  No man or woman is an island.  Everything we humans say and do has a ripple effect, impacting the lives of others.”

“And just exactly how did my impromptu blow job make waves for anyone other than me?”

He thoughtfully rubs his neatly-trimmed beard.  “You made many of the eye witnesses uncomfortable on their bus ride home, especially the couple who had their young children with them.  You threw the driver off schedule because he had to linger longer at the stop for you to be arrested.  You physically assaulted an officer of the law, leaving scratches and bruises on his face and body.  You’re here taking up space on a bed in a room that could be used by someone else who needs it more,” he says, taking a breath before continuing.  “Last but not least, you interrupted my morning.  I wasn’t supposed to be on call until tomorrow, but my colleague felt I would be best suited to handle your case.  So, my first two appointments of the day had to be rescheduled, inconveniencing two of my loyal and established patients.”

I lower my lids in shame.  “When you put it that way, I guess I did cause a few ripples.”

“Now that you realize the reach of your actions, do you feel any remorse?”

“Sure, but what can I do about any of it now? What’s done is done.”

“With the assistance of a professional, you can learn to modify your behaviors through cognitive therapy.”

I roll my eyes.  “I do not need to see a shrink in order to stop taking dumb dares.”

“I think you do, Miss Patton.  An eyewitness forwarded the footage of your performance to the cop who cuffed you.  He sent a copy to my phone.  Would you like to see it?”

“Why would I? I was right there in it.  I was the star of the show, wasn’t I?”

“Yes.  And therein lies the rub.”

“What the devil is that supposed to mean?”

He stands, taking his phone out of his pants pocket.  Punching a few buttons, he swipes his finger across the screen and turns it toward me.  I feel all the color drain from my cheeks as I gasp in disbelief. 

 

Chapter Two

Quill Midian

 Zuri’s gorgeous, periwinkle-blue eyes bulge out of her beautiful face as she stares in silence at the moving images on my smartphone.  Sometimes the best way to dispel a delusion is with the cold, hard truth.  Only in most cases, there are no videos to show a patient.  This is a rare opportunity.  One in which this young, curvaceous woman can see for herself that she needs my help.

No.  Scratch that.  She needs someone’s help, but not mine.

Treating her would be a colossal career mistake.  Within mere minutes of our meeting, she’s teased my cock to granite, elicited thoughts of a highly-impure nature and, worst of all, provoked feelings of indisputable caring and concern.  Since I am incapable of feeling anything for anyone, my reaction to her is strange, to say the very least. 

It might seem impossible for me to be the top psychotherapist in my field and to have the highest cure rate among my colleagues when I have no feelings whatsoever, but it’s true.  In fact, my lack of emotion is ironically the thing that makes me a great healer.

She turns her pretty head away from my phone.  With deep conviction, she says, “Someone edited this video.”

I shake my head.  “A digital tech expert at the precinct confirmed this is the original footage—uncut and intact.”

“He’s a liar!”

“I never said the tech was a man.”

“You didn’t have to.  All men lie.”

Reaching out, I wrap my hand around her left wrist.  I can feel the strong, steady beat of her heart in the vein pulsing above the restraint.  “The only person lying is you, Miss Patton.  You’re lying to yourself and to me.”

In her silence, my fingers develop a mind of their own.  Slowly, gently they caress the silky-soft, porcelain skin covering the underside of her wrist.  The feel of her is electrifying.  Not like a jolt from a bolt of lightning but like a searing heat, burning hotter by the second, melding us together at the point of contact.

When her marrow-melting blue peepers lock onto my gaze, Zuri’s voice sounds as breathless as I feel.  “Will you kindly release me now, Dr. Midian?”

It takes me a second to realize she isn’t talking about the lingering grasp of my hand but the restraints.  “Will you admit there was no man for you to blow on the bus? You were kneeling in front of an empty backseat, bobbing your beautiful head up and down while sucking nothing but air.”

She snarls, “Kiss my big ass, you stupid fucker!”

“If you weren’t my patient, it would be my pleasure.  And for the record, I have an IQ of 175.”

“I don’t put much stock in numbers.  And for the record, being a smartass doesn’t make you smart.  Besides, you know nothing about me.”

“I know you are currently delusional and in denial.  I don’t yet know why.  But I am sure I can help you.”

Fuck it all to hell! One touch of her flesh and I have forgotten what a disaster it would be to take this woman on.

“What if I don’t want your help?”

I shrug.  “You’ll be assigned another therapist by the state.  Since you committed an act of violence against a cop, you’re required to undergo psychiatric treatment.”

“From a jail cell?”

“That’s up to you.  I have some contacts in the court and am quite certain, with an assist from your attorney, we can have you walking around free on probation.”

“Fine.  What do I have to do?”

“You’ll start by apologizing to the arresting officer.”

“Then what?”

“Then you’ll appear before a judge on the appointed date, and we’ll go from there.”

She offers me a smile, but I’m not fooled.  Behind the sweet up-tilt of her luscious lips lies a pitfall of seduction.  This sexy kitten has a set of sharp claws on her.  Although I am positive at some point she will use them to shred me to pieces, it doesn’t stop me from unlocking the leather wrists and ankle restraints.

As she tests her newfound freedom, I tuck my notepad under my arm and silently walk out the door.  Once I’m in the hospital hallway, I mentally command my heart to stop racing, loosen my tie and give my orders to the nurse on duty.

I need to get the fuck out of here and get to Greyson’s office for an emergency session. Every therapist I know needs to periodically have their own head shrunk.  According to the most recent studies in the latest issue of Psychology Today, eighty-five percent of psychiatrists, therapists and psychologists suffer from some form of mental illness.  Of those, two-thirds are clinically depressed, suicidal or bipolar.  They suffer from substance abuse and are typically less sane than their patients.

I don’t fall into any of those categories.  I live with my own special brand of crazy.

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Chapter One

AT TWO IN THE MORNING, on this starry, moonlit night, Isadora Conner desperately wanted to drive back to her apartment, take a shower and shampoo the remnants of pudding out of her hair.  Falling into bed for a deep sleep had become her holy grail.  She was even more exhausted than usual, and her 23-year-old body ached as if Mike Tyson had used her for a heavy bag.

On top of that, her 2002 Toyota Corolla was acting up again, sputtering and skipping for the last two blocks.  Not good since the dimly-lit, abandoned Marsden warehouse district echoed nightly with the sound of gunshots from gang violence and drug deals gone bad.  It wasn’t a place a Navy Seal with a bazooka would care to be caught in after the sun went down.  And here she was a woman without so much as a derringer.

But when she saw a man being surrounded in an alleyway by three menacing-looking dudes wielding knives, Isadora knew she had to help him.  It wasn’t that she fancied herself some sort of superheroine.  In fact, the word courageous wouldn’t even make the list of adjectives she’d use to describe herself.

According to her grandpa’s favorite actor, John Wayne, courage was being scared to death but saddling up anyway.  Like the Duke, that’s what she intended to do.  Besides, it was pointless to call the cops.  By the time they arrived, the poor man could be cut to ribbons.  Or worse.

Throwing caution to the wind, she went squealing into the alley, casting the four men into the glaring spotlight of her high beams.  As she had hoped, the thugs scattered like roaches.

Isadora skidded to a stop, jumped out and met the tall, dark-haired man at the front of her car.  He wore clunky, scuffed work boots and threadbare khakis covered with soot or maybe tar.  His faded, black T-shirt was ripped across his broad chest, and she gaped in horror at a rivulet of blood.  “Mister, are you all right?”

“I am now,” he said, blowing out a shaky breath.  “I gave them my wallet and cell phone.  I think they wanted a pound of flesh to boot.”

“Get in the car.  I’ll drive you to the hospital.”

Looking down at his wound, he managed a smile.  “Only the tip of his blade caught me.  It looks worse than it is.”

“Then maybe,” a voice from out of the darkness behind them said, “I go a little deeper next time, eh?”

With her heart racing like a speedboat, Isadora backed against the bumper of her Toyota as the three thugs reappeared.  They all wore ragged baseball caps tugged low over their eyes, leather jackets, faded jeans and expensive-looking tennis shoes.  Their switchblades were out.  The one doing the talking was a head shorter than the other two and bulky where they were skinny.

The handsome stranger she had sped to save moved beside Isadora and put his arm around her protectively.  With a deep throated growl, he told the hoodlums, “You got what you wanted.  Leave us alone.”

“How you know what we want? You think we don’t know this fat bitch got a purse in her ride?”

Despite the fear curdling her insides, Isadora felt her temper rising.  She knew she should stifle the words tumbling toward her lips, but she might as well have tried to stop the tide.  “You don’t look like you’ve missed too many meals yourself, shorty.”

The sexy man beside Isadora squeezed her shoulder as if to say Don’t antagonize them before he spoke to the attackers again. “Go ahead and take her purse and the car, too.”

She looked up at him.  “You’re mighty damn free with my stuff.”

“I’ll replace it,” he said.  “I can’t replace your life.”

Isadora almost rolled her eyes.  He didn’t look like he could replace a pack of gum.  She watched the slim thugs fan out, flanking them like a pack of wolves.  It reminded her of the Texas Stompdown when she had to go it alone up against Mango, Pistachio and Red Velvet.  It was always the same: even when they had you outnumbered, they didn’t have the stones to come at you straight on.

“Oh, we take that shit all right,” shorty said.  “But we gonna get us some pudgy pussy, too.”

Her jaw muscles bunched as she ground her teeth together.  The fear that had been roiling in her stomach hardened into a knot of fury.  Grandpa Frank always said Conner women had a low threshold for bullshit and a short fuse which got shorter by the second when they felt they’d been disrespected.  That second was now.  With her eyes blazing, she didn’t care if the guy had a double-barrel shotgun; she was going to shove it down his throat.

The hunky, homeless-looking man grabbed her.  She flailed and kicked to free herself, but she couldn’t have escaped the strait-jacket of his strong arms if she tried for a thousand years.  “Turn me loose!” she seethed.

“In case it’s escaped your attention,” he whispered into her ear, “all of them have knives.”

“No, no,” the stocky thug said, “turn her loose.  Can’t you see sassy mama wants some of Luther? Looky here.”  Folding his switchblade, he slipped it into his hip pocket and then cupped his crotch.  “Come on, mama.  I’d rather stab you with my big dick anyway.  We put on a sex show for these guys, eh?”

Blind with anger, Isadora jerked and bucked to free herself.  But Mr. Hot and Hunky was an unyielding wall made of hard muscle and sinewy flesh.  He pinned her body against the bumper, pressing his thighs against hers. “Much as I’m enjoying this,” he said under his breath, “you need to calm down before you get us both killed.”

Luther shouted, “Hey, Rico! Look at her.  You should wish a woman wants you so bad!”

Their laughter was pissing her off even more than their threats.  But sensing she was fighting a losing battle against the man holding her securely yet gently, she exhaled in exasperation and ceased her struggling.  “Okay,” she whispered, “you can let me go now.  As soon as I take Luther down—”

What? No!”

“The arrogant prick put his knife away.  He thinks he’s going to fuck me, not fight me.  You take the guy on the right.  Then we both tag-team the last one.”

“I don’t think we should be taking anybody!”

“Hey, asshole!” Luther called.  “You better not be trying to beat my time.”

“Don’t worry, he’s not,” Isadora said, pulling away from her protector.  She smiled coyly as she sashayed toward Luther, stopped a few feet in front of him and spread her arms.  “Well, come on, big boy.  You promised your buddies a show.  Show mama what you’ve got.”

The instant Luther turned to grin at his hooting friends, Isadora punched him in the throat.  Bug-eyed and gasping, he clutched at his neck, and that was when she drove her tennis shoe up into his balls.  As he dropped to his knees and pitched forward onto his face, she slipped the switchblade out of his back pocket and flicked it open.

As Rico stood momentarily stunned, her reluctant sidekick grabbed his wrist holding the knife and knocked him down with a crisp right cross to the chin.

“Looks like we took those two pretty well,” Isadora said.

There was no need to tag-team the third thug; as soon as he saw his pals on the ground without their switchblades, he took off like a scalded dog.

“All right, Rico,” she said.  “Drag lover boy out of here.  I’m calling the cops to give them your names and descriptions, so you wankstas might want to relocate.”

Luther was still writhing on the ground and groaning—one hand cradling his Adam’s apple, the other his scrotum.  Helping him to his feet, Rico sheepishly asked, “Can we have our blades back?”

Isadora rolled her eyes and pulled out her phone.  Before she could punch in 911, it rang.  Her heart skipped a beat when she saw the caller ID.  “Frank, I’m on my way.  Are you all right?”

“That’s open to debate.  How far is Calvert Road from the house?”

“Stay right where you are, and don’t hang up.”  Closing the switchblade, she flipped it to her fighting partner.  Jumping into her still-running Toyota, she backed out of the alley and squealed rubber down the street.

Chapter Two

LEVI JETT SETTLED ON a light-blue Oxford shirt, navy slacks and basic black wingtips.  It was hard to know how to dress when your best friend was being super-secretive about where he was taking you.  And at ten o’clock at night, no less.

As he walked sleepily down the hallway of his spacious penthouse on the top floor of the Schuyler Building, Levi clamped his hand over his mouth to cover a yawn.  It wasn’t as if he had become some sort of homebody fuddy-duddy at the ripe old age of twenty-seven.  Up until fourteen months ago, he had been as nocturnal as a night owl, typically dining after midnight before dancing until dawn in the swankiest clubs the city had to offer.

Of course, burning the candle at both ends was always easier when you were in love.

But ever since his heart had been brutally broken and practically ripped from his chest, working up enthusiasm over anything—even Carl Womack’s promise to treat him to a spectacular show that would knock his proverbial socks off—was difficult to do.

The insomnia didn’t help.  Unable to sleep, he often sat in his recliner into the wee hours of the morning watching television or going over blueprints.  Sometimes he went for long car rides in the country and listened to classical music in hopes the Sandman would pay him a visit.  At other times he would drive out to a prospective renovation site to test structural integrity or pace off distances or make sketches.

Levi smiled through yet another yawn.  After last night’s alley brawl, he figured it might be safer if he confined himself to his LazyBoy or Mozart amidst the meadows.

Safer, maybe.  But, he had to admit, not nearly as much fun.

Carl’s five-eight frame was slouching on a creamy, Italian-leather-covered loveseat.  When Levi entered the living room, his paunchy, full-bearded friend began shaking his sandy-haired head.  “Oh, hell no! Go back to the closet and try again.  I said super-casual, not 1980s preppy.”

“This is my casual.”

“Really? Because I’ve seen you wear that same outfit to hoity-toity meetings with the zoning board.  For tonight, try to forget you’re an insanely-wealthy, big-shot architect.  A brilliant designer who has erected beautiful buildings in every quarter of town.  Just go put on a pair of ratty old jeans and a T-shirt like me.”

Levi grimaced.  “Is that a gravy stain on your sleeve?”

Carl sniffed the dark spot.  “I’m thinking it’s steak sauce.  You’ll excuse me if I didn’t want to wear any of my really fancy T-shirts.  Where we’re going, pal, it can get kind of messy.”

“Who are we going to see—Gallagher? Should I put on a poncho and goggles for when he starts smashing the watermelons?”

Levi and Carl were the same age.  They had met in college, become fast friends, and their lives had been intertwined ever since.  Long before Carl became an amazing, high-rise contractor who helped Levi turn his blueprints into steel girders and glass, the two had started their own small construction company by the time they were twenty-one.

Carl smiled.  “Good guess, but I told you: it’s a surprise.  Now do like I tell you.  Trust me.  The crap you’ve got on will stick out like a sore thumb in the middle of the Marsden district, so—”

“Hold the phone.  Did you say Marsden?”

“Yeah.  That ghost town of decrepit, hollowed-out buildings on the north side that butts up against Cleveland Park.”

Levi shook his head.  “Thanks for the invite, but I’ll pass.  Unless this show of yours has a matinee, I’d rather stay home and work a jigsaw puzzle.  Maybe guzzle some warm milk while I’m counting sheep.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“I was in the Marsden district last night.  I didn’t get out of there until almost three, and I was damn lucky I made it out at all.”  He unbuttoned his shirt and showed Carl the shallow slash across his chest.  “If my reflexes had been half a second slower, that punk would have filleted me like a flounder.”

Levi told him about the encounter with the knife gang in a somber, serious tone.  He refrained from any embellishment.  The unvarnished truth was exciting enough.  He recounted how he threw a perfect punch to drop one of the assailants in his tracks.

However, when he got to the part about the beautiful woman showing up and kicking the leader’s ass, Levi couldn’t keep from smiling.  “She was something to behold,” he said, sighing wistfully.  “She saved my life.”

“Woman like that,” Carl said, “I’ll bet she can bench press a Buick and has a face that would stop an eight-day clock.”

“And you’d lose, my friend.”

“You mean she’s good-looking?”

Levi remembered how incredible her shapely body felt in his arms.  The softness of her cheek and the silkiness of her jet-black hair.  He could still smell the intoxicating, sweet fragrance emanating from it, like banana pudding fresh from the oven.  “I mean she takes your breath.”

“I see.  What’s her name?”

“Don’t know.”

“Where does she live?”

“No clue.”

Carl nodded.  “I’m starting to understand why you have a hard time getting dates.”

“I don’t want dates.”

“You don’t want a love life?”

“I had one, thank you.  It nearly ruined me, emotionally and financially.  What I want is to annex the Marsden district with Cleveland Park.  That’s what I was doing down there last night when I couldn’t sleep.  Drawing it up in my mind.  Figuring logistics.  It’ll be a boon for the people.  It’ll make that economically-decimated area one of the crown jewels of this city.”

Carl looked sideways at him.  “Uh-oh, there’s that let’s-turn-shit-into-something-shiny look in your eye.  What have you got in mind this time?”

Levi grew even more animated.  His work was the one thing that could override his emotional despair.  “Think about it, Carl.  The decay of neglect has turned both areas into havens for gangs, drug dealers and derelicts.  I can merge the sections into a seamless fusion of an idyllic, forested park and a productive, revitalized downtown.  There’ll be office workers walking to the park during their lunch hour, eating on gorgeous, graffiti-less benches while watching the neighborhood kids safely play on the swings, sliding boards and seesaws.”  Levi paused for dramatic effect and to take a deep breath.  “Picture happy, giggling children riding the little train that meanders around the perimeter to the far western end while, less than thirty yards away, their parents grab a mocha latte from any one of the cozy cafés.”

“Great,” Carl said, sitting forward.  “You can lay it all out for me as we drive through on our way to the show.”

Levi blinked rapidly.  “Did you miss the part where I didn’t get home until three in the morning? I’m beat.  My ass is dragging, Carl.”

“You can rest when you’re dead.  It’s one thing to stay out of the dating pool for over a year now.  But I’m not going to let you turn into a full-blown monk.”

Blowing with exasperation and exhaustion, Levi said, “Fine,” and headed back up the hall.

Five minutes later, he returned, wearing an old pair of threadbare cargo pants, a faded, sleeveless flannel shirt ripped at the hem and his scuffed-up work boots.  “Is this more along the lines of what you had in mind?”

Carl smirked.  “Now you’re just trying to embarrass me.”

“Always.  Come on.  I’ll drive us.”

“Taking your BMW down there again, especially after what you went through last night, might be tempting fate.  Unless you’d like to see it stripped for the chop shop and sitting on eight-inch cinder blocks.”

“Hey, it’s not like your Lexus is a ’71 Pinto.”

“Funny you should say that.”

They took Levi’s private elevator from the penthouse to the parking garage and exited the shiny, stainless-steel box.  Carl headed straight toward a vehicle with a battered purple body, a caved-in, baby-blue hood and a missing front bumper.  The cracked windshield had a large strip of silver duct tape across it.  “Behold, the 1973 Ford Maverick.”

“Now you’re just trying to embarrass me.”

Carl shrugged.  “The Lexus is in the shop.  My mechanic’s got a warped sense of humor, so this is what he gave me for a loner.  As it turns out, the joke’s on him.  It’s perfect for the war zone we’re entering tonight.”

“It is if the gas tank doesn’t explode on the way.”

“You’re thinking of the Pinto.  The Maverick looks like shit but was always a basically-sound machine.  Hop in.  On second thought, slide in very gently.”

 

LEVI LISTENED TO A pretty tight group called Three Dog Night on the eight-track player, cranking up the volume as Carl turned off Stenson Boulevard.  After they drove around the wooded half-mile perimeter of Cleveland Park, the dark canopy of ancient oaks ended.

It crossed his mind again, as it had a dozen times from the second she stepped out of her Corolla, that he should have at least gotten the woman’s name.  He could have Googled her and found her address.  But she took off so fast he didn’t even have a chance to introduce himself or to thank her properly.

Chiding himself, he shook all thoughts of the sweet-smelling beauty away.  He wasn’t interested in potential romantic entanglements of any kind.  Levi was telling Carl the truth.  He didn’t want dates.  Not yet, anyway.  Maybe not ever.  Once burnt, twice shy.  And he’d been fried to a fucking crisp.

Briarwood Avenue morphed into one-way Marsden Street.  The pavement was cracked, full of potholes and bordered by raggedly broken-edges.  Keeping a vigilant eye open for gang members, Carl drove slowly through a dingy, shadowy ghost town of boxy warehouses and rusty-brown brick buildings ranging from one to four stories.  Not a single wall had escaped the vandalism of vulgar graffiti, and Levi didn’t see one window that wasn’t broken.  The few streetlights that weren’t shattered had cast a sickly, yellow, nightmarish aura that made complete darkness preferable.

“Right over there, Carl, is where those guys had me surrounded,” he said, pointing to an alley between storage buildings.  “If she hadn’t shown up when she did, I’d probably be lying there dead now.”

“It’ll be a great story to tell your grandkids.  Oh, that’s right, you won’t have any.  Because you first have to be married and have kids before you can have grandkids.”

“It’s not like I didn’t make the attempt.”

“You’ll make it again one of these days.”

“Don’t hold your breath.”

Beneath one of the broken street lamps was a tree of red, octagonal, aluminum signs.  Each metal limb was dinged, chipped and riddled with bullet holes.  They were more sad symbols of ruination.  The lettering was faded and scratched but still readable.

NO UNAUTHORIZED ENTRY.      

NO VANDALIZING.

NO TRESPASSING.

IGNORE THE SIGNS AT YOUR OWN PERIL.

Levi felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle in anticipation of the renovation.  He couldn’t keep the enthusiasm from his voice.  “Carl, just picture this place once your crew gives it an extreme makeover.”

“I don’t know, man,” he said, staring out of the driver’s side window at a stop sign someone had used for target practice.  “If the owners of these buildings out here get wind of your annexation, they’ll jack up their selling price.”

“Then we’ll have to make sure word doesn’t leak out.”

Pursing his lips, Carl nodded.  “Fair enough.  I know you can sell ice to Eskimos.  But I’m not so sure you can get the city to fund what you’re proposing.  You do realize it’s an election year for Mayor Edwards as well as three of the five councilmen, don’t you? It would be political suicide for them to propose special taxes in order to tackle a project of this magnitude.”

“I’m not worried about those guys.  It’s members of the zoning board, who are also up for election, I have to swing.  Specifically, Tim Bobo and Leland Snuffle, both of whom have the imagination of a cardboard box.”

“How are you going to do that?”

Levi grinned.  “I’m going to draw them a picture.  I’m going to bring them down to Cleveland Park and park their big cabooses in the red one at the back of the little train.  As we meander through the woods, I’ll point out all the dramatic but minimal-cost improvements in the facelift that will bring people back in numbers we haven’t seen since the seventies.  We’ll stop at the west end right across the street from this area so they can visualize the connection.  By the time I lay out my vision of a gleaming, sparkling, revitalized Marsden—one with a bronze plaque that includes their names for their civic foresight and initiative, of course—their reservations will disappear.”

Carl turned left off Marsden onto McBee Avenue and immediately put on the Maverick’s turn signal.  “I can’t believe it works.  Your surprise is in that building right there,” he said, slowing to a stop.

Levi looked past him at a long, faded-brick, two story that had once been TrustCom Bank.  There were five parking meters along the curb in front of it, each looking as if it had encountered the business end of a sledgehammer.  A giant, yellow, spray-painted, middle finger extended upward on the jagged glass of the entrance door.  There was no light whatsoever behind it, only the foreboding silence of darkness.

“We must be early,” Levi said, “by about two days.”

Ignoring him, Carl eased his foot off the accelerator and turned down an alley between the bank and the old Voytnor’s Key Shop.  As they coasted around back, Levi was startled to see about seventy vehicles parked inside a rusty, ivy-covered, chain-link privacy fence.

When they got out of the Maverick, Carl led him through the unlocked service door of the bank and down a dark corridor.  Even after Levi’s eyes adjusted, it was almost impossible to see anything more than shadows.

At the sound of muffled noises, Levi pulled up short, grabbed Carl’s sleeve and asked, “What the devil am I hearing?”

His friend didn’t answer but kept stealthily walking deeper into the bowels of the building.  As they moved down the hall, the indistinct din grew louder.  Still, the vibrations were strong enough Levi could feel them under his work boots.  

When Carl finally came to a stop, he turned and said, “Get ready to have those socks knocked off.”

“I’m not wearing any.  I’m dressed down tonight, remember?”

Carl tapped on a metal door.  A huge, muscular man wearing a skin-tight, black T-shirt opened it, and the muffled noise from earlier ramped up into a raucous, ear-splitting roar.  Scowling, the big man extended a beefy palm.  Carl covered it with two twenties.

“Enjoy the show,” the man said, pressing himself back against the wall of what Levi could now see was a steel, spiral staircase…

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Chapter One

Nora Adams

SOME PEOPLE COME INTO this world with the luck of a four-leaf clover constantly spinning inside the happy housing of their hearts.  Others are born with the misfortune of an anvil hanging over their heads and the threat of it falling with every step they take.  I, Nora Adams, fit into the latter category and have all the lumps to prove it.  I won’t bore you with the long list of disasters that have befallen me during my twenty-six years on this earth.  Instead, I will start with the latest.  It also happens to be the worst.

Two months ago, I was out walking my precious Pomeranian puppy, Miss Bliss.  The hour was near dusk on a balmy evening in August, but I didn’t let the hot, muggy temperatures or the impending darkness deter me.  I had to get out of the house and away from my mom or go nut-cracking crazy.  You see, she—Taney Adams—is a consummate hypochondriac.  She took on that role the second my dad, Alton, walked out on us ten years ago.  All of her contrived, concocted and cockamamie illnesses have not only metaphorically held her hostage but have literally kept me tied to her side for the last decade.

I couldn’t really blame Dad for wanting out.  Even before she jumped feet-first into hypochondria, Taney was and is a whiny, self-centered, narcissistic nightmare.  However, I definitely blamed him for leaving me behind, especially since he chose to execute his abandonment on my sixteenth birthday.  After all these years of dealing with her, I’ve been able to forgive him.  Everybody has a breaking point.  He apparently had reached his.  Still, as a result of his selfish actions, I was left without a buffer.  It was just me and Mom.

 I’m a strong believer in the fact that being the only child of a single parent has its drawbacks for any kid but, in my case, it was especially devastating.  When Taney realized her fake sicknesses weren’t going to bring my dad running back to her bedside, she thrust the role of sole provider and caregiver onto my sixteen-year-old shoulders.  Without my consent, she signed a consent form for me to drop out of high school so I could become her nurse, housekeeper, cook and chauffeur.

Of course, doing those chores and basically being a Cinderella-type slave weren’t enough.  Since my mom claimed she was unable to work, I also had to hold down a full-time job.  I started out as a page at Plainfield Library, working my way up to librarian in just five years.  Although I don’t love handing my earnings over to Taney to pay for doctor visits and pricey prescriptions she doesn’t need, I do love my job.  I considered the promotion to be my twenty-first birthday present.  Lord knows, I wasn’t getting anything else.  Taney hadn’t given me any kind of gift for any occasion since Dad left us.

The reason I’ve been able to let go of my bitterness toward him is because by my last birthday, I too had reached my breaking point.  Eight weeks ago, on that fateful August evening of my twenty-sixth year, I knew I had to get away.  When I grabbed my purse and Miss Bliss to go for our life-changing walk, my intentions had been to keep right on walking.  To not look back and never return.

But that ever-present, dangling anvil had other plans.  About two miles down a rural road running adjacent to my house, I was abducted by a man I would come to know as Foras, a member of the Rolling Lucifers—a biker gang.

 I’ll never forget that horrible night.  Like the demon of darkness he is, Foras appeared out of nowhere.  Miss Bliss and I had just rounded a blind curve in the road, and there he sat on a sleek, black Harley.  Emblems of fire and brimstone licking down the sides looked hot enough to scorch me to death as he revved the motor. 

I could feel the evil emanating from him, slithering down his stained, leather vest onto his dirty, tight-fitting jeans and finally over his asphalt-scuffed boots.  Every inch of his attire was as black as the bike he was straddling.  Being a plus-size gal and a loather of exercise, I knew I couldn’t outrun him.  Knowing how bad my luck had always been and being unable to deny the definite danger before me, I unhooked my cute puppy from her leash and commanded her to run.

Foras had laughed at the desperation in my voice when I pleaded with Miss Bliss to hurry back home.  Baring his teeth, he said, “That pooch would have made for some mighty fine eating.  You’re going to pay for turning her loose.”

The biker who took me might have been a lot of things, but he wasn’t a liar.  He and the rest of the gang—Bael, Vepar, Deumus, Amon and the leader, Legion—have been making me pay for the last two months.  I just thought living with Taney had been hell.  But it was heaven compared to the time I’ve spent in their camp called The Devil’s Den.

After solitary days of being caged and starved and torturous nights of being fed fermented slop and filthy cocks, my anvil may have finally turned into a four-leaf clover.  Since the day Foras dragged me into the den, Legion hasn’t left.  Being the leader, he is the one who keeps the others in line in every regard, including how much drinking they do.  Limiting them to two alcoholic beverages a night, he never lets his members get intoxicated.  He says drunkenness is a sin.  I would have laughed at the irony of his declaration if my bottom lip wasn’t split from the backhand he had delivered across my mouth before taking his leave.

I didn’t think it would ever be possible for the bikers to grow tired of passing me around for their demented pleasures, but tonight they left me alone. Liquor was the only mistress they were interested in.  Every tip of a bottle, every clink of a glass, every slurp of their mouths and every guzzle of their throats was bringing me one step closer to being free.

With his lips wrapped around a Jack Daniels’ bottle, Deumus—the keeper of the den—has forgotten to put me back in my cage.  Keeping quiet, I huddle in a dark corner and bide my time.  As fast as they are consuming such strong spirits and not being used to doing so, all of them should pass out fairly soon.  I can’t wait to make a break for it.  I paid close attention when Foras brought me to The Devil’s Den.  It’s located in an isolated section of woods less than three miles off the road where I was walking Miss Bliss that night. 

Knowing I have been held captive this close to my mom’s house tells me she has made no effort to find me.  I seriously doubt she has even bothered to report me missing.  Had she done so, the authorities would have already been searching this area with bloodhounds that could have sniffed out my scent.  They could have found and rescued me weeks ago.

 As it is, I will simply have to save myself.  I look forward to getting back home and seeing Miss Bliss.  And this time when she and I leave, it will be in a car and Mom will know the reason why.

 

THERE IS NO WAY escaping can be this easy, I think as I literally walk out of the den and into the early evening completely unimpeded.  The instant the last biker passes out, I rise from the corner I had been hiding in and run out the front door.  I don’t care that the only thing I have on is a sheer, black nightie.  Upon my arrival, Legion took my shoes and clothes, ordering me to wear the lingerie.  It has been my only attire for two months.

It’s early October now, and I am grateful for the cool, crispness of the air as I tear through the woods, racing barefooted over jagged rocks, fallen leaves and dead tree limbs.  The cuts and bruises now decorating the soles of my feet are a small price to pay for freedom.  The combination of exhilaration, adrenaline and fear of being caught and dragged back to the pits of hell propel me to the accelerated speeds of an Olympic runner.

In what I would consider record-breaking time, I cover the distance to the highway.  Just as I make it to the shoulder, I spot a pristine, classic Bentley limousine coming down the lonely stretch of road.  Again, I get the feeling my dark, dismal anvil has morphed into a bright-green clover.

In a million years, I couldn’t have ordered up this amount of good luck.  The idea that an expensive automobile being driven by a Good Samaritan would converge at this exact spot the instant I break through the woods and into the sunlight leaves me feeling giddy and overcome with happiness.  An emotion I haven’t felt in forever.

The driver begins slowing the limo even before I start waving my arms for him to do so.  As soon as he opens the door, I slide onto the buttery-soft, leather seat and give him a huge, grateful smile.

He smiles back.  “My boss won’t believe what I’ve found this time,” he says, clicking the automatic door locks.

Chapter Two

Tretan Voss

STANDING OUT ON THE bedroom balcony of my lighthouse, I grip the newly-restored railing.  The smooth, varnish-sealed grain of well-seasoned oak glistens in the twilight of evening—that short stretch of time when the last scattering rays of the day’s sunshine in the upper atmosphere illuminates the lower atmosphere.  The subtle transformation happens in such a way as to cast the earth’s surface into sepia tones where, like my soul, it is no longer completely lit or completely dark.

This particular time of day inevitably brings with it a somber reflectiveness from which there is no escape other than death.  As long as I draw a breath, I will have to contend with the heaviness of the past.  Some mistakes can be easily forgotten and chalked up to life lessons.  They bring about growth and maturity, lending themselves to the bettering of the person who committed them.  Other mistakes are monumental, defining moments of permanent change which can never be undone or overcome, no matter how much effort is made to do so.

It is my lot in life to languish and lament beneath the burden of the unescapable.  The consequences of bygone times from which total recovery can never be achieved.

The last aura of evening reflects off the churning sea onto the driveway below.  As expected Fernando Morae drives a limo from my fleet onto the black-topped stage, rolling to a stop right in the center of the spotlight.  I turn, quickly making my way down a long, black, wrought-iron spiral staircase to the main entrance, emerging through the heavy, hickory door as Fernando is exiting the Bentley.

With a huge, toothy grin, he says, “This time I found a pet for you, Boss.”

I frown.  Every time I send my simple-minded employee and childhood friend out for supplies, he inevitably brings back a stray.  Four trips ago, it was a three-legged raccoon.  Three trips ago, it was a one-eyed dog.  The time before that, it was a cat missing its tail and left ear.  The last time it was a parrot with a broken beak.  I shudder to think what is lurking behind the tinted windows of the luxury car this time. 

I don’t want to harm his tender heart, but I’m not interested in whatever he has brought home with him.  Rubbing his big, beefy hands together in excitement, he reaches for the handle on the passenger’s side door and unceremoniously swings it wide.

“What the fuck?” I bellow.  Despite the goodness of my earlier intentions, I am unable to keep the fury from my voice.

Fernando’s face falls in a silent yet crushing crescendo of hurt feelings, making me cuss a blue streak beneath my breath.

With his fat, lower lip pushed out, he asks, “Don’t you like her, Tretan?”

Shit! Fernando knows how much I detest the sound of my first name.  The pain of hearing it is the equivalent of having a sharp knife deeply slice into the darkest corners of my soul, leaving rivulets of blood streaming from old wounds which never seem to heal.  He only calls me Tretan when I’ve utterly devastated him, and he wants to retaliate in kind.  If everything is copacetic between us, it’s Boss or Mr. Voss.

I don’t know how to answer his question.  What’s not to like? The woman sitting on the passenger’s seat with her arms protectively crossed over the tempting curves of her midsection is stunning.  Even with her fearful, distrusting, deer-caught-in-the-headlights expression, her face is the most beautiful I have ever seen.  Commanding my eyes to stop their appraisal, I remind myself that the company of a fine woman such as this one is synonymous with acceptance and warmth, passion and pleasure.  Emotions and sensations I do not deserve. 

My tone is softer when I speak.  “Your gift is very thoughtful, Fernando.  But a human being isn’t like an animal.  You can’t procure them and give them away as pets.  Do you understand?”

He shakes his head.  “No, Boss.  I found her on the side of the road just like I did all the other creatures you let me keep.”

Knowing his childlike mind is struggling to grasp what I’m saying, I call on all of my patience.  “You’ve picked up a woman, not a creature.  And by the looks of her, you brought her to me against her wishes.  Am I correct?”

“No, Mr. Voss.  She wanted to get in the car.  I didn’t have to point a gun at her or anything.”

“Why would she willingly go with you?”

He shrugs his burly shoulders and says, “I think she needs help.  It’s kind of hard to tell here in the shadows of nightfall, but she’s broken like the others.  If I take her out of the car, you’ll see all the cuts, scrapes and bruises.  But you can fix her just like you do everything.”

Fernando’s unwavering faith in me plunges that knife a little deeper, throwing a hard twist in for good measure.

Chapter Three

Nora Adams

THE CONVERSATION BETWEEN THE man who drove me here and his boss may be one of the oddest I have ever heard.  That could be because it is, or it could be that the pain and brutality of the past two months have finally caught up with me, crushing me into the dust of insanity.  I had somehow held body and mind together until I was able to break free from the bikers.  My escape hadn’t happened a moment too soon.  I was barely hanging on by a thread when I exited the edge of those woods and made my way to the road earlier this evening.

I thought the luck of the oncoming limousine would be my salvation.  The second before Fernando clicked those automatic locks, beautiful, bright rays of hope had shone across every inch of my existence.  Afterwards, a dark and cold desperation squeezed my throat so hard it nearly choked the life from me.

Now I wish it had. 

Not wanting the seemingly benign yet burly driver to manhandle me, I decide to step out of the car of my own volition.  Given the circumstances, this might be my last act of freewill.

While sitting in the shadows of the Bentley’s front seat, I was unable to make out the details of my environment or the man whom Fernando referred to as Tretan Voss.  But as I stand on the asphalt drive in the last light of day, the view before me fizzles my fear, replacing it with nostalgia.  This ocean-side place with its long, weathered pier and majestic lighthouse reminds me of a scenic postcard I once purchased in a gift store at the beach.

While I study my surroundings, I feel Voss’ golden-brown eyes studying me.  I’ve never seen that exact shade before.  They look like dangerous yet dazzling topaz stones.  Set against the backdrop of tanned skin, dark-chestnut hair and the closing of night, they are as hypnotic and mesmerizing as they are terrifying.

A few years ago, I read an article in a popular women’s magazine stating men with brown eyes were more trustworthy than ones with any other color.  Right now I am hoping like hell that’s true.

After a few moments, he dismisses Fernando and walks stealthily towards me.  Despite the raw, stinging cuts and deep-tissue bruises on my feet, I have to fight the impulse to run and throw myself into the sea.  Drowning is preferable to being held captive again.  To being beaten and starved, then having food stuffed in my mouth with filthy fingers before being repeatedly violated.  Those men in The Devil’s Den had been torturous and cruel, their insides matching their rancid, disgusting exteriors.  But this man is well put together and elegantly polished in his charcoal-grey, tailor-fitted, three-piece suit, crisp, stark-white dress shirt, silk tie and shiny, Italian loafers.  Believe it or not, I am more afraid of him than I was of them. 

Sometimes the darkest evil is wrapped in the prettiest package.

I’m not sure I can speak freely without getting backhanded across the mouth, but I’m about to find out.  “You have a lovely place here, Mr. Voss.  I wish I could stick around for a tour, but I really should be getting home.  If you would be so kind as to let me use your phone, I’ll call myself a cab.”

He shakes his head.  “You don’t look as if you are in good enough condition to do any more traveling tonight.”

He’s right.  I’m swaying on my battered feet, fighting back waves of dizziness with each breath I take.  A weak smile is all I can manage.  “I’ll be fine once I get on the road.”

He takes another step closer.  “You will only be better once you’ve had nourishment and a proper night of rest.  Come with me, please,” he says, gesturing toward the lighthouse entrance.

I drop my chin, mentally anchoring my throbbing, blood-crusted feet to the night-cooled asphalt.  As long as I am outside and not trapped inside those rounded limestone walls, I might still have a chance to get away.

The air around us grows still and the darkness eerily quiet.  He reaches out, places two fingers beneath my chin, lifting my face to his.  “Broken wings need time to mend before being able to fly again.  But on the breath of trust they’ll soar, and they will be stronger than before.”

The heat of his touch and the intensity of his gaze makes me shiver.  I feel as if I might actually be going into shock.  Mustering the last bit of strength and courage I possess, I say, “That’s beautiful, Mr. Voss.  It’s also bullshit.  Both of us know you’re not going to let me go.  And I will never give you my trust.”

…to download and continue reading click here:  smarturl.it/HisfortheTrusting

 

A Curvy Country Christmas Sample Chapters!

A Curvy Country Christmas PRomo One copy

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Chapter One

IT WAS THE DAY before Christmas Eve, and all through the one-horse town of Bullpens, folks were racing around, buying last-minute gifts.  Every retailer from Hattie’s Hardware to Tubal’s Toy shop was overrun with giddy go-getters.

Thankfully, Cassidy didn’t buy into all the commercialism of the season.  Truthfully, she had no interest in the holidays at all.  For her, the most wonderful day of the year, wasn’t.  It never had been.

The merry turned to misery when she was just four years old.  That Christmas morning, she came bounding down the stairs of her parents’ suburban home—a white, two-story with a matching picket fence and the promise of never-ending happiness—to find her poodle, Miss Peaches, standing beneath the Christmas tree with Cassidy’s pet parrot dangling dead from her furry, canine cheeks.  That tragedy was the beginning of the end.  Each holiday thereafter brought with it sorrows more significant than the ones before. 

Instead of bringing joy to her heart, Santa delivered appendicitis on her seventh Christmas.  He threw the soot and ashes of a house fire down the chimney on her tenth Christmas.  He brought a big bag of divorce and despair for her thirteenth Christmas.  Cassidy would never forget her mother sitting beside the hearth, bursting into tears while Cassidy was opening up her first cell phone.  The greatest surprise gift ever turned out to be the worst.  The phone wasn’t for texting her friends.  It was for calling her father because he was moving out to go live with his skanky secretary.

Since reaching adulthood, Cassidy had made a conscious choice to completely ignore Christmas.  As far as she was concerned, it didn’t exist.  Through trial and error, she had found isolation was the best insulation against its cruelty. 

The one exception she made each year was the day before Christmas Eve.  On that day, she rode her stallion Sparky into town to share a cup of coffee and a slice of fruitcake with her best friend, Sylvie Hornbeck.  The two of them always met at Percolator Paul’s. 

Paul was a tall, skinny, red-headed, freckled-faced, Howdy Doody type.  He had a huge crush on Cassidy but was too shy to do much about it outside of building her a hitching post in front of his shop.  He duplicated the ones you would find in an old western like Gunsmoke.

Since Cassidy was big on environmental protection, she rarely used a car if she could saddle up Sparky instead.  With the coffee shop being well within riding distance of her rundown farmhouse—a true fixer-upper she had inherited from her Great-Uncle Roy—she enjoyed the freedom and serenity of galloping through the crisp, cold air of December.

When she stepped inside the shop, the warmth and aroma of richly-brewed coffee made her sigh.  Her cowgirl boots made a pleasant tapping sound against the rough-board flooring as she made her way to a pine slab booth in the corner.  Before she reached her destination, she heard Sylvie call her name. 

“Cassidy! I’m over here,” she chirped, motioning her toward a table on the opposite side of the room.

Despite her distaste for the season, Cassidy couldn’t help but smile when she saw Sylvie’s outfit.  Every holiday her best friend’s attire got more and more outrageous.  This year’s ensemble consisted of fur-topped ankle boots with shiny jingle bells dangling from the tassels; tight-fitting, black leggings; and what had to be the gaudiest, most tasteless Christmas sweater ever to be made.  It was a bright-green tunic featuring a bleary-eyed Santa and Rudolph.  They were obviously soused to the gills.  And in a true flashy fashion, both their noses blinked red.

When Cassidy was finally able to tear her gaze away from Sylvie’s attire, it landed on the laptop yawning before her.  The blue LED light on the side was flashing, indicating the device was sucking hard on Paul’s free wi-fi signal.

Cassidy frowned.  This could not be good.  Any time her best friend implemented the use of technology, it meant she was preparing to butt in where she didn’t belong.  To insinuate herself into someone else’s business without their knowledge or prior consent.

Cassidy had seen the catastrophic results of her handiwork too many times to count.  She felt sorry for whoever the poor sap was on the receiving end of Sylvie’s meddling this time.

Cassidy removed her cowboy hat and tan Carhartt jacket and put them on an empty chair.   She smiled when she saw Sylvie had already picked the red and green cherries out of her fruitcake and laid them on a napkin.  For some odd reason, the woman had an aversion to the fruit part of the cake.

“Whatcha doin’?” Cassidy asked, pulling out a chair for herself.  “Starting a GoFundMe campaign for Paul since we’re his only customers?”

“Ha-ha.  You know why the place is empty.  Everybody’s either last-minute panic-shopping or raking milk and bread off the shelves at the grocery store.  Haven’t you heard the weather report? There’s a good chance we might have a white Christmas.”

“The radio on my saddle is broken.  Besides, every color of Christmas pretty much looks the same to me.”

“Now hon, I want you to knock off that bah-humbug shit.  Just because you’ve had a few less-than-satisfying yuletide experiences—”

“Less than satisfying?” Cassidy asked, her eyes wide and her mouth gaping.  “Sylvie, need I remind you that just last Christmas, I got bitten by a raccoon and had to be treated for rabies?”

“But you did get to meet the handsome emergency room doctor with ice-blue eyes and a cleft chin.”

“Who was gay.”

“That was last year? Well, forget about all that.  This time I’m going to make sure my bestie finally has the Christmas she deserves.”

Cassidy frowned and glared at the laptop.  “Sylvie,” she said warily, “what are you doing?”

“Nothing.  It’s already done, and you’re welcome.  But I need to fill you in on all the details so you can be ready.  I arranged for your gift three days ago.  It is scheduled to arrive tomorrow evening at six.”

Cassidy took a deep breath and tried to remain calm.  “First of all, you and I don’t exchange gifts at Christmas.  We treat each other with little presents all year long.  We agreed not to fall victim to the commercialized pressure of the season.  Second, what do you mean by arranged?”

“See for yourself,” Sylvie said, turning the laptop toward her.

The website she had pulled up was called SingleSantas.com.   Bordered with mistletoe, it featured an impossibly-handsome man in a black tuxedo.  Standing near a silver Christmas tree adorned with bright, white lights and shiny, royal-blue balls, he was embracing a lovely young woman in a silky, black evening dress.  They looked mighty cozy with a fireplace glowing orange embers in the background.  Their slightly-parted mouths were inches apart as he leaned in for what was definitely going to be an earth-shattering, knee-buckling kiss.

A red-ribbon banner read The Weather Outside May Be Frightful, But Inside—With Your Own Sexy Santa—It Will Be So Delightful.

“I am going to kill you,” Cassidy said.

Kiss me, you mean.  Just wait until you see the god I’ve picked out for you.  Here are the details: you and your gorgeous Santa—his name is Robert—will rendezvous in formal attire at Dixie’s Diner at six o’clock sharp Christmas Eve.  I know you’d rather be boot-scooting, but Dixie has graciously consented to play only slow-dancing, George Strait ballads on the jukebox.”

“Who?”

“Never mind, you’ll love him.  After enjoying a rainbow trout and barbecue ribs entrée at a candlelit table for two—along with figgy pudding, of course—you and your Single Santa will be chauffeured in Rafe Cobb’s vintage ’62 Cadillac Coupe de Ville to either A, the Bullpens Little Theatre production of Miracle on 34th Street or B, a romantic ride through Mather Jenkins’ corn maze in a Portland Sleigh with red velvet upholstery.  Your choice.”

“I choose to watch a Lifetime movie by myself on my couch back at the farmhouse.”

Sylvie looked absolutely crushed.  “Why would you hurt me like this?”

“Sorry, I don’t mean to.  But you should have consulted with me before—” Beneath Client Profile she saw a picture of a sprawling ranch house that had to be over 7000 square feet nestled in a valley against snow-capped mountains.  Beside it sat a magnificent stone-and-clapboard barn.  It looked like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting.  A four-rail fence of black wood and ornate posts surrounded what appeared to be two dozen or so thoroughbred horses grazing in a lush meadow.  “What the hell is this?”

“That’s where you live, hon,” Sylvie said with a self-satisfied smile.

“Have you been sniffing glue? That fence is sturdier than the frame of my farmhouse and probably cost ten times as much.  You can throw a cat through some of the cracks in my walls.  The tin roof leaks, the doors get stuck and the front porch slants so much I’d slide out of the swing if it didn’t have arms.”

“But you do have horses.”

“I have a horse.  The sorrel quarter horse you see nibbling on the hitching post outside.  The barn I keep him in could probably fit in one of the stalls of the one pictured here.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Sylvie said.  “Everybody embellishes.  I simply jazzed up your profile a little.  Where’s the harm? Besides, your Santa is meeting you in Bullpens.  He’ll never even see the farmhouse.  I did use a recent photo of you so he could see your oval face, champagne-blonde hair, chocolate eyes and dark brows.  I even said you were a plus-size girl with a lot of curves a man could cuddle up to on a cold winter’s night.”

That you tell the truth about!”

“As you can see there under Preferences, I said you liked tall, blond, blue-eyed men with muscles who are caring and have a great sense of humor.  They guarantee the Single Santa they send will match that description to a tee.”

Even though that was definitely her type, Cassidy shook her head.  “Nope.  Can’t do it.  Cancel the date.”

“It’s too late.  They have to have seventy-two hours’ notice, and payment is non-refundable.”

“I’ll reimburse you.  This has disaster written all over it.”

“Cassidy, it’s not about the money,” Sylvie said, her expression growing serious.  “You are the best friend I ever had, and it saddens me that what should be a joyous time of year for you has nothing but bad experiences associated with it.  Girl, all it would take is one happy Christmas to show you they don’t all have to be miserable.  Yes, I know we never exchange gifts at Christmastime.  But this once, I would consider it a gift if you would accept mine.”

She suddenly felt like the biggest jerk in the world.  She could see in Sylvie’s stark, slightly-misting gray eyes how genuinely she wanted to do this for her.  Sighing, Cassidy reached across the table and clasped her friend’s hands.  “All right, Sylvie.  If it means so much to you, I’ll go along with it.  But I’m definitely getting you an official Christmas present now.  We Quinlans may be poor, but we’re proud.”

“Nonsense.  Just take lots of selfies, and be prepared to give me all the juicy details.”

“I wouldn’t hold my breath,” Cassidy said.  “In my case, ‘tis the season for things to go horribly wrong.  If my hot, single Santa even shows up—which is not a lock by any means—I wouldn’t be surprised if he looks exactly like the red-nosed, sloppy-drunk one on your sweater.”

 

Chapter Two

CRAHAN SLEIGHTON SQUINTED THROUGH the windshield of his helicopter cockpit and cursed.  Visibility through the furiously-whizzing snow was extremely limited.  The wipers on his highly-specialized bird were having a devil of a time keeping up.

He had left the city early, figuring he’d need extra time to negotiate the weather.  The Christmas Eve morning snowstorm was of a greater intensity than the radar had indicated.  Given the super-strong winds, keeping his helicopter level was dicey, to say the least.  Even more troubling was the fact he had experienced sudden, inexplicable dips in the RPM twice in the last ten miles.  Just in case it was an indication of possible mechanical failure and he needed to make an emergency landing, he kept an eye open for flat fields and meadows below.

After letting air traffic control know his situation, he contacted his Atlanta office on his headset radio.  “Miss Emile, I’m roughly five miles outside of this Bullpens place, and I do mean roughly.  Everything at a standstill your way?”

“Pretty much gridlocked, Mr. Sleighton.  The roads are covered with snow on top of a thick layer of ice.  I’ve seen three fender benders outside my office window already this morning.  It never ceases to amaze me how people will so carelessly and stupidly put themselves in dangerous situations for no good reason.”  Her conversational tone suddenly turned apologetic.  “Not that I think you’re stupid, Mr. Sleighton, sir.”

“Miss Emile, there’s a world of difference between foolishly braving the elements to purchase one more stocking stuffer as opposed to fulfilling an obligation to a paying client.  Do we not guarantee satisfaction when one engages our services?”

“We do, sir.”

“Then the most critical part of that guarantee is actually showing up, is it not?”

“It is, sir.”

“I didn’t start SingleSantas.com with the idea of only providing companionship when it suited us or was convenient or when there were no freak snowstorms blanketing the South,” said the 30-year-old CEO.  “Blasted climate change.”

“No, you didn’t, sir.  On that note, Robert Krachef called a little while ago.  He’s still digging out of his apartment, and his company Hummer is buried under an eight-foot snowdrift.  He wanted me to tell you he might be able to make it up to Tennessee by late Christmas evening, perhaps eight or nine o’clock, if that would be acceptable.”

“It would not.  The strict parameters of the date are from six o’clock Christmas Eve until six in the evening Christmas Day.  That is what the client has contracted for, and that is what we shall deliver.  Nothing more and nothing less.  Tell Krachef to stay put and expect his pay to be docked.  I’ll handle this situation myself.”

“Yes, sir.  One other thing: Killian called from Dusseldorf.  He wants to confirm you are still coming over first thing next week to get the export business up and running.”

It was one of several European enterprises Crahan had been developing over the past five years.  He would need to fly there to personally cut the ribbon and host a gala for the investors.  “Tell him I’ll be arriving on the evening of the twenty-sixth.  You’ve arranged my accommodations at Breidenbacher Hof for the next two months, I assume.”

“You’re all set.  Have a good time in Bullpens, Mr. Sleighton.”

“I’m not up here for a good time, Miss Emile.  This is a date.”

Crahan’s helicopter suddenly lost power.  The instrument panel went dark, and his radio went dead.  At the exact moment, a powerful gust sent the bird yawing sharply to the left.  He tried to correct with the foot pedals and the collective, but the copter was unresponsive.

Out of the right side of the windshield, he caught a brief sight of what looked like a white-blanketed field surrounded by barbed wire rising above the drifts.  He hoped the wind would put him directly over it when the main rotors went into autorotation and the helicopter began its vertical descent.

But long before he figured to hit the ground, the machine was jarred violently.  He’d never been to Tennessee before.  Maybe he’d run into one of the snow-capped mountains he’d seen in the client’s profile.  But a mountain would be much higher.  I’ve hit a tree, he thought as he tried to find the delicate balance between firmly holding on while relaxing his body as much as possible.  Extreme relaxation was the reason so many drunks avoided broken bones in a crash.  Relaxed was definitely the way to ride this out.  The last thing Crahan needed was a fractured leg or skull.

In the surreal space of a few seconds which seemed interminable, there was the awful screech of ripping sheet metal mixed with the rending of wood and a dusty smell of hay.

Crahan’s headstone flashed before his eyes:

HE WAS A DULL BASTARD, BUT HE GOT THE JOB DONE.

To read more about Crahan and Cassidy click here: smarturl.it/CurvyCountryRomance

Kickass Dog Parents!

thaddy Mobile

A few months ago our rescue dog, Thad—a border collie/chow mix—began experiencing weakness in his hips due to normal age-related stuff. He is fifteen years old now, so some decline is expected. Anyway, his condition progressed to the point that he was no longer able to propel himself up the thirteen steps to the deck. During that time, my husband carried our 70-pound fur baby up and down the stairs. But it just became too much for Rick’s low-back because Thad was bad to wiggle around when being lifted. After much discussion, we decided our boy needed a ramp. The ones we saw online were not up to our standards and, due to the landscaping, would have been way too steep anyway. So, off to Lowe’s Rick went for a butt-load of lumber. Together, we built the perfect doggy handicap ramp off the end of the catwalk. It is finished, minus the top railing. I am happy to report that Thad loves it and is once again independently mobile. I don’t mind saying that between the bed I made and the ramp we built, Rick and I are kickass dog parents. I was able to catch an action shot of Thad in mid-step. What a cutie!

When I’m not building decks and ramps, I write feel good romances that will leave you feeling great! You can find my latest releases here: Lynn Cooper Romances

Tantalizing Teaser for A Tricky Triangle

Triangle Promo 6 copy

Buy on Amazonsmarturl.it/ATrickyTriangle

Chapter One

IT’S ONLY SIX WEEKS until our wedding day.  I’m over-the-moon excited.  I’m also swamped with last minute details.  So steady, dependable Clay Asher—my ruggedly-handsome, black-haired, onyx-eyed fiancé—has gone downtown to pick us up some breakfast.  

Having brewed a fresh pot of coffee, I reach into the antique cabinet Grandma Nettie gave me as a housewarming gift and take down my favorite mug.  It’s made from heavy, white ceramic.  On one side is an image of a hand-carved heart.  It holds a special memory that I keep hidden away.  That I can never share with anyone, especially not my future husband.

Clay and I have a lot in common.  Our love of trivia board games, classic literary novels and tennis, to name a few.  After he gets back and we eat, we’re going to mail off the wedding invitations, head to the club, grab a court and play a few sets.  I’m wearing my new tennis dress, a shimmery, pink little number that showcases my curves.

As I’m relishing the feel of hot, caffeine-infused liquid sliding down my throat, I hear the creaking of the screen door from my front porch.  Since Clay is only going a short distance, and I live in a safe neighborhood, I don’t bother locking up after he leaves.  He hasn’t been gone nearly long enough to complete his errand.  The sound of his footsteps are harried and a bit off.  He must have forgotten something.  I call out to him, “I’m in the kitchen, Clay.  What did you forget?”

“Who the fuck is Clay?”

When I see a man who might as well be a ghost, stepping over the threshold, all the color drains from my face.  The room spins out of control.  I drop the mug.  It shatters into a thousand pieces on the tile floor.  Clutching the edge of the rose-colored, marble countertop to steady my legs, I gasp, “Ian? It can’t be.  Wh—what are you doing here?”

He flashes me that knee-buckling smile that could always make me forgive him for anything.  But what he did to me, to us two years ago, is completely unforgivable.

“I’m here to reclaim my wife.  My home.  Our life together.”

Suddenly, I’m trembling so bad my teeth begin to chatter.  Despite the warm breeze of spring fluttering the sheer, lacy curtains from my kitchen window, I feel cold as ice.  I think my body is going into shock.  Struggling to fill my lungs with air, I slide down to the floor.  Numbly, I begin picking up pieces of the broken ceramic heart.  The irony of Ian Callum literally and figuratively breaking mine, then and now, isn’t lost on me.

He closes the space between us, grabs a handful of paper towels and kneels beside me.  As he dabs at the brown liquid, I can feel his eyes burning into my skin.  His heated gaze could always warm me when nothing else could.

It’s like I’ve been thrust into a time warp, back to the days of marital bliss I shared with Ian—my now ex-husband, only he doesn’t know that yet.  Days where we shared everything from the mundane to the sublime.  From cleaning up a spill like we’re doing now to skiing the slopes of Sugar Mountain before making love all night long by a crackling fire.  It really didn’t matter what activity we were engaged in.  Every moment was a life-altering, mind-boggling adventure.

When the floor is clean, he grabs both my wrists.  Standing, he pulls me to my feet and says, “Talk to me, Helena.  Tell me you still love me.  Tell me I can make everything all right again.”

I shake my head but don’t pull away.  I want to jerk my arms back, breaking the hold he has on me, but I can’t.  The touch of his hands, the feel of his fingers locked around my wrists melts my insides.  I thought I had made peace with never having physical contact with him again, but my body is calling my mind a liar. 

Finding my voice, I say, “I’m no longer your wife, Ian.  You left me two years ago, disappearing without a trace.  When it became horribly, painfully obvious you weren’t coming back, I filed for a divorce.”

He laughs harshly.  “How is that possible?”

I shrug.  “The law allows a woman who has been abandoned a year or more to unshackle herself from a wayward man who cannot be found.”

He drops my hands, bends forward and rests his palms on his knees.  Now he is the one struggling for oxygen.  Through clenched teeth, he says, “I didn’t abandon you.  I would never fucking do that.”

“Then what do you call it?”

He stands taking in a deep, controlled breath through flaring nostrils.  “I call it a piss-poor, insomnia-induced decision.”

I huff, losing patience.  I won’t deny on some level that seeing him all safe and sexy doesn’t make me feel happy and relieved.  But it also resurrects all the feelings of hurt and betrayal I’ve spent the last two years overcoming.

“You’re not making any sense.  And, honestly, I don’t give a rat’s ass what your reasons were for leaving.  All I need to know is you walked out on me.  On us.  On a marriage I thought you cherished as much as I did.  Apparently, I was wrong.”

Angrily raking long, tanned fingers through his beautiful, beach-blond hair, he curses, “Damn it, Helena, you weren’t wrong.  You meant and do mean everything to me.  You are my life.  My whole fucking world.  You always have been and always will be.”

“Then why did you shatter my heart?”

“I didn’t do it on purpose.  If it’s any consolation, my stupidity shattered my heart, too.  Along with the back of my skull.”

Huh?”

He closes his eyes as if conjuring up the memory.  “You know how bad my insomnia can get. That night when I disappeared, I did what I always do when I can’t sleep.”

“Okay.  So you took a walk and what? Kept on walking? Decided the grass was greener on the other side? Got tired of being tied down to one woman?”

“Hell no, on all counts! I had no control over what happened.  I was mugged and robbed, Helena.  The blow to the back of my head left me with amnesia.”

“If that’s true, you would have been taken to the hospital.  I would have been able to find you.”

“I didn’t seek medical attention.  I was too addled and out of it to think straight.  I didn’t even realize the extent of my injuries.  As I was staggering down the sidewalk, an old trucker named Tommy came along and offered me a ride.”

“And you willy-nilly went with him?”

“Yeah.  He was nice and grandfatherly.  I was scared and in pain.  I didn’t know who I was or where I lived.  I latched onto his kindness and rode it a hundred and fifty miles from here to a Vidalia-onion farm in Georgia.”

I shake my head in disbelief.  “You’ve spun quite the fantastic tale.”

“It’s not a tale.  It’s the truth.  You know me.  I’ve never lied to you.”

“I thought I knew you.”

He rubs the back of his neck.  I know I’m frustrating him, but I’m frustrated, too.  For two years, I thought he had intentionally walked away from me and our marriage.  Now, he tells me he was attacked, injured, lost and scared.  I don’t know how to process that.

“I know you’re angry, baby, but I—”

“I’m not your baby anymore,” I snap.

“She’s mine,” Clay snarls, stalking into the kitchen.  He’s carrying a white paper bag with Betty’s Bakery written in pretty calligraphy on the side.  The warm, delicious aroma of her homemade blueberry muffins infuses the air.  I have no idea how long he has been back or what all he has overheard.  I do know he recognizes my ex-husband.  He has seen plenty enough pictures of him. 

Ian ignores Clay, focuses on me and says, “Remember how you and I used to make breakfast together every morning? You would whip up the muffin batter while I fried up bacon strips until they were extra crispy, then both of us squeezed fresh orange juice.  I would never have fed you any store-bought shit.”

I take the bag of muffins and say, “It’s from my favorite new bakery, Ian.  It was built while you were away.  While I was nursing a broken heart.  While, piece-by-piece, Clay was putting it back together again.”

“I just bet he was,” Ian says, glaring hard at my fiancé.  “Looks like he was also making himself at home in my house.”

Clay fists his hands by his side.  “I was doing way more than that.”

Ian’s head snaps around, his ocean-blue eyes locking onto my violet-colored ones.  “What does he mean by that? Has he been in our bed? Has he been inside you?”

I avert my gaze from his.  I know I shouldn’t be feeling an ounce of guilt or shame, but I’m engulfed by both.

Sighing, I say, “I thought you had left me.  I never expected to see you again.”

A sound of agony bubbles from deep in his chest.  “So it’s true? You slept with him?”

“Why wouldn’t she?” Clay smirks.  “We’re engaged to be married.”

Only then does Ian look at the ring finger of my left hand.  He sucks in a ragged breath when he sees the diamond.  “No,” he mutters, shaking his head.  Looking at his own finger, he asks, “Where’s the pretty, delicate band that matches mine?”

I swallow hard, not wanting to answer in front of Clay, but his cemented stance tells me he isn’t going anywhere.  “In the bedroom, on the dresser, in the back corner of my jewelry box.”

Ian fumes, “You mean in our bedroom, on our dresser.  Go get the ring and put it on.”

My heart instantly turns to galloping hooves, jarring the ground beneath my feet while pounding against my ribcage.  I steal a glance at Clay.  His jaw muscles are working, but he remains quiet in what I’ve come to know as silent strength.  Yet he watches and waits to see what I will do.

I look back and forth between two furious men.  One who, in the past, was my everything and one who now fills up my present.  But somehow, I can’t see a future without both of them.  I must be crazy.  Ian’s showing up out of nowhere has likely given me some sort of breakdown.  Throwing my hands up in the air, I run upstairs, leaving them in my wake.

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