Here's your first exclusive look at Chapter One of Wicked Obsession, the latest release in the New Orleans Connections series, which releases today. This is book #8 in the series, although it can be read as a stand-alone, and you don't have to have read the other books to read and enjoy Wicked Obsession.
The incessant ringing of the phone finally broke through Nate Blackwell's intense concentration, and he paused the streaming video, wiping the sweat from his brow. A few drops still dripped into his eyes, the salt sting irritating him further. Who in the hell would interrupt him at…he looked at the clock on the DVR…five thirty in the morning? Any rational person would still be buried under the covers, wrapped in the arms of Morpheus, dreaming pleasant dreams. Not him though. He rarely slept these days, getting by on about four hours a night, if he was lucky.
“What?” At this hour, whoever it was didn’t deserve the courtesy of a polite greeting. He picked up the towel he’d tossed onto the back of one of the bar stools lined up with military precision like little soldiers awaiting their orders, and wiped the sweat from his face, before running it across his bare chest.
Every motion ceased at the sound of that voice. Her voice. One he hadn’t heard in over three years, right after she’d dashed every hope, every promise of the future he’d dreamed of and planned for—when she’d handed back his engagement ring.
“Yeah, it’s me.”
Something was definitely off. Her voice sounded strained. The woman he knew always had a happy-go-lucky brightness in her words. Rarely unhappy, she’d been the bright spot in his life from the day he’d met her, yet this morning she sounded—wrong.
“What do you need?” He couldn’t stop himself from asking the question, knowing deep in his gut she wouldn’t have called him if it wasn’t important. She’d sworn never to speak to him again on that rain-soaked afternoon in that Dallas high-rise where her father’s corporate offices resided, and where his life had come to a screeching halt.
“I need to talk to you. Can we meet?”
“Didn’t you hear? I’m not in Dallas anymore. When my company relocated, I went with it.” How had she missed the news? He’d have thought her meddlesome mother would have made a beeline straight to her before the trail of dust had settled behind his U-Haul trailer.
“I know, that’s why I’m calling. I’m in New Orleans. Can we meet…please?” He heard the imploring tone in her voice. Bet that grated, having to come crawling to him when she’d been the one to walk out on their engagement.
“Where are you staying?”
When she rattled off the name of one of the higher-end hotels, he realized it wasn’t far from his place. It might be vain, but he needed her to see how far he’d come up in the world since she’d discarded their engagement like yesterday’s garbage. When they’d met, she’d been the pampered princess, born to one of Dallas’ finest families, with a silver spoon wedged tightly between her perfect lips. He, on the other hand, had been a kid from the wrong side of Mesquite, Texas, whose single mother was raising four rambunctious boys while working two full time jobs, and squeezing her pennies so tight they screamed.
“You’ll have to meet me at my place.” He tossed it out like a challenge, waiting to see if she’d pick up the gauntlet. He didn’t have to wait long.
“That’s fine, what’s the address?”
He rattled it off, along with the time to come over and hung up, wondering what kind of trouble she'd gotten herself into. Not that she courted trouble—it just seemed to find her anyway.
Heading toward the shower, he tossed his workout shorts into the hamper, turned the water on scalding hot, and stepped under its needle-sharp spray, hoping the shower would help wash away the impending feeling of doom seeping into his pores. Because it was a sure thing—where Sheri went, trouble followed.
# # # # #
Sheri paid the cab driver, and stepped out into the summer heat. It was still early, yet the temperature was already in the high eighties and steadily climbing. It reminded her of Dallas, where it could easily reach a hundred degrees by lunchtime in July and August.
The address Nate gave her belonged to a large brick-fronted building on Canal Street, which appeared to have undergone remodeling. The changes still managed to preserve its historic charm. Definitely nothing like the small apartment he’d maintained in North Dallas when they’d first gotten engaged, a tiny one bedroom apartment that was little bigger than a studio, and she’d loved everything about it. Looking at Nate’s new digs, apparently he’d come up in the world.
The glass front door opened before she’d reached it, and Nate stood silhouetted in the opening. Damn, he looked good. If anything, he’d filled out, with sleek muscles rippling beneath the T-shirt and jeans he wore. His dark hair was longer, with soft waves around his ears and neckline she suspected would curl if he didn’t keep it under rigid control. He’d never worn it this long when they’d been together.
“It’s good to see you again, Nate.”
“Is it?” She winced at his tone. Looks like he hasn’t forgiven me. Not that she blamed him—she’d been the one who’d broken his trust, and tossed away everything they had without giving him any explanation.
“Let’s go inside, where we can have some privacy. The rest of the crew will start showing up soon, and it can get a bit rowdy.”
She followed him inside, taking note of the sophisticated reception area. He must have some high-end clientele to afford a place like this. “This is nice.”
“Whole place belongs to my boss, Samuel Carpenter. Carpenter Security Services has clients around the world.”
Her brow rose at the mention of Carpenter’s name. He was one of the movers and shakers in her parents’ social circle. Although, truth be told, he was so far out of their league, he left them in the dust. Though her parents would never admit it—they had too high an opinion of themselves, and their worth.
“How long have you worked with Mr. Carpenter?”
“Three years, since right after our breakup.” Ouch—direct hit.
She bit her lip at the feel of his hand against the small of her back. The touch of his hand, even through the cloth, sent a little frisson of excitement through her—just like always. There hadn’t been a single time it didn’t elicit a response, and she was afraid it always would.
They rode the elevator up to the fourth floor, and walked down a hallway until they reached a door at the end. Nate pushed it open without unlocking it. Obviously he trusted the people living around him, if he kept his door unlocked.
“Nobody here’s going to steal anything, plus we’ve got the best security money can buy.” He answered her unasked question, as if he’d read her mind. But then again, he’d always been good at that, as she recalled.
“This place is gorgeous.” It truly was, with its open floor plan, the exposed brickwork, and hardwood floors gleaming in the morning sunlight. Huge windows along two walls allowed sunlight to flood the east-facing apartment, meaning he got a lot of the early morning sunshine.
“Want some coffee?”
“Please.” She hadn’t even stopped to make any this morning, too anxious to meet with Nate. The nerves had assaulted her right after she’d hung up, and she’d been afraid if she took even the tiniest swallow, she’d have tossed it right back up. And she loved her coffee.
He walked into the kitchen, right off the huge living space, and she followed along silently, noting the high-end appliances, the dark cherry cabinets. The light-colored granite was cool beneath her fingertips.
“This is nothing like where we used to live, is it?” She couldn’t hide the wistful tone in her voice, hoping he’d ignore it. Now wasn’t the time to be taking a stroll down memory lane—she was here to ask for his help, not to reconcile, although it would be nice if they could at least be civil.
She watched him pop a coffee pod into the maker, and place a mug beneath it, smelled the fragrant brew as it filled the cup. Within no time, she had a fresh piping hot cup before her, and watched him pull a carton of milk from the fridge. She felt a stinging warmth in her chest when she realized he’d remembered she always took a ton of milk in her coffee, though no sugar.
She took a sip, waiting while he made his own cup, watching every movement. Each was effortless and smooth, like everything else he did. He’d always reminded her of a combination of two different people, one the happy and playful man she’d fallen in love with, and one a deadly predator, willing to lay down his life in defense of someone in need. She prayed that was still the case—because she needed him.
“Why are you here, Sheri?” Nate peered at her over the rim of his cup, his brown-eyed gaze intense. She knew better than to beat around the bush or try evasive tactics with him. He didn’t tolerate it. He might joke and tease, and sometimes flirt, but when it was time to get to business—he was all business.
Gently placing her cup on the granite peninsula, she drew in a deep breath and wrapped her hands around the cup, feeling the warmth sink into her cold fingers. It was time to open up and tell him what was going on, tell him the whole truth, even if it hurt. Because she knew he would be hurt—devastated that she’d hidden the truth from him for so long—even if it had been to keep him safe.
“We need to talk about what happened three years ago, Nate. It’s time you know the whole truth.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” His words held a finality that chilled her to the bone, and she knew it was going to be an uphill battle to get him to understand, even if he didn’t agree with the choices she’d made.
“We have to talk about our engagement, and what led up to me breaking it.” She lowered her gaze, unwilling to see the hurt in his eyes. Watching him walk away had nearly killed her, and she couldn’t bear to see the hatred she knew would reflect back at her.
“If that’s what you came for, you might as well leave now.”
“That’s part of it, but not the whole story. I need you.”
The laugh that erupted from him was ugly and bitter, and she wanted to curl up in a ball and cry at the level of hurt he tried to hide. But she’d come too far to back out now. She was damned if she’d be a coward—never again.
“You never needed me, sweetheart. Go back to your parents and their money. Hopefully it’ll keep you warm at night.”
“I can’t go home.” The finality in her tone must have finally gotten through to him, because he straightened from his lounging position against the sink.
“What do you mean, you can’t go home?”
“It’s not safe anymore.”
The way he placed his cup on the counter, so precise and gentle, should have clued her in, but she wasn’t firing on all cylinders. She’d barely slept, and when she did it was barely enough to get her through the day. Before she could blink, he’d grasped both her forearms, his grip solid, though not hurting. He’d never hurt her—she’d bet her life on it. She was—otherwise she wouldn’t be here now.
“What the hell is going on, Sheri?”
“Somebody’s trying to kill me.”
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