Coming soon from Dreamspinner Press (late in July, or so I’ve been told. Don’t know exactly when yet!) Valley of Shadows, my very first pro novel ever. I thought I would give you a sneak preview, bit of a taste of what’s to come. Hopefully you will like and want to see more when it come out.
Ellery James, a celebrated author of historical romances shuns the spotlight, preferring the solitude of his small town sanctuary to risking media scrutiny. He harbors a closely guarded secret that is not only the bane of his existence, but the source and inspiration of his bestsellers.
His strictly proscribed existence goes south and sideways when the grimly dangerous Boone Dantrell blazes into Ellery’s life. Ellery is alarmed to experience a tentative but undeniable connection to the haunted, mysterious stranger with secrets of his own, and the burgeoning attraction between them grows almost as swiftly as the danger dogging Boone.
They’ve barely met before their secrets and worlds collide, thrusting them both into unimaginable peril. The battle they must wage together spans this world—and the next—and losing it could cost them not only their lives, but their very souls.
I heave a huge sigh of relief when I slip through the wrought-iron gate marking the entrance to my property. Boy, am I glad to see this place! Thought I’d never get here. The hedges are slightly mangy, and so is the sprawling lawn, but you know what? To a man in the throes of a mild fit of unaccustomed paranoia, they’ve never looked more beautiful.
A sudden, mournful gust of wind scuds across my path, driving a thigh-high cloud of dust laced with withered leaves before me. I sprint across the worn flagstone circle that decades earlier had rung with horses’ hooves and steel-banded wooden carriage wheels. The house’s ivy-covered granite façade, normally welcoming, now seems vaguely gloomy and brooding.
Then again, maybe it’s just me.
The huge, overhanging balcony hulking over the front entry casts an inky curtain across my final destination. The only remaining obstacle between me and certain safety. Behind this massive, black hunk of antique timber lies my carefully constructed, most certain refuge. Can’t wait to step through that door and close it, thereby putting the entire outward world of insecurity behind me.
My hand surrounds the cold latch, clenches, and pushes. No resistance. Not locked. Oh my God, it’s open! Well, it would be, on account of I left the house without locking it. Like I always do.
Any other morning, coming home to a house unsecured, unoccupied, and completely undefended the entire time I’ve been gone? Wouldn’t give it a second thought. In fact, remarking about any of the above upon arriving chez moi wouldn’t even occur to me. I leave my house unlocked all the time. It’s fricking Birchwood, what’s the big deal?
Has immersing myself in this placid, sleepy little town really made me so complacent? I close the house up when I’m away on tour, but when I’m in residence? I don’t remember the last time I locked door behind me. I don’t even carry the key anymore. I think I threw it in the junk drawer in the kitchen, but I’m not entirely sure. What’s the problem? This is Birchwood, remember? The last time they locked and barred their doors here was during the Civil War.
What could happen to me here? What indeed. I seem to remember making a similarly naïve observation earlier this morning prior to embarking on what I thought was going to be a routine breakfast stop.
We all know how that turned out.
All right, fine, whatever, we’re home now. Maybe we haven’t been doing it much lately, but it’s never too late to start locking the barn door behind us.
“Any homicidal maniacs come to call while I was out?” I impudently challenge the foyer while I slide the deadbolt home. Only echoes answer me. Phew!
So much for frightening flights of fantasy. Birchwood, remember? Nothing ever happens here.
I enjoy occasionally freaking myself out with improbable possibilities. Gets the adrenaline flowing, reminds me I’m still actually a part of the human race. Well, sort of.
I face the grand foyer and holler out again. “Hey honey, I’m hooooome!” The acoustics in this wood and marble expanse would make a concert hall envious. It took some experimenting to find the optimal spot to send the sound waves straight up and then ricochet them off the stone and plaster angels roosting along the crown molding. But if you stand—right here—and yodel? Hours of fun.
I’m not losing my mind. Really. Just temporarily letting it off the leash. It’ll be fine; it knows the way home.
Okay, enough messing around. Back on task, here. Alarm system, alarm system. Turn it on. How do you do that, again? Not exactly sure. Guess it woulda helped if I’d actually paid attention during Max’s how-to demo. Maybe next time.
You’re not taking this very seriously, are you, Mr. James? Not really. Not now. Now I’m safely surrounded by my solid, familiar, stone security blanket, all my Boone-related paranoid fantasies?
Rapidly going bye-bye. Not unlike him.
With the evaporation of my apprehensions, I’m becoming uncomfortably aware of how uncomfortable this damned shirt is becoming. Not to mention disgusting. The encrusted gobs of the remains of the Benedict Boone hauled me through have subsequently solidified and are now cracking and flaking off with every movement. Blech. Also not nuts about the feel of the crunchy texture against my skin.
The shirt is officially toast. Ironic, in that I didn’t have any. I’ll shed it, have a shower, and fetch a replacement. By then it’ll be time to get to work. I should endeavor to actually accomplish something today. Max’s earlier and less-than-subtle reminder I’m required to put out another book shortly was not lost on me.
I move across the foyer floor, heading for the staircase, unbuttoning my shirt and sliding it down my shoulders.
“About time you got back,” a cold, deep voice sounds from the landing the same time my foot hits the bottom step.
Cold, deep, and distinctly male.
The sound yanks my head up by the ears. I freeze, stupid with shock, gaping at the russet-haired man in jeans, dark button-down shirt, and leather jacket lounging casually against the subtly curving oak balustrade defining the entire length of the upstairs landing. God, look at him, the arrogant bastard, lounging around like he owns the place, completely at his ease, as if he came with the house. The confident, smarmy smile on his face, large brandy snifter in his left hand, an even larger gun in his right.
The business end of which is currently pointed at the middle of my chest.
Oh look, we’ve got company.
“Hi, Boone,” I nervously acknowledge him. “This is a surprise.”
“You know, you’ve got no food in this place,” my impudent interloper drawls dangerously, then takes a slow sip of the amber liquid in the snifter. He studies me for several seconds, mocking me with his confident, glittering, super-scary eyes. Love the green, hate the glare.
Sorry we’re short on snacks. But I see you found the bar.
“I haven’t had time to shop. Too busy dodging trucks and unprovoked diner attacks. But thanks for reminding me I need to stock up.”
Huh? Why did I just say that? Possibly the cannon aimed at my chest is interfering with my thought processes? Such as they are.
Boone emits a subtle snort, peels himself off the banister, and starts down the stairs.
“You lied to me,” he accuses. Ominously.
What’s he talking about? Lied to him? I hardly even know him!
“There is another place to get a room in this town after all.” His mouth contorts in a grin that bypasses ironic and goes for a head-on gallop straight into cruel. “Funny you failed to mention it.”
I’m completely lost and becoming increasingly preoccupied with not soiling my drawers while Boone and his gun descend ever closer. When did the topic of room rentals enter into our previous one-and-only conversation?
Rooms. Oh, oh, wait, I get it. It’s weird, but I get it.
“Oh.” It’s not much, but it’s all I’ve got at the moment. Boone’s booted feet hit the foyer floor. We’re on the same level.
“The place is big enough, but I don’t rent out rooms. The previous owner did, but I don’t. This is a private residence now. I live here… alone.”
Oh, way to go, genius. Now he knows there’s little to no likelihood anyone is going to walk in on us, inconveniently interrupting his intentions, whatever they are. Not unless Mrs. Potts pulls a Houdini for the second time today, but even if she did show up unexpectedly, I doubt her unwitting intervention would slow him down much.
“Then maybe you should take the sign down,” Boone observes in a shockingly silken voice.
Sign? Oh, right. Sign. Good idea. I’ll get right on that. As soon as you’re gone.
That is, if I’m still breathing.
His sensuous, menacing tones are giving me palpitations. Terrifying, and yet oddly exciting. He faces me, his eyes flitting up and down my body, lingering briefly on my mid-section before recommencing their restless roaming. Awareness of the visual caress sucks all the moisture out of my mouth until my tongue feels as dehydrated as a piece of beef jerky.
He’s doing it again. Staring at my chest.
My very bare and over-exposed chest.
“Don’t stop on my account,” he murmurs, baring his teeth.
Damn! Practically naked, here. At least from the waist up. Armed and possibly psycho stranger with dilated pupils and creepy grin pointedly eyeing all exposed skinage. I am aware I have led an extremely sheltered life—by temporary pop celebrity standards, that is—but even I know this is probably not a good thing.
He’s really staring at me. Why is he doing that? Okay, not so much me as my—he did not just lick his lips!
Is he—he is!
He’s checking me out!
“Do you mind!” I hastily shrug my shirt back on with as much dignity as I can muster. I’m not going to let some grinning goon make me feel like a piece of meat in my own home.
Even if he does have a gun.
Now there’s something I never thought I’d hear myself ever say.
“Fine, suit yourself.” Boone gives his shoulder a casual toss and his wrist a more deliberate flex, lightly swirling the amber liquid in the glass in his grasp. “Down to business. I can do that.” He uses the snifter to wave me past him, toward the breezeway leading to the west wing. Not the gun. The gun doesn’t get waved anywhere; it stays on me, not wavering an iota. “Now, I want you to walk this way.”
It’s out before I can stop myself.
“If I could walk that way….” I manage to regain control of my tongue, and my senses, before I commit further oral inanities.
Boone stares at me, utterly expressionless. The only thing moving is a small muscle in his jaw, rhythmically ticking.
“Are you done?” His green eyes gleam. I think he’s amused, but I can’t tell yet. This man doesn’t wear his heart, or anything else, on his sleeve. I wonder if anyone ever got behind those eyes and really got to know him. I wonder if I could.
I wonder if he’ll let me live long enough to try.
“I think so.” I nod. “Yeah. I’m sure. I’m definitely done.”
“I’m so glad to hear it.” The sarcasm coating every syllable is hard to miss. “Now, would you mind?” He waves the snifter again. “If it’s not too much trouble.”
“If it were, would you care?”
No, I don’t have a death wish. At least, not one I‟m consciously aware of. I do, however, seem to be suffering from a sudden bout of can’t-shut-up-itis.
Hopefully it‟s not terminal.
Boone hacks out a harsh, barking laugh. “Your instincts for self preservation suck, but you’ve got spunk.”
“Don‟t tell me, you hate spunk.”
Shut up, shut up, shut up! Why I can’t I shut up?
Boone’s eyes narrow in a curious parody of playfulness. “Normally, I‟m kinda fond of it. Not right at the moment, however. That being said, you need to stop farting around, now, and do what I tell you.”
Okay, point taken. I think I’ve pushed this particular envelope just about as far as it will go.
“Oh, and by the way, nice and slow,” Boone warns. “No sudden moves.”
Is he kidding?
“What do you think I’m gonna do, throw myself on your gun?”
“I wouldn’t advise it,” he dryly retorts.
Neither would I.
I stalk proudly past him without attempting any heroic disarming maneuvers.
“Head for your rumpus room at the end of the hall,” he instructs from behind. “We’ll sit, have a nice chat. You’ll spill your guts. I’ll decide whether I’m gonna let you live or not. It’ll be fun.”
By whose definition?
The parlor. He must mean the parlor. Returning to the scene of the crime? Or just wants a refill? He’s obviously been in there once already, the proof he located my bar, such as it is, sloshing around in his left hand. I hope he confined his snooping to rifling through my liquor stash and hasn’t violated any other rooms on this floor. Particularly the library.
Wait a minute, he was upstairs when I arrived. What was he doing up there? How long has he been here? How did he find out where I lived?
Don’t be stupid, that probably only took him all of five minutes. All he had to do was ask. My well-meaning neighbors wouldn’t hesitate to helpfully point out my domicile to any well-mannered axe-murderer who wandered into town and made a few polite inquiries.
It’s not their fault. They were raised that way.
If I get out of this alive, I owe Max one hell of an apology. She wants me to take on a bodyguard, hell, I’ll let her kit me out with a whole herd of ’em.
If a bunch of geese is a gaggle, would a bunch of guards be a gargle?
When we enter the parlor, I’m accosted by the striking sight of the afternoon sunlight liberally flooding the room, the gauze curtains—pardon me, window treatments—garnishing the intervening French doors barely diffusing the radiant invasion. A golden corona spills onto the huge oriental carpet adorning the dusky walnut floor under our feet. The original wood, thank you very much. I don’t want to tell you what refinishing it cost me. The carpet imperceptibly but inevitably fading under the glorious ultraviolet assault wasn’t exactly cheap, either.
It’s a nice room. Large, but warm and welcoming. Spared no expense restoring the extant furnishing I inherited along with the house, as well locating the additional, complementary contemporary pieces. The room is a thoughtful and loving amalgam of old and new.
It’ll make a fabulously photogenic backdrop for the forensic photo shoot.