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First Chapter Reveal: Wild Within by Christine Hartmann & Giveaway!

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Wild WithinTitle: WILD WITHIN
Author: Christine Hartmann
Publisher: Limitless Publishing
Pages:
Genre: Romantic Suspense

A year after a family tragedy, Grace Mori embarks on the journey of a lifetime…

Two thousand, six hundred miles of blistering heat, wilderness, and soul searching—that’s what Grace signed up for when she decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s not a voyage for beginners, but with no husband and her family still recovering from her bother’s death, Grace is more alone than ever.

This trail meant something to her brother, and she’ll hike it in his memory, but she can’t do it alone. So with her brother’s gear and a small group, Grace takes the most important first steps of her life.

Grace finds something more than peace and magic on the trail…

When her first day of hiking ends in heat stroke, Grace is rescued by a handsome, red-haired hiker who calls himself Lone Star. Grace has an immediate connection with him, and their brief encounter leaves her fearing her soul mate has slipped through her fingers. Although he vows to keep in touch, Grace doubts she’ll ever see him again.

When fears become reality, the only people Grace can rely on may be killers…

Grace is surprised to find notes left at supply posts along the trail. Lone Star’s eloquent letters keep Grace going, clinging to the hope she’ll find him—and happiness—at the end of her journey. But as the trail becomes more perilous, menace grows within the group. And when Lone Star’s letters mysteriously stop coming, Grace fears the worst.

As tensions flare and a killer emerges, Grace must battle to survive…and reunite with the man she’s sure is her future.

For More Information

  • Wild Within is available at Amazon.
  • Discuss this book at PUYB Virtual Book Club at Goodreads.

First Chapter:

Early morning sun scorched the grimy car hood and forced its way through the window to burn Grace’s bare arms. She fidgeted as she watched the arid plane of sagebrush and light brown dust roll past. The landscape differed completely from the grassy hills, eucalyptus trees, and fog around her native San Francisco. Occasional yucca plants shouldered their way between low scraggly bushes with more branches than leaves. Small boulders peppered the area, looking like enormous grey cottage cheese curds among rolling, sere hills.

This countryside puts the wild in wilderness.

The car bounced past dry pastures and scruffy woods.

Maybe I should have spent more time reading those trail guides?

A glimpse of the Mexican border made her sit up straight.

Who cares? I’m here.

Grace bounced in her seat with excitement.

This is it.

Grace and her friend Celine were the only people at the five square wooden posts that marked the southern terminus of the 2,665-mile Pacific Crest Trail, a route leading from Mexico to Canada. A few yards away, wind forced its way through the steel border fence like the sound of screeching tires. Celine snapped a few pictures as Grace removed the spiral hiker register from its protective metal box. On the first empty page she wrote: Kenji, you’re with me.

She signed with more bravado than she actually felt.

Grace spurted back to the car. “I want to get going.” But her backpack, resting in the backseat, was in less of a hurry. She coaxed it onto her shoulders with much grunting and straining and stood, slightly bent, for one final snapshot.

“I’ve never lifted anything this heavy. What was I thinking? It’s not a trip to Macy’s where I can throw all the heavy stuff into the trunk.”

“You were thinking you might need some supplies.” Celine surveyed her. “Because you’re going to be in the middle of nowhere. For months.”

“Thanks for the reminder.” Grace straightened with effort. “I’ve been waiting almost a year for this. They say your pack gets lighter as you get used to it. So where’s the trail?”

Celine shrugged. Grace searched the monotonous sand and brush.

“I’ve got the map on my cell.”

But the phone wouldn’t turn on. Grace depressed the controls repeatedly. The screen remained as black as its case.

Come on. My paper maps are buried in my pack.

She took a mental inventory of what lay above them: a one-person tent, a sleeping bag and mat, a wide-brimmed sun hat, extra socks, the head of a toothbrush, all-weather matches, a travel-size deodorant stick, her mother’s homemade rice cakes, and Kenji’s apartment key fastened with a twist tie to the zipper of a first aid kit. The idea of spreading everything out at the base of the monument made her ill.

She pushed more buttons.

Don’t die now.

The screen flickered. She fiddled more and the contrast increased.

“Typical me.” Her hands shook a little as she pinched the trail map to zoom in on her location. “I turned down the brightness last night to save energy. For a second there, I thought I was going to faint. That would’ve made a good Facebook post. Grace Mori’s one second thru-hike of the PCT.”

Celine grinned and poked Grace’s arm. “It’s good to get all the mistakes out of the way at the beginning. Now try to make it through the rest of the day without any more.”

Grace stepped into the sparse brush.

“I already miss you as much as I miss your brother,” Celine called after her. But the wind whipped away her words.

On the trail, Grace’s pent up excitement gave wings to her hiking shoes. They floated across baked earth that meandered through scrub and around boulders. She raced securely down descents and sailed up ascents.

This is so easy.

She covered the next two miles in under an hour. Her initial destination was Lake Morena County Park, eighteen miles away. But her thoughts were of the Canadian border.

Twenty miles a day, for the next four months, before the northern mountains become impassable with snow. In this heat, that idea feels like a mirage.

She looked at her watch.

Nine thirty. Ten more hours of daylight. So I’ll get to Lake Morena with time to spare.

At first, the white circle rising in a cloudless blue seemed a happy part of the scenery. But bit by bit, the sun blazed an ever fiercer hole in the sky. Her short black hair melted into her head and burned her fingers when she touched it.

I should never have given up lightening my hair. Apparently blondes do have more fun, even in the desert.

Her legs pistoned in long strides that searched for cover. But nothing afforded shade.

A tree. A bush. A houseplant, for goodness sake. I’ll take anything.

The trail eventually crossed a highway and meandered through a grove of cottonwood trees. There, Grace slung off her pack, dropped beside it, and dug through her gear.

She squashed a cream-colored hat onto her sweaty brow. Her parched lips drained a water bottle. A rough trunk supported her back.

My shoulders ache. My feet hurt. And this pack weighs a ton. Why did I throw in everything I thought might come in handy? Pre-moistened body wipes? Am I really going to need those out here?

The previous night, she and Celine had discussed her strategy. “I read somewhere a person hiking in direct sun needs at least a gallon of water for every ten miles.” Grace laid out her water containers on the hotel bed. “But one gallon weighs eight pounds. I’ve got a two-gallon collapsible water container and two one-liter bottles. Do you think I should fill them all? That’s close to twenty extra pounds.”

“I think you should follow the rules.”

“That’s a lot of extra weight.” Grace hefted a container from the hotel sink. “Maybe I’ll fill two bottles and leave my larger container partially empty. I’ll drink a lot before I start. And Hauser Creek is on the trail. I can get more water there.”

Celine pursed her lips contemplatively and tossed an empty bottle to Grace. “What if there’s no water in the creek?”

“Then they wouldn’t call it a creek.” Grace chucked the bottle back at her. “It’ll be fine. Like I said, I’ll hydrate like crazy before we set out.”

In the morning, after a brief rest under cottonwoods, Grace continued her hike. She chased lazy clouds in search of shade. They vaporized before she reached them.

Why did I wear pants?

She longed for the hiking skirt in her pack. Then the trail narrowed, and waist-high chaparral brush clung and tore as she battled through. Rough, aggressive limbs and thick, unforgiving leaves pulled at her hiking poles. Grace held them above her head, unable to see her feet. After five minutes of struggle, she reached the other side. Her face dripped with sweat. She looked down.

I love you, pants.

Grace drained her second water bottle as she climbed. At the top of the hill, she paused. Perspiration dripped into her eyes and mouth, but she was too hot to care. In the distance, the border wall and Mexican mountains were still clearly visible. She thought of fishing out her phone for a picture.

Too much effort.

The path leveled out. Her pace slowed. The heat irritated her.

I should have had my hat on from the beginning. Why didn’t I start hiking earlier in the day? Where the heck is Hauser Creek? I need more water.

She wiped a hot tear from her cheek.

What a mess. But there’s no point in crying. Come on Grace.

Grace was the kind of person who prided herself on being someone people could count on. When her mother’s first attempt at baked Alaska set the kitchen window curtains aflame, teenage Grace doused the inferno in chocolate syrup, then helped her mother take down the gooey mess.

“People in Alaska originally lived in igloos. They probably didn’t have window curtains.” She wiped the counter with a Lysol-soaked dishrag. “Some desserts don’t translate well across climate zones.”

As an adult, Grace volunteered her services as a psychologist for the Friday overnight shift at the Berkeley women’s crisis hotline. There, she comforted agonized rape victims, beaten girlfriends, and conflicted housewives with a sympathetic ear, sensible advice, and a list of referrals she’d personally vetted.

“You’re ready to move out? Don’t forget to take his Rolex. He owes you big time.”

And when tragedy struck her family a year ago, it was Grace who negotiated with the funeral home and the florist. Phoned relatives in San Diego, New Brunswick, and Tokyo. Late at night, in bed alone, she lay exhausted but sleepless.

“How am I going to get through this by myself?”

That blistering day on the trail, she began to lose faith. The merciless, prodding sun became her enemy. It evaporated her enthusiasm, diminished her stamina, and gnawed at her judgment. Her feet dragged along the sandy path without any of their initial eagerness. She refilled her water bottles from the large container in her pack and ignored the voice that told her she would soon run out of fluids.

After another mile, the trail merged with a Jeep road. In the distance, Grace saw a disappearing cloud of dust.

That was a car. I could have asked them for a ride. Maybe they had air conditioning. Some extra water. Maybe they were on their way back to San Diego and would have taken me to a hotel. I could have started the trail again in a few days, when it’s cooler.

She checked the phone’s GPS. Four miles to Hauser Creek.

I’ll make it if I ration my water.

By the time the trail dove into Hauser Canyon’s shaded grove of oaks and sycamores, Grace hated the sun more than she’d ever hated anything. She squinted at the wooded valley. But the only hint that a creek had ever flowed across the parched land was a strip of slightly darker sand meandering through a pile of rocks. Grace’s knees wobbled.

Even in the shade, sweat poured down her face.

It’s past noon. I should eat.

She felt nauseous. Her head pulsed like molten lava in a live volcano crater.

I need to rest.

Her shoulders shrugged out of the pack straps and she sank to the ground. Before thinking better of it, she drank the rest of her water. A small Japanese folding fan, the parting gift from her sister, offered some relief. The hot desert air drew out the fan’s sandalwood scent. The breeze evaporated her perspiration.

She kicked off her shoes and socks, then changed into her skirt. But after thirty minutes of inertia, sweat still dripped from her chin. Sitting made her dizzy, so she lay down. The violent sun tortured her through the leaves, shafts branding her face and body like flames.

I need more water. Have to keep going. A road’s not far ahead. If I lie down in the middle, somebody will find me.

But the idea of crawling out of the partial shade into the glaring sun was too much.

Bees droned near her head.

What’s that? Airplane? Maybe they can see me down here. Call in a rescue.

Her mind drifted up, into the sparse tree branches. It hung there briefly. Then ascended into the smoldering, cloudless sky.

Later, another idea broke through her confusion.

I’m going to die. On my first day on the trail. Kind of a waste. All this equipment. All that money. Geez, I could have spent it on those cell phone-operated blinds for the living room instead. There was that coupon in the Saturday clipper magazine…

Her tongue ran along dry lips.

Hmm. I’m licking a lizard. I wonder if he’ll lick back.

Then Grace thought of nothing.

Giveaway!

Christine is giving away 2 $25 Amazon Gift Cards & 20 Wild Within Coffee Mugs!

Terms & Conditions:
• By entering the giveaway, you are confirming you are at least 18 years old.
• Two winners will be chosen via Rafflecopter to receive one $25 Amazon Gift Card & twenty winners will be chosen to receive one Wild Within Coffee Mug
• This giveaway starts April 4 and ends June 30
• Winner will be contacted via email on July 1.
• Winner has 48 hours to reply.
Good luck everyone!

ENTER TO WIN!

 

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Book Excerpt: To the Breaking Pointe by Cindy McDonald

To the Breaking Pointe 2Title: To the Breaking Pointe
Author: Cindy McDonald
Publisher: Acorn Book Services
Pages: 250
Genre: Romantic Suspense
Format: Paperback/Kindle

Purchase at AMAZON

Pushed to the breaking pointe!

Five years ago First Force operative, Grant Ketchum, let the ballerina of his dreams dance right of his life. Silja Ramsay returned to her birthplace, Russia, to take the position of principal dancer for the Novikov Ballet Company.

The owner and director of the ballet company, Natalia Novikov, has a dark secret: her beloved ballet company is almost broke. Natalia forces her dancers to prostitute themselves to financial contributors at exclusive after-show parties. Silja has been exempt and kept in the dark about the parties—until an American financier offers to bail the failing ballet company out. His prerequisite: Silja must become his personal companion, live in his home, and fulfill his every desire. Against her will, Silja is taken to the American’s mansion, but before she goes she manages to send a text to the only man who can save her, Grant: HELP!

Now Grant is on a mission to find his lost ballerina and rescue her from this powerful man’s subjugation. He will do anything to get her out alive. If they survive, will he let her chasse out of his life again?

Book Excerpt:

“Where is Silja?” Ballard Crafton asked Natalia as he searched the reception room in the basement of the theatre. The room wasn’t particularly large, yet it was quite elegant with red velvet swags hung in the archways, gilded crown moldings, and crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. A bar was set up in one corner while a violinist played softly in another. The room was filled with men, a few older women, and most of the dancers from the Novikov Ballet Company. Only one dancer in particular was missing… Silja Ramsay.

Natalia picked up her glass of wine from the bar. “Silja is not ready to attend our little soiree yet. She hasn’t been informed of my… financial situation.”

Ballard pulled a bracelet from his suit jacket. “Silja doesn’t like diamonds?” Natalia huffed at the sight of the bracelet that she thought she had convinced Silja to keep. He continued, “She had this returned to me by messenger this afternoon. Doesn’t she…don’t you understand just how wealthy I am?”

Natalia took a sip of her cabernet. “She still believes in love, Ballard—“

“I am in love with her!” he bellowed.

Taken aback by the sudden outburst, the crowd hushed, looking in their direction. Natalia forced a laugh, waving her hands carelessly at the crowd. She spoke to them in Russian, “Mingle, mingle, get to know our beautiful dancers.” With hesitant glances at Ballard, the crowd returned to their conversations. The women in attendance ran their hands up and down the male dancers’ muscled arms, while the men flirted mercilessly with the ballerinas.

“You told me that she would be here tonight, Natalia.” Ballard said, more hushed.

“As always, there are plenty of lovely ballerinas here to choose from this evening, Ballard. Forget Silja for now. I will keep working to make her come around. She still… how do you say… pines for another.”

“Who?”

“I do not know this. Be patient. Pick another for this evening. Here…” Natalia gestured to the bartender. He retrieved a box from behind the bar. Natalia took the box and offered it to Ballard. Lifting a brow, she said, “You may have first pick tonight, yes?”

“No. I am tired of spending time with ballerinas that I don’t want. I only fantasize that she is Silja. I want Silja!” Ballard said.

Natalia set the box on the bar. Slowly she dragged her gaze to meet his. He was like a spoiled child who had not received the gift that he desired on Christmas morning. No, he was worse—much worse. Finally she decided to put Ballard Crafton in his place. “I am quite aware of what it is that you want, Ballard. But I must wonder…will Silja meet the same fate as your other lovers?” His eyes widened in raw indignation, except Natalia did not allow his glare to dissuade her. “The opera singer from New York who no longer sings—instead she sits in a home with head injuries so severe that she can barely speak, or the concert pianist whose fingers are now crippled from the hammer that was used on them? What could these women have done to make you so angry, Ballard? What kind of monster lies within? I am desperate to save The Novikov Ballet Company, this is true. But I won’t let you destroy a beautiful dancer in her prime. How do you Americans say…we understand each other, yes?”

Ballard’s hands curled into fists of righteous agitation. The red flush started above the Armani tie that he wore around his neck and crept to his cheeks. He spun on his heels and marched out of the gathering.

Letting out a relieved breath, Natalia looked into the box which was filled with pointe shoes. Each shoe had the signature of the dancer from the Novikov Company to whom it had belonged. Her nerves tightened the knot in her stomach and shame swelled in her chest. She took another long drink of the wine, and then she managed a faux smile for the crowd, who anxiously anticipated the beginning of the evening’s event.

Natalia called out in Russian, “Who will be first to choose a pair of shoes tonight?” She held the box up high, shaking it. “Edvar! Where is Edvar?”

From the far corner of the room the ballet company’s dance instructor and choreographer, Edvar Kozlovski, brushed his fingers through ballet dancer Dominik Potrovic’s hair. After a whispered promise of return, he raised his hand calling back in their native Russian, “Here I am! Are you ready, Natalia?”

The crowd buzzed with excitement. The dancers exchanged nervous glances. All eyes were on Natalia. She said, “Yes! Who is our highest bidder this evening? Who will get first pick of the shoes?”

Edvar fished a paper from the pocket of his jacket, and then he announced, “Ballard Crafton!”

Everyone searched the room waiting for Ballard to come forward to choose a shoe for his evening of sultry delight, with the ballerina whose name was on the shoe.

Natalia shook her head. “No. He had to leave. Who is the second?”

Edvar squinted in a big show of reading the next name on the list. He proclaimed, “Belsky!”

From the back of the crowd, a tubby man merrily trotted forward to where Natalia stood. He could barely contain his excitement. He danced in place from one foot to the other. The ballerinas were now exchanging curled lips of derision hoping that he would not pull their shoe from the box.

He wiggled his fingers in anticipation of what lovely, well-toned ballerina would be his for the night. Belsky reached into the box and snatched a pair of worn European pink pointe shoes. The crowd tensed waiting for a name to be called as he handed the shoe to Natalia.

“Anna Antkowiak!” Natalia called out. The young girl from Poland shoulders drooped. Her face dropped. She was the newest member of the company. She hadn’t signed on for this. She had heard whispers among the dancers that Natalia’s ballet company was almost broke and about the after-performance requirements: prostituting the dancers for contributions to keep the ballet company above water. Tonight was her fist time to be summoned by Natalia to the contributors’ party. She could barely breathe as she watched Belsky’s eyes scanning the crowd for her.

Locking eyes with the innocent girl, Natalia crooked her index finger at the ballerina to come forward to claim her date. Trepidation filled Anna’s face. Her stomach twisted into a tangle of knots as she looked at the other dancers, who silently urged her to do as Natalia requested. When Anna suddenly noticed the bulge in Belsky’s trousers, she kept her head bowed, as she slowly crept through the crowd. Belsky grabbed her by the hand to hurry her out the door.

Natalia clapped her hands. “Another happy contributor to the Novikov Ballet Company! I’m sure Anna will make his night!” She shook the box again. “Who will be next to choose, Edvar?”

 

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Read-a-Chapter: HAZARDOUS UNIONS, by Alison Bruce & Kat Flannery

Read a Chapter is *NEW* added feature at As the Pages Turn! Here you’ll be able to read the first chapters of books of all genres to see if you like them before you buy them. Today we are featuring the Historical Romance, Hazardous Unions, by Alison Bruce & Kat Flannery. Enjoy!

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Hazardous_Union_Front_Cover

Twin sisters separated by war, bound by love…

After the death of their father, twin sisters Maggie and Matty Becker are forced to take positions with officers’ families at a nearby fort. When the southern states secede, the twins are separated, and they find themselves on opposite sides of America’s bloodiest war.

In the south, Maggie travels with the Hamiltons to Bellevue, a plantation in west Tennessee. When Major Hamilton is captured, it is up to Maggie to hold things together and deal with the Union cavalry troop that winters at Bellevue. Racism, politics and a matchmaking stepmother test Maggie’s resourcefulness as she fights for Bellevue, a wounded Confederate officer and the affections of the Union commander.

In the north, Matty discovers an incriminating letter in General Worthington’s office, and soon she is on the run. With no one to turn to for help, she drugs the wealthy Colonel Cole Black and marries him, in hopes of getting the letter to his father, the governor of Michigan. But Cole is not happy about being married, and Matty’s life becomes all about survival.

Two unforgettable stories of courage, strength and honor.

Title: HAZARDOUS UNIONS

Genre: Historical Romance

Authors: Alison Bruce & Kat Flannery

Website: www.alisonbruce.ca & www.katflannery-author.com

Publisher: Imajin Books

Find on AMAZON.

——————————————————

Maggie

Fall 1862.

The Yankees were coming.

We’d seen the signs days ago. News was, most of west Tennessee had fallen under Union control. Thaddeus scouted them out while hunting rabbits in the brush that bordered the plantation’s cotton fields. We’d prepared as best we could as fast as we could, and now I was waiting for them on the front veranda of Bellevue.

“Why me?”

“Someone has to meet them, Miss Maggie,” Mammy said, setting out tea things as if the neighbors were coming to call. “Mrs. Hamilton hasn’t got your nerve and Miss Patience wouldn’t be a lick of good even if she would come downstairs.”

“I’m just a servant,” I objected half-heartedly.

“Yeah, like Tad here is just a dumb nigger.” Mammy cocked her head to one side and a moment later I heard the faint but shrill whistle of the kettle. She smoothed the skirt of her greying white pinny over her faded grey dress. Eventually, the two garments were going to match. “Watch out for her, boy,” she said, before heading around the corner of the wraparound porch toward the kitchen door.

Only Mammy could get away with calling Thaddeus “boy” or “nigger” without coming under the resolute stare of a man who looked like he could have been carved out of a huge block of obsidian. Mammy was his aunt and had raised him, along with Major Hamilton, from nursery age. The boys had been more like brothers than master and slave, Mammy said, until Master Ned was sent off to West Point to be made an officer and a gentleman. It was hard for me to reconcile her picture of Master Ned with the aloof man who had employed me to take care of his wife.

I was barely sixteen when I was hired by the Captain, now Major Hamilton. Some days I felt that I was twice that age now, instead of just a couple of years older. Today, watching the Union contingent approach, I felt like that frightened girl again. I took small comfort in the pair of pistols hidden in the pockets of my crinoline. Knowing that Thaddeus was watching over me from the shadows, armed to the teeth, was more reassuring.

Half a dozen hard looking men approached the house. Four of them spread out, some facing us, some partly turned to keep an eye on the out buildings. Two of them rode up the path towards the porch. I felt like I was being ringed in by a pack of hungry wolves. The leader of the pack rode up to the bottom of the front steps.

Wolfish was a description that fit him. Hard muscled, wary eyes, shaggy dark hair spiking out from his cap, he looked old with experience and young in years. His uniform had seen better days and his beard was untrimmed, but it appeared that he had made some effort to clean up before approaching the house. That was a good sign.

I had also made an effort for appearances sake. Instead of my usual long braid, I had twisted my blonde hair into knot and allowed tendrils to fall free on either side of my face. I was wearing one of the calico dresses Mrs. Hamilton bought me in St. Louis. She wanted to make it clear that I was no mere servant any more. I was using it today for similar reasons.

“Afternoon, ma’am. I’m Captain Seth Stone. I have a cavalry troop under my command that needs to set up quarters for the winter.”

“I see.” My voice was steady, but I could feel my knees wobble beneath my skirts. “And?”

“And this looks like a good place to stay.”

“How many are you expecting us to accommodate?”

I heard a chuckle from one of his men. It was stifled with a sharp look from the grim-faced sergeant behind the captain.

“Not so many as there should be,” the Captain said, ignoring the interruption. “If you’d oblige me by asking your man to lay down his arms, maybe we can discuss terms.”

Gott hilf mir,” I prayed, but held my ground. “You have your protectors, Captain. I have mine.”

With a hand gesture, he signaled his men and they all dismounted as neatly as if they were on parade. Then he dismounted and held out his reins to the sergeant.

“Thaddeus, would you lead these troopers and their horses to water?”

Thaddeus stepped out of the shadows, empty handed. “Yes, miss.”

The two men passed on the stairs. Thaddeus was significantly taller and broader than the Union officer and was doing his best guard dog imitation, but the Captain didn’t flinch when they passed. He did keep his eye on Thaddeus until he was in the range of his own men. Then he turned his attention back to me and I lifted my head up to make eye-contact. He may not have been as tall as Thaddeus, but he was not a small man and I am on the short side for a woman.

Having asserted his dominance, he backed up a step.

“I understand this is the Hamilton home. Are you Mrs. Hamilton?”

“No, sir. I am Magrethe Becker, Mrs. Hamilton’s companion.”

His eyes widened. “Maybe I should be speaking to the lady of the house.”

“Mrs. Hamilton is indisposed and asked me to…” I stopped, looking for the right word. Meet with him? That sounded too friendly. Deal with him? Almost rude. “Negotiate terms with you.”

He let out a short bark of laughter.

“My terms are simple, Miss Becker. I need to winter seventy men and three officers, plus myself. It’ll be tight, but this place looks like it has enough room with the house and out buildings. We’ll need food and fodder of course. You can either offer, or I will take.”

I shook my head. “No.”

He barked out a longer laugh. “What makes you think you’re in the position to say no?”

“Twelve wounded union soldiers in our care, Captain Stone.”

 

Matty

 

Fort Wayne, Michigan

December 1862

 

What had she done? Matty Becker was going to hell, and there’d be no one to save her. A loud snore echoed from the other room. She peeked around the corner and caught a glimpse of Colonel Black’s stocking feet. She’d burn for sure. She glanced at the paper she held and groaned. She was a horrible, devious, scheming letch. Maggie wouldn’t be pleased. Maggie wasn’t here. Another snore blew into the kitchen and she placed her head onto the table banging her forehead twice. There was no turning back now.

Last night she’d pushed aside her conscience and let fear guide her. For her plan to work, she’d have to throw all sense to the dogs, not that she hadn’t done so already by following through with the blasted thing. She couldn’t fail now. If her family found out what she’d done they’d never forgive her. Worse yet, if Colonel Black found out she’d be locked behind bars, a fate far better than the one that got her in this mess to begin with.

She placed the paper on the table and went into the bedroom. Colonel Black lay on the bed with his clothes stripped off and tossed about the floor. He’d been out for nine hours and would wake any minute. Matty stood, pushed all thoughts of reason from her mind and removed her dress, corset and pantaloons. Her face heated and the room spun. He rolled over and she jumped into the bed next to him, pretending to sleep. She knew the moment he’d woken. The bed stilled and she couldn’t breathe the air was so stiff.

“What the hell?” He sat up and she knew the instant he saw her. “Son of a bitch.”

She felt his nudge once, twice and now a shove almost knocking her from the bed.

“Wake the hell up,” he growled.

She squeezed her eyes closed and willed strength into her soul so she could face the dark Colonel. She rolled over pretending to wipe the sleep from her eyes.

“Who are you?” He placed his head in his hands. She’d bet he had one heck of a headache.

“Your wife,” she said.

“The hell you are.” He shot out of bed without grabbing the sheet, and she averted her eyes.

“Please cover yourself.” She held up the sheet and he ripped it from her hand. “The marriage license is in the kitchen on the table if you do not believe me.”

She watched as he grabbed his head and closed his eyes. The heavy dose of laudanum she’d placed in his drink the night before had done the trick and it wasn’t but a mere suggestion they marry that the Colonel jumped to the challenge. Soon they were standing in the dining room in front of a preacher. Words were spoken—words she thought to say with someone she loved, someone who’d wanted her. Her stomach lurched and her mouth watered with the urge to vomit.

“How did this happen?” he asked sitting on the end of the bed.

“Mrs. Worthington sent me to see if you needed anything.”

“I was drinking.” He looked at her. “I was drunk.”

She shrugged.

He stood holding the sheet tight to his midsection.

She couldn’t help but notice the rippled stomach and defined muscles on his chest.

“We can annul. I had too much to drink. My head wasn’t clear.”

She shook her head.

He frowned.

“We have consummated.” A lie of course but she was desperate.

His mouth fell open. A moment she knew he’d not remember. After the preacher left, she’d taken him to the bedroom where he passed out before hitting the bed.

“Impossible. I’d remember that.”

She shook her head again praying he’d buy the fib.

He pulled on his pants and dress shirt. “I don’t even know you. Why in hell would I marry you?”

“My name is Matty Beck—Black. I was employed with the Worthington’s. You’ve come to dinner several times.”

His brown eyes lit with recognition. “You’re the house maid.”

“Yes.”

“I married a maid?”

The words stung and she turned from him so he wouldn’t see the disappointment upon her face.

“Why would you marry me if I was into the spirits?”

“You seemed fine to me.”

He took a step toward her. “Why would you marry me at all when you don’t even know me?”

She gripped the blanket on the bed. “You…you said kind words, and I…I believed them.

“How desperate are you to marry a stranger?” he yelled. “You found out who my father is. You want money. You tricked me.”

Well, he got the last one right, but the first two irritated her. She was not the kind of person to marry for money. Really, who did he think she was?

“Sorry to disappoint you but I refused my inheritance years ago.”

“If you mean to say that I could not find myself a suitable husband because I am a maid, then you’re wrong.”

“That is exactly what I am saying Miss—”

“Black.”

“The hell it is.”

He went into the kitchen picked up the marriage license and stared at it.

Matty dressed quickly and inched into the room. Confusion pulled at his features and she began to feel sorry for him. This was her fault. She’d planned this. Now she had to continue telling the lie she’d told. She glanced outside and shivered. Boldness, be my tongue. Shakespeare’s words echoed in her mind. It was worth it. She’d been living in fear for a week. Colonel Black had been her saviour, and she risked a life full of love and happiness for this—a lie in which she’d speak for the rest of her life. She swallowed back the lump in her throat and willed the tears not to fall.

“Why can’t I remember?” He glanced at her. “And why in hell would I marry you?”

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First Chapter Reveal: Incidental Daughter by Val Stasik

Incidental DaughterTitle: Incidental Daughter
Author: Val Stasik
Format: Paperback, ebook
Length: 280 pages
Publisher: Armery & Hallquist Publishing

Purchase at AMAZON

When successful publisher Liz Michaels’ marriage to blue blood, Addison Tiffin Payne, fails after the loss of their baby and his growing alcoholism, she pours all her creative energy and passion into her work and finds comfort in her friendship with the co-owners of her company as well as the appearances of the spirits of her Polish mother and grandmother, who never speak except in dreams she cannot remember. Only her feelings from those dreams linger.

When Liz’s ex-husband plans to stage her suicide by pushing her off the balcony of her high-rise home in order to collect on a life insurance policy, he topples to his death instead. When the police arrive, Liz, the potential victim, becomes the prime murder suspect. She meets Pittsburgh Police Detective Jim Shannon, who may threaten her freedom or possibly gain her love. Her life is further complicated by her former mother-in-law’s attempts to destroy her reputation and damage her career. Her swirling feelings are complicated by the simultaneous appearance of a talented, familiar-looking intern at her workplace. He turns out to be her half-brother, but he is unaware of their connection. Although Liz is finished with a past that included a botched meeting with her biological father, the past is not done with her, for the intern and Shannon link her to that past. The cause of her ex-husband’s death is determined and Shannon and his partner, Santello, arrest the person responsible for what led to his death.

Internal conflict is soon compounded by external threats created by her former mother-in-law as well as someone seeking revenge on Shannon and his fellow detective. Just as Shannon and Liz are getting better acquainted, he is gunned downed, but survives. When Liz is leaving Shannon’s hospital room, she passes a woman whom she doesn’t realize is her dead father’s wife. The woman, Eileen, is also Shannon’s sister and notices the resemblance to her dead husband. Eileen did not learn of the existence of her husband’s daughter until after his death. This encounter sets in motion a series of touchy revelations and family get-togethers. All seems to be going well until Payne’s grieving mother decides to make Liz pay for Payne’s death. Warned by the mother’s housekeeper, Detective Santello and another detective rush to Liz’s office. In the shootout, Payne’s mother is killed but not before killing Santello who took the bullet meant for Liz. Will Liz be destroyed by this vortex, or will she use the crisis to open the door to a second chance at love and family?

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CHAPTER 1

A FAMILIAR BELLOWING in the outer office captured Liz Michael’s attention. She slipped the contract for the purchase of William Penn Press back into its folder and navigated through the precisely-stacked piles of manuscripts to lift a slat of the blinds covering the door and floor-to-ceiling windows that faced the outer office. Addy Payne strained toward Mandy, pounded her desk, and demanded to see Liz. Paper clips, pens, and papers flew off her desk like hard rain.

Liz glanced at her watch. Only 2:17, but the flush of booze had already spread from her ex-husband’s face to his scalp in sharp contrast to his sleek, white-blond hair. This bloated caricature was not the man she had once loved. She shook her head. No, she could not possibly have fallen in love with that.

As he headed for her office, trailed by Mandy, Liz considered escaping through the other door in her office, but she knew he’d keep coming back—best to deal with him now. She whirled back to her desk, sat, and pretended to peruse the documents in the William Penn Press folder. Addy whipped the door open, but held it, and peered at Mandy as though she were the intruder. Mandy’s hazel eyes pleaded with Liz, and she shrugged her plump shoulders.

“It’s okay, Mandy. Call Miriam and tell her I’ll have the contract ready for her before four.”

Mandy scurried out of the room like a rabbit frantic for cover. Addy smiled, shook his head, and closed the door. He removed a stack of manuscripts from a tan guest chair, sat, and adjusted his perfectly pressed pants. “You look well,” he said.

Liz stood, marched to the blinds, and opened them. Mandy glanced up from her phone call to Miriam and nodded her readiness to call security at Liz’s signal. Liz returned to her desk, sat, folded her hands, and calmly stared at him a moment. “What brings you here today, Addy?”

He glanced back at the open blinds, raised his brows, and looked back at her with a slow, feline smile. “What? No ‘How are you? It’s good to see you, Addy.’”

Liz stared back at him, unsmiling.

He shook his head. “Poor sales technique, Lizzie.”

“I’m not selling anything. What do you want? I’m busy.”

Addy glanced at the stacks of manuscripts and nodded. “I can see that. You used to be a lot neater.”

She continued to stare.

He relaxed back into the chair, placed a leg over his knee, and rested his hands on the arms of the chair in one graceful movement. He considered her a moment. “I need money.”

“You’re wasting my time. Get a job.”

His gray eyes darkened. “Pittsburgh isn’t exactly the center of the advertising world.”

“Not my problem. I told you the last time, no more loans―as if I’ll ever see the money I’ve already given you.” She cocked her head to one side. “Tell me, Addy, whatever happened to all of your contacts? Why don’t you go to your family?”

He looked away from her and studied the awards on one wall and then the print of Cassatt’s The Boating Party on the opposite wall. The muffled ring of Mandy’s phone in the outer office underscored the silence.

“They don’t know, do they? They think you’re still the Great Ad Man, pulling off one outrageous magic trick after another.”

He returned his gaze to her. “I want to start my own agency.”

She gave him a tight-lipped smile and shook her head. “You don’t know you’ve dropped off the edge, do you? You had quite a run taking risks with your accounts. . . . Oh, you had us all fooled. Me. Your clients. We thought your three-martini lunches fueled your success, till your lack of follow-through took everything south. . . . Lay off the booze, Addy. Then go to New York, LA, Chicago. Find a job with an agency where they don’t know you.”

His whole body deflated. “It’s been too long since the last job. Even if I were hired, I’d have to start at the bottom.”

Liz leaned back in her chair. “Screwed everybody who could give you a good reference, huh? Why don’t you try something else? Maybe banking? Or drive a cab? Who knows? You could end up head of the company.”

He looked worse than he had the last time if that was possible. Now that he was sitting across from her, she could see tiny veins were beginning to sprout on his nose. “By the way, as I’ve said many times, AA has quite a history for turning people’s lives around. Why don’t you give them a try? What could it hurt?”

He sprang from his chair and, hands fisted, leaned on her desk. She scowled at the stink of whiskey on his breath. “Look, I’m not some jerk barfly from a dirty Pennsylvania steel town.” His eyes bulged. “You know I come from one of the oldest families in Ohio. I have an MBA from Harvard. I’ve made three different agencies big money. And I know I can create the best ad agency this town that thinks it’s a city has ever seen.”

Liz rose from her desk. “Then I suggest you create a business plan―they did teach you how to write a business plan at Harvard, didn’t they―and take it to the bank for a loan.”

She jerked the hem of her linen jacket. “Now, I have work to do.” She strode to the door, but before she could open it, he grabbed her arm.

“You’ve never forgiven me, have you?

She froze, her face a rigid mask. “Let go of me.”

Addy freed her and she opened the door. He left without another word.

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Read-a-Chapter: Before He Kills Again, by R. Barri Flowers

Read a Chapter is *NEW* added feature at As the Pages Turn! Here you’ll be able to read the first chapters of books of all genres to see if you like them before you buy them. Today we are featuring the suspense thriller, Before He Kills Again, by R. Barri Flowers. Enjoy!

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Before He Kills Again_Cover

From R. Barri Flowers, award winning crime writer and international bestselling author of Dark Streets of Whitechapel and Killer in The Woods, comes a gripping new psychological thriller, Before He Kills Again: A Veronica Vasquez Thriller.

FBI psychologist and criminal profiler Veronica Vasquez returns to her hometown of Portland, Oregon to assist police in apprehending a ruthless serial killer dubbed “The Rose Killer,” who kills beautiful women in pairs, leaving a rose on top of each corpse.

Heading the investigation is homicide Detective Sergeant Bryan Waldicott. Veronica must win him over, along with the entire task force, and prove herself worthy of the job. Since losing her husband three years ago, Veronica had been focused on her work to escape the pain of loneliness and separation. A romance with Waldicott, who has issues of his own, complicates things for them both as they try to stop a serial murderer before he kills again.

When she begins to suspect that the new husband of her estranged sister Alexandra could be the killer, Veronica pursues that delicate angle and, in the process, becomes a target herself.

Before He Kills Again is tense thriller that will keep readers on edge till the very end.

Amazon Trade Paperback / Kindle /Kindle UK / Kindle CA / Barnes and Noble Nook eBook / Smashwords / Kobo

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PROLOGUE

He walked around inconspicuously, nodding in a friendly manner to other shoppers who nodded back and smiled as if they really meant it. There were flowers of every type imaginable—Dutch tulips, pretty campanula, fresh lilies, and magnificent daisies—giving him ample choices. But he already knew what he wanted long before he got to the store. In fact, he had known for months now…the notion was etched in his mind. After a suitable time spent wandering around like a lost puppy, he walked up to the counter and waited to be helped.

The florist flashed him an exaggerated smile and said: “Can I help you, sir?”

“Yes, I’d like a dozen of those white roses,” he said cheerfully, pointing at a large vase behind the counter.

“Sure thing,” she said.

He watched her ass jiggle as she walked over and pulled out twelve long stemmed roses.

“White roses seem to be pretty popular these days,” she commented.

That was exactly what he was counting on.

“With good reason,” he said, pouring on the charm. “I think they are the prettiest roses.”

“I agree,” she told him.

He knew she would have said that no matter what color roses he had chosen to buy. But that was fine with him. She was just doing her job.

The woman pulled out some red paper from beneath the counter, set the roses atop it, and began to wrap them. “Looks like some lucky lady will be grinning from ear to ear this evening,” she said.

He smiled. “You’ve got that right.”

As always, he paid for the flowers with cash, was careful not to touch anything else, and left the store humming. In the parking lot, he walked over to a black van. Once inside, he tossed the flowers on the passenger seat.

“Bought something for you lucky ladies,” he said, glancing in the back of the van at his guests. “But you can’t have it yet. I’m sure you understand. You’re not exactly in a position to show your gratitude right now.”

He laughed, pleased with his dry humor, started the engine, and took off. Within minutes, he was on Interstate 5 heading south from Portland. Dusk had settled in like sand in the desert and he turned on his lights to cut through the newly formed darkness.

In the back, he could hear one of his prisoners starting to moan and squirm, as if this would somehow lead to her rescue. Sorry, but that’s not gonna happen, he thought gleefully. Though her hands and feet were bound securely and her mouth taped shut, he could not get to his destination fast enough. Alerting the attention of a nosey passerby with a cell phone could ruin his plans in more ways than one.

“Save your breath,” he shouted at her, hiding the fact that he could never be totally at ease. Not until the job was done. The bitches had to pay…with their lives. All in good time. “Believe me,” he admonished the moaner, “you’ll need it later when you really have something to whine about. And don’t even think about getting away. Escape is damn near impossible! Hell, there is no way out—at least not in the way you think.”

The prisoner increased her moaning and wriggling with the desperation of a terrified person who knew she had nothing to lose at this point. If she only knew. He turned up the volume and sang along to Louis Armstrong’s gravelly rendition of “Mack the Knife,” effectively drowning her out.

“And the shark bites,” he sang along, “with those pearly white teeth, dear…”

Looking into the rear view mirror, he observed the woman. She was in her late thirties with almond brown skin and thick curly black hair that reminded him of a baby lamb’s wool. Taller than most women and slender in all the right places, she was just the way he liked them. She had on well-worn jeans and a bright pink blouse that was so tight across her large braless breasts he was surprised it had not ripped apart during her valiant struggle to elude capture. Of course, he had been one step quicker, physically superior, and more determined to have what he wanted.

He glanced at the other prisoner. She was motionless, obviously still under from the isoflurane he’d used to sedate her. The woman, in her mid-thirties, was white with permed auburn hair and somewhat on the slim side. She was a few inches shorter than his other captive and wore a faded, oversized jersey and jean shorts. Her bony legs were less than appealing, but he knew she would have to do.

Both bitches would do tonight. They had to pay the ultimate price for what she had done to him.

And that whining bitch will be the first to get it, he thought, eyeing the squirming, moaning black woman.

The speedometer read sixty-five and he was tempted to kick it to eighty, maybe ninety. He loved going fast and feeling the pungent air hitting his face as if to snap him back to life. Instead, he let up on the pedal, bringing his speed down to the limit of fifty-five along this stretch. He couldn’t take any chances that the cops might pick his vehicle randomly amongst the many speeders to stop.

That would certainly interfere big time with his plans for these two.

Not to mention put him on a one-way trip to prison—or worse.

As if to validate his paranoia, or perhaps ensure that he would not go down without one hell of a fight, he leaned over, opened the glove compartment, and pulled out a .357 Magnum. The cool steel felt good in his hands. He rested it against his face for a moment or two before putting it back in its resting place…knowing it was ready to grab at a moment’s notice.

He took the exit for Hillcrest. Soon he was passing by the familiar gas station and a strip of stores and places to eat. He turned onto an unpaved road and headed down about three miles, made a right, and went past farmhouses, pastures, and pine trees. It was about as far away from Portland as you could get and still be within a short drive of the city.

Soon he reached his destination. He drove onto a winding gravel road that led to his property. The one story western red cedar log cabin sat on two acres of overgrown weeds and tall evergreens. The nearest neighbor was a mile away, which suited his purposes just fine.

He pulled up to a dirt path in front of the cabin that served as a sidewalk and shut off the engine.

“Welcome, ladies,” he told his captives, “to my own little private hideaway. Now it’s your home, too…at least temporarily.” He chuckled nastily.

He dragged the black woman into the cabin first, enjoying her resistance.

“Scream your pretty head off,” he spat. “It won’t do you one bit of good—except maybe give you some pointless satisfaction that you didn’t go down without making your whiny voice heard.” He laughed. “Too bad I can’t understand a thing you’re saying with that tape strapped across your lips.”

In the back room, he left her on the floor with her arms and ankles still secured while he went out to get the white bitch. She had begun to stir, as if coming out of a bad dream.

But he knew her nightmare had only just begun.

She joined the black bitch in the room. He left them to contemplate their fate while he got the roses out of the van. He put the flowers on a small wooden table in the front room. As usual, he needed only two, tossing the others in a wastebasket to rot.

He put one of the roses on some newspaper and grabbed a can of black spray paint. After shaking it, he sprayed it liberally on the rose till it was as black as charcoal.

Perfect, he thought, nodding with approval. Just perfect. It would be nice and dry by the time he finished with his captives. Then the black and white roses could be presented to them appropriately for their cooperation and participation in his game of life and death.

The mere thought of killing them infuriated and excited him like nothing else he could imagine.

Except the thought of his next kill…

And the terror in the eyes of those who would soon become his next victims.

CHAPTER ONE

Veronica Vasquez was admittedly a bit nervous as she waited in the office of Homicide Detective Bryan Waldicott of the Portland Police Bureau. At the Bureau’s request, she had been loaned to the department as a criminal psychologist and profiling member of the FBI’s Serial Killer Unit. She was proud to have earned her stripes as a certified FBI profiler and determined to stay one step ahead of those who would like to see her “put back in her place.”

Her current assignment was to help track down a vicious sexual serial killer terrorizing Portland, Oregon and its surrounding neighborhoods. Dubbed by the press as “The Rose Killer,” the unsub had murdered six women thus far. The murders occurred in pairs, involving a Caucasian woman and a woman of color. The women had all been severely beaten, disfigured, and strangled. Most had also been sexually assaulted.

As grisly and unusual as this was, Veronica’s frayed nerves were not due to the morbidity of the case or being uprooted from her home in Washington, D.C. at a moment’s notice. Nor was she shaky at the prospect of having to deal with a temporary new boss who had once been one of the FBI’s most brash and bright special agents, until he inexplicably walked away from Quantico three years ago.

It wasn’t even the fact that she had just turned thirty-five and was already a widow with seemingly the best years of her life behind her.

No, what disturbed Veronica more than she cared to admit was returning to her hometown of Portland for the first time in nearly eight years. Not too coincidentally, that was the last time she had seen her sister, Alexandra, who was two years her junior. In fact, the two had not seen eye to eye on much of anything ever since their parents died when the sisters were in their late teens.

If the truth were told, they were about as different as night and day in Veronica’s mind, leaving little ground for a stable, steady relationship, much less a bona fide sisterly bond. It had just seemed better all the way around if they went their own separate ways.

Or at least one of them.

And it ended up being her.

Now, against her better wishes, she had come back. She knew she would have to face Alexandra sooner or later to see if they could possibly salvage anything out of their kinship or if they would remain lost to each other forever.

Veronica forced these thoughts aside as she saw a tall, well-built man approaching the office. Even from a distance, she could see that he was handsome and looked to be in his late thirties. Thick hair that was as black as the night surrounded a chiseled face with a long, pronounced nose. When he got closer, she could see that his eyes—never parting from hers as if in a trance—were pools of deep blue with an intensity that probably matched her own green eyes with gold speckles. He wore a navy suit that was only slightly wrinkled, as if to indicate that he refused to go more than a few days without having it pressed. His striped tie was only loosely fastened over a crisp, white shirt.

Veronica immediately sat up in the chair, as if she had been slouching and did not want to make a bad first impression. She had chosen to wear a gray suit that flattered her five-foot-seven inch slender frame, along with a pink shirt, and black low-heeled pumps. Her straight black hair hung across her shoulders, bordering a heart-shaped face.

She rose to her feet as the man entered the office, self-consciously pulling down her jacket. Her mouth opened to a soft smile after she saw him do the same.

Don’t let him see you sweat, she told herself. You’ve done this enough times. No reason to be intimidated now.

“Mrs. Vasquez—?” he asked in a strong baritone voice.

Veronica hadn’t been called Mrs. Vasquez much in recent memory. Not since Daniel died three years ago. Did the detective think she was still married? Had he forgotten that she was an FBI agent and should be referred to as Special Agent Vasquez, if not simply Vasquez? Or, if the conversation was strictly informal, he could just call her Veronica.

Perhaps he was just being polite out of respect. Whatever his rationale was, Veronica realized that the formal title of Mrs. had the effect of dating her current status more than she wanted it to as a single woman. Though she was not looking for love, per se, she was no longer close-minded to it.

She gave a slight nod. “Special Agent Veronica Vasquez at your service,” she said, realizing too late that she had sounded as if it was a military pronouncement. She quickly tried to correct her tone. “And you must be—?”

“Detective Sergeant Bryan Waldicott, Homicide Division, Portland Police Bureau,” he said with obvious amusement. He stuck out his hand, which Veronica shook in an obligatory show of greeting that seemed to last longer than either of them had probably intended. Waldicott was the first to pull away, while giving her a hard look. “Right off the bat, Special Agent Vasquez, I think I should be perfectly honest with you and say that I was initially opposed to calling in someone from the FBI to help with this case. I figured the last thing we needed was to have the Feds looking over our shoulders while we try to get a handle on a murder case that’s strictly local as far as I can tell.”

Veronica thought about the word initially. Why should he, of all people, be opposed to assistance from his former employer? Was there a story there? Did she need to know it? She hadn’t heard specifically that there had been bad blood when he left the Bureau. But that didn’t mean there wasn’t any.

“So what changed your mind?” she asked, assuming that he had made an about face.

Waldicott ran his hand the length of a square jaw and sculpted chin with a deep cleft its centerpiece and sighed thoughtfully. “Well, I guess I came to realize that at this point we could really use all the help we can get. Even from the FBI. We’ve got a ruthless serial killer on the prowl and he’s not only elusive, but he’s frightening the hell out of the women in Portland. And a few of us men, too. So who was I to tell my boss, much less the families of the victims, that I wasn’t willing to do anything and everything in my power to bring this monster to justice?”

“I’ll be happy to do all I can,” Veronica promised, feeling somewhat relieved that she hadn’t apparently made an enemy of the man she had been assigned to work with. “And, just for the record, I’m not here to step on anyone’s toes, Detective. I just want to fit in as part of the team working on this case. Fair?”

He looked at her for a moment as if weighing his options, before cracking a slight smile. “More than fair, Agent Vasquez.”

Veronica flashed a tiny smile of mutual cooperation. So far, so good, she thought. Realistically, she knew there was only so much a profiler could do—no matter her skills and intuition. Yes, she could draw a composite of the killer and the likely victims. She could even tell them all they ever wanted to know about the psyche of a serial killer. But the real blood and guts work was performed by the people who had to follow up on leads, which often went nowhere, and sort through mounds and mounds of evidence and would-be evidence until they ultimately captured or killed the serial killer. Or stood by helplessly as the trail went cold while he continued to evade and taunt them.

“Please, sit down,” offered Waldicott with a sweep of his long arm.

Veronica sat again in the black leather chair. She watched as Bryan Waldicott sat at a desk that somehow seemed too small for a man his size. A file folder lay open on it. Waldicott looked up at her, down at the folder, and up again.

“So this is a homecoming of sorts for you,” he commented with a brow cocked whimsically. “It says here that you grew up in Portland.”

Veronica shivered. “Yes, on both counts.”

Waldicott looked at her curiously. “So why did you leave? In many respects, this seems like the ideal place to live and raise a family.”

Veronica wondered if this was a chauvinistic statement against women being in the work force, much less law enforcement, which was still mostly a male dominated profession. On the other hand, she could also imagine that Bryan Waldicott had a knock against FBI agents, in specific, as a former member of the ranks himself.

As if he sensed the implications of the question, Waldicott answered it himself with a shrug. “Why does anyone ever move away? Usually because they found something—or someone—better elsewhere. So which is it?”

Veronica considered the question and decided to reverse the tables. “Is that why you left the FBI?” she asked bluntly, seizing the moment. Or maybe it was the mystery behind the man himself that made her curious. “Because you found something…or someone better?”

Veronica could see that she had definitely struck a nerve, as Waldicott’s brow furrowed and his eyes narrowed to little more than razor slits. Immediately, she wished she had kept her mouth shut, if only because he was technically her superior. She had placed a courtesy call to the FBI field office in Portland and they had made it very clear that her current orders and assignment came from the man before her. A sinking feeling told Veronica that she had no more right to pry into his personal life than he had to pry into hers.

Waldicott’s mouth had become an irregular line, but then softened. “Looks like you’ve done some of your own homework, Agent Vasquez. I suppose that’s only fair, all things considered.” He took a breath. “If you must know, I left the Bureau because it seemed the best thing to do at the time. I have no regrets.”

Veronica could tell that he was clearly troubled by this, whatever the issue was, but managed to put on a brave face. His smile returned and he seemed to be waiting for her to respond to his original question of why she’d left home and the idyllic setting of the Pacific Northwest for a life elsewhere.

I’m not ready to share the intimate details of my personal life with him or anyone else at this time, she told herself.

After Veronica thought about it, she realized she could be just as succinct and mysterious with her response as he was, while keeping her own little secrets to herself. “I had an offer to join the FBI in D.C.,” she said simply. “And I took it.”

“All right,” Waldicott said. He seemed content to settle for that.

Veronica breathed a sigh of relief. As far as she was concerned, you could ask her anything about her profession or skills and she would be happy to respond, but her private life was to remain a closed book. It was too painful to open. Especially for someone she just met. Even though Bryan Waldicott seemed like he was used to getting what he went after sooner or later. She was determined to be the exception to the rule.

Waldicott closed the folder and stood up in one motion. “I’ll introduce you to everyone you haven’t already met. Then we’ll put your psychology and profiling skills to work—”

Veronica was sure she detected no sarcasm in his tone, which would make it much easier to work with him. She indicated her readiness by standing up. As they locked eyes, she had an uneasy feeling that they had not finished what they started. Strangely, she was not really even sure what that was.

Waldicott proffered his arm toward the door like a perfect gentleman and Veronica walked out ahead of him, lightly brushing against his jacket sleeve. She instantly felt electricity pass between them, causing the hair on the back of her neck to rise. She wondered if he felt it, too.

 

 

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Read-a-Chapter: Rowena and the Dark Lord, by Melodie Campbell

read a chapter

Read a Chapter is *NEW* added feature at As the Pages Turn! Here you’ll be able to read the first chapters of books of all genres to see if you like them before you buy them. Today we are featuring the comic, time-travel romance, Rowena and the Dark Lord, by Melodie Campbell. Enjoy!

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000040_00066]

Dark magic…dark passions….

When Rowena is abducted from Arizona and taken back to medieval Land’s End, one thing is clear: she must learn to control her powers of magic. It isn’t easy being a modern girl in an archaic land, and when Rowena accidently conjures up a Roman Legion in mid-battle, Land’s End is on the brink of a war that could jeopardize everything and everyone she loves.

The stakes are raised when the Dark Lord reappears and traps Rowena in a cyclone of lust and passion. Once again, she is torn between the man she loves and the mage who fires her desire.

Purchase the book on Amazon.

Currently #2 Time-travel in Canada!  Top 100 in US!

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ROWENA AND THE DARK LORD

PART 1

Chapter 1

The trouble with walking through walls into alternate worlds is you’re an illegal alien when you get to the other side.

“I have to work at something, Rowena.” Thane was pacing my townhouse kitchen with the intensity of a caged tiger. “I can’t be a kept man.”

I sighed and look down at my hands.

Trouble in paradise. This is what I didn’t consider when I pulled Thane through the wall with me from medieval Land’s End into the 21st century.

We’d only been in America for a few weeks. And they had been glorious so far. To know you are loved by another such that they would give up their world—actually their Kingdom—for you is a powerful aphrodisiac.

Now we had enjoyed the luxury of many days together. Enough time to teach Thane how to drive a car, which he adored to the point of obsession. But not enough time to figure out what he could do with his life in modern USA.

Thane didn’t have a social security card. He didn’t have a birth certificate, or any proof of education. And he couldn’t read English. How the heck was he going to get a job in Phoenix, Arizona?

“You could volunteer,” I said hopefully. “People don’t usually ask for identity cards when you volunteer.”

“At what?” Thane stopped pacing and stared at me. His ocean blue eyes were wild. “I’m a classical Greek and Latin scholar and an expert swordsman. How many volunteer positions do you see for these talents in your modern world?”

I was feeling miserable now. It would take me some time to teach Thane how to write English, and that was only the beginning.

Truly, we had escaped Land’s End without thinking of the consequences. How much easier it had been for me to fit into Thane’s world of the middle ages! Was it just that women adapted better to new environments?

“Please don’t worry so,” I pleaded. “You know I’ll think of something. Give me a little time.”

He had his broad back to me now. His heavily muscled arms crossed his chest. I could see he was gazing out the living room window, to the expanse of desert beyond. A lone Saguaro cactus loomed tall amongst the sprawl of lower teddy-bear cacti and Sonoran shrubs. I could almost feel what he was thinking. The lone Saguaro…

“I must work at something, my love.” Thane’s hypnotic baritone voice was sad now, weary. “I can’t bear to see you go to work to support us both. ‘Tis worse, that I know a babe is coming.”

Now I felt really sick.

The sad thing was, this baby wasn’t his. He knew that, of course. I had been married to his older brother Sargon, who was now dead. Thane assumed he was the natural uncle of my child to be.

I knew otherwise.

We had left Land’s End to escape Cedric. Cunning, irresistible Cedric…my distant cousin was a powerful wizard, just as I had been born a sort-of witch (to my great surprise—I didn’t know it until recently.) Cedric had bound me to him with magic more powerful than I could resist. And yes, God help me, there was to be a child from our union, in six months’ time.

It was Cedric’s child. I knew that now for sure.

But Thane did not.

“Do you miss Land’s End, Thane?” It had been haunting me for several days, that need to ask, even if I didn’t want to hear the answer.

He swung back to me and sighed.

“Yes,” he said. “If truth be told, yes. I miss the familiar. The deep greens of our earth, the orange blaze of sun in the sky. Our two moons shining at night. Your world is more muted. It’s restful, but I don’t want restful.”

With a start, his energy surged. He returned to pacing. “Oh, I can train here. I can stay physically fit. But I am a man of my times, Rowena. I like to wear armor. You have no idea how it makes a man feel. To strap on chainmail and feel the weight of a sword in your hand! I was born to it. And while I value books and book-learning, I also love physical challenges. The rush of adrenaline that courses through your body in one to one combat—by the Gods, how I miss that! The clang of metal on metal…” One fist struck the other hand over and over.

I was dismayed. This was the answer I had dreaded. He must have caught sight of my face. His voice softened slightly.

“But most of all, I miss the supreme contentment of knowing my place in the world. I was King there, Rowena—King! But that’s not the worst of it.” He paused.

I waited for it.

“I am plagued with guilt. I left my people…”

There was a catch in his voice. This was the emotion I had anticipated. Oh, I knew it had to be there, lurking in the dark, but he had hid it well until now.

“I left my brother Rhys to face that villain Cedric without me. Logan, too. I left my troops, my people. ” His voice broke with bitterness. “This is the worst of my sins. That I might do it again, to be with you. That’s the hell of it, my love.”

Sorrow cut through me like the sword he still cherished.

“We could go back,” I whispered.

I don’t know if he heard me. The front door swung open and hit the wall.

“Hey guess what?” Kendra’s sunny voice filled the hall. “They have a medieval festival in town! It’s in the paper—see?”

She bounced up to greet us with Richard on her heel. What a contrast they presented—I had to smile.

Kendra with her black bobbed hair and goth wardrobe was a full foot shorter than Richard. She bounced around him like a cyber-punk Tigger. Richard looked for all the world like Richard the Lion heart—blond, two meters tall, broad-shouldered and built to wear chainmail.

His natural state was to gaze at her with adoration. He didn’t appear as yet to be experiencing the angst that tortured the man I loved. Of course, Richard loved cars and all things that the modern world had to offer. He had taken to it like a lion to the chase.

Kendra waved the paper in front of my face. “They’ve just set up in a field past Apache Junction. Can we go, Row? We have to go!”

I took the paper dutifully and scanned it. These medieval times festivals were a yearly thing in Arizona. I had never been before. Maybe it would distract us?

“Thane, what do you think?”

He turned around and shrugged. His face was impassive.

“Oh Thane, don’t be a wienie,” said Kendra. “It’ll be just like being in Land’s End. Of course we have to go. And we need to dress up in our clothes from Land’s End. Oh, we’ll be the most well-dressed people there! Or at least the most accurate. It’s going to be fun!” She did a little dance in the centre of the kitchen.

That’s when I had my first feeling of dread.

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Book Review: Shot in the Dark by Jennifer Conner

Jennifer Conner’s latest romantic suspense is a thrilling, steaming read that will be enjoyed by fans of the genre. 

Handsome, sharp-witted, and smartass Devan Burke is a detective working for the LAPD. In the evenings, he likes to keep himself wired up by ordering double espressos from the Naughty Latte stand’s drive-through, especially because of the pretty blond working there. Dev is a loner and blames himself for the death of a kid during a store shootout, during which he was also shot in the leg and, as a result, has been limping and using a cane since then.   

Beautiful and just as sharp-witted and smartass as Dev, Luci Lombard is working at the Naughty Latte stand in order to support herself through school at the University of Chinese Culture and Health Studies. 

One night, only a few minutes after Dev leaves the coffee stand, he receives a message that the place has just been robbed. Back at the stand, he finds a very distraught Luci lying on the floor with her hands tied behind her back. Fortunately, the assailant didn’t have enough time to rape her. Although the robber was wearing a mask, she remembers he was wearing cowboy boots and tattoos on his arm: strange octagon symbols mixed into a vine. Dev offers to bring her to the hospital and then home. 

Since she doesn’t have medical insurance, he very generously pays for her medical bills. To show her appreciation, Luci decides to help Dev with his leg problem so he can get back in active duty. She believes his pain and limp could be improved with the aid of a chiropractor and holistic medicine. Though Dev is skeptical at first, he decides to let Luci help him. Thus, their relationship begins to evolve, rising in intensity as their feelings for each other deepen.

But the man with the tattoos isn’t a simple robber. In fact, he’s a member of the Mafia. And he hasn’t forgotten Luci and is intent on finishing what he started… 

Shot in the Dark is a light, quick, very entertaining read filled with lots of romance and lots of suspense. Having read Conner’s work before, I know she has a soft spot for tortured, imperfect heroes with big hearts who at times suffer a disability. In this case, it’s Dev’s leg and how it affects his self image and self esteem, and how, with a smart and kind heroine, he outgrows those feelings of insecurity. Her heroines are intelligent and independent, yet feminine enough to turn to their heroes for protection when needed. A very nice combination. The story, which moves at a good pace, is mainly told from both from Dev’s and Luci’s points of view, separated by chapters, so the readers get to know the feelings and motivations of both characters. Some chapters are also told from the robber’s point of view. If you’re a fan of romantic suspense, you’ll want to pick this one up. 

You can find more about bestselling author Jennifer Conner and her romantic suspense novels from her website athttp://www.jenniferconnerbooks.com 

Read more reviews and purchase the book from Amazon.

My review was first published in Blogcritics.

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