Category Archives: Read a Chapter

First Chapter Reveal: White Rogue by Dr. David Fett, Stephen Langford and Connie Malcolm

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White Rogue 7Title: White Rogue
Genre: Spy Thriller
Author: Dr. David R. Fett, Stephen Langford & Connie Malcolm
Publisher: CreateSpace
Pages: 254
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1481995510
ISBN-13: 978-1481995511

Purchase at AMAZON

Cold War era biological experiments are resurrected and after Boston experiences a seemingly inexplicable bio-terrorist attack, the Center for Disease Control’s Dr. Davie Richards and Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Paula Mushari once again join forces to uncover who is behind it. An obscure reference to a Dresden project found amid crash site evidence marks them both for execution. Paula and Dave are forced to leave Boston in the middle of the night and head to Washington, D.C.,where they soon find that anyone they contact also becomes the target of assassins. When the daughter of the CDC’s director is taken hostage, Dave and Paula come face to face with an evil that forces them to question the very nature of duty and service to country. With the help of one man, they learn the true meaning of dark operatives while they desperately try to stop another bio-attack from happening.

First Chapter:

There was a chill in the morning air.  A marine layer had moved into the Bay Area of San Francisco, creating a soft mist off in the distance as Anna looked up the street.  Anna Wheat was late to her job at one of the downtown branches of Bank of America.  She so wanted to be on time that she wished she could just jog the rest of the way, but her three-inch heels made that idea more comical than practical.  She had been a teller for the last two years and had been in line for a promotion, but like most things in the last few days, it had stalled.  Anna knew it wasn’t just her bosses were who preoccupied.  It seemed as though everyone in the country was distracted with the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Coworkers chatted about the evening news instead of last weekend’s football games.  Married friends told her of their concerns for their kids. And she too felt on edge from the constant news bulletins that came across the radio and filled the morning and evening TV news reports.  Anna just wanted to concentrate on her work, start her new job, and be preoccupied with something positive.

She knew the bank’s human resources division in Los Angeles was waiting for the paperwork to expedite the change in her employee status from Grade 1 to Grade 3.  Anna had done an amazing job that she jumped a pay grade, something that barely had been achieved in the bank’s history and even more rarely by a woman.  The bank’s manager, John Kiley, often cited Annie’s accomplishments to other employees, saying that hard work made anything possible and they should all reach for the stars.  He was fascinated with the NASA astronauts, and the Space Race with the Soviet Union inspired his language.  He would remind any employee that would listen that Americans didn’t like settling for anything, and setting goals was the surest way to focus a nation’s, or a company’s, energies.  President John F. Kennedy had set a goal for the country back in 1961, he would remind his staffers, and soon after, on May 5th, Alan Shepherd became the first American in space.  The Soviets beat us there, but we were catching up, Mr. Kiley would say.

Mr. Kiley’s cheerleading and holding up Anna’s promotion as an example didn’t go over well with other employees, especially other women.  Anna was very young, attractive, and ambitious.  And while she liked the attention she earned for her work, she hated the unpleasant glances from the other young tellers and the ashen-haired head teller with the droopy eyelids.  Some of the young women would whisper despairingly behind her back, lewd suggestions on how she had moved up the corporate ladder. Anna tried to ignore them and do her job.  She wasn’t going to let them have the satisfaction of knowing they upset her.

That morning, as she walked along the street, Anna passed a newsstand that featured papers emblazoned with warnings about the Cuban Missile Crisis.  There was a palpable fear in the fear in the city and across the country that the missiles placed in Cuba by the Soviet Union and now aimed at the United States would lead to nuclear war, if not by intent, by some accident or miscommunication. Anna’s sister in Virginia was so panicked about it that she packed up her kids and drove across the country to Monterrey, California, in order to live with their mother and father until the crisis ended. Anna’s personality was the opposite of her sister’s. In fact, it was her cool demeanor that made her a perfect fit for the banking world. She always managed to stay calm no matter how upset a customer was.

She passed a TV store as she headed up to California: one of San Francisco’s steeply inclined streets. The brisk morning walks kept her quite fit, but this morning, she didn’t seem to have the same vigor she usually had.  It had been difficult to get out of bed, and she had to skip breakfast because she was running late.  No food, no coffee—that was the problem, Anna thought. She really wanted to push past the fatigue and be on time for work.  She believed punctuality was important, especially if she wanted the men she worked with to take her seriously.

Anna was determined to be the first woman to become bank manager at her branch. She wasn’t like all her high school friends, who also were working, but whose long-term goals were marriage, a house, and kids.  She wanted those things too, but she knew she wanted something more.

Anna looked in at an appliance store window as she passed by, and all the TV screens displayed news coverage of President Kennedy in a press conference. The president looked tired and unusually grim. She had been a Richard Nixon supporter and felt he would have been better at handling such a dangerous confrontation with the Soviet Union. Anna continued walking, reached the top of the street, and had to stop to catch her breath. That’s unusual, she thought, and then noticed her hands trembling. She remembered there was a donut shop near the bank, and she planned to stop in there and get a coffee and something to eat.

She stopped again.  There was something more ominous going on than low blood sugar.  She wiped her forehead. Her breathing was rapid and shallow. She was perspiring. She tried to catch her breath but started coughing up thick, bloody mucous. A passerby showed concern. She held up her hand to signal that she was fine.

Anna straightened up and made her way another half a block to her Bank of America branch.  She reached for the door, but severe vertigo prevented her from grasping the handle. Her legs became wobbly, and she fell in a heap in the doorway.

Mr. Kiley came running out to her. “Anna. Anna. Can you hear me?”

She didn’t answer.

Mr. Kiley asked the other employees who had gathered around to stay with Anna as he rushed back into the bank to phone for an ambulance. Anna just lay on the sidewalk, semiconscious, vision blurred.

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Read-a-Chapter: Strings, by Allison M. Dickson

Read a Chapter is *NEW* added feature at As the Pages Turn! Here you’ll be able to read the first chapters of books of all genres to see if you like them before you buy them. Today we are featuring the horror/suspense thriller, Strings, by Allison M. Dickson. Enjoy!

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Title: Strings

Genre: Horror/Suspense/Thriller

Author: Allison M. Dickson

Publisher: Hobbes End Publishing

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Allison M. Dickson presents a chilling tale of entrapment and greed. Do you have freedom? Do you have control? After four years of turning tricks in a mob-run New York brothel to pay off a debt, Nina is ready to go back to a quiet life in Iowa. Just one more client and the whole nightmare will be behind her, but this last trick turns into a battle for her soul. Meanwhile, the brothel’s sadistic Madam has been hiding away money in order to move up in her family’s organization, and she only wants the half million dollars the reclusive millionaire pays for the girls. But her driver Ramón has other ideas, making off with the money left behind when Nina’s last trick goes unexpectedly awry. The theft comes at a great cost to the Madam, setting off a horrific chain of events that changes them all. The hooker. The driver. The Madam. All of them on a collision course to a place where only madness holds sway. Who is pulling your Strings?

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Chapter 1

Junior

Lady Ballas stroked her pregnant belly as she stirred Hank’s dinner, hoping the smell of beef stew would finally draw her husband out of his study. He had been cooped up in there two weeks now. Not his worst streak yet, but certainly his second-worst. Only once in those fourteen days had he opened the door to snatch one of the dozens of food trays she left out in the hallway. She brought up five trays a day. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and two snacks, and all of it had gone to waste except one lone meal, a bowl of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich. She could imagine the amount of agony he’d gone through convincing himself to take it, not only to expose himself to the “bad air” outside his refuge, but also to eat food that had been swimming in it. He’d been on the verge of starving to death no doubt, but with just enough self-preservation left to override the madness eating away at him like a child slowly licking the icing off a cupcake before devouring it all the way down to its soft and spongy center.

Two Sundays ago, she’d been making their breakfast of poached eggs and toast when she heard the heavy maple door slam shut upstairs. She didn’t stop her cooking or even flinch. All the signs of Hank’s condition spiraling out of control again had been there for the last week. They were difficult to miss after twelve years of marriage. It always started with the constant washing of his hands until his knuckles bled and the pads of his fingers cracked open. Then the size of the laundry piles would grow from small hills into mountains as he made frequent clothing changes—six, sometimes seven, different suits and shirts and pairs of socks and underwear a day. He would also spend longer spells working from home instead of going into his office at the new Twin Towers in Manhattan. She could hear him wearing a faded path onto the heavy Oriental rug up in that cursed study as he paced back and forth, barking orders either into the phone or just to himself, which never failed to chill her bones.

There were subtler signs too, like the way his eyes flitted around the room when he spoke to her, as if he were chasing an invisible fly, or the agitation in his voice when she asked if he might like to join her on an afternoon walk and get a little fresh air. All those clues and more would build up day after day like the crescendo of a dreadful symphony until it reached its final note, the percussive slam of that office door. Silence would then flood their big, empty house and she would settle down to spend the next several days living in a void, alone but for the errant kicks and tumbles of her unborn child as she rocked herself to sleep in the newly furnished nursery.

Sometimes the reasons for Hank’s spells varied. Lady sometimes thought they coincided with the state of the bond and oil markets that comprised the bulk of their wealth. Even though she didn’t consider herself an expert in commodities, she’d come from good stock. Her father taught her how to read the newspapers and the quarterly statements that came in the mail when she was a girl. Although Hank never approved of her meddling in such matters, she nonetheless knew things were going quite well for their little trading company right now. Lady had a feeling this particular spell, the worst yet, was due to something else entirely, and it gave her a hard kick right now to remind her of its presence. She patted her swollen belly, which she rubbed with cocoa butter every night before bed.

“There there, little one. All is well.”

The baby would be here in just a month or so, and though he would never admit such a thing aloud, Hank was terrified. And it wasn’t just about potentially passing on his peculiar malady. He was also concerned with all the urine, feces, vomit, and slobber babies brought to the table. His once peaceful and immaculate abode was about to become a toxic waste dump. Lady was prepared for this and had hired the perfect nanny to assist her, a gorgeous Indian woman named Kali who exuded maternal peace and professionalism. After meeting with several candidates throughout the week, Kali was the only one who seemed truly prepared for the task, who would treat their baby like a prince, or a princess if Lady’s deep intuition was wrong. It took some convincing, to say the least. Hank didn’t want to hire a nanny at all. In fact, he tried putting his foot down about the matter in his classic blustery style two months ago when he came home to find her conducting interviews.

“I can’t believe you would consider this without consulting me first. We’ll raise our own child, and that’s final!”

But Lady wouldn’t have it. “You either let me hire a nanny to help us, or you hire someone to help you. If you don’t like that, Hank, I’ll just take the baby to my father’s and let his maid help me out.” And maybe I won’t come back either was on the tail end of that, at least in her mind, but it turned out she didn’t need to say it. Hank didn’t hate anyone on this earth but the one who had walked her down the aisle at their wedding. The two men had been professional rivals since the day Lady brought Hank home to meet him, and Hank would rather die than let old Louis McGinnis get the upper-hand.

Cajoled into submission, a rare place for Hank when he wasn’t fresh off one of his episodes, he sat down and patted her hand. “All right then, dear. You hire your help. But she doesn’t come within a hundred feet of that study when I’m in it. You tell her I have bad migraines and I can’t be disturbed. Is that clear?”

She thought so. With Kali’s help, their lives would be infinitely better and easier. Hank would never have to live in fear of his own son, and Lady would be free and clear to help her husband when his episodes came on.

After removing the rolls from the oven, she gingerly placed two of them on a plate with a pat of butter on top of each. Then she ladled out a large bowl of the stew, added a flourish of freshly chopped herbs, and set it on the tray beside the bread. Next to that she added a tall glass of milk, a tumbler of iced tea with mint, and a wedge of the apple pie she’d baked earlier that morning. The sight of the meal, Hank’s favorite since the first days of their marriage, made her own stomach gurgle, and she hoped it would work this time. It was normally her ace in the hole, the one that coaxed him to emerge most often. She tried putting it out for him late last week, but it had been too soon. She’d acted hastily, that was all. But it was with good reason. What if the baby came early and he was still in there? Even with Kali’s help, she still needed Hank. He was her rock, the reason for everything. And after all the times she had been there for him, it was time for him to return the favor. If he missed the birth of his child, she would be most displeased. The stew would work this time, she was sure of it. Men were like dowsing rods for food. It just took the right meal at the right time.

Careful to balance the heavy tray with her already off-kilter center of gravity, she carried it from the kitchen, down the long hallway, and up the winding staircase leading to Hank’s study, second door on the right. The climb was arduous for a woman in her condition, but being her husband’s part-time nursemaid kept her in good shape. Every morning, afternoon, and evening, she would carry fresh food up and then later in the evening, she would return that same food, cold and congealed, to the kitchen in which she’d cooked it. Steaming and juicy meat had become cold jerky, gravies and broths had either skinned over or gelatinized, bread fresh from the oven had grown stale and lackluster. Along with each morning meal, she left him a fresh pitcher of wash water with a basin, an unopened bar of soap, a new toothbrush with baking soda, and a razor with shave cream. She couldn’t bear the idea of her husband growing filthy, even though that’s what he did every time he locked himself away, convinced his own waste was better than the germs outside. Hank would rationalize that even in their packages the hygiene products were contaminated somehow, just like the food. Long ago, before she knew better, she tried reasoning with him that if the air and the food and everything else outside his study were poisoned, she would be dead by now, but he had an answer for that too: “You weren’t born defective like me, Lady. My skin is full of a billion tiny holes. It lets all the bad things in.”

They’d been through half a dozen doctors, all the latest and greatest in medications and psychotherapy, including shock therapy. They stopped short of a lobotomy, because Hank was worried it would leave him unable to function and provide, just as the medications had for the short time he took them. He also worried his secret would get out; there had already been rumors at the office of nervous breakdowns and possible mania. To Hank, reputation and appearances took precedence over almost everything, which explained why he permitted no one else to enter the house during his spells. There would be no doctors or nurses, not even Carla the housekeeper, who came by twice a week to help with the laundry and the vacuuming, or Barton, their driver and groundskeeper. And most certainly not Kali, who would be living here in the house the day after the baby came.

Lady had grown used to lying to the help, usually saying she and Hank were having a spontaneous holiday in Martha’s Vineyard or the Hamptons and all time off would be paid. It was doubtful they bought the lies after awhile, but they were professionals and never raised a fuss about it. She hoped Kali would be as elegant about the situation, should she come to find out about Hank’s condition.

Over the years, Lady studied nurse’s textbooks and other manuals on caregiving in order to be as helpful to her husband as possible after he emerged from one of his episodes. She learned how to help him to the bathroom, to take his rectal temperature and other vital signs, to deliver the proper nutrition, and help with calisthenics to build up his strength again. Hank had even rigged up a series of ropes and pulleys around the house in order to make it easier for her to move him around until he regained his strength. He would also use them himself when she was unavailable. After a couple of weeks, he was usually functional again. It was a team effort.

It wasn’t always this bad, of course. If it were, Lady was sure she would have called for her father to swoop in and rescue her years ago. These little fits were like rare blizzards they weathered together in secret. She wouldn’t be pregnant right now with Hank’s child otherwise. Perhaps this was as bad as it would ever get, Hank getting this out of his system once and for all, giving birth to this demon of his in much the same way she would be giving birth to their son in just a few weeks. When Hank Junior entered the world, things would be different. Good, even. She intended to see it that way and no other.

Lady set down the tray outside the door and knocked, her heart full of hope. “Hank? I made your favorite, darling. Beef stew.”

No answer. He was likely asleep. He wouldn’t have energy for much else by this point.

She knocked again, this time a little harder, and proceeded to wait amid the other untouched trays she’d brought up this morning. One with an omelet turned to rubber, another with a now limp BLT sandwich and potato chips. And still the untouched soap and water. He probably smelled like a grave by now. Still no sign of life from inside the study. Now that was a little odd. Questions started filtering into her mind.

Wasn’t it getting a bit worse every time? Weren’t the episodes becoming longer and a bit more frequent, his overall condition weaker? He was like a rubber band stretched out too many times and no longer able to assume its original shape. When he came out last time after nearly a month, he was withered down to skin-covered bone. His heartbeat, weak and uncertain, reminded Lady of a terrified little bird, flutter-flutter-flutter.  She’d been nearly three months pregnant at that point and still fighting awful morning sickness, but she worked feverishly to bring him around, first administering a tiny pill of nitroglycerin and then spending several painstaking hours giving him sips of water and broth. At that point, she was about to give up and call their doctor. Hank didn’t need light nursing. He needed a hospital and IV fluids. But Hank, who knew her better than anybody and could almost read her thoughts, grabbed her by the wrist with his bird-like talon of a hand, the grip stronger than his overall frailty suggested. His eyes reminded her of eggs sizzling on a hot sidewalk.

“No doctors. Remember our promise, Lady. Remember.”

He squeezed her wrist until it hurt and she finally nodded, understanding if he had the strength to do that maybe he wasn’t as close to death as she thought. He recovered, eventually, but she told herself that was the last time she was going to let him have his way about things. They’d made a promise, but promises could be broken after a certain point. If he came out of the room this time in the same condition or worse, she was going to call the hospital and have them send an ambulance. If he had a problem with it, he could get up and come after her. She was too damn big and unwieldy with this belly of hers to be Super Nurse this time.

She gave the door another knock, firmer this time. “Hank? Come on, now. At least grunt if you can hear me.” Lady pressed her ear to the door, trying to detect even the faintest movement or shuffle. Nothing.

A phantom voice, almost taunting, rose up in her mind: He’s dead.

No. Absolutely not. Hank’s silence wasn’t all that unusual. After twelve years of marriage and nearly twice that number of these odd episodes, she’d seen and dealt with far worse than him ignoring her when she knocked. Like when he would go into one of his ranting spells, screaming obscenities so bald and disgusting she was convinced her otherwise sweet and gregarious husband had been possessed by a devil. Years later some of those words still haunted her. Go away, bitch! I’ll stab your cunt!

And then there was the time he opened the door and threw a bottle of his urine in her face. Worse than the tangy warmth of her husband’s warm piss going up her nose and running down her cheeks was the wild and almost menacing look in his eyes. That hadn’t been her husband, she was certain. Her Hank never would have done something so . . . vile. But what could he be doing behind that door right now? She didn’t want him to be angry with her for knocking again, but his silence was beginning to worry her.

A sharp cramp drew her belly taut and she braced herself against the door to keep from doubling over. No. Not now. Please not right now. “Hush, little baby,” she murmured and rubbed her hardening belly. The pain wrapped around her like a hot cummerbund and she fell against the door. She started pounding with both fists. “Hank! Please open the door! The baby . . . I think he’s coming.”

A distinct shuffling came from inside the study and her mind brightened. Oh thank God! I couldn’t coax him out with stew or just plain begging, but at least he’ll react for the birth of his son. The lock disengaged from the inside and the heavy maple door opened a crack to reveal candlelight and a distinct but familiar odor of sweat and bodily waste. But she couldn’t see Hank in there. A trickle of fear dripped down from her heart and burned in her gut. Another contraction followed, but she felt it only distantly compared to her mounting worry.

“Hank? What are you doing in there?”

A shaky whisper issued through the crack. “Come in, darling. Come see what I’ve done. It’s glorious.”

But she didn’t want to go in there. Hank had never invited her into his study like this, and she couldn’t blame him. It would be like inviting someone into the darkest corner of your mind, where every passing thought of murder and revenge and madness gathered like dust bunnies with teeth. “Sweetie, not now. I need you to come out. The baby—”

“Fuck the baby! Come in here now!” His voice cracked under the strain. Then, softly, almost a whimper: “Please, Lady. I need you.”

Lady’s world broke into prisms as the tears spilled over. He’s lost it, she thought. Gone mad. It had only been a matter of time. The doctors all warned them it might come to this one day if he didn’t get the lobotomy or stay on the medication, but neither of them wanted to listen or believe. They thought they could manage it, and they’d done quite well at it for a while. She had to call the doctors, though. Hank’s first, then hers. Oh, this was not how she wanted things. Not at all.

She backed away from the door and hit something that grunted. Lady shouted and turned around to see Kali standing there in a sari the color of blood. Another contraction rushed forward, and this one obliterated all shock at seeing the nanny she’d hired, unexpected. Uninvited. She felt a pop and warm fluid gushed down her legs, pattering on the expensive rug.

“Kali, help me!” she cried, no longer questioning why the woman was there, only needing the help of someone who hadn’t gone crazy.

“Do not worry, Mrs. Ballas. Your husband called me here. I will care for your son.”

“What? Called you? I don’t understand. He—”

Another contraction doubled her over. The pain was constant now and excruciating. World-eating. She had no idea it would hurt this badly, or that it would make her unable to truly grasp the horrible implications in Kali’s words. I will care for your son. What did that mean? Had the whole world gone mad or was it just her?

“Take me to the hospital, Kali. He’s coming. I can feel it.”

Kali’s eyes, which had been so warm at their meeting, were now like unyielding black stone. “There is no time. We must do it here.” She took Lady by the wrists and started guiding her toward Hank’s office, pushing the door open to reveal the menagerie of lit candles on nearly every horizontal surface. Terror was an icicle through her belly. “What are you doing? Kali, no!”

Another contraction. This one buckled her knees, making her certain her stomach was going to split down the middle like a rotten melon. She hit the rug, immediately smelling piss. A lot of it. The sensation of dampness on her hands soon followed and she realized this was Hank’s toilet. He’d been peeing on the carpet like an untrained animal for days. This was not like him. Not at all. Hank had never been so . . . unsanitary. What she saw next, however, obliterated all other thoughts, even the pain, at least briefly. Illuminated by candlelight were the ropes, presumably from the pulleys Hank had installed to help her lift and move him when he was too weak to help himself. He’d strung them up near the ceiling, from wall to wall like a web. He hung from the middle of the network by his ankles, swinging back and forth. Naked, emaciated, and pale like an albino spider.

“Hank? My God, what is this? What happened?”

“I found the source of all the filth, darling. The floor! I no longer have to touch it! Isn’t that wonderful? I’ve never felt more free!” He spread his arms open, letting out a harsh cacophony of laughter that echoed off the wooden walls and belied the presence of any sanity.

The next contraction was like an ax to the gut and she fell forward as if praying to Allah, pressing her forehead into the urine-soaked rug. She had never before experienced labor, but instinctively knew there was something more to this pain. Something dangerous. More warm fluid ran down her legs and she felt something stick into her neck, like a bee sting. She looked up to see Kali holding a syringe.

“What is that?” Already she felt her body going limp and numb. The pain of her labor was still there, but growing further away as whatever drug Kali had injected her with went quickly to her brain.

“Something to dull your pain, dear,” she said.

Kali gently rolled her over onto her back and she was greeted by the sight of her husband’s face hanging several feet above hers. His eyes were glassy and insane and hungry. The drugs did nothing to alleviate the stench of his waste or her fear of that leering grin gleaming in the candlelight. Lady’s mind began to detach like a blimp from its mooring.

“You are bleeding very heavily, Lady. We must move fast.”

This couldn’t be happening. Her baby coming too soon, maybe even dying, her husband no longer her husband, barely even human by the look of him. “No, get my doctor! Call an ambulance. I need a hospital.” Her tongue felt thick and stupid in her mouth. The words fell off it like logs.

“There is too much blood. Neither you nor the baby would make it,” Kali said. The crimson sari hooded the woman’s face, but Lady could see the whites of her eyes with their coal irises, and they were not the warm, maternal ones from the nanny interview. They were cold and driven, like those of a woman whose long laid plans were on the verge of fruition. “We must take him out right away.”

“Yes, cut it out! Release the filth! Release it!” Hank cried. Or at least the ghoul that used to be Hank.

Lady heard a metallic scrape and a shiny blade gleamed in the dimness, but Kali’s movement was too swift and Lady’s medicated brain was too slow to make a connection between the blade and the woman’s intentions until the eight-inches of curved steel came back up again lacquered with blood. And then, finally, the pain flooded in, overriding the drugs and bringing the certainty that her belly had been ripped apart and set ablaze. The agony made the contractions seem almost quaint. Every system in her body began misfiring. Her vision doubled and then trebled, her ears began to ring, and her skin flushed with the jabs of a million searing needle points as Kali dug around inside her for what felt like hours but must have only been minutes. The pain was so enormous, even with the drugs, it seemed almost separate from her, like a vivid nightmare she was watching happen to someone else. Perhaps all the stress was bringing on a hallucination. And the laughing, pendulous ghoul overhead . . . it couldn’t be Hank. He must have left his study earlier, perhaps to get some fresh air, and this loon slipped in through the window.

But even then she didn’t realize the truth of the agony, the horrible and oh-so-personal robbery taking place, until the room filled with the high-pitched squeals of what could only be her baby.

“It is a boy, Lady. Congratulations,” said Kali, her voice shaking.

He was tiny and so very thin and pale in the woman’s hands. A gooey mixture of blood and amniotic fluid dripped from his gangly white limbs. Something was wrong with him. Lady could sense it not only in the way the child’s skin seemed gelatinous and translucent, or how his tiny ears came to points, or the way his skull looked lumpy and badly formed. It was in Kali’s face, dawning with horror as she glanced down at the newborn.

“What is it?” Lady heard herself ask, though from a distance as the world began to gray around the edges. She was no longer cognizant of her own body being butchered open. Her mind was on her child. “What’s wrong with him? What’s wrong with my baby?”

Slow regret and terror filled Kali’s eyes. “I . . . I’m so sorry, Mrs. Ballas.” She turned the child around so Lady could look upon his face. Terror sucked the air from her lungs and reality shrank to the size of a pinpoint as she screamed at the thing—no, the monster—that had been living in her womb all these months.

“What is it? Oh my dear God what is it?” The abomination began to scream too as Hank screeched more laughter overhead. The eye is so huge, she thought, and it was the last clear thought Lady had as she grabbed onto the encroaching darkness like a life raft and let it carry her away to oblivion.

 

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Read-a-Chapter: DARK LULLABY, by Mayra Calvani

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At a tavern one Friday night, astrophysicist Gabriel Diaz meets a mysterious young woman. Captivated by her beauty as well as her views on good and evil, he spends the next several days with her. After a while, however, he begins to notice a strangeness in her…especially the way she seems to take pleasure in toying with his conscience.

The young woman, Kamilah, invites him to Rize, Turkey, where she claims her family owns a cottage in the woods. In spite of his heavy workload and the disturbing visions and nightmares about his sister’s baby that is due to be born soon, Gabriel agrees to go with her.

But nothing, not even the stunning beauty of the Black Sea, can disguise the horror of her nature… In a place where death dwells and illusion and reality seem as one, Gabriel must now come to terms with his own demons in order to save his sister’s unborn child, and ultimately, his own soul.

Only $.99 on Amazon

Dream Realm Awards Finalist!

Reviews:

“Mayra Calvani is a masterful storyteller… Dark Lullaby is complex and compelling…” –Habitual Reader

“Dark Lullaby is an atmospheric paranormal horror that grips you from page one and refuses to let go until you’ve raced, breathless, to the end.” –ePinions

“Dark Lullaby is a page-turner. A horror story from the top shelf! You’ll love it.” –5 stars from Euro-Reviews

“This is a terrific horror…” –Harriet Klausner

“Dark Lullaby will capture you with its rich descriptions, its exotic location, and the need to uncover the dark secrets hidden within its pages.” –Cheryl Malandrinos, The Book Connection

“I loved this story, which started as a romance, then quickly evolved into a spine chilling horror, transporting you back to a land where folklore legends, based on truth are alive, and unimaginable creatures walk the earth.” -Susan Keefe, Amazon Reviewer

“…this story is exactly the kind of creepy tale that’s given me a new reason to keep the light on at night.” -Relasped Catholic

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Excerpt

Late that night, sipping red wine on the second-floor balcony after a mouth-watering meal of barbequed fish, Gabriel was overwhelmed by the feeling of impending doom.

He gazed at the woods surrounding them. Far away from city lights and civilization, he had never experienced such perfect darkness before. Only the full moon illuminated them with its clear silver light. His eyes turned upwards to the sky and he held his breath. There, crossing the southern sky in all its splendor, was the Milky Way. An arm of it, anyway. Layers upon layers of stars created that milky effect. Never before had he seen such a magnificent, clear sky, not even in Arizona or New Mexico.

“Look!” Kamilah leaned forward, pointing with her finger to the woods.

And for the first time, Gabriel saw the little lights.

This was no trick played on his vision. There they were, going this way and that with uncanny rapidity, to and fro, making a little witch’s dance in the distance, as if they were electrons and neutrons trying to collide inside an atom. Unpredictable, erratic, volatile.

“Do you believe me now?” Kamilah quivered with excitement.

“The lights are real, no doubt. But your explanation of them is something else. Fairies? What did you call them—cin? Spirits of the forest?”

“That’s what people here believe. You know, two years ago a team of foreign scientists came here to study these lights, but they weren’t able to find any explanation for them. They were trying to compare them to similar lights seen in the mountains of Peru. The Peruvian villagers, though, believe them to be aliens. Spiritual beings from another world.”

Gabriel remained silent as he studied the strange phenomenon. For a moment the lights  vanished. Then they re-appeared.

Kamilah began humming a soft melody.

Gabriel felt goose bumps rise on his arms and legs. That music…. He listened, entranced. He began to feel sleepy.

“Stop singing,” he said.

“I did.”

He could still hear the lullaby, though the sound had now turned very distant. But it was no echo. It felt as if something deep within the forest itself sang.

“I’m going to take a closer look,” Gabriel said, standing up with the glass of wine in his hand.

“No! Don’t bother them! Sometimes they don’t like the intrusion. They might get mad.”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” He was surprised at the sudden anxiety in her voice.

“I mean it!”

“You’re such a superstitious fool! I’m going to have a closer look.” He downed the rest of the wine and put the glass on the floor. A protesting Kamilah followed him.

“You don’t know what you’re doing!” she kept saying.

Soon he was outside striding to where the lights hovered. For somebody who had felt so ill this morning, his body felt marvelously supple and strong. The mountain air was cold, but his limbs were infused with an inner warmth, a warmth that wasn’t just physical, but also came from his intellect. Gabriel needed to know what these lights were. He needed to understand them. He couldn’t really explain his fervor to comprehend.

“They’re gone,” Kamilah said.

His pulse raced. Midway down the clearing he halted, his eyes searching. Darkness enveloped him. Then he saw them again, right in front of him at the edge of the woods, as if they had moved closer in order to greet him.

He approached them, his pace quickening with each step until he was practically underneath the magical light dance. He had to bend his head back to look at them. He wasn’t aware of Kamilah behind him or of anything else. The trees, the grass beneath him, the cottage…everything disappeared. He was alone with the twinkling magical lights.

The lights seemed to lower themselves closer to him, the pinpoints dancing right above his eyes. Immobilized by the thrill of it, he was overcome with palpitations. He forced deep breaths, while never moving his eyes from the lights.

Once again a gentle, lovely lullaby reached his ears, distant at first, and then closer and closer, until the sound became deafening, and he had to cover his ears with his hands.

“Go away! Leave him alone! He’s mine!” Kamilah shouted behind him, anguish and misery warping her voice into an inhuman rumble.

The lights began swirling around his head. He felt his mind swimming in light, immersed in it. There was no feeling of malevolence, but there wasn’t benevolence either. He tried to define the emotions involved, but couldn’t. He lifted his hands and tried to touch them, but realized there was no matter to touch. His hands went through the lights as if going through a spectrum. In this illumination, oddly divine in nature, everything around him became visible with absolute clarity, as if the sun had abruptly risen and washed the world with iridescent white radiance. He had the sudden, bizarre feeling that the lights were trying to send him a message.

The lights vanished suddenly.

Absolute silenced reigned. Only Kamilah whimpered softly behind him.

He was stunned. He turned around slowly, unable to see her. When his vision adjusted to the blackness, he tried to speak, but couldn’t.

Kamilah was sitting on the grass with her legs tucked under her, her hands covering her face. Finally she rose.

“Why are you crying?” he asked, his voice shaking.

She threw herself at him and cried, hugging him like a lost waif.

“What’s the matter?”

But she cried harder, squeezed him harder.

“I thought they would hurt you!” she wailed.

He wrapped his arms around her, instinctively responding to her obvious fear and pain.

“I’m fine,” he murmured, staring in wonder at the darkness.

“What happened? What do you feel?” she asked, drawing away from him, her eyes pleading and probing.

“Nothing happened. I feel…. I can’t really explain. It’s indescribable.”

“But what happened when the lights covered your face? What did you feel? What did you hear? I need to know!”

“I cannot explain my feelings right now. Nothing happened. The lights…” He was at a loss.

“What did they say?”

“Say? The lights didn’t speak.” But he wasn’t a skeptic anymore. He didn’t have the right to mock her. He was awed, and deeply respectful of the unknown. All his beliefs had come tumbling down. He was unable to explain with his five senses what he had seen or felt. Yet it had been real, there was no question about that. He instinctively knew it had been real, and he had to accept that. The experience had involved other senses beyond the accepted five ones. Different concepts and ideas swirled in his mind, concepts and ideas which until now he had deemed impossible. Words like ‘spirit world’, ‘psychic’, ‘sixth sense’ raced through his mind as quickly as the dance of the lights.

“Are you sure? You didn’t hear anything?” Kamilah insisted.

“I’m sure.” The warmth had left him, and he felt very cold now. “Come, let’s go back inside.”

Together they crossed the clearing, Gabriel’s arm around her shoulders, Kamilah’s arms circling his waist.

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Read-a-Chapter: CRYPTO, by James Stone

Read a Chapter is *NEW* added feature at As the Pages Turn! Here you’ll be able to read the first chapters of books of all genres to see if you like them before you buy them. Today we are featuring the spy novel, CRYPTO, by James Stone. Enjoy!

Crypto_sm

Title: Crypto

Genre: Mystery/Adventure

Author: James Stone

Website: None

Publisher: Twilight Times Books

Purchase on Amazon

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Prologue

 

Moscow pedestrians forced to walk past Number 2 Lubyanka Square generally do so on the other side of the street. It is not that the walkways are better on that side. It is not that the view is better. It is simply that citizens of Russia understand from the depths of their souls that the Russian Secret Police are hazardous to their health. Home to the Russian Secret Police for almost 100 years, the Lubyanka is the seat of contagion, a place to be avoided at all times and under all circumstances. Its current incarnation, the Federal Security Service, FSB, wasn’t believed to be any different from its predecessors.

The normally minimal traffic had been further reduced to the vanishing point by darkness and a snow storm. This was even more so on the small street that ran behind the Lubyanka. No one witnessed a black ZIL limousine turn in at a narrow portal, curtains drawn for privacy. And another. And another.

The parade of quiet limousines disgorged, one after the other, a flow of equally quiet men who slipped into a doorway manned by guards who needed to see no identification. The quiet men made their ways to a top floor cloak room where they divested themselves of their overcoats. An astonishing array of braid and brass emerged. Generals abounded. There were some bear hugs of greeting, and some good humored banter, but they were mostly subdued, out of character for these normally demonstrative men. They waited, grouped together along lines of affiliation, and talked quietly. The director had not yet arrived.

An aide appeared and beckoned them into the adjoining conference room. He indicated that the director had entered the building and was on his way up. The men looked around and counted noses. They could be sure that those already present constituted the totality of the gathering. The director would not have arrived otherwise.

The conference table was in the shape of a long U. Cards were in place for each person. The director’s seat was at the head. The choicest seats were along the outside, at the extremities. The worst seats were on the inside. Those unfortunate to occupy the inside seats felt that they were in a fish bowl. People overlooked them from every direction. They felt especially vulnerable from the rear.

Each arrival looked with mixed curiosity and apprehension to see where he was placed. Some swelled with satisfaction. Others were stabbed with dismay. Those favored naturally felt that their positions had been mandated by the director. The others tried to tell themselves that the director had nothing to do with it, that the cretin who set up the table was at fault. None questioned their positions aloud. They stood at attention behind their appointed chairs.

The director was one of the most powerful men in Russia. As the head of the FSB, he controlled all overseas espionage, including an unknown number of exceptionally trained assassins. He also controlled all domestic intelligence and counter intelligence. Following time honored practice, he had set up a variety of sub-organizations, each with its own head, each intensely jealous of the others. The director balanced each against the other, thus keeping them mostly away from his own throat. Then too, there were always the assassins. Hence, the anxious readings of the entrails of a freshly slain conference table for omens of the future.

The director strode into the room and took his seat without a word. There was a general scraping as the others seated themselves. The director cleared his throat and spoke to no one in particular. “Comrades, the President sends his greetings. He asked me to tell you he appreciates the way in which you are carrying out the business of keeping our homeland safe.”

There were polite smiles and nods. They recognized the opening ploy and flowed with it. The director’s gaze scanned the table and settled on a small, elderly man at the far corner of the table. “Comrade Alyushin, what can you tell us about the American Situation?”

The assembled group looked at Alyushin, the Director of Planning and Analysis, with wooden expressions. They tended to treat him and his staff with contempt. His group was widely viewed as a pasture for those who didn’t have the good sense to retire when they should. However, he and the director were old compatriots, so they would give him a polite hearing. Alyushin removed a pipe from his mouth and spoke quietly to the director as though they were the only two in the room.

“The Americans have severe internal political and economic problems. Their lawmaking bodies keep switching parties, and their current president is widely viewed as having little international affairs sense or strength. Their economy is in shambles, only slightly better than the Europeans. Their obsession with global warming, and other things they call ‘political correctness,’ has made them vulnerable to terrorism and increasing dependence on foreign energy and other natural resources.

The group as a whole seemed to become more alert and more focused on Alyushin. A thinking man might not know where this was leading, but would be sure the director was responsible for the direction. A prudent man would watch and listen carefully.

Alyushin continued, “In short, it appears the Americans are in the worst shape since just before the ‘Great War’ and are basically paralyzed internationally.”

The director looked around the room. “If I have understood this presentation correctly, we have to contend with a country that is seriously weakened, and a president who is not in a position to respond internationally. Does that conform to your understanding?”

There were general nods around the table. No one was willing to disagree until he knew the name of the game.

The director turned to a General of the Army. “Please report on the combat readiness of the Army.”

“Highly satisfactory, Comrade Director. Regular combat divisions are at full strength. All are equipped with the latest combat weapons. Morale is high, especially in the division that recently completed an exercise.”

“Did you use the new cryptographic equipment?”

“We did indeed. It performed flawlessly.”

The director nodded his satisfaction. “You might explain this new system to the rest of the group.”

“Yes, comrade.” The general appeared to gather his thoughts. He began quietly. “What you are about to hear has been one of the most closely guarded secrets of Russia. Until the recent maneuvers, less than a hundred people knew even of the existence of the system. It went by the code name ‘Solid Ice.’ Its concept is no less grandiose than the total security of all Russian communications, from those supporting our diplomatic missions down to the lowest radioman in a rifle squad.”

Murmurs rolled around the room. The general continued, becoming more animated. “I can see that the significance of this breakthrough captures your imagination. With total communications security, we will be able to conduct the most sensitive diplomatic activities without fear of exposure. We will be able to exclude all outside intrusion into our affairs. And, best of all, we will be able to prepare for any military action without revealing the associated troop and logistics movements. I foresee the day, not long distant, when the despised U.S. National Security Agency will be put completely out of business.” The general basked in a round of general applause.

A man in civilian clothes, whose applause had been more polite than enthusiastic, leaned forward and cleared his throat. “How long distant, Comrade? What is the nature of this new miracle, and how fast can it be fielded?”

The general looked modest. “Not really a miracle,” he responded, “just the genius of our mathematicians and physicists. You see, since before the Great War, encryption has been based on the fact that any communication can be represented by a sequence of numbers. Further, the number set can be limited to ones and zeros. Scramble the numbers according to an algorithm known only by the sender and receiver, and the result is difficult to read. Not impossible, until a recent advance by our mathematicians. Our encryption is now unreadable by any practical method, even with the most advanced computers expected to be available in the next decade.”

The man in civilian clothes spoke again. “Assuming I accept that the messages are unbreakable, what prevents someone from watching radio traffic between units and inferring what is happening?”

“Another of our advances. Our new radios hop frequencies at very high rates, so they don’t stay on one frequency long enough to be detected. The same algorithms used to encrypt the core message are used to control the frequency hopping, so it’s doubly impossible to see who is doing what and where, or even that anyone is doing anything.”

“Next,” said the civilian, “how do the systems ensure command and control from the top to the bottom?”

“There, we’ve copied the American concept of combat net radio. Each unit, at whatever level, has its own network. The commander at that level is in his network and also in the network of the next level up. And so on, to the level of the prime minister. Also, we’ve put in a twist that allows higher levels to override all lower levels and take direct control.”

“Next,” said the civilian, “when will the new system be completely fielded?”

“Twelve months. That includes not only the new combat radio, but also all communications by any element of the Russian government. All will use the new master encryption system.”

“Impressive,” said the civilian. “Two final questions. You mentioned ‘practical methods.’ What about impractical methods? And how did the funding for such a program sneak through?”

The general flushed slightly. “It is theoretically possible, given enough computing power, to break any encryption. However, the computing power to attack our new encryption is decades away.”

The civilian stared at the general for a long time. The silence lengthened painfully. At last the civilian murmured, “You are certain? Absolutely certain?”

The director chose to step in at this point. The lack of love between the civilian and the general was well known. “As certain as anything in an uncertain world,” he said briskly, looking around the room. “To answer your other question, no one in this room except me knows how the funding was ‘sneaked’ through.” He turned to the general, eyes cold. “Have the new system fielded within the year. Fully.”

As if on cue, the door behind the director opened, and his aide entered with an arm load of folders. He began distributing them. They were dun-colored and marked “MOST SECRET.” Each folder had the name of a department, or organization, inscribed in the corner.

After the aide had left, the director looked around the room again. No one had opened his folder. “These folders describe projects each of you is to set in motion. Each of you is to return to his organization and began work immediately. Completion is to be one year from now. If you have problems, surface them immediately. No excuses will be accepted a year from now.”

The director abruptly stood and left the room. The others sat for a while wondering whether the meeting was over, wondering also what this new project might be. Finally, someone gathered sufficient nerve to leave. The logjam broke, and the parade of ZILs began quietly carrying their anonymous cargoes into the night.

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Read-a-Chapter: HAZARDOUS UNIONS, by Alison Bruce & Kat Flannery

Read a Chapter is *NEW* added feature at As the Pages Turn! Here you’ll be able to read the first chapters of books of all genres to see if you like them before you buy them. Today we are featuring the Historical Romance, Hazardous Unions, by Alison Bruce & Kat Flannery. Enjoy!

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Hazardous_Union_Front_Cover

Twin sisters separated by war, bound by love…

After the death of their father, twin sisters Maggie and Matty Becker are forced to take positions with officers’ families at a nearby fort. When the southern states secede, the twins are separated, and they find themselves on opposite sides of America’s bloodiest war.

In the south, Maggie travels with the Hamiltons to Bellevue, a plantation in west Tennessee. When Major Hamilton is captured, it is up to Maggie to hold things together and deal with the Union cavalry troop that winters at Bellevue. Racism, politics and a matchmaking stepmother test Maggie’s resourcefulness as she fights for Bellevue, a wounded Confederate officer and the affections of the Union commander.

In the north, Matty discovers an incriminating letter in General Worthington’s office, and soon she is on the run. With no one to turn to for help, she drugs the wealthy Colonel Cole Black and marries him, in hopes of getting the letter to his father, the governor of Michigan. But Cole is not happy about being married, and Matty’s life becomes all about survival.

Two unforgettable stories of courage, strength and honor.

Title: HAZARDOUS UNIONS

Genre: Historical Romance

Authors: Alison Bruce & Kat Flannery

Website: www.alisonbruce.ca & www.katflannery-author.com

Publisher: Imajin Books

Find on AMAZON.

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Maggie

Fall 1862.

The Yankees were coming.

We’d seen the signs days ago. News was, most of west Tennessee had fallen under Union control. Thaddeus scouted them out while hunting rabbits in the brush that bordered the plantation’s cotton fields. We’d prepared as best we could as fast as we could, and now I was waiting for them on the front veranda of Bellevue.

“Why me?”

“Someone has to meet them, Miss Maggie,” Mammy said, setting out tea things as if the neighbors were coming to call. “Mrs. Hamilton hasn’t got your nerve and Miss Patience wouldn’t be a lick of good even if she would come downstairs.”

“I’m just a servant,” I objected half-heartedly.

“Yeah, like Tad here is just a dumb nigger.” Mammy cocked her head to one side and a moment later I heard the faint but shrill whistle of the kettle. She smoothed the skirt of her greying white pinny over her faded grey dress. Eventually, the two garments were going to match. “Watch out for her, boy,” she said, before heading around the corner of the wraparound porch toward the kitchen door.

Only Mammy could get away with calling Thaddeus “boy” or “nigger” without coming under the resolute stare of a man who looked like he could have been carved out of a huge block of obsidian. Mammy was his aunt and had raised him, along with Major Hamilton, from nursery age. The boys had been more like brothers than master and slave, Mammy said, until Master Ned was sent off to West Point to be made an officer and a gentleman. It was hard for me to reconcile her picture of Master Ned with the aloof man who had employed me to take care of his wife.

I was barely sixteen when I was hired by the Captain, now Major Hamilton. Some days I felt that I was twice that age now, instead of just a couple of years older. Today, watching the Union contingent approach, I felt like that frightened girl again. I took small comfort in the pair of pistols hidden in the pockets of my crinoline. Knowing that Thaddeus was watching over me from the shadows, armed to the teeth, was more reassuring.

Half a dozen hard looking men approached the house. Four of them spread out, some facing us, some partly turned to keep an eye on the out buildings. Two of them rode up the path towards the porch. I felt like I was being ringed in by a pack of hungry wolves. The leader of the pack rode up to the bottom of the front steps.

Wolfish was a description that fit him. Hard muscled, wary eyes, shaggy dark hair spiking out from his cap, he looked old with experience and young in years. His uniform had seen better days and his beard was untrimmed, but it appeared that he had made some effort to clean up before approaching the house. That was a good sign.

I had also made an effort for appearances sake. Instead of my usual long braid, I had twisted my blonde hair into knot and allowed tendrils to fall free on either side of my face. I was wearing one of the calico dresses Mrs. Hamilton bought me in St. Louis. She wanted to make it clear that I was no mere servant any more. I was using it today for similar reasons.

“Afternoon, ma’am. I’m Captain Seth Stone. I have a cavalry troop under my command that needs to set up quarters for the winter.”

“I see.” My voice was steady, but I could feel my knees wobble beneath my skirts. “And?”

“And this looks like a good place to stay.”

“How many are you expecting us to accommodate?”

I heard a chuckle from one of his men. It was stifled with a sharp look from the grim-faced sergeant behind the captain.

“Not so many as there should be,” the Captain said, ignoring the interruption. “If you’d oblige me by asking your man to lay down his arms, maybe we can discuss terms.”

Gott hilf mir,” I prayed, but held my ground. “You have your protectors, Captain. I have mine.”

With a hand gesture, he signaled his men and they all dismounted as neatly as if they were on parade. Then he dismounted and held out his reins to the sergeant.

“Thaddeus, would you lead these troopers and their horses to water?”

Thaddeus stepped out of the shadows, empty handed. “Yes, miss.”

The two men passed on the stairs. Thaddeus was significantly taller and broader than the Union officer and was doing his best guard dog imitation, but the Captain didn’t flinch when they passed. He did keep his eye on Thaddeus until he was in the range of his own men. Then he turned his attention back to me and I lifted my head up to make eye-contact. He may not have been as tall as Thaddeus, but he was not a small man and I am on the short side for a woman.

Having asserted his dominance, he backed up a step.

“I understand this is the Hamilton home. Are you Mrs. Hamilton?”

“No, sir. I am Magrethe Becker, Mrs. Hamilton’s companion.”

His eyes widened. “Maybe I should be speaking to the lady of the house.”

“Mrs. Hamilton is indisposed and asked me to…” I stopped, looking for the right word. Meet with him? That sounded too friendly. Deal with him? Almost rude. “Negotiate terms with you.”

He let out a short bark of laughter.

“My terms are simple, Miss Becker. I need to winter seventy men and three officers, plus myself. It’ll be tight, but this place looks like it has enough room with the house and out buildings. We’ll need food and fodder of course. You can either offer, or I will take.”

I shook my head. “No.”

He barked out a longer laugh. “What makes you think you’re in the position to say no?”

“Twelve wounded union soldiers in our care, Captain Stone.”

 

Matty

 

Fort Wayne, Michigan

December 1862

 

What had she done? Matty Becker was going to hell, and there’d be no one to save her. A loud snore echoed from the other room. She peeked around the corner and caught a glimpse of Colonel Black’s stocking feet. She’d burn for sure. She glanced at the paper she held and groaned. She was a horrible, devious, scheming letch. Maggie wouldn’t be pleased. Maggie wasn’t here. Another snore blew into the kitchen and she placed her head onto the table banging her forehead twice. There was no turning back now.

Last night she’d pushed aside her conscience and let fear guide her. For her plan to work, she’d have to throw all sense to the dogs, not that she hadn’t done so already by following through with the blasted thing. She couldn’t fail now. If her family found out what she’d done they’d never forgive her. Worse yet, if Colonel Black found out she’d be locked behind bars, a fate far better than the one that got her in this mess to begin with.

She placed the paper on the table and went into the bedroom. Colonel Black lay on the bed with his clothes stripped off and tossed about the floor. He’d been out for nine hours and would wake any minute. Matty stood, pushed all thoughts of reason from her mind and removed her dress, corset and pantaloons. Her face heated and the room spun. He rolled over and she jumped into the bed next to him, pretending to sleep. She knew the moment he’d woken. The bed stilled and she couldn’t breathe the air was so stiff.

“What the hell?” He sat up and she knew the instant he saw her. “Son of a bitch.”

She felt his nudge once, twice and now a shove almost knocking her from the bed.

“Wake the hell up,” he growled.

She squeezed her eyes closed and willed strength into her soul so she could face the dark Colonel. She rolled over pretending to wipe the sleep from her eyes.

“Who are you?” He placed his head in his hands. She’d bet he had one heck of a headache.

“Your wife,” she said.

“The hell you are.” He shot out of bed without grabbing the sheet, and she averted her eyes.

“Please cover yourself.” She held up the sheet and he ripped it from her hand. “The marriage license is in the kitchen on the table if you do not believe me.”

She watched as he grabbed his head and closed his eyes. The heavy dose of laudanum she’d placed in his drink the night before had done the trick and it wasn’t but a mere suggestion they marry that the Colonel jumped to the challenge. Soon they were standing in the dining room in front of a preacher. Words were spoken—words she thought to say with someone she loved, someone who’d wanted her. Her stomach lurched and her mouth watered with the urge to vomit.

“How did this happen?” he asked sitting on the end of the bed.

“Mrs. Worthington sent me to see if you needed anything.”

“I was drinking.” He looked at her. “I was drunk.”

She shrugged.

He stood holding the sheet tight to his midsection.

She couldn’t help but notice the rippled stomach and defined muscles on his chest.

“We can annul. I had too much to drink. My head wasn’t clear.”

She shook her head.

He frowned.

“We have consummated.” A lie of course but she was desperate.

His mouth fell open. A moment she knew he’d not remember. After the preacher left, she’d taken him to the bedroom where he passed out before hitting the bed.

“Impossible. I’d remember that.”

She shook her head again praying he’d buy the fib.

He pulled on his pants and dress shirt. “I don’t even know you. Why in hell would I marry you?”

“My name is Matty Beck—Black. I was employed with the Worthington’s. You’ve come to dinner several times.”

His brown eyes lit with recognition. “You’re the house maid.”

“Yes.”

“I married a maid?”

The words stung and she turned from him so he wouldn’t see the disappointment upon her face.

“Why would you marry me if I was into the spirits?”

“You seemed fine to me.”

He took a step toward her. “Why would you marry me at all when you don’t even know me?”

She gripped the blanket on the bed. “You…you said kind words, and I…I believed them.

“How desperate are you to marry a stranger?” he yelled. “You found out who my father is. You want money. You tricked me.”

Well, he got the last one right, but the first two irritated her. She was not the kind of person to marry for money. Really, who did he think she was?

“Sorry to disappoint you but I refused my inheritance years ago.”

“If you mean to say that I could not find myself a suitable husband because I am a maid, then you’re wrong.”

“That is exactly what I am saying Miss—”

“Black.”

“The hell it is.”

He went into the kitchen picked up the marriage license and stared at it.

Matty dressed quickly and inched into the room. Confusion pulled at his features and she began to feel sorry for him. This was her fault. She’d planned this. Now she had to continue telling the lie she’d told. She glanced outside and shivered. Boldness, be my tongue. Shakespeare’s words echoed in her mind. It was worth it. She’d been living in fear for a week. Colonel Black had been her saviour, and she risked a life full of love and happiness for this—a lie in which she’d speak for the rest of her life. She swallowed back the lump in her throat and willed the tears not to fall.

“Why can’t I remember?” He glanced at her. “And why in hell would I marry you?”

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Read-a-Chapter: DRAGON FIRE, by Dina Von Lowenkraft

Read a Chapter is *NEW* added feature at As the Pages Turn! Here you’ll be able to read the first chapters of books of all genres to see if you like them before you buy them. Today we are featuring the YA romantic fantasy, Dragon Fire, by Dina Von Lowenkraft. Enjoy!

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Dragon Fire cover

Some choices are hard to live with.

But some choices will kill you.

When seventeen-year-old Anna first meets Rakan in her hometown north of the Arctic Circle, she is attracted to his pulsing energy. Unaware that he is a shapeshifting dragon, Anna is drawn into a murderous cycle of revenge that pits Rakan and his clan against her best friend June.

Torn between his forbidden relationship with Anna, punishable by death, and restoring his family’s honor by killing June, Rakan must decide what is right. And what is worth living – or dying – for.

Title: Dragon Fire

Genre: YA Fantasy

Author: Dina von Lowenkraft

Website: www.dinavonlowenkraft.com

Publisher: Twilight Times Books

Find out more about the book on:

Amazon B&N / Twilight Times Books

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In the Arctic winter, the sun never rises.

In the Arctic summer, the sun never sets.

In the Arctic, the world is at your feet. 

Chapter 1 The Circle Tightens 

The candle flickered in the subzero wind but Anna made no move to protect it. She stopped on the hill in front of Tromso’s three-year high school and watched the water of the fjord shimmer below. Even though it was mid-afternoon there was no sun, just the luminous reflection of the moon. The procession of students continued on without her, leaving only the fading sound of crunching snow in their wake.

“You seem as eager to go to Fritjof’s memorial vigil as I am,” June said, startling Anna with her sudden appearance.

Anna fingered the oval piece of bright orange coral that she had carried around like a talisman since she was a child. She usually kept it in her pocket, but today she wanted to feel its soothing energy closer and had it in her glove. She had never liked Fritjof, and even though she wasn’t glad he had died, she wouldn’t miss him.

She turned to face June whose cobalt blue eyes were at odds with her otherwise Asian features. June and her boyfriend had also been out on the mountain when the avalanche claimed Fritjof. “I’m glad it’s not yours too,” Anna said. “I’d really miss you.”

“It would take more than an avalanche to kill me,” June said, trying to smile. But Anna could feel her friend’s pain lurking under the surface.

“Hey.” She wrapped an arm around June to comfort her. But as soon as her hand touched June’s shoulder, a burst of energy exploded from her stone. Anna ripped off her glove and the piece of coral went flying. “What the—”

June spun around, pushing Anna behind her as if to protect her from an attack. She scanned the area, her body tensed for a fight.

“Who are you looking for?” Anna pressed her palm to dull the pain as she glanced around the deserted hilltop. “Whatever it was, it came from my stone.”

June relaxed her stance. “Are you okay?”

“I think so.” Anna gestured towards the coral-colored sparks that crackled in the darkness of the Norwegian winter. “What do you think it’s doing?”

“Don’t know.” June crouched down to get a better look. Her hand hovered as a bright green light flashed around the stone.

“Don’t touch it,” Anna said sharply. Her stone had always had a special energy, but never coral-colored sparks. Or green flashes of light.

“It’s okay now.” June pulled her hand back. “Look for yourself.”

Anna knelt next to June. The stone was dark and lifeless and she felt a sudden pang of loss. She prodded it gingerly with her good hand, but felt nothing. She picked it up. It was just a pretty bit of coral. The gentle pulsing energy that she had liked so much was gone.

“Can I see it?” June asked.

Anna nodded, her throat constricted. The stone had always reminded her of her father. Its energy was something he would have been able to feel too. The only person she had met so far who seemed open to accepting that kind of thing was June. Everyone else got freaked out, or thought she was crazy. So she had learned not to talk about it.

June closed her fist around the stone. “Where did you get this?” Her voice wavered.

Anna’s attention flicked back to June. She never wavered. “I found it in the mountains. Years ago. Why? What is it?”

“A trigger.”

“A trigger for what?”

June returned Anna’s searching look. “I have no idea.” She handed the stone back.

“So how do you know it’s a trigger?”

“I just feel it.” June picked up the candles that lay forgotten in the snow. “If you’re okay, we should go.”

Anna picked up her discarded glove and froze. In the middle of her left palm was a star-shaped scar. She stretched her hand to get a better look. It was about the size of a dime. She touched it. Like an echo under the fading pain, she could feel the energy of her stone pulsing faintly in her palm.

“Here,” June said, offering Anna a candle. She stopped mid-motion. “What is it?”

“I don’t know. The stone…” She held out her palm. “Look.”

June dropped the candles and took Anna’s hand in hers. Gently, she ran her fingers over the slightly raised ridges of the scar. “A Firemark,” June said as if talking to herself. “But how…?”

“What’s a Firemark?” Anna examined the scar. It was almost silvery in the moonlight.

June looked up, her fingers still on Anna’s palm. “It’s like a living connection between two people. But… there was only the stone.”

“It always felt alive,” Anna said, sure that June would understand. She touched the Firemark one last time before putting her glove back on. It was warm and smooth.

June shook her head. “But even if it felt alive, it shouldn’t have left a Firemark.”

Anna shrugged. “Maybe. But I like it.” Anna closed her hand around the Firemark. It felt like she was holding her stone. She smiled. She’d never lose it now.

June re-lit the candles again and handed one to Anna. “Ready?”

Anna hooked her arm through June’s. “I think so.” They walked silently through town and across the bridge that straddled the green-black fjord.

“Do you think it’s over?” Anna eyed the Arctic Cathedral that sprawled like slabs of a fallen glacier on the other side of the fjord. It was lit up like a temple of light.

June shook her head. “It’s only just begun.”

“That’s enough.” Khotan’s voice snapped like a whip across the barren land of Ngari in western Tibet. “You’re not going to kill her. I will.”

The wind howled in agreement. Rakan bit back the urge to argue with his father whose shaved head and barrel chest marked him as an Old Dragon. But Khotan’s massive physique belied his diminishing power and Rakan knew that his father wouldn’t survive a fight with the female dragon they had finally located. He had felt her power when she had set off his trigger just a few hours before. And she was more powerful than any other dragon he had ever met. Rakan clenched his fists. Blood for blood. It was the Dragon Code. And he would be the one to honor it.

“You need to start a new life here,” Khotan said, his hand like a claw of ice on Rakan’s bare shoulder. “I will end the old.”

His tone of voice, more than his touch, sent shivers down Rakan’s spine. But before he could question his father, a flicker of red caught his attention and his older half-sister, Dvara, materialized on the sparring field. Except she wasn’t dressed to fight. She was wearing a shimmering red gown that matched the color of her eyes and her black hair was arranged in an intricate mass of twisted strands.

“It’s too late to teach Rakan anything.” She made an unhurried motion towards the targets at the other end of the field. One by one, they exploded with her passing hand.

“We weren’t practicing,” Rakan said calmly. “Although if we had been, you’d need to start again. You used a trigger. You didn’t manipulate their structure on a molecular level.”

“Who cares?” Her Maii-a, the pear-shaped stone that every dragon wore to practice manipulating matter with, sparkled like an angry flame at her throat. “They’ve been demolished. And that’s all that counts in a fight.”

Rakan slid his long black braid over his shoulder. “How you fight is just as important as how you win.”

“I’d rather stay alive,” Dvara said. “But you can die honorably if you want.”

“Neither one of you will fight anyone,” Khotan said. “Remember that.”

Rakan bowed his head. There was no point arguing about it now. But Dvara lifted her chin defiantly. “Kraal was my father. I will avenge his death.”

Khotan growled and stepped towards Dvara, dwarfing her with his size. He held her gaze until she dropped her eyes. Rakan shook his head, wondering why Dvara always tried to challenge Khotan’s authority in an open confrontation that she was sure to lose. Khotan was the guardian of her rök, her dragon heart and the seat of her power, and she had no choice but to abide by his will.

Their mother, Yarlung, appeared without warning. “I will speak with Rakan’dzor.” She crossed her arms over her white gown that sparkled with flashes of turquoise. “Alone.”

She waited, immobile, until Khotan and Dvara bowed and dematerialized, shifting elsewhere. As soon as they were gone, her face relaxed and she turned to Rakan, her nearly blind eyes not quite finding his. “I always knew you would be the one to find her,” she purred. “You have the strength and the will of my bloodline. And the time has come for you to use it.” Yarlung tilted her face to the wind. “Kraal gifted me his poison before he died. Neutralized, of course.”

“But no one can neutralize dragon poison.”

“Kairök Kraal was a great Master. His death is a loss for us all.”

Rakan struck his chest with his fist. “Paaliaq will pay for his death with her own.”

“Yes. She will. And you will help me.” A faint smile played on her usually austere face. “I will mark you with his poison so that we can communicate when necessary.”

“Khotan and Dvara have a full link, isn’t that enough?”

“You don’t expect me to rely on second hand information, do you?” snapped Yarlung. She paused and spoke more gently. “Or are you scared to carry Kraal’s poison?”

Rakan knelt down in front of Yarlung. “I will do whatever it takes to kill Paaliaq.” His voice cut through the arid cold of the Tibetan plateau.

Yarlung’s eyes flashed momentarily turquoise and Rakan stepped back as she morphed into her dragon form. She was a long, undulating water dragon and the scales around her head and down her throat glistened like wet opals. Without warning, a bluish-white fire crackled around him like an electric storm. His mother’s turquoise claws sank into his arms and pain sizzled through his flesh. The fire disappeared and Rakan collapsed to the ground, grinding his teeth to keep from screaming in agony.

He would not dishonor his family.

“No, you won’t,” Yarlung said in his mind.

Rakan’s head jerked up in surprise.

“You have just become my most precious tool.” Her voice hummed with pleasure. “You will not fail me.”

As suddenly as the contact had come, it was gone. And so was his mother. Rakan didn’t like it. Not her disappearance. That was normal. Yarlung had always been abrupt. But he didn’t like hearing her in his mind. It was something only dragons who were joined under a Kairök, a Master Dragon, could do. Few dragons were able to survive the rush of power that happened when their röks awakened without the help of a Kairök. But Rakan had.

He gritted his teeth and stood up. If sharing a mind-link with Yarlung was necessary to kill Paaliaq, then he would learn to accept it.

He held his arms out to examine the dragons that had appeared where his mother’s claws had dug into his biceps. They were long, sinuous water dragons like Yarlung. But they were black, the color of purity, the color of Kraal. Rakan watched the miniature turquoise-eyed dragons dance on his arms until they penetrated under his skin. He felt a cold metallic shiver deep inside as they faded from view.

A rush of pride exploded in Rakan and he raised his arms to the frozen winter sky, the pain like a blood pact marking his words. “I will avenge your death, Kairök Kraal. The Earth will become our new home and your Cairn will once again prosper.”

“You can drop me here.” Anna glared at her mother’s boyfriend who reminded her of his namesake: a wolf.

Ulf turned the car into Siri’s driveway and flashed his all too perfect smile. “Not unless you want me to carry you in. Your shoes aren’t practical for walking in the snow.”

Anna snorted. “You’re one to talk. You’re the one driving a sports car in the winter.” And she didn’t feel like having her teammates from the handball team see it.

Ulf threw his head back and laughed. “I only take it out for special occasions. Like New Year’s.” He leaned towards her.  “Especially when I have the honor of accompanying a lovely lady.”

“You’re not accompanying me. You’re dropping me off.”

“Precisely.” He pulled up in front of the house that pulsed with music, revving his engine one last time. He jumped out of the car and got to her side just as she was opening her door. He offered her his arm. “And since I’m a gentleman, I’ll accompany you to the door.”

Anna ignored Ulf and struggled to get up while the dress she had decided to wear did its best to slide all the way up her thighs. Ulf moved to steady her as she wobbled in the high heels she wasn’t used to wearing but she pushed him away. Her shoes slipped on the icy snow and she grabbed the railing, wondering why she had decided to wear them.

“It would be easier if you’d accept my help.”

“I don’t need your help,” she said, walking up the stairs. When he followed anyway, she turned to face him. “Don’t you have anything better to do?”

“As a matter of fact… no,” said Ulf. He straightened his white silk scarf that didn’t need straightening. “Ingrid won’t be off work until eleven.”

The evening was cold and Anna regretted wearing a dress. “You’re not coming in.”

“We can stand out here, if that’s what you prefer,” said Ulf, looking up at the sky.

Randi opened the door. “Anna! Finally,” she squealed. She threw herself at Anna. “I didn’t know you were bringing someone.”

“I’m not,” Anna said. “He’s leaving. Now.”

Randi glanced at Ulf who was leaning elegantly against the railing in what could have passed for a golden boy fashion shot. “Is that your boyfriend?” Randi asked hanging onto Anna. She looked Ulf up and down. “Is that why you didn’t come earlier?”

“Let’s go in,” Anna said, trying to get Randi back in the house.

Ulf slid an arm around Randi’s waist. “Perhaps I can help.”

“Oh sure,” Randi said. She giggled as she leaned into Ulf. “You have a nice… car.”

“Leave her alone.” Anna pried Ulf’s wandering hands away from Randi who was happily wrapping her arms around Ulf’s neck. “Randi, knock it off.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.” Randi pushed away from Ulf. “He’s yours. I forgot.”

“I’ll take her,” said Siri, steadying Randi. “That way you guys can come in and take your coats off.”

“Ulf has a date,” Anna said. She blocked the door after Siri and Randi disappeared inside. “With my mom. Or have you forgotten?”

“Sweet little Anna.” Ulf reached out to touch her cheek with his leather gloved hand.

Anna slapped it away. “Get away from me.”

“You’re so adorable when you’re angry,” he said with a laugh. “Call me when you want me to come for you.”

Anna resisted the impulse to slam the door and closed it calmly instead. The living room was packed with people dancing. She rubbed her forehead and walked over to the dining room table that was laden with food and drinks instead. She’d never understand her mom’s taste in men.

Siri came and nudged her shoulder. “Where’s the guy you came with?””

“Gone,” she answered, rolling her eyes. “Finally.”

“He didn’t look your type,” Siri said with a shrug. “But you never know.”

“He’s not. He’s my mom’s boyfriend. And he’s a jerk.”

Siri’s hand hovered over the massacred chocolate cake. “That’s a mess.”

“Tell me about it.” Ulf was by far the worst of her mom’s recent boyfriends. He was a liar and a manipulator. But her mom never saw beyond a pretty face.

Siri dropped her voice. “Have you seen June? Is she coming?”

“No. She went away with her boyfriend and his family for the vacation. Why?” Anna asked sharply, not liking Siri’s look of relief.

“I was worried that maybe she didn’t feel welcome. And I felt guilty. I mean… I’m really sorry about Fritjof.” Siri paused. “But I’m starting to wonder why I thought some of his ideas were good. I know you never liked him. But… I thought he was right. About June being different and the need to keep our race pure and all that.” Siri looked away. “I’m embarrassed I let myself believe any of it.”

“He was persuasive, I guess.” Anna tried not to rub it in, but she was happy that at least one friend was coming back around.

“Maybe. But I really am sorry.”

“Tell June after the break.” Anna put her glass up to Siri’s. “She’ll understand.”

“Why are you girls being so serious?” boomed Anna’s cousin, Red. He put an arm around each of them. “There’s music. You should be dancing. Or aren’t there any nice guys?”

“Anna never thinks there are any nice guys. But I see a few.” Siri raised her glass and headed across the room that had started to get crowded now that a slow song was playing.

“What are you doing here?” Anna playfully punched her cousin who was built like a rugby player. “You graduated last year. You’re not part of the team anymore.”

“We told the guys that we’d be back,” said Red, nodding to where his best friend, Haakon, was surrounded by half the boys’ team. “But we can’t stay – we promised the girls we’d go to a dinner party. And they’ll kill us if we’re late.” Red and Haakon had dominated the court with their size and skill for the past three years, but neither of their girlfriends played.

“I’m surprised they even let you out of their sight.” Anna waved a finger at her cousin who had the same ultra blond hair and pale blue eyes as she did. “I’ve hardly seen you at all this vacation.”

“I know. We’ve been busy. But I’m here now.” The music picked up again. “Dance?” He took her hand and then dropped it as if he had been stung. He grabbed her wrist and turned her palm up, revealing the star-shaped Firemark. “Who did this?” he growled, his face turning the telltale shade of red that had earned him his nickname.

Anna pulled her hand out of his and closed her fist. “No one.”

“A mark like that can’t just appear.”

“Why do you care what did it?”

“What do you mean what did it?” Red gripped her shoulders. “You were the one…?” Red’s voice trailed off, but his eyes bore into hers as if he was trying to peer into her mind.

Anna pulled back, breaking the contact. “What are you talking about?” She hadn’t said anything about what had happened on the hill and June had left town right after the vigil.

Red laughed, but Anna could still feel his anger like a tightly coiled snake. “Nothing,” he said. “Let’s dance.”

Dvara paced around the massive table that filled the stone hall of Khotan’s lair. “Why are we waiting? Paaliaq has had more than enough time to hide again.”

“That is for Kairök Yarlung to decide,” Khotan said, using Yarlung’s official title as the head of their Cairn. As Kraal’s mate, she had taken over after his death.

“She’s too busy with her political games to think about it.” Dvara snorted. “She’s never had time for us anyhow.”

Rakan looked up from the intricate wire sculpture he was making. “Maybe she just wants to make sure you won’t throw yourself at Paaliaq in a hotheaded rage.”

“I’m no fool.” Dvara leaned over the table towards her half-brother. “I won’t attack until I’m certain to win. But I will attack. Unlike some I know.”

Rakan stood, towering over her. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Sit,” Khotan said from his high-backed burgundy chair at the head of the table. “Both of you.” He waited until they complied. “The only reason you’re going instead of one of us is because Paaliaq won’t recognize you. Unfortunately, neither one of you is experienced enough to trap Paaliaq on your own.” Khotan looked from one to the other. “You’ll have to work together. Remember that.”

“But why did she set off one of Rakan’s old triggers?” Dvara hit the table with her fist. “It makes no sense. Even a newborn whelp would have felt what it was before touching it.”

Khotan created a burgundy colored fireball that floated in front of him. “Either she isn’t Paaliaq, or she’s luring you into a trap.” The stone walls reflected the warm glow of the fireball. “This isn’t a game. And I wish we didn’t have to send you.” Khotan’s face went blank for a split second as it always did when he spoke mentally with another dragon. “Yarlung bids us come to Lhang-tso,” he said, standing up. “Now.” Khotan disappeared without a sound, the fireball still suspended in midair.

Dvara followed in her stepfather’s trail, leaving Rakan to arrive last on the silver shores of the intensely blue lake that was Kairök Yarlung’s home. They faced the lake in their dragon forms. Khotan, an air dragon, rose on his burgundy hind legs and bellowed their arrival.

The blue-white coils of Yarlung’s water dragon form undulated majestically in the center of the crescent shaped lake. Rakan had always felt a sense of awe in front of his mother’s abode. Something about its starkness, the pungent salty flavor of the wind that rolled off the lake, the beauty of the contrasting red hills that surrounded it in the thin air of its 4,500 meter high perch had always made him feel like he was in the presence of something profound. He smiled and rocked back onto his own hind legs, stretched his majestic coral wings and added his greetings to his father’s. Neither animal nor plant life ventured near the lake. They were refreshingly alone. And free.

Dvara, a compact fire dragon with only the shortest of wings, dug her claws into the ground. She raised her jewel-like vermillion head and joined her voice to the others’.

Yarlung approached the edge of the lake and morphed into her human form. She signaled for them to do the same. Flashes of turquoise glinted off her metallic white dress. Rakan knelt next to his father and Dvara, his right fist on the center of his chest where his rök pounded in excitement.

“Rise. It is time,” Yarlung said, her voice snapping like thunder. “If the dragon who set off Rakan’s trigger is Paaliaq, I will savor her death.” Yarlung paused and then spoke again, more quietly. “If not, I will bind her to me by taking her rök whether she wills it or not. But I believe she is Paaliaq. Too many things confirm it. Including the presence of a male dragon who can only be her mate, Haakaramanoth.”

The wind howled across the lake.

“From what our scouts have been able to gather these past three weeks,” Khotan said, “she has created the illusion of being an untrained whelp and goes by the name Jing Mei. But don’t be fooled by her innocent appearance.”

Yarlung’s nostrils flared. “If she even begins to suspect who you are, she’ll kill you. Pretend you’re untrained. Take your time and get close to her. But not too close. Only one member of her Cairn is left and she will want to possess you both. Starting with Rakan’dzor. She has always preferred males.”

“But the Code forbids blood relatives to have the same Kairök,” Rakan said.

Yarlung snorted. “Paaliaq has no honor. Never forget that.” She turned to Khotan. “Give Dvara back her rök. Paaliaq will be suspicious if she doesn’t have it.”

“But the risk…” stammered Khotan.

“Is of no consequence. Do it. Now. And then bind her to you as Kraal taught you.”

“No,” said Khotan. “It’s too dangerous.”

“Have you become so frail that you can no longer master even that?”

Khotan bowed his head. “May your will be done,” he said, saying the traditional formula of submission to a Kairök. But Rakan could feel his father’s anger.

Dvara tilted her chin and gave Rakan a look of triumph. She had wanted her rök back ever since Yarlung had declared that he would keep his and remain independent. But learning to control his rök had been harder than he had let on. Starting with when he had morphed for the first time not knowing which of the three dragon forms he would take. But even after he knew he was an air dragon, his rök’s wild power had nearly overwhelmed him. It wasn’t until Khotan had taught him to control his emotions that he could morph without fear of involuntarily killing himself or his family.

Khotan walked over to Dvara, his fluid black pants snapping in the wind. They stood still, facing each other as equals even though Khotan loomed over Dvara’s delicate figure. Khotan began a low chant in Draagsil, the ancient language of the dragon race. He lifted his arms to the sky, his bare chest glistening like armor. Energy crackled and began to circle him. It spun faster and faster until Khotan was nothing more than a shimmering mirage in front of Dvara. A faint drum-like beat began, steadily increasing in tempo as it grew louder. Suddenly, the wind died and the beating stopped. A mass of pure vermillion energy licked Khotan’s hands like the flames of a fire. The energy condensed in a flash of vermillion light, leaving a bright red stone in Khotan’s palm. Dvara’s dragon heart.

Khotan held the egg-shaped rök to the sky before releasing it to hover above Dvara’s head. It glittered like a crown jewel. “My will has been done. You are now your own master. May your will be one with your rök.”

A red flame moved up Dvara’s gown, circling her body until it reached her rök. The rök ignited in a ball of wild energy. It spun around her in an uncontrolled frenzy. It was going to kill her. Rakan sprang forward, desperate to catch Dvara’s rök before it was too late, but Khotan stopped him. “No. Their reunion can’t be interfered with. It must run its course. For better or for worse.”

The rök lurched. Rakan stood ready to intervene if things got worse. Whether he was supposed to or not, he wouldn’t stand by and watch her die. A brilliant flash of intense vermillion encompassed Dvara, knocking her to the ground.

Yarlung snorted in contempt. “Tend to her.”

Khotan knelt next to Dvara and touched a hand to her forehead, healing her with his energy. She latched onto Khotan, her red eyes echoing the wildness of her rök.

“Come,” Khotan said, helping her to stand. “Do you accept of your own free will that I mark you with Kraal’s neutralized poison and bind you to me in a partial link?”

“I do.”

“And do you understand the consequences of this act?”

Yarlung growled her impatience, but Dvara didn’t take her eyes from Khotan’s.

“I do,” Dvara said solemnly.

“What consequences?” thought Rakan, glancing at his mother. But she ignored him.

Khotan morphed and sank his claws into Dvara’s bare arms. Rakan watched, horrified, as Dvara writhed by the edge of the lake in a mixture of rapture and agony. A black winged air dragon with burgundy eyes danced on each arm before fading under her skin.

“Go now,” Yarlung said, her words lingering for just a moment after she disappeared.

“Rakan…”

“Yes, Father?”

“If you need to contact us, send a message through Dvara.”

Rakan nodded, confused. Didn’t his father know that Yarlung had marked him too?

Khotan disappeared. It was time.

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Read-a-Chapter: Stairway to AWESOMENESS! – 30 Fundamental Steps to Living a Life of Awesomeness! by Tanya Masse

Read a Chapter is *NEW* added feature at As the Pages Turn! Here you’ll be able to read the first chapters of books of all genres to see if you like them before you buy them. Today we are featuring the self-help book, Stairway to AWESOMENESS! – 30 Fundamental Steps to Living a Life of Awesomeness! by Tanya Masse. Enjoy!

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Being a happy, positive person and living a life of awesomeness is a choice. In the face of adversity, it isn’t always easy to make, but it is a necessary choice if you want to live life to the absolute fullest.

Written and illustrated with infinite wisdom and an original comic twist, Stairway to Awesomeness is the ultimate 30-step self-improvement guide that will make you want to change your life forever and encourage others to do the same.

Comic Strip Mama cartoonist and writer, Tanya Masse, shares her tragedy-to-triumph life story with the world and proves that no matter what adversity you are faced with, as long as you have a shred of sanity left, you CAN rise above and BE AWESOME!

Comic Strip Mama shows you how to:

  • CHANGE your way of thinking about certain things you have been conditioned to believe
  • STOP taking life SO SERIOUSLY
  • Focus on the POSITIVE lessons
  • Recognize the BLESSINGS
  • Find the HUMOR in everything. Yes, even tragic things!

Now make your choice, and start climbing the Stairway to Awesomeness!

Find out more about Stairway to AWESOMENESS! on AMAZON

Enter the Comic Strip Mama™ Blog Tour of AWESOMENESS Extravaganza Giveaway for your chance to win some AWESOME prizes!

http://www.comicstripmama.com/STAIRWAY-TO-AWESOMENESS.html

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My Childhood Years 

My childhood was bittersweet. I remember being very loved especially by my extended family, but I also remember being very scared and lost. In all honesty, my parents were not the best of parents. I’d like to believe that the reasoning was simply because they were not ready to be parents, so they were a little selfish and therefore made some really bad choices.

First, I will tell you about the good. I remember my mother being a beautiful, loving, spiritual and talented woman. She watched the Young and the Restless every day, she loved music and she could sew. She designed and made a lot of my clothes. She made me the most amazing Halloween costumes and some pretty funky “fashion forward” clothes. I like to believe that if she were alive today, she would have made it in the fashion world. She also loved to doll me up and experiment with my long hair. She was a housewife and a stay-at-home mom. She loved me and my little brothers. I know she did.

My father was a handsome, talented man. He worked as a shoe salesman on the Base, but his true passion was music. Before I was born, he was in a band. I remember that he played the guitar like a rock n’ roll star and he could sing too. I remember getting together with family and everyone would sit around listening to my dad sing and play guitar. Sometimes my mom would sing too. They were good times and awesome memories.

Now, I will tell you about the bad…and the ugly.

My father abused drugs and my mother was an alcoholic. When it wasn’t all fun and happiness, they fought…a lot. It was pretty extreme at times and when my father got angry with my mom, or with anybody for that matter, it was terrifying. He was loud and physically, verbally and mentally abusive. My parents abused each other mentally, emotionally and sometimes physically.

Over time, my mother became so severely depressed to the point that alcohol wasn’t enough to take away her pain anymore. She didn’t want to exist anymore and eventually, after several attempts, on November 2nd, 1981, she made that happen. The month before Christmas, 10 days after my 7th birthday and my brothers where only 3 and 5 years old. My mother was only 28! So young, so much to live for!

I know her brain was sick and she was tainted with abuse and alcohol. I know that what she did wasn’t my fault, but as you can imagine, trying to figure out the meaning of life after that devastation was extremely difficult and challenging for me. It is something that I struggled with tremendously throughout most of my life.

Do I blame my father for my mother’s death? I do, but only partially and he knows that. For years my father lied and told me and my brothers that my mom innocently and naturally died in her sleep. Another thing I had to struggle with until I finally found the guts to confront him and make him tell me the truth, the truth I already knew.

I don’t like to talk about this era of my life in detail, but you get the gist. I will say that their abusive behavior was mainly directed towards each other and quite often, thankfully, my aunt and uncle would stay with us, play with us and take care of us.

Very soon after my mother’s demise, in 1982, my father “rebounded” and re-married. I will call her the “evil stepmother”. I only say that because she was truly an evil person. She would hurt me and my brothers when my father was not around and she would leave us alone as a punishment to my father when she was upset with him. After she left me and my brothers on the side of a busy highway and told us to find our own way home while she and her daughter hitchhiked back to Ottawa, my father finally saw the light and separated from her for good.

Shortly after my father’s divorce from the “evil stepmother”, in 1983, he met another woman who has been my stepmother ever since. She wasn’t an “evil stepmother”. She was actually a very nice, kind and caring person. BUT, all of this happened within a span of less than 2 years after my mom died. Imagine the pain, the confusion and the insanity. Two new “moms” and I haven’t even truly had a chance to grieve or even begin to understand the loss of my real mom. I know that my father was desperate to find someone to take care of my brothers and me, but WOW it was hard. Yes, kids are resilient, but they aren’t THAT resilient!

I will admit that my childhood improved significantly after my father moved in with my stepmom, despite my fears and apprehension. My new stepmom had two children and although there were conflicts at times, we all got along pretty well, like regular brothers and sisters. I do remember a lot of love, a lot of happiness and some awesome, fun times. My new stepmom wasn’t my real mom, but she was the next best thing and I will refer to her as my “mom” from hereinafter.

In 1984 my father almost died from sepsis (blood poisoning) caused by a severe tooth abscess. Yes, a tooth abscess can kill you! Scary, right? Well it was very scary and I thought my dad was going to die and leave me just like my mom did. He was hospitalized in intensive care and when he didn’t come home that day after my mom took him to the ER, I cried and cried. My mom tried to comfort me and assure me that he was going to be fine, but I didn’t believe her and I demanded to see him so I could make sure he was still alive. My mom was told that children would not be permitted into the ICU, but she managed to convince the doctor to allow me to see him for just a few minutes. He was alive, but he was very sick and he had several tubes and machines hooked up to him. Thankfully, he pulled through and came home.

Over the next three years, my father changed his ways for the better. He had an awakening after his near-death experience. He wasn’t angry all the time. He still had his moments, but for the most part, he was happy and he decided to make some positive changes. This is when I started to admire my father and truly recognize how awesome and intelligent he was. He went to college as a mature student and graduated top of his computer programming class, with distinction. As a result, he was offered an amazing job in another city. This made me really proud and that is when I truly started to realize that people really can change their negative ways and get back to good, if they put their mind to it.

In 1987, we moved from the small town of Kingston, Ontario to the big city of Ottawa, Ontario. I was 12. I was all sorts of excited and positive and optimistic. We were moving on up! Then almost immediately after we moved, my body started to change, I got my first lady flow and hit the BIG “P”. Ugh! Puberty!

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