Book Releases

Holding On (Colorado High Country #6) —
The Colorado High Country series returns with Conrad and Kenzie's story.

A hero barely holding on…

Harrison Conrad returned to Scarlet Springs from Nepal, the sole survivor of a freak accident on Mt. Everest. Shattered and grieving for his friends, he vows never to climb again and retreats into a bottle of whiskey—until Kenzie Morgan shows up at his door with a tiny puppy asking for his help. He’s the last person in the world she should ask to foster this little furball. He’s barely capable of managing his own life right now, let alone caring for a helpless, adorable, fluffy puppy. But Conrad has always had a thing for Kenzie with her bright smile and sweet curves. One look into her pleading blue eyes, and he can’t say no.

The woman who won’t let him fall…

Kenzie Morgan’s life went to the dogs years ago. A successful search dog trainer and kennel owner, she gets her fill of adventure volunteering for the Rocky Mountain Search & Rescue Team. The only thing missing from her busy life is love. It’s not easy finding Mr. Right in a small mountain town, especially when she’s unwilling to date climbers. She long ago swore never again to fall for a guy who might one day leave her for a rock. When Conrad returns from a climbing trip haunted by the catastrophe that killed his best friend, Kenzie can see he’s hurting and wants to help. She just might have the perfect way to bring him back to the world of the living. But friendship quickly turns into something more—and now she’s risking her heart to heal his.

In ebook and soon in print!

About Me

My photo
I grew up in Colorado at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, then lived in Denmark and traveled throughout Europe before coming back to Colorado. I have two adult sons, whom I cherish. I started my writing career as a columnist and investigative reporter and eventually became the first woman editor of two different papers. Along the way, my team and I won numerous state and several national awards, including the National Journalism Award for Public Service. In 2011, I was awarded the Keeper of the Flame Lifetime Achievement Award for Journalism. Now I write historical romance and contemporary romantic suspense.


Seductive Musings

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Excerpt from STRIKING DISTANCE (I-Team 6)

A quick note just to say hello. I am too busy writing to update my blog, keep up with email or much of anything else.  Sorry to abandon you! But to help tide you over, I thought I’d share the first official excerpt from Striking Distance (I-Team Book 6), which tells the story of Laura Nilsson and active-duty Navy SEAL Javier “Cobra” Corbray. 

I have started and restarted this book several times, but I’ve found the story and am moving forward. I’m going to be staying offline as much as possible to get this story written and polished as quickly as I can. 

Wish me luck! 


She knelt on the carpet facing Mecca, going through the motions of the first Rak'ah, doing her best to say each word of the Sura Al-Fatiha correctly so that no one would find fault with her.

Inshallah. God willing.

She kept her voice quiet, barely a whisper.  This morning while praying Fajr, she had failed to do so, and Zainab had claimed that Abu Nayef’s guests, who were not family, not mahram, had heard her.  Zainab had struck her, making her lip bleed.
But then Zainab always struck her.

“You will never learn, Hanan!” Zainab had shouted in her face.  “You are as stupid as you are ugly!”

“I am sorry, Umm Faisal.”  She never dared to call Zainab or any of the other women by their given names, for they would deem it disrespectful and beat her.  “You must help me to do better, sister.”

She’d called Abu Nayef’s wives her sisters, but none of them had ever treated her with any kindness.  She was the least of all the women here, and that is why she prayed at the back of the room, behind all of the other women and girls.  And yet still Zainab seemed to see every mistake she made.

The women bowed, and she bowed with them, standing up straight once more before prostrating herself, her nose and forehead touching the carpet, her belly pressed against her thighs as was proper for a woman, the odors of sweat and dust rank in her nostrils.  She rose, caught a glimpse of the mirror across the room, but did not see her own reflection.  She prostrated herself again, the prayers and motions flowing together in a rhythm that was familiar, even comforting, as they finished the first Rak'ah and moved without pause into the second.

But as they began the third Rak'ah and prayed at last in silence, her heart began to pound, for it was time for her nightly rebellion.  She clenched her hands to hide their trembling, afraid that Zainab, Nibaal, or one of the other women would notice her nervousness and somehow realize what she was doing.  If they knew what she was thinking, they would surely denounce her to Abu Nayef.

Then he would do what he’d always promised to do and cut off her head.

Pulse racing, she reached secretly for her Swedish and English, the words burning in her mind like a fever.

Mitt namn är …

My name is…

My name is Laura Nilsson.
# # #
February 17, 2011
Near Parachinar, Pakistan
15 clicks west of the Afghan border
22,000 feet altitude

SOCS Javier “Cobra” Corbray sat in the dimly lit belly of the modified C-130J “Super” Hercules, waiting with the other operators of Delta Platoon for the signal to start their oxygen.  Banter had given way to silence as the men turned their minds to the night’s mission.  They’d trained for months for this one, the pre-deployment workup one of the most grueling Javier could remember in his twelve years as a SEAL.  Endless fast-roping drills.  Rock climbing and uphill PT runs in full night combat gear.  Close-quarters combat practice.

The stakes were high tonight—for both the U.S. and for Javier personally.

Then again, the stakes had been high on every deployment since 9/11.

Abu Nayef Al-Nassar, a Saudi national, had been at the top of Uncle Sam’s list of most-wanted assholes for five long years.  The leader of an al-Qaeda splinter group operating out of northwestern Pakistan, he had masterminded simultaneous bombings in Hamburg, Paris, and Amsterdam that had killed hundreds, not to mention orchestrating several attacks against U.S. citizens in the Middle East and Shia Muslim villages around Pakistan.  Al-Nassar was also the sugar daddy for a network of AQ groups, turning heroin profits into cash for weapons, travel, forged documents.  If Delta Platoon managed to bring him in alive, along with his computers and cell phones, they would strike a major blow against AQ—and give the alphabet soup intel agencies a crack at uncovering his operation both abroad and in the homeland.

That was Javier’s duty and goal as a SEAL.

His goal as a man was much simpler: vengeance.

“Hey, senior chief!” Eric Krasinski had been with the Teams for about a year now.  Nicknamed Crazy K for his love of rough water, there was no one more at home in pounding surf than Krasinski.  “This asshole—he’s the one who kidnapped and killed the Baghdad Babe, isn’t he?”

The Baghdad Babe.

U.S. troops had given her that nickname back in 2007 during The Surge when they’d crowded around mess hall televisions to watch her nightly live broadcasts from Baghdad.  Tall and slender with white blonde hair and big, ice-blue eyes, she’d fueled the fantasies of soldiers and seamen alike, though not Javier’s.  Oh, she’d been one sexy mami, but her Nordic good looks and reserve had been a bit too cold for a man with a puertorriqueña mother and a black-Cherokee father.  He’d take a woman with curves and the heat of the island in her blood over a Valkyrie like Laura Nilsson any day.

Or so he’d thought until the night he met her.

He’d been in Dubai City on his way home after a long deployment in the sandbox.  She’d walked into a hotel bar where he was having dinner and a beer and had sat at a table nearby.  He’d recognized her instantly.  When two big Russian men had wandered over and started hassling her, he had intervened, pissing her off.

Do you really think I needed to be rescued?

No, of course not.  I’m sure you were about to unleash some hardcore karate moves on those two, but my fragile male ego wouldn’t have been able to handle watching a woman kick ass better than I can.

What had followed was a weekend of the most mind-blowing sex Javier had ever experienced.  She might have seemed cool and reserved on the outside, but beneath her skin Laura Nilsson had been pure fire, igniting Javier’s blood, sending him into a kind of sexual meltdown, the two of them risking not only their careers but also flogging and prison time.  Unmarried sex was illegal in Dubai, even for foreigners.

Oh, Javier, what have you done to me?  I never hook up with men I meet in bars.

Neither do I.

If he closed his eyes, he could still taste her, still feel the softness of her pale skin, still hear the sound of her cries as she came, still see the pleasure on her sweet face.

Two month’s later, she’d been gone.

Her last broadcast had come from a women’s safehouse in Islamabad where she’d been reporting on the epidemic of fatal burnings in Pakistan—hundreds of young women burned alive every year by husbands and in-laws, their excruciating deaths blamed on “stove accidents” and never investigated.  One moment she’d been interviewing a young burn victim, and the next the room around her had exploded with AK fire.  Her security detail, her camera crew, and the safehouse director had all been killed.  She’d been dragged fighting and screaming from the building while the abandoned camera continued to film from its tripod.

That had been the summer of 2009.

Javier had been at home in Coronado Beach when it happened.  He’d watched the news footage, finding himself on his feet, helpless and thousands of miles away.  Her screams had ripped him apart.  They still haunted him.  When Al-Nassar’s group had claimed responsibility for the attack weeks later and bragged that they’d executed her, there hadn’t been a U.S. serviceman anywhere in the world who hadn’t wanted to send Al-Nassar straight to hell—and that included Javier.

Now Delta Platoon was going to hit that target.

Javier had pushed hard to get his guns into this fight, had done everything he could to make sure Delta Platoon got tasked with this job.  To this day, no one knew about his weekend with Laura—he refused to call it a fling—and no one could ever know, or they would question his ability to handle this operation.  Did he want to bring Al-Nassar down?  Hell, yeah, he did.  For his country and for Laura.  And that made him the right man for the job as far as he was concerned.

Canto hijo e la gran puta.

Dirty son of a whore.

“Yeah, he killed her.”  Javier met Krasinski’s gaze.  “But she had a name, and it wasn’t Baghdad Babe.  It was Laura Nilsson.  Show her some respect, man.”

She’d been one hell of a journalist, an amazing lover, a beautiful woman.

She deserved that much.

Krasinski’s expression was hidden by shadows and by the black and green face camouflage, but regret flashed in his eyes.  “You got it, senior chief.”

A voice came over the speaker.  “We’re forty-five minutes out.  I say again, forty-five minutes out.”

“Masks on!” Boss, known to the rest of the world as Lt. Matthew O’Neill, shouted out the order, making the motion with his hand.

JG—Lt. Junior Grade Ben Alexander—repeated it, as did Javier, before fastening his O2 mask in place.
The men breathed normally, inhaling 100 percent oxygen to eliminate the nitrogen from their bloodstreams so that no one would get the bends and die from the dramatic increase in atmospheric pressure on the way down. This was a HAHO jump — high altitude, high opening.  The mountains were too full of insurgents for them to risk the noise of parachutes opening close to the ground.

As the minutes ticked by, Javier ran through the details of the mission in his mind. Al-Nassar knew how to hole up—that much was for damned sure.  His lair was built on a plateau a with a fifty foot cliff at its back, elevation giving him a clear one-eighty view of the landscape below.  Caves at the base of the cliff provided Al-Nassar a handy place to stash weapons, ammo, explosives, heroin—and men.  They also gave him a place to hide should he see anyone headed his way.

That’s why Delta Platoon wasn’t going to drive up and ring the doorbell.

They were being dropped over a mountain valley west of Parachinar about 3.5 clicks from Al-Nassar’s hideout.  They would hike their way from the DZ to the cliffs.  There, the Boss’s squad would divide into two elements.  He, Howe, Force, and Murphy, the platoon sniper, would remain atop the cliffs with suppressed Mk12s, an FN M249 Para for suppressive fire, and a M72A2 LAW grenade launcher to watch the men’s six, while the rest of the platoon would fast-rope down to the compound.  JG would take the caves with LeBlanc, Johnson and Grimshaw, setting charges to demolish any ordnance they found, while Javier infiltrated the compound with his squad—Krasinksi, Ross, Zimmerman, Salisbury, Wilson, Reeves, Biermann.  When Al-Nassar was in custody and the compound was secure, three modified CH-47D Chinook helos would swoop in for extract, one grabbing the Boss and his element off the top of the cliff, the other two landing just outside the compound.  As they lifted off, JG would blow the caves to hell.

Of course they weren’t being sent up against a high-value target like this without backup firepower and air support.  They’d be in touch with their tactical operations center, or TOC, throughout the night.  A drone with thermal/infrared capability would patrol the sky above the job site, giving them a bird’s eye view of the action.  If things got messy, two Marines special operations teams—MSOTs—would arrive in Blackhawks to make them messier.

Provided nothing went wrong, it would be a piece of cake.

Forty minutes later, the light turned red.

Two minutes to drop.

The men switched from the pre-breathers to their bottled O2, careful not to inhale room air in the transition.  Then both squads got to their feet, boots thudding dully against the steel plating, each of them carrying more than a hundred pounds of gear on his back.  With an efficiency born of constant training, each checked his gear and that of the man in front of him.  They’d already passed a jumpmaster inspection, but in their line of work there was no such thing as being too prepared, too careful.

The ramp and door began to open, icy, thin air rushing in.  The two squads moved toward the yawning exit, waiting for the signal to jump.  Javier touched a gloved hand to the chest pocket that held the photograph of his abuelita, Mamá Andreína, that he always carried with him.  She was his good luck charm.  She kept a candle lit for him, prayed novenas to Santa Clara for him every night.

The light flashed green.

The men moved together, tumbling almost as one into the slipstream, Javier leading his squad out of the Hercules and into the black night.

# # #

She lay in the dark in the corner of the small back room that was hers, her bed an old blanket, her head pillowed on her neatly folded burka.  Her mind ached for sleep, but sleep wouldn’t come, chased off by the knot of dread in her stomach.  It was the same dread she felt every night until the household fell silent and she was certain everyone was in bed asleep.

In the next room, Safiya’s new baby girl cried.

She would have offered to help.  She wanted to help.  Safiya was only twenty-four and already had six other children.  But Safiya wouldn’t let her near the baby.  No one would.  They all believed her unfit.

A creaking door.  A man’s deep voice.  Footsteps.

She held her breath, listening until the footsteps faded away.

Would he come tonight?

She’d seen him take Nibaal to his room.  Surely, Nibaal would be enough for him and he would leave her alone.


She squeezed her eyes shut, hoping with everything inside her that he would stay away.  She hated him.  She hated the feel of his old man’s hands on her.  She hated the sour odor of his skin, his breath, the coarseness of his beard.  He was always so rough with her, even when she lay still and didn’t fight.

Stay away.  Stay away.  Stay away.

She drifted off, only to jerk awake at the sound of a man’s voice.

His door opened, closed, soft footfalls sounding in the hallway as Nibaal made her way back to the room she shared with the other wives.

She exhaled, certain she’d been spared for the night, her body relaxing, sleep stealing over her at last.


She sat bolt upright on a rush of adrenaline and grabbed her burka, drawing it overher head just as the door to her room crashed open.

A dark shape filled the doorway.

A man with a weapon.

He aimed it at her, a red dot dancing over her chest.

Too terrified even to scream, she shrank back against the wall, her heart hammering, her mouth dry, fear making it impossible for her to think.

A light blinded her.

“Come with me!” he shouted at her in heavily accented Arabic, aiming his weapon at the corners as if he expected someone to be hiding in the room.

She wanted to do as he’d asked.  She didn’t want to be shot and killed.  But fear kept her grounded to the spot, her breath coming in terrified whimpers.

“Clear!  All clear!  Got one more woman here, senior chief,” he said, crossing the room in two big strides.  “Bring her to the courtyard.  Roger that.”

The sound of his American English made her breath catch.

“Come.”  The man spoke more softly this time, motioning for her to get to her feet and come with him.
As if in a dream, she rose, her heart beating erratically in her chest, his uniform and his American accent awakening something nameless and terrifying inside her.

He nudged her ahead of him, his weapon still raised. “Go!”

Her legs seemed to be made of water as she walked down the stairs, across the main room and out into the frigid night, where the other women were huddled together in their burkas with their children, all of them crying, some praying aloud.

“Hanan!”  One of them reached for her, called to her in Arabic.  Zainab.  “Hanan, sister, come here to us!”

She felt a rush of warmth to hear Zainab call her “sister,” something comforting in Zainab’s concern for her—and something frightening as well.  The older woman’s fingers dug into her arms as she drew her into the cluster of women, pushing her to the center, where other hands reached out, grabbed her, held her.

And then she saw.

There, in the center of the courtyard, lay Abu Nayef.

He lay face down on the dirt all but naked, his wrists bound together behind his back, one of the uniformed men standing guard over him.  And not far from him…

The dead man lay on his side, his eyes open, part of his head missing, a spray of blood and brains on the wall behind him.

Her stomach seemed to fall to the ground, memories of another day, of blood and dead men sliding into her mind.  She looked away and swallowed hard, fighting the urge to vomit.

“They are going to kills us all!” Nibaal sobbed.

No, they aren’t. 

She couldn’t say how she knew this, but she did.

Armed men in heavy uniforms seemed to be everywhere—on the rooftop, in the courtyard, inside the house.  Their faces were covered in black paint, making them look like shadows in the darkness.  They seemed to be searching for something.

“Where are your tears, Hanan?”  Zainab pinched her.  “Do you see what has become of our husband?  Do you see what these Americans have done to him?”


The nameless terror inside her grew stronger.

But she couldn’t bring herself to weep, not for Abu Nayef.  Instead, she listened to every word the men in uniform said to one another.

“Hey, JG, we’ve got a dozen women and kids here.  Are they going to be safe when you blow those caves?” asked the tall one standing over Abu Nayef, speaking into a slender mic near his painted lips.  “Roger, that.”

“Hey, senior chief, we got three laptops, four cell phones, a handful of flash drives, and a box full of CDs, along with some files.”

“Bag ’em,” the tall one said.  “Boss, we’re good to begin our exfil.  Yo, boys, get ready to roll!”


Chills shivered up her spine.

“What is that?  Do you hear that?” Zainab looked up.

It was the thrum and whir of distant helicopters.

She looked up through her burka at the starless sky, saw nothing, the night having taken on an air of unreality.

One of the women—Safiya—started to sob, crying baby clutched to her chest.  “They’re taking Habibi away from us!  The Americans are taking Habibi away!  What will become of us?”

Out of the dark sky appeared three helicopters, black against the black night, each with one rotor in back, another in front.  One lowered itself to perch against the cliffs above, men in black uniforms rising like ghosts from the ground and climbing aboard, weapons in their hands, while two more landed outside the walls, their giant rotors blowing dust everywhere.

The house had been surrounded, and they hadn’t even known it.

One of the men began shouting to the women in bad Arabic, telling them to take shelter inside the house for their own protection, warning them that the caves in the cliffs had been set with explosives and were going to blow up.

She found herself caught up in a panicked tide of blue and black as the burka-clad women pushed her toward the house, Zainab’s fingers holding fast to her arm, digging deep into her flesh.  She looked over her shoulder to see the tall one overseeing three of his men, who lifted Abu Nayef by his elbows and dragged him toward the waiting helicopter and up its rear ramp.

They were leaving.

The Americans were leaving.

There was a buzzing in her brain, her pulse pounding so hard it all but drowned out the sound of the helicopters, that nameless fear gathering momentum, rushing against her like a wave, the terror in her mind coalescing into a single, heart-stopping realization.

Ana amrekiah.

I’m an American, too.

Ana amrekiah.”  She didn’t realize she’d stopped walking or spoken aloud until Zainab jerked her arm.
“Shut your mouth, or I will cut out your tongue!”

Strong hands shoved her toward the house, making her stumble.  She looked back, saw the tall man watching them, and she realized he was waiting to board the helicopter until they were all safely back inside.  Then he, too, would disappear up that ramp.

As the women reached the door, he took two steps back, then turned his back, speaking words she couldn’t hear into his microphone.

The Americans were leaving—without her.

Dizzy with terror, she jerked away from the other women.  “Wait! I’m an American, too!”

But her words were blown away by the roar of the helicopter’s rotors.

# # #

Wait! I’m an American, too!  

Javier just managed to catch the words over the drone of the helos, but it took them a moment to register.  Had that come from beneath one of the burkas?

“Senior chief, watch out!  You got one running up behind you!”  Inside the chopper, Ross aimed his weapon.
Javier pivoted, weapon ready, and saw the tallest of the women running toward him, the red dot from Ross’s laser sight dancing on her covered forehead.

“Hold your fire!”  He aimed his M4 at her. “Stop!  Get down!”

But she had already fallen to her knees, turquoise blue cloth billowing around her, her breath coming in terrified sobs.  She cried out again, her accent American.  “H-help me!  I’m… I’m an American, too!”

He started toward her, just as one of the other women broke out of the group, this one holding a knife in her hand.  She shouted something in Arabic and ran not toward Javier, but toward the woman on her knees, her intent clear.

Without hesitation, Javier raised his M4 and dropped her with a double-tap, her knife falling to the dirt.
JG’s voice sounded in his ear.  “Senior chief, what the hell’s going on?”

“I think we’ve got a hostage.”  He strode quickly to the woman on her knees, grabbed a fistful of blue burka, and ripped it aside.

Staring up at him was ...


For a moment all he could do was stare, his gaze taking in the tears and bruises on her cheeks, her swollen lip and thin face, her threadbare nightgown, the shock and terror in her eyes.  And then his training kicked in.

“This is now an AMCIT recovery.  I say again: This is now an AMCIT recovery.  Do you copy?”

“We hear you lima charlie, senior chief,” the Boss answered from the third helo several hundred feet in the air above them.  “Get her, and let’s go.  We’ve got enemy QRF pushing our position from the east.  We need to get airborne now!”

The second Chinook was already nosing its way downwind.  Slow and cumbersome at lift-off, the helos would all make great targets for the Soviet-era RPGs that AQ combatants loved to fire at them.  If the pilots couldn’t get them in the air and up to speed before the enemy got within firing range…

“Roger that.”  Knowing that Ross was covering for him, Javier clipped his M4 into his tactical sling, lifted Laura into his arms, and turned toward the last helo, covering the ground in long, fast strides.  Without a glance back, he ran up the ramp, and settled Laura on the bench.  “All boots onboard!”

“Ramp!” The shout was repeated as the cargo ramp was raised.

The helo rotors accelerated, seconds ticking by like hours as the big bird slowly left the ground, heading into the wind as the pilot fought for translational lift.  Javier listened as the pilot relayed their altitude, enemy QRF drawing closer every second.

A shell exploded not far from the helo, making Laura gasp.  Javier put a gloved hand on her shoulder, hoping to reassure her.

Too close.

The seconds ticked by, punctuated by two more explosions, each of them more distant than the last as the helo gained speed.  Then came the deep rumble as JG detonated the explosives in the caves.

They’d made it.  They were away.

“We did it, senior chief!”

“We’re not done with the mission till we get back to home plate, Krasinski.”  Heart beating hard, Javier leaned back against the webbing that lined the helo, grabbed it for balance, catching his breath, ratcheting down on the adrenaline, taking stock of his men, of the situation.  Reeves had caught a round in the shoulder, but it hadn’t penetrated deeply.  Wilson, the platoon medic, had already treated it.  Reeves would need a few stitches, but he’d be fine.  Apart from a few bruises and scrapes, no one else was wounded.  Al-Nassar was a battered but alive, his laptops, cellphones, disks and drives bagged and tagged.

Delta Platoon had done what they’d been tasked to do on this mission—and they’d come away with something extra.

He let his gaze drop to Laura, felt something twist in his chest.  Clearly in shock, she sat shivering on the bench in a white cotton nightgown that left little to the imagination, her face downcast, her long hair tangled.  She was rail thin and pale, as if she’d recently been ill or hadn’t eaten a good meal in months.  There were fresh bruises on her face and her arms, proof that the other women had tried to restrain her.
All this time—eighteen goddamned months—she’d been here alive.

Son of a bitch!

Al-Nassar’s group had claimed they’d executed her.  They’d lied.  Why?

He glanced at Al-Nassar, whose gaze was fixed on her, hatred mingling with something predatory in his eyes.


The asshole had wanted her, had used her, had hurt her.



Like some wild thing, Laura looked around at the helo full of men, her vulnerability tearing at Javier.  He drew a blanket out of the webbing and wrapped it around her shoulders.

She hugged the blanket tightly around herself and looked up at him as if she wasn’t quite certain he was real.  “Th-thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”  He’d never told her he was a SEAL, and he was certain she didn’t recognize him beneath the uniform and camo face paint.

One by one, Javier’s men acknowledged her with polite nods.


“We’re happy to have you on board, ma’am.”

“Welcome back, ma’am.”

Then Al-Nassar began to speak, muttering something to her.

Her pale face went a shade whiter, her eyes now wide.

And something inside Javier snapped.

He smashed his fist into the bastard’s face—once, twice—the blow and the pain in his knuckles doing nothing to satisfy the burning anger inside him.  Realizing what he’d done, he stepped back, fists clenched as he fought to rein himself in.  “Wilson, gag and blindfold this motherfucker before I kill him.”

“You got it, senior chief.”  Wilson grabbed a wad of gauze from his pack, rammed it into Al-Nassar’s mouth, tying it in place with more gauze.
Al-Nassar began to struggle, trying to pull his head away, blood trickling from his nose and a cut on his cheek.
Zimmerman stood, restraining him none too gently while Wilson tied a tourniquet over the bastard’s eyes. “You need to shut the fuck up and leave her alone, asshole.  Got that?  Yeah, I know you understood me.  Went to Oxford, didn’t you?  Paid the Brits back for your first-class education by trying to blow them up.”
Shaking with unspent anger, Javier looked down at Laura again.  She probably thought they’d come to rescue her when the truth was they hadn’t even known she was there.  If she hadn’t shouted out for him, if she hadn’t run…

He didn’t want to think about that.

What counted was that she had run.  She’d found the strength and the guts to break free, to shout out, to let them know she was there.

And now they were taking her home.

(c) Copyright 2012 Pamela Clare
All rights reserved

(c) Haotian |
Thursday, August 09, 2012

RIDE THE FIRE — Here's the new cover

Sorry I’ve been away so long! I left you stuck with that shackling scene forever. Not deliberate, I assure you. I find it very hard to keep the flow of my story in mind when I'm doing other things. I’ve spent the past couple of weeks realizing I need to rework aspects of Striking Distance, freaking out over that realization, and then getting down to work.

This time, I really had to pull out all the stops to figure out what I needed to change, even hanging a clothesline across my living room and putting note cards on it with clothes pins.

I finally came to grips with the situation, went back to Chapter 1 — yes, Chapter 1 — and included an element of backstory I hadn’t wanted to include because it was just too emotional. It took an email from a friend who independently came up with the same backstory element and suggested I consider it — to which I replied “NO!” — for me to realize that this just had to be the way it was.

Now I’m back up to Chapter 3. And when is this book due? Now?

But in the midst of this, I got an email from my wonderful editor sharing with me the art for the reissue of Ride the Fire, which may be my best book of all time. Everything about that story was inspired, every moment on the page clear. I wrote it in five months while working full time — close to a record for me. And when I was done, I was so devastated by the emotional toll of the story that I could do nothing but cry for six weeks. I was a hot mess.

Ride the Fire has been out of print since I got the rights to the story back from Dorchester, which originally published it in 2005. This version will include the as-yet-unwritten epilogue, as well as some tweaks to bring it into alignment with the author’s cut of Carnal Gift. If you remember, Dorchester cut 100 pages out of Carnal Gift to make it fit the company's maximum page count. It broke my heart and really hurt the story. It also made me revise Ride the Fire before I was even finished with it. When I self-published Carnal Gift, I restored those pages, but that meant that Ride the Fire was now out of sync.

When this version of Ride the Fire is released in February 2013, the Kenleigh-Blakewell trilogy will be as I intended it to be. The first two books are available as ebooks. Ride the Fire is being published by Berkley so it will be in both print and ebook format.

So how about an excerpt from Ride the Fire?

Here’s when Nicholas met Bethie....

Elspeth Stewart woke with a start, heart racing. 
            The geese!
            She rose as quickly as she could, grabbed the rifle, which sat, primed and ready, next to the bed.
            If it was the same vixen that had harried them yesterday, she would shoot, and this time she wouldn’t miss. 
And if it were Indians or renegade soldiers?
            Her mouth went dry.
            Quickly, quietly she crossed the wooden floor of the cabin that was her home, lifted the heavy bar from the door and slowly opened it, dread like ice in her veins.  Outside it was still dark, the first light of dawn only a hint in the eastern sky.  She peered past the door toward the poultry pens and saw a small honey-colored fox dart into the underbrush.
            In a warm rush of relief, Elspeth stepped quickly onto the porch, raised the rifle, cocked it, fired.  A yelp, followed by silence, told her she had hit her mark. 
She stepped back inside long enough to put down the rifle, put on her cloak and slip into her boots — she had taken to sleeping fully clothed since Andrew’s death, but that didn’t include boots — before going outside to see what damage had been done.
The vixen lay dead in the bushes.  Its teats were swollen with milk, and Elspeth felt an unexpected pang of empathy with the dead animal.  It had only been trying to eat so that it could feed its new litter of kits. 
She pressed a hand protectively to her rounded belly.  In a few weeks, a month at most, she would be doing the same.  Which is why she needed to protect the geese and chickens, she thought, brushing aside her sentimental response.
She squatted down, picked the vixen up by its tail and carried it away.  She didn’t want the smell to attract bears or wolves.
When she returned, the geese were still honking and flapping angrily about, but there were no bloody wings, no broken feathers that she could see.  Andrew’s fence had held.
“Quit your flaffin’!” she scolded.  She wasn’t truly angry with them.  Geese were better than dogs when it came to alerting their masters to danger.  Her life — and that of her unborn baby — might well depend on them one day.
            As it was so close to dawn and she’d be getting up soon anyway, Elspeth decided to start her morning chores.  She fed the geese and chickens, gathered the few eggs that had been laid and set off to the cowshed for the morning milking.  By the time the animals had been fed and Rona and Rosa, her two mares, had been led out into the paddock, the sun had risen behind a heavy blanket of clouds, and the air smelled of lingering winter.
            She drew water from the well and carried it inside to heat for washing and for her morning porridge.  She had just stepped through the door, when she saw the fire had died down to embers and needed wood.  But there was no firewood stacked in the corner.  And then she remembered.
            She hadn’t had time to split more wood for the fire yesterday and had been so tired after supper that she had fallen asleep at the table, leaving the chore undone.
            Her stomach growled.
            “Well, Bethie, you cannae be expectin’ the wood to chop itself.”  She lifted the heavy water bucket onto the table, took the ax from its resting place beside the fire, went back out into the chilly morning.
            The woodpile stood on the west side of the house, and it was dwindling.  She hadn’t worked out how she was going to fell trees by herself; that was a problem for another day.  She awkwardly lifted a large piece of wood onto an old stump, hoisted the ax and swung.  The ax cut halfway through the wood, stuck.  She pried it loose, swung again.  The wood flew into two pieces.
            In the two months since Andrew’s passing, she had gotten better at chopping firewood.  She no longer missed and sometimes even managed to split the wood with one blow as Andrew had done.  Still, it was an exhausting chore, one she did not enjoy.
            How long could she last out here alone?  The question leapt, unbidden and unwelcome, into her mind.  It was followed by another.
Where could she go?
            She lifted another piece of wood onto the stump, stepped back, swung and soon found herself in a rhythm.
            Perhaps after the baby was born she could go to Fort Pitt or one of the other forts and find work there.  At least she and the baby would be safe from Indians and wild animals.  But would there be other women?  Would they be safe from the soldiers?
Perhaps she could journey to Harrisburg or even to Philadelphia.  But that meant traveling for weeks alone through wild country, across the mountains, over rivers and through farmsteads.  The very idea of swimming across rivers with her baby or sleeping in a bedroll in the open without the protection of four sturdy walls terrified her.
            One thing was certain: She could not go home.
Nor could she stay here forever.  She’d managed well enough so far, but what would she do when it came time to plant crops?  Could she manage the plough?  And what of the harvest?  Could she care for her baby, harvest the crops, slaughter the hogs, make cider and salt the meat all at the same time?  Her days had been full and long when Andrew had yet lived.  How could she manage to do both his chores and hers with a newborn?
And what would she do when her time came?
She’d never given birth before, never seen a baby born.  And though she’d helped cows to calve, she knew having babies was different for women.  Would she know what to do?  Would both she and her baby survive the travail?
And then there was the threat of Indians and others who prowled the frontier.  Few families had escaped unscathed during this war.  Men, women and children had been butchered like cattle — shot or burned alive and scalped by Indians fighting for the French.  A family only a few miles to the north had been attacked at midday while working in their fields.  The oldest sons had been killed and scalped, the daughters and younger boys kidnapped.  They’d found the oldest daughter several miles away a few days later.  She’d been tied to a tree, her body consumed first by fire, then by wild animals.
            Of course, Indians weren’t the only two-legged danger.  Criminals flocked to the frontier, eager to escape the gallows.  Deserters, too, hid in the forests, both French and English.  Everyone knew of the family near Paxton that had welcome two travelers to sleep before their hearth one evening, only to be murdered in their beds.
Andrew had done his best to protect her from these dangers.  But he had died just after Christmas of a lingering fever.  Although Bethie had tried everything she knew to save him — every poultice, every herb, every draught — he was not a young man and had died one night in his sleep while she sat beside him and held his hand.  Already in her seventh month, she had barely managed to dig a shallow grave for him in the frozen earth.
She hadn’t had a night’s sleep since, waking to every sound with her heart in her throat.
There was one other possibility, of course, one she almost refused to consider.  She could try to find another husband.  After the baby was born, she could ride to the nearest settlement, visit the church or meetinghouse and tell the minister that she was widowed and needed to find a husband.  But would they help her?  Would any man want both her and her child?  And if she did find a husband, would she regret it?
Her mother, widowed when Bethie’s father was killed by a falling log, had found Malcolm Sorley in much the same way.  A big man with a dour temperament and fists like hams, he’d moved with his bully of a son, Richard, into the cabin that had once been a happy home and had done his best to beat the fear of God into his new wife and stepdaughter.  Bethie had done her best to avoid the rages of her new father, but Malcolm Sorley had left his share of welts and bruises on her.  Then he had turned her mother against her.
Richard had done far worse.
And while a husband brought protection, marriage brought duties that pleased her not at all.  She had no desire to lay beneath a man, to feel him touch her, to feel him inside her.  If she could devise it, she would be content to live as a widow for the rest of her life.
And so Bethie arrived at the same stalemate she always came to whenever she allowed herself to think of the days ahead.  There was no place for her to go and no way she could safely stay.
Coming to the frontier had been Andrew’s idea, not hers.  And though he had been kind to her and had taken her from a living hell, she found herself feeling angry with him for deserting her and her baby to this life of fear and doubt.
She rested the ax on the ground, out of breath, her arms and lower back aching, glad to find a good stack of wood already piled on the ground beside her.  It was enough to last her the rest of the day and the night, but she would need to chop more this afternoon if she didn’t want to be in the same state tomorrow morning.
            She rubbed a soothing hand over her belly, felt her baby kick within her.  Then she squatted down and picked up as many pieces as she could carry.  She stepped around to the front of the cabin, her arms full, and froze, a scream trapped in her throat.
            A man on horseback.
 He sat on a great chestnut stallion only a few feet away from the cabin’s door, stared down at her through cold eyes, pistol in hand.
The firewood fell from her arms forgotten.  She glanced wildly about for the rifle, realized the she had left it inside the cabin.  A deadly mistake?
She forced herself to meet his gaze, tried to hide her fear, the frantic thrum of her heartbeat a deafening roar.
            Where had he come from?  Why hadn’t she heard him?  And the geese — why had they made no sound?
            He was an Indian.  He must be to have crept up on her so quietly.  Dressed in animal hides with long black hair and sun-browned skin, he certainly looked like an Indian.  But his eyes were icy and blue as a mountain lake, and most of his face was covered with a thick, black beard.
            Heart pounding a sickening rhythm in her chest, she swallowed, pressed her hands protectively to her belly.  “M-my husband will be back soon.”
            “Your husband?”  His accent was distinctly English and cultured, his voice deep.  He smiled, a mocking sort of smile.  “Is he the poor fellow buried out back?  Aye, I’ve already met him.”
            The man started to dismount. 
“Nay!”  Close to panic, Bethie wasn’t sure where her words came from.  “Stay on your horse, and ride away from here!  I am no’ wantin’ for means to protect myself!”
He climbed slowly from the saddle, his gaze dropping from her face to her swollen belly, a look of what could only be amusement in his eyes.  “I’ll keep that in mind.”
It was then she saw the blood.  His hands were stained with it.
Her heart beat like a hammer against her breast, and for one wrenching moment, she knew he was going to kill her.  Or worse. 
If only she had the rifle!  If only she could get inside the cabin, bar the door.  But he stood between her and refuge.  She took several steps backwards, was about to run into the darkness of the forest, when he sagged against his horse.
Blood.  It had soaked through the leather of his leggings on the right side, darkened the back of his right leg all the way to his moccasin.  Was it his blood?  Aye, it must be.  He had tied a cloth around his upper thigh to staunch the flow.
He was injured, weak, perhaps nigh to collapse.  Some part of her realized this, saw it as the chance she needed.
She ran, a desperate dash toward the cabin door, toward safety, toward life.  She had only a few steps to go when arms strong as steel shot out, imprisoned her. 
“Oh, no, you don’t!”
“Nay!”  She screamed, kicked, hit, fought to free herself through a rising sense of terror.
“Ouch!  Damn it, woman!”
The click of a pistol cock.  The cold press of its barrel against her temple.
She froze, a terrified whimper in her throat.
His breath was hot on her cheek.  “I have no desire to harm you or the child you carry, but you will help me, whether you wish to or not!  Do you understand?”
She nodded, her mind numb with fright.
Pistol still in hand, he forced her to hold the stallion’s reins while he unsaddled it and carried its burdens inside the cabin.  Then he watched as she led the animal to a stall in the barn, settled it with hay and fresh water from the well.  And although she had hoped he might fall unconscious, he showed no further sign of pain or weakness apart from a bad limp.
“Get inside, and boil water.”
She crossed the distance from the barn to the cabin, her stomach knotted with fear, the heat of his gaze boring into her back.  Then she saw the firewood scattered on the ground.  She stopped, turned to him, half afraid to speak lest she provoke his ire.  She had no doubt this man was capable of killing.  “I-I’ll need the wood.”
Blue eyes, hard and cold as slate, met hers.  He nodded — one stiff jerk of his head.
She eased her way down, began to fill her arms.
Nicholas watched the woman pick up firewood.  She had no idea how close she had come to escaping him moments ago on her doorstep.  Dizzy from blood loss, he had found it surprisingly difficult to subdue her, had been forced to wield the threat of his pistol.  He could not risk getting close enough for her to knock it from his grasp.  He was fast fading, and without the weapon he would not long be able to bend her to his will.  He had no doubt that if given the choice she would leave him out here to die, even kill him herself.
He didn’t blame her.  There was only one rule on the frontier — survival.  A woman without male protection could not be too careful, particularly a young and pretty one.  And even heavy with child, she was a beauty.
How old was she?  Nicholas guessed eighteen.  Her cheeks were pink from exertion, her skin flawless and kissed by the sun.  A thick braid of sun-streaked honey-blonde hair hung down her back to her waist.  Her curves, enhanced by her pregnancy, were soft, womanly and easily apparent despite the plainness of her grey woolen gown.  And although she was great with child, she had felt small in his arms.  Her head just touched his shoulder.
He looked on as she struggled to stand.  Though she was obviously very near her time, she was surprisingly graceful and was soon back on her feet and walking toward the cabin, arms full, her braid swaying against the grey wool of her cloak with each step.
Nicholas followed, but even this small effort left him breathless.  His heart hammered in his chest, fought to pump blood no longer in his body.  The Frenchman’s blade had gone deep, and while it had failed to sever his tendons and drop him to the ground as the bastard had no doubt hoped, it had clearly cut into a major blood vessel.
He’d left Fort Detroit early in the morning almost a week ago, having earned more than enough from his pelts to replenish his supplies.  He’d traveled south for most of four days before he got the feeling he was being followed.  The signs were subtle — the twitching of Zeus’ ears, the cry of a raven startled from its perch somewhere behind him, a prickling on the back of his neck.  He’d urged Zeus to a faster pace, kept up his guard, hadn’t stopped to rest or eat until well past nightfall. 
They attacked just after midnight.  The first sprang at him out of the darkness and might have succeeded in killing him had Nicholas not been awake and waiting.  And while he’d grappled with the first, the second had leapt from hiding to deal a surprise deathblow.  Nicholas had quickly dispatched the first attacker, but the second managed to slash his thigh before he had buried his knife in the man’s belly.  He’d recognized them both from the fort — French trappers who weren’t ready to relinquish the Ohio Valley to the English.
Nicholas had realized immediately he was badly hurt.  He’d have treated the wound himself had he been able to see it and reach it with ease.  Instead, he’d tied a tourniquet around his leg and had reluctantly ridden through the night hoping to cross some farmstead where aid might be available. 
As he’d grown weaker, he’d all but resigned himself to death.  He was already dead inside.  What did it matter if his body died, too?  Wasn’t that what he’d secretly been searching for all these years?  But just before dawn, he’d heard a gunshot to the east and had followed it until he’d heard the sound of someone chopping wood.  He hadn’t expected it to be a woman, much less a woman alone. 
He hadn’t asked a soul for help in more than six years.  It galled him to have to do so now.  He followed the woman inside.  “Build up the fire.”
The cabin was small with a puncheon floor that looked as if it had been newly washed.  The only light came from a small window covered with greased parchment.  A rough-hewn table sat in the center of the room, a hand-carved bedstead against the far right wall.  In the far left corner on the other side of the fireplace sat a cupboard and before it a loom, a spinning wheel, and a rocking chair.  Dried onions, herbs and flowers hung from the rafters, a feminine touch that for one startling moment reminded him of the cookhouse on his plantation.  A rifle leaned against the wall beside the door.
Nicholas checked the rifle to make certain it was not primed and loaded.  Next he removed his buffalo-hide coat and his jacket, tossed them over one of the wooden chairs.
Black spots danced before his eyes.  He pulled out another chair, sat, watched as she stirred the fire to life and poured water into the kettle to boil.  “You’ll need thread and a strong needle.”
She started at the sound of his voice.  She was terrified of him, he knew.  He could taste her fear, smell it, see it in the way she moved.
Smart woman.
(c) copyright 2005, 2012 Pamela Clare

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