Book: Friendly Fire
Publisher: Riptide Publishing
Publication date: October 17, 2016
Length: 252 pages
Elliot McKenzie is the king of reinvention. Five years after losing his job and his lover and almost going to prison, his self-help program, Charmed Life, is more successful than he’d ever dreamed. He thinks he’s put his sordid past firmly behind him, until he starts receiving cryptic threats . . . and realizes it might not be as over as he’d hoped.
Security expert Lennox West has been lost since a deadly skirmish in Afghanistan led to his forced retirement from the Army. His PTSD makes helping his ex raise their daughter a challenge. When his ex’s sister asks him to set her boss up with a security system, Lennox isn’t expecting anyone like Elliot McKenzie—a man who captures his attention and makes him feel relaxed for the first time since leaving the service.
But Elliot is dangerously stubborn. Even as the threats against him escalate, he refuses to involve the police, and Lennox fears that stubbornness could kill him. A battle of wills ensues that brings them closer to each other than either man expected. But if the threats turn real, they might not live long enough to get their future together.
Seeing the red soles of Clarissa’s Louboutin pumps vanishing two hours later gave Elliot a far greater sense of relief than her exodus really merited, but damn, that had been rough. He was an old hand at interviews at this point, but none of his experience had prepared him for anything quite as thorough, or as diverse, as Clarissa Hanes had managed. It would either be the greatest article he could ever ask for, or public perception of his company would tank the day after it was published next month.
It was after hours, but Serena was still there, parsing through the usual pile of snail mail that seemed to accumulate more quickly the closer they got to the Meetup. Elliot had embraced a paperless format for communicating with his clients, but some of them wouldn’t be dragged into the future even if he tied their feet to the back of the Mars rover. He sat down on the edge of Serena’s desk and sighed heavily. “Why did I ever let you convince me to do an interview with Shockwave?”
“I didn’t convince you of anything―it was your idea,” Serena said, wielding her letter opener like she was cutting throats. “I said to avoid Clarissa Hanes at all costs: look what she’d written about Zuckerberg, remember what she had to say about the guy who wants to make those mobile apartments. But you told me—”
“Hey, in her defense, mobile apartments really are a terrible idea,” he said. “Why bother moving your tiny box of a home from New York to LA when you could put a down payment on a new tiny little box for less than the price of shipping? It doesn’t make sense.”
“See? You have being very opinionated in common, so the results might be better than you think. I can’t believe that she convinced you to give her an invite to the Meetup. The way she snatched it out of your hands, I thought you might lose a few fingers.”
“She said she’d persuade her editor to make it a feature.”
“Maybe she will,” Serena allowed. “But you’re rolling the dice on whether it would be complimentary or not. You haven’t even read what she’s going to be writing about you, but you’re willing to subject the company to that kind of exposure?”
Honestly, he had started having second thoughts about inviting Clarissa to the Meetup almost as soon as he’d invited her, but if there was one thing she was good for, it was press. She’d been an award-winning investigative journalist for twenty years before abruptly pivoting to specialize in writing about startups and tech companies a year ago, and she had a wide audience for her work.
He shrugged. “Too late to back out now. Is there anything interesting in the mail?”
“Let’s find out.” Serena sliced open a large black envelope and poured the contents onto her desk. “Ah, it’s the vendor confirmations from the Studio Loft, excellent.”
Charmed Life was about to have its first annual Executive Meetup for Elliot’s top tier of clientele. He’d chosen a venue inside the Denver Performing Arts Complex, since there was nothing like combining dinner with a show, and the theater was less pretentious than shoving all his guests into a gallery and expecting them to make intelligent conversation about modern art. He repressed a shudder just thinking about the latter.
“Check and make sure their numbers are right,” he said. “If I’m paying a premium for these services, then I want to make sure we don’t leave people underfed and parched.”
“With the amount of alcohol you’re providing, no one is going to be left parched, but I’ll check,” Serena assured him as she moved on to the unmarked package on her desk. She cut through the plain brown butcher paper and pulled it back to reveal an equally nondescript cardboard box.
“If this is a covert attempt by Stuart to sneak you more baked goods, I’m going to laugh,” she warned as she took the top off the box.
Inside weren’t cupcakes. It was a pair of shoes cradled in tissue paper instead. Serena frowned as she lifted one out, examining the tag. “Did you order these? Why did you have them sent here?”
Elliot stared at the gray and black Nikes and a familiar, slithering unease wrapped around his lungs and started to squeeze. Another one, and this time at the office. Fuck. He’d been okay as long as it had just been at home, when he’d been the only one to know . . . having something like this show up at his office felt like a far worse violation.
“Elliot?” Serena’s fingers on his hand snapped him out of his unpleasant reverie. “What’s wrong?”
He must be off his game. That was the only reason he answered honestly: “I don’t know who those are from.” But he knew why they were here. “I went jogging in City Park yesterday evening, and my right shoe’s sole came off. I had to walk over a mile back to my car, half barefoot.” He smiled, but his heart wasn’t in it. “I was a bit of a spectacle, I suppose. The plan was to buy another pair after work today, but it seems like someone beat me to it.”
Serena looked unimpressed with his candor. Worse, she looked concerned. “Someone? Someone who’s willing to spend around two hundred dollars on a pair of sneakers?” She pulled the other shoe out and compared their tags, and her concern darkened to actual worry. “Someone who knows your right foot is a size smaller than your left? How the hell did this mysterious someone figure that out?”
“I threw the shoes into a garbage can in the parking lot,” Elliot said easily, forcing himself to stay relaxed. “They must have retrieved them.”
Serena shook her head incredulously. “Are you honestly telling me that someone went searching through the innumerable bags of dog shit filling those cans to fish out your busted sneakers, just so they could anonymously send you a new pair today? Is that what you’re telling me?”
He shrugged. “What can I say? I seem to have attracted a secret admirer.”
“No, no, no.” And now Serena was standing and oh, there went her hips, shimmying into disapproving overdrive. “A secret admirer is someone who leaves you cute notes on Valentine’s Day or the occasional sinful, delicious cupcake.”
“Which I notice is gone, by the way.”
Serena humphed. “Not the point. And please, Stuart couldn’t be more blatant if he stuck heart-shaped Post-it notes to his eyes―he’s not keeping anything a secret. And besides, you hate red velvet, so I feel no guilt. No trying to distract me.” She came around her desk and stood in front of him, shoes in hand. “Expensive gifts in unmarked packages indicating that someone is watching you without your knowledge? That’s creepy. Not romantic, not admiring, nothing other than unsettlingly creepy.”
“I never said it wasn’t also creepy,” he said defensively.
“I think there might be a lot you didn’t say.” She glared at him over the tops of the shoes. Elliot hadn’t quailed this hard since the last time he’d seen his sister. “Is this the first present you’ve received?”
“I get a lot of fan mail.”
“And you have it sent here because you’re not stupid enough to give out your home address. Stop avoiding the point, Elliot. Just talk to me. Please.”
Serena’s please was a mortal blow, and she knew it. If there was one person in his life he had to come clean to—personally as well as professionally—Serena was it. “There have been a few other things.”
“What kind of things?”
“Only pictures, before this.”
“Pictures.” Her voice was completely flat. “Pictures of you?”
He nodded. “And my house. My car. My dog.”
“And how were you given these pictures?”
“My mailbox, mostly,” he said. Serena shifted, her posture shouting obscenities at him as she waited. Elliot sighed. “And a few stuffed through the letter slot in my front door.”
Serena’s dark eyes went wide. “Elliot, this is stalking! You need to take it to the cops.”
He was shaking his head before she’d finished her sentence. “Absolutely not. A few pictures and a pair of shoes don’t constitute a threat to my safety.”
“You have no idea what kind of person this is. And they know where you live; they followed you on your evening run—”
“It’s not like I live in a gated community,” Elliot reminded her. “Anyone can drive down the street there, even if we are a ways outside of town.” Golden was growing in size fast, but Elliot’s little subdivision still consisted of older houses with nice, private plots. “And City Park is open to the public. Whoever this is, they haven’t trespassed.”
“But the police—”
“I can’t.” Elliot shook his head. “You know I can’t. Not right now.” Not with the election for district attorney coming up. He wasn’t going to sabotage things for his sister again.
Serena tossed the shoes onto her desk with a weary sigh. “You don’t think she’d rather have you alive and well than win a damn election?”
“I don’t like to postulate about what Vanessa wants for me,” he said. “But I do know I’m not going to rock the boat unless absolutely necessary. I’m fine. I doubt I’m in any danger.”
Serena opened her mouth, but Elliot was done arguing. “So! I’ll take those―” he swiped the shoes from where she’d left them “―and go home.”
“Tell me you’re not going to wear them jogging.”
“They’re nice shoes,” Elliot pointed out. “And just my size. Of course I’m going to wear them.”
Serena scowled. “At least check the soles for razor blades, all right?” Idiot, her tone added, but Elliot was an expert at ignoring negative subtext.
“Should I check for bombs too?” he asked, then winced as Serena smacked his arm with her surprisingly hard hand. “I mean, yes, I’ll check them. Promise.”
“I guess that’s the best I’m going to get.”
“It’s not your job to worry about me,” he reminded her as he gathered the shoes under his arm and grabbed his briefcase with the other.
“No, it’s my hobby.” She crossed her arms. He could tell she was desperate to reach out, to grab hold and gather him in like she did with everyone in her life, it seemed. Serena excelled at making connections, like Elliot, but where his were all professional these days, most of hers were deeply personal, even if they didn’t start off that way. She could coax a turtle out of its shell or a reluctant investor into exchanging life stories in under an hour, and Elliot appreciated that about her.
He appreciated her efforts to appropriate him into her family far less. Families were messy, and he’d already done enough damage to the one he’d been born into. He didn’t need to tempt fate by getting entangled in someone else’s.
“I’m fine. I’m going straight home,” he assured her.
“Text me when you get there.”
“Serena . . .”
Fucking pleases. “Fine. But just this once.”
She looked relieved, which made giving up a little of his evening autonomy worth it. “Thank you.”
“You only thank me when you get your way,” he complained, and mentally punched the air in victory when he saw her smile. “Don’t stay here working, all right? I’m tired of paying your overtime.”
“You need to hire me an assistant,” she said immediately. “Or at least an intern. Someone I can shove the paperwork onto while I manage your elaborate schmoozing schedule. And don’t worry about your precious budget; there’ll be no more overtime tonight. My sister’s having a barbecue and I’m bringing the chips.”
Serena sighed. “She said to bring a side and I don’t cook, you know that. This is why I have all my parties catered.”
“Don’t worry,” he assured her with a wink. “I don’t judge.”
Elliot walked out of the office, calling a goodnight to the janitor who was already at work in the other half of the building. He headed down the street to the parking garage where his car, a sleek, modern Porsche Panamera, sat waiting for him.
Elliot stood at the driver’s side door with his keys in his hand, wondering for a moment whether or not he really should check the car, at least, for bombs. After a second he shook his head at himself. He wouldn’t even know what to search for, and they probably wouldn’t try to kill him. Not like this.
“You’re fine,” he said quietly as he opened the door and got inside. “It’s fine.” He set his things in the passenger seat, resolutely not looking at the shoes that he was going to throw in the next dumpster he saw, then buckled up, and slowly put his key into the ignition and turned it.
The car started with a purr, and absolutely no explosions beyond its regular internal combustion. Elliot let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding and pressed his forehead against the smooth leather of the steering wheel for a moment. His car acting normally felt like a stupid thing to be grateful for, but the rock lodged in his throat suddenly melted away.
Before he could second-guess himself, he pulled out his phone and brought up Vanessa’s info. He dug his fingers into his palm as he resisted the urge to outright call her, just to hear her voice message―she wouldn’t reply. She never did, but she’d never told him not to text her either, so he’d made it a ritual for whenever he was feeling overwhelmed. Elliot tapped out a message, Thinking of you, and hit Send fast.
Maybe his note would make her smile. Maybe it would inspire her to reach out to him once the election was over―it was so close now. And if she won, if he didn’t ruin things for her again, if everything went perfectly, then maybe he could have the most important part of his old life again: his family.
Maybe. Elliot turned his phone off, set it aside, and backed out of his parking space. Until Vanessa made her move, he’d be fine. He was fine. He refused to let himself be any other way.
About Cari Z
Cari Z was a bookworm as a child and remains one to this day. In an effort to combat her antisocial reading behavior, she did all sorts of crazy things, from competitive gymnastics to alligator wresting (who even knew that was legal!) to finally joining the Peace Corps, which promptly sent her and her husband to the wilds of West Africa, stuck them in a hut, and said, "See ya!" She also started writing, because some things she just thought she could do better. She's still climbing that ladder, but can't stop herself from writing, or from sharing what she creates.
Cari enjoys a wide range of literary genres, from the classics (get 'im, Ahab) to science fiction and fantasy of all types, to historical fiction and reference materials (no, seriously, there are so many great encyclopedias out there). She writes in a wide range of genres as well, but somehow 90% of what she produces ends up falling into the broad and exciting category of m/m erotica. There’s a sprinkling of f/m and f/f and even m/f/m in her repertoire, but her true love is man love. And there's a lot of love to go around.
Cari has published short stories, novellas, and novels with numerous print and e-presses, and she also offers up a tremendous amount of free content on Literotica.com, under the name Carizabeth.
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To celebrate the release of Friendly Fire, one lucky winner will receive a copy of Friendly Fire signed by Cari Z! Leave a comment with your contact info to enter the contest. Entries close at midnight, Eastern time, on October 22, 2016. Contest is NOT restricted to U.S. entries. Thanks for following the tour, and don’t forget to leave your contact info!