Author: Dorothy

Trusting Laurence - Book 1, Unchained Duet: Trusting Laurence – Chapter 3

With a watery laugh, Maddie stepped out of her mother’s arms. She turned to the man standing in the hallway, wiping at her tears.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

Tahlia stepped back to make space for the two of them to enter her suite.

“Come on in. Make yourselves at home.” She gave a little smile of her own, just as she too wiped at the tears on her cheeks. Once they were seated, she asked, “Can I get anyone something to drink? Tea? Coffee? Perhaps something a little stronger?”

Maddie shook her head and patted the seat beside her. “No, Mama. Come sit. We have so much to talk about.”

Tahlia took the seat beside her daughter, worrying at the Kleenex in her hand. Eventually, the other woman took her hand in her own, rubbing a thumb over the back of it. She held tightly, unable to do more than savor the moment. There had been many nights she’d cried herself to sleep, believing she would never experience a moment like this one again.

“Mama?”

With a jolt, Tahlia realized Maddie had been speaking to her.

“Sorry, darling. Did you say something?”

“No, thank you on anything to drink.”

She nodded her acknowledgement. “Well then …” She faltered.

Giving the man sitting opposite them a smile, Maddie turned back to her mother. “Mama, I’d like to introduce you to my fiancé, Darryl Montgomery. Darryl, my mother, Tahlia Forrester.”

A confused look on his face, Darryl asked Tahlia, “Forrester? I thought you said O’Connor on the phone.”

“Yes, that’s correct. I took my maiden name again when my divorce from her father went through.” Tahlia answered, before turning to her daughter. “Oh Maddie, I’m so sorry, my love. I wish things had been different. I regret the years we’ve lost. I don’t know how to make it up to you.”

“I don’t understand, Mama. What happened? Why did you disappear like that? Why did they tell us you were dead?”

Tahlia braced herself. She knew she owed her only child answers, and she’d known this conversation wouldn’t be an easy one. She just hadn’t realized quite how hard it would be to put it all into words. The emotion thickening her throat didn’t make things any easier. With a sigh, she squeezed the hand that still clung so tightly to her own.

“When Aunt Clary found me after the last beating, she called in a favor from a friend. She knew, with your father’s connections, that if we simply reported it to the local precinct, it would be made to quietly disappear, like the first few times I’d filed complaints. Her friend knew of an organization called Friends of Patty who help victims of domestic abuse find safety.” Stopping a moment to gather her thoughts, she couldn’t bring herself to meet Maddie’s gaze. As if from a distance, she heard the other woman murmur to Darryl. The next thing, she felt her free hand being lifted and a glass being pressed into it. On pure reflex, her fingers closed around the glass. Focusing on it, she saw it contained water.

“Have a drink, Mama.” Maddie started the soothing rubbing over the back of her hand again.

Tahlia took a sip, then another. Gathering her composure, she continued. “They were more than willing to help, but it meant I had to disappear. Tahlia O’Connor would cease to exist, and in her place, someone new would emerge. When they said that, I didn’t realize it meant they’d tell everyone I’d died. Although, it makes sense, I guess. So, I disappeared. I gave up everything that day. But in the end, I couldn’t do it. I got tired of living in fear that someone your father hired would find me and that I’d have given it all up for nothing. So, here I am.”

When she finished speaking, absolute silence reigned. No one said a word. Eventually, she gathered the courage to look up at Maddie. “I’m sorry, baby. Sorrier than I can adequately express. I would never have agreed to it if I’d known they’d put you through such hell. I would have found another way.”

Maddie’s eyes welled with fresh tears. “Oh Mama, I’m so sorry you had to go through all of that. I won’t deny it was a difficult time. And I can’t tell you how much of a shock it was when I heard your voice on the phone earlier. But I understand why you did it.” Dashing away tears that had escaped, she continued. “After you, well, I guess, left, Aunty Clary gave me time to grieve and then she sat me down, said there was something she needed to tell me. She warned me it wasn’t pretty, but dear god Mama, never in my wildest dreams did I expect what she told me. Aunt Clary laid it out for me, everything that Daddy did to you all those years.”

Her words faded away as a sob broke free. Tahlia folded Maddie in her arms and rocked her like she used to when she was a little girl.

“Shh, baby. It’s okay. It’s okay.”

Without a word, Maddie tightened her hold on her mother.

After some time, when both had their emotions under control again, they shared stories of their lives over the years that Tahlia had been gone. Maddie told her how she’d met Darryl, sharing photos of their engagement party and all about the wedding.

“You know you’re going to have to come to the wedding now, right? There’s no way I can get married without you, now that I know you’re alive and well. In fact, I would love it if you would walk me down the aisle. I’d intended asking Darryl’s dad, but I want you to do it. Please, Mama?”

Tahlia couldn’t hold back a soft gasp. She’d hoped Maddie would be willing to let her be a part of her big day, but she’d never imagined she’d go so far. Her heart was full to bursting with love and happiness.

“Maddie, I would love that!” She could do nothing else but agree.

Giggling like two little girls, they hugged.

“Maddie, sugar, I hate to ruin your reunion with your mama, but we need to get going. We have to be at the caterer’s in thirty minutes.”

“Oh damn. I forgot all about the caterers.” Clapping her hands, she grinned at her mother. “Why don’t you come with us? I’m not ready to say goodbye, Mama. Please say you will?” She turned to Darryl. “It’s okay if Mama comes with, isn’t it, Darryl?”

“Yes, of course. You’re most welcome to join us, Ms. O’Connor.”

Maddie’s excitement was contagious, and Tahlia couldn’t, didn’t want to, say no.

“I’d love to, princess.”

“It’s settled then. Come on, let’s get going.”

She watched as Maddie bounced off the couch and headed for the door. Rising from the couch at a slower pace, she fetched her purse. Her heart singing with joy, she joined her daughter and soon-to-be son-in-law.

***

Larry had spent days combing through the accounting records Tahlia had given him. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been so excited about something, anything. It reminded him of how he’d felt as a young boy on Christmas morning, dying to see what Santa had left him.

For years, he’d looked for ways to take Marcus Forrester down. Before Larry’d joined the FBI, Marcus had hired the private company he’d worked for as security detail for his family. As Tahlia’s personal bodyguard, he’d seen firsthand how the bastard had beaten his young wife. In fact, Larry had almost lost his job because he’d intervened on one occasion. His boss had to do some fancy talking to save his job. Back then, he’d been stupid enough to believe he could save Tahlia from her husband.

He’d finally wised up when she’d refused to leave Forrester, despite the fact that she’d just come out of the hospital because of the last beating Marcus had given her.

Now, the key to incriminating Forrester had been handed to Larry, and the man was going to be his own downfall. Larry couldn’t have planned it better if he’d tried.

A knock on his open door had him looking up from the document he was going over again. Mary-Beth stood with another sheaf of papers in her hand.

“What can I do for you, Mary-Beth?”

“It’s more like what I can do for you, sir. I’ve got more on Senator Forrester.”

“Excellent. Thank you,” he said, holding out a hand.

Once she’d returned to her desk, Larry scanned the new information. Nothing jumped out at him on his first pass, so he laid them on his desk, going back to the financial records he’d been reading.

A sudden thought had him reaching for his desk phone and hitting the speakerphone button.

“Mary-Beth, do me a favor and get Jim Wilder, the warden of Colombia Penitentiary, on the line for me?”

“Yes, sir. Right away.”

While he waited for the call to be put through, he swung back and forth in his chair, formulating a plan in his head.

He picked up the handset on the first ring.

“Warden Wilder on the line for you, sir.”

“Thanks. Please give Finn a call and ask him to come see me as soon as he’s able?”

“Yes, sir. Patching the call through now.”

“Yeah. Thanks.” He heard the transfer taking place, and when the line connected, he said, “Jim, how’s it going?”

“Hey, Larry, my man. I’m good. How about you?”

“Yeah, I’m hanging in there.”

“So, what can I do for you today?”

“Listen, I hear you’ve got former Senator Forrester enjoying your facilities on the taxpayers’ dime. You reckon you could organize a visit for me?

“Yeah, I reckon I could swing it. What’s got you wanting to chat with our guest?”

“Seems he’s had his fingers in some nasty pies. Just wanted to have a little talk, see if he’s willing to share a little information.”

“Gotcha, gotcha. Yeah, give me a few. I’ll come back to you with a time”

“Thanks, man. Appreciate it.”

“Haven’t seen you at the club lately. You got a new subbie you keeping to yourself?” Larry heard the man chuckling.

With a laugh of his own, Larry replied, “Nah, just haven’t had the time. This case I’m working on has had me tied in knots. It’s run cold, and we’re scrambling to heat it back up. That’s why I’m hoping Marcus Forrester’s going to hand me a match. I need to make a plan to pop in soon though.”

“All right, my man. I’ll give you a call as soon as I have that time for you.”

“Thanks, Jim, I appreciate it.”

Hanging up, he dialed Mary-Beth’s extension.

“Sir. I got hold of Finn. He said he’ll be back in the office around two. I told him to come straight here.”

“Great. Thanks.”

He returned the handset to the receiver and sat back in his chair. With a grin, he contemplated how difficult he could possibly make Forrester’s sequestered life. Damn, he was looking forward to it.

Much as he anticipated his visit, he had work waiting for him. This case wasn’t going to solve itself.

While he waited for Finn to join him, he returned to the pile of files lying on his desk. Television glamorized his job, but when you got right down to it, it was boring, repetitive fact-checking and clue searching that made up the bulk of any investigation. The exciting bits were fewer and farther between than they like to make out.

Eventually, he picked up the file Jackson had put together for him on Marcus. She’d been pretty thorough in her search, and he was surprised at some of the things she’d managed to dig up. Although he shouldn’t have been. She’d been on his team for a good number of years, and she’d proven her worth, time and again.

He had no idea how or where she found the information that she did, but he had never known anyone quite as talented at ferreting out the kinds of things she managed to dig up on suspects. The kinds of things nobody wanted discovered.

He became so engrossed in the file it took a moment for him to realize there’d been a knock on his door. Looking up, he found Finn standing in the open doorway.

“Finn. Come on in. Have a seat.”

“You’re looking for me, Boss?”

“Yeah. I’ve got some interesting reading for you,” Larry stated as he handed the file over. “Jackson’s found us some interesting tidbits. Also, I’ve had a chat with the warden at Colombia Penitentiary. Thought you might want to ride along on the day.”

“Yeah, I’m down for that.”

“Great. As soon as I’ve heard back from Wilder with a time, I’ll let you know.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll get the file back to you.”

Larry watched as Finn left, his mind already turning to thoughts of his impending visit.

Trusting Laurence - Book 1, Unchained Duet: Trusting Laurence – Chapter 2

Larry stood on the sidewalk outside the coffee shop for a moment, gathering his thoughts. The papers in his hand made him twitchy. If they were what he thought they might be, things were about to get mighty interesting.

With one last lingering glance at the woman he’d left inside, he headed back to the office.

A million thoughts raced through his mind as he walked the short distance. He spared a quick glance at his watch. His meeting with his top agent on the trafficking task team was, it seemed, well timed. These papers could possibly be just the thing they needed to create a crack in this nightmare of a case.

His secretary looked up as he strode into the office.

“Special Agent Finn just rang. He’s in the office as soon as you’re ready, sir.”

“Great. Let him know I’m back and send him in when he gets here. No calls, no interruptions when he gets here, please.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Oh, and Mary-Beth, please ask Jackson to see what she can find on former Senator Marcus Forrester. Get her to put a file together for me, will you?”

“Certainly, Mr. Keon. Right away.”

He stepped into his office and closed the door behind him. Larry took a seat at his desk and laid the papers down before him. With a deep breath, he spread them out to take another look. The pages were covered in writing, detailing a sordid and deeply disturbing business, if his suspicions were correct.

Never in his wildest dreams had he imagined that not only would a break this significant simply fall in his lap, but who it was that was involved. Deep in the heart of it all, it seemed.

He’d always known Marcus Forrester was a bastard. He just hadn’t known how much of one.

A brief knock on the door drew him from his musings.

“Yeah, come in.”

The door opened, and Special Agent Kaden Finn stepped in.

“Ah, Finn. Just the man I’m looking for. Come on in.”

“Afternoon, sir.”

“How’s it going? Your lead yield anything this morning?”

“No luck, sir. We struck out again. It was another dead end. The building was empty. Doesn’t seem like anyone’s been there in a while.”

“Damn. I had hoped we’d catch a break this time. Although,” — he handed the sheaf of papers to Finn — “this landed in my lap today. Have a look and see what you make of it.”

Finn accepted them, taking a seat in one of the chairs facing the desk. Larry watched as he read the notes. He smiled grimly when he saw the moment the penny dropped for the other man.

“Is this what I think it is?”

“Depends. What do you think it is?”

“It looks to me like financial records of payments received for sales transactions, and if I don’t miss my guess, the commodity looks to be of the human kind.”

“Yeah, then I guess it’s what you think it is. That’s certainly what it looks like to me. And pretty detailed at that, too.”

“If I may, sir, where did you get these?”

Larry laughed. “That’s where it gets interesting. I got a call from former Senator Marcus Forrester’s ex-wife this morning. That’s why I had to postpone our meeting. She was looking for something in her safety deposit box and came across those. Since she and her ex-husband are the only two with access to the box, and she swears they aren’t hers, I can only surmise they belong to the senator.”

“Well damn. I never saw that one coming.”

“I didn’t either. But, knowing the bastard, it doesn’t surprise me. I guess I’m going to have to pay the man a visit. Let’s see what we can shake loose from that tree.”

“Need me to accompany you, sir?”

“Sure. I think an extra set of eyes and ears would be good. See what we can get out of him, if anything. I’m not holding out too much hope though. The man is a nasty piece of work.”

“So noted.”

“Get me up to speed on where we’re at right now.”

They spent the next half hour talking over the case before Larry finally said, “Right, let’s keep working this thing. It’s gotta break some time.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll keep you posted.”

No sooner had Finn left than there was another knock on the door.

“Yeah, come in.”

Mary-Beth entered the room with a folder in her hand.

“Jackon’s pulled a preliminary file together for you, Mr. Keon. She’s still searching, but thought you might want what she’s already gathered.”

“Thanks, Mary-Beth. Appreciate it.”

Handing him the file, she smiled before leaving the office.

Sitting back in his chair, Larry contemplated the closed folder. He wondered what he would learn about the man he hated with everything in him. The man who’d had everything Larry had wanted but couldn’t have. The bastard who’d never appreciated what he’d had.

***

Tahlia eyed her phone with trepidation. Rubbing her hand down her thigh for the umpteenth time, she tried to work up the courage to pick it up from the table where it lay.

She’d been trying to scrape that courage together for the past half hour, a litany of reasons why calling her daughter wasn’t a good idea playing on a loop in her head. Maddie had been the sole reason she’d come out of hiding. She missed her terribly and had lost so much time in her child’s life over the past few years she’d been living under the radar.

But she was done hiding. She wanted her life back, and she especially wanted her sweet daughter back in her life. When she’d heard that Maddie was getting married, Tahlia had cried for hours, grieving the time she’d missed out on. Her little girl had met the love of her life, and she hadn’t been there. No more!

Marcus had almost killed Tahlia, more than once. He’d taken years from her. But she’d be damned if he took any more from her. Tahlia had every intention of being a part of Maddie’s life and wedding, if she could just find it in her to make the call. If she was willing to let Thalia back into her life.

She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and reached out to pick up the phone. Scrolling through the numbers now listed in her contacts, Tahlia quickly found the one she was looking for. Pressing the green phone icon, she waited for the call to connect. Just as the line rang in her ear, she lost her nerve and hung up.

Urgh! Pull yourself together woman. It’s not that hard. You’re making a meal out of this. Just dial the damn phone already.

Once again eyeing the phone she’d placed back on the table, Tahlia berated herself for being a coward. With another deep breath, she repeated the process. This time, as the phone rang, she held on. Her fist clutched tightly around the instrument in her hand, she prayed she wouldn’t be ill all over the floor.

“Hello?”

Despite having made the call, somehow Tahlia hadn’t anticipated Maddie actually answering. She froze.

“Hello?” she heard repeated. “Hello, is anyone there?”

She reached deep and, drawing on all the strength she’d been working on building during her time away, finally managed to say, “Hi Maddie, it’s me.”

Nerves wouldn’t allow the words to come out much louder than a whisper, but still the other woman seemed to hear.

“Mama?”

“Yes, baby. It’s me.”

“Oh my god, Mama. Is that really you?”

“Yes, it’s me, princess.” Tahlia’s heart clenched as she heard Maddie break down. “Shh, my darling. You’ll make yourself sick like that.”

She heard rustling and then a man’s voice. “Who’s this?

“This is Tahlia O’Connor. I’m Madison’s mother. To whom am I speaking?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Is my daughter all right?”

“Is this some kind of sick joke? Madison’s mother passed away some years ago. I don’t know who you are, but I suggest you don’t call this number again.”

The line went dead as Tahlia’s whole body turned to ice. The tears that had pooled in her eyes when she heard Maddie’s voice now slid over her bottom lid. Slowly at first, but as the shock of hearing she’d been proclaimed dead set in, they flowed faster. She stumbled over to the sofa and all but collapsed onto it, sobbing. The pain enormous.

But then, what had she expected? She’s disappeared without so much as a goodbye. True, she hadn’t had a choice. Once Marcus had been convicted, Tahlia had been rushed from the courtroom and into a waiting vehicle. The District Attorney had organized for her to leave the building through the underground parking to avoid the hordes of reporters waiting outside the courthouse. She’d been transported to a private plane and taken out of the city to begin her life as someone new. She’d been given a new name and identity, a brand-new life as someone else. For her protection, they’d assured her.

Her sister had heard about an organization called Friends of Patty. She’d discovered they were a cross between witness protection and the old Underground Railroad for victims of domestic violence. They’d promised to keep her safe, but, in return, she would be required to simply disappear. It would be hard leaving loved ones behind, they’d told her. But it had to be done, lest someone let anything slip.

More than once Marcus had threatened to kill her. And if he couldn’t be the one to do it, he vowed to hire someone to do the job for him. He’d blamed her for his arrest, conviction and impending incarceration. He had no intention of forgetting it.

Now, because of it, of him, her precious Maddie had thought she was dead.

Tahlia rocked herself, trying to ease the tightness in her chest. Spots danced at the edge of her vision from dizziness. The sobs tore from her shaking frame and hurt her throat. In a distant part of her brain, she wondered if she was having a heart attack, the tightness in her chest was that intense.

The unexpected sound of her phone ringing competed with the harsh sounds of her weeping. For a moment, Tahlia didn’t recognize the sound. She’d forgotten about the phone she still clutched tightly in her hand.

As she squinted at the screen, battling to see past the tears, she saw Maddie’s name flashing.

Fingers suddenly clumsy, it took a couple of attempts before she could connect the call. Taking a deep breath, trying to get herself under control, she answered.

“Hello?” Her voice was little more than a croak.

“Mama? Mama, is that really you?” Maddie’s voice caught.

“Yes, baby. It’s really me.” Tahlia’s heart clenched tighter in response.

Please God, I’ve just found my way back to my girl. Please, please don’t let me be having a heart attack.

“I don’t understand. Where have you been? You just disappeared without so much as a word. Why, Mama? I don’t understand. I thought you were dead!”

Tahlia took a moment to rein her emotions in. It was clear Maddie was overwhelmed with emotions of her own. And a meltdown would do neither of them any good.

“I know, my sweet girl. I’m so sorry. I’ll explain it all to you and answer any questions you may have. If we could please just do it in person?”

“Okay. Yes. I– um … Where … What?” Maddie stopped, and Tahlia could hear her taking deep breaths. “Where would you like to meet? And when?”

“Would it be okay if you came here? Whenever you want. I’m free anytime for you.”

“Where are you? Can I come to you now?”

“I– Well, sure. You’re welcome to come over now, if you wish. I’m staying at a bed and breakfast in Alexandria. I’ll message you the address.”

“I know the area. I’m leaving now. I’ll be there as soon as I can.” Maddie paused. Then, “Mama?”

“Yes, darling?”

“Please, please be there when I get there. Please don’t run away again. I don’t think my heart could stand it.”

Choking down a lump in her throat, Tahlia replied, “I promise, I’ll be here.”

She heard the call disconnect. Lowering the phone to her lap, she sat for long moments, feeling as if she’d been put through the wringer. Thankfully, the tightness in her chest had eased some.

Realizing she’d yet to send Maddie her address, she quickly dashed off a message to the other woman, then hustled herself into the bathroom to repair the damage her crying jag had wrought. She didn’t want her daughter’s first sight of her after such a long time to be of a haggard old woman.

Splashing cold water on her face, she relished the coolness against her heated skin. She’d never been one of those graceful criers. Her skin always became blotchy, her nose and eyes red. Studying herself in the mirror, she decided a touchup was in order. She refreshed her makeup before returning to the living room to wait for Maddie.

Not even fifteen minutes later, there was a knock at her door. She got to her feet, smoothing her skirt with icy hands. On shaky legs, she strode to the door, praying they would hold her up. As she reached it, she took a moment to compose herself before opening it.

As it swung inward, she and Maddie stared, drinking the sight of each other in. Without warning, the beautiful young woman threw herself at Tahlia.

“Oh my god, Mama. I never thought I’d see you again,” Maddie cried.

Tahlia wrapped her arms around the daughter she’d thought she wouldn’t ever get to hold again, unable to hold back her own tears.

“My sweet, precious baby girl,” she murmured into Maddie’s hair, holding her close to her heart that’d ached so badly earlier. Rocking gently, she ran a loving hand over the vibrant tresses that reminded her so much of her own, soothing them both.

With no idea of how long they stood like that, Tahlia became aware of another person when she heard a man clear his throat.

“Sugar, I think we should move this reunion inside, don’t you?”

Trusting Laurence - Book 1, Unchained Duet: Trusting Laurence – Chapter 1

Trusting Laurence - Book 1, Unchained Duet: Trusting Laurence – Chapter 1

Amazon
Part of the Unchained Duet series:
Trusting Laurence
Liberating Mia
You can only run for so long before the past catches up.

FBI Deputy Director, Laurence “Larry” Keon, is tasked with bringing down a trafficking ring, but leads have run dry. He’s about to give up when help comes from an unexpected source, and he’s shocked to find the evidence may just jump start his case.

Tahlia O’Connor has survived hell on earth, but she’s determined to put it behind her. After finding documents that threaten to drag her past into her future, she reaches out to the one man she feels she can trust: Laurence.

Having denied their feelings for years, when they come face to face once again, they find the spark is still there, stronger than ever. But the documents bring danger for Tahlia, and Larry needs to choose between the case and her safety. Will Larry digging into the past deliver a fatal blow? Or can he keep Tahlia safe?

*** Trusting Laurence is part of Samantha A. Cole’s Suspenseful Seduction World. ***

A Cowboy For Christmas: A Cowboy For Christmas – Chapter 3

Chapter 3

Sarah was so lost in her own thoughts she startled when a gentle hand touched her arm.

“Ma’am, we’re starting our descent. You need to buckle up, please.”

Smiling up at the air hostess, she murmured her thanks. Buckling herself in, she felt the multitude of butterflies that had taken up residence in her stomach take flight. She hadn’t seen her brother in two and a half years, and now she couldn’t wait. But she was aware that once all the pleasantries were dispensed with, she would have to come clean as to the real reason she was here.

She knew he was thrilled to have her with him for the holidays, but she also knew he suspected there was far more to the story than she’d told him. And to be fair, she owed him the truth. She just didn’t know how to open up that part of herself. Being a private person by nature at the best of times, it was hard for her to share such intensely personal details with others, even her loved ones.

Feeling the wheels touch down, Sarah undid her seatbelt. The plane taxied to a stop, and she waited until the initial rush passed so she could leave her seat without being jostled. As the last person passed her on their way to the exit, she rose from her seat.

Stepping off the plane into the tunnel, she hurried into the building, intent on reaching baggage claim as quickly as possible. She was so ready for this trip to be over. Reeling with exhaustion, she wanted nothing more than a long, hot soak in the tub and to sleep for a million hours.

She was thankful she’d waited to disembark last when she found baggage claim mercifully quiet and she managed to find her luggage fairly quickly. Gripping the handle of her luggage cart she strode purposefully towards the exit that would take her into the main building—and her brother. Anticipation had her quickening her step. God, she’d missed him.

Reaching the door that would take her into the main terminal, Sarah faltered to a stop. Suddenly it was all too real–she was here in Colorado, about to face her brother, and she was no longer sure she had the nerve to deal with the inevitable.

She felt her face warm with humiliation, thinking back to her last encounter with Greg. Sarah had needed him to come clean, but instead he had done what he’d always done. It was so easy to see it now that she had distanced herself and disillusionment had given her such clear vision. Greg had been his usual passive-aggressive self. Instead of taking responsibility, he’d fired her, without explanation, turning it all back on her in an attempt to make her feel as if everything were her fault.

Taking a deep breath, she gathered the tattered remnants of her courage around her like a cloak and stepped through the automatic doors that would take her to Steve. She came to a stop just inside the arrivals terminal and scanned the crowd, looking for him. When she didn’t immediately spot him, a momentary pang of panic rolled through her.

Where was the confounded man? Surely he hadn’t forgotten to fetch her? Sarah rooted around in her bag for her cell phone when she realised it was still off, and he wouldn’t have been able to reach her. Just as she was powering the phone back up, she felt a hand on her shoulder.

For the second time that morning, Sarah startled at the unexpected gesture, nearly dropping the device in her hand.

“Sorry, ma’am,” a beautiful voice apologized from behind her.

She had yet to turn around, but if the owner of that voice looked anything like he sounded, she’d be in trouble. It was pure seduction, conjuring up dark nights and satin sheets.

Finally turning towards the soft, southern drawl, she laid eyes on every woman’s wet dream. His well-muscled frame towered over her; tousled, sun-streaked hair had her fingers itching to sink into the soft-looking strands. Full lips had her wanting to press hers against them. But the thing that caught her attention above all else were the deep, endless pools of green that were his eyes. An unusual, bright emerald green, his eyes were impossibly gently lit with a gleam of humour.

Sarah blushed as her brain started firing again, becoming aware that she was staring at the gorgeous man in front of her, completely missing what he was saying. Worse still, she could see he knew the effect he was having on her.

Stammering, her blush deepening, she managed a small, “I beg your pardon?”

And damned if the man didn’t laugh. Adding insult to injury, twin dimples appeared on his cheeks as he chuckled down at her. Damn it. How was that playing fair? Her poor brain was already fried from just looking at him; how was she supposed to focus on what he was saying too?

Taking a deep breath, she attempted to pull herself together. Surely a first grader would have more aplomb than her in this moment. Then again, taking another sneak peek at the vision before her, she wasn’t so sure.

“My apologies, ma’am, I didn’t mean to startle you,” the demigod drawled. Extending his hand to her, he continued, “My name is Jesse Colter. Steve sent me to collect you.”

At the mention of her brother’s name, Sarah looked up at the stranger in front of her. Just where was the man anyway? How did this Jesse know him? Did he even know Steve? He certainly knew his name. So surely he knew Steve, right? The thoughts fired rapidly.

Tentatively taking his hand, she asked, “How do you know Steve? And where is he anyway?”

Another panty-melting smile accompanied his reply. “One of the ranch hands took an unexpected horn to the body, so your brother’s taken him to the hospital to be checked out. He asked me to come get you and let you know he’ll see you back at the ranch.”

“And Carol? Did she go with them?”

“No, Carol was visiting with our mom when Jake got hurt. I told her I’d come get you since she and Ma have been planning this for ages.”

“Your mom?” Sarah asked, thoroughly confused.

With another seductive laugh, Jesse reached into his pocket. Not sure what to expect, Sarah was about to step away from him when he pulled out his mobile. He tapped on the screen and turned the phone toward her, opened to his gallery.

She saw a grid of photos of him with both Steve and Caroline, taken at his and Caroline’s parents’ ranch at what appeared to be Thanksgiving. Handing her the phone, he said, “Caroline is my sister.”

Looking up at him, Sarah asked, “So how come you weren’t at the wedding? I don’t remember seeing …” Trailing off, she worried at her bottom lip as she suddenly remembered Caroline talking about her brother, the Navy SEAL, who was on deployment and couldn’t make it home for the wedding. “Are you the SEAL?” she asked rather baldly.

Those twin dimples made another appearance. “Yes ma’am. I was on a mission when Steve and Carol got married. I only found out they’d tied the knot when we eventually got back Stateside.”

Looking at the phone in her hand, she studied the photo of Jesse, Steve, and Caroline. She could see the resemblance between the siblings, and that put her a bit more at ease. After staring at the image in front of her for some time, she handed the phone back, squared her shoulders, and reached for her baggage trolley.

“Let me.” Jesse stepped up to the cart and laid his hand over hers

Sarah felt the contact all the way up her arm, like she’d touched a live wire. Her head snapped up to look at Jesse, and by his expression, he must have felt it too. A frown line marred his forehead as he studied her intently for a moment.

With a tiny shake of his head, he looked down at her and murmured, “Shall we?”

Not sure she’d be able to get a word out, Sarah simply nodded.

As he led the way out of the airport, she hurried to keep up with his long-legged stride, petrified of losing him in the crowd. Luckily for her, he was tall and broad shouldered, so not easily lost in the crowd, but still, why take the chance?

Now that he couldn’t see her scrutinising him, she took in the sheer beauty that was the man. Enjoying the view, Sarah followed him out into the dark of a cold winter and a brand-new chapter in her life.

A Cowboy For Christmas: A Cowboy For Christmas – Chapter 2

Chapter 2

“You’re going to have to come clean sometime. Your brother’s not stupid, babe. He’s going to take one look at you and know you’re hiding something – something big. Let’s be honest here. You’ve never been able to lie to Steve, no matter how hard you try.”

‘I know, dammit.” Sarah sighed. “I’m sorry, Chey. I didn’t mean to snap. I know you’re just worried about me. The thing is, if I tell him before I get there, I’ll break down. When that happens, it’s going to be ugly and messy. And I don’t have the emotional strength to deal with it right now.”

Sarah turned Chey away to watch the ebb and flow of people around her. Anything to avoid her best friend’s sympathetic gaze. She and Cheyenne Kent had met in fourth grade, and when it came to their friendship, there was no one more fiercely loyal and loving than her best friend. The downside of that was the woman knew her better than anyone else. Cheyenne knew she was lying when she’d said she was doing okay.

She felt a soft touch on her hand as it rested on her thigh.

“I’m sorry this happened to you, and I’m sorry you got so badly hurt in the process. But you deserve better than him. Truthfully? I’m so glad he’s out of your life.”

Wrapping an arm around the other woman, Sarah took a deep, calming breath. “I know, babe. You only ever have my best interests at heart. And I love you for it. I promise I’ll deal with all of this. I just need to do it in my own time.”

Cheyenne nodded, then changed the subject. “When does your flight arrive in Denver?”

Sarah could have kissed her friend for taking the hint. “Tomorrow evening around six thirty. My layover at Heathrow is somewhere around eight hours, I think. I was going to get another flight from there to Boulder, but Steve said he’d pick me up in Denver since he has business there and may as well kill two birds.”

Seeing the look on Cheyenne’s face, she braced. She knew it was unlikely she’d like what her friend said next.

“Sadie, I know you don’t want to talk about it, but you’re going to have to tell Steve something,” Cheyenne said softly.

The childhood nickname brought a lump to her throat. Heaving a big sigh, Sarah turned to her friend. “I know you’re right, Chey. It’s just too raw right now. You know? I feel like such a fool for having fallen for his bullshit. I mean, it’s not even like he treated me well. And I still can’t explain to you why I put up with it. For two frigging years!” Shaking her head, she fought back the emotions threatening. “I just need time.”

Wordlessly, her friend squeezed her hand. They sat in silence for long moments before Cheyenne straightened in her chair. “Come on. There’s still an age before you have to go through security. Let’s go grab something to drink,” Chey said, wiggling her eyebrows.

Thankful for her friend, Sarah grinned for the first time in what felt like forever.

“You’re on. First one’s on you.” Sarah gathered her things and came to her feet, blissfully ignorant of the admiring glances she was garnering.

With a laugh, her friend responded, “Girl, you’re on.”

Sarah was grateful Cheyenne offered a respite from her thoughts. She’d have to face them eventually – her friend was correct; her brother would definitely want to know what was going on. Only, she wasn’t ready to face it head on just yet.

In the week that had passed since her world had come crashing around her, Sarah had gone through a range of emotions. She careened from numbness to drowning in the heartbreak, denial, and depression, and back again. Possibly the worst, though, was the humiliation. She shuddered at how gullible she’d been, believing his lies – not once questioning too closely things that hadn’t always added up. As the strong woman her parents had raised her to be, the shame at how easily she’d surrendered her sense of worth to a man who wasn’t deserving of it ate at her.

As she’d reflected on her two-year relationship with Greg, she cringed at how she’d allowed him to treat her. He’d undermined her at every step, treated her appallingly, and she’d accepted it because she’d believed he loved her. Cheyenne had called her on it numerous times, and she’d always made excuses for him. Every. Damn. Time.

Looking back, she died a little inside, knowing she’d been a fool. How the hell was she supposed to admit any of this to her family? They’d be so disappointed in her. Lord knew, she was bitterly disappointed in herself.

The server placing their drinks on the table jolted Sarah out of her morose thoughts. Looking over at Cheyenne, she lifted her mug of hot chocolate and smiled at her. “Here’s to a new start.”

“I’ll drink to that,” her friend replied.

Making small talk, they ignored the elephant in the room until it was time for Sarah to go. Dealing with the shitstorm that was currently her life would come soon enough.

When her flight was called, they hastily made their way to the security point. Cheyenne pulled her in for a tight hug, and Sarah couldn’t prevent herself from hanging on tightly. This woman was everything to her. She was going to miss her more than she could express. But she needed to get away or risk losing her sanity.

Finally, stepping back and wiping tears away, Cheyenne cleared her throat before she said, “You’d best get going. I don’t want to be the reason you miss your flight. Take care of yourself, girl. I love you madly. Don’t forget to call me on your layover at Heathrow, yeah?”

Choking back the sob that was lodged like a rock in her throat, Sarah nodded. “I love you madlier,” was all she managed to whisper.

Trying her best to hold it together, she grabbed her suitcase and dashed to the nearest security checkpoint. Passing through, cleared to go, she turned to her friend, and with one last goodbye wave, she headed to her boarding gate.

A Cowboy For Christmas: A Cowboy For Christmas – Chapter 1

A Cowboy For Christmas: A Cowboy For Christmas – Chapter 1

Can the magic of Christmas overcome all?

Christmas is Sarah Walker’s favourite holiday, and a white Christmas has been on her bucket list for years. When her world comes crashing down around her just months before the holidays, she figures what better time than the present. Heading for her brother’s ranch in Colorado to lick her wounds and mend her broken heart, romance was the last thing she was looking for.

Jesse Colter has a soft spot for the ladies. He loves them in all shapes and sizes. The one thing his time in the marines taught him, though, was never to leave his heart vulnerable. There’s no telling when a loved one can be taken away. That philosophy is tested to its limits when Sarah crashes into his life with the force of a falling meteor.

Will Sarah’s heartbreak and Jesse’s fear of loss prevent them from finding the love they both deserve? Or will the magic of the holiday season bring about a Christmas miracle?

Destined: Destined – Chapter 3

Serena

His strong, firm hands gripped her breasts, plumping the mounds together as his lips suckled on one. He trailed his lips across her chest, nipping and soothing the skin as he worked his way to the other to give it the same attention. The little nubs beaded tighter, begging, aching for more of his touch.

Slowly, his touch moved lower, worshipping her. She couldn’t hold back a moan as his skilful hands found her wet and needy for him. As he slipped a finger through the wetness, she held her breath. The acceleration of her heartrate had nothing to do with fear and everything to do with the arousal that burned through her body, engulfing her senses.

His lips unsmiling, his hot gaze intense as he looked down at her … 

The shrill sound of her alarm clock sounded loudly in the quiet of her room, and Serena’s impending orgasm was rudely ripped from her. Reaching over, she slapped an unforgiving hand onto the snooze button. She wasn’t quite ready to leave her sensual dream and face the reality of a new day. Snuggling back down, she tried desperately to return to her dream. Frustratingly, it remained just out of reach.

By the time the second alarm blared, she was ready to cry with disappointment. Sighing, she rolled out of bed and stumbled into the bathroom. She had a new client coming in to see her today, so she couldn’t afford to be late. 

Stripping down, Serena stepped into the shower and turned the water on high. As the spray beat down on her overstimulated body, she replayed the erotic dream of the very sexy stranger. What was it about that specific man that consumed so much of her mind? What made him stand out above all other men she’d met before?

Her heart beat a little harder at the thought of the stranger from the club. What would it be like to have his hands running all over her body instead of her own? Well, it was to remain a mystery. It was unlikely she’d ever encounter her stranger again.

Pull yourself together, woman. With another sigh, she shook herself out of her reverie. Stepping out of the shower, she grabbed a towel and headed into her walk-in closet to get ready to face her day. She needed something sharp to make a good first impression.

Filtering into the morning traffic, Serena went through her appointments in her head. Her new client would be her first for the day. He was hosting a fundraising event, and since he had neither the time nor the inclination to organise it himself, he was looking for an events coordinator to handle all the details. His secretary, who normally dealt with this sort of thing, was off sick and wouldn’t be back in time to pull it off. 

After years in the industry, Serena had finally gone out on her own, and this account would be an enormous boost to the reputation of her budding business as it was an international construction company renowned for the luxury accommodations they built. She would have to pull out all the stops on this one.

*

Brooding over a cup of coffee as her mind raced with a million ideas, Serena was pulled from her thoughts by the insistent buzzing of her desk phone. 

“Mr Marino is here, Serena,” Ginny announced.

Trying not to let her nerves get the best of her, Serena answered her phone. “Thanks, Ginny. Please take him into the boardroom. I’ll be right there,” she replied, taking a fortifying breath.

She picked up the file and made her way to the boardroom. Smoothing a hand over her hair, she took another big breath and pushed the doors open. She couldn’t see the client as Ginny obscured her view, but she heard him reply and went weak at the knees. That voice. The rich, deep baritone was simply sinful. It conjured up thoughts of satin sheets and hot, sweaty sex. There was a hint of an Italian accent, and, dear god, he could probably read the telephone directory and make it sound wickedly sensual.

As Serena stepped forward, Ginny moved to the side, and she got her first look at her new client. Shock rooted her to the spot. She blinked. Lifting a trembling hand to her throat, she simply stared. She opened her mouth, but nothing came out. She felt as if she’d entered the twilight zone, because larger than life and as wickedly sexy as she remembered him, stood her mystery man.

Despite not making a sound, it was as if he sensed her presence. His gaze zeroed in on her, his eyes trailing down the curves of her body. Ever so slowly, his eyes came back up and locked with hers, holding her shocked stare.

She couldn’t catch her breath. Her body was frozen to the spot. Her brain scrambled to process the fact that her mystery man was none other than Sebastian Marino, decked out in a bespoke suit that did little to hide his muscular body. A body she had dreamed about only hours before. She felt the blush burn across her cheeks and her body react to the memory of that dream. But as she looked back at him, his eyes were not smiling. If anything, he looked pissed off.

Almost as if he suspected the thoughts rioting through her mind, he gave her an almost-knowing smirk. Nothing more than the quirking of his lips. These very feelings were the reason she’d run the night before. She’d thought she’d never see him again, yet here he was in her boardroom. Fate certainly had a perverse sense of humour.

When Sebastian cocked his eyebrow at her, like he had the night before, she finally managed to gather herself. This was business, pure and simple. She needed to pull it together. The last thing she wanted was for Sebastian Marino to think she was unprofessional. It would be the kiss of death for her small company. With one last shaky breath, she stepped forward, extending her hand to Sebastian.

“Mr Marino, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” she managed to say in a clear, cool voice. Was that really her voice sounding so calm?

Taking her small, elegant hand in his large one, Sebastian dipped his head slightly without breaking eye contact. Holding it a little longer than she was comfortable with, he murmured, “Miss Callum, a pleasure.”

It felt like a live wire of electrical current pulsed through her body, shocking her enough to pull her hand from his grasp. In an attempt to appear unaffected, she smiled. 

“Please, call me Serena. May we offer you anything to drink before we get started?”

“Serena then. Thank you, yes. A coffee would be wonderful.”

“Ginny, would you please get Mr Marino some coffee?” Serena smiled at Ginny. 

“Certainly. Coming right up. Can I get one for you too, Serena?” 

Serena nodded, and Ginny left the boardroom, closing the door behind her. The silence in the room following the other woman’s departure was deafening. She had to do something to regain control of the situation.

“Well then, Mr Marino. Shall we get down to business?”

“No need to stand on formalities, Serena. Sebastian will do.”

With a small incline of her head, Serena acknowledged his words.

“Shall we get to it then, Sebastian?”

“Yes, indeed.” Indicating for her to take a seat, he waited until she sat before settling in the seat next to her.

A slow burn had ignited at the way he’d said her name. She loved the sound of it on his tongue. As if he’d reached out and touched her intimately. The look he’d given her as he’d waited for her to take a seat told her he wasn’t completely unaffected by her either. The air fairly sizzled between them as Serena and Sebastian sat at the boardroom table.

With a deep breath, she opened the folder to begin but got quite distracted by his cologne. It was fresh and clean, cool and spicy; a wholly masculine scent that made her mouth water and scrambled her senses. 

Gathering herself, she turned to ask him about the event and found him staring intently at her, almost as if he wanted to say something. When he remained silent, she asked her question. As he answered her, she pushed her thoughts aside and concentrated on the matter at hand. Thankfully, as the meeting progressed, the annoyed vibe she’d sensed from him first dissipated.

Time flew by as ideas were bandied back and forth. When they’d finally settled on a concept,  he asked Serena to describe her vision. Fired up by the images she saw in her mind, she leaned toward Sebastian, sketching on the pad that lay before her in a bid to share her concept. She lifted her eyes to look at him as she went to speak, but the words died away as she found his gaze focused on her cleavage.

She’d become so animated while explaining and sketching that her blouse had shifted to reveal the smooth, creamy skin beneath. Serena felt the heat rise in her cheeks, her body, her very core. She responded to the banked smoulder she saw in his eyes, longing to feel his hands on her, his lips on hers.

He leaned in, his gaze remaining intense. Their faces were so close she could feel his breath on her lips. Abruptly, she sat back and cleared her throat. Sebastian merely cocked that expressive eyebrow at her before glancing at his watch.

“We’ve covered much ground this morning, Serena. But, unfortunately, I must be on my way. I have another meeting this afternoon and cannot afford to be late.”

“Yes, of course. Let me see you out.”

She escorted him from the boardroom. As they reached the elevator, Sebastian pressed the button before turning to her.

“That was most productive. I am quite pleased with our progress this morning.”

“Yes, I feel we’ve covered a fair bit of ground today. It’s given me a good feel for what you’re after.”

The elevator chimed its arrival, and he stepped inside. Giving her that enigmatic smirk, he pressed a button on the panel.

“I will be in touch later in the week to arrange our next meeting,” he replied as the doors closed. And with that, he was gone.

For a moment, Serena remained where she stood. It felt as if she’d run a marathon. Sebastian Marino was a force of nature, and she was definitely feeling the aftereffects.

Destined: Destined – Chapter 2

Serena

Serena hated the clubbing scene, but her best friend had been insistent that she joined her. The woman wasn’t one to take no for an answer. She was sure Kim was trying to set her up on yet another unwanted blind date. Yet here she was at the club, sipping on a drink she didn’t want, and bored out of her mind.

To add insult to injury, she’d been right about Kim wanting to set her up. Regardless of how many times Serena told her she wasn’t looking for a new man in her life, Kim seemed oblivious. She’d taken it upon herself to find Serena’s “Mr Right”, and nothing was going to derail her plans.

After Serena had booted the last jackass to the curb, the last thing she wanted was another relationship. Her track record with men was shocking, and she’d decided it was best to give love a wide berth for the time being. “Mr Right” definitely wasn’t on her radar at the moment. Now if she could just get that through to Kim. 

Serena scanned the room, watching from afar as bodies danced to the beat of the loud music, bumping and grinding like their lives depended on it. Women smiling coyly and men thinking they were getting lucky for the evening, it was all just a game to see who was going home with whom for the night. Serena just wanted to go home by herself. Why was that so much to ask?

Turning back to the bar, she grabbed her glass of wine and was just about to take a sip when she felt someone staring at her. As she looked across the bar, she felt shock ripple through her when her eyes collided with a smouldering amber gaze. It drew her in, promising things she didn’t realise she wanted. With effort, she dropped her eyes, slowly giving him the once-over. His crisp blue suit was tailored to perfection, easily accommodating his tall, well-built body. He oozed confidence and sex; his whole persona screamed playboy. Despite that, she felt her whole body clench at the look in his eyes.

Uncomfortable with where her thoughts were going, she looked back down at her glass, thankful for the thick strands of hair that fell across her face, which allowed her to hide from his intense look. Lifting her hand to push the loose locks behind her ears, she couldn’t help but give him another look. Shit, he was still staring at her, and it looked like he was ready to head her way. That was all she needed, some wealthy playboy who thought he was God’s gift to women hitting on her.

Thoroughly disconcerted by her overwhelming response to the stranger, Serena scrambled to her feet when the gorgeous man turned to acknowledge the bartender talking to him. Suddenly, she could think of nothing else but escaping the magnetic pull of him. Her senses, now on full alert, were screaming for her to get out, get away. 

The relationship she’d just ended had been so dysfunctional that she was wary of men in general, but this one in particular had trouble stamped all over that striking face of his.

So, as he turned to give his attention to the man at his side, she took the opportunity to slip into the crowd, looking for Kim. Finding her on the dance floor with her boyfriend and a group of people she didn’t know, Serena made her way to her friend’s side. She put her mouth to Kim’s ear so she’d be able to hear over the pounding music.

“Honey, I’m going to head for home. This music is giving me a nasty headache.”

“Oh no,” Kim cried. “Steve hasn’t even arrived yet.”

“I’m sorry, but I really do need to go. I’ll see you in the morning.”

Disappointment was clear on Kim’s beautiful face, and she sighed deeply. “Okay. I’ll see you tomorrow. Take something for that headache before it escalates. Feel better, okay?” Kim hugged Serena, and Serena felt a pang of guilt. Her friend was only trying to do something nice for her, but she wasn’t ready for a new man in her life just yet. She hugged Kim a little tighter, conveying without words that she appreciated the effort even though she wasn’t interested. Then she fled the club.

Climbing hastily into her car, she wondered again about her intense reaction to the sexy stranger. She couldn’t remember ever reacting like that to any man. What was it about this particular man that made her want him so badly? What made her want to be touched, tasted, taken, and used by a complete stranger? And why was her body betraying her? God, she had to get out of there before she did something utterly stupid.

Key in the ignition, she engaged the start button, put the car into reverse, and backed out of the parking space. Turning for the exit, she looked up and found a man standing in the middle of the road. Braking, she looked at him watching her intently through the rearview mirror, her gaze locked with his. She couldn’t seem to look away. It was him, the sexy stranger.

She was so ensnared in his gaze she couldn’t break eye contact. Why would this man follow her? Why was he staring at her with his one sexy eyebrow cocked, asking her a question she couldn’t understand? He took a step toward her, and she panicked. She revved the vehicle’s engine. Taking her foot off the brake, she took off, well aware he was still standing in the road watching her rear lights disappear. She observed him out of the corner of her eye, not wanting him to see her looking.

She let out a breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding. She was the one running, yet in the pit of her stomach, she felt a deep disappointment that she wouldn’t get to see him again.

Destined: Destined – Chapter 1

Destined: Destined – Chapter 1

Do you believe in destiny?

Serena wasn’t looking for Mr Right, or even Mr Right Now. She was finished with all the drama that comes with a relationship. But one look at the dark, brooding stranger at the bar in the hottest nightclub in Cape Town has her running for the door.

Sebastian Marino doesn’t believe in forever or happy-ever-afters. In his opinion, women can’t be trusted. When his eyes land on one of the most beautiful women he’s ever seen, he’s enamored.

When Sebastian turns out to be Serena’s new client, they realise, just maybe, their meeting was destined.

Burn for Me: Burn for Me – Chapter 3

The sounds of Nickelback filled her apartment’s kitchen as Kitty was drying her hands, ringing coming from her handbag. Everything had been put to rights, and she was about to head out the door. She was on her way to drop off cupcakes at Nazareth House.

            Kitty loved doing her bit for the inhabitants of the home. An organisation steeped in history, their aim since 1881 was to look after the indigent, elderly, and orphaned children. They offered a comfortable home and nursing to those in need. It warmed her heart to see the enjoyment her cupcakes brought to those who lived there, bringing a little bit of sunshine into their lives.

            Finally, she managed to dig her phone out of her bag.

            “Hello?”

            “Ms Spence, Grayson James. I’m calling to confirm a time and place with you for our meeting this afternoon.”

            “Hi, Mr James, yes. I’m just about to leave. I make a delivery to Nazareth House every week and then treat the sisters to breakfast at a lovely little coffee shop down the road from them — the Red Velvet Lounge. How about we meet there around one o’clock?”

            “Great. I know of the place. I’ll see you there.”

***

            The nuns had left a few minutes earlier, and Kitty called for another cup of coffee as she sat waiting for the sinfully gorgeous Grayson James. She couldn’t remember a time that a man had piqued her interest like he did. It seemed like forever ago since a man had made her skin tingle and her belly flutter.

***

            Bold as brass and larger than life, Grayson strolled in right on time. He looked around and spotted her sitting at a window table. Taking a moment to absorb the sight of her, he felt rooted to the spot. She was quite possibly the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, with her raven tresses tumbling haphazardly down her back and dimpled smile.

            Walking over to the table, surprisingly, she stood when he reached her, holding out her hand to shake. At around five-foot-two, she wasn’t the tallest woman he’d ever been attracted to, but she certainly had magnificent curves in all the right places, packing quite the visual punch.

            Grayson said, “Ms Spence. Thank you for taking the time to meet with me. May I?” he indicated the chair opposite her.

            “Yes, of course. It’s a pleasure, Mr James.”

            “Please, call me Gray.”

            “Oh, well, thank you. Gray then. And please, call me Kitty,” she replied, her soulful eyes the colour of jade and amber lighting up, pouty bee-stung lips lifting, and a heart-shaped face boasting the most adorable dimple when she smiled.

He needed to get his head back in the game. Since when did he wax lyrical about anything, let alone a woman? It just wasn’t him. He was here on business, not looking for his soul mate. Whoa there. Where the hell had that thought come from? Pull it together, man. Go do what you came to do, then get the hell out of dodge.

            “Thanks,” he acknowledged with a grin of his own.

            “So, what can I do for you, Mr – sorry, Gray?”

            For a moment, Gray’s mind wandered into dangerous territory as he looked at her lips. Clearing his throat, he chided himself silently. Not cool, dude. Pull your shit together.

            “As I mentioned on Friday, I’m investigating the recent fires in Kloofnek.”

            “Gosh, yes. Terrible! My heart aches for those poor people. I have no idea what I would do if it happened to me. My shop means everything to me.”

            “I was wondering if you might have any information that could shed some light on the case.”

            “I really don’t think so. I can’t honestly say that I’ve seen or heard anything out of the ordinary.”

            “Well, let’s go through the list of questions I have and see where that gets us. Okay?”

            “Okay,” Kitty agreed.

            Gray asked his questions, and Kitty answered as best she could. Eventually, he decided he’d gotten about all he was going to get about the fires. Completely forgetting his intentions of only interviewing the delectable Kitty Spence and getting the hell out, he turned his attention to asking questions of a different kind.

            She really piqued his interest. He sensed there was a lot more to the woman than she showed the world. And damned if he didn’t want to unearth all that she concealed. Turning loose one of his killer smiles, he leaned in and asked, “So tell me, Kitty, is there a Mr Kitty waiting at home for you?”

            Dimple showing, distracting him from his train of thought for a second, she replied, “Wow, you certainly don’t beat around the bush, do you?”

            Giving an unrepentant shrug, he replied, “I’ve never seen the point of it. Besides, life’s too short. In my profession, you can’t afford to waste a second. You never know when your time is up.”

            “I guess I can see your point. I’m just not used to going at a million miles an hour. But okay, I’ll play.” Taking a moment to drink the last of her coffee, Kitty eyed him over the top of her cup. When she was done, she set the cup back in its saucer and replied, “No, there is no Mr Kitty waiting for me at home, or anywhere else for that matter.”

            Gray first felt surprise and then delight at the fact that she was single. It seemed the gods were smiling down on him of late.

            His rather delightful meeting with Kitty Spence long over, Gray had been back at it for hours. Much as he’d wanted to linger over coffee getting to know her better, he’d headed back to the fire station instead and gone over every bit of evidence he’d found. Again. He’d read and re-read the reports. Over and over, until his eyes blurred. What was he missing? Something seemed off at the point of origin. The pattern was unusual – not the run-of-the-mill accelerant pattern. He just couldn’t put his finger on it, but he knew it was something important.

            Whatever it was that he was missing, he knew it was the key to solving the spate of fires in Kloofnek. And he was sure it was hiding in plain sight. He’d thought the evidence he’d found at the last scene would give more insight into the perpetrator, but still he had nothing.  Running his hands through his hair in utter frustration, he got up to get another cup of coffee.

            The fire house was quiet in the early hours of the morning. Everyone getting in a bit of sleep while they could. He enjoyed working in those quiet hours. It helped him to focus. Not that it seemed to be helping at the moment.

            The sudden jangle of the klaxon was loud and out of place in the silence. And just as suddenly, the fire house came to life. Firefighters and paramedics alike headed for their vehicles to respond to the call. As one of the firefighters ran past him, he asked where the fire was.

            “High up on Kloof Street somewhere,” came the response.

            Gray’s stomach sank. Damn it, he was too late. The arsonist had struck again before he could figure it all out. Someone had just lost their business because he couldn’t nail this one down. Grabbing his gear, he headed for the fire scene.

            Chaos reigned. Pulling up to the scene, Gray turned his car off and sat looking at it. People were standing all over the place, jostling each other to gawk at the spectacle. Flames reached high in the night sky, lighting the area up like daylight. Fire trucks and rescue vehicles crammed into the narrow street, adding to the general sense of bedlam. To add insult to injury, there were reporters and news crews everywhere.

            Gritting his teeth, he got out of the car and headed for the nearest policeman.

            Showing the man his ID, he asked, “Evening, officer. Who is in charge here?”

            Turning to look at him, the officer replied, “Evening, sir. Sergeant Monroe, over there.” The officer pointed to an older gentleman standing talking to one of his uniforms.

            “Thank you.”

            He made his way over to the two men, irritation stiffening his shoulders. Again, he showed his credentials.

            “Gentlemen, sorry for interrupting, but I need a word with you, Sergeant Monroe, if you don’t mind.”

            “Sure,” Monroe replied. Speaking to his officer, he continued, “Give me a second?”

            The officer nodded and moved a short distance away.

            “What can I do for you, young man?”

            Extending his hand to Sergeant Monroe, Gray said, “Fire Marshal Grayson James. I’m the investigator for the Cape Town Fire Station.”

            “Nice to meet you, Mr James. What can I do for you?”

            “Apparently, the public has absolutely no concept of self-preservation, Sergeant. I would be very grateful if you could please push the safety barrier back farther to keep the public safe, especially from themselves. Also, I would greatly appreciate it if you could keep the press as far away from the scene as you can manage. Otherwise, they badger my guys and generally just get in everyone’s way.”

            “You’ve got it, son. I’ll see to it. Bloody press slither in everywhere they’re not wanted.”

            “Appreciate it, sir.” As the Sergeant turned to carry out his requests, Gray briefly allowed his head to bow as he gathered himself.

            Heading over to the nearest truck, he spotted the senior officer on site. Jeffrey Erickson was a seasoned member of the fire department, and he enjoyed working with him.

            “Jeff,” he greeted the other gentleman, “what have you got for me?”

            “Hey, Gray. Man, this one is putting up one hell of a fight. My boys are battling to put her down.” He shook his head sadly. “I’ve been at this game for a lot of years and pretty much seen them all. I’m going to go out on a limb here and call this one arson too.”

            Just then a shout went up. Turning to see what the problem was, they were in time to see the building collapse in on itself. Jeff’s radio crackled to life.

            “Sir, we’ve got a man down in the building. Matthews and Simms went in for search and rescue, but only Simms got out before she fell. Shit, sir, Matthews is still in there.”

            Cursing ripely, Erikson barked into his radio, “Ensure the building is stable enough to send someone in after him. If it’s a go, send Collins and Wilkes in. They’ve got the most experience on the team. Get him out. Go. Go!”

***

            They’d known that he would be a problem from the time they’d first laid eyes on him. The fire investigator was going to ruin everything, and they couldn’t let that happen. They knew she was theirs. They’d just needed to give her the time and space to realise it, but he’d changed the game. They’d have to move their schedule up to win over their girl.

             Let that be a lesson to you, Mr Fire Investigator. If you don’t stay away from her, you’re next. She will be ours. We will not tolerate your interference. She is ours! She always has been. You’re ruining everything with your misplaced arrogant sense of superiority. Not that it’s helped you any. You still haven’t figured it out, have you? That’s because we’re better than you.

***