Confidence, A Riddle & a World Premiere

SATURDAY’S AUTHOR RIDDLE:

Why is this woman so freaking excited???

(See adorable photo below)
(It’s me, by the way.)
(It’s all about me.)

CLUES


Clue #1: “absolutely breathtaking.”

Clue #2:  “intense and full of passion.”

Clue #3:  “scorching,”

MULTIPLE CHOICE ANSWERS
 
A) I just received a love note from Mr. Stephanie with those adjectives on it.

B) I just found out I get to spend the weekend sitting out in ninety-six degree humidity watching paint dry. 

C) I just got caught sight of myself in the mirror right after waking up in the morning and stumbling to the bathroom. 

D) I just read some of the advanced reviews for Burn on Goodreads! 

E) All of the above. 

AND THE WINNER IS…
 
If you guessed, (E) all of the above…you are wrong! Surprise, right? I am pretty breathtaking, for sure. The actual answer is D! Yeah, that’s right, reviews are coming in for Burn, and I am legit as excited as that picture. I think it’s the best book I’ve written, and I so freaking excited that it’s coming out in THREE days. 

As an author, I do my best to write a book that you will absolutely fall in love with. The one that will transport you away from real life into a magical world you never want to leave. I give it my best shot, because that’s my gift to you. You trust me with your time and your money, and I want to make you so so so so happy you did. 

And so far, it looks like I succeeded with Burn, so YAY for me and YAY for you! 

AND YOU GET...

To celebrate, I’m giving you an exclusive, world-premiere, three-chapter sneak peek for Burn right here! So keep on scrolling to read it!

But before you go, REMEMBER that if you preorder Burn or buy it the first week, you get two FREE reader bonuses:

1)  A top-secret, never before published family recipe for one of the meals the hero cooks for the heroine in Burn

2) HuntA brand-new, heart-melting romance short story (details coming in a couple days). It might be a short story, but don’t underestimate it. It freaking rocks. You don’t even need to take my word for it, because this is what my beta readers said after reading it: 

  • “Just so many awwwwwws with this one! 😄” (Summer)
  • “I absolutely LOVE Haas’ story!” (Britannia)
  • “AWWWW, love it!” (Jeanne)
  • “It was as close to perfect as a story can be.” (Jeanie)
  • “I LOVED this!” (Trish)
How about them apples? And YOU get it for FREE if you preorder the ebook of Burn or buy it the first week. So GO GET BURN RIGHT NOW! Literally. Stop reading and go get it. You will absolutely LOVE both Burn and Hunt. If you don’t, you can always return it, but if you don’t try, you’ll won’t even get the chance…

These two bonuses DISAPPEAR on Monday July 27th. You must preorder the book or buy it the first week to get it. Why take the risk you’ll forget? Get it now. Because I’m super helpful, here are the the links. Go preorder it, and then come back here and read the special, three-chapter excerpt. 

Get BURN from Amazon
Get BURN from Nook 
Get BURN from Kobo
Get BURN from GooglePlay
Get BURN from iBooks

 
WORLD-PREMIERE, EXCLUSIVE, THREE-CHAPTER
BURN SNEAK PEEK STARTING NOW:

(If you don’t want to read the sneak peek, skip the the end for more good stuff!)

CHAPTER ONE

 

I’m not scared.

 

Charlotte Murphy remembered when she’d said that to her friend, Mari Walsh, only a couple weeks ago.

 

She’d meant it.

 

She’d been proud of it.

 

She’d thought she was tough enough to make it last forever.

 

Apparently, she’d been wrong. Or lying to herself. Or whatever.

 

Either way, fear was apparently alive and well within her. Deep, debilitating fear, which was the best kind, of course.

 

It had been fifteen minutes since she’d driven up to her home, her cozy log cabin in southern Alaska. Had she gotten out? No. She was still sitting in her truck, engine idling, gripping the wheel so tightly her fingers were starting to cramp.

 

Why? Because she was too freaking terrified to get out of the truck at her own house.

 

She’d thought coming home would make her feel secure and eliminate the fear that had been mounting every day for the last two weeks while she’d been in the hospital, but it hadn’t.

 

In fact, she was even more scared now that she was alone, on her isolated property, surrounded by woods, without anyone around to hear her scream if he came for her.

 

Charlotte pressed her lips together, scanning the log cabin, the partially built stable, and the expansive woods and fields she loved so much. Against all odds, she’d fought so hard to turn the property into her home. A place she loved. A place where she could feel safe.

 

It was beautiful. The last of the autumn foliage was hanging on with some faint yellows and oranges mixed in with the plethora of coniferous trees. She knew it was beautiful, but right now, all she could do was see all the places on her property where it would be easy for a man to conceal himself.

 

Her protocol was to take a walk of the property every time she got home, looking for small fires, or fuel that had been arranged to start one.

 

Today? No way.

 

She couldn’t make herself turn off the ignition, let alone open her door and step out of her car.

 

It had been less than two weeks since she’d been kidnapped, stabbed, and nearly murdered by the guy she’d been dating.

 

It had taken almost all of those two weeks for Charlotte to shake the resulting infection that had kept her in the hospital. Who knew a knife could carry such germs, right?

 

She sighed. In those two weeks, her home had morphed from a sanctuary where she felt like she could ensure her own safety, to an exposed, haunted vulnerability that she could never trust again.

 

After being released from the hospital an hour ago, she’d driven straight home, eager to get out of the stark whiteness and sterility and back to the space she loved.

 

But now that she was here, she was afraid to go inside.

 

That was unexpected, alarming, and it completely sucked.

 

Beside her, Bear whined restlessly.

 

She looked over at the German shepherd she’d adopted from a shelter five years ago, after the murder of her parents. For five years, Bear’s presence in her bed, in her house, and in her truck, had enabled her to feel safe enough to rebuild her life.

 

But now?

 

She pried one hand off the steering wheel to ruffle his head. “I know,” she said softly. “Mama has turned into a wimp.”

 

Bear whined again and licked her hand, but even he couldn’t draw a smile from her.

 

The problem was, she wasn’t simply afraid of the knife-obsessed serial killer who couldn’t hurt her anymore.

 

She was afraid of the fire-obsessed serial killer who still could. The one she’d been waiting to show up for the last five years.

 

In addition to leaving her with knife wounds, night terrors, and anxiety, the recent abduction had shown her how wrong she’d been to think she could protect herself from the one who would be coming for her.

 

Today.

 

Tomorrow.

 

In a month.

 

In a year.

 

She didn’t know when, but she knew he would come. And when he came, it would be personal.

 

Thanks to the healing knife marks on her shoulder and stomach, she now understood exactly how vulnerable she was.

 

And she was terrified.

 

“That’s it, Bear. We’re not staying here.” She shifted into reverse. She’d drive for a few hours, find a hotel, pay for it in cash, and hide until she figured out what to do, where to go, how to hide forever.

 

Because she no longer believed she’d win when he came back.

 

Bear whined again as she braced her arm on the seat to look behind her as she hit the gas—

 

She swore and slammed on the brakes instantly, as an old black pickup truck drove up behind her, skidding to a stop inches from her bumper.

 

Fear gripped her, and for a split second, she couldn’t breathe or even move. Her heart pounded so loudly she couldn’t hear anything else. She couldn’t even move to grab the rifle she had stashed under her front seat.

 

Bear let out a low growl, and spots started to dance in front of her eyes. Her ears started ringing, and sweat broke out on her brow—

 

The passenger door of the other truck opened, and she sucked in her breath, frozen in terror—

 

Her friend Mari Walsh got out of the truck. Wavy brown hair. Pink leggings. Navy blue Solomon hiking boots.

 

Mari.

 

Charlotte’s gaze shot to the driver’s side, and she saw the old-timer Haas Carter climb out of his side, giving her a smile and a nod.

 

Her friends. Her friends. They had brought her truck and Bear to the hospital for her, and then followed her home with a carload of groceries.

 

She’d known they were coming, but she’d still freaked out.

 

And she was still panicking.

 

She couldn’t take her gaze off the truck, even after they got out. Was someone else in the back? Was someone else going to jump out? She waited, staring, watching for any movement—

 

“Hey!” Mari knocked on her window, and Charlotte yelped and jerked to the side as Bear barked and growled at Mari.

 

Mari’s face softened immediately. “It’s okay, Charlotte. It’s just me and Haas. No one else.”

 

Charlotte took a breath and set her hand on Bear’s head. “Are you sure no one’s in the back of your truck?”

 

Mari’s eyebrows went up. “Yes, of course.”

 

“You’re positive?”

 

Haas appeared beside Mari. “I checked. It’s good.” Haas was a grizzled, old Alaskan, and he held his rifle like a man who could take down a gnat from five hundred yards. His body was wiry and lean, and his eyes were bright with a fierceness that defied his age. He was also kind and warm, always ready to make her laugh with his irreverence.

 

He reminded her of her dad. Every time she saw him, she felt better.

 

Except now. Even Haas couldn’t pull her back from the edge. She rolled down her window. “I changed my mind.”

 

Mari narrowed her eyes. “About what?”

 

“All of it. I’m not staying here. Ben’s friend can find somewhere else to stay.” Mari’s fiancé, Ben Forsett, had a friend coming in from Boston. Mari and Ben had dumped him on Charlotte just as she was leaving the hospital, thinking it would make her feel safer to have him staying at her house with her. As if a stranger down the hall when she was trying to sleep would be relaxing. No chance. “I’m going to leave town—”

 

“Get out of the truck, Charlotte,” Haas said softly.

 

She shook her head. “No, I’m good.”

 

Haas put his weathered hand on the door handle. “If you walk away now, you’ll never come back. This is your home. You have to reclaim it. Unlock the door, Charlotte.”

 

“No, seriously—”

 

“Get out, Charlotte. Now.” Haas met her gaze with unyielding ferocity, and suddenly shame washed over her.

 

How could she be so afraid? How could she let some crazy bastard defeat her? Anger rushed through her, and she flung the door open and got out.

 

The minute her feet landed on the dirt, she felt something settle inside her. This was her land, her space, her home.

 

Mari smiled, and Haas nodded. “Better, right?”

 

She nodded. “Better.” She signaled Bear, and he hopped out of the truck and sat next to her calf. She usually sent him off to check the property when she first got home, but she wanted him close right now.

 

As long as Haas and Mari were outside, the odds weren’t exactly in her favor, but maybe their presence tipped the scales enough to get in and get out. “I’m going to run in and pack some stuff. Can you guys keep an eye out for any smoke?”

 

Haas raised his brows. “Smoke?” he echoed.

 

“Yep.” She didn’t bother to explain. She never did. “Mari, can you call Ben and tell him that Mack has to find somewhere else to stay?” She knew Ben had gone to the airport to pick up Mack, his friend from Boston, and she didn’t want them showing up at her place.

 

“If Mack stays with you, you won’t have to leave,” Mari said. “He can keep you safe. This is your home.”

 

Charlotte’s throat tightened. “Having some guy stay with me isn’t what I want right now.” A man she didn’t know sleeping in her house? No way. How was Mari so sure Ben’s friend Mack could ensure her safety? She knew all too well how fast it could go south. Her dad hadn’t been a slacker, and he’d had no chance.

 

Mari frowned. “But—

 

“Look,” she said, turning to face her friend. “I trust you. I trust Haas. I don’t trust strangers, and I don’t want one in my house.” She snapped her fingers at Bear, who stood up. “I’m going inside to pack. Call Ben. Tell him not to bring Mack. It’s not going to happen.”

 

Then, before Mari or Haas could argue, she walked away, sending Bear ahead of her to check things out. She watched her dog’s body language as he sniffed around the front door, and she felt some of the tension ease at the relaxed sway of his tail.

 

No one had been there recently.

 

She unlocked the front door and stood on the threshold while she sent Bear into the house. He trotted from room to room, nose to the floor. While she waited for him to complete his inspection, she looked over her shoulder, needing the reassurance of her friends’ presence.

 

They were still there, drawing a small smile from her. Mari was wearing an oversized blue hoodie that she’d clearly filched from Ben’s side of the closet. Charlotte smiled, so dearly happy her friend had found Ben.

 

Beside Mari stood the weathered Alaskan who had been Charlotte’s first friend when she’d moved to town five years ago. Haas had been the reason Charlotte had decided to buy property in Twin Forks. He’d shown her this was the spot to find roots, connection, and community again.

 

He and Mari were the only ones Charlotte had gotten close to, but she still had hope that maybe someday this place would become the community she wanted. Haas’s gray hair peeked out from his faded ball cap, but his wiry body was strong as he stood there in his red plaid shirt, cargo pants, and work boots.

 

They were good people, people who had become her dear friends when she’d needed them. They’d stayed close while she was in the hospital and taken care of Bear. How many games of checkers had Haas played with her? Probably more than a hundred. And Mari…every day she’d brought fresh flowers, sneaking in Bear for a visit each time.

 

Haas and Mari mattered to her, and she mattered to them.

 

They were what made life worth living.

 

The two of them were in deep discussion, their heads close as they talked, periodically glancing toward Charlotte, clearly discussing how to talk her out of leaving town.

 

They could try, but they wouldn’t succeed.

 

But as Charlotte watched Bear trotting happily back to her, his inspection finished, a sadness seemed to wrap around her heart. She didn’t want to leave.

 

Which was fine.

 

She had to leave anyway, because as much as she didn’t want to walk away from the life she’d started building, she wanted to get murdered even less.

 

Which meant leaving was her only option.

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

Mack Connor had been in Alaska for less than an hour, and he was already restless. He wanted to be back in Boston, but when Ben Forsett asked for his help, he got it.

 

Always.

 

Every single time.

 

No matter what.

 

It had been that way since they were kids, both of them trying to survive the streets of Boston, the drugs, and the gangs long enough to escape the hell they’d grown up in. Ben had gone to college and law school. Mack had gone into the military and become one of the world’s renowned experts on security tech, and all the shit that went with that.

 

Their connection had never faltered, even when life had blown up around them. Ben was the only friend Mack counted, and the only one he needed.

 

They always leaned on each other when the shit got real. Always. Until last month when Mack had uncovered a living hell…

 

“You okay?” Ben looked over at him, his brow furrowed.

 

Mack cleared his throat and looked out the window at the trees rushing past. So many damn trees. “Yeah. Fine.”

 

“What happened last month?”

 

Mack shot a sharp glance at Ben. “Nothing.”

 

“Bullshit. Something messed you up. What was it?”

 

For a split second, Mack was tempted to tell Ben the truth, to rip the darkness out of him and throw it onto his friend.

 

But just as quickly, he shoved it back down inside him, deep and hard, where it couldn’t see the light of day.

 

“Nothing.” He wasn’t going there. He just wasn’t. He hadn’t told Ben about it then, and he wasn’t going to tell him now. Mostly because he never shared shit like that, even with Ben, but also because Ben was barely recovered from getting shot twice less than two weeks ago.

 

The bullet had missed his heart, and grazed his knee, but the crutch stashed in the backseat was a statement about how close Mack had come to losing his only friend.

 

He wasn’t going to add to Ben’s load.

 

Darkness descended on Mack, and he growled as he dragged his thoughts away from the nightmare that had jerked him awake every single night for the last month. “How about you?” The last year of Ben’s life made Mack’s recent hell look like a cake walk, but he’d finally pulled through a couple weeks ago.

 

Ben hesitated, and Mack saw the moment that he decided not to push Mack for more answers. “Better. Mari helps. A lot.”

 

Mack nodded. “Good.” He was glad Ben had found someone who fit him. “I can’t believe you proposed to her.”

 

Ben smiled, a legit grin that lit up his face. “She changed my world, bro. She’s a gift.”

 

A sliver of envy flickered through Mack at the happiness on his friend’s face. He’d never seen him like that before. It hadn’t even occurred to him that either of them would ever feel that, that it could be a part of their lives. “Damn, man,” he said softly. “I’m almost jealous of that stupid grin.”

 

Ben’s smile faded into seriousness. “I’m staying in Alaska. I’ve found peace here.”

 

“Not coming back to Boston?” Mack felt darkness settle in him again. He and Ben had both been in Boston for the last few years, and it had settled him to have Ben around again. Having him move to Alaska? Shit. But he grinned at his friend anyway. “Good for you.” He meant it, too.

 

Ben cocked an eyebrow at him. “You might like it here, too. It’s an amazing place.”

 

Mack snorted and jerked his thumb at the mountains in the distance. “Where are my skyscrapers? No way.”

 

“That’s what I thought, too. Things change.”

 

“Not for me.” Mack shifted, suddenly restless to get back to topics he felt comfortable with.

 

They’d spent the first part of the drive from the airport going over the serial killer he’d helped Ben track a few weeks ago, and now it was time to focus on the present.

 

“Talk to me,” he said. “What do you need me for?” He knew it must be bad for Ben to ask him to fly to Alaska for it. The fact Ben had refused to give any details over the phone about why he needed him had jacked up his adrenaline even more.

 

Ben glanced over at him as his truck bounced over the rutted dirt road. “Mari’s friend. Charlotte.”

 

Charlotte. Mack liked the name. He wasn’t sure why. It was soft and strong at the same time. He knew nothing about soft, and he didn’t particularly want to, but her name seemed to settle in him whenever he heard it.

 

“The one who got kidnapped.” He’d tracked her phone for Ben to help find her. “She doing okay?”

 

Ben inclined his head. “Sort of.”

 

Mack narrowed his eyes, studying Ben. “You brought me here for her?”

 

At Ben’s nod, Mack settled into the familiarity of business mode. “What’s she into?” He unzipped his backpack and pulled out his computer. It booted up instantly, and he created a file with her name. “Her last name is Murphy, right?”

 

“Yep.” Ben rattled off her address, and Mack entered it into the computer.

 

“What else?”

 

“That’s it.”

 

Mack looked up. “What do you mean, that’s it? What’s going on with her?”

 

“I don’t know.” Ben took a right, the truck lurching over a big rut in the dirt. “It’s something though. Something from her past.”

 

Mack frowned. “A person? A man? Something someone else did? Something she did?” The last question stopped him hard. He knew all about someone who had done something bad, something that came back to haunt him. He was not getting involved with someone who had done bad shit. Not again. He cast a suspicious look at Ben. “How well do you know her?”

 

“Not well, but she’s good. She’s been Mari’s friend since the day she arrived in town.”

 

Not well. Mack closed the lid to his computer. “Look. I owe you a thousand times over, but I’m not feeling this one.”

 

“You will.” Ben slowed the truck. “I arranged for you to stay at her place with her.”

 

“No.” Mack put his computer away and zipped up his backpack. “Absolutely not. I live alone. I hate people, except for you. And even you I don’t want in my space.”

 

At that moment, Ben’s phone rang. He hit the speaker button. “Hey, sweetheart.”

 

Sweetheart? Mack frowned at his friend as a woman’s voice filled the car.

 

“Hey, babe. We have a problem,” she said. “Charlotte says Mack can’t stay with her, and she’s leaving town. She’s inside packing right now.”

 

Mack couldn’t help but grin. He liked the fact that Charlotte was refusing to be railroaded by Ben. The woman had backbone. “See? It’s been decided.”

 

“Mack? Is that Mack?” The warmth in Mari’s voice surprised him. “I’m so glad you’re here. Ben’s told me so much about you. Charlotte needs you.”

 

Her words ripped the smile off his face. “Charlotte appears to disagree with you both.” He tried to sound civil, but he knew he wasn’t particularly good at it.

 

“She freaked out when we got here, Ben,” Mari said, ignoring Mack so completely that he decided he liked her. Her voice was warm, but she had sass, which made her perfect for Ben. “I thought Charlotte was going to leap out of her skin when I knocked on her window. She was scanning the woods like she knew someone was watching her. It freaked me out, too.”

 

Her words piqued Mack’s interest, despite his reluctance. A woman in danger was a dangerous trigger for him right now, even more than usual. “You think it was nerves from the attack?”

 

“No.” Her conviction was absolute. “It definitely had to do with someone else. Whoever it was that she said would be coming back for her.”

 

“Coming back?” Mack leaned forward, listening more intently. “When did she say that?”

 

“At the hospital, when she found out that the story about Joseph kidnapping both of us had been in the papers and on the Internet. She said he’d see it, and he’d come back. She was so freaked when she got home.”

 

Ben swore under his breath and shot a scowl at Mack, as if it were his fault.

 

“Joseph was able to find me,” Mari said, her voice cracking slightly. “There’s nowhere to hide if someone wants to find her. We all know that.”

 

Mack did know that. He was one of the ones who could find anyone. And he’d completely fucked it up a month ago.

 

“We’ll talk to her when we get there.” Ben’s voice was gentle, gentler than Mack had ever heard him use. “You doing okay, Mari?”

 

“Yeah. She kind of wigged me out, but Haas is here, so I’m okay.”

 

“Haas Carter?” Mack repeated the name, fighting the temptation to open his computer back up and add it to Charlotte’s file. Ben had such praise for the old-timer Alaskan that Mack was actually interested in meeting him.

 

“Yes, he’s here—” Mari paused. “Charlotte’s coming out the door now with a bag. Haas says he won’t shoot her to make her stay. How far away are you?”

 

“We’re here.”

 

As Ben spoke, the truck rounded a bend, and a well-worn log cabin came into view. A second building had part of the frame up, a couple trucks were in the driveway, and a woman and old man were next to the bigger one.

 

But what caught Mack’s attention was the woman jogging down her front steps with a duffel bag that was twice her size. On her heels was a gorgeous German shepherd, glued to her side as if it were trained to perfection.

 

But it wasn’t the dog that riveted his attention.

 

It was the woman. Charlotte.

 

It wasn’t the gorgeous dark waves of her hair. Or the rigid set of her shoulders that told him of a raw, inner strength. Or the way her jeans hugged her hips like they were made for her.

 

It was the way she stared at the woods, terror etched over every line of her body as she came to a sudden stop.

 

She spoke to the dog, who took off at a sprint, nose to the ground as he bolted into the trees.

 

Mack was peripherally aware that Ben and the two folks in the driveway had paused to watch the dog.

 

He didn’t.

 

He watched Charlotte.

 

She remained still, but she wasn’t watching the dog either. She was carefully scanning her property, her gaze focused and methodical, as if she knew exactly what she was looking for while she waited for the dog to finish.

 

After her survey, he saw her shoulders loosen infinitesimally. She then raised her gaze to the dog, who was trotting back, his body at ease, and his tail waving peacefully.

 

She relaxed more, and held out her hand to the dog, who ground his head affectionately into her palm as she spoke softly to him.

 

The brief moment had told Mack much.

 

She was strong.

 

She was smart.

 

She was good to her dog.

 

And whoever was hunting her had been doing it for long enough that she’d developed a defense system, one that she no longer believed could keep her safe.

 

He swore under his breath as Ben pulled up beside an old, battered pickup truck that he assumed belonged to Haas.

 

Charlotte looked up and saw Ben’s truck. As soon as she realized he was there, she relaxed, a full and complete release that made her face soften.

 

Mack knew it was because Ben’s appearance made her feel safe. For a split second, she leaned into it, grasping for a respite from being constantly on edge. He liked that she trusted Ben. It showed she had good sense. Ben was the only person he trusted, so he appreciated that Charlotte could see that about him as well.

 

Then her gaze went to the passenger seat, and she realized Mack was with him.

 

Her jaw immediately jutted out. She pulled her shoulders back. And she set her hands on her hips. A fighting stance that made him grin.

 

 

“She’s ready to kick you out before you even move in,” Ben said, resting his forearms on the steering wheel.

 

“I see that.”

 

Ben cocked an eyebrow at him. “What are you going to do about it?”

 

Mack leaned forward, watching Charlotte. She was too far away to see clearly, and he knew she couldn’t see him well behind the windshield. “She believes she’ll be attacked in her own home,” he observed.

 

“I agree.” Ben drummed his fingers on the dash. “What if you walk away, and that happens to her?”

 

Mack was unable to take his gaze off her as she stared him down. She was attitude and sass, even when she was scared shitless. He respected that. Which made Ben’s question jab right into his gut and twist its blade. What if he walked away, and she was killed? “Really? That’s the line you’re throwing my way to get me to stay?”

 

“Yep.” Ben cocked an eyebrow. “Did it work?”

 

Mack sighed and picked up his backpack. “Screw you, Forsett.” He grabbed the door handle and stepped out of the truck.

 

Ben leaned across the seat, grinning at him. “So, that’s a yes? It worked?”

 

Mack’s only answer was to slam the door in his friend’s face, but he was grinning as he heard Ben’s laughter.

 

Yeah, it had worked.

 

Charlotte Murphy was officially his next case.

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

Mack Connor was dangerous.

 

Charlotte knew it the moment his boots hit her driveway.

 

She tightened her fingers around the strap of her duffel bag as he looked right at her, as if he could see right through all her bravado to the fear suffocating her even as she stood there, surrounded by people.

 

He was pure, sizzling energy that seemed to reach across the dirt driveway and plunge right into her core. Hot. Tempting. Dangerous.

 

He was tall, almost as tall as Ben, but broader. He was wearing a light blue oxford, a half-zip black sweater, and a pair of crisp, dark jeans, clothing that was a little too upscale for her life, for her world. Even his boots looked a little too stylish, with their flash of blue beneath the layers of scuffed, black nylon.

 

His backpack was slung over one shoulder, askew enough for her to see that it looked like it was made of slash-proof nylon, with layers of locks, stitching, and steel zippers that would keep out anyone.

 

His hair was dark. His whiskers were thick, only a day or two from being a full beard. He stood with the relaxed power of a predator, fully confident that he could launch himself into full-on attack mode instantly.

 

Oh, yes. Definitely dangerous. To her?

 

Her gaze snapped to his face, and she searched his eyes for the answer. Would he hurt her? His dark eyes met hers without hesitation. He didn’t look away. In fact, he seemed to be assessing her just as closely as she was evaluating him.

 

A little thrill rushed through her as they stood there eyeing each other. She liked the fact he hadn’t backed down from her inspection. She also liked that he hadn’t tried to deflect it.

 

He simply let her do it.

 

She raised one eyebrow at him in challenge, and he grinned, an amused smile laced with respect.

 

Before she could stop herself, she smiled back. Not to welcome him. Not to acknowledge that her insides had gone into overdrive at the sight of him. But to acknowledge that he was strong. Not wimpy.

 

She appreciated strong. She’d been born and raised in rural Alaska, and she had no space for those who couldn’t handle her.

 

In less than a moment, she knew that Mack could, and she couldn’t keep a thrill from rushing through her. Mack could keep her safe, and that felt amazing.

 

Belatedly, she realized that everyone had stopped talking, and they were all watching her inspect him. Heat rushed to her cheeks, and she raised her chin defiantly. Just because she found Mack compelling didn’t mean she was letting him stay.

 

If anything, it was even more of a reason to keep away from him.

 

“Come on, Bear.” She tapped her index finger on the side of her thigh and continued down the walkway toward the gathering. Bear moved beside her, keeping so close that his fur brushed her fingertips. She was already planning her speech to Ben and Mack as she approached them, an irrefutable declaration that she was leaving town, and Mack was on his own.

 

“Hey, Charlotte.”

 

She stopped as Ben approached her, moving well despite the crutch. She could tell he was barely using it, and knew he’d soon be off it completely.

 

He was tough, and she admired that in a man. She was so glad Mari had found him. She couldn’t help but smile as he neared. She liked Ben. He made her feel safe, and he was so good to Mari. “Hi.” Her gaze flicked behind him at Mack, who still hadn’t moved.

 

“How are you doing?” His voice was gentle, understanding, and it made sudden tears fill her eyes.

 

These people, these amazing people, made her feel like she was no longer alone. “I’m okay,” she said, unwilling to lie to him. “Glad to be out of the hospital.”

 

He nodded. “I bet.” He gestured to Mack. “I want to introduce you to my friend, Mack Connor.” Mack moved into action, walking toward her with a slow, easy gait that didn’t hide the raw strength in his body. “Mack, this is Charlotte Murphy.”

 

Mack inclined his head and held out his hand for her to shake. “Charlotte.”

 

His voice was deep and rich, making her breath catch. “Hi, Mack.” She took his outstretched hand to shake it, but as soon as his fingers wrapped around hers, time seemed to skid to an electrified halt. His palm was so warm, infusing heat into her that seemed to slide up her arm and right into the icy fear quivering deep in her belly, the fear she felt like she’d never be able to leave behind.

 

His eyebrows shot up. “Your hand is freezing.”

 

She pulled free. “I’ve been sick.” And terrified. “Listen, I know that Ben said you could stay here, but—”

 

He crouched down so he was eyelevel with Bear. “What’s your name?” He addressed the dog directly, his voice soft and soothing.

 

Charlotte sank her fingers into her dog’s thick fur. “His name is Bear.”

 

“Bear.” Mack studied her dog. “It’s good to meet you, Bear.”

 

Bear whined softly and cocked his head, clearly listening to him.

 

Charlotte took note of Mack’s relaxed stance, and the way he was already connecting with her dog. She narrowed her eyes suspiciously at Ben. “You said Mack was scared shitless of dogs.”

 

 That was one reason she’d said he could stay with her. Having Mack afraid of dogs made Bear even more of a defense against him. Yes, she trusted Ben not to ask her to host a serial killer, but fear wasn’t always defeated by logic.

 

“Scared of dogs?” Mack laughed softly as he held out his hand for Bear to sniff. “I love dogs. All kinds. They all love me.”

 

“You love dogs.” She repeated, glaring at Ben, who was grinning unapologetically.

 

“Yep.” Mack leaned in toward Bear. “I’m going to help you keep her safe,” he said quietly to her dog. “Anything you need, you tell me. Got it?”

 

Her heart tightened at his words, and she had to blink away the sudden moisture in her eyes. The thought of being safe again was more than she could conceive of, but the mere thought that Mack wanted to give it to her was almost overwhelming.

 

Bear whined again, then suddenly left her side to bury his face in Mack’s chest.

 

His movement was so sudden she didn’t have time to call Bear back before he was in Mack’s arms, getting a rubdown. She was shocked, staring at her dog. “He never goes to anyone other than me.”

 

Mack looked up, a grin on his face. “I told you. Dogs love me.” His smile faded as he gazed up at her. “Trust your dog, Charlotte. He’s not wrong about me.”

 

“I trained him not to trust anyone.” She snapped her fingers, and Bear quickly returned to her side, but his tongue was lolling happily out to the side as he gazed at Mack and thumped his tail. “It’s dangerous to him.”

 

Mack stayed crouched, gazing up at her. “Is that so?” His tone was casual, but thoughtful, a slow drawn-out question as he considered her words.

 

She suddenly felt like he was seeing too much. Mack was more than a worthy opponent. He was a man she would not be able to keep in his place. “Listen, it was great to meet you, but I need to go.” She adjusted her duffel on her shoulder. “I know Ben said you could stay here, but you can’t. I’m leaving town.”

 

Mack felt the shift in Charlotte’s energy, and he knew she was retreating fast, entrenching herself back into her original plan, shutting him out. Too bad for her, he’d already decided to help her, which meant he had to figure out a way around her resistance.

 

He studied her stubborn stance for a second, the way she raised her chin and eyed him defiantly. She was prepared for him to try to talk her into staying home so he could move into her house, and she’d already thrown up an impenetrable barricade.

 

It was apparent that she was ready for a frontal attack, so instead, he decided to circle around and disarm her before she even realized it.

 

“Mack? Did you hear me? You can’t stay here. I’m leaving now—”

 

“What were you looking for?” He interrupted her as he stood, intentionally focusing his gaze past her, toward the terrain she’d been inspecting so carefully when she’d first walked outside.

 

She stiffened, and her gaze followed his, as he knew it would. “Nothing.”

 

He almost smiled at her instinctive response. Did she really think he would believe that? Maybe too many people had. People who didn’t really care about the answer.

 

He cared. “A man?” He walked away from her, taking a few steps toward the partially framed structure to the right of her house. He wasn’t sure what it was going to be. A garage, maybe?

 

Her breath hitched ever so slightly at his words, and he knew that he’d guessed right. “Someone you know personally, then.”

 

She cleared her throat. “Listen, Mack, I really don’t need help—”

 

“There are quite a few places on your property to hide,” he observed, again careful to deflect her attention before she could entrench her resistance further.

 

“I know.” Her voice was heavy with the knowledge she didn’t try to deny as he headed toward the house. “Where are you going?”

 

“Just checking things out.” He felt her gaze on him as he walked carefully, methodically scanning for a detail that might tell him what she was looking for. “You were looking at the ground, though,” he said. “Not at places that a man could conceal himself.”

 

When she said nothing, he looked over his shoulder at her. Her face was stark, and she looked genuinely scared. Her brown eyes were big and expressive, framed by thick lashes that were a temptation unto themselves. Her lips were parted, as if she’d stopped herself mid-protest.

 

He realized how small she was. From a distance, she gave the impression of being tall, a force to be respected. Up close, he realized she couldn’t be much over five feet. Fierce, but tiny.

 

Protectiveness surged through him, a raw, primal force that gripped him ruthlessly. For a moment, a vice seemed to squeeze his chest as a memory of a month ago flashed through his mind.

 

Of his absolute fuck-up.

 

He closed his eyes, gritting his teeth against the onslaught of memories, as he fought to hold his shit together. Hell, what was he doing thinking he was in any state of mind to help her?

 

He wasn’t. He couldn’t help her.

 

Swearing, he opened his eyes. “Look, you don’t want me to stay, I won’t—” He stopped at the expression of surprise on her face.

 

Not just surprise. Empathy. Pain. Regret. For the pain she must have seen on his face.

 

For a long moment, neither of them said anything. He could practically feel the heat of her gaze, as if she’d seen the darkness gripping him so deeply, a darkness that had begun long before last month’s hellhole had blown what was left of him to bits. A darkness that didn’t scare her.

 

He ran his hands through his hair, swearing as he tried to focus. He glanced over at Ben, Mari, and Haas, who were all watching their exchange intently. Ben and Mari were frowning, and Haas looked intrigued.

 

Swearing, he turned back to her. “If I leave, what happens?”

 

“I’ll leave, too.”

 

“And go where?”

 

She hesitated. “I don’t know. I hadn’t gotten past finding a hotel tonight. I’ll figure it out, though.”

 

“You sure?”

 

“I—” She paused, and he could see the warring emotions on her face. The strong, indomitable force he’d already sensed, and the terrified woman who was hugging herself so tightly that he half expected that she’d never be able to uncurl her arms again.

 

He walked over to her. “What do you want, Charlotte? Truth.”

 

She looked up at him. “I want to be free to live again,” she said softly.

 

He’d been expecting her to say she didn’t want to be killed. That she wanted to feel safe. He’d expected her to yearn for protection. But that wasn’t Charlotte. This woman, this fiery Alaskan woman didn’t just want to be safe. She burned with a fire to live fully, freely, to spread her wings, and go wherever she wanted.

 

Her words struck deep, and he swore. “I get that.” Hell yeah, he got that. He’d been running blind after that feeling his whole life. He had no idea how to find that freedom to live that she wanted, but he did know how to cut down threats. The rest would be up to her. “What if I can help with that?”

 

Hope flickered in her eyes, and then faded. “He’s very good.”

 

“So am I.”

 

Her brows raised. “Are you?”

 

He paused. A month ago, he wouldn’t have hesitated. But four weeks ago, he’d made a mistake. A mistake like he would never have believed he could make, and people had died because of it. Was he that good? He didn’t know anymore. “Who else can help you?”

 

Her gaze flicked to Ben, Mari, and Haas, then back to him. “I won’t endanger them.”

 

So that was it. Those three were the extent of her support system. Shit. He was a screwed-up mess, but he was better than what she had. There was no chance he could walk away, and neither could she. He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “I’m a complete fuck up, Charlotte. I don’t sleep, because the nightmares haunt me. I hate being around people. I’m the guy that no one wants to be near. Ever.”

 

“Except me,” Ben called out. “I like you.”

 

Mack grinned. “Well, you’re insane.”

 

“Truth, bro.” Ben slung his arm over Mari’s shoulder, tucking her against his side. “Go ahead. Didn’t mean to interrupt. You’re doing so nicely turning on the charm.”

 

“I am utterly charming.” He noticed then that Charlotte hadn’t backed away after his little speech. If anything, she leaned forward slightly, as if his darkness made him more interesting.

 

He liked it. He liked her response to him. He liked the fire trying to surface within her.

 

He did not like her terror.

 

“And you want me to invite you to live with me?” Her eyebrows went up, but there was a challenge in her voice, more than simple resistance. She was intrigued. Considering. Wondering. “Why would I do that after that description of yourself?”

 

He shrugged. “I wanted you to know what I am. To not expect me to be some nice guy or ray of sunshine.” He wasn’t sure he’d ever had any sunshine in him, to be honest. “But you can trust me to have your back.”

 

She narrowed her eyes, but he could tell that she was listening to him now, seeing him, instead of trying to rush past him to her truck. “Why would I trust you? I don’t even know you, and you just admitted you’re not a good guy—”

 

“No.” He held up his hand to silence her. “I am one of the good guys. It just doesn’t show.”

 

A smile flickered at the corner of her mouth. “It might show more than you think.”

 

Surprise rippled through him, and then satisfaction. He almost had her. He paused, trying to find the words to seal the deal. Simple. Direct. Effective. “Ben could have called anyone to help the best friend of the woman he loves. Anyone. He called me. Despite all my shit, he wanted you to have me.”

 

She stared at him, her eyes wide as she chewed on her lower lip. “I don’t know you,” she finally said. “I can’t have a stranger in my house—”

 

Mari walked up and put her arm around Charlotte’s shoulders. “Char?”

 

Charlotte blinked and looked at her friend. “What?”

 

“What Mack’s trying to say is that you can trust him.”

 

At that word “trust,” Charlotte’s eyes filled up with sudden tears, and she had to blink them away. “I don’t know him,” she whispered. “How can I trust him? He’s a stranger. I don’t trust strangers—”

 

“He and Ben have been best friends since they were eight years old,” Mari said. “More than twenty years. He might be a stranger to you, but not to Ben. You trust Ben, right?”

 

“Yeah…” Charlotte’s gaze flicked to Mack, and then to Ben. “Since you guys were eight?”

 

They both nodded, and Mack was surprised to see the shudder of relief that went through her. The fact that Ben had a lifetime with Mack was hugely significant to her. Why? He already had so many questions about her swirling in his mind, and he found he was getting restless for answers.

 

He wanted to know more about her. What made her tick. How the hell she could still radiate sunshine every time she smiled, even with the crap that was wrapped so tightly around her.

 

And he needed to find out who was after her. Because he was going to take down whoever had stripped her of her freedom.

 

 Haas walked over, until they were all crowding her. Mack shifted restlessly, wanting to step back. He didn’t like crowds, and he didn’t like people.

 

But when he saw how Charlotte relaxed with her friends around her, he stayed still, forcing himself to remain present.

 

Haas eyed Mack. “Ben’s a good man. He vouches for you, and I believe him.” He held out his hand. “Haas Carter.”

 

Mack shook his hand, impressed by the strength in the old-timer’s wiry, calloused hand. “Mack Connor. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.”

 

As they shook hands, Mack saw Charlotte’s gaze fall on their joined palms. She looked at Mack, then Haas, then Ben. He could see the indecision on her face. The yearning for safety, for help, warring with the flight response to get the hell away from her home as soon as she could.

 

 “Char.” Mari’s eyes were heavy, weighted with what both women had gone through two weeks ago. “I still have nightmares, even with Joseph locked up forever.”

 

Charlotte flinched visibly at the name, and Mack had to fight the urge to reach out and tuck her behind him, letting her use his body as the shield she so clearly needed. His need to help her was growing stronger with each passing moment.

 

Mari wasn’t finished. “I have Ben by my side, but you’re alone. Whether you stay here or go on the run, the memories, the danger, it will follow you. You need space to breathe, but going on the run won’t be enough. Let Mack give you space to sleep, to recover, to find your equilibrium again. Let us help you. Let Mack help you.” She searched her face. “Please.”

 

Charlotte looked around at all of them, and then her gaze settled on Mack’s face. He saw her fear, so entrenched, so deep. But beneath that fear was a fierce determination, an instinctive resilience to not succumb to what she was facing.

 

He met her gaze. “You want to take down that bastard?”

 

She sucked in her breath and hope flared in her eyes as she nodded once.

 

“I’m the weapon he’ll never see coming.”

 

She stared at him, and then she grinned, a vibrant smile that seemed to light up her face. “That was so badass.”

 

“I’ve been practicing that line for years, just waiting for the right time to use it.” He grinned back. “So, are you going to run, or will you going to stand your ground and defend your territory?”

 

She took a deep breath, her hand going to Bear’s head.

 

He knew the answer before she said it.

 

“Fight.”

 

Adrenaline pulsed through him. Hell, yeah. “So, I’m moving in?”

 

She bit her lip. “One night. Then we’ll see.”

 

One night.

 

He’d take it.

 

 

 
What do you think??? If you love it, preorder now so you get the release week bonus short story and recipe! Get it here!

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AND THE REST…

1)  FREEBIE REMINDER: 

The first book of the Alaska Heat series, ICE, is available as a FREE download here: 

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Today’s Installment of YOU ARE AWESOME!

(Starting with last week, I’m going to include a weekly YOU ARE AWESOME section, until I stop doing it. And then I won’t. But right now, you get lucky, ’cause I’m all-in). 

Yesterday on Facebook, I saw a great meme that said:

Guard Your Confidence (thanks to Dean Graziosi for that!)

Why is this important? Because without self-confidence, you can’t do anything. When you have doubt, all your energy fizzles and it feels like “why try?” 

Last week I talked about eliminating negative people from your life, and this takes it a step further, because this isn’t only about other people. It’s about YOU.

For example, I am working on a new top secret project this summer. I wrote more than 250 pages of it, loved it SO much, and then I stopped. I literally abandoned it mid-chapter. Why? Because I started telling myself it wasn’t good enough. I was barely even aware of that voice in my head, and yet it was so powerful, it got me to walk away from a book that was more than two-thirds finished. 

No one had told me it wasn’t good. It was only the voice in my own head that was talking. 

My mom and Mr. Stephanie had both read it, and they kept saying, “Finish that book!” 

But I couldn’t. Every time I even thought about it, my stomach tightened up, and I thought, “It’s not good enough, and I can’t do it.” 

This week, I started thinking about it again. I thought about how much I had believed in it before I’d talked myself out of it. I realized that I hadn’t been wrong. It WAS amazing, special, and unique. 

So, I tried to work on the story again, but every time I got near it, that voice in my head was so loud, telling me I couldn’t do it. I was paralyzed.

I had lost ALL confidence. 

But you know what? I saw that meme, GUARD YOUR CONFIDENCE, and I realized I wasn’t guarding it at all. I was letting it bleed out all over the floor, and rendering myself incapable of moving past it.

I started a different tune in my head. I started reminding myself of the good things about the book. Why I loved it.  Why I believed in it. Then I sent it to a few trusted early readers to see what they thought. 

This was the first one I got back: “OMG!!! I LOVE THIS!!!! Mia’s humour is EVERYTHING!!!!!!! I haven’t been able to put it down since I started!!!!!”

Well, dayum, right? The others came in with the same reaction. I literally got teary when I read their feedback. And I LISTENED to them. I let them feed my confidence. I used whatever tools I could find, including my own thoughts, my readers, everything. 

I started writing it again yesterday. How about that, right? Rock on! 

Without confidence, you are paralyzed. Whatever it is you want to accomplish, whether it’s fitness, work, family, friends, health etc. If you convince yourself you can’t, then your lack of confidence will stop you dead in your tracks.

Protect your confidence. Nurture it. Guard it. Do whatever it takes to protect that precious, beautiful gift that is yours, all yours, only yours. 

And that, my friends, is that. 

Remember, you rock. You are awesome. No matter what anyone says. #truth

Love,

Stephanie 

PS If you scrolled past the sneak peek for Burn, go back and read it. It’s that good. Or, at least I think it’s that good, and as we all agreed earlier, I’m pretty breathtaking (see? guarding my confidence here, folks). 

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