‘Sweet Deception’ by Heather Snow

BOOK BLURB: In the dark, the greatest lover can become the most dangerous conspirator…

Lord Frederick Aveline, otherwise known as Derick, has successfully kept up appearances as an English nobleman.  What no one knows is that he’s a full-blooded Frenchman—a double-agent for the British against the French.  But there is something else no knows about Derick.  Deciding to leave behind his days of espionage, he’s arrived home to Derbyshire to finish one final order of business: to find and expose a dangerous traitor in the midst.

But Aveline castle holds its own share of secrets—including murder, and an unexpected lure in Emma Wallingford.  Brilliant and feisty, her loyalty lies with acting as the town’s magistrate, and she doesn’t welcome an unanticipated, though appealing, intrusion like Derick.  As the two of them are drawn closer, the sordid past of Derick’s family comes to light, as does the true nature of his arrival.

But when deception, however sweet, is the name of the game no one can be trusted, and every love—and every life—is at risk.

EXCERPT: 

This excerpt comes from the middle of the book. Emma has lured Derick on a picnic to one of their childhood haunts, where she hopes to seduce the only man she’s ever loved—and who she’s recently discovered didn’t desert her but has lived the last fourteen years as a spy in an ugly war—into coming back home to Derbyshire to stay. With her…

***

 “My God,” Derick said, his voice soft with wonder. “I feel as though I’ve just passed through an enchanted tunnel and been transported back in time.” His gaze fixed on the landscape before them, on the babbling creek that wound through the vegetation until it pooled at the mouth of the cave, some thirty yards ahead of them. He leaned forward in his saddle, as if most eager to get to their destination.

Derick turned to her then and Emma caught her breath. The afternoon sun hung in the sky behind him, casting its light around his head in golden rays. The black of his hair shone in dark relief, the rays lending a glow to his skin and casting shadows that highlighted the chiseled beauty of his features. But it was the boyish grin that had stolen the air from her lungs. Yet at the same time, her heart expanded in her chest until she felt like bursting. This was the Derick she knew, the Derick she’d always loved. Emma had to look away lest she blurt the words too soon. While she knew what was best for him, she expected it would take him some time to come to the inevitable conclusion.

“Then you’re glad you let yourself be tempted?” She phrased it as a question, but it really wasn’t.

His smile faded and his eyes darkened a little, as if he’d been reminded of something he’d rather not think on. When his smile returned, it didn’t seem as genuine as it had a moment before. “Depends on how good those pastries are,” he said, then urged his horse ahead to the cave.

Emma allowed Derick to secure her mount alongside his as she spread out the blanket and basket she’d brought. She picked the softest ground she could find that wasn’t damp from the abundant rains—a soggy blanket seeped through with cold water wouldn’t be at all a good spot for seduction. She had to settle for a rockier patch than she would have liked, closer to the mouth of the cave but it was still near enough to the creek to enjoy the soothing rhythm of the running water.

When she had everything arranged just so, Emma closed her eyes and raised her face to the sun, basking for a moment in the perfection of the day.

“It’s more lovely than I remember.”

Emma’s eyes flew open at Derick’s low voice, just near her ear. His emerald gaze was fixed not on the picturesque scene around them, but on her. Those eyes, always so sharp, that seemed to take in everything at once, roved her face, her body. They grew heavy-lidded. A feeling like gooseflesh, only hotter, skittered over Emma.

Unprepared for the intensity of the moment, outside in the brightness of day no less, Emma stammered. “It—it is.” She took an involuntary step back, then stopped herself. Quit being a ninny, Emma. Isn’t this what you wanted? Yes. Yes it was. She took in a breath, and resolved to play this coolly, as if they were just two old friends having a picnic—at least until she got up her nerve to kiss him.

“It couldn’t be more perfect,” she said brightly. “Only it’s a shame that it’s too cool this summer to swim, as we used to.”

Derick blinked, a slow dip of his lids followed by several rapid ones. He, too, took a step back. “Yes.” And then he laughed, though it sounded a little forced to Emma’s ear. “Although if you think I’d be so easily badgered into merman service these days, you’d be disappointed.”

Emma blushed, remembering the imperious commands she used to give him when she’d insisted he play ‘mermaid princess’ with her when they were children. “It was only fair, given how often I had to play Lancelot.” She hadn’t minded so much when they were very young, but as they’d approached their teens…“When what I really wanted was to be your Guinevere.”

Derick’s head tilted, his eyes contemplative.

Emma felt her own eyes go wide. Dear God, had she said that last bit aloud? Damn her loose lips. She grabbed his arm and pulled him toward the picnic blanket before he could comment on her blunder. “No worries about merman service, today, however,” she said. “In fact, I intend to service you.”

Derick’s step faltered and his muscled arm went tense beneath her hands. A strange choking sound reached her ear.

Had she said something wrong? The way Derick bit his lip as if trying mightily to keep in a guffaw or two certainly indicated she had. She thought back.

“Serve you, I mean.” A wry smile twisted her lips. In her nervousness, she’d magpied the incorrect verb tense.

Laughter burst from Derick’s lips, but his eyes sparked with something more than amusement. “What?” she asked, her smile twisting down a fraction. So she’d bungled a verb. Was it truly that funny?

But Derick only laughed harder, placing his hand over hers on his arm and resuming their walk to the blanket. “Nothing,” he said, still snorting a bit. “Service away.”

Emma left Derick to get settled on the blanket while she knelt before the basket. As she pulled out two crude cups, one of the bottles of wine, wooden plates, a round of cheese and the pastries she’d wrapped in cheesecloth to keep them warm, she was acutely aware of Derick’s regard. Although she wasn’t facing him, it was as if she could feel his gaze on the sensitive skin of the back of her neck. It set off a slow burn.

When she turned with her bounty, however, Derick’s face was raised to the sun much as hers had been earlier. Seated on the blanket, leaning back on his hands, one long leg stretched out before him, the other bent at the knee, he . . . lounged. He seemed relaxed. At ease. And yet . . .

Emma had a sense that he could spring to full alert at any moment. Just like his ability to move so quietly that she rarely heard him before he reached her, she imagined he’d acquired the facility of constant readiness as a means to survive during his years as a spy.

Her gaze traveled over him, taking advantage of the view while his eyes were closed. There was so much about him, about the time he was away, that piqued her curiosity. Who was this man? She remembered what he’d wanted out of life as a boy, but given the much different life he’d led since then, what was important to him now? What drove him? How had he changed, beyond just the raw physicality that had erased any soft lines from his body? Beyond the natural maturity that comes with age?

Part of her itched to pepper him with questions, to learn all. But she had years to rediscover Derick, a lifetime. For now, it was enough for them to have an afternoon out of time.

“Your pastries, good sir.”

An easy smile crossed Derick’s face as he pushed off of his hands and leaned toward her. He accepted a pastry with ill-concealed delight and Emma moved to pour him a cup of wine.

“If these taste half as good as the ones I used to filch from your cook, I shall soon be in raptures,” he said, turning the sweet so that a corner was poised near his mouth, ready to be devoured.

The look of pleasurable anticipation on Derick’s face made every bit of her fumbling about in the kitchens this morning worth it—even her burnt finger. She soothed that finger with her tongue nervously, waiting to see what he thought of her efforts.

Derick’s even white teeth bit into the crust, and his jaw moved to chew. The movement slowed, as if he were savoring the taste in his mouth. And yet . . . if he were savoring, why had his lips just pursed into an almost grimace? And why had his eyes widened? And why did his hand fly up to his mouth to cover a choking cough?

“You don’t like them?”

“No, I—” His words dissolved into a fit of coughing. “I mean, yes, of course I do. They’re just—different than I remember.”

Emma frowned. “You don’t like them.”

He choked again, frantically motioning for the cup of wine in her hand. Emma handed it over, and he took a great swallow. Then another.

“No,” he said when he’d drained the cup. “No, I don’t like them. In fact”—a chuckle rumbled in his chest—“I’d rather eat the mud pies with kelp filling you used to make from the creek floor.”

“But you used to love them!” she cried, dejected. Had she gotten them wrong?

His brows waggled with an amused sort of sympathy. “Maybe I liked them so much then because they were filched. Ill-gotten gains always taste much better than ones that come honestly.” The look on his face told her he was scrambling to spare her feelings.

“They should be perfect. I followed the recipe precisely.” She reached out her hand. “Give me that.” She took the pastry and raised it to her lips, taking a generous bite.

“Argh.” She gagged. She didn’t even bother trying to swallow. Instead, she turned and dove back into the basket, snatching a square of linen so that she could discreetly spit the offensive dessert out of her mouth. “I must have mixed up the salt and sugar.”

Derick’s laughter boomed, sending a white-bibbed dipper flying from his perch on a rock in the middle of the creek with an indignant zit-zit-zit.

“What? The kitchen is not where I am most skilled. And they do look alike,” she insisted, in her own defense.

“Oh, Emma. The look on your face. Didn’t you taste them?”

She wrinkled her nose, sitting back on her heels. “I didn’t need to. I measured every ingredient twice, just to be certain. It should be like plugging numbers into an equation. They should have turned out perfectly.”

“Oh, they did,” he said, rising to his own knees to reach for the bottle of wine. “Perfectly horrid.” His chuckles had become mostly silent, but they still shook his chest in irregular spurts.

Emma couldn’t help sharing in his amusement. It was . . . infecting. She’d never been good at laughing at herself, but somehow she wasn’t able to berate herself with him looking at her so. Still, she tried. “I suppose I’ve spoiled your day, now, haven’t I?”

He sat back on his own heels, facing her, both of them on their knees. In one hand, he still held the wine bottle, but the other reached out and cupped her cheek. She leaned her face into his palm . . . she couldn’t help it.

“No, Emma,” he whispered, his voice and expression gone soft and serious. “You’ve made it.”

FEATURED AUTHOR: Heather Snow

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‘Forever a Lord’ by Delilah Marvelle

BOOK BLURB: Lady Imogene Norwood lives a sheltered life of quiet respectability and routine…until she debuts at her first Season. There among London’s elite she meets the wild and broken Lord Atwood. And the very shy English rose suddenly realizes that a little chaos might just be what her heart desires. 

Lord Nathaniel James Atwood doesn’t believe true love exists. Since scandal tore him away from his family at an early age, he has spent his life fighting for what he wants. That attitude has made him a rising star in bare-knuckle boxing, and now leads him back to London to reclaim the life that was stolen from him.

But upon meeting the innocent Imogene, his beliefs are trounced…as guarding his heart against her proves to be the fight of his life.

*SPOILER ALERT*

The following excerpt is in the middle of the book and our hero has just thoroughly compromised our heroine in the midst of their discussion of his contract negotiations…

EXCERPT:

“Atwood tucked her head against his chest but said nothing. She still clung to him, unable to move. Pulling away from her, his large hands curved down the length of her arms with digging fingers until they dropped away completely.

He eyed her. ‘I didn’t force myself on you, did I?’

Her cheeks bloomed with heat. She brought a trembling hand to her hair, sweeping long sections of it away from the sides of her face. ‘No.’ Sweeping a hand over his mouth, he fisted that same hand and dug it against his teeth.

After a long moment of silence, he grated out past that fist, ‘You are inevitable, you know that?’

Why was he biting his hand?

‘You don’t appear to be in the least bit pleased by my inevitability.’

He dropped his hand back to his side and gave her a sidelong glance of disbelief. ‘No. I’m not. And I’ll tell you why. Because I feel like I was put into a situation I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get out of. For Christ’s sake, the last thing I wanted was to be married again. And to you, no less. To you.’

She stiffened, her womanly pride prickling. To her, no less? What did that mean? What was so wrong with her that he felt a need to emphasize it aloud with so much vile annoyance? And after he had indulged himself to the brim? She knew she was odd and couldn’t speak well when it was needed most but did he really have to-

It stung. More than she wanted it to.

‘Leave,’ she choked out. ‘My brother will- ‘ She wanted to add much, much more to the sentiment, but was too upset and her throat too tight with emotion. Her tongue was already feeling heavy and set to stutter.

He quirked a dark brow. ‘Your brother will what?’

 

 

She whipped a forefinger to the parlor entrance, knowing that if she spoke, it would only be in broken fragments that would make her look half-witted. And she was not going to be upstaged after that hip-grinding, breast-tweaking display her brother had to witness.

Nathaniel stared. ‘Why the devil are you so miffed?’

Oh, she would show him miffed, making her feel like a piece of fat he’d cut off the mutton when she was giving them all an opportunity of a lifetime. Just because she was naïve to the ways of men didn’t make her naive to the ways of being demeaned. Shaking her finger rigidly at the direction of the parlor entrance, she hoped to God he would just go and spare her the humiliation of having to use words.

Lines of concentration etched his brow. He angled toward her. ‘Is this about your stutter?’

Her eyes widened. Oh, God. He knew. Her own brother had tattled about her stuttering as if she were some medical aberration in need of pity.

His countenance notably softened. ‘Imogene. I’ve been through far too much to judge. Believe me. I don’t care what it sounds like. Say whatever you need to.’

He felt sorry for her. Henry had no doubt even asked the man to play governess to her until the championship. It was…humiliating. Like she was being passed from one set of panicked hands to another.

Nathaniel eyed her. ‘One of the boys in New York had a stutter.’

This just kept getting worse. She was now being compared to some American boy. Hardly a compliment.

Taking on a pensive look, he added, ‘I have an idea. Seeing we have four months of this ahead of us, why not deal with it now?’ He lifted his shaven chin and undid his cravat, tossing it aside.

She scrambled back, her throat tightening all the more. What was he doing?

He casually undid the buttons on his waistcoat. ‘You and I are going to play Devil’s Dare. It’s a game men and women play in the Five Points. The idea is that I have to get you to take the Devil’s Dare through verbal bribes before all of my clothes are removed and I’m forced to walk into the street naked. The Devil’s Dare is this- you have to say something. So for each bribe I issue and each bribe you reject, a piece of my clothing is removed until I’m forced to walk into the streets in nothing but my goodwill. Now I know you like me well enough not to let me walk into the street naked. Or at least, I hope you do. Are you ready?’

She gaped. Was he being serious?

‘Imogene, I will buy you a necklace made of rubies after I get my seven thousand.’

She swallowed, trying to steady her breathing. What was he doing?

‘Clearly, you reject.’ He shrugged off his coat from each muscled arm and let it fall to the floor.

‘Imogene, I’m not one for fawning, but I’ll take you into a garden and pick flowers for you. Would you like that?’

Mother of heaven. Why was he-

‘Clearly, you reject.’ Holding her gaze, he shrugged off his waistcoat. It rustled to his booted feet.

‘Imogene, I’ll dance with you on the rooftop of whatever house we move into during our four-month marriage.’

He didn’t expect her to play along, did he?

‘Clearly, you reject.’ He yanked out his linen shirt from his trousers, letting it fall past his hips.

‘Imogene, I will do something I have never done for a woman. I will take you shopping and hold all of your parcels.’

She clamped a trembling hand over her mouth.

‘Clearly, you reject. I’m also running out of clothing, so you better take up the next offer.’ He yanked off the linen shirt with a ripple of solid movements that exposed the menacingly well-sculpted muscles of a broad chest and arms that visibly shifted and tightened against scars that bespoke years of fighting. He tossed the shirt.

She gasped, her heart pounding in disbelief, and glanced toward the opened doorway and back again at that bare chest, dreading Henry might come in and shoot them both.

‘Imogene, I will always listen to whatever you have to say. No matter how you say it or why you say it.’ Holding her gaze, he dragged his hands down toward the front flap of his trousers, planning on doing away with them next.

Oh, dear God. She had to save him and herself.

‘I accept!’ she choked out.”

 

FEATURED AUTHOR: Delilah Marvelle

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‘To Challenge the Earl of Cravenswood’ by Bronwen Evans

BOOK BLURB: To live happily ever after…

Henry St. Giles, the Earl of Cravenswood, longs to find his soul mate. Now that his two best friends, both reformed rakes, are happily married, the need becomes an obsession. When they challenge him to find a wife by the end of the season or marry his neighbor, the innocently alluring Lady Amy Shipton, he can’t believe his luck. He wins, either way. But a darkened garden, a case of mistaken identity, a drunken kiss, and a dropped emerald earring, leads Henry on a Cinderella hunt. He knows the woman he held in his arms could be the one he’s searched for all his life. He just has to find her.

Lady Amy Shipton is determined to marry for love instead of sharing her husband like her mother did. So why did she let her handsome neighbor and romantic fantasy, the Sinful Saint as he’s called for his bedroom prowess, seduce her in his garden? And what can she do when in the middle of their passionate encounter; he whispers another woman’s name. Now Henry is hunting the owner of the earring Amy left behind, and she’s determined to retrieve it before her identity is revealed. She’s not about to give her father the ammunition he desperately wants to force her down the aisle.

EXCERPT: 

The following afternoon bloomed into a glorious sunny day, and yet even though the sun shone, Henry had no idea how he was going to woo Amy. However, God must have listened to his prayers because Henry found himself partnered with Amy for Sabine’s torturous treasure hunt. They had ten items to collect, with some of the clues more like a foreign language than Queen’s English. Still, he was determined to make the most of the opportunity Sabine had gifted him. An afternoon in Amy’s company.

Unfortunately, Amy didn’t look so happy about the situation. For the life of him he couldn’t fathom why she bristled every time he came near. It seemed logical to deduce her heart favored another. It must be Le Comte. Bloody damn Frenchman.

The guests, in their pairs, were sent out in different directions. The two of them had been sent toward the formal gardens near the back of the property. The manicured grounds overflowed with rose bushes, citrus trees and Sabine’s favorite flowers. The centre piece of the large expansive hedged-row gardens was a bubbling fountain, very similar to the smaller version of his fountain in his garden in London, and in the distance was the summer house.

“The first clue says, ‘Look in the green where water meets the Gods’. Whatever can Sabine mean?” Amy stood at the top of the garden stairs and surveyed the acreage before her.

He put his hand up to his brow to shade the sun. “The fountain looks very familiar.” Amy’s face flushed a pretty pink color. She could hardly admit she recognized the fountain’s design or she’d be admitting to him that she’d been in his garden. “The fountain in my garden is similar, although much smaller, but I do believe the focal point is Aphrodite.”

Amy clapped her hands. “Oh, yes. Water meets the Gods must be the fountain, and the look in the green is,” she spread her arms wide, “the garden.”

Clever girl. He offered her his arm. “Shall we?”

She slipped her hand over his arm and smiled, her joy in puzzling out the clues touched him. If she was determined to win, he’d help her.

“What is the prize if we win,” he asked her.

“Apparently the winner gets to choose whatever prize they wish.”

“As a gentleman, I insist that if we win you may choose. What will you choose?”

She smiled at him and said, “That’s easy. I’d like to name Orsini Rose’s foal.”

His heart thudded in his chest at such a simple request. Orsini Rose was Marcus’s prime breeding mare and his wedding gift to Sabine.

At his silence she said, “You think my prize strange.”

“No. Not at all.” He cleared his throat. “I hope the birth goes well. Foaling sometimes ends in tragedy, especially if it’s the mare’s first foal. Are you aware of that?”

She plucked a rose and twirled it under her nose. “Death is part of life isn’t it? Life is not all roses, there are also thorns.”

“True. Sometimes you don’t appreciate the rose because of the thorns.” He added wistfully, “I didn’t really appreciate all my brother did for me, and our family, until he was gone.”

“I’m sorry, that was a stupid thing to say. To make light of life and death…”

He plucked the rose from between her fingers and tapped her nose with it. “The day is too beautiful to be morbid. We have a prize to win.”

She laughed gaily and the mood lifted. “Come on, we should hurry. Games are played to win, Lord Cravenswood. It might be the only time I ever get to name a thorough-bred.”

He couldn’t agree more with her sentiments. Games were played to win and he meant to win their private game. More pointedly he meant to win her heart.

They reached the fountain and both had to shield their eyes from the water’s glare. They stood staring around them trying to ascertain where the next clue could be found.

“I see it,” Amy cried. She pointed at the statue in the middle of the fountain, “there’s a piece of paper tied around Aphrodite.”

She looked at Henry expectantly and he gallantly offered, “I’ll retrieve the clue, shall I?”

“That would be super, thank you.”

With a sigh he sat on the edge of the fountain. “You’re going to have to help me remove my boots.” She chewed her bottom lip, looking adorable. “I’m not ruining my best boots for a silly treasure hunt.”

She nodded in agreement. “I’ll do it instead.” She sat beside him and said, “Look away.” She shooed him with her hand. “Hurry, we don’t have time to get those boots off. I’ll get the clue.” Amy stared pointedly until he turned his head away. He heard her slippers plop to the ground and the rustle of skirts as she removed her stockings. Then a squeal as her feet hit the cool water.

Unable to help himself, Henry turned at the excited sound. The sight of creamy skin greeted him and made his throat dry and his groin heat.

Amy waded determinedly toward Aphrodite her skirts hiked up and her long, slender limbs on display. The sun gave her white skin a sparkling glow. She looked like a pagan goddess. His own flesh and blood Aphrodite. She was exquisite.

She glanced back at him over her shoulder. “Are you peaking? Stop it.”

He could no more stop drinking in the arousing sight of her than he could stop breathing. “Amy,” he said, his voice raw with need. “Do you know what a stirring sight you are? You’re a water nymph.”

He couldn’t look away. She grabbed the clue from the statue and turned to wade back.

She would not look at him. It was scandalous the amount of flesh she was displaying but she liked to win and it was not only a test of brain-power but of speed. They had to beat the other teams. When she reached the edge of the fountain she risked at quick glance at him.

His hand was extended to help her from the water but that would mean letting her skirts get wet. He saw her predicament and swept her into his arms, lifting her clear of the water.

Amy should shout, protest, tell him to put her down but the words died on her lips. She could only watch dazed as he carried her to the grass and gently slid her down his body until her bare feet touch the fresh earth. All thoughts of winning the treasure hunt vanished like a ghost racing the dawn.

Her breath came in short, rasps.

She couldn’t look away from the blatant desire etched on Henry’s handsome features. They stood looking at each other, heat and need rising with each blink of their eyelashes.

Henry’s eyes darkened as he cupped her face. “So, beautiful,” he whispered.

The look in his eyes was one she would never forget. Such longing. More and more she wished she knew his heart.”

FEATURED AUTHOR: Bronwen Evans

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Tell me what and where Amy’s clue was hidden, and I’ll draw one lucky winner who’ll receive an eBook copy of ‘To Challenge the Earl of Cravenswood’. Open internationally.

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‘Sand Dollar’ by Sebastian Cole

BOOK BLURB: What if you lost your true soul mate, the one person in life you were meant to be with? Would your love ever truly die? Not if you’re Noah Hartman, who refuses to let go of Robin after she inexplicably abandons their love and disappears from his life seemingly forever, her hidden secret yet to be discovered.

And when you finally accept your fate and do your best to move on with your life, what do you say when the unthinkable happens: your true love Robin reappears as your wedding ceremony to another woman is about to commence, looks deep into your soul with her loving, tear-filled eyes, and tells you the one thing you’ve desperately longed to hear for all of these years?

But the ending to this heart-wrenching love story has yet to be written, as Noah, old and sick in a hospital bed, tells his story of love and loss to Josh, a wise orderly at Mount Sinai Hospital. As his family members arrive to bid him goodbye, Noah discovers a far greater truth about his past, present, and future. Things are definitely not as they appear as the pieces of a shattered love are put back together in the remarkable final chapter of Noah’s life.

EXCERPT: 

“It’s a sand dollar. I’m sure you’ve seen one, probably even held one in your hand, huh, Josh?”

Noah kicked his fins and dove down about ten feet, picking up the sand dollar and resurfacing to get air through his snorkel. From beneath the water’s surface, he proudly displayed his newfound prize to Robin.

“No two are exactly the same. Its simplistic design and imperfect form may appear somewhat… well, ordinary. Most people probably wouldn’t think twice about it. So why should this seemingly insignificant object capture so much of my attention?”

BOOM ! The precious sand dollar in Noah’s hand exploded. In what seemed like slow motion, the sand dollar disintegrated through his fingers into a thousand tiny grains of sand that evanesced into obscurity.

“Because for me, the sand dollar represents life, and how fragile life really is. What was once so very precious to me, suddenly and without warning, disintegrated and vanished before my eyes. Just like the sand dollar, life holds no promises. Seemingly solid and secure in our grasp, the blessings we have in our lives today are easily shattered tomorrow. The lesson learned: never take your loved ones for granted. And if you’re ever lucky enough to find that one person in life who makes you love more than any other person could possibly make you love, you treat every day together as if it were your last. You cherish every moment.”

“However, for me, this lesson came too late, for she was already gone, seemingly lost forever. And there was nothing I could do to put the pieces back together. I would spend my life wishing I could somehow travel back, back in time, to the day I first laid eyes on that precious beauty.”

The precious beauty of Robin’s young face was shadowed by sadness as she nervously searched Noah’s worried eyes for reassurance.

“If only I’d known how fragile she really was. If only I’d known her hidden secret. I would have held onto her so differently… never letting go…”

FEATURED AUTHOR: Sebastian Cole

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‘Captive of Sin’ by Anna Campbell

BOOK BLURB: He pledged his honor to keep her safe . . .

Returning home to Cornwall after an unspeakable tragedy, Sir Gideon Trevithick comes upon a defiant beauty in danger and vows to protect her whatever the cost. He’s dismayed to discover that she’s none other than Lady Charis Weston, England’s wealthiest heiress—and that the only way to save her from the violent stepbrothers determined to steal her fortune is to wed her himself! Now Gideon must hide the dark secrets of his life from the bride he desires more with every heartbeat.

She promised to show him how to love—and desire—again . . .

Charis has heard all about Gideon, the dangerously handsome hero with the mysterious past. She’s grateful for his help but utterly unwilling to endure a marriage of convenience—especially to a man whose touch leaves her breathless. Desperate to drive him mad with passion, she would do anything to make Gideon lose control—and fall captive to irresistible, undeniable sin.

EXCERPT:

Winchester, early February, 1821

“Good God, what have we here?”

The man’s deep voice pierced Charis’s pain-ridden doze. She flinched, stirring from her cramped position. For one dazed moment, she wondered why she was shivering in fetid straw, instead of snuggled in her bed at Holcombe Hall.

Blazing agony struck and she stifled an involuntary moan. And a curse for her rank stupidity.

How could she forget the danger long enough to fall asleep?

But she’d been blind with exhaustion when she’d stumbled into the stable behind the sprawling inn. Unable to manage another step even though she hadn’t come far enough to be safe.

Now she wasn’t safe at all.

The light from the man’s lantern dazzled her bleary eyes. She discerned little more than a tall shape looming outside the stall. Choking with panic, she clawed upright until she huddled against the rough planking. Blood pulsed like thunder in her ears.

Muffling a whimper as she moved her injured left arm, Charis crossed shaking hands over her torn bodice. Scenting her terror, the big chestnut horse that filled most of the space shifted restively.

As the man lifted the lantern to illuminate Charis’s corner, she shied away. Beyond the ring of yellow light that surrounded him, menacing shadows thickened and multiplied up to the high pitched ceiling.

“Please don’t be frightened.” The stranger made a curiously truncated gesture with one black-gloved hand. “I mean you no harm.”

The rich baritone was sheathed in warm concern. He made no overt movement toward her. Charis’s crippling fear didn’t subside. Men, she’d learned from cruel experience, lied. Even men with velvet voices, smooth and cultured.

A sharp twinge in her chest reminded her she hadn’t drawn breath since he’d found her. The air she sucked into her starved lungs reeked of horse manure, hay dust and the sour stink of her own fear.

She turned her head and really looked at the man. Her throat jammed with shock.

He was utterly beautiful.

Beautiful. A word she’d never before associated with a male. In this case, no other description sprang to her churning mind.

Beauty as stark and perfect as this only stoked her alarm. He embodied the elegant world she must relinquish to survive.

Despite her terror, her attention clung to the slashing planes of forehead and cheekbones and jaw, the straight arrogant prow of his nose. He was tanned, unusual in February.

With his intense, compelling features and ruffled hair, black as a gypsy’s, he looked like a prince from a fairytale.

Charis no longer believed in fairytales.

Her eyes darted around the narrow stall. But he blocked the only exit. Again she cursed her idiocy. With her good hand, she fumbled beneath her for a rock, a rusty nail, anything she could use to defend herself. Her trembling fingers met nothing but prickly straw.

Unblinking she watched him set the lantern on the ground. His movements were slow and easy, openly reassuring. But if he wanted to snatch her, he now had both hands free. Her sinews tautened as she prepared to scratch and punch her way out.

In the charged silence, the rattle of her breathing deafened her. It even masked the wind’s constant wail. The powerful horse shifted again and gave a worried whicker, tossing its head against the rope that tied it facing toward the corridor.

What if the nervous beast started to kick or buck in this confined space? The horse’s hooves looked huge, sharp, deadly. Dread settled like a stone in her empty belly. With every moment, her refuge’s unsuitability became more apparent.

Why, oh, why hadn’t she kept going, no matter how tired and hurt? Even sheltering in a hedgerow, she’d be safer than here.

The man stepped into the stall, his black greatcoat swirling around his booted ankles. Shrinking back, Charis prepared to wrench free of grabbing hands. Fresh sweat chilled her already icy skin. He was so much bigger and stronger than she.

But he merely snagged the animal’s halter with a firm grip that brooked no rebellion. “Hush, Khan.” He stroked the gelding’s nose as his voice softened into alluring music. The man’s tall body conveyed an assured confidence that was almost tangible. “There’s nothing to worry about.”

The complex mixture of authority and care in his tone should have calmed Charis. Instead it slipped down her spine like glacial ice. She knew all about men who believed they ruled the universe. She knew how they reacted when their wishes were thwarted. Her furtive search for a weapon grew more frantic.

Khan, foolish, trusting creature, quieted under his master’s murmured promises. For the man must own the beast if he knew its name. Nobody could mistake the stranger for a groom. His manner was too effortlessly aristocratic, his clothing too fine.

She found no weapon.

She’d have to make a dash for freedom and hope her stiff, tired legs carried her. Surreptitiously, she pushed upward. Even this small movement sparked agony. Every muscle ached and her arm felt like it was on fire. She locked her teeth to muffle her whimpers.

“There’s no need to run away.” He didn’t glance up from the now docile horse.

“Yes, there is,” she surprised herself by saying, although she’d resolved not to address him. Her swollen face thickened her voice into unfamiliarity. But her upper-class diction marked her as an object of interest. Memorable. Noticeable.

A target.

Clumsily she struggled to her feet. She felt less vulnerable standing. In her awkward rise, she bumped the wall and bit back a sharp cry. Battling dizzying pain, she cradled her throbbing arm against her.

Her ungainly lurch spooked Khan who sidled and snorted. Her father had been a connoisseur of horseflesh. Charis had immediately recognized Khan for the high-bred aristocrat he was.

Much like the man holding the beast’s head.

“I know you’re afraid.” At first, she thought he spoke to Khan. His attention remained on the horse. “I know you need help.”

Help to hand her over to the law, she thought bitterly. “Why should you care? You’re a stranger.”

“That’s true. Although when you chose my horse’s stall, you also chose me.”

“That was just chance.”

At last, he looked directly at her. Surely it was only a trick of the lamplight that his eyes shone so dark and brilliant above those dramatic cheekbones. “All things in life are chance.”

FEATURED AUTHOR: Anna Campbell

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‘The Sinning Hour’ by Elise Rome

Mel’s Author Recommendation: Today I’d like to jump in myself and tell you about this author I discovered a couple of years ago. Her name, then, was Ashley March

I honestly don’t know how we got introduced to each other [we never met in person] but from the start, we hit it off. It was like we’ve known each other forever. I remember being scared to pick one of her books to review because I was dreading it being bad!

In the end, I was so glad I started to read them. 

Have you ever read a book that grabbed you from the first sentence? The opening scene? Well, that’s Elise Rome aka Ashley March. Her stories are character driven by heroes and heroines breathing life to the story she’s telling. Her plots are fun and entertaining. 

When I asked her if she’d like to stop by and be featured this month, she politely declined as the book she is writing now has yet to be finished. That, however, didn’t stop her to offer to push her fellow author Carrie Lofty. She recently read ‘His Very Own Girl’ and was blown away by the story and wanted to spread the word to all of us bookworms out there. What a class act this woman is!

Ashley March will have her new book, under her brand new name of Elise Rome, out probably some time next year and I for one will be here to welcome her under that name.

And as we all are waiting for it, I thought why not give you a taste of her prose? Now, get a cup of coffee, tea or whatever poison it’s the closest to you, and enjoy this short excerpt.

Clicking on the cover, you’ll find a two chapter excerpt. For further information about Elise, please click on her photo or the links provided.

EXCERPT:

“Miranda wrapped the shawl around her shoulders then returned the bonnet to her head, carefully tying the ribbons in a bow. Shadows edged her vision as she watched Mr. Astley stride back to his chair.

Envy curled in her chest at the way he moved: no tucking of the chin or stooping of the shoulders for him. No hurrying as if through dank and filthy lanes, constantly looking to the salvation of the next alley. No fear of being preyed upon inside this grand hulking town house, where servants guarded his every step and power made his words both currency and weapon.

Her gaze flew to the plate of food on his desk. The tower of food. Pastries stacked so thick and high, with golden, flaky crusts, and he ignored them all. Hadn’t even spared them a glance while toying with her earlier, moving his books into their own sturdy little tower.

Cherry. They would be cherry tarts, she was certain. The sauce sweet and voluptuous, juice exploding from the bits of fruit and gushing over her tongue. A buttery shell, so soft and moist as it crumbled against the roof of her mouth—

God. Saliva ran slick over the insides of her cheeks. Her stomach clenched with greedy fervor.

Wicked, her father had called her, for daring to seek work from a nude portraitist. Wicked, he’d said she would become, warning that her duties in such a depraved household would likely be the same as a harlot’s.

Perhaps he’d been right, Miranda thought, swaying a little. She’d stood in Astley’s house for less than an hour and already felt quite wicked. Envy and greed and taking the Lord’s name in vain. Soon she would succumb to the sins of theft and gluttony. Lust, presumably, could not be very far behind.

Astley had hired her. Hired, when everyone else had threatened to fetch the constable or sneered in her face. And all she could think about was snatching the plate of pastries and scurrying away like the mouse he’d likened her to, hunkering down in the nearest corner as she shoveled the tarts into her mouth—one, two, three…there would never be enough to calm the gnawing inside.

“Miss Post?” Suddenly he was there, in front of her again, his hand cupping her elbow.

How she resented him—for his casual disregard of the pastries, for knowing he need only ring the servants’ bell to summon more food from his kitchens. He should have emptied the plate as soon as it was delivered; the contents should now be stretching and warming his stomach rather than lying there untouched, taunting her.

He probably knew nothing of the sour taste of hunger, of these awful black shadows that dimmed sight, of the cold and numbness and hollowing inside. He’d likely dripped with sweat under the summer sun, when even at noon in August she’d been forced to wear a shawl and her thickest stockings in a futile attempt to keep warm.

Indeed, he was hotter than the sun now: the fingers he wrapped around her arm sent heat sinking into her skin, through her flesh, to her very bones. Miranda fought the instinct to lean into him, to climb up and wrap her body around his. She could steal his food and all of his heat and not have to worry about becoming hungry or cold again until the next day.

Hired. The word whispered again in her mind. She’d not yet settled her faith on it, though. It sounded like a promise. A very nice promise, but then she knew how transient promises could be. And this one wasn’t nearly as substantial as the endless ache she woke to and fell asleep with each day.

“Miss Post?” he repeated, neither altering the inquiry’s volume or tone. He seemed to employ patience like some men used a blade; it made her wary. “You denied illness yet appear as if you might collapse at any moment. And retrieving you from the floor would be very inconvenient. The mud, you see.”

The whores across from the tenement would have crawled all over themselves for a chance at Mr. Simon Astley, so kind and chivalrous was he.

“Come now,” he coaxed. She wondered whether he was conscious of stroking the inside of her elbow with his thumb, whether a caress—like patience—was just another of his preferred tools in extracting information. She wondered whether he realized there was mud at her elbow, too. “We’re not strangers anymore, are we? You may tell me the truth.”

She hadn’t said it in nearly two months. She’d rather have stolen the pastries, but his grip was too tight for her to escape. She darted another covetous glance at the plate and immediately felt her pulse throb with regret. Foolish. Foolish. Confessing her weakness in such a way.”

 

FEATURED AUTHOR:  Elise Rome [aka Ashley March]

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‘His Very Own Girl’ by Carrie Lofty

BOOK BLURB: After the War took the lives of Lulu Davies’s parents and her fiancé, she promised herself she would guard her heart carefully and concentrate on her great love–flying the biggest and best airplanes in the sky. Lulu is a pilot in the British civilian air force, ferrying planes around Great Britain and keeping her eye on a coveted spot in a training program for world-class pilots. She’s perfectly content to strive for greatness in the skies, and dance with a few GIs on the way.

Brawny, quiet American medic Joe Weber signed up with the paratroopers to escape his checkered past; he’s hoping that jumping out of planes and patching up soldiers will earn him respect and a hopeful future. Joe’s first real test of medical skill is on a pilot whose plane takes a hard landing in a training field; after rushing to the crash scene, he is stunned to come face-to-face with a gorgeous Rita Hayworth lookalike. And when the two cross paths at a dance hall a couple weeks later, he can’t resist the urge to find out more about this spirited, dark-haired beauty.  

Their flirtation breaks all of Lulu’s rules, but dance by dance, week by week, walk by walk, she finds herself falling in love with this honest, vulnerable man on the run from his demons. But as Lulu and Joe’s undeniable attraction gains momentum, World War II steadily intensifies toward D-Day. Only time and hope will tell if the two lovers can overcome the past to form a beautiful life together in peace-time.

EXCERPT:

A gal pushed between him and the man to his right. Without a word or a spare glance, she picked up Joe’s beer and took a long swig. Joe frowned, then his jaw went slack. It was her.

She thumped the empty stein on the counter and daintily wiped the corners of her ruby lips. Smiling when she met his eyes, she said, “I daresay I was thirsty.”

“You’re that pilot.”

“And you’re that medic.”

Nearly as dazed as when he’d first seen her in that downed Hurricane, Joe didn’t know what else to say. He needed a drink, but someone had just polished off his beer.

“Jamie,” he said, signaling the thin Limey behind the bar. “Two more, please.”

The woman grinned when the bartender brought the drinks right away. “However did you manage that?”

Joe shrugged, then handed over the unfamiliar money. “Enlisted men tip better than the officers.”

“Knowingly? You just gave him twice as much as you ought.”

“We got our beers, didn’t we?” He lifted his drink. “To second chances.”

“Soldier,” she said, tapping her stein against his, “you’re going to need more than second chances to survive this muddle.”

Joe laughed. “To eighth chances, then?”

“That sounds about right.”

“How’s your knee?”

She glanced down. “Better. I was laid up for a few days, but you were right. All things considered, I was lucky.”

Joe realized she was wearing slacks. The unfamiliar dark blue uniform sat neatly along the curve of her bosom, the inward nip of her waist, and the rounded flare of slender hips and athletic legs. He’d never thought slacks on a woman could be arousing, but they suited her: tidy, slim, conservative but with a heavy undercurrent of daring. Her hair was parted down the center and piled in waves that framed her pale face.

Those wide brown eyes, eyes he hadn’t been able to forget, remained unchanged–still a little screwy, but her gaze was keener now.

“Can you dance?” he asked, surprising himself.

“Slow dances, if you don’t mind.”

“Not at all.”

She smiled anew. Forgotten parts of Joe perked up and screamed for attention. Female attention. She was beautiful and completely unexpected. He wanted to touch her, kiss her, lay her across the bar . . . Jesus, his imagination had no manners.

He hurtled back to himself and wrapped both hands around his stein. Damp pewter would have to do when he really craved warm, womanly skin. Smoke clogged his nostrils and music pounded in his head.

“What’s your name?” he asked, staring at the froth of her beer.

“Second Officer Lulu Davies, Air Transport Auxiliary.”

“Lulu.”

“Short for Louise.”

“I like that,” he said.

“Me, too. Now it’s my turn to guess.” She took hold of his shoulders and turned his upper body to face her squarely. Joe shivered when she gave his biceps a quick squeeze. A secret smile tilted the corners of her perfectly painted lips. “Only one chevron,” she said, glancing at his tunic sleeve. “Poor private.”

“First class, at least.”

“You don’t think I’d be seen with any less, do you?”

“I wouldn’t presume.”

She touched the insignia of wide eagles’ wings affixed above his right breast pocket. “No stars above your jump wings, which means despite being with the 82nd Airborne, you haven’t yet seen combat.”

“I’m impressed.”

“You shouldn’t be,” she said with a dismissive wave. “Simply means I’ve idled with too many soldiers. Now all I need is your name.”

“Joe Weber.”

Lulu finished her drink and nodded for Joe to do the same. He complied. The beer wasn’t strong enough to cool how hot his blood was running. Not by half. She took his hand. “Well, Pfc. Joe Weber, I’ll have a dance now.”

FEATURED AUTHOR: Carrie Lofty

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‘Saving Savanna’ by Sara Fitzgerald

BOOK BLURB: Devan can’t help but blame God for his wife’s death, so the last thing he wants to do this holiday season is celebrate.  But when his daughter, Savanna, makes a special Christmas wish, their little family will never be the same.  Filled with faith and tenderness, this heartwarming story is sure to remind you of the real power behind the magic of Christmas.

EXCERPT: 

The wind whistled down the avenues that cold December night as Devan Smith trudged across the murky, slush-filled street with his little girl, Savanna, by his side. The street’s curbs were covered with dirty piles of snow from yesterday’s storm. The blackened snow reminded him of how dark his soul felt without Vivian.

“Look, Daddy,” Savanna said, tugging on his sleeve. “Look at all those shining lights. Mommy would love to see them. Do you think she can?”

Devan glanced down at her tiny face dominated by big, innocent eyes that were the same shade of blue as her mother’s. He paused for a moment, deciding what to tell her. She looked at him with such divine trust, a trust unlike any he had ever experienced, except the trust his wife had in him. He had failed Vivian. “Daddy? Can Mommy see the lights?” He bit his lower lip and stooped by her. He fought back the lump forming in his throat. He wished that she would stop talking about Mommy. Each time, no matter how much he thought he was prepared for the subject, the pain threatened to destroy his soul.

He inhaled deeply and then slowly exhaled. Fog circled around Savanna’s head; for a split second she looked like an angel as the cold from his breath danced around her brown curls. She was waiting for him to tell her everything was going to be all right, that Mommy was in heaven looking down at them, but how could he? He no longer believed in heaven and hell. No loving God would have allowed what had happened to Vivian to take place. Devan couldn’t let Savanna become disillusioned.

Savanna placed her arms around his neck. “Grandpa says she’s in heaven watching out for us.”

He swallowed and then changed the subject. “We’d better go shopping, or else we won’t be done before Christmas. We only have three days left until Santa comes down our chimney. What do you want him to bring you?” “There’s only one thing I want from him,” she whispered, leaning toward him.

He forced a smile. “And what’s that?”

“I want Mommy back.” Tears blurred his vision. He wanted her mommy back too, more than anything in the world, but not even Santa Claus could do that. Vivian was dead, buried in a cold cemetery with only the snowfall as her blanket against the storms of winter.

FEATURED AUTHOR: Sara Fitzgerald

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‘I Do. . .or Die’ by Donna Cummings

BOOK BLURB:“Always a bridesmaid, never a bride” is Shelby Atwood’s personal credo. She’s managed to avoid commitment all her life — no pets, no plants, not even a long-term lease. Heck, she’s had colds last longer than her romantic relationships. How could she be any other way when she has a gigolo for a father? But then gunfire erupts at the latest wedding she’s agreed to be in, and it ends up being the best thing to happen to Shelby’s love life.

Detective Ryan Nichols is assigned to the case, and when the shootings don’t stop, he becomes her 24-hour bodyguard. Shelby wouldn’t mind except Ryan is too appealing, too sexy, and too happy to remind her of the raucous bachelorette party when she mistook him for a stripper.

Shelby’s plan is simple: find the shooter, have a fling with Ryan, and return to her non-committal life. Unfortunately, the shooter is very elusive. Shelby’s feelings for Ryan are way more than adrenaline-fueled lust. And returning to her normal life is now impossible since, despite her lifelong resistance, she’s managed to put her heart smack dab in the line of fire.

EXCERPT:

You just don’t expect to see gunfire at a wedding.

I know, because I’ve been in a lot of weddings, despite my well-known aversion to them. “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride” is not just a cautionary adage, it’s my personal credo.

Having a gigolo for a father might have contributed something to that philosophy. Who really knows for sure?

Today Alexa, my best friend since grade school, glided down the aisle of the chapel to the accompaniment of a string quartet playing an elegant Handel air. For this wedding, she wore a white strapless dress, complete with tulle and beaded embroidery that made all the women sigh as she passed. The low v-back and body-hugging mermaid shape, along with her icy blonde beauty, provoked quite a different response from the males in the congregation.

I clutched my single calla lily, watching her entrance with a mixture of awe and disbelief. How had Alexa persuaded me to be her maid of honor, again?

And again.

And yet again.

“Shelby, you’re my good luck charm,” she had cooed while I suffered through the circle of hell known as “trying on bridesmaid dresses.”

“How do you figure that?” I had asked, peeling off a poufy satin monstrosity the color of Mountain Dew. “Every time I’ve been your maid of honor, you’ve gotten divorced!”

“Oh, that has nothing to do with anything. Everything goes off without a hitch when you’re there.”

“Maybe that’s the problem. If I weren’t around, there would be some sort of hitch, and then you wouldn’t be hitched.”

I admired Alexa’s wildly unwavering enthusiasm for weddings, and commitment, and all that “’til death do us part” stuff. Especially since none of her marriages seemed to last very long. Two years was the record so far, and that was because her husband was working overseas for one of those years. Which was supposedly the reason for the end of that union.

That, and the next husband was already in her sights.

When the evil wedding consultant gleefully rolled in another torture rack crammed with dresses for me to endure, I shuddered. “Have you ever thought that maybe, just maybe, marriage isn’t right for you?”

“That one.” Alexa pointed to a strapless hot pink mini-dress that could have worked—if Hooters ever decided to cater weddings. “And why all these concerns? Don’t you like Jordan?”

“Of course I like him, silly. He seems perfect.”

He was handsome, loving, and completely ga-ga for his bride. Alexa told me during our numerous wedding planning get-togethers, which thankfully required a great deal of wine, about Jordan’s great sense of humor, and even greater job. Who wouldn’t want him for a husband? If I were the marrying kind, even I would want him for a husband.

Although, as I recall, Husbands One through Three were pretty darn perfect too.

Alexa smiled, spinning her index finger to indicate I should twirl in front of her. “Maybe, Shelby, you’re afraid all of these weddings will change your mind about marriage.”

“Ha!” I, the eternal bachelorette, scoffed, and quite eloquently. Alexa raised her eyebrow as if debating whether to get out of her chair and start the Heimlich maneuver on me.

In the end, I gave up trying to make Alexa see the multiple incredible benefits to staying single. I’ll probably be her bridesmaid when we’re bunkmates in the nursing home, although by then I’ll be adjusting the tapes of her adult diaper, rather than the tiers of her lace-edged wedding veil. I agreed to be her maid of honor this one last time.

Of course, I didn’t realize when I made the promise this would be Alexa’s final chance to stand at the altar.

At the minister’s signal, Alexa handed me her bouquet of cascading white lilies and then she faced Jordan, ready to promise to love, cherish, and obey the (fourth) man of her dreams. She beamed at him, eliciting a few more wistful sighs behind us at the evidence of true love. Or maybe it was for the handsome groom in his single-breasted designer tuxedo, beaming right back at her.

Reverend Deering asked Alexa to repeat the vows she most likely had memorized several ceremonies ago. I had heard them often enough that I could have stepped in to recite the words if either of them were prevented from completing their duties.

“I, Alexa, take thee Jordan—”

A ray of June sunshine chose that moment to burst through the chapel windows, highlighting the promise contained in the newlyweds’ expressions. Even I felt swept up in the optimism that accompanied each and every one of Alexa’s weddings. My heart beat with hopefulness, and I wondered if someday I would—

Out of nowhere, gunfire erupted, a quick succession of pop, pop, pop.

Screams quickly followed, along with the frantic sounds of the congregation scrambling for shelter under the wooden pews.

“Sonofabitch!” I tossed the bouquet over my shoulder, as I’d seen Alexa do millions of times, and darted toward my suddenly bleeding best friend, knocking her to the floor to prevent any further harm.

I looked up and saw the minister cowering under a pew, tugging at the tulle swag that moments ago had been decoration, not flimsy protection against wayward bullets. My heart pounded while my brain struggled with two wildly different thoughts.

One, the blood spurting from Alexa’s shoulder ensured I would never have to wear this peach-yogurt-colored dress again.

And two, who could possibly hate weddings more than I did?”

FEATURED AUTHOR: Donna Cummings

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‘His Mistletoe Bride’ by Vanessa Kelly

BOOK BLURB: Blame It On The Mistletoe–

When Major Lucas Stanton inherited his earldom, he never dreamed his property would include the previous earl’s granddaughter. Phoebe Linville is a sparkling American beauty, yes, but with a talent for getting into trouble. Witness the compromising position that forced them into wedlock. Whisked away to Mistletoe Manor, his country estate, it isn’t long before she is challenging his rules–and surprising him in and out of bed– 

Phoebe has no intention of bowing to Lucas’s stubbornness even though he offers all that she wants. His kisses and unexpected warmth are enticing, but Phoebe is determined to show the earl of Merritt what real love is all about. And if that takes twelve nights of delicious seduction by a roaring fire, she’s more than willing to reveal her gifts very slowly–

EXCERPT:

The maid led her downstairs and through a simply ornamented entrance hall to the door of the drawing room.  “There, miss.  They’re waiting for you.”

Phoebe nodded, suddenly so nervous her knees shook.  She silently ordered the starch back into her muscles and opened the door.   What she saw brought her up short.

Mrs. Tanner sat in a low chair by the fireplace.  A very tall, broad shouldered man stood opposite her, on the other side of the chimneypiece.  He was very handsome—quite the handsomest man Phoebe had ever seen.  And when his attention, narrowed and intense, jumped to her it struck her with an almost physical force.

Alarm skittered along her nerves.  Absurdly, she had the impulse to back out of the room as quickly as she could.

Silly.  Why be afraid of someone you have never met? 

But as they stared at each other, she sensed some ill-defined peril, and she instinctively knew something dreadful was upon her.

Mrs. Tanner rose from her seat, momentarily splintering the tension.  “Phoebe, please come in.  This is a member of your grandfather’s family, Major Lucas Stanton, come to welcome thee to London.”

Phoebe slowly entered into the room, trying to shake the notion that she was approaching something awful and irrevocable.  The guarded expression on Mrs. Tanner’s face did nothing to dispel that impression.

Major Stanton took a step forward, looming—and looming seemed the only correct description—over her.  He was broad across the chest and shoulders, and every part of him looked hard and muscular.  Phoebe did not make a habit of dissecting the male figure, but he wore a well-tailored dark coat, pale, skin tight breeches, and tall leather boots, all of which showed off every line of his impressive physique.  Just looking at that brawny, masculine strength made her body hum with tension.

Cheeks flushing, she fixed her gaze on his face.  She found it disconcerting too, since his hard-cut, impassive features served as a stark contrast to eyes the color of a stormy sea.  The emotions she thought she perceived in their depths struck her as dangerous as the gales that had bedevilled her trip across the Atlantic.

“Major Stanton,” said Mrs. Tanner, “This is Miss Phoebe Linville.”

Phoebe stared up at him a moment longer, transfixed by his slashing cheekbones and the granite line of his jaw.  All the men she knew were farmers and shopkeepers, simple men who dressed plainly and looked nothing like this man.  Next to them, he resembled…well, she did not know what.  But she knew she had never met anyone like him, though they had yet to exchange even a simple greeting.

His gaze, somber and wary, turned to one of puzzlement, jolting her into motion.  The poor man must think she was a wordless half-wit.

Though Quakers generally made it a point not to bow or curtsy before those of higher station, she dipped low, ignoring Mrs. Tanner’s tsk of disapproval.  Why risk offending the first relative coming to greet her?  “Major Stanton, thank you for coming to meet me.  It was kind you to do so,” she said, offering her hand in greeting.

His big hand closed around hers and he lifted it to his lips, brushing a lingering kiss across her sensitive skin.  The breath seized in her throat.  Quaker men did not go around kissing hands, much less making a show of it.

Fortunately, he returned her hand and her lungs recommenced function.

“Phoebe,” said Mrs. Tanner, sounding horrified, “please sit.”

Her friend nudged her to a sturdy, brown-colored sofa next to the fireplace.  With a severe nod, Mrs. Tanner indicated to the major that he should take the seat facing them.  He did not bother to repress a low sigh as he carefully settled on a small caned chair that gave an alarming creak in response.  The sofa would have been a more appropriate choice for his large frame, but Mrs. Tanner clearly intended to punish him for his forward behavior.

“Major Stanton, how is my grandfather?” Phoebe asked impulsively.  “Did he ask you to fetch me?”

The swift glance he exchanged with Mrs. Tanner brought Phoebe’s anxiety rushing back.  Its chokehold tightened when the older woman reached over and took her hand in a comforting clasp.

“Phoebe, thee must prepare for unfortunate news.  But I ask thee to remember that the Father’s hand is in all things, and that he will watch over thee always.”

Fear swept through her.  “What are you talking about?”

When Mrs. Tanner hesitated, Phoebe shook off her restraining hand and jumped up.  The major rose immediately.

“Please, sir,” she implored.  “Take me to my grandfather.”

Compassion softened the grim lines of his face.  He struck her as a man not much given to that tender emotion, so whatever the cause it must be dire.

He stepped closer, reaching out to take her hand in a gentle grip.  “Miss Linville, you must sit.”   He had a firm, deep voice that held a compelling note of authority.  As it washed over her, she had to resist the impulse to automatically obey.  He smiled, as if to soothe her, and one finger stroked lightly over the back of her hand.  “I’m certain you should have a cup of tea before we have any further discussion.”

Unnerved by his touch, she pulled her hand away.  “I do not want a cup of tea.  I want you to tell me about my grandfather.”

He ran a thoughtful gaze over her face, as if taking her measure.  “Very well.  Miss Linville, it grieves me to inform you that your grandfather—my great uncle, Lord Merritt—died from an infection some weeks ago.  I didn’t write to you, since my letter would not have arrived prior to your departure.  I hope you will believe I would have spared you this trip, if it at all possible.”

A strange buzzing noise arose in her ears, then her knees buckled and she sank onto the sofa.  Her heart throbbed in her chest, straining against the shock.  For a terrible moment, she could not draw a breath.

Mrs. Tanner gasped her name and Major Stanton let out a low curse.  Swiftly, he came down on one knee before her and gripped her shoulders, holding her steady.  Until he touched her, Phoebe had not realized she needed someone to keep her upright.

“Hold her while I get some water,” exclaimed Mrs. Tanner as she rushed from the room.

“Steady on, Miss Linville,” Major Stanton murmured in her ear.  “Just lean against me.”

Coming up onto the sofa, he eased her into his embrace, resting her head against his broad chest.  As if controlled by some unseen force, her eyelids fluttered shut as, for the first time in her life, she found herself in the arms of a man other than her brother or father.  Her morals registered a faint objection, but her body wanted nothing other than to collapse against that solid wall, her cheek nestling comfortably against the soft wool fabric of his coat.  Tumult swirled in her brain, but his gentle embrace staved off the screeching panic that hovered at the edge of thought.

The door opened.  Footsteps hurried across the floorboards, as Mrs. Tanner rustled up to them with a glass of water in her hand.  “Major, thee must allow me to tend to Miss Linville.  Please let her sit up.”

Phoebe flinched at the note of censure in her friend’s voice.  Mrs. Tanner had every right to be offended because Phoebe had no business clinging to a man, no matter what the circumstances.  But she could not help shrinking further into his embrace.  Her stunned brain had latched onto the idea that as long as she remained in his arms she would be safe, that all the hurtful things in the world could not harm her.

Ridiculous, whispered the voice of reason.  She started to pull away, but Major Stanton gently adjusted his hold to keep her close.  Phoebe had to bite down on the whimper of relief that almost escaped her lips.

“I assure you, Mrs. Tanner,” he said, “I will release my cousin as soon as I know she won’t keel over in a dead faint.”

Phoebe frowned.  She never fainted.  And now that her wits were slowly returning, she felt the first flush of humiliation that she had allowed a perfect stranger to hold her so intimately.  Pushing herself upright, she began to withdraw from his arms.  For a second he resisted, keeping her fast in his embrace.  And, for a second, she did not want him to let go.

FEATURED AUTHOR: Vanessa Kelly

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