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

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Writer at work — STRIKING DISTANCE excerpt

It feels like last month and the early part of this month were a whirlwind. I got Skin Deep, Sweet Release and Carnal Gift (Kenleigh-Blakewell Family Books 1&2) released in paperback, and Ride the Fire (Kenleigh-Blakewell Family Book 3) was reissued by Berkley Sensation on Feb. 5. And then there was getting my taxes put together ...

We won’t even go there. Taxes + Math Phobia = Charlie Foxtrot.

With the holidays behind us, and all of that work finally done, I’ve been able to focus much more clearly on Striking Distance (I-Team #6). I’ve had to throw out chapters before while writing a book, but I’ve never thrown out the book. This is my fifth (?) time starting over. The only part of the story that remains more or less intact is the prologue, though it has been revised, edited, polished.

But the good news is that all of the work I’ve put into it has not only turned into the story I wanted it to be, but it’s also made it easier to move quickly. I am now about a third of the way through the story, and the words are flowing. I’ve had to think through so many aspects of the story that’s it’s almost like I plotted this one out.

Imagine that!

I’m an unrepentant pantser, but this one had me by the seat of my pants, so I needed to change my writing process. I think it’s important for writers to grow and to continually challenge themselves to write better books. Improving our process is part of that.

One thing that helps — not surprisingly — is staying off the Internet. I apologize that I haven’t been updating much these days, but my energy is going first and foremost into writing. (I have a feeling most of you won’t object to that, since you all want the book!)

I know it’s been a long wait for this story, but I hope you’ll find it well worth it in the end. And to share with you at least some of the fruits of my labor, I wanted to post the polished prologue again. One thing I haven’t discussed, for rather obvious reasons, is the fact that I am working with an active-duty SEAL on this story. He has read the SEAL portions of it, made some suggestions, changed some terminology and generally done is best to put me in the mind of a SEAL in action. I’ve found that extremely inspiring. You all know that research is a huge part of my effort as a writer.

So here without further ado is the prologue to Striking Distance in its current form. Enjoy!

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.  Night jumps, rock climbing, and uphill PT runs in full night combat gear.  Close-quarters combat practice.  Mock raids on a scale model of the compound.  
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 high on 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 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 simpler.
“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 pale blonde hair and big, ice-blue eyes, she’d fueled the fantasies of every man in uniform, 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 Scots-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’d met her. 
He’d been touring Dubai City on his way home after a long deployment.  She’d walked into a hotel bar where he was having a steak 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.  It had pissed her off, but it had also gotten her attention.
What had followed was a weekend of the most amazing 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.
If he closed his eyes, he could still taste her, still feel the softness of her skin, still hear the breathy sound of her cries as she came.  She’d been a fantasy come true, more woman than Javier had ever hoped to hold in his arms.  He was nothing more than a kid from South Bronx who’d enlisted in the Navy after nearly landing his ass in prison, a simple man who drank beer, played guitar, and fixed up old motorcycles when he wasn’t deployed.  She’d been classy, refined, and sexy, all silk and sophistication.  
She had blown his mind.
The only thing that had kept Javier from calling her and trying to see her again was their agreement that the weekend came with no strings.  Laura had told him flat out that she wasn’t interested in marriage or motherhood.  That had been fine with Javier.  He already had one divorce under his belt—a hazard of being a frogman—and didn’t want another.  He’d flown back to the U.S with hoping they’d meet again.
Two months later, she’d been gone.
Her last broadcast had come from a women’s safehouse in Islamabad where she’d been reporting on the ongoing 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 broadcast from its tripod.
That had been the summer of 2009.
Javier had been at home in Coronado Beach when it happened.  He’d seen the live broadcast, had found himself on his feet, helpless and thousands of miles away.  Her screams had ripped him apart.  They haunted him still.  When Al-Nassar’s group had claimed responsibility for the attack weeks later and bragged that they’d decapitated 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, and he couldn’t tell them 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 incredible lover, a smart and beautiful woman.  She deserved that much.
Krasinski’s expression was hidden by shadows and by the black and green face camouflage, but there was regret in his voice.  “You got it, senior chief.”
A voice came over the speaker.  “Forty-five minutes till drop.”
“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 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 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, Desprez.  When Al-Nassar was in custody and the compound was secure, three modified CH-47D Chinook helos would swoop in for extract.  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, a voice came over the speaker.  “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 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 only Angeza, who’d been given to Abu Nayef by her Pashtun father in payment of a debt when she was only fourteen, had ever treated her with kindness. Angeza had sneaked her food, helped her study the Suras, even protected her from Zainab and Abu Nayef.  Still, 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 Zainab still seemed to see every mistake she made.
The women bowed, and she bowed with them, standing up straight once more before performing Sujood, prostrating herself, her nose, hands, knees and feet, 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 could 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.  It was time for her nightly rebellion.  She clenched her hands to hide their trembling, afraid that Zainab, Nibaal, Safiya, or one of the other women would notice her nervousness and guess 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, words she didn’t dare to speak burning in her mind like a fever.
Mitt namn är …
My name is…
My name is Laura Nilsson.
# # #
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 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 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.  Angeza had once told her that Zainab struck her only because Abu Nayef came to her bed so often.  But she would gladly have traded places with Zainab.  If only she could!  She cared nothing at all for Abu Nayef.  In truth, 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 her four children.
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 over her 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 her mind go blank.
A light blinded her. 
He aimed his weapon at the corners as if he expected someone to be hiding in the room, then shouted in heavily accented Arabic.  “Come with me!” 
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 pants.
“Clear!  All clear!  Got another female 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.  The older woman’s fingers dug into her arms as she drew her roughly 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.
All but naked, he lay face down in the dirt, his wrists bound together behind his back, a tall uniformed man standing guard over him.  
A dead man lay on his side not far from Abu Nayef, 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, vague memories of another day, of flashes of blood and dead men sliding into her mind.  She looked away and swallowed hard, fighting to keep down her supper.
“They are going to kills us all!” Nibaal sobbed.
“Is this true?” Angeza whispered in frightened Pashtun.
She shook her head, whispered back. “They won’t hurt us.”  
She couldn’t say why she was so sure about this, but she was.
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.  She loathed him.  Instead, she listened to every word the men in uniform said to one another. 
“Hey, JG, we’ve got a dozen terrified 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 nine hard drives, 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, it’s time to go!”
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 the mesh of 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, clutching the crying baby to her chest.  “They’re taking him 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.  Another landed at the base of the cliffs.  Still another landed inside the compound, its 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 standing guard while two of his men 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 thought.
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 the others safely back inside.  Then he, too, would disappear up that ramp.
As the women reached the door, he took two steps back, then turned away from them, 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 caught 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!”  Ross ran down the ramp, dropped to one knee, 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!” Javier 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 the ground, 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 terrified woman, grabbed a fistful of blue burka, and ripped it aside, exposing her completely.
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?”
Ross and Zimmerman ran down the helo’s ramp and took up defensive positions, ready to take out anyone who threatened Javier or Laura. 
“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 the others were 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 in his jump seat, Ross and Zimmerman pounding up the ramp behind him. 
“All boots onboard!”  Zimmerman shouted.
“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, the pilot fighting for translational lift.  Javier listened as the pilot relayed their altitude, enemy QRF drawing ever closer.
A shell exploded not far from the helo, its blast wave making the helo lurch and drawing a gasp from Laura.  Javier put a gloved hand on her shoulder, hoping to reassure her.  “Sit tight.”
Too damned 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.
“We did it, senior chief!”  Krasinski pointed at Javier.  “Cobra strikes again!”
“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.  Wilson, the platoon medic, had already treated it.  Reeves would need surgery and PT, 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 a tangled rush of relief and rage.  Clearly in shock, she sat there shivering 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 trapped 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, Ms. Nilsson.”
Then Al-Nassar began to speak, muttering something to her.  
Her pale face went a shade whiter, fear in her wide eyes.  
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, restrained 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.

Copyright (c) Pamela Clare 2013

Other news:

As those of you who follow me on Facebook know I’ve had problems with skin cancer in the past, basal cell and squamous cell (and one other very rare kind that my doctor had never actually seen before, the name of which I can’t really spell or pronounce). I was diagnosed early in the month with squamous cell again, and I had that removed along with a few other areas my dermatologist found suspicious. I noticed the changes on my skin and had it removed so early that at this point I’m good to go for another six months. But I really cannot be in the sun. Even going to the mailbox is enough to cause problems for me. I need to become a vampire, I think. Apparently moonlight is okay.

It’s been fun hearing from those of you who read Ride the Fire all those years ago and catching your reactions to the re-edited version with the epilogue. In case you didn’t catch the news about the reissue before, here are those links again:
iTunes: id566499382

I have some exciting news to share later in the spring, but for now I’m staying focused on finishing this book! But I’ll drop a hit. Two words: New Series.

Finishing thought:

My worries and bouts with skin cancer are scary, but there is always someone going through something far worse. In the past week, I’ve come across children battling life-threatening forms of cancer and an author I care about who is right now undergoing a mastectomy for breast cancer. The son of one of my kids’ friends died suddenly at age 7 a few weeks back. The husband of a life-long friend of my family dropped dead of a heart attack before Christmas.

All of this makes me want to hug the whole damned world. Please take time to enjoy today, to count your blessings, to love your children, to forgive the little stuff, and not let problems that won’t matter a year from now ruin your day. This one life is precious. Don’t waste it. Instead, live it richly, focusing on the things that matter — service to others, love, joy, beauty. It is up to each of us to be masterful enough in our living that we bring out these qualities in our own lives.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

RIDE THE FIRE is out! Special: Nicholas meets Connor MacKinnon

Ride the Fire (Kenleigh-Blakewell Family Saga, Book 3) is out today! After almost four years of being out of print, it’s back.

Here are all of the places you can find it, in addition to your local indie bookstores, which can probably order it if they don’t have it in stock:

For Kindle: 

At the same time, the first two books in that series — Sweet Release and Carnal Gift — have been given new covers and issued in trade paperback through Carrie from Seductive Designs did the cover design, while Jenn LeBlanc shot the original photographs. I think they covers are pretty amazing. They were made to match artistically with Ride the Fire.

So my first trilogy is back in print again! I’ll raise a glass that!  But to celebrate I decided to share something with you that fans of Ride the Fire might appreciate — a scene that I deleted from Defiant where Nicholas Kenleigh meets Connor MacKinnon and Sarah Woodville in the wilderness.

Ride the Fire takes place in 1763, after the MacKinnon's Rangers books end. So Nicholas Kenleigh is wandering around in his self-imposed exile in the wild during the time that Iain, Morgan and Connor are fighting the war. I figured they might happen to cross paths...

Nicholas is one of my favorite heros, so I couldn’t resist the idea of writing the scene once the idea came to me. What would happen if these two protective alpha males crossed paths in the wilderness? I had a lot of fun with it — and then realized that it slowed down the narrative of Defiant without adding anything to the store more than a “squeee!” moment for hard-core fans of my books. It was a great act of writerly self-control to delete it.

Now, I can share it with you!

When Connor MacKinnon Met Nicholas Kenleigh

From somewhere nearby, a horse snorted.
In a heartbeat, Sarah found herself on the ground, Connor shielding her body with his, rifle already in his hands, tompion between his teeth.
Then from among the trees before them, a man appeared.  Tall with long, dark hair and a long beard, he stepped forth, animal skins draped over his horse’s back, a dead deer hanging over his shoulder.  He was dressed head to toe in buckskin, and Sarah thought at first that he must be a French trapper.  But when he spoke, his accent was cultured and very English.
“Save your lead.  The name is Nicholas Kenleigh, a loyal subject of His Majesty King George.  Have you anything to go with this buck?"
# # #

Connor leaned in close to Joseph and spoke in Mahican.  “I do not like it.  See how he watches her?”
Kenleigh was skinning and gutting the buck, his hands bloody to the wrists, his gaze drifting time and again to Sarah, who gathered kindling nearby apparently heedless that she was the center of so much male attention.
Joseph nodded.  “A deserter?”
Such men, both French and English, prowled the forests, unable to return home for fear of being hanged.  Cutthroats and thieves, they had no honor and lived outside the law, attacking farmsteads, stealing, raping, killing.
“Aye, what else would he be?  Look at his horse.”  Connor had never seen a stallion of such quality, surely beyond the means of a mere trapper.  He’d likely stolen it.  “There is war in his eyes.  And his musket—it is the weapon of a soldier. ”
Even as they spoke, Kenleigh looked away from the buck, his gaze seeking Sarah.  The man had like as not gone months, perhaps years, without a woman and might at this very moment be imagining all the ways Sarah might serve his lust.
“We could kill him now or wait for him to kill us and take her.”
Connor knew Joseph was right, but the thought of slaying a man in cold blood was repugnant to him.  They had no proof that Kenleigh was deserter, after all.  The only thing he’d done thus far was to gaze upon Sarah a bit too long and a bit too often.  
Then again, maybe they should kill him.
Connor reined in his anger.  “We must remain watchful and ready.”
Without needing to speak further, Connor and Joseph kept Sarah far beyond Kenleigh’s reach, one of them ever at her side as cuts of venison were set to roast above the fire, cornmeal was mixed into ashcakes, and more firewood was gathered.  If Kenleigh made any move to take her, they would kill him before he touched her.
Kenleigh said little but went about his business, watching the venison, brushing his horse, speaking to it in soft reassuring tones.  The chestnut stallion, which he called Zeus, nuzzled him, nickering softly, the affection between the two helping to reassure Connor that Kenleigh wasn’t entirely evil. 
Men could be easily fooled; animals were not.
An hour later, they sat around the fire, Sarah between Connor and Joseph—and across the fire from Kenleigh.
The man cut off a sliver of roasted venison with his knife and ate it with uncommon grace, his manners sharply at odds with his rough appearance.  “Obwandiyag of the Ottawa speaks of uniting the tribes to throw the whites out.  When this war ends, I fear we shall face another.”
Joseph seemed to consider this.  “It will be hard to bring the tribes together.  The Haudenosaunee and Wyandot will never stop fighting, and my people will never ally themselves with the Mohawk.”
“I’ve heard Obwandiyag speak.  He is metai—a spiritual leader—and holds the respect of many.”  Kenleigh cut off another slice of venison.  “Some among the Ottawa believe he was born to rid the Americas of Europeans.”
Then his gaze shifted to Sarah, who had stopped eating to listen.  “I apologize if my words frighten you, miss.”
“She’s my wife.”  Connor spoke the words with more force than he’d intended.
Kenleigh met his gaze.  “What brings you out this far?”
And Connor saw that Kenleigh trusted them no more than they trusted him.  Why then had he approached them?  There could be only one reason—Sarah. 
Connor’s hackles rose.
“A Mequachake Shawnee war party took her.”  Connor cut Sarah a slice of meat and held it out for her, using the gesture as an excuse to move closer to her.  “We came to get her back.”
Kenleigh looked from Connor to Joseph and back again.  “Just the two of you against the entire village?”
“Aye.”  Connor cut a slice of meat, the juices hot on his fingers.  “You’ll find a dozen or so dead Shawnee a good day’s journey to the south.”
Kenleigh seemed to study him, as if taking his measure afresh, then his gaze shifted once more to Sarah.  This time, his voice was gentle when he spoke.  “Is what this man says true?  Is he your husband?”
“Aye, sir.” A blush crept into Sarah’s cheeks.  “We are… We are newly wed.”
“Felicitations.”  Kenleigh’s gaze shifted back to Connor.  “I’ve given you my name.  ’Tis time I learnt yours.”
Joseph spoke first.  “Joseph Aupauteunk, war chief of the Mahican.”
“I am Connor MacKinnon, and this is my bride, Sarah.”
Kenleigh’s eyebrows rose.  “Connor MacKinnon?  Major Connor MacKinnon of MacKinnon’s Rangers?”
“Aye, the same.” 
“Why didn’t you bloody say so in the first place?  With deserters running rampant through these woods, I saw the woman and feared she was your captive.”
Sarah gaped at him.  “You thought to rescue me?”
Connor gave a snort.  “Is that why you contrived to share your kill wi’ us—so that you could discover the truth about her?”
“Aye.”  Kenleigh grinned, reaching out to cut another slice of meat.  “And I suppose you thought I was a deserter.”
Connor met his gaze.  “Are you?”
“Nay.”  Kenleigh cut off another slice.  “I fought beside Colonel Washington as a volunteer in the Virginia Regiment early in the war until I was taken captive by the Wyandot.”
Connor concealed his surprise.  Few taken by the Wyandot escaped being burnt alive in their fires.  He might have asked Kenleigh how he’d avoided that fate, but the haunted look that came to Kenleigh’s eyes stopped Connor cold.
# # #
Master Kenleigh journeyed with them for the rest of the afternoon.  He insisted Sarah ride while he walked, but Connor would allow this only if he sat upon the horse with her, apparently trusting neither the stallion nor its owner with her safety.  He climbed onto the beast’s back, then drew her into the saddle before him, positioning her so that she sat astride.
But Sarah had never sat a horse in so bold a fashion before.  Heat flooded her cheeks as her already short doeskin skirt was pushed up, leaving her legs exposed from the top of her leggings, which tied off just below her knees, to the middle of her thighs.  “I cannot sit like this.  ’Tis indecent and—”
“Stop thrashin’ about, or you’ll frighten the horse.”  Connor steadied her, taking the reins from Master Kenleigh, who held the bridle, speaking to the stallion in low, reassuring tones. 
Though Sarah couldn’t be certain because of his thick beard, it seemed to her Master Kenleigh was smiling.
Then Connor spoke softly for her ears alone.  “This journey has been hard on you, lass.  Rest while you can.  Besides, ’tis no’ as bad as being bare-breasted, aye?”
And Sarah’s cheeks burned hotter. 
For a time, they moved through the forest without speaking.  Birds filled the forest with song, their staccato chirps and trills a merry chorus.  The sky was still blue, warm sunlight filtering down through budding branches onto a carpet of wet leaves, last summer’s crowning glory now a faded carpet.  A warm breeze blew through the trees, carrying the mingled scents of damp earth, moldering vegetation, and sunshine, mountains and valleys stretching out around them as far as the eye could see.
Oh, how Margaret would have loved to paint this for one of her landscapes!  Yet, even Margaret with her eye and her skill with the brush would have struggled to capture such beauty on canvas.  How could any art depict a wilderness as fierce and vast as this?
Sarah’s gaze dropped to Master Kenleigh, who walked beside them.  What a mystery he was.  In appearance, he seemed every bit the wild man, a trapper of little means, crude and unkempt, a haunted look in his eyes.  Yet his speech was refined, his manners those of a well-bred gentleman.
It touched Sarah that he had thought to rescue her.  A stranger, he’d been willing to risk his life to save hers.  Yet, how fortunate it was for all of them that he’d chosen to seek out the truth of her situation before striking.  Who’s to say who might have emerged the victor had he attacked Connor and Joseph?  Of a similar height to Connor, he clearly knew how to fight and survive. 
She’d often heard her father say that Britain was well rid of the riffraff who emigrated to the Americas—the poor, convicts, traitors, heretics, zealots.  But it seemed to her that the American frontier bred men of uncommon strength and courage, men who were every bit as gallant as they were rough.
And something Joseph had said came back to her.
In this land, nobility comes not from one’s fathers or a title or from the land one owns, but from one’s actions. The MacKinnon brothers are the highest nobility to those who live on the frontier—true warriors, men who know how to fight and survive, men who put the lives of others before their own.
Sarah could see that now.  Though Connor, Joseph and Master Kenleigh would not have been welcome in her father’s halls, they were noble men, possessed of skills and qualities few London gentlemen could match.
It was Master Kenleigh who finally broke the silence, pointing through the trees toward sun-dappled hills beyond.  “When you reach the valley between those two mountains, veer east.  The Delaware are gathering at the northern end of that valley, most of them ready, like the Shawnee, to abandon their peace with Britain.  Unless I am mistaken, MacKinnon, there is still a price on your scalp.”
There was a price on Connor’s scalp?
“Aye, so there is.”
The men began to speak of the land and the surest routes to Fort Edward, their knowledge of this forest beyond her comprehension.  How they could tell one stand of trees, one mountaintop, one valley from the next, she could not say.  And lulled by the motion of the horse and the fresh, warm air, Sarah drifted off to sleep. 
She roused sometime later—how much later she couldn’t say—to find her head resting against Connor’s chest, his arm wrapped gently around her ribcage just beneath her breasts.  She felt safe in his embrace, sheltered, cared for.  Not wanting that feeling to end, she let herself doze, her mind catching snatches of quiet conversation.
“Have you seen the great river?” Connor’s voice rumbled in his chest.
“The river the Ojibwa call Mshi-ziibi?  Aye, I’ve seen.  I’ve crossed it, in fact, and journeyed west beyond it for most of a year.”
“What lies beyond the river?”
“Plains so vast they seem like an ocean of tall grass and beyond that mountains that make these peaks look like mere hills.”
And for a time she dreamt she was floating over waves of grass in the birch bark canoe, her head lying against Connor’s chest as he rowed.
“Your wife is a gentle creature.  Why in God’s name did you bring her out here?  You of all people should know the frontier is no place for a woman.”
“My reasons are my own affair, Kenleigh.”
They were talking about her, she realized.  But then she was drifting again.
“Where are your men?  Why are you out here alone?  You’ve long leagues yet to travel and just the two of you to watch over her.”
“We hadn’t yet mustered for the season.  Most of the Rangers are winterin’ wi’ their families.  I sent for volunteers, but I dinnae think they’ll be able to find us ere we reach Fort Edward.  They’ll track us as far as Mequachake, but whether the village will still be there or they’ll be able to find our tracks leading westward, I dinnae ken.
When next Sarah opened her eyes, she saw Master Kenleigh set his rifle against a tree and draw his buckskin tunic over his head as if he’d grown overly warm from his exertions.  The shirt of white linen he wore beneath it got caught in the supple leather and nearly came off, too, giving her a glimpse of his bare back.
It took a moment for Sarah to understand what she was seeing. 
His body was covered with them.  Cuts.  Pinched flesh.  Burn marks.  It looked as if someone had tried to cut him to bits or burn him alive.  Or both.
She sat upright and might have gasped had Connor not covered her mouth, his lips pressed against her ear as he whispered an almost inaudible, “Shhh.”
And Sarah’s heart filled with pity for Master Kenleigh.  Someone had hurt him horribly, and his flesh bore the marks of that cruelty.  Now he lived alone on the frontier with no home, no family, no one to call his friend.  How lonely he must be!  And yet, even in the midst of his loneliness he had turned aside from his own path for her sake.
But who had hurt him and why?
# # #
Joseph, who had been scouting ahead, was waiting for them as planned at the top of the next ridge.  He acknowledged Connor with an almost imperceptible nod.
“It’s here we part ways, Major.”  Kenleigh took the stallion’s bridle.  “A good day’s journey east of here, you’ll find an old farmstead where your wife can take shelter.”
“Are you certain you willna travel wi’ us?”  Connor dismounted, then reached up for Sarah, setting her on her feet beside him, strangely pleased by this fiction of his being her husband.  “You can trade at Fort Edward, build up your stores.  There’s always room in the Rangers for a man wi’ your skills and knowledge.”
Kenleigh took the reins and rubbed the horse’s muzzle, answering without meeting Connor’s gaze.  “You honor me, Major, but I have seen enough war.”
’Twas as final an answer as a man could give, and having seen the scars on Kenleigh’s body, Connor did not begrudge him.
“Should you ever be in need, seek me out.”  Connor adjusted his tumpline pack, then reached for the rifle he’d tucked behind Kenleigh’s saddle.  “Thank you for sharin’ the venison—and your horse.  I hope we didna take you too far out of your way.”
“I have no destination, so you needn’t fear on that account.”  Then Kenleigh faced Connor, holding out his hand.  “’Tis not every day a man meets a living legend.”
Connor shook Kenleigh’s hand, feeling vaguely discomfited by the praise.  ’Twas Iain and Morgan who were legends, not Connor.  “I bid you farewell and a safe journey.”
Kenleigh’s gaze came to rest on Sarah, and he bowed his head.  “Ma’am.”
He turned away and began to mount his horse.
“Wait!”  She hurried over to him.  “You would have risked your life for mine, and for that, I am most grateful.  I’ll not forget your courage.  May God bless and keep you and guide you on your journey, wherever it may lead.  I shall keep you in my prayers.”
Then she stood on tiptoe and pressed a kiss to the man’s cheek, much to Connor’s astonishment.  Kenleigh’s gaze dropped once more to Sarah’s face, but it wasn’t lust Connor saw in his eyes.  It was soul-deep longing, loneliness, regret.
When Connor glanced over his shoulder a few minutes later, Kenleigh still stood there atop the ridge, watching them as they made their way down the mountainside.
~ ~ ~
Speaking of Defiant, I got the fantastic news that it won Best Historical Romance (not set in the UK) in All About Romance’s 17th Annual Readers’ Poll. That was a huge thrill! I’m sure Connor would be gratified — and suitably smug — if he knew. Thank you do all of you who voted for it. There was a time when I thought the MacKinnon’s Rangers series was dead. You helped ensure that it lives on. 

Thank you!

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"I am an artist. I am here to live out loud."
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"I am tomorrow, or some future day, what I establish today. I am today what I established yesterday or some previous day."
—James Joyce

"Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery."
—Jane Austen

"Writers are those for whom writing is more difficult that it is for others."
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"When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth."
—Kurt Vonnegut

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—Toni Morrison

"No tears in the author, no tears in the reader."
—Robert Frost.

"I'm a writer. I give the truth scope."
—the character of Chaucer in
A Knight's Tale