Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Guarded: The Silverton Chronicles by Carmen Fox


Available in Paperback and Hardback - eBook Coming July 31, 2015!

When everyone's existence depends on the lies they tell, trust doesn't come easy.

Ivy's neighbors have a secret. They aren't human. But Ivy has a secret, too. She knows. As long as everyone keeps quiet, she's happy working as a P.I. by day and chillaxing with her BFF Florian, a vampire, by night.

When a routine pickup drops her in the middle of a murder, her two worlds collide. While Florian knows how to throw a punch, deep down he's a softie. His idea of scary? Running out of hair product. It's time Ivy faced facts. Even with a vampire on stand-by, one gal can only kick so many asses.

For help, she must put her faith in others. A human, who might just be the one. A demon, who will, for a price, open the doors to her heritage. And a werewolf, who wants to protect her from herself.

Torn between these men, Ivy must tread carefully, because one wants her heart, one wants her body, and one wants her dead.

A sexy urban fantasy by the author of Divide and Conquer. 
A shadow peeled off a dark corner and rushed across the road. My thoughts of the unfairness of life lifted, and I smiled. Dressed in his usual muted colors, Florian gave a mock salute. Not even the lack of a California tan detracted from the fact that he was, by all accounts, a handsome devil. But it was his inner qualities that made him my best friend.

I got out and slammed the door shut.

Flo shot me his trademark grin that half begged to be mothered, half promised a naughty night. “Happy birthday, Ivy!”

“Not so far. I think my car’s kaput.” I sent an eyeroll toward the steam escaping the hood.

“Oh?” His forehead puckered. “Let’s see. Did it slug and thud into the drive?” His index finger in his ear, he shook his tilted head, as if to force out some lingering noise. “Check. Is it stinky?” He sniffed the noxious plume surrounding the vehicle. “Check. Broken side view mirror? Check. Well, I can confidently say I notice nothing out of the ordinary.”

“You’re a funny guy, mister. If you’re not too busy doing standup tomorrow night, do you think you could chauffeur me?” I pouted. “I have a work thing, and getting the car fixed might take some time.”

“Aww, come here. Of course I will.” He yanked me into a firm mother-bear hug.

I held tight. His fresh, if powerful, cologne was a scent for sore noses, and I added another couple of gratuitous sniffs. “Thanks. I needed that.”

“I’ll let you get some rest, then. You don’t seem in the mood for a birthday bash. But if you change your mind, you know where to find me.” Despite his curious looks at my front door, he knew better than to invite himself in. With a wave, he turned and crossed the road to the large building he and his siblings called home.

I never let anyone enter my house without at least half an hour’s notice. The metal guards on my walls would reveal my secret. And more than anything, my friendship with Florian was based on mutual subterfuge.

He didn’t tell me he was a vampire. And I didn’t tell him I already knew.

Fatal Choice (A Dana Mackenzie Mystery) by Dorothy Howell Excerpt


Barnes & Noble

A Novella, the third book in the Dana Mackenzie Mystery Series:

Dana Mackenzie gladly helps out when best friend Jillian Brown calls at 3 a.m. after she wakes up alone and finds herself stranded at her date’s house. But when Dana arrives at the home of Brett Sinclair she discovers more than a distraught friend—there’s also a dead body in the kitchen.

Jillian becomes a suspect in the murder and Dana is determined to prove her innocence. Forced to turn to homicide detective Nick Travis for inside information, Dana realizes that his reluctance to commit to their relationship has reached the breaking point. She makes plans to leave Santa Flores for good.

But first she must find a killer. Her investigation uncovers disturbing information about the victim’s secret life and shady business deals. Dana knows she’s close to discovering the truth when she finds herself targeted by the murderer.

Will she catch the killer before it’s too late? Will she walk away and never see Nick again—and if she does, will it be another bad choice?

Chapter 1

When your phone rings at three in the morning, something’s wrong.
At that hour, it’s too late for your friends to call insisting you join their party or for an ex-boyfriend to drunk-dial you, and it’s too early for a family member with bad news to wake you or for a telemarketer who doesn’t understand time zones to try to sell you solar panels.
So when my cell phone rang a little after three on Monday morning—which still seemed like Sunday night to me—I didn’t even look at the caller ID screen. I just answered.
“Hello,” I said.
At least, I meant to say it. Even though I knew something must be wrong if I was getting a call at this hour, I was snuggled under the covers, warm in my bed, so the part of my brain that understood the situation hadn’t yet alerted the rest of my senses.
I recognized my friend Jillian’s voice. She sounded outraged, angry, and panicked—but mostly outraged and angry. We’d been friends for many of my 27 years on this planet so I knew there was no reason to ask what was wrong. She’d tell me.
“You’re not going to believe what that jerk did!” she screamed.
I pushed myself up on my elbow and swept my hair off my face.
“He left me!” she yelled. “Left me! Just left me!”
Seven Eleven, my sweet little tabby and the only living thing I’d shared my bed with lately, roused and stretched.
“What a jerk! I can’t believe this!” Jillian shouted.
I sat up and Seven Eleven slunk over and curled up in my lap. I rubbed my eyes and yawned.
“Can you believe it?” Jillian demanded.
I was partially asleep but still lucid enough to recall that Jillian wasn’t involved in a relationship with a jerk, or anyone else for that matter, who would have just left her.
“You’re ahead of me,” I said. “What’s going on?”
Jillian huffed, annoyed now with me as well as whoever the jerk was and the situation she’d found herself in. I wasn’t offended.
“Brett,” Jillian told me. “You know, Brett. That totally hot guy we’ve been talking to for the last few weeks.”
A number of my brain cells awoke and presented me with the image of the tall, blonde, early-thirties, well dressed, handsome guy Jillian and I had chatted with—and she’d flirted with—at a wine bar we frequented. Brett Something.
My brain cells forged head and presented me with another, much less desirable image.
“He was there last night?” I asked.
We’d been at the wine bar with some friends and I’d gone home ahead of everyone else because I had to go to work the next morning—which was now this morning.
“You went home with him,” I realized. “Back to his place?”
“Yes! And what a jerk he turned out to be!” Jillian yelled. “I woke up a few minutes ago and he’s not here. He’s gone!”
“Maybe he’s in the bathroom,” I said.
“No,” she insisted. “His clothes are gone. His cell phone is gone. His keys are gone. I looked out the window and his car isn’t in the driveway. It’s gone, too.”
“Did he leave you a note? Text you?” I asked. “Anything?”
“Nothing,” she told me. “He left. That’s it.”
“He sneaked out of his own house and left you there alone?” I said. “Yeah, that’s a jerk thing to do.”
“I’ve got to get out of here,” Jillian told me.
She sounded less angry and outraged now, more panicky.
I don’t want to be here when he decides to show up,” she said. “I might seriously kill him if I see him again.”
“Understandable,” I agreed.
I left my car at the bar,” Jillian said. “You have to come and get me. Please, Dana, you have to.”
I eased Seven Eleven off of my lap and said, “What’s the address?”
“I don’t know,” Jillian wailed.
“You don’t know where you are?” I asked.
“He drove! I wasn’t paying attention—why would I? I never thought he’d run off and leave me stranded!”
“Okay, calm down,” I said, pushing off the covers and climbing out of bed. “Where are you, exactly?”
“Upstairs in the bedroom,” Jillian said.
“Look around. There must be a place where he keeps his mail. Find a utility bill or a credit card statement or something. It’ll have the address on it,” I said.
While Jillian searched the house I wedged my cell phone between my ear and shoulder and changed out of my pajamas into jeans, a sweater, and boots.
Jillian came back on the line. “I found it,” she said.
She read the address to me and I tapped it into my cell phone.
“I’ll be there soon,” I told her and ended the call.
I grabbed a hoodie from my hall closet and pulled it on, picked up my handbag and car keys off of my kitchen table, and left.
It was three in the morning, cold outside, I didn’t know the neighborhood I was heading to, and I had to be at work in a few hours.
Jillian was my friend. What else could I do?


Even here in sunny Southern California, January nights were chilly. I pulled my hood over my head as I left my apartment on the second floor, skipped down the stairs, and followed the walkway to the parking lot. The air was still and crisp. No one else was out. Two windows were lighted in the building next to mine.
I punched Brett’s address into Google Maps as I climbed into my Honda. The seats were cold. I backed out of the spot, drove through the complex, then turned left onto a side street and stopped at the traffic signal at State Street. Headlights pulled up behind me.
I blew into my hands until the light changed. The car on my rear bumper followed me through the turn. I wondered what had brought the driver out at this hour.
I headed east on State Street. It was one of the main arteries through Santa Flores. Signs and security lighting burned at the businesses on both sides of the street, but at this hour, everything was closed.
Santa Flores was located about half way between Los Angeles and Palm Springs. Like most places, there were upscale areas, scary neighborhoods, and everything in between. Thanks to a long run of economic downturns, Santa Flores was heavy on scary, light on everything in between, and short on upscale.
Still, it was the place I called home and had all my life. My mom and dad, and some other relatives, lived here. Only my older brother had flown the nest after he’d gotten married. He lived up north. Everyone was good with it except Mom who, just because she’s Mom, knew he planned to move back.
A little tremor of guilt and dread caused me to shiver at the thought.
Businesses along State Street became sparse as I continued east. So far I’d passed only a half dozen vehicles. Whoever had been behind me had dropped back.
Since I was fully awake now—thanks in no small part to the inevitable conversation I’d have to have with my mom, the mere thought of which made me queasy—I realized the address Jillian had given me was in Maywood, an area of upscale housing tracts situated to the east of Santa Flores on acreage where orange groves once thrived. I drove several miles more before the GPS instructed me to turn off of State Street, then directed me through several residential streets to Ingalls Avenue.
Brett’s neighborhood was nice. Large one- and two-story homes on slightly bigger-than-expected lots, with mature landscaping expertly trimmed and carefully tended. Not as grand as some of the areas in Maywood, but really nice—at least as much of it as I could see by streetlight.
When the GPS announced I was approaching my destination, I half expected to see Brett’s car parked in his driveway. Obviously, something had caused him to get out of bed with Jillian and leave her there alone, and he might have returned by now.
With that thought came the flash that he’d come back, smoothed things over, Jillian had forgiven him, and I’d made this trip for nothing. If so, I wouldn’t be mad at Jillian. Friends didn’t get mad at each other for something like that. Annoyed, yes, but not mad. Besides, I didn’t have much longer to come to her rescue on a moment’s notice.
I pulled up to the curb in front of the house and killed the engine. Mine was the only car there, so I figured Brett hadn’t returned, unless he’d parked inside the garage.
I got out of my Honda. No lights burned in the windows at Brett’s house. The surrounding homes were dark. The neighborhood was silent. Not even a dog barked when I shut my car door.
As I headed up the walkway to the front door, I hoped Jillian was waiting in the foyer, ready to leave. I had to be at work in a few hours and Mondays were tough, even on a full night’s sleep. Hopefully, I could drop her off and go back to bed.
I knocked, waited a minute or two, then rang the bell. The door jerked open. Jillian glared out at me.
I’m tall, blue eyed, and dark haired. Jillian was short, brown eyed, and now my complete polar opposite since she’d recently gone blonde.
“Can you believe this?” she demanded, as I stepped inside. She shut the door. “I can’t believe this.”
Faint light from somewhere in the rear of the house cast the entryway in a gray gloom, throwing shadows across a curio cabinet, a grandfather clock, and the tile floor.
“What a total jerk,” Jillian railed, and flung out both arms.
She had on the same short black skirt, red sweater, and three-inch pumps I’d seen her in last night when I’d left the wine bar. Her makeup was streaked and mascara smudges darkened her eyes. We both had a serious case of bedhead going, but thankfully mine was covered with my hood.
“Why would he do this?” she said. “Why would he get up and walk out?”
It occurred to me to suggest that Brett might have bolted to help a panicked friend who’d called in the middle of the night, but I didn’t think Jillian would appreciate the irony.
“Who just leaves?” Jillian demanded.
This situation gave every indication that it would be discussed at great length for many days to come. Jillian wasn’t going to get over it any time soon.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said. “Where’s your handbag?”
“Oh my God, I don’t know,” she moaned, looking around the entryway. “When we got here last night I was kind of, you know, sort of ….”
Drunk,” I said, which explained why she’d left her car at the wine bar.
Jillian drew herself up. “Seriously, I’ve got to get out of this house. If he comes back, I’ll kill him.”
I gestured to the staircase leading to the second floor. “Did you leave it up there?”
“No, no, I made sure I got everything,” she said, then squeezed her eyes closed for a few seconds. “Maybe I left it in the kitchen. We had some wine when we got here.”
Jillian headed off to the right and I followed her through the dining room, which was lit by a tiny night light. Crystal and china sparkled in a hutch situated next to a long table. She pushed open a swinging door to the kitchen and, a few seconds later, harsh light flooded out.
Thank God. There it is.” Jillian disappeared from view.
“Grab it and let’s go,” I said, and headed back toward the foyer.
Jillian screamed. I whipped around, bumped into the china hutch, then rushed into the kitchen.
She stood in the center of the room, her eyes wide with terror, fists clenched, screaming.
At her feet was a woman. Blood pooled around her head.
I knew right away she was dead.

Journey's Luck by Patricia Green

$15.95 - Paperback


Liv Aune, large-size model, loves food and she hates food. She struggles with her new career in the large-size category, whereas once she was a size 0 runway model. When she meets Trey Journey, sparks fly, but can they overcome a threat to her career as an incriminating photo of Liv and Trey looks like it'll make the news? Ace Journey volunteers to spank the naughty girl who was behind the damaging photo of Liv and Trey, and from the first spank something new and different forms between this older man and younger woman. Is the age difference going to be too much for them to handle?

Professional Patient: A Memoir of Bipolar Disorder


Barnes & Noble

As a psychologist and an individual with mental health problems, Leesa Abbott knows the difficulties and challenges patients with mental illness have first-hand. During her career, she has worked in prisons, schools, private mental health clinics, and universities. As a patient, she’s been on medications, therapy couches, and in mental health wards.

Using life-events to show her decline into mental illness, Professional Patient: A Memoir of Bipolar Disorder illuminates an all-too-common tragedy - a denial of mental health issues and avoidance of help from outsiders.

Significant traumas, anorexia, substance abuse, anxiety attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and bipolar disorder are revealed in this memoir, which uncovers her lifelong struggle to survive on both sides of mental illness. This memoir offers an intriguing look at the secrecy, shame, and every emotion in between that she has felt as she deals with her own mental illness while treating others at the same time.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Protecting the Desert Heir by Caitlin Crews Excerpt


Barnes & Noble

Pregnant, alone and on the run! 

Sterling McRae knows that powerful sheikh Rihad al Bakri wants to claim the unborn heir to his desert kingdom. Her baby belongs to his brother, her best friend, and was conceived to protect him. But now that he’s gone, there is no one to protect Sterling and her child from the duty-bound fate that awaits them.

When Rihad finds Sterling he wastes no time in stealing her away to the desert. But his iron control is soon shattered by this bold, beautiful woman and replaced by infuriating, inescapable desire. To secure his country’s future, Rihad must claim Sterling, too…


The last time she’d run for her life, Sterling McRae had been a half-wild teenager with more guts than sense. Today it was more a waddle for her life than anything approaching a run—thanks to the baby she carried and had to protect no matter what, now that Omar was dead—but the principle remained the same.

Get out. Get away. Go somewhere you can never be found.

At least this time, twelve years older and lifetimes wiser than that fifteen-year-old who’d run away from her foster home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, she didn’t have to depend on the local Greyhound bus station to make her getaway. This time, she had limitless credit cards and a very nice SUV at her disposal, complete with a driver who would take her wherever she asked to go.

All of which she’d have to ditch once she got out of Manhattan, of course, but at least she’d start her second reinvention of herself with a little more style.

Thank you, Omar, Sterling thought then. The heels she refused to stop wearing even this late into her pregnancy clicked against the lobby floor of the apartment building where she and Omar had shared his penthouse ever since they’d met while he’d been a graduate student. A wave of grief threatened to take her feet right out from under her, but Sterling fought it back with grim determination and clenched her teeth tightly as she kept on walking.

There was no time left for grief or anything else. She’d seen the morning news. Rihad al Bakri, Omar’s fearsome older brother and now the ruler of the tiny little port country on the Persian Gulf that Omar had escaped at eighteen, had arrived in New York City.

Sterling had no doubt whatsoever that he would be coming for her.

There was every chance she was already being watched, she cautioned herself as she hurried from the elevator bank—that the sheikh had sent some kind of advance team to come for her even though the news had broadcast his arrival barely a half hour ago. That unpleasant if realistic thought forced her to slow down, despite the hammering of her heart, so she appeared nothing but calm. It forced her to smile as she moved through the lobby, the way she might have on any other day. There would be no honoring Omar if she let herself—and more importantly, her baby—fall into the clutches of the very people he’d worked so hard to escape. And she knew a little bit about the way predators reacted when they saw prey act like prey.

The more fearful you acted, the harder they attacked. Sterling knew that firsthand.

So instead, she walked. She sauntered.

Sterling walked like the model she’d been before she’d taken her position at Omar’s side all those years ago. Like the notorious, effortlessly sensual mistress of the international playboy Omar had been in the eyes of the world. She strolled out into the New York City morning and didn’t look around to savor the great sprawl of the city she’d always loved so much and so fiercely. There was no time for goodbyes. Not if she wanted to keep her baby—Omar’s baby—safe.

And she might have lost Omar, but God help her, she would not lose this baby, too.

Sterling was glad the summer morning was bright and warm, giving her an excuse to hide her thick grief and her buzzing anxiety and the too-hot tears she refused to let fall behind a pair of oversized sunglasses. Even so, she blinked when the doorman waved her out onto the bustling sidewalk a few blocks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his usual polite greeting. And it took her longer than it should have to realize that while that was indeed Omar’s gleaming black SUV pulled up to the curb on the busy Upper East Side street, that was not Omar’s regular driver standing beside it.

This man lounged against the side of the vehicle looking for all the world as if it was some kind of throne and he its rightful king. His attention was on the cell phone in his hand, and something about the way he scrolled down his screen struck Sterling as insolent. Or maybe it was the way he shifted and then looked up, his powerfully disapproving dark gaze slamming into hers with the force of a blow.

Sterling had to stop walking or fall over—and this time, grief had nothing to do with it.
Because that look felt like a touch, intimate and lush. And despite all the work Sterling had put into her image as a woman who wallowed neck-deep in the pleasures of the flesh, the truth was she did not like to be touched. Ever.

Not even like this, when she knew it wasn’t real.

It felt real.

This driver was too much. Too tall, too solid. Too damned real himself. He was dressed in a dark suit, which only served to make his lean, intensely dangerous body seem lethal. He had thick black hair, cut short as if to hide its natural curl, rich brown skin and the most sensual mouth Sterling had ever seen on a man in her life, for all that it was set in a grim line. He was astonishingly, noticeably, almost shockingly beautiful, something that should have been at odds with that knife-edged form of his. Instead, it was as if he was a steel-tempered blade with a stunningly bejeweled hilt.

He was either the last person she should want driving her to freedom, or the first, and Sterling didn’t have time to decide which. She didn’t have any time at all. She could feel her phone buzzing insistently from the pocket where she’d stashed it, and she knew what that meant.

Rihad al Bakri. The king himself, since his and Omar’s father had died a few years back. He was finally here, in Manhattan, as she’d feared. Both Omar’s friends and hers were texting her warnings, calling to make sure she was aware of the impending threat. Because no matter what else happened, no matter what might become of Sterling now without the man who had been everything to her, Omar’s older brother could not know about this baby.

It was why she’d taken such pains to hide the fact that she was pregnant all these months. Until today, when it didn’t matter any longer, because she was running away from this life. She’d do what she’d done the last time. A far-off city. Hair dye and/or a dramatically different cut. A new name and a new wardrobe to go along with it. It wasn’t hard to pick a new life, she knew—it was only hard to stick to it once you’d chosen it, because ghosts were powerful and seductive, especially when you were lonely.

But she’d done it before, when she’d had much less. She had even more reason to do it now.
All of this meant that Sterling certainly didn’t have time to ogle the damned driver, or wonder what it said about her that the first man she’d noticed in years seemed to have taken an instant dislike to her, if the strange driver’s expression was any guide. It said nothing particularly good about her, she thought. Then again, maybe it was just her grief talking.

“Where is Muhammed?” she asked crisply, forcing herself to start forward again across the sidewalk.
The new driver only stared at her and as she drew closer she found herself feeling something like sideswiped by the bold, regal line of his nose and the fact that those dark eyes of his were far more arresting up close, where they gleamed a dark gold in the bright morning light. She was breathless and fluttery and she couldn’t make any sense of it, nor understand why he should look something like affronted. Her phone kept vibrating, her breath was ragged and she was this close to bursting into tears right there on the street, so she ignored the odd beauty of this strangely quiet and watchful man and wrenched open the door to the SUV herself.

“I don’t actually care where he is,” she threw at him, answering her own question as her panic started to bang inside her like a drum. “Let’s go. I’m sorry, but I’m in a terrible hurry.”

He leaned there against the driver’s window, his expression startled and thoughtful all at once, and he only studied her in a leisurely sort of way as Sterling opened up the passenger door and slung her oversized shoulder bag inside. And she had never been much of a diva, no matter how much money Omar had given her to throw around. But today was a terrible day after a week of far worse, ever since she’d gotten that call in the middle of the night from the French police to tell her that Omar was dead after a terrible car crash outside Paris. And she had none of the social graces she’d worked so hard to learn left inside of her after that. Not even a polite word.

Not for a man like this one, who stared at her as if he would decide when and where they went, not her. Something snapped inside of her and she let it—hell, she welcomed it. A surly driver was a far better target than herself or Omar’s terrifying brother, who, Sterling was well aware, could show up at any moment and destroy everything.

As far as she’d ever been able to tell from reading between the lines of Omar’s staunchly loyal stories, that was pretty much all the sheikh did.

“How did you get this job?” she demanded, focusing her temper and her fear on the stranger before her. “Because I don’t think you’re any good at it. You do realize you’re supposed to open the door for your passengers, don’t you?”

“Yes, of course,” he said then, and Sterling was so startled by that rich, low, deeply sardonic voice that she curled a hand around her big, low belly protectively even as her throat went alarmingly and suddenly dry. “My mistake. It is, of course, my single goal in life to serve American women such as yourself. My goal and my dream in one.”

Sterling blinked. Had he said that in another way, she might have ignored it. But the way he looked at her. As if he was powerful and hungry and ferocious and was only barely concealing those things beneath his civilized veneer. It arrowed into her, dark and stirring.

It reminded her, for the first time in a very long while, or maybe ever, that she was a woman. Not merely mother to her best friend’s child, but entirely female from the top of her head where that look of his made her feel prickly all the way down to her toes, which were curling up in her shoes where she stood on the curb.

And entirely too many places in between.

The baby chose that moment to kick her, hard, and Sterling told herself that was why she couldn’t breathe. That was why her entire body felt taut and achy and very much like someone else’s.
“Then yours must be a life of intense disappointment,” she told him when she could breathe again, or anyway, fake it. “As you fall so far short.”

“My apologies,” the driver replied at once, his voice smooth, but that hard undercurrent in it that made Sterling’s head feel light. “I forget myself, clearly.”

He straightened then and that didn’t make it any better. He was tall and broad at once, a sweep of black that took over the entire world, and she wouldn’t have been at all surprised if he’d snatched her up, belly and all, in one powerful fist—

But he didn’t. Of course he didn’t. He reached over and wrapped his hand over the top of the door instead, then inclined his head toward the SUV’s interior as if it was his car and he was the one doing her a great favor.

Impossible images chased through her head then, each more inappropriate and embarrassing and naked than the last. What was wrong with her? Sterling didn’t have thoughts like that, so yearning and wild. So…unclothed. She didn’t like to be touched at all, much less…that.

“Well,” she said stiffly after a tense, electric moment she could feel everywhere, even if she couldn’t understand it. She felt weak and singed straight through and she couldn’t seem to look away from him when she knew that he was causing this. That it was him. “Try not to do it again.”

His dark gold eyes got more intense, somehow, and that stunning mouth of his shifted into something that could only be described as mocking. She ordered herself not to shiver in response, but she felt it wash over her anyway, as if she had.

“But we really do have to get moving.” She made her voice softer then. Placating, the way she’d learned to do with all kinds of men—all kinds of people, come to think of it—over the years. She’d made it her art, and no matter that her life with Omar had tempted her to believe she wouldn’t have to live like that any longer. That she could turn it on or off for fun, as she wished. There’s no such thing as a happy ending, she reminded herself harshly. Not for you. “I have a long way to go and I’m already behind schedule.”

“By all means, then,” he said invitingly, the way a wolf might have done, with the suggestion of claws and the hint of fangs yet nothing but that sardonic smile on his shockingly sensual, infinitely dangerous mouth. “Get in. I would hate to inconvenience you in any way.”

Then he reached out and took her hand, ostensibly to help her into the SUV.

And it was like fireworks.

It was pure insanity.

Sensation galloped through her, shooting up from that shocking point of contact like wildfire, enveloping her. Changing her. Making the city disappear. Making her whole history fall out of her own head as if it had never happened. Making her body feel tight and restless and dangerously loose at once. Making her wonder, yearn, long

She wanted to jerk her hand away from his, the way she always did when someone touched her without her permission, but she didn’t. Because for the first time in as long as she could remember, Sterling wanted to keep touching him more than she wanted to stop.

That astounding truth pounded through her like adrenaline, a sleek and dizzying drum.

“I cannot serve you if you do not enter the vehicle,” the driver said after a moment, his gaze narrowing in on hers in a way that made her breath go shallow. And his voice seemed to stoke the fires that raged in her, as if the way his hand wrapped around hers was a sexual act. A whole lot of sexual acts. “And that would be a tragedy, would it not?”

Sterling couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t breathe—and she was terribly afraid that the edgy feeling swamping her just then wasn’t panic at all. She knew panic. This was deeper. Richer.

Life-altering, she thought in a kind of awe.

But the only thing she could let herself think about right now was her baby, so she shoved all the confusing sensations away as best she could—and tried to get into the car and get away from him before her legs simply gave out beneath her.

Or before she did something she’d truly regret, like moving closer to this strange man instead of away.

June 2015 guest post from V.R. Marks

How did the RC Investigations team wind up in a small, Southern town?

Why, with all the beauty that is Maine at my fingertips, did I create Haleswood for The Thief and ensuing RC Investigations novels, basing my small, fictitious town on the real charm of Hartsville, South Carolina?

It started with a road trip to visit family in the Florence area. That turned into a tour of a nearby boarding school for high school juniors and seniors where a friend’s nephew was in attendance.

You can’t get from point A to point B in that part of South Carolina without passing stands of tall loblolly pines, wide lakes, and acres and acres of cotton. But when you reach the gem that is Hartsville, you discover it was worth every minute.

Hartsville is real. Some might call it quaint or a throwback to an earlier era. The pace is calm, but not exactly slow. During my visit, there was a great deal of talk about a recent crime that had shocked everyone. It was obvious how residents (both permanent and students) rallied to support one another as the investigation carefully unraveled the truth.

There is a community pride and deep-seated integrity in Hartsville that became the core inspiration for the setting of The Thief. Both my lead characters (as well as the supporting cast) know first-hand the pros and cons of small town life.

Exploring new settings is a big perk of being an author and Hartsville was an unexpected treat along the writing journey for the RC Investigations novels. It’s always great to hear when readers enjoy taking that journey with the characters.

You can find a full list of my books, collections, and short stories at my Amazon author page: http://www.amazon.com/V.R.-Marks/e/B009KLZKEG

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Element 63: The TaP Team by L.j. Charles Excerpt


Barnes & Noble

Let the countdown begin…

Everly Gray and Tynan Pierce, her sexy, secretive husband, take on projects no one else wants to deal with. Known as the TaP Team (Touch and Persuade), they combine the best in extrasensory perception and tactical ability.

And then they accept the Lecoq contract.

It should have been a slam-dunk. A straightforward assignment to expose the truth behind a manufacturing company’s government contract, and it offered a perfect opportunity for Everly to practice her undercover skills.

Embarking on a joint career is a dream come true for Pierce and Everly—until the nightmare edges in, they discover the contract is a fake, and death hovers, waiting in every corner.

Chapter 1
WE’D TALKED ABOUT it. Discussed everything, or so I thought. But Tynan Ailill Pierce never failed to surprise me. Our original plan was to fly into North Dakota, switch from Pierce’s jet to a small plane, and land “below the radar” in a quiet area of the Badlands at oh-three-thirty. The early arrival should go unnoticed, and give us plenty of time to hike into Medora, and then pick up a rental car.  
Pierce had yet to explain why we weren’t simply driving into town like normal undercover tourists, but my mate’s enigmatic personality became especially dominant when he was teaching me the spy business. I discovered asking a lot of questions was good, and he usually considered each one carefully before answering. But when he didn’t answer, it meant I was in for an intense learning experience.
With three successful missions behind me, I was cruising into this one with confidence befitting the TaP Team: Touch and Persuade. I did the touching; Pierce did the persuading.
I, Everly Gray, loved Tynan and trusted him with my life, had even made my commitment official with our handfasting ceremony. I considered Tynan a blessing…until about twenty minutes into the flight, when he strapped me into a tandem harness, and began the rundown on what was going to happen. “We’ll hit the drop zone—”
I wiggled free of the straps. “No way in hell am I hitting any drop zone. This wasn’t part of our plan.” I refrained from punching him in the jaw.
He sighed, and I could tell he was fighting for patience. “This is a critical skill.”
Damn, but I hated when he made solid points that shoved me into the stratosphere of panic. I nodded with a slight dip of my chin to prove I’d heard him, but definitely didn’t agree with him. “Later would be good. We could easily drive into Medora and still keep our cover intact.”
He fastened the harness on me again. “Airborne skills need to be perfected before you need them.”
Another one of those damn truisms I couldn’t argue with. I tried to shift out of the harness. No go. “Right. I get that. But—”
“You need the experience, Hot Shot. If I’d warned you, we’d still be in negotiations. Bottom line:  you should have been jumping for weeks. Be easier to drive in, but this location is perfect for your first jump. Safe. Nobody shooting at us, and I need you on this op.”

The Writer’s Survival Guide by Regan Black and Kimberly Hope

$2.99 or FREE for Kindle Unlimited Subscribers

Whether you're working on your first book or your thirty-first, The Writer's Survival Guide is here to help. With more than three decades of combined experience in writing through freelancing, traditional publication, and self-publishing we'll share tips, advice, and strategies for
-Creating your ideal writing space 

-Finding your most productive writing time
-Keeping the words flowing
-Combatting the saggy middle stage
-Fuel for powering to the finish line
-And much, much more to help you survive the incredible adventure that is life as a writer!

The Writer’s Survival Guide is a product of yet another brainstorming session, this one with my good friend and fellow author, Kimberly Hope. Put any two authors together and you can be sure the conversation will turn to books and eventually to the business of writing.
Having been through several ups and downs both in our writing processes and published careers, we wanted to create a guide to ease other writers - aspiring and published alike - along the often rocky path of a writing career.
Is your writing process efficient? How do you make time and space to write? What happens when the middle is just too saggy? Is there such a thing as grace when the deadline is looming? As others guided us, we used this book to offer up solutions, guidance, and flat-out reassurance to these questions and many more.
We know the benefits of having friends and mentors on this naturally solitary journey and either one of us (or both of us) have tripped over every speed bump and pitfall you can imagine. The Writer’s Survival Guide is full of tips and advice, as well as plenty of wisdom gained from our experiences.

You can pick up your copy of The Writer’s Survival Guide today and keep it handy when you need it most!

Live the adventure!

Enjoy Romantic suspense on the French Riviera

Enjoy Romantic suspense
on the French Riviera

BUY NOW to secure your copy. Return of the French Blue is priced at $2.99. To purchase, click on the link below or the cover, above.

It’s summertime and reading is easy.
Set up your chaise lounge, pour yourself a lemonade, and let REturn of the French Blue transport you to the Riviera.
immerse yourself in a suspense-packed novel that takes you to paris, nice, and Cap Ferrat.
you’ll meet spies, lovers, and a rogue assassin—With a Blue diamond necklace at the heart of every plot twist.
enjoy catalina Syrah & Nicholas Bonhomme in the first novel in a series.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Midsummer Murders by Melanie Jackson



The Secret:
 One can never predict what will happen in the Gulch so no one is surprised when an injured caver washes up in town needing help from the Bones. But Caver Jim seems to be a man of secrets and Butterscotch fears that he hasn’t just gone hunting for some forgotten stalagmites but might actually be there to hunt dinosaur bones. Taking Ricky and Max with her, she goes exploring on Potter’s Ridge and discovers something more f amazing—and dangerous—than fossils of a T-Rex.

Mayhew in Scotland:
Kenneth Mayhew has returned to the soggy, ancestral acres of England to visit kith and kin. But a little bit of extended family goes a long way and Kenneth and Bentley soon escape the auld lang syne by heading north to Scotland. But things are not peaceful over the border and Cill Fhinnein House where they are staying seems to be living under the pall of witches curse and the ghost of her demon dog. Kenneth knows he must lend a hand to help his beleaguered chum.

 Death in Taigh Mhor:
 Marry in haste and repent in leisure, or so the old saying goes. Jane is not unhappy in her own marriage but a friend from college, a young heiress, had stumbled into a dark relationship which could end up costing her life. Jane is summoned to Taigh Mhor by a desperate letter talking of malicious spirits and strange accidents. She arrives to find that the unpleasant situation has come to a sinister pass. All her wits will be needed to save her friend from the local evil that wants to see her dead.

 Mural from the Dead:
 Sometimes history, though interred with all honors, refuses to stay buried. Or, in this case, plastered and white washed. The earthquake which had dropped a crypt on Miss Henry in San Francisco had done damage elsewhere in the state, and Juliet and Raphael James are headed for Monterey to see the mural exposed by the damages plaster in a famous old adobe house which was the scene of one of California’s earliest and strangest robbery-murders.

The Bedeviled Heart by Carmen Caine - FREEBIE



"The Bedeviled Heart" is the ROMANCE SILVER MEDAL WINNER of the Independent Publisher Book Awards!

Scotland, 1479

Cameron Malcolm Stewart, Earl of Lennox, had made his peace with destiny. It was not his fate to love as other men.

Each of his politically arranged marriages had ended in disaster. And though he had never touched a one of his wives, he had come to believe that sharing his name would consign a woman to an early grave. So, on the sunny spring day Cameron encounters a delightfully devious, bright-eyed lass selling charmed stones in one of Stirling's alehouses, he tosses her a shilling, thinking only to steal a kiss. But it is a kiss that will change his life forever.

To care for her ailing father, the precocious Kate Ferguson has resorted to swindling the drunkards of Stirling. But a chance meeting with a handsome and seductively mysterious outlaw named Cameron ends with a kiss that changes the course of her destiny.

But as dark times descend upon Scotland, Kate is inadvertently caught in a deadly web of court intrigue spun by the royal favorite, Thomas Cochrane. And as King James III falls prey to his fear of the Black Arts, accusations of witchcraft and treachery abound. The fate of Scotland hangs in the balance, and while Cameron vows to defy destiny itself to hold Kate forever in his arms, he must unravel the plots of nobles and commoners alike to protect the country that he loves.

(Approximately 91,850 words - about 425 pages of an 8 X 5 paperback size)

While each of these books is a standalone story, "The Bedeviled Heart" begins the tale of King James III of Scotland which is continued in "The Daring Heart" and finally ends with "The Bold Heart".

Friday, June 19, 2015

Eighty and Out by Kim Cano

$2.99 or FREE for Kindle Unlimited Subscribers


Traumatized by visits to the nursing home to see their elderly aunt, Louise and her sister Jeannie made a youthful pact to not live past age eighty. Was it a silly childhood idea, or were they wise beyond their years? Most importantly, will they go through with it when the time comes?


Back in the fifties, when my younger sister Jeannie and I were kids, we made a pact not to live past age eighty.
We’d seen our fair share of old people doddering around, struggling to make it from point A to point B with their walkers, and decided that wouldn’t happen to us. We’d live life to the fullest and leave this planet with our dignity intact.
As we grew up, the plan dissolved into a silly idea we’d had when we were young and na├»ve and knew little about life. But now that I’m an older woman, one who has grown wise in her years, I’ve given the pact more thought.
And I’ve decided to keep my end of the bargain.

Chapter 1

I was sitting in the alcove under the stairs reading Young Romance when I heard my mom call me, but I ignored her because I was at the best part of the story. A few minutes later, I heard my sister’s footsteps growing louder, thumping on the hardwood floor, making it difficult to concentrate.
Jeannie poked her head into my hiding spot. “C’mon, Lou. Mom said we gotta go.”
Fine.” I groaned, rolling up the magazine to bring along.
I dreaded these trips to the old folks’ home to see Aunt Violet, but I wasn’t allowed to say so since I was only eleven years old. Last time I complained about going, I had my mouth washed out with soap.
We piled into the car and before we’d even left the driveway, Dad was already talking with Mom about his favorite subject: Communism and Senator McCarthy. I tuned out, preferring to stare out the window and watch the neighborhood go by.
Chicago wasn’t very pretty, I decided. It was too plain. Too flat. And the homes all looked the same. When I grew up, I planned to move out west and marry a rancher. I’d have horses and live on acres of land surrounded by mountains. I’d never been out west, but I felt it was my fate.
You wanna play dolls?” Jeannie asked, interrupting my thoughts.
I’m reading,” I stated while unrolling my magazine.
Jeannie gave me a look that said, “You’re not reading. You’re looking out the window.” I ignored her and buried my nose between the pages. I hated when she bugged me to play dolls. I wasn’t a little kid anymore.
Shortly after getting immersed in the story, I heard the crunch of gravel under the tires. I looked up and saw the faded green building, and my heart sank. The place was depressing. Even the exterior looked tired.
On the way in, my mom turned to face me. “Remember what I told you,” she said with a stern look.
I remember.” I nodded.
Jeannie grinned at me, and I almost giggled.
On our last visit, I’d made the mistake of asking, “What’s that awful smell?” I guess I’d said it loudly too, because everyone in the room looked at me: the nurses, several old men and women, my mother. The look she gave me promised the spanking of all spankings once we got home.
I smiled at Jeannie. At least I could get away with that.
As we walked inside, the familiar stench hit my nostrils, and I cringed. I wondered how everyone could be going about their business acting normal, showing no reaction to the nauseating smell. Once we made it to Aunt Violet’s room, Mom opened the door and smiled brightly.
Hey. Look who’s here to see you,” she said in a sweet voice.
Everyone smiled and waved on cue. We all lined up to give her a hug and a kiss. When it was my turn, I couldn’t decide which was worse, the smell of the old folks’ home or her powdery perfume, applied in layers so thick it lingered in my nostrils long after I pulled away, threatening to suffocate me.
While my parents talked to her about how she was feeling, I gazed at the framed photos on the wall. They were pictures of Aunt Violet and her late husband, Irving, through the years. My favorite was the one of Aunt Violet in her blue sequined gown. She was so elegant and beautiful when she was a ballroom dancer.
I glanced at the old woman who sat on the bed, her snow white hair pinned in place in an attempt at beauty, her skin heavily wrinkled and her hands gnarled. As I stared, she tried to get out of bed and cried out in pain. I jumped at the awful sound.
Mom and Dad rushed to help her while Jeannie and I watched, horrified. Aunt Violet looked frightened and frail. Once she got her footing, Mom helped her shuffle to the restroom.
I looked up at her when she came back in the room on her own. I was certain she would fall. Somehow, she made it back to her bed.
And how has Miss Louise been lately?” she asked, smiling. “What have you got there?”
I tucked my chin, embarrassed. “A romance comic,” I mumbled.
She nodded approval. “I see. Already learning the ways. You’re growing up so fast, kiddo. And getting so pretty. I’ll bet you’ll have so many suitors wanting to marry you they’ll have to fight to the death to make you their bride.”
I smiled. Aunt Violet had a flair for drama. Mom had said when she was little Aunt Violet used to tell her bedtime stories, but not the kind you read in a book. Aunt Violet made them up. Mom had always looked forward to story time.
Aunt Violet turned her attention to Jeannie. “What’s your doll’s name?” she asked.
Jeannie glanced at me. I nodded toward Aunt Violet. “Tell her,” I whispered.
Jeannie turned back to Aunt Violet. “Jane,” she said, lifting the doll.
Everyone smiled, and the adults resumed their conversation. I pretended to read, but this time I was really eavesdropping. They talked about Aunt Violet’s health and words like rheumatoid arthritis, inflammation levels, and joint destruction filled the small room. I didn’t know what any of it meant, but none of it sounded good, and I was thankful when it was time to go.
Later on, after I’d helped with the dinner dishes, I went outside to play. Some of the neighborhood kids were pitching pennies, so I joined them.
Where have you been?” Bernice asked.
Old folks’ home.” She knew better than to ask how it went. I’d already told her how much I disliked going there.
You wanna play?” she asked, holding up a coin.
I don’t have anything to lose today,” I said.
Bernice nodded. She was the best at the game, but instead of collecting the loser’s coins, she got paid in candy. She preferred bubble gum, but she’d take marbles, baseball cards, or whatever they’d agreed on beforehand if her opponents didn’t have any.
I watched as each of the players took their shot. Frankie’s penny got pretty close to the wall, but when Bernice threw hers, it hit the brick surface and dropped straight down.
Damn it,” Frankie cursed. “How do you do it every time?”
Bernice smiled. “Just lucky, I guess.”
The first two boys each handed her a piece of gum. Frankie reluctantly gave Bernice one of his marbles, spat on the ground and walked away.
He’s such a sore loser,” I said once we were alone.
Bernice shrugged. “You want some gum?”
Sure.” I took a stick from her, unwrapped it and popped it in my mouth.
We spent the next half hour practicing pitching pennies. She showed me her technique, claiming it was all in the wrist, but I was never able to master it.
It was still light out, but getting late.
I better get back home and put this away,” Bernice said, holding up the marble and winking. She had a wooden box where she stored her winnings. It was so organized the marbles were separated by color in their own compartments.
Okay. See you tomorrow.”
I should have gone home too, but I decided to climb my favorite tree instead. It was the one place where no one could disturb me. It’s where I always went when I wanted to be alone.
The sun began to set, so I leaned against a large branch and watched. As the sky turned varying shades of orange and pink, I let myself visit a familiar daydream. Imaginary mountains filled the horizon, and I glanced at them from atop my black horse, Maximilian. We’d just returned from an exhilarating ride, and it was time to put him back in his stall so I could eat dinner with my handsome husband and well-behaved kids.
I heard someone whistle and looked down. There was just enough light left for me to see a colored boy walking down the street by himself.
But he wasn’t alone. The whistle had come from one of the older neighborhood boys, who was silently gesturing for his buddies to follow.
Shit,” I said in a half-whisper.
I wanted to head home, but I couldn’t climb down because it would attract too much attention. So I waited. When the colored boy turned the corner, the group of white kids took off running after him, so I slid down and dropped to the ground, scraping the palms of my hands on the bark and twisting my ankle in the process.
Shouting erupted in the distance, and I took the opportunity to run away as fast as I could. Fear trumped the pain in my ankle, and I made it home in record time. As I bolted through the front door and slammed it shut behind me, I came face to face with my mom. Her arms were crossed in front of her chest, and she glared at me.
Do you know what time you’re supposed to be home?” she asked, anger bubbling just beneath the surface of her words.
I looked down. “Before dark,” I mumbled.
You’re grounded!” she shouted. “Now get to your room.”
I didn’t make eye contact. I just ran past her as quickly as I could in the hopes I might avoid a spanking. I made it to my room unscathed, changed into pajamas and climbed into bed. As I lay there, I wondered what the colored boy was doing walking around all by himself. They had their side of the tracks, and we had ours. And no one ever crossed them.
Chapter 2

The next morning, my mom took my romance comics away and handed me a sponge, Ajax, and a bucket and told me to clean the bathroom. I had planned to meet Bernice and go bike riding. Instead, I was stuck doing chores.
I scrubbed and scrubbed the clawfoot tub and was surprised to find out just how much elbow grease it took to clean. You’d think all the dirt would just drain away after every bath. An hour later, I had finished the whole bathroom and stood to examine my work. The room sparkled and smelled fresh, filling me with a sense of accomplishment.
My dad came up beside me. “It’s spotless. Great job,” he said, glancing over his shoulder. He turned back to me. “Here. Take this.” He handed me a Fanny May Pixie from the box Mom had just gotten for her birthday.
Thanks.” I smiled, and as I did he put his finger to his lips to indicate it was our secret. I nodded, then went to my room and enjoyed the delicious treat, a mixture of caramel and nuts drenched in milk chocolate.
I lay on my bed, fully aware it was only a matter of time before my mom gave me another task, which was her special way of driving home the “you will submit to the rules” message. The rules really weren’t that difficult to follow. My parents were kind and fair. The problem was me. I was headstrong. Where Jeannie listened and behaved like a model child, I did the opposite, and no amount of punishment seemed to alter my behavior.
Jeannie opened the bedroom door, her doll tucked under her arm.
What’s going on?” I asked.
Nothing.” She came and sat down next to me. “I’m bored.”
If I weren’t grounded, I would’ve been outside with my friends. I didn’t know what Jeannie did while I was away and mostly didn’t care. But today I felt a kinship with her. “You want to play a game?” I asked.
Her eyes brightened. “Sure. Which one do you want to play?”
How about Candy Land?” It was her favorite.
Jeannie smiled and went to get it from the hallway closet. An hour later, I was surprised to realize how much I was enjoying playing with my usually annoying sister. I made a mental note to spend more time with her from now on.
Jeannie belched loudly, and we both started laughing. Mom walked in wearing a serious look, which was quickly replaced by a happy face when she saw us enjoying ourselves. I made eye contact with her, and she suppressed her smile just enough to remind me who’s boss.
Do you want me to clean anything else?” I asked, standing up. I hoped it would make me appear obedient. I wanted her to know she’d won.
Not right now,” she answered. “I’m going to start lunch, and then we’re going to the store to shop for school supplies.”
When she left, I noticed Jeannie had braided her doll’s hair. I looked at Jeannie’s unruly mane. “How about I braid your hair to match the doll’s?”
Her face lit up. “Okay. Let me grab my brush.”
Jeannie rushed from the room, and after she returned, I spent the next half hour removing the tangles and weaving her hair into an intricate ponytail. “There. Now you and Jane match,” I said as she inspected the finished result in the mirror.
We sat down to eat egg salad sandwiches, and Mom eyed Jeannie. “Your hair looks pretty.”
Jeannie smiled. “Lou did it.”
Mom glanced at me, and I grinned. I could tell she didn’t want to stay mad at me, but she always tried to keep a serious face for a day or two after I’d disobeyed – like that made the punishment stick better or something. She’d grounded me for a week once before, when I’d slipped up and said the wrong thing at the nursing home, but that was different. She wasn’t just angry that time, she was embarrassed. Mortified was the word she’d used.
On the way to the store, we passed Bernice and some of the neighborhood kids. They were having fun playing hopscotch. I wished I could join them, and realized if I listened to my parents more often, I wouldn’t suffer so much.
Which notebook do you prefer? Blue or green?” Mom asked as she held up one of each.
Doesn’t matter.” I had an opinion on everything I wasn’t supposed to have an opinion on, but when asked about topics relevant to my little world, I couldn’t care less.
I rounded the corner to look at the comic books while Mom and Jeannie continued shopping. A teenage boy stood reading a magazine. I recognized him as one of the boys I’d seen following the colored kid. When I reached for Young Romance, I noticed his eye was black and blue.
He leered at me. “Beat it. I’m reading here,” he said.
I put the comic back on the rack and left, irritated he had bossed me around and secretly delighted he’d been smacked in the face. They might have beaten up the colored boy, but it looked like he had gotten at least one good punch in.
I didn’t know what all the fuss was about over people’s skin color. It seemed silly, and it wasn’t like any of us had a choice in the matter. Conveniently, the subject came up at the dinner table that night.
They’re coming to the school this year,” Dad said, sounding concerned.
Mom sighed. “Well, there’s nothing we can do about it.”
We could send the kids to private school.”
That costs money,” Mom said. Dad frowned at that.
I wanted to say I didn’t care and not to worry, but I kept my mouth shut. I continued eating my meal in silence while Jeannie played with her food, oblivious to their concerns.
A few days later, my confinement ended, and I was allowed to leave the house. Dad had given me a watch so I could keep better track of time, but in my rush to get outdoors, I’d forgotten to put it on.
The hot wind tousled my hair as I rode my bike to the park. I usually wore it in a ponytail so it wouldn’t get messy, but today I left it loose, a fitting symbol of my newfound freedom. On my way there, I kept my eyes peeled for Bernice. I didn’t see her in any of the usual places, and when I got to the park, she wasn’t there either.
Oddly enough, no one was there. I had the place all to myself.
I hopped off my bike and ran to the swing set. After I’d gotten situated in the center swing, I grabbed hold of the heavy chains and pushed off the ground. I pumped my legs to propel myself upwards, and the higher I climbed, the more exhilarated I felt. It was almost as if I could touch the sky. I leaned back and let my legs go limp, gliding back and forth like a human pendulum.
When Mom was around, she wouldn’t let me do it. She claimed it was too dangerous, and I could get hurt. But it was my favorite thing to do.
After I’d taken a few more turns, I was ready to leave. I was just about to get on my bike when I saw Bernice. She put her hands on her hips. “Let me guess. You were grounded.”
That would be correct,” I replied as I set the bike against the kickstand. I said it without shame even though I knew it wasn’t something to be proud of. There were lots of kids who thought that kind of thing was cool, but Bernice wasn’t one of them.
Well, you missed some neighborhood gossip,” she said as she sat on the park bench.
Yeah? What’s that?” I sat beside her.
Frankie’s older brother got into a fight with a colored boy who was walking around here the other night. I guess a group of older kids chased him back to his side of town, but before things ended there was a fight, and the colored boy clocked him good.”
I thought of the boy at the store. Bernice and I had never discussed race, and I wasn’t sure how she felt about the situation, so I didn’t voice my opinion. With my parents I was abrupt, often to my own detriment, but I tended to be more careful when I spoke with Bernice.
I heard they’re going to be at school with us this year,” I said, giving no hint of my feelings on the matter.
She stared at the other side of the playground. “My mom was talking to my grandma about it on the phone the other night. They don’t think it’s a good thing.”
I raised an eyebrow.
My family isn’t prejudiced or anything,” she said. “They just think there will be trouble at school. And you know my parents. It’s all about learning with them. They don’t want anything to interfere with that.”
I thought about my dad’s comment, that he’d like to send us to private school but couldn’t because it was too expensive. I was going to tell her about it but decided not to since her family had more money than ours. It wasn’t like they were rich. I mean, they lived in our neighborhood and all, but they definitely had more. Bernice told me a story once about her uncle being a successful author, and that he had left them some money when he died.
Well, let’s hope there won’t be any trouble then,” I said.
Bernice sighed. “If the rumors I’ve been hearing are true, I don’t think hope will make a

Chapter 3

The first week of school, there was tension in the air. Bernice and I took a seat in our classroom as a few colored kids arrived and sat at desks in the back. Mrs. Jenkins looked nervous. Her eyes darted around the room, and as she wrote her name on the chalkboard, she accidentally bumped the eraser with her hip and it fell to the ground, sending white powder into the air. A couple boys snickered, and she quickly turned, trying to figure out who had mocked her but couldn’t as they’d all become blank-faced.
Okay. Settle down everyone. We need to take attendance,” she said.
Mrs. Jenkins called our names one by one, and afterward she asked everyone to write an essay about what they did over the summer.
Yes?” Mrs. Jenkins said to the new colored girl who had raised her hand.
Everyone stared at the girl.
I don’t have a pencil,” she said. “I forgot to bring one.”
She made eye contact with me, and I instinctively rose and handed her the extra one I had.
Thanks,” she said.
No problem,” I replied.
I sat back down and caught Frankie glaring at me. Apparently he had a problem with my not having a problem. I held his gaze and smirked, making it clear I wasn’t looking for his approval. I began writing the essay, describing in vivid detail the highs and lows of my summer. Mrs. Jenkins came around and collected it when everyone had finished.
I played tag at recess with Bernice and some other kids. As I ran to tell the other girl “you’re it,” I saw the colored girl from our classroom sitting on a swing by herself. She was staring at the ground, looking lonely.
When there was a pause in the game, I ran over to her. “Do you want to play with us?” I asked.
Okay,” she said, smiling brightly. We ran back to the group to start another round.
Sandy is going to play with us,” I said. “Who wants to be it this time?”
My question was greeted with silence. The other kids just glanced at each other and wordlessly walked away. Stunned by their response, I suddenly wished I hadn’t invited her. I was just trying to be nice, not make my friends mad at me.
Bernice was the only one who stayed, but she didn’t look happy about it.
I’ll be it,” Bernice finally said, stepping forward.
I nodded, thankful she’d put herself on the line so I wouldn’t look foolish in front of Sandy, who stood next to me showing no outward sign of how she felt inside.
Bernice shouted “Go!” and Sandy and I took off running across the empty field. The sound of chirping birds mixed with our laughter made me smile. The sun was blinding and bright, and I soaked it up, enjoying the warmth and the joy of the moment. But when I went to shield my eyes, I noticed a group of kids watching the developing scene with displeasure. A few teachers also looked on with folded arms and some kind of quiet judgment.
On the way home from school, Frankie caught up with me. His plump face was twisted in anger.
You think you’re real smart, don’t you?” he said.
I grinned. “Well, my grades are above average. Not straight A’s, but—”
Cut the crap, Lou. You’re treading into dangerous territory.”
I laughed. “Those are some big words, Frank. Did you read that line in a Superman comic? You can read, can’t you?”
Frankie pushed me, and the books I was carrying fell into the street. “I don’t have to listen to this shit. You’re the one that’s going to lose all your friends. Then let’s see how smart you are.”
I tried to think up a witty comeback as he walked away but couldn’t. He left with his head held high as I was forced to gather my things from the dirty pavement. When I had finished collecting them, I noticed a few of the girls in my classroom passing by on their way home. I smiled at them, but they ignored me. Then they began whispering.
My stomach tightened. Maybe Frankie was right.
I felt down all during dinner, so after helping with the dishes, I decided to join my sister in the backyard to play, hoping that might cheer me up. She was on a cartwheel kick, but I didn’t care for them much so I stood off to the side, wondering how many she could do before she wiped out. It didn’t take long for my sadness to evaporate. Jeannie was really good at cartwheels – and she was having a ton of fun. It was kind of hard not to get caught up in that.
We played hide and seek for a while after that and then came inside and collapsed on the sofa.
Go get your brush,” I told her. “Your hair is a mess.” It wasn’t that messy, but I knew she liked to fuss over it and figured I’d indulge her. Plus I was enjoying hanging out with her. She didn’t judge me or criticize me like the other kids.
Jeannie grabbed the brush from her room, and we went to the kitchen. She had just taken a seat when Mom turned and said, “Not at the table.” Jeannie and I got up and marched to the bedroom, where I began gently removing the tangles from the bottom before working my way up.
Are you really gonna get married and move out west?” Jeannie asked out of the blue.
I hope so,” I answered, surprised she had remembered my daydream. I finished smoothing the last of her locks and handed the brush back to her. “Why do you ask?”
She turned to me, looking like she was about to cry. “Because I don’t want you to move away. I would miss you.”
Her admission tugged at my heart, and I gave her a hug. “Don’t worry,” I said. “If I move there you can come visit all the time. I’ll be rich, so you’ll have your own room, your own horse.”
I like horses,” she said in a small voice.
See. Nothing to be sad about. We’ll always be together, no matter what.”
Jeannie smiled. And just like that, her worries seemed to be forgotten. Later that night, I lay in bed awake, my mind heavy with concerns of my own. I was haunted by Frankie’s comment. I didn’t want to become an outcast and lose my friends over Sandy. She meant nothing to me compared to them, but I felt it was unfair I had to choose.
Over the next few months, I distanced myself from Sandy. I was polite to her but didn’t invite her to play at recess and didn’t show her any extra kindness. This made me feel terrible in those moments when I imagined what it must be like to be in her shoes. Sure, the other kids warmed up to me again, but rejecting Sandy still made me feel bad.
I spent a lot of time hanging out at Bernice’s on Christmas break. Her mom had become obsessed with baking pies, and we’d both become willing taste testers.
While enjoying a slice, I said to Bernice, “Tell me more about your uncle who was an author.”
She gulped her milk. “You want to know about him or the novel he wrote?”
Both,” I said and took another bite of pie.
Bernice rose and grabbed a book off the shelf. “Here,” she said, handing it to me. I read the title: High Desert Love by Judith Johnson.
Wait a minute. I thought you said your uncle wrote this.”
He did. Judith Johnson is a pen name. My mom said he thought the book would sell better if readers thought a woman had written it.”
Huh,” I said. “Smart.”
I turned it over and read the description: A sweeping tale of romance amidst the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. High Desert Love tells the story of one woman’s journey out west, and the chance encounter that changes her destiny.
This story is set in the west?” I asked, suddenly intrigued. I hadn’t told Bernice my dream. Only my sister knew.
Yeah. My uncle lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, so that’s where he set the novel.”
I held the book in my hand. I was dying to read it even though it was for grown-ups. “Did you ever meet him?” I asked.
Once, when I was little, but I don’t remember much about him other than he reeked of alcohol.”
Oh,” I replied. “I thought he might’ve had a more interesting story.”
Bernice’s mom came into the room and took our plates. “He’s got an interesting story all right,” she joked. “Your aunt’s the best one to tell it.”
I eyed Bernice. “Your aunt?” She’d never mentioned her aunt.
Yeah. I’m going to visit her next summer.”
In Santa Fe?”
Yep. She’s got a ranch out there, and she invited me to stay for a few weeks.”
I was instantly jealous.
Why don’t you come with me?” Bernice suggested. “It would be so much fun.”
I tsked. “My parents would never let that happen.”
You never know,” Bernice said. “Try kissing up to them for a few months. They might say yes.”

Chapter 4

Mom, Dad, Jeannie, and I rang in the New Year with Guy Lombardo and his big band, enjoying it for the first time on TV. Mom had put out a tray of appetizers, which we nibbled on while watching the show and sipping our drinks – champagne flutes for them and apple juice in fancy cups for Jeannie and me. When a song Mom and Dad really liked came on, they started dancing. Jeannie and I attempted to dance too, but we didn’t know the right steps, so we just ended up shimmying and giggling while making silly faces at each other.
The next day brought the new and improved me. The me who would do whatever it took to schmooze my parents into letting me go with Bernice to Santa Fe next summer. Mom complained of a headache in the morning, so I offered to do the dishes after breakfast so she could rest. At dinnertime I set the table, and I could feel her studying me, probably trying to figure out what was going on. I thought she might say something, but she didn’t. She just continued watching me without comment.
Three weeks later, after I’d done a myriad of chores without being asked, turned in all my homework, and had come home on time every day, I was certain I’d made inroads into my parents’ good graces. The time seemed right to launch into my travel campaign.
Mom and Dad were sitting on the sofa discussing Aunt Violet while Jeannie played with her doll nearby, so I joined them, pretending to be interested in their conversation. When they had finished talking, I glanced at my mom and casually said, “Did you know Bernice’s uncle wrote a romance novel?”
Mom looked intrigued. “No. I didn’t.” She held my gaze, waiting for me to say more, but as she stared, it felt like her eyes were boring holes into my skull, like she already knew my master plan.
Yeah. Bernice said he wrote it under a pen name, so people would think he was a woman,” I added.
Weird,” Jeannie blurted.
I shot her a look that said “Zip it,” then turned back to Mom and smiled. “The book is called High Desert Love. It’s set in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he used to live.”
My words sounded stilted, like I was reading a prepared speech. My hands felt clammy as I eyed my mom, hoping she couldn’t tell how nervous I was.
Used to live?” Dad asked, helping me without knowing it.
Yeah. He died, but Bernice’s aunt still lives there. She’s got a big ranch with horses, and she invited Bernice to come visit her for a few weeks next summer. She said I was welcome to come, too,” I mentioned like it was no big deal.
Mom and Dad glanced at each other. I could see I’d thrown them a curveball. Jeannie’s eyes grew wide as she realized the importance of what I had just said, but I nodded at her ever so slightly, warning her to keep quiet.
Well, that was very nice of Bernice’s aunt to offer, but we couldn’t afford to send you there,” Mom said.
I’d already anticipated her response and was ready with a reply. “It’s not going to cost anything because Bernice and her parents are driving there. I’d just be an extra person in the car.”
Mom mulled over the idea, her expression unsure. “But we don’t know Bernice’s aunt. We’ve never even met her, and you’ll only be twelve this summer.”
I turned to Dad. “We’ll think about it,” he said, raising his eyebrows, which meant we were done talking about it for now.
At dinner I was quiet, my mind busy working on trying to find a new angle that would get them to let me go, but I was out of ideas. I went to my room and pouted afterward, certain my life was ruined.
I told Bernice all about it the next day. “Don’t worry,” she said. “They may still let you go. Just stay on your best behavior.”
Being good was exhausting. But it was worth a shot.
For the next few months I was a model child. It went against my nature, but I pretended I was playing a part in a movie. Dad told me Mom was warming up to the trip idea, especially since he had mentioned it would be a great experience for me to have as a child. The only thing she was against was me being in another state with a stranger.
Your mom could talk to my aunt,” Bernice said when I told her the latest. “Just let me know and I’ll mention it to my mom.”
I nodded, planning on running it by my dad when I got home. I glanced at the book in her hand.
So why do you want to learn Spanish?” I asked. We already had enough homework.
Because in New Mexico half the people are Hispanic and speak Spanish. And my parents thought it would be fun to be able to communicate in both languages.”
It sounded to me like her parents were tricking her into doing more work. But Bernice seemed interested, so I was interested, too.
Hola. Como estas?” I repeated after Bernice had said it. We didn’t know if we were saying it right.
Bien. Y usted?” We both said multiple times. Then we practiced the lines on each other.
Bernice’s mom checked in on us.
Boy. You two sound good,” she complimented. “Keep it up.”
After she left, I asked, “Does your mom speak Spanish?”
Then how does she know we sound good?”
She doesn’t. She’s just saying that because she’s happy were learning.”
I thought her mom was odd, but she baked yummy pies and cookies, so I didn’t fault her for being a little weird.
How do you say horse in Spanish?” I asked Bernice when we were finished with the lesson.
She grabbed the Spanish/English dictionary and looked it up. “El caballo.”
It sounded nice. Later, as I rode my bike home, I repeated it over and over in my head. I burst through the front door and shouted, “El caballo!”
Dad lowered his paper and eyed me. “What’s that?”
It’s Spanish for horse.”
That’s nice, dear,” he replied. He lifted his paper and continued reading, oblivious to my dream of living out west, riding into the sunset with Maximilian. But why would he act any differently? I’d never told him my dream. I’d only told Jeannie.
That’s when the light bulb went on.
When Mom came to tuck me in that night, I sat up straight and said, “You know how I want to go with Bernice to New Mexico this summer?”
She sighed. “Yes.”
Well, I never told you why it’s so important to me.”
Mom raised an eyebrow. “Tell me why you think it’s so important.”
Because it’s my destiny,” I said. “Ever since I was little, I’ve dreamt of moving out west. I want to live on a ranch and have a black horse named Maximilian.”
Mom giggled. “Wherever did you get such an idea?” she asked, shaking her head.
I don’t know. I just know it’s my fate.”
Mom’s expression turned serious. “Well, that may be true, honey. You may move out west and live on a ranch when you grow up, but I don’t see how it has anything to do with going on the trip with Bernice.”
Don’t you see,” I said, locking eyes with her. “This is how it starts. Think about it. I’ve never met anyone who lives out west, yet I know I’ll end up there. And now Bernice happens to have an aunt who lives on a ranch out west, and she invites both of us to visit.”
She still looked unconvinced.
Don’t you see, if I don’t go on this trip, there’s a chance my whole life could be thrown off course.”
Mom was quiet for a moment before she took a deep breath. “I know it seems like some kind of omen that you’ve been invited to Bernice’s aunt’s house, but you’re just too young to go. It would be different if your dad and I were going too, but we’re not. We don’t know Bernice’s aunt. We barely know Bernice’s parents.”
My heart sank. She reached for my face, using her fingers to lift my chin. “I’m not saying Bernice’s aunt isn’t a nice lady. I’m sure she’s wonderful, and it was kind of her to invite you, but I can’t allow you to go on a trip across the country. Not this time.”
My world was being crushed.
I started crying. Mom frowned, like she felt my pain and cared, then reached for me and gave me a hug.
Don’t get so upset,” she said while rubbing my back. “I’m sure Bernice’s aunt will invite you again. When you’re older.”
When she left I lay down and continued sobbing. What if there never was a next time? What if this was my only chance and I was missing it? I resented living in a world where I was told what to do, and vowed never to do that to my own children.

Chapter 5

I sulked for days, and Jeannie was the only one at home who seemed to care. As I sat cross-legged on my bedroom floor reading a book, she poked her head in.
I just did my hair,” she said, turning from side to side. “You want me to do yours?”
I managed to smile. “Sure.”
She came in and took a seat on the bed behind me, brush in hand, and began going through the tangles and smoothing them, working from left to right. She hummed as she braided, which put me at ease and lifted my spirits ever so slightly. When she had finished, she turned to me and said, “You wanna go outside and play? We could climb a tree.”
Jeannie was afraid of heights, but she knew how much I liked climbing trees. Her kindness almost made me want to cry.
I was about to say maybe another time because I was tired, when Mom called out from the kitchen: “I made brownies.”
I had been on a hunger strike ever since she ruined my life, but brownies were my very favorite food. I knew exactly what she was up to, and I wanted to stand my ground, but Jeannie wore an excited expression.
Brownies! C’mon,” she said.
Reluctantly, I followed her to the kitchen and took a seat. Mom set the plate of brownies in the center of the table and poured us each a glass of milk. I took a bite of one, which was delicious and melted in my mouth, but tried not to let the satisfaction show on my face.
I’ve got a fun day planned for us,” she announced. “There’s a carnival nearby, and we’re taking you there this afternoon. They have games, rides. They even have a carousel with horses,” she said, eyeing me and smiling.
All right!” Jeannie exclaimed, practically jumping out of her chair.
I put the rest of my brownie down and pushed the plate away. I didn’t want to go to a stupid carnival.
Mom ignored my reaction. “Okay. We’ll head out as soon as you’re both ready,” she said.
Jeannie raced down the hallway to wash her hands. I went to my room and stared in the mirror, feeling sorry for myself. No wooden horse could ever compare with Maximilian.
After I changed, I shuffled to the family room, where Jeannie, Mom and Dad were waiting.
Who’s ready to have a great time?” Dad asked.
I am,” I answered flatly.
Dad looked disappointed by my lackluster response, but he put on a big smile and said, “Let’s get going then.”
The carnival was packed. Amusement park music filled the air, along with peals of laughter as kids of all ages ran to and fro with pink and blue clouds of cotton candy. Even though we’d just had brownies, Jeannie wanted cotton candy, too. And since Dad was going out of his way to make us happy, he said yes.
After sharing a pink cloud of sticky sugar, Jeannie and I ran around checking out all the rides. On my way past the Tilt-A-Whirl, I spotted Frankie. He was waiting in line with one of his friends and was just about to board. He saw me and waved, so I waved back. He’d been a bit nicer since I’d backed away from Sandy, but I still didn’t care for him. He was a bully.
I watched him climb into the cart and sit next to his buddy. His round face and puffy cheeks made him look like a pig, and I smirked as I thought of the Spanish word for pig: puerco. I could call him that to his face and he wouldn’t have a clue what it meant. As the ride started and he and his friend began spinning, I smiled, the secret knowledge filling me with a sense of satisfaction.
Which one do you want to go on?” Jeannie asked. She looked eager.
I don’t care. You pick.”
Jeannie spied the screaming kids on the Tilt-A-Whirl. “How about that one?”
I wasn’t sure if I would like it, but we got in line. Our parents caught up to us, and Jeannie asked, “Are you coming, too?”
We’ll watch you from here,” Dad said. Something about his expression told me spinning rides weren’t his thing. I glanced at Mom. She gazed at me, wearing a hopeful expression, but I turned away and started chatting with Jeannie.
When Frankie got off the ride, he looked ill. His pale freckled skin was tinged yellowish-green, and he swayed as he walked. Jeannie and I were next, so we climbed the stairs and hopped in an open cart. Once they were all filled, the ride began. It started off slowly, and I was about to say “this isn’t so bad” when it quickly accelerated, spinning out of control. The crowd blurred as I screamed and slid into Jeannie, the pressure so strong I worried I might crush her. Unharmed, she threw her hands in the air and howled at the tops of her lungs with delight.
I stumbled as I got off, and Jeannie grabbed my arm.
You okay?” she asked.
Just a little dizzy,” I said.
Jeannie grinned. “I loved it. I could go again.”
Mom and Dad approached. “How about we go on the carousel next,” Dad suggested.
I had no interest in wooden horses, but I figured I’d get it over with. At least it would make my parents happy.
We boarded and I searched for a black horse. I didn’t see one, so I chose a white one instead. The saddle was decorated with pink and purple jewels and the reins were painted gold. And soon I was moving up and down, riding in a circle to nowhere.
Mom sat on the horse just ahead of me on the left. Halfway through the ride, she turned back to see if I was having a good time, but I didn’t make eye contact. I just continued staring into the space ahead, thinking how pointless this idea was.
I fell asleep on the car ride home. The sugar buzz had worn off, and so had the adrenalin rush from one last visit to the Tilt-A-Whirl to satisfy Jeannie’s need for speed. I woke much later in my bed, confused where I was for a moment. Wide awake, I reached for the flashlight I kept under my bed and began reading one of my romance comics, preferring the fiction of the story to the reality of my crummy life.
At the end of the school year, my parents hadn’t budged on their decision. Bernice knew I felt awful but told me to keep my chin up, and promised we’d do it again when we were a little older. “It will be even more fun then because I’ll know my way around.”
I guess,” I mumbled.
I couldn’t believe I had wasted all that effort on being good. It hadn’t gotten me anywhere.
You want to go to a movie before I leave?” Bernice asked.
Sure,” I replied.
As we walked to the theater, I kept thinking about how Bernice was embarking on an adventurous journey while I was left to climb the same old trees and take trips to the nursing home to see Aunt Violet.
Once we got to the cinema, I noticed a John Wayne movie was playing, which piqued my interest.
How about The Searchers?” I suggested.
Sounds good,” Bernice said.
The bored ticket attendant took our money without even asking our ages; Bernice treated us to popcorn, and we took a seat. Cartoons played before the movie, and when the film finally started, everybody quieted down.
I was captured by the setting as much as the story. The main character, Ethan, had returned to Texas after fighting in the Civil War, and when his niece Debbie was abducted, he set out to find her. His journey took him to New Mexico of all places, and I found myself smiling despite his sorrow as I watched the beautiful scenery.
Someday it would be my turn.
On the way home, I turned to Bernice. “I have a secret I never told you.”
Really? What is it?” she asked, slowing her pace.
I wasn’t sure why I hadn’t told her before, but it seemed like the right time. As we walked home I told her of my dream to live out west. I divulged every detail.
I know it’s my fate,” I said. “I’m certain of it.”
Bernice held up her arm. “Look,” she said. “I’ve got chills.”
Sure enough, she had goose bumps.
What do you think?” I asked.
I think it’s a shame you’re not coming this summer. I think it’s more than a shame. I think it’s detrimental.”
I studied her. I wasn’t sure what detrimental meant, but I figured it was serious.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this opportunity showed up when it did,” Bernice said.
I know exactly what you mean,” I said. “I tried to explain it to my mom, but she doesn’t get it.”
Maybe she does get it. Maybe she’s just thinking about your age. Isn’t that what she keeps saying? That you’re too young?”
She had a point. Maybe my mom wasn’t stupid after all. Maybe she was only seeing one side. But since she was the one who had the final say, her side was the only one that mattered.
When we got to Bernice’s house her mom was making dinner so I didn’t stay long. I gave Bernice a hug.
Have fun,” I said. I started to leave, but she told me to wait a minute, disappeared into the other room, then reappeared with her mom, who was holding a book.
Why don’t you borrow this,” Bernice’s mom said.
I took it from her and smiled. It was High Desert Love by Judith Johnson.

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