I stared at the front doors, where Emmett and his fake wife had exited. “We have company.”
“What do you mean?” came the low voice in my ear.
Before they’d vanished, my eyes had locked with hers in the reflection in the glass. No way that was his wife. I’d noticed the golden dress earlier that evening as she drifted from guest to guest.
Who wouldn’t choose a statuesque stunner like her?
From what I’d seen, he preferred women without a fraction as much intelligence as flashed behind those big brown eyes. I wasn’t a man given to poetry, but I might see fit to change for eyes like those. Let alone that body.
I’d smirked at her, which she’d answered by hurrying out the front door.
“Call it a hunch, but I think the other team we were worried about is going to beat us to the Codex—or already did.”
“I’m heading upstairs. Get me authorization.” I placed my champagne on a nearby table and strolled through the crowd, smiling at people who smiled back. This was the worst thing about working with a team—all the waiting and discussions and approvals.
The voice huffed. “You can’t go up the main staircase now.”
A redhead with skin stretched tight over enhanced cheekbones gave me a once-over.
I paused and kissed the air by her cheek, flowery perfume invading my nostrils. “It’s been too long.”
Events like this were full of people who either knew you or—if you’d secured an invite to the event—were sure they should. Very few questioned whether you belonged, if you pretended to be old friends.
“It has,” she murmured, eyes glassy enough to betray she’d had more than one too many drinks. I pulled a flute from a passing server and handed it to her.
“Take the back staircase from the kitchen,” came the voice in my ear. “The cake will keep the serving staff distracted.”
I looked past the woman and gave a quick wave and nod to no one in particular. “Gene! How’s the wife?” I looked down at the woman and excused myself with another kiss to her thin skin.
She smiled politely, and I scooted past her, past the groups mingling in the dining room where the hors d’oeuvres were situated, slowing in the short hallway to the kitchen. Three servers whipped by in rapid succession, held the doors wide, and the seven-tiered salute to Phillip Maguire’s dick size wheeled out slowly.
The decorator had adorned it with the same giant ‘M’ as the entryway floor. Just to be sure no one forgot who was paying. I ducked around a corner to not impede its progress, waited for the servers to pass, and made my way into the near-empty kitchen.
Not surprisingly, a house this size had a kitchen which looked like it belonged in a small restaurant. I knew the floor plan and could walk through it blindfolded, but it was hard not to slow down and appreciate that much gleaming stainless steel. I gave a confident smile to the three men sagged against the counter and was through the kitchen without difficulty.
The narrow staff stairway up to the second floor was at the very back, covered in worn, rust-colored carpet, a far cry from all the marble and crystal in the public areas. The first steps were casual, as if I belonged, changing to two and three at a time when I was halfway up.
I nodded to a woman in staff dress as I passed her, the chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’ carrying from the front of the house. Down the hallway, past a sitting room, a guest room, and I rounded a corner.
“Authorization to proceed to the library received,” came the voice.
Little late for that. “I’m almost there.”
The hallway was empty, and my hands landed on the door handles. I twisted down but met resistance. Locked.
Applause roared up the main staircase. The gallery above the lobby was only twenty feet away. I pressed an ear to the door but heard nothing inside. Once the clapping ended, they’d be cutting the birthday cake, still distracted downstairs.
I scanned the length of the hallway in both directions, listening. The woman I’d passed on the back stairs must have been the only one in this area during the party. I pulled lockpicks from an inner pocket and made quick work of the door.
A quiet click, and I eased it open. The library was lit by moonlight from the large windows on the opposite wall, reflecting off glass-enclosed shelves. I peered around the room, focusing on the dark corners as I entered. If another team was working this house, I couldn’t move too fast. But no one was in the room. Nothing looked disturbed. Maybe I was in first. Maybe Emmett was actually a guest, and that really was his wife.
If so, he’d turned things around since we’d met.
“I’m in,” I whispered.
Something slammed into my head. Something heavy. Hard. I stumbled into the door, closing it more loudly than I should have.
Hopefully, the continued applause and laughter would drown it out.
The first thing I spotted when the room returned to focus was an elephant statuette on the floor next to me. I’d no doubt be sporting a trunk-shaped bruise by morning.
But it was the growl of a motorcycle engine outside that snapped me to attention. One window was cracked open. Whoever had gotten the jump on me was already down there.
I raced across the room, shoving the window open. Each movement sent a stab of pain through my head. One very tall story below me sat the motorcycle, a small woman leaping onto it behind a broad-shouldered figure. The smaller one glanced up at me as they sped away, a Codex-sized bag strapped to her back.
My stomach dropped. I’d lost. I hurried to the drawer where the manuscript was supposed to be, punched in the passcode, and found the drawer empty.
“Fuck.” I rushed to the door.
“What?” came the voice.
“Hold.” I listened at the door and was met by silence. The oval tube secured inside the lining of my jacket felt like an insult. I opened the door, watching, checking for the sound of anyone in the hallway, and slipped out. Two doors down, I ducked into a bathroom.
Prodding at the tender spot on the crown of my head, my fingers came away with sticky blood. That would have to be cleaned. The goose egg was already rising.
I couldn’t leave this house empty-handed. What else was there? Jewelry in the bedrooms? A painting in the studio? Hell, take one of the vintage cars from the garage? That wasn’t my style. I’d taken a job and fucked it up. The contract was for the manuscript, and the manuscript only.
But I was too late. “Either the other team got to it before us, or Maguire moved it.”
Silence in my ear. That was never a good sign. They were consulting, deciding what to do. There were contingencies to be determined, which could include cutting me off.
Had Emmett traded counting cards in Vegas for bigger jobs? And who was the mystery woman with him?
“Malcolm.” The voice had changed to a distorted one with a different accent. “Switch to the abort plan. Dispose of your comms and the container. We won’t be needing your services anymore.”
“Roger that.” I ripped the receiver out of my ear before they could hear the stutter in my breath. Not needing my services could mean no more jobs from that team or being eliminated. I was good at what I did, so I’d find another job if I wanted one. That would have been the plan if we’d succeeded tonight, anyway.
I retrieved some tissues and wiped away the blood, sure to dispose of them down the toilet. Sure to take a few deep breaths before sneaking out of the bathroom and making my way through the celebratory crowd. This night could have gone worse; I could have been caught.
But I was leaving empty-handed, and that was almost as bad.
Maybe I’d track Emmett down and convince him to split the prize money for snatching the Codex. He owed me.
It’s almost time!! The San Marco Heist will be out on July 14. But because I’m just too excited to wait, I wanted to share chapter one with you!
Chapter One – Scarlett
My mark was late.
I ran a finger under the lip of the desk while cataloging every photograph, every book, every little statue in the private library. Pulled on the trunk of the ivory elephant. Nudged the wall sconces. Spun the inlaid globe to check if it wobbled. Started tugging on the drawers.
He must have seen me come in here. Either that or I was losing my tou—
“Library’s off-limits to guests.”
“Oh!” I gasped as I turned to see him, my hand flying to my chest.
Greasy black hair caked with too much luxury pomade. Clean-shaven, tux with gray accents, shoes polished well enough to reflect the pot lights. No bulges or jingles to indicate wallet or keys from this angle.
He didn’t even bother to look at my face. No, the dress was doing its job.
My hand lingered over my lungs, highlighting the plunging neckline. The shimmering gold lurex gown with a thigh-high slit had garnered plenty of attention all on its own, but he deserved extra. I breathed deeply, swelling my chest, dragging the hand away slowly. Pulling his eyes with it. “You startled me.”
“That wasn’t my goal.” He pushed back strands of hair which fell to his forehead and approached, shoulders squared, gaze finally lifting almost to my mouth. “But you still shouldn’t be here.”
“I just…” I leaned against the desk, gripping its edge. Girl next door? Femme fatale? Damsel in distress? Our research said bimbo. My least favorite. Regardless, I pursed my lips and ran one crystal-studded nude Louboutin across the floor in front of me. “Someone at the party downstairs said there was a really cool book in here.”
“We have a lot of those.” He gestured absently around the room. Thirty feet by twenty, mahogany shelving, books enclosed by glass doors. Behind me, two arch-topped springline windows with a view of the gardens and pool.
“Cool books turn me on.” I blinked slowly, but the movement was lost on him.
His eyes followed the foot, like a predator waiting to pounce. I dragged it up to my other ankle.
“I wish someone could show it to me.” I chuckled, low in my throat, and pushed myself off the desk, heading toward the door. As I passed him, I whispered, “But I don’t belong here, so…”
He grabbed my wrist to stop me. “How turned on?”
“Depends on how cool it is.” I eased my mouth open and ran my tongue along my upper lip. Come on, just show me already. We both know you’re going to. “Does it have pretty pictures?”
He closed the small distance between us, his chest flush against my arm. As repulsive as he was, as much as his vocal fry grated on my nerves, his scent was heavenly. Bergamot. Pineapple. Clive Christian, maybe? X? “They’re called illuminations.”
“Ooh!” I shivered, turning to face him. “Like lightbulbs?”
“Not quite.” He smiled, a You’re not very smart smile, and gestured to the other side of the room. Walking behind me to take in the exaggerated sway of my hips. “Medieval manuscripts have pictures in them, which are called illuminations.”
“I like that.” I stopped at the end of the room. As with the other walls, it was covered in dark wood shelves and crammed with books. But this section included flat file drawers without locks.
He pulled one drawer, which only came out half a foot. Far enough to reveal a keypad I’d missed.
“Turn around,” he said, fingers hovering over the numbers. “This is private.”
Oh, no, you don’t. I took his free hand in both of mine and positioned it over my eyes. Another giggle. He hesitated, but when I bounced slightly in excitement, he punched in the code.
Eight digits. Ridiculously easy.
“All done.” His hand drifted from my eyes, along my chest—but no touching—and circled to the small of my back, pulling me closer. This was a man used to taking what he wanted. Fortunately for me, what he wanted most was my reaction, and I’d gladly exchange it for what he was giving me.
When the drawer opened fully, I sucked in a deep breath. The manuscript was exquisite. Fifteenth century vellum, the Latin lettering executed in immaculate black ink, framed in vines and leaves. Five oversized capitals of filigree and gold leaf. The top left contained an illumination of three men, two hills, and an angel.
The Codex of San Marco. Worth just shy of three-point-four million dollars.
Encased in an argon-filled titanium frame with double-walled glass. Not quite as secure as the Charters of Freedom, but that case certainly inspired this one.
“It’s so pretty,” I breathed, leaning against him to get a better look.
“Mm-hmm.” I bit my bottom lip, fluttering my eyelashes, which he actually saw this time.
“Legend has it this manuscript points to an immense treasure.”
“Ooh, that makes it even cooler.”
He shoved the drawer closed, but it slowed on its mechanized track. A nearly inaudible click sounded before he spun me against the bookcase, one hand leaning against a shelf by my head, the other dropping to my hip.
My left hip. Dammit.
A quick check of the clock on the far wall. Eight forty.
His hand eased down my side, inching slowly, and I slapped mine over it, halting his progress.
“I don’t even know your name,” I purred.
“Does it matter?” He dipped his head, lips brushing my neck, body pressing against me.
Thomas Gregory Maguire. Thirty-three. Eldest son of Phillip Maguire. Shame of his father, yet heir to a property development empire. Oxford dropout. Broke up with his model girlfriend two months ago. Still lived in this immense mansion with his parents.
I slid his hand on my hip to my ass—eight forty-one—and hooked a foot around his calf. This was approaching my cut-off point. At least he smelled divine.
His lips found their way to my earlobe, and I groaned, pulling him closer. Eight forty-two.
“Eloise!” came a sharp male voice from the doorway, and I pushed Thomas away. Emmett charged toward us, chest puffed, face red. His black tux and shirt, paired with the slick dark-brown hair and close-cropped beard, made him look more intimidating than usual. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“Nothing!” I rushed to intercept him, leaving slobbery-mouth Maguire behind me. “Nothing happened, I swear!”
Emmett shouldered past me, finger raised. “If you ever touch my wife again, I will end you.”
Thomas looked more put out than worried or upset. “She came on to me.”
Instead of standing up for my honor, Emmett stalked back to me, grabbed my upper arm, and hauled me out of the room. “Typical.”
He stormed down the hall to the front of the house, muttering the whole way. ‘Gold digger. Irresponsible. Unfaithful.’
I hazarded a glance over my shoulder to find Thomas leaving the library. He closed the doors behind him, fiddled with the handles, and slipped something into his pocket. I winked at him before turning back to Emmett.
“You’re a brute,” I growled as we arrived at the gallery overlooking the foyer. Dozens of well-dressed people milled about below us, spilling into rooms that radiated out like the legs of a spider. The study, the drawing room, the snooker room.
Laughter and chatter echoed through the space, bouncing off the chandeliers and statuary adorning the ostentatious display. Men in tuxedos and women in ball gowns dotted the balcony.
“Better a brute than a sleazebag.” He shot me a grin and continued dragging me.
“I hate attending these things with you,” I said louder than was necessary.
“Good, because we’re leaving.” Emmett slowed as we stepped onto the grand, white marble staircase. He was considerate of that, if nothing else, even though my stilettos were as comfortable as bare feet.
I scanned the room below us and located Rav. Taller and broader than most of the other guests, with deep-olive skin and slicked-back, wavy black hair, he stood out from the crowd. And yet somehow blended in at the same time—one of his specialties. I swept two fingers across my nose. He raised a full champagne flute in salute, and he was gone.
When Rav moved, the man behind him looked up at me. I gripped the railing when my eyes met his. So blue I could see them from thirty feet away. Blue as the sky at sunset. Like the Winston Blue diamond. His hair was dark-blond, styled in a medium quiff, and he sported enough facial hair that it wasn’t a beard but was definitely intentional. Lips so sensual I felt their curl deep inside.
The evening might have gone differently if Thomas looked like that. Probably not for the best though.
Emmett’s face appeared in front of me. “What are you doing?”
“Sorry, my shoe landed funny.” I resumed my progress down the stairs behind him. Focus. “Twelve minutes to the hour.”
“You never space out.”
“And you’re never two minutes late,” I shot back.
A slender, dark-skinned woman in red brocade and a tuxedoed man with matching accents stood at the base of the staircase, in our way. Emmett smiled at them and excused himself, then another couple, a pair of women, and we were almost at the exit.
“Emmett Reynolds!” came a deep voice behind us.
Don’t react, Em.
Emmett spun us around, his scrunched brow quickly replaced by a wide smile. Blue Eyes. The two shook, and Emmett clapped the man’s shoulder. “Mal? I haven’t seen you in forever! What are you—”
The newcomer inclined his head and glanced toward me, looking pointedly at Emmett. “Who’s the beauty with you?”
“My wife.” He wrapped an arm around my waist and pulled me close. “Eloise.”
Instead of taking the offered hand of greeting, I folded my arms. Ten minutes to the hour. We didn’t have time for this. Rav was already on the move. “I thought we were leaving.”
“We are, baby cheeks.” He grinned, and I huffed rather than slapping the look off his face. Making a scene wasn’t an option. “This is my old friend, Mal—”
Blue Eyes held up a hand.
Over his shoulder, I spotted Thomas coming down the stairs, studying the crowd. Looking for me? Or his father? I turned to face Emmett, presenting my back to his friend. Eyes narrowed, I whispered the one word that would snap his attention to me. “Broccoli.”
Shit, he mouthed. About time. “Sorry, Mal, but we’ve got to go.”
He grabbed me by the upper arm and yanked me the final fifteen feet to the exit. One of the staff took his information to the valet.
In a moment of weakness, I checked the glass in the front doors. It was dark enough outside to reflect the crowd at our backs. I was looking for Slobbery-Mouth, but what I caught was Blue Eyes staring at me. Not at my back, but locking eyes with mine in the reflection. My lungs heaved for real this time.
Dammit, he was gorgeous. But a distraction I didn’t need.
He smirked at me, and a furious heat flushed through my body. Not good. I barged out and stalked across the granite landing, down the stairs, onto the circular cobblestone driveway. A black Ferrari rolled to a stop, and a valet opened the passenger door so I could slide in as Emmett did the same on the driver’s side.
Once the doors shut, he revved the engine once—typical—and pulled out.
I rolled my eyes. “Twenty fifty-eight. Cake should be coming out in two. Rav, you got that?”
His light French accent sounded in my ear as Emmett progressed down the long driveway. “Copy.”
“Jayce, manuscript is still there and matches the specs we lifted from the safe company. Your carrying case will work. You’re good in two?”
“Copy that,” came a female voice.
“Per plan, the northern-most window is unlocked, and the library has been secured from the outside. Drawer is number eight on the schematic. Pull it out to see the keypad.”
“Confirmed number eight.”
“Code is…” I shook my head and looked at Emmett. “One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight.”
Jayce laughed. “Literally the numbers one through eight?”
“Yup. The man’s hand nearly landed on my holster so I could get that.” Good intel was critical, but I hadn’t planned on him being so forward, so fast. They usually took longer before their hands were on me. The clock on the dash switched to 8:59.
Rav’s voice came over the earpiece. “Sparklers on the cake are being lit.”
“Jayce, you’re a go.”
Our car turned onto the main road, and Emmett hit the gas.
“Slow down, Em.” I touched his forearm to calm the adrenaline likely spiking through him. He was always at its mercy. “If you’re going as much as a mile over, every cop in a fifty-mile radius will want to stop you just to look at the car.”
He exhaled, slowing to the speed limit. “It’s a sin to drive this car so slow.”
“You know what else is a sin?” I gripped his arm tighter.
“Watching some creepy rich guy make out with my big sister?” He made a face like he’d eaten something disgusting. “I hate that part, Scarlett.”
Rav grunted his disapproval.
“You think I liked it?” Drool on my neck to learn one through eight. “And for the record, stopping to talk to that guy? Not only did the extra minutes risk our egress, but he announced your real name to the entire room and you reacted. Don’t ever do that again.”
“I’m in,” said Jayce. “Room’s clear.”
“Meet you at the motorcycle in ten,” said Rav, metal clanking in his background. Pots, pans, and the sounds of a kitchen.
Emmett kept his eyes on the road rather than hurling any witty barbs at me. He knew he’d screwed up and risked the op.
Part of me wanted to continue about how we weren’t posing as a married couple, didn’t have rings, and he’d risked the job that way, too. But I’d be wrong. Maguire was the kind of man who’d claim me for his, if he so chose, whether Emmett had said he was a colleague, a date, or even a boyfriend. Husband was the right call.
That’s why my brother was my number two. He understood people—read them well.
“Wheels up at the rendezvous point at twenty-two hundred hours.” I released my grip and patted Emmett’s forearm. “Stay safe. Don’t anyone be late.”
I strode through Central Park until I arrived at West 59th, searching faces as I moved, looking for answers. Why did seeing Danielle cause so much conflict inside of me? She made me feel… what?
Things I wasn’t supposed to.
My kind learned long ago that human emotions were best kept behind a wall, like a dam holding back the swell of a mighty river. But like any dam, the floodgates needed to open when storms raged else the waters rise too high and crash over the top.
For us, the floodgate was a two-week hiatus every century, full of emotions which tore through us with the power of a tidal wave.
My dam cracked the night I met Danielle. Instead of immediately starting my vacation as I should have, I postponed, hoping in vain I’d been mistaken about what happened. Two years later, and feelings I shouldn’t have been capable of continued to seep through.
As I walked, no one returned my gaze. Given my power to determine when humans saw me, this was normal.
But Danielle’s light-brown eyes, which glittered like topaz when the sun hit them right? They pierced the barrier surrounding me, and she actually saw me. Whether I was invisible or in any number of forms—a woman holding a door open, a tall man retrieving a bottle from a high shelf, a boy on a train—every time I was near, her eyes found mine.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have sought her out so often, but from that first night, there was something that drew me toward Danielle. And her toward me. She felt it, for sure, the way she calmed when I smiled. How her frown gradually—
Tires squealed, followed by the rumble of crumpling metal, dragging my thoughts to the present.
Two shock waves hit me in quick succession.
Every person stopped and turned to a collision on the road. A black SUV had run a red light, careening onto the sidewalk and into the low stone wall at the park’s border, hitting a pedestrian in its path. Screams erupted from the crowd, but the weight of quiet inside the vehicle and in its wake pulled at me as the shock waves collapsed back on themselves.
Two deaths. Two shock waves. Two contracts to be doled out.
I held up a hand, searching within the ether for one of the contracts, but they were already assigned to others. Fewer and fewer came to me over the last year, leaving me bored and wandering the city—a subtle hint from my boss, Azrael, to take my vacation and straighten my head out.
People ran to the crash, yelling at each other to call 9-1-1. Asking if there were any doctors.
I remained on the sidewalk, observing. A man next to me merely glanced at the scene, scurrying along whatever path he thought more important than the end of two lives. What insignificant moment held greater sway over him?
Dark smoke gathered on the street, swirling upward, gradually revealing a figure clad all in black. He wore a tattered cloak which billowed in an unearthly wind, absorbing all the light, transforming sunshine into shadow. He towered over the surrounding people, moving through them with effortless grace. Each person he touched jolted, looking about frantically for the invisible source of the disturbance. The cold.
I knew that reaction too well. Even Danielle had burrowed deep in her little sweater the moment I approached her. I’d been visible, though, and she shouldn’t have felt it.
The cloak flared, instilling a discomfort around the figure, causing the crowd to separate while he worked. He lifted an arm toward the SUV. The tip of one bony finger extended from the sleeve, pointing to the driver. His other arm raised to the side, skeletal hand outstretched, and an immense scythe of gnarled wood and black metal coalesced out of the darkness which emanated from him.
Nothing happened. The creature took a step forward, stretching his hand toward the vehicle. A blast of cold erupted off him, agitating the crowd.
“Let go!” The thundering voice echoed off the buildings and vehicles, beyond mortal ears. He planted his feet and swung the scythe with both hands, slicing unseen through those who were not his target, slamming into the soul hiding inside the vehicle. He wrenched the weapon back, severing the soul’s link to its body, and hauled it through the windshield.
The driver flailed his arms, as though that trivial action could fend off inevitability. He landed on his knees, staring through the golden wisps of his limbs at the monstrous figure.
A parchment appeared above the giant’s hand, and he rasped out the words, “I am here to deliver you to the afterlife. Your judgment has not been a favorable one.”
At the figure’s feet, the pavement shimmered, gradually shifting into a red light which expanded and deepened until it arrived at the soul. Clawed, demonic hands reached from it, the screams of the damned shrieking for the next victim to join them. The stench of sulfur, ash, and decay invaded my nostrils.
No matter how many times I watched its sinister maw gape in front of those who’d earned it, it never ceased to impress.
The soul of the driver howled as the figure lifted him above the horror, taunting him, until it abandoned him into damnation. The light vanished, and the figure turned toward me, its face hidden in the shadows of its voluminous hood.
The next instant, it stood beside me.
“Hello, Reg.” I held out a fist to bump. “What happened there?”
The figure bumped with me. “Heart attack. Just came from his doctor’s office and a lecture on taking better care of himself.”
“Humans.” I shook my head, scanning the height of him. “Have you gotten taller? What are you now, ten feet?”
“Only nine. I added a few inches last month.”
Ambulance and police sirens compounded the chaos on the road, many drivers honking their horns to signal their irritation over the holdup. Two souls being reaped, and these temporal creatures were upset over a few minutes’ delay.
“I was six feet when I recruited you!” He held one bony hand to measure the old height, then waved it away. “The whole cloak and skeleton thing used to be enough, but it doesn’t scare them anymore. I blame the video games.”
Black smoke swirled on the sidewalk where the pedestrian lay, growing until two cloaked figures—no taller than those in the crowd—arrived. Their hoods were down, dark hair dancing about them, kind smiles on their serene faces. They held their arms wide, as though offering an embrace, an invitation toward the soul. A Grim Pair, bonded for eternity, their connection conferring a strength unequaled by any half dozen unbonded Reapers.
“They don’t even need scythes, Reg,” I sighed.
The colossal figure shrugged, clattering bones echoing underneath his cloak, which never stopped swirling about him. “Those two rarely deal with souls who resist. Even if they did, they’d just hug it out.”
I held the chuckle in as best I could but sensed Reg’s glower.
The radiant soul of the pedestrian rose from the sidewalk until it faced the Reapers. A parchment materialized in front of the Grim Pair, and a bright-white doorway formed, revealing a gleaming staircase.
Most souls I collected passed through the gateway to paradise, so I knew their words well. ‘We are here to deliver you to the afterlife. Your judgment has been a favorable one.’
They spoke for a few moments, the spirit glanced around as it came to accept its fate, and it nodded. But it didn’t move toward the door, which closed and vanished. This soul was not destined for the afterlife.
The Pair turned to Reg and me, stood to either side of the soul, and all three appeared next to us. The Pair spoke as one. “Sorry we missed your delivery, Reg.”
They’d chosen female bodies with black hair, light-brown skin and eyes. Practically twins, they were never apart and rarely let go of each other’s hand. They’d been the ones to escort Danielle’s mother and brother to the White Stairs that night.
“Not an exciting reaping today, I’m afraid. A few screams, some howling from the Pit. Same old, same old. Although he resisted, so that was fun. I’ll play it up next time.” He nodded to the soul standing between them, little more than shimmering light in a vaguely human shape. “New recruit?”
The Pair held up the pedestrian’s contract, which stated her Reaper status. “We’re taking her to see Azrael now.”
“Any idea who’ll be mentoring—” Reg cut off as time stretched.
The humans around us slowed, gradually coming to a halt. The vehicles, leaves in the trees, the birds flying overhead all stopped. Each of us groaned.
“Great,” muttered Reg.
“Stay quiet until he’s gone,” I whispered to the soul.
A streak of white and gold plummeted from the heavens. The ground trembled as an angel slammed into the sidewalk to my left, none of us having to guess who it would be. His sickly sweet scent and annoyingly glorious aura were all we needed. Raguel, Archangel of Justice, landed with knees bent, head down. As always, his glimmering golden wings extended at his sides, ready to strike. Before he straightened, I checked Reg, who’d already shortened to match my six-foot-two height.
The angel wore gold armor over an ivory robe, short strawberry-blond hair swept up and away from his face. His piercing blue eyes evaluated each of us, squared jaw flexing. “Why are you not working, collectors?”
Reg, the most senior among our group, was the first who dared speak. “No contracts pending.”
“Then you should be training.”
Those of us reaping for paradise or the undetermined did our best to connect with humans as we reaped them. A Reaper with an appreciation for their small lives—their hobbies, habits, culture—eased the transition to the next stage, helping ensure they didn’t resist. For the last several years, I’d spent my training hours at a hospice, laying the groundwork for what was to come.
I clasped my hands in front of me, pushing back the tide of emotion the angel evoked. “The Pair and Reg just finished—”
Raguel turned his glower on me. His judgmental glare, as though he were cataloging everything I’d ever done wrong. “Was I speaking to you, golden boy?”
Golden boy? That was new. “No, archangel.”
“You were lazing about with a human today.” His eyes narrowed, one wing closing in on me. “Does Azrael allow that?”
Of course, she did, and he knew that. Bloody archangel. And it was hardly lazing.
“As long as I’m not shirking my duties.” I shifted my gaze to the ground, as we all did, avoiding his Glory. His irritating-as-the-Pit Glory. This was so much easier when he sent one of his Furies to harass us. We could converse with his immortal employees, discuss our jobs, and get back to work. But, when he came himself, it was eyes on the ground.
“Duties?” The wing curled around me, tilting my chin so I faced him. “It seems to me one of your duties is to take your vacation, isn’t it? I can tell from your scent you’re shirking that particular responsibility. Perhaps we should tack on a few more weeks, to help remind you of why you do it?”
A shock wave ran through me—another death somewhere nearby. Each Reaper lifted a hand, searching for the death contract and a way out of this confrontation.
Please let it be assigned to me.
The Pair took advantage of the momentary distraction. “We need to get our soul to Azrael for induction.” They smiled at Raguel, resulting in a rumble inside the angel’s throat, and vanished into a swirl of blackness with New York City’s newest Reaper before anyone could speak.
The contract hadn’t been assigned to either Reg or to me, leaving us no escape from the archangel with an attitude problem.
“Pathetic.” Raguel’s lip curled as he forced me to look at him again.
The emotions swirling just below my surface beat at my brain, begging for release, the waters ready to crash over top of the dam and flood everything in their path. I worked hard, focusing on keeping the energy inside me down to Reaper levels—to unfeeling, uncaring levels.
“There is a balance to all things, little collector. You’re a strain on that balance. So, either do what you’re supposed to—take care of your duties—or your services will no longer be required. Stop playing with that human and take your vacation.” Raguel’s other wing pressed against my chest, where a heart once beat. “Azrael may grant you latitude, but I won’t be so kind if you continue to unbalance the Order of Nature.”
Before I could decide how or even whether to respond or not, he released me, giving one mighty flap of his wings, and ascended in a blur. Reg and I stared into the sky together as time began ticking forward. The people and vehicles moved, the noise closed around us, and the birds flew.
Visiting Danielle was not against the rules. I never ignored a contract in favor of time near her, nor had I ever revealed my true nature. Although freezing that king was pushing the limits.
The growl which had been building in my throat escaped. I hated that angel. That smug, all-important, rule-twisting angel.
No, wait. Reapers didn’t hate. Calm down, Ellis.
Reg nudged me. “He was talking about that woman, wasn’t he? You saw her again?”
I exhaled my revulsion at having his wings on me and let my mind wander back to her shoulder-length brown hair dancing in the breeze which followed me. The way she tucked it behind her ear after each move. How she stroked the scar on her palm, tugging at my essence. Did she remember how she got it? “We played a game of chess.”
Reg smacked a hand to his forehead, jostling his hood free so I could see him clearly. Today, he’d chosen dull bone, white pinpricks of light gleaming in his eye sockets. When he’d taken the driver, those eyes would have been crimson flames, the skull covered in filth and worms. He’d always been a master at terrifying the damned.
I scratched the light stubble on my cheek, trying to hide the smile creeping across my face. “And she was really good.”
“Bloody Pit, Ellis, you’re a mess!” Reg slammed the end of his scythe against the sidewalk, and the weapon vanished. Someone walked through us, pulling their arms closer for warmth. “You swore you wouldn’t interact with her after the last time I caught you helping her with some ridiculously mundane task! You’re liable to start making promises you can’t keep!”
“You should be proud. I received her contract early this morning, and I waited nine whole hours before I went to see her.” Her contract was a special one. Most were assigned at the time of death, but I’d placed a claim on her soul two years ago. So, when the Fates drew up her contract, they sent it to Azrael for final determination, but they delivered a copy to me as well. From that moment, Danielle had fifteen days at the most. Depending on the schedule of whichever Fate would clip her life thread, it could be less. Fortunately, they were usually on time. “We still have two weeks to fix things.”
“Don’t you dare say ‘we’ again!” Reg’s white pinprick eyes flared briefly, erupting into white flames. Perhaps he was going to need a vacation soon too. “She can’t change that much in two weeks.”
“You’re right, you’re right, but I have to try.” I plucked Danielle’s contract out of the ether and showed it to him. The words looped across the page one at a time, their golden ink flashing in the sunshine, until it reached the final, inescapable word: Damned. “I did this to her.”
Reg shook his head, meeting a finger and thumb where his nose would have been. “No, you didn’t. That’s your guilt talking.”
“Reapers don’t feel guilt, you know that.”
“Reapers who take their vacations when they’re supposed to don’t.” Reg nudged my shoulder. “By my estimation, you’re at least two years overdue. How you’re still standing is a mystery to me.”
“I’ve been too busy. This city’s a hectic assignment.”
“There are hundreds of Reapers in New York. You’d barely be missed.” He laid a hand on my shoulder, the touch of a friend. “Transfer the contract to me. Spend your vacation somewhere far away from here, and I’ll take care of her.”
“Not a chance.” I couldn’t abandon her to that fate when I was responsible for it.
Reg pointed a skeletal finger at me. “Don’t tell me you’re going to—”
I swatted at the finger, cutting him off. “Yes, I’m going to visit her a few more times and see what I can do. And before you say it… No, I don’t know what I’m getting myself into.”
“What is it about her?”
“Powers that be, we’ve been trying to figure that out since I met her!” I read the parchment again, as though I had any power over the decision. How could she be damned? It simply wasn’t right. “But the way I feel when she smiles at me—”
“Stop throwing the F-word around so casually.” He shuddered, bones rattling from head to toe. “You’re giving me the creeps.”
“I don’t understand it.” From the night we met in the car, when I felt the first stirrings of emotions that I shouldn’t have been capable of, I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about her. Why? Why was I compelled to seek her out? “But in fifteen more days, it won’t matter, anyway.”
I closed my hand and the parchment vanished. Danielle’s soul was damned, unless she turned her life around.
And I had precious little time left to ensure she did.
In the paranormal romance sphere, covers with beautiful characters abound. Just women, just men, couples, thruples, etcetera. But it’s the object-based covers that draw me in to a story, so that’s what my cover designer and I chose.
It’s currently available for preorder on Amazon and will be enrolled in Kindle Unlimited.
The thread: Throughout the series, mortals and immortals are tied to their soulmate with a golden thread (you’ll learn a lot more about that in the prequel!). Each cover in the series will include these threads.
The scythes: Pretty clearly, these represent the main character, Ellis Grimm, one of thousands of Grim Reapers doing their work unseen by mortal eyes.
The shield – Greek key design around the edge: There’s a large influence from Greek mythology in the series — it’s not just Reapers, but includes characters like Furies and Fates. The Greek myth of Zeus splitting the original humans (who had 2 heads, 4 arms, and 4 legs) into halves is significant.
The shield – feathers: The Reapers work for Azrael, Archangel of Death. In this book, Raguel, Archangel of Justice plays an important role, one that becomes more prominent in future books.
Is it all paranormal/supernatural?
No. In this series, one of the two main characters has no idea supernatural characters walk among us (until something happens!). The relationships build in very contemporary ways (other than the soulmates part of the equation!).
When’s it coming out?
Can I read the first chapter?
Sure! But I warn you… the version below is pre-copyeditor, so you’ll have to forgive me any typos!
Chapter 1 – Danielle
An unnaturally frigid breeze swirled around me, far colder than normal for Central Park in mid-June. I pulled my thin cardigan tighter and focused on my book. Weeks ago, the pergola above me was covered in brilliant purple wisteria blossoms, but the flowers had died. As all things did. Now all the vine-laden structure did was shade me from the sun.
“Are you playing or just borrowing the table?” The man’s voice was deep, soothing, tugging at something in the back of my brain. But its owner had ignored my book—my obvious message to the outside world saying, Leave me alone. Find an empty seat.
Keeping my eyes on the text, I said, “I’m waiting for my partner.”
“Mind if I sit until they arrive?”
I tucked a finger in the book and closed it, looking up with a practiced glare. Late twenties or early thirties, like me, but with dark eyes more suited to one of the older men who frequented the Chess House. As though he’d already faced a lifetime of love and loss. He leaned on the park bench opposite me and smiled, radiating a kindness that pulled at my heart even more than his voice.
His faded jeans were slim, showing off muscular legs, and his light gray T-shirt stretched across his broad chest. Dark ivy league-cut hair, artfully messed, paired with an immaculate five o’clock shadow. No way he was here for chess.
I’d set up my board the same way I did every Saturday. Three and a half turns into the last game Dad and I had played. Right down to the way he’d left his c6-knight facing b6. The stranger stretched for the board, his graceful fingers barely touching the black knight, swiveling it to face white.
“Stop!” My hand shot out, sending the book tumbling to the ground.
His brow creased, and he returned the piece to its original orientation, his hand retreating faster than I’d reacted. “You’re very particular about your board.”
I slumped against the wooden slats of the bench, breath rough, stroking the scar on the inside of my right palm. That was my father’s knight. Take it easy, Dani. No need to freak out. But the intruder said nothing more about my ridiculous outburst. Instead, he knelt and picked up my book.
“The Count of Monte Cristo?” He smiled, and my lungs calmed, as though he fed serenity directly into them. Thumbing through the book, he stopped two-thirds through and read. “‘There are two ways of seeing: with the body and with the soul. The body’s sight can sometimes forget, but the soul remembers forever.’ That’s one of my favorite lines.”
He placed the book on the side of the table, his long fingers lingering on it. I stared at his elegant hands—odd on such an athletic body—as my breathing slowed. If only the soul could forget. If only the soul could let go of the moment two years ago that the body couldn’t remember. The moment that lived only in my nightmares.
“I set the pieces up…” I tore my gaze away from the book, back to his smile, and the comfort it gave. “Then I read a little. When the mood strikes, I analyze the board.”
He slid onto the bench. A move others had received a verbal beating for. Why wasn’t I chasing him away? He folded his arms and rested them on the stone table, a subtle scent of cinnamon wafting off him. “You were here by yourself the last two Saturdays, as well.”
The hair at the nape of my neck rose and my pulse quickened. Was that a warning or excitement? There was something familiar about him, like we’d met before. But where? When? “That’s creepy.”
A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. “Just came off my shift at the hospital. Same shift the last two weeks. I peruse the open games on my way through the park and consider joining, but I’m usually too tired. Can’t help but notice the rather intense brunette intentionally not playing, hogging a table.”
“Lots of people come here and wait for an opponent.”
“True.” He raised an eyebrow, drawing my gaze to his dark eyes. Strangest thing. They were shot with flecks of gray, like stars glittering in an inky sky. “But you don’t set up a game-in-progress and wait for a stranger to join you. Maybe an e4, but not Evans Gambit.”
My heart gave a traitorous flutter. Not only did he know chess, but he knew the opening. “What do you do at the hospital?”
“Trauma unit.” He leaned his chin on his hand. “Name’s Ellis, by the way.”
“Danielle.” I didn’t offer a hand to shake, but neither did he. Worked at the hospital, seemed nice enough, outrageously handsome. And all sorts of not-what-I-needed. “Alright, Ellis. Either you’re an aggressive player and you’d take the offered pawn, or you’re defensive and you’d move your bishop out of harm’s way. You interrupting my book tells me it’s probably the former.”
“That’s confidence.” He winked at me. “Not aggression.”
Arrogance could have been a better word. “Some might say the two go hand-in-hand.”
“Some might.” He studied the board. “However, there’s no denying this opening is one of the most aggressive white has. So, while my personality’s up for debate, yours isn’t.”
My intentional frown broke for a fraction of a second until I forced it back into place. His charm didn’t belong at my table.
“My guess is you want your opponent to take the pawn as a distraction while you claim the middle of the board and lay waste to them.”
“Or I’m ready for anything, whether they accept or decline the gambit.”
“Not surprised.” Leaving his head on his hand, he extended his free arm, fingers hovering over the black bishop. The corner of his lips twitched. “May I touch your pieces now?”
I swallowed hard, an almost-forgotten heat flushing through my cheeks. Who was this guy? Why did he choose my table? And was that a pickup line?
He smirked but didn’t touch without permission. “I bet you’re a formidable opponent.”
A challenge. I hadn’t had a real one in two years. My frown faltered again, and I inclined my head toward the board. “The turn is yours.”
His face lit up, and he moved his bishop to d4, declining my pawn, claiming the center. “Let’s see what you do with that.”
“Empty threat.” I moved my pawn to c3, prepared to take his bishop without giving up my knight.
“My threats are never empty.” He moved the bishop back to where he should have on his first turn, and we fell into a rhythm. Attack, counterattack, and defense. He was a smart player, making few mistakes, taking minor risks. But he was too cautious, and I dominated the game.
The longer we played, the more pronounced his peculiar accent became. There was a hint of British or Irish, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
“Funny story.” I smiled, unable to maintain the frown any longer. “The man who taught me had a thick accent, and I grew up thinking it was called Heaven’s Gambit.”
He chuckled as I took his queen, and he repaid the favor by claiming the rook I’d sacrificed. “Do you believe in Heaven?”
My stomach lurched, and I knocked over one of his pawns by my queen.
He didn’t flinch, but righted the pawn before I could. “Too personal?”
Yes! Especially from the gorgeous trauma guy who was good at chess and possibly flirting with me. The answer was a gaping wound in my chest, and all I could do was close my fingers over the scar on my palm while my throat went dry. But when I looked up, our eyes locked, and the calm came over me again. As though all was right with the world.
How did he do that?
I shook my head. “I don’t know. Do you? With your job, you must confront that question every day?”
A cool breeze blew past us, and I shivered. I should have sat in the sunshine.
“I’m not sure what comes next, but I believe our words create our reality. And if that’s true, it means each soul has the opportunity to determine whether their afterlife is a good one or not.” He kept his eyes on mine, brows drawing together as he leaned forward slightly. “Every day you wake up—still on this side of mortality—is another day you can earn paradise. I’ve seen hundreds of people this week alone who’d give anything to be in your position right now.”
But they didn’t know the life I lived. The emptiness. The loneliness. How my soul cried out every day, demanding I find the people responsible. Stop thinking about it.
I made my final move. “Checkmate. We’re done.”
He stared at the board and nodded, not speaking for a moment.
Not leaving, either.
My throat was thick, but I swallowed it down. I’d built the barrier around me so high, so strong, but it was like he pulled one brick out and the whole thing tumbled down on top of me. “That means you can leave.”
His eyes remained downcast as he spoke quietly. “What drew me to your table is the sadness which emanates from you.”
A cloud passed over the sun, and the light dimmed, but I couldn’t rip my gaze off him—off the way the shadow seemed darker around him than anything else. My fingers remained on the scar, the smooth skin a reminder of better times. Worse times. God, just different times.
He leaned forward, looking up at me. “I see it day-in and day-out and thought it might help to remind you of the good things you have in life. Because I can tell you’ve forgotten.”
My breath caught, pain stabbing at the backs of my eyes. Good things? What did he know about good things in my life? I couldn’t manage anything louder than a whisper. “You don’t know me. You don’t know what I do and don’t have.”
“I know more than you think I do.” He picked up his king and folded it in his fist, clenching tight. “And I’m here with a warning, Danielle Cristina Edmonds.”
I launched from the bench, eyes wide, heart thundering. “How do you—”
A darkness came over his features as he stood, sending goosebumps up my arms and legs. “Give up your hunt, or you’ll never escape the hell you’ve built for yourself.”
“Give that piece back.” I held out my hand, unable to stop it from shaking. Was he in on it? Did that mean I was getting close? “And if you ever come near me again, I’m calling the cops.”
He dropped the king into my palm. It was so cold I yelped, yanking my hand away. Covered in a thick layer of frost, the piece tumbled to the ground, shattering on the stones at my feet.
There are big things going on at Casa Oppedisano these days! With both Disarming Caine and The Phoenix Heist going live next month, I’ve been super-busy! I’m also working on the 4th (as yet untitled) book in the Caine & Ferraro series and have outlined the 5th book.
All this brings me to… covers!
When I released Burning Caine, I had 5 covers designed, which I was mostly happy with, at least in concept. But once they were out in the wild, something wasn’t sitting right with me.
Burning Caine covers
The original Caine & Ferraro series covers were created in July 2021. They were all concepts, which would be refined closer to when they’d be posted up for pre-order. The Burning Caine cover went through six revisions in that timeframe… and I’ve got the proof copies to prove it! They were mostly minor tweaks, but a few were big leaps.
Version 1: It all started with something I slapped together super-fast for a “Vivian award finalists” Instagram giveaway. That was the first time I’d touched Photoshop in at least 15 years (or more)!
Version 2: After winning the award for “Most Anticipated Romance” and making the decision to self-publish, I figured it was time to create something real. Thus the “couple on top and location on bottom” cover was born! It was modelled after a few series that were favourites of mine at the time. That’s what went up for pre-order. It was so exciting!!
But I was never quite happy with it. There was too much empty space between the couple. The city (Lansing, Michigan — the story takes place in a bedroom community) was too busy, and I didn’t like the font. Plus, at a really small size, the man’s arm that extends into her hair just looked like a black mass, so it was nothing more than two floating heads.
Version 3: So, I modified the couple (merged two photos together), bought a more distinct font, and re-positioned the title. This was the version that was available at go-live!
But I was still not quite happy. While the treatment on the font was neat (it’s canvas), it felt off. Unclear. I didn’t like the city behind the title. And the couple was too orange. As I progressed into the future books, all of which would have the same layout with colour variations, I didn’t like how they were coming out.
Plus, “couple + city” wasn’t as common as “a guy” on the cover for romantic suspense. Similarly, “all block text” is giving way to “simple font plus script font” in cover trends.
Which brings me to…
Version 4: Just a guy, with a simple font and script on the title.
Caine & Ferraro series
More importantly, Disarming Caine is coming out next month. That means I was putting the finishing touches on the cover based on the “Version 3” concept (which was only ever a black cover on Amazon).
And I was… can you spot the trend? Not happy with it.
I was nervous about re-covering the series when people had already bought the existing books, but the way I looked at it, better to do that before I’ve got 3 books, let alone 4 or 5, right?
On the upside, I sell a lot more digital copies, and those will just update. Plus anyone with a paperback now has a collector’s edition!!
And why not go all in and making a title change? The other change that crept in as I was working on the books was that I decided to alphabetize the titles.
And at least 2 more titles coming
I’d written a prequel short story called Meeting Caine in 2021, which provided some backstory on Sam and Antonio’s real first meeting. The word ‘Meeting’ made sense at the time, but then I was starting with an M and moving into alphabetics!
So, Meeting Caine changed to Admiring Caine, also with the brand new cover.
And here they all are!!
As of writing this, the changes are still making their way through Amazon, but if you have a digital copy of the book, you’ll either already see the update or will soon.
The Phoenix Heist
The Phoenix Heist is a novella prequel to a new series I’ll have coming out next year, called Reynolds Recoveries. The series centers around a company that recovers lost things, but the books focus on their ‘big ticket’ jobs which are heists to steal back stolen belongings.
This first book will be free to all my newsletter subscribers, but it will also be available in paperback (a very skinny paperback at about 115 pages!!) on Amazon.
The official description will be coming soon, but the quick and dirty description is: A second-chance romance between Zac Fraser, the Reynolds’ getaway driver and Ashley Bradford, an FBI Special Agent. She’s on a case to track down the buyers at an upcoming black market auction and his team’s in town to steal one of the items before the auction can take place.
Every book in the series will have a different member of the Reynolds team finding love, with action, adventure, suspense, and a guaranteed HEA in every book.
In the end…
You may also note the similarity between the Reynolds cover and the new Caine covers. They’re not identical, but they look more like they belong together on my author page.
This is super intentional!! And was another important goal with the Caine series re-covers.
And for now, I’m happy.
All the books, all the covers, and so many exciting things to come!!