Twisted Truths is coming! Here’s Chapter 1!

on October 29, 2017

Hi all!  As you might know, Twisted Truths is releasing in two weeks on November 14th (which is my actual birthday–LOL!). I thought you might like to read the first chapter of it, so here it is:

 

TWISTED TRUTHS

Chapter 1

Noni tossed her laptop and stack of maps onto the faded patchwork bedspread. Her eyes were gritty, and her temples ached. The battered electric heater rattled from the corner of the motel room, providing a surprising amount of heat. Her fingers tingled as they started to warm up.

Winter blew snow around outside, and ice scattered against the window. She shivered and knelt one knee on the bed as she spread out the closest map. Where was her pen? Scrambling for her bag on the floor, she drew out a black marker and made several notations across the mountainous Pacific Northwest. Her heart raced, and her lungs compressed. She had to be closing in. Then she crossed out several towns, including Seattle, before pulling her phone from her pocket and hitting speed dial for number one.

Static crackled and then an expletive echoed as it sounded like the phone was dropped. Something shuffled. “Eagle? This is Sparrow” finally came over the line.

Noni rubbed her aching head. “Hi, Aunt Franny. I thought we agreed to forget the nicknames.”

“So did I, dear, but Verna likes being called Hawk Two.”

Why would they have a Hawk Two when there wasn’t a Hawk One? Noni swallowed down a sharp retort. “We have to get serious, Fran. This is dangerous.” Though she’d done everything possible to make sure the two older women were out of the line of fire. “Where are you?”

“I just set up camp and am staying in the Motel Burnside just north of Portland. Verna should be pulling into Salt Lake City any second now,” Franny said. “My meeting with our private detective is tomorrow morning—he has already left Seattle and is heading here.”

“Good. I’m going to scout around here in Greenville before backtracking to Snowville in a day or so.” Greenville was near the Washington-Idaho border, fifty miles out from Snowville. People back home familiar with the street gang had told her of its affiliations in Greenville. Now all she had to do was find them. Somehow.

She was leading a team—an untrained, totally vulnerable team—in a chase after a dangerous gang member. She was a lotion and candle maker, for God’s sakes. What the hell had she been thinking?

“What about the FBI?” Franny asked.

Noni swallowed, trying to shove away self-doubt. “The FBI is a last resort.” If she contacted them, the agents would immediately send out an AMBER Alert for a missing child. If that happened, Richie might kill the baby. She couldn’t let that happen. Plus, the law wasn’t exactly on her side right now since she was working outside it because of time constraints. God, she hoped she wasn’t making the hugest mistake of her life by handling this herself.

“Any news from Denver?” Franny asked, sounding weary.

“No.” Noni lifted her chin, her heart cracking at the mere mention of his name. He had given her a fake last name, so all she had was his picture and some basic information she knew about him. “But I’ve posted a search for him all over the Internet, even on dating sites. He has to see something.” Her chest hurt to even think about the asshole who’d broken her heart so easily, but she needed his help, and she’d take the pain to save the missing baby. “I’ll find him.”

“Honey.” Fran cleared her throat. “He’s probably no better than that first private detective we hired, the one who stole half of our savings.”

Noni’s shoulders slumped. “Denver has to be better, and I’ll get our money back from that other detective. I promise.” How, she had no clue. The first detective she’d found had been a fraud. He’d taken everything he could—twenty thousand dollars. But they’d been desperate. Sharon’s baby had been kidnapped two weeks ago, and she was only three months old.

Poor Sharon. The question of what exactly had caused her death would have to be answered later—after Noni made sure her baby, Talia, was safe from her dick of a father. Noni would bet her life that Richie had given Sharon the drugs she’d overdosed on.

Was Talia safe? Was anybody reading her stories at night? She liked to cuddle with her special blanket and listen, even at only three months old. Did she miss her blanket? Noni glanced at the light pink edging peeking out of her pack. Her hand shook, and her heart felt like somebody had punched her in the chest. What if Talia wasn’t safe?

She couldn’t think like that. She had to focus on what to do to get the baby back.

The second detective Noni had hired had at least traced Richie and the baby to somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. The PI was heading to Portland, but Noni’s gut and a source back home had told her to head to Greenville. “Get some sleep, Franny.”

“I mean it. Let’s forget Denver What’s-His-Real-Name-Who-the-Hell-Knows-Because-He’s-a-Damn-Liar and just do this ourselves.”

“Let’s go back to calling him ‘dickhead,’” Noni said, with even her arms feeling heavy. About a year ago she’d met Denver, a private detective, while he was on a case in Anchorage, where she lived, and he had seemed like a bloodhound who could always find the person he was looking for. She’d fallen for him, hard. Then he’d left, and her world had been a darker place without him. A colder place. Now she needed his help, and she’d do whatever it took to get it. “We might be taking on an entire gang, Auntie. Denver is tough enough to do it.”

“I don’t know,” Franny said, drawing out the words. “I guess, worst-case scenario, we can just stand behind him if bullets start flying.”

“Absolutely,” Noni agreed, pushing the map out of the way. In fact, she wanted to shoot Denver herself. How could he just leave her? Her skin heated, and she took a deep breath to calm her emotions. “Get some sleep. I’ll call in tomorrow.”

“Honey, this has to be about finding the baby and not, ah, meeting up with Denver again.”

“I know.” The words felt hollow, just like her chest.

Fran sighed. “I know you know, but you’ve never given up on anything in your life, and you really had feelings for that man. You didn’t get any closure.”

Because the dickhead had left her without a word. Noni swallowed a lump in her throat. “Yeah, I want closure. But I want that baby back and safe more. She’s all that matters right now.” Noni had made a promise to both Sharon and her baby, right after Talia’s birth, that she’d be there for them. That she’d protect them. She’d helped take care of Talia for three months, and her arms already felt empty. “I’m focused. Get some sleep, Auntie.”

“All right. Night, sweetie,” Franny said before disconnecting the call.

Noni set the phone on the nightstand and stretched out on the bed. She should get out her notes and keep working. Her eyelids fluttered shut, and she relaxed into the worn mattress as her mind wandered.

Would she find Denver? Of course she needed him to save the baby. But that wasn’t all. She needed answers, and if she was honest with herself, she wanted to see him. Wanted at least a chance to feel that connection again. She was too tired to feel pathetic about that.

She drifted, trying to just relax.

A whisper of sound jerked her back into alertness. She tensed and looked toward the door as she partially sat up out of instinct.

Oh God. Denver. In the flesh.

He stood inside the room, quietly shutting the door against the freezing cold. The entire atmosphere electrified. Holy crap on a mutinous cracker. Denver was there. Really there. After a year of having no clue whether or not he was alive, the sight of him seemed surreal. Was she dreaming him? Again? How could he really be there?

“Noni,” he breathed, his gaze settling on her.

“I locked that door,” she mumbled, sitting all the way up, her mind blanking to avoid the rush of emotion pouring through her.

“What are you doing?” he snarled, his eyes turning a furious blue.

Her temper rolled from banked to a slow burn. She blinked. So much for her secret little fantasy of him finding her, begging forgiveness, and professing that his heart and soul belonged to her. Not that she’d take him back. But still. “Excuse me?” Her voice had risen.

“Pack. Now.” He edged to the motel room window and moved the heavy curtain out of the way to peer out.

She shook her head, trying to grasp reality. It had been so long since she’d seen him, and within seconds her entire body had flared to life. Her heart thundered. How could he still affect her like this?

He turned his head slowly back to her, as he must’ve realized she hadn’t jumped into action. Stress cut lines around his mouth. “Noni. Now.”

That dangerously deep and dark voice. She still heard that low tenor in the time between sleep and wakefulness…when dreams took her under. Like he’d taken her under.

Somehow he looked tougher than before. Even more remote and distant. So large and so…male.

His black hair brushed the collar of his battered leather jacket, and his ripped jeans led to snow-covered leather boots. A shadow covered his square jaw, showcasing each hard angle. His dark brows were arched, his eyes were a sizzling blue, and his full lips were set into a thin line. Tension choked the air around them, rolling through the room with a discernible heat.

She couldn’t stop looking at him, watching him like a starving woman would a cheesecake.

There was something unreal about him—an elusive, too-male, predatory quality she’d never been able to define. Yet she felt it. She felt him—the danger and the kindness, the complexity and the simplicity. All characteristics he’d probably deny…if he bothered to talk at all.

“Noni,” he snapped.

She jumped to her feet.

He was pissed?

Hurt rocketed through her, and she shoved most of it away, leaving a lump of coal in her gut. “Sorry to bother you and whatever woman you’re lying your ass off to right now, but I need your help.” Her knees wobbled, but she held herself upright.

He breathed out, and his nostrils flared. “Later.” Angling around her, he shoved the maps and manila files off the bed and into her bag.

She’d forgotten. How had she forgotten his terseness? “I’m not going anywhere,” she snapped.

He turned, and she instantly found herself up against the wall, his hand flat against her upper chest. How had she also forgotten how quickly he could move? He was almost supernatural that way. Her fear shocked her while her desire pissed her off. She hated being in this position, where she needed him. His face lowered toward hers. Flecks of different shades of blue made up his spectacular eyes, which glittered with an emotion she couldn’t quite read.

She was pinned easily—too easily—in place. This close, she could smell him. Male and forest and leather and something that was all Denver.

He didn’t speak. No order, no sarcasm, no words. He just stared as if he could compel her into obedience with his intensity.

There was a time when she’d responded to his looks. She’d read him—almost felt him. He wasn’t much for talking, and she’d learned to interpret his movements and expressions. Because he had mattered to her.

Apparently she hadn’t mattered a whit to him. Hurt exploded inside her again.

At the reminder, her head snapped back. Her stomach clenched. He had finally bothered to show up and now was giving her orders? Oh, hell no. She tried to struggle, and he kept her still and against the wall with one hand spread across her sternum.

His strength was unreal. Once she’d marveled at it. Not now.

His days of touching her were over. Hurt and anger mixed until she had to act. She pivoted and shot her knee toward his groin, fully intending to connect.

She failed.

His free hand grasped the back of her thigh, shoving her leg to the side, and he stepping into the vee of her legs. The full length of him, heated and hard, trapped her in place.

She gasped at the contact as sparks shot through her. Her body warmed and then flashed to a boil, all from one simple touch. All from his nearness—something she’d so desperately missed. There were times when she’d wished that she hadn’t met him, that she didn’t know what it felt like to be loved by him. To feel as if she were the only one in the world for him. “Damn it, Denver.”

His nose nearly touched hers. “Are you crazy?”

Maybe. Probably. She’d been out of her mind since he’d shattered her heart. “Let me go.”

“Can’t. You have no idea what you’ve done.” A muscle twitched in his jaw. The fierce anger on his face made him look like a stranger. Not the man she thought she’d known.

Her mind spun. “What I’ve done?” Wait a minute. All the thoughts, all the fears of the last year, bombarded her. How many precious moments had she wasted wondering about him? Asking herself why he’d left without a word. Why would posting about him on the Internet cause problems? Her breath stopped. “Oh God. You are married.”

His gaze narrowed even further. “That’s ridiculous.”

All right. She scrambled. “Then wanted. You’re wanted by the law.”

He didn’t answer.

That was an answer, wasn’t it? Oh man. What had she done? Adrenaline flooded through her, and she fought for calmness. How dangerous was he? Really? Maybe she’d been wrong about trusting him to help her. “Leave now. Leave, and I’ll take down all the posts about you.” She clearly didn’t know him. Maybe she never had. For the first time fear—the real kind—shivered down her spine. He was certainly more dangerous than anyone else out there.

“Too late,” he ground out.

“I-I’m…sorry.” The words breathed out of her as self-preservation took over. The man was one long line of coiled strength, and she didn’t stand a chance in a fight, even on her best day. They were alone in her motel room, and she had no friends near. He’d left town without any loose ends. The photograph she had of them he hadn’t known about. Was she a loose end? Just what would he do to her? Could she scream?

He blinked. His eyes darkened, and his jaw hardened visibly. “Don’t be afraid of me.”

“I’m not,” she shot back, lying instantly. Free—she had to get free of him. “This was a mistake. I know that now.” It wasn’t her first time trying to survive danger, and it wouldn’t be her last. She’d find the baby on her own. “Just leave. Please.”

“Too late.” His lip twisted. Was that regret or determination?

Oh God. What did that mean—Too late? What would he do? Even more awareness jolted through her veins. Panic shook her control. She opened her mouth to scream and had barely sucked in air when his mouth crashed down on hers.

She instantly groaned from a bombardment of way too many feelings. Shock, awareness, warmth, need.

His touch was too carnal to be called a kiss. She fragmented, splintering into pieces. Fire swept her, igniting her body even as her mind rebelled. Her nipples sharpened and her knees weakened, but alarm bells clanged throughout her head. The disconnect between her feelings and her thoughts nearly dropped her to the ground.

He held her upright and in place.

His touch, his taste, his smell were so familiar that her mouth moved beneath his, and her hands rose to his chest. Instead of pushing him away, her fingers curled into the leather jacket. It had been so long. Her body separated from her brain as she kissed him back, tilting her head to take more of him.

Afraid, lonely, stripped…She stopped thinking and just felt.

He growled low, and the sound reverberated in her mouth and down her body.

Her abdomen rolled and clenched, need flaring through her quickly. What was she doing? No. God. She had to end this. With a muffled sob, she wrenched her head to the side. “Stop,” she breathed.

He stiffened, his head lifting very slightly. Grasping her chin with a firm grip, he turned her to face him again, almost too easily controlling her. “No screaming.”

She gulped, and a tremble shook her.

“I won’t hurt you.” His eyes had darkened to the hue of a night sky right before the moon softened the darkness. Now lust glimmered there along with the anger.

She swallowed, trapped. Her lungs completely gave up the fight and stopped working. She couldn’t breathe. God, she couldn’t breathe. “Okay.” Tears filled her eyes.

“Noni.” His voice gentled to the tone she remembered. “I promise. You’ll be safe.”

Her mouth had gone dry, so she just nodded. Didn’t the devil have an angel’s face? Confusion numbed her.

“We have to go. Now. Tell me you get me.” His hoarse growl rumbled between them, his breath brushing her lips.

Go. That was good. He wanted to go, so at least he wasn’t going to hurt her and leave her. But what then?

A shiver overtook her, from head to toe, while all the areas in between heated. “Where?” she breathed, not nearly as forcefully as she would’ve liked. He brought out a vulnerability in her that she had explored while in the safety of his touch, and then he’d left. The vulnerability had remained, and she tried to hide it. Had he just become the thing to fear? What did he mean that it was too late for him to leave? Her chin lifted. There was strength in survival, and, oh, she knew how to survive.

He jerked his head to the side, his attention focused on the door. His body stiffened, and he released her suddenly, moving back toward the window. “Get your bag.”

What had he heard?

The urgency in his voice propelled her toward the laptop and bag. Getting out of that room and finding some space was crucial. Her stomach cramping and her breath quickening, she grabbed her possessions and moved toward him. If she got outside, could she get away from him?

The window blasted apart with a loud shatter, spraying glass.

Denver turned and leaped toward her, tackling her to the floor. She hit with a hard thump, then struggled against him. Pain flashed from her hip.

He covered her, and the entire room exploded.

Blood Brothers Book 3
November 14, 2017
print, ebook, audio

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Contest for $50 Amazon gift card!

on September 2, 2017

UPDATE:  Congrats to Julie for winning!  (Sorry about the email mixup and the post commenting mixup!). 🙂

Update:  The comment section is now working at the bottom of the post.  YAY!

Hi all!

So, we updated the website.  What do you think?  Nice, right?  :). To celebrate, I’m having a contest to give away a $50 Amazon gift card.  To enter, just comment on the blog below and tell me your best day of the summer so far.  “I saw a good movie,” is a perfectly fine response!  (We’re also checking to make sure the blog still works and goes to subscribers – LOL!). **If you are seeing this blog on GoodReads or Amazon or wherever the blog goes out, you MUST comment in the blog comment section on the Website to enter the contest.  We’ll randomly draw a name in a week (next Friday), so you have plenty of time to enter.  Once we draw a name, we’ll update the blog at the top to let you know.

Those of you still here, how about an update?  🙂

Personally, I had a ball at Comic Con in San Diego and plan to blog a bit about the adventure coming up.  The summer is winding down, the kids are about to go back to school, and we have wild fires kind of surrounding us.  We’re not in any danger (knock on wood), but there are a lot of folks who might be, so keep a good thought.  I’m just writing away and knocking down deadlines.  I’ve also taken up Mah Jongg with my mom, sisters, and friends…and yesterday the gods were not friendly to me.  Very few jokers in my hand all day!  What’s up with that?

On a professional front, a lot of going on!

Storm Gathering releases on September 19th.  It’s the fourth book in the Scorpius Syndrome series, and it has been named an Amazon pick of the month for September!  It features Greyson Storm and Maureen Shadow.  You might remember that Grey kidnapped Moe in Shadow Falling, and let’s just say she isn’t happy about it.  But he’s so sexy…

Wicked Kiss and Wicked Bite hit the USA Today Bestseller list in July and August, respectively.  Thank you so much!  I’m hoping to be able to share some news about the Dark Protector world very soon.  Stay tuned.

In the back of Wicked Bite, there’s an excerpt THE HIDDEN, which is the first book in a new series called The Requisition Force.  The new series will debut in October of 2018.  I’m really excited about it!

Twisted Truths, Book 3 in the Blood Brother series, releases on November 14th, which also happens to be my birthday.  Twisted Truths is about Denver and Noni.  Their romance has been hinted at for the last couple of books, so you might know a bit about them already.  Let’s just say their reunion is a bit explosive.  Okay.  A lot explosive.  This is the final book in the Blood Brothers/Sin Brothers books.  I really hope you enjoy it!

In other news, the Scorpius Syndrome books are now available in audio for those of you who like audio books.  They’re read by the amazing Michael Pauley, and I think he does a fantastic job.  He’s working on Storm Gathering as we speak, so that one would be ready right around release time.  Also, I hired Stella Bloom (she’s awesome and does a bunch of Kristen Ashley’s books) as the narrator for Under the Covers, Rising Assets, and Over the Top from the Maverick Montana series.  Under the Covers and Rising Assets are available now, and Over the Top is being narrated as we speak.  The first book, Against the Wall, is also available in audio.

I hope you had a wonderful summer, and thank you for being here!  Now that the website is all updated, I’m planning on blogging maybe once a week just for fun.  Good luck in the contest!

XO

 

Mercury Striking wins a Daphne!

on August 25, 2017

Fun news!  Mercury won a Daphne this year.

 The Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense is named for Daphne du Maurier, the author of REBECCA, a suspense novel with romantic and gothic overtones and a precursor to today’s romantic suspense. The Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense is a writing contest for published and unpublished authors of romantic suspense, mystery, suspense and thrillers with romantic subplots and mainstream mystery, suspense and thrillers.

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THE HIDDEN – Excerpt

on August 9, 2017

Here’s an excerpt for THE HIDDEN:

The day he moved in next door, dark clouds covered the sky with the promise of a powerful storm.  Pippa watched from her window, the one over the kitchen sink, partially hidden by the cheerful polka dotted curtains.  Yellow dots over crisp white background—what she figured happy people would use.

He moved box after box after box through the two-stall garage, all by himself, cut muscles bunching in his arms.

Angles and shadows made up his face, more shadows than angles.  He didn’t smile, and although he didn’t frown, his expression had settled into harsh lines.

A guy like him, dangerously handsome, should probably have friends helping.

Yet he didn’t.  His black truck, dusty yet seemingly well kept, sat alone in the driveway containing the boxes.

She swallowed several times, instinctively knowing he wasn’t a man to cross, even if she was a person who crossed others.  She was not.

For a while she tried to amuse herself with counting the boxes, and then guessing the weight, and then just studying the man.  He appeared to be in his early thirties, maybe just a couple of years older than her.

Thick black hair fell to his collar in unruly waves, giving him an unkempt appearance that hinted nobody took care of him.   His shoulders were tense and his body language fluid.  She couldn’t see his eyes.

The curiosity, the damn wondering, would keep her up at night.

But no way, and there was absolutely no way, would she venture outside to appease the beast of wonderment.

The new neighbor stood well over six feet tall, his shoulders broad, and his long legs encased in worn and frayed jeans.  If a man could be hard all over, head to toe, even in movement, then he was.

He was very much alone as well.

A scar curved in a half-moon shape over his left eye, and some sort of tattoo, a crest of something, decorated his muscled left bicep.  She tilted her head, reaching for the curtains to push them aside just a little more.

He paused; an overlarge box held easily in his arms and turned his head, much like an animal rising to attention.

Green.  Those eyes, narrow and suspicious, alert and dangerous, focused directly on her.

She gasped.  Her heart thundered.  She fell to the floor below the counter.  Not to the side, not even in a crouch, she fell flat on her ass on the well loved tile floor.  Her heart ticking, she wrapped her arms around her shins and rested her chin on her knees.

She bit her lip and held her breath, shutting her eyes.

Nothing.

No sound, no hint of an approaching person, no rap on the door.

After about ten minutes of holding perfectly still, she lifted her head.  Another five and she released her legs.  Then she rolled up onto her knees and reached for the counter, her fingers curling over.

Taking a deep breath, she pulled herself up to stand, angling to the side of the counter.

He stood at the window, facing her, his chest taking up most of the panes.

Her heart exploded.  She screamed, turned, and ran.  She cleared the kitchen in three steps and plowed through the living room, smashing into an antique table that had sat in the place for more than two decades.

Pain ratcheted up her leg, and she dropped, making panicked grunting noises as she crawled past the sofa and toward her bedroom.  Her hands slapped the polished wooden floor, and she sobbed out, reaching the room and slamming the door.

She scrambled her legs up to her chest again, her back to the door, and reached up to engage the lock.  She rocked back and forth just enough to not make a sound.

The doorbell rang.

Her chest tightened, and her vision fuzzed.  Tremors started from her shoulders down to her waist and back up.  Not now.  Not now.  God, not now.  She took several deep breaths and acknowledged the oncoming panic attack much as Dr. Valentine had taught her.  Sometimes letting the panic in actually abated it.

Not this time.

The attack took her full force, pricking sweat along her body.  Her arms shook, and her legs went numb.  Her breathing panted out, her vision fuzzed, and her heart blasted into motion.

Maybe it really was a heart attack this time.

No.  It was only a panic attack.

But it could be.  Maybe the doctors had missed something in her tests, and it could really be a heart attack.  Or maybe a stroke.

She couldn’t make it to the phone to dial for help.

Her heart hurt.  Her chest really ached.  Glancing up at the lock, a flimsy golden thing, she inched away from the door to the bed table on her hands and knees.  Jerking open the drawer, she fumbled for a Xanax.

She popped the pill beneath her tongue, letting it quickly absorb.  The bitter chalkiness made her gag, but she didn’t move until it had dissolved.

A hard rapping sound echoed from the living room.

Shit.  He was knocking on the door.  Was it locked?  Of course it was locked.  She always kept it locked.  But would a lock, even a really good one, keep a guy like that out?

Hell, no.

She’d been watching him, and he knew it.  Maybe he wasn’t a guy who wanted to be watched, which was why he was moving his stuff all alone.  Worse yet, had he been sent to find her?  He had looked so furious.  Was he angry?

If so, what could she do?

The online martial arts lessons she’d taken lately ran through her head, but once again, she wondered if one could really learn self-defense by watching videos.  Something told her that all the self-defense lessons in the world wouldn’t help against that guy.

Oh, why had Mrs. Melonci moved to Florida?  Sure the elderly lady wanted to be closer to her grandchildren, but Cottage Grove was a much better place to live.

The house had sold in less than a week.

Pippa had hoped to watch young children play and frolic in the large treed back yard, but this guy didn’t seem to have a family.

Perhaps he’d bring one in, yet there was something chillingly solitary about him.

Of course, she hadn’t set foot outside her house for nearly five years, so maybe family men had changed.

Probably not, though.

He knocked again, the sound somehow stronger and more insistent this time.

She opened the bedroom door and peered around the corner.  The front door was visible above the sofa.

He knocked again.  “Lady?”  Deep and rich, his voice easily carried into the home.

She might have squawked.

“Listen, lady.  I, ah, saw you fall and just wanna make sure you’re all right.  You don’t have to answer the door.”  His tone didn’t rise and remained perfectly calm.

She sucked in a deep breath and tried to answer him, but only air came out.  Man, she was pathetic.  She tapped her head against the doorframe in a sad attempt to self-soothe.

“Um, are you okay?”  he asked, hidden by the big door.  “I can call for help.”

No.  Oh, no.  She swallowed several times.  “I’m all right.”  Finally, her voice worked.  “Honest.  It’s okay.  Don’t call for anybody.”  If she didn’t let them in, the authorities would probably break down the door, right?  She couldn’t have that.

Silence came from the front porch, but no steps echoed.  He remained in place.

Her heart continued to thunder against her ribs.  She wiped her sweaty palms down her yoga pants.  Why wasn’t he leaving?  “Okay?” she whispered.

“You sure you don’t need help?” he called.

Her throat began to close.  “I’m sure.”  Go away.  Please, he had to go away.

“Okay.”  Heavy bootsteps clomped across her front porch, and then silence.  He was gone.

***

Malcolm West knew the sound of terror, and he knew it well.  The woman, whoever she was, had been beyond frightened at seeing him in the window.  Damn it.  What the hell had he been thinking to approach her house like that?

A fence enclosed their backyards together, and he’d wondered why.  Had a family shared the two homes?

He grabbed another box of shit from the truck and hefted it toward the house.  Maybe this had been a mistake.  He’d purchased the little one story home sight unseen because of the white clapboard siding, the blue shutters, and the damn name of the town—Cottage Grove.  It sounded peaceful.

He’d never truly see peace again, and he knew it.

All of the homes the real estate had emailed him about had been sad and run down…until this one.  It had been on the market only a few days, and the agent had insisted it wouldn’t be for long.  After six months of searching desperately for a place to call home, he’d jumped on the sale.

It had been so convenient as to have been fate.

If he believed in fate, which he did not.

He walked through the simple one story home and dropped the box in the kitchen, looking out at the pine trees beyond the wooden fence. The area had been subdivided into twenty-acre lots, with tons and tons of trees, so he’d figured he wouldn’t see any other houses, which had suited him just fine.

Yet his house was next to another, and one fence enclosed their backyards together.

No other homes were even visible.

He sighed and started to turn for the living room when a sound caught his attention.  His body automatically went on full alert, and he reached for the Sig nestled at his waist.  Had they found him?

“Detective West?  Don’t shoot.  I’m a friendly,” came a deep male voice.

Malcolm pulled the gun free, the weight of it in his hand more familiar than his own voice.  “Friendlies don’t show up uninvited,” he said calmly, eyeing the two main exits from the room in case he needed to run.

A guy strode toward him, hands loose at his side.  Probably in his thirties, he had bloodshot grown eyes, short brown hair, and graceful movements.  His gaze showed he’d seen some shit, and there was a slight tremble in his right arm.  Trying to kick a habit, was he?

Malcolm pointed the weapon at the guy’s head.  “Two seconds.”

The man looked at the few boxes set around the room, not seeming to notice the gun.  Even with the tremor, he moved like he could fight.  “There’s nowhere to sit.”

“You’re not staying.”  Malcolm could get to the vehicle hidden a mile away within minutes and then take off again.  The pretty cottage was a useless dream, and he’d known it the second he’d signed the papers.  “I’d hate to ruin the yellow wallpaper.”  It had flowers on it, and he’d planned to change it anyway.

“Then don’t.”  The guy leaned against the wall and shook out his arm.

“What are you kicking?” Malcolm asked, his voice going low.

The guy winced.  “I’m losing some friends.”

“Jack, Jose, and Bud?” Mal guessed easily.

“Mainly Jack.”  Now he eyed the weapon.  “Might putting that down?”

Mal didn’t flinch.  “Who are you?”

Broad shoulders heaved in an exaggerated sigh.  “My name is Angus Force, and I’m here to offer you an opportunity.”

“Is that a fact?  I don’t need a new toaster.”  Mal slid the gun back into place.  “Go away.”

“Detective—”

“I’m not a detective any longer, asshole.  Get out of my house.”  Mal could use a good fight, and he was about to give himself what he needed.

“Whoa.”  Force held up a hand.  “Just hear me out.  I’m with a new unit with, ah, the federal government, and we need a guy with your skills.”

Heat rushed up Mal’s chest.  His main skill these days was keeping himself from going ballistic on assholes, and he was about to fail in that.  “I’m not interested, Force.  Now get the fuck out of my house.”

Force shook his head.  “I understand you’re struggling with the aftereffects of a difficult assignment, but you won.  You got the bad guy.”

Yeah, but how many people had died?  In front of him?  Mal’s vision started to narrow with darkness from the corners of his eyes.  “You don’t want to be here any longer, Force.”

“You think you’re the only one with PTSD, dickhead?”  Force spat, losing his casual façade.

“No, but I ain’t lookin’ to bond over it.”  Sweat rolled down Mal’s back.  “How’d you find me, anyway?”

Force visibly settled himself.  “It’s not exactly a coincidence that you bought this house.  The only one that came close to what you were looking for.”  He looked around the old-lady cheerful kitchen.  “Though it is sweet.”

Mal’s fingers closed into a fist.  “You set me up.”

“Yeah, we did.  We need you here.”  Force gestured around.

Mal’s lungs compressed.  “Why?”

“Because you’re the best undercover cop we’ve ever seen, and we need that right now.  Bad.”  Mal ran a shaking hand through his hair.

“Why?” Mal asked, already fearing the answer.

“The shut-in next door.  She’s the key to one of the biggest homegrown threats to our entire country.  And here you are.”  Force’s eyes gleamed with the hit.

Well, fuck.