Melting Shadows--a romantic suspense with a fantasy twist—is now available!
Prudence's breath released on a sigh. They’d already passed her neighbor’s waist-high cornfield, and she could discern the comforting white lines of her front pasture fence through the dusty afternoon haze. The modest home and scattering of outbuildings rolled into view shortly after. Her chilled hands, clasped tightly in her lap to still their endless twisting, loosened.
“You may stop here, please.”
“What? Your driveway’s gotta be a quarter mile long. Don’t let the AC fool you, Dr. Marsh. Between the heat and humidity, you could poach eggs on that gravel. Let me drive you on up—”
“No!” Her voice rang shrilly.
Although the driver had indeed stopped the vehicle, he stared at her in a most unnerving manner.
Apparently, a more socially acceptable explanation would be required. She had little desire to impose guilt on the man by informing him the air conditioner had been too high and thus she’d welcome any warmth, even less to reveal her extreme aversion to visitors.
The only exception was the veterinarian, Dr. Lazaire, whom she’d been unable to reach this morning. As evils went, he was certainly more attractive than the alternative, which had required her first to speak to someone in order to arrange transportation for the mare and herself, then, worse yet, sitting in the small waiting room crowded with people.
Though the thought of reliving that experience made Prudence faintly nauseous, she might have to. In any case, she’d need to trailer Bonnie home in a few days. Alienating the driver would only make the situation more uncomfortable than it already was.
Her clenched fingers spasmed as she frantically groped for an appropriate farewell. Finally, she squeaked, “Thank you, sir. Have a pleasant remainder to your day.”
Without turning to verify the results of her attempt, she sprang from the confines of the vehicle. The ground felt wonderfully solid beneath her trembling legs. The driver turned his truck around and drove off. Her panic receded as it began to shrink in the distance and the warm air seeped into her bones. But when she inhaled the familiar odors deeply for further comfort, the mix smelled wrong.
Perhaps the fault lay with the absence of a much-loved fragrance. She glanced at the empty pasture, then away. Prudence hadn’t known Bonnie was pregnant when she’d rescued her outside the slaughterhouse auction barn. And now the pregnancy was causing problems, possibly due to earlier malnutrition, Dr. Lazaire had speculated.
She sniffed again. No, not a missing scent, an additional one, possibly metallic.
Hairs raised at the base of her neck, exposed by the braided bun. Silence hummed in her ears.
Where was Sundance? The big Malamute took his job of heralding arrivals seriously. Surely, he’d have heard the truck’s door slam, and be on his way to investigate. Or had the high temperatures driven him to hide in one of the many holes he loved to dig? The absence of the other heavy-coated friends she provided homes for—a llama, a couple of alpacas, several sheep, and an angora goat—substantiated that theory.
Still, she’d left with Bonnie early this morning. Not even August heat could come between that dog and She-Who-Brought-Food following a ten-hour separation.
Worry hurried her legs while icy dread clawed at the muscles. The pumping of her arms in her peripheral vision appeared as though on a film played in slow motion.
Relief flooded her at the sight of him lying in the shade next to the barn. “Sundance, you handsome, lazy devil.”
Not so much as a tail thumped in reaction.
She tried to run then. But, like trying to breathe, she may as well have been under water. Endless moments later, she fell to her knees beside him and reached out to ruffle his fur. Her hand froze on contact.
The buzzing silence became a roar. She crawled backward, away from the blood caking the dry dust.
How could there be so much of it? The question came to her in the abstract, as though he wasn’t the first and best friend she’d ever had.
Whatever tethered her mind to her body must have snapped then, for she next saw herself drifting above an unlovely woman crumpled in the dirt.
She watched her raise her gangly body and stagger from the open barn to the adjoining side and back pastures, observed her eyes squeezing shut over and over, when faced with the prone alpacas, sheep, and a lone llama—every stray animal that poor, lonely, creature had taken in—lying in pools of blood on the straw in the shadow of stalls, in the grass under a tree, in the tall weeds on the hill.
She saw the woman cover her mouth and nose to block an unbearable stench, saw her retch, then stumble blindly into the house, saw her pick up the phone and dial a number, heard her voice croak two words into the receiver, “Code Red.”
Esmeralda welcomed the cool wind blowing through the coach’s open window. Moonlight flashed off the Black Knights’ armor and weaponry onto her clenched fists. If the king had sought to reassure her of his support by engaging the mercenaries to escort her, he’d wasted his coin. But then, he didn’t know her nearly as well as his son did.
Delane would have understood that rage, not fear, powered the blood through her veins as the tattoo of her heart matched the rhythm of the horses’ hooves pounding the hard road to his fortress. She could still hear the unearthly quiet of her keep, punctuated by the haunted drip-drip echoing in the empty halls she’d raced through, searching for signs of life. She could still smell the Dark Realm’s bitter, coppery breath wafting on the air. Pitifully small, tell-tale piles of blackest ashes were all that remained of her beloved friends, and the portal through which they’d gone.
No, where they’d been sent: Oblivion.
But by whom? She’d permitted only one stranger past the wards shielding her keep: the human healer Tradare. He’d come to treat Bonai, an anam experiencing difficulty with an unexpected pregnancy. A pleasant, attractive man, Tradare—were he even capable of such dark sorcery—had surely not acted on his own.
The passing of six years since Esmeralda had fled the horrors of Oblivion was not long enough to forget the blackness of the heart and magic of the Sorceress Queen who ruled there. The price of that escape had been a pound of Esmeralda’s flesh and blood, gone forever, a wound that would never mend: a womb that could bear her prince no heir.
The anam—humans in form, yet petite, gentle, simple, and mute—had taken in her battered body and given her back her soul. In their care, she’d found her own magic and learned to wield it. And after, allied herself with the king of Jumari against the forces of Oblivion.
On the field of battle, she’d met Prince Delane. The foolish warrior had attempted to protect her—her!—with only his sword. Ah, but he’d been brave to stand against the three of Oblivion’s worst who’d engaged her.
In part for his good deed, more for his male arrogance, Delane sustained a strike to his belly that had nigh disemboweled him, forcing her to wrap him in a curative spell rather than finish her fight. She’d not hesitated to remind him of it when finally she was allowed to visit him at his sick bed.
How he’d railed back at her with his dark-ocean eyes sparkling. How she had laughed at his pique. How rough his embrace had been when he’d pulled her down to him. How soft and hot his persuasive lips had felt on hers.
Esmeralda brushed her mouth with a gloved finger. A long, cold year now, since last she’d tasted his fierce passion.
Regardless of the terms on which they’d parted, as her father’s ally and forger of the Quicksilver Key, the prince was honor-bound to shelter her. More, she dare not hope for. Far too proud and masculine, Delane—royal heir, finely wrought of strength, courage, and muscle—would never suffer the lack of a wench-warmed bed.
Was it empty even now? Could she bear to see his sun-bronzed hand tender on another? Better to face a dozen minions of Oblivion.
Esmeralda shook her head and gathered her thick, blue-black locks behind her back. Fretting over Delane was fruitless. All that truly mattered was to learn with certainty who had been responsible for delivering the brutal end to her friends, and the only peace she’d ever known. Then she would deal with them, permanently.
Prudence snapped the laptop shut, pushed the heavy glasses up the bridge of her nose, and stared at the changing landscape out the backseat window of the luxurious black SUV. The rolling prairie had given way to flat plains, ever more bare and arid. As the colors had faded, mild lines had given way to harsher, bolder strokes.
Someone had spoken to her, interrupting her reverie in OtherWhere.
She straightened her suit jacket and jammed an escaped strand of hair back into her bun. As a child, her inner sojourns to OtherWhere had been a sanctuary from the madness of her life. Indulging in them now left her feeling faintly guilty.
Prudence couldn’t recall a single word she’d ever written, nor had she any desire to resurrect her former hell by reading its byproduct. It was enough to open her mind and let her fingers fly, then close it away with nothing other than vague impressions—but for the glaring exception of Prince Delane. He burned through all her resistance in excruciating detail. His arrival to the series in her previous book had given rise to strange, uncomfortable physical urges, and further guilt.
“Dr. Marsh?” The large, striking security escort in the front passenger seat turned to face her. “How’s that laptop working for you? It was the best one we could scrounge on short notice. Admiral Washburn didn’t seem too worried about the one stolen from your place.” The slight incline of his torso toward hers implied his expectation of a response.
She recalled kind hazel eyes beneath the brown-tinted sunglasses both he and the driver wore. With his tall, muscular frame, golden hair, finely chiseled features, and open, polished smile, he could be a model. None of these features made his relentless intrusions tolerable. Her well-trained compulsion to answer all inquiries with total honesty conflicted with the need for secrecy Project Silver Lining required, as well as her own desire for privacy.
“It is sufficient for my needs, thank you, Mr. Farley. Due to the availability of remote device wipes and the fragmented nature of my design, in the highly unlikely event someone possessed the ability to decrypt it, the piece of code on the laptop would be of little value.”
“But you’ve got the key to the blueprint, right? That makes you pretty valuable.”
“We’ve been driving all night. You must be exhausted. Maybe you should take a break, try to get some rest. You’re safe. And you can call me Jude.”
Following several visits to her farm, the veterinarian, Dr. Lazaire, had also requested the use of given names. A wave of nausea rolled through Prudence and caught in her throat.
She drew a deep breath and loosened her grip on the laptop. “I was ‘resting,’ and I assure you my safety is of less concern to myself than it is to your employer.” She moderated her voice in a tone she hoped conveyed her meaning without being offensive. “I’m afraid I failed to make myself clear earlier. Allow me to rectify that: I do not require reassurance or entertaining, nor do I wish to be a source of amusement. Unless you have dire need of my input, I would be much obliged if you could refrain from addressing me. Thank you.”
She braced herself for a backlash.
The driver merely chuckled. If she were to use one word to describe Mr. Mills—from his carrot-colored hair, to his florid complexion, to the ruddy skin on the back of his neck—it would be “red.” Slightly larger than Mr. Farley’s considerable frame, he seemed somewhat slow, but had thus far proved blessedly laconic.
Now, he jabbed Mr. Farley in the ribs with his elbow and said, “Tol’ ya so, Hollywood.”
The handsome man nodded and said, “I understand, Dr. Marsh. You let us know when you’re hungry so we can make a pit stop.”
“Thank you, however I doubt that situation will arise,” as her appetite was unlikely to return in the foreseeable future.
The conversation, such as it was, offered an excellent example of why Prudence avoided them. She’d had no opportunities in her twenty-five years to cultivate what textbooks referred to as “the art of small talk,” and this was hardly the time to do so. Pity she’d used the remains of her fortitude in her request to be left in peace, or she might have found a way to ask them to reduce the air conditioning.
Too late, as well, to consider she’d made a mistake agreeing to this journey, that accepting the protection of these men and her host—whoever he might be—would demonstrate yet another error in judgment. As she’d refused further contact with the military after they’d wrung this concession out of her, she had little choice but to accept her circumstances until she’d completed the project. Contemplating her long-term future required acknowledging the horror of her recent past. Those memories, and the intensity of the emotions attached to them, had the power to break her. And Prudence had no intention of being broken, ever again.
Her only option was to hurtle numbly forward, though all she’d been told of her destination was that it was a private facility on the west coast maintained by a civilian code-named “Prince Charming.”
“Delaney, you happy down there in your hidey-hole?” Admiral Washburn’s craggy features and crisp tone projected command from Max’s display.
“Yes, Admiral. Good to see you, sir.”
“I have a feeling you’ll take that back once you hear what I have to say. Line secure?”
“As always, sir.” Max resisted the urge to salute the image on the monitor. His relationship with Admiral Washburn as a forensic analyst on the down low was on a project-by-project basis these days. The SEALS had cut Max loose after an Iraqi black market operator had nearly gutted him during an unsanctioned rescue operation involving pirates and a civilian oil transport.
He’d been adrift ever since. Whoa, where the hell had that come from?
The admiral frowned. “You okay, son?”
“Of course, sir. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Hair’s getting long, T-shirt’s seen better days, workstation looks like a squall hit it.”
Max glanced at the mess littering the long table holding the bank of monitors and servers safely tucked away in the former bomb shelter below his house, dragged a self-conscious hand through his unruly curls, and flashed what he hoped was a sufficiently respectful yet careless grin. “Sorry sir, I wasn’t expecting company.”
“That’s about to change.”
The grin froze on his face. “Excuse me, sir?”
“According to the last check-in, Dr. Marsh will be arriving in San Diego at fifteen-hundred hours.”
A joke, it had to be. “I’m fine, sir. No need to send a doctor.”
The admiral didn’t smile. “Don’t get wise, son. I’m fresh out of patience today. If your bunker weren’t the best option available, I wouldn’t be risking its exposure.”
Shit. A second “son” from the admiral in one conversation surely boded incoming hell-in-a-hand-basket. “Whatever this project is, I don’t want some squinty academic messing with my mojo.”
“Your technical skills won’t be required this time around.” The humorous glint in the admiral’s eye was far from reassuring. “You’ll be providing a secure, classified, state-of-the-art facility where Dr. Marsh can complete a top-priority project for us.”
“If you just need a babysitter”—the word grated like sand in his mouth—“what’s wrong with a government facility?” He hastily added, “Sir.”
“Dr. Marsh has refused contact with anyone in my office since she called her handler following an attack on her private location yesterday morning. I owe him Lakers tickets for talking her into this compromise. Said it was the toughest sell of his career. That’s saying something nowadays.”
“Thought you’d catch that. Your reputation with the ladies precedes you, Delaney. That’s the skill set I’m looking for on this mission, and the second reason I’m sending her to you.”
The admiral couldn’t mean what it sounded like. Max rubbed his eyes. These late nights, no matter how pleasurably spent, were not conducive to successful early morning negotiations with Admiral Washburn.
“With all due respect, sir—”
“This is not a request. You will do whatever it takes to keep Dr. Marsh warm and happy until the project is completed. Accomplish the mission, and Santa will bring you a whole new box of toys for Christmas. Fail, and all that hardware you’re so fond of comes back to the North Pole.”
Double-whammy. Max swallowed a spit of bile and coughed. “I see. In that case, some background would be helpful, sir.”
“I suppose a case can be made here for ‘need to know.’” The admiral relayed the information in his typical clipped style, “Project Silver Lining involves new stealth capabilities for our subs.”
“Could be damn useful somewhere like, say, the Persian Gulf.” Like Bubiyan Island. He scratched the scar through his T-shirt.
“Glad you understand.Fortunately, Dr. Marsh was away from home at the time of the assault. Otherwise, she’d probably be as dead as every other living thing on her hobby farm, or worse, kidnapped.” The old man hadn’t even blinked.
Harsh. Max understood where the admiral was coming from in terms of her value to the military, but— “What about Dr. Marsh?” The woman you expect me to keep warm and happy.
The admiral pursed his lips. “Might be a tall order, even for a man with your, uh, qualifications. In the six years since the ending of a marriage that barely made it past the honeymoon, Dr. Marsh’s social life makes Howard Hughes’s look like Hugh Hefner’s. The Blackridge Security driver, Mills, described her as highly unsociable.”
“You hired Blackridge?”
“Best in the business.”
Max snorted. “Not if Mills is on their team.”
The admiral’s raised eyebrows called for an explanation.
“We started BUDS together. I knew he’d wash out. Dumbass redneck. Heard he became a flyer, then went private.”
“A damn good pilot, and follows orders, unlike yourself. Blackridge isn’t your concern. They’re strictly transpo on this. No point exposing your bunker more than necessary.” The admiral’s gaze narrowed. “Your location is still 100% classified, right?”
Max opened his mouth to tell the admiral about Sam, but said, “Yes sir, still classified” instead, and snapped it shut in a cool, bland line.
After signing off, he sat and stared at the blank monitor. While he’d disobeyed orders, once, and gone ahead with the rescue on Bubiyan, Max had never lied to his CO before. But he’d flashed on the admiral’s cold, unblinking gaze when he’d talked about poor Dr. Marsh, then the bright face of his bubbly, incorrigible little sister, Sam.
Just like that, the lie had sprung out. The admiral knew he had a sister. If he ever found out she’d discovered the command center though, he’d want to know a whole lot more about her. Yesterday, Max might have been okay with that. Right now, he wasn’t so sure.
If he refused the job, the only true anchor in his life—along with his livelihood—would be in the crapper. Hell, the situation already stunk to high heaven. All he could do was crank up the bullshit and get through this.
Screw the admiral’s intel on Dr. Marsh; there wasn’t a woman born Max Delaney couldn’t charm.
Prudence peered out the SUV’s window at the Spanish colonial bungalow and sniffed through the thin crack her escorts had allowed during the journey. The house blended safely with its stuccoed neighbors, and the breeze carried a salty tang of ocean. All the same, she was thankful she wouldn't be staying long. The homes crowded each other and the sky overhead hung oppressively low—so different from the rolling prairie where she'd spent the last, the best, six years of her life. Where would she go when she left here? She snuffed the line of inquiry before it inhibited her ability to function.
And functioning had become an immediate necessity. At some point in her brief reverie, Mr. Farley must have disembarked. He now waited patiently holding the vehicle’s door open for her, and Mr. Mills had already removed her belongings from the luggage compartment.
Whatever awaited her could hardly be more devastating than what lay behind.
That thought propelled her out of the vehicle. She clutched the briefcase containing her laptop, and reclaimed from Mr. Mills the bulky duffle bag containing her most precious treasure.
Mr. Farley leaned in and whispered, “Don’t worry, everything’s going to be all right. Just watch yourself with this guy, okay?”
Mr. Mills nodded in her general direction with what she assumed was agreement, then deposited her suitcase, along with the spinning wheel she’d so carefully wrapped, on the front porch.
No warnings could have prepared her for the man who stepped out the front door.
Impossible. She blinked hard against the blazing midday sun. Only two reasonable conclusions presented themselves: a trick of the light, or stress-induced hallucination.
She arrived at these theories because there, on that slightly-peeling white-trimmed porch, stood Prince Delane. Oh, his black curling hair wasn’t long and he wasn’t clothed as a Jumari warrior. But every feature—from the lofty reaches of his head, to the considerable breadth of his shoulders, to his dark, sparkling blue eyes, sensuous mouth, straight nose, and cleft chin—was sculpted as precisely as though by her fantasy’s hand.
The illusion incarnate studied her as he approached with his confident warrior’s stride. His smile didn’t agree with the disappointment she read in his gaze.
His distaste struck her like a sharp blow to the solar plexus. She fought the urge to double over.
Forced smile in place, he extended his hand. Hers, programmed to respond, clasped it.
“You must be Prudence Marsh.” Even his rich, smooth voice resonated at the exact pitch as the prince’s. “I’m Max Delaney.”
Delaney? The rigidly maintained structure of Prudence’s reality rapidly narrowed into a black tunnel as all of the air rushed from her lungs. While she struggled to remain standing on legs turned to rubber, the low buzzing in her ears reminded her of the need to breathe. Only a lifetime of discipline acquired from cruel consequence for any appearance of vulnerability held her upright and stationary.
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