Stakes & Spurs

Venom Valley Book Two

Stakes & Spurs
Part of the Venom Valley series:

Dex Wells, former deputy of the prairie town of Belkin’s Pass, awakes to the sound of screaming. He is chained to the wall of a cave, prisoner of the powerful vampire Balthazar, who has turned many of the residents of Belkin’s Pass into vampires like him, and used most others as food. Balthazar keeps Dex as bait, hoping to lure Dex’s lover, Josh Stanton, into the caves and capture him. There is something different about Josh, Balthazar senses it, but what that difference is he can’t quite tell.

Josh Stanton can raise the dead. It’s a power he’s always had within him, and something he’s considered a curse. Now, however, he’s discovered that the risen dead can bite through vampire skin and bones. If he can just learn to control the power and, with it, the dead he’s resurrected, he might be able to save his lover, Dex, from Balthazar’s caves. But there’s still a bounty on Josh’s head for a murder he did not commit, and he ends up back in Belkin’s Pass with Glory, a half Indian, half white former saloon girl watched over by a Native American spirit. Together, they gather the few residents left alive and make a stand against the rampaging vampires and the wolves under their control.

The arrival of two members of the US Army, however, throws their careful plans into uncertainty as Josh is taken into custody. Can he convince the Army men the truth of their outrageous claims? And can Dex be saved before Balthazar turns him into a vampire as well?

Excerpt:

The rain had not let up, and Josh was soaked through, cold to the bone, which made the first flush of heat inside of him that much more noticeable. It started in the middle of his torso and slowly spread through him the closer they rode toward town. As the heat slid through his veins and dug into his limbs and organs, Josh swallowed past the fear in his throat and looked at his surroundings, because he knew what the sensation meant.

Death was close.

Staggered towers of rock gleamed dark in a flash of lightning, and he realized with a start the route Sheriff Haden had taken to get back to town so fast. It was passable but seldom used by travelers due to the rugged terrain.

And it would take them right past the Belkin’s Pass cemetery.

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Josh closed his eyes and focused his energy and attention away from the bodies buried ahead. He was tired, though, and could feel them lying there, starving and cold. He could almost smell the damp earth pressing in around them, feel the cold in their bloodless limbs, the hunger for flesh should they awaken.

He needed to learn how to control this power, harness it, and use it only in extreme situations. Raising the dead was a sacrilege, an affront to the natural law of life and death. He needed to understand it, work through this power, and use it to keep the dead in their graves and not lurching toward people, hungry for blood. The power ran deep inside him, though, and he didn’t have a firm grasp on it. If he got near a body, it would rise and attack him and anyone with him, hungry for flesh, for life.

“Dark’s comin’ fast.”

Glory’s voice brought him out of his thoughts, and he looked at the sky swollen with thunderheads. She was right. The sun, hidden by heavy thunderheads, would almost be down.

“Shut up back there,” Deputy Wallace snapped.

“We need to get inside,” Josh called up to the men. “It’s not safe out here after dark.”

“I wouldn’t think you’d be so eager to be inside,” Sheriff Haden said over his shoulder, “seeing as how you’ll be spending a long time inside a jail cell.”

“The men who took your daughter will return when the sun goes down,” Glory said. “They’ll take anyone they find on the street or anyone who invites them into their homes. No one in town is safe anymore, don’t you see?”

Haden reined in his horse and turned in the saddle. A quick movement brought his gun up, and Josh found himself impressed with the swiftness of the man’s draw even as a tremor of fear worked through him. He never knew the sheriff was so adept with his weapon.

“You’re not to speak about my daughter!” Haden shouted. “Not a word about my Hattie should come from your dirty whore mouth, do you understand?”

Josh looked over at Glory, watched her jaw tighten, and saw her sit up high and straight in the saddle. The muted final rays of light behind the storm clouds glittered in her dark eyes. Just when he thought she might say something to encourage Haden to shoot her, Glory surprised him by giving the man a single nod.

Relief unwound within Josh’s gut, and he looked back at the sheriff, continuing to slowly work his wrists within the wet and loosening ropes.

“What in God’s name…?”

Haden stared between Glory and Josh, past them, and his expression changed from anger to confusion and then to fear. Josh looked over his shoulder to see a number of figures striding toward them through the rain, a line of wolves just behind.

“Vampires,” Glory said.

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Cowboys & Vampires

Venom Valley Book One

Cowboys & Vampires
Part of the Venom Valley series:

In the frontier town of Belkin’s Pass, as a vampire quietly feeds on the local saloon girls and their customers, a tragedy teaches resident Josh Stanton he has the ability to raise the dead. Knowing he is now a wanted man, Josh flees into the arid plains of Venom Valley.

Dex Wells, the town deputy and Josh’s best friend, catches up with Josh. During the confrontation, both men realize their friendship is truly something deeper, and Dex has to decide if he’s a man of the law, or a man in love.

As Josh and Dex ponder a viable course of action, the vampire circles ever closer, drawn by Josh’s power and gathering his forces against them.

Excerpt:

The thing across the room finally managed to find its balance. The books it had knocked from the table lay in tatters at its feet. Bright white gashes marred the surface of the side table she had lovingly polished so often over the years. Agnes stood, long skirt twisted around her legs, blouse torn in several places to reveal pale skin beneath. Her head hung down, chin against her chest, silver hair a long curtain that hid her face from his view.
Until the thing slowly turned its head and locked its cold, dead gaze on him.

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Nothing of Agnes remained. Josh swallowed hard, feeling as if a large, hot stone had been stuffed in his throat. The fire burned fierce now, and sweat coursed down his body. His fingers fumbled with the rifle, working to cock it, his eyes locked on the thing as it turned and took a lurching, unsteady step toward him. Hands that had soothed his forehead when he had been sick with fever and held wet cloths to his skinned knees curled now into claws, eager to tear into him.

Josh double-checked to make sure the rifle's safety was off and that he had chambered a shell, then dried his palms on his breeches again. He took several deep breaths, watching as the thing lurched closer, its hands reaching out, fingers stiff, dirty nails ready to gouge his flesh. It was halfway across the room. Another five staggering steps and it would be upon him.

He stood and raised the rifle to take aim. His hands shook as the thing moved closer, its foot stomping hard against the floor. He licked his lips and dried his eyes on his sleeve. The lamp flame flickered again, slinging shadows around the room and across Agnes' chest.

As it approached, its steps became more certain. It was learning to walk again, and fast.

Josh blinked and thought back to Agnes's lessons on shooting. He could almost feel her standing behind him, arms around his shoulders, lips close to his ear as she said, "Don't pull the trigger. Squeeze it. Slow and steady."

"I'm sorry," he whispered and squeezed the trigger. The rifle bucked in his hand and the flash lit the room, burning an image of Agnes's cruel, hungry face on his mind.

The thing jerked back, a dark hole blossoming on the blouse covering its left shoulder. It took a step back, seemed to hesitate a moment, then stepped toward him again.

Josh cocked the gun and moved around behind the chair, raising the rifle to his shoulder. His vision blurred and a tear slid down his cheek, forcing him to dry his eyes on his sleeve.

He shot her again and let out a frustrated, horrified gasp as the bullet tore into her throat. Her head snapped back and she staggered a few steps, hands reaching up to cover the black hole in her skin. Josh could see her jaw working as if she were trying to swallow the lead, then she lifted her head and pinned her cold, dead eyes on him.

"Agnes," he said, his voice high-pitched and strained in the room. "You gotta stay dead. You would not want to live like this."

He worked the lever of the rifle and, even as his blood practically boiled beneath his skin, a cold clutch of fear gripped his stomach when the lever froze in the open position. Jammed.

"Shit," he hissed and looked down at the weapon. He struggled with it, sweat running off his nose and dripping onto the rifle, leaving dark drops on the wood stock.

Cold fingers gripped his arm and he screamed. Jerking his head up, he found Agnes reaching over the rocking chair, the back of it bouncing between them and keeping her from getting a good purchase. Her mouth stretched wide, saliva spilling over her lower lip, teeth glowing in the lamplight.

Josh jerked his arm free and the thing staggered, unbalanced by his sudden movement and the rocking chair. It looked down at the chair a moment and Josh could almost see it thinking, figuring out it kept them apart. It pushed the rocker aside and reached for him again, eyes shadowed now with the lamp behind it.

He stepped away, his back coming up against the wall, and he realized he was cornered. It had trapped him.

His fingers continued to work the jammed lever as the thing advanced. It dug cold, cruel fingers into his shoulders and leaned in, mouth wide. He braced himself against the wall and kicked it hard in the stomach. The thing staggered back, nails tearing through his shirt and digging furrows into his skin.

Josh cried out and jerked on the lever again. It moved this time and he felt the shell seat itself before the lever closed.

It was coming for him, fingers clutching for purchase.

He lifted the rifle to his shoulder, closed one eye, lined up the sight on the middle of the thing's forehead, and squeezed the trigger.

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Hired Muscle

Hired Muscle

In October 1941, the violence of Baltimore's warring mob families is escalating. The danger has decimated many of the businesses around DuMochelle's restaurant where Barry waits tables. When a mob boss and his family begin to frequent the restaurant, a romantic relationship develops between Barry and Vinnie, a bodyguard. Vinnie resists, fearing for Barry's safety and concerned that Barry will want nothing to do with him if he discovers his role in the family. But their passion cannot be denied, and Vinnie is trapped between the love he wants and the only life he's known. As the rival mob family moves in for the kill, Vinnie and Barry find themselves caught in the crossfire.

Excerpt:

I knelt before the chair and looked up at Vinnie sitting above me. The hiss of the radiator and the bitter howl of the wind were the only sounds in my darkened room. In the cold, suffused light of the streetlamp outside my window, I saw Vinnie's jaw clench. His eyes hid in the shadow beneath his brow, but I could still feel the heavy weight of his stare. "Dammit, Barry. Why'd you follow me?"

"I—I don't know, really."

"You don't know?"

"No, I don't. I wanted to see what you did." I dropped my gaze to my hands clutching the still-damp material of my pant legs. "I kept thinking about it, trying to imagine what you did, and I couldn't, you know? You work for Don Lombardi, I know that, but I can't see you willingly hurting anyone. I couldn't imagine you doing anything vicious, and I had to see for myself to know it was real. I had to know that part of you.” I looked up at him with my stomach in knots. “Does that make sense?"

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Vinnie looked out the window. He stayed silent for a long time. My legs started to cramp, but I ignored the pain because I wanted to remain close to him for as long as I could. For all I knew, this might be the last time we'd be together.

Finally, however, I could take no more and got to my feet. I crossed the room to my chest of drawers and switched on the lamp, my chest releasing a breath at the warm yellow glow. He made no protest at the light, and I went about gathering towels and bandages as he sat and stared out the window.

"Did you fix the heat?" I looked at him over my shoulder and gestured to the radiator.

He looked at me and nodded. "I may not be able to read real good, but I'm good with engines and stuff." The statement fired off a pain inside him that I saw reflected in his eyes, and it pulled me toward him. I pushed apart his strong legs to kneel between them, clenched my hands into tight fists that I rested on his muscled thighs, and stared into his eyes as they filled with tears.

"Vinnie? What is it? What's wrong?"

He shook his head and turned away.

"Come on, talk to me. Are you angry because I followed you?"

A quiet bark of a laugh told me I was wrong even before he shook his head. He took a breath and turned to stare down at me again. "I am angry at you for doin’ that, but only because you coulda been hurt. Do you know how fuckin' scared you made me when those goons ran out after you?"

My stomach twisted. "You recognized me?"

Vinnie reached down to take me under my arms and pulled me up into his lap. He kissed me and stroked my cheek, his gaze moving over my face. "Course I recognized you. I been seein’ your face in my dreams since the boss first went to DuMochelle's, you think I didn't recognize the quick glimpse I caught of you in the window?"

My body reacted to the nearness of him, to his touch. I hardened as his blunt fingers moved over my face and through my hair. In the lamplight I could see more clearly the bruises and cuts on his face and hands. I took his hand in mine to place soft kisses on the scrapes across the knuckles.

"I'm sorry I scared you," I said.

"I couldn't be the reason somethin’ happened to you, Barry," he choked out. "I been the reason for so much pain to a lotta other people, you know? Some of the others deserved it, a few didn't, and I feel bad about them. But if somethin’ were to happen to you because of us knowin’ each other—" He shook his head, his gaze locked on mine. "I couldn't live with that."

"You won't have to." I leaned in and kissed him softly.

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Blood & Stone

Venom Valley Book Three

Book Cover: Blood & Stone
Part of the Venom Valley series:

Josh Stanton’s mother has been held prisoner by the vampire Balthazar for fifteen years. As Balthazar has turned the residents of Belkin’s Pass into vampires under his control, Josh, his lover, Dex, former saloon girl Glory, and US Army Sergeant Walker Maxwell, fight to contain the undead uprising. As Josh struggles to control his power to raise the dead, the group is pursued to the abandoned Fort Emmerick. There they make plans to take the battle to Balthazar’s cave in a desperate final move to not only save Josh’s mother, but put an end to Balthazar once and for all. Will all of them live to see Balthazar vanquished at last?

Excerpt:

"Come outside, Joshua Stanton." The voice was quiet, the timbre low, promising release and an end to Josh's exhausted struggle. "Open the door and step onto the porch. Let me kiss you, taste your blood, compare yours to that of your man's."

Josh shuddered awake and staggered to his feet, his hands tight on the barrel of the musket. His eyes were gritty from sleep and he couldn't seem to focus on where he was for a long, frightening moment. Then, in a rush, it all came back to him: Dex had escaped from Balthazar, they had taken refuge in the Belkin's Pass church along with Sergeant Maxwell and his few remaining soldiers. And he had fallen asleep during guard duty.

"Come to me," the calm, deep voice beckoned. "Step outside, join me."

Josh turned to peer through the narrow gap in the boards nailed over the window behind him. "Never, you foul monster. Leave us."

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A deep chuckle floated in from the dark night beyond the glass. "You're running out of time, Joshua. Your man is closer to vampire than human now. One mistake, one careless moment, and he will join me. We can end this now, tonight, and spare all those sleeping around you the pain of day after day of struggle. You are the one I want, not them. Come join me, teach me of this secret power, and live forever by my side. Just open the doors."

Josh shook his head as he scanned the dark shadows that hung around the empty buildings across the street. Would Belkin's Pass ever be like it had once been? Filled with people and goods and commerce? He didn't think so. It would be consumed by the prairie, abandoned and haunted. Right now, in the depth of night, surrounded by evil, it felt to Josh as if the whole country had forsaken them.

He gathered his courage from the corners of his soul and said, "I will never join you. We'll come for you, you know."

A pair of glowing red eyes appeared before him, and Josh stepped back, a gasp slipping from his lips. Before he could be caught by Balthazar's stare and put under his spell, Josh looked away.

"Oh, I hope you come for me," Balthazar whispered. "I do, indeed."

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