Sneak Peak from Load Up

Chapter 1

“Larklyn Davis! I know you’re in there. Come out here!”

            I jumped at the sound of Gerald’s voice in my dream, sitting straight up before realizing that the voice bled into real life. And that there would be no going back to sleep to ignore it.

As the little house shuddered under the incessant banging on the door, I looked around my room for anything that might resemble clothing while still struggling to convince my muscles that we needed to get out of bed. Clean clothing… clean would be important. Or would it? Did I care if I smelled? Not as much as I should’ve.

            “I’m coming.” My attempt at a yell came out as a mumble, but it was what I had at that moment. Mumbles, no clean clothes, and a body that was too tired to cooperate.    

Spotting a sweatshirt, I fumbled out of the bed, tripping on sheets that seemed to have wound themselves around my leg while I slept, before reaching my goal. Bending over, I grabbed a red sweatshirt, trying to throw it over my head without smelling as I turned to the door. My pajama pants would have to do.

            And the world turned a fluffy red. Blink.

Why was it red again? Oh, right. Sweatshirt. There were three holes in the garment, just three. All I had to do was find the largest and stuff my head into it. I could do that. I was a capable adult. Also, arms were optional. I could go out there without arms. I had no shame at this point. Not at this time of the morning, not without coffee.

           Bang, bang, bang!

            Scratch that. I was a capable adult with really annoying neighbors. I might need the arms to slap him silly. I was sure Benny, the town’s chief of police, would understand. Maybe it would count as self-defense.

            “I’m coming!” This time I got more volume, forcing it out as I found the collar and pushed my head through. Once I had one hole down, the arms were easier, and I started heading in the direction of the door.


            Yeah, that one was me. Oww. Concentrating on getting my eyes a little more focused as I rubbed my forehead, I tried for the doorway again, that time making it through.

Bang. Bang. Rattle.

“I’m coming!” Why? Why was he at my door at this time of day? The sun wasn’t even— okay, the sun was up, but still. It was too early. I glared at the end of the hallway where the front door was supposed to be. At least he wasn’t going for the doorbell. I didn’t know if I would be able to withstand the doorbell going off like this. Oh, wait. I disabled it after my last early morning visit from Gerald. Sometimes I impressed myself.

Other days I struggled to put on a sweater. It was a give and take.

I stumbled down the hall, still trying to locate the front door. I didn’t seem up to the challenge. I did, however, find the clock that we had hung on the wall in the hallway and read the time. Six a.m. Why? Why was he here at six a.m? I hadn’t even found my coffee maker, much less made a cup of my life-saving magic brew. How was he expecting me to function?

Maybe that was the point. He wanted me nonfunctional. Son of a biscuit.

Hailey stumbled out of her room as I passed, blinking up at me through tangled blonde hair as she looked around. The last thing I needed was for her to be in hearing distance for this. Good parents would know what to do. They would… tell her to get ready for school. Yes! Even without coffee, I could parent. Go me.

“Go get ready for school, Hailey Bailey. I’ve got this,” I told her, waving at her bathroom.

“Mom. It’s too early.” She blinked at me, too rapidly to be actually focusing. More likely her eyelids didn’t want to stay open, and she was fighting them.

“Can you go back to sleep?” I asked hopefully. If she could go back to sleep, that would be great.

Bang. Bang. Bang.

“Not anymore.”

Yeah, I got that.

“Then go get ready.”

She sent me a baby glare but walked toward the bathroom. I had overcome the first challenge today—getting a seven-year-old to go to the bathroom. I was killing this parenting thing. Also, evidently waking her up at six a.m. meant she was too tired to argue with me. Good to know.

After pulling my light golden-brown hair into a bun with a mystery hair tie I found on the side table, I whipped open the door to confront the glowering older man on the other side. I knew he was only sixty because I had no shame and checked after our first confrontation. Twice, frankly, because his miserable demeanor and bad posture made him look ten years older. At least. Deep wrinkles, skin that told the tale of being out in the sun too long, and a slump that hinted at hunchback, the man hit me with his best frown. Grumpy, otherwise known as Gerald Pratchett, was our Homeowner’s Association president, and since his election a year ago, he had been ruling our small neighborhood with an iron complaint log.

I’d been one of the lucky few to not gain his attention until a murderer started delivering body parts to me. An arm, leg, and a body later, we caught the killer with the help of the victim’s cousin, Detective Brecken Wilson, aka Captain America, and my daughter’s aggressively stranger-abhorrent mare, Twice. However, Gerald didn’t see my involvement as helping to make the community safer. He saw me as a body-part attracting nuisance. And not even my grandmother’s considerable influence would change his mind. I kind of respected him more for it, even while it annoyed me and everyone else in his blast zone of complaints.

“Hello, Gerald. What can I help you with today?” That was polite. Hey, look at me being all mature and stuff.

“Your lawn.”

I looked around. I didn’t see anything wrong. It was a lawn. Okay, it was mostly lawn, and a few rose bushes that had seen better days, but my gardener was keeping them alive by sheer force of will.

“My lawn’s regulation height,” I said, hoping that would be it. That he might just walk away, and we could forget—

“It’s that.” His arm came flying out so quickly I flinched back slightly. “That… hippy dippy, bohemian, evil circle.”

 My tired eyes squinted in the direction of his arm even as they still struggled to focus. Oh. That.

Coffee. I needed coffee.

He pointed at the corner of my lawn where my only tree was located. Or, more specifically, underneath, were there was a circle of stones with beautiful white and lavender flowers interwoven. Above the circle hung candle holders with purple and green glass. There were even a few fairy sculptures hidden in the plants to give it a truly magical feel. It was beautiful, a result of my daughter’s enthusiasm and my friend Annie’s gardening talents. And compliant with the HOA rules. I checked. Then had my best friend Jen check, because she was better at those things than me.

“Bohemian?” I really don’t know if I would call it bohemian. More… whimsical.

“It’s an eyesore.”

“It’s beautiful. Also, it’s all compliant. I checked.” And why couldn’t we have had this conversation at a reasonable time? Or at least after coffee?

“She’s right, Gerald. I checked when Annie was putting it in.” Edith, my neighbor to the left, waddled over, reaching the white picket fence and leaning forward to be part of our conversation. I stared for a second trying to understand why anyone would be out of their house this early, not to mention dressed.

At the ageless side of ancient, I had no idea how old Edith was, but I knew she couldn’t drive anymore because Benny took her license. Which wasn’t legal, but in Barrow Bay, we didn’t care about that so much as not dying from people whose reaction times were measured in minutes.

She always wore skirts, no matter what the weather was doing. Because real ladies always wore skirts. She gave me a pass, since I was a divorced woman supporting a child on my own. Edith might have missed whole sections of the women’s liberation movement, but she believed that real ladies did what they needed to do to get the job done. Even if that meant wearing pants. She had earned my everlasting love by including me in her definition of a lady, even if only by exceptions. Validation was rare these days.

As she got closer, I noticed that she was perfectly put together, her hair done, and in full makeup.

How? How could she be functioning so early?

“No, she isn’t,” Fitz, my neighbor to the north, called out over the fence as he joined us from his porch. He was also perfectly dressed, including a bow tie. Because who else would live near a lady but a genuine gentleman, complete with vest and bow tie? Yes, at six a.m. Why was he on his porch? Was there a six a.m. social gathering I had been missing all these years while I slept? If there was, I was comfortable missing it.

“Yes, she is. I measured the boundaries myself. No more than two yards from the base of the tree,” Edith yelled back. She really had to strain to get it across my yard to his ears, but she did it.

“It’s one yard,” Fitz countered.


I covered my eyes for a moment. It would’ve been easier to plant a new tree in the backyard for the circle to be under. Next time I would do just that. Getting the extra sleep back by not having this debate would’ve been worth the money. Or, maybe I could have convinced them that it didn’t really need to be by a tree. Yeah, that might have been the best idea.

Also, why did the HOA go with yards? That seemed like a weird distinction. Most people used feet.

“It blends in with the rose bushes. They are at two yards,” Edith shouted at him. Gerald, who looked proud of the chaos he had brought to my doorstep, just pulled out his measuring tape.

“The roses are at two yards. But she got a waiver because the bushes were there before the rule to limit plants to within one yard of any tree or structure,” Fitz called out, still standing behind his fence, projecting his voice across my lawn to Edith, who also stood in her own yard. “The new circle isn’t included in the waiver.”

It was too early for this. I rubbed my eyes, hoping that all three of them would disappear and I would be back in bed. No such luck.

For a second I entertained correcting Edith. Fitz was right, that the circle needed to be one yard from the tree, not including the rose bushes that did have a waiver, given by the last HOA president, to be two yards from the house. but that seemed like too much work.

“Well, let’s measure and get this over with,” Gerald said with a gleam of satisfaction. He was losing control of his glee, the corners of his mouth twitching up, already imagining the lengthy fine he was going to write me.

Too bad he was wrong. I had measured twice. All that gloating for nothing. It was almost sad. This was the closest I had ever seen him to a smile.

I watched him walk over, Fitz and Edith both still yelling around us about whether or not my garden met standards. I was somewhat disturbed by how much attention they’d paid to my yard, but this was Barrow Bay. I had to love it or it would drive us all crazy.

Oh! They measure the yard in yards. I got it now. Okay. That was kind of funny. Must have been the last president.

He pulled out the measuring tape, making sure to dig it in as far as possible. Just in case I was a quarter of an inch out of bounds. Then he carefully pulled out the tape measure to one yard and slowly put it down.

Yep. One and a half inches short of one yard. I was in the clear.

Gerald’s almost-smirk dropped into a scowl and he let the tape measure pull in with a click.

“Anything else?” I asked, trying to hold back my own grin. Gloating would only make it worse. But it was so tempting. “And next time can we please do this at a more reasonable hour of the day?” I just had to tack that on there, didn’t I? It wasn’t going to go over well.

“Not everyone is as lazy as you. Sleeping all morning when there are chores to be done.”

Yeah, because six a.m. was the only time to do chores. If we ignored the other twenty-three hours in the day.

“Yep. That’s me. Are we done?” I responded, my tone even and face blank. I was super impressed with myself. I’d been practicing.

“No. I have a noise complaint,” he said, his eyes narrowed on my face, as if he could see the gloating smile I was hiding and wanted revenge. No. That was just silly.

Or, maybe I was gloating. Maybe I should’ve practiced more.

“A noise complaint? From who—?” I tried to snap my mouth closed before I finished the surprised question, but I hadn’t closed it soon enough. I had been so sure I learned my lesson the last time. Not so much.

“You know I can’t reveal the complaint origin.” No, because even the dumbest criminal knew not to incriminate themselves. “But this is your third complaint in the past month.”

All of them were him. I knew it. Most of my neighbors were deaf, and the rest loved me. Only he would care.

“When was the complaint?” I asked, extra careful to keep my face blank this time. Take the bait, you evil cretin.

“Last night at seven.” He looked down at his notebook as if looking it up. “Loud music.”

Gotcha. Although, I was kind of happy that he thought I was cool enough to have loud music. Maybe he thought it was loud kid-movie songs.

“Hailey and I were at Gran’s last night.”

“Yes. They didn’t get home until almost nine,” Edith added.

“No, it was eight thirty,” Fitz disagreed.

“It was nine. Because my shows were just coming on.”

They were both wrong. It had been eight forty-five. But why bother correcting them?

“Your shows start at eight, you old nosy-body.”

I quirked an eyebrow at Fitz. ‘Nosy-body?’ Was that a real insult? I mean, she was nosy. And a body. I guessed it was accurate, but it didn’t sound right.

“No, that’s on Tuesdays. On Wednesday they start at nine.”



I was getting a headache. And a desperate need for a large quantity of caffeine.

“Are we done?” I made my voice carry over my neighbors’ bickering, trying to force Gerald to concede the field.

“No. I’ll be back.” Gerald shot me a severe frown before backing away and stalking down my walkway.

I had to say, he did the Terminator proud. Well, his accent could be better.

“He really doesn’t like you,” Edith commented.

“It’s the roses. Three yards. Blasphemy.” Fitz walked back in his house before I could ask him what God had to do with rose bushes. Too bad.

“Have you heard anything about the new neighbors across the street?” Edith asked as we both glanced over at the ‘sold’ sign. I hadn’t even known it was for sale. The sign just showed up one morning with Judy’s picture and a moving van for the leftover furniture. The whole neighborhood was atwitter with who it could be. The elderly couple who’d lived there previously had gone into a nursing home a few months back, but they had said they wanted to hold onto the house until they found the right people. I guess they found them.

“Not a thing. Gran and Aunt Helen were completely quiet on the subject.” Which meant they knew something, but I hadn’t managed to get it out of them yet.

“Interesting. I guess we’ll find out soon. Judy told me that the moving van was coming tomorrow.” She nodded to me, then leaned closer. “And don’t you listen to those two, Lark. A bunch of fuddy-duddies. You go ahead and keep your goblin circle.” With that rousing show of support, she also turned and went back inside her house.

I guessed the nosy neighbor show was done for the morning.

“Gerald! Oh, Gerald!”

I was wrong.

Nancy, who lived four houses down from me, right next to Gerald, shuffled down the street in what I was sure was meant to be a run, away from Ruth, who lived on the other side of her. Being near to legally blind even with corrective lenses, Nancy no longer took long confident strides, but instead took short, choppy steps, each meant to brace the other in case she ran into something. Today she wore a large-rimmed purple lady’s hat, with a red dress that looked more like a muumuu from Hawaii. Gerald, seeing her coming, tried to flee, but she moved quick, if not confidently, and she rapidly overtook him.

I also might’ve followed a little, hiding behind Fitz’s boxwood hedge bushes so I could hear them because I loved watching him wince.

“Gerald. Whew. I thought I might not catch up with you. Didn’t you hear me calling? I would think that the HOA president would be able to hear well, if for nothing else than to be able to address our complaints. Maybe you should get your hearing checked.”

I love Nancy. Love her!

“That’s because…” He stopped, taking a deep breath as his eyes rolled up for a second before dropping to look at Nancy again. “What can I do for you, Nancy?”

“It’s the raccoon. It was in my backyard again last night. This is my fifth complaint. When are you going to do something about it?”

“Nancy, you are the only one complaining about the raccoon. No one else has even seen it. There isn’t any raccoon this far into town. You probably saw someone’s cat.”

“I didn’t. I saw a raccoon. Are you saying that I don’t know the difference between a cat and a raccoon?”

Yes. That was exactly what he was saying. Because she was blind as a bat. But he couldn’t say that. Ooh, this was getting good.

“No… no, I am not saying that. It’s just… it’s the kids…” He stopped and took a deep breath. “Fine. I will… call the exterminators out.” He waved her away from him as he tried to turn, but she stopped him with a warning look.

“You said you would do that last week.”

“I got busy. I own my own business, you know,” he snapped.

“Maybe that’s a problem.” She sniffed at him and turned away. “Maybe we should find a president that takes care of the complaints of his constituents instead of picking on innocent single mothers.”

Note to self: I needed to hang out with Nancy more.

Gerald flushed red and started sputtering.

“If you don’t do something, I am going to take things into my own hands. And tell everyone how you refused to handle it.” She shook a fist at him, and he turned another shade darker.

Yep. It was time to run before he saw me.

Sneak Peak from Number’s Up

Chapter 1      

I had ruined my life.

Which was a problem, because I, Jennifer Ward, MBA, CPA, and business consultant, liked my life.

The minute I opened my door to a giant in an FBI coat holding up a piece of paper, along with a black, square-shaped object that he flipped open and then closed again, I knew it. I blinked and both were gone, but I assumed from the paper I couldn’t rip my eyes away from, it was a badge. 

An FBI agent plus a warrant? Yep. I had ruined my life. Stupid morals. Why had I reported them? Was it really the right thing? Yes. Insider trading was a big deal. And illegal. And that mattered to me, no matter how much it destroyed everything I had built.

“Jennifer Ward?” He waited for my nod before continuing, “My name is Special Agent Nicholas Kelly. I’m with the FBI. We have a warrant to search your house and office.” He scanned me before one eyebrow lifted. Just like Spock from Star Trek. Well, if Spock had been a six-foot-six brunet with hazel eyes and powerful shoulders that looked like he would fit in on the field of some sport. Damn. I was not going to admit how sexy that was. “Also, as much as I appreciate the view, it might help if you put on more clothing.”

 This was a learning experience. Leggings and a camisole without a bra didn’t cut it for the FBI investigative team. Any other time, I would have appreciated him letting me change. Today? Today, I was too mortified to think rationally, which was my excuse for snapping back.

“I’m sorry I didn’t dress to impress. What’s the normal dress code for letting the FBI search my house and home office? An orange jumpsuit and a straitjacket?” Oh, please don’t let my lawyer hear that I said that. He might fire me as a client right then and there.

He took another long look, running his eyes up and down me as he thought, his lips twitching slightly upwards. I had amused him.

I ignored the tingles his gaze caused, focusing on my disapproving frown instead. I was not going to find someone like him attractive. Nope. With a ready smirk, relaxed stance, and confidence seeping out of every pore, here stood a charmer, a lady’s man, a rake. I had gone out with bad boys before and this man was their king. He probably had plenty of girls at every stop. Ones he never thought of after he was gone. I didn’t need another playboy. They were never as much fun as I always hoped. This giant version was not going to make me crack. I wanted a nice man. Responsible. Faithful. That was what I was looking for. Someone loyal and boring.

“Well, I don’t think orange would be your color, but it’s your choice.” Then he stopped, his eyes stuck south of my face, a slight ring of red coming to his cheeks. “Yeah, I would definitely recommend changing.”

I looked down and ran away. Tingles and no bra were a bad combo. Abandoning the door since I couldn’t stop him and any other agent with him anyway, I made a beeline to my bedroom, because a bra was needed, and it was needed now. I made sure the door was closed before I took off my camisole, grabbing underwear and a more conservative blouse from my closet.

Why was everything I owned fashionable and form-fitting? I didn’t want to be cute right now. I wanted to be… was there a word for unattractive without actually being unattractive? If not, there should be. Unisex? No, that wasn’t right.

“I can’t actually have you in the house without supervision. You might be destroying evidence in there,” came the deep voice through the door.

“You open that door and I may have to kill you.”

He wouldn’t open that door. Would he? I froze, staring at the knob, praying that it didn’t open before I got my shirt on.

Shit. If I had limited time to get dressed, freezing was the wrong call. I pulled the professional button-up blue shirt over my head, sweeping my hair into a messy bun instead of brushing it into a neat ponytail and jumped to the door, swinging it open before he could.

He was on the other side grinning at me. “You know, threatening a federal agent is against the law.”

“I’ll take my chances,” I muttered back. “What do you want?” Stupid question. I stood behind it anyways.

“We have a warrant to search your home and office for evidence of insider trading from one of your clients.”

Today’s federal agents were a gift from Tony Harris himself. I would have to thank Tony with a basket of snakes the next time I saw him. Non-poisonous ones, of course. I wasn’t stupid enough to kill him. Just maim him a little. Tony Harris was a horrible man that my firm had been representing for years, up until a few months ago, when we dropped him due to conflicts with his business account.

Those conflicts really had been me, not that I told my business partner, Henry, that. Finding out that Tony had been doing insider trading and that my partner had been covering it up had really broken my trust. As far as I knew, no one had found out who’d reported it in the first place.

No one knew I had betrayed them.

No. I reported them. It wasn’t betrayal. It was morally right. It just felt like betrayal.

I needed to clean something. Anything. There had to be something to clean. There wasn’t, not that the agents would let me, anyway.

“Fine.” My lawyer had been very clear on this point. Don’t bother the federal agents. Let them look at anything they wanted to. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t try to maintain some control. Maybe I could try to protect my other customers a little bit. “Tell me what files you want—”

“Not how this works, sweetheart. You sit over in the living room and I will be over to interview you.”

Sweetheart? Oh, no. Uh-uh, nay, nope, negative, vetoed.

I could feel my face turn hot, but I pressed my lips together to keep anything stupid from coming out of my mouth. I was a professional. I could stay calm and respectful.

I would just let him know that I would not be condescended to like that. Not in my home. I didn’t care if he was a six-foot-six giant of a man with the most beautiful hazel eyes that I had ever seen. They started out blue on the outside, before a starburst of brown exploded in the center, spreading out like someone had spilled golden paint—

No. He was condescending. A bad boy. And he thought that I might be a criminal. He was not a dating prospect.

Also, I would not be relegated to the couch as his team of… of… people came in and… did their job. That rant went downhill quickly. It didn’t matter. I was still angry. I wasn’t going to let logic stop me. My life was going down in self-created flames. And I needed someone to blame for it.

“I will not be told to sit down like I’m a criminal.” Again, maybe that wasn’t the best argument. Since my business partner might have been a criminal, and all. “Fine. I will wait in the living room.” No, that was too easy for him. I couldn’t let it go like that. “After I make some tea.”

“Some tea?” he asked, his head tilted to the side slightly. “What kind of tea?”

“Like you care.” I stomped away, trying not to notice that he was following instead of meeting with the other FBI agents mingling around my house. No, refusing to notice was passive, and I was not passive. I was just going to ignore him following me. Actively.

I was attempting not to obsess over the fact that I didn’t let them in. I had lost control of our business and now my own house. I clenched my hands to stop myself from kicking them out. Restoring order. No, right now the only control I had was over myself, and I was going to be fabulous at that. I was going to stay in control. No matter what.

I was not going to worry that they were moving my stuff. Although, now that I noticed, I had to admit they were moving it very carefully, searching through items before putting them back in place where they found them.

Which was weird, right? I mean, on TV shows, the police and federal agents would tear everything apart trying to find the missing information. The people in my house were polite. Yes, they were going through my stuff, but slowly. Methodically. Then returning it to nearly the same condition.

It was weird. Appreciated, but weird.

But still, I hadn’t let them in. They just came in.

Court-approved entry. They were in charge. I was in hell.

Making it to the kitchen, I pulled out my loose leaf tea pot brewer, the one that had the tea in the center and heated the water to the perfect temperature based on the type, and started putting together a cup of my vanilla Ceylon tea. Hmm, I hadn’t worked out today. Maybe I should go light on the sugar? I loved my curves, but currently I was a little too curvy, right around my waist.

“What kind of tea is that?” he asked, staring at the brewer with his nostrils flaring as he inhaled the scent from where he stood.

He was going to make fun of my tea, I just knew it. He was probably a coffee drinker. I looked him up and down. Black. I was willing to bet he drank coffee black; sugar and crème being too wussy for an agent like him. 

“Does it matter?” Scratch the diet. I could already tell that this was not a diet day. Extra sugar. Maybe it would improve my mood. Sugar makes me happy and happy people don’t kill FBI agents. Yep, I was sacrificing my diet so I wouldn’t go to jail.

“I guess it doesn’t. I was just curious.” He meandered through my kitchen, picking up things and then putting them down. Because that wasn’t obnoxious to someone who liked control as much as I did.

“I don’t have any evidence in here,” I snapped. I needed to calm down. Calm and professional. It was expected that they would look around my house. This was their job. This wasn’t their fault; it was Henry’s for helping to commit a crime.

And maybe a little of mine for betraying and turning in my mentor and business partner for that crime.

I turned to face the counter as my heart constricted in my chest. No, I had done the right thing. It wasn’t my fault. Mostly.

“Probably not. I was just getting to know you a little more.”

“And what have you figured out?”

“Workaholic, but I knew that from your work hours. Neat freak.” He nodded around the room, pointing out that everything was in its place, every dish cleaned. “Single, and from the look of the book collection, chronically so.”

I felt my face flush at his last statement. Yes, I was chronically single. My last boyfriend was a huge, cheating, man-whore mistake that I tried not to think about, and Barrow Bay wasn’t the best place to try to attract a man. I looked at the self-help dating books he referenced. I knew how many there were. Six. Six times that I had decided to take my own happiness by the horns and find the love I wanted. I had failed. No, it was worse— I’d barely tried. 

The real problem was that I worked too much. It was hard to compete with girls that actually remembered their accounts and responded back when it came to online dating. I would get lost in work and forget to respond. A lot. It was almost as bad as how often I forgot to buy groceries. I looked around. Which I hadn’t done this week, either.

“Hmm, no protest?” He watched me closely, waiting for an outburst.

I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction. I bit my lips closed and held myself still, not giving an inch.

“Contained.” He took a step towards me, meeting my eyes with a slight smile. “Meticulous.” Another step. “Detailed.” Another. “Passionate.” His voice trailed off as his last step took him next to me, his body inches away from mine. I lifted my chin so I could keep his gaze. “About your job. The perfect accountant.” His voice had lowered to a whisper. I was slightly dazed by his proximity.

Why was he so close?

He leaned closer to speak into my ear, his breath sending shivers down my spine. “I don’t trust perfection. It’s always hiding something. What are you hiding? Are you as morally bankrupt as your partner? Does your pretty face hide a black heart?”

I was so focused on his body and his breath that it took me a moment to understand what he said. He stayed next to me after he asked his question, holding me in his spell for a second longer than I should have allowed. He smelled so good. Spices and musk. I couldn’t stop myself from taking a deep breath before the moment broke.

“What?” Did he say I had a black heart?

Was he… did he just try to seduce me in my own kitchen? While his team looked through my house? For a confession? How. Dare. He.

I opened my mouth to lay into him.


He lifted a finger to tell me to wait while he answered his phone.

Did he just…? And I actually stopped…? No.

“Nic,” he grunted into the phone.

I watched as he nodded a few times, listening to the person on the other side of the phone.

“Right. I’ll be there in a few.” He hung up and turned to me. “I have to go, sweetheart, but I’ll be back.”

“Don’t call me ‘sweetheart,’” I ground out between my teeth as he began walking away.

“Why? Are you not sweet?” He sent me a smirk over his shoulder.

“Because you will never find out.” My teeth were clenched so tightly that my jaw hurt, but I hadn’t cracked completely. “Those of us with hidden black hearts are picky about who we let taste us.”

Oh my god. That sounded better and way less dirty in my head. Way less dirty. Like, epically less dirty. Shit.

His smirk spread over his face. He turned and walked back to me, crowding me once again to see if I would take a step back.

I didn’t.

I should have, but I didn’t.

“You, sweetheart, might be worth the taste. Also, you might want to clear out while we search. It’s going to be a while. We can do the interview later.” Then he spun around and left.

He was everything I was taught Satan would be. Temptation wrapped in a package that would destroy me if I took the bait. So I wouldn’t. I hadn’t backed down. But I didn’t think I’d won that battle.

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Leg Up Reviews

The reviews are coming in and all of them love Leg Up. What a blessing to have such wonderful people reviewing my book, and their kind words have meant so much to me. Check out their reviews, and others, here:

” My rating for Leg Up by Annabelle Hunter is five stars. This book was magnificent. I laughed out loud so many times. Lark is an excellent sleuth, her family is nuts in a good way, and Barrow Bay is a place I could easily hang out. I can’t wait to read more of this series. ” – Baroness Book Trove

For the full review, click here

“Leg Up is literally a ton of fun to read! I loved every bit of it! 5 stars!” – Nadaness in Motion

For the full review, click here

“Snarky sarcasm rules the day and we also get a fun peek into a crime writer’s mind. I would very much enjoy spending time around a table at an author’s convention with Annabelle Hunter.” – Laura’s Interests 

For the rest of the review, click here.

“Leg Up is one of the best cozy stories that I have ever read.” – The Book Decoder

For the rest of the review, click here.

“What a wonderful light read and a great addition to the Cozy stable!” – A Wytch’s Book Review 

For the rest of the review, click here.

Stir Up Blog Tour!

Starting in August I will have a Stir Up Blog Tour coming! Check out these great reviews for some fabulous recommendations.


August 12 – A Wytch’s Book Review Blog – REVIEW

August 12 – Escape With Dollycas Into A Good Book – SPOTLIGHT   

August 13 – I’m All About Books – CHARACTER GUEST POST

August 14 – Babs Book Bistro – SPOTLIGHT


August 15 – MJB Reviewers – AUTHOR INTERVIEW

August 16 – The Self-Rescue Princess – CHARACTER INTERVIEW

August 17 – Celticlady’s Reviews – SPOTLIGHT

August 17 – StoreyBook Reviews – GUEST POST

August 17 – Christa Reads and Writes – REVIEW

August 18 – LibriAmoriMiei – REVIEW

August 19 – Cozy Up With Kathy – CHARACTER GUEST POST

August 20 – A Blue Million Books – AUTHOR INTERVIEW

August 20 – The Pulp and Mystery Shelf – GUEST POST

August 21 – Elizabeth McKenna – Author – SPOTLIGHT

August 21 – The Book Decoder – REVIEW

August 22 – Mysteries with Character – REVIEW

August 23 – Literary Gold – SPOTLIGHT

August 23 – Celticlady’s Reviews – SPOTLIGHT

August 24 – I Read What You Write – SPOTLIGHT

August 25 – Readeropolis – SPOTLIGHT

Click here to find out more about the blog tour.

Sneak Peak from Book 2!

Chapter 1 

“You stole my horse!”

The accusation came bellowing down my barn, bouncing off the metal walls as I tucked my newest addition, Bon Voyage VH, into his stall. Patting the bay horse’s neck to calm him, I made sure not to react as I unbuckled his halter and let him free to look around. Only once I was sure he would be fine, did I close the stall door and turn to face the newcomer.

            “Emily Reed. How nice to see you again.” I faked a smile as I greeted the woman storming towards me with a large frown. I hadn’t expected this confrontation, but I knew it was a possibility when I took the talented dressage horse and client on. Emily was hot-headed and young, which, in this case, was code for immature and unprofessional. Her storming into my barn to yell at me about a client’s decision only proved this. Way to be a cliché, Emily.

            “YOU STOLE MY HORSE!” Her voice raised another octave, which would’ve been impressive had she not also poked my chest before stepping into my personal space.

Really? Did she think she would fight me? Please. We were both obsessed with riding to the exclusion of all else. She knew no more about self-defense than I did. Which, as I had learned recently, wasn’t much. Turned out punching someone hurt a lot. Life lesson learned.

            Emily had the bleached blonde hair that I found common at the top levels of competing in the U.S. where looks tended to matter just as much as talent. We had run into each other a few times on the show circuit, but she believed she was an up-and-coming star and I was just a proven ‘no-one’, clinging to the middle ground between international level competition and a good record at high-level shows. At the time, I excused her arrogance. I remembered a time when I, too, was stupid enough to make the same mistake, back before life and divorce had beat it out of me. Now, I was struggling not to match her unprofessional behavior with some of my own.

“One, I didn’t steal anything. Your ex-client came to me. I didn’t even transport him. Abigail had him brought by a third party, the one you had to have passed coming in. Two, this is my place of work and I try to conduct myself with some decorum within its walls. You might think about doing the same.” Lies, all lies. I was rarely professional, and I didn’t have more than a passing relationship with decorum, so despite my calm tone, I was seething at the attack. I used my shoulder to push her aside and walked into my tack room, hesitating when I realized I still had Bon’s halter and lead rope in my hands. Well, I wasn’t going back to the stall with Emily here, so it would have to hang next to the bridles for now. I hung it before I turned to face her again, rolling my eyes at her hovering frown.

“He is mine, Lark! I have been training him and taking care of him and… everything! Abby doesn’t even know what to do with him. How could she have told you everything? How could she do this without telling me?”

“You are here now. You can tell me all those things.” I wasn’t touching her relationship with Abby.

“No. No! You can’t. You can’t just take him. You can’t steal my horse. You can’t just… just… take him. I need him back. I need him back now.”

“I don’t know what to tell you, Emily. Abby made her choice—”

“He is MINE, Lark. I picked him out. I did the training. I raised him! She can’t just… She can’t! How could you steal him?” Oh, for goodness sakes! She sounded like she raised him from a colt instead of just flying him over from Europe a few years ago with Abby footing the bill. Already mostly trained. ‘Raised him’ indeed. I should get a medal for not yelling at her.

“For the last time, I didn’t steal anything. Abigail called me two weeks ago and asked if I had a spot in my barn for him. You’ll need to take it up with her if you want to know why. I only do what the client wants.” Walking over to the dirty bridles from my morning rides, I started cleaning them, refusing to get a horse out while Emily was here. Only Twice, my daughter’s mare, was left, anyway. Anything to delay that ride a little longer. On second thought, how long could Emily keep it up? Could I put it off until my lesson got here? No, I was better than that. Maybe.

“Hey Lark! There’s a red truck blocking the…” Missy’s voice dropped off when she saw the confrontation between us. Missy, my student-slash-worker-slash-slave, slid to a stop when she saw Emily, nervously grabbing her brown ponytail and bringing it over her shoulder to fiddle with. Missy was training with me to work her way up the levels while she helped me manage my barn. Her brown eyes got wide as she took in the two of us.

I stopped cleaning and turned to Emily with a frown.

“You blocked in the transport truck? Really?” Ok, enough was enough.  “Emily, I have clients due here in an hour for a lesson. Abigail has made her decision and yelling at me does nothing but make you look bad. And driving an hour and a half out of San Francisco to Barrow Bay, California, is even worse. I didn’t go out to steal your client. Your scores were slipping. Your last few shows were unimpressive. You had to see this coming. Abigail said she would tell you this was coming.”

 In fact, Abby had assured me she would deal with breaking the news to Emily herself, but I had to admit this wouldn’t be the first time that a client avoided confrontation by ‘forgetting’ to tell the old trainer. In hindsight, I don’t know why I thought Abby would be any different. I sighed. “I’m sorry if she didn’t, but it isn’t my fault, nor can I afford to turn down clients because you under-performed on your best horse.” Oops. That last part was supposed to be trying for conciliatory. I would have to work on that later.

“Under-performed? UNDER-PERFORMED? You don’t know what you’re talking about. I put in years of strong performances, only to have her pull him after a few bad scores. I’m going to be on the Olympic team one day.”

And yet I just put your only Olympic quality horse in my barn… guess it would not be in the next few years. Maybe the next one.

“Well, good luck with that, Emily.” I shouldn’t rub it in about the horse. Self-control. “Let me show you out so the transport truck can leave.” I moved towards her, copying her earlier move, only, unlike me, she gave ground and moved towards the front of the barn. After two backward steps, she turned and, with one final dirty look, stalked towards the door.

“This isn’t over! Everyone will know what you did!”

“Ok, bye! Have a nice drive home,” I called out after her with a friendly wave. “Shiitake Shrew.” Well, at least I waited until she was out of hearing to swear. Or not-swear, as the case may be.

“Oh Lark. You need to work on that potty mouth,” Missy commented, with a shake of her head.

“Your sarcasm isn’t appreciated. Also, have you tried to find a replacement for the b-word? Nothing works as well. It’s unfortunate. And I’m not saying ‘Beeyotch’ or whatever it is people say now. Nope.” I shook my head at her. “And just you wait. One day you will have a child who will parrot every bad word you say back to everyone they know, and I will laugh when you start using creative non-swear words, too.”

“Please! I’m never having kids.”

“Please!” I mocked. “You think when I was 18, I thought I would have kids? Or that I would actually have one at 23?” I snorted as I went to put Bon’s halter where it was supposed to be and grabbed Twice. “Life doesn’t consult you sometimes. Oh, and birth control can fail. Be prepared.”

“Not really an issue right now.” She returned with a grimace.

“I thought you went on a date last week.”

“We went to the McDonalds in Misne. A McDonalds, Lark!” She shook her head as she grabbed a grooming tool to help me clean Twice. “He didn’t even pay for everything. I’m done dating boys from the town. I’m going to go get me a city boy, like you did.”

I winced at the reminder.

“I don’t know if what we’re doing counts as dating. We’re just friends.” When Detective Brecken of the San Francisco Police Department, also known as Captain America by those of us within the town, left the town after his case wrapped up — one that started with me getting body parts — I was elated for two days. Too elated. Two whole days of thinking we had chemistry. Two days to get my hopes up. Then two weeks of a few texts and even fewer calls left me disappointed and having several conversations with myself about how my expectations needed to be lower. Substantially. That didn’t stop my hopes from rising every time I did get a text.

But after my last marriage, I was done being ignored by men, especially for their job, and Brecken was a workaholic. It didn’t help that I couldn’t argue against him working all the time since he was saving lives and solving crimes, both very important things. But I still felt ignored, or at least, not equally invested in our possible relationship. It didn’t help that I felt like he was hiding something from me.

I had also found that communication mostly through text messages was difficult when my main communication style was sarcasm with a side of wit. It turned out, sarcasm did not come out right. At all. Then, when we did trade texts, I spent hours afterward trying to figure out what he meant. Dating wasn’t for the weak. Or texting, for that matter. But my heart still wished he would suddenly be over the top, Hollywood-style infatuated. My anxiety was happy with our current speed. I was conflicted. 

“At least he was hot. Could he kiss? Please tell me you kissed him?”

Ha! I knew better than to answer this question. Or, at least I did, now. When Jen, my best friend, asked, I told her the truth, which then led to two weeks of her bemoaning not knowing if he could kiss. Not knowing was a ‘crime against women everywhere’, according to her. I, however, was pretty sure many women had sampled him in his 32 years. My lack of sampling wasn’t affecting women-kind as a whole.

I lied when Gran asked, and said yes, but made the mistake of saying that he was a bad kisser. That went even worse. I didn’t know that many articles have been written on how to teach a man to kiss.

“I’m sure your mother doesn’t want me talking about my sex life, or lack of it, with you.”

“Oh please. You just told me birth control fails. I think we’re past that.”

“I’m sure your mother supports anything that scares you into abstinence.”

“It failed.”

“I tried.” I shrugged. I had done my best.

“I noticed you still didn’t answer if he can kiss.”

“That’s because I’m not going to.” I stuck my tongue out at her before I threw the saddle over Twice’s back and attached the girth. “Jill will be here soon. Can you help her get tacked up for her lesson? Then you can go home for the day.”

“Will do. Have a good ride, boss.” She saluted me incorrectly, only using three fingers and her elbow dropped too low, before sauntering away.

“Don’t call me boss!” I called after her. “It makes me feel old.”

“That’s because you are!”

“I hate you! Why do I let you hang around here?”

“Because you hate clipping horses in the winter.”

“Good point. Call me what you want.” I would put up with just about anything to not have to body clip their hair or shave my horses. During the winter any sweat in the undercoat that didn’t dry could make them sick. Removing the hair by shaving it like a hairy dog in summer, was safer for the horse and easier for the rider, but horse hair had an amazing talent to get into places that should not be spoken of out loud. Anyone who had the option avoided shaving.  Grabbing the mare’s bridle, I slipped the bit into her mouth before leading her out. Time to put my training where my mouth was.


When I got home that night, my daughter, Hailey, greeted me at the door. I just finished saying goodnight to Gran when she jumped out at me.

“Can I go to Dad’s this weekend?”

“Umm…” Could I get in the door before I had to make decisions? Hailey’s wide, pleading eyes indicated no.

“There’s another festival, like the one I went to with Dad and I want to go again. Jennie wanted to go and couldn’t, so I got to tell everyone about it, and so I want to go again, because her parents said no, and—”

“Wait! Her parents said no? Why would they say no?” I was starting to have a sinking hunch I should have paid more attention to the festival the first time around.

“Because Jazz is the Devil’s music.”

“Ok, then.” I needed to limit how much access Jennie’s parents had to my child. “Yeah, I think—”

 “And they had a major drug bust at the last one.”

“What!” I was going to kill my ex. “What do you mean they had a drug bust?”

“It was so cool! The cops came in and tackled this guy to the ground and then his friends got in on the act—” My hand swung up to stop her words. No. I didn’t need any more information.

Killing wasn’t good enough for him.

“I need to call your father.” And my lawyer.

“You can’t! I promised him I wouldn’t tell you. You wouldn’t make a liar out of me, would you?” She even gave me a quivering lower lip along with her puppy-dog eyes. It wouldn’t have worked if I hadn’t remembered the reason she was there in the first place: I had been getting body parts delivered to my door, thanks to our crazy ex-cafe owner, and couldn’t bring her home until it was safe. Fudge buckets.

“No festival, but I won’t tell your dad you told me, and you can go to his house Saturday. My final offer.” Stupid divorce agreement. Why had I made the promise that I wouldn’t stop her from seeing him if she wanted to?

“Moooom. That was your only offer.” My child. Seven years old and already a smart aleck. I was so proud.

“Dinner! Then you can watch TV before bed.” I moved past her to reach the kitchen, opening the refrigerator door and staring into the abyss looking for anything I might be able to mix together. Dinner… dinner… how bad of a parent was I if I gave her cereal?

“I have homework.”

Huh? Oh. Yeah. Homework. Good for her. 

“That’s what I meant. You can watch TV after your homework.” Why did they give seven-year-olds homework? How much did a seven-year-old need to learn? And why couldn’t it be done during school hours, so all I had to do with her was the fun stuff? It seemed less like homework for her, and more forced parental engagement. I looked at the fridge again. I really was too tired to cook. “How do you feel about cereal for dinner?” She looked at me like she was eighty.

“I want carrots. And hummus. Oh! And tea.”

“You spend too much time with your great-grandmother,” I grumbled.

“I take that as a compliment.” She sniffed and raised her nose in the air in a very familiar manner. Great. I was raising a more sarcastic version of Gran. Good luck world.

“You say that now…” I muttered under my breath as I reached in and grabbed the hummus and carrots, sliding them over to her. So long as she was eating healthy, who was I to judge? I still grabbed the cereal, complete with marshmallows, and ate it, as my seven-year-old munched on carrots. Because I was an adult like that. “So how was school?”


Hmm. Usually my seven-year-old talked a lot.

Wait. I liked this version better. Maybe.

After a few seconds of silence, she threw me a bone. “How was work?”

“Got a new horse in training.”

“The fancy one?”


“So, you are going to be doing a lot of shows this season?”

“The owner’s plan is to throw him at every international level show we can, so yeah. You going to be okay with that?”

“Do I get to stay with Dad when you’re gone?”

Not anymore, she didn’t. Drug busts around my child. She’d only stay with him if it was my last choice. Or the divorce agreement made me. Which it did. Fudge buckets. Luckily, it wasn’t often.

“Maybe. Depends on school. You don’t mind staying with Gran, right?”

“Nope. Why did they ask you to show it?” Her earnest face took the sting out of the question although it still smarted a little.

“Bon – that’s the horse – had three really bad shows in a row at the end of last year. The owner felt that the trainer was having trouble unlocking the horse’s true potential. Even stated that the horse seemed to regress starting about five months ago. So, she asked around about where I had moved and contacted me to see if I could do better.”

“So, this is important?”

Yep. As in this could make or break my business, but I couldn’t tell her that.

“A little. I know I can do what they want. I just have to find out why the horse isn’t performing well,” I smiled at her, covering my nerves. “How could I fail with such a great cheering section?”

She smiled back at me. “I know you’ll be good.”

“Thank you, Hailey Bailey.” We beamed at each other before she frowned and looked down to the table where paper had gathered while I wasn’t looking. It was like evil magic. One moment food, the next, homework.

“I still need help with my homework.”


“Is it too late to get a different cheering section? There has to be one without homework.”


“Fine. Fine. Homework it is.”

Want more? Pre-order now by clicking here

Blog Tour Announced!

Please come and follow me at the following events:


July 15 – Cozy Up With Kathy – AUTHOR INTERVIEW

July 15 – A Wytch’s Book Review Blog – REVIEW

July 16 – Babs Book Bistro – SPOTLIGHT

July 16 – T’s Stuff – SPOTLIGHT

July 16 – ❧Defining Ways❧ – SPOTLIGHT

July 17 – Brooke Blogs – GUEST POST

July 17 – Island Confidential – SPOTLIGHT

July 18 – The Cozy Pages – SPOTLIGHT

July 19 – Celticlady’s Reviews – SPOTLIGHT

July 19 – Literary Gold – SPOTLIGHT

July 20 – Laura’s Interests – REVIEW

July 21 – Nadaness In Motion – REVIEW


July 22 – Baroness’ Book Trove – REVIEW

July 22 – Readeropolis – AUTHOR INTERVIEW

July 23 – I’m All About Books – SPOTLIGHT

July 23 – Socrates Book Reviews – SPOTLIGHT

July 24 – Elizabeth McKenna – Author – SPOTLIGHT

July 24 – 4covert2overt ☼ A Place In The Spotlight ☼ – SPOTLIGHT

For more information please visit the blog tour page by clicking here