New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Liliana Hart returns to her suspenseful Gravediggers series, which features five “dead” men tasked with saving the world…and their latest member who risks it all for love.
Elias Cole has never met anyone like Miller Darling. Her smart mouth and quick wit keep him on his toes, and damn if he doesn’t find that appealing. Miller is a popular romance novelist who doesn’t believe in happily-ever-afters. What she does believe in is family, so when her brother disappears, she doesn’t think twice about packing her bags to find him. She needs a professional, and Elias is just the man for the job. Only her brother is a former SEAL who left his team to die, and Elias is more interested in vengeance than rescue.
Read on for an exclusive excerpt!
She’d captured his heart.
This woman of noble birth—a queen—who’d traveled across vast lands to bring him gifts, to seek his wisdom and knowledge. But it was she who was wise, and her intelligence and cunning personality enticed him. Never had he met a match such as she. Her presence was greater than any gift she’d laid at his feet.
“You’re quiet, my lord,” she said.
He lay on a pile of furs, naked except for the amethyst ring on his finger—a ring of kings that bore his seal. A soft breeze stirred the air and cooled his overheated skin. The thin linen sheet couldn’t hide his desire as she walked through the shadows of his chambers and came to stand before him, bathed in the soft glow of lantern light.
Her beauty stole his breath—her skin dark and smooth—her eyes black as the rare diamonds she’d presented to his kingdom. The white silk of her robes was tied at each shoulder and plunged deeply, displaying the fullness of her bosom—the material so thin he could see the jeweled adornments covering her nipples. The silk was slit up each side so every step she gave him a glimpse of the heaven he knew was hidden beneath. Her hair was her glory, rich and full, and she’d unpinned the crown of curls so it flowed almost to her feet.
“You leave on the morrow,” he said, his heart pierced with sorrow.
His body was rigid and stiff with pride. He was king. And he would beg for no woman to stay. But he wanted to.
“I am queen,” she said, her smile sad. “My kingdom needs me. My people need me.”
“I need you,” he rasped, his hand knotted in a fist at his side.
“And you shall have me,” she said, moving toward him.
She released the ties at her shoulders and the white silk slithered down the length of her body, leaving her bared before him. His phallus throbbed and his chest burned with desire. She was exquisite. Never had he wanted another woman as he wanted her.
The days had turned to weeks, and the weeks to months since her arrival to his lands. But never had she offered herself. The desire had burned between them, the flames fanning hotter and higher as time passed, but he’d respected her wishes to remain chaste in her own bed, though he could have taken her, as was his right as king. And now she honored him by giving him her body.
“You are more beautiful than all the treasures in my kingdom,” he said, his gaze lingering on her full breasts, the lantern light reflecting off the diamond adornments that sent fractals of light glittering across the floor.
“I am your greatest treasure. Long will you remember me. Long will you love me.”
He knew the words she spoke were truth. She knelt next to the bed and bowed her head, submitting herself to him. And then she said two words that made him rage at the injustice their positions had wrought.
“My king,” she whispered.
“As you are my queen,” he said, voice hoarse with sorrow and desire. “We could rule together, combine our lands.”
She looked up at him, knowledge and wisdom in her eyes, and his hand moved to her cheek, stroking it softly. “Do you forget the lands between us?” she asked. “That which is ruled by another?”
“I do not forget,” he said with a sigh. “And I know you are right. Those are lands not ours to take. To conquer would bring wars we cannot fathom.”
“Then tonight we will give our bodies to each other. And when dawn comes and I take my leave, you shall know you are well loved.”
She took his hand and kissed it softly, and then she joined him on the bed, sliding the sheet from his body and moving over him, so she was poised to take him into her. Their hands clasped and their gazes met, and he knew this would be a spiritual experience, that they would truly meld—mind, body, and soul—with their union.
His jaw clenched and sweat beaded on his skin as her heat enveloped him. And then her head fell back with a moan as she sank down on him. The world spun away as pleasure unlike he’d ever known surrounded him.
His vision dimmed and the incessant chime of a doorbell rang in his ears.
“A doorbell?” Miller Darling said, shaking herself out of the scene she’d been writing. “What the hell?”
She snarled and her head snapped up at the interruption. She was going to kill someone. No jury would convict her. The sign on the front door clearly said “Do Not Disturb.”
She hit save on her keyboard and headed out of her second-story office, stubbing her toe on a box of books she didn’t remember putting directly in the walkway. Her footsteps pounded heavy against the stairs as she raced toward the front door and the unsuspecting victim who continued to ring the bell.
The click of the dead bolt seemed unusually loud as she unlocked it with indignant righteousness and jerked the door open, only to have it catch on the chain. She closed it again and undid the chain, muttering under her breath at the wasted opportunity to make a real impact on the intruder.
Miller stared into the startled eyes of the UPS man, ready to flay him alive. He was tall, thin, and pale, his sandy hair thinning on top, and his cheeks were red from the blistery wind and cold. He held a package and an electronic clipboard in his hands.
She was pretty sure she growled at him. The last week of a deadline was the wrong time to disobey the instructions on the door.
“Geez, lady,” he said, eyes wide. He took a step back and beads of sweat broke out over his upper lip. “Are you sick or something?”
“Or something,” she said, eyes narrowed.
She wasn’t sure when she’d showered last, but she was pretty sure she’d been wearing the same clothes for at least three days. Maybe longer. Her gray sweats had coffee stains on them and what might have been a smear of jelly from a PB&J she’d slapped together—minus the peanut butter because she hadn’t had time to go to the store.
She wasn’t wearing a bra, but it was hardly noticeable beneath the fuzzy red bathrobe her best friend Tess had gotten her for Christmas about a dozen years before. There was a small package of Kleenex in one of the pockets and a mega-size box of Milk Duds in the other.
“The sign says ‘Do Not Disturb,’ ” she said.
“You’ve got to sign for the package.” He shrugged as if he hadn’t just ruined her entire day, then held out clipboard for her to sign.
She ignored the gesture and took a step forward.He took another step back. “I’m not sure you understand what I’m saying. I don’t care if you’re delivering gold bullion or the electric pencil sharpener I ordered three months ago and never received. The sign says ‘Do Not Disturb.’ Do you know how long it’s going to take me to get back in the mood?”
His eyebrows rose and his mouth opened and closed a couple of times. “No?” he said, phrasing it like a question. He was starting to look scared. Good.
“That’s right. You don’t know,” she said. “Lovemaking like that can’t just be performed on a whim. It takes preparation and the right frame of mind. I had the candles lit and the music playing, and she was about to ride him like a stallion. You’ve set me back hours at least. How would you like it if someone kept ringing the doorbell right before you were about to have an orgasm?”
He swallowed hard and dropped his clipboard. “I . . . I wouldn’t.” He bent down to pick it up and then shoved it and the box at her once more. “I’m sorry for interrupting. But you’re the last house on my route. I’ve got to get it delivered and signed for so I can go home.”
She sighed and scribbled her name in the little box and then took the package. “Next time, do us both a favor and sign it for me and put it in the rocking chair. I won’t tell anyone if you don’t. And I also won’t want to kill you, which is what I want to do now.”
“I appreciate your restraint,” he said, swallowing again. “Sorry about that. I guess I’ll, uh . . . let you get back to . . .” He gestured with his hand, and she realized what he thought she’d been doing and what she’d actually been doing were two very different things.
“I’m a writer,” she said by way of explanation.
“Right,” he said, looking skeptical.
She ran her fingers through the rat’s nest on her head and two pencils fell on the porch. Her shoulders slumped in defeat and she turned back into the house, leaving the pencils on the ground and dead-bolting the door behind her. The UPS man was still standing there. He was probably reevaluating his career choices.
There was no point trying to get back to work. The moment was broken and the mood was gone. Besides, she’d had the opportunity to smell herself and feel the rumble in her stomach. A shower was in order, followed by whatever she could find to eat in her kitchen. Writing wasn’t a pretty profession. When she was in the trenches of a story she often forgot to tend to day-to-day life. Sometimes, the story took hold of her and wouldn’t let go, and that’s where she’d been the last several days.
She tossed the package on her entry table on top of the mail that had been accumulating for the past week. Her housekeeper, Julia, came in every Tuesday and Friday, but she knew better than to knock on her office door and disturb her, so she put the mail on the table and cleaned around her office. She also made sure Miller didn’t leave the coffeepot or stove on and burn the house down.
The mail was the least of her worries. The bills were all done automatically online, so she assumed anything in the stack wasn’t urgent. She caught her reflection in the mirror as she headed back up the stairs and had to do a double take because she thought a stranger was following behind her.
“Yikes,” she said, grimacing.
She looked bad, even by her usual definition of deadline crazy. She needed desperately to get her roots done and have her color touched up. It was rare she kept it the same color for a long stretch of time, and it was currently black with bright blue highlights. She looked like a cross between the Cookie Monster and Don King.
Her face was pale and there were dark circles under her eyes. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been out in the sun or to the gym. And, Lord, her eyebrows needed a pair of tweezers.
Since work was over for the moment, she decided to do damage control and transition back to human again. Maybe that was just what she needed to get back into the groove of things and not leave her poor characters on the verge of orgasm. She’d been there. It wasn’t a fun place to be.
Maybe that’s what she needed to get back in the mood. It had been weeks since Elias Cole had left her high and dry, and her pity party had lasted long enough.
Maybe he was married.
Except where was his wife? Because she’d certainly never seen him or any of the others with women. He’d most definitely been interested in her, and boy, had there been chemistry. There’d been no doubt in her mind that the hardness pressing against her hip had been one hundred percent Elias Cole. He’d been her one rebellion. Or at least that had been the plan.
She wasn’t an idiot. She recognized when a man was interested. He’d given all the signs, and there’d been no doubting the sexual attraction between them. Then he’d disappeared without an explanation or so much as a goodbye. The big jerk.
Whatever. Sex was sex. It was a natural human function, and surely she could find someone to scratch her itch. Except that she wasn’t a fan of onenight stands, and she was unbelievably picky when it came to being intimate with a man. The tribulations of being a romance writer.
It didn’t matter that the only person who came to mind was Elias. She knew her own ego well enough to understand that the reason she couldn’t get him out of her head was probably because they’d never done the naked tango. Fine. He’d changed his mind and it was time to for her to move on.
She hurried the rest of the way up the stairs, her mind on him instead of the work she was abandoning, despite the mental pep talk she’d just given herself. The majority of her adult life had been spent writing the romances women dreamed about, but Miller was more practical than that. The kind of love she wrote about—that soul-deep connection to another person—wasn’t something she expected to find for herself. It wasn’t something she wanted to find. That depth of love could be devastating, and it wasn’t worth taking the chance. She much preferred for her relationships to be fun while they lasted, for the sex to be great, and to part as friends in the end. She’d never had her heart broken, and she had no plans to.
Her parents had loved each other with the same focused obsession that they’d loved the treasures they’d sought their entire married life. From her earliest memories, the stories of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba were part of their daily conversations. Her bedtime stories had been filled with tales of adventure and temples of treasure. And of the love of two people who spent their earthly lives knowing they could never be together.
It had broken her heart as a child to think of what it must have felt like to know a part of their soul had been missing. Her father had always told her that’s how he’d feel if he had to go through life without her mother, and Miller had decided as a young child to never subject herself to that kind of heartbreak.
Her parents had spent their marriage traveling the world, searching for the treasures of the lost temple and piecing together a history that the greatest books in the world hadn’t achieved. And it was her older brother who’d been burdened with the responsibility of taking care of her. He’d been four years older, and probably the last thing he wanted to do was babysit his younger sister, but that’s exactly what he’d done. He’d been her only stability as a child, an adult long before he should’ve been, and they’d always been close. He’d never shown her outwardly that he resented the fact he’d been stuck home with her when he’d wanted to be hunting treasure alongside their parents. But she’d known. Every once in a while she’d catch a glint in his eyes that told her he’d rather be anywhere other than Last Stop, Texas.
She could admit her abandonment as a child was one of the reasons she had trouble with long-term commitments and ideas of her own family. She could never do to her own child what her parents had done to her and her brother.
After a few weeks, her parents would come back full of excitement and stories of their adventures. And more often than not, they’d have some trinket that had supposedly been housed in the temple where King Solomon kept his treasures. She had a box full of them in her closet. It was sad to think her best memories of her parents all rested in that box.
Her brother had eventually left home and joined the military, much like her father had at his age, but the obsession with a three-thousand-year-old king and the queen who would never be his must’ve been hereditary, because Justin had taken up the search, and it had only intensified after their parents were killed when their small plane went down.
Their obsession with each other and the love of two people in history had led to their death. Her brother was the only family she had left, and she only saw him on holidays, and only then if he wasn’t on a mission or involved in training. When he got the occasional leave time, he spent it searching for the same treasures and obsessions that had killed their parents.
All she knew was that kind of love and obsession had left her without her parents and with a cynicism she worked hard to keep out of her books. People left. Even when they loved you. It was the way of things, and it was why she much preferred to end her books with a happily ever after instead of seeing where her characters ended up ten years down the road.
She had a good life, and normalcy was very important to her—at least as normal as one could be when she made her living from making stuff up. To say she was a control freak was probably an understatement, but she liked knowing she was responsible for her own happiness and achievements. Her work fulfilled her. And the occasional relationship satisfied her.
It wasn’t often she found a man she was intrigued enough by to invite to her bed. She was damned picky, actually. She wrote romance novels, for crying out loud. So what if she wanted great conversation, a smoking-hot body, and great sex? She’d never seen the point in settling. And since she didn’t believe in the happily ever afters she wrote about, she figured her chances with a man like Elias Cole were a done deal.
He hadn’t seemed like the kind of man who was interested in happily ever afters either. He’d all but ravished her on her front porch and then calmly walked away, leaving her more sexually frustrated than she’d ever been in her life. He’d hardly acknowledged her existence in the weeks since the incident, and in place of the happy-go-lucky smile was a perpetual scowl.
She shivered as she walked into her bedroom and turned up the thermostat on her way to the bathroom. At some point during the last three days, it had gotten colder outside, and she hadn’t noticed through the deadline fog or the warmth of her bathrobe.
Her bedroom was tidy—the king-size bed neatly made and all her clothes folded and put away. She hadn’t felt the mattress beneath her in days. She’d been taking catnaps, crashing on the couch in her office when she needed to recharge.
Miller loved color, and the bedroom reflected that. The bed was like a white cloud, but pillows in cobalt, teal, and turquoise added vibrancy, along with a crocheted throw using all the same colors at the foot of the bed. The large canvas on the wall was an abstract ocean scene using thick layers of paint, her bedside lamps were blown glass in the same bright blue, and the cozy chair in the corner was yellow with thick blue stripes.
It was her favorite room in the house, and that was saying something because she loved all of her house. She’d painstakingly redone every room exactly as she’d wanted it. But this was her room, and it was perfect—from the reading chaise she’d found at a flea market that sat beneath the beveled windows to the large walk-in closet that had originally been the nursery that attached to the master bedroom. Perfect.
Most people in the small town of Last Stop, Texas, considered her eccentric, and many of them had much more creative names for her. She hated to not live up to people’s expectations, so when the Gothic home on the corner of Elm Street and Devil’s Hill had gone on the market, she’d snapped it up in a heartbeat. And she’d gotten it for a steal too, because Realtors couldn’t even get clients to go inside of it.
It was the house that had scared the bejesus out of every kid in Last Stop for the last century. It was the house that sat dark and looming, so people made it a point to always walk on the other side of the street instead of passing directly in front of it. It was the house with the creaking gate and the overgrown rosebushes, and it looked spectacular at Halloween.
She never passed up the opportunity to help solidify her reputation by adding a little graveyard in front or sticking a voice box in the bushes that let out horrible moans. The house was rumored to be haunted by Captain Bartholomew T. Payne and his wife Annabelle, after old Bart had decided he’d rather see his wife dead than have her leave him for another man.
Miller had always been fascinated by the story, even though she’d yet to feel the presence of the original owners of the house. She rarely had visitors other than her friend Tess or her cleaning lady, so the outside was rather deceiving. Even with fresh paint and repairs done to the sagging porch and leaking roof, it still gave off a menacing presence. But like with all great things, it had a story, and she’d always been drawn to a good story.
She loved every square inch of it, and she would never move. The house fit her personality like a glove, and she cackled every time she peeked out her office window to see kids scurrying across the street and staring at the house in wide-eyed horror. It was the little things in life that brought joy.
She sighed as she passed the bed. The soft sheets were looking a little too enticing. She couldn’t afford a comfortable sleep. Not until the book was done. If she got in that bed it might be a week before she woke up. It was important she keep her energy high, so she’d shower and dress, and then she’d get out and talk to actual people instead of the ones in her head before sitting back down at her desk and getting back to work.
She stripped out of her clothes and considered throwing them in the trash instead of subjecting
Julia to laundering them. Julia was a single mom to five boys. She not only cleaned Miller’s house, but did a few other houses as well. Then she cleaned the schools on Saturday, and the church on Sunday evening. Miller could only hope that the laundry of five boys was worse than that of a writer, though she wouldn’t have bet money on it.
The pipes creaked as she turned on the water in the claw-foot tub, and while she waited for it to heat up she found an extra box of black hair color under the sink so she could tackle her roots. By the time she’d gotten the color on and her head wrapped in plastic, the water was hot. She lit the candles on the window sill and dimmed the lights, and then she tossed a bath bomb in the water and hoped the smell of roses was strong enough to overpower the smell of deadline.
An hour later, her skin was pruny, her roots were dyed, and she smelled a whole lot better. She blowdried her hair, moisturized her face, and put on double the concealer she normally would because she could’ve slept in the bags under her eyes.
By the time she was done, she was exhausted. And talking to real people didn’t sound as exciting as it had before. Where was she going to go? Happy hour? By herself? Maybe Tess would come with her. But she was married now, and there were rules about things like that. She’d somehow talked herself out of a big night out, and she found it wasn’t as appealing as she’d first thought. Mainly because her mind was still stuck on Elias Cole.
“Ridiculous man,” she muttered.
What she needed was to clear her mind with a good friend and conversation, and Tess was three blocks away with a fully stocked wine fridge. Maybe they could have a girls’ night in like they used to, but there were those marriage rules that had to be observed. Since Tess’s marriage to Deacon Tucker, Miller had learned dropping in unannounced was never a good idea. They were still in that honeymoon phase of their marriage where they were almost always naked. It made the funeral home a really interesting place to visit after office hours. And sometimes during office hours.
She put on black leggings, a sports bra, and an oversized gray shirt that warned people if they annoyed her they might end up in one of her novels. People always laughed, but she’d been known to kill off the occasional annoyance in one of her books. Comfort was the name of the game for the evening’s activities. She’d give her brain a quick break, and then get back to business.
Miller hopped on the bed and struck a quick pose propped against a mound of pillows, and then she held up the latest release of one of her good friends. She took a selfie with the book and then uploaded it to Facebook, pimping her friend. The great thing about social media was no one would know she’d worked ninety-plus hours in the last few days, eaten nothing but carbs and chocolate, and drunk an unhealthy amount of coffee. She wouldn’t change things for the world, though she needed to hit the gym very soon so her behind wasn’t as wide as her chair. When it came to her readers, she’d continue to put on double layers of concealer so they’d see the fun and glamourous life they thought a bestselling author should live.
She stuck her head into the massive master closet and dug out a pair of neon-fuchsia running shoes with lime-green laces. Tess told her they made her eyes hurt, but Tess hated everything to do with running, so her opinion hadn’t influenced Miller’s decision to buy them. She grabbed up her dirty clothes and robe, embarrassed to leave them for Julia to find.
Her stomach rumbled again and she bounded down the stairs, making a stop at the laundry room and dumping the clothes in the washer. She hummed as she measured the soap and turned on the hot water, and then she added a little extra soap just to be safe.
The pile of mail on the entry table caught her attention and she again scooped it up, taking it with her to the kitchen. Everything about the kitchen was functional, from the hidden cabinets where she kept her small appliances, to the wine refrigerator in the big butcher-block island, to the pot filler over the stove. Unfortunately, she didn’t get to actually cook in the kitchen very often, mostly due to the fact that when she was working, she frequently forgot to eat. Besides, what fun was cooking for one? When she did cook, it was to make emergency brownies or comfort mac ’n’ cheese. She figured if she was going to torture herself by working out, she might as well have a good reason.
She dumped the mail on the island, then opened the refrigerator. A bottle of ketchup and a cold pack she sometimes used on her eyes were the only things on the shelves. It’d been a while since she’d had a real meal, and even longer since she’d been to the grocery store.
She closed the refrigerator door and saw the note beneath the magnet in Julia’s handwriting.
You need everything. This is no way for a grown woman to live. You’ll get scurvy. Make me a list and I’ll get what you need when I come on Tuesday.
“It’s Friday,” she said, and then thought about it a second. “I think,” she corrected. “I could be dead of starvation by Tuesday,” she said.
She’d just have to wing it. She wasn’t opposed to eating fast food until the fridge was stocked. The only things worse than going to the grocery store were visiting the gynecologist or getting bad book reviews.
She went through the mail quickly, discarding most of it as junk, but the last envelope had her brother’s familiar block handwriting on it, so she put it aside and then turned to the package. It was a plain brown box, no bigger than the length of her hand, and just as wide. There were several layers of brown tape, so she grabbed a knife from the block on the counter.
Justin had taken up the habit of sending her trinkets that had supposedly belonged to Solomon after he’d joined the military, but they hadn’t come in a while. She slid the knife under the layers of tape and lifted the flaps. The box was crammed with newspaper, and she noticed the headlines were written in
Spanish. That was certainly odd. She pulled it out and then tilted the box over. Something weighty and wrapped in more newspaper fell into her hand, but it was the clank of metal hitting the counter that grabbed her attention.
She picked up the heavy ring with the large purple stone. Within the stone was the carved insignia of the king she’d been told stories about her whole life. And despite her resentment of the tales and adventures that had broken her small family, the obsession had become hers. Because now she was writing the story of the great and troubled king and the woman he’d loved more than any treasure, hoping that putting it on the page once and for all would finally give her freedom.
It was her brother’s ring, given to him by her father, as it had been given to him by his father, passed down from generation to generation. A ring made in the image of the one Solomon had worn during his reign. A ring that had been one of twelve that Solomon had given to each of the prophets of the twelve tribes of Israel.
If her information was correct, and she had no reason to believe it wasn’t. In the chest with the trinkets and letters was a small book with her family history written on the pages, and tucked inside it were papers and letters, many of them museum quality that she needed to have protected between glass. It was on her ever-growing to-do list. But her history was there, dating back to the prophet that Solomon gave one of the rings to.
What wasn’t written between the pages of her ancestry was the reason why her parents had been the way they’d been. There was no explanation for their obsession, other than pure academic fascination of a legend. Her father had been in the military before getting his degrees in ancient civilization. He wrote papers and taught graduate-level classes at the university so they could pay their bills, never really had to be in class much since most of the graduate-level study was research and writing papers. And her mother had spent most of her days planning the next trip, scattering maps across the dining room table and following leads.
Before her parents had left on their last adventure, her father had taken Justin into his study and talked to him for a good while. She remembered how jealous she’d been of that time they’d spent together, of the attention she craved but never received. She’d been in bed when they’d finally finished their time together, but she’d been awake, listening for Justin’s bedroom door to close. When she’d gotten up for school the next morning, her parents were gone and Justin was wearing her father’s ring. The ring she was now in possession of.
There was nothing in this world that would’ve made Justin send her his ring. It had been passed down from father to son for more generations than she could count. And if Justin never had a son, it would go to her son if she ever had one. The ring was priceless. And it was always to be worn by the living male heir. Which meant for Justin to not be wearing it was more awful than she could imagine.
Cold fear clutched at her belly and her hands shook as she took the tissue paper in her hand and slowly unwrapped it. When she got to the contents inside, her mind couldn’t process what she was looking at.
She dropped the package and took a step back, her hands clammy and bile rising in the back of her throat. In the middle of the tissue paper was a human finger. She had a sinking feeling she knew why her brother no longer wore his ring.