Prologue & Chapter 1 of TROUBLE WALKS IN

Only 3 1/2 more weeks until Maddy and Ronan’s story hits shelves and e-readers! Here’s a sneak peek to wet your appetite!0001-42

PROLOGUE

The boy had been missing for twelve hours, and Ronan McGuire knew better than anyone that if they didn’t find the kid soon, the search could end in the worst possible way. It had been an unusually cold November, and when little David Newhart wandered away from his parents this morning in the park, he hadn’t been wearing a coat. The sun had gone down hours ago, and the temperature was close to freezing.

Ronan’s partner grew increasingly agitated as they climbed the steep incline of the hill near Turtle Pond, and hope fired brightly in Ronan’s chest. He knew the dog’s signals and could read him better than he could most people.

The boy was close.

Bowser whined loudly and tugged harder on the long leash, and Ronan swore under his breath. The enormous bloodhound had the best nose in the tristate area. Once he detected a scent, he rarely—if ever—failed to find what he was looking for. He tilted his snout to the air before spearing it back to the ground and turning left. Bowser’s lanky brown-and-black-furred body quivered with excitement, the way it did whenever the trail grew stronger.

The scent article they’d given Bowser, the missing boy’s hat, had given him a solid lead to follow, but this was more an art than a science. David had been missing for hours, and the gusty winds of late November had been blowing hard, making the search-and-rescue job that much more difficult. Well, for Ronan, it was a job. For Bowser, it was more like playing a big game of hide-and-seek. And there was nothing his dog loved more than finding what he was looking for.

Bowser kept his nose to the ground and trotted to the left toward a long stone wall. He followed the scent through the brush and dried leaves in an almost sideways direction along a wooded section of Central Park. Bowser was one of the most talented bloodhounds on the force and could detect scents up to a week old if he had to.

Tension settled in Ronan’s shoulders, and his muscles bunched as he wrapped the leather lead tighter around his hand. He scanned the area ahead, and a tickle of panic glimmered in his chest as it sometimes did when he was searching for a missing kid. Faint memories from years ago bubbled to the surface. He knew exactly how this little boy was feeling. Alone. Terrified. Cold.

“David?” Ronan shouted. “I’m Officer Ronan McGuire with the NYPD. Your mom and dad are worried about you. David, can you hear me?”

The wind whistling by his ears was the only answer. The glimmer of hope began to fade right before Bowser whimpered and made a sudden turn to the right, his long, sword-like tail bouncing wildly as he picked up the pace. A bitter gust of wind whisked through the woods, sending a chill up Ronan’s spine. Shit. Please let the kid be okay. Bowser dodged around a massive elm tree, and Ronan ran around behind him.

“David!”

That was when he spotted a dark lump…and it moved. Ronan’s heart thundered in his chest. He shone his flashlight over the area, and the breath rushed from his lungs. Got him. David was curled up in a ball in a pile of leaves at the base of the tree. Bowser barked and went right over, sniffing and licking at the boy before sitting down beside him protectively.

“I wanna go home,” David whimpered as he placed one quivering hand onto Bowser’s paw. “I want my mommy.”

“I gotcha, David.” Ronan squatted down and took off his coat before quickly wrapping it around the kid. “Bowser and I are gonna get you back to your mom and dad. They’re worried sick about you.”

“I’m cold.”

“I know, pal, but you’re safe now. Everything’s gonna be okay.”

He started rubbing the boy’s arms, but Bowser moved in and lay down right next to the kid, practically on top of him. David giggled through his sniffles and swiped at his eyes before snuggling up to the dog. Bowser was panting heavily, his long, pink tongue dangling from the side of his open mouth. The damn dog looked like he was smiling.

“Good boy.” Ronan repeated the phrase a few times, scratched Bowser’s ears, and gave him the praise he expected. “Nice job, buddy.”

Bowser licked his hand quickly, as though returning the kudos. Ronan crouched next to his panting K-9 and radioed for the other officers in the area.

Ronan loved his job, especially when it had a happy ending.

CHAPTER 1

“I told you that I’d be there, and I meant it.” Maddy Morgan pressed the iPhone harder against her ear. She was attempting to block out the sounds beyond her office door while her best friend pestered her to within an inch of her life. “I’m your maid of honor, for heaven’s sake. What? You think I’m gonna bail after everything you and Gavin have been through? Hell no!”

“Okay, well, you can’t blame me for double-checking, can you?” Jordan hesitated, her voice concerned. “We’ve hardly spoken. I mean, you haven’t been home since… It’s been over a year and…”

Maddy stared out the window that overlooked the hustle and bustle of Manhattan and sucked in a deep breath, her friend’s unfinished thought hanging in the air. She nibbled her lower lip and fought the sudden, unexpected swell of emotion. It had been fifteen months since Rick died and a full year since she had been back to the town she’d always called home.

At least, she had until recently.

“I know,” Maddy said quietly.

She swallowed the lump in her throat and refused to cry. She’d cried enough at Rick’s funeral and during the weeks following. No more tears. If Rick were here, he would tell her to put on her big girl panties and get on with life.

“I’m not missing your wedding,” she said firmly. “Jeez, Jordan. You and Gavin have waited sixteen years to finally get hitched. Hell, you two would have gotten married last Christmas if it weren’t for me.”

“That’s not true,” Jordan said firmly.

“Bull.” Maddy laughed.

“Okay, well, it wasn’t the only reason.” Jordan replied. “Gavin’s parents wanted to throw us a huge Christmas wedding, and four months wouldn’t have been enough time to pull it all together. Deciding to wait a year has been a win-win. My future mother-in-law had plenty of time to do her thing, and we all had time to properly grieve for Rick. But I’m still worried about you…”

“I’m fine, Jordan, and I promise… I’m gonna be there to witness your dream coming true.”

“Okay, but—”

“No buts.”

“Yo, Maddy.” The increasingly irritating voice of Chris Drummond shot into the room as he barged in. “That blond, the Brenda chick—are you gonna to take her out to an open house this weekend, or should I? And what about those newlyweds? I know you’ve been slammed. I could take them out to see the new listings, if you want.”

“Hang on, Jordan,” Maddy said tightly.

She covered the phone with her hand and leveled an irritated gaze at her colleague. She knew that Terrence, the owner of the realty agency, had hired Drummond because he had an amazing reputation for selling and one of the best portfolios in the business, but he was a letch. A letch that thought anyone with boobs wanted him. Maddy had learned a long time ago that big talent usually meant even bigger egos.

Unfortunately, this talent was also turning out to be an asshole. She had already reported him once to Terrence for inappropriate advances on the young women in the office. Big talent or not, he was making her tired of him and his misogynistic bullshit. And lately, there had been attempts to steal her clients.

“Did you happen to notice that my door was closed?”

“Yeah.” He leaned in the doorway with his usual casual arrogance. Tall, slim, well dressed, and always perfectly coiffed, he was considered good-looking by most. But the air of entitlement he wore like a cloak was a turnoff as far as Maddy was concerned. Besides, she would never date a colleague.

“I’m on a call.”

“Right.” He jutted his thumb over his shoulder. “Anyway, should I take that Brenda chick out and, uh, show her the ropes? We could take the newlyweds, the, uh…”

“The Bartholemews,” Maddy finished for him. “No, I can handle my client list. Thank you.”

“Fine, then let me take Brenda out.”

The smarmy smile on his face gave Maddy pause. He’d been hitting on the assistants, who were savvy New Yorkers and more than capable of handling themselves, but now he was moving on to the young real estate agent. Brenda was a recent college grad from the Midwest. She was pretty, smart, and naive.

A prime target for a guy like Drummond.

“No,” Maddy said firmly. “Terrence asked me to handle her training. Thank you, and please close the door on your way out.”

His smile faded, and a hard, cold look settled in his eyes. Maddy had moved up the ranks quickly since joining Cosmopolitan Realty House, and her rise hadn’t gone unnoticed by Drummond. He hated not being number one, but she suspected that being second to a woman was a bigger insult.

“Sure thing,” he murmured.

Drummond left but neglected to shut the door. Maddy crossed the room, pausing only to tell Sharon, her assistant, to hold her other calls before she closed her door once more.

“Sorry about that, Jordan.” She caught a glimpse of her reflection in the window and grimaced before running one hand through her unruly brown curls. “I’m coming into town a week before the wedding so I can help you with whatever you need. Y’know, all that bridesmaid stuff. I mean, I’m not a real girlie girl, but it’ll be fun to hang out. And tell Gavin he better not try to horn in on our girls’ night out. It might only be the two of us, but there’s a no-boys-allowed rule in effect for that event.”

“I wouldn’t worry about that,” Jordan said through a chuckle. “All four of his brothers are coming in early as well. From what I hear, Ronan has quite the bachelor party planned. Speaking of Ronan, why don’t you two ride back to Old Brookfield together? I mean, you’re both in the city, and he is the best man.”

“Yeah, that’s not gonna happen. I’ll take my own car, thank you very much. I’m staying at the Old Brookfield Inn, and Ronan will be at his parents’ house, obviously.” Maddy’s eyes narrowed, and the smile on her face grew. “Your matchmaking scheme hasn’t worked, Jordan. But I’ll give you and Gavin an A for effort.”

“What are you talking about?” Jordan asked with feigned innocence. “When you moved to the city last year, Gavin merely suggested that Ronan should look out for you. He’s been a cop there for over a decade. Besides, I heard through the McGuire brother grapevine that you two have been going running on the weekends, so Ronan can’t be all bad.”

Nope. –That was half the problem. He was exactly the right kind of bad.

They had gone jogging in Central Park almost every weekend for the past several months, but Maddy had made it clear from the start: she wasn’t interested in dating. Not him, nor anyone else. Friends? Sure. Romance? No way.

Her heart couldn’t take another turn through the shredder. Dating a cop, just because he also happened to be one of the sexiest men God ever put on this earth, would not be a smart move.

Besides, Ronan had a reputation as a total ladies’ man.

Not that she could blame any woman for taking a ride on that handsome train. When he flashed that lopsided grin and his bluish-green eyes crinkled at the corners, it took superwoman strength for Maddy not to drop her panties. He was a combination of mischievous little boy and irresistible alpha male—a deadly pairing.

Ronan McGuire was wickedly sexy. The worst part was that he knew it.

“Well, yeah,” Maddy said quickly. She sat at her desk and spun the chair to face the window so she could see the rest of the world. Living and working in this city made her feel like a rat in a cage sometimes. “Running around, getting sweaty, and panting in the cold is not exactly dating, Jordan.”

“Sweaty and panting sounds promising,” Jordan teased.

Maddy’s face flushed. “That’s not what I meant.” She quickly added, “I was talking about Bowser.”

“Sure,” her friend said slowly. “Sure you were.”

“You know Ronan doesn’t go anywhere without that dog. Speaking of which, are you prepared to have a drooling animal at your wedding?”

“Oh fine, change the subject.” Jordan sighed. “Any chance I can talk you into coming for Thanksgiving?”

“Sorry, babe. I’m slammed.”

“Then how about staying for Christmas? The wedding is on the twenty-third. Come on. Please? The girls would love it,” she said, referring to her two adorable daughters. “You’re going to be here for a week, so what’s a couple more days? You said they were closing your office between Christmas and New Year’s anyway.”

Maddy had never been part of big family holidays, and that had been fine with her, but the pleading tone in Jordan’s voice was starting to make her rethink her decision.

“You know the holidays were never a big deal for me, Jordan. My mom hated celebrating them after my dad died, and then once she was gone, I didn’t really want to. And besides,” she added quickly, “Rick and I never even got a tree or anything. He was always working, and so was I.”

“I know, but I hate to think of you alone in that big city on Christmas. Again. It’s bad enough you wouldn’t come last year. Please think about it?”

“I’m hosting a huge New Year’s Eve party for my clients—it’s at my apartment.”

“You could leave on the twenty-sixth and still be back in plenty of time to be party ready,” Jordan persisted. “I’m sorry, but I’ll have to call bullshit on that excuse. You and I both know your assistant already has the whole shindig tied up and ready to go.”

Jordan was right. The party was a lame reason not to spend the holiday with them. Besides, it was all being catered, and the invitations had been sent. What did Maddy really have to do other than show up and schmooze? And what was here for her on Christmas? She didn’t even have a cat or a fish to feed.

Ugh. She felt more pathetic by the second.

“Okay,” Maddy said with a dramatic sigh. “I’ll think about it. Jeez, when did you become such a nudge?”

“Since I had two children and learned that being a nudge can sometimes be quite effective.”

A knock on Maddy’s door sent a flicker of irritation up her back. But when she spun around, Sharon’s tearstained face stopped her cold.

“Girl, I have to go.” A knot of dread curled in her gut. “I’ll see you in a few weeks. Give Gracie and Lilly a kiss from Aunt Maddy.”

Maddy hit End and set the phone on her desk. Her legs felt like Jell-O as she rose to her feet. Sharon was still weeping while she closed the door behind her, and before it shut, Maddy saw two of the other agents in the office crying.

“Sharon, what is it?”

“Th-they found her.”

“Who?” Maddy asked shakily, her fingertips pressing into the mahogany desk. But she knew the answer before Sharon said it.

“Lucille Bowman.” The young woman swiped at her eyes and let out a shuddering sob. “She’s dead.”

***

A haunting rendition of “Amazing Grace” spilled from the organ filling the small church, and Maddy wiped the tears from her eyes. The last time she’d heard this song had been at Rick’s funeral. A new surge of sadness and grief welled up inside as the pallbearers carried Lucille’s casket silently toward the open double doors.

The sounds of the city spilled in, buzzing beneath the mournful melody—a bitter reminder of how cruel life was. The world outside went on as though nothing had happened. While Lucille’s death had barely been noted on the evening news, it was far more personal for Maddy and her coworkers. According to police, the last call Lucille had made was to her husband, saying she was going to meet a client at an open house. The client had called the office later that day to say Lucille had never arrived.

Lucille’s husband kept his vacant gaze fixed to the ground. He lumbered silently behind his late wife’s casket, seemingly unaware of anyone or anything around him. Grief and shock clung to him like an invisible shroud. Maddy knew that feeling all too well.

He and Lucille didn’t have any children and, according to a few of the other realtors, had been married only a couple of years. People said that as though it would somehow make his loss less horrible. Did the amount of time he and Lucille had been together even matter? One year or ten, a loss was a loss.

The remaining mourners filed out, all of them in various states of grief, but Maddy remained quietly in the back row. She had spoken with Lucille only a few times, but that didn’t stop her from wanting to pay her respects—but without overstepping her bounds. The little church in Old Brookfield had been full for Rick’s funeral. Even though she couldn’t possibly have said who was there and who wasn’t, the presence of every individual was a comfort to her. The least she could do was offer the same to Lucille’s husband.

After everyone had left, Maddy rose to her feet and slipped out of the pew. She could still go to the burial and reception afterward. The invitation had been extended to everyone at the end of the service. But those events felt like they were for close friends and family, and Maddy didn’t qualify for either role. No, it was probably best if she dragged her butt back to work. After all, it wasn’t like she had anyone waiting for her back at her apartment.

Maddy tugged her black wool coat closed and tied the sash, bracing herself for the brisk air that awaited her outside. As she passed, she gave a polite smile and nod to one of the ministers rearranging some pamphlets in the vestibule.

Life went on, it would seem, even for the clergy.

When Maddy pushed open the heavy wooden door, a gust of brisk November wind rushed over her, making her suck in a sharp breath. Why did this city seem cruel and cold at every turn? The stubborn wind had pulled several strands of her curly hair free from her lame attempt at an updo. She pushed her unruly locks from her eyes and started down the stone steps, prepared to go back to her desk and stare at the computer. She had cleared her calendar today, but returning to an empty apartment was simply too depressing an option. At least at the office, she’d have the illusion of not being alone.

Maddy had made up her mind to hail a cab by the time she reached the sidewalk, but when she saw who was waiting for her, she stopped short.

Not much surprised her in Manhattan anymore—she’d seen just about everything in her year living here, including a woman walking a ferret on a leash, a naked homeless guy streaking down Park Avenue, and an old man strolling through Central Park with a squawking parrot on his shoulder.

But she never expected to find this.

Standing beside a lamppost, brimming with confidence and with his K-9 partner by his side, was Ronan McGuire. Dressed in his dark-blue NYPD uniform, he looked every bit the ruggedly handsome hero that he was. His cap obscured her view of his thick ebony hair, but those pale bluish-green eyes peered at her from beneath a furrowed brow. His tall, broad-shouldered frame was covered from head to toe against the bitter air, and the bulletproof vest he wore only served to accentuate his size.

How did Ronan manage to look devastatingly gorgeous in a standard-issue uniform? She’d seen plenty of other cops in this city, but not one of them hummed with masculine sexuality the way Ronan did. He reeked of calm control and steely strength. On the surface, he was cool and steady, but beneath was a distinctly powerful energy. She knew, without a doubt, that he could burst into action in a split second.

The guys brushing past her on Park Avenue, the ones dressed in thousand-dollar suits, didn’t look half as sexy as Ronan did in his uniform.

I bet he looks pretty good out of it too.

Bowser, an enormous bloodhound who seemed to delight in startling Maddy whenever possible, barked loudly. She flinched as Ronan’s constant companion interrupted her naughty train of thought, and her face heated. How long had she been standing there staring at him? Based on the slight smirk curving Ronan’s lips, it was longer than she’d like to admit.

“Hey,” Maddy said, trying to collect herself. She crossed the sidewalk to greet Ronan but kept a healthy distance from the two of them. “What are you doing here? Did you just happen to be in the neighborhood? Because if I’m not mistaken, this isn’t your usual haunting ground.”

“This is most definitely not my neighborhood. Too rich for my blood,” Ronan scoffed. He gathered Bowser’s leash, wrapping it around his hand, before he pushed himself off the post and inched closer. “Our shift starts in a couple of hours. We came to check on you.”

Her gaze flicked briefly to Bowser. He was staring at her as usual. She had never met an animal as tuned in to people as he was. But then, he was a search-and-rescue K-9, so tuning in was part of his job.

“Me?” Maddy stilled. “I’m fine, really,” she said in a shakier voice than she expected.

Even she didn’t believe it. Nope. Not okay.

“Your friend was murdered, and you just attended her funeral.” Ronan leaned in and lowered his voice. “Don’t give me that. There’s not a damn fine thing about this whole crappy situation.”

Something in Maddy’s chest crumbled a little at the tenderness in his voice. How long had it been since someone had expressed concern for her well-being? It felt like forever. Still, she suspected there was more to it than that.

“You’ve seen things like this before,” Maddy whispered. “Does it ever get any easier?”

“No,” he said quietly. Bowser whined and licked Ronan’s hand in a sweet, almost reassuring gesture. “Sucks every time. Nothing easy about it.”

Ronan and Bowser had been part of searches that ended badly. He’d obviously been affected by those experiences, and knowing that he’d remained unjaded by the cruelty of his job somehow made him even more attractive.

Bowser, who was sitting dutifully at Ronan’s feet, let out a low whine and snuffled loudly. Sometimes Maddy was convinced that dog was more human than half the people in this city.

“No…I don’t imagine there would be.” Maddy adjusted the purse slung over her shoulder, trying to squash a fresh swell of emotion. She pulled her leather gloves from her pocket and tugged them on while avoiding Ronan’s inquisitive stare. “I mean, it’s sad. It’s beyond sad, the whole situation is horrible, but—”

“What are you doing now?” he asked abruptly. “Everyone else is gone. Since you’re still here, I’m figuring that you opted not to go on to the burial. And knowing you, that means you’re going back to work.”

Maddy opened her mouth to argue with him but snapped it shut. He’d hit the nail on the head. Ronan’s lopsided grin widened.

“I-I have work to do,” she sputtered.

“Really?” He tilted his head and narrowed those beautiful eyes. They looked more blue today than green.

“Yes, really.”

“Because if I had to guess, I’d say you were gonna go back to that fancy office of yours and stare at your computer or surf the Internet. Maybe play some solitaire or ?”

Why, oh why, does he have to be so damn observant?

Maddy wasn’t sure if it was comforting or irritating to have someone see her so clearly. Maybe it was both? She had started to get used to the anonymity of this city, the sense of disconnection from other people. She’d left Old Brookfield to give herself distance from Rick’s memory and the well-meaning but meddlesome members of her small community.

No one here knew her past, or even cared enough to ask. Her life in Manhattan was strictly business, which made her feel safely cocooned, sheltered from painful memories. She remained insulated from having to dig past surface pleasantries. Ronan wasn’t like that. He was a cop, and his desire to find the truth was evident in everything he did.

“Well, smarty-pants.” Maddy folded her arms over her breasts, suddenly feeling exposed. “For your information, I don’t play Candy Crush.”

“Farm Heroes ?” he asked playfully.

“No,” Maddy said through a bubble of laughter. She swatted him on the arm and tried not to smile while avoiding his gaze. “I don’t do any of that stuff.”

“How about coffee?” He offered his arm and jutted his head toward the corner. “You do that, don’t you?”

“Yes,” Maddy said slowly. She flicked her gaze to his elbow and sighed dramatically. “You aren’t gonna quit until I agree to go, are you?”

“Nope.” His grin widened. “After all these years, you should know how persistent we McGuire boys are. Carolyn and Charles didn’t raise any quitters.”

“I can see that.”

“C’mon, and I won’t even try to pretend it’s a date,” Ronan prodded. He wobbled his elbow at her. “Don’t make me look bad in front of Bowser.”

“Well, I certainly wouldn’t want to be responsible for that,” she said dramaticaly. “Coffee it is.”

Maddy slipped her arm through his and shivered, the warmth of his body seeping through the layers of wool. Her gut reaction was to snuggle deeper against him and his rock-hard body, but she resisted, straightening her back. She couldn’t afford to dip beneath the surface and touch the raw emotions lingering there. That would get her nowhere, and she refused to be reduced to a weepy woman in the middle of the street. If Ronan noticed her subtle shift away from him, he didn’t comment on it.

They walked in silence, arm in arm, with the bloodhound trotting dutifully at Ronan’s side. They approached a Starbucks, but instead of crossing Fifty-Sixth Street, Ronan led her straight toward one of the street vendors.

“It’ll have to be coffee and a walk.” He jutted a thumb at his partner. “Starbucks isn’t big on having dogs in their establishments. Besides, our squad car is parked around the corner. How about coffee and a ride home?”

“That’s fine by me.” Maddy sucked in a deep breath of cold air. “Sitting in a crowded coffee shop with half the population on their laptops doesn’t sound appealing. But a walk sounds great.”

“I thought you’d say that.” He nudged her gently and smirked. “But don’t worry, I know you’re not a cheap date.”

“It’s not a date. It’s coffee.” Maddy kept her tone light. “We’ve already been through this, McGuire. I’m not dating anyone, so don’t take it personally.”

“Can’t blame a guy for trying.”

They stopped at the truck, and she slipped her arm from his before quickly shoving her hands in the pockets of her coat. The cold air slithered under her clothes with surprising speed as the warmth of his body against hers became a memory. Ronan made quick work of ordering their coffee and, to her surprise, knew exactly how she took it.

“I know it’s not that fancy French stuff you like, but it’ll do in a pinch.”

“Impressive,” Maddy said, taking the steaming cup from his hand. “You nailed it.”

“I pay attention.” Ronan slid a sidelong glance at her while he handed money to the guy in the truck. “We’ve been going for a run followed by coffee almost every week for months. What kind of a cop would I be if I couldn’t even remember how you take your coffee?”

“You love being right, don’t you?” She tilted her chin, daring him to deny it.

“Yes.” Ronan inched closer, cradling his cup in one hand and holding Bowser’s leash in the other. Confident and in total control as always. “But especially when it comes to you.”

She was about to ask him what exactly he meant by that, but Bowser started walking toward the corner. They strolled side by side, but she kept her eyes on the pedestrians ahead of them. If she looked at Ronan, he might get a peek at the conflicting swirl of emotions currently running through her.

“Okay, explain, please.” Maddy shivered again, but not from the cold. “Why do you want to be right when it comes to me?”

“Because you’re this big, bad businesswoman who acts like she’s got it all under control.”

“And I don’t?” She let out a short laugh. “Gee, thanks.”

“That’s not what I said, and definitely not what I meant.”

They stopped at the corner. Maddy was about to cross, but Ronan grabbed her arm, pulling her back just as a car blew through the light. If it hadn’t been for him, she would have gotten hit.

“Shit,” Maddy hissed. “Damn taxi drivers.”

She turned her eyes to his, and his grip on her tightened, almost imperceptibly. Maddy’s heart thundered in her chest. Was it from the near miss with the cab, or the feel of Ronan’s fingers curled around her bicep?

“I like surprising you,” he said quietly. Bowser made a snuffling sound and sat between them, but Ronan didn’t take his eyes off hers. “How am I doing so far?”

“Today?” Maddy asked quietly. “Well, to be honest, you shocked the hell out of me by showing up at the church. Why did you come?”

“Are you serious?” His brows furrowed. “I thought that would be obvious.”

“Not to me.” Maddy shook her head slowly and studied him, clutching the cardboard coffee cup with both hands.

“I figured it would be a tough day for you.” His mouth set in a tight line before he completed the thought she could practically see floating over his head. “Going to the funeral couldn’t have been easy, and I thought you could use a friend. I didn’t think you’d want to be alone.”

“I didn’t,” she whispered. “Thank you.”

The wind blew over them, sending her hair flying into her eyes. It was perfect timing, making the tears that welled up easy enough to explain away. Maddy tugged the strands of hair aside and nodded before turning her attention to the passing cars.

“See, Bowser?” Ronan scratched the bloodhound’s head, which elicited a loud bark from the dog. “Right again.”

Maddy burst out laughing in spite of the surge of emotion and wiped discreetly at her eyes. “No one likes a know-it-all, McGuire.”

“Maybe not,” he said with a wide grin. “But I still surprised you. Come on, the light changed. Let’s cross before another taxi tries to run you over.”

As they made their way to the safety of the other side, Maddy had a feeling that there would be more surprises where Ronan was concerned.

That was the part that frightened her.

***

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THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE VAMPIRE: Chapter One

Trixie and Dakota’s story will be here 4 weeks from today! Each week leading up to the release, I’ll post a new chapter on my website. I can’t wait for you guys to join these two on their adventure. Hang on…it’s one helluva ride!

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Chapter One

Hidden within the lush branches of the towering tree, Trixie crouched low to avoid hitting her head on a dangling clump of pinecones. This had been her usual spot ever since Chelsea moved in a year ago, but those freaking pinecones always got tangled in her hair. Uncomfortable as it was, this location gave her a clear view into the kitchen and family room of the tiny house. The thick scent of the pine needles filled Trixie’s nose as she sat motionless amid the branches, unnoticed by the human woman inside the little white clapboard cottage.

Trixie’s throat tightened with emotion. With her enhanced hearing, she picked up Chelsea’s tuneless hum as she washed dishes in the small sink. She seemed content and peaceful. A combination of pride and sadness swirled inside Trixie–but not regret. That was one emotion she never allowed herself to entertain. Everyone made hard choices; living with the consequences of some choices was harder than making them.

She shouldn’t be here. But she couldn’t manage to stay away, either. Not for long, anyway. Trixie could go maybe two or three months without checking on the girl, but then the nagging pull of worry would drag her back.

Was Chelsea safe? Was she happy?

Those were the only two questions that Trixie ever wanted answered. Based on the satisfied, wistful smile on Chelsea’s sweet face, the answer to both right now was a resounding ‘yes’.

Trixie adjusted her position on the thick branch, the treads of her combat boots digging into the rough bark. It hadn’t always been that way; there had been difficult times. Times when Trixie hadn’t been able to stop herself from intervening. She had only wanted to give Chelsea a gift—an anonymous gift–but when Olivia found out about it she was freaking furious. The vampire community did not look upon meddling in human lives fondly. That didn’t matter.

All that mattered was making sure that Chelsea was okay.

The alarm on Trixie’s cellphone vibrated in the pocket of her jeans. She swore under her breath and pulled it out before quickly shutting it off. The club would be opening soon and she had to go back to get the bar stocked and ready. She glanced at Chelsea one last time before shooting into the night sky. Maybe tomorrow, after the party, she would come back for another quick visit.

As long no one found out, what could it hurt?

***

Trixie couldn’t remember the last time she went to a little girl’s birthday party but it certainly wasn’t since becoming a vampire.

Olivia and Doug might have been two of the world’s most powerful vampires, but they had also become the first vampire parents in recorded history. Today was their daughter Emily’s second birthday and they were throwing her a big old party, complete with birthday cake and balloons.

Trixie had gone back and forth all day long about whether or not to attend.

Being around little Emily was bittersweet on a regular day and the birthday celebration would only heighten Trixie’s struggle. But choosing not to go would have been selfish. Trixie’s personal drama wasn’t Emily’s fault, and she didn’t want to disappoint the adorable little redheaded cherub. Not only that, Emily was Olivia’s daughter and since Olivia was Trixie’s maker, that made her family.

Not showing up would have been rotten.

Olivia would have understood if Trixie bailed out; she knew her better than anyone else. But Olivia’s Bloodmate, Doug, wouldn’t understand her absence from such a celebrated event. Neither would the other members of the coven.

Nope. Trixie decided to do what she always did. She’d put on a smile, make a wise-ass comment or two, and act like nothing and nobody bothered her.

 

A familiar voice pulled her from her thoughts as she strode down the stone hallways of the Presidium’s underground facility, buried deep beneath Fort Tryon Park and The Cloisters in New York City,

“Well, smack my ass and call me Sally.”

The deep southern drawl echoed around her, stopping Trixie dead in her tracks. A shiver of lust whispered beneath her skin as it usually did whenever he was nearby, but she swiftly shoved it aside.
“Okay, Sally.” Trixie rolled her shoulder and fought the buzz of attraction. “But you can smack your own ass.”

“What’s the matter, darlin’?” The rumbling baritone of his voice soaked with that southern twang, drifted over her shoulder but she didn’t spare him a glance. Trixie continued toward Olivia and Doug’s apartment door, forcing herself to put one foot in front of the other. “Don’t I even get a hello?”

“Hello, Dakota,” she said, with a roll of her eyes.

Coming to this little gathering for Emily was difficult enough and his arrival only ratcheted her anxiety up a notch. Damn it. Why wasn’t he out on patrol? Over the past few months, the cocky and admittedly gorgeous sentry, had become more and more present in her little corner of the universe.

Trixie fiddled with the box in her hands, the one she’d wrapped carefully with the pink and white skull and crossbones paper. She didn’t even bother to put a card with it. Everyone would know who’d brought it. She was the only coven member with bright pink hair and a penchant for skulls and crossbones, after all.

“That your present for little Emily?” He asked. “You wrapped it real nice.”

He got closer by the second.

“No,” Trixie snorted. “I just like carrying around a gift wrapped box for the hell of it. You know, for shits and giggles.”

She was being a snot but she couldn’t help herself.

Trixie kept her gaze pinned to the mammoth mahogany door at the end of the hallway and tried not to notice that he’d sidled up next to her, his stride matching hers.

Dakota Shelton, the newest sentry for the Presidium, the vampire goverment, was not an easy man to ignore.

His six foot two inch broad shouldered frame towered over her easily but there was something else about him that set her on edge. It was the way he carried himself. He moved effortlessly and casually, as if he was just the good-old boy from Texas he claimed to be.

But Trixie knew better.

He was a sentry, a member of the elite vampire police force, and he was anything but good. Beneath that easy breezy charm lurked an executioner who could kill her, and anyone else nearby, in the blink of an eye. Dakota was deadly, stealthy, and full of swagger and that was probably why she found him undeniably attractive.

She never could steer clear of dangerous men.

If Trixie La Roux had one talent in this shitty crazy world, it was picking the wrong guy. As a human, her poor choices in men constantly got her into trouble. When Olivia had found her in the abandoned subway tunnels of Manhattan, Trixie had just had her heart stomped on by yet another guy. He’d betrayed her, thrown her away and tossed her aside like she was nothing.

Men lied.

They did and said anything to get what they wanted.

They made promises that were never kept.

In the end she was always alone.

Abandoned.

Worthless.

She was powerless….until she became a vampire.

Once Trixie was turned, she slipped easily into the strength and independence that came with immortality. Being a vamp was clear and uncomplicated. There was no guesswork about how to navigate the world and better yet, there was no addiction. She had finally been freed of the drugs that had kept her prisoner as a human.

She refused to be addicted to anyone or anything ever again.

“So what’s in the box, darlin’?” He inched closer. “I bet it’s real nice.”

“Quit calling me that, would ya?”

“Why?” His grin broadened. “What would you prefer? Sweetie pie? Honey bee? Or maybe, sugar?”

“As if!” Trixie snorted with a laugh. In spite of how sexist it was to call her, or any woman by pet names, she found herself surprisingly amused. “How about if you try using my name? Like, I totally have one, thank you very much. Jeez, get with the program, cowboy. Don’t you know that it’s chauvinistic to refer to a woman with names like that?”

“Come on, now,” he sighed. “I’m just bein’ my normal self, is all, Miss Trixie.”

“Not Miss Trixie,” she said with waning patience. “Trixie. Okay? Like, just plain old Trixie.”

“Girl,” he said through a laugh, “you are anythin’ but plain.”

“And you are anything but normal.” She chuckled and sliced a sidelong glance in his direction. “Sally.”

“Why are you always lookin’ to pick a fight with me?” Dakota asked, stopping in front of the Czars’ apartment door. “Were you this feisty as a human?”

“I guess you’ll never know.” Trixie stuck her tongue out at him. “I’m all vampire and being feisty is totally my thing, man.”

“Damn, woman. If you ask me, Olivia should train you as a sentry and put some of that fire in your belly to work. Maybe we could get you out there and kickin’ a little ass. Y’know…let you blow off a little steam.”
Trixie had been about to knock on the door. Her fist stopped an inch away from the mahogany surface and irritation mixed with anxiety flickered up her spine. She dropped her hand to her side and turned slowly toward the man who was quickly becoming a total pain in the butt.

“Is that so?” She asked in a deceptively sweet voice. “You think I should kick some ass?”

He shifted his body so they were now toe to toe. Trixie’s gut instinct was to step back and increase the distance between them, because getting too close to him was dangerous—for many reasons. But she held her ground even though it went against her better judgement.

Backing down wasn’t her style, at least until she met this guy. He made her want to run to him and run away from him all at the same time. It was more than a little confusing.

Dakota’s arms hung at his sides and even though they were always hidden beneath his long leather sentry coat, she had a hunch they were thick and well defined. His pale blue eyes, that sometimes glinted almost silver, crinkled at the corners as a grin curved his firmlooking lips. He leaned closer and his scent, a mixture of sandalwood and leather, filled the air around them.

In spite of the warning bells that went off in her head, the heat of desire pooled in her belly.

Beneath the thick scent of lust, though, lay the pungent aroma of silver from the heavy arsenal hidden within his coat. The reminder of who he really was broke the spell.

You’re playing with fire, she thought.

“Yes, ma’am.” His grin widened, as he looked her up and down in one slow lazy pass, lingering briefly on her breasts before finally locking gazes with her again. “You look like you were made for it. In fact, if you ever wanna learn the ropes, I’d be happy to teach you a thing or two.”

If Trixie didn’t know better, she’d swear the man was flirting with her and egging her on. She let out a short laugh and shook her head slowly. He had no idea who he was dealing with. If Dakota wanted to play a game of flirting chicken, he was no match for her. In the field of battle he would be the undeniable victor but flirting was her specialty.

She shouldn’t feed into his taunting, but Trixie never did know when to quit. Besides, there was something about this vampire that kept her coming back for more.

“I doubt that there’s much you could teach me, cowboy.” Trixie kept her voice low, barely above a whisper and moved closer, so their bodies were mere inches apart. His eyes widened slightly as she met his challenge. “And if I’m going to kick some ass… I’m totally gonna start with yours.”

“That so?” Dakota pulled a lollipop out of his pocket before quickly unwrapping it and popping it into his mouth.

“What kind of vampire sucks on human candy?” Trixie arched one eyebrow. “What’s with that, anyway? That is like way weird.”

“I enjoy the way they taste, that’s all.”

“Yeah? Well, it’s strange.” She tilted her chin defiantly. “I should kick your butt for that offense alone.”

“Easy there, darlin’.” He slid the sucker from his lips and pointed it at her. His voice dropped to a low rumble, as he leaned closer and murmured, “Your threat sounds more like a promise. If you’re not careful, I’ll have a mind to make you keep it.”

The sweet scent of cinnamon filled her nose and mingled with the dizzying buzz of lust, which was why Trixie barely noticed that the door to the apartment had opened. She blinked and stepped back, suddenly and acutely aware of her body’s intense reaction to the nearness of his. When she finally tore her gaze from Dakota’s she found Doug holding the door open, looking at her and Dakota suspiciously.

“I thought I heard you two out here.” Doug stepped back and gestured for them to come in. “We were waiting for you before we brought out Emily’s cake. Come on in and let’s get my baby girl’s party started.”
“Right.” Trixie cracked the knuckles on her right hand and handed him the present. “I was just about to knock.”

“Uh-huh.” Doug glanced between them and nodded slowly. He’d been a homicide detective in his human life and that made getting anything past him more than a little difficult. “Well, no need to knock. You two are family. Come on.”

Doug took the gift and headed into the apartment. Before Trixie could force her feet to move, Dakota slipped past her and whispered, “I’d say that round goes to me. Wouldn’t you?”

Trixie opened her mouth to respond but snapped it shut when her sibling Maya came running over and wrapped her up in a bouncy hug. Maya’s long blonde hair obscured Trixie’s view as Dakota strolled casually into the apartment.

“I’m so glad you’re finally here,” Maya squealed. She must have noticed how annoyed Trixie was because her giddiness faded quickly. Maya glanced over her shoulder at Dakota before stepping into the hallway and closing the door behind her. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing,” Trixie lied. She tried to get past Maya to the door but her sister blocked the way. “Come on, Maya. It’s nothing. Let’s go inside.”

“Yeah, right,” Maya said, with a roll of her big blue eyes. “Are you gonna tell me what’s happening between you and Dakota or not?”

“There is nothing happening.” Trixie placed both hands on Maya’s shoulders. “Other than the fact that he’s freaking annoying me. Now move it.”

“Mmm-hmm. I knew it.” Maya’s eyes narrowed and a smile curved her pink lips. “You like him,” she said in a conspiratorial whisper. She poked Trixie in the chest. “Ha! I knew it. You’re so full of it.”

“Shut up.” Trixie slapped a hand over her sister’s mouth but Maya shoved it aside. “Not so loud.”

“Sorry,” she said in a barely audible voice. “But you two have been flirting forever! Why don’t you just sleep with the guy and get it out of your system? I mean, seriously, everyone knows you two have the hots for each other. Why not just go for it? I mean, let’s be honest, it’s not like you’re shy. You’ve gotten it on with a bunch of human guys, why not give a vamp like him a chance?” She arched one eyebrow. “You have to admit, he’s a hottie.”

That was an understatement.

Dakota might be a tall gorgeous vampire with a naughty twinkle in his eye and a jacked body, but all Trixie said was, “Not gonna happen. It’s too complicated.”

“Why?”

“Because I can glamour a human, okay? I can’t sleep with him once or twice and move on. He’s a vampire, and you know we can’t glamour another vamp. The human dudes never remember me, or what happened. There’s simply pleasure for everyone. No muss. No fuss and nobody gets hurt. That is the only kind of sex I’m interested in.”

“I think you’re shortchanging yourself…and him.” Maya tucked her long blonde hair behind her ear before fiddling with the end of the platinum strands. “Maybe he only wants to have fun too? Aren’t you being kind of presumptuous to think he’d automatically want a relationship?”

“Maya, Dakota is a sentry, okay? The guy isn’t going anywhere. He will be patrolling this city for at least the next fifty years and since I have no intention of leaving, there is no point in risking an awkward situation for a few nights of hot sex.”

And Trixie had no doubt it would be hot.

“Whatever,” Maya said flippantly. “But I still think you’re full of it.”

Before Trixie could respond, her sister spun around and opened the door to the apartment.

“Let’s get the party started.” Maya clapped her hands excitedly “Game on!”

Dakota captured Trixie’s gaze the moment she stepped into the room and her stomach fluttered. Damn it all. He winked and that cocky grin slid across his face.

“Oh, it’s on,” Trixie murmured. “It’s on like Donkey Kong.”

And she sure as hell wasn’t talking about the party.

***

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