CONTEMPORARY ROMANCE AND ROMANTIC SUSPENSE
The Ego Trip Excerpt
The cramped little store smelled like hot dogs and sounded like a bar with a cheap sound system. The clerk was busy with another customer as she searched the coolers for a bottle of juice. She grabbed some granola bars, then yanked off a glove so she could fish a bill out of her wallet as she approached the cash register.
The ringing of an unanswered telephone was the first sign that something was wrong.
The clerk's hands clenched the sides of the counter, but it was his eyes that seized Lori as she stood in the shelter of the chips display. His rheumy blues riveted on the black pistol the teenager trained on his chest.
The robber hadn't seen her. She could have backed away.
But her daddy didn't raise a coward. Besides, she handled half-crazy people all the time.
One deep breath, in and out. Here goes something.
"If you put that gun away, I'll bet this nice man will give you what you asked for. Right, sir?"
The question might have been directed at the middle-aged clerk, but Lori stepped forward to meet the eyes of the gunman. Sent him a hopeful smile.
He was just a kid. A sparse reddish-brown beard didn't hide a mild case of acne. Stringy brown hair escaped a cheap knit cap, and the stink of kerosene and old sweat made her eyes water.
His bright gaze darted from Lori to the clerk and back again. "I just want what's in the register." The words were soft, almost polite.
The clerk's mouth dropped open as he looked to the front of the store.
"Police! Drop your weapon!"
The charged atmosphere in the crowded mini-mart went nuclear as everything happened at once.
The robber wrapped his arm around her, shoving the handgun's barrel against her temple.
The clerk produced a bat, clenching it like a major-leaguer.
The cop took a solid stance just inside the store's entrance, sidearm steady in both hands, eyes focused on the gun at Lori's head. "Drop the weapon, son, and nobody gets hurt."
Maybe she was predestined to end her life in violence. First her mother, years later her dad—perhaps. She'd thought she'd live to thirty, anyway.
She'd watched enough crime dramas to know that very bad things happened at the intersection of fear, firearms and testosterone. Someone had to bring the energy down a few notches, and fast. Lori spoke over the thundering in her chest.
"Come on, then. Don't make this worse than it already is." She focused on pulling air into her lungs. In through the nose, out slowly through the mouth.
The robber's grip on her upper arm loosened a bit, but he continued to hold her tight against his torso. His fear stench filled her nose.
When the cop advanced a step, the barrel of the gun dug deeper into her temple. She focused on the lawman, forcing an expression that said Back the hell off and let me talk him down.
"What's your name?" She spoke softly, tried not to move.
"Billy." The kid's breaths were shallow, his voice shaky.
"You have a mom, Billy? A girlfriend?" Come on, you can do this. Just like back at the studio in Burbank. But with guns.
The pressure against her temple eased a bit. "My girlfriend's home with the baby. We got nothin’ for rent. She don't know I'm doin' this. But I got laid off and I can't find work. Landlord's gonna shut off the heat."
Lori felt a shudder run through the kid's body.
"Oh, god. Oh, shit." The kid's breaths sped up.
"It's okay." She forced a calm she didn’t normally need. Not with the fleet of producers and technicians that surrounded her broadcasts. "Just lower the gun. Drop it on the floor and kick it to the policeman. Can you do that, Billy?"
A display rack exploded. Gunshots rang out, and a hot spray hit her face as she tumbled to the hard, wet floor.
Lori woke with a jerk, heart pounding, the bite of ammonia a spike in her brain.
She pushed the stink away from her nose and raked a hand across her mouth, tasting salt and dirt.
"Welcome back. How's your head?"
Her fingers touched a lump of cloth someone was taping to her cheek.
"Okay, I guess."
"Come on, I'll get you up."
The voice was deep and somehow familiar. A brown blur sharpened to a khaki shirt, dark tie and brass badge. Right. The cop who stormed in and turned everything upside down.
Suddenly hands were under her arms and she was hoisted to her feet.
She was six feet tall and stronger than her build might suggest, so the guy had some muscle in his upper body to match what was between his ears. Barney Fife on steroids.
Broad chest, strong jaw. She was making her way up his face when his musky aftershave mingled with the stench of gunpowder and blood.
She lurched for the exit, knocking aside a blue uniform. Made it to a trash barrel on the porch as the egg salad sandwich she'd grabbed outside Bangor made a return appearance.
Her hands gripped the frigid sides of the can as she struggled to keep standing.
A white handkerchief appeared in front of her face. Once the parking lot stopped spinning, she took it.
"Thanks." Lori wiped her mouth and turned to hand it back.
It was broad khaki chest again. His smell was good—great in fact—once she got out of that building. It melded with the scents of pine and wood smoke that clung to this part of the country.
"You keep it. I brought you a bottle of water."
One more deep breath in and out, and her equilibrium was mostly restored. "Thanks."
He unscrewed the lid, tipped it in her direction. Finally, she was ready to take in his face.
Good frigging grief. The cop in front of her was gorgeous. Six foot four, easy, thick black hair, piercing brown eyes, five o'clock shadow on that wide jaw. Generous lips blew out a long breath. "Your water?"
She grabbed the bottle with her free hand, filled her mouth and rinsed it into the trash can, then took a long swallow. Her eyes rose to his again, and she hated that she was thinking about how gross she must look. Must smell. "Thank you."
The cop led her to the steps and helped her down beside him. "Mind telling me what you were trying to do in there?"
"You mean the part where I nearly got him to surrender without bloodshed?" She turned to meet his eyes, which had narrowed, studying her.
He reached to his back pocket for a notepad. "You shouldn't have interfered. You're damn lucky that kid didn't blow your head off. What's your name?" A pen was poised above paper.
"Am I under arrest?" Rats. She needed to stay under law enforcement's radar, especially with the cable network contract not yet finalized. Instead, that little stunt inside just focused a spotlight on her. She glanced across the lot, where her rental sat inside a long expanse of yellow police tape.
"Not at this time. Your name?"
Best defense? A good offense. Maybe she could bluff her way out of this.
"He was about to surrender, you know. If you hadn't alarmed the clerk, the situation wouldn't have gone to hel—heck the way it did."
His look said he thought her mind was unhinged.