Exclusive Excerpt: In the Ring: A Dan Stagg Novel by James Lear

Excerpt: 

A line of light. Greenish white, then gone.

The sound of dishes being washed, chink chink chink, or is it bells, distant bells?

Silence, a roaring silence like a never-ending explosion, and a sudden pounding in the chest, hard, like someone’s hitting me with their fists, thumping into me, breaking my ribs. Panic, flight, a jerk in the spine and the legs, prepare to run. Fear.

Awake.

Everything is white and blurred. I think there’s a TV on somewhere, a screen of some kind. Too much light. Movement, vague circles white out of white, puffy clouds coming closer and receding. Is this death?

A face at the end of a long tunnel, like looking down the wrong end of a pair of binoculars, ridiculously far away and tiny, so tiny it makes me laugh, the breath coming out through my nose.

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The face getting closer, a brown sun in a blue sky, white clouds, coming towards me like a dolly shot in a movie, taking up more and more of the sky until all I can see is brown skin and white teeth and eyes that look into mine and a mouth that smiles and speaks, hey, you’re awake, hey Dan, how are you doing, buddy? Welcome back.

And then the clouds cover the sun and the picture goes down to a line like on the old TV at home, a line and then a dot and closedown.

It was the pain that woke me up in the end, a sharp sensation that cut through the last of my dreams. Awake, alive, and hurting. The pain is real, so I must be real.

My eyes felt like they’d been tumble-dried and rolled in sand. I tried to lift my hand to rub them, but it weighed about a hundred pounds. Craning my neck, I looked down at it, lying on the white covers of the bed. Looked like my hand—tanned, gnarly, hairy— but didn’t feel like it. Didn’t feel at all, in fact. Shit, I thought, it’s been chopped off and left on top of the bed. It’s no longer part of me. Am I going to get robot parts?

But the pain. Back to the pain. It was somewhere further down—below the hips, starting around my ass and travelling down to my right foot. Real strong good old-fashioned pain. At least I could feel my legs. I know lots of ex-soldiers who can’t.

Jesus fucking Christ, it was beyond pain, it was getting into red-hot-blade territory, and I must have yelled because there was a sudden movement beside me, to the left of the bed, just beyond my field of vision, and then a voice.

“Ah! Dan! You’re back.”

Sounded familiar, like a dear friend, except I don’t have any friends, let alone dear ones, and God knows it couldn’t be my family.

“Haahmmmfff.” That was meant to be “who’s that?” but my mouth wasn’t working any better than my hand. Fuck, I thought, if my dick doesn’t work either then I’m in real trouble. That made me laugh, which came out through my nose then got stuck and turned into a coughing fit. My lungs, it seemed, had been filled with hot ash.

“Okay, okay.” An arm slipped round my shoulders, lifting me gently. “Take it easy.”

Then the coughing made me belch, and I would have puked if there had been anything in my stomach to bring up other than a bit of foul-tasting bile that dribbled down my chin and neck. I tried to wipe it away, but of course—no hands.

“Take it easy, Dan.” A soft cloth cleaned my mouth, and I was lowered back on to the pillows.

That’s when it twigged. I’m a vegetable. Something has happened to me and I’ve lost the use of my limbs, I can’t control my mouth, I probably have to piss through a tube and shit into a diaper. I always wondered about those guys who come back from war zones like this. Do they know what’s going on—how bad it is? Well, apparently they do. Great.

“Do you have any pain?”

“Mmmmmm.” I couldn’t nod or form words, but I guess the intonation put it across.

“A lot of pain?”

“MmmMMMMMmmm.”

“Okay. I’m calling the doctor.”

He stepped away from the bed, into my field of vision, and for the first time I saw him, five foot eight inches of athletic American male poured into a nurse’s uniform, a handsome face that I recognized from somewhere, a dream perhaps.

He spoke into a phone while I checked his back for wings. No: he appeared to be human, and mortal, which meant I must be alive, if not kicking.

He sat on the edge of the bed and put his warm, living hand on my cold, dead fingers. Maybe not so dead. Maybe a flicker of response. “He’ll be here in a minute. Hang in there, Dan.” He smiled, and I tried to smile back, which led to more drooling. He smiled and dabbed. “Pain relief is coming.”

It occurred to me with a sudden jolt that I had no idea where I was. I’ve heard the question asked in a million movies—where am I, Doc?—but now I couldn’t form the words. I glanced around, hoping for clues. My vision was still blurred, but I made out something that looked like the stars and stripes, high up on the wall. A US base, then, if not actually on home soil.

The pain blasted back, as if my shinbone was being sawn through, and I tensed up, squeezing my eyes shut, all sorts of hell going on in parts of my body I couldn’t identify. A general cacophony of pain. And above it all, a gentle squeeze of my hand.

“Can you look at me, Dan?”

I opened my eyes and squinted out. A handsome face always makes me feel better.

“That’s it. Try and listen. My name’s Luiz. I’m a nurse, and I’ve been looking after you for the last few days, since you got here. You’ve been unconscious for quite a long time, but you’re going to be ne. There’s no brain damage.”

I waited for the but . . .

“Your leg was pretty smashed up. They’ve pinned it back together, and now we’re just going to let it heal.”

But . . .

“The good news is, if it hurts, it’s mending. If you couldn’t feel anything, I’d be worried. The more it hurts, the better.” That sounded like something I’ve said to a lot of young men before, which made me laugh again, with the same messy results. Luiz cleaned me up.

“Okay, okay. You’d better not laugh any more. Take a few deep breaths, it’ll help with the pain until the doctor gets here. I’m just going to keep talking. Listen to my voice, and look into my eyes.”

No great hardship. Beautiful brown eyes . . .

“You’re in the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.”

The Navy Med. I’d been here before, maybe four, five times in a career of being shot, blown up, and beaten for Uncle Sam.

“You arrived three days ago after spending two days in a military hospital in Baghdad.”

Baghdad. That rang a bell. Baghdad. That’s where I was. And now I’m here in Bethesda. Baghdad, Bethesda, Baghdad, Bethesda, Beghthesda, Big Bad, Bethlehem, Bthzzzzhzhzzh . . .

His voice muffled, fading, shutters falling again, into a chasm, a deep black chasm that might be death.

Blurb:

In this latest Dan Stagg novel, we find that Dan Stagg is dead . . . at least as far as the rest of the world is concerned.

In the Ring brings Dan Stagg to James Bond territory in an exciting story of concealed identities, beautiful double agents, corruption, power, and passion.

Find more Titles by author James Lear, aka., Rupert Smith

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Exclusive Excerpt: The Constant Caprese (a Nick Williams Mystery; Book 20) by Frank W. Butterfield

Exclusive Excerpt:

Right then, we were about fifty feet from the bottom of the hill where Via Libertá ended. The road was at its steepest and we were walking slowly since we couldn’t see. A flash of headlights ran across the far wall of the restaurant that we’d passed earlier in the day. I let go of Carter’s arm. We’d been walking in the stone-paved roadway and both jumped up on the sidewalk to get out of the way.

After about half a minute, I could hear a car coming down the hill very slowly. As it got close to us, it slowed down to a crawl. A voice called out, “Signor Williams?”

“Yes?” I replied without turning to look at the car, since it was following us and the headlights were just behind us. I knew I wouldn’t be able to see anyone without getting blinded.

The voice asked, “Will you give me your boat?”

I sighed. I wondered how to play the situation.

Suddenly, I had it. “Sure. Come by the marina at 10 in the morning. That’ll give us time to get our stuff out.” That was a lie. We would be on our way by 7 in the morning, at the latest, and they would be sadly disappointed when they arrived at the marina. Or so I hoped.

“Then where will you go?”

“We’ll take the ferry to Naples and fly back to France from there.”

“Good. Thank you for your assistance.”

I snorted but didn’t say anything. The voice said something short and to the point in Italian. With that, the car bolted forward and squealed down the hill and around the corner, heading right, and was gone.

. . .

As we walked up to where the sailboat was docked, I noticed that Captain O’Reilly and John Murphy were both in their cabin and all the lights were out except for one in our cabin.

Carter whispered, “Let’s take off our shoes.”

I snorted quietly. “Good idea. I don’t wanna get a talkin-to in the morning.”

We both removed our shoes and carried them as we walked aboard. Slowly padding along, we quietly walked into our cabin. Carter leaned over, as usual, and then collapsed onto the bed, making the boat rock a little as he did.

I carefully closed the door behind me and stood right there, with my back against it, and looked over at Carter. His legs were spread apart and he was yawning, his head tilted back with his left hand over his mouth while he propped himself up with his right.

I could feel myself getting more flushed and excited than I ever could remember. I ran my eyes up from his socked feet, along the length of his thickly-muscled legs that were, as always when he sat, stretching the fabric of his trousers, and then stopped at his crotch. I could feel myself breathing heavily, almost panting. The warm feeling I’d been having since before dinner was spreading and getting stronger and more urgent.

Looking up, I felt myself blush furiously when I saw that he was watching me. His emerald green eyes were bright and wide. And, as I looked at him, the ruddiness in his face deepened darker than I could ever remember seeing it before.

We stared at each other for what felt like an eternity. Then, before I knew what I was doing, I found myself slowly undressing right where I stood, allowing Carter to enjoy the sight.

Blurb:

Tuesday, September 10, 1957

Nick and Carter have left Nice and, after sailing down the Italian coast, have dropped anchor at the island of Procida, just across the bay from the Naples coast.

Nick, as he is wont to do, meets the one homosexual who works at the local post office and, in short order, is invited to dinner along with Carter to meet the entire family. Italians, after all, are so friendly!

Meanwhile, Lord Gerald, their friend in British intelligence, has sent a cryptic telegram asking them to take a package over to Capri, an island on the far side of the Bay of Naples.

When they dock at Capri the next morning, they find a dying duke, an eccentric earl, and a vigilant viscount all living together in a glorious villa dating back to the turn of the century. These are the final remnants of the once-thriving community of homosexual Englishmen who made the Italian island their sanctuary where they could live in peace as themselves.

But is someone haunting this idyllic Mediterranean paradise? Who cut the phone line for no apparent reason? Who opened the locked door and then unlocked it again? Who is playing pranks with the plumbing? Maybe these are all just coincidences… Or maybe there is something more sinister afoot…

Come sail away with Nick and Carter to the Island of Capri and find out!

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Exclusive Excerpt: The Leaping Lord (a Nick Williams Mystery; Book 19) by Frank W. Butterfield

Excerpt:

As we walked through the gardens, we came around a bend. Suddenly the sea was stretched out in full view. Carter took a deep breath and asked, “Never gets old, does it?”

“Nope. As much as I miss sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge, this view always gets to me.”

Carter rested his hand on my shoulder for a long moment. It was a Tuesday afternoon. There was no one around. I was tempted to turn and kiss him, but something told me not to. Moving his hand to my neck, Carter led me to a bench that was a prime spot for gazing out over the water.

We both sat. I scooted a little closer to him than I normally would in public. I had a strong desire to be held in his arms but I knew we would have to wait until we got home where we had our own private view.

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We sat there, neither speaking, for several minutes. I was about to nod off when I heard someone off in the distance. Carter, who had put his hand on my knee, removed it and scooted away an inch or two.

I could hear what sounded like four or five people moving in our direction. No one was talking but they weren’t trying to be stealthy. It sounded like they were walking through the woods that bordered the grassy areas.

As I was about to turn and see who it was, I heard an oddly familiar female voice ask, “Quite a view, isn’t it?”

I heard Carter gasp as I turned to look. We both jumped to our feet. I tried not to gape. She was more beautiful in person than she’d ever been on the screen. My first thought was that motherhood agreed with her. She looked softer and less angular than in the movies.

She was wearing a blue dress that ended just below her knees. Over that, she sported a light blue coat whose cuffs ended in the middle of her forearms. Small white gloves and a strand of pearls completed the look. Her blonde hair was perfectly held in place under a small periwinkle hat pinned in place. She appeared very comfortable and beautiful, all at the same time.

She smiled at me and tilted her blonde head. Offering her gloved hand, she asked, “Mr. Williams?”

I shook and nodded. “Yes, Your…” I didn’t know the word.

“Serene Highness,” prompted Carter.

She nodded and offered her hand to him. “Mr. Jones?”

He gently shook and bowed slightly. “Yes, Your Serene Highness.”

Once that was done, she looked out at the water below. “I’m always a bit surprised every morning when I see that blue water.” Turning to me, she said, “I’m sure you must feel the same.”

I nodded, remembering to breathe, and quoted Carter, unable to think of anything else. “It never gets old.”

“No, it doesn’t.”

We stood there for what seemed like a long moment. Finally, Carter asked, “How is Princess Caroline?”

She beamed at the name of her daughter. “Very well, thank you. She’s growing so fast. I can’t believe it sometimes. She’ll be seven months old in a week.”

We both nodded but neither of us replied. Finally, I came to my senses and asked, “Is there something we can help you with, Your Serene Highness?”

She laughed. “Please, when we’re alone, do call me Grace.”

I smiled. “I’m Nick and that’s Carter.”

Blurb – The Leaping Lord by Frank W. Butterfield: 

Tuesday, August 13, 1957 Life is good. Nick and Carter are living on the French Riviera, having breakfast by the pool every morning with a view of the Mediterranean, and living a quiet life after a busy month. The grand re-opening of Nick’s latest acquisition, l’Hôtel Beau Rivage, the hottest spot in Nice, has gone off without a hitch. And, best of all, Nick has recovered nicely after taking a bullet in his shoulder. But then, on the same day, they have not one, but two unexpected encounters with the aristocracy. A day of driving down the coast leads to an amiable but unusual request from the former Grace Kelly, now Her Serene Highness The Princess of Monaco. Nick is suspicious of the favor she’s asked but he’s also smitten with the gorgeous blonde who lives in the Prince’s Palace just a few miles down the coast. Carter, of course, can’t help but tease Nick about losing his heart to movie-star royalty. Later that evening, Nick and Carter are invited to an impromptu dinner with Her Grace, the Duchess of Boston. She happens to be the mother of the British spy who has been helping Nick and Carter stay out of trouble for the past couple of years. Her son, Lord Gerald Whitcombe, left London for Nice back in July but has since disappeared. The duchess is convinced that the two of them are the only ones who can find him. What follows is a race against time that leads Nick and Carter back to Paris where they find that things are not exactly how they left them.

Blurb:

Tuesday, August 13, 1957

Life is good. Nick and Carter are living on the French Riviera, having breakfast by the pool every morning with a view of the Mediterranean, and living a quiet life after a busy month. The grand re-opening of Nick’s latest acquisition, l’Hôtel Beau Rivage, the hottest spot in Nice, has gone off without a hitch. And, best of all, Nick has recovered nicely after taking a bullet in his shoulder.

But then, on the same day, they have not one, but two unexpected encounters with the aristocracy.

A day of driving down the coast leads to an amiable but unusual request from the former Grace Kelly, now Her Serene Highness The Princess of Monaco. Nick is suspicious of the favor she’s asked but he’s also smitten with the gorgeous blonde who lives in the Prince’s Palace just a few miles down the coast. Carter, of course, can’t help but tease Nick about losing his heart to movie-star royalty.

Later that evening, Nick and Carter are invited to an impromptu dinner with Her Grace, the Duchess of Boston. She happens to be the mother of the British spy who has been helping Nick and Carter stay out of trouble for the past couple of years. Her son, Lord Gerald Whitcombe, left London for Nice back in July but has since disappeared. The duchess is convinced that the two of them are the only ones who can find him.

What follows is a race against time that leads Nick and Carter back to Paris where they find that things are not exactly how they left them.

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Excerpt & FREE Drawing! The Adroit Alien (A Nick Williams Mystery Book 18) by Frank W. Butterfield

Exclusive Excerpt:

“I bet you’re really proud of yourself, aren’t you?” That was Carter. We were huddled together in our new bed.
Antoine had found the shutters for our bedroom out by the stables. He had put them all in place, although, to open them the next morning, we would have to take them down by hand.
We’d all had dinner a few blocks away at the same place where we’d had lunch. It was good, solid fare, and they were willing to cook Carter’s steak to well-done. While we were eating, Jake had suddenly looked up from his plate and asked, “What about firewood?” Carter had groaned. We hadn’t bought any. Not that we knew where to get any.
On that note, the kids had decided to go back to the hotel for the night. They’d followed in a second cab when Antoine and Jake had taken off from the restaurant after we were finished eating.
For our part, Carter and I had walked back to the house. It was cold outside and, somehow, when we got home, it was even colder inside the house.
I’d been telling him about getting Jacques and Greg together when he’d made that comment. “Yeah. Can you believe it’s been seven years?”
Carter pulled me in closer. “You don’t seem to generate any body heat,” he grumbled. “And you smell.”
I put my lips on his and murmured, “This was your idea.”
He sighed. “I know.”
“Maybe if we fooled around a little?”
He began to run his hand up and down my back, but that was as far as he went. I tried to lift my hand up so I could hug his neck, but he kept me pinned in place. “Hey!”
“We need to talk about your matchmaking.”
“We do?”
“Yes. You can’t just move to Paris and start—”
“Why not?”
He sighed, blowing slightly sour air in my face. Neither of us had brushed. At least his breath was warm. “I don’t know. I thought I would feel better once we got here. But I’m more irritated than ever.” He stopped talking.
Feeling a knot forming in my stomach, I said, “And I’m irritating you, aren’t I?”
“Well—”
“Just tell me.”
“Yeah. You are. You left us here to do all the work while you ran around town spending money and flirting with chauffeurs and doing your matchmaking thing.”
I was quiet. He was being ridiculous. He’d wanted me to do all that, handsome chauffeurs notwithstanding. But I didn’t want to rub it in his face.
“Stop that, Nick.”
“What?”
“Being quiet.”
I had a sudden thought. “You know what?”
He squirmed on the bed. “What?”
“I think it’s been too long since we’ve, you know…”
Carter didn’t reply to that. I knew I was right. I let him stew for a little while in whatever thoughts he was having. Finally, I said, “We haven’t really been alone in a while. At least three weeks.” He started breathing a little heavier. I decided to push things a little further. “You like those boots Alexander was wearing as much as I do.”
He slapped me hard on the ass, which hurt but not much. “You’re right.”
“It really gets to you sometimes, doesn’t it?” I was teasing him and probably shouldn’t have.
He squeezed me as hard as he ever had. I had a mildly panicked thought that he was going to explode or crush me, one or the other. “I can’t talk about this, Nick.”
“Why not? We’re alone.”
He was still breathing hard. “I know, but my mind gets all jumbled when I get like this.”
“I know. That’s part of what I like about it when we do it.”
“I wish we could get warm and throw all these covers off the bed so I can…” He sighed. “You know.”
“I know.” I kissed him on the lips. In reply, he pushed his tongue into my mouth, hard.

Blurb:
Monday, January 2, 1956
Nick and Carter have arrived safely in Paris and were even greeted at the airport by a minor government official and a small detachment of the famous Republican Guard.

After taking a week to recover from their Christmas adventures in Vermont, they’re ready to move into their new house over in the 4th Arrondissement.

It takes three cabs to get the whole gang over there from their hotel and, as they stand on the sidewalk outside, none of them can quite believe what they find: a crumbling building, a trash-filled courtyard, several broken windows, and, as Nick tentatively pushes the front door open, the stench of a rotting corpse.

The police know that none of them could possibly have committed the crime but what about the mysterious Madame Marika, who has suddenly disappeared? Is she back behind the Iron Curtain? Or has she too been murdered?

The entire household gets involved in solving the mystery, dashing around the city that is their new home, and discovering, in the end, the bonds of love and friendship they have brought with them from San Francisco, across the Atlantic Ocean, and to La Ville-Lumière—Paris: The City of Light.

And that’s only the beginning…

Blurb:

Monday, January 2, 1956

Nick and Carter have arrived safely in Paris and were even greeted at the airport by a minor government official and a small detachment of the famous Republican Guard.

After taking a week to recover from their Christmas adventures in Vermont, they’re ready to move into their new house over in the 4th Arrondissement.

It takes three cabs to get the whole gang over there from their hotel and, as they stand on the sidewalk outside, none of them can quite believe what they find: a crumbling building, a trash-filled courtyard, several broken windows, and, as Nick tentatively pushes the front door open, the stench of a rotting corpse.

The police know that none of them could possibly have committed the crime but what about the mysterious Madame Marika, who has suddenly disappeared? Is she back behind the Iron Curtain? Or has she too been murdered?

The entire household gets involved in solving the mystery, dashing around the city that is their new home, and discovering, in the end, the bonds of love and friendship they have brought with them from San Francisco, across the Atlantic Ocean, and to La Ville-Lumière—Paris: The City of Light.

And that’s only the beginning…

Learn about Other Titles be Frank W. Butterfield:http://frankwbutterfield.com/books

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Exclusive Excerpt: A Whisper of Bones: A Jane Lawless Mystery by Ellen Hart

Excerpt:

That night, the wind picked up and the temperature dropped into the low thirties.  Jane was glad she’d thought to grab her peacoat before leaving the restaurant.  Early December in Minnesota was generally much colder, with several inches of snow on the ground.  This year, however, the the only thing covering the grass were dry leaves.  Unusual weather for Minnesota.  As she was about to open the door of her Mini, a car pulled up next to her and stopped, its engine idling.

Cordelia Thorn, Jane’s oldest and best friend, opened the passenger’s door window and called, “Leaving kind of early, aren’t we?”

“You checking up on me?”

“Get in.”

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Jane made herself comfortable in the front seat, glad for the warmth of Cordelia’s new black Subaru.

“I still can’t get used to your hair,” said Cordelia.  “Can’t believe that, after all these years, you cut it so short.”

“I needed a change.”

“The Rachael Maddow look”

“No, the Jane Lawless look.” If she’d realized how much attention she’d get because of a simple haircut, she never would have done it.

“I stand corrected,” said Cordelia, looking amused.

Cordelia’s entire life was a costume drama, a period piece, past or future.  At the moment, she was sporting a rose-colored wig.  Wigs were her new thing after finding a basket filled with them in her sister’s rarely-used office at the theater.

“Next,” said Cordelia, throwing the car in park, “we need to work on your old sweaters and jeans.”

“You mean get rid of my clothes?”

“I’m merely suggesting a wee upgrade.  I’m not talking Abercrombie & Fitch or Nordstrom, just something other than Old Navy.”

Glancing over at her giant friend wearing a heavy, bright red faux fir coat, Jane changed the subject, if only marginally.  “Kind of early in the season to bring out the big guns.”

“Without snow, it’s hard to get in the mood for Christmas.  One does what one can.”

“How come you’re not at the theater?”  Along with her younger sister, the Broadway and B-movie star, Octavia Thorn Lester, Cordelia was the owner of the Thorn Lester Playhouse, downtown Minneapolis’s newest antique gem.  She was also the artistic director, the resident mother superior, and, when necessary, brought the force of a five star Marine general to whatever situation might need attention.

“I have to pick up Hattie from a friend’s house.  Neither of them have school tomorrow, so I’m letting Hatts stay out late.  Together, she and Juan are discovering the wonders of Juan’s chemistry set.”

Cordelia’s had been granted legal custody of her ten-year-old niece many years ago.  They’d lived together ever since.  “Lucky Hattie,” said Jane.

Touching the tip of her finger to her darkly rouged lips, Cordelia continued,  “I was at a party last night.  I think I may have drummed up a new client for you.”  She explained about the woman she’d met—Britt something or other—who’d been asking around about local private investigators.  “I wondered if she was gay, but I didn’t get any vibes.”

“So that’s where she got my card,” said Jane.

“You’ve already talked to her?”

“This morning.  You must have done a good sales job.”

“I always do.  But back to my original question.  How come you’re leaving so early?  I thought we might share a quick nosh together.  One of your pub burgers sounds just about perfect.”

“Sorry.  Already eaten.”

“Then join me for a beer.”

“Can’t.  Not tonight.”

“You’ve been spending a lot of time at home lately, Janey.  One cannot help but wonder why.”

“Don’t start.”

“Look, no beating around the mulberry bush this time.  I’m worried.  That woman somehow conned her way into your home.  You need to look around for the coffin she sleeps in during the day.  If you can’t find it, call me.  I’m there for you, Janey.  If nothing else, we can burn your house down with her in it.”

Jane took a deep breath.  “There are times when I find your penchant for exaggeration funny.  This isn’t one of them.”

“I’m not exaggerating.”

”Julia’s my friend.  End of story.”

“Is it?”

“What else do you need to know?”

“Oh, come on.  Don’t be so coy.”

“You want to know if  I’m sleeping with her.”

“Give the woman a cigar.”

“Look, Cordelia.  I care about her.  I don’t love her, not in any romantic way.  Our relationship ended many years ago.”

“Did you ever wonder if this illness-thingie is just a ploy?”

Now she’d gone too far.  “Why don’t you come over for dinner.  I’ll text you with a couple of dates.  You can see for yourself how sick she is.  But you have to promise to be decent.  Friendly.”

“Leave my sarcasm at the door?” said Cordelia, feigning shock.  She flipped open the glove compartment and removed her stash of bubble gum.  “I’ll think about it.”

Many years ago, Jane and Dr. Julia Martinsen, an oncologist living, at the time, in Bethesda, Maryland, had fallen in love.  They’d been in a committed relationship for a couple of years, though Jane had finally ended it.  Julia had played fast and loose with the truth too many times.  Since then, she and Julia had continued to see each other very occasionally, although they were no longer close.  Last spring, Julia had confided to Jane that she’d been diagnosed with a serious illness.  Her greatest fear was dealing with it—and perhaps the end of her life—alone.  Meaning, without Jane.  While Jane had moved on, Julia hadn’t.

In a moment of weakness—which Cordelia likened to Armageddon—Jane had promised to be there for her.  Even though the love had died long ago, feelings, unlike faucets, couldn’t be turned off neatly and easily.  For a short time in early October, it appeared as if Julia might not have more than a few weeks to live.  Her failing eyesight had made it impossible for her to drive.  That’s when Jane had invited her to move into her house.  By late October, Julia had rallied and her health had stabilized.  And now Jane had a permanent house guest, which Cordelia maintained was Julia’s intention all along.

“I’m the clarion call of reason,” continued Cordelia, unwrapping a stick of gum.  “You need to listen to me.  You may think Julia is water under the bridge, but I’m telling you that unless you burn that bridge to a crisp, she’ll find a way to recross it.”

“I don’t need all the cliches.  The message was received.”

“She’s going to hurt you again, Jane.”

“How?  I already know she lies and that I can’t trust her.  Are you saying she’ll hurt me in some other way?  She has cancer, Cordelia, or something very close to it.  I know she’s not going to live long.”

Cordelia raised an eyebrow.  “Have you ever seen one scintilla of proof that Julia is ill?”

“I have.  I’ve even spoken to a couple of her doctors.”  Jane had no doubt that the tumor growing behind Julia’s optic nerve was real, or that the surgery necessary to remove it was not only a partial cure, but one fraught with danger.  Still, there were things she hadn’t told Cordelia, mostly because she wouldn’t understand.

“Janey, I say these things to you because I love you.”

“I know that.  And I’m grateful.  But don’t worry about me.  I’m fine.  Clear headed, feet on the ground.  Same old Jane you’ve always known and loved.”

“You’re impossible, you know that?  But okay, end of rant.  For now.  Call me when you know more about this Britt person’s investigative issue.  I expect a full report.”

Jane could have taken a few minutes to explain what she’d learned this morning, but she saw no point.  Britt hadn’t hired her.  More than anything, Jane wanted to get home.  “Yes, ma’am,” she said, saluting.  “Full briefing tomorrow at o-600.”

“I have no idea what that means.  Just don’t call before noon.”

[]

Shortly after ten, as she entered the front foyer of her home, Jane was greeted by two eager dogs vying for her attention.  Mouse, a chocolate lab, nosed her hand, his usual earnest self, his tail wagging so fast it was almost a blur.  Gimlet, a small black poodle, jumped up and down and twirled around, so excited she could barely keep her balance.  How could a person not love dogs?  Jane crouched down to give them each a hug and a scratch.  When she straightened up, she noticed logs burning in the living room fireplace.

Coming around the end of the couch, she found Julia sitting on the oriental rug with her back propped against the couch.  Next to her was a teapot and two cups.

“All the comforts of home,” said Jane, sitting down beside her.

Six months ago, Julia had been fit and working hard at a profession she loved.  The medication her doctors had prescribed to deal with the growing tumor had proved to be almost as bad as the disease.  She’d lost a good twenty pounds off an already lean frame, mostly because the meds didn’t mix well with food.

“The fire feels good,” said Jane.  “Chilly out there.”

“I know,” said Julia.  “I just got home myself.”

Julia had hired a personal assistant in mid-October.  Carol Westin was a retired RN who’d spent the last twenty years of her working life as a healthcare educator.  She and Julia had been friends and coworkers, and now Carol not only acted as chauffeur, but reader of reports and general secretary.  Beyond the driving and the reading, she was also helping Julia liaise with lawyers to set up the foundation that would bear Julia’s name, one that would continue the work she cared so much about:  Medical outreach and training in third world countries.  She worked Carol hard, but paid her well.

Gimlet pushed her way in between them, buried her nose under Julia’s leg and closed her eyes.  Mouse settled down next to Jane. “Have you eaten?”

Julia nodded to the teapot.

“That’s not food.  Let me make you something.”

“No. Don’t go.”

“But you need to eat.”

She poured the steaming liquid into each cup and handed one to Jane.  “Not now.”

“Soup.  There’s always room for homemade chicken soup.”

“Maybe later.”

Jane sipped her tea and gazed into the fire.  She didn’t want to think about her current situation too critically, but had to admit that it was nice having someone to come home to—someone who’d made a pot of tea and had built a fire.  “How was your day?”

“Good,” said Julia.  “For whatever reason, that awful low-grade headache evaporated.”  She glanced over at Jane and smiled.  “Now that you’re home, I’m even better.”  She slipped her hand over Jane’s, then leaned in for a kiss.

Instead of pushing her away, as Jane had for years, she let the kiss linger.  Was she playing with fire by sleeping with Julia, as Cordelia feared?  She didn’t think so.  What she’d told Cordelia was accurate.  She had no romantic feelings for Julia any longer.  This was just….what?  Affection, perhaps.  Whatever it was, Jane wasn’t about to end it.  It wasn’t hurting either of them.  If anything, coming together the way they had after Julia had moved in was good for both of them.  It would end one day, and Jane would have to deal with it, but until them, what was the harm?

They sat together quietly, the dogs resting contentedly next to them, and watched the fire.

“Want another cup?” asked Julia.

“No, I’m good.”

“Let’s go upstairs.”

“Aren’t you tired?”

“Not in the least.”

Jane tipped her head toward Julia.  “Why don’t you head up?  I’ll put the dogs out, make sure they have their bedtime treat, and then I’ll join you.”

After Julia was gone, Jane spent a couple more minutes looking into the dying embers, thinking about Julia and how life often took unexpected turns.  She kept repeating the thought, “What’s the harm?”  She’d said it to herself so often lately that it was beginning to feel like a mantra.  As she was about to get up, her cell phone rang.

“This is Jane,” she said after pulling it from her pocket.

“I want to hire you,” came a woman’s voice.

“Britt?”

“I found proof that Timmy did exist.  Can we get together tomorrow?”

“Sure,” said Jane.

“What if I meet you at your restaurant around twelve-thirty?  I don’t have anything on my schedule until mid afternoon.”

“Sounds good.  I can’t wait to hear what you discovered.”

“I’m still processing it, but I will say this much—it blows my mind.”

 

A Whisper of Bones – by Ellen Hart

 Blurb:

Fans of Jane Lawless new and old will be fascinated by newly minted Mystery Writers of America Grandmaster Ellen Hart’s latest intricate puzzle in A Whisper of Bones.

Britt Ickles doesn’t remember much from her only visit to her mother’s childhood home when she was a kid, except for playing with her cousin Timmy and the eruption of a sudden family feud. That’s why, when she drops by unannounced after years of silence, she’s shocked when her aunts tell her Timmy never existed, that she must be confusing him with someone else. But Britt can’t shake the feeling that Timmy did exist…and that something horrible has happened to him. Something her aunts want to cover up.

Britt hires Jane Lawless, hoping the private investigator can figure out what really happened to her cousin. When a fire in the family’s garage leads to the discovery of buried bones and one of the aunts dies suddenly and suspiciously, Jane can’t help but be pulled into the case. Do the bones belong to Timmy? Was the aunt’s death an accident, suicide, or homicide? What dark secret has this family been hiding for decades? It all depends on Jane Lawless to unravel.

Ellen’ Hart’s Bio:

Ellen Hart is the author of thirty-two crime novels in two

click on image for Ellen’s website

different series. She is a six-time winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Mystery, a three-time winner of the Minnesota Book Award for Best Popular Fiction, a three-time winner of the Golden Crown Literary Award, a recipient of the Alice B Medal, and was made an official GLBT Literary Saint at th

e Saints & Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans in 2005. Entertainment Weekly named her one of the “101 Movers and Shakers in the Gay Entertainment Industry.” For the past sixteen years, Ellen has taught “An Introduction to Writing the Modern Mystery” through the The Loft Literary Center, the largest independent writing community in the nation. Her newest Sophie Greenway mystery is No Reservations Required, (Ballantine, June 2005). Fever in the Dark, the newest Jane Lawless mystery, will be released by St. Martin’s/Minotaur in October 2016. Ellen lives in Minneapolis with her partner of 37 years.

Exclusive Excerpt: Transposition (Hazard and Somerset – Book 3) by Gregory Ashe

Chapter 8

December 22

Friday

8:45pm

Somers knelt over his father, trying to stop the bleeding. Santa Claus had shot Glenn Somerset in the stomach at least once, maybe twice. It was hard to tell because the lights were out and because there was blood. So much blood. Somers barely remembered crossing the room to where his father lay. He remembered glancing at the girl—Bing’s daughter—and knowing she was dead; a bullet had punched through her back, and she wasn’t breathing. He didn’t remember where he got the fabric that he now wadded up and held against his father’s stomach. All his attention now focused on this makeshift attempt to stop the bleeding. In the tips of his fingers, Somers felt a pulse. His own? Or was that his father’s heart pumping blood out of the gaping wound?

Somers could hear it—a soft, squelching noise as blood soaked through the improvised bandage. That was crazy. That was batshit. There was no way that Somers could hear, actually hear, blood pumping out. But he could. He could hear that squelching. His Great-aunt Elaine had a red rubber hot water bottle that she would put in her bed in the winter, and when she would carry the bottle to the sink and empty it, it sounded like this: fingers compressing the rubber until it squeaked against itself. God, this was insane, the whole thing was insane, and if his father—

—died—

—no, that wasn’t even a legitimate thought, that wasn’t something he could allow himself to consider.

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It was with something like surprise that Somers realized the lights had come back on. In the warm, yellow light, his fingers were so many colors: crimson, purple, blue, black. Somers forced his gaze up, towards his father’s face. The flesh was puffy, creamy except where the day’s growth of stubble gave everything an aquamarine cast. His eyes were closed, but he was breathing. Pretty strong breaths. Yes. Good breathing. The lungs hadn’t been damaged, thank God. Over the years, Glenn Somerset had put on weight, but he looked very small now laid out on the floor. It was like gravity had stretched him, stretched him like taffy, and Somers thought that liquids had constant volume but no definite shape. Like all that blood, spilling out thinly across Somers’s knuckles. Someone was talking to him, Somers realized, but he didn’t care. His father was oozing out across the floor, all that blood, what a joke, what a goddamn joke.

“—and if you touch him I’ll break your nose.” That part managed to penetrate Somers’s fog, and he realized it was Hazard speaking. He was using that low, deadly voice that made the hair on the back of Somers’s neck stand up, the voice like he’d do everything he said and it wouldn’t bother him a bit.

“We’ve got a job to do,” a snippy young man’s voice answered.

“Open your mouth again,” Hazard said. “Go ahead.”

If the snippy young man had more to say, he didn’t voice it.

A moment later, Hazard’s face swam into Somers’s line of sight. “Somers, the paramedics are here. You’ve got to get out of their way.”

Somers blinked. The words washed over him, past him, away.

“Come on,” Hazard said. His big hands, surprisingly delicate, prized Somers’s fingers off the makeshift bandage, and Hazard helped Somers to his feet.

“No,” Somers said, shaking his head and stretching back towards his father. “I’ve got to—”

“They’re going to take him to the hospital,” Hazard said, steering Somers a safe distance away. “That’s the only chance your father has.”

Somers stared as the paramedics went to work. Their movements were precise, efficient, and controlled. One was the young man that Somers had heard objecting; the other was a much older woman with leathery skin. The young man’s hands trembled, but he kept working. The woman—her hands looked like they could have held an ocean and not spilled a drop. Liquid—

—blood—

—had a constant volume but no definite shape.

Faster than Somers would have believed, they transferred his father to a gurney and wheeled him from the house. Somers glimpsed Sheriff Bingham embracing his son, both of them paralyzed by the death of Bing’s daughter. And Somers noticed his mother trailing after him, her movements stiff, as though she hadn’t walked in years. She glanced around, her blind gaze moving over Somers as though he weren’t even there, before settling on Jeremiah Walker. He crossed the room as though summoned by that gaze, settling an arm around Grace Elaine’s shoulders and urging her after the gurney.

“You need to go,” Hazard said, turning Somers towards the door. “Your mom is going to need you. We’ll take care of everything here.”

Everything here. Two words. Everything here meant bullet casing. It meant blood. It meant the gunpowder smell that had replaced everything else. It meant talking to drunken socialites. It meant facing a murderer. It meant a dead girl. Somers felt as though he were rising from deep waters—slow at first, and then faster and faster as the pressure shot him towards the surface. He saw, now, that Wahredua’s finest were already here. How much time had passed? Somers cast a quick glance. Where was Santa?

“Let’s go,” Hazard said, giving another push. “You can ride in the ambulance. I’ll meet you there as soon as I can.”

Somers shook his head.

“Your mother—”

“Fuck no.” Somers lifted his hands, intending to press on his pounding head, but he saw the blood again. Already it had dried, turning sticky and crusty as it did. “I just—I need a minute—”

“You need to get your ass out of here.” Martha Cravens, Wahredua’s Chief of Police, marched towards them.

Cravens was a big woman with an hourglass shape; large without being fat, her hair stylishly gray, she somehow managed to give off the air of being someone’s grandmother. The reality was very different. Cravens had toughed it out as one of the only women on a small-town police force, and she had earned respect and trust while doing so. She had been talking, Somers noticed, with Mayor Newton, who was one of Cravens’s strongest supporters. The mayor folded his arms and studied Somers from across the room; there was something in the old man’s face that made Somers’s skin crawl.

“That’s what I’ve been telling him,” Hazard said. “Look, I’ll drive you there.”

“No way.” Somers raised his hands again, saw the blood again, stopped again. “No.”

“I know what you’re thinking,” Cravens said. Her face was hard—lined with sympathy, yes, but still hard enough to crack a goddamn Rolex so it wouldn’t ever tick again. “You think you’re going to take matters into your own hands. You think I might be stupid enough to let you within ten miles of this business because it’s personal, because you’re a good detective, because you’ve put in your time.”

“Chief,” Somers said, his voice thick, so thick it barely escaped his throat. “You’re out of your goddamn mind if you think I’m not handling this.”

“What’s there to handle, Detective? Everybody saw the shooter come into the room with a gun. We don’t need to do a goddamn thing except wait. We’ll take statements, pick up the casings, and we’ll run ballistics, just to be sure, but that’s just to keep lawyers from crawling down our throats. There’s no case to work. This thing was shut almost before it opened.” Cravens’s face softened, the lines around her eyes and mouth deepening. “John-Henry, the best thing you can do is help your family right now.”

Somers shook his shoulders, as though trying to throw off an invisible hand.

“Come on,” Hazard said in a quiet voice. When Somers didn’t respond, he said, “John-Henry.”

The sound of that name on Hazard’s lips, a name Hazard hadn’t used since—

—the locker room, Somers’s heart thudding as he saw the desire in Hazard’s eyes—

—high school, made Somers blink. He nodded. Cravens grasped his hand, and Somers let Hazard hustle him out into the night. It was cold, much colder than Somers remembered. His breath misted, but it was so goddamn cold that the mist should have crystallized, fallen to the earth, and shattered. Spindrift glistened in the headlights of a dozen police cruisers. Pebbly snow chittered against the metal shells. Overhead, the stars looked close enough that Somers thought he could reach up and shove them around a little.

The stars. Somers shouldn’t have been able to see the stars. His father had lit up the house like the Bellagio, and the lights had blotted out the sky. But the exterior lights, the decorative lights, had not come back on.

“Keys,” Hazard said, still guiding Somers towards the Interceptor.

Somers fished them out of his pocket and pressed them into Hazard’s hand: the skin warm, callused, strong.

Why hadn’t the exterior lights come back on?

Hazard wasn’t acting like Hazard either. He was shivering, and for the first time, Somers noticed that Hazard wasn’t wearing his jacket. He also noticed that Hazard was holding the door open for him, waiting for Somers to climb into the car.

“Where’s your jacket?”

Shaking with the cold, Hazard jerked his head at the car. “Will you get in?”

“Did you leave it inside?”

“Yeah, sure. Before I freeze my fingers off if you don’t mind.”

Somers climbed into the seat, Hazard shut the door, and a moment later he climbed behind the steering wheel. The SUV roared to life, and warmth fluttered out of the vents.

“That was your jacket. I was using it to—my father’s stomach, the blood—” Somers cut off, unable to finish the statement.

Hazard shrugged.

“Jesus, if I’d just taken him to the station like my father asked.” Somers rocked forward. He lifted his hands to cover his face, but again the sight of blood stopped him. Scrubbing at his shirt, Somers tried to clean the tacky mess from his hands, but all he succeeded in doing was spread a rust-colored stain across the cloth. He scrubbed harder; the friction brought heat to his hands. If the goddamn blood would just come off—

Hazard’s hands closed around his wrists. “Breathe.”

Somers couldn’t breathe. He rocked forward again. “I should have just taken him to the fucking station. But I had to be an ass. I had to make a point. I had to—”

The sound of paper ripping filled the car, and Somers glanced over. Hazard had a packet of alcohol-cleanser towelettes, and he was working one of the cloths free. Without speaking, Hazard gripped Somers’s hand and began cleaning the dried blood from his fingers. Somers knew he should say something. Stop. That would be the smartest thing. Or, let me. Anything would be better than silence. Even crying, even sobbing would be better than the sick feeling in his stomach and the tightness in his throat.

But Somers didn’t say anything because right then, Hazard’s touch felt like the only thing keeping him from flying apart. Hazard cleaned with strong, firm movements, but again he showed that surprising gentleness as he manipulated Somers’s hands. When he had finished—and, in the process, used all of the towelettes—Hazard grabbed Somers’s chin. This grip was not gentle; it was painful, and it hurt more as Hazard forced Somers’s head so that their eyes met.

“You say one more time that you should have taken him into the station, and you’ll be shitting out your own teeth for the next year.”

Somers started to laugh. He wasn’t sure where the laughter came from—the sick feeling inside was still there, just pushed to the back a little—but the laughter felt real. He laughed until a hint of a smile cracked Hazard’s stern expression and Hazard’s fingers dropped away. Still laughing, Somers leaned back against the glass. Cold soaked through his jacket and shirt, and it felt clean against all that sickness inside him.

“That’s your idea of being comforting?” Somers said as his laughter faded. The tightness in his throat had eased. He still felt like shit, but he felt like shit with his eyes open.

“That’s my idea of keeping you from being an even bigger horse’s ass.”

“Can we—I mean, would you take me to the hospital?” Somers paused. “I can ask one of the uniforms to drive me if you need to get home.”

Hazard growled something under his throat and shifted the Interceptor into gear. Their tires stirred up tiny cyclones of snow as they pulled away from the Somerset home and headed into the city.

“What was that?”

“I said you really are a dipshit.”

“Hazard?”

Hazard didn’t respond.

“Ree?”

He grunted.

“Who turned the lights back on?”

“I don’t know. Somebody.”

“What happened?”

“The breakers tripped. All of them.”

“And somebody reset them?”

“Sure, somebody.”

“All of them?”

“Christ’s sake. Yes.”

So why hadn’t the outside lights come back on?

Before Somers could voice the question, Hazard’s phone buzzed. The dark-haired man answered, speaking in a low tone—grim monosyllabics punctured by a single, violent, “What?” After listening for another minute, Hazard threw the phone skidding across the dash.

“What?” Somers said. “Is it my—”

“No. Nothing about your dad, not yet. He’s still in surgery.”

“Then what?” Somers tried to think, but his reactions were dulled by emotion and exhaustion. “Nico?”

“Santa Claus is dead.”

Somers stared at Hazard. “That’s a joke.”

“He was shot while trying to escape arrest.”

 

Paternity Case Blurb:

It’s almost Christmas, and Emery Hazard finds himself face to face with his own personal nightmare: going on a double date with his partner—and boyhood crush—John-Henry Somerset. Hazard brings his boyfriend; Somers brings his estranged wife. Things aren’t going to end well.

When a strange call interrupts dinner, however, Hazard and his partner become witnesses to a shooting. The victims: Somers’s father, and the daughter of a high school friend. The crime is inexplicable. There is no apparent motive, no connection between the victims, and no explanation for how the shooter reached his targets.

Determined to get answers, Hazard and Somers move forward with their investigation in spite of mounting pressure to stop. Their search for the truth draws them into a dark web of conspiracy and into an even darker tangle of twisted love and illicit desire. And as the two men come face to face with the passions and madness behind the crime, they must confront their own feelings for each other—and the hard truths that neither man is ready to accept.

Want more Gregory Ashe?

You can follow him here:

https://www.gregoryashe.com/

 

 

 

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Have you read Book 2 in this awesome series?

Click on the box below to read an exclusive excerpt of Transposition, by Gregory Ashe.

Exclusive Excerpt: Transposition (Hazard and Somerset – Book 2) by Gregory Ashe