Exclusive Excerpt: Guilt by Assocation (Hazard and Somerset Book 4) by Gregory Ashe

Excerpt: 

Chapter 3

February 11

Sunday

11:15am

The phone’s ringing went through Hazard’s skull like a couple of inches of good steel. One minute he was asleep. The next, awake and feeling like someone had shoved a spear through the back of his head. It went on for a long time. Then it went quiet. Later, it rang again. A fragment of memory—not for us, the flashing bronze, was that Homer?—because the noise was like the blade of a fucking spear going into his brain. And then, again, blessed silence. The pillow, he thought drowsily as he tried to sink under the headache and into the gray stillness of sleep, smelled like Nico.

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For a while he was there again, inside that grayness, while a part of his brain recycled the past night. The hammering music inside the Pretty Pretty. The smell of sweat and superheated lights and Guinness. Nico pressed against him—no, Nico across the room, far off, while Hazard talked to Marcus. No, to the hot guy in the jacket and tie. No, to the bouncers. And through it all, that mixture of headache and bass line, pounding, pounding, pounding—

Pounding on the door. Hazard jerked free of the tangled bedding. Immediately, he regretted it. The headache surged back to the front of his head, and he had to steady himself against the nightstand. The clock marked a bleary eleven. Whoever was knocking was really going to town.

“Just a minute,” Hazard shouted.

Pants. And a shirt. But he had no memory of where anything had ended up last night, and he came up with a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. The shorts fit. The shirt didn’t. It had to be Nico’s, but it felt like a child’s. A child’s small. Jesus, maybe an infant’s. It was choking the life out of Hazard.

And somebody was still trying to pound down the door.

Squeezed into the tiny shirt—had Nico bought it for a nephew? what the hell was it doing on the floor?—Hazard stumbled to the door and glanced through the peephole. Groaning, he turned back to the bedroom.

“I can hear you,” Somers called from the other side of the door.

Hazard kept going.

“I’ll keep knocking.”

Hazard kicked aside Nico’s empty laundry basket. His toes caught in the plastic mesh, and he swore as he ripped them free.

“I’ve got Big Biscuit.”

At the bedroom door, Hazard stopped.

Somers had gone silent. Even without seeing Somers, even with a solid door between them, Hazard knew the bastard was smug. Probably grinning. Hazard knew he should go back to bed. He should take one of those pills for his head and pull the covers over his eyes and just go back to bed, and when he woke up, he’d call Nico, and he’d figure out what he’d done wrong last night, and he’d apologize the way he’d apologized to Billy, the way he’d apologized to Alec. He’d eat the same old shit out of this shiny new bowl. That was it. He’d just get into bed and ignore Somers. He’d—

By that point, he’d already unlocked the front door.

“Took you long enough—Jesus God, what are you wearing?”

“Shut up.”

Somers, a plastic carryout bag hanging from one hand, appraised him. And it was exactly that: pure, fucking appraisal. Somers was hot. He was runway hot, swimsuit hot, blond and golden-skinned, even in the middle of winter, fuck him, and with eyes like Caribbean waters. Today, like every day, he managed to look like he’d just rolled out of bed—and like he hadn’t been alone. His button-down was rumpled, his jacket was askew, his hair had that perfect messiness that made Hazard itch to run his hands through it. And he was still standing there, still appraising Hazard like he might buy him at auction. Now there was a thought. Hazard barely suppressed a second, very different kind of groan.

“What happened?”

“Give me the food.”

“You look like shit.”

Hazard tried to shut the door; he blamed his headache and hangover for the fact that Somers still managed to sneak inside. As Somers always did when he came to Nico’s apartment—Nico and Hazard’s apartment, Hazard amended—he made a show of considering the mess. Nico’s clothes, Nico’s books, Nico’s shoes, Nico’s latest shopping. There were about three square inches of space that weren’t covered by something that Nico owned.

Somers went straight to the table and shoved a pile of unmatched socks onto the floor. Then, after a moment’s consideration, he shoved a stack of textbooks.

“Hey.”

“I’m messy.”

“Please don’t start.”

“I know I’m messy.”

“Somers, I’ve got the worst headache, and I’m tired, and I—”

“I mean, I know I’m messy. I know that’s why you moved out. One of the reasons.”

Hazard gave up and waited for the rest of it.

“But this,” Somers gestured at the chaos—he paused, Hazard noted, when he saw a stack of some of Nico’s more provocative underwear. Hazard shoved them under one of the sofa cushions.

“Pervert.”

Somers, smirking, continued, “But this is insane. It’s like you’re living in a dorm. Or a frat. And as much as you might have enjoyed close quarters with all those rich, athletic boys, sharing showers, dropping towels, a few playful wrestling moves turn into something not quite so playful—”

“Somers, I swear to Christ.”

“—you’ve got to admit you don’t like living like this.”

“Are you done?”

“Finished.”

“You’re sure?”

“Perfectly.”

“Because if you’ve got more jokes, get them out now.”

Somers spread his hands innocently.

“Any more comments about my—” He had been about to say boyfriend, but the word stuck in his throat. For once, his hesitance to acknowledge his relationship with Nico had nothing to do with how he felt about Somers. “—about my apartment?”

“It’s not yours.”

“Jesus.”

“I’m just saying, it’s not. It’s Nico’s.”

“You’re a real piece of work.”

“I mean, I get it. You’re living here now. But it’s not like that’s going to last forever.”

The last words struck home hard. Hazard dropped into a seat at the table, head in his hands.

“Hey, what’s going on?”

“Nothing.”

“Ree, I was just teasing. Well, mostly. I mean, this place is a mess, but I’m not trying to—come on. What’s going on?”

The pounding in Hazard’s head had gotten worse. He needed one of those pills, but he couldn’t drag himself out of the chair. Not yet. Just a minute, he just needed a minute.

“All right,” Somers said. “Your hair is all loose and wild and sexy barbarian, which means you either just finished banging one out with Nico or you haven’t showered yet. You’re wearing a shirt that’s about eighteen sizes too small, and those gym shorts—well, you’re going commando, buddy. So again: either you just nailed Nico the wall, or you’re—” Somers whistled. “You’re hungover.”

“I’m not hungover.”

“You are. You had a fight with Nico. You got plastered. You’re wrecked.”

“You don’t have to sound so goddamn happy about it.”

Neither man spoke for a moment. Then Somers touched the back of Hazard’s neck, and Hazard flinched.

“He hit you? That motherfucking piece of shit put a hand on you?”

“What? God. No.”

“You’ve got a bruise about a mile long back here. Doesn’t he have any fucking brains? Didn’t he even think about the fact that you’re still healing, that you shouldn’t even bump your head, let alone—and the little bitch hit you from behind, didn’t he? Where is he?” Somers hadn’t moved, hadn’t raised his voice, hadn’t so much as lifted his fingers from Hazard’s neck. But it was like someone else had come into the room. It put a shiver down Hazard’s back. And deep in his brain, at the surface of conscious thought, he realized he liked it. “Where is he?” Somers asked again. “That’s all you have to say, just tell me where.”

“You’re acting crazy.”

“All right. All right. You don’t say anything. You don’t have to say anything.”

“You’re out of your damn mind. Will you stop acting like this?”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll find him myself.”

“John-Henry, will you sit down and listen to me?”

Somers fell back into his seat. They sat that way for a moment, neither of them speaking, both watching the other as though seeing something new. Hazard had grown up in Wahredua. He had grown up hounded, persecuted, tormented by the man who sat in front of him. He had come back to this place, to this town he hated above all else, unwillingly, and he had found himself partnered with a man he had hated for most of his life—hated and, even worse, been attracted to. And instead of the bully, instead of the thug, instead of the cocky football star, he’d found an intelligent, funny, skilled detective who had wanted to make the past right. It hadn’t hurt that Somers had grown up to be the kind of hot that, in a cartoon, would have made the mercury in a thermometer shoot up so fast the glass exploded. Somers’s hand was still on the back of Hazard’s neck. His fingers felt good there. They raised a strip of goosebumps down Hazard’s chest.

“I’m listening.”

So Hazard told him.

“He’s just not that kind of guy,” Somers said with a shrug.

“What kind? And don’t say something asshole-ish. Don’t say he’s not the kind that’s mature or something like that.”

“Me? I meant he’s not the kind that likes jealousy.”

“I’m not jealous.”

“You beat up a guy for kissing your boyfriend.”

“I didn’t beat him up. You make it sound like I’m in eighth grade.”

“In eighth grade, you were so scrawny you could barely hold a pencil.” Somers smirked. “Well, I guess you were definitely strong enough to hold your pencil, if you get what I—”

“I get it.”

“I meant your dick. That’s what I meant by pencil.”

“Jesus Christ.”

“Not everybody likes jealousy. Some people get off on it. Some don’t mind—they might appreciate it, but they aren’t looking for it. And some people don’t like it. Hate it, even.”

“I’m not jealous.”

Somers fixed him with a look.

“All right, I shouldn’t have hit that guy.”

Somers waited.

“I definitely shouldn’t have thrown him.”

Somers shrugged.

“And I should have let Nico handle it.”

“Yeah, well, you definitely shouldn’t have done that.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing.”

“What did you mean?”

“I’m an idiot, all right? Stuff just comes out of my mouth sometimes.”

“You meant something. You—” Before Hazard could finish, his phone buzzed. He pulled it out, and a message from Nico showed on the screen. I’m staying at Marcus’s place for a few more days. Can you tell me a time you’ll be out of the apartment so I can pick up a few things?

“What?” Somers said.

Hazard dropped the phone on the table. Picking it up, Somers read the message. His eyebrows shot up, but he didn’t say anything.

“Don’t.”

Somers put the phone back on the table.

“Don’t fucking say you’re sorry. Don’t act like you’re not thrilled. Don’t act like this isn’t what you wanted.”

It took a moment before Somers answered, and when he spoke, his voice was carefully neutral. “I didn’t want you to get hurt.”

“Well, I didn’t.”

And it sounded so pathetic, like such an absolute, flat-out lie, that Hazard was blushing as soon as it was out of his mouth, and he was grateful Somers didn’t even acknowledge the words.

“Let’s eat. You’re hungover. Your head hurts. You need food.” Somers unpacked the clamshell containers of takeout from Big Biscuit, and then he touched the back of Hazard’s neck again. “You’ve got to eat something. And you need a drink. Water, I mean. Lots of it. And those pills for your head, have you taken any today? Christ, of course you haven’t.”

Hazard knew he should get up. He could grab plates and forks. He could pour a glass of water. He could clean the rest of this shit, Nico’s shit, so there’s was actually a decent space to eat. He didn’t, though. He barely had the energy to turn the phone face-down so he didn’t have to see that damn message any longer.

“Here.”

Hazard swallowed the pills dry, and then a cool glass was pressed into his hand.

“Drink.”

He drank, and when he’d finished, Somers opened the clamshells. Steam wafted off home fries, eggs over easy, and biscuits the size of dinner plates. Buttery, flakey, pillowy biscuits. Hazard waited for the smell to turn his stomach, but he was surprised that instead, he was hungry.

They ate, and as they ate and as the pills took effect, the worst of the pain—both emotional and physical—started to pass. It wasn’t gone. It wasn’t even close to gone. But it got better, and the world didn’t seem like one big turd waiting for the flush. At least, not completely. Not—

—with Somers there—

—while the biscuits lasted.

It wasn’t until Hazard had dragged the last home fry through a smear of ketchup that he noticed the third clamshell. Reaching over, he popped it open, and three delicate slices of strawberry french toast met his eyes.

“Are you shooting for three hundred?” Somers asked as Hazard speared the french toast and dragged it towards him.

“Screw you.”

“You’re not going to fit into your pants.” A smile crinkled Somers’s face, and it was so boyish, so genuine, that for a moment Hazard forgot about Nico and forgot about his cracked head and forgot, even, about the french toast dripping strawberries down his wrist. “You can barely fit into your shirt as it is.”

“You’re an idiot.”

“An idiot who made you smile.”

“I didn’t smile.”

Somers’s grin got bigger.

“All right,” the blond man finally said, shoving away the rest of his food. “We’ve got to think strategically.” Hazard barely heard him; a half-eaten biscuit was staring back at Hazard. Half. Half of one of those perfect, heavenly creations. Half just tossed aside, like Somers was going to throw it in the trash. “Oh for heaven’s sake,” Somers said, knocking the styrofoam container towards Hazard. “Just eat it before you choke on your own spit.”

Hazard did.

“They’ll have to order one of those shipping containers to bury you.”

“I’m recovering. I need to build up my strength.”

Rolling his eyes, Somers said, “Here’s what we’re going to do: you’re going to take a shower. I’m going to make some phone calls. Then we’re going to do it.”

The biscuit went sideways in Hazard’s throat, and he began to choke. When he’d managed to clear his windpipe, he said, “What?”

A rakish grin peeled back the corners of Somers’s mouth.

“You did that on purpose,” Hazard grumbled. “Going to do what?”

“Get Nico back.”

It took a moment for the words to sink in. “No.”

“Come on.”

“No. Whatever this is,” he gestured at the phone, “however it works out, it’ll be fine. I don’t need you—”

“Do you want him to break up with you?”

Hazard hesitated. Yesterday, at the Pretty Pretty, he would have said yes. But now—now things were different. Facing into the loneliness, facing into the abyss, Hazard found himself unsure. Things were good with Nico. Things had been really good. So they’d had a fight. So they’d had one little fight. All they had to do was work it out, figure where things went wrong, and things would be good again.

A little voice in his head, though, asked if that were true, then why hadn’t he answered Somers yet?

“That’s what I thought,” Somers said. “So we’ll take it from the top: flowers, a card, reservations at Moulin Vert. I bet if I ask, Cora will call him and get him to meet you there. She’s good with people, she really is. And we’ll have you dressed to the nines, and that poor boy won’t know what hit him.” Somers’s grin tightened. “You’re Emery fucking Hazard. He doesn’t have any idea how lucky he is, but we’re going to change that.”

Hazard suppressed a grimace at the mention of Cora, Somers’s estranged wife. “Look, this isn’t—”

But Hazard never finished the objection. Somers’s phone rang, and he glanced at the screen and answered it. His questions were short, sharp, and familiar.

When Somers ended the call, he shrugged and stood. “No time for a shower, I’m afraid, but you’ll probably want to change out of the shirt. It’s a little cold for that.”

Hazard ignored the jab. “What is it?”

“Shooting.”

“This isn’t one of those fake shootings, is it? This isn’t Batsy Ferrell calling because she’s upset about the gun range at Windsor?”

“No. This is the real deal. Looks like a murder.”

“Any ID on the victim?”

Somers blew out a breath. His eyes were very bright. They were bright like the sun flat on top of tropical water. But some of the color had left his face. “Oh yeah, plenty of ID. Just about everybody there ID’d him.”

“Well?”

“The sheriff.”

Blurb: 

Everything in Emery Hazard’s life is finally going well: his boyfriend, Nico, is crazy about him; he has a loyal partner at work; and he has successfully closed a series of difficult murders. By all accounts, he should be happy. What he can’t figure out, then, is why he’s so damn miserable.

After a fight with Nico, Hazard needs work to take his mind off his relationship. And someone in town is happy to oblige by murdering the sheriff. The job won’t be easy; the sheriff had enemies, lots of them, and narrowing down the list of suspects will be difficult. Difficult, but routine.

The arrival of a special prosecutor, however, throws the case into turmoil, and Hazard and Somers find themselves sidelined. With an agenda of his own, the prosecutor forces the case toward his favorite suspect, while Hazard and Somers scramble to find the real killer. As the people they care about are drawn into the chaos, Hazard and Somers have to fight to keep what they love–and to keep each other. To find the killer, they will have to reveal what each has kept buried for years: their feelings for each other.

And for Hazard, that’s a hell of a lot scarier than murder.

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Find our more about Hazard and Somerset mystery-series by author, Gregory Ashe at his website by clicking on his image.

Haven’t discovered the Hazard and Somerset mystery series yet? Click on the cover below to read the blurbs of each novel – and purchase

Read the interview I did with author, Gregory Ashe here: http://www.jonmichaelsen.net/?p=3146

 

Exclusive Excerpt & Giveaway – Object of Desire by Dal MacLean

EXCERPT

The smell hit him first, a thick, cloying blend of expensive perfume and corrupt, metallic fruit.

He saw Nick, hunched against a far wall, body shaking with silent grief, eyes closed.

Then he took in the rest.

An all-white bedroom—glamorous and totally impractical, designed like something from a magazine, so that every dot of color looked shocking. A painted wooden desk stood by the window, holding a silver laptop; the signature, light-green-blue of a Tiffany box; a stack of envelopes tied with a red cord; five little, glass, medical bottles lined up, with matching purple bars on their labels. A familiar light-blue dress lay draped over the arm of a padded armchair, a tiny tangle of lacy pink underwear on top.

White walls, furniture, carpet, bedding. Everything was absurdly neat and clean, save the most demanding splash of color—the huge stain which covered the fluffy duvet like crimson dye. A palette of shades of red, in fact, as if the pool had dried gradually from the outside, into the dark and clotted center.

Catriona lay on her side on top of it, in the middle of the wide bed, facing the doorway. She was naked but utterly sexless, her skin like bleached ash against the wet, red cloth. Her beautiful, blank profile, eyes decently shut at least, rested on the purity of her pillow.

Tom saw the guilty kitchen knife lying on the blood-pool beside the upturned palm of her right hand; the mangled, meaty churn of her inner wrists. Then, the dark hole, visible through black-blood-clotted ash-blonde hair, where her ear had been.  The shockingly recognizable auricle resting near her fingertips.

One of the paramedics called sharply, “Hey! You shouldn’t be in here, mate!” just as the uniformed police constable materialized behind Tom, to pull him, unresisting, back into the hallway and then, down the stairs. At the bottom, Tom slurred out his name and address, and the reason he was there. He didn’t sound like himself at all, he thought distantly, but the officer noted it all down.

Finally, she left him to perch on the pristine linen sofa in Catriona’s airy sitting room. And he found himself stupidly anxious not to crease the fabric or mark its snowy perfection.

He’d never been in this room before. In fact, he’d never been inside the house.

The door into the hallway lay wide open, allowing Tom to see the bustle of comings and goings in the hallway, as the procedures surrounding an unexpected death snapped into place. All things he’d heard recounted before, but never—actually—witnessed.

The first-response officer, out of his eyeline, was speaking to her radio. Someone—a man—shouted instructions from upstairs as one of the paramedics barreled past the open door and out of Tom’s vision, as if his urgency still had some point.

Movement, back and fore. Voices outside. Inside.  Tom forced desperate focus — made himself identify what was happening.  Who was who, as they passed.

First onto Tom’s little stage — a man he suspected to be the divisional pathologist, followed by a group of SOCO officers, silent and eerie in hooded white suits, ready to pick over the scene for evidence of anything that might turn out to be suspicious.

Then, less than a minute after they disappeared, two men, clearly plain-clothed police officers. They stood in front of the open sitting room doorway, pulling on those same white forensic suits and overshoes, and Tom was almost certain they’d be the advance Homicide Assessment Team, from whichever murder investigation unit happened to be on call. Tom didn’t recognize either of them—a dull, distant relief.

Part of him was riveted, because after having heard it described so often, casually and not, it felt unreal seeing everything actually happen, like a dramatic performance put on, specially for him. But as the two HAT officers moved out of Tom’s vision, another white-clad figure came in behind them, and as he passed the open sitting room door, he glanced in and caught sight of Tom.

The man stopped and blinked.

For a moment, Tom felt an audience’s shock at having been acknowledged, and he shifted self-consciously under the man’s startled stare. Then, as that stare turned to wide-eyed disbelief, Tom felt suddenly, horribly aware of how incongruous he must look. His golden tan, his glossy, pale-blond shoulder-length hair; his long body, clad in an on-trend brown suede shirt and perfectly-cut jeans; his obsessively precise grooming. A peacock, sitting at the edge of a tragedy.

It took whole seconds for Tom to understand that the man’s reaction wasn’t puzzlement; it was recognition. And finally, even under that disorientating, tightly drawn white hood, Tom recognized him in turn.

Each man stared at the other as if a monstrous apparition had manifested in front of them.

Des fucking Salt.

Through surging panic, Tom took in the man’s once-familiar, sharp features; his densely freckled skin, almost as white as the forensic hood concealing his wiry red hair. How the fuck hadn’t he recognized him? Was it just the oddness of that hood, framing Salt’s narrow face like a nun’s coif?

The relief Tom had felt just minutes before sneered at him now. Because…yes, Tom had known there was a small chance they’d be involved—of course he had—but how unlucky did he have to be?

His face felt scalding hot, his guts skittering with a kind of death-row anticipation. And, inevitably his gaze shot to the hallway behind Salt.

Because always, with DC Des Salt, came DI Will Foster.

Tom’s eyes fixed on that empty space like a mouse in front of a stoat. But nothing happened.

He snapped his attention back to Salt, but Salt had turned away and walked out of Tom’s field of vision.  But he could hear hushed voices, as Salt presumably asked the uniformed PC by thr staircase what the fuck Tom was doing there.

When Salt appeared again in the doorway, his expression had fixed into professional neutrality. He extracted a notebook from inside the opening of his forensic suit, pulled down his hood and walked in the room,

“Mr. Gray,” he said. It was stupidly shocking to hear his voice. Perhaps Tom had hoped it was all a lurid dream.

Then he registered, Mr. Gray. They were going to pretend they didn’t know each other, then. Fine by him. But he couldn’t help looking compulsively again toward the open doorway before he focused again on Salt.

“I’m DS Salt with Southwark and Peckham Murder Investigation Team.”

Southwark and Peckham. That was new at least. And so was the rank. He’d made Sergeant. Salt’s Northern Irish accent sounded as strong as it ever had, but Tom unwillingly noted tiny changes in him. New, fine lines between his ginger brows. His unfortunate moustache had gone, as had that shy, awkward niceness he’d exuded once, so out of place on a policeman.

“Don’t be alarmed, sir,” Salt went on blandly. “This is all routine procedure in a case like this.”

Of course it was. With all that blood.

Tom involuntarily squeezed closed his eyes, and the image was starkly there, like a high-res photograph dropping in behind his lids. He thought he would never stop seeing it.

His eyes sprang open.

That was what mattered. What lay upstairs. Not some soap opera from his past.

Sick with himself, he forced his attention back to Salt.

“I know,” he said.

Salt raised an eyebrow. “You told the officer that you’re here because Mr. Haining—Mr. Dominic Haining—requested you come to support him. When he found the body of his wife. Catriona Haining.”

Tom nodded, then said, “Yes.” Aloud, as if he were being recorded.

“And, what’s your relationship to Mr. and Mrs. Haining?” There was no one here to witness any recognition between them, but still, Salt’s tone remained that of a stranger.

“I—Mr…and Mrs. Haining own one of the modeling agencies I work with. Echo…it’s called.”

“This is Mrs. Haining’s home. Mr. Haining no longer lives here, is that correct?”

Tom tightened his jaw. “Yes.”

“You must be a…close friend as well as a client?” Salt began to write in his notebook. “For Mr. Haining to have called you here at a time like this.”

Tom’s mind darted around the question of how much total honesty could complicate things for Nick, but in the end all he said was, “Yes.”

Salt glanced up, brown eyes narrowed. And Tom was sure Salt must be making those damning connections in his head.

Tom and Nick Haining. Nick and Tom.

Nick—whose wife had just killed herself. Of all people to judge him, it had to be Des.

Blurb:

“Tom Gray is one of the world’s top models – an effortless object of desire. Self-contained, elusive and always in control, he’s accustomed to living life entirely on his own terms. But when Tom is implicated in the circumstances surrounding the gory death of his lover’s ex-wife, his world begins to spiral into chaos. Someone’s framing him. Someone’s stalking him. Will Foster is the only man Tom trusts to help him. But Tom brutally burned all bridges between them two years before, and Will paid a bitter price. As shocking secrets come to light, and more people begin to die, Tom desperately seeks answers among old crimes. But he finds his adversary always one step ahead. Somehow, Tom must persuade Will to help him find out who’s invading his life. Before all he values is taken from him.”

5-Year Gay Mystery-Thriller-Suspense – Anniversary Giveaway:

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Author Dal MacLean has graciously offered to provide one of our members a FREE, e-book in your choice of either: mobi, pub or pdf!

To enter the FREE drawing, please leave at least a one-word comment via Gay Mystery-Thriller-Suspense Facebook group via the Excerpt link for Object of Desire.

The Winner will be announced on Wednesday, June 13th, 2018 @ 8pm EDTGood luck!

 

Learn more about author Dal MacLean, and check out her interview below.

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Q&A: OBJECT OF DESIRE BY DAL MACLEAN

Goodreads  https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/15408926.Dal_Maclean

Twitter: @MacleanDal – Dal Maclean

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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

Click on image for James Lear’s Website

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.

WIN THIS BOOK FREE – 5-Year Anniversary Celebration!

Like what you read? Your chance is coming soon to WIN FREE another Nick Williams Mystery via our 5-Year Anniversary Give-A-Way celebration – posting later this week, so stay tuned!

To discover more about Frank and his books, just click on the link below:

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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:

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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

 

“Whisper” by Tal Bauer – Exclusive Excerpt – Kris Caldera’s Story – Releasing Soon!

Exclusive Excerpt:

Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan

October 2001

CIA Forward Base

0200 hours

… Kris tried to breathe, tried to stop the shaking that came over him, crawling up from the bottom of his feet, all the way up his skin. He hadn’t felt this before, hadn’t yet run face-first into the same furious, crackling rage the rest of his team nurtured. He hadn’t joined in on the calls for revenge, the bloodthirsty hunger for retribution against al-Qaeda, against the Taliban. He’d kept the blame for himself.

“Kris?” David yawned as he slipped out from behind the curtain to their room. “You okay?”

Fury roared through him, blinding, aching fury. His bones seemed to scream, his skeleton shaking, aching to every last inch.

“Kris?” David was right there, reaching for him. His hands landed on Kris’s arms, gently.

Kris flew back, jerking free. “Stop!” he hissed. “Just stop!”

David stepped back, hands up, surrendering. His eyes glistened, pools of silver in the starlight and the flash of the radio lights. “I’m sorry.”

“You shouldn’t help me! You shouldn’t care about me! You shouldn’t do any of this!” Kris waved back to their room, to David, trying to wrap everything David had done, all that he was, up as one. “I am not worth anything!”

“What?”

“I am not worth one moment of what you’ve given me! Not a single moment! Your care, your concern, your coffee? Stop wasting your time on me!”

“Kris…” David slowly inched forward, his voice a whisper. “Why are you saying this?”

“Because—” His heart screamed, the same pitch, the same tone as the planes that flew over Manhattan, that slammed into the Pentagon and Pennsylvania. Ash coated his throat, and in his hands, he felt the dust of thousands upon thousands of bones sift through his fingers. “Because I am responsible for 9/11!”

David stopped, freezing. His eyes narrowed. “What?”

“My section, my unit! We were tracking Khalid al-Mihdhar and Marwan al-Shehhi. We had them on our radar. The FBI, earlier this year, they asked for what we had on them! We refused to share the intel. We knew they were al-Qaeda. We knew they were connected to the embassy bombings in Africa. We were tracing their connections, their meet-ups with al-Qaeda operatives. Money that was exchanged. But we wouldn’t share what we had! The higher-ups, they thought the FBI would fuck it up! And no one knew, no one fucking knew, when they needed to know!”

“Kris, what—”

“Their names were on my desk! Mine! If I had just passed those names along, if the FBI would have alerted someone, anyone, about those two… American Airlines Flight 77 and United Airlines Flight 175 wouldn’t have slammed into the Pentagon and the South Tower!”

“You don’t know that. You can’t say that—” David sputtered, shaking his head.

“They would have been detained when they entered the US! Questioned. They wouldn’t have been on those flights. Maybe al-Qaeda would have had to call the entire operation off! Maybe they would have had to cancel it! If they had to cancel it, then Ahmad Shah Massoud would still be alive. Bin Laden wouldn’t have had to murder him, on September ninth! Everything, all of this! It’s my fault! Because I didn’t—”

His voice cracked, and Kris collapsed, the bones in his body no longer able to hold him up, keep him standing under the weight of three thousand dead souls, under the years of unlived lives, under the shame that grated his heart to slivers, to sand, to dust. He fell to his knees, curled over, and pressed his forehead to the dirty floor, the threadbare carpet covering the cold concrete.

He couldn’t breathe. He gasped, his throat closed, choked off, like he was being strangled. Tears flowed, cascading down his cheeks, falling from his chin, his nose, into pools beneath his face. Snot and spit dribbled from his nose, his mouth. He was disgusting. A disgusting human being.

A hand rested on his back, gentle, warm. Another landed on his head, fingers sliding through his hair. The hand guided him up, cradled his head until he was sitting, staring into David’s stern face.

Kris waited for David to snap his neck, to rip him in half. To end everything.

“It was not your fault,” David breathed. His voice, a whisper, shook. His eyes burned, slamming into Kris like a brand. “It was not your fault. You did not hijack those planes. You did not fly them into the Towers, into the Pentagon. You did not do this.”

“I let it happen…”

David gripped his skull, pulled Kris closer. His hands shook, his arms, and Kris trembled with him. His teeth started to chatter. “Do not take on this blame, Kris. You are not them. You are not a murderer. You are not part of their conspiracy, their hate. You are not to blame.”

“I am…”

“You are not the beginning of this, Kris. You are not where all of this, all of the hatred, all of the fighting, comes from. Don’t do this to yourself.”

“All I can see, when I close my eyes,” Kris gasped, “are the Towers. The planes. And the hijackers’ faces, looking up at me from my desk.” He squeezed his eyes closed. Tears spilled from his eyes, raining from his eyelashes. “How can you even look at me?”

“Because I see what you don’t. I see the smartest man I’ve ever met. A man dedicated to the fight. To stopping the Taliban, to capturing Bin Laden. I see a man focused on doing the right thing. On being the best he can be. I see a hero, Kris.”

“No…” A sob built in his chest, and he tried to pull free of David’s hold. “No, I’m not.”

“I see a man who came to Afghanistan, and despite everyone’s judgments, everyone’s prejudice, did his job perfectly. You built an alliance with General Khan. You did that. You built that. The people of Afghanistan have hope, and a future, once we get rid of the Taliban. And we will, because of what you built with Khan. How is that not heroic?”

Kris shook his head. He couldn’t speak, again.

“I see a man I care about,” David whispered. “Someone I—” His lips clamped shut. His thumbs stroked over Kris’s cheekbones, wiping away tears. “I see you. I see someone exceptional.”

David pulled Kris in, slowly wrapping his arms around Kris until they were one, huddled on the floor and wrapped around each other, arms and chests pressed so tightly together, until there was no space between them. Kris trembled, shaking until he thought he’d fly apart. Until he thought his body would just fall to pieces. David held him, a fierce hold that surrounded Kris, enveloped him completely, and held him up. Held his bones and his soul in place.

He didn’t know how long they stayed there. It felt like an eternity, listening to Arabic whisper over the radio and Ryan and Jim snoring in counterpoint. Finally, David pulled him up, guided him back to their room. He unzipped his own sleeping bag and laid Kris inside, deep in the warm folds that smelled like David, that radiated his presence.

Hesitation. David stared into Kris’s eyes, deep into his gaze.

WHISPER blurb:

The truth is complicated.

On September 11th, 2001, Kris Caldera was a junior member of the CIA’s Alec Station, the unit dedicated to finding and stopping Osama Bin Laden. They failed.

Ten days later, he was on the ground in Afghanistan with a Special Forces team, driven to avenge the ghosts that haunted him and the nation he’d let down. On the battlefield, he meets Special Forces Sergeant David Haddad. David – Arab American, Muslim, and gay – becomes the man Kris loves, the man he lives for, and the man he kills for, through the long years of the raging wars.

David Haddad thought he’d be an outsider his whole life. Too American for the Middle East, too Arab for America, and too gay to be Muslim. It took Kris to bring the parts of himself together, to make him the man he’d always wanted to be. But the War on Terror wreaks havoc on David’s soul, threatening to shatter the fragile peace he’s finally found with Kris.

When a botched mission rips David from Kris’s life, Kris’s world falls into ruin and ash. A shell of the man who once loved with the strength to shake both the CIA and the world, he marks time on the edges of his life. The days bleed together, meaningless after losing the love of his life.

After being captured, tortured to the edge of his life, and left for dead by his comrades, David doesn’t know how much of himself is left. He vanished one day in the tribal belt of Pakistan, and the man who walks out almost a decade later is someone new: Al Dakhil Al-Khorasani.

But strange rumblings are whispering through the CIA. Intelligence from multiple sources overseas points to something new. Something deadly, and moving to strike the United States. Intercepts say an army from Khorasan, the land of the dead where the Apocalypse of Islam will rise, is coming.

And, at the head of this army, a shadowy figure the US hasn’t seen before: Al Dakhil Al-Khorasani.

David is coming home.

Want to know more about author, Tal Bauer?

Tal Bauer
Author & Publisher
www.talbauerwrites.com

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