Friday, July 22, 2016

And The Winner Is... by Erin Brady

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Marty Peters is a young professional working as junior tax accountant for Staner, Warsaw and Bentley, a high power accounting firm in New York City. Marty hates her job of number crunching and secretly longs to pack it all in and follow her dreams of Hollywood fame and fortune.

When both of those worlds combine through a series of comical misunderstandings and one missing screenplay, Marty finds herself as one of the accountants at Staner chosen to fly out to Los Angeles to attend the Academy Awards.

Taking credit for "Until Tomorrow", a screenplay that does not belong to her, and falling in love with the handsome Egan Riley, the writer behind Until Tomorrow and the only person who stands in her way of living the life of paparazzi and movie premieres, Marty finds that she must make a choice between love or her fifteen minutes of fame on the red carpet.

Rude Boy USA by Victoria Bolton

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WINNER OF THE 2016 PACIFIC BOOK AWARD FOR CRIME FICTION

Say good-bye to the era of godfathers. The Chimera Group has put a new face on organized crime.

Mob boss Bernie Banks and his associates—John, Ben, and Jerome—differ from your ordinary Sicilian and Irish mob families. Two white, two black, they style themselves after the Rude Boy culture made popular in Jamaica.

Operating as a shell investment company supported by illegal activities, the Chimera Group hopes to become as powerful as other crime families and gain respect from the Cosa Nostra. Bernie, a war veteran of Jewish and Greek descent, begins his business in his apartment and grows it into a multimillion-dollar empire. He and his crew resemble a more sophisticated subculture of urban street gangsters with their Ray-Ban sunglasses, loafers, and debonair style. But they want fear and admiration.

Their efforts draw the attention of the rival Ambrosino family, and they face internal strife when one of the associates begins dating a former Playboy Club waitress who wants in on the group.

Will they make it to the top, or will they fall?

Friday, July 8, 2016

Wedding Cake and Big Mistakes by Nancy Naigle Excerpt


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Welcome to Adams Grove…where the wedding cakes are sweet, but the recipe is murder.

For years, Carolanne Baxter dreamed of a life beyond Adams Grove. Being the daughter of the town drunk was no picnic, so when college offered her a chance for escape, she took it. Now Carolanne has returned home, finally ready to make amends with her father, Ben, and to celebrate the wedding of her best friends Jill and Garrett. Of course, the fact that Connor Buckham, her sexy new law partner and Garrett’s best man, happens to be the same guy the town matchmaker named as Carolanne’s perfect match…well! That’s just icing on the cake.

But Carolanne’s hopes for a fresh start are dashed when a dead body surfaces during Jill and Garrett’s wedding reception…and Ben Baxter becomes the prime suspect. The murder throws the town into uproar, threatening to destroy the tentative peace between father and daughter—and to derail the budding romance between Carolanne and Connor. Has the matchmaker’s perfect streak come to end? Or will the truth finally bring Carolanne the happy ending she’s dreamed of for so long?





Excerpt:


CHAPTER ONE

Someone had apparently forgotten to give Jill Clemmons the dress-your-bridesmaids-tacky memo. Even in the wavy reflection, the gown Jill had picked out for Carolanne Baxter to wear in her wedding was not only stylish, but the color was perfect against Carolanne’s redhead complexion. She twisted in front of the antique full-length mirror in her bedroom. It wasn’t often that Carolanne embraced the softer side of things, and for a fleeting moment, in a dress as fancy as this, she could almost picture herself as a bride. She placed her hands in front of her as if holding a bouquet and paced slowly forward.
A wick of heated panic swam up her spine. What am I thinking? She shook the fake bouquet from her hands and lunged toward the bed to grab the matching shoes from their box. She stepped into the shoes, sucked in a steadying breath to push those thoughts from her mind, then threw open the bedroom door and stepped into the living room, where Jill and Milly waited for her big entrance.
“What do you think?” Carolanne felt as awkward today as she had years ago back in Miss Bobbie’s beginner ballet class.
Jill sprang to her feet. “You look beautiful.”
The wrinkles in Milly’s eighty-odd-year-old face seemed to smooth away as her mouth spread into a grin. “Stunning. Absolutely stunning, dear.” She crossed the room and rose on tiptoe to kiss Carolanne on the cheek.
Carolanne felt the waxy remains of Milly’s signature color. She was infamous for leaving her red-orange lipstick tattoo behind.
Milly pulled her hands up on her hips. “I swear if I hadn’t already seen Jill in her gown, I’d be worried to death you’d outshine the bride.” She ran her hand along the delicate fabric—pinching and tugging to check the fit. “It’s gorgeous.”
“Too bad they shipped the wrong shoes.” Carolanne extended her leg out to the side, showing off the sexy strappy rhinestone numbers they’d sent by accident instead of the platform peep-toe pump she’d picked out. “But I admit I do like these!”
“Me, too,” Jill said. “And they aren’t making us pay the difference. Happy accident, if you ask me. If that’s the biggest catastrophe that I have in the wedding process, I’ll be thrilled.”
“The dress will need to be hemmed just a smidgen.”
Milly tsked. “I can take care of that. It looks like a perfect fit otherwise.” She took a step back and eyed Carolanne from head to toe. “You’ve never looked more beautiful.”
Carolanne rolled her eyes. “With no makeup? I sure hope I’ve looked better.”
“You never did need makeup,” Milly said. “With your hair down like that, you look just like your momma. Teresa was such a beauty—inside and out.”
A flash of loneliness stabbed at Carolanne. I wish Mom were here today.
Jill reached for Carolanne’s hand. It was a bond they shared. They’d both lost their mothers at a young age. Jill’s grandmother, Pearl, had been their guiding light, but now Pearl was gone and Carolanne was sure that’s exactly what Jill was thinking about right now, too.
Milly placed her hand against Carolanne’s cheek. “Your momma was a kindhearted gal. Everyone loved her. She’d have been so proud of you.”
Milly stood there with her hand on Carolanne’s cheek for an awkwardly long moment.
Carolanne glanced over at Jill, but she was no help. Carolanne glared at her. Once they started laughing, they’d never stop. It had always been that way.
Then, like someone had squirted her with dose of WD-40, Milly sprang into action, rustling through her flowered sewing box, whipping out old-fashioned hem clips and her pincushion, an old chubby tomato-shaped one. She shuffled over to the desk, grabbed the footstool, and dragged it to the center of the floor. “Can you step up on this in those shoes without breaking your neck?”
Carolanne lifted the dress as she walked toward Milly and stepped up onto the stool. “I can.”
“The dress, the color—it’s all perfect,” Jill said, clapping her hands.
Carolanne smoothed the skirt and spun, letting the fine layers of fabric swirl around her legs. “I love it.”
Jill held her hands to her heart. “I couldn’t have dreamed it more perfect.”
Carolanne gave Jill a look. “You’ve had that giant binder of pictures and lists for your wedding since we were in junior high. Since before you had a groom. This perfection is exactly what you dreamed of.”
Jill shrugged. “OK, OK. So it’s just as I planned, but it’s even better in real life.”
Milly tucked pins between her lips and tugged on the dress. “Are you standing straight?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Carolanne said.
“Hold still.” Milly lifted the hem of the dress, letting it fall naturally.
“I feel seventeen again.”
“Your prom dress wasn’t near as lovely as this one, but I’ll never forget how excited you were about going to that dance. You were so darn wiggly I liked to never have gotten that dress hemmed.”
“Too bad I didn’t get to go to the dance. All that time you spent on that dress—for nothing.”
“It wasn’t for nothing. I loved every minute of sewing that dress for you.”
Even after all these years, Carolanne remembered every little detail of that night and how her father had ruined it for her by pulling one of his drunken stunts. Why is it so easy to remember the bad things?
“That was a long time ago. The future is much brighter. For you. Your dad. All of us,” Milly said through the tight-lipped hold she had on the pins in her mouth.
Jill pretended to whisper to Carolanne. “Be glad she doesn’t have to mark any more than your hem. I swear my heart couldn’t take another hour of her nearly stabbing me or worrying about her swallowing those pins.”
“My hearin’ ain’t gone yet.” Milly’s voice raised a notch in a slight tone of defiance. “Jill fussed the whole time I marked her dress. And I might remind you, missy, that it wouldn’t have taken so long if you hadn’t lost that weight, causing me to have to take in the gown a whole size. Not an easy task with all that beading, either.”
“She looked like a catfish with all those pins hanging out of her mouth.”
Milly raised a brow and aimed her question at Jill. “Have you ever heard of anyone swallowing pins?”
Jill set her chin in a stubborn line. “Well, no. But it could happen. Tell her, Carolanne. It could happen.”
“Oh no,” said Carolanne. “I’m not getting in the middle of this.”
“I swear you are just like Pearl,” Milly said to Jill.
Carolanne stifled a laugh.
“And I love you, in spite of that,” Milly said. “You’re just like your grandmother when it comes to bossing folks around and controlling every little detail. But I guess someone’s got to do it.”
“Speaking of details,” Carolanne asked Jill, “are there any other maid of honor tasks I need to take care of for you before this weekend?”
Jill shook her head. “No. We’re actually ahead of schedule. My 4-H girls volunteered to work on the tulle bags of lavender after the meeting, so you’re off the hook for that.”
“I like that.” Carolanne made a quarter turn and a mental note that she should get involved with some of the groups in town like Jill had. It was something she’d meant to do, but here it was a year later and she’d yet to do it. “I like it even more that I didn’t have to tie all those ribbons.”
“See, if I weren’t so good at organizing tasks, we’d be up to our armpits in last-minute to-dos.” Jill pointed to Carolanne. “You’ll be thanking me when I’m helping you plan your wedding.”
The thought of a wedding of her own sent her pulse spinning like an ice-skater, and not in a good way. She’d never let her happiness revolve around someone else. Seeing the crushing blow disable her dad when Mom died still hurt, and that wasn’t a risk she was willing to take. “Don’t you be wishing that on me. You know how I feel about marriage.” Carolanne could tell by the dreamy-eyed look on her best friend’s face that Jill was ignoring every word she’d just said.
“When you find the right guy, you’ll be dying to walk down that aisle. Mark my words.”
That’ll be the day. If there’s one thing I don’t need, it’s man troubles. “I’m perfectly happy just the way I am.”
The front door swung open, and Carolanne jumped. Both Milly and Jill turned to look.
Connor Buckham ambled into the apartment without ever looking up from the newspaper he carried in his hand. “What’s fourteen letters for neighborhood? It starts with an ‘n’ and has an ‘o’ in the middle.”
Milly shifted a knowing look in Jill’s direction. “What? You just walk right in with no good morning?”
Carolanne knew exactly what they were thinking.
He lowered the newspaper, looking confused and a bit flustered. “Oh? Sorry.” The fine starched sheen of his blue-and-white-striped shirt made his eyes look even bluer, if that were possible. “I didn’t know you had plans—company—this morning. Sorry.” He glanced at Milly. “Good morning, Miss Milly.”
Connor nodded to Jill, but when his gaze landed on Carolanne, his mouth dropped wide open. “Wow. He-llo-oo, beautiful.” He lowered himself into one of the chairs, never taking his eyes off her. “You didn’t tell me you were in the fairy godmother business, Milly. What have you done to my law partner?”
Carolanne raised her hands to her hips. “Ha-ha. Aren’t you a funny guy?”
“Hey, if the shoe fits.” Connor winked. “A little Cinderella humor for you.”
“Not funny.”
“No? Are lawyers even allowed to look that good?” He motioned to Jill and Milly for concurrence. “In fact, if you dressed like that in court, I bet you’d never lose a case.”
“I’m warning you,” Carolanne teased. “You better quit teasing me, or I’ll have Milly stick you with those pins like a voodoo doll.”
He pretended to back up in fear. “Well, seriously, I’m just saying that I’ve never seen you looking this pretty in the morning. It’s nice.”
“Just how often do you see her at this early hour?” Jill turned toward Carolanne. “And you, you’ve been holding out on me.”
Carolanne shook her head, but before she could defend herself, Milly chimed in. “I thought Carolanne renting the apartment up here next to yours over y’all’s office was just convenient until her house was done. No wonder she’s been such a good sport about the delay.”
“And I thought all along it was because she was my best friend,” Jill added with an air of defiance.
Milly wagged a finger at the two of them. “This little early morning visit, it’s a regular occurrence, isn’t it? Maybe there’s a little something you want to share with us?”
Carolanne felt the rush of heat flood her chest and cheeks. “You two can just stop right there. It’s not what you think.”
“No?” Milly raised a brow. “Are you saying Connor is some sort of pervert who just walks into apartments uninvited?”
Connor interjected. “She knew I was coming over.”
Jill’s mouth curved as if on the verge of laughter. “Seems like Pearl was right about you two, after all.”
“Not that again.” Connor held up his hand to silence her. “It’s just coffee. The two of us get together for coffee. That’s it.”
“Sounds cozy,” Jill said. “Even Garrett and I don’t have coffee together every morning.”
“You’re not helping, Connor,” Carolanne groaned.
Connor rolled the newspaper in his hands. “Well, you and Garrett don’t work in the same office like we do. Besides, she makes great coffee.”
“Isn’t that thoughtful?” Milly arched a brow. “Carolanne would make a beautiful bride, wouldn’t she, Connor?”
“Well, you do look real pretty.” With a smile, he added, “And tall.”
“I’m in heels and standing on a stool.” She pulled the dress up high enough to expose her feet and the stool. She instantly regretted the movement when Connor’s face lit up like a kid peering into the window of a candy store. She dropped the hem, wishing for closed-toe pumps instead of the sexy strappy shoes she was wearing.
“Your toes look pretty, too.” He tilted his head slightly, like he was sizing her up, and that made Carolanne even more uncomfortable. “Your hair—it looks good like that. You never wear it down.”
“Stop!” She ran her hand through her hair, wishing she’d pulled it up this morning. “Connor, you’re just trying to egg on Jill and Milly now. You’re not funny. Jill, would you tweak the thermostat? It’s hot as heck in here.”
“I wasn’t being…” Connor’s voice trailed.
Jill headed to the thermostat, muttering, “It’s the sexual tension sparking up the heat in this place, if you ask me.”
“Sounds like Pearl’s magic is kickin’ in.” Milly pinned the hem of Carolanne’s dress. “And it’s about time. I’m not getting any younger, and neither are y’all.”
Carolanne silently cursed Pearl for making that silly claim at the end of her video will about Connor being a perfect match for her, because Jill had taken up where Pearl had left off, playing matchmaker of Adams Grove.
Carolanne let out a long breath, then almost too loudly said, “Neck of the woods.”
“What?” Jill and Connor both said at the same time.
Carolanne rolled her eyes. “Your answer. The crossword. Fourteen letters. Another name for neighborhood. Neck of the woods.”
Connor raised his paper and started plugging in the letters. “Damn, it fits. How do you always know these answers?”
“Lucky guess.” Carolanne pivoted to the right at Milly’s poke to her calf.
One more pin and Milly stood, still clenching at least five more between her thin lips. “All done, sweetie. Step down and let me see what we’ve got.”
Connor jumped to his feet and held out his hand to help Carolanne down from the stool.
What are you up to? She hesitated, then placed her hand in his and stepped down.
“Isn’t that sweet?” Milly tsked. “I didn’t know you had that in ya, Connor.”
Connor leaned toward Milly. “I didn’t know Carolanne had this in her. Did you?”
Carolanne swatted his arm. “It’s just a dress. Quit making such a big deal about it.”
“Well, excuse me for noticing how pretty you look.”
An awkward silence fell over the room.
Jill snapped her fingers. “I almost forgot. I have another surprise for you, Carolanne. This one is even better than the dress.” She crossed the room to Carolanne’s side and took her hands in her own. “Garrett shifted both of his crews to your place. They’ll be done with your house this week.”
Carolanne squeezed Jill’s hands. “Oh my goodness. That’s almost a month sooner than he’d promised.”
“I know. Isn’t it great? You should be able to start moving your stuff in just a couple of days. You’ll be the first official resident of Bridle Path Estates.”
Connor looked stunned. “So soon?”
“That’s awesome news,” Carolanne said. “I’ll have to get some boxes. Get on the schedule for the truck. I’m not even ready. It doesn’t matter. I’ll get it done. I can’t believe it. Finally!”
“I know. We’ll practically be neighbors,” Jill said. “You can do coffee with me at the artisan center. I can’t wait.”
“What about coffee with me? You’re not going to miss me?” He held up his finger and thumb in a gesture of a tiny bit, and squinted. “Not even a little?”
“Maybe a little.” She smiled playfully. “But you’ll miss me like crazy.”
Milly took the last pins from between her lips and poked them back into the pin cushion. “We’re all set, sweetheart.”
Carolanne gave her a hug. “Thank you so much for doing this for me.”
“It’s my wedding gift to Jill. Go, change, and I’ll get out of your way.”
“Don’t rush on my account.” Connor headed to the kitchen and filled his coffee mug. “I’ll leave y’all to do your girly stuff.” He sipped his coffee, calling out a good-bye as he closed the door behind him.
Carolanne rushed off to the bedroom to change, then came back with the dress in a garment bag. “Here you go,” she said, handing it off to Milly.
Milly draped it over her arm. “Connor’s smitten. Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed.”
Carolanne squared her shoulders. “He is not.”
“Yes. He most certainly is. Did you see the way his mouth hung open when he saw you in that dress?”
“It’s the dress.”
Jill folded her arms across her chest. “No. It was you. And what is this with him making himself all at home—coming and going from your place? Something hot is in y’all’s future.”
“Stop it. We’re friends. Just like he is with every other girl who grew up in this town.” Carolanne knew Connor lumbering into the apartment was going to fuel their romantic hearts. OK, well, he didn’t really lumber. Why was it she still thought of him as the overweight kid from school? The only thing big about Connor Buckham these days was his lumberjack-size arms and tight abs. Oh, and that snoring. She could hear that from across the hall some nights.
“He’s a great guy,” Jill said, “and it’s clear he’s crazy about you. What’s not to love?”
“Don’t throw that L-word around so casually. Connor’s a huge flirt. That’s why we all loved him in school, even now, but not like that.”
“Now he’s a grown man—a fit, hot, and successful man—and he’s not flirting with everybody. He’s flirting with you. Flirting of that kind is very different.” Jill hugged her arms across her chest. “Admit it. It’s romantic.”
“No. It’s not romantic. You’re romantic—a die-hard romantic.” Carolanne knew she was venturing down a blind alley when it came to shaking Jill off this subject. When it came to love, Jill Clemmons was like a hound on a rabbit trail.
“Friendship’s a great foundation for a relationship,” said Milly. “Look at Jill and Garrett.”
“That’s different. We’re not that kind of friends. It’s business between us. He barely dates since his mom died, and you know I’m not going to be running down the path of sharing my life with someone else. I like making my own decisions and living by my own rules.”
“You need to let that go,” Milly warned. “That’s your baggage talking. Leave the past where it is and move on.”
“I have dealt with it. I’ve totally moved on,” Carolanne said. Why do I have to defend myself?
“Well, you don’t really deal with stuff, you kind of ignore it,” Jill said. “I’m sure it was a coping mechanism as a little girl, but eventually, you do have to deal with this stuff.”

Monday, July 4, 2016

4th of July Summer of Reading Giveaway

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Friday, July 1, 2016

An Heirloom Amber: Knight Traveler Tale by Regan Black

$0.99

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This short, action-packed adventure is the next step in the Knight Traveler series that launched with Heart of Time and Timeless Vision.

King Arthur has been warned of a talisman infused with powerful magic that could threaten Camelot. Summoning Sir Kay and his bear companion to ride with him, Arthur travels to assess the trouble. But they aren't alone in the quest as the blackhearted Mordred is determined to steal the amber talisman and use it to advance his twisted, evil agenda.

This story includes a preview of Timeless Changes, coming summer of 2016

Excerpt:

One

Arthur strode through the bailey, the urgency of his persistent nightmares pressing him from all sides despite the sunshine and clear skies above. He couldn’t allow his concerns to show or share his worries over a future no man here would live to see.
Merlin had left weeks ago in pursuit of some legend or talisman that might help their cause. Arthur didn’t bother keeping track of the magician, fully aware his friend and advisor had his own agenda. Especially amid the challenge as big and dark as the one they faced now.
Arthur watched his knights testing and training, eyed those tending horses or weapons, and enjoyed the harmony of the community at large going about their daily endeavors. His knights had fought valiantly to bring about this peace and he wanted to ensure they could preserve it for future generations.
Months had passed without further news from Sir Gawain. His young squire had returned to Camelot, confided what he knew of the knight, and traveled home per Gawain’s orders. Arthur tentatively counted it a victory that Morgana, Gawain’s quarry, had also seemingly disappeared. He’d sent out a party to confirm that the survivors who had followed her, greedy for power and darkness, had been few and scattered so they could do no more harm.
Yet his nightmares plagued him. In some there were visions of a hard and violent future crowded with people and inventions he could barely comprehend. Others showed Camelot withering away, reduced stone by stone to nothing more than a crumbling ruin and the founding ideals of his kingdom no more than dust blown to myth by the winds.
Of course he would not live forever but he’d established Camelot with a lasting legacy in mind for those generations unborn. What he and the knights had built, they’d built to last and he would invest his every breath and beat of his heart to safeguard that future.
A horn blasted from the tower, followed quickly by a cry at the gate. Arthur leapt to a wagon for a better view, startled by the sight of a lone horse, hooves thundering over the bridge at a full gallop. A rider pressed close against the mount’s neck, clinging like a burr. The horse weaved through every man’s attempt to slow him until he stopped abruptly in front of Arthur, giving a hard shake from nose to tail.
An enchantment to be sure. Arthur hopped back to the ground, calling for help for the lathered horse and weary rider. The rider slid off, and bowed low, only to stumble forward. Arthur caught him up.
“My king,” he said as Arthur steadied him. “I bring word from Sir Eiddlig.”
As of the last report, Eiddlig, the dwarf knight, was camped with his men in the north to protect growing villages. A student of myth and mystery, the dwarf’s gift for unraveling true power from mere rumor rivaled his accomplishments on the battlefield. Enchanting a horse to deliver a missive indicated a troubling desperation. The rider was young, caught in the awkward stage when a lad is all jutting knees and sharp elbows, but he would have been small burden for the horse.
“You need a meal and rest. Then we shall speak.”
“The message first, if you please, my king. It is quite urgent.”
As if the nature of his arrival hadn’t made the urgency clear enough, the plea in the lad’s eyes outweighed the exhaustion. Arthur conceded. “This way.” He turned toward the closest source of privacy, the chapel, slowing his strides to allow the lad to keep pace with ease.
“Your name, lad?”
“Daniel, sire.”
Arthur opened the door of the chapel and looked about to be sure they were alone. “How many days have you been on that horse?”
“We were sent out two nights ago, sire.”
“You stopped for nothing?”
The lad’s eyes went round in his lean, pale face. “We stopped only when the horse needed water.”
“I see.” He assumed the child had not been able to dismount at those times, held in place by the enchantment Eiddlig applied to propel the horse. Arthur sat down on the bench closest to the altar, pleased when the boy did the same. “Deliver your message so we may see to your care.”
“Sir Eiddlig sends you his fond regard and hopes you are well,” Daniel began, reciting every word quietly and with great care, his gaze locked on Arthur’s. “After recent stormy weather, he requests the assistance of Sir Kay immediately.”
Trouble, but not as Arthur might have expected from his nightmares. If Eiddlig was calling on Kay, nothing good was happening in the north. He didn’t care for the reference of storms, knowing any of his resourceful knights could manage normal weather conditions. “There must be more to the message.”
The lad’s wary gaze flitted around, even lingering on the ceiling beams and the high window over the altar before he reached into his tunic. He withdrew a travel-worn parchment. “I cannot read, my king, though Sir Eiddlig has promised to teach me. This message has been protected as he intended.”
“Many thanks for your honesty, Daniel.” Arthur read the short missive twice over. He wanted to stand and pace as he considered his options, but he remained seated so the boy would not feel obliged to stand as well. He read the missive again, his curiosity piqued by the mention of a powerful talisman and his thoughts and eyes catching repeatedly on one terrible name, that of Mordred.
Years ago, Sir Eiddlig allowed himself to become Mordred’s prisoner and had used the time to undermine a plot to betray and destroy Camelot. Sir Kay and the bear he traveled with had been instrumental in the dwarf knight’s rescue and putting down Mordred’s rebellion. Now it seemed Morgana’s black-hearted younger brother was stirring another uprising.
“May I ask, sire, if I have arrived in time?”
Arthur reached out and clapped him on the shoulder. “You have indeed. I am certain we are all indebted to you.”
Color rose in Daniel’s face. “I would like to serve by any means necessary, if you will allow it.”
The boy’s earnestness reminded Arthur of several friends and foster brothers he had known at this age who grew into honorable men. He would not leave Daniel in Camelot when Eiddlig clearly had use of him. “First you must rest and eat well while I make plans.”
“Yes, sire.”
He could see the disappointment in the lad’s brown eyes. “I assume you can ride without the aid of an enchantment?”
“Yes, sire.”
“Good.” Arthur studied the boy closely. He had courage to go with that earnest mien. “The spell Sir Eiddlig wove around you and the horse did not frighten you?”
“A little,” Daniel confessed, his cheeks going pink once again. “I did not want the horse to come to any harm in our haste.”
“You understand by now Sir Eiddlig would never allow such a thing?”
“Yes, sire. I only joined his camp a short time ago.”
Eiddlig would take no chances by risking this message to just anyone. There was more to the boy than Arthur could see at the surface. “You must have proven quite trustworthy in that short time.”
The lad’s chin bobbed up and down. “Sir Eiddlig and those with him have been kind to me.”
A story here, Arthur thought. A story better coaxed out of the lad during the journey ahead of them. He pocketed the missive and led the way as they exited the chapel. Signaling one of his guards, he gave instructions for the lad to be indulged in the kitchens until his belly was full and then allowed to sleep in the stables near his horse.
“Prepare to ride out with me at dawn,” he told the lad before striding away.
The missive gave him much to contemplate and much to research before they roused Sir Kay and turned north to assist the dwarf knight.

*

Sir Kay heard them coming almost as soon as they stepped into the shade of the trees. Two riders approached, harnesses jangling and disrupting the quiet morning. As his companion silently lumbered out of sight to flank the riders, Kay crept closer to the wide path, picking out the voices.
Good lord. It was his king, chattering away as if he were some carefree peasant. The second rider was young, the youthful exuberance in his voice as the pair approached. The king riding through the forest with only a child for company aggravated Kay. Where in damnation was Arthur’s usual guard?
Those closest to the king knew Kay kept the wood clear of enemies when he was camped here. They were also aware Kay traveled often. Kay vowed to have a word with his king as well as the captain of the guard at the next opportunity.
“You must not be startled by Sir Kay,” Arthur was saying now. “Unless he is away, he already has eyes on us.”
“It is true he is a giant?”
Yes, Kay thought even as Arthur denied the wild claim.
“Only Sir Eiddlig calls him such to his face. It is their jest alone.”
Kay stayed back, curious now. What did the lad know of the dwarf?
“I will remember.”
“He is the tallest of men, to be sure,” Arthur added. “As a knight, he pledged an oath to protect our kingdom and its people from harm. You need not fear him.”
Kay scowled. He didn’t make a habit of frightening children, primarily because he avoided them. If Arthur had some idea of foisting a squire or foster on him, Kay would disabuse him of that notion at once. Coming to his feet, he moved up the rise to stand in the middle of the road. The horses, catching his bear’s scent behind them, whinnied and shied under their riders.
“Be at ease,” Kay called. With a subtle wave of his hand, he turned the light breeze and pushed his bear’s scent away from the horses. They relaxed at once.
“My thanks,” Arthur replied, urging his mount closer.
With his remarkable hearing, Kay caught the encouragement the king murmured to the young rider next to him. “I’ve learned it’s better to be cautious in all things,” Kay said, letting his voice carry through the trees.
Arthur acknowledged that with a brief nod and Kay saw a weariness in the gesture that concerned him. His king was particularly spry and confident. Or he had been until recently. Having learned of a terrible danger he could not confront directly, those closest to the king saw the strain and struggle of leaving the heart of the fight to others.
Kay bowed low, maintaining protocol in front of the young stranger. “How may I be of service to you, sire?”
“I am told Sir Eiddlig has immediate need of your help.”
Kay’s attention locked on to the lad. “You were the messenger?”
The boy nodded, his knuckles going white where he gripped the reins.
“This is Daniel,” Arthur said. “He has shown great courage in carrying out his task according to Eiddlig’s instructions.”
Instructions, ha! Under differing circumstances, Kay might take those words as a challenge and put the boy’s mettle to the test. Not today, when Arthur was silently beseeching him to behave as one of the more typical knights of his round table. “That is a substantial recommendation, lad. Our king does not ride with anyone of questionable character.” Nor would he ride alone without good reason. “Your guard, follows close, sire?”
“They remain at the forest’s edge,” Arthur replied. “I saw no reason to upset them or your companion.”
Kay caught the lad’s gaze flitting about, searching the shadows for confirmation of the unusual company Kay kept. “Have you heard about my friend?”
“Yes, Sir Kay.”
The lad’s voice held steady. “Courage indeed,” he said to Arthur. “And you’ve come to guide me back, then?” he asked Daniel. “Despite the rumors?”
“Not rumors,” the lad blurted out as color stained his fair cheeks. “Sir Eiddlig told me true, I am sure.”
Kay threw back his head and laughed. “We’ll see about that.”
“Hold the horses a moment, Daniel.” Arthur swung out of the saddle and handed his reins to the boy. “I need a private word with Sir Kay before we start our journey.”
Kay walked with his friend and king down the road, well out of the boy’s hearing. “The boy cannot read,” Arthur began, revealing a scrap of parchment. “Naturally I could only read the portion meant for my eyes. I would ask you to explain all that you can about the message writ specifically for you.”
Kay muttered an oath as he read the mention of Mordred. The useless sack of flesh was a plague on all he met. A chill slid across the back of Kay’s neck as he turned the bit of parchment, deciphering the symbols crowded along the top and bottom edges. “May the Lord have mercy on us all.”
“What is it?”
Kay looked into his king’s somber gaze. “It is precisely what you think. May I keep this?”
“Of course. I feel it is meant for you more than me.”
Kay tucked away the missive and rubbed his hand over the heat building behind his breastbone. Months ago, Arthur had called Kay, Gawain, and Bors to a private meeting and asked them to join a quest to battle a growing evil. The vow Kay had given on that day was accompanied by more mystery and magic than he’d previously encountered, including a fire nymph and weeks of training in Avalon. For a man of his strange, specific talents whose closest companion was a bear, he still found it startling when he dwelled too long upon it.
So he did not dwell. He pressed onward determined to wrap his quest now, in a time he understood rather than be pushed into a fight in the bleak and murky future Arthur worried over.
“We will travel as three,” Arthur said. “Four when we add your bear.”
“Sire, you should stay behind,” Kay countered, his thoughts on the coded message. “The lad will be safe with us.”
“I must know what Mordred is plotting.”
“Power, as always,” Kay said with a grunt. “Eiddlig has learned of a talisman of great importance.”
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