EXCERPT: Behind the Mask

Here’s another excerpt from Behind the Mask, the upcoming fourth book in the Jill Behind the MaskAndersen series! Please note that this is not the final version of this scene; any mistakes are my own. Also, I tried not to post something too spoiler-y, but there might be spoilers with regards to the first three books in the series.

Enjoy!

As soon as Jill opened her eyes, her head began to throb. Turning her head ever so slightly, she cringed at the stabbing pain at the base of her skull. Blinking the stars out of her eyes, Jill slowly pushed herself onto her elbow and frowned at her surroundings. She was in an abandoned warehouse, but it wasn’t the one she had been hiding out in; that one boasted the faint aroma of rat feces, while this one had a decidedly fishier smell. Her guess? She was somewhere close to the Inner Harbor, but tucked away in an alley deep enough that no one would come poking around in search of her.

Of greater concern was the man crouched down next to her. His mask was in a heap on the floor, and Jill found herself face-to-face with a man who, facial scar aside, looked as far from intimidating as anyone could. His skin was smooth, which told her this man was likely barely out of his teens. His eyes, a striking blue that pierced through the relative darkness, held a mirth that sent a chill down Jill’s spine.

But that scar… the stories it could tell…

“Oh, good.” The man’s voice was chipper, the slight hint of a Russian accent buried within it. “I was hoping you would wake up soon.”

Jill almost asked where she was, before clamping her mouth shut at the realization of how stupid that question would sound. Though this was her first time seeing the man’s face, she knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that he was the other vigilante. His black bodysuit alone, outfitted with the finest Kevlar she could never afford, gave away that much.

“Why am I not dead yet?” she asked, cringing when her voice threatened to give out.

“Why would I want you dead?”

This man had to be joking… and yet, the quirked brow and the slight frown told Jill otherwise. She forced herself into a sitting position, rubbing a hand along the back of her neck. “Well, you work for David Gregor. It’s a pretty easy assumption to make.”

“The old man is a means to an end,” the man answered with a one-shoulder shrug. “I am Piotr.”

Was the pain in her head causing Jill to imagine things? Had the man who had hit her upside the head with a pipe and knocked her unconscious just introduced himself to her? She frowned in a combination of pain and confusion, resisting the urge to shake her head until the throbbing subsided. She caught sight of her katana out of the corner of her eye; the weapon was propped up against the far wall, still buried in its leather sheath.

It was hopelessly out of her reach. It was also not tucked into its usual hiding place like it was supposed to be.

“What do you want?” It was pretty much the only thing she could think of to say. Nothing else seemed appropriate.

“You and I have a lot in common,” Piotr answered.

That much was true, at least on the surface. He was a black-clad vigilante, much like Jill… but she drew the line at killing people, while this man apparently had no such qualms. He had dispatched of four disgraced police officers in a public display that was as brazen as it was sudden, and she had seen him slit another man’s throat two nights ago with such ease that she wondered how many times he had done that before. Honestly, she was surprised he hadn’t yet pulled that trick on her… even as her hand went up to her neck.

“If you count fashion choices, sure,” she said.

Piotr’s eyes narrowed and his jaw clenched. “What do you know of Project Fusion?”

Jill’s heart skipped a beat, and she had to will herself into keeping a neutral expression. She felt the pit open up in the bottom of her stomach, and her hands tightened into fists for no other reason than to hide how much her hands had started to shake. She opened her mouth, but whatever words she was planning to say got stuck in the back of her throat. Instead, she shook her head and stared at her captor.

It made sense, if only in hindsight. She had seen the video footage of the van careening into the bay, the way Piotr had leaped from the speeding vehicle and rolled his way back to his feet without so much as a scratch. The way he had moved the first time they fought, his allegiance to Gregor and his fascination with her. Jill could try to deny this all she wanted, but the fact was that Project Fusion was the only connection that made sense.

Ramon’s theory held water after all.

But still…

“I know it tanked years ago,” she said with far less conviction than she had hoped.

“No.” The ghost of a smile played on Piotr’s lips. “It did not.”

Behind the Mask is currently set for a Dec. 4 release in paperback and ebook. Catch up by picking up your copy of Bounty today — or you can pick up The Bounty Trilogy — exclusively on Kindle — to read all three books in one go.

EXCERPT: Notna (LAST ONE)

With two days until Notna‘s official release, one last excerpt to whet everyone’s appetite.

Enjoy!JD_Cunegan-72dpi-1500x2000 (6)

Easterwood Airport, College Station, Texas

No matter how many times Cassandra tried to school her features into a neutral expression on the drive to this tiny airstrip, the knowing grin on her face just wouldn’t go away. Even though she was now in her thirties, with a cavalcade of degrees on her wall, Cassandra could never quite embrace the “stuffy academic” role. Her lectures often turned into excited ramblings over subject matter that she had long ago devoured and still revered. She treated students not as subordinates, but as equals who shared in her life’s passion. She grinned at the mere thought of unfolding the mysteries of the past. Her heart raced whenever she was on the cusp of a new discovery, and the prospect of a treasure hunt, unlikely as it was, still made her adrenaline pump.

“You’re thinking about that five million, aren’t you?” she teased.

Jack, who was the more skeptical and guarded of the two, smirked. “Aren’t you?”

She squeezed his hand near the gear shift of their black SUV. A private jet sat on the runway in front of them. A pair of packed duffel bags sat in the rear of the vehicle, stuffed haphazardly with just enough clothes and supplies for a couple of days. Jack had insisted the bags were not an indication that his mind was made up…and neither was the fact that they were at this airfield, staring at a plane promising to take them to Brazil two days after a Smithsonian representative had dangled five million bucks in their faces for an artifact.

The more Jack argued the point, the less Cassandra believed him. He would likely never admit it, but deep down, Jack was just as excited at the prospect of this find as she was. He was simply doing a far better job of managing expectations. After all, they still had no tangible proof the Gem of Notna existed. All they had was Dr. Roberts’ word, and the assertion that the Narazniyan Scrolls, once translated, would shed light on the matter.

Cassandra’s eyes never wavered from the plane. It resembled one of those jets billionaires flew around in: the kind that had bottle service and lavatories lined in gold. Awful fancy for the government dime.

“Would you believe me if I said no?”

“No, it’s…” Jack paused, sucking in a deep breath. “It’s a persuasive number.” He lifted his hand, kissing the back of Cassandra’s. “There’s that dig in the Canadian wilderness I’ve wanted to go on for years. We do this, and that gem’s real…”

The smile on Cassandra’s face grew. “We’ve paid for that dig and then some.”

“But what if we get down there and come up empty?” Jack asked. He was always asking the questions no one else would; it was why Cassandra often argued their field of study was, in fact, a science. Even if other scientists disagreed. “All that wasted time and effort, all because we decided to chase a number. To say nothing of all the class time our students will be missing.”

“Oh, I dunno.” The grin on Cassandra’s face turned cheeky. “Way I figure, this thing’s real, and if and when we find it, we can fund all the digs we want for the foreseeable future. If it’s not? Hey, free trip to Brazil. And I think our students will be okay.”

“Right, ’cause getting stuck in the Amazon is my idea of romance.”

Cassandra pulled her smile into a mock frown. “Hey, wasn’t Brazil where Sam came from?”

Jack bristled at the mention of his ex-boyfriend. The relationship had occurred while Jack was pursuing his Master’s degree at UCLA, and had ended when Sam received a job offer in Australia. The break-up hadn’t been pretty, but time had given Jack the perspective he needed…and was the only reason he let Cassandra tease him over it from time to time.

“I doubt we’ll bump into him where we’re going.”

Cassandra quirked a brow. “So, we’re going?”

Jack glanced out the windshield again, just in time to watch the door to the jet open and the steps lower to the runway. Tricia emerged from the plane and stared at the SUV, a confident smile creeping onto her face before she lifted her wrist and tapped her watch twice.

“I guess we are.”

Cassandra leaned over to kiss Jack’s cheek. “Hey, we got this. Nothing to lose.”

‡‡‡

As the private jet soared over Central America, Jack couldn’t help but glance out the window. He had seen this view countless times throughout his career, but in the luxury of private air travel, he didn’t have to put up with cramped seats with no leg room and all the other inconveniences a commercial flight would keep one from enjoying the sights. For as quickly as this jet was cutting through the air, the ride was surprisingly smooth. The bottles of beer available free of charge were a nice touch. Jack had never been one to turn down a free drink.

Even as he polished off the rest of his bottle, wiping a drop of condensation off with his thumb, Jack couldn’t help but marvel at the price tag. The government was footing the bill for this plane, and the Smithsonian was offering a pretty penny for this trinket. Assuming it existed. Jack wasn’t so sure, but his curiosity was at the point where he had to find out one way or the other.

Jack squinted into the sunset as the plane hovered over Costa Rica. The Hitoy Cerere biological reserve, if he remembered correctly. Jack chuckled to himself, setting the empty bottle at his feet. He had lost count of how many times on commercial flights he had left fellow passengers in awe after pointing out something on the ground and spouting off all sorts of facts about it.

Cassandra, leaning over in the seat next to Jack, broke his train of thought, and they shared a smile when she pulled the tray table down in front of herself and laid the Narazniyan Scrolls flat across the surface. She had been working on them since before the plane took off, and Jack knew better than to disturb her once she got into the zone.

She was as stunning in her sky blue t-shirt and khaki shorts as she was when she dressed for her graduate lectures, and Jack thanked his lucky stars every day that she had fallen for him. Her silver locket, a gift from her mother after she graduated from high school, always hung around her neck.

“So check this out,” she offered, brushing a bead of sweat from her temple; such intense concentration always made her sweat. “Remember back in the office, it looked like there was one passage on this scroll that was a different color than the rest?”

Jack nodded with pursed lips. “I thought I saw that.”

“Right? I thought it was a trick of the light.” Cassandra turned on one of the overhead lights. “But here, you can really see it.”

Jack furrowed his brow as he studied the scrolls as closely as possible without fully leaning into Cassandra’s seat. As many times as he had seen these words, they still held no meaning to them. At first glance, the text appeared to have been scrawled in Hebrew, but a professor at the department who specialized in Hebrew argued otherwise, claiming several different linguistic inaccuracies. Unfortunately, that professor couldn’t tell them what language the scrolls were actually written in.

“The next-to-last paragraph,” Jack said.

“But the rest of it is written in black, like you would expect,” Cassandra pointed out. “I’m not sure what that implies. I mean…I’ve heard of prophecies written in blood before, but that’s fiction. Right?”

“Only way to know for sure would be to physically test the scroll.”

“Which would compromise it,” Cassandra argued.

Truth be told, they should have done this when they first came into possession of the scroll weeks ago. But the hustle and bustle of academia pushed that to the back burner. In fact, Jack had been so busy with his lectures that he had given the scroll little thought until Tricia interrupted his class two days ago. It had always been in the back of his mind, to be sure, but it was always a project for later.

Tricia emerged from the cockpit, standing and watching the two professors talking over the scroll. She cocked her head to the side and bit the inside of her cheek to keep from smiling. This was the second time she had seen the scroll with her own two eyes, and if everything she had heard about it was true, then this trip was going to be quite the treat.

After all, if she returned to the states with one of the world’s most famous legends in her possession, she could write her own future. Nothing would be off-limits to her anymore, regardless of gender. The Louvre was an option; she could walk into any museum in the world and they would practically bow down to her.

Hell, if Tricia wanted to, she could open and operate her own museum. As prestigious as the Smithsonian was, as great as that name looked on her résumé, Tricia loved the idea of calling the shots herself.

“Any luck?” she asked.

“I wish.” Jack shook his head as Cassandra rooted around in the laptop bag she had in the overhead bin. The scanned version of the scroll had been loaded onto a jump drive—several, in fact—before they packed for the trip. Within minutes, Cassandra had the machine open on her tray table and stuck the drive into the appropriate port.

“With any luck,” she offered, “this program is worth the money it cost.”

“Mind if I see the scroll?” Tricia asked.

Cassandra shot Jack a questioning look, knowing that he’d had a hard time letting the scroll out of his sight since it had come into his possession. They still had no idea what it said, and Jack didn’t believe in the Gem of Notna, but as an ancient scroll, he treated it with the reverence and care he would for any artifact. The lack of time spent on the project in no way shaped Jack’s reverence for a relic of history.

“Look,” Tricia said, fighting the urge to roll her eyes, “we’re pressed for time here. If that scroll can point us in the right direction, I need to know. We need to know.”

“The Smithsonian?” Jack asked. “Funny how we’ve never heard anything from any of them. Just you. You sure you’re not just in this for yourself?”

“Believe me when I tell you that you’d much rather be dealing with me. My boss, Mr. Fletcher, can be a real pain in the ass. But he’s tasked me with securing this artifact, so rest assured that if I’m on your ass, it’s cause he’s on mine.”

Jack quirked a brow. “And if we come up empty?”

Tricia shuddered and closed her eyes. Honestly, that was a possibility she wasn’t willing to consider…mostly because there was no telling what Mr. Fletcher would do if she came back empty-handed. He wasn’t known for being particularly understanding.

“You better hope we don’t,” she offered.

With a quick glance at the parchment, Jack opened his mouth to protest…before shutting it and handing the scroll over. Tricia took it in both hands, careful to keep the material completely flat as her eyes danced over the text. She wasn’t dressed as impeccably as she had been in Jack’s office two days prior, but even in cargo pants and a tank top, she exuded a certain elegance.

Jack raised a brow. “Is this the part where you tell us what that thing says?”

Tricia shook her head. “I wish.” She handed the scroll back. “Of all the languages I mastered in school, this was not one of them.”

“Um…guys?”

Both Jack and Tricia glanced over at Cassandra, who was looking at the pair with a furrowed brow. Her face was bathed in the computer’s backlight, and Jack couldn’t miss the way her throat bobbed up and down when she swallowed.

“What is it, babe?” he asked, sitting up straighter.

“I know what the scroll says.” Cassandra stared at Jack and Tricia, flipping the monitor around so they could see the text shifting right before their eyes. What had been little more than a series of indecipherable marks now appeared in perfect English. Cassandra’s pulse quickened, and she swallowed the lump in her throat.

“It just…doesn’t make any sense.”

Jack leaned in to study the mass of text before him, trying to ignore Tricia hovering over his shoulder. They both mouthed the words as they read them, and the crease in his brow deepened more with each word he took in.

The Chosen One will make himself known when the time is right, when the skies turn red and the Mighty River flows with blood. The gem will select the Chosen One as its new host, bestowing its power upon a noble soul with the knowledge and the clarity with which to use it. The Chosen One will not seek this power; rather, it will be thrust upon him as foreseen by the Gods themselves. Only the Chosen One can prevent the End of Days. The snakes will hiss at the sky, the waters will be cleansed anew, and balance shall be restored. The Primordial will beseech the Chosen One, and He will be like the Gods.

“Why is the Chosen One always a he?” Cassandra asked.

“Because it’s men who write these things,” Jack said as he sank back in his seat with a shake of his head. “What do we know about the Narazniyans?”

“Hardly anything,” Tricia answered, leaning back against the door leading into the cockpit. “No one in my circle has heard of them, and every Internet search brings up nothing more than wild theory and some bullshit about aliens.”

“Maybe they’re a little-known ancient society native to South America,” Cassandra offered. “That would explain why these scrolls, and that temple, were in the Amazon.”

At a loss, Jack returned his gaze to the window. Without any more answers, Tricia and Cassandra followed suit. They really should have worked harder to get a translation back on campus. If nothing else, it would have given them more time to suss out what the passage actually meant. There were colleagues at Jack’s disposal on campus; now, thousands of feet in the air and heading to the Amazon, he and Cassandra were largely on their own.

Ancient societies were often a cause for celebration in their line of work, but Jack was feeling anything but jubilant at the moment. He hated not having concrete answers; even the translation of the scroll had left him more confused than before. Tricia eventually returned to her perch inside the cockpit, while Cassandra continued her work on the translation program. The plane turned to the east, coasting over the waters just north of South America.

As the sun sank toward the horizon, the suddenly choppy water became harder to see. Jack let his eyes wander toward the sky, his heart skipping when he was met with a blanket of red.

It looked like a typical sunset, but in light of the translation…

Preorder Notna today! Notna releases in paperback, Kindle, Nook, Kobo, iBooks, and Google Play on Oct. 10.