The Secret She Keeps

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Four novellas filled with passion, magic and deep, dark secrets…

Shadow of Truth by Shannon K. Butcher
Socially awkward nerd and video game designer Winnifred Archer has a rich fantasy life. So, when a badass, sword-wielding warrior decides he wants her, she’s not sure whether or not he’s real. She’s not equipped her to handle a man like him, or the things he wants from her, but she must find a way to face her fears and fight by his side or she will lose everyone she loves. Bad Ass Bear by Kathy Lyons
Hiding from the secret that ended her last relationship, flight attendant Margaret Taylor settled for the next best thing to love: a friends-only status with her handsome, paraplegic neighbor, Gary Baldner. But Gary has a secret, too. It’s about to break free, upend their worlds, and bring them both perfect happiness. Nowhere to Hide by Terri L. Austin
Running for her life, Hailey managed to escape from the psychotic billionaire who imprisoned and tortured her. Now using her secret clairvoyant powers, she’s trying to stay one step ahead of certain death. Sexy sorcerer, Vane, has a duty to take down Hailey’s enemy, even if it means using her as bait. Shards of Light by Anna Argent
When Lark witnesses a bizarre murder, a decade-old secret resurfaces and forces her to find her old flame. Dex is no longer the easygoing guy she knew. He’s dark, deadly and involved with a secret society that believes magic is real and hunts down those who abuse it. As their passion reignites, Dex must find a way to keep the darkness in his life from touching Lark or he will end up just like the things he hunts.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

November 16, Oklahoma City

For the last ten years Dex Hamilton had dreamed about seeing his childhood friend again, but not like this. Never like this.

Lark Florence stood on his doorstep, dripping wet, shivering and terrified. His porch light shone down on her, gleaming over limp, wet hair. Her bright copper-colored eyes were wide with fear and rimmed with black where her rain-soaked mascara had run. With another woman he would have guessed she’d also been crying, but the Lark he’d known never cried. Period.

She’d lost her freckles since he’d last seen her, but her sweet, heart-shaped face and deeply-indented upper lip were still the same. Age had carved her features into more elegant lines and her body into fuller curves—curves that even when immature had left him panting with lust at the tender age of seventeen. Then again, at that age, pretty much everything had turned him on, even the rounded contours of his video game controller.

She wasn’t any taller now than she’d been as a teen, but he was. He’d come into his size late in his teens and early twenties, now towering over most people. It was strange to be staring down at her when for so long they’d been on the same eye level.

He was so shocked to see her appear out of nowhere on his doorstep after all these years that all he could do was stare. He worried that if he so much as blinked, she’d disappear like some kind of cruel trick of the eyes.

“Lark?” Her name came out as a question, though he hadn’t intended it to. He knew who she was. How could he not? They’d been inseparable until that last night ten years ago.

Some days he still ached from the loss of her presence in his life.

She struggled with a smile. It flickered across her full mouth before dying a swift death. Her voice trembled slightly. “I know I shouldn’t have shown up without calling, but I didn’t have your number.”

“How did you find me?” he asked. Not that it mattered. All that mattered was that she had found him.

“I got your address from public real estate records.”

Outside his small, warm home, cold rain continued to fall from the night sky. The paved road was glossy, reflecting the streetlights in warm, golden swaths of color. A white Nissan sat at the curb, its headlights still glowing.

Had she left it running? Was she going to disappear from his life for another ten years?

A surge of denial burst through him. He’d known he missed her, but hadn’t realized just how much until now, when she was once again close enough to touch.

They’d been kids together. Their moms had been best friends. When he was thirteen his family had moved into the house next door to hers. They’d been thrust into each other’s lives on an almost daily basis. Weekly dinners, back yard barbeques, holiday gatherings. He’d been taught to look out for her, protect her, and that instinct had never quite faded, as if it had somehow been imbedded in his DNA.

That, in a nutshell, was why he hadn’t spoken to her in ten long years. The only thing that had the power to keep him away was the certain knowledge that wherever he went, danger was always right on his heels. He couldn’t bring that into her life, so he’d kept his distance. For her.

And now? he asked himself.

He couldn’t let her get away again—not until he at least had a way to contact her. Talk to her. How dangerous could a phone call be?

The bleak answer to that question swirled in the back of his mind, but he shoved it down until he could ignore it.

Their time together had ended in abrupt tragedy, but even while drowning in shock and grief, he’d missed her. He’d ached to reach out, to respond to her email messages and texts, but it had been against the rules. No outside contact. It wasn’t safe. Powerful, dangerous people were hunting him.

Dex was a grown man now, and while he still worked with the group that had saved his life all those years ago, he was no longer a child to be controlled by them.

Lark was in trouble now. He could see it in her face, in her pretty copper-colored eyes, and damn if all those old protective instincts didn’t roar back to life from the mere sight of her.

Whatever her problem, he was going to fix it. Kill it. Destroy it. Even the idea of doing so gave him a rush of strength and made the ancient fragments of magic he carried shiver in anticipation.

A gust of wind slipped through the open door, reminding him that she was wet and cold—something else he was going to fix.

He stepped back out of the way. “Come in out of the rain.”

Lark glanced over her shoulder to check behind her as if she feared someone might see her. The quiet street was empty. His neighbors were all inside, tucked away from the storm. Their windows glowed with light. A shadow crossed the curtains of Mrs. Neimyers’s living room.

No dogs barked out a warning. Everything was quiet except for the patter of rain.

She stepped through his front door just enough for him to close it behind her. Water dripped from her clothes into the utilitarian rug he kept in his entryway. Her eyes darted around his home, taking in his sparse furnishings and his casual, second-hand, garage sale style.

He’d never really cared much about how the place looked as long as it was clean and functional. His job kept him busy and showed him just how big a place the world really was—how many things there were to worry about beside a trendy décor. But now, watching her study his home, he felt a pang of self-consciousness.

Had Lark become judgmental in the years that had passed? Would she look down on him for his lack of color and style? The old Lark never would have cared, but this one? He had no idea if she’d changed, or how much.

“Take off your coat,” he said. “I’ll grab you a towel.”

“It’s okay. I can’t stay long. I just had to…” She shivered again as she trailed off, though he could no longer say for sure if it was from cold or whatever was scaring her enough to show up on his doorstep at night after such a long absence.

Something was wrong. Terribly wrong.

“Don’t you dare move,” he said, his tone the same hard crack of sound he used to train those who were new to their powers. “I’ll be right back.”

He raced down the short hall to the linen closet and pulled out the biggest, fluffiest towel he owned.

She was still there when he came back ten seconds later, and for some reason, seeing her there, dripping on his rug, surprised him all over again.

She was beautiful. She’d always been pretty, but she’d grown way past that now. Even with drenched hair and dripping makeup, she was stunning. All he wanted to do was wrap her in his arms and never let go. It was the only way to be sure she was safe.

Dex handed her the towel. “Dry off. I’ll make you some hot tea and we can talk while you warm up. Do you want some dry clothes? I could throw yours in the dryer.”

She shook her head slightly as she rubbed the towel over her wet hair. The blond curls he remembered came bouncing back to life as the strands were freed of the wet weight holding them down. She scrubbed off the rain with quick, efficient movements, but still didn’t take off her coat.

“I won’t be here that long.”

He led her to the kitchen, which was set at the back of the house. The original wooden floors creaked in protest underfoot—loud for him and softer for her.

He flipped on the lights, and the space was flooded with bright, white light. He’d grown tired of the flickering, yellow fluorescent fixture and had replaced it a few months ago. Sadly, the change had only managed to highlight just how much work this space still needed.

Like the rest of the house, the room was clean, but dated. The tile backsplash had been the height of fashion in the seventies, with avocado green accents tucked randomly inside the brown tiles. The grout was cracked with age. The laminate counters had been upgraded sometime in the nineties, but they were now scuffed, burned and bubbling in spots.

A small table big enough for only two chairs sat next to the back door. His mail was piled there, along with his wallet, keys and one of his handguns.

Lark eyed the gun, but rather than shock or fear on her face, her expression was one of relief.

“Do you know how to use it?” she asked.

“I do,” he said, unwilling to brag about his excellent marksmanship.

“Is it loaded?”

“Always. It’s not much use without bullets.” And in his experience, the bad guys never did seem to be willing to wait for him to load it.

“Good.” She nodded once and pulled in a deep breath. “Because I think you’re in danger.”

For the second time in less than five minutes, Lark Florence had shocked the hell out of him—not because she’d said he was in danger. That was a lifestyle for him. No, what shocked him was that she knew about it.

She wasn’t supposed to know. No one was.

Dex filled a kettle with water. Without looking at her, he casually asked. “What makes you say that?”

“Do you have coffee?” she asked.

“Sure. Do you want some?” She’d been a tea-drinker when they were kids, but things had changed since then.

She cleared her throat. Her voice was filled with fatigue. “I haven’t slept in a while. I could use a jolt before I get back behind the wheel.”

He wanted to ask her what had kept her awake, but it wasn’t time for that. At least not yet. Her showing up, afraid of something was the first mystery he had to solve. Everything else was going to have to get in line after that.

He couldn’t destroy a threat if he didn’t know what it was.

He started a pot of coffee and hovered on the far side of the room. A man his size had to be careful not to get too close. People often felt threatened or intimidated by his height and build. Sometimes it was handy, and sometimes not. Fear was the last thing he wanted for Lark.

She didn’t know him anymore. Not really. Just like he didn’t know her.

He kept his voice soft, casual. “Why are you here, Lark? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled to see you, but I can’t say it was expected.”

She lowered her gaze to the gun. The towel was wrapped around her upper body, gripped at her chest like a lifeline.

“I saw something,” she said. Her eyes closed. She shook her head as if trying to convince herself that whatever she’d seen wasn’t real.

“What did you see?”

She swallowed once, twice.

Dex waited for her to gather her words. Behind him the coffee pot hissed and sputtered to fill the kitchen with the confusing scent of morning in the middle of the night.

“Murder,” she whispered.

Dex straightened. Every instinct in his body was pulled taut, tuned to her. “When? Tonight?”

“Last week.”

“Did you report it to the police?”

Her copper gaze met his, and for a moment, the rest of the world fell away. There was so much fear there. So much guilt.

What had she done to make her carry that guilt? It seemed like too much for her slender frame to bear.

“No,” she said, her voice still low, ashamed.

“Why not?” No accusation, just curiosity. Deep curiosity.

She’d always been so uptight about the rules, so lawful. To fail to report a murder was not like the Lark he knew at all.

She averted her gaze again, this time going to the floor instead of his weapon. It struck him that he wasn’t nervous to have her so close to an efficient means to kill him. With anyone else, he’d have already retrieved his handgun and tucked it close to his body for safekeeping—even people he knew.

In his world, you couldn’t trust anyone. Not even your friends. People changed, sometimes fast.

Had Lark? Had she gone from a sweet, loving girl to a woman hard enough to gun him down in cold blood with his own weapon?

It wasn’t out of the question.

“The murder,” she started, hesitant and halting, “wasn’t the usual sort. It was…different. Unbelievable.”

His body tensed as if a battering ram was headed right for his balls. He’d seen enough to know just how unbelievable the world could get.

Magic was real. Monsters were real. Sure, most of them wore human skin, but they were still monsters nonetheless.

“What do you mean?” he forced himself to ask.

He didn’t want her to say what he thought she was about to say. He didn’t want her anywhere near his fucked-up world. She was supposed to be out there, safe and living a happy, normal life, not wrapped up in magic and shards and death. He’d deprived himself of her presence all these years so she would be safe.

“The woman,” she said. “The victim. She wasn’t shot or strangled. She wasn’t beaten or poisoned.”

“What happened to her?”

Lark looked up at him then, her gaze connecting to his so tightly there was no means for him to escape.

“All the man did was touch her.” Lark lifted her hands to her temples and pressed them there to demonstrate. “Like this.”

Dex went cold. Old memories roiled beneath the surface, threatening to spill out and cloud his thoughts. He forced them back down with a hard shove and an inaudible growl.

His shards—the fragments of ancient, powerful souls he carried—shifted along the back of his skull. He could feel their agitation, their interest. Some of the darker shards practically vibrated with excitement.

They wanted all the gruesome details. They wanted to lap them up like sweet cream and savor them.

“Are you sure?” he asked.

Lark stared past him like she was witnessing the event all over again. She shook her head as if in disbelief. “The news said she died of a massive brain aneurism.” Her gaze met his. “Just like…”

She didn’t have to finish. He knew.

Before Dex realized what he was doing, he’d crossed the room and had pulled her to her feet by her shoulders.

Her eyes were wide. Her fingers were clenched around the towel, her knuckles white. Her body trembled beneath his hands.

“Did you see the killer?” Dex demanded.

Lark nodded, but the movement was so tight, he wasn’t sure it had been voluntary.

Did you see him?” he asked again, louder this time, harder. It took every ounce of willpower he had not to shake the answer out of her.

“I did,” she said, guilt clear in her tone. “And there’s something else. Something I should have told you ten years ago. Something that’s haunted me every day since that last night we were together.”

“What?” He did shake her this time, slightly. If he didn’t find a way to calm down, he was going to hurt her.

Thanks to his shards, he was strong—too strong for delicate bones and soft skin.

“The man I saw last week,” she said. “I’ve seen him before.”

“When?” he asked, though he was certain he knew the answer.

“Ten years ago.” Guilt flared brighter in her eyes, easy to read. “He was the man who killed your parents.”

Dex went numb. Rage billowed just beneath the surface, but he held it firmly in check. Numb was better. Safer. Numb meant he could still function. He could fight. Kill. Numb had saved his ass more times than he could remember.

He shoved everything down until he could no longer feel it. He could barely breathe now, but that was better than the alternative.

When he got like this—when his darker shards took hold—it was far too easy to kill.

He loosened his grip on Lark’s arms. She’d gone up on tiptoe inside his hold but now sank back down to her normal height.

With slow, methodical care, he embraced the cold numbness. He turned away from her, took two mugs from the cabinet and filled them with coffee. He carried the dark brew to the table. Rings rippled across the surface, revealing unseen tremors racing through his body.

He was furious at her for keeping this secret from him. He was excited that the man he’d been hunting for a decade had finally resurfaced. But mostly, he was terrified that she’d put herself in danger—the kind of danger no normal human was capable of facing alone.

None of those emotions reached him fully, none showed in his expression as he calmly sat down and slid Lark’s coffee across the old table.

Go numb. Stay numb. Do your job.

She gripped the mug in her hands as if to warm them. Steam curled up from the surface. She inhaled it but didn’t drink.

Too hot? Or was it not to her taste?

Maybe she was simply stalling.

Dex picked up his Sig and slid it into the back of his jeans. He was back on the clock now, sitting across from a woman who might or might not be the person he remembered.

Through the thick fog of numbness, one thought surfaced clear and bright. Whoever she was now, he prayed he wasn’t going to have to kill her.