Donna Augustine

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Interview with Author Donna Taylor and Prologue of Her Book, Copper Moon

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I’m having over a friend of mine for an interview today. She’s a fellow author who I’ve become friendly with and whose writing I love! She writes contemporary romance set in Arkansas.

Before we get to the interview though, I’d like to share her prologue.

copper moon cover

Copper Moon by Donna Taylor

PROLOGUE

10 Years Earlier

My family was really good at keeping secrets, big ones, small ones, and everything in between. Today, I was going to add another one to my own personal list.

My gramps was the best. He totally got that at fourteen, I was old enough to make it to the movies by myself. It was only three streets over from where he’d be hanging out at the feed store. What could happen in three blocks? Besides, it wasn’t like Copper Ridge was a huge city or something. Sure, there were plenty of strangers in town, as summer was in full swing, but most of them would be at the lake or on one of the rivers during the day. Tourists didn’t waste sunshine hanging out at the movies, especially on a weekend. Matinees were pretty much locals only on a Saturday. Which was great, ‘cause that made it the perfect place to meet friends.

“Now Sis, you go straight to the show and don’t make no detours. As soon as it’s over, you get that skinny hinny back here. Your dad will skin the hide clean offin’ me if anything happens to you.” Gramps winked as he finished talking.

Gramps planned on sitting in the storage area of the feed store with all the other men, young and old alike, who showed up to swap stories and share the latest gossip. He said it was better than any newspaper for finding out what was going on with anyone who lived within a fifty mile radius of town. I was tickled when he volunteered to pick up the salt blocks for the cattle so I could catch a ride into town with him instead of Dad. Gramps had a million stories which made the thirty minute ride a blast.

If Dad ever found out even half the stories Gramps told me it would get ugly. Moonshine, revenuers, shootouts, and fast cars. Best. Stories. Ever! Gramps knew what he was talking about, too. He was a fifth generation moonshiner, and dang proud of it. Dad had broken with tradition and become a cattle rancher. He had taken the few cattle the family owned as a cover for the real business of moonshine and expanded the herd, until now it wasn’t just a front but an honest to goodness ranch. Gramps said that made him even prouder, ‘cause times were changing. Said making shine had always been a dangerous business, sometimes deadly, and he was glad to know his son was walking a different path to make a living.

I waved at Gramps, not sure he even saw. He was already swapping tales with a bunch of old guys, walking toward the open bay doors that gave access to the shaded interior. With a grin I turned and headed out for the theater.

Cutting through a back street to knock off some of the distance, I‘d just entered the alley that ran alongside the theater when a truck thundered past me. Music screamed out the open windows. The bright red four-by-four with monster tires made it easy to identify who the owner was—Billy Wayne, the sheriff’s boy and schoolyard bully. The truck came to a screeching halt at an angle just past me. Typical for BW and his crew. Big time showoffs. The music cut off as the doors opened and the boys spilled out, laughing and knocking into each other the way guys do. All the boys were older than me but I still knew each one. I wasn’t too worried about them, since they’d never paid any attention to me at school or anywhere else I ran across them. I kept walking; doing my best to ignore them.

As I went to pass where they were all horsing around, BW stepped in front of me, bringing me to a halt. The other two guys maneuvered to flank me on either side. I felt the first stirring of nervousness at being surrounded by the likes of BW and his buddies. They were still talking trash to each other, but I knew it would soon be me they turned on to tease. They’d probably talk some dirty crap, impressing nobody but themselves.

Boys had started paying more attention to me this summer. Grow some boobs, have the braces come off, and guys suddenly started seeing you. Whatever, I’d been learning to do a pretty good job of tuning jerks out. But this time it felt different. Uglier. Staring at BW I tried out the best mean look I had.

“Get out of my way.” My stink-eye didn’t seem to have much effect other than to set off hooting and mimicking of my words by the two on either side of me. BW just smiled. He had a better mean look than me, even when he was smiling.

“Ain’t you Moonshine’s granddaughter?”

“Don’t call him that!” Nerves fled and anger took its place. Now I knew how this was gonna go. I’d been dealing with it ever since I got old enough to have guys start trying to get me to sneak booze to them. Sometimes they just wanted to taunt me about what my grandpa did.

“What? Ain’t that what everyone calls him?” BW spread his arms wide and shrugged like he was surprised by my anger.

Trey was quick to chime in, as though he was puzzled, “Man, you mean that ain’t his name?”

Not to be left out, Robbie snickered, “Shit, I’m pretty sure that’s what my old man calls him.”

Standing as straight as possible, trying to make myself look taller and tougher, I glared at each of the morons in turn. “If you don’t let me by I’m gonna start screaming. Someone’ll hear me. Then you’ll be in big trouble.”

“Whooo, that’s scary, boys. We better back off or we’re gonna be in big trouble.” BW pitched his voice high on the last three words, mocking me. He stepped aside and waved me through. Guess I should have known he was letting me go too easy, but all I could think about was getting the heck out of there. If I made it to the end of the alley there’d be people around and these jerks would have to leave me alone.

Taking a cautious step forward, I kept a wary eye on BW. He still had both hands in the air, as though he honestly meant to let me go. I flicked a quick glance at Robbie, then over to Trey, to see if they were also gonna let me get away. They both had puzzled looks, as though wondering why the heck BW was letting me leave, but they didn’t appear to be getting ready to grab me. That was all the encouragement I needed. Gathering myself I went to dart around BW, ready to make a run for it. I moved quickly, but BW was quicker. His arm snaked out as I passed and a hand tightened painfully around my upper arm.

Jerked to a halt, BW dragged me up against his overgrown teenage body. I knew I was trapped when his other arm wrapped across my chest, pulling me in tight. I let lose a scream, which was quickly cut off by the hand that had first grabbed me. I exploded into a mass of kicking, twisting fury.

BW was spitting out the f-bomb and yelled at his two hooting and laughing partners, “Grab those damn legs.”

Eager to jump into the tussle, Trey and Robbie maneuvered into position. Trey bent to make a grab for my right leg, which gave me a perfect shot at his face with my foot. While I’d been busy trying to kick him in the head his buddy, Robbie, went for my other leg. The feel of blunt nails scraping a trail down my shins, as their hands tried to get a firm grip, ignited real fear in me for the first time in my life.

I managed to land a heel to Trey’s chin, but Robbie had gotten control of my left leg. His fingers dug in savagely. BW’s beefy hand more than smothered my screams, it cut off what little air I managed to pull into lungs squeezed tight by the arm he’d wrapped across my upper torso. All the fight in me was slowly being crushed, along with my ability to breathe. I knew it was just a matter of time before Trey would get control of my one remaining flailing limb. Fear jacked into terror as BW’s arm began to shift across my chest until he was able to grab one of my breasts and squeeze painfully. One second of frozen shock was all Trey needed to capture and give a vicious twist to my leg. Payback for the face kick.

“Carry her over behind the truck.” BW ordered, a sick excitement threading through his words. I continued to buck as best I could, but that only seemed to slide my short tee higher and expose more of my body by the second. There was no real thinking involved on how I was going to escape what was happening. All that kept firing off in my thoughts was I had to keep fighting.

“Turn her lose you sons-a-bitches.” Barely controlled rage thrummed through the bite of those words.

Whoever was coming to my rescue scared the crap out of Robbie and Trey. They dropped my legs in their scramble to back away. My sandals had been lost in all that wild twisting, when my legs were dropped my bare feet scraped the broken ground. BW released me so quickly there was no time to catch myself to keep from falling. Pitching forward, my knees smashed into gravel. Luckily my hands slapped the ground before my face did.

The meaty thud of a fist contacting flesh registered as background noise, my brain was fighting off terror and my lungs were dragging in huge gulps of oxygen.

My mind was screaming at me to get up. Trying to push to my feet ground small rocks deeper into the palms of my hands and the tender flesh of my knees. Gritting my teeth, determined not to let the bastards know I was scared and hurting, I managed to get to my feet. Trying to get it together gave me time to watch Jase Rydan pull BW up off the ground. Staring at Jase, I now knew who had saved me. The blood streaming out of BW’s nose also made it pretty obvious who’d received a face full of fist.

Little chicken shit wasn’t even trying to fight back. Jase looked disgusted at the fear in BW’s eyes as he growled at him, “You, and your little fucked-up friends, need to get your puckered asses out of here before you end up having to scrape them off the ground.”

I’d no plans on sticking around to see what was going to happen next. Turning around, head up, back stiff, I started limping back in the direction I’d just come from. Praying the whole time…please, just let me get out of here. The humiliation of being caught in a situation like that, piled on top of the fear and anger, had my eyes burning from holding back tears. My throat felt like I’d eaten crushed glass but I couldn’t stop swallowing compulsively. In my desperation to flee the spot where my childish illusions of safety and invincibility had been shattered, I didn’t even stop to thank my rescuer. Though Jase called my name, I just kept on walking.

The sound of boots thudding behind me, then a hand landing gently on my shoulder had me whirling and knocking the light touch away.

 

* * *

 

Jase tried to look as non-threatening as possible. Charlotte Donley, the young girl standing in front of him, had her teeth bared and the wild look of a cornered animal. He had the feeling one wrong move would have her tearing down the street away from him.

Her ponytail was a bedraggled mess of barely contained scarlet strands. Furious blue eyes dared him to take a step closer. He had to admire the fact she was obviously still in defense mode and not quivering in terror.

Hell, she’d been fighting her three attackers with the ferocity of a feral kitten as he drove by the ally. Jase had a feeling she was damn lucky he’d noticed what those little bastards were up to. He scanned down her thin frame, trying to determine if there was any real damage.

Blood oozed sluggishly from a dozen tiny scrapes on both the palms of her hands and caps of her knees. There were four nasty looking scratches on her left shin. The sight of them had him regretting having let those three little cocksuckers run off. Her bare feet reminded him he was holding her sandals in his hand.

“Charlotte, I’m not going to hurt you. You know me and my family. We’re the closest thing you’ve got to a neighbor in our neck of the woods.” Jase tried to calm her. “All I want to do is help you get back to your parents. Are they here in town? Bet they let you walk to the movies all by yourself, right? Kid, you can’t run off without your shoes. At least hang around long enough to get your shoes and let’s see if we can clean you up a bit.” His voice was low and soothing, lips curled at the corners in a tiny smile. Hands in the air, palms up, in a non-threatening show of peace. Sandals dangled by their straps from one of his fingers.

 

* * *

 

I wasn’t an idiot. Of course he wasn’t going to hurt me; he’d just saved me. And duh, everyone knew who Jase Rydan was. It kinda surprised me that he knew who I was, since he was so much older. But right now the thought of anyone touching me was a no-go. I felt pretty desperate to get out of there before I started bawling right in front of him.

All I could focus on was getting back to the feed store, climbing into the truck without anyone seeing me, and then coming up with a believable story as to why I had shredded hands and bleeding knees. Last thing I wanted was my gramps or my parents finding out what had happened.

It was the sight of my shoes held aloft by Jase that had me really taking a good look at myself. Crap! No way was I going to come up with a story to cover the way I looked right now.

“Come on, Charlotte, let me help you. I’ve got some old towels and water in the truck. We can knock some of that blood off you.” Jase’s cajoling tone brought my attention back to him. “Then we’ll go find your parents.”

Taking a deep breath, I realized I was going to have to take his offer of help to clean up but that was it. Afterwards, I needed to figure out a way to keep him from telling my gramps what had happened. I still had hopes of lying my way out of this.

“Thank you.” Why was it so hard to grit that out? Trying to choke back sobs I held out my hand. “Give me my shoes. Please.”

Jase handed over the sandals. “Wait here. I’ll go wet a couple rags. You’ll need to clean off those feet.” He took off for his truck parked at the entrance to the alley.

I sat down in the middle of the alley and began brushing at the bottoms of my feet. I tried to bring my jack-rabbiting heart under control, as well as slow my gulping swallows of air.

Jase was back quicker than I’d expected. Instead of handing over the wet cloth he squatted beside me and took the foot I’d been examining in one of his large, warm hands. Looking up at him warily, I reluctantly let him clean the sole of my foot. He was extremely gentle, and when he’d completed the rock and dirt removal he picked up the appropriate sandal and slid it on. Jase then turned his attention to my other foot.

While he went carefully from one blood, dirt and rock encrusted area to the next I studied him. His dark hair was short with not much peeking out around the edge of his sweat-stained ball cap. I couldn’t see the color of his eyes because of the way his head was lowered while he concentrated on cleaning dirt out of cuts, but figured they were the same gray color his brother’s were. His eyelashes were crazy long for a guy, but they didn’t make him look like a sissy. Looking at his lips made me feel kinda funny. To be honest I’d never really looked at a guy’s lips, or thought much about them. But Jase’s sure were interesting. Kinda full without that gross puffy look.

He wasn’t pretty, like a few guys at school, and he wasn’t handsome like my dad. Somehow he was just more and better than either pretty or handsome. I was tall for a girl my age. Even taller than a lot of guys in my class, but Jase was way taller than me.

He wore a t-shirt that hugged his arms and chest. Man, he had some big muscles in his arms, and though I couldn’t see, I’d bet my next week’s allowance he had what the kids at school called a six-pack. Heck, Jase probably had a twelve-pack, and I wasn’t even positive that was possible but if anybody could do it I bet he could.

I knew to him I was just a kid, what with him being twenty to my fourteen, but the way my heart had started picking up the pace sure didn’t make me feel like a kid. Where BW’s hands on me were revolting, Jase’s were having a weird effect. Goosebumps were dotting my arms and legs while a heat I’d never felt before rolled into my stomach. A flush was creeping up my neck, spreading a pink tint across my cheeks.

“There, not great but at least it doesn’t look as bad as it did.” He settled back on his heels and gave me a once over, as though checking to see if he’d missed anything. “Now, let’s go find your parents.”

“No.” That came out a lot louder than I’d intended.

Jase cocked his head sideways not saying anything, just stared at me.

“I really am glad you came along, but please, don’t tell anyone about this.” Well that certainly sounded a lot like begging. Okay, I was begging, but if that’s what it took to keep this a secret between us, that’s what I’d do. Since Jase had cleaned me up I figured I had a real shot at making my family believe I’d tripped and got skinned up. All I needed was to add back a little bit of the dirt Jase had washed off.

“Don’t you think your folks should know what BW and his buddies did?” Jase sounded curious, not like an adult trying to guilt a kid into doing the right thing.

“No. It would just make my folks mad, and Gramps might do something crazy that could get him in trouble. Besides, I don’t want anyone else knowing what happened.” Yeah, lots of pleading going on now. “This could just be our secret.”

Jase kept staring at me for a long minute. His eyes narrowed to slits as though he were thinking things through.

“If I don’t tell your parents you have to let me tell Evan, so he can watch over you for me. Make sure those kids don’t pick on you because of what happened here. That’s the only way I keep my mouth shut.” The firm words and hard look let me know there would be no compromising on this.

Him wanting to tell his brother, Evan, had me squirming. Evan was a couple years older than me. He was younger than BW and crew, but not by much. Not what I wanted to happen, but if Evan could be counted on to keep his mouth shut, how bad could it be? At the most he might check up on me for a couple weeks once school started, then he would let it slide.

“Can you promise Evan won’t tell anyone?”

“Yeah, it won’t be a problem. I’ve got enough crap on him to keep him in line.” Jase flashed a wicked smile at me. Seeing that look made me happy not to have an older brother.

“You can tell Evan, but you can bet your ass I won’t ever let those three catch me alone again.” Guess it was my cussing that had him trying to hide a grin.

I started to push myself up, but Jase got a hold of my arm and pulled me up as he stood. It was hard hiding my grimace as abused skin stretched over skinned knees. My body felt more than a little stiff from the frenzied struggle I’d put up.

Jase got a real mad look on his face when he saw my expression and worried me that he might try to renege on the deal.

“I’ll drive you to wherever your parents are.” Yep, his voice sounded pretty darn angry.

“You can’t. I came into town with my gramps, and he’s at the feed store. If he sees you driving up with me he’s gonna ask a million questions. I’m fine now. Really. I’ll walk back to the store and wait in the truck.” There I was. Back to begging.

Jase’s lips tightened, making it obvious he didn’t like it one bit. His curt nod had me breathing out a sigh of relief, but I’d been a little hasty thinking I’d won this point.

Turning away, I once again began limping back to the feed store. Jase’s truck fired to life behind me and to my annoyance he kept a slow pace as he trailed me. At least he stopped before actually getting to the feed store. He parked about a block away, and I could feel his eyes follow me until he was satisfied I’d reached the safety of Gramps’ truck.

From that moment on, Jase was my hero. The subject of countless fantasies, where the ending turned out far differently than it actually had. As I grew older I tried to put that silly childhood crush out of my mind.

But as with all heroes, Jase proved to be a hard man to forget.

Buy on Amazon

 

Interview

Q: Give us a quick overview of your book Copper Moon.

A: I’m never good at doing anything ‘quick’ but I’ll give it a try. The story is set in Arkansas. It centers on a young woman, Charlotte (Char), and a family secret that she’s grown up with. Her beloved Gramps is a moonshiner; a long standing tradition in his family. Char is fearless and that lands her in trouble more often than not. Fate brings Jase into her life when she is a teenager at the right moment to save her from three teen bullies. When the story picks up ten years later, a chance encounter once again brings Jase back into her life. This time he is determined to stay, whatever the cost. Tragedy strikes and Char becomes caught up in the search for a killer. Jase has his hands full trying to prevent Charlotte from becoming the next victim.

Q: Tell us a little bit about your heroine.

A: Charlotte is a resilient woman. I like to think she is a fair representation of the type of women you find in the south. They handle whatever life throws at them with courage and more likely than not a whole lot of attitude. She’s smart, a little hot headed at times but when she loves it’s an all-in kind of deal.

Q: How about the hero? What’s he like.

A: Jase is the kind of man that isn’t afraid to take on a woman that has a mind of her own. He knows what he wants and he wants Char. When it becomes clear that helping her could place him on the wrong side of the law, Jase doesn’t hesitate to do whatever it takes to keep her safe.

Q: Do you have a favorite quote?

A: One of my favorites is by Char’s gramps: We have a long history of not playin’ by the rules in our family, might as well be proud of it.

 There’s a lot of rule breaking in Copper Moon, so Gramps did a pretty good job of summing up the whole book in that one sentence.

 Another quote that means something personal to me, and my family and friends who know me, is this one: “Hell, maybe they went through my recipe boxes because they heard about that fucking amazing blackberry cobbler I make.”

I don’t like to brag…okay, I’m bragging…but I make a heck of a great blackberry cobbler from scratch.

Q: Is there one scene that was especially fun for you to write?

A: Actually, there are a few scenes more fun than others to write, but would have to say my favorite takes place in Chapter 16. It starts around the middle of the chapter and takes place in the parking lot of a backwoods bar called Skeeter’s. Char lets her temper get the best of her (looking back I think Char may have had anger management problems) and she pulls a stunt that ends in not only Jase having to save her hinny, with his brother, Evan, pitching in and a whole bunch of─yeah, not going there. I laughed more than once while writing that scene.

Q: Is there one scene that was especially hard for you to write?

A: When you have to break someone’s heart, even if it’s a character in a book, it’s a hard thing to do. Necessary, but hard. Writing the love scenes weren’t actually difficult, it was the thought of my family and friends reading them that freaked me out. I even told my daughter not to read the chapter that had the really hot and heavy sex in it.

Q: Are you working on anything right now?

A: Right now I’m working on the next book in the Copper Ridge series. Each book in the series can be read as a standalone but one of my main characters for this book was introduced in Copper Moon. Sawyer is as rough as sandpaper and could peel the paint off the walls with his cussing. He’s domineering, arrogant and sexy as heck. My readers love him and I think I’d have a lot of disappointed women out there if his story wasn’t next. Told my daughter that she may have to skip more than one chapter when I tell Sawyer’s story. The woman I have lined up for him is not one he would normally waste his time on. But, hey, when lust..er…love strikes even the most opposites of personalities find a way to make it work.

Q: Do you have a date in mind for when it will be published?

A: I’m hoping to have it completed and ready to publish sometime around the first of February. Keeping my fingers crossed and trying to keep my butt in the chair so I can get it written.

Donna Taylor has one book signing under her belt at a local Hastings and has another one scheduled October 10, 2015 in Blytheville at That Bookstore in Blytheville. She will be there from 1:00 pm until 3:00 pm and would love anyone in the area to come by and visit with her.

 Here are the links to some radio and television interviews for anyone who would like to hear more!

Radio Interview: 15 minutes

Talk of the Town, Mountain Home, Arkansas

August 13, 2015

http://www.ktlo.com/play_window.php?audioType=Episode&audioId=7268537

 

TV Interview: 8 minutes

XL7TV: 726 Mountain Home

September 4, 2015

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New Release: The Wilds

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It’s finally out! Read the first two chapters below.
thewildsfull

 

 

Chapter One

Have you ever wanted to be someone else so desperately that you wished for it with everything you had? Closed your eyes at night and prayed you would wake up as someone else? Would sacrifice anything to just not be you for another day? That’s how I used to feel when I first came here, fourteen years ago a screaming child of four, crying as my parents walked out of this place without me.

I stayed like that for a long time, too, a black hole of emotion. I’d destroy any light that came too close. I cursed the world and everyone that dwelled upon it.

It was six years ago that I was lying in my private cell in The Holy Sanctuary for the Criminally Insane—or the Cement Giant as me and the other inmates called it—and had one of those moments, the kind where I could see beyond the confines I’d erected in my mind. The bars that had kept my mind in this dark place, as surely as the cement walls kept my body, weakened and rusted away.

I don’t know why it happened. Maybe it was simply age or maturity, but the anger that had been pouring out of me like a spigot on full blast started to slow. I realized that this was it, the only life I was going to get. I could either let myself rot here in misery or I could find a way out. I’d already gotten one second chance. I’d survived when so many others hadn’t. Was I really going to waste it here?

See the thing is, I’m a Plaguer, one who’s had the Bloody Death and lived. That’s not something many can say. When the Bloody Death hit the world a hundred and fifty years ago, it had a zero percent rate of survival. From what I’ve heard and read, one day no one had ever heard of the Bloody Death, and the next it ripped through the human population like a forest fire after a six-month drought. And just like a fire, it killed fast and painfully. People would be up walking around fine, only to fall bleeding on the street one moment, and gripped in agony and dead the next.

From the records left behind of that time, ninety-five percent of the population contracted the Bloody Death and all of them died during the initial outbreak. Not to mention that it didn’t spring up and then disappear. No, it’s been coming back every ten or twenty years. You don’t have to be a math genius to know those odds suck. I guess it’s a good thing there were so many humans to start with or we might have gone the way of the dinosaurs.

Everyone is fearful of when the next wave might hit. Maybe that outbreak will be the one to end us all. It’s not like anyone knew where the Bloody Death came from, or why it still mysteriously showed back up from time to time, which added to the fear. The unknown and all that? Some people have a real hang-up about not knowing things. I don’t understand that fear, but maybe it was because as a Plaguer, I’ve always known more than I wanted.

When rumors started creeping up about how a teeny tiny percent of the population, something like less than .001%, was surviving, most people thought it was a lie. Plaguers are so rare you can go your whole life never meeting one, but I’m living proof they exist.

The first couple of days after I’d survived the Bloody Death, I’d thought I was the luckiest girl to walk the Earth. I was young when it happened, only four and so full of childish delusions. Children can be like that before life teaches them better.

I still regard myself as lucky, but now I know survival comes at a cost. The Bloody Death changes you, makes you see things. They say these things aren’t true, but I know better. They say all Plaguers are psychotic, contaminated and ruined, need to be locked away to protect society from the evil they spew about monsters.

I say they’re blind. But maybe willfully so. I know what the Plaguers before me have said. I’ve seen the things they’ve seen. There’s a reason no one wanted to believe them. I understand why they hide us in places like this.

The people here, they tell me that this is the only safe place for me. That I would be killed if I’d been born somewhere else, like the Wilds, which encompasses the vast majority of what used to be the United States now except for the small slivers pieced out to form the few smaller countries that exist.

I’d prefer to take my chances. I didn’t survive the Bloody Death to only go on and live as if I were truly dead. If I was meant to be alive, I didn’t want to walk this Earth—I wanted to truly live it, dance and revel in everything it had to offer, feel every sensation and emotion open to the human psyche. I would. Even if it took me until I was a hundred and I only had one single day of freedom, I would not die here; I would die living.

The door to my cell opened and startled me. It wasn’t time for the daily release yet. I looked up from my bed, already dressed for the day in the simple white dresses we were given, to the guard.

“You’re getting a visitor.”

I let out a sigh. It was going to be one of those days.

 

 

Chapter Two

I sat on a metal folding chair in the bleak visiting room of painted cement, among a handful of other “patients” sitting with their parents or other family members who hadn’t given up on their kin yet. It was only a matter of time. They all threw in the towel eventually.

It was almost understandable. I had a pretty thick callous built up over my heart from hearing the crying and pleading all the time, and it still clawed at me. Seeing it once a month or so when you had that fresh heart meat all tender like? Brutal.

Plus, no one ever got out. Once you were here, there was no release. You died here. But not me. That wouldn’t be my end.

Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of the woman across the room watching me. She was one of the nurses, or at least that’s what she pretended to be. Like the Plaguers before me, I knew better. A dark haze clung to her like a storm cloud she couldn’t shake or maybe didn’t want to. There was a name for them. Dark Walkers, the Plaguers had called them. Even before I’d come here, before I’d gotten sick, I remembered the tales spread by the Plaguers. I’d thought they were ghost stories. My mother had told me Dark Walkers didn’t exist. Of course I believed her. My parents had been my entire world—until they weren’t.

As the Dark Walker stared at me, I worried another knot in a head already full of red ones, never breaking from the act that helped keep me alive. Once upon a time, behaving as crazy as they said I was had been an act. I’d watched some of the other inhabitants of the Cement Giant and learned it all from them, the actions that would deem me mentally unstable. I’d embraced the facade because it was better to have your enemy think you were crazy and weak than having them know you were just waiting for your moment.

The nurse’s attention was fine-tuned on me worse than normal today, but I was always on their radar. The Dark Walkers knew, or at least suspected, that I could see them for what they were. They ran test after test, each more painful than the last, but I never gave them what they wanted. It was ironic that my hunters were the only ones that wanted the truth and the last ones I’d ever tell it to.

I switched gears from forming knots to chewing on the stub of a thumbnail worn down to almost nothing, while I wondered who was going to walk through that door, the one that led out of this place.

At exactly nine, my visitor made his entrance. He had to be here for me, as I was the only one left sitting alone across from an empty seat. But even though it had to be him, I doubted what my eyes were seeing. He looked nothing like the others the Dark Walkers had sent, trying to trick me in to divulging my secrets in the past.

He was late twenties or maybe a very well aged early thirties. Even dressed up in his suit, he didn’t look like a pencil pusher or a government worker. There was an edge to him that had nothing to do with his dark coloring or deep-set eyes. He scanned the room, like I did when I was sizing up which guards were on duty.

I’d thought I was going to sit here, spew the normal bullshit about how everything was just grand while the Dark Walker’s spy tried to find a way to trip me up. After the first ten or twenty of these visits, I’d gotten the role I was playing down to the point I could nap through it, but this visit had just become interesting.

He handed his badge over to a nurse of the normal human variety. She made a show of flipping it over like she had some clue, clearly not viewing him as the threat I saw him to be. Sometimes I found it shocking how easily people believed what they were told. I wanted to shake her and tell her to wake the hell up. I’d tried doing that in my younger years. It never worked. People believed what they wanted. Most of the time it’s the things they find most beneficial to their situation, and they do all sorts of mental gymnastics to make it fit neatly into their reality.

I never understood that. The truth was so much easier to deal with, no mental backflips or cartwheels required.

The Dark Walker in the room with us noticed, though. They didn’t miss much and didn’t seem to have the same aversion to reality that humans sometimes had. This one had been here for a few years and she was even savvier than most of the ones I’d met. I watched her watching him. She seemed to be at full alert, as if she was viewing him as a threat.

She didn’t wait long before she turned and left the room, probably to get reinforcements. This morning might turn out to be the most action I’d seen in years, or at least since Piggy Iggy, one of the other inmates, had gone nuclear all over the cafeteria after eating bad food out of the garbage.

The stupid human nurse handed him back his ID. She pulled out something for him to sign, but his attention had already settled on me.

I didn’t break eye contact. After all, I could only play meek so much, and I didn’t see a reason here for the charade. This wasn’t a Dark Walker or one of their spies that I needed to hide my true self from. I shot him my what the hell do you want stare. It was a particular favorite of mine and handled quite a versatile amount of situations with little effort. It was also something that flew under the radar if a guard wasn’t looking at your face at the time. It ranked even higher than my you’ve got to be fucking kidding me with this shit stare, which usually needed more information about what was happening before it could be used.

There was a subtle movement of his head that may or may not have been a nod, a picking up of the gauntlet—challenge accepted? I’d like to think I was right, but every so often I did wonder if perhaps I was as crazy as they said. How the hell would I know, anyway? It’s hard to be objective about one’s own sanity. What if the guy just had a crick in his neck?

He turned away to sign the paper and then the nurse pointed him in my direction, even though it was clear he knew exactly where to go. He wasn’t getting any credit for knowing. I was the only person sitting alone. He could have the IQ of a rock and have figured that out.

He walked over toward the table in a sluggish manner, completely at odds with the physique his ill-fitting suit tried to hide. He pulled out the chair and sat down across from me, again with the stilted movements of someone fifty years older and horribly out of shape. I couldn’t believe this act actually worked on some people.

There was something hard about his pale eyes but I wasn’t afraid of him. Most people probably were when he wasn’t playing dress-up. I should’ve been too, but it was difficult to dredge up fear for a human when you lived your life next to monsters.

Now that he was in range, generally within five feet of me, I waited for some of my “Plaguer Delusions” to hit. The information I got from people was never delivered in the same way but there were usually certain similarities. Sometimes the memories hit hard and fast and other times they leaked out in a small trickle.

I waited for something to come to me, a snippet of history so traumatic that it was burned into their mind, just waiting to be seen and heard, relived. Occasionally they didn’t come at all, which was looking like it would be the case with him as he bent over paperwork that I suspected was nothing more than a prop.

It wasn’t like I’d never drawn a blank before; it just wasn’t often. Figured it would be him who would leave a big fat blank. Most of the time, I didn’t want to see the things people shared. The flashes of a person’s history, the stuff from the darkest corners of their mind, no matter how short, told me a lot. It always seemed to be the bad stuff too, never the good, only experiences so bad they cut out their own niche in the human psyche.

With a Plaguer, it was almost impossible to put your best foot forward. A good first impression meant that you didn’t kill your brother last week or rape the neighbor’s daughter. Because the truth of it is, in times like these, there wasn’t anyone who was squeaky clean. I judged people on a sliding scale and a body count. I usually gave them the first murder for free and didn’t knock serious points off until the third.

Still, I didn’t need a red flag in my face to know this guy was on the hunt right now; maybe he always was. I hadn’t survived this long without learning how to identify the threats. But what would he want with me? I had nothing to take.

“Your name is Dahlia Franks?” he asked, finally looking up from his notepad.

I didn’t bother answering, just continued to sit and play the crazy part. This was one of the perks of being nuts. No one expected you to behave in accordance to the general population’s playbook, and I enjoyed being a nonconformist.

He already knew who I was anyway. It made me wonder why people asked unnecessary questions.

He continued on, not missing a beat. “I’m here on behalf of our government of Newco. My name is Samuel Right. I’m doing randomized interviews to assess the living conditions in the Newco’s various government-run facilities. Quality control, you could say.”

I nodded as I swapped my thumbnail out for the pinky. It was my least favorite nail and, as such, had a decent stub left on it. In the last fourteen years I’d been here, not once had I ever heard of quality control interviews. No, this guy was a spy of some sort, but for who? For what? Not the Dark Walkers.

The Dark Walkers had sent in plenty of spies over the years, trying to trick me into telling them I knew they were different. They always posed as visiting experts that might be able to help me. They’d even sent in a supposed aunt I didn’t know of, who could take me home with her if I just told her the truth. That one had almost gotten me snagged. It had mentally fucked me for weeks, too. But I never did tell, and I had a feeling that was why I was the only Plaguer left standing in this compound.

I didn’t know how, even then at the young age of four, I knew instinctively to hide my knowledge of them, but I had. Just shows self-preservation is hard-wired into us. After all, I’d never seen a mouse sit back and wait for the cat to eat it, no matter how tiny and young it was.

“May I ask you some questions?” he asked, and I thought I caught a glimpse of something in those light eyes before they shuttered closed. It wasn’t from fear. No, this guy didn’t seem timid, and he certainly wasn’t worried about me. He was hiding something, and if I had to guess, he’d heard enough about Plaguers to know something about what we could do but not enough to be accurate or to know how much.

He was playing a part but not well enough, and yet I still didn’t think he was working for the Dark Walkers. That didn’t mean he could be trusted.

“Just to get some background, you were brought here at age four after you killed your teacher. Is that correct?”

I leaned back in my chair and dropped the nervous nail-chewing act. I set my gaze on him, barely blinking. I said, “That is what the records say.”

One of the things I hated most was thinking of the past, in particular that time after I’d gotten sick. My parents had told me I’d never had the Bloody Death. I’d just had a bad flu.

They sent me to school like nothing had changed, warning me to say nothing of any sickness. It might have worked if there hadn’t been monsters there, just like they were here. This Dark Walker had been pretending to be a teacher.

I’d told my parents but they’d said monsters didn’t exist. That I shouldn’t speak of such things and that I was bad.

I’d gone back to school the next day and I saw the monster watching my friend. He was going to do something to him. I just knew it. Even then, I’d known that just because the people around me were stupid, didn’t mean they should die.

So I lay in wait at recess. While the monster was eating his sandwich, I snuck up behind him and stabbed the monster in the neck repeatedly with my pencil until there was nothing but gurgling noises. The monster was defeated. They should’ve thanked me. They didn’t.

There was a lot of chaos after that. They talked to my parents. I don’t know what was said but I’d like to think they’d fought for me, that they hadn’t had a choice. The next day I’d thought we were going to the beach. They drove me here instead.

That was when I’d become the hunted. There were monsters here as well but I never got the opportunity to kill another. That didn’t mean I wouldn’t in the future.

As if he sensed my agitation with the subject, he switched gears. “Do you like your accommodations here?” he asked, pencil poised over paper.

Now this was the perfect opportunity to use my you’ve got to be fucking kidding me with this shit stare.

No reaction from him. He shot off more questions. “And the food? Would you say the meals are acceptable?”

It was hard not to laugh in his face. I was a walking stick figure of almost comical proportions. We were all thin here, but not like me. My friends called me Olive Oyl after some cartoon they’d found a while back.

The powers that be said I needed to be on a restricted diet, that the plague would return if I were at full strength. I couldn’t say whether they were right or wrong. It wasn’t my choice and I hadn’t been given the opportunity to test the theory. I’d like to think that there were easier ways to kill me if that was what they were after. “I eat like a queen,” I replied. “Can’t you tell?”

I waited to see how he’d take that answer. He didn’t even blink. “You are a Plaguer? Is that correct?”

I fisted my right hand where it was resting on my lap underneath the table. “Isn’t that in your records, too?”

I watched his expression close enough that I could see his pupils dilate against the light background of his irises. Why would this be good news to him when most were disgusted by this fact and almost all were frightened that contact with me was lethal?

I wondered what any of this had to do with quality control. Did he not realize he’d gone way off script, or did he not care?

“And you’re prone to delusions?” he asked.

Why was he asking this? It was common knowledge that Plaguers had them. We were insane. We spread lies and talked of monsters. Everyone knew it.

“Delusions?” I asked, pretending to have no idea what he was saying. Maybe he was with the Dark Walkers. This was more in line with what they would send people out to ask. Normal humans didn’t like to hear what Plaguers said, let alone give it any merit. There was a reason lines like don’t shoot the messenger came about. People didn’t like to hear bad things. If they could deny them, more than nine out of ten people would. I know, the math is a little funny there because what’s more than nine out of ten? Yeah, you got it. Pretty much everybody.

He leaned across the expanse of metal table. “Yes. Do you see things like most Plaguers?”

“I don’t know any other Plaguers—anymore. I can’t answer what most see,” I said. My calm was starting to be rattled. I wanted to know who this guy was. Government worker? That was total bull. Spy for the Dark Walkers? No, I still didn’t think so.

His eyes were still dead set on me. “Do you see delusions?”

For some reason I thought he wanted me to say yes. Like it meant a great deal to him. That this was what he had been hunting down. Part of me wanted to speak the truth to him that I denied so often. It wasn’t about making him happy or not. I was tired of pretending. Eighteen years old but I felt like I was a hundred.

We openly stared at each other, sizing the other up. He finally broke the standoff by the slightest softening of his tone as he said, “You want to answer this.”

It felt like something was left hanging off the end of that sentence. I didn’t know what I saw in him, why I felt like he wanted this or why his slight softening undid me, but for some reason, I spoke and gave him what I knew he wanted. “Yes. I see things.”

He leaned back in his chair, and for the first time since he’d walked in the door, he openly showed me a tiny glimpse of who he really was as he smiled like he’d just had a bloody meal of raw meat. There was someone brutal hiding behind this act. Whoever he really was, he was happy that I was a Plaguer who “had delusions.” Who the hell was this?

I wouldn’t get to find out, though. The door to the visiting room opened and I knew who it was immediately. Not only did the Dark Walkers have a cloud that clung to them, but they also had a smell. It was like a sickly sweet perfume that repelled instead of attracted. The woman who just walked in was the worst and also the one in charge.

Ms. Edith, as we were told to address her, walked over to our table. Black suit, white shirt and hair pulled back without a single stray in sight. She was one of them, the dark haze clinging to her. I forced myself to sit still even though my body tensed. I hated being near them, couldn’t breathe through the smell. Luckily there weren’t too many that I came in close contact with. There were others here, but only her and the other nurse came within a few feet of me.

“How are things going over here, Mr. Right? We hadn’t expected a visit,” she said, looking at him and then me. My fingers started knotting into my hair, reflexively going into the crazy act. I hadn’t even thought of the action until Mr. Right’s eyes flickered to my hand in my hair and then back to her.

“Last minute. Sorry for the abrupt arrival.”

Her smell was stronger than normal, and I’d been around her enough times to know it happened when she was irritated. So he wasn’t working for them? I looked up through lowered lashes to watch the interaction now that I knew for sure she hadn’t been aware of this visit. His eyes darted to me a few times and I had the strangest feeling he sensed how much I hated to be around her.

He stood and smiled. “We’re just finishing up.”

“And how did things go?” she asked, her normally shrill voice sweetened unnaturally.

“Splendid. I’ll send this report back to headquarters and I’m sure everyone will be very pleased.”

Boy, this guy was just oozing with lies today. He looked down at his notebook and then back to her and that was when the fun really started. He softened his smile, leaned in closer to her and then offered up his arm to her. He was dialing up the sex appeal until even my inexperienced little heart was doing flip-flops, and I wasn’t even the target. Nothing of the raw brutality I sensed was showing through now, or the earlier awkward act. Seemed my visitor was quite the chameleon.

“If I could get a quick tour, I’ll be out of your hair.”

Whatever Dark Walkers were, which I’d bet my ass wasn’t human, they apparently still liked human men. She smiled back and locked her hand down on him in a way that made me imagine claws hidden under that flesh. “I have a free moment. I can show you around.”

They walked off and he didn’t even glance back at me. I wasn’t sure where I’d gotten the crazy feeling that being truthful with him was going to set something in motion, but I had. Watching him disappear with one of the monsters made me feel a little heavier in my chair, and the adrenaline that had coursed through my veins while I’d been squaring off with him was now receding.

This was turning into one really strange day.

 

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Coming Soon! The Wilds Cover Reveal and Blurb

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Coming early next week! The first book in a new fantasy series that I’m having a great time writing. It’s going to be either 3-4 books, possibly longer depending on how the details lay out.

As much as I loved writing Karma, and I did (I’ll miss the Jinxes forever) I’m pretty excited to start a new storyline. One of my favorite aspects in a book is following a character’s growth. When I wrote The Keepers, Jo had a lot of growing to do and I caught some slack for it. I think that criticism sort of stuck with me. So when I wrote Karma, I made Camilla/Karma a bit mature out of the gate and robbed myself of some of the fun in the process. With this story, I’m starting with a character who really has room to grow and I’m loving it. I hope you will too!

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Dead Ink Release!

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coverDead Ink is now live for Kindle, iBooks, Nook and Google!

 

Within the walls of his tattoo shop, Dead Ink, Lars hides in plain sight from the past he walked away from. But he still battles every day with the dark urges that drove him from his position as the Grim Reaper. Then Faith Dover appears, seeking his aid, and Lars discovers that he isn’t as hardened as he thought.

On the run from her kidnapper, Faith stumbles into Dead Ink, towing in enough secrets and baggage to weigh down the dead. But Lars isn’t the savior she hopes him to be. Dark and seductive, he might be more dangerous than the people she’s running from.

When he discovers her suspicious ties to a crew of murderers, will he help her or cast her out to the craziness that has overtaken the world? Can Faith win the heart of a soul incapable of trust?

A note from the author: This is a companion romance novel that takes place in the Karma urban fantasy world. It runs parallel to Fated’s timeline. It can be read alone or in addition to the series as the final book. 

Genre: Paranormal Romance 

Length: 67,000 words

 

Dead Ink Excerpt

 

Chapter One

 

 

Lars’ hand was steadier than humanly capable as he guided the tattoo gun. It wasn’t a big surprise. After all, he wasn’t human.

He swiped a rag across his client’s skin and then leaned back in his chair as he looked at his masterpiece. The tattoo started between the guy’s shoulder blades and ran down his back, ending above his waist. The intertwining serpents were his creation, and a piece that was inspired by his former occupation as Death, also known as the Grim Reaper.

“How’s it look?” the client asked.

“Shut up.” Lars preferred either complete silence or blaring music while he worked, but never idle chitchat. The constant drone of a human’s voice was akin to a fly buzzing in his ear. He didn’t understand why the majority of humans constantly needed to vocalize every thought that popped into their brains.

It was only he and the client in his shop, since the two other tattoo artists he employed were off today. If you weren’t getting a tattoo, you weren’t allowed in the shop while he was working because, like he’d mentioned, humans never shut the fuck up. If they weren’t talking to themselves they were getting all into his space, oohing and ahhing. He didn’t care what some random asshole off the street thought of his work. Even if it was a chick he was considering having sex with later, and he got plenty of those in here too, he didn’t want to talk while he worked.

“How long do you—”

“I told you. Shut. Up. Speak again and I won’t finish.” Lars knew that wasn’t a problem. The guy would either shut up or he’d knock him upside the head and shut him up.

“Hey, I won’t pay you if—”

“Shut up!” Lars said as he jammed the tattoo gun over a sensitive area of his client’s already battered skin. “I don’t give a shit about the money.”

The guy didn’t say another word. Lars hadn’t been lying either. He didn’t do this for the money. He did it because, for some reason, he felt compelled to.

When he’d first retired, in an unorthodox manner, from the agency that ran the Universe, he thought a tattoo shop would be a good cover for him. There were always fringe sorts hanging around these types of establishments, the kind of people who weren’t looking to blend in with society but to break the norms and live as they wanted. He’d always respected that, and it seemed to be a perfect environment for him to hide in plain sight.

In the beginning, he’d hired some artists to do the work. One day, a hot chick he considered banging wanted him to give her a tattoo. Out of pure boredom, he agreed. He started dabbling, on and off. A year later, he looked up and realized he’d been doing it every day and that when he was tattooing was the only time he felt completely at peace.

When the door opened and disturbed his peace, that early evening, he didn’t bother looking up; he just shouted, “Get out.” He dipped the gun in some more ink and started working on the details of one of the serpent’s scales.

“Are you Lars?” a female asked.

Her voice was high pitched and screamed of estrogen, just the way he liked a woman’s voice to be. He knew exactly what that voice would sound like if he decided to take her to bed, but he was working so he didn’t bother looking up. He’d had too many women to get excited about just one, at least not while he was in the middle of a piece.

“I told you to get out.” She did have a nice voice. He knew she was cute without even looking. “Come back in a couple of hours,” he added as an afterthought, still not bothering to look at her. Even if she wasn’t attractive, he’d bang her from behind. There was usually at least one acceptable angle to be found.

“I can’t.” The sweet voice was edged with determination.

Lars sighed loudly and placed the tattoo gun down on the table by his side, accepting the fact that he’d have to stop working if he wanted to get her out of his hair. He should’ve dead-bolted the door before he started, but he’d been distracted lately.

He stood up, cursing himself for not hiring a shop helper, and refusing to schedule one of the other artists today, so he could delegate this nuisance. He turned, an aggravated sigh escaping as he did, and looked at the unwanted visitor.

He froze. She looked like a wood nymph. Her blonde hair, too thick for her head, was wild and unkempt. Large turquoise eyes peeked out from a dirty face. None of that was why he nearly knocked into the table next to him. Whoever she was, she wasn’t human.

“Get out,” he said, this time to the guy he’d been working on. When his client didn’t move, he nudged him with his knee. “I told you to get out.”

“Huh?” The guy jerked his head up. “Me?”

“Yes,” Lars said, never losing eye contact with the woman standing just a couple of feet inside his shop.

“But my tattoo?”

He hated when grown men whined. “I’ll call you. Now get out.”

The client scrambled to his feet and Lars shoved the guy’s shirt at his chest, nearly bulldozing him out the door and causing his unwanted visitor to jump out of their way.

He slammed the door shut and clicked the deadbolt into place.

 

***

 

Faith wrapped her arms around herself as she watched Lars move about the room, lowering the shades and securing the place until they were truly alone. No one passing by the shop for an evening stroll would know anyone was in here.

Or come to her aid if things went badly.

He turned back to her and her feet started shuffling away. She thought about the list of threats she’d taken from Malokin’s desk. Lars and Dead Ink had been the first name on the list and the easiest to get to. When you didn’t have a car, or a dime to your name, location trumped all. But now, standing here, looking at who Lars was, she wondered if she should’ve taken another few minutes to assess her options.

He was a large man, and even though the grey t-shirt he wore wasn’t skin tight, as he moved about the room she could make out the heavily corded muscles beneath. If he decided to turn his strength on her it would be a knockout in round one.

But it wasn’t just his size, his long black hair or the tattoos running up his arms that peeked out above the neck of the t-shirt that made her eyes shoot to the now locked door. It was what she couldn’t see that frightened her most. She felt an energy about him, with his nearly-black eyes locked on her, and she fought back a shiver.

There was a hunger about him. She didn’t know what he craved but she could sense it, as if he weren’t complete. The way his gaze was appraising her, like he was now, made her wonder if it was something he thought she could satiate.

She wasn’t exactly sure what she’d expected Lars to be like. Just because he was an enemy of Malokin’s, one of the crazy psychopaths who’d abducted her, didn’t mean he would be an ally of hers or that he’d be the opposite, a sweet and kind man. But she’d hardly been thinking logically in the last week, let alone in the five minutes she’d had to make her decision before she’d dashed out of that hotel room the first opportunity she’d had.

He stopped moving and settled into a spot several feet in front of her, between her and the front door. Feet spread, arms loose at his sides, he looked as if she’d need a bulldozer to move him out of her way. She turned her head, looking to see if there was a back exit if need be.

“You came to me. You aren’t leaving without telling me who you are,” he said, in response to her darting eyes, taking another step closer.

She didn’t move again. If she ran now, she feared she’d be tackled on the way to a door she’d never make it out of there.

“I’ll leave whenever I’m ready to,” she said.

“Sure,” he mocked. A short exhale of breath with a slight noise that might have been the beginning of laughter showed he didn’t believe that was possible.

She let it go, knowing her mouth had run ahead of her brain like it occasionally did. It would be idiotic to push this situation into an unnecessary conflict. She needed his help. She had to keep that paramount in her mind and be nice, even if it killed her.

“Who are you?” he asked again, impatience leaking into his tone and transforming his posture into something slightly more threatening.

She’d made a choice to come here. Time to hope it was the right one, because she didn’t think there’d be any do overs.

“I don’t know,” Faith answered and realized as bizarre as it sounded, it was true. She’d known who she was a week ago but not anymore. If she looked up her full name, Faith Dover, on the web, she was fairly certain she’d find an obituary for someone who bore no resemblance to the person she looked like now.

“You better come up with something better than that. Usually when I meet people who aren’t human, and I don’t know them, I kill them. Take the opportunity I’m giving you to explain before I get tired of waiting.”

He took another step forward until he was only a foot away, and a tremor ran through her that she hoped he didn’t notice. He was definitely impatient. She had a feeling he wasn’t the type to naturally run long on that attribute anyway. She’d never been easily intimidated but dying seemed to have unsettled her composure a bit.

Maybe she should’ve gone to the second name on the list, someone named Fate, but this place had been closer. She had to believe that the five miles between this location and the next address didn’t mean the difference between life and… Could you even kill a dead girl?

She watched as he stood in front of her and realized that, good or bad, the choice was out of her hands, for now anyway. She was here, and her second and third choices were no longer available. Might as well lay it all out on the table. And come to think of it, she had already died once this week and come out of that intact. If he did kill her, maybe she’d just keep coming back?

“I really don’t know anymore. I can tell you who I used to be.” She watched his face, waiting to see what reaction he would have. There was none.

“Keep talking.” He didn’t retreat or continue forward, the only movement was to cross his arms, showing off the striated muscles of his forearms. The gesture worked against physics and somehow made him look larger.

She thought of how to explain all that had happened, not sure how to tell him the chaotic events that had occurred. He was going to think she was insane. What if she told him and he called someone from the loony bin to come and get her?

She did a mental shake of her head as she appraised him. No. Chain her up in a basement? Maybe. Call the cops or an ambulance? She’d bet no on that one.

“Talk.” He leaned forward as he said it. If she didn’t start giving him what he wanted, he’d be on top of her soon.

The buildup of frayed nerves took over and she decided to run with the situation as she started babbling it all out, without a thought to what was being said. “I was running an art show in my gallery in Seattle, and I went outside to go get my phone. It was dead, and I wanted to charge it, but I didn’t have a cord in my office because I lent it to a friend the day before, and so I only had a car charger and I hate not having a phone and there was no—”

“I get it. You went outside.” He made a rolling motion with his hand so close to her it caused a few strands of blonde hair to sway. His eyebrows rose slightly. “Then what?”

And here came the ugly part she didn’t like to think of, let alone have to explain to someone. “There was a sharp pain. Someone stabbing me, I think, but I’m not sure because I couldn’t find any wounds and I still can’t, and then I was somewhere else entirely and it wasn’t Seattle anymore, and I didn’t look like me. There was this guy who said I was dead and I had to work for him, and I think I’m having a psychotic break because none of this makes any sense, but he had your name on a list of threats and I made a run for it—”

“What was his name?” His words cut through hers, startling her out of her rambling.

“Who?” Faith didn’t care that he kept cutting her off. She wasn’t sure anything coming out of her mouth was making sense anyway. It didn’t sound plausible to her and she’d just lived through every horrifying second of it. Maybe she should’ve gone to the cops, but if it were true…if she was dead, and all the things that had happened to her were accurate, what would the cops do?

She didn’t look like herself anymore; she had no proof that she was who she said. She’d definitely end up in a psych ward for sure, locked up like a sitting duck for that psycho to come and pluck her up, pretending to be a relative or something. No; Lars, as intimidating as he looked, was still the better choice.

She looked at him with that thought in mind. Boy, she might really be fucked if he was it, though. She had a feeling the odds were really low on him having a Good Samaritan plaque hanging in the back somewhere.

“The one who wanted you to work for him?” His voice was calm as he reminded her that he was still waiting for an answer, and somehow she heard the weight of the question he’d just put to her. She had a feeling he was already suspecting the name she was about to give but she wasn’t sure if it would be a good or bad thing.

She looked around, as if just uttering his name would somehow make it possible for him to find her here, and then decided she’d probably read too many Harry Potter novels. She cleared her throat, trying to get rid of the hitch she knew would be there, and forced the name out anyway. If Harry could do it, so could she! “Malokin.”

She flinched as he suddenly went from almost perfectly still to a movement so fast it blurred. His arms unlocked and his fist slammed into the nearest counter, splitting the wood and dislodging everything upon it in the process and she was glad she hadn’t mentioned the other one who’d wanted her.

Faith nearly tripped in her effort to move farther away from him. He didn’t seem to notice as he let out a string of curses. She backed up until the wall was at her back and prayed to a god she was fairly certain had forsaken her that she hadn’t made a huge mistake. Then she remembered that she was an atheist. Oh yeah, she was screwed for sure.

 

Chapter Two

 

 

First his friend Fate dragged him into this mess with Malokin, and now the shit storm was literally spreading into his shop, Dead Ink. Up until this point, even with the gangs on the street and the way the riots were kicking up, he’d managed to maintain some semblance of normality. The world might be going to hell but in his small corner, there was still normal civilization. It might only be a block long but it was enough for him.

His attention swung back to the girl who’d brought the mess inside his shop with her.

She’d marched right in here and dragged Malokin, the most likely cause for this upheaval, right along with her. Malokin was a sadistic bastard who lived for pain and anger and had been eluding him and the guys for years. The only thing they knew about him was that he was somehow the psychical manifestation of anger and had appeared with increasing regularity, right along with the increase of riots and the gangs in the streets.

And now he appeared to be sending care packages to Lars, all wrapped up in the shape of a helpless female with a sweet voice. And how did she get past his wards? Anyone wishing ill upon him or his property shouldn’t have been able to make it beyond the sidewalk. Unless he’d left a loophole? Did he say people wishing him harm or just men? He’d have to redo them now.

Still, she didn’t look like trouble, and you didn’t hang around as long as he did and get lied to easily. Problem was, the read he was getting off of her contradicted everything he knew about Malokin’s tactics so far. He didn’t recruit the innocent types to work for him. She could be here setting a trap.

But she was here so what did he do with her now?

“What’s your name?”

“Faith Dover,” she said and then her eyes drifted off toward the door again. “Or it used to be.”

Her fingers hadn’t stopped toying with a rip in the dirty shirt she was wearing, and she looked like she hadn’t slept in a week. Her pants appeared to have been rolled around in a dirt pile while she was still wearing them, and he thought that might have been a fragment of a dead leaf stuck in her hair. He would’ve thought Malokin would’ve sent her out packaged up a little better. She was definitely attractive but she looked like filet mignon served up on a moldy hamburger bun. Malokin might be a sadistic psychopath but he was a sophisticated and polished one. Nothing about this made any sense.

“Why did you decide to come here?” He took a few steps closer to her, closing the distance that had been created when he’d lost his temper, but stopped when he saw her chest rise and fall more rapidly. He didn’t want her terrified to the point she’d hyperventilate. He wanted answers now, not in a half an hour after he’d gone to the trouble of reviving her from a spell of nerves.

“Because I didn’t want to work for him or be near that man and I didn’t know where else to go. You were the closest name on the list I knew I could get to.”

“Closest to where? Where is he?” Lars asked, thinking maybe they’d finally found a lead on the slippery eel’s location. They’d tracked Malokin down many times to always get there just as the dust was settling from his departure.

He could see her struggling to remember and then a thought triggering an action. She reached into her back pocket and pulled out a piece of paper and looked at it quickly. “The Breakwaters,” she said as she handed it to him, the name and address of the hotel stamped on top, his shop’s address and his name scribbled in messy handwriting below, as if she’d been in a hurry.

He pocketed the piece of paper. “You’re lying. He hasn’t been at that location for a week.” Lars knew that for certain. He and the guys had busted into the room he’d used four days ago. It was the closest they’d gotten to him thus far.

She looked down at the floor as if she were trying to figure something out. “I guess it was a week ago.” Her eyes glanced over at one of the mirrors hanging on the tattoo shop’s wall that was framed by pictures of people’s tattoos. She raised her hand up and tried to smooth down her disheveled hair some. She certainly looked like she could’ve been roaming around for a week and he started having doubts again.

“What were you doing if you left him a week ago?” he asked. He looked at her as his mind bounced between the possibilities, not feeling comfortable with either verdict.

“I was traveling through the woods to avoid being seen and then I got sick.”

“You weren’t sick. You’re dead. You can’t get sick now, only hurt. When he recruited you, didn’t he bother explaining any of this?” he asked, the contempt leaking out in his voice. Not only was he getting Malokin’s mess but now he had to school her, too?

She stopped fidgeting and straightened. “He might have if I’d stayed longer. And I assure you, I was sick.”

Looked like she had a temper lurking under the nervous act.

“You weren’t sick,” he repeated sternly. “You were transitioning.” And if she was telling the truth, sick was an understatement. He’d seen humans transition. The process looked closer to torture than a case of the flu. It wasn’t pretty, and to have to do it by yourself, all alone out in the elements? He thought back to the wet weather they’d been having but then shook off the feelings of pity. It was probably a bullshit story anyway. Although her appearance made a little more sense if she’d gone through it by herself out there.

“Transitioning?” she asked.

“From mortal to what you are now, one of us.”

“One of you?” she asked.

She looked like she really had no clue. “Don’t change the subject. If he recruited you, why’d you leave?”

“I couldn’t stay there with him. He was doing…” She started shaking her head as if she wanted to mentally rid herself of whatever she’d seen.

“What? He was doing what?”

“He had people, and he was doing horrible things to them. There was nothing I could do for them.”

Her face told him everything he needed. Torture. Nothing surprising there. He’d get more information on that later but let it drop for now. She was a scattered mess as it was. He could get the details after he got the more important information. “How did you get away?”

She looked surprised at the question. “I just left. I guess he figured I wouldn’t.”

He leaned a hand on the counter beside him. “So, you’re telling me you just walked out?”

“Yes.”

He turned and took a couple of steps away from her as he digested the whole story. It was so unbelievable that it almost became plausible again. If Malokin had coached her, given her a story to tell him, this one was idiotic or brilliant, because he had no idea what to think anymore.

But he knew she was scared. He could smell it on her, hear it in the fluttering of her rapid heartbeat. At least that part was something he could be confident of. You can’t fake scared. Pheromones didn’t lie. Still, the idea of Malokin going to the bother of recruiting someone and then simply letting them have enough freedom to get up and walk out that easily made his suspicions rise up and stay there.

“Go over there and sit.” He pointed to the free chair he used when he tattooed. She hesitated. He had to give it to her; she had some guts.

He barked out, “Sit,” again, but with a bit more force, and it got her moving. He was scaring her more but a certain amount of fear would be beneficial to his cause now that he had some answers. He’d get cooperation easier.

She sat in the chair he’d told her to but was pretty sure it was because he’d shocked her into action. He barked out, “Don’t move,” in a deeper tone. The last thing he felt like doing today was chasing her through the parking lot.

He dug out his cell phone from his pocket as he kept an eye on her. He walked to the farthest part of the room he could and still keep her in his line of vision. He dialed Fate, the reason he was knee deep involved in any of this shit to begin with.

“Here,” Fate said as he answered the phone.

“I got an unexpected visitor you will be interested in meeting,” Lars said and then continued on to tell him everything he’d found out so far. “I need you and the guys to get over here and figure out what to do with her, because this is not going to be my problem. I want this mess out of my shop by tonight.”

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