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Currently viewing the category: "Publisher: MuseItUp Publishing"

Twinkle Lights by Vicki Batman

Twinkle Lights

by Vicki Batman

MuseItUp Publishing

eBook ISBN: 978-1-77127-212-4

A do-gooder joins forces with a reformed delinquent turned lawyer to run a Christmas tree stand benefiting the children’s hospital, but when the money goes missing, fingers are pointed.

Note: This title has no chapter breaks. Please enjoy the first scene.

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Scene One

[Continue Reading…]

Staring Into the Eyes of Chance
LIIA – Lycan International Investigation Agency, Book 1
by Kay Dee Royal

MuseItHot Publishing

eBook ISBN: 978-1-927361-99-3

Olivia swears off men until she meets Chance, a Lycan alpha. He ignites an undeniable hunger they can only sate together.

Chapter One

Olivia needed calm, not the stress of yet another five minute lecture from her sister, Lacey, who was hell-bent on finding her a man. She squeezed her eyes tight and started counting. One…two…Of course, it helped Olivia faced the opposite direction from her sister.
“Ray’s been gone for over two years. It’s time,” Lacey said. She sighed, sounding as exasperated as Olivia felt. “You’ll like this guy, trust me.”
Lacey refused acknowledging that Olivia lived a contented life. She incessantly set up ridiculous dates of handpicked men. Those chosen few, Lacey’s caliber of men, were deeply established in the corporate world and a little too much on the wild side. If Olivia ever climbed onto that branch of life again, she’d select less business-oriented men. At fifty-five years old, she found it a highly unlikely branch.
Ten…count over. Olivia opened her eyes and saw the farthest floodlight kick on. Her whole back area of barns and sheds was illuminated, but when the back light facing the woods came on, it looked like a hit of pure sunshine. She stared out the three-season porch window, interested in what tripped the motion detector. Once in a while a rehabilitated deer wandered in for a visit from her wooded preserve.
“Olivia, are you still here?” Lacey’s sarcasm shot Olivia back into the room.
“How many different ways have I told you? No. More. Men. Period,” Olivia snapped. Thank God Lacey was leaving in the morning. She’d only stayed the weekend with Olivia for a forester seminar, but it seemed like a month.
“Okay, just this one. If you see this guy, I’ll never fix you up again.” Lacey shuffled back into the kitchen, most likely fixing herself a cup of coffee. No one drank more coffee than her sister.
“Like that’s going to happen.” A movement from the trees drew Olivia’s attention and she watched for whatever was there.
“I promise, just this once,” Lacey’s voice carried through the open door between the kitchen and three season room.
“Oh my God,” Olivia gasped. A huge black wolf pranced out of the tree line and sniffed the air. Its head snapped around, staring at her. Their gazes connected and something tingled inside her. She’d never connected with a wolf before. It crouched low. All of her porch windows were open and a steady breeze wafted through toward the wolf. She knew it should run in the opposite direction after smelling human, not come closer. It was tough figuring the exact size of the beast, being a good one hundred plus yards away, but she knew it stood larger than anything she’d seen, even in its crouched position. How in the hell did it get over my eight-foot fence?
“H-e-l-l-o, am I talking to dead air? What do you mean by, ‘oh my God’…Olivia?”
“What?” Olivia focused on the wolf with its body slouched and moving in the direction of the barns.
Oh God, he’s after the animals there.
“Just meet this guy. His name is Chance.” Lacey started through the door into the porch. Olivia rushed over, stopping her.
“Okay, sure,” Olivia answered without caring what her sister just said. Olivia needed outside without panicking Lacey. “Go take that bath you talked about earlier while I check on my healing critters.”
Olivia stood trembling at the doorway. She watched the wolf move closer from her peripheral. Lacey would freak if she saw it.
“Okay, guess we got guy stuff covered. Jacuzzi here I come.” Lacey turned and walked through the kitchen toward the bathroom.
Olivia kept an eye on the wolf’s progress, grabbing her tranquilizer rifle on the way out of the porch. Once clear of the house, she lost sight of the wolf. It disappeared behind the barn. She bent low and ran until she reached the building. Olivia swallowed the knot of panic, followed the outer wall until she reached the corner, and peeked around it.
Where the hell is it?
Sharp prickles raced up her spine as the deepest, longest, eeriest wolf howl she ever heard echoed through the forest. Her body froze and her fingers clung white-knuckled around the tranq rifle. A longer ominous howl answered. It came from the backside of the barn. She took a deep breath, stood up with gun ready, rounded the corner, and ran the length of the barn. Olivia paused for another breath before dashing around to the backside of the structure.
She stepped away from the building, intent on walking her yard perimeter, head pivoting in all directions, scanning the short grass and fallen leaves. Movement to her right alerted her too late as she pivoted toward the motion.
“Oomph!” She took a hit, like a truck slammed into her front side. A flurry of black and silver fur, claws, and teeth. She fell flat on her back, her head bouncing off the ground. The rifle flew from her grasp. No footfalls, no heavy breathing, but a pungent scent of musty dog fur lingered in the air. Olivia lay there, afraid to move, afraid the wolf had just called in his pack.
She closed her eyes, calling up her animal sensitivity ability, while shoving down her own panic. After years of psychically working with animals, she knew they sensed panic and fear. Her breathing needed regulating.
Olivia relaxed as best she could and opened her mind. She sensed the wolf; masculine. He came across with an urgent need to protect, more like helping her feel safe. Another howl, with a deep and sinister timbre, shattered her concentration. A stab of electricity zipped through her, pumping adrenaline and tightening every muscle. This howl came from farther inside the forest than the first one. She sensed aggression in the wolves within the forest, ready for battle. Her heart drummed against her ribs in anticipation of an answering call, and she couldn’t stop the tremors running rampant in her belly.
Instead she saw the lights go out through her closed eyelids. She opened her eyes and saw nothing but blackness.
Nine o’clock on a September evening, what did she expect? Damn power company! Hopefully Lacey sat in the Jacuzzi and wouldn’t come running out.
She lay listening for any sound. Her own breath, the loudest panting she’d ever heard, came in at a close second to her heart banging against the walls of her chest. Slowly, she sat up. The back of her head throbbed, her spine hurt, and the front of her body ached, especially her breasts. She bent her legs to stand and in that same moment a jet of hot mist coated her face.
Wolf breath.
Olivia froze, tamping down the run-for-your-life urge. Her mind reached toward the beast beside her, searching his energy markers, his emotions, urges. She read him as curious, stimulated. Maybe a misread of…sexually stimulated? She sat back on her haunches, figuring if she stretched at least four feet of her five-foot ten frame, maybe she’d appear larger. His breath assailed her from above, she remained squatted.
Damn, this thing is huge!
He sniffed the top of her head, down by her ear, licked the length of her neck and up the side of her face. Another howl close by, echoing near the tree line, got the wolf’s attention. He raised his head from her and shoved her body back with his own. She went down on her butt, folding her legs sideways. Fur from his backside pressed into the front of her, including her face. Olivia turned her head away and took a breath. A shiver began in her belly and inched through her arms, legs, and up her neck. She sensed his urgency, he must move and his need…again, to keep her safe and again something else, another misread?
He moved back, his head next to hers. A growl vibrated, harsh and deep, beside her ear. Olivia jumped when he yipped instead of howled. He circled her, stopping behind her. A sudden scratch of claws and pebbles from rain washout near the barn pelted her. Air swirled around her as the wolf leaped over her head in the direction of the woods.
Olivia’s breath whooshed out like a balloon being released. Tears welled and trickled down her face. The wolf’s size was about as abnormal as it got. She’d never heard of any wolf being that large. She’d done plenty of research on the species, brushing up for the wolf pup she rehabilitated and released back into the wild years ago when Ray and she first opened the refuge, before they owned the preserve property.
Olivia pushed herself up onto wobbly legs, her stomach lurched, and before she could blink, vomit spewed. She retched hard, falling onto her hands and knees, weak and crying, something she hadn’t done since Ray’s funeral. As if on cue, all the lights popped on, illuminating her shadow against the barn wall.
Oh, that’s lovely. Damn power company.
A howl, and then another and another, echoed from different locations in the forest. Her forest, her wildlife preserve, not a place for a beast like her visitor, and most definitely not a place for the aggressive lot in the forest. She swiped her face with the bottom of her shirt and looked toward the woods.
About thirty yards away in the mowed meadow, her wolf circled with another, close-in-size, milky-eyed wolf with a deformed face, both spot-lighted in the yard light. They flashed razor sharp teeth and glowing eyes, with the exception of the one’s coated eye. Their vicious growls and snapping jaws filled the air. Olivia found her tranq gun on the ground and grabbed it. By the time she turned for a shot, she saw the tail end of both wolves leaping into the woods, her wolf chasing the other.
Olivia leaned against the barn, adjusting her position in accordance with her pain. She thought of the curious readings she sensed from her wolf, not sure of their meaning. She never questioned first impressions from readings anymore. Years of experiences proved first intuitive readings rang as authentic truth in almost every case.
She closed her eyes and pictured her wolf looking at her for the first time, the way his head snapped in her direction and how their gazes met and connected. She touched her neck, sliding fingertips up her cheek where his tongue touched her skin.
Her breath caught, heart raced, and her eyes opened wide. She laughed out loud, maybe in relief, maybe in a small fit of hysteria, or maybe because she consider that wolf as “her” wolf. Her “stimulation” readings from him threw her off, knowing it wasn’t a possibility. She would check with an area forester or park manager regarding the wolf pack.
On shaky legs she shoved away from the barn siding and walked toward the house. Olivia dropped the gun just inside the porch and then marched through the house, until she stood outside the bathroom door.
“I came in for a flashlight, still haven’t looked in on the animals. It will take me a while, Lace. Are you going to be alright?” Olivia spoke through the closed door.
“I’ll be in bed before you get back and won’t care if the lights go out again. Got to leave early, I’m needed back in the classroom by tomorrow evening.”
“Okay, I’ll have coffee ready.”
Olivia snatched the flashlight from on top of her refrigerator in case the lights went out again. She slung the tranq rifle over her shoulder by its leather gun strap and headed out to her mending critters. An owl hooted nearby and she jumped. She scanned the back tree line, listening for wolves. Nothing.
For the first time since, Rebel, her Australian Shepherd, died, she was thankful he hadn’t been there tonight. She knew Rebel would have attacked to protect and she also knew he wouldn’t have survived. Perhaps that was exactly what happened one week ago. Rebel protected and lost. Her heart cracked a little more for the loss of her friend.
She walked through the barn housing the cages of a broken-winged red-tailed hawk, a healing ground hog that got caught in a trap, and a young maimed raccoon, now healed and nearly ready for release. She gave them fresh water and checked bandages and bedding. All looked good for the evening. She’d brought her small goat herd inside earlier—they were all bedded down for the night as well.
After leaving the barn, Olivia inspected the back area one more time, noticing the motion light was off. She closed the porch door gently behind her, set the flashlight on a windowsill nearby, and slid the gun off her shoulder, leaning it against the doorframe.
“I called Chance and left a message on his phone,” Lacey said, startling Olivia and making her stumble. Olivia latched onto a wicker chair before she fell. Lacey continued, “Told him to stop here if he wanted a date, phone calls wouldn’t work for you.”
“What! Who’s Chance? What in the hell are you talking about, and why are you sitting out here in the dark?” Olivia grumbled.
“I wanted you to know I left a message on his phone in case I forget to tell you in the morning. He’s a wonderful, caring man, all into nature, just like you.”
“Didn’t we just have this conversation? God, Lacey, when will you stop? I don’t want a date with anyone, I’m happy alone.”
“You said you’d go out with him, before you went checking on your animals, before I got in the tub. Doesn’t matter, this will be the last man I want you to meet. Promise.”
Olivia’s eyes acclimated to the dark interior of her porch. She saw Lacey arch a well-groomed eyebrow, her movement accentuated by the outside light filtering through the branches of Olivia’s one oak tree between her house and barns. She rolled her eyes and sighed, her head, back, and chest aching.
“I’ll do this, only because by doing it, you’ll never—and I mean never, send another man my way again.”
“I won’t, because I won’t have to. You’ll fall for this guy. He’s a forester. One of the guest speakers at the college seminar I attended, only instead of talking about cultivating a healthy, healing forest, he was more into wolf sightings and their habitat. I met him personally at the professor’s meeting afterward. When he told me he resided in your neck of the woods, I asked him if he was single…and the rest is history.” Lacey giggled, which tensed Olivia’s jaw even more.
“God, Lacey, you never cease with your pushing. There are so many other great uses for that kind of energy, and yet you waste it on me. Wow.”
Olivia shuffled straight to her bathroom, snapping on the light. Her eyes automatically squinted when she saw her reflection in the mirror. “Oh my God,” popped out.
“It isn’t that bad. This guy’s a real gentleman, well, kind of a hot looking nice gentleman.” Lacey said from the hallway.
“See you in the morning, sis.” Olivia closed the door before Lacey saw her condition. Olivia’s shirt wore remnants of vomit. Her hair strayed in ratted disarray from its tie, and the filth on her face showed streamline moisture tracks from tears. Olivia learned long ago she couldn’t share stories of wildlife with her sister. Lacey would go on a rampage against the wilds of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She wanted Olivia to move back to Lower Michigan’s most southern area, especially after Ray died.
“Night, sis,” Lacey said from the other side of the bathroom door. “Tell me how it goes when you meet Chance. Don’t you just love his name? I’ll try not to call you every hour for a report.”
“Stop. Go find your own guy and leave me be.”
“That’s just it; I have lots of guys beating down my door. You have zippo. You’ll need to douche with Rustolium in order to get those feminine parts back in condition.”
“I have a battery charged way I keep my lady parts in working order.” Olivia chuckled.
“Olivia! I didn’t know you had it in you.” Lacey laughed.
“I don’t, yet, but it’s on my agenda for tonight, so close your bedroom door tight.” Olivia grinned at her little funny, and Lacey laughed even louder as she walked away.
Olivia turned on the water and filled her jetted sunken tub. One of the few selfish things she afforded herself when they built the house. She got a Jacuzzi, and Ray got a crazy huge shower with multiple showerheads and wall benches.
Her whole body ached, every cell, zapping any stamina left. She slipped out of her jeans and pulled off her T-shirt. Steam wafted, thickening the air, but not enough it masked the mirror. Olivia stood staring at herself, naked. Her muscle hadn’t lost much of its firm tone, but the tightness of her aged skin was another matter.
Then, she noticed something else, looked away from the mirror image and down at herself. “What?” She touched the tops of her breasts. Above each nipple, a huge red and purple paw print appeared, as if tattooed.

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Going To The Dogs
by Elle Druskin

MuseItUp Publishing

eBook ISBN: 9781927361849

Detective Sam Kendall is determined to find his partner’s killer. Dog-hating Sam is stuck with a junk food addicted poodle as his new partner and stuck on dog trainer and suspect Jodie McBride. It’s dogs to the rescue! Two smart canines decide to catch a killer and make sure Sam and Jodie figure out they’re made for each other.

Note: Prologue omitted.
Chapter One

Sam hesitated at the door, gazing through the glass window. Detective Dave Jordan, his personal nemesis and a world class pain in the butt, deflected a fist from some tattooed guy with a Mohawk haircut in between a shouting match. Every other word qualified as “Expletive deleted.”
Detached from the action inside the large, open station room, Sam studied the scene as if he sat behind the one-way mirror rooms used for criminal interrogations. Phones jangled, and the fax machine spit out enough papers to load a landfill. Cops starting the morning shift pecked computer keyboards, taking statements from distraught civilians. From a superficial glance around the squad room, everything looked the same, although that seemed impossible.
One difference. A big one even if it not readily apparent. There would be no more early morning homemade flaky apple strudel bursting with plump, juicy raisins, sweet enough to guarantee a whopping case of hyperglycemia. No more dumb blonde jokes to ensure the morning shift began with a laugh because the last thing anyone could call Chris would be dumb, and everyone knew she was a bottle blond.
Sam squeezed his eyes shut with the futile hope that when they opened, Chris would miraculously appear at the corner desk and turn the past week into a bad dream from indigestion. Fat chance. He blinked but no Chris, and there never would be again.
Sam plodded into the room, and the noise level plummeted as people noticed his arrival. Conversations stopped mid-sentence, and Sam lowered his gaze to avoid eye contact with anyone. Awkward small talk would only make things worse. A wave of silence followed like high tide at the beach. He trudged to a desk piled up with unfinished reports, a New York Yankees mug filled with inkless pens, and a framed photo taken at a baseball game he attended with Chris, both decked out in Yankees’ caps and jackets. Another stark reminder of the great loss. Sam opened a drawer and shoved the picture in face down, deep inside where it wouldn’t stare him in the face ever again. Migraine pain thudded in his head, and Sam didn’t need to look up to know every pair of eyes in the room stared at him.
“Sam Kendall, get your butt in here!”
Grateful for the escape, Sam shuffled into the chief’s office and slammed the door.
“Sit down.” Bill O’Mara pointed to a rickety chair opposite a metal desk overflowing with papers. O’Mara’s hand raked over a bald head as if he sported a thick crown of hair while slurping a steaming mug emblazoned with bright red letters that said “World’s Greatest op.” Sam wondered if the word signified Cop. Maybe it had been Pop, a gift from the kids. Not that it mattered, only the aroma of fresh roasted beans filled Sam with desperation for a caffeine hit. Another loss to add to the mounting toll. Chris always brought the morning coffee.
O’Mara shifted his girth, and the chair tipped from the strain. Stubby fingers flexed and unflexed on the desk, and beady eyes narrowed on Sam. Creases in a wrinkled forehead deepened as the boss leaned forward.
“You sure you’re up to this? Maybe it’s too soon. Take another week off.”
Sam shook his head. “I’m fine. One week away is plenty.”
O’Mara grunted and shoved a folder over the desk. “Here’s the file. Read it carefully. It has the last of the notes Chris filed on the missing diamonds and surveillance.”
O’Mara guzzled more of the coffee and didn’t bother to mask obvious doubt. The boss stared at Sam for what seemed an eternity until Sam fidgeted under the intense scrutiny. Clearly, O’Mara didn’t like this idea, but persistence or plain stubborn insistence eventually wore the boss down. Skepticism shadowed O’Mara’s face, but he coughed; then proceeded to issue instructions.
“I’ve put you on this case for one reason. Only one, and don’t forget it. I respect your need to find your partner’s killer. Killing cops is bad for all of us. That doesn’t mean I’ll tolerate any poor judgment, or emotional behavior. If you can’t distance yourself, I’ll pull you off.”
Sam gulped. He had to have this case. It was personal, although O’Mara expressed legitimate concern. It didn’t matter. Personal made it an obligation. “No problems. I can be objective.”
O’Mara grunted and shot him a wary look dripping with doubt. “I’m gonna hold you to that promise. I’ll be watching. Keep that in mind.”
The chair springs creaked, and Sam thought for one second it might collapse from the strain.
“You know anything about blue diamonds?”
“Nope. What’s to know? Diamonds are diamonds, aren’t they?” Sam asked. How the heck would he know about expensive gems? Detectives weren’t in the market for diamonds unless they were dumb enough to get engaged, and Sam wasn’t that stupid. He didn’t want or need commitments. Dates, some great sex, a few laughs with a woman who felt the same way suited him fine. No relatives, pets, or anyone else making demands on his time and attention. Not even a goldfish that he’d probably forget to feed.
O’Mara dug through stacks of files on the desk and shoved another one toward Sam. “Have a read. You better understand what this is about.”
Sam grabbed the documents and leafed through all the notes, while O’Mara swiveled the chair and dialed the combination on the safe behind the desk. Sam thumbed through the file containing general notes, reference clippings, and notations in Chris’ familiar scrawl.
Blue diamonds. The rarest, colored gems were worth a fortune. Familiar names that detailed the history of the stones never meant much until they appeared in the file. The Transvaal Blue. The Hope Diamond and its legendary curse after the gem was stolen from an idol in India. It sounded like an Indiana Jones movie. Sam read on and sat up when he got to the part about bad luck. Misfortune didn’t limit itself to the diamond’s owner. Anyone who touched it would die.
Sam couldn’t help but wonder if there was a connection between the legend and his partner’s death, as silly as it seemed.
Nah. Superstition. Nothing to do with bad luck. This wasn’t the Hope Diamond and solving this case had nothing to do with hocus-pocus superstition and everything to do with patient, old-fashioned detective work. Methodical, meticulous, and careful planning. That was the key, and nothing would stop him.
Sam gazed at O’Mara who cupped a black velvet pouch in his beefy palm.
“I get it. They’re big time money. How come? I don’t know much about gems, but aren’t sapphires blue?”
O’Mara pursed his lips. “Yeah, but it’s not only the color. They don’t have the same sparkle as the diamonds, and they aren’t as hard. Take a look, and be careful. That stone is worth a quarter million.”
O’Mara opened the pouch. A tiny pale blue stone nestled against the black velvet. Rainbow light sparkled on the wall as O’Mara shifted the gem against the delicate material. With infinite delicacy, he returned the diamond to the pouch and locked it in the safe.
“That’s nothing compared to the stolen diamonds. This one is light blue. The stolen ones were darker, kind of peacock blue and worth a lot more.”
Worth more. This pebble-sized stone cost a quarter of a million dollars. This case was a big time heist, but as far as it concerned Sam, the diamonds meant nothing. Anyone with big bucks could buy another one. In all likelihood, with an insurance payout. The real price was Chris who couldn’t be replaced.
“Kendall, you listening?”
Sam straightened in the chair, knowing this case demanded full attention. From his perspective only one objective mattered, and it didn’t have much to do with the diamonds. That was a side issue. Sam was going to get the killer. If that meant solving the theft as well, fine.
Aware that O’Mara would yank him off the case if he could read his mind, Sam didn’t mention his priorities.
“Harry Werner is socially prominent, and by coincidence, Chris said he was at all the parties where a robbery took place.”
O’Mara glared at Sam. “I don’t buy coincidence, never did. This is a delicate situation so you better be discreet, and don’t do anything stupid. He’s pals with the mayor and lots of politicians.
One dumb thing, and you’re screwed, and that means I’m screwed, you got that?”
Sam swallowed hard. He got it, loud and clear. He didn’t know much about Harry Werner. The guy’s name made regular appearances in the society columns in the paper, not that Sam bothered with that section of the paper much. Most of the time, he turned straight to the sports section. What interest could a cop have in society parties?
Several newspaper clippings with Werner’s photo were included in the research compiled by Chris in the file. The guy was a dapper gent, dressed in designer suits or Abercrombie and Fitch clothes according to the type of function.
Werner attended all kinds of charity functions; debutante balls, museum fundraisers, and dog shows. It was a no brainer that Werner was a big shot. No idea where the guy had made his millions. But he was one of those society guys who looked like they never ate a hot dog, or broke a sweat on a humid day like normal people.
“Chris was working her way through a list of Werner’s regular contacts. She had big red question marks next to the name on her last entry. Jodie McBride. This dame goes to his house at least once a week. Find out what she knows, if she’s involved and how. Chris seemed to think Jodie is the courier and the link between the missing jewels and Werner because she’s a regular at his place. Turns up like clockwork, and that might help nail Werner as the thief, or maybe the fence.”
Sam skimmed the notes in the file next to the name. Jodie McBride. Employed in an all-purpose grooming parlor down in Greenwich Village.
Sam smirked. Harry Werner had an interesting hobby. Grooming parlor. Sam knew what that meant, a nice euphemism for a massage parlor and “adult services.” A pretentious society guy would never turn up at a joint like that. Harry Werner’s dough could buy home visits. Nice and private, no photographers around to catch him at a dive that was a far cry from high society functions and not like that jerk from the IMF caught with pants down with a maid at a ritzy hotel. No wonder the McBride woman visited Harry on a regular basis.
Jodie McBride. Sam already formed a mental picture of the slut. A bimbo who was mixed up with Harry Werner. Blond with a cover girl body, decked out in a mini-skirt, that barely covered an enticing backside, with an assortment of adult toys to please her clients. Oh yeah, he’d check out Jodie McBride and nail the floozy.
“I’m on it,” Sam said and rose from the wobbly chair.
“Not so fast,” O’Mara said. “You don’t handle this alone. You’re getting a new partner.”
Sam groaned. A new partner? Not this soon. The funeral was only last week.
“So soon?” Sam plopped back on the chair. He willed himself to remain detached, but a huge lump formed in his throat.
“You know how it works, and no, you can’t work this case alone. Take it or leave it.”
In the back of his mind, Sam knew there’d be a new partner assigned. It was standard practice on the police force, but this soon? His heart balked at the thought, and a trickle of sweat dripped down his back. Nobody could replace Chris, the world’s best partner. Street smart. Wicked sense of humor. A Yankees fan. He recalled her first words of introduction almost four years ago.
“Get one thing straight, Kendall. I’m married, and I don’t mess around.”
Chris, her husband Paul, and their two kids were the closest thing to real family Sam ever knew.
“You listening, Kendall?”
Sam forced himself to sit up and pay attention. “Yeah. New partner.”
He silently plea-bargained with the Almighty. Please, not a rookie. Please again. Not another woman. It would be too tempting to compare another woman to Chris and find fault.
O’Mara pressed a buzzer on the desk. “Estelle, lay off those doughnuts, and bring him in now.”
Sam exhaled in relief. A guy. Good. They could talk football and baseball. If the new partner was single, maybe they’d double date, or have a beer together after work. Tension seeped out of his shoulders. This would work out. It would be fine.
The door slammed against a file cabinet with an almighty crash. The glass window that opened onto the station room cracked down the middle from the impact.
“Hey! Get over here!”
A giant cotton ball streaked past Sam. Estelle, the chief’s secretary, chased after a beast with a tail that resembled an oversize Q-tip. Estelle skidded to a halt and teetered on purple spike heels before hitting the floor. Cotton-ball jumped at O’Mara and knocked over the coffee mug. Brown liquid overflowed the desk of papers, stained them, and dripped onto the floor.
The animal padded around the desk and sniffed Sam’s crotch. Before Sam could swat the pest away, it jumped up and slurped its pink tongue all over his face.
“Argh. Get down!” Sam batted at the animal. If there was one thing he hated, it was dogs. If you could call this thing a dog. Sam’s nose twitched at the yeasty scent of baked goods.
“That pig ate a whole box of doughnuts,” Estelle complained. “And I broke a nail trying to stop him.” Violet painted fingers waggled in O’Mara’s face. The boss grimaced and addressed the dog in a gruff tone.
“Down, Vanilla.”
The dog wagged its pom-pom tail at O’Mara.
“I said, sit!”
The tail beat like a metronome.
“Real obedient,” Sam mumbled.
O’Mara made a sour face. “That’ll be all, Estelle.”
“Is that so?” Estelle boosted up on one knee, braced herself on the desk, and stood with hands on generous hips encased in purple lycra. “Who’s gonna clean that puddle next to my desk?”
“I said that’s all for now.” The chief’s curt tone made it clear he was in no mood to discuss any gifts Vanilla deposited to replace the stolen pastry.
Sam’s head angled toward the door. “Where’s my partner?”
O’Mara beamed. “Meet Vanilla. He’s your new partner.”
Sam’s jaw dropped. “This is a joke, right?”
O’Mara shook his head but avoided Sam’s eyes. “Top class credentials. You need him for your undercover persona.”
Vanilla’s head followed the exchange like a tennis match. Without warning, the poodle shot out the door.
“Better go catch your partner. See? He’s raring to go.”
With that, O’Mara picked up a file and turned his back on Sam.
Shouts echoed into the office from the outer room.
“Hey! That dog just grabbed my pastrami on rye!”
Sam mentally counted to ten. This couldn’t be happening.
“Who owns this mutt? He scarfed down the pizza!”
Sam shot a glance at his boss. No response to the beast gorging his way through the Petty Crimes, Homicide, and Assault Departments.
Sam gazed skyward. “Chris, I hope you’re watching. If you are, you’re wetting your pants with laughter.”
* * * *
Human beings were not meant to juggle pet kennels, boxes of grooming paraphernalia, and two Hungarian Pulis. Famous for their coats, the purebred dogs’ fur formed dreadlocks, not unlike Bob Marley’s. A groomer’s nightmare. Jodie struggled to unlock the back door of The Whole Kit and Capoodle.
She patted a pocket for the keys, while the ringing phone inside notched her frustration higher by the second. One of the Pulis lunged forward, and Jodie lost her grip on the leashes. Everything crashed to the pavement as a string of curses escaped her mouth.
“Where is that lazy Francine?” Exasperated with the shop assistant, Jodie unlocked the door, dumped, kicked, and dragged the port-a-pet crate inside. Metal clippers and scissors clattered to
the floor with a resounding bang, and the dogs started to howl.
“Quiet! I’ll get another visit from the police about the barking,” she said, holding a finger to her lips and trying to maintain a stern expression.
The hyper dogs ran around in circles until Jodie was hopelessly ensnared by the leashes cutting into her shins. Jodie hit the floor as each dog pulled in opposite directions. She bounced off a display basket of squeaky canine toys that set off another dog concert.
The answering machine clicked on, and Jodie strained to catch the message.
“Hi Jo. This is Francine. I’m going to be a little late for work.”
“Hmph. What else is new?”
All Francine had to do was open the shop in the morning, wait on the few customers that wandered in until Jodie arrived, and answer phone calls. Francine had a different set of priorities starting with filing her nails and progressing to making dates on the phone. The message blabbered on, and Jodie’s heart sunk.
“Very late. Remember Dean? The guy I met at the Happy Hour?”
Francine made a career out of meeting losers at Happy Hours. At least she had a social life with other humans.
“Guess what? We eloped to Vegas. Isn’t that romantic? As soon as we get back in a few weeks, we’ll work on you. There must be some guy out there for you.”
Wasn’t this perfect timing? Jodie had to mate the two Pulis today, or she’d lose the fee and be forced to wait another six months until the female would be in season again. Now there was nobody to mind the shop, a list of grooming appointments from here to eternity, and Francine’s pointed dig at her non-existent social life. Could things get worse?
* * * *
“Shut up! For God’s sake, shut up!” Sam snapped at Vanilla who was strapped into a doggie seat belt on the passenger side of the car. Sam gritted his teeth, unable to control a temper rising with the day’s humidity. Despite all the protests he could muster, O’Mara insisted the dog was part of the undercover persona. It didn’t make any sense. Why did he have to drag around a giant poodle? It made him look like a wimp.
“Can’t I at least have a guy kind of dog? A boxer. A German Shepherd.”
O’Mara maintained a steadfast claim that the poodle had top class credentials for police work. Instead of talking batting averages with a new partner, Sam was stuck listening to Vanilla
howl along with Garth Brooks on the car radio. Both were interested in calling Baton Rouge.
“That’s it. No more. I can’t stand anymore.” Sam steered the car into a drive-through. Maybe a greasy burger would settle his stomach which felt more knotted than a Boy Scout merit badge.
The car advanced in the line to a pimpled attendant, and Sam shouted into the microphone.
“One burger, one cola, and a large fries.”
Sam ignored Vanilla’s yips and turned his back on the animal to focus attention on the attendant.
Yip. Howl. Bark.
Sam shifted in the seat and narrowed his eyes. Patience was hitting at an all-time low. “What now? I’ve already stopped for you to visit every fire hydrant in town.” The howling revved up in volume as Sam snatched the bag with the order. Jet black eyes gazed up with pure longing, and the pink tongue drooled saliva.
He sighed. “Okay, but shut up. That’s the deal, take it or leave it.”
Sam had to be losing his mind. There couldn’t be any other explanation because he was talking to a dog as if the pooch understood. Sam turned back to the attendant who didn’t bother to hide a smirk.
“One kiddie meal.”
“Want the toy that goes with it, too?” the kid asked with a glance at the dog.
Sam glared. Metal braces gleamed as the kid grinned but handed Sam another bag along with the drink. Vanilla whimpered in anticipation. Razor sharp teeth tore through the paper as the poodle wolfed down the burger and fries, faster than Sam could get the car in gear. Yearning black eyes gazed at Sam’s bag with an expression that made it clear, what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is also mine.
Vanilla growled to emphasize the point, but Sam refused to be swayed. “No way.”
He bit into the burger, but Vanilla was too fast and managed to snag the bag of fries. Sam cursed under his breath. What a day, and they still needed to find Jodie McBride. Sam guzzled the drink and drove off, punching the radio button again, hoping Vanilla wouldn’t decide to sing two part harmony.
Faith Hill’s voice blasted through the car as Vanilla picked up the tune and yipped along. Sam turned off the radio and glared at the dog who stared back.
“Why me?” Sam halted for a red light and like an urban Tevye, rolled his eyes upward waiting for the answer that never came. Maybe this was the curse of the blue diamonds. He was being punished for any number of reasons, and Vanilla was the retribution. At least the dog was going right back to O’Mara as soon as he checked out the McBride woman. One day with this dog was enough for a lifetime. The sooner they tracked down the slut, the better, because the dog had to go.
Sam parked around the corner from the address in Greenwich Village copied from the file and peeled his police decal from the windshield. No sense in alerting Jodie on the off chance the woman passed this way.
“Let’s go, Rin Tin Tin, and see some of those ace police skills.”
Sam unhooked the seat belt and clipped the leash to Vanilla’s collar. Black nose to the ground, Vanilla zigzagged down the street. The black nose twitched, and the fluffy head popped up to sniff under several women’s dresses.
“What a nerve! Get your dog off me!”
Glares and a variety of rude remarks marked their progress down the street as women sidestepped the pair. Sweat drenched Sam’s shirt by the time they reached The Whole Kit and Capoodle. Someone hadn’t won the spelling bee on that one. Shades were drawn on the front door and windows. That figured. This was a nice neighborhood, not the Red Light District. He peered at a handwritten sign out front that listed services.
Grooming, training, and obedience.
Jodie was one tough babe. Cute euphemistic words for sex and massage. Obedience. Hah. She probably got herself decked out in a military uniform, cap, and jackboots with a whip in her hands for panting, pathetic men who were into bondage. Sam couldn’t wait to bust the slut.
He sidled past rubbish bins and a Dumpster in the alley beside the shop and edged along the wall, listening for any overt noise. At last, Sam reached the back door and flattened himself against the wood. Vanilla imitated his posture and whimpered.
“Yep, there’s something’s going on,” Sam mumbled.
Sam gripped the leash of the dopey dog in his left hand and shoved the door with his right shoulder. Good. Not that it required any big effort since the door was unlocked.
His right hand poised to grab the pistol from the shoulder harness hidden by his jacket. He advanced in the dim light past a heap of stacked cartons toward the sound of grunts and pants. If his hunch was right, he’d catch the slut right in the act and bust her for prostitution. When they hauled her into the station, she’d spill the dope on Harry Werner to cut a bargain. Sam couldn’t suppress a grin because this was going to be a piece of cake. And not a piece that the dumb poodle would snatch and grab.
He beckoned with a finger to Vanilla who nodded back as if he understood which was ridiculous. They halted in front of a curtained entry.
“That’s it, don’t be shy. It’s going to be so much fun.” The low urgings of a throaty woman’s voice lit a fuse on slow burn inside Sam’s gut. He flushed in embarrassment while eavesdropping on Jodie and her current client.
“You big stud, you really have what it takes.”
Sam inched closer. It would be a little embarrassing to burst in on the naked bimbo and the client of the hour but tough luck. Besides, they were the ones who should be mortified. It was part of his job, and he couldn’t resist confronting the amorous couple when they least expected it.
“You’re so big and hard. Hold still, and I’ll help you get it in.”
Geez. What a performance. Jodie laid it on as thick as a triple cheese pizza. Sam’s mouth tightened in a grimace. He debated if he should bust in on the couple right away, or hold off until they were in the middle of the Horizontal Hora, which should be in about ten seconds, from the sounds of things, but Vanilla had other ideas in mind.
The dog strained at the leash, lunged, and tugged Sam forward. Vanilla cannonballed past the curtains so that Sam lurched against the stacks of boxes, which in turn tumbled to the floor. He skidded and then crash-landed on top of one furious redhead and two barking mops.

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All Romance eBooks

by Larion Wills

MuseItUp Publishing

eBook ISBN: 978-1-927361-75-7

Safe from one trap, caught in another, Callie and Ward must work together to survive the final.

Chapter One

Summer, 1973
“If I ever get my hands on him, I’ll wring his neck!”
The man talking was tall at six feet, four inches, eyes black with anger and nearly black hair, so furious he resembled Satan himself. He had width to stretch the green of his Park Ranger uniform tight across his chest. Strength with anger made the smaller man he spoke to cringe from the force of his words.
Jeff Blancher’s pulling back, almost cowering, made Ward Overland even angrier. He had no intentions of attacking a co-worker, and Blancher should know he was not the one Ward was angry with. He pointed his finger at Blancher, ready to tell him how men like him who never stood up for what they believed in were the reason the Olson’s of the world got away with breaking the law. The ringing of the phone saved Blancher a lecture.
Ward snatched the offending instrument up and answered in a growl. “Station three. Overland here.”
“Ward Overland?”
“Yes. What do you want?”
There was a slight pause, understandable considering the bluntness of the question. “This is Brad Tillison from Evans Publishing. I have your book in front of me.”
Ward arched one eyebrow, cast a look of total irritation at Blancher, and waved him out of his office. Having not talked about the book he’d written if he was going to be humiliated, he wanted privacy. “Do you usually call to tell people that?” he asked as the door closed.
“No,” Tillison answered with an easy laugh, “but I’m impressed with what you’ve done.”
“Then buy it,” Ward said.
“There is a problem. The text is very good. Unfortunately, I can’t use the photos.”
“It isn’t any good without them.”
“Exactly, which is why I called. They need to be retaken by a professional.”
“And with a minimal fee, you can provide one?”
Some of the light heartedness left Tillison’s voice. “It wouldn’t be minimal, and all I can do is suggest a few photographers.”
“And why would their pictures be better than mine?”
“Because of a better camera. The shots you took, though excellent in content, are not of a high enough quality for reproduction.”
“Wait a minute. Are you on the level?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Level, mister. You aren’t the only one I submitted to. I’ve heard we like it, but it needed work for a nominal editing fee.”
“Oh,” Tillison said with a chuckle. “I wondered why you were so hostile. I’m glad you didn’t fall for one of those come-ons. They’d have taken your money and given you little, if anything.”
“I didn’t because I couldn’t afford it, any more than I can some fancy photographer,” Ward told him bluntly.
“Ahhh,” Tillison drawled. “I see the problem.”
“Yeah, I’ll start saving,” Ward said bitterly. “Just pack it up and send it back. We can’t do business together.”
“We may be able to. We may be able to find a photographer willing to work on speculation, for a percentage of your advance and royalties.”
“Would they?”
“I know one who might, and in Oregon, not too far from you there in Washington. If it’s agreeable with you, I’ll call Cal, and see what we can work out.”
Ward was not at all sure the man wasn’t trying to take him to the cleaners. He couldn’t see any tricks, though, not yet. “Sure. Go ahead. I can always say no later.”
* * * *
An hour later Ward was as puzzled and wary when Tillison called back.
“Cal agreed. Cal Bennett, one of the best wildlife photographers in the business. Name a time and place when it would be convenient for you to be a guide.”
“What did Cal agree to?”
Tillison laughed softly. “I guess you would be interested in the details. I made you a pretty good deal. A thousand of the advance, ten percent of the royalties, and you pay the expenses.”
“What kind of expenses?”
“Transportation there and back from Oregon, film, developing, and meals while Cal’s there. I’ll deduct it from the advance and release the money as soon as the photos are here.”
Ward could visualize the advance disappearing before he ever saw it. He could also see, he thought, the trick. “And anything over the advance, I’m stuck for?”
“A thousand, and the expenses shouldn’t be more than a couple hundred more, leaving a little under four thousand.”
Tillison misunderstood Ward’s exclamation of surprise. “It’s a first book. When you become more established and publishing isn’t such a gamble, the advance will be more. With a first book, the sales may not even cover the expenses. It’s a gamble for me, and though I’m willing to make it, I can’t justify a larger advance.”
“If it’s such a big gamble, why would you put out so much?”
“I have faith in my judgment. Is it a deal or not?”
“It is until I can see a catch in it somewhere. I’ve got three days off two weeks from now. Can your friend make it up then?”
Tillison chuckled again. “Yes, and to make you feel easier, I’ll see to getting a written contract to you before starting.”
“You sound like you’ve got faith in Bennett, too.”
“I do. Now, when and where?”
“When’s easy, the fifth. Where is forty miles into nowhere and turn left to the top of the world.”
“Sounds isolated.”
“It is. Is that going to bother Bennett?”
“Not in the slightest. Where does nowhere begin?”

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Painted Jezebel
A Jezebel Jinx Mystery, Book 1
by Jolie Pethtel

MuseItUp Publishing

eBook ISBN: 978-1-927085-68-4

Jezebel battles her worst fears at a writing conference where love tangles, bitter rivalry and murder stalk the bestseller lists.

Chapter One

Pinetop, Arizona
July 17
“Are you positive you aren’t a stripper?”
It wasn’t every day Jezebel found a hottie gift wrapped on her doorstep. Sad to say, her only visitor under fifty was the pizza delivery boy staying with his retired grandmother for the summer. Naturally she came to the most obvious conclusion—strip-o-gram.
“Your editor, Julie Grace sent me. How you can take that and deduce stripper is beyond me,” he replied.
Wow, even a highbrow snooty tone could sound appealing when spoken in a sexy Irish brogue, Jezebel mused. She’d always had a weakness for men with accents, even humorless would-be strippers.
“I’ve known Jules since we shared detention in high school. Sending a strip-o-gram to embarrass me on my birthday is exactly the sort of thing she would do. So if you aren’t a stripper, who are you?”
“I’m Finn Mackenzie, your new publicist.”
His smile came across a bit condescending, his eyebrow lifted just so, even his posture was stiff and rigid. He towered over her like an eclipse blocking out the sun. The frostbite was chilling.
“Jules sent me a publicist? In all honesty, I have to say—worst gift ever.”
It wasn’t that she wanted him to be a stripper. Sure, a little eye candy would be nice in the proper setting, but a naked stranger dancing around for her alone seemed a trifle sad and desperate. Self-imposed exile certainly had its downside. She was human, after all. She missed being around people. She missed men. A little company might be nice, but despite the sexy accent and killer bod, Mr. Uptight Publicist appeared about as entertaining as a dead fish.
“I suppose you’ve come a long way to see me?” Jezebel asked, unable to disguise her displeasure. Oh, how she wished she could slam the door in Mr. Mackenzie’s face with a clear conscience, but it wasn’t in her nature to be openly rude without provocation. Jules, however, would pay dearly for this.
“If you’re referring to the extensive flight from New York to Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, and then a four hour trek through the mountains by rental car in blistering desert heat, to reach this charmingly rustic cabin in the woods that you call a home, then yes, I’ve come a long way to see you.”
Jezebel bit her lip to keep from laughing at his rant. “Pardon me if I don’t feel too sorry for you, won’t you?” She raised an eyebrow and pointedly glanced around his broad shoulders toward the luxury rental car. “BMW? A/C and GPS? I’m sure you suffered horribly.” He paused a moment, running a hand through his hair, ruffling it slightly, before changing tactics.
“I believe we’ve gotten off on the wrong foot here, Miss Jinx. Shall we begin again? My name is Finn and it is indeed a pleasure to finally meet you.”
He offered a lopsided smile, which caused her heart to skip a beat or two—maybe three. Who was counting? She could learn to like this side of Finn Mackenzie, if he dumped the stuffy publicist routine. When he held out his hand, she accepted it with an answering grin. “Call me Jezebel.” She found his boyish charm incredibly appealing, not that she’d ever admit it out loud. The stick-in-the-mud had become a total stud, with tousled brown hair the shade of her favorite decadent dark chocolate, eyes as gorgeous as the rolling green hills of Ireland and those full, sensual lips—talk about a mouth made for sin! Could anyone blame her for mistaking him for a stripper? The man was H-O-T and it had nothing to do with the Godforsaken desert.
“May I come in?”
“Oh!” Jezebel forcibly shook off her inappropriate thoughts, her cheeks burning with embarrassment at being caught staring. She’d been alone way too long to have forgotten herself this way. Hopefully he didn’t notice the lapse. She didn’t want to appear desperate. “Come in.” Jezebel led Finn into the cabin, watching his every pause and stray glance from beneath her lashes. Where he came from, people no doubt paid decorators to tell them what to like. She designed this place herself with a western motif, lining the walls with Native American talismans from various tribes. Her little cabin in the woods would never grace a magazine cover, but she found it homey.
Mr. Mackenzie studied her décor with a curious expression. Jezebel supposed her collection of dream catchers and medicine wheels would be interesting to a non-native, but here it was commonplace. There were several Indian reservations in Arizona and they sold this stuff at every tourist trap.
“They’re supposed to provide good luck and protection.” Jezebel spoke in a casual manner, but something about her demeanor must have caught his attention.
“Is that why you live on top of a mountain, in the middle of nowhere, because you think you need protection?” He turned away from an intricately webbed dream catcher, gracing Jezebel with his undivided attention, but she kept her poker face. Her reasons for living on the mountain were her own and she had no interest in sharing them with a virtual stranger.
“Maybe the world needs protection from me.” Her lips twitched slightly. His disbelieving expression was comical. She could well imagine what he was thinking. What harm could a fine-boned five foot nothing pixie-of-a-woman do? Fortunately for Mr. Mackenzie, he wouldn’t be around long enough to find out.
“Pinetop is a peaceful place to live. Why wouldn’t I want to live here?”
“Retirees,” he scoffed. “You can’t be older than what—twenty-five? Don’t you think that’s a bit young for this lifestyle?”
“I’m twenty-seven.” As of today, she added silently. As for her lifestyle, the word implied a choice she lacked.
“Somehow, I can’t picture you playing nickel slots at the Indian casino with senior citizens.” “I can’t either. I don’t get out much.” Jezebel smiled wryly at the inside joke. In all actuality, she didn’t go out at all. She hadn’t left this cabin since the day she moved in over two years ago. “I’m hoping to change that. Is there somewhere we can talk?” Finn asked abruptly. “I’m on a pretty tight schedule.” If he wanted to keep things strictly on a business footing, that suited her just fine.
“I’m sure you’re anxious to return to the city. I’m working on a deadline myself. Have a seat.” She gestured to the Southwestern style sofa a few feet away and took up residency on the matching love seat.
Jezebel felt considerably more secure with the expanse of the coffee table between them. This was a business meeting, despite the informal setting, and she mustn’t forget that. It didn’t matter at all that he was the first man she’d been attracted to in years. She was just feeling restless. It had more to do with the time of year, than the man himself. A lot of people in the world found birthdays lonely and depressing. It would pass. Besides, she had an entire cast of characters inside her own mind to keep her company and most days that was enough.
“Now tell me why Jules sent you.”
Finn placed his leather briefcase on the table, popped the latches and removed a sheaf of papers with several areas highlighted in yellow. Highlighting was never a good sign, she thought, all warm and fuzzy feelings toward Finn rapidly fading.
“As I’ve said, I’m a publicist—your publicist. Do you know what that means?”
“Why don’t you spell it out for me?” Jezebel rolled her eyes. “I try to leave the magic to the bookmaking elves and bestseller list fairies.”
“It’s my job to give your novel exposure, which translates to sales. Voracity Publishing wants to expand your fan base.”
“I’m certain you’ll do an excellent job, but I don’t see what any of this has to do with me. I write the manuscript, do the revisions and collect the royalty checks. That pretty much sums up my involvement in the process.” She shrugged. “Most authors participate in book signings, public appearances and so forth. It’s called self-promotion.” His broad hint wasn’t lost on Jezebel.
“I’m not most authors. Surely Jules explained that to you. I value my privacy.” An understatement, if there ever was one.
“According to your contract, you’re required to make a specified number of public appearances.” He indicated those damned highlighted areas. Jezebel knew they were up to no good.
“Circumstances have changed since I signed that contract. Jules has managed to work around my limitations.”
“Nevertheless, I’ve been sent here to escort you to a book lovers’ expo, where you’ll be expected to participate in various events designed to generate publicity for your new novel,” Finn insisted.
Jezebel released her pent up breath, before pasting a polite smile on her face. Don’t shoot the messenger. Don’t shoot the messenger. Don’t shoot the messenger. She repeated this silent mantra, until able to speak calmly.
Just the thought of stepping outside made her skin crawl. She unconsciously rubbed her arms in reaction to the unpleasant, albeit familiar sensation.
“What you’re asking is impossible.”
Finn leaned forward, his tone a conspiratorial whisper, as if someone might overhear what he was about to say. “I’m fully informed about your unique—condition.”
“Jules told you about the agoraphobia?” Jezebel reeled in shock, but quickly regained her composure. “Then you are aware I don’t leave my home—ever.”
“Surely that’s an exaggeration.”
He still didn’t understand.
“Why do you think I moved to a retirement community?” She waved her hands in agitation as she spoke. “They are equipped to handle the needs of the homebound. Everything I need is delivered. I haven’t left this cabin in over two years and I’m not about to start now. I’m sorry you came all this way for nothing.”
“You know, I came here expecting to play nursemaid to some homely, shrinking violet.” Finn gathered his contracts and put them back in the briefcase, closing the latches with asnap, but didn’t rise to his feet as Jezebel expected. “You aren’t what I expected at all, but it changes nothing. I can’t afford to walk away now.”
“I think it would be best if you leave.”
“I have a lot at stake here. We leave together or not at all.” The engaging smile did not reach his eyes, which had gone all hard and flinty.
Jezebel recognized determination when she saw it. He really had no intention of leaving and she had no intention of going. A declaration of war then—so be it. Time to retreat and prepare a strategy for the upcoming battle. Jezebel filled with grim determination, smiling through gritted teeth. This should be interesting.

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by Larion Wills

MuseItUp Publishing

eBook ISBN: 978-1-927085-47-9

Despite the threat of prison or death, Chase had to know, did he have a child or had Tiffany lied again.

Loving Chase, Sydney stole the son he didn’t dare claim, but was it for him or to trap him?

Chapter One

Standing by the fence ten feet from the end of the grandstand, Chase leaned his forearms on the top rail, his guard up for any sign of recognition from the parents filling the bleachers. He shouldn’t be there. He knew what could—and most probably would—happen if the wrong person spotted him. Even at a game away from the Gibson home field he tempted fate. Sliding his gaze toward the grandstand, he tensed at an unusual color of hair, dark with the red of fire glinting in the sun. Eleven years later, he still recognized that hair and face. The muscles in his jaw flexed, and the grip of his hand tightened over the other as she made her way up the center steps, not glancing in his direction. He should leave; get out of there while he could still walk on his own two feet. Hoping, since she paid him no notice, he had more time, his attention went back to the pint-sized turf warriors preparing for battle. Identifying one ten-year-old boy wasn’t easy with their faces lost in shoulder pads and helmets.
Some of the uniforms had names on the back. None he could see or make out was the one he wanted, and he let himself get careless trying too hard to see one face that in some way might resemble his own. He didn’t see her come down the stands by the outside rail until she stepped down off the last bench. Hoping she’d walk by, he tensed again. She swung the straps of an oversized tote bag over her shoulder and, no more than two feet away from him, leaned her arms against the fence rail, mocking his position he was sure.
Without turning his head and barely moving his lips, he told her, “I’m not here to cause any trouble.”
Still mocking, or at least mimicking him, she answered the same way. “If I thought you were, I’d have called the sheriff.” With barely a breath between the last word and the next, she told him, “He’s number ten.”
Chase’s eyes immediately sought out and pinned number ten. “Thank you,” he murmured and watched the boy she’d singled out, his son, a child he’d never seen before.
Until six weeks ago he hadn’t even been positive there was a child. He hadn’t known if there was, if it was a boy or a girl. Tiffany had sworn to him she was on the pill as fervently as she had sworn she was pregnant when he tried to break up with her the last time.
His thank you to Sydney was for more than telling him which boy was his. Sydney Gibson hadn’t called the sheriff to have him beaten and/or thrown in jail. That didn’t mean she wouldn’t. At least he was able to see the child he’d sired, though he couldn’t see much for the protective gear swallowing him.
Chase wasn’t going to question Sydney’s motives. Tiffany’s younger sister had always been a little apart from the rest of the family. When it happened all those years ago, he felt she would have had some sympathy for him, even if she hadn’t spoken up for him. They had been friends in a distant kind of way, even though she’d only been a kid.
“Those are new,” she said, dragging him away from his thoughts. “When did you go western?”
For a moment Chase didn’t understand a question so far away from where his head had been. “Western?” He looked down at his feet. “Oh, the boots. A couple of years ago.”
“You’re a cowboy now?”
“Sort of,” he murmured, not caring to go into the details.
Sydney jumped subjects and stated, “She was a little bit crazy, you know.”
Having no difficulty following her, the corner of his thin lips curled slightly. “Yeah, I wasn’t too stupid to figure that out.”
“You weren’t stupid.”
Chase’s gaze shifted to look at her without turning his head, reaffirming what he saw in his first glimpse. Sydney had grown from a skinny fifteen-year-old into an attractive young woman at what he’d guess was five feet-five, or maybe six, inches. Simple and uncomplicated described her best. Tailored shirt, long sleeves rolled to just below her elbows, slim form-fitting jeans, hair still an amazing color of burned copper pulled back in a pony tail that hung past her shoulders. She still didn’t use any of the dazzle in clothes or makeup her sister always had, and to Chase’s eyes, she was all the more attractive for it then, as she had been years before.
“You haven’t asked about Tiffany,” she commented.
“Because I don’t care.” His gaze shifted back to the field where the boys lined up for the first play. “What’s he like?”
“Bright and intelligent, ornery as hell at times. He can be the sweetest, most affectionate child in the world. Other times you want to lock him in his bedroom. Normal. He has your looks, especially his eyes.”
“That must have really pleased the Gibsons,” he said bitterly.
“Yeah, well, I’ll give Tiffany some credit. She wouldn’t let them make her abort him or put him up for adoption, even if her reasons were all wrong. I still can’t believe she was such a stupid bitch.”
With a slight duck of his head, Chase’s lips quirked as he fought off a smile, remembering another incident from the past. “Still go for the jugular?”
Sydney shifted weight slightly. “You deserved it,” she said defensively.
“I did,” he agreed, seeing the scene in his mind’s eye. The last time he’d said those words to her they’d been in high school when she tore into him in front of a group of boys. Sydney had always seemed to float around the edge of things back then, never joining in. Once she contributed her opinion, though, it was no holds barred. “Doesn’t mean I enjoyed having my skin frayed off me in public.”
“You wouldn’t have enjoyed it in private, either.”
“Can’t say I would have,” he admitted. “As I recall stupid was the mildest thing you called me.”
After a slight pause, she said, “You weren’t stupid. That was a bad choice of words. Tif told me later she’d lied to you. You weren’t around for me to apologize.”
The muscle in Chase’s jaw jerked. No, he hadn’t been around. He’d been hauled into jail, beaten, and ran out of town. “I wasn’t sure she hadn’t lied about being pregnant. Once I knew there was a ten-year-old Kevin Gibson, I had to come see for myself.”
“One thing she said that wasn’t a lie—or who the father is. Did they do that?” she asked without warning, flipping her hand toward his.
Chase forced himself to relax his clasped hands and stop pressing at the scars on the back of his left. Yeah, they’d marked him, though he didn’t say so. He didn’t mind the scars as far as having scars went. The hate it represented was what he’d never gotten over.
“I knew they’d done something,” she said quietly. “Never what exactly. It wouldn’t do any good to say I’m sorry, I suppose.”
“None of it was your fault, but nice to hear someone is. Is that why you haven’t called the sheriff?” He straightened with a new thought. She could have lied to him and be stalling him. “Or should I leave while I still have the chance?”
Sydney twisted to look straight at him for the first time. He was caught by those eyes, still the greenest he had ever seen, and braced himself. Knowing her capacity to let someone who displeased her have it with both barrels, what he expected didn’t come. Her head jerked back around, and she jumped, leaned over the fence, and shouted. Number ten had the ball, running for a touchdown. The “go, go,” she yelled in encouragement changed to a “yahoo” and fists raised in the air in triumph. Clapping wildly, she dropped her bag and took off running down the fence line toward the end zone. While she waved both fists in the air, Chase watched both his son and Sydney, while he took deep breaths to fight the swelling in his chest.
Tiffany was self-centered, selfish, and a lying bitch. Her father was a self-righteous, sanctimonious tyrant. Sydney was blunt and candid to the point she was often abrasive, but when the boy turned, saw Sydney, and grinned, Chase had no doubts those two loved each other.
Chase had to smile, watching the ten-year-old swagger to the sideline as the conversion team ran out. That was his son though he’d never be able to tell him, never be able to be any closer to him than he was, standing at the fence. Feeling like a band tightened around his chest, he watched Kevin taking congratulations from his team members. He couldn’t take his eyes off the child even as Sydney walked back to him.
“He’s like you in a lot of ways,” Sydney said softly and bent down to pick up her bag.
“I’m…” He had to clear the lump out of his throat and start again. “I’m not sure if that was a compliment. I’m sorry I asked—”
He broke off when Sydney spun to face him squarely, one hand on her hip, the other holding the bag straps to her shoulder. Chase didn’t miss that even then she watched the game out of the corner of her eye. “You got plenty of reason to hate my family after the way they framed you. Just don’t you ever paint me with the same brush again.”
“At least you admit it was a frame.”
No one else had. If he hadn’t been put on a bus out of town, he’d have ended up in prison. Taking the bus had been his choice: take the beating, keep his mouth shut about who did it, and get out of town. Having lived through it, knowing what they were capable of, there was something he had to ask, dreading the answer.
“How do they treat him?”
“Your father and Tiffany. Do they treat him decent or like dirt the way they treated me?”
“You don’t keep up on our current—No! Get him!”
Chase was hard put not to yell, clap, and wave his hands in the air the way Sydney did. Number ten, his son, chased after the ball carrier, made the tackle, and jumped right back to his feet, ready for more. “He’s tough.”
“Like his daddy.”
The last word did something funny to his insides. Chase blew out a breath and shook his head as he straightened. “I’ll never be able to be his daddy. Your father will see to it.” He backed a step away from the fence. “If they can’t railroad me on the old charges, he’ll think of something new. I won’t put him through that.”
The way she looked at him brought back memories of her way of looking straight into his eyes and maybe straight into his head. From the first time he met her as a thirteen-year-old, he always wondered what she saw and thought. Sydney could be one intense person, and to throw him off balance, she could switch it on and off.
With a slight shrug, she turned back to the fence, telling him, “We’re going to have lunch at McDonald’s out on the highway if you want a closer look at him.”
God yes, he wanted a closer look. He wanted to talk to him, tell him he was his father, and hold him in his arms. He shook his head. “That would be pushing my luck, I think.”
Sydney twisted her head to look up at him before she shrugged again and said, “Your choice, just like leaving now instead of watching him play.”
Chase thought he knew the meaning of the look then. She thought he was a coward. “If I stay, someone else might recognize me. It could cause him problems,” he told her.
Walking away, Chase lingered in spots on his way down the fence, stopping to watch another tackle, another run with the ball. He was taking a reckless chance, but it was probably the only time he’d ever get to see his son play football, to see his son at all.

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