Enjoy this first look at my new romantic suspense, The Devil's Playground!
Professional burlesque dancer Francesca "Frankie" Strong has learned the hard way: on San Francisco's cutthroat party circuit, crime has a way of going unnoticed. When her best friend is brutally attacked, she's determined not to let the case fall through the cracks, even if that means crawling through every alley and back room in San Francisco to find the truth.
Undercover cop Johnny Marsden is in desperate need of a win. His career on the rocks, he's infiltrated the infamous nightclub Cafe Outré, rumored front for San Francisco's Chinatown mafia. Johnny has never seen anything like the glitter-and-sin-encrusted world he's now a part of. He's certainly never met anyone like Frankie Strong.
Realizing they'll get farther together than on their own, Frankie and Johnny forge an uneasy partnership. Neither expects the heat that flares between them. Neither is ready for what it could mean. Together, they run down a trail that leads directly to Chinatown, and a faceless terror its residents refuse to name.
Frankie's only interest is in protecting her friend, and she's willing to make a deal with the devil to do it. But Johnny suspects the attack was part of something larger, something darker... and he's right.
"Move over, would you? I need to put on my mustache."
Francesca Strong sifted through the jumble of glitter and makeup products littering the top of her vanity. Then she turned to the balding, six-foot-two man applying yet another layer of lipstick beside her. She handed him a small bottle. "Here."
The man snorted, but obediently set down his lipstick. Frankie swallowed a chuckle. Leave it to Cookie Mambo to take "over-the-top" over the top. His lips were slathered a deep fuchsia color. Pink cream blush streaked his pale cheeks, and his yellow and turquoise eyeshadow looked like it had been laid on with a palette knife.
Ah, show business.
She tried not to breathe while Cookie opened the bottle and painted a thin line of adhesive over her upper lip. The acrid scent of acetone burned her eyes nonetheless. She flashed him an appreciative half-smile, careful not to move her face too much.
Bianca used to help you get ready.
Frankie blinked. Her smile faded. Why was she thinking about that now? She started buttoning the crisp white tuxedo shirt over her black pasties. The starchy material itched. She ignored it.
Cookie finished, and passed her a small box. "Need a hand?"
Frankie popped it open. "I got it." She peeled out the thin, startlingly realistic pencil mustache inside and gingerly pressed it above her lip.
He caught her eye in the mirror and batted his thick false lashes at her. "How's my makeup?"
Frankie relaxed and flashed him a teasing grin. "You're the prettiest girl I ever saw."
A loud, brassy swing number pulsed through the dressing room's closed door. The band was on earlier than usual. Frankie double-checked her shirt's stiff French cuffs. In went her cufflinks. The glittering stones in the centers mirrored the deep red of her lipstick. She stood, hooked her thumbs under the suspenders dangling from the waist of her tuxedo pants, pulled them up over her shoulders.
She turned back to Cookie, wriggling her nose to keep the mustache from stiffening. "Catfish said he's pushing the Queens back next week. What's going on?"
Cookie shrugged. "Some new act he brought in. A knife-throwing team. Not my thing, personally. Too sideshow, you know?" Frankie chuckled. Cookie's expression grew devious. "Word is, the guy's a real ladykiller. 'The Blade'. That's his name."
Cookie started to speak when the door to the dressing room swung open. Frankie looked up sharply. Her stomach sank. "Oh. It's you."
Of all the people she least wanted to see before a show. Her heart gave a stubborn flutter. She locked her chest. Maybe she'd needed what they'd had before, but she'd been younger then. Stupider. Weaker.
Now she was finally ready to move on.
A rubenesque woman with skin the color of roasted coffee and teased-out black hair leaned back against the door. It shut with a click. Her eyes didn't leave Frankie's face. "Been missing you, Firebug."
Frankie turned back to the vanity. Her cheeks felt hot. Next to her, Cookie was arranging a towering blond beehive atop his bald head. He caught her eye in the mirror and cocked an eyebrow. She shook her head as imperceptibly as possible.
"I saw that." The woman sauntered towards her, taking her time to examine the jumble of silks, velvets, and feathers scattered around the room. With each step, the slit in the side of her royal blue evening gown gaped a little wider.
Seemingly oblivious, she trailed a finger along a blood-red corset hanging on a rack. "Mmm. You should wear this color more often."
Frankie didn't move. The woman came up behind her. Frankie kept her eyes down, refused to see the sumptuous cleavage, the muscular, shapely leg framed in the dress's deep slit. The woman stuck out her lower lip. "Where you been lately?"
Cookie cleared his throat. "Bianca, maybe you should-"
Bianca turned on him. "You stay out of this. And get that goddamn fright wig out of my face." She focused back on Frankie. Her voice dropped. "I miss our act. Catfish said you were the one wanted out. How come?"
She ran one smooth, artistic finger down the side of Frankie's neck. Frankie jumped. "I already told you..."
"You told me nothing." Bianca stepped away. "'Move on'? What does that even mean?"
Frankie's fingers froze on her bow tie. She looked Bianca's reflection dead in the eye. "Please." Don't make a scene. Don't make this worse.
Bianca's face hardened. She whirled on her heel and stomped back the way she'd come. She paused, hand on the doorknob. "You know you can't shake me that easy, Firebug. We got history, you and me. We got a connection. You can't just turn it off."
Frankie's lips tightened, but she didn't answer. Bianca gave a final huff and swept out of the room. The door banged shut behind her.
Frankie allowed herself to breathe again. She felt Cookie's steely gaze. "Just, don't, all right?"
Cookie's face didn't change. "Thought things were over between you two, is all."
Frankie sighed. "They are, it's just... complicated." She might hate it, but Bianca was right. They had a history. Few people knew her as well as Bianca Black. Few people knew what she'd had to do to get where she was.
The ones who did weren't inclined to keep her secrets the way Bianca had.
Cookie looked up from strapping on his size fifteen platform heels. "You know what you need?"
Frankie rolled her eyes. This should be good. "No. But I bet you'll tell me."
"You need to get laid." Cookie stood, took a couple test steps. He winked. "Maybe you could see if 'The Blade' will show you his blade, catch my drift?"
Frankie groaned. "Thanks, but that is the absolute last thing I need."
She walked over to where her tuxedo jacket was hanging ready, paused to touch the satiny fabric of the red corset hanging next to it. She jerked her hand back and tugged the jacket off its hanger. "Help me with this?"
Cookie held it for her while she slid her arms into the sleeves. "Hey, I'm just doing my job as your friend. Everyone else has a life outside this place. But not you. Do you ever go anywhere? Do anything?"
"Sure I do," Frankie lied. She turned around and struck a pose. "How do I look?"
Cookie pursed his dazzling lips, reached out and straightened her bow tie. Then he stepped back and nodded. "I'd do you."
Frankie laughed and headed for the door. "Thanks."
Cookie's voice echoed out behind her. "Break a leg!"
She closed the door and headed into the wings, weaving her practiced way through the darkness and mayhem that had become her life. She glanced around, and her stomach flipped. She tried to convince herself it was just pre-performance jitters, but deep down she knew that was a lie. Frankie sighed.
If her luck held, she would finish her act and go home, and not see Bianca again.
No one had told him it would be like this.
Johnny Marsden stared into the mass of feathers, rhinestones, and sweaty, naked flesh revolving around him. He dodged a tattooed, barely-clad pixie with lurid pink hair, politely ignored the nasty look she sent him before she disappeared around a pile of rigging. He blew out a breath. Even the circus couldn't compare to this.
Well, it might, if the circus was pumped up on speed and Viagra.
Johnny shoved his hands in his pockets and tried not to touch anyone. No one paid him the slightest notice. A troop of platinum blondes in various stages of undress bustled by, headed for the stage. It took Johnny a moment to realize one of them was a man.
Behind them was an octogenarian swathed in a Pepto-Bismal-pink feathered dressing gown and staggering under the weight of an immense hat. She muttered to herself in what sounded like Russian, but when she noticed Johnny staring, her irritated "What?" was barked in perfect English.
Johnny raised his hands, and she moved on.
He flattened as far back against the wall as his six-four frame would allow. Somebody up top had one sick sense of humor, throwing him into a place like this. Cafe Outré. At least the name was accurate. He hauled in what he thought would be a deep, fortifying breath, instead nearly choked on the smell of acetone and body odor.
Just do your job, and get out.
"Well, look who we have here. If it isn't Johnny Apocalypse."
He knew that voice. Johnny plastered something he hoped would pass for a smile on his face and turned. "Catfish, you old son of a bitch. Long time."
The man behind him was nearly as tall as he was; whip thin, with a slick, coppery pompadour and a handlebar mustache that curled dramatically at the ends. With his pinstriped zoot suit, he looked like an extra in an old gangster movie.
It was an effect only mildly disrupted by his lavender vest.
He flashed Johnny a grin. A gold molar winked in the side of his mouth. "Couldn't believe it when you called. The Blade, back after a five-year hiatus?" He crossed his arms. "I heard you'd retired. Made off with an oil man's wife, or some shit like that."
Johnny's lips twisted. "Good story, right?"
"So what really happened?"
Johnny only shrugged. "Truth is stranger than fiction, my friend."
Catfish didn't press him. "Where's this new girl you swindled into working with you? I was looking forward to meeting her."
Johnny winced inwardly. His new partner should have been here by now. If she was smart, she'd gotten cold feet and bailed while she still could. "She should be here any day now. Family emergency."
"Mmm." Catfish didn't even try to sound interested. Onstage, the band was starting to wind down. He straightened his purple tie and nodded to Johnny. "That's my cue. See you on the other side." He melted into the shadows and the crowd.
Johnny glanced around. Still, no one paid any attention to him. He pursed his lips. He was relatively sure he'd seen an office down the back hallway. An office meant records. Records meant evidence. And evidence meant he could get the hell out of here. He turned...
...Only to ram into a warm, solid body. Something clattered to the floor. Johnny looked down at the same time a slender, attractive man cursed vehemently. A pair of bright gray eyes glowered up at him. "Jesus! Watch where you're going, would you?"
The man's features were fine, his face sensual. Johnny blinked. Then it struck him.
This was a woman.
Her face was like white marble, with strong cheekbones and a feminine chin. She pressed two fingers to either side of her Errol Flynn mustache. Satisfied it was still in place, she bent down to retrieve what she'd dropped.
Johnny reached it first. It turned out to be a stylish, gold-tipped presentation cane. He held it for a moment while he studied her. He'd never seen a woman in drag before. She pulled off a tux better than most men he knew, every detail impeccable. A black fedora was jammed over her ebony hair. The mustache over her bowed upper lip was unnervingly sexy.
She cleared her throat, and he realized he was staring. He handed her the cane. "Didn't realize anyone still used these things."
She rolled her eyes and tucked the cane under her arm, straightened a loose cuff. Then she fixed him with that gray glare again. "You're the new knife-thrower. 'The Blade', isn't it?"
Johnny tried on his most charming smile. "In the flesh. Johnny Apocalypse. And you are...?"
"None of your business." The woman turned her attention to her other cuff. "Damn! I lost a cufflink."
Johnny crouched down with her, made a show of searching the floor while he watched her scrounge for the missing cufflink. She turned away from him, and the way her rear end wriggled made his mouth water. "Easy, Slim. You got something against knife throwers?"
She glanced back at him. "Not at all, Steve." Her tone was acerbic. "Just the ones who don't pay attention where they're going."
Johnny bit back a chuckle. So the woman knew her classic movies. Another mark in her favor. "Maybe I had better things to pay attention to."
A blush pinkened her cheeks. It shocked him even more than the mustache or the cane. She quickly looked away, pounced on something just out of his sight. "There it is."
She stood a little too quickly. Johnny stood too, and realized with surprise she was only a few inches shorter than he was. Her fingers fumbled around the delicate cufflink. He held out his hand. "May I?"
The expression on her face came close to panic. She glanced around, clearly hoping to find someone else, but the area around them had emptied. Helpless, she placed the cufflink in his outstretched palm.
Johnny slid the cool metal pin through the slit in her cuff. The starchy material was laced with her heat. He forced himself to breathe and sneaked a glance at her face. Her eyes were down, watching him work, long black lashes dusting her cheeks.
Something tugged at his chest. How long since he'd been this close to a woman? He already knew the answer. But he didn't think about her anymore. Best not to. Not when all the good memories were overshadowed by the way they'd said goodbye.
Johnny sighed. He was a son of a bitch. He snapped the link into place, then, unable to resist, let his finger brush the inside of the drag king's wrist. Her skin was sinfully silky. Just beneath it, her pulse jumped.
Well, wasn't that interesting.
Want more? The Devil's Playground will be available for purchase January 1st, 2014. Mark your calendar!