Wednesday, August 31, 2022

A Perilous Affair by Linda Wisdom

 $3.99


Amazon

She had a new name, a new face, a new identity...even a new personality. For ex-agent Mari Chandler, the past was dead and gone. Only her love for Reid Morgan refused to die. She went back to Mexico determined to let that love go. What brought Reid to the same place at the same time with the same idea? He thought her a stranger, but soon there were the same burning kisses, the same deep, hungering needs. To surrender her secret would put them both in danger.

Once they'd been in mortal danger...danger that still lurked in the shadows. Mari knew their lives depended on her playing a cool game, but could she extinguish the blaze of love that ignited her heart?

Monday, August 29, 2022

Courting Trouble: A Romantic Comedy (The Texas Two-Step Series Book 5) by Kathy Carmichael

$2.99

BUY HERE

Updated version -- Sweet romance. The Texas Two-Step series is a reader favorite. All of the stories in the series are sweet, charming and emotional contemporary romance. Each story in the series stands alone, but all Texas Two-Step novels and novellas feature love stories about members of the Nelson, Murphy or Palmer families — and sometimes, all three!

BOOK DESCRIPTION:

Diedra Palmer likes her men in neckties and starched collars—all the better for mussing—and attorney Alec Sparks is the starchiest man Diedra has ever met. Trouble is, Alec lives to maintain control, and Diedra's an accident waiting to happen. Electromagnetically challenged, Deidra unintentionally burns out light bulbs, stops watches, and makes appliances go berserk when her emotions run high. Alec would love to have nothing more to do with Diedra. But his law partner's marriage to Diedra's sister is on the rocks, and Diedra's promising to get out of his hair if he'll just agree to her hair-brained scheme to reunite the pair. Yet, how will he ignore the sparks Diedra is setting off in his heart? Courting Trouble is the fourth sweet romance in the Texas Two-Step contemporary romance series from USA Today bestselling author Kathy Carmichael. Previously titled: Stuck on You

THE TEXAS TWO-STEP, in series order:
Western Pleasure (A Novella) (Book 0) (Prequel)
Chasing Charlie (Book 1)
The Lassoed Bride (A Novella) (Book 2)
Country Courtship (Book 3)
Courting Trouble (Book 4)
My Southern Bride (Book 5)
Abby's Cowboy (Book 6)
Christmas at Nelson Ranch (Book 7)

"Debbie Macomber fans will love CHASING CHARLIE.” ~ Bargainbooksy.com

 


Saturday, August 27, 2022

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

$2.99

Amazon

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, August 26, 2022

FREE Trial by Fire by Taylor Lee

 FREE

Amazon

Riveting Full Length Sequel to Bestselling Sizzling Romantic Suspense “Playing with Fire”.

“The sexiest, most outrageous hero I’ve read in a long time. Snappy, laugh out loud dialogue, and a Sizzling HOT romance makes this wildly exciting murder mystery a true page-turner.” J. John
“A spellbinding police mystery thriller that will have you on the edge of your seat. Pulse pounding action and steamy romance. A cast of unforgettable characters that will capture your heart.” Action Junkie

•A badass cop flaunts every regulation and finds himself the # 1 suspect in a violent murder
•A vicious killer who makes Hannibal Lecter seem tame
•Two wounded lovers haunted by the past

“A love story so poignant makes you want to cheer for Nate and Erin as they struggle to overcome the ugliness from the past.”RomanceReviews

Love Kaylea Cross's heart pounding romantic military thrillers? Sylvia Day’s and Maya Banks red hot sexy heroes, feisty heroines and high adrenaline action? Fern Michael’s compelling characters? Grab Trial by Fire and prepare to be addicted. 

Chapter 1

“What have we got, Jim?”
Seeing the Medical Examiner huddled with a cluster of techs and members of the
evidence team, Nate Stryker waited for the verdict. Jim Thompson’s face flooded with relief and
something akin to wonder when he saw Nate. Nodding to Dan Coulter, the wizened little man
turned his attention to Nate.
“We’re waiting for you, Nate. I’ve kept everyone out. Knew you’d want this one clean
until you saw it. Plus, I wanted to get your first impression. Sure as hell, it’s something I never
thought I’d see in Chicadia Falls, Minnesota.”
“Point me to it.”
Yanking on the latex gloves and paper booties one of the techs handed him, Nate
followed the diminutive medical examiner into what looked like a library. The opulent room
screamed money. It could have been the centerpiece of any well-appointed lounge in a
Gentleman’s Club; overstuffed leather sofas, matching armchairs, and occasional tables carved
out of teak contributed to a sense of masculine comfort. Dark hardwood floors and hand-woven
area rugs underscored the expensive taste of the owner. Guests had access to a bar stocked with
premium liquors and a cigar cabinet with all necessary accoutrements. Walnut-paneled walls,
hundreds of leather-bound books, a native stone fireplace complete with a flickering fire, spoke
to a room meant to be enjoyed, and--knowing the owner--envied.
And no doubt, before this evening, that was precisely the reaction this room and every
other room in the lumber baron’s ostentatious mansion received from all who were fortunate
enough to be invited in. Nate shook his head. So much for first impressions. From this night on,
Mike Peterson’s showplace library would be known as his funeral pyre. Humph. He should be
so lucky to have been burned to death. Would have been a hell of a lot quicker.
“Fuck.”
Dan’s muttered expletive said it all.
Nate nodded to his partner.
“That about sums it up, Dan.”
Exchanging a glance with Dan, who was rooted to a spot by the sofa, Nate moved toward
the makeshift cross in the middle of the room. Jim Thompson didn’t exaggerate. Wasn’t only

2
Chicadia Falls that hadn’t seen a scene like this. Nate was damn sure this one would go down in
police annals everywhere. Hell, their little township could become famous. Or infamous, Nate
snorted. Leave it to Peterson to go out in style. Fucking show-off. Couldn’t even be murdered
without drama.
Nate approached the naked man hanging on the cross. Fortunately for Mike, he’d relied
on his wealth to attract women. Sure as hell wasn’t his physique. Scrawny, sagging skin liberally
sprinkled with age spots, and a pendulant belly about summed up the former ladies man’s body.
And granted it wasn’t fair to judge a guy’s dick when it was stuck in his mouth, but c’mon! The
best that could be said was at least Mike didn’t choke to death. It was a cinch that little nubbin
didn’t reach much past his front teeth.
No, more likely Mike bled out. Inch-deep cuts marked his torso and limbs.
Systematically placed, the slashes were made by a pro. Someone well-schooled in the art of
slowly whipping a man to death with as much pain as possible. Of course, that open area
between his legs that used to anchor his manhood, contributed to the blood clotting on the floor.
From the way the blood had dried on his pale skinny thighs, that unkind cut was made early on.
Either Mike was unwilling to give up the information his tormentor wanted or the end goal was
torture, plain and simple.
Dan’s voice was shaky. Smearing a gob of mentholated ointment under his nose, he
offered Nate the slim metal tin.
“You want some of this, Nate?”
Nate shook his head and moved closer to the cross. Over the years he’d become inured to
the smells of death. Particularly violent deaths. Mike’s qualified--big time. The acrid smell of
blood, piss and evacuated bowels were all common odors at a violent death scene. Mike’s had all
three and then some. The stench was enough to deck a rookie officer. Nate barely noticed it.
Staring at the vicious slashes covering Mike’s body, Dan’s expression was as strained as
his voice.
“Jesus, Nate. What makes those kinds of cuts? I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Nate shrugged.
“My best guess is a steel-tipped flogger, or could be a one-tail. Unlikely just leather could
go that deep. But, hell, the guy who wielded it was a master. From the looks of it, he enjoyed it.”

3
Dan began documenting the scene, his low voice droning into the ‘notes’ app on his
iPhone. Nate listened for a moment then got lost in his visual examination. Erin always used her
phone to capture the images at a fire scene. It was a great technique, but Nate was a visual kind
of guy. At least for him, the disadvantage of a verbal recording was that you only recorded what
you saw at the time. Once Nate saw a scene, it was imbedded in his memory. And there it lived--
forever. Days, even weeks later, he could retrieve it in technicolor. Experts called it eidetic
memory. Nate called it a pain in the ass. But as annoying as the unbidden replays were, he’d
learned to trust his gut. When the scene kept intruding, he knew he’d missed something. The
details were there from the beginning but often got lost in the crush of the crime scene. In the
past, they were the minor details that had helped him break a case when no one else could.
“You about done, Nate?”
Nate nodded to his partner.
“I’ve got everything I need for the moment.” He motioned to the door. “Go ahead and let
them in.”
As the troop of evidence clerks and uniformed officers flooded the room, Nate sought out
the M.E. Taking a deep breath, he asked the question that had been stalking his mind since they
got the call.
“Where’s Laura?”
Jim Thompson gave him a knowing nod.
“They have her upstairs in her bedroom. Dr. James and a couple of the EMT’s are with
her. She was pretty beat up.”
Nate’s gut clenched.
“She was hurt?”
Thompson frowned and shook his head. “No, she wasn’t here. She’d been out
somewhere.”
Nate quirked a brow and murmured to Dan. “No surprise there.”
Dan’s lip curled in response.
Not hearing Nate’s offhand comment, the M.E. continued.
“Apparently she arrived home about an hour ago. She was the one who found Mike and
made the 911 call.”
“She conscious?”

4
“Yes. They had to dope her. She made quite a scene. Hysterical when the first
responders arrived. But I guess you can’t blame her. I doubt any of us are going to forget this
shocking bloodbath any time soon.”

~~~

Nate trudged up the circular staircase, running his hand over the opulent hand-carved oak
railing. Damn, he knew Mike was a lumber baron, but did he have to include every kind of wood
known to man in his home? In the library alone there were four different kinds of wood. By the
time Nate made it through the grand foyer he’d counted two more. Given Mike’s penchant for
pretention, what should have been beautiful was overkill.
Overkill didn’t begin to describe the bedroom they entered.
If the library was the epitome of masculine opulence, and the foyer was an adventure into
a Tuscan grand hallway complete with columns and multicolored tile floors, the bedroom was
Barbie’s playhouse. The last time he’d seen this much pink and white was when his little cousin
forced him to be Ken in her never-ending nine-year-old’s version of grown-up play. Once
again, in the Peterson household, the motto seemed to be, if it worked once, why not use it
multiple times? And in this bedroom, just in case you were sight-deficient, two of the walls were
floor to ceiling mirrors. Nate stifled a laugh at the incredulous expression on Dan’s face when he
glanced up and spotted the huge mirror above the bed. Apparently his straight-laced partner
didn’t know the woman dramatically stretched out on the pink velvet chaise lounge. Nate could
have told Dan, wherever Laura was, there were mirrors.
Laura was surrounded by worried-looking medics and a short, graying man Nate
presumed was Dr. James. Moving through the throng that separated to let him pass, Nate made
his way to the semi-conscious woman. He spoke quietly.
“Laura, its Nate.”
Laura immediately came to life. With a wild cry, she jumped up and threw herself at
him.
“Oh God, Nate. Oh thank God you’re here. You need to help me. Please! Somebody
needs to help me. Mike… Oh God, Nate. Something awful… somebody hurt Mike… I need
you, Nate!”
Her stammering, incoherent speech ended in an uncontrolled wail.

5
Nate let her cling to him for a moment, then carefully unwound her hands from his waist
and helped her sit up against the back of the tufted lounge. His voice was calm but loud enough
to be heard over her jerky sobs.
“Yes, Laura. I saw him. Dan and I just left the scene. I’m sorry. It is a terrible crime.
I’m especially sorry that you had to see him like that.”
He stepped back, putting distance between them.
“I’m going to need to ask you some questions, Laura.”
At the sound of a small cough, Nate glanced at the clearly concerned little man hovering
by Laura’s side. Nate raised a questioning brow.
The doctor shook his head and motioned for Nate to follow him. They stood at the side
of the room.
“I’m Dr. Andrew James. She’s in shock, Detective Stryker. This is not a good time to
interview her. You are unlikely to get useful information. She’s coherent for short moments and
then becomes agitated, then hysterical. I’ve given her a significant amount of Valium, a much
larger dose than I like to give. I’m hoping that it will allow her to sleep.”
As if to punctuate his point, Laura’s head lolled to the side. Her breathing deepened
perceptibly and she appeared to fall asleep. Nate grimaced. Although she’d just discovered her
murdered husband’s body, and her life had turned upside down, Laura looked as beautiful as
ever. Her long blond hair hung down her back in shiny waves of gold. Dark lashes shadowed her
rosy cheeks. Her plump bee-stung lips were moist, even inviting. The peek-a-boo clothing she
always wore showed her voluptuous body to perfection. Her bountiful cleavage spilled out of
her abbreviated halter top. And, even asleep, she’d managed to hike up her short skirt, revealing
the lacy edge of her panties.
Seeing the EMT’s trying to look away, not to gawk, Nate gave a soft snort. He could
have told them not to bother. It didn’t matter. Even sleeping, Laura made sure she got attention.
Always had. Always would.
When it was clear that Laura was sleeping soundly, and questioning her was a non-
starter, Nate gave Dr. James his card.
“Please let Mrs. Peterson know that I will be back in the morning.”
The doctor responded with a polite nod.

6
The library buzzed with activity. Well-equipped technicians, EMT’s and cameramen
were hard at work, in colonies of specialized activity. Nate spoke with each of the uniformed
men in the room and then went to talk with the men positioned outside. He greeted cops that had
come in from several neighboring jurisdictions, who were working under the leadership of Sgt.
Charlie Hanson, one of Nate’s key men. According to Charlie, they’d barricaded the roads
surrounding the estate, building a five hundred yard perimeter around the house. Knowing that
there was nothing they could do until morning, Dan circulated among the men, indicating that
Nate wanted everyone at the station at 6 a.m. sharp.
From the doorway Nate took a last look at the pitiful shell of the man still hanging on the
cross. No question that in life Mike Peterson was an arrogant asshole. Hell, so was he. Nate
grimaced. He and Mike had something else in common. They’d both had the misfortune to have
been married to Laura.

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Undercover Holiday: Brotherhood Protectors World (The Guardian Agency) by Regn Black

$2.99 or FREE for Kindle Unlimited Subscribers

Amazon

She insists she is not the target...

When Hannah Lynch learns one of her sisters isn't coming home for Christmas, she knows something is seriously wrong. A Guardian Agency tech assistant, Hannah starts digging and discovers her sister is caught in the middle of a crisis that threatens the whole family. Determined to prevent disaster and save her family's Christmas, she takes the case to her bosses--who insist on sending a protector with her.

Her undercover fiancé strongly disagrees...

Former Navy SEAL Seth Mathison is new to the Brotherhood Protectors team and more than a little curious that his first solo assignment is going undercover as Hannah's fiancé for the holidays. The case turns into the balancing act of his life, watching for danger while pretending to be madly in love, amid a flurry of family traditions.

As Seth and Hannah play up their fake engagement, they must scramble to expose the threat closing in or they'll lose out on an unexpected love that has become as real as it gets.

If you like your holiday romance packed with sweet family traditions, spicy passion, and a dash of breath-taking danger, you'll love Undercover Holiday!

Chapter 1

H: When do you arrive?

S: Xmas eve. Late

No way. Hannah Lynch stared at the text message from her sister-of-choice, utterly baffled. She and Sonya Inman were always together for the holidays. Had been that way since freshman year of college when their suitemate, Harper Ellington, invited them to join her family over the break when the dorm was closed.

Over the past decade, Hannah had discovered the holidays could be filled with fun traditions, joy, and loads of laughter with loved ones. So much better than the sullen mood swings and drunken brawls she’d grown up with as an only child. Sonya had gladly escaped different issues and no-less serious troubles. It was unthinkable that the three of them wouldn’t be together at the Ellington resort in South Carolina in just a few days. Though they talked often and tried to get together frequently, Christmas was their singular, non-negotiable event. What could possibly keep Sonya away until the last minute?

Concerned, Hannah checked her call logs. Why hadn’t she noticed that the last time Sonya had spoken to her was back in September? There had been plenty of text messages, but they’d gone way too long without a real-time, in person call. She fired off a text to Harper, asking if she’d heard from Sonya, and then she started digging.

As a Guardian Agency researcher, she knew how to delve into a background or personal history. Recruited out of college, years of training and experience had molded her into one of the best when it came to finding people and the secrets they wanted to keep.

She should probably feel guilty about prying into her sister’s life. She didn’t. Neither Sonya nor Harper knew the full truth about who employed her or the nature of her work. It wasn’t a great feeling keeping that particular detail from the two people who were closest to her, but it was a necessity.

The Guardian Agency, managed by the law firm of Gamble and Swann, made a habit of keeping their protection and investigation services under the radar. Clients came by word-of-mouth referrals only. Zero advertising. They’d experienced a surge of growth, reach, and collaboration in recent years to accommodate their clients, but prior to that, anonymity even between employees had been standard procedure.

Hannah came up for air a couple hours later, only to see Harper’s text reply. She hadn’t spoken to Sonya lately either.

Not cool.

Hannah shoved her glasses to her forehead and rubbed her weary eyes. She should’ve noticed the trouble sooner. Then again, Sonya was a pro at keeping people at arm’s length. The woman hated feeling like a burden. Ten years and she still struggled to accept how much she was loved and valued by Hannah, Harper, and all of the Ellingtons.

“Whatever is going on, you’re not going through it by yourself,” Hannah vowed into the quiet surroundings of her office.

Pulling her glasses back down to her nose, she sent a bogus reassurance to Harper. The white lie made her a little queasy, so she shifted her focus. Sonya needed her. If her sister had known Hannah’s real role with Gamble and Swann, she might’ve reached out. Instead, she was on the run. Alone. Not for much longer. Cracking her knuckles, Hannah began compiling the report for what might be the most important case of her career.

*

After nearly forty-eight hours of pacing, nail-biting, and monitoring, Hannah finally got the summons to Swann’s office. She had to believe her bosses understood what she’d found and the imminent risks that Sonya and Harper were facing. Both of her bosses were good people and they definitely wouldn’t leave her sisters hanging. If, for some reason, they didn’t like her initial conclusions and suggestions, they’d have better ideas.

Taking a deep breath, she stepped to the door. “Hi,” she said.

Swann waved her in. “Sit down, please.” When she’d taken a seat in front of his desk, he studied her for a long moment. “You’re really concerned for your sisters.”

“That’s putting it mildly.” She was supposed to fly out first thing in the morning. Hopefully, she’d go with a Guardian Agency plan backing her up.

“You usually spend a couple of weeks over the holidays with the Ellingtons.”

“Yes,” she confirmed. “We’re at the Ellington resort on Isle of Palms, South Carolina this year.” Sometimes they stayed at the family-owned hotel in downtown Charleston, and every few years they traveled to one of their other properties.

“You’ve given me a thorough report,” Swann began. His gaze dropped to the open file on his desk. She could see he’d made notes in the margins. Did he agree with her or was this meeting some way of telling her she’d gone down a rabbit hole?

In addition to outlining the crisis Sonya was in, Hannah had made some action suggestions based on a couple of small leaps of logic. The threats hanging over her sisters were real. Surely the intel she’d gathered showed that much.

Looking up, he asked, “What would you like us to do?”

She’d prepared for this question, debating and rehearsing the best answers from the moment she’d emailed the file to her bosses. “From what I’ve pieced together about Sonya’s situation, I don’t expect her to be at the resort. My primary concern is that her absence increases the threat to Harper. Ideally, one of our agency protectors in the area could vacation at the resort with me. Well, not with me,” she added in a hurry. She knew of three protectors living in the Carolina area. Brett, Carson, and Ethan were all married now. “Maybe they could be on hand as backup, in case there’s trouble.”

Swann tapped his pen against the file. “You think Sonya’s boss knows her habits as well as we know yours?”

“I’m sure of it. She’s worked in the same brokerage office in Atlanta for over five years. Which means they know the people who matter to her.” Hannah inched to the edge of her seat. “Sonya has damaging evidence against her boss, Mr. Tenney, and he intends to silence her before she can give it to the authorities.”

Swann’s eyebrows arched. “She told you this?”

“Not directly. I’ve been digging. Creating a map of her actions, communications, and movements over the past few months. I pinpointed the week she stopped making voice and video calls to Harper and me and started from there.” Not that she had to justify her research here. Swann understood the nature of her work.

“I’ve looked into Tenney and other employees as well. Sonya stopped going into the office a few days after her last phone call to me. Her cell phone history shows several calls to police, FBI, and a finance reporter prior to her going radio silent with us. Everything indicates she’s gone into hiding. Hasn’t been at her apartment for over a month. She is still listed on the company website and she is still drawing a paycheck.”

More facts Hannah hadn’t known in time to intervene. She curled her hands into fists, frustrated by the secrets her sister had kept. She reminded herself she was taking the right steps now, giving all these details to her boss. “I’m just scraping the tip of the iceberg with Tenney.” She nodded toward the report. “I’ve logged some questionable meetings and calls he took before Sonya stopped going in and several more in recent weeks. No ugly rumors of bad press or ironclad criminal activity have popped up yet, but all of it is highly irregular and out of routine.”

Swann turned to another page in the report. “You discovered a team watching your sister’s apartment?”

“Yes.” Thankfully Sonya seemed to have anticipated the tactic and gotten out before they’d set up camp. “Twenty-four-seven surveillance isn’t a typical benefit for brokerage employees.” Hopefully, they could soon identify one or more of the men who had been on rotation in the utility van across the street. “I can’t ignore the way she’s dodging Christmas. She wouldn’t do that unless the risks were unbearable to her. That tells me she’s certain about what she knows and the impact it could have. Now that Tenney has lost her, he must be feeling the pressure. It’s a fair bet he’ll try to draw her out by threatening someone she loves.”

“Someone like you.”

Hannah jerked back. Sure, Sonya loved her, but Harper was the obvious target. “No. Like Harper. If I go missing, it will hardly make the news.” Harper was an heiress. Her parents would pull out all the stops to get her back.

Swann rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I agree Harper is at risk. And I admire that you want to take on an observation detail over your holiday vacation.”

“I’ll be on location anyway.” Wouldn’t be much of a vacation if something bad happened. They were talking about the fate of her sisters. She definitely wanted some talented backup nearby if things did go wrong, because she didn’t have any real field skills. She couldn’t take any chances with the people she loved most, the people who’d taught her that a family could be beautiful, fun, and supportive.

He flipped the report closed. “Let’s assume you’re right about Tenney and Sonya caught him doing something illegal. If she is holding incriminating evidence, he doesn’t need to make the news. Low profile and quiet is actually better. He only needs to get his hands on Sonya and whatever she has on him to make his troubles go away.”

Well, true enough. Still, no one other than the Ellingtons and her coworkers really knew Hannah. She lived alone and she wasn’t currently dating anyone. If Tenney had wanted to use her against Sonya, he’d have done so already.

Hannah could be effectively summed up as the slightly nerdy pal Harper had dragged home that first winter break. Until college, she was content to study life and people from a safe distance. The Ellingtons didn’t let her stay an outsider for long. They’d welcomed her from day one, surprising her with their acceptance and insistence that she dive in and become part of the family. Through the last decade, she’d grown close to all of them. Harper’s brother Rhett felt like her own brother now, and she’d been calling Mr. and Mrs. Ellington Dad and Mom for years. These days Harper’s aunts gave Hannah and Sonya as much affectionate grief over everything from manners to marriage as they did the niece they’d known since birth.

“Are you certain the texts you’ve received are coming from Sonya?”

The question pulled her back to the immediate concern. “Yes, absolutely. Her syntax, her pacing, her emojis.”

“Nothing that suggests she or her accounts are being manipulated?”

“No.” More comfortable with the conversation back on track, Hannah leaned forward again. “With time, I’m sure I can locate her.” Being on site was bound to help, just in case Sonya reached out or dared to visit for the holiday.

“I agree.” Swann checked his watch. “While you’re there, I’m adding another researcher to the case.”

“Who?” That wasn’t a typical approach, but she was distracted and pleased that Swann referred to the situation as a case. “Why?”

Swann’s mouth kicked up at one corner. Her reputation for curiosity was unmatched at the agency. “Connor Brady,” he replied. “I’m pulling him in because we have so many unknowns. The more eyes, the better. He’ll bring a fresh perspective to tracking her as well.”

“Right. Of course. I get it.” And she did. Hannah reeled in her reaction to the news. There was no reason to feel pushed or unsettled. Sonya needed help from any and all sources.

Brady hadn’t been with the agency for too long, but he was efficient and thorough and had proven himself an asset. During her years here, she’d tracked down plenty of people she didn’t know beyond a name in a file. Although tracking Sonya should be easier for her, that didn’t make her immune to overlooking a pertinent detail. The Guardian Agency valued individual strengths and approaches among their researchers as well as the protectors who went into the field.

“I understand the additional pressure, the challenges, when it’s personal,” Swann said. His gaze moved to a point over her shoulder and he lifted his chin.

She turned as the office door swung open and her mouth went dry. She froze, half twisted in her chair, staring at the man who entered. He was tall, golden, and utterly gorgeous. Radiating confidence, he reached out to shake Swann’s hand. The trim dark slacks and dove gray cable knit sweater he wore didn’t mute his solid build. Broad shoulders, trim hips, strong thighs. Strong hands. Why was she such a sucker for hands? His wavy blond hair was cropped short and a neatly trimmed, deep golden beard highlighted his square jawline. Sharp green eyes scanned the room, locked on her. He smiled.

She swallowed.

Though she’d never laid eyes on him before, he might as well have stepped out of her most vivid fantasies.

“…Hannah, Seth Mathison.” Swann wrapped up the introductions, but all of her attention was on that strong, fascinating hand the newcomer held out. Belatedly, she shook his hand, her insides melting as her palm met his. Warm, lightly callused, the hand of a man who engaged in physical pursuits. 

She tried to repair her tattered composure as he released her hand. “Pleased to meet you,” she managed.

“Likewise.” Good grief, his voice was as thrilling and sexy as the rest of him.

“Have a seat,” Swann directed.

Mr. Gorgeous gracefully folded himself into the chair beside hers. She barely kept her silence as questions bounded through her brain one after another. Why was he here? Why now? Did he know Sonya? Was he with the police or FBI? He had such a presence it seemed to fill the office, winding around her and his masculine scent teased her nose. Her response to him was ridiculous, but she couldn’t seem to shut it down. It took every ounce of willpower to keep her gaze focused on her boss.

“Seth will be your protector,” Swann stated. “Hank Patterson, founder of the Brotherhood Protectors, loaned him to us for the duration.”

“Duration?” she echoed.

Swann arched one eyebrow. “Of the case. While you’re on vacation in South Carolina, Seth will be with you, protecting you and Harper.”

“What about Sonya?”

“Her too, if she shows up. After some brainstorming and discussion Seth and I agreed it’s best if he poses as your fiancé. That gives him a solid reason to stick close to you and Harper.”

“Fiancé?” Her stomach twisted. Would her family even believe a man like Seth proposed to her? “I don’t get any say in this?” She was supposed to leave in the morning. How would they go from total strangers to a believable couple in less than twenty-four hours?

Her boss scowled. “Do you have a better idea?”

She thought her proposal had been clear enough. With a shrug, she said, “I don’t need a shadow, just backup.” This would be an uphill argument, but she had to try. “No way will my sisters buy this.” She snorted, waving a hand in Seth’s direction.

“They’ll get over the shock,” Swann assured her.

Hannah shook her head. “A fiancé only introduces more questions. More trouble,” she insisted. A fiancé would likely share the suite with her at the resort. Something akin to panic rippled across the back of her neck. “The idea that I fell in love and accepted a marriage proposal without so much as a mention of his name along the way is ludicrous. Let me call Uncle Bruce, he’ll make sure there’s a room and–”

“I’m not taking chances with your safety,” Swann said, cutting her off. “Whatever you need to do, make it work. Make them believe it.” He flattened his palms on the file. “I know you, Hannah. You’ll keep digging on Tenney, keep searching for Sonya. And that’s fine. But it could easily bring trouble down on you fast. This report indicates a significant threat. Do you want to just tell them the truth?”

“Not particularly,” she admitted. But a fiancé? Selling that familiarity and intimacy would take storytelling skills she did not have.

“Fine. Great. We all agree.” Swann bit out each word. “Undercover fiancé plan still works for you?” he asked Seth.

“Yes, sir.” He gave a firm nod. “I’m here to get the job done, whatever it takes.”

Hannah couldn’t tell if the butterflies in her belly were swarming in dread or anticipation. Shifting in her seat, she faced her new golden, larger-than-life shadow. “Seriously? You don’t have any reservations about this?”

“Well, I don’t know your family,” he began. “But my sister just got engaged. Sudden is a tame word for the situation. My whole family’s thrilled, even though none of us had a clue they were involved until it was a done deal.”

That didn’t give her much comfort at all. Glancing back at her boss, she realized there would be no changing his mind. “Then I guess we’d better get to work on our story.”

“Hannah, you need to get to Tipperman’s first,” Swann said. He reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a business card. “They can loan you an engagement ring to use over the holiday. I need to go over a few things with Seth.”

Her hand trembled as she took the card. Shopping for her own engagement ring? The craziness just kept churning. With a nod for her boss and a last glance for her soon to be fiancé, she left the office.

Dread, she decided. The butterflies were in an uproar because they could see this entire effort was going to fall apart in a spectacular fashion.

 

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Love Has Many Voices by Linda Wisdom

$3.99

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Witch, princess, monster, or minstrel—Holly Sutton could speak in a million voices. A whirlwind of casual creativity, a magnet for every kid within calling range, she made a handsome living doing TV cartoon voice-overs. Her life in Thousand Oaks was ideal—except for Jonathan Lockwood, her stuffy neighbor. A banker, he might have been the model for Scrooge—if Scrooge had had hazel eyes and a body to die for. So why had Holly agreed to accompany him to San Francisco’s most elegant hotel? And why was she suddenly trying to make herself over in his image? They were worlds apart and ne’er the twain would meet…unless they could learn to speak in the voice that understood the intimate need that bound them beyond every difference—the very special voice of love.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

The Family Way: A Big Uneasy Short Story by Pauline Baird Jones

$2.99

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Alex and Nell are expecting!

At Nell’s baby shower, she’s hoping for a ceasefire between the law-enforcing Bakers and her criminal cousins (not to mention her scary grandmother, the mob doyenne).

The girls just want to have fun, but when the silly shower games are interrupted by some unexpected guests, it takes the “fun” right out of this dysfunctional family shower.

Can Baby Baker help these families inch closer to neutral ground and begin to heal old wounds and fractured friendships?

 


Monday, August 22, 2022

Country Courtship: A Western Romantic Comedy (The Texas Two-Step Series Book 4) by Kathy Carmichael

$2.99

BUY HERE

The Texas Two-Step romantic comedy series is a reader favorite. All of the stories in the series are sweet, charming and emotional contemporary romance. Each story in the series stands alone, but all Texas Two-Step novels and novellas feature love stories about members of the Nelson, Murphy or Palmer families — and sometimes, more than one!

Book Description:
When Kelli Palmer meets Bobby Gray Nelson at a family get-together, their attraction is immediate. But Kelli's kid sister already has dibs on Bobby Gray.

Bobby Gray Nelson never takes no for an answer, a resolve that made him a rodeo champion.

But Kelli is standing her ground.

Now Bobby Gray must do something he's never done: woo the woman who's already claimed his heart, and earn permission to place his brand on hers.

Country Courtship is the third sweet romance in the Texas Two-Step contemporary romance series from USA Today bestselling author Kathy Carmichael.

Previously titled: Kissing Kelli

THE TEXAS TWO-STEP, in series order
Western Pleasure (A Novella) Prequel (Book 1)
Chasing Charlie (Book 2)
The Lassoed Bride (A Novella) (Book 3)
Country Courtship (Book 4)
Courting Trouble (Book 5)
My Southern Bride (Book 6)
Abby's Cowboy (Book 7)
The Cowboy Prince (Book 8) Coming Soon

"Debbie Macomber fans will love CHASING CHARLIE.” ~ Bargainbooksy.com

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Death by Chocolate by Sally Berneathy Review

 

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USA TODAY BESTSELLER! First book in the Death by Chocolate series Lindsay loves chocolate. It tastes good, it makes her feel good, it never cheats on her like her almost-ex-husband. It's her best friend. But someone wants her dead and uses her weak spot—chocolate—to try to murder her. Lindsay's only secret is the recipe for her chocolate chip cookies, but she is surrounded by neighbors with deadly secrets. Suddenly she finds herself battling poisoned chocolate, a psycho stalker, and a dead man who seems awfully active for a corpse. Her best friend and co-worker, Paula, dyes her blond hair brown, hides from everybody and insists on always having an emergency exit from any room. Secrets from Paula's past have come back to put lives in jeopardy.Determined to help Paula, Lindsay enlists the reluctant aid of another neighbor, Fred, an OCD computer nerd. In spite of his mundane existence, Fred possesses tidbits of knowledge about such things as hidden microphones, guns, the inside of maximum security prisons and how to take someone down with a well-aimed kick to his chin. As Lindsay battles the elusive stalker, poisoned chocolate, and the dead man, she will need more than a chocolate fix to survive. But that’s always a good start.

Review:


Cozy mysteries have become one of my favorite genres. I especially love mysteries that feature pets or great food. Death by Chocolate by Sally Berneathy not only has an amazing plot with an unexpected ending, but delicious sounding food and an adorable cat named King Henry. What's even better are the recipes found at the end.

I found this book very easy to get into and read through it rather quickly. There were a couple areas of the book that gave me an uneasy feeling. The book does feature a woman who has been beaten in the past by her ex-husband and when she finally tells the story to her best-friend (the lead character), it's a chilling tale. However, the scene really adds to the overall feel of the book and wouldn't be the same if readers didn't have the whole story. In other words, it stirs the right emotions in the reader to make the book even better.

Death by Chocolate by Sally Berneathy was one of those books that actually made me laugh out loud several times. And made me hungry on more than one occasion. If you love cozy mysteries, this one is a must. I can't wait to read the rest of the books in the series.

Friday, August 19, 2022

FREE In the Still of the Night by Taylor Lee

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Amazon

•Jake and Lexie are at it again. Hotter than ever!
•They call her the Blonde Barracuda. The press loves her, the politicians fear her, and the mob is out to kill her
•Jake, the sexy special agent, comes to the rescue whether Lexie wants him to or not! 


Praise


“Can even Lexie’s and Jake’s red hot passion survive a dark haired seductress and a classy Hapkido fighter both out to come between the lovers? Romance as hot as the action. Couldn’t put it down!” RomanceRules

Love Kaylea Cross's heart pounding romantic military thrillers? Sylvia Day’s and Maya Banks red hot sexy heroes, feisty heroines and high adrenaline action? Fern Michael’s compelling characters? Grab In the Still of the Night and prepare to be addicted.

WANT MORE SIZZLING ROMANTIC SUSPENSE? MYSTERY THRILLERS?

The Blonde Barracuda OMNIBUS Collection Taylor Lee's Sizzling Hot Romantic Suspense Best Selling Collection. INCLUDES Big Girls Don't Cry, In the Still of the Night and Every Breath You Take plus FOUR additional EXCLUSIVE NOVELLAS

Ladies of the Night, Taylor Lee’s NEW Sexy Suspense Collection: Sapphire, Book 1; Ruby, Book 2, Topaz Book 3, Diamond, Book 4 . The Ladies are covert agents in a secretive, off the grid security organization. Highly trained fighters, they’re as gorgeous as they are dangerous. The only thing these formidable women are NOT is “ladies.”

The Man in the Arena Series: The Courage to Dare; The Courage to Love; The Courage to Triumph is A tribute to the Teddy Roosevelt quote—The Man in the Arena. Taylor Lee introduces her most challenging and complicated hero yet.

The Red Rock Collection Sexy Romantic Suspense. Bestselling in Romantic Suspense, Military Romance and Mystery Thriller. The Collection INCLUDES: Red Rock Rises, Red Rock’s Revenge, Red Rock’s Redemption: Book 3 PLUS THREE Novellas.

The All Fired Up OMNIBUS Collection, Taylor Lee's Bestselling #1 Hot New Release—the ULTIMATE Sizzling Romantic Suspense collector's edition! INCLUDES Playing With Fire, Trial By Fire and Ring of Fire and the EXCLUSIVE You Light My Fire: Short Story Finale

The Dangerous Affairs Collection Sizzling International Intrigue. Best Selling in both Romantic Suspense and Military Romance and Women's Sleuths ! INCLUDES: The Moscow Affair, The Bangkok Affair, The Rio Affair PLUS THREE Novellas.

The Grandmaster’s Legacy Collection: If you think Shades of Gray is HOT, snatch up Taylor Lee's "The Grandmaster's Legacy," a four volume Collection of Erotic Historical Suspense. Warning: Intense, Explicit, Steamy HOT!

The Bad Ass Brigade: Bad Guys Beware, The Good Guys Are on the Prowl." A Sampler of Sizzling Romantic Suspense. Cops, Firefighters, Special Ops, Covert Agents, and Bad Ass Poker Players--HOT Men and HOTTER Women kick up a storm--and heat up the sheets in the process.

Thursday, August 18, 2022

Read Chapter 1 of Undercover Boyfriend by Regan Black

$2.99 or FREE for Kindle Unlimited Subscribers

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During his Army career, Jake Welch had his head on straight until three of his closest friends died when a mission went sideways. Returning home, his relentless quest for any kind of justice nearly landed him in jail. The Guardian Agency rescued him, gave him a new focus, and just assigned him to protect a woman he hasn’t seen since high school.

After her fiancé was killed in action, Sloan Mathison gave up on dating. Especially the bold, heroic type. But when an interested coworker begins stalking her, she must find help. Fortunately, her brother’s friend Jake is back in town. Even better, he’s willing to pretend to be her boyfriend to keep her safe.

Sloan and Jake didn’t count on one fake kiss igniting an undeniable, red-hot chemistry between them. And neither of them anticipated her stalker resorting to deadly measures. Although Jake will gladly give up his life for the woman he’s fallen in love with, Sloan will not sit idly by, waiting to grieve the man who healed her broken heart and rekindled her faith in love.

 

Chapter 1

Sloan Mathison sipped on a tall mug of piping hot coffee and admired the stunning view. A wispy fog drifted across the deep blue water of the still lake. By noon, the surface, as smooth as glass, would offer a perfect reflection of the sky above. Over the peaks of the mountains in the east, the sun was still only a hint of hopeful color on the horizon.

“This makes it easier to understand what you were thinking when you made this move,” she said to her brother, Seth.

“Hush. You’ll scare off the fish,” he scolded with a smile.

It was an argument they’d been having since their first fishing trip over two decades ago. At thirty, Seth was the oldest, but she liked to think she’d done almost as much living in her twenty-seven years. He’d followed the family expectations and joined the Navy, eventually becoming a decorated SEAL. To her father’s lingering disappointment, Sloan had chosen a different path, taking a civilian approach to a career of serving others. He’d been so convinced she would be an asset to the Navy as an officer. That wasn’t her idea of a good time. Five years into her career as a physical therapist at the VA clinic, her father had almost come to terms with it.

One of the fishing poles arched and Seth stood up to reel in the catch. “Feels big enough,” he said, working the line. The short fight was over quickly and he grumbled. “Gone.”

Smothering a laugh, she made sympathetic noises. She watched him closely as he baited the hook and cast it back into the lake. Seth had struggled for a year to rehab a shoulder injury. To her expert eye, he was back to one hundred percent, with full range of motion and balanced strength. The Navy disagreed, insisting Seth was no longer fit for duty with the SEAL teams.

Seth wasn’t ready to hang up his skills in favor of a desk job. He’d reviewed his options and made a decision in record time. When he’d told Sloan about being recruited to a private security group, she’d only been surprised by the Montana location. They’d been raised on one coast or another through the years. Personally, she couldn’t imagine living this far inland. The lakes and rivers were gorgeous, but she needed the ocean waves as much as oxygen.

Over the past several days, she’d met Hank Patterson and many of the men and women Seth would work with as part of the Brotherhood Protectors team. So far, she liked them all. Everyone involved demonstrated integrity, loyalty, kindness, and sincere camaraderie. She was certain Seth would fit right in.

A former SEAL himself, Hank understood the transitions her brother was going through. If and when Seth hit any speedbumps on the road between military and civilian life, he’d have support. It made her feel better about being so far away from him.

“You know, I assumed you’d find your new career in California,” she mused.

“Aww, will you miss me?”

She rolled her eyes. “No.” They both knew she meant yes. That was both the problem and the perk of being close siblings. “Your new boss is really generous,” she said, changing the subject with zero finesse. When Hank had heard the two of them sharing stories about their fishing trips as kids, he suggested they come out to this lakeside cabin for the last two days of her vacation.

Seth chuckled. “Everyone says he’s the best.”

The sun cast a soft, golden glow over the trees and water. Filling her lungs with the bracing morning air, Sloan deliberately steered her mind away from anything beyond this lake, this moment.

Any trouble waiting for her back home in Oceanside, California wouldn’t be solved by worrying away the last of this special time with her brother. She hadn’t seen him, hadn’t spent any real time with him in nearly two years. His service and her career had kept them apart. She intended to savor every minute of this break.

He rolled his shoulders and checked the poles. Apparently, they hadn’t found the most appetizing bait for the fish this morning. “I’m hungry.” He stretched his arms overhead. Dropping them, he patted his flat stomach.

“That’s not news.” She poked him in the chest. “You can solve that problem since you’re on breakfast duty.”

“Yeah, yeah.” He glanced back at the water. “Don’t let anything worth keeping get away.”

“In other words, don’t follow your example.”

With a snort, he moved past her and headed up the path to the cabin. “I’ll be back.”

Of course he would. The Mathison family were imminently reliable. It was part of the genetic code, according to their mother.

Alone, Sloan soaked up the peacefulness of the quiet morning. With the stillness came the deep sense of calm she usually only found when she was out in the ocean waiting for the next good wave.

This complete relaxation was such a treat for her mind and body. Now that Seth lived here, she should make a point of visiting more often. She hadn’t realized all the raw beauty and natural treasures Montana had to offer.

Her phone hummed in her pocket, startling her. She thought this pocket of heaven was out of range. Had been counting on the respite of being out of contact for a bit longer.

The text message from a coworker scrolling across her screen made her groan.

Making sure you haven’t been eaten by a bear.

As if she couldn’t take care of herself. The guy would not quit pressing her to be more than professional associates. Montana was an hour ahead of California and it seemed ridiculously early for an attempt at banter.

Another message came through before she could delete the first one. This text offered a ride home from the airport. Why wouldn’t he give up already? She’d been clear that she wasn’t interested in dating. Not him or anyone else.

She was giving serious thought to tossing the device into the lake. Not much of a solution unless she opted for a new cell phone number. She pushed a hand through her hair. Dwelling on the inconvenience of that would wreck the morning.

“Trouble?” Seth asked from behind her.

Crap. She hadn’t even heard her brother on the path. Turning around, she gave him a bright smile and focused on the platter in his hand. “Breakfast burritos? They smell amazing.”

“Good.” He set the tray on the table between two Adirondack chairs. “Come here and eat up. Then you can tell me who the troublemaker is.”

She took a seat and ate slowly. Refilling her coffee mug from the thermos, she stalled for as long as possible. Involving Seth wouldn’t fix anything. Peter Driscoll was a decent guy. Just because he was wrong for her didn’t mean she wanted or needed her brother to intervene.

“Come on, Sloan,” Seth began. “Talk to me.”

“It’s nothing.”

Seth’s eyebrows shot up. “Agree to disagree. Whoever it is has been pestering you the entire week.”

“Pestering is a strong word,” she argued.

“It’s also the right word.”

“I appreciate the support,” she said, treading carefully. “This isn’t a big deal.” When she got back, she’d remind Peter, again, that she wasn’t ready to dive back into the dating scene. One heartbreak was more than enough for her lifetime, thank you very much. Although her family believed her lingering heartbreak would heal, Sloan had decided love wasn’t in the cards for her. Last year she’d made a deliberate choice that her family, her close circle of good friends, and her work made for a full, satisfying life.

She had zero desire to let love crush her all over again.

Her phone buzzed again and Seth scowled. “Let me talk to him.”

“Stop.” She jerked the phone out of his reach. “This is the clinic.”

Though it was odd for them to call at this hour. As a physical therapist, her patient schedule was firmly set within regular business hours Monday through Friday.

“You’re on vacation,” her brother grumbled the reminder as she answered the call.

“Hello.” No one replied. “Hello?” She repeated herself twice more, to no avail.

“Give me that.” Seth made another grab for her phone.

She dodged him easily, then noticed the call ended. “Must’ve been some fluke technology deal.”

“Right.” Seth’s expression turned stormy. “Basic logic says the pest works with you.”

She rolled her eyes. “You’ve got that whole mission-ready look on your face, but this isn’t a crisis.”

“It’s more than nothing.”

Her phone chimed with another incoming text and she powered it off without even looking at the message. “There. Vacation mode activated. Let’s check the fishing poles.”

“The Brotherhood Protectors have resources,” Seth said. “Let me help.”

“No,” she said firmly. “Thank you.”

“Sloan.”

“I mean it, Seth. There’s nothing to help with. You’re reading too much into this.”

“Fine.” He held up his hands in surrender. “I’ll back off on one condition.”

“Just one?”

He ignored the jab. “If it escalates, promise me you’ll ask for help.”

She relented. His heart was in the right place and he only wanted what was best for her. “I promise.” And she meant it. If this situation with Peter became a true problem, she would seek out help. Being independent didn’t mean being foolish. Still, asking for help didn’t necessarily equate to calling in a team of former elite warriors. They were way overqualified for a simple case of pest control.

She’d always valued being raised in a Navy family. She loved her parents and brother, was grateful the four of them remained close. Their concern for her was rooted in love.

But there were times when she wondered why they couldn’t seem to reconcile that she was an adult. An independent, capable woman utilizing all she’d been taught and building a good life on her own. That included her ability to deal with a persistent man who wanted more than friendship. True, Peter made her uncomfortable, but that didn’t mean she’d give in to his doggedness or give him hope when there wasn’t any reason for it.

She’d be a broken record and tell him no as many times as it took for him to get the message.

As the sun climbed overhead, Sloan focused on the fishing, changing the conversation toward more comfortable topics, namely how he planned to adapt to the area and which of his friends would come up for a visit first. Though they were used to going months between visits, it was hard knowing his home would be over a thousand miles away from hers.

Her line started running and she worked with the fish, following Seth’s tips and eventually landing it. After checking the size and taking a picture, she freed the hook and released the fish again. First fish honors went to her, but by the time they packed up for the day, he’d caught three more than she had.

“I could go back with you,” Seth offered a few hours later. “Hank would give me the time off and whoever this pest is, he’d definitely get the message.”

They were sitting together at the fire pit making s’mores for dessert. She pulled her marshmallow away from the heat before it could scorch and sandwiched it between the graham crackers and chocolate.

“No need,” she assured him. “Just focus on you and the new gig for a while. You deserve to take the time and settle in. Maybe find someone special.”

He choked on his s’more and she smiled to herself.

Going the day with her phone off had given her time to process the situation in the back of her mind. She’d go back home, clearly state her position one last time and then block Peter’s number. That way she’d never even see the texts or voicemails begging her to meet for coffee or anything else.

“I know you can handle yourself,” Seth said, circling back to the topic she thought was closed. “Just like you know how big brothers work.”

Mm-hm. At this point, doesn’t that just make you old?” she teased. “I mean, I’m all grown up and you’re older than me. It’s simple math.”

“You’re a smart ass.”

“Lessons I also learned from you.” She gave his shoulder a soft shove. “I can take care of myself.” She ignored the tiny voice in the back of her head questioning her assertion. One way or another, Peter would not continue to be a problem. If she absolutely had to do it, she’d report his unwelcome tenacity to the Human Resources department.

“You know who it is, don’t you?” Seth asked.

No sense lying. “Sure. He’s harmless, just supremely annoying.”

“If that changes, you’ll call me?” Seth pressed.

“I already promised I would. Please stop worrying. You’ll wreck my sugar high.” She stuffed a big bite of the treat into her mouth.

“Okay, okay.”

He mimicked her, somehow fitting an entire square into his mouth. Some things never changed. They laughed like a couple of loons and her world seemed to click back into place.

 

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Read an Excerpt from O'Malley's Quest by Linda Wisdom

 $3.99

Amazon

Bored with excitement, archaeologist Kate O'Malley was ready to settle down until her scheming Irish grandfather teased her with a proposal of one last adventure. And what a doozy!

Excerpt:

As sleazy bars in tiny, sleazy Mexican border towns went, this one was no better and no worse than the others. And it didn't have to be a Friday night to bring out the regulars with the requisite number of typical barroom brawls to liven up the customers' evenings, He sat at a back table in the tavern where he could see the entrance. A bottle of tequila and a cloudy glass were the only objects on the table in front of him. With the chair tipped back on its rear legs and his sweat-stained hat pulled down over his eyes, he looked relaxed, perhaps even asleep, which would be impossible considering the noise level. But those who had met him before knew differently. The gringo was not to be bothered.

Those who had the alcohol-induced courage to challenge him usually ended up with more than a few bruises, and one sober challenger was treated for a broken collarbone. No, this man who appeared in the bar every so often seeking information or meeting people was not a man to be taken lightly. A few passed by the table murmuring a respectful "Hola, J.C.," but other than that terse greeting they left him to himself.

Which was just fine with him. His less than clean chambray shirt was left unbuttoned to combat the heat in the small bar that intensified with every live body that entered the room. He poured tequila into the glass and sipped the fiery liquid while keeping his eyes on the doorway. It would appear he was waiting for someone.

It was late when the stranger entered the bar. For a moment, silence descended on the bar as the men stared at the woman standing near the entrance. Women coming in there were not unusual but white women who were young and not looking shopworn were.

J.C. didn't move from his corner as he observed the visitor. He had to admit she was dressed appropriately for the occasion. Well-worn jeans, snug fitting but not too tight. A white cotton shirt that was buttoned high enough not to reveal any cleavage. No jewelry, not even a watch. Her boots looked scuffed and broken in. Her honey-blond hair was pinned back in a conservative style that emphasized her delicate features. Good, nothing to grab on to in case of a fight. The lady obviously knew what she was doing. When entering a strange situation, don't try to draw attention to yourself.

She walked confidently, looking neither right nor-left until-she reached the bar. If she was aware of the men watching her with hungry eyes she gave no evidence of it.

Pedro, the bartender, looked at her with little surprise in his eyes. He'd been working there too long to think it unusual to see a lovely senorita who was obviously not a prostitute walk into his bar.

From J.C.'s vantage point he could hear every word she spoke. He gave her points for fluent Spanish in the region's dialect. He hid a smile when she asked for a glass of tequila.

"Senorita, are you sure?" Pedro asked, looking a little worried. .

She smiled. "Very sure."

J.C. smiled. Good girl. If you want information, you have to be ready to drink with the natives.

She didn't flinch when Pedro deposited the bottle on the bar, displaying a pale worm curled up in the bottom. She downed her drink quickly without one flicker of emotion on her face.

"I'm looking for Joaquin;" she told Pedro. "I'm told he can usually be found here."

The bartender looked worried. "Oh, Senorita, a lovely lady like you would not want Joaquin. He is a very nasty man." Something occurred to him. "Unless you happen to work for him." He looked her up and down. "If you do, you must leave and return to his house. I do not want any trouble here from his women."

"I don't work for Joaquin, but I am looking for him to work for me. I understand he sometimes guides people into certain mountain regions," she explained, being deliberately vague. "I was also given Luis Ventara's name." She tapped the rim of the glass with her fingernail, indicating she would take a refill, and laid money on the bar.

"If you want a guide, you should speak to J.C. first," Pedro advised, gesturing toward the rear corner table. "He does not guide, but he can give you names of men who are very reliable. Men you can trust."

She barely spared him a glance. He didn't mind because he knew exactly what she saw. A man with several days' growth of beard, face pretty much hidden by the hat, a shirt that hadn't seen a laundry in weeks. He probably looked like a drunk who recently passed out and no one bothered to throw him out just yet. He hid a smile. She didn't look very impressed with what she saw, although nothing in her expression gave her away. He just sensed it. He couldn't wait to see what she thought of Joaquin or Luis.

"What about either of the other two names I mentioned?" she asked coolly, returning her gaze to the bartender.

 

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Read an Excerpt from The Chase by Mary Hagen

 $1.99


Amazon

Life hangs in the balance when four women on a backpacking trip are attacked by four convicts running from the law. To survive, they must outsmart the men. To do so, they take an alternate route away from the trail and head for a distant mountain pass leaving back backpacks behind. Without their survival gear, they know they cannot survive.  In spite of the risks, Tannya Hudson returns to their campsite to retrieve whatever she can find and to find Cindy, one of the backpackers who is missing.  The convicts return to the camp and make plans to catch the women. Tanya barely escapes. In spite of her efforts to hide her tracks, the convicts pick up her trail and follow as she climbs to meet her fellow hikers. Will the women meet? Will they outrun the men? Will they survive in dismal weather conditions or will they die?  The Chase begins.

 

Reluctantly, Greg Moore backed his Jeep out of his carport. His terrifying dream about Tanya Hudson and her backpacking trip stayed with him as he drove toward Julie's house. The premonition that something bad was going to happen to Tanya and her three friends never left him. How could he, a civil engineer who dealt in concrete facts, not dreams, reveal his misgivings? He laughed. The dream was real, and he couldn’t put it out of his mind.

He loved Tanya, had from the moment he met her and could not bear the thought of something happening to her. It was his fault that Tanya broke off their relationship, but his marriage and subsequent divorce from Andrea had been painful. He was not ready to make another permanent relationship. Marriage terrified him, but Tanya would not agree to anything else. She chose to remain friends because of his refusal to agree to a permanent commitment. What was he thinking? Tanya was not Andrea.

The premonition haunted him at the intersections, as the sun rising in the east turned the sky a vivid orange and red, at the dark clouds gathering in the west. Blood came to his mind. He could not reveal to anyone his misgivings. Certainly not Tanya. It was only a dream, a stupid nightmare.

He braked at a stoplight, impatiently tapping his fingers on the steering wheel as he waited for the light to change. The dawn accentuated his feelings of gloom. The light changed from red to green and he drove forward, the inner fear never ebbing from his mind.

At the time he met Tanya, he believed he never could fall in love again.  Tanya was the most beautiful woman he knew. Just thinking about her filled him with desire and a love so deep it hurt. She was opposite in every way from the women he usually chose - small, blonde, and blue-eyed, who were dependent on him to make decisions and to take the lead in planning activities like Andrea. Andrea wanted more of everything, money, fun, and adoration from every man she met.

Tanya was tall, independent, with beautiful black hair and eyes. More importantly, she challenged him, his beliefs, and his ideas in ways he did not think possible. Life was never dull with her. She was a free spirit. He did not want her to change even if she did not believe him.

Tanya's words echoed in his ears over their last dinner when she announced the end of their relationship. "You're a macho prude."

Greg smiled to himself. He liked the sound of her voice, the almond shape of her eyes that radiated sparks of light, her high cheekbones, the shape of her mouth. He knew he had blown the relationship. Because of him, it was on hold. Friends, he thought, I can't deal with just being a friend, but at least, he would see her. Could he watch her date someone else? He knew the answer.

His motives in the beginning had been to bring the tall, aloof beauty to his bed, seduce her and drop her. In a short time, he realized she excited and challenged him in ways akin to the feelings he had when he climbed a 5.11 pitch on a mountain or conquered a difficult peak. He had the same anticipatory anxiety every time he thought about meeting Tanya. It was with him now as he drove to pick up Cindy and Rebecca Kerr and Julie Johnson, but it was mixed with dread and concern.

He and Tanya clashed over many things but, in time, Tanya subdued him and changed his mind on several issues about women but never his desire to seduce her. She refused any sexual relationship, demanding a deeper commitment from him than he was willing to give. Look where it had gotten him.

 He loved Tanya but something in him made him want to conquer her first. Their mutual stubbornness, mostly his, was about to break them apart but he could not give up his need to dominate her, first. Stupid, he admonished himself.

As much as he wanted, he could not reveal his premonition, his misgivings, his fears that something disastrous was going to happen on their trip. It was foolish on his part, but the most he could bring himself to do was to call Tanya and say, "The weather's going to change. You could be caught in rain or snow."

Tanya refused, laughing at him as she replied, "You know by now a little wet weather has never stopped the four of us."

Greg called Rebecca and Julie to ask them to reconsider their trip to no avail. In the end, he agreed to drive them to the trailhead and to pick them up at the end of their trip. He would see Tanya, be near her, but the reason he had offered to drive them was with the hope he could persuade her to change her mind.

The light was on above Julie's front door. Greg pulled into her driveway. Steve, Julie's husband, opened the door before Greg was out of his vehicle.

"Julies got her stuff in the garage. I'll be out to load her gear in a second."

People have happy marriages, Greg thought. He only needed to look at Steve and Julie. They had been married five years and still acted like newlyweds in spite of their differences. Julie was like Tanya. They both enjoyed camping, hiking, climbing, and working together on outdoor projects. Steve did not care if he ever went camping except during hunting season. They gave each other space to pursue their interests.

Greg knew he and Tanya would do the same. Why then, could he not marry her? Why couldn’t she agree to a live together with a commitment? Greg clacked his tongue against the roof of his mouth. He had no answer.

Steve and Greg helped Julie stash her backpack into his SUV. Steve wished Julie a safe trip, kissed her a lingering goodbye until Greg interrupted, “Hey, we’ve got to pick up the others.”

Steve slammed the car door, gave Julie another kiss, and waved them on. Greg drove toward Rebecca's house. She and her daughter, Cindy, were on the porch waiting.

“That girl is well-endowed for an eighteen-year-old. She looks more like someone twenty,” Greg said as he turned into the driveway.

"I hope the disagreements between Cindy and Rebecca don’t upset our trip,” Julie said, “Rebecca’s expectations of Cindy are almost impossible. No wonder the poor kid resents her. She absolutely insisted Cindy go with us.”

“This is a farewell trip for Cindy before she’s off to college. Good thing,” Greg said.

“I know.” Julie paused. “I can’t understand the two of you.”

Greg glanced at Julie. “Changing the subject?” Greg stopped the motor.

“When are you and Tanya going to stop playing this little game of friendship and get back together?” Julie asked. “She’s my best friend. I hate to see her hurt by you or anyone for that matter.”

Greg shrugged his shoulders. He opened the door and climbed out of the SUV. “Jim must still be asleep, lucky dog,” Greg said.

“Who needs him? Rebecca manages everything. Now that’s catty of me. Rebecca’s my friend,” Julie said.

The sullen expression worn by Cindy announced her displeasure over the backpack. Greg relieved her of one pack and shoved it into the space behind the seat.

"You look unhappy," he said.

"You know Cindy," Rebecca said. "She's never happy at the beginning of one of our trips. She'll cheer up as we get into it."

Greg caught the hostile glance Cindy gave her mother. He sympathized with her co-workers, and her friends, except Tanya and Julie. For ten years, she had worked as office manager in their consulting business. They considered Rebecca the reason their business succeeded, but Tanya could work with anyone without conflict.

Julie stepped out of the car to let Rebecca and Cindy into the back seat. Cindy barely acknowledged her greeting as she buckled her seat belt.

As they drove away from the Kerr home, the inner fears surfaced in Greg's mind to plague him the remainder of the distance to Tanya's house. He could not stop them. He had even risked Steve's teasing and tried to convince him that he should discourage the trip.

A bolt of lightning flashed above the mountains to the west. "You know, the weather gets better in a few days. Why not wait?" he said.

"You still at it, Greg? You might as well give up. We're packed and moving. Wet weather isn't going to hold us up. Besides, you know as well as we, the weathermen are wrong half the time with their mountain forecasts. The mountains make their own weather," Rebecca said.

"I'd be in favor," Cindy said. "I don't even want to go on this dumb trip, and I wouldn't if it wasn't for Tanya and Julie."

"We're going to miss you when you leave for college,” Julie said in an effort to appease Cindy.

The sun appeared briefly on the eastern horizon under the clouds as Greg parked in front of Tanya's townhouse. Before he could open his door, Tanya came out of her house with her pack and her miniature poodle, Figwort, named for the plant family Greg knew Tanya loved. Figwort pranced ahead of Tanya furiously wagging his tail and ran to Greg.

"Hey, old buddy, miss me?" Greg stooped to the dog's level to pet him. Figwort licked his face and gave Greg a smile showing his canine teeth. "At least, you still love me."

He opened the back door of the SUV and said, "I’ll take that pack.” He removed the straps from Tanya’s shoulders, restraining the desire he had to hold her. Her hair, braided and tied with strips of leather, smelled fresh and clean, surfacing his feelings of loss and misery.

He took a deep breath to control his emotions. "Ouch. What’ve you got in this pack, the kitchen sink? It weighs a ton. Are you sure you’re going to be able to meet me in six days?"

Tanya's laugh sent stabs of discouragement through him and shredded his insides. If only he could talk her out of this trip.

"I decided to take my rope and a few carabineers just in case we need them for a river crossing or as a climbing aid on one of our side trips."

"Thought you were going to just backpack, not climb." Greg struggled to keep his feeling of anxiety out of his voice, the dream sharp in his mind. He put her pack in his vehicle and slammed the door. "I've missed you," he said as he held open the right door.

Tanya said nothing. A cloud blotted out the sun and a black chill enveloped him.

Figwort jumped into the front seat of the SUV. He wagged his tail at the three women sitting in the back seat.

"Hi, everyone. I decided to take Figwort. Hope you don't mind but when I took him to the kennel, he looked at me with such a pitiful expression, I couldn't leave him."

"Come, Figwort, sit on my lap," Cindy called. "I don't care. I love Figwort. I just wish I could have a dog, but you know Mom. She's Mrs. Neat, Neat, Neat. No animals at our place. They might dirty her floor."

"Lighten up, Cindy. I don't want us to be in constant disagreement on this trip. Think of Julie and Tanya if not me. They want you to have a good time."

Cindy hugged the poodle. "Sorry, guys.”

 

Tanya sat quietly, aware of Greg's after shave, her gift to him on his birthday, the warmth of his body, and the soft sound of his breathing. She missed him, felt lonely when he wasn't with her, but she was determined to end a relationship she saw stagnating. Her unhappiness weighed heavily on her mind when she was alone, and she had buried herself in her work to keep from thinking about him.

She had been burned once, and she was not about to let it happen again. Jack Egger had been her Mr. Right, who turned out to be Mr. Wrong. Lately, her relationship with Greg seemed headed in the same direction.

For months, she and Jack, her former lover, shared dinners, spoke of their futures, and planned joint holidays. Abruptly, he did not call. Finally, Tanya with reservations swallowed her pride and called Jack. His words cut her to the core. "I've met someone else." The real reason, Tanya realized, was that she was half Blackfoot, an orphan, and Jack’s parents were against his dating her.

She was not going to let that happen again. Difficult as it had been, she told Greg of her decision over dinner at Suhiro’s. He protested but refused to make a commitment. To bury her disappointment, she spent hours in the field on any project she could, and she vowed no one was going to destroy her hopes and dreams of the future, including Greg.

She smiled as she recalled his words. “Remain friends! I don't like that." It was his problem. He had to understand, she needed more than an ongoing affair. As a foster child, she had moved from house to house never knowing how long she would be in one place. Permanent friends and relationships were important to her.

The voices in the vehicle hummed around her, but she was only aware of Greg. She glanced at him. Something bothered him. The set of his jaw revealed his moods to her. Still, she had no right to ask.

Figwort jumped into Tanya's lap. Her breath caught in her throat as a blue Buick with four men passed them on a double line, blind curve. "Wow! That was stupid."

"A bunch of idiots," Greg responded. He slowed his SUV.

"I need to put my heart back in place after that," Julie said. "I do want to live.”

As Greg turned off the main highway and onto a narrow, one-lane road the same blue Buick roared past them. He shook his head. "They must have a death wish for themselves and someone else."

"Tanya, you haven't uttered a word this whole drive," Rebecca said.

"I've been mulling things over in my mind, trying to remember if I've forgotten anything," Tanya answered. She felt but did not see Greg's glance.

"Hope you're weighing the odds of having a miserable trip," he said.

Tanya chuckled. "It's not going to be miserable. We'll have perfect weather. Fall is a beautiful season to be out."

"Take a look above you. Those clouds are building. We can have terrible weather in September, the fall equinox."

"Come off it, Greg. We're going. You're as bad as Steve. He thinks I'm nuts every time I venture out in bad weather, but I actually like it," Julie said.

"I'll go home with you. I hate bad weather, and I hate being forced to go on backpacks," Cindy said. “Look at those black clouds. We’re going to be wet the whole trip. I’m already shivering. Come, Fig, sit on my lap and keep me warm.” The dog jumped over the seat and licked her face.

"Cindy, shut up," Rebecca ordered. "I'm tired of your constant complaining. You know you always have a good time once we’re on our way."

“Hang in there, Cindy. We’ll see to it you have fun. It won’t be the same without you around to keep us in tune with life,” Tanya said.

Greg stopped the SUV at the end of the road. "Sure you don't want to change your minds and wait a few days. Sky's pretty heavy," Greg said. He looked at Tanya, his eyes conveying a message to her she could not read. Her heart banged against her chest just being next to him, and she gulped to rein in her emotions. She turned away and went to the rear of the vehicle to reach for her pack. Figwort followed her.

One by one, Tanya handed packs to Julie who stacked them by the side of the SUV.

“I’m going to put my rain gear on top of my pack. I know I’ll need it before we’ve gone a hundred steps.” Cindy laid her pack on the ground, opened it, and scrounged around for her rain jacket and pants.

“Good idea,” Julie said. “Though, I hope we don’t have to wear them. I get so hot with mine on.”

“I’m optimistic. The weather’s going to clear,” Tanya said. She reached for her pack.

"Let me help you," Greg offered. His six-foot, two-inch height made her feel small even though he was only six inches taller than she. His arm around her as he helped her into her pack sent pulses of warmth through her veins, his nearness sending her heart racing. She gritted her teeth to keep from uttering words that would undo her vow to herself to end her ties with Greg.

Tanya slipped one arm and then the other into the straps. Before she could stop him, Greg pulled the belt around her waist and buckled it. His closeness brought her heart to her throat. She gulped to regain control of her emotions and took three backward steps. He looked into her eyes.

“Sure you want to make this trip?”  Do you have your cell phone?"

"No. Stop fretting.  You know, we don't take them on a backpack.  Half the time they don't work.” Tanya moved her shoulders from side to side to settle her pack and pulled the straps closer to her back. “Feels comfortable.” She moved her arms in a half circle.

Rebecca shouldered her pack and offered to help Cindy who brushed her aside. “I’m not helpless.”

“If everyone’s ready, we should hit the trail. Want to lead, Cindy, and set the pace? I’ll bring up the rear,” Tanya said.

"Have a good trip,” Greg said. "I'll see you in five days."

"We will. Thanks." Tanya hitched the waist belt of the pack tighter and turned up the trail, Figwort at her heels.

The cheerful voices of the women carried to him, but he could not rid himself of the remorsefulness that flooded through his mind and engulfed his body, leaving him deeply depressed as the dream returned.

A rag bundle of blue and red cloth lay at the base of a cliff. As he turned it over to examine it, he looked into unseeing eyes, Tanya's deep brown eyes, lifeless and vacant. A moan escaped him, but he uttered no words, no calling out for Tanya to come back. Greg shook his head to rid himself of the black memory, the dream of her fall so real. Still, the alarm and the fear pumped through his veins.

"Tanya," he whispered.

As though hearing him, she turned and waved.

 


 

 

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