Russian Beast – Chapter 1

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Muffled yelling pierced the rap music blasting through Alexei’s earphones. The thin walls of his apartment did little to quiet the sound of the couple next door as the argument escalated.

Alexei sighed and tugged out his earphones, allowing them to drop into his lap. The tinny sound of the song he’d been listening to was drowned out by the loud male voice currently making his displeasure known.

He swung his legs over the side of his bed, the mattress squeaking under his weight, and turned his head towards the wall. Peeling paint in a colour that had once been white, now a sickly grey, decorated the otherwise bare walls of his apartment.

The voices rose again, and he winced. He couldn’t make out what they were saying. It was hard enough for him to understand English in normal circumstances, let alone when it was furious yelling behind a barrier.

It took Alexei a moment to realise it wasn’t actually a couple yelling. Because the woman he knew lived there—whom he’d never spoken to, but had seen once or twice in the hallway, and had thought she’d lived alone—wasn’t replying. Only the man had something to say. The extremely angry man.

Alexei hesitated a moment. He shouldn’t intervene, he knew that. It wasn’t his business if a couple got into an argument, and it was a common enough occurrence around here besides. Worse, if the police got involved it would compromise Alexei’s carefully constructed life under the radar of the authorities.

Ah chyort,” Alexei muttered. Ah shit.

A crash sounded from beyond the wall, and Alexei was on his feet and moving towards his front door before he’d even made a conscious decision. Even as he stomped down the hall, having a moment to consider what he was about to do, he kept moving forward. He’d seen enough domestic violence first-hand to know the damage it could cause, and he wouldn’t sit by while another woman’s life was shattered.

He reached the apartment next door and stopped for a moment, chest heaving in anticipation of a fight. His blood was up, a surging lust for violence, a need to do harm to a man that hurt others smaller than himself.

He tried the doorknob. Locked. Very well. He bared his teeth and took a step back from the door. Another crash, and this time Alexei was sure he could hear a woman crying. Soft, subdued, as if she was trying to hold back the sounds, but even more heart-wrenching for the pretense.

Alexei readied himself with a deep breath, then charged forward. His shoulder slammed against the door with all his strength. The seams cracked as the wood splintered, but the door didn’t burst open.

The man hadn’t stopped his tirade, so Alexei assumed he hadn’t paid attention to the breaking and entering attempt. But Alexei could hear the woman’s voice now, clearer, and with a plaintive edge.

“Please, Jimmy.”

Those two words sliced rage through Alexei. He could no longer think rationally. Instead, he was a child again, hearing his mother plead in that same tone of voice. “Please, Grigori.” Alexei had been too young, too small, to do anything all those years ago, but the same couldn’t be said now.

Alexei gritted his teeth, raised his leg, and slammed his bare foot into the tilting door.

The door burst open, slamming against the wall with an almighty crash. It bounced off and swung back towards Alexei on uneven hinges, but Alexei didn’t let it close on him. He held out a fist and the door whacked into his arm and sailed harmlessly back again.

Alexei didn’t give it a second glance. He was too busy staring down the furious gaze of the man in front of him. Jimmy, he assumed, was a little over six foot, and had a decent set of muscles on him. Alexei would comfortably bet what little money he had on the fact that those muscles were gym-bought, and not from natural use. In fact, he’d be surprised if Jimmy used his muscles for anything another than intimidating women.

“Who the fuck are you?” Jimmy spat.

Alexei ignored him. He glanced at the woman, his neighbour, hunched on the floor near the wall. Broken glass scattered around her, the yellow shards reflecting the light from a small lamp a few feet from her. She looked so small, so vulnerable, sitting there amongst the wreck of her apartment. It whacked Alexei in the gut more effectively than any punch or kick. How could any man hurt such a woman, any woman?

She didn’t appear to be badly hurt, though a bruise was blooming vividly on her cheek, and her lip was split. She wasn’t looking at him, her gaze focused on the floor. It took Alexei a second to notice she was looking for something, until her hand closed around a small statue that hadn’t been damaged by Jimmy’s tantrum.

Alexei tore his gaze from her and glanced at his surroundings. A chair had been overturned, as had a table. But other items of furniture lay untouched, allowing him a glimpse of what her apartment usually looked like. Colourful, decorative items scattered the room, lifting it with a brightness that his own apartment lacked. Alexei got the distinct impression that she generally kept her place in perfect order, as if she was proud of her small, cheap apartment in an awful suburb, which just made its current state that much sadder.

The woman stared at him with wide, terrified eyes, her knuckles white where she clutched the statue, but Alexei had no time to placate her. He knew what he’d look like—a huge, muscled man with a perpetual scowl and violence in his eyes.

But the violence wasn’t directed at her.

Jimmy, clearly pissed that Alexei was ignoring him, strode forward, flexing his shoulders in what was meant to be an intimidating gesture. “Get the fuck out!”

Alexei stepped into the apartment, ducking his head to get under the door, then straightening to his full height. He had six inches on Jimmy, and twice the muscles. Even better, he knew how to use them to best advantage. In fact, he did so professionally.

Jimmy struck out with his fist, obviously having transferred his wrath from the girl to Alexei. Good.

The fist struck a few inches below Alexei’s solar plexus. Alexei barely flinched. As he’d suspected, the guy was an amateur. He survived far worse attacks in the cage once a week, and Jimmy didn’t have a chance.

Alexei grabbed him by the back of the neck and spun, slamming Jimmy’s head into the wall with brutal force. He kept himself together enough to pull back his attack slightly. As much as the rage pounding through his veins told him to kill this guy, he had enough control to know the woman cowering a few feet away wouldn’t appreciate her boyfriend’s brains smeared across her neat walls, even if the guy was a shithead.

Jimmy groaned, a pathetic sound that made Alexei want to sneer. The guy tried a weak swing back towards Alexei, but it didn’t connect. Then, he sagged. Alexei knocked his head once more against the wall for good measure. The guy collapsed to the ground with a thump.

All of Alexei’s rage and bloodlust drained out of him at the sight of the unconscious man crumpled on the floor. Unlike Jimmy, Alexei took no pleasure in beating on defenceless people.

Alexei turned towards the woman, immediately dismissing Jimmy from his mind. She stared up at him with wide eyes. He took a step towards her. At the movement, she scrambled to her feet, her eyes bouncing between Alexei and the sack of shit lying behind him. She was taller than he’d thought, coming up to his chin. She’d seemed so much smaller curled in on herself.

Alexei took a breath, not sure what he would say, but knowing it would be appropriate for him to say something.

Before he could get any words out, the woman straightened her spine and raised the small statue so it hovered between them like a weapon.

“Get out.”

Alexei blinked and froze. At first he thought she must be talking to Jimmy, but her gaze was trained directly on Alexei. It was a show of strength and defiance he hadn’t expected, and an odd surge of pride welled up in him to know she was neither beaten, nor broken.

But then her words penetrated and he scowled. She took a step backwards at his expression, her lips pressing tightly together. But she didn’t back down.

“What?” he managed, the word coming out more as vhat in his surprise.

Her hands shook as she pointed towards the door. Her breathing was uneven, coming in fits and starts that told him she barely held it together.

“You broke my door and smashed my ex’s head in. You just caused more damage than he did. So, please. Get. Out.”

And then Alexei understood. She was afraid. Not of her unconscious boyfriend, but of him. His teeth clenched at the lack of gratitude, even as the logical part of his mind understood.

Alexei hesitated for a moment, his eyes roving over her face once to make sure she’d be okay. The flash of fire in her eyes told him she’d survive, so he gave her a wry smile. Then, he turned back to the groaning piece of trash on the floor and hefted the smaller man over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry. He ignored the guy’s half-hearted protest as he stepped out of the broken doorway and into the hall.

He turned back, once, to see the woman standing in the middle of her ruined apartment, her arms wrapped tightly around herself. She watched him go with an indecipherable expression on her face. Was that fear? Anger? Desperation? She looked so alone in that moment Alexei had the odd urge to comfort her. But she didn’t want that. And he shouldn’t want that.

Shaking his head against the strange impulse, he strode over to the ancient, rickety staircase that was the only mode of traversing the floors of this shitty apartment building. No one had ever bothered to install an elevator, but Alexei never minded the exercise.

He jogged two floors down with the wriggling man over his shoulder, careful not to touch the railing, lest it topple under his weight.

Once outside he quickly slipped down the alley that ran the side of the building. There, he hefted Jimmy onto the filthy ground. He breathed shallowly in an attempt to avoid the foul smell from the overflowing bins nearby. It was dark; the only light source was the flickering street lamp a few doors down. But there was enough illumination for Alexei to make out Jimmy’s displeased scowl.

He hesitated a moment, then bent over the other man. Jimmy blinked and his head reared back as Alexei got close. The other man’s breath stunk of alcohol and his eyes had the glassy belligerence of a habitual drunk.

Alexei paused for a moment, finding the words in English. “You come near her again, I’ll kill you,” Alexei told him in his most menacing tone. He let the violence of his life, his history, enter his eyes, so Jimmy would know he was serious. He knew his thick Russian accent added to the effect—too many Americans associated Russians with the enemy, with evil.

Jimmy got the message, because he swallowed and nodded. Alexei stood and stepped back. He stared down at the hunched man for a long moment before turning and walking away. He wouldn’t, couldn’t, call the cops on the guy, as much as he might want to. And besides, that would be the woman’s choice to make. A choice he knew survivors often didn’t make, for a variety of reasons, both good and bad.

Sighing, he trudged back up the stairs to his crappy apartment. He glanced at the woman’s door, now shut but tilting precariously in a way that told Alexei the hinges were permanently damaged. He winced, knowing he’d done what he had to, but she’d have to bear the effects.

He took a step towards her apartment, compelled to apologise, to check on her, to…something. But as he neared, the scrape of a heavy item of furniture being pushed across the floor sounded on the other side of the door. She was shoring up her place for the night.

Alexei’s mouth twisted again in some approximation of a smile. He was glad she could take care of herself.

Alexei returned to his own apartment, looking at it with new eyes after seeing the care with which his neighbour had tended to her own. The place hadn’t been in great shape when he’d moved in, and he’d never bothered to rectify that to any great extent once he lived there. The items he’d bought second-hand from various places on the internet had been for their low price, not their comfort or style.

He had no personal items. No photos, no trinkets or decorations. Just the bare minimum. He didn’t need much else.

Frustrated with himself for questioning that fact, even briefly, Alexei returned to his bed, picking up the still-playing ear buds as he threw himself on the squeaking mattress. He hesitated for a moment with the ear bud hovering near his ear. Then, he shut off the music, and placed the phone on the chair that passed for his bedside table.

Instead, he stared up at the dark ceiling and listened to the careful sounds of the woman on the other side of the wall.

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Caged Warrior Announcement and Chapter 1

I haven’t done and official announcement on this yet, but my new book comes out in less than two weeks! Since Caged Warrior will be released on the 13th of September, I thought now would be a good time to offer a sneak peek at chapter 1!

First, here’s the blurb:

 

Meet the Underground Fighters—men battling it out in illegal cage matches for money. All have their reasons for fighting. But will love be enough to free them?

Diego: Loner. Bad boy. Ex-con.

As far as the world knows, Diego Johnson is dead. And in some ways, he is.

Diego has his own reasons for fighting. Mostly, he just wants to be free. But for that he needs money, and there are only so many jobs a man can do when he’s supposed to be dead. Especially when violence was his only tool for so long.

When he meets Rosalyn—a gorgeous and mysterious redhead—at one of his fights, he realises what he’s been missing.

Rosalyn has her own reasons for getting close to sexy, tattooed Diego. She’s a journalist determined to prove herself, and a story about the underground fighters is exactly the kind she needs to impress her boss. But the brutal world she stumbles into is not what she expected. All the men have their reasons for being there, and they protect their own.

Only when Diego claims her as his does she have a hope of making it out alive.

This new series is about fighters in illegal cage matches – inspired by my love of the trope in action movies. I’ve obviously added a lot more romance than most of those, though!

Anyway, I really hope you like it as much as I enjoyed writing it! Without further ado, here’s Chapter 1:

Chapter 1

The fist flew out of nowhere.

Diego ducked, narrowly missing Chen’s knuckles as they flew past his face. He returned with an uppercut, catching Chen on the jaw with a brutal blow that sent the smaller man staggering backward. Blood splattered from his nose, falling across the filthy concrete floor like a fucking Jackson Pollock painting. But Chen didn’t go down. Instead, he narrowed his eyes from across the makeshift cage and readied himself for another attack.

Diego braced himself, keeping his mind blank. If he tried to anticipate what Chen would do next he’d probably assume wrong and end up flat on his back. His chest bellowed as he tried to suck in enough air to get him through this next skirmish. Blood dripped into his eye from a cut on his forehead, obscuring his vision, but he didn’t take the time to wipe it away. The instant his guard was down, Chen would strike.

He was flagging. The fight had already been going for ten minutes without a break. It never seemed like much from the outside, but maintaining this level of energy, this fight-for-your-life mentality, was draining. And in illegal fighting, there were no rounds to give you a break in between.

Chen charged, leaping off the ground to gain height as he drove his fist down into Diego’s face.

He should have expected it. Chen was short but he was fast, and could jump like nobody’s business. Diego fell to one knee as his head buzzed from the impact.

Chen dove forward, aiming to get Diego in a headlock and choke him out, but he had enough presence of mind to twist out of the way. There was no recovery time in these fights. No gentlemanly allowances. All you had were your strength, skill, guts, and instincts.

Diego gained his feet and shook his head to clear it. He kept his eye on Chen as the man bounced on his feet, looking for an opening, a fount of seemingly endless energy.

The crowd beyond the cage was eerily silent. Diego didn’t think he’d ever get used to the quiet, watchful spectators in these fights. From past experience—in his old life—everything from a sporting match to an off-the-cuff fight would attract a cheering audience. But these rich assholes didn’t want to exert themselves that far.

Instead, they wanted to watch the fighters do it for them.

Diego launched an offensive manoeuvre, slipping past Chen’s guard to land a solid punch to his chest. Without waiting for Chen to recover, Diego slipped around his back and knocked Chen’s feet out from under him. He controlled the fall, but the impact on the hard concrete—no mats for these fights—still knocked the breath from his lungs. He didn’t let it distract him, rolling so he had Chen in a headlock and his arm twisted in an uncomfortable position. Diego was in complete control. All he had to do was stay focused, not let Chen slip out from the hold.

He squeezed tighter, blocking off Chen’s airflow. Not long now.

A flash of red at the corner of Diego’s eye distracted him. He glanced up, past the rickety cage that had been constructed to separate the fighters from the spectators. Red hair, gold dress, creamy skin. The woman was a goddess of light in the midst of the dirt and misery of the fights.

He didn’t know what it was about her—there were plenty of beautiful women here tonight, from McCready’s women serving champagne to the guests, to the guests themselves. Often the women were trophies or partners of the rich men that attended, but a few came of their own accord to watch the fights as well.

But this woman…there was no way. Her eyes were wide with curiosity as they scanned the cage, not flat with cynicism. Her dress wasn’t skimpy enough for her to be one of McCready’s women, since they all wore a kind of uniform. But nor was it right for her to be part of the crowd, either.

He’d been fighting these damn fights for nearly a year and he’d never seen anyone like her within these filthy, hallowed walls.

So what was she doing here?

He was torn between wanting to find out and wanting to avoid her entirely. She had trouble written all over her. And he’d had enough trouble in his life.

Her gaze shifted, their eyes locked. A surprising bolt of heat hit him, making him forget where he was, what he was doing. Chen twisted, almost slipping out of his grip, but Diego tightened his hold, locking the man in place.

He couldn’t allow himself to get distracted, no matter how intriguing he found the redhead.

A few seconds later and it was all over. Chen slumped, losing consciousness, and Diego waited a moment before slowly peeling himself away.

The crowd clapped politely, making Diego feel like a fucking performing monkey. He scowled at them, still breathing hard, as he rose to his feet. They stared back, unafraid and uninterested now he’d won the fight.

Diego glanced at Chen. The guy was waking up, seeming no worse for wear, so he ignored him. Instead, his eyes searched through the crowd. First he found McCready, standing at the back with a cadre of fighters around him. His fighters, the ones that did whatever he said, including throwing fights, and even on a few occasions killing their competitors in the ring. There was no proof it was on purpose, but they all knew how this shit worked. They were fodder, their lives were in McCready’s hands, at his mercy if he wanted to make a quick buck by getting the crowd a bit more worked up by adding real danger to the mix.

McCready strained the seams of his slick, three-piece suit in vibrant blue, with a tie and pocket square of complementary purple. He had broad shoulders, and plenty of residual muscle even though the man must be close to fifty. His hair was slicked to the side, his face worn and cragged.

McCready gave him a nod to signify he accepted the win—Diego would get paid tonight. Chen wouldn’t. He’d fought well, but not well enough to beat Diego. He wanted it too badly.

He turned to leave the cage, and that was when his eyes found the woman yet again. He hadn’t imagined it. She was beautiful, totally out of place, and absolutely none of his fucking business.

He tore his gaze away and rattled the door to the cage. Another of McCready’s fighters unlocked it, freeing him. Diego strode out, the fighter shadowing him until he was no longer in reach of the rich assholes that had so disinterestedly watched him fight, in case he took it into his head to go after McCready’s cash cows.

Spider met him on the edge of the crowd. Spider was McCready’s right-hand man, and a fighter himself. Diego had only met him once in the cage, and both men had nearly killed each other in the vicious fight. Diego had won—just. And Spider had never forgiven him.

Spider was of average height, but nearly as wide as he was tall, with muscles bulging from his biceps. He’d lost a few teeth, the holes visible as he sneered at Diego, and his shaggy hair was thinning a little on top.

“Here’s your cash,” Spider spat, shoving the notes into Diego’s chest.

Diego narrowed his gaze and calmly extracted the bills from beneath the other man’s hand. He’d dealt with way worse than this thug.

“Thanks. Reckon McCready will give me a bonus next time we fight?” he asked. “When I win again, I mean.”

Spider’s jaw flexed, and looked ready to throw a punch. Diego wiped away the blood trickling down the side of his face and prepared himself in case Spider was stupid enough to start a fight. Spider glanced over at McCready and saw the fight financier watching them. After a moment’s hesitation, he stepped away, thwarted violence written across his face like a promise.

Diego wasn’t worried. Spider wouldn’t fight Diego outside of the ring without McCready’s permission—mostly because McCready couldn’t profit from a fight that happened away from the crowds.

And McCready owned Spider’s ass.

“See you around,” he said with a wink, then strode away from the seething man. He walked out to the back of the warehouse—otherwise empty apart from the fight and the audience—and slipped into an office right before the back entrance. It was empty except for two chairs and an older, silver-haired man wearing thin-rimmed spectacles.

“Doc,” Diego greeted him. He didn’t know the guy’s real name, and preferred not to. Sometimes it was inevitable to find out, but it helped Diego keep his distance if he didn’t know the people in this world too much. Everyone else seemed to have the same idea. They didn’t go for drinks after the matches, barely even talked to each other. It made it much easier to force his fist into someone’s face if he didn’t know or care about them.

“DJ,” Doc replied. Diego would never get used to the fake-ish name he used here. He’d always been Diego, everywhere and anywhere he went. His last name was Johnston, so when he’d needed to give a name to these guys, it had seemed like a decent choice.

But it wasn’t the real him.

In a way that made it easier to do the things he did. He could think of it as DJ doing them, not himself.

Not that Diego was much better.

“Did you win?” Doc asked.

“Yeah.”

“Good for you.”

Diego lowered himself into one of the chairs with a wince. He’d be sore tomorrow. For such a scrawny guy, Chen packed quite a punch. He didn’t have to take off his shirt, since he didn’t fight in one—only boxing shorts and strapped hands.

Doc examined him, starting with shining a small flashlight into his eyes. Doc was kept around to examine each fighter once they came out of the cage. Not because McCready had a soft spot for them—he just didn’t want them to die outside of the ring where the crowd couldn’t bet on it.

Doc was technically no longer a doctor, as far as Diego could tell. He’d lost his licence some time back. Diego didn’t know why—didn’t ask—but he suspected it had something to do with the way the man’s hand shook as he held the flashlight.

Doc cleaned the cut on his forehead and stuck an adhesive bandage over it.

“What did I say about Vaseline?” he asked Diego.

Diego rolled his eyes. “I use it sometimes, but the crowd likes the blood.”

Doc eyed him curiously. “You’ve never cared before what they want.”

Diego shrugged, but a slight heated entered his cheeks. He felt almost like a small boy caught doing something he shouldn’t. “McCready sometimes gives bonuses if he’s really happy with the fight—if the crowd bets a lot. I can’t pass that up.”

Doc stilled. “I see.” He hesitated a moment. “What will you do?” he asked softly. “When you get whatever you’re fighting for?” There was not only curiosity in the man’s eyes, but a kind of yearning. Doc wanted to escape, too.

“Be free,” was all Diego said. Neither said anything more as Doc resumed his examination. A polite clapping came from outside, and Diego assumed the next competitors had entered the cage. He thought it might be Alexei after him—the huge Russian man with questionable English skills and a mean right hook.

A few minutes later, Doc pronounced him ready to go home with a clean enough bill of health. He wouldn’t be running a marathon tomorrow, but he’d survive.

“Thanks, man,” Diego told him.

Doc just gave a nod and a slight smile.

Diego left then, out the back door and toward the truck he’d parked in the back corner of the lot. It was dark—not quite midnight—and the one streetlight a few feet away was the only source of light in the vicinity. He kept his guard up, not nervous, but knowing Spider’s temper and not willing to take any chances the guy might accost him out of McCready’s sight.

He’d reached the driver’s side door when he heard the footsteps. He didn’t turn, they were too light to be any of the fighters he knew, but he waited. A voice sounded behind him.

“Hey there.” Smokey, sultry. Like a hot summer’s night with a bite to it. A bolt of heat shot through him at the sound, making him think all kinds of sinful thoughts. Two guesses who that voice belonged to and the first didn’t count.

He turned, taking in her flaming hair, challenging eyes, and confident stance. Her gaze flickered over him, once, taking in his bare chest. His heart kicked as lust speared through him, and he was forcibly reminded how long it had been since he’d been with a woman.

And this woman—she was something else. Curvy, feisty, but with a hint of vulnerability that kicked him in the gut. There wasn’t any room for vulnerable in his life, and there hadn’t been for a very long time. He couldn’t even remember the last time he’d been so close to someone so soft and untried in the ways of the world.

Because there was no way a woman like this knew of life’s hardships. She’d never be stupid enough to be alone with an asshole like him otherwise.

But maybe she wasn’t so naïve. There was something—maybe a tightness in her shoulders only a fighter would recognise—that told him she was bracing herself. For what—rejection, or a straight out attack?—he didn’t know.

“If you’re here to get a piece of the winner, I’m not in the mood. I’m sure Chen wouldn’t mind the comfort, though.”

Surprise widened her eyes, then they narrowed. “I’m not, but thanks for the assumption.” The ‘asshole’ at the end of the statement was implied. Diego suppressed an amused smile. He was perversely glad to know she wasn’t a fighter’s equivalent of a puck bunny. Not that he would get involved with her, even for a night. He knew better than to get tangled up in a girl like her.

“So why are you here, Red?”

“My name’s Rosalyn.”

“That’s not what I asked.”

She crossed her arms over her chest in annoyance, which had the distinct advantage of pushing her cleavage up like an offering. Diego glanced once, then back to her face. Don’t be tempted.

She glared at him, obviously not impressed by his disinterest in her. She didn’t say anything immediately, so Diego opened his truck door and went to hop in.

“Wait!” she stopped him. Diego paused but didn’t take his leg out of the truck. “I’m new to this whole thing. I want to ask you some questions.”

Diego sized her up from over his shoulder. Her hands were balled into fists, betraying both her nerves and her determination.

Diego sighed and stepped away from his truck. “Look, Red. You don’t belong here. That much is obvious. My advice? Turn around and go back to where you came from. Pretend this place doesn’t exist.”

She straightened her shoulders. “Who says I don’t belong?”

Diego rolled his eyes. “You’re too curious. People come to these fights because they’re so beyond jaded by life. They have no other thrills, except to watch men beat each other with the chance that one might die. They bet on our lives—did you know that? They put money down on who might die in the cage. This isn’t normal MMA—not even an unsanctioned fight, since those are legal. These fights aren’t. They are underground, and brutal, and messy. It’s very clear you’re none of those things.”

She tilted her chin up. “So why do you fight?”

He shook his head and backed away from her. “I have my reasons, and they’re none of your concern.” He slid into the driver’s seat.

“So if I want my questions answered, who’s the best person to talk to?”

Diego’s hand froze on the door. He turned to her, trying to express with his gaze how utterly serious his next words would be. “You don’t. Ask too many questions around here and you might get disappeared or killed. It’s not worth the risk. Go back to your own life and leave whatever you’ve got going on behind you. Trust me.”

With that—his first virtuous move in a good long while—Diego slammed the truck door shut and turned on the engine. Red—Rosalyn—stared after him, but didn’t try to stop him as he backed out of the parking lot.

As he drove away, he couldn’t help hoping she’d take his advice to get far away from this place, and its misery. It had a way of sucking people into its orbit so they could never leave. Not alive, anyway. Diego had a plan to escape, but in the meantime, he couldn’t let someone like that near those fights. Not unless he wanted to see all that fire extinguished.

Permanently.

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Whiskey-Eyed Woman Chapter 1

It’s finally release day! For those of you who have been waiting for Duncan and Mandy’s story, this is it! I hope you all enjoy the conclusion to their journey. <3

Here’s the first chapter!

Chapter 1

 

Blackness lay ahead.

Mandy navigated the darkness with precision, knowing this office like the back of her hand. She kept her footsteps light, soundless, as she headed towards the exit. The only light slipped from the narrow slit beneath Duncan’s door, barely illuminating the black furniture, green feature wall to her left, and the green decorative items she’d sprinkled through the space.

A few more steps and she’d be free of Duncan’s overbearing ways for another day.

A dark shadow loomed before her. Adrenaline spiked through her and her heart skipped a beat. She stumbled to a stop. She blinked until the features of the man in front of her coalesced into the familiar face of her business partner.

“Duncan,” she said, pressing a hand against her chest to calm her heart rate. “You scared me.” He was a large African-American man, broad across the chest and still in peak physical condition though he’d left the Army almost two years ago when a piece of shrapnel tore his knee to shreds.

His scowl deepened. “You were sneaking out of the office.”

She rolled her eyes, but guilt nagged at her. His words weren’t completely untrue. “I wasn’t. I told you I needed to leave early tonight. I should’ve been out of here fifteen minutes ago if I wanted to make Sierra’s house in time for dinner.” Sierra was Mandy’s best friend, and had been since college. Both their lives had been pretty crazy the last few months and they hadn’t had time to see each other. This dinner was meant to make up for that, and Mandy didn’t want to be too late.

“You should’ve waited for me.”

“I reminded you twice.” Her heartbeat had slowed to a normal pace, but left behind a feeling of unease. Constantly looking over her shoulder for threats had taken its toll on her.

“Mandy,” he growled, his jaw working. “You have a killer after you.”

Like she needed the reminder.

“We both do. Sort of.” She glanced away so she didn’t have to look at Duncan’s irritated expression. He so often gave her that look, but she still hadn’t become immune to it. She wished she was. It would make her life so much easier.

Instead of looking at Duncan, she glanced around the office—the symbol of the company they’d built together. Professionally, they made a good team. Personally? The jury was still out.

Duncan sucked in a breath as if to say more, then snapped it shut. He hesitated, then continued on what Mandy knew was a different track. “I’ll escort you down to your car.” He palmed a gun from a holster on his lower back and held it loosely at his side.

Mandy agreed, only because he’d been doing the same thing for the last two and a half weeks, since she’d found the letters threatening her life. She’d told him time and again that he didn’t need to. No one could get into their garage without a pass. But Duncan never listened.

She left the office with one last glance behind her, Duncan leading the way.

“I can’t keep doing this,” she murmured, leaning her head back against the wall of the elevator and letting out a sigh.

Duncan rubbed his injured knee, but Mandy said nothing, knowing he’d start scowling again if she did.

“We’ll get them,” he muttered. “We’ve almost got all the information we need to take to the authorities. And when we do Beaton Security—and Tulane—will be left powerless.”

Mandy nodded, but she wasn’t so sure. Beaton had proved themselves to be incredibly powerful, getting away with murder, and even a terrorist attack on American soil.

“Have we found out who Tulane is, yet?” she asked.

Duncan shook his head. “He’s slippery.”

“So it’s probably another fake name.”

“Probably,” Duncan grumbled.

“How much longer?” she asked.

“Hmmm?”

“How much longer until we can take our evidence to the authorities and I can get my life back? I’m sure you’re sick of having to escort me everywhere, too.”

The elevator doors opened with a bing, and Duncan stepped out before he answered. “Not long. And I don’t mind. All that matters is you’re safe.”

Her heart warmed. Duncan may be annoyed with her constantly, but he still cared, even if it was against his will.

“Duncan?” Mandy began as they strode towards her car. Duncan didn’t look at her, his eyes darting around the underground parking structure. Ten of the cars belonged to Soldiering On—all bulletproof black SUVs—and the rest of the space was empty. All the other businesses must have closed for the day.

“Yeah?” Duncan replied.

“Do you—“

A blast sounded above them, shaking the building with violent force. Mandy stumbled, falling into the nearest car so hard it sent a shooting pain through her shoulder. Duncan came with her, curling himself protectively over her back, shielding her from the concrete that rained down from above them.

Car alarms echoed through the underground garage with pulsing, discordant shrieks, and orange lights flashed all around her.

Her head swam as she tried to understand what had just happened.

“Bomb,” Duncan growled in her ear, answering her unspoken question. She shivered in reaction to the word, fear gripping her, choking her. The concrete had stopped raining from above them, leaving the garage eerily still despite the insistent car alarms. She turned her head to look at Duncan, taking comfort in his warm, strong presence.

Their heaving breaths mingled as she turned her head, and his arm tightened around her.

“Are you okay?” he asked softly, his eyes searching hers.

She nodded, unable to speak. They didn’t break eye contact.

“We have to get out of here,” he told her. Briefly, his hand stroked her hair, just once, as if assuring himself she was unhurt and offering her comfort.

Her heart lurched at the simple act of affection. Dust fell from her hair and she blinked, then pulled away from him and pressed closer to the car. It hadn’t been affection; he’d just been cleaning her. Disappointment sank in her gut.

She struggled out of his grip as he reluctantly loosened his hold around her. He picked up his gun and she stood, then levered himself to his feet with a wince.

“The building could collapse at any minute,” he told her urgently as he strode toward the closed rolling door to the outside. His limp was more pronounced now.

Mandy dug into her handbag as she followed him, finding her keys. She pushed the button to open the rolling door and it slowly creaked upwards. She coughed as the dust that covered the garage floor kicked up with their every step, clogging her mouth and nostrils.

As they reached the door, it shuddered to a stop. One painful whine sounded as it tried again to open before it fell still. It had barely opened to the height of their knees.

Mandy glanced up. The roll had been damaged in the blast. It wouldn’t budge.

She groaned, then crouched and rolled beneath it, sucking in a breath of the night air. But it didn’t clear her lungs. Something crunched beneath her and she realised shattered glass was spread across the asphalt beneath her. She lay there for a moment, staring up at the flames pouring out of the third story windows—their windows.

Despair welled up as she watched everything they’d worked for burn in hot flames.

“Duncan,” she murmured as he followed her outside.

He grunted.

“Look,” she said, gesturing up.

He did, positioning himself so they lay side-by-side.

“It was meant for us,” he muttered. He didn’t sound surprised by this revelation, but Mandy sucked in a breath.

“Tulane?” she asked, turning to Duncan. “He tried to blow us up?”

Duncan nodded slowly. “That would be my guess.”

Mandy swallowed past the thick lump in her throat. Tears burned her eyes. Tears of fear and anguish and being totally overwhelmed. This was all too much for too long.

Duncan sat, then got to his feet with another pained wince. He held out a hand to Mandy and she took his large hand in a firm grip and he pulled her to her feet.

“What do we do now?” she asked as they hurried away from the fire that leapt and grew behind them with every step. The heat burned at their back.

Duncan stopped and turned, his eyes travelling over the building that had just minutes before housed their hard-earned offices. He took a few deep breaths, and even as Mandy watched, his expression transformed from despair to determination.

He took the keys from her hand and pressed the button to close the garage door. It groaned as it descended, then clanged shut.

She looked at him in question, and he turned to her with a grim smile.

“We need to buy ourselves some time.”

Mandy blinked. “What do you mean?”

“I mean that Tulane has no reason to think we weren’t in the building when it blew. It’ll take a while for the fire department to put out the fire, then for it to cool enough for the fire investigators to come in—if the building stays standing. If we let everyone think we were in there—”

He paused, and Mandy completed his sentence. “Tulane will think so, too.”

He nodded, gripping her upper arms, his eyes alight with excitement. “That will give us at least twenty-four hours, maybe more, to figure out how to use this to our advantage.”

“We’ll need a place to stay,” she reminded him.

“I know just the place,” he told her.

“Should we get a car?”

“Yes, but not from in there. It’s not safe, and they might notice it’s missing. We’ll take one of the spare ones hidden nearby.”

“Okay,” she said, squaring her shoulders and hardening her resolve. A plan. She could work with a plan.

He yanked her handbag open, still attached to her shoulder. He dug through it until he pulled out her phone, then slammed it onto the ground with all his might.

“Hey!” she cried, but he ignored her.

He crouched and whacked her cracked and beaten phone with the butt of his gun until it shattered into tiny pieces.

She crossed her arms over her chest. “Was that really necessary?”

He held her gaze as he slowly rose to his full, intimidating height. “Yes. Beaton have hacked into our systems once before. I know we just got you a new phone when the first letter came in, but we can’t take the risk they’ve hacked us again and can trace your phone.”

She clenched her jaw. “Fine. But where’s yours?”

He shrugged and his eyes flickered over to the building now completely engulfed in flames. “I left it in the office.”

She rolled her eyes. The man hated technology, and would avoid it entirely if he could. In this instance it hardly made a difference. The phone would be destroyed either way.

“In that case, let’s go.”

He stilled for a moment, holding her gaze, then slowly wrapped his hands around her biceps, pulling her closer. For a mad moment, she thought he meant to kiss her, but he only held her still.

“Do you trust me?” he asked, his eyes burning into hers.

She frowned at the question, and the intensity in his expression. Her answer mattered to him. “Of course,” she whispered softly.

He nodded once in satisfaction, then took her hand and led her away from their burning offices, their destroyed life. Sirens sounded in the distance as they disappeared into the night.

Read the rest here!

Hotel Hideaway Chapter 1

Chapter 1

 Gun.

The sight was so incongruous in the busy coffee shop that Sam blinked to make sure her eyes weren’t playing tricks on her. But, no. A 9mm Glock was tucked into the back of the man’s jeans and mostly hidden by his tan jacket. Her heart jumped once, then kicked into high gear, pounding hard.

Sam ran her eyes over him, assessing the threat level. Short—maybe as short as her—and almost as wide as he was tall. Not law enforcement, or he’d have the gun in a holster. She could only see him from the back, so she shifted her eyes to his companion. His hair was the same light brown as the guy with the gun, and he had the same stocky build, though his ran more to fat than muscle. Brothers, she guessed.

The two men tried to look inconspicuous, but they hadn’t ordered any coffee before they’d sat down—the second red flag after the gun. The third red flag was the way their eyes kept darting to a tall man in line to order his coffee, impeccably dressed in what she guessed was a tailored suit and a coat that looked like it would cost her a month’s rent.

His profile was strong, the planes of his face sharp, his black hair shining with health, and Sam noticed dispassionately that he was probably handsome.

He was also in danger. If her instincts were right, and they usually were, the two guys with at least one gun between them planned to use it on the tall businessman. Sweat beaded at the back of her neck.

Luckily their target had two bodyguards on either side of him. He expected the threat. So Sam settled back in her chair to watch the proceedings. She didn’t need to get involved, despite the adrenaline flowing through her.

After a minute of covert observation, a sick feeling pooled in her gut. The bodyguards hadn’t even clocked the two men. They stared stoically ahead, trying to look intimidating as a deterrent to any potential attackers. Instead, they looked incompetent and completely unaware of their surroundings. Still, maybe it was for show. Maybe they had seen the men, and were waiting for the two guys to make their move.

She shifted uneasily. She could call the cops—chances were these two didn’t have a concealed carry permit, because those things were damn hard to come by, Sam knew from experience. But she didn’t know what was going on. Those men could, theoretically, be undercover bodyguards. Or even undercover cops waiting to bust the guy for some horrible crime. She didn’t want to blow an operation.

The businessman ordered his coffee and waited as the young barista frothed his milk. The two men at the table were on edge, ready for whatever happened next. The bodyguards were still oblivious.

Sam drained her coffee cup and slowly slipped her book into her bag. She had to be ready.

The coffee was finally made, and the man grabbed it before the barista could even call his name. He gestured to his two bodyguards that he was ready to go, and one led the way from the coffee shop with the other bringing up the rear behind the well-dressed man.

The brothers with the gun immediately stood and followed the trio, so Sam picked up her bag and shuffled after them, remaining inconspicuous. It was just before 9am, so the streets teemed with people rushing to get to work on time. Sam weaved through them, trying not to lose sight of the men ahead of her.

She caught glimpses of the trio even farther ahead of her. The lead bodyguard knew the route without needing any direction from the man he guarded. A bad sign, since it meant they likely took this route often.

Blood zipped through her veins as she stalked these men through the concrete jungle of downtown Portsboro. The three in front came to a crossing as the countdown reached five. The two guys with guns jogged a little to get onto the road before the countdown hit zero, but Sam was too far back. She squeezed past a group of colleagues holding large takeaway coffee cups and stopped as the cars eased forward on the road in front of her. She stood on tiptoes to see the two guys with the gun following the man and his bodyguards around a corner.

Panic hit her. What if they planned to kill or attack this man right now? She had to get to them. She couldn’t bear it if she had a man’s death on her conscience. But the traffic still moved past her—slowly, since it was peak hour. The sharp honk of a horn made her jump.

Too much time had passed. She needed to get across the road.

The traffic slowed enough that Sam risked stepping in front of a taxi. The driver leaned on her horn and yelled something aggressive. Sam held up an apologetic hand but kept going, ignoring the insults the woman yelled. She focused on the road ahead, while the other waiting pedestrians took advantage of the traffic she’d stopped and followed her across in a wave.

She darted across the road and took off at a run—as much as she could with her bad lung and the calf muscle in her right leg that would never fully heal. She ducked through the flow of pedestrians and turned down an alley.

Empty. Sam swallowed. Had she not seen what she thought? She’d been convinced they’d come this way.

She surveyed the alley. Dirty, as most were in this part of the city. A sign indicated parking ahead, but no car could fit through the narrow street, not with all the rubbish strewn about. Unless it was a back entrance?

A coffee cup resting on top of the trash caught her attention. The logo from the coffee shop she’d been in five minutes earlier was emblazoned on its side. They must have come this way.

She strode onward, her ears straining for any sound, her hand itching for a gun that wasn’t there. Her lungs ached, both from her exertion and the added fear of what she might find. The scent of garbage clogged her nostrils and the high walls of the surrounding buildings pressed in on her.

She rounded the corner, and stopped dead when the scene she’d been dreading materialised before her. She absorbed the tableau in an instant. The two brothers each held guns on the tall businessman. He had his hands up in surrender while the two bodyguards shuffled at his sides, doing nothing to protect him. That went beyond incompetence and into sabotage. They should be throwing themselves in front of those guns and instead they looked as if they didn’t want to know.

Fingers tightened on the triggers of the guns.

“Hey!” she said, to draw the gunmen’s attention. They spun around, both so surprised that their guns wobbled in their hands.

Sam took advantage of the inattention and stepped forward, ducking and twisting out of the line of fire. She grabbed the gun hand closest to her—belonging to the heavier brother—and aimed it towards the alley above them and out of danger, and then she swung the man around until he shielded her from his brother.

She kneed him in the balls with all her might, keeping ahold of his gun arm. He crumpled with a grunt of pain, knees not quite hitting the ground before he righted himself. But Sam didn’t let him gain the advantage. An uppercut, an elbow to the temple, a sweep of the leg and the guy sagged to the ground. Sam made sure to prise his fingers off the gun as he fell and immediately aimed it at his brother.

The man was furious, glowering at her as he readjusted the gun so it pointed directly between her eyes.

Sam didn’t flinch.

“You pull that trigger and you’ll go down with me,” she said, edging forward.

A sick smile crossed his face. “Might be worth it to put a bullet in you,” he sneered.

Sam shrugged. “Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been shot.” She shuffled forward again. “Probably won’t be the last.”

The man’s eyes widened in surprise, and he had nothing to say to that.

“Lower your gun,” she ordered.

“You first,” he replied.

She moved forward again. Nearly there.

“Why did you target this man?” Sam ask him as a distraction.

The man’s glower deepened in reply. “He looked rich,” he replied sullenly. Sam didn’t believe him for a second.

She didn’t have time to ask a follow-up question because he gave her an opening. Just a slight moment of inattention, but it was enough. His gaze shifted to her left for an instant. She used the opportunity to get in close and drive her fist into his solar plexus, the shock of hitting his muscled chest sending recoil through her arm. The air rushed from his lungs the moment she connected and he doubled over, so Sam elbowed him in the back of the skull.

He fell to his knees, gasping. She gripped his gun arm and wrenched it behind him, dislocating his shoulder. It popped with an audible crack, and Sam saw her audience flinch from the corner of her eye. She used the pain in the man’s arm to drive him flat onto his stomach and snatched the gun from his grip. She placed a booted foot solidly on his neck and pressed.

“Do you call mercy?” she asked him, not expecting a reply.

A flash of movement caught the corner of her gaze and she looked up as the businessman yelled, “Look out!”

The second attacker rose to his feet and lowered his head like a charging bull, ready to attack.

Sam didn’t need to be told twice.

She aimed the gun in her right hand and fired, grazing the man’s thigh. The report of bullet discharging echoed down the alley, and Sam’s ears rang. The man kept charging as if he hadn’t felt the shot, no doubt consumed by anger and adrenaline.

She fired again, this time hitting him in his right shoulder. The bullet had enough force to send him staggering backwards. He glared at her, still furious, not noticing the blood blooming at his shoulder.

“Stay back,” she said. “You don’t want the next one to go between your eyes.”

Some reason must have penetrated his fury-filled mind, because his gaze finally moved from her to his brother.

“You’re choking him,” he growled.

“He’s fine,” Sam replied, but eased off a little. “Now, have a seat, and wait for the cops to arrive.” She kept her gun trained on him as he reluctantly lowered himself to the ground.

Sam turned to the targeted man. He stared at her with something like awe. Sam shifted uncomfortably at the admiration in his gaze. The man was even more handsome straight on than he had been in profile. Sharp cheekbones, artful stubble, piercing grey eyes. Maybe he was a model. It would explain the nice clothing.

“The police are coming, right?” she asked him.

He held up his phone. “Yeah.”

“Good. Would you mind using your tie to bind this guy’s wrists?” she asked, gesturing with her gun towards the sitting guy.

She ignored the two bodyguards while keeping them in her sight. Nothing worse than a bad bodyguard—it gave the rest of them a bad name.

The man undid his tie with a practiced movement and stepped gingerly toward his attacker. They glowered at each other for a moment before Mr. Well-Dressed stepped behind him and looped the tie around his wrists.

“I’m Cameron, by the way. Cameron Lawrence,” said the businessman.

“Uh-huh,” Sam replied. She wasn’t particularly interested. She wanted to wrap this up so she could get to work.

Sirens sounded in the distance.

“And you are?” he asked pointedly. Sam resisted rolling her eyes.

“Sam,” she replied. Let him think it stood for Samantha. Everyone else did. Her real name was Angelica Samson, but no one called her that if they wanted to live.

“Well, Sam, thank you for saving my life.” He stood and slowly prowled towards her. Sam’s hackles raised. A man that prowled was a man on the hunt. And she definitely wasn’t prey.

“You’re welcome,” she muttered. “Hot tip, though. You might want to get better bodyguards. These guys suck at pretty much every aspect of the job.”

“Hey!” cried one of the bodyguards in protest. Neither she nor the businessman paid any attention.

His eyes darkened. “If you’re angling for a job, I’d be more than happy to offer it to you. You’ve amply demonstrated your skill.”

Sam raised a brow at him, annoyed by his presumption. “I already have a job, but thanks.”

“Well, the offer is open.” He handed her a card, which Sam was tempted not to take. Instead, she tugged it from his grip and pocketed it without looking at it.

She didn’t have to offer another brush-off because the police chose that moment to arrive.

Cameron gave her a last, lingering look before heading over to the police. Sam breathed a sigh of relief. As much as she wished otherwise, she had an awful feeling she wasn’t done with that man yet. Or, worse, he wasn’t done with her.

Read the rest!

Short Stories Available!

Exclusively You

Yesterday, a short story I’ve been working on finally went live! This is an exciting step for me, because it represents my first published work in Contemporary Romance, as opposed to Romantic Suspense. This is a trend you’ll see more of from me this year, in preparation for a contemporary romance anthology that I’ll be in for Christmas! I have a few novellas (both contemporary romance and romantic suspense) mostly-written that I’ll probably release in the meantime. I hope this will be an exciting step for my career.

An Escalating Threat to the Heart

A reminder (I did tell you guys, right?) that An Escalating Threat to the Heart is also available on Amazon now (with a fancy new cover!) but this one is also available for FREE if you sign up to my newsletter. This one, while short, is more my usual style of romantic suspense.

I hope you guys enjoy these stories! I had a lot of fun writing them. It’s been great to step out from my Soldiering On series and stretch my writing wings a little. If you read them, I hope you’ll leave an honest review!

Dangerous Victor – Chapter 1

Dangerous Victor is already released in Australia, and will go live in the US in the next few hours. Exciting times!

Here is the Amazon link!

I thought you all deserved a sneak peek of Zack and Radha’s story, so I hope you all like them as much as I do!

Chapter 1

The office was hushed, eerie after the busy day. Zack hadn’t turned on the overhead lights when night had fallen a few hours before, so the room was lit only by the dim lamp on his desk. Besides Duncan, Zack was the only member of the Soldiering On crew remaining in the office. He liked to have everything neatly finished by the time he went home, ready to start fresh the next day.

One more report to check off his To Do List. He had to write an evaluation of his previous job—one day of bodyguarding duty for a businessman that had flown in for a meeting the day before. Jobs like that were quite common for Soldiering On, the security company he worked for that only employed injured veterans, but they weren’t his favourite. He preferred it when he could use his brain, and his degree in mathematics.

The door to Duncan’s office opened, and Zack looked in the direction of the sound. Duncan was with an unfamiliar woman, the two backlit by the office light behind them. Conscious of the stranger, Zack ducked his head and flipped the hood of his jacket up.

Their footsteps neared his desk, and Zack focused on the pages in front of him. They may as well have been blank.

“This is Zack Walker,” said Duncan’s voice. Zack started at the sound of his name and glanced up. Forgetting, for a moment. “He’ll be working with you as of tomorrow on this project.”

Zack stood, almost held out his right hand, and then remembered just in time. If she found it strange that he offered his left, she didn’t comment. Her hand was soft against his, her skin dark. His gaze travelled up her arm, past a long black plait hanging over one shoulder, and finally landed on a pair of arresting brown eyes, and a mouth with a slight tilt at the corner. A frisson of awareness moved up his arm and spread through his limbs.

It wasn’t her prettiness that struck him the most—though a distant corner of his mind certainly registered it and stirred—but the way she looked him in the eye, unflinching and unaffected by his scars.

“This is Radha Iyer,” Duncan continued, sounding distant to Zack’s distracted ears. She wore a dark suit over a white shirt. Conservative. She’d obviously come straight after work, which would make sense given the late hour.

Duncan cleared his throat.

Zack blinked and came back to himself. He extracted his hand from Radha’s, strangely reluctant. He was glad the room was dark, to hide the heat in his cheeks.

“Hi.” It was all he could trust himself to say.

“Hi,” she replied. Her gaze stayed on him, calm and unwavering.

“Radha’s a lovely name,” Zack said, then winced. The words were both lame and deeply unprofessional.

She smiled, a true smile, not seeming to mind at all. “Thank you. Radha is known as a famous lover in India, where my parents are from.”

The word ‘lover’ falling from her lips was like a kick in the gut for Zack. He swallowed, his tongue thick in his mouth. Had it really been so long since he’d been with a woman that such a simple word could so affect him?

Yes, he reluctantly acknowledged. It had.

Duncan loudly cleared his throat. “Radha works at the Portsboro Grand Hollywood Casino,” Duncan told Zack with a pointed glare. “She’s their General Manager. She has an odd issue with the finances she’d like investigated. I told her you’d start tomorrow.”

Zack raised his brows in surprise at the last minute job. The skin on the right side of his face tightened as he did. “Sure.” He didn’t dare tell Duncan he’d rather stay in the office where only people used to his scars would see him, and do work from afar. Duncan wouldn’t take that well. And, besides, all the interesting jobs were out in the real world.

He knew of the casino—a not-so-grand place over to the east of the city—but he’d never been inside. It shouldn’t be so bad.

“Not just that.” Radha cleared her throat and smiled almost apologetically at her words. “Since the owner of the casino, my boss, doesn’t want these anomalies investigated, I’m technically hiring you as our new Head of Security. It’s why I insisted on a late appointment after work, I couldn’t take the time off or she might get suspicious.” Radha paused. “You can investigate the finances while you’re there, but you’ll have to keep it quiet. Keep your cover, and don’t let Jeri get suspicious.”

Her look was apprehensive, as if she thought he might have a problem with that arrangement.

“Okay,” was all he said. No doubt she and Duncan had discussed this and agreed. It wouldn’t make his job easier or harder—there were pros and cons to both a secret and open investigation—it would just change his strategy.

Besides, it seemed like he’d be working closely beside this woman, and Zack couldn’t complain about that.

“What happened to your last Head of Security?” Zack asked.

She tilted her head. “Hmm?”

“You said I’d be hired as the new Head of Security. What happened to the old one?”

“Oh, that. He hasn’t shown up to work in a week, and we can’t get a hold of him. He’s not answering his door or phone. Jeri told me he was fired, and would be informed if we ever managed to speak to him again.”

Zack’s brows knitted. “Is that normal for him?”

Radha shook her head. “No. He’s very reliable.” She hesitated. “Well, he wasn’t always, but he is now. Jeri thinks he went back to his old ways. I don’t know what to think, but I’m starting to worry.”

Zack glanced at Duncan and knew he was thinking the same thing. Too much of a coincidence to have a missing person and odd happenings with the finances at the same time. No way the two things weren’t related.

Zack shifted his gaze back to Radha. “Well, when I start investigating the finances tomorrow, I’ll also look into his whereabouts. See if we can’t find him.”

Radha’s eyes lit up. “That would be great. I was going to go around to his house tonight one last time before I called the police tomorrow.”

Zack glanced at Duncan again, and their eyes met. A silent communication passed between them.

“I’ll go with you,” Zack said.

“There’s no need, I’m sure—”

“It’s no trouble,” Zack told her firmly. If his suspicions were correct, then he didn’t want her going alone.

She hesitated. Zack kept his face impassive, even as worry gnawed at him. She hadn’t reacted to his face, to the scarring, but perhaps she was just a good actor. Her hesitance told him she was nervous to be alone with him.

He tried to smile, a non-threatening gesture designed to put her at ease. But his smile was uneven now, and it was possible he just made the situation worse.

“Let him go with you,” Duncan said. “We’ll consider it part of your package.”

She nodded determinedly, like she was trying to convince herself. “Sure. I was going to catch the subway, but I’d appreciate the ride.”

Satisfaction settled in him. “Let’s go.”

They said their goodbyes to Duncan as Zack came around the desk and ushered Radha toward the door. As they made their way to the elevator, Zack made sure he presented her with his left side. Though she hadn’t reacted to his scars—a gift from an IED on his last tour—he didn’t think she should see more of them than she had to.

They weren’t pretty.

He wasn’t pretty. At least, not anymore. Once, he’d been decent looking, but the burn scars down his right side put a kibosh to that. They weren’t as bad as some he’d seen, since other than a part of his ear and a patch of his hair, he was intact where someone might see. But it was enough that people regularly flinched away from him when they saw him for the first time.

Except Radha.

Zack pondered that fact, trying to ignore the creeping excitement within him. It had been a long time since a pretty girl had looked at him with even a neutral expression. He hadn’t realised how much he’d missed it.

“My car’s this way,” he told her. They jumped in the black Range Rover—a company car, but the one Zack used. Each member of the team had their favourites. Zack shifted uncomfortably as he realised she was now on his right, but again she didn’t seem to notice the scarring on his hand, or what she could see of his face.

“Where are we going?” Zack asked as he started the engine.

She rattled off an address that was about half an hour away, in one of the working class suburbs in the city’s west.

“Thank you for coming with me,” Radha said from the passenger seat as Zack pulled out onto the empty Portsboro street. “You didn’t have to.”

He glanced at her, and then back at the road. “You’re my client now,” Zack said simply.

“Not until tomorrow,” she corrected with a slight tilt of her lips.

Zack shrugged. “Doesn’t make a difference to me when I officially go on the clock.”

Radha was silent for a moment, and he could feel her studying him. He kept still, impassive, letting her look. He expected a question about the scars—everyone asked eventually—but again she surprised him.

“I feel like your workload is increasing. Looking into the company financials, playing Head of Security, and now looking for a missing man.” Her voice was apologetic, but Zack didn’t take his eyes off the road to see her face.

If his suspicions about the Head of Security were correct, he might have to add ‘protection of the client’ to that list of hers.

“I do what needs doing,” was all he said. He sensed her eyes still on him.

They were silent for a moment, but Zack wanted to keep hearing her voice. It was soft and mellifluous, like a summer breeze through the trees.

“So, tell me more about this missing money,” he said. Work. He had to keep it about work. Didn’t matter how pretty this woman was, she was a client, and he had to keep it professional. Paul had gotten away with his emerging romance with Christine purely because she had never officially been on the Soldiering On books. Zack couldn’t risk his job. Duncan and Mandy—co-owners of the Soldiering On security company—were both big on professionalism. They didn’t agree on much, but they agreed on that.

Zack sighed, and vowed to keep his thoughts under control.

“Oh, the money isn’t missing,” she told him.

Zack blinked, bring his thoughts back to the moment. “I thought there were anomalies in the finances?”

She hummed. “There are. But it’s more complicated than someone skimming money.”

Zack glanced at her, at the orange glow from the streetlights bathing her cheeks as she gazed steadily at him, then back to the road. “You better explain.”

“For the last six months, we have more money going out of the casino. But we also have more money coming in. If you look at only our profits, everything is steady, including the amount of customers we have.”

“Huh,” said Zack. That was unusual.

“Yes. So, by the looks of things, our regular customers are regularly spending a few million more per month.”

Curiosity spiked in him. “Except customers don’t do that.”

“Right.”

“And even if customers were spending more, your profits should be higher, based on the house edge and how you make your money.”

He pondered for a moment, thinking through the possibilities. He’d have to rule out the likelihood that it was faulty accounting, broken machines, that kind of thing.

“You know a lot about casinos?” she asked, sounding surprised.

“I know a lot about math,” he corrected her. “When I was in the Marines, I got my degree.”

He saw a quick light of interest—of admiration—in her eyes, before he had to turn back to the road. He ignored the single throb of his heart.

“So you’re perfect for this job,” she said, happily. Of course her reaction had been professional. Zack deflated.

“Yeah.” He swallowed his disappointment. It was a good thing she was interested only in his professional capabilities. It would keep him on track, prevent a pointless crush.

He cleared his throat. “So, you have a higher turnover. Anything else unusual?”

She shook her head. Her plait was coming loose, stray strands escaping from the braid. “Nothing obvious, but numbers have never been my strong suit.”

“And your staff? No one acting differently? No one who happened to arrive at the same moment the odd finances started happening?” He shot her a brief smile, and she returned it. Her dark eyes sparkled with amusement.

“Unfortunately, no,” she said.

“All right, I’ll look into it. What about my other job—Head of Security. What’s involved there? And why don’t you want your boss to know?”

“I’ve brought up my concerns to Jeri a few times over the last few months. She won’t hear them. She thinks it’s a positive thing—and doesn’t want to jinx it by looking into the whys. When I suggested we question it, she…well, let’s just say she got upset with me. I left it alone after that.”

There was something in her voice. Regret, maybe. “It’s her company. Why go behind her back?”

Radha shifted to stare out the windscreen, her expression contemplative.

Her voice, when it came, was quiet. “She’s important to me, and so is the casino.”

That wasn’t the whole story, Zack knew. But he let the subject drop.

They talked a little more about the job and the casino, what it all would entail, standard orientation subjects. It was clear she was good at her job. Every employee, their schedule, even the regular customers. She knew them all.

She directed him down a quiet street. Worn, with peeling paint on the houses and no gardens to speak of, the neighbourhood was sleepy in the late hour. A few of the streetlights were broken, leaving dark patches along the road. Zack parked under one when Radha pointed out their destination. Zack shut off the car, plunging them into further darkness as the headlights shut off. He studied the house. It didn’t look like the kind of place a criminal mastermind would live, but one could never tell.

“What are you thinking?” Radha asked. Her voice was low in the quiet cabin of the car.

Zack shifted his eyes to her and smiled. “Just wondering what kind of man Louis is.”

“He’s a good man,” she said determinedly. “He pulled himself out of a bad situation and made something of himself.”

Zack decided to reserve judgement on that until he’d met the guy. His disappearance at the same time as the casino’s finances went wonky made Zack suspect her trust in Louis was misplaced.

They got out of the car and walked up the concrete driveway. No lights were on in the house. The faded curtains didn’t flicker.

Zack knocked on the door, not expecting an answer.

“Louis?” Radha called through the door. Zack flinched as her voice echoed down the empty street.

It looked like Louis wasn’t home. He was probably on a beach in Mexico by now.

“Keep a lookout, would you?” he said to Radha, digging into his pocket for the small package he’d grabbed from the car.

She shuffled closer, peering over his shoulder at the tools in his hand.

“What are those?” she asked.

“Lock picks,” he told her. He selected two.

She inhaled quickly. “You can’t break in,” she hissed, shocked.

Zack paused and turned to look at her. “Why not?”

“It’s illegal,” she told him, clearly shocked.

“Yes,” Zack countered. “There might be clues inside.”

This brought her up short. “What kind of clues?” Her face was thoughtful now, understanding that Zack had suspicions.

He shrugged, not wanting to speculate just yet. “He’s disappeared at the same time as the finances of your casino went strange. If nothing else, it’s worth looking into.”

Radha stared up at him, her dark eyes inscrutable. Zack swallowed, but held her gaze, waiting for her to make her decision. If she said no, he’d have to come back later without her.

“All right,” she said. “I’ll let you know if I see anyone.” She spun around, edging towards the street to give her a wider view.

Not waiting for her to change her mind, Zack made quick work of the lock on the door. It was old and not secure. Zack hoped the guy was better at security in his day job.

A rush of stale air hit Zack as he swung the door open. The hallway was pitch dark, and glossy catalogues that had been pushed through the mail slot littered the floor.

Zack felt Radha’s presence beside him.

“He hasn’t been home in a while.” Unease coated her voice.

Zack stepped inside, avoiding the crinkling pages of the junk mail as best he could. No sense in leaving evidence of his presence. More pages crackled as Radha followed him in.

“You can wait outside,” he told her, glancing over his shoulder.

She shook her head. “I knew him better than you. Besides, he’s my friend. If he’s skipped town, I want to know about it.”

“Okay,” Zack replied. “Just don’t touch anything.”

He started with the living room, moonlight slanting through the gap in the curtains, illuminating a ten-year-old TV and floral couch that could have belonged to his grandmother. Remnants of a microwavable rice dish sat on the coffee table, gnats hovering over it. Zack covered his nose, filtering out as much of the mouldy aroma as possible.

“Disgusting,” said Radha.

Zack nodded and continued his search. Nothing out of the ordinary; just the standard accoutrements of a middle-aged bachelor.

“Not married?” Zack asked.

“Widower,” Radha told him. That explained the pictures of the attractive fortyish woman in some of the photos, smile bright and dyed red hair gleaming. Louis, who must have been the man in some of the photos, was happy, smiling. All of the photos featured his wife. There were none of children, or Louis alone, or his parents. He’d clearly loved her a lot.

Zack tried not to let it affect him. He was here to do a job, not feel sorry for a man that might have scammed the company he worked for—Zack’s new client—out of millions. But the contrast between the bright, smiling photos, and the sad, lonely life in the rest of the house was stark.

The kitchen yielded nothing other than a few unwashed dishes. They followed the hall toward the back of the house, peering into the bathroom with its tile scheme straight out of the seventies. Again, an air of neglect had settled over the space.

The light from the windows didn’t reach this far down the hall. Zack could just make out a door a few paces away.

A sickly smell reached Zack; at the same time a sense of foreboding settled over him. He hadn’t noticed it at first, presuming it was from the kitchen remains. But this was something else.

He swallowed, trying not to breathe as he made his way towards the room. It had to be the bedroom—the only room yet unexplored.

“Stay here,” he growled to Radha. The rustling behind him stopped.

He tugged the sleeve of his hoodie over his hand as he reached for the knob. Careful not to leave any prints, he opened the door.

The smell assaulted him immediately, making him gag. His eyes watered, and he blinked to clear them.

“What is it?” Radha asked.

He didn’t know how to answer. Louis—at least, he assumed it was Louis—lay on the thin carpet. Dried blood, black in the wan light, pooled beneath him. Flies buzzed and writhed around him. He no longer looked human—a specialist would need to tell them how long he’d been there, but Zack’s best guess was about a week—the length of time he’d been missing.

Louis hadn’t fled to Mexico with the casino’s money. He’d bled to death on his bedroom floor.

The puzzle pieces shifted and rearranged themselves in his mind, becoming more entwined and complex, leaving gaping holes of knowledge.

“What?” Radha’s voice was thinner now, anxiety dripping from the word. She shuffled closer, and Zack wrenched the door shut. He spun, blocking her with his body, forbidding her from entering that room. She didn’t need to see her friend like that.

“I’m sorry, Radha.” He kept his arms out, stretched across the hall in case she tried to dart around him. Instead, she stared up at him as tears pooled in her eyes.

“He’s not…” she couldn’t finish.

“I’m so sorry,” Zack repeated.

The tears slipped from her eyes and slid down her cheeks. She let out a gasping sob, and Zack gathered her into his arms and half-carried her out the front door. He breathed in deep gulps of the fresh night air as he held her close.

She cried quietly against his chest, and all Zack could do is offer murmured words of comfort as he stroked her back. When was the last time he’d comforted a woman? Held her close?

Too long.

“We need to call the police,” Zack told her softly as her tears subsided.

She nodded, eyes vague. “Yes.”

“They’ll need to ask us some questions,” he warned her.

“Of course.” The nod was slower this time.

“Radha, you’ll have to tell them about the strange finances at the casino.”

At this, her eyes snapped to his. “Why? We can’t tell them.”

“I think it’s best we do,” he coaxed softly.

“But it doesn’t have anything to do with…” Her eyes widened as it dawned on her. He had to say it aloud, anyway.

“He was murdered, Radha. And there’s every chance it was to do with the casino.”

Read the rest here!

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Knowing When To Cut

With bonus deleted scenes from Guarding Sierra!

 

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The decision to cut a scene from a book is one of the hardest a writer will make—surpassed only by the agonising decision to scrap everything when you realise it just isn’t working.

I had to do both in the process of bringing Guarding Sierra into existence. I originally started the novel in a very different place. When I realised it was completely the wrong beginning, I was so annoyed with myself for the time wasted. But I accepted it, started again, and the book is much better for it.

I also deleted and changed a number of scenes. Sometimes it can take a while to realise that it’s the right decision to delete—and longer still to work up the nerve to actually do it. To help me feel like I haven’t wasted my time, before I cut a scene I copy it into a document I label ‘Spares’. Then, I can come back to it later if I really need to. Sometimes I end up mining it for content—a descriptor or character beat—but generally I don’t, and the decision to cut is the right one.

When editing Guarding Sierra, there was a small scene that lasted through a few drafts. I didn’t want to cut it—it was a good character moment for Sierra, if a little heavy-handed. The problem was, it sped up her character development too much, leaving the last 1/3 of the book with nowhere for her to grow. Her realisation that she’d misjudged Blake happened too soon in the arc of the story, and it made her bland as a result.

The progression of her character development is much smoother now that the moment is gone, but I really liked the conversation between her and Blake. It hints at some of the bigotry that Blake has experienced because of his sexuality, and it forced Sierra to confront some of her own preconceptions about him. Part of me regrets not being able to find a place for it later on in the book, but by the time it would have been appropriate for them to have the conversation, the tension was ramping up and it would have slowed down the pace.

I just like to imagine it happening off-screen. J

But, now I can share it with you guys! It’s rough, since it never went through the final drafting/editing stages. But it gives you an idea of what I was trying to achieve. (Context for those that haven’t read Guarding Sierra: They’ve recently slept together, and Blake has told Sierra it can’t happen again. She’s pissed off, with both him and herself, because she figured him for a player and slept with him anyway. She feels she should have known better. For those that have read it: This originally appeared in the kitchen scene, before Duncan shows up to give Blake a talking to.)

Blake stared down at his sandwich, a muscle ticking in his jaw.

“Here’s the thing,” he began, then glanced up at her. “I have a habit of doing this.”

“Yeah, I figured you for a bit of a player,” Sierra interrupted. Nausea rolled in her gut. At least she could take comfort in the fact that his inability to stay faithful most likely didn’t stem from sexism, since it sounded like he treated his male lovers the same. She would lose even more respect for herself if it turned out she’d slept with a misogynist.

A frown tugged at his brow. “That’s not what I meant. I don’t sleep around, I prefer to be in relationships.” He paused. “Though it is a common stereotype that bi- and pan- people are incapable of being in a committed relationship.” His look was reproachful.

Her cheeks heated with shame, but she didn’t back down quite yet. “To be fair, I thought you were a player before I knew you were Pan.”

“You aren’t helping your case.” He seemed amused by her defence.

“You are an incorrigible flirt. Most people would think the same about you as I did.” She had no way of knowing if he was telling the truth now. Though whether he would lie to make her feel better or for some reason she didn’t understand, Sierra couldn’t be sure.

He raised an eyebrow in disbelief. Sierra clammed her mouth shut, frustrated with both him and herself. Blake obviously chose not to continue down that conversation topic, but whether out of pity for her or not, she couldn’t tell.

As you can see, it was quite heavy-handed. That could have been smoothed out later if I’d kept the scene in. However, having Sierra confront her own assumptions about Blake made her reassess her opinion of him far too soon. It threw the rest of her character development off balance. Once it was cut, I tweaked what came after, and I think the book is stronger for it.

 

Now, something a little more fun:

This is an alternate version of the scene where Sierra calls Mandy after having spent the night with Blake. I changed it because it didn’t fit the tone I needed in the scene, but it was an enjoyable little exchange.

“No wonder you’re cranky. I don’t think this is the disaster you’re claiming it is,” Mandy told her.

“Hey, you’re meant to be on my side here!”

Mandy chuckled, unrepentant. “I am on your side. The serial killer aspect is admittedly worrying, but I trust Blake to keep you safe. Even if he can’t seem to keep his pants on.”

Sierra sighed. “I’m at least equally responsible for that part.”

Mandy snorted, then grew serious. “If you’re really worried, you should get out of the city. Have a vacation, and hide away.”

“No way. I can’t leave work now. And being away somewhere with Blake sounds like a terrible idea.”

“Afraid he’ll come onto you again?”

“No, I’m afraid I’ll come on to him.” She ploughed on without giving Mandy a chance to reply. “So, does this raise any ethical issues for you? Or the company? I can definitely promise it won’t happen again.”

Mandy hummed in thought. “I mean, it isn’t generally something we would encourage, but I don’t really think punishing you would help. You’ve been through enough already and frankly, I just don’t want to. I’m glad you let loose for a little while, even if it was only for a night.”

“Blake seemed to think he’d get in trouble.”

“Well,” she replied. “I never said anything about not punishing him.”

I like writing friendships between women, so this was a fun scene. It was just totally wrong for what the moment needed, particularly once I realised that Sierra had to hold her grudge against Blake for a bit longer.

 

So, the moral of this story is, don’t be afraid to cut! Just because you put a lot of time into something doesn’t mean it is right. Be honest with yourself about what your story needs. Trust your instincts. Get feedback from others if you have to.

Ultimately, you have to do what the story needs.

If you want to find out what the final (and better!) versions of these scenes looked like, Guarding Sierra is available to purchase below:

Amazon (US)

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Christmas Tango – Chapter 1

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Here’s a sneak peek at my upcoming Soldiering On Christmas Novella – Christmas Tango. I hope you enjoy it!

Duncan tugged at the unfamiliar noose around his throat—also known as a bow tie. He was trussed up in a penguin suit, suffocating in the restrictive clothing.

The grand ballroom was stifling, though whether that was reality, or a hallucination brought on by lack of breath, Duncan couldn’t be sure. All he knew was that he didn’t belong in this place.

The room was fancier than any he could remember being in. The roof above them was at least three stories up, and made entirely of glass. Balconies stretched across the upper portions, giving a perfect view of the mingling crowd. Instrumental Christmas music drifted from hidden speakers, and sconces dotted the walls, simulating flickering candlelight like a ballroom of old. Wreaths and bells hung the walls, adding a festive cheer to the dull proceedings.

A sharp elbow jabbed his side. “Smile,” Mandy hissed. Her fingers tightened on his arm, pressing her point.

Duncan plastered on a smile, but even he could tell it probably looked more like a grimace. Mandy rolled her eyes at him, but he just shrugged, unrepentant. He hadn’t wanted to come. She should be thankful that she got that much. Pretending to enjoy the stuffy occasion was one step beyond.

Mandy Lennox, bane of his existence and his business partner—in that order—had, in her infinite wisdom, forced him to come to this Christmas fundraising auction. Despite his stark refusal to accompany her, he had still somehow found himself in a custom-made tuxedo, escorting Mandy around a room full of rich people. She claimed it would be a good networking opportunity, wanting to find wealthy clients for their joint business.

Soldiering On was his pride and joy. He’d started the security company—with Mandy’s help—over a year ago to give veterans injured in the line of duty an opportunity to continue using their skills after being discharged. But the best part of the job was that they could help people that needed it—people that needed protection, or expertise. Duncan and his team were doing something that mattered.

He could admit to a need for at least a few well-paying clients like Mandy wanted, but it wasn’t his priority. The people that needed their help were. But it was Mandy’s mission in life to find high-paying clients for Soldiering On, and the only thing she seemed to care about. As long as it didn’t interfere in his life, he didn’t mind what she did. But playing nice with a bunch of wealthy people hadn’t been on Duncan’s agenda.

At least Mandy looked stunning in a thin sheath dress the colour of midnight. Her creamy shoulders were left temptingly bare, and her blonde hair was twisted up into a complicated knot. He had never felt their stark differences more keenly than he did in that moment. She was sleek, breathtakingly elegant, and clearly belonged in this crowd in a way he never would, despite his expensive tuxedo. He was a rough soldier with a bad leg and barely a dime to his name.

A man with teeth like a lighthouse beacon moved into Duncan’s field of vision, grinning unnaturally wide. Duncan blinked, bringing his thoughts away from his business partner and onto the intruder.

“Mandy,” he said, eyeing Duncan’s companion with an unsubtle appreciation. “How lovely to see you again.”

Since no one looked his way, Duncan felt safe rolling his eyes.

“Charles,” Mandy purred. “You’ve done a lovely job with the decorations. So festive. It seems like the evening will be a real success.”

She bent forward to kiss the man’s cheek, oozing charm.

Charles lapped it up. “Thank you. I hope you’ll stay for the after-party.” He winked—actually winked!—at her.

Mandy wasn’t fooled. Duncan was sure he was the only one that noticed the imperceptible tightening around her eyes that showed her displeasure. But her smiled stayed in place.

“That will depend on what my date wants to do, since he’s my ride. This is Duncan.” She nudged Duncan, who obediently stuck out his hand.

Charles’ gaze shifted to Duncan for the first time. The disinterested look told Duncan that Charles had already forgotten his name. “Hey, pal. Welcome to the party.”

They shook hands and let go before it was polite.

“Well, I better do the rounds,” Charles told them. He disappeared into the crowd, which consisted mostly of men and women between the ages of 60 and 103 from the looks of things.

Duncan felt old most days, now that he was pushing forty and had retired from the military. But this lacklustre crowd made him feel positively sprightly.

“Your date?” he asked slyly.

Mandy rolled her eyes. “I had to put him off somehow. He’s obscenely wealthy, so I like to keep him onside. But he’s persistent.”

“Well, I’m happy to run point between you and any men tonight. They really should learn to take a hint.”

The fact that Charles had completely ignored Duncan and the proprietary hand Mandy had on his arm irked him. Why would it be so out of the question that they were an item? Or had Charles just not cared either way?

He also realised something else. “Am I the only Black guy in the room?” he asked Mandy under his breath, bending down to her so that his words couldn’t be overheard.

Mandy huffed. “I admit the crowd is rather monochrome tonight.”

“Why am I even here?” he asked her. He obviously didn’t fit in, and not because he had inherited his father’s dark skin. These people were born into money. He was career military, like his father before him. He didn’t have centuries of wealth and power behind him.

Mandy narrowed her eyes at him. “If I have to suffer through this evening, then so do you.”

Duncan blinked. “What are you talking about? You love this stuff.”

“It’s a necessary evil. I see the benefits, and they outweigh the inconvenience to myself.”

Duncan never knew quite what to expect from Mandy.

“You’re a constant surprise,” he told her.

“I do actually like the dancing, when they have it,” she admitted with a shrug. “But the rest I could take or leave.”

Duncan’s mood soured even more. Of course she liked dancing. One thing he could no longer do now that his leg was so badly banged up from the war.

Not having noticed his reaction, Mandy scanned the room, her gaze landing somewhere behind him. Her expression lit up.

“The food’s out,” she said and dragged him in the direction of a white table-clothed sideboard loaded with dishes covered with silver lids. The only other person that seemed to have clocked to the food was a man in a suit a few levels below what most of the other guests were wearing.

Duncan smiled briefly, glad he wasn’t the only one completely out of place at a ritzy event.

The guy frowned when he saw Duncan eyeing him and backed off. Duncan sighed. He didn’t mean to glare. It was just his face, and size. But he tended to make people nervous.

“I should check in with the office,” Duncan murmured as Mandy loaded up a plate full of tiny, complicated-looking pieces of food.

Mandy glared as she munched on something that resembled a mushroom with leaves on it. She swallowed. “It’s nine o’clock at night. No one is there.”

Duncan took a breath, but she interrupted him before he could get a word out. “I know that Blake is on call, but don’t bother him. He’ll let you know if he needs you.”

“Why are you so concerned that I not call him?”

She smiled sweetly. “Sierra has something special planned for tonight. You don’t want to interrupt.”

Duncan shuddered. That was more than he’d wanted to know. Still, he pulled out his phone—just to check the time—and saw that the battery was dead.

“Bloody hell,” he muttered.

“I told you,” Mandy said, peering at his screen upside down. “You need to get a portable charger. Or a better phone.”

It was a familiar argument. “It’s fine, I just forgot to charge it.”

She rolled her eyes. “You’re such a technophobe.”

“It’s functional,” he told her. “It does what I need it do.”

She gave him an unimpressed look. He didn’t see much point in explaining to her that the simpler the device, the better it usually was. Blake, Sam, and Paul were the ones that liked the newer, fancier equipment. Duncan was old school.

“Whatever,” he said, in lieu of what he really wanted to respond. “I’m going to hit the head. I’ll be back.”

He needed to cool off, get some fresh air. He couldn’t even take off the bow tie for a spell, because there was no way he’d get it back on.

He wished he had a weapon. At least then he’d feel like himself. But with the cut of the custom-made suit Mandy insisted he get—at her expense—it would’ve been far too obvious.

He pushed his way through the double doors at the back of the ballroom and into a carpeted service corridor. The kitchen lay at the far end, but no aromas of cooking emanated from that direction. Evidently the food was catered from an outside source. A number of doors and corridors came off the one he was standing in, and a staircase on each wall led to the upper levels. Based on the building’s size from the outside—of which the ballroom the auction was in barely took up half—there must be a whole warren of rooms that were not for the party guests. Perhaps he should go up and see if he could find the way to those balconies; get a better lay of the land.

But first, more pressing matters. The bathroom was bigger than his entire apartment, and far fancier. Duncan’s foul mood grew worse as he took care of his business. He had to get out of this place; find an excuse and escape the rest of the evening. Who cared if the expensive ticket Mandy had bought for him was wasted before they even got to the main event of the evening? It wasn’t like he could buy anything at the auction, which would start any moment.

He finished washing his hands and reached for the paper towels. Maybe if he—

His thoughts were interrupted by the lights shutting off. The room was in total darkness, without even a window to filter in some moonlight. Must be a blackout.

Duncan’s hand was on the door handle, ready to return to Mandy to see if she was okay.

That’s when he heard the gunfire, followed by screams of terror.

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