Happy Friday! You may have seen this author around the blogosphere this week promoting her new release, The Seal’s Temptation, and I’m thrilled to host her today! If you missed my review of Jacquie’s techno-thriller novella, Virtually Gone, yesterday, click HERE. Make sure to register for the giveaway!
Dawn was little more than a blush on the horizon when Frank, Jared and Adam set out on their ride the next morning. It was both strange and bittersweet to have his friends on his six again. Frank grinned, the tension easing from between his shoulder blades. Just like old times.
He kicked Sadie into a fast trot and glanced over his shoulder. “You girls think you can keep up?”
Jared shot him a one finger salute. “Maybe if you’d given me a horse instead of this old nag.” The nag in question—a handsome Quarter Horse Frank had trained himself—tossed his head, fighting the tight grip on the reins.
Adam leaned over and gave the bay a slap on the rump with his Red Sox ball cap, a rare smile erasing the grim lines of his face. “What’s the matter, Martin? Married life turning you into a pansy?” He took one glance at his buddy’s expression as he wrestled to bring the startled horse under control and decided to catch up to Frank. “Be one with the horse,” he advised with a laugh.
“I knew you were an a-hole,” Jared shouted.
Frank shook his head at their antics. “You two are worse than a couple of kids.” He kept an eye on Jared until he caught up, then guided Sadie toward the hills, turning up the collar on his shearling jacket against the early morning chill.
Spencer stepped out the door of the foreman’s cottage as they rode by and doffed his stained cowboy hat. “Have a good ride,” he called.
Frank tipped his Stetson in reply but kept going. Spence had managed this ranch for upwards of thirty years—he didn’t need Frank telling him what to do.
“He doesn’t spend the night up at the main house?” Jared asked, his butt bouncing in the saddle.
“No, he does not sleep with my mother.” Tempted to let him suffer, Frank warned, “Loosen your back. Roll with the motion and it’ll go easier on you.”
Adam whistled through his teeth. “I’m sensing some tension, Chief. You do realize your mother is a grown woman, right?” His puppy-dog eyes twinkled with mirth.
Frank snorted. “If you yahoos are done, can we get back to business?”
“Ah,” Jared said, his teeth clacking together with every bounce. “I figured there had to be an ulterior motive to this invite.”
Frank frowned. It was true he’d asked his friends to join them at the ranch after their return from Mexico, but he didn’t mean for it to come with a price tag.
“Listen—” he began.
Jared held up a leather-gloved hand, then just as quickly latched onto the pommel as the bay climbed a steep rise. “Hey, it’s all good. Annie and I have been meaning to come down for a visit anyway. Things have been slightly crazy back home, what with the new baby and setting up the new business and all, or we would have been here sooner.” He gave Adam the stink-eye. “Especially, if you’d let me know you were in trouble.”
Adam shrugged. “Don’t look at me, bro, I was following orders. Besides, we had to move fast once we knew where that bastard had Mags.”
They topped the rise and stopped for a moment to take in the vista. Cows grazed in the field below, their sleek brown and white coats a contrast to the verdant green grass. Bluebonnets flirted with the breeze blowing down from the north, keeping the temperature balmy—at least for the moment. Fluffy Cumulous clouds scattered across the sky like the petticoats under a woman’s skirt; not that many wore them these days except for weddings and such. And why the heck was he thinking about a woman’s underdrawers anyway? Frank scowled.
Desperate to break what felt like an awkward silence, she gestured toward the sparkling constellations over their heads. “Do you study the stars, Mr. Stein? You have quite the view out here.” Maybe not as reach-out-and-touch them as she’d felt on that mesa in Mexico, but a hell of a lot safer. The melancholy that was never very far away filled her chest, a black cloud covering the silvery moon. Her best friend was buried on that hill, a victim of the monster who’d ruined the lives of countless women.
“Not really. My brother and I got into it some as kids but then he… disappeared and I kind of lost heart.” Frank’s voice flowed over her like a warm breeze, dispersing the darkness of her thoughts.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured. “I think I remember reading something about that in your file—the part that wasn’t confidential anyway.” She smiled.
He nodded. “It happened a long time ago. We’ve accepted it, though that’s not to say we’ve stopped looking. Hope lives on, you know?”
Yeah, she did.
The only thing that kept her alive through those hellish months with Chenglei and his band of assholes was hope.
Well, that and a craving for revenge.
“I imagine you’ve exhausted official channels. Have you looked into private investigators?”
He shifted, stretching long jean-clad legs and crossing his ankles, revealing scuffed cowboy boots. The old chair creaked, protesting his movements.
“We tried every avenue there was, but it did no good. He’d vanished.” Frank’s voice was matter-of-fact, but his tone revealed how much the loss of his brother still affected him.
The sad truth was there were thousands just like Cameron Stein—young men and women dissatisfied with their lives who think the grass will be greener on the other side and instead learn, more often than not and sometimes with fatal consequences, that running away is not the answer.
There probably wasn’t a lot she could do, but Maggie wanted to help this family to at least find some closure. Maybe she could pull a few strings within the agency and see what popped. Off the record, of course.
She glanced through the window into the soft vignette-like lighting of the kitchen. Frank’s mom had risen to clear the table, her hands grasping the platter of decimated turkey as she laughed at something the ranch foreman had said, affection apparent on both their faces. Emily leaned down to give him a kiss and he took advantage of the moment to pull her onto his lap. Maggie looked away, her heart pinching.
That kind of relationship was as far away as the moon for her. Even before her captivity, Maggie’s main focus had been career-orientated. Adam blamed himself for their break-up, but truthfully, she just wasn’t a good bet.
“I’m not promising anything, but I can check a couple of things when I get back to work. Sometimes, time can uncover secrets from the past.”
As the Arabian kicked his heels and galloped away, Maggie folded onto the ground at his feet, her arm twisted awkwardly where he held her wrist. Long, black silk hair flowed over her shoulder and breast, hiding her face from his view. He let go, grimacing at the red marks he’d left on her delicate skin.
Dropping to a knee so he could better see her expression, Frank frowned. She was pale, fragile looking. He didn’t think the horse had a chance to hurt her, but with the way he’d yanked on her arm, maybe he had. “Are you injured?” he asked, roughly.
She lifted her head at the sound of his voice, but her eyes looked through him and, suddenly, he realized why.
“Maggie, look at me.” He carefully tucked her hair behind the shell of her ear. “Come back to me, sweetheart. I’ve got you.” He rubbed her shoulder and was relieved to see her eyes lose that vacant, faraway expression. “That’s it, take it easy. You’re safe.” And she would remain that way if he had any say.
Tears formed and she blinked them away. “I… I must have tripped,” she said, her voice gaining strength as she raised her armor, blocking him out.
Much as he wanted to confront her with the truth and force her to talk to him, Frank understood the need to hide the flashbacks away—pretend they didn’t exist.
He rose and held out his hand. “It’s the stallion’s fault, he startled you.”
She accepted the offer and stood with less than her normal grace. “Thanks, I’m not usually so jumpy.” She avoided eye contact while carefully brushing non-existent dust from her slacks. “I guess I was expecting more manners after we gave him an apple and all.” Her wobbly smile begged him not to make a big deal out of her breakdown.
“It was my fault. I should have warned you about Desert Dancer. He’s new to the ranch and still learning his boundaries. He’s a showoff for the ladies—kind of reminds me of O’Connor.”
Maggie lifted a brow. “Does Adam know how you feel?”
He grinned, pleased the sparkle had returned to her beautiful topaz eyes. “He’d be the first to agree. Back on the team we called him our secret weapon because he always managed to get intel for our ops when no one else could.”
“Well, can’t say I’m surprised. He made use of those… talents in the DEA, as well.” She started walking and Frank fell in alongside. “It’s kind of strange being here, with you. Adam used to talk about the great Frank Stein all the time. You’re a legend, you know.” She slipped him an intimate, sideways smile that set lightning bugs buzzing in his chest.