Deadly Offerings by Alexa Grace

Deadly Offerings by Alexa Grace

Deadly Offerings

Deadly, Book 1
by Alexa Grace

Golden Publishing

eBook ISBN: 147003655X
Print ISBN: 978-1470036553

[ Romantic Suspense ]

Anne Mason thinks she’ll be safe living in the Midwest building a wind farm. She may be dead wrong. Someone is dumping bodies in her corn field and telling Anne they are gifts—for her!

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Chapter One

The man leaned against an oak tree, smoking a cigarette, watching as a flood of college students made their exit from the Liberal Arts building. He spotted her struggling with her pink backpack. He’d hacked her email and printed the class schedule she’d been kind enough to share with her buddies. Stupid bitch. Rachel Mitchell was almost too easy to stalk. Certainly too easy to be worthy of all the time he spent following her.
He watched her stop and talk to a tall, dark-haired boy. She wore a black T-shirt with the letters P-I-N-K spread across her ample chest, and the boy was having a hard time keeping his eyes off her breasts. He’d watched her put the shirt on earlier from outside her open bedroom window in her ground-floor apartment.
He kept an eye on her as she made her way across the parking lot to her car. There was a two-hour break between classes, and she usually went to her apartment during that time. He headed toward his Mustang. This may be the day her life gets changed forever, and not in a good way. This may be the day he’d been patiently waiting for—a day with no witnesses, no struggle, and a ride in the trunk of his car. Payback time, and it was long overdue for Rachel Mitchell.
And very, very soon, Anne Mason-Long would also find out that payback is hell in a very personal, very painful way.
 
<><><>
 
The Front Page Bar used to be Michael Brandt’s favorite hangout, but too many beers and twenty-one-year-old busty cheerleader types had lost their appeal. It had been at least two years since he’d visited. He wouldn’t be here tonight if it weren’t for Edward Casey insisting he needed to talk to Michael, and it had to be here, away from the office. Undoubtedly, Edward would do his best to butter him up to get consideration for the position Michael’s law firm had open. Spotting Edward at the bar, he headed toward him.
 
<><><>
 
The bar seemed filled to capacity as Anne Mason-Long waded through the crowd toward her friends’ table. Cheri and Jan, both waving wildly at her, had been her BFFs since college. She reached them and slid into the booth, nearly knocking over their huge margaritas. The waitress arrived with a margarita for Anne, along with a large basket of nachos and a spicy, cheesy dip.
“How is our soon-to-be-free girl doing?” Cheri asked. Without waiting for a response, she continued, “It’s been more than sixty days since you filed for divorce. Personally, I would have divorced that cheating, gambling, lying asshole a long time ago. I love that you’re a loyal person, Anne, but the jerk doesn’t deserve your loyalty.”
“Don’t hold back, Cheri. Say what you really mean,” Anne said, rolling her eyes. Cheri had a direct and sometimes blunt personality. Diplomacy was not in her skill set. “By the way, I’m good. I’ve been so busy at work, there hasn’t been much time to think about the divorce.”
“When is D-Day?” Jan asked.
Anne sighed and wished there was a way to avoid discussing her upcoming divorce. “Allan is contesting the property settlement, so there’s a hearing tomorrow.” The sooner Anne’s divorce hearing was over the better. She needed time to heal, and then get on with her life.
“You can’t be serious! That takes nerve, after all the money he’s lost in the casinos. What does he want?” Cheri exclaimed and pulled a cheese drench nacho chip from the basket.
“What doesn’t he want?”
Jan perked up in her seat and whispered to Anne, “Oh my God! Don’t look now, but there’s a gorgeous hunk sitting at the bar, and he’s checking you out big-time.”
Anne laughed, nearly spilling her drink. “Very funny, Jan. The last time I got checked out was at the grocery store.”
“That’s not true, and I’m serious,” Jan insisted as she leaned forward. “Pretend you’re looking for someone in the crowd, and check out the tall guy in the black leather jacket at the bar.”
Anne sipped her drink, and then nonchalantly scanned the room, starting at the door and ending at the bar. “I think he’s looking at you, not me.”
“Seriously? Have you had your eyes checked lately? His eyes are super-glued on you,” said Jan.
Spotting the man at the bar, Cheri made a purring sound in her throat. “He looks like one of those hot male models from an Armani ad, and I think I’m in lust.”
“Would you two please stop drooling?” Anne sipped her margarita and then shot a glance to the bar. The hunk in question was sitting next to a man who was talking expressively while waving a sheet of paper, but he was clearly not listening to a word. He did seem to be looking at her. Once their eyes met, he shot her a devastating smile that made her catch her breath. A blush burned her cheeks as she looked away.
Noticing the exchange, Jan smirked. “See, I told you he was totally checking you out.”
 
<><><>
 
Michael sipped his beer and continued to stare at one of the most attractive women he had seen in a long, long time. Edward Casey ignored him and droned on about his qualifications. “Hey, Edward,” he interrupted.
“Yeah.”
“Do you come to this bar very often?”
“Sure. Most attorneys do, because it’s so close to the courthouse. Why?”
“See that group of three women in a booth over there? Do you know the one with the long red hair?”
“No.” Edward shook his head. “I’ve seen the blonde, but I’ve never seen the redhead here.”
Michael just nodded, and Edward returned to his self-sale pitch.
 
<><><>
 
“Jan, can we talk about something else? This conversation is pretty inappropriate, since I’m not even divorced yet.”
“Anne, for once, would you please give yourself a break? Maybe the thing you need right now is a fling,” said Jan.
Cheri quickly nodded her head in agreement.
“I’m not a fling kind of girl.”
“Yeah, like we missed that one in college. It was all we could do to get your nose out of your books long enough to come up for air.” Jan poked Cheri in the ribs and they both laughed.
“I wasn’t that boring, was I?”
Jan raised an eyebrow. “No, honey, you weren’t boring. You just didn’t have much fun.”
“You two had enough fun for all of us.”
“So when was the last time you had sex?” Jan demanded, smiling at how quickly Anne blushed.
“You did not just ask me that.”
“Has it been months?” Anne’s face reddened and Jan’s mouth dropped open in disbelief. “Years? Oh, dear God, it’s been years!”
“It’s nobody’s business.” It had been two years, not that Anne would ever admit it. She could probably be a nominee for a book of records—married woman who had gone the longest without sex.
“Just saying. Time might be right for a fling,” Jan remarked. “You need to at least blow out the cobwebs!”
“No thanks,” said Anne. “And I do not have cobwebs.” The girls chuckled as she took a quick look at her watch. It was nearly eight o’clock.
“Why are you looking at your watch? You’re not leaving yet. You just got here,” said Cheri.
“I’ve got a big dog with a huge appetite at home, and he usually eats his dinner at six. I really need to get home before he starts eating the furniture.”
“Anne, we didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. Please. Don’t go,” pleaded Jan.
“I love you two. You didn’t make me uncomfortable, but I really do need to go.” Anne threw her purse over her shoulder, and hugged each of them, promising to get back together soon. Heading for the door, she weaved between people as she went.
 
<><><>
 
Outside, Anne walked toward her blue SUV. Suddenly, a huge, very drunk man grabbed her shoulder and yanked her around to face him.
“Hey, Red. You’re not leaving, are you?” Slurring his words, he smelled of stale beer and body odor. “We haven’t danced yet.”
Wordlessly she backed away a step, rummaging in her purse for her pepper spray, but couldn’t find it. Damn it. She knew better. She should have had the spray in one hand and her keys in the other before she left the bar. Her eyes scanned the area, looking for someone to call for help. The parking lot was filled with cars, but no people.
“Babe, you just can’t leave until we do some dancin’.” The man grabbed Anne, forcing her against his body as he simulated a slow dance.
Pushing at his chest, she snapped, “Back off.”
“Not a chance, Red.” Still dancing, he had Anne’s body in a vise grip that threatened to cut off her air, as he moved her toward a parked Hummer. He hard-pressed her against the vehicle, and pawed at the top button of her blouse.
Anne desperately wanted to kick him in the groin, but she couldn’t free either of her legs. She turned her face away as he bent down to kiss her.
A low, growl sounded behind them, and the man loosened his hold. “Let her go, and I mean now.”
The drunk shot the man a glare. “Fuck you, man, and mind your own business.” The words were barely out of his mouth when a man in a leather jacket slammed into him, knocking him to the pavement.
Rubbing his face, the drunk glanced back to see a tall, muscular man standing over him, fists clenched, ready for a fight that he couldn’t possibly win—drunk or not. He scrambled to his feet, and headed back to the bar. The man in the leather jacket turned to Anne, who was focused on finding her keys and pepper spray inside her purse.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes, thank you.” Anne said, still searching her purse. Sure the guy saved her from the drunk, but what were his intentions? She just wanted to get to her SUV as quickly as she could.
“I’ll walk you to your car.”
“No, thanks, that’s really not necessary. See, I just found my pepper spray,” Anne said as she sprinted toward her car.
 
<><><>
 
There was one parking space left in the courthouse parking lot, and attorney Michael Brandt had just passed it. He threw his silver metallic Escalade EXT in reverse, but it was too late, a car was moving in his direction. He cursed, put the gear in drive, and headed around the lot again. He eased in the lane where he saw the empty space, just in time to see a blue Honda CRV move into it. Damn. This incident was just one more thing to add to what was turning out to be a crap day.
Earlier, he’d broken his coffee pot; which meant no java in his caffeine-starved body. That did nothing to help his bad mood and burgeoning headache. If that weren’t enough, he got pulled over for speeding and got a ticket from a cop he used to work with. The traffic stop made him late for court, and now there was no place to park. Michael’s client was probably looking all over the courthouse for him, not that he cared. The more he met with Allan Long, the more he disliked him, and representing the jerk in his contested divorce proceeding was not going to be the highlight of his legal career.
 
<><><>
 
Anne Mason-Long grabbed her briefcase from the back seat of her SUV. She swung her cross-body leather purse over her head and ran up the courthouse steps. If there was one appointment she didn’t want to be late for, it was her divorce hearing. The sooner this train wreck was over, the better. By the time she passed through security, her head pounded like a drum. What was she thinking when she passed the Starbucks drive-through without getting her daily Grande Mocha Latte? She needed a caffeine fix, and she needed it now.
Once through security, she stopped a man with a court employee badge and asked where she could get some coffee. He looked her over from head-to-toe, then focused on her breasts as he gave her directions down the hall. She thanked him, and as she walked away, she wished just once she had the nerve to ask, “Don’t you wish breasts could talk?”
She rushed down the hall and pushed on the “Court Employees Only” door and was relieved to find the room empty. The last thing she needed was to be boycotted from the break room, more importantly the coffee pot, because she wasn’t an employee.
When Anne reached the coffee pot at the end of the room, she realized it was empty. There should be a law against people who drain the last drops of coffee and don’t make more. Who does that? She pulled open cabinet doors until she found coffee, which she dumped in the coffee maker, then pushed the button for the hot water. She eyeballed her watch and realized she had five minutes before her hearing started.
The door flew open and an attractive, harried man raced in. He threw his briefcase on a table and sprinted toward her. She backed up a few feet, then realized he was heading toward the coffee pot—not her.
“It should be ready in a few minutes,” she said as she looked him over. He was a man her girlfriends would describe as eye candy, with broad shoulders and the hard-sculpted body of a professional athlete. At this moment, she didn’t care how hot he was; if he touched the coffee before she got a cup, he was going down.
He ignored her and retrieved a couple of Styrofoam cups from a cabinet above the sink. Apparently, he knew his way around the break room. He picked up the pot and put one of the cups under the hot stream of coffee. Once it was filled, he handed it to her, and then filled the other cup.
Anne thanked him and rushed to the condiment area to add cream and sugar. She sipped the brew, discovering too late it was too hot, as it flowed like molten lava down her throat. She hurried to the door but he beat her to it, threw it wide open, and waited for her to go through.
She found Courtroom #3 and was surprised to find that her handsome coffee comrade entered the room just behind her. When she reached a long table on the right side of the room, she pulled out a chair, placed her briefcase underneath, and sat down to have some one-on-one time with her coffee.
He watched her as he moved toward a long table on the left side of the room. He sat down and really looked at her for the first time. She was beautiful. Evidently, when he was in need of a caffeine fix, he not only got a headache, but became blind as well.
Her long hair was auburn with streaks of gold, tied back in a high ponytail, her lips full and sexy. Her skin was pale, and the contrast made her eyes an even darker blue. She was shapely, and her long legs went on forever. She must be a new attorney in town, otherwise he had no clue how he’d missed seeing her before. She did look vaguely familiar, but she had a face and body a man did not forget easily—especially this man. Where had he seen her?
He moved to her table and tapped her shoulder. “Excuse me; I don’t believe we’ve met.” When she stood up, he extended his hand to her. “My name is Michael Brandt.”
Anne shook his hand, smiled and answered, “Nice to meet you, and thanks for the coffee.” Looking into his eyes, she noticed they were brown with glints of gold. “Wait, I know you. You rescued me in the Front Page parking lot last night.”
Before she could continue, an elderly man moved in beside her, pulling on her arm to talk to him as he sat down.
Michael moved back to his table, pulled open his briefcase, and then scanned the courtroom looking for his client. Where was he anyway? In fact, where was the soon to be ex-wife? He turned his gaze back to the gorgeous attorney at the next table. He didn’t get her name, not that it mattered, because he fully intended to ask her out for some decent coffee as soon as the hearing ended.
Just as the judge entered the room, Michael’s client slid into his chair beside him as if it were third base.
“Nice of you to join us,” Michael said, not bothering to hide the sarcasm in his tone. “Since you’re here, do you have any idea where your soon-to-be ex-wife might be?”
Allan Long settled in his chair, then looked to the table to the right of them and said, “Yeah, she’s sitting right over there next to her attorney, Stanley Delaney.
Michael groaned. How could he have made a mistake like that? She wasn’t an attorney; she was the opposing client. Just when he thought his day couldn’t get worse, he noticed Anne Mason-Long glaring at him. No doubt she realized that earlier she had been sharing coffee and pleasantries with her husband’s attorney.
 
<><><>
 
Movement at the far end of the room distracted Anne. Several people had entered the courtroom and were finding seats in the gallery seating. Her face heated with the humiliation that strangers would hear this private, low moment of her life. She told herself to focus on blocking out their presence. Wasn’t blocking out the unpleasant her specialty in her marriage to Allan?
A tension filled her body. She wished this ordeal was over.
 
<><><>
 
Stanley Delaney watched her as he organized some papers in front of him. His long fingers pushed back his eyeglasses that were sliding down his nose. Her appearance worried him. She’d lost weight and her face was pale; dark smudges marked the area beneath her eyes. But what did he expect? For the past two years she’d experienced one loss after the other.
“Anne, would you like for me to get you anything?”
She studied his face for a second then said, “Stanley, if you’re sitting over there feeling sorry for me, you’re wasting your time. I don’t need or want your pity. I’m a big girl. I’m not the freckled-faced kid who used to sit on your knee.”
Stanley’s face registered surprise, before his mouth formed a grin. The girl had spunk. She had been through so much the past two years: losing her baby and her beloved grandmother, then losing a woman who was more of a mother than her own had ever been, while watching her marriage dissolve in bitter pieces around her.
 
<><><>
 
Anne watched him return to his papers and sipped coffee that was now lukewarm and bitter. This was one of those times she wished she could go back to being the naive and clueless little girl who played in Uncle Stanley’s office. That seemed like a lifetime ago. She looked around the room, avoiding the area of space that Allan and his attorney occupied.
A bailiff announced there would be a twenty-minute delay for the hearing.
Anne watched as three elderly spectators left the room through the thick wooden doors of the rear exit. Surmising they were heading for the snack machine at the end of the hall for a cold drink, she hoped they were observing the court proceedings as an escape from the stifling hot and humid Indiana late-summer weather, rather than a perverse form of entertainment. The air conditioner rattled feebly as it warded off the stagnant air outside.
Anne thought of a promise she’d made long ago. She closed her eyes and her mind formed an image of Marion. Thank God, she was not here to witness this.
It was the coldest day of winter, but the chill outside was nothing compared to the cold dread she felt as she entered Marion’s hospital room. Quick tears had come to her eyes as she looked down at Allan’s mother. What was once a vibrant, powerful woman now seemed a lifeless shell of a human. The cancer that had ravaged her body had taken everything but her mind. Anne swallowed hard and pulled Marion’s hand into her own.
“Hello, dear one.” She whispered.
Anne willed herself not to cry. Marion would hate that.
“Anne, my love. Thank you for coming.”
“You couldn’t have kept me away.”
“I haven’t much time…” Marion began.
“Please don’t say that.”
Marion smiled weakly and went on. “You’re like a daughter to me. You joining my family was my son’s greatest gift to me.”
“Please, I…”
“Don’t interrupt. What I am about to say is very important to me. I’m about to ask you to make a promise to a dying woman…a promise I have no right to ask.”
“You must know that you can ask me to do anything. I love you,” said Anne.
“Once I’m gone, you’ll be contacted by my attorney about my will.
“Let’s not talk about your will, Marion.”
“Stop interrupting me.” Marion said sharply, her eyes deepening. “I’ve stipulated in the will that you are to inherit the Golden Acres Farm. You’re the only one who loves that land as much as I do; the only one who has the guts and gumption to run it like it should be run.”
“I can’t let you do this. Allan should have the farm, not me.”
“Allan? Seriously? I may be old, but I’m not blind and stupid. Allan is my son, my only child, and I love him. But I know his flaws. He drinks too much. He stays out too late doing God knows what. He gambles to excess. I’ve had to bail him out way too many times.” She paused, tightening her fragile grip on Anne’s hand.
“You know about that?”
“Yes, my dear, I know about that and more. I know about the other women. You’ve made a valiant effort to shield me from my son’s vices. But there’s no need for that. If my Harry had done half the things Allan has done to you, I’d have divorced his ass long ago. Thank God, Harry was a saint. Our son is no saint. Just glad Harry didn’t live to see the man that Allan has become. I don’t understand where we went wrong.”
A nurse came in with a breakfast tray, and Marion dismissed her with a wave of her hand. She turned her attention back to Anne. “I know you’re considering divorce.”
Anne’s eyes widened with surprise. “Well, I…”
“There’s no need to explain.” Marion paused briefly to examine Anne’s reaction and braced herself for what she was about to say. “Allan is visiting me this afternoon and I’ll tell him about my will. Allan will receive a generous monthly check from the trust I set up for him. I intend to tell him that the Golden Acres Farm will be your property and yours alone.”
“Marion, you cannot do this.”
“I damn well can and did.”
“Allan will fight me in court for the farm. You know he will.”
“If he does, he loses that generous monthly check from his trust fund. I’ve stipulated that in the will.”
“Marion, I cannot accept…”
“You can and you will. Promise me, Anne. Please promise me. Give an old dying woman some peace. You must promise me that you will care for my farm.”
 
<><><>
 
Anne was jolted back to the present by the bailiff announcing the return of Judge Warriner.
“If there is no objection, I’d like to move this hearing into my chambers,” said Judge Warriner.
A wave of relief washed over Anne as Stanley began packing his briefcase with files from the table. She would get the privacy she needed.
She glanced at Michael Brandt. The room was large but when Michael stood, he seemed to fill it. He was huge, at least 6’5” and towered over his client. His size alone was intimidating. He certainly didn’t look like the attorneys Anne knew, pale and thin. Her initial instinct warned that he was a man who could be ruthless—with or without his caffeine.
He wore an expensive navy suit tailored to fit his big frame. He was one of the most handsome men she had ever seen. And wasn’t it just her luck that he was Allan’s attorney? And wasn’t it inappropriate that she was ogling Allan’s attorney at her divorce hearing?
 
<><><>
 
Once inside the judge’s chambers, they sat at a conference table facing each other. The judge sat at the end of the table. Stanley and Anne sat on one side, Allan and Michael on the other. The judge turned around and poured some coffee into his cup from the pot on the table behind him.
The judge started the proceeding. “According to my notes, Anne and Allan have met several times to discuss the 50/50 division of their assets, but have not come to agreement as to the Property Settlement Agreement. This hearing is scheduled to review any additional information regarding the property division you’d like me to consider before I reach a judgment. Mr. Delaney, do you have new information to share?”
Stanley pulled a file from his briefcase and slid it across the table to the judge.
“In this file, you will find Allan Long’s financial records from his bank. In addition, I am including records of gambling losses of $750,000 from the French Lick Casino here in Indiana, as well as the Venetian, Casino Royale and Mandalay Bay Casinos in Las Vegas. Mr. Long has also exceeded his credit limit on both his Visa and MasterCard and owes both a total of $50,000.
I submit these records as evidence of the deliberate wasting of marital assets through Mr. Long’s long-term gambling.”
Michael glared at Allan. “Why am I just now hearing about this?” His client shared nothing of his gambling and credit card debt prior to the hearing. Allan had claimed that his wife’s spending was driving him into the ground. He realized Allan was not only the asshole he thought he was, but a liar, too. Michael cursed himself for taking his case.
“Where did you get that information?” Allan was incredulous. “You bitch,” he shouted at Anne across the table.
“One more outburst like that and I will find you in contempt. Do you understand me, Mr. Long?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Mr. Brandt, please advise your client not to speak until Mr. Delaney has finished,” chastised Judge Warriner.
Michael Brandt’s eyes darkened as he whispered something in his client’s ear. Allan pushed back in his chair, his expression in a pout like that of a small child who didn’t get his way.
“Mr. Delaney, do you have additional information to share?”
“Not at this time.”
“I see,” said the judge as he scribbled some notes on a legal pad.
“Mr. Brandt, do you have additional or new information to share?”
“What Mr. Delaney did not say is that Mr. Long’s family invested $50,000 in his wife’s computer company, Computer Solutions, Inc. Mrs. Long is a partner in this company. Her partnership is valued at $500,000. And, as you know, Mr. and Mrs. Long own a home that is valued at $300,000. In addition, Mrs. Long was given a farm last year that has been in Allan’s family for over 100 years and is valued at one million dollars. The farm should be considered in the 50/50 division of property.”
Anne cringed. The reason he was sharing this information was crystal clear. Allan wanted money and a lot of it. More than that, he wanted the farm so he could sell it, so he would have more money to gamble. Allan was incensed that his mother left her the farm.
When she’d asked Allan for a divorce, he seethed with anger. “Sure you can have your divorce, but it will cost you big-time. It will cost so much that you may have to sell your precious Golden Acres Farm—which should be mine in the first place!”
Stanley Delaney nearly jumped out of his chair. “Judge, the farm that Mr. Brandt refers to was an inheritance from Allan’s mother, Marion, to Anne. She specifically named Anne to inherit the farm. Allan inherited a trust fund with monthly payments of five thousand dollars.”
“The farm will not be considered during this property division. If Mr. Long wants to contest his mother’s will, he can do that in another hearing,” said Judge Warriner.
Anne nudged her attorney, “I want to talk with you privately.”
“Your honor, could we have a ten-minute break so that I can talk with my client.”
“Granted.”
 
<><><>
 
The judge headed for his office as Michael and Allan left the room.
“Allan can have the money he wants. Offer him $650,000,” said Anne. A frozen, bitter mask covered her face.
“What? You can’t mean that. You don’t have that kind of money.”
“I’ll sell the house we shared. It has too many bad memories, anyway. I’ll sell my partnership in the company. It’s time I moved to the farm anyway. I can’t run Golden Acres as it deserves part-time. I promised Marion I’d take care of the farm, and I will.”
“Anne, as your attorney, I must advise you that you are not acting in your own best interests. As your attorney, I must advise you…”
“Draw up the papers, Stanley. It’s only money. I want Allan gone and my life back. Your job is to get me this divorce and get me out of this nightmare. Period.”
 
<><><>
 
Anne didn’t see Michael Brandt near the floor-to-ceiling window in the hallway when she left the courtroom. But he saw her. He was waiting for her. He scanned her face as she passed him, her dark blue eyes angry and focused ahead of her. She’d seemed upset and he wanted to make sure she was okay. Michael couldn’t believe she caved and gave Allan that much money. If he were in her place, he certainly wouldn’t have. The guy was a loser. That money will flow through his fingers like water.
Michael thought he might be losing it. Since when did he care about whether an opposing client was okay? Since when did he give a damn about the impact he had on them? What kind of an attorney was he anyway? Hadn’t his mentor always told him, “It isn’t personal. Nothing about the law is personal.” Well, if it wasn’t personal, why did he feel like such a bully?
He never should have taken this case. He had misgivings about Allan that started with their first meeting. Michael should have bailed then. He should have told Allan that he wouldn’t represent him. He should have followed his gut.
Michael was glad he was leaving his law practice. Damned glad. He was just too good at his job, and too many jerks like Allan were winning cases they had no business winning. He’d attained freedom for too many people who were guilty and now walking the streets, probably repeating past mistakes. He couldn’t do it anymore. He needed a fresh start.
Through the window, Michael watched Anne as she left the courthouse, her shoulders straight, and her long legs taking purposeful strides toward the parking lot. Something heated inside him. There was something about her, or maybe it was his year-long hiatus from sex.
And for reasons he didn’t understand, he wanted to see her again. And at the same time, he realized his chances of that were between slim to none.
 
<><><>
 
Anne peered into her refrigerator. Not a piece of junk food in sight. She opened the freezer. How could she be out of ice cream at a time like this?
Anne had to get out of the house. Tonight bad memories hung over her like a thundercloud. She relived the humiliating divorce hearing over and over, becoming angrier each time.
She tried to sleep. No success. Finally, Anne got out of bed and pulled on a pair of jean shorts, a black glittery Lady Gaga tank top, and her Reeboks. She’d go for a drive to clear her head. It was close to midnight, but with any luck, she’d find someplace open to stock up on junk food.
Anne backed her SUV out of the garage, shoved the gear to drive and moved down the street, windows down, the breeze whipping her ponytail about her face. She drove down Route 40 until she reached a section of fast food restaurants, bars and a mini-mart. The mini-mart didn’t look busy so she parked in front.
Grabbing a shopping basket, Anne strode down an aisle of the store picking up Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Butterfinger candy bars, tortilla chips, a jar of salsa, and a quart of soda as she went. She moved to the refrigerator case and eyed the selection of ice cream. She sighed. So many choices, so little time. She finally decided and pulled out a couple of cartons of Ben & Jerry’s Red Velvet Cake, then headed to the teenaged cashier, whose eyes were plastered on her legs.
Anne paid for the items, whirled around and slammed into the hard chest of a tall man entering the store. Her items tumbled from the bag. The salsa jar rolled across the store as did the bottle of soda. The man uttered “sorry” as he bent to help her pick up the items. He picked up the salsa and put it in her bag. He moved down the aisle to get the soda that had rolled under a freezer then turned toward her. In a black leather jacket and snug faded jeans, he was one of those men who radiated testosterone. And wasn’t it just her luck, or lack of, that Michael Brandt, her jerk ex-husband’s attorney was heading toward her holding her soda, sending her a dazzling smile that sent her stupid heart racing.
“It’s you again. Haven’t you done enough to me for one day?” She yanked the soda bottle out of his hand, thanked him, and resisted the childish urge to kick him in the shin. Instead, she rushed out of the store.
Anne opened the back of the car to place the groceries inside. She pulled a Butterfinger bar out of one of the bags and got into the front seat. As she opened the candy bar, she glanced at Michael Brandt, still inside the store, who was now staring at her with an odd expression on his face, hands on his hips.
She heard movement in the back seat, then felt something hard slam against her face. The candy bar flew out of her hand and landed on the floorboard.
“Drive.”
Anne looked in the rearview mirror and gasped; a sliver of panic cut through her. A man in a black ski mask was slammed against her seat, thrusting a gun in her face.
She punched the accelerator, pitching gravel and dust in the parking lot. She screeched onto the road, nearly sideswiping a pickup truck. Fear crushed Anne’s lungs and she could barely breathe.
“Turn right at the stop, Anne,” he growled.
Christ, how did he know her name? She turned at the stop, her mind racing to remember what she had learned at her self-defense class. Stay calm. Stay calm and in control. Yeah, well that was a bit hard when there was a gun pressed to your cheek.
Calm down. Anne took a deep breath and tried to focus. She would not be this thug’s victim. She would not.
What else did her self-defense teacher say? There was something about doing a 360-degree view of your surroundings when out alone. It was too late for that. Anne had stupidly forgotten that valuable piece of advice. She could jump from the car, but it was going too fast.
Engage him in conversation. Wasn’t that discussed in the class?
“Where are we going?”
“You’ll know when we get there. I’ve got a private party in mind for just me and you.”
Her stomach surged and she thought she might throw up. Anne had to do something. She had to do it before they reached his destination.
“Listen, I have my bank card with me. I could get you some cash.”
“Shut up and keep driving.”
Soon they would drive out of the residential area and be on country roads where houses and help would be out of reach. She looked in the rearview mirror again and noticed headlights. There was a truck behind her. She tapped on her brakes to get his attention.
“Stop hitting the brakes, bitch.” The man in the ski mask turned around and seemed to notice the truck for the first time. He jabbed her again with the gun.
Frantic, she had to do something. Doing nothing could get her killed. Her mind went back to the self-defense class. Suddenly, she knew exactly what she must do.
Anne pressed the accelerator to speed up, scanning the right side of the road for what she needed. Turning a curve, she saw a huge oak tree standing near the road and aimed the car straight for it.
A sickening explosion of metal and glass assailed her ears as the car hit the tree on the passenger side. The air bag exploded, pinning her against her seat. The man in the ski mask flew over the seat into the front, pounding his head against the dashboard where he slumped.
The pain from the impact surged through her body, but she fought it as she reached for the seat belt clasp. Once it was undone, she pulled the handle and pushed the door as hard as she could until it opened, sending her crashing to the ground. She must run. She must find help.
Anne staggered to her feet and tried to run, but her legs gave out after a couple of feet. She picked herself up and ran less than a block from the car, when she noticed someone running behind her. She could not let him catch her. He would kill her.
She dashed within a wooded area and ran as weeds, branches and thicket made long cuts on her legs. Anne ran until she felt her lungs would burst. She looked back and did not see the man.
She pushed ahead until she found a large tree and plastered her body behind it, willing herself to breathe. She listened, but heard nothing.
A large arm came out of nowhere, encircling her waist and trapping her against him. Anne fought, her fists pounding against his chest and kicking him until they both fell to the ground.
“Stop it. Anne, stop it. You’re safe. I’m here to help you.” He gripped her arms and pulled her to her feet. “Look at me. Do you remember me?”
He looked familiar. She pushed the tears and sweat from her eyes. Wildly, she looked up, searching his face. Michael Brandt? Confusion replaced the fear. “What are you doing here?”
“I followed you from the convenience store. We have to get back to the car,” he added. “There’s still a chance we can catch whoever did this to you.” Michael used his flashlight to look her over for injuries. There was a wild look in her eyes he knew was shock, from his days as a cop. Long, ugly scratches marked her legs and arms, and a dark bruise was forming on her cheek. His eyes darkened as he thought of what he’d like to do to the bastard who did this to her.
“No, we can’t go back there. He has a gun. He’ll kill me,” Anne sobbed.
“I’ll protect you.” Michael pulled her forward, his arm around her shoulders as he pushed through the trees and brush toward the road. Leaning against him, she wrapped her arm around his waist. She felt a small gun inside the waistband of his jeans. She thought of grabbing it and forcing him to let her run away. But there was something in his voice that made her believe him. He would protect her and she was all out of other options.
Anne heard sirens and saw flashing lights. The police? She looked up at him.
“I called them from my cell. I saw the guy get in your car but you were racing from the parking lot before I could tell you,” Michael said.
As they got closer, Anne saw the tangled metal mess that used to be her car. Her stomach tightened as her eyes scanned the area, looking for the man in the ski mask. He was not in the car. Two EMTs ran toward her, pulling her from Michael’s arms, and then leading her toward the ambulance. They made her sit in the back as they examined her. A small light pierced her eyes and a cuff tightened on her arm. Someone swabbed something on the cuts on her legs and arms.
Anne watched as officers searched her car and the surrounding areas. One of them led a German Shepherd that was sniffing the ground near the passenger side of her car. Michael Brandt was talking to an officer who looked like he was in charge. They talked as though they knew each other.
It was not cold but she began to shiver, her teeth chattering. She rubbed her temples. Her head was starting to throb.
“How is she?” She heard Michael’s low voice as he talked to one of the EMTs.
“It wouldn’t hurt if she went to the hospital to get checked out.”
“I heard that and I am not going to the hospital. I’m fine.” Anne tried to get up, felt a sickening rush, and then sat back down.
Michael got into the ambulance then crouched down to her level to gaze at her face. He pulled off his leather jacket and placed it around her shoulders. He ran his thumb gently across her cheek where the bruise from the gun was darkening. He held her hand as he examined the long scratch on her arm, and leaned down to look at her legs.
“Please stop fussing over me. I’m fine.”
Michael nodded at the officer standing near them she hadn’t noticed until then. “This is Detective Smith. He needs to ask you some questions.”
“So why were you at the convenience store after midnight?” Detective Smith asked as he withdrew a small notepad and pen from his pocket.
“I’ve had one of the most seriously shitty days I’ve ever had and I was craving junk food.”
The detective nodded and asked, “Did you notice the man who jumped in your car in the store?”
“No. I saw a store clerk and I bumped into Michael Brandt,” she said gazing at Michael who nodded at the detective.
“How did the man get into your car?”
“I don’t know. I had just put the groceries in the back of my SUV. I hadn’t locked the doors yet. Suddenly, he appeared from the back seat.”
“Did he have a weapon?” asked the detective.
“Yes. He had a gun.” Anne shivered as she remembered the gun slammed against her cheek.
“Did he say anything to you?”
“He told me to drive. I knew he would kill me if I didn’t.”
“What else do you remember about him?”
She thought for a moment, and said, “He wore a black ski mask. I don’t know about his clothes. They may have been dark. He wore gloves.”
“What else?”
“He didn’t want money. I offered to take him to my bank machine, but he didn’t want money.”
“He didn’t want money?” Detective Smith asked, his eyebrows rose inquiringly.
“No, and he called me by my name. He knew my name.” Panic choked her as Anne remembered this. Christ, he knew her name.
Michael’s brows drew together in a concerned frown as his eyes met the detective’s. “It sounds like this carjacking was planned. He must have followed her to the store, which meant he’s been watching her.”
“Are you sure about that? Are you sure he called you by your name?” asked the detective.
“Yes, I’m sure. That’s not something I’d likely forget.”
“Is anyone angry with you? Can you think of someone who would want to hurt you?”
“No,” Anne said as she shook her head.
“I can,” Michael interrupted. “Her divorce hearing was this morning and her ex-husband, Allan Long, was very pissed at her.”
“It wasn’t Allan. I would have recognized his voice,” Anne said.
“What did you have in the car besides your groceries?”
“My purse. I have a small yellow leather purse. Did you find it?”
“Yes, we found the purse but the contents are scattered around the car. Do you remember what was in the purse?”
“Why do you want to know what was in my purse?”
“I’m trying to determine if he took anything from the purse that might give him your address.”
“Oh, crap.” The thought that the carjacker knew where she lived tore at her insides. She felt sick.
“If you could see the contents, do you think you would remember anything that is missing?” The detective asked as he helped her down from the ambulance and led her toward her vehicle.
“Maybe.”
In the back seat of her SUV, Anne saw a tube of lipstick, a brush, and a powder compact. In the front seat, she noticed her keys, cell phone, driver’s license and a small makeup bag that contained her credit cards. Picking it up, she looked inside to see all cards were accounted for.
“Is anything missing?”
There was one thing Anne didn’t see. “Did you find a letter? There was a letter from my attorney about my hearing this morning.”
“We’ll look again, but no letter was found. Was the letter addressed to your home?”
“I can’t remember if Stanley sent it to my home or office.”
The detective looked at Michael with an expression that said “not good” then turned to Anne. If the carjacker didn’t already know her address, he did now.
“That’s all for now. If I were you, I’d listen to the EMTs and make a stop at the hospital to get checked out.”
“No thanks. I just want to go home.” Her voice broke in emotion. Anne wasn’t about to spend the worse night of her life waiting to be seen at the busy hospital.
“Do you have someone to come get you to take you home?” the detective asked.
I’m taking her home.” Michael ignored her surprised expression, opened the back of her SUV and pulled out the bags of groceries. He led her to his truck by her arm, threw the groceries in the back and helped her inside.
“Listen, I’ll just call a taxi or something.” Anne offered.
“No, you’re not. Tell me. Are you always this stubborn about accepting a little help?” He growled.
“Are you always this persistent, trying to smother a woman you barely know? You don’t have to take me home.”
“Yes, I do. I suddenly have this craving for junk food.”

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