1. “I’m not giving her this.” I stared in horror at the inscription on the back of the huge diamond tennis bracelet, the curvy, flowing writing a mix of sentimentality and ownership.
For B, my Love Shack(le) baby
B, for Britney, who just so happens to be my cousin…and the current secret fling of my married boss, Mason.
“Give it to her, Jenna,” Mason said calmly as he shuffled through the pile of paperwork on his large mahogany desk. He puffed out his chest, and underneath his white dress shirt, I could see the outline of the red M on his black superhero uniformâ€“God help you if Mason overheard you calling it a costume.
M stood for The Machine, which Mason Wallings, mild-mannered businessman and CEO of MetalCo, became many years ago after a freak accident on tour in a local auto factory.
2. Shattered like a goblet on a tile floor, Sarah Wild’s dreams lay in a tattered heap of shredded white silk and gossamer tulle. Her dress went from bridal perfection to remnants for the ragbag with her quick frenzy of ripping and tearing. She stomped from the remains of her dress and kicked it into a pile against the large tri-fold mirror.
A slow wiggle of her fingers conjured a fireball hovering above the palm of her hand. Bouncing it like a volleyball, she spiked it into the combustible material. Quicker than the flick of a wand, all that remained of her wedding dress was ash floating in the air-conditioned breeze of the bridal salon.
“I’m glad you already paid for that.”
3. During the course of his quest, Dair Curator had lost count of the number of women he’d slept with. He didn’t care if he’d gotten a reputation for being a womanizer. He only cared about correcting his mistake. Angels don’t make mistakes, especially ones that cause the death of a Mortal.
Looking out the apartment window at the red sun slipping beneath the rolling green hills, the twinges of homesickness threatened to grip his body again, like an addict gone too long without a fix. Even now, to ease the sensation of worms slithering all over him, he fought the urge to brush off imaginary creatures and pace. The longing for home a soul sickness, he had to control his body’s yearnings in order to survive in the Mortal World long enough to complete his mission.
4. I stared at the nine men of my supposed dreams. Of my nightmares, more like, and theirs too judging by their stunned expressions as they stared back at me.
The show’s host said, “What’s wrong, Princess?”, the overdone innocence in his voice making it clear: this was no accident.
Horror and impotent fury spun through me, mingled with hatred of him for making me reveal the filthy trick the show had played on me.
“I’ve dated all of these guys,” I said, speaking with a calm I didn’t feel, not wanting to show him or the cameras how shaken I was. “And you knew that, Peter, since I listed them all on my application form, soâ€“”
Peter said, “No, I suppose you really can’t be on a dating show with your exes” in a tone suggesting he’d never thought about it quite that way before and what a fascinating world view I had.
5. They spied the dog first, lean, long-legged and pale as a moonbeam in the darkness. It passed through the woodland like a wraith, gliding silently from one night shadow to the next as Hugo de Mercure watched from the battlements â€“ and waited.
“Over there,” the youth beside him hissed, pointing towards a taller, darker shape trailing the hound, “to the right of the great oak.”
With a barely audible curse, Hugo turned from the parapet and swept down the narrow staircase, the soft leather on the soles of his boots barely making a whisper despite the haste of his flight. At a small wooden door set deep into the stone rampart he stopped and drew his sword, bracing his back against the stone. Moments later the soft click of a latch being lifted brought his body to attention and his sword arm up.
The moonwraith hound streaked from the blackness of the opening and Hugo dropped his sword – no more than the breadth of a horse hair in front of the taller figure swathed a dark cloak.
6. Ringing phones and telegrams only brought bad news. At two AM it was a guarantee. Unknown caller glowed on the display, but Nash’s gut told him to answer it anyway.
“Don’t ask questions, just listen, a contract’s been taken out on your sister. Talk her into selling the woman’s shelter or she’ll be dead by the weekend.”
“Who took out the â€“ damn you, don’t hang up on me,” Nash paused to acknowledge the dead air before throwing the phone across the room.
It had been almost sixteen years since he had seen or spoken to his sister, and after what he’d done, he doubted she’d take his call, never mind give up her dream at his request.
7. Something was wrong and had been for quite a while now. Exactly what, I had no idea, but it had to be big for me to be summoned up Here.
I glanced around the stark white marble foyer, resisting the urge to drum my fingertips on the arm of the white plush chair.
“What’s taking so long?”
Time might not mean squat up here in Heaven, but I had places to go, souls to deliver and a new episode of Desperate Housewives to watch.
I crossed my legs; then uncrossed them, all the time fighting the anxious twist in my gut.
I didn’t belong Here; in fact, of all the places I didn’t belong, this was numero uno.
8. The blood splattered on Maribel Thompson’s pillow and drying on her hand wasn’t hers, and neither were the boxer briefs tangled in her sheets. Her alarm clock lay dead on the floor, its cord snaked between shards of mirror and a trail of blood. The splintered mirror was a herald to seven more years of the luck she’d become accustomed to, and the blood was an all too familiar sight.
Sheer desperation stilled Maribel’s trembling flesh and drew her eyes into determined slits. There was only one thing left to do.
The man who had barricaded himself behind her bathroom door groaned. “You broke it!”
9. He found her just before sunrise.
Icy shivers slid down the back of Reyn’s neck as he stormed towards the inert figure on the ground. He tried to tell himself that the trembling he felt in his hands was the adrenaline receding now his long night’s search was over. Ignoring the tremors, he forced himself to scan the area, making sure they would be alone for the short time he needed.
An eerie silence descended as he stretched his fingers towards her throat. Seconds seemed to stretch into hours as he waited to feel an answer to his unspoken question.
He almost missed it.
10. “Pull out, pull out, please pull out,” she moaned.
Knees aching and her back screaming with pain, Lana knew she couldn’t take much more. Knees pressed to her chest, right up under her chin and her back curled the way it was, she would definitely pay for this in the morning.
If she survived.
When she first agreed to do this she had no idea what would happen. Good thing she didn’t, there was no way she’d have said yes.
Not even for Terri.
11. “Face it, the only reason she could possibly have for marrying that old fart is to get her hands on his money.”
Nissa Hagan backed out of the ladies room, letting the door close quietly behind her. As she turned to go back down the hallway, laughter from the closed door fanned her humiliation. She wasn’t stupid, she knew being engaged to a much older man would cause speculation, but what she hadn’t expected was to hear her coworkers make crude fun at her expense.
As she was creeping furtively back to her desk, she heard someone call her name. “Wanna go to lunch?” Kim, her best friend and fellow realtor, asked.
She wanted to get out of that office more than she wanted to take her next breath, but of course she couldn’t.
12. “Ever heard the phrase ‘out of the frying pan into the fire’?” Dan muttered as we stared at the huge black mirrored doors.â€¨
“You know, that’s what I love about you, always the optimist,” I said, trying to convince myself there was no reason for my reflection to look so nervous. Beyond the doors subterranean bass pounded, vibrating through my chest like a warning. A warning I had to ignore.
“We can still leave,” Dan said, sounding calm but looking grim.
“This will get me off the hook with Lord Marco,” I reminded him. And, frankly, repaying a debt to the oldest vampire in Seattle was the only reason good enough to get me to walk through these particular doors.
13. For someone with Kate Atkinson’s unique talent, finding England’s most infamous pirate had been easy. Catching him, however, was proving more challenging as Black Jack Snow darted like a cat between the bawdy houses, alehouses and hovels squatting along the south bank of the Thames.
“Curses,” muttered Aunt Winifred between bosom-heaving breaths, “we lost him.”
Kate could think of more appropriate words than “curses”, most of which she’d overheard earlier while waiting for Snow outside a particularly unsavory tavern, but she refrained from using them in her aunt’s presence. Instead, she rubbed the talisman clenched in her fist. The midnight blue sapphire felt smooth against her thumb and the gold band of the gentleman’s ring grew warm.
In a steady voice, she chanted the words her mother had taught her many years ago before her death.
14. There was only one coherent thought in Francesca’s mind as she huddled on the closed toilet seat, twisting her hour old wedding band. She needed to get the hell out of there, and fast.
“Easy said, harder done,” she muttered, the sound of her own voice bolstering her flagging courage.
Walking out of the reception with her head held high, lace veil floating behind her was worth a try, but she doubted she’d make it as far as the manicured lawns, let alone the wrought iron front gates. Marcus Airedale wasn’t going to willingly let his new bride just waltz off his estate, with enough evidence to finally convict him of murder.
She managed a lopsided smile as she patted the USB flash drive tucked into her French lace bra. It was all there and short of him strip-searching her in front of their wedding guests, he’d never find it.
15. I was standing there naked when a dead man sauntered into my bathroom.
Sauntered, not shambled.
That was the second frightening thing.
I let out an eeep! like a paralyzed parakeet, and skittered backward until the shelves holding my soaps and pretty bottles bit into my bare behind.
His stink – as sharp as teeth – devoured the floral essence rising from the bathtub; but I didn’t need the air of chemical putrescence he brought with him to know he was a revenant.
” Nathan,” I gasped.
I shouldn’t have.
16. Dr. Ava Monroe listened intently as the subject screamed in pain. She held the man’s hand in place and watched his face contort in response to the stimulus. Suspicious, she let go of his hand, scribbled a few notes, then leaned back in her chair.
“On a scale of one to ten tell me how much it hurts.”
She continued to scrutinize him as he looked anywhere but at her. When he opened his mouth to speak she sat up straighter and raised a hand to stop him.
“And don’t lie to me.”
17. Remorse, the malicious shit, saddled up and rode Sierra Talbot’s heels like a haunted horse the day she blew back into the heart of Simon, Michigan.
A town she hadn’t seen or lived in for five years.
A town she hadn’t missed.
“Take a left here,” Carrie Swanson said, flapping her hand at an unmarked intersection lined with a decaying array of single-wides. “And then *tell me* I didn’t hear you right.”
“I wish I could,” Sierra said, wishing more with each passing mile this entire episode would turn out to be a bad dream. But the nerve-gnawing reality of her situation slammed into her one vicious pothole at a time as she crawled deeper into Simon’s dejected underbelly.
18. It’s hard to have a life when you’re the Angel of Death.
Aletta shimmered into the center of Orlando, metamorphosed into her usual human form, and watched and waited as more people died.
A chill slid through her and she walked into the Rialtmont entertainment complex, towards a dark elevator draped in spectral black crepeâ€“open wide like a ravenous mouth waiting for its next meal.
Heaviness pressed against Aletta’s ribsâ€“knowing what was about to happen, unable to change events and never allowed to interfere with a person’s fateâ€“the same sad, final result of death.
A group of people including a woman with her toddler approached the open cavern, each step draining the brightness of their auras, their faces shadowed and lifeless.
The toddler fidgeted in her mother’s grasp, tears rolling down the little girl’s cheeks as she screamed again and again, the sound echoing around the foyer and jerking some nearby people from their conversations.
The girl’s terror slammed into Aletta’s chest, making it hard to breathe; the child’s thoughts jumbled, terrified, knowing what would happen if she went into that elevator.
19. Kaitlin McKenzie stared down at her red-slicked hands and swallowed the pain; who knew a female body could lose so much blood! Ironic really; nine years in the field, surviving five shoot-outs and a knife fight and she was going to die from a bird attack.
“Hold on, McKenzie, the chopper’s on its way.” James Ryan carefully pried Kaitlin’s hands off her abdomen and packed his own t-shirt into the bloody mess where her belly-button used to be. He scanned the rainforest around them in case the enormous Cassowary—with its even bigger talons—returned for a second swipe at Kaitlin.
“Didn’t I say I was dying to see Australia?”
“If you can wisecrack, you’re not dying. Open your eyes, Kait.”
20. Emma Morris looked out the back window of Zelda’s Magical Diner at the rows of tomato plants heavy with the red fruit, and something free and wild inside her unfurled. The lush garden mesmerized her, so different from the hardscrabble Texas ground she’d known until she was fifteen and her parents bundled her off to her aunt Zelda in Wisconsin.
This summer, ten years later, the abundance of plants wasn’t the only attraction. A man hunkered down to pick tomatoes, his back to her, the sun playing shadow and light across his skin. In her mind she pictured his eyes, the rich brown of the earth, gazing into hers as if he saw something precious.
Rubbing her goosebumpy arms, she heard the floor creak behind her and caught the scent of jasmine.
“Don’t you love the way Duncan’s T-shirt clings to him when he sweats?”
21. It was right around 10 p.m. that I realized merry widows were made to be ripped off right away, not to be worn for an all-night TV marathon.
When I’d first put on the incredibly revealing costume — come-fuck-me red lace, satin garters complete with bows, and enough bone and underwire to heft my generous Ds to unbelievable heights — I was thinking about looking hot, not the practicalities of actually wearing it. But I needed to pull out all the stops, so here I was, all dolled up and ready for a little action.
Only, after lying in Daniel’s bed dressed like this for several hours, I was beginning to regret my choice of apparel. The underwire was starting to pinch, and the extra-strength boning didn’t exactly give a girl a whole lot of breathing room. So it was only natural that between a night of rerun-filled TV, the awkwardness of not being able to breathe properly, and a day spent battling Greystar and the forces of evil, I drifted off somewhere around 11.
I must have been so deep in dreamland I didn’t hear the door open and then close.
22. “You look like a man who knows how to be wicked.”
Theron tore his gaze from the crowded club he’d been scanning and looked toward the bleach-blond bombshell rubbing like a cat against his arm. A heart pounding bass echoed through the dark room, making her words hard to decipher, but there was no missing her intent.
One long, white-tipped nail trailed down his chest as she puckered her heavily made-up lips, leaned in close and took a deep whiff of his scent. “I like to be wicked,” she purred. “In fact, handsome, I bet I could show you a thing or two that just might amaze you.”
Theron doubted it.
23. It seemed ironic that his own marriage should come undone at a house party whose sole purpose was to celebrate the promise of another.
From where he stood in his friend’s library, Marcus Elliot, the Duke of Westbrook, was able to stare out the library window and at the view beyond. A typical English garden laid spread out before him and, further in the background, the gentle hills tried vainly to beckon his gaze. A sense of lazy peacefulness seemed to permeate the scene, dotted here and there with those energetic few who had managed to leave their beds after last night’s festivities and were now slowly strolling the grounds.
Yet, as he stared so intently out the window and at the picturesque scene before him, Westbrook saw none of it. Not the glimpses of sunlight filtering through the leaves, nor the fluttering of the flower petals as a summer breeze kissed their smoothness. And certainly not the serenity of the couples wondering aimlessly along the many paths, the women of which contently twirling lacy parasols.
24. The first time he had put the moves on her she let it go but the second time, she shot him.
Unfortunately for her, the bullet just grazed his ear and when he recovered from the shock that she had shot at him, she couldn’t run fast enough.
She had made a grave mistake – she hadn’t killed the bastard – and now, he would kill her.
Kill her and take immense pleasure in it, but he’d have to catch her first and she knew how to hide – they had taught her well.
But where could a disgraced FBI agent hide when marked for murder by her own people?
Charly Webber knew of only one person who could hide her – her equally disgraced ex-partner – surely he had forgiven her by now.
No, she knew he hadn’t forgiven her for her betrayal, but more significantly, he had never forgiven her for the destruction of their marriage.
25. Nick jumped as someone’s fingers slid down the back of his jeans. His hand jerked and his signature turned into a scrawl across the Rolling Stone cover.
“Nickee…Nickee…” bayed the pack of girls, as one of them shoved a scrap of lace into his shirt pocket.
“Nickee, marry me!”
He glanced to his left, to the wide-eyed wispy girl in the green striped school uniform.
Hell, he had to get away…and fast.
He gritted his teeth, sucked in air, and summoned control.
26. “Ah, baby, that’s it…just a little…um, yeah…” he urged, his low ragged moan changing to a satisfied growl. Sweat droplets beaded around his receding, yet still dark hairline, and if he opened his eyes to look at her on top of him he would think she was enjoying herself as wellâ€“she’d slid her lips into a sexy smile to hide her revulsion.
Crumpled satin sheets clung in damp patches around her knees; her muscles quivered like a lioness ready to pounce, but she cautioned herself to wait, knowing the outcome of this planned encounter even if he didn’t. To temper her impatience she brought to mind the refrain from “Another One Bites the Dust,” letting it run through her head in a slow easy beat.
“You like it when I do this?” she asked, and increased her rhythm in time to music only she heard; faster, harder, squeezing him with her inner muscles, bringing him to the edge, denying him.
He grabbed her hips with his bony, surprisingly strong hands, trying to buck his way deeper inside, and her resistance changed the sex into a struggle for dominance. How fitting that this time she wielded the power, and he would lose.
27. Lissa, Princess of Horvald, waited for Death. She stood, still and silent in the dank chill of the Great Hall, determined to meet her fate without cowering in fear. But fear hovered, beating against her mind like moth wings, relentless and inescapable.
Her father, the self-proclaimed King of Horvald was gone, swallowed up in the vicious cycle of victory and defeat. Now there was no protection for her, no way of avoiding the steady creep of defeat as it seeped through the walls and curled under the doors, like a foul, poisoned miasma.
He wanted her, this Warlord called Death.
He’d killed her father and now demanded she appear before him to beg for mercy.
28. The frilly bedroom had been recently decorated in red â€“ blood red. Panicked, Samantha Blair struggled to move; this wasn’t her room or her bed and it sure as hell wasn’t her body. Tears welled and trickled slowly, sadly from eyes not her own and then the pain started; still she couldn’t move. She could only endure as terror clawed at her soul and dying nerves screamed in agony.
The silence, when it came, was absolute.
Then the whispers started. They poured from the shadows in a one writhing morass, each voice lost beneath the cries of the others … except for the one.
29. Chocolate was made for moments like this. Standing for the first time on a Japanese street corner, I reached into my purse for the Hershey Kiss I had stashed in the zipper compartment for emergencies, but came up with a handful of brown ooze and an empty foil wrapper. Feeling the pulse of the city rushing all around me, I scanned the mirror-covered skyscrapers wearing their neon signs like fancy hats. So this was Tokyo.
As I waited for the light to change, the streets teamed with people scurrying everywhere like anti-bodies battling for a place in the blood stream. Looking at the chaos around me, I still couldn’t believe that a simple dare from my best friend had me standing more than five thousand miles from home.
One minute I was innocently eating a tuna salad sandwich, the next I’m in mid-chew agreeing to a proposition that would change my life.
30. At the moment of his death Alexander Detweiler didn’t find God, or see the welcoming smile of his dead sister, or experience that all but clichÃ©d brilliant halo of white light. He awoke to Armageddon instead. His t-shirt still tacky with drying blood, he struggled up from the unforgiving pavement. Confused, he glanced around the deserted street corner, where in the hell were the paramedics, or his partner—Nathan? Moments earlier he’d been surrounded by a sea of blue uniforms, while the medics frantically fought to stem the bleeding—which reminded him—he tugged the sticky fabric of his shredded Garfield t-shirt away from his abdomen. Son-of-a-bitch! An oozing hole, the diameter and shape of a walnut, gaped up at him from what had once been his ripped abs.
Good luck in the next round!