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Authors: Claude Dancourt

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Chapter Two

 

Deb twisted the tips of her belt between her fingers, waiting for the news to sink in. Marcus had done his best to sidestep when she’d probed, but surely he wouldn’t avoid a death threat. Would he?

He sat on the sofa with his elbows on his knees, his feet slightly apart. His chiseled chin rested on his joined hands. She couldn’t see his eyes but his posture suggested their shade had deepened to the deep gray of hematite.

He’d cut his hair. The short Caesar style looked good on him. Gone were the sunny streaks and with them the dreamer/poet look. She liked it better this way. It fit with the strong shoulders and strong back he’d developed working the orchards in the Valley along with his siblings. They had sold most of the apple orchard, she knew, but he’d kept the large, stone house he had received in the settlement after his mother’s death and enough acres so that it still felt like home. Deb hadn’t been there in a while. Hadn’t dared meeting him on his turf.

Marcus straightened up. The brilliant hematite tore her train of thought apart. “I don’t see what those alleged nameless threats have to do with me.” He stretched his arms on the back of the sofa. “It’s certainly not the first time the organizers received this kind of attention, and it’s certainly not given you the right to—”

“Damn it, Marcus!” Deb said. She’d tried to play nice, but God, could this man be stubborn.
A mule would be easier to move.
“You know why it concerns you!”

“It concerns Flint. Or rather, Flint’s fellow—”

“It concerns
you
!”

She sprang to her feet to pace, unable to stay still when he was being so frustratingly uncooperative. Marcus caught her belt in passing, so she had no choice but to face him once more. He said, “You didn’t know that when you came here.”

Deb released her breath. His gentle tone pointed toward another topic, one they would have to explore, eventually. She freed herself from his hold and moved to the window, winning precious seconds to realign her thoughts. Dusk had completely invaded the Arizona sky.

“I saw your name on the pamphlet. I haven’t seen you since—” She swallowed back
San Francisco
and the memory of her mistake. “I haven’t seen you in a while. I was wondering why sci-fi golden boy would brush elbows with romance.” She grinned, nudging his side. “I didn’t know it was your thing.”

He shrugged a second time. His reply came out flat, without a hint that he’d acknowledged her attempt to alleviate the tone of their exchange. “ROSA inquired about Flint for their keynote speech before the creative writing class for suspense/thriller authors. Eden manipulated things so that I gave it instead. That’s why I’m here.”

“And to receive the Suzanne Philipps Award,” she countered, just to make sure he didn’t weasel his way out of his previous avowal.

Marcus scowled. “You can’t publish a word about that until tomorrow.”

“But it’s the scoop of the year! I—”

A hiss interrupted her, followed by a bang. She jumped, then laughed at herself as a white and pinkish red twinkled above her head. She beamed at him above her shoulder. “They’ve started the fireworks.”

The night filled with scintillating flowers in a succession of exploding lights. Marcus came to stand behind her. “That’s strange. I thought they were saving those for the casino gala on Saturday.”

“Does it matter? It’s beautiful!”

“Sparks and sparkles…” Marcus paraphrased. She stuck her tongue at his reflection in the window. “All right. Yes, it’s beautiful.”

They fell silent, caught between the joyful glitter outside and the proverbial elephant in the room. With little more than a foot between them, his body chanted the same old troubling song to entice and torment her. Deb longed for the kiss he’d denied her earlier.

The fireworks died out. She wrapped her arms around her waist.

“Cold?”

“No. I’m fine.” She obliged herself to move, to break the web his charm slowly trod around her. The forced grin almost hurt. “I’m famished. What about dinner?”

His blank expression morphed into a grimace. “I’m not going downstairs. Fans organized some Vampirella versus Cruella de Vil contest. It’s scary.”

Deb laughed. “Poor Marcus.” She imagined very well the horde of frenzied, intoxicated women cornering her handsome companion. He didn’t stand a chance. “Why don’t you call room service? I’ll get dressed.”

His mouth twitched. “Your clothes are probably still damp.”

“Oh.” His left hand hooked in her belt again. Deb let herself be dragged forward. “I have to keep the robe, then.”

“Not necessarily…”

Marcus fisted her hair. He yanked her head backward, rubbed his mouth against her. The brief contact left her breathless. “I don’t understand how I can want you that bad when you exasperate me so much.” His voice rasped with raw emotions.

Deb rose to her toes, seeking another kiss.

He complied like a starving man. His tongue pushed between her lips. When he entered her mouth, her pulse skyrocketed. Delicious shivers shook her to the core. White dots branded her lids, like the fireworks they had admired minutes—ages—ago. Deb tried to steady herself, to give back each possessive stroke, and fell short. Her skin caught fire. She danced happily through the brazier.

He finally allowed her to breathe, but she refused the respite. Her clumsy hands reached for his chest as he yanked off his shirt. One shove sent her back onto the bed. His jeans-clad knee parted her thighs while he attacked her throat. The robe blocked his way, so he straightened up again to untie her belt.

Marcus snarled as he discovered she still wore her bra yet he followed the simple cotton strap with one finger almost reverently. She yearned to return the caress, to find an anchor in the whirlpool or pull him down with her. “I want to touch—”

“Later.”

He lowered his head for another languorous kiss. Deb arched under him, inviting the plunder. For a second, he satisfied them both, grinding against her in return, kissing and nipping at the curve of her breast. Then the world somersaulted and spun, and she was face down in the duvet. Robe and bra disappeared, leaving her next to naked and vulnerable to his ministrations.

Sweetness replaced hunger. Feather-light kisses tickled the small of her back, caressed her spine up to her shoulder, then down again. Deb reveled in the delicious surrender, barely aware of anything but the pleasure his fingers and mouth ignited inside her. She moaned when he kissed the back of her thigh, nudging her right knee up and apart. His palm slid down her calf, to stop on the infinity symbol tattoo on her ankle.

Light-headed with lust, Deb bucked under her tormentor. He cuddled her from behind, his face buried in the crook of her shoulder. Skin met skin. Her curves crushed into taut muscles. Before she realized that he’d stripped off his clothes somehow, he buried himself inside her, then paused. “You’re perfect.”

He built up a rhythm, too slow, too fast, too cautious, too hard, too much everything. Submerged by waves of unrelenting bliss, she gasped when he plunged deeper. “Marcus, please!”

Deb lusted for air, for more of him. She arched her back, cupped his nape for a ravaging kiss. One hand found her breast, ready for her heart when it would escape her chest in rapture. The other skimmed past her hip, down her navel, lower… Pleasure threatened to engulf her, flashed through her to the core. Deb clenched around him, determined, desperate not to succumb just yet.

“You’re so… so…” The feel of his quick, fervent panting flickered over her damp skin like fire.

Suddenly Marcus stilled, his shaft throbbing against her walls. His breath was ragged against her neck, the only indication he was as shaken as she was. When he began moving again, the pleasure reached new peaks. His pinky found the shivering button holding her back.

Her whole body convulsed, tightening around him like a single knot of fluid fever, and she flew.

****

“Did we blow up the light?” Deb moved in the dark, squirming to catch a breath with his body crushing her down in the sheets. His arms caged her so that the movement ignited very interesting places deep inside him. Marcus nuzzled the back of her neck. “My ego says yes. However, I don’t think that’s technically feasible. We were too busy rocking the world.”

She laughed. “Quite an ego you’ve—Oh!” A nip at her throat shut her up. The pleasant warmth raised another notch. Her protest was only half-heartfelt. “Before you start round three, I need fuel. I mean food. Marcus!”

“Uh-huh…”

He continued his exploration. The hundreds of nerves he was sure she had put into a voluptuous coma aroused. Deb whimpered, clutching to the pillow.

Marcus pushed up on his elbows with a sarcastic grin she would probably claw out of his face if she could see. “You’re right. Where’s the phone?”

Her low moan wobbled between purr and disapproval. Pleased with himself, he shifted and groped around in the dark until he found the light switch. Nothing happened. He flicked it on and off again, to no avail.

“Crap.” Marcus moved away from Deb and sat on the edge of the bed. He located his clothes with his toe, and dragged on underwear and jeans while he foraged for the phone.

“The other lamp doesn’t work either. Maybe we unplug—” Deb announced, straightening up beside him. He blocked her with one arm. She froze immediately. “What?”

“No dial tone.”

He pulled the bed table drawer open and fished his keys at the bottom.

After adjusting to the darkness, the tiny penlight attached to his key ring was almost blinding. He handed it to the siren kneeling beside him on the bed. “You should get dressed. We can’t stay here.”

For once, Deb obeyed without arguing. The white sheet trailed behind her like foam. He walked to the desk to walk off the stiffness in his legs. Marcus tried the desk Boston lamp without much hope.

The crescent moon had long set. The golf, the terrace, and what he could see of the hotel—everything was pitch-black.

Deb’s voice pierced the eerie silence. “Can I borrow one of your shirts? My top is still wet.”

“Take what you need.”

Marcus shoved his laptop, phone, wallet, and whatever he could identify in his sling bag. Maybe the caution was stupid. He’d learned long ago to trust his instincts, though, especially when Deb was around.

Guided by the faint glow, he joined her in the entryway. She pointed the gleam toward his hand. “What’s all this? It’s just a power failure.”

“We’ll see about that. Ready?”

“Yes, but—”

“Let’s go.”

Marcus hiked the sling up his shoulder. He grabbed her wrist and yanked the door open.

 

The corridor was empty. The failure had affected the emergency exit signs as well as the lights. Blessing his sister for the penlight—one of her private jokes after he’d complained one time too many about writer’s block—he piloted them toward and down the large stairs between floors. Their socks didn’t make a sound on the carpet. If it hadn’t been for the cold knot that twisted his stomach, he would have welcomed the memory of a similar escape, from his parents’ house long ago.

Apparently, Deb walked the same lane. “Do you remember when we eloped to Santa Barbara?”

“Yes. Where is everyone?”

Clearly miffed by his rebuff, Deb pulled her arm free. “It’s two o’clock in the morning, Marcus. They’re sleeping.”

He recaptured her hand and laced their fingers in an attempt to soothe her. “This is a five-star resort. Its motto is anything, at any time. There should be clerks or security agents making sure the patrons are safe and safely tucked in their beds.”

“Unlike us, you mean. Maybe they’re just gathered in the basement or wherever the generator is, heckling at the unfortunate caretaker who’s trying to fire it back on.”

As if on cue, a buzz vibrated through the walls. Every single bulb around them exploded with light. Marcus blinked twice to adjust. Beside him, Deb released a shaky sigh. He leaned forward. “Okay?”

She nodded. “Okay. Though I’d like to put on pants before we go find the caretaker to thank him.”

Marcus lowered his gaze and grinned. She’d picked up his tuxedo dress shirt and a pair of old plaid shorts he used as pajamas. She had pushed the socks around her ankles, so the ensemble looked like a weird but sexy Manga character.

Deb scowled. “Stop laughing.”

“I’m not.”

“You have this look on your face. Look at yourself. You’re bare-chested, and you wear a handbag.”

“It’s a man’s satchel.”

“It’s a bag with a sling.”

A piercing scream buried Marcus’s vehement protest.

 

Chapter Three

 

Deb wrapped her fingers around her cup and held for dear life to the caffeine. She’d changed into shorts and a simple t-shirt when the police allowed—ordered—everybody back into their room sometime around six a.m.

The crowd around her cackled or dozed, depending on whether the group had participated in the night’s circus, or slept through until morning. She wished she could crawl into bed and forget the world for a decade or two. Beside her, Marcus seemed unfazed by the lack of sleep, and wolfed down eggs, fresh fruits, and pastries with equal enthusiasm.

She nose-dived into her cup with a groan. “I don’t understand how you can ingurgitate all that food.”

“We missed dinner last night.” Marcus cut a piece of his cinnamon bun and coated it with yoke before he offered it to her. “Here.”

“I think I’ll pass, thanks.”

“You should eat something. It’s going to be a long day.”


Tu ne crois pas si bien dire, mon chou
,” announced Eden.

The newcomer slumped gracefully in a free chair in front of Marcus. She picked up a cup and started filling it with coffee. “I just spoke with Rachel. She insisted on sticking with her schedule since the sheriff requested everybody stay on site. ‘That poor Sybil was a fan of the event’ she said, and ‘she wouldn’t want it canceled because of her’. Right. ‘I spent all the sponsors’ money and can’t afford a refund’ is more like it. Even
I
know they should call the whole thing off considering the circumstances.” She sipped her coffee with a grimace and added a cloud of milk. “They don’t know how to prepare
café
here.” Neither Marcus nor Deb reacted to the change of topic, or her previous statement.

Deb shifted in her chair, eyes set on the gardens above Eden’s shoulder. The sun crowned her perfectly groomed hair with a halo of pink-gold. Her silk blouse was impeccable. Her navy skirt and pricy shoes fit the image to a T. Deb didn’t suffer from an ugly duckling complex, but between her sleepless night and her queasy stomach, enduring the snobbish southern belle was a tad too much to ask. She slanted a glance toward Marcus who rolled his eyes. She felt slightly better.

Oblivious of their exchange, the blonde went on with her monolog. “Of course, I tried to convince Rachel to postpone the gala to tomorrow, or at least to award the Sue Philipps to Sybil
in memoriam
.”

So Marcus doesn’t go and reveal himself if he wins, and you save your fat commission.

Deb swallowed a snicker at her private thought. Eden ignored her. “But she refused.
Cette femme
is really inconsiderate. She pretended the vote is already cast, and that she can’t change anything at the last minute—”

“I’ve decided to give Deb an exclusive interview this afternoon.”

“You what?” Eden’s roar swallowed Deb’s squeal.

Eden recovered first. “Marcus,
cher
, we should discuss this first. Deborah, can you excuse us? Business talk.”

Deb gripped the arms of her chair, unsure if she should leave with her dignity intact, or fight back. Marcus intervened. “You’re my agent, Eden, not my publicist. The creative writing course starts at nine, so I have to get ready. Deb?”

“Huh?”

“You’re coming?”

He held up one hand to help her to her feet. She rose, savoring every mark of silent frustration carved around the blonde’s sultry red mouth. Marcus tugged her away from the terrace through the lobby to the elevators.

“Eden suggested awarding the Sue posthumously only because she fears I’ll kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. She doesn’t care one bit about that girl.”

“Sybil Reiner. She wrote … ah yes, those Victorian mysteries with an erotic twist, right? I read
The Blue Orchid
and
The Egyptian Case
. They were fun.”

Deb noticed Marcus’s gloomy face and touched her hand to his elbow. “What happened is not your fault, Marcus.”

“I know, it’s just—”

“Excuse me.”

A petite woman with a tired beige suit and long black hair tied in a bushy ponytail excused herself from her interlocutor and approached them.

“Sheriff Pooley.”

“I’m going to borrow Miss Stone for a chat if you don’t mind, Mr. Turner.”

Deb felt Marcus tense under her hand. She squeezed his biceps gently. “Of course, Sheriff. Do you want to go over my statement again?”

“I’m more interested in what you left out when you gave it.”

The middle-aged woman pulled out a sheet of paper with the
Traveler
’s header. Deb recognized the article she’d penned about the threat against Flint’s contenders. She’d fought tooth and nail for that front page.

She held the sheriff’s eyes. The comely round face probably caused lots of people to misjudge her. In that amiable face, her black eyes shone with keen—and not so mild—interest. The hound was on a blood trail, and it would track it down, from her to Flint, and from Flint to Marcus… Marcus, who presented a crestfallen face that screamed
guilty
, even though he hadn’t done anything wrong. She sighed, “Yes, Sheriff, let’s talk.”

Her companion reacted to the sigh, unless he’d reached the same messy conclusion. “Actually, Sheriff, I think it’s me you want to talk to.”

****

They settled down in a corner of the conference room. The hotel staff readied chairs and office supplies for the coming session, while waiters put ice water jugs on each table. Josepha Pooley sat next to Marcus, with Deb on the other side of the table. He’d spoken with enough cops while researching material to know the separation was calculated.
I’m on your side. She’s not. Allies help each other…

Since he’d initiated the encounter, he decided to keep the lead, but addressed Deb instead of the sheriff. “This is the document you told me about yesterday, isn’t it? May I see it, Sheriff?”

Before Pooley reacted, he picked up the printout from her hands and scanned it. “Clever.
‘Beware you who defy the gods,
The
Storm Watcher
weighs the odds, only one is worthy of the
Midnight Gold
, to their final fall I’ll blow the bolds.’
Really clever, though the rhyme ‘bold’ for ‘gold’ is more flattering than—” He shook his head and returned to the subject at hand. “To answer your question, Sheriff, no, I wasn’t aware of that threat. It’s worrying, not only because a person was shot dead, but because it also makes me the prime suspect on your list. You see, R.J. Flint is my
nom de plume
.”

Deb’s shoulders trembled. Either she was trying not to laugh at the gaping cop, or she was trying not to jump down his throat. Maybe he’d forced a bit on the melodrama.

“You’re Flint.”

“Yes.”

“Can you prove it?”

He’d anticipated a lot of questions, but not that one. Marcus chuckled. “Yes, Sheriff, I can prove it. My agent, Eden Guillot, will confirm it. And I have the original files of my two novels,
Midnight Gold
and
The Storm Watcher,
in my laptop.”

“The same names used in the poem.”

Pooley showed two rows of perfect white teeth. He disliked the grin on sight.

“That’s right.”

He felt measured by those dark eyes, as if he were a sheep, and she the Big Bad Wolf.
“What big teeth you have, Grandma. The better to eat you with!”

“Did you write this poem?”

“No.”

“Did you kill Sybil Reiner?”

“No!”

Deb hadn’t said a word yet. She almost jumped out of her chair. “Marcus and I were together last night, in his room. We exited it only when we realized the power was out. Then we heard screaming and we looked for the source.”

“Or you were caught when Mrs. Reiner’s companion found the body when she came in from the party, way earlier than you anticipated.” The sheriff flipped through her notes. “She declared Sybil had a ‘vibe’ and she decided to stay in their room to write. Anyhow, your room, Mr. Turner, is on the second floor. Miss Stone here is on the third. The victim was on two floors above, and yet you’re among the first ones on the site. You had your laptop with you, your ID, your keys… Those are very unusual items to take when you’re inquiring inside a hotel … but fairly convenient to have on your way out of it.”

“And we were barely dressed, without shoes. Should I call my lawyer, Sheriff?” said Marcus drily.

“I don’t know, Mr. Turner. Should you?”

Deb clearly boiled on her chair. He was nearly tempted to let her explode, just to see how that shortsighted cop with a wild-wild-west complex handled the volcano. Pooley’s little smirk helped him decide against it. The eruption might do more harm than good.

He stood, inviting Deb to do the same with a jerk of his head. “I think this discussion is over, Sheriff. I learned about this threat”—he pointed at the article—“yesterday evening. I don’t read gossip columns, and neither ROSA nor my agent mentioned it, which is why I’ll have a word with them later this morning. Now, if you don’t mind, I have a speech to deliver in half an hour. Good day.”

Pooley’s crooked smile vanished. “I’m not done. Miss Stone—”

Deb had also risen to her feet. “Unlike Marcus, I do keep up with blogs and fan forums. The
Traveler
hired me to cover the conference after I submitted this article last month. That’s all I know. I don’t know who’s behind the threats. I don’t know who murdered Mrs. Reiner. Maybe the author of this scam, maybe not. But it wasn’t Marcus, and it wasn’t me. Now, if you intend to catch the killer, why don’t you ask yourself a proper question, like ‘who’s next’?”

She spun on her heels and strode off, nose up and hair flying. Marcus nearly applauded. Only Pooley’s blank stare stopped him. Antagonizing the lead investigator was
never
the best course of action, in fiction or in real life. But damn, it felt good.

 

Marcus hurried after Deb and groaned when he spotted Rachel. Her pocket-dog of an assistant was nowhere to be seen. The poor guy had probably gone into hiding.

“Marcus! Why aren’t you ready? Your keynote is due in—”

“Good morning, Rachel. Don’t worry, I’ll be there. I was just—”

“I know. I know. I’m sorry. I’m so stressed! This conference is a nightmare to organize. And now that poor Sybil… You heard, of course.”

“Actually, we—”

Apparently, the drop of her voice only marked the moment she drew in more air, and was not a question in disguise. The three-term running president of the Romance Society of America rolled over the interruption like a freight train at full speed. “I intend to say a few words before I introduce you. Remember, we’re on a tight schedule. You have forty minutes, and then ten minutes are allowed for questions. I’ll be in the first row, but green and yellow signs. You’re familiar with that concept? Excellent.” Apparently, she’d realized he might speak up if she stopped too long to breathe, so she went on without a pause. “Clare is following you with her ‘Introduction to Action Verbs’. Will you stay for—”

“No, he won’t. The elevator’s here, Marcus. Shall we?” Deb took his arm with both hands and pulled him out of the line of fire.

Deep down, he wondered if he’d just made a trip from one frying pan to another. But as soon as the door shut, she let go of his arm and slumped against the wall.

“She’s exhausting. They all are. Eden, Sheriff Pooley, Rachel—how do you keep up with those harpies?”

He grinned. “You trained me well.”

“Hey! I’m not that bad!” She struggled and he knew it was only as a matter of principle when he locked his hands around her back.

Marcus pecked her pouting lips. “I don’t mind as long as I have my way from time to time.”

Her eyes softened to a tender, laughing green. Her body relaxed against his, curves molding into exactly the right places. “I might like it when you have your way with me.”

“So I noticed.” Deb’s teeth grazed his bottom lip. “No biting. I can’t deliver a forty-minute monolog with a bloody lip.”

“Then stop acting like a—”

This time, he kissed her to close her mouth. He lingered, savoring the moment. They hadn’t had a moment alone since their nocturnal expedition in the darkness and the chaos that had followed.

Deb shivered, he guessed more of lassitude than desire. Marcus pressed his forehead to hers. “Tired?”

“Yes. Aren’t you?”

“It’s all right. I grabbed an hour before coming down for breakfast.”

An hour was all he could afford for now. He had that damned speech coming up. The sheriff was on his back. Eden was probably devising a plan to hunt him down and tear his ear off about Flint, again. Marcus longed for the quiet of the Valley, and his long writing sessions on the terrace in the morning sun. He would need to remember the exhausting buzz next time he put a dead body in his book.

Deb yawned, the living image of a pretty kitten about to nap. The doors opened at the same time. Marcus said, “Get some rest. I’ll join you as soon as I can.”

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