Short Stories Available!

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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!

Over 75 FREE and 99 cent Romance Books!

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I hope you all had a happy holiday season!

If any of you got a Kindle for Christmas, or just want to fill your e-reader for the new year, this is a great opportunity. A group of Australian and New Zealand authors (including me!) have got together to offer free and 99 cent romance books, all in one place! That’s over 75 books at bargain prices!

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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)

Amazon (UK)

Amazon (AU)

Amazon (CA)

Kobo

Barnes and Noble

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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Guarding Sierra Chapter 2

Two weeks until the release of Guarding Sierra!

Soldiering On 2(4)

Catch up on Chapter 1 here

Blake strode into the Soldiering On offices at nine o’clock on Monday morning. Well, strode was a bit of a stretch, given the awkward pinch in his shoulder every time he moved. But it was a brisk walk, at the least, even with the awkward angle with which he held his arm.

Technically, he wasn’t due back to work for another three weeks, but he could have happily returned the day after a bullet ripped a hole in his shoulder. He’d been patient long enough and if Duncan, his boss, didn’t like it, then Blake would just camp out at his desk until he was given an assignment. Duncan was known for his stubbornness, but Blake was pretty sure he could win that one.

His shoulder did ache a little. But if he told Duncan that, he’d be sent home to while away the hours staring at the ceiling of his lounge room. He’d go insane if he had to endure another day of that.

He debated just sitting at his desk—well, the desk he usually sat at in the brief periods between assignments—and staking his claim, but realised it would go better in the long run if he confronted Duncan head on.

He pushed open the door to his boss’ office. One of his two bosses, really. But he didn’t deal with Mandy much.

Duncan was already at his desk, bent over a sprawl of papers that he was squinting down at. The window at his back lit him almost as a silhouette, casting a shadow across the papers.

He was a big man, though his current slouch disguised just how big. Tall, broad, and with dark skin that he’d inherited from his African-American father, Duncan looked like a stereotypical military leader. Those that had served under him had said that his command style had been as solid and dependable as his looks. Blake had so far found no reason to disagree with this after working under the man for nearly a year.

Blake tapped on the door. Duncan slowly pulled himself out of whatever he was concentrating on and slid his gaze up. His eyes narrowed when he saw who it was.

“What the hell are you doing here? Get back to bed.”

“Is that an invitation?” Blake teased.

Duncan narrowed his eyes even further. “You’ve still got two weeks left before I want you anywhere near this place. And even then you’ll be assigned desk work, so don’t try it.” He pointed a warning finger at Blake, who summarily ignored the half-assed threat.

Blake stepped into the office and shut the door behind himself. The office was deeply functional, with dark wood and not a personal item to be seen. Thankfully, the effect was somewhat mitigated by the large window spanning an entire wall, high ceilings, and pale walls.

Blake slid himself into the chair opposite Duncan, careful not to just plonk himself down as the now ever-present tiredness crept upon him once again.

“Duncan, please,” he said, leaning forward. He wouldn’t beg, but he wouldn’t leave without an assignment, either. “I can’t go back to that apartment. The two weeks I’ve been trapped there since getting out of the hospital is more time than I’ve collectively spent in that place since I got it. I need something to do.”

Duncan’s eyes softened with pity. He knew more than anyone how much Blake hated to stay still. The ever-present restlessness that plagued him. His need to be outdoors and working his muscles into exhaustion.

“I can’t put you back out in the field. You’d be a danger to yourself and others. And if anything went wrong, it would reflect on Soldiering On. I hate to say it, but we are a fledgeling company. We can’t afford that.”

Blake sighed. He knew he was right, but he also needed something to do. “I don’t care if it’s some fluff work. Something that’s not worth giving to the other guys.” Besides, if he was given a job he suspected he couldn’t handle, then he would back out. He wasn’t going to put anyone else’s life in danger just because he didn’t know how to take a holiday.

You’d take desk work?” Duncan asked disbelievingly.

Blake held up his hand to ward off his boss. “Let’s not go that far,” he muttered.

Duncan considered him, frowning. “Can’t you just take up a hobby?”

“I have a hobby. Rock climbing. I’ve just been… advised not to do that for a while.”

A knowing look settled on Duncan’s face. “And in that you listen to doctor’s orders?”

“Look, rock climbing is hard enough one-handed.” He held up his prosthetic to punctuate his point. “I don’t want to tempt fate by trying to go back to it when I’m not at full strength. But the work here isn’t quite that level of strenuous. So cut me some slack.”

“I’ve cut you plenty of slack.”

“Not on this.”

This is your health we’re talking about.”

Blake ground his jaw. “There has to be something. You don’t have that many employees yet. Trained ones, anyway. And I know business has been picking up a little after we were on the news because of Christine’s thing.” He was referring to the events three weeks ago that had led to him being shot. But they had also led to his friend Paul finding a woman he really cared about, so Blake thought it all evened out. He was happy to get shot for a good cause.

Duncan considered him carefully. “You aren’t going to give up, are you?”

Blake forced a cheerful smile. “Nope. So you may as well concede now.”

“Get in front-leaning rest.”

Blake frowned. “What?”

“You heard me.”

Ah, a test. All right, Blake could deal with that.

He stood and shuffled into the middle of the empty floor space. Then, he lowered himself into the start position for push-ups; one-handed of course. Not to show off, but the prosthetic he was wearing wasn’t really built for comfortable push ups. And, more importantly, because his left shoulder hurt like a motherfucker with the strain already on it.

But he wasn’t going to let Duncan know that.

“Go on, then.”

Blake dropped once. Twice. “How many should I do?” He tried desperately not to pant. He wasn’t as fit as he should be.

“Twenty,” Duncan replied. He stood to watch the proceedings.

All right, then. Blake kept a steady pace. Not as fast as he normally would have done them, but he was sure that if Duncan noticed, he could forgive that slight lack.

By the time he got to fifteen, his arm was shaking. Still, he forced himself on. He’d go hard at the gym tonight to start getting his strength back. Bed rest hadn’t done him any favours.

He made it to twenty, then did five more just to prove he could.

“All right, that’s enough,” Duncan said. Thank God.

Blake slowly got to his feet, still careful with his shoulder. The two men looked at each other as Blake forced himself to breathe in a regular pattern.

Duncan sighed. Blake knew he’d won.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever heard Mandy mention a friend called Sierra?”

The two men settled in their chairs once again.

“Yeah,” Blake replied. He’d always wondered about Sierra, and whether she was as pretty as her friend. Not that he’d ever say that to Mandy, or she’d bust his balls.

“Well, she received some roses last night.”

Blake blinked. “Roses?”

“Yes. This was apparently enough for her to want to hire a bodyguard.”

“She gave no other details?” When Blake had said that he would take any job—even the stupid ones—he’d meant that he’d be willing to take any of the jobs that Soldiering On typically took on. Not vanity projects for rich heiresses. Yeah, he knew that about Sierra, too.

Now he knew for sure that Duncan was giving him a soft job. He hadn’t proven himself to Duncan at all. If Sierra wanted a bodyguard to follow her around as a status symbol, she could get one from anywhere. Why them? They were a serious firm, not catering to celebrities and gossip column fodder.

“She said that she’s had a feeling that she’s being watched. Stalked, even.” Duncan clearly didn’t believe this at all.

Blake, however, wasn’t so sure. He’d had his intuition save him enough times in Iraq that he wasn’t willing to discount anyone else’s.

“How long for?”

“She says about a year.”

Blake scoffed. “And she’s only now hiring protection?”

“Exactly.”

Blake tried not to roll his eyes and failed.

“Look, this is the only job we have on the books. I wasn’t going to take it, but if you want it, it’s yours. It shouldn’t prove too dangerous, provided the threat is as real as I suspect. Which is, not at all.”

Blake looked into Duncan’s hard eyes and knew that this was his one shot at getting back out into the field anytime soon. He thought back to his empty, silent apartment.

There really wasn’t much of a choice.

“I’ll do it,” he muttered. But he didn’t have to be happy about it.

“Good. Don’t screw this up. You’re still recovering, and you like getting yourself into trouble at every opportunity, so be careful. Sierra is paying well for our services. She refused to take a friend’s discount from Mandy. If nothing else, it will be good publicity for us. So dress smart in case there are any photographers around, and throw our name around when you can. Maybe something good can come of this shit show.”

Blake sighed. Grabbing the folder that Duncan handed him from the top of the stack on the desk, Blake flicked it open. A picture of a joyous woman looked out at him, her arm around Mandy. Both women looked to be in the middle of a fit of laughter when they snapped the selfie together, heads pressed closed and noses scrunched up in amusement.

Mandy had obviously chosen the photo for the file. He liked that better than downloading it from social media as they often did. It was far more personal.

Sierra was a redhead. That, he hadn’t been expecting. In the photograph, her hair had been loose and flowing past her shoulders. He realised that Mandy, too, had her hair down, and wondered if he had even seen her like that before. He didn’t think so.

“She’s cute,” he murmured. Duncan gave him a severe look. “I know!” Blake replied, without having to be told. Hands off. He always was. He knew that the consequence would be an immediate firing if he wasn’t. Didn’t mean he couldn’t look, though.

“You can start as soon as you leave this office. Mandy said that she took the morning off work, which concerned her. Apparently Sierra is a bit of a workaholic. So you can meet her at her apartment. The address is in the file.”

Blake glanced at the address and whistled. Classy neighbourhood.

“Thanks, Duncan.” He stood, already mentally planning ahead now that he had a new mission.

He was halfway to the door when Duncan’s voice stopped him.

“And Blake?” He spun around, eyes settling on his boss’ stern features. “Like I said, don’t screw this up.”

He swallowed around the lump in his throat. His shoulder ached with the reminder that he wasn’t even close to his best, but Blake nodded with all the confidence he could muster.

He needed this. He wouldn’t screw it up. Couldn’t.

In a small way, his life—and his sanity—depended on it.

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Guarding Sierra Free Excerpt

Soldiering On 2(4)

It’s only one month to the release of Guarding Sierra! I am so excited to share it with everyone.

Because patience isn’t my strong suit, here is an excerpt. Let me know what you think!

Chapter 1

The roses were the colour of blood.

That was Sierra’s first thought when she saw the bouquet sitting innocuously in the hallway in front of her apartment door. The splash of scarlet was particularly vibrant against the two-toned grey of the walls.

She wondered if he had intended that.

Blood roared in her ears as she took a hesitant step forward. She didn’t want to get close. The rich array of flowers might have been a hissing snake for all she cared. She didn’t want to touch them.

As she got closer, her heart pounding relentlessly in her chest, she noticed the dark curl at the edge of the petals. The roses had obviously been sitting out there for a few hours. She hoped that meant he wasn’t nearby.

Maybe they weren’t even from him.

Sierra considered this thought. She pulled out her phone, still eyeing the bouquet nervously, and texted Gary. The two had gone out on a few dates recently before deciding to end it amicably. They both knew there was no chemistry there.

Did you send me flowers? She asked him. Nausea swamped her. She wanted to flee, but knew that was ridiculous. If she couldn’t face a bunch of flowers, then what good was she? Her nerves had been too highly strung for the last year; ratcheted up as she vacillated between being sure she was being stalked, to being certain that it was all in her head. Her paranoia pushed her closer to the edge.

Gary texted back almost immediately. No. Should I have?

Tension tightened in her gut, tighter now. Sweat broke out on her neck.

No. Thanks. It was all she could manage.

She had to know.

In a sudden rush, Sierra stepped forward and crouched down near the flowers. Her breathing was too shallow. Dizziness teased the edges of her consciousness. She deliberately took a deep breath, and reached out to touch a petal.

The world didn’t end; the building didn’t come crashing down. She was still alive. They were just flowers, and she felt increasingly stupid about her fear.

No turning back now.

The dam had broken once she’d touched the rose, so Sierra searched the bouquet for any note or card that might have been left. Nothing.

A sharp prick lanced through her finger and she reared back. Blood welled from a small cut on the pad of her index finger, sliding over the paleness of her skin. She glanced at the bouquet, looking closer without touching.

All the roses still had their thorns.

She fell back, landing with a thump on her butt and scooting away to the opposite side of the wide hallway. Not far enough. If she stretched her stockinged legs out in front of her, her feet would knock the bouquet over.

Those roses hadn’t come from a commercial florist. If they had, they would have trimmed the thorns off. Either the florist who sent them was sloppy at their job, or her stalker had gone to a lot of trouble to acquire roses with the thorns still attached.

Horror slammed into her. This was the most forward her stalker had been. Until now, for an entire year, she’d been unsure that he existed. But now, surely, this was proof. She wasn’t going insane. He was real, and he was a threat. An escalating threat.

Behind the horror welled a deep pit of fury. How dare he? How dare he terrorise her like this, make her question her sanity.

In a fit of bravery, Sierra scooped up the bouquet and strode to the window at the end of the hall. She’d lost her heels somewhere in her shock, so she padded softly in her stockings, sinking into the thick, expensive carpet.

She reached the window and looked for a way to open it. Nothing. It was just a pane of glass in the wall, not an operational window. Damn it. She was sure it was supposed to be a security measure, but it was inconvenient in her current rage.

Coasting on her fury, Sierra jogged to the elevator. A few petals slipped from the buds, drifting to the floor to make a trail behind her. She ignored them. Someone would clean them up, but for now she just needed to get this evil symbol out of her domain.

By the time the elevator had reached the ground floor, Sierra was trembling. Not entirely from anger, either. Fear had crept back in. A lump had settled in her throat.

She carried the bouquet towards the spinning doors at the front of the lobby. A thought occurred to her, and she stopped in front of the security desk.

“Sid?” she greeted the middle-aged security guard. He glanced up, a frown marring his brow as he looked at her. She must look a fright compared to her usual impeccable appearance. She tried to smile reassuringly. “Were you on duty when these flowers were delivered?”

Sid shook his head slowly, not taking his eyes off her.

She tried again. “When did your shift start?”

“I started at midday. My shift’s nearly over now.” She glanced up at the clock ticking above his head, the sound loud in the quiet lobby. It was nearly nine p.m.

“You must have left this desk at some point during the day?”

He frowned at her. “Sure, but I’m allowed toilet breaks. It’s in my contract.” He sounded defensive, and Sierra felt immediately guilty. She hadn’t wanted to accuse him of anything.

“It’s okay. I just wanted to know who might have dropped these off. There’s no card.” She tried to look harmless. Instead, she felt like she was tipping over the edge into insanity.

“Oh.” He eyed her again. “Maybe they slipped in when I was in the john,” he conceded.

“Maybe,” she agreed, then turned away. She didn’t want to press the issue further.

She continued outside the building and strode over to the public bin on the sidewalk in front of the building next door. Her stockings were ruined, and her feet no doubt filthy, but she couldn’t bring herself to care.

The thud of the pot hitting the bottom of the bin was the most satisfying sound she’d heard all day. The tension in her chest loosened just enough for her to breathe.

But it wasn’t over. Not by a long shot.

She made her way back up to her apartment, shivering as she caught sight of the rose petals still littering the corridor.

She poured herself a large glass of white wine and drank it far faster than she normally would have. Particularly on an empty stomach. But she’d needed something to steady her nerves.

She needed help. She could admit that now. If he was escalating, then she could no longer pretend that he wasn’t real. Her instincts had been right all along.

Thankfully, she knew just the person to call.

 

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Station Alpha – Chapter 1

So, I might have mentioned I have a book coming out soon? This one?

Station Alpha Aislinn Kearns

Station Alpha

Well, as a special treat, I thought I would release a little sneak peak to you all! I hope you enjoy it.

Chapter 1

A harsh rattle shattered the peace of the night.

Christine shoved the enticing tendrils of dreamless sleep aside. Her phone had awoken her, buzzing on the wooden nightstand; the sound only loud because everything else was silent. She squinted against the unwelcome glare as the flashing screen lit up the room.

Christine hesitated for just a moment, then reached to pick it up with a resigned sigh. She caught sight of the time as she swiped the screen. 2:02am.

This had better be good.

When Jimmy had interviewed Christine for her new job as personal assistant to his ageing father, he’d warned her that it might mean some all hours phone calls. But she’d thought it had been a polite ‘maybe once every few months you’ll get a call at 10pm’ warning, not a ‘in your second week you’ll be woken in the early hours of the morning’ warning.

“Christine speaking,” she answered, trying to sound less groggy than she felt.

“There is a team of men converging on your house right now,” came the unexpected reply from a low male voice. Unfamiliar, urgent. “You need to run.”

“What?” she asked, blinking in an effort to focus. A prank call? She checked the number and realised she didn’t recognise it.

There was a grunt on the other end of the line, sounding a lot like frustration. “There are about…fifteen guys or so in black combat gear outside your house, ready to storm it. You need to get out while you still can.”

“Listen here, buddy,” Christine began, anger stirring within her. What kind of creep was this guy? She sat up in the bed. It was hard to deliver a set down with righteous fury when you were prone in a warm bed.

The cold air in the room chilled her arms and shoulders, bared by her tank top. A shiver played across her skin as she drew a deep breath to begin her tirade. The new angle gave her a perfect view out of the bedroom window. Christine froze with the breath still in her lungs.

There was a flash of movement outside.

She couldn’t tell what it was, other than it was big. Human-sized. She lived on a large lot on the outskirts of the city. No person should be anywhere near her house. Not at this time of night.

And anyone that was there wouldn’t be paying a neighbourly call.

“Please tell me right now if you are messing with me,” she told the man on the line. Her throat was tight with dread; she could barely squeeze the words out.

“No,” he said, and Christine realised that he sounded deadly sincere.

“What do I do?” she asked as she threw back the covers. She didn’t waste time on fear, though her heart was hammering in her chest. She stuck to the practicalities—get safe.

Some instinctive part of her mind told her to stay low, keeping out of sight from whoever was outside. She crawled across the floor one-handed, gripping her phone to her ear like a lifeline. The worn carpet scraped against the exposed skin of her knees.

“They’re at the front and back door now,” the man on the phone told her. She stuck her feet into the running shoes she’d abandoned by the bedroom door the night before, not bothering to tie them. “They aren’t covering the storm door to the basement. You’ll have to get out that way.”

She nodded, forgetting he couldn’t see her.

The good news was that the storm door was right near where she’d parked her car. The bad news was that it was also near her front door—just metres away from where he’d said there were bad guys. At least, she had to assume they were bad guys. She couldn’t imagine why the good guys would attack her house in the middle of the night.

“But they’ll see me,” she told him, whispering.

“Yes, but you’ll have the element of surprise. You can probably get to your car before they start shooting.” His voice was matter of fact.

“Probably?” she asked, the phone still to her ear as she snatched her keys off of the hallway’s sideboard, grabbing her bag while she was at it. “Wait, shooting?” she continued as her brain caught up with her mouth.

His reply was sardonic. “They have guns. I have to assume they will use them.”

Christine reached the basement door. Of course they had guns. A thought occurred to her. How did her mysterious saviour know that they had guns, or where they were standing?

“How do you know where they are and what they have?” she asked, wrenching open the rarely-used basement door. It creaked, loud in the silent house. Christine froze for just a moment, listening hard. She’d half-expected a door to burst open, spilling evil men into her home. But nothing moved.

She trod down into the darkness. After a few steps, the weak light from the house could no longer penetrate the gloom. She slowed, even though the adrenaline gushing through her body urged her to run, to move. She wouldn’t do herself any favours by falling down the ancient stairs. The flaking wooden banister beneath her hand did little to steady her. A few pricks made Christine think it was giving her splinters, but she paid no attention. She had bigger things to worry about.

It would have helped if she could see, but she wasn’t stupid enough to turn on the light.

She reached the bottom of the staircase, and her eyes began adjusting to the gloom. Weak moonlight streamed through the small, grimy window. Lumps were haphazardly arranged around the space. If memory served, it was all long-forgotten detritus from her childhood.

“Well?” she demanded, not forgetting her earlier question as she picked her way forward. If he could see the people outside, could he see her, too? Perhaps her entire house was rigged with cameras. She swallowed past a nervous lump.

“Later. Let’s get you to safety first.”

“How can I trust that you aren’t leading me into danger?” she countered. The storm door was almost in reach. “You could be out there with these bad guys right now. Maybe you are leading me outside to my doom to save you the trouble of breaching my house. I could run straight into their arms.”

“Fine. I’m watching via a live satellite uplink. Happy now?” he growled.

“It’ll do,” she told him. “For now.” Christine had to believe he was on her side.

“Good. Be ready to make a run for it when I say go.”

Christine took a deep breath, creeping up the steps to the door. “Wait a moment, I need to unlock it.”

He made a sound of frustration—something that seemed to be a habit with him—but said nothing. Christine felt around in the dark until the rusty metal of the bolt grazed her palm. To her relief, it wasn’t padlocked. She had no idea where she would have kept the key if she’d needed one. It wasn’t good for her safety, but excellent news at this moment. She’d rectify that bad habit later.

She worked the bolt open, trying not to make too much noise. She was conscious of the men hovering on the other side, only a few steps away. After a steadying breath, she whispered the words, “All right.”

There was silence on the other end of the phone. Christine focused on keeping the air coming in and out of her lungs steady. She was tense, ready, her ears straining for any sound in the quiet night. She couldn’t hear the men out there, but it didn’t mean they weren’t waiting for her.

“Now!” the man yelled, and Christine threw open the doors and started running. She didn’t look around, even as she reached her car and tugged open the driver’s side door. Thank god for automatic keyless entry. The lights flashed, then flashed again. Her mind caught up as she slid into the driver’s seat. The violent report of sound penetrated the roaring in her ears. She realised those second flashes were gunfire.

She ducked as she started the car with a press of a button and slammed it into gear. Bullets pinged off the body of the car, but none shattered the windows. Not taking the time to wonder why, Christine rammed her foot hard on the accelerator and sped off. She spun the wheel, angling the car down her long driveway. Her heartbeat thudded in her ears, drowning out all other sounds as she raced down her driveway.

She flicked on her headlights to see the turn, and they bounced off dark cars lining the road. Big SUVs, every one of them. There had to be at least ten, maybe more. She spared a glance at the rearview mirror. The armed men, weighed down by an obscene amount of weapons, raced down the drive toward those cars.

She turned onto the road that ran outside her house and lost sight of them for a moment. She focused her eyes on the road ahead, determination filling her.

“Are you all right?” The gruff question sounded through the car’s speaker system and Christine jumped. She realised that her phone had automatically connected via Bluetooth. It had slipped out of her hand in the chaos, and she suspected it was somewhere in the foot well. “Were you hit?” he asked with more urgency when she didn’t immediately reply.

“No. No, I’m okay.” She thought she heard a sound of relief. “Are they following me?”

“Yes,” he said shortly.

Christine swallowed and pressed even harder on the accelerator.

“Just follow my directions, and you’ll be all right,” said her saviour. She frowned. She couldn’t keep calling him that.

“What’s your name?” she asked. The words came out thin and muted. Terror had stolen her voice.

He cleared his throat. “Paul,” he muttered. “Now turn right.”

She slid the car around the corner and immediately checked the rearview mirror for any pursuit. It took them just fifteen seconds to turn onto the same road. Not good.

“Where am I going?”

“Somewhere safe.” It was obvious he didn’t intend to tell her any more, at least for now. Still, she’d already put her life in his hands for the night. She’d trust him a little longer. “Turn left.”

She did, the steering wheel wobbling in her hands as she fought to gain control.

“Can you give a little more warning on these turns?” she asked, gritting her teeth.

“No. I don’t want you to telegraph the turns to your pursuers. Right.”

She spun the wheel, and found herself on a suburban street, more populated than her own. Her pursuers were still not far behind, and closer every second. The engine whined as she flattened the accelerator, but it made almost no difference to her speed. Her car was built to be environmentally friendly, not to win in a high-speed chase. She assumed that men who stormed houses must have cars built for speed.

“They’re gaining,” she ground out.

“Shit,” said Paul. Christine couldn’t agree more.

“What do I do?”

“Left!” he barked. She turned again, tires squealing. Her heart plummeted for a moment as she fishtailed along the road. The vehicle was out of her control for just a few seconds before she ruthlessly tamed it.

The brief error had cost her. A dark car, leading two others, was inches away from her bumper. Christine tried to pull away, but it was no use. The lead car gunned its engine and drew even with her for a split second. The tinted windows of the car prevented her from seeing inside. But the creeping sensation ghosting over her skin told her the driver was watching her. A shiver trickled down her spine.

The car jumped forward, overtaking her. It positioned itself just ahead of her, blocking her path.

She looked left. Another of the cars was parallel with hers, risking any oncoming traffic by driving in the wrong lane. A glance in the rearview mirror confirmed that the third car was behind her.

“There’s a right turn coming up,” said Paul’s soothing voice through the speaker.

Christine took a deep breath, trying to steady herself. Her hands tightened on the wheel.

“Turn!” She did, bumping over the kerb before pressing the accelerator to the floor.

The car that had been behind her managed to follow at the last minute, tires squealing. Within seconds, it closed in on her. She felt a slight tap against her bumper as it nudged her. The car rocked. Her heart leapt into her throat.

He had her. Whoever was driving that car could cause an accident without any danger to themselves. Christine was powerless against it.

But then, the car braked, backing off. It settled a car length behind her, seemingly content to follow her. The other two cars had caught up, but none made a move towards her.

“Left,” Paul said again. Christine followed his direction without comment, her back tires screeching.

“Why aren’t they gaining again?” she asked.

Paul grunted. “Looks like they’ve got new orders. They’ve probably been reminded their instructions are to capture—not kill—you. Which explains why they only fired at the body of the car.”

If it was at all possible, Christine’s heartbeat sped up even more. “Why?”

“Don’t know. We’ll discuss it later. You still need to lose them.” A brief pause. “Right.”

She spun the wheel, and wrenched her focus back to her driving. The defensive driving classes she’d taken a few years ago had not prepared her for this. It required her full attention. She couldn’t afford to have her mind wandering into speculations.

Five minutes later, Christine was in the centre of the city, dodging the few cars that found themselves on the road at this time of night. She glanced at the clock on her dashboard. 2:24am Christ. Not even half an hour had passed since her life had completely upended itself.

Her pursuers were falling behind a little now that there were more streets for her to wind through. Paul directed her with absolute precision. He gave her only as much time as she needed to make the turn, and no more.

“Left.”

The car skidded a little on a wet patch as she turned. She wasn’t sure what had caused it, as there hadn’t been any rain lately. She hit the kerb with her rear tire, bouncing before righting herself. The engine throbbed with strain.

“Shit,” she muttered, then felt an immediate hit of lapsed-Catholic guilt.

“You’re doing real well,” Paul said in an encouraging voice. Christine was oddly soothed.

The orange glow of the streetlights bathed her path. The whoosh of her tires on the road was the only sound she could hear.

She made a few more turns as Paul instructed, running a few red lights in the process. Christine was grateful that the late hour meant that she didn’t endanger anyone else.

“I think we’ve lost them,” Paul’s voice murmured. Christine glanced in the rear view mirror to see he was right. The black SUVs that had been glued to her trail had disappeared.

“Thank God,” she breathed, easing her foot off the accelerator.

“Don’t slow down too much,” Paul told her, still tense. “Keep to the speed limit. Don’t relax until you’re safe.”

Her racing heartbeat returned full force. Just for a moment, she’d felt the relief of safety. But he was right; it was an illusion.

She cruised the streets. Crossing the river, the bare neighbourhoods she’d left morphed into lush green suburbs. He was taking her east, skirting the edges of the Portsboro central business district, with its skyscrapers and high-rises. While during the day the city centre teemed with besuited workers, at this time of night it would only be populated by a few drunk stragglers.

As she drove, Christine checked every few seconds to make sure the cars weren’t following her. Paul still directed her, just with less urgency, giving her plenty of time to turn.

“I have so many questions,” she said into the darkness.

“Like I said. Later.”

“Are you directing me to where you are?”

He hesitated. “No.”

“Then where am I going?” Panic itched at her, leaking into her voice. Paul had saved her life. She felt attached to him. But going to an unknown location, alone? The thought made it difficult to breathe.

“A safe house that the company I work for owns.”

“What do you do for a living?” she asked, partially to sate her curiosity, and partially to distract herself.

“This and that. The company does all kinds of jobs. I do most of the surveillance.”

“Is that why you were watching me?”

He was silent for a moment, and Christine wished she could see his face. She sensed that he was debating how much to tell her. Or maybe deciding if he should lie to her.

“Sort of,” he replied.

“Well?” she demanded.

He directed her to pull up around the back of an apartment building up ahead. Christine complied, pulling into an empty space near the back of the lot, but didn’t make a move to exit the car. Trees hung over the surrounding fences, blocking out much of the moonlight. The car was dark, shadowed.

“Go inside,” he ordered.

“Not until you answer me,” she said, feeling bolder now that the immediate danger had passed.

He made one of those frustrated sounds again, almost a growl.

“I’ll tell you when you get inside.”

She shook her head, then wondered if he could see her. “No. I don’t know what I’m walking into. You need to give me something.”

He was silent for a long moment. She could hear his short breaths coming through the speakers.

“Fine,” he ground out. His displeasure was evident in the way the word sounded like it’d come through a clenched jaw. “Someone hired us to watch you, but not as protection. We were meant to ascertain whether you knew certain information. They thought you might be a corporate spy.”

“Who’s ‘they’?”

“Your employer.”

“Mr. Disik?”

“His company.”

“I wasn’t aware he had one,” she whispered. She felt small compared to the vast swathe of information she didn’t know. “Why do they think I’m a spy? I never did anything. I’ve only worked there for two weeks.”

“He’s retired, though still listed on the board of directors. We were hired to watch you, see if you met with anyone suspicious.”

“And?”

“Nothing. If we hadn’t found anything after three weeks, the job would have been over. You would never have known we were there.”

“But then tonight happened.”

“Yeah. And I broke just about all the rules we have in getting you out of there.”

“Saving my life was against the rules?” Her heart hammered.

He cleared his throat. “No revealing ourselves to the suspect. No direct contact with the suspect. No interference in any operation, meet, or other unusual activity. No revealing that we have access to our own personal spy satellite…” He sounded like he was ticking each item off on his fingers.

“Right,” she murmured. She squeezed her eyes shut as tears sprang in them. “Well, thank you.”

“Don’t thank me yet. You’re not inside and safe.”

She smiled at his grumble. “One last question, and then I promise I’ll go in.” Her heartbeat was slowing to a more normal rate.

He grunted, and Christine took it as a yes. “Why did you break the rules for me?” The words came out in a whisper.

He was silent for a long time. Christine once again got the feeling that he was considering whether he should lie.

She didn’t know this stranger. But he’d helped her through the most dramatic event of her life. Now, it was just the two of them in the enclosed cabin of her car, his voice surrounding her in the early morning quiet. Like a confessional. It all combined to weave an unexpected spell of trust and intimacy between them. His answer mattered to her.

He sighed, and it sounded pained. “From what I could tell from my—our—research and surveillance, you didn’t deserve whatever they had planned for you. Or, at least, I hoped you didn’t.”

“Will you get in trouble for disobeying?”

“That’s another question.”

She grinned, and the expression felt strange on her face after the events of the last hour or so. “Humour me,” she told him.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “Could go either way. Now will you come inside? It’s on the fourteenth floor. Apartment two.”

She almost laughed at the playful petulance in his voice. “Yeah,” she said, to put him out of his misery. She gathered her things and got out of the car. It wasn’t until the frigid air hit her that she realised she was wearing her pyjamas. She tugged at the hem of the shorts, fruitlessly attempting to cover more of her legs. It had been a while since she’d showed that much skin in public. At least she’d had the foresight to put shoes on.

All the energy drained out of her at once. Christine felt bereft, shivering alone in a strange, unfamiliar parking lot. She trudged inside, almost uncaring about what might await her.

 

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