Book Excerpt: To the Breaking Pointe by Cindy McDonald

To the Breaking Pointe 2Title: To the Breaking Pointe
Author: Cindy McDonald
Publisher: Acorn Book Services
Pages: 250
Genre: Romantic Suspense
Format: Paperback/Kindle

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Pushed to the breaking pointe!

Five years ago First Force operative, Grant Ketchum, let the ballerina of his dreams dance right of his life. Silja Ramsay returned to her birthplace, Russia, to take the position of principal dancer for the Novikov Ballet Company.

The owner and director of the ballet company, Natalia Novikov, has a dark secret: her beloved ballet company is almost broke. Natalia forces her dancers to prostitute themselves to financial contributors at exclusive after-show parties. Silja has been exempt and kept in the dark about the parties—until an American financier offers to bail the failing ballet company out. His prerequisite: Silja must become his personal companion, live in his home, and fulfill his every desire. Against her will, Silja is taken to the American’s mansion, but before she goes she manages to send a text to the only man who can save her, Grant: HELP!

Now Grant is on a mission to find his lost ballerina and rescue her from this powerful man’s subjugation. He will do anything to get her out alive. If they survive, will he let her chasse out of his life again?

Book Excerpt:

“Where is Silja?” Ballard Crafton asked Natalia as he searched the reception room in the basement of the theatre. The room wasn’t particularly large, yet it was quite elegant with red velvet swags hung in the archways, gilded crown moldings, and crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. A bar was set up in one corner while a violinist played softly in another. The room was filled with men, a few older women, and most of the dancers from the Novikov Ballet Company. Only one dancer in particular was missing… Silja Ramsay.

Natalia picked up her glass of wine from the bar. “Silja is not ready to attend our little soiree yet. She hasn’t been informed of my… financial situation.”

Ballard pulled a bracelet from his suit jacket. “Silja doesn’t like diamonds?” Natalia huffed at the sight of the bracelet that she thought she had convinced Silja to keep. He continued, “She had this returned to me by messenger this afternoon. Doesn’t she…don’t you understand just how wealthy I am?”

Natalia took a sip of her cabernet. “She still believes in love, Ballard—“

“I am in love with her!” he bellowed.

Taken aback by the sudden outburst, the crowd hushed, looking in their direction. Natalia forced a laugh, waving her hands carelessly at the crowd. She spoke to them in Russian, “Mingle, mingle, get to know our beautiful dancers.” With hesitant glances at Ballard, the crowd returned to their conversations. The women in attendance ran their hands up and down the male dancers’ muscled arms, while the men flirted mercilessly with the ballerinas.

“You told me that she would be here tonight, Natalia.” Ballard said, more hushed.

“As always, there are plenty of lovely ballerinas here to choose from this evening, Ballard. Forget Silja for now. I will keep working to make her come around. She still… how do you say… pines for another.”

“Who?”

“I do not know this. Be patient. Pick another for this evening. Here…” Natalia gestured to the bartender. He retrieved a box from behind the bar. Natalia took the box and offered it to Ballard. Lifting a brow, she said, “You may have first pick tonight, yes?”

“No. I am tired of spending time with ballerinas that I don’t want. I only fantasize that she is Silja. I want Silja!” Ballard said.

Natalia set the box on the bar. Slowly she dragged her gaze to meet his. He was like a spoiled child who had not received the gift that he desired on Christmas morning. No, he was worse—much worse. Finally she decided to put Ballard Crafton in his place. “I am quite aware of what it is that you want, Ballard. But I must wonder…will Silja meet the same fate as your other lovers?” His eyes widened in raw indignation, except Natalia did not allow his glare to dissuade her. “The opera singer from New York who no longer sings—instead she sits in a home with head injuries so severe that she can barely speak, or the concert pianist whose fingers are now crippled from the hammer that was used on them? What could these women have done to make you so angry, Ballard? What kind of monster lies within? I am desperate to save The Novikov Ballet Company, this is true. But I won’t let you destroy a beautiful dancer in her prime. How do you Americans say…we understand each other, yes?”

Ballard’s hands curled into fists of righteous agitation. The red flush started above the Armani tie that he wore around his neck and crept to his cheeks. He spun on his heels and marched out of the gathering.

Letting out a relieved breath, Natalia looked into the box which was filled with pointe shoes. Each shoe had the signature of the dancer from the Novikov Company to whom it had belonged. Her nerves tightened the knot in her stomach and shame swelled in her chest. She took another long drink of the wine, and then she managed a faux smile for the crowd, who anxiously anticipated the beginning of the evening’s event.

Natalia called out in Russian, “Who will be first to choose a pair of shoes tonight?” She held the box up high, shaking it. “Edvar! Where is Edvar?”

From the far corner of the room the ballet company’s dance instructor and choreographer, Edvar Kozlovski, brushed his fingers through ballet dancer Dominik Potrovic’s hair. After a whispered promise of return, he raised his hand calling back in their native Russian, “Here I am! Are you ready, Natalia?”

The crowd buzzed with excitement. The dancers exchanged nervous glances. All eyes were on Natalia. She said, “Yes! Who is our highest bidder this evening? Who will get first pick of the shoes?”

Edvar fished a paper from the pocket of his jacket, and then he announced, “Ballard Crafton!”

Everyone searched the room waiting for Ballard to come forward to choose a shoe for his evening of sultry delight, with the ballerina whose name was on the shoe.

Natalia shook her head. “No. He had to leave. Who is the second?”

Edvar squinted in a big show of reading the next name on the list. He proclaimed, “Belsky!”

From the back of the crowd, a tubby man merrily trotted forward to where Natalia stood. He could barely contain his excitement. He danced in place from one foot to the other. The ballerinas were now exchanging curled lips of derision hoping that he would not pull their shoe from the box.

He wiggled his fingers in anticipation of what lovely, well-toned ballerina would be his for the night. Belsky reached into the box and snatched a pair of worn European pink pointe shoes. The crowd tensed waiting for a name to be called as he handed the shoe to Natalia.

“Anna Antkowiak!” Natalia called out. The young girl from Poland shoulders drooped. Her face dropped. She was the newest member of the company. She hadn’t signed on for this. She had heard whispers among the dancers that Natalia’s ballet company was almost broke and about the after-performance requirements: prostituting the dancers for contributions to keep the ballet company above water. Tonight was her fist time to be summoned by Natalia to the contributors’ party. She could barely breathe as she watched Belsky’s eyes scanning the crowd for her.

Locking eyes with the innocent girl, Natalia crooked her index finger at the ballerina to come forward to claim her date. Trepidation filled Anna’s face. Her stomach twisted into a tangle of knots as she looked at the other dancers, who silently urged her to do as Natalia requested. When Anna suddenly noticed the bulge in Belsky’s trousers, she kept her head bowed, as she slowly crept through the crowd. Belsky grabbed her by the hand to hurry her out the door.

Natalia clapped her hands. “Another happy contributor to the Novikov Ballet Company! I’m sure Anna will make his night!” She shook the box again. “Who will be next to choose, Edvar?”

 

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First Chapter Reveal: Meet Me in Barcelona by Mary Carter

Meet Me in Barcelona 2Title: Meet Me in Barcelona
Author: Mary Carter
Publisher: Kensington
Pages: 352
Genre: Mainstream fiction
Format: Paperback/Kindle/MP3 CD, Audiobook, MP3 Audo, Unabridged

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A surprise trip to Barcelona with her boyfriend, Jake, seems like the perfect antidote to Grace Sawyer’s current woes. The city is dazzling and unpredictable, but the biggest surprise for Grace is discovering who arranged and paid for the vacation.

Carrie Ann wasn’t just Grace’s foster sister. Clever, pretty, and mercurial, she was her best friend—until everything went terribly wrong. Now, as she flees an abusive marriage, Carrie Ann has turned to the one person she hopes will come through for her. Despite her initial misgivings, Grace wants to help. But then Carrie Ann and Jake both go missing. Stunned and confused, Grace begins to realize how much of herself she’s kept from Jake—and how much of Carrie Ann she never understood. Soon Grace is baited into following a trail of scant clues across Spain, determined to find the truth, even if she must revisit her troubled past to do it.

Mary Carter’s intriguing novel delves into the complexities of childhood bonds, the corrosive weight of guilt and blame, and all the ways we try—and often fail—to truly know the ones we love.

First Chapter:

Grace Sawyer had never believed in magic, or miracles for that matter, but that didn’t mean a girl couldn’t pray for a little bit of both. She’d been praying a lot lately. She stepped into her mother’s hospice room and crinkled her nose as the scent of SpaghettiOs and Lysol washed over her. She glanced at her mom’s bedside table. Sure enough, sitting too close to the edge was a chipped brown bowl overflowing with SpaghettiOs, paired with an industrial-sized bottle of Lysol. Grace hesitated. Processed food in a can and industrial-sized cleaners were just the kind of things that could trigger an emotional avalanche inside her. This wasn’t what life should come to in the end. It wasn’t right. If replacing those bits with yellow roses and a nice roast dinner would have changed a single thing about this horrific situation, Grace would have done it lightning quick. This was her mother. The woman who had taken care of everybody else her entire life. Who had opened her heart to homeless, damaged children. She deserved more. But strangely, Lysol and SpaghettiOs were two items Jody Sawyer had insisted on lately. Grace had to fight her instincts, her primal desire to make everything nice, and instead keep each visit as pleasant as possible. She smiled even though neither of her parents had noticed her yet.

Her mother was wide-awake, eyes glued to the television in the corner where a soap opera blared. Before she had moved into this facility, Jody had never watched a soap opera in her life. She wouldn’t have been caught dead eating SpaghettiOs either. The Lysol, on the other hand, was familiar. Grace’s mother had spent her entire life within an arm’s reach of it. Most likely the product of having a revolving door of foster children. Where were they now? Not a single kid from the past had come to visit Grace’s mother. After all she’d done for them. It made Grace rage inside, but her mother hadn’t complained about it once.

Her father, Jim, sat next to the bed on his favorite recliner from home. Jim had put up quite a fuss to get them to allow it in the room, and he was extremely proud of the accomplishment. “I put up my dukes!” he’d say with a grin. Then he’d pump his fists in the air. He’d been practically living here since the doctor had given them the latest grim diagnosis. Grace couldn’t help but think it was probably a welcome relief for her father’s patients. Her father was a psychotherapist, and although he was insightful, Grace had always thought he was a tad too prying. Then again, maybe that was the whole point of going to a shrink. Baring your deepest, darkest secrets. It was Grace’s idea of a worst nightmare. “Hi, Dad,” Grace walked over and planted a kiss on her father’s cheek. He looked almost as thin as her mother. He lowered his newspaper and took off his reading glasses. “Well, hello there, Graceful.”

“How is she?”

“In and out.”

Grace nodded and slowly approached her mother’s bed. “Mom?”

Her mother’s eyes didn’t leave the television set. “Oh, hello,” Jody Sawyer said. “Are you the cleaning lady?”

“Like I said,” her father said. “In and out.”

“It’s me, Mom. I’m your daughter, Grace.”

“My daughter doesn’t clean,” Jody said.

“She’s got that right, “ Jim said.

Grace burst out laughing, then quickly tried to squelch it with a cough. Jody Sawyer pointed to the television and shook her head. She wanted them to be quiet. Grace looked at her father.

“Why don’t you wait for a commercial?” he said. He patted the folding chair next to him. Grace sat. “How was your day, sweetheart?”

Grace reached into her bag and removed two McDonald’s bags. She handed one to her father. He grasped the bag in one hand and squeezed her hand with the other like she’d brought him champagne and caviar. “Actually pretty wild,” she said. “I have news.”

“Do you mind?” her father said.

“Go right ahead.”

He unwrapped his Big Mac and took a bite. “Mm-mmm,” he said. He looked blissful. Grace wanted to bury her face in her sleeve and sob. SpaghettiOs and soap operas, and Mickey D’s? Didn’t they know they deserved better? They were from such a humble generation. Not like the entitled kids of today. Her parents were simple and good people. Let them enjoy what they enjoy. No use forcing kale or tofu burgers on her father now. Grace forced another smile, then reached into the second bag and handed him a napkin.

He winked at her and dabbed his mouth. Then his eyes went to her ring finger. “Did the boy finally pop the question?”

Grace laughed and stretched out her hand in front of her as if examining it for the first time. She hardly ever wore rings or bracelets; they got in the way of playing the guitar. Maybe now she would start. She would wear silver rings with semi-precious gems, like amber, and big chunky bracelets. Maybe even grow her nails and paint them pink. Was that a good enough trade for giving up on her dream? Grace slipped her hands under her legs as if she could shut out making any decisions by sitting on them. “Not yet. But you’re never going to believe this–”

The soap opera went to commercial. A jingle for car insurance came on. “Gracie Ann!” her mother said. She smiled and opened her arms as if Grace had just walked into the room.

“Hi, Mom.” Grace got up and hugged her mother. She felt so frail and tiny in Grace’s arms. Grace could probably pick her up and carry her around the room without breaking a sweat. Not fair, God! Not fair. “You didn’t eat your lunch,” Grace said, glancing at the SpaghettiOs.

“She insisted on them,” her father said.

“I ate ten Os,” her mother said. “I couldn’t possibly eat more than ten Os. I have to watch my figure.”

“If you stuck her in the middle of a cornfield, crows would land on her,” her father said with his mouth full of burger.

“You’re not far behind, Dad,” Grace said.

“Just how we wanted to spend our golden years. Hanging out in a farmer’s field like a couple of straw men,” her father mused in between bites.

Anything would be better than this place, Grace thought. She wished she could bring her parents to a beautiful field at the height of autumn. Give them trees with leaves on fire, and hay that shone like gold underneath an afternoon sun. Give them the smell of apples and the embrace of a warm wind.

“You look beautiful, Grace,” her mother said. Jody Sawyer reached up with a trembling hand and touched the pearls around Grace’s neck. “Is it your birthday?”

“In a few weeks, Mom.”

“Happy birthday, darling.”

“Thank you.”

“How old are you now? Thirteen?”

“I’m turning thirty,” Grace said. “How are you feeling?”

“I’m all better now, Gracie. I can go home now.” Jody Sawyer looked at her husband Jim, as if expecting him to start packing up the room.

“I don’t think today, Mom,” Grace said. Or ever. As much as she tried to shut it out, Grace could hear the doctor’s voice in her head in a constant loop. Maybe a month, six months at the most, we can’t say for sure. All we can do now is make her comfortable.

Make her comfortable? Was there any comfort in knowing you had six months, maybe one?

“Gracie said she has some news,” Jim said.

Her mother clasped her hands under her chin. “I love news,” she said. “And fries,” she called to her husband.

Grace nodded at her father. He picked up the second bag, then passed it up to Jody. It was odd. If Grace gave her the fries before she asked for them, her mother wouldn’t touch them. If Grace waited until Jody voiced a desire for them, Jody ate every single one. Just one of the little mysteries of dementia. What a double whammy. The doctors weren’t sure if fighting off the cancer had brought on the problems with her memory, or if she would’ve been hit with it anyway. There were just no two ways about it; life could be extremely cruel. “Give us the news,” her father said. “Hurry before her show comes back. We’re not allowed to talk during Days of Our Lives.”

“Jake won an all-expense-paid trip to Barcelona,” Grace said.

“Well, I’ll be,” Jim said. “How’d he do that?”

“The veterinarian group had some sort of a raffle,” Grace said. “But Jake didn’t even enter.”

“He won a raffle he didn’t even enter?”

“Dan went to one of the conferences without Jake and entered for him.” Dan was Jake’s partner at the animal hospital. He and Jake were like brothers.

“That was mighty nice of him.”

“But we feel guilty. Dan could have taken the trip himself.”

“I’m sure he filled out an entry for himself as well as Jake.”

“True.”

“And Jake won. Seems fair to me.”

“But we would be leaving Dan to run the clinic all by himself, and he’d even have to watch Stella.” Stella was the best English bulldog a couple could ever ask for. If she could, Grace would take Stella to Spain. Stella was a hit wherever they went due to her prowess on a skateboard.

“Well, isn’t that special.” Jim slapped his knee. “Jody did you hear that? Gracie and Jake won a trip to Spain.”

He had entirely missed the point that they felt guilty that Dan would be getting the short end of the stick. It made her wonder how often he misunderstood his patients.

“That’s wonderful, dear,” Jody said. Her eyes traveled back to the television.

“I’m not going,” Grace said.

“What do you mean?” her father said.

“There’s a catch.” There always was.

“You have to pay for your hotel?”

“No, it’s all paid for.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“The dates are set in stone. We’d have to go at the end of next week.”

“So?”

“It’s a ten-day trip. I don’t want to leave Mom for that long.”

“Nonsense,” her father said. “You have to go.”

“I’d be gone for my birthday.”

The soap opera was back. Jody snatched up the remote and aimed it at the television like she was holding it up at gunpoint.

Grace’s father patted her knee. “We’ll celebrate with you when you get back, kiddo. Take it from me, kiddo—life’s too short not to take free trips.” Jody glared at Jim and pressed on the volume until it was almost deafening. A few seconds later, there was a series of soft knocks on the wall behind her bed.

“Sorry, Mrs. Maple,” her father called out. “You have to turn it down, dear.”

“That old bitch,” her mother said. In all Grace’s years growing up, with all the strange boys tearing through the house, and fighting, and even through the whole Carrie Ann ordeal, Grace had never heard her mother curse, let alone direct it at somebody. Jody turned the volume down a smidge and pointed at the television. “He’s the one I like,” she exclaimed. There was a tall man, visible only in silhouette behind a flimsy shower curtain. “They think he’s Flo’s long-lost brother, but actually he’s just escaped from prison where he was convicted of murdering his second wife. Or is it his third? I can’t remember. Second or third wife, take your pick. It’ll come to me. Darn tootin’ he’s totally innocent, but I know that Flo. She’s going to be sniffing around his tight buns like a hound dog short of a bone. Second. Definitely second wife.”

Grace and her father looked at the television. The naked man stepped out of the shower, surrounded by steam. All you could see were his six-pack abs and bulging biceps. Grace supposed they wanted you to imagine something else bulging. This was definitely soft-core porn for women. Tan, and slick, and ripped, and glistening, he didn’t seem to be in any hurry to pick up a towel. He walked up to the bathroom mirror, reached up, and wiped away the condensation. Soon, his gorgeous face came into view. Grace had to stifle a laugh as he began to touch his cheekbones like a blind man trying to see what he looked like. “Isn’t it awful?” Jody said. “Pretending to be someone else? When all he wants to do is search for his wife’s real killer.”

Grace raised an eyebrow at her father. He looked down at his stomach, and in doing so dripped a thick glob of ketchup onto his fraying cardigan. “Didn’t even look like that when we got married,” Jim said.

“I think he must have had plastic surgery after his prison break,” Jody continued. “That’s why he doesn’t recognize himself!”

Jim Sawyer watched his wife with a smile and a shake of the head. “You wouldn’t leave her for ten days,” Grace said to her father.

“They sure did a pretty good job on him though, don’t you think?” Jody said. Based on where her mother was looking you’d think he’d had plastic surgery on his crotch.

“If Jake wants some old man tripping along with him, just say the word and I’ll pack my bags,” Jim said.
Jody glanced at Jim. He winked at her. She smiled back. Then she turned a smile on Grace. It was actually the first genuine smile Grace had seen out of her mother in a week. “You have to go, Carrie Ann.”

Carrie Ann. The words felt like two gunshots to the chest. Just hearing that name come out of her mother’s mouth made Grace’s heart start tripping. She almost shot out of her chair. “I’m Grace,” she said. “Gracie Ann.” Her voice cracked. “Dad?” she said.

“She’s confused, honey. The past and the present, it’s just one big, ugly glob.” Pinpricks of shame began forming at the base of Grace’s spine.

“I’m not confused,” Jody said. “Carrie Ann came to visit me.”

“My God,” Grace said. This time she did shoot out of her chair. Carrie Ann was the only girl foster child the Sawyers had ever taken in. At first she had been like a sister to Grace.

“Who is she married to now?” Jody said. “I can’t remember.”

“Pay no attention to her, Gracie,” Jim said.

“Why can’t I remember?” Jody pressed on her temples with her index fingers, as if she could squeeze the memory out of her head.

Grace took a step toward her mother. “When did she come and visit you, Mom?”

“Grace, I told you she didn’t,” Jim said. “Don’t egg your mother on.”

“I’m not egging her on, Dad, but if Carrie Ann was here, I want to know about it.”

Her father whacked his newspaper on the side of his chair. “I told you she wasn’t! And I should know. I’ve been sitting right here!”

“She’s still such a pretty girl,” Jody said. “She asked about you, Grace. She asked me all sorts of questions about you.”

Jim got up and threw up his arms. “She’s out of her mind!” He began to pace.

“Dad,” Grace said. “Hush.” Her mother suddenly became very still, which meant she was listening. Grace took her father by his arm and led him back to his chair.

“I’m sorry. She won’t remember me saying it.”

“That’s not the point.”

“I can’t help it. Carrie Ann this; Carrie Ann that. I thought we’d put that nuisance behind us for once and for all. Is this what it comes to? Reliving your worst nightmare?”

“I’ve never heard you speak so harshly about Carrie Ann,” Grace said. Her mom was the one who used to say the worst things about Carrie Ann. She said Carrie Ann was evil. She said Carrie Ann was a curse that would follow all of them to their graves. Once she had even said there wasn’t enough Lysol in the world to get rid of that stain. And each insult had cut into Grace like her mother was saying it about her. Her sister. Of sorts. Her own Dickens-like drama. Carrie Ann was the best thing that had ever happened to Grace, and she was the worst. She’d been out of their lives for nearly fifteen years. And Grace had spent every one of them trying, and failing, to put the past behind her. She turned to her father.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Tell you what?”

“That Mom’s been talking about her.”

“Because I don’t want to dredge up all that nonsense. It’s her damn medication. I keep telling the doctor it’s making her worse, and he won’t listen to me.” Her father slammed his fist on the arm of the chair. “These people think just because we’re old that we’re stupid. She wouldn’t be so forgetful if she cut down on some of those pills. How do I know that? Because she’s my wife. Because I’ve been married to this woman for forty-four years. You know what he said to me?”

“Who?”

“That snot-nosed doctor, that’s who!”

“What did he say?”

“Put me in my place. In front of my wife. ‘You’re a psychotherapist, correct? Not a psychiatrist? You don’t prescribe medication?’ That’s what the snot-nosed so-called doctor actually said to me. Can you believe that? Some twenty-year-old who just started wiping his own ass. I’m telling you she’s on too many pills! Makes her soupy. He won’t listen to me!”

“It’s okay, Dad. Calm down. It’s okay.”

“I can’t bear hearing her talk about Carrie Ann. Your mother’s the one who told us never to mention Carrie Ann’s name again.”

Forbid us. Forbid us to ever mention her name again. “I know, Dad. I’ll talk to the doctor. Calm down.”

“I always wanted to go to Spain,” Jody said. She turned off the television and patted the side of the bed. So she’d heard and understood the conversation. God, the brain was a mysterious thing.
Grace went over and sat down. “You never told me that.”

“I would hardly share that with a stranger.”

I’m your daughter! She wanted to shout. But her mother couldn’t help it.

“Just keep talking,” her father said. “At least she’s not dredging up ghosts, or drooling over naked stud muffins.”

And now Grace couldn’t believe her father had just said “naked stud muffins.” Maybe getting away for a bit wasn’t such a bad idea. Grace turned back to her mother. “Why did you always want to go to Spain?”

“My mother went to Spain. All by herself. When she was in her seventies.”

“I know,” Grace said. It had been just after Grace’s grandfather had died. Her grandparents were supposed to take the trip together. Everyone thought Annette Jennings would cancel the trip.

Instead, she buried her husband and packed her bags. Little Annette who had never been outside of her home state. Grace had had many conversations with her grandmother about that trip. She was proud of her too.

“It was really something,” Jim said. “Because in those days seventy wasn’t the new fifty or whatever the kids say today. Seventy was seventy.”

“Tell me about it,” Grace said.

Jody Sawyer straightened up, and her eyes seemed to take in more light. “Well, it’s not like it is now. Women didn’t travel alone back then. Wasn’t that brave? My mother sent me a postcard from Madrid of a beautiful tango dancer in a red dress. The dress was made of actual material—beautiful red silk right on the postcard. I’ll never forget it. She’d only written one sentence on the back. ‘Robert would’ve loved the landing.’ My father was very picking with landings and always impressed when the pilot pulled off a smooth one. Anyway. As soon as I got that postcard I knew my mother was going to be all right. ‘Robert would have loved the landing.’ After she died I spent hours just touching that silky red dress with the tips of my fingers and imagining my mother dancing in the streets of Spain.”

Jody Sawyer looked up and swayed her upper body slightly as if watching her faraway self dance. Then she looked down at her hands, twisting the bed sheet. “Look how ugly and wrinkled I am now.”

“You’re not ugly and wrinkled, Mom. You’re beautiful.”

“I wish I had that postcard now.” Her mother looked up into space. “I lost it.”

Grace hesitated. Did she, or didn’t she? Grace opened the bedside drawer and took out the postcard. Her mother was right. The dress was silky. Grace handed it to her mother and watched her eyes light up. Next her mother gently outlined the edge of the dancer’s dress with the trembling tip of her right index finger. Her fingernail was misshapen, the peach paint flaking. Grace would have to see if they could bring in a manicurist.

Jody looked at Grace, her eyes clear and bright. “Gracie Ann you have to go. Film everything. I’m dying to see Barcelona through you.” Grace must have looked stricken, for her mother laughed and then put her hand over her heart. “Sorry, no pun intended.” Like antennas being manipulated for a clearer signal, sometimes her mother tuned in perfectly. Jody Sawyer laughed again, and Grace couldn’t help but laugh with her.

“Mom.”

“Make me feel like I’m there,” Jody said, closing her eyes. “Help me shut out this hospice. Let me see beautiful Barcelona.” She took Grace’s hand and held it. “Do it for me. I’ll feel like I’m with you. Bring a camera. And your guitar,” she added. “You never know.” When Grace still didn’t answer, her mother opened her eyes, and lifted Grace’s chin up with her hand like she used to do when Grace was a child. “Be brave, Gracie Ann. Just like my mother.”

“Like my mother too,” Grace whispered back.

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Interview with James Ryan Daley, author of ‘Jesus Jackson’

Originally posted on The Dark Phantom Review:

JRD1James Ryan Daley is a writer, editor, and digital designer. After earning an MFA in fiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2004, James has spent most of the years since teaching writing to college students, creating websites about video games, and editing anthologies of fiction and political rhetoric. When he’s not glued to his computer, James can usually be found skiing the slopes of Vermont’s famous mountains or sailing the harbors of Rhode Island. He lives in Newport, RI with his wife and two daughters.

Q: Congratulations on the release of your latest book, Jesus Jackson. What was your inspiration for it?

A: While the plot of Jesus Jackson centers on a murder mystery, at its heart, it’s the story of a young man searching for answers to the same huge, impossible, unanswerable questions that we all ask ourselves all the time: Is there a god?…

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The Murders at Astaire Castle Book Blitz!

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We’re happy to be hosting Lauren Carr and her THE MURDERS AT ASTAIRE CASTLE Book Blitz today!

The Murders at Astaire Castle

Title: The Murders at Astaire Castle
Author: Lauren Carr
Publisher: Acorn Book Services
Pages: 286
Genre: Mystery
Format: Paperback/Kindle

Purchase at AMAZON

Mac Faraday Meets the Wolf Man!

Never tell Mac Faraday not to do something.

In The Murders at Astaire Castle, Spencer’s police chief, David O’Callaghan, learns this lesson the hard way when he orders Mac Faraday to stay away from the south end of Spencer’s mountaintop—even though he owns the property. It doesn’t take long for Mac to find out what lies on the other side of the stone wall and locked gate, on which hangs a sign warning visitors to Keep Out!

Topping the list of the ten most haunted places in America, Astaire Castle is associated with two suicides, three mysterious disappearances, and four murders since it was built almost a century ago—and Mac Faraday owns it!

In spite of David’s warning, Mac can’t resist unlocking the gate to see the castle that supposedly hasn’t seen a living soul since his late mother had ordered it closed up after the double homicide and disappearance of Damian Wagner, a world-famous master of horror novels.

“Halloween has always been a fun time,” best-selling author Lauren Carr explains in a note at the beginning of her fifth Mac Faraday mystery. “It’s the time to break out and be someone else. As a child, I would pretend to be one of the Bobbsey Twins searching for clues to lead me to a secret treasure. If I was lucky, it was made up of chocolate. As a teenager, I was Nancy Drew. Always, when October rolled around, I craved mysteries with something extra added—something beyond the normal—something supernatural. As an author, I couldn’t resist taking this one Mac Faraday Mystery on a scary Halloween adventure.”

In this latest installment of Carr’s hit series, what starts out as a quick tour of a dusty old castle turns into another Mac Faraday adventure when Astaire Castle becomes the scene of even more murders. Mac is going to need to put all of his investigative talents to work to sort out this case that involves the strangest characters he has run into yet—including a wolf man. No, we’re not talking about Gnarly.

Book Excerpt:

Prologue

November 2002 – Astaire Castle, top of Spencer Mountain, Deep Creek Lake, Maryland

Shivering, Rafaela turned up the fan for the heater in her old Plymouth. The weather channel was calling for snow. With an eye on the storm clouds heading straight for Spencer Mountain, she picked up the speed a notch. Her car bumped along the worn road cut through the trees and rock to take her to Astaire Castle.

The notion of being trapped at the castle by a winter storm made her curse the day she had accepted the job as housekeeper at the Astaire estate. The young illegal immigrant thought her prayers had been answered by landing the job at the luxurious estate. Not only was it prestigious to work in a castle, but lucrative since Damian Wagner was paying almost twice her normal hourly wage.

What a gem to put on my housekeeping resume! To be hire by only one of the world’s most famous authors of horror books—even more famous than Robin Spencer—to clean an honest-to-goodness castle. So what if the Astaire Castle has a reputation of being haunted? I’ll be making a bundle for cleaning five days a week in the daylight. Besides, I don’t believe in no ghosts.

Rafaela regretted her decision the first time she walked into Astaire Castle.

At first, she dismissed her cleaning supplies moving from where she had left them as forgetfulness. Then there was the time she kept hearing someone whispering her name. She had looked around, but never saw anyone. Same with doors closing or opening or footsteps coming up behind her, and the old-time music and party noises in empty rooms when no one was there—she tried to tell herself that it was all her imagination.

None of that was anything compared to the Wolf Man who she had seen in the dining room mirror while she was cleaning it.

She had heard all about the Wolf Man who lived in the woods surrounding Astaire Castle. The woman with two teenagers who lived in the apartment next to hers was quick to tell her about him. Rafaela had dismissed it all as ghost stories made up by her neighbor’s kids to scare her—until she had seen him with her own two eyes.

That day she ran out of the castle. She returned only after Genevieve, Damian Wagner’s daughter, had promised that her father finish his book and be moving out of the castle by the end of the year—at which time he would pay her a handsome bonus that would give her enough money to visit her family in Brazil for Christmas.

Rafaela caught her breath when her Plymouth entered through the gate at the end of the road to pull into the front courtyard and fountain.

The fountain was off. Damian Wagner had never bothered to turn it on. He wouldn’t notice if it was. He spent his time banging away on his computer in the study on the top floor. He wouldn’t eat if it weren’t for his daughter bringing food to him.

Then there was the editor—Mr. Jansen.

He reminded Rafaela of a bird with his bony frame, high cheekbones over a pointy chin, and thick eyeglasses with his blinking eyes magnified behind them. He sounded like a squawking bird with his high-pitched voice no matter what his mood or what he was saying. Ready to pounce in anticipation of any need from Damian Wagner, he was always lurking nearby.

Damian’s daughter, Genevieve, was as charming as beautiful. She often asked Rafaela about her family in Brazil and about her life in Deep Creek Lake. For the new immigrant to America, Rafaela felt as if she was making a friend who would give her good references for more housekeeping jobs in the resort town of Spencer—more millionaire estates to clean—estates that weren’t haunted.

Rafaela pulled her car around the circular drive and parked at the bottom of the steep steps that led to the front door. When she got out of her car, the wind howled and whipped her long dark hair around her head. The wind actually seemed to want to rip her thin coat off her body. Grabbing her box of cleaning supplies, she squared her shoulders, and sucked up her nerve to go inside.

Need to make this quick. They don’t have enough money to make me stay here during that storm.

The wind yanked the heavy wooden door from her grasp to slam it against the side of the house.

“Stupid door!” Rafaela set the box inside the foyer and went outside to grab the door and pull it shut. “Mr. Wagner! Mr. Jansen! Genevieve! It’s me, Rafaela! Hope I’m not disturbing you.” She picked up the box and made her way through the foyer.

“Raf-aela …”

She stopped. With wide eyes, she peered up the staircase to the second floor balcony. “Is that you, Mr. Wagner?” She paused to listen. “Genevieve?”

“Get out. Now.”

Has to be my imagination. She reassured herself. “There’s no such thing as ghosts. There’s no such thing as ghosts,” she muttered over and over to herself while hurrying to the back of the castle.

“I don’t suppose you had any trick-or-treaters last night, did you?” she called out to ease her nerves with the sound of her own voice. “Not up here I suppose.”

She waited for an answer. She heard footsteps on the floor up above.

The smell of burnt meat came to her nose. It smelled like steak that had been left on the grill for too long.

They must have grilled steaks last night.

“Lots of little children stopped by my apartment.” Feeling braver as she rattled on, Rafaela set the box of cleaning supplies on the kitchen table and gathered together her duster and furniture polish.

Best to start in the living room. The antiques, wood, and silver takes the longest.

Admiring the decades-old priceless china encased in the china closet, she went through the dining room. With her cleaning lady’s eye, she gauged what needed to be addressed on this visit that she may have missed before. She stopped when the blotch of red on the doorframe through the kitchen caught her eye.

What’s that? Catsup?

It wasn’t until she spotted a spot on the floor that she first considered that it wasn’t a condiment, but something much more sinister. She spotted another. Bigger this time … and another.

There was a red pool in front of the kitchen door that opened out onto the back patio and deck that projected out over the rocks to provide a massive view of the valley down below. All of the drops and splatters and pools led to the common source—the fire pit outside.

She saw the flames and smoke wafting in the wind whipping around her where she stood in the open doorway. She stared at the blackened objects in the pit. What at first appeared to be a burnt log projecting out of the flames took shape.

The hand and fingers reached out to her.

The index finger was pointing at her.

Through the rapid beating of her heart, Rafaela could hear the footsteps behind her coming closer.

“Get out!”

His image was reflected in the glass pane of the door. The wild hair. The crazed eyes.

It’s the Wolf Man!

Watch the Trailer!

//www.youtube-nocookie.com/v/X9UtpnJc4bw?hl=en_US&version=3&rel=0

Giveaway!

Lauren is giving away one paperback copy, two ebook copies and three audiobooks of THE MURDERS AT ASTAIRE CASTLE!

Terms & Conditions:

  • By entering the giveaway, you are confirming you are at least 18 years old.
  • Six winners will be chosen via Rafflecopter.
  • This giveaway begins October 6 and ends October 31.
  • Winners will be contacted via email on Monday, November 3.
  • Winner has 48 hours to reply.

Good luck everyone!

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An Interview with John Lawson, Author of ‘Sorrow’

IMG_5513John Lawson has been writing for over 30 years, beginning in Junior High with his cartoon strip, evolving into short stories in High School, and dungeon modules for his RPGs in college.  His goal was to write scripts for “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” but upon graduation, reality set it, and he became a technical writer, crafting help and manuals for software developers.  He’s still doing that, by the way, but in-between his job and his family and his video game addiction, he also writes dark fantasy novels about a place called the Seven Kingdoms.

Congratulations on the release of your latest book, Sorrow. When did you start writing and what got you into fantasy?

I began writing in earnest back in 1999.  It was a purely impulsive thing.  I was on vacation, I had nothing to do, so I pulled out a pad of paper and just started writing.  The words just started coming out of me.  Instinctively, I began habits that I continue to this day, keying in on words or events or people that fascinate me and finding ways to worm them into my narrative.

Fantasy was the natural genre for me (considering the subject matter, I think most people would call it Dark Fantasy). Raised on a diet of AD&D as a child, I was drawn to the tales of swords and sorcery and monsters and heroism.  However, I’ve found myself growing impatient with contemporary Epic Fantasy.  I enjoy the rationalism of so-called “hard” Science Fiction, with everything based on legitimate science (or as much so as possible) and as little “magic” as possible.

If I was a braver author (or more educated), I’d write in the Science Fiction genre.   

What is your book about?

Sorrow is a story about a girl, Faina, who is way beyond her depth.  Once privileged, her family has lost its status and wealth, and as a guarantee against their debts, she’s been offered up as something of a marker.  She’s moved into the palace of a strange noble, where she’s watched and well cared for, but nonetheless a prisoner.

She’s a happy, energetic thing, and somewhat to the consternation of her keepers, she ends up bonding with the various servants and other local common folk, all of whom seem to adore her.  (Some of my favorite scenes are of her mixing with her friends and caretakers.)

But then the murders begin to occur — assassinations, really — for these people are living in a tumultuous, religiously volatile time, not unlike our own.  Important people are being killed, and that draws the attention of the duke.  He sends his man to deal with things, and it quickly becomes a contest between two very deadly assassins.  And poor Faina caught in the middle of it.

It is a much different book from my previous book, The Loathly Lady, taking place much later in time.  Instead of swords and torches, Sorrow offers flintlocks and gaslight.  It’s more political intrigue than high fantasy.  More Jason BournethanLord of the Rings.

What was your inspiration for Sorrow?

I wanted to write a coming-of-age story.  So often in entertainment, books, TV, movies, the protagonist in these kinds of stories are boys, so I wanted to diverge off-type somewhat and chose a female lead.  I wanted to try to express events like first love and loss through her perspective.

perf6.000x9.000.inddIn terms of settings, the courts of the EroBernd Empire and Vestiga Gæsi and the intrigue therein were inspired by such movies as “Rob Roy,” “Dangerous Liaisons,” the machinations of families like the Borgias.  In terms of the class struggles, I’ve drawn inspiration from Chaucer, Dickens, Dumas, Hugo, and Twain and contemporary movies such as “City of Men” and “Slumdog Millionaire.”

Did your book require a lot of research?

Yes, indeed.  I’m a compulsive researcher.  As a reader, it really pulls me from the story if some aspect strikes me as implausible or inaccurate, so as an author I do my best to keep things as grounded as possible.  Sure, I have magic and monsters and general fantasy weirdness, but they are realistic enough to the point where I hope the reader might imagine, “Yeah, that could happen.”  Language, culture, religion, ritual are all elements that I thoroughly research.  I keep copious notes and maintain a small encyclopedia of my world in the hopes of maintaining consistency (90% of which, I’m sure I’ll never end up using). 

What do you do when your muse refuses to collaborate?

I don’t sweat it.  I know some authors push through blocks, forcing themselves to write a certain amount of time a day, or a certain number of words.  I’m sure that’s a valid approach, and I’ve done it myself occasionally, but I don’t practice it as a rule.

I’m always thinking about my writing, even when I’m not actually writing.  Always looking for inspirations, jotting down notes, researching interesting words or factoids that I’ve found in other books or movies or TV shows.  I’m often my most productive on the treadmill.  All that cardio sends my mind into a different place.  Little sparks of inspiration come to me.  Alas, it is almost impossible to take coherent notes on my Kindle, so often afterwards I look at what I’ve written and have no idea what means. 

How do you keep your narrative exciting?

I don’t know.  Is my narrative exciting?  I hope it is.  At the very least, I hope it is interesting, surprising, and maybe even shocking.  I try to write the kind of books that I enjoy reading, filled with interesting, intelligent characters in interesting settings.  Often, the mayhem that ensues is a direct result of their interactions.  Some of my favorite scenes have absolutely no action whatsoever.  On the surface, they are merely conversations between people, but more emotion and firepower is exchanged between them than in any battle.  It’s great fun. 

How do you define success?

Creating a story that I enjoyed writing, being able to share it with others, and hopefully, they enjoying it.  I’m not out for money.  I’m not looking for a movie deal or fame or anything.  Just looking to share the stories.  My stories aren’t for everyone.  They’ll never be the next Twilight or Harry Potter, but I figure, with patience, they’ll find their audience.

My interview with the author was originally published in Blogcritics.

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Book Review: ‘Sorrow’ by John Lawson

perf6.000x9.000.inddSorrow begins with a mysterious traveler on a mission, secretly carrying a box which contains a precious, powerful weapon.

Then the story moves to Vestiga Gaesi, where we meet Faina, the seductive yet naive fourteen-year old girl with a mysterious past who is staying at the Viscount’s luxurious home — where the story mainly takes place. Then, that night, an important Bishop is murdered, and Lord Ash is called to solve the case. It appears this isn’t the first crime committed against members of the clergy in the past few months. Thus begins his investigation. Soon, he has a suspect: Sorrow. Unfortunately, no one knows who this Sorrow really is, for this killer appears to be a supernatural creature that sheds black tears while killing. Who is Sorrow? Why are victims clergymen? What is Faina’s real identity and why is she in Vestiga Gaesi?

Lawson has created a very real, dark fantasy world that readers will be able to picture vividly in their minds. The descriptions, mood, and dialogue all help bring this story’s detailed world to life. The characters are deftly drawn and come across as genuine people. The prose sparkles with beautifully crafted language. Lawson’s strength lies in characterization and creating an imaginative dark world. I’d like to add that I found the details about religion and the clergy to be very well researched.

There’s an array of interesting characters with equal levels of importance that, together with intriguing twists and turns, will keep readers guessing: Phindol, the unfortunate traveler; Lord Ash, the detective who tries to solve the murder; and, of course, Faina, the alluring Lolita-like protagonist shrouded in mystery who seems to unwillingly seduce all men who set eyes on her. Though the writing is in good taste and there’s nothing graphic, I should mention that some of her scenes with Lord Ash and Phintol, both adult males, might be considered a bit disturbing to sensitive readers.

Sorrow is a standalone novel. However, it takes place in the same world — though hundreds of years apart — as Lawson’s previous novel, The Loathly Lady, also by Dragonwell Publishing.

Recommended for fans of dark fantasy who like a strong touch of mystery.

Purchase on Amazon / Dragonwell Publishing

My review was previously published in Blogcritics Magazine

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Married One Night Book Blitz & Win $25 Amazon Gift Card

Married One Night Book Blitz Banner

We’re happy to be hosting Amber Leigh Williams and her MARRIED ONE NIGHT Book Blitz today! Be sure to enter the $25 Amazon Gift Card giveaway below. Giveaway ends 12 a.m. October 2!

Married One Night 2

Title: Married One Night
Author: Amber Leigh Williams
Publisher: Harlequin Superromance
Pages: 384
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Format: Paperback/Kindle

Purchase at AMAZON

What happened in Vegas…followed her home!

Olivia Lewis is not the marrying type. So when a wild weekend in Vegas leaves her with a surprise husband, she’s happy to sign anything to erase her mistake—even if that mistake is handsome, charming and comes with an English accent. Fortunately, her groom has other plans.

Bestselling author Gerald Leighton knows he can make his new bride fall in love with him—he just needs time. In exchange for a quickie divorce, Olivia grudgingly gives him a few weeks to attempt to woo her. And whether Olivia likes it or not, Gerald plans on using every second to win her heart!

Book Excerpt:

Before Olivia could shoulder her way through the door, it opened quickly. She felt herself pitch over, tripping over the edge of the bedsheet. Cursing, she fell against the lean, chiseled chest of the man on the other side of the bathroom doorjamb.

She heard his surprised whoosh just before his arms snagged her under the shoulders and curled around her to keep her from falling at his feet. Her cheek pressed tight against his sternum. He was so warm. The deep timbre of a chuckle trebled beneath the ear pressed to his chest and words, rough around the edges, came floating from his mouth. “Ah, she wakes.”

When she tried to pull herself back, he held her fast to him for a moment longer to make sure she had her footing. With a murmured, “Easy there, love,” he released her and she stepped away, seeking his face.

He was smiling. The soft expression was tense around the edges, probably from what she could guess was a good deal of pounding happening on the inside of his head, too. She drew in a breath. His eyes were a brilliant shade of green. Dimples, or laugh lines, dug in around his mouth and the corners of his eyes. A man who smiled often and laughed well, Olivia surmised. His hair was blond and wet from a shower she assumed, judging by the steam behind him. He’d combed the hair back from his forehead, leaving his high brow bare.

A towel hung loosely around his waist. She blinked. She was staring. But the longer she stared, the more she could remember from last night, and the giddy spontaneity and blistering heat of all that had transpired made her forget for a moment how miserable she felt.

And, bless him, he didn’t seem to mind the staring. He was doing a good bit of his own. The smile on his lips deepened into a full-fledged grin, eyes softening further as he took her in. “Well. Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes.”

She found a smile curving at the corner of her mouth. He was British. His words were enunciated with the high-class sounds of English breeding and good humor. His voice was like fine-aged wine. Or whiskey.

Whiskey, she decided. It had a good, old-fashioned burn to it.

Lifting her hands to the sheet knotted just under her collarbone, she made sure it was in place before dragging a hand back through her long, curly, bedraggled tresses. “Erm…good morning?” Olivia said, unsure of herself. Usually, she knew how to navigate the awkward, morning-after interlude. But this stranger’s clean-cut, unexpected appeal threw her for a loop.

He beamed and held out a hand, skimming far and above the awkwardness of the situation with good-natured ease. “Gerald Leighton. It’s lovely to meet you…again.”

About the Author:

Amber Leigh Williams

Amber Leigh Williams lives on the Gulf Coast. A southern girl at heart, she loves beach days, the smell of real books, relaxing at her family’s lakehouse, and spending time with her husband, Jacob, and their sweet, blue-eyed boy. When she’s not running after her young son and three, large dogs, she can usually be found reading a good romance or cooking up a new dish in her kitchen. She is represented by Joyce Holland of the D4EO Literary Agency.

Her latest book is the contemporary romance, Married One Night.

For More Information

Giveaway!

Amber is giving away a $25 Amazon Gift Card!

Terms & Conditions:

  • By entering the giveaway, you are confirming you are at least 18 years old.
  • One winner will be chosen via Rafflecopter.
  • This giveaway begins 12 a.m. October 1 and ends 12 a.m. October 2.
  • Winner will be contacted via email on Friday, October 3.
  • Winner has 48 hours to reply.

Good luck everyone!

ENTER TO WIN!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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