Category Archives: Excerpt
New York Times and USA Today bestseller Julie Ann Walker delivers red-hot romantic suspense in Fuel for Fire!
Dagan Zoelner has always had his eye on spunky CIA agent Chelsea Duvall. When a mission throws them together, this could be his only chance to win her heart for good.
Dagan Zoelner has made three huge mistakes
The first two left blood on his hands.
The third left him wondering…what if?
What if he had told the woman of his dreams how he felt before his world fell apart?
Spitfire CIA agent Chelsea Duvall has always had a thing for bossy, brooding Dagan. It’s just as well that he’s never given her a second look, since she carries a combustible secret about his past that threatens to torch their lives…
Tell us!” Surry demanded again, giving her head a hard shake. Her brain banged around inside her skull, making her see stars. Since she was tied with a length of electrical cord to one of the chairs in front of Morrison’s desk, her hands duct-taped behind her back, there was little she could do to defend herself.
Then again, she still had her smart mouth. “Screw you, buddy,” she snarled. Those three words were all she allowed herself before she clenched her teeth and sealed her lips shut.
The violence that clouded Surry’s face and glinted in his hell-black eyes made her want to curl into a protective ball. He leaned down so that his nose was an inch from hers. His hot breath smelled of coffee and buttered croissants, and the thought of him actually eating struck her as weird. She had assumed he sustained himself by devouring the souls of Morrison’s enemies.
“You will bloody well tell us what we want to know, Miss Duvall.” When he spoke all low and menacing in that thick English accent, she got the unsettling feeling that something dark moved in the shadows just out of sight. “Or I will jab this letter opener into your carotid.” He pulled back to wield the weapon he had taken from Morrison’s desktop. The sterling-silver letter opener glinted in the golden glow cast by the overhead chandelier.
Releasing her face, Surry cocked his head. “So, what shall it be? The truth? Or the knife? The choice is yours.” There was an emptiness in his voice when he asked the questions. Like he didn’t really care what the answers would be. Like he was tired or bored or maybe…resigned?
Oh, that doesn’t bode well.
Of course, the truth was out of the question. She would never rat on the Black Knights. No telling what Morrison, a.k.a Spider, with all his power and connections, could do with that information. So that left…the knife.
But there’s still so much I want to do!
She had never learned to make her mother’s she-crab soup. She had never tried her hand at writing fiction like that of Tolkien or Rowling or Martin. She had never married the love of her life and given him two bouncing, chubby-cheeked babies.
A cold finger of terror dragged up her spine, and for a second she considered spilling her guts and saving her hide. But then, from somewhere deep inside, a well of strength erupted, filling her with determination and the will to do what must be done.
Her mind briefly touched on her mother, and a great sadness weighed down her heart. Grace Duvall would be devastated by the death of her only child. But Chelsea took comfort—cold comfort, but comfort all the same—in knowing that her life insurance policy would be enough to pay her mother’s debts. That was something. Something to hold on to.
“Well?” Surry demanded. “What will it be?”
Chelsea licked her lips. Fear was a living thing inside her, crawling through her chest like a centipede on prickly legs. She squashed it and sealed her own fate. “Do your worst, you sorry, low-life sonofagun!”
Surry’s beard-stubbled chin jerked back as if he couldn’t believe the choice she’d made. Then his eyes narrowed, and grim determination transformed his face.
Closing her eyes, Chelsea waited on the inevitable. That centipede was going crazy inside her, making her chest ache and raising the hair on her head. She braced herself for the deathblow as a million regrets, a million joys, a million memories flittered through her brain.
Funny how many of those regrets and joys and memories feature Dagan.
She held her breath, savoring it, knowing it was her last and—
“Drop. The. Knife.”
With a cry, she blinked open her eyes and craned her head around to see three figures dressed from head to toe in black. Each of them wielded a weapon as if it were an extension of himself.
The Black Knights…
Even had Dagan not spoken the three most beautiful words she’d ever heard in that smooth moonshine voice, she would have known the trio anywhere. There was no mistaking those broad shoulders or those defiant, cocksure stances.
Her eyes homed in on Dagan. He was in the middle and slightly forward of the other two. It wasn’t his height or carriage that gave him away. It was his stillness. Ace and Christian seemed to vibrate with barely leashed power. But Dagan was a statue. Not a muscle quivered. Not a tendon or ligament cracked. Chelsea was reminded of a pair of tectonic plates under intense pressure. She knew what came next. The earth would rip open, and hell would spew forth.
Surry must have felt the doom behind Dagan’s stillness, because his voice sounded wheezy when he demanded, “And who the fuck are you?”
“Worry less about who we are,” Dagan snarled, “and more about what we’ll do if you don’t drop the knife.”
Proving he had more balls than brains, Surry spun Chelsea’s chair around and palmed her forehead to wrench her head back. The sharp tip of the letter opener nicked at the skin pulsing over the large vein in her neck. She hadn’t had time to scream, and now she didn’t dare breathe.
“Ring up the police, sir,” Surry said. From the corner of her eye, Chelsea saw Morrison/Spider make a move toward the desk.
“Take one step in the direction of that phone, and you’ll be eating a bullet for breakfast.” There was no mistaking Dagan’s words or his tone. He meant what he said.
Morrison must have come to the same realization. The old man stopped in his tracks.
“Good man,” Dagan acknowledged. “Now, there’s one thing you both need to understand. We’re leaving here with Chelsea. That can be over your dead bodies or your live ones.” Even though his words were calm and his body as motionless as a mountain, rage burned inside him. It was there in his eyes, glowing red like the fires of Mordor. “So what will it be? The choice is yours.”
It was the same option Surry had given her, spoken in the same words. How long had the three of them been outside listening?
“You have no bloody idea who you’re fucking with,” Morrison snarled, his chest heaving with every furious breath. “I have—”
That’s all he managed. In a flash, the statue, a.k.a. Dagan Zoelner, came to life. He moved faster than the human eye could follow, certainly faster than Chelsea could track with her head angled back in Surry’s grip. One second he was staring at her and Surry, and the next he aimed at Morrison and pulled his trigger.
The gunshot was oddly muffled and Morrison stumbled back, hitting his hip on the edge of the desk. Surry bellowed his outrage and released her head. Free from his brutal grip, she turned to Morrison and understood the strangeness of the weapon’s sound.
It wasn’t a bullet that had exploded from the end of Dagan’s gun. It was a dart. She had just enough time to catch a glimpse of the fuzzy yellow end protruding from the center of Morrison’s chest before Dagan fired again. This time the dart whizzed over her head. Surry made an awful gurgling noise. When she pulled her chin back, she saw the projectile sticking from his neck.
He reached for the dart, stumbling into her chair. His hand hit the back of her head, looking for leverage and forcing her chin into her chest as every vertebra in her neck threatened to crack under the pressure. She couldn’t see what happened next. But she heard it. Heard the boots that pounded against the tiles as the Black Knights raced into the room.
Surry released her head when Christian tackled him. From the corner of her eye, she watched Ace catch Morrison right before the old man toppled face-first onto the floor. And Dagan? Well, Dagan knelt in front of her.
She gasped when his big, warm hands cupped her cheeks, gently lifting her head. Her neck ached, but it wasn’t broken. All her fingers and toes still worked when she gave them an experimental wiggle.
“Chels… Christ. Are you okay?” His stormy eyes searched her face.
She nodded her head. That’s all she could manage because a giant lump was centered in her throat. She had put on a brave face throughout the entire ordeal, but now that it looked like she was saved, all her shock and terror rose to the surface, crumbling her mask of courage.
“Thank God.” He wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close.
It was the first time he had hugged her. The first time she had been in his arms. Oh, how she wanted to hold him tight in return. But with her hands still trapped behind her back, the only thing she could do was turn her face into his warm neck and breathe him in.
She had always loved the way he smelled. A mixture of worn leather, dryer sheets, and shampoo. All clean and healthy and…male.
“I was afraid m-maybe I didn’t press the button long enough to send out the Mayday,” she said in a rush, her lips moving against the rough fabric of his ski mask. “And th-then they found the thumb drive. But they were so quick to stop questioning me and…and…” She had to stop. “Thank you. Thank you for coming for me.”
His wide palm cupped the back of her head, holding her close. Was it trembling? “Always, Chels. Never doubt it.”
Oh great. Now the lump in her throat had grown to the size of a Carolina pine.
She wanted the moment to last forever, to stay just like this, safe in his arms. But all too soon, he pulled back. “What were you thinking, telling them to do their worst? You were baiting them, egging them on. You stupid, stubborn, self-sacrificing fool.”
And just like that, happiness and relief morphed into incredulity that slid quick as a whistle into anger. Seriously? He was going to stand there—er, squat there—and call her names?
He may be hotter than the door handles of hell, but when he gets all Me Tarzan, You Jane, I want to dump his limp body in the River Thames and feed him to the fishes. After she’d killed him with mind-blowing sex and multiple orgasms, natch. And she could probably cop to his last two accusations. She was stubborn, and in that instant she had been willing to sacrifice herself. But the first one?
“S-stupid?” she sputtered. And good news! The lump in her throat vanished. “Screw you, Dagan! In case you’ve forgotten, I pulled off this op w-with…”
She stumbled to a stop because he’d ripped off his mask. And there it was. The Beard.
Looking at him dressed all in black, shoulders as broad as the Lowcountry, she couldn’t help but think he resembled a god. One of the mythical beings she read about in her fantasy novels. Formidable. Powerful. Gorgeous.
And here I am, a mere mortal.
The look he pinned on her was one she recognized. She liked to call it his Clint Eastwood gunfighter squint. He tended to whip it out right before he laid into her for something. She braced herself, mentally running through her standard list of comebacks. But he didn’t give her a tongue-lashing. At least not a verbal one. Instead, he took her face in his hands and sealed his lips to hers.
She was so surprised that her mouth formed a startled O. Dagan took advantage, his tongue surging between her teeth. His lips were firm yet amazingly soft, and his beard abraded the tender flesh of her cheeks.
Holy mother! Dagan Zoelner was…kissing her!
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Julie Ann Walker is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of award-winning romantic suspense. She has won the Book Buyers Best Award, been nominated for the National Readers Choice Award, the Australian Romance Reader Awards, and the Romance Writers of America’s prestigious RITA award. Her latest release was named a Top Ten Romance of 2014 by Booklist. Her books have been described as “alpha, edgy, and downright hot.” Most days you can find her on her bicycle along the lake shore in Chicago or blasting away at her keyboard, trying to wrangle her capricious imagination into submission.
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A Warrior’s Claiming
The Instinct Book #3
Two barbarians, one stubborn assassin, and a strange connection that they’ll need to use if they have any hope of saving the planet from an offworlder threat.
A WARRIOR’S CLAIMING, the third in The Instinct series, is now available! It’s a stand-alone novella, but it also builds on what’s occurred in the other Instinct books.
Arghet doesn’t know what to make of the new addition to the clan. Skehl is huge, an indomitable warrior with a berserker’s power.
Once part of a hated enemy clan, he’s watched carefully. Somehow Arghet finds himself having to look after the beast. He has more important things to do than care for a troubled male. He’s doing his best to track down the strange female who stole his kill not long ago.
But when he finally finds her, Arghet learns he’s no longer the hunter, but the hunted. And that Skehl is much more than the quiet, subdued warrior he once seemed…
Then what Talzec said penetrated.
“Since when is Skehl my warrior?” Arghet asked.
Talzec shrugged. “He seems most comfortable with you and Lore. But with Mandy breeding and unable to attend, Lore and Zhen will remain here, in the village.”
Arghet swore. “What am I to do with him?” They both turned to see Skehl sitting by one of the females, holding a skein of wool while she manipulated it. “He’s a lump. He barely speaks. And when he does, he makes little sense. The only thing he’s good for is training, and that’s only when he feels like it.” Only when Arghet tasked him to battle. Skehl had a tendency to ignore the other warriors, which didn’t put him in their high esteem.
Then there was the matter of the male’s eye mark, the one so like the female who’d stolen Arghet’s kill.
The damned female refused to leave his mind’s eye. Long black hair, purple eyes, and full lips complemented a face many would consider beautiful. Hell, he considered her striking. That she’d moved liked a warrior and wielded a blade had both captivated and angered him. She’d moved with grace and skill, then stolen his victory. Yet for all her barbarian airs, she hadn’t worn a loincloth or breast sash. She’d had on offworlder gear—black trousers and a black shirt and boots.
And that marker on under her left eye had blazed red while she’d stared at him, the same way Skehl’s had a tendency to glow when the big bastard watched Arghet.
It meant something. He knew it. But he was hesitant to mention it to Talzec, and he didn’t understand his reticence.
“Help our new brother, Arghet. From what I’ve gathered, Skehl was raised as a part of their clan, though he’s clearly not Nasuhl-born. His life cannot have been an easy one.” Talzec knew that of which he spoke. His first mate had been Nasuhl, an abused female who should have been treasured by her alpha—her own brother. Instead, he’d killed her. And Talzec had avenged her in a brutally efficient way.
Arghet respected his alpha, comfortable to serve a leader with so much power. Phelthar—the energy that connected a warrior to the life all around him, to the planet itself, was strong in Talzec. There could be no mistaking the Maker’s pleasure with such a great leader. Because of this, Arghet would handle his misgivings about Skehl and the female. And he’d watch the giant closely.
At that moment, Skehl shifted his attention to Arghet and simply stared.
You do anything to harm my clan, and I’ll take your head from your neck, then carve you into pieces.
The marker on Skehl’s face glowed red. He gave no sign of interest before looking back at the maffet wool in his hands.
“Yes,” Talzec murmured, looking from Skehl to Arghet. “I think you’re exactly the warrior I need to keep our newest clanmate in line.”
BLP REVIEW ~ Tracy
The third book in The Instinct series was as hot, sexy and action packed as I’ve come to expect with this series from Marie Harte.
I loved the sweetness and honesty of the relationship between Arghet and Skehl but also the connection and intensity of the relationship between the triad – wouldn’t I love to be the snarky ninja filling to that big warrior sandwich!
A Warrior’s Claiming was fun and sexy, with a touch of mystery, a lot of suspense, action and adventure.
Normally I can enjoy a read like this for what’s written on the page but, whether it was MS’s intention or not, this book left me thinking about more than the storyline for a while after. There’s an element of the book that I think ties the fiction to reality and makes you think about the actions of men here in the real work on earth… You’ll hopefully understand when you hit that section of the book – maybe then this will make sense?
We caught up with previous characters and met some who I hope we learn more of in future books in the series.
4.5* warrior worthy stars!
About the Series
In the future, Earth isn’t the only inhabitable planet anymore. The resort on planet Ussed is a tourist attraction known far and wide throughout the galaxies. It’s a pleasure haven, home of beautiful people, flora, fauna, and fascinating vistas–the most intriguing being the barbarians who work as security for the resort. There’s a treaty keeping the tourists and the natives separate. Until the barbarians realize the women of Earth might just be worth breaking a few treaties for.
Other books in the series
A Civilized Mating (book #1)
If one barbarian is lethal, two are even more dangerous…in bed
Earther Skye Jones arrives to rescue her friend from a kidnapping, knowing she’ll be throwing away her chances of a dream job on planet Ussed. But with her skills, she doesn’t anticipate being captured by a group of the lethal barbarians. Or that she’ll fall for the sexy squad leader. If that weren’t bad enough, she’s brought back to their encampment, where she meets their clan leader, yet another hulking warrior that sets her blood afire.
When the mating instinct takes over, Skye finds herself with not just one, but two bed partners. Her life isn’t meant to be lived among the uncivilized. Or is it? Before she can decide what she wants, the choice is taken out of her hands by an enemy clan. And if she’s not careful, she’ll lose a lot more than a stubborn heart.
A M/M/F bisexual, menage romance.
Zhen and Lore have bonded, but they’re in need of female to complete them. When they see Mandy, they know. She’s the one. But the stubborn human female needs some persuading. And some saving, since she’s got humans and a rival clan after her. With time not on their side, Zhen and Lore must convince Mandy that she belongs with them. And that if she’ll let herself, she’ll find acceptance in the arms of not just one, but two barbarians who have nothing but love to give.
A M/M/F bisexual, menage romance.
About the Author:
Caffeine addict, boy referee, and romance aficionado, MARIE HARTE is a confessed bibliophile and devotee of action movies. Whether hiking in Central Oregon, biking around town, or hanging at the local tea shop, she’s constantly plotting to give everyone a happily ever after.
Award-winning author Marie has been writing professionally since 2005. She’s both a NY Times and USA Today bestselling author and has written over 100 books and counting. Marie writes books with heat, humor, and character. She writes independently and for several publishers, to include Sourcebooks and Samhain. Though currently writing contemporary romance, she also writes paranormal and romantic suspense. Before turning to writing full-time, she earned a B.A. in English from Pennsylvania State University and spent several years in the United States Marine Corps as a communications officer.
The Facts According to Marie:
- I’m a mood reader. If I read a book with a bad ending, it throws me into a funk for days.
- If it’s paranormal, I’m digging it.
- I majored in English and have yet to read Jane Austen. Seriously. *I hang my head in shame*
- I’m naturally lazy but perform best under deadlines.
- I’ve fired a 9mm pistol, a Squad Automatic Weapon, an M16A2 rifle, an M203 grenade launcher, and have thrown live grenades. And I loved it!
- Grammar is my rock. I respect those who know when to use their, there, and they’re correctly.
- I’m definitely a night owl.
- Long live the Oxford comma.
- I love books. I’ll read until they bury me, and then I’ll haunt libraries.
- I can’t write to music or television. I need perfect quiet.
There was a baby on his doorstep.
Feral stood in the open doorway of his apartment and looked down at the small bundle with confusion. Wrapped in a pale-yellow blanket, one pudgy arm and leg had escaped from the folds to punch and kick with enthusiasm. Gurgles filled the air, bursting with baby satisfaction and happiness. Whatever it thought it was fighting, in its mind it was obviously winning.
He scrubbed a hand over his shorn head. What was a baby doing on his doorstep?
“Well, hello little…actually, what the hell are you?” he murmured. “And how did you get out here?”
He squatted down to pick it up. It took three attempts. His large hands weren’t the right shape to pick up something so tiny. Lifting the squirming bundle carefully, he glanced up and down the corridor, trying to catch a glimpse of whoever had knocked on his door.
Nothing. Zip. Nada. Not surprising. Even if someone had been lurking in the shadows, the near six and a half feet of bare-chested kyn male who’d opened the door would have scared them off for sure.
Then the smell hit him.
Pungent and forceful, it stripped several layers off the inside of his nose like a gallon of paint thinner. Recoiling, he wrinkled his nose in disgust. “Fuck, are you supposed to smell that bad, mate?”
He looked at the baby in surprise, settling it into the crook of his arm. He didn’t really want it so close, not smelling as foul as it did, but he couldn’t leave it alone on the floor.
“Okay, let’s see who you are then.” He reached out to move the edge of the blanket covering the baby’s face and then froze. His lips peeled back from his fangs.
Its hair was bright pink.
Which meant two things: one, the baby was male, and two, it was a pixie. They were the only species Feral knew of with such weird hair colors.
“You just had to be a bloody pixie, didn’t you?” He glared up and down the corridor again. Still no one.
He sighed heavily. There was no point standing out on the doorstep like a spare prick at an orgy. A chill ran up the hallway and he looked down at the baby. He couldn’t leave it out here, even if it was a pixie. It would freeze to death.
He stepped back into his apartment, hooking a bare foot around the door and kicking it shut before wandering into the main room. Coming to an abrupt stop in the middle of the open area, he frowned. What the hell did he do now?
It was one of his rare nights off, so he wasn’t dressed for company. A pair of ripped, faded jeans hung off his hips and his feet were bare. Alone as he was, he hadn’t bothered with a shirt. And he’d already had a couple of beers, make that a lot of beers, so he couldn’t drive. Which left him with a problem. A small, baby-shaped problem.
He looked down, a smile tugging at the corners of his lips as the baby opened its eyes and blinked at him. Its wide, bright eyes were peacock blue.
“I don’t suppose you’ve got any suggestions as to what we should do?”
The baby just looked back and smiled the toothless, gummy smile of the very young. Feral had to admit, for a pixie, he was cute. The sort of cute that women went gaga over. The baby was also more placid than he’d been led to believe babies were. As the thought wandered through Feral’s mind, though, the baby’s face crumpled.
The cry started off low, but then swelled and grew in volume, like an old-fashioned air raid siren. Feral had only ever heard them in films, but now, he held an appreciation of what it must have been like in London during the Blitz. It seemed impossible someone so small could make so much noise. But he was, threatening to pierce Feral’s eardrums with the sheer volume.
“Shh…shh…shh, it’s fine. Everything’s fine!” He jiggled the baby a little, trying to calm it down, but this action only released fresh waves of the foul stench emanating from the diaper.
It wasn’t fine. It was so far from fine it beggared belief. He must really have pissed the fates off at some point for them to dump a baby on him… a pixie baby no less, when his dislike…no, his hatred of pixies was well known. Perhaps he’d kicked kittens or puppies in a former life or something.
Out of ideas, he strode across the room to the breakfast counter. The apartments on his block were open plan, with the kitchen and dining room leading into the main living space. Bathrooms and bedrooms were separated by the narrow excuse for an entrance hall.
He located his cell behind a couple of empty beer bottles and flicked it open. Vixen would know what to do. His partner of several years, and a mother herself, she’d know what to do with a baby. If he was lucky, she might even offer to look after the child for him.
Here’s hoping, he thought, hitting speed dial for Vixen and lifting it to his ear.
“Hi, you’ve reached Vixen’s phone…”
“Crap,” Feral swore as his patrol partner’s voicemail cut in. He’d forgotten Vixen’s mate, Kalen, had taken her out of town for the weekend. A second honeymoon since Vix had been eight months pregnant, and the size of a house, during their first.
“Fuckit.” He flicked the phone shut and tapped the edge of it against his teeth. Then he realized the terrible wail had stopped and he looked down in surprise. Peacock blue eyes were fixed on his cell.
“Oh, you like this, huh?” He smiled and waggled the phone. The baby watched it, tracking the movement. Feral frowned—he didn’t know they could do that until they were older. He shrugged. He must be mistaken. The little man was tracking the phone like a hawk.
Pudgy fists emerged from the blanket and made a grab for the sleek silver case, fastening around it and wrenching the thing from Feral’s grasp. He chuckled, an expression that turned to horror the next instant as the baby stuffed it into his mouth.
“No no no… Not good, not food!” he exclaimed as his phone was used as a teething ring.
“Give the phone back to Feral. There’s a good little boy,” he coaxed and worked to get a finger between the baby’s mouth and the phone. But the slobbering little thing had formed an unbreakable seal and he couldn’t even get his smallest finger in. He hissed in frustration, looking at the baby in confusion as he tried several different angles. It was no good. His hands were too big, more accustomed to battling rogue vampires than dealing with tiny babies.
Finally, he managed it, sliding his finger down the side and popping the phone free. He grimaced as his finger and the phone came away covered in baby slobber, and he held the phone up in triumph. A furious squeal tore the air while little fists struggled and pummeled the air.
Feral stuffed the phone back in the baby’s mouth, silencing the squeal as quickly as it had started. Great, so what did he do now? He had no clue how to take care of a baby and had no time to learn. He needed to do something about the smell soon as well because it was getting worse.
Diapers. He needed diapers. But what sort, and where could he get them from? Disposable ones would be fine—he wasn’t all earth-momma like the woman two units down. He often saw her in the basement with laundry loads of white diapers.
His eyes widened. A woman with children. Even better, she had pixie blood. Once you’d seen one pixie woman, it was easy to spot them. Which meant he wouldn’t have to explain why the baby was sporting what looked like a bad dye job.
Grinning, he did an about face. Sliding his feet into a pair of heavy boots, he trudged out the door in search of salvation.
The tub of ice cream in the freezer was calling Tessa’s name. Chocolate fudge brownie—her favorite comfort food. After the crap day she’d had, she didn’t care about the extra calorie load. Fresh from the shower and swaddled in one of her sister’s huge toweling robes, she padded into the kitchen to collect the tub and a spoon. She didn’t bother with a bowl. Instead, she just pulled the lid off and dug in, right there in front of the freezer.
“Mmm…” She moaned in pleasure as the first taste of the chocolatey, gooey treat hit her tongue. The stresses of the day melted away, aided by the long, hot shower she’d just had and the taste of the ice cream. A little taste of her childhood. She closed her eyes and leaned back against the freezer.
Today had been the day from hell. Working in a busy logistics office meant everything had been put on hold when the trunk shipments had been late, throwing the whole day into disarray. It also meant Tessa didn’t get to leave until late. Considering she’d been on duty since 6 a.m., it hadn’t impressed her.
Finally, she’d been able to escape, a long weekend ahead of her. But even then, she hadn’t been finished. She’d agreed to house sit for her older sister Lisa, who was off for a break with her hubby and the twins. So, it had been a mad dash home to throw whatever she needed into a weekend bag and then a breakneck drive over to the apartment to catch Lisa before she left to get the usual “remember to feed the fish” chat. Lisa was only a couple of years older than Tessa, but anyone would think she was Methuselah the way she carried on.
Now though, all was calm. Tessa had waved Lisa and James off, twins already asleep and packed up in the back of the car, a little over an hour ago. Just enough time to unwind over a glass of wine as she watched the evening news and take a long, hot shower.
She just loved the shower here. A power unit, it had a setting that felt like needles bombarding her skin—thousands of tiny, dull pinpricks that took her breath away and felt wonderful after the day she’d had. She’d stood there for a full five minutes under the spray before even reaching for the shower gel.
Opening her eyes, she dug the spoon into the ice cream again, tucking the tub into the crook of her arm as she headed through to the main room. Flopping down in the middle of the comfortable sofa, she rooted around for the remote, spoon in mouth. It was there somewhere, she just needed to find it and then she’d be all set. The player was loaded with tonight’s choice of chick flick movie, one she’d been looking forward to watching for weeks but just hadn’t found the time to see. Now, she had the time. This weekend was all about her and relaxation. Lots of relaxation.
“Ahh, there you are.” She recovered the missing remote from under one of the scatter cushions. Her sister was obsessed with the things. Either that or they were breeding in here.
Sighing in satisfaction, she spooned more ice cream into her mouth as she flicked the player on. She curled her legs up under her and settled herself into a more comfortable position as the opening credits rolled. Life didn’t get much better than this.
Rap, rap, rap.
“Damn it.” She looked over her shoulder, but the knock on the front door continued as she stared. Who was that? Had to be a cold caller, she decided. A total control freak, Lisa would have let all her friends know she was going to be away. Which meant it had to be someone who didn’t know Lisa or James. And if it was, perhaps they would go away if she ignored them.
Rap, rap, RAP.
No such luck, the hammering got worse. Tessa sighed as she contemplated moving, flicking pause on the remote and freezing the scrolling text on the TV screen.
“This had better be good,” she grumbled under her breath as she put the tub on the floor, drove the spoon into the melting ice cream with a vicious stab, and then got to her feet. It had better be good…and quick, since she had a major fan-girl thing for the actor in the movie. The quicker she got back to ogle his toned and sculptured bod, the happier she’d be.
She grumbled under her breath all the way to the door, her bare feet silent on the wooden floor. Ever security-conscious, she threw the chain over before she opened it a crack.
“Hello?” That was as far as she got. The sight that met her eyes stopped any further comment in her throat.
On her doorstep was the most handsome, ripped guy she’d ever seen. Her eyes started at the middle of the broad chest, noting the heavily toned muscles as they moved outward. A long way outward. The guy was huge. And tall. Her eyes flicked upward. He had to be well over six feet. Made her feel kind of dainty, which wasn’t something Tessa got to feel very often.
He was also carrying a baby.
She blinked in surprise. Okay, this was one situation she wasn’t used to facing. Drop-dead gorgeous men did not appear on her doorstep with babies. They didn’t appear on her doorstep at all, with or without babies.
“Sorry, can I help you?”
“You might just save my life.” His voice was a low rumble that took Tessa’s breath away. The sort of sound that did things to her insides on a very primitive level.
“Um, okay?” she managed, dark eyes flicking to the bundle he carried. Then a slight breeze in the corridor, someone must have opened a door down the way, carried the unmistakable scent of a dirty diaper.
“Hmm, not being funny… but you might want to change the baby before you take it out visiting,” she suggested. And maybe put a shirt on, she added mentally. Although, she was enjoying the view. What kind of a father was he, though, bringing his baby out with a dirty diaper?
“That would be the problem.” He shifted the baby in his arms and smoothed the edge of the blanket down. Tessa caught her breath at the color of its hair.
It was bright pink, a color she’d only seen in the full-blooded members of her mother’s family. He looked at her and smiled, the merest hint of fang showing. “As you can see, it’s not mine. Someone just left it on my doorstep and I haven’t a clue what to do with it.”
He was a vampire.
The knowledge stunned Tessa for a moment, almost as much as his appearance on the doorstep had, and fear hit her system like a bullet. As she watched, he shifted on his feet a fraction and the light fell across the marks across the left side of his face and body. Her breath left her lungs in a rush.
“You’re a kyn warrior,” she exclaimed in relief, glad she hadn’t opened her door to a rogue vampire.
Even though the small amount of pixie blood flowing in her veins protected her from being turned into a vampire, rogue vamps were more interested in the high from a kill than turning their victims. And they generally didn’t use a baby as a decoy. They were more into breaking the doors down to get at their victims. A baby would be little more than a macabre snack.
“Live and kicking…name’s Feral,” he introduced himself, grinning a little. The small expression curved his full lips, transforming his rather cruel features…features made starker by the shaved hairstyle… from merely gorgeous, to devastating.
“Tessa, pleased to meet you,” she replied on automatic, silence stretching between them.
“So,” Feral continued, “you going to help me out here? The little guy…he’s really beginning to smell bad…” He watched her, hope coiling in his chest. When she’d first opened the door, his heart had sunk. She wasn’t the woman he remembered in the laundry.
However, she was a pixie. He could see the slight glamour clinging to her, making her appear more human. On second inspection, there was also a faint family resemblance to the woman with the diapers. Younger sister maybe? He tried that route.
“I remembered your…sister?” He smiled, a cautious edge in his voice as he hoped he’d gotten it right. Women could be funny about ages. Relief shot through him as she nodded.
“I remembered your sister has kids, so when I found him, I came ‘round to beg mercy…and a couple of diapers.” He grinned as he tried his hardest to be charming and personable. She only had to look at him to see he wasn’t a baby sort of guy. Practicing for making babies, yes. Dealing with the result, no.
Come on, sweetheart, say yes.
His silent plea seemed to work, her coffee-cream eyes flicking over him again. Feral shivered, the look like a caress over his skin. His nipples tightened as a thrill shot through him. She stepped back and released the chain.
“Come on. Bring him in and we’ll get him cleaned up,” she ordered, her voice brusque. Feral stalled, not used to being ordered around… no that was a lie. He was used to being ordered around. Vixen did it regularly, as did their boss Marak, the current kyn monarch. But both Vixen and Marak weren’t people one would want to piss off in a hurry while this woman was, well, tiny. And curvy to boot—the figure the shapeless toweling robe hinted at was enough to make his mouth water.
He followed her into the living room, looking around the plush interior and dismissing it just as quickly. It had all the hallmarks of expensive interior design and was about as interesting as the back of a cereal box.
“Come on. Let’s have him down here then.” She dragged out a changing mat from its hiding place behind the sofa, plopping it on the floor as she glanced at him. “The diapers will be a bit big, but it’s better than leaving him dirty. Can you take his diaper off while I get a fresh one?” She arched an eyebrow, obviously doubting his ability to carry out even that simple task.
He kneeled to settle the baby in the middle of the changing mat. He could do this. But for such a small, little thing, it took virtually every part of Feral’s body to make sure he was placed carefully on the mat.
“Look, mate, you aren’t making this easy you know,” Feral muttered, trying to get his nose as far away from his hands as he could without turning his head or being on the other side of the room. He’d managed to remove the diaper, but he hadn’t been prepared for what it contained.
He grimaced as he considered the contents, not sure what he was supposed to do now. He’d watched Vixen change her little daughter, Marianne, more times than he could remember, and she’d always made it look easy. Grabbing a wipe, he tried to remove the sticky mess on its ass and quickly found out it wasn’t as easy as it looked.
“What the fuck is this stuff?” he muttered, not managing to clean it off but just smear it around more. “Fucking industrial glue?”
He heard a stifled giggle and found the little pixie woman watching him. At the sight of her, he sucked in a hard breath. She was utterly beautiful. He’d known she was a pixie, and he’d thought he could see through her glamour to what lay beneath, but now he realized the truth. He could see the glamour itself, and the potential of what lay beneath, but nothing more.
Now though, she’d stripped the glamour away and he could see her true appearance. And it was stunning. Exotic, feline-cast eyes dominated a small heart-shaped face, with a tiny button of a nose and full lips he ached to taste. Her chin was small but delicate and the arch of her slender neck, half hidden by the mass of dark curls, made both his cock and his fangs ache. One look and he wanted her in the worst way, under him as he drove both his fangs and his cock into her soft sweetness.
“Just where I like to see a man,” she quipped, “on his knees. Come out of the way. You’re just making it worse.” She shooed him away and then knelt in front of the baby, who was taking advantage of the moment to try and flip himself over. Reaching a hand out, she stopped him just before he managed it and tapped his nose playfully.
“Oh no you don’t, handsome,” she chuckled, catching his ankles in one hand and cleaning him up with the other. Her movements were swift and efficient and within a few seconds, the baby was cleaned up with a fresh diaper on him. Feral blinked, unsure how she’d managed it so quickly. Magic, obviously.
“There we go, all clean and dry. Aren’t you a clever little man?” She fastened his top as he wriggled again, doing his best to escape. Grinning, she caught him, his chortles filling the room as she tickled his sides.
Smiles wreathed her face and Feral bit back another surge of lust. He wanted her. Badly. She wasn’t his normal type. Kyn women tended to be tall, slender and pale whereas she was petite and curvy, with dark warm hair and eyes that reminded him of chocolate. But he didn’t care. Everything about her called out to him. Unaware of his attention, she tickled the baby again, running her fingers along the soles of his bare feet as she reached for his trousers.
“He’s a gorgeous little thing,” she commented. “So, he was just left on your doorstep?”
“Yeah, about half an hour ago. Was a bit of a surprise…usually I just get pizza delivery,” he chuckled, shrugging a shoulder. “Not the domestic type.”
“Pizza? I didn’t think vampires ate?” She flicked a glance up at him while she finished dressing the little one. Picking him up, she handed him over. “Here, hold him for a moment while I clear this lot up. Hey…what’s this?”
A piece of paper fell free of the yellow blanket as she picked it up. Reaching down, she recovered it from the floor as Feral watched, jiggling the now clean-smelling baby in his large arms. It was a sheet from a reporter’s notebook, crumpled and folded into quarters. She smoothed it out and frowned at the words scrawled on it in a hasty hand.
“What’s it say?” He shifted closer, peering over her shoulder. The scent of shower gel and warm woman enveloped her, causing a shiver to run down his spine. He really needed to get laid if just being close to a woman stirred up a reaction like that.
She shook her head. “I don’t know. It’s an old fae script, I think… This is more Lisa’s kettle of fish than mine. Some of it I recognize,” she pointed out a word in the middle, fingernail tapping the paper lightly. “This is the word for Morrigan. Oh, shit!”
She looked up at him, eyes wide.
“What? What is it?” Feral frowned, brows raised.
“He…the baby…he’s a Morrigan. There’s a fae prophecy about a male Morrigan… The only male Morrigan.” She swallowed, visibly shaken. “When he grows up, I think he’s going to be a god.”
Mina was born and raised in the East Farthing of Middle Earth (otherwise known as the Midlands, England) and spend her childhood learning all the sorts of things generally required of a professional adventurer. Able to ride, box, shoot, make and read maps, make chainmail and use a broadsword (with varying degrees of efficiency) she was disgusted to find that adventuring is not considered a suitable occupation these days.
So, instead of slaying dragons and hunting vampires and the like, Mina spends her days writing about hot shifters, government conspiracies and vampire lords with more than their fair share of RAWR. Turns out wanna-be adventurers have quite the turn of imagination after all…
(But she keeps that sword sharp, just in case the writing career is just a dream and she really *is* an adventurer.)
The boring part: A full time author and cover artist, Mina can usually be found hunched over a keyboard or graphics tablet, frantically trying to get the images and words in her head out and onto the screen before they drive her mad. She’s addicted to coffee and would like to be addicted to chocolate, but unfortunately chocolate dislikes her.
I needed to get away from the city, away from the hot mess that had become my life.
When I stumbled upon my childhood home on RentBnB.com, I took it as a sign, cleaned out my life savings, and hightailed it to the only place that ever meant something to me, a place I hadn’t seen since a lifetime ago.
Only when I arrived to the familiar South Dakotan farmhouse, I was met by a brooding, we-don’t-take-kindly-to-strangers cowboy by the name of River McCray, who insisted this was his house and most definitely not a rental property.
I’d been internet scammed.
And that cocky, smart-mouthed stranger had the nerve to make me a humiliating offer: I could stay in his house for the next two months rent-free, but I had to work for him.
He’d be my boss. And my roommate.
With no money and nowhere else to go, I agreed. But nothing could have prepared me for the tension, the attraction, and the bombshell revelation that changed … everything.
“Babe, I’m not done yet.” My fingers press into the back of his arms as his naked body unsticks from mine. My lips, parted and breathless, wait for his to return, craving the heat of his tongue as I bask in the early Arizona sunrise peeking through our curtains.
Grant pushes himself away from me, rolling to the cold side of the bed. The contents of his climax spill from the unsatisfied ache between my thighs.
“Thought I told you.” He offers a two-second apologetic smile. “I’m meeting a client at eight. Have to go in early.”
I glance at the vintage alarm clock on his nightstand. There’s more than enough time.
“Five more minutes?” I roll to my side, my swollen lips curling into a slow grin as I trace my fingertips along the crumpled sheets between us. “Please? That’s all I need.”
He smirks, like he thinks I’m being cute, and then he walks around to my side of the bed. Bending to kiss my forehead, he drags his thumb along my lower lip and exhales through his nose.
“Here,” he says, reaching toward my bedside table. Pulling the top drawer open, he fishes through the contents before retrieving my purple vibrator, a relic from the early days of our relationship when I was still trying to be the girl I thought he wanted me to be. A plan that backfired and then some. “This ought to help.”
If there were more light in our bedroom this morning, he’d probably be able to see the color draining from my face.
“You don’t want it?” he asks, pausing for a beat before placing it on the bed to my left.
I can’t answer.
Ever since Grant finished law school at NYU and made partner at his uncle’s prestigious law firm in Scottsdale, he’s become self-involved, self-obsessed, and disgustingly self-centered. It’s all about him, all of the time.
I didn’t want to see it.
I didn’t want to believe it.
All this time, I made excuses for him, convincing myself it was a phase. Convincing myself one of these days I’ll get the old Grant back …
… the one with the charming smile who couldn’t keep his hands off me …
… the one I fell in love with fresh out of college …
…the one who was obsessed with me, seeing to it personally that my happiness was above all else …
… the one who almost made me forget about the ones before him and not think twice that there might ever be one after him …
Grant strides toward the en-suite bathroom, his tight ass flexing as he moves, and I listen as he flushes the toilet a moment later. The shower begins to spray. My eyes move to the vibrator. I refuse to touch it.
And besides, my mood has miraculously vanished.
Twisting the diamond engagement ring on my left finger, I run my fingertip along the sharp edges of the glimmering brilliant-cut stone.
It was supposed to symbolize his commitment to me. Hope for the future. Infinite love that never ends.
Peeling myself out of bed, I wrap the percale sheets around my body. Suddenly the idea of standing naked before him feels awkward and vulnerable in a way I’ve never felt around him before. As I make my way to the bathroom, I clear my throat and feel the creep of nervous heat as it blooms up my neck.
He turns to me, rinsing suds from his eyes as his fingertips massage his thick, sandy blond hair. “You want to get in?”
“I don’t want to be with you anymore.” I didn’t rehearse the line. I didn’t ponder the decision longer than the time it took me to walk from the bed to the en-suite. Sliding the diamond ring from my finger, I place it gently next to the sink.
Grant scoffs, pressing the glass shower door open and sticking his head out. “Leighton.”
I shrug before tucking a messy strand of dark hair behind one ear, unable to meet his gaze because although my head knows the man standing before me is different from the one I once knew, my heart knows no difference. As soon as he leaves for work, I’ll clean myself up and pack my things.
I’m not sure where I’ll go, but I’ll figure it out. Anyplace would be better than sticking around here like Grant’s personal doormat.
“All because I didn’t give you an orgasm?” He laughs. He isn’t taking me seriously.
Shaking my head, I say, “It’s not that.”
He rinses the soft white suds from his body, steps onto the mat, and wraps a white towel around his waist, tucking it at his hip. The scent of cedar wood shower gel permeates the muggy air, suffocating my senses as his hands circle my waist.
Spinning me to face him, he cups my chin in his right hand.
“Talk to me,” he says, focused. “What’s this about? What’s going on here?”
He rolls his eyes, still smiling. “Of course I’ve changed. I’m building the life we’ve always dreamed of. The long hours? The Maserati? The wardrobe? It’s all part of an image I have to project. Nobody wants to hire a lawyer who rolls up in a rusty sedan in an off-the-rack suit. Come on. You know that.”
“I’m not talking about that.”
His brows meet. “Then how have I changed?”
“You’re selfish,” I say, “And you never used to be. We used to be in this together. You and me. We used to fit together so easily, and now … now it’s like we don’t even line up anymore.”
“Christ, Leighton. You know I love you. You know you’re the center of my world.” He drags a hand through his damp hair. “I’m sorry my career is overshadowing what we have right now, but I promise it’s not forever.”
My mind replays a moment from last weekend, when we attended a charity gala in downtown Phoenix. I counted at least eight women who couldn’t take their eyes off Grant all night, and the man was well aware. He strutted around, peacock proud, introducing himself to anyone who so much as met his cunning emerald gaze. Never once introducing me as I stood in his shadow like a forgotten afterthought.
There’s a difference between networking and schmoozing.
The old Grant would’ve worn me proudly on his arm, kissed my forehead every chance he got, and introduced me like a true gentleman.
Instead he left me alone by the open bar, at one point spending twenty-five minutes chatting up a leggy redhead in head-to-toe Givenchy. She couldn’t stop smiling in his presence, touching his arm as she laughed at everything he said, and he stood unusually close to her.
I’m not a jealous woman, and I never have been, but seeing how Grant looked at every other woman that night with the same gaze he used to lovingly reserve for me filled me with doubt and made me question our relationship for the first time since we met.
“You scheduled a client dinner on our anniversary last month,” I say. “And you forgot my birthday this year.”
Grant places a hand over his perfect, chiseled chest. “And I apologized for those incidences, did I not?”
“The old you—”
“—the old me?” His brows lift, incredulous. “There is no old me. Stop being dramatic. I’m going to work before you make me late with all of … this.”
A little piece of me dies every time he takes that tone with me, which lately has been more frequent than ever.
He shakes his head, disgusted, and heads to the closet. When he returns with a red gingham tie in hand, he releases a quick breath.
“We’ll finish this when I get home tonight.” He places the tie on a robe hook, and his tone is softer than it was a second ago.
For a splintered moment, I second guess my decision.
Am I being rash?
Do other people spend almost eight years with someone and then wake up one morning and decide it’s over? That it’s not worth trying to salvage? That it’s suddenly come to this?
I watch Grant as he stands over the sink, lathering shaving cream onto his chiseled cheek bones, humming a Rolling Stones song to himself like it’s any other day. I don’t think this man has ever worried for a single second that he might lose me, and maybe that’s why he’s pushed me to the back burner over the last couple of years.
“I love you, Leighton.” He stares into the mirror, our eyes meeting in his reflection. “I’ll fix this. Whatever’s bothering you, we’ll figure it out tonight. I’ll make it right, I promise.”
That’s Grant: cold and cutting one moment, sweet and tender the next.
He never used to be this way.
Grant’s razor drags along his cheek, leaving a track of smooth, tanned skin in its place, and he flashes his trademark disarming smile that makes me think the old him might still be in there somewhere, waiting for me to breathe him back to life.
I pause before stepping out of the bathroom and heading back to bed. Mondays are my late day, and I don’t have to be at work for another three hours, which will give me more time to think this through.
Passing his nightstand, I catch his lit phone screen from the corner of my eye.
Normally I wouldn’t look, but there’s a nagging sensation in the pit of my stomach, a jarring feeling that tells me something isn’t right.
Peering into the bathroom, I don’t see Grant. He must be in the closet, changing into his suit. Sucking in a deep breath, I steal a look at the text message taking up half of the screen.
And then my heart drops to the floor.
I’M READY FOR MY CROSS EXAMINATION THIS MORNING, COUNSELOR, BUT I HAD A COUPLE OF QUESTIONS BEFORE WE PROCEED. LACE OR SILK? MY OFFICE OR YOURS? XO
A million questions swarm my mind, all of them circling at once.
Who is she?
How long has this been going on?
Is she the first?
How could I not know?!
Why would he initiate sex this morning?
Why would he tell me he loves me and then run off to fuck someone else?
“Leighton?” Grant’s voice brings me back, and my frozen stare moves from his phone to the bathroom doorway where he stands. His hands adjust the Windsor knot of his tie, though right now I’m wishing they were my hands, pulling it tighter and tighter still. If I can’t breathe right now, why should he get the privilege? “What’s wrong?”
My vision drowns in warm tears.
It was different earlier. There was a sense of pride in knowing I could make the decision to end things based on principle.
But now …
It seems the decision has been made for me.
There’s no recovering from this.
There’s no bouncing back.
This is the bottom dropping out.
“Leighton, talk to me.” Grant moves closer, lowering to his knees and taking my limp hands in his. I want to recoil at his touch, but I don’t have the energy. “Did something happen? Is it your grandmother?”
He doesn’t get it, at least not right away.
But when his eyes move toward the phone, his breath catches. And then he lets me go, his hands sliding off of mine, slow and careful.
Grant stands, straightening his posture before slipping his phone into his pocket and studying my face.
The weight of his stare is heavy, but the silence between us is heavier.
The man who has argued hundreds of cases over his budding career is officially speechless, unable to defend his reprehensible actions.
And how could he?
The evidence is damning, and his lack of words may as well be a guilty plea.
But not for long.