Posted in Books, Fairy Tale Romance, Free Reads, historical romance, Medieval Romance, Paranormal romance, Witch Romance, Works-in-Progress

The Viking and the Witch – Chapter 1

viking and the witch serial coverSo here lately, most of what I’ve been writing and publishing has not been historical romance. But y’all know me; I can’t just give it up. So I’ve been working sporadically on an old school paranormal just for my own amusement, and it occurs to me that y’all might want to see it, too. All the cool kids I know have started serializing stuff on their blogs and elsewhere to bring in more traffic, and that seemed like a good idea, and a good fit for this story. I’m not promising anything, but I’m going to try to put up a new chapter at least every couple of weeks. It’s a work-in-progress; the finished, published product might turn out very different. So by all means, let me know what you think.

xoxo Lucy

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Chapter One

The late summer raids had gone well. Asmund and his brother, Hagen, had seized much spoil and lost only one man in a month of sailing up and down the British coasts. But now a sudden squall with high waves and deadly lightning seemed determined to kill them all. Asmund leaned all his weight against the tiller, willing the longboat to come about to face the waves head on.

“We must turn back!” Hagen shouted over the roar of the wind. “We must try to find the shore!”

“Help the others bail!” Asmund shouted back. If his little brother wouldn’t keep his peace, he’d kick him overboard, prince or not. The shoreline was the last thing he wanted to see now. The storm would break them like twigs against the rocks and suck them down to oblivion under the cliffs. All that could save them now was the open sea where the water was deep enough to absorb the force of this storm. Hagen was young; this was his first long voyage. He didn’t understand. But Asmund had no time now to educate him.

“Row, you dogs!” he shouted as another great swell rose before them. “Faster! Faster!” The rowers obeyed, leaning into their oars, some of them with eyes closed in prayer or concentration as they trusted him and the gods to steer them through the tempest. Even Hagen had fallen to his task, scooping water in a leather bucket with his back to the storm. Only Asmund saw the dragon’s head prow silhouetted by a flash of lightning against the solid black wall of the sea. “Row!” he roared, holding the tiller with all his strength, muscles screaming with pain. Only when he felt the wood begin to bend under his hands did he let the tiller go. The ship lurched forward, and the dragon’s head broke through a crown of foam, cresting the wave and gliding down the other side.

In the sky ahead, he could see light through the clouds, the soft white glow of the moon. The worst was behind them. They were almost free. The storm would have blown them off course. They would have to wait for the clouds to clear in the open sea and use the stars to guide them. But they would be safe. He put his hands back on the tiller and turned his back on his men for just a moment to look back the way they’d come.

Suddenly the ship lurched forward again as he felt something strike him hard from behind. Sharp, burning pain stabbed through him as he was struck again. Before he could turn, he was swept over the side. The sea rose up to swallow him, sucking him down into the dark. He fought his way to the surface, then dove deep again to dodge the great black shape of the ship. He heard Hagen screaming his name as he went under. Then one of the oars struck the back of his head, and he sank and knew no more.

‡‡‡‡‡‡

Last night’s storm had washed all kinds of debris into the narrow inlet that ran beside Maeve’s hut. Two of her traps had been completely destroyed. But the third was still intact and held a fat, silver salmon. She slapped the fish against a rock, killing it quickly. She scooped out the smaller fish and tiny crabs that had gotten caught in the trap and set them free, then wrapped the salmon in wet ferns and tucked it into the pouch at her waist. Then she waded back into the water. She had three more traps to empty, and the tide was rising fast.  After three months alone on this beach, she had learned its rhythms well.

Half-buried in the sand near the next trap, she found an oiled leather sack. Inside were some eggs, a skin of fresh goat’s milk, and a haunch of salted meat—supplies left for her by someone from her village. Maeve had been exiled by her own mother, the queen of their tribe. But not everyone had agreed with Queen Asha’s decision. Maeve was magic born; the Lady was not likely to smile on a people who left her to starve. A tiny scrap of sheepskin inside the pouch was marked with the symbol of a half-moon—Luna, the blacksmith’s wife. She closed the bundle and tucked the scrap into her pocket, making a note to say a special blessing for the kindly woman and her house.

The tide in the inlet had risen to her thighs and begun to show tiny breakers of foam by the time she emptied her last trap. She was just about to head back to her hut when she noticed the ravens. Half a dozen of the black birds were circling over the beach in the distance, and as she watched, two more joined the circle. Either some dark magic was afoot, or something on the beach was dying. Shouldering the bundle of her broken traps, she headed for the water’s edge.

When she saw the man lying facedown in the sand, she broke into a run. But when she saw him more closely, she almost wished she’d never noticed him at all. From his weapons and the thick bronze bracelet on his wrist, she knew he was a Viking. His kind came every summer to raid up and down this coast, burning villages, slaughtering men and boys, carrying off women and girls and whatever treasure they could find. Only her mother’s magic had kept their own village safe so long by hiding them behind a glamour that made it look deserted and burned out already.

This one’s ship must have gone down in the storm. His skin was deathly white, and he had a nasty wound in his back. His blood had soaked the sand underneath him and stained the ripples of the incoming tide. Surely he was almost dead already. She put down her traps and picked up a rock, whispering a prayer to the Lady for his spirit. One hard, swift blow to the back of his head, and his travels in this realm would end.

Then he moved. He let out an angry-sounding groan, and his hands clutched at the sand, digging deep as if he were trying to push himself up or crawl forward. Without thinking, Maeve dropped the rock and helped him, rolling him over on his back so he could breathe.

He moaned again in pain. He looked younger than she would have expected, smooth-skinned under his beard, and his brow was high and fine, the brow of a sorcerer or poet, not a brute. But he was huge and obviously strong. On his feet, he would have towered head and shoulders over any man she had ever known. Broken or not, he was dangerous. If he recovered, she had no doubt he would bring destruction. It was the Viking way.

But he is only one man, a voice seemed to whisper in her head. What can one man do? Viking warriors had come to her people before, the wounded or deserters or outcasts left behind when the longboats sailed away. Grateful for sanctuary, they had married into the tribe and had fathered children and taught the people enough of their customs and language to help them defend themselves. But this man was no deserter. If he survived, she didn’t think he would be content to be some village woman’s husband.

“Lady, you must decide,” she prayed aloud. She walked back to her hut at a pace neither hurried nor slow to fetch her little raft. If the Lady wished the Viking to survive, he would. If not, it was not for her to question. She floated the raft back down the inlet to the beach, half-expecting to find he had died. But he was still alive.

She rolled him onto the raft, ignoring his groans, and dragged it back to the inlet. Treading water, she floated it back toward her hut. His weight made the raft bob and list in the breakers, and she told herself that if he rolled off into the water, she would let him drown. But he didn’t.

She dragged the raft into her hut and rolled him off it beside her fire. “As you will, Lady,” she sighed, setting about the magic that could make him well.

‡‡‡‡‡‡

Asmund wandered barefoot through a snowy forest. The ice burned his feet, and the wind cut through him like a thousand knives. Tall, black trees rose all around him, and the mist was thick as blood. The long winter’s night had fallen, but he saw no stars to guide him and no shimmering rainbow from the northern lights. He was abandoned and alone.

After what felt like hours, he emerged from the trees onto a broad, flat plain of pure ice—a frozen lake. But in the distance, he could see the glow of fires. Steeling himself against the pain, he started across the ice, leaving bloody footprints with every step. He walked on and on for what felt like miles, but the far shore seemed no closer. When he looked back, he saw no sign of the forest he had left, only a long trail of his own gleaming, black blood.

He fell to his knees. “All-Father!” he shouted in fury and pain. “Why have you forsaken me?”

“He cannot hear you.” A woman stood before him. She was as tall as any man with smooth, brown skin and long, straight, honey-colored hair. Her brow was crowned with silver, and she wore a long, white robe. “You did not fall in combat, warrior,” she said. “Your god of battle knows you not.”

“Who are you?” he demanded. “What is this place?”

“You were betrayed, Asmund,” she said. “One who held your trust struck you down as you saved him and the others from the storm.” A warm breeze swirled around the strange goddess, and he smelled summer flowers. “By the laws of your gods, he has stolen not only your life but your honor.”

“Who?” he said. “Who has done this?”

She smiled and touched his cheek with a hand that was soft and blissfully warm. “That is not the comfort I have brought you,” she said. “Your only hope is to survive. You must return to the living and take vengeance on the traitor. That is the way of your gods.” She stepped back from him, and the cold winds captured him again, crueler than before. “If you do not, you will wander this wasteland forever.”

“Help me, lady!” he beseeched her as she backed away from him. “Let me live!”

“I have sent you help, Asmund.” Even her voice was fading. “But there will be a price.”

Posted in 1980s, Books, Free Reads

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.”

 

Posted in Books, Free Reads, historical romance, Lucy Blue Short Story, Sherlock Holmes, Short Story

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.”

Posted in Books, Fairy Tale Romance, Free Reads, Paranormal romance

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.

Posted in Books, Free Reads, Other People's Awesome, sci fi romance, Short Story

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.

 

Posted in Books, Free Reads

Little Hen Romance Is Alive!

And this weekend, all the books are free to read on your handy-dandy Kindle device. Wanna see what we’ve got? (Click the image to go to the Amazon page.)

dragon gold

Celtic witch Rowan is taken from her Saxon captors by the Romans and given as a spoil of war to Titus, a Roman general.He treats her tenderly, but she is determined to be free. But when Titus is surrounded by traitors, she has to decide. Should she take advantage of the confusion and escape or use her magic to save him? Possible trigger warning: Some of the sexual activity described is not what I’d call consensual. While it falls far short of rape, readers with a particular sensitivity in this area might find it upsetting.  Paranormal historical/fantasy.

playing hamlet

A conversation with sex. Nick and Tara were drama school sweethearts before Nick became an international sensation and every geek girl’s dream. Now he’s home in London to play Hamlet opposite Tara’s Ophelia. With the help of the bard and a bottle of wine, they might find out they broke up too soon. Contemporary.

 

voodoo heartDEA Special Agent Hank West is ready to testify against the meth ring he’s just broken and leave the backwoods of Georgia behind. But on a dark and stormy night in a tin roof shack in the middle of nowhere, an ancient goddess in disguise might make him change his mind. Contemporary.

the king's tutor

As the former mistress of Louis XIV, Catriona is uniquely qualified to assist the musketeers who mean to replace him on the throne with his twin, Phillipe. While the old soldiers teach him war and politics, Cat is meant to teach him the royal methods of seduction. But when she meets her pupil, she finds herself falling in love. Episode one in an on-going series, The Sun King, based loosely on The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas. Historical.

For more information about Little Red Hen, visit our website here: http://lucybluecastle.wix.com/littleredhenromance

Posted in Books, Current events, Free Reads, Lucy Blue Short Story, Other People's Awesome, Paranormal romance, Publishing, Short Story, Sneak peeks at the new stuff, Writing process

Because life is too short to read crap

the king's tutor coverLike more than 20 million other people, I read e-books on a Kindle, and my favorite genre is romance. A quick search on Amazon for romance titles this morning yielded me 365,065 options to choose from. I know from experience that there are treasures to be found all the way up and down the charts. But the vast majority of these 365,065 e-books calling themselves romances are total, unmitigated, stinky, slimy, sloppy crap. The Wild West world of e-publishing combined with a media that continually broadcasts romance as that world’s most popular and therefore most potentially profitable genre have shaken stuff out of the bushes that would make Grace Livingston Hill say “Fuck this noise” and switch to thrillers. Well-meaning amateurs who couldn’t write their way out of a wet paper sack with a box cutter and a blowtorch have unwittingly conspired with cynical assholes who say flat out they hate romance as they write the dumbass porno to prove it. Together they’ve created a digital Bog of Eternal Stench where readers who actually love the genre can only cling to the few writers they already know they can trust and pray for daylight—and better pricing.

Life is too short to read crap. That’s the idea that inspired Little Red Hen Romance, a smallest-of-the-small-time e-book publisher that I hope will give me and readers like me a better option. The plan is to publish at least four new romance short story titles every month starting on May 1. The stories will be absolutely free for their first week of release (and only available through Amazon) then 99 cents forever thereafter (and available from B&N and iTunes, too). If things go well, we’ll do longer anthologies and maybe even full-length books, but for now, we’re trying it out with the shorties, 3000-8000 words each. But short as they are, every story will be an actual romance by a criteria that might be entirely subjective to me but that I really think a lot of readers have been missing. When I started thinking about what I wanted and wasn’t getting from new romance, I came up with a list of three things:

1 – Sparkling dialogue: Nothing kills a love connection for me faster than dull, flat, lifeless talk, and what passes for romance these days even on the bestest of bestseller lists is full of it. Before I can care about people falling in love, I have to like them; I have to want to listen to them; I have to see the sparks fly between them. Not every story has to be a laugh-a-minute romantic rollick (though there will definitely be some of that, too), but I promise, the characters in the stories from Little Red Hen will be able to carry on a conversation before they start stripping off their clothes—and after.

 2 – Tender sensuality: I love me some smut. Explicit sexuality has been a hallmark (and some would say the major selling point) for romance since the 1970s, and as a reader, I want and expect it. And I’m not squeamish about the mechanics—twosomes, threesomes, up, down and sideways, with handcuffs or without; I’ve read books that rocked my world from all of these, books that I would definitely call romance. What set them apart was the attitude of the characters getting it on toward one another, their reasons for hopping in the sack (or the haystack or the space bunk or that big ol’ hot tub full of banana puddin’) in the first place. Not every character who has sex in a Little Red Hen book will be madly in love when they start, but they’ll at least be considering it by the time they finish. The person or persons they’re sexing will have value to them as people, and their physical actions toward them will reflect that. Nobody is going to get genuinely humiliated in a LRH book (and no monster will ever “turn anybody gay” because that’s the stupidest thing I ever heard of in my life, and I work at a law firm). We in the Hen House want to turn our readers on and make their toes curl but let them still feel clean and able to look their preacher in the eye afterwards.

 3 – Heart-melting romance: This one is the most important. It’s what’s most often missing from the books I hate, and I think it’s what embarrasses the haters most about romance, far more than any kind of sexual content ever could. If a story is going to be a romance by the genre definition (not the literary, which is a whole different thing involving a much wider range of happy endings), it has to be a love story; it has to be the series of events which leads the characters into (or deeper into) love. It doesn’t have to end in marriage or a marriage proposal or a declaration of eternal devotion. But it’s got to mean more than an orgasm, a contract, or the acquisition of a business partner to pay the household expenses. It’s about people touching soul to soul, something I believe in very strongly. Otherwise, for me, it’s not a romance. Every Little Red Hen story, whether it’s historical, contemporary, paranormal, steampunk, straight, LGBT, funny, dramatic, or just plain weird will be a love story by this definition.

For more information about the press or the individual titles coming up at our launch on May 1, please drop by the website at http://lucybluecastle.wix.com/littleredhenromance or come like us on Facebook. And by all means, come hang out at our Facebook launch party on Wednesday, April 29, at 8 pm EDT—yes, we’ll mention the books, and yes, there will be preview giveaway swag, but mostly it’ll be a bunch of romance lovers chatting and snarking and having fun, and we’d love to see you there: https://www.facebook.com/events/807514879343283/