Hello, my lovelies, and welcome to another First Kiss Friday. Today I’d like to introduce you to author Mercy Hollow who will be sharing an excerpt from her paranormal romance, Grim: Legions of the Claimed. Happy reading and enjoy!
Three hours later, Sensual emerged from the Task’s house. The moon’s light shone down on her. The crisp November air refreshed her spirit. No loss of herself and no blank line on her back.
Something singed into her shoulder blade. She didn’t have to look to know it was the husband’s name. Her first completed task. It was already crossed off from her previous Consequences, but it didn’t matter. Below the first, another burn scripted into her skin. Two completed tasks? She glanced back at the house and the drawn curtain, the low lights, the husband and wife coupled in their bed for the first time in months. It was only a piece in repairing the rift between them. But still, it was a first step.
“Now that’s Service.” She smiled.
At the end of the driveway, a car was parked outside the gate. She approached. Grim leaned against a plain, black SUV. As she neared, he pushed off the car and stood tall and hard-worn, like a favorite pair of boots.
“I don’t need you to save me.”
One side of his lips curled up. “I know.”
“Really? Then what are you doing here?”
“I was on call tonight. I knew you were here. I figured, after hours in that house, you might be hungry.” He opened the passenger door.
She let her vision peruse him and his perfect informality, like freshly-laundered, cotton masculinity. “You’ve been here for hours?”
He held her gaze, motionless. “I’m a very patient man.” He pulled in a breath. A hint of flutter stirred his eyes. He regained control and waved at the seat. “Dinner?”
She brushed past him close enough to feel his heat. “Breakfast.”
His eyes flared.
“Don’t get ahead of yourself, big boy. I was talking about a twenty-four-hour diner, not serving myself up as a dish.”
“Of course.” He bowed to her.
A ten hour shift at work and a four hour shift for the Legion crept into her bones. She flopped into the seat. Pain dug at her back, and she shot forward. The freshly burned names stung.
His brow tightened. “Another Consequence?”
She shook ‘no’ and pulled down the collar of her shirt. The man’s name decorated her skin.
“But…I thought…” He turned away. “The Legion is hard to best.”
She scoffed. “You think I’m that easily swayed?” She pulled her shirt lower. The wife’s name shone below her husband’s.
His expression widened. “How…you Serviced them both?”
“I gave them both what they needed.”
Warmth radiated off him. He set his hand on her arm. His touch was steady and calm.
None of this rattles him.
“What did they need?”
“Each other. To remember what it was to be seen. Vulnerable. To let someone in.”
He closed his eyes. “I can’t imagine.”
“Me either.” She touched his face. Ran her fingers down his cheek to his lips.
He fell forward, bracing himself on the SUV’s roof. His vision flickered to her. Desire bled into his eyes.
Her lips parted.
He leaned in, moving in slow motion, drawn through the mud the Legion had cast upon them.
She couldn’t imagine letting someone that close, but she was inches away from knowing.
He shook himself like a reality check and shifted away.
He’s not ready. “Service is meant to give them what they need, not what they want. People often don’t know what they need. Have you not read the Guides?”
“Slice doesn’t allow that. He hates the Founders like everyone else in the Legions.”
“I don’t hate them.”
“You don’t? Why? They Claimed you. Made you Service.”
“No. Two hooded men Claimed me. The Founders’ antigen designated me to a position that assesses the true need of a person and helps them attain that. This whole ‘call Service for sex’ thing is manmade, not the Founder’s intentions.”
“How do you know?”
She pointed at the names on her back. “Those names are proof. You all should read your own rules.”
His eyes sparkled. “I like that you aren’t afraid.”
She fell serious. “I like that, deep down, you are afraid.”
The words seemed to puncture his shield. He scooted back, shut her door, and got in the driver side. “I haven’t had breakfast for dinner in forever.”
“I haven’t had dinner since my Claim. The nausea is a bitch. Does it ever fade?”
He tilted up like a repressed memory raced to the front of the line. “I forgot how tough it is in the beginning. Give it a few months. Your body will never be the same again, but the side effects of slow functions fade to tolerable.”
“Oh goody. Tolerable. Sounds…what did you call it? Delightful.”
He laughed again. “I’m not going to live that down, am I?”
She smirked. “Not a chance.”
He started the car and pulled onto the street. “Where to? Any favorites?”
She sighed. “Can I be honest?”
“I’m tired. Hungry. And I want to take a shower. I work all day in a diner, and the thought of going back to one makes my feet hurt.”
“I can take you home. If that’s what you want.”
“What I want is some company. I’m not used to an empty house, or any down time. It’s only been a few months since my dad died and taking care of him was my life. It’s hard to shift gears after so long.”
“I hear you on that one.”
She touched his arm.
He stared at the contact, then focused back on the road.
She slid her hand away. “I could make you breakfast.”
He stopped at a red light and watched her, like the husband had looked at his wife.
Did he see the firm line of her jaw, the hard work on her hands, the exhaustion that had settled into her eyes? Or could he see beyond life’s drudgery?
The light turned green, he eased on the pedal, and tapped his thumb on the steering wheel. “You shower, and I’ll probably ruin it, but I’ll make breakfast.”
She snickered. “Ruin breakfast? Impossible.”
“Then I will try my best not to accomplish the impossible.”
AT SENSUAL’S brownstone door, Grim tried to keep his distance. The scent of the gardenia bush, the one that seemed to live on her skin, permeated through him.
She opened the door and lingered in the threshold.
Going in is a bad decision. He retreated to the stairs’ edge.
“You coming in? I do keep my kitchen inside my apartment.”
“I have an important meeting tomorrow. One I’m not looking forward to. I shouldn’t come in.”
“Yeah, right.” She chuckled, strolled into the apartment, and left the door open.
He stared at the open door. Just breakfast. He tucked his car keys in his pocket and pushed himself into her home.
Inside, half the living room was empty. Long indentations marred the carpet like a heavy bed had lived there. Lined on top of a bookshelf, several pictures chronicled a man’s life – standing, then using a cane, then in a wheelchair.
On the far side, a couch butted against the wall, a grappling dummy perched in the corner beside it. A photo of Slice was taped to the dummy’s head. He tensed and scanned around. Where did she get a picture of Slice?
She leaned against the wall. “What? Our Ruler? I don’t like him.”
Alert rose inside Grim. “What did he do?”
“I hear he’s a wretched man. Upset a friend of mine.” She strutted toward the open door of her bedroom but turned back. “And he makes your life miserable. I don’t like that.” She pulled off her sweater. A little white T-shirt hugged her frame and hinted at a black bra underneath. She tossed the sweater into a hamper by the door. “Shower. And you…get on those pancakes.” She winked and strode into the bedroom.
The shower’s spray came to life in the background. Images trickled past his internal wall — water combing through her golden hair, soap clinging to her skin, not wanting to let go, her eyes closing, steam filling her lungs, rushing inside her, and finding a home.
Stop it. You shouldn’t be here. Make her breakfast and leave.
He dragged himself to the kitchen and scanned around. “Foreign territory.” He’d never understood the need for kitchens, having lived his whole life with people whose idea of cooking was cracking open a wrapper or a menu. From a cupboard he pulled out a bowl. Above, books lined the shelf labeled with words like gourmet and cordon-bleu. At the end, a title called out as his savior – Yummy!
“That sounds possible.”
He grabbed the book and flipped to the recipe for Make him happy waffles. “Close enough.” He rummaged in the fridge for the ingredients, along with a bag of powdered sugar and a container of strawberries. On a back shelf he found a griddle and plugged it in.
He read the book’s instructions. “Preheat griddle.” He gave himself a thumbs up. “Already done. Easy enough.” He measured, stirred, and poured the ingredients onto the hot iron. He closed the lid and batter oozed over the sides onto the counter.
“No.” He snatched a hand towel and scooped the mess into a pile. Ten wet paper towels later the counter was batter-free.
He rolled up the sealed top of the bag of powdered sugar and gripped the edges. He pulled. Tears ripped open under his fingers below the still-sealed top. White fluff poofed in the air and cascaded down his hands. A sugar rush invaded his senses.
“No.” He grabbed the hand towel and wiped his powder-covered arm. Batter smeared on his wrist and, with the sugar, made paste.
Smoke rose from the crease in the griddle and dark dough crusted onto the sides of the iron.
“No. No, no, no, no.” He yanked open the griddle. Half a blackened waffle clung to the top, half to the bottom. The top half flopped off and splatted on the liquidy, uncooked center. He looked at the unused non-stick cooking-spay on the counter and rubbed his forehead. Powdered batter stuck to his face.
He whispered, “Help.”
A moist washcloth appeared before him. He spun around.
Thin white sweatshirt, sprinkled-donuts pajama pants, white socks, and underneath, the sexiest woman he’d ever seen offered him aid.
He bit his lower lip. Sweet, raw dough coated his tongue. He wiped his face with the cloth.
She surveyed the mess. “I’m impressed, you did accomplish the impossible.”
“I suck at this.”
“Oh, yeah. Big time.” She laughed and unplugged the griddle. She touched the tip of a strawberry to the sugar in the bag, popped the red fruit in her mouth, and laid the remains of the sugar bag in a plastic container.
She grabbed two bowls, some milk, and a box of cereal. “Breakfast.”
He slid the box out of her hand. “Now this I can do.” He poured the cereal and milk and placed several strawberries on top of each bowl.
She grabbed two spoons and bowed. “Master Chef.” She handed him a spoon and clinked their utensils together in cheers.
“Sorry I destroyed your kitchen.”
She waved it off. “I’ll get it later.” She dug into her cereal.
“You eat. I’ll clean. With Slice, I’ve become an expert at cleaning messes.” He scanned around and exhaled. “Can’t imagine what it would be like to have my own place. Be able to decide when I clean a mess.”
She jumped up, sat on the one unsullied part of the counter, and ate another spoonful of cereal. “You never lived alone?”
He knelt and wiped up the sugar and batter on the floor. “I took care of my parents until they died, worked for Slice slinging drugs. And here, I’m under his roof again.”
She nibbled on the end of a strawberry. “Do all the Shields live with their Ruler?”
He wiped the counter next to her. The combination of sweet dough and sweeter woman made his posture melt. “Each Ruler has about fifteen of us, give or take. Myself, my friend D.S., and this new young guy, Rigor live with Slice. Now that we’re back in Chicago he lets the rest of his Shields live in places throughout the city. Sovereign Shields are required to reside with their Ruler.”
She set her half-emptied bowl on the counter. “You’ve never lived alone? Had a place?”
She uncrossed her legs and let them dangle off the counter. She slid the towel out of his hand. “You need to relax. He isn’t here.”
“He’s always here.” Grim lifted his shirt, showing his branded shield. He lowered the T-shirt.
“You worried he’s going to kill you? For having breakfast?”
“No. And dying is easy. It’s living that’s petrifying.”
“I get that.” A knowledge and strength shone in her eyes. One he needed. “My dad would say, whenever he had a bad spell, that the day he died would be the happiest day of his life because it would be the day he could give me back my life. Not, day after day, feeling like he was stealing my chance at happiness. I hated when he said that. I loved him. Taking care of him was my choice. But I understood. Being a burden, no matter how loved, is a lot to bear.”
Her words overpowered him. “I’m like your father.”
She touched his hand, stroked over the arches of his fingers. “My dad suffered in silence. Held in so much to make sure I didn’t see his pain.”
He looked up to her.
She stared into him. “But it was like trying to hide hell under a blanket. It burned through him and stole the moments of peace he deserved.”
He closed his eyes. His mouth quivered. “I want you.” He shook ‘no.’
She stroked up his arms to his chest. The sensation penetrated through him. He couldn’t remember the last time someone touched him without malice.
He gripped her wrists and drew himself to her, sliding between her knees, pressing himself against the counter. He leaned his forehead onto hers. Her soft, flowing hair sheltered their touch. “But you’re a vulnerability I can’t afford.”
She brushed his lips with hers.
The contact was a moment of relief. Of breathing without effort. Of forgetting. An illusion of stopped time.
She wrapped her legs around him. “The risk is yours, not mine. Being here with you, now, it’s a choice. One I made. To let my guard down. To let someone in.”
“If I lower my armor I fear I won’t be able to rebuild it.”
She skimmed her lips against his again.
He leaned into it. His mouth on hers, kissing her, tasting her. Strawberry, sweetness, strength.
Vulnerability. Everything and nothing.
He pulled back and closed his eyes. If he looked at her he wouldn’t be able to stop himself. “I can’t afford this. Not now.”
“You know what you can risk. I won’t question it.” She jumped off the counter and led him to the front door. “All my dad wanted was to see me live my life. It’s all he needed to be happy.”
The image of Grim’s little brother, smiling, filtered in.
“But instead I protected my dad. He never got what he wanted. One thing I learned, if you don’t risk, you don’t find out someone wanted the same thing as you, until it’s too late.” They stepped onto the landing. The scent of gardenias swept up on the midnight breeze. “Maybe you need to redefine what vulnerability means. And who you’re really scared to risk. Just because Slice wants you alone and empty doesn’t mean you have to be.”
She moved closer. Her scent swam inside him. Her auburn eyes reached out to him, a flame he couldn’t resist. He grabbed her wrist, and pulled her into him, catching her in his arms. Fear and desire wrestled in his body. “At this meeting tomorrow. Men. Good men will be there. I need to protect them. From me.”
“My guess is you can live with the distance. But what’s eating you alive is not taking a chance before you no longer can. Finding out, too late, you could have had something in your life.”
He tilted in, his lips near hers. Strawberry and powdered sugar called him in further. “With you?”
“I doubt I’m the only one you’re protecting yourself from.”
Diablo. Apollyon. Seeing them tomorrow. The hate in their eyes. A moment he’d avoided for a year. “Reaching out. Trying. It’s better for them if I don’t.”
“Trying is cheap. Regret is six-figures and then some.”
She wrapped her fingers in the back of his shirt. “And me, I don’t need protecting. I need to risk. I need to want something. For me.”
“Because you don’t need protecting. You need to risk. Need to want something. Just for you. Maybe more than I do.”
He brushed her hair from her face. “That sounds scary as hell.”
She smiled. “Scarier.”
He stroked her face and slid his fingers to her lips. “I’ve never met a woman like you before.”
“Is that a line?”
He smiled. “I wouldn’t even know how to have a line.” His smile faded. “I’m not sure what I know anymore.”
She picked a few gardenia petals and crushed them in her hand. She ruffled her fingers through her own hair, then ran her hands through Grim’s.
The delicious scent rocketed inside him. “You trying to make sure I can’t stop thinking about you?”
She cocked her head. “Yes. I am in competition with that giant shield you wear over your life. Sometimes a girl’s got to fight dirty.”
He swallowed. “I’m going to keep pushing you away.” He leaned in and grazed her cheek with his lips. “Please don’t let me.” He clutched his hand to his chest and hurried down the stairs.
Grim: Legions of the Claimed
By Mercy Hollow
Grim’s Ruler taught him well – dress me, obey me, suffer.
Wrongly condemned to the role of Shield for the youngest of the three ruling brothers.
Enslaved to serve a man he hates.
Bound by honor to love no one.
Ready to stop the loneliness, Grim’s sole focus is the countdown to the Ceremony, the ritual that will end his life but also his vengeful Ruler’s reign.
Stopping a tyrant has a price.
But his won’t be the only head on the chopping block. In the Legion, loyalty is permanent and non-transferable. On that day, all the Shields will die, men worthy of tribute, not execution. He’s ready to pay the price but not ready to watch his brethren die.
When a newly Claimed woman, fated to the designation of Service, rocks his world and gives him a reason to live, will his hope for a future free more than his heart or will it destroy everyone around him?
Grim is the second book in the Legions of the Claimed series about an underground society control by antigen in their blood. If you like broken heroes, gritty underworlds, and villains you long to hate, with a punch of sarcasm, then you’ll love Mercy Hollow’s modern-day Chicago series.
It’s the Paranormal Romance Your Boyfriend Will Steal.
Mercy Hollow was born in Florida, where she was terrorized by alligators, fire ants, rabid raccoons, sharks, drunken college students, 100% humidity, and mouse-ear-wearing, heat-loving tourists. She has lived on three continents (four if you count the foreign realm of her imagination) and planted her feet in San Francisco. She has a love of hockey, motorcycles, and anything deemed weird.
She is a freelance editor, workshop presenter, avid facilitator of late-night read and critiques, and slinger of whimsical, on-the-edge humor.
To sign up for the Mercy Hollow slick letter, and receive a free short story go to www.mercyhollow.com