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The Inspiration Behind A Certain Kind of Starlight: ‘Stars Fell’ by Heather Webber

A Certain Kind of StarlightIn the face of hardship, two women, Addie and Tessa Jane, learn how to rise up again under the bright side of the stars in A Certain Kind of Starlight, the next book from USA Today bestselling author Heather Webber, “the queen of magical small-town charm” (Amy E. Reichert). Under the bright side of the stars, Addie and Tessa Jane come to see that magic can be found in trusting yourself, that falling apart is simply a chance to rise up again, stronger than ever, and that the heart usually knows the best path through the darkness.

Read below to see Heather’s beautiful statement on the inspiration behind her upcoming novel, A Certain Kind of Starlight!


by Heather Webber:

Stars Fell

In a couple of weeks, I’ll be in a car, headed south to Alabama. Just like I was back in 2007, when I visited the state for the first time. In the way that some things never change, I’m sure I’ll be eating things not very good for me, listening to music and singing—badly—along. I’ll probably groan at the traffic in Nashville and break into a big smile when I see the green Welcome to Alabama road sign.

After I cross the state line, I know I’ll start looking for Alabama license plates that have Stars Fell on Alabama written on them, because there’s a soft spot in my heart for those plates, that phrase.

Back in 2007, when I saw the plates for the first time, I didn’t know the story behind the phrase. I quickly learned it was in reference to a widespread meteor shower in 1833, where it appeared as though hundreds of stars were falling from the sky. I was enchanted with the thought of it.

Although I’ve referenced the celestial event a couple of times in previous books, I knew one day I wanted to write a whole magical story around a fallen star—and I did just that in A Certain Kind of Starlight.

In the novel, the town of Starlight, Alabama, is famous for the field where a star once fell a hundred years before, leaving behind a shallow crater. At night that crater glows with a magical aurora where people can find clarity and guidance in the light. No one needs that clarity more than two sisters who come back to town to help their beloved aunt run her bakery while she deals with health problems.

At its core, it’s a story about broken hearts, literal and figurative, and trying to heal them even while knowing they might not be fixable. And although the book deals with some tough topics, it’s a heartwarming story full of love, forgiveness, healing, and learning that only through darkness can stars shine the brightest.

During my upcoming trip to Alabama, I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on the skies at night, watching for falling stars. And during the day, I’ll keep hopeful eyes on the road, looking for the license plate that inspired this story, even though those plates were retired in 2009.

Will I see one?

I think so.

Because, as we know, I’m a big believer in southern magic.


Click below to pre-order your copy of A Certain Kind of Starlight, available July 23rd, 2024!

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Excerpt Reveal: Desperation Reef by T. Jefferson Parker

Desperation ReefIn this high-stakes thriller by three-time Edgar Award winner and New York Times bestselling author T. Jefferson Parker, (“A marvel…hits the high-water mark for crime fiction every time out.” —Gregg Hurwitz), a big wave surfer and her sons compete in the same contest that killed her husband many years before.

Jen Stonebreaker hasn’t entered into a big-wave surfing competition since witnessing her husband’s tragic death twenty-five years ago at the Monsters of the Mavericks. Now, Jen is ready to tackle those same Monsters with her twin sons Casey and Brock, who have become competitive surfers in a perilous sport.

When he’s not riding waves, modeling for surfing magazines, or posting viral content for his many fans, Casey Stonebreaker spends his days helping with the family restaurant — catching fish in the morning and bartending at night. Casey’s love for the ocean and his willingness to expose illegal poachers on his platforms puts him on a collision course with a crime syndicate eager to destroy anyone threatening their business.

Outspoken Brock Stonebreaker couldn’t be more different from his twin. The founder of Breath of Life, a church and rescue mission that assists with natural disasters that no one else will touch, Brock has lived an adventurous and sometimes violent life. Not everyone appreciates the work that Brock’s Breath of Life mission accomplishes, and threats to destroy his mission—and his family—swirl around him.

As the big-wave contest draws closer, a huge, late fall swell is headed toward the Pacific coastline. Jen’s fears gnaw at her — fear for herself, for her sons, for what this competition will mean for the rest of her life.

Desperation Reef will be available on July 16th, 2024. Please enjoy the following excerpt!


CHAPTER ONE

Hear Jen scream.

Jen Stonebreaker, that is, hollering over the whine of her jet ski, towing her husband into a wave taller than a four-story building.

“For you, John—it’s all yours!”

She’s twenty-one years old, stout and well-muscled, with a cute face, a freckled nose, and an inverted bowl of thick orange hair she’s had since she was ten.

She’s a versatile young woman, too—the high school swim, water polo, and surf team captain. The class valedictorian. A former Miss Laguna Beach. With a UC Irvine degree in creative journalism from the School of Humanities, honors, of course.

Right now, though, Jen is bucking an eight-hundred-pound jet ski on the rising shoulder of a fifty-foot wave, her surf-star husband, John, trailing a hundred feet behind her on his signature orange and black “gun” surfboard, rope handle tied to the rescue sled, which skitters and slaps behind her.

Welcome to Mavericks, a winter break in the cold waters just south of San Francisco, with occasionally gigantic waves, sometimes beautifully formed, but always potentially lethal. These things charge in and hit Mavericks’ shallow reef like monsters from the deep. A surfer can’t just paddle into one; he or she has to be towed in by a jet ski or a helicopter. One of the scariest breaks on Earth. Ask any of the very few people who ride places like this. Not only the jagged, shallow rocks, but sharks, too, and water so cold you can barely feel your feet through neoprene boots.

Mavericks has taken the lives of professional, skilled, big-wave riders.

Riders not unlike the Stonebreakers, Jen now gunning her jet ski across the rising wave, looking for smooth water to deliver John into the steepening face of it, where he will toss the rope and—if all goes well and the gods are smiling—drop onto this wall and try to stay on his board, well ahead of the breaking barrel that, if it gets its chance, will crush him to the rocky bottom like a bathtub toy.

He throws aside the tow rope.

Jen guns her two-hundred-fifty horses, roaring and smoking, up and over the wave’s huge back, and lands momentarily beyond its reach, the rescue sled bobbing behind her.

She’s got a good angle to watch John and help him if he wipes out.

She feels the tremendous tonnage of water trying to suck her back onto the wave and over the falls.

Thinks: Nope.

Throttles hard and away.

Steadies herself on the bucking machine, off to the side and safely out of the way of the monsters, where she can watch John do his thing. The next wave lumbers in—she’s always startled by how fast they are—and she sees John astride his big board, racing down the smooth blue face of his wave, legs staunch but vibrating, feet locked in the thick rubber straps glued to his board. He carves out ahead of the lip then rises, backing up into the barrel, casually trailing a hand on the cylinder as he streams along just ahead of the crushing lip—John’s signature move; he’s one of the few guys who does this daredevil-in-the-barrel thing, looking cool on a fifty-footer. He’s twenty-six years old, one of

the top ten big-wave riders in the world.

Jen hears the barrel roaring closed behind him. Like a freight train or a stretched-out thunderclap.

Jen smiles.

Jen and John. John and Jen.

Look at him, she thinks. This is it. This is why we do it. Nothing we’ll ever do will match it. Not love. Not sex. Not being a mother or a father. Not seeing God. Not mountains of money. Nothing. Nothing can touch this speed, this perilous grace, this joy, this high.

Then it all goes wrong.

The thick lip lunges forward like a leopard, taking him by the head and off his board.

The sharp orange-and-black gun hangs in the air above him, the leash still fastened to John’s ankle, then the fins catch and the board spears past John, missing him by inches.

He’s lifted high above the ribs of the wave, then pitched over the falls, pulled down by his board, into the raging impact zone.

Jen checks the next wave—well fuck, it’s bigger than this one—then steers the jet ski closer to the wall of whitewater that owns her husband. A bright red rescue helicopter swoops down, close enough to tear foam off the crest of that wave.

Two rescue skis cut wide semicircles around the impact zone, their drivers looking for a way in.

And two more of the tow ski drivers, bucking the chop in search of John.

The seconds zip by but John doesn’t surface. His broken board launches from the whitewater, just two halves hinged by fiberglass. No leash attached. Which, in spite of John’s quick-release coupling, could mean the absolute worst for him—the damned leash is still fastened to his ankle, virtually unbreakable, easily caught on the sharp reef boulders lurking just feet below the surface.

Jen watches for any flash of shape or color, his black trunks, his orange helmet—anything that’s not whitewater, swirling sand, and rocks. Anything . . .

She knows with the wave closing fast behind her it’s time to plunge into the mayhem.

Feels the monster pull of it drawing her up.

Circling tightly, checking the rescue sled, getting ready to go in, she pauses one fraction of a second and thinks—among darker thoughts: I love you more than anything in the world . . .

And in that split second, the next wave lifts her from behind and Jen feels the terrible vertigo of a coming fall while clinging to an eight- hundred-pound personal watercraft.

Her personal deathtrap.

She cranks the ski throttle full open, digs a hard U-turn into the face of the wave. Jumps the lip and flies over.

She’s midair again on the smoking contraption. Below her, no John in sight. Just his shattered board bouncing in the foam on its way to shore.

She lands behind the wave and speeds a wide arc to something like safety. Rooster-tails to near where John went down. Can’t get all that close.

She’s lost precious time. Precious seconds. A lot of them.

She grinds through the whitewater as best she can, crisscrossing the worst of it. A surge of heavy foam catches the jet ski broadside and flips it. She keeps hold, lets another wall of whitewater crash over her before she can find the handles, right the beast, and continue searching her blinding world of foam and spray.

Smacked by the chop and wind, she clamps her teeth and grimaces to draw air instead of brine.

In shallower water, she searches the rocks below. Hears the scream of the other watercrafts around her, voices calling out. The big-wave people mostly look out for each other; they’re loose-knit and competitive but most of them will lose contests and miss waves to help someone in trouble—even of his own making, even some reckless trust-funder wannabe big-wave king with his own helicopter to tow him in and pro videographers to make him famous.

It’s what watermen and waterwomen do.

Jen keeps waiting to feel him behind her, climbing aboard the rescue sled. She knows it’s possible: John has trained himself to hold his breath for up to three minutes underwater.

But not being pounded like this . . .

As the minutes pass, hope and fear fight like dogs inside her—a battle that will guide the rest of her life.

We are small and brief.

We are the human passion to stay alive, made simple.

She helps work John’s body out of the rocks.


Click below to pre-order your copy of Desperation Reef, available July 16th, 2024!

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Excerpt Reveal: A Certain Kind of Starlight by Heather Webber

A Certain Kind of StarlightIn the face of hardship, two women learn how to rise up again under the bright side of the stars in A Certain Kind of Starlight, the next book from USA Today bestselling author Heather Webber, “the queen of magical small-town charm” (Amy E. Reichert)

Everyone knows that Addie Fullbright can’t keep a secret. Yet, twelve years ago, as her best friend lay dying, she entrusted Addie with the biggest secret of all. One so shattering that Addie felt she had to leave her hometown of Starlight, Alabama, to keep from revealing a devastating truth to someone she cares for deeply. Now she’s living a lonely life, keeping everyone at a distance, not only to protect the secret but also her heart from the pain of losing someone else. But when her beloved aunt, the woman who helped raise her, gets a shocking diagnosis and asks her to come back to Starlight to help run the family bakery, Addie knows it’s finally time to go home again.

Tessa Jane Wingrove-Fullbright feels like she’s failing. She’s always been able to see the lighter side of life but lately darkness has descended. Her world is suddenly in shambles after a painful breakup, her favorite aunt’s unexpected health troubles, and because crushing expectations from the Wingrove side of her family are forcing her to keep secrets and make painful choices. When she’s called back to Starlight to help her aunt, she’s barely holding herself together and fears she’ll never find her way back to who she used to be.

Under the bright side of the stars, Addie and Tessa Jane come to see that magic can be found in trusting yourself, that falling apart is simply a chance to rise up again, stronger than ever, and that the heart usually knows the best path through the darkness.

A Certain Kind of Starlight will be available on July 23rd, 2024. Please enjoy the following excerpt!


CHAPTER ONE

From the Kitchen of Verbena Fullbright

Sweet without salty is like hooting without hollering. They’re best together. Salt brightens flavors and lifts the texture of a cake, helping it stand tall and proud. Doesn’t everyone need a boost up every now and again?

ADDIE

Rooted deep within a woman’s complex DNA was the right to pick and choose the traditions and societal conventions she followed. This was especially true for matriarchs, the backbones, the older women who had seen it all, heard it all, dealt with it all, and no longer gave a flying fig what others thought. After years of living, of giving, of conforming, she now played by a set of rules carefully crafted from experience.

I personally believed southern women took this notion to a whole other level and kept that in mind as I studied my daddy’s older sister, Verbena Fullbright, fondly known by those closest to her as Bean.

Sitting primly, properly, on a stool pulled up to a stainless steel counter, Aunt Bean had her rounded shoulders drawn back, her head held high. Earlier today she’d been to see her lawyer, old Mr. Stubblefield, so she wore a long-sleeved leopard-print maxi dress and leather slingbacks instead of her usual baking attire. Her hairstyle was a cross between a pixie cut and a pompadour, the color of merlot. Her fingernails were painted black, a polish that would surely raise eyebrows around town if the people here didn’t know her and her funky style so well.

It was clear that even while feeling puny, Aunt Bean had stuck to her own particular notions of what was right and proper. She’d never attend a business meeting without wearing heels, even if her swollen feet had to be wedged into the shoes.

“Lordy mercy, those pearly gates are in for a mighty reckoning when I come calling. The heavens will be shaking,” Bean said theatrically, humor vibrating in her loud voice.

Her spirited statement was punctuated by two quick thumps of her wooden walking stick on the cement floor, the dramatic effect unfortunately mellowed by the stick’s thick rubber tip.

“Quaking, even,” Delilah Nash Peebles said as she removed a cake pan from an oven and slid it onto a multi-level stainless steel cooling rack that was taller than she was. She glanced at me, the crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes crinkling. “We all know Bean won’t be knocking politely. She’ll thunder on in and try to take over running the place.”

Mid-January sunshine poured in through the glass front door and tall windows of the converted big red barn on Aunt Bean’s vast property. It was the temporary home of the Starling Cake Company while the bakery’s Market Street location underwent a massive renovation.

I’d arrived a half hour ago and had been feeling a sense of déjà vu since—because this space had previously housed the bakery when it had been a home-based business. The air was once again scented with Aunt Bean’s homemade vanilla extract—along with a hint of chocolate and coffee from the mocha cakes currently baking—and everything looked the same as it used to when I was a little and practically glued to her apron strings. Three double ovens on one wall. Two stainless steel workstations. Four stand mixers. The decorating corner. An old range. Two massive refrigerators. A large bakery case.

And just like old times, I fell straight into helping where help was needed. Currently, I was dusting greased cake pans with cocoa powder while trying not to flat-out panic about my aunt’s health issues.

“Plus,” Bean sniffed loudly, indignantly, “I have a few grievances that need airing. Saint Peter’s going to get himself a right earful.”

Delilah added two more pans to the rack. “It’s no secret that you have a knack for speaking your mind. If I had a dollar for every time you’ve fussed about fondant, I’d be a rich woman. Poor Petal was fixin’ to pitch a hissy fit when you told her you wouldn’t use it for her wedding cake.”

“Petal Pottinger?” I asked. “She’s getting married?”

I felt a deep ache, one I had become familiar with since moving away from Starlight, from home, twelve years ago. It came from feeling like I was missing out. Mostly because I was.

“Sure enough. She’s getting hitched to Dare Fife next weekend in the ballroom at the Celestial Hotel,” Delilah said. “I’m convinced he’s the only good apple to fall from his crooked family tree. He’s almost twenty-two and hasn’t been thrown in jail yet, unlike the rest of the men in his family. Has himself a good job, too, at the flour mill.”

Dare Buckley Fife. My stomach rolled with worry for Petal, because around here, the Buckley name was synonymous with danger, with dishonor, with damage.

Bean shifted on the stool. “That Dare’s a good boy, so Petal might be all right at picking men, but God love her, she ain’t got the sense God gave a goose when it comes to cake. I call it fondon’t for a reason. And I’ll keep on saying it until my very last breath.”

“Can we not?” I asked, releasing a pent-up sigh. “We don’t need to be talking like you’re standing on death’s door, Aunt Bean.”

Because she wasn’t. She wasn’t.

“Now, Addie, it’s just talk,” she said. “But you know how I feel about dyin’. I’m not the least bit scared of it, though I hope it’ll hold off a good while. I’ve still got some livin’ to do.”

She might not be scared, but I sure was.

I’d known Bean hadn’t been feeling well for months now. After a bout with the flu last November, she’d started having trouble standing for long periods of time and walking distances without feeling out of breath and woozy—which was why she’d gotten the walking stick. I’d chalked up her slow healing simply to getting older. She was closing in on sixty-four, an age when most would be thinking about retiring. But not Aunt Bean.

Like generations of Fullbright women before her, she’d devoted her life to baking. To sharing with others, through cake, the ability to see the bright side of life and its possibilities.

When people tasted one of her confections, they were flooded with pleasant sparks of warmth and happiness as glimmers of hope and optimism, comfort and contentment filled emotional cracks created by life’s trials and stresses. Her cakes healed the soul and enhanced the inner light that helped guide people through hard times and enabled them to find silver linings in even the toughest situations.

For the bakery’s customers, the effects of the cakes lasted a good long while. Weeks. Sometimes months.

For the women in our family, the ability to see a bright side and all that came with it was a near constant in our lives, first appearing almost two hundred years ago after a star fell from the sky onto family land. Legend was that somehow the fallen star with its special glow had given us the gift, and we felt honor bound to use it to bring light and hope and brightness to others.

But beyond the glimmers, our bright sides also included the ability to see the good in a person, something that was revealed when we looked deeply into someone’s eyes. The glow of an inner light showed us the people who were kind, decent. And warned of those who were not.

Right now, though, as I sat in the barn kitchen, I was struggling to see any kind of light. There was no silver lining to be had.

When Bean had called this morning, telling me to get myself immediately back to Starlight for an emergency family meeting about her future plans, I’d felt an ominous chill that couldn’t possibly be related to retirement. A dark cloud descended.

Gloom followed me as I made the hour and forty-five–minute trip southeast from my apartment in Birmingham to the property that had been in our family for generations. The cloud had lifted only slightly when I’d found Aunt Bean waiting to welcome me with open arms.

Like always.

Immediately I’d noticed the physical changes in her. She’d puffed up a bit since I’d last seen her at Christmastime. Swelling. Edema. Then she told me she’d been to see a cardiologist in Montgomery earlier this week and he’d run a test that was worrisome.

I didn’t know how to process the information. Not the shock of it and certainly not the sprightly tone Bean and Delilah were using in talking about her possible death, of all things.

I lifted a cake pan, holding it carefully as I turned it this way and that, coating the surface in cocoa powder while I tried to think of something to say. Anything. But all the questions, all the love I had for my beloved aunt, were tangled up in a painful lump in my throat.

Currently, Delilah worked at my side, scooping dark batter from a stainless steel bowl into the pans I’d already set aside. Aunt Bean’s Moonlight Mocha cake was my favorite, rich and fudgy with a decadent mocha filling and frosting.

The massive kitchen, which took up the whole ground floor of the barn, was quiet this afternoon, a rarity for a Friday. I was surprised the other two Sugarbirds—the collective nickname of the bakery’s employees, not including Aunt Bean—weren’t here working. Then I realized Aunt Bean had planned it that way. So she could have this talk with me without everyone butting in.

“I need your help, Addie.” Aunt Bean’s gaze leveled on me, light yet serious. “With my plans for the future, now that I’m dealing with this heart dropsy.”

Heart dropsy. Such a cutesy term for heart failure.

It’s what the preliminary test suggested. The doctor had prescribed medications, but a more aggressive treatment plan wouldn’t be decided until other tests were completed.

Delilah flashed me a sympathetic look as Aunt Bean said, “You know I’m a planner at heart.”

She always had been. She was a list maker, an organizer, a get-it-done and do-it-right kind of woman.

“In light of my current health issues,” she said, “I thought it best to do some advanced planning for the family businesses. Just in case.”

Just in case.

Wrapped tightly in sweet vanilla, the words whirled around as I pieced together what she truly meant: Just in case her prognosis was poor. Her heart incurable. Her condition terminal.

Pulling over a stool, I sat down before my knees gave way.

While there were two family businesses, the Starling Cake Company and Starlight Field, the bakery had always been my happy place growing up. Working alongside Aunt Bean and the Sugarbirds and my best friend Ree had been a joy. It was a place filled with love and happiness. A place to create and share. It was where I started to heal after my daddy’s death. Where possibilities seemed endless. Where hope was always in the air, along with the scent of vanilla.

One of the hardest things I’d ever done was walk away from it.

From this whole town, really.

“Though I’ve had plans in place for a long time now,” Bean said, “it’s been a minute since they’ve been updated. They weren’t nearly as detailed as I’d have liked them to be with itemization and whatnot.”

“Sure am glad I’m not George Stubblefield today.” Delilah let out a small laugh as she referred to our family’s lawyer, but I noticed mournfulness now glistened in her dark gaze, nearly hidden behind a pair of hot-pink cat eye glasses.

I was relieved to see the sadness, consoled by the fact that I wasn’t the only one devastated by Bean’s health troubles. Delilah had only been putting on a brave face.

I suspected Aunt Bean was doing the same. There was no way, none at all, that she was taking this situation blithely. Aunt Bean was simply trying to find the light in this darkness, something that came as naturally to her as breathing.

But sometimes there was no bright side to life’s most painful moments.

I knew that better than most anyone.

“Hush now.” Aunt Bean waved her off. “There are still directives that need to be fine-tuned, but for now I’m satisfied with the progress.”

Plans. Directives. She was talking about her will.

“Oh lordy.” Delilah filled another cake pan. Her silvery-black hair sat atop her head in a braided crown, and there was a smudge of flour on her dark nose. “No doubt there are spreadsheets.”

Aunt Bean said, “Of course there are spreadsheets.”

She rested her hands atop the walking stick. On her wrist was a simple gold watch that had a tiny blue sapphire set into its face. It was a throwback to another time with its narrow shape and crown and needed winding every day. Some of the links were shinier than others—recent additions, I realized, most likely to accommodate the swelling.

Trying to distract myself, I grabbed another stack of pans to grease and flour. I knew from experience that tonight the baked cake layers would be crumb coated and refrigerated. Tomorrow morning, they would then be fully frosted and decorated. The take-out window would open at ten A.M. and because the cakes were sold first come, first served, without a doubt, by nine thirty there would be a line of cars flowing down the driveway and along the county road, hazard lights flashing as people patiently waited to for a taste of magic to heal their souls.

Aunt Bean went on, saying, “I’m not worried about the fate of the bakery. It’s the field that concerns me.”

At the mention of the field I vehemently shook my head and reached for the star-shaped sapphire pendant that hung from a long chain around my neck. It had been a gift from Aunt Bean when I was little, and holding it had always brought a small measure of comfort—something I needed desperately right now.

“All right, punkin. We won’t talk about it right now, but it has to be discussed soon.” Her voice was steady, strong. “We must plan ahead to ensure that Winchester Wingrove does not gain possession of the starlight field.”

The field was the site where a star had fallen in 1833 during a massive meteor shower, creating a shallow crater, a star wound. On days when the sun shone brightly, come nighttime in that grassy, bowl-shaped field, glowed a certain kind of starlight. It rose from the ground, a shimmery curtain of blue and yellow and silver and green that danced across the earth like aurora. In that magical light, those in need of guidance received the gift of clarity.

“Winchester, the greedy, self-serving money-grubber, will do everything in his power to get his hands on the field.” Bean’s walking stick once again banged the floor, two quick bursts, the sound still disappointingly muffled in comparison to her vehemence. “Particularly since Constance Jane has passed on, God bless her soul. She was the only thing keeping him in line for so long.”

Winchester’s wife, Constance Jane Cobb Wingrove, had been able to keep him in line because, as one of the heirs to the Cobb Steel fortune, she controlled the family purse strings. Strings he had very much been attached to. Everyone knew he’d only married her for her money. When she’d passed away two years ago, she’d left Winchester a very wealthy—and untethered—man.

“If he excavates the starlight crater, all its light will disappear.” Aunt Bean shook her head as if she could not conceive of that level of stupidity. “I—we—cannot let that happen.”

Winchester, who came from a long line of notorious conmen, cardsharps, counterfeiters, pickpockets, gamblers, and thieves, had become captivated with the starlight field as a young man who’d been in and out of trouble with the law. That was when he discovered an old family journal containing a recounting of the night the star fell, one that spun a fanciful story of how the star had shattered into diamonds when it hit the ground.

That same journal also revealed a long-forgotten fact: the starlight field had once belonged to his family. The knowledge ignited within him a powerful jealousy, lighting a fire that still burned to this day. He made no secret of wanting the land back, of wanting to explore the diamond legend, and vowed that he wouldn’t rest until the field was his.

He’d been a thorn in side of the Fullbright family for decades.

Bean rubbed the face of her watch, her gaze steady on me. “The issue at hand, as you might have surmised, is Tessa Jane.”

I dug my nails into my palms. Tessa Jane was Winchester’s only granddaughter—and also, thanks to an extramarital relationship the family didn’t like to talk about, Aunt Bean’s niece. For a while, Tessa Jane and her mother, Henrietta, had lived with Constance Jane and Winchester here in Starlight. But when Tessa Jane was eleven, her mama, for reasons unknown, had packed up their Cadillac and moved them six hours away to Savannah, Georgia.

It was a move that had confused many around here, considering how close Henrietta was with her mama.

But for me, I’d felt nothing but relief.

Aunt Bean was worried now because half the starlight field belonged to Tessa Jane. It was currently being held in trust but would be released at the end of February, on her twenty-fifth birthday.

“I hardly imagine Tessa Jane would disregard your recommendations, Aunt Bean,” I said carefully, trying to keep my own feelings for Tessa Jane out of my voice. “She adores you. And she loves the field.”

Once, when she was all of nine or ten, Tessa Jane had insisted Aunt Bean buy all the single bananas at Friddle’s General Store instead of a complete bunch because she hadn’t wanted the single bananas be lonely. That was the kind of person she was. She had always been a soft, gentle soul in a world full of sharp, hurtful edges.

I added, “Has she said anything that would make you question her desire to keep the land?” Tessa Jane certainly hadn’t said anything to me, as I hadn’t seen or talked to her in more than a dozen years. To say that we had a complicated relationship was putting it mildly.

“Not in the slightest,” Aunt Bean said. “She’s been rather preoccupied as of late.”

I fought through a wave of guilt for not being more involved in Tessa Jane’s life and slid a cake pan down the counter. “Then you have nothing to worry about.”

“We all know that when it comes to the Wingroves nothing is ever that easy, especially when Winchester holds so much sway with her. But I’ve done come up with a plan to head him off at the pass. A fair one, I believe.”

I suspected she had many plans, all stored up like the alluring jars of colorful sprinkles, dusting sugars, nonpareils, and edible confetti that sat on the long shelves in the cake decorating corner. Enchanting, yes, but also incredibly messy and frustrating if you weren’t careful.

Aunt Bean said, “But my plan is complex, which is why I need your help.”

Delilah snorted. “Her plan has more layers than an apple stack cake.”

Aunt Bean threw her dear friend a droll look, then in a supremely measured tone that set off high-pitched alarm bells in my head, said, “It must be completed in stages. In order to help me with those stages, Addie, you’ll need to move back to Starlight for a spell.”

My hand froze and cocoa powder drifted like dark snow onto the cement floor. “Move back?”

Emotionally, it had been hard enough visiting Aunt Bean and the Sugarbirds. Every few months, I’d arrive like a whirlwind to catch up with everyone, indulge in the local gossip, visit the shops, and soak up all the love and affection I could, tucking it away for the lonely days ahead. But I never stayed longer than a day or two. And each time I left, it was with tears in my eyes and wishes that I could stay.

Even thinking about moving back stirred up all kinds of emotions I’d tamped down for years, making me lightheaded and queasy.

I’d left for a reason. And that reason hadn’t changed in all the time I’d been gone.

Bean’s gaze held steady. “As much as I feel like I’m Superwoman most days, I know that whatever is ahead for me, health-wise, is best conquered with all the help I can get. I’m going to need extra assistance with the bakery, plus rides to and from doctor’s appointments and such.”

Knots formed in my stomach as a long-kept secret perched on my lips. I clamped my mouth shut to keep from speaking. I couldn’t blow it now, after all this time. It had been kept safe nearly twelve years, ever since the warm summer day Ree had taken her last breath.

But no one knew why I left. So Aunt Bean didn’t know what she was asking of me.

“You can work from anywhere, so why not move back here?” she asked, calmly, reasonably, as if she had anticipated any potential excuses. “We do have internet. This isn’t some backwoods, Podunk, one-stoplight town.”

Starlight, Alabama, had all of two stoplights. And though it was off the beaten path, it was hardly unimportant like Podunk suggested. Tourism was the main industry of this town, drawing crowds from all over the world. It thrived on legend, on folklore, on starshine.

I stood and made my way to a back window. Over a low fence, down the slope of a gentle hill, and beyond a stretch of pasture, there was a grass-covered indent in the earth. It was where, all that time ago, the fallen star had hit the ground.

During the day, there was nothing to suggest this land was special. But at night, when the starlight rose from the crater, swirling and twirling, there was no denying it was pure magic.

The starlight drew dozens of visitors every night. Even on cloudy days when the aurora was lackluster, it was still bright enough to be a guiding light, to provide clarity to those in need.

But I didn’t need the starlight to know what I wanted.

I already knew. I’d longed to come home for a good while now.

Yet, how could I possibly keep quiet if I moved back? I couldn’t keep a secret to save my life, which was why I’d left in the first place. It had been the only way to safeguard what had been shared with me—information that would destroy the lives of people I cared for. People I loved.

With an ache in my chest, I looked upward and saw a flock of silvery starlings flying toward the farmhouse. Usually the birds stayed in the trees that bordered the starlight field, but in times of trouble they flew nearer, as a reminder that they were always keeping watchful eyes over the family. I wasn’t surprised to see them now, considering Bean’s health worries—and her current request.

“You can set up a sound studio in the storage room upstairs here. Or,” Bean said, oozing practicality, “in a closet in the farmhouse.”

She was right. I was a voice actor. I owned all the equipment I needed and often worked out of a converted closet in my apartment. But moving here would mean taking time off in order to get a studio set up and ready to record. It would be a headache but doable.

“It’s not forever,” Aunt Bean added, her tone light in a desperate attempt to brighten the darkness.

The meaning hiding behind it’s not forever tore open my heart and made me suddenly wonder if she knew more about her condition than she was letting on.

I turned away from the window and glanced at Delilah, looking for confirmation that Aunt Bean was sicker than she’d told me, but Delilah had her back to me as she placed a cake into one of the ovens.

Aunt Bean tapped her stick again, twice. “What say you, Addie?”

I took deep, even breaths, trying to fight the surge of panic threatening to swallow me whole. My gaze fell on the cake pans lined up on the shelves. It lingered on jars of rainbow sprinkles. I studied the bottles of vanilla extract that Bean had made herself, focusing on the long, dark vanilla beans soaking in bourbon. Then my gaze dropped to the head of my aunt’s walking stick, which was shaped like a starling. The carving was intricate and delicate yet somehow able to bear her weight, her troubles.

Moving back to Starlight was going to be challenging, but I couldn’t turn down Aunt Bean. Not after all the years she’d held me close, kept me safe, helped me through the darkest times of my life.

No one knew me like she did. My daddy and I had moved in with her when I was just four years old—right after my mama left town. Left us. And after Daddy’s death when I was ten, I’d stayed put, my mama too happy living a carefree life by then to return to mothering.

I’d do anything for Aunt Bean.

“Of course I’ll come back.”

She smiled, the melancholy in her eyes shining as bright as the stars she loved so much. “That’s my girl.”

Outside, car tires crunched on the chipped-slate driveway, and I hoped it was another Sugarbird arriving to assist with the massive workload still to complete. Help was more than welcome to clear the production list and also, hopefully, rid the air of its heaviness. All the talk of Bean’s plans and uncertain future could be tucked away for another time, after I let it sink in. Settle.

A moment later the front door creaked open. Warm wind whistled in, and out of the corner of my eye, I caught a flash of light I hadn’t seen in years as Tessa Jane tentatively stepped inside.

“Hello,” she said, her gaze searching our faces. “I’m not too early for the family meeting, am I?”

I’d have recognized her anywhere with her big blue eyes, pale blond hair, and the dreamy ethereal haze that had surrounded her since the day she’d been born, like she’d been dropped straight out of the heavens and into a bassinet at the Coosa County hospital. I stifled the shock wave at seeing her and threw a look at Aunt Bean, who was already greeting Tessa Jane with an effusive hug.

Slowly, I stepped forward and mentally prepared myself to greet the last person I’d ever expected to see today.

Tessa Jane Cobb Wingrove Fullbright.

My half sister.


Click below to pre-order your copy of A Certain Kind of Starlight, available July 23rd, 2024!

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Forge’s Summer 2024 Preview!

Summer is finally here! With it comes bright, sunny days and lots of time to relax by the pool, at the beach, or in the comfort of the AC! If you’re looking to take a vacation from your daily stressors by getting lost in gripping books that’ll keep you on the edge of your (beach) chair, we’ve definitely got you covered like sunscreen. Catch the wave of all these incredible books coming from Forge this summer!


Masquerade by O.O. Sangoyomi

Masquerade

Set in a wonderfully reimagined 15th century West Africa, Masquerade is a dazzling, lyrical tale exploring the true cost of one woman’s fight for freedom and self-discovery, and the lengths she’ll go to secure her future.

Coming 7.2.24!

Desperation Reef by T. Jefferson Parker

Desperation Reef

In this high-stakes thriller by three-time Edgar Award winner and New York Times bestselling author T. Jefferson Parker, (“A marvel…hits the high-water mark for crime fiction every time out.” —Gregg Hurwitz), a big wave surfer and her sons compete in the same contest that killed her husband many years before.

Coming 7.16.24!

A Certain Kind of Starlight by Heather Webber

A Certain Kind of Starlight

In the face of hardship, two women learn how to rise up again under the bright side of the stars in A Certain Kind of Starlight, the next book from USA Today bestselling author Heather Webber, “the queen of magical small-town charm” (Amy E. Reichert)

Coming 7.23.24!

A Farewell to Arfs by Spencer Quinn

A Farewell to Arfs

Spencer Quinn’s A Farewell to Arfs is a return to the adventurous New York Times and USA Today bestselling series that Stephen King calls “without a doubt the most original mystery series currently available.”

Coming 8.6.24!

Passion for the Heist by K’wan

Passion for the Heist

Two broken souls find themselves inescapably drawn into each other’s orbits, and begin their journey of finding lives outside the ones of poverty and sorrow that their worlds had condemned them to. But when shadows from both their pasts threaten their happiness, Passion and Pain set out on an adventure that would make them hunted by law enforcement and celebrated by the underworld. What initially starts out as a mission of vindication quickly turns into a fight for survival.

Coming 8.27.24!

And here are some great books coming out in paperback!

At the Coffee Shop of Curiosities by Heather Webber

At the Coffee Shop of Curiosities

From the USA Today bestselling author of In the Middle of Hickory Lane comes Heather Webber’s next enchanting novel, At the Coffee Shop of Curiosities! A mysterious letter. An offer taken. And the chance to move forward.

Coming 7.2.24!

Mrs. Plansky’s Revenge by Spencer Quinn

Mrs. Plansky's Revenge

Mrs. Plansky’s Revenge is bestselling author Spencer Quinn’s first novel in a new series since the meteoric launch of Chet and Bernie–introducing the irresistible and unforgettable Mrs. Plansky, in a story perfect for book clubs and commercial fiction readers.

Coming 7.9.24! 

Reliquary by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Reliquary

From #1 New York Times bestselling authors Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child comes the second spine-chilling novel featuring Special Agent Pendergast.

Coming 7.23.24!

One Wrong Word by Hank Phillippi Ryan

One Wrong Word

A heart-racing psychological thriller from USA Today bestselling and multiple award-winning author, Hank Phillippi Ryan.Gossip. Lies. Rumors. Words like that can hurt you. And Arden knows the reality. Sometimes one wrong word can kill.

Coming 8.6.24!

A Winter’s Rime by Carol Dunbar

A Winter's Rime

A harrowing and emotional novel set in rural Wisconsin—A Winter’s Rime explores the impact of generational trauma, and one woman’s journey to find peace and healing from the violence of her past.

Coming 8.13.24!

Fingal O’Reilly, Irish Doctor by Patrick Taylor

Fingal O'Reilly, Irish Doctor

The beloved Irish Country series continues in Fingal O’Reilly, Irish Doctor, an enchanting novel by New York Times, USA Today, and Globe and Mail bestselling author Patrick Taylor.

Coming 8.13.24!

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Letter by Genoveva Dimova, Author of Foul Days

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We are excited to share a special letter from Genoveva Dimova, the talented author of Foul Days. In her debut novel, rooted in Slavic folklore and fast-paced fantasy, Genoveva introduces us to Kosara—a witch battling dark forces in the walled city of Chernograd. Join us as Genoveva takes us behind the scenes of her captivating world, sharing insights into her creative process and the rich storytelling that shapes Kosara’s perilous journey.

Read Genoveva Dimova’s letter below, and make sure to pre-order your copy of Foul Days, coming 6/25/2024.


by Genoveva Dimova

Dear Reader,

Foul Days is a story about human-like monsters and monstrous humans; about defeating the ghosts from your past and learning to trust your gut.

I come from a small country in South-Eastern Europe, known for its wine, yogurt, and roses, located at the crossroads between Europe and Asia. Over the centuries, it has been the home of many different peoples, each bringing their unique cultures, languages, and beliefs. In fact, the word “Bulgarian” comes from the Proto-Turkic bulģha, “to mix,” “to shake,” “to stir.” This mixture of traditions is at the core of Foul Days, which shakes and stirs together (like a well-blended Martini) all my favourite aspects of Bulgarian folklore: the creepy monsters, the obscure rituals, the unexpected meaning hidden in folk songs.

Growing up, most fantasy I read was set in that ubiquitous pseudo-Western-European, pseudo-Medieval setting we all know. I made my own attempts to write that sort of story—except it never rang true. Something was missing (like a Martini without the olive).

Until one day, as fantasy as a whole was moving more and more towards diverse and underrepresented cultures, it clicked. I didn’t need to write about dragons and vampires when I could write about zmeys and upirs. Instead of stories about knights and lords, I could have clever witches tricking cruel men.

I’ve always loved the monsters from Bulgarian folklore, each representing some deep-seated fear that existed in traditional society. Upirs, for example, are the restless spirits of the dead who haven’t been buried properly, rising from their graves to torment their relatives. Halas and lamias are vengeful creatures who, when scorned, cause floods, storms, and hurricanes. The zmey, the Slavic dragon who disguises himself as a handsome man in order to seduce young women, is often believed to be an allegory for depression, which in my eyes made him the perfect villain. Then, I stumbled upon the myth of the Foul Days—the twelve days between Christmas and St. John the Baptist’s Day, after the new year has been born but before it has been baptised, when monsters and ghosts roam the streets—and I knew I’d found the perfect setting for my story.

I hope you enjoy reading my very Bulgarian book as much as I enjoyed writing it!

Genoveva Dimova

Dive into an excerpt here and Pre-order Foul Days—available on June 25, 2024!

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Excerpt Reveal: Iron Star by Loren D. Estleman

Iron StarSet against the sprawling landscape of the Wild West, this riveting adventure by Spur Award-winning author Loren D. Estleman follows a man on a journey to set his legacy, and the men dedicated to bringing his story to life.

From his youth as a revolutionist to his time as a Deputy U.S. Marshal, aging lawman Iron St. John has become a larger-than-life figure—and in the process, the man has disappeared behind the myth. During his brief, unsuccessful political career, St. John published his memoirs—a sanitized version of his adventures to appeal to the masses. A generation later, the clouded truth of this giant of the Old West has been all but lost.

Now, Buck Jones, a pioneering film star, is vying for a cinematic story that will launch his career to incredible heights. He approaches Emmet Rawlings, a retired Pinkerton detective, to set the record of St. John’s life straight once and for all. Twenty years ago, Rawlings accompanied St. John on his final manhunt, and in desperate need for the funding a successful book promises, he dives deep into St. John’s past—and his own buried memories—to tell the truth about this part-time hero.

As the story of St. John unfolds, the romance of the period is stripped away to reveal a reality long-forgotten in this unvarnished, heart-racing depiction of the American West by acclaimed author Loren D. Estleman.

Iron Star will be available on June 18th, 2024. Please enjoy the following excerpt!


CHAPTER ONE

MISTER ST. JOHN

Everything about the messenger seemed smart, from the peaked cap squared across his brow to the polished toes of his boots, right down to the smug cast of his mouth. Rawlings signed for the package he brought and handed back the clipboard; and bless the man if he didn’t snap him a salute. He shut the door on the pink clean-shaven face and went to his desk for the knife that was too big for its purpose.

The cord severed, he removed two layers of brown paper and looked at the book. A phantom pain struck his side.

The book was standard octavo size but heavy as a brick, coarse brittle pages bound in green cloth with a surplus of stamping on cover and spine and the kind of lettering one found in soap advertisements. A balloon legend at the top descended in graded diminuendo until the second-to-last line, which was set out boldly in copper leaf:

THE IRON STAR

Being a Memoir of IRONS ST. JOHN Deputy U.S. Marshal
Peace Officer
Railroad Detective Trail-blazer
And

CANDIDATE FOR U.S. CONGRESS

by Himself

The educated reader might have added Reformed Outlaw to the list of sobriquets—with a Christian nod to the “Reformed”—but the object of the tome had been to elect, not repent. In fact it had managed to do neither, thus setting in motion the cosmic chain of events that had pulled Rawlings into his orbit.

Another stab came when he opened to the frontispiece, a three-quarter photographic portrait of a man past his middle years. It was contemporary to his experience of the original, although the developers’ art had tightened the sagging lines of the chin: a rectangular face set off by cheekbones that threatened to pierce the flesh and a thick moustache whose points reached nearly to the corners of the jaw. The eyes had been retouched as well, but less to flatter the subject than to keep them from washing out in the glare from the flashpan; irises that particular shade of sunned steel did not reproduce. The hair was cut to the shape of the skull and swept across the forehead; that feature, Rawlings thought, had not been tampered with. In all the weeks he’d spent with the man—seldom more than six feet away—he could barely recall having seen him with his hat off: Cavalry campaign issue, it was, stained black around the base of the dimpled crown, with the tassel missing a toggle.

It was like finding an old ogre of a dead uncle standing on his doorstep.

The book carried a 1906 copyright date and the name of a St. Louis publisher. He touched the page, as if feeling the figures pressed into paper would contradict the evidence of sight, and also of scent; the leaves smelled of dust and decomposition.

Twenty years.

He was fifty, the same age St. John had been then, when the man had seemed as weatherworn as the Red Wall of Wyoming.

The old humbug.

But, no; that was unfair. You didn’t mark down a man’s accomplishments just because he never missed an opportunity to remind you of them. He’d been a politician after all, however briefly and unsuccessfully, and that wound had yet to heal. Was he so easily dismissed as less than advertised? Truth to tell, constant exposure for nearly a month to any fellow creature outdoors in all extremes of weather would turn an Ivanhoe into a Uriah Heep. There were no heroes in a cold camp.

He turned to the first page of the editor’s preface. (“Nothing in little Ike’s childhood bore witness to the man he would become.”) Tucked in the seam between the sawtooth sheets was a cardboard rectangle, glaringly white against the ivory pulp, with glossy black embossed printing in eleven-point type:

Charles Gebhardt, Esq.

The card contained neither address nor telephone number: a proper gentleman’s calling card, an anomaly there, amidst the oat and barley fields of southeastern Minnesota.

Likewise there was no return address on the wrapper, and no postmark, since it had been sent by private messenger; nothing to explain its origin apart from the unfamiliar name on the card, which may have been nothing other than a bookmark employed by a former owner. The book was sufficiently shopworn to have passed from hand to hand, eventually to settle in a clearance bin, the last stop before the pulp mill. No provenance, and not an inkling as to purpose.

But he was still enough of a detective not to waste time pursuing a line of reasoning that offered no beginning and promised no end. He laid aside the book and took a seat in the wooden armchair that had come with the room, at the leftward-listing rolltop that had come with it, and turned back a cuff to measure his pulse against his watch.

After fifteen seconds he took his fingers from his wrist, replaced the cuff, fixed the stud, and entered the figure in the notebook he kept in a pigeonhole.

Not too rapid, considering; but on the other hand his heart wasn’t likely to finish out of the money at the Olmsted County Fair. He snapped shut the face of the watch, glancing from habit at the engraving but without reading: to emmett force rawlings, in grateful, etc., robt. pinkerton ii, and returned it to his waistcoat pocket, where the weight of the gold plate tugged the unbuttoned garment uncomfortably off-center. He fastened the buttons.

From the right drawer he lifted a stack of yellow paper and reread what he’d written in the same small, precise hand he’d employed while waiting out his retirement in the records room in San Francisco. He reread it from the beginning as always, scratching out passages that struck him as prosy and inserting additional information in the margins, which he’d left wide for the purpose. The Chief had often said that if he ever tired of the field he could apply for a post in bookkeeping; after the Buckner debacle the remark had seemed not so much a compliment as a threat.

He caught himself stroking his chin; there’d been no beard there for years. That blasted book had sidetracked him. One of the reasons he’d started this comprehensive history of the Agency was to expel the nattering memories of his past, as well as to audit the account.

The Wild West: No grand exposition, that: rather a roadside carnival. Hundreds of hacks had squandered tons of paper and gallons of ink on midnight rides and gunplay; which, if one were to lift them from the record, would have no effect on how it had come out. Dakota would have been divided, the Indian question resolved, and the frontier closed regardless of which side emerged intact from the O.K. Corral fight, whether William Bonney was slain from ambush or escaped to old Mexico, or if Buffalo Bill had chosen black tie and tails over feathers and buckskin. Washington was the big top, Tombstone and Deadwood a sideshow at best. Historians were crows, hopping over treasure to snatch up bright scraps of tin and deposit them at the feet of spectators who— thanks to them—would never know the difference.

His face ached; the scowl might have set permanently but for the interruption of a tap on his door. He shoved himself away from the desk and got up to answer it.

“A gentleman to see you, sir.” Mrs. Balfour, his landlady, extended a card in a large hand with veins on the back as thick as a man’s. She was a tall Scot who held her hair fast with glittering pins and kept snuff in a hinged locket around her neck.

He took the card, read again the name Charles Gebhardt, Esq. “I don’t suppose he said what he wants.”

“No, sir, and it wasn’t my business to ask.”

In truth he couldn’t imagine what circumstances would lead this woman to ask any sort of question, including whether she should allow the man up. They exchanged meaningless nods and she went back downstairs.

He remained in the doorway while the visitor ascended the last flight. At the top they stood not quite face to face; the man was two inches shorter and thicker in the torso, with a nose straight as a plumb and big ears that stuck out like spread clamshells. His smile was broad as well, overabundantly friendly, and furnished with teeth too white and even for trust: a salesman’s smile. Larger-than-life features on a larger-than-life head. They belonged on a billboard.

The hat was wrong: a tweed motoring cap, worn at an angle after the current fashion, taking up too little space in relation to the head; and now that Rawlings had identified the problem, he realized where he’d seen the man, or at least his image, painted in crude brush strokes reproduced in lithograph: a muscular frame in blue denim, plaid flannel, and yellow kerchief, dangling from the face of a cliff or a railroad boxcar plummeting down a steep grade with no train attached. Perhaps both. Wearing the hat, too big just to provide shade and too small for a fire pit.

“Mr. Rawlings?” A pleasant enough voice, a tenor, with a hint of the stage.

“Mr.—Gebhardt?” The name was as unlikely a fit as the headgear.

The smile flickered. “Yes; but that’s just between you, me, and the Bureau of Internal Revenue. Professionally it’s Buck Jones, and I’ve come all this way from Los Angeles to ask if you’d consider making a movie with me.”


Click below to pre-order your copy of Iron Star, available June 18th, 2024!

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Excerpt Reveal: A Farewell to Arfs by Spencer Quinn

A Farewell to ArfsSpencer Quinn’s A Farewell to Arfs is a return to the adventurous New York Times and USA Today bestselling series that Stephen King calls “without a doubt the most original mystery series currently available.”

Chet the dog, “the most lovable narrator in all of crime fiction” (Boston Globe) and his human partner PI Bernie Little are back again, and this time they’re entangled in a web of crime unlike anything they’ve ever seen before.

Their next door neighbor, Mr. Parsons, thought he was doing the right thing by loaning his ne’er do well son, Billy, some money to help get himself settled. But days later, Mr. Parsons has discovered that his entire life savings is gone. Valley PD is certain this is an impersonation scam, but Bernie isn’t so sure.

With Mrs. Parsons in the hospital and Billy nowhere to be found, it’s up to Chet and Bernie to track Billy down and get to the bottom of things—before it’s too late.

A Farewell to Arfs will be available on August 6th, 2024. Please enjoy the following excerpt!


CHAPTER ONE

Who wouldn’t love my job? You see new things every day! Here, for example, we had a perp clinging to a branch high up in a cottonwood tree. That wasn’t the new part. Please don’t get ahead of me—although that’s unlikely to happen, your foot speed and mine being . . . very different, let’s leave it at that with no hurt feelings.

Where were we? Perp in a cottonwood tree, nothing new? Right. Nothing new, not even the little detail of how this particular perp, namely Donnie the Docent Donnegan, was styling his shirt and tie with pajama bottoms. Seen that look once, seen it a . . . well, many times, just how many I couldn’t tell you since I don’t go past two. Not quite true. I have gotten past two the odd time, all the way to whatever comes next, but not today. No biggie. Two’s enough. We’re the proof, me and Bernie. Together we’re the Little Detective Agency, the most successful detective agency in the whole Valley, except for the finances part. Bernie’s last name is Little. I’m Chet, pure and simple.

We stood side by side, as we often do, and gazed up at Donnie. “Donnie?” Bernie said. “No wild ideas.”

Donnie said something that sounded annoyed, the exact words hard to understand, most likely on account of the thick gold coin, called a doubloon unless I was missing something, that he was holding between his teeth. Donnie the Docent, an old pal, was an art lover with an MO that was all about museums. On this particular occasion our client was Katherine Cornwall who runs the Sonoran Museum of Art, also an old pal but not a perp, who we met way back on a complicated case of which I remembered nothing except that it ended well, perhaps only slightly marred by an incident in the gift shop involving something that hadn’t turned out to be an actual chewy, strictly speaking. Katherine Cornwall was a woman of the gray-haired no-nonsense type. They don’t miss much. You have to keep that in mind, which can turn out to be on the iffy side.

I should mention first that the gold coin between the teeth was also not the new part of this little scene, and second that this was the time of year when the cottonwoods are all fluffy white and give off a wonderful smell, a sort of combo of thick damp paper, sweet syrup, and fresh laundry. There’s really nothing like rolling around in a pile a fresh laundry, possibly a subject for later. Also our cottonwood, standing on the bank of an arroyo, wasn’t the only cottonwood in the picture. On the other side of the arroyo rose a second cottonwood, just as big and fresh laundryish or maybe even more so. In between, down in the arroyo, we had flowing water, blue and rising almost to the tops of the banks. That was the new part! Water! I’d seen water in some of our arroyos before but only in tiny puddles, drying up fast under the sun. I’m a good swimmer, in case you were wondering. There are many ways of swimming, but I’m partial to the dog paddle, probably goes without mentioning.

Meanwhile, high above, Donnie seemed to be inching his way toward the end of the branch, which hung over the arroyo. As did, by the way, a big branch on the far side cottonwood, the two branches almost touching. Below the far side cottonwood sat Donnie’s ATV, engine running. How exactly we’d gotten to this point wasn’t clear to me, even while it was happening, and was less clear now.

“Donnie?” Bernie said. “It’s a fantasy.”

Donnie said nothing, just kept inching along the branch, the gold coin glinting in the sunshine. His eyes were glinting, too, glinting with a look I’d often seen before, the look in the eyes of a perp in the grip of a sudden and fabulous idea. There’s no stopping them after that.

“Donnie! Middle-aged, knock-kneed, potbellied? Is that the acrobat look?”

Donnie glanced down, shot Bernie a nasty glance. Then— and this is hard to describe—he coiled his body in a writhing way and launched himself into the air, his hands grasping at the branch of the other cottonwood. Wow! He came oh so close. I couldn’t help but admire Donnie as he went pinwheeling down and down, landing in the arroyo with a big splash and vanishing beneath the surface. Also showing no sign of coming back up.

Bernie ran toward the water, but of course I was way ahead of him. I dove down, spotted Donnie at the bottom, flailing in slow motion, grabbed him by the pant leg and hauled him up out of there. Cottonwoody white fluffy things came whirligigging down and drifted away on the current. Case closed.

***

It turned out Donnie didn’t know how to swim, so you could say we’d saved his life, but he forgot to say thanks. Maybe that had something to do with the fact that he’d gotten the gold coin stuck in his throat, although he’d soon swallowed it, but after X-rays at the hospital had established to Katherine Cornwall’s satisfaction that it was still inside him but would appear in a day or two, she cut us our check—a woman of the no-nonsense type, as perhaps I didn’t stress enough already.

“Very generous, Katherine.” Bernie said. “It’s way too much.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” Katherine said. I found myself in a very strange place, namely not on Bernie’s side. “There’s evidence that this particular doubloon was once in Coronado’s personal possession.”

Bernie’s eyebrows—the best you’ll ever see and there’s no missing them—have a language of their own. Now they rose in a way that said so much even if I couldn’t tell you what, and he tucked the check in his pocket, unfortunately the chest pocket of his Hawaiian shirt. The Hawaiian shirt, with the tiny drink umbrella pattern, was not the problem, in fact was one of my favorites. The chest pocket was my problem. The check belonged in the front pocket of his pants, the front pocket with the zipper. I pressed my head against that pocket, sending a message. Bernie had great balance and didn’t even stumble, hardly at all.

“He’s so affectionate for such a formidable looking fellow,” Katherine said.

“True,” said Bernie, dusting himself off, “but this is more about chow time.”

Chow time? It had nothing to do with chow time. But then, what do you know? It was about chow time! Chow time and nothing but! When had I last eaten? I was too hungry to even think about it. I eased Bernie toward the Beast. That’s our ride, a Porsche in a long line of Porsches, all old and gone now, one or two actually up in smoke. The Beast—painted in black and white stripes in a rippling pattern, like a squad car showing off its muscles—was the oldest of all. We roared out of the museum parking lot, Bernie behind the wheel, me sitting tall in the shotgun seat, our usual set up, although once down in Mexico we’d ended up having to pull a switcheroo. This is a fun business, in case that’s not clear by now.

***

Back at our place on Mesquite Road—best street in the Valley although far from the fanciest, which suits us just fine—we ate a whole lot in that quick and quiet businesslike way of two hombres after a long working day, and then went out back to the patio for drinks, beer for Bernie and water for me. He stretched out, his feet on a footstool, the check poking annoyingly from his chest pocket, like it was playing games with me. I was working on a plan for that check when Bernie said, “All those atmospheric river storms off the Pacific turned out to be good luck for Donnie.” A complete puzzler. I waited for some sort of explanation but none came. Instead, without getting up, Bernie reached out and turned the tap at the base of the swan fountain. Then came a little sputter sputter, followed by a small bright stream flowing from the swan’s mouth and splashing down into the dry pool with a lovely cooling sound. For me and my kind—the nation within the nation, as Bernie calls us—sounds can be cooling. Same for you? I won’t even guess, the subject of human hearing turning out to be complicated but disappointing in the end. The fountain itself—and how nice to have it finally back on! Had Bernie forgotten to worry about the aquifer?—was all that Leda, Bernie’s ex, left behind. Now she lived in High Chaparral Estates with her new husband Malcolm who had long toes and money to burn, although he wasn’t the money burning type. Money burners in my experience—lighting up a smoke with a C-note, for example—never had much of it except for a sudden and nice little bundle, here and gone. But forget all that. I’ve left out the most important detail, namely Charlie, Bernie and Leda’s kid, now living with Leda and Malcolm except for some weekends and every second Christmas and Thanksgiving, or maybe the other way around. At first, we’d left the mattress in his bedroom stripped bare, but now it’s made up and Bernie even folds down one of the top corners so it’s all set for getting into. I even sometimes get into it myself, who knows why.

On the other side of the patio fence that separates our place from Mr. and Mrs. Parsons next door, Iggy started barking. This is the time of year when old timers like the Parsonses keep their windows open, but there’s no missing Iggy’s bark, even if he’s deep inside a trash truck, just to pick one instance out of many. A tiny guy but a mighty yip-yip-yipper. With an amazingly long and floppy tongue, by the way.

“Iggy,” said Mr. Parsons, in his scratchy old voice. “Easy there. I can’t hear.”

Easy there does not work with Iggy. He dialed it up a notch.

“Billy?” Mr. Parsons said, also dialing it up, although only the scratchy part got louder. “Say again?”

Billy? We knew Billy, me and Bernie. He was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Parsons, a grown up son, unlike Charlie, and also unlike Charlie in other ways. An actual perp? I wasn’t sure about that, but he’d been involved in the stolen saguaro case, one of our worst. Bernie had ended up in the hospital, the most terrible thing that had ever happened to me. I glanced over to make sure he was all right, and there he was, eyes closed, chest rising and falling in a slow rhythm, the best chest rising and falling rhythm I’d ever seen, and a bit more of the check peeking out from his pocket. My Bernie!

“Slow down a little, please, Billy,” Mr. Parsons said. “I don’t understand.”

Was Mr. Parsons on the phone? When folks are on the phone I can often hear the voice of who they’re talking to, but not this time, not with Iggy. But I could see Billy in my mind: shoulder-length fair hair, vague sort of eyes, that snakehead tattoo on his cheek. Plus, he had lots of ink on his arms as well. You see that arm ink on dudes that had done time although usually their arms are bulkier than Billy’s. Northern State Correctional, if I remembered right, but not for the saguaro case. On the saguaro case we’d cut him a break and he’d split for Matamoros. Now you know all I know about Billy Parsons and possibly more.

“Refund?” Mr. Parsons said. That was followed by a long silence, if we’re leaving Iggy out of it, and then Mr. Parsons said, “Payroll? But I—”

After that came another long silence. I could feel Mr. Parsons listening very hard, could even sort of see him holding the phone real tight. Mr. Parsons was a nice old guy.

“Two thousand?” he said at last. “Two thousand even? Well, Billy, I—I don’t see why not. How do you want me to . . . yes, I’ve got a pencil. Hang on. Just need to . . . Okay. Shoot.” Then more silence, again except for Iggy. Yip yip yip, yip yip yip. He doesn’t even stop to breathe. You have to admire Iggy in some ways.

“Yup,” said Mr. Parsons. “Got it. Love you, son. Bye.”

***

“You know what we should do first thing?” Bernie said the next morning at breakfast. “Zip on down to the bank and make a deposit.” He waved the check in the air. Had a day ever gotten off to a better start? I was already at the door. Bernie laughed. “Got to shave first.” We went into the bathroom. Bernie lathered up and shaved his beautiful face. I helped by pacing back and forth. You might say, beautiful face? Hadn’t that nose been broken once or twice? Maybe, and Bernie had plans to get it fixed, but only after he was sure there won’t be more dust ups in his life. Which I hope is never. No dust ups would mean no more chances to see that sweet, sweet uppercut of his. It lands on perp chins with just a click, like it’s nothing at all, but then their eyes roll up. There’s all kinds of beauty. That’s one of my core beliefs.

We hurried out the door, me first, which is our system for going in and out of doors. It’s actually my door system with everyone and even if they don’t know at first they soon do. Humans are great at learning things, or certainly some things, a big subject I’d go into it now if it wasn’t for the fact that over at the Parsonses’ house a kind of a show got going.

All the world’s a stage, Bernie says, just one more example of his brilliance. First out of the door was Iggy in full flight, tongue hanging out the side of his mouth. That part didn’t last long, what with Iggy being on the leash. He came to a sudden stop in midair, his stubby legs still sprinting in a full speed blur. Then came the walker and finally Mr. Parsons, staggering a bit, trying to grip the leash and the walker with one hand and knot his tie with the other. Leash, tie, walker, Iggy, Mr. Parsons: for a moment they all seemed like parts to a single contraption, a contraption that was starting to tilt in a way that didn’t look promising. But by that time we were there, Bernie steadying Mr. Parsons and me grabbing Iggy by the scruff of the neck. Iggy didn’t like that. His eyes got wild and he tried to do who knows what to me with one of his tiny paws. You had to love Iggy and I do.

“You all right, Daniel?” Bernie said.

“Yes, thank you, Bernie. Well, no actually.”

“How about we go inside and sit down?”

“No time for that,” Mr. Parsons said. “I have to go to the bank.” “With Iggy?”

Mr. Parsons licked his lips, lips that were cracked and dry, and so was his tongue. “That wasn’t the original plan.”

“Then should we get the little fella back inside?”

“I’d appreciate that, Bernie.”

“Chet?” Bernie made a little motion with his chin. It’s not only his eyebrows that talk. The chin can jump in too, from time to time. There’s no one like Bernie, in case you didn’t know that already. I trotted into the house, dumped Iggy in the kitchen, and trotted back out. Bernie closed the door.

“Is Edna inside?” he said.

“Back in the hospital, I’m afraid.” Mr. Parsons fished in his pockets. “Oh, dear.”

“What’s wrong?” Bernie said.

“I don’t seem to have my car keys.”

“What bank do you use?”

“Valley Trust, the Rio Seco branch.”

“We’ll drive you,” Bernie said.

“Very nice of you, but—”

“Not a problem. We were actually headed there—it’s our bank, too.”

We got into the Beast. Normally the shotgun seat is mine, but in this case, I didn’t mind letting Mr. Parsons have it while I squeezed onto the little shelf in back. Well, I did mind, but I did it anyway. I can do things I don’t want to but not often, so please don’t ask.

We rode in silence for a while, Mr. Parsons breathing in shallow little breaths, his twisted fingers busy with the tie, but having trouble. Finally, he gave up and lowered his hands to his lap.

“Where’s our money?” he said.


Click below to pre-order your copy of A Farewell to Arfs, available August 6th, 2024!

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Excerpt Reveal: Devil’s Kitchen by Candice Fox

Devil's KitchenDevil’s Kitchen is a fast-paced, heart racing thriller from Candice Fox, “a bright new star in crime fiction.” (James Patterson)

The firefighting crew of Engine 99 has spent years rushing fearlessly into the hot zone of major fires across New York City. This tight-knit, four person unit has faced danger head-on, saving countless lives and stopping raging fires before they can cause major destruction.

They’ve also stolen millions from banks, jewelry stores, and art galleries. Under the cover of saving the city, these men have used their knowledge and specialist equipment to become the most successful heist crew on the East Coast.

Andy Nearland, the newest member of Engine 99, is good at keeping secrets. She’s been brought on to help with their biggest job ever—hitting New York’s largest private storage facility, an expensive treasure trove for the rich and famous.

She’s also an undercover operative, charged with bringing the crew to justice.

Keeping Andy’s true motives hidden proves more and more dangerous as tempers flare and loyalties are tested. And as the clock counts down to the crew’s most daring heist yet, her cover might just go up in flames…

Devil’s Kitchen will be available on June 4th, 2024. Please enjoy the following excerpt!


ANDY

“We know you’re a cop,” Matt said.

Andrea had been waiting for those words. All the way out to the forest, as they pulled off the highway and onto the thin dirt road. The unsteady headlights between Matt’s and Engo’s shoulders cast the trees in a strangely festive gold. The killing fields. In a way, Andy had been waiting for the words a lot longer than that. Every morning and every night for almost three months. The potential for them clinging to the lining of her stomach like an acid.

We know.

Now she was kneeling on the bare boards of a run-down portable building in the woods, the sound of boats on the Hudson nearby competing with the moan of skin-peeling wind. The corrugated-iron roof rattled above all their heads. The property—a massive, abandoned slab of woods that probably belonged to some absent billionaire who’d had ideas of building a house here once—was dead silent beyond the little shack. Andy knew she was in a black spot on the river’s otherwise glittering edges, so close to safety, yet so far away. Ben was breathing hard beside Andy, sweating into his firefighting bunker uniform. The reflective yellow stripes on his arms were trying to suck up any and all available light. There wasn’t much. Matt, Engo, and Jakey were faceless silhouettes crowding her and Ben in. Strange what a person will long for at the end. A sliver of light. To breathe the sour air unfettered, as Ben did. They’d taped her mouth.

Matt put his gun to Ben’s forehead, nudged it hard so that his head snapped back.

“You brought a fucking cop into the crew.”

“She’s not a cop! I swear to God, man!”

“I raised you,” Matt growled. “I found you in a hole and I dug you out and this is how you want to play me?”

“Matt, Matt, listen to me—”

“Benji, Benji, Benji.” Engo stepped forward, put his three-fingered hand on Ben’s shoulder. “We know. Okay? It’s over. You got a choice now, brother. You admit what you’ve done, and maybe we can talk about what happens next.”

“She’s not a cop!”

I’m not a fucking cop! Andy growled through the tape. Because it’s what she would say. Andrea “Andy” Nearland, her mask. She wouldn’t go down quiet. She would fight to the end.

Engo came over to her and tried to start in with the same faux pleasantries and soothings and bargains and she flopped hard on her hip, swung her legs around, and kicked out at his shins. He went down on his ass and she let off a string of obscenities behind the tape. Andy had always hated Engo. Andy the mask. And the real Her, too. Jake got between them. Little Jakey, who had until now been hovering in the corner of the dilapidated portable and gnawing on the end of an unlit cigarette, muttering worrisome nothings to himself.

“Get her back on her knees.”

Jakey came over and helped her up. His hand was clammy on her neck.

Don’t fucking touch me!

“Benji,” Big Matt said. “There’s an out here. I’m giving you an out. You gotta take it.”

“I don’t—”

“Tell us that you turned on us. That’s all you have to do, man.”

“She’s not a cop!”

“Just tell us!”

“Matt, please!”

“Tell us, or I’m gonna have to do this thing. I don’t want to do it. But I will.”

Andy looked at Ben. Met his frantic gaze. She saw it in his eyes, the scene playing out. Andy taking the bullet in the brain. Her body ragdolling on the floor. Ben next. All the vigor going out of him, like his plug had been yanked from the socket. Matt, Engo, and Jakey strapping firefighting helmets onto their dead bodies and lighting the place up around them. Driving back to the station car parked at Peanut Leap. They’d make the anonymous call to 911. Then respond to Dispatch when the job came over the radio.

Hey, Dispatch, we’re up here anyway. Engine 99 crew. We took the station car for a cruise and we have basic gear on us. We’ll head out there while the local guys get organized.

It would look like an accident. The crew had taken the station car out for a spin, parked to watch the lights on the river and sink beers, and picked up a run-of-the-mill spot-fire call. They’d rolled up to the property, spotted the portable that had probably served as a construction-site office once, starting to smoke out. Ben and Andy had taken the spare gear from the back of the car and rushed in ahead of Matt and the rest of the crew, no idea that the blazing building was full of gas bottles and jerry cans that some local cuckoo had been hoarding.

Kaboom.

A tragedy.

Oh, there’d be an inquiry, of course. Wrists would be slapped—about the rec run with the station car, the beers, the half-cocked entry. There would be whispers, too. Especially after what happened to Titus.

But then everybody would cry and forget about it.

Matt and his crew did that: they made people forget.

Andy watched Ben weigh his loyalties. His crew, against the cop he’d brought in to destroy them.

“I don’t want to do this, Ben,” Matt said. The huge man’s voice was strained. He shifted his grip on the gun. “Just tell us the truth.”

The wind howled around the shack and the boats clanged on the river and Little Jakey started to cry.

THREE MONTHS EARLIER

BEN

Fire is loud. It calls to people. Probably had been doing that since the dawn of time, Ben guessed. When it was old enough, when it had evolved through its hissing and creeping and licking phase and was a good-sized beast learning to roar—that’s when they came. Stood. Watched. Felt the heat on their cheeks and felt alive and part of something, or some hippie shit like that.

By the time Ben’s boots landed on the wet sidewalk of West Thirty-Seventh Street there were huddles of people in darkened doorways across the street and gawkers hanging out of apartment windows above them. The pinprick white lights of phone cameras. He hardly noticed, was hauling and dumping gear onto the concrete, his mind tangled up with the next eighteen steps. Engo had a cigar clamped between his jaws and was drenched in sweat, started stretching the line.

“This is a mistake,” Ben told Matt as the chief jumped down from the engine. The flashing lights were making Matt’s angry red neck stubble a sickly purple.

“It’ll be fine.”

“A fucking fabric store?” Ben ripped open the hatch on the side of the engine and started grabbing tools fast and efficiently. A looter in a floodlands Target. “It’s a tinderbox.”

“The building is right on our path. It was the best way in.”

Clouds of singed nylon were pouring out of the building above them. “It’ll go up. And Engo and Jakey won’t be able to—”

“Stop bitching, Benji.”

Ben stopped bitching, because you didn’t bitch too long at Matt. By now, two windows on the third floor of the fabric store had blown out and the crowd in the street had doubled. The windows were glowing up there, not just the ones that were blown. Ben had been doing this ten years, longer. The window glow told him the fire was big enough that it was probably into the foundations.

He tanked up, slapped on his helmet, shouldered a gear bag, and went in. Engo was in front, of course, his chin up, the hose hanging over his arm like a great limp dick. A guy walking into a fancy museum. Engo made a show of marching into fires like that, like it was all routine. Like nothing was a big deal. What happened? Granny left the iron on? Ben had seen the guy step over bodies as if they were kinks in a rug. His tank was unhooked because smoke worried him the way water worried fish.

Ben dropped his hose, split from Jakey and Engo, and went down the stairs while they went up toward the fire. Things passed before him, curiosities his mind would pick over later as he tried to sleep. Walls of buttons in a thousand shapes and colors. Giant golden scissors. Cutting tools and rulers. There were stacks of leather lying folded on shelves, colors he hadn’t imagined possible. He was glad they’d decided to set the spark device that ignited the fire on the third floor. It was all fur and feathers on the basement level—this part of the store was going to vaporize when it caught.

Ben dropped his bag and helmet. The bag was so heavy with tools it shook the floor, made a jar of pins jump off the nearby cutting counter. He took a knife from his belt, slit a square in the carpet, raked it back, and exposed the boards. Lifting up six floorboards with a Halligan tool took fifteen seconds. He dropped his gear bag down onto the bare earth below the building and slipped in after it, landing right on top of the concrete manhole. He didn’t have a pit lid lifter but the Halligan did the job, slid nicely into the iron handle of the forty-pound manhole cover. He adjusted his mask, worked his jaw to make sure it was sealed tight before he popped open the cover and stepped down into the blackness.

Something about being surrounded by toxic gas makes a guy breathe harder. He’d thought about that for the first time as he hauled bodies for overworked paramedics in COVID times, then while putting out car fires while the NYPD doused the streets in pepper spray during the George Floyd days. It had occurred to him again now in the dark, working his way along the disused, hand-bricked tunnel beneath West Thirty-Seventh Street, he thought of the hydrogen sulfide swirling in the air around him, built up from decades of moss and sewage and whateverthehell percolating in the old, sealed subway access. It made him suck on the oxygen like a hungry baby at the tit.

He didn’t use the flashlight down here. Engo had tried to argue that H2S wasn’t that flammable, and an LED didn’t spark like that anyway, but Ben wasn’t going to turn that corner of New York into Pompeii because he didn’t like the dark. He had about eleven minutes to get where he was going, do the job, and get back again. The blindness would make the timing tight. The radio crackling in his ear canal with the voices of the crew behind him made him twitchy.

“Engo, you on-site?”

“Yeah, boss. We got a nice little campfire here.”

“Ben?”

“Checking for a secondary ignition site,” Ben lied. His voice felt trapped behind the mask.

“We better black out the whole block,” Matt said. “We don’t know who shares a distributor.”

Ben fast-walked, imagining Matt on the street, ordering the backup crews, who were probably already arriving from Ladder 98, to shut down the power to the whole Garment District. The guys from 97 and 98 would probably think that was over the top, that blacking out the singular block would do. But Matt needed to make sure that not only the fabric store was powered off, but also the jewelry store on West Thirty-Fifth, where Ben was heading.

Left, right, left, he reminded himself. Just like the marching call. He turned the last corner, walked for three minutes, his gloved fingers trailing the wall, all sorts of landscapes passing under his boots, most of them wet and squelching. He found the steppers he was looking for—rusty iron rungs concreted into the wall—dropped his gear bag, and went up. His arms were shaking as he lifted the second manhole cover. Nerves.

It had been a year or more since they’d done a high-end job like this, something that required blueprints to be memorized and on-site scouting in the lead-up. A dry spell ended. Ben didn’t like these kinds of jobs; scores they needed.

Don’t rob when you’re broke. That was a mantra he’d always believed in. Desperation makes guys stupid, dissolves trust. Because at the end of the day, did Ben really know for sure that Matt had gotten the best fence for this take? Someone who could move what they stole tonight without making ripples? Or had Matt settled, because the crew chief had three ex-wives with their hands out and a bun in the oven with baby mama number four? And did Ben really know for sure that Jakey had double-checked on all the construction sites in the Garment District for late-night workers who might be in the tunnels? Did Jakey know the local police response times? Or was the kid into the horses again? Was he hocking old PlayStation games to fend off loan sharks?

Ben realized, as he hauled his gear up through the manhole and into the two-foot-tall crawl space beneath an apartment building on Thirty-Fifth, that he didn’t trust his own crew on a job anymore.

And that was bad.

But there were worse kinds of mistrust.

There was the one that had made him write the letter to the detective.

Ben lifted the manhole cover back into place, raked his oxygen mask off, and lay panting on the compacted dirt floor. The crawl space was as black as the tunnel, but years of working in roof cavities and basements and tunnels and collapsed buildings had given Ben the ability to maneuver in the dark like a night creature. He found the flashlight on his belt, clicked it on, and got his bearings. Wide, raw-cut floor beams stretched into the nothingness just inches above where he lay. They’d probably been built when they still called this place the Devil’s Arcade, and it was an army of prostitutes and bootleggers, and not fancy types shopping for diamonds, stamping over them. Ben started crawling west, found a gap in the brick foundations that separated one building from another, and kept on. A hundred yards from the manhole, three buildings over, the subsurface power-distribution board belonging to the jewelry store was just where he expected it to be, bolted to a brick strut.

He pulled wire cutters and a charge tester and the bug from a vest strapped under his turnout coat, started working the board to insert the bug. Sweat ran into his eyes. His mind kept trying to wander away from what his fingers were doing and drift two blocks over to the fabric store, to twenty-three-year-old Jakey, shoulder-to-shoulder with an eight-fingered, potbellied psychopath who wanted to die in a blaze of glory. The two of them battling a decidedly glorious blaze. The men trying to let the magnificent thing eat through enough cotton and satin and jersey and whatever else to give Ben the time he needed to do what he had to do; but not so long it would become a monster and turn and eat them, too.

Ben finished installing the bug in the jewelry store’s security system and was shifting around to crawl back to his gear bag and tank and the manhole three buildings away when he heard a woman’s voice.

“Hello?”

Ben froze. Instinct made him flatten on the dirt like a threatened lizard. His toes were curled in his boots. His eyes bulged and his lungs expelled all the air that was in them. He heard the floorboards somewhere to the right of where he lay creak with footsteps.

The radio in his ear crackled.

“Engo and Jakey, you got it in hand?”

“Yep. Yep. We got it.”

“It don’t look like it from here.”

“I said we got it.”

“Ben, give me an ETA. They need you up there.”

Ben didn’t breathe. Whoever was in the jewelry store above him walked across the boards right over his head. He heard a muffled snap, and then, even through the layers of carpet on the boards above him, he saw the glow of a light.

“Fuuuuuuck,” he mouthed.

“Hello?”

“Ben, give me a sitrep,” Matt insisted.

He didn’t speak. Slowly, achingly, he lifted his hand from the dirt and reached for the radio on his shoulder. He clicked the transmit button twice, the code for trouble.

There was a long pause. Ben counted his breaths. The counting made him think of time. Seconds ticking off. With a recognition so filled with dread it sent a bolt of pain through his spine, he remembered the PASS alarm on his belt and reached down and shook the safety device so it wouldn’t sound a pealing alarm at his immobility. Sweat was dripping off his eyelashes.

“Two for hold, three for abort,” Matt finally said. Ben could hear the tightness in his chief’s voice. He clicked the radio twice.

Another three minutes. Ben counted them. The woman in the jewelry store moved some stuff around, opened and closed a cabinet.

“Ladder 98 crew are comin’ up to join you, Engo,” Matt said. Ben could hear the quiet fury in his voice now.

“Tell those pricks we got it!”

“I’m telling you to haul ass!” Matt said. “They’re comin’!”

Ben swore under his breath. It probably sounded to anyone monitoring the radios that Matt had been talking to Engo, encouraging him to get the fire under control before another crew came in and claimed the knockdown of the fire. But Ben heard the real message. Matt was telling him to haul ass out from under the jewelry store and back to the fire before the guys from 98 geared up and entered the site, climbed to the second floor, and asked where the hell Engine 99’s third guy was.

Or worse, they came looking for him. In the basement, maybe, where he’d opened up the hole in the floor to access the tunnel.

The light clicked off above him. Ben guessed whoever was in the store had decided the sound she heard wasn’t a person. He counted off ten breaths, then slithered for his life back to the manhole, tanked up, and popped the cover and dropped his gear into the shaft.

He was sprinting so hard down the home stretch his fingers almost missed the steppers on the wall under the fabric store. He grabbed on and yanked himself to a stop, almost slipped in the toxic sludge. Ben climbed to the top of the ladder, shouldered open the manhole, got out and threw it back into place, then heaved himself up through the hole he’d cut in the floor. His body was screaming at him to just lie there, take a minute. Three-quarters of his oxygen tank was gone just from his own panicked breathing. The air in the mask tasted rubbery and thick. Soon it would start shuddering on his face, a sign he was about to max out. He rolled over instead, got up, and dragged a heap of furs to the edge of the hole. He lit them with a cigarette lighter and bolted up the stairs.

He arrived in the foyer as the Ladder 98 guys were marching up the stairs to the second floor. Ben came up behind them. He couldn’t think what else to do. A guy he didn’t recognize whirled around on him.

“Da fuck?”

“We got a secondary ignition site in the basement,” Ben said. The Ladder 98 guys looked at each other for a moment, probably trying to decipher how the hell a secondary fire could start on the basement level of the building when the main fire was on the third floor. And what the hell Ben was doing down there looking for a secondary site before his own crew had taken hold of the primary site. But they shook it off. They probably guessed Engo was behind the split in manpower, and they’d all seen stranger things happen with ignition sites. Fires creeping through walls and popping up in two apartments on opposite sides of the same building. Fires reigniting two weeks after they were put out. Fire had no rules. It was the only magic left in the world.

“Go to your crew,” the 98 guy said. “We’ll take the basement.”

Ben watched them go. He could see flames licking up the walls of the basement stairwell. Just as he’d predicted, the basement was already just a room full of ash and memories.

***

It was 4 A.M. and they were in the squad room before anybody could talk about it. Matt’s crew had a room of their own, mainly because nobody from the other crews could stand the idea of Matt coming in and sitting down to watch the TV and them having to sit there with him like there was a full-size lion lounging on the end of the couch. Ben and the guys, they all stank. Ash and sweat and monoammonium phosphate. Engo was in his armchair nursing his paunch, a wet basketball under his T-shirt. Matt was throwing shit around in the kitchenette. Jakey stood by the door, wincing like he was expecting to be the next thing picked up and hurled against the wall.

“Who the fuck was she?” Matt bellowed.

“How do I know?” Ben shrugged. “Hard to make her out through the floorboards.”

“It was your job to watch the ins and outs.” Matt turned and stabbed a sausage-sized finger at Engo. “You said nobody would be there.”

“So somebody pulled an all-nighter,” Engo said. “What do you want from me? I watched the store for two months. Nobody ever stayed past nine.”

Did you watch the store?” Ben piled on. “Or did you sit in your car eating burgers and jerking off?”

“This guy.” Engo shook his head sadly at Ben.

“’Member that time you landed that nineteen-year-old on Snapchat? You let those security guards creep up on us at the Atrium.”

Engo sat grinning at him.

“What if we’d put you on watch duty at the fabric store instead of the jewelry store? Huh?” Ben asked. “What if someone pulled an all-nighter there, and you didn’t notice them? We could have had a civilian on the second floor when the fire started. Or in the basement, when I was cutting through the goddamn floor.”

“You’re really mad, huh?”

Ben held his head.

“Would it help you feel better if you took a swing at me, babycakes?” Engo tapped his stubbled chin. “Because you’re welcome to try.”

“Jesus Christ.”

“Yeah. That’s what I thought.”

“We can’t go on with this job.” Ben’s hair was still plastered to his skull with sweat. He thought about giving up and going home to bed. He made one last appeal to Matt. “The 98s saw that I was split off from my crew. They’ll know something was up. They’re going to wonder why I went looking for a second site when the primary site was getting so out of control.”

“It was never out of control,” Engo said.

“If I hadn’t got back when I did, you and Jakey would be sandwich meat between the third and fourth floors of that place right now.”

“You’re delusional.”

“It was into the foundations!”

“No it wasn’t.”

“Maybe we should think about it,” Jakey piped up, already glowing red in the neck and cheeks like a parakeet. “Because there was, uh … You know. There was the radio call, too. ‘Hold or abort.’ That’ll be on the record. That’s not good.”

“We’re not pulling the pin on this job,” Matt finally said. “We’re too deep.”

“We’ve been deeper before and walked away,” Ben reasoned.

No one spoke.

“The woman. What if she figures the noises under the carpet were rats?” Ben asked. “Maybe she sends a pest guy down there.”

Matt was white-knuckling the kitchen sink, staring out the window at the training yard. “Some dumbass rat guy’s not going to know anybody else was down there messing with the electrics. He’ll be looking for rats, not bugs.”

“‘Rats, not bugs,’” Engo laughed. “That’s funny.”

“What if she doesn’t figure it’s rats,” Ben said. “We hit the jewelry store in three weeks, and she remembers the noises she heard under the floor. Reads about the fabric-store fire in the papers. Sees it was the same night she heard the noises.”

“So we wait a month,” Matt said.

“We can’t go ahead,” Ben insisted. “A job this size has got to be perfec—”

“I said we’re doing it!” Matt grabbed a mug off the counter, gripped its rim and handle and sides like a baseball. Like a grenade. “You got a hearing problem I don’t know about, Benji?”

He didn’t answer. No one did.

In the end, Ben just shrugged, because he was tired and he didn’t need a coffee mug to the temple right then.

And what did he care, anyway? They were all going to jail, whether it was a month from now or sooner.

***

He was staring into his plate of eggs at Jimmy’s when she came in. Ben’s hands were still shaking. Had been all morning. But he couldn’t figure out if it was last night’s near-miss under the jewelry store or The Silence, as he’d come to think of it. The great big Nothing-At-All that had happened since he’d left a handwritten letter on the windshield of a car belonging to a homicide detective from the South Bronx.

Eighteen days. Not a phone call. Not an email. Not a sound.

He poked his eggs with his fork and listened without really listening to the people bustling in and out of the diner, their moaning about the heat. A Ferris wheel of possibilities was turning in his head, each carriage a different explanation for why nothing had happened since the letter. Maybe the guy had figured it was a prank. Maybe the wind had swept the envelope off his car. Maybe his girlfriend and her kid going missing had fucked Ben’s brain up so bad that he’d imagined the whole damn thing—choosing the detective, writing the letter, putting it on his car. He’d been so jacked, walking there and placing the envelope under the windshield wiper, that he barely remembered doing it.

Maybe it was much worse than any of those things.

Maybe Engo or Jakey or Matt had followed him the day he left the letter. Maybe they’d taken it off the windshield. Read it.

Maybe they knew.

His fork was doing Morse code on the edge of his plate. One of Jimmy’s guys banged a fry basket into the hot oil and the fork leaped clean out of Ben’s hand. He had to stop thinking about it. He looked at Jimmy’s terrible clumsy handwriting on the greasy whiteboards above the fry station and picked off items and tried to think about them instead. About salad. About burgers. About soup.

Ben stared at his eggs.

The woman had to say his name a couple of times before he heard her.

“Benjamin Haig?”

He looked over. The woman was sitting on the stool next to his, her hand on the countertop near a steaming coffee. He had no idea how long she’d been sitting there, got the feeling that it might have been a while. Her bobbed blond hair was slicked behind her ears and she was watching him through navy-blue reading glasses. His rattled brain took down some things about her. She was beautiful. She was expensively dressed. She was a stranger. That was all he got.

When the woman knew she had his attention, she unfolded the newspaper on the counter in front of her and set about scanning the headlines.

“I’m here about the letter,” she said.


Click below to pre-order your copy of Devil’s Kitchen, available June 4th, 2024!

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Forge’s May eBook Deals!

April showers bring May’s flowering of eBook deals! Read below to check out what Forge has blooming on sale during this upcoming month!


The Last Beekeeper by Julie Carrick Dalton

The Last Beekeeper

Julie Carrick Dalton’s The Last Beekeeper is a celebration of found family, an exploration of truth versus power, and the triumph of hope in the face of despair. It is a meditation on forgiveness and redemption and a reminder to cherish the beauty that still exists in this fragile world.

On sale for $2.99!

The Last Dreamwalker by Rita Woods

The Last Dreamwalker

From Hurston/Wright Legacy Award-winning author Rita Woods, The Last Dreamwalker tells the story of two women, separated by nearly two centuries yet inextricably linked by the Gullah-Geechee Islands off the coast of South Carolina—and their connection to a mysterious and extraordinary gift passed from generation to generation.

On sale for $2.99!

Fire With Fire by Candice Fox

Fire with Fire

Candice Fox’s Fire with Fire is a non-stop, gripping thriller from “a bright new star in crime fiction.” (James Patterson)

A pair of desperate parents. A man on the run. A rookie cop.
Four people with everything on the line.
What will be left in the ashes of the next 24 hours?

On sale for $2.99!

A Good Family by Matt Goldman

A Good Family

New York Times bestselling author and Emmy Award-winner Matt Goldman’s A Good Family is a gripping, emotional thrill ride about the secrets hidden underneath a picture-perfect neighborhood.

On sale for $2.99!

Wake of War by Zac Topping

Wake of War

Zac Topping’s breathtaking near-future thriller, Wake of War, is a timely account of the lengths those with power will go to preserve it, and the determination of those they exploit to win back their freedom.

On sale for $2.99!

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Excerpt Reveal: Still Waters by Matt Goldman

Still WatersIf you’re reading this email, I am dead. I know this will sound strange, but someone has been trying to kill me.

Liv and Gabe Ahlstrom are estranged siblings who haven’t seen each other in years, but that’s about to change when they receive a rare call from their older brother’s wife. “Mack is dead,” she says. “He died of a seizure.” Five minutes after they hang up, Liv and Gabe each receive a scheduled email from their dead brother, claiming that he was murdered.

The siblings return to their family run resort in the Northwoods of Minnesota to investigate Mack’s claims, but Leech Lake has more in store for them than either could imagine. Drawn into a tangled web of lies and betrayal that spans decades, they put their lives on the line to unravel the truth about their brother, their parents, themselves, and the small town in which they grew up. After all, no one can keep a secret in a small town, but someone in Leech Lake is willing to kill for the truth to stay buried.

New York Times bestselling and Emmy award-winning author Matt Goldman returns with a gripping, emotional thrill ride in this compelling story on grief and uncovering the past before it’s too late.

Still Waters will be available on May 21st, 2024. Please enjoy the following excerpt!


CHAPTER ONE

The Ahlstrom twins were not really twins. They were Irish twins, though they weren’t Irish either. But they were siblings and estranged ones at that. Odd because they seemed to get along with everyone else. Friends and coworkers had accused each sibling of being Minnesota Nice. So nice they might as well have been Canadian.

Liv and Gabe Ahlstrom had not spoken to each other in over a year when Liv picked up her phone and called her brother, who was not even a favorite in her contacts. Her florist was. The wine store down the street was. Even her dentist was. If your dentist is a favorite but your brother isn’t, well, that’s saying something. Months had passed since Liv had last thought of Gabe. Years had passed since she’d last seen him. For Liv, growing up with Gabe in northern Minnesota felt like something that had happened in a previous life, a life Liv had no desire to revisit.

“Hello?” said Gabe.

“Hi,” said Liv. “Listen, I have some bad news. Mack is dead.” She said the words out loud for the first time. They left her mouth in a rapid-fire, matter-of-fact tone. Liv felt empty and expected grief to fill the void, but grief did not come. She had hardly known her older brother. She did, however, know her slightly younger brother, Gabe, all too well.

“What?” said Gabe. “What do you mean Mack is dead? What are you talking about?”

Liv stood in the bay window of her townhouse looking down on Bedford Street. Spring splashed color on the West Village. Tulips
bloomed in sidewalk planters. Green buds tipped tree branches. The dark overcoats and boots of winter had been closeted in favor of pastel jackets, athletic wear, and sneakers. Liv kept her eyes on the street. She needed a distraction when talking to Gabe: her laptop, the TV, gazing down on passersby in lower Manhattan. Something. Anything. Talking to Gabe made her anxious, and a diversion softened the edge.

“I just got off the phone with Diana,” said Liv. “Mack had a seizure at the office yesterday. They rushed him to the hospital but he never regained consciousness. They took him off life support and he died this morning.” Liv caught her reflection in the window. She was thirty-eight years old and finally looked like the grown-up she’d always pretended to be. Organized. Driven. Focused. Responsible. There was a girl in there somewhere who Liv didn’t allow to have any fun. The pressure she put on herself had crinkled the corners around her eyes and lined her forehead.

“My God,” said Gabe. “Mack was only fifty. Damnit. A seizure? How did that happen? He’d never had a seizure before, had he?” The sad truth was that neither Liv nor Gabe knew whether or not their older brother had ever had a seizure. They were as distant from him as they were from each other.

Liv listened for emotion in Gabe’s voice but heard none. At least they had that in common. Maybe they were both in shock. Maybe
they both had hearts as cold as a northern Minnesota winter. Or maybe they were both healthy, well-adjusted, compassionate human beings except when it came to family. No shame in that. It’s why we have self-help books and moving boxes. Liv turned away from the window and sat on the couch next to her laptop. She scrolled through Facebook and said, “Diana told me Mack had been acting strange lately.”

“What does that mean?” said Gabe. “Strange how?”

“She said Mack seemed anxious. Nervous. Couldn’t sleep. Weird, right? And that he talked about us a lot.”

“That is strange,” said Gabe. “Mack wanted nothing to do with us. How did Diana sound?”

“Destroyed,” said Liv. “Totally destroyed. Her husband died.”

So much distance lay between Liv and Gabe: three thousand miles, three time zones, and three decades of disharmony. They had never liked one another, at least that’s how Liv remembered it. But that couldn’t have been completely true. Their brother Mack was half a generation older and rarely around. Their parents were busy running the family resort, leaving Liv and Gabe to fend for themselves—Liv and Gabe must have found a way to get along at least some of the time. And yet, after graduating high school in consecutive years, they each moved away from northern Minnesota. Liv went east. Gabe went west. They’d seen each other only a handful of times since. A handful of times in the past twenty years.

Gabe said, “When’s the funeral?”

“Thursday,” said Liv.

A short pause, then, “I wonder why Diana called you.”

Here we go, thought Liv. Gabe just learned his brother died and a minute later he’s wondering why Gabe’s widow had called Liv
first and not him. This was where Liv had to be careful. She’d never put Gabe down for not going to college. She’d never poohpoohed his dream of being a rock star. She’d never denigrated his parade of odd jobs while he chased that dream. Liv had never boasted about her accomplishments. And yet Gabe had a hair-trigger inferiority complex. “I don’t know,” Liv said. “She had to call one of us first.”

“I should give Diana a ring,” said Gabe.

“Yeah,” said Liv. “You should. She’d appreciate it.”

“Are you going to the funeral?”

“Of course,” said Liv. “I mean, we have to, right? Doesn’t matter if we hardly ever saw Mack. He’s our brother. We’re the closest
blood relatives he has.”

Gabe hesitated then said, “Do airlines still have discounts for a death in the family?”

Money. Another topic where Liv had to be careful. Liv and Gabe weren’t friends in real life but they were on Facebook, which allowed her to peek into his world, if only voyeuristically. In the photos he’d posted, he never wore anything nicer than jeans and a T-shirt. His apartment appeared small and modest. His travels seemed limited to day trips in Southern California—Mount Baldy, Malibu, San Diego. Liv was obviously doing a lot better than Gabe when it came to finances.

“Gabe, don’t sweat it,” said Liv. “I have tons of miles. They’re going to expire soon. I can get your ticket.”

“Really?”

No, not really. Last year Liv cashed in 300,000 miles to fly Cooper and herself to Paris first class. “Yeah,” lied Liv. “Use ’em or lose ’em. I can get your hotel, too.”

“Thanks,” said Gabe. “Appreciate it.”

“Yeah-yeah, of course.” Liv heard her husband’s footsteps on the narrow wooden staircase leading up to the third floor. Their townhouse was thirty feet deep and twenty feet wide and two hundred years old and, Liv often thought, the foundation of their relationship. They’d lucked into Bedford Street in their mid-twenties. They’d pooled every resource they had and then some to buy it. Liv couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.

She was about to call out to her husband when her laptop dinged. She looked at her screen and saw the notification. It was an email from Mack Ahlstrom. Mack Ahlstrom, her and Gabe’s older brother. Their older brother who had died hours ago. Liv’s throat went dry. She manipulated the pointer on her screen to hover over the email. Her fingers trembled. She took a deep breath . . . and clicked on it.


Click below to pre-order your copy of Still Waters, coming May 21st 2024!

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