One Last Promise`
Love & Light, part of the series
Written Musings (October 20, 2020)
A Love & Light Romantic Suspense with a touch of Magical Realism
Sometimes danger—and love—crash into your life when you least expect it…
When Clare Decker sees a plane go down in the desert behind her remote home and goes to assist, the sexy pilot, Quade Bonahan, kidnaps her. Since the men who downed his plane are shooting at them, she has no choice but to go along with Quade, at least until she can escape.
Clare has been punishing herself with her solitary life, her only friend is a sassy character from her books: Roxy. Now it’s as if she’s been thrust into one of her own books. Quade might embody the elusive mystery man in her current manuscript, but she doesn’t know if he’s one of the good guys. As she learns more about why they’re on the run, she realizes that the maddening man may be her only way to stay alive…and to keep dangerous information from the wrong people.
Quade is a man at war with himself. He hates dragging Clare into danger, but he can’t leave her behind. His enemies will think she’s involved and kill her. Quade knows from his days in the Special Forces that letting himself care about Clare is foolish for them both. Clare is a woman who needs to be loved, and he is a man who cannot let himself love.
As Clare and Quade piece together evidence about an espionage ring, and manage dangerous twists and turns, he finds his “nothing personal” policy crumbling. Because the more he knows her, and helps her to embrace life again, the more he wants to be part of that life.
Never before published!
Me in Sedona…
Connected Books: Love & Light
Read an Excerpt
“Clare Decker, where on God’s green earth are you?”
Clare cringed at her editor’s sharp voice, each word echoing along the phone line with maximum impact. “It’s good to hear from you, too, Jess.” Okay, she deserved the terse question. “Actually, it’s God’s red earth. I’ve moved again.”
“Bippity my bop, no kidding! It was either that or you died, but I thought, no, Clare would let me know if she died. She’s considerate like that.” After a moment of silence, she added in a softer tone, “So, where’d you move to?”
Clare shifted a little potted cactus into the slice of sunshine on a desk cluttered with character sketches, ideas, and her computer. Cedar-covered walls stretched up ten feet to a ceiling sporting a sky light like a Cyclops’s eye.
“What was wrong with San Diego? Seattle? Phoenix?”
Clare smiled faintly. “I took one of my long drives, went through Sedona, and found this neat cedar house for sale north of there.”
“You’re in Sedona? I love that place.”
“More like Sedona’s ugly younger, flatter-chested, not as richly-redheaded sister. But where my house is, the views are spectacular, and there’s no one around for miles.”
“It’s perfect for me.” Clare cleared the huskiness from her throat. “And they have tumbleweeds.”
Clare grinned. “Yeah, just like in the old Westerns. They’re the neatest things, rambling across the desert with no particular destination—”
“No wonder you’re so fascinated with them. They sound like you! Tumbleweeds!” Clare could picture Jessica shaking her head, her red curls bouncing. “Will you let me know when you move next time…like before you move? Before I call your cell phone and keep getting a recording.”
“Promise,” Clare said, crossing her heart even though Jessica couldn’t see. “The cell service isn’t exactly great out here.”
“Why do I have this feeling that next time you’ll be calling me from Mars? ‘Gee, Jess, I took a space shuttle trip and this crater spoke to me.’”
She wouldn’t mind Mars, after watching that Matt Damon movie. Bleak. No interaction required. Other than sending in a manuscript and going over edits. “You never know,” she said in a chipper voice.
Jessica groaned. No. just…no. So, how’s the new book coming?”
Happy for the change of subject, Clare jabbed the nearly blank character outline. “My man just isn’t coming.” Frustration laced her voice. “It’s like he’s lurking on the edge of my consciousness, this shadowy figure except for dark hair and these intense eyes. I even dream about him.”
Jessica laughed. “My man isn’t coming either. Heck, he’s not even breathing hard.” She feigned a sob that didn’t quite cover her laughter. “The dating scene in New York city sucks.”
“Oh, thanks. You’re lots of help.”
“My pleasure. Clare, you really should pick up a sense of humor next time you’re at the store.” Jessica laughed at her own joke, a quick, two-beat snort that made Clare grin despite the jibe. “But this isn’t like you. Usually your book’s half written by now.”
Clare chewed her pencil, tasting paint and wood. “I know the guy works for some secret organization. He’s the dangerous type. But every time I try to write him, he disappears. Like a ghost.”
After a moment, Jessica asked, “Is this book going to be dark like the last one? I think it’s time Roxy got over accidentally shooting that guy in the third book and get on with her life.”
Sounds good to me, Roxy Malone, the main protagonist in her mysteries, interjected. I’m tired of being down in the dumps. Aren’t you?
Watch it, or I’ll replace you with a crime-fighting nun who packs a 357 Magnum.
Who’s gonna believe that?
They believed the mouthy diner waitress-turned detective, didn’t they?
Believed it? They love me! These curves and this mouth have gotten me out of a lot of trouble.
And into it.
Clare tuned Roxy out, not an easy task in recent months. “Jess, you don’t kill someone and just get over it. It sticks to you, choking out your happiness, blocking your sunshine.” She unclenched her fists and quickly changed her tone. “Besides, the readers seem to like my dark side.”
“Speaking of that, do you still not want me to forward your fan emails?”
“Just send the response we talked about.”
“You used to love getting mail.”
Something black bubbled up inside Clare. “I don’t want them.”
“Tell me why and I’ll never bring it up again.”
“Because…” She searched for a suitable lie but settled on the truth when nothing came. “They think I’m a wonderful person just because they like Roxy.” And I’m not.
“So, you move to some desert where you’ll never see anyone but lizards.”
The orange sand glistened like fire outside the large picture window. “Lizards are good company. They don’t ask a lot of nosy questions, for instance.”
Clare heard a rumble but the sky boasted nothing more than a few streaky clouds.
“You know what I think?” Jessica continued. “For some bizarre reason, you don’t believe you deserve to be around people anymore. You ever going to tell me what happened a year and a half ago that changed your whole view of life? It can’t be that bad. I mean, you didn’t murder someone or something like that, did you?”
“Nothing like that.” The words came out all breathy, and she hoped Jessica didn’t pick up on it beneath her sandpapery voice. Everything like that.
Jessica laughed. “You can’t keep it bottled up inside. I know you and your mother aren’t close, and your father’s gone. Do you have anyone to talk to?”
Roxy, but she wasn’t going to admit that. Writers already had a rep for being slightly insane. “I don’t need to talk to anyone.” She spit out bits of yellow paint and popped a Sour Patch Kid in her mouth.
The noise outside turned into a high-pitched mechanical whine that cut in and out. Clare looked outside again and saw a small plane flying way too low, its wings wobbling.
“Jess, I gotta go. I think a plane is about to land in my backyard.”
“Come on, just tell me to butt out instead of making up some cockeyed—”
Clare disconnected and pulled her feet off the desk, knocking the cactus to the carpet. She pressed her nose to the window, her fingers curled around the burlap curtain as she watched a small plane drift down and disappear beyond the jagged rocks in the distance.
Her heart pounded even as she asked herself if the plane was truly crashing or just landing. She didn’t see any smoke, only a sort of shimmer in the air. Maybe it was some daredevil pilot’s club, and they’d have a good chuckle at her rescue attempt. Consequence had no emergency service set up for its minuscule population, and she didn’t want to call help from Sedona for nothing. But staying put wasn’t an option.
She rushed through the house, grabbing up items. “What do I bring?” She pulled a first aid kit from the kitchen cabinet, a gallon of water and some blankets, and rushed out the front door.
After tossing her rescue items beneath the roll bar in her Jeep Wrangler, she started across the rusty desert sand that stretched under the assault of boulders and brush. Dry heat danced in waves like ocean currents.
Even though she’d been over this land at least twenty times in the month she’d lived there, it seemed surreal now…as though she were creating this scene in her mind, sending Roxy Malone into the desert to face uncertainty. Roxy had guts, courage, and short blonde hair that wouldn’t be snapping her cheeks as Clare’s brown, straight hair was doing now. She swiped at it in vain.
Should I have called for help? Did I do the wrong thing? Again. The last word seeped into her blood, chilling it.
Stop thinking about that and just drive, girlfriend!
Clare shook her head. When had Roxy turned from an intriguing person in her imagination to a pest in her conscience?
Hey, I heard that!
After the accident that took her fiancé Marshall’s life, Clare realized. The more she sank into her grim world, the more prominent Roxy had become.
Clare searched for any sign of the plane. How many times as a child had she conjured plane wrecks or such and imagined her parents rushing to her side with love and concern in their eyes? She kept dreaming up stories, escaping into worlds where people staked their lives on saving those they cared about. And one day Roxy was born, surrounded by people who loved her.
The terrain rose and fell, then cut into the stark blue sky in the distance. The dry air stung her eyes and scorched her skin. She trained her gaze straight ahead where she’d seen the plane go down, beyond the rock formations but not the mountains beyond. Still no smoke, no sign of anything. Could it have been her imagination?
She sucked in a deep breath as she topped a ridge, inhaling the scent of fuel. A glint of metal seared its imprint on her vision. In the distance, the plane lay crumpled like a child’s toy tossed from a car window. The metal body lay in the sand at an angle, one wing ripped away by a chunk of rock.
She’d only seen death once, when she’d forced herself to look at Marshall’s body at the wake. She shivered at the memory, the man she’d planned to spend her life with, pale as marble and just as lifeless.
Just do it, Roxy ordered. Feel the fear later.
Claire pressed her foot on the gas pedal and forged ahead. Because what could go wrong when you listened to an imaginary person’s voice in your head, right?
Clare groped for her jug of water and first aid kit and pushed herself out of the Jeep. She took several steps, stumbling over the rocks. That’s when she saw him. He looked young, maybe a few years less than her thirty-two. His black hair stood out against the orange rocks behind him. He grunted as he pulled an unconscious man to a wedge of shade beneath a rocky mound of jagged points and crevices. His baggy dark shirt shimmered in the hot breeze, contrasting the faded blue jeans that hugged his lower body.
She held up the jug. “I … I have water and a first aid kit. What can I do?”
His head jerked up, expression intense. “Get us out of here.”
He glanced farther up, as if looking for the culprit that had snatched them from the sky. That wild look in his deep green eyes touched something inside her, tingling the way a story idea coming to life did.
It’s him! Roxy whispered. Our mystery man.
Clare could only nod to said man as she unsnapped her first aid kit and crouched beside him. “I’m Clare,” she said, ripping open a disinfectant pad and swabbing the gash on the unconscious man’s temple. Most of his bruises and cuts looked superficial. She hoped.
He looked upward again, then back at his friend. “Quade,” he said, feeling for a pulse at the other man’s neck. Although he was young, his eyes looked older, world-weary.
“He’s alive, isn’t he?” Her voice came out raspy, and she coughed to clear it.
“Barely. Come on, Neil. Dammit, we don’t have time for this.”
She glanced up at his odd words—I mean, who ever had time to, um, get seriously injured in a plane wreck?—but he was too intent on Neil to notice. Neil, with tribal tattoos on his arms that were nearly lost on his dark skin, looked even younger than Quade.
She secured a second bandage to a cut on his jaw. “I can go back and call for help. We should wait before moving him again.”
Panic froze Quade’s features, and he searched the sky at the faraway sound of another plane. He looked behind her, obviously spotting her Jeep.
“We can’t wait.” He grabbed one of the blankets and covered Neil with it. “It’s risky to move him, but”—he glanced upward again—“it’s riskier to stay.” His eyes were filled with a mixture of anger and agony as they met hers. “I should send you the hell away. But I need you to get us out of here. Help me get him to the Jeep.”
Clare was still trying to figure out what the heck he was talking about. Being a Good Samaritan wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. People were supposed to act grateful, not weird. She moved to Neil’s feet and helped Quade lift the tall but lean young man.
Oddly, Quade seemed to have completely escaped injury. Not a speck of blood or even a tear in his clothes. Maybe the gold cross dangling from a chain had blessed him with protection. Maybe it was the supposed vortex out there somewhere, except that it hadn’t helped Neil.
“Are you the pilot?” she asked.
She was about to comment on the great job he’d done landing under whatever circumstances had forced him down when she saw the spray of holes in the side of the plane. Bullet holes.
Ooh, Roxy said. That ain’t a good sign.
“Where are we?” Quade asked, interrupting her harrowing thoughts.
She forced words through a throat dry with fear. “About half a mile from my place.”
“Consequence. Just northwest of Sedona. I’m sure there’s a hospital there.”
Her mouth gaped. “Are you crazy? You have to take him to a hospital!”
He looked at her, his expression and voice deadly calm. “I’m way beyond crazy, lady.”
She swallowed hard. “What happened to your plane?”
“Do you have a map of this area?”
“At home. I have Google Maps, but the signal’s spotty out here. What happened to your plane?”
“We can’t be far from White Feather. He’ll know what to do.”
A shadow of foreboding snaked through her, strangling the questions threatening to burst out. As they fit Neil sideways on the seat in the Jeep, Quade’s head snapped up at a tinny sound. She followed his glare to a small plane in the distance. She had a feeling that suggesting they flag down the pilot would not be greeted with enthusiasm. He surveyed the rocky terrain around them with the desperation of a man about to die. Which was so not good since she was with him.
“What is it?” she asked.
He was already hoisting Neil back out of the Jeep. “Help me get him between that outcropping of rocks over there. Now!”
It was damned hard to be calm when you were scared and didn’t even know what to be scared of. And in particular, whom to be scared of. She jerked into action anyway, lifting Neil’s feet and hurrying to rocks. Neil’s white clothes were now stained with the red of the sand, camouflaging him. The moment they set him down, Quade raced to the wreckage.
“Don’t move!” he ordered, presumably to her since Neil wasn’t going anywhere. He crawled into a gaping hole near the back and pulled out something way too close to resembling a machine gun. Crude—gray metal with a threaded barrel—but deadly just the same. His gaze never left the direction of the approaching plane as he tore across the sand toward her. She froze, her heart lodged firmly in her throat.
His hand clamped around her arm, startling her heartbeat into action again. The plane appeared over a nearby hill, only a couple hundred feet above them. Seconds later bullets spit across the dirt, sending up explosions of sand.
He jerked her to him as he slammed against the wall of rock. She could feel his heartbeat on her back, hammering as fast as her own. His arm crushed one breast, fingers splaying intimately over the other.
Probably not a good time to point out his bad manners.
His breathing came swiftly against her ear. “Get behind me.”
“Why is this happening?” The words tore out from rigid lips only after he’d released her breasts.
The plane soared in front of them. He pulled her to the other side of the rock where it provided several jagged ledges. He stripped off his black shirt and stuffed it in the waistband of his jeans, his tan skin blending better with the sand and rock.
That hottie can crush my boobs anytime, Roxy said.
With his hands firmly on her hips, Quade backed Clare into a shallow crevice in the rock and plastered himself against her. Her hands had gone up out of instinct and were now molded against his upper back. She could feel the muscles move beneath his skin as he maneuvered. His elbow jabbed her chest as he readied the gun. Complaining wasn’t an option. Neither was enjoying it, she tersely reminded Roxy.
Her voice pushed past the fear and painful tightness. “Who are these people?”
“Montu Durra and his two ugly henchmen. That’s all you want to know.”
“You’re wrong about that. I—”
He pressed tighter against her as the plane turned around and headed back over them. Not that Clare could see anything beyond his wide shoulders and soft black hair. She was engulfed by Quade, his scent, warmth, texture, even the feel of his jeans rubbing against her bare legs.
She was sure she’d stepped into one of her books, some Sedona vortex thing. That would explain Quade being the elusive character, and her body’s awareness of him.
The mystery man was supposed to get tangled up with Roxy, but Clare hadn’t decided if he was a good guy or not. As Quade leaned forward, his head cocked, she had to wonder the same about him.
Bullets screamed through the air, pounding the metal of the downed plane with sharp pings. She heard other metal erupt, too—her Jeep. The gallon jug exploded, and water pooled in the sand. He ducked back into the crevice.
The plane passed over them. He jumped out, aiming the machine gun upward at an angle. His body jerked with the force of the gun. The sound of the plane’s engine changed. Bullseye.
She couldn’t stand being tucked away any longer. On all fours, she inched cautiously from beneath the ledge and saw the plane waver. It regained enough control to turn back toward them, though the engine sputtered. The plane drifted lower, slowing down. He watched it disappear beyond a rise. She held onto her necessary calm like a tattered blanket in a storm.
He sprinted across the sand toward her vehicle. “I hope your Jeep made it.”
It was a long way back without wheels. With the roof and doors removed, the Jeep had been open to assault. Bullets had nicked the steering wheel and penetrated the seats, but the tires and hood looked intact.
He turned the key, and it started. “Help me get him back in the Jeep!” His harsh words snapped her out of her trance of fear.
Neil murmured as they bent him into the back seat again. With the machine gun clutched in his hand, Quade jumped into the driver’s seat. It took only an urgent look from him to get her moving. Stay and possibly meet the guys shooting at them or go with the guy who’d protected her so far—not a hard choice.
The Jeep lurched as he pounded the terrain, following the tracks she’d left earlier. She held onto the roll bar, watching Neil bounce in the seat and hoping his back wasn’t broken. Quade’s expression was a mask of intent, his fingers tight on the steering wheel.
Now’s the time for answers, Roxy said.
I was getting to that.
“Who are you? What the hell is going on? Why are these people after you? Why do you have a machine gun?” The questions rushed out, her voice rising with each one. “Tell me!”
After all that, his only reaction was the ticking muscle in his square jaw.
“Excuse me, but I am talking to you. You know, the guy with the gun and the goons shooting at him. Us.” The muscle ticked again. “Okay, let’s do them one question at a time. Who are you?”
“Now see, that wasn’t so hard. Okay, onto the next round, for two hundred dollars.” She cleared her throat, hoping to eradicate the quiver. “Why are these people after you?”
“The less you know the better.”
“Ah, and we were doing so well.” She glanced behind them but saw nothing but the billowing cloud of dust chasing them like a monster. “Call me silly, but when I get shot at, I like to know why.” His forehead furrowed, but he didn’t look at her.
She wanted to make him stop, or push him out of the Jeep, but she didn’t. The machine gun lying between the seats influenced her decision just a little. Her home rose up from the horizon, but the sight didn’t comfort her. She looked at Quade.
“That your place?” His gaze again flicked to behind them.
She pushed out the word, “Yes.”
Outlaws. Renegades. Who were these men? Headlines screamed through her mind: Woman found hacked to pieces in desert. For all that her life was solitary and bittersweet, it was still the only life she had.
“Leave me at my house. Take the Jeep. You don’t need me.”
“You’re the last thing I need right now. How is he?” he asked, trying to lean around and look at Neil.
“He’s still unconscious, but he’s breathing. Probably not very comfortable.” If only she’d called the police. If only she hadn’t been so damned concerned about inconveniencing anyone.
Quade’s voice was calm, his expression resolute as he looked at her. “You have to come with me.”
Her throat constricted. “What do you mean? Why?”
His gaze swept over her. “It’s sure as hell not because you feel great plastered against my back.”
She could only stare at him. She did? No, no, that wasn’t the point! “I won’t tell anyone what I saw. I can make up a story; I’m good at that. Just leave me here, please.” She sounded like a simpering victim from one of her books, but she didn’t care. This wasn’t fiction. This was her life.
He shook his head, a thread of agony lacing his expression. “Lady, you need to realize something.” His voice shook as they hit a rough patch of ground. “I don’t want to take you as a prisoner. I wish you weren’t involved at all. The men in the plane aren’t going to stop until they find Neil and me. Now they’re going to think you’re involved with us, that you planned to meet us out here.”
“I’ll tell them the truth!”
“Dead women tell no lies,” he said.
“Hey, that’s the name of one of my books.”
“Nothing.” In her novels, even if Roxy didn’t know who the bad guys were, at least Clare did. With what little she had to go on, it didn’t look good that she’d gotten tangled up with the right side. The other side…well, that didn’t look very promising either.