America’s Sweetheart Tells All

small-american-starletOkay, kids, we’re coming down to the end of this Valentine’s free-for-all over at Little Red Hen – two more days to download everything we’ve got for free. Here’s an excerpt from one of our full-length novels, American Starlet. Remember all those big, trashy, rat-smasher novels from the 1980s about fabulous women being fabulously sad about their fabulously tragic lives? Yeah, it’s just like that:

Spring 2004

Neither client had arrived, but the conference room was already buzzing. Paralegals hustled in and out, checking their PDAs and barking urgently into their headsets. One assistant was polishing the spotless black glass conference table—“That’s not lemon-scented is it?” a paralegal yapped, “Miss Cross is allergic!”—while another laid out legal pads and freshly sharpened pencils. The office manager, a woman of fifty who was paid more than the CEO of most mid-sized corporations, spent at least ten minutes counting and recounting chairs.

Ten minutes before go time, a catering cart turned up with coffee, tea, water, various sodas, fruit and pastries. “Caramel corn!” one of the paralegals snapped. “Halliwell-Brighton specifically said that Mr. Kidd would need caramel corn!” The head caterer herself rushed out to get some.

Setting up her equipment, the court reporter thought if a transcript of this settlement conference should go astray and end up with one of the less-scrupulous media outlets, she’d be able to move to her own private island. And she’d need to, too. Nowhere else would be safe.

Promptly at ten, the three lawyers who would be representing Scarlett Cross walked in, surveyed the scene, pronounced it acceptable, and left to wait in their offices for their client to arrive. Half an hour later, the office manager ushered in the three lawyers from Halliwell-Brighton, the second-most-expensive family law firm in Los Angeles. When they’d given the room their okay, an assistant they’d brought with them went back downstairs to the limo and brought back an up-and-coming model/actress no one had thought would have the brass to come and Gossip magazine’s three-time Juiciest Beefcake Alive, Romeo Kidd.

“Miss Cross isn’t here yet,” the office manager said. “We’re expecting her any minute. Can I offer you anything?”

“We’ll take care of it,” the youngest of the three lawyers said.

“Mrs. Kidd,” Romeo said. If anyone had expected him to dress up for the occasion, they were doomed to disappointment. As always, he looked like an exquisitely unmade bed. “Her name is still Mrs. Kidd.”

Forty-five more minutes passed. The actress/model binged on grapes and diet soda and played a noisy game on her PDA. She tried sitting on Romeo’s lap, but the oldest and scariest member of his legal team asked her very nicely but very firmly to please use a chair. Romeo scribbled on one of the legal pads, a strange little smile on his face.

At last a wave of conversation came rolling up the hall. The door opened, and Scarlett Cross Kidd swept in with the home team of lawyers behind her and a respected Shakespearean actor at her side. “Oh good,” Romeo said, standing up. “You brought a date, too.”

“Actually, I’m not staying,” the Shakespearean said, offering his hand. “Lovely to see you again.” He and Romeo shook hands as Scarlett watched and everyone else looked awkward.

“I love your work,” the actress/model blurted out.

“Thanks,” the Shakespearean said with a smile. “I like yours, too.” He turned to Scarlett, took her hand, and kissed it. “I’ll see you later.”

She held on to his hand for an extra moment. “See you later.” Unlike her husband, she was perfectly dressed for the occasion in a Carolina Herrara suit, but she seemed anxious and fragile while Romeo was calm.

“Let’s get started,” her lead lawyer suggested as the Shakespearean left and Scarlett took a seat directly opposite her husband. “Scarlett, can Marley get you something to drink?”

“No, thanks.” One of the lawyers set a chic pink satchel on the floor at her feet. “Thank you,” she said. “Sorry I’m late.”

“It’s okay,” Romeo said. “I still like watching you make an entrance.”

She smiled but didn’t answer.

“So I think we’ve all had a chance to look over the proposals and counterproposals,” Scarlett’s lead lawyer began. “Let’s start with real estate.”

“Hang on,” Romeo said. “Where’s Ranhosky?”

Scarlett’s team bristled as one. “Mr. Ranhosky won’t be joining us,” the leader said.

“Ranhosky died,” Scarlett said. “Three weeks ago. It was cancer.”

“Well, fuck me,” Romeo said, making the model/actress snicker over her PDA. “And the San Andreas Fault didn’t open up to suck him down to hell?”

“Not that I noticed,” Scarlett said.

“So you’re doing this without him or Daddy?” Romeo said. “Are you okay with that?”

She smiled, the flash of dazzling white teeth that had been lighting up movie screens since she was sixteen years old. “I am so okay with that.”

“Let’s take a look at these proposals then,” Romeo’s lead lawyer said, whipping out a sheaf of stapled papers. “I agree that we should start with the property settlement.”

“I don’t,” Romeo said. “Let’s start with the important stuff.”

“You’re not getting the kids,” Scarlett said.

“I think it would be better to save the more emotionally-charged issues until after we hammer out a settlement on the property,” Romeo’s lawyer said.

“Delilah wants to live with me,” Romeo said, talking over his lawyer.

“I don’t care,” Scarlett said, ignoring the lawyer, too.

“She’s sixteen years old.”

“You think I don’t know how old she is?”

“She isn’t even your daughter!”

“Romeo, please!” his lawyer said, putting a hand over his. She was very pretty and shiny like a lawyer on TV.

“Miss Cross?” Scarlett’s lawyer said. He was shiny, too, but maybe not quite so pretty.

Scarlett and Romeo sat back in their chairs. The actress/model was watching them like a kid at the movies, but the lawyers all looked miserable. The court reporter was just trying to catch up.

“Fine,” Romeo said. “Let’s talk about the beach house. I bought it.”

“You bought it for me,” Scarlett said with a tight smile on her lips and sparkling tears in her eyes.

“I bought it for my wife,” he said. “The mother of my child.”

“It’s good you said wife first,” she said. “Just to clarify.”

Romeo turned red. “This is ridiculous.”

“This meeting is your last chance to work these issues out privately,” Scarlett’s lawyer said. He had gone to Harvard and sounded like a Kennedy. “If we can’t come to some settlement here, we’ll have no choice but to fight it out in open court. Every detail will become public.”

“Let’s do it,” Romeo said. “I’ve got nothing to hide.” His smile at Scarlett was chilling. “What do you think, Mrs. Kidd? Shall we let it all hang out?”

To everyone’s shock, she smiled back. “It’s funny you should ask.”

She put the pink satchel on the table and took out a pair of thick, spiral-bound notebooks. Each one looked to have other papers stuffed between the pages at intervals, and both were obviously worn, as if they were written full. “I’ve been writing my memoirs,” Scarlett said.

Everybody looked shocked, no one more so than her lawyers. “Oo, wicked,” the actress/model said. “Can I see?”

“Eventually, maybe,” Scarlett said. “That’s all up to Romeo.”

“Trust me, honey, you don’t need to see,” Romeo said. “I can tell you right now everything she wrote.” He leaned back in his chair and laced his hands. “’My daddy is a saint; my brother is a genius; my husband is an asshole,’” he said in a cruel but accurate parody of Scarlett’s voice. “’And I don’t remember Mama.’”

They were glaring at one another with the kind of heat that had made millions at the box office, but again, Scarlett smiled. “You might be surprised.”

“Wait, I’m confused,” Romeo’s lawyer said, addressing her counterpart, not either client. “Is this some kind of blackmail? He gives her whatever she wants, or she publishes some kind of trashy tell-all about both of them?”

“Sort of, but not exactly,” Scarlett said. “And don’t blame poor Alex, he knew nothing about it.” She was still looking at no one but Romeo. “No one has seen what I’ve written but me. There aren’t any other copies; it’s all written in longhand except for the clippings.”

“So when did you write all this?” Romeo said. She had his attention; he was leaning forward again.

“The past couple of weeks,” she said. “I went to Mexico.”

This seemed to mean something to him; a flicker of shock crossed his face. He watched her for another few seconds, a poker player gauging a bluff. Then he leaned back with a smile. “I think you should publish it, sweetheart,” he said. “I’ll read it when it comes out.”

“Hang on,” his lawyer said. “You can’t just publish a book like this without letting Romeo read it first. We would have to insist on first approval for the entire manuscript.”

Scarlett’s lawyer laughed. “Dream on.”

“I don’t have a problem with that,” Scarlett said. “Well, not a big problem. How about this?” She pushed the top notebook across the table toward Romeo. “Take the first half. It’s got most of the stuff your lawyers are going to freak out about anyway, I think. Read it, sweetheart.” The southern accent she’d inherited from her mother came out in the word, or maybe she was imitating him. “If when you’re finished, you still don’t give a crap, fine. I’ll publish, and we’ll take it all to court. Like you said, we’ll let it all hang out. But if you want to read the second half, you’ll have to give me the beach house.”

Romeo’s smile was impossible to read. “You were right,” he said. “You don’t need Ranhosky at all.”

“So what do you think, my baby?” she said. “You always said I never told you anything. Want to see how truthful I can be?”

“Oh come on,” the actress/model said. “You know you have to do it.”

Romeo laughed. “She’s right,” he said. “I guess I have to read.”

 

Scandalous Sherlock Holmes

small-butterflyMy baby sister, Alexandra Christian, and I are both big Sherlock Holmes fans in almost every incarnation, and bless our hearts, we do write romance. So last year as a lark we challenged one another to each write a Victorian romance with a hero that was both romantic and a reasonably authentic version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective. My offering was the story excerpted here, The Butterfly. (To read Lexie’s take, check out the excellent novella, Chasing the Dragon.)  Both stories are free to download through Saturday, February 16, 2017:

The glass-domed greenhouse stretched the entire width of the house and extended deeply into the patch of garden behind it. The late Lord Northrup, whose fortune had been greatly enlarged over two decades in India, had kept his own private jungle in the center of London. It was reported to have been his favorite room in the house, and he had died here, sprawled in an embarrassing attitude across a wicker chaise. The butler now led Holmes past the same spot which was now bare of furniture.

Lady Northrup was in a far corner near the glass wall. Her mourning costume had been augmented with a straw sun hat and a pair of gardening gloves. “Good morning, Mr. Holmes,” she said without turning around as she tended some large, rather ferocious-looking plant. “If your intent was to surprise me, you’ve succeeded.”

“No doubt you find it surprising that I would dare show my face here,” Holmes said, feeling uncomfortably like a small boy caught being naughty.

“Not at all.” She turned around with her hands full of colorful flowers. “I imagine you would dare anything.” She handed these to the butler. “Thank you, Mr. Poag.” Giving Holmes one last glare, the butler took his blossoms and left. “But I never dreamed you would come here to apologize.”

“It seemed appropriate.” After their last visit, Watson had declared Lady Northrup to be “quite striking.” Holmes was not the connoisseur of female beauty his friend was, but he couldn’t pretend the woman was unattractive. “Thank you for seeing me.”

“I could hardly resist.” She took off the hat and gloves. “Pray commence, sir.” She was almost smiling. “Apologize.”

“Of course.” He clasped his hands behind his back. “I deeply regret any embarrassment to yourself caused by my investigation of your husband’s death.”

“Embarrassment?” She walked past him, headed toward the rest of the house. “Is that what you’d call it?”

“Perhaps rather more than that.” He followed her. “Though in my defense, I must protest that I never once said you were a can-can dancer.” She led him out of the solarium into a cozy parlor with a grand piano and several overstuffed chairs. In contrast to what he’d seen of the rest of the house, these furnishings looked brand new. “I merely reported that you were a member of the ensemble at an establishment in Paris where the can-can is performed.”

“Was performed, Mr. Holmes.” She took one of the chairs and pointed him to another. “The nightclub has long since closed.” Tea had been laid on the table between them. “And I was not a member of the ensemble.” She poured a cup and smiled. “I was the star.” She held up the cup. “Cream and sugar?”

“Neither, thank you.” He took the tea and sipped, an act of faith, considering he had recently implied she might be a poisoner.

“You’re quite welcome.” She put sugar and cream in her own cup. “And your apology is accepted. I’m sure you only did what you felt was right.”

“I was engaged within the compass of my profession.” He would have turned the case down, but for some reason his brother, Mycroft, had insisted he take it. “And you must allow that the circumstances of your husband’s death bore investigation.”

“A man well past the prime of life in less-than-perfect health with a known fondness for tobacco, alcohol, and other indulgences drops dead with his trousers unbuttoned in the presence of a half-dressed upstairs maid,” she said, stirring her tea. “Yes, Mr. Holmes, very mysterious.”

“A maid who seemed to vanish into thin air immediately after making her report to the police,” Holmes pointed out.

“Indeed,” she said. “Are you certain I didn’t kill her, too?”

“Quite certain,” Holmes said. “I spoke to the young lady four days ago at her mother’s home in Brighton.”

“Oh, you found her.” Her tone and manner were calm, but he saw fury in her eyes. “I wonder that the papers didn’t mention it.”

“The papers weren’t told,” he said. “I saw no need to disrupt the poor creature’s life any further. She’s been through quite an ordeal already.”

“Indeed.” Her teacup rattled on the saucer. “How very chivalrous of you.”

“Lady Northrup, I had no idea your late husband’s nephew would go to the papers with my report.”

“Didn’t you?” she said, setting down her cup. “I thought you were meant to be clever. Having failed to deprive my son of his inheritance by sending me to the gallows, any fool could see his only recourse was to have me publicly declared a slut.”

“Lady Northrup—“

“By the time those papers went to press last night, he had already engaged his lawyers to enter a suit to declare my son, Sebastian illegitimate based on my—how do the documents phrase it?—my well-known history of lewd and immoral behavior.’ And with the help and faith of more fine, intelligent men like yourself, he’ll win his case.”

“Lady Northrup, I assure you—“

“You have made your apology, Mr. Holmes,” she cut him off as she stood up. “Your conscience is clear. And I have taxed my lowborn understanding of good manners to the utmost by not bouncing you out my front door on your arse. So really, we have nothing left to say to one another. I think it must be time for you to go.”

“Peter Northrup is the lowest form of weasel,” Holmes said. “I told him as much to his face the first day he came to see me. I only agreed to take the case to prove how petty and ridiculous it was. If you had shown the slightest genuine regret at the loss of your husband—“

“Dear god, man, why should I regret it?” she demanded. “He made my life a living hell for eleven years and died forcing his attentions on my maid.” She seemed to remember herself and sat back down. “No, Mr. Holmes, I do not grieve for my husband. I grieve for my son who will have no father. But for my husband, no.” She smiled slightly. “But that doesn’t mean I killed him.”

“When you and I first spoke, I knew very little of the circumstances of your husband’s death,” Holmes said.

“Only what Peter had told you.”

“Yes.” He felt a most uncomfortable heat on his face. “I do not like to think his prejudice against you influenced my perceptions.”

“I dare say it was my fault entirely,” she said. “I knew only too well what Peter must have told you. I could have easily played the grieving widow to perfection. I am a very accomplished actress—or at least I used to be.” She picked up her teacup again. “Would you be flattered to hear your reputation frightened me? That I was afraid you would see through my performance?”

“Flattered, yes, perhaps,” he said with a small smile of his own. “But not convinced.”

She laughed, a brief, musical lilt. “I was furious, Mr. Holmes, at my husband’s nephew and at you. How dare you come into my home and accuse me when I had suffered so much?”

Holmes found this much easier to believe. She looked like the sort of woman accustomed to fits of fury far beyond her own self-interest. “Rather a rotten husband, then?” he said, sipping his tea.

“Rather,” she drawled, mocking his diction. “He was a wealthy, titled Englishman. I was an Irish-born actress. Can you not picture our courtship?”

“Dr. Watson said it must have been quite romantic,” Holmes said.

“Dr. Watson was mistaken,” she said. “Bless him.” She set down her teacup and looked away as if she couldn’t decide what she should tell him. “Ours was very much a business arrangement. He gave me security of a kind, a name and a home for as long as I could play the part. It was quite understood that he would divorce me the moment anyone discovered my true identity. But no doubt you know that already.”

“Yes,” he said. “There were papers to that effect in the safe. I considered that your most likely motive for murdering him.”

“As well you might,” she said. “But before you exposed me, I played the role to perfection. Did you find anyone in England besides Richard’s solicitor who knew?”

“No one,” he admitted. “Even the nephew was fooled until the solicitor told him. So what did your husband receive in this contract, if I may ask?”

“You just have asked,” she said, laughing. “Why aren’t I surprised?”

“Your charms would certainly seem to be sufficient compensation for most men,” Holmes said. “But he was, as you say, giving chase to the chambermaids.”

“Perfectly expressed, Mr. Holmes,” she said. “The chase was the attraction for Richard, always. He married me because he couldn’t have me any other way. And in Paris, he had to have me.” He followed her gaze to a colorful painting hanging over the fireplace, a poster in the new French style depicting a woman in a striking black and blue gown. “I was La Papillon,” she said. “The Butterfly. The prize. Every man in Paris wanted to possess me.” She smiled her fragile smile again. “But no doubt you are immune to such attractions.”

“Generally speaking,” he said. “Though in your case, I believe I understand.”

“Why, Mr. Holmes,” she said. “You take my breath away.”

“I said I understand the disease, Lady Northrup,” he said. “I never said I was afflicted.” Watson had often accused him of willful cruelty, but that was almost never true. He rarely meant to wound anyone with his remarks; he simply had no tact. But something about this woman made him want to cut past her arrogant façade and lay her bare.

She obliged his base desire to hurt her by gasping slightly in shock, her eyes widening. Then she smiled. “Indeed,” she said. “So tell me, Mr. Holmes. Why have you decided I didn’t kill my husband after all?”

“Because I can determine no method nor opportunity by which you might have done so,” he said. “Your husband died suddenly while undertaking strenuous physical activity, though not of a nature unusual or outside his accustomed routine.”

“No,” she said. “Richard was always active.”

“The maid who was with him at the time testified that he exhibited only a brief period of distress during which his left arm appeared to stiffen and give him pain and his face first flushed then turned pale. She has not wavered in this account of his passing except to add, after my questioning, certain other details inappropriate for polite conversation that are also consistent with the sudden, violent onset of heart failure or stroke.”

“He lost control of his bowels but maintained an impressive erection,” Lady Northrup said. “You forget, Mr. Holmes, the butler and I were the first assistance the poor girl summoned to the scene.”

“Quite so,” Holmes said. “Marked dilation of the right pupil observed postmortem by Dr. Watson also indicated a strong possibility of stroke.”

“Then why suspect me at all?” she said.

“Mr. Northrup’s certainty of your guilt combined with your own apparent resignation to if not pleasure at your husband’s death made my suspicion inescapable,” he said. “No detective worthy of the name could have failed to investigate.”

“Oh yes, I forgot,” she said. “It was my fault. So what was your theory of the crime? How did you imagine I had done it?”

“As you were not present at the time of death, poison seemed the most likely method,” he said. He rather enjoyed talking it over with her this way; her lack of histrionics in the face of his deductions was far more charming to him than her looks. “Though until I spoke to the maid myself, I couldn’t rule out the possibility that she had lied to the police and was in fact your accomplice.”

“How relieved she must have been to hear you’d changed your mind,” she said, finishing her tea. “So why don’t you still think I poisoned him?”

“I consulted many sources within my own library and at the medical college and corresponded with several experts and determined that there is no poison available in London that could have produced precisely such a death,” he said. “Certain toxins injected directly into the bloodstream via syringe might conceivably produce similar symptoms, but they would have had to have been administered by someone in Lord Northrup’s presence when he was struck. You were upstairs in your dressing room with two other maids and Peter Northrup’s wife. More to the point, no needle marks were found on the body, only bug bites. Your husband’s valet testified that these were received on a hunting expedition the week before.

“Are they so different?” she said. “Bug bites and needle marks?”

“Chalk and cheese, Lady Northrup,” he said. “Or so Dr. Watson assures me.”

“So my husband died of a stroke.”

“Your husband died of a stroke.” Regret was not a luxury he allowed himself often, but sitting across the tea table from her now and remembering the boy he had met in the hall, he could hardly avoid it. “And I have done you harm.”

“I’ve lived through worse,” she said. “Though if you wanted to make amends, there is something you could do for me.”

He instantly regretted his regret. “Indeed?”

“I would very much like to go to the theatre this evening. The new Gilbert and Sullivan is opening at the Savoy, and my late husband and I have a box. Under the circumstances, I can hardly attend on my own.” She paused as if waiting for him to make a helpful suggestion, but he would sooner have taken a bite from his teacup, chewed it up and swallowed it. “As my current situation as a social pariah is at least partially your fault, would you be so kind as to accompany me?”

“Certainly not,” he said. “I do not care for the theatre, particularly the works of Gilbert and Sullivan.”

“My dear Mr. Holmes,” she said, laughing. “What you do or do not care for is entirely beside the point.” Her lovely smile was rather frightening. “I care for the theatre very much. And you owe me.”

He could have brushed off this challenge like a butterfly from his sleeve, but he found he didn’t want to. “So it’s to be torture, then?” he said, returning her smile.

“So it seems.” Her color was high and quite fetching in spite of her mourning gown. “Are you man enough to bear it?”

“We shall see.” He stood up. “Until this evening, Lady Northrup.”

She laughed. “Call for me at seven, Mr. Holmes,” she said. “I refuse to turn up late.”

Repairing the Perfect Beast

small-annabelThree more days of freebies over at Little Red Hen Romance, including Miss Annabel Lee and the Clockwork Wolf, the first chapter in our steampunk series. Wanna taste?

As soon as she knew they were gone, Annabel went down to the cellar. She dragged the old milk cans out of the corner, swept back the carefully strewn layer of dirt, opened the heavy trap door underneath, and took out a carpetbag she hadn’t touched since the day she arrived in Persistence.

She carried it back up to the bedroom where the Dragonfly was sleeping. “Let’s hope you’re worth it,” she muttered, setting it down. She squatted beside it and pressed a thumb to either side of the lock. “Annabel Lee MacGuffin,” she said in a clear, flat tone. “Blackwood Corporation ID number four-nine-seven-dash-three.” With a whirring of gears and a stench of burning gas, the carpetbag snapped open.

She took out her goggles (still partially charged, thank heavens), her rubber apron, and her tool/first aid kit. She tied on the apron and put the goggles on her forehead, then unrolled the kit on the bedside table. Back in the lab, she would have sprayed her hands with disinfectant and put on thin rubber gloves. Here on the Prairie, she made do with washing up with house soap then rinsing with vodka.

She pulled the goggles into place and pulled back the sheet from her patient. He was in a near-perfect state of stasis, the only movement his eyes twitching under his eyelids as if he might be dreaming. She clicked on the infrared sensor on her goggles, and he seemed to explode into fiery red light—he was burning up. “Are you malfunctioning?” she asked softly. “Or are you some kind of new model?” Whatever he was, he was beautiful. Dragonflies were always strong, but this one looked like he’d been carved from marble by a Renaissance master; every muscle and limb was in perfect proportion. And unlike most of the soldiers she’d seen in the course of her escape, he had a handsome face, too, with high cheekbones and a strong jaw under the short-cropped beard.

She ran her fingertips down his torso until she felt the thrum of his control pack under the skin just above his navel. He carried it lower than normal; most were installed just under the heart. And unlike the early models she had helped design, he apparently had no zipper access that she could find. “Sorry, soldier,” she said, taking out her scalpel. “I promise to sew you up pretty.”

As soon as the point of the scalpel touched his skin, the power pack underneath started to glow. An entire network spread out from it in lines along his neural network—a new security feature, no doubt. She withdrew the scalpel, but the glowing didn’t stop; in fact, it seemed to intensify, and his whole body began to twitch. Swearing an oath and thinking a prayer, she repeated her Blackwood security code, “Annabel Lee MacGuffin, Blackwood Corporation ID number four-nine-seven-dash-three.” The glowing immediately subsided. “Lovely,” she muttered, going back to work. “Just grand.”

The main control pack module looked mostly familiar but was twice the size of the ones she was used to, and a secondary unit like nothing she had ever seen before was mounted above it. Still, she was pretty sure his recovery protocols would be the same. If he was stable, she should be able to repair each of his systems one by one and accelerate the natural healing process at least enough to wake him up. With a tiny screwdriver, she opened up the brass plate on the main power plant and saw that yes, he was in an artificial stasis probably triggered by the impact of the crash. The miniscule crystal over his vitals gauge was cracked, but the readings were surprisingly good. The doc had been quite wrong; once his stasis was broken, his kidneys should function perfectly along with the rest of his organs. “How is that possible?” she mused aloud as she plucked out the broken crystal with tweezers. “At least some of you ought to be jelly.”

She replaced the crystal with a new one from her kit, and when she withdrew the tweezers, the very tip tapped the edge of the secondary control unit. The man spasmed all over, and the vitals gauge leapt up. She pulled her goggles back down and saw parts of him had gone even hotter—his brain, his heart, and his sex organs. “That can’t be good.” As she watched, the heat level started to fall, and the gauge dropped back to healthy stasis levels. But as it was falling, she noticed something else. A deep, nasty gash in his shoulder had started to knit itself closed.

“They didn’t,” she breathed. “They couldn’t have.” Her former mentor, Horace Blackwood, had worked for decades on a way to make his supersoldiers self-healing, but he had never cracked it. How could the apes in the military have found the answer in four short years?

She switched off the infrared sensor on her goggles and engaged the second level of magnification. The secondary unit seemed to have its own stasis failsafe attached to the man’s central nervous system. But while the primary unit had two settings, on and off, this one seemed to have at least six. The control cog was so tiny and so delicately calibrated, she could barely read it even with the goggles. Stranger still, these controls seemed to be entirely disconnected from the others; if she meant to wake him up, she’d have to turn on both.

“Secondary unit calibration test,” she said, forgetting she wasn’t in the lab being filmed. “Level one.” With one of the tiny instruments from her kit, she turned the cog up a notch. She noted a slight rise in body temperature and an increase in the REM sleep twitching, but his wounds remained unchanged. “Level two.” More heat, more twitching, and superficial skin wounds began to heal. “Level three.” The man went rigid, and she heard a rippling, crackling sound—his bones were actually healing. “I can’t believe it.” She checked the vitals gauge on the primary unit. His organs and functions all seemed to be fine; in fact, they seemed stronger.

“Level four.” She turned up the cog one more time. The man began to twitch more violently, fingers flexing, and a low moan, almost a growl, came from his throat. His jawline began to change, growing longer and thinner, and his brow began to protrude. His fingers and toes grew longer and started to curl.

“Level three,” she repeated, her scientist’s nerve kicking in, keeping her calm. As soon as she turned the cog back, the twitching stopped, and his bone structure returned to normal. “Oh good.” She ran a hand down the arm that had been shattered before and found it whole. The crackling had slowed down; his skeleton must be almost healed. “Good for you.” With rest, he would be as good as new. “Werewolf DNA,” she said, trying not to notice the tremor in her voice. “That explains it.” Some of the military consultants even back in her own day in the City had suggested splicing werewolf DNA into soldiers, but Blackwood had always refused to consider it—this issue had been one of the sticking points that had led to his downfall within the government. Apparently with him and his team out of the way, the apes had pressed on.

She set the timers on both units to keep the man in stasis another eight hours. “A good night’s sleep will fix you right up,” she said, replacing the brass cover and screwing it back into place. She pulled the edges of the incision gently closed, and before she could reach for her needle and silk, it had already started to seal itself back up. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

 

Big Girls Love Fairy Tales, Too

winter-night-cover3Another Little Red Hen excerpt, this one from the contemporary fairy tale novel, The Last Winter Knight, free to download this week only:

The bedroom door opened on a long upstairs gallery that looked down on the entryway she’d seen when he carried her in. All of the gas lamps were lit, giving all the dark woodwork a cozy glow. The smell of something baking was coming from downstairs, and in the distance she was sure she could hear a woman singing. Closing the bedroom door behind her, she padded downstairs, the worn carpet runner soft and warm under her bare feet.

An archway down the hall from the library she had seen before led to a dining room. The windows were shuttered, and none of the lamps were lit. All of the furniture was covered with white dust cloths, even the chandelier over the long dining table and a huge, framed something hanging over the massive fireplace. But the swinging door to the kitchen was propped open, and she could see light beyond it. The singing and the smell were coming from there.

“Hello?” She passed through a narrow butcher’s pantry lined with glass-front cabinets full of china tucked away in quilted bags. “I don’t want to startle anyone.”

The singing stopped. “Not to worry, dear.” A white-haired woman in a black dress and a white apron was working at a long, wooden table in a kitchen straight out of a BBC country house drama. “You didn’t.” She was kneading a lump of pale brown dough. “Good morning.”

“Good morning.” The woman didn’t seem the least bit surprised to see her. “I’m Christabel.”

“Oh yes, dear, I know.” She sliced the dough into two lumps. “Bernard told me last night. I’m so glad to see you up and around.” Her accent was less obviously English than Bernard’s, but she was definitely not local. “I’m the housekeeper. Mrs. Sealy.” She finished shaping the second loaf and dropped it into a pan. “Can I get you some breakfast?”

“I can get it,” Christabel said. “I don’t want to be any trouble.” She was acutely aware of being naked under Bernard’s robe. Did Mrs. Sealy serve a lot of girls breakfast? she wondered.

“Don’t be silly. It’s no trouble.” She wiped her hands on a towel. “I just took a pan of cinnamon rolls out of the oven. Or we have chocolate croissants, if you’d rather.”

“They both smell amazing.”

“Sit yourself down. I’ll get you one of each.” She pulled a china plate down from a cupboard “And a glass of milk?”

“That sounds perfect.” She sat down at the table, the robe closed over her knees. The housekeeper set a plate of pastries in front of her and poured a tall glass of milk from a clay pitcher still beaded with moisture from the icebox. “Bernard is still asleep, I think.”

“I’m not the least bit surprised.” She set down the milk with a smile. “He’s always been a slugabed since he was a boy.” It was obvious from her tone that she was very fond of him. “Eat, dear, eat. You must be starving.”

She picked up the delicate croissant and took a bite. “Oh my god…” She thought she might be about to orgasm again. “That is so good.”

“Oh good,” Mrs. Sealy said, smiling as Christabel ate. “Did they come out all right? I was worried.”

“Trust me.” She took a big gulp of milk. “I don’t think I’ve ever had anything that good.” She was gobbling, she realized; the croissant was almost gone, and she had crumbs all down her front.

“Aren’t you sweet?” the housekeeper said, obviously pleased. “Try the cinnamon rolls. It’s a new recipe, and I’m afraid they won’t be fit to eat.”

Christabel took a bite. “Perfect,” she promised around a mouth full of sticky, spicy bliss. A sense of almost perfect well-being had come over her as she ate. A few moments ago she had felt embarrassed to be dressed in a robe; now she could easily contemplate dropping the robe and devouring the rest of the goodies naked.

“I’m so glad you’re enjoying them,” Mrs. Sealy said, setting the full plate of each within her reach. “You poor dear…Bernard said it was a terrible accident.”

“The car blew up,” Christabel said, still eating. Usually her tolerance for sweets was pretty low, but she could have eaten these all day. “If Bernard hadn’t been there…” She shuddered, remembering the smell of gas and the heat of the flames as he carried her away. And there was something else, something she had forgotten…she had dreamed about it…something horrible.

“Don’t think about it, dear.” The housekeeper was refilling her glass. “He was there. That’s all that matters.”

“Yes.” She took another bite of cinnamon roll, and the weird sense of foreboding faded away.

“What on earth were you doing in these mountains on your own in the middle of a blizzard?”

“I was lost.” She felt as if she could tell this woman anything. “I was supposed to be going to a spa. I had an appointment.”

Suddenly a door slammed open above them, and footsteps came thundering down the stairs. She turned to look just as Bernard came racing in, wearing nothing but a bedsheet.

And All That Jazz

small-lets-misbehaveFree this week with everything else in the LRH catalog, here’s an excerpt from Let’s Misbehave, the Little Red Hen take on the veddy British, roaring ’20s world of P.G. Wodehouse:

“Thanks, Hennessey,” she said, taking the phone. “Hello? This is Stella Hart.”

“Finally,” a voice that was all too familiar boomed over the line. “You okay, doll? It sounds like they’ve got you locked in an ivory tower. I’ve been trying to reach you all night!”

She slammed the phone down once, then three more times as if to break the connection for all eternity. George came out into the hall as she was putting the receiver down on the table, leaving it off the hook.

“Okay, Mugsy, where’d you hide the loot?” he teased.

“What?” She was too panicked to understand the joke.

“You’re behaving like a cat burglar who double-crossed her partners and absconded with the jewels.” He took her hand. “The jig’s up, kiddo.” For once his crooked smile made her want to cry. “Tell me what’s wrong.”

“You’re closer than you think.” She had promised herself and poor Bertie that she wouldn’t breathe a word of this to anyone in England, but she had no choice. “You know all that money Lord Carraway thinks movie people make? It’s not quite so.”

“Darling, if you need money—“

“No, no, not me,” she said, smiling as she squeezed his hand. “Bertie’s last picture cost the lost treasures of Egypt to make. And he wasn’t as discerning as he might have been in how he got it. He borrowed money from what he called a consortium of interested businessmen in New York to finish it, promising to pay them back when the picture was released.”

“What’s all this got to do with you?” George asked, frowning.

“The picture is a big success, but Bertie paid all the people who worked on it first,” she said. “Then he sort of . . . well, he spent a bundle on a leading man and a director for his next project.”

“Oh good lord . . .”

“He’ll definitely pay them back; he always does. But he’s taking a little longer than they were expecting, particularly with the picture doing so well.”

“Longer than he promised, you mean.”

“Yes, that.” She was in no fit state to explain away her stepfather’s faults the way she usually would have, not to George. She could never lie to George. “The leader of this . . .”

“Consortium?”

“Yes. He sent his son, Anthony, to Los Angeles to speak to Bertie about it, and Bertie asked me to . . . well . . . to distract him.”

“He did not!”

“Nothing awful!” she said, drawing him further from the dining room before he put the whole house in an uproar. “I just happened to run into the two of them at the Coconut Grove, and Bertie introduced us. I danced with Tony once or twice, and we drank some champagne. It was all perfectly innocent, really.” She hated the way George was looking at her, so sympathetic and horrified all at the same time. “But Tony apparently made more of it than I realized. He’s gotten sort of attached.”

George raised an eyebrow. “Attached?”

“He’s driving me crazy,” she confessed. “He sends me presents; he calls me night and day. The day I finally threw in the towel and ran, he had hired an entire string quartet to come to the set where I was working and play ‘Come to Me, My Melancholy Baby’ until I agreed to go out with him again.”

George laughed, the swine. “Sounds like the poor devil’s got it bad, sausage,” he said. “You should let him off the hook. Just tell him you’re not interested.”

“I can’t,” she said. “If I brush him off, he’ll remember about the money, and he might break poor Bertie’s knees or something.”

“Well, you can’t continue scurrying around the globe this way,” he said. “It’s round; you’ll eventually catch him up.” As he said this, she watched with horror as Hennessey came out, realized the phone was off the hook, and picked up the receiver.

“Hennessey, no!” she cried as he replaced it. Within mere seconds, it rang.

“Shush,” George said, pushing her gently aside to answer it. “Barrington Hall. George Barrington speaking.” She could hear Tony’s booming baritone, but she couldn’t make out what he was saying. “Yes, Mr. Bartinelli, I’ve just been hearing all about you from our little Stella.” She grabbed his arm and gazed up at him with pleading eyes. “She tells me you’re quite a chap, and she’s quite taken with you.” He put his hand over hers and patted, giving her a nod that said he’d take care of everything. “Problem is, she’s my fiancée.”

“George!” she gasped.

“Yes, I knew it would be something of a shock,” George said, putting his hand over her mouth. “That scamp—I should have known better than to let her loose in California without me.” She heard Tony say something even more loudly than usual. “Yes, a good spanking is probably exactly what she needs. But what can I do, Mr. Bartinelli? I adore her.” A short pause. “Yes, I thought you’d understand.” Another pause. “Yes, it’s been in the works for years. Her stepfather is my uncle, you see.” Pause. “No, not that one—the other one, Lord Barrington.” Pause. “Too bad, yes. That would solve a great many problems, wouldn’t it?” Longer pause, and George frowned. “Now see here, Mr. Bartinelli, I hardly think . . .” Then he laughed. “Yes, I suppose I do understand. I’m just glad you’re taking it so well. She wasn’t too terribly naughty, was she? . . . Oh good, good, glad to hear it. . . . . No, no, not at all. . . . . That sounds fine. Good-bye.”

He hung up the phone. “I can’t believe it,” Stella said. “You darling madman . . . I can’t believe you told him we were engaged.”

“Inspiration of the desperate man and all that.” He looked a little pale. “And he believed it, by the way. Said it made perfect sense.”

“Well, what else could he say?” She felt as if a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders. “George, I swear I could kiss you.”

“Good,” he said, his voice rather hollow. “You’ll need the practice.”

“What do you mean?” she said.

“You’ll have to make a good show of it, sausage,” he answered with a sickly grin. “He’s on his way here.”

“What?”

“He wants to be certain you’re happy with our engagement.”

“Oh for pity’s sake!”

“He’s only looking out for you, sausage. I think he really is quite smitten.”

“That’s very sweet, but dear heavens!” Could things get any worse? “Did you tell him we would just wait around here until his boat arrives?”

“Oh, his boat arrived this morning, half an hour after yours did.” She clutched his arm, too shocked to speak. “He’s at the post office,” he said. “He’ll be here in ten minutes.”

“George, really,” Mavis said, coming out of the dining room. “This is intolerable. They’re about to serve dessert.” She looked back and forth between George and Stella, the two of them sort of clutching one another like orphans in a storm. “What the devil is going on?”

“Mavis, darling, thank heavens you’re here,” George said, letting go of Stella to go to her. “We’re going to have to play a little game.”

 

 

Furious Angels (Need Love, Too)

wetworkHe is her special angel . . . bless her heart. Wet Work, available free this week from Little Red Hen Romance:

Rosie woke up on a bed with a sombrero-shaped headboard. “Ay carimba.”

“You.” Matthias, the angel she remembered from her first night as a witch, was pacing over her. “It just had to be you.”

She sat up, all her joints still aching from the cold outside. “You recognize me?” The television was on, and a show about a pawn shop was playing—a weird choice for an angel.

“Of course I recognize you.” He was wearing the floppy overcoat she remembered, and his face was exactly the same. “I told you to be good.” A pair of men’s pants with the belt still attached was draped over the chair, and a pair of workboots with the socks stuffed inside was lined up in front of it. “I commanded you to stop using magic for good.”

“You commanded me?” She stood up, but he was still a head taller than she was. “I’ve got to pee.” If she could get out the bathroom window without him hearing, she’d at least have a head start.

“I wouldn’t if I were you.”

She opened the bathroom door and saw a naked dead man lying half in and half out of the tub. “Holy shit!”

“Be nice,” the angel said as she slammed the door. “In his condition, you’d look just as bad.” The corner of his mouth quirked. “Well, maybe not quite.”

“He’s dead!”

“Yeah.” He sounded the way she remembered him, too, dry and sarcastic. “That’s how I knew he wouldn’t get in the way.”

“You knew he was dead?” Suddenly the TV was creeping her out, and she grabbed the remote and switched it off. “How?”

“I’ve got connections.” As if on cue, there was a knock at the door, then another angel in another floppy overcoat walked straight through it without bothering to open it.

“Are you decent?” He was bulkier than Matthias with a full beard and mustache. “Well damn.” He grinned at Rosie. “Hello there.”

“Your guy’s in the tub,” Matthias said.

“You don’t say,” the other one said. “They are looking everywhere for you, by the way.” He grinned again. “Israel is so pissed.”

“He’s got the rest of eternity to get over it,” Matthias said. “You think maybe you could move this along? We could use a little privacy.”

“I’ll bet.” He was looking at Rosie again. “Should I plan to come back?”

“I’ll let you know.” Matthias was looking at her, too, but he wasn’t smiling. “I haven’t decided yet.”

“Don’t take too long. He’ll break the shield eventually.” He opened the bathroom door. “Hey buddy. How’s it hanging?” He went in, closing the door behind him, and she heard a muffled conversation. A few seconds later, the door opened, and the dead man and the angel came out. The man was now wearing boxer shorts and a tee-shirt. His color was better; in fact, he seemed to be glowing with health.

“Can I grab my pants?” he asked. He didn’t seem to notice Rosie or Matthias.

“Sure thing, bud,” the other angel said. “Whatever helps. But hustle, you’ve got an appointment.” The man seemed to pick up the pants and put them on, but they were still draped over the chair, too. The other angel gave Matthias a little salute then took his charge by the arm and led him straight through the door.

Rosie looked back in the bathroom. The corpse was still there. “So that was the angel of death?”

“One of them, yeah.” Matthias was lighting a cigarette with an old-fashioned silver lighter.

“So if he comes back, he’ll be coming after me.” He took a long drag and held it like he hadn’t had one in a while. “Because you’re going to kill me.”

He let out the smoke in a cloud. “That would be the protocol. From what I see, I should have done it the first time we met.”

“I’m glad you didn’t.” She knew a lot more now about the standard interaction between angels and witches than she had then, so much that fear dribbled down her spine like ice water. But she was sure she felt an attraction that wasn’t just her, an electricity between them dancing on her skin. The markings from her magic that looked like tattoos were tingling, reacting to his presence. If she could harness that energy and use it, she might still get out of this alive.

“Look at you,” he said, stubbing out the cigarette half-smoked. “You’re covered in Nephilim markings now. You must have done hundreds of spells.”

“Thousands, actually.” There was a spell she had learned but never used, ancient and dangerous. In her mind now, she recited the incantation.

“Black magic,” he said.

“Pretty black.” She’d spent less than an hour with him the night they’d met, and she’d been a scared, freaked out kid in the middle of a crisis. But she had never forgotten a single detail about the way he had looked or sounded. She’d never fallen in love with another human because no human could ever measure up.

“Lovely.” His scowl reminded her of how he’d looked standing over her mother and her stepfather’s bed, making her mom see the truth.

“Would it help if I said I was sorry?” She barely knew what she was saying; her mind was focused almost completely on the spell. But there was one word she had to speak aloud to make it work. “Would it help, Matthias?”

She felt the magic unfurling from her like petals, curling like tendrils of vapor, binding her to him like chains. He was walking around her, studying the markings. He touched her back with one fingertip, and she gasped. The spell was working on her, too. “How long have you had the wings?” he asked.

“Not long.” She had noticed the wing-shaped markings only the day before. She had stepped out of the shower in front of a full-length mirror in another fleabag motel, and there they were. They extended from the tops of her shoulders to the backs of her knees, and they’d shown up sometime after she’d taken possession of the artifact in her pocket now. “Are they special?” She trembled as he traced a line down her back.

“Like you don’t know.” He grabbed her by the shoulders and spun her around. “Nephilim,” he snarled, shoving her back against the wall.

“I don’t know anything,” she protested. “You didn’t tell me—“

“Do you think this is smart, Rosie?” His saying her name was as potent as her spell; her knees went weak. “Putting a love spell on an angel?” His face was so close to hers, she could feel his breath, and the fury in his eyes made her shiver. “We live forever, you know.”

“I know.”

“And we have all the same emotions as you and almost unlimited power.” He bent his head, his lips barely brushing her jaw as he spoke, and goose flesh broke out all over her. “And I am deeply, profoundly pissed.” His voice was almost a growl. “Does that sound like the perfect boyfriend?”

She looked up into his eyes. “Honestly?”

“Damn it, Rosie.”

Homicidal Lovers in Outer Space

small-geminiAlso available this week for absolutely no financial outlay whatsoever, my baby sister, Alexandra Christian’s amazing sci-fi romance, Gemini. Here’s an excerpt:

Xander sat straight up, gasping for air and startling Kaia.  She reached for him, but he thrashed violently and shoved her aside.  He was trying to move, but his limbs seemed to short-circuit. Kaia was reminded of a fish out of water as he desperately tried to get to his knees.  “Xander… just… calm down.  Let me help you,” she said, trying to grab hold of his arm.  Before she could touch him, he coughed and gagged until he was throwing up a bright white fluid.  It was the cryogenic chemical that they had pumped into his body ten years previous, holding him in this stasis.  She knew it was necessary, but it frightened her, and she turned away, weeping into her hands.  Surely it would kill him.  There was so much.  How could his body possibly repair itself after such trauma?

Finally he stilled, falling forward on the glassy floor and breathing heavily.  Kaia approached him carefully, not sure if she should touch him.  He still looked so frail.  His skin was so pale that it was almost blue, and his black hair hung in his face in wet, knotty tendrils.  His limbs were splayed awkwardly, almost as if he were broken.  “Xander?” she murmured. He didn’t answer, but he opened his eye, and a tear rolled down his cheek.  His pupil shrank in the light making his blue eye look like untouched ice.  “Do you know me?”  No recognition sparkled there, and Kaia felt her heart sink like a stone.  She reached for him, and this time he let her help him sit up.  His eyes never left her as she pushed his hair back from his brow and used the hem of her shirt to wipe at his mouth.  “It’s all right.  You’ll remember me in time.”  She hoped.  “Do you understand?” He raised a hand to her mouth as she spoke, feeling her lips as they formed the words.  Kaia smiled and grabbed his hand, placing it against her chest.  “Kaia,” she said. He didn’t speak, but she could see his lips moving as if trying to mimic her speech.  “I came here to help you.”  She smiled and stroked the back of his hand as if to reassure him. Slowly she stood up, letting him lean heavily against her.  Kaia prayed that he would remember how to use his feet.  There was no way she’d be able to carry him all the way to the small vessel that was docked on the other side of the prison.  After a few steps he seemed to get the hang of it, copying her movements as they made their way slowly down the corridor toward where the transporter waited for them.

“Hold on just a bit longer, love,” she soothed, holding him tight against her as the transporter carried them up to the docking bay. “Once we get on the ship you can rest.”  She tried not to think about the bodies of the guards that lay strewn at their feet all along the corridor leading to the ship.  It wasn’t that she was particularly disturbed by the carnage carried out by her own hand, but these men were innocents.  They had been doing their jobs, and she hadn’t relished having to dispose of them like vermin, but only Xander mattered.  Both of them, all of the Gemini in fact, had been trained as assassins, but the men they’d dealt with in the past were not “good men.”  They were enemies that brought destruction and death to innocents.  But no one is ever the villain of their own story.

The walk from the transporter to the landing dock was an eternity.  Xander could barely control his limbs, and they fell down several times.  At one point he’d begun to shake so violently that Kaia was afraid he’d pummel them both to death as they practically crawled onto the ship.  She took him immediately to the living quarters on board and helped him lie down across the bed.  Luckily, the ship she’d grabbed from the spaceport on Sirrine-10 was a small luxury vessel, fully equipped for a vacation in space.  Kaia had managed to knick it completely undetected from a poor maladjusted pop star fleeing from rehab.  The décor wasn’t much to her taste, but it had the most important things:  an interstellar system, food, and a bedroom.

Kaia sat down beside where he lay, breathing heavily after her exertions getting him this far.  In a moment she’d have to take off and comb the maps for a friendly planet far out of reach of the IU.  She wasn’t sure where they would go or if this craft would even get them there, but she couldn’t think of it that way.  She had to take this mission one step at a time, or she’d lose her mind completely.

“You mean you haven’t already?”

Kaia gasped as the cloudy recesses of her brain where Xander’s voice lived began to open up.  The wall that had resided there for so long was crumbling to dust as his body, mind and soul awakened.  “Xander?”

“Is there anyone else out there with whom you’ve formed a psychic bond?”

Kaia looked, and he was smiling weakly.  She began to laugh in spite of herself and threw her body against him.  “You do know me!  I… I thought perhaps you’d forgotten.  It’s been so long.”

“Of course not.  Your thoughts are much too loud to be forgotten.  But I do have questions.”

“Anything,” she choked, almost sobbing as she lay against his chest, reveling in the comforting rhythm of his breath.

“My body.  Why can’t I use my body?  And I can’t talk.”

“Shush now,” Kaia soothed, laying down by his side and cradling his head to her chest.  “Let your body rest.  You’ll be well soon enough.”  A blanket of relief settled around her as he nuzzled closer.  She took his hand in hers, raising it to a cool cheek.  He was getting warmer now, and she could feel a strengthening pulse in his wrist.  His mind went quiet, and his eyes closed, relaxing into her cradling arms.  They would lie there together until their bodies were once again synced.  Their heartbeats, the rhythm of their breath, the speed of the blood rushing through their veins would work in tandem until they were a united circuit through which their one soul could navigate.