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The Mating Game by Melissa Snark

The Mating Game

by Melissa Snark

Wild Rose Press

Ebook ISBN: B00L4OEW4Q
Print ISBN: 978-1628303780

Two males…two friends…a competition for the right to claim The Heart of the Iron Stone Pack.

An alpha female at her core, Theresa Sanchez struggles to protect her young daughter, but rivalries and politics create volatility in the pack. As Theresa comes into heat, lust and need rule her body. Her pack demands only the most virile male have her. How can she choose only one mate when her body craves two—the virile beta and the man she loves?

Zachary Hunter will do anything to take Theresa as his mate, even if it means killing his best friend. However, Robert Blane is just as determined to ascend to Alpha. Both their beasts howl to mark her flesh, but only one can survive to claim her.

But with enemies circling, they must fight…for the pack, for Theresa, and for a future together.

Warning: Book contains wolf shifters, pack politics, gritty fight scenes, offbeat humor, and sizzling sexual adventures between a ménage of partners.

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The Rescued Heart by Madeleine McDonald

The Rescued Heart

by Madeleine McDonald

The Wild Rose Press

eBook ISBN: 9781612177483
Print ISBN: 9781612179476

A prim widow finds an unexpected escape from grief when she meets a youthful Swiss artist on a business trip to the Basel art fair in Switzerland. When he pursues her to her native Scotland, she must decide whether she trusts him enough to gamble on the future.

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Clear As Day by Babette James

Clear As Day

by Babette James

The Wild Rose Press

eBook ISBN: Unknown
Print ISBN: 978-1-61217-035-0

What’s a girl to do when her summer lover wants forever? Haunted by her past, Kay Browning locks her heart away, content with her comfortable annual affair with easygoing Nate Quinn. The only trouble with her plan? This summer Nate’s come home to claim the lover he can’t let go.

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Love's Debt by Rachel Brimble

Love’s Debt
by Rachel Brimble

The Wild Rose Press

eBook ISBN: 978-1-61217-412-9

To keep herself from the depths of poverty, Milly Shepherd fights for the job as manager of The Red Lion tavern – Joseph Jacobs needs the job to save his father from debtor’s prison. As they work together, their attraction grows and their goals cross. But who will be the victor?

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Celestial Sin
by Bianca Swan

The Wild Rose Press

eBook ISBN: None Given

Sinfully handsome Cam-ael, an angel, is wounded in the second war between heaven and hell and plummets into the arms of a beautiful human. But Cam knows he must return eventually, no matter how much he likes the material pleasures of earth. Not to mention the sensual pleasure he’s found with Essie.

Chapter One

Like a Christmas goose full of buckshot, the creature came hurtling straight out of the sky and crashed right in front of her.
Essie McBane dropped the basket of eggs she’d collected from the hen house and stood stunned, staring at the bloody heap of feathers. “What in the world?”
Behind her, Marcus launched his usual protective barking.
“You hush now,” she ordered the terrier, leaning nearer to peer at the being crumpled on the ground a few feet away.
Already blood soaked the rocky ground. Little spatters trickled off the toes of her shoes mixing with the mess of broken egg shells, yolks and whites dripping from the basket.
“If it ain’t dead, Marcus, it’s going to bleed to death pretty quick.”
Yet she didn’t move. Neither did the body. Of course that fall would kill anything.
Horrified, she watched blood ooze from beneath one huge wing, pebbles and twigs tangled in the feathers. Strange, she didn’t smell the flat, irony scent of blood. The other wing hid most of the body except for a pair of long, naked legs and one muscled forearm with a jagged slash from wrist to elbow. A crusty wound the size of a quarter marred one of those fine calves.
It’s an angel!
Though she hadn’t seen the inside of a church in years, Essie McBane believed in angels. She just didn’t expect to have one thump down in the chicken yard.
Marcus barked, minced a step and retreated, whining. Pulse racing, Essie stared at the angel. A moan leaked from beneath the luminescent wing. The muscled legs twitched. She swallowed hard, biting her lip. The bloody wing stirred, the other unfurling to reveal more than naked legs.
Oh my, the boy isn’t wearing underwear.
His body was exquisite—broad chest, flat stomach, big equipment sculpted perfect. But then the sculptor had been the Creator himself.
Blood stained the hair at his temple, dying the chestnut curls muddy black. His eyes rolled open, and they were the color of a mountain sunset. Essie’s breath caught in her throat. Her heart clunked past a beat. She felt rude staring, but couldn’t, for the life of her, tear her gaze from those amazing eyes. Wings spread behind him, he struggled to a sitting position, ran his hand over the gash on his forehead. His fingers came away bloody.
She made some soft, senseless sound, and he focused on her, squinting as if he couldn’t quite see her.
“Are you okay?” Stupid question.
Flaring his wings, he levered to his feet. Dirt and blood stained his face. He was ghastly pale. Unable to move or to speak, Essie gaped at the most perfect being she’d ever seen. He looked like a warrior angel from the Bible, his armor resembling an ancient Roman soldier’s. Gore smeared the brown leather breastplate studded with gold. Feeble light escaped a cut across his stomach. The bluish-white glow curled like smoke in the autumn air and evaporated like mist.
A shiver crawled down her spine. Did angels bleed light?
He wobbled, one hand groping blindly. With a moan, he dropped to his knees, clutching his abdomen, head bowed in pain.
Marcus yelped and darted through the doggy door into the house. Essie rushed to the angel’s side, knelt and started to put her arms around him but thought better of it.
Is it dangerous to touch an angel? Could something that beautiful be deadly to a mortal? After all, it—he—was a holy creature, wasn’t he?
She forced herself to sound decisive though the delicious scent of him made her dizzy. “I’ll get a doctor.”
He lifted his face, shook his head. “The Fallen’s sword must not have been black iron or I would have been destroyed. I’ll heal. Will you give me a place to rest?”
Now she knew what a musical voice sounded like, and she trembled at the beauty.
Fear seized her by the throat, shaking her voice. “You were in a battle? In Heaven?”
He went rigid, his feathers rustling as his wings arched behind him. His breathtaking smile flat-lined. “A terrible battle. Later, Essie, I shall tell you what has happened. Now, if you will be so kind, give me shelter to heal.
Thoughts whirled in her mind, stuck on two strange words. “Black iron?”
He’d been gazing into the distance. When his eyes captured hers, she forgot to breathe.
“Black iron is the only substance that will destroy an angel,” he said in that voice she could listen to until doomsday. It flowed over her like water in a brook…a soft breeze on a hot summer day…flower petals falling on her skin.
“Oh.” Still uncertain, she folded her hands beneath her chin to keep from touching him. God knew she wanted to brush that russet curl back from his cheek.
He frowned, looking bewildered, and her heart ached for him. “Where am I?”
“On Earth.”
The angel’s beautiful lips parted on a smile. Something awoke deep inside—something she shouldn’t feel for a divine being, something she hadn’t felt in years. Talk about chemistry! Her nipples tingled. Desire strummed every nerve. But what she felt was more than lust—a deeper attraction. The last time she’d felt this way, she’d taken her one and only trip to the altar.
What am I doing but courting disappointment? Angels are above carnal longings. I should be ashamed for even thinking such things.
“I know I’m on Earth.” He swiped a hand back over his chestnut curls. “Where?”
“North Carolina. Just outside Asheville.”
She tried to peel her gaze from his but failed. Even wounded, he radiated power and strength. Sucking in a quick breath, he squeezed his eyes shut, weaving side-to-side. She had to risk touching him. Any minute he was going to fall. With a hand to his elbow, she steadied him.
The thrill that chased from her hand straight to her core was off the Richter scale. “I’m sorry. Here I am talking to you like we were at Sunday dinner when you need help. Can you walk?”
He nodded. A fresh morning breeze ruffled the white feathers. Sunlight shimmered on his hair. And those eyes! She felt as if he were looking right through her and would know how much she wanted for him to touch her. As her willful eyes wandered from his face, to his chest and lower, she pictured his perfect weapon for love making. Damn what was she thinking? He whispered a laugh, snapping her gaze to his face. A hot blush crept up her neck. Embarrassed to the roots of her hair, she extended her hand to him.
He shook his head. “I can manage.”
Essie rose, hovering, ready to help. The angel braced one hand on the ground and clamored to his feet. He staggered against her and murmured an apology. His ivory skin had a waxen sheen, looked stretched too tight over the beautiful bone structure, but the bleeding appeared to have stopped. She was startled to see that the thin line of light had disappeared though the cut in his leather armor was still there.
“The light was my essence seeping away,” he answered her thoughts. “I thought I was going to cease to exist.”
When he wavered on his feet, she slipped an arm around his slender waist. “Lean on me.”
He cocked his head as a hen pock-pocked, laying an egg. “What was that?”
“A chicken.”
He’d never heard a chicken before?
Under the arch of a wing, she guided him to the log cabin she’d inherited from her uncle. By the time they reached the house, staggered up the two steps and into the living room, her heavenly visitor was shivering hard. Essie helped him to perch on a barstool, navigated around the wings spilled over the floor to grab a throw from the sofa. In the year she’d lived in the cabin, she hadn’t made many changes, and the room still reflected her uncle’s presence, decidedly masculine, the furniture and paintings Southwestern.
Wings definitely made it hard to get close to somebody. Awkwardly, she wrapped the angel in the pink-and-brown throw, tucking it around his shoulders. “I’m going to make a fire. Could you lie on the bed if you lay on your side?”
“Yes.” He examined the texture of his makeshift blanket between forefinger and thumb. “If the room is big enough.”
Never heard a chicken. Had he never felt wool before?
He closed his eyes, rubbed a hand over the bruised-looking lids. The angel smelled of leather and some indefinable, delectable fragrance that must be his own. Even with her eyes shut, she could have identified his scent.
She gripped his shoulders—broad shoulders as masculine as the room—and another electric shiver leapt through her. “You need a doctor.”
“Essie, please, I’d rather my presence be our secret.” He lifted his hand, his fingers soiled and bloody. “If I rest, I’ll soon heal without the aid of a physician.”
It took a moment for her to realize that it was the second time he’d called her name. She had to force the question up her dry throat. “How did you know my name? I didn’t tell you—”
He pressed a finger to the dip in her upper lip. “You are Essie McBane. Thirty-nine years old. Divorced. No children. You regret not having children.”
Her lips moved against the silken pressure of his finger. “So you can read my mind.”
“I can but I won’t.” He gave a weak smile then his eyes glazed.
Propping his elbows on the bar, he buried his face in his hands. Damn why do I keep forgetting how injured he is? Because his voice was strong didn’t mean he was. Her stomach clenched at the stark contrast of red blood on white feathers. He looked like death on a barstool.
“I’m going to clean you up now.” She could no longer resist. With a fingertip, she brushed one of his silken feathers. “Then rest. Will you be all right while I fetch the Neosporin?”
Without lifting his face, he nodded. “Thank you, Essie.”
She hurried to the bathroom, found the ointment in the medicine cabinet and a washcloth in the guest basket—though she never had guests. Taking a deep breath and capturing her runaway libido, she rushed back to the kitchen. He sat with his head bowed, soft auburn curls covering his face, looking like a statue of an angel. At the sound of her footsteps, he looked up, raked a hand through his hair and attempted a smile.
Any minute he was going to pass out. She dropped the Neosporin, shoved a bowl under the tap and grabbed a bottle of Jack Daniels from beneath the bar. The angel watched her as she filled a highball glass and added a dash of fresh mountain water from the well.
“I know you’re in pain. Drink this. It’ll help.” She handed him the whiskey.
Feathers whispering, he shifted his wings. The arches brushed the ceiling. “Thank you.”
In the sink, water spilled over the lip of the bowl. She’d been so engrossed in her visitor she’d forgotten to turn off the faucet. “Oh dear.”
Did he know how he affected her? That merely looking at him made her pulse flutter?
He lifted the glass, knocked back the drink and shuddered. With his finger and the sexiest smile this side of the Pearly Gates, the angel inched the glass across the bar until it touched her hand. “May I have another?”
Essie grinned. His color was better already. “Sure.”
She sloshed Jack into the glass, tempted to join him even though it was only eight o’clock on a fall morning. As Jimmy Buffet said, it was five o’clock somewhere, and it wasn’t everyday one entertained a heavenly being, but she hadn’t had breakfast and didn’t want to be sick all over her angel. When he accepted the refill, their fingers brushed. Sensation rocketed from her head to her toes. Her libido escaped prison, throbbing in her core.
He gazed into her eyes as if he were taking the measure of her soul. Is he reading my mind? I hope not. If so, he’d know that forbidden desire spiced her concern. To hide her feelings she burst into action, marching around the bar to his side.
He stirred his drink with his finger. “Your hair is a pretty color.”
A silly school-girl thrill tugged beneath her belly button. “Getting a little gray.”
He nodded as if they discussed something serious like politics. “Yes, but the fine gray lines in the black appeal to the eye.”
Appeal to the eye? Did he mean pretty? She ran her hand through her new short hairdo. So he liked her hair. She liked everything about the angel. Sucking in her little tummy, she picked up the washcloth.
Where should she start to treat the poor thing? She’d no idea how to get him out of the armor, and the wound across his stomach looked the most severe. Feeling inept, she smiled at him, imagining him naked. What a vision that would be! Heat flooded her entire being. She had to stop thinking of his cock. What if he was listening to her thoughts?
She grabbed the bowl from the sink, swallowed a dose of sweet desire and wrung out the washcloth. Outside, a bird sang. Inside, all was quiet. The angel closed his eyes, his lips parted. Damn if she didn’t want to kiss him. His lips were pale mauve in his paler face.
“This might hurt a little.” She brushed his hair back from his forehead.
The curls were as soft and silky as she’d imagined.
When the warm cloth touched the blood-crusted gash, he flinched. His eyes snapped open. He shifted on the stool. Like distant music, his feathers murmured.
“Sorry. I know that stings.”
He covered her hand with his, and the intensity of his gaze robbed her of breath. A deep relaxation spread through her. She’d never known such peace. A vision of riding in the Christmas parade in a buggy with Uncle Leonard flickered in her memory. She’d been nine then, waving at the crowd and feeling like a princess.
The washcloth hung forgotten in her hand. “Are you doing that? Making me feel so good?”
His expression grew serious. “That’s one of the things we do. You were nervous.”
“You got that right. How deep is the wound in your stomach?”
“Not very. Else I wouldn’t be here.” He rotated his shoulders, his wings arching, falling. “Shall I remove my armor?”
Blood crept up her neck, burned her cheeks. Was the handsome creature flirting with her or teasing an older woman? He glided to his feet, reached behind to unfasten the breastplate. His hands, too, were exquisite. Long, slender fingers promised strength. How would they feel on her skin or sliding into her pussy, making her writhe?
Whoa, Essie, he’s an angel and a lot younger than you.
His feathers rustled as he unbuckled the fastenings under his arms and bent to place the armor on the floor. What did his ass, hidden by sleek white wings, look like? My, my, he was just too much for a girl to resist. She gave in to temptation, stroked the shiny, soft feathers. He backed up into the caress, and a long sigh escaped him.
“That feels incredible.” His voice came husky, and butterflies hatched in her stomach.
It had been a long time since she’d felt belly tugs or the fire of passion licking through her, but when she touched him, the world as she’d known it ceased to exist. His wings drooped. He swayed on his feet. She felt guilty as hell, lusting after an angel too weak to stand.
Shakily, he turned to face her. Russet hair spattered his chest, drew a thin line down his stomach, disappearing in the V-neck of the robe he wore beneath his armor.
“I’m afraid I can’t remove this.” He lifted a fold of the toga, giving her a tempting glimpse of his upper thigh, very near his equipment. “I’m wearing nothing beneath.”
Another blush heated her face, not because of what he’d said, but the image that formed in her mind—his cock erect, pointing at her. She choked out, “I can reach the belly wound.”
When she helped him to sit on the stool, her hand brushed the downy white feathers beneath his wing. Her patient’s eyes widened. He looked as if he were going to moan—with pleasure.
He cupped her chin. “Essie, may I lie down on your bed? My wounds will heal.”
The guest rooms were on the second floor. Even with her help, she didn’t think her celestial visitor could manage the stairs, and the expanse of wings would never fit. He followed her gaze then looked into her eyes and smiled sleepily.
She itched to run her fingers through his thick, shiny hair. “I’ll take you to my room.”
He rested an arm around her shoulders for balance. “You’re very kind.”
She put an arm around his waist and guided him down the hall. If he’d been a healthy man—not a wounded angel—she might have tried to seduce him. Many a night, lying alone, she’d wished for someone. She hadn’t expected the heavens to open up and drop an angel in her lap.
In the bedroom, he lay down on his side, and his wings spilled over the floor, filling one side of the room. Blood-stained and pale, he closed his eyes. His breathing slowed, and he nestled his head deeper in the pillows. Her hand lifted to touch him, but she brought her fingers to her mouth and nibbled at her thumbnail. He was beautiful, and she just wanted to look at him until her heart stopped pounding in her ears.
“I love the scent of the cedar logs,” he murmured.
Wedged between his wings and the bed, Essie bent over him, stroking the hair back from his forehead, but he was already asleep or unconscious. The whiskey on his breath smelled sweet. It was all she could do not to kiss his parted lips. Instead, she tugged the quilt over him.
“What’s your name?” she whispered.
Lord, she hoped he’d be all right. Maybe she should call the doctor.
Probably not a good idea to disobey an angel.
She sidled past the wings to sit on her side of the bed, studying the handsomest man she’d ever laid her peepers on. With his long hair spread like red silk over the pillow and his full shirt open at the neck, he looked like a romance hero. Well, except for the mammoth wings.
Folding her arms, she leaned back in the pillows. Worry pinched her face. She’d been so busy caring for the soldier, she’d forgotten the war. A cold shiver oozed down her backbone. Heaven at war, angels battling angels smacked of Revelations.
How she’d trembled when her grandmother read aloud from that book of the Bible. Essie had never lent much credence to doomsday prophets shouting about the end of the world. Then again, she’d never been face-to-face with an angel. Was this the Apocalypse?
Fear lifted the hair at her nape. Goose bumps prickled her arms and legs. If Heaven was at war with Hell…
She glanced at her winged visitor. Was the creature sleeping in her bed an angel or a demon?
The angel slept until sundown.
Essie was in the kitchen putting what remained of the eggs in the fridge when he appeared in the doorway, his hair sleep-tousled and his eyelids heavy. Her heart missed two beats—one admiration, the other fear. Looking at him, she couldn’t believe he was a demon. Demons were supposed to be ugly. But what did she really know about demons or angels for that matter? He was still pale, but at least he was steady on his feet.
On the stove, chicken soup simmered. She’d made one of her favorite recipes for him. After tasting the fragrant broth, she’d decided it was good enough to please an angel.
He smoothed his hair back from his forehead. “What smells so good?”
Marcus rushed in, a flurry of barking terror. She slammed the fridge, collared the dog and locked him in the laundry room where he whined and howled.
“Marcus is afraid of you.” Was there a tremor in her voice?
If the dog was afraid of him, didn’t that mean he was a demon?
The angel took a step into the living room. A blood-stained wing struck a small table by the door. Graceful and quick as a cat, he ducked to grab the wobbling lamp and prevent a crash.
“Sorry.” He clamped his sexy lower lip between his teeth and snapped his fingers as if something had occurred to him that instant. “Since I’ve never been on Earth, I haven’t tried this before. But here goes.”
She clutched her throat, biting back a scream, as his form paled to ghostly. Energy sizzled, visible in the air, resonating like a giant drum. She felt light-headed, disoriented. Covering her ears, she retreated until her back came up against the refrigerator. The figure of the angel pulsed brighter, hurting her eyes. When the wings rising behind him disappeared, a cry escaped her.
“You’re not an angel.” Hand groping behind her, she felt her way along the wall to the back door. “You are a demon. The wings were a disguise.”
He glided toward her, stopped when she gripped the doorknob. “My name is Cam-ael, and I am an angel of the Order of the Powers, the first angels breathed into existence by the Creator.”
“Well la-dee-dah, Cam.” She raised a trembling hand, pointed a finger at the arrogant creature. “I could claim to be a princess but that doesn’t make me one. You look like you feel better. Leave.”
“I’m not fully recovered. I cannot yet return to battle.” The toga-like shirt drifted off one muscular shoulder, showing the bud of his nipple. “Will you cleanse my wounds now?”
Essie forced herself to maintain eye contact and not think about her fetish for male nipples. Fear and desire were a potent mixture. “Tell me about the battle.”
“The Second War in Heaven.” He gripped the edge of the bar. “Good versus evil. The Powers patrol the border between the first and second heavens. We resist the efforts of demons to take over the world. Something unexpected has happened, and the Fallen have risen. We were the first to fight—”
“Prove you’re not a demon. I saw your wings disappear.”
He arched an eyebrow. “I passed through Spirit, lowering my vibration, becoming closer to human. My wings disappear. I can make them reappear if you like, but I might wreck your home. And would you believe I’m an angel simply because I have wings?” He broke off, his tone almost pleading. “Please, Essie, I need your help.”
Cam fixed those big eyes on her, and resistance melted. Demon or angel, he was a persuasive SOB. Her pounding heart tried to betray her. Still, her life, maybe her soul, depended on staying immune to his considerable charms.
“Prove you’re not a demon,” she repeated, her voice steady while her insides shook.
He threw his hands up, frustration apparent in his expression. “How?”
“Hell, I don’t know,” she snapped.
“I can summon a demon. We can battle here in your living room, but I’m too weak to win. And the demon would destroy you.” He flopped on the sofa, leaning his head back on the cushions. “How am I going to convince you?”
When he bolted upright, she twisted the doorknob, ready to run, but her feet refused to move. “Don’t come near me.”
“I’ll show you my sigil.” He extended his hand, palm-up. His footsteps were soundless on the tile as he glided around the bar into the kitchen. “Demons don’t have sigils. A sigil is an individual mark given to each angel at his creation. It’s my name in Malachim script.”
“Stop right there.”
“Are you afraid of me, Essie? Don’t be. Having touched me, you should know what I am. Touch me again. Let me touch you.”
Touch him? That’s what she wanted more than anything, except for him to kiss her. “It could be a trick.”
“No trick.”
Rooted to the spot, she watched him glide toward her. He stopped with only inches of air space between them. Hypnotically slow, he lifted his hand and ran a fingertip down her cheek, starting a fire impossible to extinguish. His skin was like silk, cool silk. His scent engulfed her. His pupils were pinpoints of light. Radiance flooded her mind and body. The room shone with an unearthly brilliance. Peace and silence and love in shades of russet.
At a distance, though she could feel his body heat, she heard him say, “A demon cannot do that. They are darkness. They cower before the Light.”
She opened her eyes, hadn’t realized she’d closed them. “How did you do that?”
“I’m an angel.” Even without his wings, he looked divine.
Cam-ael flipped his right hand over. “My sigil.” With her finger, he traced the intricate figure drawn in white in his palm. “Are you still afraid?”
A shudder passed through her. “Maybe even more afraid.”
He raked a hand through his hair, his fingers catching in a bloodied snarl. “I need to wash the dust of battle off me. And my wings.”
“I do have a shower—” She broke off when he laughed and gave his chestnut mane a toss. A sheepish grin twitched her lips. “With the wings, I guess you wouldn’t fit. There’s a spring at the back of the property with a pretty waterfall. It’s October. The water will be cold.”
He rested his arms on her shoulders and smiled. The way he looked at her made her toes tingle. “Show me.”
His fingers closed over hers. A now-familiar shock of desire zipped through her. Essie McBane, thirty-nine years old, no children, wanted Cam-ael, an angel of the Order of the Powers, so much she could taste him. Would angel cum be salty or sweet?
“I’ll grab some soap and shampoo.” How breathless did that sound?
She darted to the guest bath, and from the shelf, snatched lavender soap and a bottle of orange-ginger shampoo she’d saved from a hotel in Atlanta. The banking conference last spring had been the last time she’d slept with a man. At a distance, her heart uninvolved, she’d left him asleep and padded barefoot to her own room, without a backwards glance.
Always at a distance. Why can’t I let anyone close? Fear of abandonment, said the shrink. Her parents had been killed in a car wreck when she was ten.
She buried these thoughts in the vault behind her heart, strode into the living room. He stood where she’d left him, staring out the window. He looked lost, maybe afraid, and her heart clenched.
Resisting the urge to stroke his hair, she touched his shoulder. “Ready?”
He turned, smiled and nodded. “Are you still afraid?”
She shook her head. “Overwhelmed.”
“You overwhelm me.”
“Me?” she croaked as he twined her fingers in his.
He cocked his head as if she spoke some foreign language. “You.”
Hand-in-hand, they strolled through the woods to the pond, their feet crunching autumn leaves. Wind whispered through the pines, smelling dark and green. Cuddled deep in her sweater, Essie glanced at the angel and wondered what people would think if they saw her with this young, handsome man. She grinned. If she could have Cam, she’d be proud to be called a cougar.
The pines gave way to a clearing. A spring bubbled from the ground, became a small stream that gurgled over stones, plunging over larger rocks into the pond.
Arms spread above his head, Cam turned a circle in the dying sun. “This is beautiful, Essie. Would you mind if I stayed a couple of days with you?” He shot her a wicked glance. “Without the wings, I only take up one side of the bed.”
“I have a guest room.” She saw something flicker behind his eyes.
The next thing she knew he’d stripped his toga over his head and dropped it at his feet. With both hands, he shoved his topsy-turvy mane back from his face, elongating his perfect body. Perfect except for the bruises and gashes. She tried to look at his face, but her gaze drifted down his stomach to the nest of russet curls at the apex of long legs. Nothing androgynous about this angel! Cam was gifted, and his gift was softly erect. The defined head of his cock was a shade darker than the smooth skin defining the length. In her limited experience, she’d never seen such an exquisite sculpture of the male form. She imagined her lips fastening on the chiseled crown, her tongue licking the velvety shaft, and her nipples tingled. She’d pinch his fine, fine ass and feel him writhe in her hands. The hungry flutters in her belly wet her cunt. Yes, she wanted to suck his gorgeous cock.
He spun on his heel, and she glimpsed a very fine ass before he paled, glimmered and his wings sprang forth. With them flared behind him, he ran through the purple twilight and dived into the pond, separating the water on a giant spray.
Essie shivered. “That water must be cold.”
He surfaced, shaking wet hair from his eyes and sputtering as he climbed into the shallows. The water clung to his hips, hinting at what lay beneath. “Freezing. But it feels good to be clean. I won’t ask you to come in, but would you wash the blood from my wings? I’ll spread them toward you.”
How silken his feathers were. Her skin tingled at the prospect of caressing them. When she’d stroked his wings, his reaction had been almost sexual. Truth to tell, she’d love to give him a bath, wash his hair and the equipment an angel wasn’t supposed to have. She’d love to see him erect…Stop! Turned on, no way to turn off, she fished the soap and shampoo from her pocket.
At the water’s edge, she dropped to her knees in the pine needles, tossed him the soap and shampoo. “Catch.”
First, he lathered his body, bending and stretching, each move as elegant as tai chi. While he shampooed his hair, she watched the muscles in his arms and what she could see of his back ripple. Drops of water jeweled his skin and gleamed on his feathers. Eyes closed, he hummed, the tune unfamiliar but his voice enchanting.
As he bathed, he’d inched into shallower water. He didn’t know his cock was on full display. Even soft, it was a formidable weapon…and beautiful, the crown sculpted and the shaft long. Her clit tingled, and her cunt pulsated. She surrendered to the joy of simply looking at him. When he ducked to rinse his hair and the soap from his body, his wings swept skyward. She imagined being wrapped in those snowy feathers, pressed tight to that hot body, and the tingling spread through her entire body.
His head and shoulders split the water. “Catch.”
The soap flew to her hand. Her angel with a demon’s body turned his back, extending his wings shoreward.
“There are other angels on earth. Often, those who fell with Lucifer live among mankind,” Cam said matter-of-factly. “I sense the presence of one of the Fallen near.”
“Are you trying to scare me?”
“No. Simply thinking out loud. You wouldn’t recognize them as angels if you saw them.”
“That’s reassuring,” she muttered.
“Don’t worry. I’d recognize them, and I’m here with you.”
In the distance, an owl hooted, and she shuddered. How long could her angel stay? Soon, he’d have to return to the battle. Her heart plummeted. Sadness took her by surprise. It was ridiculous, but she’d miss the hell out of him. Time is precious.
She lathered his wings then stroked to her heart’s content. From behind the mountain of feathers, she heard moans and sighs as if she were soaping another part of his anatomy. When she delved her hand beneath a wing to caress the velvety under feathers, he actually groaned like a man about to climax. Laughing softly, she continued caressing his wings until he wriggled in the water.
Now, Big Boy, strut out naked.
Essie got her wish. He emerged from the water fully erect and breathtaking. The harvest moon spotlighted his physique, shone on his hair and lent him a halo.
Her angel didn’t try to hide anything.
She peeled her gaze off his engorged cock and forced herself to look into his eyes. “I thought angels were supposed to be androgynous.”
“No.” His wicked grin made her blood sizzle. “We come fully equipped. That’s the hell of it. I’m not supposed to use it.”
That sank the ship of her fantasies. “Hum. That’s what I thought.”
He paled to an apparition, shimmered in the moonlight, and the snowy wings vanished. With a wink, he grabbed his shirt from the ground and pulled it over his head, covering that sinfully tempting body.
Guess the show is over.
She’d forgotten a towel, and the linen shirt clung to his body, his softening erection a tempting curve between his legs.
“Tomorrow,” she said, “we’ll go to town and buy you some clothes.”
He rested his arms on her shoulders. “Thank you for washing my wings. It felt really good.”
Holding her breath, she watched him lower his mouth to hers. Her heart caught between beats. A hot thrill chased through her core. Their lips met, and he trembled. His arms glided around her waist, tugging her nearer, but his embrace was tentative. She stepped into him. His cock poked her belly. His lips fluttered on hers in a gossamer kiss then his tongue invaded, exploring, tasting.
This couldn’t be happening. An angel kissing Essie McBane in the middle of the woods while frogs croaked and crickets chirped.
He moaned into her, deepening the kiss, his tongue thrusts becoming more confident. His embrace tightened, flattening her breasts against the firmness of his chest. She felt the yummy nubs of his nipples through her denim shirt. Her hand slid to the small of his back. He tilted his hips, rubbing his hot cock against her belly, and a tempest broke inside her. As his tongue plundered her mouth, desire wet her panties. He pumped his hips as if his cock was buried deep in her pussy–teasing her, driving her toward a surrender that must not happen.
He drew back, slipped a hand between them and cupped her breast. Her cunt clenched, aching for a good fuck. And Cam would be one great ride. His equipment was absolutely perfect right down to his sculpted crown. She could teach him anything he didn’t know. His kisses were intense, but his advances on her body were shy…innocent. Cam ran both of his hands over her breasts, his fingers peaking her nipples. Fast learner. The teacher hadn’t made a move to show him anything.
As if she were weightless, he lifted her, settled her on his cock, trapping that hot shaft on her wet crotch. Soft cotton panties rasped her clit. Like a spring, desire coiled, ready to break if the assault continued. Magically, two buttons on her shirt loosened, and skin met skin. She ground her nipples on his chest and felt him shiver. His hungry mouth closed on hers, and a moan escaped him.
Seven months without sex had surrendered her to this desperation? Who was she kidding? He was gorgeous, young and hung. Without the wings, he didn’t look like sin on the hoof. God, she wanted strip off her jeans and take him right there in the whispering pines.

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All Romance eBooks

Coming Back
by Rachel Leigh

The Wild Rose Press

eBook ISBN: None Given

Kelly Hampton loved once…and lost. After two years of looking for Sean MacKenzie in other men and failing, Sean strolls back into her bar reigniting old flames.

Sean left Jessop Hill to protect his battered mother from his father’s fists, but he never forgot the explosively erotic relationship he left behind.

Chapter One

Kelly Hampton looked along the line of faces sitting at her bar, her body humming with frustration. “What? I mean it.”
Narrowing her eyes, she planted her fists on her hips and waited. So she’d lived in Jessop Hill, a sleepy town in rural England all her life. So these men looking at her with such reservation might have known her since she was an eight-year-old kid running around the fields, climbing trees with muddy knees and scraped elbows, but it didn’t mean they knew her, right? Twenty years on, Kelly owned the bar they needed more than their beds, so they better listen up before she kicked them out on their asses.
 “No more sex,” she said. “Nada. I will be celibate for the foreseeable future and that’s final.”
Another long moment passed, the only sound in the bar was Bryan Adams rasping about heaven and wanting nothing else but his baby – before Len, Kelly’s surrogate father and general all-round protector, picked up his pint of beer and sniffed.
“Yeah, right.”
Like the ‘joined-at-the hip’ drinking buddies they were, the four regulars looked at each other before emitting a barrage of dismissive male laughter.
“Fine.” Kelly slapped a cloth up and down a two feet space of the bar. “I’ll show you. I’ll show all of you. I’ve had enough with the wasters and idiots who want nothing more than to cop a feel. From now on, it’s commitment or nothin. Either they want a lasting relationship or they’re out. No negotiation.”
Len raised an eyebrow. “And how are you going to find out if they’re one likely to stick around?  If you ain’t putting out…”
Kelly glared. “I’ll know, okay?”
“Commitment to a woman ain’t the sort of thing anyone can be sure of straight away, is it? You didn’t know you wouldn’t be around for the guys you’ve dumped, have you? Same thing.”
A flash of heat seared Kelly’s cheeks. He had a point. There had been quite a few guys she’d not called after a date – even more that, she’d walked out on after a night of passion knowing full well he wasn’t someone she wanted to be with. So why was she expecting something when she couldn’t make the same promise? Because she didn’t know what other route she had left to explore. Didn’t know any other way to find out who she wanted in her life.
Liar! She knew exactly who she wanted.
She whipped the cloth onto her shoulder and crossed her arms. “Yeah, well, those days are over. Until I know I want to be with a guy for the rest of my life, no sex.”
Len shook his head. “Never gonna happen.”
Irritation burned like acid in her gut. “Yes, it will.”
Another shake.  “Aren’t you always complaining how wrong your instincts have been in the past?  Isn’t that what this celibacy is all about? I know you, Kelly. If you thought some stud was only after one thing, you wouldn’t have given it away in the first place.”
She flinched as another round of laughter – accented with a particularly jarring clink of glasses and bottles – erupted around her. What the hell did they know?  The average age of her customers had to be forty-five – and half of them married for most of that. What the hell did they know about finding love in today’s world? She blinked against the burning in her eyes. Or worse,  replacing the love they’d lost?
How could they understand the height of sacrifice she was trying make, for crying out loud. She enjoyed sex. Needed sex. Loved sex. And she’d never slept with a man with whom she didn’t think there was a future – but it turned out that what she thought and felt about any of them wasn’t worth the brain matter or heart tissue it was written on.  So…from now on, it was celibacy until certainty.
 “Fine. You don’t believe me?”  She waited for the hurried apologies, the declarations her loyal clientele weren’t complete assholes. Silence. God damn bastards.
She flung the towel in the wash-bin behind her. “If that’s the way you feel, get out of my bar and go home to your wives. After all, isn’t that what you guys know all about? Cherishing the love you have and giving them hot sex when they beg for it?”
Their faces erupted into a comic strip of shock, surprise, insult and grief, yet none of them moved.
Kelly slapped her hands on the bar. “Go on, get out of here,” she said, feeling on a roll, spewing her contempt for herself more than them all over the bar like verbal vomit. “Who knows?  Maybe tonight is the night of your twice-yearly fuck. You’d better scram before your wives change their minds. God knows I wouldn’t want to be the one to have to ride your saggy dicks.”
They continued to stare at her. Nobody moving an inch.
She stepped forward as if to take a couple of their glasses and they instantly kicked into action. Beer left glasses and slid down throats quicker than water down Niagara Falls. They left their empties on the bar with mumbled goodnights before hurrying one by one through the door, as though their cocks might drop off if they didn’t use them pretty damn quick.
Kelly smiled as she shook her head and collected glasses. Idiots, all of them. So they didn’t believe she could refrain for awhile? Well, she’d prove them wrong. Kelly Hampton could keep her panties on and her breasts under cover no matter how tanned and muscled the temptation.
The tell-tale squeaking of the bar door opening had her turning toward it.
“We’re closed,” she snapped.
The stranger continued to walk closer without as much as a blip to his stride. The massive height and width of him drowned the space between them until stopped and his eyes met hers. Kelly stared. Recognition hit her between the eyes like a demolition ball. Her breath caught and her heart picked up speed. No. No, it couldn’t be.
Swallowing hard, she crossed her arms to hide the shaking in her hands. He looked away from her, casually taking in his surroundings. She stared at his profile, her feet welded to the floor. No, she was wrong, it couldn’t be him.
This was a dangerous situation. She was alone. The guy was built like a Trojan warrior. Instinctively, she inched her hand below the bar and curled her fingers around one of the three aluminum baseball bats dotted beneath it at four feet intervals. Any funny stuff and he wouldn’t know what hit him.
Leaning his hands on the bar, he shook the rain from his dark blonde hair, spattering the polished wood of the bar – and looked straight into Kelly’s eyes.
Oh, shit. It was him. Without any doubt whatsoever. Her heart turned over. “Sean?” she croaked.
His smile was slow, sexy and completely irresistible. Kelly promptly trembled with the effort it took not to leap over the bar and slam his face between her breasts.
“Hi, Kelly,” he said. “Should’ve known you end up running this place.”
Cool. She needed to be cool. Slowly pulling her hand from the bat, she planted them flat on the bar, mimicking his stance – while accidentally on purpose tilting forward in the hope he could have a clear glimpse of her cleavage and just what the hell he’d been missing for the last two years.
She narrowed her gaze. “Meaning?”
“Meaning you always were a pretty determined business woman and I can remember at least fifteen occasions when you said this place could be a gold mine with the right person running it.”
His eyes shone bluer than her memory had dared to remember, his shoulders twice as wide and his jaw three times as sculpted…her stomach wound into a pitiful mess of knots and tangles as she continued to stare.
She blinked. “What?”
He grinned. “I asked if it turned out to be the gold mine you predicted.”
“What are you doing here, Sean?”
For a long moment he said nothing, his smile wavering until it slowly dissolved and the twinkling mischief left his eyes. “It was time.”
“Time?” She felt her eyes bulge wide open. “Are you kidding me?”
            She jabbed a hand into the air cutting him off. “That’s it? That’s all you’ve got for me after two years of absolutely nothing?”
The skin at his throat shifted and his color deepened at his cheeks. “For now, yes.”
“I don’t think so. Why did you walk away without an explanation? Why did I find your Mum’s house empty?” Her breath hitched and she pushed away from the bar, holding up both hands like a shield. “Just go away. Turn around and get the hell out of here.”
She glared at him. His jaw tightened as he stared straight back. “I’m back whether you like it or not.”
She screwed her eyes shut against the harsh sting of tears. Damn him. What did he mean he was back? For good? For her?
The silence bore down on her but no words came. Kelly didn’t trust herself to speak so she shook her head and pursed her lips together instead. He could fill the goddamn silence, he could provide the answers.
After a long moment passed, he cleared his throat. “So? Are you happy that I’m back or not?”
Her eyes snapped open as something painful twisted in her chest like a knife tip scoring across her heart. “Not.”
“I missed you, Kelly.”
Curling her hands around the smooth edge of the bar, she held on. “I can’t do this. You can’t do this.”
Undeniable love swelled traitorously inside her belly, catching her body alight with a raging desire for him. The need to feel him inside her rose uncaught. The longing to have his hands caress the heat of her sensitized skin…
She swallowed, gripped the bar tighter. Two years since she’d seen Sean, but time hadn’t altered his gorgeous six foot three height, or faded eyes the color of a warm blue sea, shrouded with lashes as black as midnight. Beneath his black bomber jacket, he wore a crisp white T-shirt which served to deliciously enhance the lines of some pretty outstanding pecs.
Kelly blew out a shaky breath and despite the screaming warnings in her head, reached across the bar and cupped his jaw. Maybe she’d frightened him a little. Surely the feel of her skin on his would make him step away as she should’ve the moment he walked in there?
“I missed you too,” She whispered.
But no, the man didn’t so much as flinch, let alone walk away. The worry melted from his eyes and they sparkled with renewed…oh, shit, lust. Kelly nipples leaped to attention like his gaze held an invisible thread to pull them taut as and when he desired.
He grinned. “Thank God.”
They stood immobile, but her mouth curved into a slow smile anyway tempting him ever closer. Their gazes caught and locked, her body yearned for his touch. She looked away lest risk leaping over the bar and welding her lips to his regardless of the lack of invitation.
“Do you want a drink?” She turned to the fridges behind her.
She heard his heavy exhalation. “I’d love one.”
Exhaling a shaky breath of her own, Kelly extracted two beers. He was back. Her head yelled at her to tell him to go back to where he’d come from – but another voice told her one beer wouldn’t hurt. She snapped the tops off the bottles, no prizes for guessing which voice triumphed. Kelly tossed her long brown hair over her shoulders with a flick of her head. So what? Shouldn’t every bar owner be adept at sharing a friendly word or two with their patrons?  Even if one of those patrons strolled into the bar after a two-year absence looking as though he belonged in the center pages of Playgirl. Her lips and pussy twitched simultaneously.
Damn him for making her feel that way. On today of all days.  On the day she’d vowed celibacy to a group of men who would enjoy any sign of her failure to deliver like they would a vintage brandy.
She squeezed her eyes shut and drew in a strengthening breath, before opening them again and spinning around. His gaze was firmly fixed in the place her ass would have been a second before. Pleasure flushed her face in a wave of heat and her nipples jumped to attention. He raised his eyes, his gaze blatantly lingering at her breasts before rising higher. Kelly saw the hunger flare hot in his irises, his pupils dilating as he took in every inch of her. Her skin tingled with awareness and her heart beat faster.
It was useless denying it. It was only a matter of time before something raw, something out of their control happened between them. It was just a question of when.
Sean smiled softly. He’d recognize that ‘fuck me’ look in Kelly Hampton’s eyes anytime. His cock twitched. “Are you okay?”
She returned his smile, held out the beers. “I’m fine. Here.”
He took one of the bottles and their fingers brushed. Sexual attraction shot through him on a lightning bolt – but even though he wanted to leap over the bar and take her right there and then, A bigger part of him knew he had no damn right to lay a finger on her. She was right. He’d walked away without a word. And now he was back. At least for a while. The ball was in her court whether she realized it or not.
He took a slug of his beer before putting the bottle down on the bar, his fingers tightly gripping it.
“So…what brought you back to Jessop Hill?” she asked.
He looked away from her phenomenal eyes and instead, picked at the label on his beer bottle. “You know Liberty House?”
“Liberty House?”
He snapped his head up. Her eyes were wide, her cheeks flushed. Clearly, that was not the response she expected. Sean hoped she wanted to hear something more like “Who cares? What time do you finish so we can go fuck over and over until neither of us can breathe?” He blinked, refocused. All good things came to those who wait – even if they have to wait a damn long time…
 “You know. The house on the edge of town?”
She frowned as she stared. Disbelief etched on her exquisite features. “Of course I know it. What are you talking about Liberty House for?”
He lifted his bottle to his lips, took a drink while carefully watching her over its rim. “It’s mine.”
She smiled and huffed out a laugh. “Yes, okay, Sean, ‘Course it is.”
He continued to look at her. He didn’t smile nor move. He shoulders stiffened and his teeth bit together of their own accord. Nothing about Liberty House or the damn situation that brought him home was remotely funny.
“It’s mine, Kelly,” he repeated.
“But…” She shook her head and pushed away from the bar. “I’m not sure if I even want to ask how, Sean. Why are you here? Are you staying? That’s the questions I want answered.”
“And I’ll answer your questions in time.”
She fisted her hair back from her face. “In time? My god, you really expect me––”
“People change in two years, you know,” he said, looking into her eyes and praying she gave him a chance. “I’ve changed.”
Her gaze dropped to his lips, lingered there before she closed her eyes. “I shouldn’t even be talking to you,” she said, quietly.
“Why not?”
She shook her head. “I just shouldn’t.”
Her eyes snapped open and Sean saw the hurt there on a razor sharp reminder. His breath rasped against his throat. “Kelly, give me a chance here, okay?”

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Daisies, Deadly Force, and Disastrous Divorce Disputes
by JL Wilson

The Wild Rose Press

eBook ISBN: None Given
Print ISBN: 1-60154-944-X

Cassie’s inheritance is finally hers to enjoy–if she doesn’t get arrested for murder first…

Chapter One
I was minutes away from my first orgasm in five months when my ex-husband called. “Cassie, pick up the phone. I know you’re there.” Charlie’s impatient tenor voice echoed from the answering machine on the nightstand in the bedroom where Sam Barlow, my lover, and I were entwined in an awkward, passionate embrace on the bed.
It was awkward because Sam was only recently strong enough to undertake anything physical and that included sex. His injury the previous October resulted in extensive surgery to his right leg and it still hurt him to rest his weight on it. I was on top, leaned over Sam and trying to avoid putting weight on his recently healed leg. When I heard Charlie’s voice, I jerked upright in surprise.
“Don’t you dare,” Sam warned, his hips bucking upward. He winced, his darker-than-dark brown eyes narrowing with pain.
“Cassie, John called and wanted us to meet him. I just got the message. I was in meetings most of the afternoon. Are you available tonight? If you’re there, please pick up.” Charlie’s voice was subdued, not his usual joking, teasing tone. I could imagine him standing with his Blackberry pressed to his ear, his handsome face perplexed and his dark green eyes beseeching.
“Cassie, damn it.” Sam’s urgent whisper jerked me back to the here and now. His hands moved up to my shoulders and he pulled me to him, his hips moving in a rhythm that sent heat racing through me. It had been a long, long time since I felt such excitement and it momentarily drowned out Charlie’s anxious voice. A familiar rush of adrenaline pulsed in me. I stared down into Sam’s eyes, my hands on his pillow framing his head and his thick white-gray hair, now tangled with sweat from our activity.
For an instant it was as though the accidents—mine and Sam’s—hadn’t happened. I felt whole, healthy, and sexy again, ignoring the spasm of pain in my ribs where they were broken and not quite set right. I dismissed the pain mixed with pleasure I saw in Sam’s face. He was so much thinner than six months ago. Then he was solid, muscular, and sexy in an aggressive, macho way. Now he was lean and sometimes, in the wrong light, he looked almost frail.
“Yes,” he whispered, his voice raw. “Just a little more. Just a little…”
“…me when you can,” Charlie’s voice said from a distance.
Sam pulled me hard against him, his hands on my waist to jam me down onto his erect penis. The frenzied lust of a moment before was fast leaving me, my mind clearing. What was wrong with Charlie? Why did he sound so upset? I automatically played my part with Sam, falling into habits we formed in the year we’d been lovers, but my thoughts were flittering and flying away even as my body responded to his touch and my orgasm began.
Heat, love, excitement flooded me as Sam cried out, his frenzied pumping intensifying my experience. For an instant we were once again in tune with each other, once again two bodies sharing one soul. I stared into his eyes as pleasure filled me, marveling at the love, lust, and happiness I saw there.
Then I was lying against his sweaty chest, his crinkly hairs tickling against my breasts. It was too hot for cuddling, though, and I soon slid away to lie next to him, my left leg draped over his thighs and my left arm curved around his upper chest. “Are you okay?” I asked softly.
Sam stared up at the ceiling. “Why do you ask? Aren’t you okay?”
I heard the tension in his voice but I just spent six months helping him through physical therapy. I wasn’t going to blow all that hard work on a few minutes of fun. “I’m fine.”
“So glad you could join me,” Sam said softly.
I sat up partially to look at him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
He stared at me, his dark eyes accusing. “You were distracted.”
“Charlie doesn’t call me unless it’s important,” I said weakly.
“He’s called a lot lately.”
“He’s called about the estate and the lawsuit.” I lay back on the bed, not anxious to rehash this fight.
Sam turned and swung his legs over the side of the bed. I caught a glimpse of the scars on his right leg, starkly white against his tanned skin. We had recently spent two weeks in Florida at the home I inherited there, enjoying the April warmth. We returned to Minnesota yesterday so we could prepare for my ex-sister-in-law’s wedding on May Day, this Friday.
“I thought that was being settled,” Sam said, his back to me as he stared across the room.
“Four million dollars is a lot to settle.”
Sam looked at me over one shoulder. “I thought you said it was fifteen million.”
“I set up a trust fund with five million, John is contesting five million, and I sold the house on Lake Minnetonka for two million. The lake part is the part that’s getting settled.”
“And the Florida house, of course.” Sam looked around the bedroom in my townhome in Pickaway, a southern suburb of Minneapolis. The furnishings didn’t compare to the ones in the house in Naples, Florida. “Don’t forget the Florida house.”
How could I forget? I inherited a house in Minnesota, a house in Florida, a house on Lake Vermillion in northern Minnesota as well as millions in assorted bonds and other investments. I sold the house in Minnetonka, I was keeping the house in Florida for use in the wintertime and the house in Northern Minnesota was really a family place so I wouldn’t sell it. Sam and I were going there in a few days to open the house for the summer, something I had done on the first weekend in May every year since I was a child and I accompanied the family for the Whittingtons’ spring tradition.
Even with the lousy economy I was still filthy rich. Or I would be rich once the inheritance lawsuit was settled. Charlie’s brother John was suing me to block my inheritance. I had just spoken to him, though, and the end might be in sight.
I stood up, using movement as distraction. “Charlie would never call when he knew you were here.” As soon as the words escaped, I longed to retract them.
Sam dragged on his blue T-shirt. “So what you’re saying is you and your ex have regular conversations behind my back?”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake. You just weren’t around when he called.” I glanced at the bedside clock. It was almost five on a Monday afternoon which meant Charlie was calling from his law office. On most days, Sam left after lunch, going to one of the two landscape centers he owned with his sister, Mary Hannon, coming home at six or so for supper. He came home early today, though, which led to our unplanned fun in the sheets.
“You said he called when I wasn’t here.” Sam pulled on his boxers and balanced on one leg to drag on his blue jeans.
I resisted the urge to tell him Be careful. I’d been telling him that for months. “He called when you weren’t here because he knew you would act this way.”
“What way?” Sam tottered on his right leg, grimacing as he tried to stuff his left leg into his pants. I held my breath, waiting for him to tumble back on the bed. Instead he staggered against the dresser, knocking over a bottle of hand lotion which in turn made a fragile porcelain statue of a woman holding a child totter precariously.
“Like a jealous fool,” I snapped. The house in Florida was chock full of antiques and precious objet d’art. It was part of my inheritance from Theodora Penningford, my ex-husband’s grandmother, the woman who helped raise me. I had brought back a few of the smaller objects with me when we returned, one of which was the statue that now was in jeopardy.
“What’s to be jealous about?” Sam jammed his leg into the jeans and jerked them upward. “Charlie Whittington is a dead ringer for George Clooney, he saved my life, he’s rich, he’s single, he’s a nice guy, he’s in love with you, and he’s rich.”
“You said ‘rich’ twice.”
“He’s really rich.” Sam’s brown eyes twinkled with a touch of humor. “Richie Rich rich.”
I took that as a sign he wasn’t truly angry. Of course, with Sam it was hard to tell. A clam showed more emotion than Sam did. “Charlie’s also in Minnetonka and you’re here,” I pointed out, keeping my voice light as I tapped the rumpled sheets. “You’re right here.”
Sam picked up his glasses from the nightstand and put them on, their silver frames highlighting his angry brown eyes. He opened the bedroom door. “Yeah. How about that?” He left, closing the door gently behind him.
I glared at the white door, wishing I dared go after him and confront him. It seemed like every chance he got, Sam brought up the fact that Charlie was wealthy, handsome, and my ex-lover. It still rankled with him that Charlie was on hand last fall to save our lives when Sam and I were attacked. Why couldn’t he count his blessings instead of complain?
I took my bathrobe from the hook and went into the hall then into the bathroom, shared between my bedroom and the guest room across the hall. The room was cool in the late April afternoon, feeling like air conditioning after the warmth of the bed. I peered at myself in the mirror over the sink. My sweatshirt-gray hair, cut short around my face, was a tousled mess. As always, my resemblance to Sally Fields was even more pronounced when I was angry. Now I saw an older Norma Rae glaring back at me—tense, defiant, and pissed off.
I took my time showering as I tried to puzzle out how I was going to convince Sam that he couldn’t return to active duty at Barlow’s Nursery and Landscaping, the family business. I had hatched a scheme to find him a new job but he was resisting all hints that I dropped. I wasn’t sure how to broach the subject without being blunt. Sorry, Sam. You can’t manhandle plants any more. If you want to just be the manager, that’s fine, but you know and I know you’re really not needed in that capacity. They don’t need a desk guy, they need a working manager, and you aren’t that guy anymore.
How was I going to tell Sam that I was purchasing shares in a botanical research company in hopes he would ‘retire’ from active work at Barlow’s? Sam was prickly about accepting help from anyone. I had insisted that he move in with me after our accident last October so I could help him with his physical therapy and he equally insisted that he pay his way, even though I was now Rich with a capital R.
As I showered I thought about the house in Florida, the big one on Lake Minnetonka and the elaborate ‘cabin’ up north. I didn’t belong on Millionaire’s Row in Florida or in Minnesota. I was raised with the Whittingtons and married one, but that didn’t change the fact of who I was: Cassie Wheelock Whittington, fifty-one year old ex-software programmer and now a horticultural assistant at Barlow’s Landscape and Nursery.
I gave up on thinking and got out, drying my hair then going into the bedroom to dress in clean jeans and my I try to lose weight but it keeps finding me T-shirt. I straightened the bed before going into the living room. Sam was nowhere in sight, so I went into the kitchen where my two cats, Truffles and Houdini, were lounging on kitchen chairs, peering out the big bay window at the setting sun.
Sam was outside, spreading mulch in a flower bed that surrounded a life-size concrete statue of St. Francis, hands upraised and holding a platter for bird seed. It was too early to put out flowers, of course, but the gardening bug always hit Minnesotans as soon as the snow melted. This was the busy time of year at the landscape company. Fresh plants were arriving daily and it was hectic as they prepared for the rush of sales in May and June.
He’s too thin, I thought. I’m glad he’s lifting weights again, but he needs to gain some weight to support it.
My Blackberry in the charging stand on the counter chimed The Boys of Summer, my ringtone for Charlie. I turned away from the sight of Sam, struggling to bend his leg so he could kneel next to the statue. I clicked the ‘Connect’ button. “Hello?”
There was silence on the line.
“Hello?” I prompted.
“Hold on, Cassie.” It was Charlie, sounding breathless.
“Charlie’s what’s up? I’m sorry I couldn’t talk earlier. I was busy. What’s wrong?”
“Did John call you? He left me a message and insisted he wanted to see us both.”
I remembered John’s smug face when he and I last talked. A familiar clench of anger made me strangle the gadget in my hand. I took a calming breath before speaking. “Why does the world’s biggest asshole want to see me?”
“He called earlier and asked me to have you meet him. He needed to talk to you about Sheila Peavey and the lawsuit.”
I glanced at the clock over the sink. It was almost six. “Why would John be at a construction site? He designs houses. He doesn’t build them, not personally, at least.”
“He said…because of Sam’s involvement…and I wanted…”
“Sorry. There’s a bad signal here. Can you and Sam come out? I’m on my way to that new subdivision of John’s in Lakeville. You know the one? It’s off the 166th Street exit.”
I thought of Sam and his earlier anger. Sheila Peavey was Sam’s ex-wife and a murderer, or so I suspected. A meeting about her wouldn’t cool his temper. “I doubt if I can talk Sam into meeting Sheila.”
“Can you come? Maybe he wants to talk about the lawsuit.” Charlie’s voice faded again.
I turned as Sam came into the kitchen through the door leading to the mud room, which subsequently led to the garage and the outside world. “I don’t know if we can. Why would John want to talk to us about Sheila?” I shrugged both shoulders when I saw Sam’s quizzical look.
“I don’t know, but you know John—if he can mess up your life, he will. I think you should talk to him.”
I held the phone away from my face. “John wants to meet with me. Charlie said it has to do with Sheila.”
Sam clenched his jaw. “What’s she up to? Why is she buddying up with that creep?”
“I don’t know. There’s only one way to find out, I guess.”
Sam thought about it then nodded. “Where?”
“We’ll meet you there, Charlie. We’ll leave now.”
“Good. I’ll see you in a few minutes.”
I clicked ‘Disconnect’ and headed for the mud room door, tucking my phone into my purse as I grabbed it from its hook near the entryway. “I can drive,” I said, snatching my car keys from an adjacent hook.
Sam put a hand on my arm, bringing me to a halt. His dark blue shirt and his pale blue jeans were a beautiful contrast to his golden tan and his salt-and-pepper hair. Except for his thinness, he looked healthy and happy. “Hey.”
I smiled tentatively. “Hey.”
“I was a jerk.”
I tilted my head. “Yeah, you were. You know how it is with Charlie.”
He nodded ruefully. “You’re friends, he saved your life, you saved his, you were raised with his family, you’ve known each other all your life.”
I pursed my lips in exasperation at this succinct summary. “We have a past together,” I said patiently. “Something beyond being married.”
“We have a past together, too,” he whispered as he took me in his arms. “And we have a future together.”
I smoothed his thick hair back from his forehead. “I know.” I rested my head on his shoulder. It was so familiar to be there with him. His warm, earthy, faintly sweaty aroma was so uniquely Sam. It was sexy, familiar, masculine, and safe.
“I was thinking…” He kissed the tip of my nose. “We’re going to be busy this week. We won’t have much time to relax. Let’s get this thing done with Charlie then come back and have a glass of wine and put our feet up.” He smiled, his warm brown eyes darkening. “It’s been nice these last few weeks to be away from everyone.”
I nodded agreement. “I know. The Whittingtons can be a bit much. Between the inheritance, the lawsuit, and Livvie’s wedding, we’ve been in their back pocket since last year.”
His expression shifted, his face stilling and his eyes taking on a guarded look. “Livvie was talking to me about her wedding. She mentioned that there’s room for two in it, if you’d like.” The words were said overly casually, telling me how important they were to him.
“What do you mean, room for two in it?” I had an inkling what he was saying but I didn’t want to deal with it. I gently disentangled myself from his embrace and led the way to Bilbo, my plum-colored Lexus SUV that sat in my garage next to Sam’s ancient maroon SUV.
“You know. Like a double ceremony thing.” He got into his side of Bilbo, giving me a precious few seconds to gather my scattered wits.
“Are you proposing?” I forced myself to meet his eyes as I slid into the driver’s seat. What I saw there didn’t reassure me. He looked alternately hopeful, worried, and uncertain.
“Yeah, I guess I am. Well, you know, we weren’t sure about me and we didn’t know if I could, you know….” He smiled slyly. “Now that we know I’m not incapacitated in the bed department, well, yeah, I guess I am proposing.”
I started the car and got us out of the garage before answering. “I wasn’t really worried about the bed department.”
“I was.”
His flat tone told me just how much he worried. I filed that little nugget away for later reassessment. “It’s a big step, Sam. To be honest, I’ve never considered another marriage.” I glanced at him, surprising a look of bewildered hurt quickly masked by an attentive gaze. “I need to consider it.”
“Why don’t you just sleep on it?” he suggested. Then his mouth quirked with humor. “Or better yet, let’s not sleep on it.”
“I don’t want to undo months of physical therapy.” We were at a traffic light so I leaned over and kissed him quickly. “It’s good to have you back, Sam.”
“Good to be back. Think about it, okay?”
I nodded, focusing on my driving. “I will, believe me.” I was pretty sure it was one of the main things I would think about for the next few days. I turned my focus back to driving. Our exit was just a mile down the road, but it was bumper-to-bumper, all of us going seventy miles an hour. I needed all my attention on the road.
Sam shifted in his seat. “I suppose I should start looking for an apartment soon.”
I resisted turning in my seat to stare at him. “Why?”
“I moved in with you temporarily, when my leg was all busted up. I’m mobile again.” His voice was straightforward and logical, but I heard the question in it nonetheless.
“No need to move out,” I said as I eyed a semi-truck driving hell bent for leather just a foot or two from my driver’s side door.
“Yeah, but it’s not right.” He stared out his window. “Think about how it looks. You inherit a bunch of money and I move in.”
I hazarded a quick glance at him. “Who said that?”
“Nobody. I was just thinking about it, that’s all.”
He wasn’t a good liar, but I didn’t want to pursue it, not right on the heels of a marriage proposal. Someone had said something to him that bugged him, but he would tell me in his own good time. Or maybe he wouldn’t. It was always hard to say what Sam might do.
Sam drummed his fingers on the leather armrest. “I was thinking I would accept Sheila’s offer to settle the patent dispute.”
I veered onto the exit, anger pushing our speed a tad high. “You’re crazy. You deserve the money, Sam. You and Mike Peavey developed that azalea hybrid together. He had no right to patent it under his name alone.” I waited for traffic to pass then took a left off the exit onto a county two-lane blacktop. Stands of woods on each side of the road almost hid houses set far back among them. Traffic moved at a brisk pace but not the breakneck speed of the nearby freeway, thank God.
I resumed my argument. “You can’t take her up on that offer. You deserve to get a cut of the profits. Who knows how well that plant will do over time? There might be others like it that you can develop.” I stared over the steering wheel, flipping down my visor to block out the setting sun. “It’s along here…” I eyed a sign on the right side of the road.
“Elysian Woods?” Sam peered at it as we passed.
“That’s not it.” I slowed as we drove by another large sign on the right near a road leading back into a heavily forested site, alternately glancing at traffic behind me and the paved road in front of me.
“Penningford,” Sam said, staring at the sign.
“That’s it. Penningford is Charlie’s mother’s maiden name.” I swerved onto the road. I drove slowly into what would be a thriving neighborhood…some day. The wide boulevard wound sinuously past empty lots with signs advertising them for sale. A few mansions, obviously under construction, dotted the landscape. None were occupied although one nearer the road sported a Model Home sign.
We came to a fork in the road and I stopped Bilbo. “Which way now?” I muttered. Both sides of the road led into heavily treed areas. I drove forward down the left fork until we came around a curve. I spotted Charlie’s navy blue Jaguar in front of a McMansion on the far side of a cul-de-sac straight ahead. A gray Benz sedan was parked in front of Charlie’s car. “This must be it.” I drove forward and parked Bilbo behind the Jag.
Sam and I walked up the driveway, each of us eyeing the house. “It’s as big as some hotels,” I said. “The…” I counted, “…four-car garage is bigger than my townhouse.”
Sam paused near the front door. “Probably five or six bedrooms. What do you bet it’s got at least four bathrooms? It’s open.” He touched the oversized oak front door and it swung inward. “Charlie? John?” he called out.
I walked behind him into a foyer the size of my kitchen. The house was almost finished, with dry wall delineating the space and long stretches of indoor/outdoor carpeting covering the light colored hardwood floors. A winding staircase in front of us led to an open landing above and big rooms opened off either side of the entry. “Charlie?” I yelled.
“Cassie! Back here!”
Sam and I exchanged an anxious look. It was Charlie’s voice, but he sounded upset, almost frantic. Sam strode down the hallway straight ahead and I followed, pausing briefly to peer into an enormous kitchen as we passed. It appeared to run almost the length of the house and had two islands, huge windows overlooking a stream, and a fireplace at one side. I gawked at the pricy cabinets while I walked, running smack into Sam when he stopped on the threshold of a room.
I peered around him. The room was curved, floor-to-ceiling windows showing us a view of the woods behind the house. A corner fireplace was to my right and kitty-corner to the left was a bar with built-in cabinetry. Family room, I thought. Or entertainment center. The place was big enough to serve as a small movie theater.
Charlie stood in the center of the empty space, a big, clunky-looking power tool in his hand. At his feet lay John, his brother. It took a second for what I was seeing to register and when it did, I said, “Holy shit.”
John lay on the hardwood floor in a pool of blood, his sightless eyes staring up at the skylight overhead.

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Foxgloves, Fancy Fungus, and Fatal Family Feuds
by JL Wilson

The Wild Rose Press

eBook ISBN: None Given
Print ISBN: 1-60154-912-1

A dead chef at a fancy restaurant, embezzlement, and a lawsuit…one of those just might get Cassie killed

Chapter One

“As your lawyer, I advise you not to advertise the fact that you want to kill Sheila Peavey.” My ex-husband Charlie looked amused, but there was a hint of exasperation in his voice. “If she turns up dead, you’re liable to be a suspect.”
“That bitch deserves to die,” I muttered.
“Cassie, that’s irrelevant,” Olivia Whittington Carlyle, Charlie’s sister, said. “There are a lot of people in the world who are a waste of skin. All Charlie is saying is don’t tell all and sundry you’d like to be the one who wields the machete and weed Sheila out of the gene pool.” She sipped her tonic water and regarded me with amused affection. “I’m sure you want to kill John, too.”
“A lot of people want to kill John,” Charlie snapped. “Our dear brother is a pain in the butt and a jerk to boot.”
We were sitting in Charlie’s second-floor condo on the shores of Lake Minnetonka, Minnesota, in a pricy building in the pricy suburb of Orono, west of Minneapolis. Charlie’s sailboat was docked at the Yacht Club down the street and we were enjoying the sight of a late October sunset from his spacious living room, whose floor-to-ceiling windows framed a spectacular view. My day-off Friday afternoon was wrapping up and I was relaxing, happy to put my feet up and chat with my exes.
“Sheila got away with murder,” I pointed out as I sipped the martini Charlie made for me. I felt mildly guilty about the drink. Livvie was on the wagon and I hated putting temptation in her path, but she appeared content with the ‘tonic and a twist’ Charlie handed her. “All John has done is contest your grandmother’s will and prevent me from inheriting the estate.”
“It’s just your opinion about Sheila and her involvement in murder. The police don’t have proof so they had to release her,” Charlie said as he mixed another cocktail. Charlie is two years older than my fifty years. His thick dark hair was just starting to show touches of gray and there were lines around his eyes and mouth, but that only added to his George Clooney-esque appeal. He also goes for a long run several times a week, an action that keeps his tall, leggy physique lean and muscular. To top off his good looks, Charlie is also rich, unspoiled, and one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. When a Higher Being was handing out Packages, Charlie was at the front of the line and he got the deluxe edition.
“I still can’t believe John is trying to prove that Grandy Theo was not of sound mind.” Livvie smiled wryly. “She had one of the soundest minds I know. Grandy knew what she was doing when she left her estate to you.”
“Now if you said you want to kill John, you’d have a lot of company. Just about everybody I know wants to kill John, myself included.” Charlie came back to the couch, balancing a perfect appletini decorated with a thin slice of apple from the Whittington orchards. “But when it comes to Sheila, because your…um…paramour is related to the Peavey case, you’d better keep your mouth shut.”
Livvie almost choked on a sip of tonic water. “Paramour? That’s an interesting word.”
“Give me a better word, then. Cassie and Sam are sleeping together. What should I say? Somehow boyfriend-girlfriend sounds too odd at our ages. Bed-mate?” He waggled his eyebrows at me, but his green eyes weren’t laughing. I saw a hint of his displeasure in their depths.
“Sam’s not related to the case,” I protested half-heartedly. “He’s been cleared.”
“Sam Barlow was married to Shelia, who divorced him to marry Mike Peavey, the victim. Peavey stole Sam’s ideas for a new hybrid shrub and there was a patent dispute. Sam was going to sue him for a share in Peavey’s company. There was a lot of bad blood between them and that always looks suspicious, no matter how airtight Sam’s alibi is.” Charlie recited the details of the homicide that occurred the previous spring with a lawyer’s crisp precision, not surprising given the fact that he’s a contract lawyer.
“How long will it take before John’s lawsuit is thrown out? Cassie deserves the money Grandy wanted to leave her.” Livvie stood up and went to the window. I envied Livvie her tousled ash blonde hair and svelte, rich-girl good looks. Livvie was what Paris Hilton would look like in twenty years if she went natural. Livvie was at least six inches taller than my five-foot-three and she probably weighed just a little more than my one-hundred-twenty. Where I was short and stacked, Livvie was long, lean and tennis-y beautiful.
“The court has to gather depositions from people who knew Grandy. That will take time because I’m sure they want to be thorough since the estate is valued at almost twenty million.”
I had seen only a trickle of the money due to me from Charlie’s grandmother, so I wasn’t overly worried. I wasn’t depending on the cash. It was a windfall and it hadn’t really fallen yet, so to speak. “I’m sorry it’s created such bad blood in the family.”
“Cassie, there’s always been bad blood between John and the rest of us.” Livvie turned from the window to smile at me. The dark blue slacks and striped blue-and-white ‘sailor’ top picked up the navy blue of her eyes, artfully made up with cosmetics. Livvie always looked well-put-together, but since she quit her social drinking she looked fresher, somehow, as though a layer of fuzziness was peeled away and the true woman was emerging.
“This is over the top, even for John.” Charlie scowled then settled back, propping his left ankle on his right knee, his dark khaki pants and white shirt making him look like an ad for Ralph Lauren’s Polo.
I, of course, was the frump of the bunch in my ‘good’ jeans, red T-shirt, and white sweater. I chose my wardrobe to honor the memory of the woman whose ashes we earlier tossed over the side of Charlie’s boat—Theodora Penningford, Charlie’s grandmother. Red, white, and blue was her favorite color combination because she was an unabashed patriot until she died the previous spring. Today was the ash-flinging party on the lake with her descendents. I was a de facto member of the family, having been raised with the Whittingtons from childhood. Plus I was supposed to inherit most of Grandy Penningford’s estate, an inheritance that had caused months of anger from Charlie’s brother, John.
“I still say Sheila should be in jail,” I maintained, jerking the subject back to the murder that had ensnared me the previous spring.
When Love Came to Town blared out from Livvie’s Coach handbag on the couch. She whirled and pounced on it. “That must be T.J. I wonder why he’s late.” She took the bag and wandered toward the foyer behind us.
Ah. That explained Livvie’s anxious behavior. We were going to meet the new Man in her life. I’d heard rumors about the mysterious T.J. Watson, the man Livvie met at Hazelden, an exclusive alcohol and drug treatment center north of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. I looked back at her over one shoulder. She had a cell phone pressed to her ear, smiling. “Livvie looks happy,” I commented in a low voice.
“I think she is. When she read me the riot act last spring about you, I told her to take a look at her own life.” Charlie smiled wryly. “Little did I realize she’d actually do it and check into a treatment center.”
“Ouch. I didn’t realize she chewed you out.”
“She told me to back off when you started…seeing Sam.” Charlie took a long swallow of appletini. “She reminded me, rightfully so, that you and I were divorced and if I wanted to be a part of your life, I had to speak up.”
I longed to get up and walk away from Charlie’s perceptive eyes, but I restrained myself and stayed put. “You never spoke up.”
He was silent for a long moment, staring at the contents of his glass. Then he looked at me and I saw my own confusion reflected back at me. “I’m not sure, Cassie. I love you, but is it the right kind of love? We were married so young and we’ve been divorced so long. I still love you, but…” His face darkened under his tan with a charming blush. “Believe me, I’ve lusted after you enough since our divorce.”
“You’ve had girlfriends galore, too. You weren’t exactly starving for female company.” I set down my glass with a trembling hand. Charlie and I had danced around questions about our relationship for years. Those questions began to take center stage in recent months, mainly because of my involvement with Sam Barlow, whom I met the previous spring. “I know some of those girlfriends wouldn’t mind another chance.”
“You mean Kathleen?” He drained his glass in one swallow. “Sorry. After the way she confronted you last spring—that’s over.”
“I meant Janelle Rimes.”
Charlie’s head whipped around so fast I thought I heard his muscles scream. “You and Janelle have been talking about me?” His usually light voice was deadly calm.
“I’ve seen a lot of Janelle lately since she’s the lawyer assigned to work with me on settling Grandy’s estate.” I ignored the warning tenseness I saw in his hand holding the glass and barreled ahead. “She hasn’t settled down with anyone since you and she broke up.”
“Really?” His eager question told me a lot before his mask settled back in place. “It doesn’t matter. Janelle and I broke up years ago.” He shrugged. “Besides, like I said before, she’s too young for me.”
I snorted. “Most men would jump at the chance to go out with a gorgeous thirty-something lawyer.”
“We broke up years ago. She’s moved on.”
“Three years. Don’t you think you could—?”
“No.” Charlie stood up and went to the drinks table again, dumping some ginger ale and ice into a tumbler. “Janelle broke up with me because I wouldn’t commit to a relationship.”
“You wouldn’t commit because of me,” I said gently.
“What about you?” he countered. “Why didn’t you change your name when we got divorced? You kept the Whittington name.” His green eyes regarded me accusingly. “And what about Sam? You and he have been together for seven months now. Are you afraid to commit to him? Or is it just a passing thing?”
I decided to focus on the part of his speech I wanted to address. I wasn’t ready to discuss my relationship with Sam with anyone, even myself. “Change my name to what?” I considered picking up my glass but was pretty sure my trembling hand would make a spill likely. “My father was a murderer. I’m not going to change my name back to Wheelock.”
“You could change it to anything. But you kept the Whittington name. Cassie, you married me because you wanted to be an official part of our family. You could change your name and still be a part of the family. You—” Charlie broke off when Livvie walked back into the room and resumed her seat. “Problems?” he asked when he saw her worried face.
“T.J. can’t come. He got tied up at the restaurant.” Livvie gnawed on her lower lip. “He asked if you could give me a ride home, Charlie, since Cassie is borrowing my car.”
“Restaurant?” I asked, happy for the diversion.
“He’s a saucier.” Livvie sipped her tonic water, her eyes narrowed deep in thought.
“I beg your pardon?”
“A sauté chef.”
I blinked rapidly, trying to absorb this information. “Like, in a kitchen?”
“Yes. He’s saucier at La Suzette du Paris.”
This required a big sip of gin on my part. La Suzette was one of the most expensive restaurants in the Twin Cities metro area, specializing in authentic French cuisine. The restaurant was located in a small house on Lake Minnetonka, a ritzy location near on one of the secluded bays on the west side of the lake. Guests could arrive by boat or road, and reservations were impossible to obtain. “Really?” I glanced at Charlie. You rat, I thought. You knew and didn’t warn me. Charlie smiled innocently at me and raised his glass of ginger ale in salutation.
“But you guys met at Hazelden?” I asked then wanted to slap myself for such a stupid thing. What did I expect her to say, Yeah, we met during rehab?
“He volunteers at Hazelden during orientation for new people. He’s one of the alumni.”
“How did he become a cook—er, I mean, a chef?”
“He was a cook in the Navy during Viet Nam. When he got out, he ran into some problems. After he got straight, he went to culinary school.” Livvie recited these facts almost absent-mindedly, her eyes on the window where twilight was falling.
I did some rapid mental math. If T.J. served in ‘Nam, he had to be in his late fifties at the least. He was probably fifteen years older than Livvie.
“T.J.’s son is the pastry chef at the restaurant,” Charlie murmured.
A son? Livvie’s mystery man had a son? I drank off my martini, trying to assimilate the information being tossed my way.
“Another drink?” Charlie asked with an innocent smile.
I shot him a murderous look. “Ginger ale, please.” I held out my glass and glared at him as he sprang to his feet and went to the drinks cart nearby.
“When I got out of rehab, I, well, I—” Livvie sounded bewildered, as though she could barely remember the experience. “I felt I had to meet him. His story—the one he told at orientation—was so intense. I called the restaurant and was told I couldn’t get a reservation.” She looked at Charlie, who had his back to her as he poured my drink. I, however, had a good view of the smug look on his face. “So I called my big brother and he came through for me.”
“Amazing what a bit of name dropping will do,” Charlie said. “My legal firm has a standing reservation at La Suzette. We take clients there occasionally.” He dropped a slice of lemon into my drink and rejoined us, handing me my glass with a wink. “Has T.J. had any more trouble with that other chef? You mentioned it the last time we all had dinner together.”
I shot him a disgusted look. Dinner together? How chummy were they? The least he could have done was prep me for a few of the surprises I was getting.
Livvie stood and paced to the window. “It’s an ongoing battle with them.” She sounded distracted but her back was to us so I couldn’t see her face. “This bothers me. I know he wanted to meet you, Cassie. That’s why we arranged for him to pick me up at your house later, so I could loan you my car. Do you think maybe we could stop at the restaurant? That way I can get a ride with him and you can just take the car.”
“That’s fine.” I eyed the tense line of her shoulders. “Do you want to go now?”
“Could we?” She whirled and smiled with relief. “It just bothers me.”
“Not a problem.” I set my refilled glass on the end table. “I appreciate the loan. My Jeep needs to go to the shop again.”
“Your Jeep needs to be retired,” Charlie muttered.
I frowned at him. “Not all of us can run out and buy a new car when we need one.” I got to my feet and settled my J C Penney leather bag on my shoulder.
Livvie picked up her far-more-pricey leather bag and held out her car keys. “Why don’t you drive? It’ll be good practice. You’re going to be borrowing it for a while.”
I took the keys warily. While it was nice of Livvie to let me use one of her cars, I wasn’t sure I liked the idea of being responsible for a fifty-thousand dollar vehicle. Had I known I was going to be driving today, I would have limited my alcohol consumption. She saw my hesitation. “Oh, go ahead. It won’t bite. I told you, if you like it, you can just buy it from me. I was going to sell it anyway.” She led the way to the doorway, grabbing her matching blue jacket from the chair as she passed.
“See you tomorrow?” I asked as Charlie escorted me to the door. “At your father’s party?”
He bent over and gave me a cheek kiss. “Maybe. Drive carefully.”
“No shit. It’s a Lexus.”
He laughed. “You’ll be fine.”
“Talk to you later, Charlie.” Livvie gave him a brief hug then hurried out into the hall. I followed, dragging on my denim jacket as we went.
When we emerged into the side parking lot, the sun was just starting to set, angling through vivid leaves. I’ve always said autumn and spring were Minnesota’s rewards for enduring the icy winters and humid summers. This autumn was even prettier than many I remembered. I looked down at the keys in my hand as assorted exterior and interior lights came on in a red Lexus GS in front of us. Soft illumination highlighted the side mirrors, the foot wells, and a spotlight even shone onto the steering wheel and center console. “Whoa. What happened? I didn’t press any buttons.”
“The car reads the keys and it automatically opens,” Livvie said. “And lights your way.”
I slipped into the driver’s seat and stared down at the unfamiliar controls. “Is this a space ship or a car?”
Livvie laughed. “Just follow the lights.” She pointed to a series of illuminated spots that led to a button on the dash.
“What’s that?”
“The start button. Just press it.”
I did and the car purred to life. “Wow. Where’re the mirror thingie and the seat thingie and all that?”
She showed me a control panel that slipped out of the console. Soon we had the car adjusted to my shorter self and I put it into gear, driving slowly out of the parking lot. “Go right at the traffic light,” she said. “We can stay on this road almost all the way to the restaurant.”
I did as she directed, thankful there was still enough daylight for me to easily see the road. I was busy trying to familiarize myself with a car so much bigger and more powerful than my ancient Jeep Wrangler. Livvie stared out the front window, her face anxious. I tried to find a topic of conversation to divert her attention. “I thought it went well today at the flinging.”
She grinned briefly. “Yes, it did. John wanted to throw you overboard, his wife got seasick, my sister avoided me, and most of the assorted grandkids acted like assholes.”
“A typical Whittington outing.” I steered cautiously through an intersection. “Has T.J. met the family?”
“Most of them at one time or another. You’re the last one. Like I told T.J., you’re more of a sister to me than Becky is.”
I couldn’t quibble with that description of our relationship. Livvie and Becky weren’t on speaking terms since Livvie slept with Becky’s second husband seven years earlier.
“I wanted T.J. to be there today. He knew how important it was to me.”
“Why today? I mean, besides the ash-flinging, that is.” I looked nervously from one side to the other. The road was now just a narrow ribbon of pavement, with huge expanses of water on either side. Minnetonka was one of the biggest lakes in the state and I felt like it was all waiting to suck me and the expensive car I was piloting into its grasp.
“We needed to talk to you and Charlie about something and we wanted to do it together.” Livvie glanced at me then out the window. “It can keep.”
She fell silent and I was grateful. The lake now loomed only on the left side of the car. I vaguely recognized this part of the metro. The home I was supposed to inherit—Grandy Theo’s mansion—was southwest of here, on another part of the lake. I spent many a summer afternoon boating through these channels and bays with the Whittington family.
We drove about four miles when she said, “Go left at the intersection there. Then take the first right. The restaurant is a mile south, on the right side of the road facing the lake.”
I made the turn into a tree-lined older part of the lakeshore world. Buildings faced the lake on our right with their signs on the road, pointing in to their parking lots. The sign for La Suzette was a white wooden shutter, almost hidden by trees. A short drive led to two buildings. “That’s Hell House,” Livvie said as she leaned forward to stare at a smaller white frame house on the right. “That’s what they call the kitchen building. The dining room—the Feed Bag—is in the other building.” She gestured toward the square blue building next to the white one. “When the owners expanded the business they decided to just buy the neighboring house rather than add on to their existing one. The buildings are connected by walkways. You can park there.” She pointed to a few spots next to the smaller building where a motorcycle was already parked near a sign that said Staff Only.
“Where is everybody? It’s Friday night. I thought the place would be jumping.” I carefully maneuvered the car next to the Harley, breathing a sigh of relief when we rolled to a stop.
“It’s only open on weekends in the fall and winter and the buildings have been under construction. They’re renovating the dining building, so T.J. has been on vacation for the last couple of weeks.” Livvie opened her door before we stopped, springing out and going to the back door. Before she got there it opened and a man stepped out on the wooden steps.
My first thought was What’s a biker doing here? Scuffed boots, worn jeans and a denim jacket with appliquéd patches made him look like a refugee from Sturgis. Then my next thought was This is a man who’s seen some hard times. He was tall but a bit hunched, as though protecting himself from a blow. His brown and gray hair was short and stubbly, topping a triangular face that narrowed to a smallish chin with a shadow of gray beard. The set line of his mouth was like a slash in his face, hard and inflexible. He reminded me somewhat of Eric Clapton: Eric post-drugs and getting older. A man at peace with himself and the world, but not forgetting the blows dealt him along the way.
Then I saw this man wore a prosthesis, an artificial right arm ending in a hook sticking out from his blue plaid flannel shirt that in turn stuck out under his denim jacket. When he saw Livvie, he took a step back. “What are you doing here, Liv?”
Holy shit. It was him. T.J. I made a mental note to give Charlie a lecture the next time I saw him. He needed to prepare me for shocks like this. My first thought was, how can this guy be a cook? He’s got a hook. He’s a cook with a hook. I plastered a smile on my face and prayed I wouldn’t giggle.
“Cassie, this is T.J. Watson. Tom, this is Cassie Whittington.”
I automatically held out my right hand then stopped, embarrassed. He smiled and held out his left hand, taking mine in an awkward but firm grip. “Good to meet you.” He had a low, rough voice with a trace of Texas or some other American West state. “Olivia’s talked a lot about you. She was right. You do look like Gidget.”
I shot Livvie a disgruntled look. My resemblance to Sally Fields has haunted me all my life. I hoped when my hair turned gray it might change, but it didn’t.
“What are you folks doing here?” he asked.
“I was worried when you said you couldn’t come. Is something wrong?”
T.J. looked back at the building behind him. “Yeah, I think you could say that.” His voice sounded almost bemused.
I peered around him and took an involuntary step forward when I saw what I thought I saw. “Is that—” I leaned to one side, trying to get a good look.
A body was lying on the floor just inside the door, a pool of blood making a dark stain in the middle of the chest in the white chef’s uniform.

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Lilacs, Litigation, and Lethal Love Affairs
by JL Wilson

The Wild Rose Press

eBook ISBN: None Given
Print ISBN: 1-60154-900-8

Cassie has a new job, a sexy new boss, and she just inherited fifteen million dollars. But when she stumbles on a murder in the greenhouse, she finds out that she may not live long enough to enjoy it all…

Chapter One

The angry voices were getting louder.
I crouched behind the double-shelved potting bench full of glossy green philodendrons and tried to peer through the leaves at the argument in progress on the far side of the greenhouse. Two men had come into the house while I was bent over to straighten the plastic pots on the floor and they obviously didn’t know I was there. Heck, even if I were standing straight they might not see me among the verdant vegetation that surrounded me. I was short and the greenery was tall and thick.
“You’ve sold out, Mike, and you know it,” one man said, his voice deep, low and angry. “I can’t believe you took everything we worked for and threw it away like that. You son of a bitch, I should expose you. You deserve it.” I couldn’t see the speaker because he was standing next to the palm bench and was hidden by the fronds but he sounded royally pissed off.
“Threw it away? Who are you kidding? I’m making a six-figure salary and I’m on the board of Min-Gen Technologies. I’ll retire in a couple of years on my stock options. Where are you? Still peddling petunias? Still crawling around in the dirt and doing landscape designs? How’s the company doing? Will you show a profit this year?”
This came from the tall man in a business suit who stood in the aisle leading through the greenhouse past the dozens of wooden tables holding houseplants. I recognized him as the keynote speaker for today’s dedication ceremony of the new greenhouse, which was situated next to this one where I now toiled. Dr. Michael Peavey was a research botanist who donated a large chunk of money to build the tech school’s horticulture program here in Roseville, a suburb of Minneapolis. I’d endured his speech just an hour earlier but slipped away from the celebratory banquet to finish my chores in the old greenhouse.
“It’s not about the money,” the first man hidden in the palms said.
“Of course it is. You’re lying if you say it isn’t. I got the business and the patents and…” His voice was muffled as he turned then I heard him say, “…hated me all these years because of it. Don’t blame me now because I’m a success. Your threats won’t stop me.”
“Threats? You haven’t seen threats yet. Just wait until I tell —”
Their voices were drowned out by the creaking of the overhead fans kicking on in an attempt to keep the temperature regulated in the leaky old structure. I used the noise to duck low and scurry out of the side door leading to the hall in front of the horticulture classrooms.
“Hey, Gidget!”
I stopped and waited for the teenager to catch up to me as he hurried down the concrete block hallway. My younger classmates bestowed that nickname on me when one of them watched a Sixties TV marathon on cable TV and noticed my resemblance to the star of the television show of the same name. Sally Fields was ten years older than me, but we still looked remarkably alike although my short, shaggy hair had always been white. It was an odd quirk of aging that now as I approached fifty my hair was turning pale sweatshirt gray. Thank goodness the kids didn’t latch onto the Flying Nun. That would have been too much, even for my easy-going nature.
“What’s up, Aaron?” I asked, taking a left turn and approaching the main entry door to the greenhouse I’d just vacated. I glanced at the steamy glass door and saw a dark silhouette against its surface.
“They’re getting ready to cut the ribbon on the new greenhouse. You have to make the speech, don’t you? Ed sent me to find you.”
“I’m on my way. I was just finishing up in the old greenhouse.”
“It’ll be nice working in the new house, won’t it?” Aaron Swenson fell into step with me. He was one of the handsomest young men I’ve ever seen with a tall, athletic build, blond hair, and a sunny smile and disposition to match. His dark blue eyes always seemed to be mischievous and warm, as though every person he talked to was the center of his universe. He was charming, sweet, and sincere, or at least he seemed to be. Some people seemed that way until you really got to know them, but I suspected he truly was as nice as he seemed. No one could cultivate such a persona without slipping at least once in a while.
“I won’t get much time in the new greenhouse,” I commented. “I graduate in a few weeks and am off to the real world, such as it is.”
Aaron looked surprised then nodded. “I keep forgetting you’re ahead of us.”
“Only relatively speaking,” I assured him. “I transferred in so many credits from my other schools it put me a year ahead of you guys.” We walked down the hallway, nearing the main door to the greenhouse. As we did, the steamy glass door opened and a man burst out. The collar on his black leather jacket was pulled high, hiding most of his face so all I saw was his tousled white and gray hair. He brushed by us down the hall which led to the front entrance of the school building.
“Who’s that?” Aaron asked as he peered back over his shoulder. He opened the door and I preceded him into the potting room that served as foyer to the newer greenhouse.
“No idea. I guess he’s a visitor or something.” I entered the twenty-foot open space, meagerly heated by the overhead pipes. Most of the Horticulture Department students were inside, mingling with a few school and town dignitaries who looked out of place next to the tubs of dirt, bags of fertilizers and plastic trays lining the wooden potting benches. Ed Jenkins, one of the instructors, gestured with his coffee mug for me to join him. I crossed the room to the big red ribbon stretched across the doorway to the new greenhouse.
“Cassie, this is Dr. Anderson, the school President.” Ed beamed at me. “Dr. Anderson, this is Cassie Whittington. She’s the president of the Student Horticulture Society. She’ll be making the acceptance speech on behalf of our students.”
I held out my hand, which was thankfully somewhat clean. “Nice to meet you.”
Dr. Anderson was a tall, angular woman about twenty years my junior and svelter in her business-like blue pants and pretty silk blouse. Of course, I was transplanting tulips just an hour earlier, so my patched jeans and man’s shirt over my T-shirt were more practical. I thought about my own business wardrobe, pushed to the back of my closet since the layoff three years earlier and wondered fleetingly if anything would still fit. I made a mental note to go through the clothing and donate a few items to charity. I doubted I’d be returning to the Business World any time soon.
“It’s nice to meet you,” she said. “Ed tells me you started working at Barlow’s Nursery in Pickaway. That’s a good company. We’ve placed a lot of students there over the years. Sam Barlow and Mary Hannon are real supporters of the program.”
“I started there last month. It’s convenient because it’s so near my house. Aaron and I both started at the same time.” I nodded toward Aaron, who had followed me into the room. “This is Aaron Swenson. He’s the V.P. of the Horticulture club.”
Dr. Anderson turned to Aaron and smiled. Everyone smiled when they saw Aaron. He reminded me a lot of my ex-husband, Charlie, who was also one of the handsomest men I’ve ever met. Charlie was unspoiled, rich, and likeable. If Aaron were lucky, he’d mature into a man like Charlie.
“Several of our grads have worked at Barlow’s Pickaway store and at the Roseville store.” Dr. Anderson looked past me at the clock high on the wall. “As soon as Dr. Peavey arrives, we’ll get started.”
“I saw him in the old greenhouse a few minutes ago,” I said, jerking a thumb over one shoulder to the hallway. “He was talking with someone over by the big palms.” Ed shot me an exasperated look and I added, “They were standing by the Howea belmoreana.” I had struggled to memorize the Latin names in Ed’s Interior Landscaping class and was gratified when he nodded. Apparently I got it right.
Dr. Anderson glanced at the clock again. I recognized impatience when I saw it. I edged toward the door. “I’ll check and see if he’s ready.”
“I’ll go.” Aaron was already turning and hurrying out of the potting room.
“Thank you.” The prez turned to another student and I went to the new greenhouse, slipping under the big red ribbon and walking into the empty space. It was a beautiful structure, graceful and up-to-date with all the modern conveniences. Compared to the old house that leaked cold air in the wintertime and was stifling in the summer, this was like a little bit of heaven, a little bit of clean, fresh, and new heaven.
I joined the two members of the Elder Ladies League, or ELLs, a group of older women who had, like me, returned to school after layoffs or empty nest syndrome. “Ready for your ten minutes of fame?” Susan asked with a smile.
“I’m not talking for ten minutes, more like two.”
“How’s the new job going?”
“Pretty good. I think I’ll like it. Of course, it’s only about a mile from my house, so I love the commute.” I spied food arranged on one of the wooden potting benches. My stomach rumbled at the sight. “It’s so odd to be in a suburb after years of living downtown. Cows instead of cars.”
“Have you met Sam Barlow yet?” Laurie Morrison asked.
“I heard he’s sexy,” Susan said. She was a petite, gray-haired woman whose husband retired young. They spent several weeks in Florida over the spring break and she still retained her tan, which emphasized her light gray eyes. “Joan Evenson said he was sexy. She works in the Roseville store and he manages it.”
“I haven’t met him yet. He’s snowbirding in Florida. His sister Mary hired me. She runs the Pickaway store.”
“He was a Marine,” Laurie said. “I heard he served overseas then came back and went to college before going into business with his father. There’s been a Barlow Nursery for almost a hundred years. I heard it’s a good place to work. They pay well.” She regarded me with alert curiosity.
I nodded. “I’m getting seven dollars over minimum.”
“Man, that is good.” Laurie was working at Landau’s Nursery, the biggest garden center in the Twin Cities. They had five locations and Laurie worked at the Uptown center, where all the yuppies shopped. She always complained about the hours, which were long, and the clientele, which was snobby. “I’m only getting five over minimum.”
“I think it was the computer stuff that did it.” I eyed the cookies resting on a tray on one of the potting benches. In the last three years I shed seventy pounds and was now at my college weight of one-hundred-twenty. Surely one cookie wouldn’t matter, would it? “I told Mary Hannon when I interviewed I could revamp their inventory system.”
“Good bargaining chip.” Susan looked envious and I knew it was because computers intimidated her. My twelve years in the high tech industry were proving to be handy in my post-layoff years.
“Can you?” Laurie asked. She was a slim blonde woman who, like me, had lost weight but unlike me, she didn’t have to struggle to keep it off. Either that or she was a good actress and it only appeared that it was effortless. It might have been the latter because I could never quite tell what Laurie was thinking.
“Can I what?” I edged toward the cookies and the coffee urn nearby.
“Can you set up their inventory system?” She perched one butt cheek on a bench and leaned back slightly, letting a leg dangle back and forth. Her ‘work’ clothes—denim jeans and jacket over a dark T-shirt—still looked fresh and clean even after tussling with repotting plants in our propagation class earlier in the day. I always ended up looking like Pig Pen after a day at school but Laurie and Susan looked as if they just stepped out of the laundry room. Laurie regarded me skeptically. “I thought that sort of thing took months to implement.”
“It does,” I admitted. “But I’ve already tested the software. I did it for a project in my Nursery Management class. So I know how it works. Mary Hannon wants me to try it out on a subset of their operations this summer and if it looks good, we’ll implement it completely in the fall, when they change stock for winter season.”
“Sounds like you’ll have a job for a while then,” Susan said
I hadn’t considered it, but she was right. Many nursery/landscape jobs were seasonal, but Mary didn’t indicate it was short-term when she hired me. “We’ll see,” I said. “Inventory can be complicated to implement. We’ll need to do new bar coding to get it to work.”
“So you haven’t met the boss yet?” Susan took a ginger cookie from the tray.
I took one, too, to keep her company. “Nope.”
“I heard they’re going to close the Pickaway center,” Laurie commented, still swinging one leg casually.
“Really?” I nibbled the cookie, making the gingery goodness last as long as possible.
“I don’t think it’s a done deal,” Susan said. Like me, she lived in Pickaway, a suburb to the west. She’d been a resident for decades, though, while I moved there just a few years earlier. “I know the county wants to widen the highway in front of their corner. Of course, they’ve been talking about doing that for years.”
I visualized the scene in my mind. Barlow’s Landscape Center was located on the corner of a busy county highway on the north and an equally busy boulevard on the east. A small lake bordered it on the west while townhomes, one of which was mine, encroached from the south. It was a prime piece of real estate in a fast-growing suburb. “I haven’t heard anything about it,” I said as I savored my cookie.
“Hey, Gidget,” a voice hissed behind me.
I turned. Another student, Bobby Somebody, was gesturing to me from the doorway. “That must be my cue,” I said, popping the last of the cookie in my mouth. I joined him near the big red ribbon. “Did Aaron find our main event?”
“I don’t know. We can’t find him anywhere. You said you saw Dr. Peavey in the greenhouse?”
“Yeah, just a few minutes ago. He was talking to a guy.”
“He’s not there now. What should we do?”
“Maybe he went to the administrative offices.” I looked at my instructors, all standing with the college president. “Let’s check.”
I ducked under the red ribbon and headed for the door just as it opened and Aaron came in. He looked anxious and worried. “Did you find him?” I asked.
“What? Who? Oh, no. No, I went to the greenhouse but he wasn’t there.” Aaron looked past me to the college president, who was regarding us expectantly. “I looked everywhere.”
I doubted it but I wasn’t going to say it out loud. Aaron looked frazzled enough as it was without me criticizing his efforts. “Let’s see what they want to do.”
We joined the president and our instructors and had a huddled conference then Ed said, “Let’s go ahead and do the ribbon cutting. Maybe Peavey was called away.” He handed me a pair of the faux gold scissors and handed the other pair to Dr. Anderson. “You two ladies can do the honors.”
She and I stepped to the ribbon and the assembled students and visitors hushed. Ed introduced us then I gave my brief little gee, this is great, it’ll be neat for the students, we appreciate the matching funds you bigwigs donated speech.
Dr. Anderson stepped forward and gave a brief, sincere speech and patted us all on the back, metaphorically speaking, for a fund-raising job well done. She and I turned to the ribbon and whacked it, the thick cloth falling aside to let the spectators move forward.
Polite applause greeted our efforts as the ribbon dropped to the concrete floor. The guests walked into the space, oohing and ahhing over the clean potting tables, bright sunlight streaming in, and the engraved paving stones donated during the fund-raising. I’d hit up the Whittington family for donations and several pavers were there with their names on them. I eyed John Whittington’s paver and wished I could tread on it with my dirty, manure-covered work boots. John wasn’t my favorite person.
About twenty minutes after the ceremony the crowd started to thin. The ELLs had long vanished, many to home and family and a few to jobs. Like me, many of them were working part-time while in school and all had commitments after the class day ended.
I picked up two of the Boston ferns we used as table decorations and started back through the potting room. “I’ll put these back in the greenhouse,” I told Ed as I passed him near the door.
“Thanks. I’ll bring the other props in as soon as the crowd leaves.”
I went to the old greenhouse and pushed open the door, drinking in the humid smells of dirt, plants and the sharp tang of fertilizer. The odors were a balm to my winter-weary senses. March in Minnesota is a month of tantalizing hope and we still had half-a-foot of snow on the ground. This greenhouse was an oasis in the desert.
I walked along the narrow entry aisle, paved with flat stones that lay unevenly on the gravel floor. This walkway led into the greenhouse proper, the three-tiered tables on either side loaded with ficus, spider plants, dumb canes, bromeliads and ivy. The plants effectively blocked my view of all but the intersection ahead and the bright afternoon sunlight over me.
I reached the intersection for the main aisle and looked to my right. Four three-tiered benches lined either side of the aisle, each loaded with assorted plants. The Boston ferns were kept in the center of the greenhouse, where the humidity was less variable in the leaky structure. I turned to walk to my left, into the main part of the greenhouse and as I did, I almost fell over a body.
Michael Peavey was stretched out on the floor, overturned plants, dirt, and pots scattered over and around him. My first thought was that he’d fallen. Then I got a closer look at his face. I’ve never seen anyone with cyanosis before, but I recognized the symptoms. They were drilled into those of us who took Nursery Operations 101. Michael Peavey had all the signs of a man with pesticide poisoning — fixed and rigid limbs, a blue tinge to his face, bulging eyes, and protruding tongue.
I froze for one long, awful second. Then I realized whatever poisoned him could still be in the air if it had been released as a vapor. I turned to flee and that’s when I saw the thin trail of blood, bright red against the white of a broken ceramic pot on the floor. I hesitated—was he just injured or was he dead?
I hazarded another look at his face and what I saw convinced me to get the hell out while I could. I dropped the ferns in a crashing explosion of busted pots and dirt then dashed out of the greenhouse, almost overturning a bromeliad on the way. I burst into the hallway then into the potting room, barreling into Ed Jenkins, who chatted with a group of students near the door. I grabbed his arm, almost spilling his ever-present coffee cup from his hand.
He took one look at my panicked face and set the mug down on a nearby table. “Is there a problem?”
An important dignitary and the chief donor to the school dead of pesticide poisoning in the Horticulture Department greenhouse? A problem?
That was the understatement of the year.

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Beyond a Highland Whisper
by Maeve Greyson

The Wild Rose Press

eBook ISBN: None Given
Print ISBN: 978-1-60154-879-5

Can love prevail over the vengence of a cruel witch?

A beguiling Scot from the 1400’s, Latharn rages within a crystal when he spurns a seductive witch. Whispered love from his destined mate can break the hellish curse. But Nessa lives in the future and Latharn’s forbidden to speak.

Chapter One

MacKay Keep, Scotland, 1410
“Latharn, are ye sure ye never touched the lass?”
His father’s scowl burned across the room mere seconds ahead of the words.
The reproach in Laird Caelan MacKay’s voice stung Latharn like a physical blow. Tension knotted his muscles and his body stiffened with the bitterness pounding through his veins. Only years of respect for his father held his tongue. How could his father treat him this way? He wasn’t an irresponsible boy anymore. How dare he be treated like a lust-crazed lad!
The great hall of the MacKay keep spanned the largest part of the castle and housed every important gathering of the clan. Flexing his shoulders, Latharn inhaled a deep breath. From where he stood, the room shrank by the moment. He couldn’t believe his father had chosen the monthly clan meeting as a means for resolving this matter.
How dare he try to shame Latharn into a confession by confronting him in front of his kinsmen. This ploy had worked well enough when Latharn was a lad.
His father had used it often whenever he or his brothers had gotten into mischief. Latharn involuntarily flexed his buttocks in remembrance of punishment received after a confession ousted in just such a manner. However, he wasn’t a mischievous boy anymore. This was private; they could handle it between themselves.
Every man, woman, and child strained to hear Latharn’s reply. His father’s closest warriors leaned forward upon the benches. The servants peeped around the corners of the arches, their serving platters clenched to their chests. Latharn rubbed the back of his neck; his skin tingled from their piercing stares.
His father’s face flushed a decided shade of purple. Apparently, he’d delayed his answer long enough. Clipping his words just short of blatant disrespect, Latharn growled through a tight-lipped scowl. “How many times do I have to swear to ye, Father? I have never laid eyes on the MacKinnett lass. I canna bring her face to mind and I havena planted a child in her womb!”
The hall remained silent. Even the dogs sprawled beneath the tables ceased in their endless scuffling for scraps. The only sound breaking the tensed silence was the pop of the wood just thrown upon the fires.
With his hands curled into shaking fists, The MacKay pounded the arm of his chair centered at the head of the great hall. Laird MacKay raised his voice to a throaty growl as he edged forward in his chair. “The MacKinnett clan has always been allied with ours. Their lands join our southernmost borders. Must I tell ye how serious these allegations are to our families? The treaty between our clans has been solid for years. God’s beard, son! If ye’ve dishonored their family, there will be no more peace.
This lass is the only daughter of their laird!”
His knuckles whitened on the arms of his chair as he continued his tirade. Laird MacKay tensed on the edge of his seat as though he were about to spring upon his prey. Heavily streaked with gray, Laird MacKay’s once-golden hair gave him the appearance of a battle-weary lion. Though his body showed subtle signs of an aging Highlander, his eyes still blazed as his roar echoed throughout the great hall.
“Always, ye’ve been one to skirt danger, Latharn! I will admit…’twas usually for the greater good. However, you yourself must also agree, there have been times when ye have yanked the tail of the sleeping dragon just to see if it would breathe fire.
So far, your quick wit has kept ye safe from whatever troubles ye have stirred. But this time, I must know the absolute truth: did ye lie with The MacKinnett’s daughter?”
How many times was he going to ask him? Did he think he was going to change his answer? Anger surged through Latharn’s veins. Rage flashed through him like a cruel, biting wind. He crossed his arms as a barrier across his chest and curled his mouth into a challenging sneer. They didn’t believe him. No matter what he said, they didn’t believe his words. He read it in their eyes. He spit his words as though their bitter taste soured on his tongue. “I swear to ye upon all I hold sacred, I don’t even know the lass’s name!”
A brooding man the size of a mountain stood at Laird MacKay’s side. Stepping forward, he thrust an accusing finger toward Latharn’s chest as though he aimed a lance for the killing throw. “Since when did not knowing a lass’s name keep ye from tumbling her in your bed?” Latharn’s brother, Faolan, stalked forward upon the dais, shaking his head at his brother’s latest scandal. Faolan was the eldest of the MacKay sons, next in line to be laird. The look on his face plainly told Latharn he deemed his brother guilty on all charges as stated.
Latharn snarled. “Stay out of this, Faolan. Ye may have beat the rest of us out of Mother’s womb, but ye’re no’ the laird, yet.” Latharn met his brother’s glare, squaring his shoulders as he stalked forward to answer Faolan’s challenge.
How dare Faolan pass judgment against him?
Latharn didn’t deny he’d enjoyed many a maid since he’d grown to be a man. However, that didn’t mean he’d ever treated them unkindly or shown them any disrespect. He’d sated them fully and when their time was done, he’d taken care to spare their feelings as best he could. Never once had Latharn been inclined to give of his heart…nor had he pretended to do so just to lure a pretty maiden to his bed.
“The lady’s name is Leanna and you will speak of her with respect.” The clear voice rang out through the archway of the hall, causing everyone’s heads to turn. Latharn’s mother, Rachel, emerged from an offset alcove, her eyes flashing in irritation toward her youngest son. “Her clan says she has named you as the father of her child. If she carries your child, Latharn, you will do right by her.”
Latharn winced as thunder rumbled in the distance. Whenever his mother’s emotions were in an upheaval, the weather’s stability always suffered.
Rachel’s powers directly connected with the ebb and flow of the forces of nature. Her emotions meshed with the energies coursing through the physical realm. Thunder while Mother was clearly upset was never a promising sign.
Latharn’s heart sank as he heard the ring of doubt echo in his mother’s voice. She had always been his greatest champion. Whenever the rest of the family rushed to deem him guilty when trouble was in their midst, Rachel always kept an open mind until she’d heard his side of the story. If his mother already believed him guilty this time, how would he convince the rest of them he didn’t even know this lass existed?
Latharn had emerged as the youngest of the MacKay triplets. His name was Gaelic for “the fox” and it had served him well. Little did his parents know how aptly the title would fit when they had chosen it for the innocent babe. Whenever mischief occurred, the wily young Latharn had always been the first to be accused. But that same charm and cunning that was the source of all the mayhem also bailed him out of any trouble he’d caused. That is until now, until this latest uproar that had the entire family in such a stir.
Casting a furtive glance at his mother, Latharn wondered why he was to blame for the women always chasing him. It wasn’t as if he went awhoring all over the country for just anyone to warm his bed. Since he had reached manhood, there didn’t seem to be a lass in the Highlands who could resist him. He didn’t know why they always sought him out. He didn’t do anything special. He was just nice to them…and they followed him to his bed. In fact, sometimes they didn’t follow him. Sometimes, he’d find them waiting for him when he arrived in his chambers. Latharn shifted in place and adjusted his kilt. A lass probably lurked in his private hallways this very minute. It had become somewhat of a problem escaping them.
Latharn had grown restless. Now that he was older, he’d grown weary of their freely given charms.
A quick tumble with a lass was once an incomparable elation. Now the euphoria had dimmed. The satisfaction had dulled to basic physical release. Even while lying spent in erotic exhaustion with a sated lass cooing by his side, Latharn knew there had to be more.
Of late, he’d found a night spent in a luscious maiden’s arms left his heart troubled, as though a question nagged at the tip of his tongue and the answer danced just beyond his reach. No matter her beauty, no matter her sweetness, they all left him empty and cold. Loneliness settled over him like a weight crushing on his chest.
There had to be more then the mere physical pleasure of losing himself in a woman’s embrace. He knew there was more to be found. The security of his parents’ love for each other had strengthened their family as far back as he could remember. He sought that glow of contentment he’d seen in his parents’ eyes when their gaze met across a room. No matter how many years had passed between them, the look they shared never changed. He ached for the connection his parents had found. He longed to lose himself in another’s eyes and speak volumes without saying a word. It was time he cradled his newborn child in his arms, with his loving wife nestled at his side.
Latharn stifled a shudder; the tension gnawed at his gut. The expressions on their faces told him so much more than words. They’d never believe the things he’d done to avoid the women vying for his embrace. His emptiness ached like a festering wound that refused to heal. He decided to search for the elusive answer by honing his mystical powers.
He’d hoped by refining and perfecting his magical gifts, he might solve the mystery of his untouchable heart.
Of late, he’d been so engrossed in sharpening his goddess-given powers, he’d not even walked with a woman in the gardens for several months. He’d been holed up in the northern tower of the keep. There was no way he fathered the MacKinnett woman’s child. By Amergin’s beard, it had to have been at least five full moons since he’d been outside the castle skirting walls!
The air of the keep closed in around him; the sweltering heat of too many bodies shoved in one room added to his discomfort. Latharn raked his hands through his hair and tore himself from his tortured musings. His mother glared at him, her foot tapping. Perhaps it was the fire that flashed in her eyes bringing the heat to his skin. “I know of no Leanna MacKinnett!” he ground out through clenched teeth. Latharn braced himself for his family’s damning replies. His gut already wrenched with the unspoken accusations springing from their eyes.
Raking his own hands through his graying hair, Laird MacKay expelled a heavy sigh. Fixing his gaze on his son with a disappointed glower, he dropped his hands to the arms of his chair. “Their banabuidhseach will arrive at any time. Their clan will not be satisfied with your denials until their seer has had a chance to speak with ye and weigh the truth of your words.”
Latharn turned to his mother. There was one more thing he had to say in his defense. He didn’t care if the rest of the MacKay clan didn’t believe him. His mother would believe his innocence.
“Mother! As many abandoned bairns as I’ve rescued while on my travels, as many waifs as I’ve brought home to this clan… Do ye honestly think I would be able to deny a child of my own blood, a child I had sired? Do ye truly think I would turn my back on a bairn of my very own?”
Latharn towered over his mother, peering down into her eyes and opening his soul to her senses. She had to believe him. He trusted his mother’s intuition to see the truth in his heart. His voice fell to a defeated whisper as he groaned and repeated his earlier words.
“I swear to ye, Mother. I am not the father of the woman’s child. I know of no Leanna MacKinnett!”
Rachel’s hand fluttered to her throat and she slowly nodded. “I believe you, Latharn. Moreover, I will do what I can to shield you from their banabuidhseach.
I hear this woman’s powers are amazing, perhaps even stronger than mine. But I’ll do whatever I can to protect you from any evil that may be traveling upon the mists.”
With a heaviness in his chest and a catch in his voice, Latharn rasped into his mother’s hair, “Your belief in me is all I’ve ever needed, Mother. Ye know I would never bring dishonor to our family or shame upon our clan.” He brushed his lips across his mother’s cheek just as chaos erupted at the archway of the hall.
Her shrill cry echoed through the keep as the MacKinnett bana-buidhseach screeched like an enraged crow. “I demand retribution for Clan MacKinnett. That heartless cur has sullied Leanna MacKinnett’s good name!”
The bent old woman rocked to and fro at the entrance to the hall, brandishing her gnarled walking stick overhead like a weapon. Her white hair hung in tangled shocks across her stooped shoulders. Her black eyes glittered in her shriveled face, like a rat’s beady eyes from a darkened corner.
Her somber robes swept the rush-covered floor with every dragging step. Even the brawniest Highlander in the crowd faded back as she hitched her way to the front of the cavernous room.
Drawing a deep breath, Latharn’s muscle tensed as the old crone edged her way toward him.
Tangible power emanated from her swirling aura as he studied her twisted form. This seer’s energies rivaled those of his time-traveling mother’s. The battering rush of the crone’s malicious emotional onslaught threatened to slam him against the farthest wall.
His mother’s powers had been refined through several generations to her in the twenty-first century. However, her aura had never emitted such waves of energy, not even after magnification through the portals of time.
Immense anger emanated from deep within the old woman, reaching out toward Latharn like a deadly claw. The crone’s soul overflowed with touchable hatred. Latharn braced himself as a rising sense of dread curled its icy fingers around his spine.
He shuddered, swallowing hard against bitter bile as he noticed something else. The bana-buidhseach’s aura seethed with an underlying layer of evil his mother could never possess. The witch’s pulsating energy roiled with a menacing thread of darkness he’d never seen the likes of before.
Cocking her head to one side, a malicious glint shone in her eyes. Her mouth curled into a grimace as she croaked, “What say ye, MacKay cur? Do ye deny robbing my laird’s daughter of her precious maidenhead? Do ye deny ruining her for any other man?”
With a single stamp of her crooked staff upon the floor, enraged lightning responded outside, the flash splintering throughout the room. Everyone in the hall cowered against the walls, shielding their faces from the narrow windows high overhead. The acrid tang of sulfur hung heavy in the air from the burn of the splitting energy.
Theatrics to get her point across. This does not bode well. His hands tensing into clenched fists, Latharn took a deep breath before he spoke. “I fear there has been a grave misunderstanding. I have not been outside the walls of Castle MacKay in the passing of the last five moons.”
“Exactly!” she spat, jabbing her bony finger from deep within her ragged sleeve. The bana-buidhseach hitched sideways closer to Latharn and shook a threatening fist in his face. “Ye appeared to the lass while she lay in her bed. Your vile essence washed over her silken body by the light of the swollen moon. As your spirit swirled upon the mist of the bittersweet night, ye violated her ripe nest and filled her with your seed.”
Eyes flashing with a mother’s protective rage, Rachel shoved her way between Latharn and the snarling hag. Resting her hand on Latharn’s chest, Rachel stood nose to nose with the crone. “Surely, you don’t believe in such an outlandish tale? The girl could not possibly find herself pregnant in the way you just described.”
The crone hitched her way even closer to Rachel, her dark eyes narrowed into calculating slits.
Hissing her reply, her foul breath nearly colored the air around her as she spit through rotted teeth with every word. “Do ye call me a liar, Lady MacKay? Do ye slur the name of Leanna MacKinnett and the honored MacKinnett clan?”
The hall crackled with the conflicting forces of emotional energy as lightning once again splintered the electrified air. Thunder roared, shaking the walls until debris rained down from the rafters. Rachel circled the wizened old hag. “I’ve nothing to say about Leanna MacKinnett or the good name of the MacKinnett clan. I defend my son’s honor against your lies. I challenge your slander against an honorable MacKay son!”
With a wave of her hand and a narrowed eye, the hag halted Rachel where she stood. The spell she cast silenced Rachel’s voice and paralyzed her body.
Sliding around Rachel, she stabbed a gnarled finger into the middle of Latharn’s chest. A demonic smile curled across her face as she sidled her body closer.
With a flourish of one hand, she withdrew a ball of swirling glass from the folds of her tattered robe.
Her cackling voice rose to a maniacal shriek as she lifted the ball for all to see. “Do ye deny lying with every maiden whose head ye happened to turn? Do ye deny withholding your heart from every woman in which ye’ve ever planted your cock?”
Latharn’s voice fell to a low, guttural whisper as dread gripped him in his gut. “Who are ye, woman? What is it ye seek from me?” An icy premonition, fear of what was to come, stole the very breath from his lungs. Latharn knew in the very depths of his soul there had never been a Leanna MacKinnett.
This wasn’t judgment for ruining some woman or the name of her clan. The stench of something much more sinister hung in the air. It rankled with every breath he took.
With a crazed laugh, the shriveled old woman transformed before his eyes. Her dry, tangled hair lengthened into flowing black tresses. Her sallow, wrinkled skin smoothed into creamy silk. Her bent frame straightened, blossoming into a shapely woman, breasts full, hips round and firm.
Her eyes remained black as the darkest obsidian, and full red lips curled into a seductive, malicious smile. Her voice became a throaty, honeylaced melody, deadly in its hypnotic tone. “Do ye remember me now, my beautiful Highlander? We were together once, you and I. We were lovers, but now I come here as your judge and jailer. And I have found ye guilty of withholding your heart from the only one who truly deserves your love.”
“Deardha?” Latharn recoiled from the seductress bearing down upon him.
As she thrust the deep violet globe into his face, Deardha’s voice echoed across the hall. “Aye, Latharn. Ye remember me now? Listen closely to my words. I condemn ye to this eternal prison. I banish ye to this crystal hell. Ye are far too powerful a charmer of magic to be toying with women’s hearts. No longer will I allow ye to sow your seed with any poor fool who warms your bed. If ye willna pledge your heart to me, then ye shall wish that ye were dead.” As Deardha uttered the spell, blinding white energy swirled from the tips of her long pale fingers.
The shimmering tendrils flowed and curled, constricting around Latharn’s body.
With an enraged scream, Rachel broke free of Deardha’s binding spell. Forcing her way between Latharn and the witch, she clawed at Deardha’s face.
“Mother, no!” Latharn roared, fighting against the tightening bands of the curse meshed about his body. “Ye must get away from her. Save yourself!”
He couldn’t breathe. His heartbeat slowed and the room darkened around him. This must be what it felt like to die. Latharn struggled to focus his eyes.
The conflicting forces threw Rachel across the room as Deardha’s field of malevolence blasted against the walls. The winds howled and roared as the demonic chaos ripped throughout the castle.
Then all fell silent just as swift as the storm had risen and a fog of sorrow settled over the room.
Latharn shuddered awake to an icy smoothness pressed against his spine. Finding his arms freed, he flexed his hands, wincing as he rolled his bruised and battered shoulders. Where was he? He lifted his head, staring about in disbelief at the see-through globe enclosed around his body.
Everyone eased their way out from where they’d taken cover: they crawled out from under tables, from behind overturned benches. Eyes wide with fear, they glanced about the room to see if the attack was over.
Latharn spread his hands on the curved, cold glass. What were they doing? Why did they mill around him like he wasn’t there? It was as though he sat among their feet on the floor. What the hell were they doing?
The serving lads rushed to re-light the torches lining the walls. The scattered clansmen and villagers rose from the floor, checking each other for injuries. Tables and benches lay about the room like scattered rushes strewn across the floor. Tapestries and tartans hung in tattered strips, nothing left on the standards but bits of colored shreds.
Laird MacKay shoved his way through the wreckage to his wife. Rachel lay in a crumpled heap beside the hearth, her weakened breath barely moving her chest.
“Mother!” Latharn shouted against the glass. If she was dead it would be no one’s fault but his own. Standing, Latharn stretched to see if Rachel would move.
Laird MacKay cradled her against his chest, pressing his lips to her forehead until she opened her eyes.
Rachel struggled to lift her head, her eyes widening with disbelief as she looked across the room directly toward Latharn. Lifting her hand, her voice cracked with pain as she keened her sorrow to all who remained in the great hall. “My baby!” she sobbed. Waving her trembling hand toward her son, she buried her face in Caelan’s chest.
Latharn closed his eyes against the sight of his mother rocking herself against her pain. As her wails grew louder, he covered his ears and roared to drown out the sound.

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