Posted by Leslie at May 7, 2013 6:00 am
As I’ve mentioned here before, I have launched a new career for myself, and want to tell you all about Leslie A. Smith.
That’s my maiden name, first of all. My dad is very excited that it’s been dusted off and put into use again.
Anyway, just call me ADHD, I can never be satisfied writing one kind of book. Yes, I still love writing sexy romantic comedies, but despite the failure of my Leslie Parrish career, I was just not ready to give up writing dark thrillers.
So, because I have been seeing how popular indie-publishing has become, and realizing I didn’t need a publisher to give me a chance to succeed again with dark suspense, I decided to write two thrillers and publish them myself. During the course of that writing, a publisher in Germany picked up both books, and a couple of publishers here in the U.S. wanted to…but I was determined to do this on my own. Rise or fall.
I think I rose. Reading over my two new thrillers, DON’T LOOK AWAY and DON’T EVER STOP, I definitely have moments that are all too rare for a writer when I kind of drop my jaw and go, Did I really write that? Wow, that’s pretty good!
I have just released the first book, DON’T LOOK AWAY, which introduces my kick-ass heroine, Veronica Sloan, as well as the world in which she lives. It’s a little different from ours…set nine years in the future, in a U.S. that changed radically after a massive terrorist attack in 2017. It’s not sci-fi futuristic, believe me, it’s pretty much like being back in 2004 and picturing what 2013 would be like. Not a whole lot different…but enough that it really matters.
Veronica–Ronnie–is a D.C. cop who has been chosen to be part of a new experiment designed to aid in crime-solving. She’s been training for her first OEPIS — Optic Evidence Program Investigative Squad–case and one suddenly lands in her lap, courtesy of a psycho who murdered a woman in the basement of the under-reconstruction White House.
I am SO anxious to make sure these books succeed because I really love writing all kinds of stories. I love having the freedom to price them the way I want, design the covers I want, release them on the schedule I want…and honestly, I would so appreciate your help in making the Veronica Sloan series a success. If you are a reviewer, you can get it for free from NetGalley! And I really need those reviews. I’d like to buy an ad with Bookbub but I can’t until I have more reviews, so if you get the chance to read it, would you pretty please take a few minutes and leave a review on Amazon? Good, bad or indifferent, the number of reviews is what matters. (And oh, I don’t think anybody’s going to be indifferent about this–they might love it, or hate it, but I don’t think there will be a whole lot of in-between. )
The book is available for the Kindle and the Nook, and is also available in a beautiful trade-paperback format on both Amazon and BN.com.
DON’T LOOK AWAY is not a romantic-suspense, it’s a straight thriller with a romantic element. DON’T EVER STOP is more along the lines of a r.s., like my Leslie Parrish books. I know a lot of you only like to read romance, and I do understand if you don’t want to give these a try. But if you do like suspense or thrillers, I so hope you will!
I’ve got the entire first chapter of DON’T LOOK AWAY on my new website: www.leslieasmith.com
But because I thought readers might like to meet the main romantic interest in the series, here’s the first scene with Ronnie and her nemesis/love-interest, FBI Agent Jeremy Sykes.
Trying to swim toward consciousness, through what felt like a sea of confusing, disconnected images, Ronnie flicked her eyes open. Immediately regretting that as sharp shards of light stabbed at her, she groaned and quickly shut them again.
Her head felt like it had been crushed in a vise, her brain throbbing in what felt like a too-tight skull. The slightest movement brought agony, so she remained very still, concentrating on taking slow, even breaths, trying to figure out where she was and what was happening.
“Detective Sloan? Veronica?”
Hearing the male voice, which she couldn’t instantly place, although there was a familiar ring to it, Ronnie tried to focus. She swallowed, wondering why her mouth felt so dry, why her head was on the verge of exploding, and why she was lying flat on her back in a bed when the last thing she could remember was walking down the steps to the sub-basement of the White House.
“Was I attacked?” she whispered through a cottony-dry mouth.
“Yes,” the man’s voice said. “You’re very lucky.”
“I don’t feel lucky,” she growled. She felt like something spat out of death’s mouth. Post chewing.
“It could have been worse. He might have used the other end of the two-by-four he smashed you with. That side had nails sticking out of it.”
Nails. Two-by-four. Bits and pieces began coming back to her. She’d been in the basement, right? And something had happened.
“So I should be feeling grateful?”
“Just be glad he didn’t stick around to finish the job.”
That voice—it was so familiar. She was reacting to it, growing tense but also a little excited, feeling both dread and the tiniest bit of pleasure.
Who the hell?
Needing to know, she opened her eyes again, slowly this time, letting the light cast by the beaming overhead fluorescents drift in gently rather than assaulting her. She couldn’t say she recognized the ceiling, or the fixture, but judging by the basic 12 x 12 ceiling tiles and the typical industrial lighting, she suspected she was in a hospital bed.
She shifted, feeling the uncomfortable groan of muscles resting on what felt like hard-packed straw, which further cemented the thought.
“Try not to move too much,” the man said. “The doctor said you’re going to have a bitch of a headache for a few days, and moving will just make it worse.”
She lifted a hand to her head, feeling a lumpy bandage on the right side. Around it, her hair stuck out wildly, short and stubby. A long strand brushed the other cheek, so she must look interestingly lopsided.
Damn. Her hair stylist was gonna have a fit. And considering he lived right next door to her, he was bound to see sooner rather than later.
“How long was I out?” She thought about that short hair, hoping it was what was left after an emergency haircut, and wasn’t new growth after a shave. Because that would imply she’d been out long enough for it to grow back an inch or two. “Tell me I haven’t been in a coma for weeks.”
He chuckled. “About eight hours.”
Eight hours? Holy God.
“Technically they’re calling it minor head trauma.”
It didn’t feel very minor. “You mean a concussion?”
“Yeah. The laceration was pretty big and they had to staple it up, so you’ve got a bit of a bald spot under that bandage.”
Staples. Great. More metal for guards and soldiers to be suspicious about.
“The doctor will explain everything, I’m sure,” said the voice, which was coming from somewhere off to her left.
The doctor. Meaning this wasn’t the doctor.
Finally, knowing the recognition tickling the edges of her brain would drive her crazy, she carefully turned her head to the left. Her eyes still weren’t working properly, and she at first saw only a tall shape, in dark clothes, standing in the corner. She had to strain to see, blinking rapidly.
As he began to come into focus, his image swimming in her mind and in her memory, she emitted a little gasp. “You!”
“Me.” He sketched a small bow, then approached the bed. “How ya doin’, Sloan?”
Hell. It was really him.
“You’d better not be poaching on my case, Sykes.”
His mouth curved up in a half-smile, those blue eyes twinkling with secrets and merriment. She was lying here in a hospital bed, all banged up, hurting like hell, half bald, and he was smiling, handsome, perfectly dressed, and tormenting her, neither confirming nor denying that he was here to snake her out of Leanne Carr’s murder investigation.
Typical Jeremy Sykes.
“You don’t look like you’re in any condition to stop me.”
“Give me a couple of hours and I’ll put you flat on your back.”
He laughed softly. “Promises, promises.”
She kicked herself for giving him that opening…even while knowing a part of her had done it on purpose. As always, she just didn’t know how to react to the man.
They’d met in Texas, during O.E.P.I.S. training. Sykes had been the guy everybody loved but also secretly resented. It wasn’t that he was hard to like, or in any way unpleasant—far from it. He was just so damned perfect. Incredibly good-looking. Friendly—he could charm anyone. Cultured—the Martha’s Vineyard type. Rich—his family owned some big, global corporation. Smart—he hadn’t gotten through Harvard because of his family connections but because he’d earned his way. And a good investigator—he’d been an FBI agent when chosen to join O.E.P.I.S., and had already received the highest commendation the bureau gave for bravery. He was also polite, quick-witted and reliable. All around nauseatingly perfect.
Ronnie had dubbed him Sucks the first week of training. Not just because of all of that, but also because he confused the living hell out of her. Having been raised in a house with two older brothers, and an overprotective-but-doting father, she’d been handling males since she was little. She always mentally knew where to put them, having compartments for all the relationships in her life: Family member. Perp. Victim. Friend. Partner. Boss. Lover.
Sykes hadn’t fit. Not anywhere.
He’d left her confused and curious, and the tension between them had been noticed and commented on by most of their classmates. If he scored a ninety-eight percent on an exam, she worked herself to the bone to hit ninety-nine. During simulations, if he’d studied a series of O.E.P. images and found a needed piece of information in two minutes and ten seconds, she’d just had to find it in two-five. They’d competed on the shooting range, shot after shot, both of them leaving their classmates in the dust but neither able to ever really get the edge over the other.
There had only been one instance she could recall when they hadn’t been arguing, sniping at each other or competing. It had been near the end of their training, after a grueling day of looking at the most awful images of a test subject being led to the electric chair. The man had been a convicted killer, sentenced to die by a jury of his peers, yet Ronnie had discovered an untapped well of empathy within herself as she shared his final hours of life.
The images from the O.E.P. device had almost allowed her to become him. She’d found herself mentally walking in his footsteps, as she’d been trained to do. Her eyes had studied a tattered, much-read Bible, lingering with obvious sorrow and fear on the 23rd psalm. She had been the one to take an absurd amount of time eating a final steak dinner, complete with pecan pie and whipped cream. Ronnie’s were the feet trudging along the pitted, scarred linoleum floor that led from the cell to the death chamber.
She’d been the one who’d shed vision-blurring tears while the guards attached the straps. The one whose view had been blocked for a moment when the black hood was being put in place. The one whose very last sight on this earth had been an explosion of red as the capillaries in his eyes exploded.
The experience had disarmed her. Affected her so much she’d needed to get away from everyone and let herself deal with her surprising reaction.
Sykes had found her sitting under a tree on the grounds of the police academy where they’d trained. For the next two hours, they had shared the kind of deep, true conversation Ronnie couldn’t remember sharing with anyone. He’d caught her in a moment of vulnerability, and she’d let go of her emotions, confessed her misgivings, her fears, her anxieties. As if she’d opened a door between them, Jeremy had done the same, sharing the stress he’d felt about having to fight against his wealthy parents every step of the way to follow his heart and go into law enforcement.
She told him about her brothers and father. He’d told her about his best friend from the academy, who’d been assigned to FBI headquarters…and had fallen on 10/20.
It had been an incredibly human interaction. And it had ended with an embrace, one she’d never forgotten.
There’d been nothing terribly sexual about it, even though Ronnie’s heart had been pounding in her chest, her body on high alert. The confused attraction she’d felt for him from the start had returned in full force, accompanied by a new understanding of who he really was and what really made him tick. So, yeah, she’d definitely been aware of the hardness of his chest, the broadness of his shoulders, the tender way he stroked the small of her back.
Mainly, though, what she remembered was the gentle intimacy of it. The connection of spirit. That kind of thing didn’t come easily to Ronnie, and she’d never quite gotten over the fact that Jeremy Sykes, the only person she’d ever met who could intentionally get her to lose her temper—which she was half on the verge of doing right now—was the one who’d evoked such a response in her.
“What the hell are you doing here?” she asked, thrusting away the confusing memories.
He held his hands up and out, playing innocent. “Hey, don’t blame me, I got dragged down from New York in the middle of the night when it became pretty obvious that you weren’t going to wake up right away.”
“Tell me they didn’t give you my damn case.”
A hesitation. Then, “They didn’t give me your damn case.”
She allowed herself a soft, relieved sigh.
“But, uh, they do have something else in mind. And knowing the way you feel about me, I suspect you might think it’s even worse.”
How could he possibly know how she felt about him when she’d never figured that out herself? She’d spent far too much time trying to understand her own mix of feelings for the man, that vacillated from reluctant admiration to attraction to dislike. Other than that one strange interlude, she was usually torn between wanting to punch his face off or to push him down and screw his brains out just to get him out of her system. Confusing didn’t begin to describe it.
He approached the bed, his eyes moving constantly, assessing her, narrowing the tiniest bit as he studied her banged-up head. A muscle in his jaw flexed as he clenched his teeth, as if, beneath that breezy charm, he was furious that she’d ended up here, in this condition.
That made two of them.
“What happened, anyway?” she asked, her memories returning, but still a little fuzzy. She’d been searching the basement, had stumbled upon Leanne’s head, which had been left like a gross gift in the middle of an empty room. Then…unimaginable pain.
“According to your download from this morning, an assailant came at you out of the darkness. You tried to defend yourself but he slammed you in the head. Once you were out, I got nothing but pictures of your closed eyelids.”
Her jaw fell. “You looked at my downloads?”
He shrugged. “That’s one reason they called me in. I extracted them wirelessly while you were under and took a peek.”
That felt…intrusive. Yes, she’d known all along her job skirted the edges of decency when it came to respect for privacy, but she mostly thought about it from the perspective of investigator. Ronnie had her own code, she would never intrude where she shouldn’t, or invade the most intimate moments of someone else’s life without having a damn good reason. So she hadn’t quite anticipated the quick jolt of violation she felt, knowing someone else had looked into her visual memories. It was like Sykes had opened up her mind and scooped out a piece of it.
As if reading the bit of mind he’d scooped, he insisted, “The last fifteen minutes before you lost consciousness. That’s it, Veronica, I didn’t look at anything else.”
Fifteen minutes…still a lot of images. The O.E.P. device recorded images every single second. That was sixty per minute.
Sykes might have only gone fifteen minutes into her memories, but he’d still seen a lot. Enough to make her shift uncomfortably on the bed, thinking of all the personal stuff a person would see if they went back a full day into her mind. She only had his word that he hadn’t. She made a mental note to never look at herself naked in the mirror and to shower and go to the bathroom in the darkness. And she might just have to swear off sex for good.
Hell, who was she kidding? Sex was one thing she liked enough to risk embarrassment, even if she didn’t get it all that often. Huh—good thing the O.E.P. device couldn’t capture what she mentally pictured, because she’d definitely imagined Jeremy Sykes without his clothes a time or two. The bastard had just snuck into her brain her somehow.
She felt heat rise in her face just thinking about some of her more lurid fantasies. Just because she’d decided to steer clear of the man didn’t mean she hadn’t used him to inspire a few late-night dates with her biggest, raunchiest sex toy.
He must have seen and misinterpreted the rush of color in her cheeks. “I swear, Sloan. Fifteen minutes, that’s it. You don’t have anything to worry about.”
God, the man thought he could make her blush by looking at some personal moments from her day? Ha. She’d rather him see her wiping her ass than ever know she’d gotten herself off just by thinking about him.
“Honestly, there was nothing to see, considering you were walking around in the pitch blackness.” Shaking his head, he asked, “What were you thinking, anyway? You had a flashlight, you had a partner upstairs…”
“I was thinking a flashlight would make it easier for him to draw a bead on me and going for my partner would give him a chance to get away. Plus, I wrote to Daniels and told him to come ASAP.”
“He didn’t get the message.”
That sounded as though Daniels and Sykes had met. Talked. She wondered how that first meeting had gone down.
“Oh,” she said, realizing how lucky she’d been. “He came down looking for me after thirty minutes went by?”
“Yep. And you’re very lucky he did. They’re saying he probably scared off the person who attacked you.”
“Maybe,” she said, starting to remember more of what happened. “Or maybe the perp thought Daniels was there all along. I made it sound that way when I started down the corridor.”
“Why’d you go off on your own?” he asked. He sounded a little angry, but couldn’t be more angry than she was at herself.
“I heard something that sounded like a cry for help.”
“There was nobody there capable of crying out. He played you.”
“Yes, he did,” she gritted out. But he won’t ever do it again. “I wonder if he meant to draw me down there with that cry, thinking I was alone and he could take me out. Then, when I called out acting like Daniels was with me, he had to change his plan, not knowing if I was bluffing or not.”
“Either way—whether Daniels really scared him off when he arrived, or the mention of his name intimidated the unsub—your partner saved your bacon.”
Unsub. Unidentified subject. FBI speak for We have no idea know who this monster is.
“Not the first time.” She looked around the room, wondering where Daniels was.
“He just went to call your lieutenant, who’s been checking on you every hour.” Sykes grinned. “Daniels didn’t seem too interested in sitting here by your bedside with me.”
Daniels would hate Sykes, she’d known that from the beginning. They were everything the other wasn’t—Daniels tough, shopworn, a little crass, blunt and powerful. Sykes smooth, charming, intuitive, with a way of working people to get what he wanted. While Daniels barreled through walls and didn’t much care about rules, Sykes merely walked around them and found ways to get the rules changed to suit him. They couldn’t possibly be more different and each of them drove her crazy, though for entirely different reasons.
“Your mother’s also downstairs in the cafeteria, getting coffee. She’ll be crushed she wasn’t here for the big eye-opener.”
“Aww, hell,” she groaned, not relishing that reunion.
It wasn’t that she didn’t love her mother, but since Ronnie was all Christy Sloan had left, she’d become the definition of smothering parent. The horrific loss of her Dad and the boys on 10/20 had hardened Ronnie like a piece of volcanic glass, but it had smashed her mother into the softest, most vulnerable, easily-wounded creature on the planet. It took every ounce of patience Ronnie possessed to keep from crushing her with a thoughtless word, and she constantly walked on the edge of a knife between being honest with the woman and protecting her delicate feelings.
Absolutely the only thing she ever argued with her about was the job, because no matter how much her mother pleaded and begged, Ronnie wasn’t giving up being a cop. Not for anything, or anyone. Not even the only family member she had left.
“She seems very worried,” Sykes said, his tone gentling.
“I’m sure she is. So I guess I should get ready for another game of you’re-breaking-my-heart-how-can-you-do-this-to-me?”
“Better than a game of why’d-you-go-and-get-killed-on-me,” he pointed out.
A reluctant grin pulled at her mouth, but it hurt to smile so she quickly squelched it.
“You dealing okay?” he asked. He came even closer, until he stood right beside the bed. His face awash with concern, his gaze roamed over her, as if he was taking stock of every bruise, scrape and cut.
Sykes appeared torn between wanting to grab her and hug her tight or beat whoever’d done this to a bloody pulp. She couldn’t say which reaction would have pleased her more. And considering they hadn’t seen each other for months, she couldn’t say why the realization that he felt that way hit her hard in the vicinity of her heart.
“I will be,” she whispered, knowing his concern wasn’t just about her physically. He wanted to know how she was handling having been attacked by someone who was probably the person who’d brutalized Leanne Carr two days ago. Was she forever marked now, having been so close to someone that utterly evil, that black of spirit? How could she have breathed the same air of a monster and come out of it sane and whole?
Honestly, she hadn’t even had time to dwell on the whole thing. Not just her injuries, but that she’d been in the same place with the same monster and could so easily have ended up like poor, pretty Leanne. When she did, she’d allow herself to have a single, nearly-hysterical moment. Then she’d stamp it down, regain control over her emotions, and get back to her job of finding the cock-sucker.
“They’ll suggest you talk to someone,” he said.
“Yeah, they probably will.”
“It might not be a bad idea.”
“It’s never helped before.”
He didn’t ask why she’d seen a shrink before. He didn’t have to. He knew about the demons that tormented her—she’d told him about them herself.
He reached out and gently brushed a strand of hair back off her face, tucking it behind her ear. Ronnie swallowed hard, noting the tenderness, knowing what he wasn’t saying with words but still wanted to express with gestures. And she suspected he, like she, had never forgotten that afternoon in Texas, or stopped wondering what might have happened between them if they’d met under different circumstances.
“I’ll be all right,” she promised.
“I know you will.”
He finally smiled and she managed to smile back. Something about dealing with Sykes in all his bossy-tenderness was enough to bring a smile to her face even on what had been her crappiest day of the past few years.
“I guess I’ll go spread the word that you’re awake.”
He headed for the door, but right before he left, Ronnie remembered something he’d said a little while ago. Something about him being here, not to take over her case, but to do something she might like even less.
“Hey, Sykes, you never told me. What exactly are you doing here? Other than going through my mental underwear drawer.”
He tsked, a brow going up. “Why, Sloan, I never got near your lingerie. Are you saying I didn’t go back far enough?”
Glaring, she shot back, “You go digging in my head again, you’d better hope it’s because I’m dead.”
His faint smile faded and his stare gained heat that she felt even from several feet away. “Let’s not even joke about that.”
She heard something in his voice—a note of intensity that she didn’t often associate with him.
“Seeing you like that, helpless and hurt…well, I don’t want to ever see that again, Sloan. Got it?”
Nodding once to acknowledge his sincerity, and that bossiness as he ordered her to never allow herself to be hurt again, she licked her lips and cleared her throat. Her heart had skipped a beat or two, and she had to keep her hand down at her side to prevent herself from reaching up to fix the mangled remains of her hair.
Damn Sykes for making her feel…cared for.
“Thanks,” she whispered.
He hesitated, then murmured, “You never did meet me for that drink.”
“No, I didn’t.”
When they’d said their goodbyes in Texas, he’d suggested they plan to get together for a drink in a few weeks to compare notes on how things were going with the O.E.P. He hadn’t been proposing any kind of class reunion; she’d been the only one included in the invitation, and they’d both known it. He’d claimed they could meet on neutral territory, somewhere between New York and D.C.
If he’d given her a date and the name of a hotel before they’d left Texas, she might have considered it. A one night stand and out of her system he’d go.
But when he’d emailed her a few weeks after training to try to set it up, she’d blown him off. Not because she was a bitch. Not because she was playing hard-to-get. Not because she was disinterested.
She’d done it because she was a chickenshit. It had been hard enough to stop thinking about the man once she’d come back from Texas. Letting him back into her life—into her thoughts—was a bad idea, and she’d steered clear.
Now, though, it looked like she couldn’t avoid him anymore. The decision had been taken out of her hands.
“Maybe we’ll get a chance to do it soon,” he said, his tone low, serious and intimate.
She met his steady stare. “Maybe.”
The moment lengthened, they continued to eye each other, her with wary curiosity, him with frank interest. She sensed he had more to say, and that it probably wasn’t anything she wanted to hear. Oh, she wasn’t vain or stupid, she knew Jeremy Sykes wasn’t pining away with love for her. He wanted her, though, of that she had no doubt. Just as much as she wanted him. But to voice that, to give life to the words and the silent longing would put her in the position of having to deal with them. And she just wasn’t up to that.
Finally, he broke the silence. “I’ve missed you, Sloan.”
She licked her lips and ignored the fluttering of her heart. “Sorry, can’t say the same.”
A soft laugh told her he’d seen through that lie. “You sure don’t make it easy on a guy.”
“Easy’s over-rated.” Nothing ever really came easy; Ronnie was used to working hard for everything she got. She just hadn’t decided yet whether any man was worth working that hard for.
This one could be.
Maybe. But not today.
“Hey, you never actually answered my question about what you’re doing here,” she said, feeling foolish for even thinking that way about Sykes, given their current situation—namely, her being banged up in a hospital bed looking like somebody’s yanked her half bald, and him looking as annoyingly perfect as always.
“No, I didn’t,” he said, his eyes twinkling, telling her he’d avoided answering on purpose.
Dread rose within her. What could possibly be worse than having this distracting man swoop in and take off with her first O.E.P.I.S. investigation?
“Oh, shit,” she whispered, a possibility occurring to her. One that would, indeed, be worse.
He winked. “I think ya got it.”
Steam building in her already aching head, she glared at him. “I am not working with you on this case. Forget it.”
Okay, maybe the powers that be had covered their bases, not sure how long she’d be down, bringing in somebody else to cover for her until she got back. But, once she was well, there was absolutely no reason the two of them had to do anything together, much less work on her big case. Being thrown into Sykes’s company during the nearly 24/7 frenzy of a major murder investigation would knock her for a loop she wasn’t ready to handle.
He reached for the door handle, calling over his shoulder as he left.
“Hate to break it to you, Sloan, but you don’t have any choice in the matter.”