Murder Most Lovely

Lacetown Murder Mysteries: Case One

Book Cover: Murder Most Lovely
Part of the Lacetown Murder Mysteries series:
  • Murder Most Lovely

A killer at a small-town literary festival. Bumbling drug dealers. A kidnapped cat. Starting a romance among all this chaos might be the death of them.

Michael Fleishman is excited to meet his favorite mystery writer, Russell Withingham, at Lacetown’s Literary Fest. He is not expecting to cross paths with sexy hairdresser Jasper “Jazz” Dilworth—or become embroiled in a real-life mystery. As Lacetown’s only mortician and the county coroner, Michael is called to his first murder scene and is shocked to recognize the victim—Russell’s young lover.

Jazz only wanted to confront his ex, Russell, over his cheating. Instead, he meets the adorably awkward Michael and becomes a murder suspect. Soon Jazz is teaming up with Michael to clear his name. Along the way, they are helped and hindered by Michael’s sassy assistant, Kitty, the grumpy Sheriff Musgrave, Russell’s creepy PR rep, Norbert, and Michael’s lothario grandfather, who likes his manhattans strong and his women saucy. And of course, Mr. Pickles Furryton the Third….

Excerpt:

Michael adjusted his bag on his shoulder and tried to keep his umbrella from poking the lady’s in front of him. Fleishman Funeral Home only had gigantic golf umbrellas for services, and he was glad for it when the rain picked up and a gust blew mist onto his glasses. He shoved them into his front shirt pocket, knowing there would be no use keeping them clean until he was inside.

“Shit, I thought this rain was supposed to let up this afternoon,” a deep masculine voice from behind him said.

Michael turned and drew up short.

“Whoa there, pal. You could take an eye out with that thing.”

For a heartbeat Michael froze and stared. The man had a long face and wheat-colored hair swept back from a low brow and into a ponytail. Eyes the color of cognac had just enough sparkle to make Michael smile and conjure thoughts of mischief and long summer romances.

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And you’re staring at him like a ninny!

Michael hastily stepped back to avoid poking the gorgeous man in the eye with his umbrella. “Oh, I’m sorry.”

“Hey, watch it,” the lady in front of him snapped. “You’re soaking me!”

Michael jumped when he realized his big umbrella had slipped beneath hers and was funneling water right onto her.

“Oh, I’m terribly sorry,” he said at once, stepping back the other way.

“Whoa, whoa,” Ponytail Guy said again, reaching up to take hold of the eye-level pin on Michael’s umbrella. “How about I just join you?” And then he stepped under the huge umbrella with Michael.

“Oh, yeah, sure,” Michael managed, squirming a little. “There’s plenty of room.”

The man used both hands to brush a few wayward strands of blond hair off his face, his tanned skin glistening from the rain. He wore a ring on a long well-manicured index finger. Smiling, he held out a hand. “I’m Jazz Dilworth.”

What a strange name. Sounds like something in a mystery novel.

He quickly shook the proffered hand. “Michael Fleishman.”

Jazz flipped a thumb behind him. “I work across the street at Misty’s Makeover Palace.” He furrowed tidy brows. “Fleishman, like the funeral parlor?”

“Yes, the same.”

“Eew,” the lady in front of him said with a distinct Valley girl attitude.

Michael maintained his polite mortician smile. Sadly, he was used to the reaction. Hence his lackluster love life.

Expecting Jazz to make some equally grossed-out remark and leave the shelter of the umbrella, Michael looked back at him.

But Jazz was smiling, his white teeth radiant and even. “That explains the planet-sized umbrella. Only ever see those at funerals and on golf courses.”

Michael’s facial muscles softened, and the smile he gave Jazz was more genuine, relaxed. “Yes, they come in handy.”

Jazz grinned. “I bet they do.”

This man was gorgeous. He had to be younger than Michael. But more importantly, he had the potential for being gay since he was a hairdresser. Well aware of his stereotyping, Michael was nonetheless hopeful. He wasn’t the best flirt, but sharing an umbrella with an attractive man in front of a bar acting as a makeshift bookstore felt like the opening of a romcom, so he was ready to give it the ol’ college try.

“Are you a fan of the Brock Hammer novels too?” he asked, glad his glasses were in his pocket. Jazz stood so close, Michael didn’t even need them to clearly see his handsome face.

Jazz scoffed. “Used to be.”

“Oh.” Michael’s heart fell. So much for common interests. “Did you know this line is to meet the author?”

“I know, all right. The fucker’s been ducking my calls for weeks.”

Michael flinched at the man’s crass remark. “You know Russell Withingham?”

“Married to him,” Jazz said. “Separated.”

So he is gay…. Michael shook his head. “Wait, what?”

Those warm brown eyes met his, and Jazz smiled. “Separated,” he said again. “Permanently. He’s supposed to still be making my car payment, and I just got a call from the bank. He hasn’t made the last two payments.”

Michael didn’t know if he was more disappointed to find out his favorite author was a jerk, or excited to know the man under his umbrella was gay and single.

Well, possibly single.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Michael offered.

Jazz shrugged. “Nothing for you to be sorry for,” he quipped. “In fact, I should be thanking you for sharing your umbrella with me. Nothing worse than running into an ex with your hair all soaking wet, looking like a hot mess. I wanna be a vision when I tell him off. You know, make him regret losing me.”

Michael couldn’t help his involuntary head-to-toe sweep of Jazz’s body. He was a vision. Jazz carried some extra weight on him, but Michael liked men of a husky build. They seemed more solid and down-to-earth. Any man who would give up all the hunkiness Jazz had to offer had to be nuts.

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Repossession is 9/10ths of the Law

Repossession cover art

Alan Baxter barely scrapes by working as a deejay in suburban Detroit. To make ends meet, he takes a job as an automobile repossession agent, and discovers his very first assignment is a car owned by his drug dealer ex-boyfriend. On top of that, a body is discovered in the trunk…by a cop.

Soon Alan’s life is completely upturned as he is pulled into a mystery involving more bodies, a highly lethal new street drug, a mysterious man with a top hat and cane, raging dwarves, a house fire, a cranky police detective, and his even crankier cat!

Excerpt:

Now, I follow my dad up and down aisles until he has moved all his coupons for this store from one mysterious section of his binder to another. We get in line behind a group of old men wearing three-piece suits, and my father strikes up a conversation with them, introducing me. I shake hands with each of the men, careful not to squeeze too hard and grind their arthritic joints together.

“What a good son you are,” one of them says. “What does your wife think of you taking your father shopping?”

“Oh, he’s not married,” my father jumps in, and I feel my cheeks start to burn.

“Dad …” I say in a low, warning tone.

“Alan isn’t allowed to marry whom he wishes to, because he’s gay.”

The men in their suits blink at him for a moment then blink at me before they turn their backs on us and murmur to each other in thick, wet whispers.

I sigh and glare at him. “Why do you insist on doing that?”

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“What? I should be ashamed of you and hide it? Love is love.”

“Not that, the fact that you have to blurt it out every time you introduce me,” I reply. “It’s embarrassing.”

He points a finger at me, his expression suddenly so serious I pull back my head as if about to be struck. “Don’t ever be embarrassed about who you are. You are a great man, and I want everyone to know that.”

“Bully for you,” the woman in the next lane snarls. “Nobody cares.”

My father waves her off and smiles at me. It is an unnerving smile, a shark’s smile. “You should never be ashamed to be who you want to be. The hell with the rest of them.”

“Yeah, that’s nice and all, but you don’t have to shove it in people’s faces, Dad,” I say as we shuffle forward in line. The men in front of us fumble their goods onto the conveyor belt, and my father watches their antics with a smile.

“Ah, the more they hear about it and see it, the more accepted it becomes,” he replies.

“I don’t want to see none of that gay sex,” one of the suited men says. “It’s not natural. Marriage is one man and one woman.”

“Oh God,” I moan and rest my forehead on the cart handle, wishing I could fade away.

“Tell that to the Mormons,” my father snaps. He continues to pontificate to the men who pontificate back, and soon seniors from other checkout lanes join in the debate until the manager comes up and asks my father to please keep quiet. I shrug at the manager, someone we now know by first name as this has happened several times before, and he shakes his head as he walks off, leaving the chastised senior shoppers grumbling quietly behind him.

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Wicked Reflection

Wicked Reflection

When Kirk Stanford moves into his new home, strange things begin to happen. Messages appear in the steam on his mirror, warning him of a nameless threat. Then someone keeps breaking into his house, looking for something Kirk can't identify.

With the help of his boyfriend, Damon, Kirk digs into the house's history, and discovers not just the previous owner's brutal murder, but threatening letters written to him from someone named Sam. As the intruder strikes again, Kirk and Damon find themselves fighting not only to solve the mystery, but to keep from being murdered themselves.

Excerpt:

Kirk stepped to the bathroom sink and turned on the hot water. As he dangled his fingers in the spray waiting for it to warm up, he studied his reflection in the mirror, disheartened to see the toll of moving into his new house. Dark circles had gathered beneath his eyes. His dark blond hair was a spiky mess, and dust and dirt smears marred his pale skin. Even the blue of his eyes looked faded and tired.

The water heated up quickly, thank God, but it was rusty. He left the tap running and peered at the tub. Dirt and dust darkened the white surface, but it didn’t seem too bad. He could rinse it all down the drain and take a quick shower before Damon arrived. When he looked back at the mirror, however, his heart fluttered like a startled bird. Steam from the hot water had fogged it, revealing something written there.

HE LIES.

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Kirk shut off the water, and checked around the empty bathroom. He stepped into the bedroom but found no one there either. He was alone. Kirk could not recall if he had locked the front door, so maybe Damon had arrived earlier than planned and let himself in, snuck upstairs, and written that in the steam when Kirk’s back had been turned.

Or someone else had.

“Damon?” he called.

The house was silent around and beneath him.

“Not funny, whoever you are!” Kirk shouted as a line of gooseflesh rippled up his back. He cleared his throat and called in a quieter voice, “Seriously, Damon, come on. Are you in here?”

He stepped back into the bathroom and looked at the words. Maybe they had been written on the mirror before Kirk had moved in, and the steam was simply showing the message again?

The doorbell rang, the old, heavy bell chiming loudly through each of the floors, making him jump.

Kirk’s heart pounded as he looked into the bedroom, then back at the mirror. The steam cleared, taking the words with it, and a small knot of unease tightened inside his chest. He cursed the mirror for giving him the creeps on his first night in the house.

The doorbell chimed again, raising the hair on the back of his neck.

Kirk descended both flights of stairs, then stood in the entryway staring at the front door. He hesitated, opening and closing his fists a few times. He knew he was being ridiculous, but he was afraid to see who stood on the porch. What if it was the man referred to by the mirror message: HE LIES?
His visitor banged on the door with a fist, the sound making him jump yet again, and he grabbed the large brass knob, worn smooth and dark with years of being handled.

A breath in and out, then Kirk opened the door.

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Buried Secrets

Buried Secrets

Bryson Franklin made bad choices in his past. When he inherits his grandparents’ farm outside the small town of Willow River, however, he sees it as a chance for a fresh start. But patterns from his past resurface when Bryson takes up with Daniel Riggs, his bad boy neighbor, and he soon finds himself helping Daniel cover up a murder.

After Bryson breaks things off with Daniel, the kindness and attention of handsome sheriff’s deputy Sam LeClaire gives him hope, but when Daniel shows up on Bryson’s doorstep a year later, will Bryson be able to resist temptation?

Excerpt:

Bryson set his coffee cup in the stainless steel sink on his way to the front of the house, proud that his stride didn’t falter when he saw the sheriff and Sam waiting on the other side of the screen door.

“Sheriff Billings,” Bryson said, keeping his tone as level as possible as he opened the door. “This is a surprise.” He nodded to Deputy Sam LeClaire who stood just behind the sheriff, and then he flashed what he hoped was a calm, innocent smile at the both of them. Bryson thought he saw something in Sam’s expression, but the sheriff started talking and Bryson was forced to look away from him.

“Hopefully not a bad surprise,” Billings said. “How are things out here?”

Bryson shrugged. “Fine. I’ve been doing some fix up chores around the place, and I planted a vegetable garden out back. It’s kind of small, but I’m hoping to get at least one of the fields planted next year. Try and get some of the old Franklin magic back.”

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“Just you here?” Billings asked.

Bryson nodded as the first twist of fear tightened within his gut. “Yep. Just me.” He pushed the door open wide. “Care to come in and see for yourself?”

“If it’s not an imposition,” Billings said. “Deputy LeClaire and I would surely love a cup of joe.”

“Oh, yeah, I could put on a fresh pot,” Bryson said as the men stepped past him into the house.

“No coffee for me, thanks,” Sam said with a smile that seemed genuine and maybe something more. Nervous? Bashful? Bryson tried to follow the train of thought, tried to find a moment to study the curve of his jaw, the pointed chin, the prominent Adam’s apple that begged to be kissed. But the sheriff kept talking, forcing Bryson to turn his attention to Billings as he walked along the hallway toward the kitchen.

“Well, if the deputy isn’t partaking, I can wait until we get back to town for a fresh cup, I guess,” Billings said. By then he had reached the kitchen and stood looking around the room as if inspecting the place.

“You sure?” Bryson asked. “It’s no trouble. I’ll probably end up making a fresh pot in a few hours anyway, just save me the trouble later.”

“Well, since you’re offering.” Billings smiled, showing small teeth that made Bryson think of those dolls from years ago that came with teeth, and he had to fight to suppress a shudder. Bryson got busy making the coffee and said over his shoulder, “So besides the coffee, what brings you out my way?”

“Sure it’s just you here in the house?” Billings asked.

Bryson frowned and faced the men. “What’s this about, sheriff?”

“Just us here?” Billings repeated.

“Yes, of course,” Bryson replied, the fear twisting inside him like hot barbed wire. “Who else were you expecting?”

“Not sure, to be honest,” Billings said and pulled out a chair at the table, then looked up at Bryson. “May I?”

“Please, of course.” Bryson started the coffee maker and faced the men. The sheriff was seated at the table, his hands folded before him and his small eyes locked on Bryson. Sam stood a few feet behind the sheriff, hat in hand, a sheepish, apologetic, expression on his handsome face that seemed, interestingly enough, still alert and watchful.

“You’re a fit young man, out here all alone,” Billings continued. “Shame to see you waste your youth in such isolation.”

“I’m not isolated. I’ve got Internet access here, and I get into town now and then for dinner or lunch and shopping. Meet some friends for drinks on occasion.”

“Friends?” Billings turned to look at Sam. “You hear of Bryson meeting anyone in town?”

“What?” Sam looked at Billings with wide eyes, as if the sheriff’s question had startled him out of some deep thoughts. “Oh, I don’t know. I’m not sure.”

Billings stared at Sam a moment in silence, then turned back to Bryson. “Well, I haven’t heard of you meeting anyone in town. Who might that be? These friends of yours?”

Bryson looked between the men, then focused his attention on the sheriff. “Am I in trouble for something?”

“I don’t know, Mr. Franklin, are you?” Billings asked.

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Holed Up

Up to Trouble Book One

Holed Up Cover
Part of the Up to Trouble series:

FBI Special Agent Aaron Pearce, tall, muscular, a lone wolf with an attitude, is assigned to protect Mark Beecher, a witness to the plans for a terrorist attack. The discovery of an unknown informant within the FBI's ranks, however, forces the two men to hole up in a loft apartment with only one another for company.

After long conversations and their shared attempt to unravel the puzzle of the terrorist group's next target, Pearce and Mark find they cannot deny their mutual attraction. Pearce gives in to his passion, sleeping with the man he's sworn to protect and going against his training as he risks heartbreak once again.

When the informant reveals himself to Pearce and takes him hostage, Mark finds he cannot run and leave Pearce to die. Instead, their roles have been reversed and now he is the only person who can save Special Agent Pearce.

Excerpt:

Pearce leaned in close, and for a thrillingly horrifying second Mark thought the man intended to kiss him. But instead, the agent said loud enough for only Mark to hear over the braying fire alarm: “It’s okay, I’ll get you out of here. Just stay close to me, okay?”

Mark nodded, and Pearce looked away, scanning the room and the other agents. Finally, he heard Pearce ask Agent Bata, “Is there a freight elevator in this building?”

Bata nodded and motioned for Pearce to follow. Pearce turned and leaned in close again, closer than before, and whispered into Mark’s ear, “Follow me. We’re going to the freight elevator. If anything happens, stay with me, no one else. Got it?”

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Mark shivered at the wet heat of Pearce’s breath and cursed the swiftness of his erection despite the situation. He nodded and, adjusting his messenger bag to hide his condition, followed Pearce as Bata led them down the hallway, both agents with guns drawn. A few steps down the hall, Pearce turned and motioned over Mark’s shoulder for the other two agents, the ones who had been guarding the door, to stay behind.

Mark followed Pearce and Bata through the crowd of agents and directors dutifully making their way to the exits. The fire alarm buzzed, and at certain spots along the wall, strobe lights flashed. They exited the office through a secured employee entrance and found themselves in the main elevator lobby. There were two stairwells in the building, and the evacuating crowds flooded both. Lines of vaguely anxious people had formed at each stairwell as they waited for those on the lower floors to clear out. Pearce reached back and grabbed Mark by the arm, pulling him along behind as he shouldered his way through the slowing crowd. Mark followed and tried not to think about the man’s strong grip and how it might feel on his cock.

Around the corner from one of the stairwells, Agent Bata stopped at a large gray elevator door. “Here, this is the freight elevator.” He pressed the call button and turned to find Pearce’s gun in his face. “What? What are you doing?”

“Hey!” Mark exclaimed and tried to step forward, but Pearce held him back.

“Quiet,” Pearce said without looking at him. “Bata, holster your weapon and step back from the elevator.”

“He’s been helping me since I came to the FBI,” Mark protested, and Pearce grabbed him by the front of his T-shirt and pulled him around to press him up against the wall beside the doors to the freight elevator, never taking his eyes off Bata.

Bata raised his hand holding the gun and slowly placed the weapon in his shoulder holster. “It’s okay, Mark. I understand what Special Agent Pearce is doing.”

“It’s nothing personal, Bata,” Pearce said.

The elevator sounded its arrival and Mark jumped. Pearce pushed him into the elevator car and backed in after him, his gun still leveled at Bata. “I just don’t know who I can trust around here.”

Mark looked out at Agent Bata with wide, frightened eyes as Pearce pressed the button for the third floor. As the elevator doors closed, Pearce locked his gaze on Bata’s and said, “I’ll be in touch.”

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Shacked Up

Up to Trouble Book Two

Shacked Up Cover
Part of the Up to Trouble series:

FBI Special Agent Aaron Pearce is recovering from his injuries suffered while on assignment in Detroit, stuck in the offices of the FBI running database searches for agents in the field. He is bored and edgy, and takes it out on those closest to him, including Mark Beecher, who lives with him.

While Mark cannot deny the heat between them, he struggles to find his place in Washington, DC, and in Pearce's apartment. He notices a car following him back and forth to work and panics, certain it's the terrorist mole Robert Morgan who escaped them in Detroit.

As Mark and Pearce try to identify the driver, Pearce is drawn into an investigation concerning the disappearance of data discs from government employees. During research, he discovers the catering company where Mark works may be at the root of the thefts, and, when the company is booked to cater a prestigious party, Pearce realizes it is the perfect setup for an undercover operation. He doesn't think twice about disobeying orders to stay out of the field, and risks not only his career, but his life as well, to join Mark in an undercover operation that will change their lives forever.

Excerpt:

Mark woke up to the smell of bacon and eggs. He sighed and rolled over in bed, pressing his hard-on into the mattress and his face into Pearce’s pillow. The sheets on Pearce’s side of the bed were still a little warm against his bare skin, and he breathed in the man’s scent from the pillowcase. It was the same scent he had first noticed back in January, when Pearce had pushed him into a freight elevator in the FBI’s Detroit office. At that moment, Mark had simultaneously hated and wanted Pearce, and now, just a few months later, here he was, living with the man.

Life was strange.

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Mark rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling. Pearce’s ceiling. Pearce’s bed. Pearce’s apartment. Mark’s belongings still sat in boxes stacked in the spare room. Some weekend soon, when Mark wasn’t working a party, he planned to sort through his things. Maybe grab some CDs for his car. If he was lucky, maybe Pearce would invite him to unpack some stuff, add a few items to the apartment. Hell, Pearce might even suggest Mark add his CDs to the collection in the living room. Not mix them together—nothing that crazy—but maybe get a shelf or two of his own.

He had found it was tricky to know where he could place things in the apartment. Pearce was a territorial animal; Mark had seen that when he had added his toiletries to the bathroom. Pearce had come along after him and rearranged things in the medicine cabinet and on the countertop. The man seemed to have his apartment ordered just as he liked, and Mark couldn’t help feeling like an intruder. If only Pearce would help him figure out where he could put some things, maybe clear off more than one or two shelves for him. But each time Mark asked, Pearce would make noncommittal sounds of agreement and never follow through.

Pearce had been nodding off on the sofa when Mark had gotten home last night just after eleven. The drive home had been uneventful; Mark hadn’t noticed anyone following him, and he was exhausted from working the dinner party with Audra and Brenda. Darlene had had to go home and take care of her daughter.

Mark had touched Pearce’s shoulder to wake him, and the man got to his feet, eyes still glassy with sleep. They hugged, shared a quick kiss, and went to bed together. No mention of the red Escort or the daily frustrations at the job. Just two exhausted people living together and trying to make it work.

Now Mark’s cock pulsed, and before he could reach down to take hold of himself, the bedroom door eased open. Mark raised his head and squinted in that direction, smiling at the blurry vision of Pearce peering in at him around the door.

“Morning, sleepyhead,” Pearce said and stepped into the room. “Well, I see not all of you is a sleepyhead.”

Mark chuckled and stretched, arching his back and pushing his hard-on up against the thin sheet. He could feel the damp spot of precum soaking into the material. After the stretch, he turned his head to smile up at Pearce, who had moved around to stand over him on his side of the bed. Pearce wore a pair of thin cotton sleep pants, the front now tented out with his interest. Mark looked up along Pearce’s bare torso and ran his hand through the dark, trimmed hair that covered Pearce’s flat belly. “Hi, there.”

“Need some help with that?” Pearce asked, his gaze locked on the bulge of Mark’s erection beneath the sheet.

“You know, I could use some help with this.” Mark pulled the sheet away. “It’s so big and awkward, it’s too much for me to handle all on my own.”

Pearce knelt beside the bed and, grinning, leaned in to give Mark a soft kiss on the lips. After backing off a few inches, Pearce smiled at him, then moved down to suck Mark’s nipple, making Mark pull in a quick breath through his teeth. Pearce swirled his tongue around the hardened nub, then drifted lower and parted the dark blond hair on Mark’s chest and belly with his tongue. The whiskers along Pearce’s jaw brushed against Mark’s cock, and he groaned at the sensation. A moment later, the hot width of Pearce’s tongue painted the shaft with saliva from the tip to the root and back again.

When the sudden, wet heat of Pearce’s mouth closed around his cock, Mark gasped and raised his arms over his head to clutch the rails of the headboard.

“Oh God,” Mark groaned. “Now this is a wake-up call.”

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Roughed Up

Up to Trouble Book Three

Roughed Up Cover
Part of the Up to Trouble series:

FBI Special Agent Aaron Pearce and his lover Mark Beecher are taking a well-deserved vacation relaxing on the beaches of Barbados Island. They spend lazy days in the sun, on scooters seeing the sites, or in their hotel room making love.

When Mark sees a young girl in a bar who may be in danger, he begins an informal investigation into her situation, even as Pearce reminds him they are not citizens and have no legal power on the island. Mark is determined, however, and, while investigating on his own, is taken captive by a sex slavery ring.

Pearce panics when Mark goes missing. He has a good idea what happened to Mark and who has taken him, but he cannot prove it. While working with the Barbados Royal Police Force, Pearce realizes he has become the detective’s prime suspect, and understands he needs to conduct his own personal investigation if he has any chance of finding Mark before he is either sold into sex slavery or murdered.

Excerpt:

From the expression on Mark's face, his thoughts had taken a darker turn as well, and Pearce wondered where they had gone. Maybe Mark was feeling the same way Pearce was.

“You okay over there?”

“Huh?” Mark’s gaze was distant behind the lenses of his glasses. “Oh. Yeah. I’m good. Just taking it all in.”

“Yeah? Not thinking about anything in particular?” Pearce speared a bite of fish and looked around for the waiter to order another beer.

Mark shrugged. “Well, maybe. I was thinking about that girl at the bar.” He gave Pearce a small smile. “Can’t get anything past Special Agent Pearce, can I?”

“Sooner you realize that and just say stuff up front, the easier it’ll be for both of us,” Pearce said.

“Yeah, yeah.” Mark shook his head. “I keep thinking about how she tried to talk to me as we were leaving. I can’t figure out what she was trying to tell me.”

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Pearce cocked his head. “She spoke to you?”

Mark widened his eyes. “Didn’t I tell you?”

“No. How did she speak to you? I was right there, and I didn’t hear her.”

“Well, she didn’t actually say anything, not with that guy right there. But she mouthed something to me.”

Pearce took a breath and let it out. “She mouthed something?”

“I knew you wouldn’t believe me,” Mark said.

Pearce shook his head. He was on vacation, damn it, and he didn’t want to get involved in whatever was going on in that run-down bar with that girl who had made bad decisions all her life. But he knew Mark wouldn’t be able to relax for the remainder of their time on the island if they didn’t do something. And besides, now that Mark had brought her up again, Pearce himself was starting to wonder if the girl might be in trouble.

“Do you want to go back there tomorrow?” Pearce tried not to let his minor aggravation come through in his tone.

Mark seemed surprised. “You’d do that with me?”

“If it will help you relax and enjoy the rest of our trip, I would do that with you.”

“Well, yeah, that would be great, actually. Just to see, you know?”

Pearce put his fork down and wiped his mouth. “One condition.”

Mark sat back. “There’s a condition?”

Pearce nodded. “If we go to that bar and she’s not there, do you think you can let it go and enjoy the rest of the trip?”

Mark sighed and slouched in his chair. “Yeah, okay. I see your point.”

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Choked Up

Up to Trouble Book Four

Choked Up Cover
Part of the Up to Trouble series:

Mark Beecher is still recovering from his abduction on Barbados. He and his boyfriend, FBI Special Agent Aaron Pearce, have a lot to process due to those traumatic events, and in the months since, both have experienced accomplishments and setbacks.

When a case in Detroit calls Pearce back to the city where the two met, he grudgingly leaves Mark on his own. The case involves the murders of four gay men, all strangled, and all with a note in one hand. These notes contain clues that point to a case from Pearce's past, and proves what he already fears: Robert Morgan, terrorist mole within the FBI and Pearce's former lover, has invited Pearce back to Detroit to finish things between them.

With Pearce gone, Mark focuses on his recovery, a process that accelerates once he sees a news report from Detroit and realizes the toll this new case is taking on Pearce. Mark decides it's time to stop letting fear control his life. He will join Pearce in Detroit, and together they will stop Morgan once and for all.

Excerpt:

Agent Malak Bata cleared his throat. "Although the city of Detroit has come out of bankruptcy, and the new mayor is fully engaged in bringing the city back, there has been a continuous reshuffling of top police management, and I believe the department is more than happy to hand off as many cases as they possibly can. The Michigan State Police are helping more and more with local law enforcements throughout a number of communities, but their resources are also stretched thin." He reached down to a soft-sided briefcase resting on the floor beside him and extracted several manila case folders. With raised eyebrows, he held up the files. "May I show you what it is we are investigating?"

A stern and frightened voice inside Pearce's head shouted, No! But with growing unease, Pearce felt himself nod and got up to follow Bata to the small round table that took up a corner of Harris's office. His fingertips tingled, and he could hear the blood pounding in his ears.

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Robert Morgan. This had to be about him. It was the only explanation for why both Bata and Harris wanted his help. A ghostly ache started in his right shoulder, the old stab wound delivered by none other than Morgan himself as he'd held Pearce tied to a chair in that abandoned house. Things would have gotten worse for Pearce, too, had Mark not interrupted Morgan and saved him. Now, Pearce caught himself rubbing his shoulder and lowered his hand as Bata spread out on the table black-and-white photographs of four different crime scenes.

Shock sent cold, sharp needles through Pearce, and for a frightening moment, he feared he might pass out, his eyes widening as the images dredged up long-buried memories.

"As you can see, we have a serial killer on our hands," Bata said. "The positioning of the bodies. The way in which the victims were murdered. A few other similar details. All of this points to one killer."

Pearce's mouth was dry. He had questions, quite a few questions. They snapped inside him like live wires, but he couldn't seem to focus enough to decide which to ask first. It was like trying to pick one conversation out of a crowd of people all shouting at once.

"Agent Pearce?" Harris asked, his tone much quieter, softer than Pearce was used to. "Are you all right?"

AD Harris's question and tone brought Pearce back to himself. He swallowed, nodded to Harris, and looked at Bata. "How did he kill them?"

"Strangled."

Pearce's stomach rolled, and the chicken wrap he’d had for lunch seemed on the verge of coming up.

He fought through it and asked, "Why come to me about this? I'm sure you have well-qualified agents in Detroit who can take this on. Why me?"

Bata gestured to the photographs, and Pearce could not keep his gaze from dropping to them again. Four men, all apparently in their early twenties, lying on their backs, arms stretched out to the sides, heads turned to the right. Now that Bata had explained they had been strangled, Pearce could see a dark-colored scarf tied tight around their throats and the dark shadow of bruising just visible above.

"As you can see," Bata said. "There have been four victims. In the right palm of each, a small slip of folded paper was found. A few words were written on each note, but it wasn't until this last victim, found two weeks ago, that we were able to decipher the entire message."

"What was the message?" Pearce asked.

Bata extracted a small notebook from his inner suit coat pocket and consulted it. "The first note read WAITING FOR YOU. The second read COME FIND ME. The next read STILL WAITING, and this last message read, JEREMY GREENE IS THE KEY."

"Fuck me," Pearce said and turned away. He paced the room, fists clenched, teeth grinding together.

Bata's tone was quiet, referential, as he said, "Jeremy Greene was your stepbrother. He was murdered when you were very young."

Pearce nodded. "Yes. But no note was left with him that I ever heard about."

Bata shook his head. "There was no note. And, just to be clear, I do not think this killer we are seeking is the same man who murdered your stepbrother. These murders were committed with one goal in mind: to get attention, specifically yours."

"Jesus Christ," Pearce said and ran his hands over his face. Exhaustion and guilt fell across him like a heavy cloak. Four men had lost their lives just to get his attention. What kind of fucking psychopath did that?

"This is Robert Morgan asking you to come back to Detroit," Bata said. "He wants to finish what was started between the two of you at the beginning of the year."

COLLAPSE