The Vessel Trilogy by Juliette Cross

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Genevieve Drake never knew this demon world existed. Now she just wants to survive it. Hunted on the streets of New Orleans, Gen turns to the hunter, Jude Delacroix, who is bound to protect her soul and who’s also captured her heart.

image.jpegForged in Fire

The Vessel Trilogy

Book One

Juliette Cross

Genre: Paranormal/Urban Fantasy Romance

Publisher: Entangled Publishing

Date of Publication: July 31, 2017

ISBN: 9781640632172

Word Count: 98K

Cover Artist: Fiona Jayde

Book Description:

Genevieve Drake has never been the helpless kind of girl, has never needed to be rescued. That is, not until her twentieth birthday when some dude nearly chokes her to death in an alley and a hot stranger rips a monster from inside the guy.

The hot guy? Jude Delacroix—Dominus Daemonum, Master of Demons. Now her guardian, whether she likes it or not.

But she’s seriously beginning to like it.

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Forged in Fire Excerpt

Jude hadn’t moved, his eyes roving up and down. My sweaty tank clung to my torso and loose hair stuck to the side of my face. Having redone my ponytail twice, I tightened it once more as he shoved off the wall.

“Give her a weapon.”

Kat pulled a dagger from a sheath at her thigh, walking toward me.

“I thought we were practicing without weapons today.”

Jude started to circle. A primitive part of me stiffened.

“A demon won’t give up when you throw a few punches, even with the casting power. You need to cut them.”

“But I could hurt you.”

“You could try.”

His shoulders rounded in a relaxed posture. Muscled arms swung just barely at his sides. He was in no way threatened by me. He probably found this comical.

“No sifting,” I warned

“No need.”

He continued to stalk me with slow precision. Kat handed me her dagger. It was heavier than I thought.

“It’s too big,” I said, feeling the weight of the twelve-inch blade.

“Oh, I think you can handle it.”

A dark mischievous look. Wait. Were we still talking about daggers? Heat flushed my cheeks. He circled. I pivoted. Kat disappeared into the corner.

“No power this time, Genevieve. Let’s see if you can deliver more than karate moves.”

“You don’t think I can cut you?”

An eyebrow lifted. Still smiling. Still circling. Arrogant ass.

“I can,” I gritted out, widening and squaring my stance.

Sparks of gold glittered in his eyes, a predator honing in on its prey. He stalked closer, then stopped two feet from me, speaking in a husky tone.

“Prove it.”

My heart jumped, hearing my own challenge thrown back at me. Last night. Scorching kisses, whispered words, rough angles, soft sighs. My eyes strayed to his lips. One corner quirked up into a knowing smile. He was taunting me right there in front of Kat. What kind of game was he playing? Anger flared in my gut. I lunged, swiping out at his chest. Grabbing one of my wrists, then the other, he twisted me around, pulling me tight against his body, my arms crossed and bound in front of me. Completely immobile in less than a second.

Okay, that was embarrassing.

“Too predictable.” Warm breath close to my ear. I shivered. A short rumble of laughter in his chest. “Again?”

I struggled. He released me at once. This time, I did the circling. Leaping left, then dodging right, I ducked under his outstretched arm, slicing as I went. I popped up behind him. Jude glanced down at the tear along the side of his white T-shirt. A small drop of blood seeped through the fabric. Very small, but I gasped anyway. He laughed, stripping off the T-shirt and tossing it to the side.

“Better. Again.”

Not a good move on my part. My concentration scattered to the winds. Cords of muscle and tight, sinewy limbs flexed in preparation for the next attack. Black swirls and barbs of Celtic interlacing traced over tight pectorals and down his chiseled abdomen. My mouth went bone dry. A shift of his upper body gave me a glance of a feathered wing inked across a powerful shoulder blade.

Concentrate, Genevieve.

I fought the urge to shake my head as if dizzy from intoxication. For that is truly what I was, imagining what it would feel like to have his beautiful body against mine, skin on skin. Trying not to imagine what it would feel like.

“Anytime you’re ready,” he said, smirking.

Damn him.

“You know,” I said, thinking to take a different approach, “a demon will attack me, not the other way around. Why don’t you attack first?”

“As you wish.”

Oh shit.

He lunged low. I twisted out of reach, leaping right. He changed position, shot out his leg, tripping me to the floor. I landed on my stomach and pushed up an inch before being summarily pinned by two hundred pounds of hard muscle. Oh. Very hard.

A whisper against the shell of my ear: “Mmm. Close, but not quite. Again?”

“Get. Off!”

He obliged. Another haughty laugh. “The key is to not become distracted or let your anger control you. You must find a way to get the better of your opponent, no matter if you’re outmatched in size.”

Before I’d even rolled completely over, I clipped him behind the knees. He buckled to the floor as I leapt, swinging my body over his. I straddled his chest, pulling his head to the floor with my left hand knotted in that pretty hair of his, exposing his throat and thrusting the point of the dagger beneath his chin.

“Like this?” I hissed.

A genuine broad smile lightened his face, making me more breathless than I already was. Amber and gold shimmered in his irises, nearly cutting out all the black. Nearly. His hands were on my hips.

“Exactly like this.”

Sealed in Sin

The Vessel Trilogy

Book Two

Juliette Cross

Genre: Paranormal/Urban Fantasy Romance

Publisher: Entangled Publishing

Date of Publication: 7/31/2017

ISBN: 9781640632189

Word Count: 90K

Cover Artist: Fiona Jayde

Book Description:

While Jude Delacroix spends his days and nights searching for the prophecy, another protector steps in to take his place. Thomas, a guardian angel, claims Genevieve is his to protect if the demon hunter does not. As threats against her life escalate, he offers her the power to sift.

Knowing the transfer of power comes through a kiss, she hesitates. Thomas stirs a desire where there should be none.

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Sealed in Sin Excerpt

The moment he entered the room, all my senses rose to full alert. The man packed enough heat and power in his aura to melt a girl into jelly. A mere glance from his dark eyes or slight touch from rough hands, and I was lost.

I focused on flipping the pancakes on the stove, still trying to figure out how to tell him about our trip to the House of Hades, the near-miss with Gorham, and the brief and strange meeting with my guardian angel. Kat preferred asking forgiveness rather than permission, or just omitting the admission of any sins altogether. But I had trouble lying, though I seemed to do it often as of late. I especially had trouble lying to Jude.

“Want some brinner?” I asked, plopping another dollop of butter in the pan.

“Brinner? What might that be?” He leaned with his back against the counter next to the stove, splaying one huge hand on the countertop, watching me pour the batter into the pan. How did this man make watching me cook a sexy thing?

“You’ve never heard of brinner?” I glanced at the door to make sure Mindy was out of earshot. “For someone who’s been alive nearly two thousand years, you don’t know a whole lot.”

He slid a finger down my forearm. I nearly dropped the spatula. He leaned closer, his chest brushing my shoulder, voice dropping several decibels. “Educate me.” And just like that, my heart slammed into my rib cage, my thoughts scattering to the wind. I stared at him, knowing my eyes were no longer hungry for pancakes. He pressed warm lips, a feather-soft kiss, to the slope between my neck and shoulder. “Genevieve?” Another press of lips higher up my neck, melting me into goo.

“Hm?” Eyes closed, I welcomed a third kiss just under my jaw.

“Your brinner is burning.”

“Oh, dammit!”

I snapped open my eyes, grabbed the smoking pan and thrust it under the water faucet in the sink. A hissing crackle spit up more smoke.

“There goes brinner.”

“You’ve made more than enough already.”

He motioned to the ten-high stack with a smirk. I couldn’t even think about eating now. Not after that kiss. And not with this guilt weighing me down.

Something registered in his gaze. He reached out his hand.

“Come here.”

From his expression, I wasn’t sure if he planned to give me a hug or a spanking. I wouldn’t mind either. Taking his hand, I let him pull me into his arms.

Bound in Black

The Vessel Trilogy

Book Three

Juliette Cross

Genre: Paranormal/Urban Fantasy Romance

Publisher: Entangled Publishing

Date of Publication: 7/31/2017

ISBN: 9781640632196

Number of pages: 88K

Cover Artist: Fiona Jayde

Book Description:

Genevieve Drake is on a dangerous mission—to find the soul collector, Lethe, and enter the deepest, darkest level of the underworld, where no one has ever gone into and returned.

But when an old enemy makes a surprising appearance, she is tested to the point of breaking and risks remaining in this dark abyss forever.

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Excerpt Bound in Black

Pulse-pounding, bone-grinding music vibrated the entire second floor. Dancers, if you could call them that, melded together in one mass of moving limbs. A few couples and trios needed to find a private corner before their make-out sessions morphed into an all-out orgy. The bartender stopped in front of Dommiel’s throne. A massive dragon’s head—openmouthed and fierce fanged—hung above the oversized wood-carved chair like a crown.

The first time I’d been here, I assumed the head was a magnificent work of art by a local New Orleans sculptor. Because dragons aren’t real, right? Now I knew better. The beast’s head was cut from a high demon’s spawn, probably killed in battle against one of the Flamma of Light, someone on my team. Even now, after the head was severed and stuffed, a low vibration of eerie energy swirled in the air. I hadn’t detected this before. But back in September, I wasn’t the Vessel I was now. My Vessel Sense, VS, amplified every day, detecting any demon within a one-mile radius. Not only that, my fist and blade packed major force. Still, I knew I hadn’t experienced full awakening. Kat, my mentor and friend and the only female hunter I’d met, told me that I’d know when I experienced my awakening. It would be like falling in love. And I definitely knew what that felt like…as well as the tragic heartbreak when that love was ripped from my arms.

I clenched my jaw, willing away those thoughts, and focused on the task at hand.

Dommiel sprawled atop his throne with the latest blonde propped on his lap. With a clean-shaved head and wearing his usual attire—black slacks and white button-down with silver cuff links—he was a contradiction in appearance. If he hadn’t pierced every part of his face—lip, lids, nose, tongue, and the entire cartilage of both ears—he’d be hot. Metalface didn’t turn me on, but some girls were into that. For example, the buxom woman now whispering in his ear, pressing against him with her ample cleavage pouring out of a red patent leather corset. Dommiel cupped her breast with the one hand he had, brushing his thumb casually along the exposed skin above the too-tight casing. He turned his head when I approached.

His groupies didn’t move, though tension rippled in the air. Dommiel’s familiar—a black-eyed raven—perched on the dragon’s head and watched me. For a second, I wished I’d brought Mira. The white hawk that I’d created the day Jude was taken away had become my pale shadow wherever I went these days. But I didn’t want any of these freaks trying to hurt her in this confined space. Before her creation, when I was steeped in a well of grief from losing Jude, I hadn’t known Vessels could create spawn of Light. If demons could beget creatures of darkness, then it made sense I’d have the power to create one of light. Only, no Vessel had ever done it before. George, the commander of the Dominus Daemonum—the Masters of Demons—said it was because no Vessel before me had ever come so close to her awakening. When I glanced up at the beady-eyed bird, I wondered what it would do if I’d brought Mira with me and let her poke out one of those evil eyes. I suppose it would’ve started a shit storm, and that wasn’t why I’d come here.

Standing tall, hands at my sides, I said to Dommiel, “I come in peace.”

He considered me for about five seconds. “If this is peace, I’d hate to see war.”

“Yes. You would.”

In our past dealings, Dommiel had used his sardonic tongue to cut me and keep me in line. I waited for his next smart-ass remark, but something in his gaze told me he recognized this visit was different. I hadn’t come to threaten or coerce him into doing my bidding. I had a genuine offer of partnership—one I never thought to present to a high demon. With a heavy sigh, he squeezed his blonde’s breast still cupped in his hand, then gave her a quick deep-throated kiss before pushing her off his lap. He stood, revealing the silver hook on the stump of his other arm, which had been concealed till now.

“This better be good, Vessel.” He stepped in front of me, leading me past a guard and down a dark hallway. “I haven’t had a taste of her yet and was quite looking forward to it.”

“It looked to me like you just got a taste.”

He shot me a piercing look over his shoulder. “Okay. Let me rephrase. I haven’t yet fucked her until she can’t talk or walk. And I was about to take off that edge when you showed up.”

“Too much information, Dommiel.”

About the Author:

Juliette lives in lush, moss-laden Louisiana where she lives with her husband, four kids, and black lab, Kona.   

Multi-published author of paranormal and urban fantasy romance, she loves reading and writing brooding characters, mysterious settings, persevering heroines, and dark, sexy heroes.

From the moment she read JANE EYRE as a teenager, she fell in love with the Gothic romance.

Even then, she not only longed to read more novels set in Gothic worlds, she wanted to create her own.

Website: https://www.juliettecross.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/juliettecrossauthor

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Juliette__Cross

Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/crossjuliette/

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Juliette-Cross/e/B00MQ18Z1W/

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/7795664.Juliette_Cross

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Suddenly Engaged by Julia London

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Suddenly Engaged
Lake Haven #3

By: Julia London

Releasing July 25, 2017
Montlake Romance

Blurb
Single mother Kyra Kokinos spends her days waiting tables, her nights working on her real estate license, and every spare moment with her precocious six-year-old daughter, Ruby—especially when Ruby won’t stop pestering their grumpy next-door neighbor. At first glance, Dax Bishop seems like the kind of gruff, solitary guy who’d be unlikely to offer a cup of sugar, let alone a marriage proposal. But that’s exactly what happens when Ruby needs life-saving surgery.

Dax showed up in East Beach a year ago, fresh from a painful divorce and looking for a place where he could make furniture and avoid people. Suddenly his life is invaded by an inquisitive munchkin in sparkly cowboy boots—and her frazzled, too-tempting mother. So he presents a practical plan: his insurance will help Ruby, and then they can divorce—zero strings attached.

But soon Kyra and Dax find their engagement of convenience is simple in name only. As their attraction deepens, a figure from the past reappears, offering a way out. Can Kyra and Dax let go so easily—or has love become a preexisting condition?

Link to Follow Tour:  http://tastybooktours.com/tours-master/suddenly-engaged-julia-london

Goodreads Link: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/33223928-suddenly-engaged

Goodreads Series Link https://www.goodreads.com/series/161030-lake-haven

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Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Suddenly-Engaged-Lake-Haven-Novel/dp/1477848614/ref=sr_1_1_twi_pap_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1498303706&sr=1-1&keywords=9781477848616

B&N:  https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/suddenly-engaged-julia-london/1125574255


AuPhoto_London.Julia.jpgAuthor Info

Julia London is the New York TimesUSA Today, and Publishers Weekly bestselling author of more than forty romance novels. Her historical titles include the popular Desperate Debutantes series, the Cabot Sisters series, and the Highland Grooms series. Her contemporary works include the Lake Haven series, the Pine River series, and the Cedar Springs series. She has won the RT Book Club Award for Best Historical Romance and has been a six-time finalist for the prestigious RITA Award for excellence in romantic fiction. She lives in Austin, Texas.

Author Links:   WEBSITE | FACEBOOK | TWITTER | GOODREADS

Website:  http://julialondon.com/

Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/JuliaLondon

Twitter: https://twitter.com/JuliaFLondon

GoodReads:  https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/49377.Julia_London


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Excerpt 

Chapter One

Seven years later

July

Leave it to a female to think the rules did not apply to her.

The little heathen from next door was crawling under the split-rail fence that separated the cottages again. Dax, who already had been feeling pretty damn grumpy going on a year now, wondered why she didn’t just go over the fence. She was big enough. It was almost as if she wanted the mud on her dress and her knees, to drag the ends of her dark red ponytails through the muck.

She crawled under, stood up, and knocked the caked mud off her knees. She stomped her pink, sparkly cowboy boots—never had he seen a more impractical shoe—to make them light up, as she liked to do, hopping around her porch several times a day.

Then she started for cottage Number Two, arms swinging, stride long.

Dax watched her from inside his kitchen, annoyed. It had started a week ago, when she’d climbed on the bottom railing of the fence, leaned over it, and shouted, “I like your dog!”

He’d ignored her.

Two days ago he’d asked her, fairly politely, not to give any more cheese to his dog, Otto. That little stunt of hers had resulted in a very long and malodorous night between man and beast.

Yesterday he’d commanded her to stay on her side of the fence.

But here the little monster came, apparently neither impressed with him nor intimidated by his warnings.

Well, Dax had had enough with that family, or whatever the situation was next door. And the enormous pickup truck that showed up at seven a.m. and idled in the drive just outside his bedroom window. Those people were exactly what was wrong with America—people doing whatever they wanted without regard for anyone else, letting their kids run wild, coming and going at all hours of the day.

He walked to the back screen door and opened it. He’d installed a dog door, but Otto refused to use it. No, Otto was a precious buttercup of a dog that liked to have his doors opened for him, and he assumed that anytime his master neared the door, Dax was opening it for him. He assumed so now, stepping in front of Dax—pausing to stretch after his snoring nap—before sauntering out and down the back porch steps to sniff something at the bottom.

Dax walked out onto the porch and stood with his hands on his hips as the girl brazenly advanced.

“Hi!” she said.

She was about to learn that she couldn’t make a little girl’s social call whenever she wanted. There were rules in this world, and Dax had no compunction about teaching them to her. Clearly someone needed to. He responded to her greeting with a glower.

“Hi!” she said again, shouting this time, as if he hadn’t heard her from the tremendous distance of about six feet.

“What’d I tell you yesterday?” he asked.

“To stay on the other side of the fence.”

“Then why are you over here?”

“I forgot.” She rocked back on her heels and balanced on them, toes up. “Do you live there?”

“No, I just stand on the porch and guard the fence. Yes, I live here. And I work here. And I don’t want visitors. Now go home.”

“My name is Ruby Kokinos. What’s yours?”

What was wrong with this kid? “Where is your mother?”

“At work.”

“Then is your dad home?”

“My daddy is in Africa. He teaches cats to do tricks,” she said, pausing to twirl around on one heel. “Big cats, not little cats. They have really big cats in Africa.”

“Whatever,” he said impatiently. “Who is home with you right now?”

“Mrs. Miller. She’s watching TV. She said I could go outside.”

Great. A babysitter. “Go home,” he said, pointing to Number Three as Otto wandered over to examine Ruby Coconuts, or whatever her name was. “Go home and tell Mrs. Miller that you’re not allowed to come over or under that fence. Do you understand me?”

“What’s your dog’s name?” she asked, petting that lazy, useless mutt.

“Did you hear me?” Dax asked.

“Yes.” She giggled as Otto began to lick her hand, and went down on her knees to hug him. “I always always wanted a dog, but Mommy says I can’t have one now. Maybe when I’m big.” She stroked Otto’s nose, and the dog sat, settling in for some attention.

“Don’t pet the dog,” Dax said. “I just told you to go home. What else did I tell you to do?”

“To, um, to tell Mrs. Miller to stay over there,” she said, as she continued to pet the dog. “What’s her name?”

“It’s a he, and his name is Otto. And I told you to tell Mrs. Miller that you are supposed to stay over there. Now go on.”

She stopped petting the dog, and Otto, not ready for the gravy train of attention to end, began to lick her face. Ruby giggled with delight. Otto licked harder, like she’d been handling red meat. Frankly, it wouldn’t surprise Dax if she had—the kid seemed like the type to be into everything. She was laughing uncontrollably now and fell onto her back. Otto straddled her, his tail wagging as hard as her feet were kicking, trying to lick her while she tried to hold him off.

Nope, this was not going to happen. Those two useless beings were not making friends. Dax marched down off the porch and grabbed Otto’s collar, shoving him out of the way. “Go,” he said to the dog, pointing to his cottage. Otto obediently lumbered away.

Dax turned his attention to the girl with the fantastically dark red hair in two uneven pigtails and, now that he was close to her, he could see her clear blue eyes through the round lenses of her blue plastic eyeglasses, which were strapped to her face with a headband. She looked like a very young little old lady. “Listen to me, kid. I don’t want you over here. I work here. Serious work. I can’t be entertaining little girls.”

She hopped to her feet. “What’s your name?”

Dax sighed. “If I tell you my name, will you go home?”

She nodded, her, long pigtails bouncing around her.

“Dax.”

She didn’t get it. She wasn’t even listening. She had already climbed onto the bottom rail, as if she meant to come back over.

“I mean it,” he said, pointing at her. “If I find you on my side of the fence, I’m going to call the police.” He figured that ought to put the fear of God into her.

“The policemans are our friends,” she said sunnily. “A policeman and a police woman came to my kindergarten. But they never shot any peoples.”

Dax had a brief but potent urge to correct her understanding of how plurals worked, but he didn’t. He turned around and marched back to his cottage.

He didn’t even want to look out the kitchen window when he went inside, because if she’d come back over the fence, he would lose it.

He’d known that family was going to be trouble the moment they’d arrived a few days ago. They’d cost him a table leg he’d been working on, because they’d slammed a door so loudly and unexpectedly that Dax had started, and the permanent marker he was using to outline a very intricate pattern on said table leg had gone dashing off in a thick, black, indelible line down the leg. He’d had to sand the leg down and start again.

Naturally, he’d gone to investigate the source of the banging, and he’d seen a woman with a backpack strapped to her leaning into the open hatch area of a banged-up Subaru. She’d pulled out a box, hoisted it into her arms with the help of her knee, then had lugged it up the path and porch steps to Number Three. She’d been wearing short shorts, a T-shirt, and a ball cap. Dax hadn’t seen her face, but he’d seen her legs, which were nice and long and shapely, and a mess of dark hair about the same color as wrought iron, tangled up in the back of the cap. She’d managed to open the door, and then had gone in, letting the door bang behind her.

Neighbors. Dax was not a fan.

The door of Number Three had continued to bang away most of the afternoon, and Dax had been unable to work. He’d stood at the kitchen sink, eating from a can of peanuts, watching the woman jog down the front porch steps, then lug something else inside. He’d noticed other things about her. Like how her ass was bouncy and her figure had curves in all the right places, and how her T-shirt hugged her. He’d noticed that she looked really pretty from a distance, with wide eyes and dark brows and full lips.

Of course he’d also noticed the little monster, who’d spent most of the afternoon doing a clomp clomp clomp around the wooden porch in those damn pink cowboy boots.

Kids. If anything could make Dax grumpier, it was a cute kid.

He’d turned away from the window in a bit of a snit. Of course he was used to people renting any one of six East Beach Lake Cottages around him for a week or two, and usually they had kids. He much preferred the olds who took up weekly residence from time to time, couples with puffs of white hair, sensible shoes, and early bedtimes. Families on vacation were loud, their arguments drifting in through the windows Dax liked to keep open.

The cottages were at the wrong end of Lake Haven, which made them affordable. But they were at the right end of beauty—each of them faced the lake, and a private, sandy beach was only a hundred feet or so from their front porches. He’d been lucky to find this place, with its unused shed out back, which he’d negotiated to use. He had to remind himself that his setup was perfect when new people showed up and banged their doors open and shut all damn day.

Dax had realized that afternoon, as the banging had undone him, that the woman and kid were moving in—no one hauled that much crap into a cottage for a vacation. He’d peered out the kitchen window, trying to assess exactly how much stuff was going into that cottage. But by the time he did, the Subaru was closed up, and he didn’t see any signs of the woman and the kid.

He’d wandered outside for a surreptitious inspection of what the hell was happening next door when the door suddenly banged open and the mom came hurrying outside. She’d paused on the bottom step of the porch when she saw him. Her dark hair had spilled around her shoulders and her legs had taunted him, all smooth and shapely and long in those short shorts. Don’t look, those legs shouted at him. Don’t look, you pervert, don’t look! Dax hadn’t looked. He’d studied the keys in her hand.

“Hi,” she’d said uncertainly.

“Hi.”

She kept smiling. Dax kept standing there like an imbecile. She leaned a little and looked around him, to Number Two. “Are you my neighbor?”

“What? Oh, ah . . . yeah. I’m Dax.”

“Hi, Dax. I’m Kyra,” she’d said. That smile of hers, all sparkly and bright, had made him feel funny inside. Like he’d eaten one of those powdered candies that crackled when it hit your mouth.

“I wondered about my neighbors. It’s pretty quiet around here. I saw a car in front of one the cottages down there,” she said, pointing.

“Five,” he said.

“What?”

He’d suddenly felt weirdly conspicuous, seeing as how he was standing around with nothing to do. “That’s Five,” he said, to clarify.

“Ah.”

“You’re in Three. I’m in Two.”

He’d been instantly alarmed by what he was doing, explaining the numbering system on a series of six cottages. She’d looked as if she’d expected him to say more. When he hadn’t said anything, but sort of nodded like a mute, she’d said, “Okay, well . . . nice to meet you,” and had hurried on to her car much like a woman would hurry down a dark street with some stranger walking briskly behind her. She opened the door, leaned in . . . nice view . . . then emerged holding a book. She locked the door, then ran past him with a weird wave before disappearing inside.

Dax had told himself to get a grip. There was nothing to panic over.

He hadn’t panicked until much later that afternoon, when he’d happened to glance outside and had seen a respectable pile of empty moving boxes on the front porch and the little monster trying to build a house out of them.

That was definitely a long-term stay. And he didn’t like that, not one bit.

He’d managed to keep busy and avoid his new neighbors for a few days, but then, yesterday, the truck had shown up, treating him to the sound of a large HEMI engine idling near his bedroom window.

He’d let it pass, would have figured it was someone visiting.

But it happened again. Just now.

Dax was in the middle of a good dream when that damn truck pulled in and groggily opened his eyes, noticed the time. It was a good hour before he liked to get up. Was this going to be a regular thing, then? He groaned and looked to his right; Otto was sitting next to the bed, staring at Dax, his tail thumping. “Use the damn dog door, Otto,” he tried, but that had only excited the dog. He jumped up and put his big mutt paws on Dax.

With a grunt, Dax had pushed the dog aside, then staggered into the kitchen. He heaped some dog food into a metal bowl and put it on the ground. In the time it took him to fire up the coffeepot, Otto had eaten his food and was standing at the back door, patiently waiting.

Dax opened the door. He glanced over to Three. The Subaru was gone, and he couldn’t help wonder who was driving that massive red truck. A husband? A dad? Jesus, he hoped the guy wasn’t the chatty type. Hey neighbor, whatcha working on over there?

Yeah, no, Dax was in no mood for more neighbors or barbecue invitations or neighborly favors. But it was becoming clear to him that little Miss Ruby Coconuts was going to make his policy of isolationism really difficult.

Dax got dressed and went out to the shed to work. A few hours later he walked into the kitchen to grab some rags he’d washed in the sink and happened to look out his kitchen window.

The redheaded devil was hanging upside down off the porch railing of her house, her arms reaching for the ground. She was about three inches short, however, and for a minute Dax was certain she would crash headlong into that flowerbed and hurt herself. But she didn’t. She managed to haul herself up and hopped off the railing. And then she looked across the neat little lawn to Dax’s cottage.

“Don’t even think about it,” he muttered.

Ruby hesitated. She slid her foot off the porch and onto the next step down. Then the other foot. She leapt to the ground from there, looking down, admiring the lights in her shoes. Then she looked up at his cottage again.

“Don’t do it, you little monster. Don’t you dare do it.

Ruby was off like a shot, headed for the fence.