Finalist - 2004 National Readers Choice Award
5TH ANNUAL ORANGE ROSE AWARD FINALIST

JUDGING ELLIE
by Catherine Snodgrass and Bryndis Rubin
Romantic Suspense - Military
January 2003
Amber Quill Press
1-59279-034-8 ebook
1-59279-963-9 print

Eleanor Severance wants more out of life--adventure, excitement, a man of her own. On a dare, she drastically disguises her appearance and goes out on the town, dressed to kill. Passions flare with a seductive stranger, but she fears that once she reveals her true identity, his interest will fade. Naval investigator Kurt Duncan is supposed to be looking for a stolen shipment of high-grade ketamine, but instead finds himself investigating the charms of a blackmailing femme fatale. Danger follows upon the heels of romance, and Ellie is drawn into a maze of drugs, sex, and lies, forced to work with an investigator she despises in order to solve a murder. Torn between revealing the truth and quenching her desire, can Ellie protect herself from danger? Can Kurt win her heart before she realizes his true identity?

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Judging Ellie grips the reader’s attention until the final page when every question is answered. This twisted case of blackmail and drugs move toward a delightful conclusion that leaves the reader fulfilled and wanting more from Catherine Snodgrass and Bryndis Rubin. Judging Ellie handles the complicated social structure within the military with accuracy and honesty. Catherine Snodgrass and Bryndis Rubin skillfully interweave humor and passion into Kurt and Ellie’s relationship. Be prepared to read Judging Ellie without stopping.~Dena Kosche, Women On Writing.

Lots of sexuality, suspense, violence and at least two mysteries make JUDGING ELLIE an exciting read. It's mainly a plot-driven story until later in the game. Then Kurt and Ellie's real personalities emerge, the romance comes into play, and we're left with a warm, happy ending that's sure to please. ~Jane Bowers, Romance Reviews Today

FIVE ROSES!!! This is one book that I truly couldn't put down. The writing is tight, the story line intriguing and the mystery is one of the best... If you like a really, exceptional romantic intrigue, make sure you pick this one up, whether it's available in paperback or available on an e-book, it is definitely not to be missed. ~Deborah Barber, Escape To Romance

This reader had a fine time with this book! Kurt and Ellie as a couple are downright adorable! The passion the two shared literally gave this book life! Ellie’s makeover was endearing, and gave an already self sufficient woman, a surge of powerful self esteem. The plot took it’s time, and thickened with each turn of the page. These two authors created a suspenseful, harrowing good time, with mini climaxes throughout the read. A very fine effort indeed from this duo, giving this reader great pleasure when looking forward to future joint efforts! Murder, mayhem, and the love of two strong characters are the ingredients for Judging Ellie!~Connie, A Romance Review

FOUR STARS!!! A wonderful romantic suspense story with interesting characters... Has laughs and twists that will keep readers turning pages. ~Hattie Boyd, Scribesworld

EXCERPT

"I look like a prostitute." Ellie Severance stared in disbelief at her reflection in the bedroom mirror.

"Hon, relax and get a grip." Susan Bolotnik, Ellie's best friend and temporary makeover artisan laughed, and tugged the red wig into place over the nape of Ellie's neck.

"That's easy for you to say." Ellie's complaint went unnoticed. She continued anyway. "You don't look like you should be propping up a lamppost in the tenderloin district."

She puffed air toward her flaming bangs. It didn't keep them out of her eyes. And the skirt! She grabbed the hem and tried to yank it down.

"Please tell me there's more to this somewhere."

Susan's look screamed exasperation. "You look fabulous, even if you won't admit it to yourself." She cocked her blonde head to one side and admired her handiwork with a satisfied smile. "I should become a makeup artist."

"How would the Navy ever do without you?" Ellie let the sarcasm speak for itself while she tried to objectively evaluate the results of Susan's clever cosmetic work.

Where am I underneath all of this makeup?

Heavy liner highlighted with a luminescent silver powder made her charcoal gray eyes enormous behind her glasses, like an Egyptian deity. Dark red lipstick gave her lips a lush, sultry pout.

The entire outfit was outrageously revealing. She twisted away from the mirror and paced the confines of her small bedroom. Pacing always made her feel better. The problem with pacing in a tiny room was that the tell-all mirror kept giving glimpses of her transformation.

The crimson wig was straight and heavy; flipped-up ends just brushed her shoulders. Ellie's own dark, unruly curls were tightly concealed with a combination of hair gel and bobby pins—all of which made her scalp itch. Still, it was better than the wig cap Susan originally wanted her to wear; that thing sucked the life out of her head.

As for the clothes, Susan had delved into her own vast, off-duty wardrobe for Ellie's transformation. Thorough searching yielded a stylish, black silk tank top with a scoop neck that felt like heaven against Ellie's skin. But a soft leather mini-skirt that looked cute when Susan wore it seemed extraordinarily short on Ellie. The two women were about the same height, but Ellie's curves filled out the form-fitting clothes to the point of indecency. The sophisticated designer outfit looked chic on Susan, but on Ellie it oozed provocative.

The crowning touch to the evening's ensemble was a pair of thigh-high leather boots with three-inch heels. They hugged Ellie's calves and rustled enticingly as she walked. The tight skirt, the height of the boots with their come-hither whisper screamed for male attention and forced a sway into Ellie's walk that made her want to crawl in a hole and die. She'd never been more uncomfortable in her life.

"I can't wear this in public. I'll get arrested for indecent exposure." Ellie half-walked, half-stumbled to the bed, sat, and tugged at her left boot.

"You're wearing more right now than you do when you're at the pool."

"I don't go to the pool. Not the base pool. Not the Twentynine Palms pool." She plucked at the boot. It seemed glued to her leg and wouldn't budge. "Can you see me swimming around in front of two billion twenty-year-old Marines? No way."

"Yes, God forbid any man should see what a great figure you have underneath that frumpy uniform." Susan tossed up her hands with exasperation, then shook her head. Her bobbed hair bounced around her heart-shaped face. She bore a striking resemblance to Meg Ryan. Too bad she didn't have the girl-next-door disposition to match.

"Let's get a second opinion. Call Jeremy in from the living room. I'm sure he's demolished the contents of your refrigerator by now and will be ready to give you his expert male opinion on your makeover."

Ellie looked up from her attack on the boot and frowned. "As if I really care about his opinion. Why did you have to invite him out with us tonight anyway? This was supposed to be girls' night out, at least before you turned it into sluts' night out. And the last thing I feel like hearing tonight is Jeremy's running commentary." The man never shut up for an instant.

Susan laughed and leaned into the mirror to touch up her glossy lipstick. Gently blotting with a piece of tissue, she sighed and replied, "Jeremy's at loose ends right now. You know being busted to PFC rattled him. I thought we could give him some company. Anyway, going out is a good stress reliever, right?" She straightened the belt of her halter-cut cranberry jump suit.

Jeremy needed to be rattled. A Marine didn't go absent without leave and not expect some ramifications. From what Ellie heard, it wasn't the first time for unauthorized absence. He deserved being busted from sergeant to private first class. By all rights, she shouldn't even be associating with him. But Jeremy and Susan were a package deal.

Ellie gave up on removing the boot and lowered her foot with an exasperated thump. "By loose ends you mean he's in-between girlfriends and needs a pair of babysitters? I swear he goes through women like you go through rubber gloves. I don't know why you ever dated him in the first place."

"He's harmless, and don't try to change the subject by starting an argument." Susan wagged a finger at her. "You're just trying to wiggle out of our big adventure."

Ellie looked everywhere but in Susan's blue eyes. "I don't know if I'm comfortable with this. I thought when you said we were going to work on getting me out of the house and having some fun for my birthday, you meant going to a movie or something. Or going to a coffee house in Palm Springs. Not all…this."

She waved her hand over the new her. "I feel like I'm trick-or-treating, or playing the starring role in a Broadway musical." She glanced up, letting her gaze plead her case. "It's just not me."

Susan whirled around and parked her fists onto slender hips. "You're impossible! You're afraid to take one step outside of the little safety zone you've constructed for yourself. You're afraid to live, to relax and see the joy in life. That's a terrible thing."

Ellie opened her mouth to protest, but Susan stomped toward the bed, shushing her with one raised finger.

"Let me say my piece. In the two months we've known each other, I've never seen you date, much less socialize with anyone outside of office functions. If you're not at work being the good little Marine Corps court reporter, you're squirreled away at that damn bookstore."

"I get a discount—"

"Enough!" She tossed up her hands. "Forget work, forget those stupid books, forget about being Eleanor Severance, just for this one night." She grabbed Ellie's wrists, hauled her to her feet, then let go.

Ellie flailed her arms for balance.

Susan grabbed her before she fell. "I want you to have some fun. Come out tonight and have the time of your life. Be someone else. Make this evening a birthday gift to yourself."

On firm feet once more, Ellie stood there, stomach clenching, heart pounding with indecision. She looked again at the mirror, at herself in the wig, the glamorous makeup, and the skin-tight mini, and knew true fear.

Voice low, she slowly said, "I know I'm not the flashiest person or the most outgoing. I'd really rather just stay home and read my books."

"But?"

"But you're right." She added a nod, confirming in her mind what she needed to do. "I'm twenty-eight years old today, and I sure haven't done much with my life. I work, I collect my books, I… I haven't dated in forever. You know, I'd love to meet that one man who makes my knees go weak and my heart pound a million miles a minute. If anyone like that really exists."

Susan snickered. "You've been reading too many romance novels, hon. I don't think anyone like that exists out here in the deserts of Twentynine Palms, California, or anywhere else for that matter."

"I'm serious." Ellie looked her straight in the eye. "My biological clock is ticking something fierce."

Susan's eyebrows shot up like exclamation marks, her cerulean eyes wide with amazement. "A baby? You want a baby? You have got to be kidding me."

"Don't look so shocked. Of course, I want a baby. Not right at this moment, but one day. Does that surprise you?"

Susan splayed her fingers over her bosom. "I don't. And I think you're crazy if—"

"Because I want a normal life?"

"Who's to say what's normal?" she snapped.

Susan had a point. Normal was what made people happy. Ellie couldn't honestly say she was happy any more. She watched her coworkers with their children, their spouses, and longed for that kind of life. Especially children. She knew what she wanted, and now it was time to go out and get it. She wasn't going to find the man of her dreams by sitting home every night with her cat and a good spy novel.

"Let's just drop the baby comments, shall we?" She tugged at the annoying boots once more.

"Fine. Just remember, we're just going out to dance and have some fun, not search out what the gene pool has to offer."

"Actually, according to a study about mating rituals that I saw on PBS, each time…"

Susan slapped her hands over her ears. "La, la, la, la. I can't hear you. I can't hear you."

Ellie laughed. "Okay…enough. I promise I'll try to be charming and exciting, not nerdy and boring."

Susan dropped her hands. "Thank you. One more thing… Let's lose these."

Before Ellie could stop her, Susan snatched off her black-rimmed glasses and tossed them aside on the queen-sized bed.

"Hey! Are you two done in there yet?" Jeremy's boyish tenor voice from the other side of the bedroom door sounded like it was coming directly through the doorknob.

"You get away from that keyhole!" Susan dashed to the door and smacked the wood with the flat of her hand.

A muffled "ouch" came from the other side.

"You rotten peeping tom," she shouted at the door.

"I couldn't see anything anyway," Jeremy protested from the other side. "And I thought hospital people were supposed to be kind and gentle."

"I'm off-duty, darlin'." Susan glanced at Ellie with a grin. "Are you ready to see the new Eleanor Severance?"

"If I say yes, can we get going? I really want to get to the bar and grab a beer, plus Hades keeps giving me the evil eye. He's already scratched my hand, and I think he's going to bite me or something."

"Hades does not bite." Ellie wiggled her foot, trying in vain to get some breathing room between her and the leather boot.

Ignoring them both, Susan performed a drum roll on the door. "And now, for the first time in public, showing off her beautiful body and long, long legs—Yes, she has legs! It's Ellie!"

With a flourish, Susan threw open the bedroom door and Jeremy Forton fell in through the doorway. Turning his unexpected entrance into a controlled belly flop, he quickly managed to roll onto his back, laughing.

"Are you all right?" Ellie tried to break Jeremy's fall, but wobbled on her high heels and was forced to grab onto a nearby bookcase to keep from crumpling on top of him. She still managed to slide down the shelves and land on her backside with a thump.

When they had dated, Susan had always referred to Jeremy as her pretty surfer boy. It was true. Jeremy was wonderful to look at. His white-blonde hair was cut in the longest regulation style the Marine Corps would allow, and it had a slight wave above his neck. His eyes were blue-violet fringed with thick, dark gold lashes. Jeremy wasn't tall for a man, closer to Ellie's height of five feet seven inches, but what he lacked in height he more than made up for in muscle. Jeremy was a native Californian, but he was no surfer; his passion was weightlifting, and his body was heavily muscled.

Susan had once confided to Ellie that she believed Jeremy joined the Marine Corps to prove how manly he really was. His almost pretty good looks and lack of height put him on the defensive and encouraged his contemporaries to question his masculinity. Being a Marine Corps tanker gave Jeremy machismo and the toys to back it up.

Ellie thought if Jeremy spent half as much time working on his education as he did lifting weights in the gym, he might attain reasonable intelligence. While funny and good-natured, he wasn't the brightest bulb in the pack.

She remembered the first time she'd met him. He was at the bookstore buying Cliff's Notes for The Hobbit. As goofy as he was, she still liked him, even when he was being a testosterone-laden jerk.

As he spotted Ellie clambering to her feet, Jeremy's laughter faded, and his beautiful eyes widened in appreciation. "Ellie, wow! If I didn't know it was you—"

"Stand up, you idiot, and quit trying to look under her skirt." Susan yanked on his arm, hauling him to his feet. "What do you think of Ellie's party outfit?"

He attempted a leer that was ruined by a firm pinch from Susan.

"Ow! Uh…you look real nice." He passed a gaze down the long expanse of leg that stretched down from the hem of the mini-skirt.

Ellie could bet that if he had been asked the same question in the company of his fellow Marines, his response would have been pornographic.

"If I were drunk in a bar, I'd pick you up myself," he declared reverently. "That red wig really looks great."

"High compliments, indeed," Ellie muttered.

"Are we going or not?" Susan demanded. "If we hurry, we can get to the club before the band sets up." She grabbed her purse from the bed. "Once they start playing, it'll be impossible to find a table."

"You two look pretty hot." Jeremy draped an arm around each of them. "If any guys from my unit are there tonight, I may have to tell them I'm dating you both."

"You're laying it on a bit thick tonight, Jeremy." Ellie sat back on the edge of the bed and yanked off the torturous boots.

"What're you doing?" Susan screeched. "You have to wear those. They're part of the outfit!"

"Trading. I'll wear your wig, but I am not wearing these boots. Give me your heels or I'm staying home."

Faced with that ultimatum, Susan had no choice but to grudgingly comply. Wearing four-inch heels didn't help Ellie's equilibrium, but at least her legs could breathe. She took a fortifying lungful of air and picked up her new, small, black leather purse, a birthday gift from her father and stepmom.

"Okay, let's go before I lose my nerve and run for the shower to get this gunk off my face."

"I'll join you in the shower any time, toots." Jeremy waggled his eyebrows at her and attempted his best Groucho Marx imitation.

She laughed, relaxing a little. "Thanks, Jeremy, I need all the confidence I can get."

A sibilant hiss from the doorway drew everyone's attention. Ellie's Maine Coon cat, Hades, stood in the doorway, back arched and black fur puffed out. He looked twice his already enormous size. Yellow eyes stared at Ellie's outrageous wig. Hades hissed again before leaping to his accustomed perch on the windowsill. Tail curled around his legs, he continued to watch her, emitting little angry chuffing noises.

"There's always a critic in every bunch," Susan said.

"Never mind him," Ellie said. "Where did you put my glasses? I can't see a thing without them."

"Put in your contacts." Jeremy edged toward the door, keeping a nervous eye on the cat and fingering a fresh scratch on his right hand.

"I don't have contacts." Ellie gave a shudder. "I've always been squeamish about putting things in my eyes."

"You're not taking your glasses. They're too nerdy for this outfit." Susan caught her arm and dragged her down the stairs to the front door.

"But I can't see anything." Ellie squinted. Her surroundings were a blur at best. "I'm very nearsighted."

Susan gave her a little shove. "Go."

"Don't worry, cutie-pie." Jeremy closed the door behind them. "We're your friends. We'll take good care of you during your birthday bash."

Ellie winced. "That's what I'm afraid of."

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