BITE ME YOUR GRACE
CLOSE TO THE EDGE
Release Date: March 25, 2013
Her ass was by far the finest he'd ever seen in this town.
Westen Township Sheriff, Gage Justice, pulled his cruiser in behind the brown sedan parked in the alley between the town’s only bank and Gold’s Foodmart. His deputy Cleetus was right. Someone was definitely digging around in the trash dumpster.
A satisfied smile of pure male appreciation split Gage’s lips and a warmth spread over his body as he sat back and admired the view. This didn’t look to be your typical dumpster diver. The woman stood tiptoe on the hood of her car, the top half of her body bent over and into the container’s edge. The way the perp’s jeans clung and stretched around her thighs and nice round bottom warmed more than his smile.
Oh, yeah. A man could spend all day holding those round cheeks in his hands. Wonder if the top half of her was as nice as the bottom?
He gave himself a mental shake. The more important question was why was she rifling through the trash?
Without making a sound, he eased himself out of the cruiser, leaving the door open. Careful not to step on anything to alert her of his presence, he moved past her car to stand just below her and off to the side. He looked at her feet.
Awful small, even for a woman.
The jeans clung to her legs, which weren’t supermodel thin, but nicely shaped. He resisted the urge to reach up and squeeze her calves.
“Exactly what do you think you’re doing?” he asked in his best bad-cop voice.
Startled, she jumped and lifted her top half out of the bin. For a brief second he caught sight of her face. It wasn’t the kind that stopped men dead in their tracks, but the curious brown eyes, the arched dark eyebrows, and the soft lips rounded in an O of surprise caught his attention.
At that moment her foot slipped.
In almost slow motion her balance shifted. Dark hair flying about her, she waved her arms around in big helicopter circles, papers drifting down like confetti. She twisted to one side as if she meant to catch herself on the edge of the dumpster, only to slip again. This time that lovely butt came directly at him. Despite something wet dribbling down on his shirt, Gage shifted sideways and did the only gentlemanly thing he could do. He held out both arms to catch her.
Just as her bottom and thighs filled his arms, she threw her arm around his neck, emptying the contents of a brown paper bag on top of him. “Oh, crap! Thank you…” her voice trailed off as she looked at him.
He couldn’t help but smile. Her voice reminded him of a soft summer night, warm and whispery. “Gage Justice, Westen’s Sheriff. You’re welcome, Miss?”
“Sheriff Justice? That name’s just too perfect.” She laughed softly as she lifted the half-eaten chicken salad sandwich off his shoulder and tossed it back to the trash bin. Then she smiled—a genuine hundred-watt stunner from the heart. “I’m Roberta Roberts, but my friends call me Bobby.”
Gage turned to set the shapely woman on the ground then glanced over her shoulder through the driver’s window and froze.
The contents of her purse were scattered on the car’s passenger seat. Peeking out of the bag was the butt-end of a gun.
“So, Bobby,” he quickly set her on the ground and moved so he stood between her and the door handle, “want to tell me why you have a gun in the front seat of your car?”
“I’m a private investigator and I have a permit for my gun, Sheriff.” She gave him another smile.
The words private investigator chilled whatever response he’d have for her. “Don’t suppose you have some identification and a permit on you, do you?”
“They’re in my bag.”
She started to reach for the door handle, but he caught her arm to stop her. “I have to get them out to show you.”
“How about I get your bag for you?”
“Sure. Help yourself.”
“Don’t mind if I do.”
He released her and she stepped back, giving him a mutinous stare, those deep-brown eyes narrowed like a mad cat. Opening the door, he forced her to move away farther. Careful not to turn his back completely on her he retrieved her things, handing her the bag, but keeping her weapon in his hand.
Still casting him a rebellious look, she snatched her bag and dropped it onto the car hood, fishing around inside.
“I know it’s in here. I put the permit in before leaving home.”
“And where is home?” he asked, watching her rummage.
“Cincinnati,” she said, starting to pull items out—wallet, bottle of water, notebook, granola bar, collapsible umbrella, reading book, sunglasses, lipstick case—laying them on the hood of her car one at a time. Every time he thought she reached the bottom she’d pull something else out. She rifled through each set of folded papers. “I know it’s in here.”
“How big is that bag?”
She slanted her head toward him a moment, disgust in her eyes, before turning back to her mission. He fought hard to swallow the grin that itched to pop out at her schoolmarm expression, the gun in his hand reminding him of the seriousness of the situation.
Finally, she turned her bag upside down and shook. The only thing that fell out was a gum wrapper.
“I can’t find it.” Her shoulders slumped a little, she reached for her wallet. “I can show you my PI license.”“How about we take a little trip over to the jail and I’ll run a check.” He gripped her arm and stopped her, turning her to face the car.
WHERE THERE’S A WILL
Sourcebooks, September 2012
"Please, Lord, you have to send me a miracle. A man, in case you want specifics."
Haley Tillman really needed to get laid before she incinerated. If a man looked cross-eyed at her, the only thing left would be a pile of smoking ashes.
Just one little bitty miracle. Was that too much to ask?
She was thoughtful for a moment, then decided she'd better revise her prayer. Once, she'd asked for a stuffed bunny rabbit. The next day her dad took her to the taxidermist to pick up Fifi, the family dog that had died two weeks before, or as Haley preferred to call the beast when no one was around, The Tasmanian Terror. The mongrel was more her mother's pet. Her father had had the miniscule creature stuffed.
There was also a sale on stuffed rabbits. She hated the glass-eyed zombie rabbit and hid the nasty looking creature in the back of her closet. There was no escape from Fifi, though. Her mother placed the silent menace in the living room where everyone could see the dog.
So maybe a prayer revision might be in order. "Not just any man. I want a really hot, drool-worthy, sexy man." That still wasn't good enough. "No, he has to be more than a normal man. He has to stand above mere mortals. No more dweebs, losers, or rejects." She figured it wouldn't hurt to ask for the best.
And no more crying jags like the one last night just because she'd been stood up. She threw the cover back and grabbed her black-rimmed glasses off the nightstand before heading toward the bathroom.
A miracle would be nice. She snorted. As if a miracle was ever going to happen. She was pretty sure hot and sexy would never make it to her front door. Her almost date hadn't been drool-worthy. She supposed Ben wasn't bad looking, in a GQ, polished sort of way.
Haley sighed. Being stood up was nothing new. Anyone with a little bit of sense would be used to it by now, but not her. Okay, so maybe she sort of expected it because she'd cornered him. She did not wear desperation well.
"Ben could've said no," she mumbled as she walked inside the bathroom and flipped on the light. Her coworker from the bank owed her. Haley had worked all week crunching numbers for him.
She casually glanced toward the mirror and saw an apparition.
Her heart pounded inside her chest. She stumbled back, bumping into the bathtub. Before she toppled inside, she slapped a hand on the toilet seat and regained her balance.
As her pulse slowed to a more normal rate, she cautiously scanned the tiny room. She was the only one there. Her imagination was getting the best of her. That's all it could be. Over-tired, stressed, of course she was seeing things. She came to her feet, nerves stretched taut. Her stomach rumbled.
Please don't be the ghost of Nanny.
She loved Nanny, but her grandmother was gone, and though Haley had lots of fond memories, she wanted her to stay gone.
She was still trembling when her gaze landed on the mirror. She jumped, heart pounding again until she realized it was only her reflection that stared back. Fantastic, she'd scared herself. This had to be an all-time low.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, then opened them again. Mornings were not good. She should drape black silk over her mirrors until she at least had her first pot of coffee. Not that she was monstrously hideous, but she was no beauty queen, either.
She had her father's looks. Her father was tall. Haley was five feet seven inches. She also had her father's dull, dishwater blonde hair. Her hair had turned bright orange when she attempted to color it in the eighth grade. She decided dull blonde was better. Her boobs were too big, too, but they matched her hips.
All the magazines she read said you had to like at least one thing about yourself. Her legs were nice and long. When she wasn't tripping over her feet, she was fairly satisfied with them. Except her life was never going to change. And miracles? She stopped believing in miracles a long time ago.
She brushed her teeth, then dragged a comb through her tangled hair so it didn't look quite so much like a rat's nest. There was a half gallon of ice cream in the kitchen freezer. It wouldn't be too difficult to eat herself into sugar oblivion. She could bring new meaning to the phrase death by chocolate. What would her sister say? Rachael never, absolutely never, let sugar cross her lips, and she always said Haley was killing herself. Right now, she didn't really care.
The buzz from her doorbell blasted through the tiny two-bedroom house that she'd inherited from Nanny, effectively drawing her away from her dreary thoughts. Bummer. She'd already started planning her funeral. She sighed. It was way too early for doorbells.
She grabbed her faded pink terry-cloth robe off the hook on the door and pulled it on over her green froggy flannel pajamas and left the bathroom. The doorbell buzzed again.
"Okay, okay," she mumbled.
Once she stood at the front door, she peered through the peephole her father had installed for safety, as if anyone would ever break into her house. What would they steal? Her hand-me-down furniture?
She blinked. No one there. Were they hiding?
Hmm, serial killer lurking outside her door? Would that count as a date? Nope, they didn't have murders in Hattersville. Nothing, absolutely nothing, ever happened in the small town. She shook her head and opened the door a crack, making sure the chain was secure.
A man stepped into her line of vision. Haley's mouth dropped open. Good Lord! This had to be the guy who invented tall, dark, and sexy! Her thighs quivered.
At least six feet one inch of pure testosterone stood on her porch. He had the dark good looks of a male stripper, only with clothes on. The stranger removed his black Stetson, slowly dragging his fingers through thick, coal-black hair. His deep blue eyes held her gaze before sliding down her body as if he could see more than the sliver revealed from the slightly open door.
Warm tingles spread over her like a Texas wildfire in the middle of summer. She could barely draw in a breath as her gaze moved past broad shoulders and a black Western shirt that hugged his scrumptious muscles. Then her eyes slipped right down to the low-slung jeans riding his hips, past muscled thighs, all the way to his scuffed black boots.
Oh, Lord, her every fantasy stood on her front porch!
She forced herself to meet his gaze.
I want him! She felt like a kid in a candy store with lots of money to spend. Mommy, Mommy, can I have the hot sexy cowboy? Pleeeeeeeeease!
If only it was that easy. No way would she ever have the opportunity to have sex with someone who looked like him. What was he doing at her door, anyway? Lost?
"Haley, right?" he asked with a slow drawl that made her body tremble with need.
How did he know her name? She grasped the door a little harder. He smiled as though he knew exactly what she was thinking. Her world began to tilt. She remembered that breathing might not be a bad thing so she drew in a deep breath. "What?" the word warbled out. She cleared her throat and tried again. "Do you need directions or something?"
He smiled wider, showing perfectly straight white teeth. "Mind if I come in?"
Her fantasy of this cowboy's naked body pressed against her naked body shattered like rocks hitting a mirror. Oh, this guy was good, real good, but she wasn't born yesterday. He'd obviously seen her name on the mailbox out front. She raised her chin. "I don't need a vacuum. I have all the pots and pans I will ever use-including waterless cookware. There's a complete set of encyclopedias on my e-reader and I have a double-barrel shotgun for protection. Now, do you want to tell me why you're ringing my doorbell at this time of morning?"
"You prayed for a miracle. I'm the answer to your prayer." He rested his hand on her grandmother's white rocking chair. Her rocker had always sat in that same spot on the porch for as long as Haley could remember. The cowboy lightly set the chair in motion. Back and forth, back and forth, his thumb lightly caressing the weathered wood.
Wow, her prayer had really been answered? The man upstairs had given her more than she'd asked for. She reached up to smooth her hair about the same time reality set in. Had she lost her mind?
"Go away!" She slammed the door shut. Her pulse raced so fast Haley thought her heart would jump out of her chest. At this rate she was going to have a heart attack before she turned twenty-seven! Who was he? Definitely the wrong house. Shoot, the wrong town. No one who looked like him lived in Hattersville. Definitely a salesman. As if she needed another vacuum cleaner. Three were quite enough. Another magazine subscription might have been nice. One could never have enough magazines.
But wouldn't it have been nice if he was sent in answer to a prayer? How had he known she'd prayed for a miracle? Not that it mattered since she'd slammed the door in his face.
What was she thinking? Haley smoothed her hands down the sides of her robe, took a deep breath, and started to open the door. She remembered at the last minute to remove her glasses and stick them in her pocket. Rachael had said they made her appear to be more professional. Haley thought the glasses made her look like Buddy Holly. She wore them out of habit rather than a need to see. She pasted a smile on her face and opened the door as much as the chain would allow.
The cowboy wasn't there.
Had she only imagined him, too? She closed the door enough so that she could slide off the chain. Her smile was still firmly in place when she opened the door again. Nothing. Only old Mrs. Monroe watering her lawn across the street. She looked up and waved as her crotchety husband came around the corner of the house, getting a face full of water. Mrs. Monroe quickly dropped the hose.
"Damn, thought we'd finally got some rain," he sputtered.
"Oh, I'm sorry." She rushed toward him, raising her flowered apron as she went.
"That's okay, sweetie. You can cool me off anytime."
Haley smiled, then glanced down the street. Her smile dropped. Not a soul, darn it. Her fantasy lover, possibly an answer to her prayer, showed up on her porch and what did she do? Slammed the stupid door in his face.
Maybe she only imagined the guy. Really, who could actually look that good? She took a cautious step past the doorway. Maybe Mrs. Monroe saw the cowboy. But her neighbor had already turned off the water and they were going inside.
Haley stepped off the wide, covered front porch, her eyes narrowing as she looked up and down the street. Still nothing.
Chelsea, the former cheerleader, high school football sweetheart, beauty-queen-turned-slutty-bank-teller stepped out of her house next door, then gave a surprised jump when she caught sight of Haley. Chelsea's gaze swept over her.
"You really should take a little more pride in your appearance." She shrugged. "But then I suppose nothing would help, so why try?"
Haley's lip curled. Why had her coworker bought the house next door? To taunt her? Her ploy was working.
Chelsea closed her front door, but immediately returned her attention to Haley. Oh, no, Chelsea wore her fake pouty look. Haley braced herself.
"I'm sorry about last night. Ben and I happened to be working late at the bank, and afterward we decided to have a drink. He totally forgot about his date with you until it was too late. I hope you weren't too disappointed."
Haley took a step back as Chelsea hurried down the front steps to her sporty little red Mustang. Chelsea had to know about the date. Then it hit her. Of course Chelsea knew. That was exactly why she'd coerced Ben into taking her for a drink. Chelsea loved hurting people. It was a game to her-one she played very well.
Haley tried to think of something smart to say. "You... you..." Darn! Why couldn't she think of a good comeback? She probably would later when she wouldn't need it. "I hope you get a flat tire," she finally sputtered. Oh, that was a real winning line. Sheesh!
Chelsea was right, though. Haley's looks left a lot to be desired. But Ben was her date. Of course Ben would rather be with Chelsea. Chelsea looked hot with flaming red hair and she was cute.
Haley marched back inside and closed her door a little harder than necessary. Out of habit, she jerked the chain through the slot and turned the lock. Not that it mattered. An intruder would take one look at her and run screaming in the other direction. Was that what happened to the sexy cowboy? He'd barely gotten a glimpse. What would he have done if he saw the whole picture?
No, she didn't want to think about his reaction. Her day was already depressing enough. She aimed toward the kitchen and turned the coffee pot on, then grabbed a diet soda out of the fridge. "Caffeine," she sighed and took a drink. She would get dressed, then figure out what she would do for the rest of her boring day.
She trudged into the bedroom and came to a dead stop. She could feel the color drain from her face. The cowboy casually reclined on her bed with his back braced against her headboard, his booted feet crossed at the ankles.
And he was reading her diary. Her very naughty diary. Oh, Lord! All her fantasies were in that diary. She'd even made up a few she thought might be interesting. Pages and pages of-sex! Good girls didn't write about sex. Except Haley did write about sex. All her dreams were kept hidden between her mattress and box springs. No one was supposed to ever know just how naughty she could be!
"That's my diary," she choked out.
He glanced up. "And very explicit. Do you actually fantasize about stripping in a club?" His words were lazy, with just a slight Texas drawl that washed over her like hot fudge dribbled on vanilla ice cream. When his heated gaze trailed down her body, she melted.
Haley's body temperature jumped from hot to cold to burning up. He was reading about her private desires. Every fantasy she'd ever heard about, read about, or even imagined, was on those pages. She wanted to die!
Wait a minute. What was she thinking? A strange man was inside her home and she was worried he was reading her stupid diary? She threw the can of soda at him and whirled around. She only had to make it out of the house.
But when she slid into the living room, he was leaning against the front door, still reading her diary. How'd he get there first?
He glanced up, looking quite unconcerned that she was about to have a heart attack. "This might be interesting. I've never made love in a closet while there's a party going on in the other room."
For a split second, she could see herself locked in his embrace, crammed between a soft fur coat and a leather jacket, naked bodies straining, naughty words whispered as country music blared on the other side.
Oh, God, she had to be mentally unhinged to even imagine having sex with an intruder. She rushed forward and snatched her diary out of his hands, then put distance between them. "Who are you? I don't have any money."
He smiled. "I don't want your money."
Her frown deepened. "Did you confuse houses? Chelsea lives next door."
He shook his head.
"Then who the hell are you and what are you doing in my home?" she demanded, not feeling as brave as she tried to pretend.
He looked at her as though she should know. "I'm an answer to a prayer. Your prayer. You asked for a miracle, so here I am. You can call me Ryder. I'm an angel-sort of."
"Your name is Ryder and you're an angel."
She eased closer to the end table and the heavy, brown ceramic lamp sitting on it. "Believe me, I've never met a cowboy who was anything close to being an angel."
"Have you met other angels?" He crossed his arms as if he felt quite comfortable breaking into someone's home.
"Then how would you know what we look like?"
It didn't matter. She was close enough to her weapon. She dropped her diary and grabbed the lamp. She wasn't quite so vulnerable holding the heavy lamp! She started to shake it at him, hoping to put the fear of God into him, but was held up by the cord. This was not the fierce image she wanted to portray.
She jerked the cord out of the socket then quickly faced him again. "The soda can might not have done much damage, but I guarantee this lamp will."
"You're the one who prayed for a miracle," he pointed out.
Her eyes narrowed. "Lucky guess, but I'm not buying that you're an angel."
"Sort of," he reminded her.
"What the hell is ‘sort of' supposed to mean?"
"I'm a nephilim." He took a step toward her.
She raised the lamp, which was getting a little heavy. "Don't come any closer."
He stopped, but darn it, he didn't look a bit put out that she had a weapon. He'd changed his angel story, too. "What's a nephilim?" And why the hell was she engaging in conversation with someone who had obviously escaped from the state hospital?
"My father was an angel, and my mother was a mortal. They mated and created me, a nephilim. An immortal."
"Yeah, right." Oh, Lord, he was crazier than she thought. "A cowboy, who's half angel. Nope, I've never seen that, either." There were plenty of cowboys in Hattersville and they only loved three things: their horses, their trucks, and drinking. Sexy, yes. Angelic, no.
"I'm here because you asked for a miracle."
"If you'll just leave my house, I promise not to call the police."
He took a step toward her.
She took a step back.
"I'm not going to hurt you."
"Stay where you are," she warned.
But he didn't stop moving toward her. She hated violence, especially when it involved her. Well, he couldn't say she didn't warn him. With all the strength she could muster, and the surge of adrenaline created by her mounting fear, she threw the heavy lamp at the cowboy.
The lamp went flying right at him. He jerked his hand into the air, palm up. The lamp stopped midair. The cord dangled, swinging back and forth.
"How did you do that?" Haley whispered.
"I told you, I'm a nephilim." He snapped his fingers and the lamp was back on the side table; even the cord was plugged in.
The room began to spin around. Haley reached for something to steady herself, but only connected with air. She never fainted.
Strong arms suddenly were around her. He picked her up and carried her to the sofa, setting her down gently as darkness closed in around her. This was it. The best looking man to ever knock on her door was an angel. She was dead and didn't even know it, and here he was about to take her to-Heaven?
Pfft. And why not, she'd never sinned. Not one blasted time. Well, unless she counted all her sexual fantasies, and apparently they didn't count. Nope, her strict moral upbringing guaranteed her a place in Heaven.
"Are you still with me?" he asked.
Something cool and wet pressed against her face. Her eyes fluttered open. A washcloth. He was still there. This wasn't one of her dreams. She whimpered. He pulled her closer to his chest. She breathed in a heady scent that reminded her of leather and a clean country breeze. Except she didn't feel comforted because she knew exactly what was happening. "I don't want to be dead," she sobbed. What had she died from? Brain tumor? Car accident-well, probably not a car accident since she was inside her home.
He began to lightly stroke her back. "You're not dead."
Not dead? That was a relief. His touch was soothing. She could feel herself begin to relax, until she remembered she still didn't have answers. "Then why are you here?"
"I told you. I heard you praying for a miracle."
She frowned, only remembering she'd prayed for sex. Or maybe she was thinking about sex and prayed for a miracle. It made sense because she thought about sex a lot. She leaned back and looked into his eyes. He had nice eyes. They were a startling shade of blue. So intense. Her gaze moved over his face. Delicious. Was he really an answer to her prayer? There was one way to find out. "Okay, if you're my miracle, then kiss me."
Without hesitation, his lips lowered to hers, the warmth of his breath whispering against her cheek right before his tongue scraped across her lips. She opened her mouth and his tongue slipped inside. A deep, shuddering sigh swept over her as he explored her mouth, caressing her tongue with his. She was starting to grow damp when he pulled back.
"Wow, please don't wake me up," she finally said.
"You're not asleep." He grinned, and once again she was mesmerized by his smile.
This was the best dream she'd ever had! She squeezed his arm. Her heart skipped a beat.
If it was a dream, then why did he feel so real?
A PLACE CALLED ARMAGEDDON: CONSTANTINOPLE 1453
– prologus –
6 April 1453
We are coming, Greek.
Climb your highest tower, along those magnificent walls. They
have kept you safe for a thousand years. Resisted every one of our
attacks. Before them, where your fields and vineyards once stood, are
trenches and emplacements. Empty, for now. Do you expect them to
be filled with another doomed army of Islam, like all the martyrs that
came and failed here before?
No. For we are different this time. There are more of us, yes. But
there is something else. We have brought something else.
Close your eyes. You will hear us before you see us. We always arrive
with a fanfare. We are people who like a noise. And that deep thumping,
the one that starts from beyond the ridge and runs over our trenches,
through the ghosts of your vineyards, rising through stone to tickle your
feet? That is a drum, a kos drum, a giant belly to the giant man who beats
it. T here is another…no, not just one. Not fifty. More. These come with
the shriek of the pipe, the seven-note sevre, seven to each drum.
The mehter bands come marching over the ridgeline, sunlight
sparkling on instruments inlaid with silver, off swaying brocade tassels.
You blink, and then you wonder: there are thousands of them.
Thousands. And these do not even carry weapons.
Those with weapons come next.
First the Rumelian division. Years ago, when you were already too
weak to stop us, we bypassed your walls, conquered the lands beyond
them to the north. T heir peoples are our soldiers now—Vlachs,
Serbs, Bulgars, Albanians. You squint against the light, wishing you did not
see, hoping the blur does not conceal—but it does!—the thousands
that are there, the men on horseback followed by many more on foot.
Many, many more.
The men of Rumelia pass over the ridge and swing north toward
the Golden Horn. When the first of them reach its waters, they halt,
turn, settle. Rank on rank on the ridgeline, numberless as ants. Their
mehter bands sound a last peal of notes, a last volley of drumbeats.
Then all is silent.
Only for a moment. Drums again, louder if that were possible,
even more trumpets. Because the Anatolian division is larger. Can
you believe it? That as many men pass over the hilltop again and
then just keep coming? They head to the other sea, south toward
Marmara, warriors from the heartland of Turkey. The sipahi, knights
mailed from neck to knee, with metal turban helms, commanding
their mounts with a squeeze of thigh and a grunt, leaving hands free
to hoist their war lances high, lift their great curving bows. Eventually
they pass, and then behind them march the yayas, the peasant soldiers,
armored by the lords they follow, trained by them, hefting their
spears, their great shields.
When at last the vast body reaches the water, they turn to face you,
Music ceases. A breeze snaps the pennants. Horses toss their heads and
snort. No man speaks. Yet there is still a space between the vast divisions
of Rumelia and Anatolia. The gap concerns you—for you know it is to be filled.
It is—by a horde, as many as each of those who came before. These
do not come with music. But they come screaming. They pour down,
and run each way along the armored fronts of Anatolia and Rumelia.
They do not march. They have never been shown how. For these are
bashibazouks, irregulars recruited from the fields of empire and the
slums of cities. T hey are not armored, though many have shields and
each warrior a blade. Some come for God—but all for gold. Your
gold, Greek. T hey have been told that your city is cobbled with it, and
these tens of thousands will hurl themselves again and again against
your walls to get it. When they die by the score—as they will—a
score replaces them. Another. Each score will kill a few of you. Until it is
time for the trained and armored men to use their sacrif iced bodies
as bridges and kill the few of you who remain.
The horde runs, yelling, along the ordered ranks, on and on. When
at last it halts, even these men fall quiet. Stay so for what seems an age.
And that gap is still there, and now you almost yearn for it to be filled.
Yearn too for the hush, more dreadful than all those screams, to end.
So that this all ends.
And then they come. No drums. No pipes. As silent as the tread of
so many can be.
You have heard of them, these warriors. Taken as Christian boys,
trained from childhood in arms and in Allah, praise Him. Devoted to
their corps, their comrades, their sultan. They march in their ortas, a
hundred men to each one.
The janissaries have arrived.
You know their stories, these elite of the elite that have shattered
Christendom’s armies again and again. In recent memory alone, at
Kossovo Pol, and at Varna. As they swagger down the hill, beneath
their tall white felt hats, their bronzed shields, their drawn scimitars,
their breastplates dazzle with ref lected sunlight.
They turn to face you, joining the whole of our army in an unbroken
line from sea to sparkling sea. Again a silence comes. But not for
long this time. They are waiting, as you are. Waiting for him.
He comes. Even among so many he is hard to miss, the tall young
man on the huge white horse. Yet if you did not recognize him, you
will by what follows him. Two poles. What hangs from one is so old,
its green has turned black with the years. It looks to you what it is—a
tattered piece of cloth.
It is the banner that was carried before the Prophet himself, peace
be unto him. You know this, because when it is driven into the ground,
a moan goes through the army. And then the second pole is placed
and the moan blends with the chime of a thousand tiny bells. The
breeze also lifts the horsetails that dangle from its height.
Nine horsetails. As bef its a sultan’s tug.
Mehmet. Lord of lords of this world. King of believers and unbelievers.
Emperor of East and West. Sultan of Rum. He has many titles
more yet he craves only one. He would be “Fatih.”
He turns and regards all those he has gathered to this spot to do
his and Allah’s will. T hen his eyes turn to you. To the tower where
you stand. He raises a hand, lets it fall. T he janissaries part and reveal
what you’ d almost forgotten—that square of dug earth right opposite
you, a medium bowshot away. It was empty when last you looked. But
you were distracted by innumerable men. Now it is full.
Remember I told you we were bringing something different? Not
only this vast army. Something new? Here it is.
A cannon. No, not a cannon. That is like calling paradise “a place.”
This cannon is monstrous. And as bef, it has a monster’s name.
The Basilisk. It is the biggest gun that has ever been made. Five tall
janissaries could lie along its length. T he largest of them could not
circle its bronze mouth in his arms.
Breathe, Greek! You have time. It will be days before the monster is
ready to fire its ball bigger than a wine barrel. Yet once it begins, it will
keep firing until…until that tower you stand on is rubble.
When it is, I will come.
For I am the Turk. I come on the bare feet of the farmer, the
armored boot of the Anatolian. In the mad dash of the serdengecti
who craves death and in the measured tread of the janissary who
knows a hundred ways to deal it. I clutch scimitar, scythe, and spear,
my fingers pull back bowstring and trigger, I have a glowing match to
lower into a monster’s belly and make it spit out hell.
I am the Turk. There are a hundred thousand of me. And I am here
to take your city.
FOOL FOR LOVE-Cupcake Lovers Club series
Manhattan, New York Upper East Side
“How many years do you think I’d get for death by Cuisin art?”
“I’m serious, Monica. I want to kill him.”
“With a hand mixer?”
“I don’t want it to be quick.”
“Or easy. How exactly would that work?”
Chloe didn’t know—exactly. She wasn’t thinking rationally. Her brain was choked with visions of Ryan licking vanilla-bean buttercream frosting from her beaters—frosting she’d prepared for a celebratory cake—right before announcing he was leaving her for a Parisian “tart.” (Chloe’s description of the other woman, not his.)
Heart full of equal parts grief and fury, Chloe squeezed back tears as she continued her long-distance tirade with her closest and oldest friend. “Maybe you’re right,” she said into her smartphone. “Maybe I should skewer his traitorous heart with my meat fork. Or pulverize him with my tenderizer.”
“That’s just grisly. And totally out of character. You’re a pacifist, hon. Zero tolerance for gore. You threw up when we accidentally ran over that squirrel on Route Twenty-two. Remember?”
Senior year of high school. Driving home from a rehearsal for West Side Story. Monica had swerved, but not enough. Chloe had screamed when she’d felt the thud, then, looking out the rearview window and seeing the furry roadkill, had puked all over the backseat of Monica’s 1992 Camaro.
“Sort of,” she mumbled, letting out an aggrieved sigh. Monica was right. Violence and gore wouldn’t do. Just thinking about that squashed squirrel turned her stomach and soured her killer instincts. Once she was depleted of rage, Chloe’s knees buckled. She slumped onto the love seat she and Ryan used to cuddle on, misery pouring over her soul, slow and thick like the homemade maple syrup Monica had shipped from Vermont.
Two years. Chloe had invested two years of her life in this relationship—her longest serious liaison ever. She’d had a severe falling-out with her dad when she’d moved in with Ryan, and she’d lost touch with a contingent of her NYC friends when she’d given up partying for domestic bliss. She hadn’t expected a conventional union, what with Ryan frequently traveling oversees for his job, but she hadn’t expected this. She hadn’t suspected an affair, hadn’t felt Ryan’s affections straying. She’d thought they were a solid couple, destined for marriage. She felt like the biggest freaking idiot on the planet.
“Listen, Chloe. I know you’re crushed. The bastard cheated on you. That sucks. And he’s leaving you for her. Sucks worse. But . . .”
Monica blew out a breath. “Okay. Here comes some tough love, sweetie. You had a comfortable relationship, lived a comfortable life, but did you seriously want to spend the rest of your nights with a guy who couldn’t find your G-spot?”
Chloe flushed. “I had orgasms.”
“With the shower massager. Doesn’t count.”
“I shouldn’t have shared that with you.”
“Why not? I told you about the time I got off sitting on top of the crazed washing machine.”
“Are you trying to make me feel better? Because, news flash, you’re not.”
“I’m trying to tell you Ryan Levine isn’t worth twenty-five to life in the state penitentiary.”
“Don’t worry. The murderous urge passed.”
“Now I just want to curl up and die.”
Chloe burst into tears and poured out her heart. Maybe Ryan wasn’t worth a stretch in the clink, but he was sure worthy of a good cry. “He ruined the happiest day of my life, Monica. After all these years, all the botched courses and careers, I finally followed through, finally excelled at one of my passions. After four hundred and forty hours of in-class training and a two-hundred- and- ten-hour externship, I not only earned a diploma from the Culinary Arts Institute; I graduated with honors.”
“What? You’re kidding! I mean, that’s fantastic! Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I just found out today. About the honors part, anyway. The happiest day of my life—ruined! The affair’s been going on for months. He could’ve waited a day or two to dump me. Any day other than my proudest.”
“Or,” Monica growled, sounding like a provoked mother bear, “he could’ve broken off with you weeks ago, when the fling started.”
“He said he didn’t want to distract me from my studies.”
“Big of him.”
“Said he’d feel better leaving, knowing I was finally focused on a sensible career.”
“He’s coming back at the end of the month to pack up his things. He’s actually transferring to the company’s resort in France so he can live with her. Said our apartment’s paid up for the next three months. That gives me three months to find a roommate or to find a place I can afford on my own. Both prospects are daunting. Not to mention I’ll be job hunting at the same time.”
“Maybe you could ask your dad—”
“Right. Dumb suggestion. Okay, then. Come stay with me.”
Chloe blinked. “You live in Vermont.”
“So what? Put your things in storage and fly up for an extended visit. It doesn’t have to be forever. Just time enough to heal. To catch your breath and plan for your future. Who knows? Maybe you’ll fall in love with Sugar Creek like I did and want to stay.”
Chloe glanced around the living room and into the kitchen, her gaze drifting toward the bedroom. Every square inch of this apartment reminded her of Ryan and the life they’d shared. She couldn’t imagine staying here for the next three months. What’s more, she didn’t want to.
“I don’t feel right about imposing on you and Leo. You’re trying to have a baby. I . . . I wouldn’t feel comfortable.” According to her friend, she and her husband of three years were doing it like bunnies every chance they got. Last week when he’d come home for lunch, she’d greeted him at the door naked.
“Potential for awkward moments,” Monica said with a smile in her voice. “True.”
“Plus, what would I do with my time? Sugar Creek is even smaller than the town we grew up in. I’ve been a city girl for fourteen years. I need culture. Activities and distractions.” Especially now. The last thing she needed was empty hours enabling her to wallow in the breakup.
“We have activities and distractions in Sugar Creek,” Monica said. “Just different than what you’re used to. Hey, I know. Daisy Monroe is looking for a cook and companion.”
“Who’s Daisy Monroe?”
“You’ll love her. She’s just like you—charmingly off beat—only older. The town just celebrated her seventy-fifth birthday.”
“The whole town? What is she, famous or something?”
“You could say that. She lives alone in a beautiful old colonial home. I bet if I asked, I could get her to include free board.”
“It’s perfect! Time away. Time with me. Plus you get to cook. Let’s put that diploma to use, honey!”
“I don’t know.”
“I do. Say yes.”
She hugged Ryan’s favorite toss pillow to her chest, breathed in his scent. Her aching heart pounded with renewed fury. What the hell. “Yes.”
“Fantastic! I’ll line everything up. You pack. Oh! Speaking of activities, you can join Cupcake Lovers. Hit us with some of those fancy recipes you learned in culinary school.”
“No, thank you.”
Monica had mentioned the local club in her e-mails. A small group that met once a week to swap recipes and ideas on how to make a difference in the world via cupcakes— chocolate, red velvet, banana walnut . . .
Chloe envisioned the devil’s food cake she’d chucked in the garbage less than an hour ago. Thought about the way Ryan had sampled the frosting, the groan of delight just before the weary sigh. Remembered the way he’d raved about her cooking over the last few months, especially the dishes she’d created during her Contemporary Desserts course.
Equating confectionary with heartache, she wondered if she’d ever be able to mix up another dessert without feeling depressed or homicidal. “I’m swearing off sweets,” Chloe said with a sniff. “Forever.”
Monica snorted. “Now that’s just crazy talk.”
Swiftly, she attacked the pumpkins to get them ready for roasting. When they were in the oven, she cruised the walk-in, looking for inspiration for her soup. It needed to be gloriously simple; a soup that would tease the appetite but leave room for the substantial lasagna, something that would showcase the purity of the broth but also stimulate the imagination. Perhaps if she made an excellent soup, the peace between her and her mother would continue until the end of the week when she told her about Chameleon.
She felt chilled, although the walk-in was only forty degrees. Even if she made the best soup in Italy, her mother was not going to be happy with her. Resolutely, she focused on the joy again. Who wouldn’t be optimistic at the sight of the beautiful array of vegetables in the cooler? The radicchio looked like a bouquet of crumpled purple roses; so convoluted and crisp, it burst with life. The fennel fronds were soft and feathery. She wanted to brush them against her skin. Even the more common produce like celery and carrots seemed firmer, brighter and sharper. Her mother could write the book on fresh, local, and seasonal, that was for sure. She gathered what she needed and took it back to her station.
She worked slowly and deliberately, humming a bit as her knife worked through the vegetables to make the battuto, so much like the French mirepoix, but finer and with garlic, of course. The battuto reduced celery, carrot, and onion to their essences and then carried them through the dish. With guilt, she realized she hadn’t made one since her basic skills class at the Culinary Arts College.
As she chopped, a prickle of anxiety made her heart stutter in her chest. What if she couldn’t finish her soup in time? What if it was unremarkable? What if her custard scrambled? Or was pale and wan? Insipid? For a moment her knife stopped moving and she felt locked in place by the same kind of pressure that had paralyzed her in New York. Stop it. It’s just food. No one was expecting anything of her. She could walk out of the kitchen right now having accomplished more than had been asked of her.
With surprise, she realized she didn’t want to leave. She wanted to cook. Her heart skipped another beat, but this time it was because of excitement. She began to chop again, remembering how much pleasure Sean had taken in the simple Italian meal last night. She wanted it to be her food that brought him pleasure. Only her food?
No, not just her food. As soon as she got the custards in the oven, she would go to the tasting room and ask Gia to pair wines with tonight’s menu, although she was going to make sure they didn’t drink too much tonight. Maybe then she could finally get laid. The thought popped into her head and she froze, then she laughed, surprised she felt no panic.
She distinctly remembered the utter relaxation she had felt as she fit her body to his right before she fell asleep. Right before you used him as a bed, you mean. If she had gotten any closer to him, they would have become one person.
Exactly. The beast with two backs.
She snorted. Naturally, the first bit of Shakespeare that came to her would be that one. Her hands had been busy with the knife while she was thinking, and the battuto was ready. She heated olive oil in the pan to fry the pancetta. When it was crispy, she removed it and began to sweat the vegetables. The fragrance of her childhood wrapped itself around her. She chopped fennel and more garlic, glorying in the beauty of the simple ingredients.
THE MOST IMPROPER MISS SOPHIE VALENTINE
Breathless, still smiling, she stumbled directly into the arms arms of Lazarus Kane.
“There she is,” exclaimed Aunt Finn, who had hold of his sleeve in her fingers as if she’d just dragged him across the yard like a naughty boy. “Mr. Kane wishes to dance with you, Sophie. He’s been waiting all this time.”
He looked slightly bemused, but then he smiled, and it lit up his entire face.
She couldn’t very well refuse, could she? And since Henry wasn’t there…
“I suppose I have time for one dance,” she muttered. “And then we really must leave.”
As Lazarus took her hand and led her into the line of couples, whispers fluttered in the air around them on all sides, curiosity swooping like a flock of seagulls over broken crab shells on the sands.
“Don’t mind them,” he muttered from the side of his lips.
He arched an eyebrow.
“I don’t,” she repeated firmly. It would be good for them all to see her dance with him, she decided. Then they would know there was no awkwardness between them and no reason for any further speculation.
The dance began. She tried to avoid his direct gaze but soon found it impossible. She could see her face reflected in his dark, satiny pupils as he looked down at her, rarely blinking.
“Ouch,” she said when he stepped on her toe.
He mumbled an apology and promptly stepped on her foot again, his gaze still trained upon her face.
“You didn’t seem to have this much trouble with your other partners,” she observed curtly.
He gave a sheepish grin and turned her just a little too fast. “You have an extraordinary effect on me, Miss Valentine. As your aunt has already observed. A very clever lady.”
“Will you please pay attention to the steps? And you’re holding my hand too tightly.” His palm was very hot and clammy.
“I don’t want you to get away again.”
She glowered at him.
He laughed softly. “You can stop pretending you didn’t want to dance with me.”
“I didn’t,” she objected. “I was forced into it by my aunt.”
“Your aunt is a sweet lady.”
“Sweet? Don’t be fooled, Mr. Kane. None of the women in our family are sweet or delicate, despite appearances.”
“Oh, I know you are not what you appear to be,” he said with a wink. “Hold tight!” He spun her again, far faster than necessary. She tripped over her hem and fell against his torso, giving him the excuse to put his hands on her waist while she found her balance. “I bet you’re a damn good card player,” he added.
She was, as a matter of fact. It was a skill inherited from her aunt. “Mr. Kane, you are bold and presumptuous.”
“How else can a man get what he wants out of life?”
She rolled her eyes to the starlit sky. “Thank goodness not all men think like you. Where would we be if everyone cast aside rules and propriety and forgot their manners?”
He leaned down to whisper against her brow. “I’d be with you, madam, and I know exactly what we’d be doing.”
As much as she might like to misunderstand, his meaning was shockingly clear.
“Not dancing,” he clarified with a grin.
She merely shook her head. She was unable to speak just then, still recovering from the stroke of his breath against her temple.
“You think me too forward,” he added.
A slight understatement, she mused.
“But I like to get all my cards out on the table. I don’t waste time.”
She swallowed a groan of despair as he tossed her about again like a rag doll. All the other couples danced demurely and elegantly, while she felt as if she’d been dragged through a hedge by her feet.
“Your brother doesn’t like me much, does he?”
Again she shook her head.
“Is that why you keep running away from me?”
“Certainly not. I do not run away from you, Mr. Kane.”
“Yes, you do.” He stuck out his jaw. “Five times now we’ve encountered each other in private. Twice you ran away. Once you simply backed away and hid behind your sister-in-law. The other times, you railed at me for helping you over a puddle and slammed a door in my face.”
“I was…embarrassed. Mortified by your behavior.”
“Nonsense. You’re not embarrassed, Miss Valentine.” He tightened his hold on her hand, almost squeezing the blood out of it. “You’re afraid.”
“Of what?” she scoffed, annoyed by his smug assumption.
“Of what you want from me.”
Her lips parted, but she couldn’t find the words to protest.
His eyes narrowed. “You’re afraid of how badly you hunger for it and of what you might do to get it. I understand you've been known to take drastic measures in the past.”
The music ended. She finally unwedged her hand from his great paw. “Thank you, Mr. Kane. That was most amusing. Good evening.”
“Thank you, Miss Valentine. Now this entire party was worthwhile.”
“Worthwhile?” She scowled, hands raised to tidy her hair.
“I did it all for you,” he added. “You were the only guest who mattered. I look forward to our next dance.”
She replied hastily, “There won’t be another.”“Oh, but there will. And the next dance will be much more intimate.” He bowed from the waist and walked away, leaving her with two bruised feet and the horrifying realization she’d finally met someone as difficult and stubborn as she.
MAGIC GONE WILD
Release Date: AUGUST 1, 2012
BLURB: Genie Vana Aphrodite is having a pretty rough day. She's failing to live up to the name "Aphrodite," she's stuck living in her master's attic, and her powers are on the fritz. To make matters even worse, her master's great-grandson, Zane, informs her that she has completely ruined his family's reputation. Zane is ready to sell his family's estate, genie and all – but Vana's bound and determined to fix her past wrongs. Can Aphrodite prove to him that his life needs a little bit of magic?
Zane Harrison stared at the woman on the other end of the scimitar and tried to remember exactly how he’d come to have a sword pointed at his chest.
“Holy smokes!” The woman sucked in a breath, clamped a hand over her mouth, and dropped the sword.
Right on top of him.
The pommel conked him on the head and the blade spun around, almost taking off his nose.
Zane leapt to his feet and grabbed the sword in one movement, the hours spent in football training drills thankfully having real-world application, although he’d never imagined that would be to defend his life during a trip back to his ancestral home in the middle of nowhere.
Then he got a good look at the woman. A more unlikely assassin he’d never seen. Hand-to-hand combat was not the ideal way to handle this situation; hand to mouth was. Or rather, mouth to mouth.
The woman was gorgeous. Movie-star gorgeous. Playmate gorgeous. Even in a fencer’s outfit—which was about as asexual as you could get—the woman was absolutely stunning with curves straight out of his most vivid erotic fantasy, eyes the shimmering silvery-gray color of the sky before a storm that promised every bit as much of a wild ride, and hair the color of a mink that Zane wanted to sink his fingers into and never let go. And he was most definitely stunned. But not only by her looks.
“Ungaro,” she muttered. “Not en garde.” She shook her head, mumbled something else, then looked up at him. “Good day, um…?”
Zane would hate to see what she called a bad day if a good one was ending up on the wrong end of a sword. “Who are you, and what the hell is this?” He shook the sword.
She licked her lips—more centerfold fodder. They were plump and pink and now wet.
Hmmm, maybe it was a good day.
“I’m Vana, and that’s a scimitar.” Her expression was crestfallen and her sigh heartbroken. “I couldn’t even manage a rapier.”
Which made about as much sense as anything else.
May 1, 2012
Victoria ambled beside Christopher along the hard-packed sand at the water’s edge, her insides in knots as attraction and common sense battled it out. There was no denying the strong pull of something elemental between them.
She narrowed her eyes to try to make out the faint hint of energy surrounding him. In the dark it was less visible than before, but nevertheless registered against her aura. She had to try to find out more about him and if he was aware of his abilities. “So you say you moved here permanently from the city? You can do that just with your programs?”
A casual shrug rippled across his broad shoulders. “The royalties for using the software are quite generous.”
“It must be nice to live a life of leisure and enjoy the nature around you.” She hit a watery patch of sand where her foot sank deep, making her wobble and bump up against him. The moment her skin met his, the buzz of his power radiated throughout her, awakening desire along her sex, which quivered in reaction.
Totally not a human life force. Caught off guard, his energy was clearly discernible and much more powerful than what she had expected.
He stopped walking and shifted away, but kept a gentle hand on her arm to stabilize her. From that point of connection, warmth and energy continued to travel between the two of them, making it impossible to deny the Hunter blood in him.
“What are you?” she asked, looking into his eyes. It was clear as she met his gaze that he understood her question had nothing to do with his home or employment or anything else two normal people would discuss on a first date. That lack of confusion confirmed she was not off in her observations.
“What’s more important to you: What I am or who I am?” he replied, his grip tightening on her arm for a moment before he relaxed it and instead brushed his hand from wrist to elbow in a simple caress. But beneath the physical touch came one of energy. Strong and demanding, it created a glimmer of aqua wherever his fingers touched her and traveled straight to her Hunter center.
The motion sent a shiver of anticipation through her and created searing desire deep within. She imagined his touch along other parts of her body and how their energies could meld, bringing even greater satisfaction. Dangerous thoughts considering how little she knew about him. Plus there was the fact that it was painfully obvious that he was not only aware that he possessed such power, but also seemed to know that she did as well.
She should have been more worried, since so far she had not been able to determine if he was Hunter or Hybrid. And if he was a Hunter, she had no clue if he was one of the Dark Ones or a Light Hunter, which was equally troubling. But there was one sure thing on which she could rely: If he was a Shadow something bad would have happened long before now.
As he took hold of her hand, the sizzle of power continued. She glanced down to where their hands were joined and the glow intensified. Tendrils of silver and blue twined around the spot and she waited, fearing that if he was a Shadow he’d sink his ravenous filaments deep into her aura and try to drain her of her life force.
But he didn't.
If anything, his power seemed to be similar to hers, complementing it—arousing physical passion and bringing immense curiosity about him.
“So who are you?” she wondered, following his lead for the moment, allowing her fascination with him to overrule common sense.
One side of his lips quirked up with the first hint of that sexy smile and boyish dimple. The moonlight cast a silvery glint to his gaze, which gleamed with intent as he said, “I’m a man who desperately wants to kiss the beautiful woman beside him.”
This time it was his words that dispatched a wave of heat over her. Man-woman heat that she didn’t want to deny because more than almost anything, she wanted to have normal in her life.
“What’s stopping you?” she said with an inviting arch of her brow.
He bent his head and she raised on tiptoe to eliminate the couple of inches that separated them. His lips were warm as they covered hers, hesitant at first, but from the moment skin met skin, desire grew until Victoria wanted more.
She laid her hand on his shoulder and leaned into him, opened her mouth to taste him and savor the shape of his lips with hers. Hard-edged, but tender at his full bottom lip. Tasty, she thought, nipping at that fullness.
BEAUTY AND THE BESTJudi Fennell
Once upon a time…
there lived a beast of a man,
locked within a castle
with no one to love him.
This is not his story.
This is the story of another man,
locked within himself,
and the Beautywho sets him free.
The French door to the patio opened, admitting a wet-haired, muscle-glistening man in swim trunks that were plastered to his hips.
“Hey,” said the water god, “you’re up. Sleep well?”
She had to pull the tongue off the roof of her mouth. Chipper and gorgeous. And half-dressed. What a difference a day made.
“Um, yes, slept very well, thank you. You?” She turned back to the stove ’cause the crêpes were going to start burning.
They could get in line behind her hormones.
The chair scraped along the tiled floor. Whoa daddy. They were having breakfast in the near-buff. She was going to have to clarify exactly what constituted proper morning attire or he’d have to settle for burned meals if he kept showing up half-dressed. Or undressed. Whatever.
“What’s this?” asked Semi-Naked Guy.
“Rent.” She didn’t have to turn around to know what he was holding.
Or, rather, what he was shredding.
“Jolie, I told you, you’re welcome to stay here. You don’t have to pay me.”
“But I’d pay my landlord and, for now, that’s you.”
“I don’t need the money.”
She spun around, her backside resting against the edge of the countertop. “I, however, do need to keep my self-respect. I can’t just take from you without giving something back.”
Oh, I know what you could give—
Shut up, Naughty Girl.
Todd’s green-eyed gaze searched her face like pirates searched a treasure map. “Okay. You want to give back?”
She nodded, all the while shoving Naughty Girl out of her head.
“Fine. But instead of money, I want something else.”
Here we go. Naughty Girl wrung her hands in glee.
Jolie did a double-take. “Um, what?”
“Cookies. Chocolate chip, to be precise.”
Jolie did the finger-in-the-ear thing. “I’m sorry. I thought you said ‘cookies.’”
“I did. Chocolate chips.” The corners of his mouth headed northward and the sun chose that moment to dip into the room and find his eyes.
“May I, um, ask why?”
“The Best Enterprises Foundation sponsors events for kids in crisis and I know those kids would love to have homemade chocolate chip cookies.”
It was all she could do not to throw herself all over him and rain kisses on every inch of his tanned skin. Well, for more reasons than one, but—oh! Where had he been when she’d been in the system?
“So… is that okay with you?”
She nodded. Like a crazy woman. If she even thought about trying to open her mouth to thank him, he’d think she was a crazy woman because she was trying really hard not to burst into Hoover Dam-like tears.
Even Naughty Girl shut up, and Jolie thought she caught a sniffle or two from her.
“Okay then. That’s settled.” He dumped the shredded check into the trashcan, then sidled close enough to peer over her shoulder. “Are those crêpes?”
Chlorine and essence du Todd tickled her nose and the little fine hairs on the back of her neck started doing the “Todd Lambada” dance, which had the added benefit of heating her from the inside out so her tears sizzled out of existence.
“Yep. One of my specialties.” She turned around and, smart boy, he scooted out of her way. Trying to regain whatever composure she had left, she spooned some of the fruit into the center, rolled the crêpe and drizzled more of the strawberry/orange juice over it. She handed him the plate and he took a seat.
“How about whipped cream with this?” he asked.
Whipped cream. She stifled a groan as she opened the fridge and grabbed one oh-so-innocent-looking white container. Somehow she was going to have to spoon the little pre-fabbed temptation over his crêpe, but, by God, her imagination went steaming into overdrive and Naughty Girl came back to life with a vengeance.
Images of spooning it over him flashed in her brain, followed shortly thereafter by images of licking it off.
She grabbed a theoretical stranglehold on Naughty Girl’s throat and told her to knock it off. That is not a good idea.
Though, that tanned shoulder would look supremely scrumptious slathered in white, fluffy—
Face flaming, she tossed him the container. She was not going near the guy.
“Nice catch,” she mumbled in an effort to appear somewhat normal and not like an incredibly grateful, overly-horny, under-sexed, sorry excuse for an employee.
“Are you joining me?” asked Mr. I-have-no-idea-my-chef-is-a-quivering-mass-of-hormones.
“Uh, okay. Let me flip this and I’ll be right over.” And she’d sit at the far end of the table.
“So what do you have planned today?” asked Mr. Chipper. “I’m going to be pretty occupied in the attic, so, if you don’t mind, you can just leave me a sandwich. I’ll grab it when I take a break.”
Dab, dab with the fruit, roll, roll with the crêpe, and she was ready to brave breakfast with Brawny. Darn if the guy didn’t pull out the chair next to him.
So much for avoidance tactics.
“If you’re sure… I do have some pages to write—I mean, some notes to organize.” Oops.
“Pages? What are you writing? A cookbook?” His tongue gathered the whipped cream from the corner of his mouth.
Mind back on the task at hand, Jols. Which would be pulling her sandaled foot out of her mouth. Pages to write. Sheesh.
“Yes. I’m working on a book. For the pastry shop I want to open.” Sure, she could throw some recipes in her manuscript. She’d seen people do that, where they began a chapter with a family recipe. She wasn’t quite sure how she’d work it into the story, but if she did, she wouldn’t be lying.
“Be sure to include these crêpes. They’re great.”
“Are there any more?”
“In the warming drawer.”
He walked to the drawer, bent over to open it, and, man! What a view. His back was muscle-slick, a slight rise on either side of his spine, flaring in at his waist. His butt tightened, his thighs tightened, his calves tightened, and a few body parts of her own did some tightening—which sent one riotous bundle of flames from her heart, through several key points nearby—literally—down through her belly to dance along one very tingly area between her legs.
She really needed to stop noticing those things.
“These are very good,” he said as he sat at the table again.
Could she not get a break? Heck, her nipples were welcoming him back, for Pete’s sake. Could she have some time for them to calm down before he had ’em up and dancing?
“Thanks,” she mumbled, shoveling the rest of her crêpe in. She was out of there as soon as she finished one last bit of juice. Pseudo-cookbook, here I come.
That was her story and she was sticking to it.
###Beauty and The Best © 2012 Judi Fennell
SHADES OF GRAY
Sam was unnerved. She tried to flee, catching her foot in the ropes of the hammock. She would have fallen flat on her face if Caleb had not caught her. He moved with the grace of a large cat, pulling her up and into his arms. Her face was inches from his and she couldn’t seem to move. His warmth seeped through her body. His eyes locked on hers for what seemed an eternity until, tilting his head to her lips, he leaned closer.
The break in eye contact allowed her brain to shift into gear. “No,” she whispered. He stopped so close that she felt his warm breath on her lips and returned her eyes to his. “Please, no,” she repeated though she was unsure she had spoken aloud.
Battle for America Series
Kathleen and Michael Gear
Black Shell is an exile, banished by his people for his cowardice in battle. To his fearsome patron spirit, Horned Serpent, however, he is imbued with the courage and keenness to stop the Kristiano onslaught. He and his beautiful wife Pearl Hand have fought them from the Florida Peninsula through the very heart of native America. A trader by profession, Black Shell now dedicates his soul to destroying the invaders, with their impenetrable armor, their swift, enormous cabayos, and their flashing, razor-sharp swords.
Black Shell and Pearl Hand have seen the shackled, naked, starving slaves, heard the broken promises—and learned de Soto’s plans. While the battle of Mabila cost many Kristianos life and limb, the marauder does not retreat. Now he heads for Chicaza and the people from which Black Shell was once exiled.
Wounded and pursued by memories and visions, Black Shell is obsessed with setting the perfect trap. To do so, he must use the Chicaza and their stockpiles of food and supplies. And he must gamble everything on his people’s pride, traditions, and failings. As winter sets in, new dangers abound for the pair—that of a family’s shame, a woman’s anger, and a betrayal that may force Black Shell to forfeit his last chance to save their world from utter destruction. But, worst of all, he and Pearl Hand must walk boldly into de Soto’s camp and engage the cunning monster in a desperate game of wits that will decide the fate of a continent.
Powerful and pulsing with authenticity, A Searing Wind is an unforgettable tale of humanity and cruelty, passion and ignorance—and of historical events burned into America’s history and soul.
“Had you asked me the morning before the battle of Mabila, I would have told you I was prepared for the horror, the desperation, and the ensuing pain. I would have told you that the chance to kill the Adelantado, Hernando de Soto was worth the coming blood and misery. After all, we were fighting to save our world.”
“Elder?” The Hopaye’s face swims into her vision, as if through clear water. “Let us help you up. You’ve had too much sun. We need to move you into the shade...get you something to drink.”
Hands reach out. She feels her bony body raised; the dank odor of sweaty people who press too close replaces the stench of Mabila.
Absently, she says, “Black Shell? Oh, Black Shell, the question still lingers: How many lives is a world worth?”
“Elder?” the Hopaye inquires.
“I have to tell him...warn him...”
“Black Shell. He has to understand. Mabila was but a flickering spark. Ahead of him, at Chicaza, is the searing wind...”
So begins the third and final volume of the CONTACT: BATTLE FOR AMERICA series. We think that in A SEARING WIND we’ve crafted a fitting and worthy conclusion to the story of Black Shell, Pearl Hand, and their battle against Hernando de Soto and his Spanish army. If you haven’t read the first two books, COMING OF THE STORM and FIRE THE SKY, we suggest that you do. Both are available in paperback and can be ordered through your local bookstore or through any of the bookseller link icons on our www.Gear-Gear.com homepage. The novels are also available for download on both Kindle and Nook. If you haven’t read the previous books, it’s not absolutely necessary since in A SEARING WIND our characters explain the backstory to the Chicaza people. That’s a great advantage to a story that covers a lot of country and brings in new characters.
A SEARING WIND is a tough book for Black Shell. Fate has taken him full circle and brought him back to his native Chicaza. Now he has to face the family that banished him as a coward. Not only must he win their trust and convince them of the danger posed by de Soto’s Kristiano invasion, but he must engage the monster face-to-face in a desperate game of wits, bluff, and deception that will determine the fate of the Chicaza and the entire native world for which he fights. It won’t be easy. It’s a toss-up as to who will kill him first: the Spanish, or his own family! We’re uncommonly proud of this one and hope that you’ll find as much emotion and joy in the reading of it as we had in the writing.
Science fiction - space opera/adventure
Print ISBN 978-0-9827139-4-5
6x9 Trade paperback, 240 pages
EBook ISBN 978-0-9827139-6-9
available in all formats
Byron is to escort the Tgren woman Athee to the Cassan exploration craft for psychic testing, despite the prefect’s protests.
The prefect turned to face Byron, his nose wrinkled with disdain. Squaring his shoulders, he raised one finger in a threatening manner.
“If anything happens to her, there will be severe repercussions,” he asserted. “You started this nonsense and I’ll hold you personally responsible for any harm that befalls my niece.”
Turning to Athee, he threw his hands in the air. “Go!” Orellen cried. Before she could respond, he stormed away from the shuttle.
Athee shook her head. She met Byron’s eyes in passing as she strode up the ramp and into the shuttle. Byron made certain the man was on his way to the hanger before closing the hatch. When the panel indicated a perfect seal, his shoulders sagged in relief.
Aware he needed to assist Athee with her harness, Byron stepped away from the door. Unable to locate her, he frowned. The other two passengers were secure in their seats and gave no indication as to her whereabouts. Alarmed, Byron peered into the cockpit. Athee now sat in the co-pilot’s seat, her harness in place and eyes scanning the control panel. Concerned, he entered the cockpit. She looked up and smiled.
“Your controls still amaze me,” she said, her eyes reflecting childish wonder. “So much information to process.”
Hesitating, Byron grasped the back of her seat. “You’ve been in a shuttle before?”
“Of course. The previous shuttle pilot even gave me a ride over the valley.”
I bet he did! Byron thought, staring at the attractive young woman. “Well, you need to go take a seat with the other passengers.”
Athee tossed her hair aside and eyed him expectantly. “I thought I’d ride in the cockpit with you.”
“That’s probably not a good idea.”
“That’s the co-pilot’s seat.”
“Do you have a co-pilot?”
“Then this seat is open.”
OPENING: The Adventures of Chase Manhattan (The Breakthrough Trilogy)
The Fisherman Virus
NICKY AWOKE ON KHYATI’S SOFA alone at eleven o’clock. Everyone else was at class or in lab. He had overslept, and it seemed no one had tried to wake him. He couldn’t remember the last time he had gotten this much sleep. He yawned and stretched, then went upstairs to relieve himself, neglecting the downstairs bathroom.
After taking care of nature’s call, he opened Khyati’s medicine cabinet. His eyes widened in anticipation as he found what he was looking for. Guu’s prescription diet pills. Nicky yawned once more, then screwed off the cap and looked at the contents. There were about twenty. He won’t miss one more. Just one more. He tapped the plastic container with his forefinger and one fell into his hand. He popped it in his mouth, then ran water and drank from the faucet.
Nicky experimented with social drugs in high school, but they had never been a part of his everyday life. He stopped altogether when he began college. But lately he felt exhausted. Overwhelmed. He needed a lift. He recently began taking these pills. One here. One there. That’s all. Then he started taking one a day. Guu would receive diet pills from three different doctors and had yet to notice someone was skimming from his three vials, each with a ninety day supply.
Nicky was confident he could control his usage, regardless of the pressure of planning assassinations and the lack of sleep that accompanied being a leader of a small group of global revolutionary zealots.
Nicky drove home, took a shower, and put on clean clothes. He felt refreshed. In a good mood. It’s a great day wreck some havoc on the world. At least in theory. Mina will help expedite the process. As he headed into the kitchen, he knew he needed to talk with the talented bio-chemist before doing anything else.
He made a turkey and Swiss sandwich on seven grain bread. Two slices of organically grown tomatoes, a piece of lettuce, and a thick layer of sprouts topped off the contents. He needed to eat now, or he would lose his appetite due to the diet pill. He took in a large bite, then text messaged Mina.
R U @ clas?
Im in lab
We need 2 tlk
Can it wait?
Not with r plnz tonite
K – cum ovr Im here til 3
Nicky swiped a bottled water from the refrigerator and the rest of his sandwich, walked to his car, and drove to M.I.T. He pulled into the parking structure at ten after one. Plenty of time to talk to Mina before she leaves. Research in organic chemistry took place in the Dreyfus Chemistry Building, which boasted the highest level of equipment in its field developed by man. He entered and strolled to the lab where Mina worked on her school projects.
Walking down the corridor, Nicky reflected on how he could, until recently, enter many of M.I.T.’s research facilities as a guest. Everyone knew him, since he was Professor Fischer’s son. He had always reveled in the respect people gave him, feeling like a celebrity as people addressed him, shook his hand, patted him on the back, and invited him to parties.
That was until the arrest of his father. Now people stared without greeting him, or looked the other way when he entered a room. He was more a freak than a celebrity. He hated this. His violent anger raged. He shoved the shame and fury down into a dark recess of his psyche and put on a happy face as he approached the lab door. I’ll have my day. Then they’ll treat me with the dignity and respect I so deserve. One way or another.
Mina saw him enter and waved him over. Nicky smiled, nodded to Mina, also to her lab partners, and then felt his stomach drop as he watched the rest of her group walk away as he approached the table.
His rage swelled as he walked down a row of work stations. Pioneering the way for a global scientific oligarchy is a noble effort, he thought. Few have the ability to scheme and follow through. Still, he realized, he needed an accelerant in addition to using wormholes to introduce change. And he’d recently developed a need to extract revenge on mankind in general for a lifetime of rejection. All the more motivation to encourage Mina to move forward with her virus.
Nicky was glad to see Mina. She always smiled. He appreciated she was predictable, in contrast to Staci, who he sometimes perceived as a human minefield, ready to explode without warning as he attempted to navigate her emotional battlefield.
Lately, he found himself more and more attracted to Mina's encouraging words that she seemed to have waiting for him, pleasantly surprising him when he approached her. And she was beautiful. At five feet three inches, she was slightly shorter than Staci. She had a curvy figure, not honed from relentless hours of workouts, but simple and sexy just the same. Her hair was black, and she wore it straight and just off her shoulders.
Nicky liked that Mina was generally quiet and led a simple and modest lifestyle. Born and raised in Chicago, she came to M.I.T. with her high school sweetheart, Christopher Thompson. Nicky originally did not let his feelings for Mina be known—Christopher was a big guy and very much protective of his girlfriend. His father played professional football as a linebacker with the Washington Redskins. His mother was a Rhodes Scholar from Northwestern. Christopher seemed to inherit the best genes from both sides.
Nicky had been privately intimidated by his close friend Christopher. But lately, with Staci showing definitive signs of departure, causing great stress for him and the group, he needed an alternative outlet. And Mina had been the one to begin the discreet flirtations.
She took off her safety glasses as he approached. Nicky saw in her a respect and a genuine gladness to see him. “Hey there, mister sleepy head. We couldn’t get you up this morning. You were snoring up a storm on the couch.”
Nicky scratched his head and ran his fingers through his dark, wavy hair. “I guess I needed to catch up on rest. With so much going on, I just don’t have time to sleep. So how are things?”
“We’re working with the CDC in Atlanta on projects of major concern regarding the basic mechanisms in self-contained systems that underlie the fundamental processes of DNA replication and recombination.” She leaned into Nicky. “Translation: We study viruses in the human population. Specifically, individuals and groups who demonstrate a susceptibility to viral replication and mutation in their autoimmune systems.”
Nicky was slightly taken back at the lackadaisical way Mina said this and leaned away from her. “Like the Black Plague?”
“No. That was a plague caused by bacterium.”
“Isn’t the Black Plague the standard? Doesn’t everything else pale in comparison?”
“Au, contraire. Think of the most terrifying pandemics caused by viruses throughout history. The Spanish Flu in 1918 killed more people than in all of World War One. Smallpox has killed hundreds of millions of people. Tens of millions of people today have the HIV virus. Measles. Rabies. The list goes on.”
Nicky shuddered. “Sounds awful. Horrifying, really.”
“It gets worse. We need to be prepared for whatever happens next.”
“Viruses mutate. They can have a devastating effect on people and the environment. Mutations happen far less frequently in some DNA viruses, like smallpox. But other viruses with RNA, like influenza and HIV, mutate far more frequently. Hence, it’s difficult to keep pace with vaccines and natural immunities.”
Nicky shook his head and took a few moments to recalibrate. Mina smiled at him. For the first time, he unexpectedly saw her in a bit of a devious light. But that was okay. It was time for Mina to come out of her shell.
Nicky lowered his voice to a whisper and leaned back into Mina. “And how is your little side project coming along?”
She smiled and winked. “The trial version is ready. I have the virus and the respective antidote ready to go. I just need someone to test it on. And listen to this. I’ve decided to call this the Fisherman Virus. It’s a combination of our names. Fischer and Mina. Fisherman. Get it?”
“This is great,” Nicky said with much excitement. “You’re beyond clever.” He scanned the room to see if anyone was listening. He saw Mina’s three lab partners standing against the wall, arms folded, and glaring at him.
Mina looked at Nicky in a quizzical way. “Why do you ask about the virus?”
Nicky puffed out his chest, as if to assert himself, “Because we need to move our timetable up. I need you to inject your mutating concoction into someone. Then we can follow the effects and make any necessary adjustments to our plan.”
“Okay, sure.” She nodded. “We can do that. Have you selected our guinea pig?”
Nicky took a deep breath and braced his hands against the table. He stared into Mina. “I have. It’s Staci.”
Mina’s countenance dropped. “Staci? You’re kidding. Right?”
“I only wish I were. But you’ve heard her say she not only wants to stop with the assassinations. She’s stated flatly she wants out altogether.”
“Yeah. I’ve picked up on that. Not like it wasn’t obvious. And to tell the truth? I’ve been having my doubts about her lately anyway. I just wasn’t sure how to approach you.”
“Um … why didn’t you mention anything to me?”
“Men. You’re so dense sometimes. All you have to do is listen to what women are saying once in a while. Even Khyati has picked up on this.”
“Hey, I listen.”
“Mina’s eyes went rolling. “Whatever. Okay, what do we need to do to move forward?”
“Just leave everything to me. All you have to do is inject her with it.”
“Me, are you kidding?” Mina almost choked on her words. “And how do you propose I do that,” she asked, folding her arms and taking a defensive stance.
“Easy. I’ll tell everyone you’re giving them B-twelve shots as we’re all exhausted. Only Staci’s shot will have the virus mixed in.”
Mina’s smile returned. “You’re so smart. And bad. I like that in a man.”
Nicky smiled. Because of Mina’s predictable submissiveness, he knew he was once again in charge of a major portion of his grandiose plan. “Oh, I need one more thing from you.”
“Anything. Just name it, my fearless leader.”
“I need something to battle exhaustion.”
“No problem. The B-twelve shot will help.”
“I need something stronger. Something to give me energy. Look at me. I can’t keep going like this. I have too much to do. I don’t have the time to get a good night’s rest. I missed classes this morning because I overslept. Can you help me? You … you have to help me. Of all the people in our selective little group, you’re the only one I can turn to.”
Nicky took a deep breath. He had to make a decision that would change the dynamics of his team. He could no longer rely on Staci as his main source of support and inspiration. He took the plunge, He laid everything out on the table.
“I can’t do this alone. Staci wants out. I can no longer depend on her to help me. I need someone who can understand me. Someone ... someone like you. I feel so alone now. I think Staci has forsaken us. I don’t trust her anymore.”
Are you crazy? was Mina’s silent expression reply. “Staci has the ability to kill you and me before breakfast.”
Nicky cusped his hands like an innocent child. “Please? I know what I’m doing. Will you trust me? I promise you, I’ll get us through this. I’ll get rid of Staci. I admit she’s a loose cannon. She’s unpredictable. In her place, you can reign supreme. I promise. You just have to trust me.”
Mina shifted her weight. “I … I don’t know. I’ve never done anything like this.”
“You do trust me, don’t you?”
She looked straight at him. “Of course I do.”
“And I trust you. You don’t have to give me anything too powerful or in a large quantity. Just something to get me through the next week.”
“Just one week?”
“Well, I suppose I can do that.”
“Great. You’re a life saver.”
Mina took her eyes off Nicky and looked behind him. “You’d better get moving. My friends are returning. I don’t think they like you.”
“Um … we need to finish our project,” one of them said as the three young biochemist grad students returned.
“I’ll be leaving, ladies. Good luck with your work.”
Nicky turned and walked away. A month earlier the same female students would flirt with him. Now they despised him.
“What a freak,” he heard one say.
“I wish he’d disappear,” he heard another as he walked toward the exit.
Nicky tried to ignore their snide remarks, but could not. Their words echoed inside his head. They joined forces and grew in strength with other derogatory words people said that he stored in his brain. Maybe I’ll use them as human guinea pigs too, Nicky thought, as he left the lab.
MURDER, MAYHEM, AND MAMA
BEING A MAMA IS HARD. BUT THE JOB'S EVEN TOUGHER WHEN YOU'RE DEAD...
Cali McKay's mama isn't ready to pass over to the "other side" yet. Her unlucky-in-love daughter needs her now more than ever. Before Mama can chain-smoke her way to heaven, she's gotta make sure Cali's ex deadbeat boyfriend doesn't get her daughter killed.
GRIEF SUCKS. LOVE HEALS...
Cali lost her mom to cancer. Detective Brit Lowell, lost his partner to murder. Now he's in the mood to take down some dirtbags and Cali's ex just happens to be a dirtbag leaving a trail of dead bodies behind him. Can Brit trust this beautiful woman to help take down her ex? Can Cali look past this sexy cop's hard exterior to trust him with her heart? Can life get any crazier when Mama starts meddling from the grave? Only one thing is for sure--none of it will matter, unless they catch a killer before the killer catches them.
You can read the first two chapters here, on Amazon's look inside feature (it's worth reading!)
I would like to tell everyone about a contest I doing. Celebrating the release of Murder, Mayhem and Mama at Amazon, I’m going to be giving away a KINDLE TOUCH or a $99 Amazon gift card.
The rules are simple. You tweet or Facebook about the release of Murder, Mayhem and Mama at Amazon; Twitter users use the hashtag of #Christie-Craig@Amazon, and then you pop over to my February 14th post—yes that’s Valentine’s Day—on Killer Fiction, (http://killerfictionwriters.blogspot.com/) leave a comment telling me you Facebooked or tweeted about MM&M’s Kindle release and answer one of my five questions about romance.
By the way, I’ll be answering all those questions myself. So pop over and learn all my romantic secrets.
SEX, LIES AND VALENTINES
“We need to talk,” his brother said quietly.
Talk about what? How much did Caleb know about the crime ring playing house at the Manor? Did he have a clue that Tobias was being set up for an ugly fall? And how much would he share?
He could push. But his brother used to have the disposition of a granite wall and there was no reason to think that’d changed.
Before he could decide which direction to take, he felt heat. Like the sun breaking through clouds, warming his back with a tingling awareness.
“There you are, sweetie,” a husky voice purred just over Gabriel’s shoulder. “I was starting to worry that you’d gone off to have a good ole time without me.”
Gabriel’s spine turned to steel and he gritted his teeth so hard, he was surprised he didn’t bust one.
He hadn’t fooled her for one damned second, had he.
Turning slowly, he noted the triumphant look in her big blue eyes, the slight mocking tilt of those glossy lips. And realized that instead of fooling her, he’d played right into her hands.
“I missed you,” she said, pressing her body suggestively against his side as she reached up one red-nailed finger to give his chin a chiding tap. “You’re a bad boy, running off without me like that.”
“Maybe you can spank me later,” he suggested dryly.
Amusement broke through her cover for just a second, making her eyes gleam and her lips twitch. But she reeled it in, her eyes taking on that hard edge of a professional. Professional what, he wasn’t sure.
“Did you miss me?” she purred, sliding her hand down his chest with the hint of fingernails. The light scraping, along with the temptation of her touch, put all his senses on full alert. Damn, she was good.
Good enough that Gabriel was having trouble resisting the temptation of her body as it curved into his. She fit perfect against him, her heels bringing her mouth within kissing distance of his. Her eyes, still tarted up with smudged liner and a heavy coating of mascara, warned him to keep his distance even as her breast warmed his chest.
“You going to introduce your friend?” Caleb prodded, his words just this side of a laugh. Gabriel glanced over to see his brother’s eyes glinting with that evil older-brother glee. Maybe he hadn’t missed family quite as much as he’d initially thought.
Gabriel gritted his teeth, not sure who he was more annoyed with. Danita for forcing his hand, or Caleb for enjoying this so much.
From the look on Blondie’s face, a mix of triumph and absolute confidence that she had his number, she figured she’d won this round.
As much to piss her off as to throw his brother off track, Gabriel pulled Danita against him. Her eyes rounded, tossing all the angry barbs his way he knew she was dying to say but couldn’t.
He hadn’t planned to go this far. But now her curvy body was hot against his, he couldn’t resist. Their eyes locked on each other, Gabriel lowered his mouth to hers. Just a soft brush of the lips. Once, then twice.
If she’d stayed angry—all the away irritated—he’d have let it go at that. But he saw something deeper in those big blue eyes. Heated desire, mixed with just enough curiosity to push all his buttons.
He couldn’t resist.
So he swept his tongue along the soft cushion of her bottom lip, sipping at the sweet flesh like she was the answer to all his dreams.
The desire in her blue eyes flared.
But she was still playing the game. He could feel it in the way she held her body, the provocative angle that gave the impression that she was curled into him, while in reality she was holding him back. Pushing him away.
Even as her mouth opened to his questing tongue.
He slid one finger along her jaw, down the sweet softness of her throat. And took pleasure in the shudder she couldn’t hold back.
Needing more, needing desperately to push her for more, he took the kiss deeper. His mouth slid along hers, coaxing and tempting. After a brief hesitation, her lips softened, her tongue tangled.
Drowning was all Gabriel could think. He was drowning in her. That thought terrified him. Slowly, reluctantly, he pulled back. And watched her blue eyes blink the passion away in one sweep of those thick lashes.
In an instant, she went from hot to cold. From passionate to calculating.God, what a woman.
By Zvesdana Rashkovich
The uniformed Indian driver opened the door of the gold colored Bentley and waited respectfully. His young, handsome face strained with effort as he repeatedly tucked his oiled hair back into place under the snappy gold-rimmed cap. The polished gold epaulets on his jacket shone brilliantly in the morning sun. He did not need to lift his big brown eyes to look at the woman walking towards him but he could smell her familiar, exciting perfume. He did not need to see her face to know she was beautiful. He kept his eyes lowered, yet was intensely aware of everything.
“Good morning Raj,” Jewel said in mellifluous, slightly accented English. Her voice sent a slight shiver through his body. He had been driving her around this city for two months and since the first day; he knew he was in love with her.
“Good morning Madam,” he said, frantically swallowing the lump caught in his throat. He felt as though he could not breathe, his heart starting to jump around in his chest rapidly. He had read somewhere that these were the symptoms of a looming anxiety attack. Quickly and with great deference, he closed the door after she climbed into the car and then sprinted around to the driver’s seat. The car was already cool and pleasingly perfumed with her favorite scent…magnolia. Soft music was playing. Of course, the music had to be her choice, the crooning of that American, Lionel Richie.
He detested Lionel Richie. Some lively Indian Bhangra music would suit him much more thank you very much.
He turned his attention to the smooth feel of the new car, as the Bentley pulled out of the winding, palm tree lined driveway soundlessly, and Raj steered it onto Jumeirah Beach Road, heading to the club. It was going to be another hot and humid day, with a familiar shroud of grey haze hanging over the city.
“Raj, I’m not going to the club today,” she said gently form the back. Raj nodded quickly, startled from his reverie by her soft voice.
“I will be visiting a friend of mine, she lives on the Palm. Could you please drive there and I will give you directions as you go.” Already busy talking on her phone she had sunk back into the comfortable leather seat of the car. Raj adjusted the rearview mirror, but kept his eyes on the road and his ears on the conversation in the back. It seemed she was talking to the housekeeper. He settled in for a long drive, drifting back to the last few months in his life.
Almost every morning, except for Friday, which was his day off, he would take the Madam to the exclusive Ladies Club for her exercise routine, then to the spa, where she indulged in a multitude of puzzling beauty treatments. The forgotten brochures and leaflets discarded on the back seat assuaged his curiosity about her activities. He had flipped through them, while he waited, unbearably bored, as she went about her busy life.
These brief, forbidden forays into the glossy pages of her fancy magazines opened a door for him into her perfect world. Flawless faces and bodies, breathtaking hotels, white beaches, page after page of sinfully expensive clothes…cars…food.
Frequently he would drop her off at one of the lavish, glittery shopping malls where she went shopping with her rich friends. Sometimes she would ask him to follow her, and carry her purchases.
“Raj, could you get those?” she would ask softly, politely, gesturing towards the bulging, shiny shopping bags. She would never look at him directly, appearing composed. He was alarmed that she was aware of his stolen glances.
He would carry the bags self-importantly, walking with the proud gait of a peacock, conscious of the other shoppers’ eyes following her as she moved around the mall. Everybody paid attention when Madam walked by, because of her beauty and because of that unmistakable aura of affluence surrounding her.
Those shopping trips were his favorite times, when he could study her stealthily from behind as she swayed gracefully in her high-heeled pumps, the silk black Abaya trailing behind her. The garment was dramatically beautiful in its simplicity. Made out of supple, sensuous fabric and floor length, it tempted him, made him curious about the concealed, the out of sight.
It appeared to him the majority of women favored the black Abaya, even though some, seeking to break with tradition and possibly make a fashion statement, experimented with different colors. Raj had become a keen student of these intriguing, out of reach creatures, spending inordinate amounts of time perusing the women’s magazines, in search of answers. These graceful, fascinating women took his breath away, parading in their magnificent attire; some studded with outrageously costly Swarovski crystals and patterned using gold or silver threadwork. Like graceful swans, they appeared both feminine and fragile, safely cocooned in this time-honored garment. It seemed each woman was on a quest for the most jaw dropping Abaya of all. A cloud of sinful, heady fragrance, and a lavish Abaya, both equally alluring, trailed proudly behind them.
Raj’s favorite was the one with the tiger print design on the back, so as he followed the Madam, struggling with the dozen or so shopping bags in his hands, he could slyly stare at the tiger and the black eyes which gleamed back at him, mocking him in his agony of hopeless and wretchedly impossible love. His Madam had designed her Abayas personally, and had him drive her to her Indian tailor in Bur Dubai, who would then sew the garments meticulously. “The best tailor in Dubai,” she had said proudly once, in a rare deviation from her usually reserved character.
“Sir’s grandmother used to have her Abaya tailored at this same place, it is a tradition.” Amnah, the Ethiopian housekeeper was an affable elderly lady, and always had some special treat for him, left over from dinner parties. Gladly, she inducted Raj into the ways of the rich locals, and of his employers.
On one such trip to the tailor, he had observed a group of local women in the shops’ waiting area, arguing feverishly, in rapid Arabic, incapable of making a decision about their designs. He sat on a plastic chair, in the shadows, watching them with interest. “Salome, see this one!” a short young woman produced a long piece of lace, waving it for all to see. The group inspected it, their thick brows burrowed, sounds of tsk, tsk escaping their glossy, petulant lips in disapproval.
Finally, their choice made, Raj watched as they picked out the most extraordinary ornaments with which to decorate the precious garments; bags of mad looking feathers, faux fur, rock chic leather, meters of exquisite lace, shining gold and silver thread, handfuls of genuine sparkling Swarovski crystals; mother of pearl…bunches of vividly embroidered satin flowers. The list was only as limited, it seemed, as their imagination and resourcefulness.
He had eavesdropped on their urgent phone calls from a hysterical relative, assuming they were regarding the latest Abaya drama. “Esh akhti…what happened sister…did the tailor delay your Abaya again?” came the concerned questions, then the attempts to calm the fretful cousin, sister, friend. His presence did not seem to perturb them, and he remained anonymous, never venturing into the inner sanctum, the changing and measuring areas, which were off limits to males. Sometimes Raj went outside, even though it was unbearably humid, in order to escape the incessant chattering and to have a cigarette. What was new, he grumbled irritably, it was always hot, humid, and hazy in Dubai. It was October, and he had been here all of August and September, therefore, only experiencing the cruel weather of the Gulf.
When the job offer came through a local agent, some hardened veterans of the Gulf had warned him about the rich Arab employers. What they should have warned him about was the legendary Gulf humidity and the Shimal sandstorms.
“Listen Bacha, child, be careful over there,” his uncle had said in hushed tones, as if afraid to be overheard.
“The ways of the Arabs are strange and different from ours,” he paused to spit out a used lump of dark tobacco out of his mouth.
“If you work hard, keep your head low and your eyes on the ground, you’ll be fine,” he proceeded to roll a ball of the damp, fresh tobacco then stuff it into the front pocket of his lower lip, creating a pregnant lump. Hailing from Rajasthan with its gorgeous snow-capped mountain landscape and profuse forests, abundant flowers and clean air, the assaulting heat in his new country had shocked Raj more than anything else. However, he made ten times more money here as a driver, than he would in India, and his living conditions were better than back home. Something had to give, he thought to himself philosophically after he arrived at Dubai airport.
As soon as he stepped off the plane, he had felt indignantly violated by the fifty-degree heat. It had knocked the air out of him at first but then he inhaled, in shock, blinking.
Madame was talking to him again; guiltily he lowered the music, pretending he did not hear. He cut off Lionel Richie in the middle off “Hallo, is it me you’re looking for?” perversely thrilled by this act. She was telling him to pull over into the date tree lined driveway of a palatial villa. He admired the neighborhood of custom designed houses, the fact that the sea bordered them on three sides.
“Yes, stop here,” she seemed eager to get out. It was a long drive and she had to be anxious to get on with her day. Raj stood respectfully, keeping his eyes lowered while holding the door open for her.
However, this seeming politeness was just a Machiavellian ploy, because as he looked down he could watch out of the corner of his eyes. He could see her high, strappy stilettos as she stepped out of the car and wrapped the black Abaya modestly around her body. A slim white ankle showed…then a dark henna design, small squiggly flowers intricately painted on the smooth skin, glossy black nail polish making it all the more provocative. He tried not to stare as she hurried into the villa.
He knew that one of these days he will be in huge trouble for looking at her, albeit sneakily. Once in a spur of desperation he had confided in his friend, the security guard called Zachariah. “But I love her,” he had said defiantly, as only a young fool could. “Who can stop anyone from love?”
The tall muscled Nigerian had almost hit him, his coal black eyes gleaming dangerously, whispering in his characteristic African accent, to stop tinking foolish tings. They were stealing a cigarette break behind the drivers’ accommodation. “This is not like in your Indian movies my poor man.” Zachariah looked around nervously. “People have gone to jail for things like this here, and worse has happened to them,” he kicked at an invisible stone on the ground.
“You can never, ever tell anyone,” he growled threateningly. His dark face turned stormy, “you’ll get us all killed man. Quit this mad talking and stick with your job or I’ll personally beat the crap out of ya.”
Since then Raj had kept all his dark, sinful, and hopeless thoughts to himself. His fantasies about the unattainable ‘Madam’ kept him energized. He looked forward to his boring job each morning…driving in this sweltering, traffic congested city with nothing much to look forward to except a glimpse or two of the ‘other’ side of the proverbial fence.
That elusive world where apparently everybody had superior looks, made infinite amounts of money, and smelled of magnolia. It was a world where people did not worry about taking care of their ailing, elderly parents. A place where no one agonized about coming up with a way of paying shamelessly large wedding dowries for their sisters, who waited patiently in some mountaintop Rajasthan village. These demi-gods existed in a weird and wonderful place. A fortunate group, who did not have to worry about doing any of this, as well as sustaining themselves, entirely on one measly salary.
Raj saw a titillating foretaste of a way of life where people took what they wanted without waiting for it for years… decades…maybe forever…
A Demon Does It Better
by Linda Wisdom (My apologies, this document wouldn't format properly here.)
Cleo sneezed as Lili stepped inside the Shop of Scents.
“My allergies,” she complained.
“Then don’t breathe.” The witch had no sympathy as she examined the many-colored bottles, some labeled, others a mystery.
“You wish something special?” The silver-haired woman manning the counter greeted her with a broad smile. “Fragrance to tempt your lover? Something to give you luck perhaps?” Her pale eyes peered at her closely. “Ah, you are a healer. Something soothing, then?”
Lili picked up a bottle and pulled the stopper out. She smelled spring flowers and fresh greenery. Another bottle yielded a winter of sharp ice while the third had her thinking of an ancient bazaar of spices and heat.
“You have not been here in many years,” the crone named Sameka said. “You chose a scent that was light and carefree." She gestured toward a delicate pink glass bottle. “No longer is it you.
You require a fragrance that holds a hint of darkness and mystery."
She held up a finger. “Wait here.” She moved with the ease of someone much younger, even if Lili gauged her years to be past 9
00. She parted the amethyst silk curtains and disappeared into the back of the shop.
She returned a moment later carrying a gilt-trimmed bottle that
looked as if it had been owned by royalty. She set it on the counter and carefully eased the stopper out.
Lili didn’t need to lift the bottle to inhale the contents. They lifted their way to her. Images of silk, moans in a dark night, and a sensuality that warmed her bones
only a part of what she sensed i
n the perfume oil
She feared to ask the price. She only had to look at the shopkeeper to know it was very old and very rare.
“This is truly what you are now and even more so as each day passes,” the told woman told her with a knowing smile.
“Huh. She must see something we don’t,” Cleo muttered.
She wanted to try it on her skin. There were no worries it wouldn't smell right with her personal chemistry. Sameka never forgot a customer or what suited them.
“Try it.” The male voice near her ear was as intoxicating as the perfume.
She looked up to see her mystery man standing next to her. Dark hair, eyes that rivaled a cobalt ring she had, and so good looking her senses immediately kicked into overdrive.
He picked up the bottle and carefully tipped it against his fingertip. Turning toward her he gently traced a path down her throat then repeated the touch on each wrist.
The oil turned to liquid heat, causing a lot of thoughts of wearing the perfume and nothing else.
Lili couldn’t keep her eyes off his hands. Strong, capable, yet gentle. She was positive they would feel the same everywhere else on her.
Get your mind back where it belongs!
Easier said than done.
He lifted her hand, palm up, and bent down to sniff her wrist. His breath drifted over the surface. When he lifted his head, his eyes blazed a vivid blue.
“She’s right,” he murmured. “This is meant for you.”
“Oh my,” Cleo said in a hushed whisper.
Lili silently repeated the words, not even realizing that little stunned the jaded cat.
For a moment she forgot they had an avid audience.
“I shall wrap it up.” The crone swept the bottle away and soon had it nestled in a velvet covered box.
The witch didn’t wince at the high price.
“Who are you?” she asked the man.
“Someone who knows what scent
a woman should wear
” the crone cackled.
He lifted Lili’s hand and pressed a light kiss in the center of her palm. She felt the burn of his lips all the way to her core.
perfume oils?” she asked
with a husky tone in her voice she couldn't hide
This time his lips hovered near her ear.
“No. Just a demon who knows what he likes.
And he likes you.
DREAMING OF THE WOLF
Terry Spear December 2011
Jake has only one thought in mind, when his brother and pack leader calls to see why he’s not come home before this. And Jake’s caught in a situation. He’s not himself. Not after he meets a human woman who he just can’t get enough of…
Excerpt from Dreaming of the Wolf:
The shower turned on, and he was still thinking about that bed and what he and Alicia could do in it together when his cell phone rang. He jerked it off his belt, saw the caller was his brother, and shook his head. Jake should have called him first.
“Lelandi wanted me to check on you since you said you’d be home right after you dropped off the photographs, and you’re an hour late. Since you’re never late, she was worried. If it were me, I wouldn’t have been concerned. But you know how she’s been recently, what with the babies coming so soon. Having any trouble?”
“The art gallery didn’t open on time when I first arrived. But other than that, I’m staying longer to sightsee.” He had no intention of telling his older brother he was smitten with a human woman and intended to stay with her through the night at least, hoping he could convince her to give up her quest and find some other scumbag to take down—one who was a lot less dangerous. And then he’d give her up before he got much more entangled with her. “I’ll be home… tomorrow, sometime.”
“Tomorrow,” Darien said, sounding suspicious.
“Yeah, I’ll call you when I’m on my way.”
“Anything wrong?” Darien’s tone was more worried now.
“You… don’t… sightsee , Jake. What’s up?”
That was the problem with having an older brother who was the pack leader and who knew Jake too well. “Nothing’s up. I needed a bit of a vacation.”
Jake supposed that sounded rather weird to his brother since vacations were not part of Jake’s usual routine. “I’ll be home soon. All right, Darien?” This time his voice said he wasn’t saying anything further, so give it a rest.
A significant pause followed, and Jake was fairly sure Darien was considering whether to pry further—and give some of his brotherly advice—or just leave it be. Then Darien said, “Is that a shower running in the background?”
Damn their wolf hearing. Jake looked back at the closed door to the bathroom, hearing the spray from the shower hitting the tub in a rush. He should have walked outside the room to take the call, but he hadn’t been thinking. Not while he’d been staring at that inviting bed.
“Yeah.” Jake didn’t say anything more than that. Only one reason a shower would be running and he wasn’t in it. Someone else was.
Another very long pause followed. Then Darien finally conceded. “All right.” He tried to sound gruff, but Jake could hear the hint of a smile in his brother’s voice. “Call us when you’re on your way.”
“Will do.” Jake turned off his phone and shoved it into his pocket, annoyed with himself for getting caught in the act. Darien was sure to tell his mate, and Lelandi was sure to attempt her matchmaking with Jake again.
But with Alicia being human… that wasn’t happening.
Jake shook his head, irritated with himself again, but then the shower shut off and his gaze flew to the bathroom door as he imagined a soaking-wet Alicia climbing out of the tub and into his arms.
Caleb didn’t know why he was pushing it. He’d already declared her off limits, and while he was a guy who was all about pushing boundaries and ignoring rules, he never crossed lines he, himself, drew.
But right now, he didn’t care.
“So is it true?” he asked, heading toward the door and counting on her being trapped by good manners and following.
“Is what true?”
“Do you really serve aphrodisiacs?”
She ground to a halt so fast, she teetered in her flat-heeled boots. “Don’t believe everything you hear,” she dismissed.
“So it’s a lie?”
“It’s more of an... Exaggeration,” she decided. “After all, who’s to say whether aphrodisiacs are real or whether they’re a figment of the imagination?”
“I have a really good imagination.” He reached out and took her hand, lifting it to his mouth.
“What are you doing?” she asked with a gasp, tugging. But he didn’t let go.
“You have chocolate,” he told her. “Just... Here.”
He swiped his tongue over her knuckle. Her eyes went heated, her breath shuddered and she leaned against the glass wall with the cutest little mewling noise.
In an instant, Caleb went from amused to rock hard. An intense, overwhelming urge to touch her, to taste her, washed over him.
Never a man to ignore his gut, he went with the feeling. Stepping forward, the rich taste of chocolate still on his lips, Caleb pressed her body between his and the chilly glass. One hand on either side of her head, he leaned closer.
“This is crazy,” she breathed, twisting her hands together at her waist. But she didn’t pull away. Instead, she lifted her chin.
That’s all the encouragement he needed.
Holding her gaze captive, he brushed his lips over her soft, sweetly moist mouth. He slid his tongue along her lower lip, then gently nibbled at the cushioned flesh.
Passion throbbed, urging him to take it deeper, to go faster. But he resisted.
For the first time in forever, Caleb felt like he’d come home. Even as the sexual heat zinged through his body like lightening, he relaxed. Need pounded through him, making him achingly hard. But he was at peace.
It was that confusion more than any desire to stop that had him pulling back. He stared, waiting for Pandora to open her eyes. In them he saw confusion, desire and a hint of fear.
The same as he was feeling.
Tall, Dark and Cowboy – Excerpt
Pausing at the top of the steps, Lacey glanced back at the crumbling brick buildings lining the street. Ancient glass shop windows reflected wavering funhouse renditions of their neighbors across the street, so only the signs jutting out over Grady’s pitted sidewalk offered clues to their contents. Pookie’s Candles and More, read a fading oval. Dollar Mart, said a cracked white plastic sign in bold red letters.
The only place that looked reasonably prosperous was the Quick Lube next door and the café across the street.
The only place that looked reasonably prosperous was the Quick Lube next door and the café across the street.
She took one last look at the Mustang to make sure the windows were cracked open so the dog wouldn’t get heat stroke, then opened the door to the car lot’s battered trailer, digging her best cheerleader smile out from under all the baggage she’d accumulated in eight years as a trophy wife.
She aimed the smile at the man behind the counter and faltered, one foot twisting slightly on its high heel.
This couldn’t be Chase Caldwell. It must be his partner or something. Chase had big brown eyes and a love-struck, goofy grin. This guy had a simmering, sexy, scorch-your-clothes off stare that made her feel suddenly naked.
She glanced down to make sure she hadn’t forgotten to put her pants on that morning. Nope. She was still wearing her white capris—her favorite pair, tight enough to showcase her gym-toned derriere but still classy. She adjusted the collar of her silk T-shirt, wishing she’d chosen something that showed a little less cleavage.
His eyes dipped to the cleavage in question and the smile widened. Lacey cleared her throat, feeling her lips tremble along with her knees, and glanced down again to make sure her nipples didn’t show through the shirt.
Because her nipples were definitely happy to see this guy.
Who was definitely not Chase Caldwell.
Because this was no farmer. This was a cowboy—tan and muscular, with sinewy arms exposed by the carelessly rolled-up sleeves of a snap-button shirt and slim-hipped Wranglers suggestively worn white at the thighs and fly. Lacey had never felt the effects of airborne testosterone before, but this guy made her wobble like a Weeble.
His gaze traveled from her cleavage over to one happy nipple, then the other, lingering a moment before it drifted downward on a long, leisurely journey that took in her hips, her thighs, and the tips of her French-manicured toes. His gaze would have been insulting if it hadn’t been so appreciative—and so very much appreciated on her end, too. Overheated and exhausted from the long road trip, Lacey couldn’t help doing a self- congratulatory mental fist pump at the guy’s obvious interest.
She let him finish the once-over and met his eyes just in time to see his appreciative assessment harden into shock, then pass through something that looked almost like fear before it froze into a cold, hard glare.
“Lacey Bradford,” he said. “Holy…” He pressed his lips tightly, suppressing a curse.
Lacey squeaked. She couldn’t help it—it was that much of a jolt to hear Chase’s husky Southern drawl coming from this paragon of masculinity. She knew boys matured later than girls, but he hadn’t just improved with age; he’d transformed. It was like watching Clark Kent step out of a phone booth in a cape and tights.
“Chase,” she said. “Um, hi.”
“What the hell are you doing in Wyoming?” he asked.
It was a question that should have been accompanied by a smile, or at least a curious tilt of the head. Instead, Chase scowled when he said it.
Scowls always made Lacey babble. She could feel the urge coming on and was helpless to stop it.
“I need—I need help. Things went—well, wrong in Conway. Very wrong.”
The Counterfeit Christmas Summons
As soon as her father and Isabel departed the parlor, Emma found herself once again alone with the two gentlemen, but she only had the attention of one of them. Fortunately, the gentleman whose eyes sought hers belonged to Lord Heathfield. The success of her plan thus far nearly made her giddy. “I stopped playing with dolls long ago, my lord.”
“Indeed.” He nodded. “You seem to have grown up when I wasn’t looking.”
“Well, you weren’t looking for quite a while.” Not once had she seen him since she was ten years old.
“Indeed.” He nodded. “You seem to have grown up when I wasn’t looking.”
“Well, you weren’t looking for quite a while.” Not once had she seen him since she was ten years old.
“Do excuse me,” Mr. Lockwell suddenly said as he started for the exit. “I will find you later, Heath.” Then he was gone before either of them could utter a reply.
Emma stared after the departing man, then focused her attention back to the viscount she had duped into visiting Danby Castle. “Where do you suppose he’s off to?”
Heathfield shrugged. “Lockwell always keeps his own counsel.”
“Hmm.” Emma returned to her spot on the divan. “He must be a close friend of Drew’s for my brother to invite him to spend the holidays with us.” Or rather he must be a close friend to Lord Heathfield’s for the viscount to have dragged his friend north with him for Christmas.
Heathfield agreed with an incline of his head. “Indeed, he’s known Drew forever.” Then he took a seat beside her on the divan, and Emma’s breath caught slightly in her throat.
She’d waited so long to see Heathfield again, and now that he was here, right beside her, she felt like the luckiest girl in all of England. His dark blue eyes, like the night sky just before twilight, seemed to take her all in, and warmth crept up her cheeks.
“Well—” she cleared her throat— “I don’t recall having seen him in Town before. Nor you, my lord. I haven’t seen you during either of the past two Seasons.”
A slow smile lit his face. “Were you looking for me, Lady Emma?”
Only at every single event she’d ever attended, hoping each time he’d show his face and she’d catch a glimpse of him. That he’d stumble upon her at a soiree and offer her a glass of orgeat, that he’d sit beside her at a musicale to keep her company, that he’d bow low before her at a ball and beg her to waltz with him. And now here he was, right beside her, so close his knee could brush hers if he moved an inch closer. “I had thought to see you at some point, Lord Heathfield.”
He leaned back on the divan and seemed to study her once more. “I have avoided the marriage mart at all costs.”
Well that was just silly. How was she to ever see him, how was she to ever get him to fall hopelessly in love with her, if he avoided the marriage mart at all costs? “And why is that, sir?”
He shrugged. “Well, what is the point, when one is betrothed?”
“Betrothed?” If a knife had plunged into Emma’s chest, it would have hurt less. Betrothed? How could he be betrothed? And how did she not know it? And who was he to marry? Was she very beautiful? Did he love her deeply?
Heathfield nodded, apparently unaware that her heart had just been shattered, the tiny pieces littered across the space between them. “My father made the arrangements before I was even wearing short pants.”
The room started to spin just a bit, and Emma folded her hands in her lap, hoping to keep the room from tipping any further. He’d been betrothed since childhood? She’d never even had a chance of catching him. “Well—” her voice sounded like a croak to her own ears— “I suppose it’s rather late then to offer you my felicitations.”
He frowned a bit and opened his mouth like he was about to say something, but then closed it a moment later as though thinking better of doing so. He sat forward on the divan and leaned closer to her, his blue eyes focused on Emma so intently she nearly lost her breath. “How have you found the marriage mart, my lady?”
“Oh, wonderful,” she lied with feigned cheerfulness. “Delightful.”
“Well—” she forced a smile to her face— “I did anyway. Like you, I have no need to attend such functions anymore.”
“And who is the lucky man?” he asked.
Heavens, what was she to say to that? She certainly didn’t want him to think her pathetic, that she’d pinned all her hopes on a future with him without any sort of encouragement on his part, that she was a foolish, lovesick ninny. And above all else, she certainly didn’t want his pity. “I’m certain you don’t know him,” she hedged.
“I won’t know unless you tell me his name.” He smiled. She really wished he’d stop smiling. His smile could disarm even the most stalwart of women.
“He’s Flemish.” The lie flew off Emma’s tongue. Flemish? Where had that come from? Flemish? She didn’t think she even knew anyone from Flanders.
“And your Flemish paragon’s name?” Heathfield pressed.
A Flemish name. A Flemish name? Good heavens. “Blommen.” She thought she recalled her brother Philip mentioning someone named Blommen at one point in his travels. “Balthasar Blommen.” There, that sounded perfectly Flemish, didn’t it? She hoped so.
Lord Heathfield’s disarming smile vanished. “You are right, Lady Emma, I am not familiar with your betrothed.”
“Oh, well, Mr. Blommen keeps very much to himself.” Emma’s mind spun with various ideas about her made-up fiancé. “A very private man.”
“A lucky one.”
“I’ll let him know you said so.”
“Is he here at Danby Castle? I’d love to offer my congratulations in person.”
Here? Emma nearly swallowed her tongue. Why had she made up some fiancé? And what would she do if Lord Heathfield mentioned Balthasar Blommen to anyone else? She should have never lied. Lying always got one in trouble, especially when the lie wasn’t a well thought out one. “Um,” she hedged. “Well, no, he’s not here. He’s back in London, but you mustn’t mention him to anyone.”
“And why is that?”
Why was that? Emma’s mind raced to find an answer. “Because Papa doesn’t approve.”
“Lord Norland doesn’t approve of Balthasar Blommen from Flanders? And why is that?”
Mainly because he doesn’t exist. Emma winced. “It is a long story, my lord. I would really rather not get into the details. But if Papa heard Mr. Blommen’s name, he would be furious, so please promise me you won’t mention him.”
Lord Heathfield lifted one of Emma’s hands to his lips and pressed a kiss to her knuckles. “I would never do anything that would cause you distress, my lady.”
When his lips grazed her hand, wonderful tingles washed across Emma. But she mentally shook the sensation away. She had no future with Lord Heathfield, so she really shouldn’t allow him to elicit tingles from her. “Thank you, my lord. Your betrothed is very lucky to have you.”
BABY IT’S COLD OUTSIDE
Sloan had never felt blindsided by a kiss before. Excited, yes, even thrilled.
The reaction of shock, adrenaline and pure, unadulterated feminine pleasure rocketed through her system as the firm press of his lips quickly gave way to the heated assault of his tongue.
The cold that had seeped into her bones from the moment she’d fled outside was rapidly replaced with a liquid heat that spread through her like a wild blaze and she knew—with absolute certainty—how the denizens of Alaska stayed warm.
As his mouth played over hers, she dimly registered the fact that her hands were hanging by her sides, so she lifted them to settle at his waist. His hips were solid, thick with muscle as her fingertips sought purchase under the fabric of his coat.
Glorious need filled her. It beat within her and matched the want she felt emanating from the solid planes of his body. Although some dim recess of her brain warned her this likely wasn’t the brightest idea she’d had in a long time, she couldn’t quite muster up the will to push him away.
In fact . . .
Sloan’s grip tightened on his waist, pulling him closer as she tilted her head to allow him greater access to her mouth. He explored her with his tongue, their mingled breaths and sighs warming up the frigid night air.
John Jake McCutcheon, the fourth brother of the McCutcheon family, and the hero of TEXAS TWILIGHT, only garnered two mentions in MONTANA DAWN. That’s because he was away at medical school, the first of the family to earn a scholarly degree of any kind. The McCutcheons are Montana cattle ranchers who have carved a dynasty out of the wildness of the land. John has been hired by a small Texas town where his extended family lives. It’s his first time meeting his cousins, Dustin and Chaim. But when Dustin takes a shine to Lily, the woman John had traveled with to Rio Wells (and with whom he fought of a band of outlaws that attack the coach), sparks really start to fly.
For all you hunky-cowboy lovers, here’s an excerpt—
Fourteen-year-old Livvie Morse didn't believe in true love. All that stuff she'd read about in fairy tales when she was a kid was dumb, she thought.
The prince didn't rescue the princess, waking her up from a pretend death with a magical kiss. Or climb up the strong strands of her braided hair – oh yeah, that made sense, hair like rope – to whisk her from the tower prison. Or fit a glass slipper on her tiny foot to prove she's the only girl in the kingdom for him.
Anyway, wouldn't that shoe break all the hell to pieces with the first step the princess took?
Stupid. Dumb. Nonsense.
No, Livvie didn't believe in the true love of fairy tales. What she knew all about was the real-life monsters that lurked in the dark crannies of her nightmares and the dim hallway outside her bedroom. The ones that came out when her mother wasn't around. That crept down the hall and tapped on her door when they knew she was alone.
But that spring night proved her wrong about fairy tales and true love.
Livvie's mother worked the graveyard shift at Mercy General Hospital in east Oakland while her stepfather Roger Strong watched Letterman and guzzled his eleventy-millionth bottle of beer. When her mother left at ten-thirty, Livvie locked herself in her bedroom, a kitchen chair pushed beneath the doorknob for good measure.
The chair wouldn't keep Roger out if he really wanted to break down the door, but maybe he'd be drunk enough to give up if the knob didn't budge with his first sneaky twist. The trick had worked before.
Livvie frowned and pressed her ear to the door.
Silence, except for the muffled drone of the television and the faint percussion of the radiator.
Stripping down to her panties, she rummaged through her dresser until she found a faded blue pullover and the oversized tee shirt that had belonged to her long-gone father. She pulled a sweatshirt on top of the two shirts and stepped into jeans and bulky sweats. She felt like a friggin' snowman, but the layers of clothing made her feel safe. Roger would have to rip off a lot of stuff if he wanted to get at her.
She giggled nervously, then clapped her hand over her mouth as panic rose like birds' wings in the cavern of her chest. Grabbing a pair of scissors from her nightstand drawer, she switched off the light and crawled under the covers. She sat with her back propped against the scarred headboard, the scissors hidden beneath the blanket and the covers pulled up around her neck.
She thought about the poem they'd studied today in Mrs. Wright's tenth-grade English class. Dylan Thomas. Livvie sure as hell wasn't going to go gentle into any old damn, dark night. Rage, rage. Rage against the monster called Roger. She smiled grimly and slunk deeper into the bedcovers.
Hours later the soft rattling of the doorknob woke her with a start. Adrenaline pumped through her body like a jolt of electricity, and right behind it, cold slippery fear. She jerked up and peered through the room, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the gloom.
After long moments, her heart roaring in her ears, she tossed back the bedcovers, padded on bare feet across the room, and pressed her ear to the door. She willed the noise in her head to stop and drew in a deep breath, holding it as she strained to hear the sound again.
She waited endlessly, hot and sweaty inside the layers of clothing, the scissors glued to her hand.
Finally she heard shallow, ragged breathing through the thin particle board. Roger! The damn son of a bitch hovered inches from where she stood, slithering outside her door like the snake he was. The tremor started in her hand and traveled up her arm, downward to her knees until her whole body shook like an earthquake.
She listened to the raspy breathing for a long minute, her helplessness something sour at the back of her throat. Did Roger mean business this time? Had he decided tonight was the night his step-daughter needed the "lesson" he always threatened to give her?
She clamped down on her lip and ran her tongue over the coppery taste of blood. Suddenly she felt foolish, a child playing at being a kung fu girl-warrior. Even if she could get a stab in before he overpowered her, she'd only make him madder. She pictured the red puckering of his face and imagined those paws of his cuffing her head. "Smack you up-side the head," he'd bluster in his menacing tone.
What was she thinking? Roger was a burly six-two and outweighed her by more than a hundred and fifty pounds. Did she really imagine she could outmaneuver him? He'd squish her like a bug.
In that instant Livvie made her decision. She retrieved her gym shoes from the closet, tucked the scissors in the waistband of her sweats, and raced to the window. She turned back toward the bedroom door as she heard a series of rat-a-tat-tat knocks and a gravelly voice whispering her name.
"O—liv—ee—uh, O—liv—ee—uh," he taunted her.
Panicked, she clamored awkwardly over the sill and out the window. Slid down the sloped roof. Scraped her butt on the old shingles and landed with a thwack on the damp leaves below. She ran as fast as she could, arms pumping, legs like pistons, gym shoes slapping the wet cement.
Instinct taking over, she raced toward her best friend, the only person who knew her awful secret. The only one she could trust. By the time she reached the corner, her body dripped with cold sweat and she'd lost the scissors.
She rounded left on Granville for another five blocks. Right on Amhearst until she reached the shabby yellow and white house at the end of the street. It abutted a neighboring house on one side and a chain-link fence on the other that separated the Holt property from the abandoned glass factory.
Thunder ravaged her chest and fire burned her legs as she ground to a halt. She hunkered beneath the drooped branches of a low-hanging willow beside the familiar wraparound porch. She glanced over her shoulder. Roger might leap out of the darkness at any moment, drag her back home, and ... her mind shut down.
Livvie wasn't sure what would happen next, but she knew it would be the worst kind of punishment.
One eye on the street behind her, she gathered pebbles and tossed them against Jackie's window until a dim light showed through the blinds. She saw his shaggy head poke out the window, and a minute later the front door opened. She flew into his arms while he held her until the shakes stopped.
"Shh, shh, Squirt. You're okay now," he crooned.
Safe, she thought, finally safe. In Jackie Holt's twin bed, she sank into a fitful sleep, curled up against his strong, young body. Safe, for now, but she knew she'd have to go back.
She woke up with her backside pressed against the hard length of muscled body and a band of iron draped protectively over her chest, a hand curved round her cheek. She sighed and wiggled into the firm strength at her back.
"Livvie, wake up," Jackie whispered at her temple, tickling her ear with his warm breath. "You have to go before your mom finds out you're missing."
"No," she murmured, drugged with sleep and snug in the safe, narrow confines of the bed. "Can't go home yet."
Jackie turned her over and brushed the unruly mass of dark hair from her face. "Come on, Squirt, you can't stay much longer. I'll walk you back and make sure Roger's dead drunk." He grinned and showed strong, white teeth in a dark face. "And if he's not, I'll help him along with a little knock to the head."
She stared up at his suddenly beloved face and felt the seismic shift in her small world. Why hadn't she realized before how beautiful he was? Her face flushed and her heart began an unfamiliar staccato in her chest. She saw the answering emotion in Jackie's eyes and felt a sudden hard thrust against her thigh.
This is what the princess in the fairy tale felt when the prince rescued her, she thought.
Driven by budding confidence and pure instinct, she wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled his mouth down on hers. His soft, warm lips opened to hers as a fierce jolt jarred her whole body like fire and ice and floods and desert all jumbled together and centered in her lower body. She kissed his lips and face and neck in a fever accompanied by incoherent words she didn't even understand.
And finally, when she pressed against him and urged him so sweetly, Jackie gave in. He was the one person who could understand her convoluted logic. If she was going to lose her virginity anyway, she didn't want Roger with his grabby hands and stinking breath to be the one.
She wanted her best friend to be the first because maybe – just maybe – she was beginning to believe in that fairy tale after all.
The Sidhe Princess
By Loucinda McGary
This hadn’t been Moira’s first stay in the sanitarium. No, that had happened over three years ago, the spring before she’d turned thirteen, and that time had been far worse. The visions or hallucinations or whatever they were had never happened to her before. At least not with such intensity, and telling the truth was never going to set her free of the horrid place.
NO PROPER LADY by Isabel Cooper
Simon drew a breath through his teeth and then took the right-hand path. One was as good as another just now, and he suddenly felt that he should be moving. It wasn’t just the darkening sky; the very air seemed thicker than it should be.
When he first saw movement to his left, Simon told himself that it was a bird or perhaps a squirrel. There were enough of them in the forest. Then, as he caught a glimpse of something gray and low to the ground, he tried to make himself think of badgers or perhaps a stray dog. No matter that his fingers were already moving in the beginnings of a warding spell. That was just nerves. This was his family’s land. There was nothing dangerous on it.
Then Aladdin bolted.
Simon flattened himself against the horse’s neck just as a tree branch snapped and fell through the air above him, scraping his back and sending down a shower of leaves and small twigs. He swore and yanked hard on the reins, but Aladdin ran on. Simon saw no trace of gray in the undergrowth now, no movement other than theirs, but the bloody horse seemed not to care.
Simon darted a glance behind himself just to be sure. The forest there looked empty too, but when he snapped his head back to the front, he saw a fallen tree looming ahead. He closed his eyes and hung on.
The landing was hard enough to bruise, but Simon sent up a quick prayer of thanksgiving just for being alive and still on the gelding’s back. When he opened his eyes again, he saw a clearing ahead—and a ring of stones inside it. Time and neglect had covered most of the stones with vines and grass, but their shapes were unmistakable. They were square-cut dark stones, each only a little shorter than a man.
The ground at the center of the ring was glowing.
At first, the light was a blue dot, only about the size of his fist, but then it blazed like a newly lit gas lamp. Rings of the same glowing blue energy spread out from it, rippling across the mossy ground and out to the stones.
Some kind of energy was building here. Simon wasn’t sure he wanted to be present when it peaked, and he knew he didn’t want to be on the back of a panicking horse. He kicked free of his stirrups, tightened his fists in Aladdin’s mane, and yanked backward with all his strength.
He was expecting to be thrown, which let him tuck his head and take most of the impact on his shoulder, but it still hurt spectacularly when he landed. Aladdin, damn his hide, bolted onward across the clearing and into the forest beyond.
The ground hummed with power. As Simon got to his knees, he saw the stones out of the corner of his eye—dark rock outlined in blue-white fire. His hair lifted, standing on end.
Instinctively, he turned away from the circle, closing his eyes and throwing one arm up to shield his face. A second later, the earth shook and a light flashed blindingly bright, even through Simon’s closed eyelids. He had the momentary sense of some Power passing over him, of something great enough to terrify any mortal man.
Then the light was gone, leaving only a faint blue afterimage and the rapid hammering of Simon’s heart. He opened his eyes.
There was a girl in the circle.
She was almost Simon’s height and slat-thin, with lightly tanned skin and darkish hair that hung down her back in a lank braid. The leather trousers and vest she wore did little in the service of modesty, but moral outrage was not the first thing that came to mind upon seeing her. Caution was.
The woman had a knife strapped to each wrist, another at her waist, and an angular silver pistol holstered beside the knife. She might have had more weapons yet in the large pack on her back. Simon wouldn’t have been at all surprised.
As he began getting to his feet, she heard and snapped her head around. Her eyes were narrow, her body tense. She reminded Simon of a wild animal poised to run or fight.
She’d clearly been doing the latter already. Looking more closely at her in that moment of stillness, Simon saw that the upper part of her right boot and the leg of her trousers above it hung in shreds. He glimpsed red beneath the tatters and more on her vest near her collarbone.
“You’re bleeding,” he said.
She relaxed, at the shock in his voice more than anything else, and felt at her face before looking down the length of her body. “Not mine,” she finally said. Her accent was strange—not quite American but close to it—and her voice was low. “Not mostly. Some scratches on the leg.”
“You should have them seen to,” Simon said. “I’d—”
He stopped himself for a second, wondering if he really meant to take this half-wild creature back to the house. But she was a woman alone, however well armed, and wounded, with both night and rain coming on.
Simon sighed. “I’m Simon Grenville. And I’d be glad to show you back to the house.”
If I can find it.
The woman stepped forward and offered a hand. Simon took it, unsure for a moment what she expected, but she evidently had no such doubts. She shook hands like a man. “Joan,” she said. “Daughter of Arthur and Leia.”
Simon wouldn't have been surprised to hear Sultana or Yen Xing—or Titania, for that matter, as unlikely a fairy as “Joan” would have made—but he’d expected nothing so ordinary. “A pleasure. I’m—”
“Down,” Joan barked. Then she swept Simon’s legs out from under him.
She followed him to the ground with more control, one hand darting to her belt. Her weight hit Simon’s chest, and her hair fell into his face, blocking his vision.
Oh, good. She’s mad. I’m going to die here.
There were three short, high-pitched noises. Three bursts of silvery light flew overhead. Then there were screams.
They weren’t human screams. No human throat could make those noises. They had a shrillness and a buzzing quality around the edges that put Simon in mind of angry bees, only many times larger.
“Fuck,” Joan snarled, and fired again.
Another scream stopped midway through, cut off by a quieter, much wetter noise. Then silence.
Joan was lying atop him, most of her body pressed firmly against his. Simon had imagined the general situation in his youth; it was not nearly as pleasurable in fact.
For one thing, he was getting quite tired of being knocked to the ground, especially now that he had a large rock pressing into his back. For another, Joan was all angles, and one of her elbows was practically stabbing him in the ribs. Up close, she also smelled: not dirty, but rather acrid and sharp, as if she’d washed her hair with lye. Her hair wasn’t really dark at all, he realized then. It was simply covered with something viscous.
She got off him quickly. It wasn’t a moment too soon.
Away from her, the smell was different and worse, rank-sweet like burnt honey. Two…creatures…lay in the grass near the stones.
Both were more than half Simon’s size and doglike but with six legs each and horns. Hairless. Gray. Simon understood the wet noise now. One of the creatures no longer had a head, only a mass of bone and red meat. That was still less horrible than the twisted, eyeless flesh of the other and its gaping, razor-lined mouth.
Simon turned away toward Joan, and that was almost worse. She was looking thoughtfully at the bodies, the silver gun in one hand. Clear tubes ran out of the gun and into her arm just below her elbow, pulsing slowly. Simon could see her blood moving through them.
No oath could have expressed his shock, and none came close to encompassing his disgust. He made an inarticulate sound in his throat.
Joan looked up and absently tapped the top of the gun with her free hand. The tubes detached from her arm and began recoiling. Their ends were covered with tiny teeth. Simon watched them, hypnotized by his revulsion.
“You’re in a hell of a lot of trouble here, Simon Grenville,” Joan said.
DON’T MESS WITH TEXAS by Christie Craig
“It’s the right thing. It’s the right thing.”
At five o’clock on the dot, Nikki Hunt drove past the valet parking entrance to Venny’s Restaurant and turned into the one-car alley lined with garbage dumpsters. She eased her car over potholes big enough to lose a tire in, and parked her Honda Accord. “It’s the right thing,” she repeated then rested her forehead against the steering wheel. After one or two seconds,she squared her shoulders and mentally pulled up her big girl panties. Letting go of a deep breath, she stared at the garbage dumpster adjacent to her car and hoped this wasn’t a foreshadowing of the evening.
Though no one would guess it—other than that one bill collector, her bank, and the McDonald’s attendant who’d waited for her to dig out enough change to pay for her sausage biscuit this morning—Nikki couldn’t afford valet parking.
Her local gallery barely made enough money to cover the rent. Who knew that a little downturn in the economy would prevent the general population from appreciating art?
Okay, fine, she knew. She was financially strapped, not stupid. And yeah, she’d also known that opening the gallery had been risky. But at the time, she’d had Jack to fall back on if things got tough. Good ol’ Jack, charming, financially stable, and dependable—dependable, that is, as long as one didn’t depend on him to keep his pecker in his pants.
She pulled a tube of lipstick from her purse, turned the rearview mirror her way and added a hint of pink to her lips.
Please, Nikki, meet me at Venny’s. I made some mistakes, but we can fix it.
Jack’s words skipped through her head.
Was Jack really going to ask her for a do-over? Was she really contemplating saying yes? And was saying yes the right thing? The questions bounced around her brain, hitting hard against her conscience.
Rubbing her lips together to smooth the pink sheen on her mouth, she looked at the back of the restaurant—probably the most expensive restaurant in Miller, Texas. The one where Jack, the man she considered the love of life, had proposed to her four years ago. This wasn’t the first time she’d heard from Jack since the divorce. His flowers had gone to her grandmother’s retirement center. Someone should enjoy them. The messages where he begged her to take him back went unanswered. She hadn’t even been tempted. Until today.
Today he’d called the gallery right after Nikki had received a call from the retirement home, reminding her that her grandmother’s cable bill was due. Right after she realized she was going to be short paying Ellen, her one and only part-time employee. There’d been desperation in Jack’s voice and it had mimicked the desperation Nikki felt in her own life.
She focused on the rearview mirror again and gave herself a good, hard look. She fluffed her hair, hoping her thick, blonde curls would appear stylish and not impoverished. Nana’s cable trumped her regular clip job. Her grandmother had spent thirteen years taking care of Nikki, so the least she could do was allow the woman to watch the cooking network.
And Ellen--how could she not pay the woman who’d become her best friend? The woman who singlehandedly dragged Nikki out of the done-wrong slumps kicking and screaming.
Nikki stepped out of her car. The heat radiating from the pavement assaulted her. She could almost feel her hair frizz. Humidity thickened the air, making it hard to breathe. Or maybe that was just the anxiety of seeing Jack, of making a decision to reenter the holy union—a union that turned out not to be so holy for him.
Passing the dumpster, she wrinkled her nose and walked faster. The ring of her cell brought her to a stop. She grabbed the phone from her purse, checked the number.
“You’re my one call,” Nana said.
“Shoot.” Nikki hurried her steps to escape the garbage smell. Common sense told her Nana was playing the timed crossword game with her Ol’ Timers Club. A game that allowed the participant a single one-minute call to someone who might be able to help. But the first time Nana had used her one-call line, she’d been in jail. Sure, Nana had only been arrested once, but bailing your grandmother out of the slammer was not something one tended to forget.
“Name of the club you join when you get it on at high altitudes, twelve letters,” Nana said.
“What kind of crossword puzzle is this?” Nikki asked.
Figures. The Ol’ Timers Club members, on average, had a better sex life than Nikki did. “Mile High Club. Not that I belong.” She cut the corner to the restaurant, welcoming the warm scents of Venny’s menu items.
“You should,” Nana said.
“Gotta go,” Nikki said before Nana started ranting about Nikki’s less than exciting social life.
“You’re coming to the dress rehearsal tonight?” Nana asked.
What dress rehearsal? ThenNikki remembered. Her grandmother and several of the Ol’ Timers had gotten parts in a small neighborhood theater show.
“I can’t, but I’ll come to the show.” If she could afford the ticket? .
“Where are you?”
“About to walk into a restaurant.”
“A date?” Nana sounded hopeful.
“No.” Just possibly coming to get proposed to for the second time by the man I used to love.
Used to? Nikki stopped so fast she almost tripped. Didn’t she still love Jack? Weren’t there still feelings underneath the pain of his infidelity? Because if she didn’t really have feeling for him then . . .
“Who are you meeting?” Nana asked.
It’s the right thing. “No one,” she lied, flinching.
In the background, Nikki could hear Nana’s friend Benny call out, “Five seconds.”
“Gotta go,” Nikki repeated.
“Nikki Althea Hunt, do not tell me you’re meeting that lowlife scum of an ex—”
“Love ya.” Nikki hung up, dropped her cell back into her purse and tried to ignore the doubt concerning what she was about to do. Instead, she wondered what the hell her mother had been smoking when she named her Althea. Then again, figuring out what her mother was smoking when she’d dropped six-year-old Nikki at Nana’s with the request that Nana raise her, was a much better puzzle. And not one Nikki liked to think about, either.
Walking into the restaurant, pretending she belonged in the rich, famous and lawyer circle, Nikki was embraced by the scents of beef burgundy. Her stomach gave one last groan, then died and went to Heaven without looking back. The biscuit she’d scraped change together for this morning was a forgotten memory.
“Meeting someone?” the hostess asked as Nikki peeked into the dining room.
“Jack Leon.” Nikki spotted him sitting at the table—the same table where he’d proposed to her—talking on his cell phone.
“This way.” The hostess started walking but Nikki caught her arm and yanked her back. The woman’s eyes rounded.
“Just a second, please.” Nikki continued to stare at Jack and waited. Where was it? Where was the heart flutter when her gaze landed on him? A light flutter would do. That’s all she was asking for.
No flutters, damn it. The only emotion bumping around her chest was residual fury at finding him in her gallery office, on the sofa, banging her hired help.
Not a good memory to be hanging in her mental closet tonight. Not if Jack was going to propose. Because if she said yes, then she might be the one banging her ex.
“Crappers,” she muttered and her heart did a cartwheel, hitting the sides of her ribs. Nikki had no problem with sex. Not that she’d had any pleasure in a long time. A really long time. Like . . . since Jack.
The truth rained down on her. She wasn’t here because she loved Jack. If she went back to him it wouldn’t even be for pleasure. It would be for money. Sure, the money was to pay Nana’s cable, to pay Ellen, and to keep her gallery afloat, but still. . . the hard fact was she’d be having sex for money.
“Oh, shit!” Could she stoop that low?
My name is Nikki Hunt, not Nikki Name Your Price.
“I don’t think I can do this,” she muttered and tightened her hold on the hostess’s arm.
“You don’t think you can do what?” asked the hostess.
“Oh, hell. It’s not the right thing.”
“What’s not the right thing?”
Nikki stared at her feet. “How important are the cooking shows anyway?”
“Which one?” asked the hostess, still mistaking Nikki’s muttering for conversation. “I like Rachel Ray.”
Releasing the hostess’s arm, Nikki turned to go, but stopped short when a waiter carting a tray of yeast-scented bread and real butter moved past. He left a wake of warm stomach-growling aroma.
Crapola. She wouldn’t have sex with Jack. She wouldn’t remarry him, but could she sit through a dinner for some mouth-watering food? Yup, she could stoop that low.
Call it payment for defiling the much-loved antique sofa in her office. No way could she have kept it after seeing him and her employee going at it doggy style on the piece of furniture.
Mind made up, Nikki swung around and, without waiting for the hostess, shot across the dining room and plopped down at Jack’s table.
Still on the phone, Jack looked up. His eyes widened with what appeared to be relief, and he nodded. Dropping her purse at her feet and, not waiting for a bread plate, she snagged a hot roll and smeared a generous amount of sweet butter on it. Her mouth watered as the butter oozed over the bread.
“No,” Jack snapped into the phone and held up an apologetic finger at her.
She nodded, smiled and took a bite of the roll. Her stomach growled, as if saying bread alone wouldn’t silence or satisfy it. She noticed a bowl of gumbo sitting in front of Jack. She’d kill for gumbo. Too bad Jack had a thing about sharing food.
“Fuck, no!” Jack seethed. “I can’t do this.”
The F word brought Nikki’s gaze up from his gumbo. Jack, a refined lawyer trying to make partner and always concerned about public decorum, seldom cursed. Amazingly, from his viewpoint, screwing your wife’s part-time help wasn’t considered bad manners.
“Listen to me,” Jack muttered.
Nikki recalled Jack taking offense at her occasional slip of shit, damn and hell—a habit she’d obtained from hanging out with Nana and the Ol’ Timers. Jack had almost broken her of it, too. Then, staring at his Armani suit and his hundred-dollar haircut, Nikki had an epiphany.
Jack had spent the entire two years of their marriage, not to mention the year they’d dated, trying to turn her into someone else—someone who would look good on the arm of a partner of the Brian and Sterns Law Firm. Don’t say this. Say that. Wear this. Do you have to spend so much time with your grandmother?
Glancing down at her black pants and knit top, she knew he wouldn’t approve of her wardrobe. How odd that she hadn’t even considered dressing up for the event. Or maybe not odd. It should have been a clue that their reconciling was a joke. Seriously, she hadn’t even put on sexy underwear. Her gaze shot back to his gumbo.
Screw Jack’s apparel approval and his no-share policy. She reached for the bowl and, suddenly feeling lowbrow and proud of it, dunked her roll in the roux and brought the soupy mess to her lips.
Spotting a floating shrimp in the cup, and not lowbrow enough to use her fingers, she went for Jack’s spoon.
He slapped his hand on top of hers and frowned—a disapproving, judgmental frown that pulled at his brown eyes.
Big mistake on his part.
Slipping her hand from under his, she fished out the shrimp with two fingers and ate it. Even made a show of licking her fingers. Jack’s mouth fell open at her lack of manners. Not that she cared. Considering the way things were going, the gumbo and rolls were all she’d be having for dinner. She might as well enjoy them.
A tuxedo-wearing waiter ran up and placed a spoon in front of her. Nikki smiled at his pinched, disapproving look, which matched her husband’s frown.
“Thank you,” she said, proving she wasn’t totally lacking in the manners department.
“Something to drink?” the waiter asked, his expression still critical of her lack of etiquette.
“A beer, please.” She didn’t like beer, but it fit her mood. And just like that, she knew why. All this time--even after she’d caught Jack bare-ass naked with her employee, even after she realized how badly he’d screwed her with that prenuptial agreement--she’d never given Jack a bit of comeuppance. And why? Because she’d been more hurt than angry. Now, realizing she’d stopped loving him, the hurt had evaporated and she was just angry. And it wasn’t altogether a bad feeling either.
Jack stood up. Frowning, he pressed his phone to his shoulder. “Order for us,” he said. “I’ll be right back.” He snatched up his gumbo and handed it to the waiter. “And she’ll take a glass of Cabernet.” He took off.
Nikki tightened her hands on the edge of the table and considered walking out, but another waiter walked by with a plate of chicken marsala. She inhaled and eyed the waiter clutching Jack’s gumbo as if afraid she might fight him for it. And she might have but suddenly, she got an odd aftertaste from the gumbo. “Bring us one beef burgundy and one chicken marsala. And my beer.”
After one disapproving eye roll, the waiter walked away.
She’d already sipped from the frosty mug and devoured another roll when Jack returned. He sat across from herand frowned. She snatched another bite of bread, pretty certain her free meal had just come to an end.
His frown faded. “You have no idea how glad I am that you came.”
Nikki nearly choked on her bread. What? No condescending remark about her lack of manners? Jack was playing nice. Jack never played nice unless he really wanted something.
Did he want her back that badly? It wouldn’t change anything, but whose ego couldn’t use stroking?
He picked up his linen napkin and dabbed at his forehead where she’d just noticed he was sweating. Sweating was right up there with playing nice. Jack didn’t sweat.
Her pinching gut said something was up and it had to do with more than just her. She leaned in. “What’s going on, Jack?”
* * *
Dallas O’Connor walked into the building that housed both his business and apartment. Stopping just inside the doorway, he waited. Five seconds. Ten. When Bud didn’t greet him, Dallas looked over at the coffin against the nearby wall. Someone had opened the dang thing again.
He growled low in his throat, “Get out of there.”
One soulful second later, Bud--short for Budweiser--raised his head from inside the coffin and rested his hanging jowls on the edge of the polished wooden box. The pain of being chastised flashed in his huge bug eyes. Bud, an English Bulldog, hated being chastised.
“Out,” Dallas said, lowering his voice. “It’s not a doggy bed.”
The prior owners of the building, which had been a funeral home, had left the damn casket when they moved out six months ago. Dallas had called and left numerous messages asking them to remove the dang thing, but no response. The last time he’d told them they had one more week, and he was going to sell it on eBay. He was tired of having to explain the casket to his clients.
The dog leaped out of the coffin and barreled over to Dallas. After one swipe over the dog’s side, Dallas glanced at his watch and shot back to the office. He found Tyler, one of his Don’t Mess With Texas Private Investigations partners, listening to the police scanner, as well as the television. Tyler’s expression had worry stamped all over it, too.
“He hasn’t called yet?” Dallas removed his gun from his holster and placed it in his desk—a habit he hadn’t broken from the seven years he’d worked for the Glencoe Police Department. Seven years he wished he could get back. The only good thing that came from those years was the friendship he’d made with his now PI partners.
Tyler glanced away from the television. “Not a word. Any luck at the park?”
“There were two female joggers, but neither of them fit the description Nance gave.”
Frowning, Tyler leaned back in his chair. “I’m afraid we’re not going to get anything to save this kid. He’s going to go down for robbery.”
“It’s not over.” No way would Dallas let that innocent boy do time. But right now, both he and Tyler should be worried about one of their own. Dallas motioned to the police scanner. “Have the cops been called out yet?”
Tyler nodded and concern pinched his brows, making the two-inch scar over his right eye stretch tighter. “Thirty minutes ago.”
“Shit,” Dallas said. “Why the hell hasn’t he called?”
“You know Austin,” Tyler said. “He’s a lone wolf.”
“That’s not how we operate,” Dallas said, but in his gut he knew they were all lone wolves. Life had taught them that was the only way to live. Getting set up by a lowlife drug dealer named DeLuna and then having most everyone you believed in turn their backs on you--not to mention spending sixteen months in the slammer--well, it did that to you. It made you feel as if the only one you could trust was yourself.
Dallas glanced at the silent television. “Any media coverage?”
“Not yet,” Tyler said. “But the cops called for another unit to help hold them back, so they’re there.”
“Have you tried to reach him?” Dallas dialed Austin’s number.
“He’s not answering.” Tyler grabbed the remote and ramped up the volume. “We got something.”
Dallas glanced at the redheaded reporter on the screen, but listened to his cell until the call went to Austin’s voicemail and he hung up. The camera closed in on the reporter as she announced a breaking news segment.
“God, she’s hot,” Tyler said.
Dallas studied the redhead as she held a microphone close to her lips. “You need to get laid.”
“Okay,” Tyler said. “You want to give my number to that hot brunette I saw leaving here last week? Or tell your ex to pay me a visit. She could leave her underwear at my place, too.”
“Funny,” Dallas said, and regretted telling the guys about his screw-up with his ex. Then again, he hadn’t told them. His dog had. Bud had come traipsing into the office the next morning with a red pair of panties hanging from his jowls. Thankfully, Suzan--AKA, the hot brunette--was careful to take her underwear with her when she left his bed. And she didn’t expect—or want—more than he was willing to give. The perfect relationship—pure sex. Twice a month, when her ex got her kids for the weekend, she showed up at his place. Most nights, she didn’t even stay over. Sex and the bed to himself--what more could a guy ask?
The news reporter started talking. “We’re here at the home of Blake Mallard, CEO of Acorn Oil Company. An anonymous caller said Mallard’s dirty shenanigans, both with the company and his personal life, were about to be made public.” The reporter paused.
“He had to have gotten out.” Tyler traced his finger over the scar at his temple. He’d earned it during their stint in prison. While Tyler never talked about the fight, Dallas knew the guy who’d given Tyler the mark hadn’t walked away unscathed. Rumor in the pen had it the guy hadn’t walked away at all, but had to be carried out on a stretcher. Jail time was never a walk in the park, but Dallas suspected Tyler had had a harder time behind bars than both he and Austin.
The reporter started talking again, and a smile threatened to spill from her lips. “According to sources, Mallard was found handcuffed to his bed with a call girl. The missing files Mallard swore were stolen from his office were found in the room. We’re told the cops were called to the residence by Mallard’s wife, who worried someone had broken in.”
After a few beats of silence, the reporter continued. “We’re told the girl found with Mallard is claiming a guy dressed in a clown costume handcuffed them to the bed and pulled the files from Mallard’s private safe.”
“Did y’all try to call me?” Austin’s voice came from the doorway.
Dallas glanced up. “You. . .” Words failed him.
“I love it,” Tyler said and laughed.
“You mean this?” Austin motioned at his bright red and blue polka-dotted clown suit and multi-colored wig. Whipping off the wig, he tossed it up and caught it.
Dallas shook his head. “You love theatrics, don’t you?”
“Theatrics? Are you kidding? This was brilliance. It’s a gated community. I had to get past security. A birthday party was happening next door to the Mallards. They wouldn’t let in a guy wearing a ski mask, but a clown? Not a problem.” Austin looked at the TV. “Did I make the news?”
“Oh, yeah.” Tyler said.
Austin tossed his wig on his desk. “It’s not every day we get to solve a cheating-spouse case and a real crime at the same time. It felt good. And now we can put this case to bed and I can focus on proving Nance is innocent.”
Dallas raked his hand though his hair. “I’ll bet a hundred bucks my brother will be calling me within five minutes, wanting to know if we’re behind this.”
Austin dropped his clown-suited ass into a chair. “Tell him Miller PD owes me a beer for solving their case.”
The reporter appeared on the screen again. Austin looked at the television. “She’s hot.”
“That’s what I said.” Tyler grinned.
Austin looked back at Dallas. “Did you get anything at the park?”
“Nothing.” Dallas said..
“I’m going to try a few different parks around here,” Austin said. “Maybe the chick swaps off and jogs at different places.”
“Maybe,” Dallas said.
“Did you hear from Roberto?” Austin asked Tyler.
“Yeah,” Tyler answered. “None of his leads point to DeLuna.”
“Then tell him to get some new leads,” Austin said, his frustration at having so much time pass since that’d had anything on Deluna clearly showing.
Dallas’s cell phone rang. He checked the number. “See,” he told Austin. “It’s my brother..”
“I thought pissing off the guys in blue was our goal.” Austin crossed his arms.
“You’re wrong.” Dallas stared at the phone. “Pissing off the lowlife drug runner DeLuna is our goal. Pissing off the guys in blue. . .” He looked up with a grin. “Well, that’s just an added benefit. My brother being the exception, of course.”
As his partners chuckled, Dallas answered the call. “What’s up, Tony?”
“Damn, Dallas, tell me that wasn’t you,” Tony demanded.
“What wasn’t me?” Dallas shot Austin an I-told-you-so frown.
“Why do I think you’re lying?” Tony came back.
“Because you’re a suspicious son of a bitch.”
Tony sighed. “Can you meet me for a burger at Buck’s Place in half an hour?”
“To eat,” Tony said.
Dallas wasn’t buying it. Not that he and his brother didn’t do dinner. They had dinner with their dad weekly. But something told Dallas that Tony wanted more than a burger and fries. To confirm it, Dallas asked, “You paying?”
“Sure,” Tony said.
Yup, Tony wanted something. His brother never agreed to pay.
* * *
Nikki watched Jack rearrange his silverware in an attempt to avoid her question. “What’s going on, Jack?” she asked again.
He shook his head. “Just trouble at work.”
“What kind of trouble?”
He shifted his arm, knocking the linen napkin off the table. Scooting back in his chair, he reached to collect the cloth. Falling into old habits, she signaled for the waiter to bring a clean napkin.
“It’s okay,” Jack said, sitting up.
That’s when she knew something had to be seriously wrong. Jack, a germ freak, would never use a dropped napkin.
“Look, the reason I asked you here is . . . I need a wife on my arm.”
“A wife?” Had she heard him right? He didn’t need her. He needed a wife. Anyone would do. As long as they were trainable and, damn it, she’d proven she was. Only not anymore.
“I realize I slipped up.”
“Really, you think screwing my part-time help was a slip up?”
He frowned but before he could answer, his phone buzzed again. He looked at the Caller ID. “I have to take this.” He put a hand on his stomach and swayed when he stood up. Even furious, she almost suggested he sit down, but then he grabbed her beer and set it down on a table that a busboy was cleaning.
Damn him! She popped up, tossed her napkin on the table and went to rescue her beer. Eying the busboy, she grinned. “I think I lost this.” Then she plopped back down in her seat. She wasn’t Jack’s to train anymore and when he returned she would, for the first time, tell him exactly what she thought of him. After, she enjoyed her dinner of course.
Five minutes later, dinner arrived but Jack still hadn’t. Considering manners were optional tonight, she started without him. She even enjoyed some of Jack’s beef burgundy. She’d been so involved in savoring the food, she hadn’t realized so much time had passed.
“Is he coming back?” the waiter asked.
“Of course he is.” Panic clenched her stomach and she nearly choked on the steak. “He has to.”
She waited another twenty minutes, even had the busboy check the bathroom, before she accepted the inevitable. Jack wasn’t coming back. The waiter returned with the check and eyed her suspiciously as if to say any woman who would stick her finger in her date’s soup was thoroughly capable of the eat-and-run offence.
Glancing at the check, she muttered, “I’m going to kill him!”
“Kill who?” the waiter asked.
“Who do you think?” She peeked at the bill and moaned. A hundred and eighty without tip, then there was the fee the bank would charge her for overdrawing her checking account.
Her stomach roiled again, this time in a bad way. Snatching up her purse, she found her debit card. Thankfully, she had overdraft insurance. With anger making her shake, she handed the card to the waiter. Her stomach cramped. She considered complaining that something she’d eaten had upset her stomach, but she knew how that would look.
“Yup, he’s good as dead!”
* * *
“I’m killing him,” Nikki muttered again fifteen minutes later as she pulled out her already over-drawn debit card again.
The grocery cashier scanned the Pepto-Bismol, Tums, Rolaids, and anti-diarrhea meds before looking at Nikki. “Kill who?”
Why did people think just because she was talking, she was speaking to them? Was she the only one who talked to herself? Nevertheless, with the cashier’s curious stare, Nikki felt obligated to answer. “My ex.” She placed a palm on her stomach as it roiled.
Holding her purchases in a plastic bag, Nikki couldn’t escape quickly enough. She darted out the door. The ball of orange sun hung low in the pre-dusk sky. Her eyes stung. She almost got to the car when the smell of grilled burgers from the hamburger joint next door washed over her and the full wave of nausea hit. A woman with two kids dancing around her came right at Nikki. Not wanting to upchuck on an innocent child, she swung around in the opposite direction, opened her bag and heaved as quietly as she could inside it.
Realizing she’d just puked on her medicine, she lost her backbone, and tears filled her eyes. Only the weak cry. The words filled her head, but damn it, right now she was weak.
She rushed to her car, wanting only to get home. Tying a knot in the bag, she grabbed her keys, hit the clicker to unlock the doors and then popped open the trunk.
Tears rolled down her cheeks. Her stomach cramped so hard her breath caught.
She got to her bumper, was just about to drop the contaminated bag into the trunk when she saw . . . She blinked the tears from her eyes as if that alone would make the image go away.
There, stuffed in the back of her car, was a body.
She recognized the Armani suit first. Then she saw his face. His eyes were wide open, but something was missing.
Jack was dead.
Jack was dead in the trunk of her car.
Her vision started to swirl.
She tried to scream. Nausea hit harder. Unable to stop herself, she lost the rest of her two hundred dollar meal all over her dead ex-husband’s three thousand dollar suit.
DEADLY LITTLE LIES Jeanne Adams
EXCERPT #1 – Just after the kidnap….
“We could die here,” Carrie muttered and he heard the fear again. “We could die.”
“No,” Dav made it a statement, not a question. He would not allow that possibility. She was his future. He would not allow it to be otherwise. He would use the stubborn will that helped him survive his father and countless business rivals; he and Carrie would survive. “We’ll make it out of this. My people, they’ll know to get Gates. He has all manner of ways to figure out what’s happened. He’ll find us. He and Ana are the best.”
“But they don’t work for you anymore,” she said, stating the obvious.
“I know, sweetheart,” he said smiling into the dark. “But friends don’t worry about little things like that. They’ll find us.”
“Dav,” she murmured, sliding her hands up to touch his face. “Dav, why did we wait?”
Dav was distracted momentarily by the shift in the sound of the engines, the subtle drop in the slant of the cabin. “Wait?” he replied, still thinking about the change in the plane’s attitude. “Why did we wait for what?”
Evidently, her question was rhetorical. He looked down into her eyes, loving the feel of her hands on his face. While he recognized all his reactions were off-kilter from the drugs though not as badly skewed as Carrie’s, just the touch of her, the feel of her in his arms no matter the situation, was inflaming his body, his mind and senses.
“Carrie?” he whispered, seeing the dark of her eyes, feeling every inch of her in new ways.
“We fought it, Dav, both of us,” she said, her voice serious, but her eyes were still deeply dilated, the effect of the drugs. “We waited for the right time. We didn’t make a move, either of us.”
While he was puzzling through what she meant, she shifted closer, whispering, “Don’t wait anymore. Kiss me now, just in case. I need to know how it feels, I need,” she trailed off, quieting in order to bring her lips to his.
The connection was instant and powerful. Every thought of the plane, of their situation sank out of his mind, replaced by the magnificent roar of triumph in his heart. No pain could compare to the sweetness, the fire of her mouth moving on his. All hesitancy fled as she pressed into him, wriggling closer, heating his body. Nothing mattered but Carrie. Nothing was real or present but her mouth.
The pain in his hands and shoulders throbbed a counter point to his body’s needs. He ignored the pain and focused on the pleasure.
He might never get another chance.
“Dav, oh, Dav, I…I…” she stumbled over the words, pressing kisses to his face, her bound hands cradling his jaw.
Whatever else she might have said was lost when the plane banked hard again. Now she fell into him, slamming her head into his chin as the altitude dropped.
He knew it wasn’t the time or the place, and that Carrie was reacting to the drugs, but the confirmation that she was interested, attracted, gave him hope despite their dire state of affairs.While there’s life, there’s hope.
CARPE BEAD 'EM
Orphaned at a young age, Hallie Mediate was raised by her (slightly) crazy Great Aunt Grace on the wrong side of the tracks in Cincinnati. Hallie dreamed of escaping her hometown and never looking back. After putting herself through college, landing her dream job in Chicago, and starting a romance with her handsome running partner Bo Pompillio, life is finally exactly as she wants it.
That is, until she’s transferred back to the hometown. Not wanting her past to cross paths with her future, Hallie puts her relationship with Bo on hold.
When she arrives in town, Hallie finds crazy Aunt Grace rummaging through a dumpster looking for the “perfect” welcome home gift for her niece. That’s just the beginning. After that, Aunt Grace stays busy by dying her stolen poodle’s hair pink and leaving the dog on her apartment roof to pee, throwing bricks out the window at passing neighbors, and climbing every flag pole to kiss the ornamental eagle.
Hallie finds some sanity at a local jewelry-making class where she uncovers a hidden talent for beading. When her talent is discovered by a major department store jewelry buyer, Hallie realizes that what she had in Chicago might not have been her dream life after all.
When faced with the choice of moving back to Chicago and Bo or taking a leap of faith to start her own jewelry company (with Aunt Grace in tow), Hallie has to make a decision. Will she let her past and her future collide, or will she or keep searching for the happiness she may already have found?
Groaning, I squeeze the pillow over my ears. Please…even that doesn’t muffle the ringing phone. Blinking into the darkness, I heave the pillow across the room and grab my clock.
What the hell?
I shake it to make sure I’m seeing the real time.
Two-fifteen. In the morning.
Are you kidding me?
The ringing stops for a few seconds and I think, pray, that it's over. But then it starts again.
Argh…no. I squint trying to focus on the Caller ID without messing up my cocoon of blankets.
I reach for the phone, but stop. Does she really need me this time? My fingers stretch closer. What if it is an emergency? My fingers retract. No. What…what if it’s just like every other time? All the times she called to shoot the breeze in the middle of the night?
One more ring and the answering machine picks up. I can’t do it. I can’t ignore her call. I close my eyes, pick up and press on.
“Hello, Aunt Grace.” Three words in, and I am already exhausted with this conversation.
“You are psychic just like your mother. I swear you even sound like her.” Aunt Grace said.
Well, Great Aunt Grace, really. Ninety-two years old. I swear she’s going to outlive all her relatives—if I don’t kill her first. Not that there are many of us left. After my parents died it was just me and her. I guess I owe her.
“I wanted to tell you about this fine young man I think you’ll like.” She acts like it’s three in the afternoon. Doesn’t she realize it is in the middle of the night? I can tell where this is going.
“Aunt Grace, can’t this wait until the morning? Better yet, why don’t I come visit?” I plead.
I try to see her every six or eight weeks. It’s the least I can do. Well, the least I can do for myself. I live almost five hours from Cincinnati, in Chicago, and she still continues to call in the middle of the night. Distance and time are irrelevant when it strikes her fancy to call me. At least I can control my trips back to Cincinnati.
“It can’t wait until tomorrow, and I don’t want you to drive here this time of the night.”
“That’s good. At least you know what time it is. I’ll call you tomorrow about this guy.” I’m afraid her mind isn’t as sharp as it used to be. Not that it was ever that sharp.
“Of course I know the time. I just finished playing cards with the girls down the hall.”
“Down the hall?” Aunt Grace owns an apartment building in one of the seedier areas of downtown Cincinnati.
“You know. The girls who rent from me. Besides aren’t you in Chicago?”
A calm but eerie feeling comes over me. Thank God she remembers where I live. Some nights she calls and thinks I’m dodging her when I try to explain how I can’t just pop over to visit.
“Besides, aren’t you in Chicago?” She repeats.
“Yes, Aunt Grace. I still live in Chicago. I have a long run in the morning. I need all the sleep I can get.” Across the room, the door knob turns. My eyes bulge. With the phone cradled between my shoulder and ear, I clap my hands.
Nothing better than The Clapper for someone who is scared of the dark. Someone like me. If someone is going to rob me or kill me, I want to see them or at least be able to say, “Here Mr. Robber Killer, take whatever you want. I don’t need it.”
Aunt Grace is rambling on about Inas winning the first round of gin rummy. I hardly register it.
“Who’s there?” I hiss towards my bedroom door.
“Hallie,” she says to me, “we live on the fifty-first floor. Who do you think it is?”
I practically faint from relief. The intruder happens to be Lucy, my roommate and best friend. She claps after she opens the door, turning the lights off.
I groan. Lucy still looks good in the middle of the night with her ash blonde hair pulled back. Her turquoise eyes stand out even more without make-up on.
“Getting robbed is virtually impossible unless someone freaks out in our building.” Lucy snickers.
“Clap them back on!” I scream into the dark.
I don’t give a shit that it’s Lucy and not Freddy Freaking Nightmare On Elm Street. If I lived in Fort Knox, I would still be afraid of the dark. Lucy and I continue to clap my lights on and off until the room feels like a disco.
Finally, her long lean legs carry her five foot nine frame out my bedroom, ending the clapping feud.
“What’s going on, Hallie?” Aunt Grace croons through the phone.
My head spins in confusion. Aunt Grace is humming a tune from the musical Chicago.
Another one of her quirks. She just breaks out in tune. Not song, but tune.
“If Aunt Grace wakes me up with her calls, then I want to make sure you stay up.” Lucy continues to clap.
“Hallie? What’s going on? Do I need to kick some…?”
“No, no, Aunt Grace.” I have to interrupt her because if she starts cursing, she doesn’t stop. “It’s only Lucy.”
I put my pillow over my head.
“That crazy superstitious girl you met in college?”
“Yes, Aunt Grace. The same Lucy that was my college roommate and is still my roommate.”
My patience is running thin. “Goodnight.”
“Hallie, wait. I still haven’t told you about the young man.” There is pride in her voice. “He’s Italian.”
Here we go. I roll my eyes as she talks. She is always doing this to me. I admit that being single at twenty-eight isn’t in my plan, but I don’t need Aunt Grace playing Cupid.
“He lives in Chicago, and I gave him your number to look you up.”
My heart pounds a mile a minute. I hate when she does this. I can just imagine it’s one of her loony friend’s cuckoo relative who’s probably a loon like all the others.
“You what?” I sat straight up in bed. “Aunt Grace you can’t do that in today’s age. What if he’s crazy and tries to track me down and kill me?”
Thank God I live in a building with a doorman that has to buzz up any visitors. And double Thank God I have The Clapper.
“Good Italian family,” she says, ignoring me.
Here we go again.
“Don’t you know most people my age are waiting well into their thirties to get married?” I inform her.
“Just keep an open mind. In my day if you weren’t married by twenty, you were considered an old maid.”
“Lucky for us we aren’t in your day.”
“Good Italian family,” she repeats before she hangs up. Aunt Grace always gets the last word.
Needless to say, my nerves are shot, and it takes me over an hour to calm down. I must’ve turned my alarm off because I didn’t wake up for my run.
My alarm! Not the physical alarm, but my internal alarm clock, propels me out of bed. I lunge for my real clock and shake the life out of it.
The damn thing.
I need to invest in a new clock because this happens several times a week. And Shaken Clock Syndrome has just about done the thing in. I own up to the fact it could be operator rather than mechanical error.
My hair hangs in front of my eyes like a dark waterfall. I try to blow it out of the way, but it’s too heavy to move. Instinctively I take the rubber band from my wrist and pull my hair up in a high pony.
The entire apartment is extremely quiet. Obviously Lucy isn’t awake, and I’m not about to flick her lights on and off to wake her up, like she did last night. Granted, she didn’t wake me up—Aunt Grace did—but I could’ve lain there while Aunt Grace talked and slept through most of it. Lucy had to make drama out of it, just as she does with everything.
I have two options. One, I can throw on some clothes and meet my running group, even if I’m late, as I do every morning. Or two, I can chuck training all together and stay in my comfortable bed.
But if I stay in bed I won’t be able to see him. And seeing him is worth getting out of bed.
JUST FOR THE NIGHT
...Still riding high in the success of his presentation, Jason caught a glimpse of movement across the room. The scent hit him before he turned. Soft roses, with an underlying layer of sexy heat. It made him think of making wild love in a garden under the full moon.
Crazy, he told himself as he stepped fully into the room and let the door swing shut behind him.
Then his brain sputtered. He stared. His heart raced like he’d just taken a long, deadly dive off a high cliff. His body tightened, his senses on full-alert. It took Jason’s body a few extra seconds to filter the rush of energy flying through his system. Lust mixed with shock. Memories cascaded like a waterfall, pouring over forgotten hopes and hurts.
Thickly lashed brown eyes, tilted like a startled cat’s at the corners, stared back at him. He recognized the horror in her gaze, just like he recognized the flash of hot desire beneath it. Pale color rose, washing over her high cheekbones.
It’d been two years. And still, he could perfectly remember how those silky curls felt in his fingers. He knew exactly how that wide, mobile mouth would feel on his body. He could see that lush little body stripped of its frilly black suit, naked and poised over the hard length of his.
He rocked back on his heels and grinned.
“Well, well,” he murmured. “If it isn’t the luscious Larissa. Who knew hell would freeze over this quickly?”
THE DAWN COUNTRY
Kathleen and Michael Geer
Nightfall had silenced the mountains. No owls hooted, no trees snapped in the cold wind that swayed the branches. There was only the faint roar of the fire in the distance.
Sonon pulled his black cape more tightly around him and studied the frozen ground. The warriors’ feet had hewn a dark swath through the frost that glittered in the gaudy orange halo. His gaze followed their trail to the burning village. The Dawnland People had called it Bog Willow village. Yesterday it had contained over one hundred houses.
He hadn’t expected the village to be this bad.
As he walked toward it ash fell around him like fine flakes of obsidian, coating his cape and long hair, turning them gray. The forty hand tall palisade that surrounded the village had burned through in too many places. That had been their doom. They must have watched in horror as the enemy streamed through those gaps and raced across the village, killing everything in their path.
He turned back around to stare at the victory camp. Hundreds of celebrating warriors danced to the sound of drums and flutes. Most were from the Flint or Mountain Peoples, but the war party had contained a few Hills People warriors, too. He knew them from their distinctive tattoos, and the designs painted on their bows and capes. On the far side of the camp, near the river, captive women and children huddled together, shivering, watching their captors with wide stunned eyes. Before dawn came all would be sold and marched away to enemy villages. The lucky ones would be adopted into families and spend the rest of their lives trying to forget this night. The others wouldn’t have to worry about it.
Sonon took a breath and let it out slowly.
There were still times when he woke to the sound of screams that existed only inside him. For many summers he’d thought they were the cries of his twin sister and he’d been ravaged by guilt. When he’d finally realized the voice was his own, the pain had eased a little. The day they were sold into slavery, he’d seen only eight summers. He wasn’t a warrior. There was nothing he could have done to save her--or himself.
He clenched his fists so hard his nails bit into his palms. He had to go down there, into the village. No man wished to admit he was afraid, but…
He forced his legs to walk. At first, only a few bodies lay alongside the trail, but as he neared the palisade the number increased. Desperate villagers must have fought to get outside and run headlong into a line of waiting archers. Bodies, bristling with arrows, had piled up around each gap in the defensive wall. The last few to make it outside probably had to shove their way through a mound of dead.
Sonon carefully stepped around the carnage and ducked through the charred hole in the palisade. The heat struck him first. He threw up an arm and squinted against the glare to see what remained of Bog Willow village. In less than twenty heartbeats he was sweating, struggling for air. The smoke was so thick it was almost impossible to breathe.
Five paces away an old woman sat on the ground with her face in her hands, rocking back and forth in dazed silence. A few other survivors stumbled past. They moved methodically, searching for loved ones, or bending to collect precious belonging: a dropped pot or basket, children’s toys.
I’m over here. See me?
Sonon stopped and tiny tornadoes of ash spun away from his sandals. They whirled through the firelit shadows. Was it just his fatigue? It sounded like a boy’s voice.
Cautiously, he veered around a collapsed wall and began searching the debris. Twenty paces later, he almost stumbled over the child.
Two small arms extended from beneath a buckled wall.
Sonon knelt and pulled the boy from the heap of smoldering bark. Most of his hair had been singed off. He’d seen perhaps six or seven summers. For a time, he just held the boy in his lap and listened to the crackling roar of the fire. Somewhere in the conflagration, muted voices shouted names...and went unanswered. Occasionally, orphaned children darted by.
When he could, he staggered to his feet and carried the boy between the burning husks of two houses, then stepped through a gap in the palisade wall and trudged down to the river’s edge where he gently rested the boy on the shore. In the wavering glare, the boy’s half-open eyes seemed to be alive and watching him.
Why do I only hear them when the struggle is over? Are the voices of the dead only audible to those trapped in eternal night?
Sonon tenderly adjusted the boy’s cape, pulling it up around his throat to keep him warm. “It’s all right,” he said. “I’ll make sure they find you. Your clan will take care of you and you’ll have no trouble crossing the bridge to the afterlife. Your ancestors will be waiting for you.”
Though he was a man of the Hills nation, he knew the ways of the Dawnland People. They believed that the unburied dead became Ghost Fires, angry fire-beings that could not cross the bridge to the afterlife, and were forever doomed to remain around the deteriorating bones. The Bog Willow village survivors would not leave their beloved relatives to that terrible fate, not if they could help it. That meant someone would come looking for this child. His body would be ritually cleaned and prepared for the long journey, then his family would sing him to the afterlife. Having the boy out here in the open would make it easier for his relatives to find him.
Sonon wiped his soot-coated face with the back of his hand and looked out across the river to the opposite, willow-choked, bank. Beyond it, towering black spruces caught the reflections in the water and seemed made of translucent amber wings. The river itself, coated with ash, had an opaque leaden sheen.
He stood up and turned back to the village. For ten heartbeats, he just breathed and studied the palisade. People from distant places did not understand that each log was a Standing Warrior. Among their peoples, the angry souls of dead warriors were excluded from the Land of the Dead, so they moved into trees. They remained in the wood for centuries, until the tree disintegrated, and their souls were forced to seek new homes. It was these trees that the People cut down to make their palisades. That meant that every log was a warrior still keeping guard, still protecting his or her people.
He wondered what the Standing Warriors must be feeling? Not so long ago, they’d watched this little boy racing happily across the plaza, seen him playing ball and dish games with his friends, heard his laughter ringing through the village on quiet summer afternoons. Their grief must be unbearable.
Sonon whispered, “No one could have held off such an assault. It wasn’t your fault. You did the best you...”
Voices drifted from the river. He turned.
A birch bark canoe quietly slipped through the smoke, parting the river like an arrow, heading south. An old woman rode in the bow. She was dressed like a man and wore a long black wig, but a few greasy twists of gray hair stuck out around the edges, framing her deeply wrinkled face. Even if she hadn’t been in disguise, he would have known her. A thousand summers from now, as he walked the earth alone, he would hear her footsteps in his nightmares.
Two girls lay roped together in her canoe, crying. Three warriors with paddles swiftly drove them forward. Close on the heels of the first, another canoe pierced the darkness--with four more captive children.
As the canoes passed, waves rippled outward and washed up on the shore near the dead boy, leaving delicate ribbons of firelit foam at his feet.
Everything about tonight felt strange and surreal. As though Sonon was locked in a trance and could not wake, his heart thumped a dull staccato against his chest.
At least a few of the children had escaped. Earlier in the evening, he’d helped them...as much as he could.
When the canoes vanished into the darkness, he looked at the western mountains. He couldn’t see the pass through the smoke and falling ash. The trail the escaped children had taken was the fastest way back to the lands of the People of the Standing Stone. But there would be many others on that trail: survivors of the village slaughter, orphaned children, and a few wary men who’d left the victory camp early, trying to beat the onslaught of warriors who would crowd the trail just after dawn.
Very softly he called, “Stay strong, Odion, and you’ll be all right. You’ll--”
I’m here. Right here. Please find me?
Sonon squeezed his eyes closed for several long moments. It was a girl’s voice.
He clenched his fists again, then he tramped back up the hill, ducked through the gap in the palisade, and trotted into the roaring inferno to search for her.
I pull my knees up beneath my woven moosehide blanket and gaze out at the night-dark forest where frozen trees glitter in the starlight. An eerie elation washes through me. I have survived eleven summers and never felt this curious brew of terror and utter joy before--the odd euphoria of a captive suddenly freed from horror.
As I was just a few hands of time ago.
Hope vies with the flashes of hideous memory. I squeeze the terror into a black place hidden deep inside me and blink at the camp.
Our tiny fire glimmers in the depths of a narrow valley that cuts through a rocky mountain ridge. Clumps of trees surround the small meadow. The staghorn sumacs--scrub trees--grow four or five times the height of a man and have dark smooth bark that reflects the dancing shadows cast by the flames. Beyond the sumacs, a thicket of thorny plums spreads fifty paces in every direction. Frost covers the fallen fruit and makes the forest floor seem as though it’s paved with round white rocks.
Frigid silence reigns in the night, punctured only by my companions’ breathing and the occasional popping of the flames. Though I know Mother and Father guard me--and five other people sleep nearby—I jump every time Wind Mother rattles the trees, or flames leap as they chew through the sweet-smelling plum branches. My ears strain to hear enemy steps in the night.
I look first at Mother, then turn my eyes to Father. They guard opposite sides of the camp, and for a long time I’m not sure they’re real. So many times in the past moon, I imagined them standing just like this only to be shaken out of dreams and back to horror.
Is it truly different this time?
When Father turns to smile at me, tears of relief silver my vision. My anxiety drains away, leaving me exhausted. No matter how long I live, my best memory will be the sight of Mother and Father running out of the forest with their war clubs swinging, killing the men who held us captive.
As I live it again, the strange euphoria intensifies, sharpened to a deadly edge by the fear that this freedom can’t last. They are coming for me. I know it.
My little sister, Tutelo, sleeps beside me. She rolls over and heaves a sigh. I turn to make sure she’s all right. She has a doehide pulled up over her head in the manner of a hood. Only her pretty oval face with its turned up nose gleams in the firelight. She has only seen eight summers pass.
Behind her, Baji is stretched out on her back. I can’t be certain, but I think she’s staring up at the campfires of the dead that sprinkle the night sky. Every so often, I smell the acrid scent of the burning village that clings to my moosehide blanket. Is Baji thinking about what happened earlier tonight? About the gigantic warriors’ camp outside of the flaming village, the screams and cries of orphaned children...the laughter of warriors covered in blood?
Baji has seen twelve summers. Long eyelashes fringe her dark eyes. Her small nose and full lips are perfect. Long black hair spreads across the blanket around her. She was captured in a raid and sold into slavery the day after I was.
Images flash behind my eyes...girls thrown to the ground by brutal men…suffocating sobs…Gan....
A terrified cry climbs my throat. Barely audible. No one else seems to hear. Except Baji.
She rolls to face me and mouths the words: Are you all right?
I shake my head, aware that the terror has broken loose inside me. Will I ever be able to completely wall it away down in that black space between my souls? For the moment I can only blink at the hot tears and try to control the fear.
Baji wraps her blanket around her shoulders, rises, and tiptoes over to kneel beside me.
“What’s wrong?” she whispers.
I stare up at her. “I dreamed there are warriors coming.”
“Warriors? From the victory camp? Or her warriors?”
“I don’t know. Maybe hers.”
She shakes her head violently, and long black hair flies around her shoulders. She’s just as afraid as I am. “No, I—I don’t think so. Why would they come after us? She bought new children from the destroyed village. She doesn’t need us any longer.”
The evil old woman who buys and sells captured children is a powerful witch. She can hear conversations from a day’s march away. I’m afraid she’s listening to us right now.
I whisper, “They’re coming, Baji. I swear it. I feel the warriors’ footsteps in my heart.”
For a long time Baji looks out at the firelit shadows that sway in the trees, as though searching for hidden men. Then she curls up beside me and stares at me. “Even if she is coming after us, we have a good head start. And your mother and father, and the two Hills People warriors they brought, will protect us.”
“I know.” I want so desperately to believe it’s true.
Baji wets her lips and whispers, “I’m more worried about Wrass and Zateri. Do you think they’re all right?”
A deep ache fills my chest. Our friends, Wrass and Zateri, are still the old woman’s slaves. Somehow, I think it’s my fault. We were separated when the rescue happened. I should have called out to them, or gone to find them. Instead, I just ran away with Mother and Father. I ran as hard as I could.
“It’s not your fault,” Baji says, as though reading the tracks of my soul. Is she feeling the same guilt I am? After the horrors of the past moon, we are closer than friends, closer than family. “It’s a miracle that we escaped with our own lives.”
“I know, I just—“
“And we’re going back for them. Tomorrow morning. Your parents promised. They wouldn’t lie to us, would they? We are going back to rescue Wrass and Zateri, and the other children, aren’t we?”
I have to think about this before I answer, “...My parents wouldn’t lie to us.”
But I’m not sure that’s true.
My gaze drifts to where Mother stands. Most people know her as War Chief Koracoo from Yellowtail Village of the Standing Stone People. My Father, Gonda, is her deputy. Women war chiefs are rare, and being honored with the title requires unusual courage, intelligence, and skill. Mother is a powerful and respected leader. She’s a tall woman, muscular and long-legged. Her war club--the legendary weapon known as CorpseEye—is propped on her shoulder.
Just seeing her calms my fears. But I miss her long black hair. After the attack that destroyed our village, she cropped it short with a chert knife. Among our people it is a sign of mourning. The short jagged locks fall around her ears as though sculpted. Her gaze is fixed on the darkness just beyond the circle of firelight, as though she hears something, or someone, on the starlit mountain pass above us. We came over that pass two hands of time ago, and are now on the western slope.
I breathe in the icy air, and say, “We should try to sleep, Baji. We’re going to need our strength. Tomorrow is going to be a hard day.”
“I’ll try if you will.” She tugs her blanket up around her chin and snuggles against me. The feel of her body against mine sends a warm sense of security through me. In less than sixty heartbeats, she is sound asleep.
But my eyes will not close. I stare up at the dark winter sky. The flickering campfires of the dead look oddly hazy. I realize it’s because even here, across the mountain, smoke from the burned village still streaks the sky. I try not to think of the people who lived there, of the dead and dying, of the shrieking children who were taken captive. The destruction of their village allowed us to escape.
Will the war and suffering ever end?
Behind the lies of safety that I tell myself, I feel the presence of Gannajero watching me across the dark distances.
Her warriors are coming.
I feel their footsteps pounding in my chest.
War Chief Cord’s breath frosted before his face and hung there like a small starlit cloud, ghostlike in the frigid air. He continued struggling up the slope. Above him, through the frost-coated trees, the trail was nothing more than a black gash.
The night had frozen the jagged terrain, turning it into a still and sparkling wasteland so bone-cold that nothing stirred. Even the Forest Spirits and lost souls who usually roamed the trails had fled to their hiding places beneath rocks and in secret holes in the ground. The vast silence was eerie, as though an otherworldly blanket had descended to compensate for the echoed screams, the ululating cries of victory, and the terrified shrieks of the dying that had washed the slopes yesterday.
Behind him, he heard the rasping moccasins of the handful of his warriors who’d lived through the battle, but he didn’t turn to look. Instead, he focused on the trail ahead. Their lives rested upon making it to the pass that was hidden high above them.
Cord pulled his wolf-fur hood closed beneath his chin. He stood twelve hands tall. Snake tattoos covered his cheeks and ropy arms. He wore his hair shaved on the sides, leaving a black roach in the center and a long braid hanging down his back. He had seen twenty-nine summers pass. His wife had once told him he had the burning eyes of a Spirit-possessed shaman. In the summers after her death, however, he knew he radiated only a glacial cold. As if his souls and this frigid night were perfectly matched.
He carefully studied the dark slash of trail.
How far to the summit? He and his men would only find safety on the other side of the pass. Or would they? All night long they had been pursued by a small group of enemy warriors, survivors of the Bog Willow village fight. Their leader was cunning, instructing his men to show themselves for fleeting instants to tempt Cord’s warriors to waste arrows. But long before the arrows struck, their targets had vanished into the darkness.
Cord shook his head. His men were growing careless, desperate. They’d lost friends and loved ones in the battle. Each feared he would be next.
Gravel crunched. He turned.
Strung out behind him, his four men climbed with their heads down. Shoulders and hoods glittered with frost crystals. They did not speak, needing every morsel of strength to sustain the climb.
How long since any of them had slept? Each man was exhausted. Cord could see it in the occasional trembling of a leg, or a head suddenly snapping up from where a man had fallen asleep as he walked. As if the horrors of battle were not enough, the great blind forest--brutally cold and unnaturally still--had rousted every shred of arrogance from their souls. Where once they had preened and paraded in their finest quillwork capes and shell jewelry, now they struggled just to place one foot in front of the other.
When his men drew nearer, he motioned for them to keep going. One by one, they stepped past him with barely a glance.
They wore knee-high moccasins, long war shirts, and wolfhide coats with the hair turned in for warmth. Gray-furred hoods encircled their faces. Each time a man exhaled, his breath settled upon his bristly hood, creating a thick rime of frost. Unstrung bows and quivers rode on top of packs stuffed with loot. Belts clattered with hafted chert knives, sharpened deerbone stilettos, stone-headed war clubs, a food pouch, and water bag.
When the last man walked by, Cord lifted his hand to the sky and measured how far the constellations had moved since his last stop: two hand-widths, the distance across his palm twice. Dawn was another six hands of time away.
He fell into line behind Neyaw and continued up the steep rocky trail. The darkness and cold pressed down, as though to smother that last warm spark in his body.
A cry, half howl, half wail, sounded on the trail below them and echoed through the night. Almost inhuman, it sent a shiver down Cord’s spine as he stopped short, staring back down the dark trail.
Dzadi--now in the lead--stopped dead in his tracks and lifted his nose to scent the wind. A tall and muscular warrior, his face was dominated by an enormous jaw that protruded outward and down until it almost seemed to rest upon his bear-like chest. Dzadi had seen thirty-four summers, most of them at war. He wore the puckered burn scars that discolored his face and arms like badges of honor. Last summer, Dzadi had been captured by the People of the Landing. Through indomitable will and cunning he’d managed to escape his captivity; the scars would be with him forever as a reminder.
The howling cry came again, piercing the darkness like a knife. Hollow, wolfish, it sliced upward to a final shrill note that seemed to hang in the night, and shook a man to his souls.
Cord tilted his head, determined the direction. Directly beneath them, down the mountain, through the maples. Was it the same group of survivors? Or another? Perhaps several had merged.
“Was that a...a wolf?” Young Wado asked, locking his knees to keep his legs from trembling.
Cord’s men shifted, glancing uneasily at each other. No wolf could fill its voice with that desperate, hungry rage. Somewhere inside them, they all knew it.
Dzadi worked his way past the other warriors, touching a shoulder or confidently gripping an arm to steady a man, then he came to stand beside Cord, and hoarsely whispered, “They’re still following us.”
“We have to keep moving.”
Cord took the lead again, muscles trembling, struggling toward the distant notch that marked the pass. On the other side they would strike the trail that led west: home to the People of the Flint, and safety.
When they came to a thickly forested section, he told his men, “Be careful. Watch your footing. Every time you trip over a root, it drains you that much more.”
Below, the cries rose and fell, wild with mockery, as though their pursuers knew there was no escape.
Cord lifted his gaze to the rolling mountains. High above him hidden behind waves of peaks was the rocky defile known as Elbow Pass. Steep switchbacks zigzagged up the mountainside. Their enemy’s were driving them toward it like deer into a killing pen. Once they reached the switchbacks--if they reached them--their pursuers would block the trail below. He and his men would be forced to continue climbing upward. There was no other way.
Two hands of time later, they reached the base of the switchbacks and squatted on their haunches in a copse of willows. His men were gasping for breath, and the scent of stale sweat filled the air.
“We haven’t heard them in a while,” Ogwed panted. He’d seen eighteen summers. A handsome youth with an oval face and flat nose, he’d lost three children and his wife in the battle that had destroyed Wild River village. He turned sad eyes on Cord. “Do you think they gave up?”
Cord untied his water bag from his belt and took a long drink. Every eye was upon him, waiting for his answer. When he’d drunk his fill, he lowered the bag, and tied it to his belt again. “Maybe, but I don’t think so.”
A grim smile rearranged Dzadi’s scars. “There is only one pass.” He nodded toward the Elbow above. “That’s the route home. They know it as well as we do.”
“But they might think we broke off, tried to skirt the mountain through the rough terrain,” Wado suggested hopefully. The youngest warrior in his party, Wado had only seen sixteen summers. “Maybe they just decided to go home and take care of their dead relatives?”
Cord closed his eyes, desperate for even a moment’s rest. “We hit them hard, Wado. As hard as they hit us. Would you give up?”
Wado hung his head and seemed to be considering, then he whispered a miserable, “No.”
Ogwed glanced around the circle and sheepishly asked. “Can we sleep for a while? We haven’t slept in two days, I--I’m not sure how much longer I can run.”
“Eat something,” Cord instructed. “Food will give you strength.”
Ogwed pulled a strip of elk jerky from his belt pouch and chewed it in silence. The other warriors did the same, jaws working deliberately, trying to get food in their bellies before the last brutal climb.
Cord examined their downcast faces. Two men had their eyes closed, trying to nap while they chewed. Their heads kept bobbing and jerking up. Though no one grumbled, they looked disheartened and soul-dead. Warriors pushed to the brink began to think their Power was broken, that they’d been deserted by the Spirit World. When that happened they would start to disappear, drifting away one by one.
Dzadi murmured, “Being out of arrows doesn’t help our situation. We shouldn’t have wasted them on those wild shots at our pursuers.”
“How many arrows are left between us?”
Dzadi rubbed his huge jaw as his gaze scanned the quivers. “Neyaw has two. That’s it. Maybe if we--”
A long shriek—mournful as a death cry--interrupted him. Dzadi listened to it before he finished: “If we can reach the pass and set up a trap, it might make them pause long enough for us to escape.”
“Perhaps.” Cord’s gaze flitted over the youngest warriors and Dzadi knew what it meant: Maybe we can buy enough time for them to escape, but you and I will not.
Dzadi expelled a breath. “I can’t believe this. Over four hundred attacking warriors, from so many different peoples and villages, survived the attack. Why have they fixed on us? There are plenty of other war parties out in the forest trying to make it home.”
Around a mouthful of food, Wado stated the obvious: “It’s easier to slaughter a war party of five than a party of one hundred.”
Cord soberly tightened his fists. He’d already lost too many warriors in the battle--men and women he’d grown up with. People he’d loved and respected. And it looked as though he might lose the ones around him in the next hand of time. He’d been a fool to make this raid. He’d tell that to his elders when he returned--if either was alive. Both matrons had been badly wounded in the attack on Wild River Village, making decisions in haste, probably afraid they were dying.
Cord had argued against joining forces with the other Flint and Mountain People war parties to make this strike, saying they needed to bury their dead and make their way to a new village for protection before they considered any retaliatory action. The matrons had disagreed--and the rest of the village council was dead. He had never disobeyed the matrons, but he wished with all his heart that in this one instance, he had refused.
He got to his feet and looked down the mountain at the dark maples and boulders.
Ogwed said, “War Chief, maybe we should send out a scout? We don’t even know for certain that they’re enemy warriors. They could be part of the alliance. Maybe even some of our own people.”
Wado’s eyes brightened inside his frost-rimmed hood. “That must be it. They’re not after us. They’re just behind us. They’re Flint warriors. We should contact them! Let them know we’re brothers.”
Neyaw snorted in derision. He had a bulbous nose with slits for eyes and wore his long black hair coiled and pinned over his left ear. The style made his hood look lopsided. “You’re a young fool,” he commented with the authority of a man who’d seen countless battles.
Wado glared, but did not reply. He knew better than to cross Neyaw. For the slightest provocation, Neyaw had been known to crush men’s throats with a blow from his war club, then string their teeth for a necklace.
Exhaustion pulling at his senses, Cord swayed on his feet. For several moments, he had the unearthly feeling that they were already dead--just ghosts wandering through a spectral enemy land, condemned to run forever with no hope of reaching home. The sensation was so powerful that it stunned him. He lifted a hand and rubbed his eyes. “Finish eating. Let’s go.”
He didn’t wait for them.
The steep switchbacks were filled with ice-coated rocks and gravel that rolled beneath his moccasins. Many times he lost his footing and had to claw at the rocks like a dog to keep going. His men fared no better. Grunts and curses laced the air, accompanied by the sounds of scrambling hands and feet.
When they were two-thirds of the way to the top, Cord stopped and turned. Ogwed and Wado were crawling up the slippery path on their hands and knees. Neyaw had fallen far behind. Dzadi glanced up at Cord, saw that he’d stopped, and heaved a sigh of relief as he clambered up to him.
Cord braced his wobbling legs. “What do you think?” He gestured to the men with his chin.
“Not all of them are going to make it home.”
Cord tilted his head to look up at the pass. In the pewter gleam, the deep V that resembled a bent elbow was filled with the glistening campfires of the dead. He gazed at them longingly. After the pass, for rested men, it wasn’t more than a hard two-day run back to the nearest Flint village, and home.
Home? Where was that now? His village had been burned, the familiar longhouses destroyed. Any homecoming was only going to be filled with grief as he realized how many relatives and old friends were gone.
At the thought, an almost unbearable sadness filled him. His wife and son were long dead, victims of the endless warfare.
Two summers ago his daughter had been claimed by his wife’s clan--as was the way of the Flint People, who traced descent through the female. Children were clan property. Little Arum was greatly loved and cared for among the Bear Clan, and, of course, he saw her often. But his life was a husk of what it had been three summers ago.
“Dzadi, listen,” Cord said quietly. “I have nothing to go home to. If we have to sacrifice someone, I--”
“One man can’t do it, old friend. You know that. You and I will stay together.”
“I can do it. Not for long, but for long enough that the rest of you can get away.”
Dzadi smiled and the taut, shiny skin of his burn scars reflected the starlight. “Our people need you. I’m the expendable one, Cord. I’ll stay.”
The walls of black rock that created the switchbacks seemed to be leaning down to listen better, and Cord wondered how many desperate men had stood on this very spot and spoken these very words? How much blood had these rocks absorbed? Cord swore he could hear the land itself laughing at him, laughing with the deep ageless wisdom that comes from watching thousands of puny men toil and die, crushed by the weight of their own fears.
“I’ve seen you fight, Dzadi. I know you’ll kill half of them before it’s over, but...”
Dzadi pointed down the mountain. “There they are.”
Cord swung around. Dark shapes moved through the shadows at the base of the switchbacks. More appeared. Two, three, four, then too many.
Dzadi lowered his arm. Occasionally, fangs flashed and pricked ears swayed against the frost-lit background. Headdresses?
“Wolf Society warriors,” Dzadi whispered, shaken for the first time. “May the Spirits of the Dead help us.”
Shadows spread out among the tree trunks. Shapes appeared, then vanished, then moved again higher up the trail.
“How many do you count?” Dzadi whispered.
“Maybe twenty. Maybe more.” Cord exhaled a long tense breath.
“They’re persistent. Surely they don’t think we have captives with us?”
After the battle, the women and children captured at Bog Willow had been rounded up and herded into the victorious warriors’ camp. Many were sold to the highest bidder. Cord remembered seeing two traders who specialized in child slaves--though in the commotion, some of the captive children had escaped. Most were caught and dragged back within a few hundred heartbeats, but it had caused quite a stir for a time, briefly interrupting the feasting, dancing, and general revelry.
Dzadi hissed, “This is not looking good.”
Cord filled his lungs and bellowed, “Come on, you lazy dogs! Hurry it up. Move! I said, move!”
His three men staggered and stumbled up the steep trail with agonizing slowness. The human wolves below them darted back and forth around the switchbacks. Cry after cry erupted and echoed through the trees.
Cord’s men betrayed their fear by scrambling up the slope, panting as they ran for their lives.
ON paper Zora Anderson was a statistic. A clichÉ, really. Single. Age thirty. African-American. College dropout. Failure. But in real life, Zora Anderson had a lot to offer. “I am a good person,” she would often remind herself. It was a mantra she used to lift her spirits when she contemplated all of the things she’d meant to do with her life and thus far hadn’t gotten around to. It was what she remembered as she walked down a quiet tree-lined street on a warm, sunny day in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and tried to prepare herself for what she was about to do. “I am a good person. I am a good person. I am a good person.” The phrase repeated and replayed like a network news ticker across her brain, giving her the courage to go through with her plan. If her parents knew what she was about to do, they would completely disown her, probably change the locks on the doors and spit on all of her photographs. But they wouldn’t know, she reminded herself, because she would never tell them. By the time they stopped being angry, she’d have moved on, and this thing, this job, would be over.
Zora had to believe that.
She knew the only reason she was applying for the position was because of Sondra. She promised Sondra that she’d sublet her apartment for a year while Sondra went off to begin her undergraduate education at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Sondra had been dreaming about going to Smith ever since she found out that the prestigious women’s college had a special program for old ladies—basically, anyone over age eighteen. At twenty-eight, Sondra fit the bill and had applied right away. But moving to Massachusetts didn’t mean she was willing to give up her tiny studio apartment in Fort Greene, because it was rent-controlled, and the landlord lived in Florida. In New York, that combination of coincidence was the equivalent of winning the lottery and then finding out you didn’t have to pay taxes on your loot.
Zora had promised Sondra back in the spring, when Sondra had gotten her acceptance letter from Smith, that she’d take the apartment. Back then she’d just been killing time at her parents’ house in Ann Arbor, waiting for something to happen in her life. Sondra’s offer was the perfect something: her own place, a big city, and all of the endless opportunities New York City offered a girl still trying to figure out what to do with her life. Or at the very least find a decent job. Even her parents thought it was a good idea for her to go. The problem was, Zora had been in New York for six weeks now, her cash reserves were disappearing fast, and she still hadn’t found a job. She owed Sondra, though, both money and immeasurable thanks. She’d practically saved Zora’s life back when they’d first met, so Zora wasn’t going to let her down now. She was going to convince Kate Carter to hire her, and then she could hand Sondra her first month’s rent just in time for her to chase her Ivy League dreams at the end of August.
Zora pulled the crumpled newspaper ad out of her skirt pocket and looked at it again.
It read: Substitute Me. Looking for a nanny who will take care of my six-month-old baby as if he were her own. Five full days a week. No cooking or cleaning required. Must love children and be prepared to show it. References required.
In the margins Zora had scribbled the address Kate had given her on the phone. Maybe she should call her Ms. Carter, Zora worried. The woman had seemed so formal, even though she didn’t sound that old. But you never knew. The women here in New York seemed to have children later and later. Sometimes Zora couldn’t tell if it was the mother or the grandmother pushing the stroller down the street. For all she knew, Kate Carter could be well into her forties, Zora thought as she started down Second Street. She was careful not to walk too fast, so she wouldn’t work up a sweat in the sticky summer heat. Even though she didn’t know her way around this area, it was easy enough to navigate. The layout was pretty basic: The streets ran north-south and the avenues east-west. Sondra claimed Park Slope had turned into a storybook neighborhood practically overnight, a place where the yuppies from Manhattan migrated when they were ready to start a family. The Carters’ house was supposed to be on Second Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues, so Zora quickly calculated she had three more blocks to walk while simultaneously trying to retard the perspiration process. That meant she had three more blocks to get her head straight for the interview.
Zora barely registered her surroundings—the imposing brownstone town houses with their perfect miniature gardens, cozy stone churches on almost every other corner, and tiny bodegas nestled between some of the houses—as she repeated her mantra, “I am a good person. I am a good person.” She didn’t know why she was so nervous. Probably because this Carter woman had sounded so intimidating. She had already grilled Zora over the phone, shooting off questions so quickly, Zora hardly had time to catch her breath between answers. By the time the interrogation was over, her heart was beating furiously and her hands were cold and clammy. She hadn’t felt that much performance anxiety since final-exam week in college. Thank God for Paris, she thought. When she mentioned to Kate that she’d been an au pair in France, she could hear relief and what sounded like approval in the woman’s voice. Kate had asked for the phone numbers of the families she’d worked for in France, and for a moment Zora had panicked. She couldn’t remember the numbers, and she didn’t want this woman to think she’d been lying about her experience working abroad. Even though Zora had spent four years in Paris, more and more of her memories were disappearing, along with her perfect French accent.
“Don’t worry about it,” Kate Carter had assured her. “You can bring the phone numbers with you to the interview.” So Zora spent ten of her last hundred dollars on a phone card so she could call Valerie in Paris and beg her to track down the phone numbers of the Larouxs and the Bertrands, the two families she’d worked for. Of course Valerie yelled at her for not calling more often, but she promised to help. Luckily, she’d called back the night before with the numbers and updates about the children Zora used to care for. “Hey, Zora,” Valerie had said before hanging up, “if you’re just going to be babysitting again, why don’t you come back to Paris to do it? Remember, everything—” Before she could finish, Zora interrupted. “I know. Everything sounds better in French. But I just needed to come home,” she said. Valerie snorted in response. Valerie had been in France for eight years and refused to come back to the United States until she was finished writing the definitive novel about the Black experience in Paris. She also needed to convince Ahmed, the Moroccan bartender, to fall madly in love with her before her mission would be complete. Zora didn’t think either of those things was going to happen anytime soon, but she wished Valerie good luck all the same before she hung up.
And it was true, Zora thought. Being an au pair in Europe had far more cachet than being a nanny in Brooklyn. Even her parents could get behind the idea of their daughter being an au pair in the cultural capital of the world, but they would both hang their heads in shame if they knew Zora was interviewing for a job that her ancestors had sacrificed their lives not to do. In Paris, it was a different game. She was learning a new language, visiting art museums, and traveling all over Europe. She had responsibilities taking care of two young children, so she’d been forced to learn how to be both efficient and resourceful in all things related to child rearing. She could whip up a dozen crepes in ten minutes flat, and she learned how to drive a stick shift in twenty-four hours so she could take the kids on field trips outside the city. Back then she had still been able to claim the title of “college student” on a journey toward finding herself. Back then she was testing her independence, exploring a new culture, and learning about life. Now, at age thirty, applying for the same job, she was an embarrassment and a disappointment to her family.
The numbers on the left side of the street were odd, so Zora crossed over to the right. She walked slowly down the block, tracking the addresses on the houses. The Carters’ address was 246 Second Street. Kate had said the house was in the middle of the block, but it actually sat two houses from the corner of Fifth Avenue. Sondra had explained that Fifth Avenue technically marked the border between Park Slope and no-man’s-land and that it could get kind of sketchy at night. Maybe Mrs. Carter didn’t want to admit that her house teetered on the edge of respectability, Zora thought. But it didn’t really matter, as far as Zora was concerned. People could invent their lives any way they wanted.
Standing in front of the Carters’ house, Zora tried to discern what type of people lived inside. Like most of the other houses on the block, their brownstone stood four stories high with a shiny black shingled roof. There was a separate entrance for the garden apartment on the lower level, and a tall flight of brown concrete stairs led to the front door, which, to Zora’s delight, was painted red. The front garden was smaller than her parents’ front porch back home in Michigan, but it was ablaze with colorful blossoms in tidy rows, a splendid pink rosebush taking center stage.
As Zora pushed open the iron gate, she noticed someone watching her from the garden apartment. As soon as she raised her hand to wave, the curtains abruptly shut and the face disappeared. Zora glanced down to see if there was something wrong with the way she was dressed for the interview. She had chosen a navy blue denim skirt that was neither long nor short, a kelly green polo shirt, and simple gold post earrings. She had deliberately chosen an outfit that would downplay her tiny waist and curvy lower half because everybody knew nannies should be asexual and nonthreatening. A single gold bangle bracelet graced her left wrist. The look she’d been going for was neutral and stable, qualities she thought a nanny should have. She hadn’t bothered to remove the tiny gold stud in her nose, despite its very nonneutral connotations, because most people didn’t notice it until at least the second or third time they met her. Also because it was such a pain to remove.
Zora climbed the twelve steps to the front door, recited her mantra one more time, and rang the bell. She waited only two seconds before the door sprang open and a tall, attractive White woman in khaki pants and a pale yellow button-down oxford stood before her.
“Hello,” she said. “You must be Zora.”
© 2010 Lori Tharps
Here’s a snippet from Mr. Darcy’s Secret when Elizabeth sees Lambton again.
Elizabeth Darcy looked out of the carriage window, her spirits in high flutter as they crossed the ancient stone bridge on the road into Lambton village. Nestled at the foot of a hill, on the western side of the river, a number of stone cottages, a church, and a few handsome buildings formed the landscape. Her eyes were drawn to the rich and romantic scenery of the place, enhanced in beauty by the noble appearance of wood-clad hills, wreathed in mist on this damp, November morning. She could not help but remember her first journey to Lambton, accompanied by her uncle and aunt Gardiner on their northern tour. How different had her feelings been in August when the trees had been lush with greenery, the sunshine dazzling her eyes and burnishing her skin to tones of golden brown. Elizabeth recalled her feelings of dread at the thought of being in near vicinity to that of Mr Darcy and how she had feared visiting Pemberley, the house that was now to be her home. She laughed out loud.
“Are you happy, dearest Elizabeth?” Mr Darcy enquired, taking her hand between both of his and raising it to his lips to kiss her fingertips tenderly.
“I am indeed, though happiness was not the emotion at the forefront of my mind just now. I was engaged on other, quite dreadful recollections, I must admit.”
Fitzwilliam Darcy’s brows knitted together in consternation. He studied Elizabeth’s countenance noting her expression which had suddenly changed to display a look so serious and grave that he could hardly bear to witness it. “I shall never forgive myself for the things I said to you in the past nor for the way in which I behaved. I only trust that in time I shall make sufficient amendment. My wish is to make you feel as I do, to have you love me as I love you. Please, Elizabeth, do not dwell on such bleak remembrances.”
Mrs Darcy turned her face toward him and, being unable to look anything other than completely amused, caused her husband to look searchingly into the dark, fine eyes, which he so admired. “You have clearly forgotten some of my philosophy. Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure.” Elizabeth paused, her curls trembling as she suppressed the mirth bubbling inside. “I am teasing you, Fitzwilliam. I am perfectly happy to dwell on the memories of my first trip into Derbyshire, even if my initial feelings were concerned with mortification and distress. When I first set eyes on Lambton village, I could not help but think of you, and knowing that your estate was but five miles from here, with the possibility of you being in residence, was enough to overturn all my feelings.”
© Jane Odiwe Mr. Darcy’s Secret Sourcebooks February 2011
MICHAEL--Lisa Renee Jones
The Zodius Series (Paranormal)
Available May 2011
Nevada’s AREA 51 was not only the subject of government conspiracy theories; it was now, officially, her new home. A good hour before sunrise, Cassandra Powell pulled into the military parking lot outside the launch pad leading to the top-secret underground facilities where the launch of the Project Zodius GTECH Super Soldier Program was a year under way. The ride from her new on-base housing had been a whopping three minutes, which considering the inhuman hours the military favored, she could deal with. The simplicity of a standard green army skirt and jacket—required despite her contract status—seemed to be working for her as well. The cardboard bed, not so much. It had, however, made a great desk for her laptop and all-night reading.
And considering she was only three days on the job—taking over for the former head of clinical psychology who’d transferred to another department—she had plenty of work to do. The prior department head hadn’t done one fourth of the studies that Cassandra deemed critical to properly evaluate these soldiers. And while the counseling aspect fell outside her clinical role, she wasn’t pleased with what was being offered. She’d certainly be nudging her way into that territory.
Files in hand, she exited her red Volkswagen Beetle, and pushed the door shut with a flick of her hip. She walked all of two steps when the wind whipped into high gear, fluttering her suit jacket at her hips and tearing to pieces the blonde knot tied at her nape.
She shoved at the loose locks of hair and drew to a shocked halt, blinking in disbelief as four men dressed in black fatigues materialized in a rush of hot August wind at the other side of the long parking lot next to the elevator. She drew a breath and forced it out, trying to calm the thunder of her heart pounding her chest. Apparently she wasn’t quite as prepared for the phenomenon of GTECH Super Soldiers as she’d thought she was. Or at least not this thing her piles of paperwork referred to as “wind-walking.” It was one thing to be inhumanly strong and fast, even to be immune to human disease, but to be able to travel with the wind was downright spooky—and suddenly, so was the dark parking lot as the four men disappeared into the elevator.
Eager to get inside, Cassandra started walking, but made it all of two steps before another man appeared beside the elevator, this time with no wind as warning. Good grief, she hadn’t read about that stealthy little trick yet. Special Forces soldiers were already called lethal weapons, but these men, this one in particular, were taking it to a whole new level.
Still a good distance away from the building, Cassandra slowed her pace, hoping to go unnoticed, but she wasn’t so lucky. The soldier punched the elevator button and then turned and waved her forward. Oh no. No. No. Not ready to meet anyone yet. Not until she had a few of her ducks in a row. Cassandra quickly juggled her files and snagged her cell from her purse as an excuse to decline joining him, holding it up, and waving him off. He hesitated a few moments as the doors opened before he finally stepped inside and disappeared.
Cassandra started walking instantly, determined to get to the darned elevator before another soldier appeared. By the time she was inside, she had her file on wind-walking open—a good distraction from the entire underground, bomb-shelter-style workplace that made her more than a little uneasy.
Absorbed in her reading, head down, Cassandra darted out of the elevator the instant it opened, only to run smack into a rock-hard chest. She gasped, paperwork flew everywhere, and strong hands slid around her arms, steadying her from a fall. It was then that she looked up to find herself staring into the most gorgeous pair of crystal blue eyes she’d ever seen in her life.
She swallowed hard and noticed his long raven hair tied at the back of his neck, rather than the standard buzz cut—a sure indicator he was Special Ops. He could be one of the two hundred GTECH soldiers stationed at the base. A Wind-walker, she thought, still in awe of what she’d seen above ground.
“I’m sorry. I wasn’t watching where I was…” She lost the final word, her mouth dry as she suddenly realized her legs were pressed intimately to his desert fatigues, and her conservative, military-issue skirt had managed to work its way halfway up her thigh. “Oh!”
She quickly took a step backwards, righting her skirt in a flurry of panicked movement. Three days on the job, and already she was putting on a show. She pressed her hand to her forehead. “I know better than to read while walking. I hope I didn’t hurt you.” He arched a dark brow as her gaze swept all six-foot- plus of incredibly hot man, all lethal muscle and mayhem, and knew that was unlikely. She laughed at the ridiculous statement, feeling uncharacteristically nervous. She was five four in her bare feet—well, on her tip toes—and she bet this man towered over her by nearly a foot. “Okay. I didn’t hurt you. But, well, I’m still sorry.”
He stared down at her, his gaze steady, unblinking, the chiseled lines of high cheekbones and a square jaw, expressionless. Except deep in those strikingly blue eyes, she saw a tiny flicker of what she thought was amusement. “I’m not sorry,” he said, bending down to pick up her files.
She blinked at the odd response, tilting her head and then bending down to face him. “What do you mean?” she asked, a lock of her blonde hair falling haphazardly across her brow, free from the clip that was supposed to be holding it in place. “You’re not sorry?”
He gathered the last of her files, then said, “I’m not sorry you ran into me. Have coffee with me.”
It wasn’t a question. In fact, it almost bordered on an order. And damn, if she didn’t like the way he gave that near order. Her heart fluttered at the unexpected invitation. “I don’t know if that is appropriate,” she said, thinking of her new position. She stalled. “I don’t even know your name.”
The elevator behind them dinged open, and Kelly Peterson, assistant director of science and medicine for Project Zodius, appeared. “You’re early, Cassandra,” she said, amusement lifting her tone. “Morning, Michael.” She continued on her way, as if she found nothing significant, or abnormal, about Cassandra being sprawled across the hallway floor with a hot soldier by her side.
Cassandra popped to her feet, appalled she’d made such a spectacle of herself. Her sexy Special Ops soldier followed. “Now you know my name,” he said, and this time, his firm, way-too-tempting mouth hinted at a lift. Not a smile, a lift. God… it was sexy. “Michael Taylor.”
“Cassandra,” she said, unable to say the last name, dreading it more with this man than with the many others she’d been introduced to in the past few days. What was she supposed to say? Hi. I’m the daughter of the man who changed your life forever by injecting you with alien DNA without telling you first, and then claimed it was to save you from an enemy biological threat? Now you’re a GTECH Super Soldier for what we think is the rest of your life, but who knows what that really means long-term for you. But hey, I promise I’m one of the good guys, here to ensure you aren’t used and abused just because you’re a macho, kickass, secret government weapon? And did I mention I’m nothing like my father?
“Cassandra Powell,” he said, handing her the files, leaning close, the warmth of his body blanketing her in sizzling awareness. “I know who you are. And no, that doesn’t scare me away. I never run away from anything I want.” He leaned back, fixing her in another one of those dreamy blue stares. “So how about that coffee?”
She nearly swallowed her tongue at his directness, but, a true general’s daughter, she managed to recover quickly, remembering her duty in a painfully responsible fashion. “I… don’t think that’s a good idea.”
He studied her a moment before stepping into the now open elevator doors. “I’ll ask again,” he said as he turned to face her. She found herself lost in those addictive crystal blue eyes—eyes that had promised nothing, but somehow, promised everything—until the steel doors shut between them.
Cassandra inhaled, the scent of him still lingering in the air, and she bit her bottom lip. Too bad she’d sworn off soldiers years ago, because he was one heck of a man. Oh yeah, he was. But she’d seen her mother fret and worry over a man who was gone too often and might never return, right up to the day she’d died two years before, and Cassandra already had her father to worry about. So why was she wondering when he would “ask again”?
Fee had been the one to tell her that revelation, and advise her to hide pills under her tongue and spit them out later. Just as Fee had been the only one who believed the creatures Moira saw and heard were real, not some sickness in her mind.
This go round, Moira had been far wiser to the doctors and nurses and their ways, and she’d only been forced to stay three months. The fact that her sister had visited almost every Sunday afternoon, her day off, helped too.
But Fee was gone now, far away across the pond in the city of Philadelphia, and Moira was back in County Armagh on the old homestead – the place of her torment. As she emptied her battered old satchel and put her few things away in the single bureau, she gazed out the only small window in the attic room.
Outside beyond the ragged edge of the back yard and the weed choked meadow lay the misty expanse of the fens. The thickly overgrown brush and gnarled trees that obscured the shores of Lough Neagh seemed to beckon to her, at the same time enticing and sinister. People in the village whispered tales about the fens, of strange goings on and how some folks who went in never came out.
How many times had Mum told her and Fee that the fens were dangerous? That they shouldn’t play there? But of course they did anyway. And when she was thirteen, Moira discovered the creatures from another realm lived there. Strange, beautiful and wild beings that appeared for her alone. Her mistake had been talking about them.
She knew it would only be a matter of time before she succumbed to their siren call, and the madness that awaited her within them would send her back to the hated, sterile confines of the sanitarium.
Nine days later, she first saw the new apparition. Mum and Da went off on their usual Saturday shopping expedition, and Moira elected to stay home alone.
Though Mum looked worried, Da actually took Moira’s side. “She’s not a wee lass any more, Mary,” he scolded. “You don’t need her right by your side every waking moment.”
He’d given Moira a wink behind her mother’s back when they climbed into the ancient farm truck that was their only means of transportation. With hearty calls of “Be home for tea!” they rumbled off in a cloud of dust.
The day was far too fine to stay inside ironing, so a couple of hours later, Moira slipped her little yellow transistor radio into her apron pocket and went outside to simply enjoy the sweet autumn sunshine. Even if she felt relief at coming and going as she pleased, she did feel oddly alone after the constant voices and presence of the staff and patients in the sanitarium. Not that she missed the place, far from it!
She missed her sister.
On the radio, the Beatles crooned about “…please me like I please you…” and she sang along. But by the end of the song, the signal was fading. She turned the radio off and wished she’d asked Mum to pick up new batteries while she and Da were out.
As she slid the radio back into her pocket, her fingers brushed over Fiona’s letter. Moira had already read it more than once. In fact, she’d given Mum her reply to mail in the village today. But she walked over to the stump at the edge of the yard to read the letter yet another time.
Something about the letter wasn’t right. It wasn’t so much the things Fee wrote, but more like what she hadn’t. Moira couldn’t shake an uneasy feeling that not all was well.
However, she also knew Fee wouldn’t say anything for fear of worrying Mum and Da.
The thin onion-skin paper rattled like the waxy stuff wrapped around the fancy scones that came from the village bakery. Moira smoothed the folded sheets across her lap and read Fee’s sprawling script, heard her voice in the written words as she described the crazy city traffic all going in the wrong direction. The Richardsons had a brand new Lincoln Town Car and Mrs. Richardson intended to buy herself a car too, as soon as she found one to her liking.
Moira closed her eyes and imagined what it must be like to be so rich you owned two new cars and a fine house so big that your three children each had a bedroom and the nanny had one too. While she pictured the lovely wall-papered room Fee had described, the sound of childish laughter invaded Moira’s daydream. Her eyes popped open and she scanned the brushy border of the fens, catching a glimpse of a white figure.
“Who’s there?” Moira cried, shoving the letter back into her pocket and jumping to her feet.
The fens could be a dangerous place for a child, full of boggy spots and stickery piles of brambles, as Mum had never failed to tell her. But as Moira crossed the over-grown expanse of the meadow and drew closer to the fens, she heard the giggling again. A scrap of doubt tugged at her mind, making her hesitate. Something about the sound wasn’t childish. Or even human.
While she paused, the being came into view. Small as a child of nine or ten and clad in a long gown of gauzy white, the girl’s golden hair streamed behind her, strands of it braided around bird feathers or woven into bits of metal or bright colored beads. Her skin was almost the same shade as her hair, like rich honey, and when she stopped to regard Moira, her dark eyes shone with the same flecks of gold.
One of the fae, Moira guessed, and the most exquisite wee thing she’d ever seen.
“You can see me as well as hear me, can you not?” asked the small woman. The proud way she stood and the commanding tone she used were not the least bit childlike.
Moira nodded mutely and twisted her hands into her apron. ‘Twas not the first time she’d seen and even spoken to other-worldly creatures, though never before had one been so bold in approaching her. Nor so beautiful.