Russian Beast – Chapter 1

Russian Beast is $0.99 for a limited time!

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.

Get it here while it’s $0.99!

Russian Beast Available for Pre-Order – for just $0.99!

Russian Beast, book 2 in my Underground Fighters series, is available for pre-order! And it releases one week from today. Better yet, it’s at a limited-time price of just $0.99 only until release, so get in quick!

Here’s the preorder link!

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?

Alexei: Strong. Silent. Russian.

Alexei has lived a life off the radar since he arrived in the US years before. Until he meets Evie—the woman he can’t get out of his head.

Having escaped Russia—and a brutal father—when he was barely out of his teens, Alexei now earns his living in illegal fights. There, his size and strength are an advantage, not a curse. When Alexei rescues his neighbour from her violent ex, he sees for the first time that he can use his power for good, and becomes determined to protect Evie from her demons.

Evie has avoided men since she escaped her ex, focusing on the final months of her social work degree. Paranoia has gripped her, and she can’t be sure whether the shadow she thinks is following her is really there, or only a figment of her imagination. But when Alexei barges into her life, she has to decide whether she can place her trust in him, or whether he’s just another man who uses violence to get what he wants.

When Evie convinces Alexei to teach her to fight, she must learn to trust her instincts, to trust him. If she doesn’t, her ex will shatter everything she holds dear, and she’ll risk losing Alexei forever…

Here’s that link again!

And remember, it’s $0.99 for a limited time only!

Author Interview – Annabelle McKinnes

Today on the blog I have my dear friend Annabelle McInnes, whose debut book releases today! Please welcome her!

  1. Tell us about yourself!

From the age of sixteen, I lived in a youth refuge while I remained committed to my education. I spent two years within a section of humanity that society overlooks. My experiences are the foundations that drive my stories and my characters. Outside of my love for reading and writing, I spend my free moments with my husband, son and poodle named Serendipity. I drink my Whisky neat and am known to scour the local markets for blue cheese and home-made jam.

  1. And tell us about your book!

True Refuge and the Refuge Trilogy is a tale that is interwoven with concepts that explore the extremes of the human condition when civilisation as we know it has imploded, and along with it, any promise of a benevolent future for the human race. The story moves past simple notions of good vs evil, love conquers all, or overcoming the past. These books delve directly into themes of grandeur, of epic undertakings that see the characters strive to rise above personal interests, reject societal constraints regarding sexuality, masculinity, femininity, and battle against the formation of an institution that threatens to swallow what is left of humanity. The characters fight for love, they fight for freedom, and they fight for the human race.

 

  1. What drew you to writing dystopian/speculative fiction romance?

I grew up reading high fantasy novels including all of J. R. R. Tolkien’s books, The Riftwar Saga by Raymond E. Feist, and the early books by George R. R. Martin. These books influenced my imagination and my dreams. But the inspiration for the first draft of True Refuge came from The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It was this book that truly made me appreciate dystopian and speculative fiction novels and how my experiences could shape these fictitious worlds. I adored the tension that McCarthy created with very little action. I also appreciated how he didn’t spend time explaining the “before” or the “after” of his world. I write about love and hope, about characters that overcome adversary to triumph over evil. Speculative Fiction, specifically Speculative Romance give me an environment to explore these facets of our humanity.

 

  1. You’re a debut author, what’s the experience been like so far? From writing through to pitching to getting The Call?

It has been incredibly humbling, overwhelming and exhilarating. I can only liken it to the getting the call on a dream job that you have been wanting and working towards your whole life. But like any new role, there are times that you feel out of your depth, that you feel as though you might fail. But with each day I become better at my craft, more comfortable with personal promotion and more adept at planning and routine. I have worked with some brilliant people, I have also made some great friends, so it has overall it has been a wonderful experience.

 

  1. What’s the best thing and hardest thing about writing romance, do you think?

In romance the most important element is the development of the character’s relationship. For me, the best and hardest to write are the scenes where this plays out physically. They’re the hardest because I find them tremendously draining. Writing the details surrounding the physical placement of the bodies while ensuring that the emotion and tone is perfect, is taxing. The Refuge Trilogy is a ménage relationship and often has three people intertwined in the act. The scenes must ensure that each character develops and that their individual journey is articulated, also that each individual’s quirks, mannerisms and physical limitations are detailed appropriately, and finally, that the relationship between the three of them progresses. It is a mammoth task. These scenes are always integral to my story, so the pressure to ensure that they are accurate makes them even harder to write. They are also some of my longest chapters.

But they are my favourite because of many of the same reasons. I relish writing the love that develops between my characters, the importance they place on each other, and highlighting the devotion and dedication that they share for one another. These scenes are often the most beautiful, and I really enjoy letting go with extravagant words for the right moments.

 

  1. How about dystopian fiction? What are the challenges there? And how much research did you have to do?

The Refuge Trilogy takes place three years after humanity was decimated by a plague-like virus. Thus, it’s often the technical elements I struggle with. How do catch small game to eat? What is the effectiveness/implications of antibiotics after their expiration date? What are the risks when shooting a soiled handgun? What type of maintenance would a solar panel require? Google offers a little guidance, but I am often asking ex and current servicemen/women in my friendship circles long and unusual questions.

  1. Would you ever write in a different genre? (Even a different sub-genre of romance)

I think most writers struggle with containing ideas, and I have many that rattle around in my head. I would enjoy writing thrillers. Though I would have to get a lot better at planning my novels to ensure I captured all the clues early on in the right context. I often struggle with this and need to double back throughout my manuscripts to ensure I picked up all the threads I left behind.

 

  1. What’s your favourite trope in romance?

Tortured hero, hands down. No second thoughts. There is nothing more delicious than an alpha male dealing with inner demons, just waiting for the right woman (or man) to pull him out of the darkness and save his soul… Sigh…

 

  1. What are some of your favourite genres or authors to read?

My tastes change as regularly as the Canberra seasons. It’s just one of the reasons why I love reading romance. No matter my mood, I can always find a book that suits my wishes. As I write, I tend not to read too much speculative fiction. However, when I am in a break between books I often enjoy reading this genre to ensure my own ideas/storylines are current with the trends. Pam Godwin, Charlotte Stein and Joey Hill are my auto-buys. I often enjoy spec-fic interlaced with dark elements. Alpha antiheros, confinement, abduction and fated mates are my catnip. Cari Silverwood, R. Lee Smith and Addison Cain are just to name a few of my most recent purchases. My contemporary tastes run a little more mainstream with Kristen Ashley, TJ Klune and this fantastic author I just adore named Aislinn Kearns.

 

[Aislinn’s note – thank you for the kind words!]

 

  1. What are some of the most valuable things you’ve learned in the process of publishing so far?

Patience. Publishing is a long road. Writing the book is hard, but I’ve found it the easiest part of the process. Finding a publisher, surviving rejection letters, the editing, cover design, all the individual promotional work. Reviews? If only all I had to do was write! Even if the process of writing the book is quick, it can still take years to publish a traditional book. This is a career that requires dedication, grit and determination, because there are no quick wins in this business. I’ve also learnt that I love this. That writing feeds my soul. That right now, there is nothing I would rather be doing. I don’t have to be on a beach to achieve my dreams. I just have to have a computer and a chair with good back support and I’ll be the happiest woman on earth.

 

  1. If you had to do one thing over in your writing career so far, would you? And what would it be?

Hard question! I tend as a rule not to have regrets. I’m not hard on myself in that way, knowing that I did the best I could at the time. When I re-read my manuscripts, there are always things I want to change, but I think that is part of the learning process. With each book I get better, and I try to look ahead, rather than back.

 

  1. What’s your writing process like? How often do you find the time? Do you outline first? Do you listen to music while the magic happens? Give us some insight.

I write from 6am to 8am minimum five days per week. I have found that this is when I’m my most productive. I don’t let social media distract me and, once I’ve made my coffee, I can meet my word could per day. I use a simple algorithm to work out what my word count should be and stick to it, regardless of how good/bad/easy/hard my writing is that day. I don’t believe in writer’s block but I do believe in writer’s fatigue. So I try to make sure I calculate downtime and breaks into my daily word-count equation. I have attempted to write outlines but my books never go the way I originally plan so I don’t waste time on them now. My first draft, usually around 40k words, I often use that as a basic structure and then my edits/rewrites/embellishment happens from there. I have a playlist of twenty-four songs that I listen to on repeat. They range from Disney cartoon classics, to 80s rock ballads, to modern pop chart toppers. But they all tend to have the theme of unrequired love.

 

  1. Where do you get your ideas?

They say that reading is so important to writing, and it’s true. I get inspiration from the books I read. The wonderful thing about romance is there you are able to align themes to other books. That’s the whole point of sub-genres and tropes. It means I can find ideas and concepts that I’d like to explore in my own writing. It’s important to be fresh and relevant, which I strive to be, but I’m intrinsically wired to find inspiration from others, and as writing tends to be a very lonely business, so it makes books often my only opportunity for the development and moulding of new ideas.

 

  1. How do you recharge your imagination when you can feel your creative well getting dry? (Or is it just me that happens to!)

Nope, not just you! I ground myself. I’ve discovered that immersing myself in nature, while trying to get a little bit of exercise is the best thing for my creative soul. Social media drains me, so I often have to limit myself from it during down times. I also suffer from anxiety which impacts my creativity and writing. But if I can go for a walk by myself in nature, I can often get thing back up and running in no time.

 

  1. What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on the structural edits for the third book in the Refuge Trilogy, Eternal Refuge. I keep expecting this process to get better, easier, and though in some ways it has, there is still plenty to learn from each book.

 

  1. What are your plans for the future?

Another Speculative Romance is on the cards. What it looks like yet I’m still unsure, but there are plenty of ideas that I can’t wait to explore!

 

Just for fun:

  1. Sweet or savoury?

Sweet, totally and utterly sweet.

  1. Hot weather or cold?

My skin is so sensitive to the Australian sun and I often get burnt and overheat in the summer. However, winter in Canberra can get very cold, and so as I grow older, I’m enjoying the warmer months more.

  1. If an apocalypse comes, what would be your most valuable skill?

I would be a terrible survivalist. I’m not very practical or a fast runner. I’m not good with blood either… to be honest, it’s unlikely that I would survive. Make sure you’re faster than me.

  1. Which celebrity would you choose to be stranded on a desert island with?

Keven Sorbo, from the 1990’s TV hit Hercules, obviously. Who wouldn’t want to be stranded with him? Long blond hair, a dusting of chest hair that peaked through an open shirt, piecing blue eyes. I was in love with that wannabe romance novel cover model before I even knew what romance novels were.

  1. Dream vacation spot? (Other than the island with the celebrity, naturally)

Scotland. I love that rugged, windswept country. It’s not just its towing mountain ranges and centuries old castles, it’s also the people, the food, the hospitality. Beautiful, with or without the Highlanders.

  1. If you won a million dollars tomorrow, what’s the first thing you’d buy?

The first item I would buy just for me would be a bespoke, custom made writing desk. I love the thought of having something feminine and unique, yet fictional and ergonomically sound. And a lamp. As a writer, you can never have too much light.

Thanks for stopping by, Annabelle!

If you want to pick up True Refuge, it’s available here at Amazon and at all good retailers! (I’ve already grabbed my copy!)

If you want to connect with Annabelle, here’s where you can find her:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/authorannabellemcinnes/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/akmcinnes

Website: https://www.annabellemcinnes.com/

 

If You Write a Book That Nobody Reads, Are You Really a Writer?

An interesting perspective. I felt better about it until the ‘Oh, and then I got a BookBub’ finale. If we could all get BookBubs, our careers as Indie Authors would be a lot easier!

Please welcome author Susan Wolfe to WU today! Susan is a lawyer with a B.A. from the University of Chicago and a law degree from Stanford University. After four years of practicing law full time, …

Source: If You Write a Book That Nobody Reads, Are You Really a Writer?

Caged Warrior is now available!

Caged Warrior is now available! You can purchase it on Amazon, or read for FREE on Kindle Unlimited!

Grab it here!

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.

Read chapter 1 here!

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.

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