Jayla Anthony had it all.
At least, that’s what it looked like from the outside. But from the inside looking out, she knew there was much more to life than her current situation. And when she decides to press the reset button on everything she thought she knew with her newly divorced status, her new occupation, and her move to a brand new town, she hardly expects that to somehow end up including the young, handsome security guard from her company’s building.
Khalid Irving is a man on the come-up now that he’s found a steady, good-paying job, a better living situation, and most importantly, a better outlook on life after a few years of no real direction. And now that he feels like he’s on the right track, he’s ready to pursue the woman who stole his attention the second she stepped into his building, even if that means he has to become her client first.
Jayla knows the risk of mixing business and pleasure. Khalid knows how bad he wants her. And when the two finally get together, the chemistry is electric.
But just because the fire is there, that doesn’t mean there won’t be a few tough lessons to learn along the way...
(Note: While this book can be read as a standalone, it’s HIGHLY recommended that you read, The Games We Play: FWB Book 1, first!)
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After ending a relationship that left her emotionally and physically scarred, Ivy is ready to start fresh by taking a break from relationships and focusing on herself. While avoiding love and relationships she finds comfort in an unlikely place. Her new work assignment may put a wrench in her plans to avoid love.
Career driven and workaholic Grant has been under his dad wings since high school preparing to take over the family business. Now that he has become CEO he is determined to expand the company to every major city. His new contract has him focusing less on work and more on love. Never one to shy away from a challenge Grant is instantly attracted to Ivy and will stop at nothing to be with her.
Will Ivy open her heart and take a chance on love again or will she continue to keep her heart closed off?
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I looked at my phone. Another missed call from my mother. I was racing home from a hotel I reserved for the weekend. I needed a getaway from my life. It was spiraling out of control. I was becoming a prisoner of love. I couldn’t take it anymore. I parked I front of my apartment building and exhaled. I needed to take a hot shower and relax before answering the in answers calls from my parents. I have been keeping this secret from them long enough. Now was the right time to expose the lie I was living.
I opened my front door and dropped my keys on my kitchen counter. I turned on the light in my living room and there sat Kingston. I quickly tried to make a break for the front door but I wasn’t fast enough. He grabbed me by my arm and threw me over to my couch.
“Where were you?” He asked. I could tell he was upset. His nostrils flared as we waited for my answer. The longer I took the more upset he got. He balled his fists up and punched the wall behind me. “ANSWER ME!” He yelled.
“I needed to get away and clear my head. A lot has been going on with us lately.” I struggled to get my sentence out before he started to choke me. He was choking me so hard I turned purple in the face.
“Get away? Clear your head? You aren’t going anywhere. You will never find another man to love you the way I have! You hear me Ivy?! No one!” his voice bounced off the walls of my one bedroom apartment. I felt his bare hand come across my face and I couldn’t help but ask why I allowed this to go on for so long. It has been six years of mental and physical abuse.
I loved Kingston with all my heart. He was my first love. Since I was 18 he was the only consistent thing going in my life. At first he was my knight in shining armor then he changed. I always kept hope that he would one day become the man I originally fell in love with but I now see that isn’t going to happen.
He just recently graduated from college and felt it was time to take our relationship to the next level and move in together. I was slowly coming to terms that our relationship would soon come to an end. I decided to leave for the weekend only telling my best friend, Autumn where I would be. He blew up my phone and my parents causing them to worry and question my whereabouts.
“Don’t you ever threaten or try to leave me again. Now get up we are going to my house.” He ordered as he threw my jacket towards me.
“No” I said holding my neck. “I am not going anywhere with you. We are done. Leave before I call the police.” I yelled. I had reached my breaking point. No man should ever put his hands on a woman that isn’t love at all. I had to cover bruises causing me to miss work and ghost on my family. I was constantly looking over my shoulder whenever I was out because Kingston would pop up on me whenever he pleased. I was tired of living like a prisoner. I am young and I have so much life to live. Kingston snatched me by my neck and slammed me against the wall.
“You aren’t going anywhere.” He said through gritted teeth. Tears began to fall from my eyes. He threw me on the floor and began to kick me in my stomach repeatedly. All I did was lay there and cry until I couldn’t feel or think anymore. I kept telling myself this will be all over soon…
Aerospace engineer Elena Pyetrov lost her father in space 18 years ago. She finally gets her chance to continue his research and her ship crashes. Alien pilgrims lost their civil war and seek to colonize Earth. Within caves on alien world, the Knoonk execute their plan to genetically adapt to Earth and displace humans. Kidnapped to the closed cave system, Elena finds other humans subjected to Knoonk experiments. With time running out, she must dig deep to uncover the alien plan and stop them before humans face extinction.
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“Beware what you ask for,” Elena’s father had once warned.
Those words rattled about her head while she squeezed out of the lunar shuttle’s sleep tube. As the drug-induced fog faded, she sat facing a narrow sky-blue corridor. The bizarre encounter with Jorgensen kept looping through her brain, making no sense.
Despite her pledge to the senator, Elena would soon be on the Moon base, away from all the politics. She hoped her lunar crew had checked out and provisioned Devereaux’s long-range spacecraft, though when she reached the Moon, she would perform her own checks. Then they would launch toward Jupiter. She smiled. This is finally happening, Dad.
Stretching, Elena closed her eyes, pictured her father before he vanished, and wished she could share this moment with him. She snapped on antiquated magnetic boots and struggled to put one foot in front of the other to reach the main cabin. Her seamless blue and red transport bodysuit was too tight, the stretchy material clinging.
Predictably, Marc Carlisle managed to finagle his way onto her lunar shuttle. At the last moment, he’d shown up with official documents showing that he was replacing one of the passengers transferring to the Moon base. That was when she’d decided on induced sleep for the two-day journey. I’m not going to let him pester me into taking him to Europa.
The ship lurched, tossing her against one wall and then the other. Wretched clumsy boots.
At least on the longer journey she’d have artificial gravity and other conveniences. She peeled one boot off the metallic floor, pushed it forward, and let it magnetically reconnect. Fighting the boots in zero gravity took all her concentration. That and the lingering haze of induced sleep delayed her recognizing the obvious. It was rare for a spacecraft to shift direction abruptly unless something hit it. The only things that came to mind were meteorites and space junk, neither of which would be good.
The boots resisted her attempts to move faster. By the time she reached the main compartment, the nineteen other blue-and-red-clothed passengers, many dazed from sleep, were already strapped in or struggling to reach assigned seats in one of five rows. These lunar miners, construction workers, a cook, and a few agrarians were all heading for the lunar base or a nearby settlement.
The view-screen before them showed a starry sky, mostly blackness. The pilot’s seat was empty and Captain Zak Pavlin was nowhere in sight. Elena thought there should have been a partition separating the crew from passengers, so the latter wouldn’t notice such details. To conserve weight and space, NASA had built the shuttles without dividers.
Nearby sat navigator Reese Paswitch. Her highlighted brown hair and eyeliner seemed overdone for a transit to the Moon; she was looking forward to a lunar wedding. Her fiancée sat in one of the passenger seats, gripping the armrests. Two crewmembers on either side of the controls, young recruits on a routine lunar transit, were both sweating. They looked as if they hadn’t slept in days.
In the co-pilot’s seat sat Marc Carlisle, looking as if he’d pulled all-nighters for a week. Elena sighed. She didn’t need their personal drama replayed in public. She hated shutting him down on their last night together, but she was tired of his insistence that she let him accompany her to Europa. Now he’d moved a step closer.
After they reached the lunar base, she would let him stew while she prepared her team. Then she would bid him farewell—again. Maybe this time they could leave on better terms.
The transport jolted to the left, forcing Elena to steady herself against the cabin wall. Her attention fell on the forward view-screen, which no longer showed a starry sky.
“What the … Jupiter?” She felt dazed, still recovering from the sleep drugs. Am I dreaming?
No, she was awake, all right. The magnetic boots were like having her feet encased in concrete. She grabbed hold of an empty seat and dragged her boots toward the pilot’s chair. Have I been asleep for six months? She checked her wrist-com. Two days had elapsed and she was still on the shuttle. “Where’s the Moon?” she asked Marc.
“Good, you’re up.” He reached for her hand.
Elena pulled away. Weariness and frustration swept across Marc’s face.
“What happened?” she asked.
“Somehow we diverted to Jupiter, months early.” Marc’s attempt to act calm was betrayed by his face, wrinkled with unsettling terror.
“How is this possible?” Elena scanned the jumble of controls and lights for evidence of what went wrong. The whole setup looked like something from the Smithsonian. The shuttle was a generation out of date, since the government refused to invest in space exploration. NASA had assured her that the weathered craft was sturdy enough to get them to the Earth’s moon. Not to Jupiter.
“We don’t know.” Marc’s face sagged. “Maybe you can help puzzle this out.” His pleading look reminded her of the night they’d parted.
Approaching Jupiter should have excited her, but Elena struggled to absorb what was happening. She was near her destination without her team, no gear, in a shuttle that couldn’t survive out here. Preparation was everything. She shook her head. “The shuttle can’t travel this fast.”
Marc returned his attention to the controls and pulled up status charts. “Agreed, but we’ve been approaching Jupiter for hours. I’m open to explanations.”
Elena didn’t have any. She stared at the image of Jupiter, with the sinking feeling that she’d survived Jorgensen only to vanish in space like her father. Only one thing made sense, yet it didn’t. “Were you that desperate to be on my mission that you veered off course?”
“Whoa.” Marc threw up his hands and let out a heavy sigh. “We didn’t do this. The crew and I have been through forty-eight hours of hell. The controls don’t work. The pilot and co-pilot are checking panels for malfunctions. Tara L’Enfant is helping them.”
Elena had bumped Tara, an electronics expert, off her mission in favor of someone she deemed a better fit. Tara had taken the consolation prize, one rotation of work on the lunar base and ended up on this shuttle.
“Why are you at the controls?” Elena asked in a harsh whisper.
“I have pilot training.”
“Not for a shuttle.” Elena took a deep breath. She didn’t want another fight. “I want to speak to the pilot. Where is he?”
“He’s working on our thruster electronics. You’ll have to wait until he’s done. In the meantime, why don’t you sit?”
“Tell me what you know.” She stopped herself from adding that shouldn’t take long.
“Not a single switch, circuit or gear problem.”
Reese Paswitch sat nearby; her bloodshot eyes and knotted brow betrayed shell shock. Even her cheeks sagged, hardly the image she would want at her wedding. Passengers stared at the screen. Several got up and approached.
Elena tried to focus on the science, but her mind remained foggy. She couldn’t account for traveling so far so fast. Although her sponsors had exhausted every resource to find the fastest way to the outer solar system, even their long-distance spaceship couldn’t achieve these speeds.
“What do you make of this?” Elena asked, lowering her voice.
“We lost controls an hour into the flight,” Marc whispered.
The bulky control panel had no flashing lights. No displays hinted at anything wrong except for that Jovian mass ahead of them. “Why didn’t you wake me?” Elena asked.
“I tried,” Marc said. “You must have taken extra sedatives.”
To avoid you. A sharp pain stabbed behind her right eye. She dropped into the pilot’s seat and immediately her eyes felt leaden, ready for sleep. She took a deep breath and clenched her fists. “Not much, though my head’s ready to explode.”
Marc handed her a mug of coffee. “This might help. It’s a richer blend.”
Clutching the mug, Elena sucked in lukewarm coffee through a tube and hoped it would do the trick.
A half-dozen puzzled and scared passengers closed in around Elena as they pushed for a closer look. Worry spreading across their faces. She stood to get air. These passengers hadn’t signed on for the challenges and risks of flying to Jupiter. She didn’t want to add to their terror.
She handed Marc the coffee, placed her hand on his shoulder to steady herself, and leaned in to whisper into his ear. “I want a complete assessment.”
“Gladly,” Marc said, “but you’re not in charge until we land.”
“Neither are you. You should have stayed home.” Elena pulled away and stared at the growing image of the gas giant, Jupiter. Four-hundred-fifty million miles in two days. “Any chance that image and the instruments are wrong?” After all, this is a relic.
“The crew checked everything a dozen times. I’m sorry; I really did try to wake you.”
Elena’s knees trembled as she fought deceleration. “Any thoughts on how we got out here?” Out here?
Marc stood. He towered over her by five inches. “I’ve read theoretical treatises on space-time continuum and wormholes. I don’t know. Something bypassed all of our controls and pulled us toward Jupiter.”
“You’re saying we have no control,” said Wil Benning, the biggest of the passengers and a construction recruit hired for the lunar base. He pushed his way forward. “What the eff is going on?” He glared down at Elena.
“Are we crashing?” another man asked.
Passengers pushed closer, all shouting at once.
Marc faced the burly construction recruit. “Everyone take a deep breath. We’re doing everything we can.”
“Where’s the pilot when we need him?” Wil Benning asked.
“He’s checking the equipment. Unless one of you has electronics or aeronautics skills, sit down and let the crew do its job.”
Elena couldn’t make sense of their velocity: two percent the speed of light. When her sponsors had brainstormed faster means of space travel, they’d brought in a Stanford physicist who discussed the Alcubierre Drive, a specially designed engine that creates a field around a spacecraft using exotic matter and negative energy that might allow it to bend the space-time continuum and move as fast as the speed of light. It had too many technical problems and no evidence it would work, so her sponsors dropped that option. Nothing else explained this speed.
Most passengers returned to their seats, except Reese’s fiancée who hovered over her. Elena sat in the pilot’s seat. She scanned the usual status reports on a small screen in front of her and turned to Marc. “Get me access to the view-screen’s history.”
He clicked a file on the small console before her, and up came the video. “What are you thinking?”
She played the video from an hour after takeoff and sped it forward. The shuttle veered away from the Moon, which zipped by. Then it lifted above the plane of the planets. Not believing the trajectory, she slowed viewing to real time and was stunned by how quickly they passed Mars.
She checked her wrist-com. It registered a two-day lapse, yet at the shuttle’s implied speed, the trip couldn’t have taken more than a day. She wondered why Marc hadn’t said anything. In fact, he’d mentioned two days.
To verify, she counted off a minute. The console’s clock registered two. Even Einstein’s relativity couldn’t account for that. She counted again to be sure.
The craft lurched right.
As others fell against metallic walls, Elena grabbed her seat belt. “What was that?”
“We’ve been getting bursts of movement,” Reese said, “as if someone else is navigating.”
Elena tried to bridge the gap between Marc’s feigned coolness, Reese’s panic, and the possibility that someone was tampering with time and the shuttle’s speed. The lights on the panel before her were either green or white. “How much fuel do we have?”
“That’s just it,” Marc said. “We aren’t using much—only enough for electrical and life support.”
“That’s crazy.” She decided not to share her suspicions until she knew more.
Reese tugged Elena’s arm. “You guys need to see this.”
Standing, Elena stared at an approaching moon, which looked pink, thanks to the screen’s enhanced color contrasting. It took a moment to register that this was her Europa, the ocean moon, as she’d imagined it. Her jaw dropped. Of course, Europa was a moon of Jupiter. Amazing.
The image quality was unlike anything she’d seen before—the lines and angles of angry ice pushed and shoved by Jupiter’s tidal pressure. Clarity was so sharp she could imagine reaching out to touch it.
Marc tinkered with the controls. “Zak!” he yelled into the communicator. “What do you have? We’re on a collision course.” He turned off his mike and turned to the passengers. “Everyone in their seats and buckle up,” he yelled. “Prepare to crash.”
“I’m on my way,” Zak said.
“What’s going on?” someone yelled.
“Sit and try to be quiet,” Marc said. “Elena, that includes you.”
Unable to take her eyes off the screen, she groped for the pilot’s seat. The stark image of crisscrossed pink lines grew, demarking broken ice sheets, until the cracked and haunting image of Europa filled the view-screen. They plunged through the negligible atmosphere. Giant blocks of ice rushed toward them.
A chorus of confusion welled up behind her. Passengers screamed. A construction recruit fell against the forward screen with a crunch. Keeping her eyes fixed on an approaching brown ridge, Elena grabbed for the seatbelts. “Do you have thrusters?”
Marc glanced over. “It’s a transport, not a fighter. Now get your seatbelt on and brace for impact.”
Elena tugged at the seatbelt a moment too late. The shuttle slammed into the icy surface, throwing Elena into Marc’s arms. Air squeezed out of her lungs. She couldn’t move. Her insides heaved. She pressed her eyes shut and begged for relief. Marc held on too tight.
“Leeeet goooo!” Elena’s voice trailed distant and hollow in her ears. She struggled to break free. She smelled sweat; Marc was as petrified as she was.
Lights blinked out. Elena fell against the view-screen and winced from pain in her left shoulder. Odd screams scratched at her ears, punctuated by elongated blasts and the thunderous crackling of ice … or the shuttle. Time slowed, though she knew that was an illusion.
Darkness engulfed them except for sparks from the control panel. The smell of toasted electronics filled her sinuses and left a metallic taste in her mouth. Despite the loss of power, the screen glowed reddish.
A cacophony of terror jumbled signals to her brain. Emergency lights flashed on. Red splattered. Blood choked her throat. She was pinned by deceleration as the shuttle slowly broke through the ice.
Distorted screams tore at her ears. The screen presented a yellowish glow that illuminated sheets of ice flowing past. If the impact hadn’t destroyed the ship, ice pressure should have, yet they continued descending. Three bodies lay crumpled nearby. Elena couldn’t see faces.
Another body slammed against the view-screen: Captain Zak Pavlin, the pilot. Unable to lift her body, Elena slid closer to check his pulse. Nothing. Other bodies hit the screen. Acrid odors of blood, vomit, and electronics attacked her sinuses. Elena was amazed that she was still conscious, still experiencing all this.
Onscreen, the wall of ice turned into a brackish-brown slurry: a liquid ocean, as predicted.
Astonished by her own calmness, Elena strained to see. If only they had lights to penetrate the murkiness. I’m here, on Europa, Dad.
She sensed the sides of the shuttle bulging inward.
The shuttle continued its descent. The cabin filled with smoky haze. Her eyes misted and burned. She no longer saw Marc or Reese in the flickering lights. She drew her knees to her chin. Guilt tightened her chest, the nightmare of finding her brother Leo hanging by a rope after their father vanished. She hadn’t been there to protect him.
The ship stopped. Metal creaked. Everything fell forward. Voices echoed around her.
“Help!” someone yelled.
Elena covered her ears and cried out. She couldn’t hear her own voice. Icy water swept into the compartment. A thousand needles stabbed her flesh. She couldn’t see through the fog. Her entire body was on fire with frigid stabs.
Lights went out. Sparks flickered from the controls. Then even they vanished.
Darkness enveloped them.
Rita Calabrese is the guardian angel of Acorn Hollow—and of her lovable but exasperating "famiglia." She’s always fortifying her down-on-their-luck neighbors with secret deliveries of home-grown vegetables and ravioli alla zucca, sneaking cannoli into her gruff husband’s lunch, and meddling in (or, as she would say, “improving”) the lives of her three grown children.
But now, on the eve of her sixty-sixth birthday, Rita’s looking for a meaningful second act—and finds as a reporter for the local paper. Her profiles of Acorn Hollow’s eccentric citizens, including the soft-spoken biology teacher with a secret poison garden, soon make her the toast of the town. But when the beloved football coach is murdered and Rita’s investigation uncovers not only a messy love triangle, but also rumors of her ne’er-do-well son Vinnie’s involvement, she finds her newfound journalistic zeal on a collision course with her fierce maternal instinct.
Set in New York's bucolic Hudson Valley and sprinkled with Italian phrases and customs, "The Secret Poison Garden" includes eight mouth-watering, garden-to-table Italian-American recipes.
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Kneeling in the cool, damp earth, Rita Calabrese cast an appraising eye over her vegetable garden. At eight-thirty in the morning, the sun was just rising over the humpbacked mountain behind the sleepy Hudson Valley hamlet of Acorn Hollow. The russet leaves of the old oak filtered the light, sending it flitting across the basil, its leaves still shiny with the dew, and through the spiky forest of rosemary. Behind the rosemary stood her prized girasoli, which dutifully turned towards the sun.
She insisted on calling them by their Italian name. “Sunflower” was too prosaic, devoid of all romance and poetry. They were not mere sunflowers; they were her three prized girasoli—Marco, Gina, and Vinnie. She nourished them, and fussed over them, and prattled on endlessly about them to her neighbors.
They were just like her children. Only her real children didn’t always glow when she fussed over them, and they claimed to be able to feed themselves. Which was nonsense, of course. One could not claim to be a cook—an Italian cook, anyway—unless one could make nonna’s secret sauce. And she knew for a fact that none of them could. Nonna had only entrusted the recipe to one person—Rita—and Rita revealed only one ingredient per year, over steaming plates of lasagna on Christmas Eve, starting when her son Marco was thirty. The recipe had ten ingredients; Rita had only revealed six ingredients—the most obvious ones—so far.
If the girasoli were her children—her perfect, beautiful, intelligent children—the onion that sprang up in their midst was Susan, Marco’s impossibly slim new fiancée, all straight up and down, no curves, a cool green vegetarian. Rita had planted the onions in a clump behind the butternut squash, but somehow this one had escaped and implanted herself among the girasoli. How very like Susan.
She plucked Susan and half a dozen other, more obedient onions. Then she selected the squash that most resembled herself—unusually short and squat, with a fleshy round bottom—and took it inside to roast and purée.
Rita was sautéing the onions when her informant called.
“The eagle has left the nest,” her twin said.
Rita leaned over the bubbling pentola and got an intoxicating whiff of sweet, buttery onions. “For how long?”
“It’s hard to say,” Rose said, “but she had both kids with her and was carrying several books and a few letters.”
Rita mentally calculated the time it would take Fay Galloway to walk to the library, evade the head librarian’s nosy questions, check out some new books, and then mail the letters at the post office. Forty-five minutes, she guessed. “Thank—"
“Gotta dash,” Rose interrupted. “I just got a hot tip that old Van Hollen is planning to sell. I’m going to corner that merman on his way to morning water aerobics.”
Rita sighed. Such was the exciting life of her childless twin, Acorn Hollow’s top-selling realtor and consummate dealmaker.
After adding the squash, parmesan cheese, broth, and herbs, Rita puréed the entire mixture and then poured the velvety golden liquid into two Mason jars. She placed the soup in a plain, unmarked brown bag, along with half a dozen homemade cranberry muffins, two ears of corn, four stuffed peppers, and a few gleaming McIntosh apples from the tree in the back yard.
“Luciano! Cesare! Andiamo!” she called, and her two enormous Bernese mountain dogs leapt up from the couch, snatched their leashes off the hook in the hallway, and bounded towards her. She always spoke Italian to her dogs, and sometimes she wondered if they understood more Italian than her children did. No matter when she called them, they always responded with alacrity, as though they were about to rescue a frost-bitten skier from an avalanche and revive him with a flask of whiskey. Her Bernese actually did carry little flasks around their necks, which everyone in Acorn Hollow assumed were just for show. Only Rita, her husband Sal, and the widow Schmalzgruben knew the truth. The flasks were filled with limoncello from Capri, which Rita sipped as she sat by the riverside on warm, sunny days, beneath the willow tree, pretending she was floating in the Blue Grotto. Sometimes she imbibed while chatting with her mother in the cemetery, and sometimes she would pour a few drops on the rose bush that covered her mother’s grave. Once in a while, she would offer some to the widow Schmalzgruben, who could often be found perched on the tombstone of one of her three deceased husbands, reading them the day’s headlines.
She donned a wool sweater to guard against the mid-September chill, snatched the brown paper bag, and slipped out the door with Luciano and Cesare in tow. After a brisk fifteen-minute walk, they arrived at a little stone house with a rusted tricycle in the yard. The rose bushes were neatly trimmed, and the windows sparkled, but the forced cheeriness made the spectacle somehow more pathetic. A broken-down lime green Cadillac sat on blocks in the driveway, and the picket fence was missing several posts.
Rita bent down and pretended to pick up after her dogs, all the while peering into the front window. When she saw the back of Ted Galloway’s blond head silhouetted against a giant screen filled with an indignant Judge Judy, she tiptoed up the front walkway and placed the brown paper sack by the front door.
She took the long way home, ambling along the riverbank, admiring the brilliant reds and yellows that marched up the flanks of Mount Esquiline, before cutting over to Main Street.
At this time of year, Homecoming mania had reached a fever pitch. From every lamppost fluttered red and purple banners; the bakery featured cookies in the shape of Acorn Hollow High School’s mascot, a giant squirrel. In front of Thompkin’s Pharmacy, a slender brunette and two young children were admiring a ten-foot tall purple squirrel. The brush strokes were wavy and menacing, the tail curling into the furthest corner of Thompkin’s store window. Rita was unnerved by the glowing red eyes and fangs, which were greedily gobbling a Mount Washington High hawk.
The brunette smiled and waved at Rita. “Hello, Mrs. Calabrese.”
Squinting, Rita came closer. Slowly, the figure of Courtney D’Agostino, her oldest son Marco’s Prom date, came into focus.
Luciano and Cesare sat obediently while Rita kissed the young woman on both cheeks. “Ciao, bella.”
"Bella" was perhaps an understatement. Courtney was tall and statuesque, with a long Roman nose and lively dark eyes. And she was not only beautiful. She was also intelligent and kind. Rita had always harbored a secret hope—well, perhaps not so secret—that Marco and Courtney would become an item. But, to Rita’s chagrin, they had gone to Prom as “just friends” and stayed “just friends.” And now Courtney was married with children.
Courtney nodded in the direction of the mural. “Gruesome, isn’t it?” She laughed, and her sleek black ponytail swung back and forth.
“But it’s nothing compared to Mount Washington’s ‘installation art’ at the high school.”
“What do you mean?”
Courtney gave her an odd little smile. “I think you should see for yourself.”
Rita headed past the library and St. Vincent’s, up the hill to the high school. Catching sight of the town’s one and only fire engine, she picked up her pace, half-ran and half-walked past the flag pole, and flung open the doors to the entrance that led to the new swimming pool. No one objected when Luciano and Cesare skidded across the tiled yellow floor; no one noticed at all. They were all looking at one thing and one thing only: Coach Stiglitz’s shiny new Mazda Miata, suspended precariously over the pool, its doors wide open. A giant sculpture of a hawk hovered ominously above it, its outstretched talons hooked under the roof of the vehicle. Facedown in the pool was a papier-mâché figure. From where Rita was standing, she couldn’t quite make out the design that spread across the torso and legs—blue and gray swirls, some sort of nighttime landscape, she supposed, and a pulsating yellow orb. But, even so, the figure’s bright red hair and the numbers painted on his back were enough.
The figure was a likeness of the coach himself.
The incident at the pool dominated the conversation at Marco’s birthday dinner that evening.
“Let me get this straight,” Rita’s husband Sal mumbled as he shoved a hunk of stuffed pepper into his mouth. “It was just hanging there, over the pool.”
“That’s right, caro,” she said brightly, reaching over and wiping a grain of rice off his chin, “but please don’t talk with your mouth open.”
“Well how could it just hang there? Cars are pretty heavy, you know.”\
“It was being held up by a talon. A metal talon. Steel, I overheard the fire chief say.”
Sal harrumphed. “Sounds like the handiwork of a bunch of eggheads who want to study engineering at the U. They probably couldn’t catch a football if their lives depended on it.”
The hint of scorn in Sal’s voice rankled her. Yes, he was blue-collar, not a blueblood, as he frequently reminded her. And yes, his nursery was holding its own. Folks would drive from as far as Albany to buy Sal’s lovingly tended gladiolas, or to risk frostbite while cutting down a Christmas tree with a saw that—for liability reasons—was about as sharp as Rita’s nail file. But there was no need to disparage people with an education. After all, she herself had a bachelor’s degree in English, Gina was vice president of the local bank, and Marco was an anesthesiologist. Even ditzy little Susan, she had to admit, had a degree, even if it was from the University of Mississippi; she was a nurse at the hospital, which was where (to Rita’s everlasting dismay) she had met Marco. But Vinnie—Vinnie was another story. While Marco had created a health and wellness program for senior citizens as his Eagle Scout project, Vinnie’s idea of health and wellness was to smoke a joint with his friends down by the railroad tracks. Stress relief, he called it. And while Marco had been valedictorian and Gina had been fifth in her class, Vinnie’s sole academic achievement was just to graduate high school—and even that had been touch and go, with Sal muttering “fifty-fifty odds” and Rita clutching her rosary beads as the names of the graduates were read.
Vinnie, unfortunately, was his father’s son.
Forcing her lips into a smile, Rita turned to Susan, who was dissecting her food as though she suspected it were laced with rat poison. “What do you think?”
“About what?” Susan’s blank stare reminded Rita of the deer that had flung itself on her windshield on Passamaquody Mountain.
“About the coach’s car hanging over the pool. About the meaning of the floating papier-mâché figure. Is it a threat? A warning? Is it the work of criminal masterminds, common burglars, or teenaged pranksters?”
“Oh,” Susan said, somehow drawing the word into four distinct syllables. She looked terribly relieved. “Definitely pranksters. At my high school, our rivals kidnapped a half dozen of our principal’s fattest pot-bellied pigs and put them in the pool. When I went to swim practice the next day, they were just cavorting in the pool like it was the bee’s knees.”
She said the “bee’s knees” like it was a good thing, although Rita couldn’t imagine what would be so great about bees having knees. It just seemed like more surface area to sting her with.
“It was a hot mess,” Susan added. “All that sh—” She crinkled her nose and looked around the dinner table apologetically. “Pig poop.”
“Pig poop,” Rita repeated, stirring her soup and feeling slightly sick to her stomach. She supposed she should not hold Susan’s coarse language against her. After all, she had asked a question and Susan had responded truthfully. She continually reminded herself that Susan was a sweet girl, quite pretty, and Rita was sure some folks found her Southern accent charming. But when Rita looked over at Marco, she could not help but feel mystified. Surely, he could find someone more suitable. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with a dazzling intellect and a silver tongue, and she was sure he would be a senator someday, maybe even governor. But she could not picture Susan at a fundraiser or a speech, except as the waitress handing out canapés.
If only he had snagged Courtney D’Agostino. Now there was a woman of substance.
Marco loosened his tie and rubbed the back of his neck, as though he could feel his mother’s gaze boring into him. “We have a date for the wedding,” he said suddenly, taking Susan’s pale, almost lifeless hand in his own and giving it a squeeze. “June thirtieth.”
“Really?” Rita could hardly believe her ears. “When I spoke to Father De La Pasqua, it sounded as though it was hopeless to find a date in June. It’s such a popular time of year.”
Marco and his sister exchanged a glance. Vinnie and Sal seemed not to notice. But Rita did. Oh, how she hated that fleeting, superior look that frequently passed between her two oldest children, as if they were members of a secret society that excluded her.
Rita’s spoon landed with a clatter in her empty soup bowl. “Who cancelled?”
“No one cancelled,” Marco said softly, staring into the depths of his bowl.
“So, how’d you get a slot at St. Vincent’s?”
“I didn’t.” His voice was almost a whisper.
“I don’t understand.”
“Mom, we’re getting married in Mississippi. At Susan’s parents’ church.”
“Susan’s Southern Baptist parents’ church?” She could feel her voice rising in spite of herself.
“It’s beautiful,” Gina said.
“Yeah,” Vinnie said. “I saw a picture on Google Earth.”
As she looked from one guilty face to another, Rita felt the weight of her children’s betrayal. They knew. They all knew. They were just waiting to break the news to her. She could tell that they were waiting for her to erupt any second. She had endured twelve years of taunts as the “lunch lady,” prepared thousands of trays of industrial-sized macaroni and cheese, and acquired a nearly permanent smell of bleach, all to get the discount so that they could afford to send Marco—the ungrateful, heathen son before her—to Catholic school. He was their best and brightest, or so they had thought. She had sacrificed so much for him, and this was how he repaid her.
But all she said was, “It’s time for cake.”
She headed into the kitchen and rummaged in the drawer for the birthday candles. Her hands shook as she flung the silverware aside, her fingers brushing the cheap plywood. The room was spinning, and she felt short of breath. Who were those people in the dining room? They were strangers to her. They weren’t the same kids that she had driven to soccer practice, and ballet lessons, and summer internships in Albany, even when it meant driving ninety minutes in the pouring rain on bad roads.
She grabbed hold of the Formica countertop and took a deep breath. After inhaling and exhaling a few more times, she felt steady enough to place the candles on the cake. But she did not merely let each candle gently sink into the dark chocolate ganache. No, today that would not do. She stabbed the cake with each candle, the wax slicing through the ganache, into the layer of almond mousse, and finally into the moist rich cake.
As she reached for the matches, she heard low murmurs coming from the dining room. Rita tiptoed to the other side of the kitchen and pressed her ear to the door.
She could hear Gina’s low, slightly raspy voice. “Honestly, Susan, don’t pay any attention to Mom. She means well, but she’s old-fashioned, not to mention just plain old. She’s never had a career, other than six or seven years of teaching high school English, and she doesn’t have any life of her own. She just lives vicariously through her kids.”
Rita tiptoed back to the counter. With trembling fingers, she struck a match, lit the candles, and then quickly snuffed out the flame. She watched as the smoke curled lazily towards the ceiling.
A smoke signal, that’s what it was. Like the smoke that emerged from the Sistine Chapel announcing that a new pontiff had been chosen. This, too, was the beginning of a new era.
Forget her volunteer work, her secret morning rounds, dog-sitting for Gina’s schnauzer, and sneaking homemade cannoli into Vinnie’s and Sal’s lunches. Apparently, none of that mattered.
A month shy of her sixty-sixth birthday, Rita was finally going to fulfill her childhood dream: she was going to be a hard-hitting journalist.
Businessman Cade King has fallen for the wrong woman. She's the daughter of a hitman, and he's the target.
After ten years of living in the shadow of the Irish mob, Gia Callaghan wants nothing more than to escape the darkness of her life. Her burning desire for answers about her past has her constantly plotting new ways to flee. When she comes face-to-face with the one man who might be able to help her, she'll have to decide exactly how much his life is worth.
Cade King's past is littered with questionable choices. He's made more mistakes than he can count, but he vows to be a better man.
When he meets Gia, his structured life turns upside down, and he must decide whether he's truly worthy of redemption. Can he protect a woman whose guard is even higher than his own, or will she end up saving him from himself?
As the tension and chemistry heat up between the two, they'll discover that life isn't always black and white.
A sizzling and suspenseful romance.
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Brandon Cass is not your average teenager. He has a taste for blood—human blood. For sixteen years, he stumbled through life without a hitch until the enigmatic aroma of blood awakened something dark within him. Visions of a beautiful young woman with chocolate brown hair and ocean blue eyes haunt his mind, yet her identity is a puzzling mystery.
His hunger for blood strengthens, and the cravings become too powerful to control. No one is safe, not even his family. To safeguard all he once found dear, Brandon sets out on a quest for answers. In an unfamiliar city, he comes face-to-face with the beautiful young woman, confronts the dark force which controls him, and learns what he must endure to reclaim his soul.
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Nora knows three things: she is a servant, her parents are dead, and she lives in the kitchen house with her adoptive family. But her world is torn apart when she discovers that her birth father has always been right there, living in the house she serves.
This discovery leads Nora to more questions. Why was she thrown in an ash-covered room for asking about her father? Why is a silver-bladed knife the only inheritance from her birth mother? Why is magic forbidden in her household—and throughout the province of the Runes? The answers may not be the ones Nora hoped for, as they threaten a possible romance and her relationship with the adoptive family she loves.
With the announcement of a royal ball, Nora must decide what she is willing to give up in order to claim her stolen birthright, and whether this new life is worth losing her family—and herself.
CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE
I sat at the window with the sun on my face, slicing tomatoes I picked from the vine that climbed the back of the kitchen house. On the other side of the room, Greta hummed an old tune. The words tickled at the fringes of my memory, not quite making their way to my lips. I hadn’t heard them since she used to sing me to sleep almost seven years ago. When I was six, old enough to hold my knife, hearth-lit songs and dreams had been replaced with work.
Tomato juice sluiced across the cutting board as I bore down with my blade. The carvings that covered its handle had practically tattooed themselves on my palm. I imagined it had been the same way for my real mother—the knife had once been hers.
“Nora, Robert stopped by while you were outside,” Greta said, arm-deep in a bowl of dough. “He said there’s a new woman and her son coming sometime this week. They’re going to work here with us.”
“Why?” I said, glancing up from the mess of tomatoes on my board. The kitchen house already felt small with Greta, Peter, and me living there.
Greta shrugged. “Sir Alcander must have thought we needed the help.”
Bright pain burst through my hand. I drew a breath and looked down at where my knife had bitten into my finger.
“Are you okay?” Greta asked.
“I’m fine.” I hid my finger under the table until she turned back to her dough. I didn’t want her to take away my knife.
“Anyway, we’ll need to clear out some space in the loft.”
“Mm-hmm.” I held up my hand and stared at the red teardrop of blood glinting in the sunlight. It was beautiful, I decided. Like a jewel. I wrapped a rag around my finger before Greta could see it.
A chirrup of delight sounded outside. Siobhan and Annabelle had come out to play. Even though they rarely acknowledged me, I swore that the girls, the daughters of Sir Alcander and Lady Portia, played in view of the kitchen house just to remind me that they had the time and leisure to play when I did not.
“Greta!” Siobhan ran up to my window and leaned inside. “Do you have any chocolate?” Her voice was sweet, a voice that tried to please.
Greta knew better. “No dessert before tea.”
Siobhan’s innocent mask fell off. “I said give us some chocolate. I’ll tell mother if you don’t.”
There was a fleeting moment when I thought Greta might say no. Tell them to say please. Make them ask nicely like she would make me do if I ever talked to her like that. Instead she shook her head and went to the shelf to get the chocolate. She never would have given in to me, but my mother wasn’t the lady of the house.
“Ella-Della!” Annabelle peeked her head through the window as she reached for the chocolate.
“Not Ella-Della,” I said. “Nora.” Della was the name of the simple milkmaid in one of Annabelle’s favorite stories. Her stupidity always got her in trouble with the lord of her household. Once I had the misfortune of walking by with a bucket of water while Portia was outside, telling the story to the girls.
“Look, there goes Della now,” Portia said. At the time, I didn’t even know what the name meant, but the way she laughed let me know it wasn’t a compliment. Siobhan and Annabelle echoed her laughter and her words, and the name stuck.
“Ella-Della, we heard a secret,” Annabelle said through a mouthful of chocolate.
Siobhan shushed her. “I said I was going to tell her!”
She picked up a piece of tomato from my cutting board and threw it at my face. Warm, acidy juice trickled down my cheek. I wiped it off with my rag. Annabelle murmured in disgust at the blood that streaked the cloth.
“You’re going to want to hear it,” Siobhan said as I moved the cutting board out of her reach. “It’s about you.” She looked at Greta, who pretended not to pay attention, then back at me. “Meet us by the tree.”
“Race you!” Annabelle shouted and ran into the field. Siobhan followed. I imagined them tripping in their silk slippers and staining their dresses with dirt.
As much as I didn’t want to admit it, I was curious about what they had to say. But I also knew Greta would not let me leave until my work was done. I picked another tomato out of my basket, cut a slit into the side, and squeezed it so the slit cracked into a mouth.
“I have a secret! It’s about you, Ella-Della. Now give me chocolate!” Pulp lolled out of the tomato-mouth.
I wished Peter were here. His stories full of chivalrous heroes, brave maidens, talking animals, and the occasional fairy always made time go faster. But Peter was up on top of the main house, patching the roof again. I wished I were up there with him, outside and above everything, but Greta had insisted I stay with her.
“What if you fell off the roof?” she said as we ate breakfast.
“Then you’d heal me and make me all better,” I replied.
“Lucky.” Peter grinned as he drank the last of his tea. “She’d leave me for dead.”
“You know that’s true,” Greta said, and we all laughed. She and Peter had been married for so long that she liked to say that their jokes about killing each other were sometimes serious.
I looked out the window at where Siobhan and Annabelle had settled themselves under the hazel tree in the middle of the field.
“Greta?” I said. “Can I go outside?”
Greta tsked and shook her head. “You know those girls don’t have anything worthwhile to say.”
I bit the inside of my cheek. I wanted Greta to be right, but there had been a wicked delight in Siobhan’s eyes that made me think that she really did have a secret to share. There was no way I was going to let her keep it to lord over me later.
Greta waved her hand. “Put the soup on, then go.”
I diced the rest of the tomatoes and carried the cutting board to the pot that hung over the fire in the hearth. The tomatoes went in on top of the carrots, parsnips, and rosemary that I threw in earlier that morning. I poured a pitcher of water on top of the vegetables and wiped my knife on my apron. The tomato pulp left an orange swath across the fabric.
Greta nodded. Her long braid fell over her shoulder as she worked. She pushed it back behind her. “Go. But you’re a glutton for punishment. And I’m not going to stop your soup from boiling over.”
I untied my apron and hung it over my chair by the window. I usually took my knife outside with me so I could use the handle to smash open the skins of the hazelnuts. Greta watched me with a raised eyebrow and the hint of a smile on her face. I left the knife behind.
I could feel Greta watching from the window as I crossed the field behind the kitchen house. Smoke meandered from the chimney, a reminder of the soup that would boil soon. The kitchen house was a squat brown-and-grey stone block compared to the massive size of the main house next to it. I could walk to the main house in minutes, but it felt like it was miles away. I’d never been inside. Greta always murmured something about my being too young when I asked if I could help bring in dinner.
Siobhan and Annabelle sat on the grass under the hazel tree. I bristled at their presence. I claimed the tree for myself long ago. It was close to the rest of the forest but set off by itself, pulsing with a secret, solitary life. I used to climb over its branches, rubbing my feet over the smooth bark and leaning my ear against the trunk to listen for a heartbeat.
It was my tree, alone and proud. I didn’t want them playing near it.
Siobhan sat with her legs tucked under her skirt, pulling up blades of grass, knotting them, and throwing them at Annabelle. She threw a clod of roots and dirt at me. It landed harmlessly an arm’s-length away. I was sure that if I hadn’t already gathered most of the hazelnuts from the ground that morning, Siobhan would be throwing them instead.
“What took you so long?”
“I had work to do.” I put my hands on my hips, trying to look imposing. Siobhan stood up and brushed off her skirt. Even though I was more than a year older, she was taller and always managed to look down on me.
“Of course,” she said, miming forgetfulness. “Ella-Della is our servant.”
“Della, Della, Ella-Della,” Annabelle sang. “Fetched some milk and met a fella.” She was ten, a year younger than Siobhan. Her face screwed up in an expression of intense concentration as she tried to remember the next part of the song.
“What is it?” I asked. “You said you had something to tell me.”
“You need to earn it, Ella-Della.” Siobhan pointed to the top of the tree where the tail end of one of Annabelle’s bird-shaped toys stuck out between the leaves.
“Why don’t you get it yourself?” I said.
Siobhan snorted. “Climbing trees is not ladylike, Ella-Della.”
Annabelle, having given up on the song, fit a chain of clovers on top of her golden curls. As she and Siobhan waited, ladylike, on the ground, I grabbed the lowest branch and swung up into the tree. There was a curved branch halfway up that I liked to sit on. I stopped there, balancing with one hand against the trunk. The toy was stuck between the branches far above my head.
“Just because it’s a bird doesn’t mean it can fly,” I called down.
Cocooned among the dark, jagged leaves, I couldn’t see Siobhan. But the leaves didn’t stop her voice from reaching me.
“Just because you look like a horse doesn’t mean you can run.”
I continued to climb. Greta was right. They didn’t have anything useful to tell me. They just wanted someone to get Annabelle’s bird.
The cloud-dappled sky came into view near the crown of the tree. The toy’s red body stood out from the green around it. I stood on my tiptoes on a thin branch and stretched to reach it. My fingers brushed against the painted wood, and it plummeted out of the tree, hitting branches and smashing to the grass below. I climbed down as slowly as I could.
Annabelle held the bird’s wooden body in one hand and the wing that had broken off in the other. Her cheeks were reddened with anger. She started to speak, but Siobhan brushed her off.
“Father will buy you a new one,” she said. “Tell him that Ella-Della broke it. He’ll take it out of her wages.”
I shuffled my feet, which smarted from landing on the ground. What did they even know about my wages? I’d never seen any of the money due to me—I always assumed Peter and Greta kept it safe for when I was older. What did I need it for, anyway? When he went to the Market, Peter used his own wages to buy me small toys or the charcoals and chalk I used whenever he or Greta had time to give me lessons. Did Sir Alcander take from my wages any time I did something he didn’t like? I’d only ever seen the man from a distance, but he seemed imposing enough that I could imagine him doing it.
“Ella-Della,” Siobhan said, “don’t you want to know the secret?”
“No.” I turned back to the kitchen house.
“I heard Mother and Father talking in the parlor. They thought I was in bed, but I was getting those black biscuits from the servants’ rooms.”
Annabelle dropped her toy back on the ground. “You said I could come with you! I wanted biscuits, too!”
“Those were for the house servants,” I said. Greta and I made the thin bilberry biscuits a week ago. It was my idea to smash up the berries to give the dough its dark color.
Siobhan went on as though she hadn’t heard me. “Mother and Father were talking and Mother said, ‘Someday she’s going to find out, and when she does, she’s going to want to know why, Alcander.’” She did a pitch-perfect impression of her mother, cocking her head just like I’d seen Lady Portia do.
Curiosity won out. “Why what?”
Siobhan opened her mouth to answer, but Annabelle got there first.
“Why you live in the kitchen house when your father is in the main house.” She gasped and clapped a hand over her mouth. Siobhan looked around. Her haughty expression was gone, replaced by guilt. She was not good at burying her thoughts. They were telling the truth.
Siobhan’s moment of humility didn’t last long. “I always thought your father lived in the oven,” she said. “That would explain why your arms are all messed up.”
I crossed my arms behind me, trying to hide the pink burns scarred onto my skin.
“You’re lying,” I said. Even if they actually heard Lady Portia say those words, what she said wasn’t possible. Greta and Peter were my parents. My real mother died in childbirth, and my father followed her to the World Apart soon afterwards. That’s what Greta and Peter always said. But the hazel tree brightened behind Siobhan’s head, and my feet felt lighter than before, like they weren’t quite touching the ground. It might have been hope.
“Am not,” Siobhan snapped. “I’m being nice. I just thought you’d want to know that your father threw you away in the kitchen house so he wouldn’t have to see your ugly face every day. See if I ever do anything for you again.”
She turned on her heels and hauled Annabelle back to the main house. I stood there for a moment, letting the colors of my small world return to normal. I couldn’t go back to the kitchen house, not yet, not if what they said was true. Why would Greta and Peter tell me that my father had passed? Was his presence the reason I wasn’t allowed in the main house? He could be there, waiting for me to come find him. Did he know who I was? Did he even want me?
“Nora!” Greta’s voice pierced through the fog of questions swirling around me. “The soup is burning!”
I ran back to the kitchen house and hefted the pot off the fire. I hadn’t put in enough water, and what I did add had boiled away. I poured in two pitchers this time and put the pot back on the hearth, hoping no one would notice the vegetables’ smoky taste. I barely heard Greta’s reprimands as I ran through the list of men who worked in the main house. There were three male servants: Matthew, Sir Alcander’s valet, was married to Sarah, the head maid. They came to work at the Runes when I was eight, so it couldn’t be Matthew. Victor, the footman, was only seventeen. The only one left was Robert, the butler. He began working at the Runes before Greta and Peter, and he was certainly old enough to have a daughter my age. He had only ever been kind to me when he came to deliver messages or get food from the kitchen house.
Someone knocked at the door. Greta opened it, and there he was. Breath caught in my throat.
“Robert.” Greta nodded, and he came inside.
“The new kitchen maid will arrive from the Vale the day after tomorrow.”
“From the Vale?” Greta sounded surprised, but I didn’t understand why. “Is she Kindred?”
“She and Alcander are like-minded when it comes to”—he glanced over at me—“the goings-on at the Vale.”
I held Robert’s gaze for as long as I could, scrutinizing his features. He carried himself with a dignified air, stately even. He took pride in his work, which was probably why he’d been employed at the Runes longer than any of the other servants. His hair was wiry and grey. I ran a hand through the scraggily, dark red tangle on my head. I’d never met anyone else with my thick, ratty hair. Greta’s braid, while heavy, was smooth and dark. Annabelle and Siobhan’s curls were always brushed to perfection. Robert’s hair reminded me of trees I had seen in the woods that had been struck by lightning, an image I often associated with myself when I looked in the mirror. I could imagine his hair being the same color as mine once upon a time. His eyes were grey instead of gold like mine, but I could have gotten my eyes from my mother.
Had Robert ever been married? He wasn’t now. Maybe he had a wife who died in childbirth, and he couldn’t bear to have the child near him because she—I—reminded him too much of her. It was all very romantic. I wanted to rush over to him, but I held back. What if I were wrong? I would just embarrass myself.
Robert and Greta’s conversation ended with the determination that Peter would meet the new servants in the woods west of the Runes proper the next day. Robert brushed past me on his way out.
“Nora.” He nodded at me.
I wanted to follow him back to the main house, but as soon as the door closed behind him, I turned to Greta.
“My parents,” I said. “My real parents—do you know who they were?”
She startled at the abruptness of the question. “Why are you asking this now? Did the girls say something?”
“I just want to know.”
Greta beckoned for me to sit down with her.
“You know the answer. The couple who worked in the kitchen house before us gave you to Peter and me.”
“But those people weren’t my parents,” I said.
“They didn’t say who your parents were,” Greta continued. “Only that they’d passed, and you needed someone to take care of you. We always wanted a child, and—” She stopped talking when it became obvious I wasn’t listening. This was a story I knew by heart, but it wasn’t mine anymore.
Greta narrowed her eyes. “What did the girls say to you?”
I stood up. “Nothing.”
I went back to my seat by the window, put my apron on, and began to mash up a pile of sprigberries that Greta had put on the table while I was outside. If she and Peter knew anything about my real parents, they would have no reason to hide it from me. They gave me my mother’s knife, after all. Sir Alcander and Lady Portia obviously knew, but I couldn’t ask them. Lady Portia’s visits to the kitchen house were rare and always came with demands. Less salt in the soup or an extra dessert tart for Siobhan and Annabelle. She gusted in and out, never staying for longer than her words and never looking in my direction. Sir Alcander never even set foot near the kitchen house. The only times I’d laid eyes on him had been through a window when I brought something to Peter while he was patching the exterior of the main house. I knew Sir Alcander more by his maps. Peter had one in the kitchen house, and he used it to teach me the geography of Colandaria. Sir Alcander’s intricate compass roses were more familiar to me than his face.
No, I would not get answers from either of them. But I would go to the main house. I had to talk to Robert.
“Good morning, early riser. Any chance you made breakfast while we were sleeping?” Peter said as he climbed the ladder down from the loft and joined me in the kitchen, where I’d been trying to quiet the pounding of my heart since before sunup. He put his arm around me and kissed my forehead. The bristles of his short beard tickled my chin. All fathers should feel like this, I thought.
I had to keep myself from trailing behind him when he brought breakfast to the main house. I would have to wait until everyone was doing their work before I could go inside. I’d seen Greta and Peter go in the back door of the main house as often as I’d seen Robert, Sarah, or one of the other servants come out of it on their way across the field. The servants’ quarters were supposed to be right near the entrance. There had to be something there that would tell me about Robert.
I picked at my breakfast. The nervous flutter in my stomach made me too nauseated to eat. I’d occasionally thought about my real parents resting in the World Apart. Their ashes would have been given to the wind somewhere meaningful. Someone would have held me nearby to ensure that their spirits would watch over me. Growing up, though, I had the parents I needed. Greta and Peter gave me a fire burning in the hearth, a garden to pick food from, and stories to fill warm nights in the loft.
Now, with just a few words from Siobhan and Annabelle, I needed more.
No one would be in the main house servants’ quarters after breakfast. I waited until Peter went outside to repair the fence around the chicken coop and Greta began making her daily bread at the counter that faced away from the window.
“I’m going to see if any more tomatoes are ripe,” I said as Greta took out caraway seeds and flour and put them next to the eggs that I gathered from the coop before breakfast.
She nodded, and I headed out, glancing back to make sure that she had started on the dough. While she was busy measuring ingredients, I ran across the field to the main house and went in the back entrance. Once inside, I cracked open the first door I came to. The room I entered was about the size of the floor of the kitchen house, large enough to fit six beds. Some belongings—probably Victor’s, since Peter always complained what a mess Victor was when he came back from bringing in supper—were strewn about the floor, while others sat on shelves or against the wall. The largest bed would belong to Matthew and Sarah. That left only a few beds that could be Robert’s. A green satin vest with gold edging hung on a stand across the room. That had to be his. He would wear it to serve at Sir Alcander’s and Lady Portia’s banquets. Robert’s shelves were bare except for a few books and a tin of my bilberry biscuits. I warmed at the thought that my father had a stash of my cooking. There was something else on the shelf, something flat enough that I couldn’t see what it was. I stood on my tiptoes and retrieved a palm-sized agate cameo. The carving was of a young woman not more than twenty years old. She was lovely, with long, wavy hair tied back with a large bow.
Was this my mother? In profile, it was difficult to make out anything specific about her features. I wished her image were in color so I could see if she had my gold eyes. I had to talk to Robert before I lost my nerve. I went back to the hallway with the cameo clutched in my fist. I didn’t know where to go, but I did know that I would be in trouble if I were caught roaming the halls. I picked a direction, glancing around each corner before proceeding as I looked for a shock of steely grey hair.
Portraits lined the hallway. All of the subjects wore the same shade of dark green that marked them as the noble family of the Runes. I stopped in front of a painting that depicted Sir Alcander and Lady Portia posing with younger versions of Siobhan and Annabelle. The artist captured the girls’ smug expressions well. The paint in Siobhan’s eyes shined with mischief. Lady Portia’s every hair was defined. The painter had arranged his light source to highlight her sharp, elegant cheekbones. Sir Alcander’s eyes were duller than those of Lady Portia or their daughters. Even Annabelle’s eyes twinkled with specks of white that were missing in her father’s.
I wheeled around to face Sarah, the head maid.
“What are you doing here?”
I looked at the floor. The grey and green grain of the marble flowed like the lines on one of Sir Alcander’s maps. I ran the tip of my shoe along one of the paths.
“I’m looking for Robert,” I said. “I need to talk to him. It’s important.”
“He’s taking dictation for Sir Alcander.” Sarah looked past me down the hall. “He’ll be done soon. Come with me.”
She put a hand on my back and ushered me in the direction from which I’d come.
“You’re not supposed to be in here,” she said.
“I know.” I tucked the cameo into my pocket. “But it’s important. Don’t tell Greta, please.”
Sarah glanced behind us. The pressure of her hand on my back became more urgent.
“It’s not Greta I’m worried about.” She opened the door to the servants’ quarters and pushed me inside. “Stay here. I’ll get Robert.”
She left the door open a crack and hurried down the hall. I sat on Robert’s bed. A long piece of straw poked out of the mattress. I pulled it out from the fabric and broke a piece off the end. By the time Robert arrived, shutting the door behind him, there was a small pile of straw on my lap. I leapt off the bed, spilling it on the floor.
“Sorry.” I bent down to sweep the straw into my hand. Robert knelt to help me.
“Nora, what are you doing here? You’re not supposed to be—”
“I need to talk to you,” I said. “It’s about my—” The word stuck on my tongue. “Um, Siobhan and Annabelle said that…” I took the cameo out of my pocket. “Who is this?”
Robert snatched it out of my hand. “What are you doing with this?”
My cheeks burned. “I found it on the shelf. Is it your wife?”
The angry lines on Robert’s face softened. “No, it’s my sister. She died a long time ago. Why do you ask?”
I sat on the bed. I felt heavy enough that I might sink into the straw and never come out.
“Siobhan and Annabelle said they heard Lady Portia and Sir Alcander talking, and they said that my—” I choked out the word. “—father was in the main house. I thought that you might be—”
Robert moved away, dropping the straw into a bucket next to the bed. I sank farther into the mattress. Being poked with spindles of straw was preferable to the silence in the room.
“Your father?” Robert said. “Nora, the man who was your father is long gone.”
“But you have to be,” I protested. “Your hair, it’s just like mine.”
“What, this old mess?” Robert ran a hand through his hair and sat down next to me.
My voice dropped to a whisper. “It has to be you.”
“I’m sorry, Nora. I don’t have any children. Peter’s been a good father to you, hasn’t he?”
“Yes.” I could feel each razor of straw jabbing into my skin. “I just thought—”
Wait. What did he say?
“You know who my father was!” It came out as a statement, not a question. Robert jumped up from the bed.
“No, Nora, you misunderstood. I—”
“Yes, you do!” I leapt up after him. “You said he was gone, but you know who he was. Tell me!”
Robert’s eyes darted back and forth as if he were looking for a way to escape the conversation before fixing on a point behind me. Panic tinged his voice.
“She was just bringing a message from the kitchen house.”
I turned to see Lady Portia standing on the other side of the door. I hadn’t heard it open. Waves of anger passed through her cold ocean eyes. I had only ever seen Lady Portia angry, but this was different. This was rage, and it was aimed squarely at me.
Robert put a protective arm around my shoulders.
“I’m sending her back right now.”
“Eleanor.” Lady Portia’s voice was ice cracking. “You are not permitted in here.”
“I'm sorry,” I croaked. “I’ll go back.” This was different from Sarah’s confusion at finding me in the hall or Robert’s initial anger at discovering his cameo in my hands. Different, and infinitely more dangerous.
Before I could move, Lady Portia was in the room, grabbing my arm and wrenching me from Robert’s grasp. I could feel her breath on my cheeks as she pulled me close.
“You are supposed to stay in the kitchen house,” she hissed. She jerked me out of the room and down the hall.
“Ma’am—” Robert started after us.
“Stay where you are,” Portia said without turning to look at him. “This is none of your business.”
I looked back, panicked, as I flailed in my attempt to keep up with Lady Portia’s long stride. I heard the sound of the back door being thrown open. I could only hope Robert was going to get Greta or Peter.
Lady Portia’s fingers burned on my arm as she pulled me behind her, making a series of turns through the hallways. Anytime I opened my mouth to protest, to apologize, to cry, she jerked me forwards, and my words were swallowed in a yelp of pain. She finally stopped in front of a plain, wooden door. It felt out of place next to the other doors in the hallway, which were lacquered and covered in carvings. Its austerity didn’t belong, just like I didn’t.
My wrist glowed red when Lady Portia let me go, and I rubbed my arm to quell the pain. My mouth ran ahead of me, spitting out every apology I could think of. She ignored me as she sorted through the keys on a ring she took from her dress pocket and fit a large iron key into the lock. The door creaked open. I couldn’t make out anything inside—there were no windows to let in the light. The darkness in the room felt different than when the kitchen house darkened after sunset. This darkness was hungry. I turned to run.
Portia caught my wrist and shoved me into the room. I fell on my hands and knees. Small pieces of something—dust? ash?—rose up around me, making their way into my throat. I started to cough.
“Never ask about your father again.” She slammed the door, plunging me into the dark. The door fit so snugly in its frame that there wasn’t even a sliver of light shining at the bottom.
It was a moment before my shock allowed me to react. The room smelled scorched with death, like it hadn’t been opened in ages. I coughed again, trying to get out the pieces of the room that had infiltrated my throat, my nostrils, my eyes. I shuffled forwards until I reached the door and felt for the knob. It was cold to the touch. I pulled as hard as I could, but it would not turn.
“Robert!” I screamed. “Sarah! Peter! Greta!” I kept screaming their names until my throat was raw. The fine powder that covered the floor stuck to me wherever my body touched the damp ground. There were voices down the hall, but they were too far away for me to hear what they were saying.
“Father?” I whispered.
My arm ached where I could feel a bruise blooming around my wrist. I wanted Peter and Greta. I wanted my father and my mother, but I didn’t know their names. Only the darkness held me as I cried.
Life has a way of going awry when you least expect it, and Khalila Skyers learns this lesson the hard way. In one devastating blow after another, she loses her cosy existence. Then Douglas Blythe overtakes her life like a flood, and she's not equipped to deal with an attraction that seems forbidden and overwhelming. But her body and heart want what they want, and leave her wondering if she ever knew herself at all.
Douglas is determined to help Khalila move beyond her obsession with the past and reach for love a second time. No matter how long it takes. No matter the distance. He’s going to prove he's worth the risk.
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Douglas stared me down until I wanted to look away from his gaze that seemed to cut to the deepest part of me. When he lifted my hand off the table, I relaxed despite the tremor snaking up my arm.
Using his thumb, he stroked my skin while he spoke. “Look, we know next to nothing about each other, but don’t presume to tell me what I want. I’m capable of making up my mind on my own.”
I was a little of everything—embarrassed, confused, speechless. How could he be so sure I was what he wanted? No matter what he thought, I had too much going on to be adding a relationship to the list.
“What are you afraid of, Khalila?”
My name on his tongue was a caress that scattered my thoughts.
“It’s not that I’m afraid of anything.” I pulled my hand out of his and drank the rest of the water while gathering my thoughts. “My divorce isn’t final yet and…”
My mind settled on Amir, who I didn’t want to think about now. Softly, I sighed. “It’s too early to be thinking about a relationship with anybody.”
“We’ve gone way past the point of thinking about what’s happening between us. I’m not asking you to marry me, but I’m interested in you.” His voice softened and I had to concentrate to hear his words. “Give me the chance to show you that what we did wasn’t only about sex.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I held my silence.
His gaze was analytical and he didn’t seem to expect a response. The longer he looked at me, the more my heart rate accelerated. It was ridiculous that at my age any man could get this kind of response from me.
“I hope that wasn’t all it was for you,” he said.
It took me a few seconds to catch up with him, but I didn’t answer. I was too busy trying not to squirm at the image of him on top of me in his bed.
After reading his watch, Douglas smiled. Why, I didn’t know, but it was a genuine gesture that made me want to respond in the same way.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
Nodding, I got out of my seat.
Douglas didn’t crowd me, but let me walk ahead of him. As I wove through the tables, I greeted a few members of the working team, who would also be leaving the hotel today.
Once we were out of the restaurant, Douglas touched my arm and directed me toward the elevator.
“Aren’t you leaving today?” I asked.
“Yes, I’m just making sure you get to where you’re going.”
Putting a smile in my voice, I said, “I’m not likely to get lost on my way upstairs.”
“I didn’t think so.” He laughed and eased both hands into the pockets of his shorts. “I’m simply doing what any decent man would do.”
My cheeky grin conveyed gratefulness and understanding. “Carry on, then.”
He nodded and in silence, we walked to the elevator. When it was a few floors away, he faced me. “I want to ask one favor of you.”
“Answer your phone when I call, okay?”
He stepped in close, kissed my cheek and then brushed his lips across mine.
I sucked in my breath and opened my mouth, wanting more of him, but he stepped back.
The elevator opened and he urged me forward with a gentle hand to my back.
I walked inside, asking myself what kind of game Douglas was playing. Why would he start something he couldn’t finish, not to mention leave me hot and bothered?
As the doors closed, our gazes locked and I swore that man knew exactly what he was doing and the state he’d left me in.
A British composer turns outlaw in Los Angeles in Turn On, Tune Out. Angelica Morgan flouts a computer law that cripples creativity. In L.A., Angelica finds an audience, love, and a passion to stop the insidious law from taking hold in Britain. In the near future of California, artists, who steal time off-line, are considered suspect, criminal, and dangerous.
Angelica’s friend, Rosetta, an outspoken painter, cautions the musician about the Stop, Look and Listen law. But Angelica dismisses the warning. . . .
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They say my music makes dogs howl, that it wakes the dead and hates the living. But I don’t hear it that way, and neither do my cohorts.
My music resonates the times. It echoes the world: today’s and tomorrow’s. It’s the year 2033. I don’t shut out reality with the gentle plucking of strings or the harmonic rhapsody of an orchestra. No pastoral symphony for me. The city floods into my art: the tripping of car alarms, the whooshing of cars, the wailing of fire engine sirens, the screeching of trucks, the whirring of police helicopters, and the booming of car stereos. These sounds grow the shell into which I drop those of the hearth: the ringing of the telephone, the droning of the television, the clicking of computer keys. These are my instruments along with the piano, the violin, and the rest of the orchestra.
Like a musical alchemist, I take ugly sounds and transmute them into art. I restore balance into a life from which it had escaped so long ago that there was no realization of its loss, much less desire for its return. Listeners find a way to make artistic sense out of our discordant lives.
I stand guilty of loving humanity, of caring enough for people that I will risk my freedom, of believing that we are the reflection of the Supreme Being so that the risk will not be so great. We have a short time on this earth, the wink of an eye, but life here is not all. We are likely to return again and again before we get it right.
Yet, the laws which threw me here into this cold, steel cell were not faith, hope and charity. They were bizarre codes of a skewed society, rules linked to electronic control of people. I didn’t follow them, not out of a spirit of rebellion, but because I led an alternative way of life. I didn’t fit in. I didn’t turn on and tune out.
Sometimes I listened to the quiet, which is never that. I’d lie on the carpeted floor of my beach town studio apartment, a bedsit, and listen to the seagulls. Or I’d gaze out the window, over the tops of trees. I lived in the penthouse of a two-story wooden shack, two apartments on each floor. Looking out swelled my heart with elation. I pretended to live in the country. Sometimes I read books, nineteenth- and twentieth-century novels, biographies of artists and composers who lived during a time when artists were not prohibitive, and I read travel tales about faraway places.
And always, each morning from four until eight, I wrote music.
I arranged my waking and dreaming hours around music, the heart of my life. I couldn’t squeeze in the daily four hours of screen-watching – television or computer – required by the state, not with the job I needed to pay rent and buy food, and the commuting from Long Beach to Century City on clogged Los Angeles freeways.
It’s my job that landed me here without music, except in my head, and without a view, except in my memory. Perhaps it’s unfair to blame my job. I could just as well blame people for allowing society to become what it has become, or music for seducing me, or my parents for conceiving me in April and giving birth to a free-thinking Aquarian. I could just as well blame myself.
What do you think? You be the judge.
I'm Mark Morrison. I'm originally from a teeny-tiny town in Ohio called Salem. My father used to say that it was the armpit of the country. Peeuuw! I have seven brothers and sisters, a slew of nieces and nephews and a couple dozen great nieces and nephews. I now live in Florida with my loving wife, four children and two beautiful grand-babes. It's hot, but it's just a sticky, obnoxiously wet heat. Hahaha!
My father used to say that I was an uneducated genius. I'm not exactly sure what he meant by that. I suppose it was because I spent most of my time in school more involved in sports and art classes growing up than mathematics, history or science. I did, however, sneak in several elective credits as a librarian's assistant. That was a whole lot of fun and I was able to read a ton of awesome books.
As a boy I grew up reading things like The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew mysteries, and the classics, like Huckleberry Finn and Charlotte's Web. I also read some outstanding comics and MAD magazines. But as I got older my taste changed. I was big into Isaac Asimov, George Orwell and Edgar Allen Poe. I didn't just read. I watched a little Television as well. Star Trek, Dark Shadows, The Twilight Zone, Dr. Who, Andy Griffith, Mary Tyler Moore, the Brady Bunch and Gilligan's Island rounded out some dull afternoons.
As most folks with large families know, board games are an inexpensive way to entertain ourselves. We'd always get a batch of new games at Christmas along with a new pair of socks and underwear. On one particular low budget Christmas, my father introduced us to a game he claimed he'd invented called, “Uh!”
We'd all gather in the living room and one of us was elected to start. That person would have to create a totally fictitious story out of thin air. They'd pause mid-sentence and let the next player take over from there. This continued around the room until someone hesitated or said “uh”. That player was out and the game continued until only one person was left. The stories were creative and often incredibly strange, each of us attempting to make the next in line chuckle and fumble. It was an awesome game of improvisation and I credit my love of storytelling to that silly game.
Every night my mind is inundated with a fresh batch of unusual dreams and nightmares, always in outlandish worlds and dimensions fraught with bizarre characters who can do wondrous things. But through my writings I've allowed some of them to escape onto the freedom of the blank pages and into my first novel, Twospells. I'll pardon another batch of weird mind games and characters in future books.
TwoSpells is a magical tale about a set of teenage twins, Sarah and Jon, who find out that they're heirs to an ancient, magical realm containing an enchanted library that can transport a reader to anywhere or anytime the author has written into the story.
They're soon caught up in an inter-dimensional war between good and evil, both sides looking to claim the library's unique magical enchantment. Along the way, the twins meet astonishing and fascinating characters who can do amazing things, but not all are good. Some are of unspeakably horrific creation and are bent on one thing: destroying the two strange intruders who have entered and disrupted their sacred two-dimensional domain.
Sarah and Jon must leave behind their much simpler life as Regulars and embrace their new positions as successors to a very special kingdom designed for their kind only, the Irregulars. I truly believe you'll enjoy every moment of this story.
I've attached a snapshot of me and my daughter Sarah, whom the phenomenal heroine of TwoSpells is based. She's beautiful, tough and clever.
Here's a link to TwoSpells on Amazon:
Thanks for listening,
Sarah and her twin brother Jon are heirs to an ancient magical realm and its most valuable treasure, an enchanted library. The library endows readers with the supernatural means of crossing into the uncharted inner-sanctum of the second dimension, inhabited with peculiar and sometimes perilous creatures.
The children are emboldened with a wondrous mystical gift that no other being has ever possessed. But fate intervenes and triggers a disastrous inter-dimensional war that disrupts the fabric of time and space spanning multiple universes, tearing destiny a new and savage pathway.
The two must rescue their world from a phantom hybrid alien race controlled by a demented dark-wizard, Jeremy Sermack. They will either assimilate or be exterminated.
Will they be the saviors the prophets spoke of, or will they retreat to the perceived safety of their distant homeland?