Guest Author: Ann Gimpel

It’s no secret I’m a fan of Ann Gimpel’s tales. Not only is she a dear pal, she also creates vivid worlds of magic and mystery. Fresh off a trip to Antarctica, Ann is busy with her latest release, Witch’s Bounty, which also happens to be the latest book I’m reading. If you haven’t met Bubba yet, you’re in for a treat. The heroine’s familiar is skyrocketing to the top of my fave characters list. Enjoy a sneak peek at Ann’s latest book!

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Blurb:

One of only three remaining demon-stalking witches, Colleen is almost the last of her kind. Along with her familiar, a changeling spirit, she was hoping for a few months of quiet, running a small magicians’ supply store in Fairbanks, Alaska. Peace isn’t in the cards, though. Demons are raising hell in Seattle. She’s on her way out the door to help, when a Sidhe shows up and demands she accompany him to northern England to quell a demon uprising there.

Duncan swallowed uneasy feelings when the Sidhe foisted demon containment off onto the witches two hundred years before. He’s annoyed when the Sidhe leader sends him to haul a witch across the Atlantic to bail them out. Until he sees the witch in question. Colleen is unquestionably the most beautiful woman he’s ever laid eyes on. Strong and gutsy, too. When she refuses to come with him, because she’s needed in Seattle, he immediately offers his assistance. Anything to remain in her presence.

Colleen can’t believe how gorgeous the Sidhe is, but she doesn’t have time for such nonsense. She, Jenna, and Roz are the only hedge Earth has against being overrun by Hell’s minions. Even with help from a powerful magic wielder like Duncan, the odds aren’t good and the demons know it. Sensing victory is within their grasp, they close in for the kill.

Excerpt:

…The bells around the shop door clanged a discordant riot of notes. “Crap!” Jenna shot to her feet. “I should have locked the damned door.”

“Back to cat form.” Colleen flicked her fingers at Bubba, who shrank obligingly and slithered out of clothing, which puddled around him. She snatched up his shirt and pants and dropped them back into the canister.

“I say,” a strongly accented male voice called out. “Is anyone here?”

“I’ll take care of the Brit,” Colleen mouthed. “Take Bubba to the basement and practice.”

She got to her feet and stepped past the curtain. “Yes?” She gazed around the dimly lit store for their customer.

A tall, powerfully built man, wearing dark slacks and a dark turtleneck, strode toward her, a woolen greatcoat slung over one arm. His white-blond hair was drawn back into a queue. Arresting facial bones—sculpted cheeks, strong jaw, high forehead—captured her attention and stole her breath. He was quite possibly the most gorgeous man she’d ever laid eyes on. Discerning green eyes zeroed in on her face, caught her gaze, and held it. Magic danced around him in a numinous shroud. Strong magic.

What was he?

And then she knew. Daoine Sidhe. The man had to be Sidhe royalty. No wonder he was so stunning it almost hurt to look at him.

Colleen held her ground. She placed her feet shoulder width apart and crossed her arms over her chest. “What can I help you with?”

“Colleen Kelly?”

Okay, so he knows who I am. Doesn’t mean a thing. He’s Sidhe. Could have plucked my name right out of my head. “That would be me. How can I help you?” she repeated, burying a desire to lick nervously at her lips.

“Time is short. I’ve been hunting you for a while now. Come closer, witch. We need to talk.”

***

Duncan Regis eyed the grim-faced woman standing in front of him. She was quite striking with such stunning bone structure—high cheekbones, square jaw—she could have been a runway model. Her unwavering pale blue eyes held his gaze. Dressed in brown wool slacks, a multicolored sweater, and scuffed leather boots, she had auburn curls that cascaded to waist level. A scattering of freckles coated her upturned nose. Her lips would have been full if they weren’t pursed into a hard line.

He knew he was staring, but couldn’t help himself. Colleen was tall for a woman, close to six feet, with well-defined shoulders, generous breasts, and a slender waist that flared to trim hips. He smelled her apprehension and was pleased she was able to cloak it so well with the defiant angle of her chin and the challenge in her icy stare.

Despite his earlier command, she didn’t move. Annoyance coiled in his gut. He could summon magic and force her, but he wanted—no, make that needed—her cooperation. Compulsion spells had a way of engendering lingering resentments. He smiled, but it felt fake so he gave it up. “I like women with spirit, but I’m used to being obeyed.”

She frowned and tilted her chin another notch. “I’ll just bet you are. I’m not coming one angstrom closer until you tell me why a Sidhe is hunting for me.”

Surprise registered. He tried to mask it, just like he’d attempted to disguise himself in a human glamour. Duncan tamped down a wry grin, wondering if his second ploy had worked any better than his first.

“Not really.” She tapped one booted toe. “I read minds. You’ll have to do a better job warding yours, if you want to keep me out.” Colleen exhaled briskly. “Look. Maybe it would be easier if you just told me why you’re here. I’m sort of busy just now and I don’t have a bunch of time to spar with you.”

“You don’t have any choice.”

“Oh yes I do.” Anger wafted from her in thick clouds. Along with it a spicy, rose scent, tinged with jasmine, tickled his nostrils and did disconcerting things to his nether regions. He resisted an urge to rearrange his suddenly erect cock. Colleen unfolded her arms, extended one, and pointed toward the door. “Out. Now.”

“You’re making a terrible mistake—”

“Maybe so, but this is my turf. If you force me with your magic, you’ll have broken the rules that bind your kind—and the covenant amongst magic-wielders.”

Duncan’s temper kindled, but it didn’t dampen the lust seeping along his nerve endings. Rules be damned. He could flatten this persnickety witch, or better yet, weave a love spell and bind her to him that way. Maybe he should do just that and have done with things. He clasped his hands behind him to quash the temptation to call magic. The movement stretched his trousers across his erection, making it obvious if she chose to look down.

Something dark streaked from the back of the shop and planted itself in front of him, hissing and spitting. Gaia’s tits. A cat. He stared at it. Hmph. Maybe not a cat after all. Duncan reached outward with a tendril of magic. Before it reached the creature, Colleen bent and scooped it into her arms. The not-a-cat wriggled and hissed, but she held fast.

“Leave him alone,” she said through clenched teeth. “He’s mine.”

Duncan narrowed his eyes. “Damn if it isn’t a changeling. How’d he end up with you?”

Her foot tapped the scarred wooden floor again, its beat so regular it could have been a metronome. “I asked you a whole lot of questions.” She took a step backward. “But the only one I want to know the answer to is—”

“What the fuck are you doing?” Jenna wavered into view, having teleported in from somewhere. Her gaze landed on the cat. “Thank Christ! For a minute there I thought the little bastard got away from me.”

“Jenna,” Colleen snapped. “The Sidhe have deigned to call.”

The other woman whipped around and stared at Duncan. He stared back. What was it with these witches? Had they taken some sort of potion to supersize themselves? She made Colleen look positively petite. Jenna sidled closer to Colleen; part of her height came from high heels, but she was still an imposing woman. “What does he want?” she growled.

Duncan cleared his throat. “I’m right here. You can ask me.”

“Fine.” Jenna put her hands on her hips. “What are you doing here?”

“How do you know I want anything?” he countered, trying to buy time to figure out what to do now. He hadn’t counted on two witches, and a changeling.

“Because if you didn’t, Colleen would have shooed you out of here by now. You really do need to leave. We’re busy.”

He snorted. “Yes. Colleen made that abundantly clear.” He looked from one witch to the other. At least his erection was fading a bit. Crowds always had a dampening effect on his libido. Many other Sidhe thrived on group sex, but he’d never appreciated its appeal.

“Either tell us what you want right now,” Colleen moved toward him, cat still in her arms, “or leave. I’m going to count to three—”

“Maeve’s teeth, witch! We’re on the same side.”

“Generally speaking,” Jenna joined Colleen about three feet away from him, “that’s probably true, but the Sidhe have never helped us.”

Colleen quirked a brow. “No, they haven’t.” Her eyes narrowed. “And I have this prescient feeling that Sidhe-boy here is about to ask for a pretty big favor.”

“Sidhe-boy?” The dregs of his lust scattered; he crimped his hands into fists. “Show some respect.”

“You’re not respecting me,” Colleen said. “I’ve asked you to leave—twice. No, make that three times.” The not-a-cat finally twisted free. He skimmed over the distance to Duncan and buried his claws in his leg.

“Why you changeling bastard!” Duncan shook his leg. The thing didn’t even budge. He bent, curled his hands around the furred body, and tugged. The thing bit him. Anger flashed. Magic followed. The changeling howled and fell into a heap on the floor.

“Goddammit!” Colleen shrieked. “He was just trying to protect me. If you’ve killed him…”

“I didn’t. He’s only stunned.” Duncan rubbed his ankle, glanced at the puncture wounds on his hand, and directed healing magic to both places.

Colleen sprang forward and gathered the creature into her arms. Duncan felt her magic quest into its small body. She blew out an audible breath. Cradled against her, shrouded by her long hair, the changeling mewled softly.

Duncan shook his head. He’d hoped to be subtle, accommodating, encouraging, so the witch would at least hear him out with an open mind. The time for that was long past. “All right.” He spread his hands in front of him. The flesh wounds on the one were already nearly closed. “I’m here because we’ve had problems with Irichna demons—”

“Christ on a fucking crutch,” Jenna cut in. “Seems like they’re on everyone’s mind these days. We were just—”

Colleen rounded on her. “Shut up!”

“Oops. Sorry.” Jenna held out her arms for the changeling. “I’ll just take him and—”

“No.” Colleen’s voice was more like a growl. “You’ll stay right here.” She placed the changeling in the other witch’s arms and turned to face Duncan. “I know you’re Sidhe, but who are you?”

“Duncan Regis.” He held out a hand. She ignored it, so he let it drop to his side.

“Regis, Regis,” she mumbled, her eyes narrowed in thought. “Ruling class from somewhere in Scotland.”

He nodded, impressed. “Northern England, at the moment, but the border has moved around a bit over the years. I do lay claim to Scottish roots. I didn’t know witches studied our family lines.”

“Witches don’t, but I did.”

“Any particular reason?” He was almost sorry he’d asked. She had strong feelings about the Sidhe, and he was about to find out why.

The changeling yowled, obviously recovered from his semi-comatose state. Jenna cursed and set him down. “Damn it! He scratched me.”

Duncan thought about saying something cheery, like welcome to the club, but bit back the words.

Colleen rolled her eyes. “He wants to talk. There’ll be no peace until he shifts.” She flicked magic toward the creature winding itself between her booted feet. The air shimmered and a rather large gnome took form.

He rocked toward Duncan with a bow-legged gait that made him look like a drunken sailor; his open mouth displayed squared off teeth. “I’ll tell you why she knows about you.” The changeling drew himself to his full height of about three-and-a-half feet. “She came to the Old Country looking for help during the last demon war. You Sidhe were too high and mighty to get your hands dirty, so she had to settle for me.”

Colleen snickered. “Not exactly the way I might have described it, but close enough. Hey, Bubba! Get some clothes on.”

“Later,” the changeling snapped without looking at her.

“Which of us did you approach?” Duncan made the question casual. Whoever turned Colleen down had broken the covenant binding magic-wielders to come to one another’s aid in times of need. He wondered if she knew.

“Of course I do.” She sneered. “Your thoughts are as transparent as a child’s. Even Bubba here,” she pointed to the changeling, “does a better job masking his feelings when he puts his mind to it.”

“Thanks.” The changeling glowered at her before transferring his attention back to Duncan.

“What kind of name is Bubba?” Duncan linked to the changeling, and was surprised by the complexity of his thoughts. Maybe the witches had been a good influence.

“You didn’t have to just push your way in.” The changeling screwed up his seamed face in disgust, but didn’t draw back. “My true name is Niall Eoghan.”

“Clothes,” Colleen reminded him.

Bubba made a face at her, turned, and walked behind one of the display cases. When he emerged, he wore wide-bottomed green trousers and a black shirt.

“Irish.” Puzzle pieces clicked into place and Duncan transferred his attention back to Colleen. “You never did tell me who you’d asked for help. It appears they not only turned you down, but chased you across the Irish Sea.”

“We left voluntarily,” Jenna said.

Colleen’s lips twisted in distaste. Whatever she remembered apparently didn’t sit well. “We spoke with two Sidhe at Inverlochy Castle outside Inverness. They refused to give us their names, but said they were princes over your people. They heard us out and sent us packing. Gave us twenty-four hours to leave Scottish soil.”

“I was all for staying,” Jenna chimed in. “After all, we had passports.”

“Was it just the two of you?” Duncan asked.

“Roz was with us,” Colleen said.

Understanding washed through him. “Three. You brought three to maximize your power.”

Colleen’s full mouth split into a chilly smile. “We were under attack by the Irichna. Would you have done any less?”

“Probably not. So after we, that is, the Sidhe—”

We worked fine,” Bubba said flatly. “Unless you’ve decided to renounce your heritage.”

Duncan traded pointed looks with the changeling. “Speaking of magic, you’re stronger than any changeling I’ve ever come across.”

“That’s because you’re used to our feeble Scottish cousins. They were stronger before you stripped their magic and diverted it for your own purposes.”

“Enough.” Colleen snapped her fingers. “Or I’ll change you back into a cat. We don’t need a history lesson just now.” She shook her hair back over her shoulders. The movement strained her sweater tighter across her breasts. Duncan dragged his gaze elsewhere.

“About the Irichna—” he began.

“We can’t help you,” Colleen said flatly.

“Why not? We’d pay you well.”

“It’s not a matter of money, although I’m not sure you could afford us.”

“We have an, um, previous engagement,” Jenna offered.

“Whoever it is, we need you more than they do.” He looked from one witch to the other.

Colleen dropped her gaze and rubbed the bridge of her nose between her thumb and index fingers. When she looked up, the skin around her eyes was pinched with worry. “I’m not sure it’s a matter of who needs whom more.” She speared him with her pale blue gaze. “Do the Sidhe know why the demons are so much more active here of late?”

He debated how much to tell her. Given her ability to burrow inside his head, it was unlikely he’d be able to hide much. If he told her everything, though, it might piss her off. Hell’s bells, it annoyed the crap out of him. “Not exactly.”

Her nostrils flared. “You can do better than that. If you can’t, the door is behind you.” She folded her arms beneath her breasts. “Talk now or leave now. It’s all the same to me.”

www.anngimpel.com

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In Too Deep by Christy Gissendaner

On my last post, I was too intrigued by #cockinasock to brag that I had a new release. Yep, a brand spanking new paranormal romance. And check out my fantastic cover. Can we say HOT? If you haven’t checked out IN TOO DEEP, here’s your chance. Enjoy!

InTooDeep_ByChristyGissendaner-200x300

BLURB:

He’ll risk everything for the love of one human.

Agreeing to be her good friend’s bridesmaid, Emma Anderson jets off to Tybee Island for the wedding. Her dress is perfect and her shoes are adorable, but her friend’s elegant beachside home hides an ancient secret…one that threatens to expose a secret society of werewolves.

Drake Randolph has watched his sister’s friend grow into a ravishing woman, but he’s always kept his distance. As the heir to the Randolph fortune and the alpha of the Secret Society of Savannah Lycanthropes, Drake cannot afford to draw the innocent little brunette into the dangerous lycan world.

Passion between them soon blazes hotter than the Georgia summer. But when the wrong woman is kidnapped to prevent the wedding of a lycan to a mortal, Drake must risk everything to save Emma from the ones who will see the downfall of all he holds dear.

EXCERPT:

She felt him before she saw him. A shift in the air, a prickle of sensation along her spine, and she just knew. His presence always caused a physical reaction inside her. She didn’t need to hear or see him to know.

She dropped her arms to her sides. Should she turn toward him or wait for him to speak? A light wind blew; even though the air was balmy her nipples puckered and pressed against the Lycra covering her breasts.

What had possessed her to come for a swim, dressed in one of Alyssa’s bikinis? Perhaps she’d known he would find her. Didn’t he always? Drake drew her like the water. Both of them were inescapable, a current tugging at her heart no matter where she was. The quiet ocean soothed her like a lullaby.

A whisper of movement near her nape, and the soft rush of breath across her bare shoulder teased her a moment before he spoke. “Going for a swim?”

She continued to face forward. It was exciting to not be able to see his countenance, to only guess at the emotions he displayed. “I’m thinking about it.”

Something had changed between them since the ride back from Macon. She’d sensed a crack in his exterior, a subtle shift in the way he treated her.

Goosebumps prickled her skin, more skin than she’d ever displayed in public. The red bikini bottom held together by strings at the hips. The top tied behind her back and neck. Alyssa was more top heavy than her, but the tiny triangles of fabric just barely covered Emma’s own modest breasts.

She stepped forward until water swirled about her calves. The warmth of the ocean calmed her, made her bold, much bolder than she’d ever been before. She turned to face him, seduction clear in the purposefully slow pivot. All seductive tactics deserted her when she caught sight of him.

Drake stood where she’d been just moments before. The cuffs of his jeans were damp. A white t-shirt covered his broad shoulders and chest. Despite the tempting body before her, his face that drew her attention. Hooded eyes, turned down lips, and a tightly constricted jaw let her know he battled demons. Could one of those demons be desire?

She held her hands out to her side, her fingers splayed open and her palms facing him. Water tickled her wrists, even though the waves barely crested over her knees. “Why are you here?”

Emotion flared to life in his gaze. “Why are you?”

She had no real answer. None that she would give him. Lust overruled her thoughts. No way could she let him leave without knowing the taste of his kiss. Just once. A brief moment in time to feel wanted by him before they returned the sanity of a world where they could never be together. “I came to swim.”

He stepped forward, heedless of the water soaking the denim of his jeans. “So did I.”

She cast a glance downward. “You’re not dressed for swimming.”

“I can be,” he rejoined.

He moved his hands to the hem of his shirt and pulled it oh-so-slowly over his head. Her mouth watered at the sight of his ridged abdomen, tapering to a wonderful V shape between his hips. He pulled the shirt free of his arms and tossed it onto the sand. Muscles bunched in his shoulders as he lifted a hand and ran it over his short, ruffled hair.

God, he was too beautiful to be real.

His gaze locked on her face, carefully gauging her reaction before proceeding. She stood still, not batting an eyelid or betraying herself by trembling. She wanted this. She wanted him. Oh, how she wanted him. Her desire went beyond mere need and crossed over into the supernatural zone. Nothing short of dying could stop her from her chosen path.

He moved to unbutton his jeans and drag down the zipper. She didn’t lower her eyes when he pulled off the pants, didn’t trust her reaction to that part of him yet.

A dark eyebrow cocked upward. “Still want that swim?”

LINKS:

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The Great Author Hunt!

AuthorHuntAnnouncementIt’s almost time for the RT Booklovers Convention in New Orleans. I’m excited on so many levels. Not only is this my first RT convention, but I’ve also been asked to play in The Great Author Hunt with some amazing authors!

I’ll admit to being somewhat of a “fan girl.” I’m a writer, yes … but I’m also an avid reader. Being included with a group of authors I’ve admired and loved for years, well, there just aren’t words for how grateful I am to have been asked to play along.

What is The Great Author Hunt, you ask?

 

It’s a scavenger hunt: find a minimum of twenty-five (25) authors from the list, and enter to win some great prizes!!

Here’s how it works:

Author Badge Button1RT Booklovers Convention attendees will receive a Great Author Hunt Player card, along with a button that reads “I’m playing the Great Author Hunt”, in your registration packet. Put that button on your name badge. Easy right?

All of the participating authors are listed on the playing card. Please note: Delilah Devlin will NOT be at RT, so please cross her off your card. Once you have your button firmly secured to your name badge, start looking for the authors on your card. These authors should also be wearing a big Great Author Hunt button. If you spot one, ask them for a sticker for your card. Once you’ve collected a minimum of 25 author stickers, fill out the information on the back of the card. Once that’s all done, put the card in the Great Author Hunt Entry Box, located in Club RT.

The game starts as soon as you receive a Player’s Card (with your registration packet). Registration opens at noon on Wednesday, May 14th. Game ends at 4:00 p.m. on Friday, May 16th when Club RT closes. NO ENTRIES WILL BE TAKEN AFTER THIS TIME. Winners will be drawn on Saturday morning and will be contacted via the information provided on the back of the card.

So, what’s up for grabs? We have three fantastic prizes, which will be given at RT. The prizes are:

- iPad Mini

- Kindle Fire HD 8.9”

- Kindle Fire HD 7”

Finally, who’s participating? Here are the authors you’ll be looking for:

Cherry Adair

Randi Alexander

Jennifer L. Armentrout

Anne Marie Becker

Meg Benjamin

Jennifer Bernard

Brinda Berry

Leah Braemel

Jaci Burton

Robin Covington

Christine D’Abo

Cynthia D’Alba

Lauren Dane

HelenKay Dimon

Nikki Duncan

Avery Flynn

Eliza Gayle

Mandy Harbin

Lynn Raye Harris

Kimberly Kincaid

Parker Kincade

Ciara Knight

Elle James

Cat Johnson

Darynda Jones

Laura Kaye

Kim Law

Angi Morgan

Liz Talley

Check the RT Convention Agenda (https://www.rtconvention.com/agenda) or author websites for more information on schedules!

As for finding me, be sure to follow me on Twitter: @parkerkincade! I’ll be tweeting my location throughout the convention so you can find me! I’m looking forward to seeing you all there!

Until next time … when I’ll be revealing some super exciting news! :)

~Parker

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Taxes and Covers…

Abandoned-Becca_Jameson-500x800It’s tax day! If you live in the US, anyway! Everyone needs a break from staring at numbers though, right? So I’ll provide some eye candy in the form of my new book cover! Abandoned–the fifth book in my Wolf Gathering series. It releases May 1 with Taliesin Publishing.

I’ll post a blurb soon! Tweaking it still…

There will be one more book in this series. The 6th and final book will release later this year. Betrayed.

If you enjoyed this Wolf Gathering series, stay tuned next year. There is a spin-off in the makings!

Hope everyone enjoys tax day! lol  If you haven’t filed yet, you are running out of hours! Might want to get on that! I’m off to the post office now… :)

Becca

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That Pearly Drop

Check out this wonderful trailer The BookChick Designs created for That Pearly Drop!

What do the hounds of hell, time travel, a murdered girl, a coach ticket to Wye Castle, and a governess’ letter of employment have to do with waking up in 1763, the mate of wolf-shifter, Ian, the Earl of Wye? Emma’s about to find out.

Have a Merry Monday!

Cheers,

Jianne

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Oh, sweet renovations by Emilia Mancini

Spring has finally sprung. Yay! The sun is shining, the sky is blue, the grass is marginally greener (underneath four months worth of dog bombs).

So after months (I mean like 26 months), the husband has gotten the motivation to finish the bathroom renovation that was started, oh, you know…a while ago. Only this time, I convinced him to do something he has never been convinced of before: he hired a contractor! Oh, yes! Not only did he tell me that my bathroom going to get done, it was going to get done correctly.

O.M.G.

Now, don’t think I don’t like it when Mr. Mancini wants to take on home projects. I do. I love it. Like when he tore out the tiles in my shower to make me a new one, which I got to use a mere 18 months later. And that time he tore the nasty carpet out of the kitchen two years ago and put down nice flooring which he finished…um, WILL finish…eventually.

Mr. Mancini is great at making plans and starting projects, but he gets frustrated pretty easily and then he doesn’t want to play anymore, so imagine how absolutely orgasmic I felt when he said the sexiest words I’ve ever heard, “I called to get a quote to finish the bathroom.” Yeah, that hit me right in the girlie parts.

So, the bathroom is done, new tiles, new shower, new vanity…it’s lovely. And I get to style it just how I want it because it’s mine…and it’s done!

I did what any insane author/editor would do. I murdered books and I put their entrails on my wall. Well, I’m in the process of putting them on my wall. You can see a little hint of my old wall behind the vanity: Dark brown with a white tree and blue flowers…it looked nice, really. Anyway, finishing this is my project for the weekend. Because as much as I love Mr. Mancini, I refuse to be like him. I WILL finish this project without the help of professionals!

Book guts and a new vanity!

Book guts and a new vanity!

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Re-release of Evanescence

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Blurb:

Security specialist Kai Axton blends into the night, a mist-like shadowy image of his human form. Because of his freakish nature, he feels doomed to live his life alone–until he meets Sian York.

Sian is not who or what she seems; her past is shrouded in a veil of mystery. As Kai prepares to make his move to claim her, Sian’s past explodes onto the scene, forcing him to reveal his darkest secrets. Can Sian accept Kai’s nature, or will he be doomed to live in the shadow world, forever alone?

Excerpt:

Where in the blue blazes was she?

Kai Axton glared at the entrance to the bookstore-slash-coffee shop as if imagining her walking through the door could make it so.

The day had turned dark grey with the incoming frontal system off Lake Michigan. His mood matched the cold front, a mood that had gone from warm anticipation a few hours ago to icy disappointment. When he’d arrived at his usual time of three o’clock, he’d expected the proprietor Sian York to greet him with a smile, a freshly baked blueberry scone, and a cup of coffee as always. Kai’s employees teased him about his addiction to the food–and the woman. And they were correct. He looked forward to his daily fix, needed it like a junkie needed his next hit of smack. For the last six months, he’d counted on Sian being here for him. She never went anywhere during shop hours. But she had today.

Where in the hell was she?

Kai turned toward the relatively new clerk, a twenty-something female with strawberry pink hair and more metal in her face than a prepubescent teenager with braces. Now, what was her name again? Zoe, maybe?

“Zoe,” he called out. The clerk turned toward him. Zoe, it was.

A brief, narrow-eyed look of speculation swept over him. Or, had he only imagined that? He blinked. Whatever he thought he’d seen in her eyes was gone, replaced with a wide-eyed gaze of a person about to face her worst fear.

Most women were afraid of him. Fifteen years of wet work for the CIA had a way of marking a man, labeling him. His label read “predator.”

Oddly enough, Sian had never displayed one iota of fear in his presence. If anything, she treated him like a long lost and very special friend. Her presence extinguished the darkness in him. Around her, he almost felt human again, and not like the cold, hard weapon he’d been for so long–and often still was in his private security work.

Sian was magic. And Kai needed her the way he needed air, water, and sustenance.

So, where the fuck was she?

“Yes, Mr. Axton?” Zoe finally replied, her voice creaking like a door needing oil. She coughed, clearing her throat, and then said, “Do you need more coffee?” She reached for the coffee pot with a trembling hand.

Sian’s hand never shook in his presence. She had an aura of calm about her that was almost unearthly. Well, she had until recently. For the last three days, his spider sense, his third eye, his gut, or whatever you wanted to call it, had been on high alert. During that time, his imperturbable lady had displayed hidden, murky currents of unrest. Kai was concerned that her absence had something to do with whatever had upset her serenity. His sixth sense told him that there was danger out there. But from whom? From where?

“No, no coffee.” He’d drunk three cups during the two hours he’d waited for Sian to return to where she belonged. The caffeine jolt had exacerbated his edginess. “Tell me again where Sian went.”

Zoe frowned. “I told you two hours ago that she didn’t tell me.”

Just a hint of asperity tinged the girl’s tone. Not as frightened as she looked. Good, he’d rather have her pissed at him than scared. He’d managed never to hurt a woman, not even during the worst of his fieldwork.

“Just tell me what she said when she left,” he asked, then added, “please.”

The young woman’s forehead scrunched in concentration causing the rings lining her right eyebrow to clink against one another. She tongued the metal piercing in her lower lip, a nervous habit he’d noticed on previous occasions. “Said something about an appointment downtown and that she’d be back before the store closed…but if she didn’t make it back, I was to lock up and ask Gus at the newsstand to walk me to my car.”

“I’ll walk you to your car, if she isn’t back.”

He knew that Zoe parked in the same garage as Sian and he did, which was almost six long blocks away. The shop closed at six o’clock. Stores and businesses in this neighborhood tucked between Cabrini and River North never stayed open late. It wasn’t safe for any woman, or any man for that matter, to walk around alone after dark. Nightfall came early in Chicago in November. And with nightfall came the predators. His lady should not be out after dark.

Some indefinable emotion colored the young woman’s face. “Thank you, but it’s too much trouble…”

He interrupted her protest with a growl. “I said, I’ll walk you to your car.”

Zoe’s tongue worked the lip piercing faster, then she nodded, resigned to her fate.

Sian would never forgive him if her sole clerk got mugged. Kai hadn’t labored for the last six months, stretching even his unlimited patience to the limits, to gain Sian’s trust only to lose it over something as simple as walking Zoe to her car. Especially not when he’d planned to make the move to the next, more intimate, level in his relationship with Sian.

He’d see Zoe safely on her way and then he would wait for Sian to arrive. He’d trail her home, making sure she got safely into her flat above the shop. Then, he’d call and ask her out to dinner–to talk. To let her know he wanted to get to know her more intimately. And to get answers, if he could, to some questions that had nagged him for months.

Questions like: Why had Sian opened a shop in this borderline neighborhood, and chosen to live above it? He’d asked her that once, but Sian had just smiled, shrugged, and said it was all she could afford. But that was bullshit. She had money. Her clothes, her car, this business, and its inventory, all screamed a comfortable income. Yet, she didn’t make enough sales in a day to support any of that. So, where did the money come from? And why did he catch a glimpse of a haunted look in her eyes as she evaded giving him a straight answer? Finally, why didn’t she ever go out of town to visit anyone? Or, have anyone visit her?

None of it added up, arousing all his digging instincts. He’d made it his business to seek answers to the conundrum that was Sian. Not that he really cared what he found one way or another. His soul had recognized his perfect mate. No, Sian was his no matter who she was or where she’d come from. She completed him, made him whole.

But even with all his resources, both legal and not, he’d hit a blank wall.

Prior to last year, Sian York hadn’t existed.

Oh yeah, someone had tried to set up a background for her, but Kai had been in the business long enough to recognize a fake identity. Hell, he’d had at least ten identities himself when he’d worked for the Company.

Sian York was a fake. But there had to be a valid reason for her hiding behind a false identity. He knew that if she shared that with him, he would be at third down with only inches to go to score on the more intimate relationship he needed from her.

For the hundredth time since Kai had entered the shop, he glanced at the door then at his watch. With each sweep of the second hand, his nerves and muscles readied his body for the unknown battle ahead. That there would be a fight to protect his lady was as certain as he knew his own name. That certainty and his ability to wait for approaching danger, then act instantly and decisively, came from his past training. The skills had been learned in some of the most dangerous jungles in the world–some urban, some not–skills that never went away, but merely camouflaged themselves under a veneer of civilized behavior, lurking until they were needed again.

The forced inactivity ate at him like acid. He needed to do something, but couldn’t until he had the intel–or something happened. The feelers he’d put out and the favors he’d called in had yet to produce any information. Sian York, for all intents and purposes, did not exist, but he’d already known that. So, he’d urged his sources to dig deeper.

He had the sense he was running out of time. Something had happened three days ago that had upset Sian–no, had scared her. Was it notice of this damned meeting she’d gone to? Did the meeting involve something, or someone, from her secret past? Had some long ago trouble raised its ugly head? He’d get the answers tonight at dinner. She had to tell him. Had to trust him. Had to.

Whether she was ready to accept him as a lover or not–Sian was his. God and all the deities in the Otherworld knew she’d become his from the first time she’d greeted him with a smile–and really looked at him. For too many years, he’d been invisible, a specter lurking in the shadows of a dangerous world.

But Sian had changed all that with a smile, with her warmth. She’d looked him directly in the eyes, eyes that he’d been told were dark, deep, and pitiless, and still had invited him to share her world, to share the humor in the life around them. It was as if the sun had reached deep into his soul and melted the icy fortress around his heart.

He’d start his claiming of Sian tonight and hope to God he didn’t scare her away with his all-consuming passion. Sian was his sole chance at a future that he’d once thought might never come. A home. A woman to love. Children.

He’d be damned if some unknown danger would take that away.

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