Book Tour, Excerpt & Giveaway – THE FABERGE’ ENTANGLEMENT by Lesley Meryn & Elle Brookes

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Romance, Thriller, Suspense, Adventure
Date Published: July 2015
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THE FABERGÉ ENTANGLEMENT
Sabinne ‘Saber’ Darrieux’s father, the billionaire CEO of Frontenac Global Security has been kidnapped. His ransom is not cash in a numbered offshore account, or a briefcase of Bearer Bonds but something utterly unique, incredibly valuable, and until recently, hidden away from the world.
The kidnapper seems to know Saber very well and knows that the next day, through her work as an elite translator she will be in the same location as the Object. She must steal the Object and deliver it to the kidnapper to ransom her father.
Adrian Steele, a British Intelligence agent has just come off of two harrowing missions. Upon returning to London for a well-earned rest, he learns that his friend and a fellow agent have been murdered in Moscow, but not before he made use of a unique Object as a mobile ‘drop site’ for the valuable intelligence he was carrying.
The drop site is traveling from Moscow to England. Steele insists on completing the mission to honor the death of his friend, Gerry Cornell.
At an ultra-chic quasi-diplomatic gathering in a mansion in Windsor, England, Saber and Steele meet and find themselves faced with a powerful, undeniable attraction. But at the moment, this compelling attraction is very inconvenient.
In reality, they are at the mansion to check out the security arrangements — for their own reasons — to steal the Object, a Fabergé egg worth thirty million dollars. But who will get to the egg first?
Fabergé eggs are very famous for their unique surprises. Saber and Steele are about to be very surprised, indeed.
And when Saber clashes with Steele; more than sparks will explode!
Excerpt

He was more striking close up. The wire-framed glasses that had given him that bookish look were gone. As a matter of fact, at that precise moment there was nothing about him that was the least bit bookish. Now he looked more like a feral choirboy.

            Saber lowered her eyes taken in by the seductive curve of his jaw, and his lips parted in an expression of amazement that drew her closer, hypnotically, begging to be covered with her own. She pulled herself back, reminding herself why she was there, what she must do. Leaving him to be found by the Sheikh’s security men would be a pity, but she had a job to finish.                

            She knew her job; too, she was slick, professional. Her contribution to the family business was to test the security systems that were installed by Frontenac et Cie. She was always on-call to the “Uncles” between her translation assignments to do this testing. And she was very good at it. When caught in a tight spot, she was focused on the job at hand, holding back emotion, the fear of “capture” pushed away. Her focus was laser-like in intensity. She infiltrated the secured areas of high-security targets, grabbed the “package” then ex-filtrated as invisibly as a wisp of smoke. Reflection and reactions came after, as she wrote up her reports and advised the designers on flaws and vulnerabilities in their systems.

            But all this slipped away as she felt the light touch of his hands, feeling their heat through thin black leather gloves. They slid very slowly up her thighs, coming to rest lightly and seductively around her waist. She stifled a gasp as she felt his hot fingers press into her, very much a lover’s caress.      

            In scant seconds Saber’s focus for the job at hand, the reason that she was there to begin with, melted away as she felt his hands tighten around her waist. Her grip on the gun weakened as a wave of heat suffused through her.

            With a swiftness that took her breath away he closed the narrow gap between them. A hot flash of desire surged through her as his lips took possession of hers. Taking advantage of her surprise, he dashed the gun from her hand, sending it spinning away out of her reach. He flipped her over so she was now under him. Saber stared up at him wide-eyed, his lean, hard body on hers evoking a reaction from deep within her that was as intense as it was unexpected. Shocked, confused, she twisted her head away from his, but her eyes still kept a sidewise watch on him.

            He bent in closer. Dark eyes flashed dangerously through the long shag of hair that fell over his face. Then, very, very slowly as though savoring every moment, he slid his gloved hand along her arm, around her shoulder, then up her pale exposed throat.   

            Steele’s hand paused, feeling her pulse flutter wildly under his fingertips, before moving up to thread through her silky raven hair. His grip tightened and he turned her head to face him.

            “Mmmm… I can do it, too,” he breathed softly into her ear.

About the Authors
LESLEY MERYN
Enjoyed an exotic, adventure-filled childhood, following her anthropologist father and travel writer mother to the farthest corners of the world. She later took inspiration from her Aunt Sophia Francesca and became the author of romantic adventure novels. She alternates her time between Los Angeles, and a family property located in Yorkshire England.
ELLE BROOKES

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She is the author of the first two books of the Time Frame Series. Loves travel, discovering new foods to try, reading and writing. She currently lives in the central highlands of Costa Rica with her cat Nikola and her hedgehog Quiller.



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Book Tour, Giveaway & Excerpt – AVENGING KISS by Karen Tjebben

Psychological Romantic/Suspense
Date Published:  December 2016
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Some sins cannot be forgiven. Those must be avenged.
When Aditya Chopra stumbled upon the decimated camp, she vowed to hunt down the men who killed her sister. The stench of burnt flesh and the taste of death in the air haunt her dreams and power her lust for vengeance. She will show no mercy.
The men of Savage Security served their country. They’d done their time in the sandbox and now enjoy their peaceful lives in the States, far from the death and mayhem of war. Will living in peace blind them to the dangerous threat that’s poised to strike?

 

Excerpt

Adita had waited outside the American base, hoping to catch sight of him. His look was very distinct. At six foot four with hair the color of a raging fire, he’d been easy to spot. He’d pulled out of the base with another man in a jeep. The hot wind pulled at his scraggly red hair as he’d laughed at something the other man said.

She’d known where they were going. There was a hotel nearby that catered to Europeans and Americans. It boasted a full bar with live music, decent food, and willing women.

After donning her black garments and niqab, she’d made her way into the hotel. Other than the cameras that covered the entrances and exits, security at the hotel was poor. One only had to get inside to enjoy privacy.

 Adita had entered the hotel a few feet behind the men. As they’d headed towards the bar, she’d walked directly to the bathroom off the lobby. Entering the stall, she’d quickly removed her outer clothes and shoved them into her bag. Then she’d stopped in front of the bathroom mirror to check her appearance. After adjusting her skirt, she’d decided to open another button on her shirt. While he’d get a peek at her cleavage, she’d still look like a respectable woman. Playing a whore gathered too much attention. She’d added a touch of lipstick and powdered her face. And finally, she’d adjusted the Kanzashi Geisha sticks in her hair to make sure it would be easily accessible. Hidden inside the stick was a sharp two-sided blade. It was thin and slid easily from the decorative case. And after one more look in the mirror, she was ready.

She’d walked into the bar with the confidence of a Western woman and noticed Lieutenant Shaw sitting alone at the bar. His friend was dancing with a woman, his hand palming her ass and pulling her close to his body. Adita didn’t waste time. She needed to get to Shaw before he found someone to screw.

She’d slipped onto the bar stool next to him and offered him a shy smile. He’d grinned as he raked his gaze over her. His high-wattage smile had nearly knocked her over. The heat in his gaze as he’d mentally undressed her pleased her. She returned his smile and stared at his muscular arms as she bit into her bottom lip. With that one interaction, she knew that he wanted her. He’d come to the hotel in search of sex, and she didn’t plan to disappoint.

He’d been such an easy target. Arrogant men never realized the threat a woman could pose to them, and she’d tirelessly worked that advantage. They’d quickly exchanged names and engaged in meaningless chatter. But once she’d stroked his knee, he’d taken the bait and asked her to join him in a room.

She’d played coy at first, acting as if she’d needed to think about it. But then he’d leaned in close and whispered in her ear promises of pleasure. And then, as he’d pulled away, he playfully tugged on her earlobe with his teeth. She’d responded by stroking higher on his thigh. That worked for him, and he stood to go back to a room. His pants had tented nicely; apparently it didn’t take much to turn him on.

She’d followed him to a room. He’d unlocked the door and waited for her to enter first. As she’d stood in the entrance, he’d closed the door and turned the bolt. After a dangerous smile, he’d lifted her and pressed her against the wall with his muscular body. She’d instinctively wrapped her legs around his waist and her arms around his neck. In response, he’d rubbed his cock against her center. The pressure of his body against her had lit her up. He knew how to kiss, and Adita realized that fucking him would be fun. So many of the other men she’d entertained cared little about her pleasure. She hadn’t expected much from those lowlifes anyway. But little had they known that there was nothing more erotic than the warmth of your prey’s blood washing over your skin as you take their life.

About the Author

 

Karen Tjebben lives in central North Carolina with her wonderful husband, twin daughters, and two hamsters. When her girls left for kindergarten, Karen discovered that she needed to fill her days with something, and that was the beginning of her writing career. She loves to create worlds filled with unique characters that she hopes will delight and raise goose bumps on her readers. In her free time, she enjoys traveling with her husband and seeing the world through her daughters’ eyes.
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Book Blitz – HIS HAND IN THE STORM by Ritu Sethi

 

Mystery/Suspense/Thriller

Date Published: Dec 22, 2018

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A MAN COPES ANY WAY HE CAN AFTER KILLING HIS ONLY SON.

His team believes he’s calm and Zen. His boss finds him obsessive. Suspects think him gorgeous but dangerous. They’re all right.

Chief Inspector Gray James is sculpting the remembered likeness of his small son when he receives the call – a faceless corpse is found hanging by the choppy river, swirls of snow and sand rolling like tumbleweeds.

Montreal glitters: the cobbled streets slippery with ice, and the mighty St. Lawrence jetting eastward past the city. One by one, someone is killing the founders of a booming medical tech startup – propelling Gray into a downward spiral that shatters his hard-earned peace, that risks his very life, that threatens to force him to care and face what he has shunned all along: his hand in the storm.

From the prize-winning author comes a psychological, page-turning mystery with all the elements one needs on a rainy night: a complex murder, a noble yet haunted detective, and an evocative setting to sink into.

Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

April 1, 5:30 am

MORE NUMBING PAIN.

At precisely five-thirty am on April the first, Chief Inspector Gray James tucked his cold hands into his pockets, straightened his spine, and looked up.

He breathed out through his nose, warm breath fogging the air as if surging out of a dragon and tried to dispel the mingled hints of flesh, cherry blossoms, and the raw, living scent of the river.

The drumming of his heart resonated deep in his chest – brought on more by intellectual excitement than by any visceral reaction to murder. Because of this, Gray accepted an atavistic personal truth.

He needed this case like he’d needed the one prior, and the one before that. That someone had to die to facilitate this objectionable fix bothered him, but he’d give audience to that later. Much later.

A car backfired on le Chemin Bord Ouest, running east-west along Montreal’s urban beach park. A second later, silence ensued, save the grievous howling of a keen eastwardly wind, and the creak of nylon against wood, back and forth, and back and forth.

Heavy boots tromping through the snow and slush came up from behind. A man approached. Tall, but not as tall as Gray, his cord pants and rumpled tweed conveyed the aura of an absent-minded professor, yet the shrewd eyes – not malicious, but not categorically beneficent either – corrected that impression.

Forensic Pathologist John Seymour looked up at the body hanging from the branch of a grand oak, gave it the eye and said, “Well, I can tell you one thing right off.”

“What’s that?”

“You wouldn’t be caught dead in that suit.”

Gray sighed. “What do you suggest? That I refer the victim to my tailor?” To which Seymour shrugged and got to work.

With every creak of the rope biting into the bough, Gray half-expected the swinging shoes to brush the snow-laden grass; each time the cap-toed oxfords narrowly missed. A grease stain marked the bony protrusion of the left white sock (with a corresponding scuff on the heel – from being dragged?), above which the crumpled brown wool-blend fabric of the pants and ill-fitting jacket rippled in the wind – like the white-tipped surface of the river beyond.

Dawn cast a blue light on the water and snow. A damp cold sank through Gray’s coat and into his bones. Amazing how the usually peaceful beach park took on a menacing air: the St. Lawrence choppier than usual, swirls of sand and snow rolling like tumbleweeds, the sky heavy and low. But a children’s playground lay behind the hanging body, and its red swings, bright yellow slide, and empty wading pool offered a marked contrast to the swaying corpse.

With every flash, Scene of Crime Officers photographed the body and documented what remained: only an exposed skull, framed by sparse hair on top, ears on either side, and a wrinkly neck puckered in a noose. A red silk tie under the hangman’s knot accentuated the complete absence of blood. Blood would have been preferable. The features were stripped to the bone, with eroded teeth set in a perpetual grin as if the skull were enjoying a joke at everyone’s expense.

“White male in his early fifties,” Seymour said. “Well off, by the look of him. Only small bits of tissue left on the cheekbones, lips, and around the eyes. Notice the distinctive gap between the two front teeth.”

That could help with identification.

The custom ringtone on Gray’s cell played “She’s Always a Woman.” Why was she calling him so soon? He stabbed the phone and tucked it back into his cashmere coat pocket before circling the body several times.

“What killed him?” Gray asked.

“The facial trauma preceded the hanging.”

That much was obvious since the rope wasn’t eaten away like the face.

“We can’t know the cause of death until I get him on the slab,” Seymour said. “And before you ask, the time of death is hard to say. Parts of him are already frozen. Maybe four to seven hours ago. I’ll have a better window after I’ve checked the stomach contents and what’s left of the eyes.”

Seymour crouched and felt the victim’s knees and lower legs. “Rigor mortis has set in, probably sped up by the cold.” He rotated the stiff ankles. “Look at these tiny feet. Can’t have been too popular with the ladies.”

Gray closed his eyes and counted to five.

All around, professionals bustled gathering evidence, clearing onlookers and photographing the scene. The park lay sandwiched between the beach and parking lot leading to the main road. On one side, the river flowed eastward in a blue-gray haze, blurring the line between water and sky. On the other, traffic going into downtown Montreal grew heavier by the minute. The road led to his neighborhood, where Victorian and Edwardian homes, bistros, and cafés crunched together for ten hipster-infused blocks.

This park held memories of weekends spent with his wife and son. A lifetime ago. Why did it have to happen here, of all places?

“Did some kind of acid cause the burns, Doctor?”

“Yeah. Parts of the eyes are still there. Almost as if they were left for last. I wonder why.”

Gray could think of a reason but didn’t elaborate.

A gust of wind swung the corpse’s legs sideways, narrowly missing an officer’s head.

“What the hell.” Seymour grabbed the ankles. “The sooner we cut him down, the better.”

Which couldn’t be soon enough. Gray bent down and held the lower legs. He gripped the ankle awkwardly with his right thumb and little finger, the middle three immobile these last three years since the accident, and a snake-like scar running from his palm to his wrist blanched from the cold.

Despite his hanging on tight, the corpse danced in the wind. “Don’t rush on my account, Doctor.”

Finally, attendants cut the victim down and laid him on a stretcher. Seymour hunched over, his blond hair parting in the breeze, revealing a pink, flaky scalp, the grinning corpse powerless to refuse examination.

“Definitely acid,” Seymour said. “Going to be hard for you to trace, since it’s so easy to get. Impure sulphuric acid’s available at any mechanic shop. You find the purer kind in pharmaceuticals.” He flashed a penlight into the facial crevices and probed them with a long, needle-like instrument.

The victim couldn’t feel it, but each stab and scrape made Gray flinch. “Must you do that?”

“Look at these chipped bones,” Seymour said. “Here, next to the supraorbital foramen, and here on the left zygomatic arch. They’re edged off, not dissolved by acid.”

“Torture, right?”

“Could be.”

Gray paced his next six words: “Was he alive for the acid?”

“I’m going to have to brush up on vitriolage. If he were, he’d have breathed it in, and we’d see scarring in the esophagus, nostrils, and lungs.”

Looking around at the flat, deserted beach park, the ropy ebb and flow of the water, Gray said, “He didn’t die here, did he?”

“No. From what I can see, livor mortis indicates he probably died sitting and was strung up later. I’ll let you know after all his clothes are off.” Seymour pushed himself up with his hands, his knees popping like the report of a firearm. “What could the poor bastard have done to deserve this?”

Gray didn’t answer. As someone guilty of the greatest sin of all, he considered himself wholly unqualified to make any such judgment.

His cell played “She’s Always a Woman,” again, and he pulled it out. Images from the previous night played in his mind: her hands flat on the mattress, his palm encircling her belly from behind. And those unexpectedly strong martinis she’d made earlier.

Putting away the phone, he spoke brusquely. “When will you have something ready?”

“Preliminary report probably later today. And I’ll send remnants of the acid for analysis to determine the type and grade.”

As the body was carried to a van and Seymour followed, second-in-command Lieutenant Vivienne Caron approached Gray carrying two cappuccinos from a nearby Italian cafe. Wonderful steam rose from the opened lids, and the dark, nutty aroma drifted forward, the first hint of comfort on this bleak morning.

Her chocolate brown eyes exuded warmth – eyes both direct and shy, their color perfectly matching her short, straight tresses now whipping about in the wind and framing gentle features.

“Chief Inspector.” She addressed him formally, despite their longstanding friendship. The sound of her nearly perfect English was pleasant and familiar, beautifully accented with the musical intonation characteristic of certain Québecois.

Even though she held the coffee before his left hand; he grasped it awkwardly with his right.

“Don’t spill any on that thousand-dollar suit,” she said.

It made him gag. “Why do you always add so much sugar?”

“Because I know that with a juicy case to solve, you’ll be too busy to eat or sleep.”

A moment of silence passed between them, pregnant with history he didn’t want exhumed.

“I have to make sure you’re okay,” she said. “Even if you refuse to… She was my best friend.”

He placed a hand on her shoulder. “You live with Sita’s ghost more than I do. Enough time has passed for me.”

“Maybe. It’s changed you.”

“For the worse?”

Vivienne stilled, her mouth open. “Non. For the better. That’s the problem.”

Her eyes were warm yet partly adversarial. He saw it as the conflicting desire for wanting him to be okay, but not to leave her to grieve alone. She’d once told him the same trauma that had disillusioned her had enlightened him.

“It doesn’t matter what happens,” he whispered.

“Doesn’t matter?” Her voice took on an edge.

“As long as you can control your reactions – it doesn’t matter. Freedom comes from living in grays – no black; no white. No convenient polarities.”

Her eyes pierced his, but he knew, out of respect, she wouldn’t directly say what she thought; that he oscillated between Zen and obsession, contentment and blackness.

She shuffled her feet. “I don’t know how you made that leap, after the tragedy.”

“The worst thing that could ever happen to me has happened. After that, I can either fear everything or nothing – I have nothing left to lose.”

Vivienne didn’t reply.

What right had he to preach when he still experienced unguarded moments which filled his insides with quicksand as that malignant though raced through his mind: what do I do now? How do I fill this day and twenty years of interminable days when everything is for nothing? When this life feels surreal, dissociated as though I’m on a foreign planet with strangers.

Those moments often occurred when he didn’t have a case; they occurred before sleep and drove his nightly obsession.

“Living in Gray?” Vivienne shook her pretty head. “I believe in good and evil.”

“Then where do I fall? Or will you make excuses for me?”

“Non. I won’t make excuses for you. “

Her eyes hooded over; she took a step back. A door slammed between them, again.

“No cell phone, no ID,” she said. “Any footprints or tracks are covered by snow.”

“Let’s have someone check with the occupants of the hospital rooms facing the river.”

Westborough Hospital sat directly across the road. A magnificent feat of engineering, its four glass-walled buildings were connected by skyways. It had taken twenty years of fundraising to build (with its founding director recently fleeing to Nicaragua under allegations of embezzling some of those funds) and took up several square blocks.

Gray forced down the coffee. Already, warmth and caffeine coursed through his system, bringing life to his numb toes tucked inside the slush-soaked loafers. “Did you check with missing persons?”

“Only one recent report matches. Norman Everett of Rosedale Avenue in Upper Westmount. He’s only been gone since last night and reported missing by his step-son, Simon Everett. And of note, Norman’s a doctor at Westborough Hospital.”

Gray’s head shot up. “Missing since last night, and works at this particular hospital? The timing’s perfect. Give me his details. I’ll do the interview myself while you finish up here.”

“D’accord.”

She handed over the number, and he made the call to Norman Everett’s house, reaching the missing man’s wife, Gabrielle.

Before Vivienne could go, a Scene of Crime Officer jumped forward and handed Gray a transparent evidence bag.

“Found this by the tree over there, Chief.”

“How recent?”

“It lay just under the snow. The city cleaned this area recently; hardly any debris around.”

Gray thanked him and looked down at the four by six-inch identity badge, examined the photo, and read the identifying details, gripping it tight enough that his fist blanched. The image blurred for the briefest second before clearing.

Vivienne rubbed her hands together. “What’s wrong?”

He didn’t trust his voice yet. A shoal of uncertainties flooded his chest. The case suddenly became more raw, more urgent, but he’d handle it. He always did. Gray unclenched his jaw and fingers, and handed her the evidence bag.

“The killer?” she asked.

“A witness.”

“Look at that ID. Look what it says. You can’t be sure.”

“Yes, I can.” His tone came out harsher than he’d intended. He could guess her next words, and he’d deserve them. Does anything matter, now? Will you be able to control your reactions? But she didn’t say it. Didn’t point out the one circumstance that sliced his calm with the efficiency of a scalpel. Instead, she met his eyes in a gentle embrace before moving farther up the beach.

Bells sounded from St. Francis, the eighteenth-century cathedral up the road for the Angelus prayer. Quebec had the largest Catholic population in the country, and maybe as a result, the lowest church attendance and marriage rate. But the familiar ringing comforted and smoothed the sharp edges of his morning.

Gray left the cordoned off area, crossed the breadth of the beach park, and headed to the attached parking lot and his car; the black metallic exterior gleamed in the distance.

At one time, the Audi S5 had consumed a substantial chunk of his detective’s salary, but he hadn’t cared. Memories of countless family road trips lay etched within its metal frame.

Still twenty feet away, he pressed the automatic start to warm the engine, just as Seymour summoned him from behind.

The doctor jogged over sporting a wry smile, breath steaming in the cold air, and his long coat flapping. Behind him, the van carrying the body left the parking lot.

“I forgot to ask you earlier – about your next expedition,” Seymour said. “Mind having some company?”

“I failed last time,” Gray said. “Or hadn’t you heard?”

“A fourteen-hundred-kilometer trek to the South Pole, on foot, is hardly a failure.”

“It is if you can’t make the journey back. Anyway–”

A boom drowned out his words. The earth shook, and air blasted towards them, throwing Gray to the ground onto his right shoulder, pain searing up his arm. Chunks of metal and debris flew from the newly obliterated Audi in every direction, denting nearby cars and clanging against the pavement. A puff of smoke shot upward, chasing the flames, leaving the smell of burning rubber and metal hanging in a thick cloud – while cars on the nearby road screeched to a sudden halt. The fire swayed as though alive, angry arms flailing and crackling, spitting sparks in all directions.

“What the hell!” Seymour lay in the snow, his mouth open, his arm up to ward off the scorching heat.

Gray’s car lay mutilated, the black paint graying as it burned. People jumped out of their vehicles to take a look. Vivienne and some officers ran towards him, their feet pounding on the asphalt.

“Someone is damn pissed off at you,” Seymour said, eying his own dented Mercedes. He turned to Gray. “What did you do?”

A MYSTERY; A BEACH; A BEER:  Ritu’s favorite vacation day.

Ritu’s first book, His Hand In the Storm has had nearly 50,000 downloads. It became an AMAZON BESTSELLER  in the Kindle free store and was #1 in all its mystery categories. She needs coffee (her patch for Coca Cola), beaches, and murder mysteries to survive – not necessarily in that order. She won the Colorado Gold Award for the first in the Chief Inspector Gray James Murder Mystery Series, His Hand In the Storm. The book was also a Daphne du Maurier Suspense finalist.

She’s fulfilling her lifelong desire of becoming a mystery writer. Many thanks to all the readers who are making that possible.

Contact Links

Website: https://www.rituwrites.com

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

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ritusethiauthor

Blog: https://www.rituwrites.com/blog-ritu-writes

Goodreads:  https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/18704337.Ritu_Sethi

Purchase Links

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07MNDFJG9

Barnes and Noble:https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/books/1130039434?ean=2940156296538

Kobo: https://www.kobo.com/ca/en/ebook/his-hand-in-the-storm

iBooks: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/id1447790556

Read the first chapter!

Ebook Cover

Lia

 He leans against the wall beside Barnes & Noble, a three-dimensional shadow in the dimming light of the mall. His black hoodie conceals his face, yet I feel as if he’s watching us – watching me. I imagine his eyes as dark as his clothing, his glare villainous.

My heart pounds as though I have reason to fear him. It’s ridiculous, really. Probably the result of a day run long and an evening sure to run short.

The rapid click of my heels on the tile flooring seems to echo through the rarely-empty space. Most shoppers have left for the night, but a few stragglers remain, likely those in a last-minute rush. Like me. I glance at the narrow-banded watch on my wrist, gold hands ticking over a shimmering pearl face.

Eight fifty-three. Seven minutes until closing time.

John shuffles beside me, smirking as he notices my panicked glance at the watch. “I bought you that thing so you’d be on time once in a while. Clearly, it didn’t help.”

I’d have been late whether I knew what time it was or not. I couldn’t bring myself to leave work until I knew that Jailyn Adams would be safe and cared for. Six years old, so small, heartbroken. She’d have received the best of care with or without me, but I was there when her world fell apart. The least I could do was stay with her until her temporary guardian arrived.

It’s the part of my job I hate most, having to pull a child from their home. Regardless of what they’ve been through – in Jailyn’s case, a world of serious neglect blurred in a fog of drug abuse – it’s the only life they know. I wanted to be a Social Worker to do good for others, but in that moment, when pure fear and agony pours from those little bodies, it feels like the worst of wrongs.

John nudges me with his elbow, a smirk still on his face. “What? No comeback?”

Every night I’m thankful to come home to my husband, to the twinkle in his eyes and quick wit that never fails to clear my head of a difficult day. Lately, I need it more than ever. Confusion and self-doubt cloud every decision I attempt to make, encircling me in a stifling ring of anxiety. It’s a far cry from the confidence I once possessed, but also a necessary evil. Some mistakes shouldn’t be made in the first place, yet alone repeated.

Trust your gut, always.

Never again.

I grab John’s hand and pull. “Less talking, more walking. We’ve got to hurry.”

Despite the warmth of my husband’s hand and the July heat still clinging to my skin from outside, a shiver curls up my spine. The mall lighting seems to dim, eerily dark in the absence of music, chatter, and hundreds of bodies passing through. It puts even more of a rush in my step, a subconscious need to get out of here.

Or maybe it’s the creep outside the bookstore causing me to feel the need to flee. Why is he wearing a hoodie on such a hot day, anyhow? I glance over my shoulder, hoping to see that he’s gone and relax, but he still stands there, his shadowed face pointing in my direction. I can’t tell whether he has facial hair or not, a narrow or round face, or if his skin is light or dark.

Stop it, Lia. It’s nothing.

But can I be sure? I don’t know anything about him. His wife or girlfriend could’ve just left him for another man, pushing him to seek revenge. Maybe I remind him of her or John of her lover. Maybe he knows who I am, or at least, where I work. He may have recently had a child removed. He could be a mental hospital escapee, a sociopath set on stalking, if not murdering the first person he sees. Me.

The possibilities seem endless, flitting through my mind in a blurring whir.

What I don’t consider is the most likely scenario of all: He is only standing there, oblivious to my existence.

“Would’ve been silly to buy the shoes at the same time as the dress,” John says. “Can’t you just wear black or something?”

Without slowing my pace, I shoot him a glance. “The dress is pink Champaign. Black would look ridiculous. Leila will notice if the shade is off, yet alone the color. She wants her day to be perfect.” My sister is ever the perfectionist, bordering on OCD.

John keeps my pace, but rolls his eyes.

I speak before he has the chance. “Besides, it’s a wedding, not a funeral.”

“Matter of perception,” he says. “The poor sap getting stuck with Leila might beg to differ.”

I nudge his elbow, shoot him my shocked face, the wide-eyed, O-shaped mouth, I-can’t-believe-you-just-said-that look. The truth is, he’s right. We don’t refer to her as Princess Leila for nothing.

I swing in the door of Frivolous Footwear, the shop Leila insisted would have the shoes I’m looking for. Of course, that was a few months ago, when I was supposed to get them.

“I confirmed it. They have a store right in Duluth and the shoes are in stock.”

Right in Duluth. Where I work. Where John’s office is. Not where I live, though. Once we’re finished here, it will be another forty-five minutes before I can kick off my shoes and relish in the comfort of home.

At the office they ask why John and I don’t move into the city – the state, for that matter – and save the daily commute. I wouldn’t give up my small town, northern Wisconsin home on the shores of Sandy Lake for any amount of convenience. Other people visit the quaint town for a summer getaway, but for us it’s like we’re on vacation every time we return home.

John laughs. “You know I’m just kidding. I’m sure Leila’s last two husbands were the problem, not her.”

I spot a row of pumps and head down the aisle, bright and soft colors mingling into a brilliant rainbow of footwear. My head shoots right to left, my eyes searching for the right shade. I don’t let it slow my comeback, though. “They could say the same for us.”

He shrugs. “Second marriage for both of us. Not third. There’s a difference.”

The vibe in the shop is more unnerving than in the corridor, the small space abandoned of all shoppers except for us, half of the overhead lights turned off as if to emphasize that I need to hurry up and get out.

A girl with a name badge pinned to her shirt peers down the aisle and runs a hand through her dark hair. I do a double take, verify that it isn’t my own daughter looking at me. This girl’s complexion is a bit darker than Kara’s and she looks younger, but the way she holds her head – slightly high, a likeable confidence – with long hair sweeping her shoulders, she could be my daughter.

I once had hair like that, a shiny coffee mane absent of the gray that would eventually dull its appearance. Thank God for hair dye and the salon. If only the other signs of age would be as easy to cover.

The girl steps into the aisle. “Is there something I can help you with? My boss is getting ready to close up.”

I glance at my watch again. Five minutes. “I’ll be out in plenty of time.” I reach for my purse, pry it open, pull out a silky swatch, and hold it out to her. “I’m looking for something in this color.”

The girl bites her lip. “I think we have…” She glances over her shoulder, then turns and walks away from me. “Over here.”

I follow her into the next aisle and spot three potential matches lined beside each other, darkest to lightest. I take the swatch back from her and hold it against each of the shoes. Same shade, but too dark. Still too dark, but close. A shade off and too light.

“Carlee?” A voice calls from the front of the store.

The girl turns her head, then looks back at me. “We really need to close now. Can…”

“Is this all of them?” I ask before she has a chance to ask me to leave.

She nods, so I grab the closest match to my dress. Leila will have to get over it. It’s enough that I agreed to suffer the humiliation of squeezing my menopausal belly into a much-too-tight dress. Besides, as her three-time maid of honor, I matched perfectly the first two times. So I’m a little off this time.

Mom would get a kick out of it, this unspoken stand I’m taking against Leila. If she could join us. If she was in her right mind. If the doctors didn’t think she’d now have more bad days than good thanks to the dementia devouring her brain.

The thought causes my throat to constrict, the all too familiar emotion choking off my breath. Mom may be physically alive, but the presence of body cannot replace the presence of heart and mind. She doesn’t speak lately, doesn’t even seem to hear. I miss the sound of her voice, even when she wasn’t sure which of her daughters I was or if I was her daughter at all.

I swallow to open my throat and hand the shoe to Carlee. “Could you see if you have these in an eight? I’ll try them on fast and be out of your way.”

The girl bites her lip again, but nods, rushing toward the back of the store. I sit on a plush bench along the wall and slip my shoe off, readying myself for when the shoes arrive.

I look around, taking in the children’s shoes in the aisle beside me. Little girls’ shoes. Like Jailyn would wear. Her face flashes in my mind, red cheeks, puffy eyes, streaming tears that will haunt me long after they’ve dried.

It attacks me again, that churning in my stomach, increasing heart rate, and cold sweat beading on my skin. If I was wrong, if Jailyn’s circumstances weren’t what I thought them to be…

I take a deep breath, blink the images away. I wasn’t wrong. I couldn’t have been. The physical evidence removed by police proves it. This time.

John stands in front of me, hands stuffed in the pockets of his black dress pants. His royal blue button-up shirt brings out the brilliance of his eyes, the gray streaks in his dark hair complementing the distinguished appearance. He looks every part of the pharmaceutical scientist that he is, save the crooked smirk on his face.

“It’s your fault we’re here,” I bite out before he can comment. “If you hadn’t booked such an early flight, I’d be able to take care of this in the morning.”

He laughs, points to himself. “My fault? Would you rather drive to Florida?”

I press my lips into a line to suppress a smile. We have this humor in our relationship, a way that seems to make everything, even a late night shoe emergency, seem fun. It’s such a far cry from my last marriage, every moment so serious, tense.

John shakes his head, bends down, kisses me. “Fine, I’ll take the blame this time.” He kisses me again. “But only because you’re cute when you’re crazy.”

I feel the tension bleed from me, the effect of his warm lips. “You call this crazy?”

He shrugs. “Well, not as crazy as Leila.” He wrinkles his brow. “Tell me again why we’re going to this wedding?”

I play-slap his arm. For the past two weeks he’s been making up forgotten business meetings, unheard of illnesses, and a variety of appointments to get out going with me. I only waved him off. He may not admit it, but the truth is that he’d never send me off to deal with Bridezilla on my own. He too supportive for that. He’s my rock, the one person I know I can always count on for anything. “Because she’s my sister. Whether I like it or not.”

“Could be worse,” he says. “At least Mitch isn’t going with us.” His voice lowers, the pain of a father-son argument bleeding through.

I tip my head, unsure of what to say. I know how much it hurts John to have his only child angry with him. They’re usually so close, practically inseparable. There’s more to it, though, and I know this is what John worries about. Although I won’t admit it to John, I’m a little worried, too.

John sits next to me, exhaling slowly, deflating. “I’ve never seen him so mad.”

I’ve seen Mitch this mad before, even angrier. John has seen it, too. He just doesn’t want to allow himself to remember those days, the unwarranted outbursts, Mitch locking himself in his room, the constant fear over his safety and unspoken musings over ours.

But that was a long time ago. Mitch is a different person now, confident, sweet, stable. He’s just…off. Today. A one-time thing, surely.

John shakes his head. “He ran to Maggie, for Christ’s sake! He never does that.”

Maggie. The woman who gave birth to Mitch. That’s where her parenting ended.

I rest my hand on his thigh and squeeze. “He’s a smart, good boy. He’ll get over it. Everything will be…”

A loud bang echoes from within the mall.

John jumps from the bench and looks toward the front of the store, his back to me. Voices echo off the walls, angry shouts. Then another bang.

John spins back to me. “A gun.” He grabs my hand, pulls me to my feet and toward the back of the store, one shoe on, the other still resting on the floor beside the bench. I limp, lopsided without the other heel. He keeps me close to him, maneuvering through rows of shoes to the counter.

A woman around my age, her hair rolled into a neat, loose bun appears from behind the counter and I guess that she’s the boss, the one in a hurry to close. Her gaze shoots to the front of the store.

Another series of bangs, loud, echoing, one right after another.

“Back here!” The woman says as she runs behind the counter. John follows, pulling me into a storage room lined with metal shelving and boxes.

Bang. Bang, bang.

Closer this time.

John guides me to the corner of the room, behind a shelf of shoe boxes that towers over my head. He leans against the wall, pulls me close to him, wrapping his arms around me as if to shield me from the spray of bullets somewhere outside of the store.

He must feel the way my heart pounds, throbbing against the wall of my chest. “It’ll be okay,” he whispers in my ear. “Whatever is happening is out there.” He nods toward the store exit. “We’re safe.”

I nod, chew on my lip. What he says makes sense, but then why don’t I feel safe?

The answer crashes in on me, an image recreated from moments ago: The man in the hoodie.

Is he to blame for this? Were there others posted throughout the mall, all dressed in black, waiting to strike? Maybe I’d been right to fear him, a psychic voice in my head warning me.

The next bang is even closer, possibly right outside of the store. I whimper slightly, turn and bury my face in John’s chest, try to find comfort in the familiar scent of his cologne. He squeezes me tighter.

My head dizzies with my racing heart, my ears ringing, but not loudly enough to drown the sound of approaching footsteps.

“John!” I whisper, but it comes out in panicked shrill.

He holds his finger to his lips. “Shh.” He gently pulls me to the floor, both of us crouching as if reducing our height will make us invisible to the madmen out there. The cold, damp concrete seeps through the thin fabric of my dress, chilling my skin.

The steps grow closer, louder.

The next bang slices through my ears as if the bullet has pierced my head.

I pinch my eyes shut, squeeze John’s arm. The footsteps don’t stop. John rises slightly, wrapping my body with his own, shielding me.

The footsteps pause, a false moment of relief.

“Back here.” The voice is deep, like a roll of thunder.

Despite my terror, I can’t help wondering who he is looking for. Carlee? The owner? Maybe they had reason to close the store in a hurry. Or maybe it’s just another sign of a world gone bad. Another shooting, more innocent lives lost.

I hold my breath, pray that mine isn’t one of them.

The next bang I feel as much as hear, vibrations shooting through me as if I’d been the one to pull the trigger. I peer out from beneath John’s elbow, see a pair of black clad feet nearing. They stop, the toes awkwardly pointing inward, pigeon-like.

Another bang. Then two more.

John’s body slumps, pinning me beneath him. A sticky, warm liquid dribbles onto my cheek. I want to scream, but I can’t even breathe.

Coming May 18th, 2019!
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