Carolina Heat

By: Christi Barth


She’ll risk her heart…and her life.



Investigative journalist Annabelle Carlyle is stunned by the personal twist of her latest assignment: her best friend Vanessa is missing. Annabelle goes undercover in the Old South to search for answers. Full of thick accents and a way of life rooted in the past, Charleston is as foreign and strange a place as any Annabelle's visited. And before she finds a single clue, she runs into a sexy man she can't shake.



Tall, dark and charming, Mark Dering is happy to show the gorgeous Yankee his hometown. He's captivated by the quick witted, quick tempered redhead. But when they're shot at, he realizes she's far more than just another tourist. Soon they're knee deep in a mystery that goes all the way back to the Civil War. For once Annabelle is in over her head. Desperate to find Vanessa, she reluctantly accepts Mark's help. It isn't long before romance blooms right alongside the magnolias.



The stakes grow higher when a body is discovered. Someone is willing to kill to keep a century old Confederate secret hidden. With her best friend missing and a killer on the loose, it's the worst possible moment for Mark to try and unlock Annabelle's heart. Or is love exactly what her life's been missing?





CAROLINA HEAT



Christi Barth





CHAPTER ONE





Annabelle Carlyle was convinced this day couldn’t get any worse, if for no other reason than it was closing in on midnight. Sure, it was the kind of thinking that usually came back to bite her, but really, what else could happen? The last two days had been an international travel nightmare: three delayed flights, a dimwitted customs agent at LaGuardia, all topped off by her cab breaking down four blocks from her apartment. Only the thought of a long bubble bath and her four hundred thread count Egyptian cotton sheets had kept her going.

But in an automatic gesture Annabelle deeply regretted, she’d turned her cell phone back on in the cab. An urgent voicemail from her boss left her a mere ten minutes to repack—no time to even shower—and head back out to catch the last flight to Charleston. Jack’s voice mail told her almost nothing. Show up. No discussion. It was how most of her assignments began.

Annabelle pushed through the baggage claim doors and stopped dead as a dense wall of humid air immobilized her. No, it was more like being slowly smothered. The humidity was a wet blanket lying over the entire city of Charleston and it sapped the tiniest dreg of energy she had left.

Spotting a cab idling in the pick-up lane she hurried forward, wincing as her laptop case banged against her hip. A quick shrug brought the strap back onto her shoulder. It also threw her off-balance enough to slip right off the edge of the curb. Her knees crumpled. Exhaustion dulled her reflexes, so she was on her way to the ground when a well-muscled arm sprinkled with curly black hair shot forward and grabbed her wrists, keeping her upright.

“Careful there. Guess it’s too late to tell you to watch your step?”

Annabelle just stared at him for a moment without responding. The gorgeous man had to be several inches over six feet, and every speck of skin she could see was tanned. The way his muscles bulged under the plain white T-shirt told her his amazing physique didn’t come just from weekly visits to a gym. And were those really dimples bracketing his smile?

“Uh, thanks,” she said belatedly. This behavior was ridiculous. She’d interviewed world leaders, celebrities, but was struck dumb by a stranger in an airport parking lot? Still…it was hard not to notice how well his deep black eyes were offset by his olive complexion and thick, black wavy hair.

“Are you okay?” he asked. The warmth of his hands seared straight through her skin.

“Oh, yes, I’m fine. Apparently too tired to walk a straight line, but I’ll live.”

His dimples deepened. “Good to hear.”

Belatedly, Annabelle remembered her manners. “Thanks for catching me. The way my day’s gone, I would’ve fallen and broken my wrist.”

“Pleasure’s all mine. Now I can scratch ‘rescue damsel in distress’ off my to-do list.”

“Hmmm. When you look at it like that, it’s almost as if I did you a favor,” Annabelle teased.

“Then I should pay you back. Would you let me buy you a drink?”

This guy was smooth. And fast. On the other hand, this was the most fun she’d had in days.

The stranger cocked his head to the side. “Come on, take a chance. I promise—no nefarious schemes. This could be fate. It isn’t every day a gorgeous redhead falls right into my lap.”

“I appreciate the offer, but I don’t even know your name,” she stalled. Because it’d be crazy to say yes to an airport pickup. Wouldn’t it?

“I’m Mark.”

“Annabelle.”

“It’s a genuine pleasure to meet you, Miss Annabelle.”

His voice was flat out amazing. The vowels oozed like warm honey from between the consonants. This was her first encounter with such a thick Southern accent, and she was completely enthralled by his slow Charlestonian drawl.

She realized her hand was still clasped in his, and abruptly pulled free. Annabelle didn’t make a practice of standing in the middle of the street gaping at a man, even if he was unbelievably handsome in a brawny sort of way. As an investigative reporter she was used to meeting people, quickly cataloging her first impressions, and moving on. Being phased by a syrupy accent must be an oddity brought on by the extreme heat. This weather was enough to melt even her composure.