Friday, September 30, 2016

In Safe Hands Spotlight Tour + Giveaway

He was her hero,
But one wrong move ended their future before it could begin.
Now he'll do whatever it takes to keep her safe,
Even if that means turning against one of his own.

As a member of the Field County Sheriff's Department, Chris Jennings is used to having it rough. The Colorado Rockies aren't for the weak-of-spirit, but he's devoted his life to upholding the law—and to protecting the one woman he knows he can never have. He'll do whatever it takes to keep her safe.

Daisy Little has lived in agoraphobic terror for over eight years. Trapped within a prison of her own making, she watches time pass through her bedroom window. Daisy knows she'll never be a part of the world...until the day she becomes the sole witness of a terrible crime that may finally tear the Search & Rescue brotherhood apart for good.

When she’s not writing, KATIE RUGGLE rides horses, shoots guns, and travels to warm places where she can SCUBA dive. Graduating from the Police Academy, Katie received her ice-rescue certification and can attest that the reservoirs in the Colorado Mountains really are that cold. While she still misses her off-the-grid, solar- and wind-powered house in the Rocky Mountains, she now lives in Rochester, Minnesota near her family.

She couldn’t take her eyes off the gun. Even when she heard the sheriff’s deputy yelling at him to drop his weapon, and she knew that help had arrived, her gaze remained fixed on the matte black surface of the pistol. She saw his finger, curled around the trigger, pull tighter and tighter until—
Something woke her abruptly. Sitting up quickly before she was fully awake, she swayed a little as she listened for whatever noise had disturbed her sleep. All was quiet, though, and she eventually relaxed.
The clock on her nightstand glowed, showing that it was close to ten p.m. With a yawn, she relaxed back against the pillows, but the spurt of adrenaline that had shot through her veins when she startled awake kept her heart beating quickly and her eyelids open. With a sigh, she resigned herself to being awake for at least a few hours.
Kicking off the covers, she slid out of bed. If she wasn’t going to sleep, there was no sense in wasting time lying there and staring at the dark ceiling. She might as well be productive.
Daisy cleaned the training room first, snickering to herself at the sight of Max’s now-covered lower half. As promised, Callum had brought a pair of sweatpants and had even dressed the dummy himself. While she stood on a bench so she could wipe down the pull-up bar, the memory of the guys having their impromptu competition made her smile again.
It had been a fun day. Before the group training session, Daisy had been worried that she’d accidentally do something or say something that would drive them away, never to return again. As much as she loved her books and computer time, it would’ve been hard to go back to seeing only Chris and her father occasionally. Now, she had Monday night’s get-together to look forward to, plus they’d been talking about making the training sessions a regular, couple-times-a-week thing.
As she moved the mats so she could vacuum, she did a mental inventory of the pantry and freezer. The Monday evening meeting would be held too late for a big meal, but she had the ingredients to make teriyaki meatballs and crab wontons. She wished she had eggs, so she could make some brownies, too.
“What do you think, Max?” she asked over the whine of the vacuum. “Would it be crossing a line to ask Chris to pick up a few things at the store?”
The dummy dangled silently on his hook, his new sweatpants hanging low on his hips.
“I know he brought groceries today without me asking, but it’s different when I request it. It changes it from a favor between friends to, I don’t know, a duty for the poor housebound girl, I guess. I don’t want him to see me as helpless and needy.”
Max’s silence felt slightly judgmental.
“I know, I know. I am needy and kind of helpless. It’s stupid, but I want Chris to look at me and see a whole person, not just this living ghost haunting my house.”
Turning off the vacuum, she gave Max an accusatory glare.
“It’s a good thing you’re useful in other ways, Sir Maximillian, because as a therapist? You kind of suck.”
By the time she finished with the training room, Daisy was in full-on cleaning mode, so she decided to tackle the rest of the house. Her dad’s room had a slightly stale smell from disuse, and she left the door open to let it air. It was close to one in the morning by the time the house was done.
Feeling grubby, Daisy took a shower and crawled back into bed. She knew she wasn’t tired enough to sleep, so she grabbed a book off her nightstand. It was by one of her favorite urban fantasy authors, and it was a sign of how crazy her life had gotten over the past few days that she hadn’t finished it yet. It had been a long time since her real life was as interesting as what happened in her books.
After rereading the same page over and over for a half-hour, she gave up on the book. Her brain was spinning with so many things—the training session, Chris’s recent weirdness contrasted with his consideration, the renewed possibility that Deputy Macavoy might actually have been hauling a dead body around at three thirty in the morning, the Gray case and the fact that the other women were interested in getting her, Crazy Daisy’s, opinion about it, and even the pros and cons to making brownies for Monday night, if her dad returned in time to make an egg run. How could a book, even a good one, compete with all that?
Daisy sighed. Since she wasn’t going to be able to sleep or read with all the thoughts crowding into her brain, she didn’t want to stay in bed. She turned off the bedside lamp and moved to the window seat, once again feeling that twinge of guilt. It wasn’t a strong enough pang to keep her from opening and raising the blinds, however.
As usual, Ian and Rory’s house was shuttered, with no hint of light showing. Daisy waved at the dark building, feeling a glow of pleasure that she’d actually met them, worked out with them, laughed at their jokes. The Storvicks’ place was dark as well, but Daisy had no urge to meet any of those family members.
As if magnetized, her gaze moved to the white house with the for-sale sign in the yard. She wished it would sell, so she’d have a new family to watch, rather than scouring the darkness for the possibility of a second body removal. Shaking her head, Daisy reminded herself that there was a very, very slim chance that Macavoy’s burden had been a person.
Leaning against the window, Daisy shivered at the touch of the cold glass. She debated whether to take the ten steps it would require to fetch a blanket, but pulled her knees to her chest instead. It was a poor substitute, but she was feeling lazy.
The clouds were moving quickly, and Daisy watched, mesmerized, as they scurried through the night sky. She quit trying to control her thoughts and just let them run through her brain. Chris popped up more than she’d hoped, but, for once, she didn’t fight it. Ever since she’d stopped leaving the house when she was sixteen, he’d been a regular visitor. He’d always acted like an older brother, teasing and overprotective, but she’d never felt like his sister.
Thinking about the early days of their friendship made her mind drift toward thoughts of her mom. She slammed a mental door, blocking any memories of that day. Shifting on the window seat, she hugged her legs harder and replayed the training session in her head again instead.
A shadow shifted, moving from the trees to the far side of the empty house. Daisy straightened so quickly, she knocked her head against the wall. Absently rubbing the back of her skull, she peered into the blackness.

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We are so excited to bring you the release of THE PANTHER MOON, the third installment of The Secret Warrior Series by Beth Trissel. The Panther Moon continues on the story of our endearing heroine Morgan Daniel as she embarks on another adventure in this thrilling and action-packed novel guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seats.
The Panther Moon is available now at:
Amazon (Kindle) | Barnes & Noble (Nook).
Note: For a better and more enjoyable reading experience, it is highly recommended to read the first two books of The Secret Warrior Series first. Details below.
The Panther Moon Cover

About The Panther Moon

Series: The Secret Warrior, Book 3
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy Romance, Paranormal/Urban Fantasy
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Being the seventh Morcant has its perks: Morgan is learning to fly and wield magical blue fire.
But the coyote shifters are growing bolder. Mateo and his panthers seem impossible to defeat. And vampires aren't real – are they?
When the elusive and enigmatic Chief Okema disappears and the wards protecting the Wapicoli territory falter, Morgan and Jackson are forced into the role of leaders. Badly outnumbered and outgunned, do they have time to search for the secret of the Divining Tree, and will it help them in the final battle?
For a better and more enjoyable reading experience, it is highly recommended to first read The Hunter's Moon and Curse of the Moon, books one and two of the Secret Warrior Series respectively.
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The Panther Moon is now on sale! Available at:
Amazon (Kindle) | Barnes & Noble (Nook)


Join The Panther Moon giveaway contest from Sep 30 - Oct 2, 2016!
Get a chance to win
all three books of The Secret Warrior's Series
plus a $10 Amazon Gift Card!
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Other Books in The Secret Warrior Series

Don't miss the first two books of The Secret Warrior Series by Beth Trissel! Available now.
Note: For a better and more enjoyable reading experience, it is highly recommended to read books one and two of the Secret Warrior Series first.
The Hunter\'s Moon Cover
The Hunter's Moon
The Secret Warrior Series, Book 1
Seventeen-year-old Morgan Daniel has been in the witness protection program most of her life. But The Panteras have caught up with her and her younger brother. Her car is totaled, she's hurt, and the street gang is closing in when wolves with glowing eyes appear out of nowhere and chase away the killers.
Curse of the Moon Cover
Curse of the Moon
The Secret Warrior Series, Book 2
The bad news? Morgan Daniel’s wolf is out of control. The good news? There’s a treatment. She just has to get a potion from a lizard shifter witch—without looking into the witch’s eyes. Easy, right?

About Beth Trissel

Married to my high school sweetheart, I live on a farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia with my human family and furbabies. An avid gardener, my love of herbs and heirloom plants figures into my work. The rich history of Virginia, the Native Americans, and the people who journeyed here from far beyond her borders are at the heart of my inspiration. I'm especially drawn to colonial America and the drama of the American Revolution. In addition to historical romance, I also write time travel, paranormal, YA/NA fantasy romance, and non-fiction.
Visit the Official Beth Trissel Blog:
Connect with Beth Trissel on Social Media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram
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Book Unleashed

Scapegoat Blog Tour

 We're happy to be hosting Emilio Corsetti III's SCAPEGOAT Virtual Book Tour!  Leave a comment to let him know you stopped by!

About the Book:

Title: Scapegoat: A Flight Crew’s Journey from Heroes to Villians to Redemption
Author: Emilio Corsetti
Publisher: Odyssey Publishing, LLC
Pages: 472
Genre: Nonfiction Narrative

"This is the kind of case the Board has never had to deal with-a head-on collision between the credibility of a flight crew versus the airworthiness of the aircraft." NTSB Investigator-in-Charge Leslie Dean Kampschror

On April 4, 1979, a Boeing 727 with 82 passengers and a crew of 7 rolled over and plummeted from an altitude of 39,000 feet to within seconds of crashing were it not for the crew's actions to save the plane. The cause of the unexplained dive was the subject of one of the longest NTSB investigations at that time.

While the crew's efforts to save TWA 841 were initially hailed as heroic, that all changed when safety inspectors found twenty-one minutes of the thirty-minute cockpit voice recorder tape blank. The captain of the flight, Harvey "Hoot" Gibson, subsequently came under suspicion for deliberately erasing the tape in an effort to hide incriminating evidence. The voice recorder was never evaluated for any deficiencies.

From that moment on, the investigation was focused on the crew to the exclusion of all other evidence. It was an investigation based on rumors, innuendos, and speculation. Eventually the NTSB, despite sworn testimony to the contrary, blamed the crew for the incident by having improperly manipulated the controls, leading to the dive.

This is the story of an NTSB investigation gone awry and one pilot's decades-long battle to clear his name.

Scapegoat: A Flight Crew’s Journey from Heroes to Villains to Redemption is available at Amazon and B&N.

Book Excerpt:
When TWA 841 departed JFK on April 4, 1979, no one onboard had any idea of the drama that would soon unfold. One passenger, traveling with her husband, wrote in a journal about the smooth takeoff. She had been keeping a personal journal of her travels to share with her children on her return. She documented everything down to the most inconsequential detail such as her ears popping as the aircraft climbed. Days, weeks, and years later, after TWA 841 had become the subject of one of the longest NTSB investigations in the agency’s history, investigators would scrutinize every minute of the flight in a similarly detailed manner. Much like a criminal investigation, the movements, actions, and whereabouts of each crew member were documented. Routine tasks such as when and where the meal trays were exchanged between the cockpit and cabin crew would take on added significance. Unraveling the mystery of TWA 841 was a monumental puzzle that needed to be solved. But unlike any accident investigation before or since, the same evidence investigators would use against the crew would be used by others to challenge the theories put forth by Boeing and the NTSB. Readers can draw their own conclusions as to which version is correct.

Watch the Trailer!

About the Author

Emilio Corsetti III is a professional pilot and author. Emilio has written for both regional and national publications including the Chicago Tribune, Multimedia Producer, and Professional Pilot magazine. Emilio is the author of the book 35 Miles From Shore: The Ditching and Rescue of ALM Flight 980. The upcoming book Scapegoat: A Flight Crew's Journey from Heroes to Villains to Redemption tells the true story of an airline crew wrongly blamed for causing a near-fatal accident and the captain's decades-long battle to clear his name. Emilio is a graduate of St. Louis University. He and his wife Lynn reside in Dallas, TX.
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Steamy Romance
Date Published: May 2015

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When Army Helicopter pilot Aurelius Moore's eyes fell on isolated Vegas celebrity, Siri Wright, he was stunned by her beauty and her dance. Filled with an undeniable passion for her that he thought he was incapable of, he is devastated when she vanishes before he can consummate the deal he has made. When he sees her again in his hometown in Alabama, he realizes the extraordinary opportunity that has fallen in his lap. She is on his turf. No rules. No security protecting her. He will have her on his terms. He hunts his prey and controls the game, knowing the game has changed. He wants all of her!

When Siri encounters a military man called Moore, she is caught off guard by her body's immediate chemical response to this enigmatic and reserved young officer, who is gorgeous beyond what even she is accustomed to. Not being able to restrain her flirtatious side, the confident diva, oozing sex appeal, teases the handsome hunk, unwittingly putting her Rule #1: No Touching in serious danger.

Add in the danger she encounters when she is hoodwinked by TD, aka Touch Down, to attend a cocktail party with him, which turns out to be a cock and tail sex party of swingers, and her Rule #1: No Touching is entirely in jeopardy. She must use ALL her Vegas secrets to escape.

Can she remain UNTOUCHABLE? Will she want to?

Other Books in the Siri's Saga, Sexy Romance Series:


For years, enigmatic and reserved military officer Aurelius Moore has managed to successfully hide who he is from everyone in his life, especially from his military family. They have no idea his Italian family is wealthy. Leading a dual lifestyle has been difficult, but he has managed to keep it a secret by imposing strict behavioral rules upon himself. Being a player, yet never playing, has earned him the nickname, Hard Core, which is a label that is truer than anyone knows. Controlling exactly who knows what about him, he protects his privacy, ensuring that a secret he considers too dark to share with anyone remains that way.

At the request from a Venture Capital partner, he makes a business trip to Vegas to check out a stripper known as Seary. When he sees her dance, lightning strikes his hard core heart, igniting in him a level of lust that is UNDENIABLE and something he thought himself incapable of feeling.

She shatters the rules he has placed upon himself. Risking everything he has so carefully protected, he is determined to make her his. Being a man who knows how to play the game, he sets his sights not only to have her, but to possess and own her.

But she has her own set of rules, her own secrets, and a team in place determined to enforce them, protecting her from men just like him. Will she be the one, the only one, he cannot have?

When Vegas Diva Siri Wright fell for Aurelius Moore, a flame of and wild desire burst within her and his commanding and demanding nature made her, his Wild Thang, his Every Thang.

Now, Siri and Aurei are free to explore all the possibilities that a real relationship offers. But a death threat is made, and Aurei whisks her off to Rome where he is in complete control. As he shares his secrets with her, revealing his Italian heritage and the Liotine Dynasty, the two lovers realize the enormity of blending their very different, very complicated lives. But they are determined to make their 'Us' work, and their undeniable love begins to be a beautiful thang.

Just when it seems they will have it all, Aurei reveals his darkest secret, and a devastated Siri questions whether or not she can accept what he has done.

Will Siri reject Aurelius, or will their love become UNSTOPPABLE?

When Vegas Diva Siri Wright fell for Aurelius Moore, a flame of wild desire burst within her and his commanding and demanding nature made her, his Wild Thang, his Every Thang and undeniable love has burned itself forever into their hearts. They are no longer untouchable, they are unstoppable.

The two lovers appear to have it all - explosive passion, honesty and intimacy with a world of possibilities before them. Then Siri’s picture is blasted all over the Italian news, and Aurei, fearing for her again, takes her to his family villa, The Compound. She should be excited to meet his family, but her gut tells her she is a lamb being led to the slaughter.

Bringing a professional woman like Siri, who is always stereotyped and labeled, into his family fold, forces Aurei to wrestle with the dynamics of family politics and they must fight for their 'Us'. Amidst all the turmoil, Aurei continues to reveal even more dark and dangerous, but delicious secrets than even Siri, whose life has been built upon secrets could have guessed and they appear to be truly unstoppable. Just when it seems they are finding acceptance, Mia rears and threatens to make everything come UNDONE, forcing Siri to choose. Stay and destroy Aurei’s reputation and shame the Liotine Dynasty, or love Aurei enough to leave him behind?

Courageous is the keyword in this fourth book in Siri’s Saga. Will their bond survive the ultimate test of family and find acceptance, or will their love come UNDONE?

About the Author

Jessika Klide burst onto the romance scene in 2014 with her bestselling series, Siri's Saga. It has steadily risen to the top of Amazon's erotic romance list and has made her a favorite among fans who enjoy full length novels in a genre typically ridden with short one-handed reads. Her plots and characters are fully developed and deliciously dangerous.

Whether it's Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines, military men make her swoon. Her alpha male hunks are heroes and they fall for her confident, smart, and oh, so sexy heroines. She believes in modern day fairy tales complete with virgins and soulmates. Where love and lust form perfect unions and the stars do align for true love. She also guarantees more than one happy ending.

She is fun and flirty like the heroines she writes.

"Jessika Klide is my pen name. I'm from LA ... Lower Alabama. The Deep South. Since my mind is super slutty, it's just better to use a pen name. Trust me on this! ;)"

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Dark Abigail Blitz

Dark Abigail
Tish Thawer
(The Women of Purgatory #2)
Publication date: September 27th 2016
Genres: New Adult, Paranormal, Romance
Will she remain the dark assassin, or fight the evil growing within?
There’s a new player in Hell who’s plunged Purgatory straight into chaos.
Dark Abigail strikes terror in all whom she targets, but when Raven and Holli discover who’s really pulling her strings, Abigail learns that being good at her job isn’t something to be proud of, but instead, something to fear.
Raven’s Breath – book 1 – is FREE when you subscribe to Tish’s newsletter!
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Author Bio:
Award Winning Author, Tish Thawer, writes paranormal romances for all ages. From her first paranormal cartoon, Isis, to the Twilight phenomenon, myth, magic, and superpowers have always held a special place in her heart.
Tish is known for her detailed world-building and magic-laced stories. Her work has been compared to Nora Roberts, Sam Cheever, and Charlaine Harris. She has received a RONE Award nomination (Reward of Novel Excellence), as well as nominations for Best Cover, Reader’s Choice, and Author of the Year (Fantasy, Dystopian, Mystery).
Tish has worked as a computer consultant, photographer, and graphic designer, and is a columnist for Gliterary Girl media and has bylines in RT Magazine and Literary Lunes Magazine. She resides in Arizona with her husband and three wonderful children and is represented by Gandolfo, Helin, and Fountain Literary Management.
You can find Tish on Facebook at
A common FAQ: "How do you pronounce her last name?"
Answer: Think "Bower" or "Thow-er". It's Persian!


Thursday, September 29, 2016

Race the Darkness (Fatal Dreams #1) by Abbie Roads

Cursed with a terrible gift...

Criminal investigator Xander Stone doesn’t have to question you—he can hear your thoughts. Scarred by lightning, burdened with a power that gives him no peace, Xander struggles to maintain his sanity against the voice that haunts him day and night—the voice of a woman begging him to save her.

A gift that threatens to engulf them

Isleen Walker has long since given up hope of escape from the nightmare of captivity and torture that is draining her life, her mind, and her soul. Except…there is the man in her feverish dreams, the strangely beautiful man who beckons her to freedom and wholeness. And when he comes, if he comes, it will take all their combined fury and faith to overcome a madman bent on fulfilling a deadly prophecy.

By day, ABBIE ROADS is a mental health professional known for her blunt, honest style of therapy. By night she writes dark emotional novels, always giving her characters the happy ending she wishes for all her clients. Her novels have been finalists in RWA contests, including the Golden Heart. She lives with her family in Marion, OH.


Chapter 1
Xander Stone stopped outside Interrogation Room B, shoved his ear up to the seam of the closed soundproof door, and listened. Supercharged hearing had only one benefit, and this was it. From inside the other room, he heard the slow, easy breathing of someone who thought he’d never be caught or prosecuted or imprisoned. Xander’s favorite kind of criminal.
He pushed open the door and made sure to display his scars to the suspect. The disfigurement was a neon sign on a starless and moonless night, pointing and flashing freak, freak, freak. A caution to all who dared speak to him. Wasn’t his fault if no one listened to the warning.
Yeah, life was a saggy-assed, fun bag of laughs since he’d been zapped with more than 50,000 volts of lightning. But the forehead-to-calf scarring didn’t even rank on the Richter scale of shit when compared to the bizarre sensation of no longer being alone inside his head. And then there was the issue of his amplified hearing. He couldn’t ignore the way his brain now tuned in to the frequency of thoughts.
The familiar pounding—like a basketball upside the head—slammed into Xander’s right temple. He winced. Always did with the first thump, no matter how hard he tried not to react. Tuning in to the frequency of people’s thoughts fucking hurt. He washed his features of expression.
Holy shit. What happened to the dude’s face? Xander heard the words even though they hadn’t been spoken aloud. The suspect—a kid, really—snickered, his gaze riveted to the puckered striation and the network of branch-like scars that stretched up Xander’s neck, spread over his cheek, and finally ceased on his forehead.
“Good Cop–Bad Cop didn’t work, so now they’re sending in Ugly Cop?” The kid slouched back in his chair as if he were in his dorm watching the latest episode of some show glamorizing stupid people, instead of in an interrogation room at a Bureau of Criminal Investigation field office. He looked like every other cocky college kid—hair too long, clothes too preppy, ego too large. He didn’t look like the leader of a sex gang.
“Ugly Cop? The last guy said the same thing. The asshole before him too, and the one before him. See how boring that gets? If you really want to insult someone, you’ve got to get creative. Try again. Lay a real good one on me. One I’ve never heard before.” Xander couldn’t remember the kid’s name—wasn’t important anyway. He took a seat at the table and settled his notepad squarely in front of him with his pen diagonal across the clean sheets of paper.
Scar face. Fugly motherfucker.
The kid opened his mouth, but Xander cut him off. “‘Scar face’ and ‘fugly motherfucker.’ Seriously? That’s the best you got?” Most suspects expected him to be offended or outraged. They didn’t expect his total acceptance.
The kid tilted his head like a dog trying to understand a new command. That’s weird.
Yeah, it was weird. “My name is Xander Stone, and just so you know for your insult planning, I’m not a cop. Never been a cop. Never wanted to be a cop. Don’t even like cops. They’re all pricks. And these guys”—Xander jabbed his thumb over his shoulder at the mirrored glass of the interrogation room—“are some of the biggest pricks of all.”
No one could accuse him of lying. It was no secret he didn’t do well with authority. The only reason the BCI put up with him was because they needed him and his unique style of interrogation.
A smile padded with self-satisfied smugness hitched up the kid’s mouth. We’re back to Good Cop.
“What is he doing in there?” The superintendent’s words came to Xander from beyond the mirrored glass. With his supercharged hearing, the soundproofing separating the rooms was little more than a cotton swab on a spurting artery.
He turned in his seat to face the mirror. Everyone knew about his rule of absolute quiet if they were going to observe. “Silence. I need complete silence. Or I’m out of here and you can let the kid walk.” He glared at the mirror, daring someone to speak.
This dude is certifiable cray-cray.
Xander faced the kid. “I think you might be on to something with that cray-cray bit.”
The kid jerked upright like someone had goosed his gonads. How’d he know what I was thinking? His attention bull’s-eyed on Xander. The kid was just starting to realize Xander had changed the game from checkers to chess.
“I know what you’re thinking because I’m the guy the BCI calls in when they’ve got a difficult case.” Referring to gang rape as merely a difficult case was like painting a pile of shit just to make it look better. It was still shit. It still stank.
The kid laughed a blatantly fake laugh, the kind that was code for “fuck you.” He’s trying to mess with me. Ain’t gonna work.
“I’m not trying to mess with you.” Well, maybe just a little. Disbelief in his ability was a universal rule. Hell, he barely believed in it himself. “I just want to get this done so I can get out of here. Like I said, I hate cops. And I’ve got a headache.” The vision in his right eye pulsed with each thump inside his brain. He wanted to press his palm against the pounding, but didn’t. Show no pain. Show no weakness. Show no emotion.
No more dicking around with the kid. Xander needed to get answers to the questions he’d been sent to ask and then get the fuck out of here. Funny how he could remember the questions, but not the kid’s name. “How many guys are in the Bangers Club?”
Six plus nine. Sixty-nine. Six plus nine. Sixty-nine. The kid’s thoughts were a perverted chant. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Xander picked up his notepad, tilted it so the kid couldn’t see, and scribbled 6 + 9 = 15 onto the paper. “I need the names of all fifteen members.”
Fifteen? How’d he come up with that number? He’s guessing. “I’ll tell you the same thing I told Good Cop and Bad Cop. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“The names of all fifteen members.”
Michael Blevins. Blake Johnson…
Xander listed the names until he lost the frequency. Five to ten seconds of silence in the conversation, and the connection severed. He stared down at the paper and cherished the absence of pain, then sucked in a few deep breaths, pumping himself up to reestablish the connection and restore the basketball thumping inside his head. “I need the rest of the names.”
Bang! He jerked from the force of the blow inside his brain. God, that first hit—
Aiden Stacey. Trey Mitchell…
Xander listed all the names.
“What are you writing?” The kid half stood, trying to see across the table to Xander’s notes.
“Names.” Xander angled the notepad so the kid couldn’t see his writing.
“I didn’t say anything.”
“Yeah, you did. Just not out loud.”
What is he talking about? They sent in some mind-game expert? This shit isn’t going to work on me. Just keep quiet and don’t react.
“You’re already reacting. I can hear it. You’re breathing faster, shallower. Your pulse has picked up. You’re not quite panicking yet, but eventually you’re going to.”
What the hell? What the hell? What. The. Hell. The kid did a stellar job of retaining his outward expression of entitlement. No one would ever guess he was on the cusp of an implosion.
“Between the fifteen of you, how many girls have you banged?” The word—the Bangers Club’s word—tasted insectile on Xander’s tongue, like if he didn’t spit it out, it would burrow a hole through the roof of his mouth and have babies in his brain.
Fifty-seven. Twelve away from our goal—sixty-nine.
Jesus. The kid needed to be neutered.
There was no reason to ask for the girls’ names. From what he’d been told, the Bangers Club didn’t bother learning the names of their victims. “You ever been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder?”
No. The kid’s brows rose and his head swiveled on his neck in a good imitation of a white-trash ho about to show her sass.
“Just asking because you seem awfully obsessed with the number sixty-nine.”
The kid’s jaw unhinged and nearly clattered onto the table. Not possible. He can’t really read my mind. He’s guessing somehow. Or…did someone talk? No one would dare—
“You’re right. I’m not reading your mind. I’m listening to the things you aren’t saying.” As if the kid would believe that. Only one more question and Xander could walk out of the room, out the building, and be alone.
The last question was the most critical. From the dumbed-down version Xander understood, the kid had created a nearly impenetrable computer system that streamed all the Bangers Club bangs—for a monthly fee. The only way to shut it down was to access the original computer and enter the password—no mistakes, no guessing—or the entire system would go viral and start broadcasting live on all the local channels, even the small-town church TV station. Kids today were dangerously clever. “What’s the password?”
6*2H95—London Bridge is falling down…
Xander wrote the numbers and letters on his paper. The kid was starting to catch on. Not that it would matter.
“Stop writing shit down. You’re making things up.” The kid’s voice rode the ridge of hysteria.
“6*2H95. I need the rest of the password.” Xander loved the way other people’s brains just couldn’t resist thinking.
O#ZR591H. No. No. No. London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down—
“6*2H95O#ZR591H. Keep going.”
It took three more tries before the kid eventually spit out the entire password.
“The tech department wasn’t kidding. This password is a monster.”
No. This isn’t happening. “Who talked? Someone is setting me up.”
“You talked.”
“I didn’t say anything!” the kid yelled.
Xander felt the smile split open his face, felt the skin on his right cheek stretch in a way that wasn’t familiar. Life didn’t hold much amusement for him, but he always savored the moment when some asshole finally realized he’d been bested and was going to be sent on an extended vacation to criminal central.
Pushing back from the table, Xander got up and headed for the door. He stopped, hand on the handle, and turned back to the kid. “You come up with a creative insult yet?”
The kid leaned forward and banged his forehead against the table. No. No. No.
“Guess not.”
As Xander opened the door, a million sounds rushed his ears at once. A toilet flushing, typing, the hum and bump of the air conditioner, conversations—too many conversations. Sensory overload was imminent. The only question was how long before his brain shorted out, unleashing the Bastard in His Brain—that thing he always felt lurking in the darkest depths of his mind. When the Bastard took the wheel, there was no such thing as a happy ending.
He needed to leave. Now.
But Kent and Thomas, who’d been watching the interview, waited in the hallway.
He passed the notepad to Thomas, who sprinted down the corridor to get the names and password to the cyber division.
“Why the fuck was there talking during my interrogation?”
Kent gave him the same disapproving, annoyed, disgusted look he’d been giving him since Xander bloodied the guy’s nose in the first grade.
Bam. Pain bounced inside his skull. Xander flinched. Goddamned tuning in. “Quit with the look.” They’d never been friends. Still weren’t.
You’re such an asshole. Acting like you’re the only one working here. “Do you always have to be such a dick about us? The superintendent was watching.” Kent headed in the same direction as Xander—toward the exit. You need to make a decision about Camille.
“The superintendent was the one talking. You pushed me to work here. You pushed them to hire me. You got a fat-assed bonus out of it. So if you, or the superintendent, don’t like what I do, stop calling me. And what I do with Camille is none of your business.”
“Keep your freak self outta my head.”
“Only way to make it stop is by not talking to me.” Outside of work, Xander mastered in social isolation and conversation avoidance.
“Come on, man. She’s my sister. We may not be real close, but I care about her. I’m not letting this go.” You’re using her.
Xander’s neck got hot. He didn’t argue with Kent’s thoughts. He couldn’t. The man was right. Camille never rejected him, never made demands on him, but she wanted commitment. He got that from tuning in to her thoughts. All he wanted was acceptance and uncomplicated sex.
The conversation lagged, and the pain vanished.
Xander exited the building. Low on the horizon, all that remained of the day was a single tiger stripe of orange. Already the June night was in full chorus. The whistle screech of a bat using its sonar-like system, the flutter of its wings overhead. The buzz of a trillion mosquitoes. The bass of a bullfrog two blocks away at the Sundew Park pond. Life pulsed all around him.
When he couldn’t sleep, he’d lie in bed with the window open—listening, just listening. Not letting himself think, just focusing on the rhythm of the world. The sounds of nature were the only form of music he could tolerate.
He fished his truck keys from his pocket and pressed the unlock button.
“The superintendent is probably going to need you again tomorrow,” Kent called from the doorway.
“Tell him to call me.” Xander tossed the words over his shoulder.
“You going to answer the phone?” Bet you don’t.
“Bet you’re right.”
Death twined around Isleen Walker’s body, whispering over her naked flesh, coiling around her heart and lungs, hugging the last sparks of life from her. Twenty-five years of being alive distilled down to a wish. A wish that death would hurry up and grant her its promised relief.
“I’m dying.” She tried to warn Gran, but the words came out quieter than a breath. Her gaze roamed the room—their prison for the past eight years. It was just big enough to contain her and Gran and an overflowing waste bucket, but now it felt too small, too fragile to contain Isleen. Soon she would transcend this space, and no matter what Queen did, she wouldn’t be able to tether Isleen here.
Gran slept, face tucked into the corner. Safety was an illusion—beating after beating had proven that fact—but still, they always gravitated to the corners. Gran’s once-supple flesh sagged from her bones. Her spine protruded sharply in a pathetic row of spikes.
“…tobesaved. Not die.…protectordiedtoo?” Gran spoke in a smear of barely distinguishable words. She’d been a sleep-talker for as long as Isleen could remember—even before they’d been abducted.
She used to wake Gran from her dreams, but had long since decided it was a mercy to let her stay inside them for as long as they hosted her. Maybe in her dreams, Gran still possessed her wits and all her faculties, and lived somewhere beautiful where nothing bad ever happened.
Footsteps pounded down the hall and stopped outside the door. The sound of the key in the lock scraped across Isleen’s heart. Was today going to be a feeding day, a beating day, or a bleeding day? It didn’t really matter. It was too late for food; a beating would finish her off; and she had no more blood to give. But there was Gran—
The door rasped open. Queen. Always Queen and only Queen ever entered their prison. If ever a name didn’t fit a person, it was hers. Nothing about her was royal or regal. She was no whimsical fairy-tale ruler; she was a twenty-first-century reality. A simple-minded, delusional woman who took pleasure in domination and torture. Under a different set of circumstances, Queen would have been passing her days in a psychiatric hospital, medicated to the point of drooling.
Without even looking, Isleen could smell Queen’s stench. Cigarette smoke so stale and foul and thick that Isleen could taste the bite of it in her mouth, feel the burn of it in her eyes. The pungency of flesh that hadn’t been washed in years snuffed out the oxygen in the air.
Queen kicked her in the thigh. “The Dragon has not yet died.”
A small gasp, not of pain, but of being startled escaped Isleen’s throat. For as long as they’d been held captive, Queen had referred to her as the Dragon.
Queen cleared her throat. Mucus snapped and rattled. She hawked up a wad of nasty and spit it on the floor. “King decreed that if the Dragon shall linger—”
“You will suffer for everything you’ve done.” Gran crawled out of the corner on all fours. “Her protector is on his way.”
Queen’s hunched shoulders straightened. “I am your Queen. Bow before me.” It was all a part of Queen’s delusional mind—she was a queen and they were her subjects and the objects of her torture. Especially Isleen.
Gran didn’t bow, didn’t move, didn’t understand.
“You will be punished.” Queen opened and closed a giant pair of scissors. Shkk. Shkk. Shkk.
Dread burned a hole through Isleen’s shrunken stomach. “It’s not her fault. She doesn’t understand.” She tried to move, but her body was too weak, her limbs too emaciated.
“Your Majesty, I am sorry. I have committed the gravest of errors.” Gran executed a bow of supplication, arms spread out, forehead to the floor. “Please accept my humble apology and know that I will never again speak in such a manner to one as powerful as you.” Before Gran had lost her mind, she’d been fluent in kiss-up-to-the-fake-queen language.
Gran must be having a rare moment of clarity.
“Very well. I grant you a pardon. Know this—though I am a merciful queen, I will not tolerate such treasonous behavior again.” She pointed a fat, stubby finger at Gran. “You have been warned.”
Gran kept her pose. Good decision.
Queen turned her grotesque gaze to Isleen. She went through the same disgusting process of clearing her throat and then spoke as if she were making a proclamation. “King has decreed that on the sixth day, if the Dragon shall linger, I am to thrust my sword into its side.”
Thrust my sword into its side. Isleen understood Queen’s words; she just didn’t fear them. No matter what Queen did to her now, it would be nothing—absolutely nothing—compared to the agony of living. A calmness nestled into her bones, curled up in her guts.
Gran lifted her face from the floor and challenged Queen’s authority by looking directly at her. “You don’t have the power to kill her.” Insanity warped Gran’s tone.
Queen’s attention snapped to Gran. “You were warned. Now, you shall be executed.”
Isleen thrust words from her heart, words she’d always wanted to speak but never dared until now, when she needed to divert Queen’s attention away from Gran. “You’re not a queen. You’re psychotic. You’re a bitch. You’re evil and stupid and mean. And…and…you smell bad.”
Queen’s wide-spaced eyes nearly bulged out of her block-shaped head. Her fat lips snarled back, revealing teeth so neglected they were the same color and texture as Fritos. She switched her grip on the scissors, fisting the handle, and stabbed the blades at Isleen.
She watched the scissors descend, heard the whisper and swish of them piercing her flesh. Felt only a vague pressure and presence of something foreign inside her body. Smelled sweetness in the air and tasted salt on her tongue.
Queen yanked the scissors from Isleen’s body and held them up. Blood dripped from the blades, sending red streamers down Queen’s doughy arm.
Warmth oozed from Isleen’s side, the heat comforting her cold skin.
“Tomorrow, if you are still alive—off with your head!”
Gran waited until Queen locked them back in the room, then scooted next to Isleen. There were no bandages, no cloths, no tissues. Nothing to stop the bleeding.
“Hold on, baby girl. Just hold on. He’s coming. He’s got to be coming. He will release you. Save you.” The worst of Gran’s mental breakdown was the delusion that someone would find them. In Isleen’s most desperate of moments, she had allowed herself to believe Gran. Not anymore.
“Your dreams will come true. All of them. Remember the dreams about him. How you loved him and he loved you. Remember the dreams of sunshine on your face and the cabin you shared. Remember…”
There was nothing to remember. It had just been dreams. Silly dreams. No more powerful than Gran’s sleep-talking.
You’re not coming. You’re not going to save me. Because you don’t exist. Never have. I believed in you. Thought you must be real—Gran swore you were. But you were nothing more than hope’s fatal dream. We’re going to die, and no one other than Queen will ever remember we existed.
A rainbow of colors swelled in front of her eyes. Colors she hadn’t seen in years. Colors so brilliant and bright and beautiful that her eyes watered. Death was an alluring kaleidoscope.
Chapter 2
A bloated moon dangled from the sky, tossing silver light across the barren hilltop where Xander’s cabin stood. He sat on the front porch swing, listening to the symphony of sounds only night could produce. A breeze full of relief from the summer sun whispered over his skin. From the woods encircling the yard, leaves rustled and branches swayed and clapped as if applauding Mother Nature’s concert.
Xander closed his eyes—as close to sleep as he was going to get. To other people it was late, the middle of the night, but to him, time didn’t matter. That’s what happened when he couldn’t sleep. The days and nights blurred and blended together with no division between them other than the color of the sky. It was an exhausting, endless sort of existence.
Tonight was worse than ever. His foot jittered against the porch floor. His insides twitched and trembled as if they were about to erupt through his pores. His brain itched. Itched. Actually fucking itched. Short of eating a bullet, there was no way to satisfy that particular sensation.
He couldn’t sit there a second longer. He needed to go somewhere. Do something. Only he didn’t know where or what. He’d figure it out on the way.
His truck turned over with a throaty rumble he usually enjoyed, but not tonight. He jammed his foot down on the gas, gravel chucking across the yard until the wheels got their grip and then rocketed down the mile-long winding driveway.
I’m dying.
Tension grabbed hold of his spine. His heart stuttered, stopped, started again.
Those two words, spoken in that female voice, were not a product of the Bastard in His Brain. Those words were an auditory hallucination—another enduring effect of the lightning strike.
It’d been a long time since that voice had spoken to him. But still, there was only one sane way to deal with it—booze. There was another way to get rid of the voice, but that involved psych meds and a trip to the nuthouse. And he had a severe nut allergy.
He was ten minutes from the twenty-four-hour gas station with its beer cooler stocked full of liquid oblivion, but only ten seconds from driving past the main house. He should’ve moved years ago, but couldn’t afford a seven-hundred-acre tract of land as beautiful and isolated as the one his father owned. The benefits of extreme solitude continued to win over the reminder of rejection every time he drove past his childhood home.
He rounded the first curve in the driveway; the truck’s headlights danced across the house’s many windows. No lights shined from inside; no exterior lights illuminated the grounds. The place was a giant beast slumbering on the side of the hill.
Anyone else looking at the structure would be awed by the many gables and porches and stunned to learn that an entire medical facility was housed in the expansive basement. But to him the place was a mausoleum of memories. A place where he’d once been part of a family with his dad, his stepmom, and his teenage stepsister who all loved the child version of him. Until Gale left his father, taking Shayla with her, and his dad forgot Xander existed. He’d been just seven years old when love left his life.
He eased off the gas and coasted past the house, not wanting to make too much noise. Didn’t want to wake Uncle Matt, and he especially didn’t want to wake Roweena, the Stone family housekeeper. She might be an employee, but she’d chew his ass for driving around in the middle of the night as if he were still a teenager. She worried about—
You’re not coming. You’re not going to save me. Because you don’t exist. Never have. I believed in you. Thought you must be real—Gran swore you were. But you were nothing more than hope’s fatal dream. We’re going to die, and no one other than Queen will ever remember we existed.
“Get the fuck out of my head.” He yelled the words, breaking his number one rule—never talk back to the voice. Talking back meant he’d descended to a whole new level of cuckoo in the cranium. He clenched his eyes closed for just a second, hoping for a reset when he opened them.
A figure stood in the middle of the driveway, facing away from the truck.
“Shit.” Xander slammed on the brakes, the truck skidding in the gravel before stopping only a few feet away from a vehicular manslaughter charge. The sound of his heartbeat and ragged breaths were as loud as an air horn to his ears.
His father stood in the middle of the driveway, dressed in a pair of plaid pajama pants and a T-shirt. His thick, gray hair smashed and bent, forming an unattractive case of bedhead. What the hell was the guy doing?
Xander sat back in his seat and crossed his arms. He wasn’t making the first move. To acknowledge Dad would be a violation of their unwritten code of conduct. Each pretended the other didn’t exist. It’d been that way since Gale left them, taking his father’s heart with her.
But that voice. How long before it started talking again? He needed to get half pickled to get it good and gone.
Fuck the rules. He honked one short burst.
Dad didn’t flinch or acknowledge he was standing only feet from Xander’s bumper in the beam of his headlights.
Xander rolled down the window. “Move.” His throat tingled from the force of his shout.
Dad acted oblivious. As if he weren’t standing in the middle of the driveway, in the middle of the night, in the middle of Xander trying to get booze.
Xander tore open the truck door. Decades of anger rode between his shoulder blades. Hundreds of unuttered words flooded his mouth. He stomped toward his dad. “What is your problem? I’m just following your rules. I got the message ten years ago when you didn’t show up at the hospital after I was struck by lightning. When you never even asked Row or Matt whether I was alive or dead. Now get out of my…”
His words faded when he saw his father’s face. Fine wrinkles flared out from the corners of his eyes and deeper ones cut furrows across his forehead. His mouth was turned down in an endless frown. The last time Xander had been in the same room with his father, the guy was in his forties. The man before him was two decades older and looked like he’d suffered a tremendous loss.
Tears streamed down the older man’s cheeks, splashing onto his T-shirt.
Pain slammed into Xander’s temple. He jerked and pressed his palm to the side of his head. He could practically feel his brain pulsing inside his skull.
Dad’s gaze cut to him. “She needs me. I can feel her desperation, but I can’t find her anymore. It’s been too long.” I love her. She’s my soul. My everything. I need her as much as she needs me.
For a moment, only a moment, compassion chiseled away Xander’s hard edges. But then blades of bitterness and rejection and anger stabbed through the tenderness. “This is about Gale? It’s always been about Gale. It’s been over twenty-five years since she left. Get over it. And get out of my way.”
She’s my fearless. Dad cast his gaze down the driveway.
“Here we go again.” When Gale and Shayla first left, Dad had raged for weeks about some local legend and the bear totem that resided on the hill nearby. But that’s all anyone knew—the rantings and ravings of a man gone manic in his grief. “You’re not making sense.” Xander grabbed Dad’s arm and hauled him to the edge of the driveway. “Stare at the night all you want. But do it after I drive past.” He got back in the truck and drove on, refusing to look back, or think about Dad or the voice. He’d think about beer. A chilled beer. He could practically taste the tang of that first swig. His mouth watered.
At the end of the driveway, Xander barely braked, just cranked the wheel to the right and skidded out onto the road, laying a strip of rubber and squealing the tires in a way any high-school boy would admire. He gunned the truck’s engine to get to the top of the tallest hill in Sunny County.
Alcohol was less than six minutes away. God, how he needed a beer. Or five. Fuck that, he needed a case. Hell, he should go straight for the tequila. Anything to kill the voice.
As he neared the top of the hill, his headlights played over a motorcycle parked along the wide berm of road and then snagged on a man. A huge beast of a guy stood staring up at the centuries-old carved wooden bear like it was his own personal savior.
The animal posed on its hind legs, mouth open in a frozen snarl, looking real. Alive. Ready to attack. It wasn’t the kind of thing to attract tourists. It was more likely to repel them.
What the fuck was up with the carving? His father obsessed over it. And now this freak?
The man turned his face toward the truck, blinking from the brightness of the headlights. A thick black mark—what the hell was it—slashed up his face from mouth to cheekbone, giving him a sinister, half-evil look. He glared into the lights until Xander drove past.
Xander glanced in the rearview mirror. The truck’s taillights tossed a bloody glow over bear and man, highlighting the play of muscle and sinew hacked into the wood and making the black mark on the man’s face appear to be a gaping hole.
Xander’s breath locked inside his lungs. As crazy as it sounded, he half expected man and bear to move. To charge after him.
The truck raced down the hill, the man and the bear fading from sight. Xander’s gaze snapped to the road in front of him. Yeah, obviously, he was on the verge of losing it. It being his sanity.
Booze. Booze always helped. He needed to get some. Now.
Five minutes later, in sight of the gas station with its flashing neon BEER sign, a rush of energy stung his face and then rolled down his body—the Bastard in His Brain. The sneaky ass was about to stage a coup. Damn. All Xander could do was watch as he inexplicably turned the vehicle onto the highway and headed west—away from liquid salvation, away from reason and rationality, away from sense and sanity.
Three hours later, Xander parked on a mud strip that he suspected might have once been a driveway. The Bastard in His Brain had decided to take him on a vacation to Crazyland, where the only way out was through the funhouse. How else could he explain passing up alcohol and driving halfway across Ohio for this—a strange trailer secreted away among hundreds of acres of cornfields?
Despite dawn tipping the horizon in cheerful color, an ominous void and a bleak desperation hung over the place that went deeper than the structure’s disrepair. One side of the trailer sagged lower than the other, giving the impression of an enormous teeter-totter. Windows were missing, their gaping maws covered with boards or plywood or simple cardboard. The screen door dangled by its bottom hinge.
Xander wanted to reverse the truck and lay twin strips of fuck-you on the asphalt on his way down the road. Wanting wasn’t enough—not nearly enough—to overpower the Bastard. He got out of the vehicle, leaving the keys in the ignition. He would run up, scan the inside of the trailer, satisfy the Bastard, then sort out his shit on the drive back home.
A miraculous hush fell across the landscape. No birds chirped, no insects chattered. No corn leaves rustled. Pure, undiluted silence invaded his ears, and it was more stunning and fascinating than anything he’d ever heard. He stopped. Listened. Nothing. Not one sound. He couldn’t even hear the rapid duh-dum, duh-dum of his heartbeat.
He closed his eyes, savoring the quiet. Was this why the Bastard had led him here? To find relief from the constant barrage of noise? Was there something significant about this location? Something significant about the trailer? He needed to find out. ’Cause if this spot was devoid of sound, he was going to be moving.
He walked up the crumbling cinder-block steps to the trailer, his boots crunching loud and startling against the decay. So much for the complete-void-of-sound theory. He reached through the skeleton of the screen and jiggled the knob. Locked.
From the other side of the door, the thud of heavy footsteps approached. Someone lived here? The place looked like it should be inhabited by rats and rodents, not humans.
“Open the door. Now. Or I’m bustin’ it down.” The urgency in his voice surprised him. What surprised him even more—he meant every word. He’d get in this trailer one way or another. Didn’t matter that he was trespassing or about to break half a dozen other laws. He needed to get inside. Not guilty by reason of Bastard in the Brain—a.k.a. insanity—would be his defense.
A fist slammed into his temple—or at least it felt like a fist. Xander winced at the tuning in. Damn.
The door cracked open. All he could see was a too-large-to-be-normal jaundiced eyeball staring out at him, locking on Xander’s scars.
He bears the mark of the Beast. King warned me about him. He is here for the Dragon, but it is too late.
The mark of the Beast. Well, that was a new one. Xander touched the puckered skin on his cheek. He almost admired the originality. Almost.
“Go away. You’re trespassing.” The female voice was deep and thick, mucus snapping around each word. King must confirm the Dragon’s death before the body can be burned and the evil ashes soaked in holy water. “I’ll call the police.”
“You won’t call the police, or you would’ve called them already. Let me in. I won’t ask again.”
“Go away.” King would not permit such a risk to anyone, even one marked by the Beast. The door slammed. A lock snapped into place. A chain rattled.
Was she fearless or stupid or crazy? He leaned toward crazy, considering her thoughts of dragons and kings. He shouldn’t judge. He was short on sanity too.
Abandoning all of his self-control and the last of his logic, he rammed into the door, snapping the lock, busting the chain, and impacting with the heft of her body on the other side. He leaped across the threshold. The stench slammed into him—a physical entity that pushed him back a step.
Cigarette smoke so thick it choked the oxygen and clouded the room. Unwashed flesh so pungent and sour it burned his throat. And infusing it all, the putridly sweet rot of death. His throat kicked open, and he half coughed, half gagged, and barely managed to keep himself from vomiting.
The terrible throbbing in his head stopped, but his eyeballs took up the beat.
The floor was covered in trash. Old milk jugs, wrappers, empty boxes of food, strips of white paper that looked suspiciously like toilet paper. She obviously didn’t understand the function of a garbage can, and the concept of trash day had to be about fifty points above her IQ.
Roach-like, she scuttled to block a darkened hallway. Sweat plastered her few strands of hair to her skull like a greasy comb-over. Her bulbous nose and wide features verged on downright ugly. Stains of various colors and textures trailed down the front of her tank top, over the bulge of her protruding belly. Everything—every single thing—about her disgusted him. Repulsed him. He didn’t want to be in the same trailer with her, and he sure as fuck didn’t want to be in the same room with her.
So why was he here? Why couldn’t he force himself to leave?
She brandished a large pair of scissors and jabbed them at him like a roly-poly ninja. Under a different set of circumstances, he might’ve laughed, but her insanity sucked the humor from the situation.
And there was blood on the blades.
Dread fisted his lungs. “What have you done?” He braced, waiting for the frequency to be reestablished. His head jerked.
On the sixth day, I stabbed my sword into the Dragon’s flesh. “A peasant should not question his Queen.” Her tongue slithered from her mouth and stroked over her lips, leaving a slime trail, before slipping back inside.
“I’m not your peasant.” He might be on a visit to Crazyland, but she had moved into town, taken up permanent residence, and joined the Church of Unsound Mind. When in Crazyland, do as the crazy do. He packed his tone with authority. “I am your king, and you will tell me what you’ve done.”
She froze, almost as if Xander had hit the pause button.
You don’t look like King.
Shit. “I had plastic surgery. Changed my entire appearance. That’s why you don’t recognize me.” With the scars on his face, she’d have to be more than crazy to buy that line of bovine excrement; she’d have to be downright dumb.
Her face relaxed into a look of senseless understanding.
“Sire.” She crossed one tree trunk of a leg in front of the other and curtsied. Fucking curtsied like she was some fancy-ass princess.
King is so pretty now. Except for part of his face. “I didn’t know your new face.”
“Show me what you’ve done.”
“I have followed your decree. On the sixth day, I thrust my sword into the Dragon.”
His gut coiled tight. “Show me.”
“It might not be safe for you. I’m not certain the Dragon is dead.”
He used his best I-am-the-king tone. “Show me.”
“But Sire, you cannot risk being in its presence if it still lives.”
“All will be well.” He forced himself to not gag on his next words. “My queen, please, show me.”
She turned and waddled down the short hallway. He followed her to a heavy steel door. The kind of door that wouldn’t be standard issue in a cheap trailer. The kind of door used to keep intruders out. Or to keep something locked inside, something that bled, from the looks of her scissors. An animal? He wanted it to be an animal, but—damn—he knew he was going to find a human on the other side of that steel.
She unlocked the door and stepped aside. “Be careful, Sire.”
Dim silver light from the open doorway slashed across the dark room, illuminating a body in the middle of the floor. The naked female, so devoid of muscle she qualified as a skeleton, had a vile ring of blood surrounding her, seeping from a gash in her side.
His lungs contracted, expelling the air out of him. “What have you done?” he snapped at the Crazy One and realized two seconds too late he’d broken character.
You’re not King. You tricked me.
The woman on the floor needed an ambulance and mostly likely an extended hospital stay—assuming she was even alive. But the Crazy One still had those scissors in her hand. He wouldn’t be helping anyone if she buried them in his spine. He put himself between the woman on the floor and the Crazy One.
“I told you.” A croaky voice came from the shadows and muted planes of space the light didn’t reach. “I told you her protector would come.” Another skeletal body crawled into the light, face ravaged by torment and time, its attention focused on the Crazy One’s scissors.
Something familiar plucked at Xander’s memory, just beyond the reach of consciousness. Damn.
The Crazy One dropped the scissors. She stood, mouth hanging open, her flat slug of a tongue resting on her bottom lip. She backed away, one step at a time. I must finish. I must finish. She turned and ran down the hallway, each footstep reverberating through the floor.
“Take her. Protect her. Heal her. Save her from Queen.” The malnourished figure crawling on the floor spoke again, urgency riding each of her words.
Save her from Queen. Recognition slammed into him, knocking him to his knees.
…and no one other than Queen will ever remember we existed. Queen—not a typical name.
“Fuck me.” A burr gouged into his heart. The woman lying on the floor was the woman. The one inside his head. She wasn’t a figment of a fucked mind. She was naked and emaciated and—oh, Christ—looked like a corpse.
Guilt choked in his throat—a lump too big to swallow, too awful to taste. She’d tried to tell him she was suffering and needed help. What had he done? Buried her words under a gallon of liquor and a barrel of self-pity. All those nights when he’d felt so restless, if he’d just gotten in his truck, would he have driven here? Found her before it was too late?
The woman’s cheekbones jutted so sharply they nearly cut through the skin. Tufts of blond hair grew in patches along her hairline. And yet, superimposed over what his eyes took in, his mind filled in the gaps, added flesh to her cheeks, fullness to her eyes, and pale-blond hair to her head. Somehow, he saw beyond what lay before him to what might have been. She would’ve been beautiful. Radiant in an angelic way words couldn’t adequately describe.
“Oh, God.” He was the worst sort of asshole. Had always been a selfish bastard, owned that about himself, but this—this was a low he’d never be able to crawl out of. He couldn’t just rationalize away his lack of action all this time.
The spot where his heart should be throbbed. His hand shook like someone coming off the sauce as he reached for her, touching her neck, feeling for a pulse, though he knew there was no way she could be alive.
Her skin nearly froze his fingers. Death did that to a person, stole their warmth along with their life. Her eyelids fluttered, stuttered, and opened, locking directly on him, pinning him with her gaze.
Logical thought tumbled out of his head, splashing onto the floor. His body went into suspended animation mode.
She swallowed, wincing as if the action hurt. “Xander?”
Every word in his vocabulary vanished behind a nearly impenetrable wall of shock and disbelief.
“Is it really you?” Her words were barely a breath of sound. “Or am I dreaming?”
He understood what she was saying, just couldn’t pluck any response out of the emptiness in his mind.
Her face scrunched up, and a soft, dry sob hacked in her throat. “You’re just a dream. Why can’t I just die?”
Seeing her hurting, seeing her pain, finally dissolved his mental paralysis. “Oh, God. I’m here.” He gripped her face in one hand. Her expression relaxed as if his touch eased her. “I’m real. You’re safe.” He swiped his thumb over her chin, felt it tremble at his touch.
Sorrow faded from her eyes, but other emotions filled the void—more emotions than he knew what to do with. He didn’t need to be Freud to see the adoration and the hero worship. “Don’t look at me like that. I’m not the good guy here.” His tone was overflowing with self-loathing and guilt for not finding her years ago. “You know my name, but I don’t know yours.”
“Isleen.” One side of her mouth twitched like she was trying to smile. “You’re real. You’re really real.” The smile faded. “Where’s Gran? You have to save Gran too.”
Her eyes closed, her chest popped up and down in exaggerated breaths too unnatural to be normal. He yanked his cell phone from his pocket.
“Isleen, you stay with me now. You hang on.” He dialed 911, waited for the operator to pick up. Ring-ring. Pause. Ring-ring. Pause. Ring-ring. “Pick the fuck up.” Ring-ring.
“911, what is your—”
“The last road I remember is County Road 95. A trailer in the middle of cornfields. I just found two women being held against their will. They both need an ambulance.”
“Sir, can you tell me…”
The growl of his truck’s engine grabbed Xander’s attention. The Crazy One—he’d forgotten about her—had stolen his truck. This day was full of happy damned surprises. The sound of his truck faded and got further away, but then the direction changed and the roar of pedal-to-the-metal screamed at him. What was she doing? Even as the question flittered through his consciousness, the answer came to him. His truck was about to meet the trailer.
He dropped the phone and grabbed Isleen.
The room exploded.

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