It’s been a crazy week, thanks to it being yet another competition week, coupled with family stuff (Spring Break!), final copy edits for ONE HOT SECOND, and a car that has the hiccups. When it rains, it pours, right? I didn’t get Teaser Tuesday in (too overwhelmed to remember it until Wednesday, heh), but I’ve got Thursday’s throwback post ready and waiting. ^_^
To celebrate the conclusion of The Earth Angels miniseries with DANGEROUS ANGEL’s release on March 31st, I’m sharing bits and pieces of the series from the three previously published books. Here’s the opening chapter of WOUNDED ANGEL, the third book from the four-part miniseries. Ella Little may have been the most complex heroine I’ve ever created, which means she’s one of my favorites. How else can I feel about a character when I had to consult a psychologist just to make sure she was pieced together right? :D Enjoy!
“Do you want to be helpless? Are you happy with the idea of being someone’s prey? If so, quit now and let the pain win. Quit, I say! But, if you refuse to be a victim, let’s do another five reps!”
Deaf to the heavy metal beat thrumming through the kickboxing gym, Ella Little crouched in front of the long black bag she’d already beaten to within an inch of its life, and went through the drill for what felt like the millionth time. The combination was a tricky one—three sharp left jabs and a fast uppercut right, then into two side knee strikes, aiming for the ribs or kidneys. Next was a flurry of half a dozen close-in body punches and an elbow strike before a front kick to gain space, then finishing off with a pivoting roundhouse kick to the head.
Balance, speed, power. A kill shot in each hit. In order for it to be effective in real life, putting deadly intent behind each hit was the way it had to be trained.
Within The Body Electric’s cavernous kickboxing training room—or the Doom Room, as the more dedicated gym members called it—people were dropping like flies. No surprise there. The trainer was Jacob Braun, perpetually rabid and an agent of Mossad before deciding to retire to Chicago to torture its unsuspecting residents. He was in fine form this blustery March evening; with his eyes bulging and veins popping, he looked like a man who’d missed his daily dose of anti-psychotics. His salt-and-pepper hair was shaved so that it was little more than bristles, and he didn’t need the microphone headgear as he screamed his peculiar brand of motivation while his mad eyes swept the room for easy prey. Ella hardly noticed her co-worker and friend as he pounced on a flagging gym member, far more intent on letting the power sing through each fluid punch and kick.
Though she loved her job as a personal trainer and self-defense instructor at The Body Electric, this was Ella’s favorite part of the week—kickboxing with Jacob. Where else was it legally possible to let her violent flag fly, and even better, have it encouraged? The front kick snapped out, zinging all the way up to her hip, and she couldn’t stop the fierce smile. That one would have buckled an opponent’s knee, no problem, and that knowledge shot satisfaction through her system. That was what this class was all about—survival. Survival of both Jacob’s wild-eyed instruction, and survival of the darkness that could swallow a person whole.
The kind of darkness that had once done its best to swallow her.
Man, she was tired.
To keep her mind off the lava-hot burn of lactic acid in her quads, biceps and deltoids, Ella tightened her pink-gloved fists and let her gaze wander to her neighbors. One of them was bent at the waist with his hands on his knees in a position that showed he was either in the process of regaining his breath or about to hurl. Another was barely managing to lift her foot high enough to reach the bag. Jacob would make them pay for their weakness.
Her bag jounced with the impact of her kick, and its movement coincided with another bag off to her right and ahead a few rows. Someone else was determined not to incur Jacob’s wrath, if the bag’s violent dancing was any indication. Her attention drifted to the man working the bag over like it had done him dirty, and her well-oiled rhythm skipped a beat.
He was a newcomer to their gym, but certainly no newbie to working out. She was sure he was new, because even if the traumas in her former life hadn’t locked her emotions up inside and thrown away the key, she still would have noticed this living testament to testosterone-infused eye-candy the moment he walked through the doors. It was impossible not to notice him. The expanse of his shoulders bared by a tank top could have given Atlas a run for his Titan-y money. The rest of him was just as spectacular; he was a well-proportioned giant in a world that appeared to be toddler-sized by comparison. Like her, his black hair was damp with sweat, and long enough to tumble in waving abandon over his forehead. His sharply angled brows hooded intense eyes that even from this distance she could see were the color of onyx. There was a leanness to his face that granted him a hungry look, with high cheekbones shadowing concave cheeks darkened by a five o’clock shadow, and the faint sneer snarling his upper lip would have done an Elvis impersonator proud. If anything, he looked like he wanted to tear his punching bag a new one and was ready to do it with his bare—
“Are you enjoying your daydream, Ella?”
Her attention snapped back to reality so hard she thought it might have made a noise. With a sinking heart she realized that while she was checking out the vision of sweat-slick masculine perfection a few bags over, Jacob had prowled toward her with all the accuracy of a shark aiming for blood in the water.
“No daydreams here, Jacob.” With renewed focus she attacked the bag in hopes of impressing him. “Just working the reps.”
“And do you know what rep we’re on?”
“Of course I do.” She could bluff with the best of them.
A vein pulsed down the middle of Jacob’s corrugated forehead. “You’re on your sixth rep, which must mean you feel I’m not working you hard enough. Do you think I’m not working you hard enough, Ella?”
“Thank you for the suggestion. Everyone, Ella feels we should do more, so that’s what we’re going to do. Five more reps, double-time!”
It was a wonder she didn’t fall dead under all the lethal stares.
At long last the torture came to an end. The man who had been bent over stumbled from the room while a few others simply dropped where they stood. Ella didn’t bother to look around to what the newcomer was up to; in all probability he was wishing her six feet under like the rest of the class.
“I take it you really like kickboxing?”
In the process of toweling off her face and wishing she could strip out of her high-necked, long-sleeved black compression shirt before she passed out from heat exhaustion, Ella whirled around. Every nerve kicked into high gear as she zeroed in on the man she’d noted earlier, now only a handful of feet away. First Jacob, and now a stranger had snuck up on her. That went against her main survival rule of always being aware of who was around her. This could not be allowed.
“I suppose.” Snappy comebacks weren’t a consideration when her touchy ideals of personal security were compromised. In a world that was far more dangerous than it appeared, getting caught off-guard was an absolute no-no. “Sorry about the extra reps.”
His smile was a slanted work of art, designed for the sole purpose of staggering the planet’s female population. “Don’t be. I need the work, and this was a fun way to do it.”
“I don’t think fun would be the word everyone would use to describe Jacob’s advanced kickboxing class.”
“It’s all in the motivation. Take me, for instance—I’m not happy unless I’m pushed to my limit. Not that I’m a big believer in limits.”
Somehow this wasn’t a shocker. “I think a few people in class hit theirs.”
“You didn’t. You were hitting just as hard at the end as you were at the beginning.”
So he’d noticed her. Ella had no idea if this was a good thing or bad thing. “I’m a trainer here at The Body Electric, certified in strength and conditioning, self-defense and sports medicine. If I can’t take whatever Jacob dishes out, I don’t deserve to work here.” Then she closed her mouth with a click. Good grief, it must be her evening for breaking personal rules. Information meant power, and personal information gave power over her to people who had no right to it. Yet she’d just offered up a cartload of her new life to a perfect stranger like she didn’t know any better. It was like she’d forgotten every stay-alive lesson she’d picked up in the past two years.
Who knew she was such a sucker for a pretty face?
“A personal trainer, huh?” His knockout smile widened, and she made herself look to the task of folding her towel before she blurted her Social Security number and cup size. “That explains it. No wonder I couldn’t keep up with you.”
Ella had to bite her tongue to keep from assuring him that he’d kept up just fine. If she did that, he would know she had been watching him, and that would lead to a conversational brick wall. She didn’t want him to know she’d been aware of his existence. She didn’t want to notice him, period.
Disgusted with her tangled thoughts, she tried to appear professionally aloof as she back-pedaled in the direction of Jacob, snatching up the gym bag that doubled as her bug-out kit. Packed with all the essentials she’d need in an emergency that covered everything from earthquakes to zombie attacks, she never went anywhere without it. “Take a few more of Jacob’s classes and you’ll be up to speed in no time. Have a nice evening.”
“Bye now.” As she turned away, she winced at the faint wisp of the South rolling through the words, overcoming her carefully crafted Chicago-Midwestern monotone. Not good. Tiny imperfections like that might not mean much in the grand scheme of things, but those little things added up. If she wasn’t careful, she’d find herself having to pull up stakes before someone found her.
Out of the corner of his eye, Nate watched as the woman made her retreat. She looped her large gym bag’s shoulder strap across her body, all the while talking to the bristle-haired sadist who’d ground his kickboxing class into the dust. She was an animated little thing, gesturing with graceful hands as she offered up what looked to be a heartfelt mea culpa with big, dark puppy eyes.
Pretty eyes, certainly. Too bad they weren’t the color he remembered.
Bent over his own bag, he wrapped his towel around a holstered semi-automatic pistol, usually secured at the small of his back but now hidden in the bottom of his gym bag. But his attention never veered from his target, watching her out of the corner of his eye and cataloguing every detail. Aside from her gender, her height was about the only accurate thing about her—somewhere around five-six or five-seven. Her build was vastly different from the woman he’d met two years ago. This woman was built like a long-distance runner—all long, lean limbs and finely toned muscle covered in form-fitting workout gear. According to his memory, the woman he was looking for had more meat on her bones. That was definitely his personal preference.
And when she’d looked at him, there had been no recognition. He’d done his best to catch her off-guard, but when her gaze had met his there had been no telltale reaction at all. At least, not on her end. He, on the other hand, was still recovering.
Keeping her in his peripheral view, he rubbed an absent hand over his brow. The way she’d nailed him with that unwavering, bring-it-on regard sent an electrical jolt of hot awareness through his system, momentarily short-circuiting his brain. Beauty he could handle—she was a knockout, no doubt about it—but the power to throw him for a loop with a single glance was flat-out stunning. There was nothing about her that he didn’t find appealing; he even liked the lyrical way she moved, as though gravity didn’t affect her as much as it did everyone else. The way she wore her hair, boyishly short and asymmetrical, made him want to brush the long black bangs out of her face so he could look into those puppy eyes.
Again, pretty hair. And again, wrong color.
Maybe he was wrong. God knew it wouldn’t be the first time.
The kickboxing instructor and the woman headed toward the heavy double doors that led back to the brightly lit main reception area, the hub of the sprawling fitness center. In unhurried movements he did the same, slinging his bag over his shoulder as he went.
“…never forget, you don’t have to worry about that.”
“Then what was the first lesson I taught you, girl?” The older man’s voice, rough from screaming like a bloodthirsty maniac for the past hour, was now calm enough for Nate to pick up on a faint accent. Something foreign, exotic. “Always be aware of your surroundings. Be an animal. They have better instincts than humans. This is what you must be.”
“I know that.” The woman’s voice came as a surprise—cold and hard as steel. Of all the things that didn’t quite mesh with the woman he was looking for, that deadly tone was the one thing that fit like a glove. “Stupid me, I allowed myself to feel safe in your class.”
“You are safe when I’m around,” came the automatic response. “Naturally, you will be safe here. But this lapse…”
“It’s unacceptable. I agree.” Then she stiffened before she shot a deliberate glance over her shoulder, pinning him to the spot—proof that she was more aware of her surroundings than her companion. “Ah… Sorry. Are we blocking your way from getting out of here?”
Translation—stop lurking behind us, creeper. “Actually, I was hoping I could speak with you. I assume that as a personal trainer, you take on private clients?”
It was an impulse. But asking while in front of the older man, someone she clearly trusted, seemed like a decent idea so he rolled with it. When she paused and looked him over as if he were a side of beef that may or may not be rancid, Nate cursed his foundering instincts. God, he hated flying blind like this. Six months since he’d lost his inner compass and he still hadn’t gotten used to running on normal human instincts.
Maybe he was wrong about her.
“My schedule is pretty packed and I only train on-property. If you’re looking for concierge service, you’ll need to talk to another trainer.”
He allowed himself a small sigh of relief. At least it wasn’t a no. “I don’t even know what concierge service is.”
“Jacob here offers in-home personal training sessions, as well as dietary and lifestyle guidance. If that’s what you’re looking for…”
“In-house is good.” It was a cautious way of doing things, with no chance of putting herself in a position where she’d be alone and at the mercy of another. A smart move for any woman, but he liked how this wary trait fit his profile. If only he could see her back, he’d know for certain that she was the one.
She gave him another head-to-toe sweep, and for no reason at all his skin began to heat. “Do you have a particular area you want to target?”
“My focus is to beef up my training for the Chicago marathon. My endurance sucks.” Did Chicago even have a marathon? He was almost sure it did, though he couldn’t imagine anyone voluntarily running in a place that seemed as frozen over as Santa’s backyard. “I’ve been working out on my own but I’ve hit a plateau. When you told me what your specialty is, it seemed like a sign from above.”
Her friend, Jacob, grunted a sound that could have meant anything before he took his leave through the heavy doors. Nate watched the older man go with a surge of two-toned relief. Not only did his absence signal that Nate had been deemed harmless, but now that he had her all to himself he had a sudden urge to take her off to someplace one hell of a lot more private than a gym doorway.
She watched Jacob’s retreat as well before she turned her attention back to him. “The marathon is in October, so…seven months from now. Plenty of time to get your stamina up to the level you need, as long as you’re serious about this.”
“Trust me, I’m serious about everything I do.”
“I don’t trust without a very good reason.”
He searched her face, trying to superimpose the memory of a shattered woman, pale from blood loss and near death, over the woman who stood before him now. There were many differences, but…yeah. She could be the one. “I’m guessing I’ll have to work hard to earn that trust.”
“And maybe not even then.” She dug through her packed duffle bag, a bulky nondescript thing as understated as the rest of her outfit. To his eyes, everything about her whispered at trying to be invisible. “Here’s my card with my email and the number for The Body Electric—just leave a message for Ella. If you’re really serious about this, give me a call or drop me an email that includes your contact info so we can figure out a schedule that works for both of us. Though I should warn you—as packed as my schedule is, it’s entirely possible I can’t accommodate the times you’ll be free to train.”
“I’ll make sure our schedules will mesh…” He looked down at the card. “Ms. Little.”
“Ella, please. And you are…?”
“Nate da Luca. Call me Nate.”
“Call me when you’re ready.” And before he could offer a hand she was through the doors, while his hand inexplicably tingled at the lost opportunity to touch hers.
By the way, something REALLY AMAZING also happened this week along with all the other craziness. "March Madness" for the romance world is starting again—the annual DABWAHA tournament has begun! Out of the thousands of romance novels published throughout 2013, 64 titles have been chosen to go head to head… and my novella, STARTING FROM SCRATCH was one of them! More on this on tomorrow’s post. ;)
Blurb for WOUNDED ANGEL:
Book three of The Earth Angels
A descendant of the Angel of Vengeance, Nate da Luca was gifted with an uncanny ability to find things. It made his job as a detective a breeze—until he learned the hard way that some things should remain hidden. After that, his powers vanished, along with his belief in himself. Which is going to make tracking down Gabriella Littlefield for his latest client a challenge.
Personal trainer Ella Little paid a hefty price for her life—now all she wants is to live it in peace. Then a sexy hulk of a man turns up in her gym, reigniting desires she thought she'd left behind along with her real name and hair color.
Desires she can't deny even after she discovers Nate's no stranger to her dark past.
Before he can convince her the attraction is mutual, Nate's going to have to earn Ella's trust. But a demon is playing for keeps in the world of humans, using Ella as bait, and the last thing they have is time…
Go back to the beginning with Nobody's Angel, available now!