Grayson Stark is a gifted painter. No one knows just how gifted—he paints the future from his dreams.
Until someone trashes his studio with a violence that says murder may be next. Now he's lying low in the last place anyone would look for him … a little town called Landings, New Mexico.
But if he thinks his Area 51-obsessed neighbors are weird, he's in for a bigger shock the night he answers the door and finds his ex-girlfriend on his front steps. His very, very dead ex-girlfriend.
Brynne was gorgeous and annoying when she was alive—now she's just plain scary.
And she's not the only one occupying her body. E'ea, a novice Galactic Guardian, is bent on saving Grayson, Brynne and the future of the Stark dynasty.
Can she keep the battling couple alive long enough to show them their importance in the galaxy's future?
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Coeur d’Alene, Idaho
Grayson Stark was furious—livid with rage. His blood pumped so hot through his veins he felt ready to burst into flames. He wished he could—right after he buried his fists in the face of whoever had done this.
He stood just inside the door of his painting studio, a big, sunny, sky-lighted room in his custom home.
He’d worked alongside the crew of contractors to build his home on the side of the forested mountain overlooking rustic, lovely Coeur d’Alene Lake.
But now this room which he’d most painstakingly furnished into the perfect place to create his art … was wrecked.
His oils and high-grade turpentine and linseed oils had been used to smear the walls, ceiling and tiled floor in a muddy perversion of a rainbow. The empty, crumpled tubes littered the floor.
Everything else in the room had been destroyed.
Paintbrushes that he’d spent a fortune collecting, canvases prepped and waiting for paint, easels, carts, computer desk along with all his computer equipment and sound system now lay jumbled in pieces smashed too small to recover.
Throwing back his head, Gray let out a bellow of fury that echoed through the empty house and rattled the skylight above.
But then he remained frozen, staring at that skylight, on which a message had been painted in curiously even script, ‘STOP PAINTING OR YOU’LL BE NEXT’, it read.
Gray stood, his ragged breath loud in the quiet room, his arms and legs shaking with the flood of adrenaline through his system. Then his lip curled, and he growled, low in his throat. “Stop painting? Not in this lifetime, assholes.”
Fumbling in the front pocket of his jeans, he pulled out his phone and pressed a key, still glaring at the skylight.
“911, what is your emergency?” asked a calm voice.
“I need the sheriff,” Gray said, his deep voice still hoarse from his primal shout of rage. “My home’s been broken into and vandalized.”
By professionals, he wanted to add, but didn’t.
He’d share that later, with the sheriff, along with the reason for this act of sheer hate.
* * *
“So let me get this straight, Mr. Stark,” the sheriff of Kootenai County, a weathered man with gray hair and the stoic gaze of a long-time lawman, said a few hours later. “You think this was done in retaliation for these … paintings you do, of people in the news.”
He and Gray stood on the wide balcony overlooking the mountainside falling away to the lake below, as well as the mountains surrounding them.
The day had turned hot for May, and they stood in the shade of the overhanging roof. Gray was wishing for a cold beer, not only to quench his thirst but also to calm him down.
“I know it,” Gray said. He scowled at the sheriff. “Whoever did that–” he stabbed his thumb over his shoulder at the studio inside, “was a pro. They didn’t leave a single piece of my art tools and supplies in usable shape. And I’ve received prior threats.”
“Yeah, heard about your paintings. They’re of celebrities, right? Who’ve been convicted of some major crime.”
“Right. And I portray my subjects behind bars, some in prison orange. Which none of them seem to appreciate. Guess I don’t catch them in their best pose, or something.”
The sheriff’s eyes twinkled subtly. “So I’ve heard. You report those threats to anyone?”
Gray shrugged. “I did in the beginning, but nothing came of it, and I didn’t want to keep wasting law enforcement time.”
Or his own—he’d had to wade through paperwork with each of the first few reports, and he was not doing that crap again.
Also, when nothing happened, he’d started to feel like the boy who cried wolf. He wasn’t some soft dude who had to hide behind the cops, he worked out regularly, had a shotgun and a Ruger semi-automatic pistol, and he knew how to use both of them, practicing at a makeshift firing range behind his house.
“Received any more threats lately?”
“Yeah. Rico Fenretti, the drug lord now sitting in a cell in SuperMax prison,” Gray said. “Although he offered to cut my balls off and fry them, not destroy my studio. Still, he’s got the money and contacts to hire goons to go anywhere, anytime and do anything he wants.”
“Yet you live clear up here, isolated from neighbors and help,” the sheriff commented.
“I have state of the art security,” Gray said. “Not that it did a damn thing for me today. Even if it shorted out, the company should’ve been up here to check or call it in to 911. You better believe my next call is going to be to find out what the hell went wrong.” He’d paid thousands for the system, and the first time he needed it, it did nothing. “Hell, maybe Fenretti paid them off too, for all I know.” He glared as he said this, because the owner of Braxton Security was a local ex-cop.
The sheriff lifted his chin in noncommittal fashion, then turned as one of his deputies, a stocky woman with red hair bundled back in a no-nonsense braid, climbed the steps from the ground level. She shook her head, and the sheriff turned back to Gray, his brows raised.
“We’ve got just one problem with your theory.” Both he and the deputy stared at Gray. “The only tire tracks coming up the road before us, were yours. And they were deep, from that rain we had last night. No four-wheeler tracks leading in through the woods. And no footprints anywhere on your grounds here. You came in through your garage, which meant there were no fresh tracks anywhere outside the house.”
He let that sink in a moment, in which Gray’s skin crawled under their steady regard.
“Wait a minute,” he said. “You don’t think I did this?” He flung out his arm at the devastation behind him, his mouth dropping open.
Neither the sheriff nor his deputy said anything, although the woman’s gaze dropped before Gray’s, her cheeks flushing slightly.
Gray shook his head in disgust. “Oh, hell no. You are so wrong, I can’t even—no artist would do this to his own studio. That’s just flat-out crazy.”
The word hung in the quiet afternoon air, broken only by the movements of the other deputy moving around inside the studio, and the quiet snick of his digital camera.
Gray’s blood heated again, and he clenched his hands at his sides, shifting his head to one side and back to relieve the tension building in his shoulders.
“This is great,” he snapped. “This—this shit happens and you think I did it myself. Even though I’ve no record of ever …”
Oh, hell. There was that time two summers ago that he’d gotten drunk down at the Tamarack and fought with that biker who wanted to paw Brynne.
The biker had out-weighed Gray by a lot, but it had taken the burly bar owner and another guy to pull Gray off the guy before he smashed his face in with the biker’s own brass knuckles.
Unluckily for Gray, there’d been a couple of off-duty deputies in the place. And since no one but him had heard what started the altercation, Gray and the biker spent a few hours in jail. Gray had paid a hefty fine for disturbing the peace.
“Then how do you explain the lack of other entry?” the sheriff asked, politely ignoring Gray’s slip. Hell, the man probably knew all about Gray’s bar fight. They had that kind of info available with a keystroke.
Still, this was a lot different than a brawl over a blonde.
Gray paced over to the railing and back. “I don’t know, maybe the vandals flew in.”
The sheriff eyed the trees around Gray’s house and shook his head. “Not enough room to land even a small chopper here. The limbs on your big pines would’ve taken a rotor off. Certainly not enough room to fly an ultra-light in.”
“Well, what about the threat painted on my skylight? I sure as hell couldn’t have done that. It’s—it’s printed on the window or something.”
The sheriff nodded. “Yessir, that is odd. And we’ve got photos, so we’ll be looking into that. This whole thing is real odd.”
Oh, that was helpful. Gray already knew it was odd. As if he’d been attacked by ninja acrobats who’d flipped in through the trees and left the same way.
Or freaking aliens. His late grandmother, who had lived near Area 51 in New Mexico, had believed in aliens. Gray did not.
The phone on the sheriff’s belt buzzed, and he lifted it and answered with the smoothness of long practice. “Yeah. Yeah, okay, on our way.”
He gave Gray one last, cool look. “Got a situation, so we’ve got to move. We’ll be in touch. You think of anything else that may help us out, Mr. Stark, give a call.”
His two deputies followed him quickly down the outside stairs. Their vehicles revved to life in the driveway and rolled away down the mountain, leaving Gray standing alone in the quiet afternoon.
Far below on the lake road, he heard a siren wail to life and fade in the distance. Guess the sheriff really did have somewhere to be in a hurry.
He rubbed his hands over his face. He hoped the next poor sucker got more satisfaction from the law than Gray had.
“Mr. Stark?” said a cool voice from the door of his studio.
Gray dropped his hands with a start, gaping at the slim man in black suit and tie who stood there, regarding him calmly through dark glasses. “Who the hell are you?”
“Sorry to startle you. Agent Peter Jones, FBI.” The guy flashed a badge and then slid it into his pocket. “Mr. Stark, having assessed your situation, we believe you are in danger. Imminent, personal danger.”
Gray raised his brows and ran a hand through his shoulder length, blond hair, shoving it back from his face. “Okay. Uh, so what do you think I should do, Agent … Jones?”
Even as he spoke, the hair on the back of his neck stood up.
Where had this guy come from? And how had he appeared so silently?
Most of all, why hadn’t he greeted the sheriff? Didn’t the Feds have to let local law dogs know they were on their turf?
Gray moved casually to the left, closer to the door into his living room. His shotgun was in the cupboard there. “You didn’t speak with the sheriff?”
“No, sir. We pulled over until he passed. We deemed it expedient not to waste time interfacing with the local law.”
Gray stopped short as a woman stepped out of the door he’d been about to enter. She was slim and tough-looking, wearing a black suit and white shirt like her male counterpart. She also wore dark glasses.
“This is Agent Dixon,” Jones said. “You have one hour to pack, Mr. Stark. Then we’ll be escorting you to the airport, where we have a private jet waiting to take you to a safe place.”
“What?” Gray held up his hands, backing away from both of them. “Now, wait a damn minute. I can’t just leave. My alarm system is down, my studio is destroyed and I’ve got work to do. I’m not walking away and leaving my house unprotected when there’s some professional goon roaming around.”
“You mistake my colleague,” the woman said. “We are not giving you a choice, Mr. Stark. You’re too important. You can and will go to safety.”
She pulled her dark glasses off her face and looked at him. She had very blue eyes. They were just the color of one of the paints Gray liked to use when he painted the lake. Deep as the lake, and just as easy to lose oneself in.
Except her eyes had gold glimmers in their depths that were hypnotic.
And somehow, an hour later, even though he was not the type to follow orders, Gray found himself in the back of one of their big, black SUV, headed down the mountain for the small, local airport.