Book Review & Giveaway: ‘Mind Games,’ by Christine Amsden


MindGames_med
Mind Games
 is the much awaited third installment in the new adult mystery series, Cassie Scot: ParaNormal Detective. Talented author Christine Amsden keeps delivering a great story filled with interesting characters, romance, mystery, and the paranormal, lots of it.

In this episode, Cassie still doesn’t know why Evan broke her heart two months ago, and the mystery gnaws at her big time. She decides to keep busy and make herself useful at the sheriff’s department. She also meets charismatic mind mage Matthew Blair…much to Evan’s distaste. At the same time, Eagle Rock is teeming with hate from the religious community, a reaction to the recent murder of a much-esteemed pastor’s wife by what the people believe was a sorcerer. The town is about to snap, with tensions between the magical and non-magical communities.

And in the center of all this, is Matthew, whom Cassie finds irresistible. But can she trust him? According to Evan, no way. But then, Evan isn’t the most objective person when it comes to Cassie. Evan and Cassie have a history, as well as a secret connection, that keeps them bound in spite of themselves.

Will Cassie discover the real culprit or culprits behind the pastor’s wife’s murder, as well as the real face behind the anti-magical propaganda and demonstrations? Most importantly, will she wake up and see Matthew for who he really is…and find the courage to face Evan for what he did to her—when she finds out?

I love this series and thoroughly enjoyed this instalment! There’s something about Cassie’s voice that makes her really likable. She has a good heart and is witty, too. But best of all, she is just an ordinary girl next door trying to do her best in spite of everything that happens around her—which is usually pretty remarkable, as is often the case in paranormal stories.

Her relationship with Evan keeps evolving organically and there’s a major revelation in this book about their connection and the secret behind their rival families. Matthew is a great addition to this episode, adding tension with his charismatic personality and inciting sparks of jealousy from Evan. The conflict between the religious and the magical communities is also well done.

Mind Games kept me reading late into the night, wondering what would happen next. If you haven’t read any books in this series before, I urge you to pick up book one first, Cassie Scot: ParaNormal Detective. The books are best read in order. You won’t be disappointed.

Purchase links: Amazon / Barnes and Noble

Connect with the author on the web: 

Website / Newsletter / Blog / Facebook / Twitter / Goodreads / Google+

My review was originally published on Blogcritics

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Written in Ruberah by P. Christina Greenaway

Written in Ruberah  Cover

Title: Written in Ruberah
Author: P. Christina Greenaway
Publisher: Girl by the Sea Publishing
Pages: 420
Language: English
Genre: Paranormal romance
Format: Paperback & eBook

TRAILER: http://youtu.be/3tvUkabCafo

PURCHASE AT AMAZON!

New York real estate broker Miriam Lewis takes off for a brief getaway to a remote inn on the rugged cliffs of Cornwall. Rest and romance with her boyfriend seem like the perfect cure for a life that appears to be going nowhere, and too fast.

Entering Cornwall, Miriam crosses the River Tamar and glimpses a luminous girl floating in the river. A memory from long, long ago begins to unfold in Miriam’s thoughts—something about a promise she made to perform a selfless act of courage. Could it be true? Could she ever rise to such heroism or is it just a hallucination?

While at the inn, Miriam experiences a series of flashbacks from a life she lived in an ancient land called Ruberah. These startling images convince Miriam that she did write the promise and that she must keep it. But to do so, Miriam will have to let go of everything in her life and place her trust in a guide—the river girl—the wise and eternal spirit of the River Tamar.

EXCERPT:

The light of the ley line locks onto their feet and forms straps similar in style to the sandals they wore in Ruberah. Kate grins. “Cool, right?”

“Cool.”

“Ready?”

“No. Just kidding. Yes.”

A thundering sound like the drumming of kettledrums blasts through the mine, and the ley line shoots forward. Kate and Miriam hold hands and whiz down the tunnel on the beam of red light. Huge rocks at the end of the mine slide apart, and the girl and the woman skid into the ocean. The ley line expands and encases them in a bullet of light that looks like a futuristic, high-speed railway car. Their globes collapse into rings of ruby light and lie around their necks.

“Brilliant!” Kate runs her hands through her hair and tosses it about her shoulders. “We traveled like this in the Time of Ruberah. We could turn the ley line into airships that carried a thousand people at a time, and we controlled our speed and direction from an astral disk—a soft, razor-thin computer we stuck into the palms of our hands, which was programmed to the astral sphere of the Ruby Kingdom.”

Miriam tunes her out. Please God, she won’t have to use this astral disk thing—it’s hard enough to keep up with the computers of this world, let alone deal with some intergalactic system. She wonders what’s governing their speed now, but doesn’t ask. It might be Kate, in which case she’d rather not know. Foretune to travel well. Watching the waters of the Atlantic splash by, she tells herself that gliding along beneath the sea—breathing air without knowing where it’s coming from, losing complete control of her life—is a good thing. Panic beats beneath her every breath.

Christina Greenaway grew up in Cornwall, England in a small fishing village. One of her favorite pastimes as a child was to write a story, stuff it in a bottle, toss it into the sea, andP. Christina Greenaway imagine all her characters – pirates, kings, and others – come to life. Her life twisted and turned, however, in so many ways that she never ventured into writing until now, many years later. Her novels include themes generated from her life experiences including: trust, the fantasy parent, empowerment, work and travel and spiritual power. 

Christina has worked at BBC radio in England, a NYC high-powered ad agency, as assistant to the president of a perfume company in France, as a partner for a frog farm in Costa Rica, and numerous other venues. She has traversed the globe. 

She is the author of Written in Ruberah, published by Girl by the Sea Publishing, and Dream Chaser: Awakening, published by Girl by the Sea. You can visit Christina at www.christinagreenaway.com or her blog at http://christinagreenaway.wordpress.com

Book Review: ‘Christmas is in the Air’ by Cary Morgan Frates, Danielle Lee Zwissler, Jennifer Conner, and Karen Hall

Christmas is in the Air Anthology 2

This is the second Christmas romance anthology from Books to Go Now that I have read this month. I loved the first one,Christmas Romance, and this the second one didn’t disappoint. Four talented romance authors, four sweet stories that will warm your heart this holiday season. And just like in the first one, there are dogs in this one, too!

In “Red Soles at Night Christmas Delight,” by Cary Morgan Frates, Audrey Wells is out of her wits when a dog jumps on to the deck of her boat and in the process throws her super expensive Louboutin shoes into the lake. The dog’s handsome owner has no choice but to dive into the freezing cold water to rescue them. Of course, Audrey ends up making sure he doesn’t get pneumonia. In a turn of fate, they end up spending Christmas Day together. A humorous and sexy story.

In “Yuletide Bride,” by Danielle Lee Zwissler, reporter Mary Simms is out on a mission. She wants to prove that the town’s Magic of Christmas Festival, where perfect couples are “matched” for life, is a sham. Will she have the courage to uncover the truth and destroy people’s belief in the tradition, even if it means destroying the happiness of some of the old couples involved? And what about James, the handsome lawyer who asks her not to go ahead with her story, and for whom she’s developing some serious feelings? Will Mary learn to have faith? An original, delightful story with a touch of mystery.

In “Christmas Gift that Keeps Wagging,” by Jennifer Conner, we meet Julian Barrows, a single dad with a kindergarten son who suffers from seizures; and Hannah, the beautiful trainer who specializes in seizure-detecting dogs. Their paths touch when Julian tries to get her dog for his son. The problem is, it’s incredibly expensive. Fate has other plans, and the magic of Christmas works its way into their lives…A heart-warming story with an ending that will pull at your heart strings.

The last story is “One Horse Open Sleigh Race,” by Karen Hall, where we’re transported to 1819 London, and where, after a most unexpected encounter, a wealthy earl and the feisty twin of the new clergyman find true love thanks to a Christmas sleigh race and an adorable “match-making” Scottie. Lovers of historical romance will relish this one.

This anthology has a tantalizing, charming cover. That’s the first thing that pulled me to the book, and it adequately illustrates the inside content. The four stories in this anthology are all about strong yet vulnerable heroines and sensitive, yet forceful heroes; about the spirit of the Christmas season and the magical effect it can sometimes have on people; about the hope and faith for true love and the attainment of that love.

Through the authors’ imaginations, I was transported to different places and times, relishing the characters’ fictional worlds and predicaments. I also love how the authors incorporate humor into their stories, and how the dogs play their important roles. Christmas Is in the Air is an upbeat, thoroughly enjoyable read, and one I’m sure readers of sweet romance stories will enjoy.

Find out more on Books to Go Now and  Amazon.

My review was originally published in Blogcritics Magazine. 

Book Review: ‘Christmas Romance: The Best Christmas Romance of 2013,’ by Casey Dawes, Danica Winters, Jennifer Conner, and Sharon Kleve

 

18749222 (1)For fans of inspirational love stories, Christmas Romance is a wonderful anthology to cuddle up with this holiday season. Written by four best-selling romance authors, these stories will warm your heart and leave you with a cozy upbeat feeling that will linger for days.

In “Christmas Wishes,” readers will meet Lee Llewellyn, who’s lost all hope of finding happiness due to her young son’s death and the bitter divorce that followed… until she meets a handsome stranger in the cemetery on Christmas Eve, and her life takes a bright, unexpected twist. A soulful story about re-claiming joy.

In “Central Bark at Christmas,” Tennyson has just been dumped by her arrogant and insensitive lawyer boyfriend. She swears to stay away from men, believing they’re nothing but bad luck. But then, while walking her dog she meets Par, who, aside from spending time with his dog, seems only to have time for work. But fate has plans for them. They find an abandoned dog and as they care for it and try to find him a home, their destinies become intertwined… Dog lovers will love this one.

In “Halo’s Wish,” undercover pet detective Halo Ann’s dream is to have a big family and a house in the country surrounded by pets, but she denies herself these things by focusing on her career – even if that means staying away from a sexy veterinarian who keeps bumping into her. While working on a case, things go terribly wrong and she ends up with a lump on her head, a broken ankle, a bruised hip, and a demolished car. The first thing she sees in the hospital when she opens her eyes is the vet’s face. Will Christmas work its magic and make her realize she can have both a fulfilling relationship and a career? This was such a cute story with endearing protagonists.

In “Christmas Hope,” Clara is trying to lift from the ground a tasting party business called The Perfect Place — not easy when her self esteem is low due to a failed marriage and various failed businesses. One day while watching TV she discovers Sam Richards, a fourth-generation farmer from upstate New York…and she has an idea that brings her to his very doorstep. There’s only one problem: he’s super grumpy and has not interest whatsoever in collaborating with her. Will Clara succeed in melting the ice from his Scrooge heart?

What I loved most about this anthology is that it’s full of pets: dogs, puppies, kittens. As an animal lover, I really enjoyed the way the authors incorporated critters into their stories, and how the animals, in a way, had a role in uniting the characters. The protagonists are sympathetic, their troubles and concerns ones that most women can relate to. The heroes are ones to fall in love with. There’s a generous share of humor as well. These four heart-warming stories are about moving forward and start living again, about the magic of the Christmas season, about trusting our hearts and having hope. Most of all, about believing and finding true love. Recommended!

Find out more on Amazon and Books to Go Now.

My review was originally published in Blogcritics.

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.

Read-a-Chapter: ‘Sweet Karoline,’ by Catherine Astolfo

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 psychological suspense, SWEET KAROLINE, by Catherine Astolfo. Enjoy!

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“I met Ethan on the day that I killed Karoline.” But is Anne Williams really a murderer? Or was her best friend’s death a tragic accident for which Anne blames herself?

This compelling central character embarks on a rollercoaster ride of self-exploration that causes the reader to breathlessly follow her. Throughout an emotional breakdown in the present, sprinkled with flashes of the past that brought her to this point, Anne questions her own decisions, her lifestyle, and those of the friend she thought she knew.

The gripping twists of Karoline’s duplicity are vicious and deplorable. Entangled in the arms of the homicide detective who helped rule the case a suicide, Anne learns about love and decides to trace her complicated past. The journey uncovers dark family secrets, an unusual history, and criminal treachery. Anne must answer the classic question, “Who am I?” amidst a backdrop of racial tension, lies and hidden chronicles. Eventually she has to confront a deadly threat before the entire story becomes clear. Can she survive this maelstrom of revelation and betrayal with her sanity intact?

Title: Sweet Karoline

Genre: Psychological Suspense

Author: Catherine Astolfo

Website: www.catherineastolfo.com 

Publisher: Imajin Books

Purchase on AMAZON

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Chapter One

I met Ethan on the day that I killed Karoline.

Other than a few minor adjustments, I believe that I have handled her murder exceedingly well.

The state of my car, for instance, has become something of a nuisance. Bits of tissue, used napkins, paper cups and pop cans litter the floor at my feet or fly out the window as I drive along. I am invariably subjected to a barrage of honking whenever I reach a red light.

People these days have no patience. They ought to understand that I am busy examining the stray bits in my car. Some of them are works of art. I don’t notice the change to green because they are so infinitely interesting.

This study of creative possibilities has become somewhat of an obsession. In the back of my mind I know that all I have to do is clean it up. Yet the thought of actually tackling the onslaught of debris leaves me inert and helpless.

Ethan offered recently to take me to the car wash. He’d help me dump the debris and vacuum the inside, but I have seriously considered the idea that I may be destroying a future Picasso. I have thus far refused his proposition. Not that I have shared my vision of a Picasso with him, of course. I just say that I never have time.

I have acquired a habit of going shopping. I make lists of things in my mind—groceries, toiletries, cosmetics, medicines, vitamins or clothing—that seem absolutely essential to the arrival of tomorrow. But once inside the pharmacy, the clothing store or the shopping center, the bright lights mesmerize me. My eyes blur and I can’t for the life of me remember what I have come for.

When I do buy something, I am left vaguely dissatisfied, certain that I could have gotten a better bargain somewhere else had I only looked a little longer. Depressed because I had to use my credit card again and this purchase will become just one more thing to do. Write the check. Buy the stamp. Walk to the post box. Mail the envelope.

The little, unfinished things do sometimes bother me. Dirty laundry is piled up in the closet. The bed is always unmade. In the bathroom, the ceiling is slowly cracking from some unspecified leak that I have failed to report to the superintendent. The drapes in the living room neither open nor close anymore.

At first I tended to watch television all night long, despite the fact that the next day I was a zombie. After I decided to go on an extended sick leave, it didn’t matter. I started to sleep all night and all day, never moving unless forced to by some phone call, knock at the door or the call of nature.

I spend hours at the sink. For some reason, the suds and the water are calming. So far I have washed every dish, bowl, and ornament in the apartment two or three times. I reenact advertisements for the latest dishwashing liquid, showing off my lovely long fingers and hands to, well, myself. I speak in a sing-song voice to the imaginary audience, telling them how kind the dishwashing liquid has been to my hands over the years, encouraging them to run right out and buy this product before it disappears from the shelf.

After I’ve allowed the water to swirl down the drain, I shift to spending hours in front of the little mirror that hangs in my kitchen. People tell me that I am a very beautiful woman. On good days, when I feel haughty and happy, I can gaze into the polished glass and agree with their assessment. On other days, I notice the nose that’s a little too upturned. The lips that protrude a bit too much. The dark birthmark above my left eyebrow. The ears that don’t lie flat against my head. I have no idea why I am considered flawless, for I have many perceptible flaws, both inside and out.

My father is white and my mother is black with some Native American thrown into her background. My parents have always bragged that I inherited all the great physical features of those races. Their perspective is far less critical than mine. They focus on all the positives. Naturally wavy hair. Large brown eyes with long curling lashes. High, full cheekbones. A small, pert nose. Lips just thick enough to be called luscious.

I am one of those fortunate people who can eat all day and not gain an ounce. Thus I am described as tall and lean as opposed to thin. I have full breasts and a narrow waist. I am a fast runner and good at any sport I attempt. In Hollywood, I am considered full figured.

My skin is a light brown, the color of coffee with cream I guess you would say, that makes me look as though I’ve just stepped out of a tanning bed. Heads literally turn to stare at me in the street, from across a room, or on the subway. Male and female. To me, it’s a constant source of surprise, chagrin and exasperation.

Lots of people, especially women, have jealously told me that I should be grateful for my looks. But I hate being identified as beautiful. Men tend to stare only at my chest when they talk to me. Or they show me off like some trophy and do not bother to ask my opinion on anything. I have been approached in bars and stores alike. Even in this land of plastic enhanced faces, I literally cannot go anywhere without being stared at or even followed. Most people, in fact, are convinced I am a movie star or model. These are not careers I’ve ever wanted.

I have often been stalked, thus the three sets of locks on our door. Our telephone number is always unlisted and has to be changed once some obsessed man discovers it. When you are lovely on the outside, it’s always difficult to entice people to look for the true person underneath. I’m learning through Ethan that it’s exactly the same for truly ugly people.

Over the years, I learned to live at the surface. It wasn’t hard to do in Los Angeles, where even the air is insipid.

I would prefer to be considered intelligent, but that’s probably not an attribute anyone would mention when they speak of me. I worked very hard to acquire the position of Executive Assistant at Grace Film Productions, which is where I was employed up until last month. I was one of the very lucky ones who loved what I did every day and rarely considered it an effort. My former office is surrounded by windows and is fairly well designed. My desk is large and my chair comfortable. The office building, which houses Grace as well as several other companies, is an architectural beauty. All blue glass and steel, round and elegant, surrounded by greenery and topped with a beautiful grey crown that’s actually an enormous rooftop patio. The front doors open with a swish. The security desk is classy, the carpet plush. The employees are welcoming and friendly. In the lobby and elevators, hushed music fills the air to calm nerves on the way to hear someone’s decision on the success or failure of a movie script.

Grace Films takes a script all the way from the editing stage to production. Sometimes my employers are heavily involved in the resultant movie and sometimes they take an Executive Producer role, basically handing the project off to other producers for the detailed work. My position requires juggling numerous prickly clients, writers, producers, and even actors, who are either nervous or over-confident artists.

I also organize the lives of my bosses, who have enormous egos and expect everything to be done yesterday. I am able to handle details and disasters with a calm, objective exterior and an inner patience that stems from my adoration of talented people. Or, as Karoline would tell you, my love of power.

I frequently go on set to distract or pacify our clients. I learn about their backgrounds, families, likes and dislikes, and treat them accordingly. Some of my employers have become my friends. Some of the writers and directors and actors are now my dependents.

When my bosses are on location, I am solely responsible for answering the myriad of calls and managing the frantic problem solving. I am able to handle the stress of my position quite serenely. Or, make that, I used to be able to…

I am aware that looks are part of the charm. I can give the clients a smile and they are instantly under my spell. Mine was the first voice they heard. The first face they saw if they got that far. I was often the one to give them the bad or good news about their scripts. In fact, I was the one who often read the first scenes to see if it was worthy of being handed to our producers.

In the good times, I did feel grateful for my appearance. I learned to use it to my advantage. Happiness and overconfidence would swell like the ocean tide warming the shore. I had been taught by my parents to be self-centered and proud. I lived a hedonistic lifestyle, unaware that there could be any other way to live.

In the very recent past I loved getting up in the morning. On weekdays I looked forward to traveling into the city. I would hop out of bed, anticipation fuelling my energy level, already going over the day in my head. Living in Pasadena meant rising very early, but it was worth the long commute, the clogged roads, the incessant weaving in and out of traffic.

Our little section of L.A. County is green, safe and friendly. I’d go for a quick run most mornings. When it was too hot or, infrequently, rainy, I’d swim or work out in the gym. It’s amazing the number of people I used to meet jogging on the street, doing laps in the gym pool or running on the treadmill.

Our apartment building is like a village. Everyone knows everyone and all their business, too. When someone dies as ostentatiously as Karoline did, the gossip is rampant. Now my fellow residents avoid me as though I have an infectious disease or have changed places with an alien life form who speaks no discernible language.

On weekends, there was always something going on. Every Friday night I’d be in a bar, toasting and talking over the week with my colleagues at Grace, before I hopped back into the car. In the past, Karoline and Giulio would either come drinking with me or they’d be off with their own colleagues and we’d meet in the parking lot.

Saturdays and Sundays were usually untouchable. Film stars don’t want to work on weekends. Whenever Karoline was away for the weekend on business, which was often, I hung out with Giulio or stayed home reading scripts. We had settled into a comfortable, satisfying routine that lasted until Italy. My life didn’t often involve worrying about men or going out on a date.

I have not had many happy or haughty days lately, that’s for sure. I no longer get up from bed eager to start the day. In my little mirror I see only the lines below my lip, etched by worry and stress. I see the dark shadows under my eyes created by sleepless nights or pills that cause unconsciousness but not rest. I am jumpy and pimples have sprung up out of the unnatural hormones racing through my fearful body. I spend much of the day gazing at the distortions of a face that used to be peaceful, content, ambitious and young.

Recently I hadn’t even answered my mother’s telephone messages. My mother and father still live in Bell Canyon. I haven’t really let Mom in on the aftermath of the tragedy, not the details at least. I don’t want to worry her. She is a well-meaning mom, despite the fact that I spent half my life being ashamed of her. I’m not sure she ever knew of my treachery, but somehow I cannot bring myself to turn to her, or to my Dad, for comfort. Although I am not deserving of their support, my main reason for avoiding them is that they are part of the betrayal. They have a mutual treachery of their own.

Another thing I used to love is our apartment. It’s part of a Moorish-Spanish designed collection of buildings that boast a beautiful stone façade, light brown stucco walls and rounded bay windows. Every balcony is bounded by gorgeous wrought iron, except for ours, which has rather high stone walls instead. The only drawback is that we have to stand up to see any view.

I used to shiver with delight and pride every time I entered the stone archway that graces the front entrance. Now I shiver for a wholly different reason.

Karoline and I lived in the top of two turrets that face the garden-side of the complex. In the 1940′s, her Jah-jah and Boosha—don’t ask me the real spellings of the Polish words—came to California to live on streets of gold. As soon as Jah-jah died, Boosha hightailed it back to Poland.

By then, Karoline’s mother was already married and residing in Bell Canyon. Halina’s brothers went back to the old country, too. Maybe that’s why she got pregnant so quickly and so young. Otherwise, she would have been alone.

For years Boosha rented out the old family apartment. The income must have been pretty good, because she never bothered to sell it. When Karoline, Giulio and I acquired jobs in L.A., Karoline wanted to buy her family’s old place. Boosha said yes, they worked out a rent-to-buy arrangement and here we are. Rather, here we were.

Unlike newer buildings that are all boxy and small, the rooms in our apartment are huge, aside from the galley kitchen. We have a generous dining area in which Karoline and I used to have dinner parties for up to ten people. Our living room is enormous, with windows that span its entire length. The two bedrooms are in the rounded section of the turrets, which makes them interesting though hard to decorate.

Since her death, I am often reminded of the night I saw Karoline in bed with Glenn. Every time I opened her bedroom door, her eyes seemed to be there still, staring at me with that steely look from beneath the flabby man whose mantra was more porn than romance. For months her door has remained shut. I walk around it, avoiding the waft of air from under the frame.

Mature trees and palms lean toward us from the side garden, giving us cooling breezes that almost negate the need for air conditioners. We can just see the mountains if we peer around the edge of the balcony.

We are tucked slightly away from the busy street, so we don’t hear the traffic much at night. There’s a sidewalk underneath that runs along a big square yard that residents can enjoy. Across the street on this side is a huge park.

Karoline decorated the apartment because she has—had—a knack for design. She went with bright, bold colors and accessories, big comfy furniture and artifacts from our various journeys spread carefully throughout. Pictures have been placed with an eye for artistic showcasing. We have two carpets from a trip to Turkey that massage your feet as you pad down the hall to the bathroom or through the living room. We even have a small CoJon painting on the entrance wall.

Nowadays, the paint seems dark and gloomy. The nooks and crannies are full of ghosts. The door to the second bedroom remains closed and the balcony is off limits. The yellow crime scene tape still flies in tatters around the railings. I spend my time in my bedroom, bathroom, or the kitchen, terrified to spread out, ashamed to sit on the couch. I skirt around the carpets, my bare feet stubbing the hardwood. I refuse to look toward the windows, afraid I might see her face reflected in the glass.

I would move if I could work up the energy or if I had anywhere else to go.

There’s a picture of Karoline on the end table that glares out at me every morning as I slide past the living room into the kitchen. I used to love that image, thought of it as a true portrait of the person she was. She looks very pretty in this particular exposure, although she wasn’t really good looking. Her teeth protruded quite dramatically and, unfortunately, she never seemed motivated to get them fixed. Her hair was a mousy brown and had that wispy thinness that made her appear somewhat balding. She was very short with a body that looked childlike when she was young, but gave her a dumpy appearance in her thirties.

Karoline never wore make-up or selected clothing that enhanced her figure in any way. She gave the impression that she had no interest in the external. I loved Karoline for this reason in particular and for lots of other reasons, too.

Dear Diary,

Such an inane, cliché-ish way to start, but I can assure you there will be nothing cliché or inane about the thoughts within these pages. I read recently that keeping a journal is healthy. I am discovering that I love being able to explore random ideas without censure. Put feelings and facts down on paper. Pardon the lack of order, Dear Diary, but it’s about me, not you.

 

Read-a-Chapter: The Curse Giver, by Dora Machado

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 romance fantasy, The Curse Giver, by Dora Machado. Enjoy!

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Lusielle’s bleak but orderly life as a remedy mixer is shattered when her husband betrays her and she is sentenced to die for a crime she didn’t commit. She’s on the pyre, about to be burned, when a stranger breaks through the crowd and rescues her from the flames.

Brennus, Lord of Laonia is the last of his line. He is caught in the grip of a mysterious curse that has murdered his kin, doomed his people and embittered his life. To defeat the curse, he must hunt a birthmark and kill the woman who bears it in the foulest of ways. Lusielle bears such a mark.

Stalked by intrigue and confounded by the forbidden passion flaring between them, predator and prey must come together to defeat not only the vile curse, but also the curse giver who has already conjured their ends.

Purchase THE CURSE GIVER on AMAZON 

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Prologue

The curse giver slithered out of the basin and glided among the counter wares, surveying the tidy kitchen. Tonight, she favored the serpent’s sleek shape. When she was sure she was alone, she grew herself into a watery semblance of the human form that defined her current existence. Her face’s reflection, coalescing into something tangible on the windowpane, might have been considered beautiful if one cared about such things.

She didn’t. Beauty implied good and good entailed virtue, all spoilers to the evil she practiced.

The evening storm agreed with her mood. It had been a busy night. She was on the last leg of her three-part errand. First, she had paid a visit to the arrogant fool who had provoked her wrath nearly ten years ago. Why had he been surprised to see her? He should have known that she would be back to avenge his treachery. Nothing could protect him from her rage.

True, he had provided her with a rare opportunity. Betrayal was rare when one was a recluse of gods and mortals. Revenge was an elusive treat. The man’s misdeeds were unforgivable and yet his offense had freed her to indulge in her greatest compulsion.

A curse was serious work, precision’s highest aim. A curse was challenge and duel, battle and victory, the maker’s highest praise. And this night, after ten years of careful planning, she had returned to cast the perfect curse, a layered trap of death, suffering, ruin and catastrophe; a cruel, complex, and horrific work of art.

Her best and most satisfying creation yet.

Had the proud lord really thought he had avoided retribution? Had he expected any less than what he got? He must have, because he pleaded with his eyes and wailed like a pathetic fool while she wrote the curse with his blood.

The pleasure she got from casting the curse was so obscene it should have been forbidden. The enjoyment she would get in the years to come thrilled in advance. She had been meticulous in her preparations, deliberate in her provisions, fierce like the Goddess herself.

That’s why prior to traveling to the kitchen, she had visited a second victim that night, lulling the young woman to sleep with a peaceful lullaby, cursing her with a kiss on the shoulder, where a tiny mark would grow over time to play a small but entertaining part in the curse’s expanding evil.

Practicality was a sign of genius. Diligence upfront saved time.

And now, to the last part of the plan. The need for preemptive action had brought her to this orderly kitchen, where a thousand scents mingled to entice the nose, including the lingering perfume of sweat, toil and exhaustion.

What would it be like to live in a place like this? How would it feel to welcome guests every day, catering to their needs and listening to their stories? How would her life have turned out if she had devoted her talents to cooking, tending to the gardens, laundering the linens, mixing this, testing that, catching a few hours of sleep only to begin the same backbreaking routine all over again the next day?

She shook her head, knowing the answer—it would be boring, tedious and dull. A waste of time, a squandering of her creative genius. A dreary existence that no one could possibly relish, let alone want.

Destroying a life condemned to such a fate could have been seen as merciful, if one believed in such a thing as mercy. But she didn’t. Good was to bad as seed was to sprout. Mercy was a waste of time.

She went about the kitchen, lighting the lamp, stuffing it with drying rags, until a nice little fire burned on the tabletop. She felt quite diligent as she fed the fire more kindling, a bundle of dried flowers, a bunch of rushes from the floor, some logs and twigs from the stack by the fireplace, and a jug of oil, which she splattered liberally over the place, until the fire was large enough to lick the ceiling beams and ignite the walls.

How simple it was to ensure the curse’s future with a little forethought and the roaring flames. Nobody in this place would survive the fire. She wasn’t about to leave anything to chance. Call it overkill, because the casting had been done and death was the only possible outcome.

With the smoke growing thick and the curse’s loose ends firmly knotted, she splashed back into the basin and, making the quick trip home, returned to her lair. She was in a mood to celebrate.

She sat at her desk and smiled. After rubbing her hands together, she dipped her precious quill in the ink pot and pressed it against the vellum. The realms needed to beware. Her best curse was now loose upon the world. A warning, that’s what she needed to compose, the opening for a new masterwork, a battle cry and a victory song.

And so, she began.

I am the curse giver.

Spawn of the fickle gods’ whims,

Scorned by virtue, spurned by faith,

Shudder when you hear my name.

Chapter One

Dread stared at Lusielle from the depths of the rowdy crowd. Concealed under a heavy hood, only the stranger’s black eyes dared to meet her gaze among the growing throng. The man’s eyes refused to flinch or shift from her face. His stare was free of the hatred she had gotten from the others, but also devoid of mercy. He held on to her gaze like an anchor to her soul, testing her fortitude, knowing full well her fears’ vast range.

She had always been meant for the fire. Even as she had escaped the blaze that killed her parents and burned the inn to the ground, Lusielle had known that the flame’s greedy god would return to claim her life. But she hadn’t expected it to happen after days of torture, surrounded by the raging mob, found guilty of a crime she didn’t commit, betrayed and condemned.

The town’s cobbler, one of her husband’s best customers, tightened the noose around her neck until it cut off her breath. She had waited on him countless times at the shop, and had always padded his order with a free measure of coriander to help with his wife’s cough.

But none of the town’s inhabitants seemed to remember any of her kindnesses as of late. On the contrary, the crowd was booing and jeering when they weren’t pelting her with rotten fruit. They treated her as if she were a common thief.

The brute who had conducted her torture shoved the cobbler aside, tying her elbows and wrists around the wooden stake. Orell. She remembered his name. His bearded face might have been handsome if not for the permanent leer. Like the magistrate, he wore the king’s burgundy colors, but his role had been more vicious. Had he been granted more time, he might have succeeded at extracting the false confession he wanted, but the magistrate was in a hurry, afraid of any possible unrest.

Orell yanked on the ropes, tightening her bonds. The wound on her back broke open all over again. She swallowed a strangled hiss. It was as if the thug wanted her to suffer, as if he had a private reason to profit from her pain.

But she had never seen him until three days ago, when he and the magistrate had shown up unannounced, making random accusations.

Lusielle couldn’t understand any of this.

She knew that the king’s justice was notoriously arbitrary. It was one of the main reasons why she loathed living under King Riva’s rule. But she also knew better than to express her opinion. Ruin and tragedy trailed those who dared to criticize the king. That’s why she had never mentioned her misgivings to anyone.

What had she done to deserve this fate? And why did they continue to be so cruel? After all, she wasn’t fighting them anymore.

True, she had resisted at first. Out of fear and pride, she had tried to defend herself. But in the end, it hadn’t mattered. Her accusers had relied on the testimony of the devious liar who had turned her in—Aponte Rummins—her own husband.

The mock hearing had been too painful to bear, too absurd to believe. Aponte swore before the magistrate that Lusielle was a secret practitioner of the forbidden odd arts. It was ridiculous. How could anyone believe that she, who had always relied on logic, measure and observation to mix her remedies, could possibly serve the Odd God’s dark purposes? And how could anyone believe Aponte’s lies?

But they did, they believed him as he called on his paid witnesses and presented fabricated evidence, swearing that he himself had caught her at the shop, worshipping the Odd God. In the end, it had been her husband’s false testimony that provided the ultimate proof of the heinous charge for which Lusielle was about to die.

Burning torch in hand, the magistrate stepped forward. Still in shock, Lusielle swallowed a gulp of bitter horror and steeled for the flames’ excruciating pain. She didn’t want to die like a shrieking coward. But nothing could have prepared her for what happened next.

The magistrate offered the torch to Aponte.

“The king upholds a husband’s authority over his wife in the kingdom,” the magistrate shouted for the crowd to hear. “There can be no protests, no doubt of the wisdom of royal justice if a husband does as he’s entitled to do by his marital rights.”

Aponte could have forgone her execution. Considering the magistrate’s proclamation, he could have chosen a different punishment for her. Instead, he accepted the torch and, without hesitation, put the flame to the tinder and blew over the kindling to start the fire.

“Go now,” he said, grinning like a hog about to gorge. “Go find your dark lord.”

Lusielle glared at the poor excuse for a man who had ruined her life many times over. She had known from the beginning that he was fatally flawed, just as he had known on the day he claimed her that she couldn’t pledge him any affection.

But Aponte had never wanted her affection. He had wanted her servitude, and in that sense she proved to be the reluctant but dutiful servant he craved.

Over the years he had taught her hatred.

His gratification came from beating and humiliating her. His crass and vulgar tastes turned his bed into a nightmare. She felt so ashamed of the things he made her do. Still, even if she loathed him—and not just him, but the slave she had become under his rule—she had tried to make the best of it.

She had served him diligently, tending to his businesses, reorganizing his stores, rearranging his trading routes and increasing his profits. His table had always been ready. His meals had been hot and flavorsome. His sheets had been crisp and his bed had been coal-warmed every night. Perhaps due to all of this, he had seemed genuinely pleased with their marital arrangement.

Why, then, had he surrendered her so easily to the magistrate’s brute?

Aponte had to have some purpose for this betrayal. He was, above all, a practical man. He would not surrender all the advantages that Lusielle brought to him—money, standing, common sense, business acumen—without the benefit of an even greater windfall.

Lusielle couldn’t understand how, but she was sure that the bastard was going to profit handsomely from her death.

The scent of pine turned acrid and hot. Cones crackled and popped. The fire hissed a sinister murmur, a sure promise of pain. She didn’t watch the little sparks grow into flames at her feet. Instead, her eyes returned to the back of the crowd, seeking the stranger’s stare. She found him even as a puff of white smoke clouded her sight and the fire’s rising heat distorted his scarred face’s fixed expression.

The nearing flames thawed the pervasive cold chilling her bones. Flying sparks pecked at her skin. Her toes curled. Her feet flinched. Pain teased her ankles in alarming, nipping jolts. Dear gods. They were really going to burn her alive.

Lusielle shut her eyes. When she looked again, the stranger was gone from the crowd. She couldn’t blame him. She would have never chosen to watch the flame’s devouring dance.

A commotion ensued somewhere beyond the pyre. People were screaming, but she couldn’t see through the flames and smoke. She flinched when a lick of fire ignited her shift’s hem. A vile stink filled her lungs. Her body shivered in shock. She coughed, then hacked. Fear’s fiery fingers began to torment her legs.

“Come and find me,” she called to the God of fire.

And he did.

Review of Lakota Honor, by Kat Flannery

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Lakota Honor is an exciting read filled with romance, drama, action, and elements of the paranormal.

It’s the late 1800s, and Otakatay is a bounty hunter, a slayer of men and women. Embittered by the past, he’s ruthless and unforgiving. Now his conscience haunts him day and night, and he believes himself to be evil, to be death itself.

Black-haired, blue-eyed beauty Nora Rushton is a healer, a gift that her father considers a curse and tries to keep secret from everyone around them. To protect her from those who would accuse her of witchcraft as they did her mother, he keeps her locked up in the house all day. But Nora feels like a bird in a cage and she wants to be free.

Then one day, in a twist of fate, she meets Otakatay, and she’s instantly mesmerized by his looks and aura of danger, need, and hunger. Though he won’t admit it at first, he’s also taken by Nora’s kind blue eyes – – but he warns her that she better stay away from him if she knows what’s good for her. Also on the scene is Elwood Calhoun, a rich miner who will stop at nothing to possess Nora.

But then, the man who has been paying money to Otakatay to kill people has one last job for him, and this time he has put a price on Nora’s head…

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this historical western romance. Nora is a very sympathetic heroine with a warm heart yet willful, feisty personality. Otakatay is the ultimate tortured soul, a man sunk in darkness and trying to find the light.

At first his past crimes put me off, but the author did a good job in revealing his feelings and showing his deep remorse, which eventually redeem him. It was interesting to watch his character arc evolve and change throughout the story.

There are quite a number of exciting action segments and the sensual scenes are written in good taste. I also enjoyed the ending, which revealed some unexpected story twists.

Recommended for fans of historical and western romances.

Purchase on Amazon US /  Amazon CA / Amazon UK 

Review originally published in Blogcritics

Read-a-Chapter: Lakota Honor, by 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 Paranormal Historical Western Romance, Lakota Honor, by Kat Flannery. Enjoy!

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Fate has brought them together…but will a promise tear them a part?

Otakatay is hired to kill the witkowin-crazy women. A deadly bounty hunter, he has found his last victim in timid healer Nora Rushton. Marked as a witch, Nora uses her gift to heal those in need, and the bounty hunter is one of them. Will the desire to complete his promise drive him to kill her, or will the kindness he sees in her blue eyes push him to be the man he once was?

Nora and Otakatay must fight for their freedom in a time when race and discrimination are a threat and innocence holds no ground.

Purchase LAKOTA HONOR on AMAZON US /  AMAZON CA / AMAZON UK 

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PROLOGUE 

Colorado Mountains, 1880  

The blade slicing his throat made no sound, but the dead body hitting the ground did. With no time to stop, he hurried through the dark tunnel until he reached the ladder leading out of the shaft.  He’d been two hundred feet below ground for ten days, with no food and little water. Weak and woozy, he stared up the ladder.

He’d have to climb it and it wasn’t going to be easy. He wiped the bloody blade on his torn pants and placed it between his teeth. Scraped knuckles and unwashed hands gripped the wooden rung.  The earth swayed. He closed his eyes and forced the spinning in his head to cease. One thin bronzed leg lifted and came down wobbly. He waited until his leg stopped shaking before he climbed another rung. Each step caused pain, but was paired with determination. He made it to the top faster than he’d thought he would. The sky was black and the air was cool, but fresh. Thank goodness it was fresh.

He took two long breaths before he emerged from the hole. The smell from below ground still lingered in his nostrils; unwashed bodies, feces and mangy rats. His stomach pitched. He tugged at the rope around his hands. There had been no time to chew the thick bands around his wrists when he’d planned his escape. It was better to run than crawl, and he chewed through the strips that bound his feet instead. There would be time to free his wrists later. He pressed his body against the mountain and inched toward the shack. He frowned.

A guard stood at the entrance to where they were. The blade from the knife pinched his lip, cutting the thin skin and he tasted blood. He needed to get in there. He needed to say goodbye. He needed to make a promise.   The tower bell rang mercilessly. There was no time left. He pushed away from the rocky wall, dropped the knife from his mouth into his bound hands, aimed and threw it. The dagger dug into the man’s chest. He ran over, pulled the blade from the guard and quickly slid it across his throat. The guard bled out in seconds.

He tapped the barred window on the north side of the dilapidated shack. The time seemed to stretch. He glanced at the large house not fifty yards from where he stood. He would come back, and he would kill the bastard inside.  He tapped again, harder this time, and heard the weak steps of those like him shuffling from inside. The window slid open, and a small hand slipped out.  “Toksha ake—I shall see you again,” he whispered in Lakota.

The hand squeezed his once, twice and on the third time held tight before it let go and disappeared inside the room.  A tear slipped from his dark eyes, and his hand, still on the window sill, balled into a fist. He swallowed past the sob and felt the burn in his throat. His chest ached for what he was leaving behind. He would survive, and he would return. Men shouted to his right, and he crouched down low. He took one last look around and fled into the cover of the forest.

 CHAPTER ONE

1888, Willow Creek, Colorado  

Nora Rushton scanned the hillside before glancing back at the woman on the ground. She could be dead, or worse yet, someone from town. She flexed her hands. The woman’s blue skirt ruffled in the wind, and a tattered brown Stetson sat beside her head. Nora assessed the rest of her attire. A faded yellow blouse stained from the grass and dirt, leather gloves and a red bandana tied loosely around her neck. She resembled a ranch hand in a skirt.

There was no one else around, and the woman needed her help. She chewed on her lip, and her fingers twitched. I have to help her. She sucked in a deep breath, held it, and walked the remaining few feet that stood between her and the injured woman. The woman’s horse picked up Nora’s scent, trotted over and pushed his nose into her chest.

“It’s okay, boy,” she said, smoothing back the red-brown mane. “Why don’t you let me have a look at your owner?”

She knelt down beside the woman and realized she was old enough to be her grandmother. Gray hair with subtle blonde streaks lay messed and pulled from the bun she was wearing. Why was she on a horse in the middle of the valley without a chaperone?

She licked her finger and placed it under the woman’s nose. A cool sensation skittered across her wet finger, and she sighed.  The woman’s left leg bent inward and laid uncomfortably to the side. She lifted the skirt for a closer look. Her stomach rolled, and bile crawled up the back of her throat. The thigh bone protruded, stretching the skin bright white, but didn’t break through. Nora’s hands grew warm, the sensation she felt so many times before.

The woman moaned and reached for her leg.

“No, please don’t touch your leg. It’s broken.” She held the woman’s hand.

Ice blue eyes stared back at her, showing pain mingled with relief.

“My name is Nora,” she said with a smile. “I am going to get help.”

The wrinkled hand squeezed hers, and the woman shook her head. “No, child, my heart can’t take the pain much longer.” Creased lips pressed together as she closed her eyes and took two deep breaths.

“Please, just sit here with me.” Her voice was husky and weak.

She scanned the rolling hills for any sign of help, but there was no one. She studied the woman again. Her skin had a blue tinge to it, and her breathing became forced. I promised Pa. But how was she supposed to walk away from this woman who so desperately needed her help? She took another look around. Green grass waved in the wind. Please, someone, anyone come over the hill.  White daisies mingled within the grass, and had the woman not been injured, she would’ve plucked a few for her hair.

She waited a few minutes longer. No one came. Her hands started their restless shaking. She clasped them together, trying to stop the tremors. It would only take a few minutes. I can help her. No one would see. She stared at the old woman, except her. If she helped her, would she tell everyone about Nora’s secret? Would she ask any questions? There were always questions.

Nora’s resolve was weakening. She ran her hot hands along the woman’s body to see if anything else was broken. Only the leg, thank goodness. Lifting the skirt once again, she laid her warm palms gently on the broken thigh bone. Her hands, bright red, itched with anticipation. The leg seemed worse without the cover of the skirt. One move and the bone would surely break through the skin. She inhaled groaning at the same time as she placed her hands on either side of the limb. In one swift movement, she squeezed the bone together.

The woman shot up from the grass yelling out in agony.  Nora squeezed harder until she felt the bone shift back into place. Jolts of pain raced up and down her arms as the woman’s leg began to heal. Nora’s own thigh burned and ached, as her bones and flesh cried out in distress. She held on until the pain seeped from her own body into nothingness, vanishing as if it were never there.  She removed her hands, now shaking and cold from the woman’s healed limb, unaware of the blue eyes staring up at her. Her stomach lurched, like she knew it would—like it always did afterward. She rose on trembling legs and walked as far away as she could before vomiting onto the bright green grass. Not once, but twice. She waited until her strength returned before she stood and let the wind cool her heated cheeks.

The bitter taste stayed in her mouth. If the woman hadn’t been there she’d have spit the lingering bile onto the grass. She needed water and searched the area for a stream.  Her mouth felt full of cotton, and she smacked her tongue off of her dry lips. She was desperate for some water. Had she not wandered so far from the forest to set the baby hawk free, she’d know where she was now and which direction would take her home. She gasped. She’d lost track of time and needed to get home before Pa did. Jack Rushton had a temper and she didn’t want to witness it tonight.

“Are you an angel?”  She turned to face the woman and grinned.

“No, Ma’am. I am not an angel, although I like to think God gave me this gift.”

The woman pulled her skirt down, recovered from her shock and said in a rough voice, “Well if you ain’t no angel, than what in hell are ya?”

Taken aback at the woman’s gruffness, she knelt down beside her. Here we go, either she understands or she runs away delusional and screaming. “I…I am a healer.” She waited.

The woman said nothing instead she narrowed her eyes and stared. “A witch?”

Nora winced. “No, not a witch. I need you to promise you won’t tell anyone what happened here today.” Her stomach in knots, she waited for the old woman’s reply.

“You think I’m some kind of fool?” She stood and stretched her leg. She stared at the healed limb before she hopped on it a few times. “People already think I’m crazy. Why would I add more crap to their already heaping pile of shit?”

Oh my. The woman’s vocabulary was nothing short of colorful, and she liked it.  She smiled and stuck out her hand. “I’m Nora Rushton. It’s nice to meet you.”

The woman stared at her for a few seconds before her thin mouth turned up and she smiled. “Jess Chandler.” She gripped Nora’s hand with such force she had to refrain from yelling out in pain. “Thanks for your help, girly.”

“I don’t think we’ve ever met. Do you live in Willow Creek?”

“I own a farm west of here.”

“How come I’ve never seen you?” I never see anyone, Pa’s rules.

The wind picked up whipping Jess’s hat through the air.

“Max,” she called over her shoulder, “fetch my hat.”

The horse’s ears spiked and he trotted off toward the hat. She watched in awe as the animal retrieved the Stetson with his mouth and brought it back to his master.

“I’ve never seen such a thing,” Nora giggled and patted Max’s rump.

Jess took the hat and slapped it on top of her head.  “Yup, ol’Max here, he’s pretty damn smart.”

“I’d say he is.” She remembered the companionship she’d enjoyed with the baby hawk she’d rescued a few weeks ago. She’d miss the little guy. His feedings had kept her busy during the long boring days at home. “Miss Jess, I’m sorry to be short, but I have to head on home.”

“Hell, girly, I can take you.” She climbed up onto Max and wound the reins around her gloved hands. “Hop on. He’s strong enough for two.”

“Are you sure?” “It’s the least I can do.”  She clasped Jess’s hand and pulled herself up behind her. “Thank you, Jess, for keeping my secret.” Placing her arms around the woman’s waist, she gave her a light squeeze.

“Darlin,” Jess patted Nora’s hand, “you can rest assured I will take this secret to my grave.” She whistled, and Max started toward town.

 

Otakatay sat tall on his horse as he gazed at the lush green valley below. The town of Willow Creek was nestled at the edge of the green hills. He’d been gone four round moons, traveling to Wyoming and back. The rough terrain of the Rocky Mountains had almost killed him and his horse. The steep cliffs and forests were untouched by man.  On the first day in the Rockies, he’d come up against a mountain lion, a grizzly and bush thick enough to strangle him. He used his knife to carve into the dense brush, and his shotgun to defend himself. When he could, he stuck to the deer trails, and in the evening built large fires to keep the animals at bay.

He glanced behind him at the brown sack tied to his saddle. Inside, there were three. This time he’d ask for more money. His bronzed jaw flexed. He would demand it.  The sky was bright blue with smudges of gray smoke wafting upward from the homes and businesses. The weather would warm as the day progressed and the sun rose higher into the sky. His eyes wandered past the hills to the mountains behind them, and his insides burned.  He clicked his tongue, and his mustang sauntered down the hill. Wakina was agile and strong.

Otakatay knew he could count on him always. Over the years Wakina had kept pace with his schedule and relentless hunting. The emerald stocks swayed and danced before him as he rode through. The grass brushed the bottoms of his moccasins, and he dunked his hand into the velvety green weed. He’d make camp in the forest outside of the mining town.  Wakina shook his head and whinnied. Otakatay brushed his hand along the length of his silver mane.

“Soon my friend, soon,” he whispered.

The animal wanted to run down into the valley, but resigned himself to the lethargic pace his master ordered. Wakina tossed his head. Otakatay slapped Wakina’s sides with the loose ends of the reins, and the horse took off down the hill clearing a path through the grass.  The rolling blanket of emerald parted as Wakina’s long legs cantered toward the forest. Otakatay’s shoulder-length black hair whipped his face and tickled his neck as his heart pounded lively inside his chest. It was rare that he felt so alive. His days consisted of planning and plotting until he knew every detail by heart.

The eagle feather tied to his hair lifted in the wind and soared high above his head. For a moment he allowed himself to close his eyes and enjoy the smells of wildflowers and wood smoke. The sun kissed his cheeks and he tried to hold onto the moment, savoring the last bit of calm before rotten flesh and wet fur filled his nostrils.  His eyes sprung open. He pulled on the reins, and rubbed his nose to rid the smell, to push out the visions that saturated his mind. The scent clung to him burrowing deep into his soul and he mentally fought to purge it from his consciousness. He shook his head and concentrated on the fields, trying to push the memories away. He didn’t want to do this, not now. He didn’t want to see, feel, smell, or taste the memory again.

The rhythmic clanking echoed inside his head, and he squeezed his eyes closed. Sweat trickled down his temples. He clenched every muscle in his body. His hands skimmed the jagged walls of the damp tunnel. He stumbled and fell onto the rough walls, burning his torn flesh. He moaned. Every bit of him ached with such pain, he was sure he’d die. His thin body shook with fever. He reeked of blood, sweat and fear.  With each step he took, he struggled to stay upright and almost collapsed onto the ground. The agony of his wounds blinded him, and he didn’t know if it was a combination of the sweat dripping into his eyes, or if he was crying from the intense pain. His back burned and pulsed with powerful beats, the skin became tight around his ribs as the flesh swelled.  He tripped on a large rock and fell to the ground. The skin on his knees tore open, but he didn’t care. Nothing could ease the screaming in his back. Nothing could take away the hell he lived every day. He laid his head against the dirt covered floor. Dust stuck to his cheeks and lips while he prayed for Wakan Tanka to end his life.

 

 

Interview with Lindsey Fairleigh and Lindsey Pogue, Authors of After the Ending

Lindsey and Lindsey Headshot OFFICIAL!!!

Lindsey Fairleigh lives her life with one foot in a book—as long as that book transports her to a magical world or bends the rules of science. Her novels, from post-apocalyptic to time travel and historical fantasy, always offer up a hearty dose of unreality, along with plenty of adventure and romance. When she’s not working on her next novel, Lindsey spends her time reading and trying out new recipes in the kitchen. She lives in the Napa Valley with her loving husband and confused cats. You can visit Lindsey’s blog at lindseyfairleigh.blogspot.com.

Lindsey Pogue has always been a little creative. As a child she established a bug hospital on her elementary school soccer field, compiled books of collages as a teenager, and as an adult, expresses herself through writing. Her novels are inspired by her observations of the world around her—whether she’s traveling, people watching, or hiking. When not plotting her next storyline or dreaming up new, brooding characters, Lindsey’s wrapped in blankets watching her favorite action flicks or going on road trips with her own leading man. You can visit Lindsey’s blog at lindseypogue.wordpress.com.

Q: Thank you for this interview, Team Lindsey. Can you tell us what your latest book, After The Ending, is all about?

Lindsey Pogue (LP): With pleasure, and thank you for having us! There are a few non-conventional aspects to our book that we feel make it not only unique, but enjoyable to a wide variety of people. For starters, After The Ending is a post-apocalyptic story told in first person, but from two different perspectives–Zoe’s and Dani’s. I write for Zoe and Lindsey Fairleigh (LF) writes for Dani. The story begins with a deadly virus that infects everyone, including our characters and their loved ones. After the virus wipes out most of the human population, Dani and Zoe (best friends, mid-twenties) learn they are among the few who survived the pandemic. Although adult life has sent Zoe to the East Coast and Dani’s life is on the West Coast, their friendship is one of the few remaining things they have in the virus-ravaged world, so they embark on separate journeys to meet up with each other at a supposed safe haven, the Colony. It’s through their individual journeys that the reader can experience what our heroines see and feel as they discover what the world after The Ending is like and, in turn, discover more about themselves as survivors.

LF: From the get-go, we aimed to make sure the focus of After The Ending wasn’t entirely on the hardcore survival aspects of the post-apocalypse, but on the characters, specifically their personal struggles and relationships. The story highlights the undeniable power of friendship, love, and hope, and how they can make life worth living even when everything else is lost. There is romance, but there are also some definite science fiction elements, such as the spontaneous genetic mutations caused by the virus, leading to extraordinary abilities in survivors…or to insanity. We’ll be the first to admit that After The Ending was written with a female audience in mind–it’s very character-driven and the romance storylines aren’t negligible–but we have heard from male readers who enjoyed the book as well.

Q: Can you tell us a little about your main and supporting characters?

LP: Our two leading ladies are very different in both appearance and mannerisms. Zoe is the more serious of the two friends–a determined, independent artist. She grew up in a dysfunctional family, which has made her closed off and generally bitter about life. Zoe is twenty-six years old, tall, has long black hair and teal eyes, both of which end up being important character traits as the story progresses. She has a good grasp on reality that helps her remain level-headed in most situations, but she’s also melodramatic, and that makes her seem a bit younger at times. One thing she is is determined. It both aids and hinders her throughout the story. Dani is the only constant thing in Zoe’s life, so she’s grown to love her more like a sister than a friend. She relies on Dani’s vibrance and quirkiness to help coax her out of her hardened shell.

LF: Dani is petite, with curly red hair, green eyes, and a fierce intellect that she tends to hide. She is quite a bit girlier and more emotional than Zoe, and sees Zoe as the embodiment of personal strength and determination. She often draws on her perception of Zoe to help her get through tough times throughout the story. By far, I would say the most defining characteristic about Dani’s personality is that she’ll do almost anything to keep the people she cares about safe. Unfortunately, that tends to get her into slightly sticky situations in the world of The Ending.

Q: Do you tend to base your characters on real people or are they totally from your imagination?

LP: I’ve actually had a number of people ask me if Zoe is an extension of myself, if I see myself the way I portray her. The answer is no, not at all, and she’s not really like anyone I know either. I definitely don’t look like Zoe or act like her. I mean, she’s pessimistic, or “realistic” I like to call it, like me, but I think the similarities between us stop there. She has a lot of the qualities I admire in other people though. She’s super determined, whether she juggling two jobs, trying desperately to get to Dani when the world seems to be against her, or even just trying to understand her brother and every other man in her life.

LF: Dani is entirely from my imagination. So much so that it’s really difficult for me to picture any real people–actresses, models, or otherwise–as her. I think the problem is that she exists so vividly in my mind that nobody else quite looks or acts like her. I’m not sure where she came from, and she’s certainly nothing like me, but I love her all the same.

Q: Are you consciously aware of the plot before you begin a novel, or do you discover it as you write?

LP: Because this project was a team effort, we definitely had to draw out a skeletal outline so we knew which direction we were going with our characters. Once we determined the major subplots, character arcs, and where we wanted to end the book, each of our stories took off on their own, changing even from what we’d individually planned to write about. Characters have a way of doing that to you.

LF: Yeah, our characters definitely have a talent for commandeering the story. I have one character in particular, Jason, who has such a strong personality–I guess you would call him an Alpha–that I pretty much expect him to steal the reins whenever he’s present in a scene. I suppose I should apologize to LP because she’s had to deal with him a lot in the second book, Into The Fire. Sorry LP! I have to say that when the characters take over and the story starts writing itself is when I have the most fun.

LP: I guess you’re forgiven :)

 Q: Your book has many different settings. Can you tell us why you chose the cities you did in particular?

LP: I know for Zoe’s team, it was more of a question of “what’s practical”. Although our story is science fiction, we tried to make it as realistic as possible–using a logical route to move the characters from point A to point B across the US was one of the ways we did that. I had to figure out realistically how far a group of people could drive or walk in X amount of days and in the snow. That helped me narrow down my settings in Ohio, Kentucky, and St. Louis before finally getting to Colorado. Once I knew which areas I needed to have them settle in, I searched for locations that would work well with my evolving storyline.

LF: Like LP, I mapped out Dani’s route throughout the entire book, first by car, then by horseback, before I wrote the majority of it. I couldn’t just pick a town willy-nilly, but had to keep in mind how far a horse could travel in a day, or where there might still be unscavenged fuel or food left after X amount of time had passed. There are a few locations we chose purposely, like stationing the Colony, our heroine’s destination and meet-up point, at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs based on the military branches stationed there and its central-ish location. We chose Bodega Bay as Dani and Zoe’s hometown because it was near enough to where we live that we could conduct setting research with relative ease.

Q: Does the setting play a major part in the development of your story?

LP: I think it definitely does. Our characters are just as new to The Ending as our readers are, so we needed Zoe and Dani to experience what was going on around the entire country. Not only does moving them around get them closer together and progress the story, but through their eyes we see the types of Crazies (those survivors driven mad by the virus)  they come across and how quickly and how much the world is changing.

LP: On a more technical note, the setting actually directed portions of the story because we had to be mindful of weather patterns. For example, Dani’s group of survivors spends some time near Lake Tahoe in the heart of winter, and it slowed down their travel pace quite a bit. I had planned for them to move faster than they did, but there was no working around it–snow slows travel plans, even in our own post-apocalyptic, fictional world.

Q: Open the book to page 69. What is happening?After the Ending cover art

LP: That’s sort of a funny and difficult question to answer. If you’re looking at the hardcover version, it’s a pretty intense Zoe chapter. She’s discovering how unnerving her developing Ability is, she thinks she’s losing her mind since she has no clue what’s happening to her yet, and she’s also starting to really process the fact that the world has ended and that her father is most likely dead.

LF: In the paperback version, Dani and her travel companions are just arriving at a swanky hotel in Portland…to squat. That is one thing to note about surviving in a post-apocalyptic world–the characters get to bunk down in some pretty interesting places, from mansions to wineries to barns. Let’s see, on this page Dani is also dealing with some tangled emotions regarding a certain man in her group–Zoe’s brother, Jason.

Q: Can you give us one of your best excerpts?

LP: This is one of the scenes I enjoyed writing the most. It’s a huge turning point in the Zoe chapters and her life is about to change more than she ever thought possible:

“Feeling alright?” Clara asked, batting her eyelashes and smiling innocently.

I hunched over as my stomach gurgled and churned, tangling into knots. Once again I reached for the water, but she yanked it away, dumping it out on the floor beside her.

Her grin lingered. “Sorry, I can’t let you do that.”

My stomach cramps worsened, and I broke out into a cold sweat–I knew I didn’t have much time. I needed to find help. Trying to run for the door I doubled over in pain and cried out. Fire seemed to be scorching my insides. Bile rose in my throat, and I began salivating profusely, unable to swallow. I spat desperately.

“I really hate you, Zoe. I’m not completely sure why, but I have to admit, this is a very good day for me.” Her cheerful voice was like a hammer in my head as I twisted and spasmed on the mess hall floor.

I prayed someone would find me before it was too late.

LF: I considered several different passages, some more dramatic and some more romantic, but I settled on this one because it shows the special relationship Dani has with one of my favorite characters, Jack, her faithful German Shepherd.

I tore open a peanut butter and chocolate chip protein bar as I exited the bedroom, tripping over my dog on the way out.

Jack wagged his tail happily while I righted myself. “Good morning, Sweet Boy,” I said between bites.

He yawned dramatically and bowed, earning the last nugget of the tasteless bar.

As I lumbered down the stairs, a plan of revenge formed in my mind. I waved at Chris and Ky, apparently the only other people awake at such an ungodly hour, as I neared the front room’s largest window. I peeked around the heavy tan and green-striped curtain and spotted Jason standing on the lawn—he was staring off into the woods. Smiling, I led Jack to the back door, and we silently slipped out into the damp morning chill.

Pausing on the back porch, I clicked my tongue, and my dog watched me intently. “Okay Jack,” I whispered, kneeling down in front of him. “You’re going to go that way.” I pointed to the left side of the house, and his eyes followed. “Find Jason. You need to be happy and loud.” I scratched his neck with both hands. He licked my cheek in return.

“Go find Jason,” I commanded quietly and stood. Jack instantly trotted away, barking every few steps.

Stalking in the opposite direction, I made my way around the house and found Jason watching Jack frolic like a month-old puppy. The grass muffled my steps as I snuck up behind him. I crouched, gliding the last few steps, and held my breath. Revenge is so sweet!

Q: Thank you so much for this interview, Team Lindsey. We wish you much success!

LF: Thank you for having us and for the wonderful questions!