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Fabulous Friday Reads: Goddess in Waiting

TGIF! Let’s kick off the weekend with Ekaterine Xia’s hot new fantasy romance Goddess in Waiting, now available from Amazon and other purveyors of romance ebooks. Take it away, Ekaterine!


Amarantha, goddess of memory, is called to present Earth’s case before the Elder Council.

If she fails to persuade them that Earth is on track to Ascension, the planet will be reset back to prehistoric days.

And that’s the good ending.

The Devourer of Worlds looms in wait to claim Earth as his rightful salvage. Not content with the planet as a main course, he’s also set his eyes on having godlings as appetizers.

Since drama comes in threes, not only does Amarantha have the Council and the D to contend with, but she must also negotiate the status of her marriage with Death himself.

Can a goddess nearly Faded into mortal flesh save the world, herself, and her marriage along with it?


Story Excerpt

“There is a challenger. If we do not meet his challenge, then he lays claim to all of Earth as salvage. All of Earth, all of its inhabitants — devoured,” Ra said.

“By what claim?”

It was Alex who answered. “Failure to ascend before achievement of interstellar travel.”

I threw up my hands in disgust. “Of all the excuses. We are so far from interstellar travel it isn’t even funny.”

“Actually…”

I gaped at Ra, who only shrugged, her answering grimace wry.

“Remember those alien ships that crashed a few decades ago? Well, they think they’re on the verge to cracking the riddle.”

They. The dancing monkeys that called themselves world leaders.

Exhaling a slow breath out, I pinched the point between my brows. “How close is on the verge?”

“It could be anything from decades to mere days. Breakthroughs are hard to predict.”

I slumped back into my seat, cuddled the amphora to my chest, and took a good long slurp. There really wasn’t enough booze there to make the situation even vaguely tenable, but no sense in heading into a quandary sober when I could do it somewhat sloshed. The wine was good. Very good. No wonder Alex drank the stuff like water.

A tipsy gurgle escaped. For all I knew, it had been water. That was one of Alex’s tricks, after all.

We drank silently and steadily for a while. To their credit, Alex and Ra didn’t push. Probably because they knew I was one word away from saying fuck it. They knew what happened the last time, what I’d lost.

We did end up breaking out the Ninety-nine and special potion Five after the sixth bathroom run. Having a super charged metabolism wasn’t all it was fired up to be when it meant that you spent more time running to the toilet than you did drunk.

I gave in when the sun started heading west. They weren’t going away and neither was the situation.

“All right. So tell me again: why me? I’m just a little, minor goddess out of mostly obscured Chinese legend with a specialty for memories. Eighteen Hells, most people don’t even know I’m a goddess or that I exist.”

I lifted my cup and pointed at Alexandros, continuing to grouse, “I can see why Mr. Sunnyface over there doesn’t want the job, but why not any of the numerous more well-known gods out there?”

At this point, Alex’s drinking problems aside, none of us wanted to give his worshipers the satisfaction of knowing that they were right about his existence. Including him. Not to mention that he already had more than enough on his plate to deal with all the problems his followers dreamed up on a daily basis. If we put more on his shoulders, he could very well decide that he was better off perpetually floating in a vat of wine rather than not. As it was, he was already close to being pickled. Even Dionysus couldn’t keep up, which was saying something.

Ra flicked me a look. “Most of ’em have gone the incarnation route. Or they’ve gone on walkaround.” Which you would know if you were paying any attention at all, her expression said.

I shrugged. That was something I had no guilt over. Why, when gods Fell, incarnated, Faded, and Slept on a whim? Who you had with you at any given time was who you had.

“But not all. I mean, if you’re scraping the barrel, you could consider Bast, Tiamat, or who’s that one with the gorgeous accent and the feathers?”

Alexandros raised his hand and started ticking down fingers. “Bast is currently Fallen as a cat who is pet to the principessa of some rich country. She’s hardly going to give up her foie gras and cream for this posting, even if we did manage to get through to her in her current form. Your hot stud with the gorgeous accent and feathers recently went on tour of another world to find more worshippers. And do we really need to bring up Tiamat? If we let Tiamat be the representative of Earth, we might as well let the challenger have it. It’ll be less embarrassing.”

I tsked at him. “Tiamat would be heartbroken to hear you say that about her.” True though. She was just a bit too closely allied with chaos for diplomacy. Not that we didn’t like Chaos and Entropy, but really, it would be like bringing your favorite rabid squirrel to a party and expecting things to not go sideways.

He arched a brow. “Tiamat can…”

Ra sighed. “Children…

“The buddhas have gone. Alex can’t and won’t do it. Fates and Stars, you don’t want Alex doing it because you don’t want to give his followers the chance to be smug. Anandi and I can’t do it because we have descendants and they don’t count us as impartial parties. Almost everyone else has incarnated or Fell. Tell me, Amarantha, who would you leave the future in the hands of right now?”

“Impartial? That’s a requirement now? And who on this blue earth is impartial?”

Alex gave me an oddly sweet smile, untainted by cynicism or bitterness. “It’s your choice, Amarantha. But I know you. You’ve already made it, haven’t you?”

I took a swig of special potion Five. It hit me like a ton of bricks, a warm sensation floating up from my abdomen, my memories blurring slightly, my emotions clouding just enough for me to say the fateful words.

“Fine. I’ll do it. What does it entail; where’s my entourage; how do I kill the big bad; and what’s the treasure?”


Where to Buy

Amazon US | Amazon UK | Amazon CA | Amazon AU


About the Author

Traverser of realms, dreamer, dabbler in all things fantastical – Katje builds worlds where HEAs are possible for everyone.

Be it reuniting star-crossed lovers in magical ancient China, dragon shifters searching for a new homeworld in space jellyfish, short fluffy brown girls, sweet shy nerd boys, lovers who’ve missed the happy boat six lifetimes in a row, imaginary friends, and the odd goddess or two. Plus Death. Never forget Thanatos.

Katje also writes shorter, spicier stories as E. Xia.

Website/Blog | Twitter | Wattpad | Amazon | Newsletter

Mid Week Tease: Red Robin and the Huntsman #MidWeekTease #MWTease

MWTease15Hello, lovelies! I know I said I wasn’t going to post any more teasers from Red Robin and the Huntsman, but I don’t have anything else that’s ready to go, so here’s another scene. Oh, and I’ve just added the reference pic I use whenever I write these two. You should see who I have in mind as Duncan’s brothers!

Many thanks to Angelica Dawson for hosting us, and make sure to hit the list after the teaser to see other great Mid Week Teases!


Robin grinned up at him. “I always wanted to see you naked. I used to daydream about this, in particular.” She touched the belted V of muscle that bracketed his hips. “It disappeared into your breeches like an arrowhead. I always wanted to see how far down it went.”

His dark eyes glittered in the candlelight. “All the way down, my lady.”

“Really? How delightful.” Letting her fingers trail down his chest and abdomen, she reached the fastening of his breeches. Undoing them was the work of a few moments, and she eased the placket open. As he claimed, the muscle band continued to the top of his groin, where a deliciously thick length pressed in a diagonal against the fabric of his breeches. All she had to do was pull them open further—

He took her hand, pausing it. “If you touch me now, I’ll spend,” he said matter-of-factly. “And I’ve been dreaming of this for far too long to go that quickly. Lie back down, there’s a good lass.”

Torn between a deliciously wicked desire to see him reach his peak and a burning need to have him inside her, Robin did as he asked. He straddled her body, leaning down to capture her mouth in another of those deliciously sensual kisses. His chest hair teased her nipples as they kissed, and she wanted to grind against him until the throbbing flesh between her legs finally gained some relief. But with his knees planted on either side of her thighs she was effectively trapped, waiting on his pleasure.

Not knowing what to do with her hands, she let them rest on his back, tracing the valley of his spine between the long bands of muscle there. Unexpectedly he lifted his head and sucked in a quick, happy breath at her touch.

How long has it been since he’s been touched like this? It gave her an idea. “Move to the side.”

“What?”

“It’s all right. Move for a minute.”

He did, gingerly balancing on the edge of the narrow bed. “Did I hurt you? I tried to keep my weight off—”

“No, you’re fine.” She rolled into a sitting position, patting the coverlet where she had just been. “Stretch out on your stomach.”

He blinked, then glanced down at the unmistakable bulge in his breeches. “That’s … not the best idea right now, love.”

She bit her lip. “Oh. Well, just sit on the edge of the bed, then.”

He did, reluctantly. Moving to kneel behind him, she studied his broad back. Thick with muscle at the shoulders, it tapered down to a trim waist, evidence that he hadn’t been spending the last twelve years commanding a desk. The waistband of his loosened breeches gaped, and she could just make out a pair of dimples bracketing his spine. Idly, she wondered what he would do if she licked them.

First thing’s first. Sliding her hands up his back, she started rubbing his shoulders, pressing her thumbs into tight muscles as she massaged. He made a noise she’d never heard before and sagged under her hands. “Oh, gods. That’s it—I’m marrying you if I have to bribe Patriarch Reniel himself.”

“I don’t think you have to go quite that high.” She kissed the valley of his spine and felt him shudder. “Pater Colbert would be more than happy to marry us.”

He reached back, stilling her hand. “I mean it, Robin. I want to marry you. If you’ll have me, that is.”

She trailed her mouth across the skin of his back to his neck, gently sucking there and raising another full body shiver from him. “We’ll talk about that tomorrow. Tonight, I want you to make love to me, captain. Can you do that?”

She felt more than saw him smile. “Whatever my lady wants.”


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Marvelous Monday Reads: The Dreamboat

Welcome to another edition of Marvelous Monday Reads, cupcakes! Today I’m featuring E.D. Parr and her new M/M fantasy romance The Dreamboat. Take it away, E.D.!


Gorgeous, powerful warlock, Indigo Vaughn, sells his magic spells to people looking to make a dream come true. One night, as he gazes down on the city below from his sky barge The Dreamboat, he wonders why, in centuries, his own wish for a man to love hasn’t materialized.

Beautiful, sexy, Darian O’Harr has suffered his fair share of misery. He’s a musician and learned long ago to sing for his supper. New to the city, he comes to Indigo seeking a spell that will bring him the love of a handsome man.

As soon as he sets eyes on Indigo, his heart races and his body betrays his pent up needs.

Here is the man of his dreams. What can Darian do as the warlock gathers his magic to cast a spell that will bring him another man?


Story Excerpt

Indigo didn’t sleep well for three nights after meeting Darian. On the fourth night he didn’t sleep at all. His sexual needs beat at him, until he couldn’t think straight. His desire burned until all he could think about was fucking. He pushed his breakfast around on his plate the next morning. That day he stalked the corridors of The Dreamboat eschewing meetings and focused only on the security arrangements for the queen’s celebrations. At sixteen hundred hours he called Milan to his side.

“Will you make an appointment at Temptations for me? Twenty-three hundred hours will be good.”

Milan’s gentle smile comforted him. “One, Two, or Three, sir?”

Indigo shook his head slowly. His desire threatened to overwhelm him. Nearly crazed with sexual need, Indigo needed to deal with it or be incomplete for weeks to come. “All of them. Thank you.”

Moments later, Milan returned. “You’re expected at Temptations, twenty-three hundred hours as you requested. Permit me to take you there and wait to bring you home?”

“Yes, of course.”

****

Temptations buzzed with chatter and thumped with music in the main downstairs room. People danced, some grinding their bodies against each other’s.

A host met Indigo. “It’s been a while, sir. I trust you are well. Your requested companions are ready.”

Indigo nodded. He silently followed the host to the upstairs room where beautiful men he knew only by a number would slake his desires that night.

The host left him.

Indigo wore only a belted kilt and ankle length hooded cloak over his naked body. He stepped out of his soft suede ankle boots, and waited, his cock already half-erect with anticipation.

Gorgeous men entered the room, their naked bodies muscled, their eyes dark with desire, they came to Indigo silently.

Indigo savored their looks, big cocks already filling out into erections. His admiring gaze raked over the men, their lush dark hair, soft and well-cut, blue eyes, gray eyes, smooth skin free of body hair, and his cock jerked as his stomach tightened. He loved men. These men were the best of Temptations male brothel, and they’d serviced him once before a year ago. He sighed recalling the satisfaction. The night sparkled with promise. He watched with growing sexual hunger.

One carried a tray and placed it on the table away from the huge low bed. On the tray—a carafe of water so cold it misted the glass, sachets of lube, condoms, sex toys, tissues, and a wine glass.

One unclipped Indigo’s cloak and after grazing his lips on Indigo’s, he brought the cloak to a freestanding rail and hung it.

A low murmur of appreciation fell from Indigo’s mouth as he savored the fleeting kiss from One’s perfect lips.

Two knelt and traced his fingertips up and down Indigo’s legs, reaching his balls and circling feather light touches there that made Indigo’s cock fill out in a delicious slow sensation.

Indigo closed his eyes with lust as his stomach tightened and jerked his cock when Two stroked the backs of his thighs.

Three took the belt from Indigo’s kilt as One slid his hands around Indigo’s face and held him fast kissing him hungrily. The kiss seared desire through Indigo and he slid his palms along the satiny skin of One’s muscled chest with a groan.


Where to Buy

Evernight Publishing | Amazon.com | Bookstrand


About the Author

E.D Parr is a writer who is in love with happy endings, currently based in southern UK.

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Mid Week Tease: Red Robin and the Huntsman #MidWeekTease #MWTease

MWTease15Hello, lovelies! This week I’m teasing you with one last snippet from my holiday novella Red Robin and the Huntsman before its release next week!

Many thanks to Angelica Dawson for hosting us, and make sure to hit the list after the teaser to see other great Mid Week Teases!


Duncan woke early after a fitful night’s sleep interspersed with dreams about Robin. In one she was being carried off by brigands, and in another pirates. Despite his best attempts at carving a path through the men he could never reach her in time and was forced to listen to her screaming for help as she was borne off by her captors.

Out of sorts, he dressed and headed down to the chilly dining hall. From the smell in the air, there would be no meat or eggs available for breakfast this morning. His suspicions were confirmed when Adele hauled a cauldron full of oatmeal into the hall and started dishing it out. “There’s no raisins, I’m afraid, and we don’t have cream,” she said apologetically as she placed a steaming bowl in front of him. “But there’s some fresh milk and I can fetch a bit of sugar, if you like.”

Unappetizing as it was, the oatmeal was still better than some of the things he’d eaten on patrol. “This is fine, thank you.” Duncan reached for the salt cellar and sprinkled some on the oats. The contrast between the beige glop and the elegant pewter bowl acted as a sobering barometer of the Busse family’s finances.

To his surprise, the next person in the hall was a young boy, his reddish-brown hair cut neatly in a bowl crop and his large brown eyes bright and intelligent. “Hello,” he said as he climbed onto a chair. “You must be one of the soldiers come to help Ser Arthur.”

“I am,” Duncan said, twigging to the boy’s identity, “my lord. Captain Duncan Bardahlson, at your service.”

“I’m Charles Busse, Count of Wellen. But you can call me Charlie.” The young count beamed at Adele as she served him. Duncan noted that she took a sugar bowl from the sideboard, carefully scraping out grains of brown sugar to sprinkle on the boy’s breakfast. “It must be very exciting to be a soldier. Have you fought many thieves before?”

“Once or twice, aye. Usually horse thieves, although there was one time when I had to track down a jewel thief.”

The boy’s eyes widened. “Really? Did you catch him?”

“Her. And yes, I did.” The rest of that tale wasn’t appropriate for young ears, however, and the lady in question was now happily married to the jewel merchant she’d been robbing so everything had worked out in the end. “We’ll be heading out this week with Ser Arthur’s men to guard them while they collect the taxes.”

Charlie’s feathery brows lowered at that. “Do you think the thieves will attack again?”

“If they do, they’re very foolish. But we’ll be ready for them if they do.”

Ewan and Hamish picked that moment to troop in. Duncan made the introductions while Adele scooped out more bowls of oatmeal. Ewan gave his breakfast a disgusted look, but dug in while Charlie continued to ask questions about the upcoming tax collection. Duncan couldn’t help but be impressed with the child’s canny inquiries. Aye, you’re definitely your mother’s son.

Ser Arthur was the last to make an appearance, grimacing at the food. “Adele, why are we serving our guests oatmeal?” he asked. “I specifically requested ham steaks and eggs. You can’t expect soldiers to ride on this slop.”

Adele pressed her lips together. “We don’t have any ham steaks or eggs, Ser Arthur,” she said stolidly. “My lady said this was to be served for breakfast. ”

“Ach. Women.” Devines shook his head as he took his seat. “I’m sorry about that. I had asked for a proper breakfast, but this home clearly needs a stronger hand on the reins, eh?”

Charlie’s face reddened at that, and his fist tightened on the spoon. Quickly, Duncan said, “Oatmeal is quite filling and sticks to your ribs, Ser Arthur. The fact that we’re eating a hot breakfast at all is a pleasure, truly.”

“You’re too kind, captain. We’ll have to do better for you after you return.” After ordering Adele to bring him milk and sugar, the tax collector started on his own breakfast, orating between bites about his service to the king and how he would have gone into the army, “except I have these bone spurs, you see. Would’ve made me quite useless on the front lines.”

Duncan decided not to mention that a decent Terra mage could have healed something that minor. “Does that mean you won’t be coming out with us, Ser Arthur?”

Devines waved a sticky spoon at him. “Oh, no. Best for me to stay here and coordinate, don’t you think? I have full faith in you and your men’s abilities to keep the king’s taxes safe, captain.”

In other words, he didn’t want to travel in the cold weather. Duncan glanced at his brothers. Neither of them did anything as blatant as roll their eyes, but he could tell they both shared his rapidly dropping opinion of the tax collector.

Despite Charlie’s presence at the table, it was clear that Roberta wouldn’t be making an appearance at breakfast. Best to take that as a message and get on with it. “While we’re on the topic, gentlemen, may I suggest we head to Ser Arthur’s office after breakfast and plan out how we’re going to tackle the collection?” Duncan said.

The other men grunted in agreement, although Charlie seemed a bit forlorn. “Can I come with you when you gather the taxes, captain?”

Devines laughed loudly before Duncan had time to come up with a politic refusal. “Don’t be ridiculous, my lord,” the tax collector said, smirking. “You’re far too young for such a dangerous trip.”

The boy glared at the tax collector. “I’m not ridiculous, and I wasn’t talking to you, Ser Arthur.”

Devines’s smirk evaporated. “You impudent young pup. If you were my son, I’d take you over my knee for such impertinence,” he declared.

“But I’m not your son, am I?” Charlie shot back. “In fact, I’m count here, which means that I outrank you.”

Duncan cleared his throat before Devines could make matters worse. “My lord, while I appreciate your concern for your people and your lands, I’m afraid we can’t take civilians on this trip, what with the cold weather and the potential risk from brigands,” he said, careful to keep his tone respectful.

“But you’re taking Ser Arthur’s men,” Charlie pointed out.

Oh, he was most definitely Robin’s son. “They’re treasury employees, and as such are part of the royal government. Besides, it’s your duty as count to remain here and protect your estate and your mother.”

His words had their intended effect, and the boy nodded reluctantly. “All right. But I’d like to go into Halle this afternoon to see the holiday decorations. If you’re not leaving until tomorrow, you could take me there, couldn’t you?”

As if Robin would let him take her son anywhere. “We’ll have to ask your mother—”

“I’ll do it.” Limber as an eel, the young count slid off his chair and dashed out of the dining hall.

Devines huffed, tossing his napkin on the table. “You shouldn’t indulge the little rascal like that, captain,” he growled. “If I’d spoken to my father like that, he would’ve given me a taste of the strap.”

Duncan strongly doubted that Devines had ever felt so much as a flick on the ear, much less a strap across the backside, but he didn’t want to get into a discussion on child-rearing with the overbearing man. “I’m sure that her ladyship won’t want his lordship escorted off the estate grounds,” he said instead, scraping up the last of his oatmeal.

As it turned out, he was wrong. After the meeting had been wrapped up by a still huffy Devines, he’d gone to the stable to brush Fremder when he heard light footsteps behind him. They were followed by a tart, “So you’ve offered to take Charlie to Halle this afternoon?”

Duncan gathered himself, then turned to face his hostess. Robin was still wearing widow’s grey, but the shade held a hint of blue today. And even irritated, she was still beautiful enough to make his heart beat faster. “He wanted to go with us on the collection trip,” he said as evenly as possible. “I said that his duties were here, protecting you. He then asked if I could take him to Halle. I said it would be up to you. I assumed you wouldn’t want him going anywhere with me.”

Her eyes narrowed at his perfectly reasonable explanation. “Normally, I wouldn’t. But it would be good for him to attend the candle lighting ceremony this afternoon and tour the crafts fair. His people need to get to know him.”

She couldn’t seriously be suggesting… “Not being a nobleman, I’m not familiar with what airs and graces need to be put on for one’s people,” Duncan muttered, returning to his task.

She snorted, the sound still familiar even after so many years. “Oh, please. You needn’t sound as if I’m making Charlie out to be heir to the throne.”

There would be no finishing Fremder’s coat while she was there. Duncan turned back to her, currycomb in hand. “I’m not. I’m simply saying that I’m not a nobleman and I don’t know what goes into the job, all right?”

“I’m not asking you to tutor him in etiquette. But Charlie should go to Halle for the ceremony.”

“So take him.”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

He realized his mistake when he saw her jaw muscles tense. “We had to sell the carriage and horses. All I have left is that grey mare.” She nodded at a pudding-like horse placidly chewing hay. “And it wouldn’t do for me to ride into town on her with Charlie on my lap like a baby.”

Her statement confirmed Duncan’s suspicions that the Busse family had fallen on hard times. He wanted to ask what had happened, but the set of Robin’s shoulders suggested that now was not the time. “You might have noticed that I don’t have a carriage, either, my lady.”

She shook her head. “You’re a soldier. If Charlie rides with you, that would be all right. You’d be his bodyguard for the day.”

He had set this trap for himself well and proper. “I need to finalize plans with Ser Arthur before we leave tomorrow,” he tried.

Now she gave him a disgusted look. “Charlie said you just spoke with Ser Arthur. And it’s hardly as if you’re planning an invasion. You ride with his men and yours, you collect the tax, and you fight off anyone foolish enough to attack your convoy. Anyone with a basic understanding of military strategy would know that.”

“True. But a good strategist would want to make sure that everything comes off smoothly.”

Another snort. “Fine. I’ll tell Charlie you were too busy working on tactics to take him to Halle.” She turned to leave.

The boy’s hopeful face appeared in his mind. Duncan sighed. “Is it really that important for him to go?”

Robin paused. “Yes. He needs to get out, to see his people. And it’s good for them to see him. Besides…” She trailed off, her shoulders dropping a bit. “He doesn’t ask for much. I hate telling him no for something this … small.”

Duncan fought off a sudden urge to take her into his arms, if only to cuddle her and give her some sort of reassurance that everything would work out in the end. Aye, and you know damn well she’d plant a knee in your bollocks if you tried it. Hands to yourself, man.

Although… If he was honest, it wasn’t actually a bad idea to go to Halle for the afternoon and get a feel for the town. If nothing else, it was better than spending the time listening to Devines’s interminable stories or staring at the gloomy ceiling in his room. And if he took Ewan and Hamish with him, the three of them could share babysitting—no, count-sitting—duties. “Fine,” he said, making sure that his tone was properly put-upon. “I’ll take him into Halle.”

An unexpected sheen appeared in Robin’s eyes, making them glisten. “Thank you.”


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Mid Week Tease: Red Robin and the Huntsman #MidWeekTease #MWTease

MWTease15Hello, lovelies! This week I’m teasing you with a new snippet from my holiday novella Red Robin and the Huntsman. In it, we get a look at Duncan and Roberta: The Early Years, and see how things went sour between them. Man, I’m a mean author…

Many thanks to Angelica Dawson for hosting us, and make sure to hit the list after the teaser to see other great Mid Week Teases!


Getting ready for bed was a matter of shucking out of the day’s clothes, giving himself a quick wash with the now-cold water left on the dresser, then climbing into bed. The sheets were as cold as the water, and Duncan wondered if perhaps his men in the camp weren’t better off after all. At least they would have a decent fire, unlike the pitiful pile of twigs burning in his fireplace.

Waiting for the bedclothes to warm up, he thought about the woman sleeping not a hundred yards from his own bed. I suppose I should consider myself lucky I have a room at all. Considering the way she was looking at me, she would’ve put me in the stables if Devines hadn’t spoken up.

He turned over in the chilly bedclothes and remembered a happier time…

****

“Hellas?” Roberta Duquesne’s eyes widened at the news. “For how long?”

“Six months, give or take,” Duncan said, pacing the length of her father’s sitting room. He’d come straight from the barracks with the news and was too excited to sit down. “Possibly longer if we’re held up by storms.”

Being chosen for the Ypresian military delegation that would be sent to the island nation was an incredible honor, especially for an ensign fresh out of the academy. The ambassadors of King Matthias and King Cresus of Hellas had been working for the past year on a massive trade treaty between their countries. After all the details were finally hammered out, it would be sealed by the marriage of the king’s son Crown Prince Lucas to the Hellene heir Princess Danaë, once both of them were old enough to wed.

Even better, the treaty would also involve co-training of the two countries’ military forces. This delegation was the test case to see how that could best be achieved. Duncan wasn’t all that enthusiastic about having to spend time on a boat, but the experience he would gain in Hellas would be invaluable for his career. Once he returned to Ypres, he would be one of the officers setting out the track for the entire army’s future. His father was already lieutenant commander of the Ypresian army; he might even surpass that someday and become Lord Commander himself.

So he was disappointed when Robin sank onto a chair at his news, confusion and dismay warring on her face. Her father, Colonel Gerard Duquesne, had served as the commandant of the military academy for the last ten years. Of all people, she should know that a soldier’s life wasn’t his own. “They only chose three ensigns to go,” he said now, trying to ignore his irritation. “If I do well in Hellas, I’m sure to be promoted within the year.”

She still looked miserable. “But you’ll be in Hellas for half a year, Duncan. That’s so far away.”

“Aye, but it’s the only way we can learn how to fight alongside sailors. They can come here for the land trials, but we have to go where the water is for the sea trials.” He paused in front of the fireplace, relishing the heat. It was only autumn, but Mons had already seen a light dusting of snow. Hellas is supposed to be warm year ’round. Perhaps I could bring her out there for a trip–with a chaperone, of course.

He glanced at her, wondering how to snap her out of this puzzling funk. Their fathers had been army comrades for years, their families mingling at holidays and other celebrations. For most of Duncan’s childhood Robin had been a thin, gawky, annoying girl who insisted on being included in his war games with Ewan and Hamish. After he had gone off to the military academy, determined to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a renowned cavalry officer, all thoughts of Robin Duquesne evaporated from his head until his last year of school when his class was required to attend the academy’s Harvest Ball.

The event was held in order to give the future officers a semblance of social polish, and was always well attended by pretty young women eager to find a military husband. Reluctantly, Duncan had accompanied the other officer candidates to the ball, lurking on the outskirts of the dance floor. His unusual height presented certain disadvantages when it came to dancing; either the girl got a crick in her neck from peering up at him, or he spent the dance staring at the crown of her head. Granted, it also meant he got a good look at her bosom, but that tended to cause a certain reaction below the belt. The offset alignment in heights made it hard to hide his interest and had earned him a slapped face more than once.

He’d been on the verge of leaving when a tall, gorgeous redhead broke free from the feminine throng and approached him. Her pale teal gown made her look like a seamaid rising from the foam and outlined sleek curves that made his palms sweat. “Thank the gods you’re here, Duncan,” she said with a delighted smile. “Will you please dance with me and save me from the lead boots of your brother officers?”

With a start, he recognized Robin Duquesne. The annoying little girl of his memory had grown up into a stunning young woman. It took a moment to find his tongue, but he finally managed, “If you like. I’m warning you, I’m not much better.”

“At least you’re light on your feet. I’m willing to risk it.”

The sparkle in her eyes had been impossible to resist. He led her onto the dance floor, surprised at the way she fit so well in his arms, and found himself gliding around the ballroom with her as if they’d been dancing together for years. Without quite intending to, he found himself courting her. The sniping of their childhood slowly transmuted into easy bantering and a genuine rapport, spiced with sweet kisses and stolen caresses. Best of all, Robin had a knack for anticipating his thoughts, which was why her current dismay at his posting was so surprising.

“Six months isn’t that long, if you think about it,” he offered.

She scoffed at that. “Easy for you to say. What am I supposed to do while you’re off learning naval warfare?”

“I assumed you’d keep doing what you’ve been doing. Helping your ma, studying with your da, volunteering at the widows and orphans’ home, that sort of thing.”

Her eyes narrowed. “I see. So you go off to learn naval battle tactics, while I stay home with my parents and do charity work.”

Her chilly tone was as clear as a trumpet call to battle. “If there’s something else you want to do while I’m gone, you don’t need my permission,” he said, trying to sound conciliatory. “Go off and do it.”

“How kind of you. Unfortunately for me, the one thing I want to do requires the assistance of a husband.”

Duncan smothered a sigh. He knew she didn’t mean bedding, much as he longed to get her naked and under him. She wanted to marry him. “Robin, we’ve talked about this.”

“Yes, we have. You didn’t want to get married until you graduated. I could see your point, so I waited. Then, you had to find your footing in the army. Once again, I saw your point, so I waited. Now I learn that you’re heading off to Hellas for six months, give or take.” An elegant hand rose, opening in a sharp gesture. “Were you ever planning on marrying me, or was this all some elaborate ploy to stay in my father’s good graces?”

Duncan bristled. “That’s not fair, and you know it.”

“Isn’t it? I know Father was the one who drew up the list of officers to be sent to Hellas.”

“Which my da approved,” he shot back.

“Your father would’ve never put you on that list, and you know it. He’s bent over backwards to stay away from your military career.”

He tried to tamp down his rising anger. For the gods’ sake, why was she being so irrational? “I didn’t need my da’s help to get this posting, or yours,” he snapped. “I earned my way onto that list. I had the highest grades of my graduating class, and I’ve excelled at every training opportunity I’ve been given. I’m a damned good officer, Robin, and I deserve to go to Hellas.”

In prior years, she would have shouted at him, giving as good as she’d gotten. Now, her expression closed off, leaving him with a marble effigy of the woman he loved. Damn it, Robin, why can’t you see how this will help both of us? Sighing, he knelt down in front of her chair, taking her cold hands in his own. “Don’t you understand what this can mean for me, love? Quicker promotions, better postings, more money for a household.” He rubbed his thumbs over her delicate skin, trying to warm it. “And I need that money if I’m to marry you. Do you want to live in some run-down boarding house while I’m deployed? Because that’s all I can afford for you at the moment.”

She looked away, profile limned by the firelight. “I suppose not.”

“No, I didn’t think you would.” He lowered his tone, making it persuasive. “So I go to Hellas, do the best job I can do, and line things up for a promotion when I get back. And after that, we’ll get married, if that’s what you want.”

Now she turned back, storm-blue eyes focusing on him. “Is that what you want, Duncan?”

He paused, aware that he was treading on dangerous ground. He had always assumed that they would marry at some point. He had no issue with the idea, especially if it got Robin into his bed, but he wanted it to happen at the right time with regards to his career. Taking on a dependent (or more, if she got pregnant early) wasn’t on the schedule just yet.

But saying that out loud would just anger her even more. “Of course I want to marry you. And we’ll talk about it in more detail when I get back from Hellas, I promise.” He leaned closer, gazing into the storm-blue eyes he loved. “Trust me, Robin. Please.”

She hesitated for a moment, then nodded. “All right. Go to Hellas and make your mark. But I’ll expect regular letters, understood?”

“Of course, love.” He kissed her, breathing in her honeysuckle perfume as he memorized the softness of her lips. Gods, he truly would miss her. “I’ll write you every day, I promise.”

He had meant to keep that promise, even bringing paper, sealing wax, and ink with him to the island of Rhodope where the training would commence. But there had been so much to do, what with the working on the integration of Ypresian and Hellene fighting styles, teaching sailors how to ride horses and learning how to handle sail lines and tillers. And then there were the multitudinous tasks delegated to him and the other ensigns by their superior officers. By the time he reached his cot every night, he barely had enough energy to crawl under the thin cotton blanket and fall into dreamless slumber. He kept meaning to write to Robin, would remind himself to do just that the next day before drifting off. And then the next day would dawn and he would be back in the grind.

It wasn’t until his delegation was preparing to leave that he found himself with enough time to compose a letter. He had sat there, staring at the blank paper, a drop of ink hanging off the nib of his quill. Why even bother? It’ll take a week to reach her, and I’ll be there less than a week afterward. Better to save all the news for when I can tell her in person.

Cheered at the thought, he wiped off the quill and put it away. Two more weeks, and he would be back in Mons with his beautiful Robin. Everything would be wonderful then.


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Nicola’s Sunday Shoutout: Jessie Pinkham

Today’s Sunday Shoutout goes to Jessie Pinkham and her hot new Romance on the Go™ M/M fantasy story The Dragon Keeper, now available from Evernight Publishing and other purveyors of fine romance. Take it away, Jessie!


Sometimes it takes a crisis to appreciate a good man.

When Aldric first meets Lito, he considers the man a nuisance. As a dragon keeper for the kingdom of Corancia, he has more important tasks than answering an artist’s numerous questions about dragons.

Lito travelled to Corancia so he could observe dragons firsthand for his paintings and he’s full of questions about the magnificent creatures. His questions aren’t merely for his art, however; they arise from his deep love of dragons. When he overhears a plot by his own kingdom to eliminate the animals, he has to choose between his loyalty and his beloved dragons.

Working to prevent the extermination of dragons throws Aldric and Lito together and lust is in the air. If they’re lucky, they might end up with more than healthy dragons. It’s just possible that happily ever exists after all.


Story Excerpt

Once the artist set down his pen, Aldric ventured to ask, “Does it take many years of training to be an artist?”

“To be a good one, yes. Particularly when it comes to the details of preparing materials and paints. However, at the risk of being outrageously bold, after the way you were looking at me I’ll be more than a touch disappointed if you are thinking only of my craft.”

It was very bold indeed, but Aldric found he liked that. “Not only, no.” He glanced down at Lito’s hands. “Your hands are nimble, and you have such control.”

Lito smiled. “Perhaps you’re wondering what else I can do with them?”

Aldric felt himself blush. “You are outrageously bold.”

“And you need not hold yourself back so much. Certainly not after I established that you aren’t the only one interested. Is everyone in the north so restrained?”

“No. I spend more time with dragons than with people.”

“We ought to do something about that,” said Lito. He reached out, placing one hand on the side of Aldric’s face. “I see no reason you can’t enjoy human company when your workday is completed.”

Aldric did not enjoy the company of just any human. Lito’s was among those he did enjoy. “I don’t know the custom for seducing a houseguest,” he confessed. “Am I supposed to offer you supper first, or take you to bed straightaway?”

Lito laughed. “I believe I’m the one seducing you. In either case, bed, please.”

Aldric took Lito to his bedroom, glad that his bedding was recently returned from the laundress. It would not do to appear slovenly.

Not that Lito paid heed to the room, as his attention was reserved for Aldric. Specifically, removing Aldric’s clothing. He made short work of it all, followed quickly by his own. Naked, they admired each other.

Aldric was not one to admire for very long when he could be touching. He ran his hand down Lito’s neck and traced the muscles on the artist’s chest, enjoying not just the feel of muscle but the way Lito reacted with quickened breath and shivering skin.

He sat on his bed and pulled Lito down so the other man was straddling his lap. This was an excellent position, which allowed for roaming hands and the thrill of their cocks bumping together. Lito also took this as time for kissing. Aldric was not always fond of the activity, but he found with Lito he quite liked it. All the more so when Lito arranged himself so their chests were together and his hands traced a roving pattern on Aldric’s back at the same time his tongue explored Aldric’s mouth.

It had been some time since Aldric last enjoyed the company of another man, and he forcibly quelled his impatience. He found it was always better to take one’s time in matters of sexual pleasure, so he focused on individual sensations: the feel of Lito’s weight on his lap, the sound of their kisses and Lito’s barely audible whimpers, the heady scent of aroused men, and the shocks of pleasure when their cocks touched.

Lito dragged his fingernails along Aldric’s spine and pulled his mouth away. “You see, it pays handsomely to be outrageously bold.”

Such was not Aldric’s style, but he appreciated it in Lito. “Indeed, it does.” Then he put his mouth to work pressing kisses along his lover’s neck, which earned him a series of delightful moans. He enjoyed a vocal lover. Each noise served as a reward for his efforts and told him what his partner especially liked.

He leaned to lie flat on his back, taking Lito down with him. The weight of another man’s body atop his own excited him, as did Lito’s next enthusiastic round of kissing and rubbing.

When the artist next stopped kissing he said, “I do believe I spoke of what else I can do with my hands. I ought to demonstrate.”

“By all means.”

His fingers were as nimble as earlier, only now the quick motions danced around Aldric’s sac. “You are very talented,” said Aldric.

“I always endeavor for the best possible results.”

How fortunate for Aldric. He gasped as Lito took his cock in one hand while the other continued its tantalizing massage of his balls.

“It’s a benefit to bedding an artist.” Lito smiled, clearly pleased with Aldric’s reaction to his ministrations. “Well-trained hands combined with ceaseless striving for perfection.”

If one considered an orgasm perfection, Aldric was fast approaching it until Lito suddenly stopped and said, “I want to undo you, Aldric.”

He was about to remark that letting go of his cock was not a good way to achieve that goal, when Lito did something remarkable. He lowered himself down Aldric’s body and took Aldric’s cock in his mouth.

The sensation was so overwhelmingly wonderful that it took Aldric a moment to ask, “What are you doing?”

Lito paused, which was a great loss and made Aldric regret his question. “You don’t mean to tell me you’ve never done this?”

“I’ve never heard of taking a cock in my mouth.”

The artist’s eyes widened in surprise. “How dreadful. I must show you what you’ve been missing.”

Aldric decided he’d been missing a great deal.


Where To Buy

Evernight Publishing | Amazon | Smashwords


About the Author

Jessie Pinkham writes m/m romance.

Mid Week Tease: Red Robin and the Huntsman #MidWeekTease #MWTease

MWTease15Hello, lovelies! This week I’m teasing you with another snippet from my holiday novella set in the Two Thrones universe, Red Robin and the Huntsman. This is the scene where a captured Duncan first finds out who’s behind the banditry plaguing the province of Wellen. Heh, heh, heh…

Many thanks to Angelica Dawson for hosting us, and make sure to hit the list after the teaser to see other great Mid Week Teases!


The first thing Duncan became aware of was a sullen, painful pounding in his head. Groaning, he tried to straighten up, and couldn’t.

Opening his eyes didn’t improve matters much. His smeary vision slowly came into focus, revealing a room in what appeared to be a small cottage. Its once-whitewashed walls were stained yellow with age and in dire need of repair. Glancing down, he saw that someone had tied him to a wooden chair.

The leader of the thieves came into view, peering down at him. “Good, you’re awake,” he said. The brazen tone from the raid was gone. Now he sounded conciliatory. “I was hoping we wouldn’t have to toss a bucket of water over you. Bit too nippy for that sort of thing, you see.”

“Thanks.” Duncan winced as the words set off echoes of pain in his skull. “Where am I?”

“Somewhere safe. The Redbird wants a word with you.”

“He does, does he?” That caused the painful fog to dissipate. “You do know how much trouble all of you are in, yes?”

The thief’s shoulders twitched. “I’m not the one tied to a chair, captain. Best mind your manners with the Redbird. None of us will tolerate lip.” He hefted his pike meaningfully.

Duncan tried to swallow, but his mouth was desert-dry. “Let’s get this over with. Send the bastard in.”

The thief shook his head, snorting. “You’ve got bollocks like boulders, my friend. On your own head be it.” He nodded to someone out of sight.

A figure in a long, dark red cloak with a hood strode into view. It was the stride more than the dramatic cloak that caught Duncan’s attention. Clearly this was the infamous Redbird, leader of the Wellen brigands.

“You shouldn’t have come here, captain,” the cloaked figure whispered, a harsh sound in the silence of the cottage. “Now we have to kill you.”

Duncan bit his lip to restrain a laugh. The dim illumination from the room’s fireplace couldn’t penetrate the shadows of the hood, presumably on purpose. He focused instead on the boots. Good quality, excellent even, unlike the footwear he’d noticed on the rest of the thieves. And on the small side.

He took in a deep breath. What he smelled on the cold, dusty air confirmed his suspicions. “You can always ransom me,” he offered. “My father’s lord commander of the royal army. He’ll pay for my safe return.”

The Redbird’s hood shifted, turning to the thief for a moment. “How much?”

“Oh, I’d say enough to pay for a decent breakfast with meat. Maybe even some bread as well.” He allowed himself a brief smile. “Your dining hall could do with some variety, Robin. A man can only eat oatmeal so many times.”

The cloaked figure let out a hissed curse before yanking back its hood. Lady Roberta Busse’s now-irritated face appeared, glaring at him. “How did you know?”

“Your walk. Men and women walk differently. Something about the difference in our hips, I suspect. Then I noticed your boots. They’re smaller than a man’s.” He shrugged as best as he could in the ropes. “Finally, I recognized your perfume. You still wear honeysuckle essence.”

“Damn it.” She planted fists on her hips, looking like a furious fire sprite with her flaming hair. Duncan’s treacherous heart ached at the sight. “So what now? Are you going to threaten me with prison? Haul me back to the capital in chains for theft against the crown?”

He had to be careful. He was still tied to a chair, and the thief behind his lost lady love was armed. “I could. But somehow I don’t think you’d risk capture and imprisonment, not to mention the ruin of your son’s reputation, just for gold.” He held up his bound hands. “Plus there’s the fact that I’m somewhat tied up at the moment. What say you cut me loose, then take a seat and tell me what in blazes is going on here.”


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Mid Week Tease: Red Robin and the Huntsman #MidWeekTease #MWTease

MWTease15Hello, lovelies! This week I’m teasing you with a snippet from my holiday novella set in the Two Thrones universe. Titled Red Robin and the Huntsman, it introduces a few new characters to the series such as Duncan Bardahlson, the eldest son of Matthias’s lord commander Ferdal Bardahlson. And if you follow my FB or Twitter, you know who I cast as Duncan in my head, heh, heh.

When Duncan is sent (along with his annoying brothers Ewan and Hamish) to investigate bandits attacking tax collectors in a small province, he comes face to face with a lost love, the now-widowed Lady Roberta Busse. Will Duncan get a second chance at happiness with Roberta, or is he doomed to spend Frost Fair alone? You’ll find out in December!

Many thanks to Angelica Dawson for hosting us, and make sure to hit the list after the teaser to see other great Mid Week Teases!


They sat on the bed, Robin’s head on his shoulder. “I missed you.”

“I missed you, too. I’m sorry.”

“So am I. We were both fools.”

“No, just young and hotheaded.” Without thinking, Duncan kissed her hair. To his relief she didn’t push him away. “And stubborn as blazes.”

“That’s an understatement.” She chuckled. “Poor Charles. He thought he was getting a demure, gently raised flower as his wife. And he got me instead.”

“Aye. But from the sounds of things, that’s what he needed. Someone strong enough to hold things together when he couldn’t.”

She looked up at him. “And you didn’t need that.”

This time he kissed her forehead. “Says who?”

“Duncan.”

“No, I mean it. I needed you, Robin. I was too arrogant and foolish to tell you, aye. But I needed you.”

Praying he wasn’t doing the wrong thing, he kissed her lips. They were cool against his own, and his heart sank. I’m a fool, I never should have done this…

Then her mouth softened. He heard a small, hungry noise. He wasn’t sure which one of them had made it, and didn’t care. Raising his hand to cup the tangled silk of her hair, he kissed her harder. She responded, opening her mouth and meeting his tongue with her own.

It felt like coming home. She tasted the same as she had twelve years ago, when she was still Roberta Duquesne and he thought he had all the time in the world to woo her. He lost himself in the sensual, swirling dance and the sweet taste of her, the only woman he had ever loved.

And then they were stretched out over the heavy coverlet, Robin in his arms. Her breasts and belly pressed against him like he’d always dreamed, filling him with a hot craving to take her. He had enough presence of mind to pull away from her mouth, sucking in a breath. “If you want to stop, say so now. Please.”

****

Robin wasn’t sure if she wanted to laugh or cry at Duncan’s agonized question. If he moved away now and left her aching and unfulfilled, she’d go mad. “I don’t want to stop,” she breathed, stroking the soft prickly stubble on his cheek. “I need you. Please, Duncan.”

“Gods.” It was curse and prayer at the same time. His lips came down on hers again, a welcome invader claiming new territory. She surrendered happily, kissing him with all the passion that had lain dormant since Charles’s death.

One large hand with those long, clever fingers stroked her cheek, her throat, tracing lines of fire along her skin. They dropped down to the top of her chest, toying with the neckline of her nightgown but going no further. That was Duncan, a gentleman to the end.

Impatient, she grabbed his hand and placed it on her left breast. The lovely sensation of it made her groan, and the warmth of his palm caused her nipple to stiffen.

He chuckled against her lips. “Forward lass.”

“When was I not?”

“True.” He cupped her breast, squeezing gently before letting it go. Unlacing the ties of her neckline, he tugged it open and exposed her to the air. He gazed down at her breasts like a devout man might look at an effigy of the god Rebben. “So beautiful. Gods, Robin, you’re all cream and pink, like two cherry blossoms.”

The unexpected poetical description made her blush. “Baby-chewed, I would think.”

“No. Perfect.” His head lowered until the wet heat of his mouth surrounded her nipple. She whimpered when the velvet of his tongue licked across it deliberately, the sweet friction setting her on fire.

Duncan continued to make love to her breast with his lips and tongue, hand cradling the other one as if in reassurance. When he switched between then, she keened for a moment in complaint before his mouth worked new magic on her other nipple. Between her thighs a familiar, hungry ache began to grow.

“Wait,” she begged.

He let go of her breast with a soft pop. “What?”

“Take off your shirt. I want to see you.”

He hesitated, grimacing. “I don’t know why. I’m not nearly as lovely as you.”

“Please, Duncan. Let me look at you.”

Letting out a soft sigh, he leaned back and pulled off his shirt. It exposed an impressively muscled chest covered with dark, curling hair. “Ewan says I look like a bear,” he muttered.

“Ewan’s an idiot.” She wound her fingers into the crisp curls, lowering her face and taking in a deep breath. The scent of leather, salt, clean sweat, and a rich, dark musk tantalized her nose. “You have no idea how much I loved seeing you with your shirt off. I kept wandering past the exercise yard when you were sparring, hoping you’d get too warm and strip down.”

He blinked at her. “Truly?”

“Truly. I only wish I’d had the nerve to spy on you when you went swimming with your brothers.” She grinned up at him. “I always wanted to see you naked.”

And now he blushed. “You never.”

“I did. I used to daydream about that lovely band of muscle that disappeared into your breeches like a V. I always wanted to see how far down it went.”


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Lady of Thorns is LIVE!

And the third book in the series that was never supposed to be a series is LIVE, people! A huge thanks goes out to my awesome beta readers L.D. Blakeley, J. Kathleen Cheney (both of whom are awesome writers, so go check them out), Theresa Eastridge, and Peter White, and to everyone who pre-ordered the book. I hope you all LOVE it, and remember, reviews on your preferred site put you in the will!


Love was never supposed to be part of the deal…

Lady Amelie de Clerq’s prickly demeanor has earned her the nickname “Lady of Thorns,” keeping potential suitors at bay and making her the butt of the nobility’s jokes. Determined to attract a husband who will love her for herself rather than her fortune, she decides to embark on a journey of sensual self-discovery.

Alain LaPorte, wily lawyer and toast of the capital’s social set, has been summoned to Lierdhe to oversee business negotiations with a neighboring earl. When Amelie asks Alain to tutor her in the bedroom arts, he agrees to introduce the highborn virgin to pleasure. But lessons in lovemaking soon turn into a matter of the heart, forcing both Amelie and Alain to confront their fears about intimacy, loyalty, and love.

Amazon US | Amazon UK | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | Google Play | iTunes

Pour me an absinthe, Gert

As of this afternoon the final line edits for Lady of Thorns were finished and it is officially ready for release next week on Halloween. Not only am I bloody well delighted about that, but I am really, really happy with the way this book turned out. It has a thoroughly solid emotional basis, both characters and plot are fully fleshed out, and it feels like one of the best books I’ve written to date. Also, as my beta Peter said, “Yay for fun books where antagonists are inner demons!”

Yeah, I do a lot of work with inner demons in this one. Amelie and I share a couple of problems about body image and growing up feeling unattractive and insecure about our looks. It was interesting to do a deep dive into the mindset created by that and, in effect, psychoanalyze my own issues by projecting them onto Amelie. Granted, I didn’t have a sexy Alain to walk me through that particular psychological minefield, and I’m still working on said issues and probably will be for the rest of my life. But I think I’m getting a better handle on loving myself and my wacky body the way it is, instead of pining for some impossible ideal.

It also helps that Ramón thinks I’m gorgeous and says so every day. He’s so sweet.

So, yeah, Lady is done, and Cross Current is back on the Scrivener screen and will be my NaNo novel this year. I’m currently at 13K on it, and hope to get it done before I have to report for jury duty on November 29th. And if not, I’ll just bring my iPad and write while I’m waiting in the jurist holding room. I’m hoping to get the last two Shifter Woods novellas knocked out as well so that I can release all four novellas as a boxed set before 2018.

Assuming the cats allow me to work. Seriously, how can a small creature one fifth my size be that annoying? I ask you.