1. 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 gunshot residue stippled around the wound 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. He’d dropped his beer bottle on the floor and its golden liquid had pooled by his feet.
The room temperature was about fifty-two degrees. The killer had turned the air conditioner up on purpose.
2. 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. Her tormentor shifted closer in the confined carriage. “Oh, but you will. You know the consequences if you don’t, Lizzy.”
3. “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 breath-taking, making you 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.
He inhaled deeply of her Shifter scent, verifying she was what she appeared to be and said, “Michael or Michelle?”
She reached up and grasped her breasts in two overflowing handfuls, looking him straight in the eye as she uttered in sultry tones, “It seems it is Michelle today.”
His breath caught in a gasp as she reached down and grabbed her crotch, his gaze forced to follow.
4. 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. If he could crawl to the phone and dial 9-1-1, he might have a chance.
Jesus, he was going to puke. *Concentrate, Sutton,* he thought, swallowing hard, choking down bile.
5. 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. Poor Lani, between her mother’s emotional abandonment and her cousins’ harassment, how much could one kid take? Larry wasn’t her favorite person but she wouldn’t wish him dead, well maybe . . .
Bending down, Kyra examined the poor son-of-a-bitch; the fresh corpse had congealed blood sticking to his skin and his right hand clenched a red Sharpie marker…except Larry was left handed.
6. 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.
Unbelievable. He’d been rendered useless by the
unassuming glance of a mere child.
A nauseating burst of steamed blood pulsed through his arteries and his stomach pitched.
Maybe the Sarge was right.
7. 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. Between the name and the horse, he felt like he’d been transported onto the set of *Little House on the Prairie.*
Only the jagged peaks of the Rockies veiled by gloomy clouds weren’t no prairie, and the girl walking out of the mercantile with saddlebags slung over her shoulder wasn’t Laura Ingalls; Half-pint didn’t limp.
A gust of wind blew the hood of her dark green rain duster back, revealing a pale face and long hair the color of a vintage Bordeaux.
8. “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.
Next to sex, gambling was George’s favorite activity — the night had suddenly gotten much more interesting.
“I’ll place a large wager on it, you arrogant bastard — my London townhouse says you can’t do it!”
“Hmm…I’ve always admired your house in town,” Damian mused, holding up his wineglass in a salute of approval.
9. 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. Muffled music from the party out front drifted to her ears; ahead, a security guard looked up from his post at the end of the corridor and gave her the once-over.
She smiled what she hoped was a confident grin as she approached and flashed the ID badge she’d lifted from a Worthington’s employee only days before. The picture had been digitally altered to match her current disguise â€“ dark brown, bob-style wig, blue color contacts, tortoise shell glasses – and as long as the man in front of her didn’t look too closely, she was home free.
10. 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.
The child bit her lip, the sharp pain making her forget the ache in her side but not what roamed in the dark shadows. She fought the fear, squeezing her mother’s hand, knowing that it would take both their strength to survive, just like it always had.
But the night was long, the fear unrelenting and the child could only endure so much, she stumbled.
11. “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.
“You are,” the doctor agreed, scribbling notes on the chart before zeroing his gaze on Garrett and saying, “But my point is, racing motorcycles is a young man’s sportâ€“it’s time for you to think about another career. Take my advice,” Dr. Shaw continued, tucking the chart back into place at the foot of the bed, “Blink those baby blues of yours at some beautiful woman, get married, have a family. Put your reckless ways on a shelf with all your trophies.”
12. “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.” She gestured with the gun toward the driveway leading out of the sun baked hotel parking lot.
“Great,” he mumbled, “I’m being abducted by a pixie.”
This fella wasn’t the first one to compare her to some kind of fairyland creature, Moxie realized with a sigh.
13. 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.
“She’s expecting my brother,” he explained calmly, not taking his eyes off the horse and rider,”she just doesn’t know that you’re him.”
“Seeing her reaction might just be worth the jetlag,” Noah said, unable to keep the bitterness from his tone.
During the long flight from Phoenix to Toronto, all the feelings he’d worked so hard to keep buried after she walked out on
14. 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. The heart of the place welcomed her, surprising since she had high-tailed it out of town at the first bump in the road. Leaving a daughter for Syble to raise had shocked the good people of Delta, like every other shenanigan she’d pulled all in the name of Ruby.
She settled on the old porch swing ready to face the music and count the wounded she’d left behindâ€“Ruby expected a few frayed edgesâ€“but the panoramic glimpse about killed her…again.
15. “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.
Blue lights flaring in lazy swirls, a Chandler County sheriff’s car pulled into the parking lot. If God were listening to her this one time, Cookie would not be in that car. But, as the Big Guy had a habit of turning His hearing aid off where she was concerned . . . why would this time be any different?
Good luck in the next round!