Treasure Hunters by Caitlyn Willows

TreasureHunters

 

TREASURE HUNTERS
by Caitlyn Willows
Romantic Suspense
Copyrright 2005, 2017

Crushed by the emotional and financial burden as guardian of five children, newspaper reporter Rika Kiley struggles to make ends meet. And just when she’d met the most incredible man.

Ryan Fletcher isn’t about to let anything come between him and the woman of his dreams. He’ll do whatever is necessary to help keep Rika’s family together. Why can’t Rika realize and accept what he’s offering?

A two-million-dollar sailing race is the answer to Rika’s problems. But it is the real deal or a scam? With Ryan right by her side, she is determined to find out. Now all they have to do is survive a grueling race when someone else is just as determined to see them dead.

Author Note: This is updated version of a story originally released in 2005.

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REVIEWS

FIVE BLUE RIBBONS!!!A truly magnificent story… It pulled at my heart strings when Ryan lets Rika know that he is her partner in all ways, even facing the responsibilities of raising her family. No matter the dangers or challenges Ryan and Rica face their love just seems to grow stronger. I could not wait to turn the page to see how their unconditional love and devotion to each other would help them face their next challenge. This story is so fantastic I cannot wait to see what Ms. Willows comes up with next. ~Briana Burress, Romance Junkies

FIVE STARS!!! [A] scorching contemporary erotic romance…. The sex is hotter than the sands on a Florida beach in August. The scenes are beautiful to read, there are a lot of them and you will be reaching for every toy you own. Treasure Hunters is a fully developed book with great characters and really sizzling lusty sex. ~Julie Esparza, Just Erotic Romance Reviews

RECOMMENDED READ!!! FIVE ANGELS!!! Ms. Willows has given us another great book to sink our teeth into. The suspense will keep the reader on the edge of their seat, biting their nails, and waiting to see what happens next. The sex between these two is so hot and steamy that the reader will be looking for the first snow bank they can find. Rika and Ryan are both strong and loving characters that readers will have an easy time identifying with them. If you love a good romance with suspense, then this is the book I highly recommend you read. ~Donna, Fallen Angel Reviews

FOUR STARS!!! The chemistry between Rika and Ryan is hot from the beginning to end. TREASURE HUNTERS is fast moving and entertaining story with its passion and suspense. ~Cassandra Buckles, Coffee Time Romance

FOUR UNICORNS!!! This story was a really good read. The story keeps you on your toes wondering what was going to happen next. This author out did herself with this book. It has it all, hot sex, love and oh yeah Hot sex again. ~Nicole, Enchanted In Romance

EXCERPT

Ryan brushed his thumb over her silky cheek. “Suppose you can wrangle a week’s vacation out of that editor of yours? There are a couple of beaches in Hawaii with our names on them.”

Her eyes brightened. “What about your work?”

He shrugged a shoulder. “Man can’t work day and night, especially if he has a beautiful woman waiting for him.” He danced his other hand up her ribs. “Besides, I was thinking a weekend back here at least once month might be in order. I hate the idea of being away from you for six months.”

Rika laced her fingers around his neck. “I’d like that very much. Who knows? Maybe I can manage a long weekend every month too. I’ve got a little tucked away, and there’s always plastic.”

Ryan wanted to cheer. They were on the same page. Not that he liked the idea of her going into debt for him. He’d see she didn’t. But—damn—she wanted to be with him as much as he wanted to be with her. This was it. She was the one.

“Why don’t you grab our wine and we can plan.” She dropped kisses along his jaw.

Ryan captured her lips in a deep kiss, then pulled away. “Be right back.” He kissed her all the way down her body.

After tossing the spent condom in the trash can beside her dresser, Ryan walked on to the kitchen. The telephone blasted out a ring, startling him.

“Want me to get that?” he asked.

“No, let it go. It’s probably Mom about going shopping tomorrow. Mom can truly shop till she drops.”

He grabbed the bottle of wine and their glasses, listening as the answering machine picked up. There was a choked sound, then a man’s voice.

“Damn it, Rika. Where the hell are you? It’s Andy. Mom and Dad…” He smothered what sounded like a sob. “Becky…Dan… There was a car wreck. They’re dead, Rika. They’re all dead.”

Ryan stared in dumbstruck silence for what seemed like hours, searching for the words to tell the woman he was falling in love with news no one should have to hear.

“What’s taking so long?” she called out. “Are you talking to my mom?”

He wanted to cry. Setting the wine aside, he returned to the bedroom. Rika sat up the second she saw him. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

Ryan sat beside her, pulling her hand into his, forcing himself to meet her gaze. “Honey, that was Andy…”

*          *          *

Rika sat on the edge of her parents’ bed and fingered the diamond solitaire necklace at her throat—a Christmas gift from Ryan. More guilt. She hadn’t gotten him a thing. It was all she could do to make sure the kids had what they needed for Christmas. He’d brushed it off by saying she’d had much more important things to worry about, like five children who were suddenly under her guardianship. If only he knew how bad things really were.

She blinked back tears. That was something she was determined to hide from him. Knowing Ryan as she now did, he’d try to fix it all. That was hardly fair to him.

He’d been a godsend to her these last two weeks—helping her with funeral arrangements, dealing with the parade of people and sympathetic phone calls, sitting by her side in court while she got guardianship of her sister, youngest brother, nephew, and two nieces. He’d even had their Christmas dinner catered by Fletcher’s. Everywhere she went, everything she had to do, all she needed was to turn and his shoulder was there.

Ryan loved her. He didn’t have to say it, Rika knew. She loved him too. That’s why it made this so much harder to do. She had no choice.

“Ryan’s here.”

Rika glanced up at her twenty-one-year-old brother. People didn’t believe she and Andy were related. His hair was golden brown, his eyes a brown that merely hinted at green depths. The only other sibling who’d had red hair was Becky, and Becky was gone. She hadn’t even passed that trait on to her three children. Rika was the odd one now. All the rest looked like Andy.

She had to protect him too. He deserved the same opportunities Rika and Becky had had in life. He didn’t need to know Rika had spent every dime, and then some, on hospital bills and the funerals. The fools hadn’t even had health insurance and forget life insurance.

“Thanks.”

“You’re going to do something stupid, aren’t you?”

She wanted to laugh. God knew, she wanted to laugh. The truth hurt too much. “Yes, I probably am.”

“Then maybe you need to do it at his place. I can watch things here.”

Rika shook her head. She’d made her decision, painful though it was. It was best to get it over with. She forced herself to stand, then prayed her legs would hold her. “I’ll talk to him on the patio.”

Andy muttered something under his breath. Rika strongly suspected he was calling her an idiot and lacing a few curse words in there as well. If he only knew how much this was breaking her heart.

Blinking back tears, she walked into a living room sprawled with bodies. Ryan sat in her father’s recliner, flanked by her young nieces. Kristi and Amy adored him. What child wouldn’t? He talked to them on their level, paid attention to what they had to say. She’d never in a million years forget how they’d cuddled under his arms after the funeral, telling him their fears, crying until they’d fallen asleep.

Yep, she was stupid all right. But how fair was it to ask him to take on this burden?

He smiled when she entered the room. That smile faltered when he saw the look on her face. He knew. Rika buried her face in her hands and started to cry. In an instant, his arms were around her. He kissed the top of her head and drew her out the back door.

“You’re scaring the hell out of me, honey. Please don’t say what I think you’re going to say.”

That made her cry all the more. “I have to, Ryan. Relationships take time and work—”

“But I—”

“Please don’t say it. Don’t make this harder than it is.” She burrowed deeper into his arms, weeping against his chest. “I’ve got five children to take care of. How do I possibly find time for…”

“I’m here for you, Rika. I can help. We can do this.”

She glanced up at the pain in his eyes and damned the light from the kitchen window. “You’ll be in Hawaii for six months. I’ll be here. I can’t just pick up and go. This can’t work.”

“And I say it can. Damn it, I don’t want this to end. I need you. I want you. I l—”

She clamped her fingers over his lips. “Please don’t. It’s not fair to you to ask you to take a backseat. It’s not fair to you to ask you to put up with all of this.”

He kissed her fingers and pulled her hand into his. “Even if I want to?”

“It won’t work. Even the best of established relationships would have a hell of a time. You’ll be gone for six months. It’s best to end it now.”

“Just like that.”

She forced herself to nod. “It kills me to say it, but…yes.”

“This isn’t over, Rika. It can work. It will work.”

If he kept this up, she’d cave. Why couldn’t he understand it was better to get this over rather than drag the heartache out?

“Give me a chance. Give us a chance.” He kissed the curve of her neck at that spot he knew weakened her resolve. Desire welled up with her sigh. “Matt or Kevin can take over the job in Hawaii.”

Rika forced her senses back in order. “You leave tomorrow. How is that fair to them to have them uproot their lives and families at the last minute?” Reluctantly, she stepped from the warmth of his arms. “You have responsibilities just like I do, and people who’ve depended on you a lot longer than I have. Please…just go.”

She reached to unclasp the necklace. His hands stopped her.

“Don’t. There’s enough pain in my heart right now without you doing that.”

Tears drifted down her face. Ryan kissed her lips, then brushed by her and left. Rika waited until she heard his Cherokee start up, then sank to the patio chair and cried what was left of her heart out.

She didn’t know how long she sat there in the cool night air—long after Andy and their next younger sister, Robyn, had put the little ones to bed. She didn’t have the will to move. Her heart had walked out the door with Ryan. Yes, it was her doing, but that made it all the worse—not only had she broken her own heart, but that of a wonderful man. She heard the back door open and half prayed he stood there. It was Robyn instead.

A clear match to Andy, the seventeen-year-old held out the cordless. “Ryan’s on the phone. Apparently, you’re not answering your cell.”

Rika’s shaking fingers wrapped around it. Robyn ducked back inside.

“You don’t give up easily, do you?”

“Not when there’s every reason not to. We’re good together.”

He was so right about that. “With everything the way it is, I don’t see how we can survive the time and distance…for one thing. For the other—”

“Let me prove to you we can weather this. Every relationship has its tests. Ours just came a little sooner than we might have liked.”

“How can you prove—”

“Find a private room. Go in it and lock the door.”

He was going to wear down what little resistance she had left by talking. She should hang up now and end it. It seemed too cruel an act. Ryan deserved better than that.

“All right.” Back inside, she debated on whether to use the bathroom or her parents’ room. With only one bathroom for all of them, the bedroom was the better option for a few minutes of privacy. Ignoring Andy and Robyn, she walked inside, then shut and locked the door behind her.

“Are you there?” he asked.

“Yes.” Her voice came out on a ragged sigh.

“Is the door locked?”

“Yes.”

“No chance of interruptions?”

“The children are asleep. Andy and Robyn are still up.”

“Good. Touch your breasts for me, honey.”

Rika gasped. “I—”

“Close your eyes and touch them. Pretend your hands are mine. Pretend my lips are around your nipples.”

She sank to her knees. “My bra—”

“Unhook it. You know how you love my hands on your tits.”

“I do,” she breathlessly replied. One hand shook as she released the hook. Once free, she closed her eyes and cupped her breast.

“Tell me how it feels, sweetheart.”

“Soft, hot. It…it wants your mouth.”

“And it’s there, wrapped around your nipple.” He sucked in a breath. “God, I love how it gets hard under my tongue. I love how you arch into my mouth, begging for more with those sweet sounds you make.”

Rika swallowed her shyness. “And your dick feels so hard against my…against my…”

“Say it, sweetheart. Say how much your pussy wants my cock.”

“Is it in your hand? Are you stroking it slowly?”

“Just like you would, honey. Touch your clit. Play with it. Tell me how sweet and swollen it is.”

Rika shoved her hand into her jeans. “I’m so wet.”

“Who makes you wet?”

She sucked in a breath as she slowly massaged her clit. “You, Ryan. You make me wet and horny. I want you fucking me all the time. Are you hard for me?”

“Always. I’m going to come fast, honey. That’s what you do for me. But I want to wait for you. I want to hear you come. I want us to come together.”

“I’m close. I’m so close.”

“Do it, sweetheart. Give your pussy what it wants.”

Her fingers swirled faster. “I’m going to come.” The moment exploded on her. Rika bit back the urge to cry out. Hearing him come on the other end of the line heightened her release. The feeling subsided by small degrees.

“I love you, Rika,” he said through pants of breath. “I love you and I’m not going to let you go. Give us time, honey. Please.”

“I love you, Ryan, so much. But—”

“No buts, sweetheart. Time. Please.”

She found herself nodding, then realized he couldn’t see. “Time…okay.”

“I think I’ll see about getting us headsets.”

She laughed lightly. Maybe they could get beyond this. Ryan being gone might work to her benefit. She’d be able to get things under control without him seeing her implode. “I should come over and give you a proper send off. Think you’re up to it?”

“I’m crushed you’d ask that.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet. I’m on my way.”

Rika punched the off key and stared at the phone. A lot could happen in six months. She was panicked, that’s all. There was no reason to drag Ryan down with her. She could handle this just fine. He’d never need to know.

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Marriage Committee by Catherine Snodgrass

MarriageCommittee

THE MARRIAGE COMMITTEE
by Catherine Snodgrass
Historical Romance
2003

Former Texas Ranger Paul Harrington is now a preacher trying to amend his former errant ways. It’s a constant battle to keep his former self from surfacing. He fears that giving into passion will open the door to the man he used to be. The role of traditional wife isn’t something that appeals to Belle Marshall. As the town healer and manager of the boarding house, independence is hers. A husband will only get in the way. The townsfolk have other ideas, and when they form a committee to find Belle a husband, well, that’s something Paul just won’t have.

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~ Reviews ~

FIVE ANGELS! Expected the unexpected in this story as anything can and will happen. Not only are you involved completely in this book right away, but the plot grabs you holding you spellbound from beginning to end… Strong and independent yet endearing characters pull you into this tale, so without fail make sure this book is one of those that grace your must-read list. If you are looking for a story that is a refreshing romantic tale or one that will enthrall you into a world of yesterday gone by, this is the book for you! ~Wendi, Fallen Angel Reviews

FIVE HEARTS! The characters of Belle and Paul are completely captivating people who capture the reader’s attention from first reading about them… I loved this story and all the characters in it, especially Paul. This book is very enjoyable reading about a community of very colorful characters. I recommend it to everyone. ~Ellen, The Romance Studio

FIVE CUPS! Ms. Snodgrass…has made the hero and heroine such wonderful characters you cannot help but turn the pages. I loved this story, it was refreshing and, though a lot of it was playful, the characters shared their deep inner fears and dreams with the reader. Well done. ~Mary, Coffee Time Romance

FIVE ANGELS! Fallen Angel Reviews Recommended Read. The people of Cottonwood Bend wiggle their way into your heart and refuse to leave. You’re heart breaks for Paul and what his past has forced him to endure. You understand Belle’s need for independence and her struggle with her feelings for Paul. The plot is solid with twists that keep you turning the pages. The emotion and friendship that abounds will have you coming back time and again to visit. This story is about past mistakes, change, love, friendship and new beginnings. Catherine Snodgrass has weaved a tale that you won’t soon forget. ~Cindy, Fallen Angel Reviews

5 HEARTS!!! The story has given the reader a host of possibilities and conclusions yet the real answer is one worth reading the book for. It is a romance that should and hopefully will go down as one of this year’s best and I for one am happy I read it. For those of you who love romance novels and make no mistake this is one in every sense of the word – do read this one. You wont regret it. ~Louise Riveiro-Mitchell, The Romance Studio

Catherine Snodgrass has created a down-to-earth, thoroughly enchanting historical romance in THE MARRIAGE COMMITTEE. The earthy characters practically jump off the page, and the emotional aspect of the story is so realistic that readers will feel as if they’ve gotten a hidden peek into the mind of a good friend. Sweet, with just a hint of spice in the love scenes, THE MARRIAGE COMMITTEE will hold your attention until the very last page. ~Janean Nusz, The Road to Romance

FOUR HEARTS!!! a fascinating read and is highly recommended for historical romance fans. ~Penny, Love Romances

THE MARRIAGE COMMITTEE is a madcap attempt to push two people together who are perfect for each other. Too bad they don’t see it that way. When the town gets together to marry them off, things get crazy. Matchmaking, romance, sneakiness, and jealousy are just a few things that make this story amusing and sweet. When I finished this book, I felt like the characters were all real people that I interacted with on a daily basis. Ms. Snodgrass’s ability to create life-like characters that step from the pages and make themselves real to the reader is a gift. If you enjoy a lighthearted romance with light love scenes and a sweet story, you will enjoy this book. ~Ansley Velarde, The Road to Romance

THE MARRIAGE COMMITTEE is a delightful excursion to the wilds of 1880 Texas. The author incorporates fully realized characters into a fast-paced and engaging narrative full of twists and turns. Paul is an exceptional hero, complex, wounded and wrestling with his demons as well as his passions. Belle is a strong heroine but flawed by her own indecision with regards to Paul. Together their passion is HOT. ~Melissa Fowler, The Romance Readers Connection.

4 SLIPPERS!!! A wonderful read. It is fast paced from the starting gate, delightfully written, and exciting. There are twists and turns that keep the reader involved and guessing and the plot is beautifully resolved at the end. I would highly recommend this story and am looking forward to reading more by this wonderful writer. ~Maci Walker, Novelspot.

5 FLAMES!!! COLLECTOR’S TREASURE. REVIEWER’S CHOICE. [G]rabs you from the first paragraph, and won’t let you go. The characters are true to life and the dialogue sizzles. The story is compelling and you’ll find yourself rooting for Belle and Paul with every word. The writing is crisp and first-rate. This is an exciting, suspenseful historical romance that will keep you up all night to finish it. Don’t pass it by! ~Elizabeth Delisi, Word Museum

EXCERPT

Texas, 1881

Belle Marshall forced the grief to the deepest part of her heart. Doc had lived a full life. He had been an old man. His health had been failing for years. He had a right to pass on. To continue living with the pain he suffered…Well, she wouldn’t wish that on her worst enemy…if she had one. Why wish it for a man she admired beyond words? Still, losing him, no matter how much she knew it was coming, hurt more than she could bear.

She dared a look around. It seemed the whole town was gathered at the graveyard today, except for the Tanner bunch. The cowhands were off with the herd, headed north to Dodge months ago. Her sister and the rest of the Tanners had left for a visit to Virginia last month. They’d be gone until the end of this month. Belle had missed them before they’d been gone a day, but now she ached for their company. She felt lost without them, even in this crowd.

Her gaze wandered from person to person. Everyone had fulfilled one of Doc’s last wishes—no one wore black. He’d wanted bright, happy colors and he’d got them. Belle had chosen her pink gingham dress with white lace at the hem, neck, and cuffs. Doc had always said it made her look as bright and pretty as one of Mrs. Freebush’s roses. Everyone else looked plenty colorful too.

Mr. Cyrus’s vest matched the canary yellow in his wife’s dress. Mrs. Cyrus fingered the dark green ribbon around her wide waist. Florine Brady had chosen purple satin shot with cream panels. Her husband’s string tie was cut from the same cloth. Very nice. Bright. Happy. Doc would have been pleased.

The only exception was Paul Harrington. The preacher was limited in his wardrobe. But he honored Doc’s wishes the best way he could—with three daisies threaded through his lapel.

She shifted her gaze back to the Cyruses. Seeing the old couple lean on each other in their grief wrenched Belle’s heart. She knew what they were thinking—“We’re next.” That’s what Mrs. Cyrus had said the night before over Doc’s body. Rather than think her selfish, Belle understood the fear and had wrapped an arm around her. It had helped to ease her own fears at the time. But in the warmth of this beautiful summer day, watching the Cyruses support each other, their light blue eyes misty with unshed tears, Belle’s agony doubled.

A breeze rustled the leaves in the cottonwoods edging the perimeter of the graveyard. Belle closed her eyes and turned her face into it, shutting out everything but the sound of Paul Harrington’s voice. She could listen to him talk for hours and never grow tired of hearing him. Not too deep, not high pitched, just perfect. He caught a person’s attention from the first word and held it, which was good for a preacher. Not too many people fell asleep during his sermons.

Belle wondered if it was because he was a young preacher. Most of the ones she’d known in the past were old, definitely set in their ways. They’d tote their bibles around, quoting Gospel in that holier-than-thou manner, and set themselves above their parishioners. Not Paul. He was…well, normal.

He’d make a good father. Belle’s eyes flashed open. Where in the world had that come from? Not that she hadn’t thought it before. But here? When she was burying her mentor? Doc would have gotten a big chuckle out of that. In fact, he’d have laughed so hard he’d have set off a coughing spell.

Not one to mince words, Doc had never hesitated to point out Belle’s interest in the young reverend. She’d be lying if she said that wasn’t so. Thank goodness Doc kept his opinions to himself. Seeing that know-it-all look in his old eyes every time Paul came around was bad enough. Worse, because each time Doc would say, “That fella’s sure sweet on you.”

Belle didn’t know if that was so or not. Mothers in town certainly noticed his availability. They took every opportunity to parade their daughters in front of him and offer their help at church. But it was Belle he turned to when it came time to organize social events and committees. Yet, in the three years they’d known each other, Paul never so much as hinted their relationship was more than friendship. And he certainly never spoke for her.

It was just as well. Belle had no place in her life for a husband, especially a preacher. They expected traditional wives, and Belle wanted more out of life than that. Not that she didn’t want a husband and children one day, but she wanted a man who understood she had needs beyond the boundaries of marriage. As far as she knew, there wasn’t a man like that who existed for her, certainly not Paul Harrington. He was about as traditional as a person could get.

She let the sound of his voice drift into her soul while she marveled at the way the sunlight made the gold in his light blond hair sparkle. She’d seen him with his shirtsleeves rolled up, his shoulder muscles flexed against the material while he leant a hand at a barn raising. He certainly wasn’t afraid of hard work. His skin was a light bronze from hours in the sun. What woman wouldn’t be interested?

But Doc had opened a world to her that Belle could have only imagined before. She might not be a doctor in the true sense of the word, but everyone knew she’d been Doc’s eyes, ears, and hands these last three years. Belle doubted anyone would call her on it now. She was all the town had. A husband would take her away from them.

Maybe that’s why no mothers trotted their sons before her. Not that Belle would have noticed. She was always too focused on her work. And she found Paul too much of a distraction as it was. Or maybe Doc wasn’t as quiet about his notions as she’d hoped.

Belle’s gaze drifted Paul’s way. He cradled his bible with those marvelously long fingers. Fingers that could dry a child’s tears with a tenderness that tugged at Belle’s heart. She’d seen those fingers at work and knew they were calloused. But they could right a bow in a little girl’s hair with as much skill as they wielded a hammer. And all Belle could wonder was how they’d feel brushed against her cheek.

Paul closed the bible, drew in a breath, and looked right at her. His green eyes mesmerized her, held her in place. They were the color of life itself. She couldn’t have moved if a stampede of longhorns were headed her way.

“Belle?” he said.

“Yes?” The word came out in a choked whisper. He wanted something of her.

He glanced toward the grave. Belle’s gaze followed. Of course. She was the closest thing Doc had to a relative. By that right alone, she was to toss the first handful of dirt on his coffin.

Heat rose to her cheeks. She was ashamed of herself, letting her mind wander in sinful pursuit while they were burying a good man.

She imagined Doc’s hearty laughter over that, his teasing afterward when they were alone. Tears flooded her eyes. She wouldn’t cry here. Please not here. She simply couldn’t deal with the sympathy of others right now. She had to hold herself together. God, how she was going to miss the old man.

Clenching her jaw against the grief, Belle squatted down and blindly grabbed a fistful of dark brown earth. Stepping carefully to the edge of the grave, she opened her palm and let the dirt drift from her grasp. It fell to the coffin below like a gentle rain, so much easier to deal with than hearing the clods plunk down harshly.

When the last was gone, Belle stared at her palm. She’d forgotten to take off her gloves. A dark brown stain blotched the ivory. It would take a lot of scrubbing to get it out. Maybe she’d leave it as a reminder of this day, not that she needed any.

Someone else stepped forward. The smack of dirt on the coffin jerked Belle from her daydream. She couldn’t watch this, but she couldn’t walk away either. She had an obligation to fulfill.

Another person edged forward—Florine, a businesswoman in her own right. She owned one of the best bars in town and did a good job of keeping her girls in line. Belle supposed she had to—Florine was married to Sheriff Bill Brady. Their professions made them an unlikely couple, but they looked like they belonged together—both tall, auburn-haired, slender, with a businesslike approach to life that rarely wavered. No one dared call him Bill or Billy. It was Sheriff or Brady. And God help the soul who used the name Flo. Florine would cut them dead with a glare.

Given her own full name—Mary-Belle Marshall—Belle sympathized with her. It had just taken longer, and the chance to leave home, for Belle to make her wishes known. She never wanted to be Mary-Belle again. That was the past, a different person, someone Belle longed to put far behind her.

Florine draped an arm around Belle and gave her shoulders a squeeze. “He was quite an old fella, wasn’t he?”

Belle allowed herself a smile. “Yes, he was. I’ll miss him.”

But she wouldn’t miss the coughing that wracked his body each time he tired himself. Or that rattle in his chest when the days grew cold; a hack no doctoring seemed to cure. Or seeing him struggle to move his aching bones across a room. No one knew how much he’d suffered, but Belle and she would take that news, that promise of silence, to her own grave.

Brady slipped his hand through Florine’s arm. “You ladies might want to step back. The edge don’t look too stable.”

Belle glanced at her feet. Sure enough a steady shower of dirt drifted down. Florine moved away. Belle followed suit, taking a giant step back. Her heel caught the edge of her dress. She toppled forward and felt the ground crumble beneath her.

The mourners gasped. Belle fanned her arms, then squeezed her eyes shut as she fell into Doc’s grave. A hard body slammed against her, knocking the wind from her lungs. Arms wrapped tight around her waist and cushioned her fall.

They hit the coffin hard. Belle heard an “oof” from her hero and opened her eyes. Paul lay beneath her. His face twisted with pain. It passed quickly, yet neither of them dared to move.

“Are you hurt?” he finally asked.

“No. Thanks to you. But I can’t say the same for you.”

He pulled in a ragged breath. “I’m good. Just hit it harder than I wanted. I need a second.”

“I’m afraid I’ve caused you to break something.”

“No…really, Belle. Just be still.”

She didn’t like the sound of his voice. It was strained, like agony tore through him. She glanced into his face and saw him staring beyond her into the sky. Belle doubted he was focused on anything.

She shifted to her forearms. Paul grunted, grabbed her waist, and hoisted them both to their feet. “Brady—”

“I got her.” Before Belle could protest, Paul had her by the waist again. He lifted, Brady caught her under the arms, and she was on solid ground once more.

Florine and Mrs. Cyrus fussed over her, brushing the dirt from her pink dress. Belle let them. Only a good washing could save this dress now. She watched Paul leap from the grave unassisted, and marveled at his agility.

“At least no one’s hurt.” A small tsk ended Mrs. Cyrus’s sentence.

“Only our pride.” Paul flicked dirt from his trousers. “Mr. Tucker, you’ll be glad to know you’ve made a sound coffin. It survived the weight of both our bodies full force. Didn’t give at all.”

Mr. Tucker’s wattle jiggled with his nod. “We should get on with it then before someone else decides to test it out. Been ages since I’ve seen ground this unstable. Must be from all the rain we’ve had this year.”

“Hold up, Tuck.” Brady jerked his head toward main street. “We got riders coming.”

One by one people turned for a look. Sure enough a group of six men made their way up the main street of Cottonwood Bend.

“Texas rangers.” Paul brushed dirt from his sleeve and squared his shoulders, but his narrow gaze never left the approaching men.

Belle shaded her eyes and studied the men. How could Paul tell who they were? Rangers wore no badges. Only the officers carried papers saying who they were. These men looked like tired cowpokes or, worse yet, a band of thieves creeping into town.

Their hats drooped from days exposed to the elements. Dust, dirt, and sweat etched stories into the fabric. The wide brims hid the men’s faces from the sun. Their shoulders sagged from exhaustion. And the horses looked like it was all they could do to put one hoof in front of the other.

They ignored the shops and houses along the way. Didn’t look at the beautiful little flower gardens behind picket fences. Nor did the hitching posts or shaded boardwalks hold any appeal. They kept on a straight coarse for the graveyard.

“Stay here.”

Paul hurried toward the riders. Brady was close behind. They met the rangers at the steps of the small church not twenty feet away. Several of the riders were wounded, one so badly he could barely seat his horse. Instinct urged Belle to rush to their aid. Caution kept her in place.

“Can we help you, gentlemen?” Paul asked.

They stared at him, eyes wide, mouths agape. Someone laughed, a hollow sound that echoed his weariness.

The leader swung down. “Well…I’ll be switched.”

He tilted his hat back with the point of his finger. His dark whiskers matched his eyes. Weary as he looked, amusement still danced in them.

“This just about takes the cake.” He shook his head and gave a half-hearted chuckle, then waved his hand to the men behind him. “We got wounded. We need a doctor.”

Heads turned Belle’s way. Yes…it was her responsibility now. She wasted no time seeing to it.

“Get them over to the office. I’ll run ahead and get things ready.” Belle lifted her skirts, ready to dash off.

A man on horseback stared down at her. He held his left arm close to his chest. Dried blood soaked his sleeve. “Her? She’s the doc?” He snorted. “Ain’t no woman gonna doctor me.” For emphasis, he spat in the dirt.

Belle lifted her chin and met his glare. “We’ll see how you feel when the infection gets so bad you’re ready to have that arm cut off.” She gave him a wicked smile. “Don’t worry, I’ll let you pick between the clean saw and the dirty one we use to butcher livestock.”

She shifted her attention to the man next to Paul. “The reverend and the sheriff will show you the way. I’ll want the worst injured first.”

He scratched the dark stubble on his cheek. “That’d be our prisoner. He’s a hard one. Can’t say his life is worth saving.”

Belle drew a deep breath. He held up his palm before her lecture saw the light of day. She tucked it away. She had a feeling she’d need it again real soon.

“But we’ll get him to you, ma’am.” A hint of a smile danced on his lips. Belle tried not to take offense. She was a woman in a man’s world. His attitude was typical of those who didn’t know her. She refused to let it keep her from doing her job.

* * *

Paul watched Belle walk away. She had the attention of every man there, even the wounded. And who wouldn’t look at the sway of her skirt as she hurried down the boardwalk? Those trim hips of hers had mesmerized him more times than he could count.

Belle Marshall was by far the most beautiful woman he’d ever met, and Paul had met a lot of women in his time. He was smitten from the instant he’d first seen her three years before. Age and maturity since then made her all the more attractive.

He loved her ready smile. The way her forehead wrinkled between her eyebrows when she concentrated on work. The light that always sparkled in the depths of her light brown eyes. And her hair…It was enough to drive a man insane—dark brown with hints of red when the sun hit it just right. She always wore it up, never down. He craved to know how long it really was. Seeing those few tendrils that often drifted against the back of her long, creamy neck, it was all he could do to keep his fingers from curling around one.

Seeing her today so grief stricken tore at his heart. He longed to hold her close and tell her everything would be all right. Then she’d fallen. His instincts had kicked in. Somehow Paul managed to jump the width of the grave and catch her. He’d realized then what true agony was.

Never had his body reacted so quickly to a woman’s softness. Paul blamed it on the years of abstinence, the years he wanted her. Then she levered herself onto her elbows, pressing her stomach right into his problem area. He’d almost lost it right there—like an untried boy. He couldn’t get her off him fast enough and prayed for something to calm him down before he crawled from the grave.

Paul called himself a fool for loving her. Belle could do a lot better than him. She deserved better. There wasn’t a night or day that passed without him cursing the demons and the past that kept him from letting her know how he felt.

Oh, there was a time when she first arrived where he thought he could. Then the Tanners had run into a bit of trouble and the old Paul, the Paul he fought, the Paul he feared had leaped in to help. It shocked him how quickly the ghost of his former self appeared. Since then he’d done everything in his power to tamp down passion of any kind. He simply could not afford to be that person any more. And now his past had just ridden into town.

Brady was the only one in Cottonwood Bend who knew Paul was a former Texas ranger. And he knew why Paul had switched professions. Brady had accepted the decision and offered Paul the chance of a church in this quiet little town once the former preacher had moved on.

But the men before him now…well, that was a painfully different matter. They might not have known about Paul’s new line of work, but they sure knew what had happened before he’d dropped out of sight. The way they gabbed when liquored up, it wouldn’t be long before the whole town knew. What would they think then of their wonderful, kind, thoughtful reverend?

“Paul, what the hell—”

Paul cut Cal Webster off without so much as a glance. “You’ll find the doctor’s office behind the boarding house on the corner just a block away.” He couldn’t risk talk out here with the whole town gaping at them. Already they whispered among themselves, and Florine and Mrs. Cyrus were headed his way.

Cal stared at him. His faced screwed up in that funny look he always got when something confused him. Paul noticed he hadn’t changed much since he’d seen him four years ago. Of course, it was hard to tell as dirty as they all were from being on the road.

Stony, Clarence, Sid, and Marty still stared at him. But their gaped-mouth astonishment was gone.

Paul glanced at the fifth man on horseback between them. His arms were bound at the wrist. Splotches of blood stained his torn clothing. He slumped lower in the saddle with each second that passed. Marty controlled his reins.

Cal tucked his hat back into place and jerked his head toward Stony. “You heard the good reverend. Get the wounded over there and keep a good eye on Jessop.”

Paul’s lips tightened to a thin line. Which Jessop? Frank? His past was truly slamming him in the face.

Not one for talk, Stony motioned the others on with a flick of his bony hand.

Cal splayed his fingers on his hips, just above his holster. “Sheriff, soon as the little lady’s done with our prisoner we’re going to need a sturdy cell for him.”

Brady hooked his thumbs in his breeches. “He doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere. We’ll let Miss Marshall decide when it’s best to move him.”

Florine edged her way up front. “And if you know what’s good for you, I wouldn’t be calling her little lady around here. People have a lot of respect for her and they won’t take kindly to it.”

Cal’s cheeks reddened, darkening his sun-tanned face. At least he still had the decency to know his place. He dropped his gaze to the patch of grass nestled against the church steps. “We’ll be needing a place for the horses. That stable down the street any good?”

Mrs. Cyrus puffed out her ample chest. “Why, it’s the best in town.”

Not to mention it was the only one in town.

Cal nodded. “And a place for us to bunk. Which boarding house is the best?”

Paul crossed his arms and rocked on his heels. “Depends on what you’re looking for. Busby’s has plenty of room this time of year. It’s a bed and food.” Although it took a strong soul to put up with Mrs. Busby’s sour disposition.

“If it’s whoring you want, Fran’s is the place for you. For the right money, she’ll rent you a room and all the extras that go with it. If you’re looking for a clean bed and good food, then you’ll want Cyrus’s. That’s where you’ll find the doctor’s office. Big two-story house on the corner. White fence, wide porch, yellow trim.”

“Good enough for me.” Cal snagged the reins and hauled himself into the saddle. “We need to talk. Catch up on old times.”

Paul jerked his thumb toward the graveyard. “We’ve got a man to bury. We could use an extra hand.”

Cal glanced that direction. “I’ve buried enough men, Reverend.”

“Then one more shouldn’t hurt you.”

“You oughta know.” He tipped his hat to the ladies, turned his tired horse around, and rode away.

Paul measured each step. Too bad Cal wasn’t on his way out of town.

“Whoring?” Florine flicked the back of his head with her fingers. “What kind of talk is that coming from a preacher?”

He smoothed his hair into place and frowned at her. “One trying to make a point that we don’t want any trouble in our town…from anyone.”

Brady scuffed his boots against that tiny patch of grass. “And trouble’s just what we’re in for if that’s really one of the Jessops they’ve got with them. You know they’ll do anything to get one of their own back.”

And with the Tanner ranch hands and owners gone, the town didn’t have the muscle to protect itself.

Mrs. Cyrus tucked her handkerchief into her sleeve. “Then we’d best be seeing what we can do to help Belle put those rangers on the mend and on their way. Come along, dear.”

“You go on. I’ll be there shortly.” Florine waited until Mrs. Cyrus was halfway down the boardwalk before turning to Paul and Brady. “We’ve got another problem.”

Naturally. Didn’t trouble always come in threes? “What’s that?” Paul asked.

“Several of the women—most of the women are concerned about the—exposure Belle will receive from men now that Doc is gone.”

Brady chuckled. “You mean they’re afraid she’ll see a naked man.”

Florine jabbed an elbow in his ribs. “She’s an innocent young woman.”

Paul snorted. “Who’s been doing Doc’s work for him since she got here. I’m sure she’s gotten a gander at a man by now.” Although the thought didn’t set well with him either.

“But until now, the fine ladies of Cottonwood Bend could convince themselves Doc was handling all the dirty work.” Brady laughed. “Now they can’t lie to themselves any more.”

Florine shot him a glare from the corner of her eye. Gathering her composure, she flashed a sweet smile Paul’s way. “It’s time Belle was married. It’s time you spoke up.”

He stumbled back. A punch to the gut would have shocked him less. Even Brady stopped laughing and stared at his wife in stunned silence. Paul found his voice somewhere in his hip pocket. Using it wasn’t as easy.

“What?” he choked out.

Florine’s mouth tightened. “You heard what I said. People have been talking for years about that puppy dog look you give Belle. They figured you were waiting for her to grow up more. Then they figured you were shy. Now…well, let’s just put in this way, Reverend…”

She smoothed her gloves over each finger and avoided his gaze. “Belle is the best thing this town ever had. We can’t lose her. If seeing her married will ease the minds of some of our more prissy residents, then so be it.” She dropped her hands and nailed him with a look. “So, what’s it going to be?”

Paul’s mouth moved but the words wouldn’t come.

Florine laced her fingers and tapped her thumbs together. “In other words…We will not lose Belle. We can’t afford to. And that’s exactly what will happen if this matter isn’t resolved. First, the women will refuse to let their husbands go to her. Then they’ll refuse. And, finally, the children. You know how people are when they get a notion. So…if you won’t speak up, we’ll find someone who will.”

The hairs on the back of his neck prickled. Anger swooped in. He didn’t respond well to threats of any kind, no matter how well intentioned. He fought a snarl and looked steady into Florine’s amber-colored eyes. “Then I think you’d best be doing that.”

Her eyes widened a fraction. This obviously wasn’t something she anticipated. To her credit, Florine recovered quickly. “Then we shall. In fact, I think we’ll form a marriage committee. With the Fourth of July celebration days away, it should fit in quite nicely. Good day, Reverend Harrington.”

Her footsteps clicked a hasty retreat down the boardwalk.

Brady gave a low whistle. “Boy-howdy, you’ve stirred up a hornet’s nest now. I’m going to have to hear it tonight.”

“I don’t like being cornered.”

The other man clasped him on the shoulder. “And you’re going to like seeing the woman you want married to someone else?”

Paul shrugged his hand away. “It’s a bluff. That’s all.”

Brady stared after his wife. “Florine don’t bluff.” His voice softened. “Come on, Paul. You can’t keep living like this. This isn’t you. You want her. Go after her.”

“I can’t. You know that.”

He slowly shook his head never once breaking eye contact. “No…I don’t suppose you can. Living the life of a martyr has too much appeal.”

Paul’s jaw tightened, so did his fists. “I’ve got a man to bury.” Without another word, he strode back to the graveyard.

Have Mercy by Caitlyn Willows

HaveMercy

HAVE MERCY
by Caitlyn Willows
Contemporary Erotic Romance (BDSM, menage)
December 2017
Cover Artist – Trace Edward Zaber

Ike expects a lot from a woman. Someone who can match his own unique needs and then some. He’s been lusting after Mercy for months. It’s time to make his move or move on.

Past relationship disasters have made Mercedes damn scared to date. This time she’s playing for keeps, she’s playing for Ike, and he’s going to know upfront she plays hard.

His response to the news…Have Mercy! And she’s going to have him right back because she is one lady who can give as good as she gets.

NOTE: This is a reissue of a previously released story.

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Ike Campbell winced with every sour note that came out of Dottie Sullivan’s mouth. The DJ should have stuck with playing music and letting people dance under the strobe of colored lights twirling overhead. Karaoke was never a good idea when people were sober. Offering it after a couple of drinks was excruciating. At a party that was supposed to commemorate the merger of Sullivan Advertising and Byers Promotional Support…

Ike shook his head, and not for the first time. The joining of ad giants Sullivan and Byers was a big deal, but it seemed a little over the top to have the event happen on Valentine’s Day. It wasn’t a marriage. It was a business venture. Still, everyone had been on edge waiting for the final papers to go through. The party was the bosses’ way of letting the employees blow off a little steam, have fun, and bond—Sullivan Advertising in Los Angeles, Byers Promotional Support in New York City. The problem was, most of them were overcompensating while they waited for the stroke of midnight on the east coast when the merger became final. Nerves, he supposed.

Despite that, everyone seemed to be having a good time. Awful as the singing was, Ike had to admire those brave enough to risk humiliation and get up there. He sure as hell understood the need to cut loose.

Since he’d transferred to the Los Angeles office six months before, he’d been one hundred percent focused on work. There were still boxes around his house that needed to be unpacked. The stress was starting to show. Not so much outwardly—he really didn’t like taking his frustration out on others—but he felt it crawling inside.

He’d been missing New York a lot lately. The visit to the family at Christmas had been just that, a visit. He hadn’t had any time to slip away to his favorite club and indulge his needs. He sure as hell hadn’t had any time to research any clubs locally. The offer he couldn’t refuse to transfer to Sullivan had started to feel like a prison sentence. No one was more relieved than Ike that the merger was finally complete. Come this weekend…

That made him smile. That’s exactly what he’d planned to do—come until his balls collapsed. All he needed was a place…and a partner…or partners. One particular lady came to mind.

Ike’s body tightened at the thought of having Mercedes Suazo over his lap, her sweet ass bared. He’d been mesmerized by her from the second he’d arrived at Sullivan Advertising, one of the largest and best ad agencies in the Los Angeles area. There was an aura about her that hinted of something more. At least, that’s what Ike’s testosterone-laden mind wanted to believe. Though they worked in separate departments, he’d done his best to see their paths crossed often. Working twenty-four seven made hooking up impossible. The best he’d been able to accomplish was wolfing down a quick lunch with her…and their coworkers. But the work was over. He was taking that shot…if he could find her again.

He craned his neck scanning the crowded room. again. He’d seen her when he’d arrived, looking so hot every cock in the place probably lifted its head in appreciation. After flashing him a smile he interrupted as let’s play, she’d disappeared into a group of women on the far side of the room, and he’d been dragged off to sit with the people from his section. He’d waited for her long enough. As soon as everyone toasted the merger, he was going to find her and explore that smoldering heat he’d seen in her deep brown eyes.

Eddie Kohler plopped down beside him. “God, that’s painful. Someone take the mic from Dottie. Please.”

His slurred voice was loud enough to carry over the music. Under normal circumstances, his nose was shoved so far up the boss’s ass that he couldn’t breathe. He was clearly too drunk to realize he’d insulted the boss’s wife…and everyone, including the boss, had heard him.

“Dottie’s having fun. Who’s cares?” Ike shot the man a glare. “If you think you can do any better, you go up there.”

Eddie snorted. “I’m not gonna go up there and make a fool of myself.”

“I can see your point.” Ike smirked. “Why waste the energy when you can sit here and do the same thing?”

Eddie smacked his beer bottle on the table. “You’re an ass.” Nevertheless, he shoved to his feet and staggered through the tables toward the stage. In less time than it had taken for Ike to issue his challenge, Eddie had the microphone in his hand. At least he’d had the presence of mind to wait for Dottie to finish.

“If you thought that was off-key, wait until you hear this. I guarantee I’d win any worst singer contest.” He snapped his finger at the DJ, and the music started—Shania Twain’s Man! I Feel Like A Woman! Any ill will Eddie’s previous comment had created dissipated in the explosion of laughter that followed.

“Now that’s painful.” Mercedes Suazo’s voice sank into Ike’s veins like warm honey.

Goose bumps rained over his neck and trickled down his body when her breath touched his ear. He’d been fantasizing about having her spread naked before him, and here she was. She’d come to him. It was all Ike could do to not grab her and hoist her over his lap. He swore the look in her eyes begged him to do just that.

Message received, baby.

The goddess slipped into the seat Eddie had vacated. The heat from her body radiated to him, scoring a path straight to the hard-on that raged every time he was near her, saw her, or thought about her. And he thought about her a lot.

She was the fantasy he beat-off to in the shower—her bare ass over his lap red from spanking, her standing over his bound body whip in hand. He couldn’t count the number of times he’d come thinking of her. Staring at her now, at her big brown eyes, those full lips that begged to be kissed, that silky fall of dark brown hair…

His cock throbbed for freedom. This was pain—this unrelenting ache of wanting her.

Gypsy Fire by Caitlyn Willows

GypsyFire

 

GYPSY FIRE
by Caitlyn Willows
Paranormal Romance (Short Story)
August 2007
Cover Art ©Lacey Savage

“Once you’ve been kissed by gypsy fire, there’s no turning back. The quicker one accepts their fate, the happier they’ll be. Whoever holds gypsy fire holds the key to riches beyond imagination. It is a powerful ally and a dangerous foe.”

That’s the family legend behind a mysterious coin owned by Riley Hathaway’s great-grandmother and left to her. But she felt the fire for attorney Patrick Spencer long before the coin sliced their fingers and mingled their blood. While her sisters fight for ownership of the coin and the riches they know it will bring, Riley learns its true wealth. Only Patrick can stoke true gypsy fire, and only he can quench it.

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Review:

This is a cool story; one with passion, fire, and genuine emotions throughout. The situation the couple finds themselves in only fuels the fire between them and makes them enjoyable. A wonderful quick read that leaves you with some unexpected twists that will delight the reader. Another winner for Ms. Willows. ~Matilda, Coffee Time Romance

EXCERPT

Patrick Spencer watched Riley Hathaway battle the grief threatening to overwhelm her. Even with makeup, pale freckles stood out against her otherwise porcelain skin. Freckles…the curse of every redhead he’d ever known. Of the three he’d had to deal with in the last month, he was ready to throw two of them into the Pacific Ocean with lead boots. The third one? Well, it was hard to believe she was related to the other two. He would have done anything to spare her this pain.

He’d known Fiona Hathaway since he was a boy filing pocket parts in the California Code Annotated at his family’s law office. Who would’ve guessed he’d be the one to handle her estate now? She’d been old then at seventy-five. Now approaching one hundred, her time left was measured in hours. She’d outlived everyone in her family except her three great-granddaughters.

When it came right down to it, her active lifestyle was what had brought her down. One misstep as she rushed out the door a month before had sent Fiona tumbling off her front porch when she hit a spot weakened by termites. Riley had called the exterminators that very day to have the place inspected and fumigated. Fortunately, they caught the infestation at the beginning—only that one spot would need to be replaced.

Unfortunately, Fiona had hit her head and broken her hip on the flagstone walkway. At some point pneumonia had set in and refused to leave, despite the regime of antibiotics the doctor had placed her on. She’d been fighting hard but losing fast. Her periods of awareness had been few and she’d been barely coherent during them. Each breath more labored than the one before it.

When his grandfather and father had asked, Patrick didn’t hesitate to take the lead in seeing her affairs ran smoothly during this time. He’d helped Riley settle her at home with a visiting nurse so Fiona could pass in peace in her own bed as she’d wished, and he was at the house almost as much as Riley. Once he realized what opportunistic bitches Heather and Jillian were, Patrick made sure he was always there when Riley was not. No one was going to take advantage of Fiona. He remembered her laughing blue eyes, sharp wit, quick smile, and the peppermint pillow mints she always carried for “good little boys and girls.” Riley had all of those qualities too, right down to the mints in her purse.

Her sisters, however, were a piece of work. Even now they paced the corridors outside Fiona’s bedroom, waiting like vultures for the old girl to draw her last breath. Part of his job was to see they didn’t pick her apart afterward—or rather, her estate. Fiona’s instructions had been clear. He was here to help carry them out.

While Heather and Jillian were greatly inconvenienced by Fiona’s lengthy stay on earth, Riley was heart-sick over her inevitable demise. She spent as many hours as possible by her great-grandmother’s side, holding her hand, tracing the blue veins showing through Fiona’s paper-thin skin, talking and reading to her, kissing her wrinkled cheek, falling asleep in the chair beside her. He’d caught Fiona’s smile focused on Riley more than once. Just as quickly as it appeared, it would fade as her body pulled back inside itself.

Fiona’s eyelids fluttered open, scattering his thoughts. His breath caught in fear that this was her last moment. He wanted to wrap his arms around Riley and shield her from the pain. To bury his face in her thick, red hair while he dealt with his own grief at the passing of one hell of a woman. So far he’d fought the urge to touch Riley in more than a casual manner, trying to keep a professional distance out of respect for her and his family’s business. But Patrick was losing that battle, just as surely as Fiona was losing the one she waged. He wanted to kiss Riley, slow and sweet, easing his way in and then pulling her tight against a body that had been hard as a rock since the second they’d met. He wanted their naked flesh burning against each other’s, fire whirlpooling around as they touched, tasted…

“Hi, Gram,” Riley said softly.

Patrick snapped his thoughts into place. His perpetual erection wasn’t so easily tamed when it came to Riley. He ordered it to physically subside, then did his best to ignore the throbbing monster.

Riley combed her fingers through Fiona’s silver-white hair. She’d kept it brushed and neat for her. Fiona had always been meticulous about her appearance—a trait all her great-granddaughters inherited. Heather and Jillian might be bitches from hell, but they dressed to understated perfection, as Riley did—not too much, not too little, just right for whatever the occasion might be. On this late fall day, when Southern California could be extra warm or cold depending on the minute, that was a thin sweater with slacks for the older sisters, a skirt for Riley. A skirt he desperately wanted to get under.

“Sweetheart, you look so tired.” Fiona’s voice was breathy, hard for her to get out.

She slid her gaze from Riley to him. The sparkle in her blue eyes had dimmed. Patrick admitted not seeing that glint of life scared him.

“You too,” she told him.

Her thin hand shook as she reached for the pendant that rarely left her neck—a silver coin with a silver chain threaded through a hole drilled at the top. She grabbed the coin too tightly, cutting her finger on the thin edge.

“Gram, here, let me help.” Riley’s hand shook as much as Fiona’s. “What are you trying to do?”

“Give to you. Yours now.”

“Oh, Gram.” A tear slipped down her cheek. The pain of her loss—his loss too—knifed through Patrick’s heart.

“Take it,” Fiona told her.

Riley snatched up a tissue from the box on the bedside table and blotted the blood from Fiona’s hand. The injury looked no worse than a bad paper cut. Riley plucked up the necklace and gently turned it around until the clasp was at the front. Her hands still shook too much to unlatch it.

“Here. Let me.” Their fingers brushed in passing. Sensation like liquid warmth slithered up his arm.

He thought he caught the semblance of a smile on Fiona’s lips as he unhooked the clasp. Once it was free, he cupped the pendant in his palm and let the chain slither down on top of it. Blood remained from Fiona’s cut. He watched the small spot settle in his heart-line.

Fiona wrapped her thin fingers around his wrist. Her grip was feather-like. “You’re holding gypsy fire. Once you’ve been kissed by gypsy fire, there’s no turning back. The quicker one accepts their fate, the happier they’ll be.” Her chuckle was swallowed by a coughing spell.

He and Riley tried to prop her up to clear her lungs. When the fit had passed, she sagged into the pillows. “Send those other two in here. I want to speak to them alone.”

“Fiona—”

“Alone, Patrick. Riley needs some fresh air. See she gets it.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

He offered a smile and plumped her pillows behind her while Riley smoothed the bedcovers in place. She added a kiss to Fiona’s cheek, blinked away a rush of tears, and let him lead her from the room.

Patrick liked how she fit beside him—the right height at his shoulder, the right pace with his, the right everything, whether she wore flats like now or heels. He’d taken to having that proprietary touch of his hand to her back when he escorted her through doors. She’d never so much as flinched. In fact, he’d swear there were times she leaned into his touch. That action always made him feel omnipotent, as if he could conquer the world.

Her rust-colored sweater was tucked into a matching shin-length skirt, and he couldn’t help wondering if her skin was as soft as the sweater. With every step they took, her skirt brushed against his leg, distracting him all the more. He watched the way her shoulder-length hair kissed her neck and longed to pull it away and do the same, letting his lips memorize every inch.

Her sisters pounced on them when they walked into the hallway. Their gloomy presence could dim a supernova. They dulled the light in this otherwise bright old house. In the month he’d known them, Patrick hadn’t heard Heather or Jillian utter a kind word about anyone…unless it was a man they were interested in impressing. Both had tried over-the-top flirtations with him on that first day—hookers were less bold—then moved on to other fishing grounds when they learned he wanted nothing to do with the bait they tossed out. It didn’t take a genius to see these women were always looking for the easiest way, felt the world owed them a favor, and were out to get anything and everything they could grab. These were not nice women, a fact that detracted from their hot-as-hell looks.

That’s what made it so difficult to believe they shared the same genes as Riley. The older two had already blown through two trust funds and an inheritance and now circled, waiting for more. Riley had gotten a business degree, opened her own craft store, and tucked the rest away for the children she planned to have one day. She took care of Fiona too, making sure she had whatever she needed.

“Gram wants to see you,” Riley told them.

When Heather darted past her to go inside, Riley grabbed her arm and yanked her to a stop.

Don’t upset her.”

Heather’s always-icy blue stare chilled a few more degrees. She didn’t bother with a response, just jerked free and swung open the door. Jillian hurried to catch up.

“That goes for you too,” Riley told her.

Her middle sister ignored her and shut the door in her face.

“Come on.” Hand at her back, Patrick turned her away. “Let’s walk around the garden.”

It gave him peace when he did so, and he was sure it did Riley, since he’d found her there on more than one occasion.

Riley glanced at the door over her shoulder, then placed her hand against his chest, right over his blue-striped tie. Could she feel the thump of his heart beneath it? Could she sense he wanted her hand lower, pressed against yet another erection, just as she pressed against the silk tie? On impulse, he wrapped his fingers around hers and squeezed.

“I need…” She paused, lips parted. She focused on his mouth, then shifted her gaze to their locked hands. He realized he still had Fiona’s necklace in his palm.

“I believe this is intended for you.” Patrick folded the pendant into her hand.

Smiling, Riley closed her fingers around it. “I never thought I’d see the day it came off her neck permanently. She would’ve raised holy hell if she found out the staff had removed it at the hospital when she was admitted. Fortunately, I was able to retrieve it before she regained…” She gave a light laugh. “I guess I can’t say she’s ever fully regained her senses.”

Patrick touched the silver chain that dangled from her hand. “She was aware enough to know it was still around her neck. Imagine her upset if she’d found it gone.”

That brightened her smile. “True.” She rubbed the thin coin between her fingers.

“It was as much a part of her as the peppermints she carried in her purse. When I was a kid, I asked her if it was pirate treasure. She said…” He laughed lightly at the memory. She’d said then what she’d told them minutes before.

“It’s gypsy fire. Once you’ve been kissed by gypsy fire, there’s no turning back. The quicker one accepts their fate, the happier they’ll be. Never forget that, young Patrick.”

Riley held the silver up between them. Age had worn the impressions on it to bare visibility and made it blade-thin. “Gypsy fire. That’s what she always called it.”

“I remember.” Patrick touched the surface next to her thumb. “It’s very old.”

“Centuries…if you believe the tale.”

“I don’t think I ever heard that one.”

Though Fiona had spun other stories for him when he visited the law office. She knew how to capture a child’s imagination. Even at the ripe “old age” of thirty-two Patrick still liked to hear them.

Riley’s eyes held some of the mischief he’d seen in Fiona’s. “Ages ago a necklace was forged over a campfire by a gypsy man for his gypsy love—”

“Over a gypsy fire.”

Riley giggled. “Exactly…and don’t forget this was in days of yore.”

He gave her a nod. “Of course. Continue, please.”

“He forged each coin from the finest silver, infused it with love. The hole in this one was drilled by his hand when he drilled the others to link. No one knows how many coins the necklace held, but it’s believed to have been a small fortune. On the night he was to give it to her, he found her ravished by another. He used the necklace as a garrote and strangled the man. It broke, scattering coins everywhere.

“Our lovestruck couple gathered as many as they could find and fled from the kingdom, for to stay meant certain death for one and banishment for the other. No one knows what became of them. Some say they lived happily ever after. Some say evil was attached to the coins once the man was killed. The coins are still found every so often, part of the gypsy fire, for there were so many on the necklace, the couple couldn’t take them all. One thing everyone does agree on is—”

“Once you’ve been kissed by gypsy fire, there’s no turning back. The quicker one accepts their fate, the happier they’ll be.”

“Yes. Gram always told us too, that whoever holds gypsy fire holds the key to riches beyond imagination. It is a powerful ally and a dangerous foe. Choose wisely.” She laughed. “Rather like in an Indiana Jones movie.”

This was the happiest he’d seen her since they’d met a month before. Damn, he wanted to kiss her. Those bright blue eyes so filled with life looked into his right then. Patrick couldn’t breathe, much less think straight. Their fingers were still locked around the coin. Bound, some part of his mind said. Her lips parted—soft, inviting.

Time slowed as he bent toward her. He felt her breath become part of his. He was hot. Gypsy fire.

Their lips touched, froze together. A sigh settled them into the tender caress. Then, in unison, their tongues reached out, became one. The kiss deepened. His mind folded in on itself. He felt the touch of her chest to his, then her pelvis. But the coin locked them as one, not their arms. He deepened the kiss but it was Riley who demanded it of him. He wanted to feel her flesh, the heat of it, the silk of it, inside and out.

The bedroom door whipped open, shattering the moment. Still, they didn’t jerk from the kiss, merely pulled apart.

“Where the hell is it?” Heather demanded. She zeroed in on the coin clasped between their fingers. “Give me that. I’m the oldest. It’s rightfully mine.”

She snatched it away before they could stop her. The edges sliced through Patrick’s fingers like a razor. Riley’s gasp mirrored his. She’d been cut as well. He caught her hand and pressed his wounded fingers over hers while he glared at Heather.

“Fiona gave it to Riley,” he told her.

“Don’t.” Riley lifted her uninjured hand. “It’s not worth fighting over. All that matters is Gram. I have all I could possibly want or need.”

“I don’t.” Heather held up the coin. “But I’m going to.”

“Then I hope you enjoy it.” Riley slipped free of Patrick’s hold and walked away.

Heather’s smirk of triumph led her back to her great-grandmother’s side.

Another Chance, Another Time by Catherine Snodgrass

AnotherChance

ANOTHER CHANCE, ANOTHER TIME
by Catherine Snodgrass
Paranormal Romance (Reincarnation)
December 2002

He has spent an eternity trying to protect and provide for the love of his life. Each time he has failed…miserably. Now fate has given them another chance. Will Alec Edwards and Dani Morgan learn from the mistakes of their past or repeat them all over again?

Winner for Best Romance – Independent Publishers Award
Winner – 2002 Dream Realm Award – Speculative Fiction – Romance
3d Place – Paranormal – 2003 Laurel Wreath Award
Finalist for Best Paranormal – Golden Quill Award
Silver Chalice Award Nominee (Best Fantasy and Best Overall Paranormal)
4th Annual Orange Rose Award Finalist

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REVIEWS:

FALLEN ANGEL RECOMMENDED READ! FIVE ANGELS! …a bitter-sweet romance about love and reincarnation. …a story that is just captivating. …very thought provoking and I enjoyed that with this book. The story stays with you, long after you’ve finished the book. ~Jaymi, Fallen Angel Reviews

FOUR CUPS!!! [A] well written, twisting tale of love lost and gained throughout the ages. ~Charissa, Coffee Time Romance

[A]n engrossing and thoroughly enjoyable story that challenges traditional beliefs and brings rise to the question of life, love, and hatred after death. Whether our lives are predestined to travel the paths that have been tread before, or whether we choose our own path, is a wonderful journey that this book takes us on. With a romance and passion that spans even time itself, I found every minute and every twist and turn of this unexpected plot a great read! ~Cassidy, Joyfully Reviewed

A romantic and suspenseful tale that will have you asking if reincarnation is possible. A fast read that reels you in, a story that keeps you turning the pages. A classic plot with several new twists. A fine book with which to pass away the nice spring-like days. ~Diana Risso, Romance Reviews Today.

FOUR STARS!!! A cleverly written reincarnation romance with an absorbing mystery. Readers will be enthralled as the story unfolds along tightly written prose. ~Susan Mobley, Romantic Times.

Truly a seamless plot with believable characters and enough suspense, danger and romance to keep the reader interested until the very end. ~Moni Draper, PNR Reviews

An Intriguing Tale of Mystery and Fate. Ms. Snodgrass does a wonderful job of pulling together the mystery, suspense, and romance as Alec and Dani fight to break the tragic pattern of the past and the dreadful fate that awaits them should they fail to discover the killer’s identity in time. This tale is complex, full of ironic twists, and a villain is so crafty that the reader will be stunned at the lengths he or she will go to get Dani out of the way. With enough red herrings thrown in, I doubt if anyone will realize the killer’s identity until it is revealed. Indeed this gripping plot will keep the reader on the edge of their seat until the last word is read. ~Leslie Tramposch, PNR Reviews

ANOTHER CHANCE, ANOTHER TIME is a complex reincarnation romance that sub-genre fans will fully enjoy as the delightful lead couple research their past (via hypnosis), confront their present, and pray for their future together. Though the flashbacks are cleverly interwoven into he plot to give substance to the eerie multiple life, some readers might find that disruptive. Still with a powerful story line starring two giving individuals (past and present), the paranormal audience will want to read this tale and seek future works by Catherine Snodgrass. ~Harriet Klausner

A heart warming read about two loves who have just never gotten it quite right. Alec and Dani`s love for each other is so powerfully portrayed that reaches out and tugs at the reader`s heart strings. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel that was full of witty characters, paranormal events, and a really great bad guy that you love to hate. If you like time travel, paranormal, or just a really great romance then read this book! ~Jen, A Romance Review

Lots of romance and some suspense to make a thought-provoking story from the pen of Catherine Snodgrass.~Marilyn Heyman, The Road to Romance

Another Chance, Another Time was an exceptionally well- written book. The language was rich, the characters interesting and instantly compelling, the plotline beautifully thought out. The notion of a pair of lovers, who repetitively come together, with a secret nemesis that forever interferes, has never been done better. This is the first of Ms. Snodgrass’s books that I’ve read, and I’m now a complete fan. She is a wonderful writer.~Janet Miller, PNR Reviews

FIVE HEARTS!!! This is a wonderful book about reincarnation, about lovers who are destined to live again and again until they can get it right and get together. It takes that feeling that we get when we meet someone the first time, but feel like we have known them forever and gives us a reason why that is possible – a remembrance of a relationship we’ve had before. I very much recommend this book as it has everything you could want – love, sex, suspense. Lisa Wine, The Romance Studio

EXCERPT

Alec Edwards stared into the blinding rain. Traffic crawled along Interstate 10. Typical Los Angeles traffic. At this rate he’d never make it to the fund-raising dinner, and that was fine with him. As Alec left the hospital that evening, Walt Rushmore let it slip that his daughter Andrea would be joining them.

Somehow Alec managed to keep from wincing. The Rushmores were playing matchmaker. As far as Alec was concerned, it would be a match made in hell. An abortive relationship with Andrea four months ago proved that. For some reason, the Rushmores and Andrea couldn’t understand Alec just wasn’t interested. Tonight was going to be pure agony. The weather seemed to agree.

Traffic slowed, cars wedged bumper to bumper, horns blared from all directions to no avail—nothing was going to move this traffic along. They were stuck here for God knew how long.

Alec smiled. Maybe there was justice in the world after all. The hospital already had his money for the benefit tonight and now he wouldn’t have to bear Andrea’s company.

As he thought that, the crawl of cars ground to a halt. Headlights from on-coming cars zoomed by and bathed him in eerie yellow light. They moved a little too quickly for Alec’s comfort. He blessed the concrete divider that stood between him and the eastbound lane. Still, his gaze remained riveted to those mesmerizing lights.

Through a sheet of rain, Alec watched in horror as a car broke free from those coming in the opposite direction. It careened off the center divider and sailed through the air.

Alec snapped open his seat belt and dove for the passenger side.

It was silent except for the beating rain, and then came the explosion of metal and glass.

When silence descended once more, Alec eased up, looking for damage. He was safe. The car behind him was a shambles. He shoved his shoulder into the door and sprinted to the wreckage.

Others did the same. A patrolman from the eastbound lane squealed to a stop, leaped the divider, and ran forward.

“There’s a medical bag in my car! Get it!” Alec pointed to his car.

Relief washed over the young officer’s face.

Alec stared at the tangled heap of vehicles and wondered if there was any hope someone was still alive. The first car, a beat up Colt, had plowed headlong into the windshield of the second, a late model Cougar.

Crawling up, he wrenched open the door on the Colt. The stench of liquor took his breath away. A pair of gaping, vacant eyes stared back at him. Nevertheless, Alec felt for the man’s pulse. Nothing.

He jumped down, expecting the same from the Cougar. The door groaned in protest as he forced it open. A woman was behind the wheel, her face, neck, and chest sliced by shards of metal and glass. The Colt’s bumper had missed decapitating her by mere inches. He gingerly felt for a pulse and then sighed in relief. She was still alive.

Her eyes fluttered open and focused on him. There was a catch in her breath, an awareness in those deep brown eyes of hers. She grappled for his hand and then curled her bloodied fingers around it.

“It’s…you.” Her voice was no more than a whisper. “God, how I have missed you.” She braced her cheek against the seat and drifted off, a touch of a smile on her lips.

Alec stared at her hand still nestled in his. Warmth radiated up his arm until his body was engulfed. Not even the chilling rain could diminish the heat pulsing through him. Who was she? He racked his brain trying to place her. They had never met, had they?

“Here’s your bag.” The policeman set the black satchel near the open door.

Alec turned to thank him. Shock paralyzed the other man.

“She’s going to make it.” His tone warned the officer to say nothing to the contrary.

Finally, the man forced himself to nod. “And the other one?”

“He’s already gone.”

The officer glanced around. “The paramedics are on the way, but with this rain and traffic it might take a while.”

“Some butterfly kisses will hold her in place until—”

“Kisses?”

Alec blinked. Where was his head? “Sorry, I meant stitches.” When he tried to extricate his hand, her hold tightened. He leaned closer, cupping his free hand over both of theirs. “It’s all right. I need to help you. I’m right here. I won’t leave.”

“Yes, you will. You are never there when I need you most.” A sigh heaved her chest and her hand slipped free.

“Not this time.” Alec had no idea who she thought he was, but he knew whoever it was, she had to have faith that person would help. It was up to him.

He decided against paper stitches and used gauze instead to bind her injuries until he could get her to a hospital. At this point with all the blood, it was hard to tell the extent of her wounds. Around him he was conscious of the officer directing traffic and the pounding rain, but that was all. Every sense was focused on the woman before him. It was only the two of them, as if the world spinning around them had ceased to exist.

Each time he recalled those brown eyes upon him, Alec shivered. She knew him, trusted him. And he would swear he had never met her in his life. Now he was her lifeline, and although Alec had never been one to assign himself god-like qualities, he knew in his heart he was the only person who could save her now.

Another patrol car pulled up. Minutes later, the officer sidled up to him.

“How is she?”

“Fine. She’s going to be just fine.”

“Paramedics are almost here.” He ducked away.

Alec bent over his patient once more to examine his handiwork. He smoothed back her blood-matted brown hair and felt a bump just above her forehead. A possible concussion was added to the list of injuries. That would explain her confusion when she saw him and her unconsciousness now. There was little more he could do for now.

Reaching over to the other seat, he snagged her purse. Her driver’s license listed her as Danielle Morgan, age thirty, height five-three, weight one-twenty. She was smiling. Her hair brushed her shoulders in a feather-like embrace. A pink dot on the license indicated she was an organ donor.

Alec gritted his teeth. He refused to allow it to come to that. He shifted through the contents of her purse once more and found a passport where another bright smile shined from her photograph. A plane ticket with itinerary was nestled inside the passport. Alec took a peek and didn’t know whether to smile or cry for her.

She had been on her way to LAX to catch a flight to Europe. That would be his vacation of choice. Trouble was, he had never taken the time to do it, and never found anyone he wanted to go with. Whoever was waiting for her at the airport was probably frantic.

He waved one of the officers over and shoved the ticket into his hand. “Better call the airline and let them know what happened. They can notify anyone waiting for her there. Any word on that rescue unit?”

“They’re about a mile away. I can see the lights from here.”

Alec looked in the direction he pointed. Flashing red lights wove along the median toward them. He squatted down and picked up the woman’s limp hand. This time, she didn’t stir. Her pulse was thready. They were running out of time.

“Hang on, Danielle.” No, that wasn’t right. He didn’t care what her driver’s license said. “Dani, hang on.”

Alec thought he felt the slightest pressure as she squeezed his hand in response. Impossible. It was his imagination wanting her to be all right.

The sirens ground to a halt in front of the cars. Footsteps beat a hasty path to reach the victim. For now, Alec was in the way. His job would begin again once they got her to the hospital.

He watched the firefighters cut her out of the car with the Jaws of Life. Then the paramedics eased her onto the gurney.

“Coming, Doc?” one asked.

“We’ll get your car to you,” the officer said as he gathered Dani’s possessions.

They didn’t have to ask him twice. He slipped the officer his keys. Then with the right afforded his occupation, he crawled into the rescue squad beside her.

“Radio ahead. I’m going to need X-rays, blood typing, and a surgical team.”

“Got it.” The paramedic radioed the instructions to the hospital.

Everything was in place by the time the ambulance reached the emergency room doors. The hospital staff wheeled Dani Morgan away to prep her for surgery, X-ray for broken bones, and run necessary blood work. Then it would be up to Alec, and he was going to be good to no one unless he calmed down.

He stopped long enough to slug down a cup of water, before marching off to scrub up. Dr. Kevin Samuels was already there, stripping from his street clothes into surgical scrubs. The rain tightened his red hair to clumps of curls. His blue eyes danced with mischief when he saw Alec.

“If I’d known this was a formal occasion, I would have dressed in something better than jeans.”

Normally Alec would have come back with a jibe of his own. Tonight he just wasn’t in the mood. He threw his damp suit into a wad at the bottom of the locker. Kevin had the good sense to let it go.

“I was on my way home when you arrived. Thought I’d stay and help.” He jerked his head toward the operating room. “She’s a mess. Damn fine thing you were there. I understand it was over an hour before the paramedics could get to the scene.”

An hour? Had they really been there that long?

“The other driver died on impact. Frankly, I was surprised to find her still alive. You know, she was on her way to the airport. Going to Europe.”

Kevin looked up. “So she was conscious during all this.”

Alex slipped his blue scrubs on. “No. I was searching for identification and found the tickets.”

“So she never spoke at all.”

He straightened. Two strides took him to the sink. “I never said that either.”

Kevin was on his heels and nearly bumped into him when Alec started to scrub up.

“What did she say?”

“What does it matter?”

He shrugged. “I guess it doesn’t if she didn’t say anything about any medical conditions.”

Alec drew in air to steady his nerves. “She didn’t. She just mistook me for someone else.”

“Is that what has you rattled?”

Yes. That was it. The whole thing spooked him. Dani Morgan hadn’t just thought he was someone else, but she knew him, and Alec couldn’t for the life of himself understand how.

“I guess so.”

Kevin’s gaze was sharp, appraising. “Are you going to be all right to do this?”

He had to be. She was depending on him. By some instinct he couldn’t explain, he had to help her. He was the only one who could save her.

“I’m fine. Let’s do it.”

Together they pushed into the operating room. Dani looked pale next to the white sheets that draped her. Shock and blood loss had taken their toll. The rest of the team surrounded her. The anesthesiologist was at her head.

“Is she out?” Alec studied her face, deciding where to start first.

“Almost.”

“Let me know when, Joe. Anything else?”

“No broken bones, Dr. Edwards,” the nurse said. “No Hepatitis. No drugs or alcohol in her blood. But there are more lacerations on her torso.”

“Then we’ll start there.” Alec lifted the sheet and blanched. A deep gash followed the curve of her right breast. He tried not to reprimand himself. Because of the position of the other vehicle, there had been no way to check for other injuries.

That’s no excuse, logic argued. You should have checked her again in the ambulance.

“Ready, Doc.”

“Thanks, Joe. Okay, people. Let’s get to work.”

* * *

Dani Morgan felt herself slip further into that dark place in her mind. She was aware of where she was, what had happened, and that she was very badly hurt. None of that mattered. They couldn’t put her under. They just couldn’t. No one understood what it would mean.

She had gone there once before when she had her tonsils out as a child. It had terrified her ever since, yet she could speak of it to no one. Now she had to. But the words wouldn’t come. Dani couldn’t make them understand.

And slowly she went back to that place. That place where she had died.

Feather on the Wind by Catherine Snodgrass

FeatherWind

 

FEATHER ON THE WIND
by Catherine Snodgrass
Time Travel Romance
January 2002

On the night of the autumnal equinox, Raina Cotterell uncovers a corridor while searching for the tomb of an ancient Maya ruler. She and her colleagues step from 1970 to 750 and into a ceremony to select a bride for the Maya prince, Al-Mon. The Maya believe she is the chosen bride sent as a gift from the gods.

To protect one of her colleagues, Raina agrees to wed Al-Mon. In the months which follow she falls in love with her prince, and finally tells him why she cannot stay. The pain of her revelation haunts Al-Mon, for he does not wish to live in a world without her. He decides his only solution is to replace his look-alike, Burke O’Neill, in the future. He must find a way to convince Burke to stay and to avoid another more deadly foe who will do anything to keep the men from switching places.

WINNER – 2005 INDEPENDENT PUBLISHERS AWARD (IPPY) – BEST ROMANCE
3RD PLACE – 2001 LAUREL WREATH AWARD

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REVIEWS:

SIX MAGICAL WANDS! Catherine Snodgrass always writes a winner, but this has to be my favourite of her books so far. I really couldn’t fault it, and was eager to finish it to see how Raina and Al-Mon reconciled the differences in their cultures and across time. With plenty of careful detail, Ms Snodgrass paints a vivid and realistic picture not just of a modern(ish!) archaeological dig, but also a glimpse of ancient Mayan life. Superb characterisation, especially with Al-Mon, and all round a riveting, sensual read. ~Autiotalo, Enchanted Ramblings

FIVE HEARTS! Through the descriptive writing of Catherine Snodgrass we clearly picture the setting and characters. The story asks how far someone will go for love. The romance is passionate from the beginning. This time-travel adventure is a creative and passionate romance that will keep the reader entertained. ~Anita, The Romance Studio

FIVE ANGELS!!! I have not seen many time travel books based on the Mayans, so I was really interested in reading this book. I was not disappointed. The Mayan setting of this book is amazing. Catherine Snodgrass really brought the culture to life for me. The descriptions of the buildings, rituals, royalty, and society made me want to go buy a history book on the Mayans. The passion and love between Raina and Al-Mon’s is touching. There is an interesting twist in the book involving another aspect of Mayan culture. I thought the answer to their problem was a little obvious, but the author added a twist to it that I didn’t expect. Definitely a must read if you like time travel romance and you are interested in Mayan culture. ~ Gretchen, Fallen Angel Reviews

FOUR CUPS!!! Ms Snodgrass is a brilliant storyteller, hooking me from the very first page to the utterly surprising twist at the end. She called up the Mayan time and culture so believably that I did not once doubt its veracity. A beautifully told tale of love’s ability to conquer! ~Caro, Coffee Time Romance

4 ½ STARS. A fascinating story about a love that reaches across time and draws two people together regardless of their separate worlds. The characters are brought to life by her rich descriptions of both the people and their cultures. ~Audra Silva,Scribes World

An intricately woven plot and richly textured background lend the tale fresh originality. Recommended. ~Cindy Penn, Wordweaving

Time travel at its best! Ms. Snodgrass has blended history with fiction and creates a romance you won’t soon forget. Raina and Al-Mon’s love will take your breath away. The characters are well drawn, and I was pulled into the lives of each and every one of them– from the egotistical Burke to the sweet and caring Al-Mon. The Mayan culture is brought vividly to life, and I was made to feel as if I were there witnessing all the action. The story is fast-paced and entertaining and I couldn’t put it down. A well-written adventure sure to please any time travel fan. So grab a cup of cocoa and curl up for an exciting adventure that shouldn’t be missed. ~ Carol Durfee, Romance Reviews Today

FOUR STARS!!! This is an exciting book that brings the ancient Mayans to life until their ways are real and comfortable. As the book builds to the climax, you want it to work out for the lovers but it seems impossible. You’ll want to keep reading until it all is resolved. How do they get back to their own time? ~Martha von Redlich, SimeGen

FIVE HEARTS!!! A wonderful tale of the times of the Maya Indians. [The author’s] descriptions and characters are very realistic and the reader is caught within the first few pages. It was a marvelous read of this by-gone era and I could not lay it down. I am looking forward to reading many more novels by this fantastic author, and I recommend her highly. Mariah, The Romance Studio

This novel works very well on many different levels. The romance between Al-Mon and Raina is handled wonderfully. The Mayan society, rituals, and history are clearly well researched and woven seamlessly into the story. This author has shown herself to be very adept at very different types of romances. I’m looking forward to much more from her. Readers who enjoy time travel, romance, or Mayan history will be very happy with this one. The Romance Readers Connection

4 ROSES! Ms. Snodgrass does a good job making time travel believable. Her characters are well developed and entertaining the Mayan culture she creates is fascinating. FEATHER ON THE WIND is an intriguing look into a culture that isn’t visited very often in the romance genre. ~Jenni, A Romance Review

A heart-stopping romance, but hidden within its layers is a well-researched, richly visual interpretation of a lost Mayan civilization. At the center of this story is Raina and Al-Mon, lovers from different times, with what appears to be no hope of a happily-ever after. But love never fails to travel a road with interesting twists and turns. ~ Theresa Gallup for Fictional Pursuits

EXCERPT

750 a.d. – City of the Sun

Al-Mon stood as rigid as the statues that surrounded his bathing pool. Let the servants attend; he would offer no assistance to this ceremony. It was his way of showing objection without actually doing so. How could he refuse when this was for his benefit and the perpetuation of his royal line?

His manservant tied the jaguar sash around Al-Mon’s waist, overlapping the matching loincloth. Al-Mon rejected the seashell collar, opting for a red feathered cape. His gods would accept him unbejeweled, without pretense, a humble subject seeking divine intervention. How could they refuse such a request? He had spent his life appeasing those omnipresent beings and had asked for nothing in return — until now.

“Your headdress, my lord.”

Al-Mon combed his raven hair to the crown of his head and secured the long strands with a narrow strip of leather. He sat upon one of the stone benches to enable the smaller man to seat this crowning symbol of authority.

The plumage of red and yellow was heavy and awkward. Only with years of practice could one wear the towering mass without having it slip or, worse yet, throw its wearer off balance. Such a thing was not a problem for Al-Mon; his tutelage had begun at the cradle. Now the headdress was merely an extension of himself. With it his subjects rarely noticed the unfortunate condition which set him apart from others. Without it he stood out.

It was a cruel fate of a birth that occurred on a desolate road with only his father and the high priest attending the premature event. A midwife would have found something, anything to press the surviving newborn prince’s head into the slope which Mayans longed for — the men did not. As a consequence, Al-Mon was forced to give sacrifice to the gods at the tender age of three days. He was grateful that incident was not part of his memories.

And yet he could not label all these circumstances as a curse. A lesser man would have let the difference destroy him, make him bitter. Al-Mon refused to let it rule his life, not when there were so many other more important things which should. The physical aspect was a minor annoyance. Dealing with it and the reaction of others helped him build the strength he needed to one day be a good ruler.

Al-Mon adjusted the headdress and pulled his hair through the opening at the top. “I believe that should do.”

“A grander prince I have never attended,” Tor-sa said.

Al-Mon chuckled. “Tor-sa, I am the only prince you have ever served.”

The little man smiled back. “Yes, my lord, that is true. I wish you good fortune tonight. I shall be watching from the portico. All three ladies are worthy. The gods cannot help but choose well.”

Al-Mon’s humor faded. “How sad that the ladies in question do not feel that way.”

From outside the conch shells called the city to the ceremony. There was no postponing the inevitable. Resigned to his fate, Al-Mon strode through winding corridors of stone to the entry hall. He was late. His parents waited, dressed in full regalia. The prospective brides hovered nearby, dour-faced.

Standing watch was the elderly high priest, Caan-tu. From the time of Al-Mon’s birth, Caan-tu had been a part of his life. No decision was made without him. It was said his powers went far beyond those required of ordinary priests. Al-Mon did not know if that were true, but he did know Caan-tu was one of the wisest, most learned men he had ever met. This ceremony tonight was his doing.

With Caan-tu leading the way, they stepped into the night.

A hush fell over the crowd as the royal procession appeared. No breeze stirred. Smoke from the torches hugged the ground like fog. The path to the temple was clear, but as the royals passed, the crowd closed in behind them. Drumbeats echoed their footsteps down the flight of stairs, across the courtyard, then up the steep temple steps. Silence descended when the entourage reached the top, and Caan-tu raised his scrawny arms.

“Tonight, on this holy night, a bride will be chosen.”

The crowd roared with approval, and Al-Mon looked over the candidates. By the ladies’ show of enthusiasm one would think they were to be sacrificed instead of honored. Al-Mon looked away and to the sea of faces below. That, too, was a bad choice, for one face stood out — that of Ka-la.

Her dark eyes blazed with fury over the ceremony and the fact that she had not been chosen to participate. She would have been willing, so willing that this selection would not have been necessary. But had she been included, Al-Mon would have steadfastly refused to accept her.

“We shall choose!” Caan-tu said, then led the king and queen into the bowels of the temple.

Al-Mon let his gaze focus on his home, hoping to clear his mind and let the gods work their will. The royal dwelling house was set at a right angle to the temple, and was the longest structure in the city. A rippling succession of eight archways marked the front; torches lit each one. Above the center arch, the main entrance, a bird was carved; its feathers spread in flight with a wing span which reached past the arches on either side of it. To visitors and people of the city the bird represented the freedom and power of the ruling clan. But Al-Mon knew of the invisible tether which bound the bird. For a Mayan prince and future king there was no freedom. He existed for the sole purpose of serving his people and producing heirs, even if that meant with a mate who was less than willing.

Al-Mon shifted his gaze to the black horizon. Why must it be this way? Somewhere there must be a woman, a love for me. He closed his eyes and prayed the gods’ selection would be wise.

Bring Me To Life by Caitlyn Willows

BringMeToLife

 

BRING ME TO LIFE
by Caitlyn Willows
Short Contemporary
December 2017
Cover Art – Trace Edward Zaber

Amy Thornton felt as if she’d died the night her husband was killed. Now, two years later, she’s ready to starting living again, and she knows just the man to help her do so. All she has to do is get him to admit he wants her as much as she wants him. One call to Colbert Escort and Security Services brings owner Josh Colbert running to her door and with him all the emotions she’d forgotten exist. Little does she realize the power in her hands–to crush Josh’s heart or to bring it to life.

Author note: This is a re-issue of a previously released title.

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Reviews:

FIVE LIPS! Bring Me To Life is a beautiful, sexy, exciting, and absolutely exhilarating love story that you don’t want to miss reading! I chose it because of the superb reputation of Caitlyn Willows as well as the intriguing storyline. I expected good, even great, and was rewarded with fantastic, riveting, delightful, and completely immersing! Josh is amazing. His insecurities are sweet, touching, and very real and Amy’s wants and desires, clear and focused. The way that these two come together is hot as well as poignant and moving. Between the tender emotion and entertaining banter, I loved Bring Me To Life and am confident that you will too! ~Kerin, Two Lips Reviews

FIVE HEARTS! What a wonderful story! Bring Me to Life is a novella with a unique plot and is told in such a manner that it is extremely easy to feel as if you are part of the narrative. The romance is explicit from the very beginning, but it is not so “over the top” that it becomes a tale of nothing but sexual encounters…. an incredibly sexy story about love the second time around and the mistakes made when two people are actually “too close” to the situation to realize the pitfalls which can sabotage their pending relationship. The book is captivating and one worthy to be read more than once. Good job, Ms. Willows! I appreciate the chance to read this and believe that others will be thrilled when they, too, read this book! ~Brenda Talley, The Romance Studio

BRING ME TO LIFE is sexually and emotionally charged. Amy and Josh have deep feelings for one another and it’s time they explored said feelings. Throw off the covers and get ready for some heat when you open up BRING ME TO LIFE. ~Sinclair Reid, Romance Reviews Today

FIVE HEARTS! This is a very touching, emotional story of two people who have held their feelings back, but in one night let everything out. It is a story that will have the reader turning the pages to see how their relationship turns out. The reader will certainly feel the heat between these two multi-dimensional characters as Ms. Willows brings them together very intimately. BRING ME TO LIFE is a very evocative story. This reviewer found this story very emotional. It gave her a warm tingly feeling at the end and made her sigh with content. Caitlyn Willows is a new author for this reviewer and this will certainly not be the last book she reads. Ms. Willows masterfully blends a great romance with emotion and sensual, erotic love scenes. This reviewer will be looking for more! ~Valerie, Love Romances And More

FOUR CUPS! Delightfully sexy and touching. Ms. Willows puts heart into this story as a widow decides to come back to life. Fabulous characters; this couple is perfect for each other and the author makes sure the reader feels it. Set at a steady pace with touching moments and wickedly erotic love scenes, this is truly a romantic romp not to be missed. ~Wateena, Coffee Time Romance

The chemistry between the couple was explosive and erotic in nature. Their love scenes are sure to leave you breathless with desire and panting for more. Enjoy! ~Nikita Steele, Joyfully Reviewed

Bring Me to Life by Caitlyn Willows is one tale that any reader will love from its sexy hero to Amy’s courage to continue going on and become stronger than ever. I loved Amy for here is a woman who has known heartache with a loving man to learn that it is not wise to stay secluded and hidden from life for the past two years. Now if there ever was a man to be her other half that is Josh Colbert. Here is a guy who knows what he wants and that’s Amy. These two are not only sexually compatible but man they heat up the pages even without the love scenes, and only Caitlyn Willows can bring two people like them together in a short story book. ~Lena C., Fallen Angel Reviews

FOUR STARS! [A]n interesting story about the aftermath of death and the start of living again. There are intense and arousing sexual scenes between Amy and Josh (read this out loud with someone you love!) I was amazed and aroused. The sexual encounters are important to the plot, but they also fit perfectly into Amy and Josh’s continuing love story. The characters are well written, including a secondary character that provides comic relief. I have again enjoyed a book written by Ms. Willows! ~Marcy Arbitman, Just Erotic Romance Reviews

BRING ME TO LIFE is a heart-warming story about a second chance at love. Josh and Amy are very interesting and independent characters who need each other in order to feel alive. Caitlyn Willows has written a wonderful story that touched my heart and made me root for these two characters to find the love they deserve. This is a story that should not be missed! ~Robin, My Book Cravings

Excerpt:

Amy Thornton’s hands shook as she read the newspaper ad for the fifth time. She couldn’t believe she was considering this act of desperation. She didn’t know what else to call it. Morning light streaming through the windows of her breakfast nook spilled over the ad. Was it calling her attention to it, or trying to make her see how stupid this was?

Perched on the edge of her chair, she jiggled her legs under the table, trying to expend nervous energy, while she weighed her decision for the thousandth time. She was lonely, sad, and all the sex toys in the world didn’t help ease that deep ache inside. She needed to be held, touched, loved on. With Dan’s death two years ago, she’d died too. She needed someone—anyone—to bring her back to life, and she knew just who that someone was going to be.

She pushed the newspaper back and returned to nibbling her raisin toast. Amy would be the first to admit it had taken her a long time to pull herself out of that pit of shock, grief, despair, and depression. It still strangled her heart each time she recalled that awful night. One minute she and Dan were standing outside Mario’s Trattoria waiting for the valet to bring their car around. The next minute Dan was dead, along with six other people—all victims of a driver who’d fallen asleep at the wheel. Yes, it’d been a very long time to crawl from the pit—eighteen months. But she was out now, ready to breathe in life once more.

Unfortunately, it appeared as though their friends and associates weren’t ready for her to do so. It didn’t take long for Amy to see the sad truth—most everyone respected Dan too much to make a move on his widow. Any men who smiled her way were snagged aside fast and told to back off. While Amy had appreciated that consideration during the first year, it had grown very trying later when she was ready to explore the world that awaited her.

But she was the widow of the sainted Dan Thornton—whose legend seemed to grow each day—and now the head of his multi-million-dollar production company. Her reputation could not be besmirched, or that of the company. A liaison with the wrong man could end in disaster for all, or so she’d been advised by her directors. She wondered if they were more concerned she’d marry and her new husband would attempt to take over the company. Not that anyone had said anything, but she could see worry in their eyes.

It was the same look she got that first day she’d walked into the boardroom and announced she’d be stepping into Dan’s shoes. She’d expected the cool reception they’d given her. It was the same frosty demeanor Dan had received when he’d taken over after his father’s death five years ago. It didn’t take long for him to win them over.

Amy followed his example and didn’t back down. The directors had eventually warmed to her when they realized she wasn’t a ball of fluff and knew what the hell she was doing. Now they guarded her like a queen in a fairy castle. Any white knight attempting to rescue her was drowned in the moat before a single digit touched her drawbridge.

Amy sighed and drew the paper toward her again. She didn’t need rescuing, she needed male contact. She needed to get laid. Was it asking so much? Out of the millions of men in Los Angeles, wasn’t there one with balls enough to scale the battlements and fuck her good and proper?

She buried her head in her hands. It was more than that. She wanted to laugh again, feel the warmth of another body next to hers as she slept, to not be single at a table of couples. She wanted Josh Colbert.

She couldn’t say when she’d realized Josh was the main person responsible for chasing away would-be suitors. She’d noticed it by accident two months before at a party. Some actor had cornered her over a platter of mini-quiches—a nice-looking man, with an interesting smile, who seemed capable of intelligent conversation. Amy had been intrigued. She’d turned away to set her champagne glass on the tray of a passing waiter. When she looked back, the man was gone. Josh had him by the arm, their heads bent in serious conversation. The actor moved on to other prey, studiously ignoring her.

Curiosity had her seek out another male at that same party. Josh wasted no time cutting him off. Then another and another, until Amy was fairly certain she had the answer she was looking for. Josh wanted her for himself. So she’d flashed him what she presumed was a knowing smile over the fresh champagne flute she’d toyed with. His brown eyes had dilated, his nostrils flared while his long fingers tightened around his glass. Her glance down had revealed his tux was considerably tighter across his crotch.

Yes, definitely interested.

Getting him to make a move, however, was a different issue.

Years of marriage had taught her a lot about male pride. She couldn’t come right out and confront Josh with how he felt, not when she couldn’t be sure how he’d react. Now that her eyes had been opened to the possibilities, she wanted him in her arms, not running the other way screaming denial.

Josh and Dan had been friends for a long time. Dan had given Josh part of the start-up money to help get the Los Angeles franchise of Colbert Escort and Security Services going. It had turned out to be a good investment. Dan had recouped his investment and then some in less than six months. Josh had been more than grateful for the help.

Amy needed to make sure that elephant was banished completely. Josh had to admit he wanted her because that’s what he wanted, not out of any feeling that he owed Dan, or, heaven forbid, that he had to protect Amy from all the men in the world, even himself.

Josh wasn’t inclined to let other men near her. He wasn’t inclined to approach her either. Someone needed a little prodding. She’d been alone long enough. They were going to resolve this. Either Josh would step up to the plate and admit his feelings, or he would step away and let Amy move on. Although doing the latter felt akin to another death all over again. Her heart and body were set on him.

Since that party she hadn’t been able to get Josh out of her mind. His smile, his laugh, the light in his eyes, the way the edges of his brown hair curled ever-so slightly against his collar. She’d seem him dressed to the nines and stripped down to swim trunks. His looks could devastate a woman’s senses no matter what he wore. Amy could almost feel herself tucked against that hard body as they danced. Could easily imagine his weight bearing her into the mattress as she wrapped her legs around him. Could almost taste his lips as they merged with hers.

Damn his stubbornness. The man needed a serious wake-up call.

It seemed like hiring an escort from his company was as good a place to start as any. Perhaps that would open his eyes.

Her palms sweated as she reached for her cell phone. She wiped them on her white shorts. There’d be no tennis with the girls today if this worked according to plan. The privacy of her home was a good place for a trial run. Her friends often teased her, but Amy was really glad now that she and Dan had never had live-in staff. The cleaning, landscaping, and pool maintenance services all came once a week. If she had a large gathering, which hadn’t happened since before Dan’s passing, she hired a caterer. It was one of the smartest moves she’d ever made. The one she was about to make remained to be seen.

She punched in the number before her courage failed her. A woman picked up on the second ring, answering in smooth, cultured tones. “Colbert Escort and Security Services, how can we help you today?”

You can get Josh Colbert’s tight buns over here.

“I’d like a dinner escort for this evening. I’d like to inquire about your special services and rates.”

That ought to get his attention. Colbert wasn’t a front for prostitution. Their agreements were very specific about the services they provided, and especially those they did not provide. But many of the escorts were trained massage therapists. The prospect of Amy nude with a man’s hands roaming her body ought to give him pause.

“Excellent. I’m Nancy and I’ll be more than happy to make the arrangements.” Her confidence boosted Amy’s. This ploy really might work. “Let’s start with the basics.”

That involved Amy’s name, address, phone number, billing information. They progressed to the evening’s date—where she wanted to go, if she wanted limo service. She opted for a quiet dinner in a romantic restaurant and no limo.

“Excellent.” She heard the keyboard tap out the information through the phone. “Now for our special service… Do you want male or female? Before or after the date, or for an extended period of time?”

Amy’s confidence faltered. What if this didn’t work? Suddenly being naked, even under innocuous circumstances with a strange man didn’t feel so enticing. The last thing she wanted was to set up a schedule for massages when she already had one.

“Let’s forget about that one.”

“Gone. If there should be a need, please know your escort is fully trained in all the arts.”

She resisted the urge to ask which ones. Getting Josh’s attention was one thing, making veiled innuendoes about his business was another. She wanted him in her bed, not pissed off.

“Now, what type of man would you like? Being as specific as possible will help us match your wishes.”

“Well, I’d like for him to not look like he’s fifteen.” She and Josh had frequently joked about how young everyone was starting to look to them.

Nancy’s soft laughter filtered back. “Boy, do I know what you mean. Lately, they’re all starting to look like high school students to me. Our boss teases me about that all the time.”

Amy smiled. She’d bet some of their older clientele liked them looking on the young side. Maybe she should really rattle Josh’s cage and pick the youngest escort she could find. No, this had to be believable if she was going to pull it off.

“No baby faces,” Nancy said, and Amy heard the click of the keyboard as the woman typed in the information. “What else?”

“No taller than six feet. No shorter than five-ten. More muscle than lean but not overweight. I also want him fit, not muscle bound. Brown hair and eyes. Strong hands, a good sense of humor, well read, a gentleman, punctual, and…” Laughter swallowed the rest of her list. “I guess I was a little too specific.” She’d pretty much described Josh.

“Not at all,” Nancy quickly assured her. “We want you to have a good time. You won’t be able to do that if you’re focused on some facet you find distressing. Anything else?”

“No, that’s all I can think of.”

“Excellent, give me a few seconds to access our files to see who’s available. Ah, here we are. Brian Ross. In fact, he just walked in and is nodding his acceptance as we speak. Would you like to talk to him?”

“No. That won’t be necessary. I’ll see him tonight.” Unless she missed her guess, Brian Ross wouldn’t get within five miles of her house.

“Good. Six it is. One of our representatives will be by shortly with paperwork for you to sign. We have to ensure you’re completely aware of the services you’ve requested, and of the ones we cannot provide. You’ll also have our nondisclosure agreement. We want nothing to distract from the evening. This gets it all out of the way before then to help keep the night enjoyable.”

“Wonderful.” Perfect, in fact. “Thank you. I appreciate your attention to the small details.”

“Thank you so much for calling Colbert Escort and Security Services.”

Amy set the phone down. Phase One complete. Now for Phase Two—wait for Josh to show up and pray her minimal acting skills held up.

A Corner Of My Soul by Caitlyn Willows

CornerSoul

 

A CORNER OF MY SOUL
by Caitlyn Willows
Short Paranormal Suspense
April 2008
Cover Art – Trace Edward Zaber

Natalie Gray has lived in a corner of Doug Carlyle’s soul since the day they met. She’s his light in a dark world, the good that cuts through the evil his mind too often sees. She’s his anchor, his heart, his future. The world and all its horrors can wait. This is the time for them. He wasn’t anticipating someone else had a different agenda. He won’t be caught unaware again. Natalie’s become a part of his mind. Now he has to shut her out to save their lives. That alone is a tricky balance that could cost him the love he holds so dear.

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Reviews:

5 STARS! This new offering from Caitlyn Willows is unlike anything I’ve ever read from her. While reading her work is usually a guaranteed substitute for foreplay, this dramatic story of suspense and intrigue left me feeling nauseous from the tension at times as well as breathless with the passion at others. I loved Doug for wanting to get to know Natalie, to woo and court her before he fell into the sack with her even though he knew from the beginning how she felt about him. I loved him even more when he read in Natalie’s mind that she’d come to protect him and he felt humble gratitude. I could identify with Natalie’s belief that she was best for the job because, to save someone she loves, she would fight harder than anyone else. She wouldn’t give up before there was no breath left in her body. I was also thrilled that when I thought I had everything figured out, there was another twist that surprised me. With the building sexual tension and the wonderfully escalating danger, by the end I felt my emotions had been manipulated by a master. Don’t miss A Corner of My Soul. ~ Karen Haas, Just Erotic Romance Reviews

FOUR ANGELS! [A]n exciting, erotic adventure from beginning to end. Doug and Natalie have great chemistry and are both delightful, intriguing characters that were fun to get to know and easy to like. I really enjoy Ms. Willows’ smooth, comfortable writing style and the heat she adds to every story. A Corner of My Soul is a fast-paced romp with sensual, sexy encounters that are sure to excite and delight readers. ~Tammy, Fallen Angel Reviews

FOUR HEARTS! The climax is chilling and satisfying. [A] spooky and engrossing novella. ~Lynn Bushey, The Romance Studio

Excerpt:

Doug Carlyle reeled his fishing line across the water, hoping to entice a bluegill into grabbing the fly. It was all about patience. He’d learned that from the cradle up, right here at the family cabin every summer. The lesson had served him well in life, so had the hours perched on his dad’s knee—or grandfather’s or uncle’s. When work was especially tough, Doug wrapped himself in the love of his family, if only in his mind. Here on the lip of this beautiful freshwater lake, he could recharge from the horrors work thrust his way. Sunlight glinted off the blue-green surface like a million stars at night. The breeze sifted through the towering trees and calmed his soul.

It was especially nice to be here when summer heat melted a person to nothing in the city and all the crazies came out. Although, with late afternoon thunderstorms starting to move into the mountains, it might wind up being colder than Doug preferred. If the rain got too bad, he’d not only be stuck inside the cabin, he’d be stranded when the roads washed out. Just him and the thoughts and voices of others that crept into his mind.

He sighed and cast his line again. He had books, beer, supplies, blankets, and extra jackets in the closet if the walls closed in and he needed to walk it off. He’d manage. He always did.

Doug couldn’t remember when he’d realized he was different from other children. In his family his ability was a given. Doug was glad for that. They had the “sight,” as his grandmother called it. They’d shown him how to use it wisely, how to deal with some of the things he saw that weren’t so nice, how to protect himself. Still, no one was happy when he’d decided to go into profiling. The discipline involved with that work helped him hone his gift and have it mean something.

The family respected his need to make a difference, but they worried. He’d seen it in their minds. They helped him stay grounded despite their concerns, giving him distance when he needed, wrapping him in love when he needed that too. Without that he risked overload. It had happened to his older cousin with near lethal results—another reason the family didn’t want Doug involved in police work of any kind. At that point it was a little too late. Doug had made the commitment and wouldn’t back away from it. He monitored himself daily, sometimes hourly, to keep in check and notice the internal signals telling him it was time to clear his head of the garbage collected from other people.

So he lounged in one of the two Adirondack chairs on the dock built by his maternal grandfather, cold beer and bottled water in a cooler by his side. The cabin, with the wooden steps Doug and his father had built the year before were a mere stone’s throw away. The motorboat tied next to him bobbed as if begging to be taken out for a spin. His family had left the day before, giving Doug a few days to cleanse his mind before heading back to work. He missed them, but he also treasured this quiet time. No one’s thoughts to intrude on his. No having to put up his blocks. At least no one in his general vicinity.

People occasionally occupied other cabins dotting the lakeshore. The closest at the moment was at the farthest end a mile down, and Doug could tune the honeymooners out. It wasn’t easy when their passion poured his way. With his family gone and without the distraction they’d provided, sexuality from the couple seeped into Doug’s head, adding to the agony of being away from the woman of his dreams. He felt like a voyeur beating off each time to give himself relief, imagining himself sliding into Natalie Gray while he did so.

Oh, well…what they don’t know…

Smiling, he cast his line again. That’s when he felt the presence of another drift into his head, and not just any other person. Natalie was driving up the road.

He parked his fishing rod in the bracket and stretched to his feet to face the arrival. Nothing the honeymooners could project would equal the feeling of seeing Natalie pull her Ford Escape to a stop before the cabin, right behind his Jeep Cherokee. She’d lived in a corner of his soul from the first time they’d met the previous year. At the time they’d both been involved with other people. He’d known the instant he’d seen her that she was the one…and he hadn’t been able to do a thing about it, except be patient and wait until the time was right.

He’d ended his own relationship right away. Doug couldn’t continue being with Bette when he knew she was out there. It wasn’t fair. He liked Bette too much to use her. Two months later, Bette met the love of her life. Now they were married with a baby on the way. It hadn’t take long for Natalie to be single once more either. Still he waited for that perfect moment, wanting her more than anything else, yet content to get to know each other better.

He’d felt a nudge from the universe that last time they’d had coffee. It wasn’t the most opportune time since he was leaving for the cabin within hours. Once she was finally in his arms, Doug knew he’d never want to let her go. All he could do was sow a seed for when he returned—a subtle touch up her arm, along with a promise to see her when he got back. The warmth that had pulsed from her when he’d done so had made it doubly hard to leave. He’d missed her like crazy every day since, took her image with him to bed each night in the crowded cabin. No wonder he’d caved so quickly from the honeymooners. Now Natalie was here, firing up his libido, wiggling into his heart all the more.

Doug opened his mind and probed hers. She was here on business, but he also felt joy overlaid on the dark news she had to deliver. Happiness rippled through her when she waved and flashed him a smile. He waved and smiled back, heartbeat racing in time with hers. His erection rivaled the size of the pine trees around them. He shoved the tips of his fingers in his jeans pocket and watched her pick her way down the wooden steps toward him, wanting her more with every inch that brought her closer.

She’d gone casual for her visit wearing jeans, sneakers, and a dark green T-shirt that came a hair shy of clinging to her torso. Her long brown hair was pulled up in a ponytail that dangled to her shoulders. Sunlight filtering through the treetops and dark clouds glinted off the red highlights. When left loose, her hair shone like treasure. Doug knew it would feel like thick strands of silk running through his fingers. He wanted to drown in the smell of her, that combination of scents unique to Natalie alone.

“I should have known better than to try to sneak up on you.”

Who needed the sun when there was a smile like that beaming on him?

“When did you know I was here?”

Doug shrugged. “Probably when you turned down the road. It’s hard to tell. I was fishing, pondering the lint in my navel, and wondering when the newlyweds on the other side of the lake were going to go at it again.”

Natalie laughed. “Hard life.”

He grinned. “Very hard when they’re hot and heavy.” And I want you so bad I can taste it.

She’d reached the bottom step. Her brown eyes sparkled with humor. She was genuinely glad to see him, despite her original reason for seeking him out. Doug wanted to delay that discussion as long as possible.

“It was a long drive for you. Would you like a beer or a bottle of water?” He reached for the small cooler between the chairs, already knowing her selection.

“Sure.” Obviously she knew he knew. Doug liked that. Natalie had always accepted him for what he was. Not once had she questioned anything.

Her long fingers brushed his as she took the water. A tingle zipped up his arm and he felt the jolt of impact in her head. Perhaps putting up some walls would be polite.

“I would have called, but someone’s cell phone seems to be off.” Natalie twisted the cap off and took a long drink.

Doug’s gaze locked onto the slender column of her neck as she swallowed. The image of her lips wrapped his cock, sucking him down doubled his agony. “What can I say?” He shrugged a shoulder and motioned her to one of the chairs. “Spotty service. Forgot to bring the charger. I’m on vacation.”

“The dog ate my homework. The sun was in my eyes. My shoelace was untied.” Natalie eased into the low-slung chair with a contented sigh. “God, it’s beautiful up here. I haven’t been to the mountains in ages. I could fall asleep right here, right now.”

“Go ahead. I’ll wake you in an hour…if the storm doesn’t open up first.”

They eyed the darkening sky.

“It looks like the clouds might win that race.”

“You realize if it starts to rain we’ll be stuck here for a bit. You don’t want to be on those roads in a storm. Flash floods, mudslides…”

Natalie took another sip of water and stared at the lake, now turned gray-green and choppy from the approaching storm. “I can think of worse fates than being stuck in a mountain cabin with you.”

Doug grinned like he’d hit the jackpot. As a matter of fact, maybe he had.

She glanced at him from the corner of her eye. “Your pole’s bent.”

Thinking of the erection swelling his jeans, Doug started to glance down.

She snickered. “Your fishing pole.”

Doug laughed at himself. “Sorry.”

“No, you’re not.” She winked and polished off the water.

“You caught me.” He pulled the rod from its brace and reeled in a bluegill. “Looks like you’re my good luck charm. This is my first bite since I’ve been here.”

“Always happy to help.”

“Stay the night, and I’ll be happy to cook you dinner as your reward.”

Natalie eyed the sky, then cast him another sidelong glance. “Now that’s an offer I can’t refuse.”

“Great.” He unhooked the fish and placed it in the second cooler of ice. As much as Doug wanted her, there was that nasty business that had brought her here. “Now that we’ve had foreplay, want to tell me why you’re really here?”

All trace of humor faded. Doug was damn glad he’d put his walls up. He didn’t want to see the darkness in her mind. She was going to share it soon enough.

Natalie closed her eyes, rested her head against the back of the chair, and folded her fingers over her stomach. “Give me a bit. I’d like to soak up a few more minutes of peace.”

“Take as long as you need.” Doug tossed out his line. Anything to keep the world’s darkness at bay. Anything to keep her with him as long as possible.

Always Faithful (Rules of Engagement) by Caitlyn Willows

AlwaysFaithful

 

ALWAYS FAITHFUL
by Caitlyn Willows
Erotic Romantic Suspense
September 2017
Totally Bound
ISBN 978-1-78686-244-0

They hunt a killer who will stop at nothing to protect his identity, even if that means threatening the one link between them—their son.

When Staff Sergeant Rowan McKinley is charged with murder, she wants the best defense counsel the Marine Corps has to offer—Captain Phillip Stuart. Seeking his help means opening old wounds. It’s a risk she must take to save herself.

Phillip swore he’d never have anything to do with the one woman who had not only broken his heart but had crushed it. Helping her was personal suicide. But professionally, it could be the coup de grace of his career—that next rung on the ladder, the next challenge he was looking for.

The love and passion each thought gone sparks to life—only now it is forbidden by military law. Knowing the rules and adhering to them are very different matters. But who should make the sacrifice when both are destined to soar to the top of their ranks?

The choice might be taken from their hands. There is a killer with just as much to lose who will stop at nothing to protect his identity, even if that means threatening the one link between Phillip and Rowan—the son Phillip never knew he had.

Note: This book has previously been released elsewhere and has been revised and re-edited for re-release.

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EXCERPT:

Always faithful. Semper Fi. Captain Phillip Stuart shook his head at the term. ‘Faithful’ didn’t include forcing yourself on young girls or stealing cash out of a platoon buddy’s locker when they were out to sea on a training mission.

What has the Marine Corps come to? Thieves, murderers and rapists? The lot of them should be taken out and shot.

Of course, doing so would put military lawyers out of a job. Heaven forbid the little slime balls didn’t get a fair trial. Phillip was eternally grateful he no longer dealt with defense cases.

Shifting slightly on the hard courtroom chair, he straightened his papers and listened to the continuing drone of the defense attorney’s voice as she pled her client’s case. He didn’t know why she bothered. The look on the jurors’ faces indicated they had already found him guilty. It didn’t matter what extenuating or mitigating matters she threw out. Her client would go to jail for a very long time. He shifted again and let the squeaking wooden chair show his annoyance.

Laura Cushing shot him a glare from where she stood before the members. Good. He’d broken her concentration. Not easy to do. She was a tough opponent. But this long, drawn-out trial was stretching all their nerves to the breaking point.

After a few closing words, Laura sat, looking satisfied with herself. She was good. He was better.

Phillip stretched to his full six-four height and flexed his shoulders. With all the stealth of a jaguar stalking its prey, he approached the center of the courtroom.

Intimidate the witness. Impress the members. That was half the battle. A deep breath, a casual glance toward his opponent’s table, then…

He attacked, going straight to the heart of the case. He dissected Laura’s defense point by point, pulling apart the pieces with the precision of a surgeon. He let his words drift into the minds of those military members seated as the jury. Then, with the same lack of speed, he resumed his seat. The chair groaned under his weight.

Phillip sliced a glance at the defense table. The accused sat there, a fresh-faced young man all of nineteen. His big hands were clasped before him as if in prayer. It set Phillip’s teeth on edge. What right does he have to pray? Those young girls had begged and prayed before he’d forced himself on them. Had he listened?

Laura snapped to her feet and marched forward to take his place. It was no use. All the golden words she summoned could not save her client. Phillip knew it and so did she. After thirty minutes of deliberation, the members of the jury and the rest of the courtroom had realized it, too.

Phillip listened to the sentence with smug satisfaction. Twenty-five years at Leavenworth. That was what he called justice, although castration might not be a bad idea either.

In the back of the courtroom, one set of parents cried while the others—those of the victims—sighed with relief. The accused—the guilty—let his head drop. It was the only display of emotion he showed. No tears. No regrets. He didn’t flinch. Phillip fought the urge to demand to know if the man felt remorse for anyone but himself.

Once the judge had left the courtroom, the prisoner escort came in. Then the young Marine started bawling. Yeah, he had regrets—that he’d been caught. His father refused to look his way while his mother rushed to his side. She wrapped her arms around him in a hug he refused to return.

Rather than watch the guy be hauled away in shackles, Phillip celebrated his victory with a cigar on the back steps of the military justice building. How many times had he reflected on past and future glories in such a way? Lately, though, the battles left his stomach sour, more often than not.

There wasn’t much he hadn’t heard over his career. Most of it sickened rather than shocked him. Now, prosecuting the rabble of the Marine Corps tired him. Time to reach for the next rung on the ladder.

After graduating law school, he’d thought the way had shone clear, focused, his career path set. He shook his head. His goals had been regimented at the time. They had been all he’d had—a means to forget.

Unfortunately, they were still all he had. Phillip wasn’t sure he wanted those same goals anymore.

The door opened behind him. A rush of cool air brushed over his shoulders and back then stopped when the door closed. Phillip knew without looking that it was Laura. He could smell her perfume—an elusive scent that evoked memories of a long-ago time and someone else he wished he could forget.

She dusted off the step and eased down beside him, careful not to snag her hose on the concrete. Resting her forearms on her knees, she stared ahead.

“Congratulations. Another victory for the great and powerful Phillip Stuart.”

He chewed on his cigar and absorbed the view of the gray mountains surrounding Camp Pendleton.

“Sarcasm, Laura? How unlike you.”

“Cut the crap. That boy didn’t deserve twenty-five years in prison and you know it.”

“Please save me the she-asked-for-it speech. You didn’t have to listen to the sobs each and every time those girls told their stories before trial. Don’t tell me it was faked every time. I know better.”

She tilted her head his way. “Come on, Phillip. He’s only nineteen, still a teenager himself. It was consensual. Daddy caught them and she cried rape. If that girl shed tears, it was only because she got caught. This has been nothing but a witch hunt with an excellent cast of performers. The girl’s past conduct showed that.”

“Irrelevant. Forensics evidence proved their story.”

“It proved they had sex. There was no evidence to support assault of any kind.”

“We’re not talking about one girl here. We’re talking about six. There’s no way you’re ever going to convince anyone all six of them were lying. Get your bleeding-heart head out of the sand, Laura. We’ve had this discussion before. It’s over. Case closed.”

“Obviously, but have you asked yourself this? When you were nineteen, can you honestly say you could resist the charms of a willing sixteen-year-old?”

He leveled a frosty stare her way.

Laura gave an exaggerated wince. “What was I thinking? How dare I suggest you would be less than perfect?” She slowly shook her head and gave a soft, humorless laugh. “You are the most handsome man I’ve ever met—Mister Perfect, aristocratic features, golden hair. Poster Marine all the way. But you’re dead inside. You have no feelings, no compassion. Your eyes are the coldest gray I’ve ever seen—like a frozen pond in the dead of winter. I pity the woman who winds up with you.”

He blew a puff of smoke into the air. “I take it then that you’re saying it’s really over between us?”

She gave a small, bitter laugh. “Don’t flatter yourself and don’t play that game with me. It’s been over for quite some time now. It was never anything more than an occasional dinner with a friend, as far as I’m concerned.”

But the remorse in her eyes told a different story. He had regrets, too. He’d wanted her to be the one to erase the memory of another, to make him love and care and see goodness in the world once more. In the end she, like the few other women he’d dated over the last nine years, fell short of that need. She had been a stand-in, nothing more. Comparing Laura to—

No. Don’t go there. It hurt too much. It always did. If he lived to be a hundred, he doubted the pain and bitterness would ever die.

Phillip looked away to give her some shred of dignity. Or was it to hide the guilt seeping to the surface like a festering wound?

Laura pushed to her feet and slipped quietly inside the building.

He ground out his cigar on the cement steps and returned to his office. Victory no longer tasted sweet. Behind his gray metal desk, some stability returned.

His gaze drifted around his office, taking in the mementos of his career with the Marine Corps—his Amphibious Warfare School awards, the jump school medals in their rosewood frame, a souvenir shirt commemorating his time served in the Mediterranean aboard the USS Boxer. If there was an opportunity, he’d taken it. Anything to further his career. Somehow it still wasn’t enough. Even though his career was flourishing, he felt an emptiness he could not define.

The small picture of his family shoved into the corner of his desk caught his eye. The four Stuarts stood together at his graduation from Naval Justice School, looking uncomfortable. His father exuding aristocratic disapproval. His mother and sister Claudia smiled uncertainly as the camera caught them in such an atypical family moment.

They’d never understood why he’d had to do it—why he’d turned his back on the Stuart fortune. Phillip hadn’t bothered to explain. The year before, Claudia had come to the same realizations he had. Like her brother, it had taken a broken heart to open her eyes.

He turned the picture face down. On second thought, he shoved it into his drawer under a pile of paperwork. With everything else going through his mind, the last thing he needed to resurrect was his relationship with his family—particularly his father.

“Excuse me, sir?” His clerk stuck his head in through the office door. “There’s a package for you. It just arrived from the Commanding General at Twentynine Palms. Must be important because they made sure I signed for it.”

Phillip tore his gaze from the closed drawer. “Thanks, Corporal.”

He shut his mind to his family and accepted the bulky envelope. Once the door closed, he rummaged through the desk for his platinum letter opener, a concession gift from his father upon graduation from law school. Phillip kept hoping someone would steal it.

Then why keep the damn thing? The answer came too quickly. It was a trophy—a reminder of what his father was and what Phillip prayed he would never be.

With a flick of his wrist, he sliced open the envelope. The contents slid out onto the desktop and bold type near the middle of the page leaped out at him.

The accused, Staff Sergeant Rowan A. McKinley, requests your presence as independent military counsel…

Phillip’s face drained of color. His gut twisted. Breathing was out of the question.

Odd, when he had been thinking of her only minutes before. But then, when didn’t he think of her?

Beautiful, talented Rowan McKinley… The one woman he held up against the others. The one who hadn’t bothered to return his heart before she’d walked out of his life.

What the hell is she doing in the Marine Corps? More importantly, what had she done to need the services of a Marine defense attorney?

Time stopped as he grappled for the stack of papers—or maybe it took a giant step back. In either event, Phillip couldn’t put two coherent thoughts together. Before he could read on, the door to his office flew open. The tan, inquiring face of his best friend and fellow attorney, Captain Zachary Taylor, poked around the doorjamb.

“I got a call from a friend of mine at the base in Twentynine Palms. There’s been a murder involving a staff sergeant, some woman by the name of—”

“McKinley,” Phillip muttered. Afraid Zach would see the true depth of his feelings, he kept his gaze locked on the papers. “The case has been offered to me.”

Zach lunged for the papers, snatching them out of Phillip’s grasp. “Well, aren’t you Mr. Popularity. Let’s have a look-see.”

He scanned the request form, eyes widening. “Why you? You’re not a defense counsel. This staff sergeant could have any military attorney at that base or even a civilian lawyer, providing she could afford one.”

Zach glanced up before Phillip could mask his feelings. The teasing stopped as Zach’s deep brown eyes narrowed with suspicion. He knew Phillip too well. A definite downfall in having a best friend.

“What is she to you?”

“What was she, you mean.” Phillip met Zach’s steady gaze with one of his own. “She was once the most important person in my life.” His mouth twisted and he whispered, “The bitch.”

Zach tossed the papers back to the desk. “That’s funny. I’ve known you for over eight years and you’ve never mentioned her.” He dropped into the chair across from Phillip, resting his feet on the edge of the desk. “Why the big secret? What’s the story?”

Phillip sighed and copied his friend’s position. Zach’s ability to focus on and unearth information was uncanny. Now those relentless abilities were focused in his direction. He forced a deep breath and sketched out his turbulent history with Rowan McKinley.

* * * *

Rowan drew her knees up against her chest and wrapped her arms around them in an effort to control her shaking. Nine hours of confinement in this tiny cell and she still hadn’t been allowed to speak with or see anyone—not that they would listen to her, anyway.

Fools.

She took pride in her work. Her record reflected that. Legal administration might not be the blood and guts of the Corps, but it was important. Every separation, every investigative report that crossed her desk was dissected until nothing was left in question. So why would her word be doubted when she suspected foul play in the Lava training area?

Imagining things. That was what Rowan had been told over and over again, despite the five seemingly unrelated incidents that had come across her desk in the last month. Only Charlie would listen and now he was dead.

She was sure the command would see she was right, but the finger of blame was now pointed in her direction.

Rowan rested her head on her knees then winced as the bruised and swollen side of her face protested at the contact. Rocking back and forth on the metal-framed cot, she tried to quell the panic that threatened to overwhelm her. It was so close in the holding cell and she was so alone.

“Stop it!” She pushed the words through clenched teeth. “This isn’t going to help you at all.”

She flicked her gaze to the camera mounted in the corner of the room on the other side of the cell partition. Its baleful eye watched her every motion, allowing her no privacy. This portion of the room was small, too small. The cell’s dimensions barely spanned ten feet across. Even the dim light in the hallway didn’t help.

Rowan closed her eyes. Breathe. Take deep breaths. No hyperventilating.

Phillip was her only chance at getting out of this. She had to be strong—strong enough to endure the claustrophobia closing in, strong enough to face him again.

Phillip. She had forgotten nothing about him. How could she when she lived with his image every day? The way the sun gleamed off his golden head, the ready smile and his eyes.

God, those eyes! They could burn like quicksilver when his temper flared or glow a soft, satiny gray when they made love.

She was probably a fool for contacting him after all these years. But there was no doubt she needed his help and she would accept whatever consequences resulted from having him back in her life. Only Phillip could save her now. That was, if he accepted her request for his services.

The hallway door opened. The roar of the evaporative coolers lessened. A military policeman walked in and glared at her through the bars. “Your request for counsel has been expedited. They’re waiting for the captain to either accept or decline the case.”

“How long will that take?” Rowan fought in vain to keep the quiver from her voice. “When will I be able to contact my family?”

“You work in legal. You tell me.” He lowered his voice. “Frankly, I hope you get what you deserve. He was a friend of mine, murderer.”

He slammed the door in his exit, putting pressure back on the cooler. The roar this time was nothing compared to the pulse of blood in her ears.

“Yeah, he was a friend of mine, too,” Rowan replied to no one.

She tucked herself into the farthest corner of the cot, her despair as smothering as the walls surrounding her.

 

To Die For by Caitlyn Willows

 

ToDieFor

 

TO DIE FOR
by Caitlyn Willows
Romantic Suspense – Novel
June 2017
Totally Bound
ISBN – 978-1-78651-155-3

The sound of her voice saved a cop’s life…and put a target on her back.

Zoe White’s got a voice to die for and the full-figured body to match it. Sad that it’s taken another officer’s near tragedy to spur Detective Frank Ludwig into finally making his move. Now that he has, Frank’s determined to be Zoe’s hero when her unselfish act skylines her to a killer. It doesn’t take him long to realize Zoe doesn’t need a hero. She’s a survivor, perfectly able to defend herself…and Frank, too, when the chips are down.

What’s a guy to do when his woman “man’s up” before he does?

Then he learns just how much Zoe has sacrificed to recover from past demons, and how determined those same demons are to destroy her again. He realizes there’s more to being a hero than fighting bad guys. A true hero helps the woman he loves retrieve the final fragments of her shattered life. Yes, Zoe can clearly defend herself. Now he’s depending on her staying alive long enough so he can be the hero she needs.

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Publisher’s Note: This book has previously been released elsewhere. It has been revised and re-edited for re-release with Totally Bound Publishing.

EXCERPT:

Fear clawed at Zoe’s gut, fighting its way to the surface. Prickles of the monster she’d buried zinged beneath her skin, searching for a way out.

People. She had to be around people. If she went home, another monster might be waiting. Zoe wouldn’t risk it—not until she had control firmly in her hands, not until she could face whatever hell awaited her with dignity and strength. Having her .38 in ready reach wouldn’t be bad either.

Gun trumped knife every time. Too bad she’d gotten out of the habit of carrying the weapon. Zoe would rectify that once she got home. Being without threat had made her careless. If she wasn’t diligent…

Dead. She’d be dead.

No. That was why she had the black belt—to protect herself.

Could she keep her wits about her and remember how to use those skills? Besides, all the martial arts moves in the world couldn’t win over a gun. She needed that weapon in her possession.

Zoe gasped for breath, fighting hyperventilation.

Burt’s Diner. That was where she could go. Open all night. Always someone there. A favorite place for cops. She’d grab a bite and order her thoughts—make a game plan.

Zoe scanned the jumble of signs, looking for that familiar red one. Have I passed it? She’d been so upset that she barely remembered leaving the station. Where the hell am I? Certainly not pointed toward home. She nearly wept with relief when she spied her beacon a block ahead. A Holiday Inn Express was across the street from it. That was an option she hadn’t considered. She’d check in for a night—maybe two—get a room on the top floor and hole up until this was over.

She snorted at her foolishness. This was never going to be over—not until one of them was dead. Zoe didn’t plan on that being her.

She eased into the parking lot and found a spot next to the restaurant. Maybe luck was on her side tonight. Pulling in slow breaths to calm her shattered nerves, she cut the engine. Xavier didn’t know where she lived. Chances were slim he’d recognize her on the street—as long as she kept her mouth shut. The encounter had been an isolated incident. Why would Xavier care? He was rattling her to show he was a big man, nothing more. Old fears ran deep, though. Too deep.

He knows where you work now.

True. Zoe wondered if her subconscious had steered her to take an alternate route home.

Silly. The shooting was across town. There’s no way he could—

She cut off the thought. There was always a way for a determined person, and he’d sounded damned determined. Thank goodness, her parents were vacationing in Maui and her sister visiting friends in New York. They were safe from him. Xavier couldn’t have picked a better time to make his move. For another panicked moment, Zoe wondered if he’d planned this. Just as quickly, she dismissed the idea. Xavier never planned anything. He was volatile, driven by rage and a very short temper.

Damn it all. She’d thought this was in the past. Now she’d inadvertently crossed paths with him. His threat wasn’t an idle one. Xavier would hunt her down. It was only a matter of time.

Not if the cops get him first.

Zoe was counting on that. Talk about determination. Xavier had killed a police officer tonight, seriously wounding another. He was a marked man. She prayed they got to him before he got to her.

Athorough look around the parking lot confirmed her safety. Still, she didn’t let her gaze or attention wander as she looped her purse strap over her shoulder, clutched the hobo bag against her side and stepped from her F-150 truck. Her rubber-soled ankle boots thunked on the sidewalk. Zoe wasted little time getting inside. Once the doors closed behind her, she let the hostess’s smile scatter the dark shadows lingering in her mind…at least for the moment. The woman’s nametag identified her as Jennifer.

“One?” she asked.

“Yes, just one,” Zoe said.

Jennifer plucked a menu from the box attached to the pedestal behind her. “Table or booth?”

Under normal circumstances, her answer would be ‘table,’ but Zoe didn’t want to be that exposed tonight. “Booth. Away from the window.” Her back against the wall with a clear view of the entrance.

“Right this way.” Jennifer led her down the aisle, nodding to other diners as she took Zoe into the bowels of the restaurant.

Zoe saw the men and women too late. Twelve police officers and detectives occupied a large section of tables in the back room where Jennifer intended to seat her. Zoe plucked at the woman’s long white sleeve in a vain effort to subtly catch her attention. Again, too late. One by one, the men and women stopped what they were doing, all gazes latching on to Zoe. Chairs slid over the carpet as they stood and applauded her.

She wanted to crawl into a hole and never come out. The only thing that kept her feet rooted in place was the pride on Frank Ludwig’s face. Zoe’s heartbeat triple-timed.

“Come join us.” Officer Joanie Robertson yanked over a chair from a nearby table, while Frank’s partner, Theo Garcia, waved Zoe toward them.

Only that morning, Robertson had gone out of her way to avoid her. Zoe was their hero tonight. Tomorrow, things would go back to how they had been. Zoe didn’t want to muddy the waters by socializing.

She’d heard what some of her coworkers said behind her back. A few even said it to her face. Some of them meant well, but others didn’t. Zoe’d learned to live with scathing remarks, dirty looks and kindhearted suggestions. After all, she had only herself to blame for the way she looked. She wasn’t a small girl. But Frank—hot Frank who shared her bed in Zoe’s nightly fantasies—accepted her with no questions, no attempts to change her. Their friendship was unconditional.

“No, thank you.” She combined her refusal with a polite smile she didn’t truly feel. “It’s been a long shift. I need to decompress.”

Jennifer motioned to a booth just inside the room. “How’s this?”

“Perfect.” She could sit with her back to them and still have a clear view of the front door. She slid onto the narrow seat and accepted the menu from Jennifer.

“Anything to drink?”

A bottle of your cheapest wine—and put a straw in it. “Iced tea, no lemon.”

“Coming right up.”

Zoe stared at the menu. Conversation behind her fell to whispers. Words swam before her eyes. Damn. She was going to start bawling right here. A shadow blocked the light. The second she glanced up, Frank slid in beside her.

“Scoot over.” He butted his hip against hers.

“What are you doing?” Zoe refused to budge.

“I’m sitting with you. What does it look like?”

She flicked her fingers toward the opposite seat. “Then sit there.”

“You know I can’t sit with my back to the door.”

“It looked to me like that’s what you were doing over there.” She motioned to the party behind them.

Frank shrugged. “I lost the toss. Only fair way to determine seating when you have a table of cops.” He nudged again. “Scoot.”

It occurred to Zoe that she could move to the other seat, but that meant depriving herself of the brief joy of having Frank next to her. The man made her feel all kinds of crazy happy inside—safe and sheltered, small and feminine. Worry and fear didn’t dare bother her with Frank by her side. His sheer personality warned them away. She wanted to lean into his solid body and cry her heart out.

“How nice you ran into your husband.” Jennifer put down a tall glass of iced tea.

Reality slapped Zoe’s daydreams to bits. “Oh, he’s not my husband.”

Frank plopped his hand over hers and squeezed. “Not yet.”

Jennifer’s smile drained the power grid. “When’s the wedding?”

“We’re not engaged, either.” Zoe slipped her hand from under his and grabbed her straw.

“Not yet.” Frank dropped his hand to her thigh, shocking Zoe senseless. Her clit cheered at how near he was to it. Juices flowed in anticipation of more. “I’m still trying to get her to notice me.”

Jennifer’s gaze ping-ponged between them. Her smile dimmed while she probably pondered a response—or planned how she could get Frank for herself. Although he was a bit old for her. Hell, he was a bit old for Zoe, too, but that didn’t stop her from lusting after him. She’d calculated around a ten-year age gap. Her fantasies of him pressing her to the nearest wall and fucking her senseless didn’t care. A thread of jealousy twined its way to the surface. If Jennifer started flirting—

“Then I’m guessing this will all be on one ticket?” Jennifer finally asked.

“Absolutely.” This time Frank draped his arm around Zoe’s shoulders and squeezed.

Zoe steeled herself against the rush of emotion. What the hell is he up to? She was going to have to stock up on batteries before she went home tonight—if she went home—and she just might send the bill to Frank.

“We still need a few minutes,” he told Jennifer.

“I’ll make sure your server knows.”

Zoe waited until Jennifer’s back was turned then shrugged his arm away. “Quit joking. I’m not in the mood to be played with.”

A lie. Most nights, she wanted nothing more than for Frank to play with her. She stabbed her straw amid the ice cubes then took a long sip. Although at the rate her horniness was building, dumping the glass into her lap might be a better idea.

Frank rested his forearms on the table, body half-turned her way—which was quite a feat since he took up as much space as Zoe. “I’m not joking or playing. Consider this our first date.”

She stirred the ice, refusing to meet the gaze burning a hole through the side of her face. Tolliver’s death was going to have long-term repercussions. “Look. It’s been a long day. I know how grateful you are that—”

“It’s got nothing to do with gratitude.” He leaned closer, his warmth surrounding her. “Open your eyes, honey.”

She was clueless and didn’t feel like dancing around whatever he was hinting at, so she let her silence build a wall between them.

Frank eased away, taking that warmth with him. Zoe’s heart cried for the loss.

“I don’t think she could’ve seated us at a smaller booth.” Frank planted his feet on the floor and pushed the booth back. “That’s better.”

“Is that even allowed?” she whispered.

“What’s she going to do? Lock me up? I’m the poe-lease.” He thumbed his chest.

Zoe snickered. She knew she shouldn’t encourage him, especially when she was still displeased over his previous antics. She pretended her tea held more interest, which earned her his body bracketing hers once more. This was how it’d feel if they had sex—Frank looming over her, taking charge of their pleasure. God, she ached.

“Sure you don’t want something a little stronger than tea?” he asked.

“Driving.” Zoe drew her finger through the moisture beading her glass.

“I’ll see you get home safe and sound. After what you did today, you deserve a drink…or two.” His arm brushed hers. She’d rather have it around her again, even if he’d meant it as a joke.

“My truck—”

“I’ll either make sure it gets to your house or I’ll pick you up in the morning.” He traced his long fingers over hers. “You’re shaking.”

Fear coupled with a looming adrenaline crash does that to a person.

“What can I get you two cuddlebugs tonight?”

Zoe and Frank jumped at the server’s appearance. Norma hovered at the table, pad in hand, gray hair combed back in a tight ponytail that dangled in its mesh bag, making it resemble something pulled from a bathroom-sink drain. Zoe didn’t bother to correct Norma’s assumption they were a couple. What harm could come from pretending?

“The lady would like a glass of merlot. We’ll have patty melts with fries.” He glanced at Zoe for confirmation. At her nod, he told their server, “And an order of onion rings.”

“Coming right up.” Norma shot off.

Zoe had never seen anyone move so fast.

“I’m going to need the wine to scrub my veins from this high cholesterol meal.” She pushed her tea aside.

Frank took it for himself. “It’s comfort food, and we damn well deserve it—you, especially. We’re alive. It’s time we started taking advantage of that.”

He’d closed her in again, his body nearly surrounding her. Zoe didn’t give an inch. This was what it felt like to be near the man. She soaked it all in for her fantasies later.

“You saved a man’s life tonight, Zoe. That sweet voice of yours gave DiCarlo hope to hang on. Because of you, he’ll see his wife and kids again. There isn’t a cop on the force who hasn’t heard about it or listened to it play out over the radio.”

Did they also hear Tolliver’s last gasping breath? She hadn’t been able to save him. It had been a miracle she’d stopped Xavier when she had—a quirk of fate. Him hearing her voice had intrigued him enough to spare DiCarlo…and made her his new target.

Ay, chicasuch a pretty voice, like an angel in the night. Maybe I come see you, eh? Clip those wings again. Your friend here… He ain’t gonna last. I cut him deep. Try, bitch. You’re next, and I’m gonna make it hurt.’

“I’ll bet the sound clip’s already gone viral,” Frank said. “You know the newshounds have glommed on to it.”

Yes, they’d already started swarming the station for information as I was leaving work.

Zoe grabbed the merlot when the glass appeared and gulped down half.

“Easy, honey.” Frank put his arm around her, fingers tracing soothing circles on her shoulder. “The guys are on it. They’ll figure out who this asshole is and put him behind bars.”

Oh God. “They don’t know who he is?” A drop of wine splashed on the back of her hand. She was shaking, but she couldn’t loosen her death grip on the glass.

“Not yet. He wore gloves, had on a ski mask. Took the knife with him. Left no trace.”

Shit. Now what? She stared at that drop of wine, frozen on her skin as if time itself had stopped waiting for her to woman-up.

“I… I know who he is.” Zoe barely heard the words herself, so surely Frank hadn’t. She wasn’t sure she could dredge the courage to say them again.

“What? How?”

Her pride took a nosedive, but it was a small price to pay for taking a cop killer off the streets.

“Xavier Sanchez. We lived together years ago. I’m the reason he was sent to prison in the first place. That threat he made to me over the radio was real.” She drained the glass and signaled Norma for another.