See below the cut for an excerpt… post is sticky-see below for newer posts.
Just so ya know…this isn’t exactly a traditional romance. You’ll find a hero and heroine that love each desperately, passionately, you’ll find a happy-ever-after, but it takes them twelve years and a lot of heartbreak to get there.
He had friendly eyes and the kind of face that most people would trust. Cullen wanted to hit him until that understanding left his expression. The bastard couldn’t understand. Voice harsh with fury, Cullen said, “I can’t do this again. I have to do something.”
“The only thing you can do is work with us, Mr. Morgan. Look, why don’t we go sit down inside? Management has given us use of their offices. We can cool down a little, get something nice and cool to drink…”
Cullen slashed a hand through the air. “This isn’t a barbecue. I don’t give a damn about cooling off or getting a damn soda. I want do something to find my baby.” His voice cracked again and Cullen knew he had to get out of here. Had to do something. “Oh, God.” He covered his face with his hands and sent up another desperate prayer. He hadn’t prayed since before his mother had died and he hadn’t set a foot in church. But he’d do whatever God wanted if He would just bring Jilly back safe.
“I know this is hard. I can’t imagine the hell you have to be going through right now.”
Something in the man’s voice had Cullen looking back at him. He dropped his hands and said flatly, “No. You can’t imagine it. So do something to help me, damn it. What are we going to do to find my daughter?”
* * * * *
The bastard, Special Agent Jones, made Cullen go through it another three times. When he finished detailing his afternoon and explaining No, I don’t have any enemies that I know of and I can’t imagine who could have done this, he looked at the agent and said, “Now do you want to know what I ate for dinner last night and what kind of pajamas Jilly wears?”
With a pleasant smile, the agent murmured, “No. That isn’t necessary.” He flipped through a rather official looking file, pausing here and there. “You’re a writer. Perhaps you have a rather devoted fan…?”
Cullen shook his head. “I don’t have much of a relationship with readers. I don’t even have an address where they can write me.”
“You never do signings or anything?”
Cullen curled his lip. “I’m sure you have all of that information in your file there.” A rather impressive file considering the short amount of time that had passed since the FBI had shown up on the scene. It felt like years had already passed but it had only been a few hours since that panicked, terrified call from Kelly had come in. He ran a hand through his hair and tugged on it absently, thinking back to the Q&A he’d done in Lexington a month or so back. It had been right after their trip to Atlanta. “I do a few signings a year. Yeah, I have some persistent readers, but nothing stalker-like that I can think of.”
“What about your dad? He’s a successful businessman. Went from working for a CPA firm to some big time stock wizard. Surely he’s stepped on a few toes.”
Cullen shook his head. “Everybody likes my dad. He’s just one of those people that doesn’t really make enemies. Even his competition likes him. Besides, if this was some kind of vendetta thing or ransom deal, wouldn’t we have heard something by now?”
A faint smile curled up the agent’s mouth–what in the hell was his name again, Cullen wondered. He’d already forgotten it. “You’re a quick one, Mr. Morgan, aren’t you?”
Shrugging restlessly, Cullen replied, “Research.” He folded his arms across his chest and pinned the agent with a flat stare. “This was a stranger abduction, wasn’t it?”
Finally, the agent’s polite, professional demeanor cracked just a little. He jerked at his tie to loosen it and then reached for his cooling cup of coffee. “It’s too early to say for certain, but it is starting to look that way.” He leaned forward, lacing his fingers together. “Mr. Morgan, I’m going to be blunt here. I don’t think you had anything to do with this. At all. I think some stranger took your daughter. Nobody other than the Paxtons knew she was going to be here and although we’re looking at them, I don’t think they had anything to do with this, either. But, regardless, I need you to be honest with me. You can’t hide anything.”
“Like what?” Cullen demanded, his aggravation coming through loud and clear.
“Like your daughter’s…unusual abilities.”
Cullen froze. When he spoke, his voice was rusty and hoarse. “What are you talking about?”
Holding Cullen’s gaze, the agent lifted up the file, revealing a thinner one, one that Cullen hadn’t even seen. Without saying anything, the agent opened the file and revealed the contents. There was precious little. A few pieces of paper and a picture. Braden Fleming’s picture. Cullen hadn’t wanted anybody to know about Jillian so when he’d made that phone call to the police’s anonymous tipline, he’d done it from a payphone on the other side of town.
He took the file and was gratified to see that his hands weren’t shaking. Damn miracle because on the inside, he was shaking so hard, he thought he might fall apart from it. He didn’t want people knowing this about Jilly. He managed to flip through the papers and then give the agent a quizzical glance. “I’m not sure what this is about.”
“It’s about some statements taken from some nurses at the county hospital where Jillian was treated after she collapsed at school. She spent two days catatonic and then suddenly, she woke up and told you that she knew where Braden was. According to these nurses that were outside your daughter’s room while she was crying about it. Tell me, Mr. Morgan–how did Jillian know about Braden?”
Cullen closed the file and tossed it back on the table. The pages and pictures inside spilled out but Cullen kept his gaze on the agent’s face. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Agent…Sorry, I forgot your name.”
In response, he flipped his name badge around. He said something else, but Cullen couldn’t hear it for the roaring in his ears. Taylor Jones.
Like he was watching a slideshow that only he could see, Cullen suddenly saw all the pictures and articles over that past year that he had collected about Taige. Most of them made little mention of the feds she worked with–but here and there were a few times somebody within the Bureau had been mentioned. Taylor Jones’ name had come up more than once and there had even been a couple pictures with both Taige and Jones’ face had shown up in the paper together.
A hundred memories rose up to haunt him, to taunt him, and he was suddenly having a hard time breathing. Must have had something to do with the fact that his heart was pounding a mile a minute.
Taige. All that restless, useless energy pulsating through him suddenly sharpened, focused. Finally–son of a bitch, this was something he could control.
* * * * *
So damn restless, Taige slept fitfully, tossing and turning. She couldn’t sleep for the life of her and hadn’t been able to for nearly two months now. Ever since Chicago, but Chicago didn’t seem to have anything to do with her insomnia.
It was something else. Something new. She was waiting–but she didn’t know what for. Mumbling in her sleep, she rolled onto her belly. A jarring pain shot up her arm and she groaned, automatically cradling her injured right wrist against her chest.
The soft cast that went from her hand half way up her forearm immobilized her wrist and hand but it didn’t keep it from hurting when she moved wrong. The pain was enough to bring her completely out of sleep and she lay on her back in the dark room, staring up at the ceiling. She could finally open her left eye again but it still hurt like the devil. Taige lay there debating between getting up and finding one of the bottles of pain meds the doctors had prescribed or just finding a book and reading until morning.
Wasn’t like she was going to be working for the next few days–
Before that thought even made a complete circle through her mind, a chill streaked down Taige’s spine. Her breathing hitched. In a smooth, unconscious movement, she rolled out of bed and grabbed the jeans laying on the floor with her left hand. She shimmied into them without hurting her hand much but she had to lay back to zip and button them and that hurt.
She shrugged the pain off and grabbed a tank top from the basket of clean clothes she hadn’t ever gotten around to putting up. Hurry hurry hurry. The words seemed to echo all around her, whispering to her in the dark. She didn’t turn on any lights as she moved through her house. Instead, she took up position staring out the huge picture window that faced the front yard.
When the headlights cut a swath through the darkness, Taige held herself still. She didn’t recognize the truck, but that was little surprise. Very few people had ever come looking for her. Jones with the Bureau, Dante, Rose before she died–once upon a time, her uncle had sought her out but that was out of a desire to hurt and torment her just a little more.
But it wasn’t any of them.
Taige couldn’t have explained how she knew any more than she could explain quantum physics. But she knew. Her breathing went shallow, her heartbeat started to pound and although she didn’t possess much vanity, she ran a hand over her hair. She generally didn’t spend too much time messing with her hair, just securing it in a French braid or a pony tail, but with her hand messed up, she wasn’t going to be doing too much on her own and braiding her hair was definitely a two handed task. So yesterday, tired already of trying to keep it halfway neat, she’d had spent a good two hours getting the curly mess woven into a series of tight braids. That would keep her from having to mess with it for a while.
Still, she couldn’t help but wondered how her hair looked as she stood there, fiddling with her shapeless tank top and fighting the urge to go and change. She pressed gentle fingertips to the nasty bruise ringing her left eye and grimaced. After all these years…she’d known she’d see him again. Even when she drove away from Cullen Morgan’s home in tears, she’d known it wasn’t over between them.
Why he was coming to her now, she didn’t know and honestly, just then, she didn’t care.
She was so desperate to see him again, it was almost pathetic.
No, it was pathetic. It had been twelve years and she was all but panting at the thought of seeing him again, of staring into those amazing eyes and standing close enough to smell him. How much had he changed? Taige wondered. Instinctively, she knew that Cullen would be as devastating at thirty-three as he’d been at twenty–one. The truck came to a stop close to the house. She couldn’t see anything beyond the back bumper and when the tail lights went off, she jerked as though somebody had used a Taser on her.
She took a deep breath and then groaned as her shirt dragged against her nipples. They were stiff and erect, throbbing under the thin layer of cotton. Embarrassed, she folded her arms over them and wished she could manage to get a damn bra on. Her hand hurt too much to manage it, though.
Facing Cullen braless and in her bare feet–how much more disconcerting could it get? She held herself stiff as the knock came, pounding on the door as though he wanted to tear the door from its hinges. It came a second time, and third. Finally, she made herself move, shuffling through the dark living room with her arms crossed over her breasts, the wrap on her cast abrading the bare skin of her left arm and rubbing against her nipples.
Nerves jangled in her belly. No butterflies–this felt more like she had giant gryphons taking flight inside her, gryphons with knife-edged wings. She reached out and closed her left hand around the door knob and slowly opened it, half hiding behind the door. She kept her gaze focused straight ahead so that all she saw was the way his white T-shirt stretched across her his wide, muscled chest.
Through her peripheral vision, she saw that he held something in his hand. Something clutched so tight, his knuckles had gone white. She hissed out a breath and forced herself to look upward, up, up, up until she was staring into his eyes. It took a little longer than it should have–he was taller than he had been. At least by an inch or two. She was five foot ten–she didn’t have to look up to many people and she decided then that she didn’t care for it at all.
She didn’t say anything. She couldn’t. Her throat felt frozen and forcing words past her frozen vocal chords seemed impossible. She just stepped aside to let him come in and when he did, his arm brushed against hers. She flinched and pulled away, backing away until a good two feet separated them. Once he was inside, she closed the door and leaned against it, resting her left hand on the door knob and holding her right hand against her belly and studying the floor.
He turned to stare at her. From under her lashes, she watched as his shoulders rose and fell, his chest moving as he blew out a harsh breath, almost like he’d been holding his breath the same way she had.
His voice sounded almost exactly like it had in her dreams–no, exactly. In the dim light, she couldn’t see his face very well, but she had a bad, bad feeling that her dreams had been pretty damn accurate in that aspect, too. Shoving away from the door, she kept her head down as she moved around him and headed into the living room. He followed behind her slowly. She heard a click and light flooded the room. She shot him a look over her shoulder, just a quick glance, enough of one that told her just how dead on her dreams had been.
It was almost too spooky–even his hair looked right. It was shorter than it had been when he was younger, almost brutally short. His shoulders strained the seams of his shirt and she had a flashback to her last dream when he had crowded her up against the couch, demanding she tell him how she’d gotten hurt. She’d shoved him, pushing one hand against one wide, rock hard shoulder and she imagined if she reached out and touched him, he feel exactly like he had in her dreams.
“So are you going to look at me or just let me stare at the back of your head all night?” he asked softly.
She shot him another quick, almost nervous glance over her shoulder and Cullen blew out a breath.
When he spoke again, his voice was closer. “Aren’t you going to ask me why I’m here?”
Aren’t you going to speak to me at all? Cullen wanted to ask.
Instead, he waited until she finally turned around and faced him. In the brightly lit room, he noticed two things. The first was that she had her arm, her right arm, in a cast that went half way up to her elbow. A chill raced down his spine. The second was that her left eye was puffy and nearly swollen shut, a dark ugly bruise that Cullen suspected was every bit as painful as it looked.
She spoke and her voice sounded just as it had in his dreams. “I already know why you’re here. You need my help.” A bitter smile curved her lips as she stared at him. “Why would else would you be here?” She glanced at the file in his hand and held out her hand.
Cullen swallowed and lifted it, staring at it with the metallic taste of fear on thick in his mouth. “You don’t owe me a damn thing, Taige. I know that. I got no right being here and I know that, too.”
She sighed and dropped her head, covering her eyes with her uninjured hand. “Cullen, stop. You want something. Out with it. I got better things to do than stand here and have you brooding all over me. So just spill it.”
“I…look, if I didn’t have to have your help, I wouldn’t be here. But it’s not me that needs you–just…just don’t–”
Taige cocked a brow. “You don’t have much of an opinion of me, do you, Cullen? Whatever brought you here in the middle of the night twelve years after kicking me out of your life has to be pretty damn important and considering the kind of help you probably need, I’m going to assume there’s somebody else involved.” She stared at him, her gaze shuttered. “You think so little of me that I’d refuse to help whoever this is just to make you suffer because you and me got some history?”
History…is that what we had? That seemed such a simplified statement. Still, said like that, Cullen felt very much the fool. He looked back down at the file and then at her, watching as she once more held out her hand. Careful not to touch her, he held it out. She took it and moved to sit behind the big iron and glass coffee table before she opened it. She settled down on the overstuffed black couch. If he hadn’t been watching her so closely, he never would have seen it as she took a deep breath and set her shoulders, almost like she was bracing herself.
Her eyes, her expression, they were carefully blank as she opened the file. But as she stared down at Jilly’s picture, something changed. Her smooth caramel colored skin went pale. She looked up at him and he watched as her eyes darkened to the color of thunder heads. The tension in the room mounted until it seemed too thick to even breathe.
Taige tore her eyes away from the picture and stared up at him. “Who is she?” Taige demanded, her voice harsh and shaking.
My daughter. My daughter.
The words seemed to echo through her, but instead of getting fainter, it got louder and louder until the words seemed to shriek inside her skull. Blood pounded in her head and her vision narrowed down until all she could see was that little face with the pretty smile and solemn eyes. Taige had lost count of how many times she’d seen that face. It had haunted her dreams for years.