To date, I have published twenty historical romances filled with “danger, passion, humor, and huge hulking heroes that take your breath away.” That, incidentally, was a quote from a review of my novel “Highlander’s Woman.” I, of course, wouldn’t have a clue about huge hulking men who took your breath away. I just created them.
My name is Nicola Grace Royse—though I write under the pen name Grace Martin—and I’m a romance novelist slash romance junkie slash eternal believer that love conquers all. I have been since I was old enough to understand a woman swooning would capture a knight's attention. I’m also a tiny bit dramatic in my thinking. For example, a purple flower is not a purple flower, but a violet colored masterpiece given to men from God in order to capture a lady’s heart. As I said, I’m dramatic.
As a child, I played with dolls and dreamed up magical lands where Prince Charming carried Barbie away on his trusty steed. As a teen, I didn’t date much because of my overprotective twin brothers. I had to satisfy my need for romance by devouring passionate novels where Barbie finally graduated to Guinevere and Ken became the Knights of the Round Table. Then, one day, I picked up a book about Scottish Highlanders. They were big, they were bold, and they wore a kilt with nothing underneath. If I could have transported myself back in time to the Highlands of Scotland and those sexy Scottish clansmen, I wouldn’t have hesitated. The mere thought of being manhandled and thrown over the shoulder of a gigantic Scotsman with a sexy brogue . . . well, it damn near occupied my every waking dream.
My love for the past earned me a bachelor’s degree in education, with a focus on medieval history. My love for history and the romance of it all, along with a healthy appetite for reading, found its way onto a word document one boring weekend in June when I was twenty-two. And the rest, as they say, was history.
All those years I played make-believe, read historical romances, and daydreamed about the perfect man who one-day would sweep me off my feet had translated into a bestseller by the time I was twenty-five. Unfortunately, for me, though, my strapping Highlander, Lowlander, or plain old Prince Charming had never made an appearance.
I’m thirty-two, and never been married—hell, I’d never even been close. Which, by the way, was a sore spot with my mother. She liked to blame my single status on the unrealistic characters I’d written about in my books.
“Nicola Grace Royse,” she always said, “men like that don’t exist, for goodness sake.”
I’d like to point out that my brothers still weren’t married either, yet she never seemed to worry about their single status.
“They’ll marry when they stop being boys and start being men,” she explained. I, however, had my doubts on whether or not they’d stop being boys.
My brother’s aside, I held out hope that one day I could prove my mother wrong. You see, like all good daughters in their twenties, I knew more than my mother did. Now, in my thirties, my biological clock ticked away, and the only thing I had to show for the last ten years was my books. Sadly, I’d come to the frightening realization that my mother, in fact, may have been right all along.
Part of the reason I haven’t found a man who appeals to me is because men aren’t raised to be men anymore, in my opinion. Gone are the take-the-bull-by-the-horns, never-say-die men legends are made of.
So, I write my own legends.
Men who are fearless, handsome, great between the sheets, love their women with all their hearts, and take care of them or die trying—Scottish Highlanders.
“Are you my Laird or my husband in this moment?”
“I am one and the same, wife.”
“‘Tis true. But right now, I prefer the gentle hand of my husband than that of my Laird.”
“Aye, you’ll get my gentle hand and my strong back, my love, as I drive into ghaeahtabaejt’apppppppppppp pppppppppppppp
“Oh, come on. Get off the keyboard, Snape!” I shouted at my feline child.
Snatching the offending orange tabby (who reminded me of Garfield on a good day) off my desk, I placed him on the floor just as the sound of liquid spilling and glass breaking grabbed my attention. My other cat, Simi, who was solid gray in color with big green eyes that reminded me of emeralds, had taken Snape’s place on my desk, knocking over my cup of coffee.
“Seriously, guys? I only had one coffee pod left and that was my favorite mug, you annoying cats.” Simi’s responding meow caught my attention so I answered, “Yes, I’m talking to you. Who else would I be talking to, huh?”
Lifting Simi into my arms, I kissed the ornery cat as I stood up to grab some paper towels. My office was located off my kitchen in the three-bedroom house I’d bought and renovated with the help of my brothers. Nestled in a quiet older neighborhood in midtown Tulsa, the Arts and Crafts bungalow had once been the home of my favorite romance author’s distant cousin. On his father’s side, twice removed—or so I’m told. Of course, hearing that, I just had to buy it. The large wraparound porch on the quiet street was a huge selling point as well. I could see myself sitting on a porch swing with a cup of coffee and a notebook plotting my novels as I watched the sun set in a clear Oklahoma sky.
When I hit the bestseller list, everyone thought that I’d take off for New York or Chicago. But there was no way I’d ever leave my family. Born and raised in a state where the skies are blue, people look you in the eyes when you walk down the street, and hold God, family, and country close to their hearts, I knew I’d never be happy in a fast-paced big city. So I stayed, even though my agent recommended I move.
Speaking of why I stayed—brothers only a sister could love.
Just as I walked into the kitchen to grab some paper towels to clean up Simi’s mess, my side door banged open and my brothers, known to all as Bo and Finn, came walking in. They treated my house as their own and came over unannounced whenever they felt like it. They owned their own construction company, specializing in home renovations, and had a large crew they supervised. This gave Bo and Finn the freedom to work when they wanted, and ample time to keep tabs on me, which, for some reason only known to them, they thought was necessary.
“Do either of you know how to knock?”
Bo, who liked to call himself the oldest of our threesome, responded with, “If we knock, we lose the element of surprise.”
“Element of surprise for what?” I asked, confused.
“Really, Nic?” Finn sighed with exaggeration as if speaking with a small child. “How else can we kick some guy’s ass for messing with our baby sister if he has fair warning?”
“Explain to me again why I put up with you two?”
“It’s the fraternal bond,” Finn explained, “and the fact that we’re so damn charming.”
Did I mention that not only were they my twin brothers, but I also happened to be born at the same time? Finn and Bo liked to refer to themselves as the twins since they’re identical, and that I just came along for the ride. However, technically, we’re triplets. Though, most days I don’t claim either.
I rolled my eyes at my frustrating, but lovable, brothers and I grabbed a handful of paper towels. I wasn’t about to agree with either of them—it would only feed their egos. However, they were right. They were charming in a Nordic, overbearing, Neanderthal kind of way.
Finn and Bo were tall, broad, and classically handsome with strong, square jaws, heavy brows, and big blue eyes that melted women’s hearts around the world. They could thank our Norwegian heritage for their good looks. All three of us had light blonde hair and fair skin, though I ended up with light-green eyes as opposed to their blue. Basically, Bo and Finn were Vikings, plundering and pillaging helpless maidens and trailing heartache in their wake.
As I walked to my desk to clean up the spilled coffee, Bo opened my refrigerator and started searching for food. I kept a well-stocked pantry and fridge just for my brothers. They were bottomless pits and it was easier to keep food in the house than it was to listen to them complain about my empty fridge.
Just as I finished picking up the broken glass, I heard the TV mounted over the rock fireplace in my living room turn on.
Instantly alert and slightly alarmed that they appeared to be settling in for a day of binge eating and sports, I turned towards my living room to get them out of my hair. I had too much work to do on my novel and wanted to write in peace. Besides, they had their own homes in which to veg, they didn’t need to do it on my new leather sofa. I hadn’t even vegged out on my new leather sofa yet. If anyone was getting crumbs on the cushions while devouring a bag of chips, it was going to be me.
Rounding the corner, I entered my living room with its kickass view of Swan Lake. Swan Lake wasn’t really a lake but a park directly across the street with a large pond that was home to swans.
Ready to insist that Frick and Frack make haste leaving my home, I stopped suddenly, the TV catching my attention. There was a news report showing police standing in a field on the west bank of the Arkansas River and a body bag being placed on a coroner's gurney. As shocking and sad as that was, it was, however, the man occupying the screen that caught my eye as much as the body bag. He was tall, dark, and dangerous-looking as he scowled at the cameras. He had a policeman’s shield clipped to his belt and I could see his weapon holstered at his hip. His hair was dark-brown, maybe even black, and styled in a not-so-standard issue policeman’s cut. It was longer than most men wore all over, but not on purpose. You could tell he just didn’t have time, or the inclination, to care if he kept it clipped short. Dressed in jeans, boots, and a black Henley Thermal covered in a black leather jacket, he stood out among the crowd of police officers. He was, in my opinion, the perfect romance novel hero and my writer’s mind started taking notes while the woman in me came alive.
“The body of a young woman was discovered overnight in a shallow grave. Police are withholding the name of the victim until family members are notified. This is the third body of a woman found in a shallow grave in the past sixteen months. The first two victims, twenty-five-year-old Lisa Kerns Flanagan of Bixby and twenty-nine-year-old Rosemarie McKenzie of Broken Arrow, were both found in shallow graves three months apart in 2014. Police are cautioning women to be aware of their surroundings when entering their cars and homes. The News on Six contacted the Tulsa Police Department, asking them to comment, but they have yet to respond. We’ll keep you up-to-date on any further developments concerning the discovery of what appears to be the third victim of whom police have dubbed “The Shallow Grave Killer,” here, on News Channel Six.”
“Those poor women.”
Intrigued on a creative level, since the story included an honest-to-goodness romance hero, I dashed to grab my notebook from my cluttered desk in order to write down the specifics of the case. I began this habit many years ago when I first started writing. There were pages of news reports, internet folly, and interactions with strangers to help spark my creativity. As I flipped through it, looking for a blank page, I sighed when I saw how full it was. I had a never-ending supply of other people’s lives to fuel my stories. Sadly, my own life, or lack thereof, gave me no inspiration. A writer writes what he or she knows, but since I had no real life experiences other than my books and friends, I had to steal snippets from other people’s lives to fuel my imagination.
“Meow,” Snape said from the comfort of my office chair as stood there, writing down my impressions of the cop and the terrifying murders of three women.
“Don’t mind me, Snape, I’ll just stand here and write. I wouldn’t want to disturb you while you lick your butt."
When I reached down to tickle his ears before I continued writing, a thought occurred to me and I paused. Maybe the reason I didn’t have a life, other than my books, was because the only conversations I'd had in months were with my cats and brothers. Not that you could qualify grunting and chewing as conversation per se (my brothers, not my cats).
I’d been so tied up writing, plotting stories, going to book signings, and researching Scottish history, that I couldn’t remember the last time I went out with my friends or on a date.
“How did this happen?” I asked in amazement. “I’ve turned into a spinster cat lady with no friends. Haven’t I, Simi?”
“Meow,” Simi agreed from her spot on my windowsill.
“Yeesh, you didn’t have to agree so quickly,” I argued on a sigh. “That’s it. After I finish this book, I’m taking some time off to have a life. I’m gonna get drunk, let my hair down, maybe even get laid by an honest to goodness man. That’s if I can find one that—”
“Bo!” Finn shouted from behind me, interrupting my private talk with Simi and Snape, “Nicola’s talking to her cats again.”
“What’s she saying this time?” Bo hollered back.
“Apparently, she thinks she’s gonna get drunk and then get laid.”
“Excellent, I could use a good workout. I haven’t beaten the shit out of a guy in years,” he answered.
“Would you guys grow up already? I’m not sixteen anymore,” I explained, exasperated as I pushed past Finn.
Finn followed on my heels, laughing, as I went into the kitchen in search of my phone to call Kasey.
“Sixteen or sixty, Nic, it’s our job to scare the shit out of your dates.”
“Considering every man I’ve met is as ridiculous as you and Bo, I don’t think you need to clean your brass knuckles just yet.”
“We polish them nightly, Nicola. As Dad always says, it’s better to be prepared than caught off guard.”
“Boys in men’s clothing, that’s what the two of you are,” I laughed as I picked up my cell phone and looked up Kasey’s number. “I have a book to finish today, so you two children have to leave. I can’t concentrate while you’re here.”
Once I’d found Kasey’s number, I hit call and put the phone to my ear as Finn roughed up the top of my head. Shoving his hand away, I grinned, and then turned my back on him while I listened to the call connect.
“May I ask who’s calling?”
“You know damn well who this is. My number's programmed under the name Amelia Earhart.”
“And just like you, she has gone missing.”
“Well, that’s about to change, starting today. I realized just now that I talk to my cats more than I talk to humans. As of today, after typing the words “The End” on “Highlander’s Pride,” I’m taking six months off to do nothing but reconnect with my family and friends.”
"Well, I’ll notify People Magazine that the hermit Grace Martin is coming out of hiding,” she chuckled.
“Fuck you,” I laughed.
“Fuck you, too,” Kasey giggled. “If you’re serious about taking a break, meet me for coffee at Gypsy’s, Tuesday at five thirty. Be there or be square.”
“Coffee it is. I’ll call the rest of the girls.”
“No need, we have a standing date for coffee every Tuesday and Thursday. We do Yoga on Thursdays at Om-klahoma before coffee, if you want to come.”
“I’m sorry I’ve been MIA, Kasey. It seems I got lost in fiction. But I’m turning over a new leaf as of today. From now on, I’m going to experience life as much as I write about it.”
“Baby steps, Nicola. You’ve been living in a cave for a while, you might need to adjust to the light first,” she laughed. “Just show on Tuesday and all will be forgotten.”
“I’ll be there, you can count on it. Why, a rugged Highlander couldn’t keep me from coming,” I vowed.
“Right, we both know that’s a lie,” she laughed.
Ha, she knew me too well.
“Ok, short of a kilt-wearing Highlander came forward in time to throw me over his shoulder, I’ll be there.
***“Vaughn! Get your ass in here.”
Detective Dallas Vaughn looked up from his desk and smirked at his partner, Bill Reed.
“Guess he heard,” Reed chuckled.
“Guess so,” Vaughn answered.
Vaughn rose from his chair, grabbed his gun, and shoved it into his holster as he made his way towards his lieutenant’s office. The lieutenant’s door was closed, further indicating how pissed off he was, seeing as they had been able to hear him bellowing from behind closed doors. Vaughn knocked and then entered before Lt. Dan Cross had a chance to answer.
“You wanted to see me?”
Lt. Cross was a huge black man with a bald head that sat on top of a squatty neck. A former linebacker for the University of Tulsa, he kept his bulk while moving up the ranks. He had a degree in criminology and a sharp mind, but he also had a temper.
“Didn’t I tell you to keep your fuckin’ distance from Hernandez?”
Vaughn leaned against the door frame and crossed his arms over his wide chest. At six foot three, Vaughn wasn’t a small man, but he was leaner than Cross. Lean, like the former wide receiver he had been for the University of Oklahoma. Vaughn also had a degree in criminology. However, unlike his boss, he had no desire to work his way up the ranks. He preferred hunting down the bad guys to administrative duties.
“It was just a coincidence that I happened to be invited to a party at his next-door neighbor’s house.”
“You don’t have any friends, Vaughn. How in the hell did you get invited to the Assistant District Attorney’s house?”
“Tickets to next year’s Oklahoma—Texas game.”
Cross narrowed his eyes at Vaughn, and just when Dallas thought his boss would blow his top, a slow grin pulled across his mouth.
“Are you telling me you bribed the ADA so you could sit in his backyard and watch his scumbag, wife-murdering neighbor?”
Vaughn’s lips twitched, but he held his smile. “No, I offered to give him my Oklahoma—Texas tickets because I heard he was serving hamburgers. As for Hernandez,” he growled the name, “he’s an innocent until proven guilty scumbag, wife-murdering neighbor.”
Hernandez, the owner of Hernandez Plastics, was under indictment for the murder of his wife. According to Hernandez, she slipped while holding a knife and it somehow managed to bury itself into her heart. Originally, from Honduras, he was a flight risk and they all knew it. Vaughn had been keeping closer tabs on Hernandez than the law allowed, according to the restraining order Hernandez had filed against Vaughn.
Technically, he stayed far enough away from the man. However, when Hernandez willingly came into Vaughn’s space in the ADA’s front yard, the restraining order was null and void. That’s how Hernandez ended up with a black eye and a busted lip. Vaughn was just defending himself, per the witness statements.
“Were the hamburgers good?” Cross asked.
“Rare, just like I like them,” Vaughn replied.
Both men grinned at each other for a moment, but Cross lost his jovial attitude quickly.
“All right, enough about that scumbag. Get your ass out of my office and go find me that goddamned Shallow Grave sonofabitch.”
Vaughn’s eyes went blank at the mention of the killer. Dallas had had to notify the family of Stacy Lynn White-Cline when the dental records came back as a match this afternoon. He was itching to find that bastard. Dallas could still hear her mother’s wailing in his head.
“I’ll find him,” Dallas vowed, “then I’ll send him straight to hell.”
“You’ll find him and hand him over to the DA, that’s what you’ll do,” Cross bit out, leaning across his desk.
Dallas’ jaw tightened, and he nodded once. Turning on his heels, he gritted his teeth, trying not to think about the single mother and the way they’d found her two nights earlier. He knew from experience, after six years in homicide, if you didn’t leave that shit at the office you’d burn out quickly. Unfortunately for him, he never listened and burned a candle at both ends.
Vaughn was a bit of a maverick and did what he had to do to solve a case. If it meant long hours, so be it. All he'd ever wanted to be was a cop. To catch the bad guys and make it safe for law-abiding citizens, no matter the means. He was thirty-four and had a failed marriage under his belt because of his dedication to the job, that, and because Brynne couldn’t keep her legs closed to other men. Most days he was tired, frustrated, and needed a vacation. However, he had no reason to go home and the world was getting sicker by the day, so he kept working.
With another body in the morgue, and the only evidence they had being the fact that the first two women frequented dating sites, according to their families, and traces of crude oil were found on their bodies, the trail was stone cold on the Shallow Grave Killer.
Making his way back to his desk, he searched for Sian Davies, a rookie detective, Dallas’ mood was as gray as the walls in their office. Every officer in his division was in a bad mood with the discovery of a third victim and wanted in on the case so they could nail that sonofabitch to the wall. Dallas and his partner, Bill Reed, were lead investigators on the case, but half his division were out running down all possible leads.
Catching Sian at the coffee pot, Dallas called out to her. “Sian, I need you to call over to Missing Persons and ask them for a list of women between the ages of twenty and forty. I don’t trust this new computer software, since it has more bugs in it than the Kremlin. Ask them for a hard copy and make several copies when you get it.”
Nodding her reply, he watched as she moved to her desk and pick up the phone before he sat down in his chair.
“Let me in on what you’re thinking?’’ Reed asked Vaughn as he sat down.
“All three victims were blonde. Two could be a coincidence, but three feels like an MO. I want to compare any missing women that match the descriptions of our three victims and see if they were visiting online dating sites.”
Nodding in agreement, Bill Reed, a twenty-year veteran of the Tulsa Police Department and father of four, powered up his computer and stood with his coffee cup.
“Better refuel. Sounds like it’s gonna be a long night,” Reed mumbled, motioning to Dallas’ empty cup.
“I’m not drinking that shit and you know it. You pull up the files on the Shallow Grave Killer and I’ll run over to Gypsy’s.”
Reed turned back to Vaughn with a smile on his face. He knew that if he mentioned coffee his partner would cringe at the crap they served at the station.
“I want extra cream in my coffee, none of that skimmed crap either. June’s got me on a low-fat diet and I’m wasting away as it is.”
Dallas’ brows shot up at the wasting away comment. Reed was six-foot-one and pushing two hundred and seventy-five pounds. There wasn’t anything “wasting away” about the man.
“You’ll get your cream, big guy, but if you tell June it’s your head, partner. Your wife scares the hell out of me,” Dallas chuckled.
“June scares the living shit out of me too, Dallas. She makes the Shallow Grave Killer look like a kitten.”
That she did, Dallas thought as he headed for the door. He’d be tempted to put her in a room with the bastard as part of his punishment if he didn’t love the woman so much. Then again . . . she might enjoy it.