Sunday, February 22, 2015

Seek and Hide by Amanda Stevens

Seek and Hide
David C. Cook (September 15, 2014)
Amanda Stevens

Chapter 1

Booze behind the wheel could turn a sports car into a … well, wreck. No other word for the blue Honda that had rammed halfway through Keith’s garage door before lodging there like a dud missile. Marcus pushed a shoulder to the door. It swayed a little, but the hole’s jagged edges stayed wedged against the car. Trying to back out might take the whole door down. Not that Marcus would trust the driver to try it.

Murmuring party guests lined the garage wall. Nobody was doing anything about this mess, other than gaping at it. If the driver had kept his foot on the gas a second longer, the car doors might have cleared the crater. Then again, he might also have run somebody over.

“Brenner, man, you can fix it, right?” Keith hovered over Marcus’s shoulder, and his beer breath wafted too close. “You can get Jason out of there, right?”

The driver hammered a fist against his door. “Keith, when I get out of this car, I’m going to kick your face in, you hear me? I’m going to—”

Marcus tapped on the car window. “Hey. Don’t. We’ll get you out.”

“You shut up. You get out of my face, you—”

“That’s no way to talk to the linebacker.” Across the hood of the car, a woman wearing less than a tank top blinked at Marcus. She leaned forward and stretched a bottle toward him, spilling cleavage and beer. He tried to stare at her blue eyes.

“You’re new. Best stuff that’s left, right here in this bottle.”

He could taste it. Yes. “No. Thanks.”

The woman pouted and splashed the car hood with the rest of her beer. She sidled closer to Marcus. “You’re so big.”

And you’re so drunk.

“Your eyes are like the sky.”

Well, not unless the sky had turned brown lately. Marcus gently pushed her away.

Keith rocked from one foot to the other, his gaze shifting from Marcus to the trapped, cussing driver and back again. “See why I called you, Brenner? You build stuff and fix stuff. And I thought you could fix this. Or build it. Or yeah.”

The garage door was beyond fixing. Marcus needed something to free the car. He let his eyes roam the four-car garage without resting too long on various available drinks. The half-finished side held a workbench in one corner. Garden tools hung from a dusty pegboard: rake and trowel and yeah, that was a pitchfork. But nothing helpful.

“Keith, got an axe?”

Fortunately, Keith only had one, or he probably would have tried to help. In the next ten minutes, Marcus widened the hole around the car. November rain blew inside, the kind that mocked fall jackets but sabotaged winter coats with cold, heavy saturation. The kind that Michiganders complained about until someone piped in, “Hey, it could be snowing.” Likely would be soon. Still, at the moment, Marcus wasn’t cold. Sweat dripped down his back and chest and dampened his shirt, then his jacket. He worked hard, not only to free the car but also to ignore Tank Top Girl’s offerings of her booze and her body.

Once Marcus had verified the designated drivers, the last of the partiers dispersed. He was left with Keith and Jason for company, the two of them periodically hollering at each other through the windshield. At least neither one of them was drinking anymore.

As long as his hands curled around the axe handle, the other guys couldn’t see his shaking. He angled his next swing, and the blade chomped into the garage door with a thunk. Splinters ricocheted off the arms of his jacket and rained to the garage floor. In another minute, he should be able to back the car out. Then he could get out of here and drive home and make coffee. He breathed through his mouth but could still smell the beer-washed garage. He tried to conjure the aroma of a fresh-ground roast.

A cooler stood open in the corner. Next to the keg.

The axe bit too hard, straight through the wood, and nicked the hood of the car. A silver gash appeared in the blue paint. Marcus winced, then shrugged. One more scratch in this paint job wasn’t a big deal. From the other side of the garage, Keith raised his arms like an athlete on the Olympic medal stand and whooped in approval of the door’s destruction. In the morning, the idiot would be sober. And ticked off. He hadn’t changed one bit since their high-school partying days.

“Good thing the neighbors aren’t home,” Keith said. “They might’ve called the cops.”

About time somebody besides Marcus had a sensible thought. He set down the axe. The car door should open wide enough for him to squeeze into the driver’s seat.

“Jason, move—”

The guy turned the key and hit the gas. Marcus leaped back. The car backed down the driveway several feet, then skidded to a stop.

Jason stepped out into the drizzle with a grin born of braces. His blond hair dripped as he ducked back through the hole his car had left. “Neighbors wouldn’t call the cops, because I don’t need the cops. Because I am the cops.”

Right. Of course he was.

Keith nodded. “Hey, Brenner, did you know Jason’s the cops?”

“Uh, no.”

“I’m MPC,” Jason said.

He was?

The acronym had never rooted itself into civilian vocabulary, but everyone knew its meaning. Michigan Philosophical Constabulary. Marcus stepped back from the guy. Short, lean—Marcus could knock him to the floor without trying. He breathed. Slowly. Flexed his hands, opened them, flexed them again. Had Jason waited in the shadows last night outside a church meeting, a church like Marcus’s? Had he handcuffed God’s people and driven them away to re-education?

Keith stared from Marcus to Jason and back again. “Whoa, how crazy’s that, for you to save the day for a con-cop? I mean, you don’t like them much. Obviously.”

“Keith, shut up.” If he went to jail today, he’d go because he chose to hit this guy. Hard. Not because Keith had a big mouth.

“Hey, no worries. He never remembers a thing past his third or fourth shot. You could read a Bible to him, an old one, I mean, and he—”

“Shut up. Now.”

“You guys aren’t making sense,” Jason said.

Marcus pointed at the car outside, still running. “I want the keys.”

Jason seemed to gain height as Marcus watched. His chin lifted, and his forehead twitched above the left eyebrow. “They’re my keys.”

“You don’t need them till tomorrow.”

“Three cheers for Brenner, Garage Door Chopper.” Keith hoisted Marcus’s arm over his head, slapping the air with beer breath.

Booze made people say the stupidest things at the stupidest times.

“I’m leaving now,” Marcus said to Keith. “And he’s spending the night.”

Confusion furrowed Keith’s forehead. “You’re not driving him home?”

Not a good idea. Marcus would end up wrapping his hands around Jason’s neck and squeezing until … Could a Constabulary agent arrest you for assault, or would he have to call the regular police? But that was the point—Jason wouldn’t be arresting anybody as long as he wasn’t breathing.

Right, because incapacitating one member of a government police force could make such a difference. Marcus might as well pull one scale off a rattlesnake.

“No,” he said. “He’s staying here.”

Jason threw a splay-fingered gesture at the car still running in the driveway. Its headlights cut through the drizzle, through the crater in the door. “Car’s still drivable. So I’m going to drive it.”

“You’re drunk, moron,” Keith said. “I’ll drive you.”

Marcus squeezed his eyes shut. If he left them here, one of them would get behind the wheel. Even if they promised not to.

God, do I have to do this?

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Wisdom Tree by Mary Manners

Wisdom Tree
White Rose Publishing (September 19, 2012)
Mary Manners

Chapter 1

Teach us to number our days aright,

that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

~Psalm 90:12~

She’d tried to kill him.

Jake swallowed an oath and cut the motor on the mower he wrestled through overgrown September grass. His heart thundered like a runaway semi as his gaze locked on the woman’s startling green eyes, framed by a wisp of sun-kissed blonde hair. She was shorter than he was—quite a bit shorter—and willowy as a ribbon in the wind, but the strappy sandals hugging her feet added a bit of height.

“Have you lost your mind?” The words tumbled out before Jake could get a hold on them. “I might have run over you, hacked off a few of your toes.” He quickly regretted his harsh tone when her smile wilted. Her gaze lowered to her feet, and she wiggled her pink-polished toes.

“But you didn’t, and I’m still in one piece. So…” She had a slight Southern accent, a soft lilting voice that he imagined could flash to a bite in an instant.

Jake drew a long, calming breath laced with the sweet scent of freshly mown grass as he swiped a forearm across his brow. Sweat trickled down his back, making his T-shirt cling to damp skin. “Don’t you know you’re not supposed to sneak up on people when they’re working with dangerous equipment?”

“Of course.” Her gaze narrowed as she crossed her arms and lifted her chin. He imagined her lack of height was no deterrent to getting her way, and her tone might have scalded the first few layers of skin from him. “But I didn’t sneak up on you.”

“Could have fooled me.” He huffed out a breath and wished he wasn’t feeling so short-tempered. It gave the wrong impression, especially here at church, and with someone new. He tugged the collar of his T-shirt and hoped for a cool breeze, trying not to think about how he was in a hurry to pick up Corey, and that he didn’t have time for chit-chat. But he’d make time…he always did. It was part of his job. “I sure didn’t hear you coming.”

“I called to you, but you’re mowing.” She enunciated the word as if she thought he might be a few cards short of a Pinochle deck. “That’s most likely why you didn’t hear me.”

“Yeah, that’s just my point.” Jake’s restraint was sorely tested by the smug gleam in her eye. His gaze grazed her crisp linen jacket over a flowered sundress that caressed a lithe figure. She looked graceful and cool under the blistering glare of the sun.

Jake, on the other hand, was sweltering to the point of self-combustion. He hadn’t intended to mow the grass, but when Bill Rogers, the church caretaker, called in with a sick daughter, there wasn’t time to find help. So Jake stepped in to pick up the slack. He brushed prickly blades of mulched grass from his faded jeans and gestured toward the mower. “Care to give it a go?”

She took a giant step back. “No thanks. I’m not…properly dressed.” She surveyed him, shielding her eyes from the sun that burned from a cloudless blue sky. Her other hand disappeared into the tote slung over one shoulder. “Drink?” She offered him a bottle of water. “You look like you can use some cooling off.”

Jake reached for the water. His pulse rate was beginning to ease, and thirst won out over pride. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

She gaped as he uncapped the bottle and guzzled the cool water in little more than a gulp then swiped stray droplets from his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Do you need to sit down for a minute? You look…winded.”

“No. I’m almost done.” Jake wouldn’t have chosen jeans that morning if he’d known he was going to have to mow; cargo shorts would have been a better choice. The thick denim held heat against his skin like a sauna. “Ahh, that’s good. Do you make it a habit to carry bottled water with you?”

“Nope…it’s your lucky day.” She adjusted the tote over her shoulder, and he saw it was filled with papers bundled neatly together by an array of colorful, plastic-coated clips. “Who knew I’d stumble across a hot groundskeeper in need.”

Jake did a double-take when her smile turned down and her gaze flashed complete mortification at the unintended double meaning. He tugged his ball cap low over his eyes and crossed his arms as she stuttered through an explanation.

“I-I mean, you’re hot from mowing…” she gulped, shading her eyes from his gaze. “Because it’s so hot out here, and you need—”

“Wow.” Jake burst into laughter. He fought hard to regain his composure as tears stung his eyes and mixed with the sweat on his brow to blur his vision.

“Hey.” Her cheeks flushed and blonde curls bobbed haughtily as she crossed her arms, threw her shoulders back, and gave him a seething look. “Don’t you know it’s not nice to laugh at someone else’s expense?”

Jake coughed into a hand and dipped his head to hide his grin. “Sorry, but you stepped right into that one.”

A crimson splotch crept up her neck and crawled across her face. “OK, I guess I did. Anyway—”

“I’m Jake.” He wiped his hand on his jeans in an attempt to brush off some of the sweat and dirt before extending it to her.

“Carin.” She grasped his hand and gave it a tentative shake. The scent of sandalwood perfume clung to the humid air, and Jake inhaled deeply, his pulse easing down another notch.

“So, what brings you here today, Carin?”

She tucked a stray curl behind one ear and trained those pretty green eyes on him. “I need to speak with the pastor of this church. I was hoping you could help me locate him.”

“Maybe I can.” Jake leaned lazily against the mower. She was neat and tidy, all business, while he stood sweaty and covered head to toe in mulched grass that had been swept up on a breeze. Maybe it was the heat, or her smug expression, or perhaps the fact he was in a bit of a foul mood and only human, after all, but he decided to have a little fun. “Which pastor are you looking for—youth or senior?”

“I…um…I don’t know.” She caught her lower lip between her teeth, gnawed for a moment and then let go. “I didn’t think to ask. I suppose he must be the youth pastor. Senior pastors tend to be older, I assume.”

Jake stifled a groan. She’d conveyed the typical sentiment. By all accounts, he should be a balding, stooped over, crotchety old man. The thought raised his ire even more. “Well, the youth pastor stepped out for a while. Meetings and planning sessions…you know how pressing church matters can be. Was he expecting you?”

“No, but…I was hoping to speak with him, confidentially.”

The disappointment in her gaze caused Jake a slight prick of guilt. His voice softened, and he remembered why he was here at the church in the first place. “Is what you need to speak about an emergency of some sort?”

“No!” Carin emphasized the word. “I mean, no, I wouldn’t want to worry him. It’s not pressing. I just need to…” The words died in her throat.

“Are you sure it’s not an emergency?” He couldn’t leave her hanging if it truly was a pressing issue.

“Sure, I’m sure.”

Jake debated. It wasn’t an emergency, and she’d be back in a day or so if he played his cards right. Then he wouldn’t be in a hurry to get Corey, and he’d have all the time in the world to talk with her—a better prospect, all the way around.

“Tell you what,” Jake coaxed. “Why don’t you come back Sunday morning for the ten o’clock service, when both pastors are sure to be here, and I can personally guarantee that following the service whichever pastor you need to speak with will give you his undivided attention for as long as you’d like.”

“You’re positive?” One eyebrow rose into a smooth little arch. “What I need to speak about could take a while.”

He nodded.

She jostled the bag on her shoulder and sighed, her gaze scanning the steps that led into the church. “Well…that’s just the day after tomorrow. I suppose it can wait until then. Ten o’clock, you said?”

“For the service, yes. And you can do your talking afterwards.”

“I don’t want to divulge the details.” Her forehead creased as her eyebrows knit together. “But perhaps I should leave a short message in the office, maybe a note with the secretary.”

“No need.” Jake tried not to glance at his watch. Corey would be waiting at the ball field, and who knew what kind of mischief he’d get into if Jake was delayed too long. “Besides, the secretary’s gone home for the day. But you have my word; the pastor will be OK with you showing up.”

“You’re sure?”

Jake eyed her…abundant ringlets of soft blonde curls, tidy appearance, and eyes that said she didn’t think he could possibly know anything about the pastor. The slight prick of guilt he’d felt fled. “I’m sure.”

“Well…” Carin wound a strand of curl around an index finger. “Thank you…I guess.”

“No problem.” The late-afternoon sun silhouetted her figure. She had to be a runner—or perhaps a dancer. Though her figure was slight, Jake noticed the definition of supple calf muscles below the hem of her skirt. He drew his gaze away. “I’d better get back to work now…unless you’d care to stay and help.”

She pressed a finger to the forehead crease and gnawed her lower lip again while readjusting the tote. “No. I’ve…um…got errands to run.”

Yeah, right, Jake thought as she backed away. You wouldn’t want to dirty those freshly-manicured nails.

“Well, the invitation’s open…anytime.” He swept a hand across the clipping-littered sidewalk. “There’s always plenty of lawn to mow.”

“I’ll…um…remember that.”

The mortified look on her face was priceless, and Jake grinned as she hastily retreated to her car. “Thanks for your help.”

“See you Sunday?” Jake called.

“Of course…if you’re here.”

“Oh, I’ll be here.”

“Me, too.” The way she said it, her voice lilting with a biting edge to it, made Jake wonder exactly what was up. Now he had no choice but to wait to find out. Guess that was the price he’d pay for letting the heat—and a bit of temper—get the best of him.

He thought about going after her, but the compact sedan’s engine rumbled to life before he had time to make up his mind. As the car puttered from the lot, Jake checked his watch and quickly turned his attention back to mowing. He crushed the empty water bottle and stuffed it into the back pocket of his jeans before double-timing it through the last section of lawn. Then he wrestled the mower back into the shed, brushed off his jeans, and went inside the church long enough to wash grass from his hands and check his voicemail. The last bit of mowing gave him time to reflect, and guilt gnawed at him.

He wondered what Carin wanted. He shouldn’t have run her off without asking. What kind of pastor was he, anyway? What if it was important? What if she didn’t come back?


Who on earth does he think he is? The arrogant, filthy, grass-covered bohemian. Why, I’ll—

The shriek of a horn startled Carin, and she slammed the brakes, skidding toward oncoming traffic. “Oh!” She held her breath as tires squealed over pavement and her car came to rest mere inches from the pickup truck in front of her. The odor of burning rubber coupled with fear made her gag. “Sorry,” she gasped, as if the driver of the truck might hear.

Oh, why on earth had she allowed Hailey to talk her into moving from her job helping her dad at his law firm in Nashville to take a teaching job at East Ridge Middle…and seventh grade, to boot? Middle school kids were a far cry from the affluent adults who came into her dad’s upscale firm to seek his advice on everything from basic living wills to complicated estate planning and civil suits. But she had a degree in English, and East Ridge Middle needed a qualified English teacher when Mrs. Baldwin, a thirty-five year veteran, decided to retire. So when Hailey called and suggested the move, Carin had jumped at the chance to take over. She’d always loved the Tennessee Valley and the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, and there wasn’t much anymore to keep her in Nashville.

Except for her dad, and he was pretty much busy at his law firm all the time.

Besides, she needed a change to get away from the memories…the grief of losing her mom and then Cameron, and of the turmoil that had followed with Phillip, too. Nothing else she tried seemed to work. A change of scenery—a bit of distance—was the answer for her troubled heart.

But it wasn’t easy being the new kid on the block at East Ridge Middle, especially when she demanded the absolute best from her students. During the first few weeks, chaos nearly choked her, but she finally had a handle on things—a routine and a plan she was more than satisfied with.

Except for Corey Samuels. Apparently he reigned as King of Chaos.

The kid had a chip on his shoulder the size of Montana, with an attitude to match. To say his grades and effort were underwhelming put it mildly. But his records showed top test scores and well-above-average ability, and something in his eyes told her there was more to the story. He reminded her of her younger brother, Cameron. As she tamped the urge to throttle Corey when he blew spit wads at her white board and made rude comments under his breath, something about him tugged at her heartstrings.

No one had been able to help Cameron, and the end result was nothing less than heartbreaking. She missed her brother, gone nearly a year now. The pain of his death never left her.

When she asked Hailey for guidance concerning Corey, her friend mentioned that a talk with Corey’s brother might help. So on the way home she’d swung by the church where Hailey said he was a pastor, but confidentiality had kept her from searching for him past that behemoth caretaker.

Carin expelled a long breath and released her hands from their death grip on the steering wheel. She wouldn’t allow that poor excuse of a caretaker get to her, even if he did almost run her over with the hulking, dilapidated piece of junk-metal he called a mower.

A second horn blared, and Carin sprang to attention as traffic began to flow southbound toward the outskirts of town.

Just wait until Sunday, Mr. Lawnmower Man. I’m tougher than I look. I’ll show you…

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Devotion by Marianne Evans

Harbourlight Books (September 19, 2012)
Marianne Evans

Chapter 1

“I don’t mean to push you.” Kellen Rossiter lifted the collar of his dress shirt and slid his tie into place, adjusting its fall. He stared at his reflection in the bathroom mirror, knowing his words weren’t entirely true.

“I know that.” His wife stood next to him at the double vanity. Dressed for bed, Juliet wore a floaty nightgown of dark green satin. She moisturized her arms, then her face. Kellen paused to watch her, captivated by the graceful, automatic motions, the soul-deep beauty she carried with a complete lack of awareness. The image of her left him to ache inside.

“I miss you when you’re not there.” He refitted the shirt collar then double-checked the knot on his patterned silk tie. “I like hearing your thoughts and impressions, but mostly I just enjoy being with you.”

Her shoulders sagged. Through the mirror, she tagged him with an apologetic glance. He had known the look was coming; she was ready for bed, after all. Plus, he knew the regret came from her heart. That’s why his statement about missing her, enjoying her, had lacked any form of condemnation. Just longing. He did miss her companionship and the feel of her at his side.

With increasing frequency.

“We used to have fun scouting talent at the local clubs, talking about anything and everything while we listened to music. Plus, this is supposedly a great new place, and we haven’t had a ‘date night’ in quite a while.” He paused again, just long enough to look at her once more. Gentle refusal still lived in her eyes, so Kellen braced himself for her ‘no thanks.’

“Sweetheart, you’ll be working. I get in the way when you’re shaking and moving.” She smiled at him, sincerely. Her eyes were so soft, a beautiful shade of deep green. “Next time, OK? I’m seriously tapped out, or I’d let you tempt me.” She moved close and tucked in tight, resting her head on his chest. Kellen wrapped his arms around her, ignoring the bite of disappointment, the urge for recriminations, like: We have no children, Juliet, nothing that ties us down. I know you’re busy with a hundred different activities that help our church, our city, and I know that fills you up, but what about us? Where do we fit together?

The thoughts launched, but with practiced ease, he shot each one down. He was being selfish. She was tired. The winter season was giving way to spring around Nashville, and she had spent the entire afternoon and evening volunteering at a soup kitchen and warming center sponsored by Trinity Christian Church, where he and Juliet were active parishioners.

“Tell you what.” Juliet leaned back in his arms. The curve of her lips, that promising sparkle in her eyes, almost cured his sadness. “I’ll wait up for you.”

Kellen nodded. He dotted her nose with a kiss; his hands slid against the glossy fabric of her nightgown. The color highlighted her ivory skin, and turned spectacular eyes to absolutely dazzling.

He made a vow to himself, then and there, that he’d get home early.


Irritation riled him as he drove north on I-65. He didn’t need to do this. It would be a typical late night/early morning spent at a club, this time listening to a jazz singer. Then, if he sensed any kind of potential, he’d have to host an introductory meeting. He wasn’t supposed to be taking on new clients. His roster of represented musicians was exclusive, and full to overflowing. He would have much preferred an evening at home with Juliet. At least, that’s what he told himself as intimate moments came along less and less often of late. Still, Kellen couldn’t resist that tickle in his gut, the excitement stirred by the prospect of discovering something—someone—extraordinary.

According to Associated Talent’s Weiss McDonald, tonight’s mission to Nashville’s newest hot spot, Iridescence, would be a slam-dunk. Beyond that, Kellen’s boss had offered nothing about who, or what, Kellen would be scouting.

“I refuse to taint your perceptions with any of my own.” Weiss had said, seeming euphoric. “Go. See. Report back in the morning.”

A sharp ache gnawed at his heart as Kellen navigated the narrow descent to an underground parking structure. Something didn’t feel right about this. He should have stayed home with Juliet.

Leaving the car, he made his way into the office building that housed Iridescence. A swift elevator ride later, the doors parted to reveal a white marble lobby, a translucent podium decorated by a deep purple vase full of vibrant colored calla lilies.

Nice, he thought. Definitely upscale and luxurious.

He was led to a table near the window where wall-to-wall glass revealed a Nashville skyline bursting with lights and a carpet of added illumination that went on for miles. To his left was a large, raised dais presently curtained off by black velvet. In passing, he saw a face he recognized—Jack Collins—the owner of the club. Jack’s eyes went wide when he looked Kellen’s way. Kellen chuckled under his breath, sitting down.

A waitress stepped up promptly. “Good evening, and welcome to Iridescence. Can I get you something to drink?”

She was young, a gorgeous blonde whom Kellen took in, and dismissed, just as quickly, though he offered a kind smile. “Tonic and lime would be great, thanks.”

“Right away.” Her smile and attention lingered. Kellen’s didn’t. Of far greater interest was Jack Collins who worked his way to Kellen’s table.

“Rossiter. Good to see you.” Jack touched the arm of the waitress to get her attention. “Mindy, his tab is on me.”

Further impressed, the waitress gave Kellen a second long look, which again he registered, then ignored. His focus homed in on Jack, and when the owner sat down in the chair opposite, Kellen leaned forward. “What am I in for?”

Jack’s smile took off like a fast ride. The man’s eyes flashed like a kid with a secret. “Seriously. Weiss didn’t cue you in?”

Kellen lifted a shoulder. “Mumbled some new-age nonsense about not wanting to mess with my perceptions or some such ridiculous thing. So tell me. What’s the deal?”

Jack sat back and kicked out his legs, flattening his hands against his stomach. He was a sharp man, hip and artful—with an eye for what would appeal to high-end customers. “Nope. I’m glad he didn’t tell you about her.”


Jack straightened and settled his forearms on the table. “Chloe.”

Lord. For whatever reason, Kellen’s mind drew pictures of a platinum blonde with buxom curves and slinky lines. He sank on the inside. “I’m here to see a woman named Chloe?”

“Yeah. Chloe Havermill. Listen, I’ve gotta see to some things right now, but stick around after the upcoming set. It’s her last for the night. I’ll introduce you.”

Before Jack could dash off, Kellen put out a restraining hand. “Hey, don’t cue her in. Don’t stack the deck or get her riled up that there’s an agent in the house. I’m here to listen. That’s all.”

Jack’s eyes flashed, and his posture radiated confidence. “Yeah? Let’s see if that’s all you have to say once you hear her sing.”

The man’s stance was so definitive it took Kellen aback. His interest level inched upward.


The lights dimmed until all that remained was a centered spotlight. The curtain across the dais glided open. Conversations and dish clatter faded as the audience turned in unison, looking toward the stage, and waiting. A rhythmic, almost tropical drumbeat, accompanied by flowing bass, signaled the start of the Sade classic, Paradise.

The spotlight remained trained upon a woman who put to rest every doubt Kellen had felt upon hearing her name.

A long, silver dress dotted by sequins, flowed like water over a lithe body that was graceful and fluid. Spaghetti straps revealed toned arms, a long, slender neck. A straight column of black hair moved against her shoulders. He was positioned close enough to see that her large, wide-set eyes were violet.


When she began to sing, her voice was nothing short of smooth magic.

From the opening notes, Chloe owned the room. She expressed the mood of the piece with pitch-perfect delivery. Her passion and skill rolled off the stage, slipping around the tables, enveloping her listeners. Kellen was stunned. Like the rest of the audience, he couldn’t look anywhere else. Her voice became the only thing he could hear.

It was second nature for him to size up people physically. Such was the nature of his business. Talent was the important thing, yes, but beyond that came the mysterious and elusive factors of charisma and dynamic appeal.

What was the package here? What would be the strengths and weaknesses?

A flashpoint occurred, providing an immediate answer to those questions. Quite naturally, that answer was channeled into terms any agent in the entertainment industry would understand. If Carrie Underwood had sleek, jet hair and violet colored eyes, she’d look exactly like Chloe Havermill. Chloe had the same gorgeous skin and flawless bone structure. She had the same dazzling smile. And Chloe had an innocent sweetness in her eyes, a sweetness that would provoke fierce loyalty, delight, and mega-sales.

The longer he listened, and watched, the more he stared. Captured. The corner of his mouth curved up. He felt pleasure just looking at her. That, coupled with the vocals she possessed, was an incredible intoxicant—because if this was how he felt, he was certain this was how America would feel as well.

He owed Weiss an apology for underestimation.

Kellen looked around, beginning to pay closer attention to the audience. They were enthralled. Chloe roped them in and fed their awed expectations. She drifted through smoky jazz ballad after heart-felt love song. The crowd, to a person, was completely behind her.

The set ended way too soon.

Not long after, Chloe entered the main room, accompanied by Jack. Moving through the crowd, she accepted handshakes and smiles, a few air kisses and delighted greetings while Jack led her to the table where Kellen sat. They were close enough now that Jack’s guiding touch and directing head nod caused Chloe’s focus to zoom in on Kellen, and it stayed put.

That’s when it hit him—a lightning bolt of attraction. A primitive male response to undiluted sweetness and a beguiling manner. Chloe Havermill struck him not at all as an arrogant, entitled performer—this despite a world of talent. Kellen didn’t even have time to consider his reaction before she stepped up, and looked at Jack, then back at him. Kellen stood, realizing his heart started to race, that his gesture stemmed from a mystifying call to be courtly.

Jack stepped into their elongated, intense silence. “Chloe, I’d like you to meet—”

“Chloe, honey!” Kellen’s waitress stepped up and held her empty tray to the side so she could give the singer a tight hug. “Happy birthday! Been waiting all night to see you so I could say hello! It’s a shame to be working on your big day!”

Chloe brushed that comment aside with a graceful sweep of her hand. “No worries. To me, this isn’t work. It’s a joy. Thanks for remembering, sweetie, and I’ll talk to you later, OK?”

“You bet.”

Kellen watched. Oh, he couldn’t wait to work with this woman.

She turned back, wearing an expectant expression, waiting on Jack, who started to chuckle as Kellen’s smile spread. He didn’t let Jack introduce him. Not quite yet. “So, today’s your birthday?”

“Yes. Yes, it is. Ah…” Chloe stumbled verbally, obviously confused about what was going on, and why she was standing at Kellen’s table.

Kellen reached into the breast pocket of his suit coat and extracted a business card, making ready to hand it over while Jack tried again. “Chloe, I think you’re in for a great present. I want you to meet a friend of mine.”

Already she extended her hand. Kellen connected to her promptly, taking her hand in his, but not shaking, just holding on.

Jack performed the conclusion. “This is Kellen Rossiter. Kellen, say hello to Chloe Havermill.”

Her eyes went wide. She breathed deep and the sequins of her dress shimmered. “Kellen. Rossiter.”

Because of his hold, he felt her waver just slightly.

Jack chuckled. “Pleasantries dispensed with, I’ll leave you to it.” Jack speared Kellen with a look that reeked of ‘I told you so.’

Chloe, meanwhile, gave her boss a fast, almost desperate look. “Can’t you join us?”

Kellen pulled out the chair next to his, to distract her from Jack’s exit. “I may have a tough reputation, Chloe, but contrary to industry myth, I don’t bite. I’d like to talk to you privately.” Kellen wanted her full focus, but he also wanted her to feel comfortable. The waitress—Mindy he recalled—breezed past once again and Kellen caught her eye. “Excuse me, Mindy. Would it be possible to order something to drink?”

“Of course. What can I get for you?”

“Another tonic and lime for me. Chloe?”

The interlude, as intended, gave her a few moments to regroup, but she was still dazed, completely unguarded and unprepared for this meeting. “Umm…ice water works for me.”

“Are you sure you don’t want anything else?” Kellen resumed his seat.

“Positive. I don’t want anything stronger when I feel like I’ve been thrown into the deep end of the ocean.”

He smiled into her eyes and leaned forward across the slight space that separated them. He was charmed by her. A natural reaction, all in all. “You know who I am. I’m impressed.”

“No, actually, I’m the one who’s impressed.” She laced her fingers together and rested her hands on the table. “Anyone with a pulse in the music industry should know who you are. My nervous stumbling aside, I’m very pleased to meet you.”

The comment stunned and delighted him. Full of undisguised awe, her reply stirred a second rush of attraction that wasn’t entirely welcome. Kellen wrote off the response quickly, though. After all, any man within a glance of this woman would feel just the same.

He decided to play into the moment, knowing he could easily pull back.

“Well—now that my ego is sufficiently fed” --they shared a laugh-- “Happy birthday, Chloe.” He extended his business card, the one he had held since being introduced to her, and slid it across the top of the small, dark wood table. Their fingertips brushed innocently when she took possession. She lifted the card and studied the elegant, raised black lettering, fingered the heavy white card stock. But he also noticed the subtle tremble that worked through her hand.

“I’m almost afraid to ask what this means.” Her voice was a quiet murmur.

“Then allow me to verify what you already know.” Kellen went all business and dead serious. “What that card means is you’ve just been given the best present of your life, Chloe. Opportunity.”

She blinked. Joy, he saw, became juxtaposed against terror. “Because?”

“Because you’re talented, and because I believe you deserve a shot. I want to give that to you.”

Laughter, conversations, glassware chiming—the bar sounds surrounded them while Chloe openly searched his eyes. She studied him so deep, and with such intensity that Kellen could do nothing but embrace the silence and let her, maintaining a smooth professionalism he didn’t feel on the inside. His pulse rate climbed. So did a heady, intoxicating roll of heat. The woman was exquisite.

“You honestly came here to see me?”

“I honestly did. And I’m not disappointed.”

Their drinks arrived. She tapped her fingers against the glass, looking down in a flustered way as she slid her hair to the side. But then she looked up and gave him a smile. Kellen felt its impact straight through to the core. “Thank goodness for that much. I’m glad I didn’t know you were in the audience. I’d’ve botched things up for sure.”

Kellen highly doubted that statement. “For just that reason, I operate below the radar until it’s time to make a move. Why unsettle the waters? On the recommendation of my boss, I wanted to see you perform without forewarning or prep. I get a far more honest performance that way.”

For the next couple hours, they talked about everything. She was Ohio born and bred—a singer from the day she could speak. Her preferences leaned toward country blended with a soulful style of jazz. Five years in Nashville had taken her through the doorways of a number of clubs that dotted the District; she had even played The Stage and Tootsies.

Tootsies is where Jack Collins had found her, but now a chic, more high-end atmosphere called—one that was much better suited to her elegant looks and musical style.

She warmed quickly and offered her background details with increasing ease. He appreciated that she didn’t mind revealing herself because his intrigue was absolute, and he wanted to know what he was getting into by representing her. Chloe seemed to understand that without prompting.

Before he knew it, it was almost one o’clock in the morning, and the spell shattered.

I’ll wait up for you.

Kellen double-checked his watch while Juliet’s promising smile, her sparkling eyes, swirled through his mind and prompted him home. “I have to leave.”

Chloe moved back with a nod and a chagrined expression. “I’m so sorry if I kept you.”

“You did no such thing. I’ve enjoyed the time we spent talking.”

“Me, too. I should have been home a while ago myself.”

Boyfriend? Husband? They stood, and his attention darted to her ring finger. Empty. But that didn’t mean much. He’d find out more on that later. “Call my office and let’s set up a formal meeting. Meantime, my team will draw up an agreement for you to look over.”

“I certainly will, and thank you again.”

They walked toward the rear of the club. “Where’s your car?”

“In the parking structure.”

The idea of Chloe walking to her car all alone in a large, empty facility didn’t sit well. “Let me walk you out.”

She tilted her head; he watched a dangling gold earring brush against her bare shoulder. She folded her arms against her midsection and her eyes sparkled. “Are you always so chivalrous?”

Danger flags rose—vivid red and snapping in a stiff wind. Kellen obeyed the signs and delivered a business-like nod that he tempered with a grin. “Let’s just call it looking out for my future investment.”

Her smile only widened. “Let me grab my purse and coat. I’ll be right back.”

Kellen knew that smile of hers was going to haunt him. Big time.


Kellen arrived home to darkness and silence.

I’ll wait up for you.

Juliet’s words echoed through his mind and guilt slid in.

Entering from the garage, Kellen walked quickly and quietly through the kitchen. The stove clock read one forty-five. He had never meant to stay at Iridescence so long. When he’d left Juliet, he’d fully intended to make good on his promise to return home promptly.

He removed his suit coat and draped it over his arm. He tiptoed up the stairs to their bedroom, sliding off his tie, loosening the top few buttons of his shirt. No shaft of light cut a line beneath the closed door. Of course she would be asleep by now. Guilt performed its second dance when he eased open the door and crept inside.

Tucked beneath the bed blankets, Juliet slept. He didn’t need the milky, dim moonlight in order to see her. He needed nothing but the memories in his heart to draw the image of her soft, beautiful features.

What had gotten into him tonight with Chloe? He needed to figure that out—but not right now. He needed to pray about it—but the time for that would come later as well—when he was more focused, and rested. For now, he wanted Juliet. With all his heart.

He moved silently to the side of the bed where she slept. He sat down carefully, fingering back the tumbled waves of her silky, auburn hair. He bent to drop a slow, lingering kiss on her cheek, willing her awake, longing for clear, sweet eyes of deep green. He snuggled gently against Juliet’s neck, nuzzling her with soft kisses. She responded by coming alert slowly, turning into the ready warmth he offered.

“Hi,” she whispered in a husky voice.

“Hi.” He backed away just far enough to stroke her sleep-warmed cheeks with his fingertips and cup her face. Any other loose-flung thought or desire promptly evaporated. In Juliet’s presence once more, he was struck anew by the precious connection he shared with her—the wonder of their love. “I’m so sorry I’m late.”

She shifted beneath the blankets and feathered her fingertips through his hair. “Was it a successful night?”

Kellen fought the urge to squirm, and he battled back every image he held of Chloe. “Very. I think I’ve found a very gifted performer.”

“I’m glad.” She stifled a yawn and stretched out a bit. “I tried to stay up.”

A craving took over him all at once. He held his wife, he drew her close, and they dissolved into one another, sharing a kiss deep and stirring. Loving Juliet was as beautiful as a dream, and as easy as drawing breath.

She turned toward the glow of the alarm clock, but Kellen brushed his lips against her throat and kept her from facing the hour. He took a breath and came upon the last tantalizing traces of lily of the valley perfume, a scent that would forever speak to him of Juliet. “Don’t look. It’s crazy late. Do you have to be up early?”

She pulled him toward her and made a happy sound against his cheek as she loosened a few more of his shirt buttons. Her fingertips skimmed against his chest. “Not that early.”

He sank into a mix of emotions—pure, loving desire, then a longing that possessed two very distinct and potent layers. One belonged to his wife; the other belonged to the echo of a lightning strike—to a woman named Chloe Havermill. Tangled within himself, Kellen knew just one thing to be true: Juliet was the antidote. His wife was the author of his heart, and he loved her deeply. She would keep him centered. The sureness of their relationship would soothe away anything else.

First thing in the morning, he would drink in God’s word like a parched man. He would return to his daily reflections and humbly, devoutly pray. Tonight, however, all he wanted to do was pour his love over Juliet like a benediction.