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Excerpt for HIGH STAKES

Harlequin
July 2008, ISBN: 0373772742

Genre: Contemporary Suspense

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From GYPSY WIND (the first book in HIGH STAKES)

The small dark room was airless and full of the familiar odors of saddle soap, well-oiled leather, and stale coffee. It began to sway eerily, as if the floorboards were buckling. Becca knew that her knees were beginning to give way, but she couldn't steady herself and she had to clutch the corner of the desk in order to stay on her unsteady feet. Her throat was desert dry, her heart pounding with dread as she stared in horror at the small television set across the room. The delft blue coffee cup slipped from her fingers to splinter into a dozen pieces. A pool of murky brown coffee began to stain the weathered floorboards, but Becca didn't notice.

No!" she cried aloud, though no one else was in the room. Her free hand flew to the base of her throat. "Dear God, no," she moaned. Tears threatened to pool in her eyes and she leaned more heavily against the desk, brushing against a stack of paperwork which slid noiselessly to the floor. Becca's green eyes never left the black-and-white image on the television but fastened fearfully on the self-assured newscaster who was tonelessly recounting the untimely death of oil baron Jason Chambers.

Flashes of secret memories flitted through Becca's mind as she listened in numbed silence to the even-featured anchor-man. Her oval face paled in fear and apprehension and she felt a very small, very vital part of her past begin to wither and die. As the reporter reconstructed the series of events which had led to the fatal crash, Becca vainly attempted to get a grip on herself. It was impossible. Dry wasted tears, full of the anguish of six lost years, burned at the back of her throat and her breath became as shallow and rapid as her heartbeat. "No!" She groaned desperately. "It can't be!" Her small fist clenched with the turmoil of emotions and thudded hollowly against the top of the desk.

Hurried footsteps pounded on the wooden stairs, but Becca didn't notice. She couldn't take her eyes off the screen. The door to the tiny room was thrust open to bang heavily against the wall, and a man of medium height, his face twisted in concern, rushed into the office.

"What the hell?" he asked as he noticed the defeated slump of Becca's shoulders and the stricken, near-dead look in her round eyes. She didn't move. It was as if she hadn't heard his entrance. "Becca?" he called softly, and frowned with worry when she didn't immediately respond. He took in the scene before him and wondered about the broken cup and the brown coffee which was running over a scattered pile of legal documents on the floor. Still Becca's fearful eyes remained glued to the television set. "Becca," Dean repeated, more sharply.

"What the hell's going on here?

Dean, ashen, said, "I was on my way up here when I heard you scream—"

Becca cut him off by raising her arm and opening her palm to silence him. Taken aback at his sister's strange behavior, Dean turned his attention to the television for the first time since entering the room. The small black-and-white set was tuned into the news and the story which held his sister mutely transfixed was about some light plane crash in the Southern Oregon Cascades. No big deal, Dean thought to himself. It happened all the time; a careless pilot got caught in bad weather and went down in the mountains. So what? Dean shifted from one foot to the other and searched Becca's stricken white face, searching for a clue to her odd actions. What was happening here? Becca wasn't one to overreact. If anything, Dean considered his younger sister too even-tempered for her own good. A real cool lady. Becca's poise rarely escaped her, but it sure as hell was gone today.

While still attempting to piece together Becca's strange reaction, Dean leaned over to pick up some of the forgotten legal documents. It was then that the weight of the news story struck him: Only one man could break his sister's cool, self-assured composure, and that man, if given the chance, could cruelly twist Becca's heart to the breaking point. It had happened once before. It could happen again, and this time it would be much worse; this time that man had the power to destroy everything Dean had worked toward for six long years.

Silently Dean's thin lips drew downward and his icy blue eyes slid to the screen to confirm his worst fears. He waited while the sweat collected on his palms. A faded photograph of Jason Chambers was flashed onto the screen and Dean's pulse began to jump. It was true! Jason Chambers, head of one of the largest oil companies in the western United States, was dead. Dean swallowed back the bile collecting in the back of his throat.

The news of Jason Chambers' death didn't fully explain Becca's outburst. Dean wiped his hands on his jeans before straightening and then listened to the conclusion of the report. He hoped that the reporter would answer the one burning question in his mind—perhaps there was still a way out of his own dilemma. He was disappointed; the question remained unanswered. Dean's jaw tightened anxiously. When the news turned to the political scene, Dean turned the set off.

Becca slumped into the worn couch near the desk and tears began to run down her soft cheeks. She wiped them hurriedly aside as the shock of the newscast began to wear off and the reality of the situation took hold of her. Her hand, which had been raised protectively over her breasts, slowly lowered.

"Are you all right?" Dean asked, his voice harsh despite his concern. He poured a fresh cup of coffee and handed her the mug.

"I… I think so…" Becca nodded slowly, but she had to catch her trembling lower lip between her teeth. She accepted the warm mug and let its heat radiate some warmth into her hands. Though the temperature in the stifling office had to be well over eighty degrees, Becca felt chilled to the bone.

The silence in the room was awkward. Dean shifted his weight uncomfortably. He was angry, but he didn't really know whom to blame. It was obvious that Becca was caught in the web of memories of her past, memories of Brig Chambers and his tragic horse.

Dean's lips pursed into a thin line as he paced restlessly in front of the desk while Becca stared vacantly at the floor. A silent oath aimed at the man who had caused his sister so much pain entered his mind. Brig Chambers could ruin everything! Dean coughed when he leaned against the windowsill and looked across the spreading acres of Starlight Breeding Farm. Brig Chambers, if he was still alive, had the power to take it all away!

Dean asked the one question hanging between his sister and himself. "Was there anyone with Jason Chambers in that plane?"

Becca closed her eyes as if to shield herself from the doubts in her mind. "I don't know," she whispered raggedly.

Dean frowned and rubbed his hands over his bare forearms. He pushed his straw Stetson back on his head, and his reddish eyebrows drew together. His blue eyes seemed almost condemning. "What did the reporter say?"

"Nothing…the accident had only happened a couple of hours ago. No one seemed to be sure exactly what caused the crash…or who was in the plane. The reporter didn't seem to know too much." Becca moved her head slowly from side to side, as if to erase her steadily mounting fear.

"The station didn't know who was in the plane?" Dean was skeptical.

"Not yet," she replied grimly.

Dean ran a hand over his unshaven cheek and pressed on.

"But surely someone at Chambers Oil would know."

Becca sagged even deeper into the cracked leather cushions and toyed with her single, honey-colored braid. It was difficult to keep her mind on her brother's questions when thoughts of Brig continued to assail her. "The reporter said that there was a rumor suggesting that Jason might have had a couple of passengers with him," Becca admitted in a rough whisper. Hadn't Dean heard the story? Why was he pressuring her?

"Who?" Dean demanded. His blue eyes gleamed in interest.

Becca shrugged and fought against the dread which was making her feel cold and strangely alone. "No one seems to know for sure. I told you it's only speculation that anyone is with Jason…no one at Chambers Oil is talking."

"I'll bet not," Dean muttered, unable to hide the edge of sarcasm in his words. His eyes turned frigid.

"Maybe they just don't know."

"Sure, Becca," he mocked. "You of all people know better than that. If Chambers Oil isn't talking, there's a good reason. You can count on it."

"What do you mean?"

Dean looked his sister squarely in the eyes and the bitterness she saw in his cold gaze made her shudder. His scowl deepened. "What I mean is that we, you and I, don't know if Brig Chambers is alive or dead!

Becca drew in a long, steadying breath as she met Dean's uncompromising stare. Her brother's harsh words had brought her deepest fear out into the open and she had to press her nails into her palms in order to face what might be the cruel truth. He can't be dead, she thought wildly, grasping at any glimmer of hope, but fear crawled steadily through her body, making her blood run cold and wrenching her heart so savagely that it seemed to skip a beat in desperation.

She wouldn't allow the small gleam of hope within her to die. "I think that if Brig had been on the plane, the television station would have known about it."

"How?"

"From the oil company, I guess."

"But they're not talking. Remember?"

"I…just don't think that Brig was on the plane." Why didn't she sound convincing?

"But you're not sure, are you?"

"Oh God, Dean," she whispered into her clasped hands.

"I'm not sure of anything right now!" As quickly as her words came out, she regretted them. "I'm sorry… I didn't mean to snap at you. It's not your fault," she confessed wearily. "It's all so confusing." Silent tears once again ran down the elegant slopes of her cheeks.

"What are we going to do?" Dean asked, not moving from his haphazard position against the windowsill. Anxious lines of worry creased his tanned brow.

"I don't know," Becca admitted, as she faced a tragedy she had never before considered. Was it possible? Could Brig really be dead? Her entire body was shaking as she drew her booted feet onto the edge of the couch and tucked her knees under her chin. As her forehead lowered, she closed her eyes to comfort herself. No matter what had happened, she vowed silently to herself that she would find a way to cope with it.

Dean watched his sister until the anger which had been simmering within him began to boil. His fist crashed into the windowsill in his frustration. "I told you that we should never have gone back to Old man Chambers," he rebuked scornfully. "It was a mistake from the beginning to get involved with that family all over again. Look what a mess were in!"

From DEVIL'S GAMBIT (The second book in HIGH STAKES)

Tiffany heard the back door creak open and then shut with a bone-rattled thing. It's over she thought and fought against the tears of despair that threatened her eyes.

Hoping to appear as calm as was possible under the circumstances, she set her pen on the letter she had been writing and placed her elbows on the desk. Cold dread slowly crept up her spine.

Mac's brick, familiar footsteps slowed a bit as he approached the den, and involuntarily Tiffany's spine stiffened as she braced herself for the news. Mac paused into he doorway. Tonight he appeared older than his sixty-seven years. His plaid shirt was rumpled and the lines near his sharp eyes were deeper than usual.

Tiffany knew what he was going to say before Mac had a chance to deliver his somber message.

"He didn't make it, did he?" she asked as her slate-blue eyes held those of the weathered ex-jockey.

There was a terse shake of Mac's head. His lips tightened over his teeth and he removed his worn hat. "He was a good lookin' colt, that one."

"They all were," Tiffany muttered, seemingly to herself. "Every last one of them." The suppressed rage of three sleepless night began to pound in her veins, and for the moment she lost the tight rein on her self-control. "Damn!" Her fist crashed against the desk before the weighty sadness hit and her shoulders slumped in defeat. A numb feeling took hold of her and she wondered if what was happening was real. Once again her eyes pierced those of the trainer and he read the disbelief in her gaze.

"Charlatan IS DEAD," he said quietly, as if to settled he doubts in her mind. "It weren't nobody's fault. The vet, well, he did all he could."

"I know."

He saw the disappointment that kept he full lips drawn into a strained line. She can't take much more of this, he thought to himself. This might be the straw that breaks the camel's back." Everything that was happening to her was a shame--a damned shamed.

"And don't you go blaming yourself," he admonished, as if reading her thoughts. His crow like features pinched into a scowl before he dropped his wiry frame into one of the winged side chairs positioned near the desk. Thoughtfully he scratched the rough stubble of his beard. He'd been awake for nearly three days, same as she, and he was dog-tired,. At sixty-seven it wasn't getting any easier.

Tiffany tried to managed a smile and failed. What she felt was more than defeat. The pain of witnessing the last struggling breaths of two other foals had drained her. And now, Charlatan, the strongest of the lot, was dead.

"It's just not fair," she whispered.

"Aye, that it's not."

She let out a ragged sigh and leaned back in the uncomfortable desk chair. Her back ached miserably and all thoughts of her letter to Dustin were forgotten. "that makes three," she remarked, the skin of her flawless forehead wrinkling into an uncomfortable frown.

"And two more mares should be dropping foals within the next couple of weeks."

Tiffany's elegant jaw tightened. "Let's just hope they're healthy."

mac pushed his hands through his thinning red hair. His small eyes narrowed suspiciously as he looked out the window of the group of large white building comprising Rhodes Breeding Farm. Starkly illuminated by the bluish sheen from security lights, the buildings took on a sinister appearance in the stormy night.

"We've sure had a streak of bad luck, that we have."

"It's almost seems as if someone is out to get us," Tiffany observed and Mac's sharp gaze returned to the face of his employer.

"That it does."

"But who and why and how?"