So JJ, the 16-year-old black cat with kidney insufficiency, has gotten more and more cranky over the past year, to the point where he yells at me if his food bowl isn’t filled to the brim, yells at me if the other cats’ food bowls aren’t likewise filled, yells at me, when he wants to be petted, yells at me when he wants to be let down, and generally yells at me.
But since I know his kidneys are slowly failing I don’t want to ignore his yelling because I don’t know if it’s because he’s in pain or he’s just being grumpy. So, yeah, I’ve pretty much become his body servant. Cut to a few minutes ago, when he was yelling loudly from the living room. Like the good servant I am, I dropped what I was doing and went in there to see what was up.
Some background: JJ likes sleeping on the futon in the living room. I will occasionally bring him his wet food or water there so that he can have dinner in bed, so to speak. I’d left the spare water bowl on the end table, and because our orange tabby Jeremy is a huge resource hog who will shoulder JJ out of the way to get at any food or water I’d put another bowl of water next to it so that Jer-bear could drink out of that one while JJ drank out of the other bowl.
I go into the living room and see JJ staring at the now-empty water bowls. He then gives me an accusing look as if to say, “How dare you let these run dry?” Please note that we have two bowls of water with the regular food bowls and a big bowl of water on the breakfast nook table, all of which are washed and refreshed multiple times a day. But no, Grandpa wanted his water bowl on the end table, and he wanted it now.
I sighed and refilled them both. After a few minutes he yelled for cuddles, and has just now demanded to be let down. Once I did that he strolled off to the living room again, most likely to snooze until he decides to start yelling about something yet again.
My life, you know you want it.
TGIF! Let’s kick off the weekend with Jessica Coulter Smith’s new romance Ella and the Alien Gamer, now available from Changeling Press and other purveyors of fine online romance. Take it away, Jessica!
Ella has had a hard life as a single mom who barely makes ends meet. But she’s never once asked for help, and she never would. When Valero barrels into her life asking for things she’s not ready to give, she holds herself back. Mostly. The thought of taking the sexy alien to bed is more than a little tempting … except he’s playing hard to get.
Valero has wanted a mate ever since he was old enough to think of having a family of his own. He’s never thought of claiming a female with a child in tow, but Connor’s amazing gaming skills intrigue the video game designer. Asking the small family to move in with him seems reasonable enough since he plans to claim them as his, but Ella’s commitment issues prove to be a problem.
What’s a geeky gamer to do when the Cinderella of his dreams wants sex, but nothing else?
Valero growled as he jabbed at the buttons on the controller. Rory and her damned dragons! When she’d said she couldn’t beat this level, he’d thought it would be a piece of cake. How hard could a game be that centered around an adolescent purple dragon? Harder than fuck, that’s how hard.
“Bust the gem, turn the wheel,” he muttered as he went through the steps. Little green things attacked him. “Argh. Die, you little bastards!”
“My mama will wash your mouth out with soap,” said a small voice.
He glanced to his right and nearly dropped the controller when he saw a small human child. Where the hell had he come from?
“You’re doing that wrong,” the boy said.
No shit. That was why he’d been trying to put out the fires for the last half hour without success. What the hell did the small child know about it though? He held out the controller.
“Since you seem to know what you’re doing, want to show me how it’s done?” Valero asked.
The boy grinned from ear to ear, snatched the controller, and started playing with the finesse of an advanced gamer.
“How the hell did you know where the buckets were?” Valero asked.
“Soap,” the boy replied in response to his bad word. Apparently hell wasn’t allowed either. “And I have this game at home. I beat it on the second day. I probably would have done it sooner, but Mama wouldn’t let me stay up playing all night.”
The boy beat the level and handed the controller back.
“What other games can you play?” Valero asked. He’d never met such a young gamer before and he had to admit he was a little fascinated. He hadn’t even known such a small human could play video games.
“I have Minecraft, Sonic, Lego Harry Potter, Lego Star Wars, and a few others.”
“What about Halo or Gears of War?” Valero asked.
“Mama says they’re too violent for me. But I wish I could play them. The kid games are too easy. I don’t see why the adults are the only ones being challenged.”
Valero’s eyebrows went up. A challenging children’s game? Was there a market for such a thing? Unless this child was a gaming prodigy, then there were probably others out there feeling his same frustration. Definitely something worth looking into.
“What types of challenges would you like to see in a game?” Valero asked.
“Well, I like the time challenges where you have to complete so many tasks in a certain amount of time. I like the fighting levels in Lego Star Wars. But collecting stuff like the rings in Sonic or the gems in Spyro can be fun. I just wish you could do more with it.”
The kid was rather insightful for someone so young. And he was giving Valero an idea. His game company was still in the fledgling stages and he needed something new and edgy to put him on the map. Or so he’d thought. Maybe he was looking at the wrong demographic. He’d been thinking of a game adults would like where you blew up stuff, but if gamers were starting out as young as this kid, children who weren’t allowed to play the more violent games, then maybe he needed to tap into that audience. The only problem was that his game testers were Rory and Zwyk, and neither would be able to give him the information he needed.
“He’s not bothering you, is he?” a soft voice asked.
Valero stood and faced the woman, and damn near swallowed his tongue.
Where to Buy
About the Author
Award-winning author Jessica Coulter Smith has been in love with the written word since she was a child writing her first stories in crayon. Today she’s a multi-published author of over seventy-five novellas and novels. Romance is an integral part of her world and spills over from her professional life into her personal one. When she went on that first date with her husband, she never expected to hear the words “marry me” pop out of his mouth — and judging by the shocked look on his face, he hadn’t meant to say them either. But, being the hopeless romantic that she is, Jessica said yes and they’ve been married since 2000.
Jessica firmly believes that love will find you at the right time, even if Mr. Right is literally out of this world. She’s often gazed at the stars and wondered what, or who, else might be out there. Who’s to say that hunky model on the hottest romance bestseller isn’t really from some far off galaxy? Maybe that blue Martian you saw at Halloween wasn’t really in costume. After all, there’s an awful lot of space out there for us to be the only ones living in it.
Find more Changeling Press books by Jessica Coulter Smith at http://www.changelingpress.com/author.php?uid=144.
Welcome to another edition of Wicked Wednesday Reads, petals! Today I’m here with Valerie J. Clarizio and her lovely new romance Missing the Crown Jewels (A Chandler County Novel), available from online purveyors of fine romance. Take it away, ma’am!
Storm’s intent is simple: hide in the quiet confines of his best friend’s family horse ranch in Kentucky. The perfect place to sort out his life after walking away from the Army, and fight his internal demons. His solitude is interrupted by his buddy’s little sister. The chemistry between them is off the charts, and he willing surrenders the battle.
The Crown family begins receiving threats, just weeks before the Kentucky Derby. The overprotective men in Peyton’s life vow to keep 24/7 tabs on her and the family’s prize horse—Prince Bourbonville—a hopeful for the next Triple Crown. Circumstances arise that threaten to keep Peyton and Prince away from the derby, but Storm and her brother Coach are determined they’ll attend, no matter the sacrifice.
Peyton reached up and placed her hand on his cheek. “You’re a good man, Mason Starr. You’re kind, caring, and loyal. There’s not enough time in the world for me to describe all the good qualities you possess.”
His heart hammered in his chest. The conviction in her eyes and her tone gave him no doubt she really believed he had the qualities she mentioned, but the sound of his real name rolling off her tongue is what did him in.
His arms flew around her, and his lips crushed down on hers. The passion she met him with was equally as strong, wicked, unbelievable. He pulled her body tight to his. The curves of her soft breasts pressed against him. She parted her lips, inviting him in. Her flavor seeped into him, amplifying the whirlwind of sensations already ripping through every cell in his body.
Their tongues tangled. Her hands slid over his bare arms, leaving a burning path in their wake. She gripped his shoulders and pulled him closer. His fingers found the hem of her short nightgown and slid up underneath it until both hands filled with the soft curves of her ass. He lifted her, and her feet left the floor. Her legs wrapped around his waist. Good God, why had he waited so long to kiss her—hold her? Every nerve ending in his body was on fire, and it felt phenomenal.
He stepped over to the bed and sat with her on his lap. Her sex pressed to his erection. When she lifted her arms, he pulled her nightgown over her head. The plump, round breasts in front of him called out to his mouth. His mouth clamped onto her breast, and when his tongue flicked over her beaded, raspberry nipple, she groaned and wound her fingers through his hair, pulling his head tightly to her breast. As he suckled on that delicacy, he filled his hand with her other breast and kneaded. She ground herself against him.
He pulled his mouth from her breast and fastened it to the other, then he wrapped an arm around her waist and lowered his other hand, slipping it under the band of her silky panties to cup her wet mound. Her scent filled the room, tantalizing his nostrils, heightening his desire—need. When he slipped a finger into her moist channel, her breath hitched. The insertion of his second finger caused her to moan delightfully into the thick air. He wanted to hear that sexy, erotic sound again; and he would, several times before this night was over.
Peyton’s hands dug into his shoulders as he moved his fingers inside her and circled her swollen clit with his thumb. She closed her eyes and tilted her head back as she ground against his hand. Her breaths came quicker with each flick of her nub of nerves. Then a little louder. Her lids fluttered open. The dark gaze staring at him was filled with desire.
He circled that little peak once more then pressed on it, and she exploded. The walls of her channel clamped down on his fingers, and her alluring cries of pleasure echoed in the air.
She floated forward, wrapping her arms around him. Her tiny, limp body relaxed into him. Her warm breath blew across the side of his neck. He pulled his fingers from her and enveloped her in his arms. The beating of her heart thudded against him. He wondered if she could feel his as well.
“Hmm?” she responded as she burrowed in tighter. “I just need a minute.”
He’d give her a minute to recover, but he was by no means done with her yet. He kissed the top of her head. After a moment, she edged back. The dreamy dark gaze that connected with his looked completely satisfied. Though her swollen red lips looked thoroughly kissed, he needed his lips back on hers. Leaning in, he took her mouth, working to keep it slow, seductive, meaningful.
Where to Buy
About the Author
Valerie Clarizio lives in romantic Door County Wisconsin with her husband and two extremely spoiled cats. She loves to read, write, and spend time at her cabin in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
She’s lived her life surrounded by men, three brothers, a husband, and a male Siamese cat who required his own instruction manual. Keeping up with all the men in her life has turned her into an outdoors enthusiast, of which her favorite activity is hiking in national parks. While out on the trails, she has plenty of time to conjure up irresistible characters and unique storylines for her next romantic suspense or sweet contemporary romance novel.
Yeah. That’s not going to fly here in Casa Cameron (I mean, come ON. You people KNOW me). And right now it is damn hard for me to pick my jaw off my chest from where it dropped when I saw the news that 45 had fired FBI Director James Comey, allegedly for the way he handled the situation with Secretary Clinton’s emails (I swear to God, I go to the gym for one hour and all hell breaks loose in D.C.).
Which is bullshit, and we all know it’s bullshit. But once again it’s very clear that 45 does not know his history, and has never heard of the Saturday Night Massacre, where then-President Nixon fired independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox and Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned in protest, triggering the series of events that led to Nixon’s impeachment. Now clearly that particular parade is not going to happen this time, since Smilin’ Jeff Sesssions is AG and is perfectly happy to go along with whatever 45 wants. But with any luck and a good tail wind this is the beginning of the end for the current administration, especially as Comey was supposed to testify on Thursday at the same hearings where Sally Yates became a verb for “handing an overbearing idiot his ass.”
I don’t think 45 quite gets that Comey can still testify as a civilian. This should be fascinating to watch.
I have been in better moods. The fact that my ears and sinuses are aching do not help (please, dear sweet baby Cthulhu, I do not need another sinus infection).
On the plus side, however, I finished a rather nifty mixed media pendant for a giveaway I’m going to run on Friday. Anyone who follows my Instagram account will be able to get in on the fun — I’ll be giving away copies of Shifter Woods: Howl as well as the pendant.
Today’s Sunday Shoutout goes to L.J. Longo, whose sizzling new paranormal romance Hiring the Tiger is now available from Evernight Publishing and other purveyors of fine erotic romance. And now, here’s L.J.!
Thanks for having me on your site! I’m excited to share Hiring the Tiger because it’s both my first F/M story and also my first series. While Hiring the Tiger is a stand-alone, there will be three other books in the series about the rest of the pack.
A tiger shouldn’t be picking tea-leaves and carrying luggage, but that’s the only job Navarro sees in his future. He’s learned to be humble since he and his friends, a wolf pack, exchanged their former careers as highway robbers for prison.
Then Lady Jasprite Doughton, a merchant with all the grace of the far East and the wealth of the West, whirls through the village on the back of a dragon and reminds Navarro what it means to want something. With her dominating sexual tastes and her powerful personality, Jasprite challenges his body, his lust, his loyalty to his friends, and his own worth.
After all, is gold enough to buy a tiger?
Nav worried she wouldn’t like the look of the bands, too dirty, too bold. Then he scoffed because he didn’t give a damn if she liked the look of them. Then he worried she’d decide he was a frivolous expense.
Fuck the bet, he’d take for her free. Now, he wanted her.
Now she was here.
He smelled her in the hallway, potent and sexual. She walked with quick long strides and opened the door before he could decide if he ought to be found in the balcony or on the bed.
Jasprite locked the door after she entered, then dropped the key into her front vest pocket. She grinned at him, the kind of leer men give the village girls washing their clothing at the river. It made him feel curiously misplaced.
“So, the captain was wrong. The chest was delivered safe and whole. You didn’t even open it.”
“I didn’t have the key.” He’d resisted the desire to pick it. “Ramsay also said you ought to hire a soldier to do this work.”
“A miscreant will do the job more thoroughly.” She pulled off her suit jacket and hung it on a wall hook, never taking her eyes from him. “Though, I’ll be honest, I don’t like animals. Especially, large ones. They don’t take direction well. Your witch said you’re a tiger.”
Nav grinned. “She’s not wrong.”
The lady’s eyebrow raised with annoyance. He wasn’t playing properly. He tried to be timid again. “Did you want proof, Lady Doughton?”
“Never had a tiger for hire.” She grinned at her name then pulled the string of jewels out of her bun, plucked something from the string, and tossed something over to him. He caught a key. “Open the chest.”
He knelt and opened the red chest with a gamely smile.
The smile left quickly. “Holy Hades…”
Under the layers of cotton were shackles, collars, whips. Long thick phallic statues of carved and polished wood, glass, and shining metal molded for a very specific purpose. Gags, hoods, dozens of other toys he’d never seen even in the most wicked books.
She chuckled, not a pleasant sound. “I knew you wouldn’t be ready.”
“Uh…” He looked from the box to her. He wanted her strong thighs, those tempting breasts, her cruel smile. But the box … men were supposed to use toys like that, not women.
“You like my collection?”
“I don’t know, actually.”
She hummed, unimpressed with his answer. She sauntered over and peered with him into her box of deviance. Her thighs were level with his face, and he inhaled the rich fresh wetness between her legs. He wanted her so much.
Nav swallowed, uncomfortable on his knees. He should have been the one staring down at her. She should have been the one to feel small and desired. Instead, she’d made him nothing more than his throbbing cock and his wordless mouth.
“Yes, this is exactly my problem with large animals. Especially ones that belong to other women.” She gripped his chin.
“I don’t belong to Yenna.”
She grinned. “I know who you belong to.”
Nav shivered a little at the ownership in her confidence.
Jasprite let him go. “I do like a pretty face though. So, I’ll make an exception for you, tiger.”
She could still tell him no? He wasn’t sure he had the option himself.
The woman unbuttoned her vest. “Pick out what you’ll let me use on you and I’ll tell you what you’re worth.”
Where To Buy
About the Author
L.J. Longo is a queer author, a geek, a feminist, sometime pirate, and is ARe best-selling author of Erotic Romance. L.J.’s work with Evernight includes The Dishonest Lover, Dark Captive: Manlove Edition, and Owned by the Alpha: Manlove Edition.
Find more thoughtful, hot erotica at Graceful Indecency where L.J. offers free erotica and contests to win romance e-books. L.J. also sometimes takes a break from writing and messes around on Twitter and Facebook.
Hello, bubulas! I’m celebrating my first #FirstChapterFriday by sharing the first chapter in my new sci-fi romance novel Degree of Resistance (Pacifica Rising 1). Leave a comment below to win a free copy of Degree AND a sneak peek at Chapter 1 of the next book in the Pacifica Rising saga, Uncertainty Principle.
Peter Ballardie liked to work on paper. He knew it was terribly old-fashioned, not to mention wasteful of increasingly rare natural resources. But tablets, even the more advanced ones that were hair-thin and could be folded with a single swiped command, didn’t provide the same tactile satisfaction as writing or sketching on a sheet of paper. And he did recycle whatever didn’t wind up in his notes, so that was all right.
Besides, he was sixty-three. He was allowed a few quirks, considering everything else he’d achieved in his life.
He rested a hand now on the pages scattered across his work table as he gazed up at his security chief. “And you’re sure Ms. Drake recognized him?”
“Positive, sir.” Ade Montgomery pulled out his own tablet, a heavy-duty model, and tapped the screen. A holoprojector on the wall came to life, displaying a small enclosure illuminated in night vision green. Four people stood in the enclosure, all of them dressed incongruously in nineteenth century clothing. He tapped again, and the figures began to move.
Ballardie watched the scene, wishing the resolution was good enough to view pupillary reaction. When it finished, he had Montgomery play it again at half speed. “Did you notice the microsecond of hesitation?” he said, fascinated. “You would think the programming would be hardened after this long. I wonder if there’s some sort of collective hardware attrition that increases the possibility of failure—”
The security chief gave him a pained look. “Sir.”
It wasn’t the first time Montgomery had been required to shoot down his flights of fancy. “Forgive me, Ade. Scientists can’t resist playing with new data.” Ballardie returned his attention to the holo, propping his chin on a hand as he studied the image of a man who was supposedly dead. “This is going to interfere with our plans.”
“That may be the understatement of the century, sir.”
“Mm. What’s the likelihood that Ms. Drake will contact Ms. Contreras with this information?”
“Almost guaranteed. The question is, what will Ms. Contreras do with it?”
He thought of the resourceful young woman he’d admired for so long. “Oh, I think she’ll go after him, don’t you? We’ll need to bump up our schedule and approach her now. We can wrap Captain Drake’s retrieval in with Lilith’s, make it a quid pro quo offer.”
The security chief didn’t sigh, but his body language implied it. “I still think we should send one of our people after Lilith.”
Ballardie reached for a pencil, twiddling it idly. Montgomery had been his chief of security for over sixteen years. He’d come to appreciate the man’s professional paranoia, but it could be a bit much at times. “If all goes well, Ms. Contreras will be one of our people soon,” he pointed out.
“You hope, sir, I prefer to work in sureties.”
Now that was pure Montgomery. “Have some faith in me, please. There’s method to my madness,” Ballardie said wryly. “And have Lilith keep a closer eye on Ms. Contreras and Ms. Drake. If there’s any unusual attention from Pacifica towards either of them, alert me immediately. We may have to move at a moment’s notice.”
“Yes, sir.” Montgomery turned to go, then paused. “If I may ask, how badly does it impact Rubicon if Ms. Contreras doesn’t join us?”
It was rare that the humorless man handed him such a perfect straight line. “We’ll cross that river when we come to it. Carry on.”
Evie Contreras sat on a chair in the exam room, waiting for the medical tests going on behind the white silky curtain to be over. The doctor’s office catered exclusively to Shareholders, so the room was luxurious in the extreme. Both walls and ceiling were real-def screens that could be programmed to show anything from elegant wallpaper to panoramic live-action nature scenes, all at the touch of a control. The non-skid tile flooring was designed to resemble wood parquet, and the few pieces of furniture—two chairs, a secretary that served as a repository for medical implements, and a small chaise lounge/exam table that could be raised and lowered via foot pedal, were both beautiful and practical for the small space. The sounds of a string quartet played over unseen speakers.
The only less than luxurious thing in the room was Evie. She had taken pains to look like a generic personal assistant today; good quality jacket, blouse, and slacks in light tones that flattered her tan skin, minimal makeup, dark hair pulled back and neatly clubbed at the nape of her neck, shoes with enough of a heel to give her some height. Attractive, but lacking the outstanding beauty that came with access to superior plastic surgeons, dentists, and stylists. In other words, eminently forgettable to anyone in the Shareholder class.
Which was fine with her. Being able to fade into the background was useful camouflage. For example, it would allow her to hack the doctor’s office records and collect the latest medical data about her employer.
The hacking itself would be ridiculously easy. She already knew from previous trips that each exam room had a tablet with minimal encryption. All she had to do was wait until the doctor was in mid-exam, then slip out of the room.
As she’d hoped, the exam room next door was empty. She closed the door and pulled out a specialized pin drive, the most expensive thing she owned, from its slender fitting on her necklace. The drive plugged into the exam room tablet, and a holographic keyboard appeared on the desk. She skimmed through her various breaker apps, selecting one that would easily crack the security protocols around the office’s records database.
Within seconds she had root level access and was downloading the data being collected next door. If she wanted, she could have stolen the records of every patient ever seen by the office, but she had no interest in which Shareholder was on ED drugs or had been scheduled for yet another round of plastic surgery.
Besides, she’d already grabbed those records three years ago when she first started working for Madam Lin Song as a personal assistant/apprentice. There were two ways to receive high-level technical training in the Pacifica Protectorate. One way was for a student to enroll at a recognized educational institution and complete sufficient coursework to earn a degree. This also cost a great deal of money, something Evie didn’t have.
The other way, less official but also far less expensive, was based on an apprenticeship system. Minutes after meeting Madam Song for the first time, Evie had accompanied the Shareholder to a doctor’s appointment as part of a complicated audition where Song would evaluate her skills in the field of cybersecurity by having her hack the office’s medical records.
After delivering the records to Song, Evie had sat there while Song critiqued her choice of breaker apps, commenting that it was abysmally slow and that she expected Evie to boost its penetration strength. Evie had accepted the critique thoughtfully. The next day she left Song’s tax records on the Shareholder’s tablet. Her apprenticeship contract was finalized that afternoon.
A blinking light indicated that the download had finished. Evie disconnected the drive and slid it back into its fitting before returning to the occupied exam room. The privacy curtain was still drawn and she could hear Song’s sharp voice murmuring behind it. Just enough time to check messages.
She slid her own tablet out of her purse and opened Weave, clicking on the message facility. The top one was from a user she recognized from her favorite maker node:
Hey @EV, I’m doing a refurb on a Jimmie 6 and I’m having a hard time finding pneumatic shoulder muscle units that haven’t fallen apart. This is a refurb, not a refit and I don’t want to go with synthetic muscle if I don’t have to. I’m in SoPac and can travel—help?!?
She typed in the dates and times of various roboscrap meets in the southern part of the protectorate, suggesting a few reliable vendors who could scan and print new components (more costly than refurbishing an existing unit, but sometimes it was the only way to get what you needed), and others who sold faulty units and should be avoided at all costs. She sent it off with a wish for happy making.
The next message read:
@EV, thanks so much for checking my design. You’re right, I needed an extra wait state before reading the word into the comparator. Once I did that it worked straight away! You’re smooth!
That one she saved to her ego-boo file, the one she read when she couldn’t get a new design working or Song was being particularly bitchy that day. To people in the makerverse, that teeming world of DIY tech geniuses, she was @EV, the go-to answer person for everything from glitchy robotics to how to make a programmable chip do what it was supposed to do. Her avatar was the main character from an ancient web comic about mechanical geniuses running amok in Europe; it amused her that other makers imagined her as a buxom green-eyed blonde with glasses.
But that was on social media, or sOSH. In regular life she was Evie Contreras, Employee. Firmly at the bottom of the protectorate’s social hierarchy, along with the rest of the busy worker bees that kept the place running. Above the humming mass of Employees was Management, then Engineering, a fact that annoyed Managers to no end. At the top were the Shareholders, the hyper-rich elite who had taken the abandoned rubble of three former states on the West Coast and formed the Pacifica Protectorate, one of the most technologically advanced nation-states on the face of the planet. Pacifica prided itself on its creation of a “perfect society,” a technocratic utopia where everyone had a purpose and even the lowest Employee had somewhere safe to live, clean water to drink, and healthy food to eat.
Which was true enough, she thought. It was keeping your Employee status that was the challenge.
The privacy curtain shivered as someone brushed against it. Evie shut down her tablet, sliding it back into her purse and assuming her PA camouflage again. The rest of her messages from the makerverse would have to wait.
The curtain drew back and the doctor, a short, gray-haired woman wearing purple-tinted SmartSpex, fussed around the table and its occupant. “I appreciate your concerns, madam,” she said, “but it really would be better for you if you didn’t wear your exosuit quite so much.”
“So you’ve said on numerous occasions, Dr. Leaf.” The slender Korean woman stretched out on the exam table was preternaturally still, draped with the same sheet that Evie had laid over her at the beginning of the exam. “And yet I haven’t shown any signs of mental instability yet.”
“Which is a relief,” Dr. Leaf agreed, “but right now I’m more concerned with the physical aspects of the exosuit. Your pressure points still show significant signs of inflammation, and if you continue to wear your suit as much as you have I’m afraid the skin will start breaking down—”
“At which point you can apply pads and plasts. In the meantime, I intend to continue wearing my suit as long as I choose. Now, if you’re quite finished, I would like to get dressed.” Lin Song kept her focus on the ceiling, as if acknowledging the doctor’s presence was too tedious for words.
Dr. Leaf glanced over her shoulder at Evie, thin mouth pursing in disapproval. Evie gave her a polite smile that said nothing.
“Yes, madam,” the doctor muttered. “But let me know if there’s any further tenderness or degradation of the pressure points.”
Song didn’t reply, her dismissal hanging in the air like bitter smoke. Dr. Leaf nodded jerkily and left.
Evie took that as her cue to rise, gathering up the collection of nanofabric and slender carbon rods that had been deposited on the chair next to hers. She knew from experience not to say anything as she helped the Shareholder don her exosuit, sliding limp arms and legs through corresponding sleeves and leggings, guiding nerveless fingers into the intricate gloves. The process was routine by now; within ten minutes she was snugging the high collar around the other woman’s neck, pressing the activation studs into corresponding depressions at the base of Song’s skull.
Song shivered as her motor neurons made contact with the suit and took control. Her hands spread out for a moment before clenching into fists. From this point until Evie took the suit off again, Song’s movements would be preternaturally smooth, controlled by microprocessors linking her brain to the suit’s servomotors. It was the only way Song could move independently, thanks to the complete C3 spinal injury she had suffered years ago. “Did you get the data?”
“Yes, madam. I’ll add it to your records when we get back to the compound.”
“Good. I hate these visits.” Song levered herself into a sitting position. “For what I pay, she should be making house calls.”
“We’ve made repeated requests.” Evie turned away to get her employer’s clothing. Today Song had chosen a modern take on the classic Korean hanbok, a slimmed down silhouette in refined shades of emerald green and cream. “She claims she needs the equipment here to do a proper scan.”
Song snorted as she slid on a silk chemise. “My family developed that equipment. I can have everything she needs installed in my rooms within two hours.”
Evie shook out the green chima skirt and held it open while Song stepped into it. “I suspect Dr. Leaf enjoys having you be seen coming to her office for your exams.” She fastened the skirt’s waistband ties before reaching for the cream jeogori jacket with its deep purple coat strings and white collar. “Physicians can be territorial when it comes to their star patients. Plus, coming to the office demonstrates your independence.”
That earned her a softer snort. “I suppose you’re right. Still, it’s tiresome.” Song donned the cream jacket, finishing it with a pair of elegantly embroidered gold cuffs. The last touch was a pair of white kid gloves that hid the fine carbon struts and joints of the exosuit gloves. “For the next exam, I want her to come to the house. No excuses.”
“Yes, madam.” Evie waited until her employer slid nanofabric-encased feet into custom shoes, then grabbed her purse and followed her out of the exam room, trying to think of ways she could persuade Dr. Leaf to come to the compound. A vid shoot for the local gossip node was a possibility; the little doctor seemed to be hungry for attention. A protectorate-wide piece on her treating Song might persuade her to make a house call.
After a brief stop at the front desk to collect Song’s bodyguard, a tall slab of a man named Pang, they headed out to the waiting limo. Pang held up a hand for them to remain in the building’s entrance, pulling out a sensor wand and walking around the vehicle as he performed his usual security check. Evie took up point position in front of Song, eyeing the street for potential trouble. In the past, desperate people who had been fired or faced banishment from the protectorate had been known to attack Shareholders. The protectorate had responded by legalizing on-the-spot execution by Law Enforcement Officers, or LEOs. The frequency of attacks had dropped sharply after that, but they still happened once in a while if the attacker was desperate or suicidal enough.
Once Pang was satisfied with his check he escorted Song to the limo’s rear door and helped her into the seat. Evie followed, leaning in. “Back or front, madam?”
Long fingers flickered dismissal. “Front.”
Evie straightened and the door closed. Pang had already climbed into the front seat. She slid in after him, grateful that Song hadn’t insisted on her riding in back. Quite apart from the fact that the Shareholder was never in the best of moods right after a doctor’s visit, Evie still needed to finish up some scheduling work for the coming week.
The limo rolled off with a soft purr, merging into the automated traffic. Dr. Leaf’s office was in one of the professional areas of Redding, rows of elegant stone and steel frontages that hid expensive medical, dental, and plastic surgery boutiques. In previous years Evie wouldn’t have dreamed of being allowed inside such an office. Employees used local block clinics and public hospitals, not rarified medical chateaus with real-def walls and antique furniture. But taking a position as Song’s personal assistant/apprentice had broadened her horizons in a number of ways.
She glanced down at the FitBand around her left wrist. 4:37 PM glowed at her. More than enough time to get back to Song’s compound, finish syncing the new schedule with the house majordomo, get Song sorted for the evening, then head across town for Allyson’s birthday party. Her adopted daughter’s present was already wrapped and in her bag.
She turned. “Yes, madam?”
Song was giving her a thoughtful look. “The servomotors in the lower left leg feel a bit slow. See to it once I’m in bed.”
Evie’s heart sank. Dealing with the exosuit’s nanoservos was painstaking work. “I was leaving for a few hours this evening, madam,” she said cautiously. “My daughter’s birthday party is today. It’s in your schedule—you cleared it last week.”
“Ah.” There was a long, drawn out pause as Song took out her slimline tablet and perused it. “So I did. Well, then, you can work on my suit when you get back.”
Puta. Evie donned a pleasant expression while she worked out the time issues in her head. An hour to Mama and Papa’s, two hours there, an hour back, and then at least two hours fixing the suit. She wouldn’t get to sleep until well after midnight. But she was damned if she was missing Ally’s eighteenth birthday party. “Of course, madam.”
Song’s attention returned to her tablet. “That’s all.”
The pearlescent partition glided up, sealing the Shareholder in the back of the limo. Still maintaining her calm smile in case the old bitch was watching, Evie went back to work on the schedule.
It was early evening when Evie stepped around a chattering family of five to get out of the maglev light rail car that served as part of Redding’s public transport system. The MLR station was just as clean as the one in Song’s neighborhood, but the much higher percentage of holographic ads, the numerous kiosks selling water, food to go, and cheap electronic goods, and the sheer crush of people getting in and out of cars identified the surrounding neighborhood of Pinewood as an Employee enclave.
City planners had always intended for Pinewood to be an Employee community, placing it on the northern edge of the city and near the Musk maglev line so that those who didn’t live at their employers’ residences could get to work quickly. As a result, the curved edge of the complex dome that covered the city was lower here, and an acoustic fluke reflected noise from the rest of Redding down onto the homes below. Even at night, a constant low susurrus permeated the area like a party that could never be located, only heard.
Apart from that quirk, Pinewood was a pleasant enough place to live, clean and decorated in Redding’s signature forest colors. Taking in a breath of the warm air spiced from the food kiosks and the bustling bodies around her, Evie left the station, hurrying past two blocks of lookalike townhouses before turning in towards a specific door.
It opened before she had a chance to touch the palm lock. A beaming woman stepped out, opening her arms.
“You’re late, mija.”
Evie hugged her mother. “Sorry, Mama. I had to get Madam Song settled.” She savored the warmth of Isabella Contreras’s arms and the familiar smell of masa, tomatoes, and sausage that came through the doorway behind her. “I left a message.”
“Yes, Tia Juanita gave it to me.” Her mother’s silver-shot hair was up in an immaculate chignon as always, and her warm mahogany eyes missed nothing as she studied Evie. Decades ago Isabella had been an engineering student at CalTech, and her habit of analyzing everything had never left her. “That woman doesn’t know how lucky she is, having someone like you work for her.”
It was a familiar refrain, and Evie answered in kind. “It’s a job, and a good one. I can’t complain.”
“I know—you never complain.” Isabella patted her shoulder. “Well, if it helps, your papa made tamales.”
Evie grinned. That explained the smell of masa. “You were supposed to make Ally’s favorites. She’s the birthday girl.”
“It was her idea. Besides, she loves tamales, too.” Isabella nudged the front door open and more of that delicious scent wafted out. “Come on, everybody’s waiting.”
Evie followed her mother inside. Everybody was Papa, Ally, and Tia Juanita, the android housekeeper who took care of the cleaning and shopping so that Mama could work as a stylist for Managers and Papa could sell high-quality Mexican cuisine from his food truck. Years ago, it would have included Uncle Christo and her brother Martin as well. But Christo, Papa’s younger brother and a captain with the Pacifica Protectorate Defense Forces, had died during a skirmish with raiders. And Martin—
Evie pushed the thought away. A mechanic with artistic inclinations, Martin had been a free spirit who chose exile rather than live according to what he thought was the stifling Pacifica hierarchy. He had left for the wastelands east of the protectorate long ago. All she could do was say a prayer for him every night, and hope he was still alive.
The thought that came after that one was harder to dismiss. The third absence in the house, the one that still caused her heart to ache even after twelve years, was Christo’s best friend, Ally’s father, and Evie’s first employer, the man she used to call El Capitan Gringo because of his dark blond hair and twinkling blue eyes. In return he would tease her about being named after an orbital maneuver. She never admitted it but she loved the fact that he knew what an EVA was. He was also the one who first started calling her Evie, and the nickname had stuck.
Captain Benjamin Drake, Pacifica Protectorate Defense Forces, Third Division. The man who had bought her books about space flight as a kid, and made her heart beat faster as an adult. The man who had asked her to marry him once she finished college and became an accredited engineer. The man whose unexpected death had changed everything.
She sent a silent thought upwards: I hope you can see Ally, honey. You’d be so proud of our girl.
She didn’t add that she loved him. Wherever he was, he already knew that.
“Mija!” Her entrance into the cramped but immaculate kitchen meant another hug, this time from Luis Contreras. The barrel-chested man gave her a kiss on the temple for good measure. “I was starting to think you weren’t coming.”
“There’s no way I was missing tonight, Papa.” Her stomach rumbled, reminding her that lunch had been a long time ago. In automatic response he grabbed a still-warm tortilla and used it to scoop up some kind of shredded meat from the bowls of food he was preparing, adding chopped vegetables and crumbly white cheese before folding the tortilla over and handing it to her.
She took a bite. Something deliciously crunchy, sour, and spicy exploded over her taste buds. “Mm. Is this a new recipe?”
Papa grinned with pride. “Yes, from Oaxaca.”
Oaxaca. She paused in mid-chew. “It isn’t chapuline, is it?”
One thick eyebrow went up. “Is it good?”
She considered what she’d been chewing. It did taste really good. “Yes.”
“Then it doesn’t matter, does it?”
She swallowed. Only her father could feed her grilled spiced grasshoppers and get away with it. “Where’s Ally?”
As if on cue, a blonde torpedo darted into the room. “Mom! You made it!” She threw herself at Evie and Luis, turning the hug into a group activity. Taking after her father, Allyson Drake-Contreras was two inches taller than Evie and dressed in the formal uniform of her au pair job. But wisps of light yellow hair were already drifting loose from her bun, and the high color in her cheeks made her look like the teenager she still was. “I was afraid the Wicked Witch of Redding was going to make you slave over hot code until midnight.”
Evie decided not to mention her post-visit duties. “No way I was going to miss this, sweetie.” She kissed her daughter’s cheek, giving her another hug. “Happy eighteenth birthday.”
“Thank you.” Ally pulled back a bit, angling her face so that Luis couldn’t see it, and mouthed check his foot.
Some of Evie’s happiness drained away. Maintaining a smile, she stepped away from their arms. “Since I’m here, Papa, how about you let me do a checkup on your foot?”
Luis shot Ally an et tu, Brute look, but the blonde girl gave him an angelic smile. “I’m fine, Eva. You sit down and let me finish dinner.”
“I can do that,” Ally said, nudging him towards Evie. “Let her check you out, Papa. It’ll only take a few minutes.”
Grumbling, Luis allowed himself to be herded off to the tiny room adjoining the kitchen that served as his office. He dropped into the desk chair, glowering at Evie as she pulled up a sturdy box and sat on it. “You don’t have to do this right now. I told you, I’m fine.”
She’d noticed the slight limp as he walked. “I’m sure, but I’ll feel better if you let me run a diagnostic.” She patted her thigh. “Please?”
Making an annoyed noise in the back of his throat, Luis hoisted his left leg and let it rest lightly on her knee. “You’re just like your mother.”
“I know. That’s why you love me.” Evie slid off the nonskid industrial shoe and black athletic sock, revealing a carbon composite prosthetic foot and lower leg. She slid out her pin drive and inserted it into the foot’s control port, tapping in a request for a download. “Any stiffness or problems with the joint?”
Luis shook his head. “You do good work, mija.”
“What about your leg?”
A dismissive noise. “It doesn’t hurt that much. Things are supposed to ache at my age.”
“Mm-hm.” She undid the velcro on the supporting bands and eased off the prosthetic, suppressing a wince at the inflamed spots she saw at the points where the leg’s sensor net interacted with flesh. The scarred skin over the end of the stump was red and slightly swollen as well. “Where’s your first aid kit?”
He grabbed a clear plastic box from his desk, handing it to her. “I figured you’d do this.”
Her father had been a talented chef working in one of Redding’s finest restaurants when he made the decision to quit, get a business loan, and start selling gourmet food truck cuisine to Employees and Managers at the technological parks that ringed the city. Things had been going well until five years ago when a speeding GoCar owned by the teenaged daughter of a Shareholder had plowed into him while he was unloading his truck, crushing his lower left leg against the truck’s bumper. The injury had been severe enough to require amputation at mid-calf. Legally it was judged an accident, and the teenager’s license had been suspended for six months. The Shareholder family had been kind enough to pay off Luis’s remaining debt on the truck and made sure he was provided with an artificial leg, a static piece of solid pink plastic that used elastic bands around the knee to hold it on.
A furious Evie, unable to punish the idiot girl who had almost killed her father, was determined to do better. She’d cut a deal with one of the local clinics; a medtech scanned Luis’s stump and surgically inserted nanotransmitters near his remaining nerves. Using the data from the scan, Evie built a custom-fitted leg attached to a foot with an articulated joint. The whole thing was controlled by sensors and servomotors similar to the ones she’d used in Song’s exosuit, and allowed her father to walk without the need for a cane. More importantly, it allowed him to keep working in his beloved food truck.
Ironically, however, he had the same problem as Song. Too much time using an external cybernetic prosthetic caused pressure sores and inflammation of the flesh where tiny electrical signals passed between organic nerve and inorganic sensor. It would have been easier for them and every other resident of Pacifica who needed new limbs or organs to receive permanent cybernetic implants, but those were illegal for a good reason. With no other options, Evie could only smear NSAID gel over her father’s pressure sores and the inflamed base of his stump, trying to think of ways to make the prosthetic easier to wear.
Her thoughts were interrupted by Luis’s hand covering her own. “I’ll be all right,” he rumbled. “Don’t worry about me.”
There was nothing she could do but nod. Thirty years on and he still did his best to protect her. “Tell you what. You let me worry about you, and I’ll let you worry about me,” she said. “Deal?”
Now he laughed. “Mija, worrying about you is my job. It doesn’t stop just because you’re out of the house.” He pulled up her hand and kissed the back of it. “But since you are just like your mother and I know how she worries, it’s a deal.”
“Good.” She reached for the prosthetic. “We better go get some of those tamales before Ally eats them all.”
Luis chuckled. “I hid a batch. I know her, too.”
With an enthusiastic lungful of air, Ally leaned over and blew out all the candles on the birthday cake. Luis and Isabella cheered, clapping their hands as Evie took pictures on her tablet.
The young woman sat back, pleased with herself. “That’s getting harder each year,” she said. “I don’t know how you do it, Mom.”
“Smartass,” Evie said with a laugh. “Wait until you’re thirty.”
“Language,” Isabella chided. “All right, mija, now you get your presents.”
The one from them was a new tablet with full 3D projection capability and 8Tb of memory. Ally squealed and hugged them both. Tia Juanita glided forward, presenting “her” gift—a prepaid card to Ally’s favorite app store. Ally hugged the android as well, kissing her plastic cheek.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” Isabella said, bringing out a small box wrapped with silver and blue paper. “This arrived for you today.”
Ally rolled her eyes as she took it, shaking it experimentally. “What do you think it is this year? I bet it’s another keychain.”
Evie smirked. “I kinda liked the multi tool she sent last year.”
“Oh, be nice,” Isabella fussed. “The general is a busy lady. It’s very kind of her to remember you two every year.”
“I doubt she’s the one remembering, Mama,” Evie said, watching Ally unwrap the small box. “That’s what her assistant is for.”
Discarding the paper, Ally opened the box and peered inside. Her dark blond brows rose. “Oh, wow.” She pulled out a sterling silver chain with a hammered pendant featuring the Defense Forces’s wave sigil picked out in black, blue, and white enamel. “This is seriously pretty.”
Evie bit her lip at the sight of the familiar symbol. Reaching out, she caught the pendant on the pad of a finger, studying it. The silversmithing was beautifully done, the kind of work that high-ranking officers could afford. It would also make her present seem like crap. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think Camden was trying to recruit you,” she said, trying for a joking tone.
“Yeah, not going to happen. I like being an au pair.” But Ally bent her head, fastening the chain around her neck. The pendant came to rest in the notch of her clavicle, gleaming softly in the overhead light. Her expression softened, and Evie knew she was thinking about her dad. “Still, it was nice of her.”
Evie decided not to comment on that. She had no idea if the family members of other dead soldiers got the same kind of personal attention from Defense Forces General Patricia Camden. Granted, Camden had been Ben’s commanding officer at the time of his death, and there seemed to be an element of personal responsibility playing into the yearly birthday gifts for both of them, a way of saying that Ben’s sacrifice was still remembered by the officer whose orders had sent him to his death. I’d be more than happy to skip the presents and have Ben back.
Squelching her annoyance at the general’s gift, Evie fished the little box out of her purse. “It’s nothing electronic, so don’t get your hopes up,” she warned as she handed it over.
“You mean you didn’t get me a Ringer? They’re just a couple thousand—” Ally lifted off the box top and gasped. “Oh, Mom. It’s beautiful!”
This time she lifted out a gold necklace with a pendant of the Cheshire Cat decorated with inexpensive but genuine pavé diamonds. “Put it on me?”
“But your pendant—”
“Take it off. I’ll wear it later.”
Hiding a smile, Evie did as ordered, dropping the silver pendant and chain in Ally’s palm and replacing it with her own gift. Both of them shared a deep and abiding love for Lewis Carroll’s books, and all of their birthday presents to each other had Wonderland or Looking Glass themes. Evie had stumbled across the necklace during a shopping expedition for Madam Song. It took her six months to save up for the piece, but seeing the pleasure on Ally’s face as she beamed at the little gold cat made it all worthwhile.
After they ate through a significant portion of the cake, Tia Juanita moved in to clear away the dishes while everyone else headed into the living room with coffee or soft drinks. Luis and Isabella took their usual chairs while Evie and Ally curled up together on the sofa. Since it was Ally’s birthday she got to pick the latest episode of her favorite telenovela, featuring a young journalist crusading against corruption in the SoCal Protectorate.
Luis made a masterful effort to stay awake, but by nine o’clock he was dozing. Isabella shooed him off to bed, then announced that she was heading there as well. “You two have a nice chat,” she said, kissing Ally first, then Evie. “It’s so good to have both my niñas home.”
“Love you, Mama,” Ally said, and Evie echoed her. Ally had only been six when she joined their family. It had seemed appropriate for her to call Evie’s parents Mama and Papa, and Evie hadn’t objected. It wasn’t until Ally was nine that she came home from school one day and announced that she was calling Evie “Mom.” “Because I love Mama and Papa, but you’re the one who adopted me so that makes you my mom, right?” the little girl had said.
Evie hadn’t been able to argue with her logic. As the living room door clicked shut she got up to get another drink. “Sweetie, do you want a refill?”
“No, thanks. But I need to talk to you about something.”
The younger woman’s hesitant tone stopped Evie in mid-stride. “What’s wrong?”
Ally’s lips paled as she nibbled at them. “Something happened last week. Something weird.”
Evie sat back down, alert now. Since graduating high school that spring Ally had been working as an au pair for an upwardly mobile Management family, the Perlmans. Evie had vetted them thoroughly and found no records of misconduct towards Employees from either of them. But it wasn’t impossible for such records, if they existed, to be erased, and Ally had grown up from an adorable child into a lovely young woman. “Did Mr. Perlman do something?”
Ally’s eyes widened and she shook her head. “No, nothing like that. Both of them are pretty nice—you know, for Managers—and I like the kids.” She touched her pendant, then took a deep breath. “The thing is, Mr. Perlman won this all-inclusive trip to the Gold Rush Adventure Park through his office. They thought it would be educational for the kids, so they took me along to keep an eye on them.”
Evie felt her eyebrows rise. The Adventure Parks operated by Prometheus Cybernetics were luxury theme resorts, each one featuring a famous period in history and staffed by humanoid androids and their living operators. Most Employees could never afford a pass to an Adventure Park unless they went along as entourage for a Manager, Engineer, or Shareholder. “Wow. So what was it like?”
Enthusiasm lit Ally’s face. “It was amazing. The introductory brochure said that the park was set up to duplicate San Francisco between 1849 and 1852, and it’s so detailed. There’s a wharf area with ships, and mining camps where you can pan for gold, or you can stay in the city zone and explore all the stuff there. It’s seriously authentic, too—you have to wear period clothes while you’re there and you can’t bring in outside electronics. Jack threw a fit when I told him he had to leave his GameMaster behind.” She plucked at her necklace again. “After the first day Mr. Perlman and Jack wanted to go panning for gold and ride horses, but Mrs. Perlman and Kathryn wanted to explore the city, so I stayed with them at the hotel. One evening Mrs. Perlman got a taste for something sweet. She’d seen these fancy boxes of chocolate in a general store near the hotel, so she sent me out to get some for her and something called sarsaparilla for Kathryn.”
Evie frowned. “I didn’t think chocolate was a thing during the Gold Rush.”
“Yeah, well, apparently Domenico Ghirardelli was actually in business at the time, so a general store that sold candy was okay.” Ally shrugged. “But plastic bags aren’t period, so I had to juggle this big box of mixed chocolates and two bottles of sarsaparilla while trying to get through the crowd. Then I saw this alleyway that I thought cut through to the street with the hotel.” She glanced away, lips pressed together tightly for a second. “So I went down it. I mean, it’s not like anything bad could happen in an Adventure Park, right?”
From the sound of it, that wasn’t totally accurate. “What happened?” Evie asked, concerned.
“The alley went through this little lot that butted onto the back of the buildings. There were a couple of lanterns bolted to the walls, but it was still pretty dark. I didn’t even see the two guys there until I ran into one of them.” Ally’s throat worked as she swallowed. “I don’t know if they were real and thought I was one of the droids, or if they were staff with some seriously messed-up programming. But they started asking all these creepy questions, like if I had a boyfriend, had I ever been kissed, that kind of stuff. I was really getting scared when suddenly this other guy came up from behind me and asked if they were bothering me. The first two guys tried to cut him off, but he flipped back his jacket and showed them this big gun he had in a belt holster.” She took in a shaky breath. “The guys took off after that. I turned around to thank him, and he stepped into the light from one of the lanterns. That’s when I saw his f-face.”
Her eyes turned glassy from unshed tears. “It was Dad, Mom. I swear to God, it was Dad.”
The emotional whiplash of going from protective maternal rage to old grief left Evie speechless for a moment. “Honey, that’s impossible,” she finally said, as gently as she could. “Your dad’s—”
“Dead. I know,” Ally interrupted. “I know he’s dead. But this man—this android, whatever he was—he looked like Dad, but not when he died. He looked like Dad would look now if he were still alive.”
That made no sense. “How do you know that?”
“I’ll show you.” Ally jumped up and dashed out of the room, coming back after a minute with an old photo that had been permasealed. She handed it to Evie. “Dad left me all these pictures of his family. This is my grandpa Drake when he was in his forties.”
The man was clearly Benjamin Drake’s father, judging by the facial resemblance and the old-fashioned clothes. “The man I saw looked just like Grandpa, only with a little beard,” Ally continued. “I think he was supposed to be a gambler or something.”
It was hard to ignore the fact that Ben would have been very handsome in his forties. “Well, your dad was a Defense Forces captain,” Evie temporized. “Maybe they use their appearance as templates for droids after they—after they’re gone.”
Ally shook her head. “You don’t understand. When I saw him, I said, ‘Daddy?’ I know it sounds stupid, but I couldn’t help it.” She leaned forward, pleading for belief. “Mom, he recognized me. He knew who I was.”
A cold feeling prickled along Evie’s spine. It was possible that someone had lifted the biometrics of a dead Defense Forces officer to reuse them for the physical form of an android, but what Ally was suggesting was impossible. “What did he say to you after that?”
“Nothing. He just took me back to the main street, told me to be careful, and walked off.” Her fists clenched in her lap. “I should have followed him. I should have made him talk to me.”
“Honey.” Evie put her hand over the younger woman’s white-knuckled one. “It wasn’t your dad. It couldn’t be. We got his ashes, remember?”
Ally pulled her hand away. “We got someone’s ashes. The Defense Forces could have lied to us, they could have kept him somewhere, used his brain—”
“No,” Evie cut in. She had to calm Ally down before this spiraled out of control. “That’s impossible. Maybe someone used your dad’s biometrics when they created that android, but you can’t put a human brain inside an android body. I know that for a fact.”
There was still hope in those blue eyes that resembled Ben’s. “I know, but maybe, I don’t know, they transferred his memories or something?”
Evie shook her head. “You can’t upload human memories to a machine intelligence processor. It doesn’t work that way.” God, she wished it did. “Whoever this—individual—was, it was just coincidence that he looked like your dad.”
She hated watching the hope drain out of Ally. “But he knew me,” the younger woman said. “I swear he knew who I was.”
“Oh, sweetie. I’m so sorry.” Evie pulled her into a hug, feeling the younger woman’s shoulders start to shake as she cried silently. It was clear what had happened; a stress reaction combined with a staff member who happened to resemble her father had made Ally see something that wasn’t there.
But she couldn’t tell Ally that. Her daughter’s heart had already been broken enough.
After making sure that Ally was tucked into her old bed for the night, Evie told Tia Juanita to lock up after her and took the MLR back to Song’s compound, still mulling over her daughter’s story. Her cybernetics training was a few years out of date, but she still knew what was and wasn’t possible with the technology. What she’d said was true; the individual Ally had seen at Gold Rush couldn’t be an android with Ben’s memories or some kind of cyborg. That was impossible.
The detail about how his appearance had aged, however, kept plucking at her. It was most likely pure coincidence, a case of finite facial combinations resulting in an unfortunate resemblance. Everyone had a doppelgänger somewhere; Ben’s just happened to be an android.
But it still struck her as odd. The maglev stopped at the station closest to the Song compound and she got off, musing about what it would take to hack into the park’s systems and see if she could locate Ally’s gambler. If she could figure out a way to turn it into an cybersecurity experiment and get Song’s blessing to use the house systems, all the better.
Still deep in thought, Evie passed a greenspace known as the Midway. The rim of the park had been designed to mimic an old-fashioned carnival, complete with booths featuring a variety of games, a robotic fortuneteller, vendors that sold popcorn and cotton candy, and rides for the children. During the day it was a favorite location for Employee nannies and their Shareholder charges, but at this time of night it was deserted.
She was almost past the fortuneteller’s booth when something flickered in the corner of her eye. Turning, she saw a small blue firefly light dancing over the booth’s window, blinking on and off. It didn’t appear to be a spark, more like a programmed light.
The booth itself was a wooden cabinet done in cheerfully garish tones of red and gold, with the words, “Madame Epiphany Tells Your Fortune!” painted on the top panel in an old-fashioned circus font. Inside the booth, a mechanical automaton had been done up as an exotic fortuneteller, complete with dark skin, ebony ringlets tumbling out of a spangled kerchief, and tarnished gold hoops in her ears. The cabinet’s builder had taken some care with painting Epiphany’s face, but years of sunlight had worn the colors down to faded pastel smears against the deep, rich base of her skin. Her umber eyes were the only thing about her that seemed real.
The dancing pinpoint light appeared again. Curious, Evie went closer until she could see it was a laser pointer sketching the words, “Get Your Fortune Told For Free!” across the glass. It had to be some kind of new advertising maneuver.
The big red button that would activate the machinery inside the case lit up, startling her. The laser message appeared again, strobing against the glass. One of the park keepers was going to catch hell for leaving this thing on overnight.
She glanced around at the empty park. Then again, it wasn’t like she got something for free very often. What the hell, why not?
Smirking at herself, she stepped up and pressed the button. “Okay, bruja,” she murmured, “tell me my damn fortune.”
The light disappeared as if it had heard her. Then it painted three words on the glass, and every drop of blood in Evie’s body turned to ice.
ALLY WASN’T WRONG.
The words disappeared, to be replaced by three new words:
WE’LL CONTACT YOU.
“Beautiful, fluid with whipsmart technology, and good to the core. Nicola M. Cameron has given us a fast-paced, heart-tugging cyber-romance that I couldn’t stop reading. A deeply satisfying book for fans of cyberpunk, science fiction, and romance alike.”
– Cecilia Tan, RT Award-winning author of Slow Surrender
Want to read the rest of the story? Purchase a copy here (Kindle).
TGIF! Let’s kick off the weekend with Shari Elder’s hot new paranormal romance Unnatural Allies (Shifting Alliances Book 2), now available from Evernight Publishing and other purveyors of online romance. Take it away, Shari!
Thank you so much for having me on your blog. I’m very excited to share Unnatural Allies, Book Two in the paranormal romance series, Shifting Alliances. Although part of a series, it can be read as a stand-alone novel.
Violent fae encroachment on shifter land is heating up. With death tolls rising, the impossible becomes necessary – an alliance among predator and prey shifters.
An Inconceivable Love
Nicca Baron, lone wolf and wolf clan beta, finds herself under the command of Evan Grant, the rat alpha. In different circumstances, he’d be dinner. Or so her wolf keeps reminding her. Evan proves to be a perceptive leader, a skilled fighter and irresistible to her lonely heart.
To rule the rats, you have to rule the pack. Evan is a whiz at managing people and groups. Until he finds himself leading a mission made up of every single large animal that thrives on rat flesh. And not the kind between his legs. The only bright light is Nicca. Her storm gray eyes miss nothing, her brilliant mind comprehends everything and her succulent curves offer the perfect place for a rat to nestle.
An Impossible Future
In each other’s arms, Nicca and Evan discover love and a new perspective in an off-kilter world. But a wolf cannot mate with a rat, no matter the strength of the human attraction.
Evan had never seen Nicca look frightened before. Those silver eyes expanded into saucers, and they were still beautiful. He wanted to wrap her in his arms, just hold her close as they both tried to process a world spinning out of control. Even his rat wanted to comfort her.
She was getting under skin and fur.
The last leaves hung limp on the branches, resisting winter’s pull. Away from the sidhe, the air had warmed, although the sky retained a grayish winter hue. Shifter bodies held heat, keeping them comfortable in the most brutal frost. Evan burned hot from continuous movement, the too frequent adrenaline spikes, and Nicca’s nearness. Everything about her fit, like she was made for him. That agile mind, open-mindedness, those lush curves. Hell, she even spouted poetry. He yearned to put a sign around her neck—no trespassing, this woman belongs to Evan Grant.
Except for that whole wolf thing…
“Why don’t we find a comfortable place to set up camp near Fairy Falls and call it a day?” he said to get his mind back to practical things, not wishing for something he couldn’t have. He told himself he selected the location as part of the mission. All species declared the pristine, wild falls a safe zone, so they wouldn’t need the wolves or eagles to stand guard. The fact that it was the number one rated site for shifter romances had nothing to do with the selection. Nothing at all.
No one would ever accuse Nicca of talking too much, but she was withdrawn even for her on the hike to the Falls. “Any suggestions on places to sleep?” he asked when her silence got too loud for him.
“I’ve, uh, never really been here,” she whispered, looking at the ground. “Just run by it on patrols sometimes.”
“And that makes you sad?” He itched to run his hand down her cheek.
“This mission makes me sad.” Her gaze stayed lowered as she walked.
His rat senses perceived a deep despondency wrapped around her like a black aura.
“This mission makes you angry, anxious, and confused. Not sad.”
“Who are you to correct my assessment of my emotional state?” She gave him a half-hearted snarl. He figured he’d hit an open, raw nerve.
“I lead this mission, and I will not have you fall apart on me. Right now, you are not okay.” He opened his arm, aping Rafe’s earlier action, inviting her to him to take comfort. “Let me help.” Let me touch you.
She visibly shook herself, ignoring his outstretched limb. “You’re right. I need space. Let me run as wolf.”
He dropped his hand, then nodded to cover the ripping sound his heart was making. “Stay close,” he said over the lump of disappointment lodged in his throat. “Give me your backpack, and I’ll find a place to sleep. Meet me at the falls when you’re done.”
Relief brightened her eyes. Once shifted, she brushed against his leg, then licked at his hand dangling by his side. He ran his fingers through her thick, gray fur touched with black and silver as she trotted off. “Grab some happy, Nicca,” he said into the air, as she raced out of sight. Come back to me. Accept me.
Alone, he hummed as he walked toward the falls. The low tune soothed his skittish rat, who hated being alone and wasn’t too fond of the woods. Rats felt secure in the pack. The human in him appreciated the red gold of the sunset streaking across the powder blue of the sky, weaving in and out of spiky, hunter green firs that ate up the landscape. Beauty truly did soothe an aching heart. The whirr of winter birds, a chorus to his ears, unnerved the rat. He picked up his pace, following the smell of ice and the roar of the falling water.
When he arrived at the falls, he saw Nicca standing at the edge of the descending water, running her fingers through the stream. That sadness he’d sensed earlier scented the air and dulled those unique gray eyes. Following a powerful intuition, he approached quietly, staying upwind so she wouldn’t notice until he stood directly behind her. She may have rejected his offer of support earlier, but he was determined to try again. His way.
She turned to face him, and tilted her head up to meet his gaze. He pushed behind one ear a lock of hair that was draped along her cheek. The tresses felt like silk, the skin velvet against his fingertips.
He leaned over, touching lips to lips ever so gently. Giving comfort. Sneaking a taste. Exploring what might be. She pressed back, her mouth opening slightly beneath his. He sank into cherry and cinnamon, shyness and heat. She didn’t require a friend; she needed a lover. He desperately wanted to be that man.
He pulled back, falling hard for the blush staining her cheeks a bright pink.
“Follow me,” he said, taking her hand, and led her to the camping spot he noticed along the way.
To love a wolf.
Where to Buy
About the Author
Hello, I’m Shari. By day, I crawl out of bed, mainline coffee, walk the dog, get my kid off to school, hop on the metro, and save cities within the four walls of my office. Usually by email.
At night, the other Shari emerges. I take off the suit, curl up on the couch and let my imagination play, with words and images until stories take shape (while periodically checking on my teen-ager, hiding out in the bedroom and plotting world domination with her furry minions). As my alter ego, I save cities in a cape and spangled tights, wander space and time on a surfboard, fly over the Himalayas on feathered wings, make six-toed footprints in indigo talc snow on the sixth planet in the Andromeda galaxy or eavesdrop on Olympian gods while pretending to whip up a bowl of ambrosia.
In all these wondrous worlds, romance and passion blossom. I can’t resist a happy ending. And I am particularly prone to writing happy endings for those who have given up on ever getting one. That gives me immense satisfaction.
Warning: I’m getting political here. If you want to believe that romance writers should be Switzerland, you may want to go somewhere else for the moment.
So I’m trying to work on Cross Current while watching the run-up to the vote in the House of Representatives over the new iteration of the AHCA, and taking breaks to comfort friends who are having panic attacks because this bill passing means that they or their loved ones will lose their health insurance, and wondering how badly this is going to make our own health care costs go up (I have two autoimmune disorders which will be considered pre-existing conditions), and generally being pissed off at the attempts of some very rich people to turn us all into out and out serfs. Because let’s be honest, this country is already an oligarchy.
And man, I really wish there was something powerful and mind-changing that I could say about this, especially since I’m a writer and words are my tools. But I can’t. The Backfire Effect means that people won’t listen to reason and fact if it contradicts their core beliefs, and apparently the core beliefs of those who want to vote YES on this bill can be condensed to, “Screw you, Jack, I got mine.” So instead, I’m gonna tell you a story.
Back in 1998, Ramón and I had just moved to Sweden for his contract job with a major telecoms company that I shall call the Three Blue Sausages. Ramón’s teenaged sister the Generalissima had come with us for various reasons, and was starting school in Stockholm while I started my own new job as a tech writer at TBS.
On the third day of my new job, I went home after work and found our apartment looking like a whirlwind had torn it apart — papers everywhere, the phone book out, just a mess. Grumbling about slob teenagers, I start cleaning the place when the phone rang.
It was the Generalissima. “Nic, I’m sorry,” she said in a small voice. “Your mum’s dead.”
It turned out that the place was a mess because she’d torn it apart trying to find a phone number for TBS so that she could call and tell me (I hadn’t gotten an office phone yet). I remember thanking her, hanging up, and calling my sister to find out what had happened.
As it turned out, my mother, who had been working as a temp secretary without health insurance, had developed a serious case of cellulitis. She couldn’t afford to see a doctor and tried to treat it herself. It went systemically septic over the course of six weeks. My brother, who lived with her, got scared when the pain grew too bad and took her into the local charity hospital for help. After a day of treatment they sent her home, telling him he could nurse her as well as they could. That night she was sitting on the couch, shocky and unable to speak, writing in notes that she could see man-like shapes hovering in the corners of the room. She sent my brother into his bedroom so that she could change out of the adult diapers the hospital had put her in; he asked if she wanted help, and she silently shooed him away. After a half hour, he came back out. He found her slumped over on the couch, her eyes still open, panties in her hand.
Not the image you want to have of your mother’s last moments on earth, by the way. Not at all.
I flew back to the States the next day, and am still grateful to the kind flight attendant who found me a row where I could stretch out and not upset the other passengers with my quiet crying. Mom wound up at the local mortuary, which was run by a former schoolmate of my aunt’s. He told her that Mom’s legs were in such bad condition they probably would have required amputation if she had lived.
Thing is, none of this happened in a war-torn place or a third-world nation. Mom lived in Whiting, Indiana, within spitting distance of Chicago. She worked all of her adult life, a great deal of it at the University of Chicago. She died because she couldn’t afford to go see a doctor and get antibiotics for a bacterial infection before it turned life-threatening. She was 58.
And I look at all of those GOP representatives in Congress preparing to vote on the AHCA, ramming it through even though it’s incomplete and CBO hasn’t even had a chance to put an accurate price tag on it. And I have to wonder — if their mothers are dead, did it happen because they couldn’t afford health insurance? Did they die while hallucinating and struggling to put on a pair of panties? Somehow, I strongly doubt it. So why are they expecting the rest of us to watch the people we love die in such a horrible way?
I say the rest of us because it’s written into the very bill that members of Congress won’t have to use the same kind of health coverage they’re expecting everyone else to live with. Congressional health coverage is great. They’ll be fine. And their owners will be fine, as well. And the super wealthy who are going to get a seriously juicy tax cut from this bill? They’re going to be the happiest of all.
I can tell that I haven’t worked on this series for awhile — getting back into the rhythm and the voices of the established characters has taken a bit of work, and I’ve also switched up the new characters for this book (my MC was originally ex-military, but that was making him a bit too hard-assed for the purposes of the book so I switched it out — he now practices Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, which should be more than enough for the heroics he’ll be doing later on in the book). I think I’m solidly back in place now, and chapter 1 of Cross Current will be done by the end of the day. With a good tail wind and some effort I may have all of Act I done by the end of this week, which would be nice.
Now if the Sudafed and Tylenol I just took to relieve this damn sinus pressure would kick in, life would be a dream.
OH! One last thing — I’ve joined Instagram. Yeah, it was bound to happen eventually. Anyhoo, you can follow me and get an inside look at the life of a hybrid romance writer. A warning — cats will be featured prominently. But you already knew that, didn’t you?