Browsing Tag

romantic suspense

Excerpt: Hidden Identities by Bailey Thomas

- book spotlight

Mill Creek Mystique Series, Book Two

 

Romantic Suspense

Published: April 5, 2022

Publisher: Champagne Book Group

 

photo add-to-goodreads-button_zpsc7b3c634.png

 

Clarke Dragoon has lived behind an alias to infiltrate criminal
organizations to dismantle and bring them to justice. A similar tactic he’s
perfected within his own life because it requires his undivided attention.
The other benefit is that he can’t dwell on what’s missing from his
life.

Thanks to Aimee Lang’s ex-husband, her life was shattered. Now, she must
use her new identity to reinvent herself. When a string of questionable
events takes place, the well-crafted lies of her new life deteriorate,
exposing the horror of her past.

While Aimee’s life unravels, Clarke offers his home as a temporary respite.
Sparks fly between them, causing the line between reality and perception to
diminish, leaving them with life-altering decisions.

Will Clarke and Aimee be able to see past the deception to find the truth
and forge a future together?

 

Read an Excerpt

The pulse from the beat of the music vibrated down Aimee Lang’s spine as endorphins flooded her body. Memories of dancing with her father filled her head while lyrics from a popular western song echoed through her ears. She shimmied against the vinyl seat of the booth, longing to join her friends who were on the dance floor.

Friday Fresh was her favorite event at Two Stepping Bar and Grill because they showcased local bands the second Friday of every month. Listening to up-and-coming performers of all types ranked high on her list of favorites, a cathartic experience allowing her to support artists who took risks to share their love of music.

She loved music almost as much as she enjoyed making up stupid little moves and dances. Her father had shared his eclectic love of music with her, and together they’d danced their way through life. To most, their moves had been pathetic, perhaps even silly, but to them, choreographed masterpieces.

A giggle escaped her lips until the warmth that had encircled Aimee’s heart from those memories began fading. When would she stop torturing herself by remembering the past? That life had ended; now she had to focus on the present.

A prickle of awareness washed over her body. Aimee inhaled, moving her neck from side to side. Her gaze scanned the crowd until she saw the hulking man with all his muscles who appeared to be casually leaning against the wall, listening to the band. Clarke Dragoon was anything but casual and pushed all her buttons, from his overbearing personality to his rugged good looks. He’d won over the residents of Mill Creek when he’d helped her friend, Margaret King, out of a perilous situation not long ago, but Aimee had to keep her distance, even if it grew harder every day. Since she couldn’t trust her decision-making skills toward men, it was easier to avoid romantic entanglements altogether. She would not make the same mistake twice.

What she wanted more than anything else was to break a damn sweat on the dance floor. To stop observing from the sidelines while everyone else got to enjoy their life—but that was the point. Now, her job was to embrace a new existence and not fall into any norms of the past.

Warm air circled around her body from all the activity surrounding her. Maybe she could allow herself an hour, an amalgam of her old and new self. How much trouble could that cause? That thought rolled around in her head while her heart beat against her chest in excitement. Who would even know?

“You okay, Aimee?” Maggie asked, a frown marring her face, but concern radiated from the depths of her big green eyes.

Aimee hated all the secrets, but that burden would squarely sit on her shoulders until she died. “I’m fine, just tired from a long week.”

“I don’t know about you ladies, but I’m parched from shaking my derrière,” Irene quipped as she approached the table.

Laughter erupted around Aimee at Irene’s comment. That woman had a heart of gold, but that didn’t mean this petite woman in her late fifties with those beautiful blue eyes and long white hair was a pushover. Neither was Maggie. She fought for the people she loved, but her charm came from her subtlety. There was no doubt Aimee had been lucky in the friendship department since moving to Mill Creek. Both women were fun, loyal, and loving. The burden of not being able to tell them the whole truth weighed on her, but she’d made an agreement that couldn’t be altered. Her lungs constricted with that knowledge.

Maggie headed toward the dance floor. “Oh, I love this song.” Her declaration interrupted Aimee’s maudlin thoughts.
“It’s time to throw caution to the wind. Dance on wood instead

of the vinyl on your seat. You’re not fooling anyone,” Irene added, extending her hand to Aimee.

Holy smokes. There were times like this when she really thought Irene possessed the ability to read minds. Yes, Aimee wanted to dance, and again, what harm would come from it? It’s not like she had a signature move that would give away her identity. She made a snap decision after scanning the surrounding area. Her body vibrated with excitement.

Aimee slapped her hand into Irene’s and smiled. “You’re right, but only one dance.”

Irene’s grip closed around her hand, pulling her closer to Maggie. “And at least two encores.”

Maggie’s pleasure lit up her face when she saw Aimee. “Crap, now I owe Irene twenty dollars.”

“What?” Aimee stopped moving, her gaze going back and forth between her friends. “You bet on this?”

“Of course we did. You practically forced our hands with your stubbornness,” Irene said, shaking her shoulders to the beat.

“You’re both incorrigible,” Aimee replied with a laugh. She threw her hands in the air and twirled to the beat.

Before long, her cheeks strained from the size of her smile. She felt alive. The three laughed and danced through another song before the band slowed it down to a familiar love ballad. A slight twinge of longing pinched Aimee’s heart as she watched Trent Jacobs, the town’s sheriff and her boss, navigate his way through the couples gathered on the dance floor toward his fiancée, Maggie. Those two were a perfect pairing, and Aimee didn’t begrudge their merriment. They made each other insanely happy. It was the fact that her dream of love, family, and a picket fence would never happen.

Trent slid Maggie against his body and gave his assistant his best puppy-dog face. “I know it’s ladies’ night, Aimee, but I need this dance then she’s all yours.”

“If it keeps you smiling at work, dance twice,” Aimee replied. dancers. He winked at her before twirling Maggie farther into the mass of

A hand snagged Aimee’s arm, halting her exit from the dance floor. “Don’t leave now, hot stuff. I need a close-up after watching your sweet performance,” a man she hadn’t seen before said while he tugged her closer. His breath smelled like stale beer, and his brown eyes were dilated. His fingers dug into the tender flesh of her upper arm making her wince. “Curvy and plump.”

She jerked her arm back to try to break free of his grasp. “Take your hand off me right now. I’m not interested.”

“Don’t play hard to get.” He tugged her against his body.

Aimee’s ire erupted at this man’s barbaric behavior. She’d never been a pushover, but a sense of déjà vu assaulted her. There was no way she’d allow herself to be trapped or powerless again. Straightening her spine, she placed her hands on his stomach and shoved herself backward and out of his embrace. “I said—”

“You nitwitted Neanderthal, no means no!” Irene barked from behind her.

Aimee turned away from the man and looped her arm through Irene’s. “Thanks for having my back. What a jerk.”

“Anytime, dear,” Irene said before she turned to give that man one last glare. “He needs a serious attitude adjustment and lessons on how to be a gentleman.”

Once they reached the booth, Irene ordered three bottles of water from their waitress. Aimee took a seat and fanned herself with her hand. She’d forgotten how much energy she burned when dancing.

A familiar deep voice caused her to look up. “Do you want me to remove the trash you bagged?” Clarke motioned toward the jerk who watched her from across the room.

“No, it’s handled. Besides, I think Irene scared the crap out of him.” She appreciated that he’d asked her instead of making a scene. just left.Clarke nodded and headed back toward the group of men he’d

When the band finished the ballad, they announced a fifteen-minute break.

“I love slow songs,” Maggie purred as she approached the table, her cheeks rosy and her eyes bright.

“That’s because you and lover boy engaged in dancing foreplay,” Irene announced like a host of a wildlife show on television.

Aimee burst out laughing at Irene’s reply, especially when Maggie’s mouth popped open and her eyes went huge.

She slid into the booth next to Irene. “Oh my God, at least Trent didn’t hear you. You’d embarrass the poor man.”

“What? I’m old, not dead,” Irene said, before twisting off the cap to her water the waitress had delivered.

“Ladies, I’d like to introduce my friend, Noah. Noah, this is Irene, and you should remember Aimee,” Trent said as the two stood in front of their table.

Noah extended his hand to each woman. “Irene, Aimee.”

“Noah, it’s so good to see you again. When did you get into town?” Maggie asked before hopping out of the booth to give him a hug. “A little while ago. I sent Trent a text to let him know I’d arrived,

and he told me to meet him here.”
“Let me get you a beer, buddy,” Trent said, getting the server’s

attention.
“Well, at least you’re willing to come to the table, unlike our

friend who prefers the shadows.” Irene pointed to Clarke—who lingered in the background chatting with Lance Charles, Trent’s deputy sheriff— and waved them both over.

“Irene, he’s a good man. Maybe he’s just overwhelmed by your constant critique of him,” Maggie admonished.

Irene raised an eyebrow. “Oh hush, it builds character.”

“Sorry, we only allow her out every so often,” Aimee said as her cheeks tightened into a slight grin.

Irene turned her attention toward Noah.

“You, honey, are easy on the eyes. Are you single? Visiting for a little R and R?” she asked, waggling her eyebrows.

Noah’s cheeks reddened, but he recovered, rolling with the punches as he said, “Wow, that’s quite a welcome. It seems I made the right choice in moving to Mill Creek. All this lovely female attention will be good for my soul.”

Everyone laughed except Trent, who grumbled at Irene. “Be nice, or you’re going to chase away all the eligible bachelors.”

Maggie’s eyes widened briefly before her eyebrows drew together, concern written all over her face. “Don’t get me wrong, having you here permanently is awesome, but are you okay? Did you retire from the FBI?” she said.

Lance and Clarke joined the group in time to hear Maggie’s question. All heads turned back to Noah, as the group waited on his

answer. Noah shook his head. “Nope, too young for retirement, but my boss, Special Agent in Charge Tim Guzman, offered me a new assignment. I start in a few weeks. The best part is I can live wherever I want, provided there’s an FBI office close, which means Boise fits that requirement.”

Trent slapped his friend on the back. “Hot damn, that’s great news. Welcome to Mill Creek, man. I’ll give you the official tour of the area tomorrow.”

“Perfect, and a real estate agent,” Noah added.

“I guess it’s up to me to get the conversation back on track before we all smack backs and celebrate. Right or left? And do you even know how to throw a ball?” Clarke asked.

The waitress delivered a new round of beer and drinks to the table. Trent handed one to Noah and snagged one for himself. “To friends and new beginnings,” he declared, raising his beer and clanking each glass and bottle. “Don’t worry, Clarke, Noah will pick up your shortcomings.”

The guitarist started to play a riff, signaling they were back and interrupting the banter between the men.

“That’s our cue to leave. Enjoy the dancing, ladies,” Trent said to the group. He pressed a kiss to Maggie’s lips before guiding Noah, Lance, and Clarke toward the bar.

“Let’s dance,” Maggie sang out, grabbing Irene’s hand and holding one out to Aimee.

Aimee declined with a wave. “I’m going to head home early. I’ve got a terrible headache starting, and I’m exhausted.”

Maggie grasped Aimee’s hand. “Do you need anything? I can have Trent take you home.”

“No, I’m good, and I’m not leaving this second. Go dance,”

Aimee replied, shooing her friends to the dance floor. “Besides, it’s Mill Creek, not some big city,” she tacked on, not wanting to have an escort as her friends headed toward the crowd.

Aimee sat and listened to a few more songs before making her exit. When she reached the big front doors, she turned to say goodnight to the bouncer and exited. The cool, damp air from fall wrapped around her heated body, carrying with it a subtle scent of pine and rain. Mountain living appealed to her, especially the gorgeous views of the stars at night. Tonight was darker than normal since the stars were hidden behind a thick blanket of clouds.

Droplets of water dotted the sidewalk, which caused Aimee to alter her route by taking the shortcut through the alleyway between the bar and Knotty Pine Tree. She paused briefly at the opening of the narrow passage to look and listen because being drenched, cold, and taking the long route held zero appeal. Bright lights illuminated each end but left the middle section darker. No noises or movement caught her eye, so she squelched her concerns and strode down the pathway.

Around the halfway mark, she heard male voices and laughter in front of her, but the big metal trash bin blocked her view. She slowed as she approached the square object. Beyond the metal structure were three men, and the one in the center was the jerk from the bar. The beat of her heart quickened and caused a rush of blood to pound in her ears. Like a slot machine landing all sevens, her brain registered the mistake she’d made. Now being cold and wet a little longer didn’t seem like the worst choice. Decision made, she propelled her feet to move with purpose and would ignore anything they said.

“My luck has improved tonight,” Jerk-o announced to his friends. He stepped directly in front of her, blocking her path.

Refusing to show this idiot any fear, she forced steel into her words and gave him a piece of her mind. “Get out of my way. I already told you, no, and nothing has chang—” The words abruptly stopped as her breath whooshed out of her mouth when he yanked her against his chest and into his arms.

“She’s that girl I told you guys about earlier. All I want from you is to finish our dance.”

Aimee struggled against his grasp. “You’re upsetting me. Just let me go. I don’t want to dance.”

He pressed his face next to her ear and whispered, “Come on, don’t embarrass me in front of my friends. Besides, who wants to go home alone?”

Aimee’s eyes widened at this creep’s gall. She jerked her knee up, disheartened when she narrowly missed his groin. He’d sidestepped her attack and shoved her backward. In a flash, she twisted her body to miss the wooden pallets stacked off to the side but landed hard on her hands and knees. Her skin burned from the asphalt and rocks that tore her flesh.

“Stupid bitch,” Jerk Face spat out as he moved toward her. “I told you, I only want a fucking dance. What’s your problem?”

To her surprise, instead of being attacked, all she heard were the pounding of footsteps as the three men retreated. Aimee grimaced as she lifted her body from the ground, her knees raw and bleeding. Her white tropical knit skirt and long-sleeved T-shirt did little to protect her skin from the ground or the elements. Her legs trembled, threatening to give out, so instead of ending up back on the ground, she sat down on the stacked skids. When she looked up, a hulking form headed in her direction. Clarke. Taking a moment to catch her breath, her mind flashed back to the night she loathed.

She’d escaped. Had pushed her body as hard as she could toward the big gate that separated the house from the road. The sound of a single gunshot echoed through the air. Aimee’s breath caught in her throat while fear crawled up her neck. Her footsteps lumbered as she struggled to stay upright. Seconds later, her face slammed into the newly laid turf; a mixture of grass and dirt infused her senses while her knees dug into the soft ground. In the distance, a flicker of red, blue, and white lights caught her attention, a beacon of hope encouraging her to keep fighting—to keep moving forward.

A deep voice bellowed out her name a second before strong arms hefted her body off the ground. Her memory faded as warmth infused her body. Clarke cradled her to his chest. Tears streamed down Aimee’s face and bit into her cheeks from the cold air that funneled through the corridor. The adrenaline that had coursed through her body moments ago retreated, leaving her limbs heavy and her eyes drooping from exhaustion.

“I’ve got you, you’re safe now,” he crooned, taking a seat on the same spot she’d just occupied.

He supported her in his arms as if she were precious to him. This strong, virile man with his bald head, numerous tattoos, and blunt attitude could be so soft and caring. So many people misunderstood him. They lumped him into different categories due to his appearance or his motorcycle. Human nature seemed to gravitate toward making judgments without seeking facts or details in so many situations. Something she too was guilty of doing when she’d first met him.

“I know,” she replied, content to stay in his arms for a little longer while she soaked up his body heat and tightened her resolve.

“Can I see the damage?” he asked, his dark brown eyes angling down to assess her.

When she nodded her consent, he kept her anchored against his body with one hand while he used the other to lift each leg and inspect her knees. After he finished, he tilted her head up with his index finger so he could see her face. His movements were gentle. His brows were drawn together while he studied her. The clenching of his jaw was his only sign of anger. A deep, sudden intake of breath shifted her in his arms.

“I’m sorry, I should’ve insisted on taking out that trash earlier. That man, he was the one from the bar earlier, right? I’m guess the other two were his friends?” He exhaled a deep breath, and the sincerity of his gesture caught her off guard. The warmth of his breath feathered across her skin. She simply nodded. “He wanted to finish his dance, and when I tried to knee him where it counts, he shoved me to dodge my attempt.”

Clarke’s smile transformed his face. “I like a fighter. I’m just sorry he avoided your knee. He deserved that and much more.”

“I don’t want to excuse his behavior because it sucked, but I don’t think he meant for me to get hurt. I think he’s just an obstinate pig.”
“So, I guess that leaves me with the ‘what the hell were you thinking?’ when you broke what I’d call rule number 3.”
“What are you babbling about? What’s rule three?”
“You know, rule one: stranger danger. Rule two: don’t jump in front of moving vehicles, and rule three: avoid dark alleyways when alone. No, scratch that, every damn time.”

Aimee pushed out of his arms and stood. “Your timing was perfect. Now I need to get home. I appreciate your concern, but I don’t need a lecture.”

“I’d beg to argue; however, I’ll give you a pass tonight if you promise I can walk you home to clean and bandage those knees. That’ll satisfy the protective side of me. I’ll call Trent on the way so you can file an assault and battery report on that dickwad.”

Aimee panicked. A police report would be the exact opposite of what she was supposed to be doing—lying low. That certainly did not live up to blending into her newly crafted identity. She could practically hear the US Marshal in charge of her protective detail reinforcing, ad nauseam, the importance of staying in the background and embracing her new identity. She hadn’t seen that loser before, so he had to be a tourist, which meant the odds of seeing him again would be slim. The thought of letting him go stung, but she had other concerns.

She thrust her hand against the impenetrable wall of Clarke’s body and stopped him from standing. “You can walk me home and help me with my knees. I’m not filing a report because of a stupid decision.”

Clarke’s brow lifted. “Run that past me again? What he did was wrong on so many levels.”

“Yes, he overstepped. I’m not going to ruin his life because he made an ass out of himself. I know you don’t understand, but it’s my decision.” She turned and took one step down the alley and winced. Her knees hurt from the movement.

“You’re right, and for the record, I don’t agree with your decision. Let me give you a boost to your place.”

Did this man miss anything? She’d barely winced. Her world went sideways for a second time tonight. In a flash, his strong arms slid around her body, hoisting up against his chest. Damn him, she liked how she felt in his arms.

She directed him toward her place on Main Street above one of the stores. It wasn’t much, but it was all she needed now. After he ascended the stairs in the back of the hardware and feed store, she removed her keys out of her pocket and laid them on his outstretched palm. She expected him to put her down, instead he easily held her and unlocked the door in one fluid motion.

Once inside, she flipped on the light switch on the wall by the door and pointed to the sofa. He hesitated momentarily before depositing her on the center cushion.

“Where’s your first aid kit?” he asked. His gaze roamed the small living area.

“Bathroom under the sink, and the washcloth on the towel rack

is clean.”She took the opportunity to study his powerful, muscular frame as he moved to get her supplies. He had to be at least six foot five and must weigh over two hundred pounds.

Even at his size, his motions were efficient and graceful. He was comfortable in his own skin. His presence took up most of the free space in this tiny studio.

When he returned, he squatted in front of her and examined her wounded knees. Carefully, he wiped away the dried blood, added antibiotic ointment, and applied several bandages.

When he finished, he looked up and watched her for a few seconds. “Do you have any frozen vegetables in the freezer? That’ll help with the bruising.”

“Uh, no, I have a tray of ice, though.”

He nodded and made his way toward the kitchen. When he returned with ice wrapped in a towel, he instructed her to alternate icing each knee. “I know a thing or two about icing injuries. This’ll help keep the swelling and bruising down.”

She wondered what type of injuries he’d sustained, but the words stuck on her tongue. “Thanks, Clarke.”

He took a seat on sofa and ran his gaze over her body. Her skin tingled under his intense scrutiny. “I’ve got be honest, I’m pissed at myself for not taking care of that douche earlier. I also wish your knee would’ve had him singing soprano. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, really,” Aimee replied, then shifted the bag of ice to her other knee.

“How long have you lived here? Are you still unpacking?”

That question threw her off balance and wasn’t what she’d expected him to say next. “No, I decided to purge a lot of things from my life when I moved here. When this space became available, I jumped at the opportunity. The location is prefect. It’s easy to clean, and Daniel and Lana have placed me in charge of security for their Hardware and Feed Store.”

His eyebrows scrunched together. “What does that mean?”

“I’m kidding, it’s our joke,” Aimee replied on a stifled yawn. “I’m sorry, it’s not the company. I’m exhausted.”

“Understood. I’ll head out so you can rest.” He pulled out his cellphone. “Give me your number so I can call you. Then, you’ll have mine. If you need anything, don’t hesitate.to use it.”

She hedged for a moment, then relented. Having friends helped her with blending in and building her new life. But she still controlled what to share and how close she allowed anyone to get. She called out her numbers while he diligently typed the information into his phone. Seconds later, her phone vibrated, so she answered his call before adding his data into her contact list.

“Good night, Aimee.” Clarke said. “Lock the door after me,” he added after he crossed the threshold and closed the door behind him.

His concern and thoughtfulness about her safety caused a spot deep inside her chest to expand. Knowing she had support mattered to her. It was nice to have a few people you could count on from time to time. Loneliness sucked and could overwhelm a person.

That thought made her stomach flutter with hope, until her mind caught up and stomped on that bubble until it burst. She didn’t deserve a do-over with her life. She was alone for a reason.

 

Other books in the Mill Creek Mystique Series:

Trent’s Redemption

Mill Creek Mystique, Book One

Can they face their demons and find love?

Trent Jacobs had everything he wanted in life until the flash of a muzzle
ripped his world apart. Now he only has guilt. Permanently removed from
fieldwork due to questionable events, Trent retires from the FBI. He
retreats to the small town of Mill Creek, Idaho, to become the town
sheriff.

Margaret King knows what it’s like to be alone and isolated. Losing
her parents as a child was impossible, but the death of her brother damn
near killed her. When a strange van appears on her street and her apartment
is broken into, she turns to Trent, the only man she knows she can
trust.

After Maggie shows up terrified and haunted, Trent’s guilt explodes.
She makes him want things he doesn’t deserve, including her. As their
past collides with the present, Trent is forced to face his demons to
protect her. Or risk losing her.

 

Amazon

B&N

Kobo

iBooks

 

About the Author

Bailey Thomas lives in the beautiful but hot southwest with her husband and
their adorable four-legged children. An only child, Bailey’s active
imagination and adventurous nature always kept her busy. Now, she channels
those creative powers into storytelling.

Her wonderful husband encouraged her to chase her dream of becoming an
author and continues to be her greatest champion. Being able to write these
stories has been a thrilling experience that is truly special to her.

When she’s not behind a computer working on her next deadline,
she’s reading her favorite authors, playing with her fur babies, and
spending time with her husband. They love to watch movies and sports and
play all types of games.

Contact Links

Website

Twitter

Instagram

Goodreads

Bookbub

BookBuzz

Purchase Links

Amazon

B&N

Kobo

iBooks

Publisher

RABT Book Tours & PR