We’re coming down the home stretch! You know the drill, ladies!
1. The mansion loomed eerily through the swirling mist, a sinister shadow against the backdrop of a storm darkened sky.
Destiny Ryder hunched over the steering wheel and stared through the car window in awe even as apprehension skittered down her spine.
“This is beyond insane,” she muttered as she put the car in gear and coasted through the beckoning wrought iron gates.
The crunch of tires on gravel was the only sound as she pulled up in front of the ghostly yet captivating manor and leaden legs carried her up the cracked marble steps leading to the scarred wooden doors.
Heart pounding, she raised a hand to knock but before she made contact with the door, it was wrenched open with such haste, she jumped back in fright.
“I’ve been waiting for you, Miss Ryder.”
The Scottish accent was darkly sexy but Destiny wasn’t fooled.
After all, she had the smarts to know that voices never matched the face.
A strong, masculine hand grasped hers and pulled her unresistingly into the house where she finally got her first look at the owner of that voice.
The most gorgeous man she’d ever seen stood in front of her, his green eyes glinting with amusement.
2. “I am the Keeper of Paradise, Purgatory and Hell.”
John Parker realized his tone was over-harsh when the shipping clerk backed away, stammering, at his response. He wasn’t used to being challenged. Well, not these days. He’d forgotten it brought out his temper.
His anger would have been hotter if he’d been let through unquestioned, though. The King’s goods needed ample protection.
The clerk had been damned either way.
Parker watched him sidle off until he disappeared into the thick mist. Turning to face the sea, he scuffed his boot against a wharf pole and reflected that no good deed goes unpunished.
3. Fate had painted a bull’s-eye on my back. The ironic thing, I didn’t believe in fate or karma before my brother left a message on my office’s answering machine that was the equivalent to Armageddon dropping a line just to say hey. Being the self- designated birdie-flipper of fate I had to know if listening to the message would be like Darth Vader—Phoenix, I am your brother.
After six years of silence, only one thing would have made Samuel call me. Earlier this week the family had been going through the family bible, and would I mind if they whiteout my name? But, no, instead of letting the call stay a mystery I helped fate change my course, and pushed that stupid button to listen to the message. At least to my credit, I braced myself to hear what my brother had to say.
“I really don’t want to leave this message, but I don’t think you would call me back.” He paused, and it felt like one of those moments that last a lifetime.
“Mom died last night.”
4. Megan Trent jerked out of a deep sleep at the sound of her clock radio turning on and off by itself in a rapid beat of white noise and eerie silence. She watched as the red display numbers flickered in and out with a frantic Morse code lightshow. Gasping in an ice-cold breath, goose bumps pimpling her skin, she knew he had come again in the deep, pre-dawn hours of the night.
Her dead husband’s ghost.
Like a Ouija board’s planchette, her thoughts stood uncertain and shaking between yes, I should and no, I shouldn’t. A decision made brought peace to her heart and her mind. Happy tears poured down her cheeks as she fell back against her pillow and gave in to temptation yet again.
Her eyes closed, tears frozen on her icy skin, as Aaron’s memorable scent of spicy musk aftershave filled the air, enveloping her and the sheets. Megan signed and arched her back as his familiar weight pressed her deep into the mattress.
5. He brought four items to their first date: a spray of orange roses, because he knew they were her favorite flower; a duffle bag containing a change of clothing; three condoms to capture any stray DNA; and a freshly sharpened hunting knife.
With anticipation fizzing through his veins—as effervescent as the finest batch of imported champagne—he plowed through the sprinkler mist dampening the walkway and took the steep steps to her porch two at a time. The sheath strapped to his ankle pinched with each step. Trying to ignore the irritating sensation, he concentrated on the sprinkler mist cooling his face. The tactic had a secondary, even more welcome effect, it curbed the eagerness.
Upon reaching the cover of the porch he shook the moisture from his hair and paused to look around. She had a beautiful view up here on Fancher Heights, below—the lights of Wenatchee spread from east to west in a glittering cobweb of diamond dust.
Her neighbors were set well back, hidden behind lush borders of emerald arborvitaes. Secluded upon this bluff, estranged from her nearest neighbor by a leafy barricade of sound-deadening vegetation, the setting couldn’t have been more perfect. Nobody would hear her scream.
6. “Zeus has summoned you.”
With a growl, Markus rolled over on the giant four poster bed and scowled at Octavious, who stood at the entrance to his chambers, arms crossed over his chest like the arrogant bastard he was. As usual, he wore a long blue velvet robe that trailed to the floor, and his white-blond hair fell straight to the middle of his waist, giving him the appearance of a serene and youthful Merlin.
“You shouldn’t be here,” Markus snarled, closing his eyes again. “Zeus will have you by the throat if he catches you.”
“It was Zeus who sent me.”
Markus opened his eyes and rose up on one elbow. “Since when do you do what he asks you to do?”
Octavious moved to the table by the unlit hearth, built into the cave where Markus was imprisoned, and poured himself a glass of ambrosia wine. “It was more of a suggestion, really, but he had his hand around my throat at the time; so needless to say, I wasn’t in a position to argue.
7. It came to Nick Holloway, gradually, that he was lying on cold, hard concrete. Something above held him fast. His shirt was hooked on the undercarriage of a car.
He managed to get loose—tearing his new Rag & Bone combat shirt in the process—-and crawled out from under. Enveloped by the stench of motor oil, shaking and sick, Nick finally realized where he was: the two-car garage beneath the Aspen House.
The last thing he remembered was talking to a guy named Mars at the “Soul Mate” wrap party. He’d never seen Mars before. It was an exclusive wrap party—-just Brianne Cross, the last four contestants, himself, and the crew. But Nick remembered talking to the mysterious Mars, the two of them sitting on the back deck, the movement of Castle Creek rushing underneath the slats making him dizzy.
As Nick used the Escalade’s side mirror to pull himself to his feet, he noticed the bright yellow tape stretched across the entrance to the garage.
8. “We have a visual on the boat,” Coast Guard Lt. Commander Jake Carver reported. Her gloved fingers tightened around the helicopter’s control stick and she increased air speed. The chase was on. Counter-narcotics had become her reason for existing and she was damn good at it.
Jake’s heartbeat matched the tempo of the helicopter’s rotors and sweat bonded her flight suit to her body.
“They’ve got those motors running wide open; the fricking hull is half out of the water” her co-pilot, Tom Crenshaw, said.
“Weapons ready,” Turner, the helo’s gunner, announced.
Homes dotted this part of the waterway; there wasn’t much chance Jake would give Turner permission to fire that big gun.
The danger to civilians was too great and the sound of the machine gun firing would bring complaints.
The public wanted to be protected, but they didn’t want to see or hear it in their back yard.
9. Even after he was dead, my father’s obsession with magic continued to color my life. He hadn’t been dead so long that I didn’t have many memories of him, but my strongest were of sleight of hand and illusion. I still had a perfectly clear picture, even at seventeen, of being four and my father reaching behind my ear for a coin, myself laughing in delight.
Those were good times, but they weren’t enough to erase this.
Mom was gesturing out the windows of our two year old Sedan, the one we’d bought when we still had money, and giving commentary on our new home. She’d gone into her super-mom mode, just like every time she talked to me since her therapy “break through.” She had her happy face on. Pulling into the hotel dad cashed our life in for before getting himself killed, hers was the only face doing the whole bright and shiny thing.
“Those trucks must belong to the Weeks boys. Remember I mentioned them?”
10. Even two hundred yards away in near-whiteout conditions, Locklen Roane saw the red Accord careening too fast down Highway 145. Had to be a tourist—who else would risk driving in this blizzard? He shook his head, about to continue trudging the steep hill home when the Honda lurched once then slipped sideways on the highway. He stiffened, squinting through the dense snowflakes and mist of his breath as the car now faced backward but skated forward, gathering momentum as it slid straight for the guardrail and the San Miguel River beyond.
“Holy sh—” Lock whispered, his words drowned out by the metallic screech of the fender smashing through the guardrail, words forgotten as the Honda toppled into the dark abyss below.
“Hold on, just—I’m coming,” he shouted into the eerie silence and began stumbling downward, the horrific grinding sound still echoing sickly in his head.
The dense tree growth would have made this descent treacherous on any given night, but combined with the sting of the swirling snow and thin, bobbing beam of his flashlight, his journey became one of survival. Thick flakes clogged his breathing and slashes of frigid wind whipped him until he staggered. He pushed on, slipping and sliding and twice collided with cottonwood branches; the second one clocking him so hard it sheared his knit cap off.
Uttering an oath, he didn’t stop for it, his breath ragged now as he staggered onto the highway and half-ran, half-skated across.
11. Ephraim MacNeill would kill anyone who stood in his way. Still not believing his luck at locating Elizabeth’s current place of imprisonment, he feared the rumor a ruse, or worse—a calculated attempt to draw him into the spider’s web.
Then the sight of a woman paralleling his path in the deepening shadows drew his attention. She fled across the rain-soaked valley, her red curls whipping behind her in the breeze like a proud knight’s banner.
“Elizabeth!” Ephraim shouted, resheathing his sword, and dashed for her—the fear they’d soon be caught, cutting short the brief elation.
Bolting through sweet heather, she altered her course in the direction of his voice. Elizabeth, his only reason to live his immortal life.
Damn the clan wars that had kept them apart—but no more. Tonight he’d blood bond with her and forever…forever they would be joined as one.
Concentrating on his vampiric power, Ephraim attempted to fly to her, or to vanish and reappear before her, but his new found abilities eluded him at the most dangerous of times.
12. Darkness did not fall gently this day.
It scourged the land like a rolling plague, leaving shadow where there had been shapes—a predatory hunger not unlike his own.
He smiled at his conceit, cradling his cracked rib with one arm, and plunged into the heart of the night. They’d never catch him now. The fringes of Hell were his Heaven, and he was born of the blood.
Plowing a twisted path through the woods, he ignored the slashing pines that made his cheek sing. Shaken from still, dreamless sleep, the trees drenched the air with perfume, like a lover aroused. And that was fine with him; it might save his ass. He didn’t know whether his pursuers were after him for what he’d done or for what he was, whether they tracked by smell or twilight-sight.
But he knew they were very good at it.
13. The man slouched on the edge of the bed, his fingers clutching the deadly syringe hidden in his jacket pocket. Despite the timpani drum pounding in his chest and echoing in his ears, his face was expressionless.
He stared at the naked, unsuspecting woman asleep on the bed, her slender body seductive even in slumber, her blonde hair a halo on the pillow.
The guilt gnawing at the man’s gut did not spring from having been inside her, making love to her earlier in the night, but from what he knew was inside her heart and mind and soul. That knowledge made killing her wrong—wrong on so many levels. Sadly, he had known it was wrong for a long time, but he had been powerless to change the course of events set in motion all those weeks ago.
What kind of monster had he become?
Somewhere along the way, the compass of his conscience had lost the true magnetic north of morality.
His fingers tightened around the syringe. A heavy sigh escaped his lips, releasing an avalanche of regret, remorse, and resignation; but still, a mountain of sorrow crushed his chest.
14. My name is Isadora Macleod and I am haunted. Take it from me, a life where the dead are your regular clientele is nothing like Hollywood would have you believe. I’d love to claim some saint-worthy purpose, that it’s my calling to guide lost souls to a better place, but that would be a lie. I didn’t choose this life — it chose me. And destiny can be one mean sonofabitch.
Something was in the wind — if I’d been a comic-book superhero my spidey sense would have been at full tingle.
As it was, there was a worse than normal ‘Tuesday buzz’ crawling beneath my skin as I drove to work – a feeling not too far removed from the shriek of the drill as you sit in the dentist’s waiting room. The buzz and I were old foes, but it hadn’t been this bad in years. It built steadily until, when I finally stumbled across the threshold of the Queen of Cups, a colony of fire ants was working its way along my bloodstream.
I leaned back against the door, my fingers pressed against the aged, knotty timber worn smooth by centuries of service, and breathed deep and slow, drawing comfort from the unyielding surface.
15. She was going to die.
What cruel twist of irony would take her life at the hands of the very people she’d tried to save? It wasn’t fair, certainly unjust, but as she dropped her head to her knees, she knew it was the truth.
The hard jungle ground beneath her rumbled with the pounding of the natives dance. Darkness enclosed the clearing where the tribe congregated and the startled cries of jungle creatures filtered through the trees from all directions.
She should be scared, terrified really, but somehow – she wasn’t.
Actually, the more she thought about it, the situation she found herself in seemed somewhat poetic – or maybe the crash had just rattled her brain more than she’d originally thought.
She could see it now – her eulogy would read; Myla Jordan, twenty-six year old InterCorp engineer was killed in a helicopter crash somewhere in the Peruvian jungle…
Fate had dealt an unfair hand this time around and now she’d be remembered as one of the bad guys, nothing more than another of the oil company’s ethically deficient employees. Worse yet, was the loss of her journal and the pages of damning evidence she’d collected that could have brought InterCorp Oil’s operations to a standstill.
16. If she’d been a bad girl when she had the chance, she probably wouldn’t be dying right now. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. When she sucked in a breath, the metallic scent in the air made her gag. The queasy feeling in the pit of her stomach told her it wasn’t just her blood. She would never forgive herself if…
“Sunshine?” The darkness swallowed her whisper.
“I’m here, but you need to be quiet.”
Relief started to flood through her, but slowed to a trickle, as the cold from the cement floor seeped into her bones. She struggled to move but her arms, tied behind her back, refused to budge.
17. The warmth of the desert vanished under a shroud of bone-chilling twilight. And Jackson Neale, cautious now after four bloody years of war, slipped deeper into its murky, concealing cloak. Anyone he’d befriended on the trek westward from Virginia could be counted on one hand, and he knew with absolute certainty that the person riding into his camp tonight wasn’t one of them.
Only a fool would enter another’s camp without hailing first, and this brazen bastard displayed a boldness that truly amazed him.
Jackson lowered his hand to his hip, calm assurance enveloping him as his fingers slipped around the worn, wooden grip of a well-oiled Army Colt. Patiently, he waited as the rider guided a handsome Bay straight toward the saddlebags near the fire; the glow from the low flames highlighting expensive leather chaps and a set of Mexican spurs strapped snuggly around dusty, silver-tipped boots. And despite the chill of the encroaching night, his evening caller’s black jacket hung open, revealing a holstered revolver buckled low around a denim-covered hip.
With a smooth dismount, the rider dropped to the ground beside the saddlebags. All caution inside Jackson evaporated the moment the stranger lowered to one knee. Seeing his chance, he bolted from the shadows and rammed his shoulder full-force into the unsuspecting thief.
18. Looking back, my mid-life crisis began on a Tuesday in March, right there on aisle twelve of the local supermarket between the laxatives and the condoms. That’s the day I confronted an assortment of tampon boxes and wondered if my diminishing egg production warranted the forty-eight count economy size. See, I worried about a future when the half-empty box, now faded and kinda tattered around the edges, still sat beneath the sink ready to mock me every time I reached for a hair dryer or fresh roll of TP.
“Can I help you find something, ma’am?”
“Yeah, could you put out an APB on my youth?” A rhetorical question, but when the kid gasped and made a move as though to summon the men in white suits, I dredged up a reassuring smile. “Just kidding,” I lied, vaguely trying to pinpoint the moment in life when I’d gone from miss to ma’am. But with forty-two guests due to arrive in under five hours, I could hardly afford to wallow in self-pity, so I grabbed a box at random, tossed it in my basket, and slunk to the check-out line.
Just ahead, a woman roughly my age pointed at the cover of a glossy tabloid devoted to the latest batch of celebri-spawn and their stick-thin moms. “Look at them,” she sneered, “all proud of getting their figures back when everybody knows they spend a fortune on personal trainers and high-priced chefs.”
19. Seven lockers down, my boyfriend was making out with Cheryl, the way-too-perky head cheerleader.
I tried not to stare, but when his hand slid past her waist and over her hip, I slammed my locker shut and stormed off in the opposite direction. Not that anyone noticed. The problem â€“ not only was I that gorgeous jock’s secret girlfriend, I also had a secret power.
OK, not invisible invisible. But, in the not-so-mythical land of Highschoolia where blending in equals obscurity, I rated a negative seven JD on the Jane Doe to Lindsay Lohan visibility scale. I’d be the first to tell you I didn’t mind â€“ well, typically. I’d made a deal with the devil … I mean the boy… and stomping away was the only thing I could do.
“The Plan” just might kill me where Advanced Trig had failed.
20. They had been in the interrogation room for twelve hours straight. He hadn’t left, not even to get coffee or a donut or to tag team in his partner for that whole good cop-bad-cop game. Mia’s eyes were dangerously heavy and though she had propped her chin in alternate hands for the last few hours, both of her biceps were beginning to feel like three day old spaghetti. Across the table, the detective stared that same level stare, the green of his eyes striking her like a backhanded slap.
“I’ve already told you,” she said, exhaustion slurring the edges of her speech,” my name isn’t Bridget, it’s Mia.”
A days’ growth of beard shadowed his jaw, the only sign that he was any worse for wear from their time in this cinder block hell hole.
“Each one of these stacks is a list of charges from a different state,” he explained softly, almost sympathetically, steepling his hands over the piles of paper that ran the length of the table, “and each stack carries at least a thirty year stretch.”
Mia’s eyes widened, racing across the dull formica as she counted the stacks, stopping at the mugshot they had shown her during the first hour – of a woman who looked exactly like her.
“I know these past few years that we’ve had our ups and downs,” he said, leaning in and lifting a hand as if…as if he were going to reach for her, “but you’re in serious trouble, and I need you to work with me…let me help you.”
This was madness – when she’d left the house this morning, on her way to a nothing job in a nothing town in Nowhere, Southern California, she’d never imagined she would end up in a Los Angeles police station by nightfall, being grilled by a man that was either crazy or wrong or both – and seriously unwilling to admit it.