I almost can’t believe it! Seems like this book has been in the works FOREVER. If you happen to be out and about today and see the book, please let me know! Leave me a comment, email me, Twitter me or find me on Facebook. And if you take a picture of the book on the shelf with your camera or phone and send it to me – I’ll love you forever!
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All you have to do to enter for these great prizes is leave me a comment on this post telling me you want to read about REAL heroes!!!!
That’s it. Super easy!
And to tide you all over, here’s the complete first chapter of MARKED.
“Yo, sistah. My tongue’s not getting any wetter over here by itself.” The blond frat-wannabe at the other end of her section threw his arms out wide with a could-you-be-more-stupid? look on his face. “We gonna get those drinks or what?” The two idiots seated next to him at the small circular table laughed and slapped him on the shoulder in a you-da-man move that made Casey grind her teeth together.
Oh, she could think of a number of comebacks for that one, but like the bad girl she wasn’t in this den of indecency, she bit her lip instead. She plastered on a smile she didn’t feel, dropped off the beers at table eleven and headed toward the trouble-makers.
She hefted the full tray over her head as she zig-zagged through XScream. Around her, heavy bass echoed from speakers hidden in the walls, vibrating the floor beneath her feet, sloshing her brain against her skull in the process. She had a killer headache, and that low level buzz she’d been experiencing for the last thirty minutes was wreaking havoc on her usually cool-headed mood. If she hadn’t eaten recently, she might chock it up to low blood sugar, but since Dana had forced her to choke down a burger during her break, she knew that wasn’t the case. And she was tired of trying to figure out just what was wrong with her anyway.
Strop stressing already, would you? Sheesh…
She shook off the thought and picked her way around tables, past loggers and teachers and even the town’s mayor. Far be it for her to judge who got their thrills in a place like this. To her right, Anna was on-stage, working it for all she was worth, and from the corner of her eye, Casey caught a bra—or was that a g-string?—fly through the air, but she ignored that, too. Just like she did every night.
The college kids who’d been flicking her crap all evening hooped and hollered as they watched Anna turn with a lusty grin, bend over at the waist and shake her size-zero behind. They obviously didn’t catch the fact Anna’s seductive eye-wink and lip-licking was motivated by nothing but dollar bills, but then that wasn’t exactly a surprise. These three yahoos were anything but Rhodes Scholars.
They barely spared Casey a glance as she drew close, which was just fine with her. The micro-mini schoolgirl ensemble Karl insisted all the servers wear wasn’t the most flattering outfit on her five-foot, ten-inch frame and she couldn’t wait to be done with her shift so she could get out of it as fast as possible.
She set the first beer on the table in front of trouble-maker number one, moved around behind the blond who was shaking his head in a yeah-baby move while salivating over Anna and reached for the next beer on her tray. But before she could wrap her fingers around the chilled glass, a body slammed into her from the side, jostling the drinks and her and sending frothy golden liquid spilling over her tray.
“Hey!” she exclaimed, trying to right the tray before she lost everything on the table at her side. “Watch it!”
That buzzing picked up in her head, and before the words were even out a tingling sensation lit off in her hip to radiate outward across her lower back and knock her equilibrium out of whack.
Casey swayed, reached out for the table, but only caught the edge with the tips of her fingers. She had a moment of oh, crap as she went down, heard chairs scrape the dingy floor and the college kids’ shouts of surprise. But before her body hit the ground, an arm of steel that seemed to come out of nowhere wrapped around her torso and another darted out to rescue the falling tray.
She didn’t have time to do more than gasp. The mystery man who’d nearly knocked her to the ground turned her in his arm as if she weighed no more than a feather and set her on her feet. He handed her the tray, nodded and said in a thick accent, “Excuse me.”
And Casey lost all ability to speak.
He was huge. Easily six and a half feet tall and at least two-hundred and fifty pounds of solid muscle. His legs were like tree trunks, his chest so wide it was all she could see. And that face? Greek god came to mind with that olive skin, the shoulder length hair the color of midnight and those black as sin eyes. But it was the way he was looking back at her that really threw her off guard. Like he recognized her but couldn’t place her. Like they’d met but the idea didn’t thrill him. Like she was the last person on the planet he wanted to be staring at right now.
“Jesus,” one of the college kids behind her exclaimed. “Are you brain dead or what?”
Oh, damn. Those stupid college kids.
She was just about to turn to diffuse the situation but the Greek god beat her to it, shooting them a withering look that could have turned flesh to stone. The kid’s smartass mouth snapped shut, the comments died behind her. Neither of his friends piped up to berate her more.
And for the first time all night, a little of Casey’s headache dissipated. She wanted to turn and look at the stupefied expressions on the trouble-makers’ faces, but she couldn’t tear her gaze from the man in front of her. He must have noticed her staring, because he cast another bewildered look her way, then gave his head a swift shake and headed off to the other side of the club.
And it wasn’t until he was all the way across the room that she finally drew in a breath.
Holy cow. What was that?
Her lungs suddenly seemed one size too small. She sucked in air, rubbed a hand over her brow and tried to regulate her breathing as she continued to stare. He stopped at a booth near the back wall, and though Casey couldn’t see his face, it was clear he was talking to someone seated in front of him.
Someone who was female and blond and petite and who had come in alone a half hour ago then slinked into the shadows to watch the show.
At the time, Casey hadn’t paid the woman much mind. Occasionally women came into the club alone. But now she did. Now that her hero in black had zeroed in on the blond beauty, Casey definitely wanted to know more about each of them.
“You gonna stare all night or get busy?”
The voice at her back shook Casey from the fog brewing in her head. Turning, she pulled her attention to the three college kids, staring at her like she was a complete moron, their irritation with her obviously usurping the intimidation from her mystery man before. The tray wobbled in her hand but she caught it before the half empty glasses spilled again.
“So sorry,” Casey muttered, grabbing a rag from her tray and mopping up the mess on their table. What was wrong with her? “I apologize.”
“Geez,” the blond muttered, shaking beer from his fingers, “what are you, mentally challenged or something?”
Casey ignored the comment and finished cleaning the table. “I’ll get you three more beers, on the house of course.”
“Damn right,” the one to her right snapped as he turned to look back at the stripper feet from him up on stage.
She ignored that too as she finished grabbing empties, then glanced toward the hulking shadow several tables over.
“Those guys giving you trouble?” Nick Blades asked as she drew close.
“No tougher than normal.” Carefully, Casey picked up the wadded napkins on his table and dropped them on her tray. He was nearly as big as the Greek god but that’s where the similarities ended. Nick’s blond hair was cut military short, he sported a series of strange tattoos and piercings, and it was hard not to stare at the jagged scar that ran down the left side of his face from temple to jaw. He always sat in her section, and though she’d told herself a thousand times he was harmless, a part of her just couldn’t convince herself of that. She’d been there. She’d seen what he could do. And though she was grateful, she didn’t want to see it again.
He watched her carefully but she didn’t make eye contact. “You seemed a bit distracted there.”
Casey’s hand paused as she thought back to the hulking Greek god, and warmth spread up her cheeks as she went back to cleaning Nick’s table. It made perfect sense a guy like that would glance right past her and go after a looker like the woman in the corner. Men didn’t generally notice stick-skinny Amazon women when curvy, petite blonds were anywhere close.
“You want another one, Nick?”
At his silence, Casey finally glanced up, and that’s when she noticed Nick wasn’t watching her but was staring across the club with narrowed eyes and a tight jaw. Staring toward the Greek god and his blond bombshell. But he wasn’t looking on with admiration or intrigue or even jealousy. No, Nick was watching them with malice, and very clear recognition.
Weird. How would someone like Nick know a guy like that? “Nick?”
Nick cut his eyes from the corner, his face turning impassive. “Might as well.”
That tingling intensified again across Casey’s lower back as she backed away from his table. “I’ll get that for you and be right back.”
She left him sitting in the same spot and headed for the bar, reminding herself the whole way she didn’t want to know how or what Nick Blades thought of anyone. She had enough of her own problems to worry about. On a long breath, she set her tray on the shiny surface and handed Dana, the bartender, her orders.
Dana pulled the tap and filled three pints for the boys Casey had spilled on moments before. Then she glanced toward the middle of the room. “I see your admirer’s here again tonight.”
Casey frowned. She didn’t like to call Nick an admirer. Didn’t like to call him anything, for that matter. But she’d never shared the real reason with Dana, and she wasn’t about to now. “I know.”
“It’s kinda sweet,” Dana said. “Though he doesn’t strike me as your type.”
Casey didn’t think it was sweet. Lately it was bordering on creepy. But she shrugged for Dana’s benefit. “I don’t have a type.”
Dana smirked and set the beers on Casey’s tray. “And if you did, it definitely wouldn’t be the bad-boy biker type.”
It got under Casey’s skin, just a little, that she was so predictable. “Don’t judge a book by its cover, Dana.”
Dana pinned her with a look as she poured vodka into a glass and added orange juice from a pitcher. “Spoken like a true bookseller. How’s the shop anyway?” She dropped a cherry into the drink and set it on the tray.
“Fine. Not as busy as this place, but then I don’t serve up sex between the pages.”
“Maybe you should.”
Casey couldn’t help it. She smirked. “Yeah, maybe I should.”
She waited while Dana finished her order and tapped her fingers on the bar to the beat of Justin Timberlake’s SexyBack. Jessica was onstage now, already shimmying out of her hot shorts, and Nick was barely paying attention. Casey’s gaze swept over the room and for a fleeting moment she wondered what her grandmother would say if she could see her now.
“Acacia. Meli, what has happened to you?”
“Nothing, Gigia. It’s only temporary.
“It’s always temporary with you, meli.”
“You off in a few?”
Dana’s voice pulled Casey from her musings and she nodded. “Yeah. Thank God. Fifteen more minutes, then I’m free for the weekend. The bookshop’s closed tomorrow and Monday.”
“Good. You work too hard, Casey. I don’t know how you do it. All day at the shop, nights here. Ease my worry, honey, and tell me you’ve got a hot date planned.”
Casey reached for the tray. “Yeah, with a good book.”
“You need to get out more, Case. Find a good-looking guy who’ll remind you what life is all about.”
Casey thought back to the Greek god. She just bet that guy could remind her what life was about.
She shook off the thought as she hefted the tray and turned to leave. “I don’t have time for hot dates. I’m too busy.”
“After you deliver those,” Dana said at her back, “cut out early. I’ll cover for you.”
Casey glanced back. “You sure?”
Dana shrugged and smiled as she wiped out a glass, her soft red hair glinting under the dim lights. “Yeah, sure. Go on. Something comes up, I’ll get Jane to cover your tables.”
“Thanks,” Casey said on a sigh, feeling suddenly tired.
“One thing before you go. When you get home, would you check to see if I left my phone there the other night when I came over? I can’t seem to find it.”
“Sure thing. I’ll call you.”
Dana winked. “Appreciate it. Have a good weekend, Casey. You deserve it.”
Casey stopped at the college kids’ table and delivered their beers, then glanced toward the back corner. The blonde was pushing herself out of the booth, but she stumbled when her feet met the ground, which was weird because Casey was sure the woman hadn’t had anything to drink. The Greek god was right there to catch her, though, just like he’d done with Casey.
No, not like he’d done with Casey. Her eyes narrowed as she watched. He was much gentler with this woman. He pulled her close like she was made of glass and seconds later swept her up in his arms and whisked her out the back door of the club straight out of a scene from An Officer and a Gentleman.
Only this guy was ten times bigger and a million times hotter than Richard Gere ever was.
Warmth rushed to Casey’s cheeks again as she watched, and envy—the only word she knew to describe that strange tightness in her chest—stabbed at the center of her. What would it feel like to have a guy like that so focused on her?
The door snap closed behind him, leaving only the darkness and thumping base of the club in its wake. With a frown, Casey took a deep breath and turned.
No sense worrying about something she’d never have. No sense worrying about something she didn’t have time for anyway. She needed to finish her shift so she could get home and sleep off this weird virus she’d been fighting the last few days. Then pull herself together so she could do it all over again Tuesday morning.
She crossed to Nick and handed him his Coke. “I’m heading out, Nick. You need anything else, Dana will take care of you.”
He lifted his fresh glass. Long sleeves covered his arms, and the fingerless gloves he always wore kept all but the tips of his fingers from view. “Will do. And Casey?”
She stopped mid-turn and glanced back. “Yeah?”
“That guy who ran into you? If you see him around town, I want you to let me know.”
Casey’s brows drew together. “Why?”
Okay, that was weird, too.
“And you’d be smart to stay away from him if you do see him,” he added in a low tone. “Far away. He’s dangerous.”
That spot on Casey’s lower back tingled again, and she lifted her chin. There was looking out for her, and then there was telling her what to do. And even though something instinctive told her she’d never see the Greek god again, right now, from coming Nick, she wasn’t wild about either.
“Yeah, Nick,” she mumbled as she turned and headed for the dressing room. “I’ll be sure to do that.”
“Theron, put me down.” Isadora’s free hand pushed against Theron’s chest but her protest did little more than annoy him.
He wouldn’t lose his temper. The fact he’d spent four days tracking her down was inconsequential at this point. So was the fact he’d left his kinsmen to come after her. He would simply take her home before the Council discovered she was gone and all hell broke loose.
“Theron, I mean it,” she said again as the door to the human skin club snapped shut behind them and he headed away from the building.
“It’s time to go home, Isadora. You’ve had your fun.”
Isadora glanced over his shoulder back toward the building with a defeated look in her eyes. “You don’t understand. I need her.”
Needed her? Like hell. He was the only one she needed right now. If her father found out what she’d been up to…
He gnashed his teeth at the thought and kept walking. If it were up to him no one would know where she’d been these last few days or what she’d been up to. The last thing he, the leader of the Argonauts and a descendent of Heracles the greatest hero ever, needed was for his warrior brothers to know his future wife had a human female fetish.
He cringed at the thoughts. Both human female and future wife.
Isadora squirmed in his arms again, but finally gave up with a sigh. And that was just fine with Theron. He wasn’t in the mood to play nice.
The air was cool, but Theron barely felt it. A muffled thump-thump-thump echoed from the club behind him as he walked. Quietly, Isadora said. “She was beautiful, wasn’t she? Graceful and tall. I…I didn’t expect her to be so tall.”
More frustrated by the second at Isadora’s strange behavior, Theron picked up his pace. It wasn’t until Isadora sighed again and rested her head against his chest he remembered how inebriated she was and how tightly he must be holding her.
He loosened his grasp and forcibly gentled his voice though even he knew it came out rough and stilted. “Isadora, you cannot just run off like this.”
“I…I know,” she breathed against him, her body growing lax in his arms. She shivered and tried to burrow closer. “I just wish…”
Her fading voice made him remembered how she’d had trouble standing in the club. For the first time he realized there hadn’t been a single glass on her table. Not even a watermark like one had been recently cleared away. Gathering her in one arm, he reached around and felt her forehead. Her skin was cold and clammy.
His aggravation morphed to urgency. She wasn’t drunk at all. She was sick.
Skata. He had to get her back to Argolea. Like, now. “Hold on to me,” he said firmly in her ear, repositioning his arm under her legs again. “I’ll get you home.”
She closed her eyes and, after a moment of what looked like incredible pain and heartbreak, nodded in what he could tell was great reluctance. “Yes. Yes. You’re right. It’s long past time. Take me home, Theron.”
He took one step forward with her in his arms and felt the air change. It went from moist and warm to frigid in the span of a nanosecond. And he knew, without looking, that they were not alone.
Four daemons, beasts of the Underworld caught between mortal and god, horns sharp, teeth bared, appeared as if from thin air. One directly ahead, two to Theron’s right, one to the left. They had bodies of men, covered in leather and trench coats that flapped behind them as they moved, and hideous faces, something of a mix of lion and wolf and goat.
Isadora’s muscles relaxed in Theron’s arms. He wasn’t sure if she’d fallen asleep or if the sickness that wracked her body had pulled her into unconsciousness, but at the moment he didn’t care. It was better for her if she didn’t see what they faced.
“Release the princess, Argonaut, and your life will be spared,” the daemon directly ahead announced in a raspy voice.
A humorless sound bubbled from Theron’s chest even as his mind spun with options on how to get out of this one. His kinsmen were nowhere close. He’d come looking for Isadora on his own. “Since when have daemons been known for their mercy?”
The leader growled. “Our mercy is the only thing that will save you. Unhand her. Now. You will not be given another chance.”
They were about out of chances as far as Theron could see. He glanced down at Isadora, out cold in his arms. For nearly two hundred years he’d served his race because it was his duty. Even though it hadn’t been his first choice, he’d been willing to marry her if it meant preservation of their world. Tonight though, he knew he would serve the gynaíka who would one day be queen of Argolea in order to save her life and that of their people. Even if it meant losing his own.
The two daemons on his right moved closer. Theron closed his eyes and used every ounce of strength within him to form a protective shield around Isadora. The effort drained him of his powers. He had nothing left for the fight to come.
Knowing she was now safe from the daemons, he slowly set Isadora on the ground at his feet. She curled onto her side on the cold asphalt but showed no other signs of consciousness. He rose to his full height of six-foot-five-inches and stared at the four daemons who still towered above him. “If you want her, boys, you’ll have to come and get her.”
The leader of the four, the one in the middle who was clearly in control of the others, chuckled, though the sound was anything but humorous. “So arrogant, Argonaut. Even when you’re trapped. Atalanta will be most amused by your brashness.”
“Atalanta is a petty hag with a perpetual case of PMS. And let me guess…as her number one whipping boy, you get what, the right to wipe her ass?” He laughed, though he knew all it did was enrage the beasts in his midst. If he was going to go out, though, he might as well go in a blaze of glory. “Let me ask you this, dog-face, just how inconsequential is your race that Hades would so easily hand you off to a bitch-on-wheels like Atalanta anyway?”
The four growled in unison. The leader’s eyes flashed green. “Taunt all you want, Argonaut. In mere minutes, you’ll be begging for us to kill you.”
They moved forward in a unit, as if of one brain. And without hesitation, Theron brought his fingers together until the markings on the backs of his hands glowed from the inside out. The portal opened with a flash and closed seconds later, leaving him alone with the daemons in the cold parking lot.
In the split-second of silence that settled over them like a dark cloud, fury filled the faces of each daemon, followed by a roar the likes of which only a god has ever heard.
“Sending the princess home was the last mistake you’ll ever make, Argonaut,” the leader growled.
They struck as a pack, taking him down to the pavement hard before he had time to reach his weapons. Teeth bared, fangs unsheathed, they tore into his flesh.
As his back hit the unforgiving ground and the last vestige of strength rushed out of his body, Theron had one fleeting thought.
This was going to be bad. Before it was over, it was going to be very, very bad.
***End of Chapter One***