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Kindle Daily Deals for Tuesday, September 30 – Overnight price cuts on bestselling titles including Jaye Rothman’s panoramic spy thriller The Hell Of Osirak (Betrayal, Redemption and Salvation Trilogy, Book 1)

The Hell Of Osirak: (Betrayal) ((Betrayal, Redemption and Salvation Trilogy) Book 1)
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DO YOU LOVE GRIPPING ACTION THRILLERS?

18 Five star reviews on Amazon!

The year is 1981. The Osirak nuclear facility will become operational in a few weeks. Can British spy Nikki Sinclair stop an Armageddon of unimaginable horror and destruction from engulfing the Middle East?

Sinclair is sent on a mission that will be fraught with danger, deception and betrayal. Unexpectedly she encounters her ex- lesbian lover, Dvora Bar Zahavi who is an agent for the Mossad. Is this a coincidence? Or are dark forces gathering around Sinclair? Sparks fly again, and Sinclair’s emotions are twisted and torn, can she trust Dvora? Can she trust her own side? Or perhaps no one at all?

Sinclair begins to understand that she is little more than a pawn in a dangerous, international political game of physical intimacy.

This high stakes action packed, grand panoramic espionage thriller is set in five countries and over three continents. Loosely based on a true story, code named Operation Opera by the Israelis, this thrilling book by Jaye Rothman will intrigue and entertain you.

5-Star Amazon Reviews

“… Rothman’s writing is propulsive, sexy, ridden with tension and relieved by sensual intimacy encounters. She knows the territory well and proves that she has indeed been successful in creating a credible, delectable female spy character who seems to have a future in subsequent novels.”

“A thrilling, fast paced spy novel, which doesn’t have a dull moment…”

“… The plot and characters of the inner story are just amazing. I adore this book because it tackles LGBT issues within a historical context. Definitely recommend to read.”

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Price Drop! Was $3.95, Now Just 99 Cents!! “Mr. President,Terrorists have Taken the White House.” by Award Winning Author Reynold Jay
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On Friday we announced that Reynold Jay’s “Mr. President,Terrorists have Taken the White House.” is our Thriller of the Week and the sponsor of thousands of great bargains in the thriller, mystery, and suspense categories: over 200 free titles, over 600 quality 99-centers, and thousands more that you can read for free through the Kindle Lending Library if you have Amazon Prime!

Now we’re back to offer our weekly free Thriller excerpt:

“Mr. President,Terrorists have Taken the White House.”

by Reynold Jay

"Mr. President,Terrorists have Taken the White House."
6 Rave Reviews
Or FREE with Learn More
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On Sale! Kindle Countdown Deal! Everyday price: $3.95

Written by the winner of the Hub Nugget Writer 2012 Award.
A half-billion would die before it was over….
The day the Iranians set off a forty megaton nuke marked the beginning of a new world order. The Russians covertly assist the Admiral who sets a plan in motion disrupting the world’s oil supply that will ultimately alter the course of history.
The Western World is panic stricken with the thought that Iran threatens first Israel, then the entire world with nuclear destruction. The Iranian president continues his ranting at the UN that Allah has willed the destruction of the evil Zionists.
Old hostilities are tossed aside and new alliances are formed in smoke filled backrooms of the UN, the Kremlin and the White House. Third world nations, particularly Somalia, suddenly become strategically important and the super powers struggle to sort it all out and battle for position. The stakes could not be higher.
Houston Robinson, better known as Watchdogg, an unofficial Cabinet advisor to the president, sets out to discover the truth to all the crises that suddenly appear out of nowhere. Tourists are mysteriously kidnapped off the streets of Europe and surface in the largest supertanker hijacking in history. The USS George H.W. Bush is a target of an Iranian airbus attack in the Indian Ocean. Pandemonium in the oil futures markets sends oil prices to dizzying heights in a Venezuela Chinese oil coup. The entire planet it seems is being turned upside down when the Admiral seizes the world’s oil supply. Economies crumble at a dizzying pace while others flourish depending upon their role in the new order.
Watchdogg finds himself in backroom politics with the Amir Harazi the Prime Minister of Israel who has plans of his own to bring a stop to the Iranian missiles that threaten to destroy his country in another Holocaust.
You will be taken into the cockpits of Super Hornets and Lightning II’s with the men and women who carry out the orders of world leaders. You’ll witness the agonizing decisions of generals and commanders who place their careers on the line carrying out the orders of presidents and prime ministers. Inevitably Watchdogg runs head to head with the Admiral. Millions of lives hang in the balance as the world threatens to self destruct from greed and power.
This story is taken from tomorrow’s headlines. It’s a prophetic tale that will scare you with its chilling back room deals and double-crosses. Who is friend? Who is foe?
It’s a good thing Watchdogg is here to figure it all out and see that the Admiral’s plan to hijack the world’s oil is waylaid. Should he do it? Can he do it? Let’s hope so.

And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:

The Players

  • The President of the United States
  • Marshall Landenberger
  • The Vice President of the United States
  • Steven Prottenger
  • The Cabinet
  • Michael Costanzo National Security Advisor
  • Willard (Willy) Bumgardner Secretary of Defense
  • Stefano Morrell Secretary of Energy
  • Melissa Farnsworth Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs
  • Senior Administration Officials
  • Houston Robinson Watchdogg unofficial position
  • James Shaughnessy White House Chief of Staff
  • Kenneth Fegan Junior Advisor
  • Harold Whittman White House Press Secretary
  • Larry Deshano Director of Central Intelligence
  • Ethiopia
  • Commander Ishaq commander of the Ethiopian militia
  • Abdullha Ash Prime minister of Ethiopia
  • Khalilullah ‘Abd al-Wahhab President of Iran
  • General Hanbal Iran general
  • Ishaq Al-Awzai Commander of the Revolutionary Guard
  • Iran
  • Israel
  • Amir Harazi Prime Minister
  • Arkady Dazdraperm President
  • General Ali Alabbar 5 star general
  • Russians
  • Georgiy Kuznetsov Tolstoy President of the Russian Federation
  • Mikhail Vissarionovich Dostoevsky Russian Foreign Minister
  • General Dimochka Sergeievich Russian General
  • Arkady Mussorgsky, Deputy Speaker of the Federation Council
  • Somalia
  • Jamal Sheikh Sharmarke Prime Minister of Somalia
  • Admiral Mustafa Mahdi Leader of the Somalia Marines
  • Ahmed bin Al-Awzai assistant to the Prime Minister in Somalia
  • Al-Bukhari Twasana gang leader
  • Captain Edward Schmitzer Commander of the USS George H. W. Bush
  • Carol Turner Red Cross worker.
  • Tanisha Wagner Red Cross worker
  • Venezuela
  • Alejandro Santiago President of Venezuela
  • Red Dog I Miguel Rio the new interim president of Venezuela
  • Captain Davis Commander of the USS Gerald R. Ford
  • Others
  • Richard Stambaugh Navy SEALS
  • Chris (The Wizard) LE Blanc cyber criminal

 

~*~

Prelude

The Past

A Mi-8 chopper hovered twenty-five miles northwest of Lake Baikal sometimes called the “rich lake” near Irkutsk, and landed on a rocky forest of pine and elm. Two figures emerged, one sporting a leather coat, felt hat and Ray-Ban Aviators, the other a military uniform with gold and silver medals emblazoned across his chest.

“This is the place, then?” inquired the Russian president while he watched his breath drift off in the frosty air.

“The pipeline will pass over that ridge.” General Dimochka Sergeievich pointed to the north. “We were careful to move it far from Lake Baikal as originally planned. The Tomsk Oblast and Khanty-Mansi fields will pump into it and from there it will branch off into three separate lines that will feed the Asian markets including one directly to China. New fields discovered here can be fed into it if we make it large enough.”

Lake Baikal, “The Blue Eye of Siberia,” had waited silently for this moment for more than three hundred million years. The Triassic, Jurassic, and Cenozoic periods were but a blink of an eye for the largest inland lake in the world, larger than all of the Great Lakes combined. Great behemoths drank its waters and roamed in the forested woodlands then one day it rained fire from the heavens and they disappeared forever. As the waters rested, its surrounding lands matured and secreted a vast hidden reservoir of blackened sludge that was much larger than the lake.

Millions of years later an upright walking mammal had developed an unquenchable thirst for the blackened sludge that hid beneath the surface.

Mankind had discovered that the “black gold” held within it, the power of the life giving sun. And in the end—the survival of the clans came to depend upon it. There was nothing they would not do to acquire it, no act to inhumane to defend it.

Nations rose and fell depending upon their ability to acquire and defend the great oil fields. Those who controlled the natural resource flourished, the others fell to the wayside. The quest for survival depended upon it.

“How long will it take to get it operational?”

“It is thousands of miles of pipe. In seven years we will have the largest pipeline in our country on line.”

“We will rebuild our country with the revenues, then?”

“Most certainly, Mr. President—the Saudis and the Iranians will look like a tiny drop in the ocean if we continue to find the new fields as we have planned. Add to it the fields off the Pacific, the Baltic and others and we will be able to supply much of the entire world soon.”

“I want this completed in five years. Do whatever it takes to get the manpower up here.”

“Yes sir, Mr. President. I’ll relay your order to Transneft. I am sure we can easily complete this in five years.”

“Great. Do it.”

The pair boarded the chopper and flew back to the Kremlin.

 

Chapter One

The Present

 

February 6—11:59 A.M. The Iranian Desert

 

In one minute every living thing within fifty kilometers would be incinerated.

And there was nothing anyone could do about it.

Ishaq Al-Awzai, the commander of the Revolutionary Guard, sat in the command bunker on the phone with Khalilullah ‘Abd al-Wahhab, the president of Iran, waiting for the go-ahead.

NgAm, All is good.” A half smile curled across his lips while a crimson scar above his temple pulsated like a writhing serpent. “Allah has blessed us today.”

He glanced at the bank of towering screens that lined the wall, all fixed upon the blast site. The command center had a spit clean look to it. A gaggle of high tech equipment spread across the bunker while a hundred or so technicians, scientists, and military brass sat behind computers listening to the countdown.

“Thirty seconds and counting….”

“It is a great day for Iran and Allah shines upon us.”

General Hanbal tapped him on the shoulder and handed him another phone. “Tehran is on the line, sir.”

Shokran.”

The Supreme Leader inquired. “All is in readiness?”

“FIFTEEN SECONDS….”

“We will know shortly.”

Pause

“TEN AND COUNTING…. ”

Commander Al-Awzai held his breath and murmured a prayer.

“EIGHT. SEVEN. SIX. FIVE. FOUR. THREE….”

The ground mushroomed up like a bubble about to burst. Then it fell back—perhaps it had changed its mind. Waves of earth moved as though it was liquid—a stone tossed into ethereal water sending spasms in all directions. Shock waves, not unlike an earthquake, shook the bunker while the lights and screens sputtered, went dark for a brief moment.

When the rumbling subsided, the crew cheered then jumped up and down like children while embracing each other.

One held up a graph and shouted, “It is over forty megatons—ran clear off the charts! It is nearly the largest WMD in the world!”

“Our prayers have been answered.”

The Supreme Leader possessed a fatherly compassionate voice and appeared on one of the overhead screens. “You have done well my sons. Your country and Allah gives thanks to you and all who have worked so hard for this glorious day.” He raised his arms to give his blessing to all. “The full glory of Allah will soon shine upon us.”

All bowed to Mecca and chanted the prayer. “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet.”

Six billion would soon discover that this was the beginning of the end.

In a microsecond the world had changed forever—there was no going back. It was the dawn of the new world order.

~*~

As usual, the news was nearly all bad.

President Marshall Landenberger sat alone at his desk in the Oval Office looking over the reports. The economy was still in the dumpster; inflation was out of control since the moment he took over the previous year. The stock market was struggling along and the usual criticisms of the government filled the airwaves twenty-four hours a day. Worst of all, his approval rating had dropped another point while he was on his South American goodwill tour.

Goodwill tour. Crap! He tossed the Wall Street Journal in the trash. It was late and time to get some shuteye. He stood and stretched his arms.

The intercom light was flashing. It was the end of his quarter hour of solitude. “Yes.”

“Willy and the VP say it is urgent….”

Willard Bumgardner, the SecDef and Steven Prottenger burst through the door, both looking grim.

Prottenger pulled a stick of gum from his pocket, “The Iranians set off a bomb—a WMD of immense proportions!” He unwrapped the pink stick, popped it into his mouth, and stuffed the wrapper in his pocket.

“When?”

“Forget the duds that North Korea set off.” Willie began the briefing and with a nod of his head indicated that they would escort him down the hallway to the White House Situation Room. “Those were firecrackers at a Sunday School picnic next to this baby. They set it off a half-hour ago and the IRIB is running videos of it. The CIA picked it up twenty minutes ago. It’ll hit the airwaves here in a few minutes.”

The trio headed past the steel bomb-proof doors, then down three flights of stairs to the Sit-Room subterranean chamber. Others joined in behind and the aroma of fresh coffee filled the room as staff members were handed steaming cups as they entered. It could be an all-nighter. Michael Costanzo, National Security Advisor, Melissa Farnsworth, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, and Harold Whittman, White House Press Secretary, were engaged on phones along with a dozen others.

High-tech equipment was scattered around the perimeter, plasma screens lined the wall with the footage of the bomb blast from NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, CNN, MSNBC, and others—all live broadcast. The hot line—the infamous red phone sat in a corner on a polished black walnut table.

“Where’s Shaughnessy?” he wondered out loud, referring to the White House Chief of Staff.

“I believe he is out of town.” Houston Robinson, nicknamed “Watchdogg,” smiled and offered to get him on the phone.

Landenberger waved it off as not that urgent and observed the youngest member of his team. A mere forty-one years, he surmised the man was probably sharper than all of them put together. Handsome too; finely cut features, a tall sturdy frame—he could have stepped out of GQ magazine. He had been an assistant to Schwarzenegger for a short stint and that had propelled him into the limelight. Too intelligent to remain at the low end of the totem, he snapped him up and soon had Houston scouting the world, sniffing around like a hound dog, seeking out the underbelly of the political climate in the capitals throughout the world.

Officially, Robinson did not exist on his staff. Reporters inquired from Harold Whittman, the White House Press Secretary, as to who was this mysterious person that suddenly appeared on the scene?

“His name is Houston Robinson. There is no official position for him, as all the cabinet positions are filled, and rather than boot out someone, we simply slipped him in between the cracks. To say the least, he is a gifted individual with many talents. He is a former CIA, speaks five languages, and is the most charming man you could ever hope to meet.”

“What exactly does he do?”

“He does whatever the president tells him to do.”

This received a chuckle from the press. “Seriously, we expect to send him around the world talking to world leaders. Often we receive urgent calls that the president is needed face to face with a world leader and the president simply can’t pick up and leave the country because of previous commitments. Robinson will fill that gap in our diplomacy.”

Landenberger took a seat at the head of the conference table. “Let’s hear what everyone has to say.”

Willy Bumgardner seated himself on the left of the president and began the conference. “There is no immediate threat to us at this hour. I imagine it will be some time until they set off another one.” He opened a folder marked “classified” and placed wire rimmed spectacles to his eyes. “Having a large WMD means little without the means to deliver it. How large was it?”

“They are reporting it somewhere around forty megatons, maybe more,” Robinson answered. “It shook the entire Middle East.”

“Forty megatons—that is something to reckon with—not one of those firecrackers set off by the North Koreans.”

“Forty? My God!” exclaimed Melissa Farnsworth, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, “Enough to wipe out half of Texas!”

“I’m afraid so my dear—possibly all of Texas and then some.” He wiped his brow with a white handkerchief. “They have a Shahab-2 and Shahab-3 missile system perfected that can deliver a small warhead up to 1300 miles. They’ve been working on a larger IRBM, much like an ICBM that they call Ghadr-110, which can deliver up to 3500 miles. We don’t know when they will have it ready.”

“Where’s Deshano?” wondered President Landenberger as he glanced around the desk for the Director of Central Intelligence. “He would know.”

Robinson suggested, “I can get him on the phone for you, Mr. President.” Robinson and Deshano worked side by side during his first two years in the CIA and they often hung out together.

“Do it now—thanks, Houston.” He always called him by his first name. He often thought of him as a son—a member of the family.

“Should we move up the security alert system to orange?” wondered Melissa Farnsworth.

“That might be overreacting a bit and would alarm our citizens more than anything else,” answered the president. “This is a long range threat to our security.”

A distinctive Cajun accented voice came from the phone monitor. “Mr. President, what can I do for ya this morn’n?”

“Good morning, Larry. It is nice to hear from you.”

“Hey, I would be there with the rest of ya’ guys, however I thought it best to be in the trenches in case sump’m urgent came up. This Iran test has us all worried. We are monitoring all kinds of chatter.”

“We are all concerned and I have one question, then I’ll let you go, Larry.”

“Shoot.”

“We wonder where Iran is on the IRBM? Will it be up and running soon?”

“Yeah—that is the million dollar question and it doesn’t really matter that much. They have the Shabib-2 and 3’s and can launch them from their subs and aircraft carriers. I can call them and ask them to keep me in the loop!” He laughed. “Seriously, they won’t have this for another year—maybe three years.”

“How do you view this morning’s events?”

“Not good. You should be concerned about the Ghidar—that’s one mean stealth sub they have been trying to hide from us. They could navigate off our shore and lob most anything at us before we knew what happened.”

“Tell me more about the Ghidar sub.”

“You ain’t gonna like this.”

“We are all grown adults….”

“OK. They make these subs within their borders with parts from Russia, China, and North Korea. They have a couple hundred of these, based upon our reports. It’s a midget submarine with two to six people to operate it and it must be near larger ships if they are to make it through the day. There are no living quarters, so they must return to a mother ship. For all we know; they have a hundred or more off our shore this very moment.”

“You are right. I don’t like this at all.”

“We look for the mother ships and then we know the subs are skulking around in our ports.”

“Our ports?” This was alarming.

“Oh, yeah—they could come right into New York harbor, land on Liberty Island, enjoy a picnic, and we would never know it.”

“Good God.”

“The good news is they could not launch anything as large as the one they tested this morning.”

“I hate to ask….”

“Probably a five or ten megaton; large enough to wipe out New York in a millisecond. Ten or twenty of these in a Pearl Harbor attack and all our major cities would be vaporized in a couple of minutes.”

Everyone in the room was alarmed with the report. Someone observed, “Life as we know it would be gone.”

“They have been purchasing Kilo subs with a vengeance from the Russians too. These are the real thing, big mothers with full crews that can launch most anything you give it.”

“Do you think they are planning an attack with these subs?”

“Who knows what goes through the minds of these people?”

“I want you to access the sub purchases and get a report on my desk ASAP. Do you see a pattern that suggests an imminent attack once they begin producing nuclear weapons?”

“I’m on it right away, Mr. President. I’ll have the Pentagon send you what they have too.”

“Access any delivery system they now possess or will possess in the next two years and get it to me. I also must know how long it will be until they finish their tests and begin making final product.”

“Got it.”

“ If you went from your gut and made an assessment right now—”

“Off the record, Mr. President. Nothing you would hold me to….”

“Off the record—your gut instinct.”

“Hmm. I’d be worried. The bomb is a part of a larger plan…the subs could be a part of it—maybe not.”

“That’s all I need for now.”

 

~*~
Chapter Two

 

February 7—4:07 P.M. The UN, Manhattan, New York

 

The UN called an emergency session to deal with the crisis.

Georgiy Kuznetsov Tolstoy, President of the Russian Federation, addressed the assembly. The crowd was becoming restless with all the presentations that seemed endless.

He finished up his thirty-minute speech “…and we see no cause for alarm. When our own country suffered a setback many years ago, we note that our Soviet Republics Belarus, Kazakhstan and the Ukraine returned our weapons to us as an act of goodwill. Possessing a weapon does not necessarily lead to mass destruction—to what end? We can look at history and see that the use of nuclear weapons, though an effective deterrent against aggression, has been used only by the United States and that was an exceptional circumstance not to be repeated—

“Let us all understand that the development of a nuclear weapon is for defensive purposes only and that we all can live in a world of mutual understanding. Certainly no one can be criticized for developing a WMD when so many others possess it. One must look at history and see that no harm has come when others obtained the technology. Hostilities always exist as we know, however those possessing WMD have not unleashed these weapons upon each other, nor will they ever.

“Our world community has discouraged these weapons for many years with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. We must accept that any country that has the means will do everything it can to develop defensive weapons as a deterrent. History tells us that no amount of persuasion will deter a country working in its own best interests. Although we have discouraged this endeavor from the beginning, we must all be realistic and recognize that Iran has acted to protect itself—and being a religious and moral community, will not let us down. We of the Russian Federation extend the olive branch of peace to Iran who has joined an exclusive community of world powers. Thank you.”

The audience remained silent as he left the podium.

Marshall Landenberger presented another viewpoint. “…and we condemn this action and can only view it as hostile. While others have bowed to the wishes of the world community and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran has chosen to disregard all of it and has pressed ahead without remorse. I can only point out that this country openly calls for the destruction of Israel, a peace loving nation, and I quote, not once but many times ‘Israel must be wiped from the face of the earth!’ Its past president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and present president, Khalilullah ‘Abd al-Wahhab have made these statements many times and have gone so far as to deny the Holocaust and the death of seven million Jews. We note that history tells us that evil intentions have always been announced well in advance and the world in every instance had chosen to sit idly by while terror swept across the globe. Mein Kamph comes to mind today.

“It is the force behind terror that sweeps our planet: Hezbolah in Lebanon, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza and the West Bank. And our brave soldiers who died at the hands of roadside bombs in Iraq, all coming from this openly less than benevolent nation, is something that cannot be overlooked.

“When its leaders are so openly hostile to its neighbors and rewrites history, any rational person can only come to one conclusion. And that is it has hostile intent that goes far beyond the defense of its borders. In fact, no one threatens its borders in spite of all these transgressions, AND NOW THIS!”

He slammed the podium with his fist to make his point.

“I bear my soul to you and tell you that I AM TERRIFIED, yes terrified for my children and my children’s children as should everyone in this room should Iran’s course of action not come to an end. If unchecked there may very well be no future. It is not the fact that this country possesses WMD’s as much as the leaders who control them. Everyone in this room is being threatened. THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA CONDEMS THIS ACTION AND ASKS FOR SANCTIONS BY ALL NATIONS TO BEGIN IMMEDIATELY UNTIL THE NUCLEAR THREAT IS REMOVED!”

The Assembly jumped to its feet and gave a two minute ovation.

When the applause somewhat subsided he continued. “I am hopeful that this can be accomplished within this body and without delay. However my country is committed to this action regardless of the outcome here today. In that end I will immediately use our embassies throughout the world to build a network that will create an effective sanction. We will build a coalition of countries that recognize the dangers that face us and are willing to make the sacrifices that are sure to come. It is not our goal to declare Iran an enemy, but rather to see it come to its senses and become our ally and together we can live in a world that is safer for the generations to come.

“I make one last plea to Iran to alter its course and give up its WMD’s. It is not in any danger from us or any of its neighbors. The United States is impressed with a new Iran that holds elections and its leaders reflect the will of its people. I am ready to forget all transgressions and would ask for forgiveness of our own perceived transgressions and begin a new partnership that is founded upon mutual respect and understanding. The past is behind us, we can build our own future from this new beginning. I stand before the world and tell you that I will do every thing I can to reach a peaceful resolve. Our ambassador will meet anywhere, anytime with the leaders of Iran to work this out.

“I HAVE A VISON! I have a vision and that is that one day I will be welcomed inside the borders of Iran and sit down with its people in a spirit of brotherhood and love.

LET THERE BE PEACE AND BROTHERHOOD!

LET US EMBRACE OUR HUMANITY!

LET THERE BE PEACE!

LET THERE BE PEACE!”

The crowd came to its feet and offered a rousing applause while he exited the podium.

 

~*~

 

Robinson watched the crowd.

They did appear to warm up to the president’s speech. Hopefully he was correct.

He accompanied the president on this excursion as he so often did. He imagined the president thought of him as member of his family, and at the very least, a shrewd political advisor that often found incisive answers to diplomatic problems. He was most useful on these excursions to the UN as he understood half a dozen languages: German, Russian, Chinese, Spanish, and Arabic, and could interpret on-the-spot saving time hunting down professionals to do the job.

He did the same for Governor Schwarzenegger years earlier on his jaunts to Mexico and China. There was an attack in Mexico City while the pair was there to tighten up the border in hopes of stopping the illicit drug-trafficking that was running rampant. Robinson could see from the gentleman’s expression that something was wrong and was able to grab his arm before he had gotten off a shot in the hallway of the National Palace. Guards came rushing to disarm the man and it was over in a couple of seconds.

“You saved my life.”

“I saved my own life. He could have shot me as well.”

“You are too modest. He paid little attention to you—that is until you wrestled him to the ground.”

“It is the CIA training—like riding a bike. It is something you do not forget easily. I could see it in his eyes.”

The words of Carol Turner, his pretty neighbor, echoed in his mind as well. “You saved me Houston.” She had stepped into the street in front of a speeding auto. He pulled her back as it rushed by. He was a kind of mentor to her and he knew she had a crush on him. It was one of those beautiful relationships that never ended, and but for the age difference, and the close family ties, could have blossomed into something more. The years passed and each had gone their separate ways, but the bond was there forever.

Houston rushed to the president’s side as they made their way through the crowd. “What do you think?” asked Landenberger.

“You did well, Mr. President—as well as can be expected. We live in a political world where deals are made in alleyways and backrooms. This is a power struggle of the highest order and words and diplomacy walk a tightrope. This is the beginning of a long process and one can only hope we have enough support to pull off the sanctions. If not, we are in serious trouble that would very likely end in armed conflict.”

“We are going to work every favor and shake every hand. If we need to buy some of them, we will do it. If we do not win this battle one can only wonder where the world will be in a few years.” He looked over the assembly and noted that many were on the phones. “My ambassadors are working all over the world at this very moment to make it happen. Many are on the other end of those conversations.”

Mikhail Vissarionovich Dostoevsky, the Russian Foreign Minister, pulled the pair aside. “President Kuznetsov would like to meet with you now. I know this is quite impertinent as arrangements of world leaders are often arranged many months in advance.”

“I understand and will meet with him.” Landenberger vigorously shook his hand. “We live in precarious circumstances and a meeting between us at this time is more important than international protocol. Robinson stands with me. Would he be welcome?”

“Most certainly; as you wish.”

Landenberger introduced Robinson and the pair was led down a labyrinth of hallways surrounded by Federal’naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti agents and a team of nervous DSS. When they reached a door to the conference room the DSS team leader insisted upon scouting out the room before he would allow Landenberger and Robinson to enter.

A half-minute later he opened the door. “Go on in, Mr. President. You understand this was not on the itinerary. I apologize for the delay.”

“Wait outside the door with the others. I’m sure we are quite OK.”

Inside waited the Russian leader who had ran the streets of Kubchino in Leningrad and lived in a small apartment with two brothers and a sister during his formative years. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he received his law degree in 1998 with a PhD in private law. He soon found himself embedded with gangsters and local corrupt politicians who taught him the dirty side of politics. He moved up quickly and soon found his place as the Leningrad Soviet People’s Deputy as the right hand man to the Prime Minister, Mikhail Fradkov. After a stint working on an election committee, he ran for office and ended up fronting the Russian federation.

He spoke four languages including English. “Welcome, Mr. President!” He embraced Landenberger and Robinson as if they were old college buddies. Landenberger introduced Robinson while Vissarionovich settled in as the forth member.

He addressed Robinson. “You remind me of myself a few years back!”

“That is kind of you—”

“In time you will learn this business of politics and become the president one day.” Robinson smiled. “I assure you I have no aspirations—”

“In time my young man—in time.” He laughed. “Now let us get down to business.” He poured steaming coffee into a cup and offered it to Landenberger and then served the others.

Landenberger was impressed with the large physically imposing figure of a man, much like a heavy weight wrestler—and the fairly jovial manner was unexpected. He had anticipated that he would not enjoy the company. He was wrong. Impressions can be formulated in a second. Suddenly he looked forward to hearing what the world leader had to say that had brought about this unexpected meeting.

“I will not keep you long,” promised the Russian leader. “Everything we discuss here must go no further than these walls.”

“Of course.”

“Certainly you know that my country, the Chinese, and the North Koreans have supplied much to the Iranians for many years and can somewhat accept the blame for the current situation. We needed money to rebuild our country after losing the cold war and we have gone too far. The Iranians are dangerous and threaten us all. Their fanaticism knows no bounds.”

“I agree, and can only hope we are both wrong.”

“These were not my decisions. I inherit the sins of my fathers, so to speak. I imagine that my predecessors had no intention of bringing this day upon us—however it is now an unfortunate reality with which we must deal.”

“One can hope they will soon change the direction—”

“We must assume that all the inducements in the world will never sway them and make plans accordingly. I am a student of history and your mention of Mein Kamph struck a chord. Their intentions are clear. I am afraid they intend to wipe Israel off the map and then your ‘Zionist’ country. Of course the attempt to do such a thing amounts to suicide as, in the end, the retaliation would wipe them out.”

“And the modern world would cease to exist.”

“I am afraid so. They would not care as they would think of it as an opportunity to rebuild a Muslim world and all those who died in the Holocaust as martyrs. They would perpetuate the war until the Zionists were wiped from the face of the earth. Eventually they would come after Russia.”

“You called me here today. Do you have a proposal?”

“My thoughts are like the wind, you understand, and I am only thinking out loud. My thought is to do little to inflame them.”

“The sanctions?”

“No, no. The sanctions are civil enough and I applaud you for being so forthright about it. I think they would expect it and that helps to balance the situation. To do nothing is to show weakness and invite aggression. However, our vote to join you would inflame them. They view us as an ally that they would eventually turn on when we had served our purpose. You heard my statements earlier, quite the contrary to your impassioned words.”

“Well yes, we all heard you.” His brow furrowed with the memory.

“Believe not a word. It is what I needed to say to appear friendly to their cause. I would suggest that you do not press the UN for a vote as the Chinese would vote against it and I would need to do the same. I suppose that you imagined this and simply used the UN platform today to get out your message.”

Landenberger remained silent as the Russian leader continued. This is a very intelligent politician.

“I propose a secret alliance known only to the four of us; something that cannot be spoken of to others.”

“An alliance?” I sense something important—urgent…. His heart pounded wildly against his chest.

“Quite simply we would back you up in every way we could without bringing a lot of attention to it. Our oil production is at its peak and we have found new fields in Siberia. We could, for example, provide oil to you in an emergency. If the Supreme Leader decides to retaliate by cutting off oil to you and your allies, we could fill the gap and no one would ever be the wiser. We know Ayatollah will continue to sell the oil as their economy depends upon it. We could begin reducing our shipments to those on the other side, make slight adjustments here and there, all favorable to you and the Western World. We would choose to look neutral while secretly not so much so.”

“And what would you ask in return?”

“Nothing comes to mind however when among friends one can expect that favors run in both directions. You could think of it as being good business to make this offer to you. We would make money off the transactions.

Of course oil can be sold anywhere in the world without any problem. If you want to think of it as a business transaction, which is, we choose to sell it to our friends—our best customers—rather than those who are, shall we say, less friendly.”

“What of the EIS?” You have always wanted that to be dismantled? Would that be a favor?”

He grinned, leaned forward and whispered. “Yesterday that may have been true.”

He fell back in the leather chair and bellowed. “Today is another matter! We are now allies by circumstance. Neither of us has chosen this. We are now bedfellows. This is another ploy to confuse the world. It is best that we appear as unfriendly to one another—at odds—with every turn. It is a chess game with onlookers whom we wish to remain perplexed.”

“I don’t know what to say. You are proposing that we are now best of friends. You can’t blame me for being somewhat leery of this proposal.”

“It is too much to ask for your response today as this comes from, how you say in USA, from left field. I expect you to be suspicious and would anticipate nothing less. Think it over and get back to me in a few days. Use the hot line and let’s call today’s discussion Operation Checkmate.”

 

~*~
Chapter Three

 

February 11—2:30 P.M. Palacio de Miraflores, Caracas, Venezuela

Robinson found his way across Caracas having taken a taxi to the front gate of the Mirafores Palace where a pair of armed guards eyed him suspiciously. The usual entourage was left behind as President Santiago trusted no one. Robinson was led through a central patio featuring lush flowering plants and a pair of shading palm trees that towered over a bubbling fountain perched in the center.

He was escorted to the Joaquín Crespo Salon where thirty-six ornate carved dark mahogany chairs surrounded the largest table he had ever seen other than the one in the queen’s palace in England. Every aspect of the décor from the parquet polished floor, the French baroque chandelier, and the oiled art that hung discreetly announced that the room existed as a monument to aristocratic refinement.

Hidden in the shadows stood Alejandro Santiago a figure of modest stature; a slightly disheveled man with jet black hair, thick eyebrows, and a champagne glass held in his hand. He dressed in a dark green military uniform with a plethora of pins and patches laid across his chest.

“Care for a glass of wine?” He held up a bottle of Chateau Margaux.

“That is very kind of you, Mr. President.” He accepted the wine and took a sip while they strolled back to the patio where a cockatoo eyed them suspiciously.

“Your country is most disturbed with the recent test in Iran?” he began.

“We are concerned.”

“You should have stopped it long before it came to this you know. I always figured Israel would put a stop to it. It was your county’s fault this happened as the Jews did not feel that you would back them up properly.”

“We always backed them…. ”

“You always said you would, however invisible lines were drawn as to how far you would go. The precious oil, of course, is behind the whole of it. You gave them military hardware and let them build up their defenses. It is like sending a child into the playground with a weapon and everyone expects him to hold off the school bully without the support of his friends. ‘Who will help me when the bully attacks? I really don’t want to use the weapon. Perhaps I can run?’ All these things go through his mind. In the end he will put it off until the bully is pummeling him senseless.”

“You are right of course. Our support should have been clearly laid out so that everyone would know where they stand. However, it is the nature of politics to maintain uncertain relationships that often dissolve in the sand.”

The crack of gunfire sounded nearby.

“Did you hear that?”

“It could be gun-fire I suppose.”

Santiago grabbed Robinson by the sleeve and led him back to the salon.

One of the guards ran into the room. “RUN FOR YOUR LIFE! We are being over-run by revolucionarios!”

Behind him several khaki-green figures armed with machine-guns sprayed the room with bullets and shot the guard in the back. Riddled with bullets he died before he hit the floor. Robinson and president Santiago dove to the floor as the bullets buzzed like crazed hornets over their heads. The pair crawled under the table while the room disintegrated in clouds of splintering smoke, plaster raining down around them, most of it landing on the table.

More revolucionarios filled the room and grabbed Robinson and Santiago from under the table and slammed them against the wall. The squad leader talked into a headphone. “We have the president! We are secure. Repeat, Red Dog III to Red Dog II, we are secure.”

Shortly, the Red Dog II unit broke into the room and a cocky leader with an ugly crimson scar on his left cheek swaggered up to the president and slapped him across the face, knocking him to the tiled floor. “Say your prayers Santiago. In one minute you and your amigo are going to die!”

He pulled a 9mm Walther P38 from his holster, pulled back the hammer and placed it to Robinson’s temple.

“We will begin with your amigo.”

 

~*~

 

Harold Whittman, White House Press Secretary answered questions from the White House Press Corp while CNN and FOX cameras sat in the back of the room.

Frederick Thompson from the New York Times asked the first question. “In view of the many years in which the Iranians claimed to be developing nuclear technology to produce energy for peaceful purposes, how do you account for yesterday’s test? Did the president and the military believe that to be true all this time?”

“That’s a fair question, Fred. The president never had conclusive information on this one way or the other. The CIA provided many reports through the years and there was never anything which pointed one way or the other. Of course, everyone had their suspicions that they could be lying to us. I can’t speak for the previous president and could only guess at the information that he was privy to and what he thought. Now I can tell you that President Landenberger never believed it for one moment. He inherited this problem and up to now had no opportunity to act upon it.”

He pointed to Linda Petoskey from Newsweek. “Why hasn’t the United States done something to stop the Iranians from developing the bomb? It has been reported that they set off one of the largest explosions in history. What is a bomb this size capable of?”

“Well Linda, another great question and right to the point.” He chuckled. “To answer your first part of your question I can say the United States has done many things to try and stop the Iranians from developing WMD of any size. Over the years there have been various sanctions and we worked with the UN to discourage it in any way we could. We told the Russians, the Chinese and North Korea we did not like them providing Iran with materials to produce a weapon and had many discussions with them about this.

“Now on to the next part of your question; as far as we can figure yesterday’s test produced a forty-two megaton explosion. Whether it was under forty or over forty is up for debate, however the IRIB reported it as ‘forty megaton or larger’. As to what it can do…hmm I understand it could blow away a city.”

“Could it blow away New York City—Manhattan?”

“I imagine it could.”

“How many would die in an event like this, including the fallout that would follow?”

“I really am not an expert nor is the president; however we can say with some certainty that millions could possibly die. Next question.”

~*~

 

“If you pull that trigger you will be dead within the hour.” Robinson stared down the leader, Red Dog II.

“Phsst! You lie. I have orders to kill all those who are in here.”

“I’d bet your orders do not include shooting important American diplomats who will back your government. If you shoot me it will be an act of war upon the United States. It will bring an end to your coup. They will hunt you down like yellow dogs and string you and your men out in the sun to dry.”

“You lie. You are no one of any importance to us.”

“I’d bet your commander Red Dog I would disagree. If you are wrong and shoot me, what would he do to you?”

The man lowered the gun. “Red Dog I? You know of him, Americano?’”

“It was a lucky guess…Red Dog III…Red Dog II.”

“You are very convincentes,” He glanced at his men who would certainly report this incident. His left eye began to twitch. “You are lying to save your life. You do not trick Diego.” He placed the P38 back to his head. “Who are you?”

Robinson reached for his vest pocket and a dozen machine-guns pointed at him. “Hold on. No reason to get excited. I have a picture with me taken just two days ago and you will see.”

“Do not make any sudden moves, gringo.”

“OK—I am moving slowly.” He brought out the digital camera and brought up the photos he had taken two days before at the UN and moved along-side Red Dog II. There were some shots taken previously with the White House staff and then the photo he wanted appeared. “Do you recognize this man?”

“Ah Si Señor. President Landenberger—and you are standing with him!” A broad smile crossed his face and displayed a perfect set of pearly teeth—except for one that stunningly ruined his appearance.

“I am his right hand man, much like Red Dog I and II.”

Si— I will not kill you. Red Dog I can make that decision. I will personally skin you alive and feed you to my dogs if you are lying to me.”

“You are most wise.”

Diego pointed the P38 at Santiago and pumped a bullet into him, then two more while the body lay helpless. “You are scum and have betrayed your county. Long live Justice for All Venezuelans.”

The others chimed in, “Justicia para todos los venesolanos!”

“Take the gringo to the wine cellar with the others until General Rio decides what to do with him. It will be the firing squad for you, amigo.”

 

~*~

 

Ned Salinger of the Washington Post raised his hand and was chosen for a question.

“What rating would you give a president that allows our most terrifying enemy to produce such a weapon when it has always been within our means to stop it?”

“I can’t answer a question that is personal. I can tell you that the president thinks he is doing an excellent job. I imagine he would give himself an ‘A’.”

“Give me a break, Herald. The President of the United States is the commander of the most powerful military force on this planet and his one job is to protect its citizens. Would it be fair to say that he has failed in that responsibility?”

“No, no. Much of this you must understand is the fault of the previous presidents as any one of them had the power to stop it and, for one reason or another, felt it was not in our best interest to do any more than they did. Bear in mind that the president possesses information the rest of us don’t have and is surrounded by experts who assist him in arriving at proper and responsible actions.”

“It is nice that he can give himself an ‘A’ while the rest of us give him an ‘F.’ Admit it. He has failed and all the previous presidents have failed in their responsibility to keep America safe. Add the fact that we have fifteen million Mexicans running around our country and we haven’t a clue who they are!”

“You should stick to the subject and I find your comments about our Mexican friends an—”

“Admit it; our country has been going to hell in a hand basket for years.”

“Next question goes to—”

“Hey—I haven’t finished yet!”

“You asked a question and I answered it.” Harold sipped a glass of water and pointed to Chip from WorldNetDaily. “Next question; Chip, go ahead.”

“I think Ned has point. I guess we should move on. Now that the untruths of the Iranian threat has surfaced, what exactly will the president do to see that Iran does not use the WMD anywhere in the world; specifically Israel?”

“Hey! You still have not answered my—”

“Could you return to your seat. Your turn is over.”

“You still haven’t—”

“You are out of line. I will have you removed if—” Harold took another sip from the glass. “Please do not force me to—”

“I will not. This whole thing is a—”

“Security! Security please! If this person continues could you remove him?” An ugly scuffle followed in which Ned Salinger found himself standing in the hallway outside the Press Room. He was never seen in the Press Room again.

 

~*~

 

The President of Iran, Khalilullah ‘Abd al-Wahhab addressed the General Assembly.

“And there has been much discussion of the recent test that took place in my homeland. I can assure you our intentions have always been to promote peace throughout the Middle East and throughout the world. Our people are a nation of peacemakers and we have no ambitions that go beyond our borders. It is Allah that has called us to protect ourselves and has blessed us with the ability to manufacture a powerful force that will be used to protect our borders. No more tests are planned as our scientists were merely experimenting with an untried method for producing electric energy that went astray and resulted in this large explosion….”

He went on to ask that Zionist Israel move back its borders and allow the Palestinians to reclaim the lands that belonged to them. He felt the USA had confused Iraq citizens with its Western decadent thoughts and implored the Assembly to remove the American air bases from Afghanistan and Iraq.

He also noted that the Fifth Fleet had acted irresponsible in various incidents in the Indian Ocean and it was “only with great restraint” that Iranians withheld fire from the offending forces that had attempted to ram its ships. “Fortunately Allah was with us during these unprovoked attacks and protected our ships from certain death.” He expressed hope that international law could be updated that would help to reduce the presence of US forces in the Gulf of Aden, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea.

 

~*~

A pair of soldiers escorted Robinson toward the door. “I will need to speak to him of urgent matters. See that you speak of me immediately when he arrives.”

“Si Señor.”

Robinson was taken through the courtyard that was strewn with bodies. Then he found himself locked in the cellar with several other servants. As far as he could tell a guard was posted in the hall. He brought out his cell phone and dialed Larry Deshano, Director of the CIA. Let’s hope we get a connection. He felt the chances were slim, however it was worth a try.

It rang once and he heard the familiar voice. “Robinson. What can I do for you?”

“Larry, I am happy to hear your voice.” Thank God! “I’m in Venezuela at President Santiago’s Miraflores Palace. There has been a coup and I’m held hostage at the moment in the wine cellar until I can convince the new people they shouldn’t kill me.”

He could hear Larry barking orders to the staff. “Get the president on the line NOW! Robinson’s trapped in a hotbed in Venezuela. Someone get a fix on the Miraflores Palace! Code red! OK buddy, we are gonna get you out of there. Is there any chance you can make it out the door and I can have choppers pick you up?”

“I might be able to—”

“Landenberger here. What’s up Larry?”

“Robinson is on the line and he has been taken prisoner in a Venezuelan coup.”

“My God! Is he all right?”

“You can speak to him.”

“Yeah, I’m OK. They shot Santiago a few minutes ago.”

“What’s his status?”

“Dead. Other than that I don’t have any info about the coup. They stormed the palace and overran it about ten minutes ago. Someone called General Rio is now the top man here and they expect him to arrive here soon.”

“Rio?”

Deshano shouted to his staff. “Get info on Rio NOW!”

“Larry, what do you think? Can we get his butt out of there?”

“Yeah, I can do it if we work with the navy. You must OK the clearance to enter the airspace.”

“Officially no one is in charge of the country so we can pretty much do whatever we wish.”

“Yeah, if we can get in there unnoticed—we don’t want an international incident even if the situation is a bit unstable.”

“This is Bumgardner, I understand we need support in Venezuela. We have the super carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford down there keeping an eye on the Russians. We can launch some Vanguards or Blackhawks on a rescue mission. I have them on alert now. Let’s get Davis in the mix.”

“This is Captain William Davis of the USS Gerald R. Ford. What can I do for you?”

“We may need a Blackhawk rescue mission ASAP. How quickly can you get a Blackhawk in Caracas?”

“We could have someone there in an hour, maybe less.”

Landenberger jumped in. “I’m getting off the line for five minutes as I want you boys to work this out and give me a report on this. I need to check on another part of the operation. Let’s call it Operation Watchdogg.” He went off-line.

“How many evacuees are we talking about?” asked the captain.

Robinson checked with the others in the cellar and they indicated they merely wanted to get safely out of the building. “Probably just one—the others would appreciate getting out of here and want to go home. I want to hop on my jet at the airport and get back to D.C.”

“OK, that is the mission,” Davis answered. “If we see the airport is safe, we can get you there. If not, we will bring you here and then worry about getting you home. Is there any chance you can get out of the building on your own? We want to keep this as clean as we can. We don’t want to fight our way in there unless it is absolutely necessary.”

“I’d need to fight my way out. The guard is not that bright—I might be able to get past him and make a run for it into the courtyard.”

“We’ve got the thermal imaging on the place now. There are around fifty hostiles and more incoming—looks like about another hundred or so. We see your position, Robinson. It’s extremely hot all around you.”

Larry said, “We can do this—even with all the hostiles. We’ll need several Blackhawks with a squad of men in the event the ground is unfriendly. Our report says we have an eighty percent chance of success here and ninety-five percent if the hostiles can be neutralized before we arrive on the scene. Only reason it won’t work is that Robinson may become a casualty in the courtyard.”

“I have the report on Rio,” interrupted Deshano. “Actually, there are two and we are not absolutely sure which one he may be. Our number one man is one mean mother. He got his start working his way up the drug-cartels and controls the entire underbelly of the country. Prostitution, gambling, murder for hire—you name it he does it. He’s a kingpin drug lord. We would do well to take him out as a part of the operation however let’s not get another objective in the mix. In the event an opportunity comes along—”

“That’s up to the president. He’ll probably want to leave it alone as it could be a political hot potato.”

“And the other is a member of the legislator, a popular politician—a lightweight in the world of politics.”

Davis spoke, “Let us hope it is him and not the other one. I’m ready to go with Operation Watchdogg; probably the quicker the better. We would surprise them and be in and out while they have the details of their coup to deal with. A few more hours and things could be too settled to do this.”

Deshano said, “I’m for it. Robinson is too good a man to leave him hanging out to dry.”

Robinson agreed, “Great, I’ll do my best to—” The line went dead. He turned to the others beside him. “I am very fortunate to have faithful friends. We will all be out of here in about an hour and all of you can go home.” Landenberg will probably approve the mission and I can expect all hell to break loose in about an hour.

Maria had been listening to the guards outside the door. “They say that Red Dog uno will be here in fifteen minutes, Señor Robinson.

If I can time this correctly, I can meet with Rio and use my diplomatic skills to talk my way out of here. I would need to appeal to his greed if he is the drug dealer and the other I will need to do some thinking—dream up something to confuse him long enough to make it to the chopper. Right now, I must get myself out of here.

He punched the redial on the cell. It was dead.

 

~*~

 

Landenberger called back. “I’m sorry boys. It’s a “no go” for Operation Watchdogg. There could be too much political fallout from this….”

Continued….

Click on the title below to download the entire book and keep reading Reynold Jay’s “Mr. President,Terrorists have Taken the White House.” >>>>

KND Freebies: Bestselling dystopian romance ENTANGLEMENT is featured in today’s Free Kindle Nation Shorts excerpt

*** KINDLE STORE BESTSELLER***
Paranormal & Fantasy/YA Romance…
and 81 rave reviews!
Entanglement (YA Dystopian Romance)
3.9 stars – 116 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:

Hotheaded heartthrob Aaron Harper is scheduled to meet his half in twenty-nine days, and he doesn’t buy a word of that entanglement crap. So what if he and his half were born the same day and share a spooky psychic connection? Big deal. After breaking one too many teenage girls’ hearts, he’ll stick to brawling with the douchebag rugby players any day.

Until the day a new girl arrives at school and threatens everything he takes for granted.

Cold and unapproachable, Amber Lilian hates the growing list of similarities between her and the one boy she can’t read, Aaron: born the same day, both stubborn, both terrified of meeting their halves. . . . All the more reason not to trust him. That she would rather die than surrender herself as her half’s property is none of his damn business. But once lost in Aaron’s dangerous, jet black eyes, she’s already surrendered more than she cares to admit.

Tangled in each other’s self-destructive lives, Aaron and Amber learn the secret behind their linked births and why they feel like halves—but unless they can prove it before they turn eighteen, Aaron faces a lifetime alone in a world where everyone else has a soulmate . . . and he’ll have to watch Amber give herself to a boy who intends to possess not only her body but also a chunk of her soul.

5-star praise for Entanglement:

“Fantastic…Definitely one of the best young adult novels I have read in quite a while. It was well written, fast-paced and the romance was believable…”

“…Dan Rix’s dystopian world is fresh and just a bit terrifying to behold…”

an excerpt from

Entanglement

by Dan Rix

Copyright © 2014 by Dan Rix and published here with his permission
ONE

28 Days, 19 hours, 15 minutes

“Scar tissue,” said the doctor, “here.” She tapped the white lump on the MRI scan.

“Is that in my brain?” said Aaron.

“Just touching it, actually. Between the grey matter and the skull. Aaron, how long have you been having these headaches?”

“Since I was a kid. It’s gotten worse recently.”

“Well, the good news is it’s not cancerous.” The doctor stretched on a pair of latex gloves and probed the back of Aaron’s head with two fingers. “The pain is always here?”

“Yeah, like something tugging back there.” Aaron Harper shifted, still jumpy from the MRI, and his sticky palms suctioned the paper off the exam table with an irritating crinkle. “What’s the bad news?”

“Pardon?”

“You said the good news is you don’t think it’s cancerous. What’s the bad news?”

He felt the doctor’s breath on his scalp.

“The bad news is that according to your MRI, that scar tissue is right here—” she tapped the very back of his skull, “in the region of your clairvoyant channel, possibly obstructing it. Since you’re almost eighteen, my guess is you’re experiencing a boost in clairvoyant activity with your half. Hence the inflammation in the surrounding tissue.”

Aaron fought the urge to swallow. “But we’re okay, right? Me and my half? I mean, I would have felt if something was blocking us.”

“Well…” the doctor scrunched up her eyebrows, “not necessarily. I doubt you’ll notice the symptoms until you meet her. After that, it really depends on both of you.”

“The symptoms of what?”

With a whip-like snap that made Aaron flinch, the doctor peeled off her gloves. “Aaron, I’m sorry, but with that scar tissue blocking your channel, your half could literally be standing right in front of you—kissing you even. Part of you is going to feel like she’s not really there.”

***

In the Sansum Clinic parking lot outside the Radiology wing, Aaron jabbed at his Mazda’s ignition but couldn’t slot the key. His hand still trembled from the doctor’s words.

His half.

The girl born at the exact same time as him, somewhere else in the world. Like all seventeen-year-olds, he was scheduled to meet her on his eighteenth birthday.

Now it felt like a death sentence.

The key lodged. He cranked the ignition and thrust his foot down, and the tires burned out with a screech. Smoke rose in the rearview.

In twenty-nine days, he was supposed to meet his soul mate. Eighteen years of waiting, wondering, fantasizing…looking forward to someone perfect.

Now this crap.

***

That evening as the buzzer concluded the first league volleyball game between Pueblo High School and Corona Blanca, Aaron, Pueblo’s starting setter, ripped off his jersey and flung it into the stands.

His coach grabbed his shoulder. “Cool it, Harper.”

“Where the hell was Franco tonight?” said Aaron, stooping to catch his breath.

“He’s eighteen now.”

“Coach, it takes forty-five minutes to win a volleyball game. He can’t leave his half for forty-five minutes?”

“And I wouldn’t ask him to,” said his coach. “Just like I won’t ask you after your birthday.”

With a nervous twinge, Aaron recalled his visit to the doctor. All the things he didn’t get to look forward to. He stood, shrugged off the coach’s hand, and made for the exit.

His coach called after him. “Put a goddamn shirt on, number eleven.”

Aaron punched the wall on his way out. Outside the gym, the night cooled his sweaty skin, and Corona’s fans parted around him. He never reached the bus, though.

Someone’s hard shoulder crunched into his spine. In that split-second of contact, he felt a shock-like twinge at the back of his skull, then something crawling inside his scalp. He staggered forward and grabbed the back of his head. But the skin wasn’t broken.

Aaron spun toward the culprit and saw a figure in a gray hoodie vanish into the crowd of Corona fans, oblivious.

Aaron started after him. “Hey!” he called, but the figure slipped out of view. Aaron charged through green-jerseyed fans. He shoved aside a Corona player and saw a flash of gray hoodie. He lunged.

But his hand closed on empty air.

The figure darted past the last cluster of students and receded into the night. Aaron tore after him, and for a brief, blind moment, the wind whistled in his ears—before he collided with a chain link fence. He caught his breath and peered into the shadows beyond the fence.

There, under a dark hoodie, two pale blue eyes—Aaron blinked. No, just shadows.

He slammed the fence in frustration. As the pain in the back of his head subsided, his skin formed goose bumps.

It was the same spot. Exactly where the MRI showed a lump of scar tissue in his brain. The headaches were one thing, just pressure on his brain, but this—this had felt like a piece had actually torn off. And all because a stranger in a gray hoodie bumped into him.

The doctor he had seen earlier wasn’t the first to predict that he and his half would have problems. He had seen a dozen doctors the last year alone, brain surgeons and clairvoyant specialists, and they all said the same thing; the scar tissue would hamper his emotional connection to his half, they just didn’t know how much.

No surgeon dared operate on him. The lump of scar tissue was pushing up against his clairvoyant channel. One mistake with a scalpel could sever it, destroying the already delicate connection between Aaron and his half. They would both die.

Aaron was still standing at the fence, a new wave of dread soaking through him, when he realized there was someone behind him.

“Number eleven, right?”

Aaron recognized the shaggy-haired guy as Corona Blanca’s starting setter.

“Yeah, what’s up?” said Aaron.

The other setter extended his hand. “I wanted to meet you,” he said. “I was watching you set during the game, and with a pair of hands like yours, Pueblo should have won.”

“Thanks,” said Aaron, as they shook hands, “the better team won.”

Corona’s setter shrugged. “Hey, a couple of our players are heading down to the beach. We got a bonfire going and a couple of coolers. You feel like a postgame party?”

“Maybe next time.”

“No pressure,” said the setter, and he headed back to the cluster of green jerseys.

Aaron rubbed his scalp again. It still felt raw. As he lowered his hand, he wondered if the doctor had been optimistic. Maybe symptoms would show up even before his birthday. Like tonight, the searing pain caused by the hooded figure. Maybe this was his last night as a normal seventeen-year-old.

If it was, he damn well wasn’t going to waste it lying in bed.

“I changed my mind,” Aaron called. “Where’s the bonfire?”

The setter glanced back, grinning. “Arroyo beach. Once you hit the sand, turn right. You can’t miss us.”

***

He really couldn’t miss them. Aaron felt the bonfire’s heat a good sixty feet from the flames, which leapt above the silhouettes of what looked like Corona Blanca’s entire school. And some.

They had taken over the whole beach, crowding around open coolers and sitting on pieces of driftwood, drinks in hand, their faces glowing reddish-bronze. Aaron wished he hadn’t come. This wasn’t his school.

At least he could have changed out of his damn red and white Pueblo volleyball jersey—

“Number eleven, over here!”

Aaron spotted Corona’s setter along with the rest of the Corona Blanca volleyball team chowing down on pizza off to his right. As soon as Aaron reached them, he felt an icy sting as the setter slapped a can of soda into his palm.

Aaron took a swig and scanned their surroundings. A brief flicker of red by the base of the cliffs caught his attention. At first he thought it was an ember from the fire, but as his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he made out two seated figures on the beach just beyond the lighted radius of the bonfire. He recognized one of them.

The figure in the gray hoodie.

The other one was a girl, a blonde with long, wavy hair, and Aaron couldn’t quite tell from the distance, but she looked pretty—and very bored. As Aaron watched, the hooded figure slipped a bright red object into his pocket.

Aaron grabbed the sleeve of Corona’s setter, his heart racing. “Who is that?” he said, nodding to the pair of them. “Over there in the dark.” He didn’t want to lose sight of the figure again.

The setter and a few of his teammates followed Aaron’s gaze. They all laughed.

“You noticed her too, huh? Welcome to the club,” said the setter. “That’s Amber Lilian. New student at Corona Blanca.”

“Sure, she’s eye candy,” said number ten, “she’s also sassy as hell.”

“I mean the guy,” said Aaron. “He bumped into me earlier.”

The team went silent. Then the setter spoke in a much quieter voice. “That’s Clive Selavio. Also new.”

“Her half?” said Aaron.

“Her boyfriend, but they have the same birthday, so it’s pretty much a sure thing. I think their families moved here together.”

Aaron nodded. Same birthdays. Given that halves were usually born near each other—often within the same city—halves did sometimes find each other before their birthdays. But people got it wrong too. He looked back at the boy and girl seated on the driftwood only to find that once again, the hooded figure had vanished. The girl sat alone.

Aaron scanned the beach, now frantic. Something weird had happened when Clive bumped him, and he needed to figure out what. Aaron couldn’t find him in the crowd, though, and his eyes darted back to the girl. Maybe she could explain.

“I’m going to go talk to her,” said Aaron, making up his mind before she, too, could disappear. He barged through what was now a Corona Blanca team huddle and slogged toward the girl.

A player muttered behind him, “Where do these Pueblo guys get their nerve?”

“It’s because he doesn’t have to live with the embarrassment of seeing her at school. I’d talk to her if she was a Pueblo chick.”

“Nah, it’s because he was running behind-the-back quick sets all night—”

Aaron ignored the rest. As he trudged through the sand, he was more concerned with what in God’s name he was going to say to this girl once he got to her.

***

Amber Lilian was way more than just pretty, he realized, when she finally glanced up at the sound of his approach, the gleaming whites of her eyes warning him not to take another step. Caught in the girl’s predatory stare, Aaron felt his pulse quicken as he covered the last few feet.

“I need to talk to you about your boyfriend,” he said, sitting next to her.

She eyed the narrow gap he’d left between them and, without a word, edged away from him.

He tried again. “You know, that guy in the hoodie—”

“Why are you even here?” she said, interrupting him. “You guys lost.”

“I’m aware of that.” Aaron undid his laces and kicked off his shoes. “So, about that guy—” He glanced up, but the sight of her up close caught him off guard, and he trailed off. She brushed her hair behind her ear, still watching him. So it was a staring contest. Fine. Except staring into Amber’s strikingly green eyes gave Aaron the same bad feeling he got at zoos when he accidentally locked eyes with the caged panthers—the ones that could rip his throat out.

Aaron felt his gaze slipping and broke their stare, noticing with relief that she broke at the same time.

“He’s not my boyfriend,” she said.

Heart still racing, Aaron nodded to the group of green jerseys he had come from. “Your school’s volleyball team says he is.”

“I think I would know,” she said, flashing him another warning look.

“Then who is he?”

“Do you actually care or is this just an excuse to talk to me?” she said.

On any other day, Aaron would have juggled coals as an excuse to talk to this girl, but tonight, he worried more about the throbbing pain at the back of his skull and what Clive Selavio had done to cause it. He tried another angle. “What was that red thing he showed you earlier?”

“Nothing,” she said, a threatening tone in her voice as she edged away from him again.

“So you guys are the real deal,” he said, “same birthdays and all?”

“So what?” she said. “Why is everyone so obsessed with birthdays? I’m going to belong to my half for the rest of my life. Can’t I just be a normal seventeen-year-old right now?”

Aaron blinked. She had just put into words exactly what he felt about his own birthday. Before he could respond, though, he sensed the tension in her body as she fought a shiver.

“Are you okay?” he said. “You look cold.”

“Don’t even think about putting your arm around me.”

“That wasn’t the question.”

Amber glared at him, then laughed to herself. “As if you would understand. You probably downloaded that dumb birthday countdown app on your cell phone and check it every five minutes just like everyone else.”

“Actually, I do understand,” said Aaron. “I’m dreading my birthday too. I have scar tissue in my brain blocking my clairvoyant channel, so when everyone else gets to meet their soul mate, I get to see what’s missing. And I didn’t download that app.”

His answer must have surprised her. She stared at him, mouth open, and forgot to brush away the curtain of hair that fell in front of her eyes.

Just then, a commotion near the bonfire drew their attention. A group of juniors was talking excitedly, and as others joined in and cheered them on, they took off their shirts.

Two guys ran over to Aaron and Amber’s log. “Hey, like twenty of us are going skinny dipping, you guys want to come? Dominic’s already in the water.”

It was obvious they were here to recruit Amber. Big surprise.

“No thanks,” said Aaron. “We’re good.”

“Is it just pervy guys?” said Amber. “Or are there actually girls too?”

“There’s girls too. It was their idea, in fact.”

Then, to Aaron’s bewilderment, Amber said, “Okay. I’ll come in a second.”

“Cool, see you down there!” The two guys raced back to the water, and when they thought they were out of sight, they grinned and high-fived.

“Can I hide my cell phone in your shoes?” Amber said, facing Aaron.

He gaped at her. “You’re kidding, it’s freezing out there—”

But she was already pulling her sweater over her head. He felt a rush of air as her hair came loose from the hood and swished back. She smelled like the beach, like salt and sunscreen.

“So do you have a name, number eleven?” she said, removing a large pair of peacock feather earrings that had been hidden under her hair.

“Aaron Harper,” he answered, still in disbelief.

“So when’s this birthday you’re dreading, Aaron?”

“March thirtieth.”

Amber froze, and for the first time that night, it seemed, she let down her guard. “Mine too,” she whispered.

Aaron felt his heart leap, and for a moment they couldn’t look away from each other—

“Amber, put you goddamn clothes back on,” said a cold, drawling voice behind them.

Aaron turned around as Clive Selavio, the figure in the gray hoodie, emerged from the shadows at the base of the cliffs.

***

Two pale, milky blue eyes glowed beneath the shadow of his hood. Though muscular, he was shorter than Aaron by a few inches, with perfect, if not cruel features. Like Amber’s. Too perfect.

So this was the guy who knocked into him. Aaron’s first impression was that Clive couldn’t have been seventeen. Twenty, maybe.

“You—” Clive said to Aaron, “thanks for babysitting her. Now you can leave.”

Aaron didn’t budge. His mind was still reeling with the news that he and Amber had the same birthday. Plus he had unfinished business with Clive. “You shoved me after the game, remember? What the hell was that?”

Clive ignored him to deal with Amber, who was now shivering in just a T-shirt. “Put your sweatshirt back on.”

“Actually, I’m going skinny dipping,” she said.

“You are not fucking skinny dipping,” said Clive.

“If she wants to take a dip, let her take a dip,” said Aaron.

Clive’s gaze snapped back to him, and Aaron felt the corner of his mouth twitch as their eyes burned into each other. “I thought I told you to leave,” he said.

“I asked you a question,” said Aaron.

Clive’s eyebrows shot up. Then he ran his hand over his scalp and behind his head, nudging off his hood, and Aaron saw that both sides of his thin, shaved head were etched with deep scars. As though his face had been peeled off and reattached. “The thing is, number eleven…” he said, rounding the log to Aaron’s side, “you know this beach belongs to Corona Blanca, and you know that Amber is off limits, so why are you still here?”

Aaron noticed a red glow in the pocket of Clive’s shorts. Clive saw where he was looking and quickly covered it.

“What’cha got there?” said Aaron, certain he could now feel a gentle tugging behind his head. Maybe provoking this guy was a bad idea.

“It’s nothing,” said Clive.

“No, it looks like you have something in your pocket.”

“It’s just a glow stick. It’s nothing.”

“If it’s just a glow stick, then show it to me,” said Aaron.

Clive’s eyes became slits, and without another word to Aaron, he spun, grabbed Amber’s sweatshirt, and forced it back over her head. “Get up. We’re leaving.”

“Clive, stop it!” she yelled, shoving him off. “People are watching.”

He pinned her against the driftwood. “Think I give a damn?”

“Clive, you’re hurting me—” She scratched his arms, but Clive was stronger, and he dragged the fabric down over her face, suffocating her screams.

It was crossing the line.

Aaron lunged forward, closed his fist around Clive’s collar, and yanked him back. “Not while I’m here, jerk—”

He ended up in the sand, Clive on top of him.

“Cut the crap!” Aaron yelled, flinging Clive’s hands off his neck. Then he heard a sound like the rumble of crashing surf—the sound of running feet.

Clive jumped away from him, and Aaron stood, as Corona Blanca’s entire student body jammed into a ring with them at its center. The excited mutters quieted when a dripping wet senior stepped into the circle.

From his braided rat tail and the green letterman jacket the senior wore over nothing but a wet pair of boxers, Aaron recognized him as Corona Blanca’s rugby star, Dominic Brees. He grinned, flashing a broad mouth packed with shining white teeth. Then, to Aaron’s horror, he chanted, “Fight—fight—fight—” and within seconds, the whole school joined in.

Clive grabbed Dominic’s jacket. “You better be able to get me out of this,” he said. “I’m dead if my father finds out I got in another fight.” Evidently, Clive didn’t want the attention any more than Aaron did.

Dominic laughed and raised his hands, silencing the crowd. “We’ve had a change of plans,” he yelled. “Corona Blanca’s Clive Selavio will now race number eleven from Pueblo High School all the way out to the buoy!”

Aaron scowled. Clearly this was Dominic’s ploy to get more people in the water. Unfortunately, it worked. The spectators roared and changed their chant to, “Buoy—buoy—buoy—” Dominic slapped Clive on the back and receded into the circle, deserting him before he could protest.

Aaron scanned the shouting faces, trying to calm his breathing. How the hell had he gotten himself in this situation?

Of course it was that girl, Amber, who he noticed was conveniently nowhere in sight. For a night out, it was fairly typical, he supposed, as the crowd started booing him; he never quite managed to keep his damn mouth shut. At least not when it counted.

Aaron glanced back at Clive, and their eyes met across the ring. He had a hunch Clive would back down, and he prayed he was right because he wasn’t about to humiliate himself and disgrace his school. He whipped off his shirt and flung it to the sand.

The crowd cheered. Point for Pueblo.

Slowly, the corner of Clive’s pale, chapped lips tightened into a smirk. He tugged his hoodie over his head and laid it carefully on the driftwood, then he started on the buttons of his collared shirt, and the crowd went berserk.

Aaron stared at him. So they were actually going to do this.

***

Clive cheated, bolting for the water a full second before Dominic shouted, “GO!”

Aaron kicked off the sand and tore after him. He felt a deep rumble followed by a spray of mist, and from out of the darkness, a film of foamy surf slashed across his ankles.

There was no sign of a buoy, not even a line marking the horizon, just blackness. Thankfully Clive had kept his undershirt on because all Aaron could do was follow his bobbing white silhouette as they hurled themselves into the pounding surf.

Aaron dived under a wave and icy brine flooded his nostrils. He broke out into the open water, neck and neck with Clive. After a few minutes, he lost track of time. Gradually every square inch of his skin went numb with cold.

Then Clive’s splashes stopped.

But there was nothing up ahead. Aaron panicked. Had he followed a rogue wave? Was he in fact miles past the buoy, lost?

He tried to find the shore, but the water stung his eyes and blurred everything. He couldn’t even see the bonfire.

Something moved in the darkness ahead of him, and all at once, the pungent smell of salt and rotting fish rushed over him, filled his lungs, choked him. Right before a wave sucked him under, he saw huge masses shifting and blotting out the stars. He surfaced, terrified, to the sound of barking—violent, piercing barks that echoed off the water. Aaron clutched his ears.

There were splashes all around him, and he was aware that something else was swimming in the water with him—something big. He felt a thrust of cold water against his knees as a huge creature swam past him.

From somewhere behind him, he heard Clive shout, “Sea lions!”

More barking, more splashes, and more things swimming past him. Aaron twisted to get away from them, but the turbulence from their flippers pulled him back.

A moment later a white shape loomed in front of him, and he reached his arms out just in time to stop his face from colliding with hard metal. The buoy.

With Clive’s help, he tipped it over so they could rest the upper halves of their bodies. Underwater, Clive’s pocket emitted an eerie red glow, tinting the water around them purple.

“I won’t drown you for talking to Amber,” said Clive, after they caught their breath, “but do me a favor, okay? Don’t go near her again.”

“How about you quit treating her like dirt,” said Aaron.

Clive snickered. “Number eleven, you know better than to tell a man how to treat his own half.”

“Too bad she’s not your half,” said Aaron. “She’s only seventeen.”

“Yeah, but we were both born on March thirtieth.”

Aaron spat into the water, cleansing the salty taste from his mouth. “Then it sounds like we got a problem, Clive, because I also was born on March thirtieth.”

Clive faced him abruptly, sinking his face into shadow so only the glint of his pale, unblinking eyes shone in the darkness. As a passing swell tugged at Aaron’s feet and weakened his grip on the buoy, he wondered if he could defend himself if Clive tried to kill him right now.

“I’m only going to tell you this one more time,” said Clive finally. “Don’t go near her again.”

“Or else what?” said Aaron.

“Tell me you have a smarter question.”

“Yeah, one. What’s in your pocket?”

To Aaron’s surprise, Clive actually reached into the water and pulled it out. Aaron thought the bright object was, in fact, a glow stick, until he leaned closer.

It was a glass vial, rounded at both ends so it was completely sealed. Inside, a glowing red liquid crawled along the glass.

“Do you know what this is?” said Clive, smirking, his face now fully illuminated.

“Plasma?”

“This is what drips out when you cut a hole in your clairvoyant channel.”

Aaron felt a wave of cold, separate from the ocean. “Is it yours?”

Clive shook his head. “Whosever it is, they’re sorely missing it right now. Want to hold it?”

Aaron took the vial from Clive, but when the glass touched his skin, the sudden stabbing at the back of his scalp nearly made him drop it, like something trying to exit his head through too small a hole. The red fluid scurried inside of the vial, forming tendrils, as if searching for cracks. And Aaron had the impression that the vial was somehow filling up, glowing brighter and brighter, too bright to look at—

“Hey, how’d you do that?” said Clive.

“Hold on,” said Aaron, now mesmerized by the luminous substance. The glass, he noticed, was stamped with some sort of ID code.

“Give it back—” Clive lunged for the vial.

Aaron held it out of reach, straining to make out the letters, but Clive caught his wrist. The impact splayed Aaron’s fingers wide open, and in slow motion, the vial flew from Aaron’s palm, bounced off the buoy, and plopped into the water.

***

“Shit!” Clive plunged his arm in, but the vial slipped through his fingers, briefly lighting their toes on its way to the bottom.

Clive dived. And Aaron had no choice but to dive in after him. About eight feet down, blind and out of breath, Aaron clamped his arm around Clive’s ankle and took a bare heel to the forehead. He held on, though, righted himself, and thrust down hard. With sheer will, he hauled Clive out of the ocean and forced him against the buoy.

“Let it go!” Aaron yelled. “It was my fault.”

“You idiot,” Clive gasped, “you stupid idiot! Now we’ll never find it.”

“Then it’s lost,” he said. “It could be thirty feet to the bottom. What was that thing, anyway?”

They both looked down as they caught their breath, and their last glimpse of the vial was a fuzzy dot, no brighter than the reflection of a star, before it was gone.

“My father’s going to kill me for this,” said Clive.

Aaron let go of him and lowered himself into the water. “Come on, let’s go back. It’s freezing out here.”

When Aaron made it back to the beach, he was relieved to find that most of Corona Blanca had gone home, and the few smoking weed by the bonfire’s dying embers had forgotten about his and Clive’s race to the buoy.

Aaron reached his shoes, still disconcerted by what he’d seen in the vial and determined that he would have nothing to do with Clive Selavio, his vial, or Amber Lilian ever again, Clive’s half or not. No point in trying to see her if the guy was that protective. Besides, Aaron and Amber’s birthday was only a month away. Then they would know.

There was something in his shoe, wedged down by the toe. Aaron pulled out a bright, powder blue smartphone.

Amber’s cell phone. Damn.

***

When Amber pulled in front of Dominic Brees’s gate to drop off Clive, she felt his body go tense—as it usually did when she was doing everything wrong.

“So you’re making me walk up the driveway?” said Clive, and Amber barely heard the vulnerability beneath his irritation. He was getting better at hiding it now when she pushed him away, which made her nervous.

“Can you just go?” she said. “I’m really tired.”

“You sure got cozy with number eleven, didn’t you?” he said.

She sighed. “Why do you always do this?”

“I’m keeping you safe,” he spat.

“Wow,” she said, “I must really be something if every guy I meet is trying to steal me away from you.”

“I saw the way he looked at you,” he said.

“Actually, Clive, he was asking about you,” she said, and all at once, her frustration came rushing back. Of course she would finally meet an interesting boy with the same birthday as her, only to have Clive obliterate her chances, as always, of the boy ever talking to her again. She sighed, wishing she knew more than just his name.

“Amber, he lost the vial.”

“Then maybe you shouldn’t have stolen it from your dad.” Amber relished the wounded flare in Clive’s eyes. To torment him even more, she smiled sweetly, twirling her hair around her finger, and decided he would be the one who looked away first.

But Clive leaned over her instead, and his breath prickled her eyelashes. “You’re going to be powerful because of who I am.”

Amber rolled her eyes and gazed out her window. “Do you think I care?” she said.

“Look at me,” he whispered.

She didn’t say anything, just stared straight ahead.

“Look at me!”

Finally, skin crawling, she faced him.

“You’re pure blood,” he whispered, “mixed with mine—imagine our inheritance, Amber.”

And then, while she was still glaring at him, he came the last few inches and kissed her. She let him, because it was easier to surrender the little things. Because she knew the part of her that resisted him was wearing out, and eventually there would be nothing left.

She used to think Clive was sexy in a scarred up, feral kind of way, but now it hardly mattered what he looked like. What frightened her was the part inside, the part she could taste.

When Clive had finished, Amber edged away from him and let her hair fall between them, though she could feel his gaze lingering. She knew it was miserable for him, knowing she never kissed back, knowing he would never feel her lose control and really kiss him.

“Amber, you get to have everything,” he said. “Start appreciating it.” He climbed out and slammed the door.

Amber sat in her car for a whole minute, her stomach squirming, before she pulled out and drove home.

She hardly paid attention to the road. The yellow paint strip slithered into the darkness, and as her VW Bug squealed around a corner, she half wished the tires would slip. She shot down a dark straightaway and the gas pedal bottomed out under her toes. As the car’s speed pressed her into the seat, gnarled branches of oak trees swung past her. The moon flickered, faster and faster.

She closed her eyes.

You get to have everything. Start appreciating it.

Amber kept her eyes closed, and she knew it would be too late to slow down once her headlights illuminated the next corner, too late to make the turn.

She knew what Clive would say, her father, her mother, Clive’s father, everyone who said they cared about her. Amber. You’re much too important. Don’t you dare be reckless.

But the rush made her dizzy, tingly all over, lightheaded. It was so easy not to look, like falling asleep—like being held.

Then her mind returned to Aaron Harper, the strange boy who’d shown up out of nowhere and made things interesting for a night.

She opened her eyes—and slammed on the brakes. The car shuddered and threw her forward. Her heart squashed against the inside of her chest as the vehicle sank toward the edge of the road.

Then silence.

Her headlights blazed two feet from the trunk of an oak tree. Two feet, that’s how close she had come. Slowly, Amber let out a breath, which she realized she’d been holding the entire time. Feeling numb, she reversed and got back on the road. She was full of helium, practically floating away already.

Who was he? Okay, so he was gorgeous. Amber shivered when she remembered his dangerous, jet black eyes. In her entire life, she had never been so devastated by a stare.

Nor had she met anyone else who dreaded turning eighteen like she did. And their shared birthdays…Her heart had been racing since he told her.

But years ago, Amber had resolved never to get her hopes up; it was easier that way, and a random guy she’d just met at a bonfire was not about to change that.

She already knew her fate.

TWO

26 Days, 3 hours, 59 minutes

A burst of rap music jolted Aaron awake. He glanced around, disoriented, until he located the music’s source—Amber’s cell phone.

He silenced the call, which he noticed was from Clive Selavio, and swiveled his feet to the ground. Since Amber’s phone was locked and he didn’t have the passcode, he couldn’t access any of her contacts. He would have to return the phone to her in person. Great. More opportunities to royally piss off her psychotic boyfriend—or half, or whatever Clive was.

Aaron sighed, running his fingers through his hair. He tossed her phone in the trash. Cute as this girl was, she wasn’t worth the trouble.

As he stuffed his backpack for school, though, he realized that was a total lie. For some reason he couldn’t get Amber out of his head; she was just—different.

In the dim hallway outside his bedroom, Aaron felt the crunch of paper under his foot. He picked up an envelope, clearly marked with the silver seal of the Chamber of Halves, and slid out an official-looking letter.
Dear Aaron Harper,
In preparation for your upcoming eighteenth birthday, the Chamber of Halves would like to arrange a meeting with you on Saturday, March 30th at 11:00 A.M. We strive for a successful union between you and your half. Unfortunately, your case involves some complications, which your correspondent from the Chamber will discuss with you in confidence.
Regards,
Walter Wu
CHAMBER OF HALVES
TULAROSA BRANCH
Est. 1939

Aaron blinked and read it again. Complications? He had never heard of complications. On your eighteenth birthday, you went to the Chamber of Halves, you met your half. It wasn’t complicated.

Unless, of course, they knew about the scar tissue. Aaron stuffed the letter in his backpack and tried to ignore the flash of queasiness. On his way to the front door, he passed the breakfast table, where his mom was scanning the news headlines on her laptop.

“A student from Corona Blanca High School was reported missing on Friday,” she said, without looking up.

“Who?” said Aaron.

“Justin Gorski, he’s a rugby player.”

“Never heard of him,” said Aaron.

“Says here he was last seen right after school with a classmate, Amber Lilian,” she said.

Aaron halted, his hand on the doorknob. “Amber Lilian?” he repeated like an idiot.

“Why, do you know her?”

“No,” he said quickly, but when his mom wasn’t looking, he slipped back to his room and fished Amber’s phone out of his trash can. Aaron could already tell this girl was nothing but trouble.

Unfortunately, he had a chronic inability to stay away from trouble.

***

“So how was the water, Buddy?” said Aaron’s best friend, Buff Normandy, as the six-foot-four, two hundred and forty pound, curly-haired and baby-faced rugby player squeezed into the adjacent desk before first period. “Heard you took a dip on Friday.”

“You should have been there,” said Aaron. “Dominic Brees was working the crowd.”

“No bullshit, Breezie was there?” said Buff. “Tell me you punched him in the face for me?”

“I kind of had my hands full,” said Aaron.

“You heard about that missing kid, right?” said Buff. “He’s the one who dropped that pass during the finals last year, Justin Gorski. Cost Corona the game. I bet Breezie snuffed him out because the season’s about to start.”

“Couldn’t have been a rugby player,” said Aaron, “Gorski was last seen with a girl.”

“No bullshit, Breezie put her up to it,” said Buff. “Hey, are you still trying out for rugby this year?”

“Yeah, now that the volleyball team’s whole starting lineup is eighteen,” said Aaron, “I guess I don’t have a choice.”

“Not sure why you’re even bothering…” Buff grinned and glanced at his phone “You’re up in twenty-six days.”

Just then a girl came through the doorway, her dark hair sailing in slow motion behind her. Emma Mist. She glanced at Aaron briefly, then let her hair fall over her shoulder to block him from view.

“Yep, she hates you,” said Buff.

“It’s that obvious?” said Aaron. He had recently broken up with Emma because his birthday was coming up. It was the right thing to do—but standing her up the night of winter formal after she’d already done her hair and makeup was the wrong way to do it.

“Please turn in your essays on quantum mechanics and the discovery of halves,” said Mr. Sanders, walking in just as the bell rang.

As the sounds of shuffling papers and sliding desks filled the room, Buff produced a crumpled sheet of notebook paper covered with barely legible scribbles. He glanced at Aaron, whose hands were still jammed in his pockets, and gave a disappointed headshake before he ambled to the front.

Aaron tried to catch Emma’s eye, but she was decidedly oblivious, twirling her hair around her finger and gazing firmly out the window. If she would just let him apologize…

Ten minutes into lecture someone knocked on the classroom door, and Mr. Sanders paused to let in another girl who hated Aaron. Tina Marcello. Today she wore big sunglasses and chewed bubblegum.

“Ms. Marcello, I’m glad you’re here,” said their teacher with a smile. “I didn’t think it was fair for us to talk about you behind your back.”

She stopped chewing and brushed her straight, highlighted hair out of her eyes. “Huh?”

“Take a seat, Tina.” Mr. Sanders went back to his lecture. “…so although quantum entanglement was well documented by 1935, we credit Schrödinger with the discovery of halves. Mr. Harper, why does he get all the credit?”

Tina sat right in front of Aaron. As usual, she glowered at him as she walked toward her seat, chewing her gum like it didn’t taste good.

Aaron mouthed, “Bite me.”

“Aaron, how did he prove it to the world?” said Mr. Sanders.

Buff kicked the side of Aaron’s calf, making him wince.

“Prove what?” he said.

“That every human is born with a half.”

“Uh—he used an aitherscope?” said Aaron.

“Wrong. Aitherscope technology wouldn’t exist for another decade.” Mr. Sanders swept to the chalkboard. “Schrödinger said if humans formed in quantum entangled pairs, then in every case we would find that the halves were born simultaneously…therefore all we have to do is look at birth times.” The chalk made a nasty scrape on the board.

“Nice one, Aaron,” Tina said under her breath. She was putting on makeup.

Aaron kicked her desk, causing her to smear her lipstick.

“Jerk,” she said, wiping the smudge with her tank top.

Their teacher scanned the classroom for the source of the commotion, and his eyes settled on Aaron. At the same moment, Amber’s cell phone went off in his pocket, turning all the heads in the classroom with a shrill, hip-hop beat and a chain of rapid-fire cusswords.

Lovely.

***

Over the next six hours, Clive called Amber’s cell phone so many times that Aaron found himself humming the ring tone between periods. When it rang for the twentieth time on his way to volleyball practice, he picked up.

“Clive, this is Aaron—”

But the caller hung up before he finished. Aaron lowered the phone from his ear, and his heartbeat felt heavier than usual. He had just made a huge mistake. Now Clive Selavio, Amber’s abusive boyfriend, thought she and Aaron were hanging out.

He had to get the phone back to her. Soon, before the guy did something to her. Maybe if he ditched practice and drove straight to Corona Blanca High School, he could catch her before she went home.

Don’t go near her again, Clive had said.

Too bad.

There were still cars in Corona Blanca’s parking lot when Aaron rolled in around four. But how to find her…

From what he remembered, Amber looked athletic, probably played a sport and stayed after school for practice. If she had a car, it would be here.

Outside, he slid on his sunglasses and leaned against his Mazda, feeling oddly nervous about talking to her again. At the campus entrance, a bronze statue of the Austrian physicist, Erwin Schrödinger, glinted in the sun. Its shadow crept closer.

The man who changed everything.

Just then Aaron saw her coming out. A smile pulled at the corners of his lips when he saw Amber approach a bright, Crayola-style powder blue Volkswagen Beetle. Same color as her cell phone.

She wore a white tennis skirt and a green tank top with ‘Corona Blanca Varsity Tennis’ written in white cursive along the front. Her skin was damp with sweat, and a few wisps of hair had escaped her ponytail and stuck to her forehead. She walked slowly, her eyes downcast.

He waited until she reached her car before he called out her name.

***

Amber glanced up, saw him, and froze. “Aaron?” She combed her damp hair off her forehead.

“What’s up?” he asked. “Lousy practice?”

“Why are you here?” she said, and when Aaron pushed off his car and came closer, she narrowed her eyes, tracking him.

In the daylight she was even more stunning. Once again Aaron found himself lost in her green eyes, not sure what he had been about to say.

Luckily, a distraction behind her snapped him out of his daze. The rest of the girls’ tennis team came into the parking lot, chatting and giggling. They paused, and after a few wary glances in Amber’s direction, continued on their way.

Aaron dug through his pocket. “You left this.” He tossed the phone to her, which she caught. “Does Clive always call you that much?”

Without even a thank you, Amber keyed in her passcode and thumbed through the list of missed calls. “It’s because he’s worried,” she said.

“Worried about what?”

“You. He’s worried you might have a crush on me,” she said, slipping the phone into her backpack with a hint of a smile, “and that you’re going to wait by my car after school with some lame excuse about having to return my cell phone just so you can talk to me again.”

“Oh?” Aaron raised his eyebrows. “So he’s not worried about the fact that you left the phone in my shoes on purpose then?”

She didn’t take her eyes off him. “Did that make your day, Aaron?”

“Actually, I was kind of dreading this,” he said, “since our first conversation resulted in me freezing my ass off with some sea lions while your boyfriend threatened to kill me if I ever went near you again.”

“Then you probably shouldn’t be near me. Why did you race him, anyway? It’s not like anyone was impressed.”

“It’s a guy thing.”

“Uh-huh,” she said doubtfully. “You know, he’s done things to guys like you before.”

“Like me?”

“Egotistical and stupid.”

“Why, is that your type, or something?” said Aaron, returning her glare. When it got ridiculous, though, he gave up trying to outstare her and squinted into the horizon. “So you really think Clive is your half?”

“You sound jealous,” she said.

“Just confused,” said Aaron, pushing his sunglasses halfway up the bridge of his nose. “Halves don’t treat each other like that…and I could tell he was nervous when I told him we had the same birthday.”

“Oh, right,” she said. “I forgot.”

Aaron peered sideways at her, but this time she broke eye contact first.

“No, you didn’t,” he said.

“I think I would know,” she said, rolling her eyes. Though now she was blushing.

“Well, have you thought about—”

“Just drop it,” she said.

“You don’t buy it, do you?”

“Buy what?”

“Halves. The whole bit.”

She set her gaze on him and the sudden force of her green eyes jolted him. “We’ve known about halves for barely eighty years. We don’t even know what causes it…I mean, nowhere does it say we’re meant to be soul mates. We just assumed.”

“Yeah, because that part was obvious.”

“There’s another explanation.”

Aaron nodded to the bronze statue. “One your man over there didn’t think of?”

“You know…” she said, without looking back, “Schrödinger kept a mistress.”

“Ouch,” he said. “Alright, let’s hear your theory.”

“Halves are more like siblings. Like cosmic twins…which would make this all incest.”

“You are aware most people say its love at first sight when they meet their half.”

“Easy.” She held his gaze. “Power of suggestion.”

“You’re saying it could be anybody?”

“I think that depends.”

“On what?”

“The person,” she said, watching him with a tinge of daring, “and what they believe.”

“Most people believe halves are perfect biological matches,” he said.

“That’s what scares me,” she said. “What happens to the human race if we no longer evolve through natural selection, but instead allow ourselves to be artificially bred by a force we haven’t even begun to understand?”

“You think it’s breeding us?”

She shrugged. “I wouldn’t be the first.”

A few students walked past them, and Aaron chewed his lip, waiting for them to pass out of earshot. Like the tennis players, their eyes darted between the two of them but lingered on Amber, and then Aaron remembered—

“What happened to Justin Gorski?” he said, changing the subject.

Amber glared at him as if he had just asked the stupidest question on Earth, and Aaron regretted asking her; the poor girl had probably gotten nonstop stares at school, and it was still only her first week.

Yet part of him doubted her innocence. “Weren’t you the last one with him?” he said.

“He offered me a ride home, which I didn’t take,” she said, “and I wasn’t the last one with him.”

“Then who was?” he said, ignoring her look. “Was it your boyfriend, Selavio, jealous maybe? Am I next on his hit list?”

“It was Dominic Brees,” she said, “and that’s because they’re both on the rugby team and they carpool home after practice.”

Aaron turned away from her and closed his fist. “Just like Buff said,” he muttered.

“Why do you even care? You don’t go here.”

“One more thing,” said Aaron, as he recalled Friday night, still believing Clive was somehow involved. “What was in that vial your boyfriend brought to the beach?”

“What are you, Aaron, some kind of private detective?”

“He said it was liquid clairvoyance.”

Amber pulled her keys out of her backpack and reached for her car door. “I’m kind of done talking to you,” she said, “and for your information, it was just a glow stick.”

She slammed the door in his face.

Well, that went well, Aaron thought, as her tires squealed on the asphalt and left him in a puff of burnt rubber.

***

“It’s too suggestive,” said Amber’s mother.

Amber stood on a pedestal wearing the dress, still fuming inside from her conversation with Aaron. Just who did he think he was? At the moment, a dozen people were looking her up and down.

She felt André’s hands on her waist. “We want to display her athletic figure,” he said. “The fabric accentuates movement, lightness. Step down, Amber, try walking around a bit.”

She stepped off the stool and walked a few feet then turned around. The group murmured its approval.

“And what are those ruffles, André?”

André smiled. “It’s a fabric, Mrs. Lilian. It has to move.”

“Can you tighten that up along the side?”

“Quit nitpicking,” said her father. “He’s done a fine job.”

“You have no idea how camera flashes can amplify these imperfections,” said her mother.

“Imperfections?” scoffed Dravin, one of her parents’ friends, as his vulture-like eyes inspected Amber favorably from behind his glasses. “All I see is perfection.”

“Quiet,” said her mother. “André, do you have any brighter lights? I can’t see anything properly in your cave of a studio.”

André brought out two halogen lights on stands and they, like the eyes of her dozen admirers, were trained on Amber’s body.

“Congratulations,” said her mother. “You’ve wrapped her in vinyl.”

“There needs to be luster,” said André.

“Can it be charmeuse?” she said.

“Mrs. Lilian, the dress is done,” he said. “We’re just making the final adjustments.”

“Then do it again,” she said.

“But there isn’t enough time,” he muttered.

“Can we put padding in the cups?” said her mother.

André scowled.

“Ignore her,” said her father. “The dress is flawless.”

“It is not flawless,” said her mother.

While they bickered, Amber wandered into the corner and stared at herself in a mirror. Her hair was pinned up so every part of the dress could be seen, admired, and scrutinized for flaws. Just like her.

The silk was whisper-light on her skin, barely touching her, but not so loose they couldn’t see what she was shaped like underneath. It was André’s most appealing design so far—and probably the one she’d wear on her eighteenth birthday, although the thought made her stomach squirm.

She couldn’t stand the idea that once she met her half—once she belonged to him—she would never again be considered her own person. Irresistible as she was in André’s dress, she felt the urge to rip it off and don baggy sweatpants. The worst part, though, was she doubted there was even a single seventeen-year-old in the world who could empathize with her.

Well, maybe one seventeen-year-old.

Amber realized she was about to start thinking about Aaron all over again and sighed in frustration. She had thought about him way too much ever since he came to her school last week. But that wasn’t because she liked him. He was a jerk.

She just couldn’t figure him out, and though she didn’t trust him at all, she wished she had told him what she knew about the missing boy from her high school—at least to get it off her chest. Now he probably thought she was hiding something. Which she was.

And why did she care what Aaron thought? For all she cared, he could curse her name in his sleep.

Dravin appeared behind her, his half at his side. “He’ll be lovesick when he sees you, sweetheart.”

“Fine. As long as he doesn’t puke on me,” said Amber.

He ignored her tone. “With you at his side, he’ll be chosen as the heir.”

“Dravin, please do your scheming with my father,” she said.

Amber caught his half’s eye in the mirror and regretted it immediately. There was a reason Dravin usually left his half home when he visited. The woman’s unfocused eyes lolled between them, only loosely timed with their speech.

Amber averted her gaze, but not before her lips curled with disgust. Dravin must have read her expression.

“That’s not polite, sweetheart.”

“She’s gross.”

If the comment stung, Dravin didn’t let it show. “I was born in the early days, sweetheart. Before they understood premature contact. We first touched when we were only three days old; her body wasn’t ready…her channel tore open and she lost most of her clairvoyance.”

The detachment in his voice chilled Amber. “Aren’t you even upset about it?”

“You were almost like her, you know. Only your parents were more…skittish.” He said it like an insult.

“Yeah, well not everyone’s perfect,” said Amber. Despite her biting tone, her face flushed.

He was right.

Dravin and his half were victims of juvengamy. They had been forced together as infants.

So had Amber’s parents.

And as a pureblood, descended from an unbroken lineage of juvengamy halves, so had Amber.

At least that’s what they told her. She and her half were separated before she could remember. Before any permanent damage could happen to her channel…she hoped.

Amber heard shouting behind her and turned around. Her parents were yelling at each other now.

André sat in the corner while his half, the studio’s other designer, massaged his shoulders, throwing mutinous glances toward Amber’s mother. André and his half were both men. Homosexual halves did occur, though not as often as heterosexual halves.

Suddenly, Amber’s mother slapped her father and marched toward the exit, toppling one of the halogen light stands. The tripod crashed to the floor and the bulb popped. On her way out, she shouted over her shoulder, “I don’t care if you don’t sleep, André. I want another dress next week.”

When she got back to her purse, Amber had a missed call from Tina Marcello, Dominic Brees’s girlfriend, and a message asking if she wanted to hang out, maybe watch Pueblo High School’s rugby tryouts.

Definitely. She could use some time with someone normal.

***

“Well?” said Buff furiously as he and Aaron hobbled to the stands after rugby tryouts, both of them drenched in mud. Behind them, the goal posts sank into the mist.

“You saw. I scored three times,” said Aaron. “You tell me why your coach is an idiot.”

“Buddy, what was that bullshit? You’re a ball hog; you didn’t pass once. Have you ever even played rugby?”

“Just drop it,” said Aaron.

“No bullshit,” Buff grabbed his shoulders and faced him, “the closer it gets to your birthday, the more you creep me out. Look, Buddy, I know you’re freaked about that stuff in your head, but it’s not the end of the world, okay?”

Aaron shrugged off his best friend’s hands and continued walking.

“Okay, be a prick. Fine.” Buff walked in stiff silence next to him.

For a week, Aaron hadn’t stopped thinking about Amber. Clearly, she didn’t belong with Clive, yet she acted like they were unofficial halves or something…and he was beginning to hate it.

But his birthday was way too close to risk getting hung up on her—only nineteen days now. Besides, whether Clive Selavio, Aaron, or someone else entirely was Amber’s half would be revealed on March thirtieth, and no one could do a damn thing about it.

So why was it so hard to let her go?

“Hey—” Buff nodded toward the stands, “look who came to watch.”

Aaron glanced up. It was Tina Marcello, but when he saw whom she was with, his skin tingled.

“And who might that be?” said Buff, suddenly very interested.

The two girls were sitting right where they had left their backpacks.

***

Amber wore a baby-blue sweater, the sleeves rolled up to her elbows, damp with mist. Her hair glistened. Aaron stopped right in front of her.

“You again?” she said, making no attempt to sound excited. Aaron wondered whether she’d consulted Tina about him or whether they’d concluded separately that he was a jerk. Maybe they could form a club with Emma Mist.

Aaron wiped his brow with the back of his hand, and his sweat ran red down his fingers. A cleat must have nicked his forehead. He lifted the bottom of his shirt and wiped away the blood.

Amber blinked. “Do you really have to do that right in front of me?” she said.

“What are you doing here?” he said.

“Oh, so it’s okay for you to lurk by my car and ambush me after practice, and it’s not okay for me to watch the tryouts?”

“Fine. Next time I’ll leave your phone in the trash,” he said, “and just so you know—” he nodded over his shoulder at the rugby field, “I got distracted back there.”

“It’s not like I came to watch you.”

“Oh yeah?” he said. “Who’d you come to watch?”

Buff pushed him out of the way and held his hand out to Amber. He put on his most dignified expression, which wasn’t much. “Buff Normandy.”

Amber took his hand and smiled. “Amber.”

“So you like rugby, Amber?”

She shrugged, and her eyes darted to Aaron. “It’s okay,” she said.

“I didn’t really need to try out—” said Buff. “I’m actually already on the team.” He chuckled, and his cheeks reddened. “Actually, I was last year’s MVP.”

“Knock it off,” said Aaron. “She’s a friend.”

Buff stepped in front of Aaron, blocking him. “You got any plans for later?”

Aaron smirked and rolled his eyes, and Amber glanced at him again. She smiled too.

“Could you please leave us alone now?” said Tina, wrinkling her nose. “You guys stink.”

A lined notebook lay open on her lap, which Buff snatched and proceeded to dangle above her head.

“Buff—” Tina lunged for the notebook and missed. “Give it back!”

While they squabbled, Aaron scanned the bleachers for his backpack. He had left it right here. He inhaled, and his chest stung. More sweat drizzled into his mouth.

Then he saw it stashed under the bench, shoved out of the way right behind Amber. He leaned over her, and her eyes narrowed suspiciously.

“Excuse me—you’re in the way.” He reached past her.

But she refused to budge, and his shoulder brushed her cool skin. He felt her tense up. Aaron flexed and dragged his backpack onto the bench next to her. She stared at the spot of mud he left on her arm, then at him.

“What makes you think I’m your friend?” she said.

“I didn’t say you were,” said Aaron.

“You did two minutes ago.” She glanced at his forehead. “I think you need a Band-Aid.”

Blood dripped from Aaron’s chin. He wiped his forehead with his shirt again—it came back bright red.

“I’m fine.” He unzipped his backpack. Then he grabbed the collar of his shirt and pulled it over his head. Caked mud and sweat stuck to his skin. He crumpled the shirt into a ball and wiped his face another time. That was when he noticed the bruises along his rib cage.

While his shirt was off, Amber stole a glance at his torso, then quickly averted her gaze and fixed her eyes firmly on the horizon—until a grunt from Buff made them both look in his direction.

“Buddy, she’s scouting for Breezie!” he shouted, staring wide-eyed at the players’ names written neatly in pink ink in Tina’s notebook. “And why isn’t my name here?”

“Buff, forget about it,” said Aaron. “She doesn’t know jack—”

“Huh Tina? Why isn’t it on here?” Buff repeated.

There was a dark glint in Tina’s eyes. “Because your GPA is below the league minimum. You won’t be allowed to play.”

“That’s not true.”

“Is too.”

Buff tore out the page, ripped it into little pieces and dropped them on Tina’s lap. “No more of this bullshit,” he said, grabbing his backpack.

“You freak!” said Tina, staring at the scraps.

“When we play rugby, Breezie’s going to need more than just a cheat sheet,” said Buff, kicking the riser on the bench.

“Well that was lame.” Tina brushed the scraps of paper into a puddle and grabbed her purse. “Amber, let’s get out of here.”

“Hang on,” said Buff, “let me get Amber’s number.” He rummaged in his pockets for his cell phone, came out empty-handed, then unzipped his backpack and started digging out crumpled wads of schoolwork.

Amber gave him a coy smile. “Buff, you hardly know me,” she said.

Buff’s face reddened. He stood and scratched his head. “Maybe I should give you my number instead,” he said.

“She doesn’t want your number,” Aaron scoffed.

Amber shot him a glance. “Maybe I do.”

Meanwhile, Tina made a point of sighing loudly.

“I got it an idea!” said Buff. “Buddy, give me your phone. I’ll get her number that way.”

“Too bad,” said Aaron, “didn’t bring it.”

Amber glanced at the side of Aaron’s backpack, at the mesh pocket—where the bulge of his cell phone was clearly visible.

“Didn’t bring it, huh?” She slid Aaron’s phone out and flipped it open, keyed in her number, and called her own phone with it. Then Amber and Tina squeezed between him and Buff on their way out.

As Amber brushed past Aaron, she slipped the phone into the pocket of his shorts. “That’s for Buff,” she whispered, her breath right in his ear. Her green eyes lingered on him for another second before she turned away.

***

“Buddy, who was that?” said Buff, gaping at him.

“Don’t worry about it,” said Aaron. “She’s out of her mind.”

“Who cares?” said Buff. “Give me the phone number, it’s obvious she likes me.”

“She goes to Corona Blanca,” said Aaron.

Buff lunged for the phone in Aaron’s pocket, and Aaron had to beat him off with his backpack.

“Fine, I’ll just wait until she calls me,” said Buff, leaving Aaron to go talk to his coach, “which she will!”

“Say hello for me when she does.” Aaron slung his clean shirt over his shoulder and headed to his car alone. So much for forgetting about her. After that last sizzling look she gave him, that was going to be impossible.

Aaron sighed, imagining how much simpler his last month as a seventeen-year-old would have been if he’d never met her—and wondering if he’d ever have the courage to delete her number. Or call her.

His Mazda waited, black and sleek. Aaron was almost at the door when he noticed the damage, and his heart jolted.

He scanned the lot, hardly breathing. Nobody lingered. Nobody had left a note.

Aaron stared at his car. A dent stretched across the door, broken glass and crumpled metal, bashed inward. Bare steel glinted underneath, deformed and scraped white. Black flecks of paint streamed in rivulets along the asphalt unde

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How far would you go for a second chance?

Eleven years after flunking out of college, Kate has finally hit rock-bottom. Losing her job and boyfriend in one drunken night, she’s determined to fix her life by going back to the moment when she let partying and sex take over. And do things right this time. At twenty-nine, she heads back to freshman year of college, with a catch.

Pretending she’s nineteen with a new roommate and full class schedule is easy. When she meets her shy, sexy and seven-years-younger RA, Carter, following her self-imposed sobriety and celibacy rules is proving to be anything but.

A senior enduring years of regret, Carter is more than ready to graduate. He’s anxious to move on from the party his freshman year where he witnessed his frat brothers about to commit a sexual assault. Instead of doing the right thing and stepping in, he looked the other way and left. His guilt has made for a lonely four years.

When he meets the new freshman on his floor, spunky and confident Kate, he wonders if his time as an outcast has finally come to an end.

Kate and Carter’s growing friendship and undeniable attraction make it harder to hide the demons from their respective pasts. But when their secrets are finally revealed, will their chance at starting over together still be there?

Reviews

“Lisa Burstein brings both heart and humor to this new-adult-with-a-twist gem! A witty, sexy, and touching tale about getting it right the second time around.” –USA Today bestselling author of Down for the Count Christine Bell
             

“4.5 Stars! I would read Again, again & again. It was that good. Lisa Burstein has a writing style that grabs you, doesn’t let you go until you’ve flicked the final page. This is a book I have no doubt many will fall in love with.”- Read Your Writes Book Reviews

“5 Stars! I could spend days & days trying to explain the awesomeness of this book. The writing is flawless. The characters are perfect. JUST READ IT.” –Livvie’s Book Bl

Click Here to View Lisa Burstein’s Amazon Author Page

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Finally You: A Triple Treat Romance Box Set (Triple Treat Romances Book 3)

by Rachael Anderson, Heather Tullis, Julie Wright

Finally You: A Triple Treat Romance Box Set (Triple Treat Romances Book 3)
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Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
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WORKING IT OUT by USA Today bestselling author Rachael Anderson
Grace Warren’s life is safe and predictable—exactly the way she likes it. But when she gets roped into going to an auction to help out a friend, everything changes. She meets Seth Tuttle—a guy who unexpectedly kisses her then disappears, leaving her flustered and upset. If she never sees him again, it will be too soon. But when Seth limps into Grace’s rehab clinic post surgery, there’s something about him that makes her second-guess her carefully placed boundaries. Maybe he’s exactly what Grace has needed all along—assuming she’s willing to risk safe and predictable for a chance at love.

A PERFECT FIT by Amazon bestselling author Heather Tullis
Cami DiCarlo doesn’t agree with her father that her life has been stuck in a rut, so she is not happy when he forces her hand into heading up guest services at his newest five-star hotel. The fact that he unveils the existence of four half-sisters at the same time, and insists that they live together while they launch the new resort, only makes things worse. When she meets Vince Talmadge, the sweet, sexy landscaper her father would never have approved of, Cami can’t say no. If only she could be sure she is on the right track—and that they will be able to stop the person who is trying to destroy everything she and her sisters are working to build.

LOVED LIKE THAT by Amazon bestselling author Julie Wright
Does meeting someone when they’re a soul make you soul mates? After being set up on one of the worst blind dates ever, James Hartman decides dating is hopeless and he should just stick to doing what he knows best—being a bachelor cop. That decision lasts all of ten minutes as he comes across the scene of a car accident and finally meets the girl of his dreams. Granted, she’s dead when he meets her, and she doesn’t remember him at all once he resuscitates her. Does he try to help her remember that out of body experience or does he walk away from his one chance to be loved like that?

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