Fun news! Hidden hit the USA Today bestseller list, and this is the first time a Book 1 in one of my series has hit a list. (Except for the Realm Enforcers, which was a spinoff). So THANK YOU to everyone who preordered or purchased the book in the first week. This is an adult romantic suspense book featuring wounded heroes and a crazy dog who is fascinated with high heels and would rather eat lipstick than steak. If you haven’t had a chance to grab a copy, there’s still time. If you’re on the fence, I’ve included the first chapter here for everyone to read.
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 as he removed the crates.
She swallowed several times, instinctively knowing he wasn’t a man to cross, even if she had been 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 few 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 yet his body language fluid. She couldn’t see his eyes.
The question, the damn wondering, would keep her up at night.
But no way, there was absolutely no way, she would venture outside to appease the beast of curiosity.
The new neighbor stood well over six feet tall, his shoulders broad, 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.
A scar curved in a half-moon shape over his left eye, and some sort of tattoo, a crest or something, decorated his muscled left bicep. She tilted her head, reaching for the curtains to push them aside a little more.
He paused and turned, much like an animal going on alert, an overlarge box held easily in his arms. 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 butt on the well-scrubbed tiles. 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.
No sound, no hint of an approaching person, no rap on the door. Her throat closed, making it nearly impossible to breathe.
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 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 same place since the day she’d moved in.
Pain ratcheted up her leg, and she dropped, making panicked grunting noises as she crawled past the sofa toward her bedroom. Her hands slapped the polished wooden floor, and she sobbed out, reaching the room and slamming the door.
She yanked her legs up to her chest again, her back to the door, and reached up to engage the lock. She rocked back and forth, careful not to 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 a heart attack. Maybe the doctors had missed something in her tests. Or maybe it was 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.
No, no, no. 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?
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. Maloni moved to Florida? Sure, the elderly lady wanted to be closer to her grandchildren, but Cottage Grove was a much better place to live.
Her house had sold in less than a week.
Pippa had hoped to watch young children play and frolic in the large treed backyard, 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 her 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 front 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, his voice rich and deep. Definitely sexy, with a whole male edge that went with that spectacular body. “I promise I can be all sorts of helpful to damsels in distress.”
Was that a line? Was he trying to flirt with her or put her at ease? What could she say back? Something equally flirty so he’d be at ease and not curious about her? Nothing came to her fuzzing mind. “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.
Hours later, Malcolm West kept moving boxes into his house, wondering about the pretty lady next door. She hadn’t reappeared in the window for hours.
He 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. 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 once shared the two homes?
He grabbed the last box of stuff 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 name of the town—Cottage Grove. It sounded peaceful.
He’d never truly see peace again, and he knew it.
All the homes the real estate agent 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 a month of searching desperately for a place to call home, he’d jumped on the sale.
It had been so convenient, it seemed like a stroke of fate.
If he believed in fate, which he did not.
He walked through the simple one-story home and dropped another 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 hidden at the back of his waist. Had they found him? Somebody had just come in the front door.
“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 into the kitchen, hands loose at his sides. Probably in his thirties, he had bloodshot eyes, short, mussed-up 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 minty-green 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 Daniel’s.” Now he eyed the weapon. “Mind 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.”
“I’m not a detective any longer. 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 attached to the Homeland Defense Department, 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 hell 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 guys.”
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.” Force 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.