Can’t decide whether you want your next book to be a romance or a thriller? Never fear: If you pick up Kelli Clare’s debut novel Hidden, you don’t have to choose. This romantic suspense novel follows an art teacher named Ellie James who realizes that her life is in danger. A handsome stranger named Will Hastings appears and claims he will protect her from a bloodthirsty group named the Order, but will his help be enough? To celebrate this book’s June 5 release, check out this exclusive excerpt from the fourth chapter of Hidden.
I pounded the side of my fist on the doorframe. The police believed we were missing—we’d have to skip the funeral. Not only had the Order taken our family from Lissie and me, but they also stole our opportunity to say goodbye. In my mind, I imagined Reverend Archer’s prayer as he committed the bodies of my grandmother and sister to the earth for rest and their souls to our Father in heaven.
No one was positioned on guard outside my bedroom doors. I needed a human connection, so I headed to the kitchen, but no one was there either. There were no men eating, drinking, cleaning weapons, or reading newspapers. The full moon tugged at me through the window, and the energy of the riotous sea called out.
I left through the kitchen door and made my way down the uneven path to the beach, seeking freedom from the endless mind clutter. My tired legs carried me knee-deep into the sea, where my lungs finally filled with ease again. Brisk water struck my thighs. “Just a few minutes to clear my head,” I said to the sea. “He’ll come quickly and haul me back inside anyway—no doubt he’s already headed this way.”
For a moment, something blocked the soft glow cast by the veranda lights. When the light was obstructed again, I turned and stared but found nothing.
I closed my eyes and inhaled, taking a deep breath through my nose, refocusing on the sea. I extended the length of my arms backward and pulled in another vigorous breath. Before I could exhale, a thick arm squeezed my neck and prevented it.
A crude whisper in my ear told me not to move, and then cold steel replaced the arm.
My body and mind failed me. I couldn’t move. Couldn’t think.
An assassin was behind me, pressing a large knife into my throat. He slogged through climbing waves, dragging me into deeper water. His blade’s smooth edge chilled the skin where it demanded the attention of my throbbing carotid. Blood pulsed violently through my veins. Pain twisted inside my chest.
“You’ll die tonight, and this will be done at long last.” He filled his other hand with my hair. “I don’t even have to spill your blood out here in this mad sea.” His accent was thick and inarticulate. I couldn’t place it.
I still held my breath. Both lungs burned, pleading with me to use them. I released the breath I’d held hostage and my choking gasps were followed by a loud, exhaled cry.
“Shut your fucking mouth. No noise.” He yanked hard on my hair, pulling me off my feet.
My blurred vision improved as oxygen reached my blood once again. I heard the respiration of my own lungs and the thumping of my heart inside my head. It grew louder. I could no longer hear the crash of waves. It was my turn. I would follow my sister in death.
The executioner moved another step deeper into the sea. “You made this too easy, standing out here alone while your men are distracted by mine. What a daft girl you are.”
When he pulled me deeper, I stumbled on a slimy rock and lost my balance. Another wall of waves rolled in as I fell forward and sank into the water. The force pulled me under, pulled me from his grasp, and dragged me several feet away from him, several feet closer to shore.
He lumbered through waves and jerked me upright by the hair. I gulped air and vomited seawater. The brine burned my sinuses as I choked on both.
“Ready for more? Take one last look at land. You’ll never see it again.” He turned us toward the beach and wrenched my head up. He stopped with a sudden lurch and pressed the blade to my throat again.
I gasped with such brutal force salt blistered my lungs.
My defender stood before us.
Clouds pushed back over the horizon and allowed me to see Will clearly in the light cast by the moon. His posture was tall and erect while his stance was wide. His fists were balled into lethal weapons. The muscles in his jaw were clenched and his chin jutted. Veins bulged and throbbed in his corded neck and arms. His eyes flashed with fury and the promise of death. He was a dangerous storm in his own right.
“Focus on me, Elle,” he thundered above all other sound. “Look at me. Only me.”
Locked into his fiery stare, terror fled from my soul, and I was soothed by those raging flashes of emotion in his eyes. Maybe I was sick for feeling that way—maybe my mind was broken. Either way, that fire in his eyes was my salvation.
Cloud cover rolled in, and Will became a dark silhouette against a blanket of stratus haze. I felt the intensity of the assassin’s stare as he locked on Will’s hulking, shadowed form. I searched the darkness until finding Will’s eyes again. He nodded. Strength climbed from my quivering stomach. I elbowed the assassin twice in the abdomen.
He grunted and grabbed his gut in reflex, losing his grip on the knife. It fell from my throat into the water. I dislodged my lower body from his. He still held the ends of my hair firm in his other hand.
“I can snap your neck just as easily, bitch,” he spat through his teeth, jerking my head back. The stink of cheap bourbon and garlic buzzed around my face, and I gagged. Before he could secure my body against his again, a sharp pop and its echo rang through the night. Then another. The second bullet hit the assassin in one of his legs and caused him to jerk and contort.
“Hold, goddamn it,” Will shouted over his shoulder.
The assassin steadied himself using my shoulders. He shielded his body with mine.
I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t draw breath or release it.
He was strangling me.
Will charged, his eyes burning with rage and teeth bared. A bellow tore from his throat. His powerful arms ripped me from my captor’s hold and thrust me toward the shore.
Punishing waves dragged me close to dry land. I forced my exhausted body up on all fours and clawed my way through sand, stones, and rotting seaweed onto the beach, and collapsed. My lungs purged seawater and filled with air at the same time. I lay there gasping and choking, closer to death than I’d ever been, the side of my face pressed into wet sand.
Then everything went black.
Kelli Clare is a former human resource executive and contributing writer for a Forbes and TIME recognized website for women. She has been a progressive voice for a global coalition of bloggers focused on issues involving women and girls, children, and world hunger. Clare lives in Northwest Ohio with her two children and sock-thieving spaniel.