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Silver Sparks -- Starr Ambrose

RITA® nominee

Silver Sparks -- Out now from Simon and Schuster

The Larkin sisters are used to hearing whispers behind their backs. Being raised by hippie parents in the small resort town of Barringer’s Pass, Colorado, they were always considered oddballs, and for a while, they did everything they could to earn the name. But now, older and wiser, they're discovering that it's not so great to be the wild child, and are struggling to earn a new place for themselves in town.

When Maggie Larkin resists the come-ons of a sleazy actor in town to shoot a film, she pisses off more than a pretty boy and his manager. Turns out that Rafe DeLuca isn't just a movie star...he's possibly a killer, and Maggie's landed herself in more trouble than she could imagine. Enter Cal Drummond, cop extraordinaire, who's been trailing DeLuca himself for weeks, convinced that his recently murdered sister is one of Rafe's victims. He's determined not to let another woman be victimized by the dangerous Rafe, and if that means sticking like glue to Maggie, so be it.

Maggie and Cal seem like perfect opposites, but as we all know...opposites attract.

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excerpt

Rafael De Luca had his hand on Maggie’s ass.  Again. 

If they’d been at Del Tanner’s bar in Barringer’s Pass, she would have planted a vicious elbow jab in his wonderfully ripped midsection and told him to get lost.

But they weren’t in the valley.  They were in The Aerie, the posh nightclub at the Alpine Sky resort on Two Bears Mountain, where people came to play and be seen, especially if they were rich or famous. 
Rafael De Luca was both.  Anything she did to him would be seen by hordes of his fellow vacationing Hollywood glitterati.  Plus, management frowned on pissing off the guests, especially the famous ones.  Since management included her sister Zoe, Maggie spared Rafael’s pretty rib cage and settled for grinding her three-inch heel on his toes as she turned to leave.

His hand jerked away.  “Ow!  Shit, baby, watch where you step.”

“I did.”  She leaned close so the reporter lurking in the press of bodies at the bar wouldn’t hear.  “Time to go play with someone else.”

Rafael’s lip curled in a cynical smile.  “After buying you drinks for the past hour?  I don’t think so, baby.”  He slipped his arm around her waist and pulled her close.

She stiffened, but reminded herself that she should have seen this coming.  She should have blown him off five minutes after he hit on her, when he’d scanned the room then sauntered over with his smoky-hot gaze and confident opening line:  “I always like to meet the most beautiful woman in the room first.”  He’d flashed his TV smile.  “I’m Rafe.  And you are . . . ?”

Despite the lame line, Rafael and his reality show costars had been fun to joke around with for an hour.  But she preferred men with more depth, and an hour of Rafe and the cast of Trust Fund Brats was enough, especially after the unwanted ass-grab.

Her toe-crunching move should have worked, but all those drinks he’d been buying had gone down his throat, not hers.  His extremities were probably half numb by now.  Unfortunately it didn’t affect the strength of his grip as he held her against him.

For Zoe’s sake, Maggie gathered some restraint and didn’t slug the drunken jerk.  But she put her fists on his chest, holding him at a slight distance.  “Get your hands off me before I hurt you,” she hissed.
To her surprise, he released her.  Laughing, he growled like a tiger.  “Rowr!  Feisty Maggie.” She took a step back while she could.  “Look, Rafe, it’s been fun, but I’m going to go mingle.”

“Perfect.  Mingling’s what I had in mind, too.”  He snagged a lock of her strawberry-blond hair where it brushed her shoulder, rubbing it with his fingers.  “I hear redheads are hot.”

“That’s hot-tempered, genius.”  She hated to prove the cliché, but he was pushing her limits.  She turned to the man next to her.  He had biceps like twin picnic hams and had hovered around Rafael De Luca all evening as if he might be a bodyguard.  “You want to help me out here?”

The guy sipped his drink— not his first one—and gave her a dispassionate glance.  “Nope.”

Rafe smirked.  “Baby,” he crooned, “be sensible.  I’m about to change your life.  See that reporter over there from The Scene?  If I give the signal, your picture will be all over the country by tomorrow and that little store of yours will be flooded with more customers than you can handle.  My name is magic.”  He released her hair and let his hand slip to the bare skin at the opening of her blouse.

Her flesh crawled and she brushed his hand away.  “My store’s doing just fine already.  And if you don’t move right now, I’ll give your paparazzi friend an even better picture to splash across the tabloids.”

He stroked her arm thoughtfully, and she checked to make sure he wasn’t leaving a trail of slime.  “You really have to learn to recognize an opportunity when it’s handed to you.  Especially when it comes in such a big package.”  He winked.  “I’d think one of the Larkin girls would know all about that.”

Maggie froze.  Slowly, she lifted her gaze. 

A hard edge touched his smile.  “Oh, yeah.  People talk, babe.  But don’t worry, I can spice up those rumors for you, make you more popular than ever.”  His hand slid up her side and found her breast.  “I know exactly what you want.”

Rafe’s cool gaze cut into her like a knife, slicing right through the frayed bonds of her temper.  She could almost hear them snap.

Cal set his beer down with a thunk.  Pretty Boy De Luca had just put his hand on her again.  Damn it, this was not going to end well.

The redhead had drawn Cal’s attention even before Rafael De Luca had hit on her.  She was the type who always drew looks, with a smile that flashed as bright as her hair and the kind of laugh that made others smile when they hadn’t even heard the joke.  She was a distraction he didn’t need.  But fortunately De Luca zeroed in on her, making it easy for him to watch both of them.

Cal had to give the woman credit.  Her engaging smile had grown stiff within minutes of talking to De Luca.  If that other woman from the Trust Fund Brats crew hadn’t claimed Red’s attention, she probably would have slipped away.  But instead she got stuck next to De Luca long enough for the man to feel possessive. 

Even from across the room, Cal could see the woman didn’t like it.  She didn’t look like the type to bow to fame or fortune, either.  De Luca didn’t have much experience with that, so he wouldn’t see it.  But Cal did, and in another thirty seconds the whole bar would see it, including the reporters that swarmed after De Luca like flies around manure.

The last thing Cal wanted was to draw attention to himself, but he couldn’t stand by and watch another woman be victimized.  Red had no idea what she was getting into.

Abandoning his beer, he shoved through the crowd of mostly women who were loitering three deep around the bar.  Damn reality stars drew them like magnets.

“Hey, watch it!”  A drink sloshed and someone swore.  Cal mumbled an apology but didn’t pause.  A man grabbed his arm with an angry, “Hey, buddy!” but Cal shook it off, cursing under his breath because he wasn’t going to make it in time.  Twenty feet away, Red’s eyes narrowed with icy determination.  Maybe De Luca was too smashed to recognize it, though even a ten-year-old could have seen it coming.
Cal watched it happen in slow motion.  She raised her left hand to De Luca’s shoulder.  The gesture looked friendly, even to Cal, who knew better, and De Luca actually smiled.  He never noticed her right hand drop, taking aim.  De Luca’s lips curved in smug confidence. 

Red drove her palm upward, smashing into De Luca’s nose with an audible crunch.  His scream was instantaneous.  Reeling back, he covered his nose with both hands as blood seeped through his fingers.
Shocked silence hung in the air for a fraction of a second, then pandemonium erupted.  People turned, reporters shoved, and a couple of women screamed.  A dozen cameras flashed, held high and pointed toward the center of the action, while De Luca yelled obscenities, blood dripping onto his sparkling white shirt.

Red hadn’t moved.  Cal noted the satisfaction in her eyes as he pushed through the onlookers and finally reached her side.  He also noted the angrily contorted face of De Luca’s bodyguard as the man threw his drink aside and lunged at the woman.

Introductions would have to wait.  Grabbing her arm, he spun her aside, putting himself in the guard’s path.  The man plowed into him like a linebacker.  Cal barely had time to turn his shoulder into the blow, and the impact staggered him.  Luckily, it also knocked the wind out of the guard.  Muscle Man doubled over, gasping for breath.

Behind Cal, Red’s furious yell pierced the bedlam.  “Hey, what the hell do you think you’re—oh, shit!”  Her objection broke off as she spotted the now more furious behemoth glaring like a bull ready to charge.
“Get out of here!  Now,” Cal ordered without taking his eyes off the guard. She’d seen the danger and was smart enough to run.

He braced himself, ready to deflect De Luca’s lackey long enough for Red to get away.  Instead, she pushed around Cal, shoving him aside as she planted her feet, jabbing her finger at De Luca’s bodyguard.

“Don’t you dare touch me, you incompetent Neanderthal!  If you had half a brain you’d take that mentally stunted, oversexed drunk you work for and lock him up in his room until he learns to act civilized!”

Cal felt as stunned as the guard looked.  Red was either oblivious to the danger, or too enraged to notice.  Taking a step forward, she balled her fists.  “News flash, buddy:  women aren’t playthings put on earth to stroke your feeble male ego!”

Cal squinted as two cameras flashed in sync, flaring like a nova.  Among the raised cell phones, several professional-grade digital cameras clicked furiously, recording frame after frame of Red’s tirade and De Luca’s bloody ranting from the sidelines.  They’d also probably captured clear photos of Cal.  Shit!  Grabbing Red’s hand, he hissed, “Lady, are you nuts?”

She shook him off, apparently just hitting her stride. “Do you even understand what sexual harassment is?” She continued her lecture.  “Because it’s obviously your job to keep the little pervert in line, and his behavior was beyond inappropriate.  No one gets to treat me like that and—”

“Red!”  Cal yelled loudly enough to cut through her fury.

“What!”  She whirled on him.  “Someone has to tell these superficial morons—”

She couldn’t see the crazed look on the guard’s face, but Cal did.  He also heard Muscles snarl, “Bitch,” as he reached into his coat pocket. 

Adrenaline shot through Cal.  He’d hoped to get out of this without more violence, but that option had just evaporated.  Bloody noses and barroom tackles were one thing; guns implied a whole new set of rules.

“Gun! Move! Now!”  Grabbing Red’s arm, he yanked hard.  She staggered as he released her, but he couldn’t watch to see if she stayed on her feet.  The bodyguard  extended his arm, black metal visible in his hand. 

It was Cal’s only chance.  In that one moment while the guard stood, body wide open and unprotected, Cal jumped forward, throwing a kick directly at the thug’s diaphragm.

His foot hit flesh, hard.  The guard went wide-eyed, grunted, and crumpled.  In one continuous move, Cal spun, his gaze finding Red’s.  “Go!” he ordered.  Because she clearly couldn’t be trusted to do the sensible thing, he grabbed her hand and charged forward.  They dodged through the confusion into the resort’s elegant lobby and out the main doors into the cool Rocky Mountain night. 

Red clutched his hand and ran with him, finally in complete agreement with his agenda.  She slowed and would have stopped under the front portico, but he tugged her to the right without skipping a beat.

They followed the driveway until it split toward the parking lot.  He hopped the low flower-bed border, landing on thick, well-manicured grass.  She hesitated before making a cautious jump, and he realized she’d been running in high heels.  Slowing to a trot to accommodate her strides, he rounded the corner of the hotel and drew her into the shadows against the brick wall. 

Voices faded.  Panting, they listened to a few running footsteps and shouted questions as people dashed outside, looking for them.  Paparazzi if they were lucky.  De Luca’s hired guns if they weren’t.  When Cal was sure they were alone, he finally released her hand.  She leaned against the wall, eyes closed, catching her breath.

After several seconds, her breathing evened and her eyes opened.  She finger-combed her hair, shaking it away from her face.  He tried not to notice its silkiness.  It was the kind of hair that tempted a man to run his hands through it to cradle her head when he kissed her. 

“Are you okay?” he asked.

She nodded, taking a deep breath and blowing it out.  “Yeah.  Thanks.  Hey, did you see?  That palm to the nose really works!”

“It does, and you’re welcome.”  That was the end of the niceties.  He gritted his teeth.  “You want to tell me just what the fuck you were doing back there?”

The change was instantaneous.  Fire shot into her eyes as she came off the wall faster than he expected.  “I was defending myself!”  Her voice was low and controlled but seething with fury.  “I thought that was obvious.  Isn’t that why you jumped into the middle of things, because I was in the right?”  She stuck her hands on her hips.  “And who the hell are you, anyway?”

“I’m the guy who saved your ass.” 

They faced off a long moment until Cal finally muttered, “Oh, hell.  Come on, let’s get out of here before they find us.”  He took a few steps toward the parking lot before he realized she wasn’t following him. 

“What’s the problem now?”

“What makes you think I would go anywhere with you?”

He might have smiled at her tough attitude if he’d been in a better mood.  Unfortunately for them both, he was feeling pretty tense and irritable.  “How about because you sure as hell can’t go back in there without causing a bloodbath?  And because I’m going to explain to you how you just ruined both our lives.  Is that okay with you?”

She stared him down.  “No.  Give me your phone.”

“What?”

“Mine’s in my purse, in my sister’s office.  She’s the assistant manager here.  I can guarantee she’ll want an explanation for that little scene, and you’re going to help me convince her that I was provoked and doing nothing wrong in defending myself.”

That might be hard to do, considering she’d thrown the first punch, but she was holding out her hand, fingers wiggling impatiently, and damned if he wasn’t curious to see how this played out.  Besides, he couldn’t leave her alone until she understood just how much danger she was in.

He pulled his phone out of his pocket, and she snatched it away.  Dialing rapidly, she tapped her foot while she waited.  Finally, she straightened.  “Hi, Zoe, it’s me.”

She winced, and he bit back a smile.  Apparently he wasn’t the only one who found her aggravating.  “I’ll explain, just let me in the door by the kitchen.  I don’t want anyone to see us.”  When her eyes flicked up to his, he knew her sister had asked who was with her.  “The guy who kicked Mr. Universe in the nuts.”

Smiling sweetly, she snapped the phone shut and handed it back.  “Follow me.”

She marched off without a backward glance.  He narrowed his eyes at the swing of her hips under her short black skirt, and weighed his options.  His cover was blown.  Red had just jumped into more danger than she knew and—taking a wild guess—she was bound to make it worse.

Shit.  Shoving the phone in his pocket, he marched after her.

Her name was Maggie.  He gathered that much during the enraged tirade from the highly polished, younger version of her that was her sister Zoe.  To be fair, it was probably the official hotel management duds that made Zoe look so prim and proper—navy blue skirt and blazer, white blouse, and strawberry-blond hair identical to her sister’s but pulled into a neat bun.  Maggie’s loose, stylish bob went a long way toward erasing any hint of prim and proper.

So did her attitude. 

“I tried not to start something, I swear,” she claimed, brushing by her sister to head down the hall.  Cal trailed them to what was apparently Zoe’s office.  Maggie paced before the desk, hands alternately combing hair off her neck and gesturing as she talked.  “I told him to get lost several times, but the little perv wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

Since Zoe didn’t ask who the perv was, he figured she’d already heard some version of the incident. 

“He kept touching me.”  Maggie glared, looking like she’d like to smack De Luca again.  “And even then I controlled myself, Zoe.  I didn’t want to cause you any trouble.”

“But you did.”  Zoe stood with arms crossed, unmoved by her sister’s anger.

“Yes, and you know why?”  Maggie put her hands on her hips, pretty pink lips pressed into a tight line.  “He said he could give me what I wanted, and he knew I’d like it—because I’m one of the Larkin girls.”

Zoe’s arms dropped.  “Oh.”  A pained look crossed her face.  Cal definitely had to look into the significance of their last name.

With all the energy sucked out of her anger, Zoe’s gaze finally shifted toward Cal.  “Who are you?”

“Cal Drummond.  I hauled your sister’s ass out of there before it got really ugly.”

Maggie planted her hands on her hips.  “I was handling it.”

“Bullshit,” he scoffed.  “You were asking to get killed.  Rafael De Luca is a dangerous man.”

Her eyes narrowed, a look he was getting used to.  “Thanks a lot.  I brought you along to back me up, not throw me under the bus.”

“It happened just like she said,” he confirmed to Zoe, then turned a hard look on Maggie.  “And it was incredibly stupid.”

“Hey!  I stood up for myself.  I was brave, damn it.” She was seething.

Brave . . . and reckless.  The words hit him like an icy splash of water.  He’d been attracted to that mix once before and knew how deadly it could be; how devastating.  It was something he never wanted to go through again.  “There’s a fine line between brave and stupid, lady, and you plowed right over it.”

Zoe looked ready to side with him.  “Couldn’t you have been a little more diplomatic?  I’ve got half my staff out there trying to soothe some very powerful, very pissed off customers.  I’ll probably have to comp their meals and rooms for several days just to keep them from suing the resort.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Cal said.

She arched a condescending eyebrow.  “Oh, really?  Why not?”

“Because you shouldn’t let the De Lucas put you on the defensive.  And when I say the De Lucas, I mean their lawyers, because that’s who you’ll be hearing from.  You could have easily called the cops on their precious boy and his hired ape, but you didn’t.  Be sure to point that out.  Forget the sexual harassment part—”

“Sure, that’s not important,” Maggie muttered.

Cal ignored her.  “It’s too hard to prove and you’ll only get conflicting stories.  But the big guy they employ pulled a gun in a crowded room.  Maybe he only planned to scare your sister with it, although I wouldn’t bet on it.  He had two drinks while I was there—seriously unprofessional for a bodyguard.  He’ll probably get fired for letting something happen in the first place, but if I were you I’d point out what you didn’t do.  You didn’t call the cops and make an official report, you didn’t have their gun-wielding bodyguard Breathalyzed, and you didn’t have Rafe held on charges of harassment.  Maybe none of it would stick, but it wouldn’t matter because it would already be headlines, and not the kind they want.  You know it, and they know it.  Rafe caused the mess and you minimized the damage.”

Zoe stared at him for several seconds, then gave a curt nod.  “Thanks, I can use that.”

Maggie peered at him.  “Who are you?”

“I’m a cop.”

“Where?”

“Oklahoma City.  I’m with the state police, but I’m on leave.”

“And you just happen to be in an exclusive resort in the Colorado Rockies, watching me?”

He uttered a short laugh.  “You?  I was watching De Luca.”  And okay, Maggie, too, which still irritated him enough to make him deny it. “I’ve been following him for three weeks.”

Zoe tilted her head, puzzling it out.  “Not because you’re a fan, I imagine.”

“Hardly,” Cal scoffed.  “Flexing and posing for the camera is only one of the things Rafael De Luca does.  The other is less pretty.”  He flicked a glance at Maggie.  “He’s a killer.” 

He watched their mouths open and their eyes go wide before Maggie blurted, “Rafe De Luca?  Star of tabloids and reality TV, famous for being rich and obnoxious?”  She looked at him like he’d lost his mind. 

“The man can’t even go into Starbucks without causing a media alert.  How could he possibly get away with murder?”

He noted that she hadn’t doubted he’d do it, just that he’d get away with it.  At least she had no trouble reading the man’s character.  “If I’m right, he’s gotten away with it several times.  He has a violent temper, a lust for power, and a family that will go to any lengths to protect the reputation of their only son.”

“You’re kidding.”  Zoe sank into her chair, staring at him in disbelief.

“I wish I were.”

Maggie seemed less shocked than skeptical.  He didn’t know if that was due to his claim, or the fact that it came from him.  “You can prove it?”

“Not yet.”  It was a sore spot, since he wasn’t sure how he ever would, short of finding the bodies on Rafe’s property.  He figured the odds of that were greatest right here, where the De Luca family had a huge estate and where two of the young women in question had last been seen.

“But you’re building a case?  I can’t believe the Oklahoma police would let you trail him to Colorado.  Are you working in conjunction with the FBI?”

She was sharper than he’d thought.  “No,” he admitted.  “I took a leave of absence, like I said.  I’m doing this on my own.”

Maggie took several seconds to absorb the information, rubbing a finger over her lower lip as she thought, which he found distracting all over again.  “Why?”

He dragged his focus away from her mouth.  Her eyes had softened, and he knew she’d already guessed it was personal.  “His last victim was my half sister, Julie.”  The corners of her mouth tightened, but she said nothing.  “She lived in L.A.  Her body was dumped in the hills.  She’d been bound and her throat was cut.”

“Oh, my God,” Zoe breathed.

“I’m sorry,” Maggie murmured.

“Me, too.”  He heard the gruffness in his voice, and hardened his expression to match it.  Anything to keep the vise grip of guilt from immobilizing him now that he’d finally started making progress.  When it came down to it, he’d barely known Julie, but guilt could be just as crippling as grief.

Scowling, he said, “Once I started looking into it, I saw a pattern of missing women leading back to Rafe.  I don’t want to see it happen again.  I took a personal leave after Julie’s funeral last month, and I’m not going back until I stop the son of a bitch for good.”

Maggie nodded once, as if approving his plan.  “But he’s not going to do that to me.”  The aggression was gone, but the naive, stubborn confidence was still there.  “It would be a stupid move—there were too many witnesses.  He’d be the first suspect.”

Cal heaved a sigh, his exasperation with her returning.  “You don’t get it.  You made him look bad in public, and the De Lucas never look bad.  He’s going to fix it one way or another.”  He stepped closer, making sure Maggie’s golden-brown eyes couldn’t look away from him.  He needed her to understand.  To fear.  “Don’t underestimate what just happened.  Rafe is probably already huddling with the family lawyers, trying to figure out the best way to put a positive spin on your little incident.”

“You act like it’s headline news.”

“It is!  Didn’t you see the cameras flashing?  That place was full of paparazzi.”

“But they don’t know who I am.”

“By tomorrow morning they will.”  A flicker of discomfort touched her eyes, and he went after it, ruthlessly driving home his point.  “You’re going to be tabloid headlines, Maggie.  They’ll have your name, and they’ll be digging hard to find mine.  The incident will be blown out of proportion and so will the theories they come up with for why it happened.  Have you ever read those papers?  You’re in the shark tank, lady, and they smell blood.”

Worry lines creased her forehead.  “I don’t have to talk to them.”

“That’s your best move, but it won’t be enough.”

She blinked, staring, and he saw real apprehension finally settle in.  She licked her lips nervously.  “Then how can I stop it?”

“You can’t.  Rafe de Luca’s coming after you, and there’s nothing you can do but try to survive it.”