Relentless is due out on the 3rd May, but you can read the first chapter here. Scroll down past the blurb and photo for the chapter. The formatting is different from the book because – website. 🙂 But I hope you enjoy it anyway!
There’s no hiding the fact that Julia Collins has issues. She’s shy to the point of trying to be invisible. She has OCD tendencies—breaking out in hives if she loses control of her environment. She finds it hard to talk to intimidating men, or more accurately, to any men. A fact that makes working as the office manager for Benson Security particularly difficult—the company is made up almost entirely of huge, intimidating, ex-military men. If she couldn’t communicate by email and texting, she wouldn’t be able to do her job at all. But none of the men affect her the way Joe Barone does. The ex-marine is everything Julia isn’t. He’s charming, confident, heroic and so sexy it hurts to look at him. There’s no way a man like Joe would be interested in a woman like Julia. And there’s definitely no way Julia could cope with him even if he was. For her sanity’s sake, there’s only one thing Julia can do when it comes to Joe Barone—hide.
When Joe looks at Julia he doesn’t see her many issues. He sees something far more precious. He sees a woman who cares about everyone around her. A woman who is organised and capable of running any project she’s handed, right down to the most minute detail. He sees a woman who’s gorgeous and loving and smart and funny. A woman who needs someone to stand between her and the world. A woman who needs a warrior fighting in her corner. A woman who could need him. Joe knows that any guy who manages to get past Julia’s defenses, to the woman beneath, will have a treasure worth dying for—and he intends to be that man. All he needs is a chance, one tiny opening to show her she can trust him with all that she is.
And that opening comes in the unexpected form of an adventure-seeking grandmother.
When Julia’s grandmother gets arrested in South America, Julia has to step outside of her comfort zone to bring her home. Which means, dealing with authority figures in a totally different country and in a totally different language. A language she doesn’t speak. Fortunately for her, Joe is fluent in Spanish and more than happy to accompany Julia to Peru. Julia isn’t sure she’ll survive the long flight with Joe, let alone the time it takes to sort out her grandmother’s problems, but when they get to Lima, they discover things are much worse than her grandmother led them to believe.
To get them all out of trouble, Julia is going to need a warrior by her side.
RELENTLESS SNEAK PEEK
Julia Collins had issues. She’d even made a list of them—in order of priority, of course. Her OCD tendencies sat in joint first place with her pathological shyness. This was closely followed by the paralysis she felt when dealing with the opposite sex, then came the way she crumpled in the face of authority, and finally the raging panic that overcame her anytime she was out of her comfort zone. In other words, she was absolutely the best person to ask for help when you were languishing in a foreign jail.
“Have you found me a decent lawyer yet?” her grandmother said from the other side of the bars.
“Not yet. I’ve only had time to check into the hotel, leave my bags and clean up, before I came straight here.” All of which had taken longer than she’d anticipated because she couldn’t speak Spanish and hadn’t realised the hotel she’d booked was about a two-hour taxi trip from the prison—although, she suspected her driver had taken the circuitous route.
Of course, if she’d brought Joe along with her, as her boss had insisted she do, then she would have known where to book a hotel. The ex-marine had spent time in Peru and, unlike Julia, he could speak the language.
A flash of guilt speared through Julia at the thought of Joe Barone. She’d deliberately emailed Joe flight details that were false. In fact, she hadn’t even booked him on a flight at all. Mainly because the thought of spending fourteen hours sitting on a plane next to a man who attracted and terrified her in equal parts, was just too much to handle. She very much feared he was still sitting in Heathrow airport waiting for her to turn up.
“Julia? Are you awake?” Her gran’s ludicrous question brought her back to her present situation.
“Of course I’m awake. I’m standing here, talking to you.”
“Mmm, for a minute there, I wasn’t sure. You do realise that this is a time-sensitive issue you’re dealing with? I’d like to get out of prison before some woman called Bertha makes me her bitch.”
“Gran!” Julia gave her a disapproving glare. “You are joking, right? I mean, you aren’t being threatened or anything are you?”
“Only by poor hygiene and terrible food. There’s a good chance I’ll die of the bubonic plague before I’m released.” She raised her stubborn chin. “To hell with a lawyer. Just break me out of here. I mean, look at the place.” She waved a dismissive hand. “How hard could it be?”
“You can’t talk like that,” Julia hissed as she looked around to see if anyone had overheard. All she saw was the industrial grey concrete that made up the short term holding area of Lima’s notorious female prison. It wasn’t much, but after the chaos Julia had witnessed in the general area of the prison, she was glad her gran was being held separately.
She looked down at the stamps running up her forearms and shuddered. Once she’d queued up outside the prison, with all the other visitors, she’d had her personal space invaded by a leering man who’d patted her body looking for weapons. Julia suspected she’d have nightmares about that for years to come. After that, her paperwork had been scrutinised and she’d been questioned in rapid-fire Spanish that she didn’t understand. A lifetime later, her arms had been stamped—to prove she wasn’t an inmate—and she’d been allowed inside. Julia didn’t go clubbing, so she’d never had a club stamp on her arm, but she imagined it was a very similar experience to the one she’d just endured.
“Oh, darling.” Patricia Matthews sighed heavily. “This is too much for you. I should have bitten the bullet and called your mother instead.”
“No. I’m fine. I can do this. It’s just jetlag and culture shock rolled into one. Don’t worry about me, you’re the one who needs help. You did the right thing, who knows what mum would have done if she was here.” Libby Collins wasn’t exactly known for her restrained reaction in a crisis. Julia well-remembered the dramas she’d endured growing up, especially seeing as in her family almost everything constituted a crisis.
Her gran folded her arms over her pale blue peasant blouse. There were no prison uniforms for these inmates. As far as Julia could see, there was nothing at all for the inmates. The glimpses she’d had of overcrowded cells, with pallets made of rags for beds, made her cringe.
Julia suddenly thought of something horrific. “You do have a toilet in your cell don’t you?” She put a hand over her heart as it raced at her next thought. “You have to share it, don’t you? Please tell me you at least have privacy when you use it?”
Her gran pinched the bridge of her nose and closed her eyes. When she looked back at Julia, she seemed more resigned than hopeful to see her there.
“I don’t want to talk about the toilet. I want to talk about your plan to get me out of here. What are you doing about finding a decent lawyer? The ones that have approached me only want money. They’re promising to get the charges dropped and get me out of here in seconds—if I fork over all my cash.” She rolled her eyes. “Like I’d fall for that. That’s why I sent Alice off to find someone honest, or at least someone with a solid reputation.” She bit her lip and suddenly looked closer to her age than usual. “Then Alice didn’t come back.”
Gran’s best friend had been missing for four days, a fact that didn’t seem to bother the Peruvian authorities any. After she got her gran out of jail, Julia planned to hire an interpreter and grill the police on exactly what they were doing to find Alice. She felt nauseous at the thought. Okay, maybe not grill. Maybe ask politely and quietly…or send a firmly worded email…or maybe a text…
“Julia, are you listening to me? What are you doing about a lawyer?”
“Sorry, I was thinking. You don’t have to worry about a lawyer. I have a plan all written out. I’m going to look in the yellow pages, or do a Google search, and then I’m going to get someone at the hotel to call around for me—”
“Or,” said the deep American voice behind her, “you could have trusted that I knew a guy, like I told you before you dumped me at the airport.”
Every instinct within her was screaming that if she didn’t move, maybe he wouldn’t see her—and eat her alive. She was pretty sure she’d react exactly the same way if ever confronted with a hungry T.rex.
Julia watched her gran’s eyes go wide at the sight of Joe, then she smiled with appreciation. “You must be a friend of my granddaughter.”
“You must be her incarcerated grandmother.” Two hands landed on Julia’s shoulders and Joe was standing at her back. Right against her back. “I’m Joe. I work with Julia.”
Her grandmother’s eyes sparkled. “Is that all you do with my granddaughter, Joe?”
Danger! Abort! Hide! Julia’s inner voice, which was remarkably similar to the robot in Lost in Space, was no help at all.
“With all due respect.” Joe’s deep American drawl vibrated through Julia as he spoke to her gran. “That’s between Julia and me.”
He leaned into Julia and she felt his breath whisper against her ear. “We’re going to talk about the stunt you pulled at the airport later.”
With a gentle squeeze of her shoulders, he stepped back. Julia couldn’t speak or move. She just stood useless and frozen in the middle of the room—painfully aware that her attempt to blend with her environment and disappear entirely had failed miserably.
“This is Eduardo Sanchez,” Joe said to her grandmother. “He’s taking your case.”
Julia kept her head down, but cast a glance through her hair to see a handsome middle aged man in a crumpled navy suit. He seemed to jerk backwards when he looked at her, which made Julia step closer to Joe—for some reason. The lawyer gave a little shake of his head before turning to her gran with a smile.
“Call me Ed,” he said to her gran. “When Joe here said we were running to the rescue of a grandmother, you weren’t what I had in mind.”
Julia almost snorted. She imagined they’d envisioned a short, round woman with a cap of curly grey hair, who dressed in shapeless beige clothes and sensible shoes. Julia looked down at her clothes, dismayed to realise she’d described her own dress sense. Yep, she wasn’t going to think about that. Patricia Matthews was the exact opposite of a typical granny. She might have been in her late sixties but she was gorgeous in the same way Helen Mirren or Susan Sarandon were gorgeous. She was tall, willowy and stylish. Even behind bars her shoulder length blonde hair was perfectly styled and her face was tastefully made up. Dressed in figure hugging jeans, an embroidered peasant blouse and beige leather high-heeled boots, she was stunning. The few lines on her face did nothing but enhance her beauty. The wicked look in her eyes made her seem far more vital than her age would usually suggest.
Her grandmother waved a dismissive hand at Ed’s comment. “Age is just a number, darling.”
His eyes sparkled, obviously enamoured with Julia’s gran. It was no surprise—all of her female relatives stopped men in their tracks. Julia was used to being the exception.
“You’re charged with stealing a mummified body.” Ed consulted his notes. “Is that correct?”
“That’s the charge.” Patricia gave him a haughty look. “Are you going to ask me if I did it?”
“I wouldn’t dare.” Ed grinned as though her gran was delightful. “I haven’t had a lot of time to go over the paperwork, but it looks to me like there are some gaping holes in the case against you. I’m pretty sure we can get you out of here in no time at all.”
Patricia’s eyes narrowed. “What’s it going to cost me?”
“Ah, I see you’ve dealt with some of my esteemed colleagues.” Ed seemed unfazed by the implied insult. “Don’t worry, I charge a horrendous hourly fee, but there’s nothing on top of that, unless you fancy buying me a drink sometime as a thank you for a job well done.”
Patricia beamed widely. “I think I can manage that.”
Julia stared at the two of them. Were they flirting? In a jail?
“That didn’t take long,” Joe muttered with a shake of his head, which reminded Julia that they were all speaking English.
And if that was the case, there was no need for Joe to stay and interpret. Suddenly giddy with the thought of getting rid of the man who unnerved her so, she tugged on Joe’s sleeve. When he looked down at her she addressed her comments to the vicinity of his chin. “He speaks English better than I do. There’s no need for you to stay. You can go back to England.”
“Not going to happen, babe.”
Julia frowned, her eyes still on his chin. “I wouldn’t want to inconvenience you Joe, or take you away from your other obligations. Mr Sanchez can easily translate for us.”
“I’m not only here to translate. I’m here to watch your back.”
“I’m staying.” His tone told her he was immovable. Like the rock face he represented in front of her.
Julia knew there was no point in arguing. Arguing with Joe never got her anywhere. It was better just to do what she had to and deal with the consequences later. Or, hopefully, never. That’s why she’d been so underhanded at London airport. It was either that or do everything the man wanted her to do.
“Can you get me out today?” Patricia asked Ed.
He shook his head. “Tomorrow at the earliest. You okay in here for another night?”
“I’ll manage.” She looked at Julia. “Can you give me some cash, darling? The food they provide is abominable, but there’s a delightful woman from Thailand who’s here on a drug charge and she’s selling the most amazing green curry.”
Julia couldn’t even begin to get her head around the fact that the Peruvian prison system seemed to involve its inmates setting up businesses to survive. She dug around in her oversized messenger bag, came out with her wallet and handed over a couple of hundred dollars.
“Is that enough?”
“More than enough, especially if Ed here can get me out tomorrow.” The light in her eyes faded as she turned sombre. “I need to get out of here. I need to find Alice.”
Ed consulted his notes. “That’s your friend who’s gone missing?”
“We’ve been best friends since childhood. And now I don’t know where she is or what’s happened to her.”
“Don’t worry.” Joe’s confidence rang out through his words. “We’ll find her. But first we need to get you out of here.”
“And that’s where I come in.” Ed motioned to the laconic guard and had a tense discussion with him in spitfire-fast Spanish. When he was finished, he turned back to them. “Patricia and I are going to have a private meeting. We’ll get this sorted. You two need to leave. I’ll call with updates.”
Joe nodded. Julia hesitated. It felt wrong to go back to her luxury hotel when her gran was locked up behind bars.
Patricia seemed to read her mind and her face softened. “It’s okay, darling. You go have a good night’s sleep and we’ll catch up properly tomorrow.”
A hand pressed against the small of her back. “I’ll take care of her,” Joe told her gran.
“See that you do,” her gran ordered.
“Love you, gran,” Julia whispered as Joe led her from the room.
“Love you too, sweetie.” The words followed them out.
Julia looked over her shoulder at her gran and actually wished she was in the cell with her, rather than going to her doom with Joe. Okay, maybe not doom, but she was sure she was better equipped to deal with prison than she was to deal with the sexy American beside her.
The oppressive heat of Lima, that always seemed to press over the city like a heavy blanket, hit them as soon as they walked out of the prison gates. Joe looked down at Julia and wondered when she’d last had something to drink. The dry heat of the desert city meant that dehydration could sneak up on a person. As they looked out at the dust-covered highway, crowded with cars and trucks, Joe reached into his day pack for a bottle of water. He unscrewed the cap and handed it to Julia.
As usual, she didn’t look him in the eye when she spoke. “I’m not thirsty.”
“Take it.” He pressed it into her hand. “This type of heat can fool you into thinking you aren’t thirsty, but you need to keep your fluids up. Drink regularly, even if you don’t feel like it.”
She eyed the bottle with suspicion and Joe knew exactly what the problem was, he’d seen her do this with everything she’d consumed over the past few months. “I bought it at the airport and only just opened it. It was sealed properly and I haven’t drunk out of the bottle. It’s safe.”
Her cheeks turned the same shade of pink as those luscious lips of hers and made Joe’s chest tighten. For some reason Julia thought her quirks were a sign she was deficient in some way—a belief he hoped to divest her of before the trip was over. There was nothing wrong with Julia Collins. Nothing at all.
A fact Ed seemed to have noticed when he’d looked at her. Ed’s reaction to Julia had made him bristle. He’d warned his old friend about Julia being painfully shy and not to force her to interact. He hadn’t warned him about the impact Julia could have on a man.
Joe knew exactly how Ed felt. Seeing Julia for the first time was like a sucker punch. She was one of those rare treasures, a beautiful woman who had absolutely no idea that was what she was. Ed’s gaze had taken in the shapeless beige dress, flat sports sandals and large messenger bag Julia wore across her body like a shield, before resting on her makeup-free face. Her features were perfection. Creamy smooth skin, a tiny upturned nose, wide amber eyes with lashes so thick it was hard to believe they were real. Pronounced cheekbones made her look even more exotic, but it was her full, peach coloured lips that made a man’s thoughts turn darker. Julia Collins had the mouth of a temptress.
“What hotel are we in?” Joe dragged his mind out of the dark sensual places it always seemed to find when he was around Julia.
“I’m in the Sheraton in the city centre.”
He smiled at the emphasis and the subtle rebuke it was intended to be. “I’ll have someone pick up your bags and bring them to our new hotel.”
“What?” Her eyes snapped up to his and for a second Joe lost his train of thought.
“You can’t stay there, babe. It’s at least an hour in crap traffic to get here from there. Longer sometimes. You need to be closer to your grandmother, so you can get to the prison fast if needed.”
Her eyes moved back down to focus on her feet and Joe felt bereft at the loss. “I know, but…”
She pulled her bottom lip between her teeth and nodded as though she was having a silent conversation with herself and had come to a conclusion. She rummaged around in her bag and pulled out her iPad. “I’ll see what’s near here.” Her slim fingers flitted across the screen before they stilled. “I forgot. I need WiFi access first.”
“I know a hotel.” Joe held her elbow as he led them along the crowded street.
“But, I-I…” her words trailed off.
“It’s okay. I know a perfect place. Trust me.” He wanted her to see that he knew her and what she needed to be comfortable in her environment. He’d made a study of Julia these past few months and wherever possible he’d move mountains to give her what she needed.
“Okay.” She sounded so resigned that Joe had to remind himself trust came with time.
He had to be patient. At least now they were together. For the past couple of weeks—since he’d kissed her—she’d taken great pains to hide from him.
He slid his hand down her arm to hold her hand, feeling her tense, and led her across the busy road where seven lanes of traffic randomly crowded into four official lanes. Cars blasted their horns at them, but Joe ignored it. When they got to the other side of the wide street, he caught sight of something out of the corner of his eye that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand to attention.
And they seemed to be following them.
“Maybe we should go get my bags first?” Julia said softly.
He heard her, but his attention was focused on the men. They were out of place and stood out like Trump at a feminist rally. First, they were taller than most of the people rushing around them. They were also fitter, with the kind of muscles serious working out would develop. Both men were dressed in black, when most people around them were dressed in faded clothes that had seen better days. But it was the way they moved that had Joe on alert. They moved like men who were trained. Ex-military or private army, Joe guessed. Neither option reassured him.
As he hauled Julia around the corner of the concrete prison compound, she tugged at his hand. “My legs are shorter than yours.”
“Sorry.” He shortened his stride, at the same time noticing that she’d almost tripped over the uneven sidewalk. He needed to be more careful. He eyed the guys behind them. But more importantly, he needed to get her to safety.
“Well, what do you think?” Julia asked.
Joe cast a glance down at her, she was looking at him nervously, but hopefully.
She frowned, at the same time Joe spotted the guys turn into the road behind them. They hugged the shadows, keeping their distance, clearly thinking they hadn’t been spotted.
“You weren’t listening,” Julia gently admonished. “I said, wouldn’t it be best if we stayed at the Sheraton tonight and moved closer to the prison tomorrow? That way, I could use the hotel WiFi to research hotels and make a booking for us. Plus,” she cast a pointed glance around at the half-finished brick buildings around them, “I don’t think there are many hotels in this area.”
She was right. This part of Lima was a step up from a shanty town. People here could afford to build proper houses, but only a bit at a time—hence all the half-finished buildings with rebar sticking out, waiting for a second floor to be added.
“Joe, what do you think?”
What he thought was that they had to get off the street. And fast. Until he knew who wanted to keep tabs on them, and what they wanted, he could better protect Julia inside a hotel.
“No.” It came out more firmly than he’d intended. “We need to be close to your grandmother in case Ed needs us for something. He might even get her released tonight.”
Plus, he wasn’t sure if Julia had been followed from the airport, or what kind of surveillance had already been set up at her hotel. It was best if they started again—in an environment he could control.
Joe stuck his hand out and waved at passing cars. One of them had to be a cab. Seeing as most taxis didn’t come with signage, it wasn’t always easy to tell. He tugged Julia closer to him. He needed to get her off the street before nightfall. A small Volkswagen Beetle, that had seen better days, swerved through the traffic and screeched to a halt at the curb beside them. Joe pulled open the door to the back seat and urged Julia to get in.
“Is this a cab?” Julia was clearly horrified. No doubt she was examining the interior for the driver’s official registration. She wasn’t going to find any.
Joe pushed in beside her, slammed the door and ordered the driver to head for Mira Flores. It was the closest suburb with decent hotels. And by decent, he meant big chain hotels. To Joe, those places were seriously lacking in atmosphere, but he knew Julia would appreciate the generic feel and familiarity.
As the car zoomed into the flow of traffic, blasting its horn as it did so, Joe spotted one of the men dig into his pocket and come out with his phone. Checking in. Joe tried to keep an eye on the men, but there was too much chaos on the road behind them to see if they got into a vehicle to follow them.
“It’s so dusty here,” Julia whispered beside him, her eyes on the hills around Lima that housed the sandy coloured shanty towns. The thousands of small houses, made out of reed matting and plywood sheets, were barely visible against the barren hills.
“When we get things sorted out with your gran, I’ll take you to Cusco and the jungle. Lots of green there for you to look at.”
She stiffened beside him and Joe wondered if he would ever break through her defences to the point where she was relaxed and comfortable around him. He had to believe he would, because Julia Collins had become as essential to him as breathing.
“Is she going to be okay?” Julia’s soft question broke into Joe’s musings. “Is your lawyer friend good?”
“Yeah.” Joe placed a hand on Julia’s arm and watched her freeze in place. When he didn’t move it, she relaxed slightly. Baby steps, Joe reminded himself, baby steps. “He’s more than capable. If anyone can sort out this mess and get your gran out of there, Ed can. And she’s definitely going to be okay. Patricia is in the safest part of the prison.”
“But if Ed can’t get her out, she’ll be moved to the other part, right?”
“That’s not going to happen. I promise you that.”
Julia seemed to relax further at his vow and Joe prayed he would be able to keep it. To hell with that, he would definitely keep it. He’d move heaven and hell to make sure he did. First, he needed to get her into their new hotel room, then he was going to make some calls to find out what the police were doing about the missing Alice. Then he planned to talk to his boss, Callum. He didn’t know what was going on here, but one thing was clear—things were a whole lot more complicated than Julia’s grandmother had led them to believe.