Nocturnal Lives

Musings from the mind of Amanda S. Green – Mother, Writer, Possessed by Cats

Category: Snippets (Page 1 of 8)

Snippet: Vengeance from Ashes (expanded edition)

Good morning, everyone. I thought I’d give you a taste of the expanded edition of Vengeance from Ashes this morning. This is the first chapter. Those of you who have read the original version will see that nothing had changed, not in the grand scheme of things. However, there has been an expansion of the chapter to the tune of approximately 500 words.  As with all snippets, this is the pre-publication file. There may be a few spelling or punctuation errors that will be caught in final edits. I hope you enjoy!

Chapter One

“Prisoner Four One Niner Baker One-A, prepare for transfer,” a disembodied voice said from the overhead speaker.

Lips pulled back, teeth bared in an animalistic sneer, the prisoner sat up and swung her legs over the side of her bunk. As she stood, she turned away from the cell door. Her hands automatically went behind her head, fingers lacing. Almost without thought, she sank to her knees, legs spread, ankles crossed. Then, realizing what she had done, she cursed silently, hating herself and those responsible for bringing her to this state.

Two years. Two very long years in Hell had taught her how to act. Her body responded automatically to the commands barked at her. Only when she allowed her mind to surface, to let herself fully experience what was going on around her, did she hesitate. But not this time. There was no reason to disobey, no threat yet to meet.

Those years may have taught her all too painfully how to act, but they hadn’t broken her. Not yet at any rate. Even so, they had come close. Two years cut off from those she cared for, from almost all human contact. Stripped of even the most basic of human rights and dignity, she knew she was little more than an animal to break and tame to those in charge. She knew it just as she knew she could do nothing about it.

Just as she knew she’d been betrayed by the government she’d served and had been ready to die for.

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A Snippet and a Share

Just a quick post this morning. On the writing front, I finally have the opening of Light Magic figured out and the book is progressing nicely (fingers crossed). I should see the updated cover for the expanded edition of Vengeance from Ashes later today. I’ll share as soon as it’s in. This is also my day blogging at Victory Girls. Today’s post is about the latest Rasmussen poll, what it shows about how American voters now view Hillary Clinton and my thoughts about her latest book being released on the 5th anniversary of the attack on our Benghazi compound.

Light Magic has taken some twists and turns since I started visualizing it. The book I thought it would be will actually be the next on in the series. This one will introduce a new main character as well as bringing back some of the favorites from the other titles in the series. Here’s a very brief — and rough draft version — snippet.

Mossy Creek, Texas.

Nothing but a small dot on the map. Or, as I like to think of it, a pimple on the butt of an otherwise great state. So why was I returning to a place I last saw a lifetime ago? Because I gave my word and, while I might be a screw up where most everything else is concerned, I try to keep promises I make to people I care about. But this might prove to be too much, especially for someone like me.

One thing’s for sure. Neither Mossy Creek nor I will be ever be the same.

Now I’m off to write some more. Until later!

 

Murphy, go home!

Life is nothing if not interesting. Of course, when it’s interesting in the proverbial sense, I tend to wish for dull and boring. But it is getting there. I simply need to learn to listen to not only my muse — she is an evil bitch but she does seem to know when I need to switch gears and write something new — and to my gut. In this particular case, it would have let me sleep an extra hour this morning and not have to reschedule a trip to the mechanic. Oh well, I’m up if not fully functioning.

Oh, and the plumber is due later today. Hopefully, since this is just the annual check, he’ll find nothing wrong. Please let him find nothing wrong. We’ve already had one plumbing emergency this month. I don’t need any more.

On the writing front, things are rocking and rolling. I’ve set Nocturnal Rebellion aside for the rest of the week. I’ll pick it up Monday or Tuesday of next week, convert it for my Kindle Oasis, and give it one last read. Then the final file will be uploaded for publication. Remember, it is available for pre-order now. Publication date is August 15th.

I will admit, right now I feel like Mac does in the book. Of course, while she wishes for a simple, straight-forward murder to investigate (one without shifters or the government involved), I just want a week without complications.

I am also about halfway through the updates on Vengeance from Ashes. The expanded version doesn’t change the story line but it does expand on some scenes and there will be a few new scenes/chapters as well. I still love the original novel but this is sort of my version of the “director’s cut” of the book. I’m hoping you guys love the additional material as well.

Next up in that series will probably be a short story followed quickly by the next full-length novel. At least that’s what Myrtle the Evil Muse says. Lately, however, I’ve learned there is someone more evil than Myrtle and who has even more control over my writing than she does — Murphy.

And I tell you, whoever invited that Irish trickster and master of chaos into the country, much less to my house, needs to be hunted down and hung. I am so over Murphy right now. So, before he decides it’s time to get up and complicate my life any further, I’m out of here. However, here’s a little tease from Nocturnal Rebellion:

The man crawled slowly toward the bar, dragging himself inch by painful inch. He didn’t know what happened or why. One moment, everything had been normal. Drinking, smoking, whoring. Nothing out of the ordinary. Then the door opened. He’d looked up, as had others, and frowned to see four people he didn’t recognize. Few dared come to the bar without an invitation. Those few who did usually turned around and left before taking more than a step or two inside. That’s all it took to realize The Hellhound was the sort of biker bar outsiders weren’t welcome at.

And there was no way the four were bikers. Dressed all in black, they walked further inside, seemingly oblivious to the looks in their direction. Then they’d stopped. One of them pointed right and then left. Two others broke off, moving quicker and more silently than they should have been able to. As they did, the tension in the room ratcheted up a notch.

That’s when the surreal turned into nightmare. The fourth person, a woman, stepped up to one of the two tops. Before the biker he knew only as Ranger could react, her hand fisted in the man’s long hair. She pulled his head back, baring his throat. A knife appeared in her other hand. Its blade slid along Ranger’s neck. Blood sprayed and she released him, stepping back and watching as he crumpled to the floor. The fallen biker gurgled once, blood flecking his lips, before dying.

Now for more coffee and to get back to work on an editing gig before sitting down to do some more writing. Later!

Nocturnal Rebellion Snippet

Nocturnal Rebellion is now available for pre-order. It’s been a tough road getting it there. Between real life interfering and the story taking a few left turns on me — all good for the story but they threw me because they weren’t what I expected.  (I know, silly me. I ought to know by now that Myrtle the Evil Muse loves to torment me.

I’ve mentioned before how much I enjoy writing Mackenzie Santos. From the very first book, Nocturnal Origins, (currently on sale for $0.99) she’s been a character that challenged me. She’s a dedicated cop with a complicated relationship with her family, especially her mother. The family secret, one she’s not let in on until it’s too late, is why that relationship has been so strained over the years. Mac’s always known there are monsters out there. As a homicide detective, she deals with them on a daily basis. What she didn’t know until the day she died — and came back — was that not all the monsters were human, or “normals”. Now she suddenly turns furry and that’s one secret she has to protect because the world simply isn’t ready to know shapeshifters exist outside of bad Hollywood movies and literature.

Except life is never easy. Over the course of the series, Mac’s learned shifter politics are more complicated — and deadly — than anything she’s ever had to deal with. Now shapeshifters face rebellion within their kind. Complicating matters even more, they have to find a way to make their existence known to the normal world without causing a panic and a modern day version of the witch hunts. That’s the background against which Nocturnal Rebellion opens.

***

The bullpen fell silent as Chief of Detectives, Luis Santiago, moved to the front of the room. The look on his face mirrored how they each felt. Disbelief, sorrow and anger – but mostly anger – burned in his dark eyes. They knew why he was there. Every cop, not to mention every cop’s family, faced this possibility each time they reported for duty. But that didn’t make it any easier, especially not when it hit this close to home.

Santiago looked around the squad room, making eye contact with each person there. It didn’t surprise him to find more than the day shift present. He had no doubt were he to check the other squads under his command, he would find the same thing. When a cop went down in the line of duty, no one worried about vacation or sick leave. Every cop, no matter what their rank or their assignment, would report in, ready to do all they could to find the perps responsible. That knowledge made him proud to be part of the long blue line. Not that it made this part of his job any easier. Fortunately, it was not something he had to do often, but even once was one time to many.

Standing there, seeing how each of those assigned to Homicide waited, hoping he had good news for them but knowing he did not, he drew a deep breath. He could have let someone else handle this. But that would have been the easy way out and he had never been one to push the uncomfortable parts of the job off on someone else. Besides, he owed it to them, and to their lieutenant, to make sure they understood that even though he no longer worked cases on the board, he was still one of them. He hurt with them and he thirsted for the same vengeance they did.

“I’m not going to tell you this gets easier. It doesn’t and each of you knows it. Let’s be honest. This squad has faced more than its fair share of challenges these last two years.” He paused and reached up to rub his eyes, burning with unshed tears, with thumb and forefinger. As he did, he felt every one of the last twenty-six hours he had been awake. Twenty-six hours of sitting vigil at the hospital and then talking with family members, of briefing Chief of Police Darnell Culver, and of doing all he could to head off any interference by the feds. Three of his own had gone down and he was damned if he was going to let the feds or any other agency take over the case. Then he cleared his throat and continued. “Each and every time, you have risen to the challenge and done what was necessary to carry out your duties as members of the DPD. I know I’m asking a lot now, but I need you to do so once again.

“The next few days are going to be difficult for the entire force, but especially for you. You not only lost one of your own yesterday but others of the cop family as well. I’ve spend a great deal of time with the families of our fallen brethren and they’ve asked me to let you know arrangements have been made. They thank each of you for all the time you have spent with them since the ambush. They have asked that, until the funeral, members of this squad continue to be with them. They know you were all family and they will feel better having someone who knew their loved one with them. Sergeant Collins, I’ll leave it to you to arrange schedules to accommodate this request.” He glanced at the squad’s acting commander and she nodded, her expression grim.

“In three days, we will lay the first of our fallen, to rest. I expect each of you to be there in dress uniform, representing not only this squad but the best of the force. Show the city that we bleed blue. Then show them that DPD does its job, no matter what. Find the bastards responsible for the ambush and bring them in to face justice.

“It would be easy to seek vengeance. I understand that feeling because I share it. No one, no matter who they are, is allowed to kill one of our own. But we will not lower ourselves, or the rest of DPD, down to those bastards’ level. Find them and bring them in. We will let the courts deal with them and, when the time comes, we will be sitting on the front row of the viewing chamber when they are brought in for their executions.” He glanced around as detectives, uniformed officers and clerical workers nodded grimly. “Do your lieutenant proud and find those bastards before they manage to kill anyone else.”

As one, everyone present turned to look at the darkened office with its closed door and silence so profound it felt almost alive filled the squad room. Then a tall blonde with short cropped hair, her expression stone-cold, pain reflected in her eyes, stepped forward. The others waited, watching as she approached Santiago.

“Sergeant Collins, the squad is yours,” the Chief of Detectives said. “Close this case before the feds try to take over. We will not step aside for anyone, not this time.”

The blonde nodded. As she did, she blinked back the tears swimming in her eyes. “Yes, sir.”

He nodded once and shook her hand. Then he turned and left the squad room. As the door closed behind him, Pat drew a deep breath. Whether she liked it or not, the squad was hers and she had a duty to do, a duty to the DPD, her partner and her squad.

“The Chief’s right,” she said softly. She did not try to hide her grief. Each person in the room shared it. “We have to work this like any other case, but let’s be honest. This isn’t just any other case and it never will be. We will have the press looking at everything we do, questioning each move and every word spoken. Worse, IAB is going to be nosing around.” She held up a hand before anyone could protest.

“Hear me on this. No one likes the idea of the rat squad poking around. This squad has first-hand knowledge how they can twist things to meet their own needs. So I want every i dotted and every t crossed in this investigation. Work this case like your life depends on it because it very well may. We have cop killers running loose on our streets and none of us are safe until we find them. So, when IAB comes calling, we will answer their questions. The quicker we do, the quicker we get them out of the squad and out of the investigation. Don’t play games with them. If they ask or allude to anything that sets off your warning bells, let me know.

“From now until this case is solved, it’s all hands on deck. All vacation time is canceled until further notice. If you call in sick, you’d damn well better have a doctor telling me you are on your death bed. Work your contacts and get your CI’s on the street and asking questions. Finding these bastards is our priority now. That said, make sure your other cases are worked as well. Don’t miss any court dates. But hear me,this is our priority. We will find the bastards behind the ambush and we will be the ones to bring them in.”

With that, she strode across the bullpen. Pausing before the door to the office that had been her partner’s she reached down to turn the knob. As she did, her hand shook. A sob rose in her throat. She choked it down. She had to maintain control until she was behind closed doors. The squad was hers, at least until Chief Culver found someone to replace Lt. Mackenzie Santos, not that anyone could ever fill her shoes as a cop or as a partner and friend.

Damn it, Mac. I wish you were here.

 

It’s Monday. Nose, meet grindstone

First off, the pre-order for Nocturnal Rebellion should go live late tonight or early in the morning (fingers crossed). It is later than I wanted or anticipated but, as is so often the case, real life interfered. I learned long ago when that happens, it is best to wait it out instead of trying to push through. Mistakes happen when I’m too distracted by real life and I don’t want to hurt a book by not giving it my all.

Unfortunately, this means I am behind on several other things as well. Today and tomorrow, hopefully, I can get caught up on some of them. Fingers crossed.

In the meantime, the updates for Vengeance from Ashes for the expanded edition are rolling along. (The link is to the original edition.) It is odd going back to a book I wrote several years ago and knowing this is my chance to make it into the book I initially visualized. I’m not knocking the original. I love it and I had a blast writing it. But I only had a vague idea where the series was going at that point. Now that idea has solidified — as it should since I’m three books and several short stories into it — and things I hesitated to put into the original can now be woven back in. I can’t wait for you to see the final result.

Now I need to figure out what I’m going to work on next. Yes, I know. I am supposed to have a schedule and I do, of a sorts. But the muse is being unnaturally quiet right now and that is kind of scary. It usually means she is about to hit me with something I most definitely hadn’t planned on. So, in order to head her off at the proverbial pass, I’m looking at what I have planned, what I have already roughed out and will decide in the next day or two what it will be.

Of course, Myrtle the Evil Muse says she has the right to object — of course, she does. She’s evil. Sigh.

Anyway, here is an excerpt from the expanded version of Vengeance from Ashes. It is still in rough (as in I haven’t done spell check, etc) format. For those of you who have read the original, you will see a few alterations from the original, nothing that changes the story in any way.

***

“Prisoner Four One Niner Baker One-A, prepare for transfer,” a disembodied voice said from the overhead speaker.

Lips pulled back, teeth bared in an animalistic sneer, the prisoner sat up and swung her legs over the side of her bunk. As she stood, she turned away from the cell door. Her hands automatically went behind her head, fingers lacing. Almost without thought, she sank to her knees, legs spread, ankles crossed. Then, realizing what she had done, she cursed silently, hating herself and those responsible for bringing her to this state.

Two years. Two very long years in Hell had taught her how to act. Her body responded automatically to the commands barked at her. Only when she allowed her mind to surface, to let herself fully experience what was going on around her, did she hesitate. But not this time. There was no reason to disobey, no threat yet to meet.

Those years may have taught her all too painfully how to act, but they hadn’t broken her. Not yet at any rate. Even so, they had come close. Two years cut off from those she cared for, from almost all human contact. Stripped of even the most basic of human rights and dignity, she knew she was little more than an animal to break and tame to those in charge. She knew it just as she knew she could do nothing about it.

Just as she knew she’d been betrayed by the government she’d served and had been ready to die for.

What she didn’t know was why. Why had she been betrayed? Worse, why had those who’d served loyally at her side been targeted?

The soft swoosh of the heavily armored door sliding open broke the silence of the small cell a few moments later. With her back to it, she couldn’t see who entered, not that she wanted to. One of the first lessons she had learned after arriving at the Tarsus military penal colony was not to look. That had been a very painful lesson, one that landed her in the prison’s infirmary for several days. It was also a mistake she’d never repeated.

That had been one of many lessons she’d been forced to endure since arriving there. With the commandant’s tacit – hell, as far as she knew it was his overt – approval, the guards could be as sadistic as they wanted. Correction for even the most insignificant infraction might take the form of a rifle butt to the ribs or kidney, and that was if she was lucky. If not, the beating that followed would leave her hurting so badly she could barely move. Even then, the guards wouldn’t send her to the infirmary. After all, it was so much more fun to watch her suffer, reminding her that she alone was responsible for what had happened.

Fortunately, she’d heard the horror stories before arriving at the penal colony. Even though she hadn’t been ready to believe them, they had helped prepare her for what she’d face. Even so, it had been a shock the first time one of the guards beat her down for asking what would have been a simple question on the outside. That had been enough to convince her that the best course of action was to remain silent unless it was imperative that she speak. That wasn’t to say there hadn’t been times when circumstances forced her to break that rule and she bore the scars to prove it. All she wanted now was to live through the remainder of her prison term. Survival was the first goal. Vengeance would come later. Not for her, but for those brave and loyal souls who had followed her despite her protests and who had paid the ultimate price as a result.

She swallowed hard, forcing her mind away from past horrors, as boots clomped across the small cell in her direction. A rough hand grabbed her right arm, twisting it painfully behind her back. She flinched as a security cuff was locked tightly around that wrist. Her breath hissed out as the process was repeated with her left arm. Moments later, similar restraints were fastened about her ankles. Then a gloved hand closed around her left arm and jerked her to her feet.

Guard Captain Gavin Haritos spun her to face him, grinning sadistically. His fist caught her with a vicious backhand. With a sharp cry of pain, she staggered back. The short chain connecting her ankles tripped her. Only the man’s quick grab at the front of her jumpsuit kept her from falling. He pulled her forward and, with the ease of much practice, draped a heavy hood over her head before she could react.

Haritos’ cruel grip on her arm kept her on her feet as he hauled her out of her cell and down the long corridor. Blood pounded in her ears, almost deafening her. Fear and hatred raced through her, sparking every fiber of her survival instincts. She knew this was going to be bad, very bad. It always was when the guard captain came for her. But she could do nothing to stop him, at least not yet.

“This is your lucky day, bitch.” Haritos shoved her into one of the three lifts at the end of the corridor and she heard him slam his fist against the control panel. A moment later, the lift gave a slight lurch and she felt the car start downward. “You’re being transferred, Shaw. But don’t get your hopes up that it means the rules no longer apply because they do. If you’re smart, you’ll remember those poor bastards sentenced here with you. Everything you say and do from now on impacts them.”

A soft moan escaped her lips before she could stop it and fear raced like an open current through her. No matter how many times she’d been in this position before, she couldn’t help it. A transfer could mean almost anything, none of it good. Not as long as the survivors of her unit were still on Tarsus.

Bile rose in her throat as the lift came to a sudden halt. But it wasn’t that which caused her breath to catch. The guard captain’s low chuckle sent a shiver of fear down her spine. Once before he had stopped the lift short of their destination. He’d told her then it was time to deliver a warning.

Warning!

He had beaten her so badly that day she had prayed for death. Was he about to repeat that performance? If so, why? She had done nothing to break the rules. She hadn’t been out of her cell in weeks, her only contact had been with the guards who checked on her three times a day.

Without warning, Haritos’ fist connected with her stomach. Pain doubled her over. Tears filled her eyes beneath the hood and she fought the urge to vomit. The neck of her jumpsuit tightened uncomfortably at her throat as the guard captain’s hand fisted in the material. Using it to hold her in place, he continued his assault. Her head snapped back and she tasted blood. She lost track of the number of times he struck or where each blow landed. All she could do was stand there, held in place by the hand at her collar, and pray the beating ended soon.

Suddenly, Haritos released her and she fell to the floor of the lift. Before she could struggle to her knees, his heavy boot caught her in the ribs. Once, twice, he struck, each time forcing her to cry out in pain. Her ribs ached and it hurt to breathe. Her face, especially her nose, throbbed with each beat of her pulse. From the stuffiness of her nose, she knew Haritos had broken it – again. Her right eye felt puffy, swollen. It had been a long time since she had been beaten this badly and why?

Why now?

“Listen carefully, bitch,” Haritos growled as he once more hauled her to her feet. “This is only a temporary respite for you. Sooner or later, you will be sent back. Remember your people are still here and we can do whatever we want with them. So keep your mouth shut. We’ll know if you do or say anything about your time here.”

To her surprise, Haritos said nothing more. That was unusual. Whenever he’d come for her before, he’d taken perverse pleasure in detailing what horrors awaited her. The fact he’d gone silent worried her. And what did he mean by this being a respite and she would be back?

Dear God, what was happening?

Haritos remained silent as he forced her off the lift. Doors opened and then closed behind them. She didn’t know how to react when, for the first time in months, she felt the sun beating down on her. They were outside. But why? Where were they going?

It didn’t take long to find out. Haritos led her up a ramp. The hood obscured her sight, but she could hear the muffled sounds of a crew working to prepare a shuttle, maybe even a courier ship, for launch. Haritos pulled her to a halt and told her to stand still. Then he released his hold on her arm and she sensed that he had moved a short distance away. There were soft voices. Straining to hear, she only caught a few words. Transfer. . . prisoner. . . dangerous. . . tried to escape. . . take no chances. . . don’t listen to anything she says. . . .

Dear God, was she actually being transferred out of the Tarsus penal colony?

Hope flared only to die as quickly as it had been born. She remembered Haritos’ warning. Her people, those few who had survived the ambush only to be betrayed by those who should have stood for them, were being left behind. That meant she had to do as the guard captain said. Otherwise, her people were as good as dead.

No!

Before she could do anything – not that there was much she could do, bound and hooded as she was – Haritos was once more at her side. She stumbled forward as he grabbed her and led her further up the ramp. He hissed one last warning not to do anything foolish. Then he turned her over to someone else. Flanked on both sides by unseen guards, she was led into another lift. A few minutes later, her restraints were removed and then her hood and she found herself standing in the center of a small cell. She didn’t need to hear the announcement for all hands to prepare for departure to know she was on a ship. But a ship to where?

And what about those who’d been sent to the penal colony with her? Why weren’t they being transferred with her?

Now, almost a week later, she stood in yet another cell, this one planetside, and worry warred with anger. She’d overheard enough from the guards on the transport to know her fears were true – the others had been left behind on the penal colony.

That’s when an anger so great it overrode the fear of the unknown had flowed through her. For the first time in two years, she’d been separated from the survivors of her unit, those poor, brave souls who had fallowed her into hell and back only to find themselves brought up on charges right along with her. It didn’t matter that the commandant of the penal colony hadn’t let her see her people. She’d managed to get word of them from time to time and that had been enough to let her know they were all right – or at least as all right as anyone could be after being sentenced to the Tarsus penal colony.

It still amazed her how the prison grapevine managed to keep tabs on everyone and pass along information. It might be inconsistent, but it was there and it had been all that kept her sane. She’d never thought herself a social animal, but two years of rarely seeing anyone but her jailers had been almost more than she could handle. Thank God for the grapevine and the bits of information it brought her.

During transport from the penal colony, no one had told her anything. Held in the transport ship’s brig, she had no opportunity to learn anything about their destination or why she had been taken from Tarsus. A guard brought her food and drink at regular intervals but he never said a word that wasn’t necessary. He certainly hadn’t volunteered any information. Still, she’d managed to work out that she was alone in the brig by the way his steps never stopped before he appeared at her cell door and because no one had responded when she’d tapped out messages using the code learned on Tarsus.

She had just noticed the slightest change in the rhythm of the ship’s engines, indicating it had assumed orbit somewhere, when another guard arrived with a change of clothes for her. She’d looked at the plain black jumpsuit with suspicious eyes. Nothing about it marked her as a prisoner. It could have been something worn by almost any worker on the docks or in a warehouse. That should have reassured her but for one thing. There was nothing about the guard’s manner to indicate she was about to be freed. In that moment, she’d come the closest to breaking her rule of “never ask a question you don’t know the answer to” than she had been since her first few days on Tarsus.

Half an hour later, she’d been seated on a shuttle. The guards had secured her hands behind her back before locking her safety harness in place but they hadn’t hooded her. They obviously weren’t worried about her recognizing where she was. Of course, the only way she could do that was if she could actually see something of the lay of the land. So she’d craned her neck in an effort to see into the shuttle’s cockpit. One corner of her mouth lifted ever so slightly at the sight of the high rises ahead of them. Her heart beat a bit faster and her breath caught as she recognized the skyline of Fuercon’s capital city. New Kilrain. She was home. But why?

Now, after being processed into the same military brig where she’d been held during her trial, she still didn’t know why she’d been brought back home. It couldn’t be good. They may have taken away her prison issued jumpsuit, but she’d still been brought there shackled and had been processed into the brig as quickly as humanly possible. It had almost been as if FleetCom was afraid word of her return might leak out. But why?

Damn it, what was going on?

Of course, there’d been no explanation. Nor had she asked for one. It would be a long time before she forgot that lesson. Too much talking, too much curiosity was a bad thing that almost always resulted in painful punishment. She might not be on Tarsus any longer but that didn’t mean things would be any different here. After all, who policed the jailers? No one, at least not on Tarsus and she wasn’t willing to risk it now that she was home. That was especially true after the way she and the others had been betrayed by those they’d been loyal to

Freed of her restraints and alone, she looked around. One cell was pretty much like any other. Across from the door was a narrow bunk. Hygiene facilities were at the foot of the bunk. It was almost exactly like her cell back on Tarsus. There was nothing she could use to escape and nothing she could use to kill herself, not that she planned on taking that route out. At least not anymore. No, there were others who needed to die before she did.

“Prisoner is secured,” the guard who had brought her to the cell radioed as he stepped back.

Ashlyn Shaw, former Marine captain, didn’t move. Instead, she stood in the center of the small cell, her brown eyes focused on some point beyond the guard, her hands behind her back even though the restraints had been removed. As the security field across the cell door activated, she gave no sign of realizing it even though the faint, high pitched hum was something she’d learned to listen for over the last two years. That sound, like a distant bunch of angry bees, meant she’d fry her nervous system long before pushing through the field. Freedom might look close, but she’d be dead – or worse – before she actually found it.

At least the guard didn’t close the physical door. For the first time in what had to be months, she could look beyond the confines of her cell. It might not be the same cell she’d occupied since her conviction. Hell, this wasn’t even the same planet. That didn’t matter. All that did was the fact that the open cell door gave her at least some semblance of not being completely cut off from all other life on the planet.

As the guard disappeared from sight, Ashlyn remained where she was, motionless except for the rise and fall of her chest and the slow blinking of her eyes. She listened, counting his footsteps as they slowly faded away. When she’d been escorted to the cell, she had focused on what was directly in front of her. She had not wanted to give the guards on duty the satisfaction of seeing her look around in curiosity. Now, with only silence filling the air, she allowed herself to relax a just a little.

Once convinced the guard was gone, she moved to the door, careful not to get too close to the security field. Looking to her left, she couldn’t tell how far away he might be. All she knew for certain was that her cell was located at the end of the corridor, the door situated so she couldn’t see much beyond the far edge of the cell. So there might be any number of other prisoners close by but, for all intents and purposes, she was alone – again.

That was fine. Alone meant fewer chances for anyone to figure out what she planned. But it also meant she had to keep up appearances. She couldn’t let them guess what she had in mind. So she lay on her bunk, her back to the doorway. She wouldn’t let those she knew were watching over security monitors see her curiosity or her concern.

This was as close to home as she was likely to get in a very long while. If the opportunity to escape presented itself, she’d take it and be damned with waiting on the military courts to finally get it right. Once free, she’d deal with everyone who had betrayed her and then she’d find a way to free those who had been sent to the penal colony with her. After that, she really didn’t give a damn about what happened.

***

I hope you enjoyed the snippet. Until later!

 

Another Title Discount

Good morning, all. Let’s get started with another sale announcement. I’ve lowered the price of Hunted to $0.99.

When Meg Finley’s parents died, the authorities classified it as a double suicide. Alone, hurting and suddenly the object of the clan’s alpha’s desire, her life was a nightmare. He didn’t care that she was grieving any more than he cared that she was only fifteen. So she’d run and she’d been running ever since. But now, years later, her luck’s run out. The alpha’s trackers have found her and they’re under orders to bring her back, no matter what. Without warning, Meg finds herself in a game of cat and mouse with the trackers in a downtown Dallas parking garage. She’s learned a lot over the years but, without help, it might not be enough to escape a fate she knows will be worse than death. What she didn’t expect was that help would come from the local clan leader. But would he turn out to be her savior or something else, something much more dangerous?

Here’s a snippet from Hunted:

THEY WERE HERE.

I knew it the moment I stepped outside. Despite all the precautions I’d taken, despite all the times I’d moved and left no forwarding address, they’d found me – again. It didn’t matter that I’d done everything possible to live off the grid. All it took was one small mistake and there they were.

Damn it. I really liked it here and now I had to move and move fast.

Assuming I lived long enough to do so.

Just moments before, I’d been thinking about the upcoming weekend. A couple of days off sounded good. I didn’t even mind the fact Dana had set me up on a blind date with her cousin. Not that I expected anything to come of it. Nothing ever did. Either my demons interfered or Michael’s trackers did – like now. Damn it, what’s a girl got to do to have a nice dinner and maybe some good sex?

Without breaking stride, I melted into the early afternoon foot traffic. A quick glance right and then left didn’t reveal my pursuers. But I knew there were there. I could feel their eyes on me. The back of my neck prickled. There was that itch between my shoulder blades. Instinct had kept me alive this long. Would it be enough now?

God, I was an idiot. I’d actually started believing Michael had forgotten about me or had decided it just wasn’t worth the effort to keep looking for my latest hiding spot. I should have known better. I’d embarrassed him when I refused his advances in front of the others. But that hadn’t been the end of it. He hadn’t let it go.

Bile rose in my throat at the memory of that long ago night. I’d learned what it meant to fight for your life then. If I closed my eyes, I could still feel his hands on me. I could smell the scent of him as he’d pulled me close. I’d fought back. That’s the one thing he hadn’t expected. It was over almost as quickly as it had started. That night I’d fled the only home I’d ever known, leaving him bleeding on the floor.

I’d run. I might not have looked back but I had kept a look out. I’d known Michael wouldn’t just let me go. But I’d never expected him to keep up the chase this long. God, would I never get my life back?

I’d arrived in Dallas almost a year ago, hoping to lose myself here. After fifteen years on the run, I was tired. I wanted nothing more than to settle down, find a mate and have a life. The thought of moving again, of having to establish yet another identity was almost more than I could bear.

Had I gotten careless because I was tired of running?

It didn’t matter what happened. The damage was done. If I wasn’t careful, I’d find myself once more facing Michael. This time there’d be no escape. He would view what happened so long ago as a direct insult to him, the clan’s Alpha. Michael had to bring me back. Otherwise the others would think he wasn’t strong enough to control a mere female. If he wasn’t strong enough to control a female, they’d question his ability to control the clan.

It didn’t matter that I had never been a “mere” anything where the clan was concerned.

None of that mattered. Only one thing did. I had to get away. The next person to bump into me could be the one I was running from. I’d never been one to act like a lamb awaiting the slaughter and this was no time to start. I might not be the Marine my father had been but he’d taught me well. He and my mother, God rest their souls, had taught me how to act under fire, real or metaphorical.

It was time to remember exactly who and what I was. I was the daughter of the former clan Alpha and his mate, who was an alpha in her own right. Let the fools Michael Jennings sent for me learn just what that meant.

If they wanted to play, I was more than happy to oblige.

I paused before the main display window for Neiman Marcus and glanced around, careful not to be too obvious about it. Yes, someone was definitely there. Again. As much as I’d like to believe whoever was watching me was more interested in my good looks – hah! – or even in stealing my backpack, I knew better. Despite all my attempts to tell myself differently, I’d felt their presence for a week now. Never at the same place and never at the same time – and never this close.

Damn it, I had gotten careless.

Fortunately, so had they. They were close enough I could scent them. Yes, them. There were at least three trackers close by. I probably ought to be flattered Michael had decided a single tracker wasn’t enough to bring me in. Hopefully, three wouldn’t be enough either.

I didn’t have time to wonder why Michael had suddenly changed tactics. Had something happened within the clan to force his hand? Or was he, like me, growing tired of the hunt

God, why couldn’t this be over? I like a good hunt as much as the next person. But only when I’m the hunter. This being the hunted didn’t sit well. One way or another, I had to end this game of cat and mouse. But I had to bide my time. Downtown Dallas wasn’t the place for a confrontation, at least not the sort I usually found myself involved in. So, unless I wanted our secret made public, I had to find some place secluded and I needed to find it quickly.

A hint of worry licked at my confidence. These hunters were better than the others Michael had sent for me in the past. They’d been able to track me no matter what I did to throw them off. That meant they were at least as good as I was, perhaps even better. So I had to be careful. No unnecessary risks. Well, at least no outrageously unnecessary ones. My whole life was one of risk. The fact that someone was stalking me – again – only proved it.

Fortunately Dallas, even downtown Dallas, wasn’t without out-of-the-way areas where I could put my plan into action. All I had to do was get to one before my unseen trackers decided to make their move.

I started down the block. Attorneys and their clients hurried down the street in the direction of the courthouse, briefcases swinging like weapons to part the crowd before them. Men and women in business suits strolled only slightly more leisurely back to their offices from lunch. One or two may have staggered, a bit worse for wear after one too many margaritas at lunch.

As the crowd pressed on down the street, I paused near the entrance to Renaissance Tower. I carefully shifted my backpack, settling it more comfortably over my left shoulder, leaving my right hand free. I wanted to be able to drop it without hesitation, or use it as a weapon, when the time came – and something told me that time would be soon.

I had to get off the streets.

A man bumped against me and I stiffened, relaxing only as he mumbled a quick, “’Scuse me” before moving on. One thing about Dallas, it’s a polite city. Even though I looked like the average college – okay, post-grad – student wandering the streets, people still greeted me and begged for forgiveness for whatever minor breech they thought they might have committed. Strange town this.

A slight smile touched my lips as I ducked inside the building. I knew it was a risk. There were any number of security cameras here, cameras that would capture my image. But they’d also capture the image of whoever followed me. It might not help me, but in the long run, it might help any who looked into my disappearance. That really was the best I could hope for.

The glass doors closed. For one moment I relished the cool air that greeted me. But I couldn’t stand there enjoying it. Too many others wanted inside, politely but insistently pushing past me. Then there were the trackers. I could feel them even if I couldn’t see them.

“May I help you, ma’am?” the uniformed security guard asked as I approached his desk. Then he looked up and grinned. This was the third delivery I’d made there this week. “Hi.”

He really did have a nice smile.

“Hi, Gil. I’ve got a delivery for George and Chandler from the Jessup Firm. They’re expecting it.”

I waited as he called upstairs to confirm my story. I hadn’t realized when I took the temporary job as runner for a local law firm that it would come in handy as a way to keep alive. I’d been surprised enough when it led to some very interesting dates. Now it seemed I had another reason to be thankful for those bottom feeders called lawyers.

“Twenty-fifth floor, Finn. Sign in and put this on.”

He pushed a clipboard across the desk in my direction with one hand and handed me a guest badge with the other. He glanced at the page as I scrawled my name on the first available line. I handed him back the clipboard and then attached the badge to the right front pocket of my jeans. There, I was official.

“When you going to finally agree to go have a drink with me, Finn?”

“When you don’t have a family to go home to, Gil.” That was one of my only rules. No married men, and especially no married men with kids.

I gave a little wave and moved toward the elevator bank. I needed to be smart now. More than my own future depended on it. I didn’t want to be the one responsible for letting the world-at-large know that shape-changers really do exist and that we walk among them. Michael might be willing to risk it but I wasn’t.

Ten minutes later, my delivery made, I stepped into the corridor and glanced around. No one else was visible. But that didn’t mean anything. My pursuers could very easily be waiting for me in the lobby. It would be easy enough to flank me as I stepped off the elevator. They’d rely on the fact I wouldn’t want to create a scene. By the time we were away from the crowds, it would be too late – at least for me.

They could be closer, hiding in the restrooms down the hall or in one of the stairwells. I doubted they had given up, but I could no longer feel them bearing down on me. I didn’t know whether to be relieved or not. All I knew for sure was I had to get out of the building without being forced to either surrender or reveal much more to the public than any of our kind wanted to.

The elevator doors slid open and I tensed. Instead of the demons from my past appearing, a couple of well-dressed women stepped out instead. From their whispered conversation, I knew they were talking about a different kind of assignation than the one I’d been expecting. No, they were comparing notes on their love lives, oblivious to all around them.

Inspiration hit. I reached out and stopped the door before it could close. I punched the buttons to make the elevator car stop on the twenty first, nineteenth and tenth floors before coming to a stop in the lobby. Unless I missed my guess, the car would stop on at least one other floor along the way which was all to the good. The more stops it made, and the more people who got on and off, the more difficult it became for my pursuers to realize where I had actually gone

Now, to get out of the building. Then I could make sure that any confrontation happened on my terms and not theirs.

I resisted the urge to run as I walked toward the stairwell door. I could hurry once there. Then I’d take the stairs up six floors and then take the elevator down. Everything above the thirtieth floor used a different bank of elevators than the one I’d come up on. Those elevators opened out of sight of the main lobby. Even better, they opened just across from the stairwell door that led down to the parking garage. If I could just cross to that door, I’d be in the garage before anyone knew it.

Of course, that was a very big IF….

The elevator doors opened and I let myself be swept out by the other passengers. I glanced around, every sense alive and seeking. Much as I’d hoped my shadows had given up, at least one was still there. I could feel him. He was close, too close for comfort. But where? Why couldn’t I see him?

Praying the explanation was as simple as whoever it was happened to be on the opposite side of the elevator bank and blind to my return, I looked for the stairwell door. All I had to do was get to it. That’s all. Only ten feet separated me from potential freedom.

With my backpack thumping against my side, I hit the door at a dead run. Now we’d play it my way. Let’s see just how good he – or she – happened to be. I’d bet my life – hell, I was betting my life – that he hadn’t. Dear God, I hoped I wasn’t backing the wrong horse this time.

I pelted up the drive, climbing, climbing until I saw daylight. Cars lined up at the gates, waiting for their tickets to enter or to pay so they could exit. I slipped between them, emerging onto the street. Even then I didn’t slow. I couldn’t. Not when I could hear someone behind me. Running feet, labored breathing. Good. He wasn’t in the physical condition I was and he’d pay for it. Then he’d tell me what I wanted to know or pay an even greater price.

I veered to my right into another parking garage, an above-ground one this time. We’d already run more than a city block, not counting the time in the bank’s parking garage. I could feel my pursuer flagging. Good. Just a little longer. I had to be careful about where I chose to confront him. But soon, very soon, this would be over.

There’s something about the hunt that excites at the primal level. It doesn’t matter if you’re the hunted or the hunter. At least it doesn’t matter to me. My senses seem to sharpen as my pulse increases. My mind clears and a sort of calm settles over me. I know how good I am. I’ve managed to survive combat situations and too many chases like this one because of it. This hunter, if you dared call him that, was no match for me.

I raced up the ramp, one level and then two. My running shoes, carefully selected for just such an emergency, cushioned my steps. Only a muted slap-slap-slap with each footfall betrayed me. Even though my pulse raced, my breathing was barely labored. I was born for the hunt.

I hit the door leading to the stairwell. Time to add some distance between us. The door slammed behind me, just as I wanted. I wanted him in the stairwell. I wanted him to wonder which direction I’d gone. When he started up the stairs, he’d be even more tired. That would make him an easier target when the time came.

Three flights up, I slammed through another door. I didn’t think about anyone else who might be on the other side. This was between me and the man following me. The world had shrunk to just the two of us. There wasn’t time to worry about anyone else. Not until this was over. Until he was over.

Then I could worry about consequences.

I slowed, my eyes scanning the level. Almost every parking space was filled. The cars and vans increased the shadows on the level, making it easier to hide. And hide I was going to do. Now was the time for patience and cunning. Maybe it was even time to play with the fool a bit before pouncing. This mouse had very sharp teeth and the cat had better be battle-hardened before going after it.

He was close. I could feel it even as I heard him coming nearer. The fool. Why wear boots if you’re trying to stalk someone? Every step he took reverberated, even through the closed door. Soon, very soon, it would be over.

I crouched behind a van near the top of the ramp, hidden in the shadows. My backpack rested on the concrete beside me. Down the aisle, the stairwell door clanged shut, followed almost instantly by a sharp curse. I couldn’t help smiling. It just kept getting better.

I remained where I was, secure in the knowledge the shadows were, as always, my friend. For a moment, the only sounds were those of my heart beating and my slow, even breaths. There! A step. Then another. His pace quickened. He wasn’t running, but it was close. If I’d had any doubts about being followed, I no longer did.

Waiting, listening as he moved up the aisle, memory intruded. This was wrong. There had been at least three of them when I’d ducked into the bank building. Why had they split up? More importantly, where had the others gone? I might have little respect for Michael but he wasn’t a fool. He’d have sent a team that worked well together. So why was this team breaking all the rules?

Leaving my backpack, I edged around the rear of the van. The backpack, if the tracker found it, would delay him further. It would divert his attention and give me the chance to act. But I had to take care not to blow my chance before it arrived.

I crept behind another vehicle, this one big and black. Some sort of SUV. I really didn’t care what it was as long as it offered me protection. Now was when hunter became the hunted and the thrill of it raced through me. If only we were away from town where this could become a real hunt. It had been too long since I’d allowed my jaguar out and now it strained against my control, confident it was better at this game of cat and mouse than I.

Hell, it probably was, not that I dared do anything about it now. The trackers might be willing to risk exposing our existence, but I wasn’t. I couldn’t. There were too many others who’d suffer if the normals discovered the things of their nightmares walked among them.

Footsteps neared. Slower now, more relaxed. It was almost as if someone was taking a leisurely stroll down the aisle. Had I misjudged? Was it possible my stalker had been playing me? No, I didn’t believe that. There had to be another explanation.

I shrank further into the shadows. My heart hammered. Fear clawed at my throat. For one moment, I closed my eyes. I prayed this was all some horrible dream I’d soon awaken from. But it wasn’t. I’d learned long ago that the only nightmares are the ones we’re forced to live, day after day after day.

A car door opened just a few yards away and I started nervously. My hands flew to my mouth in a desperate attempt to silence my gasp. It wasn’t him. By all that was holy, it wasn’t him. It had been an innocent, that’s all. Whoever it was, they weren’t a part of this. All I had to do was wait for them to leave. Then I could finish this, once and for all.

If I had time. For all I knew, the hunter had heard my gasp and even now was using the sounds of the car starting and backing out of its space to distract me as he closed in on my location. Dear God, what should I do?

Patience. I had to stay patient and not move too soon. I couldn’t risk getting careless now, with the end so close.

A red sedan slowly passed my hiding space. Behind the wheel sat an attractive, gray haired woman. From where I crouched in the shadows, I could see she hadn’t locked her doors. It would be so easy to slide into the backseat as she drove past, to force her to drive me out of there and away from my pursuer. It was so tempting. . . .

No! That wasn’t the way. It was far too dangerous to involve someone else, someone outside the clan. In this day and age of lo-jack tracking on cars and global positioning software in cell phones, it wasn’t a risk I was willing to take. One phone call to the police and they’d know within minutes where the car was. I might be willing to do a lot of things but risking a police shoot out wasn’t one of them.

The car disappeared around the curve and I sank back against the wheel of the SUV. Where was he? My ears strained and my heart pounded. No matter how many times I’d been in this position – and I’d been there more times than I cared to count – it never got any easier. But this time was different. I could feel it. The hunter was alone and a one-on-one fight suited me just fine.

I wouldn’t kill him unless he forced me to. Not that I wouldn’t do whatever was necessary to find out how he’d found me. Once I knew that, I could disappear into the shadows again and move on, another town and another identity.

Again.

Leather scraped concrete and my muscles tensed. I waited, ready to pounce. All he had to do was come a little closer.

Wait. Something was wrong. This was all happening too easily. Was it possible this was all some sort of elaborate trap they’d laid to capture me?

Fear licked at my confidence and without thought I glanced down, frantically searching for that tell-tale red dot of a laser scope. Nothing. If anyone besides the two of us were there, they hadn’t tagged me, at least not yet. Maybe I was worrying for no reason.

I dropped to my stomach and looked under the cars, searching for another set of feet, for anything to prove or disprove my fears. Nothing. Only the boots and jeans of the lone tracker.

I sat back up and drew a slow, deep breath. My lips pulled back, baring my teeth and a low, primal growl fought for release as my jaguar fought for control. My muscles all but quivered in anticipation as each step brought the tracker closer, ever closer.

From where I crouched, I saw his legs first. Faded blue jeans. Black, worn boots. Interesting. That wasn’t the usual attire of the trackers but it did make sense if this one was trying to blend in. Maybe he wasn’t quite the amateur I first thought. Or maybe not. Although he moved slowly up the aisle, checking first one direction and the other as he scanned between the parked cars, his hands were visible and very empty. My well-trained eye saw no hint of a weapon anywhere on him. Good. That would make things much easier.

I slipped further into the shadows cast by the SUV and the wall behind me. All I needed was for him to take another couple of steps forward. That’s all. Then I’d be in his blind spot and could move. He’d never know what hit him. By the time he figured it out, it would be too late and they would both be well away from there and anyone who might be looking for him.

Silently, I rose from my crouch and stepped into the aisle, ready to attack. My head jerked up, the scents of the other trackers suddenly assailing me. Damn it! It had been a trap. Somehow, I’d played into their hands. But how? How had they known this was where I’d come?

My mind may have frozen, but my body acted on instinct. I turned and took first one step and then another. I had to run. It didn’t matter where. All that mattered was getting out of there. I’d made the worst mistake possible. I’d become over-confident and I’d fallen into their trap.

The screeching of tires filled the air. A moment later, a black Mustang slid to a stop beside me.

“Get in!” the driver yelled as the passenger door swung open

For a moment, hope flared. Escape was at hand.

Three sharp jabs hit my back, like needles or nails, as I dove into the car. Then my system lit up. It felt as if a thousand – no, a million – hot needles suddenly pierced me. Every nerve seemed to catch fire. No longer would my body answer my commands. Muscles tensed, spasmed and I slumped forward. There was pain – I think there was pain – as I hit the dashboard face first. Then I was thrown back against the passenger seat as the Mustang sped off.

Breathe. I had to breathe. But my lungs wouldn’t work. Panic filled me. This is what Hell must be like. A mind alive and terrified in a body that does nothing but scream in agony. Dear God, was this really the day I’d die?

***

Yesterday, I announced that I’ve put Wedding Bell Blues on sale for $0.99.  Nocturnal Origins is also still on sale for $0.99.

Wedding Bell Blues

No, I’m not getting married. I’m very happily single and enjoying that lifestyle, thank you very much. However, the title of this post refers to one of my books. This one, written under the Ellie Ferguson pen name, is a romantic suspense novel. With the upcoming holiday, which will be a very long weekend for a lot of folks, I decided to drop the price. It is now on sale for $0.99.

Wedding Bell Blues

Weddings always bring out the worst in people. Or at least that’s the way it seems to Jessica Jones as her younger sister’s wedding day approaches. It’s bad enough Jessie has to wear a bridesmaid dress that looks like it was designed by a color blind Harlequin. Then there’s the best man who is all hands and no manners. Now add in a murder and Jessie’s former lover — former because she caught him doing the horizontal tango on their kitchen table with her also-former best friend. It really is almost more than a girl should be expected to handle. . . .

Chapter One

“. . . and while the official police statement is that they are pursuing a number of leads in the recent string of burglaries, unnamed sources within the department confirm that they have very little to go on. Detective Colton Dougherty, the detective in charge of the investigation, has refused comment, referring all questions to the public affairs officer for the Dallas Police Department. . . .”

The image on the television screen across the room changed from the studio shot to the exterior of one of the local strip malls. Police cars with their light bars flashing acted like beacons in the night, drawing a number of gawkers. Uniformed officers stood nearby to prevent the onlookers from getting too close. Detectives in dark slacks and white shirts, badges hanging from shirt pockets or chains around their necks, moved in and out of one of the stores. Normally, I’d not pay much attention to such film clips, but one of the detectives was familiar – too familiar, and I started in surprise before I could control it.

“Stand still!” my mother hissed around a mouthful of pins as she desperately held onto the hem of my dress.

I barely heard her. Instead, my attention was focused on the newscast. Colton turned to face the camera, his contempt for the reporters shouting questions clear. For a moment, he stood there, his expression hard, the fingers of his right hand drumming impatiently against his thigh. Another shouted question and he took a step forward. As he did, I leaned forward a bit, forgetting that I stood precariously balanced on a three-legged stool while my mother tried to pin the hem of the dress I’d be wearing in my sister’s wedding in less than a week.

“Jessica, stand still! Do you want me to stick you?”

Mother gave the skirt a little jerk and I shook myself. The last thing I needed was for her to know I’d been watching the news story – No, the last thing I needed was for her to know I’d been watching Colton.

Then I realized what she’d said and actually considered it. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t like pain. Under most circumstances, I go out of my way to avoid it. However, it was possible that if she stuck me, I’d awaken from this nightmare and discover that pink and purple taffeta hadn’t taken over my life. That had to be worth something, didn’t it? At least it was only for another week or so. Once my sister was married, the maid of honor dress from Hell could be relegated to the back of my closet where it belonged, never to be seen again.

Problem solved.

At least until the glow of seeing her youngest daughter married dimmed and my mother once more embarked upon her campaign to get me married. That was yet another reason why I didn’t want her to know I’d been watching Colton on the TV. Still, I’d enjoyed three months of peace and I didn’t look forward to it ending. Maybe, before that happened, the gypsies would finally come steal me away. A girl can hope, can’t she?

“Sorry,” I mumbled, teetering slightly on the stool. As if looking like a harlequin wasn’t bad enough, now I had to worry about keeping my balance.

“I don’t know why you can’t just stand there like the other girls, Jessica.” As she pinned the hem of my dress, Mom’s fingers worked with the precision of a surgeon. Probably because she was one. “You’d think you weren’t happy your sister is getting married.”

“I am too happy!”

And I was, on a lot of different levels. Maryanne had been in love with Brett Boudreaux from the moment she first laid eyes on him in second grade. She’d made it her life’s mission to win him over. There had been times when she’d almost despaired of it ever happening. But my sister is both determined and resilient. Despite that, it had taken a pregnancy scare and the threat that she’d cut him out of her life and their baby’s before he finally came to his senses. Six weeks and a lot of convincing later, he asked her to marry him. Now she was getting her big wedding, and I couldn’t be happier for her.

“You’d never prove it by me, not the way you’ve done your best to avoid your duties as maid of honor.”

I rolled my eyes and said a quick prayer for patience – or at least for the wisdom to keep my mouth shut. There’s one thing you can say about Dr. Faith Marie Jones. She always knows she’s right, no matter what the truth might actually be. For some reason, she’d convinced herself I was jealous of Maryanne and nothing I’d say would change her mind. All I could do was ignore her and hope she’d change the subject.

Unfortunately, Mom wasn’t wrong about me trying to avoid my “duties”. I had, and I felt guilty about it. Work had kept me busy, and Maryanne had chosen to get married the week before finals. Still, I could have made time for the different shopping trips and girls’ nights out she’d arranged for the bridesmaids. But, in my mind at least, begging out of those things had kept the peace because it meant I hadn’t been too tempted to kill one of the other bridesmaids.

“Oh, Jessie, you look absolutely adorable in your dress,” Janie Bickerstaff drawled from the doorway as she quickly snapped three photos of me teetering on the stool. Wonderful. By the time I got home, everyone on her email list some would have copies. See, this was why I had begged out of so many of the things Maryanne had planned. Janie and I had never gotten along. I still remembered with regret that grade school field trip to Burgers Lake when I’d talked myself out of drowning her because I knew it would upset my sister. I’d have done the world a favor if I’d acted on my impulse back then. Really I would have.

A sharp prick just above my right ankle cut off my quick retort. Just as well. This was Maryanne’s day and I wouldn’t spoil it by killing Janie where she stood in the doorway smirking at me. Besides, my mother would never forgive me for staining her new carpet.

However, there are other ways of dealing with persistent pests besides mashing them underfoot.

“I can’t wait to see you coming down the aisle, Janie. The pink and purple will look wonderful with your hair.” Her fire-engine-red hair straight from the bottle. She paled, gulped once and dashed back into the kitchen. Mom chuckled softly and shook her head. That pinprick might have kept me from giving Janie a verbal lobotomy, but the truth of the matter was Mom had no more use for her than did I.

“Mama, are you about through?” Maryanne called from the kitchen.

“In a minute, dear. I’m just finishing up your sister’s dress.”

For a moment, relief filled me. Janie and the other bridesmaids were going to do some last minute shopping and then go out for drinks and, maybe, dinner. That meant I could slip out and escape the crazy ladies before they moved from wedding talk to dissecting my love life – or lack thereof.

“Jessie.” Maryanne’s pretty face appeared around the door frame and my heart sank. Before they left, she wanted us all to have a drink together to toast the upcoming wedding. “What do you want to drink?” She looked so excited. I couldn’t leave, not yet. I was her big sister and her maid of honor. I’d spent my life being there for her. I couldn’t leave her now simply because wedding preparations scared the hell out of me. Besides, it was just a drink. How bad could it be?

“Iced tea, Tink.” I grinned as she glared at me. “I still have papers to grade.”

“Jessica, don’t call me that!”

“Sorry.” I winked and she grinned even as our mother gave my skirt a tug, reminding me to behave. Maryanne had been “Tink” or “Tinkerbell” since she’d been a baby.

“Jessie, you don’t hate the dress, do you?” Maryanne’s blue eyes were worried as she hurried to stand before me. Damn that Janie Bickerstaff. I’d lay odds she’d said something like that to Maryanne just to upset her.

“Of course not. You know all I care about is you being happy.” I meant it, too. She’d waited a long time for this day – well for a week from today – and I wasn’t about to ruin it by telling her she’d taken leave of her fashion sense. “Besides, your dress is so gorgeous no one is going to be looking at anyone else.”

“It is, isn’t it?”

Her smile seemed to light up the room and, ignoring our mother’s protests, I leaned down to give Maryanne a hug. “Now go make sure the others aren’t making too big of a mess in the kitchen. Or worse, getting into the wine you picked out for your dinner with Brett’s family tomorrow.”

Maryanne gave a soft squeak of concern and hurried back into the kitchen, the robe she’d put on after her own fitting fluttering behind her. Mom’s chuckle surprised me as did her look of approval when I glanced down. She placed one last pin in the hem and helped me off the stool. A moment later, she carefully eased the dress over my head and stepped back, spreading it across the back of the sofa until she could hang it up.

“Go keep those girls from destroying my kitchen, Jessie. You know what they can be like,” she commented as I slipped into jeans and tee shirt. “I’ll be along shortly.”

I breathed deeply and steeled myself for a return to the foolishness I’d hoped I’d left behind when I graduated from high school and did as she asked. Maybe it wouldn’t be too bad.

Yeah, sure it wouldn’t. It would be about as much fun as a root canal without Novocain.

Needless to say, I was wrong. A root canal without Novocain would have been so much more fun than the gossip-fest I sat through. Oh, the gossip wasn’t that bad, even though there is no more vicious animal on the face of the Earth than a bunch of women with time on their hands and other people’s business to discuss. At least as long as I was there, they didn’t try – too hard – to dissect everything they believed was wrong with my life. Of course, the fact most of them remembered how, at different times, I’d threatened to pound them into dust for being empty-headed little idiots might account for that.

So, for another hour I sat through wedding plans, honeymoon speculations and none-too-subtle hints about what married life and married sex would be like. Most was all good-natured fun. But some, mainly from Janie, who’d once gone after Brett herself, was more than a bit snide. Only Mom’s warning glances – and a sharp kick to my shin under the table – kept me from saying anything. At least Maryanne seemed oblivious to her friend’s intent. Still, if Janie kept it up, I’d be forced to say something. There was no way I would let her, or anyone, spoil Maryanne’s happiness.

Finally I was freed from the insanity when Maryanne and the other bridesmaids left to go shopping, never one of my favorite pastimes. Not that I didn’t feel a bit guilty for choosing not to go, but I really did have a stack of papers to grade. With peace once more filling the house, I helped Mom load the dishwasher before heading home.

“You were really good with your sister today, Jessie.”

“Huh?” I know. I’m a brilliant conversationalist.

“Janie,” she said simply.

“Mom, we both know that little bitch would like nothing more than to cause trouble. I won’t give her the satisfaction.” However, once the wedding was over, I planned to have a little chat with Ms. Bickerstaff about exactly what might happen if she tried any of her little tricks where Maryanne and Brett were concerned. I’d seen her destroy too many other relationships to sit still and let her have a go at Brett and Maryanne.

Bitch.

“So, Jessie, when are you going to quit waiting for Mr. Perfect?”

If I hadn’t just swallowed the last of my iced tea, I’d have sprayed it across the kitchen. Talk about being blind-sided. Now Mom watched me, a shrewd look in her light blue eyes. Crap. I’d expected the peace to last at least a couple of weeks after the wedding.

“Mom – “

“Jessie, it’s just that I worry about you.” She turned to face me, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. “You haven’t been serious about anyone since Colton Dougherty, and that’s been, what, nine years?” Crap! Had she seen him on TV too? That would certainly explain this sudden change of topic.

Ten years, three months and twelve days. But who’s counting? Not me. No, siree. He wasn’t worth it.

“Mom, you don’t have to worry. Really. One day, the right guy will come along and then I’ll marry and give you a ton of grandkids to spoil.” I smiled, praying she’d take the hint and drop it.

“Jessica, you’re thirty-three. It’s time you quit waiting for Prince Charming. He doesn’t exist.” She cocked her head to one side, examining me as she might a patient just before opening him up on the operating table. “Unless you don’t like guys….”

For a moment, I stared at her, torn between the desire to laugh and the more perverse desire to confirm her greatest fear that her daughter might be gay. It was so ludicrous. All she had to do was look at the evidence and she’d see just how ridiculous it was. While I might not have had any serious these last ten years, I’d certainly enjoyed my fair share of men, and I do mean enjoy.

Part of me wanted to say, “Yes, Mom, I’m gay,” just to see her reaction. But I’m not into matricide, no matter how much she gets on my nerves. And there was no question how she’d react to such an announcement. She’d drop dead from shock and then, with my luck, she’d come back to haunt me, making it the goal of her unnatural life to find me a nice man to spend the rest of my so-called natural life with.

“Mama, I love you and I know you’re worried. But you don’t have to be. I promise I’m not gay. I like guys just fine. I simply haven’t found one I want to spend the rest of my life with.” I reached over and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. “Now, I really do need to get home and get those papers graded. See you tomorrow for mass.”

“All right.” She smiled and, to my surprise, gave me a quick hug. “Will you stop by Manny’s on your way home and pick up the order for Thursday’s dinner? It should be ready.”

I’d forgotten about dinner Thursday. Dinner with both families and Brett’s best man, his college roommate. The frat boy I’d have to walk down the aisle with after the wedding and who was, according to my sister, a self-described lady’s man. Wonderful. Oh well, if I could put up with the bridesmaid dress from Hell, I could handle one overgrown boy for an evening.

“Of course.”

Ten minutes later, I sped away from my parents’ house, thinking of little except how much I wanted a nice bottle of wine. Better yet, a bottle of really good single malt. I deserved it after resisting the impulse to strangle Maryanne with her veil for making me wear that monstrosity of a dress. Not to mention wanting to lock Mom in the basement, never to be heard from until she gave up on the notion of trying to manage my life. And I didn’t even want to think about what I’d like to do with the oh-so-perfect Janie Bickerstaff.

Of course, the main reason Janie was being such a bitch, besides that being her natural state, was that she was supremely pissed Maryanne had the audacity to have a sister. Worse, that sister was me and Maryanne had asked me to be her maid of honor. I really should have drowned Janie when I’d had the chance. No one would have minded. After all, it would have strengthened the gene pool, and several marriages would have been saved.

The neon sign over Manny’s Fine Wine and Spirits called to me like a beacon as I pulled off the freeway. Seemingly on its own, my battered Mustang turned into the parking lot. Not that I objected. Manny’s is on the way home and it’s cheap. Besides, I intended to treat myself this once.

Or, better yet, I might just let him put the bottle on my parents’ account.

I parked the Mustang near the door and got out. Looking around, I frowned slightly. Usually by this late on a Saturday, the parking lot is full to overflowing. But not today. Besides my Mustang, there were only four other cars visible.

My frown deepened. The red “CLOSED” sign hung from the top of the door. That most definitely wasn’t right. Was possible the insanity of the fitting had carried over for a full day and it was now Sunday? It could have driven me into a short catatonic state. No. A quick check of my watch confirmed not only that it was almost five thirty but also that it was still Saturday. So why wasn’t Manny open?

I ignored the warning bells going off in my head – heck, they’d been going full force during the fitting as Maryanne’s friends became more and more excited over our harlequin dresses. Somehow, the insanity of the wedding plans had either rendered them colorblind or fashion-sense deprived or both. This was just the residual warning. Besides, it was possible Manny had simply forgotten to flip the sign when he opened up this afternoon.

The door swung open under my touch. The bell hanging from the top of the door jangled loudly. I paused. Why hadn’t Manny or one of his sons called out a greeting?

“Manny?” The bell jangled again as the door closed behind me.

Sound exploded. I smelled cordite. Shit. Someone had just shot a gun. At me. I dove for cover, hitting my elbow on the corner of a display shelf. What the hell?

Glass shattered and I slid on my belly farther down the aisle, looking for cover. Why was someone shooting at me?

It’s a dream. That’s it. I’ll wake up soon and none of this will have happened. No harlequin dress, no one shooting at me.

Another shot rang out and I did my best infantryman-crawling-through-the-trenches impression as I slithered even farther from the door. Part of me wanted to close my eyes and make-believe I wasn’t there. No, when someone’s shooting at you, closing your eyes tends to have a very permanent result, and I’d be damned if I didn’t look the bastard in the eyes before he killed me.

Footsteps raced toward the front of the store. At least I thought they did. Of course, the way my heart pounded made it hard to tell. I hunkered down behind a stack of boxes. Surely at any moment, I’d hear the bell at the front door. The fact my ears were still ringing from the gunshots wouldn’t prevent that, would it?

I climbed to my knees. One corner of my mind registered that I was hiding behind boxes of my favorite single malt. Well, at least I wouldn’t have far to go to pick up a bottle. Hell, at this point, I might just make it a case.

Lungs straining for air, I forced myself to take a quick look. . . . .

Great, just great. Bad enough I have to put up with the bridesmaid dress from Hell, now the Devil himself has decided to pay me a visit.

I backpedaled in fear as a red-faced monster stared back at me.

I didn’t move fast enough. The devil cursed and lashed out.

There was pain. Of course there was pain. The devil’s not the sort to ask you to tea or speak nicely.

Everything went dark.

A Tease of Battle Wounds

Here’s a short tease from Battle Wounds, the next short story in the Honor & Duty Series. It is the rough draft, so there very well may be errors and, by the time publication comes around, there may be changes made. In the meantime, enjoy!

Battle Wounds

“Ready. . . Aim . . . Fire!”

Three times the order was given. Three times the sound of gunfire filled the air as uniformed Marines shouldered bolt-action rifles no longer carried by any member of the military. Even now, centuries after the last such rifle had been carried into battle, tradition required the rifles, lovingly recreated from plans long since declared obsolete, be brought out to honor the fallen. Much like the ceremony surrounding such funerals, the rifles harkened back to a different place and time.

This wasn’t the first military funeral Captain Ashlyn Shaw had attended and she knew it would not be the last. They were at war with an enemy determined to destroy Fuercon and its allies. That meant deaths were inevitable, possibly even her own. But that would not stop her from honoring the fallen.

Unlike those other funerals, each time a volley sounded, Shaw could almost feel the bullets ripping through her. Tears burned her eyes as the honor guard carefully folded the Fuerconese flag draping the casket. Then, with a precision part of her could only envy, Sgt. M. J. Adamson presented the flag to Major Paul Pawlak, their commanding officer. Expression grim, he accepted the flag and executed a precise about face before he took a step toward the four people sitting in front of those gathered to pay their respects one last time.

In the week the Wolf’s Bane had been back in-system, three other members of First Division Second Battalion Delta Company of the Fuerconese Marine Corps had been laid to rest. Each Marine had lost his or her life, not fighting dirtside as planned, not even fighting to secure the Wolf’s Bane from boarders or in boarding an enemy vessel. They had died because the ship’s commander had led Task Force Talon into a trap. Then he failed to order their withdrawal before the proverbial shit hit the fan.

Shaw remained ramrod straight as Pawlak knelt in front of Corporal Camilla Lahti’s parents and younger brothers. He spoke softly for a few moments. She didn’t need to hear what he said to know he was assuring them Lahti had been a valued member of the Devil Dogs and had died a hero. He wouldn’t tell them the truth about how she died, not here and maybe not ever. Knowing the circumstances of Lahti’s death would not help them cope with the knowledge their much loved Milla would never again return home.

“Mr. and Mrs. Lahti, the Devil Dogs are your family now. If you need anything, all you need do is ask,” he said, raising his voice enough for the rest of them to hear.

As one, the members of First Division Second Battalion Fuerconese Marine Corps responded, their voices ringing out on the wind. “Ooh-rah!”

Pawlak handed Lahti’s mother the now-folded flag. The moment he stood, Shaw called all Devil Dogs present, which meant every member not currently confined to the hospital, to attention. As one, their right hands slowly raised to salute their fallen comrade. Then, one by one, every other Marine unit represented followed suit. The Corps would honor its dead and then take care of the living.

Ooh-Rah!


Battle Wounds is the third short story in the Honor & Duty Series.

Taking Flight

Duty, honor, sacrifice. That motto meant everything to newly commissioned Second Lieutenant Ashlyn Shaw. She thought she understood the meaning of those simple words. Little did she know.

Challenged by those who believed she made it through the Academy on her family’s coattails, a roommate who just wants to see “some action” and a gunnery sergeant determined to make a real Marine out of her, Ash soon realizes what it means to be a Marine. As the signs point to war on the horizon, she is determined to do everything she can to serve Fuercon and do the Corps proud.

Battle Bound

Newly promoted, Captain Ashlyn Shaw has been ordered to take Delta Company to the Bennington System. Their mission is simple: secure groundside defenses and seek out the Callusian invaders. It should be a simple assignment. The Fuerconese Navy had proven itself time and again since war had been declared to be more than a match for the Callusians. Once Taskforce Liberator, under the command of Admiral Tremayne, secured the system approaches, Ash and her Devil Dogs could get to work.

Except no battle plan ever survives the first encounter with the enemy. This time the Callusians are breaking pattern and it will take everything Tremayne and Ashlyn have to lead their people to victory.

The Devil Dogs will get the mission done, no matter what the cost.

Vengeance from Ashes

(Book 1, Honor and Duty)

First, they took away her command. Then they took away her freedom. But they couldn’t take away her duty and honor. Now they want her back.

Captain Ashlyn Shaw has survived two years in a brutal military prison. Now those who betrayed her are offering the chance for freedom. All she has to do is trust them not to betray her and her people again. If she can do that, and if she can survive the war that looms on the horizon, she can reclaim her life and get the vengeance she’s dreamed of for so long.

But only if she can forget the betrayal and do her duty.

One more day

No, no, no. I will not have the song from Les Miz as an earworm today. Nope. I really, really hope the title of this post doesn’t turn into me hearing that particular song (especially if it is the movie version) for the rest of the day. Maybe if I get on with the post, it will go away. Fingers crossed.

Tomorrow is the day. Dagger of Elanna (Sword of the Gods Book 2) goes live. My stomach is doing flipflops as I wait for the first reviews to start coming in. Yes, I feel this way with each new book but this one, well, it’s special. I really enjoy these characters and learning not only more about Cait’s backstory but also where she’s headed has been a lot of fun. The next book is already coming clear in my mind and notes are being taken.

Some of you guys asked after reading Sword of Arelion (Sword of the Gods Book 1) if Fallon would be making more of an appearance in this second book. He does and he becomes an even more important player in the third book. That much I know for sure. But, to give you a taste of what he finds when he returns to the Citadel, here’s a quick snippet. No context is given because, well, I’m evil.

***

He smiled and continued walking in the direction of the administration building. As he did, the sounds of a yeomen’s class drilling nearby reached him. Their practice was punctuated with exclamations of relief as well as frustration as someone put them through their paces. Then, much to his surprise, he heard a familiar voice.

“Hold!” a woman ordered. “If you lot don’t start paying attention to what you are doing, we will be here all day. I know it’s cold but that is no excuse. Ask any knight or cleric. You will spend many a night in cold camps. I assure you, it would serve you well to remember the enemy will not attack only when the weather is fair. So stop worrying about the fact there is a little snow falling from the sky and focus on making sure your partner doesn’t score a killing blow.”

Fallon would have bet his life that the woman speaking had been Cait. But that made no sense. She had been at the Citadel less than two years. He had seen first-hand her ability with a blade but that did not explain why she would be teaching a weapons class, even one for yeomen. Good as she might be, there was no way the weaponsmaster would put a journeywoman in as an instructor.

Turning, Fallon looked at Stefan in open question. The young man simply smiled. There could be no doubting he was enjoying himself. His eyes danced with mischief and Fallon ground his teeth in frustration before giving the young man a look that promised they would soon discuss how Stefan had held back this information. Then Fallon hurried off in the direction of Cait’s voice. If no one would explain what was going on, he would find out for himself.

His report to the Knight-Commandant and the Adept would just have to wait.

A few moments later, Fallon slid to a halt outside the training ring. He stared in surprise at the sight that greeted him. Cait stood in the center of the packed dirt ring, a look of frustration on her face. In her left hand, she held a training sword. She wore black leather trousers and a matching leather jerkin that left her arms bare. Intricately woven wide leather bands were in place on each wrist. Her heavy boots moved silently across the ground. Despite the falling snow and the way her breath fogged before her, she seemed oblivious to the cold.

That much registered even as Fallon’s eyes were drawn to her forearms. Never before had he seen anything like the markings she bore and the implications rocked him. Then he felt the power surrounding her and he blew out a breath in surprise. He had known she was special from the moment he first saw her in that thrice-damned tavern but he had never expected this.

Before he could recover his wits, Cait turned and saw him. The frustration left her expression and she smiled gaily. She called for one of the senior journeymen working out in the next ring to take over for a moment. Before the young man could respond, she sprinted toward Fallon and Stefan. Fallon recovered enough to smile in approval as Cait agilely vaulted the three-bar fence surrounding the training ring before she all but leapt at him in greeting.

“Fallon!” She grinned gaily before throwing her arms around him. “It is so good to see you. When did you get back?”

***

Also, I’m blogging at Mad Genius Club today. For those of you looking for a program to use to help put together a story or series bible, I talk about my first impressions of Zim Desktop Wiki. Check it out.

Dagger of Elanna — snippet 2

Dagger of Elanna (Sword of the Gods Book 2) is now available for pre-order. Here’s another snippet.

***

The howling of the wind outside her small cottage greeted Cait Hawkener as she emerged from the sleeping chamber. She carried of mug of hot tea to the window and looked outside. The light snowfall of the night before had turned into a blanket of white that coated the ground. Large, heavy flakes continued to fall and, despite the warmth of the cottage, she shivered slightly.

A moment later, someone hurried down the narrow lane in front of the cottage. The figure lurched against the wind, as if walking upright might be impossible. Woolen cloak and scarf hid the person’s face. Whoever it was, they wasted little time getting down the lane. By early hour and the fact few who were not Confirmed members of the Order lived in this part of the Citadel, Cait guessed it was one of the clerics, hurrying to prepare for morning prayers.

The wind howled again and snow danced in the early morning light. She had seen worst mornings in her year and a half at the Citadel but not this early into the season. Remembering the tacticsmaster relaying the weather witch’s warning that this would be the worst winter in years, Cait wished she did not have to leave the warmth of the cottage. Unfortunately, just like the person stumbling by her window a few moments earlier, she had duties to see to and they would not wait simply because she preferred to stay warm and dry.

“At last you no longer have to compete for hot water and a place near the fire,” she reminded herself.

Once, she would not have awakened in this cottage. Then she had been a journeywoman, hoping to one day stand for Confirmation into the Order. Like so many others over the years, she spent her nights in one of the dormitories near the center of the Citadel. For much of that, she’d had her own room but had shared bathing facilities with the other journeymen. Meals had been taken in the common dining hall. The one advantage of living in the dormitory was that it was a quick jog across the courtyard to her classes.

She sipped her tea, her mind returning to the day when Kirris and Berral told her she would stand for Confirmation. At first, she could not believe it. She had not finished her studies. Others who had been preparing much longer than she would not be joining her in the Trials. Despite that, and despite her protests, the Knight-Commandant and the Adept assured her it was time.

Much as she wanted to serve the Lord and Lady, nothing had prepared her for that day. Or for what happened after she proved herself worthy to become a member of the Order. Even now, looking at her forearms and the markings the Lord and Lady had blessed her with, she sometimes wondered when she would wake and find herself returned to the nightmare that had been her life before coming to the Citadel.

Turning away from the window, Cait counted her blessings. Less than two years ago, she had been nothing more than a slave, to be used and abused by Dante Giaros. The patrons of the Black Duck Tavern had turned a blind eye to everything happening. Then Fallon Mevarel, knight of the Order of Arelion, had arrived and her life had been forever changed. He rescued her from her enslavement and brought her to the Citadel where she worked hard to prove herself worthy, not only of all Fallon had done for her but of joining the Order. She might not remember life before waking in the slaver’s tent the day Giaros took possession of her but one thing she did know. She wanted to join the Order. She was meant to do so.

What she had not expected was for the Lord and Lady to prove They had a perverse sense of humor. With her Confirmation, Cait became not a knight or a cleric. As with her time as a journeywoman, she showed no specific Calling. Indeed, she had excelled in all her Trials and the Lord and Lady rewarded her not only with Their markings but with her ranking. She now held a seat on the Knights Council. She did her best not to think about the fact she was technically the third highest ranking member of the Order. She had enough to worry about with the classes she now taught as well as her own continuing studies. Then there were her duties as assistant to both the Weaponsmaster and the Tacticsmaster. There were times she longed for the days when she had been a journeywoman. At least then she had the occasional day off when she could rest or spend time with her friends.

In some ways, she was more tired than she had ever been during those dark days in Lineaus. Nightmares of her time there still plagued her, although not as badly as when she first arrived at the Citadel. keeping busy helped. But she knew the best medicine had been finding her place in the Order. She might not yet know what the Lord and Lady had in store for her, but that mattered not. She had willingly given herself as Their weapon to wield against the evil of Balaar and his followers.

The wind howled again, rattling the windows and finding every crack, no matter how small, to seep inside. Shivering Cait considered moving at least her first class of the day inside. No one would blame her if she did. No one but herself. She had not moved the yeoman’s class the day before and the weather then had been almost as bad as now. The yeomen had not only lasted the entire class without asking to go inside but they had thrived. They seemed to immediately grasp one lesson not always taught in a classroom – wars and battles are rarely fought in good weather and under comfortable conditions. Surely if the yeomen could understand that, so could the journeymen.

She finished her tea and returned the mug to her small kitchen. A few minutes later, she shrugged into the padded jacket she often wore for weapons practice and reached for her fur-lined cloak. As she settled it around her shoulders, a knock sounded at the door. Wondering who it could be, she crossed to the door and opened it.

“Your pardon, Lady Cait.”

As he spoke, the journeyman lifted his gloved hands and pushed back the hood of his cloak so she could see his face. When he did, the corners of her mouth turned down. That one act was yet another reminder of the troubles that had reached the Citadel before her Confirmation. They were still dealing with the repercussions from all that had happened.

Recognizing the journeyman as one of those currently assigned to the Knight-Commandant’s office, she stepped back and motioned him inside. For one brief moment, it looked like he might agree. Then he shook his head and her frown deepened.

“What can I do for you, Jaysen?”

“M’lady, the Knight-Commandant sends his greetings and requests your immediate presence in the council chamber.”

Cait studied the young man, hoping for an explanation. She could count on one hand the number of times the Knight’s Council had been called to emergency session since her arrival at the Citadel. In the time since her Confirmation, such a session had not been necessary. That Knight-Commandant Kirris saw fit to call one that morning worried her, not that she would let the journeyman know.

“Thank you, Jaysen.” She thought for a moment before continuing. “Please find Journeywoman Kala and ask her to take my morning class. Tell her I will relieve her as soon as I can. If she is unable to, let me know at once.”

“I will do so as soon as I finish delivering the Knight-Commandant’s messages, Lady Cait.” With that, he turned and took off at a run.

Cait closed the door and fought the urge to beat her head against it. Much as she had not looked forward to working out in the snow, at least that was something she understood. More importantly, she was comfortable teaching weapons to the yeomen and journeymen. Being part of the Knights Council was new and not something she had come to feel at ease with yet.

Wanted or not, she had a duty and the sooner she performed it, the sooner she could get back to her classes. With that thought in mind, she glanced around her cottage. Something was afoot, elsewise Kirris would not have called the session. Never one to take chances, she shrugged out of her cloak and hurried to her sleeping chamber. She might not have time to change clothes, but there was time enough for a few adjustments to her wardrobe.

Five minutes later, she checked her appearance one last time. Her hair, still in its braid, had been released from the tight bun she wore when teaching weapons. Now it hung down the middle of her back. She now wore a white silken blouse under a black leather jerkin. Hidden under the sleeves of the blouse were her quick-release sheaths and her throwing knives. For a moment, she considered her sword and scabbard where they lay on the foot of her bed. Her hand closed over the sheathed blade and she made quick work of securing it in place across her back. Being so heavily armed might not be necessary, certainly not within the confines of the Citadel, but it also made a statement. She would go into this session reminding the other members they were a warrior order, sworn to protect those who looked to them.

Nothing else mattered in the grand scheme of things.

***

To see the beginning of Cait’s story, check out Sword of Arelion (Sword of the Gods Book 1).

War is coming. The peace and security of the Ardean Imperium is threatened from within and without. The members of the Order of Arelion are sworn to protect the Imperium and enforce the Codes. But the enemy operates in the shadows, corrupting where it can and killing when that fails. Fallon Mevarel, knight of the Order of Arelion, carried information vital to prevent civil war from breaking out. Cait was nothing, or so she had been told. She was property, to be used and abused until her owner tired of her. What neither Cait nor Fallon knew was that the gods had plans for her, plans that required Fallon to delay his mission. Plans within plans, plots put in motion long ago, all converge on Cait. She may be destined for greatness, but only if she can stay alive long enough.

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