Guess what? The McConnor Curse is almost ready for ARC readers, but I wanted to give you a sneak peek! Here is the rough, unedited (so, expect a few mistakes) first chapter of my new book, The McConnor Curse. It's the first novella in a new paranormal mystery series called The McConnor & Cunningham Clock Company!
Charlotte’s knuckles blanched as the pocked pattern of the steering wheel embedded in her palms. Droplets of sweat dribbled over her forehead and chin, but the heat was the least of her worries. Behind her, flames swallowed the sleepy town of Bloomington, forcing a stone of guilt into her chest. It was not the loss of everything she had ever known that picked at her addled mind, though that would catch up to her soon enough. No, for now, it was the man in her trunk that occupied her thoughts.
The single stop-light blinked red against a black sky while Charlotte debated—turn right, turn left. Right led straight to the city while left… Well, left just went on forever until you ran out of gas.
“Charlie, you can’t keep me in here forever! We both know—”
“I can keep you in there as long as I want!” Charlotte slammed her foot on the gas and cut a sharp left. The muffled cursing from the trunk offered a slight nudge of pleasure but not enough to deter her from her task.
Flickers of yellow and orange lit up the rearview mirror and illuminated the cabin of her old Mustang. Its cherry-red paint had long since faded to something more appropriate for an old lady, but she still had a lot of life left—unlike the residents of Bloomington.
Charlotte squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head, releasing the image of flailing bodies eaten alive by a fire so hot it spread through the town in a matter of seconds. It wasn’t the first time, and it wouldn’t be the last, but Charlotte vowed to put a stop to the never-ending cycle that had plagued her for going on six months.
Had it really been that long? Had she watched her town burned to the ground every night for half a year? The days flipped through her mind like pages tearing from a desktop calendar, each one forcing the stone deeper and deeper until she choked back a sob.
How could she have known when she tapped that little yes button under Colin Cunningham’s name, accepting what promised to be the date of a lifetime, that she would spend the rest of her life imprisoned in his game of cat and mouse. Psychopaths, she supposed, were good at deception, but that she fell in love with a man who spent his nights releasing Hell upon earth shredded her nerves like a cheese grater to the knuckles.
“Join a dating app, she said. It’ll be a lot of fun, she said.” Charlotte rolled her eyes as her best friend’s voice infiltrated her thoughts. Grace was dead now—like she was by the end of every round in Colin’s game—but if she were alive, Charlotte had no doubt she would encourage her to see the good in Colin anyway. After all, his striking good looks and big, fat bank account would ensure Charlotte could do just about anything she wanted. Charlotte was sure Grace would give the Devil himself the benefit of the doubt if presented with enough evidence he deserved it.
Charlotte chuckled and wiped her face. “He probably is the devil.”
Chasing Colin around for years on end while he committed atrocious crimes was not what she had in mind when Grace talked about a long-term commitment or a relationship that would last a lifetime.
“I’m hungry!” Colin banged on the trunk lid, spiking Charlotte’s anger.
She swerved right then left, then slammed on the brakes. Colin’s body thumped around, forcing a grin on her face before she pulled onto the shoulder. Gravel spit up around the car, dinging the paint job further. Bloomington was far enough behind that the horizon was little more than an orange-purple glow that could have been mistaken for sunset if not for the acrid air that hung around her like a thick fog.
“Charlie… Let me out. I promise I won’t do it again.”
A thrill of adrenaline surged from her stomach, up her chest, and out her mouth, released as a banshee-like shriek that drowned the incessant caterwauling of whatever feline species inhabited the forest surrounding Bloomington. She flung her door open and stomped to the rear of the car.
“Would you shut up! For five minutes, could you just put a sock in it?” Charlotte kicked the trunk.
“I don’t wear socks, Charlie.”
Charlotte kicked the trunk again.
“Open the trunk and talk to me, please.”
Charlotte sighed and slipped her key into the lock, turned, and popped the trunk lid open. Inside, piercing blue eyes fell on her before a too-perfect smile split his face. She had hoped to dump his body farther out this time, maybe toss him over a cliff once she had carved his heart out but leaving him for dead on the side of the road would have to do. She’d have enough time to get back to the house before he woke, forcing the day to reset from sunrise as it had every day since… the first time.
Charlotte sighed and pointed toward the ground.
“Get out.” Charlotte motioned for Colin to climb from the trunk and stand, but instead, he hoisted to a seated position on the bumper and cracked his neck.
“I think you broke it this time. Now what? How will you end today’s splendid display?”
“What do you think? Same thing as last Tuesday.”
“They are all Tuesday, Charlie. You’ll need to be more specific,” he said, his grin almost endearing—almost.
“The real Tuesday.” Charlotte clenched her jaw and bit back the rush of adrenaline that threatened to consume her as fast as Bloomington’s fire.
“Aw, not that again.” Colin raised his hands, still bound, and pleaded. “I promise, no more fire for at least a week. Maybe two if you do anything but that. This is my good suit.”
“Nope. Turn around.”
“At least look at me while you do it!” He lowered his hands and pouted his lips.
“I’m not like you, Colin. I can’t look someone in the eyes when I murder them, not even you. Let’s get this over with so I can get some sleep before the day starts over.” The glint of moonlight on the hilt of her blade proved her intent as she rotated it in a hurry-up motion. “Get moving. Turn around.”
Colin sighed and stood, offering her his back. “You know, we could just drive to the next town, have a nice dinner, talk this through, and—”
Charlotte buried the blade deep in his back, thrusting the words out of his mouth. She twisted it.
“Oh… That stings,” Colin said, then fell face-first on the gravel.
Charlotte wiped the sticky crimson from the blade and tossed it into the trunk.
“Jerk,” she mumbled, then fell into the driver’s seat. She checked her watch—four hours of sleep before the game started over and nowhere to lay her head given her hometown was still burning in the distance. She’d have to actually sleep in the decrepit remains of her Great Aunt Tildy’s home this time. Fifteen feet from the last stop sign in town, it was the only safe place Charlotte could go.
Outside, Colin lay sprawled over the ground with his face down—for now. He would heal and wake by morning when the game began again, but she would rest until then. Reset the clock, and rest. Just before shifting into drive, Charlotte felt a warm breeze take her skin.
“Ah, ah, ah. Not so fast, Charlie.” Colin’s voice drifted toward Charlotte over the breeze. “You missed the heart. Sloppy, sloppy.”
Charlotte’s heart stopped, and her throat seized. That had never happened before. Every day, she reset the clock and raced to save her hometown from Colin’s devastation. Every day she failed to stop him, but she had a back-up plan. The only way to keep the game on pause was to kill the game-maker himself, hurry back to the starting point, and hit reset. He had never survived her attack—at least, not at first. He always returned but never had she failed to kill him.
“What did you do?” Charlotte’s voice was strained and wary, her sarcastic veneer too thin to cover her fear.
Colin shuffled on the gravel road and stood, brushed the dirt from his suit jacket, and grinned. He reached inside his coat and pulled out the palm-sized clock.
Anger gurgled in her throat, pushing every other emotion from her body. “You stole my clock. Why you—”
“Ah, language darling.” Colin opened the car door and slid effortlessly into the passenger seat. “Drive to the diner, and we will discuss the terms of our arrangement over pie.”
“How did you get into my aunt’s home?”
“Carefully. And with great effort. Quite the trickster she was, but even her protection wasn’t enough to keep me from getting what I wanted, Charlie. Now, let’s go.”
“I’m not going anywhere with you.” To solidify her point, Charlotte tugged on the ring that encircled her finger—and encased her life—with a sort of magical bond that could not be broken. It wouldn’t budge, as usual. “I hate you!”
“You didn’t when you let me put that on your finger.”
“I didn’t know who you really are then.”
“I played your way, now we play mine. Go.”
“No.” Charlotte crossed her arms over her chest and huffed. “Get out of my car and give me back my clock.”
“No. We made an arrangement, Charlie, and I intend to keep my end of the deal. This, everything that has happened,” he said, motioning over his shoulder toward Bloomington, “is because you refuse to commit to the deal we made. I did not force you. I made no threats, issued no bribes.”
“You asked me to marry you! In what world would a woman think this is what she gets for agreeing to a marriage proposal?” Charlotte’s screeches startled an owl who voiced its displeasure before erupting from the dense pocket of trees beside the car.
Colin’s gaze shifted from her eyes to the disturbance for only a moment, then back to her. His temper flared, but he reigned in his outburst before unleashing it on Charlotte. She felt it, the way heat radiated from him as if he would combust there in front of her.
“I meant what I said. Despite the repeated stabbing, strangling, drowning, and other forms of torture you inflict upon me, I will not burn down that place—”
“My home,” Charlotte said.
He growled. “I will not burn it down because you love it so, though the people are dreadfully boring and a tad narcissistic. Begging for their lives… disgusting.”
“Narci—they didn’t want to die, Colin!”
He rolled his eyes. “They are of little importance in the grand scheme. What do they do? They watch while others suffer, just like everyone else in the world.”
Charlotte sighed. There was no reasoning with the man—demon, whatever he was—but doing as he said might be the only way to retrieve the ancient clock. Charlotte gazed out the side window into the darkness. Bloomington smoldered, offering an amber glow to the horizon. Deeper in the forest, beasts of all sorts roamed—natural and supernatural—but the one she feared most sat beside her. Sitting alongside her, fear was loathing, a potent dislike of the creature that took all from her just as his ancestors had taken from hers—the curse of the McConnor women.
“I don’t want to hurt them, Charlotte,” he whispered, almost as if he were a different person from the one sitting beside her only a moment ago. It reminded her she felt other things about him, too. Those things made her want to purge everything she had ever eaten in her life.
“You enjoy it. You cannot help but enjoy the mayhem.” Her eyes remained on the trees, waiting. Waiting for what, she could not say, but surely there was some monster in there more fearsome than Colin, one that would appear any moment to help her.
“I am what I am.”
Charlotte chuckled and settled her gaze on him. “And what are you, exactly.”
He grinned. “You know the things that go bump in the night, Charlie. Can’t you even be bothered to understand your own creation?”
“I’ve been preoccupied trying to save lives,” she said, biting her sarcastic tone.
He sighed, frustrated. Charlotte smiled. At least she could do that—annoy him until he caved and gave her what she wanted. “I do not want to harm them because it hurts you. It is you that chooses the hard way.”
Charlotte’s throat burned as a stray tear slipped over her cheek. She swiped it away before he could see. Without the clock, she was forced to play his way—no resets, no do-overs. Just… submission. She had her time, riddled with luck and good fortune, and now it was his time.
“If I go with you… If I do what you want, will you let me fix this?” she asked, pointing over her shoulder.
Colin did not hesitate. “I will.”
More tears escaped. These, she could not hide. “You won’t trick me? You will let me reset and reverse this—”
“It will be as it is every morning. Bloomington will thrive, your Grace will be as bubbly as she ever was, and your family will go on—but all without you.”
That was the part that always stung. Charlotte knew, deep down, that if she only gave in and let the curse take her, everything else would be fine. It was the thought of her best friend… her brother… her parents… everyone she had ever known, forgetting about her as if she had never even been born. She would fade from the photos… disappear from memory… be erased from her very existence… a fate worse than death.
“Every other generation,” Charlotte whispered.
Colin delicately brushed the tears from her cheeks and pressed his palms against them. “Maybe part of me enjoys the mayhem, but not all of me. I do it because I must. The way a caterpillar must become a butterfly, I must become what I am meant to be. It never mattered to the McConnor clan what became of their women; it only mattered that they were the richest among all in the land.”
“They sucked,” Charlotte admitted, finding it difficult to reject his affection despite… everything. It disgusted her.
Colin chuckled. “Mine were no better. Did you know it was my ancestor that made the clock?”
Charlotte’s eyes widened. “Aunt Tildy said… She did say it was stolen from its owner, but she did not say—”
“She didn’t know either. It has been many generations since it was stolen, but that does not change our situation now, Charlie. You know what I am. You know, but you refuse to accept. I am not a random supernatural creature that chose to torture you until the end of time, which we both know you work hard to fool yourself into believing. I am yours, created by you. That is the difference between you and the other women of your family. They accepted, but you ignore the truth.”
“I didn’t create you.”
“You know that you did.”
“I never asked to be born,” she admitted. Her knuckles blanched again as she gripped the wheel with one and his wrist with the other. She did know what he was, but that he existed in this manner at all was proof that she was not innocent, that she, too, desired more than her fair share. He was her greed, her lust, her want for more incarnate—he drew her sin and kept it until he could take no more.
“And neither did I, but it seems the greed of your family knows no end.” He chuckled again, then gazed out the window. “Ironically, I am the weakest of my family line. You resisted the greed that has consumed your family for so many generations, for a long while, anyway.”
“I don’t want the things they do, but your very presence on earth means that I am not innocent. My family created you to bear the burden of our sin and greed. If I hadn’t… activated you, none of this would have happened. Blasted magic,” she said with a growl.
Colin’s hand slipped from her cheek, and he sighed. “Because I love you—though you think the emotion is impossible for a lowly sin-eater—I will amend our agreement.”
Hope sprang forth, flowering in her chest as her pain eased. But hope, she knew, was deadly. It fooled its victims, taunted them with promise, then sprang forth with disappointment sharper than any sword.
He pressed the small clock into her palm and closed her fingers around it. “Reset the game. Tell them all you love them and meet me here at noon. Spend one year with me, and if I cannot prove to you that we can change what we are, then I will release you from your part of the bargain.”
“But my sins—”
“I will still save you, even if you choose to go.”
Charlotte stared at the clock in her hand, bronze still shiny after centuries of use. It ticked away the seconds until midnight, her last chance to use it and try again before things would forever remain as they were.
“You trust me?” Green eyes met his blue as a shiver of uncertainty shot down her spine.
“I love you.” Colin opened the car door, shut it, and disappeared into the forest.