Now we’re back to offer our weekly free Romance excerpt, and if you aren’t among those who have downloaded this one already, you’re in for a treat!
Claire Layton expects the usual busy Saturday night at Harvest Bistro to be killer on her stilletto shod feet. She never imagines there’d be an actual murderer on the loose at her restaurant in rural Dry Creek, Nebraska. But when she discovers a customer dead in a dumpster, the killer demands she find the victim’s phone and flash drive or face fatal consequenses. Jake Warrick, a cocky and mind-numbingly hot private investigator, becomes Claire’s unlikely ally in the search. Jake just wants to solve the case and get out of this hick town, but the diminutive and curvaceous Claire turns his plan upside down as they uncover a more complex crime than they ever imagined. The two bicker and banter like Tracy and Hepburn caught in a whirlwind of intense sexual attraction as they try to find the killer before it’s too late.
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
Temptation Creek Excerpt
by Avery Flynn
Claire Layton readied herself to placate a dragon.
Not a real one of course, that would be easy. But if Chef Carlos Alvarez had to be imagined as any kind of animal the only answer was a fire-breathing, thick-scaled, roaring, flying beast. Right now, the temperamental Guatemalan had holed himself up in Harvest Bistro’s walk-in refrigerator. According to his sous chef, Dena, Carlos had screamed about the slow prep work and stormed off to pace among the heads of romaine and blocks of asiago cheese while chain-smoking skinny, brown cigars and threatening to walk.
If the health inspector heard tell of this, Claire couldn’t imagine the fine. If the hundred customers restlessly waiting for their food in the dining room found out the chef was AWOL, she’d get run out of town on a rail.
Why were all chefs headcases? Her ulcer twitched in response to all the drama.
Whose stupid idea had it been to offer a gourmet, seven-course meal on the night of the full moon anyway? Oh yeah, the Full Moon Special had been her brainchild. She swiped a bottle of tropical-flavored antacids from the hostess stand and knocked back the fruity tablets like a Frat boy with a shot of cheap whiskey. She prayed Carlos hadn’t yet graduated to rum.
Though eager to speed through the dining room in time with her panicked heartbeat, she forced her feet to slow down. She couldn’t afford to spook the customers. Gritting her teeth, Claire pasted on a friendly smile and waved to the regulars, many of whom she’d grown up with in Dry Creek, Nebraska.
Seating was family style with group tables for parties of less than eight. Folks had to drive five hours to Denver for anything close to the mouth-watering food she served at Harvest’s Full Moon Special. For the past six months during the full moon, every seat had been taken, but tonight one chair sat empty at table four.
A cute blonde, probably in her early twenties, sat next to the unclaimed seat with her cell phone glued to her ear, a gold charm bracelet glittering in the candlelight. Claire couldn’t hear what the girl said as she fiddled with a small yellow piece of plastic. However, judging by the dirty looks the other diners at the table were sending the girl, they’d heard too much.
Pausing, she caught a nearby server’s attention. “Kaylee, will you bring a bottle of house white to table four?” She pointed toward the girl. “They’re starting to look restless and I have to talk Carlos back into the kitchen.”
“Sure thing.” Kaylee grimaced. “Good luck back there.”
Straightening her shoulders, Claire girded herself for the battle that awaited her in the walk-in refrigerator. Damn, what else could go wrong tonight?
* * * *
Six very long hours later, Claire glared at the trail of dark goo winding across the pointed toe of her gunmetal-grey stiletto. Call it Murphy’s Law, fate or just plain old bad luck, but the last bag of kitchen garbage always leaked.
Holding the black plastic bag at arm’s length, she strode across the deserted parking lot as fast as she could in four-inch heels. The kitchen crew had left at midnight, so at least no one saw her awkward rush to the dumpster. Thank God for small favors. Eager to get home, Claire leaned in close to the chest-high dumpster and pushed up the metal lid. Stink socked her right in the nose. Involuntarily, she recoiled, took a few steps back and held her breath. Sure, the garbage had been baking all day in Nebraska’s blazing hot August sun, but its putrid scent was overwhelming.
Never again would she make a bet with the kitchen staff that included garbage duty as the payoff. Carlos had giggled like a tween girl the first night he’d spotted her, the restaurant’s owner, taking out the garbage. That had been a week ago. Stupid soccer game.
Holding her breath, she heaved the dripping bag toward the gap. It plunked against the lid, bounced back and smacked her in the chest. Air whooshed out of her lungs. A glob of lukewarm mystery slime slid between her breasts and she squawked in disgust. Grossed out, she grimaced as she wiped it away.
Great. What a perfect way to end a busy Saturday night. She couldn’t wait to get home, rip off her dirty dress with its itchy label and kick her stained stilettos to the back of the closet. She hated those shoes, but pride shoehorned her into them. Her mammoth-sized brothers had spent their lives teasing her about being one of the wee people. As a result, she made up the height difference however she could.
Changing into a tank top and yoga pants skyrocketed to the top of her to-do list. She’d grab a beer and head out to the deck to snuggle with her dog, Onion. Sure, she’d prefer cuddling with Mr. Tall, Dark and Amazingly Talented Between the Sheets, but he’d yet to appear naked in her bed. She’d thought she’d found him once. What a dud that cheating jerk had turned out to be.
Claire shoved the lid all the way open and hefted the bag into the dumpster. The tension in her shoulders evaporated. Another Saturday night of work finished. Now it was time to relax.
As she reached around to close the lid, a golden glint sparkled in the moonlight illuminating the garbage bags. Curiosity piqued, she stretched herself as tall as her five-foot, two-inch frame could go, and leaned in for a closer look.
The scene registered like a grisly slideshow. A gold bracelet circled a thin, feminine wrist. The woman’s hand, with short nails painted black, disappeared underneath a worn plastic tarp. That tarp ran the length of the dumpster and covered what looked like a body.
Claire yelped. Loud and high pitched, her scream shattered the silence on Dry Creek’s Main Street. Her stomach clenched and she whipped her head away from the dumpster. Heart racing, she gulped in a deep breath of warm, summer air.
Forcing herself to look again, she prayed the dim light and late hour had messed with her mind. With a jittery hand, she reached for the tarp corner buried underneath a pile of garage bags. It crinkled as she pulled it from where it had snagged on the bracelet. First, the rest of her arm appeared. Then, tangled bleach blonde hair. Finally, a young woman’s unblinking eyes stared back at her.
Claire scrambled away from the dumpster.
Hank. She had to call Hank. He’d know what to do. But what if the murderer was still around? He could be watching her right at this moment. Her skin crawled and panic bubbled up inside her.
Crouching like a cornered animal, she scanned the parking lot for someone lurking in the shadows. A few crushed bushes with broken branches extended out at strange angles. Dark liquid formed a small pool near the dumpster. A newspaper skittered across the parking lot, pushed by the warm breeze. Her jagged breathing echoed in her ears as her heart beat wildly.
Alone in the parking lot, danger seemed to hide behind every bush. It wasn’t safe to call from here, she needed to seek shelter. She’d be safe inside the restaurant. Once inside, she’d call Hank, snag a cast-iron skillet from the kitchen and play home-run derby on an intruder’s melon. Yeah, she could do that.
Her gaze jumping from one potential hiding spot for the killer to the next, she fumbled around inside her orange hobo bag for the keys to Harvest. Sweat dampened the back of her neck and she couldn’t catch her breath as she pawed through it. Anxiety tightened her chest forcing her to work harder to draw in breath. Each second lasted an eternity. Pushed to the breaking point, her frustration peaked. Claire dumped out her bag onto the ground, foraged around in the resulting small mountain and grasped the keys and her cell. Finally, the vice constricting her lungs relented.
Her heart lifted and she hurtled herself to Harvest’s entrance. Until tonight, she’d never realized she could sprint in four-inch heels. All it took was the right motivation.
The click of the door’s deadbolt sounded better than anything she’d ever heard in her life. It took two tries before she punched in the right numbers for the Dry Creek County Sheriff.
“Hey sis, what can your newly-elected county sheriff do for you tonight? Did you run out of gas again?”
Claire hunched over her phone. “Hank! Th-th-there’s a gi-gi-girl in my dumpster.” Hysteria sharpened her voice. “She’s dead, Hank. She’s dead!”
“Okay. Calm down, Claire.” In a heartbeat he turned all business. “Take a breath. Tell me where you are.”
“I’m at Harvest. In-n-side.”
“Claire, listen to me. Stay where you are. Don’t let anyone in. I’m on my way.”
Despite the night’s heat, a bead of cold sweat crept down the back of her neck and she darted a glance out the window. Frightened to look, she found she couldn’t turn away. A numbing stillness covered the parking lot. Even the breeze had stopped as if it had been frightened away. Only her panting breathing broke the heavy silence. The air conditioner clicked on with a whir and she nearly jumped out of her skin.
Get a hold of yourself. Enough with the trembling at shadows and unexpected noises. Inhaling deeply, she tried to calm her jangling nerves. Freaking out wasn’t doing her any good. If the killer hid in the parking lot, she needed to be focused and prepared to defend herself.
Clamping her jaw tight, she tucked her long hair behind her ears and flipped off her heels. Like a boxer before a big match, she bounced on the balls of her feet, flexed her fingers and rolled her shoulders back and forth. Her heart slowed and her hands didn’t shake anymore. Well, not as much.
Time to get the skillet.
* * * *
Claire didn’t loosen her white-knuckle grip on the omelet pan until Hank’s cruiser squealed into the parking lot ten minutes later. By then, she’d pushed the terror back with the determination of a soon-to-be bride at a seventy-five-percent-off wedding dress sale. Leaving the heavy, cast-iron pan on the hostess stand, she hurried outside to meet her brother.
She kicked at a twig from one of the mangled bushes out of her path and scowled. Harvest was the center of her world. No psycho would scare her away from her own restaurant, or its parking lot. At least not twice in one night.
She’d started Harvest three years ago with a small inheritance from Granny Marie and a massive loan from the bank. Her inability to boil water had killed her dreams of being a chef, but she wouldn’t let that destroy her dream of owning her own restaurant.
She’d lost buckets of sweat and tears building Harvest up from the long-vacant remains of the abandoned Grand Hotel. For three years she’d spent nearly every waking hour between its walls. Seven days out of seven, she was here for at least a few hours. Most days she arrived hours before the first line cook and left long after the last customer paid their bill. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d gone on vacation, taken the day off to drive five hours to go shopping in Denver, or even gone out on a date. Hell, she hadn’t even had sex in forever.
Hank stood outlined by the glare of his cruiser’s headlights. At six-feet, three-inches tall with the sinewy bulk of a man who had played division one college football, he looked like a mountain compared to her petite frame. Hank, the eldest of her three brothers, took his duties as the oldest brother seriously.
Normally, his protective temperament drove her nuts. Not tonight.
He strode toward her, a look of worry pasted on his face. “Are you OK?”
Hank hugged her to him. He held her so tight, one of his uniform shirt’s buttons dug into her forehead.
His tight grip overwhelmed her, emphasized how vulnerable she’d been and how much she hated that feeling. Her frazzled nerves tensed, so she grabbed onto the one emotion more powerful than fear. Anger. Pushing away, she scowled up at him. “Really.”
He tsked at her, obviously nonplussed at her typical reaction to trouble, but let her go. “So tell me what happened.”
Claire had to quicken her pace to keep up with his long stride. “I found her when I dumped the garbage.”
“Did you see anyone? Anybody hanging around?”
Hank towered over the dumpster. Gripping his flashlight close to the bulb, he aimed it into the reeking depths. A magnetic curiosity pulled her to Hank’s side. She sidled up to him and raised herself on her tiptoes to see inside.
The dead girl’s lime green eyes held no tears, but Claire found hers did. She blinked them away before Hank could spot them. If he realized how scared she’d been and how much seeing the dead girl affected her, he’d make her wait inside.
That wasn’t going to happen. This was her kingdom. No one pushed her around at Harvest, even if it was declared a crime scene. Blinking away her tears, she returned her gaze to the dumpster.
The dead girl must have been in her early twenties, probably a student at Cather College. Dressed in a flowery, turquoise sundress, she looked like she’d been out for a night of fun with friends. Blood matted her peroxide blonde hair near her right temple. Not much, but enough to show how violently the girl’s night had ended.
Again, Claire’s gaze was drawn to the girl’s gold charm bracelet. Pretty and delicate, it stood in stark contrast to its surroundings. Realization hit her like a quick jab to the gut.
Earlier that night, the chatty girl at table four had worn a similar bracelet. Could it be the same? The girl had ignored her fellow diners’ dirty looks aimed her way because she hadn’t put her cell phone down for nearly the entire dinner service. Mostly she’d texted, but large gold stars swung when she held the phone to her ear, the same gold stars now tarnished with discarded food scraps.
“Hank, I know her.” Her voice sounded harsh in the quiet night.
He nodded, but didn’t look up from the body as he snapped on a pair of latex gloves. “Who is she?”
“I don’t know her name, but she ate at Harvest tonight.”
Hank grunted in acknowledgement then stepped back. She watched as he paced. He never looked up from the ground. Every few steps he stopped, moving aside an old newspaper or other piece of debris with his foot. He’d taken about ten steps when he squatted by the dumpster. Reaching behind, into the damaged bushes, he pulled out a crowbar.
Painted cherry red, it looked like the one she kept in her Jeep. He held it up in a gloved hand. Strings clung to one end of it. Claire squinted. Hair. Bright, unnaturally blonde hair stuck to the end of the crowbar. Her stomach roiled at the horrible sight.
Clutching her hand to her mouth, she stumbled away not stopping until she reached the waist-high bushes bordering the opposite side of the parking lot. Afraid she’d hurl her dinner, she inhaled through her nose and exhaled out her mouth several times. As the warm breeze ruffled her hair, she pictured her happy place. A sparsely populated beach where the sun always shone. Fruity drinks with tacky paper umbrellas delivered by well-oiled and minimally-dressed waiters. Waves rolling onto the shore in slow motion, tickling her toes buried in the white sand. After a few minutes, her stomach stopped flipping.
How could someone have done this here? How could she not have known? What if she had taken the garbage out sooner, would she have caught the murderer in the act? Could she have saved the girl? Unable to answer any of the questions and frustrated by her powerlessness, Claire considered the facts.
The killer had left the body in her dumpster. The girl had probably died here. Guilt rose like bile, she should have known something was amiss and stopped it. Harvest was her restaurant. It was her responsibility to protect her guests.
The bastard, whoever he was, would pay. She’d make sure of it.
She stomped back to Harvest’s door, anger building with each step. Dry Creek was the kind of place where people said hi to each other when they passed on the street. They left their cars unlocked at the mall. It was just another railroad town on the flat Nebraska plain to outsiders, but to the folks who lived here, it was home. Home was supposed to be safe. Sure they had crime, but it was nonviolent stuff. The mayor’s house getting toilet papered. A meth addict breaking into a house in the middle of the day when no one was home. Kids taking a car for a joy ride. Nothing like this. She couldn’t remember the last time there had been a murder in Dry Creek.
Hank’s backup arrived in a convoy. Every deputy, on duty and off, flooded in while Claire glowered from Harvest’s doorway. They swarmed around the dumpster. Some stood and gawked. Others talked off to the side with Hank. The CSI-type guys laid down numbered cards and snapped photos. Yellow crime scene tape spanned the entrance to the parking lot resting on top of the bushes and trussing up her Jeep like a macabre Christmas present. No way her Jeep was leaving the parking lot any time soon.
Great. How was she supposed to get home now?
She didn’t want a deputy to give her a lift. She needed a friendly shoulder and a hug. Beth would come pick her up. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d had to call her best friend at two in the morning, or been on the receiving end of such a call. She needed an aspirin to relieve her tension headache, she headed inside to raid Harvest’s first-aid kit.
Her phone vibrated in her hand before she even reached the door. Without even looking at the screen she realized Beth’s best-friend-sixth-sense must have kicked in. Either that or she was up late listening to the police scanner again. She’d gotten the scanner for Beth last Christmas. The girl had been addicted to it ever since. Claire could picture her now, curled up with a romance novel showing a bare-chested man on the cover, her ever-constant cup of coffee on the bedside table and the police scanner buzzing in the background. The idea made her smile for the first time in hours.
“Sure, let’s call me Beth,” said an unfamiliar male voice.
Claire froze, ice-cold fear solidifying in her veins. “I can see you right now, so pretend you’re talking with Beth. That way none of the Barney Fifes end up with holes in their heads.”
The deadly threat, delivered with a light touch, registered with finality. Her headache forgotten, she searched the crowd, looking for the Voice of Doom on the other end of the line. No one looked her way. No one held a phone. She spun on her heels and hurried toward Hank, toward help.
“Oh, Sugarplum, where are you going? No one can help you,” the man taunted in his nasal tone. “And stop looking for me. People only see me when it’s too late.”
The phone slipped in her clammy hands, so she tightened her grip. Petrified, she tried to speak but only a choked coughing sound came out.
“Good girl. Now, I want her phone and flash drive. I want them immediately or you’ll pay like she did.”
Her body went numb. The phone fell to the ground and bounced off the asphalt. Claire gaped at it for a moment, her mind a blank. Acting on instinct, she swooped up her cell. Pressing the phone hard to her ear, she feared her shaking hands would drop it again.
“Whose phone and flash drive?”
“Why, the dead girl’s, of course, Ms. Klutz. I had hoped they were in her handbag, but I was wrong. I hate being wrong, it always means more work for me.”
Desperate, she wished Hank would look at her. With this psycho’s eyes on her, she couldn’t wave her arms for help. She stared at the back of Hank’s head. Muscles tense, she willed him to turn around. No luck.
“I don’t have them.”
A tiny, naive part of her believed her pleading tone would work. He’d rescind his threat and life would go back to normal.
“Too bad. I hoped to do this without it having to get all messy—for you, that is.”
His words blasted her fragile hope to pieces. Her only alternative was to get help. Someone else had to notice her distress.
“But you’re lucky. It’s late and I’m tired after, well, you know what I did tonight. Suffice it to say she had a lot more fight in her than expected.” He chuckled.
At her wits end to find another way to gain someone’s attention, she raised her voice. “Who are you? How’d you get my number?”
Engrossed in their jobs, no one glanced up.
Defeated and alone in a parking lot filled with law enforcement, Claire sank down to the curb. No one could help her. She was on her own, just like the dead girl had been.
“Silly girl, I can read. Your name is on the menu as owner and proprietor. It doesn’t take a genius to find a cell phone number. I love the Internet. Don’t you?” He paused as if expecting her to answer. When she didn’t, he carried on. “But, back to the matter at hand. I’ll give you until noon to find what I want. You’ll be hearing from me. And let’s just keep all of this to ourselves, shall we? I’d hate to have to find a dumpster big enough for you and your whole family.”
The line went dead.