Friday, August 29, 2014

Release Day - Caged Wolf - Chapter One #NewRelease

Two thousand one hundred and ninety one days, three hundred and twelve weeks, seventy-four agonizing full moons—the full sum of the six years since he’d been consigned to hell weighed upon A.J. Buckley. He faced the courtroom dressed in a new suit he hadn’t purchased as they dangled the bait of freedom. The suit still stank of human tailors, a fact which barely registered past the curtain of his isolation. Not even the presence of a dominant male wolf acting as his attorney ruffled him. He sat without comment or expression as they debated his future.

What did he care? They’d taken him out of the cage, dressed him, shackled him, and shuffled him into the heart of human justice. They should have left him alone, but even on that point he could barely bring himself to react. Ryan Huston appeared at his cell, ordered him into clothes then accompanied him to the courthouse. He went because he was told to do so.

When they were done, he would go back because he’d been told.

“Your Honor, the following affidavits, signed and certified by the Medical Examiner, his assistant, and one crime scene tech, states the police failed to properly preserve the crime scene prior to their arrival and continued to contaminate the scene during the investigation, thereby obstructing justice.”  Ryan Huston touched the folder on his desk. “The expert testimony of these witnesses was certified by the prosecution during the initial trial.”

The judge was an older man with a stern visage. He flipped through the papers in front of him and glanced from Ryan to the men in suits at the opposing table. “Mr. Langfield, Mr. Huston is correct. You certified all of these witnesses as experts, which means their affidavits are also certifiable to this court.”

“Yes, Your Honor.” Mr. Langfield sounded particularly glum about the subject. The faint odor of bleach almost drowned out the sour note of his disdain, or maybe it was the lemon polish used on the wooden table and fixtures throughout the room. Both burned A.J.’s nose.

“Why wasn’t this testimony entered during the original trial, Mr. Huston?”

“The witnesses were never asked, Your Honor. Their testimony and reports were given and only the facts of those findings were questioned, not the condition in which the evidence was collected nor the interference of the police officers on scene.”

The prosecutor hurled words into the air, but they still sounded pro forma. “Objection, Your Honor. Relies on speculation.”

“I thought these three were all involved in the processing of the scene and the body?” The judge’s inquiry was met by icy silence before the prosecutor nodded. When the jurist continued to ask questions, A.J. stopped listening. He didn’t give a damn about their squabbling over the bones of information. What good did it do?

Ryan answered several questions, never resuming his seat. On his feet, he commanded attention. Why Toman decided to send the pack’s attorney to liberate him after so much time passed already escaped A.J.. Maybe his task wasn’t to liberate, maybe it was simply to tease. What else could his Alpha do, except dangle the opportunity of escape then snatch it away?

He could kill me. That action, however, would be a gift. One he didn’t think Toman would bestow upon him. He hadn’t before, not when A.J. had been arrested. He hadn’t during the trial. He hadn’t when they’d thrown A.J. into a cage and locked the door.

No, the Alpha of Willow Bend had simply ignored him. Exile would have been kinder. Death would have been easier. Cool, creamy strawberries with a bite of chill teased his nostrils. A.J. jerked his attention from the distance to focus on the room. Like a promise of refreshment, the fruity scent stroked his senses, evoking memories of hot summer days and a treat to escape the heat.

“Mr. Huston, are you prepared to present these witnesses to the court for cross-examination?”
“Yes, Your Honor. They are waiting outside.”

A shuffle of movement, a halting panicked breath of air and A.J. turned his head a fraction. She sat in the back of the courtroom, her wan expression too pale and sallow beneath her natural skin tone. No longer supple and lithe, she looked as though all the vitality had been drained from her. Skin stretched over her cheekbones too tautly. Her caramel eyes were large, the pupils constricted.

The doors opened and pushed a fresh wave of her scent toward him. Hands clenching, he switched his attention to the new arrivals. Deeming none a threat, he returned to studying her. Her gaze collided with his, and awareness clanged off the hardened layers of apathy encasing his soul.


“Your Honor, in the event you throw out the evidence collected at the scene, I move for an immediate reversal of the conviction as the prosecutor never had a case to begin with.”

Another hurried discussion brought the attorneys to the judge’s bench. A.J. could hear every word they said, but very little of the subject registered. He’d ordered Vivian to not testify. Was she here for the prosecution? Would they try to force her testimony as they had the first time? Despite her steadfast refusal, the prosecutor had hammered at her on the stand. It had taken every ounce of his control to stay in his seat.
He’d wanted to savage them all—more so when they’d arrested her. The image of her being taken from the room in handcuffs had been burned into his brain.

“You’re growling,” Ryan said, his voice too soft for most ears. “Stop.”

Closing his eyes briefly, he swallowed the sound. When he opened them again, Vivian was gone, leaving only the faintest hint of her scent.

“Your Honor…”

“You do not have a case,” the judge said, not allowing the prosecutor to finish. “Your case was built on a house of cards with contaminated evidence at the crime scene as the foundation. Without that evidence, the grand jury wouldn’t have handed down an indictment. You wouldn’t have taken the defendant to court, and you wouldn’t have been able to obtain a conviction.”

A.J. had no idea what was going on.

“Mr. Buckley, please stand.”

Rising slowly, A.J. kept his gaze on the judge. Ryan bumped his shoulder, a light brush. The grounding of pack helped him to keep the fraying threads of his straying attention from wandering. Vivian’s scent hung in the air, an elusive reminder of the forbidden.

“Mr. Buckley, it is the decision of this court to overturn the lower court’s decision due to the lack of uncontaminated evidence. While I do not believe that means you are not guilty of the crime, I do believe you should not have been found guilty in this matter. I am ordering your immediate release from Fannon Prison.”


The prosecutor rose and said something, but A.J. couldn’t make out the words through the roaring in his ears. Ryan spoke up immediately and the other man shouted. The judge slammed his gavel down and silence fell.

“Motion for a new trial denied, Mr. Langfield. Sheriff, please release Mr. Buckley. Sir, you are free to go.”

A.J. barely reacted as they removed the shackles from his ankles and the handcuffs from his wrists. The officer said something and, when A.J. stared at him blankly, not entirely certain of what he’d said, Ryan answered in his stead. The judge left the bench and the courtroom began to empty.

Placing a hand on his shoulder, Ryan studied him. “Breathe. We’re going out to the car and then we’re going home.”

Home. He wasn’t even sure where that was. Maybe this was his reward, he would go home to Toman. The Alpha would snap his neck, and it would be over. Glancing to the corner where he’d thought Vivian had sat, A.J. shook off Ryan’s hold and paced to the spot.

Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath. Cool, sweet strawberries.

Had she really been there?

An arm around his shoulders distracted him, and he looked at the older wolf. “Come on.” Though his voice was gentle, Ryan’s tone was unyielding. The command shivered through A.J. and he nodded.

The sun was too bright outside. Too much noise. Cars roared past, their engines growling and knocking.

“Are you hungry?”

“What?” A.J.’s voice sounded rough, raw, and guttural.

“I asked if you were hungry, but I think we’ll just stop and grab some food on the way. I sent a message. Your brothers are waiting for you, so let’s get you home…” Ryan held a flat data device in his hand. Cell phones changed a lot over the last few years. 

Brothers. Linc and Tyler. Younger than him by two and four minutes respectively, they were the missing parts of his soul. Triplets, they’d done everything together, but he’d always taken the lead. Always looked out for them. Never had they been separated.
Yes, he would like to see his brothers. Perhaps Toman would allow him the reunion as a last wish. “All right.” He followed Ryan like an obedient pup. Six years of backbreaking, heartless, soulless captivity didn’t leave him with the energy or the desire to do anything else.

At the vehicle, he touched the sun-warmed metal and the scent of strawberries wrapped around him. Tracking the scent with only his gaze, he spotted her across the street. Raising her hand, she curled her fingers in a half wave. Her mouth turned up in a soft, almost sad smile and she whispered, “You’re free.”

Yes. Free. Lifting his hand, he tried to wave back, but she’d disappeared again. She must be free as well, and she’d found her voice. The last time he’d seen her, she’d been shocked mute by trauma and he’d told her—ordered her—to keep her silence.

“A.J.?” Ryan’s patient voice reached out from inside the car. “C’mon, man. I know you’ve had a rough go of it. Get in. Let me take you home.”

Comforted by the knowledge of Vivian’s freedom, he allowed himself to be coaxed.

“Buckle up.”

Obeying, he settled back and let his lungs fill with the scent of wolf and wild pervading the car. Ryan’s scent and his mate’s. His children. A.J. could identify the nuances, just barely. The combination overwhelmed his system and he closed his eyes, suddenly exhausted. For the first time in years, he fell into sleep easily, surrounded by the sense of pack.

The car gave a little jerk and as he drifted off, he heard Ryan’s voice. “Yeah, I have him. We’re on our way.”

Home. Yes, A.J. was ready to go home.

Ready to die.

Vivian Knox leaned against the stone building and watched the Lexus disappear into traffic. Tears burned in her eyes, yet she refused to shed them. Elation and sadness swirled together, a potent cocktail, leaving her nauseated. Seven agonizing years since one horrible night destroyed their lives, yet she’d found a way to make it right—finally. A.J. Buckley never deserved to go to prison. He’d never deserved anything that happened to him.

“You ready?” Dr. Nathanial Hawthorne had waited for her while she’d crept into the courtroom. She hadn’t planned to go inside, she’d told herself it was the last place she needed to be, but she had to see. She had to know.

“Yes,” she said. Ready to put the past behind her, to get on with her life. “But I still need a minute.” Refusing to look at the doctor, she stared after the car she couldn’t possibly still see. Her heart had twisted when he’d turned to look at her in the courtroom. A.J. had become a shell of his former self. The glorious, robust man had lost weight; his face was haggard and gaunt. A scar bisected his lower lip and the suit he wore fit him badly.

That hadn’t been the worst of it. No, the worst had been his eyes—hollow, empty, and lifeless. Pale chips of ice where once they had been burning orbs of blue, more vivid and startling than a summer sky. She’d wanted to lay down and die. Curling her fingers into her palms, she clenched her fists. If only she’d been able to free him sooner. It had taken her hundreds of hours—pouring through information, files, and reports. She’d talked to every single person involved in the case, from the original prosecutor, to the cops who’d investigated, to the technicians in the labs.

She’d unraveled his freedom only after she’d found the right string to pull, then she’d tugged, yanked, and jerked until it came loose. Bundling the information together, she’d sent it to the only address she could think of—his brothers. After that, Vivian had prayed. She hadn’t seen either Tyler or Linc since her stint in jail.

“Vivian.” Nathanial edged closer to her. The doctor had been her therapist for three years. He’d walked her step-by-step from the brink—saving her life after she’d nearly killed herself with an overdose. After the hospital pumped her stomach, he’d kept her in a seventy-two hour lockdown, then gave her meds to make her sleep.

She hadn’t slept a full night since the attack until those three days. If she had any sanity left, it had been thanks to him. “I know,” she said, still unwilling to leave. Autumn had arrived, still waving the blistering flag of a hot summer. Sweat slid down her neck. “I just…” What? How could she put it into words?
“Remember what we discussed,” his gentle reminder boosted her.

“When I walk away, it really is over. I won’t see him again. I can’t ever tell him how sorry I am or how much I wish it had been different.”

“True.” Another great point about her therapist—he didn’t sugarcoat his responses or feed her platitudes. “You don’t need to see him, however. You made it right for him. You overturned injustice. This was your goal. This is what the finish line looks like.”

Really? This emptiness is what the finish line looks like? Why had she expected so much more? The drive to free him had come from so far inside her soul, she couldn’t define the source. Beyond the desire to repay his actions, beyond the simple truth of true justice—and yet over meant she faced a long dark road.
“You’ve been battling for so long, struggled so much, you don’t recognize winning when you see it. You’re too used to fighting, Vivian. You set out to free the man, and if not for you, he would still be languishing in a prison cell. It’s over. You did it.” Maybe if the doc repeated the sentiment, the reality would sink in.

“I guess,” she said, facing him finally. “I thought it would feel different.”

“It will,” he said, his smile gentle and encouraging. “In a few days, a few weeks, maybe a few months. You have to focus on you now. It’s time to let yourself heal. I’ve made all the arrangements. You leave for Flagstaff on Friday. I’ll drive you to the airport, if you like.”

“No.” The doctor had saved her, listened to her, encouraged her, and supported her throughout her quest. But that was done now, too. “Nathanial, you’ve been amazing. I know I couldn’t have survived the last few years without you. Literally.” After she’d swallowed those pills, she’d waited for peace to sweep over her and instead, she’d panicked. Wild fury had left her shaking and desperate. Survival, Nathanial had told her later, came in many forms. The night she’d tried to kill herself, she’d finally found the courage to keep living.

By the time she’d called him, she’d trashed her apartment, desperate to find something. When she found his card, she’d stared at the numbers blurring on the thin stock of paper and fought—with herself—against calling. In truth, she still had no memory of dialing the number or saying the words.

I tried to kill myself. I took pills. Help me.

Later, in the hospital, he’d repeated what she said back to her. Whatever drove her to call him, she was grateful for it.

“You’re my friend. I know, you’re my patient, and it flies in the face of ethics, but I was and am happy to help.” He shook his head. “Flagstaff is a good start. The Sunrise Legacy Facility has a place where you can work, rest, and get the best possible treatment.”

Leaving the city had been her plan. She’d wanted to go after the attack—but a year in jail for contempt when she’d refused to testify and then A.J.’s conviction kept her bound to St. Louis. “I know. I think I’ll look forward and not back. I’m going to pack the car this week and drive.”

The moment she said the words, a feeling of rightness settled in her gut. It was time. She had a plan. Sliding her hands into her pockets, she headed away from the courthouse. Nathanial fell into step beside her. “You don’t need to be on the road…”

“I know I don’t have to, but I want to. I’ve spent all my time trying to achieve one thing. It became my reason for existence. Now I want to stop. I want to breathe. Driving—driving is freeing.” Take her destiny in her hands, live again. The more she considered the idea, the more she embraced it. “I’ll call you,” she promised. “On the road, when I get to Flagstaff. I’ll spend a few weeks at Sunrise, as we agreed, resting and taking the time I need for me, but I’m also going to look for a job.”

“Good girl.” Arriving at the lot where they’d parked, Nathanial walked her to her car. His handshake was firm, warm and encouraging. “I’m proud of you, Vivian.”

She smiled, and the act stretched muscles in her face that felt frozen. Had smiling become alien to her? Wow, she needed to work on herself more than she thought. “Thank you for saving my life.”
“My pleasure. You hang onto that card. Call me whenever you need, for whatever you need.”
“You know if I hadn’t been such a screwed up mess and if you weren’t so happily married to a wonderful woman…”

Nathanial laughed. “Avery says that to me all the time.” His wife had become a friend every bit as much as Nathaniel. Few women would tolerate their husband bringing a project home to sleep in the guest bedroom or the calls in the middle of the night when the nightmares drove her out of her bed.

He kissed her cheek. “Be safe.”

It wasn’t until she’d parked at her apartment that the reality of her situation truly sank in. Three years of having Nathanial to lean on and she’d walked away without a second thought.

Well that’s not true. I’ll miss him and Avery, but… The idea of leaving the safety net didn’t paralyze her. After her stint in lockdown, she’d been a guest in their home for six months—a roommate, patient, and project all rolled into one. When she’d finally gone apartment hunting, the need to be close to them drove her to choose a place only a few blocks away.

Now she planned to relocate hundreds of miles away. Talk about your big steps. It was time, though. Time to go, time to—

Why is my front door open? The walk from her parking spot to her apartment was short, but she’d damn well locked the door when she left that morning.

She’d tripled checked. Paranoia was a survival instinct. She drove around the block and by her apartment at least twice when leaving to make sure the door was shut. Gripping the handle and checking the lock when she came home was another habit.


Adrenaline flooded her system and she pivoted, heading back to her car at a dead run. A man blocked her access to the vehicle—a very familiar one, Lincoln Buckley. Though A.J. and his brothers were triplets, seemingly identical in all ways, she’d never had an iota of trouble telling the three apart.

Unlike A.J., Linc looked exactly as he had the last time she’d seen him. Tall, broad-shouldered, square jawed with a firm, even mouth. Rugged, in an outdoorsy kind of way, with hair the color of sun ripened wheat—dark and shot through with strands of gold. The brothers had the prettiest hair and, where A.J.’s had been shorn close to his skull, Linc’s remained long.

“You need to go,” he said, not waiting for her to respond to the sight of him. He held a hand out for her keys. “Come, I’m going to get you out of here.”

“What’s going on?” Her fingers curled around the keys, not willing to give them up. Six years without a word, while his brother had rotted in prison, and Linc showed up only after she’d done everything she could to free A.J.?

“I will explain, but get in the car. We need to—” He didn’t finish the sentence. His gaze traveled past her and he moved. One minute he stood between her and the car, the next he was on the other side of her. Twisting, she couldn’t see past him, but she didn’t have to.

“You’re not supposed to be here, Lincoln.” The woman’s voice was unfamiliar, but her tone sent a chill chasing down Vivian’s spine.

“I’m where I need to be.” Linc’s voice deepened to a growl. “The woman has nothing to do with this.”
“That’s not your decision.” The arrival of a man directly behind her sent Vivian’s pulse skyrocketing. She jerked and backed away, colliding with Linc. He twisted, steadying her and then adjusted his stance. How he was supposed to deal with two of them, she had no idea.

“I didn’t think this was your style, Owen.” The verbal jab landed, or maybe Vivian only imagined “Owen’s” face tightening at Linc’s response.

“Be quiet, Linc. You’re violating an order and you know it.” The artic chill in his voice sent a shiver over Vivian and awoke a very real, visceral fear. Danger roiled around the man and she suddenly wanted to look away when he rested his gaze on her. “Miss Knox, we’re here to escort you to Willow Bend. I apologize for the drama. This will go smoothly for everyone if you simply cooperate.”

“Leave her alone.” But Linc went from being next to her to being on the ground. Owen had him by his throat and the growl vibrating in the air snapped what was left of her will.

Whirling, she ran—away from Linc, away from Owen, away from her car. She had to get away.
Behind her, the woman made a rude noise and Vivian could have sworn she heard her say, “Men.” The thought sparked a note of hysterical laughter, but she didn’t slow down. Shadows twisted in her mind and one moment she raced up the sidewalk toward—where she had no idea—and the next she was on a dark street, struggling on bruised feet to flee from the house she’d woken up in.

It had been dark then, and rain had fallen. The streets were wet and air damp. Blood oozed from her lip, and every muscle in her body hurt. She could barely see out of one eye. Today, the sun was still in the clear sky, though the humidity blanketed the air with dampness. The sick feeling cresting in her stomach threatened to hurtle her back to that horror—because today, as then, someone chased her.

I didn’t escape then… How the hell would she manage it now? A hand grabbed her and she fought. Whirling, she struck out with her purse and her nails, but she hit nothing. Instead, both of her arms were wrenched behind her. Fighting the hold twisted her muscles and pain screamed through her.

“Stop, I don’t want to hurt you.” The cold snap in the woman’s voice slapped her out of the past.
Staring into her eyes, she couldn’t read her, didn’t have any idea why she was there and couldn’t think of any reason to believe her. Run, dammit. The surge came from that primal part of her brain, the animal hindbrain as one of her professors had called it jokingly. Higher functions like reason and logic helped people govern and make decisions, but the hindbrain? It kept them alive.

Vivian opened her mouth and screamed.  The woman shifted her grip, scowled and then shoved a hand over her mouth.

“Dammit,” her captor growled. “We don’t want to hurt you.”

Not wanting to hurt someone and not hurting them were two incredibly separate things. She couldn’t breathe. The force covering her mouth and nose cut off her air. Spots danced in front of her eyes. Nothing she did broke the woman’s hold.

In the distance, Linc fought with the other man. He was trying to help her. Drowning in déjà vu, she fought harder and her lungs burned. The spots became darkness and the world blinked out.

Ready to read more...Grab your Copy Today! 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Release Day - Some Like it Deadly Chapter One #Going Royal

The sharp trill of the phone split the silent darkness in half. Kate Braddock jerked upright and had the phone in her hand, and answered before her mind fully processed the steps from sleep to waking. Adrenaline flooded her system, but training kept her voice calm. “Braddock.”

Too many middle of the night phone calls heralded bad news.

“Kate.” Peterson’s voice sent relief chasing through the adrenaline pumping through her system. “My apologies for the odd hour.” The head of security for Armand Dagmar personally and the Andraste Royal Family in general didn’t sound remotely apologetic. Nor did he sound deeply concerned, which hopefully meant, Anna, her protectee and the fiancée of the grand duke was also fine.

Of course, as her boss, Peterson never sounded disturbed.

“It’s fine, sir.” She gave the perfunctory answer and shoved a hand through her hair. The sharp tug helped fuel her sleepy mind. Slanting a look at the clock, she sighed. It was only four-thirty in the morning. On her day off—the single day she’d had off in weeks. “What can I do for you?”

“We have a delicate situation and I am going to be blunt, Braddock. You’re actually the only woman for the job.” Plunging right in and ripping off the Band-Aid was far preferable to beating around the bush. At this early hour, all she required were the specifics with no sugar coating involved.

“What’s the job?” Pushing back the blankets, Kate rose and padded to the kitchen. She’d already set up the coffee maker the night before. All she had to do was hit the on switch.

“Richard Prentiss slipped his security detail this weekend.” Prentiss was the grand duke’s best friend, and he’d been involved in a rather spectacular car accident a few months earlier.

Kate was impressed—with Prentiss, not his security detail. How they let a wounded man slip them didn’t bode well for their future in the business.

“He was beyond our supervision and out of communication range for nearly seven hours.” And then as if anticipating her question, Peterson added. “He left his cell phone at the house, and returned via taxi looking none the worse for wear, but…”

“But he slipped his security.” The loss had likely pinched the pride of a man as thorough as Peterson. He was damn good at his job. She didn’t envy the members of the detail who’d failed to keep the attorney under surveillance and safe. They wouldn’t have their jobs much longer—if they hadn’t been fired already. “So what does that have to do with me?”

“Mr. Prentiss informed the grand duke he would be returning to his regular duties at his office tomorrow and he wants the security detail pulled.” In a reverse of his earlier bluntness, Peterson circled around to his point. Kate turned at the sound of the coffee maker finishing its job, and poured herself a mug of the dark blend. The process kept her busy and her mouth shut.

She was a good soldier, and well-trained. Peterson would get to what he wanted soon enough.
“Look, Braddock, the grand duke wants to appease Mr. Prentiss, but he’s not prepared to remove security from him. Chatter has slowed, but it hasn’t quieted fully. When we inserted you with Miss Novak, you downplayed your presence as personal security by acting as her assistant.”

And there it was.

“You want me to do the same for Mr. Prentiss?” She hadn’t been especially fond of deceiving Anna, but then she’d never had to lie to her directly either. Peterson and the grand duke had simply told her that Kate had been vetted by security and could act as her assistant. That Kate could do the job. The deception kept her in Anna’s orbit. Every time Anna left the tower to work, Kate had gone with her.

“Yes, we’ve arranged to have his legal assistant head out on a worldwide cruise, all expenses paid. She leaves today, in about three and a half hours, I need you to meet with her and get everything you’ll need to know about how to do the job because you’ll be interviewing with him tomorrow. I’ll have the car picking her up swing by to get you in ninety minutes.” Peterson had thought of everything, his smug tone might be well deserved. Mr. Prentiss wasn’t the easiest protectee.

So much for her day off. “Do you think that Mr. Prentiss is just going to hire me because his assistant left? I’m assuming he has others in that law firm he could borrow—”

“He could, obviously, but he and the grand duke are scheduled to have lunch later today and…” Peterson trailed off and actually sighed. “Let’s just say that he’ll receive the news of his assistant’s departure under controlled circumstances and the grand duke will then volunteer your services. We’ll get you in the door, you need to secure the position.”

How very Machiavellian of the grand duke.

“You’re asking me to protect someone who doesn’t want a detail and who won’t know what I’m doing.” The potential for clusterfuck was enormous. Anna had been a similar case, but she’d also had a full detail on her at all times in addition to Kate. “What kind of detail is Prentiss going to have?”

“A discreet one.” He paused a beat, then continued, “Kate, I know this isn’t the easiest assignment. I wouldn’t ask you to do it if I didn’t think you were fully capable of it. The grand duke is worried about Mr. Prentiss’s visibility. We can’t properly secure him without his cooperation. You will have backup, but they could be twenty seconds out.”

And twenty seconds could be the difference between life and death.

“Understood.” She drained her coffee and glanced at the wall clock. “I’ll be ready in ninety minutes for the car.”

Once he had her agreement, Peterson disconnected the call and Kate carried her cell phone into the second bedroom that she’d converted into a workout room. Five minutes later, she was running on the treadmill. Too wired to go back to sleep, she checked the time.

It was nearly noon in Germany, her brother usually had Sundays off and spent them watching recorded sports. After dialing her brother’s number—international code included—from memory, she waited. When he answered on the second ring, the last knot of tension Peterson’s middle of the night call had wound in her soul relaxed. “Hey, Beany Baby, how are you?”

His groan made her laugh.

He was okay. Alive.

She could handle everything else.

“I’m not going to lie to you, Ms. Braddock—the job won’t be easy. This position demands travel at least forty percent of the time. Where I go, you go. When I need a file, I need you to pull it up. You have to anticipate last minute changes and I may be calling or texting you at three in the morning to come in because we need to have a brief in front of a judge at eight.” Richard Prentiss leaned back in his chair and studied the dark-haired woman seated across from him. Her calm, cool eyes—he couldn’t tell if they were hazel or just a very pale brown—betrayed no hint of concern. Considering he was offering her well-compensated indentured servitude, he’d hoped for a little more bite in her responses. “This is a steep learning curve and I wish that Miranda had given me more notice before she left, but we have to work with what we have.” He wasn’t sure what frustrated him more—Miranda leaving on such short notice or that she left at all. Miranda Keen had worked for him since he’d hung his shingle and despite Armand’s copious attempts to fund his law firm, Richard had built his client list from the ground up. No one knew him better than Miranda—and no one deserved to come into a windfall as much as she, either. He’d paid her well, but that didn’t mean she wanted to spend the rest of her life working sixteen-hour days.

“That won’t be a problem, Mr. Prentiss. I’m used to a tough schedule and travel.” Of course she was. Kate Braddock had been recommended to him by Armand during their racquetball game—the first he’d been able to play since a car accident laid him up some months before. Losing a kidney and his spleen meant a lot of changes in his routine, but he was finally well enough to kick his armed babysitters to the curb. He’d understood the need for increased security, particularly during his recovery, but he didn’t like having a posse of heavily armed babysitters entrenching themselves in his life, tearing it apart, and dictating his movements. Armand hadn’t liked the idea, but as Richard’d informed his best friend, he could stuff it.

“True, you’ve been with Anna the last few months.” Richard grimaced and drummed his fingers against the resume sitting atop her personnel file. The speed of Miranda’s departure meant he had to cut corners to find her replacement. Kate’s previous stint with Anna meant he didn’t have to worry about a background check. She’d have been vetted by at least two different security agencies. “How will she handle your departure?”

“I believe the recommendation came from Miss Novak, Mr. Prentiss. She has a full staff to help with her foundation responsibilities and an additional two secretaries beyond myself. Her precise words were that she would miss me personally, but professionally she was covered.” The wry response suggested a sense of humor and Richard nodded, but continued to drum his fingers. It was all a little too neat for his level of comfort. The world did not provide easy solutions—and in his experience, if one didn’t examine every angle of a potential Trojan horse, one deserved to be burned.

And she comes recommended by Armand who wants me safe, so chances are she’s exactly what she appears to be.


“The better question, I believe, is will we work well together? Do you have any particularly annoying habits that I might object to? Are you a vegetarian perhaps? Or someone who speaks with their mouth full of food? Do you eat while you dictate your notes? Do you prefer MP3s or in person dictation? What types of confidentiality contracts am I expected to sign? Will I receive any type of additional compensation for the level of disruption in my life? When you have romantic liaisons will you expect me to wait in the other room on the off chance of a three a.m. emergency?”

The rapid-fire questions eliminated his initial assessment. He grinned, she definitely had bite. “I have no idea if we’ll work well together, but my initial impression is yes. I have no annoying habits that I’m aware of, though I’ve been told I’m an ass on more than one occasion.” He let that hang out there to see what she would do with it.

“You’re an attorney, Mr. Prentiss. I would expect you received your certification in being an ass about the same time you passed the bar.” Sharp, dry and to the point.

She answered every question, and had retaliated with a few of her own.

He liked her.

“I never talk when my mouth is full.” He layered innuendo along the words on purpose. Anna and Armand’s recommendation aside, he needed a personal assistant who could do her job in the office and not on her back. Instead of rising to the bait, she merely lifted her eyebrows and waited. Impressed, he continued. “Let’s see, there is a very good chance that I will dictate notes while consuming a meal, but I expect you’ll be eating at the same time, so we’ll adjust accordingly. I tend to record notes on my cell phone when I drive and I’ll text you the voice memos as needed.”

Shifting her personnel folder to the side, he held out a fifteen-page contract and sobered. All personal quirks aside, he needed some assurances. “This is the confidentiality agreement. It’s ironclad and it stipulates on all terms that it remains enforced whether you work for me for five seconds, five months or five decades. What we discuss, what information passes in my office, is between you and I and absolutely no one else. I don’t care if the police are questioning you or the President of the United States—privileged defines every communication. If you can’t handle that, we stop right here.”

“Unless you’re planning to assassinate the president or in some way create mass havoc such as harboring a terrorist, I have no problems with signing that contract.” Utterly unruffled, she didn’t pause to consider her response. “I will, of course, insist that you add to those caveats. Privileged information does not allow you to compromise my integrity or make me complicit in a crime.” The blunt force of personality added another tick into the pro column.

He extended the sheaf of papers. “Section four, paragraph three, subsection A—it’s a personal morality clause. It stipulates if you believe a crime is being planned or has been committed that has caused, will cause, or may cause duress or undue distress to you or another living being, you may waive the privilege—in only that issue—to report it.”

“I’m not sure whether to be disturbed or impressed that you have that in a confidentiality agreement.” She took the papers and flipped to the section he’d indicated, a tiny line forming between her brows. “The fact that you’ve already considered it enough to put it in the contract suggests you’ve been burned.”

Smiling at the implied question, he spread his hands. “I’m afraid that’s confidential. However, read through and make sure you understand it. Perhaps consult an attorney and if you can do that in the next—” he checked his watch, “—fifteen minutes, that would be great. I have a backlog of cases and briefs that need my attention.”

Most people would have snapped to their feet at the urgency, but she didn’t. Instead she rested the contract in her lap and stared at him. At his raised eyebrows, a smile turned up the corners of her mouth. “You failed to answer the final two questions.”

Smart. Detail-oriented. Capable of challenging him. Security clearance vetted by the royal family. If she was half as good at doing her job as she was the interview, he might survive Miranda abandoning him. Picking up an envelope, he passed it over. It contained a check he’d had drawn on his way to the meeting. “That contains your stipend for this month. The stipend is a living fund and completely separate from your paycheck which, as previously discussed, is considerable. You will have access to a corporate credit card. I’ll order it today, but I expect it within the week. You may use the card to charge anything you need while working or on the job—hotel rooms, meals, clothing—provided you document the expenses.”

She didn’t open the envelope. Professional—but she would have had to be. He knew her work with Anna, particularly in recent months, meant access to discretionary funding, which added another facet to her worth in the position. Richard made a mental note to call Anna later and make sure she could part with Kate Braddock—that seemed fair.

“And as for my ‘liaisons.’” No, he hadn’t forgotten that question. “I keep a strictly personal-professional line in all areas.”

“Excellent. Do you have any other questions for me?”

He hadn’t, but then changed his mind. “Do you have any annoying habits that will interfere with our ability to work together? Do you eat with your mouth open? Prefer meals laden with onions or garlic? Can’t function without coffee? A boyfriend or significant other that might object to my three a.m. calls? The last thing I need is a riled lover accusing me of trying to seduce you.” It was really none of his damn business, but she’d started it.

“No, sir. I’m practically perfect in every way.” She rose, expression absolutely serene. “And I have no interest in Wyoming for a ranch, but Montana, I hear, is very nice. You have twelve minutes before your call. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll review this contract.”

He opened his mouth to ask her what she meant and then snapped it shut again.
A few months before, when he’d been in the hospital, Armand had tossed an accusation his way in a fit of pique.

Armand had laughed. “You make fun now, but sooner or later you’re going to meet a woman who ties you up in knots. And we’ll see who is cracking jokes then.”

“Not gonna happen. I’ll find me some nice secretary who thinks the boss is her meal ticket, she’ll be all yes sir and no sir and thank you very much sir and we’ll have four kids and a dog and a summer ranch in Wyoming.” Richard had snorted. “Now, get the hell out of here and find your girl, or sources close to the prince are going to report you knocked her up.”

Armand was a dead man. “Of course.” He mentally applauded his steady voice, but respect shifted through him as he watched her leave his office. The room’s orderly appearance was a testament to Miranda’s handling of everything during his recovery—thank God she hadn’t left him then. Checking his watch after the door closed behind Kate, he picked up the phone and dialed the prince’s private line. Armand answered on the second ring.

“I take it Miss Braddock made it to her appointment on time?” Laughter danced behind the European accent.

“You’re a dick,” Richard said by way of answer. “And she’s perfect. So go ahead and chortle.”

Armand laughed. “Good. I have another call and Gretchen is giving me the eye. Time for another game tomorrow?”

“Sorry, your highness, some of us have to work for a living. How’s,” he paused and flipped open his tablet to look at his calendar. “Friday?”

“I’ll have to rearrange some items.”

“You’re the one who wants to play.” Richard appreciated the sentiment. “I have another call to make too. Give Anna my regards.”

“Right. Rick?” Worry coated his tone.

“Yeah?” Richard waited, Armand hadn’t been thrilled with his decision to go back to work and while he might be Richard’s most loyal client and oldest friend—he wasn’t the only one.

“Never mind.” The prince sighed, apparently ceding the argument without making it. “Don’t overdo it.” The last came out a direct order, but one made out of concern rather than arrogance. The call ended as abruptly as they’d begun it, but after more than a decade of friendship it didn’t bother him. Picking up Kate’s personnel file, he slid it into the bottom right drawer and locked it. He would read through the rest of it later. He checked his watch again. Another seven minutes until the conference call with the judge.

Fortunately, from the way Miranda organized his calendar, he accessed the file he needed on the tablet by choosing the date and the meeting. Reacquainting himself with the case took him four minutes more.

At two minutes until his phone was due to ring, Kate returned and set the contract down in front of him. She flipped to the next to last page and had circled one sub-section. “We need to amend this to say both parties and I will sign it.”

Curious, he reviewed the line.

This Agreement states the entire agreement between the parties concerning the disclosure of Confidential Information and supersedes any prior agreements, understandings, or representations with respect thereto.

Changing “the” to “both” would include him in the confidentiality clause of any information she might share with him. With sixty seconds on the clock, he crossed out the word, wrote in “both” and initialed it, before passing over the pen. She turned the sheets around and leaned over the desk. A hint of vanilla and hazelnut tickled his nostrils and he eyed the way she added her initials to each page and then signed the last one before passing him the pen back.

He added his signature and the phone rang. Claiming the handset, Kate straightened. “Richard Prentiss’s office, this is Kate. How may I help you?”

The afternoon flew by in a flurry of phone calls and Richard had to give Kate a hell of a lot of credit. She’d parachuted into the chaos and rode out the storm with an easy smile and cool demeanor. He was on his fifth call of the day, and weary as hell. Judge Ryan’s intractable position was sending his blood pressure skyrocketing, when she stood and set her digital tablet, steno pad, and pen on the desk, inviting his attention.

“Forgive me, Mr. Prentiss,” Kate had interjected in the midst of the judge’s tirade about the number of delays the case had experienced—none of which had anything to do with Richard’s recent stint in the hospital and subsequent recovery.

“Miss Braddock?” Richard stared at her. Interrupting a judge was never a good idea, but she didn’t wait for the man on the speakerphone to voice his objections.

“You have another call with Judge Wilkerson in five minutes and you need to take your medication.” She walked to the wet bar on the far side of his office, opened the fridge and retrieved a can of soda, a sandwich container, then nudged the fridge shut with her leg before retrieving a small prescription bottle from the shelf above.

“If you have Wilkerson in five, Prentiss, you should take your medication before the call.” Judge Ryan gruffed, his contrary tone less biting. “You have a continuance for one week. I expect the brief on my desk no later than Monday morning at nine or I will rule in favor of the plaintiff. Am I clear?”

Surprised, but unwilling to look the gift horse in the mouth, Richard straightened. “Yes, sir. Thank you, Judge Ryan.” The call clicked off and Kate set the clear plastic container holding a deli sandwich down in front of him, along with the can of regular Coke and the prescription bottle. Without missing a beat, she picked up her steno and added a notation regarding the brief, the case number, the time and date it was due.
“I don’t have a call with Wilkerson. How did you know I needed these?” Richard asked, but he opened the prescription bottle because she was right.

He was due for his medication.

Losing his spleen meant he had to take supplements regularly. Losing his kidney meant watching his liquid intake, hence the one can of soda he permitted himself per day, but how the hell had Kate known? They hadn’t had a chance to go over any of those details.

“Ms. Keen kept meticulous notes and set up several reminders in her calendar.” Kate turned the digital pad around and pointed to the message that had popped up. Remind Richard to take medication. Must be taken with food.

“Oh.” Mollified, he popped the can open, and tossed back his two pills. “And Judge Wilkerson?”
“According to the notes taped to the bottom of her keyboard, there are five judges’ calls never to be missed or ignored. Wilkerson sits at the top of the list and is labeled as a total PIA.” Kate’s voice betrayed no hint of humor, despite the gleam in her eyes. “I hazarded a guess that if the judges’ names warranted that type of documentation, they might give Judge Ryan room to walk back his temper.”

So she’d noticed the judge’s testy tone growing more recalcitrant through the call. “I don’t think I paid Miranda enough,” Richard mused then took a bite of the sandwich. “When you have a chance, pull Leonard v Johnson file. I want to go over the previous two continuances. They were from the plaintiff. This is the first time I’ve asked for one. But I have to wonder what pressure the judge is getting.” The judge had been more amenable on the first case he’d called about—one that had begun as a simple divorce—but the plaintiff was a highly respected plastic surgeon and he and his attorney had gone after the soon-to-be ex-wife with everything they had. The sheer malice in their initial filing had incited Richard’s protective instincts and he’d usurped the case from one of his associates. “And put a call into Mrs. Ramsey, let’s see if she has time to sit down with me this week.”

Kate nodded and added another note to the steno. “You have another phone call in thirty minutes. Do you want me to hold your calls so you can take a break?”

Did he look tired? Rubbing the back of his neck, he shook his head. “I’d rather get a few letters done. I’m supposed to be at a charity function at six-thirty—oh, that reminds me. Do you have evening wear?”

“Cocktail or formal?” She’d set the steno down then worked on her tablet.

“Both, but for tonight—cocktail.” The event was a minor one, but he hadn’t been able to do much for it over the intervening months and he wanted to put in an appearance. “We can go, mingle for about an hour and then get dinner and go over the rest of the week.” He’d devoured most of the sandwich, a hell of a lot hungrier than he’d realized. Of course, he’d skipped lunch to interview Kate then been on the phone since.

“Very well. I’ll send someone to pick up a dress for me.” She flipped the tablet around and passed it over to him. The case file for Leonard versus Johnson was open. Sliding his finger over the screen, he paged through. Kate retrieved the empty container and the prescription bottle, disposing of the first and returning the latter to the shelf.

“We can swing by on the way to it, if you think you can change fast.” It would save time. “And I can dictate a few letters in the car.” Richard grimaced and dragged his attention up from the file. “I’m sorry, Miss Braddock, you really are going to have to jump in the deep end this week. While I do demand a lot, it won’t always be this chaotic.”

“It’s not a problem. I’ll adjust and make sure I keep an array of clothing choices on hand for future events. I noticed you have the scholarship charity dinner on Thursday, but you RSVP’d as a maybe. Should I decline or accept it?”

“Accept. It was only a maybe to get Armand off my ass.” When his friend had been trying to manipulate him into declining any number of events so he’d stay home. “That will be full formal and I have a half-dozen clients who will also be attending in addition to the grand duke, so we’re not going to have a lot of time to enjoy the function. Do you need something to eat? I have more sandwiches stocked.” It was the one habit Miranda drilled into him. She had a service stock the fridge weekly and he had to eat at least half of them or she’d start canceling his appointments. I wonder if Miranda put that in her notes? Would Kate make the same kinds of threats?

“I’m fine, thank you. Water?” She’d retrieved two bottles and returned to the desk before he could nod. A line in the second continuance held his attention and he had to read it three times.

Leonard stipulated he’d suffered grievous injuries during an armed robbery in Johnson’s convenience store. The owner, Johnson, had also been injured—he’d sustained a gunshot wound to his shoulder. Total physical damages amounted to about fifteen thousand dollars, but loss of work and having to close his store for repairs while in the hospital had cost Johnson considerably more. Leonard’s suit cited Johnson’s refusal to cooperate with the armed robbers—identified as two men of Latin descent in their late teens, early twenties. Though they were wanted on a string of related crimes, neither subject had been apprehended.
When Leonard brought suit against Johnson, he maintained he’d been unable to work, had suffered mentally, physically, and emotionally following the attack and had a doctor diagnose him with PTSD. But the second continuance had been asked for and sustained because Leonard had to be out of town.

The judge had granted the request because Richard had been in the hospital and still recovering. Richard hadn’t thought much of it, but he’d also been on painkillers. Scrolling through the pages, he looked for the attending evidence attached to the continuance—where had Leonard needed to be that he couldn’t be in court?

Reaching for the phone, he punched in the number for one of the investigators he kept on retainer. “Hey, Mitch, it’s Richard.”

“Welcome back, man. How’s your first day?” A former member of the LAPD, Mitch Blake had taken medical disability after a drunk driver left him with a permanent limp and partial hearing loss, but neither injury had done anything to damage his sharp mind.

They’d met via a case when Richard had defended another officer in a civil suit. Mitch had been honest about his fellow officer’s anger management issues, but adamant that he’d been in a solid frame of mind during the arrest. After his accident, Richard had offered his services free of charge and they’d worked together on several cases since. Mitch was a straight shooter, and he’d helped Richard with other delicate cases including two relocations.

He trusted him.

“Busy as hell. Look, I know you’ve probably got a lot on your plate and this may be nothing, but I need a fast turnaround on some information.” Richard picked up a pen and twirled it around between two fingers. Across from him, Kate held up her notepad with a single question mark on it.

“Whatcha got?” Brisk and to the point—it was why he and Mitch worked so well together.
Shaking his head in answer to her silent query, he tapped his pen on the desk. “John Leonard, age 42. Lives at 4421 Wilkins Avenue—he stipulated that on April 14th he had to be out of town and was unable to attend court. Can you find out where he went?”

“Sure thing, boss. Anything else?”

“No, that’s all for now—anything you can pull together on that and if it smells fishy…?”

“Don’t worry, I’ll drop a line. Talk to ya soon.” Mitch hung up and Richard drummed his pen again. He’d missed something when he’d reviewed those papers and being medicated didn’t excuse it.
Not when Brett Johnson had hung his future on Richard defending him. If he lost, Johnson would lose his store, his life’s work and his retirement. The man didn’t deserve that.

One benefit of his own firm was the ability to take on any case he chose—like Johnson. His younger associates did a fair share of pro bono work, it was a requirement of their hiring into Prentiss and Associates, but some cases were personal for Richard and he kept them on the down low. Those details didn’t leave his office.

Kate had taken it upon herself to remove his can of Coke and he hadn’t finished it yet. Irritated, but forcing patience, he twisted the cap off the water bottle. After swallowing a long drink of water he nodded to her steno. She picked up her pen and looked at him expectantly. “Let’s draft a letter to Mr. Johnson and alert him to the continuance, dated today. Brett, please accept my apologies for the many delays your case has faced over the last few months. I spoke to and obtained a continuance in the discovery phase today due to just returning to the office from my recovery. I also have some questions regarding the previous continuance. All briefs will be filed with Judge Ryan’s office next Monday—add the date—and I will contact you when a trial date has been set. I know your concerns and I will do everything I can to resolve this matter prior to going to trial. I look forward to talking to you soon, sincerely—fill in the data.”

He took another drink and watched her flip the page to begin the next letter. They’d managed six before his next call. Since he could handle talking to Armand’s cousin Frankie about the upcoming release of her trust fund without Kate, he sent her out to take care of those letters.

Closing his eyes, Richard pinched the bridge of his nose. Alone, he could admit to the weariness dragging on him. He shouldn’t have tried to play so hard on the court. He didn’t have anything to prove with Armand—except he did. His best friend still blamed himself for the car accident and had all but buried Richard in bodyguards for the three months of his convalescence. Though Richard had read the reports from Armand’s security team, as well as the investigation opened by the police department, he remembered very little of the actual accident.

That bothered him. He thrived on details, but the vague shadow of crunching metal and falling were all he’d been able to piece together. The doctors had told him he may never remember it.

Though his case remained open, everyone—Armand included—believed the accident was tied to the same group that tried to kill Armand. Richard was the face of the family, and it didn’t matter that they had no conclusive proof, his best friend wouldn’t let it go. Richard’s injuries had scared Armand and he’d reacted accordingly.

Hell, he probably bribed that doctor to keep me on limited mobility.

Playing hard had been the only way to prove he was back up to snuff. Except—his side ached and he wanted that nap Kate had suggested earlier. Scrubbing a hand over his face, he hit the button for Kate’s desk. “I won’t typically ask for this, but I have to get on the phone with Francesca Grace to go over some inheritance issues. Do you mind heading down to the coffee kart in the lobby and picking me up a latte? Treat yourself to one too.”

“Not a problem, Mr. Prentiss. Are you sure you don’t want me to cancel the five o’clock call? You could have thirty minutes before we head to the function.”

No, he wasn’t sure. But he couldn’t afford to show weakness to anyone. “The coffee will be fine, thank you.”

He’d barely hung up and started to dial out again when the crash of a door slamming against the wall echoed from the outer office, followed by a very loud, very irate male voice.

Want to read more? Purchase your copy today!