Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Announcing the Complete Star Light ~ Star Bright Collection by L.A. Sartor


Announcing the Complete Star Light ~ Star Bright Collection. This series of  Christmas Romances garnered me my bestseller status, which frankly still blows my mind.

After writing the first book, I knew I had additional characters whose stories needed to be told. What shocked me was how the main characters from the prior books demanded to make appearances in subsequent books, and in some cases find their own redemption and always find love.

The Christmas star on Boulder’s Flagstaff Mountain is real. It’s been lit at Christmas since I was a young girl. The idea for the first book, Be Mine This Christmas Night, came about one snowy night as I was watching the flakes fall and talking to my mom on the phone, telling her how much I still looked forward to seeing the star every season. (I can see it from my house where I grew up and live now.)

Mom told me a story about an incident at a neighborhood party, where a gentleman was grousing about how the star was too Christian to be used. Mom looked at him and said that she’d never particularly thought about it being a religious symbol, but rather one of hope and light.

Thus, Be Mine was born, and the series grew from that first story.

Fun fact: The paper back weighs over 1.5 pounds and it’s amazing to see all my words in one book.

Blurb:

A star burns bright on a snowy Colorado mountain each Christmas. Can its light and the hope it symbolizes lead four couples to the miracle of love? 

Be Mine This Christmas Night ~ A widower with two young sons right next door; a children’s author who longs for a family. This Christmas would be the perfect season for Annie Hamilton to fall in love and find a family … except she’s hiding a secret that has undermined all her past relationships.

Forever Yours This New Year’s Night ~ The last thing Brice Young needs is to spend time with Madame Ice Queen, the cyber expert who’s proven herself to be adversarial in the past, but he has no choice. Working together at the government’s behest, they have one week to test his new top-secret cyber system. Can he use this time to turn two dreams into reality, one made of bits and bytes, the other made of flesh and ice?

Believe In Me This Christmas Morn ~ It’s the week before Christmas and Santa has come early, gifting Belle Grantham’s struggling literacy non-profit with a brand-new website. Nary a lump of coal in sight, until she and the website designer genius who believes in her cause find the real reason behind the board’s demands that she quit. Can she deal with the truth? And can she breach the barrier to the lump of coal her genius calls a heart?

Dream Of Me This Christmas Eve ~ After creating the perfect wedding for her brother, designer and engineer Caroline Young needs to be back in California for her business but has promised her family to stay in Boulder until the new year. Which is difficult as she’s not used to being idle. When her brother convinces her to help his lawyer friend work through his new office design crisis during her stay, Caro finds opposites do indeed attract. She can’t move to Colorado and his law practice can’t move to California. Is their love doomed from the start?

If you love Christmas Romances filled with warmth and heart, loaded with characters that wonder if they’ll ever find that right person, and make appearances in subsequent books, then the four-book full collection of Star Light ~ Star Bright is for you. Buy it today and get lost in the miracle of the love.

 

Available in eBook and the above-mentioned paperback at:

Amazon

Kobo

B&N

Apple Books


About L.A. Sartor

I started writing as a child, really. A few things happened on the way to becoming a published author … specifically, a junior high school teacher who told me I couldn’t write because I didn’t want to study grammar…

That English teacher stopped my writing for years. But the muse couldn’t be denied, and eventually I wrote, a lot, some of it award winning.

I started pursuing this direction seriously, hit the keyboard, learned a litany of new things and published my first novel. My second book became a bestseller, and I’m absolutely on the right course in my life.

Please come visit me at www.lasartor.com, see my books, find my social media links, and sign up for my mailing list. I have a gift I’ve specifically created for my new email subscribers. And remember, you can email me at Leslie@LeslieSartor.com

 

You can also find me at:

Facebook Author Page

Twitter

BookBub

YouTube Channel

Goodreads

 


 

 

Friday, May 27, 2022

Read an Excerpt From Playing with Fire by Taylor Lee

FREE

Amazon

Praise for Playing with Fire...

“A rookie firefighter escapes an abusive past only to find herself accused of setting the fire that kills her husband and his mistress. A heroine that will tug at your heartstrings and a hero that is as outrageous as he is irresistible.”
RomanceRules

“Cops AND Firefighters? An alpha – male lovers delight. A SEXY kick-ass hero and a beautiful, vulnerable woman in a life and death face-off can’t resist their voracious appetite for each other. This is one SIZZLING romantic suspense!”
Erotica Rocs

“An edgy mystery thriller with pulse pounding action and steamy romance. Unforgettable characters that will capture your heart.”
Action Junkie

OVERVIEW

•A rookie firefighter accused of setting the fire that kills her husband and his mistress

•“A bad-assed cop falls for the beautiful firefighter only to discover she is his #1 suspect in a double murder.

•Can Nate find the real murderer before the murderer finds her?

Excerpt:

Nate drove the rain-soaked street, trying to ignore the thunder and lightning streaking the sky. Driving back and forth in front of the exits from the park, he finally spotted Erin coming along the path by the reservoir. Rain was rolling off her in sheets.

He pulled up alongside her and honked. Winding down his window, he called out, “Erin, get in. You’re soaking wet. C’mon. This storm is dangerous.”  

A huge clap of thunder broke at that moment. Erin startled looking up at the threatening sky that was getting darker by the minute. She hesitated glancing at his car. Nate reached across the console and opened the door. His stern command didn’t brook a refusal.

“In. Now.”

Erin tossed her head, then climbed in and avoided looking at him. She was shivering and her lips were blue.  Her hair hung in damp clumps around her face and down her back. Nate cranked up the heat and reached over the seat hunting in the back for his jacket. When he handed it to her, she shook her head refusing it. Instead, she crossed her arms and stared straight ahead. Her knuckles were white with the cold.

Nate slammed on the brakes and turned off the engine. Ignoring her startled gasp, he grabbed her chin and forced her to look at him. He kept his voice as calm as he could.

“Okay, Erin. Let’s start over.  I’m sorry I made that crack at the party. It was a lousy thing to say. I apologize.”

She jerked her head free and turned back to stare out the front window.

“You already apologized.”

Nate persisted.

“Yeah, I know I did. Guess the question is: Do you accept my apology?”

Her voice was so low given the rain pounding against the car roof, he could barely hear her response.

“What does it matter if I do or not?”

He forced himself to be calm.

“It matters to me.”

She shrugged, making it clear that was his problem, not hers.

He decided to try another tack.

“Look, sweetheart, you are soaking wet. Your lips are blue and your teeth are chattering.  Will you at least put this jacket over you, if you don’t want to put it on?  And maybe you should wring out your ponytail… or something.”

He waited a moment. When she didn’t answer, he draped the fleece-lined leather jacket over her.  It was so much bigger than she was, it served as a blanket.  When she didn’t shove it away, he started the car and pulled back onto the rain-drenched streets.

After a minute or two of ignoring him, she said, “My address is 289 Wingate.  It’s off of St. Peter in Charlotte Prairie.”

He was purposefully non-committal.

“I know where it is.”

They drove in silence for several moments. Nate’s chest hardened, knowing that if he hadn’t insisted that she get in his car, she would be running home in this dangerous thunderstorm.  Glancing at her, seeing the deep crease between her brows and the stern set of her jaw, he shook his head. And he thought he was stubborn.  Deciding to take a stab at conversation, he broke the heavy silence.

“What were you trying to do, little spitfire? Get a twenty-day sick leave for pneumonia?”

Her voice was sharp.

“Don’t call me that.  Who do you think you are? My name is Erin. No matter what you think of me, a ‘girl firefighter wannabe’ and all that, I do not shirk my duty -- nor do I take sick days or in any way slack off.  Not that it is any of your business, but I have a perfect attendance record….”

Her voice broke and she turned her head toward the passenger window.  Nate had a suspicion the gesture was meant to hide tears, not that he’d be able to tell given the raindrops on her face.

“Look, little spitfire, I’m not your school principle and I don’t take attendance at the firehouse. I’m just trying to figure out why the hell you thought you could run over ten miles in a torrential downpour.”  

He didn’t expect her to answer, and she didn’t.  But to underscore her disdain she shoved the jacket off of herself, dropping it to the floor.

He observed her out of his periphery. As much as he disliked women working in positions meant for men, he did like women!  And tallying up Erin’s assets, this was one hell of a woman. His dick agreed. Hell, he’d had a hard-on since he first saw her at Mama D’s. Erin’s abbreviated white shorts showed off shapely legs that didn’t quit. Even now, dimpled with goose bumps, they were gorgeous. Now that he knew how much she ran, it wasn’t a surprise.  And all that firm muscle was balanced by some very soft, very feminine curves.  Her hips and ass beckoned to him, deserving more than a second look. But at the moment, he was drawn to the swell of her breasts hovering under her wet tank top. Now that she’d dispensed with his jacket, her perky nipples responded to the cold, sticking out like tiny doorknobs waiting to be tweaked.  

At his chuckle, she followed the direction of his eyes, then glared at him.

Pressing her lips together in a firm line, she snapped, “Eyes on the road, detective.”

He laughed.

“Hey, you’re the one who didn’t want my jacket. Besides, like a good driver I was keeping my eyes on the headlights.”

 She huffed out a disgusted puff of air.

“That pitiful joke is as bad this time as the thousand other times I’ve heard it from sexist assholes.”

Nate couldn’t hold back his grin.

“Again, my apologies. We sexist assholes are so busy annoying beautiful women we don’t have time to refresh our pick-up lines.”

Erin gave a derisive snort.  

“A pity.  Makes you not only a contemptuous chauvinistic jerk, but a boring one. You know, you should maybe move to Saudi Arabia, someplace like that, where I understand your views on women and their role in society would be very well received.”

He had to give it to her.  She was a feisty one -- not easily put down. Interesting.  At least his dick seemed to think so.  He made an effort to keep the amusement out of his voice.

“Hmm. Well, Miss Firefighter of the Year, I’ve been called a lot of things.  An asshole? Definitely.  Sexist, chauvinistic? You bet. And proud of it. But boring?  Uh uh, sweetheart. That one doesn’t fit.”

“Stop!”

At her shout, he managed to keep from slamming the brakes but even so the car skittered dangerously to the left. His seatbelt responded, snapping him against the seatback.

“Jesus, Erin!  What the hell--”

She unfastened her seatbelt and had the door open before he could react.

“This is where I live.”

Her flashing eyes and raised chin dared him to comment on the shabby street and shabbier house.

He looked at the ramshackle clapboard structure that hadn’t seen a fresh coat of paint in thirty years, and probably never hosted a handyman. He met her gaze.

“I see.”

She gave him a dismissive nod.

“Thanks for the ride.”

He opened his car door and jumped out, but before he could cross to her side, she slammed her door and ran up the cracked sidewalk. On the rickety porch, she fumbled for a minute, jimmying with the lock.  To Nate, it didn’t look like she used a key. Christ, why bother?  By the look of that doorframe, a swift kick would bring the whole damned door down.

Leaning against the side of his car, Nate wondered if Erin carried a piece. Watching her tight little ass in the skintight shorts disappear behind a slamming door, he scoffed. It would have been a challenge to get his hands in those pants, much less a gun.

He stood for a moment, letting the rain pour down his back.  He was already drenched, so what the hell.

With a grimace Nate took in the neighborhood.  If you could call it that.  Half the houses on the street appeared vacant.  The ones that were occupied were lit up, as if illuminating the shadows would scare away the Boogeyman. His hackles rose. It would take a dead man not to sense the danger in those houses, and the vacant lots surrounding them. Empty lots littered with trash and overgrown weeds were nearly as plentiful, and only a little less pathetic than the houses.

The cars cluttering the streets ranged from tricked-up 70’s pimpmobiles, to fifteen-to-twenty-year-old sedans so covered in rust it was a wonder they didn’t fall apart each time the engine ginned up. Looking from one depressing sight to another, Nate’s protective instincts kicked in. Christ, what was Erin doing living in a dump like this?  It was one thing for him to be here. Half his “clients” lived in scrapheaps like this or worse.  At least Charlotte Prairie was relatively free of drug dealers.  Hell, they even had a neighborhood watch group.  They’d invited him to speak once; seven “members” showed up. Mothers and grandmothers, their faces lined with strain, asked question after question about how to keep their kids safe.  All he could tell them was to move out as quickly as they could.  They never invited him back.

He’d talk to Connor in the morning. Erin had no business living in a place like this.  Christ, what the hell were they paying rookie firefighters these days? Surely she could afford a safer place to live. He’d put Naomi, his desk sergeant, on it tomorrow. She’d understand. Naomi spent half her days chasing after runaway kids. She’d know how to ask the right questions, how not to embarrass Erin. To be sensitive and all that shit. Find out what was going on.

Because something definitely was going on with the Firefighters of America poster girl. Nate wasn’t a cop for nothing.  And six years spent crawling in steamy bug-infested jungles on missions the U.S. Government would deny with their dying breath -- or with his -- had tuned up his antennae.  He could smell trouble a mile off. And this feisty young woman with those damnable turquoise eyes was in trouble.  He didn’t miss the way she jumped when he took hold of her arm. How she tried to run by him. That flash in her eyes was panic, pure and simple.  And how many times did she look over her shoulder running down the street before he got her in his car?

Nope. Ms. Erin, spelled E.r.i.n., was not the All-American girl next door living out her lifelong dream to be a big bad fireman. The prickles on his neck told him that much.  But who was she? And what kind of trouble was she in?

Nate was a master interrogator. He’d gotten answers from the baddest of the bad. He snorted, thinking back on Erin’s non-answers to his family’s innocent questions, or the way her eyes darted from side to side, grasping for another acceptable lie. Hell, the only time she told the truth was when she said her parents were dead.  Well, and when she called him out as the immature asshole that he was. He chuckled, then sobered. Yeah, he’d get answers. Real answers.  But first, he needed data.

 He whistled to himself as he eased his long legs into the expensive leather seat in his Z, and fiddled with the high tech gizmos decorating the dashboard.  Good thing he was a whiz at ferreting out information, no matter how deep it was buried.  There wasn’t a site he couldn’t hack, a program he couldn’t break into. It was against departmental rules, of course.  Illegal as shit.  But then, he’d never been much for rules.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Read Chapter 1 of Murder, Lies, and Chocolate by Sally Berneathy

Amazon

$2.99

USA TODAY BESTSELLING AUTHOR
Book 2 of the Death by Chocolate Series.

Rodney Bradford comes into Lindsay's restaurant, offers to buy her small house for double its value, eats her brownies, and drops dead on the sidewalk in front. Then someone breaks into her house and tries to dig up her basement. Next her almost-ex-husband offers to sign the divorce papers, but only if she'll give him her small, old house and take his big, new house instead.

Suddenly everybody wants Lindsay's house. Is there oil under the basement, plans to bring the railroad through, pirate treasure buried in the basement? A second break-in occurs and causes her cat, King Henry, to launch into full attack mode, taking a few chunks out of the intruder.

Lindsay enlists the aid of her enigmatic neighbor, Fred, to help solve the mystery while trying to keep her police detective boyfriend, Trent, from getting in their way with his insistence on all those silly cop rules.

On the positive side, sales skyrocket for the special dessert Lindsay calls Murdered Man's Brownies. Prisoners, murderers, crazy relatives and strippers are all part of the chaos in this second book of the Death by Chocolate series.

BONUS! Chocolate recipes at the end of the book. Poison optional.


Chapter One



“Are you out of your freaking mind? No, you cannot have my house.” I spoke the words through gritted teeth to keep myself from shouting since it was noon and my small restaurant, Death by Chocolate, was packed. I didn’t want my customers to hear me screaming at my almost-ex-husband. Might ruin their appetite for dessert. I had no doubt Rick deliberately chose that setting so I wouldn’t yell at him.
“Lindsay, you’d have to be crazy to pass up a deal like this.” Rick leaned across the counter and gave me his most engaging, most insincere real estate salesman smile. “You’ll get almost twice what that old place is worth, and I’ll sign the divorce papers the minute you sign the Contract for Sale.”
Rick knew how to work me. He’d convinced me to marry him in the first place and now he’d delayed our divorce for almost a year. Every time I got a court date, he got a continuance. I really, really wanted him to sign those papers and I certainly could have used the extra money, but I’ve learned not to trust a Rick bearing gifts. He was up to something. Had he discovered my house had oil under the basement? Was the railroad scheduled to come through? I was pretty sure those things only happened in old movies, but I was equally sure this deal would have some money in it for Rick, more than was in it for me.
“Do you not see that I’m busy right now? Go away.” I turned to the man who’d taken a seat on the stool next to where Rick stood. “What can I get for you, sir? Our special today is a ham sandwich and a piece of Sinful Chocolate Cake.”
“I’m not leaving,” Rick said. “I’m meeting my client here. Throw a little business your way. We’ll be at that table in the corner in case you change your mind. Give it some thought.” He smiled and winked as he walked across the room.
Had I really once thought that smile was sexy?
Paula Roberts, my best friend and co-worker, was waiting tables while I took care of the counter. That meant she’d have to deal with him. Not that I wished Rick on her, but better her than me. At least he was a good tipper, especially when he was with a client. The old impress.
For the next hour I focused on serving sandwiches and chocolate goodies and tried to ignore Rick. I did notice that an older male joined him. Probably really was a real client. I’d expected him to bring in his latest bimbo. Excuse me…I mean, his latest girlfriend.
The man was likely the client who wanted to buy my house since he and Rick kept looking at me.
When Rick and I split up he moved his bimbo-of-the-month, Muffy, into the big home we once shared, and I moved into one of our small rental properties in the Kansas City suburb of Pleasant Grove. I wasn’t happy about it at the time, but I’d since become quite fond of that house. It has character and personality as well as great neighbors. Paula and her son, Zach, live on one side with my OCD computer nerd friend, Fred Sommers, on the other.
True, with as much money as Rick was offering, I could buy the vacant house across the street and fix it up, thus retaining my neighbors. That was just one of the many reasons I didn’t trust the whole deal. Why would anybody offer that much more than the house was worth? I did not for one minute believe Rick’s story that his client’s grandparents had lived in the house and he wanted it for sentimental value. What a crock.
The lunch crowd began to thin, and I noticed Rick and his client still sitting at the corner table. Across the room Paula cleared the dirty dishes off the table next to them and exchanged a raised-eyebrow look with me. I repressed a sigh as I handed the last lady at the bar a to-go bag with half a dozen gluten-free chocolate chip cookies. Rick was obviously planning to wait until everybody was gone then ambush me. He didn’t like not getting his way. That’s why our divorce was still pending. He didn’t want it, and if he didn’t want something, he’d figure a way to stop that something from happening.
A few months before he had kicked Muffy out and decided he wanted me back in. By that time I’d recovered from the temporary insanity that had induced me to marry him in the first place and got a cat instead. That cat loves my house. Make that, our house. King Henry took ownership the day he moved in.
The last customer left the counter. Besides Rick and his buddy, only one other table remained occupied. An older man and a younger woman sat there, nibbling on their cookies, talking softly and laughing. Probably married but not to each other.
Paula took her load of dishes to the kitchen then returned to where I stood behind the cash register. After her evil ex-husband was sent to prison last fall, she quit coloring her blonde hair brown and came out of hiding, but she still wore her self-appointed uniform of long sleeves and ankle-length skirts to hide the scars he’d left. I’d worn the same uniform for a while to make her feel comfortable but had recently gone back to jeans and white shirts. I’d tripped on those long skirts too many times.
“They didn’t order anything except desert, and Rick gave me a twenty dollar tip,” she said. “Watch your back.”
“He wants my house.”
“What?” Her eyes widened in surprise. “He made you take that house so he could keep the big one!”
“Shhh. Here they come.”
“I’ll just step into the kitchen and eavesdrop.” Paula vanished into the back room.
“Lindsay, I’d like you to meet Rodney Bradford.”
The tall man with gray hair, acne-scarred skin and dark eyes wore a business suit, but he didn’t look like a business person…more like a member of the mob cleaned up for trial. He gave me a big smile and extended a large hand across the counter. “Good to meet you, Lindsay.”
I took his hand automatically. It was thick, hard and callused. He didn’t grip too tightly, didn’t hang on too long, didn’t do anything wrong, but something about him creeped me out. Maybe just because he was hanging with Rick. Or maybe it was something to do with the darkness that seemed to expand out from those eyes and surround the man.
Nah, that was silly. Probably just because he was hanging with Rick.
“Can we talk outside?” Bradford asked, his gaze shifting nervously around the restaurant, looking at the couple in the corner as if they might be spies.
“No,” I said. “The acoustics are just fine in here. Feel free to speak.”
“Lindsay.” Rick spoke my name as if it was a threat, but then he gave a big salesman smile. “Please?”
I considered the situation. Stand there and argue with a man whose ears were tuned to hear only his own words or go outside with the two of them, then run back inside and lock the door. “Fine.” I took a fortifying sip of my current Coke, set it on the counter and headed for the front door.
Outside I led them away from the door but still in the shade of my awning. It was a hot day. I stopped in front of the sign painted on my window, positioning myself directly beneath the words Death by and obscuring most of the word Chocolate. I figured that would make a nice picture, though Bradford was probably too dense to get it and Rick was too self-consumed.
“Rodney is interested in purchasing that little house you’re living in, the one you and I own,” Rick said, ramping up the wattage on his smile.
Jerk. Reminding me the house was still community property, that we were still legally—no, I can’t say the “m” word when it relates to Rick. We were still legally bound.
I smiled with the same degree of sincerity as he did. That would be…none. “You mean my home? I’m not interested in selling.”
“It would mean a whole lot to me,” Rodney said. “My grandparents used to live there. That house has got sentimental value.” He paused, blinked and seemed confused for a second. Was this guy sick? His tanned skin did look kind of pallid. He swallowed, recovered and continued. “I used to visit them when I was a boy. Some of the best memories of my life. Now they’re—” He lowered his gaze, and this time his pause was deliberate. Con job. I’d seen Rick do it too many times not to recognize it. “They’re in heaven, and I’d just like to be able to go to that old house, sleep in my old room, sit on the porch like we used to and remember the good times.”
I was sorry to hear the nice elderly couple Rick and I bought the house from was dead. They’d seemed healthy, looking forward to life in a retirement village. “The house across the street is for sale. You could buy it, get a pair of binoculars and sit on the porch every day looking at my house.”
“Lindsay!” Rick exclaimed.
Beads of sweat broke out on Rodney’s forehead. The temperature was in the 80s, but the shade was cool. Was my refusal freaking him out that bad? “I’ve got a little money,” he said. His voice suddenly sounded creaky. “I’ll pay you more than you’d get anywhere else just so I can have my dear old grandmother’s house.”
“I’m sorry. It’s not for sale. If you’ll excuse me, I don’t want to leave Paula with all the cleanup.”
I took a step toward the door.
Rodney cleared his throat. “Could I have a glass of water?”
A stalling tactic. I sighed. “Sure.”
I went inside.
Paula had come back from the kitchen to stand beside the door. “Don’t sell him your house.”
“Don’t worry.” I poured a glass of ice water and went back out, planning to hand it to the man then run inside while he was drinking.
He raised his head to look at me. His skin was really pale and his eyes had a shiny cast to them. Maybe this was more than frustration at being thwarted. My cookies had nuts. I hoped he wasn’t allergic. If he went into anaphylactic shock and died, it wouldn’t be good publicity for the diner.
He reached a hand toward the glass, his eyes rolled up in his head, he groaned and slowly crumpled to the sidewalk.
“Did you bring a drunk man into my restaurant?” I demanded of Rick, hoping that’s what it was. I didn’t need my place to be quarantined for an outbreak of malaria or shut down because my cookies made somebody sick.
Rick sank to the ground beside the man. Paula rushed out. The couple at the corner table stood and looked through the window. I held onto the glass of water as if it was a glass of Coke and prayed for a verdict of too many beers.
“Call 911!” Rick shouted.
I set the water on the sidewalk, fumbled in the pocket of my jeans for my cell phone and punched in the three ominous numbers.
Paula rose, her face pale, her expression solemn. “Lindsay, he’s dead.”
The couple exploded through the door and hauled butt out of there. They didn’t want to be seen on the ten o’clock news.
This was worse than getting sick. Heart attack? Nut allergies? Please, not poisoned chocolate again! “You don’t know that he’s dead,” I snapped. “You thought your husband was dead just because you shot him, but he was still alive.”
Rick stood. He’d lost his salesman's smile. Damn. That did not bode well.
Someone answered my phone call. “911. What is your emergency?”
I swallowed and spoke into the phone. “I think I just killed a man. I mean…my cookies killed a man. I mean—”
“He had the brownie,” Paula interrupted.
I didn’t correct the 911 lady. Cookies or brownies, a man had just died after eating my dessert. Even if it was a good old-fashioned heart attack, death and desserts just don’t go well together.

Friday, May 20, 2022

Read an Excerpt From Big Girls Don't Cry by Taylor Lee

FREE

Amazon

*****Praise for “Big Girls Don’t Cry” ****


“Sizzling Romantic Suspense at its best! As the danger rages, their passions flare!” KDR

“Taking down an international drug ring? Solving a vicious murder? All in a day’s work for the sexy special agent. Capturing an irresistible woman as tough as she is beautiful? Now that’s another story!” L. Takamia

Overview

•A girl abandoned to the streets.

A brother brutally murdered.

Can she find his killer before the killer finds her?


Excerpt:

Jake slipped in the conference room in time to hear Chief Burton say “I’m sorry for your loss, Miss Beloi.”  Even to Jake, the words sounded hollow. The tense young woman sitting across from the chief responded like he’d lobbed a gallon of gasoline on smoldering coals.

Her voice was incredulous, laced with fury. “You are sorry for my loss, Chief?”

Is that what you have to say to me? You are sorry for my loss?” She tossed her head and leaned forward, grasping the arms of the chair, her fingers white with the strain. 

The chief squirmed. The slight flush on his cheeks and greasy sheen on his upper lip telegraphed his discomfort. Jake breathed in the heavy tension in the room, tangled with the smell of burnt coffee and industrial cleaner. The six men huddled around the scarred table looked as uncomfortable as the chief.  Distinguishable only by the colors of their uniforms, they were a striking contrast to the blond woman in her fitted red suit glaring at the chief. 

Her anger was harsh, unrelenting. “Who taught you to say that, Chief?  Some shrink years ago told you that’s what grieving families wanted to hear?  That you were sorry that they lost something? Like a dog or a cat?? How about if they “lost” a mother or a father or a child--or in my case, a brother? Did it ever occur to you, Chief, to change your script? To look the person in the eye and say to those shattered souls sitting across from you, ‘I’m sorry as hell, ma’am, that your husband was killed?’ Or, ‘sure am sorry that your kid drowned, or hate like heck that your wife was murdered, sir!’ Maybe, Chief Burton, that way you could establish the fact that they “lost” something important!”

Chief Burton breathed an audible sigh. “Look, Miss Beloi, I know what you are feeling…”

Her voice shot out emphasizing the sharp crack of her hand on the table.  The chief visibly jumped. “No, Chief Burton, you do not know how I feel.  You cannot begin to know how I feel. And you don’t need to know.  You don’t need to know what Anthony meant to me.  You don’t deserve to know that.  You don’t deserve to know that he was the finest brother anyone could have. The finest man I’ve ever known.  But you already know that, don’t you, Chief?  You know what kind of a man, a cop, Anthony was.”

The chief swallowed and leaned forward, the creases on his lined forehead knotted in deep crevices. 

“Miss Beloi, I know you are upset. Can I get something for you, a glass of water, a cup of coffee?  Maybe, it…would be better to have this conversation when you settle down…”

The words weren’t out of his mouth when the woman leapt to her feet. She planted her hands midway across the table, her face inches from his. Her voice shook with anger. “Don’t you dare patronize me.”

The men around the table looked down.  The sounds of uneasy coughs, shuffling papers, and chairs scraping against linoleum, filled the heavy silence following her impassioned outcry.

Jake took this moment to move toward the table.

“Mind if I join you, Chief?”

Relief flooded the older man’s strained face. He met Jake’s eyes with a grateful nod and motioned to the chair at the end of the table. 

“Please, Jake, have a seat.”

Several men in military uniform rose as Jake approached. He waved them down with a flick of his wrist. 

He stood behind the chair at the end of the table and waited until he had the young woman’s attention.  He nodded to her. “Special Agent Jake Gardner, Army CID. Please, ma’am, sit down.”

She glared at him, transferring her palpable anger from the relieved police chief to him. She raised her chin defiantly and straightened her slim shoulders.

“Why should I?” 

Jake allowed a slight smile to cross his lips. 

“For one thing, protocol demands that I stay standing as long as you do.” He added, his drawl deepening, “And because my Grandmother Winnie Mae would have my hide if I sat down before a lady did.”


Lexie glared at the tall dark haired man at the end of the table. The bars and scrambled egg insignia decorating his camouflage signified his status. She knew she was close to losing it. Her heart pounded and she struggled to breathe. Her legs were shaking, a combination of stress and rage. The sea of faces blurred. Only the man’s piercing blue eyes holding her gaze made any sense. She realized with a start that he would stand as long as she did. With a dismissive shrug, she sunk down in her chair, wondering incongruously if real people had grandmothers with names like Winnie Mae.  

Refusing to acknowledge the concern that she saw in his eyes, she snapped, “Why are you here? What does CID have to do with my brother’s death?  Didn’t the army get enough of him for eight years, sending him to every hellhole in the world? Now you need to be involved in his death, as well? Or do you need to write up one of your fancy reports so that the army can close one more troublesome file like Chief Burton is trying to do.” 

She ignored the gasps from several of the younger military personnel and the chagrin tightening the chief’s face. Agent Gardner threw the chief a quick glance, frowning slightly. Lexie refused to look away when he turned his full attention to her. His easy smile and southern tinged drawl were noticeably absent when he replied. 

“In answer to your question, Miss Beloi, I am here because Anthony’s body was found on the base. This means that even though he was an employee of the Yuma Police Department at the time of his death, the army is directly responsible for finding his killer. I assure you that no reports, fancy or otherwise, will be written, or files closed by the army or the YPD, until the person or persons responsible for his death are apprehended and punished.”  

Lexie was startled. No one had told her they found Anthony on the base. She stared at Special Agent Gardner for a long moment, surprised that he called her brother by his first name. She decided she would deal with him later. For now, she wouldn’t let him take the heat off the unfortunate police chief. She knew that she was being rude, challenging, but she refused to let these men push her aside, not answer her questions. To relegate her to the bin of grieving family members begging for information that never came.

She opened her leather portfolio and removed a sheet of paper with the YPD logo inscribed on the top.  Ignoring Special Agent Gardner, she shoved it across the table toward the chief. 

“I assume you are the Chief John Burton who sent me this letter.  The letter indicates once again that you are ‘sorry for my loss’ and goes on to say that to date you have no suspects or leads to the people who killed Anthony.”

The police chief’s ruddy face flushed a dangerous purple. He shook his head and rubbed his fists against his receding hairline. 

“Look, Miss Beloi, I’ll admit, given the circumstances, that letter does seem ….

Lexie interrupted him with a fierce glare. 

“Seems what, Chief? Not helpful? Dismissive? Thoughtless? But you didn’t let me finish reading.  I was particularly interested in this last sentence.” She stopped and looked up at him and pointed to the letter her eyes flashing. “Here, where you say that ‘due to the lack of hard evidence, I do not expect to have additional information for you any time in the near future. Cordially, John Burton, Chief of Police, City of Yuma.’”

A hushed silence fell over the table. Lexie looked from to man, but none of them met her gaze. Rather they peered at the table or began leafing through their large folders. Agent Gardner’s crisp voice broke the silence. “May I please see the letter, John?”

The chief rubbed his beefy hand over his jaw and reluctantly handed the letter to Deputy Nick Thomas, who gave it to Agent Gardner.

Lexie ignored Agent Gardner’s dark study of the letter and focused on Chief Burton. 

The chief raised his hands with an aggrieved shrug. 

“I know this looks bad.  Like we don’t care about you or that we didn’t care about what happened to your brother.  You don’t have to believe me, Miss Beloi, but Lt. Beloi’s death has torn this department apart.  Every available man and woman we have is working the case. That letter was a mistake. It’s…it’s a fucking form letter. I apologize.  You know your brother worked undercover. His job was dangerous as hell.  I … I should have explained that we have to keep our investigation under wraps. The last thing we want is to let our investigation blow all the hard work Lt. Beloi accomplished.”

Lexie continued to stare at him, then agreed. “Yes, I know the kind of work Anthony did. But he never discussed his missions with me. That was his choice.  He tried to protect me.  He didn’t want his work to touch me, to affect me.” 

Staring at her clenched fists in her lap, the hideous irony struck her.  Anthony always worried that something bad would happen to her because of his dangerous work. The scum he chased. But they’d gone after him, not her.  And he was right. The worst possible thing had happened to her. The person she loved more than anything in the world was dead. She looked up realizing that the chief was talking to her.  

He pointed at the big man sitting confidently at the end of the table. “Special Agent Gardner here just came in from Fort Bragg. Since Anthony’s body was found on the base, we’ll be sharing jurisdiction.” 

Looking to the special agent, the chief heaved an enormous sigh and shook his head. “Hell, Jake, I hope you don’t think for a minute that we aren’t damn glad that you’re on the case. That’s the only good news we’ve had in this whole mess. We can use all the help we can get.  Christ, you get into the drug rings here and it’s like pokin’ your head in a wasp’s nest looking for the one wasp with a green stripe on his ass instead of a black one.”

Lexie stood and began sorting her papers. She threw Agent Gardner a dismissive nod. 

“Please give me my letter.  I need it so I am clear where I stand with the Yuma Police Department.”

Agent Gardner nodded in return and sent the letter back up the table. She didn’t thank him or even acknowledge him. Instead, as she had throughout the conversation, she turned on the Chief. 

“I’m sure you are pleased that Special Agent Gardner has graced you with his presence. No doubt you men will have many long sessions--bull sessions--testing each other’s theories, looking for strengths and weaknesses in your arguments.  Perhaps you will make charts, blueprints, and spreadsheets of all the important information you gather. In the meantime, while you are attending your meetings, preparing your various reports for each and every level of government trying to cover its ass, I will be gathering real information.  From the only source that counts, the streets.”
    She gave Chief Burton a frosty smile.  She tapped on the table, a harsh rasping sound as if to get his attention.  The huge man looked as if he didn’t dare look away. 

“Tomorrow at 10:00 a.m. I’ll be back.  Please have a list of the men who worked undercover with Anthony. I need their telephone numbers and email addresses. I also want all the reports that have been turned in to date, along with transcriptions of interviews with any and all witnesses.” She dropped her folio in her large canvas bag and slung it over her shoulder. “Oh, and I want a copy of the full autopsy report.” 

Agent Gardner and the chief rose to their feet at the same time.  Clearly flustered, the chief protested, “Now, listen here, young lady, you know very well we can’t give out that kind of information to a private citizen.  This is an ongoing investigation.”

Alexis lifted her chin and said in a haughty voice. “Really? I understood from your letter that your investigation is at a dead end.”  Before he could answer, she turned and walked toward the door.  Looking back over her shoulder, she seared him with one last glare. 

“Whatever you don’t give me, Chief Burton, I will find on my own.”

Agent Gardner moved quickly to the door.  

“Alexis, wait, please.  I will see you out.”

Lexie frowned, annoyed and surprised that he called her by her first name.  The familiarity rankled. Clearly he was accustomed to issuing orders – even if they came dressed in southern chivalry.
    She tossed her head and slanted him a glare as cold as those she’d showered on the chief of police for the previous hour. 

“Don’t bother.  I saw myself in. I can see myself out.”

He reached around her and opened the door, enclosing her between the door and his huge body. Looming over her, he took hold of her elbow and led her into the hallway. Pulling the door behind them, he said with a slight chuckle, “Grandmothers and all that.” 

When the door closed, he turned to her with a serious expression. 

“Alexis, I want to talk with you. Do you have time to come to my office? It is just around the corner.”

Lexie shook her head and stepped away.  His presence was overwhelming.  This big man made her nervous.  Without dwelling on it, she knew it was his uniform. He wore the ACU camouflage that Anthony used to wear. The green beret visible in his pants pocket said it all. From the steely-eyed way he looked at her, she knew that she wouldn’t be able to push him around the way she had the chief.  Unlike the police chief, Agent Gardner was quietly confident, not the least intimidated by her. He was looking at her, as if he had something important to say. It frightened her.  

She wanted to leave.  The meeting had taken its toll.  The references to Anthony, hearing his name spoken by people she didn’t know, people she didn’t want to know, was painful. Each time she heard his name, the reality hit her, a physical blow. Anthony was dead.  And tomorrow she would look at his personal things, his autopsy report. The experience with the eight men had shaken her foundation. She’d managed to put on a good act. But she could tell from the way her legs were shaking that she only had minutes before the panic flared. She needed air.  Or to run.  Anything to leave this building where death was a common topic of conversation, where grief stricken people sat in ugly metal chairs waiting to talk with the men and women who faced death and grief too often to let it affect them.  

She glanced up to see Agent Gardner looking at her through narrowed eyes, knowing eyes. The kindness in his expression unnerved her, threatened her shaky reserves.  It took her a moment to remember his question. He wanted to talk to her. Keep her longer, to talk about Anthony. 

“No, I… I can’t.  I need to leave now.” She stumbled as she backed away, and muttered to herself, “these damn high heels.”

He caught her arm, steadying her, and nodded as if he understood.

“I see.” 

When she jerked away from his grasp, he added, “How about tomorrow when you come to pick up the things you requested from Chief Burton?”

Remembering the flustered police chief’s response to her outrageous demands, she gave a soft snort, “If he’ll give them to me.”

“I’ll see that he gives you everything that he’s allowed to give.”

Surprised at his calm acceptance of her demands, she murmured, “Thank you.”

His quiet certainty reassured her and disturbed her at the same time.  This was a man accustomed to commanding.  Strong men and women did what he told them to do and didn’t ask questions. She wondered what happened to his quiet authority when someone – someone like her—bucked his requests.  When she looked up at him, she saw he had not moved. He regarded her solemnly, as if he was drilling down, beneath the hard shell she kept tightly sheathed around her. 

“Tomorrow, then?”

She took another step backward, glancing over her shoulder at the exit that seemed far down the hallway. His knowing look threatened her –and annoyed her. 

“I don’t know.  It depends on how the meeting goes with the chief.  And… my schedule, what else I have going on...”

She couldn’t believe the way that her voice trailed off. God, had she actually stammered?  What was wrong with her?  What was it about him that was so unsettling? Of all the people she had met in this hideous place, he was the kindest, the most competent.  He actually could help her. But there was something about him that disturbed her. He would demand things of her in return, more than she was willing to give. He would want to know her, know what she was thinking, worm his way under the reserves it had taken her a lifetime to construct. 

His quiet response broke through her jumbled reverie. 

“I see.”

Then just as she knew in her gut that he would, he pressed, wanted more. 

“I’m curious, Alexis. Have you ever read an autopsy report?” 

She closed her eyes to shut out the gruesome memories. When she opened them he was frowning at her, his concern apparent. She looked him in the eye.

“I’ve seen my share of dead bodies, Agent Gardner.  Does that count?”

“Jake.”

She frowned. “What?” 

“The name’s Jake.” 

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