Sunday, December 27, 2015

US Marine, Reckless Reporter, Deadly Betrayals #ScintillatingSunday #Romance

Welcome to the Scintillating Sunday Weekly Romance Blog Hop where multiple authors share eight paragraphs of their work that 'scintillates.'
Wounded US Marine
Reckless Reporter
Human Trafficking
Deadly Betrayals
An Epic Love Story

Excerpt of the romantic suspense novel, Reckless Endangerment...

“We’re unconventional, remember? A Marine and a reporter falling in love in a warzone was pretty unrealistic, too, yet we did it.  We couldn’t get enough of each other, that’s what I remember.” She slithered her hips closer to the edge of the counter, the heels of her boots resting on the arms of his wheelchair. “You want to touch me and guess what? I want you to touch me, too.”

Oh, yeah, he wanted to touch her. Taste her. Bite her. Fuck her. If he did any of the things he wanted to do, that would seal the deal, reunite them, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to be anyone’s husband.

“You’re bad for me.” He bit her knee while his fingers slid down the zipper of the boot. “You’re gonna send me over the deep end. Is that your plan? To have me committed?”

“I never tell my plans.” She drank from the bottle of ouzo and he briefly wondered when she’d grabbed it.

He removed first one boot and then the other until her legs were bared and open in front of him. He’d always loved her shapely legs, the way the muscles curved, the way her skin felt beneath his fingers. He ran his hands over them, always so smooth, and cherished her compliance. 

She held the bottle down to him and he took a drink without looking away from her face. He loved that she was equal parts naughty and nice, half badass and half angel. The liquor burned his throat, reminded him that he had most definitely survived.

“I can’t make you any promises,” he said before licking the inside of her thigh. 

“I wouldn’t believe them anyway.”

From the back cover...

Coming home again isn't always easy. Colonel Michael Cedars and reporter Hope Shane fell in love in a warzone, but then the world blew up and splintered their lives in two. 

Sometimes heroes fall and take the ones they love down with them. A Marine accustomed to giving orders, Michael struggles to find his role in civilian life. Wounded, he faces new battles as he learns to walk again, struggles with wartime ghosts, and questions his abilities as a husband.

But theirs is a love worth fighting for—and Hope Shane doesn't surrender. An investigative reporter, she's hot on the trail of a human trafficking ring. Danger intensifies as she gets closer to the truth, but the human traffickers know her weakness.

Will Michael become her Achilles Heel? Will her reckless disregard for rules shatter the fragile bonds of their marriage once and for all? Is he still the hero she married or has he become a liability that could get them both killed?

What some of the reviews say...

5 stars Extremely talented

Although this book is marketed as romantic suspense it also covers some serious issues, such as people trafficking and post-traumatic stress disorder, adding further depth to a book that is rich in plot and personal conflict already. Nothing prepared me for the literary quality of this novel. Regular romance and suspense fans get more than enough here to be satisfied by the great chemistry between the main characters and the intriguing story lines. However, if you - like myself - want a little bit more out of a book than you will find it in the well-handled and insightful passages about trafficking and PSD, issues that are handled with care rather than in an exploitative or decorative manner.
Easton clearly cares about what she writes and it pays dividends, her book is surprisingly impressive and certainly recommended. 

5.0 out of 5 stars
Gritty At Times, Realistic, With An Immensely Satisfying Romance and Mystery 
J. Faltys "Joder"

By the end of Reckless Endangerment I can sum it up by saying it's Triple-H......heartbreaking, heartwarming, and heartpounding. It's full of likable and fully fleshed-out characters, realistically depicted issues related to the aftermath of war, and it presented a fast-paced mystery surrounding human trafficking that kept me on the edge of my seat. It shows that atrocities not only occur in faraway lands but outside our front door as well. As two people deal both mentally and physically with the hand war dealt them it's only through love and acceptance that true healing can begin and a HEA can be fully achieved.

5.0 out of 5 stars
Great read
I love this book! The author did a great job of writing a contempary novel with all the twists and turns that make it impossible for you to put the book down!! I am really impressed with the author's use of hard hitting problems facing today's society and intergrating them into the story line. This is not just another cookie cutter, predictable romance!! I highly recommend this book for all who looking for a novel with a little something extra! 


Thursday, December 24, 2015

Lose Yourself in Daydreams Where Love and Fantasy Reign Supreme #PNR

We're escaping the bonds of reality on today's Tantalizing Thursday by taking a peek inside the page of Dakota Skye's collection of paranormal erotic short stories, Daydreams.
 Think ghosts, witches, and other-worldly visitors all mixed in with some intense romance and sizzling passion...let's look inside each one! 

From the back cover...

Daydreams, moments of what-ifs and possibility.

Imagine...a ghostly mariner haunting the shores of Ireland who reminds a lonely woman how beautiful life is...a bounty hunter who gets more than he bargained for with his bail-jumping witch of a jewel thief...and a bar owner who discovers the joy of being loved by two other-worldly visitors trapped in a desperate situation...Daydreams, a collection of paranormal erotic short stories.

Escape the madness of the world, indulge your naughty side, and lose yourself in fantasy.

**sexually explicit, paranormal, and some dark themes**

 Currently available exclusive to Amazon (releasing December 31, preorder now, read free on Kindle Unlimited) 

Excerpts below (18+ content) 

Story 1, The Mariner

She was tired of being in charge—didn't want any responsibility outside of walking up and going to sleep for awhile. She tipped the driver with a curt 'thank you', somewhat embarrassed by her lack of social skills so far on this trip.
She stared up at the stone cottage banked by lush green cliffs and storm clouds. Declining the driver's help with her two suitcases and backpack, she maneuvered them toward the front door on her own.
Pleased to see smoke wafting from the chimney, she inhaled the scent and paused a minute to soak up the serenity. She could hear the roar of the sea from here. Mist settled on her skin. She watched the sedan pull away before opening the red door—somewhat surprised that it hadn't been locked.
She stopped in mid-stride at the sight of a tall, dark-haired man dressed in all black standing in front of the fireplace. She didn't know what shocked her more—the fact that she wasn't alone as expected or that he was the most handsome man she'd ever seen face-to-face. Hair the color of midnight fell across his forehead over even darker eyes framed by chiseled cheekbones. His sheer size dominated the room. A scar marred his top lip, giving him a sexy sneer when he smiled at her gawking at him.
"Hello," he said as if speaking to a small child.
"Is this the Clancy cottage?"
"Yes." He looked as surprised as she felt.
"I'm renting it for the next two weeks—"
"Oh, yes, of course." He shoved a restless hand through his hair and glanced at her luggage. "I didn't expect you to see me."
"See you?" She frowned at the use of the word, suddenly on guard. A shiver shimmied over her spine. "Why would you say that?"
I shouldn't have sent the driver home yet, should have accepted his help.
"I'm Finnegan Clancy." He stepped forward and extended his hand, as if sensing her unease. "The cottage has been in the family for a long time."
She took his hand and gasped at the energy that zapped from his skin onto hers like a live wire. Damn, she hoped he came with the cottage as some sort of handyman or live-in sex slave or nude chef. She'd blow off the much-anticipated sleep if he were available as a distraction.
He smiled as if reading her mind and pulled his hand from her fingers.
"I'm Karen Powell," she said after finding her voice again. "I think I just met your the pub? Mary?"
"Not my wife." His dark eyes seemed to know exactly what she wanted. His lips twitched as if he held back a laugh.
Unsure what to do with him, she propped her fists on her hips and studied him through narrowed eyes. "Thank you for starting the fire for me. That was very thoughtful. One less thing I need to do."
He looked over his shoulder toward the fireplace as if just now realizing that he'd started the blaze. "You are welcome. suppose I should go?"
The fact that he sounded as if he was asking confused her even more. Perhaps she had finally lost her mind. It had been one helluva month.
"Yes, if you don't mind." She sank onto the worn loveseat, so sick of small talk that could scream yet not wanting to alienate Mr. Irish Hottie in case she snapped out of her funk before the end of her stay. "I really do appreciate your thoughtfulness. Do you live near here?"
He crossed his arms across his chest and tilted his head to the left as if utterly fascinated with her. After an awkward silence, he answered, "I am always close by, yes."
She rubbed the back of her neck and closed her eyes.
"I should go," he said, again sounding surprised at the notion that he needed to leave.
Sane women probably don't toss his gorgeous butt out so he's in complete shock that I'm not falling to my knees, she realized with a sigh. The image of her on her knees with her mouth full of his cock made her blush with embarrassment. My God, I need to be medicated.
"I'm leaving," he said more to himself than her as he retrieved a long black coat, stocking cap, and red scarf from a hook on the wall.
"Maybe I'll run into you in a few days," she said weakly, hating that her words were now slurring together.
He looked at her curiously and nodded. "Perhaps. That would definitely be interesting."
She frowned at his retreating back, locked the door behind him, and peeked out the side window to watch him walking toward the cliffs even as the first raindrop splashed against the glass.
Alone at last, Karen left her bags near the door and dragged her feet up the narrow staircase. Finding a bedroom, she pulled back the comforter, kicked off her shoes, and curled against the mattress fully clothed. She blinked at the rain streaking down the window and hugged a pillow. Alone in peace, she fell asleep listening to the splatter of rain against the roof and hoping she'd be spared any dreams.


Karen blew on the cup of hot tea she'd made herself before curling her legs beneath her on the padded window seat. The scent of homemade bread filled the room. A fire snapped and crackled in the stone fireplace at her back.
She watched the mist of the Irish coast curl over the cliffs plunging to the sea below where waves had smashed relentlessly all night. She'd sworn the walls of her stone cottage had rocked with the force—kaboom, kaboom, over and over again.
Whispers had chatted away until dawn—winding down the narrow staircases with their secrets. She'd always heard ghosts and had grown accustomed to ignoring them. She'd expected no less than a ghost when booking the lonely-looking cottage on the internet.
The sudden knock on the front door caused her to spill the hot tea onto her pajama-clad knee. Grimacing at the realization that she hadn't bothered combing her hair because she'd planned on spending the day baking and reading, she carefully set the mug down before walking cautiously toward the heavy wooden door.
A quick look through the side window showed Finnegan Clancy standing on the front step, collar pulled up around his face and secured with his blood-colored scarf.
Hesitantly, she opened the door a crack and squinted at him through the mist.
"You survived the night I see. Are you feeling better this morning?" he asked with his heavy Irish accent. He'd pulled his black stocking cap low over his forehead.
"Can I do anything to make you feel better?" He smiled at the question in her voice and stepped closer.
Why the thought of stripping him naked popped into mind as an answer, she didn't know. Men—no matter how gorgeous—were off of her to-do list for the indefinite future.
She gripped the door and swayed forward as if pulled by some invisible string that connected her chest to his. "I'm fine, you don't need to check on me."
He stood at least a foot taller than her own 5'4, but it wasn't his height that caused her breath to snag in her throat as if caught on a thousand fishhooks. Energy snapped around him like a force field.
"Are you baking something?" He stepped around her, pulling off his stocking cap as he moved. Thick black hair stuck out at random intervals with a few tendrils sticking to the side of his face.
"Bread. With the rain, I thought some homemade bread and soup would be the perfect lunch." She rubbed a quick hand over her long tangled blonde hair and wished she'd thought to at least shower. Between yesterday's long day of planes, busses, and car rides, she probably smelled and looked like a derelict. "I have some tea made if you'd like some."
 He turned and looked her in the eye. "I wanted to check on you—make sure you were okay. I heard you crying."
Karen folded her arms across her chest, suddenly uncomfortable. How could he have possibly heard her crying? Had she been waling in her sleep?
As if sensing her questions, he said, "I was walking by earlier this morning—outside on the cliffs. I walk there every day just before sunrise and I heard you. I thought I should come."
She gulped as heat rose up on her cheeks with embarrassment. She'd been sad over Trevor's crimes and manipulations—had cursed him to the moon and back—but, more than that, she was sad that she'd believed in him to the point of losing herself under a mind fuck of constant lies.
Fin ripped his gaze from hers and motioned toward the kitchen. "Are you a baker?"
"Amateur—nothing to brag about."
"It smells good."
Frowning at his broad back, she followed him into the narrow space surrounded by chipped counters. "Listen, Mr. Clancy—"
"Fin." He smiled with his scarred lip and looked at her with his dark eyes until she felt like sagging against the wall on weak knees. "I didn't mean to embarrass you. You're far too beautiful to be sad like that."
"I'm not embarrassed," she lied before forcing her gaze toward the oven. "It's not done yet or I'd offer you a piece."
"I don't want to intrude—only to let you know that you aren't alone. If you need me, I'm usually walking the cliffs." Abruptly, he stepped around her and walked back into the tiny living room toward the door.
"Even in the rain?" She frowned at this odd man in front of her.
"Always." His gaze locked on hers and held.
She had the overwhelming urge to beg him to stay, but she remained silent with her arms hugging her chest. For a month, she'd been in a perpetual state of shock where she'd been in a steady state of fight or flight. Taking this trip had been the first conscious choice she'd made in weeks—not fight or flight, just her way of saying 'enough' to the madness.
"You're not intruding, Fin," she said, finding his company strangely comforting despite him being a complete stranger in an isolated cottage. "I'm not trying to be rude or cold—I'm not myself yet."
"Then who are you if not yourself?"
Feeling foolish, she smoothed her hands over her hips and looked anywhere but into his face.
You're an independent, successful woman—act like it.
But she didn't feel like that anymore—not after all that happened.
"I'm tired," she whispered more to herself than to him.
"I'll leave you alone then." He adjusted the stocking cap back on his head before refocusing those black eyes on her. "The pub has good food. You should get out and meet the locals. If you don't, they will make up all sorts of stories about the mysterious woman in the Clancy cottage. You will be a legend by nightfall."
"Let them talk." She laughed at that and shrugged. "I'm here for the solitude."
"You underestimate yourself." He stepped toward the door and hesitated with his hand on the doorknob. "Karen?"
She smiled at the way her name sounded in his deep Irish brogue. "Yes?"
He looked as if he wanted to say more even though he remained silent, gaze locked on hers.
Her smile faded at the intensity of his gaze. She suddenly wanted to run to him, smash her mouth against his, and spend the rest of the day making love in front of the fireplace.
Shocked at her thoughts about a stranger, she stepped back until her hip collided with the arm of a chair.
As if needing the cold air as much as she did, Fin flung open the door, slammed it behind him, and disappeared from sight.
She rushed to the window and watched him striding toward the cliffs. His red scarf tossed in the wind behind him. She watched until she couldn't see him anymore.
With a sigh, she reclaimed her mug of tea and leaned heavily against the wall. All the stress of the past months pressed down on her shoulders. Because she'd believed Trevor's manipulations, she'd lost every friend she'd ever had. They'd all distanced themselves after she had repeatedly stood up for her boyfriend no matter who said what or how long the friendship had been compared to the misguided love affair. But when he'd been arrested five weeks ago for being a serial rapist and the cops had questioned her ceaselessly about what she had or had not known, her entire world had crumbled into disrepair.
She was an attorney—not just any lawyer either, but an assistant district attorney who enjoyed putting bad guys behind bars. No one missed the irony. Her boss had put her on administrative leave until the matter could be 'sorted out.'  From the looks she'd received from co-workers as she'd left the office two days ago, she got the message loud and clear—she'd need a new job when she returned.
How could she go back? How could she trust a man again? How could she ever trust herself after this?
Her mind drifted to Fin and the thoughtfulness he'd shown the two times she'd met him. When had she begun distrusting kindness?
Tea forgotten in her hands, she slid down the wall until she sat cross-legged on the wooden floor and stared at the crackling fire. 

Tired of her own company, she'd walked to the pub for dinner. The town felt more like home than Boston ever had, which seemed odd since she'd never been to Ireland until now. Then again, she'd grown up in a small town in Iowa, a world away from both places. The news of Trevor's horrors had gone national—the Facebook messages from 'old friends' she hadn't spoken to since high school started showing up in her inbox voicing their deep concern. More like looking for gossip, an inside track to the latest internet shocker. She'd deleted her social media accounts without remorse and had no intention of charging her cell phone while here. The laptop remained in her backpack, untouched, exactly where it should be.
She'd deliberately disconnected and disappeared.
She'd never felt so liberated in her life, so free.
After settling in a chair against the back wall, she ordered a beer before sliding her gaze over the menu and ignoring the curious glances toward her.
No one knows me here, no one knows my story, she coached herself as she gulped the beer with enthusiasm.
"How is the cottage working out for you?" Mary Clancy slid into the chair opposite her and grinned. "I thought about coming over earlier, but wanted to give you some time to rest. You looked tired yesterday."
"I love it. It couldn't be more perfect." She cupped the beer mug between her palms and smiled at the woman who appeared to be her same age. "I baked some bread this morning and then some muffins this afternoon. Stop by anytime. I'm happy to share."
"Are you a good baker?"
"Not bad." She shrugged.
"And are the ghosts keeping you up or are they behaving themselves?" Mary's blue eyes twinkled with the question as she leaned her elbows on the table. "I told them yesterday to be nice."
Pretty sure that Mary was trying to add to the charm of the place more than anything else, Karen laughed. "They were a bit rowdy but I ignored them."
"Oh, ya?" Mary tipped her head back and laughed. "It's the old Clancy bunch, rowdy and rude. Stubborn. So you're happy then?"
Happy? That would be a stretch. Instead of answering, Karen nodded and finished off her beer.
"Dennis! Come here! This is Karen from Boston. Come say hello!"
Soon her table was full of people telling local stories and singing along to the lone pianist in the corner. By the time she left the pub to walk toward the cabin, she felt like a new person. Awake. Bold. Maybe not a new person exactly—more like she the way she'd once felt before her job prosecuting criminals and personal betrayals from those she'd trusted had created a cynicism about life. She stopped in the path and looked up at the dark sky where clouds rolled. Mist clung to her skin. The sound of the sea echoed through the night. She could taste it on her lips.
She stumbled over a rock along the side of the road and righted herself before swaying back onto the path leading to her cottage.
"You took my advice, I see."
Fin stood several feet away, his face hidden in shadow. Again, his jacket collar had been turned up and the scarf billowed around his shoulders with the steady wind coming inland from the ocean.
"Why weren't you there?" she asked, hating to admit she'd secretly hoped to see him again.
He held his hand out to her when she stepped within touching distance. "Can I walk you back to the cottage? I think you're a little drunk."
With her recent history, she surprised herself by curling her fingers into his. A wave of peace washed over her at his touch, a feeling so profound that even the blood flowing through her veins warmed.
"Who are you?" she whispered, certain that he was more than some guy who took a lot of walks. "I mean—"
"I know what you mean. I don't want to answer."
"Shockingly honest." She fell into step next to him, their legs in sync, and her fingers snugly tangled with his.
He shook his head. "Selfish, actually."
"Walking me home is selfish?"
"Have you always been able to hear ghosts?" he asked.
His question stopped her in her tracks.
"How do you know that?"
"You told Mary...I overheard you."
"Did I? I don't remember saying anything. You were there? How did you overhear me?"
"You ask a lot of questions rather than answering one."
She tilted her head to the side and laughed at his observation. "I've heard ghosts as long as I can remember. I learned long ago, though, that it was best not to admit such things or risk being called crazy." Her voice trailed off at the realization of how many ghosts had called to her in the past year that she'd forced away—had they been trying to warn her about Trevor? Had she been so disconnected from herself that she had turned a blind eye?
The laughter faded with memories of her ex. How could he have been such a vile monster and she hadn't had a clue? Again, she wondered if that stain would forever taint her life. Guilt for ignoring her intuition, for disregarding her friends' concerns, for standing up for him while he'd lied to her with every breath he took.
She stopped walking, released Fin's hand, and pressed her palms over her eyes.
What am I doing here? Why am I not back there fighting to get my life back, standing up for my reputation, holding my head high?
Because fighting had become so damn exhausting.
Fin pulled her hands away from her face and waited until she met his gaze before speaking, "You're too beautiful to be sad."
"You said that this morning," she whispered.
"You need to hear it again and again..."
"You don't know me."
"Does that matter?"
He bent his head, hesitated a fraction from her lips, and looked her in the eye. Energy zapped between the space separating them like its own tiny electrical storm. The red scarf flapped around his neck and over her shoulder in the ever-increasing wind blowing inland from the Atlantic.
"I shouldn't kiss you. It crosses a line," he muttered.
"Fun begins on the other side of the line."
He smiled. "Sounds like something I would have said once."
"I'm saying it now." She snagged the scarf in her fists, and smashed her lips against his. To hell with it all, the desire she felt for him trashed all common sense and hesitation. Energy from the contact jolted through her body like one helluva prelude to an orgasm.
He crushed her against him and lifted her until only her toes dragged along the path toward the cottage. The howling wind, the smell of salt in the air, the flapping of the scarf against their faces—all disappeared in the heat consuming her body.
Fin pushed open the door to the cottage without taking his mouth from hers. In a frenzy of hands colliding with each other as fingers removed layers of clothing, they stumbled against a chair and landed in a tangle of limbs on the floor. He broke the kiss only long enough to pull his sweater over his head and looked her in the eye.
Afraid that words would destroy the spell, she bit her lip and squirmed free of her clothes without comment until only the flimsy lace of her panties and bra stopped them from being skin-on-skin.
He traced a long, calloused finger along her chin before smiling slowly, the scar on his lip and the fall of his black hair over his dark eyes making him look doubly dangerous in the glow of the firelight.
She slid her hands over his chest and felt the raised skin of scars crisscrossing his skin. Fascinated by the shivers of electricity that shimmied through her blood at the slightest caress, she ached for more...and more...and more.
He nibbled her neck before his hands squeezed her breast through the lace. His hard cock pressed against her thigh as his thumb teased the raised nipple that threatened to poke through the thin material. With a growl low in his throat, he reached down and ripped the bra in two before capturing her breast with his mouth. He sucked, licked, and squeezed until she whimpered for mercy.
She sank her fingernails into his shoulders and slid her feet over the backs of his legs, aching for him to be inside of her. The more desperate she felt for satisfaction, the more he slowed his movements—as if torturing her were part of his plan.
He left one breast and moved to the other with a slow deliberation that had her writhing on the floor.
Frustrated, she slapped the floor with a closed fist and lifted her head to watch as he moved his lips along her abdomen. Still afraid to speak for reasons she didn't understand, she bit her lip so hard that she tasted blood on her tongue.
He glanced up long enough to grin at her before ripping her panties off her body and tossing them toward the fireplace. With a gleam in his chocolate-colored eyes, he pushed her legs wide apart. He slipped his fingers inside her, the same electric current that had been rippling over her skin now surged inside of her.
She gasped and dropped her head back against the wood floor. The fire snapped less than a foot away from her head, its embers floating up the chimney, the only light in the room flickered with the movement of flames. She closed her eyes as one jolt of energy after another coursed through her body with the force of a tsunami until she screamed with an orgasm like she'd never before experienced.
Fin's lips returned to ravage her neck before his mouth claimed hers with a hunger that silenced her cries. He thrust his cock inside her while her cunt still quivered in climax. With one hand propped above her head and pulling her hair and the other squeezing her breast with incomprehensible strength and his girth stretching her with every plunging thrust, he owned her body.
She clung to his shoulders, wrapping arms and legs around him while their tongues played with one another and his hips slammed her into the floor.
He lifted his head and arched his back upward, their bodies fused as one, and shouted at the ceiling.
She held onto his hips and watched his body shudder over hers. The glow of the fire shadowed his body to perfection, the scars appearing almost alive with the movement of the flames.
He collapsed against her, his lips moving silently against the side of her face while his fingers curled into her hair.
"Stay with me," she whispered.
"That's my plan," he responded with a slight chuckle as he rose up on his elbows to look her in the eye.
She dragged a finger along the jagged scar on his shoulder and smiled. "You have stories to tell."
            "You wouldn't believe them if I told you," he said against her lips before kissing her breath away once again.

Story 2, Bounty
Instinct warned him to proceed with caution. Despite the mess of scattered clothes and discarded take-out boxes, Jake knew without a doubt that someone had been snooping in his hotel room. Obviously, it hadn't been the maid, thanks to the 'do not disturb' sign he'd purposely kept in place for two days.
He shut the door and immediately flattened his back against it. He pulled the gun from where he'd concealed it in the back of his jeans beneath his t-shirt. All senses were full-on high alert mode.
Although he'd never been face-to-face with his bail jumping thief, he somehow knew the faint scent of perfume in the air belonged to her.
A black cat stood on the railing of the balcony and peered inside with overly large green eyes, its fluffy tail twitching as if waiting to pounce.
"I wish you could talk," he whispered when he noticed that the sliding glass door had been left open a few inches.
Hot on the trail of a bail jumper, the notorious Michelle Whitaker, he couldn't risk mistakes like leaving a door open. She'd slipped away one too many times, almost as if toying with him.
He walked onto the balcony and looked over the edge of the railing. Four stories down a few kids swamp in the pool surrounded by palm trees and empty lounge chairs.
The cat jumped to the neighboring balcony, then down a level, and so on. Jake watched it, captivated by its grace yet thinking it was odd that a cat roamed the hotel. Something about it made him uneasy.
Michelle reminded him of a cat. Stealth. Elusive. Arrogant.
He counted on that cockiness being her downfall.
How many nights had he twisted and turned in his sheets tormented by visions of her? He'd wake up certain she'd been in his room—he'd smell perfume and intuition would whisper that he hadn't been alone. After turning on the lights, he'd see an empty room.
But this was different. Broad daylight. He was not only awake, but also alert and edgy.
His cellphone vibrated in his back pocket. Reluctantly, he grabbed it with one hand while keeping a firm grip on the gun with his other. One look at the caller ID and he knew he was screwed. He'd been chasing Michelle for two months since she'd missed her court date—why they'd given a thief bail, he couldn't understand, probably a bribe—and his partners wanted him to give up and go home.
"Yes, Bernie?" He sighed against the phone, already bored with the same argument they had every day around this time.
"The trail is cold, Jake. Time to chalk this one up as a defeat. We have other bonds to chase and my mortgage doesn't pay itself."
"It isn't cold." He kicked open the closet doors. Empty.
"Jake...I know you hate admitting failure...but..."
He pushed open the bathroom door and leaped inside, ready to tackle the evil little witch. Nothing except wet towels and his toothbrush.
Sighing, he set the gun down on the nightstand and walked onto the balcony. He looked out over the Los Angeles skyline from his perch high in the Hollywood hills.
"I know she's here, Bernie. I can feel it. This is her prime hunting ground."
"Do you hear yourself? Hunting ground? Get your ass back to Dallas. Pronto."
"She's here." He turned his back on the view and squinted at the chaos in his room.
You're playing a dangerous game, Michelle. He chewed his lower lip.
"Jake..." Bernie sighed. "That's what you said in Seattle....and Denver...and Scottsdale...and San Francisco..."
"I'd bet my life that she's here. I can feel it. I swear she was in my room this afternoon."
Then an exaggerated sigh followed by a muttered curse.
"Jake, I'm just gonna come out and say it—you're obsessed with this woman."
"Obsessed is a strong word. I prefer dedicated to the—"
"I don't give a shit what you prefer, you're acting like an idiot. We have other jobs and we're running a business here. Get your butt back home and leave Miss Whitaker to the cops."
A sparkle distracted Jake from the conversation—a glint of something shiny and out of place in the mayhem. He walked inside and stopped short at the sight of the diamond resting dead center on the top of the laptop.
"That bitch!" He growled into the phone. "She left me a fucking present, Bernie. Still want to tell me that the trail is cold? She's fucking with my head."
"Are you sure? Do you have any proof that it was her?"
Jake picked up the diamond—at least ten karats—and rolled it between his thumb and forefinger. "Yeah, I have proof."
He disconnected the call, tossed his phone onto the unmade bed, and stared at the diamond.
The pursuit of Michelle Whitaker—if that was her real name, which he doubted—had consumed him from the moment he'd taken her case. The fact that the FBI also hunted the elusive thief upped the ante. Of all the people who chased her, she singled him out to torment.
Or was she doing this to others who were too embarrassed to admit it?
Somehow he knew she only played with him.
Other bounty hunters sniffed at her trail—she was worth millions if caught, but yet here was with a diamond. He doubted she sprinkled these sorts of gifts to everyone.
Slipping the diamond into the front pocket of his jeans, he looked around wondering what other mischief she'd done. The unease increased until he started shoving his clothes into his bag, shaking out each item looking for any other gifts. She could have bugged the place or put up some type of camera.
 He was the hunter.
He didn't like being the hunted.
The sudden pummeling on his door froze him in place. He backed up until his hip hit the table. His gut clenched when they shouted the word, "Police!"
"Fuck," he muttered, thinking of the diamond in his pocket.
"Police! Open up, Mr. Stiles. We know you're in there."
"I'm coming—just give me a minute."
He grabbed the diamond and tossed it as far as he could throw it, hoping it would land in the pool and be sucked down the drain.
Even though he knew he was innocent, he felt damn guilty when he opened the door to two detectives with their weapons drawn.
"Whoa! I'm one of the good guys." He stood aside to let the detectives in and hoped like hell she hadn't stashed something else.
"Are you alone?" The pushed open the bathroom door and then the closet.
"Going somewhere?" One of the detectives motioned toward the semi-packed bag. "The front desk claims you're paid up through the week."
He swallowed hard, his distress quickly turning to anger. Cold trail, huh? Something he'd found either today or yesterday must have set her off—he'd gotten too close.
"Listen, man, do you want to tell me what this is about?"
"A woman called—claimed you were holding her against her will. She was in fear of her life. Says you kidnapped her. Do you know anyone named Mary Simone?"
He blinked, unprepared for that accusation.
Playing with me...
"I'm alone. This is some kind of mistake."
"Are you Jake Stiles?"
"I am."
"The call was made from this room."
He glanced toward the balcony. It was broad daylight and the room was four stories up. Even he didn't believe she'd climbed up here to plant a diamond so how could he convince the detectives of this particular story?
His mouth went dry from nerves. He felt certain there was more here, things he hadn't had the time or the inclination to look for.
One of the detectives dumped out his duffel bag. A drivers license rolled out of a pair of women's lace underwear—planted evidence.
"Mary Simone from Santa Monica," the detective read the name aloud before meeting Jake's gaze. "Care to change your story?"
"I'm a bounty hunter and I'm close to catching one of America's most wanted fugitives, Michelle Whitaker," he spoke slowly and as calmly as possible. "I must have gotten too close to her and she's setting me up."
The detective closed the space between them in two strides and shoved the driver's license into his face. "I suppose if we look up this Michelle Whitaker she'll look exactly like this?"
He blinked at the blonde in the photo and shook his head. "That's not her."
"Cut the crap, Stiles. Where's Mary?"
"I-I don't know that woman and she was never in my room." Fighting down desperation, he gestured toward the balcony door. "It was open when I got home, there was a diamond on top of my laptop—"
"Where is it now?"
"I tossed it over the railing, I thought she was setting me up for a theft or—"
"I think we need to continue this conversation downtown, Mr. Stiles." The other detective looked at him as if he were insane.
Jake stepped onto the balcony and gestured. "She's a thief. She must have climbed up here! Or maybe she got a hold of a master key."
"Where is Mary Stiles?" The more aggressive of the two detectives stepped onto the balcony and grabbed his arm. "Don't get any funny ideas."
"Funny ideas?" He was yelling now and knew it but didn't really care. It dawned at him that this idiot thought he was going to jump—four stories into a pool? He shoved his hands through his hair, but the sudden motion scared the cop who grabbed him and pushed him against the railing. He felt the cold muzzle of a gun against his lower back. "You've got this all wrong. I don't know anyone named Mary Simone."
The other detective joined them on the small balcony, twisted his arms behind his back, and slapped handcuffs on his wrists. "Do we need to add resisting arrest to your charges?"
"What charges?" A movement from the corner of his eye distracted him from the strange scene unfolding in his room. He glanced down toward the pool.  
All thoughts froze. It was as if he the world suddenly moved in slow motion.
Michelle Whitaker stood there in a form fitting white dress with her black hair falling sleekly over her shoulders and eyes concealed by overly large sunglasses. She smiled up at him, waved as if greeting an old friend, turned on her stilettos, and strutted off the pool deck as if she had all the time in the world.
"That bitch!" he said for the second time in thirty minutes. "She's downstairs, she's down there."
"Mary? What did you do with her?"
"I don't give a fuck about Mary—"
"Is her body down there?" The detective grabbed the back of his hair and yanked his head back. "You can talk now or you can talk downtown."
"You're letting one of the FBI's most wanted strut away while you fall for her little game." He twisted away from their grasp and surrendered to the idea that she would win this round.
A big guy, he intimidated just about anyone, but these two detectives in suits didn't seem to care much about his stature as they led him from the room in cuffs.
He rode down in the elevator and gritted his teeth while his mind reran all of the places he'd been in the past two days. He must have scared her...but where? How close had he been?
When they finally forced him into the back of a police car, he rolled his eyes at the absurdity of this situation, confident that they wouldn't find a body or any evidence of foul play. Michelle was a thief—she lived for the thrill of the game—but she wouldn't murder anyone.
The cops had lowered the back windows a few inches in the steamy Los Angeles heat while they discussed him on the sidewalk. A knock on the opposite window startled him.
"Hey, Jake," Michelle whispered. "Looks like you've gotten yourself into a bit of trouble."
Her sheer arrogance stunned him into silence. Lust rushed through his blood—the chemistry between them immediate and intense. Just like he'd anticipated. His mouth went dry. If he'd been sweating before, now it felt like a faucet had been turned on and droplets slid down his forehead.
Anger followed on the heels of desire—his soul burned with it.
He jerked against the handcuffs and he wiggled on the seat to get closer to her.
She lowered her sunglasses and peered at him with her large green eyes that had haunted his nightmares for months. A slow smile crept over her full lips as observed his predicament.
"There's a lawyer on his way to the station—"
"I'm bringing you in," he said through his teeth.
"He'll get you out of this without much fuss while buying me enough time to leave you behind once again."
"I'll find you, no matter where you go—"
"You're far too hot to be so uptight. You need to get laid, Jakey. How long's it been? Such a pity to let all that girth go to waste." Her gaze dropped to his crotch. "Tsk-tsk-tsk, such a shame, all that delicious manhood stuffed into those tight jeans. Makes a woman want to help a guy out."
"You're fucking up." He leaned over and yelled at one of the detectives who had his back to him. "Hey! One of the FBI's most wanted is over here!"
She didn't even flinch.
"They caught you once, they'll do it again." He squirmed under her scrutiny.
"I never make the same mistake twice."
"You're pushing your luck."
Her gaze locked on his and he stopped breathing. The intensity in her eyes danced with mischief, gold flecks shined in the emerald depths. No photograph had done her justice.
Okay, so maybe Bernie had been partially right about him being obsessed. Until this moment, though, he'd never been this up close and personal with her and had been unprepared for the impact.
"Why are you so relentless?" She tilted her head to the left, her calm almost remarkable considering the amount of law enforcement in hot pursuit.
Her question caught him off guard—hell, this entire situation had thrown him off balance. He scooted closer to her window, hating that his wrists were bound and that he was trapped in the back of a police car.
"I never fail. I'm going to catch you. This game of yours—"
"I was caught because someone betrayed me." Smile faded and her words were hard. "That's the only reason. I now travel alone—solo. There is no one in this world who knows anything about the real me."
"Lonely way to live, Michelle."
"You would know. You're not exactly part of a posse and haven't been playing nicely with the big boys." She pushed the glasses back up her nose with one finger.
"How do you know that?"
"Go back to Dallas, Jake. Make your partner happy. I just came by to say for the drama, I couldn't resist ending our relationship on a memorable note."
Before he could reply, she walked away, past the detectives, and down the street as if she had all day to do exactly as she pleased.
He didn't waste his breath telling the cops that they'd let a master thief get away because he knew they thought he was some psycho killer.
He kicked the back of the seat in front of him and cursed her back—noticing the way the tight dress cupped her swaying ass, the sleek ebony hair sweeping past her shoulders, and the sculpted calves leading to high heels. Despite his oath to look at her as nothing more than a substantial paycheck, he felt his cock twitch in response to the fantasies of all he'd like to do to her if he ever got her alone. Groaning, he shook his head, strands of his brown hair slipping into his eyes, and sticking to his cheekbones in the heat of the parked car.
His heartbeat ricocheted inside his chest. Jake Stiles didn't fail. He'd had that drummed into him since birth. A military brat, he'd grown up with strict parents who hadn't tolerated imperfection, which had served to instill a strong work ethic and a hatred of authority. Rather than becoming a fed himself, he preferred the bounty hunter route.
Until now.
He still smelled her perfume from where she'd leaned close to the window—musty and elegant. Probably expensive. Exactly the same as the scent that had floated in his room all those nights. Had she been planning something like this all along?
Again, he kicked the seat in front of him.
"Hey!" A uniformed officer smacked the window before getting into the driver's side. "Knock it off."
"You're a bunch of idiots," he muttered under his breath as the police car pulled away from the curb.
But then he smiled at the situation. He'd found her—or she'd found him, he would give her that—but either way he'd been right.
His instinct wasn't so far off after all. He'd find her again, and this time, she'd be the one in handcuffs. 

Story 3, In the Stars
A sound from one of the guest rooms halted her steps. She hesitated in the hall and touched her hand to the doorknob. She never closed the doors to the empty rooms. Ever since her husband had died five years ago, the large house had been filled with bumps and groans and ghosts of what-ifs. She'd purposely gone through and propped each open with a book to keep thoughts of the boogeyman at bay.
She gulped down the fear, glanced down the hall to where Rick lounged on the sofa, and debated about calling out to him.
You can handle this. Open the door, Lisa, she coached herself. No one is there. Your imagination is running away with you again.
Slowly, she turned the handle and inched it open. She peeked inside and froze.
A tall man, one of the tallest she'd ever seen, at least seven feet, stood at the foot of the bed and faced her through the shadows. He held up a hand and a glowing ball of fire appeared in his palm.
A scream lodged in her throat—only a silent gasping breath escaped her lips. She flattened against the wall and gaped at him. Blood smeared his face and his silver flight suit, more like a jump suit of some kind, had been ripped open across his torso.
This is who they're searching for, she thought, unable to move.
Her gaze slipped from the standing man to one who lay on the bed who appeared lifeless. She scooted along the wall, gaze darting back and forth between the one holding a ball of fire and the other.
"Are you hurt?" she asked even though she already knew the answer.
Instead of answering, the tall man lowered his hand but kept the ball of fire snapping in palm as he looked at her as if assessing a threat.
She flicked on the overhead light.
"We mean you no harm," he said, shaking his hand until the ball of fire disappeared. He tilted his head and looked her steadily in the eye. "Can you say the same?"
Again, she lost her voice. Aside from the blood covering him, he was magnificent. It was the only word she could think of to describe the sheer magnitude of his appearance. Glittering blue eyes glared at her from beneath black hair on a face that looked chiseled from stone. Clearing her throat, she motioned toward the bed and, with a croaky voice, managed to ask, "Is he alive?"
"At the moment." He stepped to the side and allowed her a full view of his friend.
Also dressed in a sliver suit that had been ripped to shreds, his friend had white hair, a shocking contrast to the taller one's darkness. A branch appeared to be sticking out of his gut and the blood seeped into the bedspread.
"You were flying the plane? The one that crashed?"
He only met her gaze without answering.
She thought of what the FBI agent had said about it being a crime scene—and remembered his asshole manners. She had a choice to make and no time to make it. She could either alert Rick who could rush to the authorities or she could find a first aid kit and help them as much as she could on her own.
Neither looked like dangerous criminals—especially not in their silver jump suits, which she found odd but figured they were simple flight suits for some experimental plane. Of course, that didn't explain the fact that that he'd literally been holding a ball of fire a moment ago. She'd worry about that later.
Sighing, she held her hands up in what she hoped was a non-threatening gesture and backed toward the door. "Stay here. I'm going to get a first aid kit—I'm no doctor but I've done my fair share of patching up my older brothers after they'd get in a fist fight so I can at least help." She looked at their ripped clothes. "I have some of my husband's things I'll bring, too."
"I am Sam," the tall man said as if thinking it up on the fly.
"Sam, huh?" She swallowed the fear that had lodged there and nodded. "I'm Lisa."
"Lisa," he repeated with another tilt of his head. "You are helping us?"
She nodded, captivated by the way he spoke, as if each word carried more meaning than she could fathom. "I will do my best."
Once in the hall, she ran to her own bedroom and rummaged through her closet for some of her late husband's old jeans and flannels. He'd been a big guy, too, almost a foot taller than her, so she thought the clothes would at least fit.
"Are you okay back there?" Rick yelled. "There's a lot of banging—"
"I'm good!" She sat on the edge of her bed and ripped off her boots before darting into the bathroom looking for any first aid she could find. Arms full, she jogged on sock-covered feet over the hardwood floors back to the guest room.
Sam still stood stiff at the end of the bed as if on guard and watched her carefully as she closed the door behind her hip.
"There is a bathroom right there," she nodded to the opposite side of the room, "you can clean up and change out of that bloody outfit. I'll take a look at...what is his name?"
He hesitated as if debating whether or not to trust her alone with his partner. "He is..."
She arched an eyebrow and waited while he struggled to come up with another fake name.
"Jim?" She asked with a small smile, letting him know that she knew he lied. Best to cut to the chase.  
"Yes. Jim." Sam nodded. "You can help him?"
"I can try. Go." She motioned to the clothes and then the bathroom. "You'll feel better if you clean up."
Pulling her gaze from Sam's, she took a good look at the injured and unconscious man on the bed. She leaned over him and looked at the smaller gashes on his forehead before raking her gaze over his torso. Having no idea how to remove the jumpsuit, as it didn't appear to have a zipper that she could readily see, she reached for the neckline and ripped it down the center. Because of all the slashes in the material, it split easily. Bruises discolored the broad chest and the branch stuck out of the abdomen at a scary angle.
Sam still watched from the foot of the bed as if not trusting her to take care of his friend.
Sighing, she shoved her hands through her shaggy blonde hair and faced him. "Listen, I don't know what your story is, but I'm not going to turn you into those people hunting for you and I'm not going to hurt...Jim. As long as you're not here to kill me, we're good, okay?"
He blinked at her a moment before turning to retrieve the clothes and walking to the bathroom.
Her attention returned to the stick. She doubted that it went too deep, but she wanted to be ready in case a geyser of blood flew out of the wound. Obviously, he needed more attention than what she could give, but she could only do her best. She set the supplies next to his hip, removed one of the pillowcases, and readied herself to pull it out. Slowly. Her hands shook on the bark. Luckily, it hadn't been too deep. Blood pooled immediately, but she dabbed it away. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she carefully began stitching it up.
This reminded her of her childhood—stitching up one brother after another after their many brawls or stupid accidents. One of them had actually run through a glass door and she'd pulled shards of glass from his shoulder. They'd been too poor to go to the doctor unless it was an emergency and her mother had had strict criteria about what that meant. More often than not, even a thirty-dollar co-pay was more than her parents had in their bank account. So they'd learned from an early age how to improvise and, as far as Lisa was concerned, those lessons had made them strong, independent adults.
Once the final bandages were applied, she sat up and released a long breath she hadn't been aware of holding.
"He is going to survive?" Sam asked from where he'd been watching behind her.
She jumped at the sound of his voice. She'd almost forgotten about him with her intense focus on her patient. "I hope so. I have no way of knowing if he is hurt internally." She glanced at Jim's face. "I'm not sure why he's unconscious, that's above my pay grade."
"Pay grade?" Sam repeated.
"Nothing." Tired, she stood and faced him.
Dressed in a flannel shirt, jeans, and with his face clear of any blood, the man looked drop-dead gorgeous. He sat at the foot of the bed and looked at his friend. "We should go."
"No. There are National Guard and FBI everywhere. I don't know what you did—and I'm not asking because sometimes too much knowledge is a bad thing—but they are determined to find you."
He met her gaze and remained silent.
"Stay here," she said. "You can't move him anyway. Are you okay? You had so much blood—"
"Thank you, Lisa."
She bit her lip at the way he said her name.
He hadn't buttoned the shirt and it hung open enough for her to see fresh blood trickling from a gash. Almost as if hypnotized, she pushed his shirt over his shoulders, grabbed some antiseptic, and bandaged him up in silence. Tingles zapped through her fingertips and zinged up her wrists with the skin-on-skin contact. Captivated, she smoothed her hands over his broad shoulders beneath the shirt before slowly buttoning it closed for him. When she met his gaze, she realized how intimate her action was and yanked her hands away. She hadn't touched a man since her husband's death and felt incredibly self-conscious now.
Sam snagged her wrists and held her still. "Why are you helping us?"
"I don't know," she replied honestly.
"Can we trust you? You are not betraying us?"
She pulled her wrists free, unable to stand the vibration rippling through her body with his touch. "You scared me, that's true. It's not every day I walk into my guest room and find two wanted men, one with a ball of fire in his hands." She attempted a smile. Failed. "You can trust me. I swear it."
"I was scared," he admitted. "I thought you were here to kill us."
She frowned, unprepared for that answer. This night grew more complicated by the second. She backed away from him and hesitated by the door.
"I'm going to go. Can you stay in this room, though? Rick is—"
"My friend. He's in the living room, didn't want to stay in one of the guest rooms, thinks he's guarding me." She shrugged at the idea, realizing how odd that was since the very thing Rick guarded her from sat right in front of her.
With the way Sam stared at her with undisguised curiosity, she wondered if he was foreign. He did speak as if testing English and that would explain some of the chaos going on outside. She glanced at his palms and thought of the fireball he'd held.
"Don't burn the house down," she said.
Unbelievably, he smiled and looked down at his hands. "I won't hurt you. I will stay here like you have asked until you return."
She had an inexplicable urge to reach out and touch his bent head. Instead, she curled her fingers against her hips and walked from the room. She closed the door with a distinct click and walked to her bedroom.
I am either overly tired or in shock. I can't believe I just did any of that.
Finally alone, she peeled off her clothes and crawled beneath the comforter. When the swish of a helicopter sounded close to her house and the beam of the spotlight illuminated her room for a second, she sighed and hugged a pillow against her. She knew what it felt like to be alone and scared—adrift in a sea of strangers who didn't understand you. If she could help—regardless of consequences—then she'd be paying it forward in ways no one else could understand. 

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