Just Can’t Get Enough

Once upon a time, Sarah Blake had it all: a loving husband, an adorable son, and a beautiful house on the beach in Southern California. Then she found out it was all a lie. Now a single mother eager for a change, she’s moved to the small mountain town of Big Timber, Montana determined to start her new life as an independent woman. The fact that eligible bachelors are hard to come by in Big Timber is fine by her. Romance isn’t even on her radar. Especially not with a commitment-phobe like Liam Murphy, even if his brooding blue gaze lights a fire of desire in her like no man ever has.

Once upon a time, Liam Murphy was living the dream. He had a wife he adored, an amazing son, and a great job in the down he grew up in. Until one day, his wife decided that none of that was enough for her. That he wasn’t enough for her. Now he wants nothing more than to raise his son in the town he loves, and never risk getting his heart broken again.

Then Sarah Blake, his sister’s best friend, follows through on her harebrained idea to move to Big Timber. Every time Liam gets near her, his system goes haywire, every nerve ending crackling with a desire he knows can only lead to disaster. He’s determined to keep his distance, knowing that before long the flighty California blonde will tire of small town life and head for greener pastures.

But it isn’t long before the simmering passion between them explodes. And while Liam is determined to guard his heart, when it comes to Sarah, he just can’t get enough.

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  • July 25, 2018

Fatal Desire Chapter Sneak Peek

Kindle

Fatal Desire

CHAPTER 1

PAIN. IT SCORCHED through his arm and across his chest. He was afraid to look down, afraid to see the extent of the damage. He could barely see. He lifted his hand to wipe the blood out of his eyes and bit back a scream. His shoulder felt like it had been torn out of its socket, and he was pretty sure his elbow was shattered. Definitely some broken ribs.

The twisted wreckage of their plane lay in a heap several yards away. The last thing Ethan remembered was smacking his head into the steering column as he’d piled into the smoothest stretch of land he could find between two knife-edged mountain peaks. He didn’t know how long he’d been lying here, shivering in the frigid mountain air. Could have been minutes, could have been hours.

He pushed himself up on his still functional right arm and looked around for his copilot, Huck Finnegan, swallowing back his gorge when he saw the tall, lanky form crumpled next to the wreckage. Like Ethan, Huck had somehow managed to unclip himself from his harness and extricate himself from the wreck, but he hadn’t made it very far. Even in the dim light Ethan could see the dark stain spreading under his friend’s prone form.

He called out for his friend, Huck’s name dissolving into a groan of agony when that simple movement sent a spear of pain driving between his ribs. His friend didn’t so much as twitch. Ethan squinted up at the mountains, taking stock of their situation, dread deepening as he realized how vulnerable they were. Him wounded, Huck possibly dead, sitting ducks in this one flat spot for several square miles with enemy forces running around the area like a bunch of fucking mountain goats.

The emergency beacon would have been set off by the wreck, but there was no guarantee the cavalry would arrive in time to save their asses. Though his legs seemed fine, he didn’t dare get up and walk. Nothing said “come and shoot me” like a six-foot-plus white guy in the middle of Al Quaeda country. Ethan rolled onto his belly and cursed silently as he executed a slow, excruciating belly crawl over to his copilot. Thick, dark blood oozed from a wound in Huck’s abdomen, and from the amount already seeping into the parched ground, it was likely his friend was already dead.

Ethan reached out his hand, closing his eyes in relief when he felt a pulse at his throat, thready but there. But not for long if he didn’t get help soon. Ethan unzipped his flight suit and stripped off his T-shirt, nearly passing out as he dragged it off his fucked-up left arm. He balled up the cotton and pressed it firmly against the wound.

Huck let out a harsh groan. Ethan took it as a good sign that he still had it in him to respond to pain. “Take it easy, buddy. We’re gonna get out of this.”

Huck coughed, staining his lips and chin with dark blood. “I’m pretty fucked up, man.”

“It’s not that bad.” Ethan pressed harder against the wound. He wasn’t about to let his friend bleed out on this cold, barren mountain.

Off in the distance, he heard a noise—faint, pulsing, growing closer. Helicopter blades. It might as well have been angels singing.

“Cavalry’s here. We’re going to be fine.” He prayed it was true, but Huck’s color, which hadn’t been good to begin with, had bleached out until he was as gray as the granite peaks surrounding them.

A sharp crack, and the dirt next to him exploded.

Ethan wrapped his good arm around Huck and launched himself for the meager cover of the plane in an adrenaline-fueled rush. The chopper peppered the area with gunfire, covering him as they came in for a landing about fifteen yards away.

It felt like fifteen miles as Ethan got his legs up under him, slung Huck over his shoulder in a fireman’s hold, and ran for it. He heard a meaty thunk and felt the deep burn as his leg took a hit, the bullet ripping a hole through his left quad. He staggered, hearing his friend groan, felt the sticky warmth of Huck’s blood seeping through his own clothing. He refused to go down, willing his leg not to buckle as he gunned it for the chopper. The metallic stench of blood coated his nose, and dust flew into his face, the thunder of the blades and pepper of gunshots deafening as he staggered those last desperate steps…

Ethan jerked awake, clawing away the sweat-soaked sheets as his breath came in heavy pants. He struggled toward wakefulness, swallowing back the rising panic as he registered a dark room and unfamiliar surroundings. As he shook off the last dregs of sleep, his eyes slowly made out the dim shapes of furniture and his body registered that he was lying on a comfortable king-size bed and not the hard floor of a Blackhawk helicopter. And the low thrum he heard wasn’t the sound of helicopter blades slicing through the frigid air of the mountains south of Kabul.

It was coming from the bathroom. It took him a moment, but Ethan finally recognized the steady hum as the jets on the Jacuzzi tub. Which meant someone was taking a bath.

Gillian.

At least, he was pretty sure that was her name. A sexy blonde in a tastefully slinky red dress, a dress that was now flung across the back of a chair on the other side of the sizable master suite. She’d been a guest at the political fundraiser he’d attended last night. But while she had paid five thousand dollars for her plate of rubbery chicken, Ethan had been on the job, running security for the event.

Like it or not, he was the pretty boy of Gemini Security and Investigations, the firm he ran with his brothers, Derek and Danny. That meant that any time a client wanted low-profile security—someone who could blend with the crowd and make conversation with the guests while ensuring the safety of all involved—youngest brother Ethan was the one they trotted out.

So he’d dragged out his tux and dusted off his social graces. At the end of the night, sexy, sophisticated Gillian had taken him home like a party favor.

He shook off the dust of his nightmare until all that was left was the buzz of adrenaline pumping through his veins. He was keyed up, strung out, and he knew the perfect way to work off the tension the dream had elicited. When he got like this, the only way to get him down was either a long run or a lusty fuck, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to go home and lace up his running shoes when there was an attractive and ever-so-willing woman just a few yards away.

He slid from the bed and padded naked across the room, the humming of the jets growing louder as he got closer to the bathroom. Gillian reclined in the tub, her eyes opened into lusty slits. She’d lit about five hundred candles, and their warm light and thick scent permeated the steamy air. After their earlier energetic screw, she apparently wanted to go all romantic for round two. Whatever. He’d go along with whatever mood she chose to create. When it came to the women he slept with, he was nothing if not accommodating.

At least he would be until she started talking about relationships or commitment of any kind. Ethan Taggart didn’t do relationships, or, God forbid, the self-destructive emotion otherwise known as love.

“Hey there, lover,” Gillian said, stretching luxuriously, arching her back so her full, unnaturally perky breasts broke the surface of the water.

He felt his cock stir in interest as she lazily circled her water-slicked breast with her fingers. And she noticed, biting her lip in anticipation as her gaze drifted down his naked body, coming to rest on his thickening erection. She was exactly his type. A sunny blonde who kept her body well maintained and her mind unconcerned with anything too serious. The type of woman who wanted little more out of life than a good time and knew he was a man to give it to her.

He smiled, knelt down next to the tub, and picked up the sponge that rested on the edge. He dipped it under the surface and ran the sponge up the smooth skin of her thigh. Her knees parted, inviting him to drop the sponge and continue the path with his bare hand. He closed his eyes, savoring the slick smooth skin under his fingers.

This was what he needed. Not commitment, not obligation—maybe, if he was honest, not even sex. It was the touch, the feel of a woman’s skin under his hand, a moment of warmth that wouldn’t last past his next orgasm. Then the cold would slowly take over until, after a few days, a few weeks at most, he would find another woman, another body to share her heat, if only for a night.

He slid his hand up to Gillian’s hot core, dipped his head to kiss her warm lips. She wasn’t the most beautiful woman he’d ever been with, or the most interesting but, for tonight at least, she was perfect.

 

Surveillance work sucked. In the course of her relatively new career as a private investigator, Toni Crawford tried to avoid it at all costs. Especially when it pertained to a cheating spouse.

Yet here she was at three o’clock on a Saturday morning, her nearly six-foot-tall frame folded up in the the driver’s seat of her Honda, which felt less roomy as the hours passed while she waited for Phil Barrett to emerge from the Sheraton Palo Alto with his girlfriend on his arm. She’d already given his wife, Christine, all the proof she needed, gathered the way Toni preferred—electronically. It had been child’s play to hack into Phil’s e-mail account and find incriminating messages that included such pertinent information as names and dates of rendezvous as well as references to specific acts performed on said dates.

Swallowing back her distaste, Toni had printed out the messages and bound them neatly in a folder to deliver to his wife, Toni’s client. That was the part Toni hated the most. Watching her client’s face crumple when she found out that her suspicions were indeed true. That the man she’d promised her life to had chosen to find his entertainment elsewhere. No matter what was going on in a marriage, no matter how far apart a couple grew, Toni knew firsthand how devastating the proof of a loved one’s infidelity could be.

Just once, Toni wanted to be able to go to a client and tell her that she was wrong. That she’d misread the signs, that all Toni had been able to dig up was work-related e-mails and legitimate business dinners.

It never worked out that way. The women were always right.

And so had been the case with Christine. But knowing how it was going to end up didn’t make Toni’s job any easier. When Christine’s face blanched and her throat convulsed, Toni had resisted the urge to wrap her arm around the woman’s shoulders. She didn’t offer comforting words or tell the woman she knew exactly what she was going through. This was work, after all, and the woman was her client, nothing more, nothing less. The only reason she was in this business was to get paid, not to make friends.

Which was the only reason she was out in the thick dark of this balmy July night, because Christine Barrett was paying her. Even after all the proof Toni had unearthed in the bowels of Phil’s computer, his wife still clung to the thread of hope that it was all a big misunderstanding. Really, it could have all been mere talk, a not-so-innocent flirtation between coworkers. There was still no proof that they’d actually done anything.

Toni sighed, took off her glasses, rubbed her gritty eyes, and marveled at womankind’s particular talent for self-delusion.

But that self-delusion would pay her rent for another month. So Toni had agreed to follow Phil around to see if she could catch hubby in the act and produce photographic proof of his affair. Toni was in for a sizable bonus if she produced such proof.

And if it still felt wrong to take money to find a nail for the coffin of another marriage, Toni was sure she’d get used to it. Eventually.

After more than a week of tailing him straight home every night, tonight Toni finally hit pay dirt. Earlier in the evening, Toni had tailed him from the office to a bar in Palo Alto, where he’d met up with the coworker. After a couple of hours, the couple emerged and walked a few short blocks to the Sheraton, located right off the main downtown business district. Now it was the wee hours of the morning and the couple had yet to emerge.

Toni hefted her digital camera and once again tested the range on her telephoto lens. From her vantage point, with this lens, Toni would be able to capture the stubble on Phil’s chin and the whisker burn on his girlfriend’s cheek. With the camera cradled in readiness in her lap, she once again settled in to wait.

 

Ethan rubbed his eyes and gulped down the last of his fifth cup of coffee as he pulled up to Jerry Kramer’s driveway. He’d been about to collapse into bed after his early-morning return from Gillian’s house when the call had come in.

Jerry Kramer, Gemini Securities’ most recent high-profile client, had called to inform Ethan that his seventeen-year-old daughter, Kara, was missing.

Now, Ethan could think of a lot of things a seventeen-year-old girl could be up to, none of them life threatening. But Kramer was worried. He’d hired Gemini to handle his family’s security after his company, GeneCor, had recently come under fire by activist groups for its new product forays into stem cell research. So when Kara wasn’t in her bed when the housekeeper had gone to wake her this morning, Kramer had raised the alarm.

And since Kramer was exactly the kind of client Gemini liked—deep pockets and a willingness to spread the word about Gemini among his peers—Ethan had no choice but to respond. So he had jumped into a cold shower and sucked down a vat of coffee in an effort to revive his groggy brain before heading over to Kramer’s.

At this hour it took only ten minutes to drive from his place in Palo Alto to Kramer’s plush estate. Though the entire neighborhood was decidedly affluent—not even a teardown shack could be found for less than one and a half million—the Kramers’ mansion was beyond even the usual extravagance. Sitting well back from the street, it hinted at nothing of its luxury to passersby. A wrought iron fence surrounded the nearly two-acre property, and half a dozen oak trees not only offered shade but almost completely obscured the house from view.

The house itself sat at the end of a long, circular driveway. As he turned into the drive, Ethan frowned to see the massive wrought iron gate standing wide open. His shoulder muscles tensed under his sport coat. He’d just completed a comprehensive security evaluation for the family last week, culminating in the installation of a state-of-the-art security system that included keyless coded entry, motion detectors, and, as an obvious first line of defense, a front gate that unlocked only when the correct combination was entered into the keypad.

But what the hell was the sense of spending tens of thousands of dollars on security work if they were going to leave the fucking front gate wide open?

He bit back his irritation as he drove several hundred yards to the main house.

The acre surrounding the house was meticulously landscaped, the lawn a perfect green carpet that would have done a golf course groundskeeper proud. Brightly flowering bushes were clipped into submission, not a single leaf out of place. Beyond the lawn, the landscape was allowed to stay in its wild state until it blended in with the surrounding woods.

To the right of the house was a four-car garage. The housekeeper’s Saturn was parked in front of the leftmost door, and a black-and-white police cruiser emblazoned with the Atherton Police Department shield was parked beside it.

As he approached the mahogany double doors at the house’s entrance, he couldn’t help but shake his head at such excess. The house was a massive English manor–style home, designed as a monument to the owner’s wealth. Over ten thousand square feet for one resident. Well, three if you counted the time Kara and her younger brother spent here.

Not that Ethan had the right to judge. The house he and his brothers had grown up in hadn’t been exactly modest. Their father, Joe Taggart, had made his fortune in investment banking in the late eighties, and Ethan had grown up in a world where money was no object.

Only stints in the military had kept him and his brothers from becoming the type of entitled dickheads that this town seemed to breed.

Ethan rang the doorbell and was gratified to hear the beeping of the keypad in the front entryway. At least they were keeping the house alarm on, per his instructions.

The door swung open to reveal Manuela, Kramer’s housekeeper. A petite woman in her early forties, Manuela greeted Ethan with a shy smile. “Everyone is in the kitchen,” she said and motioned Ethan to follow her.

The hard soles of his shoes echoed on the marble floor of the foyer before it gave way to hardwood in the hallway that led to the kitchen. He could hear a man speaking in a low voice that echoed off the high ceiling, followed by another voice, more strident. “I don’t see what the hell that has to do with anything.”

Kramer, operating with his usual subtlety. Ethan often wondered how someone so lacking in tact had managed to become so successful in business. Then again, Kramer was the development guru at his biotech company, working behind the scenes to develop new and innovative products. When Ethan had researched Kramer before taking him on as a client, he hadn’t been surprised to read that although Kramer had founded GeneCor six years ago, when the company went public, investors had brought in a new CEO to be the public, polished face of the company.

In the kitchen were two uniformed policemen who quickly identified themselves as officers Hayes and Torres. “Ethan, thank God you’re here.” Jerry Kramer was a heavyset man of medium height. When he was angry or upset, as he was now, his scalp burned red under his thinning blond hair and a thick vein pulsed across his forehead. “I don’t think these clowns know what they’re doing.”

“And who are you exactly, Mr. Taggart?” Officer Hayes asked. The cop looked like he was straight out of a cornfield somewhere, blond and beefy, and almost a match for Ethan’s height of six foot three. His mouth was tight, his blue eyes hot as he obviously struggled with his patience.

Ethan offered his most engaging “Can you believe this guy?” smile, hoping he could salvage the situation before Kramer permanently pissed off the entire police department.

He handed Hayes a card. “My company handles Mr. Kramer’s security. He called this morning when he discovered his daughter was missing.”

Hayes nodded. “We arrived a few minutes ago and have been asking Mr. Kramer some questions.”

“None of which are relevant,” Kramer said.

Ethan hid a wince and wished he could simply backhand Kramer across the mouth. “Would you excuse us a moment?” he asked and grabbed Kramer by the arm before the cops could answer. He steered Jerry into the hall.

“Jerry, you’re not going to do anyone any good if you piss off the cops.”

“But they’re not doing anything. Why aren’t they out looking for her instead of standing in my kitchen asking irrelevant questions?”

“They said they just got here. They have standard procedure to follow.”

“But we’re wasting time when we should be out looking.”

Ethan gave Jerry’s arm a warning squeeze. “The best thing we can do right now is to answer all of their questions and give them all the information we can to help them find Kara.”

Jerry took a deep breath and nodded tightly.

As they turned back to the kitchen, Ethan could hear the low murmur of conversation between Manuela and the police. He strained to overhear but their discussion stopped as soon as they heard Ethan and Jerry’s approach.

The officers motioned Jerry to have a seat at the kitchen island. If he balked at the idea of being invited to sit in his own home, for once Jerry had the grace to keep his mouth shut.

Officer Torres flipped open his notepad. “Now, Mr. Kramer, you said you got home late last night.”

Jerry nodded.

“How late?”

“One AM,” Jerry said.

“And you don’t make it a habit to check on your children when you get home?”

“No,” he said defensively. “That’s why their rooms are in another wing. I’m out late quite often, and I don’t want to disturb them.”

More like you don’t want to actually have to interact with them for more than the time it takes you all to pose for the family holiday card. But it wasn’t Ethan’s job to criticize Jerry Kramer’s style of parenting. It was all too common in families like this for kids to be foisted off on a series of nannies, tutors, and coaches while parents committed themselves to high-powered careers and equally demanding social lives.

Ethan should know. He and his brothers had experienced it firsthand.

“And your son is where again?” Officer Torres asked.

Jerry gave a frustrated shrug and looked pointedly at Manuela.

“Kyle is at baseball camp,” Manuela said in softly accented English. “He’ll be back next week.”

Officer Hayes pursed his lips before asking, “Any chance your daughter might also have plans to be away that might have slipped your mind?”

Ethan gave Jerry a warning look. He had no doubt officers Hayes and Torres would relish the opportunity to cuff and stuff a jackass like Kramer for assaulting an officer.

Manuela chimed up again. “Oh no, sir. Kara is home for the summer until Mr. Kramer takes the children to the Lake Tahoe house the first week of August.”

“Could she be at a friend’s house?” Officer Hayes asked. “Is it possible she’s spending the night and just forgot to check in?”

Before Jerry could answer, the front doorbell rang insistently. Manuela’s relief was palpable as she hurried out of the kitchen, the soles of her rubber sandals squeaking along the marble floor.

Ethan heard the murmur of female voices. Moments later, the squeaking approached again, soon drowned out by the clacking of a woman’s high heels. A bone-thin blonde of medium height burst into the kitchen, followed by an impressively tall woman with dark hair that angled sharply to her jaw.

“Jerry, what’s going on? Where is Kara?” The woman’s blue eyes were hollow and bloodshot, her cheekbones sharp and drawn as if she’d gone too long without a good meal or a decent night’s sleep.

“Jesus, what is she doing here?” Jerry said to the room at large.

“I called her,” Manuela offered softly, then cringed as though bracing herself for a blow.

Jerry’s cheeks flushed red and he opened his mouth. Ethan caught his eye and sent him a hard look, reminding him of their audience. Jerry swallowed hard and thought better of his tirade. “Everything is fine, Marcy.” He shot a glare at Manuela that promised later retribution. “There was no reason to call Mrs. Kramer.”

Marcy Kramer braced her thin shoulders and squared off against her ex-husband. “Don’t get angry at Manuela for calling to check if Kara was at my house. You should have called me.” Her mouth pulled into a bitter line. “But you were probably too busy boning your little twenty-year-old to even notice.”

“I’m surprised you weren’t too high on your happy pills to find the phone.”

Ethan inserted himself between Marcy and Jerry as gracefully as possible and painted on his most sincere, can’t we-all-just-get-along-here smile. The cops didn’t make a move, happy to have Ethan defuse the situation. “Mrs. Kramer, let me introduce myself. I’m Ethan Taggart. Your husband hired us to handle his security concerns.”

Marcy frowned and stepped back as though caught off guard, then blinked again as her gaze froze on Ethan’s face. She stared for a few minutes, unspeaking. Ethan was used to that. Not that he was especially vain, but if enough women tell you how gorgeous you are, you start believing them. Personally, he didn’t pay too much attention to his looks other than to keep himself clean shaven and to make sure his hair was cut short enough to subdue its natural wave, but he’d learned early in life that his good looks could be used to his advantage, especially when it came to women. In the navy, his looks and luck with women had earned him the dubiously flattering moniker Lancelot. Though he still didn’t like being compared to a man who slept with his best friend’s wife, he wasn’t above exploiting the edge his looks provided.

Marcy nodded absently before turning her attention to the police. “I don’t understand why you’re not out looking for her.”

Officer Torres stepped forward. “We’re still gathering information, ma’am. The more we know, the better we’ll know where to begin our search.”

The tall woman, who still hadn’t introduced herself, leaned with one hip against the granite island, arms folded across her chest. Low-slung jeans clung to her narrow hips and long, lean legs. A clingy black T-shirt with a picture of a red-and-green dragon rode over high, tight breasts and showed off toned, pale arms. Hazel eyes stared shrewdly through dark-framed glasses, her attention was focused solely on Ethan. With her no-nonsense look and unwavering gaze, she reminded him of his third grade teacher. Not that his third grade teacher had legs that appeared to sprout directly from her armpits or a wide, red mouth that no amount of pursing could make look prim. In fact, Miss Humphrey had been ancient—at least to his third grade mind—while this woman couldn’t have been older than her late twenties, early thirties tops. But Miss Humphrey had given him that same look, one that said, “You can smile all you want, young man. But I know exactly what you’re up to.”

Still, Ethan had yet to encounter a woman he couldn’t charm. Even Miss Humphrey had relented after the first semester.

He focused the full force of his smile on her tight-lipped face. “We haven’t met. I’m Ethan Taggart, Gemini Securities.”

She reluctantly took his hand. Hers was slender and fine-boned, all but swallowed up by his broad palm and long fingers. But her handshake was firm and her face remained impassive, her smile a mere tightening of the lips, a narrowing of the eyes. “Toni Crawford.” Her hand slid from his grip, and he felt the trace of her fingers all the way down to his groin.

“This is going to sound rude, but I don’t understand what you’re doing here,” Ethan prodded when she offered no additional information about herself.

“She’s with me,” Marcy said. “I hired Toni several months ago to do some work for me”—she looked pointedly at Jerry—“before I filed for divorce.”

“You’re her attorney?” He scanned her outfit skeptically.

Toni shook her head. “I do a little investigative work myself.”

Jerry’s head whipped around and his gaze narrowed on the woman’s face. “So you’re the one who cost me an extra ten million.” He tried to make it sound like a joke but Ethan could hear the menace in every syllable. “Those pictures really did me in.”

Toni straightened to her full height, which was a good two inches over Jerry’s. “Mr. Kramer, I only reported your activities back to my client. If you didn’t want to get caught, perhaps you should have thought better of your behavior.”

Ethan smothered a chuckle. Cool as a cucumber. Not a bit rattled, she stared Jerry down. She should have looked cold and intimidating but Ethan found her inexplicably sexy.

He’d already noticed her impossibly long legs. As subtly as possible, he moved his gaze higher to check out the firm curve of her ass. Nice. Not too big, not too small, nicely rounded against the fabric of her jeans. It was a perfect match for her breasts. Firm and round and high.

Her hair was thick and shiny, cut at a sharp angle that framed her features. And those heavy, librarian glasses did nothing to disguise the sculpted lines of her cheeks and jaw. With her pale skin, full red mouth, and almost-black hair, she was like Snow White in jeans and Converse All Stars. Yeah, if Snow White looked like she wanted to reach out and snatch your balls off. Still, Ethan felt his groin stir in appreciation.

Okay, so she was hot in a dark, serious sort of way, but his swift physical reaction didn’t make any sense. She was the exact opposite of what he usually went for. His mind flashed back to Gillian, whom he’d left only a few short hours ago in a tanned, blond, well-satisfied heap.

Yet here he was, working on a healthy hard-on for Toni.

Who didn’t like to be checked out, if the pursing of her luscious mouth was anything to go by. Unlike good-time Gillian, Toni looked like she hadn’t laughed in years and wouldn’t know a good time if it bit her in the ass.

Then again, if nipping her in her firmly curved rear was what it took to put a smile on her face, Ethan was game.

But now was neither the time nor the place for Ethan to fantasize about the many different ways he could make Toni Crawford smile.

Toni was oblivious to his lust, her face impassive as she turned her attention to Officer Torres. “Sorry we interrupted. What have you found out so far?”

“We wanted to know if Kara could be at a friend’s house, could have gone out and forgotten to check in?”

“Kara’s very responsible,” Jerry said. “She would never forget to call.” He shot a meaningful look at the housekeeper.

“I check all the messages,” Manuela said softly, “and Kara always calls to let me know she’ll be out.”

Jerry crossed his arms and shot the cops a look as though to say “so there.”

“Teenagers sneak out,” Hayes said, “go to parties, meet friends, do all kinds of things they won’t tell their parents about.”

“Kara’s a good girl,” Jerry said adamantly. “No drinking, no drugs. She gets straight A’s.”

“Jerry’s right. Kara’s never been in any trouble.” Marcy interjected. “She’s even part of the Promise Club.”

“Promise Club?” Ethan asked.

For the first time that morning, Marcy’s face displayed something resembling happiness. “It’s a group of girls who have pledged to save their virginity until marriage. They even started an online support group to encourage other kids to do the same. I know lots of kids Kara’s age are into drinking and going to parties, but Kara’s just not part of that crowd.”

Ethan’s eyes narrowed as a look passed between Toni and Manuela. Manuela made herself very busy scrubbing at an invisible spot on the spotless breakfast bar.

The ring of a cell phone echoed off the granite countertops. Jerry snatched it up, his jaw tightening when he saw the number. “I have to take this. It’s very important.” And very private, if the speed at which Jerry was retreating down the hall was any indication.

Marcy’s gaze followed his retreating back, a look of disgust suffusing his face. “Our daughter is missing, and he still can’t ignore that damn phone.”

Toni reached out and squeezed Marcy’s thin arm. “Manuela, is there something you’re not telling us?”

Officer Hayes spoke before Manuela could. “A little over two weeks ago we busted a party over on Selby,” he said, referring to a street a few blocks away. “Kara was there. She was drunk, said her friends ditched her.”

Marcy’s face blanched. “It was a mistake. It wasn’t her.”

Hayes shook his head. “I checked her ID and gave her a ride to this address, ma’am. I—” He broke off as Jerry entered the kitchen, looking even more worried than before.

Whatever illusions Jerry and Marcy had about their “perfect” daughter were about to be shattered. “Kara’s been sneaking out, Jerry,” Ethan said, not bothering to sugarcoat it.

Surprisingly, Jerry didn’t voice a protest. “I don’t exactly keep a close eye on her while she’s staying here. It never occurred to me that she would sneak out.”

Ethan nodded. “The security system keeps a log of all entries and exits. It will be easy enough to see when she left, so let’s start there.” Flipping open his phone, Ethan quickly dialed his brother Derek’s cell. He had no doubt that his older-by-six-minutes twin would already be showered, dressed, and logged in to Gemini’s private network, weekend or no.

Derek answered on the first ring. “What’s her name?”

“Who?” Ethan asked. Still, his gaze strayed to Toni, who had taken a red BlackBerry from her pocket. Her thumbs flew over the keypad as she said something to Marcy in a voice too low for him to hear.

“The only reason for you to call me before ten on a Saturday is because you’re doing the drive of shame home from some woman’s house.”

He tried to recall Gillian’s face but right now all he could see was black, silky hair and plump red lips, tart and juicy. “An hour ago you would have had me. I’m at Kramer’s house. I need you to log in to their security system.”

A few seconds of silence, then, “Done. What do you need?”

“I need all entries and exits in the last twelve hours.”

“We have an entry at six forty-two p.m., exit at eight thirty p.m., an entry at one-oh-nine a.m., and another exit at two thirty-two a.m. “

Ethan hung up and relayed the information to the others.

“Any idea who she hooked up with?” Officer Hayes asked.

Jerry shook his head.

“I haven’t seen her much in the past month,” Marcy said, her voice tight. “Kara and I haven’t been getting along so we decided she should come stay with her dad.” She sat down at the breakfast bar and hid her face in her hands. “I have no idea what’s going on in my daughter’s life. I’m a terrible mother.” She started to sob.

“Great, here we go,” Jerry muttered, glaring at his ex-wife’s heaving back.

Toni’s death glare echoed Ethan’s own reaction. The woman was distraught. The least the guy could do was cut her a little slack.

Toni put her hand on Marcy’s shoulder and gave it an awkward squeeze. “She’s fine, Marcy. Probably just at a friend’s house.”

“She has a boyfriend,” Manuela offered softly. “She meets him sometimes. But she always comes back before sunrise.”

Jerry whirled on the woman, the vein on his head throbbing back to prominence. “You knew my daughter was sneaking out and you didn’t say anything?”

“Don’t blame her!” Marcy yelled, her head popping up from the cradle of her skeletal hands. “It’s not her fault you can’t keep track of our children.”

“Maybe if you hadn’t kicked her out, she wouldn’t be sneaking out and going to parties.”

Marcy gasped and clutched her chest as though she’d taken a spear through it. “I did not kick her out.”

Time to shut this thing down before Ethan was refereeing a battle of the exes worthy of The Jerry Springer Show. Bringing his fingers to his lips, he let out a piercing whistle that broke through the escalating volume of their voices. “Yelling at each other isn’t going to help us figure out where Kara is and who she’s likely to be with. Let’s try to focus so we don’t waste any more of the officers’ time.”

Or mine, he thought wearily, suddenly bone-tired and wishing Kara would pull herself out of whatever bed she’d passed out in and haul her happy ass home.

He rubbed his eyes wearily and looked up to see Toni staring at him as though she knew exactly what he was thinking.

“Do you have someplace more important to be?” she said, one dark brow arched over the frame of her glasses. “Perhaps debugging your fancy security system so Kara can’t sneak in and out without anyone being the wiser?” A smirk pulled at her lips. He wanted to kiss it off her face and spend the rest of the morning showing her who was boss.

Too bad he didn’t have time. But he wasn’t about to stand around and let her take potshots at him in front of a client. He pasted on a dazzling smile worthy of a toothpaste commercial and affected a deferential tone.

“Thanks for pointing that out. Now, I appreciate your coming all the way over here to assist us, but between the police and Gemini, we have it handled.” He pulled his gaze away from Toni’s face, her pale skin flushed with irritation.

“Marcy, I promise I’ll keep you apprised of any new information.”

Marcy began to protest but Toni silenced her with a lift of her hand and approached Ethan with slow, deliberate steps. “Listen, Ethan,” she said, perfectly mimicking his placating tone, “let’s get something straight. I’m not here to assist you. I work for Marcy and her daughter. If you want to run your little investigation, that’s fine, but stay out of my way.”

CHAPTER 2

WE APPRECIATE YOUR coming all this way to assist us. Arrogant bastard, she thought as the police continued their questioning about Kara’s recent behavior. One glance from those turquoise eyes and Ethan no doubt thought she’d puddle at his feet and let Ethan Taggart, Gemini Securities, take over the show. Not a chance.

Okay, maybe she had gone a little weak-kneed—not that she’d ever in a million years admit that to anyone else. With his dark, gold-shot hair, laser-sharp blue eyes, and features that looked like they’d been chiseled in granite, he was gorgeous in a way that called to every feminine instinct she possessed. And what healthy heterosexual girl wouldn’t get a few butterflies in her stomach at the way his full mouth stretched into a heartbreaker of a smile?

And to up the ante even further, he was tall, at least a few inches over six feet, all of it solidly muscled, if the way his shoulders filled his jacket was any indication. Big and strong enough to make even Toni feel something close to delicate.

Ethan’s focus strayed from the policeman’s questions to Toni’s face. A hot flush erupted in her cheeks when he caught her staring. God, talk about an inappropriate time for her libido to decide to come out of hibernation. What kind of person was she, drooling over some guy when Kara was missing?

The anxious knot in her stomach tightened another notch, silencing the butterflies. Toni had gotten to know Kara over the past year that she’d been working for Marcy. As her parents said, Kara was a nice kid, a good kid, keeping her head down and focusing on school, trying to hold it together despite the ugliness her parents were heaping on each other.

Toni and Kara had struck up a friendship, one of the few occasions Toni broke her “no emotional involvement” rule when it came to her clients. Toni had stayed in touch with Kara via e-mails and text messages, as well as the occasional coffee date.

Kara never told her much about her friends or her social life, mostly just vented about her parents, while Toni offered what guidance she could about surviving your parents’ divorce. Toni had seen so much of herself in Kara, in the way she tried so hard not to make waves. Unlike Toni, whose drive had been self-induced, Kara strove to live up to the demands of her exacting parents, trying to live up to Jerry’s image of Kara as the perfect daughter who never got into any kind of trouble. Whether it meant staying up all night to study for her SATs or taking a vow of virginity, Kara would do anything to win her father’s approval.

But Toni could sense the cracks forming in the facade. Striving for that level of perfection was exhausting, especially when you were dealing with an emotionally disengaged father and a borderline-unstable mother with an increasing reliance on prescription pills to get her through the day.

No surprise then that there was a lot more going on with Kara than Toni or her parents knew. Toni’d hoped that by offering herself as a non-judgy adult to talk to, she could help Kara survive the shitstorm her parents created.

It hadn’t been nearly enough, even when they’d been communicating regularly, and Toni felt another stab of guilt that she hadn’t pushed harder to keep in contact over the past few months. Kara had stopped responding to Toni’s messages, and Toni had let it slide. Now she cursed herself. How hard would it have been to send a freaking text? It would have let Kara know she was still there, still cared. Don’t get ahead of yourself. Sneaking out to party and running away are two completely different things. So far, sneaking out to see her boyfriend is the extent of Kara’s bad behavior.

She ripped her gaze from Ethan’s knowing look and listened intently as Jerry and Marcy answered the police’s questions.

“Try her friend Laurie,” Marcy was saying. “Laurie Friedland. She and Kara have been best friends since the fourth grade. And she was close with some of the girls on her volleyball team.”

“What about the boyfriend?”

Marcy shook her head, her thin shoulders hunching. “I didn’t even know about him. We haven’t really seen much of each other since school ended and she decided to come stay with her father.”

Toni frowned. She’d last heard from Kara a couple of weeks ago, and she hadn’t mentioned moving out. Then again, Kara hadn’t mentioned the boyfriend, either.

Jerry shook his head and shrugged. “I didn’t know about the boyfriend, either,” he snapped.

“His name is Sean, I think,” Manuela offered. “And he drives a white car. That’s all I know.”

“Do you think he took her?” Marcy asked in a thin voice.

Officer Hayes shook his head. “More likely they met for a date. Honestly, folks, I know you’re worried, but there’s a good chance she’ll turn up on her own.” He flipped his notepad shut and nodded to his partner.

Toni’s shoulders tensed under the thin fabric of her T-shirt as she remembered another girl, another missing girl no one took seriously. Until it was too late.

She forced the morbid thoughts from her mind. Kara was nothing like Toni’s younger sister, Michelle, Toni reminded herself. Unlike Michelle, Kara was a good kid, for all that she might have started acting out. Toni’s sister had practically had “bad kid” tattooed on her forehead. When Michelle had gone missing, no one, not even Toni, had questioned the idea that she’d run away. After all, she’d done it before, and she had always come back, whenever she got sick of her boyfriend or needed money.

Until that last time, when she didn’t come back.

“That’s it?” Marcy asked, pulling Toni’s attention away from her morbid memories. “You’re going to do nothing while we sit around and wait for her to come home?”

He held up a placating hand. “Ma’am, that’s not what I said. But situations like this tend to resolve on their own. For now, we’ll file a report and open an investigation.” He took down a description, a list of Kara’s closest friends, and requested a recent photo.

All very standard operating procedure, Toni thought, as the knot of anxiety in her stomach grew. She knew the police would do what they could, but without any sign of foul play, they weren’t likely to put a whole lot of resources into the search. Still, the police promised to follow up with Laurie and the girls from the volleyball team. Manuela retrieved a recent picture of Kara, and the officers left, promising to provide an update as soon as they had any additional information.

Jerry wheeled on Marcy as soon as the police followed Manuela out of the kitchen. “This is your fault,” he said, raising an accusing finger. “You never want to discipline her, never want to do anything to piss her off. Who’s the parent here, anyway?” His face was purple, and a vein appeared in his forehead, throbbing with such force Toni was afraid he was going to have an aneurysm.

“Not you!” Marcy raged right back. “How dare you make accusations, as though you know what’s going on in this house or with your children. Since the divorce, you’ve hardly spent any time with them. It’s all been up to me.”

“Yeah, and you’re doing such a great job Kara moved out and now she’s sneaking out at all hours to meet some idiot.”

Toni’s head began to pound, and suddenly she was sixteen again, and she and her little sister sat on the couch, staring straight ahead at the TV, pretending indifference to the barbs slinging back and forth between their parents. She wanted scream at them that this was not the time or the place to go twenty rounds of “who is the worse parent,” but she held her tongue.

I should never have answered Marcy’s call this morning, she thought, then immediately felt like a jerk. She’d promised Kara she could count on her, and she meant it, even if it meant putting up with her parents. Toni straightened to her full height and stepped between Marcy and Jerry. “Look, you can work all this out in your next family therapy session, but right now we need to focus on finding out where Kara is and making sure she’s safe.”

Marcy looked appropriately shamefaced, while Jerry had to get in the last word. “I don’t need you to tell me to be worried about my daughter.”

“Good,” she snapped back. “Because you should be.” She turned and caught Ethan’s gaze. His mouth was quirked up in a sexy half smile and there was a glint of open admiration in his eyes. Toni cursed her pale complexion as she felt telltale heat bloom in her cheeks for a second time.

Her skin prickled with awareness and she was overcome with the need to escape from the vitriol spilling from Jerry’s and Marcy’s pores. And from the walking testosterone bomb that was Ethan Taggart.

“I’m going to go look around her room,” Toni said abruptly. She ignored Jerry’s protests as she asked Manuela for directions, feeling the heat of Ethan’s gaze on her retreating back.

Toni marveled at the over-the-top opulence of Kramer’s house as her sneakers squeaked on the marble steps of the massive staircase. She was used to working with wealthy clients—women like Marcy accounted for the majority of her income—but Kramer’s house, with its vaulted ceilings, marble floors, and handmade rugs that probably cost more than her car was beyond anything she’d ever seen firsthand.

But the blatant display of wealth gave the place the vibe of a museum, not a happy home. Growing up, watching her mom struggle, Toni always thought that if they had more money, they would be happy. But in the brief time she’d worked as a private investigator, she’d learned that people could be unhappy no matter how much money they had. Immense wealth couldn’t buy perfect children or faithful husbands—in fact, it often made things worse. Recently, Toni had started to feel like she was operating in a toxic cloud, like she had picked up the scent of rot pervading these seemingly perfect lives and now couldn’t get it out of her nostrils.

Now, after an ugly divorce rife with infidelity and hidden assets, the Kramer family was being sucked deeper into the cesspool.

She followed the hallway to the door Manuela had indicated. She pushed it open. Jesus, this is bigger than my apartment. Not that Kara’s room in Marcy’s townhouse was exactly a dump, but this was ridiculous. In addition to a queen-size four-poster bed, the room was spacious enough for a sitting area complete with a small couch and a low coffee table. Mounted on the wall was a forty-inch LCD television with a satellite-TV hookup and DVR. Pushed up against the wall was a mini fridge, and a small espresso machine sat on top.

Kara practically had her own efficiency apartment. Completely tricked out so she wouldn’t need to leave her room for days if she didn’t want to. Toni scanned the room for her prey.

“Find anything interesting?”

The voice was so close she felt his breath across her neck. She spun around and found her nose butting up against a hard wall of chest. For a moment she stood there, her face buried in the open throat of his button-front shirt, inhaling the intoxicating scents of fresh aftershave, laundry soap, and warm, musky man skin.

Okay, the guy might be an arrogant asshole, but the mere smell of him was enough to curl her toes inside her sneakers.

She took a hasty step back before she did something stupid like flick her tongue out for a taste. This guy was so far out of her league it wasn’t even funny.

“What do you want?” she asked, hoping her imperious tone and matching expression would mask the fact that her insides were fluttering madly at the heat radiating off him.

“Just wondering where you’d hurried off to.” His oh-so-charming smile was cracking around the corners.

Good. Her manufactured hostility was working.

“I wanted to see if I could find her computer.”

“Why?” He looked genuinely confused.

“How else were you planning on tracking her down?”

He looked at her as though she were an idiot. “Canvassing the neighborhood, calling her friends. You know, basic investigation stuff.”

She shook her head impatiently. What, was he an idiot? “Kara spends a lot of time online.”

“Right. The online virgin support group. I’m sure they’ll be a lot of help finding her boyfriend.”

Toni sucked in her cheeks and bit the inside of her lip. “That’s probably just the tip of the iceberg, Ace. And finding out who she’s talking to online will get me a lot further than talking to neighbors who probably don’t even know her name.”

Ethan smirked. “Just because you spend all your time on Lord of the Rings message boards doesn’t mean Kara does. Talking to real live friends will be a lot more useful than worrying about what Web pages she visited.”

She shot him a look of disdain. “Lord of the Rings is so 2005.” These days, Toni spent more of her time on gaming sites, but she wasn’t about to correct Ethan.

He did a leisurely tour of the room, pausing to pick up a framed picture off Kara’s desk. Toni tried not to stare at him but couldn’t seem to stop herself. The man had hit the genetic jackpot, that was for sure. Taking advantage of his distraction, she studied him more closely, trying to pick out some imperfection that would remind her that he was a mere mortal, just like her.

He’d missed a spot shaving, she noticed with a tug of satisfaction. And the strong line of his nose skewed slightly to the left. That and the bump on the bridge told her he’d broken it at least once and hadn’t bothered to get it fixed.

Somehow that made him even hotter.

There were dark smudges under his heavily lashed eyes, as though he hadn’t gotten much sleep.

Not that she should talk, since thanks to her recent late stakeouts, the only thing keeping her from looking like an Ultimate Fighting Champ contender was her industrial-strength concealer. Her gaze strayed back to the little patch of stubble, next to his right ear. It would rasp against her fingertips if she touched it, contrasting with the peachy softness of his earlobe.

There was something on his earlobe, she noticed, frowning. Almost like a smudge of blood, but as she moved to take a closer look, she realized it was too pink to be blood. Almost like—

“Is that lipstick?”

He looked up, his left eyebrow arching up his forehead.

“On your ear,” Toni clarified.

He pinched his left earlobe between his thumb and forefinger. “Maybe.” His tone was casual, but Toni could see the dark stain smudging across his tanned cheeks.

“Other one.” Toni said, folding her arms across her chest.

He rubbed at the other earlobe with his fingers. “Did I get it?”

The dark pink smudge was still there. “Your girlfriend must wear that extended wear stuff,” she said, wincing at how snide that sounded.

“Not my girlfriend,” he said.

All the more reason to kill the attraction that was sucking her in like a tractor beam. She so did not need to get hung up on a man who spent long nights getting smudged with long-wearing lipstick by women who were not his girlfriend.

“Boyfriend?” She brushed past him and continued her circuit of the room.

He shot her a droll look. “So where is it?”

So he’d noticed that minor detail, too. Kara’s MacBook was nowhere to be seen. “Not where I thought it would be.”

“Oh, so you can admit you were wrong.”

Toni tipped her chin up to glare at him. He was standing way too close for her comfort. He seemed to loom over her, the sheer size and force of him threatening to overwhelm her.

Not that she felt threatened, exactly, but while she was only a few inches shy of him in height, he had at least eighty pounds on her, all of it rock-solid muscle. And the way he held his body in an almost predatory manner hinted at a dangerous core under his charming facade.

She wasn’t about to let him see that she noticed. “What is that supposed to mean?”

His eyes narrowed and his nostrils flared as he glared down at her. “Just that you seem like the type who would think she’s right most of the time.”

He inched so close she was afraid he’d feel the hard points of her nipples poking through her shirt. God, she was desperate. Kara’s immense room shrank in size as Ethan’s huge frame seemed to suck up all the space. “That’s because I am,” she quipped. Without waiting for his reply, she brushed past him and headed back to the kitchen, sure that she heard Ethan chuckling. She could hear Jerry and Marcy sniping at each other all the way from the stairs.

“Maybe if you weren’t so busy nailing that adolescent who works for you, you might have noticed she was gone.”

“I can’t find Kara’s computer,” Toni said, raising her voice to be heard over Marcy’s shrill commentary on Jerry’s choice of bed partners.

“And if you weren’t drinking yourself to sleep every night, Kara would have stayed with you,” Jerry retorted before turning his attention to Toni. “What do you need with her computer? I don’t want you taking anything from this house.” He punctuated his words with a mean look aimed at Marcy.

Toni bit back her temper. “I was hoping to get a look at her recent e-mails, chat logs, stuff like that. Since she’s not answering her phone, it’s our best way to find out if she made plans to meet someone last night.” She took off her glasses and pinched the bridge of her nose as fatigue washed over her. She’d been on that stakeout until almost three a.m. and had barely clocked four hours of sleep before Marcy called. She wasn’t in any shape to fight Jerry Kramer every step of the way.

Time for a different approach. She turned to Marcy. “Speaking of her phone, did you sign her up for the chaperone service I recommended?”

Marcy looked at her blankly, and Toni had a bad feeling that that conversation had been sucked into the boozy haze Marcy lived in these days.

“My phone,” Toni explained, “Remember how I told you it has a GPS unit embedded inside. As long as my phone is turned on, my location can be tracked.” She turned to Ethan and Jerry. “I recommend that all my clients with kids sign them up. Makes situations like this much easier to resolve.”

“I completely forgot,” Marcy said, thin shoulders collapsing.

“It’s okay,” Toni said tightly. Of course this couldn’t be that easy. “It doesn’t work if her phone is off, anyway.”

Marcy’s face crumpled into sobs. “I’m sorry,” she gasped, burying her face in her hands. “I should have been on her more, but she was always telling me to leave her alone. I thought I was giving her what she wanted by giving her space.”

It was a familiar refrain, one Toni had heard too many times. Parents who cared more about being their kids’ best friends than acting as authority figures. That’s why they hired Toni to snoop on them, because they couldn’t figure out how to just sit down and talk with their children. It was frustrating to watch, but Toni took satisfaction in the knowledge that in some cases she’d saved kids from potentially dangerous situations.

Despite her frustration with both of Kara’s parents, she felt a wave of sympathy when she took in Marcy’s haggard appearance. When Marcy had first hired Toni over a year ago to find out if Jerry was sleeping around and hiding his assets, she’d been the epitome of the well-preserved, affluent housewife. Now, after a bitter divorce, lines of grief and stress were etched into her face. Her formerly trim body now bordered on emaciated, and she stood with her arms wrapped around herself like she was trying to keep herself from flying apart. Yes, Marcy could be a pain in the ass, but Toni knew firsthand how scared she must be.

“I promise I’ll find her,” Toni said, as Ethan pulled Jerry aside.

Marcy sniffled and wiped her eyes with fingers that shook. She shot a look at Jerry and Ethan, who had moved to the opposite side of the kitchen. Ethan’s dark head was cocked down to listen as Jerry spoke in a voice too low for Toni to hear.

Marcy’s mouth tightened into a flat line. “I want you to keep an eye on him.”

“Jerry?” Toni asked. Jesus, it had been a year since they separated. Well past time for Marcy to let it go already. But she strove for tact when she said, “Don’t you think it’s more important for me to focus on Kara than to spy on your ex-husband?”

“Not him,” she snapped. “Ethan. I want you to find out everything he knows, as soon as he knows it.”

Great. She wanted to get away from Ethan Taggart and forget the way one look was enough to send her libido into overdrive. Now she was supposed to follow him around and somehow get him to divulge any information he collected.

“I don’t think that’s necessary.”

Marcy’s tears suddenly dried. Gone was the grief-stricken mother. In her place was the bitter, vindictive ex-spouse who was never far from the surface. “I don’t trust Jerry. He keeps things from me, always has. He wasn’t even going to call me this morning to tell me my daughter was missing.”

Toni held up a quieting hand. “I’ll do my best. But right now I need to start following up on what we know so far.”

She checked her phone for the dozenth time as she walked to the front door. It was still on, set to vibrate. She hadn’t missed a reply to the text she sent Kara after Marcy first called her. Wherever Kara was, she wasn’t answering her messages yet.

Heavy footsteps approached. She didn’t have to turn around to know it was Ethan. She recognized him from the way every skin cell suddenly went on high alert.

“I know you’re worried,” Ethan said, reaching out to rub her bare upper arm. She knew it was a calculated move, but it didn’t stop her from feeling like sparks were shooting through her fingertips. “But we both know the truth. She’s out with her boyfriend, and she’ll be home as soon as the hangover wears off.” Though the words were cavalier, the sympathy riding his tone was sincere. And she couldn’t fault his logic.

But she couldn’t escape the sick feeling in her gut that told her it wasn’t that simple.

 

Kara Kramer awoke to suffocating darkness. Fear wrapped her chest in its steely grip, making breathing almost impossible. She blinked her eyes hard, praying the room would come into focus, but she saw nothing but black.

This is a bad dream, she tried to tell herself, struggling to recall the last few hours, searching her panic-riddled brain for some clue as to where she was. Her brain throbbed against her skull and her mouth was dry. Had she passed out after too much vodka? She’d been planning to go to a party with Toby. She remembered that much. But she couldn’t remember making it there.

Had someone slipped something in her drink? It had happened before, and like now, she’d woken up with no idea where she was and no memory of how she’d gotten there.

It had been horrible, terrifying, but right now, it would be a welcome explanation. She feared that the reality was much, much worse.

Gooseflesh prickled on her arms, left bare by the flimsy cami she’d donned earlier in the evening. Wherever she was, it was cold. Too cold, considering how hot it had been lately. And musty. It smelled like the crawl space under her dad’s house. Swallowing convulsively, she tried to wrap her arms around herself to coax warmth back into her icy skin, only to discover that her wrists were tied.

A spike of adrenaline crashed through her, and sweat bloomed on her skin in spite of the chill air. She scrambled to her knees and surged to her feet, running though she couldn’t see even an inch in front of her.

She barely got two steps before she was jerked off her feet by a line of rope securing her bound wrists to the wall. Her knees hit the hard floor with bruising force and her startled cry broke the dead silence of the room.

Sobbing now, she yanked against the rope. The cord binding her wrists bit into the tender flesh, dug against delicate bones. Warm liquid trickled down her arm and she knew she was bleeding. Defeated, she lay on the floor, struggling not to throw up as the throbbing in her head threatened to split her skull.

After several moments, Kara struggled back to her feet and followed the line of rope to where it secured her to the wall. She fumbled at the knot with clumsy, cold fingers.

“You can’t escape, so you may as well stop trying.”

Kara’s whole body jerked as she searched frantically, futilely, for the source of the low, raspy voice.

“Who’s there? What do you want?” The words struggled past her dry lips, intensified the throbbing in her skull.

The disembodied laugh made her stomach pitch with dread. “Cooperation,” he said finally. “And as long as I get it, you and I will get along just fine.”

  • April 5, 2018

Writing Through The Pain: When Life Does Not Imitate Art

It’s out! Finally! That’s right, after all of this time, Shadow of Sin – AKA Erin and CJ’s story – is out in the world, and I couldn’t be more excited.
You might have noticed that this book took me a long time to write. A long, long, time. In fact, this is the first new release I’ve had in nearly two years. Truthfully, this was the hardest book I’ve ever written.
And it had nothing to do with the story or the characters. What made this story so difficult for me to write was… life.
What most of you don’t know is that while I was writing this book, my marriage was falling apart. While I was trying to write the story of two characters falling in love and finding their happily ever after, what I thought was my own happily ever after came to a stunningly painful end.
There were days, weeks, months, when it was all I could do to get out of bed, take care of my kids, and deal with the fact that the life I thought I had, the future I had taken for granted, was gone.
I’m a fucking romance writer! How can I be getting divorced??
I couldn’t read – forget about write – a romance novel. Seriously, divorce and romance do not mix. Any time I got my Amazon “recommendations in romance,” my lip would curve into a sneer and I’d think, “Yeah, whatever young lovers. Call me in 15 years and let’s see how this whirlwind, hormone driven, drug like fugue works out.”
And yet, Erin and CJ lingered on my hard drive, 50 pages into their story. Poking me, nudging me, reminding me that I had promised them their story. And they were WAITING!!! And deserving.
I got mad. At at my ex, at myself, at fate, the universe.The death of my marriage had taken so much from me, I’d be damned if I was going to let it take away my creativity, my love for this work.
So I cracked the laptop. Outlined some chapters. Wrote some pages, and felt pretty good.
And then there were the days that I opened up the manuscript, sat down to write the story of two people falling in love, and broke down in tears. There were too many days like this, so many I despaired that I would never finish this book, finish any book, ever again.
Time passed. The pain dulled, my brain and body settled themselves into a steadier state. And last summer I went to the RWA national conference for the first time in several years. While there, I did hardly any business (except a meeting with my beloved agent which was more of a wine and gabfest than a business meeting). However the time spent with amazing writer friends both old and new, left me reinvigorated. While I had to let go of a very important part of my identity – I was no longer a wife – I still held another part: I was and am still a writer.
And no one can ever take that from me.
So I came home, got my ass in the chair, and I finished the draft. I sent it off to my amazing friend and critique partner, revised revised revised. And now, here it is, ready for you to enjoy.
Through it all, you, my readers, were there. You told me how much you loved my books. You asked for Erin and CJ’s story specifically. You reminded me that regardless of how sad, scared, and angry I felt, once upon a time I had brought joy to your lives in the form of my books.
And that I had brought joy to my own life through writing.
I am eternally grateful to all of you who stuck with me, for letting me know that you enjoy my work and that you wanted more.
I am also, of course, so grateful to my family who have given me unconditional love and support through all of this. And thank you to my amazing friends who saw me through the darkest of days, let me cry on their phones, their couches, sometimes literally in their laps, and reminded me how much I was loved.
Thank you my old friends, my mom friends, my writer friends. You know who you are, and I love you, all you wonderful women.
But I have to give a special shout out to Monica McCarty, who I met at my first SFRWA meeting way back in 2003. She has now seen me through the birth of my first (and second) child, the publication of my first (and 23rd) book, and now divorce (and ugh, match.com). She has held my hand (mostly over the phone) every step of the way, and she is one of my favorite people on the planet.
So now it’s time for me to step into my new, unknown future. To write a new story for myself. And I promise I will continue to write stories for you.

  • January 18, 2017

Cooking From My Books: Thanksgiving Edition

I’ll admit it, this week I’m not actually cooking from my books. But don’t worry – as soon as Shadow Of Sin hits the virtual shelves, I’ll have a bunch of Erin Flannery’s recipes to share.

In the meantime, seeing as next week is one of the most food centric of the year, I thought I’d share my all time favorite recipe for Thanksgiving stuffing.

To be honest, stuffing is one of my least favorite of the traditional Thanksgiving dishes. I mean, why waste the calories on a bunch of soggy seasoned bread?

Then I discovered this recipe for Cornbread Sausage and Dried Fruit stuffing, and my stance on stuffing completely changed. Okay, it’s still not the star of my Turkey Day – we all know it’s all about the gravy. Still, once I started making this version of stuffing I started saving room on my plate for a scoop. The savory sausage and the tart-sweet dried fruit give the cornbread a ton of flavor, and the cornbread gets soft but not mushy.
Enjoy!

stuffing-550

Ingredients
1 pound bulk pork sausage
2 cups chopped onions
2 cups chopped celery
7 to 8 cups crumbled cornbread
1 cup dried apricots, chopped
1 cup dried cranberries
2 large eggs, beaten to blend
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage leaves or 1/2 teaspoon dried rubbed sage
1/2 cup (1/4 lb.) butter or margarine, melted
About 3/4 cup chicken broth
Salt and pepper

Preparation
1. Crumble the sausage into a 10- to 12-inch frying pan over medium-high heat. Stir often until sausage is lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer sausage to a large bowl.

2. Discard all but 2 tablespoons fat in pan. Add onions to pan and stir often until limp, about 5 minutes. Add onions to sausage.

3. Add celery, cornbread, apricots, cranberries, eggs, sage, and butter and stir to mix well, adding just enough broth to lightly moisten dressing.

4. Spoon dressing into a shallow 2 1/2- to 3-quart casserole and cover.

5. Bake in a 325° oven until hot, about 25 minutes (if chilled, 50 to 60 minutes). Then uncover and bake until top is lightly browned, 15 to 25 minutes more. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Cooking from the books: Thanksgiving Edition

  • November 16, 2016

Cooking From My Books: Peanut Butter Blossoms

I have a special treat for you all this week! Not only is it a new recipe from my upcoming release, Shadow Of Sin (Erin and CJ’s story, for those of you who have been waiting :)), it’s specially formatted into a recipe card so you can download it and print it out!

They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. In the case of Erin Flannery and CJ Kovacs, the adage is only partially true. Though a teenage Erin first caught young CJ’s attention with the delicious Peanut Butter Blossom cookies she was selling, it was her big gray eyes and shy smile that kept him coming back for more. Bake up a batch of these cookies today. Who knows who you’ll attract?

peanut-blossoms

Peanut Butter Blossoms Recipe Card

Ingredients:
1 8 oz bag hershey’s kisses
1/2 cup shortening
3/4 cup creamy peanut butter (use something like Skippy or Jif – this is not a time to go healthy!)
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 egg, 2 T milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
granulated sugar

Preparation:
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Remove wrappers from kisses
Beat shortening and peanut butter in a large bowl until well blended. Add 1/3 cup granulated sugar and brown sugar, beat until fluffy. Add egg, milk, and vanilla, beat well.
Stir together flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg. Gradually beat into peanut butter mixture.
Shape dough into 1 inch balls. Roll in granulated sugar and place on an uncreased cookie sheet.
Bake 8-10 minutes until lightly browned. Immediately press a Kiss into the center of each cookie. the cookie will crack around the edges.  Remove cookies from the cookie sheet and place on a wire rack to cool.cftbsspeanutbutterblossoms

  • November 2, 2016

Cooking From My Books: “Crack” Chicken

Okay, I have a confession to make… this week I am not cooking from my books. That’s because *gasp* I’ve gone through almost all of the recipes from all of my books!
Never fear, there are more to come… in my next release which will be on sale soon!
In the meantime, I’ll continue to post my favorite recipes every Wednesday for you to enjoy.
This week I’m featuring “Crack” Chicken, so named because it’s so good it’s addictive. Crispy panko coated chicken tenders paired with a sweet and tangy sauce? Yes please!

crack-chicken-1

Ingredients:

1 c. all-purpose flour
2 lb. chicken tenders
2 c. panko breadcrumbs
3 large Eggs, beaten
kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 c. barbecue sauce
1/2 c. brown sugar
Juice of 2 limes
1 tsp. garlic powder
Ranch dressing, for serving (optional)

Preparation:

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. In a large resealable Ziploc bag, combine flour and chicken. Shake until fully coated.
Set up a dredging station: In one bowl, add panko breadcrumbs and in another bowl whisk eggs and add 2 tablespoons water. Dip chicken in beaten eggs, then panko until fully coated. Transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet and season generously with salt and pepper.
Bake until golden and crispy, 20 to 25 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a small saucepan over low heat, warm barbecue sauce, brown sugar, lime juice, and garlic powder.
Coat baked chicken in sauce and serve with ranch, if desired

  • October 19, 2016

Cooking From My Books: Prsurate

This week I’m pulling yet another recipe from my first book, Delicious. Readers might remember that as a a special treat for our hero Gabe (who is of Croatian heritage), our heroine Reggie arranged to have an episode of her show Simply Delicious feature the Tadich Grill in San Francisco. The Tadich Grill was started in the gold rush days by three Croatian emigrants. Once a humble coffee stand, it’s now regarded as one of the finest seafood restaurants in the city.
On the show, Reggie learned to make prsurtate, which are basically the Croatian version of a donut – a special treat for her special man.
Enjoy!

prsurate

Ingredients:
2 pounds self-rising flour
2 cups sugar
3 eggs
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 cups milk
2 oranges, rind & juice
1 cup pecans
1 lemon, rind and juice 2 apples, chopped
1 cup raisins
2 jiggers whiskey
oil for frying
1 pound confectioners’ sugar
water (to make a glaze with confectioner’s sugar)

Instructions:
Mix all dry ingredients together, including rinds. Mix eggs, juices, and milk. Add dry mixture to the wet mixture. Fold in fruits and nuts. Drop by rounded tablespoonfuls into hot oil. Fry until golden brown. Drain well and dip in glaze. Let cool before storing in a glass jar. Makes: More than a gallon jar.

  • October 12, 2016

Cooking From My Books: Danny’s Angry Steak

Hello, foodie friends! This week I’m featuring a recipe from Unleashed, the third book in my Gemini Men Series. Readers might remember that my hero, Danny Taggart, had a fondness for cooking. You may also remember that he occasionally struggled with… how shall I put it… anger issues. Some of which he worked out in the kitchen. Hence, the idea for “Danny’s Angry Steak” was born. Here the chipotle marinade gives a smoky, spicy kick to the delicious flank steak. Enjoy it with a glass of full bodied red like Syrah or Zinfandel.

A 3

Ingredients

1 beef flank steak (about 1-1 1/2 pounds)
Salt
Marinade:
1/3cup fresh lime juice
1/4cup chopped fresh cilantro
1tablespoon packed brown sugar
2teaspoons minced chipotle chilies in adobe sauce
2 garlic cloves, minced
1teaspoon freshly grated lime peel

Instructions

Combine marinade ingredients in small bowl; mix well. Place beef steak and marinade in food-safe plastic bag; turn steak to coat. Close bag securely and marinate in refrigerator 6 hours or as long as overnight.
Remove steak from marinade; discard marinade. Place steak on grid over medium, ash-covered coals. Grill flank steak, covered, 11 to 16 minutes for medium rare to medium doneness (top round steak 12 to 14 minutes for medium rare doneness; do not overcook), turning occasionally. Carve steak across the grain into thin slices. Season with salt, as desired.

  • October 5, 2016

Cooking From My Books: Pumpkin Ravioli With Sage Brown Butter

While the weather is still summery here in California, that hasn’t stopped the stores from stocking everything Pumpkin. Seriously, Today at Trader Joe’s I saw pumpkin soup crackers (???) and pumpkin spice tortilla chips. What?
So this week I’m jumping on a the pumpkin bandwagon with a recipe that was featured in Walk On The Wild Side (those who have read it will remember that this was one of the possible dishes for Brady and Molly to cook during their appearance on Simply Delicious with Reggie Caldwell). In the book, Brady and Molly make the actual pasta dough from scratch, but really, who has time for that? This is a simplified approach using pre-made pasta or wonton wrappers stuffed with a delicious pumpkin filling.
Enjoy!

Ingredients:

1 1/2 pounds store-bought fresh pasta sheets or one package fresh wonton wrappers (if you use wonton wrappers, eliminate cutting the pasta into squares)
1 (2 1⁄2-lb.) sugar pumpkin, seeds removed and cut into chunks*
2 egg yolks, lightly beaten
2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 small yellow onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 tsp. crushed red pepper
6 amaretti, or Italian almond cookies, crushed into crumbs
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1⁄4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
2 tbsp. honey
1 cup dry white wine
1 tsp. salt
6 tbsp. butter
18 fresh sage leaves, chopped, plus more to garnish

*If roasting and pureeing the pumpkin is above your pay grade feel free to use 1 1/2 cups pre-made pumpkin puree. Just make sure not to use pumpkin pie filling!

Preparation

Preheat oven to 350°. Bake pumpkin chunks on a lightly oiled baking sheet until tender, 30–45 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside for about 10 minutes. When cool enough to handle, remove and discard skin. Transfer pumpkin pulp to a mixing bowl, mash with a fork, then beat in egg yolks and set aside.
Heat olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add onions and sauté until soft, about 10 minutes. Add red pepper, amaretti, cinnamon, 2 tbsp. of the Parmigiano-Reggiano, honey, wine, and salt and cook for 3–4 minutes. Mix in pumpkin, cook for 2 minutes, then transfer to a food processor or blender and purée until smooth. Return pumpkin mixture to the same pan, cover, and keep warm over low heat.
For the sage brown butter: Heat butter in a small skillet over medium heat. Add sage and cook until butter is golden brown. Remove from heat.
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Carefully slip pasta squares into pot and cook until they rise to the surface. Use a large skimmer to remove pasta from the water. Drain well, then lay 1 square on each of 6 plates, spoon pumpkin filling onto squares, and cover with remaining pasta squares. Drizzle sage butter over each square, sprinkle with remaining Parmigiano-Reggiano, and garnish with fresh sage leaves if you like.

  • September 28, 2016

Cooking From My Books: Roast Chicken With Artichoke Hearts

Today’s recipe appeared in Walk On The Wild Side (book 3 of my Big Timber, Montana series) and is also one of my own personal favorites to make at home for my two hungry boys. It couldn’t be simpler – chicken parts and jarred artichoke hearts are tossed together on a sheet pan and roasted in the oven. It’s quick to put together and – bonus – requires minimal cleanup, making it a perfect weeknight meal.
And of course, it’s delicious!
chicken-artichoke_300
Ingredients:

8 bone-in, skin-on chicken pieces (such as thighs, breasts, and drumsticks; about 3 pounds total)
2cups marinated artichoke hearts, drained (about 12 ounces)
5tablespoons olive oil
kosher salt and black pepper

Preparation

Heat oven to 450° F. Toss the chicken, artichoke hearts, 1 tablespoon of the oil, and ½ teaspoon each salt and pepper on a large rimmed baking sheet. Roast, skin-side up, on the top rack until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part (avoiding the bone) registers 165° F, 30 to 35 minutes.

  • September 21, 2016
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