#NewRelease “That’s Our Brother (That’s Our Family Book 2)” by Roxanne Rhaman

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Kacie knows three things for certain. She should have sent a text before abandoning her boyfriend. She should have let her family know she was coming home. And she has no business adopting a dog.

When Kacie moved away from her father and step-family years earlier, she had big aspirations and no plans to return. But she hadn’t counted on a heartless mother relentlessly pursuing her. A boyfriend she couldn’t stand to watch as he wasted one more day on the couch. A career she longed for never materializing.

After her barely old enough to get married brother returns, his new fiancée along with him, Kacie has to ask herself, does everyone know what they’re doing besides her? Does the cute guy who just offered her a job have a hidden agenda? And is it wrong to name her new dog Diva?

Amazon

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#ReleaseBlitz “Claimed by The Mountain Man (Montana Mountain Man #4)” by Gemma Weir

AVAILABLE NOW!

Claimed By The Mountain Man by Gemma Weir

The Montana Mountain Men Book 4

Available Now: Hyperurl.co/mmm4

FREE in KU

Genre: Erotic Mountain Man Romance

Interconnected Standalone in the Montana Mountain Men series

#MontanaMountainMen #GemmaWeir #KeptByTheMountainMan #NewRelease #KindleUnlimited

 

BLURB

Infuriating, sexy and seemingly everywhere, Penn Barnett is far too sexy for his own good. It seems like every woman in Rockhead Point has had a taste of the mountain man, and I can definitely see the appeal.

When I literally fall into his orbit, he tells me I’m his the moment our eyes meet. But my life is anything but simple, and right now I just don’t have the time or energy for another complication in my world… no matter how hot he is.

Only he isn’t prepared to take no for an answer… and he’s determined to make me his.

Now he’s everywhere I am, following me home and trying to take over my life. But I’m not the only woman who wants to be claimed by him and his ex has open access to my life, especially when I’m staying in her mom’s house.

If I’m his and he’s mine, how come everything is trying to tear us apart? He wants to claim me, and I might want that too, but my life isn’t my own, and for the first time ever… the Barnett brothers’ legacy might not be as powerful as real life.

Check out the Series:

Check out Book 1: Property of The Mountain Man:

Buy Now! hyperurl.co/MontanaMountainMen1

Check out Book 2: Owned By The Mountain Man:

BUY NOW: hyperurl.co/MontanaMountainMen2

Check out Book 3: Kept By The Mountain Man:

BUY NOW: hyperurl.co/montanamountainmen3

 

Meet the Author

Gemma Weir is a half crazed stay at home mom to three kids, one man child and a hell hound. She has lived in the midlands, in the UK her whole life and has wanted to write a book since she was a child. Gemma has a ridiculously dirty mind and loves her book boyfriends to be big, tattooed alpha males. She’s a reader first and foremost and she loves her romance to come with a happy ending and lots of sexy sex.

Her social media links are:

https://www.facebook.com/gemmaweirauthor

https://www.instagram.com/gemmaweirauthor

https://twitter.com/gemmaweirauthor

 

#BookTour “A Friend Like Filby” by Mark Wakely

AFriendLikeFilby copy

Welcome to the book tour for A Friend Like Filby by Mark Wakely. Read on for more details!

A FRIEND LIKE FILBY front cover (2)

A Friend Like Filby

Expected Publication Date: December 6th, 2021

Genre: YA/ Young Adult/ YA Contemporary/ Time Travel

George has been fascinated with the idea of time travel ever since the unexpected death of his mother when he was ten, and hopes someday to find a friend like Filby, the forever loyal friend of the time traveler in the 1960 movie The Time Machine. George’s two closest high school friends, Dave and Nancy (nickname Onion), struggle at times to understand his odd obsession as they deal with issues of their own both in and out of school. The story takes place during the three friends’ tumultuous senior year from beginning to end, with a major realization in store for George on graduation day.

“Mark Wakely weaves an unusual tale with characters that are both emotionally and psychologically rich…The story is told from George’s perspective and in a first person narrative voice that is as clear as it is compelling. The prose is beautiful and evocative at times and I enjoyed the author’s peculiar turn of phrase, the humor, and his knack for vivid descriptions…It is a delightful read.” – Readers’ Favorite

Available on Amazon

About the Author

Author

Mark Wakely has held a lifelong interest in all things science-related, dating back to high school when he won the Bausch & Lomb science award in high school. Mark holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and is a college administrator at prestigious Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois. He lives in a nearby town with his wife and three children, and is an avid reader and amateur astronomer.

Mark Wakely

Book Tour Organized By:

R&R Button

R&R Book Tours

#ReleaseBlitz “Hearts in Winter: A Small Town Holiday Romance (Winterville Book 2)” by Carrie Elks

AVAILABLE NOW!

Hearts in Winter by Carrie Elks

#HeartsinWinter #CarrieElks

#holidayromancebooks #holidayromance #steamybooks #romancereadersofinstagram

#romancebooks #romanceauthor #secondchanceromances #hallmarkchristmas

Discover why readers are raving over Hearts In Winter… 💔💍

The ultimate second chance romance
Childhood sweethearts
A divorce that never came through
Small town vibes
Gorgeous holiday romance with HOT scenes

READ IN KINDLE UNLIMITED

AMAZON UNIVERSAL LINK: http://mybook.to/HEARTSINWINTER

 

‘Delightful. This book was a pleasure to read. It drew me in with it’s wonderful characters and descriptive prose.’FloralJoy ★★★★★

 

‘The push and pull was addictive and I loved reading this story. ‘ – A Book Lover’s Emporium ★★★★★

 

GOODREADS LINK: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/59066030-hearts-in-winter

BOOKBUB LINK: https://www.bookbub.com/books/hearts-in-winter-a-small-town-holiday-romance-winterville-book-2-by-carrie-elks

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“We’re still married…”

When her annoyingly gorgeous ex-husband walks back into her life eight years after their divorce, those are the last word Everley expects to hear.

Their marriage only lasted a year. They burned bright and crashed – and they both thought they’d moved on.

Shame somebody forgot to file the papers.

Now Dylan is back in town for a few months – taking a break from his work as a doctor overseas – and he’s determined to clear up the mess.

The only problem is, the more time he spends with Everley, the more he remembers how good they were together.

And the chemistry between them is too explosive to ignore.

As Christmas approaches, and Dylan is due to leave town for his job once more, Everley finds herself wondering – is it possible to fall out of love with your husband a second time?

 

Meet the Author

Carrie Elks writes contemporary romance with a sizzling edge. Her first book, Fix You, has been translated into eight languages and made a surprise appearance on Big Brother in Brazil. Luckily for her, it wasn’t voted out. Carrie lives with her husband, two lovely children and a larger-than-life black pug called Plato. When she isn’t writing or reading, she can be found baking, drinking an occasional (!) glass of wine, or chatting on social media.

FACEBOOK PAGE: https://www.facebook.com/CarrieElksAuthor/

FACEBOOK GROUP: https://www.facebook.com/groups/CarrieElksWaterCooler/

TWITTER: https://twitter.com/CarrieElks

INSTAGRAM: https://www.instagram.com/carrie.elks/

NEWSLETTER: http://www.subscribepage.com/e4u8i8

WEBSITE: https://carrieelks.com

#Feature “Explore You: Explore Men of the Hamptons” by Lula White

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We are inevitable.

He starts coming toward me.
I can’t breathe. I’m not supposed to be doing this. It can’t happen.
“Leave.” I barely hear myself.
Not through the scream of my brain, or tidal waves splashing through my veins, or the raging gallop of every nook and cranny within me.
He closes his eyes, shakes his head, while he backs me up against the wall. “No. Don’t give me that weak crap. Say it like you mean it.”
His mouth dangles against mine.
And every fraction of every millisecond in which I say nothing is a moment I’ve waited too long.
Kevin half-whispers, half-breathes, “Chenera, tell me you don’t want me, and I’ll go.”

Our families have hated each other for decades. But she and I can’t fight the inevitable: us.

Welcome back to the steamy, luxurious rivalries of the Black Hamptons. This is the spin-off to the Sag Harbor Black Romances. An enemies-to-lovers romance led by Kevin Middleton, this is Book One of Explore Men of the Hamptons.

***This is women’s fiction and slow-burn, steamy romance. If you seek quick sex in the first pages, please make another selection.

Kindle Unlimited

Amazon US

Amazon UK

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#Excerpt “The Scent of a Storm (German Love Stories of WWII)” by Annette Oppenlander

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Historical Fiction

Date Published: 09-24-2021

 

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A heart-wrenching love story for the ages – inspired by true events

Eastern Prussia, 1944: Young lovers Annie and Werner are separated from each other when he is drafted into Hitler’s Volkssturm. While the SS orders Werner to remove the dead bodies of frozen refugees from Königsberg’s streets, Annie discovers she is pregnant. As she
urgently awaits Werner’s return, rumors of the advancing Red Army mount and with it, alarming reports of what they do to women. Running for their lives, Annie and her mother embark on a life-threatening journey west.

Even before they can escape by boat, Annie makes a horrifying mistake, one that will haunt her forever. Werner, arrested and imprisoned in a Russian gulag, manages to escape after four months of cruelty and returns home. But his and Annie’s farms lie abandoned—the love of his life and his own family have vanished…

East Berlin, 1989: On the evening of November 9, when the borders between
East and West Berlin open for the first time in nearly thirty years—a
day which ultimately heralds Germany’s reunification—Annie
watches a correspondent on West TV who reminds her of her childhood
sweetheart Werner, the man she has thought dead for 45 years. Together with
her daughter Emma, Annie sets out on a search…

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EXCERPT

Insterburg, Eastern Prussia – August 1944

“Come on, move a bit to the right.” Mother points and waves while she holds the camera. I suppress a grumble, pulling Werner along. I’m thankful that Oma Leonora—we call her Leo— keeps to her task shelling beans at the outdoor table. Except for the gray hair, she looks like a smaller, wrinklier version of Mother. Both carry that same expression of wonder and resignation, their eyes equally curious and watchful, but their mouths set firmly as if repressing a snide comment. Except Oma hardly ever talks, and if she says something, it’s a word or two. She’s been like this as long as I remember, and my questions to Mother have remained unanswered.

“Let’s do what she wants,” I mumble under my breath, “otherwise she’ll never leave us alone.”

Mother has appeared out of nowhere, demanding a photo she can send to our fathers, who both have been serving in the war for the past four years. Werner’s is supposed to be someplace in France, mine in the east. Nobody knows for sure these days because we hardly ever receive any field post now.

Werner good-naturedly follows my mother’s directions, looking this way and that while moving his arm from my waist to my shoulder—less dangerous—and smiling on command. I know he doesn’t need any help showing his happiness. I know he enjoys spending every available minute together, exploring the countryside on our bikes when chores are done. Soon, school is going to restart—Werner’s last year of high school before he plans on studying biology in Königsberg.

After the film roll is finished and Mother disappears inside, Werner and I take off on our bikes again. It’s a glorious August afternoon, hot and dry, with a slight wind that cools our damp skin. We avoid the city of Insterburg, not three miles from here, because last month the Russian Army bombed our historic town and not much is left. Hiding in the root cellar, we listened to the shrill whine of the falling bombs, the explosions. Dirt fluttered from the ceiling as I counted the seconds, my insides soft as bread soaked in milk, my breath shaky. I took comfort from feeling Mother and Oma on either side of me, as if they could protect me from a detonating bomb. I don’t know how long we were down there, but I do remember my first steps outside—how my knees nearly buckled, my gaze uncertain as I searched the sky.

Black clouds hung above Insterburg, and fires raged for days. After that, many of the people who’d survived left, afraid of new attacks. Only then, in those weeks, did the war become real for me, so real that now I can’t stop myself from listening for the drone of approaching planes. At night I often lie awake, wondering what is going to happen with the Russian border so close to us. Is that why I want to laugh with abandon, to enjoy the time I have with Werner?

We stop at a small lake, no more than a pond really, but fed from a spring and always perfectly cool. I tear off my sandals and stick my feet in. Heaven, it feels good.

“Are you going swimming?” Werner calls from shore.

“Only if you come with.”

Our eyes meet. In the past we have had no problems taking off our clothes, but this summer is different. The air is different, as is the way we look at each other. I can’t quite explain why I have a swarm of bees in my middle or why Werner’s gaze makes me feel even hotter than I already am. After all, we’ve lived next to each other for as long as I can remember, Werner on a horse ranch—his parents own hundreds of acres of pastureland and raise Trakehner horses—while our family grows wheat, rye and potatoes.

I jump when Werner runs past me, laughing and splashing. He’s down to his underwear and I can’t help but stare at his backside. Luckily, he disappears under water, so I turn abruptly and pull off my shirt and shorts. I’m wearing a bra, and I feel self-conscious as I race after him. The water is much colder now, but I’m more concerned about what shows through the thin fabric of my underwear.

“It’s amazing,” Werner shouts before taking a few lazy strokes toward the middle. I follow slowly, my swimming not as assured, my breaths hard and gulpy. “I wonder how deep it is,” he says before he disappears from view. The surface calms as I tread water. The heat from earlier has left me and I wish myself back on land.

~~~

 

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About the Author

Annette Oppenlander is an award-winning writer, literary coach and educator. As a bestselling historical novelist, Oppenlander is known for her authentic characters and stories based on true events, coming alive in
well-researched settings. Having lived in Germany the first half of her life and the second half in various parts in the U.S., Oppenlander inspires readers by illuminating story questions as relevant today as they were in the past.

 Oppenlander’s bestselling true WWII story, Surviving the Fatherland, has received eight awards/nominations, including the 2017 National Indie Excellence Award, the 2018 Indie B.R.A.G. and the 2020 Skoutz Award in Germany. Uniquely, Oppenlander weaves actual historical figures and events into her plots, giving readers a flavor of true history while enjoying a good story. Oppenlander shares her knowledge through writing workshops at
colleges, libraries and schools. She also offers vivid presentations and author visits. The mother of fraternal twins and a son, she now lives in her hometown, Solingen, Germany with her husband.

Contact Links

Website

Facebook

Twitter: @aoppenlander

Blog

Goodreads

Pinterest: @annoppenlander

Instagram: @annette.oppenlander

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 Purchase Links

Amazon

Barnes and Noble

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#BookReview “The Cold Killer” by Ross Greenwood

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5/5 Stars!

I discovered Ross Greenwood a few months ago with his prison-life crime fiction, Prisoner, and had no idea the DI Barton crime thriller series existed.

Wow! Compelling and engaging, The Cold Killer is another winner.

Though it is book four in the series, I didn’t feel as though there were blank spots or missing info from the previous books.

DI John Barton, like Jim Dalton in Prisoner, is diligent and hardworking while trying to keep a balance between work and his family.

When an aged sex offender is brutally murdered in prison, Barton and his team are called in to investigate the not-so-unusual death. When the victim’s home is burglarized, Baron realizes there’s nothing normal about the case. All too soon, they realize they’re dealing with a serial killer, and he’s escalating as crimes and the body count rise. Is the killer a vigilante or seeking a special type of justice? Is the Peterborough prison the only connections between the victims? As Barton runs out of witnesses, he finds he may also be running out of time.

This slow burn read is masterfully written with points of view from both sides of the prison bars. Characters are likeable—or deliciously unlikeable—and memorable. Even the story’s villain, though vicious and brutal, evokes a certain amount of sympathy.

I’ve already downloaded the first three books in the DI Barton series and look forward to reading more of his cases.

Enjoy!

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Synopsis

It’s hard to live when you think you deserve to die…

When a tired old inmate is found dead in his cell, the prison is obligated to investigate and so DI Barton attends. The men he interviews have been convicted of some of the worst things a human being can do, but it appears likely that the death was due to natural causes.

When the house of the dead man is burgled and that crime is followed by a suspicious fire, Barton desperately needs to speak to his widow, but she’s nowhere to be found.

In the space of twenty-four hours, everyone he wants to talk to has vanished. Then he receives some post which makes him believe he could be the next to disappear.

Barton’s investigation goes full circle, through a series of brutal murders, back to the prison, and all signs are pointing to the fact that he’s made a terrible mistake.

There’s a violent killer on the loose, who wants everyone to learn that some people deserve to die.

DI Barton is back as Ross Greenwood continues with his bestselling series, perfect for fans of Mark Billingham and Ian Rankin.

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Purchase Link – https://amzn.to/3BSESCh

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#Excerpt “Handle With Care” by A.N. Verebes

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Contemporary Romance/Erotic Romance

 

Date Published: 07-23-2021

What would you do if you had twenty minutes alone with your idol?

Gemma Fox is a self-confessed unlucky-in-love geek treating herself to a weekend at a pop-culture convention on Australia’s sunny Gold Coast.

Drawn there by the temptation of seeing her celebrity crush, Everett Rhodes, the last thing she expects is to wind up trapped in an elevator with him. Parting ways, Gemma has no reason to suspect that their paths will cross again. After all, he’s a celebrity. She’s just a fan who lives on the other side of the planet.

Besides, her life is not a rom-com. (At least, that’s what she keeps telling herself.)

However, life has other plans. And Everett -stupidly charming, frustratingly handsome Everett- is hard to resist.

But when things get complicated, Gemma and Everett are both faced with the same dilemma:

How can they make things work when they live in completely separate worlds?

~~~

Excerpt from Chapter One

The silence stretched on as the floors seemed to inch down to the ground level. Then the lights flickered, and the lift made a strange grinding-clunking sound, stopping abruptly. The display on the screen said that they had reached the 7th floor, but the doors didn’t open.

“That didn’t sound too good,” Gemma observed slowly, frowning at the still-closed metal doors. She pushed the ‘open doors’ button. They remained shut. The lights flickered again ominously.

“Pretty sure we’re stuck,” her companion remarked, frowning and pulling out his own phone. She assumed he had a travel sim installed or simply didn’t care about exorbitant roaming charges. “I don’t have any reception.”

“Well, fuck,” she muttered, realising that she didn’t either. They must be in a dead zone, because Murphy’s Law was an actual thing in her world. “Neither do I.” She held up her phone to prove that, for all her joking about crazed fans, she wasn’t lying to him.

She hit the emergency call button in the lift.

Nothing happened.

Gemma blinked, incredulous. “You’ve got to be kidding me.” She hit the button a few more times with increasing frustration and just a hint of panic. She just about jumped out of her skin when a warm hand landed on her shoulder.

“Sorry,” Rhodes backed up again, holding his hands up in surrender. “Are you okay?”

Fighting down a hysterical laugh, she swallowed and shoved shaking hands into her pockets. “I’m not the best with confined spaces. For short periods of time, it’s fine, but…” she blew a breath out slowly. “Sorry. I promise I’m not actually a raving lunatic.”

Talking to him was distracting enough from the plight of being stuck in a small metal box suspended between hotel floors, though, so she kept going. “I don’t suppose you have bodyguards or assistants or handlers or something? You know, someone that knew you were getting into this lift and who will raise the alarm if you don’t wander out on the ground floor in the next couple of minutes?”

He laughed at that, and it surprised her that it was a self-deprecating sort of sound and it was accompanied by a shrug. “No. No, I’m not that famous. In fact, you’re the first person to recognise me.”

Objectively, if she hadn’t been such a huge fan (with a crush to boot) she mightn’t have recognised him at first glance, particularly with the shaggy haircut he was sporting and if he slid his sunglasses on. Additionally, his show had been off air for two years: if he were off being successful and relevant, he wouldn’t have been booked at a random pop culture convention in Australia, would he? But that thought seemed a little unkind, considering how much she –and thousands of other people–looked forward to these conventions.

“Oh.” Gemma shook her head, feeling a little traitorous for her musings. “I’m willing to bet the closer you get to the Convention Centre, the faster that will change. Whether that’s a good thing or not, well…” she trailed off and offered him another small smile. “We’re not all crazies, remember.”

“I thought that was my line,” the actor grinned, and she felt her heart do a little flip. Damn him and his aesthetic charm. He stuck out his hand, officially introducing himself, “Everett, or Rhett, if you’d prefer.”

“Gemma,” she responded, shaking the offered appendage. Cocking her head to the side, she mused on his chosen nickname. “I never picked you as the ‘Rhett’ type. I would have thought it was Everett or bust. You know, if I’d given it much thought. Which I hadn’t. Well, until now.”

His lips twitched upwards into a smirk. “Rhetts have a type?”

“Yes,” her reply was one of affected haughtiness, because she got weird when she got nervous. And boy was she nervous. “They wear shorts, Hawaiian shirts, and thongs.” At his raised eyebrows, she corrected, “Flip-flops, or sandals, sorry.” She looked him over again, taking in the form fitting jeans, polo shirt (with sunglasses tucked in at the unbuttoned collar, offering just a hint of his dark chest hair) and dress shoes. “You’re dressed like an Everett.”

This earned her another laugh, but it was warmer and richer than any of the previous iterations of the sound. “You were trying to convince me you weren’t crazy, remember?”

“Oh,” she waved her hand dismissively, “I abandoned that plan at least three seconds after I said it. Lost cause and all that. Still,” she mused aloud, gesturing to the shut doors, “I wasn’t exactly expecting this.”

It was probably a good thing that she’d gone to the bathroom before she’d left her hotel room, too. She pressed the emergency call button again. Still nothing. She clenched her hand into a fist and gave the button a good thump for its uselessness.

“Okay, so we’re going to leave the button alone now,” Everett told her, gently pulling her away from the panel. “I’d guess there’s been a glitch of some kind. But I get you’re a bit claustrophobic, and the talking was helping right?”

She glanced down to where his hand was still on her forearm, warm and solid and connected to his own toned arm and delicious biceps, which looked so good in the tight sleeves of the black polo and…Fuck! Focus, Gemma.

“Yes,” she acknowledged, a blush staining her cheeks. She was a terrible person for objectifying him. And yet, courtesy of her crush, she couldn’t help it. Not that that was a valid excuse, she knew. And now her traitorous thoughts were turning circular. “It was. Sorry. Trying to rein in the crazy.”

“I have a fear of anything reptilian, if it helps,” he admitted, surprising her with the information. “So, I get it. Your country terrifies me with its wealth of deadly snakes and lizards and even turtles! Seriously, you have turtles that can maim people. That’s not normal.”

“I mean, most of our wildlife is engineered to kill you, so I guess that fear’s warranted.” Who was this person that was in control of the sounds coming out of her mouth, she wondered. She needed them to stop now.

“It’s the blasé way you say that that really worries me.” Everett still sounded amused, though, so she figured she hadn’t made too much of a fool of herself.

“I’m also afraid of snakes, don’t worry,” she shuddered. “I’ve been considering moving to Hawaii or New Zealand. Or even Ireland. No snakes there. Could get my hike on without being afraid of certain death.”

“Oh, you like hiking?” There was additional animation in him now, a genuine interest with the topic. Of course he was the outdoorsy type – he was practically built for it.

Gemma nodded. “Yeah, I have a thing for views and scenic vistas. Don’t much love the actual hiking itself, especially with Eastern Browns at every turn here, but the payoff is usually worth it.”

“Yeah. There’s definitely something magical and rewarding in getting to the top of a climb and looking down over the rest of the world, right?” Everett smiled conspiratorially.

“Right.” Her heart was not thumping away at a billion miles per minute just because seeing his eyes all lit up and crinkled at the edges made him extra handsome. Nope. It wasn’t. She swallowed. “I’m thinking of travelling to the US in the next couple of years. Any choice spots I should focus on if I do want to come off the beaten track and do a hike?” She knew he was English, but that he’d spent at least the past eight years living in America, filming television shows and movies.

“I guess it depends on where you’re talking about visiting. East Coast or West Coast? Or desert? Tourist destinations, or the cities that most people dismiss because they’re not famous?”

She slid down the wall, deciding that she might as well settle in and get comfortable. “I’m kind of a Broadway baby,” she confessed, “so I’d love to see New York City. Not a lot of hiking to be done there, I know.”

He considered this, following her example to slide down the wall beside her, resting his wrists on his elevated knees. She hated herself for thinking that even that simple action seemed sinful coming from him. “It sounds overdone, but Central Park is awesome, and huge. No hiking, but it’s scenic at any time of year. You could spend days wandering around in there and still not see it all.”

“That does sound like a Bucket List activity.” She was even good enough to not mention the crime stats and the concept that she might get mugged.

He smiled and her heart did that flopping thing again. “There are plenty of hiking spots in Upstate New York, too.” He began listing them, counting them off on his fingers, “Lake Placid, Bear Mountain, Watkins Glen…or, if you Google, you can find a few spots closer to NYC that you’d probably also love.”

“Google!” She cried, startling him, and pulled out her phone. “I don’t have reception, but if we can get WiFi…” Her face fell. The little metal box they were in did not get WiFi reception either. “Never mind.”

Everett’s hand was on her back, patting consolingly. “I’m sure someone is already on it. Fixing the lift, I mean.”

Her head hit the mirrored wall with a dull thunk. “Didn’t Speed start this way?”

He blinked at her abrupt change of topic. “Huh?”

“I’m sure it did,” she continued. “Keanu Reeves and Jeff Daniels were trying to save a bunch of people from plummeting to their deaths in a lift.”

“You’re really not a fan of confined spaces, are you?” He was starting to sound concerned now, his cobalt eyes wider as they peered at her. “Don’t pass out on me, okay, love?”

Gemma forced herself to calm, taking a few deep breaths and feeling completely embarrassed. Closing her eyes and resting her head against the cool surface behind her, she said, “I am sorry for this. I’m sure being locked in a box with a panicky random isn’t quite how you imagined spending your morning.”

“I’ll admit,” he conceded, “there was more caffeine and less claustrophobia in my original plans.”

“When we get out of here, I’ll owe you a coffee.” The casual offer escaped her before she remembered who she was talking to. A flush immediately suffused her cheeks, and she stammered, “I mean, sorry, I didn’t mean…” she winced and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Stopping talking now.”

The fact that her unwitting companion was actually laughing, shoulders shaking and all, didn’t help matters.

“If nothing else, I’m glad I’m able to entertain you,” she snarked at him, feeling her cheeks burning. She’d probably actually seek therapy after this, the mortification of the entire encounter burning deep into her psyche. “Just promise me that when you get your next big role and start wheeling out this story in interviews as ‘that time I was trapped with a crazy fan’, you’ll at least fib a little and say I was stunning or something complimentary alongside the humiliation, yeah?”

Everett sobered a little, a frown pulling his eyebrows down, giving him the broody expression that he’d practically patented during his run on Happily Never After. He opened and closed his mouth a few times, as though trying to find the right words. She cursed herself for making him uncomfortable. Well, more uncomfortable.

Fuck her life.

“So, I’ve watched you on a few panels. Online, obviously. You’ve got this wicked sense of humour,” she found herself explaining into the awkward silence, blaming her lack of filter on an imagined decreasing amount of oxygen. However, at this point she was pretty much in for a penny, in for a pound when it came to her embarrassment anyway, and she had a point to make. “The playful narcissism is entertaining, and you just ride the line between knowing you’re attractive and still being charming. Personally, I can’t pull that off, so my style of deflection –as you’ve noticed by now– is more self-deprecating.” She shrugged. “What a juxtaposition, right?” She swept her eyes over him again. “Of course, if I were as pretty as you, maybe things would be different.”

“Hey, I can’t control that this was the jawline I was born with,” he defended lightly, gesturing towards his face with the back of one hand, “or my eyes. Or cheekbones. Or–”

“Yeah yeah, buddy. You’re rocking your natural aesthetic,” she threw her arms wide, indicating an invisible audience, “we all know. Pity about your height, right?”

He snorted, “I think I liked you better when you were starstruck. Besides, I’m five ten and a half, so I’m not exactly short.”

“Of course you did.” Rolling her eyes as her brain caught up with the rest of his sentence, she repeated, “And a half,” with a laugh in her voice. “Every half-inch counts, right?” Somehow, she managed to deliver this absolutely deadpan.

She had no shame.

His lip curled upwards again at the innuendo, but he let it be. “Well, I could stretch the truth a bit and say I’m six feet tall. If I wear lifts, it’s not a lie.”

This made her chuckle and shake her head before knowingly observing, “There’s definitely an element of truth to your narcissist shtick, isn’t there?”

“That’s the thing about landing jokes, isn’t it? The best ones all have a bit of truth to them.”

Gemma acknowledged this argument with a jut of her chin. “Yeah. Well, at least, that’s what they say. Whoever they are.”

“A secret society, I’m told. Very exclusive,” he tapped the side of his nose with the tip of his index finger and she laughed again.

“Right. Seems legit.”

There was an awkward lull in conversation, and just as she was beginning to feel the walls closing in, her companion asked, “So where would you recommend for hiking around here?”

Gemma’s building anxiety receded again, and she was glad for the ongoing distraction. The guy was a saint. It did nothing to abate her crush on him. “It depends on what you’re after or how far you’re willing to travel,” she mused aloud. “Bushwalks around here can get you to ocean views, mangrove walks, waterfalls…” she shrugged. “I’ve always found the short track between Burleigh Heads and Tallebudgera relaxing, but it’s not what I’d call a hike. More like a nature walk. If you’re looking for epic views and are happy to set aside pretty much a whole day –including the drive there and back– there’s Mount Warning. It’s not an easy climb, though. At least, not to get to the summit.” She was proud that she’d managed it. Once, and she maintained that it had almost killed her, but she had managed it, and that was enough. “Or there’s Mount Ngungun, which is a couple of hours’ drive north from here and is a much shorter, easier climb with an epic pay off at the top on a clear day. Mount Coolum, also a couple of hours north, is the same.”

“A relaxing nature walk sounds pretty good,” Everett mused thoughtfully. “And that one’s close to here?”

“Yeah, just a short drive down the highway. If you get a few hours free, you should check it out.” Unless we die in this lift, her brain added testily.

Oblivious to her internal musings, he nodded again. “Right. I’ll add that to my To Do list.”

“So, you’re not just here for the convention?”

“No, I’ve got a few days reprieve before I have to head back home. Thought I’d do a little sightseeing. Maybe even pat a koala or something.”

“I guess flying halfway around the world for a three-day stay does sound a bit rough,” Gemma acknowledged with a tilt of her head. Then she made a face. “You know koalas carry chlamydia, right?” They were cute, but there was no way in hell she’d ever touch one again.

Everett let out a bark of almost startled laughter. “What?! That can’t be a thing.”

“It is,” she responded emphatically, slapping her thigh. “Koalas can carry the clap. Google it.” Her brows drew down into a frown. “Once we’re out of here and there’s WiFi and reception again.”

He snorted inelegantly. “If you’re lying to me, I’ll be collecting on that coffee.”

Her heart skipped a beat. Was that flirting? No. The lack of oxygen was clearly getting to them both now. But her mouth fired off before her brain, “And when you realise that I’m not, you can shout me a coffee.”

“You’ve got a deal,” he told her with a smirk and extended his hand for her to shake.

Gemma did so with an accompanying shake of her head. “Sure,” she told him, mild disbelief colouring her tone. As if he was even going to remember her once they were released and he was swept up in his celebrity duties. Still, it was kind of nice to pretend that he was an ordinary person and that they’d just arranged a coffee date. “I take mine white, no sugar. Preferably a latte, but a flat white will suffice.”

“Confident, aren’t you?”

“Eh,” she shrugged, her lips quirking upwards, “I know my country.”

“Well, then, if you’re so knowledgeable,” he shot back playfully, leaning into her space and nudging her shoulder with his own, unaware that the action set off a flurry of butterflies in her belly that had nothing to do with her fear that they were going to die trapped in the broken-down elevator, “what should I do with my free time here? Other than go for a nature walk where I might encounter a snake and die.”

“Melodramatic, much?” Gemma snarked with an exaggerated roll of her eyes. “You’re a big boy, you’ll be fine.” She only barely resisted the urge to reach out and pat his shoulder with blatant (light-hearted) condescension. “What sort of stuff are you into? We’ve got a bit of everything here: theme parks, beaches, botanic gardens, wildlife sanctuaries…” She drummed her fingers on her thigh as she considered what else was on offer locally. “Australia Zoo’s only a couple of hours’ drive north, too. That’s always a favourite with tourists. So’s Byron Bay, which is an hour or so south of here, but…eh…it’s a bit hipster and a whole lot overrated, if you ask me. Which, I’ll remind you, you did.”

Everett affected faux offence. “Are you calling me a tourist?” He spoke the word as though it was a slur.

Snickering, she shrugged again. “I mean, you kind of are.”

“You wound me,” he continued his exaggerated act, clutching imaginary pearls. He widened his eyes, the colour more crystalline in the artificial lighting of the elevator. “I thought we were friends now.”

There went the butterflies again. “Oh, it takes more than a shared near-death experience to become my friend.”

Everett laughed, his eyes crinkling at the corners, and the sound delighted her. “I’ll win you over yet, sweetheart.”

“Yeah, nah,” she responded, “not if you call me sweetheart again.” She’d liked it way too much for it to be healthy.

Chuckling, he asked, “Did you just say ‘yeah-nah’? What the hell is that?”

“It’s Aussie slang for no.”

Blinking at her, the incredulous question “Why don’t you just say no?” followed, before he added, “And, what, do you say ‘nah-yeah’ for yes?”

“We do, actually,” the corners of her lips twitched at his bewilderment. “Honestly, it’s more a bogan thing than anything, but–”

“Bogan?” The word sounded bizarre in his accent as he tested it out.

Her shoulders lifted and dropped while she raised her hands with their palms facing upwards. “Kind of our version of a redneck or a chav?”

“Right,” he drew out the word, clearly amused. “And you just happen to fall into this use of slang at random?”

“When I’m comfortable enough,” she responded without thinking, feeling her cheeks burn as she realised what she’d admitted.

Everett held his index finger towards the ceiling, “Ah ha!” he cried, victorious, now using that same finger to poke her shoulder. “You admitted it. We are friends now.”

Gemma was convinced that he was running out of oxygen now. Still, his enthusiasm was contagious, and she found herself grinning and shaking her head. “Fine, okay, whatever.”

“I knew I’d win you over.”

“Why?” she queried, feeling bold. “Because I’m a fan? Because of your obvious–” sarcasm abounded “–charm?”

He wriggled his hips and stretched out his legs, settling in for the long haul. “A little from Column A, a little from Column B.”

She hated herself a little for finding the narcissist shtick so endearing, but with his eyes glinting at her and that mischievous smirk on his sinfully scruffy face, she felt powerless to resist it. Still, she didn’t need him knowing that.

“I think I liked you better when you were a mysterious celebrity,” she twisted his earlier words back at him playfully.

“I’ve already used that joke, love,” he snarked back. “Find some new material.”

Gemma opened her mouth to argue, but the elevator seemed to lurch back into life, jerking and clunking and startling her enough that she squealed and clutched at her companion’s arm.

“Hey, it’s okay,” he soothed, rubbing her hand but making no move to throw her off. He glanced up at the ceiling and then the display panel. “I think we’re back on the move.”

Sure enough, the number had changed to 6 and she could feel the lift descending. Everett pushed himself to his feet and offered Gemma his hand, which she took and allowed him to help her stand. “Thanks,” she said softly, suddenly overcome by the realisation that their brief friendship was about to go its separate ways. “Sorry again for freaking out on you.”

“What are friends for?” he cajoled, brushing the apology off, unaware of the melancholy turn her thoughts had taken.

She smiled, hoping it met her eyes, and gave his hand one last squeeze. “Well, thank you, then,” she said, watching the numbers tick down. She stepped back. “I hope you enjoy the convention. I’m sure your panels will be awesome.”

Everett inclined his head, “Are you going to be there?”

Given that he had been her motivating factor for attending, she’d been planning on it but, after this, did attending make it weird? Though, she supposed, it wouldn’t be odd for a friend to go watch another friend perform or give speeches or answer fan questions, would it?

She was overthinking it.

“Wouldn’t miss it,” she informed him as the doors finally slid open at the ground floor. She was oblivious to the crowd of people assembled outside. “I’ll be cheering you on from the back of the room, I’m sure.”

Then, with a final (if somewhat awkward) wave, she turned around, ducked her head once she saw the large group of people gawking at them, and made her way out of the lift and across the hotel lobby.

~~~

About the Author

Anita (A.N.) Verebes is a daydreamer, writer, and author of the debut romance novel Handle With Care.

As a professional civil marriage celebrant, Anita makes a living telling other people’s love stories and celebrating real romance! Also armed with a Bachelor of Education (Secondary), Anita is a qualified -but not practising- High School English teacher who loves to read anything she can get her hands on, including fanfiction. (And, yes, she’s written her fair share of that, too.)

Living directly between Queensland’s sunny Gold and Sunshine coasts, Anita spends her days exploring the Great South East with her husband and their two rambunctious sons. When at home, she’s also a slave to two cats and one very spoilt Great Dane X.

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#BookTour “The Cold Killer” by Ross Greenwood

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It’s hard to live when you think you deserve to die…

When a tired old inmate is found dead in his cell, the prison is obligated to investigate and so DI Barton attends. The men he interviews have been convicted of some of the worst things a human being can do, but it appears likely that the death was due to natural causes.

When the house of the dead man is burgled and that crime is followed by a suspicious fire, Barton desperately needs to speak to his widow, but she’s nowhere to be found.

In the space of twenty-four hours, everyone he wants to talk to has vanished. Then he receives some post which makes him believe he could be the next to disappear.

Barton’s investigation goes full circle, through a series of brutal murders, back to the prison, and all signs are pointing to the fact that he’s made a terrible mistake.

There’s a violent killer on the loose, who wants everyone to learn that some people deserve to die.

DI Barton is back as Ross Greenwood continues with his bestselling series, perfect for fans of Mark Billingham and Ian Rankin.

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Purchase Link – https://amzn.to/3BSESCh

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Ross GreenwoodAuthor Bio

Ross Greenwood is the bestselling author of eight crime thrillers. Before becoming a full-time writer he was most recently a prison officer and so worked every day with murderers, rapists and thieves for four years. He lives in Peterborough.

 

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#BookTour “Twentymile” by C. Matthew Smith

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November 15 – December 10, 2021 Tour

Synopsis:

Twentymile by C. Matthew Smith

When wildlife biologist Alex Lowe is found dead inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it looks on the surface like a suicide. But Tsula Walker, Special Agent with the National Park Service’s Investigative Services Branch and a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, isn’t so sure.

Tsula’s investigation will lead her deep into the park and face-to-face with a group of lethal men on a mission to reclaim a historic homestead. The encounter will irretrievably alter the lives of all involved and leave Tsula fighting for survival – not only from those who would do her harm, but from a looming winter storm that could prove just as deadly.

A finely crafted literary thriller, Twentymile delivers a propulsive story of long-held grievances, new hopes, and the contentious history of the land at its heart.

Praise for Twentymile:

“[A] striking debut . . . a highly enjoyable read suited best to those who like their thrillers to simmer for awhile before erupting in a blizzard of action and unpredictability . . .” Kashif Hussain, Best Thriller Books.

“C. Matthew Smith’s original, intelligent novel delivers unforgettable characters and an irresistible, page-turning pace while grappling with deeply fascinating issues of land and heritage and what and who is native…. Twentymile is an accomplished first novel from a talented and fully-formed writer.” James A. McLaughlin, Edgar Award-winning author of Bearskin

Twentymile is packed with everything I love: A strong, female character; a wilderness setting; gripping storytelling; masterful writing. Smith captures powerfully and deeply the effects of the past and what we do to one another and ourselves for the sake of ownership and possession, for what we wrongfully and rightfully believe is ours. I loved every word. A beautiful and brutal and extraordinary debut.” Diane Les Becquets, bestselling author of Breaking Wild and The Last Woman in the Forest

Book Details:

Genre: Procedural, Thriller

Published by: Latah Books

Publication Date: November 19, 2021

Number of Pages: 325

ISBN: 978-1-7360127-6-5

Purchase Links: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads | Latah Books

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Read an excerpt:

HARLAN

CHAPTER ONE

May 10

The same moment the hiker comes upon them, rounding the bend in the trail, Harlan knows the man will die.

He takes no pleasure in the thought. So far as Harlan is aware, he has never met the man and has no quarrel with him. This stranger is simply an unexpected contingency. A loose thread that, once noticed, requires snipping.

Harlan knows, too, it’s his own fault. He shouldn’t have stopped. He should have pressed the group forward, off the trail and into the concealing drapery of the forest. That, after all, is the plan they’ve followed each time: Keep moving. Disappear.

But the first sliver of morning light had crested the ridge and caught Harlan’s eye just so, and without even thinking, he’d paused to watch it filter through the high trees. Giddy with promise, he’d imagined he saw their new future dawning in that distance as well, tethered to the rising sun. Cardinals he couldn’t yet spot were waking to greet the day, and a breeze picked up overhead, soughing through shadowy crowns of birch and oak. He’d turned and watched the silhouettes of his companions taking shape. His sons, Otto and Joseph, standing within arm’s length. The man they all call Junior lingering just behind them.

The stranger’s headlamp sliced through this reverie, bright and sudden as an oncoming train, freezing Harlan where he stood. In all the times they’ve previously made this journey—always departing this trail at this spot, and always at this early hour—they’ve never encountered another person. Given last night’s thunderstorm and the threat of more to come, Harlan wasn’t planning on company this morning, either.

He clamps his lips tight and flicks his eyes toward his sons—be still, be quiet. Junior clears his throat softly.

“Mornin’,” the stranger says when he’s close.

The accent is local—born, like Harlan’s own, of the surrounding North Carolina mountains—and his tone carries a hint of polite confusion. The beam of his headlamp darts from man to man, as though uncertain of who or what most merits its attention, before settling finally on Junior’s pack.

The backpack is a hand-stitched canvas behemoth many times the size of those sold by local outfitters and online retailers. Harlan designed the mammoth vessel himself to accommodate the many necessities of life in the wilderness. Dry goods. Seeds for planting. Tools for construction and farming. Long guns and ammunition. It’s functional but unsightly, like the bulbous shell of some strange insect. Harlan and his sons carry similar packs, each man bearing as much weight as he can manage. But it’s likely the rifle barrel peeking out of Junior’s that has now caught the stranger’s interest.

Harlan can tell he’s an experienced hiker, familiar with the national park where they now stand. Few people know of this trail. Fewer still would attempt it at this hour. Each of his thick-knuckled hands holds a trekking pole, and he moves with a sure and graceful gait even in the relative dark. He will recognize—probably is just now in the process of recognizing—that something is not right with the four of them. Something he may be tempted to report. Something he might recall later if asked.

Harlan nods at the man but says nothing. He removes his pack and kneels as though to re-tie his laces.

The hiker, receiving no reply, fills the silence. “How’re y’all do—”

When Harlan stands again, he works quickly, covering the stranger’s mouth with his free hand and thrusting his blade just below the sternum. A whimper escapes through his clamped fingers but dies quickly. The body arches, then goes limp. One arm reaches out toward him but only brushes his shoulder and falls away. Junior approaches from behind and lowers the man onto his back.

Even the birds are silent.

Joseph steps to his father’s side and offers him a cloth. Harlan smiles. His youngest son is a carbon copy of himself at eighteen. The wordless, intent glares. The muscles tensed and explosive, like coiled springs straining at a latch. Joseph eyes the man on the ground as though daring him to rise and fight.

Harlan removes the stranger’s headlamp and shines the beam in the man’s face. A buzz-cut of silver hair blanches in this wash of light. His pupils, wide as coins, do not react. Blood paints his lips and pools on the mud beneath him, smelling of copper.

“I’m sorry, friend,” Harlan says, though he doubts the man can hear him. “It’s just, you weren’t supposed to be here.” He yanks the knife free from the man’s distended belly and cleans it with the cloth.

From behind him comes Otto’s fretful voice. “Jesus, Pop.”

Harlan’s eldest more resembles the men on his late wife’s side. Long-limbed and dour. Quiet and amenable, but anxious. When Harlan turns, Otto is pacing along a tight stretch of the trail with his hands clamped to the sides of his head. His natural state.

“Shut up and help me,” Harlan says. “Both of you.”

He instructs his sons to carry the man two hundred paces into the woods and deposit him behind a wide tree. Far enough away, Harlan hopes, that the body will not be seen or smelled from the trail any time soon. “Wear your gloves,” he tells them, re-sheathing the knife at his hip. “And don’t let him drag.”

As Otto and Joseph bear the man away, Harlan pockets the lamp and turns to Junior.

“I know, I know,” he says, shaking his head. “Don’t look at me like that.”

“Like what?”

Harlan sweeps his boot back and forth along the muddy trail to smooth over the odd bunching of footprints and to cover the scrim of blood with earth. He’s surprised to find his stomach has gone sour. “No witnesses,” he says. “That’s how it has to be.”

“People go missing,” Junior says, “and other people come looking.”

“By the time they do, we’ll be long gone.”

Junior shrugs and points. “Dibs on his walking sticks.”

Harlan stops sweeping. “What?”

“Sometimes my knees hurt.”

“Fine,” Harlan says. “But let’s get this straight. Dibs is not how we’re going to operate when we get there.”

Junior blinks and looks at him. “Dibs is how everything operates.”

Minutes later, Otto and Joseph return from their task, their chests heaving and their faces slick. Otto gives his younger brother a wary look, then approaches Harlan alone. When he speaks, he keeps his voice low.

“Pop—”

“Was he still breathing when you left him?”

Otto trains his eyes on his own feet, a drop of sweat dangling from the tip of his nose.

“Was he?”

Otto shakes his head. He hesitates for a moment longer, then asks, “Maybe we should go, Pop? Before someone else comes along?”

Harlan pats his son’s hunched neck. “You’re right, of course.”

The four grunt and sway as they re-shoulder their packs. Wooden edges and sharp points dig into Harlan’s back and buttocks through the canvas, and the straps strain against his burning shoulders. But he welcomes this discomfort for what it means. This, at last, is their final trip.

This time, they’re leaving for good.

They fan out along the edge of the trail, the ground sopping under their boots. Droplets rain down, shaken free from the canopy by a gust of wind, and Harlan turns his face up to feel the cool prickle on his skin. Then he nods to his companions, wipes the water from his eyes, and steps into the rustling thicket.

The others follow after him, marching as quickly as their burdens allow.

Melting into the trees and the undergrowth.

PART I:

DRIFT 

TSULA 

CHAPTER TWO

October 26

By the time the two vehicles she’s expecting appear at the far end of the service road, Tsula is already glazed with a slurry of sweat and south Florida sand so fine it should really be called dust. She hasn’t exerted herself in the slightest—she parked, got out of her vehicle, waited for the others to arrive—but already she longs for a shower. She wipes her brow with an equally damp forearm. It accomplishes little.

“Christ almighty.”

Tsula grew up in the Qualla Boundary—the eighty square miles of western North Carolina held by the federal government in trust for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians—and had returned to her childhood home two years ago after a prolonged absence. This time of year in the Qualla, the mornings are chilly and the days temperate, autumn having officially shooed summer out of the mountains. In northern Wyoming, where she’d spent nearly two decades of her adult life, it takes until mid-morning in late October for the frost to fully melt. Tsula understands those rhythms—putting on layers and shedding them, freezing and thawing. The natural balance of it. But only miles from where she stands, in this same ceaseless heat, lies the Miami-Dade County sprawl. It baffles her. Who but reptiles could live in this swelter?

Tsula raises her binoculars. A generic government-issued SUV, much like her own, leads the way. An Everglades National Park law enforcement cruiser follows close behind.

She looks down at her watch: 11:45 a.m.

Tsula flaps the front of her vented fishing shirt to move air against her skin. The material is thin, breathable, and light tan, but islets of brown have formed where the shirt clings to perspiration on her shoulders and chest. She removes her baseball cap, fans her face, and lifts her ponytail off her neck. In this sun, her black hair absorbs the heat like the hood of a car, and she would not at all be surprised to find it has burned her skin. For a moment, she wishes it would go ahead and gray. Surely that would be more comfortable.

The vehicles pull to a stop next to her, and two men exit. Fish and Wildlife Commission Investigator Matt Healey approaches first. He is fifty-something, with the tanned and craggy face of someone who has spent decades outside. Tsula shakes his hand and smiles.

“Special Agent,” he says, scratching at his beard with his free hand.

The other man is younger—in his late twenties, Tsula figures—and dressed in the standard green-and-gray uniform of a law enforcement park ranger. He moves with a bounding and confident carriage and thrusts out his hand. “Special Agent, I’m Ranger Tim Stubbs. Welcome to Everglades. I was asked to join y’all today, but I’m afraid they didn’t give me much other info. Can someone tell me what I’m in for?”

“Poachers,” Healey answers. “You’re here to help us nab some.”

“We investigate poaching every year,” Stubbs says, nodding toward Tsula. “Never get the involvement of the FBI.”

“ISB,” she corrects him. “Investigative Services Branch? I’m with the Park Service.”

“Never heard of it,” Stubbs says.

“I get that a lot.”

Whether he knows it or not, Stubbs has a point. The ISB rarely, if ever, involves itself in poaching cases. Most large parks like Everglades have their own law enforcement rangers capable of looking into those of the garden variety. Federal and state fish and wildlife agencies can augment their efforts where necessary. At just over thirty Special Agents nationwide, and with eighty-five million acres of national park land under their jurisdiction from Hawaii to the U.S. Virgin Islands, this little-known division of the Park Service is too thinly staffed to look into such matters when there are suspicious deaths, missing persons, and sexual assaults to investigate.

But this case is different.

“It’s not just what they’re taking,” Healy says. “It’s how much they’re taking. Thousands of green and loggerhead turtle eggs, gone. Whole nests cleaned out at different points along Cape Sable all summer long. Always at night so cameras don’t capture them clearly, always different locations. They’re a moving target.”

“We’ve been concerned for a while now that they may be getting some assistance spotting the nests from inside the park,” Tsula adds. “So, we’re keeping it pretty close to the vest. That’s why no one filled you in before now. We don’t want to risk any tip-offs.”

“What would anyone want with that many eggs?”

“Black market,” Healey says.

“You’re kidding.”

Healey shakes his head. “Sea turtle eggs go down to Central America where they’re eaten as an aphrodisiac. Fetch three to five bucks apiece for the guy stateside who collects them. Bear paws and gallbladders go over to Asia. All kinds of other weird shit I won’t mention. And, of course, there are the live exotics coming into the country. Billions of dollars a year in illegal animal trade going all over the world. One of the biggest criminal industries besides drugs, weapons, and human trafficking. This many eggs missing—it’s like bricks of weed or cocaine in a wheel well. This isn’t some guy adding to his reptile collection or teenagers stealing eggs on a dare. This is commerce.”

Tsula recognizes the speech. It’s how Healey had hooked her, and how she in turn argued her boss into sanctioning her involvement. “Sure, most poaching is small-potatoes,” he told her months ago. He’d invited her for a drink that turned out to be a pitch instead. “Hicks shooting a deer off-season on government land and similar nonsense. This isn’t that. You catch the right guys, and they tell you who they’re selling to, maybe you can follow the trail. Can you imagine taking down an international protected species enterprise? Talk about putting the ISB on the map.”

“So maybe that’s what’s in it for me,” Tsula said, peeling at the label on her bottle. “Why are you so fired up?”

He straightened himself on his stool and drew his shoulders back. “These species are having a hard enough time as it is. Throw sustained poaching on top, it’s going to be devastating. I want it stopped. Not just the low-level guys, either. We put a few of them in jail, there will always be more of them to take their place. I want the head lopped off.”

Tsula had felt a thrill at Healey’s blunt passion and the prospect of an operation with international criminal implications. Certainly, it would be a welcome break from the child molestation and homicide cases that ate up her days and her soul, bit by bit. It took three conversations with the ISB Atlantic Region’s Assistant Special Agent in Charge, but eventually he agreed.

“This better be worth it,” he told her finally. “Bring some people in, get them to tell us who they’re working for. We may have to let the FBI in after that, but you will have tipped the first domino.”

Their investigation had consumed hundreds of man-hours across three agencies but yielded little concrete progress for the first several months. Then a couple weeks ago, Healey received a call from the Broward County State Attorney’s office. A pet store owner under arrest for a third cocaine possession charge was offering up information on turtle egg poachers targeting Everglades in a bid for a favorable plea deal. Two men had recently approached the store owner, who went by the nickname Bucky, about purchasing a small cache of eggs they still had on hand. It was toward the end of the season, and the recent yields were much smaller than their mid-summer hauls. Since many of the eggs they’d gathered were approaching time to hatch, the buyers with whom the two men primarily did business were no longer interested. The two men were looking for a legally flexible pet store owner who might want to sell hatchlings out the back door of his shop.

Tsula decided to use Bucky as bait. At her direction, he would offer to purchase the remaining eggs but refuse to conduct the sale at his store. The strip mall along the highway, he would explain, was too heavily trafficked for questionable transactions. But he knew a quiet place in the pine rocklands near the eastern border of the park where he liked to snort up and make plans for his business. They could meet there.

“Do I really have to say the part about snorting up?” Bucky had asked her, scratching his fingernails nervously on the interrogation room table. “I really don’t want that on tape. My parents are still alive.”

“You think they don’t know already?” Tsula said. “You don’t like my plan, good luck with your charges and your public defender here. How much time do you figure a third offense gets you?”

At his lawyer’s urging, Bucky finally agreed. The plan was set in motion, with the operation to take place today.

“So how are we looking?” Healey asks.

“Bucky’s on his way,” Tsula says. “I met with him earlier for a final run-through, got him mic’d up. We’re going to move the vehicles behind the thicket over there and wait. I’ve scouted it out. We’ll be concealed from the road. The purchase will take place about 12:30. As soon as Bucky has the eggs, we make our move.”

“I’ll secure the eggs,” Healy says. “You guys reel in some assholes.”

Tsula looks at Stubbs. His jaw is clenched, his eyes suddenly electric. “I’ll ride with you when it’s time, if that’s alright,” she says. “Keep it simple.”

They move their vehicles behind the wall of climbing fern and ladies’ tresses. Tsula exits her SUV, takes a concealed vantage point behind the brush, and raises her binoculars. To her left, a breeze has picked up and is swaying the distant sawgrass. A golden eagle circles effortlessly on a thermal, its attention trained on something below. Directly beyond the thicket where she stands, a large expanse of grass spreads out for a quarter mile before giving way to a dense stand of pine trees. To her right, that same open field stretches perhaps two miles, bordered by the service road on which Healy and Stubbs had just come in. All is silent but the soft hum of the breeze.

Bucky’s rust-colored compact bounces up the road around 12:15 and disappears as it passes on the opposite side the thicket. Minutes later, a mud-flecked pickup on oversized tires proceeds the same direction up the road, dragging a dust plume like a thundercloud behind it.

Tsula turns, nods to Healey, and climbs quietly into Stubbs’s cruiser. She inserts her earpiece and settles into the seat. Stubbs looks over at her expectantly, his hand hovering over the ignition.

Tsula shakes her head. “Not yet.”

***

Excerpt from Twentymile by C. Matthew Smith. Copyright 2021 by C. Matthew Smith. Reproduced with permission from C. Matthew Smith. All rights reserved.

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Author Bio:

C. Matthew Smith

C. Matthew Smith is an attorney and writer whose short stories have appeared in and are forthcoming from numerous outlets, including Mystery Tribune, Mystery Weekly, Close to the Bone, and Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir Vol. 3 (Down & Out Books). He’s a member of Sisters in Crime and the Atlanta Writers Club.

Catch Up With C. Matthew Smith: www.cmattsmithwrites.com Twitter – @cmattwrite Facebook

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