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An excerpt of At the Brink

By Anna del Mar

Chapter One

My mother used to say that my mind worked like a color wheel. Color defined my world and explained it too. My mom, for example, fell into the violet spectrum, somewhere between lilac and Tyrian purple, the color of emperors. I belonged in the yellow spectrum, which I used a lot in my portraits. Martin, well, he belonged in the neon red category, a color that happened rarely in nature and only to announce extreme danger.

On good days, primary colors filled my canvases. On not so good days—and there had been a lot of those lately—my eye craved neutrals, mostly whites and grays, since I feared black, the color killer. Despite the vibrant display of high fashion crowding the ballroom, Martin’s party fell squarely into the grayscale range. Very appropriate, since right after the speeches, I ended up in the bathroom, where I now knelt on the floor staring into the depths of a stark toilet bowl.

Panic attacks were a bitch. Mine came on without warning. Sometimes I couldn’t breathe. Sometimes the full blow of my anxieties hit my weak belly. I couldn’t say that I preferred one over the other.

“Come on, Lily.” I wiped my mouth and hovered for a few more seconds over the toilet. “You can do this.”

I flushed the toilet, took a deep breath and, finding my feet, steadied myself against the stall’s marble wall. Focus on the positives. If one had to be sick with panic and anxiety, the plush women’s lounge at the Ritz Carlton on the Commons wasn’t the worst place in the world for a powwow with my lunch.

The sounds of music and conversation drifted through the doors as someone walked out, leaving me alone with the empty stalls. In my hand, the little satin clutch I’d borrowed for the evening began to vibrate again. My gut ached with an additional pang of dread. I pulled out my battered cell. I had five texts from Martin.

Come out. The words glared on the cracked screen. Think consequences.

My stomach churned some more.

Hurry up, the next text said. He’s here.

And Come out now or I’ll come in there and drag you out myself.

I took another deep breath and staggered out of the stall. I stumbled on my way to the sinks. Damn high heels. Martin had insisted I wear them. I made it to one of the crystal bowls lining the granite counter. Despite the tremors shaking my hand, I rinsed my mouth, reapplied my lipstick and straightened my dress.

“Lily Boswell,” I said to my reflection in the mirror. “You’re perfectly capable of handling this.”

My stomach completely disagreed.

I forced myself to walk through the threshold anyway. The alcove that connected the restrooms to the ballroom held a small crowd, swarming around a Navy sailor wearing dark sunglasses and dress whites. A bar full of medals adorned his chest. I recognized him right away. He’d been one of the speakers earlier tonight, a war hero and a wounded veteran whose appeal to assist his injured comrades had made me wish I had more than thirty dollars to my name.

On the stage, the veteran had introduced himself as Petty Officer Chavez. He’d been poised and inspiring, an excellent spokesman. But standing at the center of this smaller crowd, he didn’t look nearly as comfortable. On the contrary, he looked nervous. The anxiety etched on his face mirrored my own. Sweat beads gleamed over his lip as a few clueless donors clustered around him to examine his state-of-the-art prosthetic arm, which was furnished by the Healing Warrior Development Fund, the not-for-profit sponsoring the gala tonight.

The prosthetic arm seemed to work really well for the petty officer. The crowd? Not so much. I could almost feel his anxiety climbing, and so could his service dog. The restless yellow Labrador circled its handler, trying to put some space between him and the others. I wanted to do something to help him. Instead, I froze at the sight of all of those people. My legs refused to carry me forward and my belly squeezed. Faces crammed my visual field and shrill laugher tortured my brain. A clout of sweet perfume had me gagging. Oh, God. I covered my mouth with my hand. Was I about to throw up again?

The dog’s yelp broke through the din.

“Damn it!” A man dressed in a white tuxedo kicked at the dog and missed. “Did you see that? That mutt just nipped at me!”

“Marie Therese doesn’t bite.” The petty officer knelt on the floor and groped for the Labrador, feeling along the leg that the poor creature held curled up against its chest. “You must have stepped on her.”

“That dog is dangerous.” The guy snapped his fingers, getting the event manager’s attention. “You! Hey, you, yes. You need to kick this dog out of here. Call animal control.”

The sailor’s face crumpled in horror. “Please, don’t do that. My dog is safe.”

The anguish in his stare powered my outrage. The people in the little crowd murmured assorted opinions, but no one intervened. I took an instant dislike to the jackass who chose to make such a racket at the expense of a hero. With his gel-slicked hair plastered to his head, the idiot looked like a plastic doll, like Barbie’s Ken with a rotten attitude. A total jerk. I was furious, but before I could muster my voice, a man I hadn’t seen before stepped into the alcove.

“Why don’t we give Petty Officer Chavez a bit of space, people?”

The newcomer’s appearance scattered quite a few of the bystanders. I watched in awe as a handful of Boston’s powerbrokers fled from the alcove. Whoever this man was, he commanded a great deal of authority.

The resolve in his voice matched his body language. His brown eyes scoured the place for stragglers, clearing the room without need for words. Everybody left, everybody except for the jerk—who was reckless, dumb and drunk—and the petty officer and his dog. And me, of course.

Blue. The newcomer unleashed the color blue in my mind, and not just any blue, but the most spectacular blue of them all, cobalt blue, rich, deeply hued, velvety and intense. When his eyes fell on me, adrenaline flushed through my veins in buckets. I wanted to run too, and yet despite the urge, I couldn’t move, because a ballroom full of strangers terrified me almost as much as the stare pinning me to the wall.

The man stood tall and imposing, wearing an exquisitely tailored tux that emphasized his body’s broad shoulders and sleek lines. With his brown hair cut razor short and his expressive brows set into a permanent scowl, he was handsome, but in a stern, forbidding, frightening way. He moved fluidly, with purpose, intensity, confidence and elegance. He owned every stride he took, every gesture he made. He owned the place too, the room, the walls closing in on me, the air barely trickling into my lungs, the world all around me.

His stare stalked me from across the room before it settled back on the drunk. “I suggest you return to the ballroom.” His voice rustled with danger. “You don’t want to miss the auction.”

“I don’t give a damn about the auction.” The drunk glared. “That dog bit me and I want it gone!”

“Perhaps you should’ve given the dog and its handler more space.” The man crouched by the dog and examined its paw. “Marie Therese seems to be okay.” He helped the petty officer to his feet. “Are you all right, man?”

“Fine.” The sailor wiped the sweat off his brow. “But my dog. If that guy complains…”

“Nobody will take Marie Therese away from you,” the man said, and I believed him. “Nobody.” His stare returned to the jerk. “You owe Petty Officer Chavez and his dog an apology.”

“I don’t apologize to dogs.” The drunk blurred his words. “Dogs shouldn’t be allowed in places like this.”

“By law, a service dog is allowed to go anywhere its handler goes,” the man spat out in his exacting tone.

“But that dog is too aggressive.”

“Marie Therese isn’t aggressive.” The sailor’s fingers tightened around the dog’s leash. “She’d never attack anyone.”

“How would you know?” the drunk said. “You’re blind, you retard.”

The newcomer’s face hardened into a blank mask, but the heat in his glare echoed the feral fury fisting my hands and burning through me.

“The dog didn’t attack anybody.” It was my voice and it sounded strong and bold. “This man stepped on the dog’s paw. I saw it. The dog nipped, but only because it was in pain.”

“See?” The petty officer side-hugged his Labrador and turned his face in my direction. “Thanks miss, whoever you are.”

“She’s lying,” the drunk said.

“I am not!”

The newcomer glanced at me then returned his glare to the drunk. “What’s your name?” “I’m Edward Lancaster.” He smirked. “My father is John Lancaster.”

“John, yes.” The man crossed his arms and braced his feet apart. “He’s the chairman of Lancaster & Associates.”

“And a platinum donor to the Healing Warrior Development Fund,” Edward Lancaster added with mindboggling arrogance.

“Your father is very generous,” the other man noted. “Wasn’t he a decorated Air Force officer during the first Iraq war?”

Junior hesitated. “Yes?”

“Ah, then, do me a favor.” He flashed a vicious smile. “Go tell your Daddy that tonight you trampled on the service dog of a veteran who earned his Purple Heart in goddamn Afghanistan. Tell him that, after you hurt his dog, you whined like a spoiled brat and demanded that the dog be removed. If your father hasn’t choked on his bile or strangled you with his own two hands by then, tell him that you’re an idiot with a goddamn bug up your ass and that you were kicked out of the gala because you insulted a friend of Josh Lane’s.”

The young man gaped. “You’re Josh Lane? The Josh Lane?”

“Affirmative,” he said. “And you’re done here.”

My stomach convulsed with another wave of nausea. For a moment, I couldn’t move. Numb, I watched as security escorted the drunk out of the alcove and the man conferred briefly with the sailor, before a staff member led the veteran and his dog out of the ballroom. Then the man’s stare narrowed on me, eyes rich with crystal brown hues, gaze curious.

He drew in all the light in the room, consuming it, reshaping it, absorbing it, until he was the only image in my frame and blue was the only color on my canvas. I couldn’t look away from him. I stood there, rooted in place like a potted plant, unable to move. That is, until he started toward me.

I bolted. I ran, back to the restroom, through the lounge, to the stall in the very back of the row. I locked the door and pressed my back against the wall. I had trouble breathing, thinking. Why did I run away when I’d wanted to stay? And why had I wanted to stay in the first place?

I settled my hand over my heart. Oh. My. God. It couldn’t be a freaking coincidence. My anxiety returned in full, because the target of Martin’s plan, the source of my only hope, and the stranger outside the door shared the same name.

Josh Lane.

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