Please enjoy reading an excerpt from my romantic-suspense adventure novel
(*NATIONAL READERS’ CHOICE AWARDS FINALIST IN ROMANTIC SUSPENSE*)
“What the . . .?” Kelly Cochran flicked on the light and stood rooted in the doorway of her bedroom in her Los Angeles apartment. The French doors to the balcony swung in the evening breeze, and the linen draperies billowed like sails. Her heart slammed against her ribs in a painful, warning rhythm. She had locked those doors in the morning.
Her gaze lowered to the shattered glass on the carpet. Panic raced through her. Why had the newly installed alarm failed to go off?
She fumbled in her purse and hit redial on her cell phone. Please, Robert, answer. He was the last person she’d spoken to and had dropped her off at her apartment only a few moments ago.
A thump from the closet sent cold, dark fright spiraling through her. She turned to run, but strong arms grabbed her from behind, knocked her bag and phone from her hands, and sent her flying onto the bed. The man pounced on top of her and crushed the breath out of her.
“Help!” she cried, kicking wildly. She tried for a knee-kick to his groin, but hit his thigh instead. “Somebody help me!”
He fisted his hand in her hair and jerked her head painfully against the headboard, then clamped his other grimy hand over her mouth. “That’ll cost you, bitch. I heard about you redheads. I bet you like it rough,” he said, in an almost casual tone.
Kelly shook her head frantically. He laughed and released his hold on her hair, then grabbed the front of her shirt. She pummeled her fist against his arm.
He chuckled, his rotten breath assaulting her. “I’ve been paid to off you, but it’s a shame to take out a hot chick like you before we’ve had a little fun.”
A nasty grin lit his face and frightened her more than his threats. She knew in that moment her death would mean nothing to him. Sheer terror sent adrenaline flying through her.
She jerked her mouth free and bit down hard on his hand.
He yelped. “Damn you, bitch.”
Kelly managed one loud shriek before he clenched his hands around her neck, strangling her screams and cutting off her air supply.
With spots dancing before her eyes, she clawed at his hands, but couldn’t pry loose his crushing death-grip. She had to do something to save herself. Wriggling frantically beneath him, she extended her arm and touched the edge of the nightstand. Her fingers curled around the base of her crystal lamp.
Thunk. He grunted and his hands fell away but his body weight slumped on top of her.
She shoved him off her and air rushed into her lungs. Raising fingers to her throbbing throat, she rolled from the bed. The man groaned.
A crash in the living room—as if the door had been broken down—startled her.
“Kelly!” Robert yelled.
Her breath rushed out in a tide of relief. Thank God, he was here.
She snapped her head toward her attacker who’d already staggered to his feet. Her previous adrenaline rush that had allowed her to fight so violently for her life had vanished. Now, she gasped for breath, and trembling consumed her body.
Instead of coming toward her, the intruder fled onto the second-floor balcony. He gave her one last menacing glare that promised he’d be back, then grasped a rope and was gone.
* * *
One Week Later – April Fools’ Day
“I’m perfectly safe, Aunt Kaye,” Kelly said into her cell phone. “I’m a thousand miles away from L.A. and that thug. What could possibly happen?”
Kelly opened the blinds overlooking her balcony on the luxurious Royal Queen III. Outside, a steady, wind-driven rain rapped the glass––a clear testament to the unpredictability of typhoon season in the South Pacific.
Despite her reassurances to her aunt, Kelly’s throat tightened. Before the attack, she had taken the simple act of breathing for granted. No more.
“Sorry I left so suddenly.” She hoped she sounded normal enough to soothe Aunt Kaye’s fears. “If word gets out someone tried to kill me, it could hurt the company.”
“The company? I’m worried sick about you,” her aunt said in her raspy voice.
“Don’t be. That’s why Robert insisted I go on this trip. We need to consider our options and decide what I’m going to do. Now, please, don’t worry. Perhaps, by the time I return, Detective Spagnola will have someone in custody.”
“You seem to be spending a lot of time with Robert?”
“I enjoy being with him. Why?”
“But he was your father’s lifelong friend,” Aunt Kaye said. “I thought you always considered him as an uncle. With his mother working for your grandparents and living on the estate, he was almost like your dad’s little brother.”
“Yes, but we’re not related by blood, Aunt Kaye. And you should have seen Robert. He was impressive. He busted down the door to my apartment and ran in like a hero. He risked his life to save mine—that killer could have shot him. That he did what he did, means a lot to me.”
That night she’d flung herself into Robert’s arms so thankful for his help.
“I’ll allow you that he’s compelling, and I’m grateful to him, too, for coming to your rescue,” Aunt Kaye muttered, “but didn’t the thug flee before Robert even walked into the bedroom? It sounds to me like you saved yourself.”
“But, Aunt Kaye, I don’t know how long I could have held the man off.” Though she was surprised at how violent she’d been when put to the test.
“You’re under a lot of stress with this maniac after you. Don’t do anything––”
“Impulsive?” Kelly frowned. She had worked hard to curb her impetuous nature. And after graduating with her MBA, she had returned to work for the family company. Still, Kelly sensed her aunt needed reassurance. “This cruise is nothing more than a chance for me to regroup. And it’s a business trip for Robert. He’ll be busy with his clients. I’m just grateful for this chance to get away.”
“All right, sweetie. I’ll try to lose my auntie jitters. However, you’re young and beautiful. Robert’s no fool—”
When the ship’s horn blasted, Kelly exhaled a sigh of relief. She didn’t want to discuss her feelings for Robert. She wasn’t even sure what she felt for him. He’d been her friend and mentor for so long . . . “Aunt Kaye, the ship’s leaving port. I’ll call you in a few days. I love you.”
The ship moved out of the Port of Lautoaka and along the Fiji shoreline, blurred by the deluge. Kelly hadn’t seen the sunshine since they’d arrived yesterday.
Bracing her hand on the door, she felt the change as the ship entered the open water where waves crested into peaks before plummeting into a green-gray ocean. Dampness mingled with the air-conditioning and the smell of saltwater. She shivered and rubbed her arms for warmth. A headache hammered her temples and she glanced around, nervously.
You’re safe on this trip. As if to taunt her, lightning seared the darkening sky, followed by the loudest crash of thunder she’d heard all afternoon.
“Oh . . .” She whirled from the stormy view and paced the floor of the large, blue and gold cabin, agitated and second guessing her decision to take this luxurious trip.
Get a grip, girl. She stepped to the dresser and examined her reflection in the mirror. She brushed her long hair away from her neck and carefully traced her fingertips along the tender bruises. Although still a faint yellow, the bruises were barely noticeable with the makeup she’d applied that morning.
Oh, Dad, why did you leave me in this mess?
Thankfully, she had Robert in her life. When they’d arrived that morning, he surprised her by having two dozen white roses delivered to her cabin.
Kelly leaned over and inhaled the sweet fragrance, then reread his bold script on his card.
‘Love always, Robert.’
She smiled. Did he mean the kind of love one had for a lover? She suspected his feelings for her had changed when he kissed her unexpectedly the day after the attack. And then, ‘to ensure her safety,’ he’d asked her to accompany him on this business trip.
She had almost been killed . . .
Had he been so shaken up that he realized he loved her?
With a sigh, Kelly walked to the closet and removed her blue evening gown from a hanger. The silk caressed her fingertips as she draped the dress over a chair. Tonight she’d explore this new romantic side of Robert. A girl could get used to this.
Deciding she needed a rejuvenating shower, she stripped down to her underwear. Then her gaze fell on a familiar gray envelope on the nightstand.
The terror had begun a month ago with the arrival of the first in a series of similar threatening letters. This was the first one since the attack.
Her pulse beat erratically as she reached for the envelope and sank onto a chair. The usual cut-and-pasted letters from magazines creepily spelled out her name and company address.
Despite her shaking hands, she opened the envelope and managed to read the letter’s different-sized words.
You take expensive trips and don’t repay your father’s debts. Next time, you die.
Kelly leapt to her feet. Robert had paid for this trip and this elegant suite. Even though many clients had lost their life savings in the company’s debacle after her father’s death, she and Robert were going to make sure all were gradually repaid. Resisting the urge to crumple the letter, she stuffed it back into the envelope.
With it in hand, she slipped on her robe, hoping Robert was next door in his cabin. The clatter of something falling in the bathroom . . . made her pause. A chill edged her spine. She froze.
Her heart pounded in her ears as she strained to hear sounds from the bathroom. Only the familiar groans of the ship, and the titter of a woman’s laughter from the hallway, broke the silence. Rain beat a rat-a-tat on the glass. The seconds dragged. Slowly, the bathroom door squeaked open.
Someone was in there.
The envelope slipped from her icy fingers and she ran. The lock clicked into place behind her as she hurried from the cabin. Exhaling a pent-up breath, she turned to run, but the hem of her robe snagged in the closed door. She tugged, but couldn’t free herself and didn’t have her keycard. She glanced down the hallway. It was empty so she tore off the robe and left it behind.
Appearances were the furthest thing from her mind as she made her escape.
Cool air hit her bare skin as she ran the few steps to Robert’s suite.
She pounded on the door. “Robert. Open the door. Please.”
When he didn’t answer, she wrenched the knob. Locked. She shot a glance toward her cabin. The door remained closed. She choked out a sob, relieved that she’d not been followed.
She couldn’t run through the halls of the ship dressed in her underwear so she needed to get into a cabin and call security.
She tried the door across from Robert’s cabin. It opened, and she lurched inside. Crouching down, she leaned against the door, her breathing rapid. The room spun.
Calm down. As she scanned the room, she forced herself to breathe evenly. A man’s white dress shirt lay on the satin comforter and a suitcase stood nearby on the floor. The bathroom door was closed.
She rose on shaky legs. “Hello?”
When no one answered, she exhaled and crossed to the desk where she found the ship’s directory card and security’s telephone number. She reached for the phone.
“Oh, this one is really good,” said a man with a deep polished English accent, from behind her. “Much better than a fruit basket.”
The receiver slipped from her hand and clattered onto the desk. She whirled to find the most handsome man she’d ever seen standing at the bathroom entrance. Every worry she had, left her on the exhale as she stared at him.
At least six feet tall, the Adonis raised muscled arms and casually towel-dried his dark blond hair. He looked to be in his late twenties, and he wore only a white towel draped around his sleek waist and hips.
He leveled his aqua-blue gaze on her. “Should I give my compliments to the captain? Or is this what thieves are wearing these days?”
Disoriented, she stared. Then remembering she wore only her new Victoria’s Secret bra and panties, she clamped her arms across her chest. “I . . . ”
With a flick of his wrist, he tossed the towel he’d used to dry his hair onto a chair and leaned a broad shoulder against the doorjamb of the bathroom. With one brow raised, he gave her a thorough going-over.
Her face warmed at his rudeness, but then she cringed. She was the one in his room. “I am not a thief.”
“Of course you’re not,” he said, in a patronizing voice. “That would be unusual attire for a burglar.” He shoved away from the doorjamb and stalked toward her, contempt obvious on his face. “Similar schemes to invade my privacy happen all the time, but this has got to be the best. So, what’s your story? Why are you here . . . dressed like that?”
“Schemes? Story?” She retreated until the back of her bare thighs hit the desk. “Someone is hiding in my cabin. I heard an intruder and needed a place to hide. I need your help.”
He stepped closer.
Intimidated by his nearness, she dropped her gaze—only to have it land on the rippling curves and planes of his muscular chest, still damp from his shower. She drew in a sharp breath and along with it the clean, soapy scent of male.
“Is that what they’re calling it these days—help?” he asked, his voice husky.
At the flicker of heat in his eyes, everything inside Kelly stilled.
* * *
Alex Drake didn’t believe for one moment that the stunning redhead was in his cabin for anything but seduction. With his career on the fast track, he’d grown accustomed to aggressive females. In fact, since he’d arrived on the ship this morning, three women had brazenly approached him.
He didn’t like extremely forward women. He’d be the one to do the asking, thank you very much.
Just last week, in his hotel room, he’d found a stark-naked woman lounging in his bed. At least she’d been truthful about what she wanted. Nevertheless, he had sent her packing. He’d have no problem doing the same with this one. He didn’t need a scandal.
His gaze swept over the woman again, and his anger faded. Although a beauty, with her large, sapphire-blue eyes and creamy fair skin, she wasn’t the usual type to do this. And regardless, he preferred older women who understood he wouldn’t get involved.
She seemed primed for her game of seduction though. Her long hair tumbled in thick, dark auburn curls down her back. She filled out a sexy, blue satin bra and panties, trimmed with black lace. Desire surged through him.
Bloody, bloody hell. It went against his better judgment, but he wouldn’t mind kissing those full, red lips and sampling whatever else she had to offer.
And why not? For five years, English law had ensnared him. Perhaps it was time he enjoyed himself . . .
Then he gazed into those widened eyes and frowned. For a woman bent on seduction, she almost looked frightened and a bit too innocent for this sort of thing.
Dismissing that as just another approach, he hardened his heart. He’d been fooled by the most conniving of her sex. She must have bribed a maid to let her in—something he would take up with the ship’s steward.
Still . . . Despite everything, he found himself intrigued.
Alex lifted her chin with his finger. “Well done. You’ve succeeded in attracting my attention.”
“Your attention? But I need help.”
He chuckled. “Oh, yes . . . my help.”
She blew out a deep breath. “You believe me. Thank you.”
Next, he guessed she’d find an excuse to throw herself into his arms. As he expected, she swayed toward him. His mouth quirked as, he caught her curvy body against the length of him. Damn it. She was good. Perhaps his initial guess was wrong and she wasn’t a lady looking for his favors––but was an actress. She played the damsel in distress to perfection with that phony swoon.
No doubt, she thought he could help her career as well. If he hadn’t had to catch her, he would have applauded her acting talent.
Why not play along and see how far she would take it? “Are you all right, love? Should I call the ship’s doctor?”
“Oh, no.” Her warm breath on his bare chest sent a shiver through him. “I’ll be okay in a minute. I’m just a little ‘shook up.’”
“I’m a little shaken myself,” he said dryly. His hands encircled her small waist, while her hair tickled his nose and reminded him of lavender flowers in an English garden.
An unwanted tremor ran through him. She was good, really good. And with her full breasts pressing against him, his body responded on command. He’d have a hard time refusing her. That was probably her intention when she practically threw herself into his arms.
Not wanting to reveal just how attracted he was to her, he held her a little away.
Bloody, bloody hell. For the past six months, he’d successfully avoided women and their accursed lies and manipulations, but now, he couldn’t think clearly with this angel in his arms.
Why not taste those inviting lips before he sent her on her way? “I don’t usually care for this approach, but you’ve been very persuasive.”
Her eyebrows arched. “What . . . ?”
“You know what I’m talking about, little one. You’ve won. I’ll help you.”
He ground his mouth down on hers. For a brief moment, it seemed like she resisted him and her nails dug into his biceps. He assumed this was part of her act, because, dear God, she already trembled with desire.
As he expected, her grip relaxed and her lips softened under his. His desire ran rampant. He wanted more. Why not take what she so freely offered? He cupped his hand on the back of her head, his fingers tangling into the thickness of her hair.
He groaned inwardly and the ironic thought crossed his mind that clothing wouldn’t be an obstacle, since they were both nearly naked. “You are incredibly sweet,” he murmured against her lush lips.
A part of him couldn’t believe he did this. He didn’t even know her name.
Another part believed entirely.
* * *
To Kelly, time seemed in slow motion. His jaw scraped her chin, and his lips met hers. He deepened the kiss, widening her mouth, his tongue exploring. Heat shot through her and her knees wobbled. His English accent had been seductive, while the unexpected kiss stole her breath away and sent her senses reeling.
Did he just say, ‘sweet’?
Finally snapped out of her hypnotic state, she jerked her lips from his. “This is not what you think.”
“What?” the stranger whispered, his breath warming her cheek. “You ran in here, begging for my help,” he said against her throat. “I’m only offering my assistance.”
She struck her fist against his arm, meeting hard muscle. “What kind of assistance did you think I needed? Let go of me. I came in here to use the phone.”
He loosened his hold, the passion vanishing from his eyes. “What game are you playing?”
Whirling out of his arms, she caught her reflection in the mirror and gaped in mortification. No wonder he had the wrong impression. Her hair looked wild, and without the rest of her clothing, her penchant for frilly, pretty underwear made her appear provocative and sexy.
She grabbed the white dress shirt from the bed and clutched it over her breasts. “I’m telling you the truth.”
He ran his fingers through his damp hair. “You’re a tease.”
“No. Please, let me explain.”
Crossing his arms over his chest, he nodded toward the shirt. “Put it on.”
With her cheeks burning, she turned her back to him and quickly buttoned the shirt. Then she took a deep breath and faced him. “Someone was hiding in my bathroom. I ran in here to call security.”
“Let me see if I’ve got this right. You ran into my cabin—practically naked and in that getup—because you feared someone hid in yours. How did you get in? Did you bribe a maid?”
“No,” she said in exasperation. “Your door was unlocked.”
He raised a skeptical eyebrow. “It locks automatically.”
“I’m telling you, your door was unlocked.”
He shrugged. “Perhaps it wasn’t shut properly or the lock is faulty. I’ll have maintenance check it out.”
“And when I came in here, trying to get away from an intruder in my cabin, you . . . you attacked me.”
His eyes narrowed as he leaned his beautiful face toward her. “Hardly. I thought you were here for another reason altogether, love.”
Her mouth dropped open and then snapped shut. Although he was devastatingly handsome with his classic features and high cheekbones—and had a body and face of pure masculine beauty—surely he didn’t think a strange woman, wearing only her underwear, would come into his room and throw herself at him?
“You are the most arrogant man I’ve ever met.”
He had the gall to glare at her.
“You entered my cabin, barely clothed, and kissed me,” he scoffed.
“You kissed me first.”
He shrugged. “You responded. Why you practically threw yourself at me.”
“I was in shock.”
“What was I to think? You’re almost naked.”
“I was undressing to take a shower. Sorry, I didn’t take the time to be properly fashionable when I ran from someone hiding in my bathroom—someone wanting to kill me.”
“Sounds like a farfetched excuse to me.”
The towel around his waist unfurled. She caught a glimpse of a tan line, and as he turned to grab the ends of the towel, a bare white hip and muscular butt cheek. He tightened the towel and faced her, shooting her a cool look.
Her cheeks burning, she blurted, “Now, may I use your phone?”
“Be my guest,” he said with a curt nod.
She picked up the telephone, checked the list of ship lines, punched in security’s number and made the report. After hanging up, she turned to find his gaze on her legs.
Frowning, she tugged the shirttail downward and covered one bare foot with the other.
“A security officer is on his way,” she said, using the most impersonal voice she could muster, treating him like the stranger he was—in spite of that crazy kiss they just shared. “He’ll meet me at my cabin. Thank you for the use of your phone. I’ll return the shirt later—”
“I’ll help. I’ll go with you.”
“No thanks,” she muttered. “I don’t need the kind of help you offer.”
“With a killer on the loose,” he said, with a sardonic lift of an eyebrow, “I insist. It’s the least I can do to make sure you get back to your cabin safely.”
He removed a shirt and shorts from his dresser and stepped into the bathroom to dress.
* * *
A few minutes later they stood in Kelly’s cabin while the security officer checked her bathroom. She stood frozen by the door, beside the handsome stranger.
“I was telling you the truth,” she said, giving him a sideways glance. “I didn’t run into your cabin for some kind of hook up.”
The officer exited the bathroom and handed her a plastic cup. “This was on the floor.” He swung the door back and forth. “Your door does have a squeak. Salt air can do that. I’ll send maintenance to oil the hinges. Isn’t it possible that, because of the storm, the excessive rocking of the ship caused the cup to fall from the counter and the door to swing open and that’s what you heard?”
Blood pounded at her temples and Kelly collapsed in the nearest chair. “I don’t know.” The cabin seemed undisturbed. Only gusting rain hit against the doors to the balcony. Had she been mistaken?
The officer’s eyes revealed he thought she’d imagined it all. He strode to the door. “I’ll write a report, just in case, and have the lock across the hall checked, too. Call me if you have any more problems.” The officer gave the man who had kissed her a wink before exiting the cabin and closing the door.
Of all the nerve. Neither one of these men believed her. She wrapped her arms around herself. Well, okay . . . It didn’t matter what they thought. She’d be fine now.
No killer here. Then she remembered the date and winced. Today was the first of April—she felt like the biggest fool.
The man whose cabin she’d run to, bent down and retrieved the gray envelope from beneath the dresser. “What’s this?” he asked.
She must have dropped it in her rush to escape. Here was the proof that she’d had a reason to be afraid. However, now she had no intention of telling this man anything. If word got out someone wanted to kill her, the old scandal would be dredged up and her father’s name would be blasted in the news again, hurting Cochran Investments’ chances for recovery.
She watched as he frowned at the pasted letters on the front, which spelled out her name and address. Then he handed her the envelope.
Grimacing, Kelly took it. “It’s nothing important. Thank you. Now can we please forget everything that happened today?”
He didn’t answer, but his gaze searched hers as if trying to read what she had every intention of concealing. “I didn’t get your name. Or should I read the envelope?”
“I’d rather you didn’t.”
He crossed his arms over his chest and waited.
She let out a deep sigh. “Okay. Kelly Cochran.” She waited for the accusations, but he said nothing. Being British, perhaps he’d not heard about her father’s U.S. embezzling scandal.
“I’m Alex Drake.” He held out his hand to shake hers, but she ignored it.
She rose from the chair. “Let me give you your shirt. I’ll be back in a minute.” She returned from the bathroom dressed in her robe, with Alex’s shirt in her hand.
Alex turned from the windows. “I want to apologize for not believing you. Let me make it up to you. Have dinner with me tonight.”
Aside from kissing her unexpectedly, he had looked after her safety and was gorgeous enough to be any woman’s dream date. However, she was Robert’s guest on this trip.
“I can’t.” She held out her hand. “Thanks for letting me borrow the shirt. Should I have it laundered?”
“No, I’ll take care of it.”
When he reached out, her gaze dropped to the wedding band encircling his finger.
“You’re married?” she blurted. “And you kissed me.” Was there no end to the audacity of the jerks she met? She should’ve known. By the way he’d kissed her, he’d given her every indication he had loose morals.
He twisted the ring on his finger. “My divorce will be final—in a matter of days. I haven’t taken off my wedding ring because I’m not ready for a public announcement.”
“Sure,” she scoffed. “What kind of idiot do you take me for?” She blushed, recalling how they’d already been in each other’s arms, practically naked.
“You don’t believe me?” he asked with surprising bitterness.
Robert’s face loomed in her mind. She had to get this man out of her cabin. “It doesn’t matter what I think. I’m with a friend . . . a boyfriend. He might be here at any moment. You’ll have to leave.”
Crossing his arms over his chest, Alex regarded her with disdain glinting in his eyes. “Do you usually return passionate kisses from strangers while on trips with other men?”
He had her there. The only excuse she had for that brief moment of insanity when she had melted into his arms was she had been in shock.
She pointed toward the door. “Please, leave. Forget we ever met.”
He shrugged and strolled to the door. After opening it, he swung around to face her. “I did think your being in my cabin was an excuse to meet me.”
Folding her arms over her chest, she said, “How conceited.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve seen a woman do something strange to get a man’s attention.”
She couldn’t believe her ears. “You can be certain I wasn’t trying to attract your attention, Mr. Drake.”
“Really? Well, I’d love to be a fly on the wall when you tell your boyfriend the entire tale. Don’t leave anything out.” His blue eyes glinted mischievously as he dipped his head in mocking farewell. “If you change your mind, or find yourself in need of help again, I’m across the hallway.”
* * *
Copyright 2012 by Debra Andrews
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