Continuing her sparkling, sexy Stewart Sisters trilogy, bestselling author JoAnn Ross pens a romantic suspense story set in the glorious Great Smoky Mountains, where a tough man and a passionate woman find love amid danger.
Lark Stewart is on the run from a singing career that skyrocketed out of control...and from someone who's bent on murder. When one of her band members is killed in New Orleans, Lucas McCloud -- her first love and a former FBI agent -- takes Lark home. But the remote Stewart family resort offers no protection from the madman who's working his way across the mountains.
A Desert Storm hero and FBI sniper, Lucas is haunted by a tragic mission in his past. But with the mysterious killer stalking Lark, Lucas is forced back into the life he left behind. For Lark is the only woman he's ever loved, and the only person who can save his soul...provided he saves her first.
About the Author
JoAnn Ross has published 90 novels, has been published in 26 countries, and is a member of the Romance Writers of America¹s Honor Roll of bestselling authors. She has won several writing awards, including being named Storyteller of the Year by Romantic Times. Her work has been excerpted in Cosmopolitan and featured by the Doubleday and Literary Guild book clubs.
With her husband and two fuzzy little dogs, she divides her time between the mountains of East Tennessee and the coastal lowlands of South Carolina.
Visit JoAnn on the Web to subscribe to her electronic newsletter, at joannross.com.
Read an Excerpt
There is no witness so dreadful, no accuser so terrible, as the conscience that dwells in the heart of every man.
It is justice, not charity, that is wanting in the world.
-- Mary Wollstonecraft
The moon over New Orleans was a thin silver sickle, the dense night air scented with salt and the musk from the surrounding swamps; Lucas McCloud lay prone on the roof of the building, the familiar weight of a Remington rifle pressed hard against the hollow of his shoulder. His cheek rested against the wooden stock. Lucas didn't know how long he'd been in the same spot, in the same pose. He'd learned to be silent, still, and patient. And disinterested in anything but the target that kept moving in and out of the night scope's crosshairs.
The French Quarter had glowed with red twilight when the hostage team had arrived at the small shotgun house. Now the only light came from the neon flash of the strip joint across the street. There should have been streetlights, but they'd probably been shot out by criminals who preferred no audience for the indecencies human beings could perpetrate against one another. Lucas didn't mind the dark; the night scope didn't need much light. He didn't mind the waiting. Nor did he have any interest in the conversation taking place between the team negotiator and Lucas's target, who, on a murderous spree, had already killed four people, including a Louisiana state trooper, and had now taken a nineteen-year-old college student from Baton Rouge hostage.
If Lucas heard the conversation, he might make the mistake of getting emotionally involved, which would only complicate what he was paid to do. It was important to keep his work in the abstract, to not allow the slightest tinge of doubt to creep into his mind. And brooding about the results afterward was only asking for trouble.
The rifle was an old friend. When he'd first arrived on the roof, he'd loaded a total of five rounds to satisfy the Bureau's desk jockeys: four in the magazine, one in the chamber. He had no intention of using the four in the magazine. One shot, one kill. It was the marine sniper motto, one Lucas had lived by during the Desert Storm war.
Focused as he was, he was aware only on the most distant level of the others involved in this Code Red situation. The Containment Team had secured the outer perimeter, restricting the target area. The Rescue Team, whose specialties were firing on the move, room entries, and evacuating hostages, waited inside the perimeter along with the Arrest Team.
As members of the FBI Hostage Rescue Team, Lucas and his spotter provided observation and intelligence at the crime scene, along with their more obvious duty of precision suspect neutralization. A damn stupid euphemism for taking the life of another human being, he'd always thought.
His spotter, Jack Barnes, a fellow former marine scout, sat in a folding chair nearby, calmly drinking coffee. Lucas never drank caffeine; it jangled the nerves, something a guy in his business couldn't allow. Barnes's job was to listen to the ongoing conversation on the earphones. When he got the green light from the team on the ground, he'd pass the order on to Lucas, who'd bring the Remington's hammer down and bring an end to the standoff.
Moody blues floated seductively on the night air; Lucas didn't notice.
A rat scurried through the shadows, his eyes shining in the thin slash of moonlight. Lucas didn't care.
He watched the target pacing back and forth in front of the window, phone to his ear, a shotgun in his hand. Even without sound, Lucas could sense that the tension level was cranking up inside the house. It wouldn't be long now.
He squinted and ordered his mind to stay cool and collected. The New Orleans humidity could affect bullet trajectory, but he'd adjusted for that. His finger caressed the trigger as he steadied his lungs and slowed his heart, seeking the stillness deep within himself as he waited.
One shot. One kill.
Copyright © 2004 by The Ross Family Trust
Seven years later
It was the holiday season in New Orleans. The green St. Charles streetcar was packed with last-minute shoppers as it clattered past historic homes garlanded in white Christmas lights; the mood was festive, bustling, and decidedly contagious.
As she left the car and drifted into the French Quarter, Lark Stewart couldn't remember feeling so happy. So free.
Cheerful carols of wise men and herald angels blended with the cacophony of jazz and blues pouring from the open doorways on Bourbon Street. Lark exchanged Christmas greetings with a group of tourists laden down with packages. Caught up in her enjoyment of the season, she didn't notice when several of the shoppers excitedly turned to watch as she continued strolling beneath the famed cast-iron balconies from which more lights sparkled. Nor was she aware of camera shutters clicking madly away when she paused to study a display of T-shirts and Mardi Gras masks in a storefront window.
A pair of earrings caught her attention, drawing her into the store where she handed a ten-dollar bill to a bored teenager who possessed even less holiday spirit than the Grinch. Undeterred by the girl's unwelcoming attitude, Lark left the store with small green trees flashing gaily from her earlobes.
A block away, she entered an Irish pub where a Loreena McKennit wannabe was pulling off a heartfelt rendition of "A Wexford Carol." Believing her sparkly new earrings were drawing the stares, Lark pasted a vague smile on her face as she made her way through the crowd and ordered a Coke from a bartender who looked as if he'd just gotten off the boat from the Auld Sod.
"It's on the house, Ms. Stewart," he said when she tried to pay.
"I'm sorry." Her smile slipped slightly. "I believe you have me confused with someone else."
A look of surprise flashed across his ruddy face, then, as if catching on to a joke, he winked. "Right." He put a glass in front of her. "Well, it's on the house, anyway. Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas to you, too," she said cheerfully. New Orleans was such a lovely town, with such charming people. Maybe she'd just settle down here instead of going on to...
An image wavered on the far reaches of her mind. A bus with a vista of the blue-tinged Smoky Mountains painted on its side, headed down the road to...
Lark shook her head. It didn't matter, she decided, focusing on the singer who, while not possessing Loreena's extraordinary voice, still hit all the right notes.
As she sipped the drink, a memory flashed through Lark's mind. She'd been here before. The pub was an Irish outpost in the French Quarter, not the least bit flashy, with a small wraparound bar, dart boards on the wall, and the soundless television tuned to a soccer game.
The moment she entered the pub's smoke-hazed darkness, her gaze was drawn immediately to a small wooden table in the back of the room, where Lucas McCloud sat hunkered over a pint of Guinness.
She took a deep breath, screwed up her courage, and made her way through the crowd.
"So, have you seen the ghosts?" she asked with an abundance of false cheer.
He glanced up, his midnight-dark eyes remote. He didn't seem all that surprised to see her. Nor did he offer a word of welcome.
"I read about them in a guide on the way down here." She pulled out the extra chair and sat across from him. Their knees touched beneath the small table. If she had her way, there'd be a lot more touching before the night was over.
"There are supposedly five ghosts living in the courtyard. One's the wife of a former owner; another's a different owner who appears to be searching for something. The third and fourth are yet another former owner who killed either his secretary or his servant -- just which is a little unclear -- because she wouldn't have an affair with him. Then he killed himself.
"And the fifth ghost is a little boy who got separated from his mother in the Quarter and died. The story goes that his spirit wandered in here, looking for her, and the other ghosts took him in."
He'd gone back to staring into the Guinness as if the secrets of the universe could be found in the dark, foam-topped depths. But she hadn't come all this way to be ignored.
"That's so tragic and sweet at the same time, don't you think? I'm working on a song about it. I'm having a little trouble getting the bridge right, but -- "
"What are you doing here?"
He was so different. And it wasn't just the marine haircut that had left him with nearly a shaved scalp, save for the little patch of black on the top of his head that made him appear larger and far more forbidding than the boy she'd fallen heart over heels in love with. He'd never been all that talkative, but now he'd turned dark and moody. Definitely not encouraging.
Lark reached out and covered his hand. She'd always loved his hands, loved the way they looked, so dark and strong against her fair skin, loved the way they felt stroking her eager body, creating rivers of flame.
"That should be obvious. I came to see you." She hitched in a breath before he could counter with the argument she'd heard before. "And because I refuse to believe you really don't want me."
His answering laugh was harsh and humorless. "And people actually believe you're the shy Stewart sister."
"I am. But not with you." Sensing the faint crack in his armor, she linked their fingers together. "Never with you, Lucas."
"No." He turned their joined hands over. His thumb began tracing absent little circles on her palm. "Not with me." He sighed heavily, like a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. "I'm shipping out."
"I know." His sister, who'd moved to New Orleans with her new husband, had called to tell Lark he'd surprised them with a visit before heading off to war. The moment she'd hung up, Lark had, without a moment's regret, blown off a meeting with a record producer she'd been trying to convince to give her an audition for the past two years, and rushed to Louisiana. "You've changed."
"Nobody stays eighteen forever."
"Thank God." She'd cried for weeks after he'd left Highland Falls. Her heart had been broken. All the way here from Nashville, Lark had assured herself that this time all she was risking was her pride. Unfortunately, her heart was still as vulnerable to this man as it had been in her teens.
"I'm not asking for forever after, Lucas." She touched her free hand to his cheek and felt the muscle clench beneath her fingertips. "If this one night is all we're destined to have, then it'll be enough for me."
There was no one on this earth who knew her as well as Lucas McCloud did. He shook his head slowly, obviously aware that she was lying. She wanted much, much more -- and they both knew it.
"My hotel's around the corner," he said.
"I know." Nearly weeping with relief, she managed a faint smile. "I didn't want to carry my suitcase all through the French Quarter, so I asked the bellman to take it up to your room."
"Why am I not surprised?" His tone was dry, resigned. "I doubt there's a man on earth who could resist you."
"It's not that way. He's a sweet old fellow who has to be at least eighty, if he's a day."
"No matter. A woman like you makes a man remember things he'd thought he'd put behind him."
As Lucas had left her behind.
No! She wasn't going to dwell on the past. Nor was she going to think about the future. There was only now -- this stolen moment in time with this man she'd always loved. Would always love.
"Possibly he was remembering," she allowed. "But only because I reminded him of his wife. He was in the South Pacific during World War II and they spent their last night before he shipped out in the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco."
His lips curved in a quick slash of a smile that reminded her of the boy who'd pulled her beneath the water in the pool behind Firefly Falls the summer she'd been sixteen. When they'd come to the surface together, arms and legs tangled, a dizzying sensation had swept over her, making her so weak, he'd ended up carrying her out of the water. As she'd looked up at his handsome face, Lark had wished she could remain in his arms forever. Five years later, she felt the same way.
"It figures you'd know a total stranger's life story within two minutes of meeting him." His dark brown eyes warmed with the gentle fondness that had won her heart. Strain began to melt away, replaced by familiar desire. "It's that connection with people that's going to make the world fall in love with you."
I only want you to be in love with me. Prudently, she kept that thought to herself.
Later, she couldn't remember the walk from the pub to the hotel. She did recall, in vivid clarity, the way he'd lifted her into his arms, and with his mouth hot and hard on hers, carried her across the threshold, just as a groom would carry his bride.
Their first coupling had been hot, quick, and stormy. Then, passions too long denied satisfied, Lucas slowed the pace, using his hands, lips, and teeth to drive Lark to the brink again and again, until she was writhing on the tangled sheets, begging for release.
And still, when it finally came, it was not enough.
They made love as if there'd be no tomorrow. Which there might well not be. A soft, rosy lavender light was slipping between the slats of the hurricane shutters when Lark finally drifted off to sleep, her head on his chest, his arms holding her close.
He was gone when she woke up. The only proof that he'd been there was the stiffness in her muscles and a brief, almost terse good-bye note left on the pillow atop of pair of marine-issue dog tags.
Her first thought had been panic: if Lucas was killed in the war, without the identification, how would anyone recognize his body? The note had relieved that fear, assuring her that he had an extra set -- although it wasn't officially allowed, apparently "everyone" did it. Then, proving that he'd been thinking of her, as she had him, he admitted that he'd intended the tags for her all along.
He did not promise to marry her when he returned home from the Gulf. He didn't even sign the note with love. But the tags spoke volumes, and as she slipped them over her head, the metal feeling cold against her bare skin, Lark vowed to wear them until he returned to her safe and sound.
"You sure you're doing okay?" the bartender asked, jerking her back to the present. He was looking at her strangely in the blue neon glow.
"I'm fine," Lark assured him not quite truthfully, as she realized, with a slash of concern, that the U.S. Marine she'd spent that night of hot, unbridled sex with so many years ago was the sole memory of her life.
The bartender gave her another long, silent look, then wiped his hands on a towel and went to the end of the bar. Lark watched him pick up the black house phone, but with his back turned toward her, she couldn't hear him above the singer. The conversation was brief, then he was back, refilling her glass with another spritz of Coke.
His smile was reassuring when he slid the drink across the bar, causing her prick of concern to fade away. Everything would come back to her. All she had to do was relax and enjoy this perfect stolen moment in this perfect City That Care Forgot.
But a few minutes later, a pair of uniformed police officers appeared at her elbow. One was a woman about Lark's height of five-feet-five, with the kind of toned body that came from working out, and sleek dark hair. Her uniform looked custom-tailored and her black leather cop shoes had a spit shine. The other cop was male, taller than his partner, his winter blues looking as if he'd slept in them.
"Lark Stewart?" the female cop asked. Her green eyes, as she looked straight into Lark's, were as hard as her body.
"I'm sorry." Lark felt something inside her shift. "I'm not Lark Stewart."
"I'm sorry." The man's kind, rumpled face echoed his words. "But I'm going to have to ask you to come with us, Ms. Stewart."
A headache she'd forgotten about while riding the streetcar began to pound. She lifted a hand to her temple, felt something sticky beneath her hair and stared at the red stain on her fingertips.
It was only after she was outside, and the nice cop had warned her against bumping her head on the roof of the patrol car, that Lark noticed, in the flashing red-and-blue strobe of the emergency light, the scarlet blood spattered across the front of her beaded white gown.
Copyright © 2004 by The Ross Family Trust
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I quit after the 5 th chapter. It's about a singer celebrity and a waco stalking physo doctor who recently escaped from prison. I have enough trouble sleeping.
Lark Stewart is a singer with a burgeoning career. Until someone tries to kill her in New Orleans and shoots one of her band members instead. A bodyguard arrives in the shape of former FBI agent Lucas McCloud who happens to be her first love. Lark & Luke had never really stopped loving each other through all the years. It was reassuring that Luke was able to admit this to himself early on. Their interaction was great. However, there were a few things I didn¿t care for: Luke never really gave Lark solid reasons for deserting her, twice. Not to minimize his military service but the constant references to Luke going ¿off to war to liberate a nation¿ was a bit over the top. A little interaction with Ian and Lilly, the two main characters from the previous book could have easily been included and still kept this as a stand alone story Still, I had this book pegged for a five. Until the last 20 or so pages which was when the book fell flat. The resolution of the pivotal secondary characters was wrapped up in a total of about 6 pages, with no real explanation of the motives that drove them. One minute the two of them were there, the next gone and forgotten. But the kicker was Lucas and Lark¿s relationship winding up in, not kidding here, one page! I kept checking to see if some pages had been left out of my copy! Fortunately though my dissatisfaction WAS in the very end of the book which won¿t stop me from reading the last in the trilogy ¿Out of the Storm¿.
I really liked it-I've never read anything by this author before and it appealed at me from the shelves of barnes & nobel-I was not disappointed-I couldn't put it down!
In New Orleans, someone shoots band member Danny Murphy when he and lead singer Lark Stewart were going to a club. As Danny nears death, Lark¿s Aunt Zelda calls former FBI sharpshooter Lucas McCloud from the middle of nowhere to tell him Lark is in danger and needs his help. Used to hearing the witchery of Zelda, Luke travels from their hometown of Highland Falls, North Carolina to protect the woman he loves, but left behind years ago. Lark realizes that she still loves Luke and would prefer he not be here, but heeds his advice especially when he mentions that her stalker Dr. William Quest escaped jail. The assumption made by Luke and the police is that Quest saw Lark with her close friend Danny so he tried to kill him as the deranged man believes that the singer is his wife. As Luke protects Lark from the psychopath Quest and from her angry ex husband Cody, their love blossoms. However, she expects he will leave once she is safe and so fears giving him her heart again. Though the final twist may seem OUT OF THE BLUE, readers will enjoy this second chance at love romantic suspense thriller. The story line is action-packed but driven by Lark who courageously contends in differing ways with the five men impacting her life. Fans will appreciate the middle book of the Stewart sisters¿ trilogy (see OUT OF THE MIST for the first novel). Harriet Klausner