I asked my judge this week to please be candid with her process. All she could say was: “This was hard!”
I was surprised by one or two of her picks, because well, I had a few faves who are now no longer with us. Like American Idol last week there are sure to be upsets, and I think this week is the beginning. Again, it really goes to show just how subjective this business is. Congrats to the 30 entries who made it to the eigth round! You know the drill. Add your next line by midnight this Friday.
1. Adam McKinnon stretched out on a tree branch and studied the full moon, his cool blue eyes contemplative. Several hundred feet down and off to the right, his small-looking but cozy cabin sat, puffing cheery clouds of smoke into the warm air from a stone chimney.
He inhaled deeply, the scent of the night and the surrounding forest rushed in, filling his lungs to bursting before releasing in a gush.
How he loved the sidhe forest, with its all-around perfect weather, tall, tall trees and gentle, pulsing magic. A warm feeling was settling into his stomach and Adam’s fine mouth curled lazily. He recognized the feeling for what it was: contentment. How long had it been since he’d felt that?
2. Jack Sutton heard a whisper of movement a split second before an arm wrapped around his neck and something sharp plunged into his gut. The shocking reality that he’d just been stabbed registered as he was shoved to the cold, grease-stained concrete floor, his entire midsection on fire. Instinct forced him to his hands and knees before a hard shove sent him crashing back to the floor.
“You should’ve slit his throat,” a croaky, unfamiliar voice complained.
“He’ll be dead in an hour,” a second voice assured the first. “Come on, let’s get the cash register opened—if this don’t look like a robbery, we don’t get paid.”
Jack lay still as death, praying whoever these bastards were they’d hurry the hell up.
3. Death comes to all of us in many ways. It doesn’t consider how it leaves us to the mercy of others who must view our remains.
This time, death had come suddenly and without warning. The young man had been in his prime and died with a look of surprise on his face. There were still poker chips and cards set out for two other players on his table; beer bottles and ash trays covered the scarred laminate, and a bowl of potato chips were left uneaten.
He sat in his chair with a .22 slug in his forehead, with plenty of gun shot residue stippled around the wood to show that the killer had walked right up to him and shot him. Blood had trailed down his face from the gaping hole in his forehead.
4. Elizabeth squeezed her eyes tight and turned her face away from the wicked-looking blade. She’d seen what it could do. Knew first hand the destruction it could bring.
“Please,” she whispered, a tear slipping down her cheek. “I…I can’t do this.”
Cold steel grazed the skin exposed by her low bodice and she flinched.
5. Jordan Blake always figured he’d go to hell someday, but he never expected it to be this soon. His first clue was a no-brainer, the sign posted outside the town limits read: Hades, Colorado, population two hundred and six.
He almost hit the second clue as he wheeled his Lexus onto Main Street and immediately swerved to avoid the horse tied to the hitching rail. Swearing under his breath, he parked across the street, then jerked on the rearview mirror to make sure he hadn’t been seeing things. Yeah, there was a horse tied to a hitching rail, all right.
He stepped out of his car and looked up and down the street, squinting against the fine mist that dampened his face. Not much to look at—a barber shop, some tiny crafty-looking store, a gas station/mini-mart/Laundromat, an old stone church, three houses, and a flat-faced building with a faded *Oleson’s Mercantile and Coffee* sign above the door.
6. Joshua shuddered as the massive red door creaked open, allowing the stench of brimstone to steal into the room. Soon he would have to pass through that horrifying doorâ€“unless he could come up with some way to evade his fate.
He strode over to the Waiting Room clerk, a fat man whose inadequate wings fluttered anxiously as Joshua banged his fist on the desk. “Pray tell me, am I destined to go through that infernal door, or is there a path to redemption?”
“Geez, Doc, it’s kinda late to be thinking about redeeming yourself.” Eyeing him curiously, the clerk added, “Usually you gotta commit one of the three biggies to get the red-door treatmentâ€“rape, murder, or egregious pollution of natural resourcesâ€“so what’d you do?”
“‘Twas closest to murder,” Joshua said, shame and regret searing him as he considered his wasted life, his great failure, his final disgrace.
7. “Damn, it’s hotter than the devil’s backyard out here.” Castana Castillo took her hands from the steering wheel just long enough to swipe at the river of sweat running down the nape of her neck and to adjust the volume on George Strait’s
“Amarillo by Morning”. The truck and two-horse trailer swerved, and she quickly regained control of the rig, but not before something bounced off the right front fender with a sickening thud.
Oh, no, what now?
Braking as hard as she dared, Castana lurched to a stop, half fell out of the pickup and stumbled back to see what â€“or whoâ€“ she’d struck. She stared in disbelief at the crumpled body beside the road. “Oh, God, please don’t be dead,” she prayed, falling to her knees beside a bloodied man who stared unblinking at the Arizona sky.
8. Kyra Delano sipped from her glass of whiskey straight, savouring the sharp burn on her tongue and chill of ice melting in its wake.
The intoxicating fumes invaded her refined sense of smell, removed her for a moment from the repugnant scent of cigarette smoke, old beer spills and sweat – a prerequisite for every nightclub she’d visited this last month.
A mirrored wall behind the bar, flaunted the outlook of jaded humans intent on having a good time – one woman in particular.
Kyra’s fingers clenched, the glass shuddering in her grip, and tossing back the remainder of her drink, she placed it back onto the pitted bar before coming to her feet, weight centred within the restraint of spiked knee-high boots.
Turning to face the dance floor, she moved forward, brushing past a man who’d been intent on picking her up. Another time, another place, perhaps she’d have enjoyed his tasteful company.
Punk music reverberated the nightclub depths, jarring her sensitive ears, the crowd of humans immune to the noise as they jerked and twisted to the beat under shots of multi-coloured lights.
9. “Just keep on driving, Mister,” Moxie said as she struggled to keep the gun in her hand from shaking as she aimed it at the man’s head.
He turned to look down the barrel of the gun, his eyes then trailing up her arm to look into her face. She tried to put on a hard, outlawish-looking expression, but it wasn’t working—it’s hard to look evil when you’ve got curly red hair and freckles.
“You’re joking, right?” He gave her a hopeful little smile, while his eye cut over to the gun pointed at his chin.
“Nope, dead serious. Drive on out of here and nobody gets hurt.”
10. Kenzie Summers swiveled on the bar stool, her gaze encompassing every inch of the lively room in an attempt to find someone to ruin her reputation.
Every hormone in her body clicked to attention when she saw him, the epitome of pure sin, weaving through the gyrating couples on the dance floor.
“Aren’t you supposed to be at your engagement party, Kenzie?” her friend Nate, the bartender asked.
“Hardly an engagement, more like a life sentence,” Kenzie scowled, her attention momentarily distracted from the handsome stranger who’d taken a seat three barstools down.
The first she’d even known she was engaged was when her father had shown her the announcement he’d put in the paper and since then, she’d fought with him constantly, telling him she had no intention of becoming a perfect Stepford wife to a man she’d never met.
“Right about now, Mr. Jackson Rockingham the Third is realizing that he’s been stood up,” she told Nate as she glanced to her left, suddenly losing herself in the bluest eyes she’d ever seen.
Her pulse leapt at the interest in those eyes and accelerated into overdrive when he slid off the barstool and headed her way.
11. The man lay face-up in a pool of his own blood. Kyra Walsh recoiled but not in terror, she’d seen dead bodies before. In her other life, not here.
Recognition flashed – even in death the curly, black hair now tinged by a dull, reddish-brown, the bushy uni-brow, and the pointy nose all combined to give Larry Jones a look of cruelty. What had the bastard been up to at her construction site?
Her heart jerked like the rev of a jackhammer. Here’s one problem the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program sure doesn’t cover with mentorsâ€“how to tell your “little sister” her uncle is dead in ten easy steps.
12. Across the crowded ferry, the little girl looked up and Gabe Moreau ducked his head, praying she’d sit tight and stay the hell away. Blunt fingernails trenched into sweat slicked palms and a phantom tingle in his right palm itched to feel the reassuring weight of his standard issue Glock.
But the Glock was gone.
Along with his badge.
Above him, a green awning blocked the bright July sun, a wayward corner flapping with the ocean’s stiff breeze, but neither noise nor movement distracted his traitorous mind from the waif of a girl or her piercing gaze.
A gaze that left him paralyzed, as if the meanest SOB he’d ever hauled downtown had a boot planted across his throat and the cold blue steel of a barrel pressed against his teeth.
13. “Damn loser recruit,” Captain Connors muttered as he sweltered in the alleyway, forced to endure the scents of week-old Chow Mein coming from the Dumpster he leaned against.
A mingle of sweet citrus and coconut strong enough to turn his stomach overpowered even the stench of the restaurant refuse surrounding him as the hairs rose on his arms. It was one of them, had to be, only shape-shifters gave off that cloying scent a recruiter could catch a whiff of a hundred yards away. He inhaled the rancid fumes rising from the pavement to clear the shifter smell from his nostrils.
Connors stayed leaning, body tense, as a gorgeous blonde strolled into the cramped, trash-filled alley like it was a neighborhood park at lunchtime. Shifter females were always breath-taking, making you ache with want, until you remembered what they were, and worried about going to bed with Sue Ann and waking up with Jim Bob. He pushed out from the metal at his back, spit on the ground, and thought for the umpteenth time, God, he hated when they were female.
14. She’d become nothing more than a common thief.
No, not common – nothing about Egyptologist Katherine Meyer could ever be construed as common, especially when she was legally dead.
Kat checked her reflection in the bathroom mirror one last time, took a deep breath to settle the nerves in her stomach and told herself she looked pretty good for a seven-year-old corpse. The black slacks and matching jacket were perfect, nothing fancy, not one thing about them the slightest bit memorable. No one glancing her direction tonight would ever see anything other than the professional assistant she resembled, and that was precisely the way she wanted it. The less attention she drew, the safer she’d be, because being here wasn’t a choice, it was a matter of life and death.
Her stomach rolled as she turned down the long hallway, as her sensible flats clicked along the cement floor.
15. “I can make a woman come using just my mouth.”
George Beringer squinted through an alcoholic haze at his friend Damian Hunt, Viscount Atherton, trying to figure out exactly what Damian meant by that remark. They were both much too drunk, but then, what else was there to do on a cold winter’s night tucked away here at the Atherton estate, except discuss horses and politics, and now, obviously, sex?
“What’s so impressive about that — I’ve never met a woman yet who could resist a man’s mouth on her private lips,” George declared.
“Oh, but I’m not talking about using my mouth on her,” Damian said with a slow smile, “I’m talking about making her come using just the power of my words.”
“Balderdash,” George cried, nearly dropping his wineglass, “you may have a well-deserved reputation as a ladies’ man, you scoundrel, but it’s impossible to make a woman climax using just words.”
“Care to place a small wager on that?” Damian challenged, quirking an eyebrow.
16. He’d introduced her to passion in payment for his life. And yet, the woman who would be Captain AndrÃ© Marin’s salvation had closed her mind against him, locking him out of her dreams. A waning moon crawled across a starless sky over the bow of the Trident, the French merchant vessel under his command. He closed his eyes and reached for her with his thoughts, “Caitrina, open to my touch.”
A nothingness as deep as the ocean was his only response.
He glanced down from his perch on the quarterdeck to meet the worried gazes of his crew. Time was the one thing they had too much of, but could not afford to waste.
17. Through the darkness the child ran, dogging the woman’s heels. Short, angular legs that had never seen an ounce of baby fat, churned through the sweating foliage. The damp heat tightened, stealing her breath as the tropical jungle closed around her.
“Mama,” the child whispered and the faint sound of her own voice was comforting when everything around her breathed death. She reached for the hand her mother offered, holding with desperate strength to the only person who might save her from the evil lurking in the shrouded Cambodian night.
A monkey screeched, twigs snapped and only her mother’s grip kept her from bolting off the path as what sounded like footsteps ranged through the jungle.
“It is not the Khmer Rouge, little one,” her mother soothed in careful French, the language their captors didn’t understand.
18. “Despite what you apparently believe,” Lieutenant Kathryn Glace snapped, the pale skin across her cheeks tightening and tinting peach, “I’ve given this a great deal of thought—the family is legitimate, and their unique. . .talents. . have proven significantly helpful in the past.”
“I know who they are,” Nick said, trying to iron the grit from his voice. He knew what they were too: gypsies, tramps and thieves. Okay, maybe not tramps, but the thievery bit sure as hell fit. The con-artist he’d been stuck with on the Riverside kidnapping, had charged the family a bundle for her so called services, only to deliver false hope and additional heartache. Significantly helpful? Hardly.
19. Wealth no longer amused Hugh Hennigan and tonight it suffocated him. Disengaging himself from the beautiful sable-wrapped woman climbing into his lap, he breathed, “Constance, please.”
The carriage was dark but he knew she frowned at him so he added, “I warned you, dressing an Irish stone mason in evening clothes and a top hat won’t make him one of the Four Hundred or even a suitable escort.”
Constance Morgan-Stapleton placed a kid-gloved finger on Hugh’s lips as she told him anyone would mistake him for a viscount if he just didn’t speak, but Hugh’s mind was far from her words in a place called The West where, he’d heard, no one cared how people spoke or dressed.
Rubbing his trouser leg with the calluses on his free hand, he replied, “My hands speak louder than anything I’m wearing so I don’t believe anyone will think I’m a viscount.”
“Keep your gloves on and please, please, Hugh, don’t ruin my wonderful evening.”
Not for the first time that night, he blurted, “Constance, you’re a married woman and we should not be seen in public together.”
20. Like a snake, coiled and ready to strike, it’d been waiting for him when he’d arrived at work. And as it had when he’d first read it, his stomach knotted and cold fear wrapped around him.
He’d stared at the words, reading them but not processing them.
No, that was a damn lieâ€“he’d processed them all right, and what his mind told him was inconceivable.
The paper in his hand crinkled and he turned his gaze to it, smoothing the wrinkles out against his thigh and scanning it again even though he’d memorized it days ago.
*Dear Mr. MacMillan*â€“not Dear Mac or even Mac, hell, it should have said, Dear John because that’s exactly what it wasâ€“a Dear John letter.
Mac closed his eyes, the barrier of numbness that had first descended long gone, leaving enough room for the fear and loneliness and grief to sneak in.
21. Fighting the natural urge to fade away, disappear, and remain in reclusion, Lelandi Wildhaven spied the seedy tavern down the street where she would set up her first night of surveillance.
Why had her sister ended up dead—here, of all the godforsaken places in the States? A pang of anger and regret scraped Lelandi’s insides like a ragged knife. Keep a cool head, she reminded herself; she was in *their* territory now.
Sugar-drained leaves colored in ripe purples, reds, oranges, and yellows danced in the breeze while a haunting sound wound through the Colorado town and mountains like a warning.
Determined not to back out now, Lelandi ignored her gut instinct telling her this was a bad idea and pushed open the tavern’s heavy oak door, the rusted hinges squealing, jarring her taut nerves.
Several bearded men and the bartender turned to stare at her and at once she feared the worst—they saw straight through her disguise.
22. “Son, you’ve got more metal in you than the Terminator.”
Immobile in a hospital bed with one leg in traction, one arm fractured, and bruises painted on his body like modern art on a canvas, Garrett McCloud found no humor in his doctor’s joke.
Refraining from comment, he watched Dr. Shaw flip open the chart and wrinkle his lips while he studied whatever mysterious gibberish doctors wrote on the things. With his frizzy white hair, the good doctor remarkably resembled Einstein, and Garrett considered him as much a genius as the great scientist, in spite of the quirky, misplaced wit.
Looking up, Dr. Shaw examined Garrett’s face and must have realized his joke flopped because he said, “Here’s the deal, Mr. McCloud, if you keep crashing, I don’t know if we can keep putting you togetherâ€“even now, I can’t guarantee you’re not going to have a limp.”
When he added, “Your knee resembled Humpty Dumpty after his great fall,” Garrett decided the doctor spent too much time with his grandkids.
“I’m positive I’m paying a fortune for you and all the king’s men to patch me together again,” he growled.
23. “All men are lying, cheating sex-fiends,” said an irate caller on the radio talk show.
“Amen, sister,” Kat Windsor said as she parked her rented SUV behind Hank’s Antiques and secured the 9 mm Glock semiautomatic in her shoulder holster. As for motorcycle racing champion Dylan Silver, Kat didn’t know whether she wanted to protect him from the female fan stalking him or shoot him herself. Locking her gaze on the shiny motorcycle beside her, she stepped out into the mid-July Atlanta humidity, sank a four-inch heel into a pothole and fell against the motorcycle, sending them both crashing to the pavement.
She screamed, but the bike’s siren-like alarm system drowned out her voice and pierced her eardrums.
“Omigod, I’m in hell,” she said, attempting to struggle to her feet, but her silk blouse caught on an oily engine part and ripped.
Two strong hands grasped her hips and yanked her up, making her feel for a second as if she were dangling in midair.
24. “Some wild animal is going to eat you alive!”
The voice coming through the cell phone had Kia rolling her eyes, as she turned her car off the main road and through the narrow band of dark woods leading to her new home. The gorgeous, one-hundred year old, two-story house came into view, and she gasped, “Oh my God!”
“It *is* a wild animal, isn’t it? I knew it!” her sister’s voice got higher pitched with each word.
“Chill, Sydney. The only animal out here is Dracula,” Kia said, closing the phone over her sister’s protests.
The cell rang again almost immediately, but Kia ignored it as she slid out of her Jeep and motioned for the huge black Labrador to follow her. Her heart kicked into a higher gear as she stood staring at her very own piece of history.
25. “Jesus Mari, when’s the last time you were laid?” The question, coming from this particular girlfriend, wasn’t really surprising; that she’d blurt it out in the middle of a crowded nightclub…well, that made me squirm.
“What,” I flashed a grin and batted my lashes in mock innocence “was I drooling?”
People around me started snickering, and I knew it was a sad reflection on my lack of a life, but I’d rather have them think I was ogling a stud muffin than learn that my apparent fascination with the young man had been no more than blank staring. In truth, I’d been making a list, but not one consisting of; him, not him, definitely him… oh no, not me – I was thinking about food.
Sinful, seductive foods, like champagne, rich, dark chocolate and sweet, fleshy strawberries with long stems, the sort that made your mouth water in anticipation, much like the beautiful men around us affected my friend. Once upon a time I’d have been right there with her, admiring the yummy blond dancer who flexed and stretched nearby, fantasizing a possible seduction… but that was before; before my ex had stolen everything I’d had and ran off with a barely legal college cheerleader, before I had to actually work for a living.
26. As much as he’d hoped Lacey McLaren had gained a hundred pounds and sprouted horns in the five years since he’d last seen her, she hadn’t. Noah cursed, unable to pull his gaze away; if anything, she was more beautiful now than when they’d first met. His heart tripped over itself, his gut twisting into knots as he watched her lead the chestnut mare into the middle of the indoor arena and mount up.
Thank God it was too damn hot for chaps today; the image of her ass framed in tight suede was one he really didn’t need to carry with him. Just the thought sent blood rushing south, causing his jeans to grow tighter around the zipper.
“Does Lacey have a clue that it’s me, specifically, who’s come to look at buying her horses?” he asked, casting his half-brother a sidelong glance.
Colin’s sly grin was all the answer he needed.
27. Who said dying was easy?
Ruby May stepped out the front door of the Delta Funeral Home in what had been her good luck dressâ€“until they buried her in it. She studied her reflection in passing, and realized dying in Delta had a downside; she was a Blue Light Special on heels.
The town slowly receded as Ruby walked the winding Tennessee roads, reliving life moments all strung together like glass beads. Life didn’t come with a damn rulebookâ€“a good thing since ignoring advice had been her personal mantra. She had led an amoral life, impossible to sugarcoat, and there was a high probability her view would be outside those pearly gates her mama talked about.
In the distance, the old homestead sprawled across Cooper Mountain and Ruby ran to it, like a child bolting into a mama’s arms.
28. “Your sorry ass is going to be even sorrier, Jimmy Ray!”
The bat connected with a sickening, satisfying crunch. Jimmy Ray’s pained, horrified expression should have sent a spurt of triumph through Angel, but it didn’t.
“You crazy bitch!”
She tightened her grip on the scarred Louisville Slugger. She had a choice â€“ take another swing at her ex’s ego by hitting him where it would hurt him most or walk away before the cops showed up and she lost what little hard-won dignity she had left.
29. “Maybe I should become a lesbian for a week,” I blurted.
Carol choked on what was left of her watered down frozen strawberry daiquiri.
I intended to pat her back, but she had become a blur â€“ three too many daiquiris for me â€“ so even the beige walls of my den seemed to move.
“Where the hell did that come from?” Carol asked, staring at me as if I’d grown two heads.
I gulped the rest of my drink and said in a voice I knew sounded like a whine, “Don’t
know what else to do.”
“Spill, right now, Margo,” Carol ordered as she banged her glass on the magazine-covered, white coffee table.
I hiccuped, then answered, “Jay’s coming back to town.”
30. Lord, that man was gorgeous.
Of course, that was why I was standing in his office on a cold, wet Tuesday morning, dressed only in a form-fitting ruby red dress and matching strappy heels.
I was a little cold, but not enough to make me rethink my wardrobe choice â€“ long legs and perky feet were my only real assets, so I had no choice but to show them. It wasn’t as if I could rely on my *breasts* to carry the outfit â€“ nope, left to their own devices, they’d let the team down every time. So I’d worn a push-up bra to maximise their potential and tried to draw attention in a downward, more beneficial direction.
But this man in front of me – I doubted he had a single body part that wasn’t pulling its weight. I sighed in appreciation and allowed myself a moment to stare at the perfection of form that was Matt Malone.