Mottled clouds marred an early morning summer sky, one as blue as worn denim. The drab brown façade of the apartment building, one of six units, loomed and seemed somehow ominous. He counted the windows and came up with unlucky thirteen. Was it an omen? He wondered and then rejected the notion. Santiago didn’t need a sign to remind him he’d run out of luck. If his situation wasn’t dire, he wouldn’t be here or consider contacting her, but he had nowhere else to go. He hated to involve her and wasn’t even sure she’d help. Hell, he doubted she’d recognize him after fifteen years. His immediate goal, however, was to keep breathing, and if he didn’t find a hiding place soon, his chances of staying alive would be zero.
The first thing most parents and grandparents teach their kids is about stranger danger. Don’t talk to strangers, avoid strangers, and beware of strangers. It’s excellent advice and should never be ignored. I know my grandmother hammered it into me. In my upcoming release on Friday, the title is Stranger Danger. It’s a play on words. It’s literal, because when a man Sara assumes to be a stranger shows up at her door, she’s worried about danger. When she learns it’s her first love, there’s still plenty of danger, both emotional and actual. And then it’s also a stranger (think adjective, not noun) danger.
Ideas come from many directions and sometimes the best ones slam into my consciousness with the force of a home run. My latest, Stranger Danger, out from Evernight Publishing on January 31st, is one of those unexpected winning ideas. The title came to me first, simple and yet evocative. It’s rare I begin with nothing but a title but when I do, the outcome is usually positive. I always check around to see if other works of fiction share the title and if so, I normally junk the notion and go back to the drawing board. No one else had used the title so I decided it would be the name of my next work.
The rest of the idea came to me in slow stages. One summer’s day while I was parked outside the apartment complex where my daughters’ friend lived, waiting to provide mom taxi service, the idea of a man in trouble came to me. I could almost see him, bursting out of the tree line and making a dead run for the apartments, seeking help or sanctuary. But who was he and why? Those were the questions I had to answer before I could start writing.
A few days later, I’d figured out he was Santiago Ruiz, undercover as Javier Morales and deep undercover to infiltrate the infamous M13 gang. And, he’d shared the fact he was about to seek shelter and help from the love of his life, widowed Sara English, a home girl from his native East LA, a woman he hadn’t seen in fifteen years.
I made a trip down to Bentonville, Arkansas a few days later for a little weekend getaway and bam, I decided it was the perfect place to begin my story. So I did. Stranger Danger is the end result.
It’s my first publisher backed release of 2014 and I think my readers will enjoy it. I’m back with Evernight Publishing, my very first publisher and although I never stopped working with them, it’s wonderful to be home where I fit and where I see a bright future ahead. As a writer, I can recommend them highly as professional and top notch all the way. And as a reader, I’m pleased to say I love their titles. Evernight has an amazing group of talented authors writing in diverse romance subgenres.
Here’s the gorgeous cover, the blurb, and a taste from Stranger Danger.
Sara English built a life for herself far from her native Los Angeles. As a widow and proprietor of a florist shop in small town America, she lives a mundane life but she’s never forgotten her first love, Santiago Ruiz or the way he hurt her. When he shows up at her door early one morning, he’s a stranger but the old attraction hasn’t died. Last she knew, he was a cop but now he’s sporting a gang tattoo on his back and he’s on the run. When she freaks out, Santiago swears he’s been in deep cover as Javier Morales for two years but his cover was blown and he’s in danger. As their reunion heats up, the drama reaches a new level when her apartment windows are shattered in a burst of gunfire. They go on the run, first to an isolated mobile home, then to a casino, and then to Tulsa, Oklahoma where a showdown with the gang’s leader is inevitable. Unless Santiago can find a way to change things, he’s a dead man. Sara’s committed to the long haul and hopes for a happy ending – if they can live long enough to find one.
“I don’t know what you want or what you’re selling,” she said in a firm tone. “But I’m not interested.”
“Wait!” He lifted one hand and caught the edge of the door. His body odor, sour and sweaty, filled her nose and she frowned. Some homeless guy begging for a handout first thing in the morning was way too much to bear, but she wasn’t daunted or afraid. Growing up in East LA had made her tough. “Beat it, hombre,” she said. “You’re not welcome here.”
The man lifted his face, and his eyes met hers, blacker than sin and darker than night. Sara stared back, moved despite herself. An odd sense of familiarity prickled, although she’d swear she’d never seen this man before. He sighed and spoke. “La muñequita, por favor.”
She recognized his voice, would’ve known it blindfolded. Stunned, Sara stared. She peeled away the layers of facial hair, erased the grime, and factored in the years. She recognized him now and wondered why she hadn’t on first sight. Once, he’d been as close to her as anyone. Once, she’d known him better than her own soul, and now she spoke his name without thought. “Santiago!”
He answered in the Spanish of his youth, a tongue she knew too although she wasn’t Hispanic. “Si, la muñequita.”
Little doll. No one but Santiago Ruiz had ever used the nickname. He belonged, however, to the old life, to East LA, to California, not her new life in Bentonville. “What are you doing here?” she asked.
A door creaked open down the corridor and a burst of laughter echoed. Before Sara could react, Santiago pushed through the half-open door, shut it, and locked it. He dropped a worn canvas backpack onto the floor.
Flabbergasted, she stared at him. “What’re you doing?” she said, half angry. “You show up at my door looking like hell, stinking like some gnarly refuge from a homeless shelter and shove your way inside? What gives, Santiago?”
Until now, she hadn’t noticed the way he was panting or how agitated he seemed. He pulled her against him, wrapped his arms around her, and kissed her, hard and deep. His lips burned unholy fire against her mouth and against her will, every nerve ending in her body sang a rock and roll tune. His tongue forced entry into her mouth and he French kissed her until she couldn’t breathe. Heat erupted and spread all the way down to her toes. A dizzy sweetness rushed her veins until his rank stench offended her nose so much she broke free.
“God, you smell. What was that, anyway?”
“Adrenalin, mostly,” he said. “I’m sorry, Sara. I didn’t plan to kiss you. It just happened.”
Her legs trembled, unsteady enough that she decided she should sit down. Sara settled into an armchair with a sigh. “What’s going on? Why are you here? And what’s happened? Are you homeless or what?”
His eyes pierced her composure with the keen stare she remembered well. “I’m not homeless although I probably look and smell the part. I’m in danger, Sara. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t serious, but I didn’t have anywhere else to go. I don’t know anyone I can trust in Bentonville except you.”
Santiago’s presence rattled her ever fragile composure, and his story didn’t make any sense. “Okay,” she said after a few moments of thought. “I get that you’re in trouble, but I don’t understand. Why are you in danger?”
Without blinking, he said, “I can’t tell you that, la muñequita. Or I shouldn’t. It would just put you in danger, too.”
She’d forgotten many things, how sexy she’d always found him, how beautiful his eyes were, and how much he could infuriate her.