Slattery is working undercover in California but he hates palm trees, sand and sushi. She’s a transplanted Texas gal, almost home folks for a Louisiana native like Pride Slattery. He’s former military with a prosthetic left leg and a dose of PTSD. He almost forgot how to care until he met Sabetha.
My latest romantic suspense Slattery’s Sin releases from World Castle Publishing on June 20 in both eBook and paperback format. Readers can preorder now on Amazon.com. If you like to try before you buy, here’s the entire first chapter. Read it. If you want more, then pre-order it for your Kindle or mark your calendar for June 20.
Living in California, working undercover is still surreal for Louisiana native Pride Slattery. He stands out – because of his unusual name, his military service in Iraq, and even his disability. Although he’s never quite adjusted to Los Angeles, he remains in place because he’s lost any enthusiasm for the future. One day is just like another and he’s schooled himself not to care. Things change, however, when he rescues a stolen purse for a beautiful woman, Sabetha Hill, who turns out to be from back home. He risks his heart for the first time in years as events propel him closer to an unexpected future. When he’s billed as a hero at a traffic accident, Pride is unmasked as a federal agent and danger looms ahead for both him and his lady. Someone will live, someone will die, and whether or not there can be a happy ending rests in Pride’s hands.
Mistake. Some hotshot political pundits and candidates deemed the Iraq conflict one. In Slattery’s world, it wasn’t, not the way the experts deemed.
Failure. Too many armchair soldiers, the kind his dad’s generation had called ‘garret troopers’ and wannabees, said Iraq had been a failure, an exercise in futility. It hadn’t been.
If Slattery accepted either as fact, then his service in the sandbox, his sacrifice meant nothing, and he refused to acknowledge the possibility. Losing his left leg from the knee down had to matter. It needed to represent something. If it didn’t, then it made a difficult thing much harder to deal with. That, piled on top of his inability to sleep well and the nightmares reviving his memories in country became overwhelming. His lingering PTSD provided frequent struggles and inner combat, so Slattery couldn’t bear his service being labeled either mistake or failure. Just couldn’t.
Bad enough that Southern California had an abundance of palm trees and sand, both too reminiscent of the Middle East for his tastes. Or that he was out of his element here, missing the hardwoods and pine forests of his native South. His worn boots stood out among the designer sandals, and his button-down shirts against the bright colored T-shirts with sarcastic sayings. His slow drawl echoed odd among the upscale accents and clipped tones. He refused to eat sushi, wasn’t overly fond of salad, and preferred a good steak to seafood.
Steak, however, wasn’t on the agenda, not when he dwelled in a 400 square foot studio apartment not far off the Sunset Strip, especially not undercover. He could afford it easily enough with his Homeland Security Investigator salary, but it went directly into a bank down in Anaheim while he lived within his means from his cover job paycheck. He put in his hours as a security guard for a company providing muscle for various events and venues. Art galleries, street fairs, parking lots, star-studded movie premiers, museums, conferences, festivals, and trade shows were just some of the gigs he’d worked in the last year. Slattery wore their mundane uniforms, boots that hid his prosthesis, and the assigned trooper hat, and he hated it. He kept to himself, had few friends, and said little. He came across as a loner, a vet who probably was a little unstable, which he wasn’t, and as eccentric, which he was. The fact he lived under deep cover was something no one but his superiors knew.
His widowed mama back in Louisiana thought he’d moved to sunny California because the climate favored his old injuries and lessened his pain. Slattery’s younger brother thought he’d gone movie star crazy and headed for Hollywood to become the next Stallone or Lou Diamond Phillips. Tamara, the woman that Slattery had once believed he would grow old with, thought he’d lost his mind somewhere in the Gulf and had a restraining order against him. Hope, his sister, supported his decision no matter what, although with a husband, three kids, two dogs, and a cat, she lacked much time for an absent brother. She e-mailed pictures of her spawn and pets, often wrote friendly little messages, and called once in a long while. None of them knew he’d taken a job with Homeland Security as an agent. If they had, his cover might be compromised which couldn’t happen.
So he guarded the famous and almost famous at glittering gigs, he stood watch over the public at happy events, or kept order at conferences for dentists or attorneys or carpenters. They came to play, to unwind while he worked, sober-faced and seldom smiled. He’d insisted on living under his real name, something his immediate boss and former squad leader, Pete Beckett, advised against. Since no one really knew him in California, though, and since if anyone researched, he’d check out as exactly what he was, a semi-disabled Army veteran, Beckett reluctantly agreed.
Rain drummed outside the window in a relentless rhythm. Slattery lay awake with his arms tucked behind his head and listened. He hurt too much too sleep, the phantom pain from his absent leg deep and harsh. The knee above it ached too, in sympathy or perhaps with arthritic joint pain. He never knew which and didn’t care. His back twinged enough to hurt as a hundred invisible spiders crawled over his skin. Anxiety came with the PTSD, and his nerves were jonesing. Maybe it was weather-induced with the March rain, or maybe he dreaded the looming weekend, large and empty.
I shoulda worked, he thought, switched shifts with one of the guys with a wife and kids, let them go to the beach or take a studio tour or go to Disneyland. I got nothing to do, nowhere to go, no one to see.
The tight walls of his apartment seemed to have encroached into his space overnight. From the Murphy bed, which he kept out and on the floor at all times, a few steps right took him to the door leading into the dim hallway with cracked tile floors. If he exited left, two steps brought him into the tiny kitchen where he could touch both walls without fully extending his arms or into the bathroom where his knees almost touched the sink when he sat on the commode.
Slattery had room to skirt around the foot of the bed, space for one battered easy chair, a simple desk he’d built from blocks and a board, and his footlocker. A flat-screen television hung on the wall opposite the bed. His faded jeans and plaid shirts filled the drawers of the dresser tucked into one corner. The pressed uniforms he wore to work hung sheathed in plastic, ready to wear, in the dinky closet. A round table with two mismatched chairs was parked in front of the window overlooking the strip of patio provided to tenants.
A sharper pain twinged through his missing leg. He reached into the drawer by the bed for a prescription pain pill, then halted. Slattery sat up, cursing silently, and then fumbled for the cane he sometimes used at home. Better that than hop, he thought, like a fucking bunny rabbit. He headed into the kitchen and picked up the half-empty bottle of Jameson’s Irish whiskey. A glass with dregs from last night rested in the sink. Without hesitation, he picked it up and filled it half full, then downed the smooth but potent liquor.
A shudder trembled through him, and he sighed with relief. “Better damn pain medicine than the pills,” he mumbled aloud. Aware it wouldn’t end the hurt, just dial it down to a bearable level, Slattery plugged in the coffeepot and headed for the bathroom. After a shit, shower, and shave, the pain slackened and he decided he’d live this time.
Two cups of black coffee laced with a splash of the whiskey increased the odds. With no desire to hit the beaches, Slattery decided he would work on his ongoing investigation. After fourteen months, he had a few leads and his gut told him he had something. Drugs earned big money in LA for more than one cartel. Laundering the cash created more criminal activity.
So once he’d had enough coffee to fully rouse and could handle the pain, he attached his prosthesis with simplicity borne of routine. Then he put on his favorite athletic shoes. Once he hit the sidewalks, the shoe would make the going easier than his boots, although he wore the low-heeled boots for work.
Over on Hollywood Boulevard, many if not all of the shops catered to the tourist trade, “tourist traps” Slattery called them. Whether they sold T-shirts, souvenirs, and postcards, or bulk candy or sex toys, or 8 by 10 glossies of the stars, some of them also did a brisk trade in illegal drugs. More than one also made dirty money clean, although he’d yet to prove it or find the evidence he needed. A Laundromat—what his folks called a “washateria” back home—with the unlikely name of “The Swan” had caught his attention some months ago. Slattery would bet his life savings, which totaled in hundreds, that laundering clothing wasn’t the priority. He’d been doing his own wash there, hoping to spot clues, but all he’d ended up with had been clean garments and suspicions, more questions than answers.
Maybe I’ll wash my clothes tomorrow, he thought as he trudged along. Today Slattery had no set destination in mind but he planned to scope out a couple of the stores. He’d use his wits, if he could manage to gather them, and look for anything out of kilter.
Six blocks into his march, Slattery needed a break. His growling gut reminded him he hadn’t fed it anything but coffee and whiskey. He craved food, and he knew a café where he could get fed. The Last Chance occupied an old storefront a block off Hollywood Boulevard. Meals were basic, cheap, and the portions were generous. The food brought him back, but the waitstaff’s smiles and friendly service gave him the closest thing to a sense of home he’d known since leaving Louisiana.
Although the menu failed to offer grits or even biscuits and gravy, Slattery ordered up three eggs over easy with a side of ham.
“I’ll get your order in and it should be out in a flash, babe,” April said. She was his favorite waitress, although she had to be twice his age, maybe more. “You’re lookin’ good.”
“Really? I feel like shit.” Although he used a light tone, he wasn’t joking.
She laughed. “With an appetite like yours, you gotta be healthy, kiddo.”
April put her hand on his shoulder and patted it. “Aw, you’ll feel better after you eat, I bet.”
Although he doubted it, Slattery did. The eggs and ham went down easy and settled in his belly just fine. Like his daddy had always said back home in Shreveport, Louisiana, it was a meal fit for a king. No royal blood flowed in his veins, but he deserved something fine once in a while. He left a generous ten dollar tip tucked under the edge of his saucer for April, paid his tab, and made his way down to Hollywood Boulevard.
The earlier rain had ceased, and even at mid-morning, tourists crowded the sidewalks. Guys in tropical print Hawaiian-style shirts and shorts, shit he’d bet they never wore at home, strolled along beside women with too much makeup and knock-off designer sunglasses, kids trailing in their wake. Native Californians, he’d noticed, had little accent, nothing more than a touch of an urban sound, something similar to the well-schooled tones of a network news anchor. But he heard the twang of Tennessee, the softer drawl of the Deep South, and the broad nasal voices direct from the East Coast. As Slattery moved through them, like a ghost among the living, he caught snatches of their conversations as they babbled about beach trips, their tour of Universal Studios, how they might have seen a star outside CBS, and planning when to visit Disneyland. He’d never visited the theme park and didn’t figure he ever would. Communing with Mickey Mouse or Pluto lacked appeal to him, and he wasn’t sure he could fit into the rides with his artificial leg.
When he got positioned on the sidewalk behind a woman with a bouffant hairdo that would have done Annette Funicello justice fifty years ago, Slattery tried to tune out her voice as she droned on about yesterday’s movie star homes tour. Her tone grated against his uneasy mind and the beginnings of a headache, one of his bad ones, throbbed deep inside his skull. To avoid hearing more and in a desperate attempt to stop the headache before it became full-blown, he ducked into the first souvenir shop available.
Racks of bright orange and hot-pink T-shirts crowded the space near the front, so he pushed past them toward the rear where snow globes featuring California scenes, posters, and cheap plastic products ranging from combs to Frisbees and souvenir cups were stacked almost to the ceiling. He pretended interest in the craptastic junk in an effort to be inconspicuous and relax. The shop ranked high on his list of suspected money-laundering operations, and he’d long thought other scams might be going down. Few customers wandered the aisles so he took his time, ears pricked to hear anything that might yield a clue or valuable information. Two elderly ladies bought a fistful of postcards and a loud purple floral hat. He smiled a little when one of them put it on her head and preened. Old ladies, especially eccentric ones who combined a little crazy with sweetness, appealed to him because they reminded him of his Granny. Although she’d been gone more than ten years, Slattery missed her and her dead-on-balls accurate wit. She’d made a mean homemade cake, yellow with chocolate icing too, and the best damn fried chicken he’d ever passed between his lips.
The ladies exited and a teenage boy paid for a skateboard sporting palm trees. Slattery grabbed a comb, the cheapest thing he saw, and picked up a bottle of water. He’d loitered long enough and so he moved toward the cash register, ready to keep moving until he found something more definitive.
More customers had come into the store, and a line stretched toward the exit door. Slattery moved in that direction but stopped when he saw her.
She wore faded denim jeans and fit into them the way a knife fits the sheath. Her blue jean jacket sported white leather fringes across the back, and she sported turquoise and tan cowboy boots on her feet. Long auburn hair, the color of good bourbon filtered with rays of a setting sun, rippled down her back, and the curls tangled with the fringe. He couldn’t call her fat but she possessed a firm, lovely ass and hips he’d love to plunge between. As she stepped into place in the checkout line, she turned around to scan the store, and he saw her face for the first time.
Oval with high cheekbones hinting at a dash of Native American somewhere in the family tree, he would call her lovely without hesitation, and he was a man not prone to fancy words. Blue eyes so dark Slattery thought they’d make the Pacific seem as gray as an overcast sky glanced through the aisles, and a slight worry line bisected her forehead. A slender nose that turned up just a little at the end gave her face character, and her lips turned downward in a sad expression, full in a way he thought would make them delightful to kiss. Most redheads were fair with porcelain skin, but this one wasn’t. She glowed with a natural bronze, gained from time spent in the sunshine, not a tanning booth.
Slattery ached to see her smile, but her frown deepened. She reached into her small beaded purse and dug around. The worry line increased as she put down the T-shirt and sunglasses in her hand and whirled around, heading outside with speed. Slattery, intrigued and far more attracted than he ought to be, tossed down his merchandise to follow. His leg often impeded his speed but he hurried, afraid he might lose her in the crowds. He had no idea what he might say to her once he caught up, but he ached to make a connection, however slight.
She moved with a quick grace and an ease he lacked, but Slattery managed to keep pace within a few feet. If she hadn’t lurched out of the main foot traffic, though, and leaned against the corner of a building, he might have lost her. He watched as she pawed through her purse again, her motions increasingly frantic and her expression combining worry with fear. He’d known the emotion too often to mistake it, he thought, as he realized something must be wrong.
So he pushed through the tourists and fetched up beside her, his leg protesting with pain, now a Southern gentleman, not a Homeland Security Agent or an Iraq vet or a damned security guard. For the first time in a long time, he became Slattery, his true self, the man behind all the masks. “Honey,” he said and regretted the endearment the moment it slipped between his lips. “Is everything all right?”
The woman froze in place, hands halted within the purse, eyes wide with surprise.
Maybe he’d been too familiar, so he tried again. “Miss? Is something wrong?”
Those blue eyes met his, and Slattery noticed they brimmed with tears. She tilted her head and quirked her lips as she appeared to consider him and his question. He could almost read her thoughts as she gazed at him, apparently assessing his appearance and judging whether or not he was a Good Samaritan or a dangerous criminal. He knew the moment she decided to answer, because the crease between her eyes lessened and her eyes darkened deeper blue.
“Well, sir,” she said and his heart skipped several beats because she spoke his language, not quite Louisiana but close, probably East Texas. “I think someone stole my wallet and if so, I’m in trouble. Most of my money was in it, not to mention my debit and credit cards.”
“Sorry to hear it,” he said. He wondered if she recognized his accent the way he did hers. “Do you know when you had it last?”
“Damned straight,” she said. “I had it before I walked into that tourist trap, but when I got ready to check out, it was gone. I have an idea who took it too.”
Her voice and her sassy manner impressed him more than her good looks. “Do you?”
“I sure do. I don’t know if you would have noticed him, but it was the drugstore cowboy. He wouldn’t get off my tail, and I’m pretty sure he’s the only one close enough to snag my money.”
Slattery laughed. He knew just what she meant when she said “drugstore cowboy”—someone tricked out in Western wear who hadn’t earned the right to wear it, a tenderfoot sporting the clothes without paying the dues. “I saw him,” he said. “Want me to see if I can find him and shake him down for your money?”
A smile flirted with her lips. “Could you?”
“Most likely, if he’s not gone too far.” Slattery turned to survey the street, gazing in both directions. If the guy hadn’t vanished, he should be able to spot the big, white cowboy hat, one too clean and soft to have ever seen service. “He’s probably picking pockets and lifting wallets as he saunters along.”
“I wouldn’t doubt.”
Among the tank tops, muscle shirts, Hawaiian prints, and tourist tees, Slattery caught a glimpse of an emerald green shirt beneath a white hat. He narrowed his gaze and decided he’d spotted the perpetrator. “I think that’s him, halfway down the block, trailing the older gentleman in the hat.”
She followed his gaze and nodded. “It’s him.”
Without thinking, without asking, Slattery went after him, his law enforcement and soldier mentality taking over. He moved with surety through the crowds, for once less aware of any lingering discomfort in his bum leg. As he slipped through the throngs, some stepped away to make way and others never noticed his passage. The cowboy suspect ranked among the clueless. A few paces away, Slattery slowed and watched as the dude reached forward to slide the older man’s wallet from a back pocket with ease. The moment the thief had it in hand, Slattery toppled him. Both went down hard on the sidewalk to a chorus of gasps and a few shrieks.
Slattery hit the cowboy with enough force to send his hat flying and put him on the sidewalk. As the kid—because he noticed he wasn’t very old, early twenties if that—went down, Slattery snatched the billfold from his hands and presented it to the gentleman.
“Thank you, young man. I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t stopped the robbery. All my traveler’s checks and money are in there.”
“Not a problem,” Slattery said. “Glad to help.”
He glared down at the thief. “You took a lady’s wallet in the souvenir shop. Hand it over along with anyone else’s you’ve taken today.”
“I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about,” the cowboy muttered so Slattery hit him across the face.
“Bullshit. Let’s try that again.”
A crowd had gathered with most muttering praise and encouragement, a few bitching.
“I hope you’re a police officer,” one woman said.
Slattery shot her a look. “Close enough,” he replied. He would rather not trot out his security guard identification or his badge, neither of which were on him at the moment. If someone called the cops, they would vouch for him at the station but he’d prefer not to go through the hassle.
“Here it is.” Cowboy thrust a slender red leather wallet toward Slattery. “It’s the only one I took, before this one.”
“It’d better be,” Slattery growled. “Get up and get outta here. Consider this a warning, and if you come around here again, stealing, then I’ll see you get the maximum punishment.”
Someone handed the thief his hat, now dirty, and he grabbed it and then took off running down the street. He didn’t look back, and a couple of the people gathered clapped for Slattery’s effort. He heard it but didn’t respond. By then, he’d already headed back to where the woman waited, her pretty lips stretched out in a smile. She held out her hand and he put her billfold into it.
“Thank you,” she said. “I can’t believe you got it back, but I’m glad you did. I’m Sabetha Hill.”
Slattery admired the sound of her name, soft and yet somehow powerful too. He repeated it, lingering over it because he liked it. “Sabetha,” he said. “I’m pleased to meet you. My name’s Slattery.”
“First or last?”
He tried to sidestep the question. “Can’t it be both?”
After a pause, he sighed “No, it’s my last name.”
Most people gave up and used it but not Sabetha. “What’s your first name?”
Hoping she wouldn’t laugh, the way a lot of people did, he told her. “Pride.”
“Yeah. My daddy picked it out so I’d have some, or so he said.”
The story sounded heartwarming as long as the person hearing it never knew his father, a man who loved the bottle more than his family, a man who’d never prospered and left his wife to support the family even before his death. His mother had always reminded her son that pride was also a sin, a lesson he’d never forgotten.
Sabetha smiled. “I like it,” she said. “It suits you somehow.”
Slattery snorted. “Is that a compliment or an insult?”
“I meant it as a compliment. I guess you’re not too keen on your name?”
She nodded. “So what do I call you? Pride or Slattery?”
He shrugged. “You pick, I don’t care.”
“Slattery for now,” she told him. “Maybe Pride when we’re better acquainted.”
As they talked, she’d counted her money and then put the billfold back into her purse. Sabetha linked her arm through his. “Good. So, Slattery, you didn’t ask about my name.”
“I like it though.”
Laughter bubbled between her lips, as light and intoxicating as pink champagne. “Good. Did you wonder where my parents got it? It’s not very common.”
“So I’ll tell you. My daddy is from a long line of Texans but my mamma is from Kansas, from a little town named…”
“Yep,” she said. “She apparently decided if she ever had a daughter, she’d name her after the town, so here I am.”
Slattery grinned, rare for him, and nodded. “What now? Would you like me to walk you back to the store where you were robbed?”
Sabetha shook her head, and his heart dropped to the pavement. He craved a few more minutes with her, wanted to know more about her, and ached to kiss her. “No,” she told him. “I think the least I can do is buy you lunch or dinner or something. Where would you like to go?”
His first thought was to bed, his second to a movie, but he had no clue what she liked or didn’t. Instead, he attempted to gauge her pocketbook and how much she could afford. The Musso and Frank Grill might have a rich, colorful history dating back before 1920, but he wouldn’t call it inexpensive. A meal at one of the truly expensive eateries wouldn’t be one he’d enjoy, especially if it cost Sabetha more than she could afford.
“Do you have to be anywhere anytime soon?” he asked, a plan forming in his head. “Are you meeting friends or family or anyone?”
“No, I’m open to anything,” she said with a little wink that evoked a rush of wild desire. “I’ve got all the time in the world.”
Slattery grinned. “Good. Now I don’t know how long you’re here or what you’ve seen so far, but I thought maybe…”
“Do you think I’m on vacation?” Sabetha asked. “I live here.”
Oh, Jesus. He’d thought maybe a date or two would liven up his drab existence and leave a few memories to savor after she went home, but she was local. A volatile combination of excitement and fear smote him hard. “So do I,” he told her. “That’s good. So, then, it’s a little early for lunch so I thought maybe we could head over to Hollywood and Highland, look around, maybe grab a burger or something fancier if you want, maybe even see a movie.”
Then he thought maybe he’d suggested more than she expected after a casual encounter and wondered if she might make up an excuse to go home. Maybe she needs to wash her hair or clean out the fridge, he thought. Aloud, he said, “Or is that too much, too soon?”
Her eyes twinkled and she smiled. “It’s perfect, absolutely perfect,” she said and linked her arm through his. “Let’s go, Slattery.”
Pre order now here:
It will be delivered to your Kindle on June 20.
Releases June 20 everywhere in eBook and paperback! Paperback just $10.99.
Pre order now here:
It will be delivered to your Kindle on June 20.
Releases June 20 everywhere in eBook and paperback! Paperback just $10.99.